They bury him under a flag, on a cool autumn morning. His brother escorts her, supports her tenderly through the service. He is the one who flinches at the rifle salute. She closes her eyes and opens her heart and lets the staccato shots pass through her like a wind.
Only blanks. Not real bullets. Nothing like the barreling rounds that ripped his flesh and smashed in under his narrow ribs and nailed his life to the inside back of his flack jacket.
That slim silent figure in uniform. Laid out cold and still. Thats not him. Hes not here. He slipped out of his shell somewhere in the middle of a desert city under siege. Hes maybe still there, a little lost. A little uncertain where to go from here. He might linger where his brothers are still fighting. Screaming silent warning. Aching to fight beside them still, to protect them, to tell them, its okay, hes got their back.
That image gives her strength. That hes there to clear the way for others soon to die; soon to be sent home and buried under star spangled banners. He will be a warrior forever. He will stand proud, and defend his brothers to the last. The purpose is pure.
The flag is coarse and cold. She crushes it to her chest.
At home the family huddles and offers cold comfort all around. His brother cries. His father cries. The two of them bracing each other.
She exists in the semi-whispers, the muttering sympathy. Concerned soft hands and hugs and gentle words, heartfelt, if formulaic. The offers of support and help and companionship. The old cliché, what can you say?
She watches his solemn fellows, in their crisp uniforms. They understand her cold withdrawal. They look at her with frigid, knowing eyes. There is a distance between them; as vast as the thickness of a uniform jacket that separates a warriors heartbeat from her own. But they are closer to her than family now.
They are his family; his surrogate brothers and fathers. The ones who knew him so well, lived and slept and talked and ate and laughed and worried and fought beside him in the final days. The men who saw him die. Who carried him into the ground today and keep his promises behind their screaming hollow eyes.