OIL IN WATER
That night, Kori and Jack sat huddled together on one corner of the couch and Avery at the other end. Gil and Max sat in rocking chairs, one behind the other, watching Santa Claus 2. A pizza box lay open on the coffee table with one slice left.
Gil held a toy with small tube-like arms sticking out from a colorful base. At the end of each of the four tubes was a little plastic disc that lit up in different colors. At the push of a button, the arms spiraled around and around like a propeller.
“By rights, it’s mine,” Kori said. “You guys all had two pieces.”
“What is that thing?” Jack asked, ignoring her.
“A whirligig, I think,” Avery said. “Or if not, it should be.”
“Don’t change the subject,” Kori said, pinching Jack’s side. “Technically, it’s mine.”
“Yeah, but I worked this morning. And I changed the oil in your car today and replaced your rotor cups, all in freezing cold weather. I think I should have it.” He leaned in and kissed her, but she wasn’t budging.
“Where’d you work?”
“Something went wrong with the home brain at the Callahan’s. The lights on the deck were flicking on and off and they couldn’t regulate the temperature in the hot tub. I rewired one of the circuit boards which fixed the problem, but I’m still not sure what happened.” He scrunched his eyebrows in thought.
Kori raised her own eyebrows like she wasn’t impressed.
“What?” Jack said. “You wanted me to tell them to wait until Monday?”
“It’s your business,” Kori said. “You could have.”
“Not if I want to stay in business.”
“I’m still hungry,” Gil whined. Kori looked at Jack and laughed.
“Here, Gil,” she said, offering him the last slice. “Guess you lose,” she whispered to Jack. Meticulously, Gil gnawed the edges of his slice, then up and down each side, all the while rocking and whirligigging. Not a spot remained untouched. He ripped a piece from the crust and tossed it to Max who caught and consumed it in one motion.
“Guess we need two pizzas next time,” Jack said, pulling Kori back toward him.
“Yooooohooooo,” Aunt Stella’s voice along with the smell of pastries wafted from the back door straight to Gil’s nose in the living room. He sniffed the air and tossed the rest of the slice of pizza to Max. When Aunt Stella walked into the living room, Gil jumped up, allowed her to kiss him, then took his seat while he waited for her to remove her coat and scarf.
She grabbed Gil’s chin and pulled it up so she could look in his eyes. “No worse for the wear,” she said, and tousled his hair. “You’re a tough one.” She held the basket out to him. “Go ahead then. A little bit of sweet is the answer to all life’s ailments, I say.” Aunt Stella’s belly shook as she laughed, demonstrating she took her own advice.
Gil didn’t wait for further prompting, but dug out two pieces of baklava, a square of banana-pecan coffee cake, and a napkin to catch it all. Max, still in his chair, waited for his share of the booty. Gil’s toy whirled and lighted as he chomped on his banana cake
“What, pray tell, are you doing, Gilly?” Aunt Stella said.
Gil’s mouth was full, so Kori explained for him. “They’re playing airplane. Gil’s the pilot. We’re not sure if Max is a member of the crew or all of the passengers.” Gil nodded and gave no further comment. Max circled the seat of his chair adroitly, still trying to find a position of comfort, but the chair was too small for all seventy pounds of him. He gave up and sat down, hind legs squarely on the seat, front paws on the floor.
“He looks like he has motion sickness. I wonder if they’re experiencing some turbulence?” Kori asked.
“How the hell does he get that dog to do that?” Jack said.
Avery got up, making room for Aunt Stella on the couch. She closed the pizza box with a “tsk-tsk,” muttering to herself about poor nutrition, and put the basket on top.
“Dessert,” she announced, as if it were necessary.
“Thanks, Aunt Stella,” Avery said grabbing a piece of baklava and a seat on the floor. Jack wiggled his eyebrows at Kori and she passed the basket to him just as the doorbell rang. Kori looked at her watch. It was almost eight. Max barked, jumped off his chair and ran to stand in front of the door.
“Now if we could just teach him to open it,” Jack said with a full mouth.
“If that’s one of your lame friends here to collect you so you can go out drinking…”
Jack raised his hands, palms up, as if to say “no contest.”
No one moved, but everyone looked at Avery who was propping himself up on pillows at his spot on the floor.
“No way. I just sat down. It’s Gil’s turn.”
Gil tried to ignore them, but the pressure was too great. With a sigh, he got up to answer the door.
Captain Russell turned his collar up against the inexorable wind and waited. He smashed his hat down more firmly on his head and looked out over the neighboring farm fields illuminated by the light of the full moon. Frost reflected the light back, giving the appearance of a light dusting of snow. Captain Russell shivered. He’d been dreading this visit since he got the call two nights ago. Army Protocol dictates that the family should have been told immediately, but he had waited, hoping the ongoing investigation would yield some evidence that the officers had at first failed to uncover. Unfortunately, the most damning evidence arrived by courier earlier this evening, and he couldn’t put it off any longer.
Russell left his office around eight and went to the Japanese Restaurant in the strip mall purportedly for a quick dinner. He left his plate of sushi untouched, but had several shots of saki. Now the courage gained from his liquid dinner was dissipating, replaced by a smoldering hole you could drive an army jeep through. He fingered the contents of his pocket again and swallowed the rising bile. It had been a long time since he had to do this and he wished to God he was standing elsewhere. His stomach gurgled. It was a bad idea not to eat.
Gil opened the door a crack, more to keep out the wind than the man standing on the other side of it, but once he got a look, the latter was closer to the truth. Something was wrong with the picture, but Gil wasn’t sure what. The man was dressed respectably in an overcoat and hat, but he looked sad. Bad news .
“Evening. Is this the Tirabi residence?” Gil nodded, but made no move to open the door. Max stood next to him, wagging his tail and trying to poke his snout through the narrow opening.
Captain Russell extended his hand. “Captain Jack Russell. May I come in? It’s wicked cold out here.”
Gil threw open the door and Captain Russell jumped in. At the sudden movement, Max began barking like crazy and Captain Russell jumped right out again. He stood on the front step, rubbing his hands together and grimacing.
Kori ran over and grabbed Max’s collar. “Take Max, please. To the living room.” Gil and Max retreated and Kori opened the door.
“Can I help you?”
“Captain Jack Russell. I’m at the recruiting station down at the Park Plaza Shopping Mall. I signed your brother, Robbie up.”
Kori stiffened. Aunt Stella appeared in the foyer behind her.
“Well child, let the man in. He’s not going to steal your television.” Aunt Stella smiled. “Come in, come in. Give me your coat and hat.”
Captain Russell stepped into the foyer for the second time that evening. “If you don’t mind, I’ll keep them. Give me a chance to warm up.”
“It’s warm inside,” Aunt Stella said, doting on Captain Russell as if he were a baby chick that lost its momma. She steered him from the foyer to the living room where everyone appeared to be watching television; the only indication that they were not was the undercurrent of motion traveling across the room. Gil rocked obsessively in his chair, Avery fluffed his pillows unable to get comfortable, and Kori kept looking at Jack as if she thought he might vanish into thin air at any minute. Captain Russell cleared his throat and Kori grabbed Jack’s hand.
“How about a nice cup of coffee or tea?” Aunt Stella asked.
“No thank you, Ma’am. I’m really sorry to intrude this evening and wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t of the utmost…”
A low wail broke from Gil’s throat and Max walked over and put his face in Gil’s lap. Avery got up and checked his brother’s eyes. Kori jumped up and did the same. She looked at Avery for confirmation.
“Couldn’t happen twice in one day, could it?
“I guess anything’s possible.” Avery checked Gil’s pulse. “You feelin’ alright, Gil?” Gil nodded. Avery let go of his wrist, less than satisfied.
“Is there anything I can do?” Captain Russell asked. Kori shook her head.
“You can tell us why you came,” Avery said, shutting off the television.
Captain Russell nodded, reached in his pocket and pulled out a set of dog tags which he placed on the table in front of them.
“Tell me that’s not what I think it is,” Kori said. She squeezed Jack’s hand so tightly his bones crackled.
“It’s my duty and my pain to tell you that we presume your brother, Robert James Tirabi, aged twenty-three, to be dead.” Kori gasped and buried her head in Jack’s shoulder. Aunt Stella coughed and put a hand to her throat. Avery fingered the dog tags, and Gil rocked furiously, eyes fixed on the blank television screen.
“Surely you’re joking,” Aunt Stella said. “We just got a letter from him yesterday.”
“That letter could have been written more than two weeks ago. The mail takes time.”
“But…how?” Kori’s voice quivered.
“Suicide car bomber. Robbie was in Khan Bani Saad. It’s a market town not far from Baghdad. A man drove a car loaded with explosives directly into an open air market. Twenty-three people were killed.”
“Where’s the body? Avery asked.
“We haven’t been able to identify it. We believe he might have been standing near the car when the bomb detonated. We found those,” Russell said, pointing to the dog tags.
“Well how do you know he’s dead?” Avery asked. “Maybe he was just wounded.”
“The wounded were all treated at the hospital. Your brother was not among them.”
“Well, how did his dog tags come off?” Kori asked.
“It wasn’t your typical explosive. It had amazing incendiary capabilities. Most things within a twenty-five yard radius were ashes when it was all done.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.” Avery said. “You’re still looking, right?” Captain Russell shook his head.
“So that’s it. You come here and you give us these lousy . . . things,” Kori picked up the dog tags as if they were a used Kleenex, “and you tell us he’s gone and you walk out the door. You don’t even know my brother.” Kori’s voice caught and Jack pulled her to his chest.
“What about his personal stuff?” Jack asked.
“It’s being shipped. You should be getting it within the week.”
A profound silence filled the room.
“Liar!” Gil jumped up from his seat, grabbed the dog tags, put them around his neck and ran from the room. He stomped up the stairs and slammed the door to his room.
“I’ll go,” Aunt Stella said, but Avery put a hand on her arm to stop her.
“If there’s anything else I can do . . .” Captain Russell’s sincere, but ineffectual offer froze in mid-air.
After several more moments of silence, Captain Russell stood to leave. “Feel free to call me if you have any questions or if you need anything at all.” He handed Aunt Stella his card. “I’m truly sorry for your loss.” Aunt Stella rose to show him to the door.
“It’s okay,” Russell said. “I can find my way out.”
They heard the door close behind him, heard his car engine engage, heard him pull out of the driveway, and then nothing more, but their own moist breathing and the ticking of the clock. The room was eerily quiet, like the last moments before dawn.
Avery traced a finger around the empty space where the dog tags had lain. “Shall I go up after him?” he asked. The question hung in the air like mist.
to be continued. . .
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