A Flag That I Love

Submitted into Contest #51 in response to: Write a story about someone who's haunted by their past.... view prompt



TW: gun violence, suicide ideation

Lieutenant Daniels ordered him to put her down, to pull the goddamn trigger and drop the little bitch, but Rob couldn't do it and the lieutenant went on shouting. He heard the order clearly, even over the chop of a nearby copter lifting off, understood very well what he was supposed to do, and still his finger would not perform the task it had been made for. Everyone was running, taking cover, preparing

for what had come so many times before, but she was just a child.

A voice broke through the haze of his reverie and drew him away from the desert. And yet it didn't. In many ways, he knew, he would never escape that place.

He tried to move away, simply to put some space between them, but the table caught his back. He said something, but everything was still foggy, words dancing across the wall of his mind, colliding and disintegrating so that all things seemed real and imaginary at the same time.

Amber stepped toward him, hesitated, then retreated. "I asked if you're okay."

He stood up. She was just out of reach. "I think I'll go outside."

She moved aside to let him pass.

Stepping onto the porch was a breath of fiery air, though the warmth faded quickly. He inhaled the scent of cut grass, the aroma of Old Lady Bee's rose garden, the faint but distinct perfume of suds as the twins washed their Mustang in the driveway next door. Nothing stuck in the nasal passage or

tickled the throat into a coughing fit. There was no sand and no unpredictable gusts kicking it up. You

didn't need glasses or goggles.

He surveyed the street. No insurgents. No bullets. No bombs. No war. That was all thousands of miles and an ocean away, where the dunes ruled and sometimes you weren't sure where you were or how far you had left to go. Here were only homes set on immaculate lawns, children's bicycles left on sidewalks, pets on short leashes. But sometimes he wasn't sure. Some days he became convinced it was

all an elaborate stage-job, that if he just went around the right corner he would find that other place.

And sometimes he wished for that. Sometimes it was the only thing he wished. To find that corner

and go back there. Go back and die.

Across the way Mrs. Tillman came out glancing up the block, got into her BMW and drove away.

A few houses down Mr. Allen got into his own BMW and took off in the opposite direction.

It was an affair the neighborhood was aware of but presumably their spouses were not. An affair Rob had killed for, had almost died for. The betrayal of the one person you'd vowed not to, the one person you'd sworn to love and to cherish, the one person you'd promised to stand by through thick,

thin, good, bad, rich, poor, in sickness and in health, for ever and ever till death did you part. That was

what men and women killed and died for. The American Dream.

His mind, as always, turned to the children, the ones in the Sandbox he'd watched live and die, by his hands as well as their own. They were told to hate, so they stewed in their loathing, told to kill, so they plotted mass murder, and they even sent their own children to be martyrs on that battlefield. It wasn't much different than the American sentiment, the States just had an age limit.

The children were the key. They always had been. In those tiny hands was the power to change what their parents refused to. If only they were taught. But of course the only thing they ever learned was deception and anger. The only thing they really knew was fear.

Someone touched his shoulder and he grabbed a wrist, twisting until Amber cried. He let go andstarted to apologize.

"No," rubbing her wrist, "it's okay, I shouldn't've done that."

"You wanna sit down?”

She sat beside him, with plenty of elbow room. "Are you okay?"

"I'm not even sure what okay is."

"I don't know what that means, Rob."

Of course she didn't.

"Baby, talk to me."

"You can't understand, Amber."

"But I can listen."

"I wouldn't know what to say." Though he thought he did.

"Tell me about that candy wrapper."

He looked down and it was in his hand, flashing it's wink at him, as if to say, “She may not know, but I do.”

"It's a chocolate bar wrapper", he told her.

"I've seen you sniffing it. What do you smell?"

Rob tried to smile, but it didn't work. He moved it under her nose, but only for a moment.

"I don't smell anything."

He sniffed. "Sand and fire. Singed flesh. That's what I smell."

"Will you tell me about it?"

"You wouldn't want to hear it", stashing the wrapper. "Some things just ain't meant to be, Amber, but they are anyway. Ain't nothin can change that. People died cause what we did."

Amber was crying, because Rob was crying, though he didn't notice.

"I'm sorry." She hugged him. He tensed. She let go and moved back. "I'm so sorry."

Wasn't that what they all said? The ones who'd never seen a person blown into so many indistinguishable pieces? The ones who'd never looked down at the body of a child and wished beyond

belief that it would just get up? Wasn't sorry what they all said? "Don't be sorry for me", he said, "be sorry for the kids."

She wiped her face. "What kids?"

He almost laughed. "All of em." He looked into her eyes. They shimmered like shallow coastal waters. "I can't take back the things I did, and I'll never get beyond them. I don't deserve to." He got up.

"Where're you going?"

"For a walk," was all he said, not because he didn't want her to know where he was going but because he wasn't going anywhere. He had to get away, that was all, because no matter how well-intentioned she was, her questions always brought him to the edge.

He stopped at the corner to look back. If the sidewalk had been empty he might have turned around, but she was there, crying. It seemed she was always crying anymore, and he was always

walking away.

At Bayard Park, empty because all the little children were stuck in their stuffy classrooms learning their fears and discovering their hate, he stopped. Sitting in a swing she might have enjoyed herself, he thought of the girl in the flower-print dress.


She had emerged like a phantom in the swirling smoke, hand high but obscured. He told her to

stop but she wouldn't. The Lieutenant ordered him to fire but Rob couldn't. She was just a little girl. But what was in her hand?

So he did fire, and as the shells jumped, the smoke and sand cleared and he saw what she held. A flag. A flag of unblemished white.

The next day they hit an IED and he went state-side. The doctor decided he couldn't go back, that was that. So home he went home. Not happy, but at least relieved, grateful to be out of the Sandbox for good.

Heat bore down, pulling him out of the memory. This sun wasn't so bright, nor intense. It didn't take your breath away or leave you panting in the shade, but it had it's moments, instances when it

showed they were the same sun after all. That thing saw all, knew all, and one day it's brilliance would illuminate humanity's darkness.

Rob went home.


Amber was at the kitchen table, sobbing into her hands. She looked up, eyes red and streaming. "Oh Rob..." It was as if he'd just been terminally diagnosed.

The toilet flushed. The bathroom door opened. The hallway seemed to elongate. Lieutenant Daniels emerged. "Rob," he said. "How ya been, Marine?"

Without thought or control, he saluted. "Why're you here, Lieutenant?"

"That's no way to greet an old friend."

"What do you want?"

He was silent a moment, the way he always was when he had to maintain control. "If that's the way you want it." He snapped to as though a superior had just come in. "Robert Marshall, you are hereby reinstated and henceforth once again a member of the United States Marine Corps."

"I'm medically unfit."

"Don't worry about that," slapping Rob's shoulder, "I pulled some strings. Far as brass is concerned you're an ox. Report at 0800. Give ya some time with the wife." He leaned in close and whispered "Give her a toss for me, huh?" and winked.

Rob struggled for a breath. He turned toward the bedroom and stumbled along the wall. A picture shattered on the floor near his feet. There was a jet engine winding in his head. Something

thudded behind his eyes. At the bedside table he found Amber's diary and flipped to the next blank page

to scrawl a message:

I'm no hero. I tried to be strong. For you. For us. I love you. I always have.

I'm smiling now. I hope you can forgive me, but I won't go back. I can't

kill another child. I can't watch one die.


He went to the closet, took down the shoe box and removed the flag from among the papers where it was hidden. Once, it had been white, pure and unsullied. Now it was red, one complete stain that could never be washed away. He kissed it, put it inside his shirt and went for his M-4 Bushmaster under the bed. It had saved lives...by taking them. It's power was nearly limitless, it's capability

appalling. Everything had begun with it. Everything would end with it.

He loaded two rounds, chambered one and swung around to sock the stock into the crook of his shoulder, moving back into the hallway. Glass crunched under his boots, but his only thought was of her.

Lieutenant Daniels assumed an unstable position, one which indicated his fight or flight response had been triggered, only his brain and body couldn't agree on which was the most prudent. "Put that weapon down, Marine. That's an order!"

"Honey?" Amber's hands were knotted between her knees.

"She just wanted our protection. You made me kill her."

"No, Marine~"

Rob squeezed.

The bullet struck the Lieutenant's nose and on the wall behind him formed a running red blossom. His body folded.

Amber screamed, but it was distant in the rumble of the thunder which seemed to fill the space between them.

Rob flipped the rifle and pressed it's barrel against the bloody flag over his heart. "I'm sorry, Amber, but I think it was always going to come to this."

Amber leapt, arms outstretched.

Rob squeezed again.


July 21, 2020 23:50

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00:24 Jul 23, 2020

Great story. The emotions come through so strongly through out. And great speed moving the story forward. Loved it


Conan Helsley
02:52 Jul 23, 2020

Thank you. This is one of my favorite of my own short stories. I wrote it in 2014, I think.


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Serine Achache
22:50 Jul 26, 2020

Oh my God I can't even begin to describe how amazing this piece is. Just....waw. Amazing workd and very well done!!! Good luck and keep writing!!


Conan Helsley
22:58 Jul 26, 2020

Thank you so much. I'm so happy you enjoyed it. That's the main reason I write. And I definitely will continue. Writing is who I am. I only feel good when I'm writing. If I go too long without it I fall into depression like you wouldn't believe. Thank you again for the comment and taking the time to read it.


Serine Achache
13:56 Jul 27, 2020

It's a pleasure! And I'm so glad to know that you find healing in writing! I will make sure to read more of your work.


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T.M. Kay
17:42 Jul 22, 2020

I am totally speechless. That was the most incredibly powerful story I've ever read. I know people with very similar experiences and you have captured that emotional trauma in a very personal and respectful way. Incredible job!


Conan Helsley
23:18 Jul 22, 2020

Thank you so much for that. I have worked very hard, and had many conversations with my friend who served in Afghanistan in the early 2000s. He made sure it was accurate before I ever let anyone see it


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Rhondalise Mitza
18:54 Jul 29, 2020

It's a lot, but you handled it deftly without sugarcoating aspects of the plot or underplaying the painful truths that come with freedom. Good, strong work as usual.


Conan Helsley
21:18 Jul 29, 2020

Yes, this is one I feel many may struggle with reading. These are things that happen often and we never hear about. I worked with a good friend of mine who was a Marine in the early 2000s touring in Afganistan. He helped with the lingo and the minor details most may not even pick up on. So thank you for appreciating this one.


Rhondalise Mitza
21:21 Jul 29, 2020

Yeah, your research will be appreciated!


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