"It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to."
Eugene Sledge ran a finger over the faded black print. He’d always loved Tolkien, could easily picture himself in the Shire when he wandered into the meadows and swamp around his home. The words and the images brought him comfort, through childhood illness and post-war trauma. He found himself between the words on the page, first as boy and then as a young man, bearing scars that didn’t show up on the skin.
Alabama had always been his home. With the exception of his time training and working with the Marines and fighting overseas, he’d never lived anywhere else but under his parents’ roof. He’d never truly had another home, minus canvas camouflage tents and ranger graves. Things were different now, and he didn’t know what to do or where to go.
Sid decided to take the job in St. Boniface; he would stay at the boarding house until he could find his own place. Babe had been the first to call, once the news broke, asking when Eugene would arrive. Then Eddie called, Captain Haldane, Doc Roe, even Spina. Snafu hadn’t yet, silent as always.
Their friendship was still teetering. It was only awkward when distance stood between then. Snafu wasn’t made for phone conversations or internet chats. Eugene knew that Snaf wouldn’t mind if he moved in, but it would still be nice to hear the offer from him. He needed to know he wasn’t intruding. Snafu had a whole life and history in St. Boniface, one far removed from his time in K Company. He welcomed Eugene as a houseguest, but what about as a constant reminder of darker times? It was different with Eddie and Ack-Ack. They hadn’t been the ones sitting next to Snaf as the despair finally came and all his worries and fears poured out. Snafu never trusted the appointed chaplains, so Eugene took the place of his confessor. It was a debt often repaid.
Eugene put the book down and took a deep breath. His cellphone made him jumped as a blared with a beep from a text message. He flipped it opened and smiled at the words he found.
I expect your ass down here before Sid. You need to make it ready for your Bama boy.
That part of the decision was made, but his pulse still raced at the thought. He needed guidance; someone to tell him it was okay to leave, to move, and that everything would be alright.
He grabbed his jacket hanging from the bedpost and padded down the stairs.
“Eugene,” his mother called out.
He found her in the sitting room, writing out thank-you notes for everyone who attended last week’s neighborhood dinner. The bold strokes of her perfect calligraphy were easy to see thanks to the afternoon sun shining in through the western windows. There was timelessness to this room and to his mother. She was a woman of another era, a debutant and proud, clinging more tightly to her religion and her manners in a rapidly shifting world.
“Mother,” he said.
“Where are you going?” She turned to study him, the grip on her pen tightening.
“I thought I’d go see father during his lunch.”
“Will you stop by your brother’s firm? He may have an open position for you,” she said.
Eugene tried not to roll his eyes. His mother didn’t deserve such a gesture even if she refused to listen to his wishes. He’d never be an accountant, lawyer, or doctor. He’d never marry the perfect southern belle and produce a ton of grandchildren. He respected his parents, all they gave him, but he had always stood firm by his own beliefs. He refused to give that up now just to make his mother worry less. The only thing Eugene could truly call his own was those morals he stood for. Even Kipling was a gift from his father, to comfort Eugene after the flashbacks, a furry focal point of calm.
“Mother, I’m never going to be an accountant,” he said.
“You did so well in your math classes,” she protested.
“I have no interest in following Edward’s footsteps.”
She shook her head and took back to her writing. “Be home before dinner.”
It wasn’t a long bike ride into the city. He took the route at least once a week; a pleasant journey and one of the ways he kept himself from going completely slack out here. He gained a surprising amount of tone and muscle mass while in the Marines, to the point where his body didn’t feel like his own. He’d grown used to the physical strength, the ability to endure, and while he’d never join a gym, he could still bike for miles without getting exhausted.
His father’s family practice was a converted house in the middle of a historic district. It always made him feel like he’d stumbled through a time flux, seeing the skyscrapers in the distance matched with a street out of the 1950s.
Jenny waved from him behind the desk.
“Didn’t expect to see you here,” she said.
He adored Jenny, even if most of her life was a mystery. She came from somewhere up north, with an accent that reminded him of Leyden. She’d moved down to Mobile to escape what she called a very bad situation and she’d been part of the family ever since.
“Is father occupied?”
She shook her head. “Go on back and see him.”
He crossed over the creaking hardwood floors and walked to the back staircase, hurrying up to his father’s office. It was once a grand upstairs sitting room, a fireplace in the center, and barely managed to hold his father’s gathered works and library from over forty years of practice.
“Eugene,” he said, looking up from his papers, a pipe stuck between his teeth.
His father, too, sometimes felt like a man out of time.
“Father.” He took the seat in front of his desk, sinking down into the old, oiled leather.
“What brings you out into the city? Your mother said you’ve been up in your room reading all day.”
It wasn’t an inquisition, just an honest inquiry. His father had been his rock since returning home; been the voice of reason and the advocate for needs Eugene didn’t know how to articulate. His father started his medical career in Vietnam, so to speak. He’d been halfway through college for a psychology degree when he left to serve. He didn’t use the academic out-clause present for the draft. He went overseas as a medic, and when he came back to America, he decided to become a medical doctor. He offered free medical clinics for all the Vets in the area. His father was constantly cited as a resource. Eugene doubted he ever planned on using all those techniques, all that knowledge gained, on his own child.
He loved his parents and his brother equally, but Eugene was well aware that his father was the one who helped save him when the darkness tried its damnedest to take over.
“Eugene,” his father prompted.
“Sorry,” he said, laughing softly. “Lost in my mind, like always.”
He father warmly smiled. “Yes, ever since you were a boy.”
He dropped his head and studied the carvings on the wooden arms of the chair. He didn’t quite know what to say. He’d made his decision, yet he still needed that sense of approval.
“Sid’s accepted Dr. Roe’s offer.”
His father nodded. “It’ll do Sid good. He’s not meant for a large hospital. He’ll thrive in small practices.”
“I think I’m going to move to Louisiana with him.”
He looked up to meet his father’s eyes. There wasn’t judgment there, or worry, just curiosity.
“You think or you decided?”
“Decided,” he said. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It felt good to say that; a new taste of finality on his tongue.
He watched as his father stood up and walked over to him. With a titled head, he held out his hand to Eugene. It was a strong shake, and then he was pulled to his feet. Eugene tried not to cry when his father’s arms wrapped around him, pulling him tight against his chest.
“I am so proud of you, Eugene. Everything you’ve done, every road you’ve taken, I’ve always been so proud of you. This move will be good to you. You light up around those friends of yours. Your future lies that way, I can feel it.”
“Thank you,” he said. He wiped at his eyes. “I needed to know this was okay.”
His father gripped the back of his neck, resting his forehead against Eugene’s. “It is. I’ll speak to your mother, calm her down, but this is okay. And you can always come home if you need to, you know that.”
“Good.” His father pulled back and wiped his own eyes. “Look at the two of us.”
He laughed and shook his head. “We’re a sad sight.”
“I say it’s time for a decent meal. Let’s go to Milly’s. Just don’t tell your mother I had another burger this week.”
“We just want to keep you around.” He slung an arm around his father’s shoulder and walked with him down the stairs.
He’d miss this; all the surprise meals with his father; the bike rides into Mobile; Edward’s rants about numbers; the smell of his mother’s perfume in the morning. He missed other things though; Snafu’s dark and twisted smile; Babe’s laughter echoing through the whole house; Captain’s silent strength and Eddie’s voice singing while the fireflies filled the back yard. He missed watching Kipling running after nutrias and the baklava plates at Fitzwilliam’s.
If home is where the heart is, Eugene’s heart had many rooms. He could have another home.