He liked to come here on his lunch hour because no one could find him. He just grabbed the lunch cooler in his car, crossed Flank Road, and disappeared into the swamp. There was a fallen tree with lichens growing over it maybe 200 yards in, and the water rarely got so far out as this tree from the pond, so it’s where he normally settled.
The mosquitoes buzzed, and the biting flies dove at him, but he didn’t pay them no mind. He liked to think he had a pact with them, one that he made with them while he was in Iraq—you don’t bite me, and I don’t kill you. So he didn’t mind them buzzing so long as they didn’t land, and they almost never did. Every once in a while, one would land, and then it was time for a talk.
“Now look, son,” he’d say, “me and your kind agreed on this. So I’ma give you a chance to do the right thing.” And he’d flick the bugger away. For most people the flies were persistent, but not so much for him.
It was the same every day. A peanut butter sandwich, a Georgia peach, some Miss Vickie’s potato chips, a Diet Coke, and a square of salted caramel chocolate. It wasn’t that he didn’t like other sandwiches—it was just simpler this way with less to think about. Every day, he chewed his peach first and tossed away the pit, always out of sight and usually into some bush. He often wondered if a peach tree might grow up some day from one of his pits, but he was a groundskeeper at the Petersburg Country Club and he knew better. Wrong soil, wrong moisture, wrong shade, wrong everything.
It was the sandwich and the chocolate next. He always saved the chips for last, and sometimes, he didn’t eat them because the crunching in his mouth rang too much in his ears. See, he liked to hear the swamp—the insects buzzing, the birds calling, the woodpeckers smacking the trees, the screeching and chattering of squirrels, sometimes even a large fish breaking the surface of the water in the pond.
Today, the sounds were different from normal, but not unexpected if you knew your dates. August 21. To the east and south, he could hear sporadic musket fire, followed by rolling volleys and shouts. He didn’t so much mind if people learned a lesson or two, but he wasn’t sure what that lesson was supposed to be. He would have preferred the company of the insects and the birds, but they never did this for more than a day or two, so why bother getting troubled by it?
He had the peanut butter sandwich in one hand, and he pulled open the Ziploc. He reached into the cooler and grabbed the peach with the other hand. He looked down at it to decide where to bite and heard another volley of musketry, which is probably why he didn’t notice the footsteps in front of him just twenty yards away. It was only when the man emerged from brush into the clearing that Jerome looked up, startled to find himself staring down the barrel of a musket held by a barefoot man in tattered gray.
“You a runaway?” the man said. His face was smudged with gunpowder, and sweat dripped from his cap and beaded in his scraggly, thin beard.
“A what?” said Jerome.
“A runaway. You contraband? Why you so far from the earthworks? Why you settin in this here swamp?”
Jerome took a deep breath, and his heart settled down. “Come on there, son. Ain’t no one here playin war wich you. I’m just a havin my lunch.”
He was really more a boy than a man, but he didn’t lower the musket. “Listen here, darkie.”
The words froze Jerome, and he felt a hot anger rise in his throat and burn down through his toes.
“I don’t know where you’re from. I ain’t know why you ain’t workin on the earthworks or maybe if you’re one of them. And I sure as nothin don’t know why you talkin to me like that.”
Jerome slowly lowered the sandwich. “Boy, you had your little game now. Played your little part. I ain’t killed a man in more than 15 years. Made me a promise to the Lord. But I know how to do it. So if you gonna shoot me with your play gun there, you’d best hit me square. Cuz after that, ain’t no tellin what I’ma do to you.”
The humid air was thick, and both men were sweating. The musketry rolled again in the distance, but Jerome was still conscious of the flies buzzing around him near his ears. Perhaps his life really hung in the balance at this moment, but he felt no rush of adrenaline, no anticipation of being hit by anything, just the ebbing anger that came from the insult. And even that was dull now, softening to a mellow sadness.
“Is that a peach you got?” said the boy in gray.
“Uh huh,” said Jerome. “Georgia peach.”
“A Georgia peach?” He lowered the musket. “How’d you get a Georgia peach through the lines? The Yankees cut the rails months ago.”
Jerome rolled his eyes. “I tole you I ain’t playin war wich you. I’m just on my lunch break.”
The boy took a step forward. “I ain’t had a meal in two days. I ain’t had a day with more than one meal in . . . long as I can remember.”
Jerome looked him up and down. His feet were crusted with mud and grime; his trousers were cinched with suspenders that wrapped tightly over bony shoulders; his coat was frayed with holes in the elbows and shoulders, some of which looked like minie ball piercings. As tattered as his clothes were, there was plenty of material hanging loose on his gaunt body. Even his beard was sparse and failed to hide tight cheekbones.
“You playin your part a little too well, son,” said Jerome. “Have a set beside me. I can share. Just set that musket somewhere else.”
The boy leaned the musket against a tree, then edged over to the tree and sat about a yard away.
“I ain’t gonna hurt you or even touch you,” said Jerome. “Get all my black germs on you.” He held up the peach. “Here, it’s yours.”
He passed it to the boy who took it tentatively, eyed it, then chomped into it, which caused juice to squirt out and run down the sides of his mouth and under his chin.
“Ain’t never shared lunch with a negro before,” he said. “I mean, they got negro cooks in the army. But I ain’t never sat with one and had supper.”
Jerome shook his head. “I done tole you already to stop playin your part. Ain’t no one here playin war wich you, and you ain’t gonna call me negro or darkie or nothin else.”
What he shoulda done was get up and leave. Or maybe hit the kid in the mouth. But he was a kid and frail. He was taking the part too seriously if that’s what he was doin. Or he had been brainwashed. Or he was a crazy person. Really thought he was back in the real war. Couldn’t tell the difference between reality and dreams. Jerome had seen kids get like that in the army, especially the ones who couldn’t handle the combat so well.
“Why you here?” said Jerome. “Why ain’t you wit the others?”
The boy was finishing off the peach, using his teeth to extract every morsel from the pit. He lowered his eyes, didn’t meet Jerome’s gaze.
“You gonna turn me in?” he said.
Jerome sighed. Okay, we’re gonna play the delusion game, he thought. “Are you gonna turn me in?” he asked.
The boy looked up at him. “You got papers?”
“Freedom papers. You’re in Virginia. You gotta have freedom papers to be a, uh, whatever you wanna call yourself and walk around free.”
“Sure, I got papers,” said Jerome. “I left em back at my, uh, well, back where I was comin from. But I got em.”
“You can’t walk around without papers,” said the boy. “You just ignorant or what?”
The boy was eyeing the sandwich now, which was still in the unzipped Ziploc.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said. “You give me whatever it is you got there to eat and you don’t say nothin about me and I won’t say nothin about you.”
Jerome was a strong, sinewy man, and his muscles bulged out from the tank top he wore to work. The kid was in far worse shape than he was.
“I can live with that,” he said. “You need this worse than me anyway.”
He pulled the sandwich from the bag and handed it to the boy. The boy squeezed it between his fingers, turned it over in his hands several times. “I ain’t never seen bread this soft. How you make that, dar– . . . what’s your name?”
“How you make that bread, Jerome?”
“I didn’t,” he said. “I bought it at the store, same as folks always do.”
The boy took a large bite, chewed, and an expression of wonder came over his face. “What is this? How’d you make it?”
Jerome shook his head and smiled. The delusion was deep. “It’s peanut butter. It was invented . . .” he took a deep breath. “Nevermind. It’s mashed up peanuts made into a paste with some oil, sugar, and salt.”
The boy was taking his last two bites as Jerome finished his sentence. “Ain’t never had nothin like that in the army. Ain’t never had nothin like that my whole life. I’d like to show ma that.”
There was sporadic musket fire in the distance. Jerome handed over the bag of chips. “They’re fried potatoes. Cut real thin. And what’s holding them is a plastic bag.”
The boy felt the bag between his fingers, then popped the first chip into his mouth.
“I know what these are,” he said. “Wudn’t born yesterday.”
Jerome shrugged. “You didn’t answer my question earlier.”
The boy stuffed several chips into his mouth, looked at the ground, pinched grass with his toes.
“Can’t no one call me a coward,” he said. “I done my part. For three years, I done my part.”
“Your part?” said Jerome.
“Malvern Hill. Second Manassas. Fredericksburg. Chancellorsville. Gettysburg. My pa, he fell at Malvern Hill real early in the war. My older brother, I buried him myself at Chancellorsville.”
Jerome watched him closely. He saw a tear slip from the boy’s right eye and slide down his cheek. Whatever his delusion, it was real to him.
“You know it’s near the end, right?” Jerome said. “You have to know that. So why now?”
The boy looked at him with tears forming in both eyes now. “Ain’t no way to win. Them blue bellies, they just keep comin and comin and comin. You’re gonna be free some time here soon.”
Jerome smiled and shook his head. “I already got my papers, son.”
“Well you done tole me that, true.” He rubbed the tears away with the sleeve of his filthy coat. “My ma ain’t got no one left but me. You understand that, right? You see that, right? Ain’t gonna no good to die for somethin that ain’t gonna happen anyway. And she’ll have no one.”
Jerome looked at his work boots, saw ants crawling around them after a chip he had dropped. He nudged a groove into the soil and watched them scurry around the groove. The woods seemed to darken with a haze, and he realized that smoke from musket and cannon powder was drifting in among them. He smelled sulfur.
“Let me ask you somethin, then. What you fightin for all this time?”
The boy shrugged and had a far-off look. “Don’t really know anymore. Our independence. Freedom. That’s what it was supposed to be.”
“Freedom to do what? You live in the United States of America. What exactly do you think you need to be free from?”
The boy crunched another cluster of chips. “To live how we want. Let the blue bellies live how they want. Get em off our land. I didn’t care until they come marchin through our land.”
“You just wanna be free to own my kind,” said Jerome.
“We don’t own no darkies,” said the boy. “Sorry. Negroes.”
Jerome shook his head. He had left his cell phone in the truck. Never wanted distractions over lunch. But he wondered now if he ought to get the boy some help.
“What did your pa do?”
“Did a little farming. Built stuff. Like barns. Wagons. Houses. Me and Leroy, we was working for a wagon maker when the war started.”
Jerome shook his head. “You play your part to the max, man, I gotta say.”
“What do you mean?”
“You got a whole back story. Never once broken character even though I could up and kill you for what you done call me these several times.”
The boy just stared at him, crumbs from the last of the chips on his lips. “I dunno what you mean. I don’t want no trouble from you. You say you’re free but you ain’t got no papers. You’re behind our lines by yourself. You could be shipped down to Georgia to work the cotton fields. So I don’t think you want no trouble from me. All I want is to go home. And I’m much obliged to you for givin me this here food.”
Jerome stared at him, studied the smudges of gunpowder on his face, smelled the smoke floating through the woods, studied the boy’s eyes—the hunger, the exhaustion, the terror. The boy wasn’t no reenactor. Jerome didn’t know what the boy was, but he felt a surge of energy, adrenaline, like he hadn’t since Iraq, since the first time his striker unit burst through a door and opened fire.
The boy slowly handed the plastic bag back to him, then looked at the mud and leaves beneath his bare feet.
“I gotta tell you, Jerome, and you won’t hear no other Virginians say it. Your people fought well at the Crater. Totally fearless. Your own soldiers turned on y’all, shot y’all in the back, but y’all fought. And our Virginia boys kept shootin y’all and runnin you through, and you kept comin till the blue bellies tole you to get back.”
“Our own soldiers, huh,” said Jerome. “Let me ask you somethin, son. What’s yo name?”
“William Anderson. Folks at home call me Billy.”
“And where are your people from, William Anderson? Not yo ma and pa. Your long dead people.”
“Andersons go all the way back to the beginning of Virginia. Fought in the Revolution. Before them, they was from England.”
“You know where my people are from?”
“Africa, I s’pose.”
“And how would you know that?”
“Ain’t all the coloreds from there?”
“That what you think?”
“They brought em over in the boats and sold em right out of Richmond just north of here.”
“Sure, they did,” said Jerome. “Right out of Shockoe Bottom just 30 miles north of here. From a place that’s now college housing. Except, I don’t know if that’s where my people went through. Thousands of people are buried under what used to be a parking lot because they got sick on the way or they got beaten when they got here. Maybe some of my people are there. Maybe they went south, maybe they stayed here. Maybe they ain’t from Africa at all. Maybe they from Barbados or Haiti or Bermuda or Jamaica. Maybe they got dragged here from there. Know what their names are?”
The boy squinted. “No.”
“I dunno neither. Within one generation, they didn’t know neither. Solomon’s my last name. You know what that is? That’s a slave name, given to one of my ancestors. His own name taken away and some white man’s name from the Bible in its place. And maybe he ain’t even black all the way. Cuz maybe some white master raped his mother and that master never acknowledged his own son.”
Billy coughed, then spit. “I tole you, Mr. Solomon. I don’t want no trouble from you.”
“I ain’t got no soldiers, Billy. There ain’t no ‘your soldiers, my soldiers.’ They’re all your soldiers.”
Billy tilted his head to the left. “I don’t understand.”
Jerome pulled out his square of chocolate, peeled it, handed it to the boy.
“It’s chocolate. You’ll like it.” He stuffed the empty plastic bags back in his cooler. “Those colored soldiers in the crater, what do you spose they was fightin for?”
“I guess they’d say their freedom.”
Jerome shook his head. “I had a son once, Billy. He was a little younger than you when he was shot in the streets of Petersburg by another black man who had a blue bandana. I had a wife once. She got hooked on them little white pills you get from all the white doctors in town until soon she was on heroin.”
Billy nodded. “Oh, yeah. They say that heals a lot of stuff.”
Jerome shook his head. “No, no, no, Billy. It don’t heal nothin. She dead now.”
“You was fightin for your freedom, you say,” said Jerome. “You said the coloreds was fightin for their freedom. It ain’t so either way.”
The boy looked at his cracked, muddy feet. “I spose it ain’t.”
“You just fightin to kill the boys in blue. And to keep the coloreds in their place. And the coloreds? They carryin 200 years of your burdens, and they just fightin to kill you.”
Billy placed the square of chocolate on his tongue. He slid it around in his mouth and finally said, “Where’d you get this? Never had nothin like it.”
“Where I live, they got that at all the stores.”
Billy shook his head. “Ain’t but one store where I live and it don’t have nothin like this.”
Jerome felt a mosquito land on his arm. He nudged it away. “Wait a few years. It’ll change.”
Billy wiped sweat from his brow. “What you said wasn’t right.”
“About the stores?” said Jerome.
“About why I went to fight.”
“Well, you can’t very well admit I was right,” said Jerome.
“You ain’t right.”
“You gonna tell me about your freedoms and your way of life?”
Billy shook his head. “You don’t happen to have a chaw, do you?” Jerome shook his head. “Ain’t had a good chaw of tobacco in ages.”
“Why’d you go?” Jerome said.
Billy picked up a blade of grass and put it in his mouth. “Cuz my pa and brother did, cuz every other man and boy my age did, and cuz I was young and didn’t no know better.”
Jerome patted the boy’s knee. “You a lot older now, ain’t you?”
“Goin home is the bravest thing you ever done,” said Jerome.
Billy looked at him for several long seconds. Jerome thought there might be tears in his eyes, but Billy blinked them back. Then he stood suddenly. “I’d best be gettin on. No tellin whether the Yanks will be up this way or our own men. They was all movin this way at one point.”
“Spose that’s best,” said Jerome.
“I thank you kindly for the food. Wish I knew where I could get more.”
Jerome began to unlace his work boots. “You’d best get on home to your ma. But two things before you go.”
“Don’t you figure you should get rid of that jacket and hat? Both sides gonna know you ain’t where you should be.”
Billy flicked the blade of grass out of his mouth. “Right, right. Thanks.”
Jerome slid off his boots. “You’re gonna need these to walk all those miles home.”
“Really? I haven’t had shoes since before The Wilderness.”
“Take em,” said Jerome. “I don’t know quite know what’s happenin here, but I know you need these more than I do.”
Billy stepped over and took the boots from Jerome, then slipped his feet into them and laced them up. “They wear a little big. Which is good for when my feet swell. Seen guys have to get their boots cut right off their feet. And man, these is way better than anything the army ever gave us. Better than what I ever got off a Yankee too.”
“Need me a new pair anyway, and I ain’t got no one to spend money on besides me,” said Jerome. “Ain’t nothin to give you those.”
“I appreciate it, Jerome,” said Billy.
He started back toward where he had come from.
“Ain’t you headin the wrong way?” Jerome said.
Billy shook his head. “Gonna bury this coat and hat in the swamp, then head on up past you.”
The boy disappeared into the thicket, and Jerome stared after him for several long moments, listening to his rustling in the woods, while hearing men hollering in the distance among sporadic gunfire. He looked down and pulled off his socks, then tucked them in his cooler. As he did, he heard voices close by suddenly.
“Halt, boy!” a voice bellowed.
Jerome heard Billy’s voice next. “I got separated from my unit. I’m with the 6th. You know where they at?”
“I know what you doin, boy,” an older, deeper voice said. And with that, musket fire erupted maybe thirty yards away, and smoke drifted through the trees and thorns.
Jerome wanted to cry out but just dropped his head.
Minutes later, he heard rustling in the bushes and saw two older men with long beards emerge. One had a red shirt, one a white shirt. They had gray pants like Billy’s, but no coats and no caps. The red-shirted one was wearing Jerome’s boots.
They paused when they saw Jerome, muskets dangling from their hands. “That stray steal your boots, negro?”
Jerome felt nothing, stared blankly at the men. “Nah. I done give him my shoes cuz he ain’t had none.”
The man laughed and spit. “Well, they mine now. And I spose I don’t have to kill you now.”
With that, the men stepped around him and walked past him, heading out of the swamp and woods.
Jerome waited until he heard their footsteps fade away. Cannons boomed in the distance, but the birds were silent in the swamp, hushed by the musket fire that had just ripped through.
Jerome stood slowly, then advanced over the moist ground, feeling the mud push up between his toes. He picked his way around a thorn bush and past a couple of trees until he saw in a clearing the boy lying on his back, his coat and cap scattered to his left side.
Jerome approached him softly and kneeled down gently next to him. He shooed flies and mosquitoes away from the boy’s face and stared at the boy’s glassy blue eyes. He put his hand over one of the two chest wounds and felt the warmth of blood.
He had done this before, of course. Had heard gunfire that night years ago just up the block and knew without being told that his son was there. When he reached him, Ladarius was lying in the car wash parking lot under the lights, his brown eyes open, glassy, and still. There was no car nearby, no one running from the scene. He had yelled, had tried CPR, but he had seen men die in combat, had been at their sides, and he knew without being told. They had never caught no one, had never prosecuted no one, and every day Jerome had driven down the streets for work, seen gangs of boys, and knew that some of them had been there, had pulled the trigger on his boy.
The heavy air, the gunpowder, the booming cannon, the mosquitoes buzzing in his ear . . . the country club was 150 years distant, like it was a mirage or dream. The blood on his hands was real. Those were minie balls that had killed the boy. The mud on his feet was real.
He had found his wife toppled over next to the toilet, no pulse, no breath, her eyes rolled back in her head. You’d think he’d be used to it now.
“Killed you over shoes like a black boy in the streets,” he whispered to the boy. He shut the boy’s eyes, then grabbed his coat and gently covered him. Then he put the cap over the boy’s face. “Now yo mama ain’t got no one. And y’all all died for nothin.”
He stood and started back through the woods, came to his log and climbed over it, moved toward the edge of the woods. What would he find when he reached the clearing? Was the country club on the other side of the road? How could it be?
He emerged from the woods and looked to the southeast where the gunfire was picking up again. There were no roads, no buildings in the distance except an old tavern way across the field, no power lines, no sound of vehicles moving. The grass was thigh high in places, and it was littered with bodies, gray and blue. Wagons were overturned and burning, and horses lay in the field, some still twitching and hollering with an eerie, piercing cry. He saw cannon shots tracing across the sky; there were woods in the distance, and he could see fire burning in them. For a moment, he squinted because he could see shapes dangling from the trees. No. Not shapes. Men. Hanging by nooses.
The ground was cratered and smoldering with ash, dust, and blood. To his right, he could see the crater that had been formed when bodies had been blown sky high, and for a moment, he felt out of his body gazing down into it where black, white, gray, and blue were piled on top of and next to each other. Next to the crater was the field at Cold Harbor, littered with the masses of the North who had died by the thousands in just 30 minutes in front of the Rebel breastworks. And then there was the Angle at Spotsylvania where the breastworks were piled high with blue and gray dead on either side, and men were screaming from down in the mud while others stepped on their faces. And to the left of that was the field bisected by the Emmitsburg road, littered with gray bodies, mangled horses, the occasional blue coat—the field where Pickett’s, Trimble’s, and Pettigrew’s men had been shot to pieces and the hopes of the Confederacy with them.
Then he could see the huddled, shivering men at the base of Marye’s heights using the blue-clad bodies of their comrades for cover while men in gray shot at anything that moved.
From the woods in the distance, near the fire, he could hear the screaming, could see men on fire running through the brush, and could see the dangling black men in the trees. He thought to count those dangling bodies but realized they were innumerable, that the woods stretched back forever and that bodies hung from the limbs on every tree.
Then he saw the field at Malvern Hill, where the gray was scattered in pieces because most of the dead had been blown apart by artillery crossfire. Almost no one had died from musketry, so the bodies were mostly unidentifiable.
He turned away from the site back toward his swamp, but it was no longer his swamp. Instead, he saw the pit at Shockoe Bottom where black men stood, tossing in their own kind who had died and being ordered by the overseers to cover them with a thin layer of dirt. The wrong move, just a bit of a refusal, and they themselves could be down the sides and into the pit, never to rise again. The stench rose, carrying years of decay and maggots and mud. There was a creek well beyond the pit and surrounded by open land. Bodies of the Lakota Sioux were scattered over a mile, and blue-coated soldiers were tossing men, women, and children into a pit.
He turned away and stood before the rock where the body of Metacomet, son of Massasoit, lay in pieces after it had been drawn and quartered by Benjamin Church’s men. The head was gone—on its way back to Plymouth where it would hang in the town square for twenty years to remind everyone what happened when you crossed the white man.
He turned back to the field and saw the dead Mormons being collected and howled over at Haun’s Mill. And just beyond that, he saw the travelers of the Oregon Trail lying in their own blood at Mountain Meadows, while the Mormons confiscated their wagons and rounded up the few surviving children.
Every direction he turned, he saw uniforms, blood, gray, blue, brown, white, and the howls of the wounded and those left behind pierced him and seemed to stretch forever.
He spotted the distant woods again, and across the field, he saw a man walking toward him. The man was average height, and in the bright sun, his sandy gray top stood out in the midst of the grass and blood. He passed through the carnage without looking down or to the right or left; instead, he seemed fixed on Jerome, unmoved by the carnage or the howling or the sounds of the wounded animals.
Jerome felt staggered by all he had seen, and yet, he had already known so much death personally, had seen so much of it in Iraq that he couldn’t have confessed to being surprised. He knew the history, and he knew what the dying and dead looked like, knew what it was to watch the light go out of a man’s eyes, knew what it was to pull the trigger and make that light go out. When you killed in a striker battalion, when you stormed a house, you killed in a 15-foot radius, saw the blood spatter, and watched the light go out.
He had made his vow because, really, what did he have against those Iraqis anyway? But of course, the Lord had taken away his wife and his son because he had killed for no reason. So they had died for no reason. Every deed had to be paid for, eye for eye, blood for blood, so he had had to just accept it. His vow hadn’t prevented it, but he had to keep the vow so it wouldn’t get worse.
The man was ten yards away and closing the gap. He was olive skinned, and he wore tan, almost burlap pants. He had a beard not unlike those of the Confederates Jerome had met that day. The man came within a few feet and stopped.
“Jerome Solomon,” said the man.
Jerome looked in the man’s eyes and felt that the man understood everything essential about him.
“Where am I?” Jerome asked.
“You know where you are,” said the man.
“Who was the boy I met?”
“He told you his name.”
“How did he get here?”
“Why did they kill him?”
“They told you why.”
Jerome shook his head. “None of this makes any sense.”
The man gazed at him. “Why not, Jerome? Do you not believe what you see?”
“How is any of this possible?”
“You know the good book, Jerome. You know the prophets saw things others couldn’t, saw time in ways others didn’t.”
“Am I a prophet?”
Jerome sighed, then gazed up as a clump of clouds glided through the pale blue sky. “Why all of this?” Jerome said, gesturing with his hand at the endless carnage in the endless field.
The man turned, and he gazed across the field with Jerome. Jerome then felt the man’s hand on his bicep.
He looked into the man’s eyes again, as the man gestured toward the field and said, “Son of man, can these bones live?”
Jerome felt the breath go out of him. The sounds of the mourning and dying faded to silence. The slightest breeze ran across his bare biceps, and he was conscious of the dry August grass beneath his feet, the warmth of the sun on his face and arms. The past was future, the future was present, and there was no time, as he saw his boy living and dead, bleeding and breathing, young and old, while his wife hovered nearby, young and free on their wedding night, track marks on her arms, her hair a mess, her teeth white and straight and perfect. They were both there; so were the men he had killed in Iraq, so were the men from his unit who had died, and now, here was Billy Anderson, clean-shaven, fresh-faced, his father and brother flanking him on either side. And he knew they all waited for his answer, and yet, there was no rush—he could wait there forever, pondering how to respond, and nothing would change, but all would go on.
He took a deep breath, and then he knew. He dropped first to all fours, then prostrated himself before the man, pressing his forehead into the grass, and cried with a loud voice, “O Lord God, thou knowest.”