It’s been twelve years since we lost my brother to war. The details are still hazy, and the state department continues to give us the runaround. It took my parents four years to give up and let their minds rest on what happened on May 5th, 2004. The initial reports said an IED. Then we got a phone call from one of his comrades. I answered the phone, and a muffled and raspy voice asked for my father. He took the phone into the den – he was on the phone for only ten minutes. The murmurs of their conversation stopped, and my mother went in there. They stayed there for at least an hour.
They came out with nothing to say. Their eyes were swollen and bloodshot.
“What’s wrong? Who was that?”
“It was a soldier who served with your brother.”
“What did he say?” I asked. My father sat down in the love seat and took the remote. He changed the channel. I looked back at my mother in the kitchen. She grabbed a cucumber out of the fridge and began to slice it.
Growing up, I listened to my brother as any younger brother shouldn’t. He once bought a paintball gun from some kid at school — they snuck it in with backpacks, and my brother gave the kid his last five weeks allowance. I was drawing dragons in my room when he knocked and told me to meet him behind the garage in five minutes — he had something to show me.
He told me he’d give me ten seconds to run.
“Is it going to hurt?” I asked.
“Not if you’re running. It’s called adrenaline. You won’t even know it hit you.”
And then, he started counting. I took off.
When he got to three, he put two paintballs into my back. I fell to the grass and screamed like a ten-year-old boy would. He made me promise not to tell mom or dad — in exchange to play his Playstation as long as I wanted.
When I got to school the next day, I showed all my friend the welts on my back. Proud of my pain.
My brother was well known in our small community of 1200 people. He played wide receiver on the football team and got all-conference honors his junior year. Girls liked him. Teachers didn’t. His senior year he got kicked off the team for smoking dope behind the buses with a buddy during school. My parents weren’t happy, and his life hit a rough patch.
After graduation he worked at the local grocery store, bagging groceries. He would come home late, well after his shift, and I’d awake on mornings for school to my mom yelling at him, as he lay in bed, half asleep. If I could had been as cool as my brother — as cool as everyone thought he was, I would have had a better time growing up. But the older I got, the smarter I got, the less respect I had for him.
My brother hit bottom after he got in a car accident and ruined the family van. The police report said he had fallen asleep at an intersection just north of our town. He was high on something; I could see it in his glassy eyes as he sat there at the dining room table — mom standing with her arms crossed and dad sitting in silence.
They told him that he needed to move out. It was the last straw, my father exclaimed to my mother over dinner. Instead, they made a deal, and he joined the Army. He went to Georgia for his basic training and came back ten pounds heavier and stronger. My parents were proud and as my brother’s drill sergeant presented him with his emblem of completion — I saw my dad cry for the first time.
He returned home, awaiting his orders. And then on a Tuesday morning in September, two planes crashed into the twin towers. America went to war a few months later. And then to Iraq a year after that. The news of my brother’s deployment soon followed.
My dad dug a hole and put a pole into the ground. My mom went to the store and bought a flag.
The day he left, we had a grill-out. Family from all over the state came to say their goodbyes and give him their luck. The next morning, he peeked his head into my room as I slept.
“I’m out of here, man.”
I woke up and waved and smiled. “Take care of yourself,” I said. My brother gave me a thumbs up. His hair buzzed. His chest out. His shoulders broad.
And then he shut the door and was gone.
Twelve years since he left, and six months after we received that telephone call, I was in last semester of college. Summer was upon us all. I packed a bag, locked my apartment and headed back to my hometown. It had been awhile since I saw my parents — since Christmas. We often talked on the phone. They spent the last few months traveling, living off their pension, touring the southernmost states.
My home was only two hours away, and my father promised a grill out where their neighbors would join us — a younger couple with twin daughters. None of them who I had ever met.
It was all in celebration of Memorial Day.
I arrived on Sunday night. I let myself in with the key under the fake rock in the garden of petunias and hostas. Both my dad and mother were asleep. I came into the den, and the futon was laid out, with sheets ready for me. My mother’s handy work.
My upstairs bedroom, where I slept for eighteen years had been turned into a place for my mom to make homemade stamps. My brother’s bedroom remained mostly the same since his departure and death. There were boxes around his bed and dresser — storage mostly. They acted as a cover for his presence that was still very much felt in the house. I never questioned why my mother chose to use my room instead of his. I understood. I had moved away. My brother had passed away. This place was still very much his home. My home had changed.
That night, I fell asleep next to my mom’s seventeen-year-old cat my dad had gotten her instead of having a third child. His meow as rough as his fur — greased and matted. He cried for food like a baby and walked like a fawn as if his bones were going to break with each step. Watching him sleep, put me at ease. I fell asleep and awoke to the sounds of a vacuum the next morning.
I came out into the living room to my mother. She turned off the machine and gave me hug. Asked about my drive. Asked about my semester. She poured me coffee and started to make eggs. I went to the sliding glass back door that overlooked our ten acres of woods and marsh — dad was out there, smoking a cigar, and filling bird feeders.
I sat at the table and mom pushed some scrambled eggs onto my plate. Dad came in complaining about the raccoons. He poured the last of the coffee from the maker and pulled out New York strips from the freezer. He bragged about the deal he got and placed them on the counter to thaw.
My mother wrapped the cord to the vacuum and placed it into the closet.
“You’re coming to the parade, aren’t you?” she asked.
“The parade? What parade?” I asked.
The town was planning something different this year for Memorial Day — a parade with boy scouts, the high school band, the firefighters, and their volunteers. They would start at the post office and walk two miles to the graveyard, where tiny American flags, stuck in the ground, each representing an American soldier who was lost in battle. It was where my brother was buried.
He was buried next to my grandparents on my mother’s side — it was our family’s graveyard plot. Sometimes I felt like I wasn’t deserving to be buried next to my brother, a fallen hero, and my grandfather, a Korean War Vet who worked well into his 60s to support six children.
“Okay. Sure,” I said. “I’ll go.”
“Well, we’re leaving in fifteen minutes,” she added. I nodded and took an extra big drink of my coffee.
We parked in the middle of town. The sun was out and scorching the street. Townies found places in the shade with their lawn chairs. Little kids held grocery bags awaiting the toss of candy. The band led the way. Their march moved swiftly down Main Street.
The town I had grown up in hadn’t changed much. The corner still had the variety store. The bar’s sign still hung, just barely, from rusted chains. The bakery was still closed and for sale. The only difference was the faces — men had turned old. Women had gained weight. And then, there was a new generation, ones I didn’t know, young and ready.
The fire trucks followed the band. The firefighters tossed candy and kids scurried around. A woman on a great brown horse waved with a big grin. The Methodist church with its followers with no smiles, walked in two single file lines — a quote from the Book on a sign.
My mother rose from her spot on the grass and started off. My father followed. I watched them go for a moment, knowing where they were headed — to the graveyard, to the memorial, the spot where the mayor would give a speech and order a gun salute for the fallen.
Our pace was quick. The rest of the town followed as the parade’s caboose of classic cars marked the end of the show.
The graveyard had a single microphone out front. An American flag on each side. I took a sweeping look across the graves and saw all the tiny flags in the ground. Many men, many young, all of them dead.
My parents found a good spot and the town crowded around. I trailed off, up the gravel drive to a tree under the shade. I slid down and rested there. I looked around.
Five men behind the trees held rifles. They were in military attire. Decorated from where I could see. Four of the men, well into their seventies, veterans of the Vietnam, and the Korean wars, I assumed. Then there was a middle-aged man, the youngest vet of the bunch. He looked to be in his early 40s and most likely had served in the Gulf or possibly the latest, Iraq war.
The Mayor approached the microphone and gave a muffled speech about the fallen. About the sacrifices of soldiers.
I turned and looked back to the corner of the yard where I knew my brother lay buried. I thought about going over there and looking his gravestone over. I hesitated.
The Mayor announced the gun salute. The veterans behind the trees stepped out so the crowd could see them. One yelled a command and their rifles reached into the air.
They fired. It rang.
They pulled their rifles down, grabbing at the bolt lever action, and then aiming back into the air. But one man struggled — the one at the end. The youngest vet. A command was yelled, and the guns fired. The youngest vet pointed his gun into the air, now late, and behind one shot. The others reloaded, cocking their hammers.
He followed their movement. Pulling at his bolt action. Again struggling. His gun jammed by his panic. The others lifted their rifles into the air and fired their last round. The youngest vet had failed to fire again. He awkwardly placed his rifle to his side like the rest. The three-volley, honorable 15 gun salute, had become a 13 gun salute.
The crowd applauded anyways. No one said anything. No one corrected the mistake. The crowd dispersed and went on their way — back to their homes, to grill steak with the neighbor family and their twin daughters.
I write fiction.