The old man opened the door to his study and sitting at his mahogany desk was a young man who hastened to close its right hand drawer.
Their eyes locked on each other.
"Why are you in my study," said the old man. "you should be asleep."
"I wanted to write a letter before bed Sir," came the young mans hoarse reply.
"In the dark?"
"The light of the fire helps me to think," he answered, pointing to the large brick fire place.
He ignored the young man's finger. The burning wood crackled softly as the old man hobbled, his cane jabbing into the creaking floor, towards a plush leather chair in the far corner. On it, rested his beige fedora and two tickets.
He paused halfway, his nostrils flaring. That aroma, it cut through the burning wood, overpowered his Northwoods cologne and pushed into the parts of his mind he kept locked in a bunker.
He crept closer to the desk, closer to the source. Behind a stack of thick manila folders hid a near empty bottle of whiskey and clutched in the young man's hand, which lay close to his lap, an empty glass.
The young man's eyes were bloodshot.
"I, I didn't know you drank — Sir," he stammered as the old man approached closer. The dim glow of the fireplace cast dancing shadows on the old man's face, giving his skin the quality of carved stone. A gargoyle come to life. Dragging behind him invisible wings made of the frigid December night.
The young man sat frozen in place, as if he were once again a child; his body weighted down by what might happen if he ever ran.
The older man reached his claw-like hand out, the years had made it stiff and ungiving. With a slight wince, he opened it and grabbed the empty glass out of the young man's soft hand.
He brought it up to his face, a few grizzly hued droplets clung to the rim. The scent rose and enveloped him.
The old man blinked his leathery eyes several times and turned towards the chair. He hobbled softly to it and retrieved his fedora, pocketing the tickets into his overcoat.
The young man watched the slow progress of the old man making his way to the door. With every step, he slowed, hesitating when he reached the front of the desk. His hand jittered as he laid the fedora on the mahogany desk. He turned his back to the young man and made his way to the window.
"Sir," said the young man. "Have you decided not to go with mother to the opera?"
The old man pulled back the thick drapes hanging over the window. Outside, snow drifted softly through the night sky, onto slick black streets, illuminated by warm street lamps. Two people stood, hand in hand, underneath the glow of one of them.
"I've never talked about him have I?" the old man said, keeping his gaze on the two silhouettes outside.
"Sir?" asked the young man with furrowed brows.
"You know, he was about your age when we were drafted," the two silhouettes clutched each other.
"He was quite the ladies man," he said watching as the two outside shared a deep kiss. They ended their affection as the lights from a distant vehicle crept towards them.
"We had no choice, but I didn't want to go. But he, oh he was quite patriotic and saw this as another opportunity to prove that he was a man."
The young man looked to the open door leading to the unlit hallway, to the farthest room from this study, his room.
The old man released the heavy drapes, obscuring the view to the outside. He leaned hard on his cane while still gripping the empty shot glass in his other hand. He turned and hobbled towards the fireplace.
"He, he always thought I was a tough guy, idolizing my every action," he said as he stood to the side of the fireplace. The light illuminated half his face, while the other side was draped in shadow.
"He didn't see me for what I really was."
The young man sat motionless and as the old man turned to face the fire, he folded the piece of paper in front of him and stuffed it inside his vest pocket. The silence between them was filled by the soft crackling of fire.
He scratched his tongue on his chapped lips and rose from the chair, his eyes searching the darkness of the hallway.
"I was supposed to keep watch one night, but I had just borrowed a bottle of whiskey from my non-superior officers quarters."
The young man's gaze fell upon the near empty bottle of whiskey on the desk.
"Very hard to get whiskey during the war. It was the first time I had tasted it; not a drink for a common soldier," he said with a chuckle.
The flames flickered in the old man's glazed over eyes.
The young man took a slow step towards the door, keeping watch on the old man's back.
The old man flung the shot glass into the fire. It shattered against the burning wood, sending the flames into a violent dance.
The young man jumped and froze in place.
"I felt a burning rise up my leg before I heard the gunshots," the flickering flames sent harsh heat at the old mans face; he didn't move, he didn't blink.
"I turned to fire into the darkness, right when the next bullet tore through my shoulder."
The young man studied him. Even for his age, his back appeared to be made out of a mountain side; nothing like his own wiry frame.
"I dropped my gun and smashed, face first, into the dirt."
The old man moved right in front of the fire and reached his arm out. His hand pushed past several picture frames sitting on top of the brick fire place. From deep behind all of the other frames he withdrew one which had been turned backwards; disturbing the small clumps of dirt that had formed around it after many years.
"I was on my knees, head in the dirt, like a child, screaming, crying — begging," the old man brought the picture frame to his face and blew off a cloud of dust before placing it face forward, in front of all the other picture frames; he focused on it.
"I, I heard foot steps approaching, closer, and closer. I thought they were closing in. Getting ready to finish me."
The young man couldn't see the picture, only the old man who, almost seemed to be — shaking.
"It was my brother, my little brother, screaming and firing his gun off like a mad man. He ran into the darkness leading three other men into the fray. I should have protected him, but in the end he had protected me."
The young man took several soft, slow steps towards the older man. He heard what sounded like sniffling, no, it must be the fire dying down.
"All his life he wanted me to see him as a man, as someone I could rely on. But it was I, I was the coward, I was the unreliable one," the old man stared directly at the picture, into the joyful eyes of his brother.
"The enemy was a group of deserters who had stumbled onto our location. They surrendered, but not before taking him, I was dishonorably discharged after the trials. I drank every day for months and one of the men had sent me the bottle of whiskey I had that day, near empty with a note attached to it."
The young man didn't remember seeing a note with the bottle he had found in the study. It couldn't have been the one.
"Later, that same day, I got a message that a woman had given birth to a certain boy — I put that bottle away, but never too far."
The flames crackled as they began to die.
"You have a striking resemblance to him," whispered the old man, staring at his brothers face. " I never could stand to look at you."
The young man stood still, head down casted as his jaw flexed.
"It was too much like looking at him — I couldn't, I didn't wan —," his voice wavered along with the flames. " I just wan —, know that I, you, never had to prove any — ."
The old man's shoulders turned rigid.
"I am so — ."
The young man closed the gap between them, his hand on the old man's arm. He gave it a gentle squeeze and turned him until their eyes met.
Tears fell from his weathered cheeks, dripped from his puffy nose, red eyes drowning in salt water, his stone like demeanor, cracked. He didn't know this man, no, this man's eyes, not cold or distant. The lines on his face were no longer the deeply carved out details of the gargoyle he had grown to fear. No, this man in front of him was vulnerable, defenseless, what he must have looked like growing up around the old man.
The old man's wrinkled mouth opened to speak, yet words did not arrive; in their place,
erupted a swelling,
Something odd bloomed in the young man's chest, it squeezed his breath away and he was once again a child; a child looking for the acceptance of an old gargoyle. He brought the old man close, burying his face into his chest.
Cried until no more tears could be spared.
And then, they cried some more.
When their bodies stopped trembling, they departed from each others embrace; both men lowering their gaze to the dying fire.
The young man reached into his vest pocket, retrieving his folded letter and crumpled it. They watched as the hungry flames devoured it.
"I'm going to rest now," said the young man, his voice hoarse.
He turned, placing his hands into his pockets and walked out of the study.
The old man watched him walk slow, down the dark hallway, fading away, into the shadows.
He turned back to the fireplace and gently grabbed the picture frame he had placed there. He hobbled to his desk, breathing deep and leaning hard on his cane. He sat in his plush chair, placing the picture frame next to the near empty bottle. He dug into his dress shirt collar and retrieved a thin chain with two dog tags wrapped in rubber bands. Removing the rubber bands, he stared at the pair; one, his, the other, his brothers. He wiped his warm cheeks with the back of his trembling hands. His gaze fell upon the right hand drawer. His cheeks went cold.
It was ajar.
It opened with a creak.
From it, he withdrew his U.S. caliber .38 colt revolver and popped the cylinder. He removed the lone bullet with in and gazed at the picture; his brother stared back at him, smiling.
He recalled the note he had received with the bottle and mumbled its words under his breath.
Then the bullet clanked,
as it came to rest;
at the bottom,
of the near,