Twenty-two a Day
by Kama O’Connor
1. He’s been lying on top of his cheap, cotton comforter, staring at the walls that still have nothing on them—what would he hang that won’t remind him of the life he’d given up?—for three hours now. The clock reads 12:01 a.m. He had to stay late at the office to make up for the mistake he’d made on the quarterlies. What a joke, he thinks. None of this matters—the reports that told companies where their fractions of a cent were going, and when those fractions were dropped because of a loss in an arbitrary market half a world away. His fucking twenty-two year-old supervisor, just out of college, who kept coming by his small-assed cubicle, whining about shit he’d messed up…. Sometimes three times a day he had to listen to this desk jockey spout off about the importance of these reports and not shove his fist down the kid’s throat and tell him what really mattered in this world. It wasn’t a fucking report, that was for goddamn sure. So he gets up, walks to his closet, takes down the box he doesn’t let himself open often. His old life, the life he was proud of. Would always be proud of. He brushes the dust off the box with the heel of his palm, unlocks it, opens the lid, and stares. Each piece pokes at the pale, soft man he’s become since he took this job a year ago. His retirement certificate. Twenty years of drills and deployments and killing and not dying and broken relationships and training training training with only half a pension and a piece of paper to show for it. Still, he takes it out gingerly, places it beside him, and uncovers more relics. His service medals. A NAM with a combat “V.” A good cookie—ha! He should show this to his supervisor. Afghan service, Iraq service, OIF, OEF, Desert Storm. All conflicts, wars that showed him what the world really looked like. Ugly. Painful. Unfair. Underneath the medals is his grandfather’s old service revolver. He decides to play a game. Roulette, with only one player. The thrill it gives him sends shocks of an old—almost forgotten—feeling through his veins, charges him in a way he hasn’t felt in almost two years. He smiles, digs for the case of ammunition. Retrieves one bullet. A .22 caliber slug that he places in the chamber. Spins it, locks it in place. Holds the gun to his forehead and closes his eyes, excited that this is a game he can play and win, even if he loses. Because it reminds him what matters. This feeling. This. He starts the game.
2. She sits in a small pool of bodily fluids, not all of which are hers. Blood, semen from three—four?—men, all of whom she knows. Used to know.
Her cover and Class A blouse off to her left, torn and ruined.
Watch, stopped, cracked, at the time when… 1:14 in the morning.
pushes up on the edge
of her palm
tries to get her bruised legs underneath her.
Her wrist cracks under the weight, bends fully to the right.
howls sobs chokes
on more bile
stuck lodged breeding in her throat
uses her shoulder to prop herself up on her feet
bare and cut
shards of glass still embedded in them.
walks the three
to the edge of the alley, pushes herself into the street,
closes her eyes
waits for the city bus to come around the corner.
3. He arrived home at 2:10 a.m., more than a little wasted on vodka tonics. His stomach rumbled. Fuck. He couldn’t even think about food right now. It rumbled again, refusing to be ignored. He laughed—out loud, an empty response, the sound echoing off the walls—at the way a body could demand despite what the mind tried to tell it. Food wouldn’t matter soon. Still, he bought himself a few more moments, made a sandwich. Ham and cheese—both suspect, both past edible—neither making for a great last meal. He was nervous; his hands shook as he spread the dregs of the mayo on the heels of the bread. At least he wasn’t leaving more of a mess for his mom. She was probably flying over San Francisco right now, excited to see him after almost a year. Probably running through her mind the speech she always gave him. Family is the most important thing. Tell that to his wife—well, ex-wife now—he would have replied. She hit the road, drained his savings, made him regret ever signing up for the goddamned Marines. They did their part too, though. Beat him down until he was unrecognizable. He took a bite of the sandwich; his eyes watered. This shit was awful. Still, he choked it down, placating a body he would be leaving soon enough. He walked over to the living room wall, saw the photo collage his mom made him. His life before. His eyes, bright, looked back at him, nothing lurking behind them, hoping to not be seen. The Marines had changed all that. Well, let them explain it to his mom then. He sighed, shoved the last quarter of the sandwich that would have made him sick into his mouth, and tossed back half a glass of water over it. He walked outside, sat beside the community pool. He diligently placed the ropes around his ankles, tied the weights to the other ends, and tugged on them, making sure this end was foolproof, unlike the misfire in the desert. He didn’t leave a note, figured there wasn’t anything else to say. He took a deep breath and slid off the edge, into the deep end of the pool, the weights following him down, keeping him submerged until the blue of the light at the shallow end faded out.
5. He used his CAC card to line up the blow.
Snorted, wiped at his nostrils.
Repeated the whole process. Twice more. High. Higher. Higher he flew, above his body-in-pain, the leg not recovered yet, wouldn’t be with the wait for an appointment at the VA. This was quicker, easier. What he felt subsided as got closer to the ceiling. There was dust up here. A lot. Oh well. Fuck it all.
He lined up another hit. Snorted. The flying body got further and further away from the broken man below, the one whose fist slammed through the glass table. He just couldn’t wait anymore. Didn’t anyone get it? How much that man below him was hurting. No one would help him since he yelled at that desk woman. It was her fault, though; she made him wait for the doctor for three hours. He was in so much pain, just didn’t want to hurt. Didn’t want to hurt anymore. Another hit, another after that. He lost count as his body floated out of the window, away from that broken man, the one no one bothered to fix.
D.O.B. March 3, 1990, nineteen years of age.
Self-inflicted gunshot wound to the right temple.
Neighbors heard shots at 0630 and called 911. Officers Hunt and Peters responded. Found victim unresponsive, a fatal gunshot injury appearing to be self-inflicted on his right temple. Parents (listed in victim’s cellular telephone as ICE contacts) were contacted. Neither answered. Other names in contact list contacted. No answers. Victim declared dead at scene and taken to County General Hospital. See Officers Hunt and Peters’ reports, Numbers 11027 and 11340 for personal accounts.
7. The sun is up—it’s barely seven in the morning—but it hasn’t made its way to his corner of the alley yet, so he can still see his breath. The police have just left. Some girl, killed, hit by a bus. Poor thing. But he’s not affected by the news as much as he should be. Used to be. He’s seen enough to know how messed up the world is, how it rarely works out the way we think—hope—it will. He shivers, more from the cold than the thoughts, and blows warm air into his palms, rubbing them together. He clenches and unclenches his fingers until he can feel the tips of them again. He’ll need his hands today. The funny thing is, as crappy as it all is here, at least there are alleys like this to sleep in without worrying about being blasted to hell like you’d be in other parts of the world, he thinks. Parts of the world he’d spent too much time in. It made coming home almost impossible. Except she was there, patient, waiting for him, even months later when he still wasn’t home, not really. She’d gone to her mom’s when the house had foreclosed, and he’d known then it was over. This country didn’t know what to do with the men and women they sent over there to do the unspeakable things he’d done. There was no place for that here, in the land of the free, the happy, the upwardly mobile. He got up, turned his cardboard mat over, used the ash from the fire he’d made the night before to write. Please take. Don’t need anymore. Then, he climbed the fire escape ladder up up up until he reached the top of the building. He wondered—briefly—about the families, people, couples below him, living out their lives without any of the worry or the stress or the hunger he’d lived through. He was happy for them as he took a step off the ledge and passed their windows, until he landed, three feet away from the spot where a young girl had been hit by a bus not hours earlier.
8. The bullet passed through his temple at precisely 8:07 a.m., dislodging the left, back quadrant of his skull, tearing through a thin layer of flesh and skin, splattering brain matter and blood on the wall of his bedroom. Blood pooled and stained the wood floor where his naked body lay, strangely displayed in a figure four, his right arm atop his forehead, his legs perfectly straight in front of him. His military service uniform is stacked neatly beside him, perfectly squared away. The sun shone through the window, through what he mistakenly assumed to be the west window of his home only minutes before he died. He’d found this curious, as well as the donkey sitting in his recliner, wearing his girlfriend’s dress. Maybe he was crazy. Or maybe just the world was. He wouldn’t be found for almost two weeks.
9. 10. They disassemble the rifles in unison, stoic, resolved. Bare-chested, silver tags hanging on slender—but strong—bodies. Cool, pale skin, the skin of youth. Boots, cammie trousers, no covers. Against regulation. Trained Marines, could do this in their sleep. Prove it to themselves, close their eyes, reassemble. Together, never missing a step. Like over there. Partners. More than partners. Caught. Beaten. Reprimanded. Separated. Different platoons, different missions, same country, a world apart. Tried to hide the tears—not acceptable, not conduct befitting a United States Marine. Neither sure what one has to do with the other. But letters between them are ripped to shreds in front of the other, taunts thrown in their faces, boots reached out during marches to trip them up—always they are tripped up. Finally, the way home, not allowed to sit together. The longest plane ride. A look shared. Secret. A nod from one, matched by the other. They will do the only thing they know will end the tripping taunting torture. Together. They wait until the time shows on the motel alarm. 11:33. The same as that morning. Caught. Beaten. Never again. A look from one, met by the other. One risks a tear, the other wipes it clean. Touches it to his tongue. Tastes salt. They lift the rifles, no words spoken. It has all been said. Perform one more time, together, a single pull of two triggers.
11. He drove headlong into afternoon traffic coming the opposite way, instantly killing both himself and the other driver—a woman heading home from work early, 12 noon on the dot. He was wrecked, high as fuck. Meant to die. But he never meant to kill anyone else. The cops would run a panel on him to find that out, rule his vehicular homicide drug-related. But the truth of it was, he’d written the note, left it with his barracks mate, told him not to open it until it came time for evening formation. His command would get the call before Hector, the barracks mate, could read the note, which explained that his roommate’d been released from the Corps, his extension denied, and didn’t know what to do with his life now. Hector wondered, if he didn’t know either, was this the only option?
Hector turned the note in the end of that week, forgot all about it in the upheaval surrounding his roommate’s death. The commanding officer threw it in the trash, spit on it, disgusted and grieving the loss of his brother’s wife, who was hit and killed on her way home to pick up the CO’s niece from school.
12. He, 19, passed away on October 11, 2008 at 13:34 in the afternoon, three weeks shy of his twentieth birthday. He was a veteran of the United States Navy, serving two years and two combat tours before his untimely death this fall. He is survived by his grandparents, both maternal and paternal, his mother, his father and stepmother, two half brothers, and his wife of six months, Becca, who is expecting their daughter, a first child for them both, in November. In lieu of flowers, please send donations to Veteran Suicide Prevention at the VA Hospital in D.C., or to the Wounded Warrior Foundation. Services will be held at the National Memorial Cemetery of Arizona (23029 N. Cave Creek Rd., Phoenix, AZ, 85024) on October 18, at 2 p.m. A full honor guard will be present.
13. He called 911. There’s a man with a gun. Come quick, he told the dispatcher. He hung up and sat down on the curb. The three bodies—neighbors he’d never met but two of whom he saw occasionally when they walked, loud and chatty, by his house on Saturdays—were splayed next to him, awkwardly placed like a scene from a movie. The man’s eyes were open still, surprise captured and etched. The women looked like they might be sleeping if it weren’t for the pool of amber growing beneath them, spreading towards where he sat. He could see the street where he lived, but his house was obscured from view. He didn’t want to see it, was afraid he’d lose his nerve. He thought of the letter he left his wife, which she would be getting in—he looked at his watch, 14:24—three and a half hours. The first line told her to shred the letter, burn it, when she was done. It was the only way to save them, her. That was the other reason he was here, alone, on a cul-de-sac he’d only seen on his morning runs. Well, the runs he used to take before the TBI. His wife was a nurse and saw enough death every day. He understood what finding out about him would do to her. He wanted it all cleaned up, even if it hurt knowing what he’d done, was about to do. He wanted her life to be shiny again. It wasn’t the explosion that wrecked him. Yeah, it rocked his brain a little bit, but it was coming home, being told by his government that nothing was really wrong with him—at least he wasn’t missing a limb, or worse. He wrote this all in the letter. Asked his wife to fight for what she deserved. SGLI didn’t always cover suicides, but he fixed that, made sure there would be no questions. He left her the packet of paperwork from all the government-cancelled appointments, the log of calls to the VA to reschedule them, the list of pills he took to calm the tremors, the voices, the paper trail of abandonment he’d created—with that and the deaths, the three beside him casualties of a battle he couldn’t lose—maybe she’d have a chance. The last lines he left for her, only for her. Memories of a better time, a goodbye she could carry with her. His ring on top of the pile. He’d tried, he really had. He heard the sirens and with a sigh, stood up, took the revolver from behind his back, turned off the safety and held it out, facing them, his dark brown hands steady. When the police vehicles turned the corner, lights and sirens screeching, he did not try to raise his hands in absolution. He stayed his course until the bullets pierced his chest shoulder heart, dropping him beside the others, his mission complete.
14. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and she worried her daughter wouldn’t get the message at school this late. She called her husband.
Can you pick our daughter up, drop her off at home?
Yes, he can. And would she mind stopping to pick up razors at the PX after work?
Sure, I can do that. Yes, I love you too.
She felt moderately guilty that after everything else, she would make him go, bereaved, to the store to pick up his own razors, and only hoped that he would think of her then, miss her like he couldn’t while she was still alive. She took the pills she’d stolen from the base pharmacy out of her purse, took off her cammie blouse and rolled down the window of the SUV. The breeze blew in and she could tell fall was in the air, the way the desert seemed to shrink back into itself. It was still warm, but it wouldn’t be for much longer. She would miss the smell of the desert here in California. Wished like hell it didn’t remind her of Afghanistan every time she woke up, put on skivvy shorts and went to PT. Her chest would tighten, limbs would seize, and her breathing would become erratic. No one would listen, ask why she still ducked behind something safe and solid when a white pick-up came cruising down her street,
into the parking lot,
pass her on the highway.
She mentally added to the grocery list her husband would need.
Yogurt (the tube kind)
Tissues (too hopeful?)
Chips—the barbecue Kettle
Soup (Campbell’s—only the tomato kind)
No one but she and her squad missed her partner, Sergeant Aimes, who was killed by the VBIED hidden in the bed of the pick-up in Kandahar. No one, not even her squad, knew how much she missed her partner for so many reasons that had nothing to do with combat. The smell of the desert is what reminded her of Aimes. Her time with him on patrol, late at night. The stars back home are the same here, he’d told her, so no matter what we go home to, we’ll have this, and the stars to remind us. She’d think of that on her first night back, alone in her bed, her husband in his, Aimes in pieces six feet below the earth, cold and alone as she felt. Her husband told her to get over the incident, move on. She hadn’t been in combat, at the front lines. If she couldn’t handle it, she needed to get out, and he’d go back to work. He would have to now, she realized, but not right away. Not with her life insurance money. Thank God for the SGLI. It was maybe the only thing the military did better. Pay out to the family no matter the cause of death. Finally. She’d waited so long for that bill to pass, spent so much time waiting to do this right, responsibly. He’d never realized that her job, her mission, was to save people at the front, so she was there—there, and unprepared for what that meant. Better her daughter missed a mother she barely knew than to have her grow up despising the mother she was turning out to be, scared and helpless. She took the pills one by one and swallowed them, washing them down with vodka that made her eyes water.
15. After dinner—who the hell eats dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon, he wonders—he hefts his bulky frame up to the counter, receives his medications from the nurse who never smiles. He’s glad it’s her; the other one is too nosy. A young bitch who won’t butt out of his business. Kinda like his wife, but she always meant well, he figured. Didn’t matter anyway, he was smitten with her from the first date. Almost didn’t enlist so he could stay with her, but knew he’d be pulled to some sort of second-rate, dangerous service if he didn’t. Oh well, too late for regrets now, he thinks. He makes a point of thanking the nurse, who just looks down her nose at him like usual. He doesn’t blame her. He doesn’t want to be in this nursing home any more’n she wants to work here. Reckons she’s got a family to get on home to soon. He’ll leave her to it. He’s done too, with all of it. Decided a few months ago that if the nightmares still weren’t any better, fifty years later, that they weren’t gonna change anytime soon. He’d killed his wife with his guilt, and now it was time for him to follow suit. He only wished he be joining her after, but knew with all the things he’d seen and done, that wasn’t gonna happen. So he takes the stockpile of pills he’s been hiding—taking out from under his tongue in the bathroom he shares with Gene after he leaves the nursing station—and tosses them all back, chewing some, swallowing others, making sure they all go down. He kneels, prays for his soul and all the others—the ones he couldn’t save—and stays there until his heart stops and he falls the rest of the way to the cold tile floor.
16. The minute five o’clock hit, he cracked a beer.
Tengo mucho tiempo q’no hago el amor con mi esposa.
It’d been way too long since he’d made love to his wife.
Espero que estuviera aqui, conmigo.
He wished she was there, with him.
But she wasn’t.
She studied, worked, raised their hija.
Ran, wrote, climbed, acted.
Everything but waited for him.
Showed up pregnant at the homecoming. Four months along.
He was gone for seven.
A la mierda. Fuck this.
He picked up the rifle.
Counted it out.
Pulled the trigger.
17. She cried when she saw the six o’clock news that night. A young woman, a United States Marine they said, had been hit by a bus and killed early that morning. She’d deployed, had a husband who was there, snot and tears making his face shine with the reflection of the camera lights. He was begging for anyone who knew anything about her condition—apparently there were other factors leading to her death that were suspicious—to come forward. He couldn’t finish. Walked off, choking on his own sobs.
She wiped tears from her cheeks. Another one. Another suicide. She knew what it was because it haunted her. How to do it, where it would work, the least messy choice. She didn’t worry about whether it was the right option. It was her only option. She’d decided months ago, but realized that it had to be today. She couldn’t keep turning on the news to see another report of another veteran who couldn’t find the help they needed, couldn’t be seen by civilian doctors, couldn’t explain to the world around them why they were different, couldn’t ever fit in here again. She just couldn’t. Not anymore.
She buttoned up her dress blue army uniform, and headed to the barn at the far end of her property. She isn’t leaving anyone behind. Only a father in a nursing home who wouldn’t know to miss the daughter he’d told not to enlist, who’d disowned her when she’d disobeyed his direct order. If only she’d listened, she thought, as she walked up to the loft, to the rope she’d hung weeks earlier, but stared at every day. Until today. Tonight. It felt good knowing she’d finally made the decision. She took off her dress cover, placed the rope around her head, replaced the cover. Stepped off the edge, where her neck jerked, snapped in half instantly, causing one of her heels to fall to the hay-covered floor beneath her. It was the only thing they would find out of place when they came to investigate.
October 11, 2008
I know how long it has been since I have held you, danced with you on my feet like we did when you were younger, hell, when I was younger. I know you might not remember much about those days, especially because they were few and far between, but they are all I think about. I know you won’t believe it, but I always have. It’s what got me through. I know I wasn’t around, there for you, or your mom. Even when I was home, I wasn’t really, I know that. And I am sorry. Because I know all this, but I also know what I did to you, to your childhood, because of it.
So, I write you this letter to tell you how sorry I am. Too late, as usual, but hey—it’s gotta count for something, doesn’t it? You have to believe I did the best I could with what I had. Not much of us came home from Vietnam, and those of us that did, maybe shouldn’t have. There’s nothing I can tell you that can make any sort of sense, especially not all this time after, but you gotta know how hard I tried to let it all go, be there for you and your mother. It just wasn’t in my power; I know that now.
I don’t have much—drank and pissed most of it away—but what I do have is yours. There’s the paperwork attached. Please hide this letter though, or you won’t get any of it. Not if they find out how I died. I’m going back to the last good moment we had together. Do you remember? Del Mar in California, the RV and miles of beach to find sand dollars. You’ll find I kept the collection from that trip if you look in the safe. The combination’s in the paperwork. I’ll go out for a swim, feel the weightlessness I don’t deserve to feel. I can’t stand the heaviness of it all anymore.
I love you, Elenor. Always will.
19. Gotta call Jones, he wrote. Checked it off an hour later, replaced the checklist on his desk with a letter. Two, actually.
One, to the Afghan family he killed. Four of them: a mother, father, and two kids. He didn’t know that then.
Coming fast, laughing, heading for him—his men—quick enough to be dangerous. So he shot, protected, acted on instinct. But was wrong.
The two kids, a little boy and an older girl.
Her Walkman still playing American eighties.
He cried over her corpse, bleeding and eyes open, until command came and pried him off. They told him to leave the Walkman.
He still saw her every night, though.
Then the man he killed—shot, point blank—who might be a hajji, or might have just been pissed the Humvee wrecked the only car he had to drive to work, across the border, after dropping his wife off at the Afghan senior center.
So he goes to the 19:45 showing of The Dark Knight with his friends, the ones who worry about him, won’t leave him alone so he has to do this in public, make it worse than it already is.
He takes out a .45 and does it there—during the fight scene—so no one realizes he is gone until a scream erupts seconds later.
20. He got off post at 2300, walked to his bunk, and woke his bunkmate. It was time to go on post with staff sergeant. Fuck, his bunkmate said when he looked at his watch. I overslept. See you in the morning. Hey, don’t touch my PlayStation. I have a game saved. He nodded as his bunkmate left, watched him tying his boots as he hopped out of the hooch. He heard rockets overhead, wondered when he stopped ducking for cover behind his rack. It’d been awhile, he knew that. He took off his blouse, his skivvy shirt, his boots, his socks, no longer caring about scorpions. Left the trousers, utility belt, tags. He turned on the PlayStation, the small TV they’d hooked up in their bunk. Deleted his bunkmate’s game. Started a new one. Played until the sun started to come up. Got further than his bunkmate, but deleted the score. Put back on his skivvy shirt, his blouse, his socks, his boots. Took out his rifle and turned it until it faced his chest. He knew the weapon so well it did not feel awkward to hold it backwards, so long as he did what he was trained to do. Fire at the enemy. Shoot to kill.
21. He sees the headline and can’t believe it’s a coincidence. He doesn’t have money, spent it all on booze. So he tucks the magazine in his pants, covers it with his shirt, and asks for the key to the restroom.
Every day twenty-two veterans commit suicide, he reads in the convenience store bathroom.
He hadn’t wanted to touch her, but his dick staff sergeant would never let him get away with backing off, walking home alone. The rest of the platoon was married off, had someone outside the wire to work through their shit with. Staff Sergeant, asshole that he was, was it for him. So when his staff sergeant told him to jump, he jumped. This time, things got fucked pretty quick, but staff sergeant told him to pony up. So he did. Grabbed her shoulder, acted the tough guy and slammed her up against the wall. Scraped her arm so she cowered and it bled. His staff sergeant—fucked up on the shit he picked up on the corner, shit he swore would make him forget about the kid he watched get killed by friendly fire—whooped and hollered, and oorahed. So what else could he do? She cried at first, then put up a fight, but what could she do against four fucking hard-earned Marines? Nothing. She did nothing; zoned out and let the four of them fuck her, each one taking a turn at the opening of the alley, hoping they all got to get off before they got word that someone was on to them. How had it even started, he wondered? Goddamn. Goddammit! Why hadn’t she screamed louder, put up more of a fight? She was the only female Marine with a guy back home, the only one who wouldn’t put out on deployment. Was that enough of an excuse? Fuck. Fuck. It is close to midnight and sirens are blaring in the distance. Are they getting closer? He can’t tell. Maybe it was because she looked like them. Her dark hair and brown eyes. He’d thought they were beautiful. Were they beautiful? How the fuck could he ever look her in the eyes again? Like he didn’t have enough to work out, get over. Yeah, he’d seen some shit. But that was there. Now he had to get over his fucked up shit here too? How was he supposed to do that? How could he let some asshole of a staff NCO tell him what was right and what was fucked? No, no. No.
His staff sergeant didn’t let him.
He used his staff sergeant.
As an excuse for all the shit he wanted to do but couldn’t.
Shouldn’t. Too late now. He knows there will not be help if he asks for it. He’s too far gone.
He picks the magazine up again.
Every day twenty-two veterans commit suicide.
Fuck. Will he be a statistic for that too?
He doesn’t know what else to do. He puts down the magazine for the last time.
Takes out his pocketknife, remembers his training.
Kama O’Connor (formerly Shockey) is a graduate of Northern Arizona University’s MFA program, and still teaches writing at the university. She writes primarily war-related fiction, and is working on publishing her first linked collection of short stories entitled Daisy Chained. Her work has been published in O-Dark-Thirty’s Report and Review, Bird’s Thumb, Zone 3, Military Experience and the Arts, Blue Monday Review, Military Spouse Magazine, and other journals. She hopes this story sheds some public light on the work we still need to do to make sure veterans are taken care of.