My Brother’s Keeper

A young boy’s brother returns from the war — or does he?

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On days like today, when it’s seasonable enough to chase the ache out of this old man’s bones, I can sit in my rocker on the porch and watch the neighborhood. My thoughts wander to Harry. It was a day like today, when the wind was brisk, blowing in the sweet fresh scent of spring and the sky clear of clouds, the sun filling up my soul, when Harry left us to fight in the war. He spent his last furlough with us at home before he was sent overseas, and my parents, his sweetheart, and me bade him farewell at the train station.

He hugged me last, chucking me on the chin, promising, “When I come back, I’ll have a German Luger for you. Then we’ll go fishing.” His young voice warbled on the last word, betraying his sadness. And his fear.

Then he was gone.

For a year and a half, he sent us letters, not saying a heck of a whole lot of what he’d seen or how many Nazis he’d killed. We knew he was a glider rider and he did some paratrooping jumps, and he’d be in Iceland, England, France, and Germany! But that’s all. In the fall of 1945, Harry had earned enough points to come home. He called to let us know he was in the States and he was hitchhiking his way to Terre Haute.

“I’ll be seeing you in a couple weeks.”

We waited and waited, but Harry never came home.

Or maybe he did. Back then I was convinced I was right. But these days, with my memory fading as fast as my eyesight, I can’t be so certain.

* * *

My best friend Mack and me spent most of our summer days outside, acting out scenes from books, comic books, and movies. Our favorite was that we were soldiers fighting the evil Nazis, to keep them from taking over the world. Three years had passed since the war ended and we were at peace, yet I wasn’t over it. The war sank its sharp claws in and wouldn’t let me go. We could play for hours, but when the sky began to darken, and the sun started to go down, I had to be home. That was the rule. If I was late and Mom had to call out for me, then I would be in Trouble. Trouble with a capital T. That’s what I was doing that night.

Never mind that nothin’ ever happens around here. I pouted, dashing home on my bike, pumping my legs furiously. I rounded a corner and coasted up my sidewalk and on into the open garage in the nick of time.

I went into the kitchen and was going to grab a cookie that Mom had made for dessert, when I heard her shout frantically, “Allen, come quick!” Her tone sent my heart racing.

I ran into the living room to find my parents embracing a man. Mom was crying and Dad was sniffing hard, which was as close as he would get to shedding tears. Who died? Men like my dad never cried, not in public or in private. It wasn’t manly.

They parted from the man, revealing him.

“Hey, buddy!” the man greeted, grinning from ear to ear. He spoke as though he knew me, but I didn’t know him from Adam.

“Who are you?” I frowned.

“Son, don’t you know?” Dad shot a perturbed look at me, then grasped the man’s shoulder and gave it a playful shake. “It’s Harry, our Harry.”

My jaw dropped. What the hell? Thankfully, I didn’t say that cuss word out loud or Mom would have washed my mouth out with soap. I eyed the man … nope, he was not Harry. First of all, Harry was tall and muscular, and this guy was a short sack of bones linked together with thin skin stretched over them. His hair was slicked back with Brylcreem, which darkened it, but even without the cream, his hair was browner than Harry’s blonde curls. Harry’s cheeks had been round and plump, like a baby’s butt, and this man’s cheeks were narrow and they bore a five o’clock shadow like my old man. Harry couldn’t grow a whisker to save his life. Worst of all, this man was dressed like a bum, and he stank like he’d rolled in a moldy road apple.

This guy wasn’t Harry … he was an imposter.

Mom stood beside me and nudged me toward the man. “Go on, give your brother a hug,” she urged.

I did as I was told, but the feel of him, the coldness of his hug … I didn’t know how my parents could be fooled into believing this was our Harry.

“I missed you.” When we parted, he ruffled my hair and croaked out, “This weekend, you and me can go fishing. Like old times.”

“Yeah, okay.” I shrugged and looked down at my shoes.

“The boy’s overwhelmed,” Dad explained, and though my head was lowered and I couldn’t see, I knew he was glowering at me. “He was broken when you didn’t come back. We all were.”

My head snapped up and I stared at the man, waiting for what explanation he would offer up for his absence. This oughtta be good. Then my parents would see the truth, that this guy was a liar and he should be tossed out on his keister.

“I know, I’m sorry.” The man nodded sheepishly. He had the gall to make his eyes water and his body tremble. “I — I can’t say what happened except something wasn’t right in my head. I wandered like I was lost.”

Baloney! I snorted.

But to my surprise, Dad reached over and held the man’s hand, squeezing it. “It’s all right, son.” He leveled his gaze at the man’s and a sense of understanding passed between them. “I was in the Great War and I completely understand.”

“What matters is you’re here now.” Mom tugged me close and pressed her warm lips to sweaty brow. “God has been good to us.”

I glared at the man, fists balled, swearing I’d find a way to prove the truth. Though I’d like nothing more than to have the real Harry home and wondered where he was, I wasn’t about to be fooled by this fake.

* * *

I went to bed early, saying that I was tired, and my parents were so happy with the man’s arrival that they didn’t think twice about it. For hours I lay on my back, staring at the ceiling, listening to the three of them reminisce, laugh, and cry. Near midnight they turned in.

The man dared to claim Harry’s bedroom as his own. He was moving about, messing with my brother’s belongings. Rage possessed me like a demon and I jumped out of bed and marched out of my room, down the hall, and stormed into Harry’s room without knocking.

Damn you! I didn’t say it, but my look sure did.

The man spun around, an old baseball in his hand. “Allen? C’mon in. Mom and Dad didn’t change a thing, huh?” He tossed it in the air and caught it, then placed it on the desk. He took a gander at the room, his words thick. “Looks just as I left it.”

The man was a fake, but he wasn’t wrong. Mom kept my brother’s room clean, of course, but she treated it like a holy sanctuary and forbade others from trespassing. Only she could make her pilgrimages to this sacred place, to relive better times.

“Who are you?” I asked, putting my hands on my hips.

“What do you mean?” The man went white and he took a step back.

“You’re not my brother.” I cocked my head to the side. “Who the hell are you?” My voice was raised and I was risking punishment by swearing. But swear words were needed at times like this.

Harry was my big brother, my hero. He was greater than Superman and Flash Gordon. He was tall and strong; no one could run faster than Harry, no one could shoot a tin can off a porch railing with equal precision like Harry, and no one was braver than Harry. He was ten years older than me, but we shared the same parents and the same childhood memories. My God, there was no one closer than my brother. I never loved anyone like I loved Harry. And for this bum to barge into our lives and claim to be Harry, it was worse than any sin that could be committed.

The man released a sigh and his thin chest deflated. “I’m sorry I didn’t return right away; I didn’t want you to see me like that. Over there we had to …” It wasn’t lost on me that he hedged my question. He figured I was some dumb kid who could be easily distracted. He fetched the Army duffel and withdrew two small, shiny objects. “Look, I brought you home my glider and paratrooper wings. Just like I promised.” He held them out to me in his open palm. “I’ll make it up to you, I swear.”

I nodded and snatched them up. They were genuine glider and paratrooper wings … not that I had seen any before, but they looked real. Returning to my room, I flipped on the light and hopped onto my bed. This is proof that the man’s not Harry. Harry had promised me a German Luger, not his wings. No matter what the others said, I would not give up until I proved that this man was a liar and that the real Harry was still out there somewhere.

* * *

I was pressed into a dark corner of the living room, behind the old man’s chair, watching the party unfold. My parents threw Harry a small going-away party when he went off to war. Every family did that for their soldier sons, just in case they never saw their boys again. For the first time since December 7, 1941, the war was finally over for us. And our friends and neighbors poured into our house, bringing food and gifts, to hail the conquering hero. “I’m Just Wild About Harry” sung by the great Judy Garland serenaded us.

“Harry!” Ellen cried out on her entrance into our house. To my horror, she believed the man to be her sweetheart and hurled herself into his embrace, kissing him squarely on the lips.

The girl never married, remaining faithful to my brother despite countless offers. They had a wartime romance, communicating through dozens of letters. If she truly loved him, Ellen should have known. But she, too, was fooled by this pretender.

Everyone was. The minister, Harry’s former teachers, school pals — everyone — was convinced this man was Harry. Everyone but me. This man stood in the center of the room, accepting their worship as though he were God Himself.

I shook my head, clenching my teeth. I’d punch him in the schnoz if I could. I made a fist and was ready to do it when Mack moseyed over. She was pretty as a picture, looking more like a girl in her Sunday best than she usually did in her bibbed overalls and T-shirt. A bright pink dress set off her pale skin, the skirt flared out to her knees, and a bow wrapped around her dark head.

“I bet you’re glad that Harry’s home.” Despite looking like a girl, she cuffed me on the shoulder. “No one was sadder than you when he left.”

I wiggled my pointer and whispered when she leaned in close. “He’s not Harry.”

“What?” Her brow puckered.

“He’s a pretender. Look at him, he’s not the same.”

“It looks like him to me. He’s been through a lot. Maybe he changed, other soldiers have.”

Mack made sense. She was right, the boys who returned home were different. The playful light in their eyes had died out. Though they carried on, now and then they would have a faraway expression and you could sense they were thinking about what happened over there.

“Nothing could change Harry that much.” I argued. “I’m going to prove he’s a phony.”

“How?” she asked.

I opened my mouth to answer, but her attention was drawn from me.

Mr. Callahan — Dad’s boss — coughed loudly into his meaty hand. On receiving a nod from Dad, he sauntered over to the man. “You’re a real hometown hero, my boy. My son didn’t return, but seeing you …” He sniffed and swallowed, his face reddening. “You come into Callahan’s Hardware Monday morning and I guarantee there will be a job waiting for you.” He gave the man a supportive slap on the back. “Well, what do you say?”

“Thank you, sir.” The man nodded respectfully. He sought out Ellen’s hand and kissed it. “I accept.” The eyes of the room were on him, observing his every movement, and he began to fidget. Earlier he gobbled up the attention like an apple pie, but it bothered him now. Hope bubbled within me, that he was feeling guilty over his lies. “I — I’m not much for speeches, but I do appreciate all of this. What I will say is this: I’m not a hero. The real heroes didn’t come home. I look forward to living a life of peace and taking my kid brother fishing on Sunday.” He turned to me and winked.

But no one missed the tear trickling down his cheek. And no one uttered a word about it not being manly.

I grabbed Mack’s hand and we sprinted from the living room and up the stairs. We stopped in front of Harry’s bedroom. The grownups were busy and no one would notice. This feels wrong. Harry would understand if I snooped through the man’s belongings. He’d expect me to defend him and protect our folks in his absence. Still, guilt festered in me, growing in my belly like a tumor.

“Stand guard,” I ordered. “I’m going in.”

“For what?”

“To find out the truth.” I opened the door and crossed the divide into Harry’s world.

* * *

Mack stationed herself out in the hall, whistling nonchalantly.

I crept into the room and spotted the army duffel on the floor by the window. Opening it, I scrounged through and was stunned by what was inside. Our letters to Harry, photographs of Ellen, Harry’s military paperwork, dog tags, a small journal … things that would lead you to believe this man was Harry. But underneath it all was a wallet containing a German passport and identification papers, an Iron Cross, and Nazi propaganda. Leaflets praising Hitler and the Third Reich, sheets sent to disparage the American soldier’s morale, quotes promising God’s wrath on those who opposed the Führer. Then, worst of all, was an armband bearing a swastika in the center.

At first it didn’t make sense, that the man would have both Harry’s and a German soldier’s belongings. Then the pieces of the puzzle fell into place.

I gulped, making a glug noise. This man was a German Nazi who hurt Harry and stole his identity. He used that as a means to escape punishment and enter the good ol’ U.S. of A. Maybe he planned to stir up trouble by creating a Nazi movement in Indiana!

“The eagle flies at midnight!” Mack said, barging in.

“Huh?” I sat back on my heels and glanced over my shoulder.

Mom entered; her arms folded across her stomach. “She means your mother is here.” To my friend, she ordered, “Go downstairs, Miss Mackenzie.”

Mack mouthed the word sorry to me and left meekly.

“What are you doing?” Mom perched on the edge of Harry’s bed and patted the space next to her. When I didn’t budge, a hard edge filled her words. “You had better tell me. I’m in no mood for games. This party is for your brother and you’re being disrespectful.”

“That man is not Harry. He’s a Nazi, he hurt Harry, he has his stuff, and he stole his life.” To my ears, it sounded farfetched, like a plot out of a movie starring Humphrey Bogart. But I knew in my heart it was the truth. There was no other explanation why the man would have Harry’s and another’s belongings.

“Allen!” Mom intoned my name.

“Harry was my brother; I know my own brother,” I declared. That should have been enough for her and the others to believe me.

“Harry is my son; I know my own son.” Mom’s eyes grew red-rimmed. I had to hand it to my mom, she was one strong lady. She watched one son be sent off to war, and to do her bit, she worked in a factory as a riveter. It was the first time she’d had a job outside of the home and she thrived in working. Pride swelled within her and she was often walking on air. When the boys returned and reclaimed their jobs, she settled back at home, kept house, and spent her days waiting for Harry. Until this man showed up, she hadn’t been happy cleaning, cooking, doing laundry, and wearing the string of pearls Dad gifted to her on their anniversary. “Allen, sometimes when we’re young we put those we love on pedestals. Then when we grow up, we realize they’re only human. Harry left us a boy, and he’s come back a man. Of course, he seems different to you; he’s been through a war. In time you will see bits of the old Harry in him, I promise.” She cupped my cheek and stroked it. “Just be patient.”

I opened my mouth to argue with her logic, but one look into that beautiful face, and I couldn’t destroy the hope she had. Not now, not during this homecoming party. Not until I have a confession from the man. The man continually rambled on and on about going fishing. The fishing trip would be the right time to confront the man with what I found in the army duffel.

* * *

Harry and me used to sneak off to go fishing early on Sunday mornings, that way we’d get back too late to go to church. Another sign that this man was not my brother was that he insisted we wait until early Monday morning. He didn’t want to miss church. There are no atheists in foxholes, he quoted solemnly. The man believed he owed his survival to the Lord and he should be a good Christian and attend services regularly. I rolled my eyes, figuring he was putting on another act.

I was fast asleep when he snuck into my room and nudged me awake. C’mon, let’s go. He dragged me out of bed, yawning and whining. The man drove us out to the pond in Prairieton, where Harry and me used to fish.

We borrowed a small boat and rowed out to the center of the water, dropped our lines in, and sat hunched beneath the starry host. The man pointed out the various constellations, musing how when he was over in Europe, he looked to the stars to remind him of home. We chatted and he asked about my life, my friendship with Mack, what I wanted to be when I was older. … I proudly showed him my chest, where a kinky little hair had lately sprouted. We went over old memories, though some of our memories of events were different. The differences could be explained, I guess, because Harry was older, his memory was better.

Somehow, under the yellow moon glow, I was able to make out small resemblances of my brother, Harry. A look, a smile, the way he hummed. Harry, is that you? Harry moved like that, Harry used that word, Harry had that freckle. To make a long story short — we had a great day.

Am I wrong? I wondered on the car ride home. Maybe everyone else was right. This was Harry. He was just a man now, a man broken by war and the world. He needed time to heal.

That night I was sleeping, memories filling my dreams, when I heard commotion in the kitchen. I went down, and peeking around the door frame, I found the man on the telephone.

“I know, I know!” The man didn’t sound like himself and he certainly didn’t sound like Harry. The panic in his voice lent a different lilt to his phrasing. Only drunks carried on like that. “I tried, I really did, but it’s no good. … It’s impossible, I can’t stay here. … No, they believe everything but … Okay, see you then.” He hung up the phone.

Head drooping, his shoulders shook as sobs overtook him. He slowly turned around and wiped his face dry on his dress shirt sleeve when he realized I was standing there. “Allen, what are you doing up?” His chest rose and fell rapidly, his breathing uneven.

“I was right, you’re not my brother.” I hated myself for being so gullible. The man nearly tricked me too. If I hadn’t overheard his conversation, who knows how long he would have gotten away with his scheme? “Who are you?”

The man glanced briefly at the telephone, shook his head, and faced me again. “That’s not what it sounded like.” He desperately grabbed my upper arms. “You have to believe me, please.”

“I’m not stupid.” I shoved him off of me and I gave him a punch in the chin. “You can fool my parents and the whole town, but you can’t fool me. My brother Harry was great and good and happy. You’re none of that.”

“I’m sorry I let you down and I’m not like you remember. The war did something to me—”

“A war wouldn’t have changed Harry; it wouldn’t have changed him into you. Who are you?” Once more my question went unanswered. He just had this blank stare, which only angered me more. “If you don’t leave, I’ll tell everyone what I heard. And I’ll tell them about the German stuff in your bag, you Nazi!”

My words hurt him more than my punch. He scurried from me, like a whipped pup. “Okay, I’ll go.” He brought up his hands in defeat. “For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”

I snorted, no longer willing to listen to this fake. No apologies could make up for the pain he caused.

The man hightailed it upstairs, and he didn’t look back.

* * *

The wail of a wounded animal woke me the next morning. Or at least that’s what first came to mind on hearing those heart-wrenching howls shake the house. We don’t have a pet! I rushed downstairs, believing whatever was causing the noise was in the living room.

Mom was on the sofa, pressing a hanky to her mouth. “I don’t understand!” She wailed. “Why would he go? Oh God!” I couldn’t tell whether she was crying out or praying to God. Either way, I had never seen my mother this distraught. If a person could die of a broken heart …

“I don’t know, dear.” Dad sat down close, wrapping his arms around her. He dropped a kiss on her cheek. “War does unspeakable things to a man.”

“But he came home after all this time, and then he left. None of it makes sense.” Her gaze flickered toward me and she held out her trembling hand to me. “Oh, oh Allen! Harry’s gone; he’s gone.”

I softly squeezed her fingers. “Are you sure? Maybe he went for a walk.” I suggested.      “He took his things and is gone. He left a note and his wings behind,” Dad replied, and motioned to the note on the coffee table.

I picked it up and it took me a minute to make out the sloppy handwriting. Was nothing more than chicken scratching. Harry had great penmanship; he could have been an artist. Another bit of evidence that the man wasn’t my brother.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t stay; I never should have come. It’s too hard, I hope you’ll forgive me. P.S. The wings are for Allen, as promised.”

I hadn’t noticed the wings lying on the table, the morning sun beaming between the drapes, glinting off of them.

That man was gone and I should have been jumping for joy. It’s what I wanted since he arrived. He wasn’t Harry, after all. But on seeing how devastated my parents were, I had to wonder if it was so very bad for them to believe the man was their long-lost son and for him to live in their home. For a short time, they were happy. If believing a lie brought happiness, what did it hurt? During that little fishing trip, there were moments I thought of him as Harry and felt like I had my brother back.

What have I done? Doubts crept in, but then I shook my head, shaking them off. No, I was right. The man was not Harry, no matter how much we wanted him to be. He was a great pretender who fooled us all. He was the one who stirred up this hope and caused pain. This was his fault.

Right. I’m right. I snatched up the glider and paratrooper wings, measuring their weight in my hand.

“You never know, he may return to us again.” Dad sank back into the sofa, drawing Mom to his chest. “He came home once. War is hell and Harry was in a terrible war. He is in pain. I really believe he’ll come back.”

“You’re right.” Mom rested her wet cheek against him. “Harry will come back; we must have faith.”

I hugged myself, hoping to God that the real Harry would find his way home and that this man would be forgotten. Then my folks would know what true contentment was.

* * *

Neither Harry nor the man returned. The man took what he brought with him — including Harry’s personal belongings — and disappeared. We never received word; there were never any sightings of him. He was gone; it was as if the earth swallowed him up in a mighty gulp. Over the years I wondered who that man was, if he was a Nazi in disguise, how he knew some things that only Harry would know, and was completely wrong on other matters. Who was he talking to on the phone that night? If he wasn’t Harry, why take Harry’s personal belongings? If he was Harry, why didn’t he sign the note he left behind or fight to prove his identity?

Was he Harry? Did I reject my brother?

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of him. Even now, as I sit here rocking and watching, I’m waiting for Harry’s return. My parents never moved and spent their final years waiting for their oldest son. And I’m doing the same. After Mack and me were old enough, we married and moved in here. I worked the job Mr. Callahan had promised to Harry and raised several children. When my children left the nest and after Mack died, I stayed on. Just in case Harry returned.

Cradling his glider and paratrooper wings in the palm of my wrinkled hand, nothing would make me happier than for Harry and me to go fishing again and gaze at the stars.

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Comments

  1. A well-told, descriptive story that lets you picture it all in your mind. It has a ‘Twilight Zone’ uncertainty to it that makes any (real) definitive answer impossible regarding Harry. For the record, I agree with Allen.

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