There he was – Randall – sitting there, grinning that stupid grin of his. His pearly whites were shining in the hot midday sun as we lay in wait behind a building for more orders. Children were laughing, pushing hula hoops around with sticks, chasing dogs. Nothing was really happening. The sand was hot, burning my nostrils as it flew up inside of them. “Let’s move.” I turned to look behind me but Randall was nowhere in sight. Suddenly, I heard a gunshot ahead. Oh no. Children were running and blood was already on the ground. Randall was shooting blindly into the streets, grinning as he let loose on women, children, anything with breath. I had no time to think. I grabbed my gun and shot him, several times in the chest, until he fell over and lay on his back. When I was done, I turned to look back at my platoon. Sweat dripped from my brow. They were no longer staring at Randall; they were watching me, advancing slowly, guns cocked and ready, ready to fire. “You killed one of our own, you bastard,” they said in unison, slowly squeezing the trigger. “You’re a traitor.”
“Ah! Ah! Ah!” I awoke from the dream startled and sweating, breathing heavily. “You shouldn’t be sleeping right now,” Lieutenant Jenson warned, his legs up on the chair in front of him. He didn’t even use my name. “I’m sorry, sir. It won’t happen again,” I swore. I shook it off and looked around me. The room was empty. Nothing much left to hold onto… just my pride. “Sergeant, sir. Fitzgerald is here to see you.” Jenson’s voice echoed from inside the other room. “Send him in.” I rolled my eyes and took a deep breath. “Time to talk my way out of this.”
I walked into the office escorted by Jenson and sat down. Jenson looked at the sergeant, nodded, and left, shutting the door. The sergeant cleared his throat as I waited for him to begin speaking. “First of all, let me tell you something, Fitzgerald. I did not call you in here to hear your ‘side’ of the story. I am not interested in a begging, pleading soldier. That’s pathetic. Your path has already been decided for you. You will be discharged.” The sergeant stared right at me, through me even, and I was silent. “Damnit,” I thought to myself. “Damnit. Damnit. Damnit.” Sergeant watched me, just like my platoon did, and it began to piss me off. “Sir, I protected our honor that day by shooting Randall. He had lost his fucking mind – he…” The sergeant interrupted me. “What the fuck did I just say? I don’t care what you saw or what you thought – you killed one of our own, you idiot! Randall was one of the good guys!” “But he was killing innocents!” “THIS ISN’T ABOUT HIM! IT’S ABOUT YOU, FITZGERALD!!!” He paused to take a deep breath. “Don’t you get it? This wasn’t some self-defense story. This was murder. Get that through your puny little head, soldier.” He turned to spit into the trashcan beside him. “You’re old enough to understand that other things could have been done and you still chose to shoot him. We can’t have that in our ranks. You are a liability.” I sighed, clenching my fists. “Now get out of my office and go home.” I got up, ignoring the angry look on his face, and walked out.
I got one phone call – to my wife. I cursed under my breath as I walked over and picked up the receiver, with Lieutenant Jenson standing five feet away from me. That ring lasted forever. I wasn’t sure what I was going to say. The phone crackled as I heard her pick up the other line. “Hello?” she sounded frantic. She was always like this with numbers she didn’t know. “Baby, it’s me.” “John?!” she exclaimed. I could see her jumping up and down, holding her hand over her mouth. She hadn’t heard from me in months. I smiled; I couldn’t help it. “Baby, I have to tell you something. I…” She went silent, waiting, excited yet nervous. I knew her head would be swirling with bests and worsts. I wished I didn’t have to tell her, but no one else could. I couldn’t keep it from her. This was going to change our lives. This was the way things had to be. I couldn’t leave her in the dark about the whole thing, and I couldn’t just lie. I loved her too much. She deserved to know the truth, no matter how painful it was. “What is it, John?” she cooed. I started to break down. I couldn’t hurt her. “I’m comin’ home, baby. I’m comin’ home.” The line went silent again and then I heard her tears. “Oh my God, John… Oh my God.” “I’ll be home within the next week,” I told her, unable to smile, knowing I had lied. “I can’t wait to see you!” she squealed, still crying. I wiped a tear from my own eye and agreed, telling her the details of my arrival. “I’ll see you soon, Ashley.” We hung up, reluctantly. My Lieutenant looked up at me, glaring. He wanted me to tell her. I glared back. “Go fuck yourself, Jenson. This is my life. Mind your own goddamn business.”
“Okay, kids! It’s time for show and tell!” Mrs. Woods smiles as she points to the board. The words “show and tell” are scrawled out in bright colors across the chalkboard. She is smiling at me, but I am too lost in the picture in my hand. I brought it to school today to show to my class. “Micah… it’s your turn!” I look up, forgetting for a second what I’m holding. “Coming, Mrs. Woods,” I reply, getting out of my desk and marching to the front of the classroom. I look at my classmates and grip the picture between my fingers, my cheeks hot. The edges are curling. I am smiling again. I proudly hold the photo up in front of the class and point to it. “This is my dad,” I tell them. “He’s a U.S. soldier! He’s so brave! He’s coming home today after a long time of fighting in the war.” Mrs. Woods smiles at me. “My dad’s a real hero!” Then, Thomas Randall speaks up in the front row. “Your dad is a liar. My mom says he’s just crazy and got kicked out of the army ‘cause he killed another soldier!” Mrs. Woods’s smile fades. “Thomas! Stop it right now!” I look up at Mrs. Woods and smile proudly. “Nah uh. I know better. My daddy’s the bravest man out there.” Thomas laughs at me. “You’re stupid. Your dad’s crazy, just like you.” I start to get angry. “Nah uh!” Thomas glares at me. “Ya huh!” Kids around him start laughing louder as I walk up to him. “Is not!” Mrs. Woods looks concerned now. “Your daddy is weak, just like you, little baby!”
I am hitting Thomas now, as hard as I can. I’m doing it for my daddy. He would do it for me, if he could. I am surprised at my own strength, even though I really don’t know what I am doing. Thomas’s nose is bleeding. Mrs. Woods is yelling at me to stop. Her voice is just an empty echo in the background. All I can see is Thomas, bleeding below me on the floor of the classroom. And it feels good. No one talks about my daddy that way. He’s not a killer. He’s a hero. The blood on my hands feels warm. It feels right, so I keep hitting him, over and over, ignoring his protests beneath me. I am in charge. Everyone is watching me. The girls are all screaming and crying and the boys are just chanting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” I see Thomas’s tears and I continue to punch him, unable to stop. I have to beat him. He has to learn his lesson. Suddenly, my arms are held back by two very strong ones. I look up and see the principal. Uh oh.
The flight back home took way too long. At first, my son, Micah, wasn’t going to be notified of my arrival. Ashley wanted it to be a surprise, like one of those sappy YouTube videos you see of soldiers returning home to greet their little ones at school. I told her she had to tell him. I couldn’t keep it inside me anymore. “Ashley, wait. I have to tell you…” I rehearsed this line over and over in my head. I’d lost my job, I’d lost my benefits; I couldn’t lose her, too. Jenson turned to look at me. “She already knows, Fitzgerald. She already knows.” I knew this; I knew I had been too much of a coward to tell her. I wanted her smile, not her anger or tears. I couldn’t let myself come home to that mess. I wanted some happiness upon my arrival. Part of me understood, though, that Jenson was right. I nodded. “I know.” He went silent, staring out the window as we started to land. All I wanted was some time. There wasn’t much left – I would be seeing her in about ten minutes.
“JOHN! OH my God, John!” Ashley ran towards me, sobbing, and we embraced. I stroked her hair and held her tight. We kissed for a long time. I looked down as she squeezed me tighter. I had to tell her. “Ashley, look…” “I know why you’re home. You don’t have to say it,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye. “Oh. I figured as much,” I told her, shrugging. “And what do you think?” I asked her, hoping she wouldn’t scream or worse, call me a killer. “I think we should talk about this at home. For now, I’m just happy to see you.”
Our conversation was not what I expected at all. She did not know why I was home, in fact, she was misinformed. She had heard about Randall’s death from his wife, Judy, but she hadn’t known it was me that did it. The moment I told her it was me, she lost it. “John, what… what possessed you to shoot him?” She looked pained. “Baby, I – ” She cut me off. “No. Do not call me ‘baby.’” She was angry, very angry. I sighed and looked in her eyes, “I had to.” That was all I had. All she could do was accept it; there was nothing else left for her to do.
I’m in the principal’s office now. I’ve never been in here before. My mommy is sitting next to me, turned around in her chair. Suddenly, I see my dad walk through the door! I get up and run to go hug him. He smiles as we embrace and pats me on the head, ruffling my hair. I laugh. Mom looks happy but worried. The principal, Mr. Michaels, is sitting down behind his desk, waiting for me and Dad to sit down. My mom looks worried. I look up to my dad and smile. He smiles back. The principal clears his throat. “Mr. and Mrs. Fitzgerald…” my mom nods as I watch my dad lean in over the desk in front of us. “Your son, Micah, got in a lot of trouble today.” My dad’s smile fades to a curious frown. He looks at me, serious. “Micah… what happened,” he asks me. “Dad, Thomas Randall said that you were crazy and I had to tell him no! And he didn’t believe me, and he kept being mean… so I told him you were a hero, Dad, and then he said no, and I said…” The principal cuts me off. “Your son hit Thomas. He punched him in the face.” My mom gasps and turns to look at my dad. He’s grinning. “Good job, son.” The principal and Mom both give him a weird look. “John! What the hell are you talking about?! Our son just assaulted another little boy! This is not something to be proud of.” Mr. Michaels agrees. “It’s normal for young boys to fight, but your son got more violent than most. He kept hitting him, even when Thomas told him to stop,” explains Mr. Michaels. My mom is upset now. She looks at me and shakes her head. I don’t understand. I just wanted to defend my dad. Daddy always told me to stand up for what I believe in, and I definitely believe in him. Why am I in trouble for doing what Daddy told me? “We are required to let you know about any type of bullying a student does in class, and the consequences of such actions.” My parents nod. My dad still looks at me, smiling. “Ah, let the kid off the hook,” he says, winking at me. “He won’t do it again, right, champ?” He asks me. I nod. My mom is giving my dad a funny look. He chuckles a bit. The principal’s face turns even more serious. “Sir, I don’t think you understand what’s going on here. This is a serious offense. Your son hit another child. He needs to be taught that that is not okay.” My dad turns to look at Mr. Michaels and says, “Alright, alright. What does he have to do, stay after school and pick up trash off the highway?” Mr. Michaels does not laugh, but my dad does. “Micah will be put in after school detention where he will learn about respecting others while also helping Mrs. Woods clean up,” he explains. I frown. Dad whispers in my ear, “Hey, it won’t be so bad, kiddo.” My mom glares at him again. “Okay, that’s fine. Thank you, Mr. Michaels,” coos my mom. “No problem, Mrs. Fitzgerald. You all have a nice evening,” he replies.
I get up and my dad grabs my hand, telling my mom to wait while he starts up the car. We walk fast. “Daddy, are you mad at me?” I ask him, trying to keep up. He smiles at me and shakes his head. “Nah, not really.” I smile bigger as I watch my dad fumble with his keys. “Thomas called me a scaredy-cat and Mrs. Woods said that I bullied Thomas because I was just scared. Am I a scaredy-cat, Dad?” Dad immediately stops and looks at me. He squats down to my height and puts his hand on my shoulder. “Micah. You are the bravest boy I know. If anything, I bet that Thomas was scared.” I grin again. “He was!” My dad laughs as he opens the car door for me. “So you’re not mad?” I ask him again, just making sure I won’t get in more trouble. “Nope. I’m actually proud of you, son. You stood up for what you care about.” I smile at this thought and say to myself, “I’m just like my dad… a hero.” He smiles down at me, wiping his eyes and says, “That’s right, kiddo. Even if no one else believes you, you’ll always be a hero to me.”