This and Every Year

I know I shouldn’t have wandered. If you wander, you end up looking like an idiot on the news, and then all the pundits try to say you’re a jihadist trying to meet up with other jihadists, when the truth is you’re either stupid or bored. I was both.

I was also sitting, which is another thing you’re not supposed to do when on patrol. But, I was also alone, which is the third and probably most important thing that’s not supposed to happen when you’re on patrol. That one wasn’t my fault. And I really didn’t care about the sitting.

I shouldn’t have wandered, though. That was dumb. So, so, fucking dumb.

I was sitting on a rock. It wasn’t comfortable, but it was better than standing on a rock. When most people— at least the ones who can see a green lawn from the windows on the front of their houses—when most people think of the desert, they think of sand. And I guess that’s not wrong, but it’s also a much more romantic picture of the Middle East than its reality. I am sure there is some part of that desert that is entirely sand that National Geographic took pretty photos of, but this part— the part that “civilization” was founded on— was rock. Red, hard rock. One night I looked up what the rocks are made of to try to get my mind off dying. It’s made of gypsum selenite. I cut myself on so many goddamn gypsum selenite rocks and had so much gypsum selenite sand ground into my wounds that I’m probably half gypsum selenite. It’s not all bad, though. It’s fun to say “gypsum selenite.” And one day I found a gypsum selenite deposit that all somehow clustered together in a bloom. They’re called desert flowers. They’re beautiful. I wish I had someone to give it to. Hell, I just wish I could just look someone in the eye.

I feel like most people— at least the ones that sleep in a four-poster bed in a house with central air conditioning— most people say they are “anti-war.” Even “pro-war” people don’t like it unless they’re just the craziest of the crazy. They just think it works. But, you don’t truly hate war unless you’ve been in the middle of one. You hate, hate, hate it. Even though it’s paying your bills. Even though it looks great on a resume.

Hate.

While I sat on that rock, I thought about my hate. I thought about the goddamned coward senator that decided I should be the one who gets foot sores and dehydration and goddamn shot at. I imagine his name is Broski Buckelew. He wears a backwards baseball cap and sunglasses with his stupid power suit and says words like “stoked” and “brah” while he eats pizza and votes for more military spending and fewer benefits for veterans. I used to fantasize about learning to paint so that I could make my own Broski Buckelew and then fill his face with rounds at the practice range. But, now I don’t want anyone to die. Not even Broski.

Sometimes all that gypsum selenite forms...well, I wouldn’t call them “mountains,” but they’re big hills that are hard as balls and would be difficult for even American bunker busters to penetrate them. And there are caves all through those hills, and some of them are deep. And goddammit, it was so hot, it’s no wonder the people we were hunting hid in them. And, I guess, it’s no wonder I hid in one, too. I just had to get out from under that evil sun. I don’t know why in hell I wandered into that cave as far as I did.

Well… I guess I have a suspicion.

I walked for so long. I walked by the same red rock walls for… hours? Not days. I mean, obviously not days, but it didn’t feel like I could measure it in days, is what I’m saying. Just… a thousand hours. I felt sure I was going to die. They would never find my body. I’d just be listed as MIA, and my family would spend the rest of their lives wondering what happened to me. Mom would probably never accept that I’d died.

When the flashlight finally flickered out, I felt my way through the cave with my hands. Months in the desert sun had made my night vision useless. I was thirsty. My whole body hurt. Sometimes it felt like I was close to the exit, only to realize that I was likely hallucinating and was actually heading down. Deeper underground. The opposite of what I needed to do.

I think it took me a minute to realize I’d entered the big opening. I slowly saw my surroundings were different as I began to feel better. I didn’t feel thirsty anymore. My feet and the rest of my body stopped hurting. The air felt nice, like an air-conditioned room. I could even see a few feet in front of my face. The space wasn’t actually lit, but I could at least see dimly, which was way better than the ink I had been stumbling through. The chamber had a hard wood floor, probably made of ancient Afghani timber from before the timber smugglers came and took it all from them. Covering the floor was an ornate rug, which seemed a waste since it was still too dark to make out the details in the pattern or the colors. Who knows what it was worth. If I cared about money anymore, I’d regret not taking it with me.

The only other things in the chamber were an urn with a pattern that (probably?) matched the carpet and a stone pedestal holding it. The pedestal and urn together were about as tall as my belly button. The urn had a lid, which I foolishly (compulsively…?) tried to remove. It held fast. I wrenched harder, but nothing changed.

Most nights in the barracks (when I wasn’t on a night watch) I could hear explosions in the city warzones. The warzones were miles away, but they didn’t feel distant. I felt like I was dead center in the middle of them. Each mortar blast was a muffled thud, accompanied by a wobble in my chest. Like my body was being invaded by the explosion. Like I was absorbing the deaths in every blast. Two people. Three people. Burrowed into my heart.

Sometimes the thudding felt like a big leggy beast stomping closer and closer to me. It wanted to steal from me. It wanted to steal my happy thoughts from me. It wanted to steal my breath from me. It wanted to steal sanity from me. It wanted to steal my blood from me.

I say “beast” because at first it felt like a hulking, mindless thing. After a few months, it started to feel like an intelligence. It went from being a non-discriminating force of destruction to being a thing that hates. It hates you. It wants you to be dead so bad it would tear you apart and see your insides if it could, then turn your insides inside-out and see the atoms, and then split those and make all-new conquering, exploding suns from your remains.

Sometimes, in my anxiety, I imagined… it wasn’t a whisper, it’s much too fierce and hateful to be a whisper, although I think I will call it that because it’s the only word that describes it. And it’s not a cool, calm voice, but the voice of rage. But, It would say things to me, things for only me to hear, about how it hated me and me specifically, and all the things it wanted to do to me.

That is the voice I heard in my left ear ask me if I was “feeling better.”

I yelped with my newly-moistened throat, released my grip on the urn, and fell backwards. The rug wasn’t thick and the wood paneling wasn’t flat, and I can still feel the cave floor punch me in the assbone. I swiped the air on the left side of my head with my fists, trying to connect with the person who snuck up on me and put their disgusting mouth next to my ear.

The room was quiet again. It was just me and the urn and the rug and the sound of blood thudding through the veins in my ears. I scrambled to my feet, drew my side arm, and put my head on a swivel. My eyes were adjusting to the dimness and I could almost see the whole room. I took slow steps toward the urn on the pedestal.

“Take your time, come closer. I can’t possibly harm you.” The words buzzed in my ear like a mosquito. I swiveled my head and fired a wild round from my sidearm. The cave lit up like daylight for an instant. I remember it didn’t cast the harsh, sharp shadows it should have, like when I swept my flashlight down the cave corridors. Every surface of the room welcomed the light, like it had never touched the walls. I guess that’s probably true. It was eerie, like how sunlight hits the surface of the moon and turns cold, like in photographs of Neil Armstrong.

I heard the round strike the wall once before finding its place in the dirt. The sound rang through the room for a long time. My ears stopped ringing, my heart stopped pounding, and it was quiet again. It was quiet for a long time. I inched closer to the urn, my sidearm at the ready.

The voice wasn’t so jarring this time. I could still hear it right in my ear, but it also sounded like it was coming from the urn. It sounded like a stereo with the speakers set up weird.

“I am sorry to have startled you, friend” it whispered. “I have not spoken with anything in a long time.”

I didn’t say anything back, but I didn’t haul off and try to put a bullet through the urn, either. I just stood, waiting to hear more.

“You do not have to talk if you don’t want to. I hope you will listen. I have healed your thirst, mended your hunger, and satisfied your pain. Is it too dark?”

My eyes suddenly seem to adjust to the darkness. It wasn’t exactly bright, but I could see as well as I could during a full moon in a clear sky.

“I was once afraid of the dark, too. We have become old friends, now. When two are trapped in hell, they can either be friends or be corners,” the thing said, its voice becoming less irritating. “You believe in hell, yes?”

I assumed I was hallucinating. I don’t remember the next few sentences the urn said because I was considering taking it and finding my way back to base with it. I figured it had some sort of historical or cultural value, and the accolades-- and possibly cash-- I would be showered with would make the extreme amount of trouble I would be in worthwhile. My thoughts were interrupted by laughter from the voice.

“Ho ho, no, you can’t remove me from this house. I have tried. I have brought in many like you to do the very same, and none have succeeded in lifting me from my throne. Some have even tried to destroy these halls with their stormy gifts, but my home stands eternal. I cried huge greasy tears, for that is how my eyes worked,” it said, lying. It was such a bad liar. I don’t understand how something so old hadn’t figured out how to lie. And it had to be old, right? I mean, I guess I don’t actually know that, but… like, it had to be old, right? Probably older than people. Older than oceans.

Not that it mattered that it was lying. Even then I knew it was lying, and I still absorbed every word. The little fuck--or great big cosmic fuck-- was charming. It must’ve used to be powerful. It could crack open the earth and wreck cities and all sorts of shit. But, somebody came along-- maybe somebody as powerful as the thing, but good-- they came along and sealed it away. Took away its destructive powers, and gave it new ones that could only heal and build.

And the good thing or people or whatever, they let the thing in the bottle watch and listen to the world as the world went on without it. Its hate grew, and it slammed against the walls of its little bottle and raged and roared, but, it only came out as a whisper.

A whisper loud enough for one stupid shit to hear.

It found loopholes. It found ways to hurt with its healing and building powers. Found people who wanted rocks and gave them apples. Found people who wanted love and gave them everything but. I cursed that mistake from thousands of years ago. I cursed it a lot. I cursed it in the months after my deployment ended, the months before the year was up. Why did they let it talk? If you can talk, you can deal. You can make deals no soldier can ever pass up. And we did deal. “I lift to you an offer,” it said, trying to sound innocuous, but only coming off as sinister. “A gift of commerce.”

I don’t remember stumbling out of the cave. Nobody seemed to have missed me and, true to Urn Thing’s side of the deal, my deployment ended almost immediately. When I got back from my deployment, my mom hugged me harder than anyone ever hugged me. And I hugged her back. I wanted to feel the warmth of life in as many human beings as I could, because I knew it was going to be gone when the year was over, if it wasn’t gone already.

Wanna know a secret? Veterans don’t like being treated like heroes, even the ones that didn’t make horrible, selfish deals with demons in caves. Of course, it’s dangerous work, but so is working on an oil rig. And we don’t do it for free-- it pays well, I got great benefits, and I could have had tuition paid for at a college if I hadn’t learned the worst thing in the world in the worst hole in the ground and never wanted to learn anything ever again. But, even that money runs out eventually, and veterans have to find a job. I became a police officer, a job that is filled with people who want to be treated like heroes.

I didn’t really get along with the other officers, but I did okay in my job because I had a knack for talking people down and not being intimidating (which was something the police chief cared about, fortunately. It was an election year, though, so don’t give her too much credit). Eventually they partnered me with a big guy who doesn’t talk much. Not even sure what his first name is. Don’t care.

My deployment ended in March. I watched and read as much news as I could from as many countries as I could. The thing really did stay true to its word. There’s still crime, and people still shoot and stab and beat each other over their individual squabbles, but all war between nations or big organizations ended within a month, and nothing new has started since. Not even rumblings.

At first, I thought it was going to be a Monkey’s Paw situation and there was going to be some horrible twist because I didn’t read the fine, but the thing never strayed from what I understood the contract to be. It may have even gone above and beyond on its end. I watched Israel’s and Syria’s leaders shake hands on a sunny day, a sight I thought no human would ever see. I watched the Russian MP approve the order to dismantle all of the Russia’s war vehicles and re-purpose them for their space program. I saw civil wars end, and guerrillas exited the jungles of the world to reunite with their families. Hell, even the war on drugs could be considered finished. I wish I could have enjoyed it, but it just reminded me that the deal was real, and I would have to honor my end. I guess I see now why it would stay true to its word-- lying wouldn’t be nearly as satisfying as forcing me to keep my part of the deal. Taking death out of the world doesn’t bother it. It doesn’t delight in people’s suffering if it’s not the one causing it. And it must think this misery is exquisite.

Wanna know another secret? Did you know most soldiers won’t shoot a person? At least, soldiers from first world countries won’t. It’s, like, a fact. In the Vietnam War, only three U.S. soldiers out of a squad of ten would actually fire their weapons. And even then, a lot of times soldiers just lay down suppressive fire over the heads of their enemies, making sure not to put a bullet in anyone. I’m the same. I shot over a few heads, but I never hurt anything bigger than a scorpion in the desert.

It has to be an innocent person and since I’m not objective enough to determine a person is “innocent,” the agreement was that the person couldn’t be guilty of any crimes. That’s the main reason why I became a police officer-- unlimited access to criminal records. I exclusively researched elderly people-- 80 or older only-- because I guess it feels like I’m not taking too much if they had a whole happy life behind them. I suspect the thing can probably keep me from being caught. It would provide too much relief to have the responsibility forcefully taken from me. I don’t really have a memory of the thing in the urn actually speaking this part in its strange, poetic speech. The contract is just sortof… part of my mind. It has more meaning than words ever could.

The red numbers on the clock next to me say it is 11:51 p.m. on December 31. I have waited as long as I can. My hands are not quite touching Ms. Joann Marshall’s neck, and if I squeeze hard enough the world will keep on going the way it’s been going. And the same will have to be done a year from now. She’s breathing quietly. I guess I thought all old people snore or something, but she looks peaceful.

This is my life now. It will be my whole life, year after year. And eventually I will have to go back to that dark room inside that dead cave with someone else, and they will take the burden from me. And I’ll weep and beg their forgiveness and finally put a gun to my head. It’ll be the first and last time I ever shoot anyone.

My hands are around her neck. They are not quite touching.

Next Chapter: Dear Madeleine