Jim Gourley is an author and journalist. His work has been featured in Foreign Policy, Men’s Health, and Stars and Stripes. He served twice in Iraq in the 101st Airborne Division. The One Nightstand was a finalist in the Art of Future Warfare project’s “After the War” short story contest.
I have to get toothpaste.
That was what he was going to focus on. There were plenty of other items he could add to the list. Deodorant was a safe bet. Windex. He could never have enough of that. He used it to clean everything from his kitchen countertops to his bicycle chain. He’d hosed the cat down with it once when he’d discovered it had come into the house with fleas. Couldn’t have been good for the cat, but he couldn’t afford to let the fleas spread all over the place while he got something safer.
God bless Windex. It had even taken out the dinosaur that one girl’s 3-year-old had drawn on the side of his couch with a sharpie. The kid was supposed to have been watching the cartoon movie she’d put on while they made for the bedroom. He tried to tell her it was okay and even showed her the Windex worked. Everything was cool until she said the kid had never done anything like that before. Something about that told him she wasn’t the one for him. Then again, it wasn’t like he had any business around a toddler. Three empty boxes of Raisin Bran beside the trash can stood as silent witnesses to his inability to get his life together. A fourth would join them after lunch. He could react to permanent marker and conduct a hasty ambush of fleas, but he couldn’t develop a concept of dinner to save his life. Pour fiber flakes and dried sugar coated fruit in a bowl. Add milk. Eat. Some girl he’d screwed once had told him that if he could boil water then he could cook. He was at a level where he couldn’t boil water. He didn’t try to explain. He dropped her off and lost her number.
Forget boiling water. He couldn’t get through half a grocery list without thinking of a dozen things he’d rather not think about. It took him until ten o’clock to get out of bed. One to eat breakfast. That was when he’d realized he was out of toothpaste. Brushing his teeth had become the red line of his existence. He could go a day without a shower or food. He’d run out for toilet paper or cigarettes, but those didn’t count. He was pulled out by the calls of nature and nicotine. God, he was an officer—used to be, anyway— and he smoked. He might as well just wear a sign around his neck. No. Don’t think about that. Do not let the day go by without brushing your teeth. And have enough self-respect to do it right.
There’s no toothpaste. I need it to brush my teeth. I have to get toothpaste.
Three in the afternoon. He sat at his desk and woke his computer up. The Fast Rope icon on the desktop pulsated with an amber aura. He hadn’t logged on in the last 72 hours. If he went 96 it would turn red and lock him out of the system. The docs at the VA had been crystal clear about that part: it was an experimental program, completely voluntary. “If you don’t participate, we’ll assume you’ve un-volunteered yourself.” No one would call or follow up with him. They’d just put him back on the standard issue cocktail of meds and dump him back in one officially accepted treatment program or another where the doctor would see you never. The little icon burned at him like an angry eye, daring him to test its threat.
He clicked the icon for his video game. First-person shooter. Based in Nigeria, naturally. The game studios could make the damn things so fast now he was surprised they weren’t coming out before the wars they were meant to parallel started. He’d started the campaign because usually he liked a good storyline, but he abandoned this one before the second act. It pissed him off too much. Whoever made this thing was a contractor fanboy. The whole story could be summed up as “Sam Damon joins Blackwater,” with the only inevitable end being that he finds a way to save the poor children of the Third World from the terrorists and the cold blooded executives pushing his buttons. It was hopelessly romantic. So as hesitant as he had been, he decided to play online. He liked horde mode. It forced everyone to play cooperatively. Only problem was all the bugs with the new patch. The flap over making a zombie mode with all black zombies had lit the whole community on fire. It even got play on CNN. He nearly lost it when he overheard two girls talking about it at the Blackhorse downtown. Really? Black zombies? That’s your priority? Over there in the real war, Sam Damon doesn’t have a snowball’s chance of saving those kids because the children themselves were planting booby traps and staging ambushes and hacking pregnant women to death with machetes. If you find the racially charged undead a bit too much to handle, I got some bad news for you, sugar. It’s a hard old world out there, and it kills people in terrifying ways every day. Just like that kid in Baga…
Screw the game. Afternoon groups were always disjointed. Too many people just logged on and farted around. Sometimes you’d hear their microphones come on and find out they were ordering pizza or arguing with a girlfriend while playing. They were both in the game and somewhere else, and not really in either.
Ought to get toothpaste before I play again.
That icon again. He sighed, surrendered to it and double-clicked. “Fast Rope” was the DoD’s cutting edge idea to deal with combat trauma. Even with the “partnered healthcare management” system and the “Nigerian Army+” concept, there were still too many head cases coming out of Nigeria for the VA to handle them all. All the experts had gone on for years about how vets would be better served if they could commune with each other the way old soldiers did around the campfire back in the days of muskets. Under pressure from mounting suicide rates again, the DoD gave it to them. More accurately, the DoD asked some wiz kid at Facebook to give it to them. So a Pakistani-born hipster pulling a seven-figure salary out in Cupertino was going to save the war-ravaged souls of America’s heroes. That was cute.
Not that he really cared. What he wanted was the experimental drug treatment to go with it. The capsules were nanotech. You took them whenever you felt an episode of whatever it was you had episodes of. The nanobots honed in on it and worked on the affected regions. Basically they soldered the connections between your brain and the memory card that played the flashbacks or whatever. That was how the doc put it, anyway. He wondered why docs and shrinks always had to analogize treatments to computers and cars. It wasn’t like anyone understood how the ignition control circuitry in their car worked, but you never heard a mechanic call it the engine’s medulla oblongata.
Let’s knock this out and then go get toothpaste.
He entered his chalk room. The app was tailored to your branch of service so you could better commune with comrades who were more likely to have a higher degree of camaraderie with you. He imagined the hipster had probably just ripped that piece of code from some dating website. After you got broken down into a specific branch and occupational group, you went into a little subsection of about thirty people. The idea was to have a group that allowed you the ability to log on at your convenience and still have someone to talk to, but without losing the necessary sense of personal connection you’d need to discuss your issues. Before entering the chalk room, you had to write a little status update about how you were feeling. It then popped up by the icon with your photo in the room so everyone could get a quick update on you. A couple of guys just used alpha-numeric characters to create obscene glyphs. Oddly, those guys were better at getting people to open up than anyone else. Talking to them felt like you were having a natural conversation and decided to spill your guts. Everyone else’s status read like a lost dog poster. Instead, he made the best attempt to look like he was making the best attempt to talk to a bunch of telephone poles. He didn’t have a problem talking to people, but he had no idea how to bare his soul to an icon. Especially icons he couldn’t relate to. They’d been in booby traps, roadside bombs, and mass casualty events. Their injuries were the result of enemy action. He was a casualty of his own actions.
He’d joined the Army with the best of intentions and the utmost determination to keep them from paving a road to their time-honored destination. His heroes were T.E. Lawrence and, for a time, good old Sam Damon. But his dad’s generation didn’t learn anything from the one that had sent them to Iraq and Afghanistan, so he was given the same fool’s errand to a different destination. Nigeria: the country America never cared about until someone declared a caliphate in it.
Out in Borno province it was much less clinical. His platoon made it clear that he fell somewhere between a rubber stamp and a paperweight. Bear witness, stand mute. They’d all gotten plenty experienced dying for no other reason than America in places like Libya and Syria, and they didn’t need the good Lieutenant offering recommendations. That is, until they shot the kid.
Four in the afternoon. I’ll have a smoke. Get a shower. Then go get toothpaste.
That’s right. Make a plan. Start with something natural, then ease into something a little harder, and then feed off that success to accomplish your goal. He’d seen that in one of the pamphlets they’d handed him at the VA. The cigarette would help him calm down. He hated doing it. He was terrified of cancer, which was hilarious when he considered how frequently he thought about killing himself. He’d talked about it with a friend who was studying to be a psychologist. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You’re not the addictive type, and you’re not smoking habitually. Smoke ‘em when you need ‘em. When you don’t need them anymore, you’ll quit.”
He wondered if he’d ever stop needing them.
They had been on a raid and one of the perimeter security positions opened up on movement in the bush. There was confusion over whether the Private had made a positive ID, shot first without asking questions, or if it had been a negligent discharge. If it had been the latter, it was a damned unfortunate one. Entered right above the kid’s chin and did things to the rest of the head no zombie makeup could. The lower jaw was shorn away and bits of tongue and brain and God knows what else hung through the resulting cavern. He didn’t know how long he looked at the corpse, but when he looked up everyone was looking at him. Suddenly he was in charge. It would be his signature on the report. And the report would either exonerate them or kick off the biggest war crime- slash- civil suit- slash- Congressional oversight committee- rodeo ever seen. So he did the reasonable thing. He grabbed one of the confiscated AKs from the village and threw it down by the kid. Everyone there figured the kid was Boko. Half the group they whacked were kids.
Everyone knew the score. It was amazing how the US had rushed into this thing without thinking it through. They’d come to save the children from becoming child soldiers without acknowledging that there already were child soldiers and Americans would wind up having to fight and kill some of them. It wasn’t like capturing children and forcing them to commit atrocities was an exclusively adult enterprise. Kids were doing it to other kids. So to save kids you had to kill kids. Some were so brutalized and brainwashed there was no way to turn them back; certainly not in the span between the moment they leveled a rifle at you and the instant they pulled the trigger. At least telling yourself that made it sound okay. The first time it happened you choked on something until you nearly died. The second time was easier. By your fourth or fifth contact you really didn’t notice anymore. They were so far gone there was nothing you could do for them. It basically was the zombie apocalypse.
Not that he needed to get that philosophical about it. He was 9 months in country and 90 days from a flight home by that point. Honestly, in that moment, he was thinking more about getting back to his wife and a cold beer. All that mangled thing back in the bushes meant to him was a potential delay in those plans. No way, Jose. He’d done his bit for the ghost of Sam Damon. This one was going away and he was going home and the great red, white and blue hope for sunny, Ebola-ridden West Africa could screw itself.
But then he just had to get a bad feeling and check the body. Congratulations, Lieutenant. It’s a girl. For $64,000 and a verdict that reads not guilty, explain that one. There was no explanation, so he decided to not even bother trying. Change of plans. Take the gun. Leave the body. If anyone finds it, we thought we shot something but never could confirm anything.
For almost nine months after he got home, he thought he had made it go away. Then it all started coming apart. He was textbook. Paranoia. Outbursts. In June a deviled egg plate shattered against the kitchen wall. In September the marriage went the same way. Deep down inside, he knew what he was doing. He had to get Lauren out of the house and back home. He didn’t want her to come home one day and have to deal with what he had had to. No one at work knew anything about it until he went to a farewell dinner for one of the other staffers. Three margaritas and one too many sick jokes about massacres later and his emergency valves blew. Stumbled out to the parking lot, got in his car, and grabbed the .45 out of his glove box. He put it on his lap and sobbed uncontrollably.
Make it go away. It? “It” had been an 11-year-old girl. The soldier might have been the one to pull the trigger, but you left her out there. You decided to say she never happened, never existed. You’re the one that took her life. You.
Toothpaste. Toothpaste. Toothpaste.
He woke up to the sound of the deputy’s mag light tapping on the driver’s side window. The night manager at the restaurant called it in after he noticed the unfamiliar car in the lot at closing and looked in the window. It was a very tense few moments following instructions to ditch the .45 and get out of the car. This was it. Drunk in your car with a loaded weapon? That’s a special kind of screwed.
But the cop had been to enough suicides in military apartments around town to know what this was. The gun got called in as a false alarm. The occupant was just sleeping. An uncomfortable drive to a local diner, a few cups of coffee and a conversation that covered a lot of ground considering its lack of specifics later, and there was an accord. You got your life back tonight. Go to your commander. Go to a shrink. Go get help.
The drugs took the edge off. He could tell it was the meds because they kicked in different from the smokes somehow. He imagined a tiny Optimus Prime whacking through his brain with a buzz saw. He calmed down, but finding clothes exhausted him. By the time he stuck his feet in his shoes he could barely sit upright on the bed. Realizing that sucked the rest of the willpower out of him, and he collapsed backward with a heavy sigh.
When he woke up it was dark. He grabbed at his phone on the nightstand but his half-asleep arm only managed to swipe a couple of condoms and an empty beer can off the side. There were a few more of each still there. Like the boxes of Raisin Bran, they lay about like the ruins of a cheap, meaningless civilization. The Easter Island beer can heads had witnessed his desperate, incoherent efforts to replace what he’d destroyed. It was the bedroom set he and his wife had bought for their first house together. It only had the one nightstand, and she’d used it. He looked at it now and felt ashamed, like he’d defaced the memorial to something sacred. He kept the .45 in the top drawer. Just in case.
10PM. Two hours to midnight. Don’t go a day without toothpaste.
He played zombie mode until 2AM. It was a really good crew. They ran all the way to level 48, a new high for him. That made it excusable to miss his personal deadline. Wasn’t like it was the first time. The important thing, he decided, was that he got it before he went to sleep.
The Clarksville Walmart on 41A was one of those places where you wound up rather than went to. From the homeless meth heads strung out on the benches beside the entrance to the rail-thin night manager rush-walking about in great Groucho strides, everyone there looked like the current of events beyond their control had deposited them there. It didn’t matter that he had a list that specified toothpaste, milk, Raisin Bran, deodorant, and Windex, or that he knew exactly where they were. He was both here in Tennessee and there Nigeria at the same time, and not really in either.
For a few days after it happened, the platoon treated him with something like reverence. You’re all right, el-tee. Appreciate you taking care of the kid like that. Bad stuff just happens sometimes, and if you don’t take care of the boys then they can just come apart. Never gonna forget this one.
That became the problem. Once his replacement came, they distanced themselves from him fast. By his last week he was back to eating his chow on the opposite side of the building from them, same as when he first arrived. There was no hero’s farewell for him when he boarded the plane home. There was no farewell at all. They just wanted him and the thing they were never gonna forget to go away.
He knew he was different. He just didn’t know how. People looked at him differently. The cashier still said all the normal, programmed things. “How are you? Did you find everything okay?” She smiled that same it’s not so bad here smile, but she looked at him with eyes that pitied. In the mirror he still thought he looked the same, but other people could see something. Was it something wrong? Something that was missing? What was wrong with him? Why couldn’t he fix himself?
Why can’t I fix myself?
He felt bad things welling up inside of himself again and reached into his pocket for one of the pills. Maybe this time the little transformers would find that one key neuron and cut the red wire in his head. Then this could all just go away.
It surged up and terrified him. He wanted to go home. Go to the bedroom. Go to the nightstand that reminded him of that warm, perfect thing he used to have, and grab that cold, terrible thing inside. The one and only thing that would ever make all of this go away. He put the pill back in his pocket. He was done with experiments and dating site battle buddies and swallowing nano gizmos to screw with his synapses. He turned off 41A and made for the house. Pulled into the driveway. Went to the bedroom. Reached for the drawer. Fell to his knees and wrapped his arms around the nightstand. He nuzzled it like it was her, letting his tears and snot drip all over the edge. He clung to it for a long time. When he was done he felt drained of everything. It would replenish itself, but for now it had exhausted itself. He could think clearly. He grabbed the trash can from the bedroom and swept all the condoms and beer cans into it. Then he grabbed a cloth and cleaned the top and the sides. Then he took the .45 out and put it in the top drawer of his dresser. She’d always hated guns. In the morning he’d either go sell it or use it. It depended on whether he was too far gone.
He brushed his teeth.
The car felt weightless as it crested the hills through the range area. With the top down he felt almost as if he was rushing through the cosmos. He pulled off the road at Suckchon DZ. It was a big, open field surrounded by trees. The coral ribbon of predawn was already glowing through the treetops, but high overhead the deep purple of night sequined in pinpoints of silver dominated. It was chilly, but laying on the hood kept his back warm enough that he could almost enjoy the chill of morning on his chest and face. Rhode Island was only an hour ahead. It would be a while before she woke up. He needed to wait, but he also needed time to prepare himself. He didn’t want to die, but what he’d been doing wasn’t living. He was undead, looking out at the world and seeing nothing but that girl. He would not continue this way. Either he would save himself or he was beyond saving.
5AM. Six on the east coast. She was an early riser. Always loved having coffee with him before he went out to PT in the morning.
He could still dial her number faster manually than speed dial. It rang. Once, twice.
He choked at the sound of her voice saying his name. Recovered. Took a deep breath.
“Hi.” He sounded stupid. “Can… can we talk?”
There was a pause and a shifting sound over the speaker. A soft sigh as still asleep muscles struggled into an upright position. “What is it?”
I want to talk about being normal again. I want to stop thinking about killing myself. I want to come home and I want to say I’m sorry and I want you to forgive me and I want us to love each other again. I want everything to be the way it was before I went to Nigeria. But I know it can’t be, so I’m going to take it slow.
“I was just thinking about a lot of things, and I thought I’d ask how you were doing.”
They talked until the sun climbed up where the twinkling violet had been, and didn’t stop until his phone battery interrupted. He asked if he could call back later, and she said yes. Warm breeze and sunlight poured into the car and swirled around him on the drive home. Outer space was gone and he was fully present here on planet earth. Feeling that gave him a twinge and he reached for his pocket to quell it. He lit a cigarette. He tossed the pills out the window. He didn’t need them anymore. He got $200 for the .45. Not nearly what it was worth, but it’d buy half a round-trip ticket to Woonsocket. He’d go when the time was right.