Brad hadn’t slept more than three hours at a stretch since he’d dropped his duffle in the entryway of his grandfather’s house and started his period of “reintegration.” With the old man in rehab for a broken hip, Brad could sit in the plaid recliner for hours at a time, watching war coverage on TV, smoking cigarettes and catching a few winks here and there. From the recliner, he could see the doorway to the guest room where he was supposed to sleep, but so far the bed remained unused.
One night, the sound of mortar fire blasted him awake. He found himself standing in the middle of the living room, frantically searching for his weapon, trying to figure out which direction the rounds had come from. The TV. Airstrikes on TV.
“I gotta get outa here,” Brad said, his hands still shaking.
He fished in the bottom of his duffle and grabbed his night vision goggles. “Let’s see what you have to show me.” He turned off the light, flicked off the TV, secured the goggles to his head and stepped outside.
He walked to the park across from the Top Hat. From the foot of an old oak tree, he had a good view of the parking lot, everything rendered in green and black tones. Along with the sound of a song he vaguely remembered, out stumbled two laughing women and a wobbly man. The three folded themselves into the front seat of the Cutlass and pulled out. Brad watched the car until it was out of sight.
He started to take off the goggles but stopped when he heard music again—Us and Them by Pink Floyd—and he saw a woman, alone. Instead of getting into a car, she walked across the parking lot and turned left onto the sidewalk. She was going to walk home alone past midnight? Didn’t she know what could happen to a long-haired woman alone in the dark?
He slowly descended the hill taking care to keep a safe distance and removed the goggles. He didn’t want to scare the woman, just wanted to see her home safely. She tripped on the sidewalk. He almost sprinted to catch her, but she righted herself and took off her tippy sandals. Drunk. She hooked the straps over her finger and continued walking. Without the shoes, she was sure-footed like someone who had spent a lot of time barefoot. Her toes pointed outward. She leaned into each step. Maybe she was a dancer. Not drunk at all.
She turned up the walk to a two-flat, fiddled with her key and let herself into the first floor apartment. A wave of relief washed through Brad. She was home.
He walked across the street, sat on the curb in front of a parked car and lit a cigarette. He watched her silhouette leave the front room, return and douse the light. A car turned the corner illuminating the street. Brad considered moving on, but the parked car next to him cast a shadow. No one knew he was there. He could stay a while longer.
He crushed out the stub of his cigarette with his boot, lit another, took a long, deep drag. He waited a half-hour, put on his goggles and gave her house one last sweep. No one hiding in the bushes. The door locked up tight. Or was it? He looked again. Her keys dangled from the lock. Although he figured no one would happen by and let himself into her house, Brad couldn’t be sure.
He headed across the street planning to take the keys out of the lock, slip them onto an entryway table and pull the door closed, locking himself—and anyone else—out. But when he opened the door, he realized there was no way to lock it without setting the deadbolt from inside. The latch made a deafening click. He froze listening for a sign that she had heard him, that she was awake and coming to find him there in her entryway. Afraid. Exposed
He turned the deadbolt and crept toward the back of the house, passing the open door of her bedroom. He hadn’t meant to stop. Knew he should keep going and get the hell out of there. His gaze landed on her sleeping face, relaxed and untroubled. She lay on her side facing the door, her cheek slightly smooshed, making her lips ruffle. They looked like they wanted to give him a kiss.
She could be in so much danger, he thought. If I wanted to, I could snap her neck before she could open her eyes. He looked at his hands and thought of the destructive things they had been taught to do, all the things he could do to her. But she sleeps, he thought. She just . . . sleeps.
He watched the rise and fall of her chest beneath the covers, his breaths falling into her rhythm. In. Out. In. Out. They breathed together. He closed his eyes. A bobber on a tranquil lake, he floated. No need to struggle. The calm nearly lulled him to sleep where he stood.
Then, his military training kicked in. Time to go.
The cadence of her breathing remained unbroken. Brad looked down and noticed the keys still clenched in his fist. Quietly, he set them on the dining room table and walked through the kitchen to let himself out.
Next morning, Brad woke up in his grandfather’s ratty plaid recliner. The remote control sat on his lap where he had left it. He knew he should turn on something besides CNN, but every time his thumb moved toward the channel button, he thought of Zach and Abe, Duwan and Jeremy still sitting their asses in Iraq. Still getting shot at by crazy hajis. He couldn’t change the channel or turn off the TV. Watching war coverage made him feel like he was walking the perimeter, keeping them safe. It was the least he could do after he had abandoned them.
He had been discharged before his tour was up. Most guys would have celebrated the chance to get the hell out of there with their asses intact, but Brad’s discharge had been less-than-honorable and less-than-celebratory.
On the day of his dismissal, he had answered the requisite questions and signed the requisite forms. When it came time to inventory his military-issue items, the sergeant noticed that his night vision goggles were missing. Brad told him they had been lost in his final mission, saying the word “mission” with a hint of sarcasm. A look of brittle understanding crossed the sergeant’s face. He handed Brad a blank Material Loss Report and left the room without a word. The sooner Private Williams blended back into civilian life the better, as far as the Army was concerned.
Why Brad had kept his night vision goggles, he couldn’t say. He had simply slid them into the bottom of his duffle and packed his few other belongings on top.
He knew he should put the goggles back into the bag and leave them there, but each night for the next week, his thoughts returned to the woman and the peace he had felt while watching her sleep—a peace he hadn’t felt since long before Iraq. More importantly, he had made sure she got home safely and her doors were locked up tight. Maybe other women could use his protective eye watching over them. Maybe that was why he had kept the goggles in the first place, though he couldn’t have known it at the time.
Brad’s nightly patrol began. He liked the thought of being a guardian angel and took care to keep a prudent distance as he watched over the women. Sometimes, he would only need to look after them as they walked across a dark parking lot to their cars. Other times, it was all he could do not to run up behind them and warn them about the danger they were putting themselves in. Even he wouldn’t walk the unlit path by the river alone. What were they thinking?
Some nights, if the conditions were right—first floor apartment, no roommate, no dog—he would indulge himself by going into their places. He never went any closer than a bedroom doorway, but, at times, he felt as if he were snuggled next to the Sleeper under her down comforter, her relaxed breaths on the back of his neck, a sense of tranquility permeating his body. He didn’t even want to touch them, but the calm that enveloped him—a gift, a surprise—was intoxicating.
He told himself that each Sleeper would be his last, but then he would follow one who turned out to sleep so soundly, whose back door practically fell open. He couldn’t resist slipping in to watch her awhile.
He made rules for himself: only one a week, always a different neighborhood, never a repeat. Until this Sleeper, he had kept the pacts he’d made with himself. But this was the third time he’d let himself into the tiny house set back from the street. He told himself he kept coming because the lock slipped so easily, because she slept so deeply. But he knew there was something else. He wanted to know why she wore her pale blond hair cropped shorter than his, why she kept a mother-of-pearl-handled .22 caliber pistol under her nightstand. He wanted to know her.
He glided through the kitchen and stopped for a moment listening for the familiar sound of her breath. When he heard nothing, he stepped closer to the bedroom. Nothing.
The bottom half of her bed was smooth. He stepped closer.
She wasn’t there.
He looked around the room wildly.
He had gotten sloppy. He should have followed her from the Top Hat as usual. Now he was inside her house, and she could be here, anywhere—asleep on the couch, in the living room not asleep. She could open the front door any minute and find him in her hallway wearing night vision goggles and black leather gloves.
As if his imagining had conjured up the real thing, he heard a key in the lock.
He sprinted down the hall and ducked into the bathroom, hid behind the shower curtain. He knew he would be a heart-stopping sight if she pushed it back and found him. He forced himself to breathe more slowly and strained to hear coming-home sounds—door closing, light switch, footsteps, keys on a table. Instead, he heard the metronome of a dripping faucet. The house was so quiet he imagined she was sneaking up on him, that any minute she would throw back the curtain and shout, “Gottcha!” He braced himself for the inevitable discovery. But it never came. The house was as it had been when he’d entered. Empty.
He pushed back the curtain, careful to leave it half-open as he had found it. He knew he should leave, leave and never come back, but he couldn’t resist the urge to learn something about the Sleeper before he left. He needed a name for this woman, the one he kept coming back to. He removed his goggles and turned on the light. He opened the medicine cabinet that would tell him about her. On the top shelf, he found a pill bottle. “Melanie Whittier.” He said it aloud, and the medication name, “Ambien.” That explained the soundness of her sleeping. With Ambien on his side, he could count on many more visits without being discovered. He replaced the bottle, gave one last listen and headed toward the back door.
As he walked toward home, goggles tucked in his backpack, he tried to figure out why he felt so off balance, so jittery about this trip to Melanie’s. Of course, there was the adrenalin from the false alarm, but there was something else. He wasn’t edgy-edgy like before a mission. Then he realized: he was jealous, like he felt when he would see his girlfriend talking to another guy in the high school cafeteria. Tonight, he had come to watch Melanie sleep, and she hadn’t been there.
Where was she?
He pictured her at the Top Hat and having a drink with another man, leaning closer to hear him over the music. Brad felt a knot of longing in his stomach and was so preoccupied with the image, that Melanie—the real one—was ten feet away before he realized it. She was walking straight toward him.
Her halo of blond hair practically glowed. She wore a navy Top Hat waitress uniform top. Her tired eyes briefly met his but did not register recognition as he, for no good reason, hoped they would. She didn’t look particularly afraid of this stranger in camo walking toward her at bar time. Then he realized why. Her right hand gripped a small can of pepper spray, her index finger poised over the button. The sight made him indescribably sad.
He chanced a smile and a nod. “Hey.”
She nodded back but kept walking. Not wanting to scare her, he continued at a steady pace looking straight ahead. He took off his backpack and sat on the bus stop bench. With patience, he could wait until she was asleep and let himself back into her place. Melanie’s place. He could stand silently at the foot of her bed, feeling the peace of her breath washing over him, washing away the guilt that kept him from sleeping, and hung on his shoulders like a flak vest. He pulled his collar to his chin and leaned against the pillow of his backpack and fell asleep.
In his dream, a whack on his left foot jacked Brad up in his cot, eyes wide, darting. At the foot of his bed, his squad leader smirked at him.
Brad rolled over, pulled his pillow over his head. “Jesus, Ajax, what the hell?” He felt a smack on his ass.
“Williams, I said we’re going on an adventure. That’s an order.”
Brad knew better than to screw around with Ajax. Rank or not, Ajax was a tough mother-fucker who had the power to make his life hell.
“Snag Jimmy and Hawk and meet me outside. Bring your NVG’s.”
Brad dressed quickly, grabbed his goggles and woke Jimmy and Hawk.
He figured they were headed to a whorehouse, but Brad had no desire to pay for sex, especially with the wrung-out women imported from Turkey for the purpose. He had always found excuses not to go when the rest of the guys went to get laid, but tonight he knew better. The air around Ajax crackled. They headed away from the red-light area down a side street. Ajax stopped at a residence. Smiled. “We rounded up all the hajis last night but we left the girl here for us.” He smiled a sick smile and spit a flake of tobacco off the tip of his tongue.
“Jimmy, take the door.” Jimmy leaned back and gave the door a Tai Kwon Do kick. It flew open. The ricochet almost closed it again. Ajax pushed the door open slowly and went ahead. The three stopped and looked at each other. Ajax gave them the “going in” hand signal. Then, as if to remind them he was above protocol, he said aloud, “Come on, you assholes.”
Brad hoped to God the girl, whoever she was, would be long gone. Maybe she had fled to her relatives. He wished she had left town altogether. Then he heard a scared squeak and knew Ajax’s rabbit waited in the trap.
“I haven’t had any pussy in weeks. I get sloppy seconds.” Jimmy looked at Brad. “You comin’ man?”
“Nah, you go ahead. I’ll watch the door.” Brad shouldered his weapon and turned his back on what he knew was about to happen. As he leaned on the doorway, he glanced to his left and saw a family photograph. The girl would be among the smiling dark-skinned people. He flipped up his goggles and flicked his lighter to see better. Her face came out of the darkness. She was ten or eleven years old, two rope-like braids hanging on either side of her heart-shaped face. I hope she’s a lot older than that now, he almost said aloud and then realized the stupidity of the thought. From the photograph, her large brown-black eyes looked straight through him.
The same squeak of the baby rabbits when Snapper, his childhood beagle, had grabbed one up in her jaws and wouldn’t let go. But this wasn’t a rabbit. Brad closed his eyes and tried to erase the image of Ajax on top of her, bursting her open like a melon. Brad felt the warm stickiness of the rabbit’s entrails as he’d tried to stuff them back into the limp body, felt the hot sting of tears as he’d tried to pinch the skin back together.
He flipped his goggles over his eyes, followed the whimpering sound, and assessed the situation. Jimmy and Hawk still wore their goggles but had left their weapons on a table just inside the room. They had their dicks out in anticipation. The girl’s wrists were zip-tied above her head, her long hair covering her face like a shawl. Ajax’s gun lay on the floor beside the mattress. If Brad stepped between Jimmy and Hawk and their weapons, Ajax would be the only one capable of arming himself. His position, however, left him vulnerable. Brad might have a chance to save her.
“Get off her.” Brad’s voice was barely above a whisper. He set the site of his weapon just below the strap of Ajax’s goggles. Louder this time. “Get. Off. Her.” Brad disengaged the gun’s safety with a click.
Ajax scanned the floor for his weapon. Jimmy and Hawk looked at Brad then at their weapons. They zipped up and held their palms in the air. “Hey, man, take it easy.” Jimmy used his calm-down voice.
Ajax was irate. “What the hell? Put that away right now, soldier, or I’ll have your ass in a sling.” He didn’t bother to stop thrusting while he gave the order.
Slowly, Brad squeezed the trigger, blew Ajax’s brains all over the girl, Jimmy and Hawk, too.
Now, he woke with a start, rattling the loose bench of the bus stop. He heard the usual pounding in his ears, but a lightness washed over him. This time, he hadn’t been a coward. This time, he hadn’t dropped his weapon and run like a scared pussy. This time, he’d had the balls to pull the trigger and wipe the smug grin off Ajax’s face. This time he had set the girl free into the woods to scamper to safety.
Lawn sprinkler. Flashing yellow traffic light. Kid tossing newspapers onto a porch. Pink sky. As Brad scanned his surroundings, he realized where he was. His relief faded.
When he got back to his grandfather’s, he opened a Coke, grabbed a handful of Cap’n Crunch and landed in the recliner. The remote was where he had left it between the cushion and arm. CNN was in commercial, so he hit the up-channel button. He knew at any moment of any day he could find war coverage. Lately, he’d had to channel surf a little longer to find something, but not today. A reporter was wrapping up coverage of one of the deadliest days of the Iraq war so far. “Thirty-seven American casualties,” she said with affected seriousness.
Brad couldn’t keep himself from yelling, “Deadliest?! We killed more Iraqis than that before breakfast. Deadly?! Shit! You don’t know deadly!” The last word hung in the room for no one else to hear.
A grim-faced anchor looked out at Brad from the TV screen now. “Since the conflicts began, it has been our custom to present the names and faces of our newly fallen American soldiers. Now then, in silence. . .”
Brad watched as the fresh faces of military personnel flashed on the screen. Each stayed long enough for him to read the name, age and hometown. A feeling of dread settled in his gut. What if one of his buddies looked back at him? Since he’d gotten home, he had been glued to coverage of the war, hoping to get good news or at least do his part to keep track of what was going on. He knew his friends were just an email away, but that would feel too close to being back there.
But now, with enlistment photographs fading in and out in front of him, he was there again, too much of a pussy to stop Ajax from raping the girl.
The faces stopped. The anchor signed off. Credits ran. A voice-over announced underwriters.
Then it occurred to him. In his dread that he would see a buddy’s face flash on the screen, he could have missed Ajax’s face. Brad had never known Ajax’s real name, or if he had, he’d forgotten it. Couldn’t recall his hometown or the last name stenciled on the uniform that Brad saw every day. It was one of those things you stop seeing after a while. Ajax was Ajax.
The photographs would have been no help either. The guys he served with looked nothing like their enlistment photos. Men sunburned, with sand in the creases of their skin, looked nothing like the fresh-shaved kids in the photos against blue backgrounds, a flag behind their left shoulders. His fellow soldiers looked so different, in fact, that once in a while, someone’s enlistment picture would end up on a bulletin board in the mess tent with the words, “Guess who?” under it. More often than not, the $25 bet went unclaimed.
The more he thought about the possibility of Ajax being among the deceased, the more excited Brad became. His lightness returned with the thought of Ajax’s balls blown off by an IED, Ajax prevented forever from hurting another little girl. Brad stood up and walked toward the TV as if to tell it the news. “Ajax could be dead.” And then, because the sound of it was so beautiful, so poetic, he changed the words. “Ajax is dead! Dead! Dead! Dead!” The more he recited the mantra, the truer it became. “Ajax is dead.”
He paced the room with thundering steps and cranked his hand in the air like he had made a three-pointer. But there was no crowd to cheer him, no teammates to celebrate with him. He ran out to the front yard and let out a grand hoot. No neighbors came to their windows to frown or smile in amusement at the camo-clad man with a grown-out brush cut and dark circles under his eyes as he did a victory dance around the yard.
He bounded back into the house and, for a moment, considered the fact that he could easily confirm Ajax’s death by turning on the computer and doing a quick search. But he knew he didn’t need to. Ajax was dead.
He had to be.
Brad took a hot shower and fell naked into bed. He slept the sleep of the dead and woke to a dark house. The digital clock read 10:18 p.m.
A lone car sat in the Top Hat parking lot. Without his goggles, he couldn’t see the make or model, but it looked like the same one that he had seen there other nights. The waistband on his jeans felt snugger than when he had first gotten back. His button-down felt like a kiss. He imagined himself walking into the Top Hat and grabbing a seat at the bar. He would sit at the end where the waitress—Melanie—would be picking up drinks for the customers at her tables, if any customers besides Brad came in. From the looks of it, it would be a pretty quiet night.
Or maybe she would be in the kitchen rolling utensils inside napkins, flirting with the cook. Brad’s body tensed, and he tried to push away the thought. As he started to second-guess his decision, he realized he was holding his breath, a sure sign he was losing control of the situation. He had done this in Basic and later on during particularly dangerous missions.
He exhaled and stood up. Took measured breaths. Re-tucked his shirt. His feet felt like foreigners in his old Nikes after months in combat boots. He walked down the slope, eyes fixed on the door of the bar. If he could keep his objective in mind, fear wouldn’t get the best of him.
“Hey.” The bartender tossed a cardboard coaster on the bar. “How ya doin’?”
“What can I get ya?”
Brad squinted at the tapper handles. “I’ll have a Leinie’s. Your grill still open?”
The bartender grabbed a glass and gave the tapper a pull. He looked at the clock. “You still got fifteen minutes. I’ll have Mel get you a menu.”
Brad sat on a barstool for stability. In all his imagined versions of this scene, this was how it went—only he never actually thought it would go this way. He took a pull on the cold beer, his first since he had been stateside. It tasted like spring.
A menu appeared from behind him. “Here you go.” Her voice took him by surprise. It was solid, deeper than he had expected. It was a voice you could tie your boat to. Brad resisted the urge to turn and look her full in the face. Better to take it slow. “Thanks.”
“I’ll be back to take your order.”