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The Braided Brothers

by Hunter Howe

The first drink of coffee is always the scariest. People never know what to expect. They hesitate for a while, then close their eyes and take a sip. The cup is filled to the brim with mystery until it touches their lips.

Nestled between two large office buildings in the suburbs of Kansas City, a pleasant café can be found. It might look out of place to the average passerby, but we locals know it for its exquisite brew and velvety cinnamon rolls. It was built in the 50’s and has lasted the true test of time.

Kids come in the morning and talk in the booths as they wait for the school bus to arrive. Some adults schedule business meetings where they discuss important decisions while enjoying a caffeine high. Others casually meet to catch up on community gossip. For me, it’s a place to forget the chaos of the outside world and simply enjoy the company of friends. The outside noise is drowned out by the hum of the espresso machine. Bus horns are replaced by laughter. Lucy’s Café has become as big a part of the community as the people in it. Of course, customers never know what it has to offer unless they come inside. Some people, like James, Danny, and Louis know this to be true.

***

Dim rays of light peeped their way through the small cracks in the plastic blinds. The only sound that could be heard was his wife’s slow breathing. James closed his eyes and wished for time to stand still. Suddenly, a screeching noise broke the silence, piercing his eardrums. He frantically rolled over and covered his ears. He looked around trying to make sense of his surroundings. The rays of light now engulfed the room like a fire. He knew it didn’t make sense, but he felt the white-hot heat of the flames on his face. He couldn’t find his wife through the suffocating black smoke, which seemed to reach out and take ahold of him. “Olivia!?”

His wife woke up startled by his shouts. She turned off the alarm clock and placed her thumbs on his cheek bones. She leaned in close and whispered softly, “James, come back to me. You don’t have anything to be afraid of.”

Two soft blue eyes slowly replaced the thick smoke. They filled his vision like an ocean. The calming waves eased James back to reality. He sat motionless as the smoke dissipated and revealed his wife’s familiar face. Her face was gentle with concern. He loved when she made this face because it made a dimple on her chin. Her checks were still puffy from just waking up.

He broke the silence, “I’m sorry Honey. It happened again. I think it was worse this time.” She kissed his forehead and replied, “Don’t be sorry, it’s not your fault.”

He would always be grateful for having her by his side. Olivia was his lifeline in a world full of chaos. She had more patience than anyone he has ever met. He thought back to the day he returned from Iraq. The first week home seemed like a second honeymoon. They joked that it was as perfect as a fresh jar of peanut butter. They both loved peanut butter. That all stopped when he had his first episode.  It terrified James.

Olivia, on the other hand, faced the problem without faltering. She scheduled meetings, appointments, and support groups. She was determined not to lose the James she married. Would he ever be the same again? Fourth of July changed from a time of celebration to a fight for survival. He thought he had left the war overseas, but it had followed him back. Like a parasite, it clung to him.

The doctors said that it was normal for soldiers to come back and relive events from combat. They didn’t understand that a bottle of pills and therapy sessions with Dr. Smiley was never going to drown out the sounds of bullets flying overhead nor stop the feelings of terror. They didn’t understand what it felt like to have no control over their own mind. The one place that used to be a place of solitude and security was plagued with violence.  Jumping from the slightest sounds can destroy a person’s confidence faster than a CH-47F Chinook can fly.

Danny and Louis understand the lasting effects of war. It seemed like the three men’s lives have been intertwined since the beginning. Their parents were co-workers at Lifetime Mutual, an insurance company. In elementary school, people thought they were brothers because they were always together. They made a pact back then; to always be there for one another. They sealed their promise with a spit-covered handshake. Not even Fate could argue with a deal like that.

The boys grew up together, playing on the Oak Park Raiders football team. Two years of being undefeated. They set records for interceptions and rushing touchdowns. Back in Iraq, they had grown closer. They helped one another survive. Danny was always a suck up. He quickly brown-nosed his way to the top. Although, through his success he still looked after Louis and James. The three men spent countless hours in the unforgiving sun running on only three hours of sleep. Their bodies fueled by packets of nutrient powder. They all advertised the same thing: Just add water for one shitty meal! The men became more than teammates, they become a family. A family full of broken individuals – notindividuals in a broken family.

“James you should really get going.” His wife called from the kitchen. “The guys will be waiting for you.” James entered reading Kansas City Starsmiling to himself. He took off his reading glasses and kissed his wife. He loved to read, especially the comic strips. He wished that his life was as easy as Marmaduke’s. Marmaduke’s life was simple. No bombs in the backyard, or the thought of an IED in the driveway. No one knows the struggles that James went through, except for Danny and Louis. The three men were forever part of the First Civilian Division.

***

I have been working at Lucy’s Café for over two years now. It started out as a way to make extra money for college. I quickly discovered the tips are not as strong as the coffee. I am familiar with every nook in the small coffee shop. I spend countless nights staying late to sweep the worn hardwood floors. I continually wipe down the tables which are constantly littered with sugar packets, crumbs, and napkins. Customers are too busy to care. I don’t mind, the café is my second home. I’m learning to love the creaky floors, wobbly tables, and smell of a fresh pot of Colombian coffee brewing.

***

Danny felt like a tank was crushing his skull, slowly squeezing his brain. His head was pounding, which caused him to be disoriented. He looked around with half open eyes at his brightly lit room. There was an empty whiskey bottle on the nightstand from the night before. It stared at him with judging eyes. Like it was his fault it was empty. He moved his hand to the right side of the bed. It was cold. She never came back last night or she slept on the couch again. What did he do to piss her off now? Who knows? He crawled out of the four poster bed, grabbed a few pills, and started getting ready for the day.

Danny was accustomed to easily finding success. He breezed through high school with straight A’s, captain of the football team, and a hot girlfriend. That didn’t change when he enlisted in the Marines. He followed orders efficiently and exactly. It didn’t take long for him to gain the respect of his commanding officers. He was soon promoted to a company-grade captain. When he returned to the States he decided to go back to school and become a lawyer. Within a year, he landed a job representing The Flynn Law Firm. He married his high school sweetheart and had two kids. A perfect suburban family, living in a perfect suburban neighborhood, living perfectsuburban lives.

Danny descended down the winding staircase just as his family was leaving for school. He heard his son and daughter’s voices echoing down the hall from the kitchen where they were fighting over the last EGGO waffle. His wife checked her lipstick in the reflection on the microwave. Danny nodded and said, “Good morning, everyone.” No one seemed to notice. He leaned in to kiss his wife on the cheek. She acted like something had caught her eye and turned away. A strand of her dark hair shielded her facial expression from Danny.

His hangover was still pretty intense, but his wife’s movements reminded him of the argument they had the night before. It wasn’t the first time they had this disagreement. Her words from yesterday came back to him like ice.

She had met him at the door when he returned from work. “Why are you never satisfied, are we just not good enough for you?” his wife questioned. He hated when she was angry and he didn’t want to have this argument right now. He ran his hand over his bald scalp. “What do you mean?”

“I meanthat you are too busy to spend time with your own kids. Is your job more important than their lives? Is it more important than mine? Did you even know your son had a soccer game today? What about your daughter’s dance recital that you missed last week?

“I can’t decide when I work.” Danny interrupted her rant. “I go to work, so you guys get to do those things. Isn’t that enough?” Danny sidestepped his wife and went into the kitchen to make a drink. His wife glared at him one more time then marched upstairs.

“Daniel, don’t forget to pick the kids up after school today,” his wife’s words brought him back to the present. “You need to bring Cindy to her dance lessons and Ethan to soccer practice.” Ethan looked up holding a waffle with a monster bite taken out of it. Through a mess of crumbs he mumbled something in protest. Danny looked at his wife. She didn’t seem to hear it. Her face was blank and her eyes seem to be distant. This could be his chance to make things right again, with a stern face Danny replied, “I’m picking you up at three-thirty. Make sure your sister is ready to go as well.” Ethan wasn’t convinced, he stormed out the front door slamming it shut with a loud clunk. With a short good-bye, Danny watched his wife and daughter follow.

Danny stood alone in the kitchen. He could still smell the buttery scent of waffles. When he designed the house, he made sure not to hold anything back in this room. He wanted it to be a perfect kitchen for his family. He grew up creating his best memories in the kitchen. Learning to cook from his dad and bake pies from his mom. He could still smell the sweet fragrance that only his mom’s pies could evoke. He loved to do his homework at the kitchen table, listening to his mother hum as she prepared whatever was for dinner that night. The kitchen table was not only a place for food, but a place for conversation. Conversations about school, work, and Danny’s future. He remembered sitting across from his parents and telling them he wanted to enlist. It still made his palms sweat. He didn’t have any of those memories in this house. He had an island with a double sink and a refrigerator with a built in touch screen.

He ran his hands over the slick counter tops. He picked the color out himself. At first, it looked like a simple black and white pattern, but when anyone looked closer they would notice flecks of gold that surged around the blotches of black and white like a river. The gold reminded him of the letter he received yesterday that was stamped with a shimmering hospital seal. A lump formed in his throat. The fear of opening it rushed back to him. He rubbed his temples as he remembered what he had read.

He didn’t know what was considered to be the proper way to deliver a diagnosis report. Enclosed in an envelope and stating a death sentence in tiny black letters was not the right way to do it. His official diagnosis was a grade four astrocytoma located anterior to his brain stem. It was inoperable and slowly growing each day. The note dictated that he had less than five years to live. Chemotherapy was an option, but Danny couldn’t imagine living his last years in a hospital bed eating pills for breakfast and radiation for dinner. James and Louis didn’t like that he was withholding the information from his family, but they reluctantly agreed. That’s why he decided to put the envelope upstairs, tucked between his rolled up t-shirts. His wife never did his laundry, so it was safe there.

Beep! Beep!That must be James. Danny grabbed his briefcase, checked to make sure his flask was inside, and headed out the door.

***

I group the people that come into Lucy’s into categories. There is the late-for-work people. These are the people that stand in line with the sternest faces. They fidget with their watches, text furiously on their iPhones, and stare so hard at the people in front of them it must hurt. The next group is full of smiling faces, eyes that crinkle at the corners, and cheerful good mornings. Then there is the indecisive group. “Welcome to Lucy’s, what would you like today?” I ask.  I’m answered with blank stares and questions. The rude people are worse. “Hey, lady, my coffee is too hot.” “Ma’am, can you hurry it up?” I smile softly at their pointing fingers, red cheeks, and upturned noses. “Yes, sir, I will do that for you, of course.” And lastly, my favorite of them all: the regulars. They come and greet me with a welcoming, “Hello, Taylor!” Then sit at their table. I count on them every morning.

***

James and Danny were going to be here soon. Louis had not slept the night before. Honestly, he hasn’t slept for the past week. He couldn’t seem to relax anymore. He sat in his apartment staring at a blank television screen. This had always been a welcoming place of laughter and happiness. That wasn’t true anymore. His memories of before were blocked out by the darkness in the room. It hung there as if suspended by a puppet master with a cruel sense of humor. The show was over, but Louis was stuck in the audience.

It’s been a year since the divorce. Louis didn’t know where things went wrong or how they changed so quickly. When he returned from Iraq something was different between him and his wife. Or maybe it was just Louis that was odd. The couple tried to resolve their issues. They went to marriage counseling and talked to their pastor. Nothing helped mend the bond that had been broken between them. Maybe going to Iraq had stretched it too far. Now all he had left was an unraveled piece of string. It was worthless.

Louis looked around his apartment, as if it held the answers for his suffering. The walls were bare. They used to be filled with pictures of his life before. Memories were framed and hung on nails for everyone to see; snapshots of a honeymoon in Cancun, a bride and groom outside a small country church, and smiles that were excited for a new life together. The dining room table was always covered in canvases and painting utensils. His wife loved to paint, and he loved to watch his wife paint. Now it was full of unopened envelopes and empty Chinese take-out cartons.  The heavy curtains blocked out the light. Louis wasn’t even sure what time it was.

James and Danny didn’t know what he was going through. They knew the divorce was rough, but they had no clue what his life was like. How could anyone understand? James urged Louis to see a shrink, but Louis didn’t need someone to ask him about his feelings. He needed his old life back.  Nothing else was going to stitch his life back together. He didn’t know how much longer he could stay in this demoralizing apartment.

It was a coward’s way out. He knew that, but he didn’t care. Danny and James would be pissed if they knew what he was considering. He twirled the rope in his hands. It felt solid and sturdy. His hands trembled as he caressed the braided twine. He stared at the rope and followed the fibers as they weaved between one another. They seemed so connected, nothing could ever tear them apart. Working together, they made one another stronger. A strand had come loose from the braid. He pinched it between his thumb and index finger and pulled it away from the bundle. Almost like striking a harp string, a musical note was released as the strand broke free. Louis watched it slowly fall and settle between his bare feet.

Louis sat in the room that used to be an office. It smelled musty and the air was stale. Breathing was uncomfortable. All the oxygen seemed to be replaced by lead. It made his body heavier than usual. Every movement was an effort. All that was left in the room was an old wooden chair. His wife took the rest of the furniture with her. She abandoned the chair, as if it was too worn and had too many scratches to be any good for her. In the faint light, he scribbled a few words on a piece of paper. He didn’t have much to say or a good explanation for what he was planning. He wrote to Danny and James. The words spilled out onto the paper in heaps of emotion. When he finished he neatly set the pen down next to the letter.

The rope was fastened to the ceiling directly above the chair. Louis stood up. The chair creaked under his body weight. He slipped the rope around his neck. He stood still for what seemed like an eternity. He tried building confidence with deep breaths. The rope scratched his neck, but he didn’t notice. He secretly wished someone would stop him. At the same time, he looked forward to finally resting. He hadn’t slept for so long. Nothing could end his struggles, except for this rope. He had nothing left to give this life. His hopes and dreams all stopped where the rope ended, but maybe it also held a new beginning for something else. He held onto that hope as he took one last look at the letter he left behind and took a step forward.

The noose tightened around his throat. His legs flailed. The chair crashed to the floor. He tried hard to suck in air as panic overwhelmed his body. He felt his heart beating faster as adrenaline was released in his veins.  He couldn’t help but struggle against the constricting rope. Fear controlled his movements. Black spots swirled in his vision. They became more intense until all he could see was a void of blackness. Where was the light? Wasn’t there supposed to be a light at the end? Louis tried to scream, but no air was left in his lungs. His arms dropped and his legs stopped twitching. Death closed his grip on Louis’s throat. As Louis slipped into unconsciousness he swore he heard a chuckle.

***

The south wall in the café is covered with pictures of local military heroes. It’s full of men and women who have defended our country. Some of the soldiers return home to their families, others don’t make the journey back. Towards the ceiling the pictures are faded, a few are in black and white. Near the bottom they become shiny and vibrant. The three men are on that wall, right next to my father. All four wear similar uniforms that include white hats and collared jackets that are outlined in red. The jackets have golden buttons that reflect the light. The men’s faces are solemn, but their eyes are fierce with determination. My father served in Iraq, but never came home. It’s hard for me not to wonder what life would be like if he had returned. Sometimes I imagine my dad walking in with the three men. I’m sure they are around the same age, maybe even knew one another. One day, I’m going to ask them.

I don’t think anyone has been coming in longer than the three men. They come in every Monday to have coffee and breakfast. The bell rings as they open the large wooden door. It softly shuts behind them, sealing the entrance to the outside world. They sit by the window that looks out onto Main. It has a great view of the bus stop and Lowenstein Park across the street.  Just like clockwork they come in, talk as old friends, and leave. I’m not sure what they talk about. The conversation probably starts out with the weather, then it progresses to news about work and their families. Each one leaves and gives me a slight nod as if we are holding a deep secret that we swore would never tell.

Today is different. Their mugs are ready to go, but it’s already noon. I don’t think in my two years of working here that they have ever missed a day.

***

Lights, deep voices, and movement surrounded Louis. He tried to reach out, but his body wasn’t cooperating. He opened his eyes. Two figures entered his vision. Where was he? What were they saying? He tried to focus but was dragged back into unconsciousness.

Louis was lying face-first in the sand. It was cold and damp. The sand stuck to his clothes and skin in clumps. He felt the presence of people around him but it was too dark to see. Was he back in Iraq? He stood up to get a better view. There was a group of people about 40 yards in the distance. He called out. One of them turned. It was his wife! She shouldn’t be here, it wasn’t safe. He took a step forward and was instantly up to his waist in sand. His body slowly sank deeper into the ground. No!He was so close. He had to get her out of here. Dirt filled his mouth and tears filled his eyes as he submerged completely into the earth. The darkness welcomed Louis as he returned to its grasps.

Blurry lines moved in Louis’s vision. They gradually merged to form features. These features were familiar. Danny’s face was red. His bald head was shiny with sweat. His eyes were wide with concern or anger; Louis couldn’t tell. James looked like he had just seen a ghost. His glasses were crooked and his hair was a mess. Danny smirked, “You can’t leave us that easily, bud.” Louis tried to form the words, but he didn’t know what to say. He grabbed Danny and James and wrapped them in an embrace.

It was then that he comprehended where he was. He was lying in a hospital bed. James explained that they found him passed out in his apartment. The rope came loose from the ceiling. The doctor said he was lucky not to have suffered significant cervical spinal cord and bony injuries. He may have difficulty swallowing, lightheadedness, and bruises for some time, but he was going to be okay. Louis couldn’t believe what he was hearing. It all happened so fast, but it felt like an eternity had gone by since he took that step. “Quit being so dramatic, you were only out for twelve hours.” Added Danny as he slapped Louis on the shoulder.

Maybe it was the painkillers talking or the lack of oxygen, but Louis realized that he had never been alone. Danny and James shared the same burden as he did. Their lives have been twisted and torn, but it has made the three of them closer. They relied on one another to win football games. Now they need one another in order to survive the game of life. Together they were stronger. No disease, war, or tragedy could tear them apart. A man can only take so much damage before he falls. Louis understood that now.

***

The three men are a week late, but otherwise right on schedule. There is always something peculiar about them. I bring each of them a coffee. The short one, Louis I think, asks for some creamer. He is wearing a scarf, but it is almost seventy degrees outside. Who am I to judge? I guess I’m not the fashion police. The one reading the newspaper almost jumps out of his seat when a bus drives by. The guy isn’t that old, but he must have trouble hearing. He cleans his glasses to regain his composure. The other one’s bald head shines in the low light of the café. He pours some brown liquid into his coffee from a silver flask. I turn away and act like I don’t notice. These guys are a mess, it gives me anxiety just from standing next to them. I go back to counter to help the other customers. The three men seem to be lost in their own world. They huddle around the small table in a deep conversation about God-knows-what.

I feel like I know each of the customers that come into Lucy’s, but in reality I have no idea what they do once they leave. The door in our shop is an antique. Its solid oak with a large square of stained glass embedded inside. It’s beautiful, but when it closes I am blind, left in the unknown, disconnected from the other side. It’s odd, something so familiar to us, can be such a mystery.

Hunter Howe grew up on a farm and has a passion for athletic training, the outdoors, and making connections. His family members have served in the Army, Air Force, and Navy.

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