Open 2020, Short Stories - Robert P. Bishop



By Robert P. Bishop 


We were on a show-of-force patrol, rolling down Ameer Al-Jishi Street in our Humvees. Kroger was driving, I rode shotgun, Perez sat in the back. Kautz stood up, manning the .50 caliber, swinging the muzzle slightly left and right, his eyes probing the street in front of us, searching, anticipating. Three Humvees followed ours.


The explosion ripped our vehicle apart. We struggled out and stood by the wreckage, too stunned to speak, waiting for the air to clear, trying to understand what had happened to us. As the dirt settled, Kroger pointed to the mangled body behind the steering wheel. “Is that me?” he said. “Jesus, what the hell happened to my face?” He raised his hands to his face and felt it with his fingertips.


Perez pointed at two smashed bodies in the back of the broken Humvee. “Oh, God, Kautz, that’s us.” Kautz was trying to say something. His jaw moved but no words came out of his mouth.“Man, that can’t be me. No, no, please don’t let that be me,”Perez said.


Kroger stood next to me. “Foster, where the hell are your legs? You got no legs.”

I couldn’t answer him.


“What happened?” said Kautz, finally able to get some words out.


“IED,” I said, but we knew. None of us needed to be told what blew us up.

We watched the trailing Humvees stop. Two men dismounted from the second Humvee and ran toward our smashed vehicle. Somebody in one of the Humvees shouted,

“Rooftop, eleven o’clock!” when heads and rifle barrels popped above the roofline. The .50 gunner in the second Humvee swung his gun up and fired a long burst, gouging a cascade of concrete chunks and window glass from the building as the rounds ripped into it. The rifle barrels and heads dropped out of sight.


The .50 gunner on the third Humvee swung his gun to the opposite side of the street and raked the roofline and upper stories of the buildings when he saw movement.


We moved to the side of the road and watched the recovery efforts and the pounding .50s. We knew the drill, having gone through it with other Humvees hit by IEDs or RPGs.


“Aw, man, this is it,” Perez moaned. “We’re dead. Jesus Christ, we’re dead. I knew it, I fucking knew it.” His lips started quivering and I thought he was going to lose it, but he sucked it up and regained control. There was no part for us in this recovery. We stood to the side and watched our comrades. We no longer heard their voices although we knew the men working on our Humvee were talking, even shouting because we saw their mouths moving and their arms waving as they worked on the bodies in the wreckage. The only voices we heard now were our own.


“I don’t feel anything,” Kautz whispered.


Kroger, still running his fingers over his face, laughed. “I can feel my face.” He looked at his fingers. “No blood. I think I’m all right.” He laughed again. “I’m gonna make it.”


“No, you aren’t,” said Perez. He grabbed Kroger’s arm. “Don’t you get it? We’re dead, man, fucking dead!” His lips pulled back, exposing his teeth in a death’s-head rictus.


I put my hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay, Perez. It’s over.”


“No, no,” Kroger protested. “It can’t be over. Not this way.”


The soldiers working recovery on our Humvee started fading, their forms becoming indistinct, vaporous. The other Humvees began to dissipate in the morning air. We watched the men and Humvees of our patrol evaporate, leaving us alone in an empty and quiet Ameer Al-Jishi Street bathed in warm morning sun.


“What are we going to do?” Perez demanded.


“Yeah, what now?” echoed Kautz. I was their squad leader.They looked to me for direction.


“We go this way.” I started walking down Ameer Al-Jishi. They fell in beside me.


“Where are we going?” Kroger asked, his fingers still exploring his face.


“Home,” I said.


“How do you know it’s this way?” he persisted.


“I just know.” Nobody said anything after that.


After an hour of steady walking Perez stopped. “Wait one,” he said and pointed to a narrow road leading westward. “This is my turn-off. I’ll see you guys.”

“Yeah, we’ll see you,” we said. He turned away and we kept walking.


A few minutes later Kautz said, “Hold up.” We stopped. “This is my road.” He waved his hand in a farewell gesture. “I’ll see you guys.” Kroger and I watched him disappear down that nameless street then we started walking again.


I didn’t see Kroger turn away. He never said anything to let me know he was leaving. When I looked over my shoulder he was gone. I kept walking along Ameer Al-Jishi Street.



My mother scheduled my funeral for ten o’clock in the morning in Grace of Our Shepard Church. She knew I didn’t put any stock in religion but she didn’t know where else to hold it. The dead do not feel anything sothe church service was for her, not me.


The morning of my funeral my parents lingered over the breakfast ruins, drinking coffee, afraid to move away from the comfort and security they had always known in our house. I sat with them at the table. Although they could not see or hear me I could see and hear them easily enough.


The anger emanating from my mother filled the kitchen. I read the signs; her nostrils always pinched inward with every breath when she was totally pissed off. My father had started smoking again when my box came home. He lit a cigarette and exhaled two thin streams of anemic blue smoke out his nose.


“Are you satisfied now?” my mother demanded. Tears welled in her eyes.


“It’s war,” my father said. “Mike died defending our country. People die in war, Martha. It happens.”

“That’s it? That’s all you can say?” My mother put both hands on the table and half rose out of her chair. “You bastard! That’s our son, not some people. And he did not die defending our country. He died because of idiots like you.” She dropped into her chair, exhausted by her outburst.


I felt her anguish and knew it was real. For some reason, I’m able to know what others feel and to know their intimate thoughts. “Mom,” I said, “the old man’s right, people die in war, but it’s your job, and his, to make sure it’s the right war for a soldier to give up his life, for his death to have meaning.” I knew she couldn’t hear me but I needed to say it anyway.


“He’s only twenty-two years old.” My mother wept then. I thought it was interesting that she referred to me in the present tense. Maybe that’s something she will always do. I know my face will never age in her mind. It can’t. She will always see me as I was when I came home on leave before shipping out for a second deployment.


“Martha, you know I didn’t want this. You can’t believe I wanted my own son dead.” My dad sucked on a cigarette, exhaled thin smoke from his nose again.


“Bullshit, Neal, pure bullshit, and you know it.” She pounded on the table with her fists. Her cup jumped into the air and spilled a black ribbon of coffee across the table, pointing at my father like an accusing finger. “You filled Michael with all that patriotic crap about keeping the country safe, about killing them before they came here and killed all of us in our sleep. You and those useless politicians you listen to all the time. You’re all disgusting and I hate every one of you sons-a-bitches for what you’ve done.” She wiped the tears off her face then wiped away the snot running from her nose with the back of her hand.


“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about,” my dad raged. He pushed his chair back and stood up so swiftly the chair tipped over and skidded across the floor tiles.

“God damn it, Martha, he’s my son, too,” he shouted. His face quivered with anger and confusion. I knew my death hurt him deeply but he couldn’t admit to himself, much less to my mother, that he was wrong all along about this war.


I also knew he didn’t feel anywhere near this level of pain when somebody else’s son died in the war. My father would just shake his head and say, “It’s a shame young men have to die,” then put that soldier’s death out of his mind.



I got into the back seat of the car when we left for the church. My parents did not speak during the ten-minute ride. My father hunched forward, almost pressing his body against the steering wheel, and peered out the windshield like he was driving blind. My mother hugged herself and stared ahead.


I watched the town pass by. The trees I used to think were so big as a kid now looked gnarled and shrunken, wizened and twisted with age. The houses were no longer trim and tidy but worn and in need of paint. The town had grown old and seedy in my short absence. Perhaps it always was old and seedy and I just didn’t see it. The innocence of childhood replaced by the brutal honesty of life.


Our car crawled through the quiet streets.



My flag-draped coffin sat on two trestles in the front of the church, just below the huge stained-glass window that glowed like colored fire with the summer sun pouring through it. I slid into a pew in the back and watched people file in. A few high school classmates who had not gone to war came in, nervous and uncertain about attending my funeral. I read their emotions. Most of them thought I had thrown my life away on a war that didn’t need to be fought and could never be won. I didn’t sense any guilt or shame in them for not having gone to war.


Carol Robards came in holding onto Arnie’s Scanlan’s arm. Carol and I were a couple in high school but I left and she stayed. I sensed sorrow in her, a deep sadness that my life was over. Arnie, whom I also knew in high school, had different feeling s about my death. He thought I was a fool for doing what I did, and perhaps he was right. It was hard to say.


I turned my attention to the front of the church.


My parents, gray in the face and wringing their hands, stood close to my sealed coffin. Their friends came in and embraced them in tearful hugs and uttered muted condolences before drifting into the pews and talking in whispers. For some inexplicable reason my parents’ friends believed normal voices were inappropriate, perhaps even an affront to what they thought was the dignity of death at a soldier’s funeral. I had to laugh at the sham piety because nothing disturbs the dead. The dead don’t give a rat’s ass what the living think, feel, or do.


Things got quiet when the minister walked to his pulpit and adjusted the microphone. He thanked everyone for coming and began the ceremony with a short prayer, followed by a sermon where he talked about brave young men, sacrifice, and a greater good to be found in God. I stopped listening when he mentioned God and glory and sacrifice.


The minister closed with another short prayer. Two old veterans, wearing VFW caps decked out with medals and ribbons from the Vietnam War, removed the flag from my box, folded it and presented it to my mother. She burst into tears then, loud wrenching sounds that made people wince. Six men carried my coffin out of the church to the hearse for the ride to the cemetery.


We followed behind the hearse as the little convoy made its way up the hill to the sunbaked cemetery on the flatlands north of town. I sat in the back seat again. My parents did not speak. My mother, still clutching the folded flag, began to moan softly as we closed in on the cemetery.


The hearse led our convoy into the cemetery and stopped by the veteran’s section. In this section each grave, sixty-seven of them now, counting mine, was marked with an upright white marble rectangle engraved with the veteran’s name, rank, branch of service, and date of death. Once a year the Ladies Auxiliary scrubbed the stones free of accumulated grit and crud and on November 11, Veterans Day, placed a bouquet of flowers on each grave.


The six men who carried me from the church pulled my coffin out of the hearse and carried it to an open grave and placed it on a device that will lower me into the ground. The people who followed us to the cemetery gathered around my coffin and bowed their heads as the minister said another prayer.


I wasn’t the only veteran standing in the group of mourners. Hundreds of veterans, so many I couldn’t count them, materialized out of the thin dry air, or perhaps they rose from the earth itself, all dressed in their respective uniforms. They clustered around me, paying their respects to one of their own. Like me, they were invisible to the living.


My mother refused to have the army involved with my funeral. She didn’t want a Color Guard, or a Rifle Salute; none of the traditional military honors accorded a fallen soldier. She permitted, at my father’s pleading, Taps to be played at my grave.


A musician from the American Legion raised a bugle to his lips and began to play. As the first notes rang out the veterans who had materialized around my grave snapped to attention, turned to face me and saluted. I returned their salute while the mournful notes wafted through the suffocating summer air. When the last note faded, the musician dropped his bugle to his side and bowed his head while the device lowered me into the waiting grave. The mourners dribbled away to their cars and left the cemetery.


My mother and father, still unable to speak to each other, were the last to leave.


Two workmen began to shovel dirt over my coffin. A young man wearing the uniform of a World War I soldier came up to me and put his hand on my shoulder. “You are one of us now.”


“Who are you?” I asked.


“I’m Jim.” He started walking. I fell in beside him.


“Where are we going?” I remembered Kroger asking me that question.





Robert P. Bishop from UA is a veteran and a teacher, and has a Master’s in Biology. His recent work has appeared in The Literary Hatchet, The Umbrella Factory Magazine, CommuterLit, Lunate Fiction, Spelk, Fleas on the Dog, Corner Bar Magazine, Literally Stories, Better than Starbucks, and is forthcoming in The Scarlet Leaf, Clover and White, and Vaughan Street Doubles.


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