Will McMillan


“So we put all these unused explosives into a pile…” my brother Chris whispers to me, and I recognize his tone at once. It’s the voice he taught to me to use when we were children, in our bunk beds, wide awake when we were supposedly sleeping.  It’s his “I have a secret” voice, which he hasn’t used on me in years.

“So we put all these unused explosives into a pile, right before the end of our tour, because we have to get rid of them. Hand grenades, dynamite, ammunition.  Then we stick a remote detonator on the pile and drive about half a mile away.” He’s been home on leave for less than a week, 19 years old, tall and healthy, yet he moves about mechanically, as if he’s a spirit possessing a body he hasn’t become familiar with.

“You didn’t try to sneak anything back home for yourself?” I ask, wishing I didn’t sound so eager to know. He hasn’t told me much about what he did during his time in Afghanistan since he’s gotten back. He hasn’t told much to anyone.

“There wasn’t any way to,” he continues, flipping his hand in the air as if my question were an insect he’s swatting away. “Explosives aren’t meant to be shipped back once they’ve been delivered. It’s easier to just get rid of them. So we get a safe distance out and are getting ready to detonate the pile when we notice through the binoculars that all these Afghani civilians have come creeping out. They’d been hiding behind a ridge while we were setting up, and now they’re going through everything, taking things. Like, thirty people digging through this huge pile of munitions.” He pauses and looks away for a moment, and again I recognize another hold over from our childhood.  He’s building, is what he’s doing, holding onto the moment for as long as he can, in love with my attention. His eyes turn back to me.  “They didn’t see the detonator, or they didn’t know what it was.”

He’d enlisted early, when he was 17, not yet finished with his senior year of high school. He’d signed up for a five year enlistment, which had startled our mother.  “Five years?” she’d asked. “Are you sure about this?” But it was too late. Our father had given permission, so to hell with being sure.  The army didn’t issue receipts, so there would be no exchange, no return on the next five years of my brothers’ life. He turned 18 the following September, and ten months later he was in the Middle East. He was among the first to be deployed, the first to see action.

“God,” I whisper, “that’s crazy! Did you guys drive back and tell them what you were about to do? They must have been terrified, coming so close to getting blown up.”

“No,” Chris replies. “We just… blew them up.”

“Oh,” I say, and am suddenly out of questions. I see the weather behind my brother’s eyes has changed, that this particular story was no more than a cluster of clouds sweeping over the landscape of his mind. He’s managed to clear the skies by talking it out, and having done so, seems perfectly, contently, satisfied.

When we were children our dog, Rusty, developed a twisted stomach. A painful and usually fatal condition, my brother had gone with our dad to the vets. The news was grim. Rusty was expected to die within days. Sitting outside his kennel, my brother had prayed for a miracle. He wept his pleadings to God until he passed out, his hands locked in prayer under his cheek. God had been listening, it seemed, and Rusty turned it around and got well again. My brother stormed through the house on a wave of joy, convinced he’d saved Rusty’s life.

He’s still that person; he’s still that boy that prayed for our dying dog, I think after hearing my brother talk of obliterating 30 people.  He’s more that person than anything else. That night, when a car alarm goes off across the street, sending my brother screaming under his bed, I think maybe it’s my turn to ask God about saving a life.


William McMillan was born in Gresham, Oregon. He lived in Oregon until 2016, when he moved to New York City. In 2011 he sold his first book, a children’s story he wrote when he was 18.

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