Disclaimer: Not mine. I'm still poor. Please don't sue.
Fourth part in a five (possibly six) part trilogy (with apologies to Douglas Adams); this follows up "Brothers in Arms", "In The Name of the Father" and "Dazed and Confused". I swear, this was only supposed to be one story...
Please offer feedback, it tells me how I've done.
I balance on the edge of a ratty armchair and wonder about this house and about the merits of even being here. Wes seemed convinced that we all needed to have this talk, and in some ways, I know he's right, but I can't help think the conversation might be better held somewhere else.
As Eric's getting changed, I take in the details of the house. I feel guilty that this squalor is where Eric lives. I want to fix it, but I know that if I step in, at best all I'll do is offend his pride. So I say nothing. Do nothing. Just balance on the edge of this chair and wait.
The wait isn't long, though I am surprised when Eric returns dressed in jeans and a faded t-shirt; no socks, no shoes, no uniform, either.
"Is this a day off I didn't know about?" I ask, feeling instantly guilty. Why didn't Wes tell me Eric wasn't working today?
Eric looks down a moment, a dull blush colouring his face. "I think," he says softly, "that maybe it would be better if..."
"So help me, if you say you're leaving town..." Wes interrupts.
If Wes' words surprise me, Eric's response shocks me. His head snaps, eyes blazing. "That's why you're here, isn't it?"
"No!" Wes denies it.
"But it can't work," Eric shoots back. "What are you going to do," he adds, rounding on me, "declare to the world that you had a one night stand in Viet Nam and as a result you have a bastard son?"
The term drips bitterness and I wonder whether someone once used it as a rod to beat him with. I force myself away from that thought and try to face his question. "If that was what you wanted," I answer quietly. "I might be ashamed that I did what I did; I could never be ashamed of you. Of either of you," I add.
That silences them both. The only sound in the room is the ticking of a cheap plastic clock. It serves to mark the passage of seconds that suddenly stretch out into hours. I mean every word. It's Wes who realises that first, but then again, Wes has known me all his life.
"You would really shoot your reputation, for me?" Eric sounds disbelieving.
"Yes, I would."
"Why?" Eric shakes his head. "I can't believe you'd toss your reputation away for someone you barely know."
"Because it's the only thing I can do." I sigh. "I can't fix my mistakes; I can't take back what I did twenty-eight years ago, and now I do know you, I'm not sure I'd necessarily want to." I pause. I'm not sure what else to say. I don't know what else there is that I can say that will make Eric believe me.
But when I look up at Eric's expression, it's turned distant, as if he's remembering something.
"Mom said," he finally begins quietly and looking anywhere but at me, "that the GI she slept with was different." The impersonal phrase hurts me more than I would have expected. "I didn't believe her." He swallows. "She said you were honourable." The change in phrasing is sudden. "But I couldn't figure how that would work." I watch as his gaze falls on Wes. "I think maybe I do now."
I watch him look down again and I wonder what he's thinking now. Does he believe me?
"You're still leaving town, though," Wes realises.
The words feel like a right hook. They rock me back on my precarious seat and leave me feeling dazed and confused. Surely Wes is wrong about this.
Then Eric shrugs stiffly and doesn't deny it. "I've got somewhere I have to be."
I've lost him, I think. I should have said nothing. I've driven him away.
"But you're coming back," says Wes forcefully. Maybe it's just my imagination that reads something of an "or I'll kick your ass" in Wes' tone.
"Aren't younger brothers supposed to be respectful to their elders?" There's the faintest shred of humour in Eric's words.
"Aren't older brothers supposed to set a good example?" Wes retorts and I realise that perhaps it wasn't my imagination.
"I do set a good example." Eric pauses and then shrugs. "Most of the time."
It seems natural to hear them bicker like this. So natural. It makes Eric's decision to leave all the more strange.
"Then why are you leaving?" Wes asks, mirroring my thoughts.
Eric looks down for a moment, then back up and for the first time, he meets my gaze, but the emotions contained in his stare are too complex for me to read. "There's a trip I need to take," he says. "Just a day or so."
"Where?" I ask quietly.
"It's a little place, up near the Oregon state line," he answers. There's a long hesitation and I wonder what else he needs to say. Eventually, he adds, almost shyly, "Think maybe you need to make the trip too."
The unspoken words are clear. He's going to see Mai Ling. I start to say that I don't think I would be welcome, but he shakes his head.
"Figure you need to make peace with her as much as I do. More, maybe."
I realise that he's probably right. "OK." I nod. "And after...?" But I can't quite bring myself to ask the whole question.
"Guess we can see if this'll work," he answers.