The next morning, Liam jerked awake at the deafeningly loud noise, sat up, and rolled over, his eyes still closed, for his rifle under his bed. When his hands felt soft carpet and not the desert dirt, it was then that he actually opened his eyes and realized that he was in his bedroom at his dad's house, not in the barracks, and the loud noise that had startled him awake was his alarm clock going off.
When had he set his alarm? It was 07:00 on Sunday morning… why would he set his alarm for this early? After leaving Pulse, he had driven Aidan back to his place, and they had hung out for a while, drinking a few beers. He hadn't gotten home until well past 02:00. So what the hell was going on with his alarm?
He sucked in a loud breath and then expelled it slowly, trying to calm his racing heart. A cold sweat broke out over his skin and cooled him down quickly… he wondered when he would stop waking up like that to his alarm clock. Maybe he needed to find something that was a more gentle alarm… or maybe he could find someone who was gentler—
Then his door creaked open and revealed his father Roy, who was already showered, dressed, holding a steaming cup of coffee, and wearing his familiar grim disapproving frown. For a moment, Liam had a crazy thought that his dad was coming in to talk to him. At 07:00 on a Sunday morning? Weren't Sundays considered a day of rest, even according to the Lord? Roy looked disdainfully at the mess that was Liam's room and Liam felt his blood pressure already start to quicken. "Get moving," he barked at Liam, who stared at him blankly. "There are chores that need to be done." Then he turned away and his footsteps indicated that he walked down the small hallway to the kitchen.
Liam sat motionless on his bed for a long moment before letting out a sharp exhale of breath. Well, that answered his question of who had set his alarm last night. Obviously there was no way he could get out of doing chores for his father… there hadn't been a way for him to escape when he was a child and he certainly knew better than to try to weasel his way out as an adult. When he had been home on leave, his father had left him alone for the most part… but now that he was living here, trying to shirk away from chores no longer worked.
He reached up with his left hand and slowly rubbed the scar from a bullet wound on his chest just below his collarbone on the right side of his chest. The skin around the old wound felt puckered and uneven. Every morning, he tried to remind himself that he had lived, had survived to see another day… but it was hard to shake feeling like he had just barely escaped instead of survived. Luckily for him, his heart was located on the left side of his chest. But that hadn't made it hurt any less…
He slowly climbed out of bed, his muscles still tired and aching from another night of unrest. His feet accidently kicked some books on the floor and he flinched at the loud thud as the books tumbled onto the floor. He stopped, closed his eyes, pulled himself together, and then started moving again. He pulled on a faded olive green Corps t-shirt, grabbed the cleanest pair of jeans from his floor, brushed his teeth, ran a hand through his hair, and then walked down the hall to join his father in their small kitchen, feeling apprehensive.
Roy didn't look up as Liam poured himself a cup of coffee and popped bread into the toaster for a quick breakfast. He was reading The New York Times, even though they lived nowhere close to New York City. The tension in the air thickened by the second as Liam slowly buttered his toast, added milk to his coffee, and then seated himself at the tiny table across from his father. That was when his blue eyes, just like Liam's, popped up over the paper and looked right at Liam. He lowered the paper with a snap and critically eyed Liam. "You're not going to shower?"
"What's the point? It's just chores." Liam answered, trying to keep his voice even.
Then his father sniffed, "When I was in the Corps, we were expected to be showered, dressed, and ready by 0600." There it was… Liam fought against the rising irritation inside of him and crammed his toast into his mouth to avoid snapping back at his dad. His father quirked an eyebrow at him and then remarked, "I see that they neglected to instill that expectation in the more recent recruits."
Liam bristled. Roy always knew what buttons to push. And the Marines had most certainly had instilled that in him… he just actively chose to avoid leading his life anywhere close to how he lived his life when he was in the Marines. The only thing he still did was work out every morning… but not until waking up after at least 0800. "They did instill that in us, Dad," he bit back. "But I'm here at home, not stationed in Afghanistan, so I figured I was allowed to be a little more lax." That shut his father up momentarily… while his dad had joined the Marines after high school, just like his son, he had never been in actual combat, unlike his son.
During his years of service, his father had been fortunate to be stationed in some tiny quiet country in Europe. Then he had come home, married Liam's mother, and decided not to re-up because he couldn't exactly ask Liam's mother to uproot her life and move across the world. For a few years, they lived a quiet life in California… and then Liam's mother had died very quickly from breast cancer when he was two and his sister Kelly was six. He barely remembered her, he had been so young… Kelly's memories were much more clear, though, but she never spoke of their mother. None of them did. Her death had rocked the whole family and changed their father for the worse, turning off all the light inside of him.
Kelly had moved out of the house and moved across the country to attend college as soon as she had graduated from high school. When she had moved back to California, she was already married, and she and her husband Mike had bought a house close to Roy's house. When Liam had graduated from high school, he had been dying to enlist in the Marines not only because he wanted to, but also because he also wanted to put some distance between him and his intense, domineering father. It had been expected, of course, that he join the Marines, and he was initially delighted to get out of his dad's house. But he had just ended up moving from an intense parent and tense home environment to a constantly intense life where he fought to stay alive every day.
And now here he was: living at home, dying to get away from his father once again.
"Did you get into another fight?" Roy barked at Liam as he finished off his toast.
"Yep." Liam snapped back and then added, "You should see the other guy." That wasn't exactly true, but he knew that it would piss his dad off.
Sure enough, Roy pressed his lips disapprovingly together, and then decided to change the subject. "I've made a list of things that need to be done." He passed a list across the table to Liam with a quick, efficient flick of his wrist. Liam couldn't help but notice that his father's wrist was looking thinner and more worn with age. When he was a child, his father had been an enormous and stern presence in his life, standing at 6'4" just like Liam did now. But then Liam had grown up to the same height and now looked at his father eye to eye, like equals. Well, equals in name only… Roy was obviously still in charge.
Liam sipped his coffee as he cautiously eyed the list… and then tried not to groan out loud as he saw how many chores there were. "This is two days of work, Dad."
Without missing a beat, his father retorted, "Good thing your dead end job is only part time." Liam winced and he could practically feel his father's pleasure about winning that battle.
His father was right… his job sucked. When he had gotten home from Afghanistan, he had quickly found out that he had very few skills for the civilian workforce. Firing a rifle on target was a skill that was much needed in the life of a Marine, but civilian life? Not so much. Some of his old buddies from his first tour had gone to college and ended up working in law enforcement, but Liam had spent enough time patrolling with a gun to last him a lifetime. So he had ended up working part time in a small law office as a file clerk. He had zero experience with lawyers and was pretty sure that the lawyer who owned the practice only hired him because he took pity on Liam, a former Marine. It was mind numbingly boring work, he hated every second of it, the pay was pitiful, it wasn't even full time, but it gave him enough money to go out on the weekends and stay away from his father. His father often pointedly suggested that maybe Liam could save some of his money, so Liam always felt delighted when he walked out the door on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. It was petty but he always enjoyed sticking it to his dad.
Looking at the list of chores, Liam sighed as he finished his coffee, and then buckled in for a hard day of work.
When Sara awoke, she was confused for a moment. She was in bed? Whose bed? She slowly cracked open one eye and found that she was in her bed. Oh good. She said a quick prayer, looked over her shoulder, and found no one else in bed with her. Extra good. She was still wearing her dress from last night though… and— she had been in the process of running her hand through her hair but winced as she jerked her hand out of her hair. That was vomit. There was vomit in her hair. Hopefully it was her vomit.
She sat up and immediately wished she hadn't. The room started spinning slowly… was she dehydrated or was she still drunk? Hopefully the former… she got to her feet, stumbled across her room, and into the bathroom.
The shower made her feel a little bit better… although she was pretty nervous that she was going to throw up again. Thankfully, she didn't, so apparently everything in her stomach had made a reappearance while she was blacked out. She washed her hair twice, washed the sweaty stench of the club off of her, and then turned off the shower. After toweling off, she glanced at herself in the mirror and saw the bags under her eyes.
After she pulled on old sweats and a sweatshirt from college, she half stumbled out of her bedroom and out into her living room, only to find Chloe and Daniel sitting on their couch. They looked up at Sara and then they both smirked. "No…" Sara moaned, waving a hand at them as she went to their kitchen.
"Good morning, dewdrop." Chloe drawled as Sara poured herself a glass of water and then rooted around for aspirin. Sara grunted back, which was the closest she was going to get to good morning until she had painkillers, breakfast, and probably a nap. "Thanks for not puking on me last night."
"You're welcome." Sara mumbled with a wince. She quickly downed a piece of toast, gagging slightly when it did the rumba in her stomach, and then took three aspirin. She poured herself another glass of water and then gingerly sat down on the couch next to the lovebirds. She braced herself and then rasped, "So? How bad?"
"You threw up on Daniel." Chloe announced. Sara squeezed her eyes shut, raked her brain for the memory of that, came up with nothing, opened her eyes, and smiled sheepishly at Daniel, who was smirking at her. "It was delightful."
"I'm so sorry." Sara mumbled. "How did I get home?"
"Daniel carried you." Chloe answered, picking at a thread on her old sweat pants. Her thick blond wavy hair was tied up in a messy topknot… a typical morning after look for her. "That's how he got covered in your puke."
"I'm so sorry." Sara repeated, mortified. "Thank you for carrying me."
"No sweat." Daniel answered, his eyes fixed on the football game on the television. Usually Chloe and Sara tried to argue against watching football since Daniel was the only one who found it relatively interesting, but they all knew that they owed Daniel big time, so the game stayed on.
Sara quietly sipped her water and then closed her eyes, trying to remember the previous evening. She had arrived with Chloe… luckily she had driven so Sara hadn't tried to drive drunk. They had been making their way through the crowded club to find their friends… then she remembered that guy she had bumped into. Liam? Liam. He was hot… and then he had gotten into that fight outside the club. Not so hot. Then she remembered seeing Evan, along with his new girlfriend, and blanched. "Please tell me I didn't throw up in front of Evan."
"Evan?" Chloe repeated as she looked up from the magazine she had been reading. "No way… Evan stayed pretty far away from you last night. He left with that girl way before we did." Sara felt something stab her in the gut… irritation. "Don't bother with him." Chloe said, her tone sharp. Sara covered her eyes with her hand and then sighed. "Anyway, here you are. We shouldn't have done that last round of shots."
"Yes, that wasn't a good idea." Sara agreed flatly, not even remembering doing the last round of shots. She set her glass of water on the coffee table and then curled into the corner of the couch for a nap.
As the midday summer sun beat down on him, Liam could feel the sweat rolling down his back as he worked. His dad had never been one to shy away from hard labor… and scrubbing their numerous windows wasn't exactly child's play. At least it wasn't difficult work… he zoned out as he scrubbed the windows and then squeegeed them. His father had thankfully disappeared into the garage and Liam hadn't seen him since he had started on the windows. That was how they functioned… they would connect for a few minutes to trade tense words at best, but usually thinly veiled insults, and then they would separate again. His father was punishing him now… it was hard to say for what. For being a huge failure? Probably. Extra chores because of his bloody lip? Likely. Liam hated cleaning… after he had been forced to keep his area in the barracks spotless for years; he very much enjoyed leaving stuff where it fell on his floor.
While he scrubbed the windows with a sponge, he replayed the previous evening's events in his head. That fight… his fingers tightened around the squeegee. He should have won it. He shouldn't have let himself lose focus like that… but he was powerless to stop the flashbacks when they came to him.
Since he had gotten home six months ago, he found that even the smallest noises could set him off: the clang of a pot on the stove, his alarm clock going off, a car backfiring outside… at best, he dropped to the ground in a protective huddle. At worst, he was frozen in place, reliving memories that he was trying desperately to smother. He had been such a mess last month on the Fourth of July that he had driven out of the city, far away from the booming fireworks that made him once again see screaming men brandishing guns at him.
He hated feeling so weak.
He shifted his focus away from his memory problems and then remembered that brunette… how he had been disappointed that Aidan had dragged him away from her and then how humiliated he had felt when she had tried to help him last night. A little voice inside of his head nagged that she had only been trying to help but he brushed it off as he scrubbed the windows harder. He didn't need anyone's help… especially hers.
In the distance, he heard the rumble of a truck approaching as he scrubbed the windows. The delivery truck's latch banged loudly and rattled when the truck went over the speed bump next to Roy and Liam's house—
And then Liam was in his head and gone, nowhere near his home, and back in Afghanistan.
The rumble of the engine and the clanging hatch on the delivery truck had sounded like the Humvee he had frequently ridden around in during patrol. As the all too familiar feelings of stress and anxiety flooded his body again, it was like all his joints had locked up.
He had been out on patrol, sitting in the backseat of the Humvee, looking out at the desert. Everything outside of the Humvee was brown: the dirt, the craggy mountains, and the crudely constructed walls made out of stones and mud. They were in a remote area outside of Kandahar and he was eager to get back to their base. As he kept his grip carefully on his rifle, he stared out at the hazy emptiness of the desert and felt himself start to relax. When was the last time he had relaxed? He was constantly wound up… and for good reason, obviously, since he was in the middle of a war zone. But lately he'd had difficulty trying to cope with the stress… he just couldn't get himself to calm down and relax anymore. Maybe this was what happened on your third tour… maybe you stopped being able to relax—
Then, with a deafening explosion, the Humvee in front of theirs exploded.
Liam's eardrums rattled and then rang as the Humvee he was riding in swerved while his driver screamed something unintelligible. He crouched into position at the window automatically, his rifle drawn, looking around for enemy combatants… and then he heard the familiar sound of bullets slamming into a body, like a meat tenderizer repeatedly slamming into a piece of meat. Liam's friend Jake, who had been manning the machine gun that was mounted on top of the Humvee, slumped down into the car. Liam choked on his breath as he watched blood begin gushing out of Jake, whose eyes were staring unseeingly at nothing—
Liam snapped out of it and found himself standing in the front yard of his dad's house. He blinked at his father, disorientated, then squeezed the sponge in his hand, and water dripped down his arm. His hands were shaking. Dazed, he looked at his wet arm and then looked at his dad, who was frowning at him. "I… sorry." Liam stuttered at his father, who stared back at him, clearly uncomfortable and uncertain. "Sorry." Liam dropped the sponge and stumbled inside, shaking his arm to get rid of the excess water. He needed some time to calm down and cool off. He didn't care that he still had more windows to clean, didn't care that he had just left his father standing there… he just needed some space. He needed to pull himself back together… because he would be damned before he let his father see him at his weakest.
He walked into their small bathroom and sat down on the floor next to the air conditioning vent. He drew his knees up, placed his elbows on his knees, and then buried his face into his hands, trying to calm himself back down. The air conditioning was too cold compared to the outside hot summer air—
There was a terse knock on the door and then Roy asked gruffly, "You all right?" He wasn't exactly comforting, but Liam knew it was the closest his father would ever get to concern.
"Yeah." Liam said after a pause, managing to keep his voice steady.
After a long moment, his dad said, "Take all the time you need." Liam felt himself bristle all over again… of course his dad wanted him to take a moment and then go right back outside to his chores. He sighed and slumped back against the bathtub, staring at the ceiling, seeing nothing.
When Sara finally awoke from her nap, Daniel was gone but Chloe was still on the couch, grading papers. She was muttering under her breath as she checked over a student's work. Sara knew she too had papers to grade… she groaned as she stretched and then checked the time. 4:00 already? She got up, rubbing her face, grabbed her school bag from where she had set it next to their kitchen table, and then settled in next to Chloe. She started looking over her lesson plan for the week and then something occurred to her: "Hey." Chloe looked up curiously. "That guy that almost knocked me over last night? Do you know him?"
"What guy?" Chloe asked, her brow furrowing.
"The guy I bumped into last night… you came back and… got me and…" Chloe raised an eyebrow at her. Sara gave up stuttering and admitted, "Okay, okay, I thought he was hot. And…" Did she really want to explain that she had been too curious about the fight and that guy had been a jerk to her? Who cared who he was? She definitely shouldn't.
Chloe's expression, meanwhile, had trickled from confusion to recognition to irritation. "If you're talking about who I think you're talking about, don't even bother with that guy." She looked down at her paperwork and straightened the papers with a snap of her hands. "He's good looking, sure, but he knows it. He's got a line for every girl but he must say or do some awful things since I've seen him get slapped a couple of times. And… he's violent."
"Violent?" Sara repeated, surprised. But then she reevaluated her surprise… she had, after all, found him in the parking lot after he got into a fight. He wasn't exactly a candidate to become the next Dalai Lama.
"He gets into a lot of fights. Don't even bother." Chloe scowled and then returned to her papers.
Sara shrugged and then returned to her own papers.
Liam could feel weariness all the way through his muscles and into his bones. He had finished cleaning the windows, cleaned the bathroom, mowed the lawn, and cleaned out the rain gutters. After all that was done, when he had found his dad consulting the list of chores in the garage, he had announced, "Whatever is left, I'll just do it tomorrow." His dad had looked up from his list, looking like he wanted to protest, saw Liam's state of exhaustion, and then closed his mouth. For once. Liam vaguely noticed that his dad had neatly organized the stuff in the garage as he entered the house, eager to get into the shower.
After a silent dinner with his dad, he left the house, saying over his shoulder, "I'll be back." He wasn't sure if his dad had heard him or was actually listening but he didn't really care. He climbed into his old white pick-up truck and drove away from the house. Some of the tension in his body finally started dissipating as he drove along the quiet city streets. He rolled down the window and let the cool night air fill the cab. Now… where to go? He'd texted Aidan earlier, he could try to see if he wanted to hang out… but he would probably want to go back to the club… the club was pretty lame on a Sunday night. What about his sister? Yeah… Kelly would probably like to see him. He stopped in front of her house less than five minutes later.
His sister Kelly, aged thirty and four years older than Liam, had her shit together. She had finished college in four years, gotten married immediately after she had graduated, and had a kid a year after she was married. Liam had missed the first eight years of her kid's life, except for a brief visit when he hadn't been deployed about four years ago, but he tried to be the best doting uncle now that he was around. He had always been close to Kelly and he wanted her kid to feel loved by his family… it wasn't like their father was known for pouring out his love. He'd been meaning to give her kid the soccer ball rolling around in the cab of his truck for a while… he grabbed it and then locked his truck.
He knocked on the door and then waited. Kelly opened the door after a pause and then smirked at him. "Lee. I should have known it was you." Her blond curls were pulled into a bun and she was dressed casually in shorts and a t-shirt. She was almost as tall as Liam, much to her irritation, but she had stopped growing when she had reached six feet.
"I should have called." Liam realized belatedly with a tight smile.
Maybe she could see that he was wound up and needed to be out of the house… for whatever reason, she brushed off his apology. "It's fine." Then she hugged him tightly. "We're just watching TV." Her eyes drifted to the cut on his lip and she flicked a disproving glance at him before she turned to her husband Mike and her son Jayden. "Look who's here!"
"Hey Liam." Mike said, barely looking up from the television. Liam didn't take it personally… Mike was a quiet, gentle guy who kept mostly to himself… he perfectly counterbalanced brash and outspoken Kelly.
"Uncle Lee!" Jayden exploded excitedly, jumping up from the couch. He had been nervous to see his long lost uncle when Liam had come home, but he had warmed to Liam instantly. Jayden probably thought of Liam as a boyhood fantasy: this big war hero, returning from battle. Liam was not a hero, but he had certainly tried his best to make sure everyone around him hadn't died. Sometimes it felt like his survival, rather than any sort of heroism, had been more appreciated… probably because there were too many Marines out there who were playing the big hero and got killed while doing it. Anyway, the kid worshiped the ground he walked on, which made him uncomfortable when he thought about his life choices which consisted of working at a dead end job, having lots of sex with faceless girls, and routinely picking fights. Liam liked Jayden because he admired his innocence and sometimes wished he was that innocent again… at twenty-six, he had seen too much.
"Hey buddy." Liam smiled back and then held out the soccer ball. "I've been meaning to give this to you."
"Awesome!" Jayden shouted, grabbing the ball. It was eerie, how much he looked like Kelly… they had the same tall, lanky body and the same wild curly blond hair. But he had Mike's dark eyes, not Kelly and Liam's blue ones. "Uncle Lee! Do you think I should try out for the team?"
"Sure." Liam shrugged. But one look at Kelly suggested that he had given the wrong choice. He quickly corrected himself: "I mean no."
"Mom said no." Jayden announced.
"Thanks for backing me into a corner with that one, buddy." Liam shot back, rubbing Jayden's head of wild white-blond curls.
"I said not unless you turn that B+ into an A!" Kelly corrected him sharply. Liam winced as he remembered their father using the same tone with them when they were children. Some people, like Liam, swore up and down that they would never turn into their parents… but Kelly sometimes turned into their father. But Jayden just shrugged, good-natured, and then juggled the ball down the hall. "Not in the house! Jayden!" No response. Then she turned to Liam, glared at him, and then said tightly, "You're right, you should have called."
"Sorry, Kell." Liam said instantly, sheepish.
"Aw, come on, Kell." Mike drawled from the couch. "He didn't know he was walking into a minefield with that seemingly innocent question from our far too precocious son." He got to his feet and then smiled faintly. "Can I get you a beer?"
"That would be great." Liam said quickly, hoping that would change the subject. Then he noticed that the news was on and started to tense… sure enough, there was a story about more fighting in Afghanistan. Liam felt panic fill his body… his pulse quickened, his fingers flinched and relaxed repeatedly… he struggled to remain present as he cleared his throat and dragged his eyes away.
Kelly had noticed the news as well and said quickly, "Come on into the kitchen." She put her arm around her little brother and practically pushed him into the kitchen. Not subtle at all… but Liam appreciated it. Then she took two beers from her husband and passed one to Liam while asking conversationally, "What did you do today?"
Liam twisted off the top of the beer with a snap of his wrist, slumped against the counter, and replied, "Dad woke me up at dawn this morning so that I could do chores around the house."
"Sounds like Dad." Kelly said flatly, also leaning against the kitchen counter next to Mike, who turned his gaze to the floor. To be completely honest, Liam wondered if Mike was afraid of Roy. There were plenty of people who were afraid of Roy… people were afraid of Liam too. It went with the territory when you were very tall and could be very intimidating. "How's the job?"
"Sucks." Liam bit back after taking a long swig of his beer. "But it's a job. Dad's been on my ass about doing something in the afternoons though… otherwise I'll be doing manual labor around the house."
"Well if you live there, rent free, then maybe that's a fair trade off." Kelly pointed out flatly.
"Thanks, Kell." Liam complained. Whose side was she on?
"Hey, I'm on your side." Kelly said quickly. "I know how hard Dad pushes you and how little credit he gives you. But…" She looked at Mike for a moment and then finished, "If you live there… you might as well help him take care of the house. He's not getting any younger and I bet your help is very much appreciated."
"Yeah, well, it would be nice to hear it." Liam snapped back gruffly. Then he went back to the previous topic, trying to avoid the topic of his dad, and asked, "Know of any job openings?"
"Nope." Mike shook his head. "Sorry, man."
"I'll check around town… maybe something has come up." Kelly announced, jotting down a note. "Although…" Then she looked at Mike for a long moment and something unspoken passed between them… communication without words appeared to be one of the benefits of their long marriage. It was one of the rare moments Liam wished he too could share a connection like that with someone… but that would require letting a woman to get closer than arm's length to him. Mike shrugged and then Kelly turned back to Liam. "We need someone to watch Jayden in the afternoons."
Liam couldn't help but blanch at the idea. He loved the kid… but spending hours alone with him? "I don't know…" He started picking at the wet, mushy label on his cold beer bottle.
"Mike's mom used to do it, but she just moved, so it's pretty far for her now. She's older, you know. And it's just for three hours a day… from three to six or whenever I can get home from work." Kelly wheedled… she must have been desperate. "I'll pay you twenty dollars an hour… that's more than minimum wage."
"You want me to be your babysitter." Liam repeated flatly, folding his muscular arms across his chest as he quirked an eyebrow at his big sister. "Aren't there actual babysitters who are more qualified than me?"
"It's three hundred dollars a week. That's twelve hundred dollars a month. You could move out!" Kelly's eyes were huge and her smile was strained… she was flat out begging. "I'd find an actual babysitter but I'm not too thrilled about inviting a stranger in my house… plus, Jayden adores you."
"Sure he does." Liam grumbled, recognizing buttering up when he saw it.
"You're a good man for him to be around, Lee." Kelly said softly, taking a swig of her beer. Mike put his arm around Kelly with a soft sigh and nodded as well. "It will get Dad off your case. Maybe you could instill some good values in him? Some stuff you learned when… you were in…" She visibly swallowed, unable to say it, and then finished, "When you were gone." She didn't like talking about his time in the Marines. She had been fully supportive when he had joined the Marines but she had been fully against him serving in Afghanistan. Not because she didn't realize that serving in war zones came with the territory of being a Marine… but because she had (well, they all had) been terrified that he would be killed. But there was nothing she could do about that… the minute he signed up for the Marines, he had handed control of his life over to someone else, and followed their orders for eight years.
"What am I supposed to do with him, Kell?" Liam shot back. "Show him how to snap people's necks?" Both Kelly and Mike winced and recoiled like Liam had dropped a bomb in the kitchen. Liam pressed his lips tightly together, regretting his words, and then took another big swig of beer.
Finally she spoke: "No, of course not." Her voice was soft and reproachful. "All you have to do…" Kelly began after a long pause, looking like she was regretting asking Liam. "Lee, all you have to do is pick him up from school, make him do his homework, and make sure he doesn't burn the house down."
Liam considered it… for twenty bucks an hour? The kid loved Liam… and he could really use the extra money. He let out a long sigh and then relented. "All right. I'll give it a try."
"Really?" Kelly beamed and then squeezed his arm. "Thank you so much!" Then her smile froze and turned more uncertain as she added awkwardly, "But no… um… horror stories."
"I won't." Liam sighed, suddenly feeling very tired. "I'll keep it G-rated."
"Thanks, little brother." She put her arm around his waist and squeezed.
Her head barely reached his chin. "Who are you calling little?" He poked her in the ribs, the foolproof way to tickle her, and she laughed.
"We really appreciate this, man." Mike spoke up with a grateful smile.
"Yeah." Liam nodded briefly.
"Jayden!" Kelly called down the hall. A door opened. "Uncle Lee is going to pick you up from school tomorrow!"
"Awesome!" Jayden shot out of his room like a rocket and ran into the kitchen. "I can show you my school! And my teacher! And my friends! And the park! And…" As Liam stared at the bouncing eight year old, he was already starting to regret his decision.
"Hey, want to see what I'm working on?" Mike thankfully rescued Liam.
"Sure." Liam agreed.
"Time for bed." Kelly announced sternly, clapping her hand on Jayden's shoulder as she steered him out of the kitchen.
"But Mom…" He went with her but not very willingly. "See you tomorrow, Uncle Lee!"
"Yeah, tomorrow, buddy." Liam called back weakly as he and Mike headed out into the garage.
As a professional photographer, Mike had turned half of their garage into a darkroom. He made a pretty decent living as a photographer… not many words were needed to be behind the camera. He took mostly landscape pictures but, even to an untrained viewer like Liam, his portraits of people were amazing. The only thing that kept Mike from people full time was the constant human interaction… he liked his solitude, he was an introvert to the core. But he was a nice guy and he loved Kelly and Jayden more than Liam could probably ever imagine. Kelly was lucky… she was happy and Mike had filled their house with beautiful pictures of their beautiful life together. In the back of the house, in their home office, there were even some pictures of Liam in his uniform… but he tried to avoid seeing those pictures now. "I saw this the last time I was out in the woods." Mike pointed at a photo of a blue and black butterfly sitting on a tree branch, flexing its wings.
"Cool." Liam said softly, moving from picture to picture. Then he smiled as he looked at a picture of Kelly softly smiling down at Jayden as he embraced her and looked up at her adoringly. Mike had managed to capture the rare soft side of his big sister… she looked like an adoring mother, which she was, of course. She just sometimes had a hard time showing Jayden that she loved him… she was a lot like Roy in that way.
"Want another beer?" Mike asked after Liam drained his bottle.
"Sure." Liam agreed. Mike grabbed two more beers out of the refrigerator in the garage and then they sat down in the foldable camping chairs on the edge of the garage. The cool night breeze brushed over Liam's face and he closed his eyes, relaxing completely for the first time all day. Thank goodness Mike understood the power of silence and felt no need to fill it with empty chatter.
Liam… a babysitter. He winced and took another pull from his beer.
He never would have pictured himself in this position a year ago. If only his buddies from the Corps could see him now.
"What are you reading these days?" Mike finally asked. Liam began launching into the summary of his latest book… he had taken up reading while in the Marines. He'd enjoyed it as a kid and it had filled his long days in the desert when he was deployed. His fellow Marines teased him mercilessly about reading, calling him a nerd and a lot of other much more terrible names, but it took him away from where he was stationed and what he was dealing with, just for a moment.
And sometimes, just for a moment was enough.