Short Story: Play Army by Mike Sharlow

Play Army
by Mike Sharlow

I loved war, particularly WWII. 

I loved war movies like The Battle of the Bulge, TV shows like Combat! documentaries like The World at War, and any books and comics about war. Billy, my best friend, also loved war. 

It was after supper and time to play army with BB guns. There was only one rule: no shooting at someone’s head. This wasn’t like playing army with toy guns, where you could dispute a kill. “Bam! Bam! You’re dead!” often received the response, “No, I’m not! There’s no way you could shoot me from there!” Or it was, “I shot you first!” “No, I shot you first!”

With BB guns there was no debate. You knew it when you got hit, and you usually knew when you shot someone. A yelp, scream, or curse was an obvious sign. This was often followed by a snicker or laughter from the shooter. Inflicting pain wasn’t necessarily funny, but someone’s reaction to the surprise of being shot was. One moment you were being stealthy, the tension was astronomical, and then there’s a hard-hurting sting, surprising the hell out of you. If this was a bullet, you might have died before you had a chance to be surprised.

Tonight’s battle took place in the fall of 1972. Billy, Eddie, and I were on one side. Jimmy Babb, Rob, Greg, and my brother Tim were on the other side. We took Eddie on our team because he would be impatient and stupid and draw attention to himself, thus drawing attention away from us. 

The late October Southern California nights were cool. I had on a T-shirt, my army shirt, which I always wore, and a light jacket. I would probably get too warm once the fighting began, but I felt some security having three layers of clothing.  Everyone, except for Greg, was at least wearing a light jacket. He only had on a black T-shirt. He was bigger, older, and more physically mature. I think he was fourteen. His dark hair always seemed a bit greasy, and his face was slick and shiny and peppered with pimples. A cloud of spicy BO surrounded him. He didn’t talk much, and he laughed nervously about everything. 

We had just enough BB guns to go around. I had my Daisy lever action with a wood stock. It was extremely basic. There was no engraving on the wood, and there weren’t even any sights on the barrel. Still, I got to be a rather good shot by eyeing down the barrel. Billy had his lever action Daisy with a plastic stock. Rob had a Daisy Red Ryder lever action with an engraved wood stock. Rob’s Dad had it as a kid. It was in good condition and still shot with decent power, but it had a louder Pop! when fired. You knew when Rob fired his gun.

We congregated in the concrete alley behind the apartments. The whole block and it was a long block, consisted of separate but identical eight-unit apartment complexes with identical two-bedroom apartments. I had been to Eddie’s, Billy’s, and Rob’s apartment. The kitchen, living room, bathroom, and bedrooms were in the same place, the exact same, but they looked much different.

  Rob’s parents were divorced, and he lived with his petite, pale, thin mom, who kept their apartment dark, tidy, and clean. It always smelled kind of new. The courtyard in their complex was an arboretum. There was no room for kids to play, nor were they allowed to.  

Billy’s apartment smelled like a combination of Mexican food and flowery perfume. Strangely, they went together. It was a bit messy, but not dirty. Billy lived with his mom and two older sisters. Billy slept in the living room on the couch.

Eddie’s apartment was close to squalor. I had been there, not long ago, and saw Eddie’s mom splayed out on the couch passed out half-naked in a shiny blue jumpsuit with the zipper undone to her dark crotch. The apartment had a foreign, funky, but inspiring scent, which excited me. 

My mom kept our apartment clean and tidy, even with five in our family: my mom, dad, and two brothers. Our courtyard was landscaped with bushes, a couple of small trees, and grass. There was a fenced play area with swings, a slide, and a small playhouse for the little kids. 

The entire block couldn’t be our battlefield, so we decided to narrow it down to the complex where Billy, Greg, and Eddie lived. Their complex wasn’t very well maintained. The buildings hadn’t been painted in a long time. Storm doors swung wildly with broken springs and hinges, and some had glass broken. Many windows had torn or missing screens. The courtyard looked like a desert with patches of grass. The people who lived in this complex weren’t the kind of people who easily complained. They were the people other people complained about. This was the worst apartment complex on the block and the best place to have our BB gunfight.

We split into our groups and went in opposite directions. There were not a lot of places to hide. Billy, Eddie, and I ducked behind one of the apartment buildings in the small alley between the complexes. These alleys were filled with small rocks, which made it impossible to be completely quiet walking through them. Billy told Eddie to go to the other end of the building. “I don’t want to. Somebody might shoot me.”

“If you don’t go, I will shoot you,” Billy said. “Go.”

  Eddie ran indiscriminately through the rocks in his dirty tattered tennis shoes, making a racket that echoed off the opposing buildings like in a canyon. He was wearing a ratty white long-sleeved sweatshirt that turned gray from age, and his jeans were too small.  Eddie was made squirrelly, neurotic, and fragile by his mother’s neglect. Eddie was going to get shot, probably more than once.

Billy and I ducked behind a dumpster and waited quietly until we heard Eddie. “Ouch! Ouch! Ouch!” Eddie tore through the rocks back towards us, as Pop! Pop! Pop! went off in the distance behind him. He turned the corner and dashed into his apartment, and as the screen door slammed behind him, a BB blew a hole in the bottom aluminum panel and stuck in the wood door. From the sound of this Billy and I knew it was a shot from Greg. He had a pump BB gun that also shot pellets. He wasn’t supposed to use pellets, and he wasn’t supposed to pump more than five times, which we thought was equal to the power of our guns. He must have pumped fifteen or twenty times with that shot. 

“I’m going to get on the roof. Cover me.” At thirteen, I was wiry and athletic, so I climbed on the dumpster, and from there I slid my gun on the flat carport roof and quickly pulled myself up. Billy stayed behind because at twelve years old he still wasn’t strong enough to pull up his short stocky body onto the roof.  

The carport roof was a few feet away from the shallow-pitched apartment roof. I took a running start and leaped across. I walked the length of the roof as quietly as possible. All the roofs on the entire block were covered with a layer of gravel. My dad said it was to protect me from the hot California sun.

I walked to the other end of the roof where I thought the enemy was. I stood at the edge of the roof, and I noticed that the streetlights had come on. It was getting dark, and I was feeling afraid of getting shot. I lay down and peeked my head over the edge of the roof. Rob saw me before I saw him, and he aimed at my head but missed. I jumped back and immediately grabbed a fistful of gravel and threw it at him. Through the dim light, I watched it pepper his face like a shotgun blast.

“Ow! What the heck!” Rob squealed.

“You shot at my head!” I would have punched him if I were on the ground.

“Can’t throw rocks!” Teary-eyed, Rob glared at me, and he walked away quickly on the long straight sidewalk home. Rob was a pasty white boy with a little belly of privilege who walked like he had a stick up his ass. He went to private school, and he acted like playing with us was slumming anyway.

“Big Baby!” I yelled. My heart was still pounding.

Then Greg appeared from around the corner pumping his gun like a madman.

I moved back on the roof and got on my hands and knees. I wanted to yell at Greg for pumping his gun so much, but I didn’t. It would have drawn more attention to me. I made my way back to the carport roof and climbed down on the dumpster. Billy was gone.

I circled around to the front by going through the adjoining complex. This was outside our battlefield, but it was the safest way. It also provided an element of surprise, because I came up right behind my brother, Tim. I told him to put his gun down and raise his arms. This seemed like a good idea, but thirty seconds later I realized that my prisoner was going to be a hardship to move around with. I couldn’t just let him go. There had to be consequences for getting captured.

 “I’ll give you a five-second head start before I shoot. One, two. . .”

Without thinking about it, my brother took off through the rocks behind the apartments. I shot him in the back at “Three.” I was afraid he was going to get away. He yelled out and fell face first and began to cry. When I shot him, he was halfway down the alley, so I didn’t think it would hurt that much.

“I’m going home!  You shot me in the back!” he bellowed.

“Time Out! Time Out!” I yelled. 

Billy and Jimmy Babb came running from different directions and ended up at me at about the same time. “What’s happening?” Billy asked.

“He shot me in the back,” Tim blubbered.

Billy didn’t care. He was my best friend, and Tim was my little brother. “Where’s Rob?”

  “He went home.” I didn’t feel like telling him the rest of the story. “You can shoot me.” I tried to hand Tim my gun, cocked and ready.

“I’m going home.” Tim started to leave.

“Shoot me.” I couldn’t have him go home without evening things up. If he shot me, I would have something to hold against him if he told on me. I pointed the barrel at my stomach. “Pull the trigger,” I told Tim.

“That’s gonna hurt, Mick,” Billy said as he squinted, anticipating the pain.

“Pull the trigger,” Jimmy Babb encouraged.

Tim placed his finger on the trigger without touching the rest of the gun. My arms were getting tired holding it up by the barrel. Then he pulled the trigger, and I instantly dropped the gun. I heard a WHAP! then felt a deep sting. The pain instantly made me mad, and although it didn’t hurt enough to make me cry, I still wanted to punch Tim, but I didn’t.

Tim was satisfied, and he walked home with Jimmy Babb. 

There was only Billy and me against Greg, wherever Greg was, and I got scared. “Greg’s pumping his gun too many times.”

“Let’s quit,” Billy said. He was scared too.

Then we yelled for Greg, and we found him standing in the middle of the alley like a psycho pumping his gun. It made a hair-raising Clack! Clack! Clack! Because we knew what was next. He pointed and fired at us. Billy ran behind a dumpster, and I ducked behind a car in the carport. Greg continued to stand in the middle of the alley pumping his gun for his next shot, which he aimed at Billy. The BB made a PANG! off the dumpster that was loud enough to make me jump from where I was hiding, so I was sure it scared the shit out of Billy.

“Only five pumps!” Billy yelled. Greg laughed and continued to pump his gun. Then I saw Billy aim and fire at Greg, so I cocked my gun and shot. Billy cocked and fired again, and so did I. We shot one more time before Greg was done pumping. He fired at Billy again and hit the dumpster a second time. As Greg pumped his gun for his fourth shot at us, we took the opportunity to continue to fire back. Greg never said “ouch” or even winced when I knew my shots were hitting him. Billy was closer to him than I was. We shot Greg about fifteen times, as he laughed and laughed like he was being tickled. It was freaky.

He deserved to get shot in the head for trying to kill us. I had heard that pumping a gun twenty times was equal to a .22 rifle. 

I didn’t aim at his head, but I did shoot at his bare arms. I got his attention, and he fired his next shot in my direction. I dropped out of sight behind a car, and then Greg fired. His shot hit the rear window with a loud POP! and the glass turned into a 10,000-piece jigsaw puzzle. That noise was an alarm that told us to get the hell out of there.  

Greg had already vanished when Billy and I met by the dumpster. 

“Greg shot the window.” I’m sure Billy saw it, but I still needed to say it.

“I’m not taking the blame,” Billy breathed heavily.

“Me either. I’m going,” I said.

“We weren’t even here. We were at my house playing with my army guys,” Billy said and waved goodbye, as he took off.

“See you tomorrow.” I disappeared into the shadows of the carport and headed home.


About the Author

Mike Sharlow is from La Crosse, Wisconsin, a small city on the banks of the Mississippi. In 2020 he moved to the Phoenix metro area in Arizona. His novel Welcome to the Ranks of the Enchanted is included in the William Charvat Special American Fiction Collections at the Ohio State University. He has over 40 short story publications in magazines and anthologies. A full bibliography of his work can be found at



Gun Photo credit:StudioPeace