Don't ask, don't tell. Just four short words that hadn't meant much the first time Michael had heard them. Oh, but the lessons four short years had taught. Back then he'd thought himself on the other side of the equation, even if he had nothing personal against those who weren't.
But the United States Military's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy toward homosexuals wasn't the reason the former Army corporal was returning home a civilian after just one hitch with Uncle Sam. After all, they'd never asked and he'd never told, even after he'd managed to figure it out.
No, the reason for his homecoming was that, after carrying out his orders the best he could the Army judged him unfit, having lost the hearing in one ear; a minor infirmity, but one that effectively ended his military career. Compounding the problem was the malady that plagued many a combat soldier -- post traumatic stress. He'd done his patriotic duty and served his country only to be chewed up and unceremoniously spit out. At least he'd survived, unlike so many others.
After being poked, prodded, analyzed, and re-analyzed, he'd found himself stateside, riding out the remaining months of his service with the governmental equivalent of 'Don't call us, we'll call you.' Now, four years after enlisting as a naive teen, he was returning home -- war-torn, battle-weary, and carrying far too many memories that ended in guilt and sorrow.
Making his way through the Atlanta airport, carry-on bag slung over one broad shoulder, he reacquainted himself with the place that had borne silent witness to a major milestone in his life. It had the distinction of being the last place that Michael Ritter, the kid, had been seen when he'd said goodbye to his family and boarded a plane for great adventure, or rather, boot camp. Now Michael Ritter, the man, was coming home to see if life had anything left to offer.
Disjointed thoughts rattled around in his weary brain like marbles in a tin can as he passed assorted restaurants, shops, fellow travelers, and airport personnel in a blur of sights, smells, and sounds, never noticing any details. An ingrained auto-pilot directed him safely out of harm's way whenever the chant of "Excuse the cart please" announced the passage of a tourist-laden airport transport, or when encountering other pedestrians who weren't watching where they were going, all busily on their way to 'anywhere but here.'
It didn't seem so long ago that he'd been in pursuit of 'anywhere but here,' leaving behind his small town upbringing, escaping from a life gone stale, a dictatorial stepfather, and prospects he didn't want to deal with. Now, enlistment completed, he was right back where he started. Cookesville, Alabama, wasn't where he'd spent his entire childhood, due to his mother's tendency toward a nomadic lifestyle, but like a homing pigeon she always returned to her childhood home; at least until she grew restless and left again. Since his grandparents and sister were there it was the place he thought of when anyone mentioned home.
On a happy note, for Michael at least, his mother had finally dumped the loser stepfather, removing his reason for staying away while also providing an excuse not to re-enlist, as his 'old lady' needed him to come home and help out. He hadn't wanted to tell his peers that, due to his medical issues, re-upping wasn't an option. It was preferable for them to think he'd left under his own steam for something as old-fashioned as going home to take care of Mom, than to know that he had outlived his usefulness as far as the United States Army was concerned.
The guys had ribbed him at first about his 'decision' before grudgingly admitting they'd do the same for their gray-haired, aging mamas. He prudently kept it to himself that his mother was only forty-three, didn't have a single gray hair, and was still young enough to line up another stepfather or three if no one was around to keep an eye on her. She was an amazing woman, but damn, she just couldn't pick 'em. It never seemed to occur to her that living a solitary life was an option, either.
All the more reason to come home even if he didn't intend to stay. He'd miss his unit and the friends he'd made, but he'd left to see the world and experience new things. Shaking his head he remembered the old adage, "Be careful what you wish for." Having seen more than he'd bargained now he wished desperately that he could forget it all.
Without realizing how he'd gotten there, he stood at the baggage carousel watching the other passengers reuniting with loved ones, fighting with cranky kids, or man-handling baggage off the overloaded turntables. He ran his hand through his dirty-blond, government issue military cut, then scrubbed it over his face; the hair there nearly as long as that on his head. God, was he ever tired, and he knew his eyes were probably more bloodshot than blue at the moment. Thanks to his well-meaning comrades, he looked and he felt like hell; last night's going away party was definitely something to remember. The boys knew how to give a guy a proper sendoff, that was for sure, even if the stripper had been a bit much.
At least his disheveled appearance was useful. Opening one bleary eye in annoyance at his chatty seat-mate on the plane gave her the idea that a tired, hung-over, ex-G.I. Joe was better off peacefully asleep. She was barking up the wrong tree, anyway, with her feeble attempts at flirtation.
Too bad he wasn't still the skinny runt he was four years ago. He wouldn't have been as intimidating, but at least he would have fit much better in the tiny coach seat. Now, at a sturdily built six-feet-two inches tall and two-hundred-ten pounds, there just wasn't enough room to be comfortable. During his enlistment his shoulders had broadened to the point where he wished he had a dollar for every time someone asked him if he was a linebacker, and coach class commercial airline seats didn't adequately accommodate someone of his size.
A shrill cry of, "Mikey!" caused him to turn just in time to catch the armful of exuberant redhead that launched herself at him, screaming, "Oh God, I missed you!
There was a lot about Alabama that he didn't miss, but he'd sure as hell missed his older half-sister. Enveloping the petite woman in a bear hug, he lifted her off the floor and spun her around, laughing happily for the first time in months. "Michael!" she wailed as she wriggled to get free, prompting him to set her down. She didn't release her hold on him, however, seemingly unwilling to let go now that he was back.
Disentangling himself from the clinging redhead, he stepped back and looked her over appraisingly. She matured since he'd last seen her and now looked even more like their mother, whereas he looked like the pictures of a father who'd disappeared seventeen years. Just another of his mother's losers. "Damn, Angie, but it's good to see you!" he exclaimed fervently.
The slim female was taking the opportunity to look him over, as well. "You've filled out, Mikey," she commented, then added with a grin, "I'm gonna have to beat 'em off with a stick if I expect to spend any time with you, aren't I?"
He ignored her comment, unwilling to talk about his love life, or lack thereof. "I can't wait to get home," he said simply.
Tactfully dropping the subject, if only for a few minutes, she made the usual small talk while they continued to wait for his bags. "How was your flight?", "So and so got married," and "So, got a girlfriend? I can fix you up if you'd like." Well, usual if you were talking to Angela Cooper who, like his mother, couldn't resist matchmaking at every opportunity. He supposed it must be a woman thing.
"Are we gonna stand around looking pretty all day or are we gonna get the hell outta Hotlanta and back to Bum Fuck, Alabama where we belong?" she sighed and added with mock angst, "Sorry, but it hasn't changed much. Okay, it hasn't changed any." Finally, she clarified, "I take that back. It has changed-for the worse!"
"I was afraid of that. Very afraid," he said, only partially kidding.
"It's a dirty job but somebody's gotta live there. Now let's get back and liven things up before the place gets even more dismal."
He exaggerated a sigh and whined, "Aw, do we gotta?" Again they shared a laugh. Neither was very fond of their hometown. Personally, Michael would have preferred any of the last three places he had lived in with his mom and the loser, but he was glad to be close to Angie and his grandparents-a least for a little while. Definite plans had yet to be made, but staying in Cookesville wasn't even an option.
"Yes, brother mine, we have to get back and keep Mom outta trouble before she lines up another husband." They gave each other a long-suffering look and another put-upon sigh before she giggled and rose up to her toes to press a sticky, lip glossed kiss to his cheek. "It's good to have you back, kiddo. I've missed you." All humor now gone from her eyes-a rare occurrence-she stated quietly, "It just isn't the same without you. Glad you got to come home in one piece."
"Yeah, me too," he replied, expression saying for him, 'I don't want to talk about it.' But since she'd invoked it, there it stood; the nearly tangible presence of the elephant in the room. His family knew of his condition, but sometimes he wished he'd never told them so they'd go back to treating him normally instead of like something that could break at any second.
In reality he wasn't the same, and never would be again. Now, at the age of twenty-two, he should be a slacker at Mom's, attending the occasional college course and partying until he was sick like most of his old high school buddies were doing. Instead, he was returning from serving his country, bringing home a head full of horrors. Iraq and fallen brothers had no place here in the moist southern air and he was determined to leave their ghosts behind and reconcile himself with the land of the living. A task much easier said than done.
His sister, thankfully, interrupted his unpleasant reverie. "Ah, that must be it," she exclaimed, glancing behind him to the now mostly-empty baggage carousel. "That hot pink number, right?"
Grateful for the derailment of the thought train bound for Hell, Michael turned to look at the offending luggage, which wasn't hot pink. It was his standard green, government issued duffle, full to bursting with his clothes and other necessities. Thanking her quietly with his eyes, he reached out a muscular arm and snagged his bag, slinging it over his shoulder with his carry on. He dipped his head in a 'lead on' gesture.
Angie giggled and gave a quick squeeze to his impressively bulging bicep. "Look at you! So big and strong!" she exclaimed before turning to lead the way to the sliding glass doors that led outside.
Outside. Even the thought made breathing difficult. How stupid was it to be afraid to walk out of a door? Steeling himself as if for a physical impact, Michael took a deep breath and followed his sister through the door-and underneath a covered walkway. Though the sides were open, for some reason the flimsy covering allowed him to breathe normally. Funny, in all the anxiety about what was on the other side of that door he'd forgotten that it wasn't completely exposed to the elements. It was exposed enough, however, that cool humidity settled upon his skin, a welcome change from the harsh dryness of his environment for the past few years. It was a most welcome change.
Ahhhh, Georgia in the spring time, so different from the fort in California, and worlds apart from Iraq. A light mist was falling and the overcast day offered a bit of the chill of retreating winter. He'd always considered the southern United States to be fairly warm, but if this was warm then he'd left Hell a few months back. Again he pushed back thoughts that were best kept secured in their tightly locked mental box. It was then that he noticed he'd stopped walking. When he looked up Angie was patiently waiting a few feet away, questioning him with one cocked eyebrow. His face flushed as he realized that she must have been watching him the whole time probably noticed his reluctance to leave the terminal building. She didn't miss much.
"Sorry, sis. I guess I'm just a bit tired. Jet lag and all that," he lied, hoping she'd just let it go.
She stood for a moment studying him, then nodded and reached out to wrap a warm hand around his. Pulling his arm over her shoulder she huddled into his side, seeking to share his warmth. "Come on, bro; you might not mind getting rained on but I'm freezing! Truck's that way," she added.
Her comment about the rain wasn't entirely accurate since they were under a covered walkway and shielded from most of the moisture, but he supposed that, being used to the climate she was taking it for granted-something he vowed never to do again. Her light, pink sweater, blue jeans, scuffed boots, and lack of jacket probably had a lot to do with her discomfort, in his opinion. He saw a strong resemblance to their mother in this younger version of her, in more than just appearance. Dressing to impress some man, no doubt, as if it took more than just batting her lashes over those sea-green eyes she'd learned to play up from childhood and swishing that long curtain of coppery hair over her shoulder with a practiced hand.
It took several minutes before his sister finally located her aging Chevy S-10 in the airport's massive parking garage. "Damn, girl; you mean this old thing still runs?" he asked, surprised. Opening the passenger door-left unlocked, much to his dismay-he stowed his bag in the little area that optimistically promised room for additional seating. Maybe for a small ten year old. He climbed in and futilely attempted to adjust the seat to some semblance of comfort, only to discover that the latch didn't work. One of many on a growing list of things he knew to be broken on the truck, and that was just from memories from his last visit. He was quite certain that nothing had been removed from the list since then. The women in his family lived by the concept of 'driving til the wheels fell off' then buying a new vehicle, or rather, one a little better off than the poor, unfortunate machine they had just allowed to die in the driveway.
"Well, it beats the hell out of what you're driving," she shot back as she arranged herself in the driver's seat, fastening her seatbelt and somehow managing to light a cigarette at the same time.
He ignored the jab about the Chevy Cavalier he'd totaled just before his enlistment and countered with, "Don't tell me you're still smoking? Don't you know those things will kill ya?"
"Yeah, yeah, yadda yadda," she replied, taking a deep drag and simultaneously flipping him off. He sighed. Some things never changed.
Cigarette dangling unflatteringly from her lips, she turned to look over her shoulder and dropped the stick shift into reverse to vacate the two parking spaces she had claimed. After navigating around the airport and paying the parking toll, she exited the mazelike roads to open space on the highway.
"Whoo-hoo! I knew you were good for something," she declared. "With you in here I get to drive in the High Occupancy Vehicle lane." With a face-splitting grin she slipped the little truck into the far left lane of traffic reserved for vehicles with more than one passenger, quickly passing dozens of single-occupant cars and trucks.
"Nice to know I still have a purpose in the world," he muttered.
Settling into the seat, pointedly ignoring his sister's driving-which tended to involve sudden, unexplained jerking of the steering wheel-Michael felt the silence between them grow uncomfortable and searched for a rather safe, for him, topic of conversation.
"So, have you seen Ruth Ann lately?" he asked. Ruth Ann had been his high school girlfriend, the proverbial girl left behind, in most of the community's eyes, anyway. In truth, he'd viewed her more as a friend than a girlfriend, but apparently his sister thought differently. Ruth Ann had thought differently, too. Just another reason to enlist before becoming trapped into a life he didn't want and couldn't escape from. As soon as Angie started talking, though, he wished he'd accepted the silence or chosen something else to discuss.
Worried eyes shot his way. Angie exhaled deeply and extinguished her cigarette in the ash tray, then reached out to pat his hand reassuringly. "Baby, you know she moved on; don't let it get to you," she said, her rueful eyes suggesting that this bit of non-news would somehow hurt him, misreading his question as genuine interest instead of the desperate gambit for small talk that it was.
"I'm just asking," he replied defensively, wishing he'd started a conversation about shopping instead, knowing Angie would talk happily for hours and not try to find hidden pain in his every word. In all honesty it was a relief that Ruthie had found a local boy, married, and had a kid or two. He shuddered inwardly when he considered how close he'd come to being that local boy now married to the former Ruth Ann Dunwoody-if only to live up to the expectations of the community.
Angie's eyes left the road again to study him, causing him a moment of panic, but she finally turned back to the task at hand. Moving her hand from his to shift gears she suddenly exited the HOV lane and crossed three lanes of traffic to make her exit, just in the nick of time. The blaring horns from passing cars had no effect on her whatsoever, and it occurred to Michael that home might not be the safe, secure place he thought it was.
Oblivious to the blood draining from her passenger's face and his hand frantically clutching the 'oh shit!' handle for dear life; she continued her narrative of the life and times of Ruth Ann Simmons, nee Dunwoody. "She's due in August; says it's a girl this time." Angie glanced over at him and snickered before adding, "Better her than me."
Suddenly Michael was doubly sorry for bringing up that particular topic, as the smile and laughter didn't quite meet his sister's eyes. Angie laughed when other women became pregnant and told horror stories about the kids she dealt with at the hospital where she worked, calling them little monsters, snot nosed brats, and other unflattering but equally disgusting names. But he knew deep down how devastated she was when she lost her own baby. Pregnant at seventeen, she'd dropped out of school, married a kid barely older than she, and then had promptly miscarried. Her new husband waited all of a week before dropping her off at their grandparents' house and never looking back.
Once the initial shock wore off she'd found herself working for minimum wage at the local burger joint. It took three years and three bad relationships for her to decide that she wanted something more out of life. Michael had to hand it to her, once she made the decision to better herself she worked hard, saved up, and with the little help his mom and grandparents could manage, got a GED and put herself through nursing school at the local community college.
Her first taste of nursing suited her so well that she went back for more; she was currently enrolled at AveryUniversity and due to graduate at the end of the spring term. He was grateful he'd be there for her graduation, very proud of all her hard work.
Angie rambled on about Ruth Ann, her worthless husband, and her adorable son while pointing out the kid would be much better looking if Michael had been the daddy. That was Angie, always sticking up for him even when he didn't want or need her to. She could berate him all she wanted, but no one else better try it while she was around. It reminded him of a flea defending its dog.
She went on to rail about how Ruth Ann was a fool to leave him and how unpatriotic it was of her to abandon him when he was joining such a noble cause, even though they both knew that he'd been the one to call it quits.
Tired eyes drooped and he finally gave in to his fatigue, certain that even if his sister did notice, once she was on a roll a little thing like having no coherent audience wasn't going to stop her. Her thick southern accent buzzed pleasantly in his brain and combined with the soothing rhythm of the truck motor to lull him into a light but welcomed doze.