Chapter 13 - SNAFU
After allowing himself a few more moments to indulge in his self-imposed pity party, Brian found the strength to will his feet to move from the spot they were rooted in and headed for the house as well. He really needed a drink or a joint - or maybe several of each - in order to deal with all the shit that had been suddenly piled on his shoulders. Brian still wasn’t sure whether or not to believe Justin’s recounting of the events that landed his picture in Justin’s hands. Nothing that Brian had learned about the young former marine in the past few weeks gave him reason to believe that Justin was anything but sincere. However, Brian still couldn’t get over the feeling of betrayal, the guilt from knowing that his brother had met his death without even having the familiar comfort of the photo of Brian with him at the time. However illogical it seemed, Brian imagined that somehow, some way, it was the absence of the good-luck photo that had contributed to Ben’s demise and he couldn’t forgive Justin for that unknowing fault.
Brian’s progress up to the house was slow. He was literally and figuratively dragging his feet. After the confrontation with Lindsey yesterday and then the bigger one with Justin this morning, he wasn’t looking forward to having to spar with his son now, too. Brian desperately wished that Gus hadn’t witnessed the little falling out with Justin. His son was so fragile these days. He almost wished he’d never allowed Justin to get close to his son - especially if he was only going to be a part of the boy’s world for such a short time. Gus didn’t need more people disappearing out of his life without warning. Brian didn’t really know what he was going to say to his tenderhearted son or how he was going to explain this. He didn’t really understand himself why he was acting the way he was, so how the fuck was he supposed to explain it so an eight year old could grasp the situation. Ah, the joys of parenthood, thought Brian, as he squared his shoulders and prepared to do battle with his unhappy child.
“Gus!” Brian hollered as soon as he pulled open the side door and made his way inside. “Gus, come down here, please! I need to talk to you, Sonnyboy!”
When he was met by complete silence, Brian was sure that Gus was just ignoring him. His son had been pretty pissed at him for sending Justin away the way he did. Brian let five minutes pass before he tried calling for Gus again.
“Gus did you hear me? Listen, I know you’re upset about what happened but you really need to come down here so we can talk about this!” When more than sixty seconds elapsed and there was still no response from his errant offspring, Brian let his voice raise a bit. “Gus Peterson Kinney. Get your skinny little behind down here. I don’t care how annoyed you are with me, you still don’t get to disrespect me and ignore me when I tell you to do something . . . GUS!”
Brian, now beyond pissed off at his petulant child, finally stomped up the stairs and barged uninvited into his son’s room . . . only to discover complete silence and an empty room. Brian then tried the closets, bathrooms, and all the hiding places that Gus didn’t think Brian knew about, but still he was nowhere to be found. As an afterthought, Brian went back into Gus’ room in case he’d happened to slip in while his father was searching another part of the house. Unfortunately, Brian found that not only had Gus disappeared, but he had taken his school backpack with him.
All the sudden, Brian’s stomach dropped and he was chilled by a cold sweat. “Gus! GUS! GUUUUUUUSSSS!” Brian screamed, in a total panic, dashing back down the stairs as fast as his feet would go without tumbling down to his death.
Brian already suspected that he wouldn’t be hearing any response, but he couldn’t help hoping that he was just over-reacting and his beloved son would turn up just around the next corner. However, when he noticed the absence of JB’s leash which was normally draped over the banister next to the back steps and the big bag of dog treats Gus used for training the puppy that were usually waiting on the shelf where the spare keys and other odds and ends hung, Brian knew that he was too late. When he bolted through the screen door, Brian also spotted a trail of tiny sneaker prints leading away from the property across the front lawn which was still wet from the morning’s dew. Brian’s panic welled up again and he knew he would have to enlist help in finding his son.
“Hey, Bri . . . “ Ted was interrupted by his phone in the middle of giving Justin directions about which rooms at Babylon needed a paint touch up. “What? Slow down, I can’t understand you . . . Gus is missing . . . ?”
Justin couldn’t help but overhear what Ted was saying, considering their proximity. Justin could clearly discern the panicked timber of Brian’s voice coming from Ted’s cell phone.
“Okay, okay . . . just try to stay calm and I’ll be there as soon as I can.” Ted ended the call and wordlessly turned his attention back to Justin. Justin could read in Ted’s eyes everything he was unable to verbalize at the moment.
“Ted? What’s going on?” Justin demanded, as the older man tried to rein in his own worry.
“It looks like Gus has run away,” Ted confessed, looking almost as stunned as Justin felt at the announcement.
“What? Why? What did Brian say?” Justin implored and grabbed at Ted’s arm as if to physically pull the explanation out of his body.
“I didn’t get any more. Brian wasn’t making a lot of sense. He just said that Gus was missing and asked me to call everyone to help look for him. I’ve got to make some calls . . .” Ted was already drifting away from the scene, his cell phone out and his fingers punching intently at various buttons, as Justin peeled away and bolted out the main door of the club, sprinting as fast as he could towards the corner of Liberty Avenue where knew he could find a cab.
Less than twenty minutes later, the young blond spilled out of the taxi in front of Britin, running towards the door before his feet even hit the ground. He didn’t really pause long enough at the front door to knock before plowing through and yelling out for Brian. As Justin barged through the front door, Brian was just coming down the hall with his cell phone to his ear. Brian and Justin both came to a dead stop when they laid eyes upon the other.
Brian covered the mouthpiece of his phone before asking Justin in a harsh voice, “What the fuck are you doing here?”
“Ted told me about Gus. What can I do to help?” Justin huffed out an offer of assistance before he’d even caught his breath. “How long has he been missing?”
“I . . . I don’t know,” Brian was too distracted to really think logically about Justin’s questions. “However, I do know he overheard our argument earlier and I think he left because of our little tongue wrestling match earlier. He . . . he didn’t want you to leave and . . .” Brian fell silent, unable to finish his sentence due to the overwhelming uncertainty and guilt he felt already for lashing out at Justin earlier.
Brian faltered, his head cradled in his hands as he dropped into a chair by the door. Justin, unsure of his welcome, slowly made his way to Brian’s despondent form. He hesitated but then, giving in to his urges, he let his hand fall to Brian’s shoulder with a comforting caress.
“Listen, the reason why Gus left isn’t what’s important right now. What is important is that we pull ourselves together and go out and find your son. Where should we start looking?”
Brian simply shook his head, confused and too distracted to think logically. “I don’t know . . . I don’t know.”
It was late evening and nobody had heard anything more from Gus since he’d disappeared from Britin earlier in the day. Justin and Brian had driven around the neighborhood for hours - stopping in at every one of Gus’ friend’s houses and just generally canvassing the area. However, they’d had no luck, so after a few hours, Brian decided to drop Justin off back at Babylon. He thought he’d head over to see Lindsey and break the news to Gus’ mother in the gentlest way he knew how.
As soon as Brian dropped Justin off at Babylon, he started up the stairs to his small apartment. Before he’d gone more than five steps, though, he heard a scuffing type of sound behind him on the street. Becoming instantly alert, his combat senses kicking into immediate high-gear, Justin adjusted his eyes to the deep shadows of the alley. The noise was coming from near the dumpster. Justin crouched into a defensive stance, ready for whatever might jump out of the shadows. Then, as he watched, one particular shadow detached itself from the darkness and slowly walked towards Justin.
“Is my dad gone yet?” Gus’ little voice was so hushed it was difficult to catch, but Justin’s expert hearing picked up the tenuous question.
“Gus? Is that you?” Justin asked as he rose from his battle ready position. “Are you okay, buddy? Your dad and I have been looking for you all afternoon.”
“I didn’t want him to stop me from coming to talk to you,” Gus tried to explain as he made his way out from the depths of the alley towards where Justin was waiting for him on the stairs. “I made a drawing for you . . .”
Gus rifled through his beloved backpack and carefully pulled out the halfway decent picture he’d drawn of himself with his dad, Justin, JB and a fourth person who Justin didn’t immediately recognize, all having a picnic together on the vast grounds of Britin. Justin’s hands shook slightly as he accepted the heartfelt gift.
“This is great, Gus. Your drawing is really getting good. I recognize you, me, your dad and JB, but who is this,” Justin asked, pointing at the other person in the picture.
“That’s my uncle Ben,” Gus replied as his once twinkling eyes clouded over with sadness. “I heard what my daddy said to you about Uncle Ben. I . . . I don’t think you took Uncle Ben’s picture just to hurt him. You didn’t, did you Justin?”
Justin smiled softly at Gus as he reached out and ruffled his hair. “Of course not, Gus. I would never take someone’s lucky charm. Did you know that lots of soldiers carry a picture or something else with them for luck? I knew a staff sergeant who used to carry a green crayon that his daughter gave him. He refused to take a step outside the wire without having that crayon in the ankle pocket of his uniform. And another troop I know always carried her bible with her when she was overseas. Another had a locket with a lock of their child’s hair. The commander of our unit carries a $2 bill that his father gave him when he was a boy. There are many personal objects that are significant to each individual which bring comfort and luck. So, like I said, it’s pretty common and I would never disrespect anyone’s beliefs.”
“Did you carry a lucky charm with you Justin?” Gus asked hesitantly, looking up into Justin’s face with obvious hero worship.
“Yeah I did . . . only I didn’t know it,” Justin’s voice was choked up with emotion as he thought back to how many times Brian’s picture had gotten him through the toughest of times while he was in the sandbox. “Come on upstairs with me and I’ll tell you about it.”
Once Justin had Gus corralled in his apartment and knew the boy couldn’t easily escape again, Justin finally calmed down a bit knowing that the boy was safe. “Let me put this picture you drew up on the fridge first,” Justin said as soon as they got inside. “Your drawing is really pretty good, Gus. I can tell you worked hard on getting the details of your dad’s face just right. I like the way you’ve done the shading here,” Justin commented as he pointed out different parts of Gus’ drawing, hoping to delay any further discussion of difficult topics.
“Thanks, Justin. My mom taught me how to do that. But the picture of Uncle Ben is my best, I think. See, I’ve got a picture of my uncle right here,” Gus explained, pulling out a small wallet sized photo out of his backpack. “See, here’s the picture of Ben that I always keep. It’s like my own good luck charm.”
It took only seconds for Justin to look at the photo of Gus’ Uncle Ben and immediately connect the picture to his own memories. He couldn’t believe THAT was Brian’s brother. It wasn’t possible, was it? How the fuck could Brian’s brother be ‘Aces’ - the battle buddy Justin had spent so much time with during his last tour of duty. Suddenly everything became clear to Justin and he couldn’t wait to tell Brian exactly what he now understood.
“Gus, I think we need to call your dad and let him know you’re okay. He’s really worried about you, you know. What do you say?” Justin asked, eager to reassure Brian, but unwilling to betray Gus’ confidence if the boy didn’t want his father to know where he was just yet.
“I guess. I didn’t mean to worry him, I was just really mad at him for yelling at you and all . . .” Gus explained with trepidation.
“It’s okay, buddy. I know you didn’t mean to worry anyone, but still, we need to call and let him know you’re here and safe,” Justin reassured the child. “Here, you can call on my cell phone.”
“Dad’s going to be so pissed off at me . . .” Gus still hesitated, holding onto the phone but not yet ready to push the buttons to dial his home phone number.
“Gus,” Justin said, his voice low and comforting as he squatted down next to the boy and put his arm around the thin shoulders. “Your Dad WILL probably be angry, but that’s only because you’ve worried him. It doesn’t mean he doesn’t love you or that he won’t be thrilled to hear that you’re safe. Now, just man up and call him, soldier!”
Gus sighed deeply but pushed the numbers to call his father. Justin was still waiting with his arm around the boy’s shoulders in a gesture of support so it wasn’t difficult to hear when Brian answered the phone with a shouted, “Justin! Have you found him!”
“. . . Dad . . .” Gus almost whispered into the phone in response to the violent greeting.
“GUS! Where the hell have you been, young man?” Brian shouted into the phone before his brain could stop his mouth from spouting off and scaring the child more. Brian heard Gus make a whimpering sound of distress. He realized that he needed to stay calm and not take his anger out on his son by yelling at him. Taking a cleansing breath, Brian amended, “Gus, I’m sorry for yelling. You just scared me, disappearing like that, and I’m so relieved to hear from you. Where have you been, son?”
“I needed to talk to Justin,” Gus replied, his voice still hesitant. “I heard what you said to him but I don’t believe you that he’d hurt Uncle Ben. He said he didn’t take Uncle Ben’s picture, Daddy, and I believe him. He wouldn’t take another troop’s good luck charm.”
“That doesn’t really matter right now, Gus. All I care about is that you’re not hurt and that you come home as soon as possible. We’ll figure all this out when you get here. Okay?”
“Good. Now put Justin on the phone . . .”
It didn’t take long for Justin to call for a cab and soon Justin and Gus were seated in the back on their way to Britin. Gus was still a bit jumpy and too busy worrying about what his punishment would be to be much of a conversationalist. Justin never did get the whole story about how the kid made it all the way into the city and down to Liberty Avenue by himself. In an effort to distract the child from the horrific images his imagination was conjuring up about his impending torture at his father’s hands, Justin thought back on the very last topic he thought he’d want to discuss - the morning he’d found Ben’s photo.
“Lots of things happen in a battle, Gus. It’s not pretty. Sometimes you don’t have time to think - you just have to react and follow your training and your orders. And, even when you mean well, it doesn’t mean that things always happen the way you’d like them to go.” Justin’s face became somber as he willed himself to try to explain the dirty details of war in a way that Gus could understand. “Sometimes . . . Well, sometimes things go wrong no matter how much planning you put into it or how careful you are, even with the best of training. Innocent people sometimes get hurt, and some good soldiers don’t make it back home . . . just like your Uncle Ben, or 'Aces', as I knew him.”
Gus turned slightly in the bench seat of the cab and looked to Justin in complete confusion.
“Why did you call Uncle Ben ‘Aces’?”
“We called him ‘Aces’ because he was someone we could all depend on to have our backs when we needed him, and he was one hell of a stand up guy. He was an ‘Ace’, you know? The best battle buddy you could have.”
“So Uncle Ben was pretty special then, huh?”
“Yeah, he really was, Gus. In fact, he gave his life because he refused to leave any of his men behind. Your Uncle was an incredible hero, Gus. I’m proud that I knew him and . . . I’ll never forget how great a man he was. In a way, he even saved my life, you know? I found his picture of your father the morning after a battle and - remember when we were talking about good luck charms, well, I sort of thought of that picture as my good luck charm after that. I didn’t know the picture had belonged to Aces, all I knew was that I felt safer whenever I had that picture with me.”
Gus smiled and nodded silently in understanding, as the taxi began to slowly meander up the long driveway that led to Britin. Justin noticed that the weather had turned nasty during the trip out to the burbs and it looked like a huge rain storm was just waiting to hit; dark roiling thunderheads were moving in fast. Gus’ smile quickly faded as soon as the house came into sight, his nervousness taking over in anticipation of the foul mood his father was sure to be in.
“Don’t worry, Gus. You know your father loves you more than anything. He might be angry, but it’ll be okay. Besides, I won’t leave you to take your punishment alone. I got your back, Buddy!” Justin tried a bit of reassuring chatter.
Right as the cab pulled to a stop by the front walk, the door to the house slammed open and the occupants of the cab watched as both Brian and Lindsey boiled out, anger clearly lining both adults’ faces. Even before they got out of the taxi, the passengers could hear the two angry parents shouting at each other at full volume. Brian reached out with his right hand to try and stop his old friend who seemed, nevertheless, intent on storming away into the storm.
“Don’t touch me, Brian! How do you have the gall to try and calm me down when YOU are the one who let Gus just wander off.”
“Now let’s be clear, Lindsey . . . It was your fucking meddling that got us into this mess in the first place. Gus and I were doing just fine until you came in here and started making trouble about Justin. You gave up your right to criticize my parenting skills when you chose to just disappear from Gus’ life on a whim a few years ago. So just back off and leave my son and I alone, Lindsey,” Brian spat back, causing the tall bleached blond to turn again to face him in her full wrath.
“Well, if that’s your idea of good parenting, Brian, then I can’t wait to hear what a judge will say about who should have custody of Gus from now on,” Lindsey threatened, oblivious to the fact that both Gus and Justin were now standing next to the cab and listening to every word she screamed at her child’s father. “I bet they would love to hear all about your little sexcapades in the backroom of Babylon, better yet, visual proof of your ineptitude in taking care of Gus would really open their eyes. Fuck, yeah, I’ve got pictures - thanks to my father’s PI - and you don’t want to even know what they show! Oh . . . and let’s not forget your little blond boy toy running around half naked in front of our son. A kid who hasn’t yet even explained why he was stalking you or how he was involved in your brother’s death. So, if I were you, I would tread very lightly Mister Kinney. Don’t fuck with me or I. Will. Make. Your. Life. HELL!”
“Mommy? What are you saying,” Gus finally interrupted the shouting match between his irate parents. “Why . . . Are you trying to take me away from daddy! You can’t. I . . . I . . . don’t want to leave daddy. You can’t take me away. I won’t go . . . I, I, I hate you!”
Three confused adult faces turned to watch as the distraught little boy threw down his backpack and bolted towards the barn just as the angry grey sky above opened up and dumped a deluge of rain on the scene. Everyone froze for a moment or two, trying to take stock of the situation and mutely figure out what exactly to do next. But, before anyone could settle on a course of action, the main barn door was flung open and Gus, mounted bareback on a huge dappled grey Arabian gelding with its long silver mane and tail flying, came galloping wildly out of the barn, the big Great Dane puppy following on it’s hooves, both animals running full tilt past the bewildered adults. Before anyone could stop them, they headed off down the driveway, lit up by a bright, sulphurous slash of lightning, toward the small one-lane bridge over the nearby river.