The Long Way Home
I was watering the tomato plants on my balcony and trying to decide whether I should take a shower or go for a run when the phone rang. No one called me these days—except for misguided solicitors a few times a week—so I let the answering machine pick up. It beeped and I heard my mother’s voice, sounding much older than the last time I’d heard it: “You need to come home, Charlie. Your father died.”
And that was it.
I sat on the armrest of my rented sofa and played the message. When it was finished, I played it again and listened with my eyes closed. My mother sounded like a stranger. I pictured her standing in the kitchen of the small house I’d grown up in, staring out the window above the sink at the ancient weeping willow tree that bordered our side yard, absently twirling her hair in her fingers, the phone pressed tight against her ear.
The house would be bustling with the news of my father’s passing. My brother, Sam, would be there, of course. Aunt Charlotte and Uncle Bobby. The cousins. The Cavanaughs from next door and probably half of the rest of Hanson Road would be coming and going to pay their respects.
Dad was a good man and well liked in our hometown of Salisbury. He was always lending someone a hand. Helping them fix their car or lawn mower or boat, cleaning their gutters, taking down some trees, or repairing a fence. He believed in helping others and being a vital member of the neighborhood. Growing up, he always used to tell me, “We have to try to be part of something bigger than ourselves, Charlie. Whether it’s our church or vocation or community, life isn’t about taking, it’s about giving. We all have a deeper purpose to serve.”
It was a lesson I had yet to learn.
Nine months earlier, on the rainy afternoon I was released from Hagerstown Prison, my mother was waiting for me outside in the parking lot. We stood there for a long time, just looking at each other, hugging and laughing and crying, neither of us saying much of anything. It was the first time we’d seen each other in six years.
She had accepted my monthly collect calls without fail, but my father wouldn’t allow her to visit by herself, and he refused to come anywhere near the place. His pride, my mother claimed, but I knew it was something else: shame.
I was supposed to be the golden child. Handsome and popular, with a scholarship to play baseball at the University of Richmond, the future had once looked sky-high for me. Pro scouts had even started to sniff around our games and the local newspaper had crowned me as a “hometown hero” in a front-page article announcing my college decision.
On the other hand, my older brother (by almost two years) was cut from the same swath of cloth that had produced my father. Serious-minded and on the quiet side, Sam kept a much lower profile. Smart and extraordinarily patient, he was a natural tinkerer just like Dad. He excelled in school and, while I had a different girl on my arm every weekend, Sam started dating Jenny Lomax in the tenth grade and never stopped. Despite spending much of his teenage years standing in my shadow, he rarely demonstrated jealousy at the attention his younger brother received. On the contrary, Sam was one of my best friends and biggest fans. Our mother used to call us “thick as thieves.”
That was the two of us in a nutshell, the Freeman boys. No one in a million years could have guessed the disparate futures Fate had in store for us just around the bend.
When Sam graduated college at the top of his class and landed a job at a prestigious engineering firm in Washington D.C., no one was the least bit surprised. Not long after, he married his high school sweetheart, and, a year later, Jenny gave birth to their first child. A son named after our father.
I was a different story altogether. I spent most of my freshman year at Richmond recovering from a serious knee injury I’d suffered during Fall Ball and drinking too much. Instead of returning home after the end of spring semester, I shacked up in a run-down off campus apartment with a few of my teammates and spent the summer rehabbing my knee and getting plastered on a nightly basis. By the fall of my sophomore year, I had added cocaine to my rigorous party routine and by spring break—after several warnings and a failed NCAA drug test—I’d been kicked off the baseball team. A certified letter was sent home to my parents and my scholarship was revoked.
A couple months later, I was arrested for the first time.
I didn’t own a car, but my downstairs neighbor—a retired concrete worker named Jeremy—had an old pick-up truck he’d been trying to sell for a couple months and for fifty bucks he agreed to let me borrow it for the week. I couldn’t afford the fifty, but I didn’t have much of a choice. The last thing I wanted to do was take a Greyhound bus home to bury my father.
Home. It felt funny even thinking the word after all this time.
The day after I’d been released from Hagerstown, my parole officer explained that I needed special permission if I wanted to leave the state of Maryland at any time in the next twelve months. The same rule applied to setting up residence and getting a job. I guess the State wanted to keep an eye on me, to make sure I’d been properly reformed.
I wanted as little contact as possible with my drill sergeant of a parole officer and didn’t like the idea of asking for special permission or special anything, so I did the first thing that came to mind: I got as far away from my hometown as possible and moved to the westernmost part of the state. A little town named Burtonsville, about forty miles southwest of Cumberland. There wasn’t much there, but rent was cheap, people minded their own business, and there was a lumberyard hiring manual labor.
Time passed slowly in Burtonsville. I worked forty to fifty hours a week hauling and cutting timber, went to AA meetings every Thursday night at a local elementary school, and spent a lot of time sitting alone in the dark eating pizza and watching bad movies. I spoke with Mom every other weekend on the telephone, but Dad and the rest of the family were still a no-show. I was mostly fine with that. I didn’t have a clue what I would say to any of them.
Despite being there for almost nine months, I hadn’t made many new friends in town. I grabbed breakfast at Waffle House from time to time with a couple guys from the lumberyard, but none of us were big talkers. Usually the weather and the Orioles, and they liked to swap hunting and fishing stories. A pretty, blonde waitress from the pizza joint around the corner asked me to the movies about a month ago, but I politely declined. She was a good bit younger than me, and I didn’t think I was ready for that anyway.
I wouldn’t say I was lonely, but some days were harder than others. If I found myself going stir-crazy or felt my brain starting to get away from me, I either went for a long jog around town or gave my AA sponsor a call. Virgil Marshall sold farm equipment for a living and talked good sense to me and several other recovering alcoholics in Burtonsville. He had the most god-awful handlebar mustache I’d ever seen and told horrible, rambling, filthy jokes, but otherwise he was a good man. He had fought the wars and come out on the other side.
In fact, it was Virgil who had suggested I purchase the half-dozen tomato plants growing in plastic pots on my second-floor balcony. “A small step,” he claimed, “toward becoming a responsible caregiver.”
I didn’t know about all that, but I was a big-time fan of BLTs and was looking forward to harvest time.
Once I had finished listening to my mother’s message for a third time, I went into the bedroom and packed jeans, t-shirts, socks, and clean underwear into a knapsack. I didn’t own a suit or nice shoes, so I would have to pick something up down the road for the funeral. Probably get a haircut, too. I went downstairs and talked to Jeremy about his pick-up and he agreed to water my tomatoes while I was away, and then I said my goodbye and hit the road.
I didn’t bother calling Mom before I left to ask what had happened or tell her I was coming. My father had been diagnosed with lung cancer almost a year ago. He’d been doing well enough the last time she and I had spoken, but I knew from reading the brochures that things could change in a hurry.
Salisbury was a six-hour-plus drive, longer if any of the mountain roads were being worked on, which happened a lot this time of year according to the local news. There would be plenty of time to think. And remember.
I had spent the past seven years of my life trying to forget, but I had a feeling that wasn’t going to work anymore.
Hi, my name is Kyle Thomas. I’m twenty-six years old and I’m an alcoholic.
Some days—even after everything that had happened—I still couldn’t believe it was true.
Today wasn’t one of those days.
As I pulled onto the interstate—after loading up with gas and an extra-large coffee from Wawa—I did what I often did on those graveyard-quiet, dead-end nights when sleep refused to come: I traveled back in time and tried to figure out what the hell had happened to my life.
First, there was the alcohol. I never drank much in high school. Mom and Dad kept a tight lid on that sort of activity, and I was stone-cold obsessed about training for baseball. My body is a temple and I must treat it as such, and all that happy crappy business.
That all changed when I got to Richmond. Most college students drank to be cool and fit in, or to get laid. A game of beer pong here, a game of flip cup there, maybe the occasional slammer of a night where they go overboard and end up puking in a trashcan. I wasn’t one of those people. From the very beginning, I drank to get hammered. Drinking socially just didn’t make sense to me. If I wanted to stand around talking and sipping from a frosty mug, I would have sipped lemonade or sweet tea like my mother used to make. But if I was drinking beer, hell, I wanted to drink all the beer.
Virgil said some people are just wired that way. The disease is often hereditary, passing down from one generation to the next. Other times it comes clean out of the blue like a Texas tornado and destroys everything in its path. Whatever the reason—and this wasn’t an excuse, merely an acceptance—I was one of those people.
Then, there was the cocaine. Despite seeing it around at a few parties during my freshman year, I never touched the stuff. It felt big city and dangerous to me. But then I’d started dating Lexie Sharretts at the start of sophomore year and she turned me on to it. Lexie came from a different world, and I found everything about that world exotic and exciting. Money, fast cars, yacht clubs, I was like a kid in a candy store. I liked cocaine the first time I tried it (Lexie and me in bed in her apartment), loved it the second time, and craved it like oxygen after the third. The drug not only made me feel happy and confident, it made me feel invincible. I wasn’t just going to come back stronger and faster than ever before from my knee injury, I was going to have such a blockbuster season that scouts were going to come out of the woodwork and offer me a seven-figure signing bonus to leave college early. Thanks to the cocaine, I was absolutely sure of it.
Finally, there were my grades, or lack thereof. This part wasn’t very complicated. I’d simply stopped going to classes. Between training and physical therapy, spending time with Lexie, partying, and waking up hung over every morning, there simply wasn’t enough time for studying and homework. After all, I was headed to the big leagues, right? What did I need a degree for?
I relaxed my grip on the steering wheel and resisted the urge to slam my fist on the dashboard. I knew violence wasn’t the answer—unfortunately, only after a lot of first-hand experience—but when I thought about how I had thrown my life away, it wasn’t easy. I wanted to break things. I wanted to break myself.
But I had already done that.
Instead, I counted to ten inside my head, rolled down the window, and cranked up the radio. Mick Jagger preached to me about JFK and the devil, and I sang along.
The evening was warm but there was little humidity, rare for August in Maryland, and the air felt good on my face and arms. It was just past six on a Friday but traffic was sparse. Not many people commuted long distance to work out here in the mountains.
For a moment, I tried to picture Lexie Sharretts’s face and couldn’t. Christ, I couldn’t even remember what the girl looked like anymore.
I glanced at the speedometer and eased up on the gas pedal. I wasn’t in that much of a hurry and a ticket was the last thing I needed. The idea of walking into another courtroom and facing another judge made me want to puke. I settled in at sixty-five and checked the time again. If all went according to plan, I would roll into Salisbury right around midnight. That seemed fitting somehow.
After I’d been kicked off the baseball team and thrown out of school, I refused to return home to Salisbury. My father called the morning they received the certified letter, and every day after for two weeks. My mother and Sam tried almost as many times. They all threatened to come down and get me and take me home. After awhile, I just stopped answering the phone. None of them had any idea how bad it was. They were patient and kind despite their obvious disappointment and confusion, but it didn’t matter. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t face them and the rest of the town. I was too embarrassed.
I slept on a ratty sofa at one of my shadier friends’ studio apartment and got a job cleaning dishes and clearing tables at a busy restaurant off campus. I still drank every night, sometimes sneaking leftover pitchers from the tables I was supposed to be cleaning, and still did coke when I could afford it, which wasn’t very often now that Lexie had dumped me.
A couple months passed and with it the sense of shame lessened enough for me to promise my mother I would come home for an upcoming weekend to help celebrate her birthday. I missed my family and finally felt decent enough to show my face.
But the day before I was scheduled to get on a bus and head to Salisbury, I got into a fight at a downtown bar that resulted in six stitches in my forehead and a broken plate-glass window. I (along with the jackass I’d been fighting) was arrested for disturbing the peace and destruction of property.
Instead of celebrating Mom’s birthday that weekend, Sam and my father drove south and bailed me out of jail. I was grateful, but once again, I refused to go home with them. At first, they were livid, all indignant sputtering and shaking heads, but when that didn’t work, they begged me. But it didn’t matter. I wasn’t going. Maybe ever. I was nineteen years old. They couldn’t force me to do anything I didn’t want to do. I promised my father I wouldn’t drink anymore and sent them on their way. It was the best I could manage.
There was a fire burning somewhere near the highway, and the smoke was stinging my eyes, so I rolled up the truck window and closed the vents. It took about thirty seconds for the interior of the pick-up to feel like a sauna, but I figured I’d outdrive it in another five minutes or so.
The Rolling Stones had given way to David Bowie, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and Johnny Cash. Sam had always loved Johnny Cash, had a big poster of him in his bedroom growing up. He’d even tried to style his hair like Johnny’s his senior year in high school. I used to make fun of him, Steady Sam jamming to the Man in Black, the ultimate rebel. My big brother usually just smiled and turned up the volume until he couldn’t hear me anymore.
About a month after I’d been arrested, Sam showed up at the restaurant one evening, sat at a table by the bathroom, ordered himself a steak and baked potato for dinner, and waited there until I finished work.
We took a walk along the river and talked. Well, Sam did most of the talking. I just listened and nodded my head every once in a while.
Sam had done some long-distance detective work and talked to my old roommate and a couple of my former teammates. They’d told him all about Lexie and the partying. I told him that my behavior was my own responsibility and no one else’s. Lexie wasn’t some kind of blonde she-devil who had corrupted a good old, innocent country boy; I had done that all by myself. As for the partying, I admitted I had let it get out of control, but claimed I had a better handle on it now. All of which was a big fat lie. Hell, I was buzzed that very night from stealing shots from behind the bar, Sam just didn’t know it.
After more than an hour of listening to him lecture, I told my big brother I loved him and appreciated the advice, but my feet hurt from working a double-shift and I needed to get some rest.
He asked one last time if I would come home with him, and when I shook my head, he pulled out an envelope from his jacket pocket and handed it to me. I opened it and found seven hundred dollars in cash. “Dad asked me to give it to you. He said to tell you it’s not much, but he hopes it helps a little,” Sam said, hugging me goodbye. “Maybe you can get your own place. Start taking better care of yourself.”
Two hours later, I had spent the entire envelope on cocaine. The coke barely lasted three days, and when it was gone, I was burning so intensely for another hit that I broke into my manager’s office at the restaurant and stole the petty cash. The whole thing had been captured by a security camera, and I was arrested later that night.
The truck window was rolled down again, the temperature dropping into the high seventies as dusk drew near, and I still felt the red-hot rush of shame spread across my face. I’d been a junkie, plain and simple. There was no other word to describe it.
For the past six months I’d been sending money home to my mother every other week to try to make some sort of amends. Each time a payment showed up in the mailbox, she’d call and try to talk me into taking it back (“Buy yourself a cell phone, honey, or some new clothes…”) but I refused. It wasn’t much, a hundred and fifty here, a buck and a quarter there, but it was the right thing to do. Mom and Dad had wasted so much money on me—fines, court costs, attorney fees—it made my stomach ache just thinking about it.
I spotted a rest stop up ahead and pulled off and parked. I was thirsty and needed to pee something fierce. On the way to the restroom, as I was crossing the parking lot, I watched a father lift his young son into a car seat, buckle him in, and kiss him on the tip of his nose before closing the door.
I swallowed the lump in my throat and kept on walking.
After my second arrest, I had no choice but to move back home. The restaurant fired me, of course, and my friend had finally had enough and kicked me out of his apartment. Then, there was my father. For the second time in as many months, he made the drive south and bailed me out. But this time his help came with one condition: that I move back to Salisbury, get a job, and keep myself out of trouble.
I had no money, a police record, a forthcoming court date, and no place to live.
So, I went home.
At first, it wasn’t so bad. I moved back into my old bedroom and being there seemed to help settle me. My father called in a favor and got me a job laying asphalt with a road crew working the next county over, so I didn’t have to worry much about running into any old friends. The closest I came was one afternoon when I spotted my ex-high school History teacher while I was working the flag and directing traffic. I turned my back on her before she could get a good look and she went on her way without recognizing me.
I stayed home at night. No bars, no parties, nothing. I spent most evenings watching the Orioles on television and reading my old comic books.
It wasn’t easy, but some nights I forced myself to go downstairs and watch the game with my dad or sit on the screened-in back porch and keep my mom company while she played solitaire. Despite everything I’d done, talking to my mother was still laid-back and comforting. Without putting any pressure on me, she spoke about my future like I still had a chance. “You just have to get your feet back under you,” she would always say, with a hopeful smile. “It’ll happen, just give it time.”
My father wasn’t quite so uplifting. He was friendly and supportive enough, but there was a coolness to his words and body language, and he was all about today, never once talking about the future with me. Plans, hopes, dreams—not a word. It was like he believed I had already ruined any chance I had of making something of myself, and now the best I could do was remain invisible and not bring any more disgrace to our family.
When I was growing up, my father would often mow the lawn or tinker around out in the garage until dusk, and then he’d come barreling inside, give my mom a big sweaty kiss, fix a plate of cheese and crackers and pepperoni at the kitchen counter, grab a couple cold beers from the fridge, and he and mom would camp out in front of the television for an hour or two watching their “shows.” That all stopped when I came home. I never heard a peep of disagreement from either of them, but they definitely started spending more time apart than together. I still saw Dad snacking on the occasional platter of cheese and crackers, but the absence of those cold beers spoke volumes. Dad had made damn sure not a drop of liquor remained in the house. Not even my mother’s favorite wine.
I wish I could say that I had stopped drinking anyway, but that would be a lie. I had purchased a small silver flask from one of the guys on the road crew and had taken to sneaking shots of vodka during lunch breaks and before bedtime. I didn’t miss the parties and beer at all. Hard liquor delivered a much better burn.
Sam came home for two weeks during winter break and it was then that I finally understood how deeply I had fractured our family. He greeted the three of us at the front door with a big smile and hugs, and then we went into the kitchen to drink hot chocolate, listen to his stories, and poke fun at his scraggly attempt at a beard. It felt good being all together again, laughing and joking, almost like old times.
After our parents had turned in for the night, I heard a knock at my bedroom door. “Come in,” I said, knowing it was my big brother, expecting the good feelings to continue.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The smile was gone from his face. He eased the door closed behind him and sat on the edge of my bed, his eyes holding not a hint of his previous warmth.
“Don’t say anything, just listen,” he whispered, waggling a finger in my face, and I could see then he had come to hate me. “When you screw up again, and you will screw up again, because that’s what fuck-ups do, Mom and Dad are not going to be there for you. I’m not going to let them. You’ve wasted enough of their savings already.”
I started to say something but he cut me off. “Shut up, Charlie. Just shut up. Do you know Mom doesn’t go to St. Stephen’s anymore because of you, because she couldn’t handle the gossip? Do you know Dad was going to cut his hours last year, but instead he’s put in for overtime?”
I shook my head, unable to form the words even had I been permitted.
“I’ll do my best to keep up the act for Mom and Dad,” he continued, “so their holiday isn’t ruined like everything else you’ve spoiled for them, but you need to stay out of my way. I can barely stand the sight of you.”
He got up and started for the door, then stopped.
“I know you think this is what they want, you here under the same roof, but the best thing that could happen is for you to go away and never come back again. You broke their damn hearts, Charlie.”
I waited for him to slip back into the hallway and close the door, and then I whispered, “I’m sorry” to my empty bedroom.
The best thing that could happen is for you to go away and never come back again…
I moved over into the slow lane and wiped the tears from my face, listening to the horrible words ricocheting around inside my head.
Never come back again…
Almost like a warning.
My heart thundered in my chest as I remembered the details of that night, the sound—the conviction—of my brother’s voice, the glint of loathing in his eyes.
Never come back again…
I spotted the neon glow of a Wal-Mart sign in the distance and hit my turn signal for the next exit.
Sam returned to school the first week of January and, as far as I knew, our parents never suspected a thing.
Work was slow—the asphalt crew transformed into a snow removal crew during the winter, and it had been an unseasonably dry couple of months—so I started getting a serious case of cabin fever. To alleviate that dreadful sensation of the walls closing in, I started sneaking out a few nights a week after my parents went to sleep, something I hadn’t even resorted to in high school. It was easy. I simply crept down the carpeted hallway and staircase, slipped out the basement door, and walked into town.
I didn’t go to local bars or even liquor stores.
Instead, I crept around like a phantom in the night, ducking into shadowy alleyways and behind trees and rows of shrubbery each time headlights swept across the roadway. I glimpsed the glow of television screens in windows and heard muffled conversations beyond closed doors and envied the people living those lives. It was during those late night walks that I truly realized what I had become: an outsider.
Sam came home for a long weekend over Easter break. Once again, he put on the fake smile and phony friendly voice, and Mom and Dad ate it up. The family was back together, that was all they cared about.
There was no closed door, follow-up lecture this time. We both knew it wasn’t necessary after the last one.
On the Saturday night before Easter, while we were hauling empty garbage cans up from the curb, Sam confronted me. “I know you’ve been sneaking out at night.”
I was stunned but managed to be defiant. “What in the hell are you talking about?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, Charlie. I heard you last night.”
“That was the first time,” I stuttered, cursing myself for being so stupid.
“You’re lying. I talked to Stan Burris. He’s seen you at least three or four other nights. Slinking around town like some kind of pervert.”
“Stan Burris is a fucking idiot.”
“Maybe so, but if you do it again, I’m turning you in.”
“To who?” I asked, my voice rising in anger.
He leaned the garbage can against the side of the house and walked inside without answering.
Despite the warning—hell, maybe because of it—I snuck out the very next night. And made the biggest mistake of my life.
It kills me now to admit this, but as the weeks dragged on that winter and my late night wanderings continued, at some point I crossed the line from innocent voyeur to petty thief. I broke into sheds and garages and cars and stole items ranging from purses and wallets to tools and sporting equipment. I kept the cash and sold the rest to a coworker on the road crew who owned a quarter stake in a pawnshop.
To this day, I still don’t understand why I did it. Virgil told me once I most likely started breaking the law again because it was what was expected of me at that point. I don’t know if he was right or it was just a bunch of self-help mumbo jumbo, but the truth of the matter was: I felt more alive when I was walking the edge.
On Easter night, after a long day of feasting on honey-glazed ham, scalloped potatoes, and green bean casserole, watching home movies, and playing a marathon game of Hearts at the kitchen table, Mom and Dad turned in early at shortly after nine o’clock. Sam followed an hour later. I closed up house and my bedroom door at ten-thirty, and then opened it again and snuck out at fifteen minutes after midnight, extending my middle finger when I tip-toed past Sam’s bedroom door.
As I made my way across town, I had the distinct feeling I was being followed, so I doubled back and hid behind a tree, searching the shadows for movement. But I didn’t see a thing. Not even a roaming dog or cat. Chalking it up to paranoia and my overactive imagination, I continued on my way until I found an unlocked work truck parked along the curb near the intersection of Broadview Avenue and Tupelo Road.
I eased the passenger door open, quickly switched off the interior light, and was about to lift a silver tool box out of the back seat, when I heard someone call out behind me.
“Hey, what the hell you doing?”
I turned to run, but before I made it more than five or six feet, I was tackled to the ground.
“Fucking punks stealing my shit.” The man was large and strong and pissed off. I elbowed him in the head and rolled out of his grasp, started to take off running again, but he grabbed my ankle and held on for dear life.
I spun and tried to kick him away, but he was too fast. He twisted my leg and sprang to his feet, throwing punches as he did. I felt a whoosh of air as the first punch missed my nose by less than an inch, and then a fist glanced off the side of my head and my ear started ringing. I quickly back-pedaled, struggling to stay on my feet, but he kept coming.
“Kill you, motherfucker,” he bellowed.
I believed him, too.
He lunged and caught me on the shoulder, and I felt my left arm go numb. He immediately reared back and attacked again. I ducked and he missed, and I instinctively put all my weight behind a wild right-handed haymaker.
I felt my knuckles connect with his jaw and heard two sounds almost simultaneously: the loud crack of bone on bone and the louder crack of his skull hitting the sidewalk.
He lay there on the ground, unmoving. I watched as a dark puddle spread around his head.
I stood there, knowing I was in big trouble, hearing Sam’s voice telling me he knew I would screw up again because that’s what fuck-ups do, my eyes darting back and forth in the darkness, torn between running away and banging on the front door of the man’s house and waking someone to call for help.
And then sirens shattered the night and I saw flashing lights getting closer, closer, and I knew the decision had been made for me.
I sat in the Wal-Mart parking lot and finished activating the Nokia burner phone I had just purchased, along with two candy bars and a bottle of Gatorade. Then I punched in the numerical code printed on the back of the plastic card and added ninety minutes of airtime. That was more than I would need.
Once I was sure the phone was working, I pulled out of the lot and merged back onto the highway. It was dark now, going on nine o’clock, and the traffic had grown even lighter. I left the radio off.
After a few miles, when I felt ready, I grabbed the phone from the passenger seat and called a number by memory. It rang three times before it was answered.
“Hello? If you’re selling something, you need to take a hike.”
I laughed. “Dude, you sell tractors.”
“I beg your pardon. I am a distinguished merchant of only the finest farm equipment in the land.”
“So you’re pretty much a used car salesman.”
“Your words hurt me, Charlie. Deeply. Now what can I do for you and whose phone are you using? I don’t recognize the number.”
“I picked up one of those cheap throwaways. I called to tell you that my father died. I’m on my way home as we speak.”
The sound of the television in the background went silent and Virgil’s voice changed. “Ahh, damn. I’m sorry, kid. You okay?”
I shrugged. “I think so. Lots of thoughts bouncing around inside my head.”
“That’s normal, Charlie. You and your father had a…complicated relationship.”
“You mean I was the black sheep of the family and ruined his life, don’t you?”
“That’s bullshit. You made mistakes and so did he. You’re both too stubborn for your own good.”
“Anyway, I just wanted to let you know in case I don’t make it back for the meeting next Thursday.”
“That’s fine. You know you can always attend a meeting at home, if you feel the need. I can look up the details for you if you’d like.”
I surprised myself by agreeing, “I’d appreciate that.”
“Charlie, you know it’s okay to say you called to tell me about your father because we’re friends, too, right?”
“I mean we are friends, Charlie. I’m more than just your sponsor.”
“I know that.”
“Okay, just making sure. I think you need to be reminded that you’re a decent person once in a while. Not too often or you’ll get a big head, but every once in a while is okay.”
“Don’t mention it. Now tell me about those thoughts bouncing around your head.”
“Ahh, you know, reliving the past, trying to figure out why I did the things I did, the usual.”
“Play, rewind, play, rewind, and so on, is that how it goes?”
“You know it.”
“Just remember what I always say: The past is the past for a reason. Learn from it and move on. Believe in the good things.”
“What good things?”
“Don’t start with me, boy.”
I smiled. “Yes, sir.”
“Let me ask you something before you go, Charlie.”
“Do you remember when you first started coming to meetings in Burtonsville?”
“You remember old lady Henderson?”
“She was an old witch, crotchety and cranky as hell. No one liked her very much, including me.”
“Well, you changed all that. You were the new guy but you took the time to talk to her about her family. You didn’t let her nasty-ass mouth scare you away. You even fixed her car that one night in the parking lot.”
“So what’s your point?”
“My point is you didn’t have to do any of those things. She was one of those people who made it very hard for others to reach out and help. But you did it anyway.”
“My other point is you have a good heart, Charlie Freeman, and that’s rarer than you think. You’ve made your mistakes and paid for them. Accept the fact that other people—other good people—also make mistakes. Sometimes big ones. You have to forgive and move on. That big heart of yours will lead you to good things soon enough.”
For the second time tonight, I wiped tears from my face. I wasn’t much of a crier, never had been, but that goddamn Virgil had a way with words. But it was more than that. I wanted to believe the kind things he said about me so badly it made my heart ache.
I checked the time and was surprised to see that it was nearly ten o’clock already. Another couple hours and I’d be back in Salisbury for the first time in almost seven years. It didn’t seem possible, both my long absence and my unplanned homecoming. My father was dead. I was an ex-con. It all felt like a bad dream.
I remembered waking up my father one night when I was probably only seven or eight years old after I’d had a particularly scary nightmare. Instead of being angry at me for interrupting his sleep, he’d taken me into the kitchen and poured a big glass of milk and we’d gone outside into the back yard and sat side-by-side on the picnic table next to Mom’s garden.
He put his arm around me and pointed out Mars and Venus in the night sky and showed me how to find the Big Dipper and the North Star. We talked baseball and fishing and monster movies and I asked about the bullfrogs and the crickets that were making so much of a racket that night. Then, and I remember this as clear as if it were yesterday, I asked him about fireflies. What did they do? Where did they come from?
After a long pause, my father looked at me and said, “Well, you know how I told you about frogs and the different purposes they serve?”
I nodded. “They eat insects and bugs, but they also get eaten by fish and snakes.”
He pulled me closer. “That’s right. Fireflies are a little different. Sometimes I think God creates something special just to remind us that the world is beautiful, that magic still exists.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Well…like the Grand Canyon for instance, or the ocean or the moon,” he said, pointing high above our heads. “And fireflies.”
“Fireflies are magic?” I said, looking up at him, transfixed.
“I think so, Charlie. I really do.” And then he hopped down off the picnic table and headed for the house at a jog. “Stay right there. I want to show you something.”
He returned a couple of minutes later with one of Mom’s canning jars. “If you don’t tell her I poked holes in the lid, I won’t.”
“What are the holes for?”
He smiled. “Come and see.”
I followed my father into the darkness then and he showed me how to catch fireflies with my bare hands, carefully, so as not to harm them. We ran in circles, chasing magic that night, slipping and falling on the wet grass, laughing and yelling under the stars, just the two of us, a father and son dressed in pajamas, best friends, and nothing else mattered in the whole world.
I blinked away the memory and reached for the phone again. I had purchased it for a specific reason, and it was time to put it to use.
I punched in the number and half hoped that I had remembered it incorrectly.
My hands were shaking.
I heard a familiar voice and a loud beep.
I left a brief message, my voice strong.
I hung up and glanced at the clock.
Ninety more minutes, and I would be home again.
Salisbury was a working-class town with a population of nearly 20,000 people. But it seemed smaller than that. Divided into a half-dozen slices-of-pie communities by several large farms, the houses were modest and well maintained, the land low-lying and flat and much of it thickly wooded.
I tapped my brakes as I approached the old Pepsi bottling factory and was not the least bit surprised by the lack of change it had undergone. I had worked my first job at the plant—the summer I turned fifteen—hauling cases of empties out of the back of trucks and sorting them onto a conveyor belt. The three-story, white-washed building looked exactly the same as it had when I was a teenager.
Another couple of miles and I slowed again as I drove past the Perdue Farms corporate headquarters. Perdue Chicken was the town’s largest employer, providing work for more than 2,000 residents, including my father and Uncle Bobby. Even at this late hour, the parking lot was full and the windows blazed with light, the night shift just getting started.
Everything about the town looked the same to me—the high school, post office, pizza shop, even the gas stations—like I had stepped into a time machine. I guess it shouldn’t have shocked me as much as it did, considering it had only been seven years, but for some reason I couldn’t put my finger on it did. Seven years felt like a lifetime.
I stopped the truck and stared at the little league field where I had first learned to play baseball. My father had been my first coach. He’d shown me how to field a grounder and lay down a bunt.
On the move again, I crossed over Winter’s Run where Sam and I used to fish with our friends for perch and sunnies and catfish, and where we would swim on hot summer days, swinging from an old tire and hurling ourselves into the deepest part of the creek. I remembered when I had landed wrong and cracked my head open on a rock one Fourth of July. Sam had carried me home over his shoulder for almost a mile. Mom had almost fainted when we’d walked in the front door, both of us covered in my blood.
I followed the winding road parallel to the creek for another couple of miles and reached the old wooden Hanson Road Bridge at five minutes before midnight. I pulled to the dirt shoulder and parked and turned off my headlights, and when my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could just make out the silhouette of a car parked on the opposite side of the bridge. I couldn’t tell what make it was or if there was anyone inside, but it didn’t matter. I knew whose car it was.
He had gotten my message.
I climbed out of the truck and stood at the mouth of the bridge, searching for movement. I could hear the rush of water flowing over the rocks below, and the familiar smell of creek mud and algae bloom greeted me. High overhead, the breeze shifted and a sliver of moonbeam filtered down through the trees.
I had kissed my first girl standing on this bridge: Carol Burnside. I’d been fourteen years old and head-over-heels in love with my next-door neighbor. Six months later, her family moved to Pennsylvania and I never spoke to her again.
I started walking across the bridge, slowly, eyes scanning, when a voice came from the darkness: “Charlie, is that you?”
I froze. “Sam?”
I heard footsteps on gravel and my big brother walked into view. His hair was cut short and he was wearing a gray suit minus the tie. I was surprised—and annoyed—to realize he looked younger than me.
He smiled nervously. I could tell he didn’t know whether to shake my hand or hug me. Instead, he did neither. He just stood there, staring. “It’s good to see you. I couldn’t believe it when I heard your message.”
“It was you,” I said, getting right to business. “You followed me that night.”
The smile vanished.
“All these years…you must think I’m so fucking stupid.”
“I don’t think you’re stupid, Charlie.”
I put a hand up. “Shut up, okay. Just…shut up. It’s your turn to listen.”
He nodded and looked at the ground.
“That night you came into my room…you told me ‘The best thing that could happen is for you to go away and never come back again.’ I thought it was a warning, but it wasn’t, was it?” I clenched and unclenched my fists. “It was a promise.”
“I didn’t know what else to do. You wouldn’t listen—”
“You followed me that night,” I said. “You were the one who called the police.”
“You almost killed a man.”
“It was an accident. I was trying to get away.”
“I knew you were using again during winter break. I saw the signs and I didn’t know what to do.”
“I wasn’t using!” I screamed in his face, and he jerked back from me, shielding himself with his arm like I was going to hit him.
I wanted to. More than anything. I wanted to choke him and throw him off the damn bridge. “I haven’t touched drugs in over seven years, not since that night in college.”
“That’s great, Charlie. It really is.”
“I knew someone was following me. I even doubled back and checked, but I didn’t see anyone.” My shoulders sagged. “You called the police on your own damn brother.”
Sam looked down at his feet again. “I’m sorry.”
I laughed then. I couldn’t help it. “You’re sorry?” I held my arms up toward the sky. “Hear that, everyone? He’s sorry!”
“All these years, not one visit, not even a phone call or a fucking postcard.”
He was crying now. “I wrote letters—”
“I did. I wrote lots of them…I just couldn’t get up the nerve to mail them. I still have them, Charlie. Hidden in my office. You can read them if you want.”
“No, thanks,” I snarled. I felt the heat rise in my face and my hands curled into fists again. I took a step toward him.
“I don’t care what you do to me,” he said, holding his ground, “but will you please wait until after the funeral to tell Mom?” He wiped his nose with his suit sleeve. “She’s fragile. I don’t think she can handle any more right now.”
I was trying to decide whether to floor him or tell him to go to hell when Virgil’s voice whispered inside my head: Accept the fact that other people—other good people—also make mistakes.
I hesitated. Sometimes big ones.
I lowered my hands. You have to forgive and move on.
I turned and started walking away, slowly counting to ten inside my head. That big heart of yours will lead you to good things soon enough.
“You won’t say anything, right, Charlie?” he called out from behind me, his voice edged with panic.
I waved a hand in his direction, but I didn’t turn around and I didn’t stop walking until I reached the truck.
I made a left on Cherry Avenue and followed the familiar winding curve up over the hill and there it was in the distance.
My breath caught in my throat and my eyes welled with sudden tears. I quickly wiped them away.
The lights were on in the kitchen, and I could see my mother’s favorite rose-covered curtains still hanging in the window.
As I pulled into the driveway, a second light turned on upstairs—in my old bedroom—and I saw a dark shadow flit across the window. My mother was still awake.
I sat inside the truck for a minute, gathering myself, and then I grabbed my knapsack and got out. Crickets whirred in the open fields around me and although I hadn’t noticed a single one while I had been driving, dozens—maybe hundreds—of fireflies danced in the night sky, blinking their tiny yellow-green lights.
I turned in a slow circle, eyes wide, mouth hanging open, staring with astonishment. I had never seen such a sight in my entire life.
Sometimes I think God creates something special just to remind us that the world is beautiful, that magic still exists.
I slowly reached out and caught a firefly in the palm of my hand. It blinked a friendly hello to me and fluttered away.
Fireflies are magic?
I walked to the other side of the truck and gazed into the back yard where I could just make out the dark shape of an old picnic table sitting next to Mom’s garden.
I think so, Charlie. I really do.
For a fleeting moment, I thought I glimpsed two figures sitting there, and then they were gone.
When I turned back to the house, the front door was standing open and my mother was hurrying down the porch stairs.
I dropped my knapsack and ran to her.