Late February and finally a moment alone in Afghanistan for Private First Class Wintric Ellis and he breathes in the smell of burning trash and shit and he hears the helicopters whipping in the dark distance as his uniform warms his body before he feels the first push in the back, before the Afghan night envelopes everything, a tackle from behind, dirt pressing his face as he struggles with strangers, but just a game he knows, like all the wrestling, the bets, the boredom before battle, hearing himself, “You got me. Fine. Fuck off,” then a silence he’ll never forget, instantly odd, no “Fuck you” or “Pussy” reply, and seemingly all at once a switch flips an evil world on and his face presses hard to the soil, knee on his neck, barely breathing now, gasping, suffocating as a heavy weight lands on his back, fumbles with his belt, then pants down, his underwear, the dizzying disbelief, his arms and legs attempt to flail, but they fail him once, and again, a will to thrash, a throat gurgle, anus pressure and pain, pressure and pain and ripping flesh and a grunt, and barely breathing and confusion and helpless swirling beyond, and the dirt pressing his nose and mouth, gasping, and fighting, but nothing, willing his body but nothing, and pressure and pain, then silence, then dying silence as time slow turns, his slack body there shedding parts of himself into the shallow night, hovering somewhere there, close.
The following days a fog of pain and debate, thoughts of home that don’t materialize, death and weakness. The dense hours slow crawl. Walking patrols zombie-like, meals he doesn’t taste, then refuses to eat, Halo 2 for hours. A Sergeant asks him if he’s okay, and he hears himself say that he is and somehow the Sergeant believes him. He shits and weeps quietly. Desperate, he sharpens his knife, considers the right spot to stab (left foot, just below smallest two toes, marked with a penned “x”), how hard to stab, swigs blue mouthwash until he vomits, and straps the doomed foot down. The knife feels light in his hand and he cries and wipes at his eyes then closes his eyes as he swings down hard. The otherworldly pain rockets through him and his eyes blast open and he sees the blade lodged an inch to the right of his aim point and not deep enough to do the trick—the trick being escape. The blood starts up fast. It’s darker than he imagined and already he’s dizzy, which he expected, and his arms spasm out to his sides, which he didn’t. The tent walls around him push close, but he manages to will himself back to the knife, where he pulls it from his foot and stabs himself three more times before consciousness leaves him.
Two hours before Wintric is due at the 4th of July parade in full Army dress uniform, he sits on his living room couch fingering a recently purchased pocketknife as his three-year-old son Daniel practices balancing on one leg. Wintric’s left foot rests on his living room carpet as his only remaining toe on the foot—his big one—brushes at the light pink remnants of an old cranberry juice stain he’s given up on. His big toe has done this little back and forth dance as long as he can recall, but the involuntary movement has become even more noticeable since the other digits disappeared.
It’s been five years since he’s worn his uniform, and as he steals a mental picture of the green Army getup in his closet he sucks in his belly and wonders if the few extra pounds he carries will be problematic come zipper and button time. The parade organizers have asked him to walk in the patriot group each year since his return to Chester, but this is the first year he’s agreed, largely to appease Kristen, who insisted that their son would be proud to see his father walk down Main Street with the few other veterans that have returned to their sleepy California mountain town.
The living room still smells like bacon from breakfast and Wintric hears Kristen’s shower singing from the back bathroom of their two-bedroom home.
On television, Rafael Nadal is in the athletic throes of destroying Tomas Berdych in the 2010 Wimbledon Men’s Final. NBC’s sports announcers talk over the action, belaboring the fact that England’s Queen personally graced the tennis event earlier in the week for the first time in thirty-three years, but what gains Wintric’s full attention—a man who has never watched, or even considered watching tennis—is a point-winning roar from the muscled, animalistic Nadal.
Wintric focuses now on the Spaniard as he moves angrily across the court, stomping, hurling his sculpted body at every shot. There is little grace, but Nadal’s ferocity has Wintric entranced. The ball shoots off Nadal’s racket as if stunned into velocity, into impossible angles that ride the white out-of-bounds lines. And after each winner, Nadal flexes his bricklike biceps as he stares into the stands. During rallies Berdych can only guess at where to move next, and when he guesses correctly, his luck only prolongs the point a few more seconds. Even when he wins a game, there’s little fanfare. It’s more like boxing then tennis, and although it’s early in the match Wintric knows it’s over, and he can tell Berdych knows it’s over. But Wintric also knows one of the most difficult things to do is to finish the fights you’re supposed to win, and this is, ultimately, why he falls for Nadal, because the Spaniard is heavily favored, but he doesn’t seem to know, so all of this will end quickly.
After one of the commercial breaks, the commentators talk to Monica Seles, a player Wintric has never heard of, and just as he’s about change the channel the television screen cuts to a video: 1993 in the lower left-hand corner, and a young Seles, a dark orange clay court, and a man walks onto the court, then chaos as security grabs the man, and Seles, now curled on the clay, reaches at her back wincing in pain. Wintric turns the volume up as the words jumble together: “a stabbing,” “nine inch boning knife,” “two years before she came back,” “never the same player.” And after all of that Wintric thinks of how easy it is to hurt—just walk out of the stands with a knife, just veer your car a couple feet to either side; then, he breathes out and a memory, his childhood bedroom.
Wintric’s twelve, asleep in the room he’s wall-papered with posters of NBA basketball players when his father shakes him awake, hands him a revolver, and snap-whispers, “If something happens shoot for the body.” He’s all heartbeat and dizzy in their narrow, dark, predawn hallway as he scoots forward, left hand on his father’s back, right hand gripping a heavy gun—a loaded gun—and as they glide past his infant sister’s bedroom Wintric hears knocking. Someone’s knocking on their front door, and the whole scene clutters within him: shoot for the body, murderer, knocking, are we shooting through the door? what criminal knocks? I don’t have shoes on, how big is a bullet? And his father has disappeared so he crouches down on the floor in a flood of fear and closes his eyes, then opens them, but there’s no difference in the darkness, and still this feverish knocking, and he waits for the shot, for his name in the night, and he feels the worn carpet on his feet, and he waits. The standoff’s taking too long, and now a deep, slurring voice filters through the door, the voice hurls his father’s name—“John”—and it comes to Wintric’s ears in the same plead-scream tone his mother sang seconds after dumping boiling water on her feet. Then: lights on, door open, and their drunk neighbor spits out, “Your fucking backyard’s on fire.”
As dawn arrives, Wintric watches his father direct the small water stream from their garden hose onto a smoking pile of leaves they’d left for Glad bags later that day. They’ll never know what lit them, and he doesn’t know why, but his father still grips his gun, and so does Wintric. He feels small, but strong, a half-trained sentinel. He looks the silver gun over, and he sees the brass backings of bullets waiting their turn. He can’t tell if the revolver’s safety is on or not, and it’s something he should know. It’s answers like this why his father gave him the combination to the safe in his bedroom. So he does this slight tug on the trigger and watches the revolver’s hammer start its backward ride, but he stops early and everything slides back into potential. Beautiful. He does the tiny tug again, and the minuscule movement of the hammer shocks his limbs. His father shakes the morning cold out in his shorts and night shirt and old slippers and stares mesmerized at the water flow, intent on snuffing out the smoldering mound of natural debris, and for some reason, all at once, Wintric realizes that he could shoot him, right there. Not that he’d want to. It’s that he could, with minimal effort, and he’d kill him if he aimed straight enough, and without prompt he strokes this strange rush of power and alarm that people must feel when they realize they can do absolutely anything they want if they have the nerve.
Wintric turns the tennis match off, runs his fingers through his shoulder length hair, and watches Daniel—the one legged balancing act now over—bang his fist on the wooden coffee table.
Daniel, small for three, wears a 49ers shirt and Lightning McQueen underwear. His son smiles at him, and the genuine expression wrenches Wintric as the familiar pit inside himself opens, the competing hate and desperation and care for this child, an accident, an “orgasm gone wrong” he’d told Kristen upon hearing the news of her pregnancy. Still, on the days he feels something for the boy it angers him that his son looks more like his wife’s father than him. Especially lately, Daniel’s large nose and brown eyes feel like an unaccounted for betrayal. The latest in a series, Wintric thinks. He doesn’t want this extreme reaction to surface within him, but Wintric has had a harder time lately fighting off the days that circle in upon him, the small logging town he swore he’d escape, the girl he thought he was leaving forever as he headed off to basic training, the half of a foot that slices him with shame.
Wintric glances at his left foot, and even after these years, it still seems more like a sad prop than his body. He thinks about how in his entire life he’s really only wanted to kill one person—even counting the war, just one—how he’s failed to act on that constant desire, how each day he continues to fail. It’s a thought that dominates his moments of introspection, quiet times that have grown proportionally over the years and often overwhelm him.
The man Wintric wishes dead is Derek Nelson once Sergeant Derek Nelson, one of the men Wintric believes assaulted him. There was another person, perhaps two, but Nelson is the only name that still pierces and haunts him. Wintric has no proof, save for an incredible moment before being airlifted out of Bagram Air Base. He sat off in a corner of the rudimentary passenger terminal eating a turkey sandwich with his carved foot elevated when a solider he’d never met approached him and said “Nelson,” nodded, and walked away.
Wintric knows Nelson lives in Green River, Wyoming in a little yellow mobile home on Davy Crocket Drive. He has a black lab and a beat down Tacoma missing a tailgate. He leaves for work with the gas company around 7:30 AM and gets home around 5:00 PM. Wintric knows all this because he’s sat in his car on Davy Crocket Drive with a loaded .44 and watched Nelson leave and arrive at his home multiple times. The closest he’s ever snuck up to fulfillment was the middle of June two years ago, his second trip to Green River. The Deftones blasted from the speakers and Wintric opened the car’s door and walked half way across the street before turning back, closing the driver’s door, sobbing, then pointing the car back west, all the way home to California.
“I’ll get it,” Daniel says and leaves the room. He returns gripping a Nerf dart gun Wintric bought Daniel for his birthday. Daniel has just recently got the hang of the play weapon: pushing one of the small suction-cupped darts down the muzzle, pulling hard on the rear plastic tether until it locks back in place—now ready with enough pressure-build to launch the dart on a line across the room. Daniel knows not to aim at people, but Wintric has told him he can shoot his daddy every now and then for practice, an act that draws Kristen’s complaints and an encouraging “nice shot” from Wintric.
Wintric thumbs the pocketknife in his hand. He opens up the two-inch blade, locks it into place, places it on the coffee table, and leans back. His big toe digs into the carpet and Wintric thinks about the upcoming parade walk, meeting up with other soldiers, the sunny day, thousands lining the street, gawking. His neck tightens. Daniel stops pounding the table and points the gun at the blank television and shoots a dart at the screen.
“Nice,” Wintric says.
“I shoot it,” Daniel says.
Wintric glances at the ceiling—a small corner cobweb—and back down to the coffee table.
Then, through two walls, Kristen’s shower singing: Just call me angel, of the morning, baby.
“Knife,” Daniel says, pointing.
Just touch my hand before you leave me, darling.
Wintric doesn’t say anything. He watches Daniel’s hands. One stays at his side with the toy, the other points at the knife.
“Knife,” Daniel says, staring at Wintric. The boy puts his hand down on the table a few inches away from the knife. Wintric feels his body warm and sees his son’s eyes widen and his back straighten, and he gives his son a little nod, and watches Daniel’s hand slide the last three inches to the black plastic handle and grip down.
Just call me. Just call me angel, baby.
“Know what you have there?” Wintric asks.
“Knife,” Daniel says, eyes down.
Daniel releases his grip on the knife, and stands quietly. He searches for another dart, but there’s none nearby.
“You can play with it,” Wintric says, then nods. His tone lowers. “Play with it.”
Daniel looks at the knife, then Wintric, then pauses. He steps toward the coffee table, places his hand on the knife’s handle and glances back up at Wintric.
Just call me angel.
Wintric sees his son’s small fingers on the black handle. Wintric breathes in through his nose and holds the air in. The room comes alive somehow, brighter. It’s the same illumination Wintric felt once while bathing Daniel as a newborn. He had let Daniel slip under the water, and for a few seconds, Wintric left his helpless son there, submerged and floundering while the air lit up around him. He’d struggled to name the rush he’d felt that day in the moments before he saw his hands reach down into the sink and lift his son upright, and now, with Daniel’s grip on the knife, no words arrive, only this tragic high.
Touch me before you leave.
Wintric’s temples pound and he lets his eyes unfocus. He doesn’t think of Monica Seles or his first hunting knife or the day he carved up his left foot. What thoughts cascade through his mind are his son picking up the knife and digging the blade into his own hand, then holes in human hands, crucifixion, nails, nail guns, roofing, falling from the McIntyre’s roof last fall, how he was up high enough to breathe before crashing down onto the cinderblock fence, how the back brace and wheelchair fit him, how he had to explain to people that it wasn’t from his time overseas, but his foot was.
Call me angel.
Then, a mental recording of Kristen plays in his head. Two years ago in bed she places her People magazine down on her nightstand, and she asks him if he’s having an affair. Does he love her? Does he like anything in his life? Is he going to leave her? Her hair is down, and he sees the despair in her face. And finally, he relives the assault out loud. He expects tears, but the story arrives emotionless, straight: the dark night, the helplessness, not knowing who it was, the “Nelson” whisper, the silence out of fear and pride, living with it all. And at the end he hears himself repeat the lie he keeps safe, “And then I step on the fucking knife.” It’s her face that he sees now: mouth slightly open, eyes narrowed, the bridge of her nose lifted, one large crease stretching across her forehead that he’d never seen before.
As he comes to Wintric sees Daniel, now holding the knife straight out like a miniature sword. He stabs a half-foot of air and looks at Wintric.
“Walk around,” Wintric says. Daniel strides to the window and he surveys the street, then turns and points the sharp blade at the television, then the rocking chair—he smiles—then at a honeymoon photo of Wintric and Kristen in the gigantic redwoods, then back at the wooden coffee table. Daniel sticks the knife’s point into the wood, just enough to catch, then pushes down leaning into it with his small shoulder, and quickly off balance, his hand slips forward, running down the knife’s handle and the blade’s safe backside.
“You slipped there, son. Watch. You’re learning the wrong thing.”
Wintric picks up the knife and holds it out toward his son.
“This is sharp. Sharp means hurt.” A pause. “Shit. You don’t care.”
Daniel blinks, and in one motion Wintric grabs his son by the back of the neck, yanks him forward, lifts his chin up, and forces the blade to the front of his son’s neck.
“Ahh,” Daniel moans, stiffening up.
Wintric moves the blade over to the flesh above his son’s collarbone and places the tip’s razor-like half inch over the carotid. Wintric closes his eyes and tries to ignore the white light filling in around him, attempts to feel his son’s pulse through the blade and handle, through his hand, up his own arm. Nothing. Daniel breathes shallow and the slight jerk of his body wakes Wintric, now opening his eyes, and repositioning the knife where Daniel’s adam’s apple will grow in, now guiding the blade up and down, shaving at the thin skin there.
“Sharp,” Wintric says, then nabs his son’s left wrist and flips it over.
“Sharp,” Wintric says, and he pushes the tip of the blade into his son’s palm. Daniel falls to the floor, crying.
“Calm down,” Wintric says as he rises, walks to the kitchen, and returns with a small band-aid. The rush of guilt attacks him all at once, then backs off, and his hands shake.
“Daddy loves you,” he says to his son as he licks the small drop of blood away and attaches the band-aid. “Play with knives so you know how to use them. Understand?”
Daniel looks away.
“Say yes,” Wintric says, tightening his grip. Silence.
Wintric grabs his son’s ears and squeezes.
“Say yes,” Wintric says, nodding up and down. “Yes?”
The six stand and spit and scratch in their military uniforms at the Collins Pine Lumber Yard parking lot waiting for the 4th of July parade to begin. They touch and straighten their pressed uniforms and after a truck backfires one veteran successfully fights off a flashback to the mid two thousands by imagining a nude Angelina Jolie. Here in this Northern California small-town haven, there’s no mortars, no IEDs, no bullshit commander, no Arabic. Those days are long gone for them, passed to others now crouched on the other side of the world, waiting for someone to say stop, to come home, and walk in their own parades.
One young soldier is missing both arms, his sleeves hanging flat and pinned to his sides. He nods at his new girlfriend as she swigs a Coors Light and tosses the silver can to the ground. Wintric and an Airman in the group will soon showcase their limps as they stroll the straight avenue. Wintric thinks about his son’s neck, what his son will say, if he’ll say anything, just an accident Wintric explained. “How does your knife get loose?” she asked. Will she be there after the parade?
Each of the six is a recent veteran, not long back from one far away desert or another, now home, save one older Vietnam-era gray hair that hasn’t missed a Chester independence parade in twenty years. Their group is sandwiched in front by a flatbed truck carrying the High School’s small jazz band, and behind, a dozen 4-H kids hold photos of fattened up cows, goats, pigs. The sky is clear and sunny, except for a single line of clouds that could pass for contrails. Douglas fir and cedar surround the paved lot, and a paramedic sits off to the side in the summer grass. He smokes and squints.
A pair of old, smiling women wearing T-shirts with a cursive “Lake Almanor” on the front walk up to the group and pause.
“When do you go back?”
“We’re all veterans.”
“So you have to go back?”
“No. We’re not in the military anymore.”
“We used to be.”
“You get to wear uniforms?”
“Okay. Thank you, all of you,” she says, then points at the armless solider. “Especially you.” The solider nods, looks down at the parking lot asphalt, and shakes his head.
As the women start to walk away, he cough-speaks “Bi-tches.” It gets a laugh.
“Esssspectially you,” he mocks.
The parade is getting off a touch late due to a few locals finishing up the nearby 5k Fun Run at a breathless walk. Fire trucks, clowns, butterscotch candy, Shriners’ hats, classic cars, and small floats for Boy Scouts, the Elks Club, the Plumas County beauty queen, county commissioner, community chorus, and the Little League All-Stars mix together and form a bunched half mile line leading from the parking lot. They’ll all get applause, but the crowds lining the street will rise from their cheap foldout chairs for the soldiers and the American flag that accompanies them. Some will put their hands on their hearts, some will chant “USA,” and more than a couple will point at them, directing their children’s attention to the uniformed few and whisper well-meaning half-truths into their kids’ ears.
In the parking lot, the high school jazz band in front of the six starts to warm up, then launches into a bare bones version of Glen Miller’s “String of Pearls.” One of the soldiers shakes her head at the slightly out of tune mash coming from the trumpet, trombone, tuba, saxophone, clarinet combo.
“Shit,” she says.
“Convoy or parade,” says one. “Not an easy choice.”
“This is a movie. A wonderful movie,” says the gray hair. “And this is our anthem.”
“Play Metallica, damn!”
And then, some movement. The six straighten up and instinctively run their hands down their chests and stomachs, smoothing their uniforms and feeling themselves underneath, but it’s a false alarm and everyone stops and exhales.
“Hurry up and wait.”
“It’s okay to be happy, everyone. You’ll get that after a few years.”
“That’s some Yoda shit,” Wintric says.
“It’s a choice my young friends.”
Soon, after another false start, it’s show time, and they walk the double yellow lines on the street and wave and soak in the day like their uniformed siblings across the nation, past the salutes, the swelling communal pride, the repeating three jazz songs that get worse, then somehow better, as they all stop and go, stop and go.
The sweat begins in earnest as the six hit the parade’s half-mile point. There’s not a lot of chatting between them since the parade started. It’s hot out and most of them don’t want to rehash what they have in common. Plus, as they’ve long learned, you never want to appear like you’re having a good time in uniform, it sends the wrong message.
The Chester High School band in front of them has moved from a too slow “String of Pearls” to a squeak-fest “Take Five,” and already Wintric is near his breaking point.
“Pantera. Come on!” says one of the Airmen who has now filtered through Metallica, Motorhead, AC/DC, and Megadeath requests.
“Early Celine Dion?” he asks. “I won’t give up you rock stars.”
The crowd, five deep on each side of the road, points, whispers—most smiling. Happy, sun-burning fat people everywhere. Locals mixing with the tourists. Wintric hears the estimates, twenty thousand summer visitors to his town of two thousand. Bay Area fucks with their Audis and lake homes. The Chester natives hate their surety and smiles, and chastise the valley “flatheads,” but the locals want their money for the winter economic hibernation, so the sign at the edge of town reads “Welcome to Chester and Lake Almanor Recreational Area.” Wintric doesn’t mind. He needs the money and vacation homes need roof repairs as much as year-rounders.
The parade’s pace has picked up a bit, and Wintric feels a cramp coming on in his good foot. He glances over at the armless soldier walking next to him, how the guy bobs side to side without the balancing weight of arms. A sweat stream flows down Wintric’s leg and runs into the holster strapped to his shin. Something about the .380 hugging his right leg comforts him, even though it’s the one of his eight guns he hasn’t fired in some time.
The crowds have grown considerably since he was a kid watching this same procession, and he uses the thick multitude as an excuse to give up scanning for Kristen or Daniel before he starts. Part of him wonders if they’re packing up their things at that very moment. He imagines Daniel tattling, “Daddy stuck me with his knife” and Kristen leaving for Chico and her parents’ place or heading off to get the Sherriff, who wouldn’t be there on account of the parade. Or maybe Daniel won’t say anything; maybe it was just an accident with a kid playing with his dad’s knife.
Up ahead a fire truck blasts its horn for the twenty-second time as Wintric wipes his brow and concentrates on his protective boot and minimizing his limp as much as possible as he slow-walks his town: past the Beacon gas station, past the road leading to the elementary school, past the dirty tire shop, the dentist’s office, a small stream where he used to catch crawdads with his friends, past the Holiday supermarket and the Bank of America. He searches for a cloud, but they’ve disappeared, and his good foot revs up the ache again. The heat and the collective stares close in and for the first time he notices how tight his uniform hugs him. And just when it’s too much and he thinks of ditching this whole thing, fleeing through the supermarket’s parking lot back home, he hears the band conductor say, “Star Spangled Banner.”
Soon, the parade slows to a halt.
“Here we go. For God and country,” says the Vietnam vet.
“Hope they do the Hendrix version,” says the armless one.
The six come to attention and the crowd rises and quiets.
“One. Two. Three,” says the conductor, counting the band in, and the players all take a deep breath together, ready to exhale into their instruments, and in that moment just before sound someone shouts “Peace!”
The first few bars of the song roll over Wintric and he closes his eyes. He doesn’t think about the things that normally come to his mind during the anthem: Army events, the flag, Washington D.C., the Olympics, San Francisco Giants games. He feels the gun on his leg, thinks about its shape, how his hand fits around it just right, the clean silver finish, the gorgeous oily smell when he holds it to his nose.
The crowd starts singing with a purpose when they hit “rockets’ red glare,” but Wintric’s still lost in contemplation until his left foot zips him with pain. He shuts his eyes tighter and his insides turn. He wishes he‘d popped three pain pills instead of one and hears “flag was still there,” but it’s just background noise, he focuses on the pain, how his bright nerves throb with his pulse, how the electric pinging travels from his foot all the way up to his scalp, this crescent foot, this big toe digging, the living room cranberry stain, falling from McIntyre’s roof, the cramped plane ride home, his discharge, Afghanistan, his knife lodged in his foot after the first strike, the purple blood, shaking uncontrollably on his cot, shitting blood, face down in the dirt, helpless, the first push to his back, the smell of burning trash, a moment alone.
Wintric sits in his car on Davy Crockett Drive on a Saturday morning across the street from Nelson’s yellow house with a .357 in his lap. It’s his fourth trip to Wyoming and the light fog is just now beginning to burn under the rising run. Nelson’s black lab yaps at a crow that’s perched on a new doghouse. The squat homes on the street are lined up close, and Wintric looks around to see if the dog’s barking has anyone’s attention, but there’s nothing.
Wintric sips at his coffee and considers the small bottle of whiskey in his glove box but decides against a pour. His roofing kneepads rest on the passenger side floor mats by Audioslave, The Tragically Hip, Incubus cds and a Burger King bag. It’s quiet, save the idling car with the AC on low, and Wintric reaches down on his right side where his ass and hip meet and pushes and rubs at the soreness there. In his head, Wintric repeats the slogan he’s been repeating across the Great Basin—It’s easy if you want it.
He thought he’d drive to the house and walk right up to the door this time, but he’s been comfortably seated in the car for fifteen minutes. A garbage truck drives by with no one on the back, and Wintric sips at his coffee and spills a couple drops on his Sacramento Kings T-shirt, but he lets the droplets sink into the fabric.
Nelson’s front door seems freshly painted and clean against the fading yellow siding. Easy if you want it, he says to himself. For a moment he thinks he sees the door move, but nothing happens.
Wintric’s phone vibrates. He peeks at the number and answers.
“Baby? Where you at?” Kristen asks.
“Here,” he says.
“No. Talk to me. Just for a second.”
“God dammit, Wintric.” Her labored breathing. “Get out the car and do it. Right now. Keep me on. Walk up to the front door.” A pause. “If you wait, it’s over.”
“Do something. Please.”
“Got your gun?”
“Good. Get out right now. Open the door. I love you.”
Wintric glances at the rearview mirror, runs his hands down his cheeks, exhales quickly three times, slips the gun in his waistband, opens the driver’s door, stands up, and closes the door. A motorcycle rounds the corner and he lets it pass. He leads with his bad foot as he crosses the road in a flood of heartbeat and nerves. As he hits the first step he pauses as the dog trots over to size him up. No bark. Four more stairs and Wintric stands in front of the door, and through the chaos of adrenaline he sees the door isn’t freshly painted, it’s not like any door he’s seen, plastic-like and shiny. He searches for a doorbell, but there’s none. He cocks his arm back to knock, but pauses for a few seconds, waiting, listening. The smell of dog shit wafts over him. Then, he hears the weak sound of his fist knocking on the door. He sees his knuckles strike the soft surface. This is real. Wintric steps back from the door and moves his hands behind his back and sticks his chest out like he’s posing for a picture. The dog begins yapping again, but Wintric doesn’t turn. Ten seconds. Twenty. He steps forward and accidently kicks the threshold with his right foot before knocking again. Again, he steps back, and now the dog is at his side. He swats at the lab, but it just jumps back, then forward again. Ten seconds. Twenty. No answer. Nelson’s absence isn’t something he’d considered, and he stands there on the small landing in a momentary paralysis.
Wintric turns around and scans the neighbors’ homes, but nothing moves. He runs his fingers through his hair. A Harley rumbles in the distance. The black lab walks to his side, nuzzles.
“Get,” he says, his voice cracking. “Get, fucker.”
Wintric places his open hand on the door. Already it’s warm. He pushes and the door flexes. A whimper from the dog.
The sound of his voice turns something in him and he rolls his hands over and sees the sweat on them. He steps forward once more and knocks on the door, the sound this time three strong strikes, the noise coming to him as rapture. From somewhere behind his jaw Wintric feels emotion near and he tries to calm down by breathing through his nose, but his chin begins to move side to side, and he knows it’s not long. Quickly, he pushes the dog aside, walks to his car and gets in. Everything in his periphery brightens up white and he starts the car and punches it down the street, through another neighborhood, past two churches, out to the highway where he rides the bumper an elderly lady in a gray Buick. His sobs come with guttural moans and he uses his forearm to wipe at his face. As he drives over the Green River both of his hands go numb, and he pulls into the back of a McDonald’s parking lot and kills the car. He takes his shirt off, bunches it up, and presses it hard to his face, hard over his nose and mouth and he breathes through the cotton. He screams into the cotton and lowers the shirt and sees his eyes in the rear-view mirror and it’s him; behind him the drive-through line in the mirror. He watches the vehicles stop and go, stop and go. A blue Ford Explorer (family), gray Honda Accord (man), a lifted white Chevy 4×4 (man and woman), white Dodge Caravan (family), red Honda Accord (woman). Wintric grabs the gun from his pants, empties the bullets, and slides the gun into the center console, bullets into the glove box. He looks at his gas gauge although he knows he’s gassed up. The rear view—Gray Honda Civic (woman), gray Ford Focus (man). Wintric rolls down the driver’s side window and listens to the people ordering and the metallic voice reading the orders back. Although he’s tried it before, Wintric decides he’s not looking for Derek Nelson. He searches himself for comfort and he pumps out his judgment on repeat. There’s nothing here, Bagram Airfield, “Nelson,” a separate world, I’ll never see I-80 again, I’ll never see Green River, this place isn’t real, a McDonald’s and a black lab, Wyoming. Then, a different option; he relives the past twenty minutes. He closes his eyes, feels the vision, comfort. I met Nelson. He was there at the door. I saw him and I asked him and he looked at me like I was crazy and he invited me in, but no, just passing through, Go Army, Go Army, best of luck, brother. But it’s not sticking. Go Army. Brother. The vision is not sticking. Nelson at the door. But it’s not there. He can’t see it. He sees the door. The white door. My fist knocking. The door. No doorbell.
“Come home,” Kristen says. “We’re here.”
“Don’t put him on. I can’t handle it right now,” Wintric says.
“Just come home.” Aside, in a whisper, “To daddy, honey.”
“Don’t put him on.”
“Where are you?”
“We miss you.” A pause. “Things are going to be better now. You know that. You faced him.”
“You never have to tell me what he said. It’s for you.”
Mid-day and fighting sleep thirty miles outside of Winnemucca, Wintric single-lane drives behind a diesel doing forty-five on an eight mile stretch of construction in the middle of nowhere I-80. The diesel has a pair of old mud flaps with a busty, longhaired, reclined woman relaxing in chrome. Every now and then the sun hits it right and throws a little flash. It’s hot, and the AC pushes out cool air as the car’s temperature gauge needle flirts with the yellow zone. A Circus Circus Casino billboard arrives and races by to his right, followed by one for reverse vasectomies. Wintric takes in the miles and miles of beige rock intersected by a slit of blacktop.
Already halfway through Nevada he fights himself about his decision to leave Green River, to not wait it out, at least to see him. He still runs through bizarre scenarios from him shooting Nelson to sharing beers. None of them seem plausible, but they seem familiar because he’s engaged in this mental battle before, along this same strip of land.
Coming into Imlay Wintric spots a bizarre, boney structure south of the interstate he’s never noticed before as he pulls off into the near ghost town to stretch in the Post Office parking lot. He’s never stopped here, normally pressing to Fernley or Reno. A new looking American flag flies over the double-wide tan building. His sweated-through shirt smells like his chicken sandwich lunch, and the early afternoon sun hits hard. He wipes at his eyes, then pops two pills and gulps a swig of warm water. A woman and her daughter exit the Post Office and squint. Wintric walks over to the building, to a map of the local area. He runs his finger to the “x” that marks the spot where he stands. He is surprised to see what appears to be a large lake nearby. Rye Patch. He scans the distance, but all he sees is desert scrub, fences, and in the distance, the hazy outline of cracking mountains.
Later, standing on a rocky peninsula, the blue water appears a misplaced fantasy, a geological mistake. No trees with all this water. Far west, two small boats float still. Overhead, blue sky and crisscrossing contrails. A small white bird descends down to the water and lands near him. A subtle cross wind blows across the great, shallow bowl of land.
The cool water casts some reprieve from the hot day as Wintric sits down near the shore. He presses his middle fingers into his temples, then breathes and holds the air until his body forces him to take another breath. He breathes deep and holds the air again, feeling his neck and eyes pressurize before his forced exhale.
A gust of wind races across Wintric’s face and he digs up the rest of a white rock that catches his eye and tosses it out near the bird. He yawns as he follows the bird’s ascent into the air and his eyes stop on an odd, grey balloon in the far distance. The scene takes him a minute to process. Deep into the landscape, the large, slender balloon floats high in the air. He guesses the ruler-shaped object is three or four stories tall, but gaining any perspective is near impossible. Wintric watches it for some time, peering for a tether or movement, but the balloon floats motionless.
He reclines himself on a smooth spot of shore and brings his hands to his face. An orangey light filters through his joined fingers. Fanning his fingers open he sees the balloon through his left hand pinky-ring finger gap. Closed, orangey light. Open, balloon. Closed. Open. Closed.
Wintric doesn’t dream. He feels the wind on his face, something crawling on his hand. He wakes and he stretches and sits up. He looks up, a single bird circling in the heat. He peers west, but the boats are gone. In the distance the grey balloon still hovers there. He stands and brushes himself off. He finds and crushes two ants crawling up his forearm.
In the car, he turns the key in the ignition and the small engine turns over. His foot on the break, he shifts the car into drive, feels the slight lurch and glances at the horizon. He sees the balloon. Three miles away? Ten? He shifts the car back to park and reaches underneath his seat for his gun, grabs it, and gets out.
Back at the shoreline alone Wintric’s big toe digs inside his boot as he thumbs the hammer back then raises the revolver. Hundred to one? A Thousand? He keeps both eyes open and places the balloon in the sights then raises the gun higher and holds it there. Blue sky in the sights and he sees the bullet’s trajectory all the way to the balloon, the gigantic drop of the bullet over the miles. A gentle exhale and trigger pull. The blast sound echoes out. He lowers the revolver, breathes, and smiles. He sees the brass backings of bullets waiting their turn. He raises the revolver and smells the gunpowder in the air. A trigger pull. Another. A deep breath. A trigger pull blast sound. Then quiet, expect for the ringing in his ears, like small sirens circling in his head. He stands there listening to the sirens circle and circle and circle, before slowly leaving him. He stands there staring at the balloon, stands for minutes, searching for movement, but the balloon floats in the air, miles away.
In Lovelock, Wintric stops at a convenience store and buys a Coke, a bag of jerky, a package of Lightning McQueen stickers, a postcard with a picture of the Pershing County Courthouse, and a stamp. In the parking lot Wintric finds a pen in his glove box among the unused bullets and owner’s manual and addresses the card to Nelson without a return address. He writes “I was there,” then scribbles over it. He thinks for a minute then writes “afghanistan” and “my revenge.” Below that, “your house” and “no doorbell.” He stops and looks up and wonders if that’s enough. If it’s him, will he know? If it’s not, does it matter?
At the gas pumps an old man washes the windshield of a Dodge pickup with a massive front grill. The man has to step onto the running boards and go on his toes to reach the center of the glass. The truck doesn’t have front plates and Wintric watches the man clean his windshield and step down and put the pump back and climb into the truck. As the truck pulls to the side, then away from him, Wintric searches for a back plate and catches a glimpse of the bluish tree, a crescent moon, “South Carolina.”
Wintric looks down at his postcard. He places the tip of the pen on the card to write his full name, but decides to write just his first name. He sees the pen’s tip on the white surface. He begins the “W” but stops at a “V.” He lifts the pen away and holds it in the air and watches the “V” dry into the postcard.
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