I drop Slaughterhouse-Five and rush out of my bedroom. The front door is being unlocked when I break into the living room, and I hold my breath as I try to prepare myself to greet whoever walks through the door.
First to lumber through the doorway is my father. My mom throws herself at him and he wraps his big arms around her. I am about to hug him too when I see Paul’s shaggy chestnut hair peeking out from behind my dad’s shoulder.
He is drenched from the rain, but I don’t care – I rush to embrace him. His 11 year-old sister, Melissa, runs to him, too. He lets out a pained oof as we tackle him, and he wraps just one arm around me. I pull away, and see that his other is wrapped in a bloody rag.
“What happened?” I ask the group, looking back and forth from his arm to his face. I kiss him. He does not kiss me back. Something is wrong.
My dad looks at me, his eyes are very heavy, but he stays quiet. I am flooded with panic – my heart starts racing, and I can feel my body struggling for air. Why is no one is saying anything? What has happened?
I peer over Paul’s shoulder and try frantically to take a tally of who is with them; JJ faithfully behind Paul, and June is there. I move out of the way to let them in, and Paul stays by my side. Laura and June follow in behind them. That makes six. Seven went out, and six came home – Paul’s dad is not among them.
“Where’s Donovan?” Paul’s mother asks, quietly. My dad closes the door once they are all inside. “Oh my God,” she whispers, covering her mouth with her hand. She begins to shake. “Oh my God.”
Paul goes over to her and wraps his good arm around her, and she quickly fastens herself to her son, clinging to him as she starts to sob. Melissa looks around, confused, and I hold out my hand to her and draw her in.
I find hot tears are in my eyes too, and looking around I see that I am not the only one. My mother buries her face in my dad’s shoulder, and I know she and I feel the same mix of guilt and relief that our men returned safely when Kim’s did not.
We all eat together tonight. The group brought back some canned foods, which, although part of their purpose in heading out, I had been doubtful they would manage. We have an outdoor cooking kit that was once used for camping, and which we now use to cook hot food. When it isn’t raining we can just build a small campfire in the backyard, but as it is we use the kit on the deck under the shelter of the overhang. We bring our bowls into the living room to eat, where we sit on the floor and the mattresses. We eat refried beans and cream of corn soup. It is the best meal I can remember having in a long time, but even so I find it hard to really enjoy it.
Paul sits between his mother and me. I briefly place my hand on his knee, trying to make myself a comforting presence, but he is unresponsive, so I remove it. On the other side of me is my dad, and next to him my mother; all the way around the circle the returned are sandwiched between the ones who stayed.
“We found the group that was trying to radio us. Or, I guess, we found their camp,” my father explains as we listen, silenced by our grief and worry. “It was abandoned. There were a few fresh graves and they left tracks of their set-up, but all their supplies were gone, all the people gone.”
“And they were in the foothills, not in a house?” Sophia shifts her weight, looking back and forth between her husband and the other newly returned.
“Yeah, some people think it’s safer, more remote.”
“Do you?” Dylan asks, holding my dad’s gaze.
He takes a deep breath in, pausing. “No.”
“Where did they go?” Sophia frowns.
“There’s no telling. They could be more nomadic, moving around all the time, searching for something. That would explain why we never heard them on the radio until a few weeks ago. Or they could have been driven out and gone somewhere else.”
Again, I think of the man I saw in the backyard. He wouldn’t be one of the people from the camp they found, it was too far. Wasn’t it?
I look at my near-empty tin bowl and scrape at the bottom of it, getting the last of the beans together. “Where did you pick up the extra supplies?”
“Some houses,” he says, turning to look at me. He pats my knee. “There were some abandoned houses that hadn’t been cleared out entirely.”
I nod. What I really wanted to know was what had happened to Paul’s shoulder and what happened to Donovan. But I don’t know if now is the best time to ask. It seems we have all silently agreed not to talk about it. I’m sure once people start going to sleep my dad will tell Kim everything. Well, not everything, but enough. What she needs to hear. That’s how it usually goes – what we need to hear, nothing more.
After dinner I help wash up the dishes and keep my ears perked, but everyone seems to be avoiding the obvious. When I am done, Paul asks to talk outside, and we go to the back deck.
It is still raining, and we sit amid the slowly drying laundry under the porch’s cover.
“Why don’t you let me take a look at that?” I say. I know he wants to talk, but I can tell he’s not quite ready to. He agrees, and I start to remove the rag currently around it. My stomach turns as I realize it’s probably from Donovan’s shirt.
“Looks pretty nasty,” I remark as I inspect it. “You dig it out with a knife?”
“I’m not going to sew it up, it’s small so it’s better to just let it drain.” I finish cleaning it and start to re-wrap it. We have some miscellaneous antibiotics inside that he’ll want to take later, let them do what they can.
“How you doing, Mozart?” he asks, taking my hand.
I look into his brown, bloodshot eyes and just shake my head at him, tears already welling. “What happened?”
“The camp we went to…it was abandoned, right? But there was a loner out there, I don’t know who he was – looked sick and definitely crazy. He was following us. He shot at me from behind,” he explains slowly, and gestures towards his bandaged shoulder. “My dad was the first one to react. He stepped in front of me and drew his gun, but the guy shot first. Your dad was seconds behind and shot the man dead. But it was too late. My dad…” Paul is fighting back tears. I draw him in and place his head on my chest.
“I’m so sorry, Paul,” I whisper. “I’m so, so sorry.” There was nothing else I could say.
He jabs his finger at his throat. “Right through the throat,” he manages, his voice cracking as he starts to lose his fight with his tears.
“Oh, God,” I mutter. With one arm wrapped around him, I rub the back of his head with my other hand, which disappears into his hair. My stomach turns and I try to keep my mind from imagining the scene; Donovan crumpling to the ground, grasping at his son as he chokes, blood gushing from his neck. Shit.
I grip him a little tighter, thankful that first bullet only got him in the shoulder, thankful for Donovan’s sacrifice, and thankful for my own dad’s quick thinking.
It hurts me that Donovan is dead – he was important to me, too. I’d known him my whole life, dated his son for five years. He felt like family. I never thought I’d be one of “those people,” that got married at 20, but if the war weren’t happening…I don’t know, maybe Donovan really would have been family. I certainly loved him like he was another father to me. But if he hadn’t done what he had, Paul would be dead.
The back door opens behind us, and I turn to see JJ poking his head out. He has two bottles in one hand and one in the other. In my disbelief I almost laugh – I recognize the Stella Artois label immediately, despite how long it’s been since I’ve seen one.
He closes the door behind him and sits down with us. The gang, together.
Paul sits up and looks at his best friend and manages a smile. “I was wondering when you’d be out with these, man.” He uses his shirtsleeve to wipe off his cheeks, and my heart twists as I watch him try to pull himself together.
JJ pops the cap off one and hands it to Paul, the next to me, and the last for himself. We sit there on the edge of the deck, sheltered from the rain that is still pouring. The backyard looks like a jungle in the evening rain – it was always an unruly garden, with vines covering the fences and climbing up the side of the house, and unkempt plants battling for space, growing far beyond what any gardening book would tell you they will. But now it’s just plain overgrown. The grass is wild and the vines are creeping across the ground.
It was no wonder I didn’t see the stranger from this morning at first, hiding amid the ample camouflage. I feel safe and at home between Paul and JJ, but I also have a creeping worry that I may have jeopardized us all.
I toss back the Stella and feel my body start to warm. I put the stranger out of my mind for now – tomorrow, I will tell everyone about what I saw. Not tonight.