Harold Hoey returned from Iraq with no face. It was the noon heat that made his head sweat under the heavy helmet. An itch developed over his right ear. He stopped walking, turned to the right and noticed Iraqi children in casual dress kicking a red soccer ball on the opposite side of the chest high makeshift metal fence that was erected along much of the perimeter of the highway that connected the airport with downtown Baghdad. As he watched the children, the head itch got worse. Harold took his helmet off as one Iraqi child kicked the red soccer ball over the fence in his direction. The red ball came to rest about five feet from Harold on the brown grassy patch between Harold and the fence. Harold was scratching his head and looked at the red ball. He bent down to place his helmet on the grass with the intent to retrieve the red ball for the children. As the helmet hit the grass, Harold heard a click. He looked down and in that quarter second between the click and the explosive blast from the road side bomb, Harold realized what the meaning of the click was. A quarter second is plenty of time to grasp the nature of what is about to happen, but no time to contemplate it. The blast hit Harold in the face and threw his body several feet back onto the pavement. The red ball was blasted in the opposite direction toward the fence and came to rest near a ditch that gullied under the bottom of the metal grating of the fence. An Iraqi child retrieved the red ball and the kids continued to play soccer. Harold died instantly, and now three months later he lied peacefully in an oak casket in a grave in a cemetery in northern Vermont.
Billy Brunt was lying in a casket which was above ground over an open grave pit that was immediately adjacent to Harold Hoey’s gravesite. Bill Brunt’s family and friends had left about an hour ago after a brief ceremony that was too secluded to include the customary flyover of US Air Force fighter jets. To substitute for the jets, a sixty-seven year old Vermont National Guardsman shot a blank from his pistol into the air, holstered his gun, and then handed an American flag folded into the shape of a triangle to Billy’s father who was sitting on a metal folding chair as the Guardsman said “this is from a grateful nation.” Billy’s mother, also sitting on a folding metal chair, was dressed in all black. When Billy’s mother heard the words “grateful nation,” she cried. Billy’s relatives and friends were all standing. Billy’s father lowered his head and placed the flag on his lap. Billy’s relatives cried. Billy’s friends cried. The three gravediggers leaned against nearby headstones holding shovels waiting to bury Billy. It started to rain. Billy’s parents left. Billy’s relatives and friends left. The gravediggers decided to take an extended lunch break.
Harold Hoey, below ground, and Billy Brunt, above ground, were alone, together in a northern Vermont cemetery.
“Hi,” said Harold.
“What? Who said that? asked Billy.
“Me. I’m over here, next to you. Underground,” said Harold.
“Oh. You dead?” asked Billy.
“Yeah. You too, huh. I take it from the little ceremony that you died in Iraq,” said Harold.
“Nope. I died at Walter Read Hospital in Washington. But I got my injuries in Iraq. My jeep was hit with a bomb. It caught on fire. I lost both my legs. But that ain’t the worst. It was the burns. My entire body was burned through. No skin. My right eye melted. The pain was real bad. The morphine didn’t help. They kept me alive for a week at the hospital. I was glad to die,’ said Billy.
“Yuck. I guess I was lucky. A bomb blew my head off. Died instantly,” said Harold.
“You mean you don’t have a head right now?” asked Billy.
“They reconstructed some of it. Put the bits together,” said Harold.
“I am glad that the whole experience is over, and I can now relax,” said Billy.
“That’s what I thought. But after you lie here for awhile you start thinking, and you get real pissed off,” said Harold.
“Pissed off? You can’t get pissed off after your dead,” said Billy.
“Oh yeah you can. Wait and see,” said Harold.
“What are you pissed off about?” asked Billy.
“The whole thing. I mean it’s over. My life is over. And I just turned twenty. I had twenty years. That’s it. I’m pissed,” said Harold.
“I got you beat by four years. I turned twenty four a few months ago. I was playing baseball for the Portland Sea Dogs up in Maine; a farm team for the Boston Red Sox. And the Guard called me,” said Billy.
“You play baseball? Wow. You might have made the majors?” asked Harold.
“Well, you always hope that,” said Billy.
“Did you see that President Bush through out the first pitch on opening day?” asked Harold.
“Well, I didn’t see that. That was the day my jeep got blown up,” said Billy.
“That sucks. Cheney through out a pitch too,” said Harold.
“I’m going to miss baseball. And my friends. And my family. Jeez, I’m going to miss a lot of stuff,” said Billy.
“Yep. That’s when you start getting angry. You start thinking like what was the point,” said Harold.
“Well, there was a point. I mean we’re trying to do something over there,” said Billy.
“Do the math. Was it worth giving up your family, your friends? Was it worth giving up baseball forever? Was it worth it for what we are doing over there?” asked Harold.
“It’s forever, huh?” said Billy.
“Yeah. That’s what this thing is. Death. It’s forever,” said Harold.
“My mother once told me that nothing lasts forever,” said Billy.
“The whole thing sucks man. I didn’t go to college because I had to get a job to help with my mom. My dad died a few years ago, so I had to get a job after high school. To help out. To help my mother and sisters. I have two baby sisters. Then the Guard called,” said Harold.
“I guess I can see why you’re pissed off. It ain’t good over there. You know after its all over, and we leave Iraq, I am going to guess that the place will still be a mess,” said Billy.
“I don’t care if it’s a mess or the Garden of Eden. I would still be pissed. I’m dead and buried, man. It’s over. Who cares what happens in Iraq. You think Bush really cares, I mean really really cares about Iraqis, I mean enough to put me here in this grave? No way. I mean, I don’t know what moved the man to send me to that cesspool and have my head blown off. He traded my life for some Iraqi’s right to vote. Fuck that. I can tell it’s raining, right?” asked Harold.
“Yeah, it’s raining,’ said Billy.
“I’m dead and buried in the wet earth, in the rain, and I didn’t even make it to drinking age and Bush is throwing out pitches on opening day. That’s why I’m pissed. I mean, did he come to your funeral? Did he come to my funeral? Has he gone to anyone’s funeral?” said Harold.
“Well, he wasn’t at mine,” said Billy.
“Bush wasn’t at my funeral either. But he was at opening day. He was playing baseball on the day you got blown up,” said Harold.
“Look, I don’t want to be angry. It’s not going to get me anywhere. I want to be at peace,” said Billy.
“That’s just an idea you have about being dead. Being at peace. It ain’t peaceful. It sucks,” said Harold.
“I guess we are going to become friends now that we are here. Here forever, huh,” said Billy.
“How much you want to bet we will be here, dead and buried with people startin’ to forget about us, we’ll be here next year when Bush and Cheney throw out pitches on opening day,” said Harold.
“Damn. How am I going to follow the Red Sox now?” asked Billy.
“See what I mean. This place we’re in. It sucks,” said Harold.
“Yeah. I see what you mean,” said Billy.
The rain continued. The earth became wet. The gravediggers returned, and in the rain, in the mud, the gravediggers buried Billy.