The crack of gunfire exploded in the air…once…twice…three times. I flinched with each pop, the smell of gunpowder thick in the warm mist raining down over the cemetery. The crowd around me faded into a mass of black suits, women in dark coats with their high heels sinking into the sodden grass, umbrellas overhead, and a sea of Marines in dress blue uniforms. I clung to my mother in the folding chair beside me.
The military report must be mistaken. Or maybe someone was covering up—lying. But why? My insides shifted and tightened. If Levi’s death was anything other than an accident, Mom would never be able to live with the truth. I wasn’t sure if I could either.
An eerie silence fell and then was broken by the sound of a bugle blaring out the soulful notes of Taps, the signal for the end of a long day for a Marine…or the end of his life. My grandfather saluted his comrades, his face stony and expressionless, deep lines etched between his brows and around his mouth the only evidence of his sorrow.
The canopy overhead protected us from the rain, but tears soaked my skin. Two Marines lifted the American flag from my brother’s coffin, moving with mechanical precision. In their shiny black shoes and perfectly starched uniforms, they stretched the edges taut and began folding and creasing, folding and creasing, until the stripes disappeared into a compact triangle with just the white stars showing against the navy background. One of the folders and creasers, nearly faceless beneath his round white hat with its polished black visor, presented the triangle of flag to my mother, who clutched it to her chest and released another shuddering sob. I gripped her shoulders tighter as she collapsed against me.
I scanned the crowd, tuning out the final words of Father O’Keefe as he committed Levi’s soul to God and his body to the earth. Friends, family, neighbors, and military personnel surrounded the scene, rows deep. I recognized my friends from school, half of next year’s senior class turning out to show their support. Katie, Samantha and Penny from Somerville all stood up front, crying openly and holding hands. The pain in their eyes reflected what my heart refused to let in. I felt hollow and cold, almost dead inside. A terrible numbness resided in my limbs, as if I’d fallen asleep in a snowbank and my body had frozen there. Except that I was here and there was no escaping the reality. My eyes darted through the faces, each expression as painful as the last.
So much love, so much sadness, so much grief. Whether they knew him or not, people turned out to mourn the death of a young hometown soldier. A Connecticut boy killed in combat. My brother…my brother Levi was dead. My mind let the thought in, trying it on as if maybe I could send it back if it didn’t fit. The casket, the scent of roses—it all made my stomach curl into a tight knot. What Daddy would have called “angel tears” falling from the heavens, gently caressed the broken hearts of the mourners—it felt surreal. I wanted to believe it was a bad dream, a made for TV movie that me and my family were playing in as extras. My mother shook in my arms, the scent of her strawberry shampoo waking me to the reality. This wasn’t a dream or a movie. This was real life—and real death. But I couldn’t let myself believe it, because then everything would be different.
The faces blurred. I closed my eyes, my ears disconnected from the words of the priest, and I gasped for breath. Tears spilled down my cheeks, hot and heavy. Then my lungs expanded. I was still alive, still breathing. My heart resumed beating. I opened my eyes and swiped at my cheeks, sniffling to gain control. I searched deeper into the crowd, wanting only to see one person.
Then I spotted him, standing shoulder to shoulder with several other Marines in the third row. He was the only man in uniform who stood round shouldered and slouched, leaning on the crutches that held him upright. I couldn’t see his eyes beneath his hat, but his face was pale and his lips were drawn in a straight, tight line. I shivered in spite of the balmy June air, the dampness seeping into my bones and chilling me to the core.