When Johnny Comes Marching Home

by Katherin Hervey

 A group of disorderly men, all in their mid-twenties, have dominated the back entrance to the park all year, right where the cul-de-sac ends. They are white, black, and brown, and one of them is in a wheelchair. Another hobbles everywhere he goes. The neighbors wonder if this one walks funny because he is drunk, or because one leg is shorter than the other. They turn up at noon like clockwork, already wasted, and stay way past midnight. Every once in a while a cop makes them scatter, but usually they are left alone amid the crumbling and faded single-story houses. Besides they don’t really bother the neighbors, and they only fight each other.

I am their Commander. The one in the wheelchair with the permanent scowl. I got my legs blown off in Iraq. But my arms and chest are ripped from the gym. I like to take my shirt off and show the tendons popping from my muscles so people know I ain’t weak. When I’m not scowling I’m barking orders or laughing. It’s a loud, raucous laugh that scares people cuz it sounds forced and angry, but it’s just how I laugh, even when things aren’t funny.

A man in camouflage shorts is walking towards us with a determined expression on his face. It’s a warm evening so the neighbors are on their porches and kids are out playing. Suddenly a shot rings out. Goddamn Sniper. I howl and press a hand to my head right above my ear. Blood gushes out. There’s so much blood. Where the fuck are my men? I’m all alone, hunched over holding my head. Somebody help me! Please help me! Am I really yelling? Or are the words just in my head? Maybe the bullet has taken part of my brain. Or am I in shock? Everything is blurry and the air in my lungs burns. Oh God Oh God Oh God.

There’s movement around me.  Someone screaming that I’ve been shot. I got to get out of here. I try pushing on my wheels to move through the crowd, but people stop me. Don’t fucking touch me! A neighbor is on his cell phone calling 911. The blood is running down my arms, and my hands are slipping on the wheels. I can’t get a grip. I spit on them. Let me go! Get your hands off me, or I’ll fucking kill you! People back off. The look on their stupid faces shows they’ve never seen combat. Never seen so many dead bodies around them they can’t even begin to count. Never held their best friend’s head in their lap, covered with blood, as he takes his last breath staring into their eyes.

I make it around the block, but the cops stop me. An ambulance is behind them. The sirens are too much. An angry sergeant asks me what happened like it’s my fault. Where do I live? What was I doing there? Why don’t I have ID on me? I look around and all the stupid faces have followed me. Everyone’s watching the freak show in the wheelchair. Sweat pours down my face mixing with the blood. I don’t care; let them think I’m crazy. A crazy vet. The sergeant places his hand on my shoulder. So I punch him. Thwack! Right in the nuts. A perfect hit if I do say so myself. And they’re on me. Knees on my chest, pinning me down. As if I can go anywhere. As if I have legs!

I’m placed on a gurney and the man in the ambulance is nice. I can see it in his eyes. My head, my head. I was shot in the head, I tell him. He is checking my pulse. My blood pressure. What about my head you moronic twit! The other medic just stares at me like he’s never seen anything so pathetic.

They wheel me into the hospital. It’s okay they’re saying. Some minor cuts. Minor cuts? What about my head?! I am screaming now. I feel the sting of a needle entering my arm. The instant relief of the sedative is a wave of warmth that takes control of my body. My eyes close and my mind slows, moving backward in time, until I’m surrounded by miles of sand dunes, the air thick with humidity, and the scorching sun high in the cloudless sky. My legs are heavy. I can’t move them. But then I think I see Parker, like a mirage, emerging from the sand, a tuft of his dirty blonde hair peeking out of his army-issued cap. His jacket is soiled with blood, and a bright red scarf is pulled tight around his neck, flickering with the wind like a signal for help.

 Parker, is that you?

Yes. It is Parker. I move closer and see the freckles on his nose, the scar above his lip, his blue eyes wide, staring at the sky. I hear a helicopter rushing toward us and know it is the medic. Parker turns and stares at me with pleading eyes, like he did right before he died.

 No! No! The medic is here! You don’t have to die! The sand starts thrashing all around us, slapping at my face, and surging up his nose and into his open eyes. He is drowning in the sand, and I keep pushing it off of him, but more keeps coming and coming. Parker. I’m here. Don’t leave me here!

Back at the cul-de-sac they laugh at me. Ask me why I freaked like that. Just a car backfiring at the end of the street, they say, but I hurled myself onto the ground and hit my head.

I lie and tell them it must have been the speed. A hallucination. They want to know who gave me the bad drugs, say someone’s going to pay. I sit there brooding and silent. Something has changed inside of me. The trees are forming shadows that weren’t there before, and I can hear people’s thoughts when they aren’t talking. They think I’m weak. A punk. A man waiting for something that will never come.

You must have been really high, they say. Yes, I was really high, I say. And we never speak of it again.


Katherin Hervey is a writer, filmmaker, and former attorney. She’s currently writing her first collection of short stories in collaboration with visual artist Suzanne Klotz.


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