The Return Home
Dylan eased himself back in the luxurious sofa in the Vanderlins’ vast family room that had to be the size of his mother’s double-wide. He let out a long breath, wondering why he felt so bitter all of a sudden. He never went without as a kid. Sure, his parents didn’t buy him a brand-new car the day he turned sixteen, but they did teach him the value of a dollar, the importance of a good work ethic, and how to stand on his own two feet.
The Vanderlins’ had done the same, they just could also give their kids their own pool, a view of the Intracoastal and the ocean, along with fancy schools.
Well, fuck, Dylan had gone to West Point. That was quite the accomplishment, and Mia and her family weren’t a bunch of rich assholes who treated those with less like they were beneath them. They were good people who didn’t deserve Dylan’s foul mood.
“Let’s get all these munchkins in the tub,” Dylan’s mother said as she chased down Kayla, Ramey’s daughter who had the energy of the sun and tenacity of a lion protecting her cubs. The kid had no fear and a giant-size confidence in a pint-size body.
“Grandma. Get me!” Tyler, Nick’s oldest, exclaimed as he tried to catch up, but to no avail. While he also had boatloads of energy, he had a timid side to him and a soft heart, which was going to get him in trouble with the ladies.
“Do I have to take a bath with them?” Abigail said, clinging to Logan’s pant leg. “Can’t I have a shower? I’m a big girl now. Not a baby.”
Dylan bit back a smile. Nothing like listening to children try to reason with their parents.
“I’m no baby,” Kayla said, stopping dead in her tracks in the middle of the open family room, swiping her blond curls from her face.
“You’re my baby girl,” Ramey said from his spot on the floor.
Kayla rolled her eyes, pushing out a long breath.
“You’re so in trouble with that one. The female version of Ramey,” Dylan said with a laugh.
“But better looking like her mama,” Ramey said, reaching out and grabbing Kayla, tossing her to the floor and tickling her belly while she giggled.
“Daddy!” Abigail fisted her little hand and sent it crashing into his shin. “I want to take a shower.”
“You love Nana’s big tub. Now go with Grandma. Nana is setting up the big television in Mommy and Daddy’s room for you all to watch Nemo,” Logan said.
“Fine,” Abigail said, pointing her little, pudgy finger up at her father. “But only if I get popcorn.”
Dylan put his hand over his mouth, trying to wipe the smile off his face, but damn it felt good to feel lighthearted about something.
“Don’t talk sass to your father, young lady,” Mia said, coming in from the kitchen and scooping the little girl up in her arms. “I’ll help your mom.” Mia kissed Logan on the cheek. “Tequila and Leandra have the two babies upstairs. We’ll leave you boys to catch up.”
Nick waltzed in with a bottle of wine and four glasses. He held them up in the air. “I think this family has turned me into a wine snob.”
Logan took the glasses, setting them on the coffee table. “You know, that bottle doesn’t cost more than thirty dollars. My father-in-law has an entire cellar full of inexpensive wine and that’s his favorite.”
“I don’t think I ever even tried wine until you and Mia got back together.” Nick plopped himself on the sofa. “And now I think I prefer it over beer half the time.”
“It’s called being a mature grown-up,” Dylan said before he burst out laughing, then coughing as he clutched at his side. “Shit,” he muttered. “That fucking hurts.” He breathed slowly and not very deeply. The last x-ray showed his ribs were close to being healed, but not close enough.
“You okay?” Nick rested his arm on Dylan’s shoulder.
Ramey and Logan had both moved closer, sitting on the floor in front of the coffee table.
“Do I look like I’m okay?”
“You’re a bigger baby than any one of those toddlers,” Ramey said in a teasing tone. “Every time you got hurt as a kid, you’d ball like a little girl.”
“That’s funny coming from you since when you thought you broke your arm, you screamed like a dying cow, and it was only a sprain.” Logan finished pouring the wine, making sure the glasses were filled and the bottle empty. “Here’s to one for all, and all for one.”
Dylan clinked his glass with each of his brothers. “I’ve got your back.”
His brothers repeated the mantra. A deafening silence filled the room. Dylan sipped his wine, his thoughts going back to his father. Images of his childhood flashed across his mind. Running and playing in the street with his brothers. His father and Logan teaching him how to swing a baseball bat. His father and Nick teaching him how to shoot a gun. And he and Ramey building a picnic table for their neighbors under the watchful eyes of their father.
But it always came back to their last fishing trip.
The last time his brothers had seen their father alive.
The next day, Dylan watched his father take his last breath.
Logan swirled his glass. “Dad hated wine.”
“But he drank it for Mom,” Nick said. “Every anniversary and every birthday, he’d bring her a bottle.”
“And daisies,” Dylan added.
“He’d harass the hell out of us for actually enjoying this bottle.” Ramey took a big swig. He enjoyed wine, but he drank it like he was doing shots. “I can hear him say, ya’ll are a bunch of wusses. Real men drink Crown.”
“God, I hate that stuff.” Logan shook his head. “I remember right before I went off to college, Dad gave me a shot. I thought I was going to puke right there.”
“I’ve got news for you,” their mother said, waltzing into the room with another bottle and a glass for herself. “He hated that shit too.”
“Such language, Mom. Really. My poor innocent ears.” Ramey held out his glass, while his mother went about filling everyone’s before snuggling on the sofa between Nick and Dylan.
“Ramey, you’re about as innocent as Logan is funny.” His mother patted Nick’s leg.
“Hey. Thanks a lot, Mom,” Nick said.
“If he hated it so much, why did he drink it?” Logan asked, rubbing his chin. “I just always remember there was a bottle in the house, and oh boy, when Grandpa came to visit, they’d stay up drinking that swill all night.”
“That’s where you’re wrong. His father loved that stuff, and it was just your dad trying to bond with him. Your dad pretty much only liked his beer.”
“You’re joking,” Dylan said, staring at his mother with his jaw gaping open. They spoke of their father often when they were all together, but their mother rarely gave up any stories other than the usual tales.
“Nope.” His mother shook her head. “So, when your grandpa died, your father decided he should at least continue with the tradition and tried to get Logan to drink that crap.”
“He gave me and Joanne a bottle of it on our wedding day,” Nick said. There had been a time when Nick couldn’t even utter his late wife’s name.
Dylan tapped his chest. His heart beating faster. He loved his family. Loved being with his brothers, but as always, shortly after he arrived, he began counting the moments until his next deployment.
Only this time, he didn’t know when that would be.
“He wanted to carry on what his father had started.”
“I read Tyler The Little Engine That Could every chance I get,” Nick said with a sigh. “Dad loved that story.”
“That he did. Almost as much as he did fishing.” His mother finished her drink and stood. “It’s nice to have all my boys in one place again.”
“It’s good to be home.” Dylan reached up and took his mother’s hand and kissed it. “I mean that.”
“I know you do. I also know the second you get the thumbs up, you’ll be in the back of a C-130 transport plane on to your next assignment.” She bent over and pressed her lips on his forehead. “But until then, I’m going to have my boys together as much as I can.”