Slow Decay

Robert was biting his lip again. He always did when he was anxious. It was unconscious, a habit that had developed from early childhood. Robert rubbed his rough hands together; they were chapped and dry from working too long on the deck. The rough wood combined with the scorching summer heat did that to a person.

"Robert," came the soft voice of Anna, his wife. "Rob, honey, you're doing it again." Robert released his bottom lip from the clutches of his teeth. Anna grabbed his hand and held it.

"Really," she continued, as an airplane landing outside hit the mirage-rippled tarmac. "You need to stop that habit. One of these days you're going to give yourself a fat lip." Robert grunted in reply, although he was sure Anna didn't hear it above the noise of the airport. It would have been a very good time to remind her that she wasn't exactly perfect either.

Robert had watched her spend the last two days cleaning. She had scoured the house for any little spot of dirt that could have escaped her weekly cleaning war upon their house. If he closed his eyes, he could still picture her attacking the back of the cupboards with an old rag and a yellow bottle of Pledge. He didn't even want to know how many times she had dusted that picture of Jake.

He himself had looked at it so much he had it memorized, although he would never outwardly admit it. Robert closed his eyes and the turmoil of the Humphrey Terminal melted away. Instead, he saw Jake's head and torso in front of the American flag. His brown, green, and tan uniform clashed wildly with the red, white, and blue. His patrol cap was probably a little lower over his eyes than regulation allowed, but hey, it was just a picture. His jacket read "Meyer," on the right pocked, "U.S. Army" on the left. The top button had been left open, so as to allow the sand colored shirt underneath to be seen. He was supposed to be looking serious, but Robert knew that face. His mouth was turned up just enough to be a smile, his blue eyes, the ones he had inherited from Anna, were crinkled, a sure sign that he had been laughing seconds before the photo had been snapped.

Still, he understood her nervousness. Ever since Jake had been deployed, every little thing made the two of them jumpy. Robert hated turning on the nightly news each evening. The reporters were always showering the public with stories of suicide bombings, civilians and soldiers alike being scattered into pieces across the sandy streets of Iraq. Still, every night for the past two years, Robert had watched the news. He always was watching for a glimpse of his son on the television, always torn between hoping that he would see him, and that he wouldn't.

And phone calls. Robert hated phone calls, even more than the nightly news. Over the past two years, he had lived in constant fear that he would get a call from the Minnesota National Guard Headquarters' Office, or worse, a visit. The first time Jake called home, it was to tell his parents that his troop had been shot at. They had been patrolling in an area that was supposed to be safe, a green zone, but a group of radicals had attacked from the buildings above. They had used machine guns, hand grenades, and a bomb had even gone off. Robert had wanted nothing more than to cry. Anna had.

Now remembering how she had sobbed that night, Robert grabbed his wife's smooth hand. She turned to look at him, her cheeks red with sunburn, her light blonde hair streaked with gray pulled back into an easy, but elegant twist. The crow's feet in the corners of her eyes gave everything away. He gave her hand a little squeeze.

"Hey," he said softly. "It's going to be alright. He's coming home. He'll be home. Tonight."

"I know," she replied, almost too softly for him to hear. He watched as tears started to well up in her soft blue eyes. Sorry that he had made her cry, Robert pulled Anna in close to him, and together they watched as the airplane that had just landed made it's way towards them. It stopped with a little jerk, right in front of their gate.

"Oh!" Anna said, looking at the airplane. "Oh no, oh no, oh no!"

"What?"

"Rob…I'm nervous…I'm afraid to see him." The door near the cockpit of the plane slid open, and the jet bridge extended outwards slightly towards the open door.

Robert didn't have a reply. Though the airport was cool, he felt like he was back outside in the sweltering heat. He was biting his lip again. He was aware of it this time, but he didn't care.

Shadows, silhouettes, began to make their way from the plane to the jet bridge, and into the airport. People began coming in. Robert was surprised when the first soldier came into view. He and Anna jolted forward, only to find it wasn't Jake. There were other soldiers on the plane, too. Friends and family rushed to greet them as they made their way inside. People rejoiced left and right, and the fact that Jake hadn't yet appeared really wasn't doing anything for Robert's nerves. What if he hadn't actually gotten on the plane? What if the Army had made a mistake? What if something had happened?

But then, finally, the last person appeared. Robert watched the final young man made his way up the slight incline of the little extended hallway. The young man's head was down, his shoulders slumped a little. Beside him, Robert could feel Anna trembling. He knew they were thinking the same thing: Was this their Jake?

The figure reached the threshold of the jet way and looked up at them.

"Jake!" Anna ran to the young man and pulled him as close as she could. Robert followed after her, holding back only so as to allow her to have her moment with their only child. Rob took note at how much larger Jake was than Anna.

Finally, Anna pulled away from him, tears streaming down her face. Robert approached his son.

"Jacob," he said. "It's good to see you." Jake nodded. Robert quickly noticed how worn down his son looked, how tired. Jake was finally home. Robert hadn't seen him in so long. What had he seen over there? Was he any different? What if he wanted to talk about it? What if he didn't want to talk about it?

Unsure of what to do, Robert extended his hand.

Jake looked at it for a moment, and then his face cracked into a grin. Robert forgot the handshake and pulled him into a hug.

"How much whipped cream do you want?" Anna asked as Robert placed the pie in front of Jake. "It's the good kind. Made it myself."

"Yeah," Robert joined in. "The real deal, kid. Whipped by your mother, just like me." Anna gave him a playful push.

"I was referring to love. This whipped cream was made with love."

"…or that." Jake gave a booming laugh.

"I'll have a lot," he said with a smile. Anna put three dollops onto his banana cream pie. Robert served the remaining pie out to himself and Anna, and then helped himself to the whipped cream. So far, Jake's first night home had been wonderful. The forty-minute drive home from the Minneapolis had been rather quiet, but Robert felt that now that Jake was back in the home he grew up in, things had loosened up.

"So," Robert said as they began to eat, "how's it like to be stateside again, kid? I mean, we sure missed you here…"

"It's great," Jake said, his mouth full. "I missed real food. A lot."

"Yeah? Army food not the greatest?"

"It was ok. I just didn't have much of an appetite over there. Lots of things happened that…" he trailed off. Sensing that this wasn't the greatest conversation to have Jake's first night back, Robert changed the subject.

"Hey, I started a new project in the back. The deck. I'll need some help with it."

Jake eyed him suspiciously.

"What was wrong with the deck?"

"Oh nothing was wrong with the deck," Anna said, giving Robert an exasperated look. "Your father decided that he would just take it apart and leave everything all over the yard."

"Hey," Robert said in defense. "There were some rotting boards alongside the siding of the house. I was replacing the bad siding, and I noticed that some of the deck needed to be replaced too. And once I took those off, I thought, hey, why not just redo the whole thing?" Anna was giving him a scolding look. Robert knew that he did have a tendency to start one project, but manage to find another while in the middle of the first. And he knew that she hated it. Robert could see the exasperation in her eyes that very moment. Jake, however, seemed to be dying of laughter. His large booming laugh filled the small house. Robert started laughing with him. Then Anna started crying.

"Mom?" Jake asked, the smile sliding from his red face. "Mom, what's wrong?"

"You two!" she said. "You're both so stupid!" Robert watched as Jake tried to keep a straight face, but then a snort came from his lips, his mouth parted, and he was laughing once again.

"Hey Jake?" Robert called to the top of the stairs.

"Yeah?"

"Your mom wants to go out for Chinese tonight, wanna come?"

"Sure."

"Ok, we're leaving in ten!"

Robert walked over to Anna, who was checking her hair in the foyer mirror. He slid up behind her, wrapping his arms around her middle, letting his hands come together across her stomach. He put his chin on her shoulder.

"Get off, you fly," she said, shooing him. "Can't you see I'm fixing my hair?"

"I don't think there's much that can be done to help it," Robert said, trying to keep a straight face. Anna pulled away from him, spinning around to look in his eyes.

"You jerk," she said, her nose wrinkled, her eyebrows furrowed.

"A jerk that thinks you look lovely no matter what your hair looks like."

"And a liar too," she retorted, but the corners of her mouth twitched.

"A very good one, at that. I told Jake that you wanted to go out for Chinese." Three days after Jake had returned, Robert and Anna had decided to throw him a surprise party with all of his old friends.

"Chinese? You told him we were going out for Chinese? And he believed you?" Robert gave her a wink. Anna hated Chinese food. She had avoided it ever since high school. She had been eating out with her family and Robert on a Sunday afternoon after church, and she had ordered sesame chicken. Halfway through chewing her third piece, she had spit something out onto her plate. Something hard. And shaped like a claw. Robert had ruined the meal by asking her to watch out for whiskers.

"Hey, I'm ready," Jake said as he thumped his way down the stairs.

"Alright, let's go," Anna said cheerily, locking the door as they left the house.

"Meow," Robert teased. Anna punched him on the arm.

Ten minutes later, they pulled into the parking lot of Olive Garden.

"I thought we were going out for Chinese…" Jake said.

"I changed my mind," Robert said as he turned the car off. "Actually, your mom doesn't like Chinese. She prefers cat."

"Rob!"

"Ok, ok, fine. I thought Olive Garden would be nicer, so we're going here instead."

"Cool. Actually, last January, one of my buddies bought some fried meat off a street vendor," Jake said.

"Oh yeah? Was it cat?"

Jake laughed. "No, it was dog, actually." Anna scowled, but Robert gave a chuckle. Jake had been telling some funny stories over the past couple weeks about Iraq. From what it sounded like, he and his army buddies had some fun over there. The stories Jake told comforted Robert. It was a pleasant surprise. He had expected to hear stories about violence and death.

The three walked into the restaurant. Robert went to the hostess and explained that they were there for the surprise party. She peered over Robert's shoulder, eyeing Jake and Anna, who were chatting.

"Should I go tell the other guests that you're here?" she asked.

"Sure, give them the warning that we're coming."

The hostess nodded, and disappeared. Robert walked back over to his family.

"The lady's going to see if she has any available spots for us," he told them. Two minutes later, she returned, informing them that a table had just opened up.

"After you," Robert said, opening the way for Jake to go first. They followed the hostess as she led them right, and then left, and then to the back of the restaurant, to the private room.

"SURPRISE!" came about ten voices in unison.

Jake jumped so high that Robert half-expected his son to jump under the nearest table for cover.

"Jake!" called out Tom, one of his old buddies from high school. "It's good to see you, how have…" but he trailed off. Robert looked at the people in the room. They all looked rather peculiar.

"Jake," said one of the girls. "Jake, are you ok?" Robert walked around to look at his son. Jake looked very white.

"Son?" He put his hand on Jake's shoulder. Jake gave another little jump and looked at Robert.

"You ok?" Jake shook his head a little, and gave a small laugh.

"Yeah," he said. "Yeah…you all just scared me half to death!" The room erupted in laughter.

"Surprise, buddy," Robert said, winking at his son.

Two weeks later, Robert and Jake were outside, finishing up on the deck. It was the first week of August – eighty degrees, sunny, and no wind. The two had gotten up early in the morning, just as soon as it was light enough outside, to finish the project. They had spent all morning and afternoon working hard to get everything put together. The sun was beginning to make its descent. They were nearly finished. Robert could hear Anna banging pots and pans around in the kitchen just through the open window. She was making Jake's favorite soup.

"Jake, hand me that hammer, would you?" Robert asked. Jake leaned across and gave it to him. Robert laid the final piece of wood down on the deck, and hammered in the nail.

"Ok," he said after he had finished. "One nail left. Jake, would you do the honors?" Jake wiped the sweat from his forehead with the back of his hand, and grabbed the hammer from Robert. He held the nail between his fingers, the hammer in his right hand, and gave it a few little taps. It didn't go in. Jake tapped the hammer with more force. Nothing. From where he was, Robert could see that the wood had a knot in it where Jake was supposed to hammer.

"Damn knot," Jake swore. "Why do they always have to be in the way?" He pounded a little harder, and still, nothing. Jake's eyes, which had been increasingly become more squinted in concentration, suddenly widened.

Robert knew that face. It was the same face Jake had made during his first basketball game on the high school's varsity team. They had been down by twenty points with four minutes to go, and Coach, who had probably been feeling bad that Jake had sat the bench the entire time, had put him in. Jake had been playing defense pretty well, but something in him told Robert that he had only been doing it half-heartedly. The opposing team had this kid who was over six and a half feet tall. At six feet, Jake hardly looked like he stood a chance.

But then, Jake had made that same face. The huge guy had been dribbling towards Jake, and his eyes had opened. Wide. Robert knew at that instant that Jake was throwing all caution to the winds. Jake abandoned his position on the guy in his zone, and throwing his hand out, he stole the ball from the other kid.

The crowd had cheered loudly as Jake made a layup, closing the lead down to 18 points. Then, it happened again. And again. Jake making three layups after stealing the ball had awoken the team like no pep talk ever would have. They suddenly could do nothing wrong. The team had won the game.

Jake's eyes were wide now, just like they had been then. Robert watched as his son arched his arm back, and then brought it down heavily. Instead of hitting the nail, though, he hit his thumb. He was bleeding.

"SHIT!"

"Shit," Robert echoed as Jake yelled out in pain. He heard a crash of pots inside the house, and then Anna burst through the back door.

"What happened?" she asked, grabbed Jake and pulling him inside.

"Jake hit his thumb," Robert said.

"Aw, shit it hurts!" Anna rushed Jake over to the kitchen sink and ran the cold water.

"Stick your hand under," she said quickly. Then she rushed to the bathroom upstairs to find the first-aid kit.

Robert looked over Jake's shoulder to examine his thumb under the running water. Half of Jake's thumbnail had been torn off, exposing the raw skin underneath.

"Sheesh," he said, looking over at Jake. Jake's face was pale, his lips dark. Robert stepped out of the way just in time for Jake to turn and vomit all over the kitchen floor.

Anna was back, emergency kit in hand. When she saw the vomit all over the linoleum, she threw the kit at Robert, and ran off to find the mop and bucket.

Robert set the first aid kit on the counter, and grabbed a towel from the drawer, handing it to Jake, who immediately wiped his face off.

"Shit," Jake said again.

Anna returned a minute later with a large bucket, and the mop. As she set it down, Jake walked over to her.

"It's ok," Anna was saying "Jake, honey, you just get the ice pack, put it on your thumb, and go lie down. I'll take care of this." Robert watched as she daintily stepped over the vomit and began to fill the bucket in the kitchen sink.

"No, Mom. I'll get it."

"Oh honey, don't worry about it. You just go rest up." She bent down and grabbed the bleach from underneath the sink, and then began pouring some into the hot water.

"No Mom. I'll take care of it."

"Really, Jake. It's ok."

"No Mom. No it isn't."

"Anna," Robert said, the tone in his voice implying that she perhaps should let Jake do the cleaning. Anna ignored him, and grabbed the now-full bucket of water from the sink.

"Give me the bucket," Jake said. He grabbed it.

"Jake, honey. I told you, it's fine. You go lie down, get some rest."

"Stop fucking cleaning, Mom!" Jake ripped the bucket away from her. It slipped from his hands and spilled all over the floor, vomit dispersing everywhere. Jake ignored this and grabbed Anna's shoulders.

"I said I'll fucking take care of it!" he screamed at her, giving her a shake. Robert rushed at the two of them, and pushed Jake away.

"C'mon, Anna," he said, eyeing Jake. Robert took her by the hand and led her from the kitchen. She was dazed, her eyes glazed over. She seemed faint, so Robert brought her to their bedroom on the second floor, and had her sit on the bed.

"Anna?" he asked, tentative. She didn't respond. He sat down next to her on the bed and stroked her hand.

"Anna," he tried again after several minutes of silence.

"What did I do, Rob?" Her voice shook

"Nothing," Robert said, his voice shaking as well. "Nothing," he said again, with more force. "It's the pain in his thumb doing the talking. Or he's tired. He's only been home for a few weeks…"

"But all he's really done is sleep." Robert admitted to himself that she had a point. Jake was sociable enough when he was awake, but compared to before he left, that was nothing like before. Jake would go to bed at 10:00 p.m., and wouldn't get up out of bed until 11:30 the next morning. After a quick lunch, he would go back to his room to read a book or something, but fall asleep again. Or least, he was in his room. Whether or not he was actually sleeping, Robert didn't know.

"Anna, put your pajamas on. I'm going to go talk to him." Or at least try to, he thought to himself.

The light was off in the kitchen when Robert returned. He flipped it on. The floor had been washed, and was now drying. The bucket and the mop were in the corner. Jake was nowhere to be seen. He had probably gone back to bed. Robert climbed the worn staircase, his weight causing every stair to creak. Upon reaching the top of the stairs, he turned left and headed down the hallway. The light underneath Jake's door was on. Hesitantly, Robert knocked.

No one answered. Robert knocked again.

"Jake? Jake, you in there?" He opened the door. Jake was sitting on the bed, his feet resting on the floor. He was staring at the wall on the opposite side of the room. His mouth was closed, and he was breathing heavily.

"Jake?" He didn't respond. Robert slowly eased his way over to the bed, and sat down next to his son.

"Hey," he said. "I know you're upset, but really, it was unfair, what you did to your mother. She's really upset." Jake didn't answer.

"It was especially hard for her…you going away, I mean. I don't think there was a night that she didn't cry." Robert looked over at Jake. He was still staring at the wall.

"Jake, are you listening?" He bent forward a little, trying to see more of his son's face. It was then that Robert noticed how deep the circles under Jake's eyes were. Big, dark, purple rings. Had he been getting any sleep?

"Jake." Robert put his hand on Jake's shoulder. Jake's head turned sharply.

"Get. The fuck. Out." Robert stood up and backed away.

"Jake…"

"Get out."

"I-"

"OUT!"

Robert left the room. He had never, never heard that tone in his son's voice before. It was a voice of pure hatred. And his eyes. Robert had seen something in Jake's eyes that disturbed him greatly. They were more than sad. They were in misery.

Not quite knowing what to do, Robert went back to his room. When he opened the door, it was dark. Anna had crawled into bed. Robert quickly crawled in next to her. She was breathing a little too deeply to actually be asleep. Robert knew she was faking.

"Anna?" he whispered, putting his hand on her bare shoulder. She rustled a little bit, but didn't say anything.

"Anna," he tried again.

"I don't want to talk about it, Rob," she whispered back. "Not tonight." Even without seeing her, he could hear that she'd been crying.

He let it go, and just listened to her breathing, until finally, her breaths were evenly matched. Only then did he allow himself to drift in and out of a fitful sleep.

It was the thunder that woke up him up. A loud crash shook the house. Next to him, Anna jerked from her sleep.

"It's ok," Robert said, grabbing her hand. "It's just thunder." There was another loud crash.

"Rob," she said. He looked at her. Her eyes were wide with terror.

"Hey," he said, smiling a little. "It's ok. It's just thunder." Another crash.

"Robert," she said again, quickly. A crash. Then Robert heard it. The last crash sounded like breaking glass. Then there was a large thump. It sounded like someone was smashing things…

"Jake." In an instant, Robert was out of bed. He ripped the bedroom door opened and ran down the hall. He tore open Jake's bedroom door. The light was off.

"Jake? You in here?" Robert stepped in, leaving the light off. The window looked like it had been smashed by a baseball. Rain from outside was splashing in. The chilly night air penetrated Robert's thin boxers. Lightning split the sky, and light flashed inside the room. A dark figure was standing in the corner. Jake. He seemed to be holding something, but Robert couldn't really see what.

The light flipped on, and then Robert heard Anna scream. He nearly screamed himself. Jake's posters had been ripped off the walls, his basketball trophies smashed into pieces. His desk had strange dents in it, as did the walls. Robert knew immediately what the dents in the walls were from – a hammer. And Jake was holding it.

Robert now saw why Anna had screamed. At the sight of his son, Robert felt his body go numb. His stomach felt like it had dropped right out of him while his heart fought to beat its way out of his throat. His legs began to shake, and his arms felt hot. Jake was holding the hammer, and his room wasn't the only thing he was hitting with it. Jake had been hitting himself.

"Stay away," Jake said. "Stay the fuck away from me." Robert could faintly hear Anna's sobs in the background.

"…Jake." Robert's heart pounded. He took a step towards his son.

"Stop!" he screamed. "You stay away!" Robert put his hands up, as if Jake was holding a gun.

"Wh-wh-why?" Anna was sobbing. "Jake!" Robert's vision was clouded, and when he rubbed his eyes, he was surprised to find that he was crying.

"I'm going to end it," Jake said calmly.

"Oh, no, no, no, no," Anna cried. She was bent over. Jake held the hammer out in front of him, flat end facing towards him. He was going to hit himself in the head. Kill himself. Jake closed his eyes and swung.

A million memories of Jake flashed through Robert's mind all at once: Anna crying out in pain, sweating in labor, her groans broken by the wailing of a newborn baby – Jake. His first wobbly steps. The first day of kindergarten. The smack of the first homerun Jake had ever hit. Jake telling a horribly dirty joke to Anna, who instead of scolding him, had laughed until she cried. Jake scoring during the basketball game. How grown up he had looked after his high school graduation. Jake announcing he had joined the Army. Jake sitting down with him, the two enjoying a beer on a warm summer evening. Anna's tears as Jake told them he was being deployed to Iraq for two years. The picture on the mantelpiece.

The hammer never hit its mark. The moment Jake had closed his eyes, Robert had lunged at his son, and ripped the hammer away.

Jake opened his eyes.

"Give it back," he said calmly.

"Jake!" Robert said harshly, trying to make his son hear how foolish this all was.

"Give it back! I want it! I want it!"

"Jake, I'm not giving you back the hammer."

"I want it to end! I'm sick. Sick of this. Sick of the war. Sick of pain. Sick of death and dying and all this stupid shit!"

"I'm not giving it back. Not when I've just got you back."

"I'm sick of this stupid life! I'm not hurt or dead, but I should be! My friends, all of my friends over there. The roadside bomb, they all died!

"And all the people I shot at over there. I killed them. I killed guys my age. Guys your age. Fuck, I even killed kids, Dad! Kids! Do you know how many people I saw die? How many people I killed! And I didn't even hate them or anything! They were the enemy, but I didn't hate them!

"And now I'm here, alive! I've had all the time in the world to do whatever the hell I want, but it's all so fucking pointless! And no one here judge's me for the things that I've done! Look at my friends two weeks ago! They don't know! They don't want to know! The biggest worries they have are whether or not they're going to pass their exams or get enough sleep or be able to take their vacation to Mexico. No one here gives a shit that I've shot and killed people!

"How the fuck am I supposed to live with that? How? Tell me how! TELL ME HOW!" Jake burst into tears, crying like he had when he was a little kid. Out of the corner of his eye, Robert saw Anna jump, as if she were going to give him a kiss and make it better, but then remembered that her son was no longer five years old.

"L-le-let m-m-me d-d-d-ie," he said, hyperventilating. He was shaking, not able to get enough air. "Puh-puh-puh please, God. Let m-me duh-duh-die."

Robert dropped the hammer and grabbed Jake by the shoulders.

"Jake," he said. "You're not going to die. Not like this. I won't let you." Robert pulled his son into his arms and held him while he cried.

13