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America, Diagonally

by Megan Woods

Twenty-two a day. By gunshot, car, hanging, poison, blade. Sometimes alone, draining away in a hidden place. Sometimes in full view, daring anyone to stop them. Sometimes in a dark corner of the night, amidst tears and vomit. Sometimes in a red haze. Our hero’s life didn’t end in any of these ways. At least not outwardly. Oh, he made a few half-hearted attempts, but his heart was never in it. He didn’t have one particular death. He started dying on his last deployment and never stopped. There are many people within one man, and the ones inside our hero died one at a time, a few at a time. Some died on raids and ambushes, some from IED’s and others from gunfights in Sadr City. He had many people in him waiting to die.

He turned twenty-three and flew back to the States and marched into the welcome ceremony hall with all the rest (some more alive than others), and stood there straight-backed, gleaming, gleaming. He went to a hotel with the girl he had come home to, but didn’t touch her nor let himself be touched. Instead, he curled up on the armchair at the far end of the room, shirtless, exposing his bare flesh to the sting of the cold air from the conditioning unit. In the early morning he crawled into the bed without a word. The girl traced with her fingers the tattoos he had chosen to tell his story, stars and dragons and birds and swirling flames. He still smelled like a faraway place.

After that, they spent every night together, when they could, his left leg laying alongside her right leg, barely touching. They didn’t talk much, at first. They barely knew each other, and neither knew where to begin. When he had been overseas every one of their conversations in all those letters and phone calls and online messages centered on him returning. Neither had really believed that he actually would return, so neither of them quite knew what to do and how to act now that he had arrived. Neither had been taught what comes after the happy ending fades to black. (Does it just keep fading?)

The first weekend our hero was back in the States, he went to a bookstore and bought a handsome moleskin notebook. Studies show that many soldiers journal through war and stop writing when they get home. Studies show a lot of things, true and untrue, and this particular study was right in this particular instance. He wrote one sentence in the handsome moleskin journal (“I can’t think of anything to write”) and chucked it into the trashcan with the cellophane it had been wrapped in. That evening he skipped the Fourth of July barbecue. Some suspected that he didn’t want to deal with the fireworks cracking overhead, but the truth of the matter was that he didn’t want to see his commanders out of their uniforms. It was easier to think of them as one-dimensional, as roles cast and played and retired. That way, he wouldn’t have to wonder about their humanity or lack thereof. That one day two people died in him, but they were quiet and insignificant, and he was barely bothered by their loss.

Our hero separated from the military within weeks of returning, before anyone could tell him otherwise. Some of his fellow soldiers were happy for him; others called him a traitor and a weasel for turning his back on the mission. He returned to his hometown, bringing his girlfriend with him. He grew his hair out, but not too long, and refused to tell anyone that he had been in the military. He had been “away” he said. Some assumed from his vague comments that he had been in jail; he didn’t correct them. He tried to see his old friends, but they said his laugh sounded funny so he didn’t see them again after that. He didn’t see much of anyone. He tacked black garbage bags on his windows and smoked and drank rum and watched cartoons, and that was another death, but he was too comfortable at that moment to notice.

When asked what he planned on doing with his life, he would say he was on vacation. This reassured everyone for a time. He always had been a hard worker and had the medals to prove it. He would surely find his footing after a well-deserved rest. His girlfriend got a job to pay the bills while he figured out what he was going to do. At the end of the summer he enrolled in college. He arranged and rearranged his textbooks on his desk; he clipped his car keys to a school logo lanyard. He showed up to class ten minutes early each day. Then late one October a car backfired in the road below his blacked-out window. The adrenaline sent him pacing for hours, sweat on his brow, muttering about not having a weapon, about needing a weapon. The next morning he went to the pawn shop and asked to see their guns. “Son, have you ever held a firearm before?” the owner asked, chewing tobacco. He backed away, hands up, out the door. “Nah, man. You’re right. I wouldn’t know what to do with it. Keep it.” He didn’t try to buy a gun again after that. He never went back to school after that either. More deaths.

Weeks later he was still anxious. He heard it was possible to order valium online, and so he did. Every time he wanted to calm down he would take a pill, then another. By Thanksgiving he was rambling about velvet reindeer. He knew he didn’t make sense, so he tried to take more pills so he could make sense again. His girlfriend hid the bottle and he fell into bed in an attempt to sleep it off. Several hours later he woke in a panic, said that his mind was going too fast. He made it to the ER where the orderlies wrapped him in warm blankets and tied him to a bed and left him to his fast thoughts. In the morning they turned the television on for him. He stared at screen until a nurse noticed it was stuck on war footage and turned it to Spongebob reruns instead. Staff arrived from the veteran’s hospital and rolled him down the hall, loaded him into an ambulance. They drove him far away and dressed him in brown pajamas and gave him sedatives in little paper cups.

In the months that followed our hero never had to be put in the quiet room. (The quiet room was notorious for killing off the last men inside people. Those who went in there died and emerged as husks that the nurses continued feeding and bathing.) His girlfriend quit her job and drove the three hours there and back each day to visit him. She brought him candy and books and was allowed to hug him twice a visit. The staff allowed her to walk outside with the patients on their evening smoke breaks. The two of them stood to the side, pretending they had privacy. They looked at the stars. He lent her his jacket when it was cold. On Christmas volunteers came to the hospital with gifts of coloring books and warm socks. They wore festive sweaters and sang nervous carols while the screams of dying men filtered out of the quiet room.

After the holidays the doctors let him go home, armed with a list of a hundred ideas for self-care. (Bubble baths and kite flying were two of the ideas.) His girlfriend never went back to her job. She had imagined walking in from work one day and finding his lifeless body in any number of positions and locations, and decided that she would rather sit with him in the apartment with blackened windows and watch over him. Their savings would last until he was better. Surely, surely he would get better. He was strong, he was brave, he had gleamed along with all the others… So they stayed there that winter, and drinking coffee and watching snowfalls and movies. Sometimes the movies were funny; sometimes they laughed.

The winter passed. One springtime morning our hero woke up with a buzzing energy and tore the black covers off the windows in great, sweeping motions. (There is always an abundance of hope in springtime.) He married his girlfriend in a small legal ceremony with no guests and no music. On the drive back to their apartment the couple talked in stunned tones about the future. When things got better, they told each other, they would get married properly. Maybe they would rent out a hall in the zoo or a botanical garden. He would dress in a tuxedo, she in a gown and veil. They would invite many guests who would smile and congratulate them and wish them a bright future. There would be an orange-blossom cake, a unity candle. There would be photographs to frame and display on the wall. Surely, surely.

When he went to see his therapist he was groomed adequately and relatively civil. He knew what day and time it was, and who the president was. The doctors deemed him rehabilitated. True enough, some of the men inside had died, but he was young and had plenty of lives left. He would live. He would. They made plans to leave the city and make a fresh start in a new place. They bought a home on an arid mountainside somewhere out west. They furnished it with secondhand furniture and penned out sketches for a garden. He studied carpentry, his wife baked bread. In the evenings they would sit on their back porch, watching as lightning lit up the scenery below. She would drink iced tea with mint leaves; he would drink rum. With each glass he would get louder, more agitated. “They betrayed me, they betrayed all of us. It wasn’t true, any of it!”

When he drank enough he would smash his fist through the walls, through the doors, through the furniture; when they could no longer afford the home repairs, he stopped drinking. After that he channeled his energy by walking. He would walk and walk for miles and miles, his eyes fixed somewhere on the horizon, or on ghosts. He would walk in a straight line until he grew too tired to go on, too spent to go home. His wife would pull up by the side of the road, and he would climb into the car and slump wordlessly, sour and fidgeting, keenly aware of the dead men who haunted easy days.

Our hero and his wife tried to make friends with their neighbors, but they weren’t invited to any of the neighborhood block parties. Sometimes he tried to figure out why. The grass in their yard was just as artificially green and short as everyone else’s. So, what, then? Was his smile off, was there a certain look in his eyes? Did they hear him yelling in his sleep at night? Had they seen him hurl the unexpected FedEx package into the street while warning his wife to take cover? He would imagine the neighbors gathering to talk in hushed tones. “He just has a creepy look about him,” he would imagine them saying. “What would we talk about with him anyway? It’s not like he has a proper job. What does he even do all day?” “It’s terrible what those guys went through, but it’s not like he lost his legs or anything… He just needs to get on with his life.” After a time, he wasn’t sure whether the neighbors had or had not actually said those things. It was safer to assume they had. More people died in him, one after another.

Since he couldn’t make new friends, he tried to get in touch with the men he had served with. Some were still in the thick of it, deploying over and over again. Quite a few were dead. One of his buddies had run out of lives as he sat on his living room couch, stateside, on a calm and sunny winter day; shrapnel dislodged from his leg from an ancient wound and secretly traveled to his heart and stopped it. Another friend was rumored to have been living out of his car with his dog, until his car died and his dog died, and maybe he died as well, no one knew. Still others had left the war behind, had run out ahead of its grasp, got jobs and careers and wives, until one day when they finally felt safe enough to stop running. It was then that the war caught up with them, and like acid it melted their careers and their wives and their very skin off until nothing was left but bones and jelly and ash that hung in the air before dropping into shallow graves.

***

After a time the west got too dry for them, so they sold their house on the mountain and spent a springtime in the Pacific Northwest, with its slowly dripping gray sky. They visited its fields of tulips and its pines; they drove up and down the coast just to see how far they could go without dropping into the sea. But then one morning the newscaster announced that there had been a tsunami in Japan. As he poured the milk into his coffee he wondered if a tsunami might hit them too, or if an earthquake would crumble the highways as they drove along them, or if a volcano would erupt and cover them with ash. No, it was too risky to stay. It was safer to just drive away, even if that meant that the dead men inside would stay dead. Stay moving, keep moving, always moving.

He traded in his American-built car for an Asian model that was smaller but more dependable. The struggle within him was minimal. Did he want to be patriotic, or did he want to be safe? Besides, it cost a lot less Money to fill up the tank, and he needed to go Places… It wasn’t a difficult choice, but he scowled nonetheless. “By God, we’ll drive this into the ground,” he said, and pictured the car turning to powdery rust and himself turning into a skeleton, with the dust from the car settling upon him and his bones, and all of it dropping into a shallow grave of his own, one he longed to rest in. But it wasn’t time for that yet, so they left the city and headed into the dark green mountains and climbed out of the Pacific Northwest. They went up and up and up where there was ice and snow and their breath was visible, and then slid smoothly down the other side until it was warm again, their breath safely hidden, as if it they had no breath in them at all.

They crossed America diagonally. For the first time, our hero really saw the land which he had actually fought for, the swamps and the deserts and the salty coastlines. Sometimes it seemed as if some of the dead men inside would come back to life, but of course the dead don’t, and they didn’t. Sometimes there would be a lull in deaths, but then they would come again, with alarming frequency, somewhere out west where it is dry and vast. Others drowned in the humidity of the southeast, with its orange dirt and cat-eyed snakes, with its Spanish moss and black, black mold. They slept in motels in the middle of nowhere, all identical with their beds, showers, air conditioners, bugs, packaged muffins in their lobbies. If they needed supplies they’d stop at one big-box store or another, those clean shining oases at predictable intervals. Other times, to break up the monotony, they stopped to stretch their legs at truck stops which blasted country music and were stocked with junk food and postcards and clothing decorated with eagles.

In Idaho they drove into some dust storms. “Dust storms in Iraq are bigger,” he said, chewing on a bottle cap. (Everything was bigger in Iraq, even when they were really about the same.) They drove and drove, on and on, and there was just space and sky. From time to time he’d gesture vaguely at the empty landscape. “That’s military. You can’t imagine how much military there really is in the world. So much is taken up by it, and no one even really knows. Two percent of our country is military, and the other ninety-eight percent is support. Everyone else is just support, and they don’t even know it.” From time to time a convoy of tan trucks and armored vehicles would appear, or helicopters and planes would rise up out of the dust in apparent confirmation of what he had said. Then the trucks and planes would disappear into the distance and it would be the empty road again, just the two of them in their little Asian car, traveling past unmarked exits he swore were used for the military. “There was this map of the world hung up, you see, and each American military presence location was lit up with a red dot and… they lit the whole world up in red…”

In Wyoming a fog descended around them. He was at the wheel then, and the fog excited him. Flashing orange roadside signs warned him to slow down, but he kept speeding up, faster and faster. His wife cried out in fear but he didn’t hear her, just wove in and around obstacles with precision and confidence, on and on. He smiled for the first time in days, weeks. And then suddenly the fog lifted and it was over, and the lunar landscape of the Wyoming plateau stretched out before them. Wyoming is a wild place, and he wanted to breathe its wildness in, so he put the windows down until the rushing wind obliterated any other sounds, even the ones inside his own head that only he could hear. He was elated and free. He didn’t notice how his wife crumpled in the seat next to him. “If we had crashed,” she said, “no one would have known who we were.” “Of course they’d know,” he snapped. “They’d look at our identification.” But that wasn’t what she had meant at all.

They crossed the border from Kansas to Missouri. “We’re safe from tornadoes now,” she said when they had left the plains behind. He shook his head, annoyed that she still didn’t get it. “We’re never safe.” Never safe, never safe. And sure enough, the radio started alerting, warning of dangerous weather, tornadoes on the ground, telling them to pull over, shelter in place, but he kept driving. The sky darkened and lightning tore the sky. He turned off the radio because he could see the danger with his own eyes and didn’t need to hear it from anyone else. He didn’t join the other cars stopped under bridges with their flashing hazard lights. No, he sped on as the angry clouds swirled overhead. None of him died that day. Eventually the sky lightened and when he turned the radio on again it was playing music. That night they saw the television recap the storm: people dead, people missing, houses missing, neighborhoods missing, everything and everyone missing, the world missing and bent and broken and rubble.

And on they drove. They settled down for a few months in Florida. She got a job; he went to therapy to see if the doctors could bring any of the dead back to life. (They couldn’t.) The VA tried him on all sorts of different medications. One day he got a new bottle of little blue pills. He took one, then another. These were different than the rest; these made him happy for the first time in years. He took his wife to the beach and drew hearts for her in the sand and promised her orange blossom cake. He went swimming in the sea, further and further in, feeling at one with Mother Nature. When he was not eaten by sharks or bananafish, and he wasn’t swept away by a rip tide, he swam back to shore. When they got back to their house he tried to saw his arm off and was hauled off for another stay at the hospital. The neighbors gathered and watched as the police stuffed him into the cruiser and whispered; his wife pretended she didn’t notice them.

The next day when she went to visit, the nurses wheeled him out in a chair, dressed in the familiar brown pajamas. He had been given too much medication and laughed and drooled on himself. His wife refused to leave until she watched the doctors change his prescription. The nurses wheeled him back to his room where he dreamed he was at a never-ending carnival with zombies. His wife drove home and cooked dinner and when it was finished she threw it out without eating. When she visited the hospital again he was coherent; soon he was well enough to go home. For a while he did reasonably well, except for the night he woke up and wordlessly went into the kitchen and smashed every dish and glass from the cupboard. She asked him why; he didn’t give a reason why.

When the heat in Florida got too monotonous they knew it was time to be on the move again. They drove north, started looking for a little house in the mountains. Brick, it had to be, because wood weathered too easily. He wanted the very foundations to be sturdy and solid. “Look, see how that house has weathered,” he would say, pointing to house after house after house. “Look how the roof is overgrown with moss. Look how that tin roof is dented from the hail.” And what he said was true. Who could blame him? He wanted to be immune. He wanted his few remaining lives to live forever. He wanted his house to protect him from the hail that dropped on other, less suspecting houses.

They drove north into the winter which melted into spring. They found a pretty little house with a pretty little picket fence. He didn’t stop dying, but the pace did slow considerably. He had given up on trying to resurrect the men he carried but thought he might be able to grow new ones. He had to create. Creating had come naturally to him when he was a boy, but he had forgotten how over the years. He tried to remember, tried to paint and draw, like he used to, a long, long time before. He tried to cook and build and read and pray and run. Anything, everything, anything. He succeeded in sprouting a few, small, feeble lives. He worried and fretted over them, careful not to overwater or expose them to the heat or the freeze. But no matter how carefully he tended them, his new lives never grew as strong or tall, never bloomed as brightly as they should have. But he kept trying until he could try no further.

After a time, his body just started to consume itself. His joints ached and his hair started falling out and his lungs filled with choking and welts appeared from his scalp to his soles. The doctors said this was common for those exposed to the burn pits overseas. That’s what they said, but he knew better. Oh, he knew. It wasn’t the burn pits. His body was just tired of holding all those dead souls. They were trying to dissolve him from the inside out, the bones, the skin, trying to force him to decay. And so he retreated to the basement with its stone walls, buried himself alive in the dark, in the dim, in the shallow grave. They put what was left of him in a box with a flag, and placed his war medals on top, gleaming, gleaming. There was no orange blossom cake.

Megan Woods has a B.A. in English and studies Veterans’ Services and Advocacy at the graduate level.  She works as a freelance editor and writer, and especially enjoys writing short stories.  She is married to a post-9/11 veteran.

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