I keep having this fear that when I fall asleep, I’ll wake up as someone else. It started in Afghanistan, and I haven’t been able to shake it. My sister keeps wanting me to talk to someone at the VA, but no, I’m not doing that.
The other strange quirk that’s followed me back stateside is when I do fall asleep, my dreams are so normal that I struggle to remember if something really happened, or not. It’s been worse since returning to my hometown where I feel like I’m taking a respectful walk through a cemetery. So many people I grew up with are gone but their memories linger in the warm summer nights, like all those times spent down by the pond with the bonfire reflecting off the stagnant water along the grassy shore.
The house I grew up in is for sale. It’s my sister’s idea. Now that our parents are gone, she thinks it would be better to sell the house and split the money. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but I’m also not sure if this town is where I want to stay. As I walk to my old house, I wonder if it would be easier waking up as someone else. Maybe that’s not something I should be afraid of.
Standing in the front lawn I notice the relator sign, attached to one of those bracketed posts, laying in the tall grass. I pick it up and push it into the ground. The blinds are off the windows, and I can see inside at the barren living room. It’s so lifeless without the eclectic furniture.
Closing my eyes, it comes back to me. I can see it all. The television in the corner next to the fireplace. The couch against the back wall and the recliner next to it. And, of course, that awful coffee table. The yellow and blue upholstery clashing with the green rug stretched out over the wood floor.
From the road, the elm tree is barely visible in the back yard. When I step up on the deck, I can see the treehouse. The planks nailed into the tree seem solid as I test them.
Crouching down, I crawl inside. The blankets that once covered the floor are gone. A little widow chiseled out of the wall lets in the last rays of sunlight hovering over Shade Mountain.
Attached to the back of the house is a small porch where Dad would smoke late at night. I can see my teenage self, coming down the stairs, while Dad, sitting in the wicker chair, a cigarette between his fingers, looked through the screen door into the darkness.
During those hot nights seven thousand miles away, I’d think of him sitting here and wonder what wisdom he planned to pass on that he never got the chance to. Maybe it was the best places to fish, or a secret ridge back behind the mountain where deer would appear from the foliage, or maybe the kinds of girls I should date, or that he didn’t want me to enlist. I’d give anything to ask him.
During my three tours, most of the casualties happened here; Mom, Dad, Adam, Steve, my cousin Marcy, my Aunt Rose and of course, Hayden. She was a girl I went to high school with but couldn’t find the courage to ask to homecoming.
Last time I was on leave, I went to the VFW to talk to Aaron about her after I heard she died. At least I think I did. I can see it all unfolding in my mind and I feel almost positive it happened this way.
I sit at the end of the bar closest to the jukebox. Aaron pours me a beer and takes a small bag of chips off a wire rack and tosses them on the bar. I eat the chips, drink the beer, and listen to Aaron reminisce about Hayden. I put down a five. Aaron scoops it up and starts telling me about her funeral.
A guy Aaron knows, but I don’t, sits down. He gives me a nod and I guess he must have caught the tail end of our conversation because he immediately brings up Hayden. He says she’d been working as an overnight caregiver to an elderly woman with multiple sclerosis. The woman lived over the mountain, across from the trailer park next to the quarry. Her car accident happened on the way there.
I can imagine Hayden sitting on the old lady’s front porch smoking. The red embers glowing between her fingers. If I believed in ghosts maybe I could even envision her walking the mountain road looking for someone to give her a ride home.
Climbing out of the treehouse, music from the carousel pings like rainwater on a tin roof. Above the house I can see the Ferris Wheel off in the distance. The fireman’s carnival winding down the final hours of this Saturday night.
Crossing the lawn, I watch the screened in patio, praying, hoping for Dad to appear and call me into the house as if I’m still sixteen and I stayed out too late. That when Sunday comes and goes, I’ll still have the chance to talk to Hayden after third period Spanish on Monday and ask her to the dance.
But the patio remains dark. The only light on this humid summer night comes from the carnival. I move down the sidewalk, the giddy laughter of children all around me as a group of youngsters chase after Fireflies darting around the evening sky. Their glow reminding me of when we would catch them in glass jars. Today, at Forty-three, my hands are empty. I have no jar.
I stop walking and close my eyes. One of the kids asks me if I’d like a jar. He points to the lid and shows me the holes he poked into it. A lone Firefly hovering inside the glass. Before I can tell him no, he puts the jar in my hand and rides off on his bike.
I raise the jar to try and call him back, but when he doesn’t turn around, I twist the lid and let the Firefly go.
Kevin Joseph Reigle’s short stories have appeared in Beyond Words, The Dillydoun Review, Drunk Monkeys, Bridge Eight, Pensworth, Prometheus Dreaming, BQW, Bright Flash and others. He is an English Professor at the University of the Cumberlands.