Brothers in Arms

Quick list of what I have after the war:

One skull (fractured)

Two arms (still gangly)

One leg (four toes)

Two medals (shiny)

“But why don’t you want people to see them?” My sister’s eyebrows are pinched together as she watches me take the shadow box off the kitchen wall. Her poorly-painted fingernails twirl and yank on the loose threads in our tablecloth. “They’re cool.”

The kitchen is smaller than I remember. I’m still getting used to maneuvering tight corners with my cane. “They’re for killing people, kid.”

She shrugs. “Killing people is cool.”

My mom and I have been playing passive-aggressive chicken about this for the past two weeks. She keeps putting the box on the wall – You don’t hide this under a bushel basket, Jud – I keep taking it down – That’s got to be an egregious misreading of the Bible – and we’ll go in circles like this – What’s egregious? What are you saying?  Nothing. Forget it – until one of us has the pleasure of killing over.

This is what my therapist calls deflecting. Apparently, I’m very good at redirecting conversations when I don’t like where they’re going, and apparently I should not consider this a skill.

My sister has still got that pinched look on her face. “I have show-and-tell tomorrow. Can people see the medals then? Or are you still gonna be weird about it?”

“How ‘bout I go to your school in person? I can show them my leg.”

“That would be awesome.”

“That would not be awesome.” My mother, who’s Spiritual gift must be shitty timing, steps into the kitchen then. Heels clicking, skirt swishing, Sunday perfume slapping us in the face.

“But I’ve got so many amputee jokes to try out,” I say. “Like, ‘why did the cripple cross the road?’”

My sister smiles. “Why?”

Margaret,” Mom says, “finish eating. It’s already a quarter to nine.” If my mother notices the empty wall – and knowing her, she does – it doesn’t show. “I’m assuming the pajamas mean you aren’t coming to church with us?”

I shrug. “I’ll go next week.”

“You won’t,” she says, coming up. I lean down so she can peck me on the cheek. “It’s fine. I won’t force you.”

What?” Mag knocks her chair back from the table as she goes to dump her bowl in the sink. “How come I get forced?”

Hush.” There’s a bit of hustling as Mom snatches her purse off our woodblock countertops and cleans up my little sister’s face, swiping her thumb over the stubborn jelly stains on Mag’s cheek. “Oh, Jan called,” Mom says, with calculated nonchalance.

I grab a bowl from the cabinet. “Oh yeah?”

“She just wanted to make sure you were okay. I guess Sid was asking.”

“Well -” I think I can blame all of my passive aggressive tendencies on my mother – “that was nice of her.”

My mother hums.

Sid, Jan’s younger brother, lives ten houses down from us, in our small mining town with one good road. And somehow, hundreds of miles across a big ass ocean, I ended up sleeping ten men down from him in a big hole in the ground. We weren’t friends before the war, but during it we were… close. I didn’t mind him being like he was, and we had hometown pride in common when all else failed.

Actually, we had a lot more in common than either of us knew.

“I’ll call Jan back,” I lie.

She gives me a long look. “And Sid?”

Sid is a touchy subject. He came home with dishonorable discharge practically tattooed on his forehead, and once rumor got around about why

I push a smile onto my face. “Sure.” My voice comes out thinner than I mean it to.

Mom doesn’t acknowledge the shift in tone, just checks her makeup in the hall mirror and ushers Margret out the door, Bible pinned between the bend of her arm and her ribcage. Which leaves me alone, in a childhood house that I seem to have outgrown – a house that seems to be impossibly the same despite everything in my life being halved and torn and inside out. The blinds are open, the air smells like breakfast, my dog snores in the living room. It’s peaceful enough to make me sick.

 

Fourth of July begins with me vomiting at the smell of barbequed flesh heavy in the air.

Fourth of July ends with me and the dog huddled in the bathroom, taking deep breaths as fireworks shatter against the sky.

 

“Thank you for your service,” they say, eyes shining, voices lowered with a strange, cultish reverence. The words dig in between my ribs, sharp and twinging, like shrapnel.

“I was drafted,” I want to say.

“I wasn’t fighting for any of you,” I want to say. “I can’t stand any of you, and you can’t stand me either. I’m not less of an asshole just because there’s less of me.”

“It was my honor,” I say instead. They put their hands on my shoulders and it burns.

I didn’t lose my leg for something as high minded as God or Country. I lost it because I was selfish and stubborn. I looked at my friends and decided I wasn’t ready for them to die – that the universe wasn’t allowed to fuck us over any more than it already had. When I saw that grenade, I wasn’t brave or patriotic. I was angry.

I am angry.

 

Back during the war, after a long day of climbing up ropes and digging holes, and all the boring stuff movies have to skip over, Sid had needed help with his medicine. He’d lost his gloves sometime that day – or, someone had stolen them – and his hands had the biggest blisters I’d ever seen.

“You ever…” Sid’s voice was quiet. Fragile almost. Pitched for my ears only. He was sitting with his knees tucked up to his chest at the end of my bed as I put the oily medication on his hands. “You ever think about what’s going to happen after you die?”

I winced. Sid was watching me a little too closely. I could feel his eyes skittering over my face, taking in whatever he saw and turning it into little notes in that high-powered mind of his. ‘Grinding jaw,’ he probably thought, ‘furrowed brow, and refusal to make eye contact all indicating that Jud is nervous. Reason for nervousness is, as of yet, unknown.’

My thumb rubbed the circumference of the blister on his palm. “Why are you thinking about that?” I asked.

His head tilted a fraction. “Why aren’t you?”

Right. Fighting a war was supposed to turn every man into a philosopher. You were meant to be thinking deep things, about death and about whether the men you blew up in that bunker count on the list of good things or bad things you’ve done. But I’d made a point of avoiding that kind of stuff. I was never religious. Didn’t believe in anything before I went to war, didn’t see a reason to start believing during. I figured, if I got blown up in a hole, I probably deserved it. And if God damned me to hell? Well, I probably deserved that too.

But Sid was looking at me like I had answers. Like he needed answers.

“Okay, I’ll bite,” I said, forcing a limp smile to my face. “After I die… Mr. Jameson will probably carve out my headstone, since his family’s been marking the graves of mine for generations. Mom will put it out back, and I’ll be next to Grandpa, and Dad, and Royce… and every July she’ll put poppy flowers on my grave. I told her once those were my favorite, and she’s… she’s good at remembering stuff like that.”

Really, if I had died out there, there probably wouldn’t have been enough of me left to bury. Even if there was, the chances of my useless body being conveyed across the water were slim. I realized that.

And I didn’t answer his question. Not really. I realized that too.

But something quiet passed over his face. The line of his shoulder dropped a bit, and he nodded.

I nudged him. “What about you, Sid? What’s that brain of yours thinking?”

He swallowed, staring down at his hands with a pained expression, then his blue eyes jumped up to mine. “Those flowers in Alice and Wonderland,” he said. “The mean ones, with the faces? I think I want– if you make it back, tell Jan I’d like those. She’ll know what I mean.”

I couldn’t help it. I ruffled his hair ‘till he smiled. “Wonderland flowers. Alright then.”

But Sid made it back just fine. Well, he made it back alive with all his fingers and toes.  They sent him, and the other guy he’d been caught screwing, back home right before shit really hit the fan. That made him lucky, right?

Probably not. My therapist would say I’m rationalizing.

 

Ben’s been a friend of the family for a long time, usually coming and going through our house as he pleases, but now he stands awkwardly on our porch, fists deep in his pockets as he presses his lips together in a thin line. “I know about you,” is what he says.

I lean on the doorframe. “Sure you do. My name’s been in the papers a lot lately.”

“I mean, I know about…. You know.” His brown eyes look at me in earnest, like he’s begging me not to make him say it out loud.

The house is empty, and I’m not feeling very charitable, so I raise my eyebrows at him. “About?”

“Sid told me,” Ben says. “He didn’t mean to, actually, but. I mean, we started working together in the mines, and there’s a lot of time to talk, you know? And I put two and two together, eventually. When you didn’t write back, he was… sad?”

“Sad? Are you asking me?”

Ben scowls. “Look, man, I get it. It’s war’s best-kept secret, right? Shit happens. It doesn’t mean anything.” Ben runs nervous hands through his cropped, blonde hair. “But I think Sid thought it might have meant something. Or hoped it did? He’s had to deal with a lot since being back. It’s been… bad.”

“Bad,” I repeat, gritting my teeth. Part of my brain realizes this is unfair – that this nebulous emotion I refuse to stop and examine is not a good emotion to have, but I feel my lips pull into a sneer anyway. “Rumor has it you’ve been a ready shoulder to cry on. Can’t have been too bad for you.”

Ben flushes from his neck to his ears. “He needs to hear from you, man. Or he’s not going to move on. And you were his first, and… for people who care about that kind of stuff, that’s important. You took that from him. You could at least pretend to give a damn for a second.”

Took?” There’s an edge to my voice. “I didn’t take anything. What are you trying to accuse me of?”

Ben scoffs, crossing his arms. “I’m trying to accuse you of being a dick, man. You and he weren’t all that different, except he got discharged, and you got medals and came back a hero. And now his dad isn’t speaking to him, and his sister is barely home, and every time he tries to reach out to you, you shut him down. So he’s isolated, and depressed, and he says he can’t talk about it with me until he talks to you. And all of this begins with you in the first place, right? You and that stupid fight you guys had? Maybe he messed up a little bit and maybe he was careless, but that doesn’t let you off the hook. You’ve been asshole about this whole thing.”

I whistle. “Damn, Ben. That’s a lot of words. You’re kinda making me feel like I don’t have a leg to stand on here.”

Ben blinks at me, real slow, then screws up his face. “You’re fucked up, man. That’s fucked up.”

I sigh. “I’ll talk to him.”

Ben nods a few too many times. “Okay. Okay, make sure you do.”

Of course, I don’t talk to Sid.

This is called avoidance.

 

Eventually I make good on my promise to go to church with my mom. An evening function– potluck night at a Southern Baptist church. Between the big hats, the greasy teens, and the smell of mothballs stuck to all the old people, it feels necessary to volunteer myself to help set up outside, if only as a way to catch my breath.

Lacey Jenkins’ pale fingers pull on her necklace as she trails outside after me, the tinny sound of congregation smalltalk filtering off in the dead summer air. “You’re sure you want to help with the tent?” It’s obvious that she’s trying very hard not to stare at my missing leg. “I’ve already got some men on it, if you’d rather sit–”

“I’d rather not.” I try and smile at her.

By her grimace, it doesn’t land. “Well maybe you can do the lights, or something. They shouldn’t be too hard.”

She ushers me over to a massive pile of tangled string lights, and unfolds a lawn chair for me to sit in. “You can just work on these,” she says, “I’ll bring someone over to do the rest.”


And God definitely has a sense of humor, because who she brings over is Sid. He looks just as stunned to see me as I feel seeing him, and Lacey’s just homeschooled enough to miss the awkward tension as she directs Sid where to put up the lights.

Sid and I work in silence for a long time. He’s on a ladder, putting nails in the cheap tarp of the makeshift tent, and draping the lights around them. I’m bent over in my chair, pulling too hard on the wires, hoping they’ll untangle by sheer force of will.

Sid works with his gaze downcast. I can’t see his eyes through the shadow of his lashes, but his black brows are pinched together. Concentrating.

“I don’t need help, if you’d rather go back inside,” is what he says to break the quiet.

I shrug. “I’m fine. Being short a leg doesn’t stop my arms from working.”

“I wasn’t talking about that.”

My hands stop and I straighten up, looking at him directly. “What, then? Am I making you uncomfortable?”

Sid looks back, defiant. “That’s what I’m asking you.”

His eyes look more grey than blue, and his face is thinner than I remember – less baby-ish. I guess he looks healthy, not starved or depressed or broken, but something about the tension in his jaw makes him look… harder. Older. Like he’s the one, out of the two of us, who really went through a war.

A familiar smile starts to pull at his eyes, the one that never quite reaches his mouth, and I realize I’ve been holding his gaze for too long. I snatch more of the lights and focus on them, refusing to let my face burn.

There’s another few minutes of tense silence between us. I can practically hear the gears in Sid’s head turning.

He sucks in a breath. “Do you ever think about-”

“No,” I snap, hands still working at the wires. I can feel him watching me. His eyes always had a way of feeling heavy.

“Great,” he says. It’s a loaded word. Neither of us touch it with a ten-foot pole.

The lights go up without another sound from either of us. When we’re done, Sid puts his hand on the side of my neck for a second. He doesn’t say anything, just presses in hard. I can smell the coal dust still lingering under his fingernails. Then he’s pulling away, walking back into the church with his fists in his pockets.

I feel his hand lingering there for the rest of the night.

This is what my therapist would call pathetic.

 

My mother makes cups of chamomile tea to help with the nightmares. We both know it doesn’t really do anything – doesn’t chase away ghosts or silence the sound of bombs – but it’s a nice little ritual we’ve got. She hums in time with the scrape of spoon on porcelain, I sit on the couch with my legs folded under me, and when she comes over and presses the hot cup into my hands, it’s with a weird kind of earnest.

“Did you and Sid have a nice talk?” she says, blowing on her own mug, feigning innocence. She probably doesn’t know the specifics – we don’t talk about anything that happened when I was away, on principle – but she’s emotionally intuitive in a way I never could be.

“He doesn’t seem mad at me anymore, if that’s what you’re asking.”

“I don’t think he was ever mad, Jud. Just… hurt.”

“I didn’t hurt him,” I say. “Or… I didn’t mean to.”

“Alright.” Mom rubs her hand on my knee, patting it in a way that’s meant to be comforting. “Then you need to forgive him for hurting you.”

I stare into my cup, gripping the handle so tight the palm-side of my hand goes white. “He didn’t hurt me.”

She taps the long tip of her nail on the side of her mug, making a little clicking noise. “We don’t forgive for the sake of the other person, you know. We’re told to forgive for ourselves. Seventy times seven times, if that’s what it takes.”

I shrug. “Not really in the mood for a sermon.”

“You haven’t been in the mood for much of anything lately.” She says it as an aside, but the meaning behind it sits heavy on my chest.

Depression, something in my brain supplies. That’s depression.

 

There’s a big ceremony in D.C. that I’m supposed to go to. The night that I’m packing for it, Ben shuffles his way into my room and flops down on the scratchy cotton sheets, his long legs splayed off the side. He wraps his arms over his eyes, sighing. When doesn’t say anything for a long minute, I frown. It’s not like Ben to keep quiet.

I bite at the dry skin on my lip. “So? What’s eating you?”

“Sid.” His voice is wafer thin.

“Figured.” I stuff another pair of socks into the duffle. “Something wrong with him?”

“Yeah.” Ben sits up and sweeps his hand all over his face. “Fuckin’ kid got himself blown up.”

 

I guess I’m kind of pissed.

And my anger is, apparently, ‘healthy’ and ‘valid’ but I’m pissed all the same.

Mostly at Sid. I mean, what kind of idiot survives a war just to go off and die in a mine? A stray spark and a bad vent and now ‘here lies Sidney Rose’? It doesn’t add up.

The obituary for him is just his name, the years he lived, and how he died. No survived bys, no mention of if anyone will miss him, nothing to fill in the blank that “–” creates between birth and death.

Ben’s a mess about it. Not a crying mess, more a frazzled one. He’s over at my house just about every night, telling me stories that have too much information in them, saying things because I think he hopes I’ll relate.

I don’t relate. War left me with a lot of things, and without a lot of things, but above all else it left me numb.

 

Jan doesn’t exactly look presentable, but I’m not judging. Losing your brother can do that do you. Her stubby pointer finger is tracing the words on bottles of cleaner, like she’s gotta sound out each letter to work out what bleach does.

“The green bottle’s good,” I offer, startling her. “That’s the one we use.”

She huffs, adjusting the shopping basket on her arm. “The green bottle is too damn expensive,” she says. “Does everything have to cost an arm and a leg nowadays?”

I laugh. “Hope not. I’ll come up short.”

She looks at me again, eyes dropping to my cane, lingering on the conspicuous lack underneath me, then snorts. “You’re crazy. Is that what got you all those medals? Being a lunatic?”

“Being an idiot,” I say. “Apparently you’re supposed to move away from the bombs. Who knew?”

She shakes her head. “Explosions seem to be all the rage these days.”

Right.

There’s an awkward pause, where Jan knows what I’m about to say, and I haven’t quite figured out how to say it.

“I heard about Sid,” is what I settle on.

She hums noncommittally. “It’s funny, ‘cause for the past few months people have been saying that same exact phrase to me. First it meant, ‘I heard your little brother blew half the guys in the infantry. Can you confirm or deny this?’ Now it means, ‘I heard your little brother got blown to bits. Can we pretend that I didn’t spend the past half a year hating his guts?’”

“How was he?” My hands grip my cane so tight they start to ache. “I mean, before he died. Was he happy?”

Her brown eyes linger on mine. “You’d know if you’d talked to him.”

“I was planning on it.”

“And?”

“And… I thought I had time.”

“Jesus. Did you really fight a whole war and somehow forget that life is short?” She laughs but there’s no lightness to it. “You are an idiot.”

“He wanted flowers,” I tell her, stopping her again from looking at the shelves. “On his grave? He said… the ones from Alice and Wonderland.”

Jan stills, staring at me hard. “When did he say that?”

“Overseas. Before… everything.”

“The ones from….” I watch understanding turn a light on behind her eyes. Something cracks in her expression and she lets out a noise, like a broken laugh, covering her face with one of her pudgy hands. Her shoulders are shaking.

I can’t help but frown.  “What? What is it?”

“Sid. Fucking Sid. He would. Those flowers?” When she pulls her hand away to look back at me, her eyes are gleaming. She shakes her head, smiling. “Jud. They’re called pansies.”

Dorea Marshall has recently graduated with a degree in English: Creative Writing from Biola University, where

she won the award for Creative Writing in her graduating class. The Hickory Stump will be her first official publication.

Dorea is an avid lover of comedy, art, and philosophy, and wants to write stories that make people laugh whilst making them think. She currently resides in Maryland with her roommate and her dog – an 8-month-old pointer named Leo who chews shoes, drinks out of toilets, and generally fulfills all the stereotypes of his species – in the kind of apartment one would expect a 20-year-old to live in.

Dorea is interested in pursuing an MFA in Creative writing, where she hopes to explore all genres and forms of the craft.

1 Comment

  1. This is one of the best things I’ve read this month. Wonderfully written with great characters. And a story I suspect will linger in my brain for days as it dissects it over and again. The characterisation and mood are, for me, the best parts of this story. I was Jud.

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