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On the Plains of Troy

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It’s a mistake to come in.

Frank takes one look at him and says, “My office. Now.”

Once Tommy’s there, Frank’s got his hands all over him, because that’s the way Frank is, he’d put his hands on a grizzly bear, no fear at all.

Now, he just pulls back and sighs. “Go home. Take some Tylenol. Sleep it off. Plenty of fluids and I don’t want you back here until twenty-four hours after that fever breaks.”

Tommy nods, not bothering to say anything, and starts to pull himself to his feet. But Frank’s not done yet; he pushes Tommy back in the chair and digs around in one of his metal cabinets.

“You don’t even have a thermometer, do you? Here.” He gives Tommy one, still in its packaging, because of course Frank stockpiles things like that. “Use it. And here.” He shakes two pills out of an industrial size container and hands them over with a bottle of water. “Drink that now, while I’m watching.”

+++

At home, Tommy tries to follow Frank’s instructions. He showers, makes instant oatmeal because he can’t face even cooking eggs, and forces it down. Then he balls himself up, shivering, under the covers and tries to sleep.

It’s bad.

Shells rain down, so close he can feel the heat of them. He twists and dodges to get away; they all do. But it doesn’t work. He’s trying to get the kids towards some kind of cover when someone shouts, “Holy fuck, they’re ours.”

Then someone’s waving a flag, though Tommy knows it won’t make a fuckwad of difference, and first one kid goes down and then another. He sees Manny fall in a spray of red and then he’s there, watching the light go out of Manny’s eyes while his blood is still spilling, hot, so hot, over Tommy’s hands.

He looks around, and everyone’s dead. The shelling stops, and he has a bit of quiet to consider how ridiculous it is that they’re dead and he’s still alive. But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Experimentally, he lies down. It seems to work. They start getting up—Behr and Travers and Pena and Garrity. Manny last of all. He and Tommy exchange smiles as he walks away.

Then the shelling starts again.

With a jerk and a gasp that turns into racking cough, Tommy wakes up. A car alarm is shrilling outside. After a while, it turns off. But the feeling of being dead remains.

It has its uses. It lets him ignore the headache that worsens whenever he moves and the lancing pain in his throat whenever he swallows. He doesn’t bother to do anything about them; why pay attention to a body that has outlived itself?

Frank calls, and he hears himself answer. “How’s the fever?” Frank wants to know. Better, Tommy tells him. But Frank wants a number, because that’s how Frank is, so Tommy makes one up.

He floats on the surface of his pain until Brendan barges through the door.

“Jesus, Tommy, what the fuck?” Brendan says, peering down at the bed. He’s still in his Physics teacher clothes, must’ve come straight from school. He looks furious. “Frank said you went home sick yesterday and you sounded weird when he called. Glad I made you give me that key—I was banging on the door forever. What’s going on?”

Tommy stares back at him, mouth too dry to say anything even if there was anything to say. But Brendan doesn’t seem to have gotten the news about his death. He palms Tommy’s forehead, swears a few more times, stalks away and comes back with water and more pills.

“Drink this. Then we’re going to Urgent Care, and if they don’t put you in the hospital you’re coming home with me.”

+++

“You don’t have to,” Tommy croaks.

They’re in the car, heading to Brendan’s. At the clinic, they gave him some kind of magic pill for the fever and pumped a bag of saline into him, so he supposes he’s doing better. Mostly, he just feels more connected to a million aches and pains and a cough that won’t let him get more than a few words out at a time.

Brendan doesn’t say anything, so Tommy hacks a few times then pushes on. “I don’t want to get you and Tess and the girls sick too.”

It’s the most words he’s strung together since they left his apartment, except for answering Brendan’s questions as he filled out the intake forms. Brendan widened his eyes a few times at the things that’ve happened to Tommy’s body since he left Pittsburgh. But Tommy know that one of the first things Brendan did with his Sparta winnings was buy some kind of fancy insurance policy that covers anyone with the last name of Conlon, including any and all pre-existing conditions, so he didn’t let it bother him.

“We’ve all had flu shots, unlike some people I could mention,” Brendan says now, eyes on the road. He still looks mad, but Tommy’s pretty sure by this point it’s mostly a front for his worry. “And what makes you think you’re getting anywhere near the girls?”

+++

Brendan and Tess’s guest room doubles as Brendan’s study. A desk overflowing with exam books and piles of worksheets dominates one side of the room, and an afghan-covered single bed holds court on the other. Tommy collapses onto the latter and sleeps a blessedly dream-free sleep until early evening, when Tess brings up a tray.

He pushes himself up on the pillows, suddenly self-conscious about his grubby clothes and unwashed hair and stubble. He remembers the diamond-hard girl she was in high school, the one he couldn’t believe his big brother was banging. The one who only really smiled for Brendan. Even now, she sparkles a little in his sight.

For the first time, he wonders how the Conlon family story looked through her eyes. What made her realize that Brendan was worth pulling from that clusterfuck of pain? He wants to ask, but ends up coughing instead.

“Come on,” she says, her voice kinder than he expects. “You’d better try to get something in your stomach if you’re going to take that nighttime flu stuff.”

+++

The pills smooth out his sleep until the sound of his mother’s coughing wakes him up. As he struggles towards wakefulness he sees her: she’s hanging onto a doorframe maybe, or on her hands and knees in the living room, or curled in bed like her own wraith. She needs him now.

The coughing is loud, insistent, like it could go on forever, but when he finally gets his eyes open, it stops. And that’s worse, because of what the silence might mean.

He pulls himself out of bed, surprised by how weak his legs are under him. The room has lost its familiar contours, but that doesn’t matter, what matters is—

Someone stops him in the door. Brendan—though that’s weird because Brendan never came to Portland. But if he’s here, he should know—

“Mom,” Tommy tells him. Brendan has his hands on Tommy’s torso, right under his ribcage, like he’s trying to hold him up. They’re so close to each other Tommy can see a few strands of gray in Brendan’s hair. “She was coughing, and then she stopped, and I think, I mean I’m worried, I—“

“Mom?” Brendan’s face is a mix of sadness and concern and maybe fear. He grips Tommy a little tighter. “Tommy, that was you coughing. Mom—mom’s—“

It all comes back brutal as a body blow. He’s in Brendan’s house, that’s why Brendan’s standing there in flannel pajama pants and a Flyers t-shirt. And mom’s dead.

“Come on,” Brendan says. “Lie back down already.”

He steers Tommy to the bed and hands him some tissues because his face is streaming with snot and maybe a few tears.

Tommy curls up with his back towards Brendan, because if he lets himself think about still being alive while mom’s dead he’s going to start bawling for real and he’s not sure he wants Brendan to see that. He expects Brendan to leave, but instead there’s a soft grunt and the mattress shifts, like Brendan’s settled himself on the floor and is leaning against it.

“Sorry,” Tommy mutters into the sheets. “Think I woke the girls?”

“Nah. They’d sleep through Doomsday, those two.”

Things are quiet for a few minutes. Brendan doesn’t seem in any hurry to leave.

“You remember that time you got strep throat real bad when you were a kid?” he says after a while.

Tommy gives a negative grunt, because he doesn’t remember, and because he doesn’t trust himself to say more, even to tell Brendan to go away.

“Not surprised. You couldn’t have been more than three or four. You had a real high fever and you were crying from the pain—which was weird, because you didn’t cry much, even then. Anyway, they stayed up with you for hours—both of them, mom and pop—singing to you, trying to get you to take some water, some ice chips. They must’ve thought I was asleep, but I stayed awake, just listening to them whispering to each other, whispering to you.” Brendan laughs, soft and unamused. “Guess I remember ‘cause it’s one of the few times I saw them do something together without fighting.”

Tommy waits for him to go on, but he doesn’t, just tugs a little at the covers, smoothing and straightening.

Part of Tommy’s furious that Brendan remembers more about their childhood, about him, than he does. And part of him is absurdly grateful to Brendan for sharing this good memory, God knows there’re few enough to go around.

He can’t decide which feeling is stronger, so he goes to sleep instead.

+++

He dreams once more before he wakes. It’s about the tank, but after. He’s walking down some dark road in Iraq, happy because he got those guys free, and scared because he thinks they’re sure to come after him now and court martial him for desertion.

He wants to go fast but his clothes are wet and they’re slowing him down. After a while, he sits down and starts taking them off, even though the desert wind is chill.

The cold wakes him, and he finds himself half-naked in Brendan’s guestroom.

His clothes really are wet, as are the sheets, but it’s sweat not water—the fever must’ve finally broken. He tests and decides he feels better—shaky, but clearheaded. Someone’s left out a pair of Brendan’s sweats for him, so he changes and strips the bed and sets off to find the laundry hamper and the bathroom.

The house seems empty as he makes his way downstairs—it must already be mid-morning—and he’s half-determined to call a cab and get out of there. But then he finds Brendan in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher.

“Hey, you’re up.” Brendan smiles at him, hands full of silverware. “Feeling better?”

“Mmmn. Yeah, I think.” He squints at Brendan. “What’re you doing here? Shouldn’t you be at work?”

“Nah. Teacher Work Day. I’ll go in later.”

Tommy frowns. It doesn’t sound right, but he can’t cope with the idea that Brendan stayed home to look after him, so he lets it go.

“Think you could eat?”

Tommy doesn’t really think he could, but he shrugs and lets Brendan start bustling around the kitchen. He pulls a chair out from the table and sits down, because standing is too much all of a sudden.

Brendan gives him water and juice and starts some oatmeal and eggs. Silence stretches awkwardly between them. Tommy thinks they’ve maybe spent more time alone together in the past twenty-four hours than they have since he got to Philly. Usually Tess and the girls are around, or Frank, or someone. He hadn’t thought they’d been avoiding it, but maybe they have.

Brendan watches him pick at the eggs for a while, then gathers the pots from the stove and dumps them in the sink so hard they give out a clang of protest.

Brendan’s a patient man, Tommy knows that. Patient with his daughters, his students, patient in the ring. But Tommy always seems to short circuit that in him. ‘Cause they’re brothers, he thinks, maybe that’s the way brothers are. He waits for whatever’s coming next.

“Fuck it, Tommy, I suck at this.”

At what? “The eggs are good, Bren, really. I just got no appetite right now, y’know?”

“No, not that. This. This looking after people thing. You. You’re the only one in the family who’s any good at this caretaking shit.”

Tommy doesn’t know what to say. He takes a big bite of food, like that might make Brendan feel better. Then he waves a hand around the nice kitchen, at the girls’ artwork stuck to the fridge with magnets. If there’s a Conlon who knows how to keep a family safe, keep them together, it’s Brendan.

Brendan seems to know what he’s saying, because he shakes his head. “No. When dad was so fucked up after you and mom left, what’d I do? I pretty much ignored him, that’s what, let him stew in his own juices. Spent all my time with Tess and put everything out of my head except getting into college.”

It’s true. Tommy was so mad at Brendan for a long time about that. Maybe it’s because he’s still sick, but he can’t seem to feel mad now.

“That was smart, Brendan—you did the smart thing.”

It’s like Brendan doesn’t hear him. “And what you did with mom? Staying with her ‘til the end? I couldn’t have done that. I would’ve lost it, run away. When Rosie was sick, it was all I could do to stay put. I think Tess might’ve literally tied me to a chair a few times.” His laugh has the sound of old bitterness.

Tommy’s not sure what Brendan’s talking about. Except that maybe weakness has never scared him like it does some people. But that can only get you so far.

“But you did stay, right?” he tells Brendan. “You stayed and she’s still here. You all are.”

Brendan cuts his eyes away for a minute, face working. Then he relaxes. “Yeah,” he says, looking straight at Tommy. “I did, we all are.”

Tommy thinks he might still be kind of feverish, because the morning sunlight in the kitchen starts to flare and shimmer a little. He squeezes his eyes shut for a moment. When he opens them, the shadows are deeper, but his brother and the room around him have regained a beautiful solidity. He blinks again and decides it might be time to trade in sitting for lying down.

“You really don’t have to go in for a while?”

“Nope.”

“Well, I’m gonna be fuckin’ useless today, I can tell. You wanna watch a game or something? Maybe a movie?”

Brendan grins at him, like he can tell that’s as close as Tommy can get to saying thank you. “Yeah,” he says, “sure.”