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Historical Fiction American Gay

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

Content warning: Death


When you came home from Vietnam in one piece, people called it a miracle. Not that you blamed them. Growing up, you attracted bullies and beatdowns like a magnet. You were never the biggest, the toughest, the strongest. You, who could loop your middle finger and thumb around your wrist and still have room. Quite a few bets were lost the day you stepped off that plane in Los Angeles, dressed in fatigues and feeling the way you looked.


The homecoming was not what you had expected.


At home your mother greeted you with a batch of sugar cookies shaped like hearts and frosted with buttercream American flags. Your father opened a bottle of champagne that made you scream when the cork popped. When you retired to the Adirondack chair on the porch, your neighbor Mrs. Hayworth glanced over her picket fence, shook her head, and called you a "baby killer."


But mostly people called it a miracle. That was their word, never yours. You never bothered to correct them.


Sometimes, though, you wondered what word they'd use if they knew what really happened.


***


Your deployment story isn't special.


One day you drove to the local Chevron and sped off with a tank full of gas and two lottery tickets. Later, huddled around the tear-stained kitchen table with your parents, you discovered you lost the drawing but won the Vietnam draft lottery as a consolation prize.


"I don't get it. It's one in four odds," your father kept saying, voice straining to be heard over the sound of your mother's howling. "Why you, of all people? I just don't get why."


The next day Mrs. Hayworth's son, Robert, received the same draft notice. The two of you sat on your porch comparing letters. His was legible, unmarred by tears, and issued the same order to meet at the Eastern Greyhound Bus Station in three weeks.


"That sure is something, isn't it?" he said, folding and unfolding your notice. He had the same ghostly peach fuzz as you, the same aimless wonder in his eyes. You were both barely nineteen, lost in the world and yourselves. "Graduated high school a few months ago and now this.”


“You don’t really believe in this war, do you?” you asked.


Robert noisily crinkled your draft notice, bent the paper at impossible angles to create winged objects—birds and airplanes. With each bend you watched more words disappear: “Selective Service” and “President of the” and “Jedediah Springer.”


“Does it change anything if I do or don’t?” he said.


Cars whizzed by on the next street over. The sun hung high in the sky but the air wasn’t warm. A gentle breeze swirled around you, hitting your tree and coating your yard with fallen autumn leaves.


Your heart fluttered like one of those leaves when you said, “What if we don’t go?”


Robert stopped in the middle of unfolding your letter and stared at you. “How do you mean?”


You forced yourself not to gaze into Robert’s eyes, not to admit something that was even more terrifying than the thought of being armed in a new country in less than a month. You looked at his legs, pale and hairless. “What if we ran away? That way we wouldn’t have to fight anyone. We could do it, I bet.”


A moment of silence passed. Then another. It wasn’t until you looked up that Robert spoke.


“See, that’s just like you, Jed,” Robert said. He was still staring at you. “When things get tough, you want to run away. You always think that's the easiest solution."


You knew he was right, so you said nothing.


Robert said, “I’m not like that. I’m a fighter. When things get tough, I’m going to fight right back, no matter what.” He transformed your letter into a paper airplane, then tossed it. It landed in your lap, heavy with meaning. You were still unfolding it when Robert stood and returned to his home, disappearing behind the white picket fence.


Three weeks and one Greyhound bus later, he was being shipped off to fight against Vietnam, and you were right there with him. As always.


***


You didn’t realize until months later that being stationed in the same platoon as Robert in Vietnam was both a blessing and a curse. At the time, you saw it only as one of those.


Unlike you, he had a fraternity with the others that you envied, an easiness that made the soldiers there forget why they’d traveled thousands of miles to wade through foreign soil and a sea of discarded bodies. He carried his rifle as though it were a third limb. He wasn’t shy in the group showers, nor did his eyes linger on the other men.


You watched him the way you watched cartoons on television when you were both just a decade younger: enchanted and charmed, but with a sense that trouble was lurking behind every corner, that things could go wrong at a moment’s notice.


And then they did.


One month near the end of your service, the enemy attacked in the dead of night. You were crouched in the moonlit foxhole with Robert and another soldier named Patterson, two years older and five times braver. It was too dark for you to see anyone else. The night air echoed with the pop-hiss of gunfire.


Without thinking, you reached for Robert's hand and he let you keep it there. Then everything went quiet.


"They're reloading," he whispered as the night grew calm. His voice was light as a zephyr.


Patterson took this as a signal for action and sprang up, aiming his carbine at the veil of night. He'd fired four shots before his weapon fell to the ground, and his body soon followed. A murky puddle trailed down his cracked forehead in the moonlight glow.


You tasted bile rise and bubble in the back of your throat, but forced yourself to keep it down. Robert swore under his breath and shook off your hand. He steadied his rifle, fingered the trigger, gulped.


"Ready?" he murmured, making the decision for the both of you.


You weren't.


You weren't ready to fight for your freedom, or die for your country, or tell Robert how you truly felt about him.


And then it didn't matter because you realized he'd been telling the truth all those months ago on your front porch. He was a fighter.


Robert closed his eye and took aim at the same time his enemy did.


That's the last thing you saw, because you soon realized he'd been right about something else: When things got tough, you were a runner.


***


When you came home from Vietnam in one piece, most people called it a miracle. Your parents baked you cookies and toasted your heroism. Your friends clapped you on your weathered body and felt the fatigue shifting in your bones when they hugged you. To them, you were brave, courageous, a fighter. 


But you’ve never forgotten Mrs. Hayworth, who moved away soon after your return. You’ve never forgotten how you came back and her son didn’t, how she looked at you over that white picket fence, the barrier that divided her private world from yours, and said you were a “baby killer.”


And though you didn’t kill any babies in Vietnam—your bullets hadn’t been the cause of anyone’s death, because Robert said it best: you were never a fighter—you couldn’t help but feel responsible what happened to her son. Even now, years later.


On the day you came home from Vietnam, you found your crinkled draft notice on your bedroom desk where you left it. You blew on it and watched the dust motes dance in the filtered sunlight. You felt the creases in the thin paper, remembered Robert’s fingers folding the lines in delicate angles and shapes. You copied his handiwork, bending the notice along the ghostly edges of its former self until all the black words disappeared under the wings of a paper airplane.


Then you opened the window, threw your hand back, and took aim.

July 02, 2022 03:48

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52 comments

Aesha Amin
19:09 Jul 02, 2022

The ending brought the story back to a full circle, at least in my opinion, in two ways: the focus of the story shifted back to the notice and its significance at the end, and the way the main character took aim like he should have that day instead of running. The last two sentences of the story were just so well worded; they ended the story perfectly. Thank you for the story!

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Zack Powell
23:43 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks for this, Aesha. This was the exact thing I was most unsure would translate to the page. You got exactly what I was aiming for (no pun intended). Thank you!

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Chris Campbell
05:12 Jul 07, 2022

Zack, a very touching piece. The fight or flight sensation is a very thin line of choice. Staying alive is always the goal; however, for some, it's a difficult choice in situations like your story. My late stepdad (coincidentally named Robert), did three tours in Korea and three tours in Vietnam - 65,68,75, but he was a career Navy man. However, no-one told him his ship would be in a jungle. Great story and well done!

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Zack Powell
16:41 Jul 07, 2022

Thanks, Chris! Such a difficult thing, war can be. Your stepdad was a trooper! That's quite the prolific career. I appreciate the read.

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Jay Mc Kenzie
06:32 Jul 06, 2022

Zack, this is freakin beautiful and sad and awful and fantastic. I want to show you the lines I love, but I'd just be copy and pasting the whole thing. This is a perfect story, written perfectly by a stunning writer.

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Zack Powell
20:03 Jul 06, 2022

Thanks, Jay! Loved yours from this week too, so I'll return that compliment right back atcha.

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Charlotte Morse
07:58 Jul 05, 2022

Hi Zack, this story is so moving and beautifully written. To have everyone around him calling him a hero, yet him feeling he is anything but, was poignantly told. And of course, like everyone else, I loved the way things you mentioned in the beginning were brought in again at the end and why the Mrs. Hayworth had called him a 'baby killer'. There were so many excellent lines - too many for me to mention here, and most have been covered in the other comments. I love the way you write and was wondering if you would be willing to give my littl...

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Zack Powell
18:14 Jul 05, 2022

Thanks for the read, Charlotte. "Poignantly told" is quite a lovely compliment for this piece. I just came from your story, and I hope my comment comes across as helpful. If anything needs clarifying, don't hesitate to ask me to explain myself!

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Charlotte Morse
13:06 Jul 06, 2022

Hi Zack, "Poignantly told" wasn't merely a compliment, it was a statement of fact! Your comments on my story were EXTREMELY (ha ha) helpful. No clarification needed, I totally agree with the excellent points you made and I thank you for every one of them.

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Zelda C. Thorne
19:34 Aug 23, 2022

This was beautifully written. I'm all emotional. The imagery with the draft notice folding up, covering the words and being a plane... Brilliant. The cyclic feel to the whole piece was very satisfying. I love that in a story. Bravo.

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Graham Kinross
08:53 Aug 09, 2022

You capture the weight of the decisions well. The full circle ending is great.

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Zack Powell
02:57 Aug 10, 2022

Thanks, Graham! Glad the ending worked for you.

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S. Thomson
23:09 Jul 21, 2022

Incredible work, Zack. I love how the letter is "heavy with meaning." Did you know that in 1976, one percent of everyone living in the US was a Vietnam veteran? Also, have you read the short story 'Fingers' by Gary Gildner? The tone of your story reminded me of that one. Also, have you seen the film "Rolling Thunder"? In my opinion, one of the best films about the Vietnam War. If I had a note, I would like to have read more about Jed's life after coming home from the war. There must have been so many complex emotions going on, I think that ...

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Zack Powell
23:17 Jul 24, 2022

A belated thank you for this, S. Just came from your latest story, and I enjoyed myself. I did NOT know that 1976 statistic. Isn't that wild? Haven't read 'Fingers,' but it's going to the top of my TBR list now. Similarly, "Rolling Thunder" is on my watchlist. Thanks for the constructive criticism too! This is a story I plan on returning to in the future, so I'm taking any and all suggestions that I can get. Totally agree with your thoughts as well. Thank you, for both the read and the thoughtful commentary!

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Suma Jayachandar
13:42 Jul 08, 2022

Zack I'm just so awfully late in commenting, though I read it the day you posted. I have nothing more to add to the sea of comments here but to say I simply loved it. Thanks for sharing.

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Zack Powell
13:47 Jul 08, 2022

Thanks for the love, Suma! I hope you're feeling better this week. It's funny, I actually just opened your story and was getting ready to read it. Expect my thoughts on it soon!

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Kelsey H
11:12 Jul 08, 2022

I really love this, but thanks to having Covid this week I feel not totally alive still, so will just list random thoughts in lieu of something more coherent (sorry)... - I used to think of 2nd person pov in fiction as being a bit of a gimmicky thing, your work and a couple of others on here have really changed my mind on it. It works so perfectly here I can't actually imagine it written differently. - you did my favourite thing of the full circle beginning/end. I really love how it puts the opening into context when we read it again afte...

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Zack Powell
13:45 Jul 08, 2022

OMG, I hope you feel alright - Covid is no joke. Hope you were able to celebrate your big win before all the symptoms and yuckiness kicked in. Yeah, it's funny. I desperately tried to write this story in 1st and 3rd person and almost gave up on it because I couldn't get it to work, until I tried 2nd and things just clicked, including the full circle beginning/ending. Beyond happy to know these things worked out. "Subtle and restrained" are like magic words to me. My writing used to be incredibly heavy-handed (still is sometimes), and I'm a...

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Kelsey H
03:11 Jul 09, 2022

It's definitely not fun I haven't been that sick in years, but on the mend now thankfully. I know what you mean about being heavy handed, I'm very much that way too although I am getting better at making myself delete the excess! Being restricted by word count is actually really helpful for that.

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Ezmari Trevano
22:33 Jul 07, 2022

Loved this! As always, it was so touching and intense and captivating all at once. The take on the prompt was so perfect--it's like the prompt was written for this story! I wrote two stories for this contest (the miracle worker and "I can see it now" prompts) and I wanted to write a story for this prompt, too. I just couldn't think of any good ideas! But now, after reading your story, a soldier returning from war fits the prompt so well and so beautifully. Genius! 2nd person worked really well here, making the writing feel personal and rel...

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Zack Powell
01:34 Jul 08, 2022

Thank you for such a lovely comment, Ezmari! I was definitely liberal with my interpretation of this prompt (honestly wasn't even sure the story followed what was being asked when I wrote this), so I'm happy to know that it worked well. Also happy to hear 2nd person did its job - I enjoy dabbling in it but can never quite get a feel for whether its working or not. Really enjoyed reading your story too. You're quite talented yourself!

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Jo Fredrickson
20:53 Jul 07, 2022

Super good! I really like this writing style.

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Zack Powell
23:51 Jul 07, 2022

Thank you very much, Jo! That's a lovely compliment.

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Scott Skinner
04:05 Jul 07, 2022

A solid take on the prompt! You're good at using imagery to elaborate the description that comes before it. I noticed it with the line, "loop your middle finger and thumb around your wrist and still have room" which expands on Jed being frail/weak/thin. The other time I liked it was when you described the letters; Roberts was, "legible, unmarred by tears..." Lines like these ones created nice visuals for me. Another technique you used to push the story forward (and make me want to keep reading!) was - and I don't know if this is the right ...

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Zack Powell
13:12 Jul 07, 2022

Thanks, Scott! Imagery is my absolute weakness when writing second-person POV, so it's nice to hear that it worked for you here. I like that term "cliffhanger" too (I also couldn't tell you what the right terminology is). Gonna take that with me going forward. Appreciate the solid feedback!

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Carolyn Brown
17:35 Jul 06, 2022

When I started to read, out came a voice that was dry, jaded, almost hardboiled. Without knowing what your story was about, I had an immediate connection to the character. I'd say that means you are a master of tone. I caught the way this young man protected himself by not allowing too much wistfulness in his reminiscence. That boy on the porch had to be kept at a distance, even as the other one had to be. That's quite an interesting angle, especially the way you explored it with the special delicacy of first love, when a person is as u...

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Zack Powell
19:13 Jul 06, 2022

Thank you for such a thorough comment and close reading, Carolyn. Your interpretation is great - I adore your love/adventure parallel, and your draft-dodging vs. illicit love question. In my mind, it was definitely more one of those things than the other, but you could totally read it either way (or maybe it's both of those things simultaneously). Thanks for giving me something interesting to think about with my own story!

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J.C. Lovero
20:03 Jul 04, 2022

Hi Zack, Such a haunting story. You found a way to make it relatable to those who have never gone to war. I think queer folk in general resonate with this story. Many people deal with unrequited love, but I have a hunch the LGBTQ+ folk may deal with it at a heightened level. Stakes are so much higher, especially given the time period you set this story. Not really much else for me to say here. Your writing is impeccable as always. Interesting choice of POV - it worked for this piece. Good luck this week. Bonus points for using "zephyr." ...

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Zack Powell
01:25 Jul 05, 2022

My favorite hermit! Loved your newest story - don't hesitate to ask me to clarify my thoughts if anything seems amiss there. I'm here to help. I've never been to war (obviously, LOL), so I'm glad to hear that everything came together in a resonant way. Military + LGBTQ + Unrequited Love is the equation of the day. What a messy triangle that is. Good to know the POV worked too - I failed at writing this in first- and third-person and second was the only avenue that lent itself to the type of story I wanted to tell. Big thanks for singling o...

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Sharon Hancock
02:27 Jul 04, 2022

Another heart wrencher with all the complicated feelings associated with Vietnam and you’ve got a really intense story. The unrequited romance and unspoken feelings make it even sadder. I love the way you brought it back around to the draft notice and how he did what he really wanted to the first time…let it fly away. Great storytelling as usual. 😻

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Zack Powell
06:14 Jul 04, 2022

Thanks, Sharon. "Intense" is a cool adjective to put on this one. I'll take it!

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Kai Corvus
21:43 Jul 03, 2022

As always, this was a touching story. You have a gift that makes it possible for readers who haven’t experienced any of these situations to still somehow relate to it. The second person point of view was a good call, because it expanded upon what I was mentioning before. It’s easy to completely screw up second person but I think that you did a really nice job with it. The ending was great with how it tied back to the beginning and gave more background to the elements shown there. In addition I think that it was an amazing take on the pro...

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Zack Powell
23:23 Jul 03, 2022

Thanks as always, Kai! I'm glad this came across as relatable to you, and that the POV worked (I had doubts about both). It's always nice to get your perspective on things.

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Aeris Walker
17:07 Jul 03, 2022

Wow, such beautiful storytelling. The POV was a perfect choice here, it really enhanced the feeling of self-reflection, of cowardice, and restraint that the main character gives off. I’m impressed by how much emotion you were able to impart in such a short story. One of my favorite parts is how you give away tiny snippets of information, including the MC’s name, in the draft notice as it’s being folded-I mean, just genius. So so well done.

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Zack Powell
18:23 Jul 03, 2022

Thank you, Aeris. I just came from your story, and I'll gladly return that compliment about beautiful storytelling and a perfect POV choice. Glad the emotion came through for you here - I never write stories this small, so I was wondering about it.

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Rebecca Miles
06:34 Jul 03, 2022

Less is so much more in this story, it reads as a moving series of episodes. The understatement of their love is beautifully sketched in, as is the horror of the return. I loved the paradox of this line particularly:  "Your father opened a bottle of champagne that made you scream when the cork popped." My absolute favorite thing about this story though, is the poignant symbolism. That piece of paper, worried over, refolded until it takes shape into something new: the paper aeroplane; a new found, better focus. I'm a hopeless romantic, so I...

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Zack Powell
15:25 Jul 03, 2022

Thanks for the read and the comment, Rebecca. This is a smaller piece than what I usually write, so I'm glad the sketches and symbolism came together. You got just what I was going for with the ending too. Thanks again!

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Michał Przywara
21:06 Jul 02, 2022

Hey, Zack! Another lovely story, and an unexpected twist on the prompt :) Running vs fighting. There's some fantastic duality here. Jed struggles with this in both love and war. In both cases, he's inclined to run, and in both cases, he resists because of Robert. He resists, but he never quite fights, and he does ultimately run. And so he's got a life of regret to look forward to, since he feels he neither deserves praise for his military career, nor will he ever know if there could have been a future with Robert. But it's not actually tha...

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Zack Powell
22:35 Jul 02, 2022

Your analyses are always so astute and spot-on, Michał. It's very exciting to see your thought process in how you interpret stories. You're right. It's a tough question to answer, whether it's better to run or fight. One can have lifetime implications and one can have short-term implications, all for better or worse. Who's to say which is right and which is wrong - or both, or neither? Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts. You always give me something to ponder about my own stories. :)

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Ace Quinnton
16:25 Jul 02, 2022

I need to show this story to my best friend because of two reasons: 1) Protag is gay, and he, my best friend, is too. 2) He's a military geek and war history buff. I like this story a LOT, though my close chum will enjoy it more than I did. Also, Zack, -cue trumpet noises- SEEMINGLY EMPTY PART FOUR IS OUT! I suggest that you go read it, since I (think) you liked the previous ones.

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Zack Powell
17:02 Jul 02, 2022

Thanks, Ace! Hope you friend enjoys the story too if you share it with him. I'm off to read part four!

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