“I mean, it’s not as if I expected a hero’s welcome. I know what those old timers went through back when they came home from Vietnam,” said Ryan, swishing the remaining dregs of beer in his mug in a slow circle. “But I guess I still expected something, y’know?”
Across the table, Mark shifted uneasily. This was their first time hanging out together, even though Ryan had been home for almost five weeks. Mark appeared as if he wanted to say something but was too embarrassed by the words.
“I don’t mean to complain,” said Ryan, appearing self-conscious suddenly and leaning back in his chair. “How about you? How have you been?”
“I’m good. I’m good,” said Mark. “Just very busy at work. It never ends.”
For a moment silence hung in the air, one which would’ve never shown its face back in their high school days. Ryan took the opportunity to survey the bar, saying, “Man, I can’t believe we’re back here again. Some things never change, right, bro?”
“You’re right,” said Mark through a forced smile. He was dressed in a shirt and tie, and appeared tired after a day at work. The bar, Mulligan’s, which normally catered to underage kids when it wasn’t in trouble with the law, wasn’t a trendy happy hour spot and Mark was the only one not wearing a T-shirt.
“Do you see that guy Macino in here still? I remember: Every time we were here, every single time, he was camped out at that corner of the bar.”
“No. I, uh, haven’t seen him,” admitted Mark.
Ryan paused. “Wow, that’s surprising. Did he stop coming? Or…wait. When was the last time you were here?”
Mark’s eyes shot down to his half-finished beer and, with a guilty smile, he admitted, “I think I was here a few months ago.”
“Oh, I see now,” crowed Ryan with a gale of laughter. “You! You were the one that stopped coming!”
“Well, y’know,” smiled Mark, trailing off as Ryan’s laughter did the same.
“It’s okay. I’m just kidding. You’ve been busy and all.”
“Yes. Exactly,” said Mark, and each proceeded to take a sip of beer.
The conversation continued for the next few hours, Ryan throwing back two beers for every one of Mark’s. Though their exchanges had become more infrequent as time went on, the pair had kept in contact throughout Ryan’s enlistment. Yet they’d only hung out in person two or three times over the period: Ryan was rarely eligible for leave and, even when he was, Mark was often away at college. That’d been the case with most of Ryan’s friends, in fact.
If there was one difference that irritated Ryan in the weeks since his return, one change in virtually everyone, it was in the way they listened to him. Everybody seemed to wear this overly earnest expression, as if they were having a conversation with a child or an elderly person. He recognized that most people meant well; they were just trying to empathize with him. But Afghanistan wasn’t something a civilian could understand. The fact that he’d survived didn’t mean he was, alternately, a god or a mental patient. He was still just regular Ryan Newsome.
After passing out that night at his parent’s house, Ryan awoke the next afternoon and decided to visit Mr. Parchett, his old high school teacher. Apparently, he’d opened up a hardware store and, according to Mark, the store also carried technical devices for computers and mobile devices. Ryan knew he’d have to find a job one of these days and he figured the skills he’d learned in the service would translate well to a position at such a place.
“Mr. Parchett!” Ryan bellowed upon entering the store. It was dimly lit and the merchandise seemed a little dusty. The moment he spied his former teacher, however, those details were instantly forgotten. The man was half-hidden behind his newspaper and his formerly salt-and-pepper hair had turned entirely white, but, with no one else in the store, it was easy to conclude it was him.
For his part, Parchett seemed startled at first, his body tensing at the disruption. Then, realizing that he wasn’t in any danger, he began sizing up Ryan as if he was a raccoon who’d wandered in from the dumpster. It was far from the reunion Ryan had anticipated.
“Ryan? Ryan Newsome?” The old man spoke slowly, gradually gaining confidence as he decided he was correct.
“Yes! It’s me. Ryan!”
Ryan strode to the counter and threw his meaty hand out to shake, Parchett’s smile now beaming.
“Oh my! How have you been, son?”
“I’m great,” said Ryan, nearly shouting in excitement. “It’s great to be back for good. Just getting into the thick of it.”
“‘Back’?” repeated Parchett.
“I did three tours in Afghanistan,” said Ryan, an odd embarrassment in his tone. “Great to be done.”
“Oh my,” said Parchett, his smile shifting to that expression of awe that Ryan was quickly starting to loath. “Good for you, son. Good for you.”
“Well…thank you. It’s all a little weird being back.”
“I’m sure it is,” said Parchett, nodding his head for a long moment before shifting gears. “So what can I do for you today? Are you starting a big project or just odds and ends around the house?”
“Oh, no. None of that. I’m actually here to see if you’re hiring,” said Ryan with a broad smile.
Parchett’s disappointment was obvious. “Oh. Oh my,” he said, scratching the top of his head. He peered back behind the counter, as if he’d forgotten something, unwilling to make eye contact any longer.
Ryan, inwardly deflated, had nonetheless prepared himself for such an eventuality. “Not hiring, huh? Wrong time of the year?”
At that, a new expression appeared on the old man’s face, as if someone had dropped a spoonful of salt in his coffee. “What is the right time of year nowadays?”
Ryan stuttered, then chuckled nervously, unsure how to respond. “It’s…um. It’s pretty rough these days.”
Parchett peered up at him, as if he wanted to say something but was holding back. Finally, he said, “Well, it could always be worse, I guess. Right?”
“That’s the right attitude, Mr. Parchett. That’s why I always loved you, man.”
“Yes. Yes,” said the old man, taking a seat on his bench again and eyeing up the newspaper he’d dropped on the counter. The conclusiveness of his words left a gap in the conversation and, unsure what to say next, Ryan gazed about the store with feigned interest. The tapping of Ryan’s foot was the only thing to break the silence and, eventually, Mr. Parchett succumbed and picked up the paper.
Ultimately, since Mr. Parchett seemed disinclined to exchange goodbyes, Ryan left the store without a word and the jingling of the chime on the door was the only sound to mark his exit. He walked to his car, the lone one in the lot, and found himself sad in a new, unexpected way. It wasn’t as if Ryan had assumed he could walk in and get a job just by asking for it. Whether he wanted to admit it or not, though, he had put some hope in that exact possibility. Instead, the joyous reunion he’d anticipated had gone nothing like he’d imagined.
Feeling more rudderless than ever, Ryan simply drove. He didn’t have a destination at first; he just wanted to leave the parking lot. His mission that morning had been to get a job at Mr. Parchett’s store so, recalibrating his expectations, Ryan began to formulate an alternate plan. Before leaving for boot camp he’d worked at the local Walmart for almost two years. Perhaps, he reasoned, he should check that place out?
There was no sense of homecoming when he arrived there either. In fact, he didn’t recognize a single soul. On the drive to the store he’d fancifully wondered if Jill might still be at the service counter or if Gloria, the girl virtually every guy in the place had a crush on, might still be working the registers. Instead: nothing.
“Hi, I’m Ryan Newsome. I used to work here,” he announced to the woman at the service center.
“Okay,” she responded, blank-faced.
“I…” began Ryan, before halting. “Well, I was thinking of coming back to work here again.”
“You’re going to have to fill out an application,” said the woman, any hint of a smile still conspicuously absent.
“Um, okay,” said Ryan with a nod. Then, in one continuous movement, the woman turned to open a drawer, pulled a sheet off the top of a large stack, and handed it to him.
“There you go,” she said, already moving her attention to the next person in line.
“Thanks,” he muttered, half-stepping and half-pushed to the side by the customer in back of him. The formality and the speed of the exchange left him feeling like something had been overlooked. For a moment he stood, staring at the application without even knowing what he was looking for, before, eventually, he turned to go. And that was that, he thought.
Ryan walked back to the car and began to pull out of the parking lot, mulling his encounters that morning. He was lost in thought, wondering how everything could’ve changed so much, so quickly. Then the cardboard-puncturing pop and sudden jolt to his car knocked Ryan out of his distraction. Instincts learned in Afghanistan nearly made him dive onto the passenger seat and it took him three full seconds to realize he’d been in a car accident. Embarrassed by his near-dive for cover, he looked up to see the blue Honda’s front end butted up against the front left side of his car. The other driver, a man in his early 40s, was already stepping out of his car wearing a disappointed expression.
Ryan also got out while the man surveyed the front of his car. At first, neither said anything. Once he realized the accident was his fault, though, Ryan blurted, “Geez, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you coming.”
“Doesn’t seem too bad,” quipped the man, half-distracted as he investigated.
Following suit, Ryan began to check as well. The front driver’s side quarter panel would have to be replaced but it didn’t appear as if the damage was too extensive. “Oh man,” Ryan muttered. “My mom is going to kill me.”
The man nearly smirked, appearing as if he wanted to say something but was holding back. Sensing the man was ready to laugh at him, Ryan added, “I just got home from Afghanistan. I haven’t had a chance to get a job or anything yet.”
At that, the man’s expression did an about-face: His demeanor became downright apologetic and, bowing ever so slightly, he said quickly, “Oh, I’m sorry, son. I didn’t know. We are all really proud of your service over there. I didn’t mean to…. We’re all just really proud of what you guys are doing.”
“Thanks. Thank you, sir,” said Ryan, nodding.
“Actually,” said the man, his head swiveling in an odd, amiable way, “the damage isn’t that bad. I think my car’ll be fine. If you, y’know…if you don’t want to report this to insurance that’s fine by me. Those rates are killer after an accident and I’d hate to…y’know. After you just got back and all.”
Ryan peered at the man, dumbstruck. He moved his gaze to the car and then back to the man again. The fellow seemed like he was offering to do Ryan a favor yet he couldn’t help but wonder if it actually was a favor. Wasn’t this the exact purpose of insurance? Then again, though, he wasn’t even positive his parents had put him on their policy. If they hadn’t, what kind of trouble could they get in? He felt like an alien navigating such an odd, counterintuitive scenario.
“Thank you. Thank you, sir,” said Ryan finally, shooting out his hand to shake. Fundamentally, he didn’t want his parents to get in trouble and that trumped any financial concerns. This man seemed like he was offering to help and Ryan didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.
“It’s no problem, son. Seriously, it’s the least I could do,” the man said, still shaking Ryan’s hand vigorously. He was smiling now, chummily so, as if celebrating some secret mission, and it was starting to grate on Ryan.
Eventually Ryan pulled his hand from the stranger and the man stepped back to his car. “Just take it one step at a time, son,” he said, waving as he got into his vehicle. “Drive slow. You’ll get the hang of it again.”
Ryan said nothing but only nodded, a slightly perplexed expression showing. He surveyed the damage to the car one final time and, with nothing more to say or do, he hopped inside. He didn’t go home, though. After the encounter with Mr. Parchett, his experience at Walmart, and the car accident, Ryan needed a drink. It may’ve only been two in the afternoon but he couldn’t listen to his mother complain about the car all afternoon. So, instead, he decided to stop by Mulligan’s yet again.
“Ryan!” came the holler as soon as he stepped through the door. “I thought that was you coming!”
The man was already off his bar stool and closing in on Ryan quickly. Lost in his thoughts, Ryan felt an immediate fight-or-flight surge and momentarily stood locked in place. If he had a sidearm he might’ve drawn it. Then, with vague embarrassment, he recoiled, as if he’d been reminded of someone’s birthday a week after it passed. Though the man had lost most of his hair and gained probably forty pounds, Ryan was ashamed at his failure to recognize one of his best friends, Mikey Petronella.
“Mikey!” hollered Ryan in return as the men’s bodies slammed together in the middle of the otherwise vacant bar.
Their friendship was odd, something akin to perpetual long-lost friends. The pair had been best friends throughout grade school but had drifted when each went to a different high school. Mikey had fallen in with a bad crowd and gone down a worse path than Ryan. On the odd occasions they ran into each other there was always a vague reunion vibe present, complicated by an unarticulated awkwardness at the turns each of their lives had taken.
“Holy crap, how have you been, man? I haven’t seen you in ages!” shouted Ryan.
Mikey, still grinning, dropped his gaze for a moment and said, “Well, y’know. I was with this woman. We were living out in Eldon Falls. It was all messed up.”
“No! Not you,” laughed Ryan. “I was the one who was away! I just got back from Afghanistan!”
Mikey’s cherubic yet simultaneously weathered face lit up. “Well hell, why are you giving me crap, man? You’re the one who left.”
They grabbed a pair of stools at the bar, Ryan still chuckling. It was the most natural, most relaxed he felt in days. Catching up with his other friends had become increasingly dispiriting, a parade of interactions that only highlighted the glaring differences in their lives. Yet here was Mikey, in his leather jacket and jeans, the same as he’d always been. Their first four beers went down like water and, for the first time, Ryan didn’t feel like an alien walking around in the skin of Ryan Newsome.
“See, here’s the thing,” said Ryan, feeling lubricated and talkative. “Everything was great when I first got home. I mean, shoot, that was all I was looking forward to the whole time I was over there. At first it was like being on permanent leave. Every day was a party. Now, though…now it’s like: ‘What am I doing?’ It’s weird.”
Mikey nodded in agreement with a respectful frown.
“I feel like: Why am I doing ‘this’ when everyone else is doing ‘that’?” continued Ryan, using his hands to suggest a physical item to either side of him. “Does that make sense? I feel like I should be having a good time but everyone is just constantly bringing me down. Like I disappointed them or something. I figured I was doing a good thing.”
“Dude, dude,” said Mikey, one hand in the air. “You didn’t disappoint nobody. You’re a freaking hero, man. What’s with this talk?”
Ryan grimaced. He didn’t want to be a hero anymore. He just wanted to be himself. “I just,” Ryan began, before starting again. “I just want to live my life. I didn’t die in Afghanistan. But…I don’t feel like I have a life here anymore either.”
Mikey rolled his eyes. “What do you mean you don’t have a life? You survived Afghanistan, man! If you can survive there you can definitely survive here. You just need to find a starting point.”
“What?” said Ryan. He could see Mikey was trying to help; he just didn’t think it would work.
“Over there, you came up with a plan and you did it. Right? Enemies all around. What do you do? Well, do the same here. Figure out a starting point.”
“Well,” said Ryan, hesitating. “Today I applied at Walmart.”
Mikey nearly spit out his beer. “No, no, no, dude. Don’t put me on! I mean something real. Something important to you.”
Ryan thought back: What was important to him when he first left for boot camp? It wasn’t an easy question. After the life and death struggle he’d witnessed everything else seemed so trivial, so insignificant. How could something like football or a car compare in importance?
“Go back to when you enlisted,” continued Mikey. “What was your thought process? You had to have a reason for joining back then.”
Ryan grinned, replying half-sarcastically, “I liked firing guns.”
Mikey cocked his head to the side as Ryan laughed, but he wasn’t about to let Ryan off the hook that easy. “Okay,” he said. “Guns. Got it. Seriously, though: There must’ve been something else there. The guns were a perk but they weren’t, like, the real reason you went over to fight in a foreign country.”
“Yeah,” Ryan conceded.
“So what was it then, man?”
Ryan pondered for a long moment, peering up to the ceiling and then down into his mug as if he might find an answer there. Then, like a grade school student finally admitting his guilt to the principal, he said, “I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to help people.”
“Bingo!” said Mikey, jabbing his finger at Ryan, practically celebrating. “There you go!”
“What? What do you mean?”
“I mean,” said Mikey, taking a long gulp of beer, “that’s where you should start now.”
“What, like go volunteer? I gotta pay the bills, man. I can’t live with my parents forever.”
“No, no, no. Don’t be dumb.”
“Well what?” said Ryan, growing agitated. “You’re saying I should be a cop or something?”
“Hey,” said Mikey, raising his eyebrows suggestively. For a long moment he said nothing else, letting the thought sink in, and then added, “You still get a gun.”
“A cop?” Ryan cried. “We hated cops!”
“Yeah,” said Mikey. “But that was back when we were kids. We’re not kids anymore, man.”
That stopped Ryan. In fact, for a long moment, he wore the expression of someone who’d found a fly in the bottom of the glass. He stared forward at nothing, his lip curled. A cop? How could he ever become one of those pricks? It seemed like only yesterday he and Mikey were getting nailed for penny-ante traffic violations because those pigs needed to meet their quotas. He couldn’t believe Mikey would even suggest it. How could he ever trust a cop, much less consider joining their ranks?
In the space of Ryan’s silence, however, Mikey’s attention span hit the wall. Oblivious to the seriousness of the conversation a moment earlier, he mused, “Hey remember that time the cop busted us with the beer? We totally knew he was going to go drink it himself. You asked if he wanted the ice, too!” Mikey burst out with a guttural laugh. “You had brass ones, man. I’ll tell you.”
After a beat, Ryan joined in the laughter as well. Yet, amidst many beers consumed throughout the rest of the afternoon and night, the notion of becoming a police officer gained strength in his thoughts. Despite his initial, knee-jerk repulsion, Ryan accepted that there was a certain amount of logic to the suggestion. First and foremost, it would be a way to pay the bills. With no other opportunities in sight, it was a job at least. He recognized that his heart wasn’t in it and, for a job like that, he probably should be more enthused. But he’d spent enough time trying to do the right thing; for now he just wanted to move out of his parent’s house. And the next morning, rather than waking up and wondering what to do with the day, he finally had a goal.
Ryan wasn’t so naïve to think that, as a former GI, he could just go down to the local precinct and immediately enter the force. But he knew there were programs for returning soldiers to help them get on their feet. In the past he’d been skeptical of them after some of the stories he’d heard but, in this case, he thought some information might be helpful. So he planned to go to the library first, do some research, and then head to the local VA.
His mother was surprised to see him awake so early, and in a weird way, it made Ryan happy. His head hurt a bit from the previous day’s activities but it was nice to be out doing something before noon for once. He was still on Cornet Street, only halfway to the library, when he saw that traffic had backed up. There was no traffic light at the intersection ahead and Ryan groaned at the hold-up. This trip was not starting out well.
He rolled to a stop and saw that some people were actually getting out of their cars. It became evident that simple traffic congestion wasn’t the cause and Ryan’s disappointment turned to concern. He shifted the car out of gear and then, his curiosity too great, he turned the car off altogether and stepped out.
Once outside with a better view, he immediately spotted the source of the commotion: A house was on fire. It was about ten car lengths ahead of him, almost at the end of Cornet, and a small crowd of people had gathered in front. At first walking to the spot, Ryan spotted a woman in hysterics and he picked up the pace, nearly sprinting by the time he arrived.
It was an odd time of day—after rush hour but before lunch—and everyone in the crowd apart from the woman was a senior citizen. One man was trying to keep the woman from going back inside and, as Ryan got closer, he heard her crying, “But my baby’s inside!” Ryan circled the crowd, proceeding directly to the woman, and confirmed, “There’s a baby inside?” She’d barely nodded when Ryan followed up with, “Where?”
“The top floor. Right there!” she said, pointing. There were no firefighters on the scene and flames were pouring out of both sides of the bottom floor. There was no way she or anyone else present could get up there. So without a second thought Ryan darted up the stairs on the porch, climbed up the first floor banister, and, with a leap, grabbed hold of the railing on the second floor. Behind him, someone offered a weak, “No. You shouldn’t.” But Ryan paid no heed.
On the second floor porch, Ryan saw that the main door was open with a screen door in place. He didn’t have much time. While the ventilation meant the heat and toxic fumes hadn’t been fully trapped inside, it also meant the flames would engulf the floor quickly. The air at the top of the rooms would still be toxic and smoldering but at least he could gain entry if he stayed low. He took his shirt and pulled it over his mouth and nose, just as he’d done in Afghanistan when an RPG had ignited their barracks. Then he charged in. Immediately to his left was a room and, in it, he saw adult furnishings. Farther down the hall, at the stairs, he could see the haunting image of flame where it shouldn’t be. He advanced towards it and threw open a door on his right. Inside, he saw pink carpeting and balloons on the wallpaper.
Bending at the waist, Ryan leapt to the side of the crib. If he’d experienced relief at the sight of the pink carpet he practically gushed at the sight of the baby. Being careful to stay as squat as possible, he picked the baby out of the crib and held her low. Then he raced to the air outside, purposefully avoiding any glances over his shoulder to see how close the flames had crept.
Gasps emanated from the crowd when he emerged and, already coughing, he tried to identify the mother again. She broke away from the man, shouting, “My baby! My baby!” and motioned for Ryan to drop the baby to her. Ryan couldn’t scale down the banister with her in tow so, with bated breath, he leaned over the railing as far as he could and let go of the baby. The mother caught her. Cheers broke out and, now allowing himself to peer back, Ryan turned to see the flames already reaching the trim atop the length of the hallway. He climbed down and was greeting by a celebration and pats on the back. It was exhilarating, he would admit.
Someone in the crowd said, “Wow, you’re a hero, son!” Ryan’s grin was modest, without teeth, and it practically spoke the words, “Aw, shucks.” He nearly corrected the person. Instead, he demurred, his silence serving as a humble acceptance to the claim. And when the flames began to spill out of the porch above, the crowd of people was so enthralled that they didn’t see the growing orb of light on the horizon behind them.