Home Front

Jon was watching for a sign in his autistic son’s writings.

It was not the same thing as his wife did, mind you, because Jon didn’t believe in anything supernatural (although Carrie would never admit she did, either)—only in adapting and overcoming, like he had tried in Iraq. 

Truth was, if you never gave up and kept looking for patterns in events, there was a good chance you could figure out how to change things, and there sure were a lot of patterns tonight. Or, at least fifty different words and sentences, in various colors: 

On the windows on the doors to the darkening garden …

on the back of the kitchen door …

on each door in the hallway …

on the cupboard in his son’s room – on both sides of its doors …

… and in many other places …

Big letters that formed words and sometimes sentences. 

And numbers. Lots of numbers.

Sometimes the the letters were ALL CAPS, other times lower-case. 

Sometimes Michael wrote everything in fat, balloon-ish fonts.

Sometimes everything was thin like a passing thought. 

It was all over.

And here, sitting on the carpet in the living room, humming contentedly, was six-year-old Michael Reese, putting the final touches on a sentence on the kitchen door:

Jon squatted down beside him, “What’s that son? Something they told you in kindergarten before the summer-holidays?”

“Not!” Michael said, with a tinge of annoyance.

“Not what they said, or did you hear me saying ‘not’?”

Michael had developed a tiresome habit of repeating “not” whenever his parents forbade him something, or used any other sentence in the English language which contained that word. And you know, a lot of sentences did just that.

Jon concluded Michael probably had tried answering him. But that was about the extent of his conversational abilities. 

So Jon’s heart sank when he surveyed the graffiti in the rest of the house. 

That firm secure handwriting, which might be that of a normal child in, say, 3rd grade or so … 

And many more … 

Why could Michael write all of this and not tell his father how his day had been kindergarten? 

Jon didn’t need a speech or anything, just a simple yes or about whether or not his son had had a good day?

Or something …  anything.

But Michael couldn’t. 

What he could do, and what he had done all evening was right there on any surface in the house that could be easily washed, as long as he used the boardmarker.

Carrie would probably not approve …

… But Carrie wasn’t here. 

In fact, Carrie and their daughter were in L.A. and not home until the late flight tomorrow. And the only nanny they could afford to pay and who could handle Michael had gone to some kind of festival with her boyfriend this weekend. 

But Jon had accepted his fate, even if he knew he was going to get up at 5 AM Monday and be on the road for the rest of the week. The charmed life of a trooper, yessir. 

But he could handle speed demons and even the occasional stray border crosser, although the latter wasn’t the favorite part of his work, sending people back to a shitty life in Mexico or elsewhere. 

His wife, however, had reached a breaking point, after taking care at home of Michael for god knows how long. She needed a time out—and she needed to try out another silver bullet to improve her life, despite her severe misgivings. 

It sounded too good to be true in many ways. 

And yet, there it was: 

Carrie’s got-money-like-grass stepfather wanted to give her a 100K to cure her chronic unemployment and unhappiness, or so  Carrie’s mother had said. 

The tiny price was for Carrie to be a poster-girl for the official donation programme which was run by her stepfather’s self-made ‘Church Universal’ . 

‘Look, we can make even a heretic successful, if only she follows our very scientific law-of-attraction meditation program!’

Carrie didn’t like the angle, but how many recovered drug addicts got second chances like that?!

She also didn’t like her stepfather–and he didn’t particularly like her–and throughout the years her mother had tried to repair that situation with all her might. This was her latest attempt. 

Unfortunately, reality insisted on being complicated

And so Jon had received frantic texts just an hour ago that outlined how the battle had gone down this time:

Jon was unsure who had won this particular fight, because Carrie was rambling. Perhaps nobody had won. That would be business as usual.

But after some texting back and forth (while Michael tried to get him to write different words), Jon thought he had a pretty good picture of why Carrie’s latest attempt to escape her own life had failed.

Apparently, her mother had talked her new husband into giving Carrie those extra money—those 100K pocket money.

Old Marcus Chen, however, had turned out to be anything but a tele-evangelist salesman, at least when it came to his new family.

As far as Jon could make out, Marcus had been reluctant but then agreed because he wanted to please Carrie’s mother, but then he had regretted it and wanted Carrie to voluntarily join his ‘angel investment program for people’ as it was also known . 

And the only thing Marcus could think of had been to treat Carrie like any other applicant, not a favorite, and that had made Carrie mad as hell.

Yeah, she blew a fuse about that ….

… even though she had spent an entire evening before take-off lecturing Jon about all the ways in which Church Universal abused people and then ripped them off.

“It’s not easy to understand women, eh, little fella?” He ruffled Michael’s hair, and took the board marker Michael handed him.

“Not!” Michael said. But he was smiling.

The smile could almost make Jon forget all other things. 

Like that messy family he had married into. Not that Marcus had been there to begin with, but things hadn’t exactly gotten easier after he arrived.

And it wasn’t as if Carrie’s mother—and her real father—had been easy to get along with when he had first met them … although he—the Jonathan Reese who had once been one of the meanest motherfuckers on the streets of San Pedro—sure hadn’t a lot to write home about when it came to nice, stable families.

In fact, if there was one positive thing about autism and how much its children demanded, it was that you barely had time for your own petty little affairs. Including the ones that seemed impossible to ever live with.

Jon closed his eyes briefly. He didn’t want to. But it was like … an automatic reaction, when the thoughts came.

It had been some months since the memory had been so persistent. 

But now all evening, whenever he had closed his eyes …

… here was the Fedayeen guy again, waving his AK-47 at him, his wife at his side, screaming. 

And Jon and the interpreter, in the doorway, M16s at the ready. 

Both screaming, too. 

A nightmarish chorus in that little house on Qatar Al-Nada.

“LOWER YOUR WEAPON NOW! DOWN ON THE FLOOR! NOW!”

“Bed?” Michael yawned.

“You want to go to bed?” Jon sighed. “That’s great, I’m dead tired myself.”

“Couch on back,” Michael replied. And Jon knew what to do.

When they were alone at home, they moved a mattress into the living room and Michael slept there. Jon slept on the couch. The perfect ritual, at least to Michael’s mind.

The screaming Iraqi woman seemed far away. Good.

In fact, she rarely screamed anymore. He just had to get tonight over with.

Then … work. 

Work could be a showdown, too, though. 

It could have been someone on the highway, but Jon wasn’t sure. Here at home there were rules. Back then … who had made the rules? Who had decided if the fighting was to keep going or stop? 

The problem was that there had been no manual for that, so each time there was a confrontation, it was up to him or the people he shot at – to make that call. 

Was it a good time to die, to fight on, or surrender? 

There was no manual. Jon wished there had been.

Who decided when it stopped? When everyone was dead?

It was easier on the highway today. There were laws. And sometimes … hell, no, it wasn’t that easy. As he got older, he realized more than ever that nothing in life ever would be. There would always be new chaos, just waiting to attack.

The more frequent fights with Carrie.

Michael waking up and screaming more and more nights, for no reason.

Emma getting bullied at school. 

His best friend’s kid being busted for drugs.

The powers they were dependent on not understanding a damn thing about their son’s needs. 

Jon’s own old man mailing political propaganda spam ten times each week? Compared to him Carrie’s stepfather (and her alcoholic real father) seemed like UN peace-makers.  

And then work—always work. 

And a broken pipe. 

And his sore back. 

And all of his life rapidly feeling more and more like a never-ending ambush. And—

Whale!” Michael shouted. 

He was knocking at the bathroom door.

That was the final cue. Jon could leave that night in Baghdad and concentrate on the night here and now in Yuma, Arizona. 

Focus on an all-important toy whale that had to come out of its place in the shower and ‘hunt’ Michael until he was ready to get his bath-before-bedtime.

Yes, autism had its perks, because this was a sure thing every night. Just like Michael’s ritual writings, and ritual everything. Dead-on predictability. 

Nothing unexpected, except maybe if he would close at 239 or 240 today? 

And Jon began to think that perhaps that was the sign, he had been looking for.

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JON, 11 JULY 2015, EVENING

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Cover photo by Mitchell Griest on Unsplash

Man with scarf – photo by Ali Tareq on Unsplash

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