If I could look through one of the many boarded-up windows around me, I might be able to see the enemy hiding somewhere nearby—amidst the skewed about debris and dry, desert dust. They’re waiting patiently for our movement with machine-gun metabolism and hard, dry eyes. I suppose it’s safe to mock them now, the fucking towel heads. The dead are outside, piled on top of one another like toys, like numbers on a chalkboard.
“You know it’s not your fault, what happened to Bisiada,” Scotty says, the silence between us excruciating. The building we’re in looks ready to collapse; my heart beats furiously. We’re close to each other, close enough to shake hands, but we remain motionless, crouching low. Both of our backs are glued to the wall and we fear standing upright. “I know it’s real cruel I say this, but he served his purpose. Showed us there’s still someone out here. He fought ‘til the end; you can’t never escape no gut shot.”
I nod, experiencing a dull pain in my knees; I haven’t squatted for this long since I played catcher in high school. He’s right, after all, but Scotty shakes his head. “Our boys are dropping like flies,” he says. “Gives a whole new meaning to ‘one, two, three, four, United States Marine Corps,’ don’t it?” He chuckles a little, the laugh stripped of its heartiness, and then lights a broken cigarette. He puffs in quick, sharp bursts and finally notices the smoke escaping from the Marlboro label. After ripping off the filter, he takes a better, longer drag. He removes loose tobacco from his tongue and looks up at me, pleased.
I nod again and remove the only cigarette I have from behind my ear. I don’t really want to smoke it, but I fear I won’t get a second chance. The thought of it, of Bisiada’s dusty tan boots turning red, washes over me like rain. “Yep,” I say softly. I light the cigarette and admire the glowing embers as they fall to the concrete floor, becoming ash.
The air at home is much different than the desert. Both are hot, but in Florida, you’re always damp in typically dry places and sopping wet in naturally moist places, until late in the evening, when the moonlight reflects off the ocean like hope. I tell the guys that all the time, when I get sunburned on my forearm after driving the Humvee for an hour and everybody goes crazy. This is nothing, I say, my resilient skin the toughest part of me. The sun’s hardcore as fuck out here, sure, but it doesn’t measure up to heat and humidity in the swamp. Scotty always agrees. He still owns a riverboat out in Arkansas somewhere.
The airplane approaches the gate, and the flight attendant tells us we can turn on our cell phones and other hand-held devices. My watch reads 1500.
I catch the scent of the blue-haired lady in the middle seat next to me—a mix of lavender and Werther’s butterscotch candies—and my nose reaches for home, for the tropical aroma of citrus and salt. It’s there, but faint. I look out the window—the window-seat passenger is still snoozing—and see the sky is big and blue with wispy clouds.
The plane’s passengers rise collectively as all wheels come to a halt; frequent flyers are also veterans of sorts. The blue-haired lady closes her book. I let out a yawn and grab my sea bag from the overhead compartment.
“Excuse me, young man,” the blue-haired lady says, standing and leaning her body against the chair in front of her. “Could you get my suitcase? It’s the leather one, the color of Merlot.” I can tell she’s jonesing for a glass; I’d consider joining her for a beer or two, if she’d offer.
I oblige, slinging my sea bag over my shoulder as I jimmy her bag free.
“Thank you, kindly,” she says.
“My pleasure.” I’m jarred by the sound of my voice. I’m standing in the aisle now, taller than almost everyone around. I hear bags rustling, families chatting, sickly passengers hacking up lungs.
“Home for good or just for leave?” a man in a business suit asks, casually. He’s standing behind me, holding a newspaper; it’s the Wall Street Journal.
I was looking forward to being anonymous, if only for a plane ride. “Leave,” I say. “My sister’s getting married. I just got back to the States last week after a 7-month deployment to Afghanistan.”
His eyes narrow. “You must be beat. Are you going back?”
“We’re on call for 30 days.”
“Where are you stationed now?”
“Twentynine Palms.” I think of Bisiada; he couldn’t wait to get back to the palms.
“I know it well,” the man says, smiling. “I did four years and then went to college and law school.”
The line begins to move. “Are you connecting?”
I shake my head. “Nope. This is home.”
Scotty stands up for less than a second to adjust his bag, and his swift movements shoot through my thoughts of home like a torpedo. He puts his helmet on with a loud thump and I do the same, our backs still against the wall. I check to see if my boots are tied tight. Affirmative. Scotty’s back on his knees and crawling. I follow, feeling oddly safe against the cold, sunless concrete.
“I don’t think they can see us from here,” I say.
“Oh, he can. He just can’t get a shot. Stay low.” Scotty coughs and looks back at me. “Don’t ever underestimate them, Phillips. Remember what they told you in boot camp: expect everything.” He points to a corner across the room. There’s a tiny hole in the boarded-up window, and he intends to go there. Scotty’s movement is quick, serpent-like; he’s certainly earned the title of veteran, whether we get out of here or not. I crawl over Bisiada’s corpse, which is positioned in the middle of the entryway.
My dad is quiet in the car, quieter than I expected. The tattoos on his forearms, acquired in Thailand and other various ports during his time in the Navy, are worn with a pride that reflects off the pollen-caked windshield, but the images depicted are almost unrecognizable on his tan, freckly skin. There is an eagle holding an anchor on one arm and two green tree frogs on the other. When he opens and closes a fist, you can tell the frogs are fucking.
I know a part of him is pissed about me getting out, but when I said I wanted to get a business degree with my GI bill, he was satisfied. He’s proud of me for my service, but he has trouble with things like that, with speaking and sharing, ever since Mom passed away. He was on his last deployment when they called to tell him about the accident.
“Might have a job lined up for you,” he says, turning over his shoulder before changing lanes.
We pass the overpass that spells out Daytona Beach in bright yellow cursive. As if we’d miss it otherwise. The idea of home, as a place, feels strangely soggy, like the oily sub sandwiches I remember from childhood. Maybe it’s just the humidity. I’ve been in the desert for too long.
“Oh yeah?” I smile at him.
He looks at me momentarily and puts his eyes back on the road. “It’s not anything you have to take up permanently. But I’ve got a buddy at the Legion who has a landscaping business. Told him you’re out for good in 60 days and savvy with an edger.”
An enemy sniper is hiding somewhere inside of the dilapidated building ahead. He’s been on a 5-month killing spree and has taken out a lot of our guys, among others. It is Scotty’s job to find out where the fucker is exactly and blast him to Hell. I’m supposed to be helping him, but he looks like he’s got everything under control.
“So, we wait.” My words reverberate and I feel hollow.
Scotty tosses me a cigarette. “We wait ‘til there’s movement and then…” He trails off, his eyes fixed on the dust outside. I nod, because I know what happens then. I put the cigarette behind my ear.
Bisiada’s blood, drying now, covers Scotty’s shoulders and back; he doesn’t seem to notice. He holds his rifle with prowess, concentration—as if the part of Bisiada he can’t wash off is guiding him.
Bisiada’s body is yellow—bile-colored, nicotine-stained. If it weren’t for the color, you’d think he was just enjoying a pleasant snooze after a tiresome day. His eyes are closed and his mouth is open slightly.
I remember it was Bisiada’s plan to retreat back to the building where we had first been, where we are now. Something just doesn’t feel right, he said, and we ignored him. We should go back and regroup; we can just break in.
After the shots, it was Hell for us to watch him fall and try to crawl back to us, like something out of Platoon. He screamed like a parentless child, but he kept moving, coughing blood. When he made it about halfway, Scotty told me to shoot at the building in front of us. I obeyed, emptying my magazine. Scotty ran to him and lifted him; meanwhile, the enemy’s gun was silent. Black blood spewed from Bisiada’s nose and mouth. He had crimson stains on his abdomen and his right kneecap, the latter being where he was shot first.
The air was eerie, quiet, as I led us back to this building and kicked open the door. Bisiada died before Scotty removed him from his back; we both knew and said nothing. If only we had listened to him, things might be different.
Pop opens the garage door and my heart drops to my stomach. I leave the car quickly, without speaking, and approach the bike, caressing it like I would a woman’s thighs.
The motorcycle, a black Honda Shadow, looks as good as it did when I first saw it almost 4 years ago. Before I crashed it at Biketoberfest and traded my biker-fantasy for the more plausible and joined the Marine Corps.
“I can’t believe this,” I say. I’m beaming—smiling so hard it hurts. “How did you do it?”
He pops the trunk. “It’s called money, son.”
I laugh. “You said you sold it on Craigslist. Told me while I was in Afghanistan because you knew I wouldn’t cry in front of the guys.”
He chuckles. “Well, I lied. Kept her here and fixed her up myself.”
“Wow,” I say, seeing my own reflection in the chrome. “You’re really something else.”
“Motorcycle license still current?”
“It expires on my birthday.” We’re standing eye-level now, as equals.
“Welcome home, Robert. I missed you.”
We hug briefly, but tightly.
“I’m not home yet, not for good.”
He smiles weakly; I know he gets lonely sometimes. “30 days on call and 30 more days in the palms,” he says. “ It’ll be over before you know it.”
The echo of a gunshot shatters my thoughts and I look up to Scotty. He is laughing; I can almost see the adrenaline running through him. “And that’s,” he pauses for effect, “how we fuckin’ do it, Phillips. Woo!”
“So you got him?”
“Hell yes I fucking got him. I saw something move real quick and reacted. Shot him right in the fucking face.”
“Good,” I say and close my eyes. Scotty is gloating. I don’t disturb him or endorse him; instead, I just listen to the sound of my own breath—the melodic rise and fall. He radios back to base and announces our victory, says we’ll be back soon.
He lights a cigarette. “You know something, Phillips?” he asks, after some time.
“This is the best cigarette I’ve ever fuckin’ had. Did you know that?”
“That’s good to hear,” I say, my eyes still closed.
“Do you know why?”
“Because we completed our mission. With only one casualty, God rest his soul.” He pauses for a moment, out of respect, and then I can hear the smile spreading across his cheeks. “I might be mistaken, man, but this cigarette tastes like home.”
My sister Alma is smart to get married in the morning. May in Florida is no picnic. The ceremony is on the beach (as it should be) at 1100 sharp. Pop and I have to ride our bikes out of the suburbs, over the Flagler Beach Bridge, and down old A1A to get there. As I steer the bike over the bridge—Pop just ahead of me in his Harley, the horizon opening to reveal the dark blue ocean—the breeze is misty, salty, familiar. It’s as if I never left, never crashed four years ago, never deployed.
Just north of Ormond Beach, before the sun-screened-chaos of Daytona, a white alter with painted-on moon phases stands beside unlit tiki lamps. There are 16 white chairs staked in the sand near the dunes. I follow as Pop takes the aisle seat in the front row, near Abe’s parents.
“Robert,” Abe’s father says, surprised. He stands to shake my hand. “Looking good, son.”
“Thank you, sir,” I say. I nod and smile at his wife. She smiles back.
“Tom told us you’re getting out soon.”
“Yes, sir.” We shake hands.
“Not a career man like your dad, then?”
“No, sir,” I say, shaking my head. “Not me.”
He laughs, so I laugh with him.
Pop stands and puts his hand on my shoulder, reassuringly. “Robert here is a college man,” he says.
I take my seat.
The female officiator is looking over her notes. She’s in her late 50s, but she has fake tits that make it look like she’s in her late 30s. She’s in a gold sundress with matching gold sandals. Abe and his three groomsmen stand next to her, wearing khaki shorts and collared shirts. They notice what I notice about the officiator, I’m sure; they’re whispering and laughing.
Other wedding guests arrive, most of them barefooted, salty, and ready for the beach. I don’t recognize anyone other than Pop and Abe’s parents.
Pop leans in. “Showtime.”
“Should I go with you, see Alma, give her a kiss or something?”
He stands and shakes his head. “She said she didn’t want to see you before the ceremony.” He rolls his eyes, playfully. “You always stress her out.”
Scotty grabs Bisiada’s tags. “I think I can carry him back, Phillips.”
“Let me do it.”
He chuckles. “Nah, I got it. I’ve seen your CFT scores. You ain’t one for the buddy carry.” Scotty brushes his fingertips against Bisiada’s forehead, gently, as if he fears waking him. He lifts Bisiada and motions for my exit.
“You go ahead,” I say.
Scotty opens the door. “Now you follow low. I don’t know if any others are hiding.” He moves into the sun.
He adjusts the dead weight on his back and breaks into a run, making it safely to a beat- up car.
Then he moves to another building a few feet ahead. I follow, trying to mimic his agile movements, carrying only my pack.
He turns to me—we’re feet apart—and points to a shack to the north of us; it’s in the direction of the Humvee, I realize. I nod, and he parrots me. Just as he hustles across the open street, my own feet stop; I search for breath. My knees buckle, and I fall against the brick building behind me.
Scotty falls to the ground almost as quickly as the gunshot sounds. A pool of blood grows beside his head. I look to my left, right, and left again; I see no one, no movement. Bisiada’s body is on the ground, cast aside like trash. Scotty’s lifeless body looks like a cross; he has both arms extended, his rifle is against his chest, and his legs are together.
The roads are unusually clear for a Saturday night. Pop stays behind me, except for stoplights. We each had a beer at the reception, and we both danced with Alma, who never looked more beautiful. The beer was enough to relax me, but not enough to keep me out of my head.
We come over the bridge and onto the mainland; the sun is setting in the western sky, leaving patchy, fiery clouds. I remember Scotty and imagine him riding too, taking in this warm, summer air.
Twilight descends, a grey fog, and I see the lights of a shopping plaza on my left and a stoplight far in the distance. Everything else is darkening slowly. The Honda’s engine rattles beneath me, feeling like thunder, like home.
A white car approaches the stop sign to my right. The driver doesn’t make a complete stop and pulls out, turning right. I don’t have time to stop, but I slow down. Just as I consider weaving into the left lane, my bike hits the back of the car—I see it’s a Ford—and I’m thrust over the car in two loud thumps. My face slides across the asphalt as I tumble; I can no longer feel my legs. When the movement stops, my brain catches up, and I realize I’m immobile in a ditch, next to a vacant lot. The streetlight above me replaces natural light.
Pop’s here. My helmet’s off. My head is in his lap. He’s not crying, but he’s rocking me, petting the hair on my head. There’s a woman sobbing somewhere and a man on the phone; his voice is shaking. I can feel blood trickling down my forehead and onto my nose. Pop wipes it away.
I try to kick open the door of the shack. It’s heavy. My breath is shallow. My heart beats quickly. I kick again. When I open the door, I collapse onto the floor, and dust envelopes me.
When the battalion comes for me, it smells like morning. I’m on a stretcher, strapped in, and my face is golden, warm. My lips are dry, chapped, splitting. Boots are everywhere. I think of Bisiada and Scotty.
Pop is still rocking me, but I can’t see the lines on his face or the color of his eyes. Color drains from everything. Breathing is difficult—sharp, like glass. There’s a lump in my throat; when I cough, I taste something metallic and wet: blood. I cough again, and a bubble of red snot seeps from my nostrils. I hear sirens in the distance, but they feel oceans away. My vision blurs as I fix my eyes on the cypress trees above. I’m home.
Emily Hoover is a fiction writer, poet, and book reviewer based in Las Vegas. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Bird’s Thumb, BULL, and Gravel, and her poems have been featured or are forthcoming in Potluck Magazine, FIVE:2:ONE, and tiny journal. Emily’s book reviews have been published by The Los Angeles Review, Necessary Fiction, Ploughshares blog, The Collagist, and others. She is known on Twitter and Instagram as @em1lywho.
“Like Home” was featured in Veterans Writing Project’s print journal 0-Dark-Thirty‘s The Review, vol. 3, #1, fall 2014 and the 0-Dark-Thirty Anthology, Spring 2017.