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Heaven Should Fallby Rebecca Coleman
The signs for Baltimore-Washington International Airport began to appear above the highway ten miles out. "Keep right." Cade shot a glance at my side mirror, then shifted two lanes over in one graceful, if reckless, maneuver. I braced the dowels of the two miniature American flags against my lap, but they barely shivered. Cade and his little white Saturn coupe were like a boy and his dog. He spent half his life in the thing, and there was no reason to doubt his skill at handling it.
"I bet he's dying to get off that plane," said Cade. "It's a fifteen-hour flight from Kabul to Baltimore. That's a crap-load of Nicorette."
I grinned. "So if he seems really cranky, I shouldn't assume that's his normal personality."
"Nah. He's a cool guy. Getting shot at for three years probably makes a person a little edgy, but he'll mellow out fast enough." He felt around in the console and, finding it empty, said, "Pass me the mints, will you, Jill?"
"You've got one in your mouth already."
"Yeah, but it's almost gone."
I reached into the neatly arranged "auto office" box at my feet and retrieved the Altoids tin from a side pocket. "Cade, you're a mint addict."
"Usually you're not complaining."
"The first step is admitting you have a problem."
His brow creased above his sunglasses. "I thought it was believing in a higher power."
"No, that's the second step. That a higher power can restore you to sanity."
A white sign appeared above our heads, marked with a rainbow of coded indicators. Cade turned down his Dave Matthews Band CD, as if quieter music would help him see the signs better. "'Arriving Flights,'" he read aloud. "We're coming to get you, bro."
We navigated the labyrinth of the parking garage and emerged into the airport. Once through security, our gate passes in hand, we joined the crowd gathered around the walkway cordoned off for the soldiers. The air was electric with anticipation. We could see, through the window, the plane pulling up to the gangway, setting off a noisy cheer and the waving of handmade signs drawn in red and blue marker. Young mothers strained to see through the glass, leaning heavily on the handles of their strollers, as if exhausted by the journey. Senior citizens stood patiently alongside, the men wearing trucker caps embroidered with the names of units and platoons, the women in sweatshirts hand painted with cheerful flag themes. Cade passed his American flag off to a little girl, then unclipped his sunglasses from his T-shirt collar and shifted them to the back pocket of his jeans. When I gave him a funny look he explained, "I don't want to stab Elias with them when I hug him."
Then the door opened, and a great wave of a cheer rose up as the first soldiers started down the walkway. Among the colorful crowd, their tidy uniforms—buttoned and tucked, the digital camouflage in subtle shades of sage and moss—gave them gravitas and dignity. So many hands to shake, I thought,
so many people to work through, when surely each one must want nothing more than to collapse in a recliner with a beer. One soldier after another worked his jaw around a piece of gum, and I thought about what Cade had said on the highway.
At last Cade's searching gaze snapped into recognition, and he uncoiled his arms from their crossed position against his chest. "Hey, dude," he said, clasping Elias's extended hand, then pulling him into a hug unimpeded by the flat ribbon of the walkway marker wedged between them. "I missed you, man."
For a year now—ever since Cade and I began seeing each other—I'd been looking at the same photo of his brother, a glowering soldier bulked out by body armor and carrying an M-16, standing on a patch of sand with an American flag pinned to the tent behind him. The image was tacked to the corkboard above Cade's bed in his dorm room, among the various bumper stickers from campaigns he had volunteered on—local representatives, congressmen, state senate—and a postcard of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders portrait with the quote "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords." Elias almost never wrote letters home, so on one rare trip back to their farm in New Hampshire, Cade had commandeered the photo sent to their sister, Candy, as a thank-you for her church fundraising the money to buy him the body armor. "Thanks" and "Elias" were scrawled on the bottom in a sloppy cursive that looked as if it belonged to a twelve-year-old schoolboy, not a twenty-four-year-old army infantry specialist, but it looked as if Elias had bigger things on his mind than good penmanship. Sometimes when Cade and I were making love, I caught sight of that scowling image and felt a wave of guilt. Here Cade and I were in the ivory tower of academia, casting aside our textbooks to spend an afternoon at play in his bed, while seven thousand miles away his brother was making a diligent effort not to die. But the fact was, we had each chosen our own path. And now here we all were, together.
As Elias extracted himself from the hug and made his way out of the line, I watched him. He was shorter than Cade by a couple of inches, and stockier; his face offered none of the animation that lit Cade's, but his blue eyes, like his brother's, were piercing. His expression was more or less the same as the one he wore in the photo. When he looked at me I felt as if he had been watching me all this time, all these months I'd been with Cade, a witness to my secrets. I felt embarrassed when he shook my hand.
"This is Jill Wagner," Cade told him. "My fiancée. She's the one who's been sending you all the care packages."
His hand was warmer than my own. Holding my gaze, he indicated Cade with a cock of his head and said, in a tone that was barely jesting, "You're actually going to marry this asshole?"
"Not for a while yet. We both need to finish school first." Amusement lit Cade's face, and so I joked back, "I still have plenty of time to reevaluate."
"Smart thinking. Thanks for all the packages. You make a mean chocolate chip cookie." He turned to Cade. "I need a smoke so bad I'm ready to go on a shooting spree."
"I don't think you can say that in an airport."
"If they throw me out I can get to my smokes faster."
We separated while the soldiers all regrouped to turn in their government property. Cade and I retrieved the Saturn and pulled it around to the pickup lanes, idling as we watched Elias make his way through baggage claim. As soon as he was outside, he stopped in front of the open automatic doors and lit a cigarette. Other travelers moved around him, casting shy reproachful glances in his direction.
"Eli," Cade shouted. "Over here."
Elias nodded and meandered over. In spite of the cool November breeze he unbuttoned his uniform jacket and folded it into his duffel bag, revealing just a thin sandy-brown T-shirt. He turned his face toward the sun, closed his eyes and pulled in a deep breath of air. "No dust," he said. "Nice and cool. Fuck, yeah, it's good to be home."
"Still got five hundred miles to go, bro."
"Yeah, but not until tomorrow. This is close enough. No question."
He dropped his bag into the trunk and climbed into the back passenger seat. As we turned out onto the highway he gazed out at the landscape, squinting, blowing thin cyclones of smoke out the window. After his initial friendliness, he'd gone quiet.
"Did they debrief you?" asked Cade.
"How'd it go?"
Cade glanced at him in the rearview mirror. Elias set his boot against the center console and flicked ash out the window. After a minute he said, "It's good to see green again."
"Well, you'll see all the green you can stand back home."
"Have you talked to Mom and Dad?"
"Not in a while. I avoid it whenever possible." Elias chuckled, and Cade added, "Anyway, I've been busy. I've been working on this damn campaign for five months that only just ended. We won the election, at least."
"What do you do, Jill?" he asked, and in surprise I glanced back over my shoulder at him. "You run around doing all this election stuff, too?"
I shook my head. "No way. I couldn't care less about politics."
"Well, that sounds like a match made in heaven."
I smiled, and Cade said, "She hangs out with farm animals all day. So we both deal with a lot of bullshit. It works out."
"We both run, too," I told him. "I ran track in high school, and Cade's always training for some half marathon or another. So we go running together a lot."
"I bet Cade tries to outrun you," Elias said, "competitive son of a bitch that he is."
"And you wonder why I don't bring you home to meet my family," Cade said to me. "You hear the stuff they say about me?"
Elias laughed low. "Just speaking the truth, bro. She's got to learn it sometime."
It wasn't long before we made the turn back into College Park. Cade and I lived in the dormitories on campus—he in a single room, me with a snooty roommate—but on the weekends he often crashed at the apartment of his friend Stan. Up until the previous year he and Stan had been roommates, but now Stan had his own place, at which he held frequent parties. He was generous in offering his futon—or a patch of carpet—to whoever couldn't drive home. Cade, whose ambition for an elected office made him ultraparanoid about getting a DUI, spent so much time on that futon that he actually kept a toothbrush in Stan's medicine cabinet. It hadn't seemed like much of a stretch, then, to ask to borrow the place for the night when Cade got the call that his brother was coming home and wanted to spend a day hanging out before making the trek back to New Hampshire.
Cade unlocked the door, and Elias stepped inside. He set his pack down on the floor beside the futon and looked around: at the mannequin head with the dart stuck in it, the poster of a trio of blonde girls in bikinis posing on a beach, the dryerase board above the old metal desk that was the central piece of furniture in the living room. He caught sight of the photo clipped to Stan's computer monitor—of Stan in a black suit and tails, popping out his lapels with his thumbs and flanked by two transvestites in full regalia.
"What in the hell is that?" asked Elias.
"That's Stan," Cade explained. "The guy you've heard me talk about a million times. This is his place. He's dressed up like Riff Raff from The Rocky Horror Picture Show."
"That's Stan?" He walked over and peered closely at the photo. Then he looked over his shoulder at Cade, his upper lip curled in the first grin I'd seen out of him. "Does Dad know you've been living with a black guy?"
"What do you think?"
Elias laughed and straightened up again, still looking at the picture. "That's Stan," he repeated.
"He'll be in and out this weekend. You can take the futon and I'll sleep on the floor. Stan's got enough blankets in the closet for an army."
"Nah, I'll take the floor."
"No way. You just got back."
"All the more reason. Floor's still better than what I'm used to." He looked at the girlie posters on the walls. "Some black guy, huh?"
"He only dates white women."
Elias chuckled again. "Dad would shit a brick."
Cade shrugged. "Back in his glory days. Since the stroke, not much pisses him off."
"If you say so. Bet that'd still get a rise out of him on a good day."
I looked quizzically at Cade, but nothing in his expression acknowledged the glance. Elias quit looking around and sat on the edge of the futon, opening up his pack and pulling out a clean T-shirt, socks and boxers. "Don't bother me none," he said. Then, almost as if pulled down by sheer fatigue and the comfort of the mattress, he lay back and rubbed his hands against his face, letting out a long, tired groan. "Motherfuck," he added. "God, it's good to be back."
That was the last I saw of him for a long time. For all those months, that was the image I held of him: supine against the futon, his body all muscular and stocky and hard as a nail. The smallest details stuck in my mind. How neatly the waistband of his BDU trousers lay against his stomach and circled his hips. How the bulk of his shoulders seemed barely contained by his shirt's thin fabric. It was not attraction I felt, exactly, so much as awe. Here was a soldier, honed like the edge of a blade, yet stretched out before me like a cat on a windowsill. His beauty was not like Cade's, but it was still beauty.
I still try to remember him that way, sometimes. I think he would want me to.
It had been only a couple of months before that Cade and I had had a similar reunion. On that day—the last Saturday in August, just a few days before the dorms reopened—I had run down the hill in front of the lodgelike main building of the camp where I'd spent the entire summer, racing to meet Cade as his Saturn churned slow clouds of dust along the dirt road. He'd stopped and gotten out of the car, opening his arms to me, and I had thunked against his chest with a force that made him stagger back against the car. "Missed you, too, babe," he murmured against my hair. We had meant to see each other every other weekend, but he'd gotten so busy working on Bylina's campaign for Congress, and time had plodded along until it was two months since he had visited me. I understood. With my jeans and stubby, plain fingernails, my total disinterest in ever again living in a city and my sketchy family history, I had little to offer as a partner to someone who wanted to be a congressman one day. But I did possess patience and devotion, and the very reason I loved Cade was that he could find his passion and follow the prize of it like a polestar. I couldn't very well fault him for being himself.
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