Humble attempt at a short story about a soldier returning home from Iraq circa 2007
|Preface: Although this is a mostly a work of fiction it does contain many non-fiction aspects. Take the time to get to know a veteran, they may have endured much more than you realize. Also, this is my first attempt at writing anything in several years. Looking for some candid reviews from mature readers and writers.
Stepping off the corridor that attached aircraft to terminal, he was immediately numbed, the sheer press of people; too many to behold. His eyes scanned over the faces quickly, calculating age, ethnicity and gender. He stopped, eyes clenched for a mere moment and reopening in an attempt to unlearn a few habits and regain the perspective to process these stimuli. He had to remind himself that this was no longer necessary.
His journey into the terminal continued in the unavoidable manner. The smells and sights of the endless conveniences beckoned from every possible angle. The scent of coffee accompanied by the noisy shucking of beans, the staccato neon gyrations of a dancing burrito caricature and a thousand other sensory explosions occurring at once. All to the indifference of the hurrying crowd, all to the pace of an indescribable hive-mind. He attempted to keep eyes locked forward while walking, until he could once again accept these multi-spectral invasions. Compared to his previous months, it was exhilarating in an unexpected way. Had he noticed such things before? He wanted to stop at every kiosk and buy every trinket, but he didn’t need the clutter.
Just takes some adjusting, he thought. You’ll get back into the swing of things in time.
The shock was, of course, due to the past thirteen months, which he had spent in a place more drab and also more dire than anything this throng had to offer. Thirteen months on tour in Iraq. He divided his time between patrolling the grey sun-blasted streets of Fallujah and the sterile, inhuman environment of the FOB administrative offices in Baghdad. Eyes on the clock and ever aware of the omnipresence of a NCO or an officer. They were always looking for a signature or a spreadsheet, or worse, a volunteer.
His transit back to the US had taken nearly 48 hours. The flight itself, a brutal twelve hours of stillness, but before that, sitting on a tarmac in a C-130 loaded to the gills with service members. Some headed home, more to Qatar for a span of mid-tour R&R. They sat in the creaking, cold-war relic of an aircraft waiting for some unknown maintenance issue to be resolved, or perhaps some admin check-in-the-box bean counting problem. Waiting for vast spans of time comfortably had been a necessary skill he had developed. He was a member of the US Army, waiting for things to happen was his job, and wait he did.
He had listened to the banter of the other occupants.
“The fuck is going on?”
“Always something, goddamn, we gonna bake in here”
“What you gonna do when you get back stateside?”
“Going to see the family, I’ve got a newborn I haven’t seen yet.”
“Settle my divorce.”
“See my girl.”
“Get a new tattoo. I’ve got this sweet idea.”
“Get drunk, get laid”
He thought about this. What was he going to do when he returned? Have a few drinks, sure. Maybe call up a few ex-girlfriends, lure them in with a few rugged “war stories” and maybe get laid, sure. He would make the obligatory phone calls to family and friends. Catch up on admin stuff that had fallen behind. An eval here, a medical exam there. He would fill the void of time in one manner or another, for a void of time was all it was. He already knew he would be back in a matter of months. He hadn’t seen the orders yet, but it was customary these days. Less than a year back stateside, probably. Maybe six months. Maybe fewer. But it was sleep that beckoned him more than anything. To lie still for more than a few hours at a time. To close his eyes and drift away without the idea of being awakened to the sound or mortar impacts or short-notice convoy duty. He felt, sitting in that olive drab shell amongst his fellow service-members, as if he could sleep for days.
And now here he found himself, back home. Back in the real world, where IEDs didn’t lurk around every corner. He thought this, as he sat in his best friend, Blake’s, passenger side seat, his eyes involuntarily scanning roadsides, hands clutching his jacket. They would run through the post-deployment checklist together. Normal was an objective word, now more than ever. Although it was his first deployment, he knew the routine, having completed a multitude of checklists so far in his career. Check in with the company, make appointment for psychological debrief, ect.
The idea of being in a place so familiar was still a distant, dream-state to him, even though he was now here, speeding along stands of lush green pines and interwoven with clinical shopping centers, the terrain of the American south. He sat trying to relearn it all. Had that shopping center been there before he left? It looked as if it might rain soon.
Where have I seen rain before, he thought.
The sighting of women was a particularly startling revelation to him. The American woman, unadorned my ACUs or burqa, driving or just walking past, wide of hip, either unaware or unwilling to acknowledge his presence. The only female form he beheld these past months were on shimmering laptop screens during his off-duty hours. He had inherited a thumb-drive of what seemed to be communal porn videos for his trailer/barracks house while staying on the FOB. Nearly 4GBs worth.
“This’ll get you through, man.” The SSgt told him as he bestowed the thumb drive upon him as part of his in processing. The SSgt was on his way stateside and no longer had any use for it. “Careful not to pass it around too much though. If our OIC caught wind of it, there might be a write-up. Guys pretty by the book, fucking asshole.”
He had only seldom partaken of the contents of the thumb drive, before handing it off to a grateful P1C in another trailer. Ever the idealist, surely he had better things to do with his downtime. Surely he did.
“Hey man, check out those two in the car next to us,” Blake said, “pretty hot, right? Probably some college girls.”
He looked, and they were, he thought, confirming only with a nod.
“Probably didn’t see anything like that out there. There will be plenty of em where I’m taking you tomorrow night.”
“When?” he asked.
“Oh, you know…later. You alright? You look kind of down. Don’t worry, we’ll getcha laid.”
Blake, his ride home from the airport, was in usual form, garbed in fedora, glasses, vest, tan standard issue undershirt beneath, form fitting jeans and hi-tops. It was the same civie outfit he had worn since AIT. He was tall and lanky and had somehow achieved the rank of Sgt at a fairly young age, despite somehow dodging all deployments. Blake prided himself on the amount of civilian friends he had outside of work. Blake had been his near constant companion during his time on this post…strange, considering Blake’s supposed complete lack of interaction with military during his myriad social life. They hung out together for some reason. It was just one of those things that happen.
They arrived at the apartment complex and the first drops began falling. It was mid-afternoon.
“I’ll let you settle in. Be back tomorrow.”
“Oh….ummm…..eightish? I’m rounding up the usual crew. Be ready to drink man. We’ll have to get crazy before SSgt Brinkley can get ahold of you. I’m sure he will want to take you out to hear all your war stories.”
“Yeah, we’ll see.”
With a hand clasp, Blake was gone. He stood outside a moment longer, watching the dark clouds accumulate mass. The cars around him glistened with beading rain drops.
He ascended the stairs and inserted the key into his apartment door, the familiarity of this act seeming strange now to him. He immediately dropped his bag after entering, its impact seeming to echo off the apartment walls. Everything was as it was. Had it always been this small? Had the walls and furniture always been this desolate and still? He walked over to his computer and turned it on, then snapped it back off, not remember what he intended to do. Instead he turned on his TV while walking past it, just to have some background noise. He then passed through his bedroom and into the bathroom where he merely stood, gazing at himself in the mirror. Was this the same face he had seen in a mirror in a shower trailer months ago, covered in grime and sand?
Commercials howled from the next room. Young men touting the reproductive freedoms a deodorant afforded them. Young women discussing the merits of one hygiene product over the next. Cartoon animals making slightly aged pop-culture cracks near the end of a seemingly happenstance car accident, the insurance company name only to be mentioned at the very end. He looked harder into the mirror. Have I aged? I don’t look any different, and it doesn’t feel like I was gone for very long. He splashed his face with water, unconsciously feeling for sand, finding none.
He lay down on his bed and set his phone on the small table next to it. His eyes gazed only briefly at the ceiling before returning to the phone. I should call, he thought. Friends and family waited on the other end to hear of his arrival. He had rehearsed what he would say to them in his mind a thousand times during his deployment. They would no doubt have high expectations…and yet, he couldn’t conjure the words now.
What could he really tell them? His parents would undoubtedly want to know that he made it back. His mom would want to fill him in on the family gossip while yelling at her coven of small dogs to stop barking. His dad would want to know if he had shot any of those towel-heads. His friends…well, he had not really talked to any of his hometown friends in quite a while. Many of them probably were not even aware of his departure in the first place. They would probably like to hear from him, but he felt that he was just a brief footnote in their lives now.
Most of his friends from high school had gone on to have fledgling careers as short-order cooks or customer service clerks or electronic gadget salesmen at one commercial outlet or other. Many worked to pay down college loans or child support. After he joined, their banter no longer seemed important to him. When he spoke to them before deploying, he was a foreigner in their world, treated largely with indifference. Who was fucking who and who was taking what pills seemed to be the concern. Who got a job here or there and who got divorced. He stared at the phone trying to will his hand over to it. He decidedly rolled over instead. The rain tapping on his window began to lull him to sleep, despite the presence of nonsensical television noise coming from the next room.
Then this: “Tensions escalate in Mosul,” he sat upright to better hear, “in-depth reporting on this during our late night programming.”
The TV show resumed, professional skateboarders hurling themselves down flights of stairs in shopping carts while touring the country. Laughs were had. Merchandise promoted.
He slept, the television droning on, the rain rising in tempo throughout his slumber. When he awoke he did not know if it were night or day, the sky had been so dark. He slept more and woke frequently. Laughter from the next room, a sitcom this time about four young people enjoying consequence free lives in the big city. Laughs all around.
The rain fell.
He continued sleeping waking occasionally only to piss or eat a little something. Hours fell off the clock and he knew that he probably had things he had meant to do, but just couldn’t remember what they were now. He opened the blinds to watch the rain for a little while, still so dark, then lay down and drifted away again.
A thunderous noise woke him and immediately he was crouched beside his bed. Had the mortars come again? No, this time it was only knocking at his door. What time was it? How much time had passed? In the next room fictional androids had become self-aware and were plotting war on mankind. There was a war happening but most people were unaware of it.
Blake at the door, “Oh man, this show is my shit!”
“Haven’t been watching it. Guess I’ve been sleeping”
“Jeez, this whole time? Can you believe this weather? Well get ready, we goin out, hoss!” he said.
Incidentally, Blake was wearing the same outfit as before, only now his undershirt was black instead of tan and covered in hyper-stylized text and scrolling designs. It was hard not to look at. It was also hard to like it.
Once in the car, weaving through traffic, he wondered where they might be going. There was a multitude of bars and a few clubs in town of varying degrees of activity. All he wanted was a few drinks with minimal distractions. He legitimately missed alcohol and that easy feeling of euphoria and dizziness if brought. He was a patient and quiet drunk, smiling ridiculously while trying to pace his buzz, never overdoing it. Blake, from his experience, became an overly sensitive socialite with no restraint. He spent many evenings throwing an arm around man and woman alike, shouting intimate and uninteresting details of his life into their ears. It was funny for a moment, but tiresome in large doses. He made sure that his wallet was stocked with enough cash for a cab, even though Blake always insisted on driving.
Heavy hip-hop grooves vibrated the car as they drove and Blake rhymed along with words of decadence and hubris. At every red light, Blake cut the volume knob sharply to shout his updates of supposed sexual exploits and the happenings around town.
“Who are these people we’re meeting?” he asked.
Blake cranked the music down sharply, “Some friends of mine, met em at karaoke the other weekend. Got totally drunk together, man. The girls they roll with are smoking. College girls are the best.” He proclaimed with knowing look.
The music was raised once again as we veered into a shopping center parking lot. A chorus of boastful obscenities from the latest breaking hip-hop artist gave their arrival preamble. Passer-by watched them park with looks of bewilderment an annoyance, mostly groups in their early 20s gathering outside the building for a night of drinking and gossip. He got out the car quickly while Blake sat for the remainder of the song, nodding his head to the beat while trying to adjust his fedora. He looked at their venue for the evening, which was sports bar/wing restaurant ablaze in the drizzly night with a neon haze.
Blake got out of the car with practiced flourish and led the way into the building. They immediately bypassed the hostess and made for a table already occupied. Their arrival was met with a fanfare of hooting and handshakes.
“Blake, you crazy mutherfucker!”
“This is the guy I was telling you about, babe! Sings Journey like a champ!”
“Hey guys, brought my friend”
They gave him the customary upward nod.
“Sit down boys, we already got a few pitchers”
He sized up their recipients. Four males, three females. He immediately knew them. They were golden boys, attending college on their parent’s dime clad in khaki shorts or jeans and polo shirts, not a worry on their minds about their place in the world. He took a seat next to one of the girls and offered a smile. She turned and tugged on the arm of her male companion. Blake sat next to him and they grabbed glasses and filled them with light amber beer.
Their talk immediately went to sports. It wasn’t long before he had spaced out on the conversation, giving the compulsory nod now and again. Sports had’nt really been his thing these past months, although some of his comrades lived for news of a game outcome. They were surrounded on all sides by tables of similar occupants, drinking and messily eating wings. The walls were adorned with glowing flat screens showing various sporting events. Mostly football, but some golf too and occasionally a screen of two men slugging it out in a caged octagon. There wasn’t a direction to look where his eyes didn’t meet a screen. He later even found them above the urinals in the restroom. He heard a mention of a college class.
“This professor, man what a shithead. I donno, I switch this class.”
He asked what they were majoring in. The four males answered:
All three of the females were majoring in Criminal Justice but they looked a little unsure about it.
The golden boys talked of sports and school in a boisterous fashion as the night went on. Their girlfriends played with their phones and laughed occasionally at a comment made. Blake drank more than his share of the pitchers, only occasionally buying another round and proceeded to stare at the various women in the place, nudging him as they passed. The more he drank the more overt it became. This wasn’t really his kind of scene but he played his part anyways, laughing and drinking. He looked when Blake beckoned him to look, enjoying the glut of visible female figures.
He was watching one such walk to her table, her ass on display in white shorts, when something on one of the screens caught his eye. The image ripped his attention away from the blonde with tremendous urgency. It seemed to be a news bulletin. The anchor spoke wordlessly for just a moment, then there was a map of Iraq, a glowing red dot over Fallujah. Then: images of soldiers crouching and raising their weapons., followed by an image of smoke rising from a grouping of buildings. Finally, an image of a wounded soldier being dragged by his webgear. The images grabbed him so severely that he stood with a suddenness that shoved his table back. In an instant he realized that he was drunk and he staggered for a moment.
“Whoa buddy, someone get him a wheelchair!” one of the golden boys hooted.
Remembering where he was, he laughed and sat down and ne nudged Blake and they laughed. The golden boys high fived him and poured him another beer while the women’s bored faces were still set aglow by their phones. He laughed and joked some more, his eyes covertly returning to the screen soon after. On it now, basketball players dashed up and down a polished court. Did he imagine it?
It wasn’t until the absolute end of the night that he realized that he was hammered. It was somewhere around 2am. He and Blake followed behind the golden boys, pushing each other jokingly around. Blake stopped near the exit and attempted to chat up a girl, who wasn’t nearly as drunk as he was and was a little less than receptive to his obnoxiously loud advances.
He talked one of the golden boys about college life, one of the females from his group listening in. When the golden boy turned to settle the tab, the conversation shifted to the female and him.
“Im not actually going to college yet.”
“Oh yeah, “ she said, “what do you do then?”
“Im in the military. Been in for about two years.”
She nodded, her eyes fleetingly distracted by her phone. “Hows that working out for you?” she asked.
Outside the building, the golden boys and their female companions lingered for a moment in the parking lot, laughing and staggering around while he waited for Blake. Once he came out he rejoined their group, trying to drum up a round of handshakes and back slaps, but they promptly dispersed, speeding away in their cars.
“Crazy mutherfuckers! Shit.”
Blake fished around for his keys and fell propping himself against his car. He suddenly doubled over and vomited. His fedora went tumbling away and he shambled after it. He returned cradling the hat and took off his glasses and wiped sweat from his brow and leaned and vomited again.
Despite his drunkenness, he felt a euphoric positivity. He smiled at Blake’s antics and laughed as the girl he was hitting on walked past in disgust. He waved at her and she turned and walked faster.
He ended up dialing a cab. During the ride he smiled as he watched the the lights of civilization go by. Blake sat beside him, his head rolling from side to side. Occasionally, Blake would say something nonsensical before falling once more into a stupor.
“Mind if I crash at your place?”
There was a moment’s hesitation.
“Whatever, just don’t throw up on anything.”
“Yo man, you the best, fuckin hero, welcome back bro.”
In time they reached his apartment building. He paid the driver and helped Blake up the stairs. It took a while. Blake was leaning hard on him and he was a little dizzy himself. Blake continued to spout nonsensical sentence fragments, but luckily there was no more vomiting.
Somehow, in his drunkenness, his hand found the knob to the door and turned. It relented and opened before him to the wavering glow of the television, the only source of light in the place. A late night infomercial for stain remover. Had he locked the door before he left?
Something wasn’t right. The vibe had changed. These thoughts were sobering enough to drive that familiar spine raking anticipation into him. He dropped into a crouch, Blake following suit but landed on his ass. He remained in the doorway for a long moment, scanning the darkness. The intermittent wavering light of the television, combined with his drunkenness played tricks on his mind. He thought that he saw movement in the darkness from the bedroom beyond.
It’s just your imagination. You are not fucked up. Just a little rattled, he told himself.
He and Blake stood and quietly entered; he immediately turned into the small kitchen area. Just for reassurance, he opened a drawer, which contained a pistol. A Glock, 9 mil and already loaded. Yet…it wasn’t there. He reached his hand back and forth along the surface of the drawer’s bottom and it was gone. His heart raced now. Trying not to panic, he peered inside over the kitchen counter.
A silhouette now stood in the bedroom doorway, black within black. The illumination of the television beside the figure made it impossible to make out any details. The silhouette, barely visible, didn’t move, and neither did he. Was the silhouette really even there?
If it was, it was certainly armed, he thought. Has my 9 mil, and probably found the shotgun under my bed too.
The blackened figure advanced suddenly raising something long and curved and he bolted for the door. After his first long step, an impact, sharp and unforgiving landed on his shoulder, leveling him to the ground. Hands, frantic and desperate in their ferocity grabbed hold of him and drug him back in. A second set of hands belonging to a second silhouette grabbed Blake’s legs and dragged him in the apartment as well. In his drunkenness, he could only manage a yelp before the apartment door was slammed shut.
Inside, he kicked at his attackers. The club, a crowbar, came down once more, smashing his elbow. He cried out, kicking violently and somehow getting to his feet. Blake was on the ground, a second attacker kicking him in the torso. He saw Blake’s attacker, illuminated by the TV. Not surprisingly, another tall man in ski mask and dark clothing. He rushed him, punching at him with his undamaged arm. He landed a few solid blows before the tall man shoved him away and he reeled back into the other attacker. He felt arms encircle him and the cold metal of the crowbar brace down upon his neck. The cold steel flattened his windpipe with ease.
His legs kicked violently and he used them to push himself off the surfaces of furniture and walls in the desperate hope of smashing the attacker against a wall. He only managed to launch them both into the dark bedroom, both falling in a tangle of limbs, bounced off the bed and falling onto the ground beside it. On his back, he wrapped his legs around his attacker’s waist and tried to use his arms to drag him down into chokehold, a technique he learned in Army combatives. Guard position, blood choke. It failed, as one of his arms could not grasp, probably broken now from the earlier blow. The crowbar came down once more. He turned away and the swing found the side of his head. It sent him reeling further into the darkness. His consciousness had slipped from him after the flash of the impact. He awoke a moment later to the jarring of a kick to the ribs. A silhouette was standing over him now as he lay by the bed delivering another kick to his torso. The silhouette stood a moment, as if to ponder his next move. Blake was also dragged into the room by the second attacker. While Blake lay at the foot of the bed, the other silhouette raised a hand. In a rush of adrenaline, he knew the pistol was in that hand without having to see it. His hand darted under the bed and in a deft motion slid the shotgun out.
With the same swiftness, his hands seeming to act on their own, and despite one of them being mangled, he lifted it and chambered a round. He aimed vaguely at the assailant standing over him and pulled the trigger.
The next instant was absolute soundlessness, as the report of the shotgun deafened all present. The blast incinerated the calf of the attacking silhouette standing over him and dropped him to the floor. The pistol-wielding specter dropped the gun and fled immediately, sprinting out the apartment door. He surrendered once more into unconsciousness, his wounds overtaking him.
Consciousness returned to him. There was florescent light, first and foremost, a curtain, an open door. The obviousness of a hospital room, the sterility, the quiet and the anesthesia haze. He tried to move, then thought better of it, instead attempting to move one limb at a time. An arm didn’t respond immediately. It was wrapped in a cast. Also, his jaw didn’t respond. It was wired shut. He felt around the inside of his mouth carefully with his tongue and discovered a gap where one of his molars once was.
His memory of the events which caused this predicament were foggy at best. He was attacked. In his apartment. The TV was on. Blake was there. If he was here then where was Blake? Did he get away? There was a fight. They had gone out. He had gotten drunk. Blake had gotten really drunk. The people he had met, the college kids, they sped off into the night, had better things to do then look after a couple of drunk soldiers. There had been a fight. They had his pistol. Had he shot someone? Yes, blew his leg damn near clean off.
There were footsteps in the hallway. Two garbed in ABUs entered. One male, one female.
“He’s awake, I’ll leave you”
The male remained. He recognized him. It was SSgt Brinkley, his supervisor. Must have come from the shop.
“Well, what a hell of a sigh you are.” He said, crossing his arms and leaning against the wall before him. “You know, the news is calling Fallujah the most dangerous city on earth? You survive that shit and get beat down your second night back.” He let out a light chuckle that wasn’t much of a chuckle. “Well, welcome back.”
He only blinked and exhaled in response.
“No need trying to talk, they got your jaw wired up.” He sat down in a chair. “Anyways, I want to tell you, you did damn well considering the situation. You and Sargent Frolich. Don’t worry too much about him, by the way. He made it out much less banged up than you. Looks like you’ll be laid up here for a while. Guess I’ll let you skip PT for now.”
He blinked, appreciating the attempt at humor.
“Well, guess I’ll let you rest. I’ll try to stop in from time to time. The police will stop in too I’m sure at some point” He stood, motioning toward the door. “By the way, I’ll do what I can to have your orders pushed back for now. They were gonna send you back out in a few months. Well, be good.” And with that he left.
He dozed off soon after that and some time passed. When he awoke once more, his window shade had been pushed aside. Another deployment order, he thought, not really a surprise. He pondered on that the rest of the evening as the rain outside had reached a fever-pitch.