Woolf's Tale/Freiborg Page | 16

Woolf rolled his shoulders nervously and took a deep breath. The pristine white door he was standing in front of looked too pure, too clean in the aftermath of the past month. The brass handle glinted in the afternoon sunlight, un-smudged by oily fingertips. He knew the integrity of the door had been sullied 6 months ago; the moment an army officer had rapped his knuckles across it. Woolf growled and stepped off the welcome mat and turned back to the street stomping through the plush Zoysia grass. Woolf was through wrestling with himself. He was 25 years old for Christ's sake and he was acting like a high schooler. This was wrong, all wrong. He shouldn't be here, last request or no. He stopped half way to his truck and stuffed his sweaty right hand into the large pocket of his cargo pants, clutching the gift he'd brought tighter. It was wrong, but he had a duty to his twin to see this through.

"Goddamn it." Woolf strode past the lush garden and various potted plants, rang the doorbell and waited, sweating in the Florida sun. The sound of a deadbolt clicking out of place had him straightening and forcing a smile on his face. He hid the gift behind his back. The hinges creaked slightly as the door cracked open a couple inches and stopped. Exhausted green eyes fell on him softly like snow, and he let out a breath he hadn't realized he was holding.

"Ah…hi," Woolf swallowed hard.

The green eyes turned hostile.

"Woolf?" The woman's voice was exasperated. "What do you want?" Woolf immediately regretted knocking on her door. Today was not the day and he shouldn't have come. This was never going to work. "Hi Catherine, it's nice to see you too." He growled. "Can we talk?" Her silence prolonged the awkward agony and he procured the small gift bag. "Here, you always said you were a fanatic."

Catherine eyed the bag and the man on her doorstep with distaste. She reached her hand tentatively through the small gap in the doorway and hesitantly took the gift from the man's large hands and opened it slowly. Inside was a bag of hazelnut flavored coffee beans from her favorite coffee shop, Sacred Grounds. She ran her fingers over the gift and looked up at Woolf, depleted.

"What are you doing here?"

"Came to say hi, you know, see how you were doing." He frowned at her. She looked worse than when he'd seen her at the wake. Her eyes were rimmed with dark circles and she had lost weight. "And from the looks of you, I would say not so well."

"You expected to find what exactly? Rosy cheeks and pearly whites? Forgive me for not leaping for joy Woolf. The sight of you makes me rather ill."

Woolf winced at the comment. He turned to go, his cheeks flushed by the hot Florida sun and a growing sense of regret.

"Just forget it. I was only doing this for Connor anyways."

Catherine sighed as all the fight went out of her at the sound of her husband's name.

"I'm sorry Woolf. Would you like to come in?"

Woolf stopped, one foot on the grass, the other firmly on walkway that winded through her garden. He pinched the bridge of his nose and gritted his teeth. He knew this would be hard but she didn't have to make it so difficult.

"I could make us some coffee," she offered. A cup of coffee with his brother's widow at 3 o'clock in the afternoon? Sure, why not? That couldn't possibly be the most awkward situation ever. Woolf turned back and gave her the best smile he could muster.

"Why not?"

The door squeaked on its hinges as she closed it briefly to remove the chain door lock. Woolf nodded his approval as he crossed the threshold, one could never be too careful nowadays.

Her house was darker than he had ever seen it before. What little light there was entered through thin slits in her curtains and the air smelled strongly of lilacs. He stopped on her welcome mat unsure how to proceed into the darkness.

She gestured ahead of herself and Woolf could see the outline of the kitchen doorframe, edged in golden sunlight. He followed her down the hallway and had to shield his eyes as the sunlight erupted from the opened door and spilled across the walls and floor like new paint.

The kitchen looked just like he'd remembered. A large bay window looked out into their backyard where he saw the pool and hot tub his brother had insisted on installing. Her lanai was decorated with exotic potted plants, all colorful and, as Woolf liked to imagine: deadly poisonous. Connor had always been fascinated by her obsession with colors.

"She sees more than just the normal rainbow, my brother, she's amazing." Connor stretched out his legs and adjusted his fishing pole. The lake was calm and the surface mirrored the sky in perfect form. They'd been out here since the sun had breached the tree tops. Woolf took a sip of his lukewarm beer and cast his line again.

"You mean like, infra-red or something? I don't think that's normal, she should have that checked out." Woolf grinned wickedly at his brother, knowing it always riled him when he poked fun.

"Shut your face, you know what I mean. She, damnit, what's the word? She just appreciates everything, takes it all in. Like all the things in the world are beautiful and it's what fuels her, she just loves life."

Woolf nodded, gazing out across the lily pads and eyed his bobber.

"I'm asking her out tonight." Connor's voice was soft and serious.

"Taste the rainbow?" Woolf suggested lewdly. He waggled his eyebrows at Connor who socked him in the arm and they had both laughed.

Woolf took a seat at the elegant glass table that sat in the corner of her pristine kitchen, and pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to expel the memory. The sound of hissing water broke the silence and the smell of damp coffee grinds had him glancing up from the floor.

"So..." He watched her arrange two mugs, cream, and sugar, beside the filling pot. She looked fragile in the overpowering sunlight, like if one more ray of sunshine landed on her hair she'd shatter across the linoleum floor, impossibly broken. Something told him that even if he spent the rest of his days picking up the pieces, he'd never find them all.

"So, why did he send you?" Cath folded her arms across her chest as if she was cold. Woolf swallowed a biting response. Connor been gone half a year and she was still determined to hate him for it, blame him for it.

"Connor asked me to check in on you. To see how you were getting' on. You know how protective he was of you." She didn't respond and the weight of her eyes had Woolf shuffling his feet searching for a better explanation to his sudden appearance on her doorstep. "There were some instructions...on helping you fix some things. You know if he hadn't already gotten around to it before he left."

She unfolded her arms and clutched the full coffee pot, filling the mugs halfway.

"Cream or sugar? And what kind of things?" She kept her eyes on the mug. She looked perplexed. "Just sugar please." He stood to take the steaming mug from her hands. "He said your bathroom sink would keep you both up at night because it was dripping?" He asked it like a question, seeking her validation. She nodded, frowning at him.

"He fixed that, the day before he left. He said he didn't want me to lose sleep any more than was necessary." He saw the stoic mask she had kept in place since she had opened the door slip away. Exhaustion and melancholy filled the wrinkles on her face and darkened the bags under her eyes. Woolf couldn't reconcile the two women he'd known her as. Catherine, the bubbly, often feisty woman his brother had fallen for, and Catherine the grieving widow.

"There were some other things; I have the list in my truck if you wanna see it."

He sipped the coffee and blanched as his tongue scalded. He set the mug down on a floral place mat and crossed his legs, leaning backwards in the chair. Goddamn this was awkward. When he got to heaven he was so going to kick Connor's ass.

"That's not necessary." She frowned at him. "I wish you hadn't come today."

Woolf ran a finger around the rim of his coffee mug wondering how best to address the hostility. He would do this for his brother, but goddamn, did she have to be such a bitch?

Woolf squirmed in his seat.

"Well there are lots of things to get done. Shall I? " Woolf stood and set the mug down none too gently on the table. "Look, I know you've never liked me from the start, and you utterly loathe me now, but let's make the best of this. For Connor's sake. Deal?" She eyed him skeptically.

"After the list is done you'll leave me alone?"

"Yes."

"Promise?"

"Yes, Jesus woman, what do you want from me?" Woolf ground his teeth together. He scratched his phone number on a napkin and slid it across the table.

"Here, call me when you're ready for me to help." He strode towards the door and fumbled for his keys and the turning of the engine blocked out the sound of her calling his name.

Connor's pleading lips, caked in blood and dirt, begged Woolf to help him. Woolf held him close as blood soaked slowly into the indifferent sand. He stuffed his fingers into bullet holes, trying to staunch the blood that bubbled out as it saturated them both. Goddamn it, where was their back up? "Connor! Stay with me. We'll get help. I swear, just hold on." Connor had smiled ruefully up at him, eyelids already heavy with creeping death. "Please," it came as a desperate wheeze of breath, "tell her… I love her." Connor gripped his neck hard, searching his eyes for a grain of hope. "Take care of her; you're the only one who-"

"Shhh," Woolf stroked his brother's hair. "You're not going anywhere my brother."

"Say it Woolf. Promise me."

Woolf awoke in a cold sweat; the feeling of warm blood soaking his hands lingered on as the grogginess of nightmarish REM sleep slipped away.

"Fucking caffeine." Woolf cursed and threw the sweat soaked sheets onto the floor and sat on the edge of his bed, looking down at his shaking hands. He had this nightmare every night. Every night he felt the weight of his brother's dying body in his hands, the dream almost tangible. He shook his head, trying to erase the smell of iron from his nose, the images from his head. Guilt ate at his gut. The memories of all the men that had come back to base caked in blood and sand, all the men the army had been powerless to help save gnawed at his gut. And then Connor, the day they'd dragged his brother's corpse through the door had been the worst day of his life. He hadn't even had the chance to say goodbye. "Damnit, I'm so sorry Connor. I should have been there," he whispered the words into the dark. "It should have been me…not you." Woolf ran a clammy hand down his cheek and threw himself back onto the bed, burying his face into the pillows. He dreamed of Catherine, her figure dancing in a field of wildflowers. He stood watching her on the edge of the meadow, obscured in the shade of a forest. She turned to him, smiling in her twirling sundress. She was calling a name, beckoning with her slender fingers. He smiled at her and waved, stepping towards her. As the sunlight washed over his features her mouth contorted into a scream and red petals rained from the sky.

Three days later the phone rang and Woolf had to tear apart his crummy apartment to find the damn thing.

"Hullo?" He tried hard to keep his voice level though the waves of blissful intoxication tossed his tongue around his mouth.

"Hello, Woolf? It's Catherine." Woolf growled and wanted to fling his phone across the room. Instead he mustered a neutral tone.

"Yeah?"

"I've been thinking about things. I wanted to say that I'm sorry, and I know you're just trying to help, for Connor's sake. So, can we just get this over with?"

Woolf gritted his teeth, "Fine, when do you want me over?"

Catherine opened to door and looked Woolf over wearily.

"You look…tired." She said and her nose crinkled. "You smell like rum."

Woolf sighed; the dark circles under his eyes gave his face a sunken and sinister look.

"I haven't sleep so well."

She stood in the doorway like she had before, watching him from behind a chain lock. She gave him a lopsided smiled and a brief chuckle.

"You know, I bet I have some coffee lying around." Her eyes sparkled in amusement at his exspense. Woolf couldn't help but smile awkwardly back, her joy was infectious; and hadn't Connor told him about that? "Sounds great." * The afternoon stretched on and the heat in the attic was stifling, but Woolf was nearly done with the repair. A racoon had clawed its way into their attic and left a bowling ball sized hole in the duct work that Woolf had decided was the most pressing repair. After he'd gone out for supplies and returned, Cath had left him to his buisness with a glass of ice cold lemonade and a small plate of snacks. He relished the quiet peace, the ability to put his hands to a task that didn't involve deconstructing and reconstructing weaponry. The heat of the Florida summer filled his lungs and made it difficult to breathe. The Iraqi desert had been similar, but less humid. Woolf wiped sweat from his brow and looked at his handy work with pride. He clambored down the steps into the garage. All around were reminders of Connor's loss. His work bench was still strewn with tools, the fishing poles they'd used frequently hung on the wall. They had only been deployed for 4 months before it had happened. She must have kept everything just the same, waiting for his safe return. Woolf bit his lip, imagining her running her hands over everything, yearning for Connor's return.

"Woolf! Woolf wake up!" Connor shook his brother awake. Woolf groaned and rolled over, eyeing his alarm clock with disdain. "Connor, what the hell? Its 3 a.m. I'm revoking your key privileges " The silhouette of his brother stood triumphantly over him. "I know dude, I know. I'm just so wired. This evening was just…wow. I mean, really, really amazing. I had to talk to you." Woolf sat up, a grin blossoming over his face.

"Well? I take is she said-"

"Yes! She said yes." * Woolf sipped the rest of his lemonade, reminiscing. That had been two years ago. They'd dated such a short time before Connor had whisked her off on a cruise and married her on a white sandy beach somewhere in the Caribbean, with nothing but strangers and God as witnesses. Woolf had gotten a postcard and a picture of the newly married couple. Cath had been radiant in her soft white sundress, her arms were wrapped around Connor's waist; her eyes, blissfully happy, were glued to his face. It was the first time he'd seen her face but it felt like he'd known her already.

"Ah!" Catherine sounded surprised as she stepped into the garage, bearing a fresh glass of lemonade. "All done already?" She smirked at him and Woolf felt his chest tighten. She had straightened her auburn hair and she looked beautiful in her Levi jeans and her pale pink t-shirt that fit just right. More beautiful in person than in a photograph, that was for sure. Woolf shifted his eyes to the floor, feeling guilty for looking her over so blatantly. He shuffled his feet. "Yup, shouldn't let any more riff-raff in anymore, but anyways I should probably be going." Woolf eyed his watch, yea, definitely time to go. He needed a drink. Cath stepped aside so he could pass. She followed him in, watching as he set his empty glass on the counter next to her kitchen sink. Woolf looked out the window into her vibrant back yard, knowing he'd be back soon.

Three weeks and four repair dates later Woolf was satisfied with the way the house was shaping up. He'd even changed the oil in Catherine's car, fixed and cleared out her gutters, installed new energy efficeint windows and today he had fixed the garbage disposal. He remembered what a fixer-upper the house had been when Connor had bought it. Connor liked the idea of building something with his own hands, and wanted to share the experience with Catherine. To him, building their home together would only strengthen its foundations. Woolf dusted his hands on his pants as he stood from where he had been sitting in front of the kitchen sink. Catherine sat a few paces from him at the kitchen table, nose deep in a Home Depot paint selection.

"I'm thinking sky blue, what do you think?"

Her attitude toward him was less frosty and Woolf relished the candor with which she spoke to him now.

"Sounds great. You tape off the outlets and floorboards and Ill go get the supplies."

The afternoon sun shone through the window and illuminated the first roll of wet paint Woolf slathered onto the plain white. He took a step back and stood beside Catherine who weilded a brush dripping with paint. She was stoic, eager.

"Well? What do you think?" He cocked his head to the side, eyeing the color in the light. It was the same hue as the sky outside, the same color that hovered over the desert in Iraq. He'd never be able to escape it.

"I think it would have been perfect." Catherine stepped towards the wall and painted a name onto it. Woolf frowned at her squared off shoulders, her shaking hand as she dipped the paintbrush back into the can and crossed out the name.

"Who-" She cut him off as tears choked her throat.

"Our son."

Woolf froze. "You're pregnant?" He eyed her flat stomach.

"Was."

Woolf let the silence drag out between them, waiting for an explanation.

"I found out after you two left." Catherine stood with her back facing him, shaking.

"Connor never said anything. I had no idea. I'm so sorry." Woolf thought hard. Why hadn't he said anything? Connor would have been estatic. And then he remembered. Connor had told him, that night their unit had all gone out partying on their weekend leave. He'd left Woolf stinking drunk at the bar to answer his cell phone and had come back much later wearing a grin the size of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Woolf was a few sheets to the wind too many.

"Boys, I'm gonna be a father!" Woolf remembered toasting, his shot glass sloshing half the liquor onto his pants and fingers. Black out drunk had felt like a good place to be at the time. He couldn't remember how he'd gotten back to base, or into bed. But he remembered the next morning when he'd woken up and peeled his face from his drool encusted pillow and looked around to find Connor gone. Panic had risen in his chest when he'd remembered the mission his Staff Sergent had planned for that morning. Wondered why he wasn't getting his ass chewed out for missing out. He had left to go in search of Connor, sure he'd find him in the mess hall andask him a few questions about the night before since he couldn't remember a damn thing.

The sound of sobbing broke his chain of thought and brought him crashing back into the present. Catherine was on her knees, one hand in the paint pan, the other covering her face as she wept. He dropped his roller and crouched beside her, drawing her into an embrace.

"Goddamn it, I am so sorry Cath." He stroked her hair and she wept on, burying her face in his shoulder.

"I. Miss. Connor. So. Much." She choked out between sobs.

"I know you do love, I know. I miss him too. Not a day goes by when-"

"Why weren't you at the wake?" The question was an angry whisper, so quiet he barely heard. "How is it you are- were- Connor's best friend, and you didn't come to his wake?" Her eyes turned on him. She was angry, betrayal burning in her eyes. Woolf placed his palms on her shoulders and squeezed. He really didn't want to get into this, not with her, not now. "I couldn't face my parents." Just like he couldn't look her in the eyes. "Why?" She persisted. Woolf felt the room turn hostile as his guilt mingled with it, creating a atmosphere of awfulness. "Don't… just don't Cath. You know, as well as I, that Connor was the only good in our family. Take his good memory and run with it." "Don't call me Cath." She wrapped her arms around herself and pulled away. Woolf cursed, angry with himself. She looked so broken again, and it was his fault. He leaned toward her, arms outsretched to embrace her quivering frame again but he stopped. He had to face this sooner or later. "Do you want to know the first thing my father said to me, the day they dishonorably discharged me and sent me home? He called to tell me he wished he hadn't lost 'the good one'." Guilt twisted in his gut, he had spent every moment since his brother's death, wishing he could take it all back. Hearing it come from the voice of his bitter old man? Well that had just about killed him. "My mother wouldn't stop crying and dad just wanted me dead. Connor was the only person in this world who loved me too, and he was gone. He's gone because of me, so I said my goodbyes the day they brought him back to base." Woolf was shaking with rage, the anguish flooding up inside him.

The confusion of that morning, the fear and anguish would never leave him. Nursing a killer hangover he had gone in search of Connor for a recap of the night when Staff Sergent Roberts had approached him and gripped his shoulder too tightly. "I'm sorry son, but Corporal Woolf was killed in action this morning at 0700. He took a volley of sniper fire. He didn't suffer."

"What?" He'd responded, "That's not possible, I'm Corporal Woolf." He clutched the dog tags around his neck and drew them out of his shirt. And then all hell had broken loose.

"This is all your fault." Cath sobbed harder. "If you hadn't been so selfish…if you hadn't drunk yourself into a mini coma Connor would never have had to take your place!" She was livid, cheeks flushed from the tears and her resentement.

"You don't think I know that, Catherine? How was I supposed to know he'd swapped places with me? Don't think that a day goes by that I don't wish I could go back and change it all. And you Cath…I couldn't bear the thought of you blaming me too. If I could go back…" He shook his head, choking back tears. "If I could take it all back, I would, in a heartbeat. For you-" She broke his hold and rushed forward, wrapping her arms around his chest. His body welcomed the warmth of hers as she pressed him close, resting her head on his shoulder. "I'm so sorry, I had no idea. I thought you'd sent him out in your place. Everyone thought you'd traded places on purpose." He held her close and kissed her hair before he could stop himself, and she held him tighter. His body reacted to the curves and warmth that moved against his flesh and Woolf groaned. The need for comfort, and the smell of lilacs was overpowering.

"I need to-" "Don't go," she whispered.

Woolf stood on the edge of the lake where Connor had asked for his ashes to be scattered. He watched his reflection ripple with the soft breeze that was blowing in across the water. He had been thinking of things to say, questions to ask the whole drive over but now they all escaped him. Ah hell.

"Hey man," Woolf tossed a rock into the reeds, stalling. "I miss you so much." He watched the ripples as they edged back toward his feet. "I did what you asked, your house is all fixed now." He smiled ruefully. "I finally see what you meant all those times you raved about her. She's amazing," He waited for the ghost of his brother to appear, kick his ass, drag him to hell where he belonged. "I promise I'll take care of her until you can again." He kicked his boot into the soft sand. "I'm gonna be a father. We're naming him after you." The wind rustled the leaves overhead and Woolf let out a breath he didn't know he was holding.