This story is by Thibault Heitz and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
When I got to El Rancho, I was late. Back in the Army, I would never have been late for anything. But civilian life seemed so unstructured to me now. No one to yell at you, to tell you what to do and in which order. I tried to get used to having little structure in my life again, but now little structure just felt like no structure at all.
I walked straight to the bar and ordered an IPA. Then I looked around and I saw them sitting at a table, Adam, Ryan and Charlie, my childhood friends. They saw me as well.
“Here comes action hero Kyle himself!” shouted Ryan when I came to them.
“Hero my ass! I’m just Kyle.”
“Come on buddy, we all heard the story. The Medal of Honor! You magnificent bastard.” I felt embarrassed. I didn’t want to talk about my deployment. I noticed a guy next to us listening when Ryan spoke. But then again, ever since I came back I was always paying attention to little things. Out there when you’re patrolling, you have to see everything. If you don’t, you can die, or worse, let your brothers die.
You did let brothers die. Mark. Glen. Corky…
“Hey Charlie!” I said, “Still drinking Bud Light, like a wuss?”
“Yep, still drinking Bud Light like the wuss I am,” he said with a smile.
Noticing I changed the subject, they did as well: they got it. They talked about their lives. It was nice to catch up.
“Ok,” said Adam, “Enough talk about our boring lives now. Let’s play pool!”
So we stood up with our beers in hand, and walked to the pool table. Some guys were already playing. Ryan went to them; he was getting pretty drunk.
“Guys! Sorry to interrupt your game but here is an American hero who served his country with honor. So much honor, they gave him a medal for it!”
The one playing raised his head.
“Wait.” He turned to me. “You got the Medal of Honor?”
“Damned right he did” Ryan said, “So why don’t you guys do the patriotic thing and give us the table so that this hero can play?”
“Don’t listen to him,” I said. “We’ll wait.”
“Well sir, I don’t know about just giving you the table, but I’d be honored to play you for it.”
So I started playing with him, thanks to the fact that bad things happened to me on another continent. It felt wrong.
The noise of the pool balls hitting each other was loud, and my heart was beating faster than it should, my head hurting. But I still saw the guy who had been listening in on us coming at us with his buddies.
“Hey asshole! We’ve been waiting for that table.”
Nine of them, I counted.
“Listen,” I said, “We’re sorry. We didn’t mean to cut in line.”
Ryan opened his big mouth again, of course.
“Dudes, show some respect. My friend here is a war vet. He’s earned the goddamn Medal of Honor.”
“Yeah, I heard you say that earlier. You know what? I don’t believe it. You’re making up stories to get people to be nice to you.”
Adam and Charlie were scared, I could see it. The two nice guys that had the pool table before were uneasy. Ryan was getting really agitated.
“How dare you!”
My heart was racing, and I was sweating. Like back in Afghanistan, when we were checking the villages and watching the people, trying to guess whether they were going to try to kill us or not.
“This guy’s a hero. He has killed people.”
“So you better not mess with us.”
The big dude stared at me.
“Hero my ass. You know what? My cousin served too, he got a medal. He killed people and he liked it. I can see it in his eyes when he talks about it. A real man. Now you? You look like a pussy. I don’t think you’ve killed people, asshole.”
My ears were ringing. I looked at him and I was disgusted. I had known men who enjoyed combat. I did not judge them: nothing makes you feel alive like people trying to kill you. But this guy was nothing but a bully. He only liked violence when he was the one inflicting it.
“Come on guys,” I said turning to my friends, “Let’s leave. We’ll drink somewhere else.”
“Too late, girls. You’re in for an ass-kicking.”
Ryan tried to come at him but Charlie held him back.
“Will you stop it?” I said to the leader of the pack. “I don’t want to fight!”
“Well, I want to fight. Kick your fake hero’s ass. Your friends too.” He tried to punch me with his right hand. I blocked with my left forearm. My heart was racing even faster now, I was sweating; I thought I heard bullets flying past my ears.
Then all the others attacked my friends, and I was back in Afghanistan. Time slowed down. I elbowed the nose of the guy who started it; I kicked another in the knee, crippling him. One of the guys attacking Ryan took a beer bottle and broke it on the table. No, not that. Not on my watch. I jumped at him, twisted his arm and took the bottle from him.
Later, at the police station, I came to my senses again. I had opposed no resistance at all when they arrested me. I was calm again, although still shaking. I had blood all over me, plastering my clothes to my body. On my hands too, obviously. This was the first time I had the blood of the people I killed on me. The others had been at shooting distance.
I broke down and cried. To protect my friends, I had turned into a demon once again.
I should have stayed there. I should have stayed in hell.