Contest #130 winner 🏆

116 comments

Fiction

Content warning: Language

They knew I wasn’t cut out for war the moment they stuck an M4 Carbine in my hands. I had lady fingers while the soldiers around me had hands made to strangle and calluses that grated their rifles into submission.

To die for my country, surrounded by the sweaty men it rounded up into its service, was not a lifelong goal of mine. To be fair, I didn’t have a lifelong goal. A younger version of myself had been set on teaching preschool, or kindergarten—didn’t matter really. I just loved kids. That dream was doused by the gaggle of overprotective mothers who had me detained at a playground. 

I had been watching my bi-racial niece with too much interest. Her mom wanted a video, and I didn’t think twice; we knew mom’s word was law. She hit the zenith of her swing and I captured her glee-ridden face as she kicked her legs in a fit of triumph. 

A lanky brown man like me should have known better, should have thought about how I looked on the park bench: phone out and a hand in my sweats to keep warm. I had mustard on my shirt, too. My niece and I ate hot dogs earlier that day and she managed to dapple her pants with ketchup. She wanted to match, and I’d obliged. With kids, it’s always about compromise and comradery.

Out of the moms at the playground, I couldn’t tell you who made the call. It might have been a group effort for all I knew, like going to the bathroom. But I was twenty with a neckbeard that made me look forty and—whoever it was—I understood where they were coming from.

Before long, an officer stood over me. He’d looked at my skin and that mustard stain and my lazy-day sweats, and told me with his eyes that I matched every expectation. My only shield from his onslaught of accusations was my niece and her big ass tears. He let me walk with a strongly worded suggestion to avoid child-related career choices. 

Four years later, the draft notice hit our mailbox. The country had gone above and beyond to provide me a minor-free environment. I would have laughed, but my mum was already set on crying. 

I balanced the rifle a healthy distance away from my person and didn’t bother to feign comfort. No one expected me to kill anyone anyway, but maybe I could block a bullet for someone else. Preferably someone with a larger buldge—as the sergeant kindly noted. He said all I needed to do was stand still, look pretty, and make sure to wear a condom so I wouldn’t risk procreating while getting fucked on the battlefield. I smiled and joked and failed at push-ups until the sergeant realized lackluster jabs at my genitalia would fall flat. I was no stranger to slander from geriatric men. My day job had been in a nursing home, and a low-class one at that.

A transient friendship formed between myself and the men in my company who were able to look beyond my potential as a meat shield. I told my niece about them in a letter home. She sent us drawings of dragons and horses in response. We named them all with unbridled vulgarity. It felt wrong, but it was the good kind of wrong. Not the ending-a-life kind of wrong. 

They came at night—the men we spent six months preparing to meet—yipping and yowling in a foreign tongue. I heard the hiss of gunfire, dropped the shiny M4, and bolted. Pine trees and soldiers erupted in my wake. 

As I ran, I thought of my mum, and I did not think she would be ashamed. But it was my father, not my mum, who had insisted on naming me Dick. For a small statured man like myself, it was more of a joke than a name. Maybe my father thought my hands and I would grow into it. He hadn’t lived long enough to be disappointed when I didn’t. I was told it was a car accident, that it happened in an instant, and that he would be here if he could. Then, after I hit some inane mark of maturity, my aunty told me differently. 

Got himself stabbed by a mugger, she said. 

I dug up a news clip about it. He had valiantly stepped between the mugger and a lady’s purse. The report pegged him as a hero. All I saw was a man who could have been a father. An ashamed father, but a father, nevertheless. 

Had he been alive, he would’ve known how to use an M4. And had he been here, watching his son run, he might’ve used it to shoot me himself. Some adrenaline-inflated part of my brain wanted to laugh at that. The only quality time I would spend with my father was if his ghost bit at my heels. 

A fallen log that was more rot than wood served as my shelter that night. My unit had been small and there was no point in envisioning our future beyond this forest. I pressed myself into the decomposing tree’s embrace and wept for the men out there still clutching M4s. How long did it take to bleed out? Did it feel longer with pine-needles pressed into your neck and terror wheeling above? Would it be an honorable enough end? 

There were soldiers who lived for this moment. The draft was an opportunity, they’d said. Perseverance over preservation. Courage over cowardice. I saw it in their eyes, in the direction of their boots as they stood and wrangled their rifles: one foot in front of the other and you could bury your nose in that cut-flower honor our grandpas raised us on. 

Flowers or ashes, both would fill a vase just fine.

I wept hardest for them. I understood the loss of a dream, but not how a dream could bring about so much loss. Those were the sons my father dreamed of when he filled out my birth certificate; men who would exchange a purse for a life. 

I wept for myself, too. No matter how you looked at me, I would never be a man’s man. I had chosen cowardice over courage, preservation over perseverance. Even though I was, chromosomally speaking, born for war—I was plagued by fear. I didn’t want to make the wrong choice; I didn’t want to die with the ending-a-life kind of wrong in my gut. But hundreds of hours with my rifle meant I could hold, aim, and fire the M4 with ease. The conviction with which I handled the rifle, and the ease with which the bullet left the barrel, terrified me. Even a man with lady fingers like me could reach through the world and break a mother. A trigger didn’t leave room for thought. 

As dawn came, so too did their voices. They spoke amongst themselves, unaware of my presence. It was a lyrical language. There were soft consonants and words without edges that flowed into one another. I had forgotten the language of our enemy was made to string memories together, too. That they had words like ours, for kitchen and friend and father. And words that weren’t meant for this forest or this war. 

When they spotted me, their voices transformed, and we were on the battlefield once more. But I didn’t have my rifle, and it was a small comfort to know that their mothers might hear those soft voices in their home again. Dying here, alone and cradled against a reeking log, would be an honorable enough end. 

January 29, 2022 01:43

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116 comments

Veronica Quinn
18:02 Feb 04, 2022

So well written, love the analogies. Congrats on a well deserved win!

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Allie Erickson
02:44 Feb 06, 2022

Thank you, Veronica. I am so happy you were able to enjoy the story!

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Sheila Sarrett
17:38 Feb 04, 2022

This was a wonderful short story that shows the writer writing about war and peace on the battlefield as well as in his home and heart.

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Allie Erickson
02:46 Feb 06, 2022

Hi Sheila, thank you so much. It sounds like you were able to feel/understand the emotions I hoped to share with the reader. It means a lot.

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Chloe Longstreet
17:37 Feb 04, 2022

A beautiful story and a well-deserved win. I hope to read more of your work in the future.

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Allie Erickson
02:48 Feb 06, 2022

Thank you, Chloe! I appreciate your words and hope to keep you entertained with any future stories as well.

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Suma Jayachandar
15:59 Feb 04, 2022

Brilliantly beautiful! So many profound truths packed into a fluid , tight narrative. A truly deserved win. Congratulations!

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Allie Erickson
02:59 Feb 06, 2022

Thank you for your kind words, Suma.

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Karen Kinley
15:59 Feb 04, 2022

This story is so sad and beautiful and reflective and melancholy and even hopeful all at once. Loved it! Deserved win! Congratulations!

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Allie Erickson
03:03 Feb 06, 2022

Hello Karen! Thank you very much. It warms my heart knowing you were able to go on this emotional rollercoaster with me!

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Anna Nonymous
15:51 Feb 04, 2022

Allie! There is so much beautiful writing in here my comment is likely to be longer than your story, but here are some of my favorite moments: "As I ran, I thought of my mum, and I did not think she would be ashamed"; "How long did it take to bleed out? Did it feel longer with pine-needles pressed into your neck and terror wheeling above?"; *** "Flowers or ashes, both would fill a vase just fine." *** - I literally said "DAMN" out loud when I read this line. "Even a man with lady fingers like me could reach through the world and break a ...

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Mary Jo Fortes
16:34 Feb 04, 2022

I will not repeat the quotes, as I was about to leave a similar comment, having said "DAMN" out loud at "Flowers or ashes, both would fill a vase just fine," as well. Other lines, left me with goosebumps! Thank you, Hannah, for saving me typing--I'll just agree with your chosen quotes for now.

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Allie Erickson
03:18 Feb 06, 2022

Wow! Thank you, Hannah. This whole experience feels like a dream. I never imagined anyone to pluck quotes from my writing like this. There are no words to properly express my gratitude for the kindness and support offered here. And thank you again, Mary Jo!

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Kimberly Close
15:51 Feb 04, 2022

This was incredibly powerful ( "[...] reach through the world and break a mother. A trigger didn't leave room for thought." especially stood out to me) and you built the world so well. You fully earned the winning spot this week! Great job and please keep writing!!

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Allie Erickson
03:11 Feb 06, 2022

Thank you, Kimberly! I am a bit of a crybaby and thinking of my mom while writing those lines sent a few tears down my cheeks. The grief of a loving mother is an almost unbearable sight. I am grateful for your support!

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15:38 Feb 04, 2022

Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing this story with the world, as it definitely deserved to be seen. Amazing job, Allie!

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Allie Erickson
03:07 Feb 06, 2022

Hi Kate, thank you so much. I truly appreciate your encouragement.

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W.D. Pierce
23:08 Feb 02, 2022

My favorite line was "Flowers or ashes, both would fill a vase just fine." I actually reread it a few times to really picture that statement. Very profound statement.

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Allie Erickson
03:08 Feb 06, 2022

I am happy you were able to fine a line that stuck with you. Thank you!

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Daedra Willows
13:27 Dec 26, 2022

This was amazing! I've never been in war or battles, and hopefully never will be, but this opened my eyes to how it must feel to those drafted. You made me feel sympathy for the character in just that much writing is impressive. Keep up the great work, Allie!

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Ash Cr
13:50 Jun 19, 2022

Reading this a bit late haha, but it was just too amazing not to comment. I love how relatable the main character was, how you built him up as a character through beautiful and tragic backstory, which made the story all the more heartbreaking. Great writing

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Tommy Goround
13:19 Apr 26, 2022

Oh shucks...I didn't like the end. Fantastic poem prose. Loved the line about ashes and flowers. The "mom's word is law" line seemed to refer to your sister. It is perhaps the least poetic or worst line out of the hundreds of gorgeous lines you created. The details were sold. I think you are a 30 year old Vet. I was hoping the ending would have him accidentally shooting enemy with his girlish hands. That would have so many axioms and philosophies attached. Instead, I have to worry that the narrator is dead; the whole thing as a false na...

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Atenaga Monday
19:41 Apr 12, 2022

Good day, am a writer my finest book or should I say my greatest writing can't be published yet cause of lack of funds please I humbly solicit for your help in raising some funds, my plan is to help every kid in Africa able to access books even without payment please do this help humanity and make the world a better place; my email: mdatenaga@gmail.com, my WhatsApp number: https://wa.me/message/HOFB7PTVGI3TF1 I will be glad to have partners all over the world to join me, God bless God speed. You can also write and ask for my Novel I will be...

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17:40 Apr 06, 2022

It made for a very strong story as the man was reluctant to go to war and mostly because it was not something he wanted to do for the rest of his life. The scenes that appear or narrate are somewhat strong and in my point of view for someone who likes explicit scenes.

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18:41 Apr 05, 2022

I loved the narrative of the story and how well the text expresses the emotions of the man. It's amazing how men are judged for their masculinity for simply not doing the things that others do. the end was sad for me although it is shown once again that our protagonist did not want to kill, just go home

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18:40 Apr 05, 2022

I got really impressed by the narrative of the story, it's amazing. The protagonist felt so real and the way you can really empathize with him. Congratulations Allie!!

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18:22 Apr 05, 2022

What an amazing story, great language and a well-deserevd win.

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18:22 Apr 05, 2022

What an amazing story, great language and a well-deserevd win.

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S.M. Brown
13:52 Mar 19, 2022

This is the definition of short and sweet. The details and imagery and poetic language is special. The subject material was very respectfully handled and I think the protagonist, even in his cowardice, is relatable. I'm a veteran but I never had to fight in a gruesome war, pointless or otherwise; it's hard to know what you would do in that position, especially knee-deep in the middle of the fray. I think the brevity of your story perfectly encapsulates how short a life can be when out on that battlefield, how quickly it can be snuffed out. 1...

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Patrick Meyer
17:37 Mar 17, 2022

Your story blended topics that I’m deeply interested in an enjoyable and artful way. You also won with your first submission! As a new writer, this story and accomplishment give me hope and inspiration. Thank you!

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