A year and a half later, all three Fletcher boys left home within days of each other: Henry to Vietnam for his second tour, Billy to start prep school up in New Hampshire, and Otis three hours west to the Berkshires to start Deden-Fisher College, his top choice despite it being all male. Henry had seemed different this furlough compared to last, effusive one minute, distant the next. What little he related about Vietnam dwelt on tropical fruits, exotic birds, and sunshine. Thunderstorms caused him to retreat to his room, unresponsive to knocks or calls for meals.
Their last time together, the five of them sat in the living room. Henry lingered on his watch face as if staring might slow the taxi’s arrival. When Henry noticed Otis noticing, he stood and embraced him, his aftershave musky. “I’m proud of you, Otis,” he whispered. “Take care of Mom, Dad, and Billy, OK?” He cradled Otis’ face in both his hands, a gesture that made Otis recall him playing Hamlet in a school production with a skull borrowed from the biology lab. “Otis?” Otis met his brother’s eyes. “Promise me?”
“Sure,” Otis said, still thinking, Alas poor Yorick! “Of course, Henry. Why would I need to?” He shrugged and stepped back, regretting the pit he’d just dug for the chillingly obvious.
A taxi slid down the street. “It’s here,” their mother said a little too loudly, and though they’d done this already for Henry’s first tour, her words this time twisted Otis’ sense of being eighteen from a sunny expanse of nice options to a hangman’s call: next-in-line, eligible. The time it took Henry to hoist his duffel, exchange more goodbyes, then crank down the cab’s window seemed an endless blur, protracted yet swift like a wrestling match. Sun glare on the cab’s rear window obscured Henry’s face as it roared off, but Otis could tell by the way Henry’s waving hand tilted that his older brother had been looking back toward them, toward home.
The first thing to grab Otis’ attention upon moving in to his freshman dorm the next day was a poster for the local Big Brother program. A forlorn child with unkempt hair peered from a cork board in the entryway. “Will you help this fatherless boy?” The picture reminded Otis of Billy in need of a bath. Figuring it would be good practice for a family someday, Otis signed up.
At Big Brother training, he studied a stapled black-and-white snapshot of Davey Green, his assigned “Little Brother.” Small for age eight, his kinked hair was close-cropped, his collared shirt neat. He wore a hard-to-read, perhaps stoic, expression. Otis brainstormed lists of things he’d enjoyed Henry doing with him around that same age: hikes, crafts, movies, board games. Billy had been eight and Otis twelve when Henry left for college. Otis had tried to fill Henry’s shoes and coax Billy into brotherly fun, but something was missing. They drifted apart.
Their first day together, Davey’s mother nixed movies likely to spark nightmares or wrong ideas, steering the two of them instead to a Don Knotts slapstick about a haunted house. Her guidance proved brilliant. On their walk home, Otis and Davey plunged each other into laughter as they mimed scenes. Once giggles subsided, Davey spoke like an open hydrant.
“It’s cool you’re my big brother because I don’t have a real one. My dad lives in Georgia. He went there after Vietnam. His real name’s Jonas but I’m not supposed to call him that. Some kids don’t know their dad so his name makes him more real, you know what I mean?”
Otis tried to look thoughtful. All that the Big Brother profile form had offered was, “father out of state; honorable discharge.” Not much to go on.
“Names are important,” Otis said, “but your mom is right. I’m eighteen but I still call my dad, Dad.”
“But you don’t have to, right? Because you’re a grownup?”
“No, I don’t have to. His first name is Charles.”
“So if you wanted you could call him Charlie?”
Otis didn’t like where this was going.
“I could but it wouldn’t be respectful. Let’s do this, Davey. You call your dad ‘Dad’ and I’ll think, ‘Jonas; what a nice name.’ That OK with you?”
“OK,” Davey said. They walked a block in silence before Davey spoke again. “Mr. Fletcher? Do they have summers in Georgia?”
“Yes,” Otis said. “And I hear they’re hot.”
“Mom said Dad missed hot weather. Vietnam’s hot and sweaty, Dad said. When he got back, he couldn’t sleep; when it’s nighttime here, it’s daytime there. Some kids’ parents fight real bad, but Mom and Dad only yelled a little, for a few weeks. He left when it got cold and snowed.”
Davey’s childish piecemeal impressions filled Otis with toboggan sensations. Where could he steer their conversation without further hurting this hurt child he barely knew yet? He thought of Henry, a few weeks into his second tour, and did the time zone math. The sun would be rising. Was he in his “hooch,” as he called it, or out on patrol? What had Davey’s dad done and seen in the war? Had the Greens always lived in the Berkshires? Were his parents still married? Had they ever been married? Why had Davey’s dad really left home?
“I see,” Otis said, aware that his response was lame.
“I bet my Dad will come back here next summer.”
“Is summer your favorite season?”
“Duh!” Davey scrunched his face. At the movie, he’d confided his desire to try the big kids’ river rope swing next July, before he turned nine.
“My favorite’s winter,” Otis said, shrugging and grinning so Davey wouldn’t think they had to divide over it, and also to reassure him that he had no designs on his father’s role.
Near the end of wrestling season, frustrated by his new coach’s deafness to pleas for a less punishing diet regimen and workout schedule, Otis invented a family duty then snuck off to the White Mountains with the Deden-Fisher Outing Club. There in Huntington Ravine the club’s President, Shaun Thirchton taught freshmen enough ice climbing skills to keep ambitious idiocy from killing them on a mountain before Vietnam could have a go.
In post-season wrestling competitions, Otis’ secret self-coached defiance bore fruit in wins. “Whatever you did that weekend at home,” his coach said, “let’s plan to do it again next year.”