Fred shook his head as he clicked off his cellphone and laid it down carefully on the bedside table charger. His reading light was still on. He glanced over and saw that Geri was awake. He wished for a moment that the phone call had never happened; that it had just been a bad dream. He could see from Geri’s expression that she knew he was upset.
“Well?” She began. “Was that who I think it was?” Her exasperated tone, Fred knew, wasn’t a reproach to him. He shrugged. “He wouldn’t take no for an answer. Of course. He’s coming over in the morning on his way to close a big important deal, so he says. Wants to share the fruits of his genius by showering the boys with gifts.”
Geri sighed. She was, by now, quite familiar with Uncle Donnie’s “gifts” to the boys. The first such gift had come somewhere around their seventh birthday, he had “gifted them” bee bee guns. That would have been bad enough, but Uncle Donnie didn’t stop there. He regaled them with stories about his “bravery” in the “big war” and how he had shot many more “Japs” (as he called them) than he had ever gotten proper credit for. Of course, like all of Donnie’s stories, he completely fabricated this one. He had never been drafted and he certainly never volunteered. He never served in armed services. So far as Geri could tell, he’d never served anywhere for anything. Nonetheless, when she looked at the glowing faces of her admiring twins, she didn’t have the heart to debunk his tall tales. Donnie had left soon after an enormous breakfast to close an ‘enormous’ deal, the details of which he couldn’t disclose for legal reasons, but he assured them all, they’d soon be reading about it in the paper.
Donnie’s parting words had been: “Tell Daddy to take you to Dick’s soon! They have your rifles waiting for you! Who knows? Maybe some day, you’ll be a war hero too!.”
That evening, Geri & Fred had had the worst fight of their marriage. She couldn’t understand why Fred had not told the boys they weren’t old enough to have bee bee guns and that their Uncle Donnie had told them a pack of lies. Fred had ended up yelling and saying things he didn’t mean. Geri had ended up yelling and saying things she didn’t mean. They had never really “resolved” that conflict. But they eventually moved on. Since Uncle Donnie’s visits were only occasional, they came to an uneasy cease-fire about the necessity of debunking his lies. Geri promised not to burst the bubble of Donnie’s lies, but Fred understood that if she were ever asked directly, she would tell the truth. Fred said he would do the same. As it turned out, the boys never asked either of their parents whether Uncle Donnie’s tales were true.
Now, Fred regretted not havingmcalled Donnie out on his lies when he first told them. Well, Fred reasoned, now it was ‘water under the bridge.’ Hopefully, this visit wouldn’t last too long. Fred turned the light out. He knew he’d no longer be able concentrate on his book. Sleep would take awhile. He knew there was no point in worrying about Donnie’s visit or trying to guess what lies he would fill his sons’ heads with next. But that knowledge didn’t bring sleep.
Geri for her part, also lay awake in the dark, struggling to find the argument that would convince Fred to permanently sever ties with his brother. How do you convince someone to forsake their demented and destructive brother? She worried about Donnie’s impact on her sons. What of them? They were bright boys, so their teachers all said. How could they keep falling for Uncle Donnie’s lies? Of course, when the four of them had arrived at the gun shop, Donnie had not paid for the rifles. What he had done was to have the stocks engraved with the boy’s names: “Teddy” and “Ronnie.” Uncle Donnie had assured the store owner that his brother Fred would come by and pay for the rifles and the engraving. Normally, the store owner insisted on cash up front for engraving, but after Donnie explained his status as a war hero and explained that he needed every cent right now to buy the old armory downtown where he was going to make a “first class” shelter for homeless veterans, the store owner agreed and even contributed twenty bucks of his own money.
Fred had paid the two hundred bucks for the air rifles and engraving. Every time Uncle Donnie visited from then on, Donnie had reminded the boys how he had “bought them” engraved air rifles and asked how their target practice was coming. They complained that their Dad had insisted on strict rules about using the guns. For one thing, they had to wear safety goggles. For another, they could only aim and shoot at paper targets stapled to trees. Uncle Donnie had clicked his tongue and wondered aloud what was wrong with his brother. “When I was in basic training, you know what we did? We shot at each other with live ammo! That way, we learned to duck and aim quickly so when I finally took all those island back from the Japs, it was easy. You don’t get to be a soldier by being a coward! Tell you what, boys, I’ll talk to brother Fred & see whether I can talk some sense into him!”
Geri swung her feet over the edge of the bed. She could tell that Fred was awake and upset too. She said, “Fred, I’m going to make some chamomile tea for myself. You want me to make you some too?”
Fred sighed. “Yeah, I suppose. Thanks, sweetheart. Actually, how about that Sleepy Time Tea instead? That has hibiscus too. I think it works better.”
The tea quickly sent Geri into dreamland, but Fred still couldn’t get to sleep until about 3 am. He kept going over the other disastrous “gifts” that Donnie had promised over the years. He couldn’t think of a single time that his brother had actually paid even a single dime for any of the gifts he had promised the twins. Nonetheless, the boys kept accepting the idea that Uncle Donnie was their generous and prosperous benefactor. On the few occasions when Fred had tried to set the record straight, the boys just looked at each other and shook their heads. Usually Teddy would pipe up first with a comment like: “It’s okay, Dad. We understand. Uncle Donnie explained it to us. You pay for our house, our clothes, Christmas and birthday presents. And, you’re not rich like Uncle Donnie. He says we shouldn’t expect you to buy extra gifts and that he’s happy to do it.”
Fred had not wanted to come right out and call his brother a liar. To the boys, Donnie was a war hero and a rich successful businessman. To Fred, it was more than a little maddening. After all, the boys had been there when he went to pick up their rifles. Apparently, they had been so focused on how “cool” the rifles looked and were so busy imagining getting a chance to shoot, that they had paid no attention to the fact that he, their father, had paid for the rifles and the engraving.
It seemed to Fred, only moments after he finally fell asleep that he heard the front doorbell ring.
“Crap,” he muttered aloud. He rolled over. Geri was sitting up in bed. Then, Fred heard the the twins sprint down the upstairs hallway and piston their feet down the stairs. He could hear the happy greetings though he couldn’t make out what was being said. Fred & Geri exchanged a look. Fred took a leak, did a cursory job of brushing his teeth and ambled over to the bedroom door. He turned to look at Geri. “Are you coming down soon?”
Geri frowned. “Geez. It’s only 6:30 am! Who visits someone that early on a Saturday morning?”
Fred nodded. He said, “We know who. My brother. Donnie. Anyhow, I’m awake. You ready for coffee or breakfast?”
Geri half-smiled. “Coffee sounds nice. I’m not ready for breakfast. Tell everyone I’ll be down in a little while. We should use up those eggs. Maybe an omelet for everyone? You can just leave a bit for me?”
Fred smiled. After all, he did enjoy his life. Most days. They were a very lucky family, he reminded himself. His wife had barely survived having the twins. Lost a lot of blood. It had been touch and go. But all was well. And then, there was the accident. Randy could have easily lost his right eye. Probably would have if the bee bee would have struck a quarter inch over. After that little incident, Fred had put away their rifles for a month and made them promise to always wear their goggles no matter what his demented brother Donnie said.
Fred reached the top of the steps and heard the front door slam. Had the boys gone out for a walk? He took a quick detour into the boys’ room and peered out into the soft predawn. He saw the boys pile into the back seat of Fred’s “custom-made luxury car.” At least, that’s what Fred called it. Where the hell was he taking them? Not exactly cool not to discuss with us. Probably just driving around the block, Fred supposed.
Fred supposed wrong.
The boys did not return for breakfast. Or lunch. Geri and Fred were both worried, though Fred was reluctant to call the cops on his own brother. Donnie didn’t answer his cellphone. Nor did the boys. Upon checking their room, he found both cellphones on the nightstands. The boys hadn’t known they were going to be away long. Even Uncle Donnie couldn’t have kept them from wanting to text their friends. Their friends! Fred tried calling some of the friends of the twins. None of them admitting to know of any plans. In fact, Judy & Jill had expected the twins after lunch to come study algebra together.
Fred was fighting a feeling of dread. He felt the shadow of Geri in the doorway and looked over at her. She just stared at him. Fred nodded. “Okay. Okay. I’ll call.”
Fred still felt bad about calling the cops on his brother. He explained the situation and, in turn, the cops explained that since the man was a close member of their family, there was nothing to be worried about and that, in any case, their hands were tied for 24 hours. Fred wanted to explain that Uncle Donnie wasn’t an “ordinary” Uncle. He wanted to make them see that his brother was a liar; unreliable; a cheat. But he didn’t know these police officers. To them, it was just an Uncle out for a joy ride and all would be well by dinner time. Fred reassured himself that the police were likely right. He supposed the twins would be back by dinner.
Fred supposed wrong.
Geri didn’t exactly blame Fred. But when the weeks dragged on and no leads arose, Geri stopped crying audibly. Her cheeks bore the light little tracks of tears, silently shed, and she moved on past chamomile tea to heavy drinking and then to opioids. Fred became obsessed with finding the twins. Everyone at work understood. Nonetheless, he was eventually put on unpaid leave. On the few occasions when he tried to concentrate on some time-critical problem, he utterly failed.
Fred combed the neighborhood for the third time, hoping to trigger the memory of someone who might have seen Donnie’s wreck of a car and noted which way it had turned. But only one jogger, Alice, had noticed the car. At that point, the car was still going the same direction Fred himself had seen although Alice noticed that the car had no plates. But questioning her for the third time turned up nothing new.
When Fred returned home from a day of canvasing, Geri was gone. Geri’s clothes were gone. On the kitchen table, she had left a short hand-written note:
“I can’t. Goodbye.”
Fred supposed she would eventually return.
Fred supposed wrong.