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Ashes in Autumn

The second in a series of novellas that spans the decades. Learn more about the reclusive Vietnam War veteran from Gold in the Days of Summer and The Last Letter in this installment, set in the 1960s and 1970s.



You’re not nobody…


We were dressed the same. The same fatigues caked with layers of grime and sweat from too many suns spent sleeping in the trenches. The same shell of a helmet meant to cushion our heads like a goddamned baby blanket and its false sense of security, the chinstrap hanging loose because what good would that do us, anyway. The same boots on our feet and canteens in our hands and rucksacks strapped to our backs. Everything was the same—so much the same, we didn’t recognize ourselves anymore, and looking at one was like looking at all.


That’s what no one tells you. That’s what they’re afraid to say when you go down to the recruiting office that’s been transformed from a vacant retail space, squeezed between a pizza shop and an ice cream parlor you used to visit with your folks as a kid.


As a kid…


A kid is what you were. That’s where they get you—one year, they’d say. One flip of the calendar page, another candle on the cake. Turn eighteen, and that was that. One year is all it takes to be a man.


But no one tells you how they strip that away so you’re not a boy, and you’re no man. Hell, you’re barely even a person anymore, barely even human. Now you’re just a uniform—obedient tin soldiers lined up side by side, row after row, unable to tell the difference between you and them until you look in their eyes. Those damn, tired eyes…


You’re not nobody…


The words bark like drill orders in my head, and I grip the glass in my fist, swirl the amber liquid within it, and bring it to my lips. It burns the back of my throat, but I welcome it. Rather the burn of an incurable vice than an unforgiving sun.


I lean back in the metal folding chair, glance briefly up at the porch overhang of this house that isn’t my house, and watch the ones who didn’t have to go over there weed their gardens and bicker with their wives about where to set the sprinklers like that’s all that matters.


My fingers curl around the glass. The ice has already melted inside, and now beads of perspiration are slipping past my hand.


You’re not nobody, you know.


My neighbor’s girl whizzes by on her bike, misses her driveway, and skids to a stop on the grass. She’s half off her bike in a second, hopping away from it as she drops the handlebars. The wheels are still spinning by the time she runs into the house; I hear her shouting for her mom before the front door closes.


Down the block, young voices holler and cheer as a basketball thuds to the ground in a series of echoes I need to block out. A different place, I try to remember—another time,  under the same sun but five years moved on. The basketball bangs against the backboard with force, and I wince and reach for the glass.


They don’t know any better. I pray to whatever god-above’s still listening it stays that way.


I raise the glass again.


It’s all you can do when you start to remember everything you want to forget.

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