Walking up the steps to the landing, he pulled open the door.
“Kevin!” The roar was immediate, and faces appeared in the corridor within moments. Mom, Debra, Uncle Ernie. Little Sybil came bursting from the door to the kitchen and nearly tackled him with a hug. He hoisted her up and she clung to him.
The family swarmed around him as he struggled to shut the door. “How was the trip? How are you, you rascal? You’re late! How do you feel? Nice haircut!”
He shook hands, clapped backs, nodded affirmatives and shook polite refusals. Where was Jake?
“Debra was sure your plane had crashed,” said Ernie with a little smile. “Said we’d have to eat your food. I was going to turn your room into a study.”
His aunt Debra slugged him in the arm, a little bit harder than was friendly. “Cute, Ernie.”
“Come to the kitchen, Kev,” his mother exclaimed. “No, leave your things, they won’t go anywhere. Take a breather! How was your trip?”
He shrugged, following her, the small talk striking him as strangely taxing and irrelevant. “Got a ride on a DC-10 from Philly, then Sarge dropped me off on his way home. The interchange was gridlocked. Some pileup.” She clucked.
They turned the corner to the kitchen, with a small trail of pensioners, and his eyes brightened as he recognized the broad, hunched shoulders behind the counter. Quick as he could, Kevin scooped up a rubber dog toy from the couch and winged it at the T-shirted back. It bounced off Jake’s shoulder blades and landed on the tiled floor.
Motionless for a moment, he stopped chopping, then tilted his head face down in reverie. A moment later Kevin ducked instinctively as Jake turned on a heel and pitched a zuccini at him. It hit Sybil in the middle of her patterned-yellow dress and she giggled.
“Boys,” his mom was saying, but they were heading toward each other, and met at the edge of the tile with a thick embrace. “What’s up, Jay,” Kevin whispered in his ear, feeling his heavily yoked shoulders and back.
“Same same. Stay through dinner, then we’ll hit the bars. I got a girl I want you to meet—got a thing for soldiers.”
Kevin grinned and broke away, sending a mock punch toward Jake’s face.
They ate in the living room, perched on the sofa or easy chairs with plates and drinks. It was a half-brilliant half-absurd blend of his mom’s tolerable home cooking and Jake’s still-green firehouse skills; after trying the chili spaghetti Kevin mostly poked at his plate, using the same diversionary tactics he’d honed as a kid. Jake kept flashing amused looks and shoveling in food; he’d eat anything standing still. They used to do their bi-monthly fridge clean-up by dumping everything into a big bowl for him.
By dessert, Sybil was dosing sleepily on the recliner, curled up; his mom was getting more and more animated with her questions about the war, and Ernie was on his fifth martini, red-faced and starting to gesture. Kevin wasn’t sure how to deal with him; Debra usually kept him in line, but this time she’d excused herself to go wash dishes, something he’d never seen her do. Things had changed since he’d left.
“And now gas is still an arm and a leg! What the hell was the point? If we’re going to invade a goddamned country like a bunch of barbarians, you’d think we’d be getting something out of it. Jesus!” His mom tended to move from liberal to liberal-pragmatic when she got riled.
His uncle Ernie’s head was bobbing up and down like a toy. “We’re apes. Apes! Who the hell acts like this? I know four-year-olds with more mature motivations than this country.” He held up his hands beside his head and swayed back and forth. “ ‘You took my toy!’ ‘No I didn’t!’ ‘Yes, you did! I’ll hit you!’ Waaaaah!” He knocked back another gulp of vodka.
Jake shifted in his seat uneasily, drawing Kevin’s attention. “Jeez, you know, I think I put too much butter on that asparagus,” he muttered contemplatively.
Kevin froze. “Butter” was their action word, their coded warning when they were out drinking or at a party; get ready, it meant, watch yourself, it’s heating up.
Heating up? This was his home.
“And what’s more”—Ernie sat forward—“we have the fucking audacity to come across like we’re these god-ordained m—messengers to the brutes of the world, when we’re the worst kids on the block! Read the news! Look at what’s going on! Jesus!”
He stabbed his finger at Kevin.
“Look at you! Champion of the motherfucking crusade! Where’s your sword, O judge and jury? Where’s your axe?”
He looked at his mom, but to his astonishment she was staring at the carpet, motionless. What the hell?
“How many babies have you killed this week, my wise brother? What was their crime?” Ernie was on his feet, face livid with fury. He stabbed his finger at Kevin again and again to punctuate syllables. “What do you tell yourself at night, you piece of shit? Are they terrorists? Heathens? Just the wrong color skin, you stupid son of a bitch?”
He came toward him, martini glass still in his hand, but empty now, a prop. He was swerving ever so slightly, but Kevin had never seen him so full of purpose. He remembered that he’d served in Vietnam, driving trucks for the logistics corps. Hell, granddad was a World War II vet. Kevin narrowed his eyes in confusion.
Ernie interpreted that as defiance. “Oh ho, my angry little nephew, you got something to say? You gonna tell me about the dire threat of the Commie takeover? Gonna tell me about the American way of life?” He threw his glass, with surprising force, and with a momentary, almost inaudible tinkling, it shattered on the bricks of the fireplace. His mother looked like a statue. The sound of running water was gone from the kitchen, but he was sure Debra was still there, listening.
This is my home.
“Forty thousand deaths,” Ernie intoned under his breath, like a eulogy. “Women and children. How’s it go, huh? Just following orders? Just getting by? Not your problem, right? Not your business! Whose business is it, brother? Where’s your line? Strangled any babies yet? Burned down any homes? Not your bullet, oh no! Not anybody’s—must’ve been God! Is that how it works?
“Does it all make sense to you?”
With that, he took a last step, and with a fury Kevin still didn’t understand, swung a meaty right fist at him.
He knocked the punch to his left and pushed to his feet, driving a knee as hard as he could into the old man’s stomach. As Ernie doubled over, he dropped and hit him above the neck with his elbow, then turned heavily and flung him over his foot. He stumbled and hit the chair head-first and slumped to the side, barely moving and making a tremulous little noise.
Kevin looked up and Jake was on his feet, and his mother staring at him with wide eyes. Alien eyes. Like she’d never seen him before.
He turned slowly, taking in the room one last time, then locked eyes with Jake, who nodded slightly and walked briskly toward the door. He followed, stepping over his luggage, not looking back.
Head blank, face blank, he opened the door to the cool evening air.