Get your lazy ass outta bed, little brother. It’s a perfect beach day and you’re wasting it…
I swore I heard Niko’s voice but I knew it wasn’t possible. My older brother Nikolaus had died three years ago during a raid in Iraq. He was shot twice by an A-K and by the time he could be casevaced out of the area he had bled to death. Actually, he had taken one shot in the head so he probably died immediately. I hoped he did. I didn’t want to think that Nik lay on the street in some war torn village in a foreign country, waiting for his own countrymen to save him. So much for all that ‘no man left behind’ bullshit.
Niko’s death was a punch in the windpipe. Of course I knew it was a possibility but no one ever thinks it’ll be their family getting a visit or a letter informing them that a loved one died in the line of duty. Niko was three years into a degree in engineering when 9/11 happened. I was just starting my senior year of high school. Niko was my big brother and one of my greatest role models. He joined the Marine Corps and was inducted quickly thereafter. I had wanted to join up too, but Niko had convinced me not to for our mother’s sake.
“She’d lose it if both of us get killed,” he had pointed out.
I had teased him about needing to be a hero all the time, but Nik was as selfless as a guy got. Nik hadn’t joined the Marines to be a hero. Our parents were blue collar types. Dad was a marine mechanic and Mom had stayed home with us kids until my youngest sister was in high school. After that she found a job working at one of the local hotels as an operator. With five kids to support, my parents had always taken odd side jobs. Mom had babysat for a few kids after school while Dad did handyman jobs or picked up mechanical work at Dawson’s, a garage in town.
My first job was a crewman for a dolphin tour along the bay. It was a pretty easy job just hauling ice on the boat to make sure drinks were kept cold, hosing down the deck between tours and keeping passengers from accidentally going overboard. All of us were certified lifeguards but we spent most of the summer shirtless, flirting with girls and scamming free drinks from the restaurants on the boardwalk where alcohol was allowed. Because of my size it was easy for the new bartenders to mistake me for someone legal to drink.
It was a good way to spend tourist season, anyway.
Growing up in the Florida panhandle meant we weren’t too far from Mississippi, Alabama or Georgia. My mom was from Georgia and Dad was from Alabama. Dad’s family was into commercial fishing, which was how he learned about boat mechanics. Mom grew up on a peanut farm that was one of Jiff’s major suppliers. They met while they were on spring break in college. Well, Mom was in college. She was studying communications when she met Dad. To hear them tell it, it was love at first sight.
Personally, I’ve never believed in that. Maybe I just never experienced it.
There were girls I fell in lust with at first sight but that wasn’t love. As of late I had been casually seeing a girl named Kennedy. She was a pretty girl; tall like me. She was model thin, had big brown eyes, tan skin, and long dark brown hair that was naturally highlighted by the sun. I met her out on the beach one day when she was playing volleyball. The ball flew over her head and ended up next to me on the sand. Her bouncy tits had me mesmerized so I wouldn’t give her the ball back until she agreed to see me again. We spent that whole night fucking like rabbits all over my house. Kennedy wasn’t forever though. I hadn’t met my forever girl.
That being said, it wasn’t a day I wanted to be around her. It was the three year anniversary of losing my brother and I didn’t feel very sexy. When I was with Kennedy that was all we did. My family planned to go to the cemetery to visit his grave, but I couldn’t bring myself to go. I wanted to do something to celebrate him, not cry over his headstone.
I ended up making a call I usually made on a daily basis. Tara Thornton. She’d been my best friend for as long as I could remember. She knew Nik, and she knew how much I hated this day. She was the one person I could cry with if I needed to and then laugh with about what a pussy I was being. We never hooked up; it wasn’t like that with us. She was like a sister, not a lover. She was a very pretty girl, but I never looked at her and imagined what it would be like to fuck her.
I grabbed my cell phone and a six pack and walked out of my house. I walked past the pool, down through the well-manicured lawn toward the walkway that led out to my dock. About halfway there I dialed Tara’s number.
“Hello?” she grumbled. Tara was a night owl so she probably hadn’t been asleep for very long.
“It’s not even noon yet and I’m heading down to the dock to get shitfaced,” I told her.
“We really need to work on finding you a better coping mechanism,” she told me.
“I don’t feel like fucking,” I shrugged. “Otherwise I’d be calling Kennedy.”
“It’s impressive your balls are still working, truly.” I heard Tara flop onto her back with a grunt. “You realize I haven’t been asleep that long, right? Why not hold off on the liver disaster for a few more hours? Take Nik’s truck out or something.”
“I’ll be by to pick up in three hours,” I told her. It gave her time to nap a little longer. “Then we’re going to the Beach Hut to get smashed.”
I hung up with Tara and turned around to head back to the house. I put the beer away and reluctantly grabbed the keys to my brother’s ‘75 Chevy pickup. It was old and clunky, but it was what Nik wanted and loved. He babied the cherry red beast. I locked up the house and went out to jump into the driver’s seat. I fired her up and sat there letting it idle for a while. It wasn’t fair to lose someone so early. I had so many more years with my brother. I wasn’t ready. It had been three years and I still couldn’t believe it. I wanted to call him and tell him about all the tail I got, or about the newest house I bought. Hell, I’d been in my house just under a year and I hated that he would never get to see it.
I threw the truck into drive and slowly pulled out of the driveway. The low rumble of the engine took me back to when he bought the truck. The shitty stink of cigarettes and exhaust was something I hated, but suddenly loved because it was Nik’s smell.
When he first died I would sit in the driver’s seat and listen to his old shitty tapes. He had a picture of his old girlfriend clipped to the visor and an ashtray full of pennies. I didn’t get rid of either. I wanted to keep it exactly how he left it. I started drinking a lot for a while. It was easier to cope when I was drunk. I didn’t feel as much, but that led to some of the people in my life walking away. I didn’t care. I No one understood the friendship I had with my brother.
I turned onto one of the side streets, heading toward Tara’s. I didn’t feel like driving around. I could just break into her house and chill on the couch until she woke up. I pulled into the driveway and froze when I got out of the truck. Sitting on the porch next door to my best friend’s house was the girl I was seeing when Nik was killed. She left town two months after he died. She didn’t like what I was doing to myself and said she needed to get away. I hadn’t seen Sookie Stackhouse in just under three years. She looked good.
The sound of the door closing caught her attention. I couldn’t read the look on her face when she saw me but it was obvious she was just as surprised as I was.
“Hey,” I called out with a little wave. I would’ve done it even if I didn’t know her. Small town mentality made us all a little more friendly.
“Hello,” she said politely.
I moved a little closer to her. “How long have you been back?” I asked as I approached.
“A while,” she shrugged.
“Right, well… it was nice to see you.” She didn’t seem to want to talk to me so I turned to walk toward Tara’s.
“I remember what today is,” Sookie said. “I’m sorry. Please pass along my condolences to your mother.”
That stopped me in my tracks. I wanted to break down and cry but I held it together. I looked back at her and said, “Thanks. I’ll let her know.” It was probably a shock to her that I wasn’t drunk. I barely remembered her leaving because I couldn’t stop drinking.
I continued my trek to Tara’s. I let myself in the back door and went to the living room to flop on the couch. I didn’t want to bother her. I also didn’t want to be alone, or with anyone else. I didn’t know how to explain what I was feeling. That was why drinking was easier. I didn’t have to explain it. I definitely didn’t drink as much, but I still tied one on every now and then. I ended up curling into a ball on the couch. I let the tears go then. There wasn’t a way to describe the hurt. It made me physically ill.
My crying must have woken Tara up because some time later I felt her small hand on my shoulder as she sat down on the couch next to me.
“Sorry,” I whispered. It wasn’t my intention to wake her.
“It’s fine,” she replied. “What happened to going for a ride?”
“His truck is in the driveway,” I sniffed. “I don’t want to be alone right now… his truck makes me feel so fucking alone.”
“You’re not alone, Eric,” she said, rubbing my shoulder. “You can’t keep holding all this in, though. It’s destroying you a little at a time and you know Nik wouldn’t want you to do that to yourself.”
“I don’t know what else to do,” I shrugged. “I can’t seem to let it go. I want to, I really do, but it’s not working.”
“Try again with the truck,” Tara suggested. “I know it’s sad and I know you’re still angry about what happened but you have to find a way to let it out, Eric. That cold cemetery isn’t where you want to remember him so go someplace where you do.”
“Why can’t I just stay right here?” I knew I was probably bothering her. She hated being woken up.
“Because the stuff going on in your head is stuff I just can’t fix, Eric. It’s time for you to deal with this. Without booze,” she insisted.
“Do you see a fuckin’ drink in my hand?” I asked as I sat up.
“You break into my house and you’re snapping at me?” she arched an eyebrow.
“It’s not breaking in when the door is unlocked.” I stood up and pulled the keys out of my pocket.
“Well I don’t know what to do for you anymore, Eric,” she sighed. “Nothing I suggest helps. I give up.”
“How about not kicking me out when I need you, that’s a start.” I headed toward the door. Fuck it, I didn’t need her shit.
“That’s right, get mad at me. It’s my fault your brother’s gone and it’s my fault you feel like shit. Call me when you’re done being pissed at me for nothing,” Tara said. “I’m going back to bed.”
“I came over here because I needed a fuckin’ friend. Not to be told to drive around in a fuckin’ unstable state. Sleep well, Princess.” I walked out the back door.
If Tara had anymore to say I didn’t hear it. I didn’t see if Sookie was still sitting on the porch. I didn’t see anything but the truck I was walking toward. I got back into it, fired it up, and pulled out of her driveway. I waited until I got to the first stop sign and leaned over to roll down the passenger window.
My phone rang on the seat next to me and it was my mom but I couldn’t answer it. I knew she was calling to find out when I was going to show my face at the cemetery but I just couldn’t do it. Going to his funeral was hard enough. I had no intention of ever going back to that place. I understood why it was important to her; it was a tangible place where she could go and feel like he was maybe there. Maybe he put a hand on her shoulder to comfort her while she wept but I just never got that feeling.
So I silenced my phone and hung a hard right. I was probably going to get pinched for speeding but I didn’t give a shit right then. I needed to get down the Emerald Coast and through Fort Walton Beach and away from the sleepy beach towns, closer to the Alabama state line where there were open fields to tear up. It never ceased to amaze me how humid it got away from the beach.
That close to Alabama there seemed to be a near constant mist in the air and it kept the fields on the muddy side. Without thinking twice as soon as I saw the right field, I veered off the road. The old tires spun in the mud, throwing it all over the place. That was exactly what I wanted. I could almost hear my brother whooping and hollering in the seat next to me.
Donuts, asshole! Do fuckin’ donuts!
I laughed the laugh of a man gone slightly insane but with every spray of mud I sent flying around the field, I felt a little bit lighter. Fuckin’ Tara went about it all wrong but her suggestion wasn’t wrong at all. I was going to have to call her later.
By the time I was done the truck was filthy and covered in mud. I also had close to a dozen missed calls from my various siblings and parents, not to mention a few very angry text messages because I hadn’t shown up at the cemetery.
With all of the aggression out I scrolled down to the missed call from my mom and hit the dial button. I knew she wanted me there, but it wasn’t happening.
“Eric? Dear God where are you? Are you okay?” Mom didn’t sound angry. She sounded scared. Terrified, even.
“Yeah, I’m fine, and sober. I’m out in Nik’s truck,” I told her. “I’m sorry, I just couldn’t be there.”
Mom sighed heavily.
“You scared the shit out of me!” she yelled, which wasn’t like her. “Today of all days. Really?”
“How did I scare you? By not showing?” She knew I had a hard time coping with everything.
“Oh I don’t know, by not answering your phone when you’ve been drunk for almost three years straight maybe? You could have sent me a text message to tell me you weren’t coming,” she said. All that fear was gone, replaced by anger.
“I’m sorry, Mom,” I sighed. “I not drinking, and I just needed to… breathe.”
“And breathing prevents you from texting your mother? Look, I know it’s hard for you. It’s hard for all of us, Eric. You’re not the only one who lost him.”
“I know and forgive me if I don’t want to sit a cemetery mourning over his grave. I’m sorry I didn’t text.” I couldn’t change that.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” she said and hung up.
I sighed and put my phone down. I needed to go home and wash the mud off. Nik’s favorite part about muddin’ was washing the shit off later to make the truck shiny again. He was a little bit older, but we spent the better part of eighteen years getting into shit we shouldn’t have been doing. To say we were close would be an understatement.
I made myself a resolution as I drove home. I was going to work on better ways to deal with the loss. I love drinking, yes, but I loved my family more. The terror in Mom’s voice when I answered was enough of a wakeup call. I was going to find things that made me remember Nik in a better, more positive light. I needed to hold onto the memories I had and if I continued on like I was I was going to lose those memories.