by Stephen del Mar
Rain pounded Tony’s car. A tropical depression moved in from the Gulf of Mexico and tore at Bennett Bay. Tony pulled his car into the parking lot of a Seven-Eleven. He counted to ten, then resumed his phone conversation.
“Look Wilkins we’re not taking the offer. Down market? Are you nuts? This isn’t some track house down in Swan Landing. This is The Gull, the estate of George Bennett. You know the place that Architecture Magazine voted the best Spanish Revival villa in the south. The whole damn South. We’re talking ten acres on the bay. Do you know what that land is worth? Don’t call me again unless you have a serious offer or a new client.”
He terminated the call and threw the earpiece on the passenger seat. He pounded the steering wheel.
“Damn. Damn. I’ve got to move that house.”
He looked around.
“Where the hell am I?”
The main drag, Bayside Drive, was closed due to flooding. He had focused on the phone call not the detour signs. The wind and rain rocked his car. He grabbed his phone and called up the GPS looking for alternate routs over the Big Cypress River.
“Eastbridge? I have to go all the way out to Eastbridge?”
He touched the phone and said, “Call Helen.”
“Tony are you okay?”
“The offer came in too low.”
“I meant with the storm.”
Tony sighed. “Oh that. Yeah. I’m going to be late. Bayside is flooded with the storm surge or something. I can’t get to the bridge. I’ll have to go to Eastbridge to cross. I don’t know how long it will be.”
She said, “Don’t worry. Jack’s putting the kids to bed now. I’ll fix a plate. You can nuke it later. We’re going to cuddle on the couch and watch a movie. We took out the candles and lamps.”
Tony sighed. He missed cuddling with someone in candle light. “Sounds nice. How’s the river?”
“It’s up a bit, but we are pretty high up. You know they built these old houses above the floodplain.” She paused. “Oh and you have a package.”
“A package?” Tony asked, “From where?”
“It’s a big padded envelope post-marked from Germany. Do you know anyone there?”
“Bye, Tony.” She paused, then said in her mom voice, “And stay focused on your driving.”
“Okay Sis. I’ll see you when I see you.”
He ended the call and pulled the phone’s GPS back up, set it on the dashboard, and then drove back out onto the street.
Tony glanced at the dash clock as he pulled into the long gravel driveway, 10:45 PM. The old Victorian house was dark except for the porch light. His sister, brother-in-law, and little nephews were sleeping in the house but it still looked, felt, empty to him. It had been Lance’s house, but he was gone and for Tony the house would remain forever empty.
He put the car back in gear and pulled as close to the house as he could. He grabbed his umbrella then opened the car door. Water poured in soaking him before he opened the umbrella. He dashed up the front steps and pulled open the screen door. It wasn’t much drier on the porch. The wind pushed the rain through the screens right up to the wall. “Had to love Florida in the rainy season,” he thought.
He unlocked the front door and stepped inside. He pushed the door shut against the wind, muffling the rage of the storm. The old clock ticked in the hall. Tony put his umbrella in the stand next to the door and hung up his jacket on the coat rack. The tink of dishes and the light seeping under the kitchen door let know someone was still up. He kicked off his shoes and padded his way down the hall toward the kitchen.
Jack, his brother-in-law, sat on the counter next to the sink eating a sandwich. He looked up, saw Tony and sat his plate down on the counter next to him. He said, “Oh man, you look dead.”
He came over to Tony and turned him around. “Go change. I’ll warm up the food Helen saved for you.” Jack pushed Tony back through the door into the hallway. “Go.”
Tony startled at the knock on his bathroom door. “How long have I been in the shower?” he thought.
“Tony. Are you All right?” It was his sister.
He turned off the water. “Yes. I’ll be right out.”
He dried himself off and grabbed the red robe hanging on the door. The red one had been Lance’s and the blue one his. He didn’t wear the blue one anymore. He took a deep breath, then pushed open the door to the bedroom His sister was picking up his wet clothes.
She said, “Your dinner’s getting cold, again. Jack was worried when you didn’t come back down.”
He sat down on the bed. She hung his pants over the back of a chair. Looked at him, then came over and sat next to him. She took his hand. “How are you doing?
He shook his head. “I really wanted to sell that house. Do you know what the commission would be? I’d be able to pay this house off and set-up a college fun for the boys.”
She reached up and moved a strand of wet hair back behind his ear. Their mother always did that. “This isn’t about the house.”
Tony looked at her. “What do you mean?”
“I know what today is little brother.”
He put his head on her shoulder. “When does it stop hurting?”
She put her arms around him. “I don’t know Tony. I just don’t know.”
There was a light tap on the door. Helen looked up at her husband. “What’s wrong?” He asked.
“Today’s their anniversary.”
“Oh hell,” Jack said.
He came into the room and sat down on the other side of Tony and put his arm around him. “I’m so sorry Bro.”
He stood back up. “Come on. You need to eat something and then we’re gonna get shit-faced. Lance was a damn good man. We don’t raise a glass to him often enough—to both of you.”
Jack held his hand out. Tony took it and Jack pulled him to his feet.
Half-way through his meal the power went out. Helen grabbed an oil lamp from the sitting room, lit it, and put it on the table. Jack loaded a cooler with ice and beer so they didn’t have to open the fridge again. Helen kissed her brother on the head. “I’m going to bed,” she said. “Don’t get too drunk, there’s a storm and a rising river to keep an eye on.”
Jack stood up and kissed his wife. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye on him.”
She smiled and touched her nose to his. “But who’ll keep an eye on you?”
He whispered, “You saying I need looking after?”
Tony got up from the table. He set his plate in the sink and took a beer from the cooler. He twisted the top off the bottle and took a swig. “You two can go to bed. I’ll be fine.”
Jack looked at Helen and nodded. He gave her a peck on the cheek, then went over and got a bottle of beer for himself. He leaned against the counter next to Tony and opened his beer. “Now what kind of man would let his brother drink alone?”
Helen stopped in the doorway. “Don’t forget your package. It might take your mind off of things.”
Tony thought, “But I don’t want to be distracted. I don’t want to forget him. If I don’t feel the pain, I won’t feel anything at all.” He nodded at her and said, “Okay.”
The men leaned against the counter for a while drinking in silence. The lamp filled the kitchen with a warm glow. Everything else was lost to the darkness of the night. Wind and rain battered the old house. Occasionally lightning flashed and the cypress trees with their beards of Spanish moss became black silhouettes against a white-hot sky. Then the blackness came crashing back with the thunder.
Tony sighed, “I’m sorry about this.”
Jack grabbed his shoulder. “For God’s sake why? It’s only been six months, man. Do you know how bat-shit crazy I’d be if something happened to Helen? Tony, your man was blown up halfway around the world. You didn’t even have a body to put in the ground. How do you get over that in a few months? I don’t think you’re supposed to get over it.”
Tony walked to the other side of the kitchen and set his empty bottle in the glass-recycling bin. “I don’t want to ever forget him. But, I can’t sleep. I’m pissed-off all the time. I just space out, especially when I’m driving. I lose time. I don’t know where I am sometimes. I keep having dreams about the attack. It’s like a movie playing in my head. He’s all smiling and sexy in his contractor uniform. He gets out of the humvee, steps on the IED and nothing’s left but a burning truck and a pile of shredded meat. My man’s a pile of raw meat because he needed the money and is good at building roads.”
Tony plopped down in a chair and put his head on the table.
Jack took a swig of his beer. “That’s all kind of suckage brother.” He took another beer out of the cooler, opened it, walked over to the table and set it down in front of Tony.
Tony sat up and took the beer. “I just feel stuck. I try to process it, I think I’m making progress and then something happens. And I have to start all over again.”
Jack sat down next to him. “What do you mean?”
Tony took a sip of beer. “Two months in, I thought I was doing okay. I had all of his stuff packed up and moved to the attic.”
Jack nodded. “I remember.”
“And then that damn box of his personal effects shows up in the mail.”
Tony took another sip. “The little trinkets of his daily life that someone thought to throw in a box and put on a slow boat back to America. Getting that stuff was like him dying all over again. Then some of the guys from the office took me out last week. We ran into someone that didn’t know about Lance. The guy made an off-hand joke about me stepping out on my man. It should have been funny. But it wasn’t. I went in the bathroom and puked.”
Jack said, “Oh hell.”
“Do you know every night when I come home, I park for a few minutes at the end of the drive?”
“Because this is his house. He wanted to live in it ever since he was a kid. His school bus would drive past and he’d dream about the big old Victorian house on the bluff. You know how poor his folks were. This place was like a magical castle to him with those silly turrets. It was a rundown abandoned shell by the time he could afford it. You know how much it meant to him. You helped him renovate it.”
Jack nodded. “Yeah. He loved this old place.”
“So I turn off the road and I see the house. His house. The thing that meant everything to him and I know it’s empty because he isn’t there. He will never be there.”
Tony looked at him. “What’d you mean?”
“Compared to you, this house didn’t mean a damn thing. You were his husband.”
Tony felt his stomach tighten. “We weren’t married. You know we can’t get married in this state.”
Jack swallowed a mouthful of beer. “Yeah, well that’s flat out wrong. But if you think a piece of paper from the state makes your sister my wife, you don’t know a damn thing about love.”
Jack stood up. “I gotta pee.”
He staggered down the hall toward the bathroom. He left the door open. The sound of him peeing echoed down the hall. Tony drank some more of his beer. Lance always peed with their bathroom door open. It’d be the last sound Tony heard every night before Lance crawled in bed with him. This house was too full of Lance and not full enough.
Jack dropped a large padded yellow envelope on the table. “This was on the front table. You going to open it?”
The envelope was addressed to Mr. Anthony Gallo. The return address was Engel in Berlin. Tony didn’t know anyone in Berlin. He pulled the little tab on the envelope to open it. A letter fell out and another smaller package. He read the letter aloud.
Dear Mr. Gallo,
I found this package among my husband’s effects. Fritz was in the vehicle with your friend Lance. He was scheduled to leave Afghanistan the day after the explosion. He was to go to Sterling Industries offices in Tampa before returning home here in Berlin. I think Fritz was going to deliver this to you in person. I pray that the delay causes you no extra grief. I did not know this was among his things and it was sometime before I could open the box. I hope you understand. The loss still seems so raw.
Tony sat at the table holding the smaller package in his hands. It was addressed to him. “This was one of the last things he touched.”
Jack stood behind him. His hands on Tony’s shoulders. “Open it.”
Tony tore it open. A sheet of stationery fell out with Lance’s handwriting on it, a computer print-out, and two gold rings rang as they fell on the table.
Jack said softly, “What did he say?”
Tony’s hands trembled as he picked up the single sheet of light blue paper, Lance’s favorite color.
Tony, it’s time I made an honest man out of you. I saw these rings in the souq and I just knew it was time we got married. I know we can’t do it for real back home, but I want to stand in front of the world and put a ring on your finger and tell them all, “Here’s my man. For better or worse. Until death do us part.” Will you marry me?
This project will be done in June. I should be home the first week in July. I’ve booked us a week in Vermont at a B&B. They had a room available the week after our anniversary. Do you think that will be enough time to plan everything? Do you think folks will mind going to Vermont?
After five years, do you still want me? I promise to never leave again. I know we needed the money but being away from you is just killing me. Will you put a ring on my finger and make me yours forever? Please say yes. I know it hasn’t been easy. And I can be an ass, but damn it, I am yours. Now and forever.
Okay, this is getting way too mushy. My friend Fritz is heading back to the states tomorrow. I’m sending this with him. I don’t want to send the gold through the mail. And you’ll get it sooner. Please say yes. Skype me. I want to see you.
Tony said, “Yes.”
He stood up and pulled out of Jacks hands. Lightning flashed and thunder shook the house. He went to the back door and opened it. Cold damp air blew in the kitchen.
Jack said. “Tony, what are you doing?”
Tony walked out the door. The screen door on the back porch slapped shut.
“Oh no,” Jack said.
The backyard was a sheet of water and mud. Lightning flashed and Jack saw Tony kneeling. He had his hands in the air screaming. “Yes. For God’s sake yes. How could you ever doubt? Yes. Please hear me. Yes.”
Jack ran out into the yard. He put his arms around Tony’s chest and tried to pull him to his feet. “Damn it, you’ll get hit by lightning out here!”
“I don’t care. I want to be with Lance.”
The men’s bodies were slick with the rain. Tony pulled out of Jack’s grip and started running for the flood swollen river.
“Oh hell no!” Jack yelled.
He ran after Tony. He clamped his hand on Tony’s right arm, pulling him around. “Get in the damn house now!”
Lightning flashed. In that split second, Jack could see sanity had left Tony. His eyes were wild and vacant.
Tony yelled into the wind. “Not without Lance.”
He pulled out of Jack’s grip again and turned for the river.
Jack said, “Sorry brother.”
His right fist flew out and connected with Tony’s jaw dropping him to the ground like a dead man.
Tony opened his eyes. He was in his bed. His head hurt. His jaw hurt. His body hurt. What the hell happened?
A dull gray light filled the room. Wind and rain blew against his window. What time was it? He looked at his nightstand. The clock was dark. The power was still off. Something gold glinted there. The rings and the envelope. He remembered.
He sat up. Mistake. Waves of pain and nausea ran through his body. He stumbled into the bathroom, fell to his knees in front of the toilet and vomited. He climbed back to his feet and grabbed the bottle of mouthwash.
Back in his room he pulled on a pair of sweatpants. He sat back down on the bed and looked at the printed sheet. Receipt for two round trips tickets to Vermont, departure in three days. And the reservation for a week at the Green Mountain Inn. He picked up the rings and held them in his palm. They were beautiful. A deep dark gold with delicate scrollwork engraved on the outside, on the inside, Lance and Tony forever.
He closed his hand around the rings and walked over to his dresser. He looked at himself in the mirror. The left side of his face was black and blue. His jaw was swollen. He opened the little wooden box on the top of the dresser and pulled out a gold chain. He opened it and strung the rings on it. He put the chain over his head. Even in the gray light, they glowed against his olive skin.
He smelled coffee and heard his nephews laughing down in the kitchen. He smiled at himself. He knew what he needed to do.
Tony stepped into the kitchen. Jack and the boys were around the table. His sister fried sausage and bacon at the stove.
Johnny looked up. “Whoa. Uncle Tony, what happened to you?”
Tony smiled. It hurt. “Your daddy beat the crap out of me.”
Bobby turned to his dad. “Why’d you do that?”
Jack looked at his boys and then up at Tony. He wasn’t sure what to say.
Tony held up his hand. “Because I was being stupid.”
Johnny pointed at Tony’s chest. “What are those rings?”
Bobby said, “They look like wedding rings.”
Tony said, “They are.”
Bobby looked up at him, “Who you gonna marry?”
“Well Uncle Lance asked me before he died.”
Bobby said, “I miss Uncle Lance.”
Tony reached out and mussed up the boy’s hair. “I do too little guy.”
Helen came over and set a tray of eggs, sausage and bacon on the table. She put her arm around Tony and said, “I read the letter last night after…” She looked over at the boys. “After you went to bed. I’m so sorry.”
Tony felt a tear in his eye. “Do you really think he thought I’d ever, ever, say no? If he died thinking that…”
“Oh no honey. You know how he was. I think it was just his humor. He knew… knows how much you love him.”
Tony nodded. He took a breath and looked at them. “I think I’m going to Vermont.”
“What?” Helen stepped away from him.
Jack said. “I think that’s a good idea.”
She looked at her husband. “And why do you think that?”
He took a deep breath and exhaled. “Lance is too close here. Tony hasn’t been away or even taken any time off since it happened. He needs distance.”
Tony said, “The room is already paid for. I think this might be a good way to say good-bye. To get unstuck. I can’t live like this Sis.”
She looked at him. Tony felt her dark warm eyes searching him. She had their mother’s eyes. “You just make sure you come back.”
“Always,” he said.
Copyright 2013 Stephen del Mar and LMW Books, a division of Lighthouse Media Works, LLC. All rights reserved.