Short story fiction. Greg finds a picture and learns something about his dead brother.
The laptop screen glowed with a picture of two men embracing. One, eyes closed, peaceful, his blond head nuzzled in the other man's chest and neck, his arms wrapped around the other. He looked asleep except for the smile on his tan face. The other man was Hispanic with black hair and rich brown skin. He held the first man tight, kissing the top of his head while looking sideways with dark, almost mischievous eyes at the camera held with his outstretched arm.
"Hey Greg." I about jumped out of my desk chair, not hearing my dorm mate, Trevor, come in. "You get that thing working yet?"
"No, uh, I mean yeah. I got it working." Instinctively, I turned the screen away from him.
"What," Trevor smiled, "You looking at porn?"
"No," I didn't know what I was looking at.
"Hey, no judgment man, I'll just remember to knock next time." Trevor grabbed his backpack. "I got bio lab. Later."
Alone again, I looked closer at the picture, trying to understand.
Mom gave me the laptop as I was packing the car about to head off to college. "Here. It, it was Walt's." She held the laptop as if it was precious simply for having been my brother's. "I don't know if it still works. I thought, since we can't afford to buy you a new one, you might be able to make this one work for a while."
My brother committed suicide last June. He hung himself.
I took the laptop from her, feeling the precious weight my mother had imbued onto it. It was just an old laptop, heavy, dark gray, with hard corners, yet I couldn't help but think about a folded American flag given at military funerals. I was sure that it was running something archaic like Widows 98 and probably wouldn't do much more than start up. Still, it was weird holding something of Walt's.
I finally turned it on to write a paper due the next day but found myself procrastinating, clicking through the files still on the computer. There weren't that many to click through and I was was about to hunker down and start writing when I clicked on a nondescript folder simply titled New Folder. Inside was a single file, a picture.
The first guy, the one with his eyes closed, smiling, was my brother, Walt. But that didn't make sense.
Walt had been straight. He had girlfriends and playboy magazines under his mattress. He was a big guy, on the football team, breaking curfew, always fighting with Mom and Dad. When he joined the army, I thought it was to get as far away from Dad as possible.
Growing up, he would steal food off my plate and push me for no reason. "What? Are ya gonna cry? Ya gonna cry like a little girl?" My brother was mean, angry. He never smiled.
Joining the Army changed him. The meanness and anger he had growing up wasn't gone so much as a hard shell had formed to keep it in. He was quieter, more controlled. He was nicer to me, no longer a bully, just my brother. But, still, he never smiled.
This man in the picture - who looked like my brother, holding another man - was smiling. It was like looking at a pine tree growing in the desert. It didn't make sense.
I felt a release from my chest. A weak sound came out of my throat like the turn of a faucet before the rush of water. I felt a sense of relief combined with loss, like the happiness of knowing with the grief of knowing too late.
My mother had always blamed Mary, my brother's ex-fianc for his suicide. Whenever she was around, she always seemed to be nagging at him or tearing him down. Part of me always wished he would push her like he had pushed me, but he never did. He never did or said anything. He just took it, and he never smiled.
Two days after he returned from his second tour in Afghanistan, on Christmas Eve, she broke up with him in front of the whole family.
My parents and I were lounging with some extended family and friends in the living room. Everyone was wearing their best ugly Christmas sweater in a room lit by the soft glow of candles and by the colored lights on the Christmas tree.
"I can't do this anymore!" We all grew quiet at the sound of yelling from the kitchen. "No! You, it's like, it's like your not there. Like you just don't care about anything, about me, about, I don't know, life. It's like you're dead inside. And, I'm sorry, but I'm not going to spend my life with a dead person."
The family was frozen, silent, no one looking at anyone else while Bing Crosby continued to croon.
"Say something. I mean it Walt, if you don't say something, I'm leaving, and I don't care if your family can hear me."
We heard Walt mumble something but couldn't make out the words. Then Mary stormed to the entryway closet in view of her silent audience, grabbed her coat, made like she was going to say something to us, then just turned and walked out the front door. Walt walked into the room a minute later, beer in hand. He stood there for a moment. "Sorry," he said finally.
He sat down on the couch opposite me. On the coffee table between us was a chess board of red and green marble. Without looking at me, he took a green pawn and moved it forward. Taking his cue, I moved a red pawn forward. By the time we were five moves into the game, our guests had resumed the noise of festive, albeit awkward, conversation. Mom tried to put a smile on while stealing concerned looks at Walt. Dad simply sat in his recliner, silent except for the ice shifting in his gin and tonic.
Six months later, my brother was dead. As far as my mother was concerned, it was Mary's fault, but that never added up for me. Walt didn't even seem fazed by it. That night he even seemed relieved, even as I took his Queen and said, "Checkmate."
In the picture, Walt was wearing a tan military undershirt. The other guy, who had a handsome face more boyish than Walt's, wore a desert camo jacket with the name Ruiz on the right breast pocket.
I dove into Google. Can't find the needle in the haystack if I don't look. How many members of the military with the name Ruiz could there be? With my brother's laptop moving torturously slow, I clicked through dozens of links, articles, and pictures.
Then the needle poked me. I found a picture of a proud, smiling Ruiz, lit by a Mideast sun, flanked by what looked to be Arab soldiers. He may have had a boyish face, but his body was that of a man, tall, thick, able to fight and carry a heavy pack of equipment or even a wounded man. Text to the left of the image read, "Sergeant Benjamin Ruiz, posthumously awarded the medal of honor for his heroism and valor..."
Sergeant Ruiz, the man kissing my brother's head, had commanded his team to fall back under the ambush of insurgents. Instead of falling back with them, however, he ran in the other direction, drawing the insurgents' fire, continuing to call in enemy positions until his gun went silent.
This man, who had captured my brother smiling, who perhaps was the reason for his smile, died in the line of duty.
The attack happened in late May. My brother committed suicide a week later.
I clicked back to the first picture. Such a simple, calm moment. My brother in the arms of this American hero.
"Who are you," I asked aloud. This was my brother, but I didn't know him. I wanted to know him. I wanted to talk to this smiling man, content in Sergeant Ruiz's arms. But I never would.
My cell chirped. "Hello?"
"Hey!" It was Billy. Just that moment I remembered we had a date to watch American Horror Story in his dorm room.
"Hey, oh god. What time is it?" Looking for my shoes, "I'll be over in a minute."
"No worries, babe, doesn't start for another 10 minutes. Are you ok?"
"It...sounds like you've been crying."
I brought my hand up to my face and felt it covered in tears.
"Yeah, I mean, no, no I haven't been crying," I sniffed, "I, I feel like I have to sneeze, but it doesn't want to happen."
"Oh. Ok, well, see you shortly?"
"Yup." I hung up my cell. I had one of my shoes in the other hand but didn't move to put it on. I just sat there.
I had as many questions as tears. Why did my brother hide? Why couldn't he tell me? What did Sergeant Ruiz's voice sound like? What was it about him that made my brother happy? Was he the reason my brother killed himself? Did my brother love Ruiz so much that he couldn't live without him? How I could be so happy and sad at the same time? I felt like a door had been opened in a hot, stuffy room and the fresh air streaming in was freezing cold.
I looked at my brother in the picture one more time before closing the laptop, looked at his closed eyes, his arms holding tight to Ruiz, his smile.
I never knew this side of my brother, but this is how I wanted to remember him.