During the tumult of Vietnam, half-brothers follow extreme paths that tear them apart and challenge their survival. John lashes out, smothered under the shadow of his overachieving brother. Tony enlists in the Navy to pursue his convictions. Mistaken identity propels one, duty hardens the other. Their mentors and lovers transform and entangle their journeys in directions neither could imagine.
Two Brothers Two Shadows~Tony RollinsSpring, 1962~Iblocked another sloppy, open-handed swing, but they were getting more forceful as Dad grew frustrated and angrier. My gut wrenched with a confusion of emotions. I wanted to pull back a fist and lay into the man. Wanted to, with every ounce of venom inside of me. Maybe the pity interfered. Nothing worse than hitting a kid, than hitting a drunken cripple.“Wha’d I tell you?” my stepfather slurred. “Wha’d I tell you about the skateboard?” I backed away. The smell of stale beer and cigarettes wafted on his breath. This was the longest the man had maintained his focus for a year. A hell of a thing for the mean son of a bitch to focus on.Paul Ruud two-stepped forward in his crawfish shimmy, a new torrent pressing me back. I danced the man across the front walk as quickly as I could to get this new abuse out of sight of the neighbors. The son of a bitch wouldn’t stop, taking us through the length of our tiny garage. My lower lip swelled. Wasn’t the first time. The right side of my face burned from that first, unexpected slap.Even without the case of beer in the man’s gut I could have pasted him. I didn’t join the boxing team freshman year for my health. Well, maybe I did. Survival is good health.But I had to live with the bastard tomorrow. There are thresholds that can’t be re-crossed. Also, the man talked about the missing chunk of his skull. What if he fell and—could that really kill him?In two more steps I’d be cornered. What would he do then? How long could the jackass keep this up? Before my shoulder was against the wall, I pushed away a half-step and slid across the man’s left leaving him behind like a picked defender. I ran. Ignored the rant to, “Get the hell back here.” No point in putting up with that shit. I headed for Carl’s but decided I’d be too easy to find there. I didn’t want Carl to see my tears or my fat lip, either. Didn’t need any conversation about how stupid the man was. Worse, the pity. The man was an ass, but also the only father I’d ever known. Even looked up to him, once. When Paul was sober, he was okay. As fun as any of my friends’ fathers—before he got sick. When he came home from the hospital, the world was different.He always had a temper. Didn’t require alcohol. The man probably deserved all the shit God dumped on him. His karma. Though, what ten-year-old deserved to be a cripple? Surgery on his itsy-bitsy brain and he was worthless to his former employer. No job. The drinking got worse than it ever had been. Not just measured from quitting time to bedtime.I passed Carl’s, glanced over my shoulder to make sure my stepdad didn’t follow me. I’d already decided where to go, to be alone, but no way I was going to double back and take the chance of crossing the man’s path. I continued to the end of the block, two lefts, and walked for the desert fifteen minutes away, ten if I walked fast. A four-strand barbwire fence and I might as well be a hundred miles from another living being. Peace, among the ten-foot-tall mesquite and mounds of cacti. I wiped my running nose, a last tear, and looked around to make sure no one caught me crying. Didn’t need that getting around. Especially with my teammates. I had a reputation to uphold. There was a gaggle of punks playing with their toy trucks in one yard but they didn’t look up. Still, I picked up my pace, took deep breaths to calm down, and shoved my hands into my pockets. The sun wasn’t below the mountain, but there was a chill in the air.Mom would be home in an hour, and it’d be safe. The bastard would have gotten over it.Hopefully.~Iflipped off the overhead light at the door and felt my way to my bed. Sliding between my sheets, the quiet hung in the air. Only the mumble of the TV down the hall disturbed it. Maybe I’d get out of any conversation with John. “T— Tony?” My luck didn’t last.“Not a good night to bug me.”“Th—thanks,” John said. I didn’t answer right away. “Yeah, well. I hope you enjoy the stupid thing. It’ll probably be the last thing I ever do for you.”“F—first time I can r—remember you doing anything for me.” John got through the sentence with only a couple stutters. Amazing. “Figures I’d get the crap slapped out of me for my trouble.”“How’d you know Dad would forget to stop and buy me the skateboard like he said he would?”I rolled my eyes. “Maybe I forgot he said he would.”“Y—you’re an ass, but y—you don’t forget. Y—you sure had to go out of your way to piss him off this t—time.”“Not really. Not that hard.” John mumbled something under his breath I didn’t catch, but I didn’t bother to grunt a huh. “T—true,” John said louder. “I don’t get why he went so crazy.”I studied the subtle change on the ceiling from the light that filtered under the door, as the intensity from the living room TV shifted. The shadows from the bare blinds intersected it all like the jail bars. I exhaled hard. “Because. I as much said to his face we can’t count on him to do anything he says he’s gonna do.” I interrupted John’s next question. “Go to sleep. You’re way past bothering me.” The tone of a siren echoed, not a real one, from the TV twenty-feet away. ~Ijerked awake, fists clenched, wishing Paul Ruud was dead. The memory loomed fresh, raw enough I didn’t have to experience it in a freaking dream. I relived it often enough awake. It never seemed to get far out of my mind—still. As always, bizarre pieces of detail burned crisp, as though ensuring the pain remained vivid enough to draw blood. Like the black and red tartan pattern of Mom’s skirt that day, when she walked me outside on the school’s front lawn to explain Ruud wasn’t my last name. The hot, muggy air. The silver-blue sky. The smell of fresh-cut grass. We’d just moved to Missouri and I was registering for sixth grade. I’d always been known by Ruud. Suddenly, these people said I had to register with the name on my birth certificate.I took the document from Mom. The seal on the lower-left corner remained another of the incredibly sharp memories, daring me to argue the legitimacy of the piece of paper. The blocks on the form for last and first name read Rollins, Anthony. Rollins—Anthony.Rollins—Anthony.I turned the paper over. Perhaps Rollins was a joke and Ruud would appear when I flipped it back. But it still read, Rollins—Anthony. I handed it back to Mom, wanting to rip it up, sniffing hard to keep my nose from running. I refused to cry. Dad, evidently my stepdad, told me all the time, “Only girls cry.”Chapter TwoTony Rollins~Paul Ruud woke us for school like any other day. He sang his usual, “Wadda ya know, it’s mornin’ already.” He flipped the light switch on, off, and on again, walked away leaving the door open.The man would return to the kitchen to pour himself another cup of coffee. In the living room, he would sit in the dark and nurse his coffee and massage the immobile, right side of his face, as though that would reverse the paralysis. The bastard didn’t say another word as we got ready for school. Acting as though we didn’t exist had nothing to do with the previous afternoon. John and I trudged through our normal morning ritual. Dad couldn’t wait until we were out of his hair.What’d the asshole do all morning, until he headed for the bar?John and I sat in the kitchen and ate our cold cereal. We muttered, “See ya,” when Mom headed for work, otherwise remained quiet. None of the normal threats of death, teases about hair sticking up, being uglier than vomit. Not a single exclamation of booger eater or peter pecker. We finished our breakfast in record time. Paul usually had to get after us to hurry. That morning we rose without harassment, left our bowls in the sink, brushed our teeth, and collected our books. My stepdad would find the quiet refreshing. A relief. He wouldn’t care what caused the silenced banter. He would repeat the silence everyday if he could. The SOB complained often enough how he hated our unending teasing, though he didn’t use the word teasing. He probably didn’t even realize we didn’t tell him goodbye, or even look at him as we passed him in the living room on the way for the door. It was coincidence we left the house together today. John usually left first to meet Leslie. Two doors down, I turned away from John without saying anything, without as much as a glance over my shoulder. I was glad to get away from him. Not in the mood to even look at him. I pounded on the door a couple of times and walked in. Carl’s mother shouted, “Good morning, Michael,” from the kitchen. “It’s Tony, Mrs. Stott.”“Good morning, Tony. You’re early.”“Couldn’t be. You must be running late.”From the couch, Carl mumbled, “If Mom ran a minute late the world would come to an end. At least she thinks it would.”“I heard that.”Carl waved a lazy hand toward the kitchen and rolled his eyes. He jabbed a spoonful of cereal into his mouth, hefted his bowl high when I plopped down on the couch with him. Between crunches he asked, “What was with your dad aping-out yesterday, man?”I caught his eye. Shrugged. Looked back at the TV as the front door flung open and the broad cornerstone of our threesome filled the doorway. “Hey, dudes! How’s it rockin’?” Mike shouted, with way too much energy. He slammed the door behind him and strode toward the couch.“Good morning, Michael,” floated from the kitchen.“Hey, Ms. S. How’re they hanging this morning?”I smiled without taking my eyes off Captain Kangaroo. A cackle rewarded Mike from around the corner. “You’re going to burn in hell young man, you know that?”“That would be like another summer in El Paso without the blowing sand,” Mike shouted, still louder than necessary. “You hear the big news, Ms. S?”From the other room Mrs. Stott’s chair screeched against Linoleum. The petite woman with premature gray hair appeared at the doorway sipping her coffee, peering over the mug at the newest arrival. “Who got suspended now, Michael?”“No. No one I know.” Mike looked at me and Carl for a signal that maybe hehad missed something. At Carl’s calm headshake, Mike continued. “Mr. Ruud lost it yesterday, like totally. The police came and everything.”Police? I jerked a look at Carl. He nodded. “You were long gone.”“They didn’t cart him away,” Mike continued. “I guess no pool of blood, no harm. Huh? I guess a kid can get the snot beat out of him as long as there’s no dead body.”Mike put his feet on the coffee table, his eyes now on the Captain. I sensed Mrs. Stott studying me but worked to keep my eyes on the TV. I couldn’t do it. Her expression was clear. She had dealt with her own abuse. One Saturday night after the three of us finished off a couple six packs and Carl felt in a rare, chatty mood, he talked about his dad. It wasn’t flattering. He didn’t mind being raised alone by his mom now.Mrs. Stott pivoted to return to the kitchen, but hesitated. She spoke softly, as though that would keep Carl and Mike from listening. “If you ever need to talk, Tony, you know I’m here. If you ever feel like talking to anyone besides these two delinquents.”Mike groaned, placed his hand over his chest, and fell over sideways as though mortally wounded. Carl smirked. I nodded to Mrs. Stott and quickly averted my eyes. ~Stepping off the front stoop, Mike pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. Carl took one from the offered pack. I shook my head. Inhaled enough smoke at home from two parents who raced to finish a pack every night. My clothes reeked ten minutes after coming off the line on Saturdays. My anger popped as I thought about how Paul lit up at the dinner table as soon as he emptied his plate, as though the smoke stayed on his side of the table. Might as well have waved the smoke of a trash fire at me. At least Mom waited until she carried her plate into the kitchen ten feet away before she lit up. I wish my nit-brained friends wouldn’t smoke. But it was part of the tough persona they thought they had to wear. “There’s a game today, right? Guess that means you won’t be joining the posse when we cruise Parkland. Rumor is the Snakes are looking for us. Might be fun.”I kept my thoughts to myself. The Vultures, the wannabe gang we’re members of, couldn’t find a fight if flashing-neon billboards pointed the way. They talked tough and made nuisances of themselves, but thankfully hadn’t gotten anyone killed yet. The highlight of most of the members’ rap sheet was the number of detentions for cutting class—that I knew of. There was plenty of bragging I didn’t believe for a second.I got tired of the Goody Two-shoe shit I participated in, but it kept me from having to spend too much time with the numb-nuts that made up the gang. The losers weren’t worth hanging with, but the same faces had been a part of my life since we returned from Missouri. Membership did have its privileges, like admittance to the unsavory parties they held when someone’s parents erred in leaving their butthead son alone for the weekend, the slutty girls that hung with them. Mostly it was the beer I could