“So we put all these unused explosives into a pile…” my brother Chris whispers to me, and I recognize his tone at once. It’s the voice he taught to me to use when we were children, in our bunk beds, wide awake when we were supposedly sleeping. It’s his “I have a secret” voice, which he hasn’t used on me in years.
“So we put all these unused explosives into a pile, right before the end of our tour, because we have to get rid of them. Hand grenades, dynamite, ammunition. Then we stick a remote detonator on the pile and drive about half a mile away.” He’s been home on leave for less than a week, 19 years old, tall and healthy, yet he moves about mechanically, as if he’s a spirit possessing a body he hasn’t become familiar with.
“You didn’t try to sneak anything back home for yourself?” I ask, wishing I didn’t sound so eager to know. He hasn’t told me much about what he did during his time in Afghanistan since he’s gotten back. He hasn’t told much to anyone.
“There wasn’t any way to,” he continues, flipping his hand in the air as if my question were an insect he’s swatting away. “Explosives aren’t meant to be shipped back once they’ve been delivered. It’s easier to just get rid of them. So we get a safe distance out and are getting ready to detonate the pile when we notice through the binoculars that all these Afghani civilians have come creeping out. They’d been hiding behind a ridge while we were setting up, and now they’re going through everything, taking things. Like, thirty people digging through this huge pile of munitions.” He pauses and looks away for a moment, and again I recognize another hold over from our childhood. He’s building, is what he’s doing, holding onto the moment for as long as he can, in love with my attention. His eyes turn back to me. “They didn’t see the detonator, or they didn’t know what it was.”
He’d enlisted early, when he was 17, not yet finished with his senior year of high school. He’d signed up for a five-year enlistment, which had startled our mother. “Five years?” she’d asked. “Are you sure about this?” But it was too late. Our father had given permission, so to hell with being sure. The army didn’t issue receipts, so there would be no exchange, no return on the next five years of my brothers’ life. He turned 18 the following September, and ten months later he was in the Middle East. He was among the first to be deployed, the first to see action.
“God,” I whisper, “that’s crazy! Did you guys drive back and tell them what you were about to do? They must have been terrified, coming so close to getting blown up.”
“No,” Chris replies. “We just… blew them up.”
“Oh,” I say, and am suddenly out of questions. He’s managed to clear the skies by talking it out, and having done so, seems perfectly, contently, satisfied. I see the weather behind my brother’s eyes has changed, that this particular story was no more than a cluster of clouds sweeping over the landscape of his mind.
WILL MCMILLAN was born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon. He had a children’s book published by River Canyon Press, in 2011.