By the time Kemely Pickett left Duplin County early Sunday morning, so many people had passed through his parents' home -- nearly 1,400 -- that the carpet was wearing out.
It was almost as though Pickett was escaping the 1,600 phone calls since the bad news April 6, the crowds of visitors till 2 a.m., the hundreds of pounds of food that folks dropped off.
Pickett took his brother, N.C. National Guard Staff Sgt. Emanuel Pickett, to Raleigh-Durham International Airport in September when he shipped out for Iraq. On Sunday, Pickett was the lone family member to bring his brother's body home from RDU. That is, unless you count the police officers, sheriff's deputies and state troopers who went, too.
In civilian life, Emanuel Pickett was a Wallace Police Department captain. That's why Sampson County sent three deputies to the airport and the Wallace Police Department sent four men -- nearly half the small town's force. One drove Pickett's cruiser, car 206.
In Emanuel Pickett's 34 years, which ended in a Baghdad mortar attack during his second tour, he stitched himself into the fabric of his community. Besides his police job, he was a reserve deputy for the Duplin County Sheriff's Office and had done undercover drug investigations in surrounding counties, said his brother, who is a Sampson County Sheriff's Office major. Emanuel Pickett began a crime watch in his neighborhood, helped start a program to mentor fatherless kids and coached youth basketball.
He spent 13 years with the police department and more than 20 working at a butcher shop. Practically everyone in Wallace, Rose Hill and Teachey, where his parents live, knew Emanuel Pickett.
His brother said that even people whom Emanuel Pickett sent to prison have been turning up at his parents' door.
Inside an RDU hangar, Kemely Pickett bent until his chest rested on the American flag covering his brother's casket and lay there.
For long minutes, everyone else stood frozen around the chartered business jet that flew the body in -- the bikers in leathers and vests, police officers and sheriff's deputies, the National Guard troops in dress greens and the volunteer USO team that makes sure military dead get a proper welcome.
Then Kemely Pickett straightened and, helped by a friend, walked away. A seven-person National Guard detail marched forward, and with complicated steps and turns, lifted the casket and slid it into a black Cadillac hearse.
It took a few minutes to get the convoy on the road, but finally it rolled onto Interstate 40 -- six cruisers flashing blue and white lights; the hearse; the National Guard honor team; and 10 riders and a support truck from the Patriot Guard, a volunteer group that honors fallen troops with motorcycle escorts.
For most of the 90-minute journey, the convoy rolled down the mind-numbing stretches of I-40, passing puzzled motorists. All those law officers, a hearse and the motorcycles -- it just didn't add up.
Near the end of the quarter-mile-long convoy, Kemely Pickett, driven by a fellow officer from Sampson County, thought about how he had waited for a call all day April 6 -- his 41st birthday. He and Emanuel always phoned each other on their birthdays.
He thought about how Emanuel's death didn't seem real, even though he had seen the casket, even though he had touched it.
As the interstate crossed into Duplin, Kemely Pickett felt his burden ease just a little. He had gotten Emanuel home.
Deputies stopped traffic as the convoy turned off toward Rose Hill, then south past a park where Emanuel had played recreation league baseball. Just north of Wallace, the procession pulled into the parking lot at the Rose Hill Funeral Home.
Emanuel slipped home quietly. The family hadn't spread the news of his arrival.
They wanted him to themselves at least briefly.
About two dozen relatives were scattered around the parking lot, waiting. At the sight of the hearse, they gathered into a dense group, with his parents, Merlese and Harry Pickett, at the center.
Someone brought out a chair for Merlese Pickett.
"Step back, get us some air in here," someone said.
Then she stood and began moving past the hearse that still held her son's body, toward the door to the funeral home.
"Oh, my baby," she said. "Oh my baby."
The family went inside. The honor guard performed its careful choreography again and followed them with the casket.
Today, hundreds of people are expected at two visitations. On Tuesday, police expect the roads in Wallace to be lined with people as the funeral procession drives to First Baptist Church, where hundreds more will pack the service.
The procession to the cemetery will take Emanuel Pickett past his police department and will stop there briefly, because his family figures that would have been one of his first stops if he had made it home alive.
At some point Tuesday, the hearse will pass the flea market where he stopped for homemade pork skins, maybe a toy for one of his three kids and usually a quick look around to make sure no one was selling anything illegal, his brother said.
It was his town, after all, and he wanted to look out for it.
On Sunday, when he came back, it was the home folks' turn to look out for him.
More than half a dozen local law agencies have volunteered to guard the funeral home while Pickett's body is there.
They planned patrols there Sunday night, then shifts of guards Monday night, figuring that by then nearly everyone in southern Duplin will know Emanuel Pickett is home.
(Visitation for family and friends will be from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. today at Rose Hill Funeral Home. The funeral will be 2 p.m. Tuesday at First Baptist Church in Wallace.)