Authors: Glen Erik Hamilton
For Amy Leone
First, last, and all stations in between
HEN I STEPPED OFF
American Flight 9601 at Sea-Tac, I could hold the sum total of my personal possessions in my one good hand. Passport. Travel warrant. Cash and cards and my army tabs and ID, all held together with a large paper clip. My cell phone. A red rubber ball that the physical therapist at Landstuhl had given me.
And a single folded sheet of yellow notepaper. A letter from my grandfather.
Tar abhaile, más féidir leat.
Irish Gaelic. My grandfather’s English was just fine after forty years in the States. But he used the language of his childhood in County Antrim when he wanted to keep our conversations private. Which was most of the time.
Translated, the words written in the old man’s bold cursive scrawl said:
Come home, if you can.
It was 0430. None of the rental-car agencies had customers waiting. I stepped up to the first counter, where a woman stood and stared blankly down at a computer screen.
“I want something with horsepower. Full-sized,” I said.
“Are you a member of our Platinum Club?” She didn’t lift her gaze from the screen.
I was not. I gave her my ID and driver’s license and credit card. She glanced up to compare the photographs on the cards to my face and got her first look at me.
It woke her right up. Her eyes flickered to the thick, white scars that furrowed my left cheek and jawline, then up to the slimmer line that bisected my eyebrow on the same side.
I’d carried the facial scars for more than eight years, since my first rotation overseas. I was used to people’s reactions. The marks on my face were nothing important, not like a lost limb or a blinded eye. But they were always the first things anyone noticed.
The rental agent was polite. Her welcoming expression slid quickly back into place.
“If … you’ll just fill this out, please, Mr. Shaw.” She passed a legal-size form across the counter and placed a pen beside it before turning her eyes away.
Come home, if you can.
Home had been anywhere the army had sent me, for the last decade. Fort Lewis, Fort Benning, Baghdad, and a dozen forward operating bases in Afghanistan. A few other side trips between rotations. Home wasn’t the old house on Roy Street. Not anymore.
If Dono’s letter had stopped at the comma, I would have tossed it in the trash and gone back to squeezing the cursed red rubber ball. My left hand felt strong enough. There had been two intricate surgeries to correct the recent damage to the muscles and tendons of my forearm, when I’d caught some random shrapnel a few weeks before. But the arm still ached half the time, and I had been going crazy after a month of desk duty, waiting for the doctors to clear me for a rotation back to my unit. When Dono’s letter arrived, it gave me an excuse to apply for immediate leave.
Even so, I would have mentally told the old man to stick it, if it hadn’t been for the last three words.
If you can.
That passed for “please” in my grandfather’s way of talking. Made it an entreaty instead of a command.
If you can
scared me a little, coming from that immovable son of a bitch.
The captain running the travel assignments at Landstuhl had told me that the next available flight left out of Frankfurt to New York in two hours. I didn’t even pack a bag.
The rental agent took the completed form and started copying all the information into the computer. “How long will you need the car, Mr. Shaw?”
“Ten days,” I said. “Maybe less.”
She handed me the completed contracts and directed me to where I would take a shuttle out to the agency’s garage. I reached to put the papers into the breast pocket of my ACUs before I remembered that I was wearing civilian clothes. Jeans and a T-shirt and a gray wool zip-front coat, all purchased the day before in Frankfurt while I was killing time before my first flight. Only my tan combat boots were regulation. I had considered taking the uniform with me, but it was threadbare after too many industrial washings. Instead I tore off the Velcroed-on Ranger Scroll and Third Battalion tabs and other insignia and left the jacket and trousers in storage.
I chose a new black Charger off the rental lot and made it roar up the ramp and onto Interstate 5. North, into Seattle.
Ten years had done more than just change a few freeway signs. There was a train now, a light-rail running parallel to the freeway. When I reached the southern tip of the city proper, I saw the football stadium, as shiny and colorful as a giant music box against the dark background of the skyline. It had been brand-new the last time I’d passed this spot on I-5, heading in the opposite direction to Fort Lewis and a new life.
Land and sky were turning different shades of black by the time I turned off the freeway. I drove over Capitol Hill, east toward the hesitant dawn.
Dono might be up before sunrise, waiting for me. My grandfather’s
schedule had always been unpredictable. Some nights he would be in a mood and stay at a bar until dawn, lost in his own thoughts. Usually he drank at the same bar he owned, the Morgen, but sometimes he picked a different watering hole. A few places knew enough to just leave the big man alone with the bottle and ask him to lock up when he left.
I parked the Charger in the first available space, halfway down the block from the house. Roy Street was steep, like every other street running east-west this side of the hill. Before I got out, I turned the wheel so that the tires were wedged against the curb on the steep grade. Habit.
I looked at my old neighborhood for the first time in over a decade. Unlike downtown, it didn’t seem to have changed much. Two-story homes packed close together on small lots. Most of the cars were a few years old, but none of them showed signs of being permanent fixtures along the curb.
It was cold enough that the dew had turned to frost on the thicker lawns, and condensation formed on my lips and jaw as I walked up the hill. Damp leaves made the sidewalk slick.
I stopped at the top of the block to stare at my childhood home. The streetlamps around the house had always been weak, and their glow didn’t encroach far onto Dono’s property. No lights were on inside either. In the dimness, the old house loomed almost a full story above its nearest neighbors, on a lot half again as wide—a massive dark block that faced the cold and seemed to radiate it right back.
The foundation of the original house had been laid well over a century ago, when most of the eastern side of the big hill and the smaller slopes beyond had been pastureland. The years had been cruel to the house. By the time my grandfather came to own it—“bought” might not be the right word—the roof and walls sagged against the tough skeleton of the place. Dono had spent years razing and rebuilding what needed doing. The patchwork quilt of rooms he made of the once-grand home would not have pleased either a building inspector or a historical society, but since neither of those would ever be allowed inside, what was the worry? It suited Dono and his young daughter, my mother, well enough.
At least until she left him, just before I was born.
I walked up the long set of wide stone steps to the porch. The porch wrapped around the house, with the front door around the side, so that the street saw only windows with their lace curtains. After ten years away, I was ready to knock on the wide oak door and to see Donovan Shaw. I was his namesake.
The porch light was out.
The door was wide open.
My scalp prickled. The inside of the house was completely dark—and silent. The doorway made a gaping ebony rectangle in the middle of the dark blue siding.
There were no signs of forced entry. And your average B&E man couldn’t beat the heavy dead bolt and strike plate that I could just make out on the door, much less whatever custom alarm system my grandfather surely had these days.
could have beaten the lock. But then I had been Dono’s protégé.
A sound from deep inside the house. A soft thump, like an old refrigerator kicking on. Or maybe a footstep.
“Dono?” I said.
I edged inside. There was no sign anything was wrong, other than the door.
Still. Bad news and blasphemy, the old man would have said.
Three more steps until I could see into the front room. The sky outside the broad picture window had turned the color of a pale rose.
Just enough light for me to clearly see the body.
He was lying facedown, feet toward me, tall and rangy and dressed in dark brown trousers and a thick blue chambray shirt. The hair was more gray than black, different from the last time I’d seen it.
I ran to him, and as I knelt down, there was a crash from the rear of the house. The kitchen door, slamming open. Then footsteps, running off the back porch.
But I couldn’t chase after. There was blood on Dono’s head. A lot of blood.