Source: unsplash (Jacob Valerio)

Louisiana, 2015

The neighborhood was silent on the evening the Colonel came to visit. It was spring time, but the overcast clouds and the cold wind made it feel as though winter had never truly left. Silhouettes moved solemnly across the lights that shone through the windows of warm living rooms. Families sat around dining tables hidden behind drawn drapes, eating home-made meals and stilted conversation. Dented toy cars, unraveling jump ropes, and other rain damaged and ill-treated reminders of childhood remained forgotten in small, overgrown front lawns. The old rocking chair with the faded blue and flowered seat cushions that lived on the porch at the end of the block, the perpetually-filled post of the neighborhood lookout in the person of an elderly woman, was empty.

This was the sight that met Colonel Solomon Kramer’s war-heavy eyes as he parked his army-issued black Volkswagen Jetta along the curb of Drowens Street. A growing uneasiness ran up his spine as he stepped out of the car. He stood tall in his black suit that proudly displayed badges of bravery across his heart, yet here, the medals held no honor. Instead, he felt strangely, but wholly, unwelcome. Even the soft, chilling breeze that teased the small, dark brown curls at the nape of his neck didn’t seem to want him there. It was a familiar feeling, too much like another time in the evening, another place where silence reigned. It was a time when he carried a large pack on his back, a helmet on his head, and an M16 assault rifle in his hands. No one wanted him there, either. “And yet, we still keep coming back,” Kramer muttered to himself. Returning to the present, he pursed his thick lips together in a tight line and stubbornly pulled down on the hem of his crisply pressed uniform, steeling himself for what was to come.

Placing his keys in his pants pocket, he pressed a calloused finger against the lock button. A light-hearted beep followed him across the empty street to the door of 354 Drowens Street, the home of Lieutenant Thomas Foley. It was a shotgun house, much like its neighbors, with a small front yard, a matching backyard, and a single floor that housed enough room to make do. After taking three steps in one to stand on the faded front porch, Kramer sighed, and his round shaven face became emotionless.

He reached a large, light brown hand into his interior coat pocket, pulling out a letter with the army’s insignia stamped to the front. Inside the envelope was a letter of ego-inflating, yet considerately worded summons. Due to the renewed efforts in the War on Terror, the army passed a Veteran Recall. It was a voluntary effort, trying to call back the high ranking officers of old back into the field; with no official obligation, of course. The army wasn’t powerful enough for that. But they were desperate; evidently there wasn’t enough time to train new officers. Kramer had found the idea ironically depressing. Yet, he had volunteered to be the one to deliver the letter, thinking, or rather hoping, that his old Lieutenant wouldn’t say no to him.

He hadn’t seen Lieutenant Foley in years — not since the invasion of Karbala back in ’02. And then it was when the lieutenant had been flown away in a chopper, with most of his left side blown off by a short-range grenade. Kramer winced, took in a breath, and then exhaled, moving the memory back to the big black box of nightmares where it belonged.

He looked down at the letter again, then quickly slipped it back into his coat pocket. He had a job to do, and as he had been doing for the past fourteen years in the armed services, he would get the job done. He knocked on the front door. For a few moments he stood at attention, then shifted to stand at ease in wait.

The door was red, as an accent color to an otherwise beige-and-white trim house, and had a curved window near the top. There was an old wooden bench on the porch to his left, though none of the same tell-tale signs of children that were strewn across the porch of the neighbor’s house. A mailbox that struggled to keep in several magazines hung on the wall to the left of the door. On the floor in front of the Colonel’s feet was a welcome mat, though instead of welcome it informed its visitors, “Here Resides a Man with a Gun.”

He chuckled at the sight, but the smile that pulled back Colonel Kramer’s middle-aged features suddenly vanished when laughter sounded from inside the house. He recognized the deep, resonant sound from a time long ago, and braced himself as it moved closer to the door. A buzz-cut head of dark grey appeared up high in the door window. Kramer held his breath, saying nothing when Thomas opened the door. Instead, he sadly watched his old friend’s bristled, tanned features slowly lose their jovial laughter and fall to a grim, hopeless frown.

For a moment, neither man spoke, as though allowing what could not be said — the memories of training, the nightmares of war, the lives they left behind, and the expectation of what was to come — be heard first.

Obligation forced Kramer to break the silence. “Good evening, Lieutenant Foley.” His voice was too loud; his words were hollow. A microsecond of surprise flitted across Thomas’ face, before a small grin lit up his rough features.

“Well, well, well, here’s a face I didn’t think I’d ever see again.” Kramer couldn’t tell whether Thomas’ southern-tinted drawl sounded more surprised or disappointed. His bright blue eyes glanced to the badges that decorated Kramer’s uniform. “You’ve certainly grown up from the private I trained all those years ago; even got yourself promoted like you always wanted. Colonel now?” A beat, then a shrug, as though Thomas didn’t consider much of Kramer surpassing his rank. “I’d say congratulations, but you probably understand that I’m none too happy to see you here.”

“That’s fine, I never planned to stay long.”

“Oh yeah? Then why come in the first place?” Thomas crossed his arms over his broad chest and leaned across the door frame. Kramer was startled to see Thomas’ left arm as it came out from the shadows, revealing its shriveled, discolored skin that was covered in scars. “Thought you’d be the perfect one to break the news to me?”

Kramer quickly covered his reaction and looked his old friend in the eye. “Look, Lieuten-“

“Tom! My name is Tom Foley! If you’re gonna be here you’re gonna call me Tom fuckin’ Foley, damnit!” Thomas sighed, looking down to his faded jeans as he muttered. “Nobody’s called me Lieutenant in years.”

A woman’s voice called from inside the house, “Tom? What’s goin’ on out there?”

Thomas visibly winced and called back, “Nothin’ to worry about, Marge! I’ll be back in a sec!” Hastily he stepped out onto the porch with Kramer and closed the door behind him.

Kramer couldn’t help but grin and raise an eyebrow. “Marge?”

Thomas grinned right back with a slight shrug. “What can I say? The ladies love old war heroes.” He glanced over to the wooden bench and motioned to it. “Take a seat, Kramer. I wanna tell you something.”

Kramer walked over to the bench, pulling his pants up a tad before resting back into it. It felt as though it had been worn down, sat in for hours on days such as this.

“Do you know what was the worst day of my life, Kramer?” Thomas began, as he moved to lean on the porch railing to face Kramer. “The day when our unit was ambushed on our march back to base from that raid in Karbala. And it wasn’t ’cause my left side got blown off, either. It was ’cause of that ride back to safety in a chopper, while my boys were left behind to pick up the pieces.” Kramer clasped his hands together and leaned his elbows on his thighs. He let Thomas keep talking, but it was hard to keep the nightmares away.

“When we were flying, I might’ve been bleeding to death and my entire side was on fire, but they told me that I was gonna be okay. There was no one there to tell me whether my boys would be okay. I then saw I had a choice: I could either die with my men, or start a new life. And at first, life sounded like hell. How could it be anything else? I had just led my patrol right into a trap, just so that I could prance away like nothing happened? I had abandoned my men-!” Thomas stopped, and his eyes dropped as he ran a hand over his thinning hair. Kramer looked up to see his weary Lieutenant, and understood that even so far from the front line, Thomas had continued fighting.

“After eight years of trying but failing to die,” Thomas continued with a small, ironic smile, “I finally got a new life. I finally learned what it was like to live without being haunted by death. I was able to put that failure behind me. In fact, I was just telling Marge that I was safe from the recall. They wouldn’t ask me to come back just to let a bunch more young men die. And now, of all people to call me back to the front,” Thomas gestured, a pained smile across his face, “one of the boys I abandoned back in ’02. And not just any of them, one of the dynamic duo that got into their big-ass heads that they would be runnin’ the place soon.” Thomas chuckled and shook his head, seemingly unaware of Kramer’s pained expression. “Whatever happened to that city slicker anyhow? What was his name, Delacruz?”

“He got shot,” Kramer said quickly in a monotone. “Few minutes after you were flown out. One last sniper in the bushes we didn’t see. He shot him right back, of course,” Kramer added with a grin, seeing once again the enraged face of his first friend in the army. “Bruno was pissed that he would get killed so early in the game. Kept walking and swearing until he just fell down dead.”

Thomas was listening with his head held down. When Kramer finished, he looked up, then suddenly slammed his fist into the railing next to him.

“You see?! Bruno? Of all the idiots to get hit with a sniper bullet. And you want me to go back into that? You, of all people, want me to lead another group of boys that I’ll leave behind? What were you thinking?” Thomas put his hands in front of him, one healthy, one dead, begging Kramer to understand. “I can’t, Kramer. I can’t.”

Kramer looked up to his Lieutenant, placing his anger to the side and he sighed while standing from the bench. “What you don’t know, is that when you got flown off, the rest of us kept quoting you like you were still there. ‘Keep your feet up, you idiot.’ ‘Just shut up and watch my ass.’ ‘Move men, move before I make ladies out of you all.’ Karen always liked that one.” Thomas chuckled despite himself. Kramer grinned sideways as he crossed his arms over his chest. “It was the only way to make the war seem like there was any purpose in it anymore.

“Everything I am as a soldier today is because of what you taught me. All I thought…” Kramer sighed, then stood from the bench to meet Thomas’ eyes. “I thought you were dead. Until I saw your name on that list, I thought those Iraqi sons of bitches took both my best friends in the same run. So stop fucking whining about what you did or didn’t do. If you can’t, fine, but let it be because you have something to lose. The boys will be there and they will fight and they will die with or without your help.” Kramer reached into his pocket and pulled out the envelope, holding it out before him. “We’re just asking if you’d be there for them, Lieutenant.”

Tom looked down at the envelope, then looked back up at Kramer.

“Tom, are you comin’ in for supper?” The door opened behind Kramer and a rather tall, willowy woman wearing jeans and a loose, white blouse stepped onto the porch. There was a steaming bowl at her hip and confusion along her long, pale features. Her blue eyes grew wide as she looked between the two soldiers, then her gaze finally rested on Thomas.

After a moment, Thomas looked over to her and said. “Margaret, please set an extra plate at the table.” He then glanced back to Kramer, a whisper of a smile tugging on his thin lips. “Solomon is joining us for dinner.”

— –

Illinois, 2001

It was summertime when the boys came home again, the same stifling, merciless summer that always greeted them from their lives away from home. Last summer, the five of them came to Bruno’s small apartment to swap tales of college and jobs, girls and friends. Chris, the tall, black, charismatic wing man regaled his friends with his endless trove of stories and adventures at Columbia College, always sure to tattle on small Phillip and the mishaps that always seemed to happen to their “silent but deadly” Asian friend. Jon, the chill one, who had spent half of his high school career high and the other half of it absent, had surprised them all by getting into and going to Berklee School of Music. He insisted again and again that it was the massive, bright red crown of hair that got him into college, and subsequently with all the “hot-ass college ladies.” They decided to believe him. Matt stuck true to his sunny nature and decided to attend college at Cal Poly, and enjoyed teasing his friends that this summer was how it was “all year round down in SoCal.” And Bruno, the host, would remind his friends of what they had left behind, while being content with his job down at the car shop that he had gotten after a year of training.

This summer, they came to Bruno’s kitchen to say goodbye. The five young men assembled around the kitchen table in Bruno’s apartment, stocked with the old favorites: Red Bull, Bud Light (which, thanks to Jon, they were now able to buy themselves), a cheap joint, and the meat lover’s pizza from Maya’s, the tacky pizza parlor down the street. But as the evening wore on, they were no longer able to keep up with the boyish, ignorant conversation that they had planned to fuel them for the entire night. There was a TV sitting on the kitchen counter behind them, and it had been on for the sake of the game and dead noise. But Jon had stood shortly into the silence and crossed the kitchen to mute it a few minutes ago. “Fucking annoying,” he had said with a short laugh as he sat back down in his chair. Flashing images continued to disturb the growing darkness without a sound. No one asked him to turn it off.

The joint that was going around had stopped in Phillip’s hand. He twisted it between his long fingers and watched the smoke rise, his thin eyes hidden behind a sheet of dark black hair. Though his thoughts were elsewhere, he found the smoke mesmerizing to watch; it seemed to him ironically peaceful, even graceful. He was going to pass it on to Chris, but something stopped him. He didn’t want to let go of it just yet. He had this uneasy feeling that if he let it go now, it would never come back to him.

Luckily, Chris never asked for it. He was looking out of the apartment window, twelve stories about the busy Chicago streets below, and watched the waspy, summer clouds pass by a quickly darkening sky. He ran his rough fingers over the stubble that covered his dark face, trying to parse through the maze of dark thoughts that entered his mind. He usually was the one who always had the words to say whatever was on his mind, but he frowned as he struggled with the memories that kept flooding back, and the goodbye he would have to eventually tell his best friend. He didn’t have the words to say that yet.

An argument started heating up in the apartment overhead, and the noise distracted Chris long enough to meet Bruno’s mischievous gaze across the table. They grinned at each other, remembering the last time they had been here and the couple had fought for hours. They had turned it into a drinking game: every time something broke, a door slammed, the woman started hysterically bawling or the man swore to leave her, you take a shot. Suffice it to say that they were hammered by the time the man finally walked out. They chuckled silently at the memory.

Something crashed overhead. Bruno picked up his beer and took a swig. Chris looked back out of the window.

Matt was the one to break the silence, as he was too cheery to really get lost in his own thoughts. A large smile appeared on his round, freckled cheeks. “Alright, Jon, I give. What’s funny?” The others all glanced to Jon, who was sitting across the table from Matt. He was leaning back in his chair, and had a pale hand covering his thin lips and sharp cheekbones. It was only the subtle shaking of his sharp shoulders that indicated the rare event that he had found anything humorous.

Now caught, Jon chuckled audibly and allowed his hand to fall from his face, revealing a wide grin. He looked at his old friends around the table as he said, “Well fuck, guys. I can’t be the only one who was surprised to hear that Bruno ‘Dela-Pussy’ was the one of all of us to decide to join the army.”

Bruno’s eyes narrowed. “You’re seriously gonna bring that up again? That was almost seven years ago!”

“First impressions are always the most important,” Chris put in with a sideways smile as he looked away from the window. “Guess you figured you could only get away from it by flying all the way to some shit hole in Iraq.”

Phillip giggled, taking another hit from the joint before putting his hand back in his lap. No one ask for it from him.

“’Dela-Pussy’? When did this happen?”

“Oh, forgive me, Matthias,” Jon said dramatically as he placed his hands behind his massive amber curls, “I didn’t realize I was talking out of context. This happened way before we found you sitting all by your pathetic transfer-self next to the dumpster during junior year.”

“You mean back in freshman year when you thought cornrows looked good on a white kid, eh, Carrot Top?” Bruno sneered, effectively souring Jon’s mood.

“It’s quite a tale, really,” Chris muttered into a closed fist as he picked up where Jon left off, his dark eyes shining even from the dim light outside the window. “You know, I can’t believe it hasn’t come up since then.”

“It hasn’t ’cause you know better than to talk about that kind of shit,” Bruno said as he sat forward in his chair.

Jon’s blue eyes went soap-opera wide as he looked across Phillip to Chris. “Was that a threat?”

“From Señor Pussy? C’mon, Jon, he couldn’t even go through with dumping silly string on Principal Lagen’s car!”

“The man was coming! He was gonna fuckin’ bust me!”

“For carrying a can of silly string? And it wasn’t even him! It was just the janitor walking by,” Chris explained to Matt as he stood from his chair. “Man, you shoulda seen that boy run. I’m sure if he wasn’t scared shitless he woulda screamed like a girl.” Chris’ eyes rolled back in his head as he pranced around the table, mimicking poor Bruno before he became the hot-head they knew him to be today. “Ay, ay, ay! He gon’ tell mi abuela on me!” They all laughed, and Chris quickly ducked, just barely dodging an empty beer can that came flying by his head.

“Uh oh, friendly fire!” Matt laughed as Chris looked at Bruno with dramatically offended eyes.

Bruno grinned slightly, relenting to the humor of the moment. “You guys just can’t get over the fact that I have a little sense of self-preservation.”

“See, Matt? This is exactly what I was saying!” Jon laughed. “Of all of us, it’s Mr. ‘Self-Preservation’ that wants to shoot some Iraqi sonuvabitch.”

“Isn’t it self-preservation that keeps you alive?” Phillip asked. But no one heard his whisper over the sound of their own laughter.

“Geez, I really missed a lot coming in, didn’t I?” Matt sighed loudly as he wiped away tears that had streamed from his large eyes. “I shoulda just went straight to public school when I had the chance.”

“Nah,” Bruno said with a grin, “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t have had the inside scoop on Count James High. And them was some good times.”

“Which reminds me.” Chris supported himself on the back of his chair to reach into his deep back pocket, and quickly slid what he found across the table.

Bruno smiled as he picked up a large, blue, plastic letter O, the same one that had been removed three years ago from the sign at the front of Count James High.

“I found it when I was looking around my old stuff earlier this summer,” Chris explained as he watched Bruno turn the letter over in his hands. “Funny what you forget after a couple years in college.”

“For those of us in college.”

Jon chuckled, this time with a sincere smile across his face. “Whatever, man. Think of it as a reminder of the good old days when you find yourself in some god-forsaken bunker.”

“Right… thanks.” Bruno shook his head, and his smile slowly disappeared. “Just don’t expect me to write a bunch of sentimental letters to you guys or anything. I might be a little busy.”

“Too busy shootin’ shit?” Chris asked as he leaned back in his chair. His dark brown eyes were on his friend, questioning. Bruno met his gaze, but then looked down and shrugged as he put the letter down on the table.

“Sure, whatever,” he said, then took a large bite out of his slice of pizza.

They stopped talking. The silent movements on the TV filled the room. A door slammed upstairs. Chris reached over to his almost forgotten beer can and chugged.

Matt sighed and shook his head. “Man, you know, it was cool when you signed up, like, I was chill and whatever, but now you’re actually gonna go-“

“Yeah, but it’s still cool.” Bruno smiled and patted Matt’s shoulder. “It’s still cool.”

“But why?” Chris asked suddenly. “Why is it cool for you to enlist? What’s wrong with sticking around and chillin’, getting together with that chick you were talking to us about? Why is it so fuckin’ necessary to go over and fight people who never did nothin’ to you?”

“Easy for you to say,” Bruno retorted, his voice low. “The rest of you jackasses got out of here. You got something you wanna do with your lives. Well, what if I actually wanna fight some Iraqi sonsuvbitches and kill ’em for what they did to all of us?” His voice rose as he stood, staring Chris down. “What if I want to just get the hell out of here and make something of myself by protecting people? Huh? Is that cool enough for you, Chris?”

“Hey, Bruno.” Everyone looked at Phillip, the baby brother, who was slouching deeply in his chair, his head hanging low as he continued to watch the smoke rise easily from the wall-worn joint in his hand. He started to say something, then stopped; his voice got choked in his throat. After a moment, he slowly looked up, fresh tears leaving tracks down his sharp cheeks as he whispered, “Just don’t die. Don’t fucking die.”

I suppose I’ll write again.

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