Part one of a three-part short story.
Two brothers, one a recent veteran from the war, and the other, a younger and less disciplined young man, out for a fun afternoon instead find trouble they never asked for.
The Tanner brothers were born fourteen months apart and had always been close growing up. Raised in the affluent south suburb of Bainbridge, both were cared for by loving parents and surrounded by friendly neighbors and the music of Elvis and The Beatles. The brothers rarely took each other for granted or kept secrets from the other.
Norton and Kenny shared most everything and near every experience with one another: toys as toddlers, the pleasure of whipping playground bullies in elementary school, rubbing raw the same demanding teachers in junior high, and exceling at football, baseball, and dating the cheerleaders of Fairburn Senior High.
The fall of 1970, the older brother, Norton, dropped out of his freshman year at Chapel Hill and joined the Marines. It would be two years before he returned to American soil from a place called Vietnam.
While Norton was away, Kenny thought of him often but kept his mind busy by finishing high school and working part-time at Lanny’s Burger Barn. By graduation, he’d saved enough to buy his first car, a high-mileage ’66 Chevy Nova in dire need of a new owner and repairs. A week after he bought it, Kenny drove it out of his uncle’s body shop, sporting emerald-blue metallic paint, polished Cragar mags, a kicked-up rear end, and Thrush mufflers, making it the coolest looking and best-sounding car in town.
Kenny's parents were standing on their front porch the day he pulled the Chevy in the driveway. It went pomp, pomp, pomp and the radio was blasting Temptation Eyes by The Grass Roots. He climbed from behind the wheel and stood smiling beside the car. He pat the hood and said, “She’s a beauty, isn’t she?” His father nodded and then congratulated him, but his mother said nothing.
Norton suddenly appeared in the front door screen. He didn’t say a word, didn’t crack a smile, even when Kenny spotted him and began jumping up and down, pumping his fist high into the air, hooting as he ran toward his brother. By the time Kenny had reached the door, Norton had disappeared to his bedroom.
Kenny knocked on the locked bedroom door. “Norton, hey man, I’m glad you’re back. Come on out.” He waited quietly for a few moments before knocking again. “You okay? Please come out, Norton. Norton?” He returned to the front porch.
“What’s up with him?” he asked his parents. “I thought he’d be happy to see his only brother.”
“Norton will be fine,” his father said. “Just takes time to readjust to being a civilian again. He’ll come around eventually and be back to his old self.”
“The boy’s seen horrible, terrible things,” his mother said. “I fear for him.” She began to cry and excused herself to go inside.
A few weeks later on a hot Saturday afternoon, Norton finally showed himself to the light of day.
It was the same day something unfortunate would happen to the brothers while they were together.
Kenny was washing his car in the driveway while the next-door neighbors and his parents enjoyed a summer get-together in their back yard. He peered over the fence at the pool. His mother and Laurie Shelton lounged by the water, tanning themselves and listening to music while his father and Jack Shelton stood nearby talking, grilling steaks, and drinking beer. The Sheltons’ only child, seventeen-year-old Marcy, lay poolside on her stomach reading a book when she spotted him watching. She raised her head, put a fingertip to the middle of her shades, and pulled them down slightly. Kenny’s eyes met hers as she smiled his way and followed with a wink.
Kenny smiled back. He liked the way she looked at him, but with Marcy you never could tell. She’d always flirted with boys—and older men—yet had never been on a date as far as he knew.
“She’s not winking at you,” a voice said behind him. It was Norton. He was shirtless, dressed in shorts and sandals, holding a can of beer.
Kenny rolled his eyes and shook his head as he walked past Norton toward the Chevy. He reached through the driver’s open window to the dash and grabbed a pack of cigarettes. He pulled one free and lighted it.
“And who’d she wink at Norton--you?”
Norton grinned. “The girl's always liked me, but she might like you, too--if you opened your mouth to her every once and a while.”
Kenny shrugged his shoulders. ”Don’t know, don’t care.”
Norton eyed the smoke trailing the end of Kenny’s cigarette and smelled it as well. He thought to himself how his little brother wasn’t so little anymore. “Can I have one?”
Kenny tossed the pack of smokes and lighter.
“When you start smoking?” Norton asked, lighting a cigarette. He tossed the pack and lighter back.
“I started the day your unsocial ass came back from the war. Took you long enough to finally come out of your goddamn bedroom and take notice.”
“Mom and dad know you smoke?”
“I’m openly smoking in their front yard, Norton. What the hell you think?”
Norton took a deep drag off his cigarette. He looked over the fence and stared briefly at Marcy, imagining how she would look without her bikini. The thought quickly soured as he turned to Kenny. “I think we need to get out of here for a while. That’s what I think. You game?”
“Bad Lands? Seriously?"
Norton nodded yes. “You’re old enough, and it’s time you went.”
“Hell yeah! I’ve never been. I’ll tell mom and dad we’re leaving.”
“Don’t. They won’t even know we’re gone. And don’t ever tell ‘em you went or I took you.” Norton looked back again at Marcy. “See if the girl will meet up with us later for a bite at Lanny’s. The two of you would go good together.”
Kenny shook his head. “No way.”
“Because I can find my own girl—without your help. Besides, Marcy’s nothing but a cockteaser.”
“When’d you start getting picky, little brother? I think she'd be all over you if you let her," Norton said, stomping out his cigarette. “And I know her parents dig you.”
“I’m not asking her to go with us and neither will you. Understand?”
“Just trying to help.”
Norton crushed the beer can between his palms. He turned the metal over and over in one hand, looking out over the smaller houses surrounding his parents’ home.
Kenny glared at Norton. “You hear me?
“Suit yourself.” Norton turned to go back inside the house.
‘’Where you going, Norton? I thought we were going to Bad Lands.”
Norton called out over his shoulder, “Finish washing your car first. I gotta shower.”
The brothers took Highway 31 South to McCallister’s Pass, Norton driving. The sun was high, hot, and beat down on the car without mercy.
Even with the windows down, Kenny had sweat through and soaked his T-shirt. He pinched it and pulled it away from his chest. “I can’t go to Bad Lands like this. This shirt stinks.”
Norton chuckled. “Like the girls there are gonna care how you look or smell.” He pulled a money clip, thick with fifty-dollar bills, from his shirt pocket and tossed it to Kenny’s lap. “Count it."
Kenny quickly leafed through the money. “Gotta be over a thousand dollars here.” He handed the money clip to Norton. “Why so much cash?”
Norton grinned and rolled his eyes toward Kenny. “You’ll see why soon enough.”
“I don’t want to see a damn thing,” Kenny said, pulling his wet T-shirt up and away from his chest. He fanned it as if to dry it, “if I have to go looking and smelling like this.”
“Cut it out, Kenny. You’re sounding like a baby who never came off the tit.”
“You cut it out. Maybe you’re not hot and sweaty, but I am, and I smell like crap.”
"You're the one who bought a car without air conditioning."
Norton punched the gas, opened up the Chevy from seventy-five to ninety. The breeze, hot as it was, felt comfortable to him. His body had become accustomed to high heat and humidity from his tour of duty in the jungles of southeast Asia. What he wasn’t accustomed to was Kenny’s whining.
“Let’s stop and grab you a new shirt,” Norton said. He pulled off the highway into the parking lot of a bargain clothing outlet.
Norton was the first to notice the two girls inside. Both out-of-towners, probably vacationing on the lake, he thought. The girls, a tall blonde and short brunette, appeared to be about eighteen and wore matching shorts, halter tops, and sneakers. They didn’t look at all like twins or even alike in any way to Norton, and he thought their similar dress odd. The short brunette paid him no attention as he passed by, but he caught the tall blonde watching him from the corner of her eye as she fanned through a rack of bikinis.
Kenny looked at the girls, too. The short brunette eyeballed him and then whispered in the ear of the tall blonde. Both girls broke out into loud laughter.
“Those girls think I'm something to make fun of,” Kenny said.
“No, they’re only teasing you, testing you,” Norton said. “See if you'll get mad and call ’em out--or walk on ‘em.”
“The little brunette's cute,” Kenny said. “Let’s talk to them.” He walked up to the girls. Norton stood back watching. “Hey there, ladies. My name’s Kenny.” He offered his hand. The tall blonde crossed her arms while the short brunette moved behind her, peering around at the brothers.
“How cute,” the blonde replied. The look on her face was one of contemptuous amusement: one eyebrow held high, the corner of her mouth pulled up, skeptical, sneering, as if Kenny was a bothersome fly she'd be rid of with a mere flick of her finger.
At first, Kenny seemed oblivious to her smug look, immune to her lack of interest in conversation. He extended his hand closer. Both girls stepped back.
"You ladies vacationing here?" Kenny asked. The girls didn’t answer. He hooked a thumb over his shoulder, pointed it at Norton. “And this is my brother. He’s a Marine.”
The girls remained silent. Kenny dropped his hand and clammed up, sure his face was turning red from the humiliation he felt inside. He looked to Norton for help, but Norton was no longer watching him. He peered beyond Kenny at an old pickup circling the parking lot. It stopped behind Kenny’s Chevy. A lone man got out and walked around the Chevy and then looked through the store’s glass front at the two girls.
The blonde, arms still crossed, stared at Norton's GI-style haircut. “You fight in the war?”
Norton didn’t answer her. His attention was on the front doorway and the trouble walking through it and coming their way fast. He stepped in front of Kenny as the man from the pickup shoved aside a clothing rack.
“You two-timing whore!” the man said loudly, looking at the blonde first as he passed her and then at Norton. He glanced down at the dark green USMC tattoo on Norton’s right forearm. “Hey, grunt, why you talking to my girl?”
“I’m not your girl anymore,” the blonde said. She backed away further, the brunette still behind her, peering around her shoulder. “Leave me and my sister alone.”
The man ignored her. His eyes were focused on Norton’s. “I asked you a goddamn question, grunt. You hard of hearing or what?”
“I’m not,” Norton answered, a smug grin spreading across his mouth.
The man, skinny yet muscular, wore a tight navy-colored tank top that revealed the name ANNIE tattooed on his left bicep.
Norton pushed Kenny aside and took a step back. When the man cupped a hand over his rear jean pocket, he moved back another step to stay out of the man’s reach in case he had a knife.
“Buddy, we were just leaving,” Norton said, holding his hands up to show he had no weapons. "Don't want no trouble." He turned to his right, side-steping a wide circle around the man. "C'mon, Kenny."
“Hey, fucker, you’re going nowhere ‘til you answer my question." The man reached out, grabbed Norton by the shoulder, and spun him around.
Norton pushed the man's hand away. “Don’t touch me again," he warned.
The man pulled a switchblade from behind and opened it with a snap of his wrist. The long blade’s razor-sharp edge glistened under the store fluorescents. He waved the shiny blade a few inches from Norton’s face. “Seems to me a man that can’t hear don't need his ears.”
“We’re not looking for trouble, mister,” Kenny said, stepping between Norton and the man. The man cut his eyes at Kenny. “We’re real sorry, mister, and didn’t mean any harm. I was the one talking to the girls, not my brother. I was only being sociable.”
The two girls stood by, the brunette still cowering behind the blonde, a nervous look in her eyes. Kenny pointed at them. “And these ladies don’t even know us. No harm done, okay?”
“Then teach your coward brother to answer a question when one's asked,” the man said, folding the switchblade shut against his thigh and then pocketing it behind him. He turned to leave. “Let’s go,” he said, fanning his hand, motioning for the girls to follow.
The girls didn’t move.
“I said, LET’S GO!” the man yelled.
Norton had had enough. He called out in a loud voice, “Hey, tough guy, I gotta question before you slither on outta here.”
“Don’t, Norton. Please don’t,” Kenny pleaded. He put a hand to Norton’s shoulder. “You stop it right now, before he cuts you."
Norton pushed Kenny aside again. He shook a finger at him. “Don’t come back over here. Understand me?”
The man wheeled around to face Norton. “Hey, grunt, you best shut your smart-ass mouth ‘fore I do it for you.” He gave Norton a hard stare before pointing at Kenny. “And you best listen to your mouthpiece over there.”
Norton squinted an eye at the girls, and then said to the man, “Why you wanna insult us in front of these beautiful ladies?” The blonde rolled her eyes. “I think you should apologize to all of us here.”
The man tapped a finger to the side of his head. “Hey, grunt, you a brainless wonder or what? I don’t give a shit what you think or want.”
“You should,” Norton said.
The man scoffed at Norton’s remark with a smirk. “Right, and I’ll bet, tough guy, you’re one of those baby killers from the war.”
“And what if I am?”
“Then I think you should go back over there and be a hero, because you’re not one here.”
Norton glanced down at the man's fisted right hand.
“You stink. Your mama stinks, your sister, too,” Norton taunted, goading the man, taking a chance the man would swing on him first, instead of pulling the knife again. “They smell like my socks, you know, the ones I left under their beds when I banged 'em.”
The man swung hard left, aiming for Norton’s nose. Norton ducked, but came up quick and clean and slipped underneath the man’s reach. He slammed a middle knuckle to the man’s sternum. POP! The man's eyes widened as if in a panic. His mouth opened to an 0 shape as he clutched his chest with one hand and dropped to one knee.
“I-can’t-breathe,” the man said, slapping his chest as if trying to kick-start a lung. His words were followed by a gurgling noise, the man sounding as if he were strangling.
“You’ll live, slick,” Norton said, stepping around the man, “as long as you don’t try that again.” He pulled the knife from the man’s back pocket and put it in his own. “Be a good boy and just go on home now, you hear?”
“Loser,” the tall blonde said to the man, as he rose unsteadily to his feet and then stumbled toward the door. She turned to leave, too, the short brunette tacked to her heels like a shadow.
“Hey, blondie,” Norton called out, following the girls out of the store, Kenny behind him. The girls continued on without lifting their eyes from the pavement. “Hey, Annie,” Norton called louder.
The blonde stopped and gave him a long, hard stare. “What do you want?”
Norton smiled and gave her his best I-just-want-to-be-your-friend look. He stepped closer.
The blonde didn’t move. Norton held her attention with a steady stare, his brown eyes soft and warm, her blue eyes cold and piercing.
Norton softened his voice. “I’m Norton. Just wanted you to know my name since I know yours, Annie.”
“My name’s not Annie.”
Norton pocketed his hands. “Okay, then what is it?” He felt slightly embarrassed. He had never had problems with getting to know a woman , even under conditions less than desirable, or even less than welcome—like this one. At six-foot-three, with perfect teeth, a lean body, and a schoolboy charm, he could take his pick of most women. The blonde’s cold-heartedness didn’t surprise him, though. He figured she had her guard up, not to just him, but with all men.
“I’m sorry I had to get physical with your old boyfriend. I'm glad you’re no longer with him.”
The blonde hesitated, then walked up to Norton. Her sister stayed behind. “I don’t pal around with Marines, and my history and my name are my business. You understand?”
Norton shrugged. “Not really." His voice was still soft, demure even. “I’m pretty sure I saved your butt from that old flame of yours. Besides, you asked me if I had fought in the war. I did.” He looked over at the brunette. “And if I had a sister, I wouldn’t trust any man with a knife around her.”
“You’re carrying a knife now. Don’t talk about my sister again.” She turned to walk away.
“I simply wanted to know your name. That’s all," Norton called out.
“Use your imagination," she said, walking on and disappearing into the afternoon.