In school, everyone was always after me about heroes. They wanted me to tell them who my heroes were—meaning I needed to list my dad, and on Mother’s Day, my mom, and after that all the veterans we knew. Heroes, heroes, heroes. Hercules was a hero, and as far as I could tell back then, after having watched the movie six or seven times, neither my mom nor my dad nor the people who came back with limps and buzzcuts and permanently straight backs fit the definition right.
By middle school they were telling us exactly all the ways in which men were not heroes. They fucked girls up and made them pregnant. I opened a book once on my mother’s shelf, hoping to find a sex scene that described breasts in detail, and instead found a chapter opening where a man twisted a woman’s breasts down in pain. I learned the word rape a year after I’d learned the term intercourse, and in that same year we started discussing the war. I learned that Iraq had really been Mesopotamia, which made me sad in a way I couldn’t describe.
They hadn’t explained this to me before he left. Greger was nine years older than me because I had been a happy accident. A “blessed surprise” my mom called me. I don’t know what Greger thought when they’d told him he was going to become a brother, but he’d always been the best one I could imagine. Everyone else hated their siblings. I loved mine. He let me tag along. When his friends came over, he let me stay in the basement with them while they played games shooting people with gentle explosions of plastic-looking blood, driving cars around fantastic bends on tv-screen roads. Sometimes they’d even let me drink out of the sharp-tasting Gatorade bottle they passed around. Greger called me Little Man, and when he went out to play hockey and lacrosse, I’d bundle up with as much of his gear as I could carry and walked him in and out of the locker rooms on game day, whether he’d won and whether he’d lost.
Greger’s room never had many toys in it, and by the time I was six it became covered in posters of strong men and beautiful women holding American flags. Our dad loved guns and so Greger started loving guns; one day, I went to the shooting range to watch them practice, and I watched Greger carefully set his weapon and steady his aim, patient to the last minute. He was a good shot. I couldn’t wait until it was my turn.
When they told me he was signing up with the army, I’d been confused. Armies were for wars, which I’d definitely seen in movies and which we were definitely not having. We weren’t eating margarine cakes or stretching out casseroles with infinite amounts of cheese. We didn’t have a bomb shelter. They said it would help him with paying for school, eventually. Greger was happy; when he got his first uniform, I got to take a picture with him in it. Iraq had no place in my world and no place on the planet that I could have pointed out. At that time, all I knew were the fifty states, and barely those. Greger was just going to be gone a long time, and I would have to hang out on my own.
People my age were never as smart as he was. I didn’t want to be friends with them; I wanted to think about the war. I wanted to know what happened when Greger woke up in the mornings, where he went, who he saw. To know who he looked at when he aimed and what the smoking desert smelled like. But these weren’t details anyone thought I deserved, so I watched war movies dating to long-dead battles no one in my family could remember. I was old enough for Tora! Tora! Tora! and The Bridge on the River Kwai, but not old enough for Hurt Locker. Not in my home.
The times when he came back were the best. Mom would get dressed up and she’d cook for two days to get ready; Dad would polish up his rifle and promise a hunting trip, as long as the weather held. He’d come back and all I had to do was wait through the early reunions; I knew that later, when all the hugging was done, Greger would come find me and we’d sit together. It didn’t matter what we did, as long as we did it together.
Mesopotamia became the subject of my final sixth-grade project. It was the birthplace of civilization, I had read, and the fertile crescent which gave life to the idea of farming and baking bread and taming animals. It had been a miracle of humanity, irreplaceable and older than any city in America. Not a single state or its capital could compete with the ancient treasures still buried somewhere in the tired dust. I figured it would be a place covered with archaeologists, people who looked like Indiana Jones brushing tiny pieces of pottery by hand, looking for hidden messages from the ancients.
The last time Greger came back, my parents left me at home so I wouldn’t see it. Someone had told them that this was better in terms of preteen psychology, to protect me from the first final image. I would still be at the funeral, but I wouldn’t have to see the casket delivery, and I wouldn’t have to see my parents’ faces when they first laid eyes on it. I wouldn’t have to see a thing.
When they told my teachers to express condolences, my teachers all told me he was a hero. Your brother Greger was a real American hero. When I stopped sleeping at night, I tiptoed along the hallway and halfway down the steps, where I’d watch my mother in the living room, touching the bloodstained shirt from the last clothes he’d ever worn. She never cried. She never changed, not in front of me.
My father went to the range every day for three weeks after the funeral, and he wouldn’t let me come. He shot every enemy he could possibly imagine had ever come for Greger; by the end of middle school, I’d realize the enemies my father saw didn’t look like Indiana Jones. There would be no hunting treasures in the deep dust of historic ruins. Just ruins.
Almost every essay the next year involved heroes. I know who they wanted me to name, but I never did. Greger was gone. He had left, or been taken, or been blown up, or maybe just slightly grazed too close to the heart by a bullet from a man soon to be taken, or blown up, or just slightly grazed too close, in a war that required no margarine and left the children at home when the coffins came back.
And so I came of age in a time of no heroes.
About the Author
Alessandra Davy-Falconi is a phoenix who recently completed an undergraduate degree in history while working full-time in corporate America. When she's not working, she makes and seeks out art, explores the infinite outdoors, and reads as much as possible. Her work has previously appeared in Litbreak, Flash Fiction Magazine, Philadelphia Stories, and Strong Verse, among others. Look her up if you're curious.