June 1, 2015 by The Citron Review
by Joel Morris
At his homecoming party Freddy is dressed in full uniform, and it fits him just as well as the ripped jeans and black Megadeth t-shirts we wore those days when we slapped river rocks with the stub of a two-by-four. He’s drinking a beer, and when I see him I grab his shoulder and shake it and tell him how great it is to see him. He looks into my eyes for just a second—a strong look, distant, almost like when we used to go at it—but then he smiles and hooks his arm around my neck. He taps his bottle to mine, and says it’s good to be home. “I’ve missed this,” he says.
Otherwise, I don’t talk to him at the party. A lot of people want to see him, so I watch him from the walls, sticking tight to my girlfriend and the one other friend we know from our high school days, talking and drinking in a tight little triangle. We say hi to his brother; we wonder if his ex-girlfriend is going to show. Otherwise, we’re peripheral witnesses to his homecoming: the ones still in town, biding our time a bit, running out of things to say even to one another.
There’s a cake. Fred’s dad makes a toast. And then Fred himself makes a little speech, thanking everyone for supporting him, but especially for supporting the troops.
Someone shouts for a story, something to tell us about his time there. Someone hands him another beer and Freddy takes a drink, thinks a long minute, and says,
“OK. Well, so we used to drive down these long, desert roads. Roads that went on and on. Just really dry roads. So dry and dusty you’d think you were going to choke. We’d go in a caravan, this long train of vehicles, careful and trying to watch out in the darkness. And it’s dark. I never thought darkness like that could exist. You have to try and watch in all that darkness. And you think you might go crazy, because the darkness just seems endless. But you know the road is a deathtrap. And so you have to watch, be alert. Just drive and watch, and drive and drive and hope it doesn’t kill you.
“And this one night we were driving and a signal comes from one of the vehicles ahead. We stop. Real quick. ’Cause the place is peppered with IEDs, and you’re lucky if you’ve stopped and nothing’s blown up. All kinds of things roll into action, and your mind starts going. But it’s better like that, you know, ’cause you’ve been driving in darkness, and concentrating in that darkness just makes you crazy.
“We scan the surrounding country, but we don’t see anyone. It’s so dark, you almost never see anyone. But sometimes these things are controlled by remote. The IEDs. And so someone might be out there. Or they might be coming.
“So that one night we keep watching near the road while they deal with the IED and the whole time you know it might go off, someone might be out there waiting to trigger it. Just darkness, you know?”
“We disarm it. Carefully. And when it’s disarmed, we’re cleared to proceed.
“But someone has to stay behind. To wait and see what’s out there. You know, to see if we’re going to have to clean up.
“My vehicle stays behind. And we wait. Off the road, hidden.
“And we’re waiting, and on nights like that you talk. About lots of things, things that just come to mind. Like this: We talk about how nice it would be to have a beer. I remember just thinking about how nice it would be to hold one of these. Just like now.
“Anyway, stuff like that. One guy—this guy Marks—I remember he says he wished he was home working on his car. That’s what he loves to do, work on cars. You know, like we’re sitting around a campfire or something.
“And then, on the horizon we see the red. It comes slowly. A deep orange, and then the sun comes up. The air gets hot, like someone turned on a switch. It’s just so hot. So intense. Take a breath. Hold it.” Freddy does, showing us. He breathes out. “It burns your lungs, almost.”
Freddy takes a drink of his beer. His eyes cruise the room looking for a place to land, but don’t find one.
“Anyway, that’s the story,” he says.
There is a long silence, like what follows something that people might clap at, but nobody claps.
Then somebody—I think it’s his uncle—says, “It’s great to have you home, Freddy.”
“Yeah,” Freddy says, taking another drink. “I really missed this.”
On the way out I tell him we should get together, for beers or something.
“Definitely,” he says, “definitely.” He shakes my hand, super firm. And now there’s a light in his eyes. So he’s really back.
It’s a cold night and my girlfriend and I walk down the block, along the long chain of cars parked for a party that feels like forever.
“It’s good to see Freddy again,” my girlfriend says.
“Yeah,” I say. “Definitely.”
Joel Morris has worked as an independent bookstore clerk, as a cruise ship officer, and as a teacher and college professor. His essays and translations have been published in the Journal of Literary Studies, The German Quarterly, and the Buenos Aires Review, among others. His short story, “Grizzly Bears,” appeared in American Literary Review.