Sergeant Chris Bergdorf had watched his son burst open at least twenty times that morning. It began when his boy Bravo appeared in the sewage ditch with a hammer and rusty brown railroad spike dug out of the shed. Crouching on his heels, the boy began to carefully chisel one of the many giant drainage rocks that lined the ditch.

The first IED created a stiff little geyser that turned up a ton of concrete. With this explosion chunks of bitumen tore through his son’s chest cavity. Bravo fell to his face and then the rat-a-tat-tat of the machine guns began—rapid fire that always follows that stomach-dropping boom. The second IED was the biggest Bergdorf had ever seen. That included the one on the sun-packed back road to Tikrit that brought up at least seventeen feet in diameter of desiccated sand clods. Only this blast sent nearly all the sod in the half-acre yard spinning outward into a perfect dome. The blast itself was massive enough to pop his son wide open.

Go! go! go! every soldier shouted involuntarily after each blast. Except for Sgt. Bergdorf, who silently sat on the couch, pushing his right foot into the floor as hard as he could, begging the invisible gas pedal to speed him out of the kill zone as he watched his five-year-old son playing by the road die repeatedly.

Bergdorf could hear the swish of his wife Rachel’s cargo shorts as she sped down the hallway with an empty laundry basket. He turned his attention towards the television which was tuned to the local news, the volume muted.

“Tell that kid not to play by the road,” he said.

Rachel’s day-off ponytail swung to a standstill as she stopped to glance out the window. While in combat, he tenderly remembered Rachel with mannerisms of a sulky teenager, as she was when they were dating. Always reclining and scrolling through her cellphone, or sitting sideways in a chair with her legs thrown over the arm, sometimes absent-mindedly twirling her flip flop with her lavender painted toenails. But he had forgotten that since Bravo started walking Rachel had never once stopped moving with purpose. “He’s fine, Chris,” she said. “Let him be.” Rachel resumed her brisk walk to the laundry room.

“You let my five-year-old son play by the road?” Bergdorf called. “Is that what’s been going on while I’ve been getting shot at?”

Rachel sighed for the breath that raised her voice as she descended the basement stairs. “Fine, helicopter dad, YOU tell him to quit!”

He snapped his head back towards the mute television. Some guy tried to evade the police and mowed down a pedestrian. Some blonde didn’t come home when she said she would. The blunt ping, ping, ping of Bravo banging that railroad spike with a hammer turned Bergdorf’s head towards the picture window. With the blinds pulled, he had a perfect flat screen panel to watch his son chip tiny pieces off the oversized shale while he died over and over and over again. Bergdorf came off of the couch like it was ablaze.

“Hey!” he shouted, swinging the door open. As he approached his son, Bravo did that thing that he couldn’t stand. He took three steps back, dropping his tools and curling his wrists protectively against his chest like a mildly retarded T-Rex. “Hey! Get out of the damned ditch.”

“But, I’m an archaeologist,” his son said quietly.

“Well, okay.” Bergdorf softened. “But go be an archaeologist somewhere else. You’re too close to the road.” He turned his back to Bravo, which, since his latest return stateside, tended to embolden the boy.

“I’m ah-supposed to play here,” Bravo said, probably with his hands on his hips. “I’m allowed.”

Geez Louise, he’s only five. It was the mantra that Bergdorf repeated each time Bravo sassed his backside. Like the time his son said, “You’re not the boss. Mom is.” Or even worse, “Why don’t you go home and leave us alone.”

Go home! Bergdorf was ruminating as he closed the door. Who do you think paid for this house, you little shit? And he resumed his station, right smack in the middle of the burlap sofa, and steeled himself for more carnage.

But what were these new sights? A Denali thundered by, catching one wheel in the ditch of the Bergdorf property. It smacked Bravo to the ground on the first roll before turning over three more times in the front yard. Where did that come from? He’d never seen a car flip, outside of movies. And then there was this thought: that he had to watch the sky for a mangy, sinister bird of prey. One so giant, its talons could clinch Bravo by the shoulders and fly away. He had been scanning the sky for the animal when he remembered that it didn’t exist. Perhaps it existed at one time—a terrifying prehistoric skeleton he’d seen in a museum.

He felt Rachel hovering over him before he saw her—the warmth from the towels in the laundry basket. If she said one thing about that damned couch, Bergdorf thought he might lose it for good. At least once a day she nagged him to sit somewhere else. Why don’t you go read in the bedroom? Why don’t you go outside, it’s so nice? Why don’t you take a walk?

Bergdorf turned his eyes upward to Rachel. “What?”

“I was just thinking, Josh doesn’t work Saturdays, does he?” Rachel kneed the laundry basket and steadied it on her hip. “You haven’t seen him in a while.”

The offer was so tempting. To stroll a few blocks over to Josh’s cramped little apartment and spend the day playing Halo. The windows covered by curtains so that by the time they smoked a bowl or two, they wouldn’t notice the whole day had passed. He could tell Josh about how much Rachel irritated him trying to get him to sit somewhere else. But then he could say to Josh what he could never confess to Rachel. How he needed something sturdy against his back. How everything outside, even the songs of the birds, just seemed too loud. How other rooms were out of the question because he couldn’t stand to hear the cars but not see them. How he didn’t feel safe anywhere but in the dead center of that couch with the blinds wide open and his eyes on the front door. Josh would get it. He wouldn’t say How horrible for you, or That sounds hard, or any of the other bullshit the Family Readiness Group had rehearsed with Rachel. Josh would just shake his head and say something right like, I know, man. Everything’s all fuckered up now. The more Bergdorf thought about walking to Josh’s that day, the better it sounded.

He looked up at Rachel. “Gosh, you’re in a hurry to get me out of the house.”

Rachel spun on her heels as soon as his tone registered. “Okay, never mind.” And her ponytail swished a couple of times before she skidded to a dead stop. She turned and her flushed cheeks faded as she took a deep breath. She dropped her basket to the floor and sat so close to him, he could feel the warmth of the laundry still hovering on her skin. All day long, he’d sworn he could smell scorched sand and the electrical burn that follows roadside explosions. But Rachel smelled so serene—the slight musk of her lotion, the tropical smell of her conditioner, the pristine scent of fresh detergent. All of it was soothing.

Rachel put her elbows on her thighs and clasped her hands. “I don’t want you to leave. I never want you to go. You know that.”

Save me, Bergdorf thought. Though it filled him with shame to expect that frail, freckled thing beside him to do the impossible, he knew that was exactly what he wanted her to do. C’mon, save me, Rachel. I want you to.

She had done it once before. On his first deployment over a prepaid Cricket phone, his first day back at the base. The first day back with air conditioning. The first day back in a bunk. The first day back without Lopez, Clendenen, and that one kid whose name Bergdorf still couldn’t utter. And he felt out of control. So out of control, he collapsed in his bunk and pretended to sleep. Everyone else seemed all wound up. He could hear laughter echoing down the linoleum and concrete hallways. They should die, he thought. They should die for joking like that. Instead he hopped out of bed and dialed his mother’s number. His ears were still ringing from combat and he just kept thinking, I’m-going-to-lose-it-I’m-going-to-lose-it. He had fooled his mother over the phone. Bergdorf joked about how bad the food was. How hot it was out. He joked so much, he sounded maniacal. Crazy, fuck. But Rachel wasn’t fooled. She must have detected something flat and distant in his voice because she just blurted out, “It’s a boy.”

Bergdorf’s fist popped up to his mouth. The ringing in his ears, present for days, lowered into a mighty mantra running through his head. A-son-a-son-a-son! Rachel continued, “I know we were going to keep it a surprise but….”

“No, I’m glad. I’m glad. I’m really glad you told me!” Berdorf had never understood the whole tears of joy thing. But he had to take three deep breaths to contain the tremors taking over his entire body. On the third breath, he was smiling again. “So, Christopher Henry Bergdorf the Third. We’re having a little Hank, huh?”

“Well, here’s what I was thinking….”

“Uh-oh….”

Rachel wanted to keep “Christopher” for tradition’s sake. But she wanted to change the middle name.

“It better not be some movie star name like Ian,” he moaned.

“No no no no no…. No Ians or Olivers or Alexes, we’re in agreement there,” Rachel said. “I was thinking maybe it could be Christopher Bravo.”

His knees buckled. She didn’t need to say it, but she did. “After your company.” And Bergdorf sunk his teeth into his knuckles to bite away tears. His son wouldn’t just be his legacy, he would be Bravo’s. He would be Lopez, Clendenen, and everything else that would eventually be lost. Everything he needed to mourn, he would be able to hold in his arms in just a few more months. And because of Rachel, Bergdorf no longer feared insanity. When he hung up, he just allowed that mantra to repeat, A-son-a-son-no-matter-what-happens-to-me, to-us, Bravo-will-live!

Now, Bergdorf thought maybe Rachel would somehow know to reach over and take his hand. She would feel how freezing his skin was. She would notice the red splotches he knew must be visible all over his neck and chest. She could just lean over, put her warm hand and sandy hair on his shoulder, and say the perfect thing to him like she did that day on the phone. Then he could sleep beside her that night instead of in the guest room. Then he wouldn’t feel like he was going to come out of his skin every second of every day. Bergdorf had no idea what exactly that perfect thing she could say might be, but he believed it to be something she could do. Something she knew how to do. She just wouldn’t do it, for some reason.

Instead, she stared into her freckled hands and said, “I understand not wanting to get back to life. It makes sense to me after what you’ve been through.” There was that dumbass phrase someone had put in her head. It makes sense to me. Psychobabble for, I know that calling you crazy makes you crazy so I’ll just say ‘it makes sense to me’ so you won’t flip out. She looked at him. “But it’s been a year. And if I thought you were okay, I’d just leave you be. But I think things are worse not better, right?”

She gently shook his thigh. “Chris, look at me.” He looked into her watery eyes. The ones that looked like someone had dabbed a mound of blue watercolor right in the center, and ink-blue streaks would run all over her face if she should blink. Those were Rachel’s eyes. The ones he missed for exactly 450 days at a time. The eyes she had clearly given Bravo. “Right, Chris?”

“Well,” said Bergdorf. “I guess you and the girls and all the Mr. Moms on base have it all figured out, don’t you?”

And Bergdorf was alone again. Rachel slammed her bedroom door shut. He turned his head towards the mute television: ten wild parrots spotted in Ordway Park. He thought about turning up the volume, but he had already guessed the story. The parrots weren’t wild at all. Some had been released because their owners were tired of them. Others had slipped through a cracked window while their owners weren’t watching. But, somehow, they found one another. And now Ordway had a flock of parrots.

Bergdorf turned his head towards the road. The pinging of Bravo’s hammer and chisel had stopped completely. Scanning the entire picture window, Bravo was nowhere to be seen. He leapt from the couch. “Bravo?”

When he swung the front door open, there stood Bravo, pinching his pecker as hard as he could while hopping back and forth from one foot to the other. Bergdorf flung both arms up in surrender and moved out of Bravo’s way.

“Better step, boy!” he said as Bravo took fast, tiny steps down the hallway. A low rumble emitted from Bravo’s belly and there was a faint gurgling noise. Bravo spun to face his father, his eyes as wide as saucers as he smacked both hands over his crotch and turned his knees in before saying,“I pooped!”

“You pooped in your pants,” Bergdorf said. He had hoped it was a joke, but the grassy-egg smell was unmistakable.

Bravo shrugged with a faint smile. “I… I pooped,” he said again, as though that were some sort of explanation.

“Okay, fine.” Bergdorf walked towards the hallway, pointing a finger. “But don’t move.” As he passed his son, Bravo did a little pigeon-toed pivot so he could still see his dad.

“Didn’t I say not to move?” Bergdorf looked at Bravo, who was pursing his lips and giggling through his nose. He stepped to his son. “What? What’s so funny?”

“I pooped my pants!” Bravo’s cheeks had the blush of embarrassment, but he was pursing his lips, trying to trap a huge smile.

Bergdorf stared at the boy. Yeah, some joke, he thought. I come home to a five-year-old who shits his pants. And we named you Bravo. “Don’t laugh, Buddy. Daddy’s trying not to be mad.”

But the don’t laugh just seemed to make it more irresistible to Bravo. Bergdorf twisted the boy’s T-shirt and lifted him to eye level. “I said don’t laugh.” Bravo’s face opened in horror, and then screwed up to cry. That’s when Bergdorf began shaking him and couldn’t stop. There’s no telling how many times he shook before he slung the boy, straight-armed against the wall.

He’s breathing, Bergdorf thought as he studied Bravo where he landed—slumped on a throw rug, his head slung back on a pile of shoes. The boy’s eyes were looking straight ahead, unblinking, but he was breathing freely, panting almost. He’s going to be fine.

Bergdorf heard Rachel scream, “My baby! my baby! my baby!” before he felt her push him away from her boy.

Bravo’s body arced and went into a flapping seizure while he paced the seven by ten open feet of the living room. “Oh no-no-no-no-no! Please God, no!” Rachel said, trying to hold her son’s head still.

“Rach, look, he’ll be fine.” Rachel spun her head around, her mouth gaping helplessly. Bergdorf sensed he shouldn’t say anything else. But he went on. “With head injuries twitching is bad. Seizures are a good sign.” And then, as though to punctuate, Bravo sat straight up at the waist, vomited all over his knees, and began to cry.

Rachel picked up every shoe within reach and hurled them one by one, quaking too hard to aim well. “Get out! Get out! Get out of my house, you crazy….”

Bergdorf was halfway down the driveway by the time he heard her say “…mother fucker!” He was down the road quite a ways before a retort popped into his head. Whatever happened to ‘it makes sense to me,’ you crazy bitch! The more he walked, the better he felt. The kid will be fine. Just fine! Tomorrow Bravo would wake up, brush his teeth, and pick all the marshmallows out of his cereal while leaning on his elbows. Unlike Lopez, unlike Clendenen. Unlike Walker, who never even had a fair chance. Bergdorf stopped and clenched his fists and closed his eyes. He just needed everything to be still for a minute. He begged the world to stop moving. But it didn’t. A car whizzed past, the damned birds kept singing, the autumn wind kept blowing at his back, pushing him forward.

And forward he would go. Josh was probably already several hours into a game and a bowl ahead of him. He turned off of their windy road with no sidewalk. The one Rachel picked because of the “established trees.” The same road Bergdorf picked because of the giant backyard where he thought he would curse at complicated swing set assemblies and burn hamburgers on the grill. Then he turned onto the road they’d been less than impressed with—the rather standard base road with clean sidewalks, equal-sized ranches with equal-sized yards.

Josh wasn’t but a road or two from here. He would crack open the door glassy-eyed and then give a prolonged Heyyyyyy as he swung it open all the way. Josh wouldn’t ask him why he was in his pajama pants and bare feet. He’d just sit and hand him a controller and a pipe. Then, finally, Bergdorf could tell him about today. About how he was afraid of that bird. The bird that didn’t exist, but that just for a second he thought did. And Josh wouldn’t say, How terrible for you. He’d say exactly what it was. Something like, That’s some crazy shit, man. But after a few times shaking his head, and never taking his eyes off the game, he’d add, I think all kinds of crazy shit now too though. It’s all fuckered up now. And, somehow, that’s all Bergdorf would need.

Bergdorf began to hear the low moan of a dog howling. But the howl morphed into something more electronic. Something he hadn’t heard in years. It took him a second to realize what he was hearing was an American ambulance. He stopped and watched as it turned towards him. Please go down another road, he thought. His heart couldn’t pound any harder. It wasn’t physically possible. A visible shudder went down his spine as he covered his ears and braced for the passing of the blaring truck. After it whizzed past, Bergdorf found himself freezing cold, every hair on his body standing on end, and alone once again.

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