War is hell. Artillery crashing, tearing into the world, raining down earth and metal. The stink of a dying man that you can’t do a thing for but shoot him so he doesn’t suffer. Hiding from an enemy who probably has a wife and kids like you, that would stick the blade on his rifle up your ass if he could catch you.
It made you into less than what you were before the war.
And so much more.
The guys you go through it with, your brothers-in-arms, become closer to you than any friend or love.
My unit was a bunch of grunts. Guys from all over. Asshole Jimmy from the Bronx never met a woman he couldn’t hurt. Saintly Wilson whose real name was so hard to pronounce we’d redubbed him. Wilson saved more than he killed. He shot when he had to. He died saving a local kid, “a gook” Jimmy called her when he’d scooped her and Wilson up into the body bag after they’d stepped on a mine. Jimmy died too–throat cut by Charlie on a night patrol.
A pungy stick took out Harry from Illinois, who wanted to get back to his pig farm.
Don and Gerald died when the freakin’ US Army dropped some orange on us by mistake.
They died and left me with a bunch of kids, fresh out of high school, not ready for the hell of Vietnam. One shot me in the knee during a raid and I cashed my ticket home.
I married Julie, had kids and grandkids, and kept it all to myself.
Sometimes I cried.
Julie slept in a separate room because I punched her in my sleep.
Drugs helped more.
I held it together, mostly because when I started to fall apart, I heard them.
I put my service pistol in my mouth one Christmas Eve after the whole house slept and the darkness lay on me like a stone. They spoke to me.
They whispered that I had what they’d lost.
I owed it to them to live.
How do you argue with ghosts?
There were plenty of moments of joy. My daughter’s wedding. My thirtieth anniversary. Playing poker at the American Legion.
But the bad outweighed the good.
Julie died of breast cancer, writhing in pain because she the drugs stopped working.
My eldest son found me passed out on the floor, too high to get up to piss. How he yelled at me.
For my birthday, the kids and grandkids take me to dinner. I sit at the head of the table at Applebees listening to them talk about work and soccer and college. The table stretches into infinity, so many people here for me, but not with me. Once in a while, someone tells me some joke about the kids or asks how my food is. I push it around and swallow a few bites so that they feel good about taking me out, but the food tastes like gunpowder and dirt.
They give me presents. Drawings by the little ones of butterflies and stick figure grandpas. My medals in a glass case. A wedding picture of me and Julie surrounded by all our kids in a ring of snapshots. A necklace with a button you push if you fall down from my eldest son.
The pile looks like a bunch of crap I didn’t want, but I smile anyway.
When they drop me off, my daughter asks if I’m okay.
I say I am, clutching the bag of leftovers in one fist and presents in the other.
Did I need help getting inside?
Did I have fun?
They love me and I love them, but they are way too much for me. I say goodnight and watch them drive off, hoping they felt good about fulfilling their filial duties.
I turn toward the house and inside, a light flickers and dances.
Bags in hand, I hurry to the door and fumble in my pocket and pull out the keys. Inside, I hear rustling. The door swings open and I step in, putting my bags on the ground. There on the table lays my uniform. Where it had been, I’m not sure. Julie tucked things like that away in attic eaves and basement shelves and I hadn’t gotten around to looking at what she’d left where. But here it was laid out and crisp.
I skin out of my clothes right there. Why not? It’s my birthday and my birthday suit in my own house. Screw the neighbors if they peek in. It fit, mostly because I hadn’t eaten right since Julie died. But pulling the belt tight, buttoning the jacket, and pulling the hat on my bald, gray head felt so right. So much like life.
I click my heels together and fire off a crisp salute.
That’s when I hear Jimmy.
“Get in here, you asshole.”
I step into the dining room. They’re wearing in country uniforms, not dress like me. Green fatigues and white bones. And on their skulls sit pointy birthday hats.
Between them? A cake. Wilson’s bony hands push it toward me and he starts the song. The whole unit, my poor dead brothers, all join in.
Happy birthday to me.
Maybe they’re ghosts. Maybe I should be scared. But I’m not.
Looking around at them, I realize I made it.
I’d finally cashed in the real ticket. Glancing back, I see myself laying in the entry, leg twisted under and leftovers flung in a spray of potatoes and pasta that looked like brain and blood.
I made it.
I turn back to my brothers and they look like I’d last seen them. Not bones and death but smiling guys full of dreams and jokes. I shove in, shaking Don and Gerald’s hands and clapping Harry on the back.
For the first time in a long time, I was home.
Donna J. W. Munro’s pieces are published in Nothing’s Sacred Magazine IV and V, Corvid Queen, Hazard Yet Forward (2012), Enter the Apocalypse (2017), Beautiful Lies, Painful Truths II (2018), Terror Politico (2019), It Calls from the Forest (2020), Gray Sisters Vol 1 (2020), Pseudopod 752 (2021), and others. Check out her novel, Revelation: Poppet Cycle Book 1. Contact her at https://www.donnajwmunro.com
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