Steve stands on the porch of his childhood, ignores the leftover pieces of yellow crime tape caught in the hinges, and pulls a key out of his pocket. He should probably get a little ring and attach it to the one of the truck he rented. He rubs a finger over the metal grooves; it's not just a spare kept under a rock for emergencies. It’s his. His father's is probably in a carefully labeled bag in some evidence drawer.
His throat suddenly goes dry, like he's swallowed a mouthful of sand, and he grips the door frame, holds onto it for dear life, his left shoulder aching. He rotates the joint, pulling the stitches under the bandage, homes in on the familiar twinge.
It's only been two days since he returned, but already there are papers that need to be signed and meetings with lawyers, dealing with shit like wills and property taxes. It’s all just so foreign.
He forces one foot in front of the other, the floorboards creaking under his Timberlands. He remembers playing hide and seek with Mary, listening to the familiar noise, guessing where she’d hidden. His chest aches at the memory and number of times she'd punch him in the arm 'for cheating.' He absently kneads the muscles in his bicep, the nerves from his shoulder down his arm a constant dull ache. He left the bottle of painkillers at HQ and the beer from earlier has long since faded.
He hasn't slept since God knows when, catching only a two-hour nap on the floor of his empty office. He should stretch out in a real bed, between cotton sheets, but he's too wrung out from adrenaline and can’t turn his brain off. If he closes his eyes, he sees the muzzle flashes from machine guns, smells the burning metal of his transport from the ambush, hears the deep rolling bass of explosions fading into the crack of the twenty-one gun salute from his father's funeral. He jumps at the noise echoing in his ears, and he forces himself to focus on the ocean, of the waves crashing against the beach.
When he opens his eyes, he lets his gaze drift across the living room, and all that stands out are the rust colored stains splattered along the floor.
Steve storms into the kitchen, bangs open the bottom cupboards, finding the half-empty bottles of cleaner and bleach. Shoving aside the Liquid Drano and a pile of old cleaning rags, he grabs a bucket and starts filling it with water.
It's almost 2100 hours, and instead of eating dinner, or taking a shower, Steve ditches his sling and gets on his hands and knees to scrub away the last remains of his father's murder. His shoulder throbs, his head pounds from lack of sleep, but he doesn't care.
It's sickening. This should make him want to throw up. He should have checked into a hotel, had the crime scene clean-up crew do this. But when he'd walked inside the lobby of the Hilton, stood in line behind jet-lagged tourists and screaming kids, he bolted.
Because this is his father's blood. And all Steve can think of is his father telling Steve that he’d loved him. That he'd never said it enough. In fact, Steve can't remember the last time his father had ever used those words.
But they're just words. Actions speak louder than words ever could. Like winning the football state championship, or graduating first in your BUDs class, or making Lieutenant within the first window of promotion.
Memories build and swirl with what-if's. What if he'd come home more during the holidays, taken leave instead additional training, or accepting just one more mission? Maybe he and Mary would've been more like siblings and less like strangers.
Sweat beads at his brow, his arms tremble from the same repetitive motion. Steve stares down and realizes he's scraped the polish from the floorboards, nearly sanding away the grain.
He stumbles to his feet as the room spins, staggering over to the sofa, and crashing into the cushions. His bedroom is upstairs, but he can't face those ghosts right now, and he sure as hell won't go into his father's room to sleep. No, the sofa will have to do until tomorrow, after he's rested and is cleared headed again. Then he'll move out all his and his father's old bedroom furniture, take it to the nearest Goodwill, and buy something new.
No more bedrolls.
Steve wonders what it'll be like anchored on dry land, leading a team of civilians. He's about to re-enter society with different rules, where the lines in the sand are deeper, longer, forming actual boundaries – boundaries he has no clearance to cross. It terrifies him when nothing else ever has – except the crack of a bullet thousands of miles away, forced to listen to his father's guilt, his regrets like a confession over a fucking cell phone.
He takes a shuddering breath when it hits him like a baseball bat to the chest: only in death did his father actually try to talk to him, trust his son with words and emotions that Steve never thought he’d ever hear.
His eyes grow moist and puffy, and he angrily rubs at his face, scrubs away the evidence like he did on the floorboards. Exhaustion and chemical fumes must be why he can't keep everything battened down and locked away like he normally does.
He should go to sleep. Wake up to a new day, a new career, a new life. His eyes sag closed no matter how hard he fights it. Slowly, he drifts, thinking this is where he slept the night before his father had sent him away.