This story is by Olivia Couture and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
The pieces do not fit together like they used to. The path is not clear and the people cannot be trusted. Even his own senses are deceiving. In one ear is the sound of a boy jumping on the hardwood floor. In the other are the screams of his men, desperate and resigned. Reality shimmers in the air like a mirage, but he knows without reaching that it is beyond his grasp. He wants to tell the boy to stop, because the sound is too much like gunfire, but every sound reminds him of war so he clenches his jaw and steps through the white double doors in search of a drink.
He takes a seat at the far end of the room and swivels in his chair so that his back is to the wall. For a moment, he feels safe. The world is quiet and the woman behind the bar hands him a beer that is cold and smooth, numbing the sharp edges of his mind. But safety is not built to last. Really, it is not built at all. He knows this, but it is not the part the bothers him. Instead, he is unnerved by the ease with which the illusion of safety is destroyed.
Through the double doors, the boy continues to jump. The wall that separates the bar from the lobby does nothing to muffle the sound, and each time the boy lands, it seems as though the building shakes.
This is when the yelling begins. At first, he thinks it’s in his mind, because that is where the war rages now. It is a sound he knows well – anguish, anger, helplessness – a frustrated plea that is a weapon in and of itself. But screams do not fight wars. The men who answer the calls for help are the ones to either rise or fall in battle. They are the men he knows, the friends he lost, and the reason he survived.
He rests his head on the table and wills the screaming to stop, but the moment he closes his eyes he is back there, surrounded by dust and dead bodies, betting his life on sandbags and a bullet proof vest. He knows there is more than this. There is the head on his shoulders and the strength in his back – the man by his side and the weapon in his hands. He has been trained to make do with what he has.
He shakes his head – it’s not real – and the image fades. When he opens his eyes, the sound remains. In front of him, a girl in tattered clothing is crying, the tears parting a salty trail through the mask of dirt that coats her skin. She is not real either. She is a vision from the past, a flicker of a memory before the explosions started and his world began to crumble.
And again, he is back among the rubble. His ears are ringing and the ground is shaking beneath his body. Somewhere, a voice shouts grenades and he shakes his head because it must be a dream. There is blood on his face and in his mouth. He wonders if maybe he’s already dead, but when he takes a breath, life blossoms in his lungs.
There is a hand on his shoulder, then. It is soft, almost nonexistent, as though nothing but a desperate illusion. He relishes in the feeling – the safety of skin on skin, fingertips light on his neck and shoulder. And this is how he knows it is real. This is when he realizes he is afraid.
He turns. The woman from the bar is standing behind him, her hand resting on the collar of his shirt. She wears a pained expression, eyebrows furrowed, lips parted, eyes dark. She’s pretty. This is his first thought as he watches her, waiting for her to speak. When she does, her voice is bright.
“Are you okay?” she asks. It is the only sound he hears, and when she stops for a breath, there is silence. The yelling has stopped.
“Someone was screaming,” he tells her, his voice weak and his throat raw. She shakes her head and motions towards the door where the boy is standing, eyes wide and feet planted firmly on the floor.
It is in this moment that he understands. His muscles are taught, his body poised for a fight – to respond to his own desperate cry for help. And for the first time since the President placed the Medal of Honor around his neck, he does not feel guilty.
He feels whole.