There he went again. Eli Ebere disappeared into the foggy forest just before the break of dawn. The tall aspens consumed his figure as he steadily walked into the thick trees. His boots crunched on the leaves and twigs. His breath came out in steady breaths, but turned into fog as it met the cool air of November. He was hard to spot in his green pants and matching camouflage shirt. The green hat added the Army appeal to the outfit. A few more yards now and he would arrive at the spot he always went every day before dawn. The healthy aspen trees turned into burnt, scarred ones. The ashy grey leaves broke more easily under his feet in their fragile state. Black twigs rested underneath them, trying to hide from any other harmful source that could attack them.
The trees opened to a black space. About 50 yards diameter. The entire scene was black. Barely there stumps that battled through the fire last summer rested in random spots. No more leaves were here. They all had withered away in the flames.
The other object here that wasn’t black as night was the old grand piano sitting in the center of the clearing. The copper toned wood was chipped in a few places and washed out from mother nature’s weather. A few keys were missing and the bottom was black from the ashy material of the ground.
The mountains were barely starting to glow now. Eli didn’t have much time. He laid his weapon down carefully on the black leaves and twigs as he walked to the masterpiece that had seen better days.
The woods echoed beautiful noises as Eli placed his hands on the dull keys. They pressed easily under his calloused hands, meaning they had been played often. The birds chirped along with his lovely tune. Each note struck a special string in your heart. The dark forest was lit with magic. The mountains grew brighter and brighter. Almost as if Eli’s notes helped bring up the Sun. After the fifteen minute tunes Eli bowed to the piano. Thanking it for letting him play the old instrument. He walked backwards to his gun, never turning his back on the piano. That would be too disrespectful. Once he was armed and back in the thick of the trees he turned toward the camp. He heard a whistle symbolizing his presence to begin training.
The camp was small on the edge of Oregon. It rained nearly everyday and was hot on the days it wasn’t. The leaders were scary and the Chief was the most terrifying of them all. He had the cliche thick mustache and dark buzzed hair. He was built like a tank and had a scar across his left eye.
He met the other rookies by the flag pole. The red, white, and blue cloth waved in the air. The sun bouncing off its shiny pole. As the instructors began giving orders and the soldiers giving their understanding responses boot camp started.
The day continued just as every other boot camp day had been. Long, tiring hours exhausted the men. Eli was small. 5’ 6” to be exact. Some people say the smaller frame can give soldiers the advantage in fights. Well, this was not true at all. Eli was falling behind in the ranks. It wasn't long before he was to be kicked out and sent back to his family's small ranch in Texas.
Everyone knew about Eli’s boot camp struggles, it made the other rookies feel better about their performance in the camp. Eli was the worst there.
Lunchtime rolled around and everyone collected their food. Eli was shoved to the back of the line. He didn’t mind. He was always pushed around.
Eli thanked the man giving him his mashed potatoes and then turned to sit. He glanced around the small lunchroom that had square tables scattered through the room. His eyes landed on the table in the back that was empty. The chatter of the others drowned out his steps. He tucked his head down and squeezed through the thick crowds. When he was just about to reach the corner table a large body blocked his path.
Adam Robertson's 6’ 5” figure towered above Eli.
“What’s up, nerd?” Adam smirked at Eli.
Eli didn’t mind being called ‘nerd’. There was worse names he’d been called here.
“The sky.” Eli mumbled while staring at Adam’s shoes.
Adam had dark hair. It was buzzed to look like a mohawk in the center. His dark green eyes matched his military outfit. His face was boxy and rough. The scruff of facial hair on his lower face gave him the look of thirty when he was really twenty-one.
“Speak up, pee wee.” Adam demanded in a booming voice.
Eli glanced up. His glasses were resting on the edge of his nose. His clean shaven face was frail. Elis blue eyes contrasted against his light brown hair that was buzzed evenly.
Silent stares went back and forth between the two until finally Adam mumbled a few curses about Eli.
In the blink of an eye Adam flipped Eli’s tray of food and spilled it all over his shirt.
Eli closed his eyes in defeat. Others laughed and yelled. Eli fought hard to not glow red in embarrassment, but he felt heat in his cheeks anyways.
Adam high fived his friends. Among those friends was Alin Ebere. Eli’s older brother smiled at Adam, but after the bully turned his back Alin gave Eli an apologetic look. 1 ½ months ago Eli and Alin were drafted into boot camp. 1 ½ months ago Alin met Adam. 1 ½ months ago Adam and Alin were top of their class. 1 ½ months ago Adam and Alin began their torments to the rookies at the bottom of their class.
Eli specifically remembered Alin’s promise to their mother before they left.
“I’ll take care of Eli. He’s my little bro. I got his back.”
Those words didn’t last long though.
Eli went to the bathroom to clean off his jacket. He began to get frustrated when the gravy refused to unstick from the camo shirt.
The bathroom door opened and Eli glanced in the mirror to see Alin walk in.
“Sorry,” Alin began, “Adam can be like that sometimes. He’s crazy, don’t ya think.”
“Sure is.” Eli murmured.
“Are you mad?” Alin chuckled while looking closer at his brother.
“Mad, no. Wishing I had a brother who cares about me, yes.” Eli looked his brother in the eye now. They looked extremely similar, but Alin was taller and didn’t have glasses.
“Hey, don’t be like that.” Alin patted Eli’s shoulder. “I do care. I’m just trying to give you a chance to be more assertive. Stick up for yourself.”
“It’d be nice if someone had my back to help me feel assertive.” Eli growled.
“Tell ya what, next time Adam’s giving you a hard time, I’ll get home to back off.”
With that Alin left the bathroom. Eli smiled. His big brother was finally making good on his promises.
Eli went back to Lunch , but right as he got there the signal wailed through the air. He needed to return to training.
The next few days Eli struggled in camp. He always was the last one to finish the courses and in group events, he made the wrong move ruining it for the team. The only thing that kept him optimistic was playing the piano in the woods every morning. He was constantly dragging people down and as a result the Chief would scream at him often. He didn’t understand their anger. It was like they thought being mad would motivate him. It’s a weird philosophy.
When he found out they had to write an essay about boot camp training Eli was excited. He was always good at the on paper training. After everyone was finished the leaders thumbed through the essays. The room was tense when he looked around. Everyone sat at their desks in the small room with worried looks. Eli was puzzled by their expressions. It made him question the quality of his paper. If everyone else is worried should he be concerned?
“Well, these are awful.” Chief Donovan yelled with a sigh.
Eli’s heart dropped, he was so proud of his work.
“Except…” Donovan grabbed a paper from the stack.
“Ebere, Eli, good work. Go to dinner. The rest of you are going to stay here and write a different essay. Hopefully one much more impressive than these.” Chief tossed the other papers into the trash as Eli gathered his jacket and went to the door. A smile on his face.
A few groans broke the silence, but one voice stood out over the others.
“It’s okay boys. Pee wee’s too little to take any of our dinner. He’ll be gone soon enough and then we don’t have to waste our precious food on him any longer.”
The room erupted in laughter when Eli turned around.
“Don’t worry.” The room quieted at Eli’s voice.
“What?” Adam said leaning forward.
“Don’t worry.” Eli smirked. “You worry too much about me. If I were you I’d worry about getting your brain to turn on, so that you can get that essay done. In the meantime I’ll save you some of my mashed potatoes. But they might be cold by the time you get there.”
A few laughs bubbled out, but Eli didn’t stick around to listen. He turned on his heel and went to dinner with more confidence than any other day he’d been here.
Eli woke the next morning earlier than usual. He got ready quickly and went to the woods to play. He had a certain tune he just couldn’t get out of his head. He played for about 2 minutes and then he heard a snap!
He whipped around, but the early morning was too dark. He squinted into the darkness. When he felt satisfied nothing was there he shook his head and returned to playing. When he turned he felt two large hands shove him to the ground. The gasped, but ash and dirt filled his mouth. He spit out the grubby ground as two hands grabbed him and threw him to the ground again.
A large booming laugh rumbled the air and without looking Eli knew it was Adam. He felt the presence of more people and knew they were all of Adam’s bully minions.
“You’re such an embarrassment.” Adam laughed out while delivering a few kicks to Eli’s stomach. He heard the crackle of bones and knew a few ribs had cracked.
“You thought you could insult me in front of everyone then just go on like you did nothing wrong? I’m not even very mad about that now. Now, I find you in the forest playing the piano? I look for you in the morning, but you’re not there. No, instead you’re here playing an instrument meant for a girl. Maybe that’s why you’re so bad because you’re no stronger than a girl.”
Adam hit and kicked between his words. Finally he raised a bloody and beaten Eli from the ground and brought him face to face.
“You know what this means right? You’re gay! You always have been and now you’re so gay that you’re going to fail out of the Army. Such a disappointment.”
Adam dropped Eli to the ground. Eli accepted his fate. The sun was beginning to rise now. A glow offered him the opportunity to see who all was here. The typically Adam group was here, but one face caught his eye. Alin stared with thin lips at the discrimination in front of him.
Adam turned to one of the guys in his flock.
The guy pulled out his gun and began to fire at the piano.
“No!” Screamed Eli, but his voice was drowned out by the gunshots.
2 more people joined him as the already beat down piano became destroyed and no longer able to play.
Eli closed his eyes. He found that piano 4 weeks ago. He was crying because he was falling behind in the ranks. He ran into the woods and found the object that gave him closure, confidence, love, passion, and thankfulness in one instrument.
Adam laughed louder now.
“What’s wrong pee wee? Did we break your toy?” Adam leaned closer to Eli whose eye was starting to swell shut and lips were coated in his own blood.
“Careful Adam.” Said one of the guy’s firing the guns, “He might try to kiss ya if you get too close.”
They all laughed.
“Let’s get outta here.” Adam said as he delivered one last bone crushing kick to Eli.
They all filed out. Some said more insults. Others shoved him with their feet. Alin was the last to go out. He went to say something but hesitated. Eli looked at him.
“Promise.” Eli gagged out but it was muffled and nearly incoherent.
Alin closed his mouth and ran after his friends. He never turned back and never came back to help his little brother.
Eli felt his breaths growing rasper. Even though the sun was rising he felt cold. He was losing too much blood.
He crawled to the piano and rested his hand on one of the petals. Chipped wood and broken keys laid on the ground next to Eli.
A few tears streamed out of his eyes as he muttered apologies over and over again to the piano before his slipped into unconsciousness.
“Eli, my baby, wake up.”
Eli opened his eyes but the bright lights forced them to close again. After a few moments his eyes adjusted and focused on his mother looking down at him. Her hair was turning grey at the top and her eyes were wrinkled at the corners. Beside her was his father. His flannel was tucked into his jeans and his cowboy hat rested on a chair in the corner.
His mother broke into tears. Eli wanted to soothe her, but something was blocking his mouth. A clear tube streamed out of his mouth and was hooked to a beeping machine. He then realised he was in a hospital room. Plain tan walls enclosed around him. He then realised the many bandages around him. His leg was in a cast. His right eye was sealed with a bandage and many dark bruises coated his body. He remembered the beating he took and groaned as the pain finally started to string through his body.
“I’m so sorry, son.” His dad said with a choked voice. He’d never seen his Dad cry before, but he was about to now.
His mom and Dad stayed by his side explaining that he had three cracked ribs, a fractured tibia, broken wrist, and many torn tendons in various places. His jaw was dislocated and nose broken. His eye was punctured and the doctors can’t get the swelling down.
The doctor came in and said they have hope for his eye, but nothing promising. He should make a full recovery, but his tibia fracture was infected.
After a few hours Eli’s breathing tube was taken out and he started to talk though it hurt and was raspy.
He explained what happened to his parents, omitting the part about Alin stranding him in the woods.
He had been out for the past four days. Alin had visited a few times, but not since he’d woken up. When the Chief realised Eli was gone he sent a leader to find him 12 hours later. He was rushed to the Emergency Room. It’s a miracle Eli survived the attack considering how long it took to get help.
1 day after Eli woke up his parents had gone to get food. Alin knocked on the hospital door.
Eli flinched and looked away.
“Eli, I’m sorry.” Alin came to his bedside in a rush. “Are you mad?”
Eli turned to look at his brother with tears in his eyes.
“I’m not mad.” Alin relaxed with a breath.
“No, Alin I’m not mad, I’m disappointed.”
Alin tensed again and looked a Eli with panicked eyes.
“Disappointed doesn’t even cover it. I’m more than disappointed, I’m completely let down. You promised me, you’d help me and I almost died because you had to keep your status.”
Alin ran a hand over his head with worry.
“I know and I’m sorry. Adam said you were-”
“Wait, you still speak to him. What is wrong with you? It’s like I don’t even know you anymore!”
At that moment Mrs and Mr Ebere returned, but stopped when they saw Eli’s outburst.
“Well what did you want me to do Eli? Try and stop him? I’d be right next to you, beaten and humiliated!”
“You think I’m embarrased? I’m proud, Alin. Proud that I survive the bullies and know they can’t stop me. You are so afraid of being the weaker link.”
Eli turned to his parents.
“I lied about Alin not knowing what happened to me. He was there and he watched. He did nothing to protect me. Not a single word.”
Alin and Eli’s parents argued back and forth about how Alin couldn’t do anything to help.
Eli finally spoke up.
“Alin, you need to leave. You are so guilty that you are trying to make up excuses for yourself and now you’re believing them. Until you want forgiveness, you can leave.”
Alin turned to his parents.
“You heard him.” Mr. Ebere said with a glare.
“Fine, I don’t need you guys.” Alin stormed out.
Eli’s parents told Eli they loved him no matter what and complimented his strength.
Eli lost more than his physical strength that day. He also lost his best friend.
3 years later:
Eli locked up his office and walked out to the street while patting his eye. He limped to his car. Excited to go home and greet his fiance. After the military event his eye recovered, but still gets sore after a long day. His leg needed two more surgeries before it healed the best it could. He is forced to walk with a limp, but Eli’s thankful he recovered this much from the attack. He owns his own therapy business now. He treats veterans with PTSD. Alin was never seen again after their argument in the hospital. Word is he passed boot camp and was deployed across sees, but Eli’s family had shunned him from the family. They were so broken hearted that Alin turned out like he did. Adam was kicked out of boot camp and the rumour is he is currently trying to get back in and join any military branch that will take him.
He whirled around to see the owner of the voice.
“Hey, little brother.” He said with a sad smile. “I just got back from overseas. I came to see you.”
“Why?” Eli stared down at his leg.
“I’m ready to be forgiven. You told me in the hospital when I’m ready I can come back. I miss you and Mom and Dad. I learned a lot while I was gone. I learned life is precious and I need to cherish it with the ones I love. You were right. I made up excuses and I can’t take back what I did no matter how much I want to. I can only repair it now by making new promises. Ones to keep. I don’t expect you to forgive me right away, but I want a chance to get my brother back. I lost too much that day. Give me another chance and if I let you down then you can hate me.”
Eli stared long at his brother who had gained more muscle and some scruff along his chin.
“I never hated you. I’ve been waiting to hear those words and now that I have, you are forgiven.”
Alin’s genuine smile grew wide as he ran and hugged his brother.
“C’mon let’s catch up you can crash with me.” Eli said with getting in his car.
“Good, I was kind of homeless before I came to talk to you.” Alin laugheed with Eli.
Alin looked at me and said, “Thank you.”
Eli smiled and looked back at Alin, “Forgiven, but never forgotten.”