by Timothy L. Jones
His muscles stretched tight, the bow arced, the knuckle of his thumb resting against his cheek. He blew the call again, a quiet grunt, and let it fall from his lips, dangle by the string around his neck. Burning crept from his spine toward his shoulders, up his neck. Jake’s arms began to tremble, but he held fast, concentrated on the beaten path that cut through the trees.
He heard her again, the bleat, the rustling in the brush. She was moving closer. Close enough that he could smell the pungent urine of a hot doe.
The tether spanning between his harness and the tree went taut when he shifted forward, peering further down the game trail. It was fifteen feet to the forest floor, hard ground riddled with jagged rock and withered pine-needles. He leaned hard, let his whole weight rest against the tether.
Lazy hunter, his wife’s voice was a whisper in the leaves, a murmur in the wind. It was early September, thick air in and out of his lungs. Sweat trickled from his hair line, streaked to his chin. Susan’s words rolled over in his mind like gravel underfoot.
He clenched his teeth, the florescent pin-sight contrasted by fur. She was breathless when their eyes met, his index finger on the release that would send the arrow into flight.
Lazy, Lazy, lazy. His mouth was dry, a hard swallow.
A light tug from his fingertip and the release would open, free the string, loose the arrow that would send a broadhead crashing through her ribcage, slicing through her lungs. She would run, run until her breath was thick, until she’d drown in her own fluids.
From the corner of his eye, he saw the worm-thick scar that spanned wrist to mid-forearm. Its twin was on his right arm, two identical wounds. He remembered the blade against his skin, the way it pressed in, the pain when blood pooled at the tip. He’d wondered if he could go through with it, drag the blade up his arm, do it again to make sure he’d bleed out quick.
His finger edged away from the release trigger. The bow went slack with a twang, the arrow popping loose, arching to the ground. The doe flagged her tail, and bounded into the trees.
He let the bow slip from his hand, crash to the earth below.
Jake slid his grandfather’s knife from the sheath on his hip. The blade had grayed over time, speckled dark with rust that had been buffed off and oiled. The handle was leather rings sandwiched between brass tang and butt. It was a German knife, one brought back from the war.
He used the blade to cut through the tether, replaced the knife on his hip, and climbed down the wooden ladder he’d nailed to the tree. If he’d an axe, he’d have chopped it down, let the whole thing rot on the forest floor. Instead, he turned towards home, took the game trail that led over the ridge.
A lazy hunter, that’s what Susan called him when he told her about putting up a treestand on their property. Not truly their property, family land. Jake’s parents let them move into the old farmhouse. Since his grandmother passed, the place stood empty. It was drafty and the floors groaned with every footstep, the way old men do before giving up the ghost. It was broken, in desperate need of repair. He knew because Susan never let the matter rest from the first day they crossed the threshold.
It hadn’t always been that way. In the beginning, before the war, he loved her. Not that he’d stopped; it just changed somehow in Iraq. He hadn’t come back a hero. Instead, he was a disgrace to his family, to his community. He’d been released on an administrative separation before the stiches came out of his arms. No job and no money, he was forced back to the farm in Grangeville, to a town where he’d be recognized.
The way Susan told it, she didn’t care. She was relieved to have him home, alive. She swore it, promised the way she felt hadn’t changed. But he’d changed. He could smile, force out a laugh, but true emotion was something that he’d left behind in country. The only thing he felt now was anger, anger or nothing at all. He still loved her, just couldn’t feel it anymore, not the way he should. That angered him too.
“Did you take your pill?” Susan asked him every day.
“They don’t help a damn thing.” He didn’t look up from the flier he’d folded out on the kitchen table.
She put the palm of her hand over the page of guns. “The doctor—”
“I know what he said. I took it, okay. But it don’t change nothing.” He flipped the page over her hand, picked up his mug and drank down the last inch of cold coffee. He spit back a tongue full of grounds.
“You can work it out at the next appointment.” Susan withdrew her hand, took his cup to the sink to rinse it.
“When? Three months? Six months? The VA’s a joke. I’ve been seen once since I’ve been back and they handed me a bottle of zombie pills. Four hour drive for magic fucking beans.”
“It’s not for nothing.”
“We don’t have the money to drive to Boise.” He turned back to the gun page, eyed a Remington 700. It wasn’t going to happen. He’d pawned his rifle to buy Susan a birthday gift, canning supplies for preserves and the vegetable garden she wanted to start. He felt naked without it, vulnerable in his own home, but it made her happy.
“You need to do your disability claim.”
“They ain’t gonna give me a damn thing. I’ll be waiting two years for nothing. Not a fucking thing.”
“You shouldn’t talk like that. It isn’t how you were.”
“How was I?”
“I’m just saying, you gotta try.”
“Other than honorable. You know damn well what that means. They’ll deny disability,
G.I. Bill, everything. My service added up to squat.”
“You want more coffee?”
“I already drank the bottom of the pot.”
“I can make more.” Susan slid the stainless carafe free, twisted the top off, and peered inside.
“You think I’m lying?”
“Maybe you could come to church with me tomorrow. It’d make your mom happy.”
“I got too much to do around the place. Besides, I want to go hunting.”
“It’s only a couple of hours.” She swished cold water around in the pot, placed it upside-down in the strainer. “Then we could come home and replace the seals on the doors. Has to be done before winter.”
“I’m going hunting on Sunday.”
“The house is falling apart, bugs coming in like they own the place.” Susan slapped her palm on the countertop. “When are you going to do anything around here?”
“You pissed I’m not working? I told you I’ve been looking.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“You didn’t have to.”
“Mind reader now? Then you know what I’m thinking right now.”
“Same fucking thing I’m thinking.”
“You know what, go hunting. Do it, but I might not be here when you get back.” She started upstairs, put her weight on the third step. It sagged and groaned. She stopped a moment. “You know—”
“Step over the goddamn thing, that’s what I do.”
Susan didn’t come down all afternoon, so Jake went to the basement and got his gear together for the hunt. He didn’t have a tag, but he didn’t care. If he got a deer, he’d process it in the barn like his grandfather taught him. “Ain’t a creature on this planet that pays for hunting, sept rich folks and numb-nuts,” his grandfather would say.
Jake unboxed his camo clothing and cut twenty feet of paracord to pull his bow up into the treestand. His bag was packed with a canteen, a magnesium stick, flashlight, snares, and a compass. He tossed the compass back in the box he’d taken it from, laughed at the thought of bringing it. He sat the backpack and clothes next to his bow, and laid his grandfather’s knife on top of the bag.
A deck of cards sat on the folding table they used to sort laundry. He pulled up a chair, propped up a picture of his grandfather, and dealt out a game of Solitaire. The man in the picture was young, dressed out in Army green. If it wasn’t for the old uniform, Jake could have been looking in a mirror. He played three games while he reminisced with his granddad, drinking the bottle of whiskey he kept behind the washing machine.
When the bottle was empty, Jake went up to the bedroom, let the door slam shut behind him. Susan was propped up in the bed reading a book. She didn’t even bother to look up at him.
“Were you serious about what you said? About leaving?”
Susan marked her page, folded the book. “You’ve been drinking again. I can smell you.”
“So what? You my mommy now?”
“This is why I can’t talk to you. You’re all closed up.” Susan got out of bed, began to smooth out the covers. “You just drown yourself in booze.”
“What’s the point? We’ll just mess them up in a couple hours.”
“You’re unreal, you know that?”
Jake took her wrist, stopped her, made her look at him. “You don’t know what I went through. You can’t understand.”
“You won’t let me.”
Susan pulled away. “Selfish, that’s what you are. Always worried about yourself. You ever think about what you did to me? What you did to your parents?”
“That’s bullshit.” Jake held out his arms. “I have to live with these scars.”
“It isn’t bull. If I leave, I’ll have good reason.”
“The fuck you will.”
The mouth of the trailhead had overgrown with briars. Jake pushed his way through to the clearing. The woods opened to eighty acres of hay fields that his father had cut and bailed in July. At the center of it all, the house stood on top of the hill like a monument, a reminder of a childhood, of parents and grandparents, of splitting wood and roasting hogs. But now it was only a headstone. Jake skirted the wood line, maybe a two hundred yard walk home.
Sweat stung the scratches on his arms. He wiped them with a handkerchief, kept walking. There was a pyramid of rocks stacked two feet high at the edge of the tree line. He knelt down, touched the pile. It was where they had buried his grandfather’s shepherd. Rocket was older than he was, not much, but he was part of the family before Jake was born. They had a cross made of 2x4s there at first, ROCKET carved in with his grandfather’s knife, but when it rotted away, Jake marked the spot with rocks. They were covered in moss now, weeds jetting out between them, but he was sure that it was the memorial he’d placed.
He was thirteen when the dog was put down, went along to help dig the hole. He could still hear his grandfather’s voice, what he said before it happened. “It’s his time, Son. Ain’t nothing to be done for him sept putting him out of his misery.” That was his way, not twisting in on things like preachers or city folks.
The man was long and lean, fueled by coffee and proverbs. But life was closing in on him the way gray snaked his hair, the way his face leathered, a face that he always kept clean shaven, proud of every groove and wrinkle that cut across it. He was country, the kind who couldn’t make it through a whole sentence without spitting; he said chewing tobacco was the glue that held his bones together, blind to it rotting him from the inside through, but when it came time, he didn’t take the treatments offered, just marched strait into the grave like the hardened soldier he was.
When his grandfather cocked the hammer of his .410, Jake closed his eyes, waited for the sound to know it was done. He’d wept that day, felt so sick that he’d thought he was going to vomit. Not anymore. Time and circumstance have their magic, a way to reduce pain to just a pile of rocks.
Jake held one of the stones in his hand. It was part of the land like his family. He knew the land better than he knew Susan, better than himself, because the land made sense. The hay fields, the woods, the creek that he caught crawdads in as a child. He knew it well enough to get home blind if need be. The ground was logical, it didn’t shift under his feet the way Susan did, the way he’d withered and came home someone else. It was steady like his grandfather, like his dad.
It was time to face it. Time to go home.
Jake dreamed of going home when he was in Iraq. In his mind, every day was one closer to leaving, getting back to Susan, maybe even having a kid like they’d talked about before he left. He was thinking of her as he piloted a Humvee through the streets of Fallujah.
He was at the tail end of the convoy, smoldering, dusty, the air dry, his lips pasted together. The truck was all buttoned up, an oven baking his guts. At least Jackson was getting some air overhead, his body half out of the trap door manning the .50. The way he told it, being up top was the worst place, but Jake didn’t believe that. A hundred and twenty degrees in full gear and trapped in a tin box was the worst of it.
Jake used his sleeve to wipe the stinging sweat from his eyes, focused on the bumper of the truck in front of him. The streets were empty ahead of the precession of vehicles, people becoming ghosts, sinking away from windows into the depths of their homes. The lead vehicle turned right between tight rows of buildings. Once the face of a second story wall, chunks of mortar and brick littered the street, slowing the convoy as they tilted and bounced over the mess. Jake made the turn into the alleyway, gripped the wheel a bit tighter, glanced at Sgt. Porter riding shotgun.
“Eyes on the road, Chainsaw.”
Chainsaw, it was the name Jake picked up after the first night in country. Inside the wire they all slept in tents, rows of bunks with just enough space to walk between. Twenty men, all piled together. Twenty men, all awake while Jake snored.
A flash, a plume, the sound of God’s voice in the streets. It was sudden, the explosion that halted the lead vehicle, the rest lighting up their brakes.
“Get us the fuck out of here,” Porter said. “Back it up, now. We’re in a fucking kill box.”
Jake ground the gears, got it in reverse, the truck lurched rearward as the .50 rattled to life overhead. Jake took his eyes off the side mirrors long enough to see the man in the second floor window, an RPG tube smoking in his hands as bullet holes raced across the wall toward him. The grenade came streaking at them as the man’s body exploded in the window, red spray, an arm with shoulder attached cartwheeling across the sky. That was the first time he seen a man get hit by a machine gun.
He mashed the gas pedal, took a hard right as the grenade pounded the roof like a sledgehammer. Then a sudden stop as the truck slammed into a wall, Jake’s head bouncing off of the seat back, driven forward into the steering wheel. He couldn’t hear anything except the ringing when he lifted his face, warm wet trickling over his lips. He touched them, raised his hand to see a blurred image of blood soaked fingers.
The smell of a freshly butchered hog hung in his nostrils. The aroma of gun powder, diesel, and sweet meat mingled in the cab of the truck, the fragrance of farming and war not so different. Jake smeared his fingers on his shirt.
He felt a slap against his helmet, looked over at Porter. He was shouting, not that Jake could hear it, but he knew from the way his mouth was falling wide open, saliva spraying in blasts, the way red tinted his skin and streaked his flaring eyes.
“Move your ass,” Porter said. “The line is boxed in.”
Jake had to read his lips, but he got the message. He nodded his head, put his hand on the stick shift. It was sticky wet, but it wasn’t vibrating. He shoved it into neutral, pressed in the clutch, and pushed the button on the dash that fired up the diesel. The engine vibrated in his seat, in the stick against the palm of his hand. He jostled for first gear and let out the clutch. The truck lurched from the rubble as the windshield erupted with pock marks of incoming gunfire. There was lead suspended in the glass, mushroomed out at eye level.
Porter was still shouting, but Jake didn’t have time to read his lips. His head was pounding, stabbing pain in his ears. He had to reverse down the alley, that’s all he could think about, all he could focus on. He glanced over his shoulder, saw what was left of Jackson. Dick to boots was still hanging in the sling. The rest of him painted the inside of the cab, the place dripping with him.
He looked back at Porter still tinted red, covered in Jackson’s blood spray. Jake’s jaw went slack, heat passed up in a wave. He clapped his bloody hand over his mouth, tried to catch it, but he vomited through his fingers.
Porter slapped his helmet again. “Drive.”
The windshield erupted again, sending glass fragments into the cab. A round got through, hit Porter in the neck. He clutched the wound, looked into Jake’s eyes, and spit blood when he said it again. “Drive.”
Jake wiped the vomit from his mouth with his sleeve and drove.
Back in the wire, Jake had a cot and an IV in the med tent. The doc had told him that he was getting medevaced, that he needed an MRI. “Possible traumatic brain injury,” he said. Jake didn’t say anything, merely nodded, waited for the painkillers to take effect, silence the pounding in his head. Within an hour, Colonel Watson was at his bedside.
“You’re a hero, son,” Watson said. “Sergeant Porter is alive because of your quick thinking. A lot of men are alive because of your driving. I’m going to put you in for a commendation.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Watson picked up Jake’s chart hanging on the end of the cot. “You don’t mind if I take a peek, do you? Privacy issues and all.”
“No, it’s fine, sir.”
Watson smiled, paged through it. “I talked to Captain Schwartz. He said you’ll be fit for full duty by the end of the week.”
“He said I was being medivaced for a brain scan.”
The Colonel’s eyes narrowed. “Excuse me Specialist, last time I checked, I had a bird on my collar. When you address me, it’s sir.”
“Yes, sir. I apologize. It, won’t happen again, sir.”
“It’s okay, son. You’ve been through a rough day.” His shoulders loosened and a smile spread across his face. “The captain changed his mind after we talked. He said that you only need forty-eight hours. He said he was going to give you some Naproxen for the pain.”
“I don’t understand, sir.”
“We need you back out there. We’re short of men, qualified gunners and drivers. You’ll be put where you’re needed. We all have to do our duty, son.”
He knew he’d never see Susan again, that he’d be another GI in a pile of body bags to be shipped home. Jake would probably end up like Jackson, buried in a closed casket. There’d be a flag draped over it, as if his death was instrumental in keeping America free. It was then that Jake looked across the room, saw his pack against the tent wall, a TAC knife attached to the webbing.
Jake turned the key in the deadbolt, opened the door. He stepped inside, swung it shut, not bothering with the lock. The house was still, no sound of Susan’s footsteps, no smell of brewed coffee, emptiness. He unlaced his boots, kicked them off before going to the kitchen.
From the cupboard he retrieved a glass and placed it on the counter. He poured three fingers from the fifth of bourbon he’d kept hidden in the box of garbage bags in the pantry. Jake tossed the liquor back, let the heat of it sink in.
Susan’s cellphone buzzed on the counter. It was a text message from Jake’s mother. It said:
We missed you at church.
We’ll stop over after lunch with an apple pie.
I baked it today.
He poured another drink, and checked the clock on the stove. He finished off the glass and took the bottle with him upstairs, remembering to skip the third step. It wouldn’t have been all that hard to fix. If he’d done it, replaced those boards, maybe it would’ve been enough.
Jake took a pull from the bottle before he opened the bedroom door. She was still in bed, where she’d been when he left her before dawn. He didn’t bother undressing, just slid in next to her, let his hand glide over her hip to her chest. He pulled her close to him, kissed the back of her neck.
She felt cold in his arms. Jake touched her throat, matched his hand to the bruises, the dark purple marks from tensed fingers. He kissed her cheek, kissed both eyes, eyes that he’d blackened the night before. He didn’t remember it happening, just went blind with rage because she wouldn’t stop shouting. Everything closed in on him, no vision, no screams, nothing. When he snapped out of it, it was much too late.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“No,” she said. “You don’t get to be sorry. You can’t ask for forgiveness.” She pulled away from him, sat on the edge of the bed.
“Do you want me to leave? I’ll go. Just say the word and you’ll never see me again.” He reached out for her, put his hand on her shoulder. She winced, so he pulled it away.
“Who’s going to take care of you, Jake? You have to stop drinking, you have to… please.”
“Mom is going to be here after lunch.”
“You’ll tell her I have the flu.” Susan stood stiffly. “I’m taking a shower.”
“It was my job to fight, to die if need be.”
“I should have,” Jake said. “What the hell am I?”
“Broken.” Susan stopped inside the bathroom door, let the nightgown slip to the floor. She faced him, let him see the bruised ribs, the purple marks on her shoulders. “I wish you could cry. Even one tear, Jake. At least I’d know it was possible, that maybe you could get better.” She bit down on her lip, and closed the bathroom door. The sound of the shower filled the sudden silence.
Jake rolled to his back and unsheathed his grandfather’s knife.
He turned it over in his hand, felt the weight of it.
He pictured rocket crippled up with arthritis.
The blade was sharp, he tested the edge with his thumb.
His grandfather’s words flooded in, “Ain’t nothing to be done for him.”
He flipped the weapon again and one more time.
Jake Hamilton closed his eyes and said a prayer before he opened his scars.
Timothy L. Jones is a disabled military veteran. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing and a BS in Digital Media and Web Technology. He is currently working on a collection of stories that address issues facing returning war veterans. He writes from his home in Idaho, where he lives with his wife and children.