Desert Girl - Short Story
Posted on Sunday, September 8 2013 @ 08:47:52 Eastern
Joseph W. Miller
The boots of the men clump
On the boards of the bridge.
The first white wall of the village
Rises through fruit-trees.
Of what was it I was thinking?
So the meaning escapes.
I. The Desert
It didn’t take long for the cold, harsh reality to set in: this is not a place that embraces life. In fact, everything in the environment seemed ready to strike, to kill, at a moment’s notice; from the local populace down to the disgusting ****ing camel spiders—running around at 20 miles an hour, eating six inch lizards in a single chomp, and shrieking like bats suddenly scared by a muzzle flash—we felt threatened.
I was just a first-class private then, and I felt the crushing weight of twenty-five ranks above me, be they stripes or bars or striped bars, so I avoided doing what I was told, desperately seeking the few lowly privates in our little area of operations to which I could delegate the ****-burning. I could handle almost anything but that. The **** burning is what got to me.
Shit-burning and patrols. That’s what I hated.
The latter, whether it was a short patrol or long patrol, day patrol or night patrol, rain patrol or snow patrol, I hated not because of the probability of hitting a daisy chain and blowing up a quarter of my squad, or even because we got shot at, but because I ****ing hate walking. It seemed we walked everywhere, more so even than boot camp, and I often thought about putting one of my security rounds through my frontal lobe simply because it would mean someone would carry my ass for a change. Instead, I trudged through the hot sand and wind, letting my feet carry me through the promised land, where once nude beauties fashioned from ribs drank from the base of the Tigris, ate pomegranates, and spoke to the animorphs. We sometimes encountered the enemy, and I returned fire dutifully, never shying from my own ideas of right and wrong (how can a Commander or a Chief be wrong, when the desert buried even the pyramids?) and following orders as best I could. When I finally became a terminal Lance, my delegations became more numerous: I refused, even, to salute officers myself. Why raise my hand when I can raise a private’s hand?
That was how I met Ferris, a young private not by accident or by demerit, but rather by being the stupidest kid in our unit. He was deemed unworthy of being on the same level as the other PFCs. No, higher decided this was the kid in the Corps that would be the last stop for the giant **** boulder everyone kept saying rolled downhill. I just thought it was some kind of metaphor that Gunnies used, but he soon became the NCOIC (Non-Commissioned Officer In Charge) of burning all **** in Basra Province. They took to calling him Shit Boy, Turd Burglar, and all sorts of names that showed their own incompetencies when it came to being clever or having an original thought. I just called him Shit Stop.
The higher ups noticed my stupidity and soon after, I accidentally became his partner in arson. We were sentenced to be joined at the hip: I would burn **** with him and he would be on checkpoint duty with me. It turned out the kid was actually alright. Dumb, yes, but also alright. I liked him a little, and even came to call him my friend. I told him that I had a girlfriend back home, and that she was probably getting ****ed by three dudes, sometimes all at once, and he told me about his mother, whom he once saw naked when she was getting out of the shower. We smoked cigarettes together, the smell of the burning feces wafting through the air as we puffed, and he would offer me pretzels from his cargo pocket, one of the few treasures he received every other week in a care package from his family. We didn’t even notice it anymore. The ****, I mean. Well, we did notice it, but after we stirred and burned for six hours every third day with glockenspiel precision, it kind of got lost, our brains shutting down our olfactory senses to save us from madness—a Sisyphean task, to be sure.
Anyway, setting flame to caca and inspecting vehicles was only a part-time gig—people only **** so much, there are only so many serviceable vehicles in Basra—and Ferris and I still had patrols. That meant I was doing the two things I hated most, and a third thing that would surely get me dead. I was very unhappy. But I maintained diligence and walked and burned and inspected and returned fire and cried while the barrel of my M16 rested in my mouth, the cold metal causing a very strange sensation on my teeth, and I thought about doing it but never could because even if three guys were ****ing my girlfriend back home, at least I had Ferris.
Basra wasn’t all bad. Ferris and I shared stories at the VC and at the latrine reservoir. Between conversations, we would trade food from our MRE pouches: usually he gave me his jalapeño cheese and I gave him the Skittles, M&Ms, or lemon poppyseed pound cake from my own bag. Ferris liked sweets.
“It offsets the ****, I think,” he would say.
“I think you’re as full of **** as that hole over there.”
“Yeah, but I’m twice as hot,” he would reply with the same stupid grin he always wore. Then we would laugh, eat more cheese and pretzels and candies, smoke more cigarettes. He preferred menthol.
Early in July—July 3rd, I think—we were at the VC, searching vehicles for bombs. Before coming to Basra, we learned that improvised explosives are usually made with ****. They told us fertilizer is full of ammonium nitrate, and the hajjis mix it with with fuel to blow us up. A few bags of nutrient-rich dung in the trunk, a few cans of gas, and something to ignite it, and me and Ferris are a thick paste against the small road, a mixture of sand and blood and life on the hot pavement. I didn’t want to become a paste. I didn’t want to die, especially not from **** bombs. I never wanted to die.
Because of our fear of IEDs, we used warning shots to slow vehicles. There were barriers in place but only two, just over waist-high, and a car packed with enough ANFO could still liquefy our eyeballs. That evening, just after eating the jalapeño cheese and dry crackers from Ferris’s MRE, a small red car, old and somehow rusted despite the dry desert heat, came toward our post with headlights shining. The car was not moving at an unusual pace and the driver didn’t seem to be driving like a terrorist, but something made me afraid. I fired three warning shots. They pierced through the windshield with a sharp crack, accompanied by a squeal from the skidding tires, and I wasn’t sure if I had aimed at the windshield or not.
The driver was unhurt. He turned to look in the backseat and it felt suspicious and I was afraid and so I yelled for him to stop, to turn around, but he didn’t hear me, could never hear me, and I heard my combat instructor’s voice in my ear the same as I smelled the burnt rubber, and he said “hesitation is death,” and I fired two more three-round bursts through the windshield. The bullets forced the driver back against his seat and his momentum brought him forward, where he slumped against his steering wheel, which elicited a long, loud honk before his lifeless body again shifted and he fell across the front seat with two small holes in his skull.
“Fuck, dude! You murdered that mother****er! Right on, man,” said Ferris, who, just minutes before, told me he had once tried out for American Idol.
I couldn’t hear him. All I could hear was the sound of my rifle, the green-tipped 5.56 NATO Ball round that had left the barrel going over thirty-one hundred feet per second, and I imagined the sound it made as it violently burst through my target’s skull. With a strange feeling in my stomach and chest and a pounding in my head, I advanced to the vehicle, gun at the ready, preparing to assess the situation, to face my evil deed. I reached the car and saw the man, sprawled across the passenger seat, his belt still buckled, though he only used the waist strap. The shoulder harness lay flat against the moldy-smelling cushion.
I moved to the rear driver’s side door and peered in. A sick feeling, starting in the deepest pits of my stomach, moved through my body, warming me, warming, warming, heating, searing and burned through my limbs, my brain, my core. I vomited and the sour smell of processed jalapeño cheese spread and bile filled my nose. I fell to my knees, one hand on my rifle, the other clutching the door handle. Ferris jogged over, though I didn’t hear him, couldn’t hear anything except the bang of my rifle, the crack of the glass, and the squishing sound of bullets through flesh and bone, all coming together in my brain as three bullets found their final resting places: two inside the skull of a man who wore a simple pair of stainless steel glasses, the other inside the chest of a small girl with pale green eyes who lay dead in the back seat as blood dribbled down the front of her pink dress.
Kneeled in the road, body burning under the sun, my heart pumping sickness through my veins, I cried. Ferris called command on the radio, his cool hand on my burning neck.
After months of wishing I were dead, we were tasked with crossing the Tigris at the Qamat Ali canal to get to a cell located somewhere at the basin of the river. I had just burned a battalion’s-worth of excrement with Ferris the day before, and I could still smell it on my cammies, floating through the air around me while we left our convoy of Humvees behind and headed on foot in a tactical column toward a small bridge with metal tresses and a red camel painted on a yellow sun. There was something spray-painted on the side of the bridge, in Arabic, and I imagined it said something very intuitive, like “I fatwā, you fatwā, we fatwā together” or “Terrorism is for lovers.” Further down the wall, I saw, in English, “For a good time, call 961-364-9279.” But I couldn’t have seen that. That was my girlfriend’s number.
According to my team leader, we were walking through a hundred fifty degrees although I swore it felt like one sixty, at least. Our squad closed on the bridge, using a small stone wall lining the narrow road on either side, sometimes for cover, sometimes for protection against the blowing sand. Ferris was behind me, a wad of chewing tobacco in his lip, spitting brown juices every so often into a plastic bottle wrapped in camouflage duct tape, and it occurred to me that he looked like a child playing soldier. As if, in his dinosaur pajamas just last week, watching a ridiculous commercial of a man scaling a rock to slay a fire beast in order to transform into a Marine wearing dress blues, Ferris decided to run away from the safety of his mother and his small twin bed with a rocket ship bedspread only to land himself in Basra—Basra the smelliest, dirtiest, hottest, and most dangerous place for a child to be, a child that burns **** and walks with a gun and a dip in his lip, a child that spits and cries sometimes and is incredibly dumb but nevertheless smiles his stupid smile more often than not. He was the personification of the anti-Marine: lacking a square jaw and fearless nature, the keg-sized chest and even the simple task of having blue eyes. His deep ****-brown eyes, though, were everything but useful, as he wore glasses with lenses thicker than tabletop coasters.
As we reached the bridge, we smelled something in the air, but it wasn’t burning ****, no, it was fear. We tensed up and steeled ourselves for the inevitable battle across the river, for we could see movement and movement is never a good thing when fear has reached a Marine’s nose. It was a trick they taught us in boot camp, to focus real hard and smell the fear. I hoped things would be tame, as I had only brought 371 rounds (the last for myself if the terrorists caught me and found out I was a ****-burning specialist), seven grenades and a bayonet, hardly enough to defend myself against the dangers that could lie ahead. We stepped across the bridge, hardly caring about what waited on the other side or how loud our heavy-booted footfalls would be.
“Contact front!” our unlucky point man yelled as he crossed the threshold to dry sand.
The firefight that ensued was long and at times ferocious. I sat behind a low wall that was graciously placed near the bridge and put a dip in. Ferris, next to me all along, did the same thing, adding to his already large deposit. The fighting was long and hard and the AK rounds were well-aimed. The kid that always called Ferris Turd Burglar got hit in the neck and fell, clutching the hole that spewed warm crimson oil and his rifle fell, lifeless and noiseless, to his side. He was dead very soon. Ferris and I passed our spitter back and forth from behind the wall, dropping our heads lower and lower with each bullet that impacted our safety wall, because we were told to never spit on the ground (it could alert the enemy). After I ate a handful of pretzels, I grabbed one of the explosives strapped to my chest, pulled the pin, and chucked it over the wall. I had forgotten the dip in my lip, so the pretzels tasted like wintergreen and burned on the way down.
After several seconds, I had finished chewing, swallowing, and the grenade exploded with no less than three confirmed kills. My squad cheered, I think.
“Who threw that ****in’ grenade!?” someone shouted.
“Where the **** did that grenade come from!?” yelled another Marine, lacking wit.
I imagined the white walls of the buildings across the way stained red with the blood of my enemies and blackened with the force of the powder. The white walls were crumbling, blasted with the sand so that they resembled a chlorine gas cloud more than a white wall, and now endured the extreme duress of my grenade blast. They would soon fall.
“Ferris, did you throw that ****ing grenade!?” I had no idea why everyone was so concerned about that grenade. Ferris turned to look at me from his position against the wall, braced with his body against the three or so feet of stone and mortar with his left hand on the handguards, his right hand on the pistol grip. He looked so childlike in that instant, with his Kevlar helmet falling down over his eyes, obstructing his vision and a small string of snot hanging from his nose. I wanted to ask him if he knew where his mommy was, but all I could think was to awkwardly say, “Ferris, my man, we’re winning this ****ing war.”
He just stared at me while, still with that same dumb smile, a 7.62 round entered his skull through his right cheekbone and continued through the other side, emerging with a splatter and an exit wound at least four times larger than the entrance. The bullet caught the inside of his helmet with just the right trajectory and ricocheted back into his skull, where it bounced around for two full seconds, churning Ferris’s brain and ocular nerves into a chutney of grey matter, blood, and brain cells before it finally slowed enough to fall out of my friend’s mouth. The bullet had tugged on the thickest nerves of his eyes so that his eyeballs were pulled inside his skull, and I remember Ferris looking strange with empty eye sockets and a wide-open mouth, kind of like that painting of the guy screaming on the pier.
Ferris was dead.
“Fuck! What happened to Ferris, man!?” my squad leader yelled.
I couldn’t think. I didn’t know what to say.
“He, uh, he got hit.” I finally decided was the right answer.
A familiar sick feeling began to spread through my insides, only this time, I refused to wretch, refused to spill any more vomit for this ****ing country.
“No ****, private, but how!?” I couldn’t understand why everyone was yelling, nor could I understand why he called me a private. I was a Lance Corporal of Marines. The Corpsman came over to assess Ferris’s wounds, moving fast for a Navy cat, I thought. He looked up at me after a few seconds of examining Shit Stop’s head and said, “Whoa. He’s ****ing dead. I think he got shot!”
And that was it.
It took a few minutes for me to find my bearings, to make sense of the world, and to realize that my grenade had gone twelve feet before it hit the crest of a small hill and rolled back down to the opposite side of our wall. The grenade had blown a very large chunk out of our cover and had killed two former ****-stirrers much braver than myself. Their legs were pasted to the hard-packed sand below them, exactly as I had imagined and feared I would be against the barriers of the checkpoint, and their hands were nowhere in sight. Another guy, our second of three Corpsman, I think, was lying in the dirt not far from the wall, unmoving. I imagined this would be difficult to explain, but I thought we would all just chalk it up to friendly fire.
I reached over to Ferris’s lifeless body and searched for the letter he had told me to read in case of his death, the one that was marked with an uneven scrawl that could have read “To be delivered Upon word of my Death, which is no dout GREATLY eggzajerated.” Finding it easily enough, I decided I also shouldn’t let the remainder of the pretzels in his left cargo pocket go bad. I grabbed those as well, and felt a familiar plastic wrapper next to the bag and I pulled out a package of jalapeño cheese, smiling. I popped a pretzel in my mouth and recovered his dog tags, planning to keep one for my own memory of him and give the other to his mother.
Unfolding the note that was apparently sealed with a kiss, the hissing sound of RPGs could be heard, whistling, whistling, whistling ever closer. Like some kind of ragtime superstar, the flying grenades whistled a tune that commanded attention, demanded to be heard. Seconds became more seconds as I listened intently, wishing as hard as I could for just a few more moments. The note, wrinkled and browned from the ever-present sand, had my girlfriend’s handwriting. It was addressed to Ferris my Love, and the first line read I can’t wait to see you, baby. As soon as you get home, I’m going to tell him to get lost, and then we’ll be together forever. I kissed the sweaty palm-side of my fingers and pressed them to Ferris’s lips, telling him to rest well. I clutched the note in my hands and tipped my head back as I let loose a prayer to the god of Basra, begging to be sent to hell. The way I saw it, I wouldn’t make it to heaven, and anywhere would be better than Basra.
My last thought before the RPG hit was that of regret. The package of cheese in my cargo pocket had gone unopened.
II. The Girl
I woke up in a sweat, the blankets wrapped around my neck and threaded through my legs. I could smell **** in the stale air of my room. My atrophied right arm was tugging at the end of the soft white comforter that was tangled in my scarred limbs. My body, with its scars and burns, had been trying to kill me for several months. I had been trying to kill me for several months, as well, with booze, pills, even some injectables. My left arm had a few tracks on it from each time after the first, when I had sworn off dope for good. Each time, though, I couldn’t resist, especially with the quack VA doctors telling me I shouldn’t feel any pain simply because of the amount of scar tissue that covered the affected areas. I did feel pain, though, and I did need to be medicated. It was a difficult situation filled with difficult dreams and a difficult amount of alcohol.
I had passed out, too drunk to remember how I got to my bed or even my apartment, for the fourth time that week. It was strange, since I didn’t have any friends and the bar I went to for the two dollar PBRs in dirty glasses was over a mile away. My only friend was dead.
Best to leave these phenomena to the gods.
I snatched the pills from my bedside table, which was jaggedly cut in half with a hacksaw so that I didn’t have to get a box spring or a bed frame and could instead just sleep on a mattress placed on the floor while still having the luxury of keeping a bedside lamp. My apartment, for all its flaws, also had its charms, I thought, as I chewed six Vicodin. The refrigerator hummed loudly, as it always did.
“Maybe I should get a Bob Marley poster,” I said aloud, though I didn’t know why. I hated Bob Marley and the room was empty.
“I thought you didn’t like Bob Marley, honey. I sure do, though,” said a beautiful voice from the bathroom.
I looked around the room. I can’t remember if I was afraid or curious or angry. Maybe I had a hard-on.
“Who’s there?” I asked.
“Baby, don’t be silly. Oh, look at you,” she said in a worried voice. “You’re all sweaty and the blanket is all wrapped around you. Was it another nightmare?” the woman asked tenderly. The light was on in the small bathroom connected to my single bedroom.
“What the f-”
I finally looked up to see the beautiful voice manifested in the doorway, and my jaw was overtaken by gravity. She was gorgeous, at least 20,000 leagues out of my own, and had golden-brown skin.
I turned on my bedside lamp to get a better look. My jaw remained in the downward position. Her skin was smooth and her face was lovely, with a narrow jaw line, a slightly wide bridge of the nose, and mid-set brows. Her eyes were a pale green color and stood out against the color of her skin. She wore purple cotton underwear with a bit of lace at the edges, and the color and style accented her extra firm body well. I could smell her from across the room, the flowery scent that all women seem to carry with them. How long had I been drunk, high? I couldn’t remember the last time I had a girlfriend.
“Uh. Yeah. Another nightmare.” I said coolly, or maybe idiotically. “God, how many does that make this... week?”
“Geez, it’s probably...” she began counting on her fingers, “at least eight times this month.”
A month? What the **** did I smoke, and when? Did I shoot it?
“What’s that face for?” she asked, though I had no answer, had no idea I was making a face.
I decided in that moment, since my life had been such a cluster**** up to and including this point in time, why not just ride this out and see where it takes me? Why not just lay here, let her come to bed with me, and entice my sobriety with her beauty, her body? It sounded like a fantastic plan, though I didn’t know how it would work. Anatomically, that is.
She was made of pretzel —rock salt and all.
I decided to roll with it, much like the grenade so many years ago rolled back to our position. Had I killed Ferris, or had he already been dead? I thought of a little girl in a pink dress, Kool-Aid running down her chin while her dead father sat in the front seat. The memories were more than fleeting, they were hidden, buried, stuck under a pile of sand and bodies. It’s possible the universe was ****ing with me. Maybe I’m still high, I thought. Maybe I’m one of those stories you hear. Those stories about someone taking too much LSD, resulting in a permanent head trip through a land not too dissimilar from Candyland. I had no recollection of the last time I dropped acid, though.
“Honey, we should get some sleep. We both have to work in the morning, and it’s three thirty already.” She turned off the bathroom light, crossed the room, and laid down in the bed, her movements sensual, seductive, feminine and feline, all without effort on her part. It was strange that even though she was hard and made of pretzel, her perfectly formed breasts jiggled a bit when she walked. I saw a few grains of salt fall from beneath her shirt, glinting in the light as they leisurely fell to the floor.
“I must still be dreaming.” I said as she slid into bed next to me, her left hand cradling her head, the other resting on my chest. Her skin was soft, smooth, and warm, as if she had just come out of the oven.
She laughed and said that I was as awake as I would ever be. I hardly believed it, though I hardly cared anymore as she slid her hand down my flannel-patterned boxer shorts, the salt of her hand and forearm tickling my skin as it brushed against it. Her hand stopped just above my dick, which was one of the few appendages on my body that remained pure and untouched by the ugliness of excessive scar tissue. I wondered if we had ever ****ed before, and if she had ever been with three guys at once. She didn’t seem like the type; she was, thus far, gentle and mild-mannered, and therefore, in my mind, incapable of getting too wild.
Her hand inched down a little further, and further still, moving just a tad faster than the San Andreas fault, or five thousand three hundred eighteen nanometers per hour. As slow as it was, I couldn’t help but feel a rise in my boxers. Her warm, salty fingers curled around the shaft of my inadequate penis and I couldn’t help but wonder again how the **** this was going to work. My mind was racing as I turned over and kissed her, placing my rough, calloused hand on her soft cheek, caressing the hair around her ears, sweeping it back behind. Her hair, a dark-but-not-quite-black brown color that hung in curly layers over her golden visage, was velvety to the touch, even through the cracks and chasms of my well-worn skin.
I rolled on top of her, kissing as tenderly as a traumatized veteran with a hangover and a light opiate addiction could muster. I took off the old size medium PT shirt that she was wearing—my own, a relic and reminder of a life past—and tossed it on the floor in the corner, near a nightstand that was unspoiled by the tooth of the saw. Her pale green eyes reflected the shine of my lamp, and I felt a kind of sadness that overtook me briefly, but was soon forgotten as I moved slowly down her body, kissing her softly until I reached the waistband of her panties and began to slowly slide them off, waiting for the inevitable arch that made such an act much more intimate than just crude animalistic procreation.
She let out a deep breath just as she lifted her pelvis off the bed. I pulled the size 6 underwear down past her knees and slipped them off of her feet. She was eager, as was I, and I foolishly began kissing her again. I felt my dick grow ever harder, anticipating the moment when I would find out if I was dreaming, or if I was truly ****ing a warm pretzel.
I entered her, and at that moment, I passed Saint Peter. These were the gates of heaven, and I had become an angel, without a doubt.
I came home from the bar, drunk as ever, and put my arm around her as I yelled. I yelled something along the lines of yo, *****, I need a snack! Big daddy’s hungry!
Why I referred to myself as Big Daddy, I’ll never know, though the sentence is burned in my memory as the beginning to this story, the beginning to my end. How I had come to this juncture in life was a complete and utter mystery, a failing of my own synaptic firings. I was confused more and more often, I drank more and more often, and I stayed awake at nights, sweaty from sex, wondering why the **** this phenomenally crafted ball of dough lay next to me, why she ****ed me, why she was real or I was fake. It didn’t make any sense.
It doesn’t make any sense, I thought, as I took my fifth-to-last drink at The Elbow Room. It was hard to wrap my head around, and even after weeks and weeks turned into months, I was still unsure about the particulars. I didn’t know if it mattered, but I felt that she was important in a way that only a biological anomaly could be. My mind wandered to Ferris and a little girl I’d never known and couldn’t remember. I took another drink.
My only friend, the one that died while I watched, while I watched a large bullet rupture his face and exit his cheek, watched as his face mirrored the blender he experienced inside his skull, watched it, finally, eject from his mouth, as if all possible damage was completed, as if the only thing left to do was escape the hole. I remembered perfectly, clearly, and took another drink. I saw that girl and her father driving down the tiny little road, bouncing along, listening to Syrian pop songs, singing along while a thousand hornets shot through the windshield as if a tornado had picked the insects up and spun them around, shooting them at its target at the speed of sound. I saw the hornets fill his head, through his eyeballs, breaking his glasses, and they went into her mouth, all of them, and burst out of her chest. I tipped my bottle and took the last drink of my cheap, shitty beer.
The two men at the end of the bar looked at me as I strained my eyes and lowered my head. Fuck them, I thought, as they laughed quietly to themselves—a sure sign their whispers were influenced by my scars, my ugliness, my patriotism. I took another shot, this time of my preferred whisky, a whopping nine dollars, and said I’d settle my tab soon, though I wasn’t sure if I’d left my card or if I even had a tab. Did bars still keep running tabs?
I downed my drink and drove it back down on the bar, slamming the little glass with as much force as I could, to get that John Wayne sound effect across, as if to say, I’m ****ing done and I’m not ****ing paying you. The bartender complied—no tab was produced and I walked out as if the world had just paid me to get belligerently drunk. As if it wanted me this way.
I may have passed a McDonald’s and a Taco Bell on the way home, but I never stopped. When I arrived at my front door, I kicked on it, hard, to alert anyone inside to my presence.
I kicked the door again, harder, and she opened it a bit, her salty, cracked hands slipping between the frame and the door—my door, my own ****ing door—and she timidly, tiredly said “hey, honey.”
I kicked the door once more, with as much force as I could muster, and watched as it flew back, hitting her in the face, breaking the already weathered skin, knocking her out of its path, and landing against the wall with a sharp crack. “Yo, *****, I need a snack! Big Daddy’s hungry!” I bellowed. A dog’s bark slowly slithered inside through the open window of our bedroom.
From the floor, with fearful eyes, she said, “sweetie, you’re real drunk. Let’s go to bed.”
“Fuck that! I said Big Daddy’s hungry!” Who the **** was Big Daddy?
“Baby, please, let’s just get in bed. If you’re that hungry, maybe we can order a pizza or something. We can order it from bed.” She was begging, and for once, I felt I had power over something in the world, something in my life.
I crossed the open living room to the kitchen and opened one of the cabinets littered with empty jars, half full jars, and cans of lima beans. Shuffling the containers, I found what I was looking for, swayed slightly more than slightly, then grabbed the jar of Nutella. I set it on on the countertop and rested my sweaty palms on the edge, steadying myself. I was hungry for something, hungry for life without this feeling of hate and responsibility looming over me, taking over, and then churning my insides, burning the **** that ran through my veins, leaving me as a dried up waste. I was a shell of a man, and I was full of **** that needed to be burned.
She crossed the kitchen to be by my side, to touch me, to affectionately caress my scarred cheek as she had done many nights before this one. I let her touch me, though where once I felt the warm, soft, and smooth touch of love, I now felt the cold, rough, hard touch of a woman made of goddamn pretzels. My hand slid down to the drawer I kept the silverware in, and I removed a spreading knife.
I was sick.
I was drunk.
My girlfriend was made of salt and dough.
I was hungry, and don’t for one goddamn ****ing second think you can judge me because you think I’m wrong and disgusting and you can’t stand the sight of what our ****ing country did to me or to you or to me for you and I wake up screaming in the night because although I remember that look, that eyeless open-mouthed ghost staring back at me with holes for eyes and I remember the stupid smile and that little girl with pretty little eyes and her father who never stood a chance and the blood running down her pink dress because of the hole I put through her and the ****, the ****ing burning smell of **** like cologne in my nose because it was real and this isn’t real life this is a ****ing woman made of pretzel and the barrel of an M16 in my mouth and a dead family, a friend whose mother blames me for the death of her son, the death of a sweet, good-natured boy that was too dumb to go to war, too dumb to get in but a man in a crisp ****ing uniform made it possible as he filled this goddamn kid’s head with fables of glory and silently, with steady hands and malice fudged those ****ing numbers to send this little retarded boy to war, a child twice over at nineteen, with bright eyes and thick glasses who wrote a letter to his mother knowing he’d die, knowing he wouldn’t come home and said take care of my friend. Take care of me, because I couldn’t take care of him, and in life there is nothing other than the presence of death and the guilt that settles when death has staked a claim, when a goddamn ****ing murderer comes home and doesn’t even know what reality is anymore and he knew I don’t know how to deal with the guilt. I simply forget.
Until I don’t.
I slapped her, hard, with the back of my hand, felt the salt shake from her face and neck.
She fell to the floor, where she broke a dry fingertip clean off, and I jumped on top of her, pinning her under the weight of my body, pressing my fingers into her hardened neck, unscrewing the top of the jar with my free hand. Her eyes had grown wild, like a feral dog’s when trapped in a corner by animal control. I tightened my grip. With my other hand, I picked her fingertip up from the floor and dipped it in the jar. I brought her digit to my lip, could smell the sweet cocoa and the hazelnut, and popped it in my mouth. The Nutella was creamy and delicious; her finger was crunchy, salty, and still warm. Her eyes grew wider still.
She struggled, but not much. She almost gave up, but just before she shut her eyes for the final time, she found her last bit of life and knocked me off of her with her left arm, the salt on her knuckles scratching my face. I screamed and fell to the floor; she lay there on the linoleum, gasping, trying to breathe the color back into her face. I held my hand against my chin, feeling the blood warm my fingers, and I lunged for the knife and the Nutella. She propelled herself backwards with her hands, her butt scooting along the floor until she finally stopped at the refrigerator, no more room to retreat. With murder in my eyes and a ferocious hunger in my gut, I dipped the knife in the jar and stirred it, getting a big gob of the delicious brown hazelnut spread stuck on the end of the knife. Her pupils had grown so wide with terror that I could no longer see what color they were. All I saw was two jet black saucers inside of white, bloodshot scleras.
Just like they taught us, I put my shin to her neck and pressed down, grabbing her left arm by the wrist and twisting to incapacitate her. She began to cry. I began to cry and I felt my warm, salty tears fall into my mouth, and I became hungrier. My hunger was now insatiable. I spread the contents of the knife onto her forearm while she whimpered, and with tears streaming from our eyes, I began to lick her. Up and down her forearm, up to her bicep, and with my free hand I tore the strap of her tank top so that I could lick the salt from her shoulders. It was almost sensual, as if the idea of murder by ingestion was somehow erotic to me. My tears, mixed with the salt of her skin, made for a delightful flavor. It was as if love and hate, real and surreal came together in that moment in the form of a late night snack, and I was the one lucky man in the universe who had won a taste. I spread the rest of the Nutella on her skin and, with a constant stream of tears, I sank my teeth in and was overwhelmed.
I began to cry more, though I’m not sure if they were tears of hate or tears of joy or the tears of a man who just has something in his eye. Her skin was not as crunchy as I had imagined, as the fingertip had been. The outer layer was crunchy, like breakfast cereal when you first pour milk over it, but underneath, it was soft, warm, and smooth. It was like biting into an overripe pear, though with the spread it tasted more like delightful cocoa and hazelnut, smeared thickly, a healthy amount throughout.
There was no blood. There was no sign of any biological material inside of her except for the yeast that at some point must have made her rise. I gnawed and chewed, taking time every so often to lick the hardened shell clean of salt or to slather more Nutella. I took my time, savoring every last bit, crying, crying all the while.
I ate her arm, up to the elbow, and the Nutella made it more satisfying.
I would have eaten her whole body if I hadn’t used the last of the Nutella. I leaned back, placing all my weight on my shin, resting it on her neck. Her beautiful pale green eyes had rolled back in her head.
I searched every cabinet, high and low, left and right, rotated the Lazy Susan, even looked behind the cans of lima beans. I checked inside pots and pans, and in the fridge even though everyone knows Nutella need not be refrigerated. I had used all the contents of the only jar in the house.
But a memory, a fanciful memory appeared in my brain, a good memory, as if placed by the gods. Surely it was the softer side of the vengeful, wrathful god of Basra, the same one I had prayed to all those years ago as I had rifled through my dead friend’s left cargo pocket. Frenzied, I once again tore through the kitchen, extended my search to the bedroom, the drawer I kept my dusty old uniforms in. I was oblivious to the world around me: all I knew was the search.
Somehow, she had managed to get up and reach her cellphone. I didn’t bother catching her. I paid her no mind. I heard her voice from the bedroom, saying words like “murder,” “monster,” and even “****ed up in the head.” I just laughed and laughed as I searched for the familiar brown plastic of Ferris’s old packet of jalapeño cheese spread. The packet I knew existed.
I searched even as the police came. They had a caseworker with them, a kind woman with gentle eyes and a nametag that said Doreen. She smiled a smile of familiarity when she saw me, handcuffed, and said, “Hello again.” She wore a single silver dog tag around her neck that caught the light in my kitchen as I passed by her on my way out. I looked at my feet, compelled by guilt, wishing I could touch the familiar cold metal of the tag around my own neck.
As the police brought me out of the apartment, I didn’t struggle, not even when we passed three men in polo shirts who high-fived as we walked by, and entered my apartment. I threw my head back and let out a loud, booming, guttural laugh and choked on my tears all the way to the waiting police car.
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