I’m putting up a short story on my blog today. It’s not my own. It was written by my twenty-two year old son, Jesse. I know I’m biased, but I think it’s very good. I know he worked hard on it, and hard work is what it’s all about. I hope you’ll read it, and I think you will appreciate it, if you do.
The War, The Boy, The Battle
“Shhhhhh,” Milo whispered to the men hiding in the foliage behind him. His index finger touched his lips as he crouched up to his knees in mud. Without making a sound he motioned at the enemies walking slowly along the side of the mucky creek, oblivious to the danger laying just beyond their earshot. Turning to his troops, Milo signaled the men with his mud-covered hands. The enemy was so close now Milo could hear their conversation. Their language was unfamiliar to the camouflaged boys, yet they could understand what was said.
“I can’t believe you held his hand the whole time!” their battalion’s leader giggled. “What was it like?”
What an odd conversation to have in the middle of a war.
Brothers Richard and Devin Todd held back laughter as Devin stuck out his tongue and pointed into his mouth with a grimace on his face. The Todd brothers, only a year apart, were often mistaken for twins and were inseparable. Milo shot back a sharp glare and the two regained their bearings. Only fifteen more feet before they made their move. His breathing heavy, Milo motioned to his squad to ready their arms. Ten feet now, and the men were getting antsy. Crouching on the banks of the creek, Kenny, a wiry young man with mud smeared across his face, shifted his weight and the atomic boom of a twig snapping below him echoed across the wilderness. Milo’s troops froze. He silently begged the opposition had not heard the noise. But alas, the leader halted their progress, slowly looking around.
Please just let them keep moving. Milo’s mind raced. The enemy was only five paces away from the point of attack. Don’t panic, Milo tried to telepathically communicate to his men. Finally dismissing the noise, the enemy marched on. Milo raised a hand to his troops, counting down from five with his mud caked fingers. Five, four, three. . .
“Kowabungaaa!” Trash boyishly screamed as he jumped from behind their hiding spot hurling mud at the unsuspecting group of preteen girls. Caught off guard, the rest of the boys sprang from behind their cover, bellowing their own battle cries and raining down mud on the now panicked group of girls.
“GETTUM!” Devin and Ricky Todd shouted in unison as the group of girls ran their gangly, undeveloped bodies further down the creek after only a few failed attempts at retaliation.
“You throw like girls.” Milo muttered, catching his breath. “Trash! Dang it, where’s Trash?” Turning in the direction of the girls, Milo found Trash, kicking up mud in pursuit. Trash never was one for patience. In the distance they could hear the babes squeal and scream as Trash caught up to them.
Behind Milo, the two malnourished blurs now rolling in the mud and shouting about which one could throw further, were Devin and Ricky. The Todd boys had a rough upbringing, and the easiest way to tell them apart was the “birth mark” on the back of Devin’s neck, given to him with a curling iron by his mother for knocking over a trashcan while she was getting ready. They didn’t like to talk about it. Other than being together constantly, the Todd’s were known for their burnt orange hair and foul mouths.
All right, where the heck did Trash go?
His name wasn’t really Trash, but rather Travis Fisher. Up until the third grade a lisp and a mumbling problem caused him to mispronounce his own name. There is only so many times a goofy, freckled little boy with a mischievous grin can introduce himself as Travsh before the name sticks, and in Trash’s case it seemed to fit. Complete with a mop of unkempt Hershey’s brown hair and a tongue that was always wiggling out the side of his mouth, a young Trash could have easily been a character in a wholesome black and white sitcom. His appearance didn’t hurt him with the ladies either as it seemed girls in his class began noticing him at least a year before any of the other boys. Trash was the most athletic of them, always excelling in P.E. class. He could always do the most sit-ups and pull-ups, climb the rope the fastest, and every year he just barely beat Milo in the mile run.
Milo didn’t mind. He was comfortable with second place. At least he finished, unlike Ricky and Devin who, every year, seemed to wind up wrestling in the middle of the sidewalk.
Trash may have been the strongest, but Milo was the brains of their crew. When he was born, his eccentric parents named him Mileaux, using the French-Canadian spelling. It was spelled like that for approximately twenty minutes before his grandmother arrived at the hospital and nearly snapped her knitting needles after hearing the name.
“We are Italian!” she exclaimed, raising her hands above her head. The name was changed.
* * *
Milo walked in a daze down the cracked streets of the hometown he had escaped from. College hadn’t come fast enough, but now the warm July sun beat down on his black hair. Still, he hugged his jacket close and shivered. The weight of his friend’s death froze his bones to a degree even Nebraska heat and humidity couldn’t fight.
He wandered into the barbershop around two p.m. to grab a haircut. Joe the barber was telling the fat guy in the chair a raunchy joke. It would have normally made Milo smile.
“Be with you in a few minutes,” Joe peered at Milo over the top of his glasses.
Milo nodded. Whatever, he thought. It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.
He stared at the hair clippings scattered on the floor of the shop and wondered how many heads had contributed to the pile. He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. His friend would never sit in a barber chair again, and yet Milo’s life went on. Why?
“Next,” Joe called.
“See ya,” the fat guy hollered as he left, the bell on the door ringing. It all seemed so damn stupid. There they were joking and happy. How could they? Didn’t they know?
Milo dropped into the seat with a heavy sigh. “Buzz cut,” he said.
Joe turned the chair and faced him. “What? You never get a buzz cut. You want me to cut off all that purdy hair of yours?” Joe joked, but the scowl on Milo’s face made him go serious. “In tribute?” he asked.
Joe didn’t chatter anymore. There really wasn’t anything to say. Travis Fischer was gone. Put a bullet in his head and left this world behind. What words could make that better?
* * *
An hour later Milo was still wandering around the streets of the town. He had a beer in the tavern, bought some gum at the dollar store and wasted time walking up and down the aisles of the hardware store. He didn’t know what else to do. He wasn’t ready to go home and face his parents. They’d want to talk. He didn’t want to talk. He didn’t want to think…yet that’s all he was doing now. Thinking.
The sun was still high when he walked out onto the sidewalk. Harsh sunlight glinted off his friend Ricky’s black Ford pickup. Ricky saw him, pulled up in the parking space, and hung out his window.
“Hey. Whatrya doin cue ball?” His hair hung down into his eyes and it looked like he’d been drinking.
“Waiting for someone like you to find me.” Milo said and almost smiled knowing he’d have a beer in his hand soon.
* * *
“I wonder what ever happened to old Kenny,” Milo pondered aloud in between drags on a Camel Turkish Silver cigarette. Milo leaned up against the side of Ricky Todd’s pickup, took another puff and looked up, holding his arm in front of his eyes to block out the sun. “Have you heard from him at all?”
Before responding Ricky kicked at the small pile of Old Milwaukee cans beginning to accumulate by the rear tire of the beat up old Ford F250. “Sheeeeit, I don’t know where he’s at. Prolly built himself one of them survival shelters an’ is livin’ in it, always was a puss.”
Milo chuckled to himself. He barely came home these days because it just never felt natural, but if there was one thing that put him at ease it was the constant stream of obscenities a Todd could weave into any conversation. Now at the university, Milo hadn’t been home since Christmas, and if being in Brainard, Nebraska was dull in high school, it was a coma now. Just like then, they were parked in a pasture drinking crappy beer and bullshitting with each other. The only difference was at least then they had the excitement of being too young to drink. Now it was just sad.
“Do you remember 4-H camp, Ricky?”
Finishing a deep puff, “Yeah,” puff. “Those were the days. I remember us using armpit-fart-noise-charm on that group of little babes. And creek stomping!” He exclaimed pointing at Milo. “That was the year Devin broke my damn nose. Asshole.”
“How late does Devin work tonight?” Milo asked. Devin worked the night shift at Timpte, a semi trailer manufacturer in nearby David City, a town of less than 3,000, but a booming metropolis compared to Brainard.
“He gets off at five,” Ricky said, flicking his cigarette at the pile of empties. “But he’ll be at Immanuel in the morning.”
Trash’s funeral started at ten o’clock at the Immanuel Lutheran Church the following morning. Milo dreaded the following day like nothing he had ever experienced. The last few days had been a blur of tears and anger. Every atom in his being wanted to get into his Monte Carlo and drive away from this town. Maybe if he drove far enough fast enough it would all go away? Drive in the opposite direction than the Earth is spinning and turn back time. Superman did it, why can’t I?
Earlier that week, Trash parked his car on the side of the road and took his own life using his beloved Springfield 1911 pistol.
What could he have possibly been thinking? Or was he thinking? After all, that kind of was how Trash thought. Always acting before thinking. No situation was too heavy to ponder much about. He was perfect for the military. If you gave him an order he would do it. If there were something terrifying up ahead Trash would just keep walking to it with out over thinking it.
Milo knew Trash was going to be a marine. He’d said so since he was sixteen. It all made so much sense to him, he’d said. While other boys in the class planned to go to college, or take over the family farm, Trash practiced his shooting. On Saturday mornings when the rest of the crew slept in late, Trash was running the four-mile section his family lived on. In his eyes, it was his duty as a man and an American to join the military. Yet he never held it against anyone else for not doing the same.
“Remember when we went and saw that GI Joe movie and we all thought it was pretty cool, but Trash was obsessed? Kept talking about how he would be a super soldier,” Milo asked.
“Our own good ole’ Captain-fuckin-America!” Ricky saluted, reaching for another smoke.
Trash had signed up for the United States Marine Corp before the end of his junior year of high school. He didn’t even hesitate. On the day the Marine recruiter set up his booth outside of the cafeteria, Trash’s seat at the lunch table was vacant. Upon leaving the cafeteria Milo and the gang found him practicing his salute with the recruiter. Milo remembered seeing him salute and thinking it was as natural as any other movement Trash’s muscled body had ever made.
Six months ago Travis L. Fisher walked down the long incoming area at Eppley Airport in Omaha with his head held high. How could it not be? He was wearing his military gear and his welcome home crowd was clapping and whistling for him. Random strangers were shaking his hand and giving him thanks. His niece, barely able to walk when he left for Afghanistan ten months earlier, waddled up to his leg and latched on. He was a hero if Milo had ever seen one, and the GI Joe from the movie didn’t hold a candle to this man. After hugging his mother and picking up his niece, Trash turned to his three best friends. Milo stepped forward and extended his hand with a grin on his face, and without taking it Trash slowly set down his niece. Standing to attention, his face blank and serious, he had stared down Milo. There was something different about his eyes.
The old glisten they had was gone, and in its place was a deep sadness, full of burden.
Did I not write enough? Milo thought. The silence lasted more than a few moments before Devin broke it.
“Well, sheeeit . . . “ He said, and that was all it took. Trash’s face cracked and he flashed that same old mischievous smile. Jumping forward to hug Milo and letting out a mammoth fit of laughter. The Todd boys moved closer, jockeying for the next position in line to embrace what might as well have been their other brother.
* * *
“You okay man?” Ricky nudged him, bringing him out of his thoughts. “I asked you what time you were planning on getting to the funeral.”
“Nine,” Milo mumbled. Milo had been trapped in his mind a lot since hearing of Trash’s death. Each day seemed to blur into the next. If Milo wasn’t dreaming, he was daydreaming. He preferred it that way right now. He was desperately clinging to the hope that maybe he would wake up from this nightmare. “I’ll show up around nine, make sure they don’t need my help with anything. “
“Alright man, well I think I’m gonna head home and get some sleep.” Ricky sighed before tipping back the rest of his beer. “Are you alright? You good to drive?”
“I’ve been better.” Milo muttered before punting his last Old Milwaukee, still a third of the way full. With a wave to Ricky he climbed into his Monte Carlo and pulled out of the pasture, pointing his car down the gravel road toward his parent’s house. Again, the urge to drive away circled his mind like a vulture, waiting for him to give up. After a couple minutes Milo’s parent’s house appeared on the left side of the gravel road, and although he slowed down, he did not stop. Continuing to the next intersection Milo took another left and drove his thoughts in a four-mile loop around the section. Coming back up to his parents house again he did the same thing, this time not slowing down. One night haunted his memory.
* * *
Trash flew in to Omaha on a windy December 23rd. After initially spending some time with his family, it was the boys’ turn to take him out. Milo picked up Trash and the diesel-smelling Todd brothers and they headed to the bar. From the backseat, Devin pretended to scratch an imaginary turntable on Trash’s freshly buzzed hair. Trash chortled, but not much. Pulling up to the bar Milo was reminded just how small of a town Brainard was.
“What a dump. . . “ Ricky said.
“My kinda’ damn dump!” Devin exclaimed, knocking Ricky’s hat off and jabbing him in the ribs. Milo and Trash headed into the tavern with a burnt out sign and blue, tin siding.
“Sometimes you just have to let the children release their wiggles,” Milo joked, motioning to the Todd boys still wrestling in the back seat of his car.
“Send ‘em to Afghanistan . . .” Trash muttered. Milo waited for him to smile. It never came.
An hour later the beer was flowing and spirits seemed high as Trash told stories of his bunk mates over seas, and Ricky and Devin bellowed an impromptu performance of ‘Man! I Feel Like A Woman!” all the while, fighting over the curled up bill of Ricky’s hat which was being used as a makeshift microphone. As the Todd’s finished the song Milo and Trash moved over to the dusty pool table and started a game of eight ball. Milo watched as Trash broke, and noticed his shaking hands. “So what was it like over there?” he asked.
Trash shrugged off the question before quietly stating, “not like G.I. Joe. . . “ Milo took his shot, distracted, and knocked in the cue ball. He was about to pursue the question when Devin and Ricky stumbled over with pool cue’s pretending to shoot at each other.
“Pew, Pew!” Devin shouted, “Show us how its done Private Fisher!”
Trash’s face lowered to the floor before shaking his head and excusing himself to the bathroom.
“Seriously?” Milo chided, following Trash. The Todd brothers exchanged a defeated glance and shrugged.
Knocking on the door of the bathroom Milo waited for a response from inside. When it didn’t come he went in anyway. Trash stood at the sink with his combat calloused hands gripping the sides of the dirty porcelain. Milo thought he was crying, but looking in the mirror he saw no tears, just a vast expanse of pain. “You good dude?”
Through a clenched jaw Trash growled, “yeah, I’m alright, just forget it.” It appeared even he felt his tone was unnecessary. “Sorry man, I’m good.”
“Well . . . if you need to talk I’m here.”
He didn’t. They should have.
* * *
As the summer thunderheads opened up above him, Milo’s cheeks matched the rain-streaked windshield. He put in a CD full of youth defining crummy punk rock. I’m Money by Zebrahead came alive in the Monte’s speakers and every time he drove by his parent’s house he would go a little faster, the last time he looked down at the neon blue clock on his stereo it was four in the morning. It was finally time to go home.
* * *
A ray of sunlight pierced through the blinds of his childhood bedroom, blasting Milo’s eyelids. Jolting upright Milo took a moment to steady his head and let his vision clear. Instantly the weight of depression was upon him as he realized what day it was, and he slumped back down to his pillow. Turning on his side his eyes focused on his alarm clock. 10:04.
“What!” Milo yelped, flinging the blankets off. “How could I not wake up for this?” As quick as possible Milo threw on his suit and tie. He jammed his feet into his dress shoes. Shouldering the weight of it all, he burst from the front door, reaching his car before the white, paint chipped screen door could bang shut. For a brief moment, he was in too much of a hurry to realize his sorrow. Backing out of the driveway and stomping on the accelerator, Milo couldn’t help but cry.
“I’m so sorry Trash,” he coughed as his speedometer reached one hundred miles per hour. Trash was never late. Always early.
The cars lined the side of the gravel road nearly a half-mile from the church and Milo realized this was where he would have to park. No. He didn’t care. He was supposed to give a eulogy for his best friend and he could not take the time to walk. Skidding to a stop in the street directly in front of the church doors, Milo ripped his keys from the ignition.
Attempting to dry his eyes, he marched up the steps. He was not ready for this, and that weight he had began to know so well , pulled his mind anywhere but inside the church. Grabbing the handles Milo swung open the doors leading into the little sanctuary. He was not ready for this, at all. A choir sung in the balcony above him and not a seat was open. Stunned, Milo looked from face to face as the funeral goers turned to see who had arrived late. Looking straight ahead to the front of the church, Milo saw the casket, closed and blanketed by an American flag. His knees began to shake as he tried to steady himself on the doorframe at the back of the sanctuary. He had nothing left. He was again sobbing as from somewhere nearby the Todd boys put his arms around their necks and together they walked down the aisle. There wasn’t an eye in the church that wasn’t on him now, including the preacher’s. Milo was making a scene, but he didn’t care. Did no one else realize how devastating this was?
When the Todd’s finally had helped him to his seat near the front of the church the preacher came down from the altar and stopped them.
“Would you like to say a few words about Travis, Milo?” he asked.
Are you kidding me? Milo thought as he found what little bit of composure he had left. Dragging himself to the front of the church Milo leaned against the podium. Turning around, he looked at the casket for a few moments before addressing the audience.
“So a fish is swimming along in a big lake and he runs into a wall . . . ‘Dam!’“ No one laughed. Pointing at the casket, no longer able to look at the people before him he croaked, “Tra-, Trash loved that one. It always made him laugh. He was my best friend. And this wasn’t supposed to happen.”
These words were all he could manage. Beginning to cry again Milo shook his head and stumbled to his seat. No one seemed to mind his short eulogy. He didn’t care.
After the burial, as people meandered through the tombstones on their way back to their cars, Milo walked alone. As he passed by each stone he let his hand drag across the tops of the marble, some smooth, some old and weathered. The hair on the back of his neck still stood on end from the 21-gun salute moments ago.
The rain from the night before had created puddles all around the cemetery and the air was now cool and crisp. Drying his eyes successfully for the first time since waking up, Milo leaned up against a tall old white marble statue memorializing fallen veterans. The inscription on the front read, ‘And we will fall, so you may rise.’ Milo crouched down in the grass in front of the marble and picked up a small handful of moist dirt. Packing it in his hands the dirt hardened. Milo looked up across the expanse of tombstones and a familiar scene caught his eye. A little boy with shaggy brown hair chased after his sister attempting to splash her by jumping in puddles. She squealed in her attempted escape.