Horns blared as Linda sped through morning traffic on her mission to get me to the airport. I was surprised at how well she handled the big Range Rover. Thirteen years of marriage and I seldom saw this side of her. My hand hurt from gripping the bottom of my seat but, when we arrived in front of the Delta terminal on time, I gave a sigh of relief. Despite it being a Thursday, the terminal was already packed with people frantically trying to make their flight.
“I’m proud of you for doing this,” Linda said.
I took a long look outside. She had been pleading with me for years to visit my brother Charles, but I always had an excuse of why I couldn’t go, usually involving work. Then about six months ago, I had a terrible nightmare where he slammed a door in my face and I couldn’t open it, no matter how hard I tired.
“Do you think this is the right thing to do?” I asked, “I haven’t talked to him in over a decade.”
Linda grabbed me by the coat sleeve and held my gaze with her sincere, brown eyes.
“If anything John, it’s a step in the right direction,” she said, “Charles always looked up to you. You’re his big brother.”
I tried to exit the vehicle when I felt another tug on my sleeve.
“You’re forgetting something,” she said and pursed her lips.
I smiled, leaned in, and gave her a kiss.
“Bye,” I said.
Linda smiled, then motioned to the back of the SUV.
“Say bye, kids,” she commanded.
Hidden in the back row, it took a second for Adam and Bella to look up from their tablets and give a distracted smile.
“Bye,” they said but quickly went back to playing their games.
Grabbing my luggage out of the trunk, I walked toward the terminal. Before entering, I did a quick look back, hoping to see my wife's face once more. Though I would only gone for the weekend, I was never good with good-byes. I hoped to blow her one last kiss, but she was already gone.
After speeding through security with my TSA precheck ticket, I made it to my gate with 30 minutes to spare. A heaviness lingered in my gut. I took a shot at the bar to settle the nerves.
That did the trick.
Being the manager of a large mutual fund portfolio, nothing calmed me down faster than a little whiskey. If not for this little remedy, working for a company that had little patience for failure would have crippled me long ago. The six figure bonuses were nice motivators too.
Finance itself is pretty boring. I remember when I went to school, the classroom was the dullest place to be, making me have to pop all kinds of pills just to stay focused. It wasn’t the healthiest lifestyle but my classmates were very cut throat. It a dark and emotional time for me but, luckily, Charles was always one call away. Night or day he would listen to me talk for hours about the all problems stirring in my head. One night, after a particularly long conversation, he hopped on a train and traveled six hours to come see me. It was completely unexpected. Especially since I knew he didn’t have much money in those days.
“Now boarding flight DA138 to Denver,” a woman said over the intercom.
I slammed another shot, threw a fifty on the bar, and hustled over to my gate.
There were lots of perks to sitting in first class, one being that people tended to keep to themselves. I didn’t have that luxury this flight. The old man sitting in the window seat to my left was a talker.
“Where ya headed?” He asked after we got to cruising altitude. He beamed at me with gray eyes that matched the color of his coat. His smile was genuine, so I answered.
“A small town, couple hours south of Denver.”
Short and vague, I thought this would be the end to our conversation.
“Oh. What are you doing out there?”
I looked down at my Rolex.
This was going to be a very long flight.
“I’m visiting my brother.”
“I had a brother,” he said, “He passed away not too long ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“It’s alright. I cherish every memory I have of him. We stayed pretty close after we got back from Vietnam.”
He stared at me, expecting something, but I had no idea what to say.
“Are you two close?” He asked.
“When’s the last time you saw him?”
“About ten years ago,” I said, “At my mother’s funeral.”
“That’s a long time. Do you guys talk on the phone often?”
“No. We both live very busy lives.”
He looked out the window. His opaque reflection stared back at me like a judging specter.
“Life goes by quick,” he said, “It’s easy to get caught up in what you are doing. Then you look in the mirror one day and notice your age.”
“That’s why I work hard now, so I won’t have to later.”
The old man shrugged and leaned back in his chair.
We didn’t speak for the rest of the flight.
When we landed, I grabbed my luggage and headed over to the rental car desk where the clerk quickly ran my reservation.
“I see you are booked for an economy car for the weekend, is that correct?”
I placed my Platinum card on the desk for her to see.
“Oh, I’m sorry, let me upgrade you.”
Shortly afterward, I was driving off the lot in a Ford Mustang, zipping in and out of traffic until I got onto the freeway and set the cruise control.
As I stared out at the road in front of me, I imagined my brother’s contagious smile as he saw me standing in his doorway. Never did I make the effort to go see him, he always came to me. It never seemed to bother him, he was always just happy to see me; Always coming up with interesting ways to make the most of our time together.
I drove south for an hour, got onto another freeway, and followed it west for another hour until I arrived at my brother’s address. Being so far out in country, I expected to see a small brick house. Instead, there was a long gravel driveway that led to a gorgeous, cabin style home. With the light of the setting sun before it, the front windows glowed as if they were made of gold.
My heart beat faster, making my hands shake. I took a few shallow breaths, drove up the driveway, and parked next to an old Ford Ranger. Nine years ago, Charles sent a picture of that same truck to me over text, explaining how happy he was to own such a rugged vehicle. I was at work, so I told myself I would respond after I got home, but never did. That was the pitfall for many unopened messages. Then, about three years ago, he stopped reaching out to me. By then, I was too plagued with guilt to reach out to him.
“Just get out and knock on the door,” I whispered, “Charles will be more than happy to see you.”
Closing the door gently behind me, I walked up the wooden steps, rang the door bell, and adjusted my tie. The door opened. Expecting Charles, my smile faded when I saw my brothers wife Sarah instead. She smiled but looked confused. She was thinner than I remembered.
I couldn’t tell if she was in shock or awe.
“Hey, Sarah. Long time no see.”
“I’d say. Wow, this is quite the surprise. How have you been?”
She ushered me inside. I followed.
“Good. Work has been very rewarding this year.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
The inside of the house was just as cozy as the outside, with framed pictures lining the entry way. Smack dab in the middle was a picture of Charles and I. It was the first and only Thanksgiving we spent together after I moved away and he practically had to beg me to take the night off after he came to see me. Looking at our smiling faces, with heaping plates of food in front of us, I was glad I did.
“That’s one of his favorite pictures,” said Sarah.
There was a certain tone in her voice I didn’t understand.
Suddenly, there was the sound of fast moving feet. My head snapped toward the stairs. Two boys rounded the last step and dashed toward me.
“Uncle John!” they cried.
Surprised by their size, I was hardly prepared for their double teamed hug.
“Alex, Cyrus! Easy. You boys are so big now!”
“That’s what happens when you’re gone for so long,” said Alex, “We grow!”
I laughed but looked around the room.
“Hey,” I said, pointing to a vacant wall in the living room, “Where’s that giant TV I bought you guys?”
“Dad, hung it in the Honeymoon Suite,” said Cyrus.
“We host weddings out back by the pond,” said Sarah, “The Honeymoon Suite is for those that stay the night. Charles built it himself.”
“He did? Is that where he is now.”
No one responded, leaving me hanging for an answer.
“Yes, he’s working late,” said Sarah, “I’ll take you to him in the Gator.”
Alex was about to speak but Sarah shot him a stern look.
“You two go back upstairs and finish your homework.”
They dutifully obeyed, whispering to each other as they left the room. Sarah and I walked out back, hopped in the Gator, and drove down a dirt road that led to a large willow tree perched atop a lonely hill. Soon, the rest of the property came into view. It was beautiful. A rustic barn snuggled next to a pond that had water as still as glass; The golden clouds drifting high above reflected upon its surface. A few horses and cattle grazed in the fenced in fields beyond the barn. We came to a stop beside the tree. I immediately got out for a better look.
“Wow! Charles built all of this!”
“With a little help from Alex and Cyrus.”
I pointed at the barn. There was a light shinning through the upstairs window.
“Is that were he is now?”
After a few seconds of silence, I finally turned around. Sarah was tearing up. A sharp pain knotted in my gut.
Sarah pointed to the base of the willow tree. My heart stopped, chilling the blood in my veins. At the base of the tree was a polished tombstone.
“No,” I breathed.
My legs felt weak.
“When…when did this happen.”
Sarah wiped her eyes.
“About three years ago. He went to bed complaining about a headache. I offered to give him some Tylenol, but you know Charles, always one to tough things out. That night he died of aneurysm.”
Unable to keep myself standing, I dropped to my knees while glaring at her, tears streaming down my red cheeks.
“Why wasn’t I told?”
“You went your own way, John. Always have, always will. Charles tried his hardest to reel you back in but, after you stopped talking to him, you two became little more than strangers.”
I stared at my brother’s tombstone, knowing that nothing I could have done would have prevented his death. I just wished my last memory of him wasn’t the disappointed look he gave when I said I had to leave right after mother’s funeral.
“It’s okay, man,” I remembered him saying, “I know you’re a busy guy.”