“The genius missed his flight.”
Eric Forman didn’t miss his flight, it had been forcibly cancelled when the Chadian-Libyan conflict spilled over into the village he had been sent to teach in. The American consulate had cancelled all flights out of Johannesburg returning to America due to fears of aerial assaults from the ground. They said lives mattered more than comforts back home but they didn’t see what happened the first few months of the 80s, they didn’t see the bloodshed or the horrors the men inflicted on the innocent villagers they came across.
Eric never saw himself as a strong person, in fact he knew he was physically weak but strong in his mind, even if he had begrudgingly admitted many months ago that he really was a dumbass for having some of the ideals he carried. The experience of war had forced him to change that. The rumors of the French getting involved forced him to see the horrors he saw first hand.
Prior to the conflict reaching his village, he had still been the happy go lucky moron he was when he first got there, if not just a bit more cynical...but as 1980 faded and gave way to 1981 and eventually 1982, that boyish optimism faded. He couldn’t sit by and watch the children he was teaching die in wars that should be handled by adults and when they moved him to a village in the Congo, his world changed, he changed.
He had been warned that the Congo was nothing like his prior village, the entire region was in the middle of a civil war between those who wanted to stay free from outside influences and those who thought the Belgian royalty trying establish control was a good thing. It was the first place that war truly came into his backyard.
When he returned back to the United States in 1983, Eric was not who he used to be. Being thrust into war and having to participate had hardened him and taken away his innocence. He had seen things no one should ever have to see, consoled mothers while they cradled their mutilated children’s corpses and screamed to their deities to make it not true. He had fired a gun in anger and hatred and not for a hunting trip with his father and watched good men die at his left and right who had never lifted a gun before and died for things they didn’t understand or want any part of. He had seen the innocent veneer of the ignorant and coddled ripped viciously away without mercy and watched grown men crumble under the strain. He became strong and understood part of his father for the very first time: the world was not a nice place and there’s rarely room for the youthful ideas of children.
As he hailed a cab and one pulled over, he pulled the green duffel bag from his shoulder and slipped inside, his eyes drifting to a plane taking off into the early morning air, hoping his replacement in the program knew what they were getting into and hoping they weren’t as ignorant as he had once been.
Eric watched as the houses of Point Place rushed by him as the sun slowly peaked over the horizon, bathing the small town in a pale pink light made everything look like it was just a dream from days long passed...in a way it was. It had been four long years since he walked these streets with his friends, getting high in his basement or kissing a red headed neighbor girl in his driveway, his father yelling at him or his mother doting on him.
Everything was so much the same but so very different. Some of the houses now sat without anyone living in it, some had new families and people leaving for work at the crack of dawn and some had those familiar faces he had drove by countless times without paying much attention. Point Place...such a wonderful change to the smell of gunpowder. The air was crisp and fresh, the sky was unburdened by war and even the soft green grass of every house seemed to be like something he had always wished to see: peaceful.
As the cab slowed to a roll in front of 416 Marie Drive, Eric let his eyes travel over the faded yellow paint of the house and part of him wished that he had called home at the least to make sure his parents still lived there. He remembered at one point in his early time in Africa that his mother revealed that her and Red were thinking of moving away, but he wasn’t sure what became of that since he hadn’t heard from anyone in years; the mail delivery service had all but shut down before he was moved to some no-name village in the Congo.
Pulling a twenty out of his wallet, Eric handed it to the driver and clambered out of the back seat and slung his seabag, a nickname that he learned from a Navy sailer when he was waiting for his flight home, over his shoulder. As the taxi pulled away, Eric reached into his pocket and pulled his keys out. Hoping the locks hadn’t been changed, Eric smiled and pushed the door open and looked around the sitting room of his parent’s house for the first time in almost half a decade. Some of the scenery had changed, the pea colored chair had been replaced by a nice, cushy looking leather chair, the yellow couch had been replaced with something similar but the pictures of the family remained, at least, he figured, he wouldn’t have to worry about opening the door to some random family’s house. Tossing the seabag into the couch, Eric walked quietly into the kitchen and pulled the fridge open and pulled a cold Budweiser out of the six pack and opened it with a hiss as he sat down.
He missed alcohol, it was a rarity to find any when the trade routes had shut down and any of the previous stuff he had found had been when the missionaries had made trips through the villages; their chauffeurs had always carried a decent stock of alcohol brewed by their people and though it always had an earthy taste, it was worth the five bucks he would trade for the bottles they were willing to part with. A cold Budweiser on a humid summer morning was a long call and infinitely better in his opinion. Looking around the kitchen, he had to marvel at the changes from the late sixties decor to the more modern.
The old table had been replaced with something a bit sturdier and made of some kind of dark or stained wood Eric couldn’t figure out, the chairs were soft and no longer the hard seats they had once been. A microwave had been added and most of the appliances had been updated, even the oddly patterned wallpaper had been removed and replaced with wood paneling.
He didn’t hate the new look of the house, it just felt...foreign to him, it was a shock to his system to think his dad would allow such expensive changes or any changes at all.
Taking a sip from the can, Eric heard the stairs still creaked in the most familiar of ways.
“Who in the hell is leaving a bag like this in my damn living room?” He heard the deep grumble of a barely awake Red and he had to smile. He was still a crotchety old man. “I swear to god, whoever is leaving crap like this...is that a seabag? What in the hell? Laurie probably brought home some-some low rank Seaman.”
The words turned to dark mutters as Red pushed open the kitchen door and froze, a snarl coming across his face as he looked toward the dark figure sitting at his kitchen table with a can in front of him.
“Look, my daughter probably snuck you into my house, but that doesn’t mean I won’t stick my foot in your ass so far you’ll have to open your mouth for me to tie my shoes.” Eric smirked slightly and felt his heart pounding a tattoo against his ribs in excitement. Red didn’t recognize him. It was expected but it still would make the reveal a lot funnier for him. “Well aren’t you going to say something?”
“Turn on the light.” He watched a series of emotions flicker across Red’s face but it settled in burgeoning understanding. The lights clicked on and Red stood there in wide-eyed shock when he saw Eric, his mouth hanging open slightly as something flashed in his eyes.
He smiled and stood from the soft chair, his hands slipping into his pockets. “Hey dad.”
“Finally back, huh? What, whatever backwater village you were in finally kicked you out and you just finally decided to come home?”
“Something like that. The Army and the Marines came through and started to evacuate us when rumors of aerial attacks started circulating.” Red went white but nodded as the two walked out to the driveway. The Vista Cruiser still sat in the garage but the Corvette had taken up full residence and center stage. “So, how have things been back here at home? I saw all of that leather in the living room.”
“Good, things have been good. Sold the muffler shop. It really started to make some good business when you left and someone made me an offer and I took it. It’s out of business now but your mother and me made enough off of it to be comfortable for the rest of our lives.” Eric smiled and took a drink from the beer in his hand. “So what happened to you out there? I doubt being a squirrelly teacher in Africa made you decide to stop looking like an anorexic.”
“No, no the teaching didn’t. The war did.” Red froze mid drink and looked to his son. “They never brought that up on the news or in the paper back here?”
“No, no they didn’t.”
“Well, war had apparently started between Libya and Chad in 79. The village I was originally at was in trouble so they moved me to the Congo...and then pockets of civil wars broke out there when the Belgians wanted it under their banner. I wanted to get sent home but...they refused. I would have been back years ago but they kept extending the program time for my group since they couldn’t send us home. I still have college paid for but they started paying us too once the first year was up.”
“So at least you have some money to show for it.” Eric nodded and drank from his own slowly emptying can. “Must have been some good pay.”
“Not really, but three years of being paid and not having the time or responsibilities to spend anything on leads to a decent amount of savings. We started getting paid by the military as contractors too when we were in the Congo if we were able to translate for them and they backdated it a bit.”
“What language do they speak? I find it hard to believe you learned another language.”
“French, for a good portion of it. Lay over from the colony days, but there’s four other languages out there, Swahili was one of the easier ones to understand for me, so I became a translator for them when they started evacuating people. From other countries.” Red nodded and drank again. “Dad, what was Korea like?”
Reginald Forman had expected some things to come out of his son: sarcasm, some smart ass comment, something about Star Wars and Luke Skywalker...but he never expected that question. Swallowing hard and looking to the can in his hand, Red sighed.
“Why are you asking about that?”
“I’m just curious...because I think I understand you a bit better now.” Red looked to his son to find him looking at him already and he saw something that horrified him: his son had changed. He might have bulked up considerably and filled out like Kitty had always said he would, but there was just something else different about him, something he recognized in himself.
“It was bad, Eric.” Red finished his can and set it on the hood of the Corvette, a far away look in his eye. “Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima was bad, but Korea...don’t get me wrong, son, I love my country and I served with dignity...but some of the things I saw and did in Korea...they changed me. I saw a lot in Guadalcanal, saw ground combat for the first time and earned my awards and accolades and at the time, I was proud but Korea...you never forget the faces of the innocent...even if you were just following an order.”
Eric nodded and finished off his own can and collected his father’s, a grim look on his face. He darted into the kitchen and grabbed the rest of the six pack and brought it back out with him, handing his father a freshly popped can as he accepted it while staring off into the distance, reliving memories he would rather have stayed buried and remembering faces he would never forget no matter how hard he tried.
“So-ahem-what brought that on?” Red asked as he shook away the demons.
“I saw some stuff while I was in Africa and...did some things I’m not proud of and it wasn’t even for my country, it was for theirs.” Red nodded and looked down to the fresh beer in his hands. “Does it ever get easier, dad?”
Red sighed and took a sip of the beer, cringing at the answer he knew his son would never want to hear but needed to. “No, son. It never gets any easier. You won’t forget, the memories won’t let themselves be forgotten...but in time, you might be able to make peace with it.”
Eric nodded and drank from his own can as Red put an understanding hand on his shoulder. Eric didn’t jump or freak out at the minute show of affection from his father, he just nodded gratefully and did what he had always dreamed of doing, sharing a beer with his dad, as an equal.
“Kitty, it’s time to wake up.” The feather haired woman moaned and rolled back over in bed, clutching at the comforter like a child would and it made Red smile. “C’mon, there’s someone downstairs that you might like to see.”
“Red, the kids are always around, I can see them any time I want, all I have to do is pop my head in the basement and ignore those incense they’re always burning.” Red rolled his eyes and stood straight, knowing damn well it wasn’t incense but he had decided to ignore that in favor of a peaceful household.
“Kitty, someone you haven’t seen in years is here and you might really want to see them.” She grunted and finally got out of bed, casting a sleepy glance towards her husband as she got dressed for the day, despite it already being noon.
“So who is this mystery person that I’m supposed to know.”
“You’ll have to come down and see. We’ll be in the den...just don’t freak out too much.” Red left his wife to finish getting dressed and walked down the stairs and turned to his son who had dropped the bulky jacket to show just how much he really changed. Red didn’t look too close, but even he could tell his son put on a lot of weight and a lot of muscle. Clapping his son on the back, Red took his seat by the old heater and smiled. “Your mother should be down soon. I can’t wait to see her reaction to you being home, son.”
“I just hope she doesn’t try to baby me. Too much has happened for that.” Red nodded understandingly and crossed one leg over the other and rested an ankle against a knee. The two stayed quiet, even as the top stair creaked loudly but the house was rife with shouts and noise once Eric turned to face his mother.
Kitty had run forward and leapt into the much more filled out frame of her son, tears rolling down her face as she cried and laughed, ecstatic to finally have her son home. When she finally let go she held him at arms length and looked over him, a smile on her face.
“Oh Eric...you’ve gone and grown up on me!” She laughed her familiar laugh and Eric couldn’t help but smile. “See Red, I always said he would fill out! Even his wrists aren’t tiny anymore and oh look at your hands! So many callouses!”
“Hard work will do that to you.”
“Oh, I can’t even jokingly say you’d be a great pharmacist anymore!” Kitty laughed again and wrapped her son in a hug once more, her happiness fading into delirious joy as she held her baby boy. “He’s home, Red! Our baby is finally home!”
“That he is, Kitty.” Eric shared a sad smile with his father, both hoping she never saw just how different he was.
“Okay, now I have pancakes, sausage, bacon and a few other things cooking, Eric, is there anything special you want to drink?”
“Oh, water is fine mom.” Kitty looked like she wanted to argue it, but a look from Red silenced her. Nodding in understanding, she poured Eric a tall glass of water and sat it in front of him. “Thanks, it’s been a while since I’ve drank much beside water so I’ve kinda gotten into a habit of it.”
“Oh well I’d imagine so! I hear it’s very hot in Africa, so it makes sense that you’d be used to it.” Kitty laughed and patted the table with both hands. “I’m just so happy you’re home, Eric. What took so long?”
“Program issues. Right son?” Red cut him off with a warning from his eyes and Eric didn’t miss a beat.
“Yeah, the program kept changing things on us when funding got wonky, so it wasn’t really a big deal. I’m home now, so it’s not an issue anymore.”
“So are you going to start college right away or finding a teaching job? Oh! They have an open position at Point Place High! The history teacher got arrested for something.” Kitty supplied as she laughed nervously, hurrying over to the stove when the meats inside started to sizzle a little too loud.
“So...secret then?” Red nodded at him and grabbed the paper from the new side table he hadn’t noticed in the dark last night. The kitchen fell into a routine of Kitty asking questions and Eric answering them as carefully as possible, not wanting to lead on exactly what he had experienced.
When breakfast was finished, Eric got to his feet and gathered up the dishes and carrying them to the sink without a word. When he turned on the tap and started washing them, Kitty stared at him oddly but Red just looked on with a tiny hint of pride.
“Oh, well thank you Eric, but we have a dish a washer now.”
“It’s alright mom, you made me breakfast so it’s the least I can do.” Kitty laughed but continued to stare at her son; he never would have done that before and she could sense something different about her son. He carried himself with a smooth grace and gentle movement. A bit of the boy he had once been was still there but the way he moved now seemed measured, deliberate and like there was meaning behind every step. She also couldn’t shake the feeling her son was giving off, something else had happened in Africa that had changed him in more than appearances and from the looks Red thought she didn’t see, she knew it wasn’t good.
“So son, what are you doing today?”
“I have an appointment with that apartment place that Fez and Kelso moved into. The rent isn’t that bad, it’s only a couple hundred a month and it’s not too far away so I can still come over a lot.”
“But Eric, you just got back! Why don’t you stay a little while?”
“I don’t want to be a burden to you guys.” Red had waved his concern away, surprising both Kitty and Eric.
“Nonsense, you can stay for a while. No point in you being home after four years if you can’t take advantage of it for a while.” Eric nodded and finished off the dishes in silence. Maybe life wouldn’t be horrible here with his parents for a while, at least until he started school and working, by then he would convince his mother that he would be better off on his own, since he knew he had a habit of doing things in the morning now; working out being one of them.
The next few days after Eric returned home had moved as smoothly as they could. He moved back into his old room and had spent a few hours going through boxes of his old stuff, deciding what to toss and what not to. His father had offered to help him but had bowed out of it when asked to and only made an appearance to bring him more boxes once he was finished with the others.
One of the boxes had all of his Star Wars stuff and the posters that once hung in his walls, another had all of his action figures, he still refused to call them dolls, and the other trinkets he usually kept around. The box that had been easiest to decide what to do with had been full of things from his and Donna’s failed relationship; it all got binned. In the end, he kept a single GI Joe he had made spottily out of wood when Red has refused to get him one for his thirteenth birthday. Most of the rest of the boxes had been tossed since they were clothes that he knew wouldn’t fit his body anymore; putting on seventy pounds would do that to you.
Once he had cleaned up his past and tossed most of the stuff his parents had saved, he offered to drop it all off at the Good Will. Red nodded and his mother tried to argue with him that he was too young to be trying to grow up so fast and had tried, unsuccessfully, to convince him to keep a few things. The only glimpses of his past that Eric ran into were the town theater playing movies from his childhood, but he happily drove by them without a backwards glance.
“So whatever happened to everyone? I haven’t seen anyone and I’ve been back almost a week now.”
“Oh well Steven still lives in the basement but he spends a lot of time his father or at Grooves. Donna still lives next door but Bob left her the house and moved down to Florida with Joanne. Jackie is working at a new record store that W.B. owns but we rarely see her anymore. Fez is...around but not as often, I think he got married to that heavy set girl he used to date.”
“Yeah, but she’s not so big anymore. I’m just glad Tonto and Laurie got divorced finally.” Red offered, taking a bite of a strip of bacon. “Even I’ll admit, that little foreign kid has grown on me.”
“Yeah. And Eric, I don’t want to upset you, but Donna is still dating Randy. Apparently they broke up when they thought you were coming home but they got back together when she started college.” Eric shrugged in a way that confused his mother, even Red was concerned for the lack of caring.
“Son, are you alright with Donna dating someone else?”
“Why wouldn’t I be, we broke up four years ago. It’s not like she was going to sit around and wait for me, she made that abundantly clear.” Eric said with a snort, ignoring the concern from his parents. “Besides, thinking she would have stuck around would have made me a dumbass.”
“Dad, I’m alright.” Red heard the finality in Eric’s tone and just nodded, a silent understanding between them that he didn’t want to talk about his old flame. “Well, I have a meeting today with the Wisconsin State recruiter to start next year since all of the spots have filled up and I have an interview down at the police station.”
“You’re going to be a cop?”
“No, mom, I’m interviewing for a job as a shooting instructor.” He didn’t elaborate further as he stood and gave Kitty a kiss to the cheek and thanked his mother for breakfast. He was out of the door and walking down Marie Drive before she recovered.
“Leo man, what the hell is your cousin doing in my office?” Hyde asked as he stalked from the back room, his shades perched on his forehead and a grimace on his face.
“Oh, he’s just hanging around for a while man. Aliens got him and he’s been real weird for a while.” Leo explained in his usually airy way, not looking up from the milk crate full of records. “Whoa, I didn’t know we had David Bowie!”
“We don’t.” Hyde rubbed his face and sat down on the obvious copy of the Forman basement, his hands pressing firmly into his eyes.
“So whatever happened to that chick you married man?”
“Leo, that was four years ago. She left with her actual husband.”
“Whoa, she had two husbands? I didn’t know the Mormons allowed that man.”
“What? I’m not a Mormon.”
“Isn’t that the name of the people you live with? The Mormons?” Hyde laughed for a minute like he would have if he was still in high school...or just high. “I like Mrs. Mormon, man. She gave me stitches once.”
“Yeah, I remember. Hey, watch the store for a bit, I need a smoke.” Leo nodded and walked over to the register, his head bobbing to the Skynard that came on as Hyde pushed the door open and walked out into the Wisconsin summer air, a pack of Marlboros being dragged out of his pocket as he went. Once he had lit up, Hyde took a long drag and leaned against the side of the building opposite the setting sun so he could relax in the shadows. W.B. had asked him to check in on Jackie earlier that day and he did, but seeing her brought back feelings he had squashed when he forced himself to turn back into the cold-hearted person he was in high school after his failed ‘marriage’ and it never got any easier seeing her.
Jackie Burkhart was always and would always be breathtakingly beautiful, Hyde knew that, but knowing that he could have had her if he didn’t fear commitment made it so much harder to see her. If it had been through some fault of his own, like cheating again, then he could understand her cold indifference towards him...but because it was for something he didn’t really do, it was just a painful reminder of what being a screwup could do.
They had tried to give it another shot, right after her and Fez broke up because he believed she was just using him for a place to stay and had cheated on her, but it had ended badly, just as it had before but with more slaps thrown and more shins being kicked. She didn’t swear at him, didn’t try to pressure him into marriage or anything like that, but when he felt himself falling into a comfortable routine with the beautiful girl, he panicked and bailed for two whole months out to Madison to stay with W.B. at the office. When he worked up the courage to come back, she had told him in a calm voice that she hated him.
It cut deep when she did that. If she was yelling or crying, he knew he had a shot to fix things, but the calm to her demeanor and the soft drawl of the word ‘hate’ told him it was over.
Taking another drag from the cigarette, Hyde groaned when someone got out of 1969 Camero, he reluctantly flicked it away, wishing he didn’t have to deal with customers while he was smoking, W.B. was adamant that to maintain a look of professionalism, he didn’t smoke when they were around.
“Welcome to Grooves, hope you enjoy your stay. The new Police record is...hey, you look familiar, man.” Hyde trailed off as the muscular man approached him, the son hiding half of his face as he approached. “You used to go to school around here?”
“Yeah, I did you lovable burnout.” Hyde raised his eyebrows when he caught a full view of the man’s face but it still wasn’t coming to him. “Here’s a hint: ‘Just let me love you orphan boy!’”
“Forman?” Eric snickered as reality hit his token smoking friend and welcomed the rare hug from the man as a smile cracked both of their faces. “Holy shit, look at you man! You’re bigger than Kelso!”
“I hope that’s an allusion to him being in shape and not the possibility of him being fat now.” Hyde grinned and shrugged and hurried over to salvage his smoke. “How’ve you been man?”
“Good, good. Making lots of money now that we have cassettes in the store and I took Leo off of the daytime shifts. He’s more lucid at night.” Eric nodded and reached into his own pocket to produce a pack of cigarettes of his own, lighting one and taking the first puff to a surprised Hyde. “Since when do you smoke regular cigarettes man? I only remember you being a fan of the greener stuff.”
“You make due with what you have in Africa.” Hyde chuckled and took a drag.
“They must have some primo stuff out there though. I mean, the whole country is a giant farm man.”
“I think you missed a lot of geography stuff in high school or burned out all of those brain cells. Africa is a continent filled with countries.” Hyde shrugged and scratched at his beard. “Any way, how’s life besides work? Dating again?”
“Nah man. I tried it again with Jackie but that was just a nightmare. I still see Sam every now and then.”
“The stripper? Wasn’t she married to someone else?”
“Yeah but she still knows how to jump out of a cake like a pro. Hired her for WB’s birthday.” Eric gave a short laugh and took a deep drag from his cigarette. “When did you get back?”
“Bout a week ago. I’ve mostly been sorting through old stuff and throwing most of it out, it just all didn’t seem important anymore.” Hyde nodded and looked to the unaffected, confident aura around his friend; the changes from before he went to Africa and now were startling.
“What about dating? You gonna try to get Donna back?”
“No, she’s part of a something that I’m not anymore. I moved on years ago.” Eric finished his cigarette and flicked the butt a considerable distance from the two of them and held the smoke in his lungs. “What about you and Jackie.”
“As dead as Donna’s cat after you ran it over.” Hyde grinned stupidly while Eric rolled his eyes as a memory of his worry about Mr. Bonkers flashed in his mind. “Wanna come and check out the store, man? We had to change some things, like getting shelves since the milk crates were cracking.”
“We’ll they’re pretty old and were a little moldy when we first stole them.” Hyde shrugged. “Nah, maybe another day, I’m visiting everyone I can track down tonight and tomorrow. Donna’s an easy find since she lives across the driveway, Kelso is in Chicago and at least answered the phone when I called. After seeing you, it’s just Fez and Jackie.”
“Well good luck with that man. But hey, since you’re back, I can finally put my ‘welcome back from Africa’ stash to good use. Once you’ve gotten reacquainted with everyone, let’s smoke away some brain cells.” Eric snorted and offered Hyde a hand to shake. With a smile, his friend took it and gripped it as tightly as he did.
“I look forward to it.”