By Paul Briggs
(I first wrote a much shorter version of this story for the Eastern Shore Writers' Association holiday meeting. It takes place a little over a year before the events of Locksmith's Closet.)
It was December of 2004. The Smith family was gathering at Valdosta for Christmas. Eric Smith and his wife and children had arrived yesterday, and Alex and his kids had come this morning. Now it was the middle of the afternoon, rain was pouring down and splattering against the windows, and Wayne and his family still hadn't shown up.
So when Eric's cell phone rang, it was with some relief that he saw it was his sister-in-law calling.
"Is that you, Eric?" Lee's voice, with its hints of Australia and Georgia, was hard to mistake for anyone else's.
"We're about thirty miles away," said Lee, "but dear Wayne has found one of his shortcuts, so you can expect us in around midnight." Just then came the sound of the road surface going from asphalt to gravel.
"Did I say midnight?" said Lee. "I mean two a.m."
Eric knew better than to take her too seriously. His oldest brother's shortcuts had never yet meant more than an hour's delay. Somewhere along the way, the man seemed to have lost track of the fact that a shortcut where you couldn't drive more than thirty miles an hour and had to stop every few hundred yards was a lot slower than a more roundabout route where you could take the interstate.
No sooner was Eric off the phone with Lee than Alex came into the kitchen. "I just got done talking to Chris," he said. "He got the goose out of the freezer. It'll be ready to pick up tomorrow."
Eric nodded. After that, things got quiet. He tried to think of a topic of conversation that wouldn't make either of them uncomfortable. Finally he bit the bullet.
"Listen, if nothing else pans out," he said, "you can come up to North Carolina. Lucille and I, we could put you and the kids up for a little while, help you find a job…" For a moment, Eric was afraid that Alex would take him up on it. There would be no peace in his house if he brought Alex Junior to live with Zorah and Zylah.
Fortunately, his older brother still had some pride. "I got things under control," he said.
It had never been like this before. As boys, the three of them had always been inseparable. Their family had been like a little army where everybody knew their rank — first Pop, then Mom, then Wayne, then Alex, and, finally, Eric. Even after the three brothers had gone their separate ways, a little of that had remained between them.
But Pop had finally taken one too many cigarettes to the chest cavity, Mom (these days, even her sons were calling her Mom-mom) had gotten so frail that they were starting to worry about her… and as for the brothers, over the past few years their fortunes had gone in very different directions. Alex had been through a painful and expensive divorce, he'd lost his job, and now he was living in a trailer with his son and daughter.
Eric, on the other hand, had gotten downright rich — or at least, extremely upper-middle-class. He'd had the good fortune to be a pharmacist in a suburb of Charlotte where two new retirement communities had been built in the past three years. He'd made the most of the situation, putting big, large-print advertisements in the local papers, but all his new business still felt more like found money than anything he'd actually earned. It was strangely embarrassing.
As for Wayne, he'd… done all right… so far. Lee had said she had some plans to make sure he kept on doing all right, but Eric didn't know what they were yet.
It was about an hour later that Wayne's station wagon pulled into the driveway. The rain had let up a little.
Wayne was first into the house. All three of the Smith brothers might have been cast from the same mold — a little over six feet tall, solidly built, square-jawed and dark-haired, not quite running to fat but sort of meandering in that general direction. Only Wayne's crew cut, Eric's glasses and Alex's eternal five-o'clock shadow let anyone tell them apart. Right behind Wayne was his older son, Bill, who looked exactly as they had looked at almost fifteen — his forehead might even have had some of the same zits.
Then Lee strode in, tall, ginger-haired and imposing. Somewhere behind her, their younger son slipped into the room like a draft. Lee reached back, took him by the arm and pulled him forward.
"Say hello, Lachlan," she said.
"Hello," said Lock, glancing around. He was chestnut-haired, tall for his age, and looked more like his mother than his father. The doctors swore he wasn't autistic, but he still needed a fair amount of prompting in social situations. Out of the corner of his eye, Eric saw Alex Junior took a discreet step backward. The boy was older than Lock, but about the same size — and the last time they'd met, he'd tried bothering Lock. It hadn't gone well.
As soon as he could get a moment alone with Lee, Eric opened his mouth to ask her what her plan was — but she motioned him to silence before he could get out more than a syllable.
"Not now," she said. "We'll talk about it tomorrow."
The next morning had come without ceremony. Somewhere above the layer of clouds, a beautiful sunrise might have been taking place, but if so, only airline passengers were in any position to appreciate it.
And now, it wasn't quite noon. Wayne had left to pick up the goose. Bill and Junior were engrossed in video games in different parts of the house and Lucille, the twins and Eric Jr. were watching a DVD. It was at this point that Lee summoned Mom-mom, Alex and Eric to a meeting in the upstairs guest bedroom. Before she did, she told Lock to stay at the foot of the stairs and let them know the minute Wayne got back. Lock simply nodded. (It was strange how smoothly she gave orders even among her own family, and how you found yourself halfway through obeying those orders before it even occurred to you to wonder where her authority to boss you around came from.)
Eric looked around the room. He could still remember when it was Wayne's room, where he and Alex dared not venture without their older brother's permission. (Well, usually dared not.) Most of the toys had long since been put away into boxes in the attic, but a few clumsily-made model airplanes still hung from the ceiling. Mom-mom took the one chair, Alex flopped back onto the bed and Eric leaned on the closet door.
Finally, Lee entered the room and closed the door behind her. Her gaze swept the room like a lioness overlooking the savannah.
"So… what's this all about?" said Alex.
"As you know, Wayne will be going back to Iraq soon," said Lee. "Of course, we all worry about him. I've thought of a way we can all help protect him. If each of us chips in, we can pay for the best body armor money can buy.
"William and Lachlan have already given $100 each. If you two give $150 each" — she glanced at Alex and Eric — "and you give $250, I can cover the rest."
"Why can't I pay for it?" said Mom-mom.
"This way is better," said Lee. "This way it's from all of us."
"But I'm his mother! Let me pay for it myself!"
"Yes, and I'm his wife. Alex and Eric are his brothers, and William and Lachlan are his sons. We all have a right to chip in and keep him safe."
"But Alex doesn't have any money!" said Mom-mom.
"Mom, no," said Alex. "I can handle this. You said $150, right?"
"I can't believe you made your own children pay!" said Mom-mom.
"I didn't make them do anything. They wanted to."
"Just tell me where to mail the order to so I can buy it for him."
"I already placed the order online," said Lee. "I sent them his measurements and everything. It should be here by Christmas."
"So at this point, we're not even helping you buy it?" put in Eric. "We're just… compensating you?"
"What's the difference?"
In the world of business, there was no difference. As long as the goods and services were exchanged for the correct amount of money, it wasn't the end of the world if things happened in the wrong order. But when you thought you were supposed to be buying a gift for your brother, and it turned out your sister-in-law had already bought the gift and you were just paying her back… some of the magic was gone.
"I simply thought," said Lee, "that for something like this, everybody should have the chance to take part in it." So now she was the one doing them a favor.
"How much money does this thing cost?" said Eric.
"A little over eleven hundred."
"So… you're footing the biggest slice of the cost."
"Obviously." She crossed her arms, as if daring somebody to do something about this.
"Three hundred!" said Mom-mom.
Just then, there was a knock at the door. Lock stuck his head in.
"Thank you," said Lee. Then she turned to Mom-mom and said, "So it's settled then."
"All… right," hissed Mom-mom, trying desperately not to raise her voice. She took out her checkbook.
As they left the room, Eric whispered to Alex, "Let me know if you need any help with the money." Alex just shook his head.
In a strange way, Eric felt jealous of Alex for the sacrifice he was making. For him, that $150 would mean two meals a day instead of three, for himself if not for his kids, for about a month. Eric could have eaten the whole bill for the jacket without missing the money. And Mom-mom… well, she wasn't rich, but the sad fact was that she had a lot more money than time to spend it. For that matter, Lee could have put it on her credit card and paid it off over the course of the next year without changing her lifestyle in the slightest.
Eric followed Mom-mom to her own room. She slumped onto the bed.
"I should have paid the biggest share, not that hussy," she muttered. Seeing the beginnings of tears in her eyes, Eric reached for the Kleenex.
It crossed his mind at this point that if the family had been made up of self-centered bastards, they would have ended up dividing the bill in a way not too different from what they'd done. They'd probably all walk away just as unhappy over the share they had to pay. The urge to give, which this holiday season was supposed to be all about, could be at least as much trouble as the urge to take.
A few weeks later, First Lieutenant Wayne Smith crossed the tarmac to his chopper. Despite the threat of rain (this was the only time of year when the weather in Iraq was halfway close to normal) his jacket was tucked under his arm. Wrapped up inside it, where no one would see it, was… the other jacket.
Somewhere in his mind, he knew he was supposed to be deeply touched by what his family had done (to be honest, what he suspected Lee had bullied them into doing.) The rest of him, however, was horrified by the thought of someone catching him in public with this thing. What was she thinking? he thought. I'm a helicopter pilot, for Christ's sake! How likely am I to get shot at? How is this stupid thing supposed to protect me if I crash?
Well, there was a way around that. When he reached his vehicle, his co-pilot was already there, waiting for him. Erin was an efficient and level-headed young woman when she wasn't looking at him in that simpering way.
"How was your Christmas, sir?" ("Sir" was normally such a cold word. How did she make it sound so friendly?)
"Fine," he said. "Here… my wife gave me this, but it doesn't fit. I want you to put it on." She did so with no argument.
But the jacket had been tailor-made for Wayne, who was a big man. Erin was a medium-sized woman, and at the moment she looked like a box turtle in a shell one size too large. She looked at him, and bit her lip.
"Um… sir?" she said. "I don't think it fits me either."
Wayne gritted his teeth.
"Take it off," he finally said. Easier said than done, while she was strapped into position in the cockpit of a helicopter, but in a minute or so the jacket lay behind his feet.
"Are you sure it doesn't fit you?"
He sighed. He hated having to explain things.
"I can't just sit here knowing I'm safer than you are," he finally said.
Wayne started the engine. He had no intention of letting the jacket go to waste. Somewhere in Iraq, he knew, there would be an infantryman about his size.