The Enemy

Archives Home
Literary Magic: Current Issue
Articles on Words and Language
Short Stories and Plays
Book Reviews
Writer Spotlights
Literary Humor
Editor's Notes
Contest Winners

The Enemy 

        By Joan Kaplan

      Forgive me for not keeping in touch. I know they told you I was wounded in action;

did they tell you that I was missing, too, for two days, and then was found, barely breathing

but alive?  Perhaps it’s best if they didn’t; why worry you needlessly. I was found, although

two others in my unit have not been.  It’s been weeks and they are still missing and, we all

fear, lost to the enemy – not the Iraqis, but the war, the real enemy.

      Derek shifted in the pristine hospital bed, trying for a more comfortable position.  It

was difficult to balance the small microphone on his chest, hold it in the right position with one hand without putting too much pressure on his bandaged shoulder and left arm, the taped broken ribs and what was left of his left hip and leg. Small stains seeped through the shoulder bandages – an affront to the fastidious care of Carol and MaryAnn, the two gentle, highly skilled nurses whose only concern, it seemed, was to help him recover and return, restored, to his family. 

      It was the two-month anniversary of the attack. He had lost his eyes in the explosion,

but the IED had not taken his ears, hands, arms or legs.  Neither had it damaged nor destroyed the instrument of his manhood.  He could still hear, although not with the same clarity as before,

but well enough, and use the fingers of his right hand for small precise movements. He would walk, and might even run again, after a long rehabilitation with partial artificial limbs. He considered himself one of the lucky ones. He could count the buddies who hadn’t been as lucky: they had come home with half bodies or mangled faces, eyes that could see but no longer wanted to, minds that could no longer grasp reality, or spirits that were broken beyond repair. And he


could count all those who hadn’t come home, name by name, their faces etched into his consciousness with the stark surprise and futility of death, images that continued to haunt his sleep and appear, suddenly, in the daylight hours when he least expected their intrusions.

      The two days before they found me were the worst of my life.  It wasn’t the pain or the shock of the injuries. Not even the uncertainty of not knowing how badly I was hurt. It was the silence, the absolute silence and lying there alone, unable to move, unsure if I would simply die undiscovered. The silence and the not knowing how long it would take to die. And I wasn’t alone, too many too young, dead and dying all around me.

      He paused exhausted, the imagined faces of his dead and dying buddies mingling with

an encyclopedic collection of pictures of his mother and father, younger sister and brother, his wife and small son and his baby girl who was only months old when he left – pictures that his memory had catalogued well before the day he saluted them with a hearty young man’s goodbye and boarded the air transport at Langley.  His training had taught him to let go of home and everyone who was a part of it. “Let go and keep them safe,” his gunnery sergeant, a hardened survivor of years of battles, had drilled into them. “You have only your training and the mission,” he barked. “Go to a reflex mode, no thinking at all. Act and react. That will keep you alive… if you’re lucky.”

      But now what Derek heard was his gunner, Santiago, pimple-faced, overeager, the

ever present cigarette dangling from his mouth with its accumulated ash threatening to drop with the slightest movement of his head.

      “Hey, Derek, piece a cake, huh?  Looks like nothing doin’ today.”  They were a few miles outside of Karbala, approaching the bridge over the Euphrates, the second vehicle in a column moving carefully southwest on Highway 1A, the main supply route to and from

Baghdad.  They had made the trip dozens of times and had managed, so far, to avoid any trouble.  The daily news at home was full of stories of the hundreds of American soldiers

who had not.

      Derek was driving their armored vehicle; Santiago was riding lookout, sitting at his right, checking through the windshield and passenger window for anything suspicious on or near the dusty road.  Behind them, two new recruits  – “virgins” in Marine lingo – trained

their AK47s on the pale landscape, their eyes squinting against the merciless sun. Perspiration glistened on all their faces and stained their vests under their arms and around their necks.  Wearing their body armor was almost unbearable in the hundred and twenty-degree heat – it was required but in most cases ineffective, as the Americans had learned, against the massive

IED explosions.

      Santiago turned away from the window, loosening the fingers on his gun and punched Derek lightly on his shoulder.  The cigarette ash fell.

      “Another good run, hey bro!”  he joked, missing the small movement of a dark shape emerging from behind the skeleton of a burned out car on the side of the road.  A staccato round of sniper fire shattered his side window and a bullet tore through the back of his head.  Blood and brains soaked Derek as more shapes emerged, firing wildly as they approached the vehicle. The two young men behind him screamed to get the hell out of there as they threw themselves down, trying to avoid the spray of bullets and return fire.  A flash of searing light was the last thing Derek saw; it filled the vehicle, engulfing it with a hellish heat and the sour smell of burning flesh.

      The ear-splitting noise stopped as suddenly as it had begun. Santiago lay slumped on the ground, draped over Derek, his blood and brains drying in the high sun, bits of bone already beginning to bleach to a ghostly white. The two virgin gunners lay splayed in the sand behind him, crimson pools pillowing their heads, their arms and legs angled impossibly, their faces turned away from him in a post mortem gesture of good manners. The vehicles in front and behind his had been targeted as well, a lighthearted string of IEDs exploding in musical tandem becoming a hellish symphony of destruction with its coda of silent despair.  

      The hospital ward was quiet when Derek finally awoke.  His face was bandaged and

a drip of colorless liquid soundlessly emptied itself into the main vein of his right arm.  Stark white sheets tucked tight across his chest wrapped him in a warming caul against the cold of the air conditioning. 

      “How are you feeling, Corporal?”  Carol’s gentle young woman’s voice asked close to his ear.  He felt her hand, light on his shoulder, her full breasts soft against his cheek. “We’re happy you’re awake; you’ve been asleep for two days.”

      “Where am I?” garbled sounds struggled against his swollen throat.

      “You’re in the base hospital. You survived an IED explosion.  You’ll be fine.”

      “I can’t see,” Derek mumbled. 

      “Your eyes and face are bandaged. We’re not sure what the lasting effects of the explosion and the fire will be. But you’re very lucky. You survived the attack.”

      “I can’t see,” Derek whispered.

      “We’re not sure about the extent of damage to your eyes. We won’t know until the bandages come off. “  Her voice was very quiet, laced with a sadness impossible to camouflage.

      “Where are the others?”

      “I’m sorry, Derek.  They didn’t make it.”   Derek turned his head away from her.


      “Do you think you could try to sit up?  Try to drink some water, eat something?  It’s

important to get your strength back, start eating and moving as soon as you can so we can get that IV out.”

      “Come back,” Derek murmured. “Come back later.”

      I lay there, probably in shock, knowing what had happened but unable to understand.

It was strange – that mixture of knowledge and denial – powerful and sad. And the sadness, it was the sadness that truly wounded me. I couldn’t see who else had died or was dying. I couldn’t count the bodies, couldn’t hear the cries for help. I think it would have been even worse if I had. I would have tried to help and it would have been impossible. I think that would have been worse – the helplessness, the futility of it.

      Carol – a small woman, soft and round and bosomy, no taller than a growing adolescent with the wisdom of a wise old woman – came back later that day, and again several times each day, alternating with MaryAnn, the tall thin blonde Derek couldn’t see either.  The IV came out; Derek started to eat and drink and by the end of the first week he was sitting up in

a chair, and learning to walk in perpetual darkness.  Buddies from his unit came to visit when they could; several brought candy from the PX and Pop CDs and one brought a pile of girlie magazines which, when he saw Derek with his dark glasses and cane, he rolled up quickly, embarrassed, and threw into the nearest garbage pail. 

      Derek appreciated their coming, but after only a few minutes the visit exhausted him and he insisted they had better things to do with their time.  They laughed with him, nervously self-conscious, and left. These were the men he had served with as guards at the checkpoint outside Bagdad before he was reassigned to the transport duty.  These were the men who knew the old Derek and they were the men he did not want to have around him now, or again. They would see him as he had become, not as he had been, and they would remember him this way.

      I wasn’t really surprised when it happened, although you tell yourself you’ll be okay, it’ll happen to someone else, not you.  But when I heard those shots and saw that sudden scorching flash of light I knew my turn had come and it was impossible to be surprised after two long tours. The stats were against me.  What surprised me was the sudden silence, thick heavy silence.  Silence in that blistering heat each day, silence in that arctic cold each night.  The dessert is so hot, and so cold. You can’t believe it. I soaked myself with sweat and piss and I shivered uncontrollably. My body felt like it was being assaulted all over again.  It was horrible.

      He put the small hand-held microphone down and closed his eyes behind his dark glasses. He remembered the stomach churning thirst, the sun and the heat of those two days, the cold and wind of those two nights, and the silence, the shattering silence, that had emptied every tear he would have for a lifetime. He couldn’t cry; he could not imagine ever crying again.

      Then I remembered the kids, the kids playing at the side of the road. We noticed them as we were approaching. Santiago said, “Hey, see those kids?  What the hell d’ya think they’re doing there? They don’t belong there.”  “They’re just kids,” I said. Playing.  No problem.” There must have been a dozen of them, laughing, kicking around a ball in and out of the hulks of abandoned cars and trucks.  Just kids, no more than ten, twelve years old. Then there was that shattering noise and a tsunami of heat and light and it was over.

      “You have some letters from home, “ Carol was back.  He hadn’t heard her coming. Heard her only when she spoke, felt her hand lightly on his shoulder with the gentle touch he had come to recognize and welcome.  “Would you like me to read them to you?”

      “Later, thanks. Later is fine.”  He opened his eyes as if that would help him reposition the microphone, fumbled with it until his good hand could hold it upright and he began to speak again.

      I know it’s hard to hear all this but it’s better that I tell you now.  I don’t think I’m going to want to talk about it when I finally get home. That’ll be a happy time, a time for forgetting, not a time for remembering.

      He paused again, thinking about the kids they had seen playing alongside the edge of the road.  His brother’s face flew into focus. Could he imagine Jack, eleven years old, playing

a deadly game at the side of a road, planning and preparing to end the lives of nameless, faceless strangers whose mothers and father would mourn them as his friends’ families were mourning their sons and daughters now?  And his son, only six – could he be taught to murder and laugh? 

       “What the hell do they teach these kids,” he and his buddies had asked themselves as new deaths were counted and catalogued.  The burn ward was filled, overflowing with casualties who might or might not recover. “How do you teach a ten-year old to relish the murder of young people he didn’t know, whose lives he couldn’t imagine?  What damage had we done to turn them into murderers before their first kiss, their first love?”  He and his Marines could not understand the havoc around them, the appetite for death that had transformed children into eager willing murderers.   Perhaps Carol, with her woman’s view of things, could help him understand.

      “There’s no real answer,” she said thoughtfully, almost as much a victim as the burned boys she cared for with such passion.   They talked quietly together, many times, and finally, one afternoon, he spoke slowly into his recorder, trying to explain things to his family as she and he had finally explained them to one another.

       These kids are hardened by what they’re told, the death and destruction they see all around them.  They don’t know who or what to blame for their lives of danger and deprivation. They have no way to judge what is right or wrong, to decide who is the real enemy. Each of them has lost someone, or knows someone who has lost someone.  But to kill, coolly, with calculation, is the complete loss of their innocence, their childhood. This is the worst price of this senseless war – an entire generation or more of men without memory of anything good, of only loss and the empty supposed glory of retribution. 

      His fingers found the erase button on the microphone and held it down while it erased

this last transmission. His father and grandfather before him, his uncles and many of his parents’ friends, were Marines. He couldn’t teach them anything about war, they had seen it all before in the fields and rice paddies of Viet Nam and on the battlefields of the European theater in World War II. 

      “But this war was different,” he thought, “or was it?  Your view of the world always depended on where you were born, what you were taught, whose ‘right’ became your ‘right’.   There were atrocities committed on both sides, senseless useless outrages that would haunt those who were responsible and those who suffered.  But who was responsible?” That was

the question that haunted him and every soldier he knew.  He felt for the record button and pressed it.


       I got your letters.  The nurse will read them to me later and I’ll be glad to have all

the news from home.  I don’t know who it’s harder for – you or me – our being separated now.  But I’ll be home soon and then everything will go back to normal.

      He knew nothing would ever be normal again; he wouldn’t come home the same

man he had been when he left home four years ago; he was irrevocably changed by his wounds and what he had seen, and done.  He felt old and impossibly sad.

      We’d been warned so many times about the kids, kids playing close to the barracks, the checkpoints, at the side of the roads.  We know they play there, plant explosives, hide bombs in the rotted hulks of cars, in decaying bags of garbage that sit for days and then suddenly, when finally we go to clean it up for them, they just explode and two or three guys are gone, done. They tell us to be careful, always check for anything that looks new or different, but kids, there’s something about kids that makes you ease up, loose focus. And the food, there’s the food they bring us – ripe little dates or a handfuls of nuts.  They want to share something sweet with us and it’s so hard to refuse.  But the food is laced with poison.  We’ve learned that and we know never to accept anything. How can we try to make friends with them, get them to trust us, when they know we don’t trust them, won’t take anything from them.  It’s all mixed up.

      He pressed the pause button; talking was exhausting.   Talking about this, remembering all this, was exhausting.  He blamed himself for being careless, blamed himself for losing Santiago and the two other soldiers in his vehicle. He should have turned off the road, alerted the others in the convoy – how could they not have seen those kids?  They should have all stopped the instant they saw those kids.  He could blame them too, couldn’t he – but he didn’t; he blamed only himself.  He should have known better. 


       “I blame myself.  It was my fault.”  The recorder stayed on pause.  “Hell no,” a voice

in his brain said, “it was those kids, those goddamned kids.”

      MaryAnn came with the letters. “Carol thought you might want to her them tonight, “ she said. “She gave them to me to read to you.”  Her thin body was stiff against Derek’s face and chest as she adjusted his bandages, but her touch was almost as gentle and caring as Carol’s. He preferred Carol, but it was easier to hear the letters from MaryAnn; he didn’t feel as connected to her.  If she read them he knew he would not be tempted to cry. 

      Darling Derek, his mother wrote,  we’ve gotten the news and know you are getting the best possible care.  Our only concern is you, that you get better and come home.  Don’t worry about us; we’re all fine and thanking God that you are alive.  Just concentrate on getting better and take care of yourself.  We’re all here for you whenever you get home.

      His father had added a postscript:  We’re all so proud of you son.  You’re a credit to the Corps.  Get better and come home.  Emily and Jack send their love.

       “The kids have added their signatures,” MaryAnn said, taking his fingers and tracing over their names. “What a lovely thing to do.”   She thought that his sister and brother might have been too shy to write their own letters, or might not have known what to write.

      “Dear Derek,” his wife had written,  “I hope you are better.  The baby is doing great and Derek Junior is getting to be a big boy. He looks more and more like you, has your face exactly!  We all miss you and hope that you aren’t burned or  hurt  too badly.  But don’t worry; whatever it is won’t matter, it’ll be fine with us. Just come home.”

       But it wouldn’t be fine. Amazing how much you can see, he thought, without having sight.

      As the weeks passed, Derek ‘s body strengthened and his emotions sharpened. He became unforgiving of his disabilities, deeply ashamed of his imagined responsibility for the deaths of his comrades. The taunting little boys who had begun to appear in his dreams, laughing with pleasure at the havoc their roadside life and death games wrought, appeared more often.  Their faces were his face, bright-eyed and accusatory. The dreams were worse than his blindness, the low-level pains in his body; they were vivid and constant, beginning as he began to recover, intensifying as his body grew stronger, drenching his sleep with sweat and fear.  He was no longer the victim; he had become the murderer.   The dreams destroyed his sleep, wrenched him awake, screaming.  Carol and MaryAnn rushed to his side, soothed him, stuck him with injections that induced sightless sleep, but the dreams persisted, increased. 

      By the time he was sent scheduled to be sent home, sleep had become as much a terror as the explosion and the two days that followed it had been. He was emotionally exhausted, wound as tight as a wire around a fencepost supporting nothing but agonized doubt and self-recrimination. His eagerness to return home eroded with a fearful reluctance to leave the hospital that had become his safe place, with people like himself and those who cared for them, who required no explanation – people who saw his sightless eyes, his scarred face and withered hands, the shortened leg and strange thumping gait as normal.  But most of all, it was the boys in his dreams that haunted him; he felt that he could no longer be around anyone like them, real or imagined, with his face or with their own. The world outside had become threatening and foreign and he confided to Carol that he wasn’t ready, didn’t want to go home.

      “Leaving here may be the hardest part of your recovery,” she cautioned him. “But you know there is no alternative. Going home and reclaiming your life is why you were here. Why you worked so hard to recover as much as you could.  Once you’re out of here you’ll adjust and find the strength to be different in a world of enormous differences.  Yours will be only one kind.  Remember that.  Be strong. Keep your focus on finding whatever becomes your new safe place when you leave.”  She had hugged him for a moment longer than necessary and ran her hand lightly over his cheek.  “Remember me,” she whispered,  “I’ll be rooting for you.”

      Days later Derek walked slowly down the metal stairs of the military transport, one hand sliding carefully against the crisp coldness of the railing, the other clutching still awkwardly at the now familiar knob of his cane. He was immediately aware of the unexpected snow, the clean fresh smell of it and the feather-light touch of the weightless wet flakes brushing against his face. The dry heavy heat of Iraq was a world away; the sultry air and the whirling sand that had polished his face a deep, dried-blood red were gone.  He heard his family shouting his name, knew without seeing that all of them were there at Andrews waiting for him, desperate to hold him, console him, enfold him in the safety of their old love.

      He fought against the unfamiliar tears that threatened his sightless eyes, struggled to control the powerful emotions of relief and regret surging through him. If he showed weakness now, he knew, any chance of real recovery would be finished before it even began.  They would never see him again as he had been; he would have become only their blind boy and brother, the blind husband and father, a victim whose damage would define him.  He could come home to them a victim or a hero; the choice was his.  And above all there were his secrets to protect.

      Buried deep beneath the scarred face and sightless eyes he had become another Derek, a secret Derek they would never expect, could never understand – a stranger whose relentless dreams painted him as a murderer, morally confused and corrupted, twisted by war and compromised by the confusion of an intolerable enemy.  This Derek was tormented, imprisoned by failures in battle he could not excuse or accept, convinced that the deaths of the men around him were unalterably his fault, his responsibility. The little boys in his dreams, still laughing with pleasure at the havoc their perilous games wrought, persisted.  They laughed louder and more tauntingly, dared him to find the explosives and throw himself on top of them. When he did the explosions ripped through his shredded body only to restore it instantaneously and make him again a bystander to their hysterical laughter.  Their faces were his, then his brother Jack’s. Then his son’s.  He tried not to sleep at all.

      “Welcome home son,” his father murmured, hands strong on his son’s shoulders,

remembering his own battle-scarred return from war when crowds of protesters surged over the tarmac waving anti-war banners and shouting epithets, cursing the incredulous survivors of Khe Sahn.  The scars of that welcome remained more deeply embedded than his decades-old wounds, but he had dealt with the adjustment, as Marines are supposed to deal with all adversity, and he had carved out a good life, fathered a new generation of soldier and considered himself fortunate. 

      Today there were no flashing cameras, no reporters, no protesters, no supporters. The tarmac was empty except for Derek’s family and a group of reservists in battle fatigues who guided the anonymous flag-draped caskets that rolled out of the belly of the plane onto a rusted, squeaking conveyor belt, down to the tarmac, and then into the womb of an unmarked transport truck.

      “Oh my darling,” his mother wept as she clung to him, her face suffused with relief.   “Thank God you’re home, thank God you’re alive.”

      “Der, Der,” his brother and sister cried, hugging him, thrilled to have their big brother home again.   His wife and little boy stood to the side, waiting their turn to welcome back this man who was no longer the man who had left them.  The little girl slept safely in her stroller, her baby’s head crowned with blonde curls, her peaceful breathing the gentle melody of perfect rest. 

      Dear Carol:

      Got home okay.  Trip was long and exhausting but managed to stay awake most of the time so I wouldn’t cause anybody any extra trouble. The pills you gave me helped me sleep without the dreams and when we laid over in Germany they got me some more to make sure I’d have enough until I had my first visit at the base hospital at home. I try not to take them but it’s useless.  Can’t sleep at all without them. The dreams don’t go away.  Hope you’re well.  Miss you.   Derek could not find the safe place outside the hospital in Iraq.  He was an outpatient at

the base hospital and the doctors thought he had made great progress given his disabilities.  He checked in once a week for additional rehab and a new supply of the pills that allowed him

at least some sporadic sleep. The rest of his time he spent alone in the house, trying to decide what to do next. His wife took the children to day care and school every morning, went on to her job as a cashier in a local 7-11, returned home to make dinner, feed and bathe the children and spend an hour with him, drained and increasingly resentful.  Derek was groggy in the morning when she left the house and bitter in the evening when she returned. He told her nothing of how he spent his day.

She tried to understand him, help him, but could not penetrate the wall that grew thicker and

more impenetrable between them. He was the only man she had ever known, the only one she had given herself to, lovingly and open, and when he refused her, turned away, slept tight and rigid in their bed moaning with despair, jaw clenched, drenched in sweat, she felt loneliness and her own despair, and a deepening confusion that was beyond understanding or forgiveness.

      She was only twenty-two, young enough to need the intimacy of sexual passion and to have dreams of her own, dreams of a happy life with children and a husband who, if not whole, could become at least a partner in their shared ordeal.  But Derek was now no husband, and most disappointingly, no father. His patience with all of them was short and his temper flared with a cold detachment that worried and frightened her.

      He felt no joy around his children, particularly the little boy, whose soldier play tore at him like the little boys of his relentless dreams.  He forbade Derek Jr. to play with his pretend gun, silenced the rat-tat-tat of his make-believe battles, and sent him to his room to suffer alone

the rage of the potent enemy who was his father.  He had absolutely no interest in Sally, the adorable, exuberant little explorer on still unsteady legs who cried instantly at her father’s frequent displeasure, her innocent joy of discovery abruptly cut down by his insistent need for quiet, his harsh voice and dead eyes. At the beginning, on the weekends when they were all home together, her crying drove him to leave the house.  Hating himself for his impatience, his inability to enjoy his own children, he disappeared for hours, returned drunk and mean and went straight to bed.  What had been a warm and loving home when he was away had become a new and very real battleground full of smoldering conflict and misunderstanding, empty of any restorative peace for either parent or their children. 

      Dear Carol:

    How are you?  Things here are okay. No, not really.  Can’t find anything to do that

makes any sense and doing nothing is driving me crazy.  Linda is working and doing her best with the kids but, to be honest, they all irritate the hell out of me.  Doc says I’m in good shape, but what does he know?  I’m waiting for something to happen but I don’t know what.  Feeling helpless and getting angrier by the day.  Never thought it would be like this. My parents are losing patience with me and being with them is no better than being at home.  I keep thinking that maybe the guys who didn’t make it home were the lucky ones.  Maybe if I had one leg or one arm, or just burns everywhere it would be better.  But I’ve got my share of those and can’t see to boot.  It’s too much.  Thank God for the pills.

      Derek’s parents knew that things were difficult for Linda, told themselves she was exaggerating the problems; they were embarrassed to see how difficult the adjustment to being home was for Derek. They expected him to bounce back as any good Marine would, as his father and uncles and their buddies had.  More and more often Linda left the children with their grandparents on the weekends so she and Derek could have some time alone together. Linda expected he would tell her what he had experienced in Iraq. Those stories were the only gift he could give her, but he could not give them or any other part of himself. He would not speak of his time there, told her nothing of what had happened the day he was injured.  She tried to talk to her husband, connect with him in some way. He did nothing during the day to share with her and nothing she did held any interest for him.  Hungrily she tried to make love to her husband: her desires always rejected, her attempts at intimacy futile, she failed and finally gave up.

       The more Derek withdrew from the noise and distraction of the baby’s crying, from Derek Jr.’s hopeful eagerness for attention from his father, the more they wanted him.  The baby wanted him to hold her, play with her; little Derek wanted to play ball or running games.  They both wanted him to sit quietly close to them and read stories, the way their mother and grandparents did. The haze of the pills destroyed his energy and dulled his imagination; he couldn’t invent the stories he couldn’t see to read, he couldn’t catch the ball he couldn’t see flying from his son’s red, white and blue bat. Derek could do nothing with them.  His brain revolted at the force of will necessary to father his own children as a blind man, a damaged man.  He was better at being no father at all, simultaneously preferring and hating his withdrawal. Disgusted and angry at himself, he became a stranger in his own home, volatile, erratic, explosive without warning, the provocations random and senseless. With every outburst, Linda and the children were startled, surprised.  They began to avoid him, cautious and afraid, widening the distance within the family.

      Dear Carol:

      Not doing well.  Not sure what to do.  Taking too many pills, dream pills, pain pills. Don’t really like being around anybody but where can I go?  What can I do?  I’m not part of the world I’m in, still only a part of the world of the war, the accident, the hospital.  It was better there.  At least there was a sense of future, of possibility. Here there is nothing, nothing but pain and disappointment.

      “That’s a strange word,” he thought, “ now the ‘attack’ has become an ‘accident.’  Does that mean I wasn’t responsible?  An accident can happen to anybody. An attack is something I could have prevented.”  He pressed the record button again. 

  Linda says I should go to some group support sessions for wounded vets. I told her it was a crock and I wouldn’t go.  But maybe I should.  I might.

      He clicked off the recorder; clicked off that fragile connection to the last place where he had felt hopeful.

      The sessions at the base hospital were on Monday and Thursday mornings. A military driver would pick him and others up in a van and take them there and bring them home.  Derek went once.  There was no one there whose story he wanted to hear, no one he wanted to share his story with. No one would understand how he let his buddies die, how the boys in his dreams   knew it was his fault, how he was beginning to hate his wife and children and didn’t know why.  How he wanted to love them but couldn’t.   He listened for an hour, had half a cup of cold bitter coffee and hobbled out, called a taxi and went home alone to his empty house.   

      Dear Carol:

      Tried one session but it’s worthless. The only thing I’m getting from the hospital is the pills, and that’s enough. My wife is driving me crazy.  She treats me like a baby, telling me what I should be doing.  Whatever she says rubs me the wrong way. I can’t stand being around the kids – they’re noisy and misbehave.  And my parents talk to me with such disappointment in their voices I think they would be happier if I hadn’t come home.  I think everyone would be happier if I hadn’t come home.  I feel like I’m sinking, drowning  – can’t escape from this perpetual fury, furious and numb at the same time.  I’m afraid of what I might do.  Maybe I should just walk away from everyone and everything. Maybe that would be better for them. I don’t know.  My temper is lethal and irrational, as sharp as a razor’s edge.  I can’t seem to control it. I’m failing at everything.  I feel lost.

      He pulled the tiny tape out of the recorder and threw it into his bottom drawer with the dozens of other tapes he had made and never mailed.

      “How was it?” Linda asked gently when she came into the house, finding him in the living room with his usual six-pack of Michelob.

      “Worthless.  Just a lot of babbling.”

      “I guess the first time is hard for everybody.”   She shushed the children into their rooms for a few minutes of quiet play and came back to sit close to him on the child-worn sofa.

      “It wasn’t hard, it was useless.  How is it going to help me to tell strangers – even damaged vets – what happened to me?  Something horrible happened to everybody who was there.  I’m not special. ”  He finished his beer, snapped open another.

      “But just talking about it with guys who understand.  That has to help.  It seems to help so many others when they come home, injured or not.”

      “So now you’re the expert, huh!  Who gave you your information?  You don’t know what you’re talking about.” He stood up and clenched the neck of the bottle in his better hand.  It had become a weapon. “Don’t tell me what’s good for me. Don’t ever tell me what to do.”

      “Oh Derek, I just want you to feel better. I thought it might help.”  She moved toward him and he pushed her aside. He didn’t want to listen to her.  She knew nothing, he could tell her nothing.  He wanted only to be left alone.

      “Linda, leave me alone. I won’t tell you again.  I don’t want advice from you,” he growled at her, his voice low, pregnant with danger.  She got up and went in to the children.

      Derek did not return to the therapy sessions.  He stopped shaving and let his beard grow long over his pale bloodless face. His hair was dull, unkempt and he began wearing his fatigues all the time.  His wife went to the base hospital and asked to see the Corp social worker who told her impatiently that some men had a more difficult time in adjusting to being home, she should just be patient.  Give him time, the man said, he’ll come back to the therapy sessions and begin to talk. That would help; it would be the turning point. But Linda knew Derek would not return, knew that he would find no one to talk to and no one to listen to either.  The Marines offered no job retraining, would do nothing to help him find a way to makes his differences productive.  Without purpose, work, something to fill his time, she knew he would continue to spiral into that black abyss of isolation and hopelessness that was already devouring him.  She began to feel as lost as her husband felt  – he was not afraid of anyone but himself and she was desperately afraid of him.

      Derek became increasing withdrawn and isolated.  His body ached and his eyes burned; he rubbed them raw red and covered them even at home with his black glasses.   Occasionally, the cane slipped from his hand and he fell.  He lay, crumpled on the floor like an abandoned doll and wept, finally, for himself, for what he had lost, for the men who had died because of him. He would not leave the house.  He drank more and took more pills.  Sleep was elusive, damning, and when it came the little boys in his dreams tormented him with their fresh laughing faces so that he hardly slept.  Linda kept the children away from him as much as possible, but not enough.  He lashed out, his voice and hands the new instruments of his manhood.  What was it his drill sergeant had taught them?  “Act and React. Don’t think. Go to a reflex mode.” He hated himself and the cycle of guilt, withdrawal, fury and danger increased. The household became his newest  ground zero, his family the newest, most unexpected, enemy.

      “I’m afraid of him,” Linda told his parents.  “I’m afraid to have him around the children, especially Derek Jr. – I’m afraid he’ll do something terrible.”

      “You’re over-reacting,” her father-in-law replied, impatient, unwilling to hear that his son was out of control. “Give him time, time will snap him back, bring him to himself.”  His mother said nothing, always a dutiful wife and now a disappointed mother. But the Derek they knew was gone, drained away by physical and emotional pain, by the weight of his own guilt, his own sense of failure.  He had found no safe place and would not come back to them. 

      Weeks passed.  The situation did not improve.

      “Why don’t we go out for dinner tonight?” Linda dared to suggest at the end of another exhausting week. “It’s Friday night. We haven’t been out together since you came home.  Let’s take the kids and go out to Jack’s for hamburgers. They’d like that so much and so would I. I’d love a change, wouldn’t you?”

      “Okay,” Derek replied quietly, inexplicably.  “Why not?”

      Linda quickly dressed the children and they piled into the car, bright with the promise of doing something special as a family.  But by the time she pulled into the restaurant’s parking lot, Derek had frozen against the noise and chatter of two little people, infuriated that they didn’t listen to his commands for quiet.  They pushed and pulled at each other in the back seat, whined and laughed, giggled and cried as any brother and sister of their ages would, and Derek become very still. He turned to them as Linda opened the back door.

      “Listen to me,” he said, facing them.  His voice was quiet and threatening. The children knew that he yelled and screamed at them, pushed them or smacked them when he was impatient or irritated, but this kind of quiet came only when something was terribly wrong; this kind of quiet meant real danger. “This is the last time I’ll say it.  Behave, be quiet, eat your food and don’t fool around.  You’ll be in trouble if you don’t.”   The children were frightened into absolute silence. They got out of the car, clinging to Linda, each of them holding one of her trembling hands as if that protection would be enough, and walked into the restaurant without a sound.

      Jack’s was a family restaurant, a homey neighborhood landmark where locals could get a good inexpensive meal in a comfortable, relaxed environment.  It was filled with grandparents, parents, children, teenagers on dates, all enjoying a night out, with just enough noise to make it festive but not annoying.   They ate and spoke with relish; the waitresses moved quickly between the crowed tables, the jukebox spewed upbeat popular songs.    Everyone seemed happy, preoccupied – normal.  No one beside Derek was blind, or damaged, or angry.  No one else wore military fatigues or suffered through sleepless dream-filled nights.

      They found an empty table and slid into the booth. Derek pulled his son alongside him and sat facing Linda and the little girl. 

      “Hi’ya folks,” a chubby waitress rumbled over out of breath, pencil and pad poised for their order.  “What can I get you tonight?”  She pushed back an errant strand of thinning hair, tucked it loosely behind her ear and smiled at them. 

      “Bring some milk for the kids and then come back.  We’ll order in a minute.” Derek barked instructions as if he were a drill instructor.   He felt for the menus on the table and passed one to Linda, telling her to order for herself and the children.

      “A burger, daddy, with French fries and a big pickle,” little Derek, momentarily caught up in the excitement of being in the restaurant, bubbled up.

      “I didn’t ask you,” Derek said, as quietly as he had in the car.  The little boy deflated, as if he were a balloon whose air had been suddenly and mercilessly sucked out of him by the prick of a careless thorn.  The waitress returned with two large glasses of milk, a bit too tall, too big for little hands, and set them nosily before the children.  Linda and Derek ordered and she turned away.

      “Be careful with your milk.  Don’t spill anything,” Derek warned his children ominously, and as he did, as if intentionally defying orders, Derek Jr. lifted his glass and it tumbled out of his nervous little boy’s hands.  The milk raced across the tabletop sideways, spilling over its edge, drenching Derek’s lap.

      “God damn you,” he exploded. “What the hell did I just say?  You’re impossible!”  He pushed the boy off the seat onto the floor, bent down, slapping and kicking him. The little boy became hysterical, sheltering his face with his hands, trying to protect his tummy, his chest.    The restaurant was suddenly still. No one moved. The diners stopped eating. The waitresses stood frozen with food trays or bills or steaming coffee pots in hand, the ka-ching of the cash register silent, everyone a witness to the appalling scene.

      They watched, momentarily stunned, as the father, a youngish blind man with a thickening, softened body and rough twisted hands, shouting and screaming out of control, beat his child for spilling his milk, his flashing fists and feet destroying the soul of a six-year old.  His face, crisscrossed with a map of ropy scars, eyes hidden behind black impenetrable glasses, was mottled purple with anger, his lips spewed saliva, trembled with outrage.  The boy’s mother and little sister sat crumpled at the table, unable to move.  They looked away, eyes leaking tears, the little girl’s hands covering her ears to drown out the horrible noise, the mother’s hands twisting tight together just under the tabletop.  It was clear that both had seen similar scenes too often. 

      Another family sat one table away from the commotion. The slender small man, father

of the two young children sitting across from him, turned to his wife incredulously.  Abruptly, without warning, he rushed from his table and threw himself against the berserk man.

      “Stop it,” he shouted at him, “stop it. Pull yourself together!”

      Astonished, Derek drew back.  The little boy darted into the safety of his mother’s lap.

      “What the heck do you think you’re doing?” Derek screamed.

      “You’re out of control, completely out of control.  You’re killing your little boy.” He turned back to his wife. “Call 911.”

      “You’re out of your god damned mind,” Derek screamed, pushing him away.

      “If you touch me,” the other man warned, “ I’ll have you arrested for assault as well as child abuse.”

      “Who the hell are you?” Derek laughed, his fury suddenly spent, too amazed by the gall of this thin little man who hardly reached his shoulders. Who was he to take command of a situation that he had begun and expected to control? No one at home had ever challenged him before. But now the boy was safe and Derek was no longer screaming.  Two other men jumped from their table and grabbed him from behind, pinning his arms back and forcing him to his knees, his glasses bouncing onto the floor.  Sirens blared and red lights flashed outside the restaurant.  Everything seemed to have happened in an instant.

      “It’s okay, it’s okay,” Linda whimpered.  “We’re all fine now, let him go, just let us

go home. No one is hurt.”

      “No,” the Good Samaritan interrupted her, having turned away from Derek and moved to the table, “your little boy is hurt, and you and your daughter are hurt as well. We are all hurt by having seen this. Your husband belongs in jail.”

      Linda began to cry, deep gulping sobs laced with the foreknowledge of an inevitable retribution to come.  The police stormed into the restaurant, quickly restrained Derek and clipped plastic cuffs on his wrists.  They were dragging him, he was screaming again, demanding his glasses, his anger full restored, only now directed at his wife. 

      “You’ll be sorry for this, you and that lousy kid, always spoiling everything.  I promise you, you’ll be sorry!”   Someone pushed his glasses back on his face as Linda turned to see him pulled out of the restaurant. As suddenly as it had begun the episode was over.

      “Will you be okay?” the man who had rushed to help asked her. “Can you get home okay with the children?”

      “Yes, yes we’ll be fine. He’ll be fine tomorrow,” she whispered, still defending her husband almost too softly to be heard, her sobs subsiding.  “This happens sometimes.  He just goes a bit crazy and explodes.  Then it’s over and he feels really sorry.  It’s the war. He was never like this before the war.”

      She refused to press charges and knew that the police would hold Derek only for the night.  Tomorrow morning she would take the children to day care, pick them up after work and return home and he would be waiting.  But at least they would all have had a day of grace to recover from the humiliation of this public display. Linda took the children home, bathed and fed them, tucked them into bed.  They did not talk about what had happened.  The little girl fell asleep immediately, escaping into the safety of the stuffed animals that filled the crib she was fast outgrowing, reassured by the dreams that would take her to a gentle and loving place with her mother and brother, and her grandparents. Derek, Jr. had not spoken since they left the restaurant. Linda kissed him good night.   She paused at the door, flicked off the light switch and turned to leave, closing the door behind her.  Her son’s little voice was the last thing she heard:  “Mommy, why does daddy hate me?”

      The sky was gray and overcast when Linda and the children returned home the next day.

It was cold and the sky was heavy with the threat of snow. Wind whipped around them and the children shivered in their snowsuits; Linda pulled her coat collar close around her neck. They paused at the front door, not wanting to enter the house.  “It’s okay,” she reassured them, taking each child by the hand.  “Everything will be okay.”  Then she turned the knob and opened the door.  Derek was waiting in the living room, the ivory-handled revolver his father had given him as an eighteenth birthday gift lying casually in his lap.

       That evening the Good Samaritan and his family returned to Jack’s, as did many of the other regulars, determined to cleanse the soiling experience of the previous night from their sense of the place.  It was a defiant act, a refusal to allow anyone to taint a favorite place that symbolized safety and pleasure. He sat with this family, eating their dinners and chatting about what the children had done in school that day when the news came over the boxy old television that hung from the ceiling over the counter.    

      “Make it louder,” someone called out.  The war had claimed its most innocent victims.

      “In tonight’s news,” the reporter intoned, “ there was tragic murder in Louisville,

six miles outside the city.  Marine Corporal Derek Williams, a highly decorated Iraq veteran,

released only this morning from the county jail for having mistreated his young son in a local restaurant last evening, was found shot to death in what appears to have been a suicide.”






Click here to read more Short Stories in this issue.

Copyright 2005--2009 Literary Magic,