Monocle. Mad-dog. Militarism. Maniacal. Mutually-assured-destruction.
I was on the M’s now—and good too—the L’s were a bitch to think of. M-words just had a sound to them, something inherently therapeutic in the union of the lips and the humming of my throat. They felt warmer to me. I needed warmth as I looked out my window, grey rain blanketing the outside world.
I can’t remember when I started going over the words in my mind, they seemed to be a part of me now. I suppose it was after the War. Now, there was a word: War. A big enough word if I ever heard one. I usually tried to skip it when I came to the W’s, but sometimes it slipped through the walls of my subconscious.
“Son of a bitch,” I muttered to nothing in particular.
Those words needed to be spoken, not just thought. I leaned farther back in my chair, the curved wood of the rockers creaking softly on the hardwood. I rubbed my wrinkled hands together in mock satisfaction. If only the big-bad “War” was an actual person, some tangible thing that I could hurl insults at, instead of just pretend to.
Thunder cracked like a shattered bone outside and my heart nearly stopped despite the pacemaker. I was too old for this shit. Hell, I was too old to shit.
The rain outside kept pattering with a lackluster gusto that rivaled the beating of my own heart. With the rain came those familiar smells: first concrete, then sweat mingled with sour-sweet petrichor. And then blood, of course.
I never believed people when they said it smiled like iron. Iron was metal for Christ’s-sake, how could it share scent with the hot, red fluid that flowed through your body? But I couldn’t deny when the stuff started to flow that it smelled like iron. I’m stubborn as hell, but I couldn’t deny it when the blood pooled around my green boots and mixed with the warm rain. The creaking of my chair sped up and suddenly I could almost actually smell the blood—
SHIT. NO, RESIST IT.
Melancholy. Murder. Megalomania.
The words were a tool, a weapon against the ones in my head. The ones that wouldn’t let me sleep at night, or made me smell blood when I was only sitting in my living room. They usually worked, but sometimes, when the memory was particularly vivid, the words simply faded into the backdrop of some macabre scene.
The M-words disappeared into the recesses of my mind and I was a young man again, lanky with a veritable mop of combed-over soggy hair. The courtyard was grey as it had been all those years ago, the walls outlining the perimeter with entrance and exit points. A ruse to make the masses feel they had a choice whether to leave or stay . . .
But we made that decision for them, we all knew that. Any jackass with a uniform and a gun shoved into his greedy little hands knew that.
At eighteen I knew that. So did Bobby. Oh, Bobby . . .
“Jim, you thinking straight over there?” he yelled over the rain. Bobby’s skin was gleaming in the half-light of the overcast day, his ebony skin like smooth melted chocolate.
I gave Bobby the bird and he just laughed and adjusted the helmet on his head: the green kind you would see on those little toy soldiers everyone played with as kids. It made him look even younger in my eyes.
“Hell yeah, I’m thinkin’ straight,” I yelled back. “Get yer finger outta yer ass and mind your own business.” But I was laughing just as much as he was.
I should have paid more attention. I should have kept my eyes on the damn crowd.
Something, black and indistinct, hit Bobby in the face and he fell forward. The crowd was a mass of skinny bodies, bones and skin holding up paper-white signs. Bobby and I—and whoever else was there, hell if I remember—were guarding our food stores.
The crowd had arrived sleepy-eyed and weary, their eyes sunk so deep in their sockets you would have thought their brains were vacuums. But they livened up when they saw the others. Their arms pumped with more fervor than I thought their skinny limbs could take.
“Món ăn!” they kept chanting. “Món ăn! MÓN ĂN!”
It was a moronically simple chant. A beautiful rhetoric. And it worked.
“Bobby!” I kneeled over his body, tugging at his camo-green sleeve. He was face-first in wet concrete, his helmet thrown off a few feet away.
To this day, I still don’t know what was thrown at Bobby.
“Oh shit, Bobby. You bleedin’ bad.” His helmet must have flown off before his head hit the concrete. Blood was spilling out like a split pomegranate, pooling at the feet of the protestors.
“Back!” I screamed. “I said STAY BACK!” There was a raw savagery in me that I didn’t know I had. Everything was red, everything was violent. And soon enough, that would actually be true.
I hefted my rifle as one of them got closer, probably emboldened by their lucky shot at Bobby.
“You better fucking stay back, you hear me!”
They heard, but there was no recognition there. One of them came closer and I lost control, what little I had. I squeezed the rifle’s trigger and rattled off a few shots that thudded in the man like a bag of sand. He looked at me like he couldn’t believe I’d shot him. I probably returned the same look.
The man dropped to the ground on top of his sign which was spotted grey from raindrops, but stained red from his blood. I looked at it—the body, that is—because it wasn’t a he anymore. I’d changed his pronoun with a simple pull on the trigger. Now he was forever an it, resigned to this ambiguity whether he liked it or not.
One of the other soldiers moved in from my left—Noland I think his name was. He started to brandish his gun, yelling something I couldn’t hear over the rain and the chants of the crowd. The crowd grabbed Noland’s gun and overtook him, trampling him under too many feet to breathe, too much weight to move.
Noland. Necrosis. Non sequitur.
My heart is racing now as fast as it was back then. My hands feel the weight of the rifle in them, my mouth salivates. This raw savagery is not me, I try to convince myself. I am defending. I am standing up for right.
I tell myself this as I pull on the trigger again, but this time I keep pulling. I pull and they fall. I pull and they fall . . .
It’s simple cause and effect. The morbid dance of this domino effect has me wrapped up in its arms and I loose more bullets than I can count.
“Stay back! Just stay back, dammit!”
I hear the screams, the terror rising like a foamy tide against a rocky shore. My finger is jammed against the trigger, my heart is jammed against my ribcage. Somewhere beneath me Bobby groans and turns over, his face matted with blood.
I feel hands grab my shoulders from behind. How the hell did one of them find their way back there? I swivel around. My rifle’s rounds are almost out, but I have enough left for this son of a bitch. I let the rest of my clip rattle out and watch him drop to the ground, green uniform seeping with red as the bullet holes leak his life out.
My eyes register it before my brain does. Green uniform. A soldier’s uniform.
I watch him, almost as stunned as he, my dying comrade. I don’t even remember his name. There isn’t an acquaintance there like with Bobby, a vague knowledge like with Noland, only a blank slate. He is struggling as I watch him, the rain falling on both of us, drenching us equally. His body twitches with the last throes of life, a cracked vessel trying to repair itself. Before either of us really know what’s happening, he’s dead.
The crowd has forgotten about me, they’re raiding our food stores, passing each other plastic-wrapped bundles of food. They throw the food at each other, flinging rain water into the air. They hug each other, cry with one another . . .
I stood, stone-solid, staring at the man I had just killed. I smelled the iron now, the pungent metal smell spilling over the wet concrete and out of the bodies I had loosed bullets in.
“Aye, Jimmy.” Bobby stood drunkenly and put his hand on my shoulder. “What the hell happened?”
I was five decades older, suddenly. My chair creaked incessantly now, the bows of wood beneath me in danger of snapping. I rubbed my hands together again, feeling the slick sweatiness. The rain has picked up outside, turning the world into a great sheet of nothing.
The pacemaker vibrated in my chest, trying to shock my heart into a normal beat pattern. I clutched my left breast, fearing I’d tear the thin skin over my palpitating heart. The smell of blood was everywhere, inside me.
The words. The words, goddammit.
The rain hammered against my home. Against the concrete outside. There was so much, too much, maybe it would spill inside.