Chapter One: The Wooden Box (1)
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Sometimes, you lose everything all at once. And sometimes, if you're lucky, something precious fills the void.

I lost my everything on November 15th, 1965--the day my older brother Brian died in the Ia Drang Valley, South Vietnam, his left leg blown off at the hip by a North Vietnamese Army mortar round. His best friend, Sergeant Jake Westergaard, held him tight as he bled out in the mud.  

I don't know much more than that.  

I do know the words that Brian said as he lay dying, and I know the promises Jake made. I know because Jake told me. But the finer details--the chaos of the battlefield, the blood and the dirt and the screams, the intricate anatomy of the limbless wreck that was my brother--of that, I know only what I see in my nightmares.  

And believe me, I see a lot.

We were orphans, my brothers and I. Orphaned in '56 when a lettuce truck hit our parents' Ford Fairlane head-on. Brian was twenty, Thomas was sixteen, and I, Samantha Jane, was twelve. Brian was already in the army by then, had made sergeant, and we had no close relatives--no one that Brian was willing to hand Thomas and me over to, anyway. He wanted to keep the Sullivan kids together, no matter what. So, he raised us himself--a twenty-year-old kid taking on the responsibility for a teenager and a twelve-year-old girl.  

I was in my last year of nursing school, just turned twenty-one, and Thomas was going into his fifth year in the army, when Brian died. We were living at Fort Benning, where Brian and Thomas were both based, in a small, three-bedroom house that shook night and day with the sound of helicopters flying overhead. Training, Thomas said, for airmobile flights in Vietnam.

I was cooking dinner, and Thomas was in the shower, when the doorbell rang. I turned down the heat on the spaghetti sauce and walked through the living room to the front door. There was a narrow window beside the door, with a white lace curtain. Through the lace, I could see two men in uniform. 

One was Father O'Malley, the base chaplain.

I remember opening the door. I remember the look in Father O'Malley's pale blue eyes. And I remember being helped across the living room to the couch by the other man, a blond-haired lieutenant. I never got his name. 

Brian had been killed, Father O'Malley said. Fighting the NVA at the Battle of Ia Drang. 

It shredded the fabric of our world. I tried to turn to Thomas, but Thomas turned to the bottle--whiskey mostly, but pretty much anything he could get his hands on. Thomas's compassionate leave from the army turned into a round-the-clock drinking binge. 

We fell apart. Utterly.

We got a telegram a few days later from Sergeant Westergaard saying he was coming home, with Brian. He had a week's leave, he said, and he would be spending it on base at Benning--so he could be with us. He said he didn't have anywhere else to be.

When the sergeant arrived, it was a crisp, late fall day. The doorbell rang, and I rushed to the door, nervous a buzzed Thomas would get there first and make a bad impression.

The sergeant was tall, taller even than Thomas, which was saying something. And he had the broad shoulders of a guy who had probably played linebacker in high school. His cropped hair was pure black, like coal dust. He had green eyes; eyes that had that kind of clear, soulful quality that some eyes have--that quality where they look like they can see straight through you.  

He wore his dark green dress uniform like he'd been born in it--every pleat perfect, every edge of every ribbon resting at the exact horizontal. When he stood in our doorway, with his cap in his hands, his bronze buttons gleamed in the late afternoon sun.

We three sat in our pink-and-green living room, Sergeant Westergaard alone on the sagging and faded floral couch, and Thomas and I positioned like awkward bookends on the overstuffed chairs at either end. We ate dry sugar cookies that I'd baked badly and washed them down with Thomas's horrible coffee as the sergeant told us what was surely a heavily-edited version of Brian's last hours on earth.

I didn't listen.

I watched the sergeant's calloused fingertip as he ran it along the chipped rim of one of the china cups that we only brought out on special occasions--this being the only such occasion since our parents' wake. His fingernail looked freshly trimmed. I wondered if that was for us. I studied his cap, which rested beside him on the pale pink and green cotton of the couch. The cap looked crisp and brand-new.  

I wondered if he wanted to leave us; walk out the door, get this thing done and over with and out of his life the way I did. I didn't want to hear about helicopters and landing zones and the North Vietnamese. I wanted Brian alive, laughing his deep laugh, running his hand through his red-blond hair, and teasing me about my freckled face and my lousy cooking.

I stood up and smoothed out my skirt. "More coffee?"

"Sure," the sergeant said.

Thomas nodded in my general direction. He was perched on the edge of his chair like the best student in class--elbows resting on his knees, leaning forward. He'd been taking in every syllable of Sergeant Westergaard's story. I was a distraction.

I picked up their saucers and cups, slid them onto my mother's melamine tray, and went down the hallway into the kitchen. 

I reached for the coffee pot. Thomas really did make the worst coffee.


I turned around.

Sergeant Westergaard stood in the doorway of the kitchen.  

"Yeah?" I said.


"Sure," I said, a tightness growing in my chest. 

I didn't want to hear anything more about Brian. I wanted this guy, as nice as he seemed, out of our house. I wanted to be alone with Thomas, pretending Brian was just away, on deployment, not cold and legless down at the base morgue.  

But I was raised well, and so I poured a cup of Thomas's terrible coffee and brought it over to the sergeant.

"Please, sit down," I said, nodding at the kitchen table.


He waited until I sat down before he did. I guess he was raised well, too.

Then he took a sip of coffee.

"You don't have to drink it, sergeant," I said. "I didn't make it. Thomas did."

The sergeant put the cup down in the saucer and rested his arms on the table.


He clasped his hands together and looked at me.


 "Call me Jake."

"Okay, Jake."

"Sam, your brother...he wanted me to tell you a few things."

I took a deep breath and forced my mouth into what I hoped looked like a polite smile, but inside I was screaming for him to leave. I didn't think I could handle much more of this. The pain was creeping up on me, threatening to overwhelm me with its blackness and its cold grip on my heart.

Jake looked down at his hands. I looked, too, and saw that they were big, tan, and clenched tight. 

He looked back up at me. Those green eyes--those once-clear, jade-green eyes--were clouded.

"He was the best damn friend I ever had, Sam. And I made him some promises."

I nodded, my chest tightening even more.

"He asked me to look out for you. Make sure nothin' bad happens to you."

I nodded again. My vision blurred, and I blinked heavily. I wasn't going to cry in front of this stranger, this man from halfway around the world.

"He wanted me to tell you that he loves you. And that everything is going to be okay."

Everything was definitely not going to be okay.  

I nodded again, my stomach twisting.  

"Is that all?" I said, wiping my hand across invisible crumbs on the formica tabletop.


I looked up.

Jake's green eyes held a softness, a gentleness I didn't expect. He reached across the table and put his big hand on top of mine.

"If you ever need anything--anything--I want you to let me know."

My vision blurred again, and I nodded, blinking. What I needed was my big brother back. And that's not something this guy could deliver. Not ever.

"And there's one more thing," Jake said.

I couldn't speak, so I just nodded for him to continue.

"There's a box. Wooden, with a bronze latch. In Brian's room. He said for you to open it. Not Thomas. You. He was pretty clear about that. And he said you might want me with you, when you open it."

"What's in the box?" My voice was small, strained.

"I'm not sure."

"He said all this to you…while he…" 

"Yes." Jake's voice was soft. "He spoke only about you at the end."

The tears came, and I wiped at them with the back of my hand.  

"Thank you," I whispered.

"For what?"

"For being with him. When he died."

Jake picked up my hand and squeezed it. "He would have done the same for me."




The funeral was two days later, and it was awful.  

It had rained for days and the cemetery was like a bog. They made me sit on a hard metal folding chair right in front, my high heels sinking in the mud, when I would rather have been standing in the back, mourning my brother quietly, in my own way. But at least Thomas stood behind me, with his hands on my shoulders, squeezing.  

No one told me that the folded-up flag was going to be given to me, and that the lieutenant with the soft brown eyes would tell me some tale about a grateful nation and salute me. I think if I'd been warned about it, I wouldn't have cried.  

I didn't want to cry.

Back at the house, Thomas broke out the brandy. He filled four tumblers--one for Jake and each of us, and one for Brian. Thomas downed his first brandy pretty damn quickly. 

I sipped mine and eyed my brother. I'd been practicing my nursing skills on him recently--mostly starting out on the cold white tiles of the bathroom floor and then moving him to his bedroom with a blue plastic bucket and a cool washcloth for his forehead. I was administering a lot of aspirin every morning, too.

"A toast to Brian?" Jake said.

Thomas was refilling his tumbler. He nodded. 

"He was our everything," he said, raising his half-filled glass.  

He drained his brandy. Then he reached for the bottle again and filled his tumbler to the brim.

Jake looked at me. "Sam?"

I shook my head. There was no point. Nothing I could say would ever do justice to Brian. Besides, for all his kindness, Jake Westergaard was still a stranger. I wasn't going to try to describe our Brian--our brother, the man who'd raised us--to some guy we didn't know. And I wasn't ready to break down, shed tears I kept only for my brothers, in front of him again.  

Jake nodded at me and looked at Thomas, who was nearing the bottom of his third brandy.  

"Brian was a brother to me, too," Jake said.

 "I guess that makes us brothers!" Thomas shouted.

"It does," Jake said.

Thomas guzzled his brandy and then slapped the tumbler down on top of the oak liquor cabinet. I cringed, hoping my mother's crystal wouldn't shatter. Then I watched my brother--my red-faced, tight-lipped, broken-hearted brother--as he picked up Brian's glass, and guzzled that one down, too. He wiped his wet lips with the back of his big, freckled hand.

"Samantha Jane!" he barked.

"Yes, Thomas?"

"Get that brandy down your neck!"

"I don't feel much like drinking."

"For Brian!" he yelled.

I cleared my throat. "Anyone hungry?"

Thomas refilled Brian's glass, and then his own. He hadn't heard me.
I slid off my muddy heels and walked out of the living room in my damp stocking feet. I went to the kitchen and dug around in the refrigerator for some cheese.  We didn't have much food, but I found the remains of some cheddar.  

When I closed the refrigerator door, Jake was standing in the kitchen. I inhaled sharply, startled.

"Jesus," I said.


"Don't do that."

"Need help?" He leaned against the counter. He had taken off his dress uniform jacket and his black tie was loosened at the neck.

"No, thanks. I think I got it."

"You two gonna be okay?" he said. "I mean, Thomas--"

"Thomas'll be fine. He's just itching to get deployed. He should be getting his orders any time now. Then he'll be okay."

"What will you do?"

"I'll graduate. I have a job lined up at the VA."

Jake nodded. He watched me as I sliced up the cheddar into cracker-size pieces.  

I knew he wanted to say more--I could feel the words hanging in the air between us. But he was silent. Maybe he, like us, didn't really know where he fit in. We three loved Brian, that was our link. But Jake Westergaard was still a stranger in our house, still a man from stories and letters and Brian's life far beyond us--a life of mud and mortars and tropical heat and death. What could he offer us, really? Jake would be gone soon--nothing but a ghost, a figment, someone to be remembered briefly, in passing, for the small role he played in our little family drama, nothing more.  

"We'll be fine," I said.  

Jake nodded, watching me with those clear green eyes.

In the living room, Thomas shouted my name and called out for the whiskey--the good whiskey, Dad's whiskey.  

It was going to be a long afternoon in the Sullivan house.

I reached up into the cabinet above the stove and found Dad's whiskey bottle. It was three-quarters full. I knew it would be empty before the afternoon was out.  

"I'll take it to him," Jake said.


Jake left the kitchen, and I resumed cutting up the cheese. I heard Thomas whoop with joy and Jake speaking in a gentle tone.  

I went to the cabinet and grabbed some crackers, opening the box and taking out a fistful.  I spread them out on the cheese plate and inspected my work. Pretty much a mess, but no one would care.

I picked up the plate and carried it out into the living room. Thomas sat in the big overstuffed chair near the window--Brian's chair--and Jake stood at the mantle, sipping whiskey.  

I put the plate on the coffee table and smiled at Jake's "thank you."

Thomas held up his whiskey. "Samantha!" he called.

"Yes, Thomas?"

"Have some whiskey! Jake, pour her a glass!"

"Thomas, you know I hate whiskey."

"A brandy, then. Jake, get her a brandy."

"Thomas, I have a brandy…" 

I looked around and saw that my glass was empty. Thomas had been making the rounds.

"Fill 'er up, Jake!"


"Whatsa matter, Sammy? You're not gonna to drink to your dead brother? Don't be such a downer." Thomas's blue eyes were bloodshot, his face flushed.

"Thomas, please. You're drunk."

"Have one drink for Bri. Just one, Sammy. C'mon."

"Alright, one," I said.  

"A brandy, Jake, my man, for my Sammy!" 

Jake looked at me and I nodded, trying to look apologetic. He picked up the brandy bottle and poured a measure into a fresh tumbler. When he handed it to me, our fingers touched.

"Good girl, Sammy!" Thomas said. "Now make a toast!"


"I'd like to make a toast," Jake said.

I looked at him with relief.  

He met my gaze and held up his glass. "To Brian Andrew Sullivan. The best of us. Wherever he may be, it's a better place now because of him."

The room was silent except for the ticking of the mantle clock. Thomas downed his whiskey in one go, and Jake continued to watch me. I averted my eyes and looked down into my brandy glass. The amber liquid suddenly looked very inviting. I knew it would warm me, numb me, if I drank enough. I brought the glass to my lips and drained it, feeling the heat of the brandy swirl down my gullet and collect in my stomach.

I put the empty glass on the coffee table.  "For Brian," I said.

Jake and Thomas were both staring at me.  

I couldn't stand it, so I went to the front hall closet and dug around in my purse for my cigarettes and lighter. I found them and yanked open the front door. Closing it behind me, I sat down heavily on the front stoop. I lit up, drawing in a deep breath of smoke, and wrapped my free arm around myself. I exhaled, the smoke from my lungs mingling with the puff of my breath in the cold November air.

Wherever he may be, it's a better place now because of him.

I wasn't a religious person. We were marginally Catholic, in that our mother had been, but Brian had never really followed through. I didn't know if I believed in Heaven. I didn't know where Brian was now, or if he was anywhere at all, other than in a freshly-covered hole at the base cemetery. So, I supposed, the cemetery was a better place now because of him.

Tears stung my eyes. Thomas had been right, Brian was our everything. He was the glue that held the family together. He was the strength that had sustained us through the loss of our parents. He would have done anything for either of us. And now he was gone.

How were we supposed to go on?

My cigarette had burned down to the filter without any additional help from me, and I stubbed it out on the stoop beside me. I flicked it away into the grass.  

The door behind me opened and I turned to see Jake holding my coat.

"Thought you might need this," he said.


"You wanting to be alone, or can a fella join you?"

"You can join me."

He sat down on the stoop beside me and handed me my coat. I draped it across my knees.

"Brian didn't want you two falling apart. That's why he asked me to come. He told me to look out for the two of you. But I guess I'm doing a piss-poor job of that."

"Brian asked you to come?"


"So, he knew he was going to die."

"Yeah, he knew. The choppers weren't flying at night. He knew there was no chance of getting out before morning. And he knew he didn't have until morning."

"How long did it take," I said, "for him to…die?"


"I don't know, Sam. Maybe twenty minutes."

Jesus. Twenty minutes.  

"That's a long time," I said.

"It was."

"I still haven't opened that box. I haven't even been in Brian's room since he died."

Jake reached out and touched my hand. "Do you want me to open it with you?"

"Would you?"

"You bet."

"We could wait for Thomas to pass out. Do it then."

"He's already halfway there."

I nodded. "Yeah, he's actually sort of a lightweight, for such a big guy."

"I noticed."

I looked over at him. "You must think we're a pair of freaks. Did you expect it to be this way when you went on leave? To be stuck babysitting an alcoholic and a…" 

"A what?" he said.

I fumbled around for my cigarettes. Sticking one in my mouth, I lit it with a flick of my lighter.  

"I don't know," I said, exhaling smoke. "A basket-case?"

"You seem to be doing okay."

A noise escaped my throat that was something between a laugh and a sob. "I am not doing okay." I took a long draw on my cigarette. "I'm completely unglued."

"Brian," Jake said. "He was the only family I had, Sam. I knew him a lot of years." He squeezed my hand. "I'm unglued, too. Bein' here, though, with you two. It helps."

"I wish we'd met you when Brian was alive."

"Me, too."

"We're not usually this squirrely. Thomas, he's not usually such a drunk…"

"I know."

As if to punctuate the point, there was a crash from inside the house. I sighed and crushed out my cigarette.

"That'd be Thomas, hitting the floor," I said.

"Time to go in? Put him to bed?"

I nodded. It would be nice to have the help this time.

We went back inside to a living room that looked like it had been hit by a tornado. Thomas had landed squarely on the coffee table, his considerable weight collapsing it. Cheese and crackers were scattered all over the pale pink carpet. The empty whiskey bottle lay by his right hand.

Jake leaned down. "Hey. Thomas, buddy, I'm gonna get you upstairs to bed."

Thomas moaned.

Jake hauled Thomas up off the remains of the table and threw him over his shoulder like he weighed nothing at all.

"Lead the way," he said.

I climbed the stairs to the second floor and headed down the hall to Thomas's room. I pushed open the door and let Jake pass, Thomas's blond head and long arms dangling down Jake's back like a ragdoll.  

I followed them into the room and pulled back Thomas's blanket and sheet. Jake eased Thomas down onto the bed and I grabbed the blue bucket from under the bed while Jake pulled the blanket up to Thomas's chin.

"Sammy?" It was Thomas. 

"Yes, Thomas?"

His eyes were half-open, and he blinked at me as I leaned down beside the bed.

"Sammy…" he whispered.

"I'm here," I said.

"Just makin' sure. Everyone's dead but you, Sammy. I'm just makin' sure you're still here."

"I'm still here," I said, stroking his forehead. "You get some sleep now."

"Sleep…" he muttered.

"Blue bucket's on the floor," I said.

"Blue bucket…"

I leaned over and kissed his forehead. "Sleep, Thomas."

I stood and walked to the door.  Jake followed.  I had my hand on the doorknob, ready to pull the door shut, when Thomas spoke again.

"Bri. He's really dead, isn't he? I think sometimes they came to the wrong house…"

"They didn't come to the wrong house, Thomas," I said. "I wish they did. But they didn't."

Jake put his hand on my shoulder, and I was grateful for the weight of it, for the human touch.

"Goodnight, Thomas," I said.

"G'night, Sammy," he muttered.

I pulled the door shut with a soft click and then exhaled. 

"Thank you," I said to Jake.

"He's heavier than he looks."

"Tell me about it. I've never been able to lift him into bed before. He usually ends up crashing out on the floor. Or in the hallway."

Jake watched me. His hand was still on my shoulder, and it was warm and comforting.  I had a sudden urge to just melt against him--feel his arms around me, feel full human contact again. But that was ridiculous. This man was a stranger.

"Should we open that box now?" he said.

"Yeah. We should." But I didn't want to move; I didn't want his hand to slip from my shoulder. 

"After you," he said.

I moved off down the hallway toward Brian's room, keenly aware that Jake's hand was gone. I stopped at the last door, the master bedroom, and paused.

"Is this it?" Jake said.


"One step at a time."

I reached for the doorknob and twisted it, pushing the door open.

Immediately, Brian's scent engulfed me--Old Spice and boot polish. The room was neat, as it had always been, the bed made with tight military corners and the dresser top empty save for a silver tray with a few spare buttons and coins. His small white alarm clock sat by itself on his nightstand. 

"Army, through-and-through," Jake said.

I walked into the room, looking around for a wooden box, but there wasn't one anywhere. 

"Okay if I check his closet?" Jake said.


Jake rolled back the closet door, revealing a scant collection of civilian shirts and trousers.  Brian's uniforms were gone--they would be coming back to us with his personal effects soon. On the floor of the closet were a few pairs of shoes; lined up neatly like everything else in the room.

I sat down heavily on the bed. 

Jake surveyed the closet shelf, which, at his height, was at eye-level.  

"Got it!" he said, and pulled something from the shelf.  He turned to me. "Wooden box. Bronze latch."

Jake brought the box over to me and put it in my hands. The box was about a foot long and intricately carved with dragons. Brian probably bought in Japan or someplace else in Asia. 

"I'm terrified," I said.

"It's just a box."

"What did he say? What did he say about it?"

Jake sat down beside me. "He said there was a box in his room that you needed to open. You, not Thomas. And that I, well, I should be with you when you opened it."

"You said before that I might want you with me."

"I was giving you a choice."

"But Brian said you should be here."


"And you have no idea what's inside?"

Jake was silent for a long moment. "I have an idea," he said gently. "But you should just open it."

I unhooked the latch and lifted the lid.  Sitting on top was a white envelope. 

Samantha, it read.

"Oh, Jesus."

Jake put his big hand on my shoulder again. I closed my eyes and focused on the feeling of the warmth and weight of his palm. I was shaking; my teeth were chattering together.

I opened my eyes and pulled out the envelope.  Several other envelopes lay beneath it, including one, yellowed with age and labeled Brian in my father's slanting handwriting.

I put the box on the bed beside me and carefully opened the envelope meant for me.  

There was one page.



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Next: Chapter One: The Wooden Box (2)

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Peppy McLean      12/31/18 12:28 PM

Love it. What a great writer!!!!