We imagined fireballs pumping red with white-hot cores from our ungloved fists. We leapt and on impact felt the gravel chipping from sidewalk panels, stone crunching under the thick rubber of our small boots’ soles. The sun glinted gold as a coin from the copper buttons on our overalls. We huffed, heard that scuff of denim-against-denim, as we kicked out in front of us to propel an envisioned red turtle shell down the cracked walk.
It was a Saturday, and the town slept under a blanket of humidity. The houses were one-storey ranches with weathered off-white siding, wood shutters swathed with black rashes of mildew. Maples and oaks stood like umbrellas, shading the homes. Cars hulked silent and hot on blacktopped drives. Our thumbs were still sore from button mashing, but our parents had ordered us to play outside; we re-created—in running, jumping, ducking, and sliding—Mario’s antics from our morning Nintendo session. So, we raced along and pounded the air to shatter fantasy blocks from the ether, to unleash power-ups and starburst alongside the road. Curtains were pulled open as we dashed past; the occasional sedan coasted along the street, its occupants smirking bemusedly at us, two brothers at play.
An old man called to us from his porch and offered us drinks from a sweating pitcher of lemonade. Parched, we accepted, if only to scrutinize the man. He was bald, fat, and wore a grease-slathered t-shirt with a pair of jeans, the left leg clothespinned shut where his knee should have bulged. He clutched the knob handle of a cane like it was a gear selector, like he was about to steer us somewhere, and asked if we liked our drinks. My brother and I agreed: The lemonade was very sweet.
We watched the wind play in the green-capped oak trees. The breeze dislodged a few leaves, which fanned down to the ground. The old man refilled our glasses. We drank timidly.
The man coughed into his shoulder: “I know what you boys playing at along this road.”
He swiped at the knotted denim and its clothespin fastener with the stock of his cane. “And it’s not safe. You see them movies, like The Green Beret? War’s grit, no beauty.” He spoke of a war about which we had never heard, of a German front and rolling walls of tanks, and then of shells splintering the ground and hurling up people, sprays of dirt.
That wasn’t what we were playing at, but we listened to him anyway.
His eyelids draped shut. “Everything felt hooded in night,” he said. He discussed the earth rattling as he shoved a friend into a pile of charred rocks, then the shrapnel cindering the earth and melting through his shinbone. This world, graveled into being by his voice, was a memory drudged from the detritus of history, not from our side-scrolling realm of eight-bit plumbers and fanged fungi and winged turtles. His eyes glazed milky as he consulted his cane.
“Finish up your drinks, boys. And run along.”
We scrambled, confused, from his porch. A truck grumbled by, diesel exhaust bullet-billing black from its tailpipe.
I became tired of games and firefights, but that was hardly the old veteran’s fault.
Years later, I spoke to my brother on a gas station payphone after returning from a tour with the Pennsylvania National Guard in Kosovo. He asked if I’d seen any action. I whispered to him: Underneath a debris-shadowed sky, I had seen the red clip of bullets, like fireflies blinking a message throughout an eternal night, sparking from the muzzles of their firearms.
Hollow-voiced, I told my brother of the leaning walls that crumbled, shed bricks like tears as we marched past. A woman, with her child cradled in her arms, crashed through a window. A yellow shell of fire carapaced mother and child. The woman curled on the ground, which glittered with the caltrops of splintered glass. She sprawled out her child and tore off her flaming skirt to swat the flames from her infant. The two brightened opalescent as a Roman candle’s fuse.
My brother asked: What did we do? Did we help her? Shoot them out of mercy? What were we doing?
Doubt engorged my Adam’s apple, and I swallowed to dislodge my fear. I clenched my fists, heat pulsing in my palms. We brothers were warned; I, at least, was warned. I recalled the mother glancing to us, her irises reddened furnaces of anxiety. The flames had waxed around the woman’s wick-thin legs, braceleted her arms. What else was there? I coughed into the receiver.
The line’s static hissed back into my ear, a startling backfire, and I punched the receiver onto its hook.