By: JP Miller
The first time I noticed the Tickle was almost three years after I had left the Army. Without notice, as I stepped across that magical line into Capitalism’s greatest accomplishment—into Wal-Mart World— my ears start ringing. Tinnitus? Artillery Ears? I’m used to that. But my skull opened up and a feather entered my head and tickled my brain. It was that funny bone uncomfortable feeling like something buzzing and poking at my gray matter, torturing me with insane laughter. Then the world went upside down. My eyes are twitching and my legs are shaking. The space in my lungs is filled with fire. The chest pain traveled down my left arm to exit my tingling fingers. A heart attack? I dropped to my knees. I laid out. One of those obese lady shoppers in an electric, drivable shopping cart ran over my feet as she rushed to buy more food. My legs were rubber, my ears rang out, and my eyes closed. Then, I saw those 105s with Willy Pete rounds impacting a little ville north of Mosul—the white phosphorus burning. Burning so bright it hurt your eyes. I remembered that later when we approached the ville, it was seemingly empty but the smell of intestines cooking in the desert heat made me gag. Guess they were all dead, blown apart and ghosts by now. I had never seen this kind of violence more clearly and more painfully. It was two days after my deployment and my first real welcome to Iraq. Why I thought of that particular instance of extreme violence at this precise moment I had no idea. It seemed the white phosphorus was burning my face.
After some time on the floor, a white haired lady who had a badge saying Welcome to Wal-Mart. My name is Bernice, poked at me with her cane and called her assistant manager. The bald, paunchy guy came over.
“Can I help you, Sir.”
He asked me like I was just another customer—a customer who had crawled in out of the desert, looking for air-conditioning. I guess I was. It was like I needed directions in this cavernous world of excess—a guide to the diapers for my toddler. That was my task. Can he not see that I am full on adrenaline drunk and twitching like a spider in the rain? All I could say was, “Yeah.”
At some point, the EMS wagon rolled up and they were poking me, attaching those wire leads to my chest, asking me to sign this form and that form, and asking me all kinds of questions that I just couldn’t answer at the moment. They put an oxygen tube over my ears and into my nose.
“Something is inside my head. VA.” I said.
Then they look at each other as if that is all they needed to know. Yep. Another crazy one. They loaded my twitching body into the ambulance, strapped me down like I was going to try and escape. Without another question they dropped me off at the VA Urgent clinic. By this time, my twitching limbs were still and the tickle in my skull had subsided to a light simmer. All I wanted to do was get those diapers and get home. But going through VA protocol takes at least 8-10 hours in a skirted off room waiting and pleading for a doctor that ultimately spends three minutes with you. She barks some orders to the nurses and that is the last time I see her.
The nurses had me put on a gown which left my ass hanging out to catch the extreme cold. They took four vials of blood, put an IV into my hand which they attached to a plastic bag full of some clear liquid, and covered me with a sheet. I took the time to call my wife and tell her where I was and that I couldn’t get the diapers right now. She was pissed. What could I tell her? “Sorry dear, I went crazy in Wal-mart.”
They attached the ECG machine and printed off some mysterious paper which was never explained. I had a CT, a chest X-ray, and eventually they sent me for an MRI on my brain. They looked in my mouth, ears, eyes and asshole.
After another four hours of waiting, the doctor comes in (a different one) and tells me nothing.
“Mr. Marlantes, there is nothing wrong with you physically. Your a very healthy man. The nurse will be in to discharge you.”
“But, what about my legs and my falling? What about that tickle in my head?”
“We did an MRI and there are no anomalies in your brain. Your fine.”
Explaining all this to my wife was like the interrogation practice I had in the 25th Infantry. The questions she hurled at me, I just couldn’t answer. I had no answers. No one had briefed me. If she had water boarded me, I would still be beyond answering. And, I forgot the diapers. She drank wine in bed and read while I got the couch.
Mosul May, 2006
We are providing security for the EOD unit in Mosul. Two Humvees in front staggered and two in the back, fanned out. When we dismount, we take defensive positions, from nowhere there are the occasional pings, whiffs, and puffs of dust from pot shots. Nothing serious. EOD is taking their sweet fucking time. My boys are getting the willies.
I press on the commtacs mike and try to calm them.
“Victor 25, this is Victor 25 Alpha…Keep in your sectors and calm the fuck down. We are security for EOD. You know how EOD operates. Out.”
They respond in turn with the same brevity.
“Roger, Victor 25 Alpha.”
“Victor 25, I want two .50 cals east and two west. Do you read me, over?”
“Roger Victor 25 Alpha. Got ya Lima Charlie, over.
“Roger Victor 25, stay sharp, out.”
We were in place on a narrow beaten road surrounded by nothing but soft desert at our west and a wadi off to our east. Rising off the wadi was an mirage something like a lake and clouds over it. Although I knew very well that there was nothing but dust and rocks out there for hundreds of miles. To the west, I could barely make out a nasty looking ville with trash and dirt blowing through. It looked deserted through my binocs but I knew that would be where the pot shots were coming from. We were maybe 650 meters away to the east. I got on the radio again.
“Xray 505, this is Victor 25 Alpha, over.”
I called again and got some pissed off officer.
“Roger, Victor 25 Bravo. Give us 30 mikes. Out.”
Our Second Lieutenant, a butter bar with about two weeks into his deployment, slept in the rear passenger seat along with Willis standing through the roof hands on the .50 and Champ was behind the wheel. My position is the worst, shotgun. I woke up the butter bar and got on the radio.
“Victor 25. Be ready to roll in 30 mikes, over.”
“Roger, 30 mikes.”
Then the clack clack clack of AKs started and the rounds were careening off our armor plated Humvee and whiffing past our ears. The deserted little town erupted in a frenzy of small arms fire. EOD was pulling the robot back and taking fire.
“Victor 25. Let em have it. All .50s on the village, over.”
“Roger, Marlboro man.”
Both squads cut loose on that ville with their .50 cals, M-4s, SAWs and 203s. I joined them. The four .50 cals silenced that little ville in just a few minutes. Then an RPG from the ville went off all crazy like, zig zagging. It hit the dirt in the center of the ville and that was it. Dud.The ville was so far off that we did no damage. But, the pings off the Humvee subsided quickly and no one was hit. Unfortunately, I knew that we would have to return to that shitty little ville. We would have to go back and clear it.
We mounted and led EOD back to the FOB driving slow while we scanned the road for IEDs or EFDs. It was slow going. The butter bar went back to sleep. When we were inside the wire, the rifles and 9mms were cleaned, our multi-layers of gear cleaned and checked. I went to debrief while my boys cleaned out the Humvees. We hung our weapons and hit the rack.
I expected it. I knew it. That crazy goddamn tickle came back to me as I made breakfast for my little girl and fed my toddler son some green nasty shit out of a jar that looked like a 203 round. My chest was full of air and the buzzing was warming up. I struggled to get my girl to the third grade and my son to nursery school. My wife went to work at the law firm where she was a paralegal. I thought about calling my foreman and telling him I wouldn’t be in today. My head swam and swam around in circles always coming back to the same spot. Iraq.
On the way to work at the construction site where I was the contractor, I had to stop and rest my body and mind. I couldn’t drive. The Tickle tortured me. I stopped on the bridge, put on my emergency flashers. Traffic piled up behind me, every car honking their horn and flipping me off. But I couldn’t move. My legs shook. My head spun. My foot would not lift off the brake. My foot felt unable to stop the truck. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot! With great effort, I put the truck in park, pulled up the emergency brake, cut off the truck, let off the foot brake slowly and dropped out of the cab. Then, as I wobbled to the front of the truck, and looked out over the water, my legs quit on me again. Down I went. I held my head trying to squeeze out the tickle in my brain. I couldn’t look over the bridge to the water. It made me feel as if I were falling. My eyes twitched while I sat with my back against the rail and watched the pissed off drivers tell me to fuck off. My hands shook and my thumb kept cycling from safety to semi-automatic, to three round bursts, over and over as if I were holding my M-4.
Obviously someone called 911. So, the cops and EMS were nice enough to shuffle me right back to the VA Urgent care. My truck was towed to a local garage. I complained the entire trip that my heart was going to explode and my head fall off. The tickle rolled around in my head like a top, that old toy, that spins and spins until the immutable laws of physics drops it over. Mine kept spinning. It was a carousel of fear, panic, self-loathing, and perfect recollections of the goddamn Iraq war. Why now?
Mosul, July 2006
Five months into the suck, I was a thin, dirty, scarecrow with sunken eyes from no sleep. Keeping EOD secure was a continual loop of boredom to terror and back again. Honestly, after five months of the heat and the dust, the only respite I got was from drunken fighting with my platoon. The officers knew we weren’t supposed to have alcohol in this Muslim country. But they didn’t give a shit, as long as we kept rolling out to get some. The special ops units smuggled the hooch in without command’s approval. They choppered in pallets of gear by the ton which was off limits to us grunts. We traded whatever we could for the Jack Daniels and Jim Beam.
My two original squads were miraculously still intact. We never talked about that. It was taboo and bad luck to count your blessings. I rode with Willis, the .50 cal gunner, the butter bar, and champ, who had been some kind of mixed martial arts fighter. I was closer to him than anyone else since we rode side by side in the Humvee. I was Sergeant First Class Marlboro. I smoked way too much. But, it didn’t seem at all relevant. When people are trying to kill you all the time, you don’t give a fuck about cancer. You just ride with whatever has been bringing you back to the FOB standing upright.
Although Sergeant Connor, or Con-man as we called him was the senior in his squad, I was senior to all and unfortunately had to call the shots. He was Bravo team which had Monster from Montana, Tex from Wyoming, and Radar from the Bronx along with his second vehicle full of reservists.
Bravo’s second vehicle, second squad, was Con-man’s problem. It was crammed full of pimply kids, who seemed fascinated by how many ways you could kill a Haji.
My second Humvee was trained well and I could count on them to cover my ass and watch my six. The four of them were regular Army and good at their respective jobs. Donut, was from some Alabama shit hole and carried the SAW. Doc, our only medic, was from Yale, where he had given up on his medical studies to come to this fucked up place. Moron. Squeaky and McConnell rounded out the bunch of us. The lot of us were drunks, jokers, killers, and tired of this dumb shit except when we were in a firefight. Thats when the itch of adrenaline went so far down our spines that we killed everything in sight and some not so in sight.
Then on this one day in Mosul, Con-man would lose all his kids, privates Blinky, Alphabet,Tolbert and Specialist Washington from his second vehicle. Plus I would lose the Butter Bar and Willis—my gunner, from my Humvee .
We are providing security for EOD on this bridge which crosses the Tigris River and an adjacent canal. It is the most foul smelling shit I have ever encountered. Its full of raw sewage, cars, animal and human bodies swollen in the summer heat. There is no escaping it. It gets into everything. We always have to burn our cammies when we get back to the FOB if we take this route. This is the smell of war.
We roll up and EOD is doing their thing. Both squads dismount. In my group, Willis is on the .50 cal, Champs resting the SAW on the hood, and the butter bar walks around with his 9mm strapped in a chest holster. He looks like a fucking tourist and a target. I’m near the radio to catch chatter from command and EOD. So, I have a good idea how far along they are in disarming this EFD. It is neatly covered with some patched concrete and flagged with plastic bags which look like harmless trash but are meant to be camouflage and cover for the EFD. Through my binocs I can see a yellow wire extending out of the garbage. That could mean Cell phone or radio detonation. It could be a diversion. I don’t know how the fuck EOD can do this shit.
When I hear this I tell my boys through our commtacs to keep your head on a swivel and scan for watchers, especially ones with cell phones. We all took a defensive positions around the Humvees, scanning for any movement. The .50s are whirling around and I see the Butter Bar look over the bridge into the canal and then “Clack, Clack, Clack”. He is shot through the neck and head and drops down that steep incline into the nastiness of that canal. My first thought is I hope we don’t have to go get that stupid Butter Bar. Then we are all trying to fire down the concrete incline at the scuffling Hajis and Champ shows up with the SAW and just mows them down. We all watch as they roll head over heels in a loosened motion or start spinning on their sides back to that grotesque stew of death. The insurgents crawled out of that muck, up the incline and surprised all of us. We all call “clear” and check our weapons. Reload. I’m looking around for Willis and the .50 is going around and around in a slow spin. When I get to the Humvee, Willis is resting on the hood, arms out, with half a head, just spinning around with his brains falling out. The blood makes the inside of the Humvee a skating rink as I try to get purchase on the wet floorboard. Fuck, man. Goddammit, Willis.
I call EOD.
“Xray 505, this is Victor 25 actual, over. We have casualties. How copy? over.”
Nothing. So I repeat. They acknowledge.
“Yeah. Victor 25, give us 5 mikes, out.” So I call whats left of my boys.
“Victor 25. This is Victor 25 actual. The Louie and Willis are goners. We are going to have to go look for that Butter Bar asshole. What was his name?, over.”
Climbing down that concrete incline is going to be a fucking nightmare. I look down into the shit filled hell with the binocs and I can see two Iraqi bodies but not the Butter Bar. He must have sunk into the filth. We give up on the attempt to recover Butter Bar’s body. Its too steep and we have to pop smoke. Nobody is going to want his body anyway. He is MIA for now. Its the river Styx down there and we ain’t touching it. Graves registration will have to handle this shit.
After we get turned around, EOD follows us out around all the vehicles we jammed up on this skinny bridge. Sunset is coming. We start speeding up. We are starting to relax some and then the green kids from Bravo, Second Squad get hit by an EFD. The super heated liquid metal penetrates the glass and lower body of the vehicle, over and under the steel plating. Then the insurgents come out of the canal again and try to get over the rail. Screw it. I’m insane with sleep deprivation and fear. The rest of us blow them back with M-4 fire and then bend over the bridge rail and fire off two mags apiece and reload, fire again. The adrenaline is making us laugh out loud. Using my NVGs, I look down the incline on both sides but don’t see any Hajis. Fuck them.
The kids didn’t have a chance. Their Humvee burns inside out. The hot liquid metal sealed the doors and we cant get in to pull them out. We move forward some and dismount again. My head is empty. My guts are ready to explode. All we can do is watch them burn.
We are fucking mad as hell and then second squad is so crazy by now they start to open up on civilian vehicles passing us. I call that shit off. There is nothing we can do. We wait for the Humvee to burn out and then a Black hawk crew comes and lifts the Humvee off the bridge. The “Crane”—a Black hawk specifically built for this kind of retrieval—struggles lifting the heavily armored Humvee. Finally they get enough air to move it away, slowly, under the cover of darkness.
Its so dark now we use our NVGs on the way back to the FOB. When we finally made it to the FOB, all of us are insane with rage. I go to debrief and get my ass chewed. We empty two bottles of Jack. Two days later, we have a memorial service for Willis, the butter bar and all the kids. Six ghosts that will travel with us forever. Whats left of them are air-lifted out to Bagdad to catch a C-130 home. I think of that cadence song we used to sing in PT—C 130 going down the track, tell my mama I ain’t coming back….
The VA psychiatric ward is mostly a locked down shelter for disabled and homeless veterans. There are the hopeless-homeless dressed in ragged pajamas that walk the floors, mumbling. You have your drug abusers, who use the VA to get painkillers. There are the transitory, half-sane. They merely want a decent meal and a bed. They come in, get some relief, are released, and then wait the magic number of days till they can get back in. You have the seriously disabled, who have disintegrated into speechless wheelchair riders and bed monkeys. Some are just waiting for transfer to another ward. Then you have the crazies. That is the group I have fallen into.
After my second tickle episode on the bridge, the VA took me to the head shrinkers and locked me inside a ward filled with silent chaos. I walk the rectangular ward in what seems an infinite loop of the same thoughts. When the tickle comes to me, I sit or lie on the bed, spinning and spinning, my legs useless, my eyes twitching, doing the safety–semiautomatic thumb movement over and over.
I have seen the psychiatrist exactly one time. She listened to my complaints and proceeded to hand out the drugs. Seroquel, Xanax, Wellbutrin, Amitriptaline.
The tickle remains. Trazadone, Clonazepam, Effexor, Cymbalta. Nope. Buspar, Mirtazapine, Abilify, Amoxipine. Nothing. And, a month later, Electroconvulsive therapy. Bingo. After my first session of ECT, I expected the tickle but it hid itself deep inside my nervous system. I could feel it coil up tightly like a spring, ready.
After another three ECT sessions my nerves were literally fried. The seizures seemed to give me relief from the tickle. I’m not falling. My head isn’t spinning. But, my memory was not the same as before. I couldn’t remember my daughter’s name but I could recall every second of my deployments to Iraq. I could remember Willis, the Butter Bar, Champ, and Con-man. But I had no idea where I parked my truck.
At home, I go through the routine. My wife is happy I’m not crazy anymore. But, in my head, I can feel that tickle in a tight spring, waiting for a chance to knock me down. I don’t watch war movies or look at photos from Iraq. The urge to cycle my M-4 selector switch doesn’t happen. I stay on my feet and take the kids to the appropriate places. Kiss my wife “goodbye” when she leaves for work. My job is satisfying. I am the model husband and father. But, I don’t remember birthdays or anniversaries. It takes me some time to find my tools or find the right grocery store. I drive past the kids schools now and then. Doing the laundry is hard so my wife writes down the instructions and tapes them to the washer. Putting dishes away in their proper place is something of a challenge.
Then, innocently, I give the tickle its opportunity. Champ calls me drunk and says he’s coming through town next week. And, I have to meet him. This guy saved my life and I saved his life. I mean fuck, what can you do?
Mosul, November, 2006
We are so short now that my brigade can taste the fast food, smell the ocean, and feel the air conditioning that is waiting for us back in the world. Next month we redeploy back to Schofield Barracks at Pearl. Hawaii. Women and surfing is all we think about. They don’t talk about it much. Thats bad mojo. We have not taken anymore casualties since the day of the “River Styx” where we lost the kids, Butter Bar and Willis. Con-man has a new second vehicle with four new reservists. EOD has already rotated back and now we are security for their replacements. Despite eleven months of clearing IEDs, EFDs, car bombs, caches of rockets, mortars, artillery rounds, and those nasty wooden ankle cutters, they didn’t lose anyone. Now, we are with a green unit with no experience in the field.
No one talks to the new EOD at all unless its on an op. They have their own rotten plywood hooch and we have ours. They have their own names and we have ours. No mixing. No crossing paths.
We get called out on an op at about 0800. Its already hot enough to kill you in a couple of hours without shelter and water. A transportation unit coming up to Mosul from Bagdad is stopped at a site where they say there is a possible IED. Its on that narrow, chunky half paved road where we had contact with the enemy from a distant ville. EOD rolls out between 1st and 2nd squads. Con-man and I are in charge of security for them. EOD has two armored Humvees between my two and Con-man’s two. We are going as slow as we can while scanning for possible IEDs. This just makes the op longer and hotter. It makes us loopy. We are so goddamn short. Nobody wants to be the last casualty of the deployment. After a three hour drive at fifteen miles per hour, we reach the site. The Transportation unit is full on scared shitless. They have three 5 ton trucks full of water and ammo and whatever else the brass wanted. Their M-4s are pointed at invisible Hajis in all directions. We stagger our Humvees, cock the .50s, and take up security for EOD to do their thing.
EOD pulls out the robot. As it gets closer and closer to what looks like a small mound of dirt with a rock over it, we start to back up and set up as far away as possible and behind the engine blocks. The Trans unit backs up too.
A dirty, half covered plastic bag sticks out from the dirt and sure enough there is a set of white wires uncovered. They are barely above ground. I listen to the radio and EOD begins to uncover the area. They pull out the rock, push back some dirt and everyone can see two 155 rounds side by side. Fuck me. Thats a lot of Kaboom. The robot uncovers the wires and there is a black plastic box connected. We move back even further from EOD. I have to keep reminding my boys that we are security and to quit watching the EOD robot. Im scanning around the desert and through my binocs, I see that fucking little ville that took pot shots at us on a previous op.
The ville is maybe at 450 meters, inside the effective range of an M-4. I check it out for a few minutes. Nothing moves. I keep scanning to my six, back to the ville and back to EOD.
It takes EOD four hours to render the IED inoperable. The whole time we observe no Hajis. Before EOD collects all the parts and pieces to dispose of later, I call them up and tell them to “wait one”. They wait as I tell Con-man that we are going to take a look at that little ville which fired at us on a previous mission. Con-man is like, “Are you fucking crazy man. Lets pop smoke and leave this shitty place. Our mission is done.”
But Im too goddamn stupid to listen.
“Victor 25. This is Victor 25 actual. We are gonna check out that ville that fired on us. Lock and load. Follow me in a column then make a diamond when we roll up. Over.”
“Roger Victor 25 actual. But Sarge, this ain’t our mission. Over.” I recognize Monster’s high pitched voice.
I see some movement from the ville and tell them to roll out.
As we are approaching the nasty little mud walled ville, EOD gets turned around and waits for us to escort them back to the FOB. The Trans unit moves on to Mosul. As we approach, the dirt and sand choke us as a sand storm begins to swallow us. We all put on our keffiyahs with slits for the eyes in the soft, lighter than air dirt. Everyone is tired and hot. We chug bottles of water with the muddy aftertaste of the desert. We stop at about 200 meters away from an old blue, gated, mud walled courtyard. We spread out to engage all directions. Not a fucking thing comes from the ville. No sounds can be heard over the sand storm. We can see nothing but the blue gate and ragged plastic sheeting covering areas that have crumbled. Thats what I saw moving, flapping in the swirling powder that covers us and enters through our ears, mouth and eyes. If there are insurgents here, they are muffled by the wind and dirt. I tell the .50 gunners to cover us as we dismount and enter the courtyard. We leave Con-man’s last Humvee to stand by and cover us as we continue. The swirling powdery madness dissipates and we see an open area covered with the hanging clear plastic sheets. There are eleven of us creeping along the mud walls. Half on the left wall and half on the right wall. Not one shot comes from the crumbling ville. Then we enter pass the plastic and it all becomes clear and ugly at once. There are bodies contorted in myriad death dances and the smell is so profound that most of us vomit on the ground and cant stop until there is nothing left but bile. There are kids lining the walls, tied upside down, their bodies slashed and bloated, full of maggots. In the corner are women piled up like cord wood, all bloated and bound together—all naked and exposed, surely raped at some point. There is a water board station with a man still beside the short, yellow, plastic barrel. He lies there, his mouth wide open and fixed as if screaming. There are over a dozen bodies laid out. They are swollen to bursting, hung, duct taped to chairs, stuffed inside make shift cages half the size of a human, some starved to death, ropes around their wrists and necks. All dead and as abused as a human being can be. Ghosts now, in my mind to live forever in their twisted bodies all pointing at me.
As EOD approaches to check for booby traps, a survivor, barely human now, emerges from the grotesque scene. I watch him dart out of a pile of rags at Con-man. Using all his waning strength, he rolls a live grenade. Vengeance is in his tight skinned, starving face. The grenade goes off at Con-man’s feet and I watch laying on the ground as Con-man makes no move at all. He accepts the grenade and its deadly justice. He looks at me sadly and without a sound he falls down without legs. I look at the skeleton of a kid who threw the grenade for some moments and then I aim but cant pull the trigger. Champ takes my weapon and shoots the kid through the head and body over and over until the magazine is empty and the M-4 clicks. I take back my M-4, reload and start shooting every stinking Iraqi body I can see. Then I reload again. This time I am grabbed by the others until they take my M-4. I pull my 9mm and empty the magazine into the roof. I am out of my mind, looking at Con-man bleed out into a black pool that quickly is sucked up by Iraq’s endless deep sand—Doc desperately trying to tie off his legs while his tears fall into the soft sand.
Looking at this horrid scene, I could not determine who was responsible until I recognized a beer can mostly covered as if they had to leave in a hurry. I have to call EOD to look for booby traps as we back out. But I know it was Special Ops. No doubt. It was their beer can. The same beer we begged from them. They ran a torture camp just a few klicks outside of Mosul. No wonder when we were here last time they fired on us. It was just to scare us off. This was their mission and we stumbled on it. I holster my 9mm and say “fucking Special Ops cunts.”
EOD clears the ville. We take Con-man as we leave this forsaken place and leave the boy to rot with the others.
Champ was almost unrecognizable when I met him at the bar. He once was as muscular and cut a person I have ever seen. But, now he had seemingly withered away to half his body weight. I looked at him but I didn’t see him. I ignored the obvious.
“Champ. Good to see you man.” Lie. We both both bought beers and hugged. I felt his bones and eased off his embrace. I could have crushed him.
“Man, its nice to see you Sarge. Your like the only one I could track down from our platoon, besides the ones still in country. They all told me to say “hey” if I saw you. I talk to them through Skype every week. I mean, you know, I kind of miss it.”
We chugged our beers and ordered another.
“So. What you been doing, Champ?” Was he sick?
“Well, Sarge…I’m kinda at the VA most of the time. I live with Mom and collect that tax free money from them. Living the sweet life, man.” I really don’t know what to ask him. His face reminds me of those skeletons in that ville.
“Well, thats cool, Champ. Not having to work is good.”
He wore long sleeves although the summer was full on sticky hot. Then I saw the tracks exposed as he slid his long sleeve up and back down because of the itch. Heroin.
“You OK Champ?” We got another beer.
“Well, Sarge. I can’t really explain it. I wanted to see you and ask you something but now I’m just… nothing. I’m not Champ anymore. I mean, look at me.”
His voice trembled and cracked while he downed beer after beer for courage.
“Sarge. You remember that day at the end of our last deployment? You know. When Con-man took that grenade.” I had tried to keep this from my conscious self for a long time and now I had to confront it head on.
“Yeah, Champ. I do.” Saying anything else was useless.
“Well, Sarge. I cant get it out of my mind. I mean, there are a lot of things I cant forget. But, that day…that day…it was…fun. Not Con-man getting killed. But, I remember the excitement as we approached the ville and I liked shooting that kid. What the fuck is wrong with me?”
That one, I had no answer for. I had to admit I felt the same on other occasions when I remembered the adrenaline rush coursing through my body like…heroin. As much I hated the war and Iraq, I missed it too. Fuck.
I had to leave. I loved Champ but I had to get out of there. The tickle began to uncoil in my head like a viper. Its poison seeping into my body. Only it was different. I liked it. It felt like a drug and I had to have it.
While driving my truck around town, I tried to figure out what was going on…what I wanted to do. Back and forth, back and forth, I went. I counted the stoplights, the vehicles, the people. I drove out to the beach and stood on the sand, driving my boots into the unforgiving heat. It felt so familiar and warm.
Then it struck me as funny that I wasn’t falling down. I didn’t feel the tickle attack me. It was there in my head, all tucked away for future use. I embraced it. I laughed.
As I drove to pick up my kids, I felt elated. My hands gripped the steering wheel tightly with a purpose. I brought them home and went through the routine until Mommy got home. I kissed them over and over and laughed with them at the kitchen table as they had snacks. When my wife appeared, she was surprised at my change in mood and we touched each other and kissed like we haven’t in a long time. After the kids went to bed, I made love to my wife for the first time in a long while. She was happy and I was happy. She slept and I lay there with a smile. Now I knew what to do.
I woke up early and left the house unnoticed. I got in my truck and drove downtown. I pulled over, sat in my truck and watched as the Army recruitment Sergeant unlocked the door.