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 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.