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Bringing Him Home
They’re bringing him home today.
Momma and Daddy.
They’re gonna pick him up from the airport today and bring him right back here.
To where he belongs.
It’s been three year since I last saw my big brother. I remember that time. I remember Momma and Daddy driving him away, to where the other military men were going to get him. They were gonna take him someplace far away, someplace with a long, grown-up name. Oversees, I think. But I’m not sure. I’m no good with those grown-up words.
I remember how tall my brother looked in the car, as Momma and Daddy drove him away. He looked all fancy in his new uniform. With a shiny helmet and too-big boots. I thought it was kinda funny, then. His uniform, I mean. I teased him that the brown and green spots made him look like the big old leopard frogs we chased down by Miller’s Creek. I remember that.
They’re bringing him home today.
I was proud of my big brother, back when they took him away. I remember that, too. I remember that my chest felt all puffy, like I was full of feathers. Like I was gonna fly away. All because of the shiny helmet and the too-big boots…I use to brag about them to the other kids on the playground. I use to say that my brother was a hero. A grown-up hero, like on TV. That he had a helmet and a gun and was all the way over in Oversees shooting terrorists and making their brains and guts fly all over the place. The teachers would get mad at me, for “being too graphic,”, but I think that they were proud of him too. Their eyes would get all blurry and they’d pat me on the head and say that my big brother was a very brave young man.
I wonder what they meant by that?
I think that my brother was brave, back when he lived at home. I never ever saw him acting chicken. Not even when a scary storm called a tornado went over and the wind made the house scream like a trapped rabbit.
I wonder if there’s lots of tornadoes in Oversees? I wonder if that’s why my brother had to be brave to go there?
They’re bringing him home today.
I’m really happy. I’m not so sure that Momma is, though. When the military men called on the telephone and told her that big brother would be coming home, she started crying. Her eyes got all red, and her voice got all gaspy, like she’d been running for a loooooong time. “Discharge,” she kept saying, over and over, “Discharge. Honorable discharge. Purple Heart. Yes, yes, very brave.” It was kind of scary. I asked her what it all meant, but all she said was that big brother was hurt and coming home.
She didn’t say how he was hurt.
But I think I know.
I think that his heart was hurt. I think that’s why he gets to come home.
I think that something in the war cut him and hurt him, so bad that his heart turned purple.
It must have stung somethin’ awful.
But who cares, ‘cause today he gets to come home. Today he gets to run with me and laugh with me and play checkers, just like he use to. Today he gets to drink Coke and drive me up to the ice cream store and mess up my hair the way he use to.
I can see the car coming up the road, raising big clouds of brown dust behind it. At first it’s like an ant in the distance, all shiny and black, and I feel like I can crush it with my thumb. But when it comes closer, I can see that it’s Daddy’s sedan. And there are three grown-ups inside.
I feel like I should run out to the car, but something holds me back. There’s a sickish feeling in my tummy, like I forgot to study for a big test. My heart starts beating faster and faster.
I wonder if he’ll recognize me, now that I’m all big? Three years can change a body somethin’ bad.
I wonder if he still looks the same?
I wonder if those boots fit him yet?
The car pulls to a stop, and everything’s real quiet-like. Daddy opens his door and steps out, looking down like he’s lost something. His leather shoes raise little storms of dust on the gravel.
Momma gets out next, with her eyes all red and shiny, and I can barely breathe because I know, I’m just positive, that something is really, really very wrong.
And then the back door opens. And a pair of boots gets out. Followed by a pair of legs in frog colored pants. Then a torso, with only one arm attached. Then a neck, then a head. Then a face. A scarred, sad, scary face. And I know, in that moment.
It’s not my big brother.
My big brother is lost.
This is a strange face, a lost face, a dead face. A zombie face. A scary, dead, zombie man, with cold fish eyes and an empty expression. It has my brother’s nose, and mouth, and eyebrows. It breathes like him and sneezes like him. But it’s all empty inside.
The army men hollowed him out. The terrorist men off in Oversees. They strapped him to a table and cut out all his insides and mixed them together and lost some pieces and burned others. They took away his smile and his arm and replaced his eyes with empty fish-eyes and turned his heart purple.
They killed my big brother, way off in Oversees.
The war up and killed him.
And then they sent him home anyway.
I stare at the stranger, the broken man before me. I know that I shouldn’t. I know it’s rude. I know that I ought to run up and hug him and beam and act all proud.
But I can’t. All I can do is stare at the empty. The empty eyes in his empty face. The empty sleeve hanging limply from the empty body.
“Sweetie, come hug your big brother. He’s home.”
Momma’s voice is dripping in syrup. It makes me feel a little sick, and I need to run away. Far away from here. From this.
“I’ll get you a Coke,” I volunteer, running inside. I hide up in my room on the second story and stare out the window. I gather my dolls around me—Flora, Molly, Antoinette… I hug them real close and scrunch my eyes shut real tight and pray to be protected from the zombie man. I wish my dolls were fairy godmothers that could scare away the zombie and bring my real big brother back to me. But when I open my eyes, nothing has changed. ‘Cause when I look up, Momma and Daddy are leading him inside. His legs wobble, like an old man’s. Like Grandpa’s.
My new zombie brother is very old, it seems.
I know I can’t hide forever. Sometime, I’ve gotta come out of my room. And go down. And face… him.
Momma starts calling for me, so I take a deep breath and walk calmly down the stairs. It feels like a game of pretend. Like we’re all just little kids, telling ourselves that the monster under the bed is really only an old teddy bear.
Momma’s smile is plastered on, way too big, and almost ugly. Some of the paint rubs off on me, and suddenly I am smiling, too. A fat fake smile, like a grown-up lady’s. I walk into the kitchen, cool and grown up. I open the fridge door, cool and grown up. Back straight, head high. I step elegantly into the living room, a princess at a fancy ball. The zombie man is slumped into a chair, staring at something that none of us can see. I present the frosty bottle, as if I were granting his deepest wish.
“Welcome home, big brother,” I say, and my nervous voice squeaks like an old swing set.
He looks down at me, curiously, like I’m some sort of alien which stumbled across his path. Then a slow grin spreads across his face, dripping like spilled ink. Light bulbs spark behind his eyes, dim and dusty, but still there. Half hidden, half covered, half dead, but still there. Almost familiar. He reaches out with his remaining hand and ruffles my hair. Slowly, gently. But the touch of the hand is something I remember. His forehead is puckered in a half-wince, and I know that the pain is a scar that will never really leave him. But he recognizes me.
And I recognize him. The pretend smile melts away.
My own brave, big, grown-up, beat-up, half-dead brother.
He’s really alive.
Not OK, but alive.
Even with a missing arm and a purple heart, he’s still him.