Okay, so this is it. Part 4 of The Tree. This is the point where you THE READER start to tell me what you think of the story and where you think it should go. Remember, if your suggestion is chosen, I will send you a free copy of the book in whatever format it comes out in. Without further ado….
“Who’s all going to be there?” Erik asked as he turned down his sister’s radio. Currently, Adele was lamenting about when she had been young. His sister was pointing at cars they drove passed and singing at them off-key to make Erik laugh. And he chuckled a couple of times, but his sister’s usually pristine singing voice was cracking and pitching like an old rusty door and it was making Erik nervous.
“Just him and his brothers, I think. I didn’t ask. Why?” She looked over at him disdainfully for what he assumed was the act of taking away her platform.
“I dunno. I just feel kinda out of body at the moment, ya know? Displaced.”
“Well, you just quit your job, loser. I would feel that way, too.” She said laughing. But she cut herself off when he cast her a rueful glance. Reaching over and patting his knee she encouraged him.
“It’ll take a while to settle into a new pattern. You’ve just made a big life adjustment, on top of everything else, including the case you were handling you just went from being dialed up to eleven to zero. It’s going to take some time. Are you regretting leaving?”
Erik shook his head and sighed, “No. I finalized everything today. I’m just a little worn out is all.”
“I can take you back if you like?”
Erik turned his head and looked at his sister and shook his head. “No. OF course not. Just run interference for me if things get a little crazy.”
“Yeah. IF it gets rowdy we’ll bail. But I don’t see that happening. Jason and Noah are pretty laid back.”
Relaxing Erik put his head back on the headrest and looked out the window. They were driving passed familiar tree lined streets as the sun began to lower in the sky casting everything in golden light. As traffic congested a little, Erin slowed the car down. As they waited, Erik noticed people were on the streets either coming in and out of little boutique shops or sitting out in front eating ice cream or drinking coffee. A restaurant a little further up had folks sitting at tables covered by umbrella’s and waiters dressed in white starched shirts and black pants with crimson aprons stood at various points taking orders. Erik rolled the window down and the smell of Italian cooking wafted in as well as the cooler evening air.
As he’d prepared for this evening, he dressed in a pair of cargo shorts and a light hoodie and a pair of sandals. Sure, it was summertime in Michigan as it was all over the rest of the country, but he was used to Texas heat and humidity. Until he acclimated, the evenings would feel downright cold. But for now, the sweet smell of freshly cut grass, and the faint perfumes of some distant garden wafted in through the window. No, he didn’t regret leaving the way he did. He just sort felt empty. Like a vessel that had poured all its contents out and now waited on a shelf to be filled again. Filled with what, he didn’t know for sure.
His thoughts shifted back to his former client, Rebecca Johnson. Her dishwater blond hair tied behind her head. The waiting room she they’d been sitting in when news came down that the appeals had failed. The brief smile on her face. The cold hand that reached across the table to grasp his own when he deflated into the chair he was sitting in. Her leaning across the table to whisper in his ear. And then the guards who came to take her away. Erik sat there with a frog in his throat and speechless for what felt like hours as he watched her being walked away. His brain kicked into overdrive, he went over everything that he’d done. All the research, all the hours spent with experts in the field of mental health…
“You did the best you could.”
Erik watched as the scenery whipped by now that Erin had turned a corner. A mom was walking with a baby in a stroller and an older child on a little blue bike with training wheels was being walked beside by who Erik assumed was his father. They’re whole life was ahead of them. It was hard to imagine somewhere; someone else’s life would be ending. The thought made him sick to his stomach and he did the best he could to force those thoughts from his mind.
You did the best you could.
The only hope she had rested in the briefs submitted to a federal appeals court for the fifth circuit. He wasn’t licensed to work in that jurisdiction, so sticking around would have only made him a spectator. Erik just prayed that whoever’s hands his work found themselves in would be far more capable of handling the case than he was.
“That’s bullshit, I handled it fine.”
Erik spoke up as he turned his head to look at his sister. She had a worried look on her face. “Nothing, I was talking to myself.”
“Okay good.” She said as she pulled the car over and parked it. “Because we’re here.”
“Jason, everything looks good. Calm down.” Noah said as he stood next to his brother at the island in their kitchen. Jason had been preparing everything the night before and came home from work and threw everything together on the stove. He’d been hurriedly barking orders to Noah in the meantime. Noah didn’t understand the big deal. It was a small get together with Erin and her brother Erik.
“I am calm. Pass me the jalapenos please.”
Noah picked up the jar and limped over to where Jason was at the stove. He had to admit. The house smelled great. The roasted tomatoes, ground beef, chicken, and choro beans made his stomach grumble. The tortillas were being warmed in the oven, guacamole and salsa were already on the dinner table along with every topping known to man.
“You’re just like mom used to be.” Noah chuckled as Jason took the jar. Jason cast him a withering look that made Noah grin.
“Erin’s been here before, dude. Plenty of times. Is this because her brother’s coming?”
Jason shrugged his shoulders as he set the jar down and picked up the spatula and turned the ground beef over.
“Noah, would you set the table?”
Noah sighed and headed for the cabinet. “Yessem boss.”
Jason asked from behind him. “How’s the new prosthetic? I see you limping.”
Noah opened up the cabinet and pulled out four plates. “It’s got my leg sore. But the doc says that takes time anyway to get used it. But it’s better than the last one for sure.”
Noah turned his head to see Jason turning off the burners and felt a pang of love for his brother. When he got home from Iraq he was pretty banged up. He’d lost his right leg in an I.E.D. blast when his Humvee drove over a mine. He remembered driving, he remembered being given orders to patrol in Fallujah, he remembered turning a corner, and then waking up in Germany. As he’d opened his eyes and looked around the room he found Jason with his arms crossed, head tilted back, snoring in a chair that he would later discover had been brought in for him because he refused to leave. Noah watched him for a while until he snorted himself awake and locked eyes with him. He’d never seen his brother cry like that before nor since.
Noah grabbed the plates and pulled them down before walking them over to the table and setting it. He grabbed a handful of silverware on his way and a few napkins as well. The cloth ones, not paper towel. Jason wanted this done right, and Noah was going to make sure that was how it was going to be. Besides, he wouldn’t have been able to afford his new leg hadn’t it been for Jason and his dad who helped pay for it.
“You said dad’s not coming over, right?”
“Nope. The old stud muffin has another date tonight with Silvia. He said not to wait up.”
Noah stopped what he was doing, “Gross.”
Jason laughed as he made his way over with a couple of plates heaping with taco filling, “I know, right?”
Just then Noah heard the door open and the sound of Erin’s voice, “Hello? Oh my God, that smells amazing.”
Jason’s face lit up as he left Noah standing at the table to go and greet their guests. Noah loved seeing Jason so happy with her. He deserved it after all he’d given up to take care of Noah after his injury. Noah took the opportunity to walk over to the fridge and pull out four bottles of Dos Equis that he’d bought on his way back from counseling this afternoon.
“Hey, Erik. Glad you made it.” He heard Jason say as he put the bottles down and watched as they came into the kitchen. Erin was in the lead, then Jason who given his size took up most of the doorframe and when they walked through he locked eyes with Erik. Noah could tell right away he was Erin’s twin. But where her features softened and made her pretty, his were refined and made him extremely handsome. A strong jaw, full lips, green eyes, and a head full of tousled blonde hair. Their eyes locked and suddenly Noah felt his mouth run dry and his heart kick start in his chest.
“Erik, this is my brother Noah. Noah, Erik.”
The man walked forward and extended his hand and Noah shook it and heard himself speak.” Hey, welcome home. Jason tells me you’ve just returned.”
“Yeah. Thank you. And thanks for inviting me over.”
Noah heard that and just stared at him for a moment. Jason cleared his throat and snapped him back to reality and spoke up. “Sure, man. Mi casa es su casa.”
Erin said, “You didn’t have to go through all this trouble, babe.”
Noah was taking his seat and wanted to come off nonchalant, “Are you kidding me? He’s not happy unless some dead animal is being sacrificed in your honor.”
Erin and Erik both laughed as they took their seats. Jason rolled his eyes and pulled his chair.
“It’s the way it should be.” Erin said.
Erik rolled his eyes, “Lord, don’t give her anymore ideas.”
Noah grinned as Erin slapped his arm.
“I’m not that bad.”
“No you’re not.” Jason said kissing her before sitting down next to her. Erik was on Noah’s left. After the took their places, Jason told them to dig and they made quick work of passing everything around. As bowls passed to Noah and to the left, their fingers occasionally brushed and their eyes would connect before moving on. As the dug in, mostly in silence save for the occasional satisfied grunt, the clink of silverware to scoop of the remnants of food left on their plates, and the occasional setting down of a beer bottle, dinner was had in silence. Once over, everyone sat back with satisfied bellies. But before they could get comfortable Jason asked if they would rather take the party outside to the pool. Everyone agreed and Noah made sure to grab the case of beer before they went.
Erik lingered for a second, “Hey, you need a hand?”
Noah smiled and turned from the fridge to see Erik glance down at his leg and then back up.
“Is that titanium?”
Noah felt his face color as his back stiffened. He hadn’t’ dated since he’d been home. Hadn’t hooked up or gone out to any club. He’d wrapped himself in the comfort of his brothers and sisters who were like him. And now he really didn’t know what to say. His mouth opened, and it shut and in the end Noah just nodded.
Erik reached out and took the case of beer from him, but placed a hand on Noah’s bicep. His grasp was gentle, but firm as he looked Noah in the eye. There was no judgement there. No smattering of over indulgent sympathy either. In Erik’s eyes, he saw something familiar, what was it? Weariness? Perhaps Exhaustion? Either way, it was mixed with compassion.
“Hey. I didn’t mean to be rude. Do a lot of people stare?”
“I don’t mind. Yeah. The kids are usually cool about it. They think I’m part machine or something. They’re open about their curiosity. Adults, however, don’t usually know what to do or say. So, they just stare.”
“It’s been my experience that most people are fucked in the head.”
Noah laughed out loud. All the tension he’d been feeling melted away. Erik looked shocked at first by his bark of laughter, but his face softened into a wide grin.
“Yeah, people are pretty fucked aren’t they,” Noah asked as he made his way over to the cabinet and pulled down a bottle of Johnny Walker.
“Do you have any coke for mixing?”
Noah turned around and saw Erik in the fridge. “Man, after my own heart.”
Erik grabbed the unopened two liter and pulled it out and set it on the island smiling as he did so.
“So, Texas huh?”
Erik sighed. “Yeah, Texas.”
“Jason said you bailed out.”
Erik put the case of beer down and pointed to a pair of glasses on the dish drainer. Noah set the bottle down and reached over and grabbed them and brought them back. Opening up the liquor bottle Erik poured a double shot in each before opening the Coke. Noah watched as he filled both glasses, stuck his finger in each to kill the foam, and then topped them off. Noah knew enough with working with vets what a warrior looked like. His mannerisms, the stiffness of his spine, the sharpness of his gaze as he poured the drinks. He knew what someone looked like after a long battle and Erik was giving off all the telltale signs of it. He was stiff. Mechanical. And his brow was creased as a frown touched the sides of his mouth.
“Yeah, I bailed. Got to be too much. I quit my job. Moved back home to live with mom and dad. Sexy huh?”
Noah smiled, “I live with my dad and my brother. It’s not that bad. We’ve a tendency to seek out a floor beneath us when the world decides to pitch us over the side and we’re in a free fall.”
Erik snorted. “That’s what it feels like, alright.”
“Wanna talk about it?”
Erik handed Noah his drink and offered a roguish smile. “Nope. I want to get a buzz on and flirt with the hot guy with a peg leg.”
Noah laughed and held up his glass in a toast. “Avast ye matey, yo ho!”
They both took a long sip of the drink. Noah could taste the liquor and felt its slight burn on its way down.
“Are you two coming outside or what, “Erin called.
The two men exchanged a glance and then took their drinks and mixes out onto the patio where Jason and Erin were sitting around the in-ground pool. Side by side they sat with their feet in the water, causing ripples to go out in all directions. Jason had stripped his shirt off and Erin had removed her top and lounged back in her pink bikini, the sundress she’d worn wadded in a ball along with Jason’s shirt, behind them. Erik set the case of beer and the mix stuff beside his sister as he removed his shirt. Noah was shocked at how pale his skin was underneath. Almost like porcelain, except for a little red at the shoulders where he must’ve gotten sun earlier. He sat down next to Erin, whose skin was brown from the summer sun. His stomach wasn’t a six pack, but it was flat and hairless. Noah shook his head to jar himself away from staring and caught sight of Jason giving him a knowing grin.
Erin and Erik were talking and Noah stole the opportunity to flip his brother off. He opted not to take off his own shirt, but did grab a lawn chair and removed his prosthetic. Jason stopped grinning and made a motion to stand up, which caught the attention of Erin and Erik to his embarrassment, but he waved Jason back down. He leaned the leg against the patio table and sat down immediately on his butt before removing his sneaker from the left leg. He scooted quickly across the patio to sit on the opposite side of everyone. His foot touched the water and caused him to shiver.
“Oh shit, Erik you have my drink.” Noah said. Erik grabbed his drink as well as Noah’s, parted company with his sister, and walked over to his end of the pool and sat down beside him.
“Don’t you think your gonna burn?” Noah asked quietly.
“Huh? Oh, I dunno, probably. I was out swimming earlier this morning in the creek behind our house. My shoulders got a little bit. But I don’t think it’ll be too bad, sun’s already going down.”
Noah, at a loss for what to talk about, swished the water with his left foot.
“So, Jason tells me you’re a therapist.”
“Yeah. I work with returning vets down at the V.A.” Noah said giving him a side glance.
“Do you like it?”
Noah nodded. “Yeah. It’s satisfying.”
“I can imagine.”
Noah took a drink. “Did you like being a lawyer?”
Erik looked down at his feet now, “I did for a long time. I was good at it. I was better than good.”
“So, what do you plan to do now?”
Erik chuckled, “That’s the million-dollar question everyone keeps asking. I’m not sure exactly. I’m still kind of processing that I told my boss to take a hike. To ‘take this job and shove it’, more or less. School, maybe. I might look for a job here doing manual labor. But if I don’t walk into a court room for the rest of my life, it’ll be too soon. How long were you in the service?”
“I joined when I was 17, after my mom died. I was in a lot of trouble, in and out of school, Dad and Jason were fighting a lot over me. So, I figured I would join up. I spent six years in.”
“How long do people actually stay in?”
Noah shrugged. “Some stay for one contract which can be anywhere between two and four years and get out. Some stay for twenty. Others …well…”
“Stay their entire lives.”
“You could say that.”
“Was it bad over there?”
“It depends on how you look at it. Was it crazy? Oh, yeah. It was nuts. Was it worth it? Yeah. The people were amazing. The Iraqi people I mean. I had made a couple of friends after a time. A couple of interpreters.”
“Where are they now?”
“Feisal and Fadi, they’re cousins, live in Dearborn now. We hang out every occasionally. They love it here.”
“Oh, I bet,” Erik said looking at the clear water. He took a sip of his own drink before looking over at Noah. His green eyes and Noah’s locked for a second and there it was again. His heart lept into his throat and he felt off balance.
“I think it’s really great what you do for those guys.”
Noah thought for a second about what Jason had said about him losing a trial. When Noah prodded Jason shook his head, and told him it wasn’t his story to tell. But now he wished Jason had divulged something so he didn’t feel like he was walking into a potential mine field.
“I am sure what you did for your client was pretty great, too.”
Erik flinched and turned his eyes from him to the water. “Not great enough.”
Noah turned his head and yelled at Jason who was now putting lotion on Erin’s back and talking, “Hey dude. Bring that over when you’re done.”
“Here. I’m finished,” Jason said and raised his arm to throw it. Noah set his drink down real quick and suddenly the bottle was up in the middle of the air. He caught it expertly and thanked Jason who’d gone back to talking with Erin.
He opened the bottle and squeezed a small amount of coconut scented sunscreen in his palm.
“Okay, turn around and put your back to me,” he instructed Erik.
The other man’s eyebrows went up, but he did as ordered. As soon as he turned Noah rubbed the lotion into his hands and began to rub his back down with it. While not defined, Noah could feel the muscles under his back as he worked the lotion in.
“Hey, is that scarification,” Noah asked leaning forward. On Erik’s right shoulder there was a red mark that looked like three dots and underneath were three long what looked like scratches.
“Huh? Oh, no. That’s a birthmark. Weird huh? Erin has one, too. Same shoulder.”
Noah was impressed, “Wow. Jason said you were twins, I just didn’t know twins shared birthmarks.”
“Yeah. It’s common really. Mom said when we were small, as we were learning to talk, we made up our own language. We’d invert words. It drove her crazy,” Erik said. Noah began to work into the muscles on his back, along his neck, and Erik quit speaking. Opting instead to drop his head and lean back into his hands. He was all knotted up along the shoulders and the back of the neck.
“God, you’re all sorts of mangled up in here,” Noah said as he felt some of the knots starting to break up. He didn’t want to squeeze too hard and hurt him. But he had to admit that the feeling of his muscles made his cock heavy in his shorts and his heart beat hard against his rib cage.
“Yeah, I’m sure. God that feels good.”
“Hey you two, why don’t you get a room,” Jason yelled over. Erin laughed and Noah realized they weren’t out here alone and let his hands drop. Quickly, he stripped out of his own shirt and leapt into the pool. The cold water hit his body, and his erection, and made him gasp. But as he bounced on his one leg, he was thankful for the interruption.