The Armistice by Christopher Green
Coming back to Bonifay always used to dial me back a few years. When I left, when I was at school up at UGA, I felt like a different animal. I felt like I could stretch out a new set of limbs I didn’t even know I had before. But when I was home, I turned back into a pumpkin—a pumpkin with braces and a hastily fashioned ponytail and a whole suite of Lisa Frank school accessories. I don’t know if it was any one particular thing, or if it was somewhere in the concoction of a hundred details: the sound of my name in my mother’s mouth, the flash of my father’s class ring. The endless, gaping expanse of Florida pasture, flecked with windows in the night. All of the above, or maybe something else entirely, flitting beneath the surface like a fish with brilliant scales.
Whatever it was, it did its job well—I felt giddy with childishness. When I came back for Christmas in the middle of freshman year, I spent most of the ride from the Tallahassee airport with my nose to the frigid backseat window, fists inside the sleeves of my sweater, arms curled around my knees. When we passed the sign reading Welcome to Bonifay, with its bold, looping calligraphic script, my pulse quickened, and tears half-formed at the corners of my eyes.
Home is a strange place the first time you see it again. It repels you even as it wraps itself around you inextricably. You are an aching paradox, both the same and not the same. I considered myself to have aged with reckless velocity over the last few months, like a bullet train bound for womanhood, while all my family and friends trotted behind like arthritic labradors. In fact, we were all moving at precisely the same tragic and inexorable pace, but it would be years before I would figure this out. That first night back, cruising across the moonlit panhandle, lungs filled with the smell of Mom’s perfume and Dad’s cigarettes, I thought of nothing so much as the relief from my semester of homesickness. As I alternated happily between the chill of the glass and the current of the heater between the seats, I relished the sense that time was frantically spinning its wheels without ever moving an inch.
“Almost home, Sweetie,” Mom said, in that saccharine way that comes so naturally to moms everywhere. Home, I thought, grinning to myself in the dark. Home, in all its bittersweet glory. I could hold it to my cheek like a blanket, it was so close. Everything, I was sure, would be just as I’d left it, a vast museum of all my bygone years.
Then we got back to the house, where I was confronted by the utter calamity of my brother Dylan.
Dylan was sixteen that year, a newly minted Junior at HolmesCountyHigh School. And in my brief absence he had, for reasons incomprehensible to me, kicked up his fucking attitude a few notches more than the average teenage boy should. He met us at the door in jersey shorts and a thick green hoodie with no shirt underneath, chest hairs poking out like weeds, callused bare feet scraping across the hardwood floor. When Dad presented me with all the fanfare of a pro sports announcer (“Heeeey, guess who’s home!”), he just looked at me, a hard two-second glare, and asked, “Do I have to carry in her stuff?”
Introductions were only the beginning. Upstairs, I found that my room was under a sort of covert occupation: the little shit had started keeping some of his stuff in there. Guitar case by the door, piles of CDs just tossed unceremoniously in the space of carpet between the desk and the bed. He’d been using my computer, too, judging by the numerous open video game boxes scattered around the keyboard. “Dude,” I hissed at him as he stood in the hallway behind me, “I didn’t die. I just left for school.”
“Yeah, well, you use this space about as often as if you weredead.”
“I’m using it right now!”
He shrugged. “You’ve got room.”
I rolled my eyes and shrugged off the strap of my bag. “I’m taking a shower,” I grumbled, shoving past him on my way down the hall.
“There’s no towels in there anymore,” he called after me.
I stopped. “Why?”
“I dunno. Mom just decided she wanted to start keeping them in the closet by their room.”
I stood there for a second, blinking at him. Why something so trivial felt like such an upset to me I can’t guess, but it did. The towels had always been in the bathroom, and moving them now seemed almost vicious, like they’d been turned into war refugees. “Fine,” I said, and started back the way I’d come, passing him as he stood smirking in my bedroom doorway. “And take back all your shit, or I’ll get Mom to make you do it.”
Shrug again. Shrugging was his native tongue. “Mom already said it was okay.”
If I’m being honest, I have to admit that this, too, pained me just a little bit. Did my parents really consider my room to be fair game? Were they that mercenary? Suddenly those months I’d been gone, which had thus far felt like an era all to themselves, collapsed into the length of days. Hell, there’d barely been time for my mattress to get cold, and already they were parceling out my corner of the house like slices of pie.
It was becoming clear that Dylan didn’t have anything pleasant to share with me. To continue wrangling with him was to spoil the soft, glowing image of home that I’d had in the car. I resolved not to speak to him again for the duration of my stay.
Unsurprisingly, our parents had other ideas. At the dinner table, over fish sticks and instant mashed potatoes (a choice which, I suspected, was rooted in my mother’s hideously outdated knowledge of my favorite foods), they prodded me for the exact details of my life in far-off Athens. “You decided on a major yet?” Dad asked.
“Yeah. Dad. I told you. Either Art History or Cultural Anthropology.”
“Well,” Dad replied, shaking his head, brow furrowed, as though he found the accusation both puzzling and offensive. “Did you say that? I don’t remember.”
“Name one job you can do with Cultural Anthropology,” Dylan said, fixing me with a stern glance over his raised fork.
“I could do research for the World Health Organization,” I fired back. I admit I had actually prepared this response ahead of time, in anticipation of that very question, though I’d assumed it would come from my parents first.
“Hey!” Mom gave him the whites of her eyes. When she spoke, her drawl got pulled out like a piece of taffy, the same as it always did when she was annoyed. “Julia is back for ahahliday. Don’t forget it.”
“If only,” he said, and then stuffed the fork in his mouth.
What the hell had I done, I wondered. I mean sure, we weren’t super close even before I moved away, but it hadn’t been like this. I’d expected to come home to a quiet truce, the way soldiers on opposing sides of a war can shake hands a decade later on an old battlefield. Instead, we felt worse than ever. We weren’t even squabbling; we just seemed to hateeach other.
Mercifully, things seemed to calm down after dinner. Dylan thumped up the stairs two by two in about the time it took for his fork to hit the plate. Mom and Dad, exhausted by the drive and by the futile effort to reintroduce me into my old habitat, retreated into the den to watch a holiday-themed episode ofCSI. For the first time since I’d landed in my home state, I was alone. I spent half an hour just wandering around, looking at stuff, basking in the odd warmth of a place that both was and was not home to me. It was a monster, this house, these rooms, stitched together from pieces of my childhood and pieces of the life that had gone on without me. Old things: Crosley radio, wicker lamp, set of three ceramic hens my mom had dutifully accepted from her mother-in-law, Grammy Hotchkiss. The huge tree they’d culled from the farm three miles away, flocked with fake snow and smelling powerfully of Southern woods. There was tinsel on the mantle, and the front walk was lined in blue lights like a landing strip. All the trimmings I could have flawlessly reconstructed in my head back at school. But also, new things: unreasonably large LED TV, a toaster oven with a digital display, and a recent photo of Dylan hanging in the front hall, pretty much the first thing you saw when you walked in the door. In it, he was sitting on the bottom row of the Holmes County High bleachers, in his soccer uniform with the ball in his hands. He was smiling, but I couldn’t tell if it was genuine or just a resentful facsimile. With Dylan it was always hard to tell. After a minute or two I realized there were no photos of me in the hall. One semester later, it was like my parents only had one kid. Probably an overreaction on my part, but still, there it was.
The last time I’d been out back was in early September, just before I left for school. Waist-deep in Indian Summer, nothing but browned grass and stained armpits. Now that it was winter, I found myself taken by the urge to see it again. From my perspective, the change would be drastic, like time-lapse photography. I went upstairs, threw on my new coat (wool and cashmere—such an adult!), and headed out the screen door to the yard, steamy breath popping into the December night. It was unusually cold, or maybe I just wanted to think it was, because cold was new, and new was a drug I was trying to mainline into my system. I crossed the long diagonal to the little party area Dad had built two years before. Knee-high table, loveseat and twin adirondacks, brick fire pit. I stretched out in one of the chairs, wrapped the coat tightly around me, and stared off across the flat, silver-tipped sea of grass, a huge ragged square of land sloping down into a neighbor’s farm some hundred-fifty yards off. Dad had wanted to grow something on it when they first bought the house, but he just ended up spending two hours a week mowing for nothing. It was pretty, though. I had missed it. It had, in fact, been one of the parts of being back that I had most looked forward to.
My phone buzzed from deep inside my pocket. I fished it out and checked it, annoyed that I had to expose my fingers to the chill again. It was a text, from Dylan: r u still home
Yeah, I replied. Sitting outside.
Ten minutes later I heard the percussive slam of the screen door. With my back turned I could only listen as he crunched leisurely across the yard and flopped down in the neighboring chair. He had two cans of Mountain Dew, one of which he passed to me. It was painfully cold against my fingers, but I accepted it, setting aside for the moment my distaste for Mountain Dew, just in the name of peace. “Thanks.”
“Uh huh.” He opened his can, hiss-crack, and proceeded to down most of it in a heroic series of gulps.
“So,” I opened, “did I do something wrong?”
He set the can on the table between us, burped loudly. “What?”
“I mean is there a reason you’ve been so shitty to me all night?”
He cocked his head at me, making a face. “I haven’t been shitty to you.”
“What—yesyou have! You haven’t said a single remotely nice thing to me since I got here! You didn’t even tell me, like, welcome home, which I feel like is kind of the standard way to greet somebody. Like I’d tell my enemy welcome home.”
“Okay.” Dylan pulled up his hood and burrowed both hands into the pouch over his gut, slipping further down in his seat. I couldn’t see his face at all. “So, what, you want a fake welcome home?”
I watched him for a second, then turned back again. Out in the distance, the darkened square of the neighbor’s farm patch, half sweet corn, half sugarcane. In summers I used to sit out here and watch him working, way off in the distance, my neighbor the farmer-ant. Plowing, weeding, picking. UGA was all concrete and brick and bite-sized plots of landscaping. Borders of flowers as narrow as the lines on a highway. The difference had seemed big to me while I was there; now it seemed overwhelming. “I mean,” I said, then hesitated for a second. “I guess...if that’s the only kind you have.”
Dylan turned toward me; I could feel the weight of his gaze, could hear the scrape of the wool of his sweatshirt, but I didn’t turn to look back. We were silent for a minute or two. Then he reached for his can again. “Welcome home.”
I checked the time on my phone. It was 11:16. In the inky night the brightness of it made me squint. I put it back in my pocket. “Was that a real one or a fake one?” I asked.
No reply. He had started toying with the nylon strings of his hood, picking at the plastic covers at the ends.
“So what’s it like without me here?” I tried. “With the house to yourself.”
“Eh.” He shook his head, roused again from his stupor. “Pretty much the same, except I don’t have you to draw half of Mom’s fire. She’s on my case every day about AP History.”
“Why? It’s not going well?”
“B minus. It’s not going Julia-level well.”
My cheeks heated, probably from anger but maybe, a little bit, from embarrassment. “Well Jesus, man, sorry to wreck your curve.”
“Whatever.” He polished off the rest of the Mountain Dew—you could tell from the few insistent slurps at the end, just making sure he’d gotten it all—and then he threw the can over the back of the loveseat and into the grass. I was about to yell at him when he said, “It’s fucking boring without you, though.”
“I mean…” He was searching for the right words. To backpedal, maybe, or to spin it like something closer to an insult than how it sounded now. But he wasn’t an eloquent kid, or a witty one. The words were out there; he couldn’t unsay them. “It’s just...I don’t know. It’s quiet. I get a ride home with Macy after school, and everybody’s still at work, and I just like...I sit in my room. By myself. Or in your room.”
“You mean so you can play fucking World of Warcraft or whatever on my computer?”
Dylan shook his head. He turned to look at me, and I couldn’t avoid him in time. We stared at each other for a second. “No,” he said. “Not always. Sometimes I just sit in there. Look at your stuff. Play with your cat’s-cradle-string thing. And just...like, think about you being somewhere else. Away from this shitty town. Being this other person that none of us would recognize.”
I straightened up in my chair, stuffed my hands into the pockets of my coat. I wanted to say something back, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t risk it, the chance that my voice would crack like an egg. Dylan understood this, I think, or maybe he just didn’t care. Either way, he sat there with me, head craned up toward the stars, saying nothing more. After a while, I let out a long breath and looked up at them with him.
Mom came out a few minutes later, yelled to us that she and Dad were off to bed. “Okay!” we yelled back in unison. Then she was gone, and although it was freezing, and I was dead tired, and Dylan was clearly bored out of his mind, we stayed there a while longer, talking a little about nothing in particular, or just sitting, getting reacquainted with the feeling of not being so far away from each other.
Finally, just before we went inside, Dylan let out a little bemused grunt and folded up his bony legs, his knees two polished softballs in the dark. “Welcome home,” he said.
I told him thanks.
For hours that first night I lay in bed unable to sleep, either from the confusion of everything that had happened or from my first can of soda in four months, I’m not sure. I just huddled beneath the cover, which smelled strongly of the house, a scent I’d been away from just long enough to pick it up again. In the lightless room, I could see only the suggestion of what had once been the only world I’d ever known: desk, bookshelf, movie posters, ceiling fan. And against the wall by the door, like a big black hourglass, my brother’s guitar case. It wasn’t until just before I drifted off, sometime around three-thirty, that I realized I hadn’t known he played.
© Christopher Green, 2014
Christopher Green is a recent New York transplant from Cincinnati, currently residing in Brooklyn with two roommates and at least four mice. He holds both a BA and MA in English, helping him to reach his ultimate goal of raising underemployment to an art form. His stories have appeared in several journals and magazines such as Burner, The MacGuffin, and The Ampersand Review, and he publishes pieces bi-weekly with ImageCurve.com. He is also currently seeking representation for a novel, which is sort of about vampires but not really and it's kind of a whole big thing and maybe he just shouldn't have brought it up.
The Armistice was read by Rebecca Mills on 3rd October 2014 for Hearth & Home