Aaron had to start working right away - during his deployment, Franky had only been able to contribute money in small bursts and they were still check to check.
"Don't stress about going back tomorrow," Franky said. "Think about the dinner I'm going to make you. Think about lentils and asparagus and think about the lemon soup."
He stared at the ceiling. "If you have to wake me up, just be easy about it. A guy kicked me awake once overseas, I knocked out one of his teeth." He hated talking about the war, hated even saying the word 'war,' so they had compromised and were calling it being 'overseas.'
She said she was so happy to have him home and then he turned the lights out. He imagined a cheeseburger he once ate in high school. It had a sourdough bun, two half-pound patties, a dozen pickles, avocado, blue cheese crumbles and bacon. It took him half an hour to finish it, the fries and the slaw. He remembered not feeling hungry the rest of the day. It was the first time he ever had blue cheese on a burger.
He lay still for an hour, drifted off to sleep and woke up five minutes later wide awake and hungry. He let his eyes adjust to the darkness in the room and tried to find the things that were different. Nothing of his had moved. His night stand had the same books on it and a deck of poker cards he had forgotten to take with him. Very little of hers had changed either, but he did see a thicker novel than he remembered on her nightstand. And on the wall was a black and white decorative bowl they had bought on their honeymoon in Puerto Vallarta. Hanging it had always been something that needed getting to.
He got up and wandered around their apartment, feeling awkward in the silence. He turned on the television but it made his eyes hurt so he shut it off. There wasn't anything on the radio he liked. Outside the window, even at this hour, traffic painted the blinds red. He didn't know what else to do so he did push-ups in the living room and then lay on his back. Blood rushed to his ears and walled off the silence. When his heart slowed he heard the hum of the refrigerator. Inside it were bottles of water and bags of vegetables stacked on bags of vegetables. Some lemons for tomorrow's soup. Out of a six-pack of light beer there were four left. He sighed and drank one with the door open. He smacked his lips and tried to scrape the taste of it off his tongue with his teeth. Then he opened a second one and sat down on the couch.
He opened up their wedding album and flipped through the pages. Franky looked happy in all the pictures. Toward the middle he found a picture of them after the ceremony smoking and eating cake. He smiled and then flipped through some more. In all the pictures she was about forty pounds heavier than she was now. She had been an overweight child and a chubby adult. He'd never cared about her weight.
When he deployed, she said she didn't like the way they ate, that she felt fat and she was going to start eating different. He said that sounded fine to him but as he got off the plane, the sight of her had shocked him; she looked like she had been whittled down from a branch to a twig, emaciated almost. All that was left were bones and stretch marks on her sides and thighs.
He finished his beer and felt hungrier than when he had gotten up. His eyes drifted though, so he went back to bed without waking Franky and fell asleep.
Franky rubbed his arm until he woke up. She wore a pink windbreaker and her tennis shoes were already laced. She ran now, a few miles every day, and had planned for him to join her.
"I've been running down Meridian, past the grocery store. There's a hill you can see Mount Rainier from. Its great." Aaron rubbed at his eyes - the moon was still out.
On the road, she ran harder and faster than he did. By the time they made it up the hill, he was out of breath and had cotton-mouth, so they sat. "The air is so damp, it makes me want to puke."
"And you're used to running on sand, I imagine."
Aaron knew Franky's comment was less about giving him an excuse and more about probing into his time away, so he ignored her. He tried to enjoy the view, but the sun was barely up and it started to drizzle. He got restless.
For breakfast they each had a hard boiled egg, an orange and a banana. While they ate, she told him again about dinner and how she was going to cook all the vegetables in a Crock-Pot. They were going to marinate all day and then they'd just melt in his mouth. He said he couldn't wait. She packed him green beans and a small tuna steak left over from last night.
His stomach still throbbed from hunger, but he wanted to support her diet. Wordless, he put on his boots and left.
Rock & Lumber was happy to have him back and he spent most of the morning catching up with co-workers. They asked him what it was like and he said it was nothing to write home about. Then he got them talking about what they'd been doing. When he'd talked to them long enough, he shook their hands and let them back at it. He sat through a safety video with his foreman but they mostly laughed at it and cracked jokes. Then the foreman's transceiver squawked that orders were backing up so they turned off the video and hit the floor.
Aaron found a forklift and took his time filling his first order. He eased out a small pack of 4x6x6s and loaded them onto a contractor's truck. When the buyer asked him to step on it he slowed down even more and smiled, ignoring him. Everything smelled like cedar and only now did he realize how much he'd missed it.
At lunch, his stomach growled and throbbed again, but he forgot to eat. He got busy with Mick from the rock side of the store about how they were looking for someone to take a run at the night shift. It payed time and a half but Aaron didn't know. He couldn't think really because his stomach ached.
In the afternoon he grabbed a ticket for 2x4x24s. The bundle, annoyingly, was up thirty feet on the top shelf. The pieces were long and hard to balance on the thin forks of the lift. The first time he grabbed at it, it was too far to the left and it tipped back onto the metal shelf it sat on. He took a breath and settled himself before he tried again. He felt like he hadn't eaten in a goddamn week. He picked it up again and this time he backed it out. But his forks were too far to the right and the wood tipped over.
He screamed for everyone to watch out and it all came down like an artillery shot on the concrete floor. The whole store heard and everyone inside came running to help. They found Aaron covering his head with both his hands and curled in a ball, unhurt. The lumber had split and bent and was scattered a hundred feet down the aisle.
Everyone asked Aaron if he was okay. He howled that he was and then turned his back on them. He muttered under his breath he couldn't believe he'd been so stupid. The air was thick with wood particles and when he smelled the cedar he felt like it was sticking in his lungs. Half-way through cleaning up his spill he took a chunk of wood and cracked it over a corner of the dumpster. The sound made his ears ring and then his head started ringing, too.
When he got home, Franky stood cooking over two burners. She had sweated through her shirt and her forehead was dripping and smearing her make-up. There was a pot of soup simmering and the lentils were frying in a pan. The Crock-Pot was open and the stench of asparagus was everywhere. The table was set but the silverware was laid out crooked.
"Beer on the table for you."
She'd set out that damn swill for him?
"Almost ready, so have a seat."
She tried to kiss his cheek but he took off his boots and threw them into the closet. He let his chair scrape the floor as he pulled it out and then he sat down. "Why did you have to get this stuff anyway? It's more like water than beer."
Franky stopped stirring and looked at him. He never could hide his anger and he knew she saw it on him.
"I got it cause I can't have regular beer and I really wanted to have a beer with you."
He ignored her and took a sip. "Light beer."
She turned back to the stove and started stirring again.
"Hey - don't turn your back on me."
"I have to keep stirring the soup."
He made fists but stopped short of slamming them down on the table. He kicked the chair out from underneath him, went to the bedroom and slammed the door three times before it closed.
He lay down on the bed and tried to breathe. She could have bought him some regular beer, too. That would have been easy. Then they both could have had a beer they liked. Why did she have to be so obstinate about the food? It was so healthy it was irrational. The body needed fat, he knew that from training. His stomach ached, his head ached. Why did she intentionally suffer like this? Do this for no good reason other than she wanted to?
Franky came into the bedroom an hour later. He had the lights off and was massaging his palms into his eye sockets and breathing very slowly.
"Are you all right?"
"I have a headache, a massive headache. I haven't eaten."
"I'm so sorry, let me make you something. Anything you want."
"I just want a cheeseburger. That's it. A giant burger. Can we go out and get a burger?"
She rubbed his back. "Anything you want."
It was late out and nothing was open in town so they drove south to Graham and then had to keep going past Kapowsin. Twenty miles out in Eatonville they found a small drive-through called Henry's.
"Two cheeseburgers, no lettuce, no pickles, no onions, with mayo, ketchup, and do you have potato chips? Can you do me a big favor and just put them in the burger? Right in the burger on top of the cheese? Thanks."
Franky looked at him. "Since when did you start doing that? Is that any good?"
"It's great. You'll love it. I knew a guy overseas who used to do it."
"Ate it like that?"
"Just like that."
She shook her head. "Sounds like a character. Can't wait to meet him."
He stared out the windshield and saw a stray cat scrambling up the side of a dumpster. Its claws caught on a metal bar and it managed to pull itself up and over. Finally on the rim, it started sniffing around for scraps.
Instead of letting her comment pass into silence, he said, "Knew a guy overseas. Don't know him. Knew him."
Franky realized what he meant.
They paid for their order, drove to an empty spot in the parking lot and unwrapped their burgers. He watched her. She took a dainty bite and swallowed it. Then she took a gigantic one and started chewing it. A smile drew across her face and she started to giggle. Her eyes watered a little and she said, "It's so good."
BIO: Patrick Salmon currently lives, works and writes in Simi Valley, California. His previous work has been anthologized in 6S: Volume 2.