Palo Alto Weekly 25th Annual Short Story
The car broke down again. No. Not just broken – it had the flattest tire I ever saw as well. Just behind me, Dad knelt in the gritty mess of weeds and asphalt, his black hair sticking up, white shirt plastered against his neck from the heat. If Mama'd been here, she'd've smoothed down his unruly hair, and wiped the smudges of dirt off my face. "Caroline," she'd say, "come and play bingo in the car with Devon."
But that wouldn't happen. Devon, who contorted himself into knots in the backseat to pull faces at me when no one was looking; Devon, who spent his time at school sitting on top of tables, just daydreaming of traveling; that Devon, he was gone.
"Carrie," Dad said. "Come hold this for me for a sec."
Elbows blackened from leaning against the spare tire, I hurried over, held whatever tool he wanted. Some wrench, probably. During all the time we worked, I didn't raise my head. Nothing to see but the underside of the car. My hair untangled itself from my ponytail, until it hung limp and dirty-yellow around my face. It was dirty, too, from travel across three states. Dad didn't notice, or if he did, he didn't comment, because Devon was down in Alabama, and we had to get to him. Helping Dad had always been Devon's job, ever since he grew big enough. Only a baby when Devon went to first grade, I'd followed him ever since I could walk. Mama named Devon after a place in England, because it sounded so pretty, but for all that we never traveled anywhere of importance. At school Devon daydreamed, and no punishment could reach him. At home he played puzzle games with me.
"Nine men's morris," he said, "Come on, Caroline."
"I'll lose." I always lost. It never mattered. While he played, Devon told marvelous adventure stories, with jungles, submarines, great battles. Nine men's morris is a puzzle where only one piece is left at the end. Devon could play faster than anyone. We were playing the night he told me his great secret.
"Tire's fixed," Dad said now. He straightened. You could see how little he looked like Devon then, for while Devon was stringy, and hardly seemed to look at anyone, being occupied inside his own head, Dad was stocky and if he dreamed of anything, you'd never know it.
"Why didn't Mama come?" I asked once we were in the car. Dad looked at me, then at the radio, but he didn't switch it on. The war played on television and radio all the time, fires in the jungle, soldiers with parts missing, something wrong about their eyes. I watched eagerly at first, to see if Devon would be on TV, in the jungle, where he'd always wanted to be. Then I started to have nightmares. After that we never watched the news.
Inside the car, the temperature burned oven hot. I went down to bare feet and argued with Dad about taking off my T-shirt. He said no daughter of his would be seen in an undershirt like a boy, so that was that.
"She didn't come because it would upset her," he said at last. I knew he meant Mama. Before Devon volunteered to go, she'd put on lipstick and argue with Dad about going out dancing. Devon could've gone anywhere as a volunteer, some relatively safe branch of the army, but he'd always wanted to travel. He chose the jungles. The arguments in our house got worse after that, what with Dad threatening never to sign Devon over at all, since he was underage. Later, after Devon became MIA, Mama swore at Dad. "Why didn't you get him back?"
"Why didn't you?" I asked Dad now.
"What?" he asked. He leaned forward, brushed the hair stuck to my face. That was against the rules. No one-handed driving he'd told Devon. When I learned to drive, he'd tell me the same. Then he knew. He put both hands back on the stirring wheel, staring straight ahead at the blacktop, and at the sky, which was beet red like the dirt here. We didn't talk for hours. In darkness, we stopped at a rest stop, and I fished about for the blankets fallen on the back seat floor. Dad stayed up front, leaning his head forward into his hands. I put his blanket up on the front seat, and still he didn't move. Then he remembered manners and mumbled thank you. "I did what I thought best," he told me. It came out a whisper. "You remember that."
"It wasn't best," I said, louder than the roar of trucks passing by the road. "It wasn't right. You could've called him home." The fact he only whispered made me angry.
"Home? Devon wanted to go, Caroline. He was going to have a future."
Was going to have. That stopped me. Mama would be too upset to come, he'd said; I suppose he hadn't thought of me. Or maybe he thought me stronger than that. Devon wasn't MIA anymore, but in a hospital. The army would've sent him home to us, only Dad said we'd fetch him. No son of his would be transported back like something unclaimed. He'd gone off with great bunches of people, and I guess he came back into the States the same way, but Mama begged Dad not to let Devon go about lost with strangers. Like he was a little boy. They didn't fight about this, not at all.
"Devon never gets lost," I said. Which was true, Devon being the best in the wooded areas around our house. These were deep and tangled, the gullies around trees undercut by ancient streams, the light filtered through blue and eerie. He'd taken me out there. We always went together, usually on Tuesday, though I don't know why.
"I was proud when Dev went out there," Dad said from the front seat. I didn't answer him. Dev had no future at school with his abysmal grades. That was why, I assumed, our parents allowed him to go at all. The fighting Irish, Dad roared the night Devon broke it to him and Mama. Like de Valera, the Irish rebel. There'd been trouble to pay, of course, which is why Dev told me first. He'd set down the last man, leaving the board wiped clean. He'd given me a thumbs up and a wicked grin, like he always did, until I cursed him, shoved at him. I wasn't really angry, though. It was the principle of the thing. We'd played at fighting so long, after games, that we couldn't let go of it.
"You'd better not let Dad hear you," Devon said. "Swearing."
"He's heard it before," I said, which was true.
"I'm going off," Devon said then.
I glanced at him, chewed a ragged thumb nail. "Where?" I honestly hadn't thought it through, would not have connected Devon with the men in green shirts and helmets, camo netting, helicopters and blood. Not even if you'd pressed my nose to the television screen, the pixels large and dilated, and told me, "There, that's Devon. There's your brother." Not even then. And that would come, at any rate. That was the future.
"I signed up today." Devon told me, the freckles across his face standing out. I sat up. It occurred to me that he was pale, that perhaps he was ill or deeply afraid, or regretful, or a hundred other things. But I didn't ask him. I didn't care. My eyes felt hot. I sprang up then, kicked the nine men's morris board as far as I could. Not far enough. The wooden pegs flew from their holes. Several rolled under the couch; others slid into unknown places, hidden under the striped couch, the coffee table, Dad's chair. I still found them, months after. I stumbled across them like hidden sins. Something would hurt my foot, or I would discover one, sweeping by the rug. Each time I cried.
"What's gotten into you?" Devon asked. The concern in his voice brought tears to my eyes. I thought of the two of us sneaking about the back woods, imaginary rifles slung about our shoulders, hunting rabbits, sitting by cobwebs, doing nothing but being quiet. I'd been mistaken. Silly. I'd thought of Devon as older, a child like me, and I was wrong. He grew up. In one night. Without me. He'd left me behind him.
I felt Devon's hand on my arm. I tried to jerk away, but Devon wouldn't let go. "I want you to stand with me," he mumbled. "Tonight. When I tell Mama and Dad. I need you to."
I didn't. I'll remember that all my life. If I wasn't there, if I didn't see it happen, he'd never go. I heard it from my room, face pressed against an ancient mohair grizzly I'd pitched under the bed years ago and swore I didn't sleep with anymore. Surely there'd be shouting, but that wasn't so. Instead, a relentless quiet stream of voices rose and fell in the kitchen. I listened hard in spite of myself. Dad's questions. Devon's answers. Mama banging pots and pans, asking everyone if they wanted slices of toast. Later, of course, I learned more: that Devon had enlisted after school, without anyone's permission. They might've stopped it even then, Mama and Dad, by disputing his enlistment. I'm only saying. He was, technically, not even eighteen yet.
By the time he reached that age, the letter came.
That day was clear. Ninety degree heat and rising, a sky so blue that the rippling clouds looked folded, pleats under an iron. I played under a clothesline tent. Not dolls and tea, or anything dumb like that, what do you take me for, but that kind of day calls for a tent. The sound reached me then, a wrenching shriek, so odd I believed at first that the O'Shea's dog, Belle, who liked to sprawl out all over the blacktop on hot days, had been run over at last. Neighbors ran and murmured. My knees itched from the grass, and still I could not make myself get up to find what had happened. Maybe I knew.
Dad came, his fingers twitching the folds of my tent. His boots under the hem of the sheet speckled with grass.
"Carrie," he rasped. "It's your brother." He never called Devon that. "Your mama's gone to the neighbors. Not all that bad, sweetheart, but they don't know where he is."
"Missing," I said. I imagined Devon missing. Wiped clean, lost under the couch. Small. Lost.
I thought Dad would do something, order me out of the tent, or lift it so he could see me. He didn't. After awhile, he hacked and snorted, an action that made me imagine his nose, flattened a bit on the end. When Dev was real little, he'd walloped Dad across the face with a ball. His nose never sat quite straight after that, and bore a dark spot that people mistook for a birthmark. He'd rub it while he thought. I often wondered if he was remembering during those times the manner in which he'd gotten it. I listened intently until the snorting stopped, which was quick enough. Then his boots went away. I heard a thwack. He chopped wood like that, broad logs wet with sap. It covered up the buzzing of the bees in the yard.
Later on, I thought it the same as Mama's cry, the splitting of wood. I covered my ears, tried not to think at all. Dad's boots came back. He crawled into the tent, pulled me on his lap. I was so big by then that my legs stuck out awkwardly.
"The fighting Irish," he said quietly. "De Valera and the bloody rebels." He repeated it, then Devon's name, just once. Willing Devon to appear. As if he could ever make Dev do anything. We rocked, Dad humming. I remember very little except that he was there. Mama was at the neighbors, Dad with me, and Devon.... Then I would remember all over again. Dev, gone. When we crawled from the tent, it'd turned night, and cold. Dad picked me up and carried me into the house like a child, the tent flapping emptily behind us.
They wouldn't let me see Devon. Very sorry, but rules...children carried germs. The soldiers would only frighten me. After we'd traveled all this way. Nothing Dad said deterred the nuns, impassable as those at our home church.
"Carrie's come to see her brother," Dad explained, steel in his voice. He pulled me along corridors, a nun after him. We realized of course we'd no chance of finding Devon without the nuns, and halted so fast that the sister nearly ran into us.
"Fourth door," the nun said. "Third bed on the left."
"Thank you, Sister," Dad said. "God bless."
The sister nodded wearily, but did not leave. When we stopped in front of the bed I thought she'd made a mistake. The man in front of us looked nothing like Devon. Stringy like Devon, had freckles. But far thinner, with a large bandage around his head, a bloodied sore across one cheek, in a pair of grey flannel pajamas Dev would've laughed at. The sister explained: A barrage of firing, all Devon's company gone.
"Aiming to have a scar like mine?" Dad tapped him on the arm, a clumsy gesture. Devon stared through him without recognition. This frightened Dad like nothing I'd ever seen. His voice dropped to a whisper. "Devon," he called. Louder. "Devon James!" Calling us home at dusk.
I'd stepped close to the sister, rolling the peg loosely in my fingers. It clattered to the floor. The sister bent, but I clung fiercely. I'd carried it in my pocket the whole trip, hunted wildly for it in Arizona while Dad cursed the broken car. One of the wooden pegs. The rest were at home, but I'd brought this one for my brother. I held it up, the polished wood shining in the light. It blocked Devon's oddly blank face. I thought of the log it had once been, the lathe that'd shaped it. The irony struck me when I was much older, the solitaire piece. When I handed it to Devon, his eyes focused for an instant.
"He knows it!" I cried, happy as if I'd taught him.
"Carrie," Dad said. "These things take time." I repeated it. Dad gripped my shoulders and that alone stopped me. I believed Devon was lucky then, and I do still. We brought him home, and in time he grew nearly the same. Neighbors commented it was as if he'd never left.