Desert loving in your eyes all the way
If I listened to your lies would you say
I'm a man without conviction
I'm a man who doesn't know
How to sell a contradiction
You come and go
You come and go
—Culture Club, "Karma Chameleon"
He doesn’t remember what they were baking anymore: he doesn’t remember baking, except that it was something he used to do. He doesn’t think he was good at it. Lisa used to whine unless he agreed. His repertoire was limited.
She smashed an egg on the counter. He said: Why did you do that? She was looking at the shell and the clear viscous white dripping off her hand. The yolk had split and was starting to bleed over the linoleum. Why did you do that?
There’s supposed to be a chick inside, she told him.
That’s not the right kind of egg, he said. You have to go to a farm. He was looking at the yolk on the counter. If there was a chick in there you would have killed it.
She picked a piece of shell off of her palm and shrugged. Her hair was in a little ponytail. He told her not to put her fingers near the beater. He told her: They might get snapped off. And then the bowl would be filled with blood.
Sometimes he thinks if he hit the side of his head hard enough something would come out of his ear: would slide out into his hand. Slimy. He doesn’t know what. His brain. His memories. Lisa liked those books, the books where something like that happened. Pulling your memories out of your head. He read parts of them aloud to her but he was never home long enough to follow what was happening. Or maybe: the thing that made him kill people. A certain kind of person would like to believe that was possible. The kind of person who, for example, would say something like: Frank Castle is a man suffering from a traumatic brain injury! He relives his trauma every time he closes his eyes! If only we could cure him! If only he could be saved! He would lay down his weapons and renounce his ways and return to us! He would once again become a civilian!
Those people haven’t ever killed people. So they don’t know. They’d know if they did it. You can’t do a surgery. Remove the tumor! But doctor: it’s metastasized.
But it still feels, sometimes, like something’s itching to come out of his head. Maybe the bullet they shot him with is still in there: maybe it burrowed in and made itself at home. Just to make sure he wouldn’t forget.
And sometimes he thinks: maybe I’ll draw a circle around myself and put everything I can remember inside of it. Nothing happens in order anymore. He could put a piece of tape on the ground and write down dates and close his eyes and open them and the numbers would be gone and they’d be scrambled. Maria used to make mix CDs and put them in his car stereo and press shuffle and make him guess. He’d say: You think I’ve been listening to this shit in the desert? And then: Nirvana. Every time. It was never Nirvana.
He used to come home and look at where she marked off Lisa and Frank Jr.’s heights on the wall near the kitchen and see how much they’d grown while he was away. And think: how many days is that? How many days go into an inch. He could write everything that happened to Lisa down in a line except for all the things he doesn’t know. And then it would all come back out of order. One time he dreams about this: he keeps seeing things that never happened. Lisa going to the prom. Lisa making varsity. Lisa leaving home. Lisa leaving him. Of course that had happened.
He still thinks there’s something he’s forgotten. That he’s forgetting. Almost something he’s forgetting to do. Pick up the kids. I’m busy. I’m tired. Frank: pick up the fucking kids. You’re here for once. But there are no children to pick up. Something is clicking inside of his head. A reminder. A bullet. Lisa liked mazes. She was good at them. She was too smart. It’s all folded together now, in on top of itself, point down toward something he can’t see. Maybe it’s just gone. Maybe he’s making it up.
He told them: You are all weapons now. You are vessels. You are the longest arm of the state.
Yes, sir, they said. Yes, sir.
Daddy? Lisa asked once. What, he said.
What’s inside my head?
What are they teaching you in school? he asked.
She pressed her hands on each side of her skull and made a face. I think I’m an alien, she said. He pulled her closer. He could see her veins under her white skin.
Let me tell you a secret, he whispered, and then started to bite the side of her head. She shrieked and pushed him away and burrowed down under his arm. The couch was getting faded.
I came from outer space, he said. Don’t tell Mommy.
Her breath was warm against his side. She didn’t say anything. Soon enough she was asleep.
What’s the first thing he remembers? Don’t girls always ask that on dates? Maria asked him that once. She must have. Maybe she didn’t. He doesn’t know. His mother used to tell him about that first apartment but he doesn’t think he remembers it. Then they moved. He remembers Yonkers.
What do you remember? They ask you that in hospitals too. Ma’am, I remember finding my father’s body on the sidewalk. Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘awful.’ Yes, I suppose it was.
Somebody’ll dig that up soon enough. Some tabloid, probably. Who else cares? OUR INVESTIGATORS HAVE UNCOVERED A SHOCKING NEW DEVELOPMENT IN THE FRANK CASTLE CASE: POLICE RECORDS OF HIS FATHER’S MURDER AT AGE THIRTY-FIVE WHEN MR. CASTLE, KNOWN COLLOQUIALLY AS THE PUNISHER, WAS ONLY EIGHT YEARS OLD. RECORDS OBTAINED THROUGH A CONFIDENTIAL SOURCE REVEAL THAT FRANK CASTLE DISCOVERED HIS OWN FATHER’S BODY ABANDONED ON THE SIDEWALK OUTSIDE OF HIS HOME THE MORNING OF HIS DEATH. POLICE NEVER IDENTIFIED SUSPECTS IN THE DEATH OF PAUL CASTLE, BUT AT THE TIME, EVIDENCE POINTED TO HIS INVOLVEMENT IN THE DRUG TRADE. WE CAN ONLY IMAGINE HOW THIS SHAPED FRANK CASTLE’S OUTLOOK AS HE… Bring in the shrinks. Trauma! Abnormal patterns of development! As Freud would say! It’s only to be expected!
There hadn’t been that much blood. He really hadn’t looked so bad, that bastard Paul. He’d just known that he was dead. And then he remembers Queens. Flushing. Sitting in the window watching the street. The lawn. The kids on their bikes. The sun moving. That’s the main thing he remembers. The house in Queens. His mother and his grandmother in the kitchen while he sat at the window and didn’t go outside. He felt okay. He didn’t mind watching. He doesn’t know how long it was. It feels like it was years, and years, and years. It probably wasn’t.
He met her on leave right before his first deployment. They were all nineteen-year-old dumbfucks looking to get laid, packed with muscle that hadn’t done anything yet and scratching at their military haircuts. Hernandez had said: They’re all going to know, man. Look at us. But the girls in Manhattan didn’t recognize Marines on sight, it turned out. Hernandez kept turning and staring when they walked past him without a second glance. He remembers laughing so hard he had a headache. You’re short, you motherfucker! You ever look at your own face in the mirror? No wonder they won’t look at you twice! They were all hammered.
He was the king of the world for a night because he was from New York and they weren’t—You’re from fucking Long Island, you dipshit, said Goeretz, who was from deep in New Jersey, so he flipped him the bird—and so he pretended he knew anything about Manhattan bars. They’d all gotten fakes from some guy back in town but they looked older than they were anyway. They thought they looked thirty. Jesus, Rudolph said in a club they’d found on Google. What the fuck are these lights?
Past midnight, in a Lower East Side bar: Wade and Rudolph keeled over at a table and Goeretz having some wiseguy fight with somebody and Hernandez talking up some chick while he watched. There was a jukebox.
Stop with the fucking Boy George! Goeretz hollered from across the bar, and a couple of girls started to laugh. They were pretty. Of all the pretty girls in the city they were the ones he had any chance of maybe fucking.
Boy George is the fucking—end of culture! Goeretz told them, and they both flipped him off. Twice. Even Hernandez was turning to look now.
Sorry, he said, as Hernandez shook his head. My friend’s a jackass.
Fuck you, Goeretz said.
Yeah, Maria said. He didn’t know then that it was Maria. But he knew later. Maybe he should get some quarters.
You don’t want him to get any quarters, he told her. Trust me.
We loaded it up, her friend said. Stacy. Greatest hits. Eighties.
Do you really want to hurt me, the jukebox said.
They were standing next to them now. Maria reached past him for a handful of bar snacks.
You Long Island or New Jersey? she asked, and he laughed as Hernandez said, What?
We’re New Jersey, she said. Takes one to know one. No fucking way you all are locals.
He’s from here, Hernandez said.
Sort of, he said. Stacy didn’t look convinced.
We’re Marines, he told them. Maria looked thoughtful.
You going over there soon? she asked.
Yes ma’am, he said, and Hernandez started to laugh next to him. The girl he’d been talking to had lost interest. Stacy and Maria were giggling.
Ma’am, Stacy said. Okay.
When? Maria asked.
Three days, he said.
Isn’t being a Marine, like, the hardest thing? Stacy asked, sipping at her drink through the straw. In the whole army.
Oh, yeah, Hernandez said, leaning back against the bar. That’s us, baby. We’re the best of the best.
He tried not to roll his eyes. Maria was looking at him and smiling just a little. He hadn’t talked to a pretty girl in a while. She looked smart, too. He could tell somehow. That was better. Sometimes they sat around talking shit about the kind of girl they wanted to marry and how many kids they were going to have and where they were going to live and how many cars they were going to own—I’m gonna have five, Hernandez liked to say, and they’d all say, Kids or cars? which would insult him—like they were fucking women. They don’t tell you that shit, Wade said to him once. Men are all just girls. Girls are more men than men are. Don’t tell that to the rest of them, he’d said, they’ll talk about tits for a week. Wade had told him he was a philosopher and could take it which wasn’t anything anybody had ever told him before, and almost certainly bullshit. But he thought about it sometimes. They were going to have mansions. They were going to have brownstones. They were going to have beautiful wives and exactly the right number of children. They were going to have sports cars. They were going to have flatscreen televisions and season tickets to the football team of their choice. None of them was going to die. They were all going to die, except for him.
The song changed. You wanna dance? he asked her. Maria. He didn’t know her name yet. If he’d known she was going to die before he was he would have walked out of the bar without looking back. But he didn’t.
Karma karma karma, the jukebox said.
You love her more than him, she said. He just wants you to pay attention to him.
I don’t, he said. You like him better. This was true. Every time he came home Frank Jr. was crowded around her legs or next to her on the couch or god knew what else. Lisa sat in the corner reading. Or lay in the backyard and tried to capture animals. She could never exactly explain what this meant but she was always intent.
Don’t deflect, Frank. Listen to what I’m fucking saying.
Maybe sometime you should say what you fucking mean—
Frank Jr. didn’t talk much around him. He looked at him like he was maybe afraid. He didn’t know why. He tried to think about what his father had done to make him afraid and didn’t think he did any of it, but maybe it wasn’t as easy as not hitting your wife and kids, not shouting at them. Maybe there was some secret formula he had never learned. Lisa captured a dragonfly in a jar once. Where the hell did that come from? he asked. They didn’t live near a pond. You shouldn’t swear, Daddy, she told him. It fluttered around inside the jar until it died. Oh, she said, and shook the jar, listening to the noise it made going up and down.
At dinner with Stacy and her husband once Maria said, Well, you know, Lisa really takes after Frank here—but I think Frank Jr. is a little more like me—isn’t it funny how they turn out? But he thought actually it was the other way around, and maybe that was the problem.
HOW MANY PEOPLE HAS THE PUNISHER KILLED? FRANK CASTLE, KNOWN TO SOME AS THE PUNISHER, BEGAN HIS CAREER AS A SANCTIONED KILLER: AN EXTENSION OF THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT. AN AGENT OF TERROR IN AN ENDLESS WAR. A HIGHLY TRAINED SNIPER AT THE HIGHEST LEVELS OF—
That’s twelve, Hernandez told him. It was quiet. Something crackled through the radio. He peered through the scope. The bike was overturned and the man was lying next to it, prone, blood seeping into the ground. Shit, man. We haven’t been here all that long.
I know, he said, leaning back and blinking. He had a headache.
I hate roofs, Hernandez said, looking around. I never gave a shit before. Who gives a shit about roofs. I’m never going up on another fucking roof when we’re done with all this. I’m done with views.
How are you gonna keep people from shooting you? he asked, looking down the sloping hill and up the street to the distant stretch of buildings. It was dim. Pre-dawn. No muezzin yet. He had stopped thinking about the hajji on the bike, whoever the fuck he was. He didn’t want to know that shit. Above his pay grade.
I got my money on Wade turning into the basket case, not you, Hernandez told him. Don’t go Looney Tunes on me, buddy.
Who have you met who’s more sane than I am, he asked. You tell me that.
Nobody in my life, he replied. I get sent to jail, you’re my call.
What’re you gonna do to get thrown in jail?
Grand theft auto, Hernandez said, and then somebody started firing on them, and the radio erupted, and when he looked up after rolling over to the corner of the roof and turned to where he and Hernandez had been lying on sacks of rice, he realized that he was dead. His eyes were wide open. So was his throat. He was replaced inside of a week.
He doesn’t remember most of them. The people he killed. He doesn’t remember them because he didn’t care. He remembers the beginning of his deployment: stupid kids everywhere yelping about killing hajji fucks. He’d never heard the word sand-nigger until people were talking about taking them out. He remembers Wade frowning. Black kid from Harvard. What the fuck are you doing here anyway? people liked to ask him. He politely told them, when asked, that he was from Chicago first. He’d had other ideas about things.
You ever gonna get into an argument with somebody? he asked him once, and he shrugged.
No point, he said, which was probably true.
He does remember the first one. He remembers because Hernandez was lying next to him looking through his scope as the orders came frantically through their helmets. It was not quiet. He had thought that the building might collapse on top of them.
He’s got something in his hand, Hernandez said. I think it’s a gun. The voice in his ear sounded like static. The man looked over his shoulder. He looked like he was waiting for something.
And then he killed him. He didn’t feel anything at all. Hernandez whistled. He could just barely hear him. In the window above where he’d been standing, a woman looked down and started to scream.
The first time he spoke to him it was to ask him if he’d ever shot before: if he’d grown up with a gun in his hands. No, sir, he said. He’d grown up throwing a basketball against a wall.
Must just be a natural, he said, and then watched him in silence.
He was a natural. Everyone agreed, not just the LT. Everybody gave him shit about it—You gonna only shoot ‘em through the eyes, Castle? Just to maintain your sense of, whaddaya call it, artistic integrity?—but they were perversely proud of him, like mothers with a favorite son. Our boy Castle is gonna shoot those motherfuckers up. The LT had taken to lingering and watching him during training.
Dude’s coming a-courting, Hernandez said once over dinner, and he just rolled his eyes. He just can’t help himself, he went on. Murder gets him all hot and bothered and you’re the real deal.
He’s got a thirst for blood, Wade agreed.
A mind for murder, Hernandez said.
A penchant for punishment, Goeretz contributed, though he was reading and only half-paying attention.
You’re all lunatics, he told them.
Of course we are, Hernandez said. We wound up in this shithole.
Later the Colonel would come to his house. Daddy? Lisa would say. There’s somebody at the front door who wants to talk to you.
Go to your room, he said, when he saw him through the screen. Get your brother. Stay there.
Karma karma karma, the car stereo said.
Do you know what a chameleon is? he asked her, looking at her in the rearview mirror, tapping the steering wheel. She looked back at him pityingly.
Yes, Daddy, she said. I learned that years ago.
What did you actually do out there? Maria asked him. Or did she ask him: What do you actually do out there? Or did she never ask him? Did she say: what did Maria say?
He and Maria used to drive. She used to put the CDs on shuffle. She wrote on them in Sharpie. Frank’s got a girl, they all said. They laughed at him. Shut the fuck up, he said. She’s hot, Hernandez told them, and he slugged him. She’s pretty, Goeretz corrected. Plenty of pretty girls, people always said. He’d just laughed at them back. He hadn’t cared. He’d known. She was waiting. There are no other pretty girls, he said. Just one.
That is the most disgusting fucking thing I ever heard, Hernandez said. He wasn’t dead yet. I’m throwing up in my own mouth.
What did you actually do out there? She asked him in the car. It wasn’t Maria. It was a different girl, a long time after. And she was too old to be a girl. But she was pretty.
You’re out of your mind, Goeretz told him, looking at his wedding band. You’re too young to get married.
How’s that, he said.
What if you want to go fuck somebody else? he asked. He was always worrying about something. When he got home for good he was probably going to crack up; that was what they all thought. (He was going to die first.) Hadn’t missed a shot yet, though. People just didn’t notice him as much because he didn’t look like a bruiser.
I don’t, he told him.
Ever? he asked skeptically. Everybody I know who’s married tells me all the time how all they want to do is fuck other people. And then have to stop themselves.
You’re Jewish, he said. You all talk about all the shit you’re feeling.
Too much, Goeretz said gloomily. They were sitting behind the barracks looking out at the desert and up at the sky. It was hot as shit. But you don’t. I mean, you don’t want to fuck anybody else.
I don’t spend any time with anybody but you assholes, he said, where’s the temptation? Goeretz snorted.
Must be nice, he said after a while, licking his fingers. He made a face. I’m so fucking sick of sand, he said.
You’re a vessel, he told him, and Goeretz kicked up a puff of sand in his face. He died a month later. IED. There wasn’t a body to send home.
What did you actually do out there? asked the woman in the car.
Same thing I do here, he said. Kill people who deserved it.
After he would ask: Why did you pick me? And the Colonel would tell him he had a steady hand and steady nerves and he would tell him that he could tell from the beginning that he would make an exemplary and loyal Marine. That he would make an exemplary weapon.
But when he asked again, and again, and again: Why did you pick me? the Colonel would shrug and say that he’d looked at his file and seen that his father was dead.
What do you actually do out there? Stacy asked him once. They were in New Jersey before he and Maria were married. They were cooking out. He was adjusting hot dogs for Stacy’s kid brother and there were raw burgers on a plate at his elbow.
Kill people, he said.
I figured, she said. She sounded unimpressed. He glanced over at her. He liked Stacy. She was no-bullshit.
I go where they tell me, he said, shrugging. I’m not in it like most of the guys. Gotta shoot from far away. Pretty boring most of the time.
She considered this. You have to decide to shoot or not? she asked.
Sometimes, he said.
You usually do it?
Usually, he said, and speared one of the hot dogs, inspecting it.
When he looked back over at her she was gazing out over the lawn—there wasn’t much of it—and the swing set. (Gary, she had explained to him previously, had been an accident.) The sun was setting and the light was shimmering in the leaves of the trees.
Sounds pretty shitty, she said.
It’s all right, he said, moving the hot dogs to the empty plate. I’m good at it.
I’m good at sucking guys off and I don’t want to do that for a living, she said frankly, and he burst out laughing in spite of himself.
Don’t tell my mom, she said, raising an eyebrow, and walked back to the house to call for her brother. Maria came out of the door as she was passing, into the fading light, and for a moment as she looked back at him the world went still and peaceful, and then she slapped a mosquito on her arm.
I keep America safe from bad guys, he told Lisa.
But who is bad? she asked, frowning very hard.
People who want to hurt us, he said.
Who? she asked. How can they hurt us if they’re so far away?
It’s complicated, he said, and ran his hand over her hair.
If they can only hurt you far away why do you go find them? she asked him, still frowning, gaze intent.
Because I’m not the boss, he said.
That’s Mommy, she said, and he laughed.
Maybe you should just stay over there, Frank, she said, throwing a shirt across the room onto the bed. Maybe just leave the rest of us to it and go back to shooting people’s brains out.
Maria, he said.
What? she said, turning to look at him. But he didn’t know what to say. She didn’t look angry. She picked up another shirt out of the laundry basket and threw it at the bed.
What? she said again. You want to fuck or something?
The first time he saw bodies was outside Kabul, before they were sent out into the mountains. Not bodies through his sight: real bodies, in front of him. They had been looking for someone. Who? He can’t remember. It doesn’t matter anymore. Women screaming in the corners. A little boy pissing himself. Where the fuck is Rahim? I can’t understand a fucking— Something blew up in the next building. In the street there were bodies. The only word was mangled. A burqa fluttering on the pavement. He could see part of the woman’s breast. The rest of her chest was ripped open. Nobody covered her up.
What are they saying? he asked Hernandez. But they all knew.
He remembers: her hair swinging around. The curve of her spine. Her blood seeping out onto the pavement. Once there had been babies inside of her surrounded by her blood. Older blood. The cells had all replaced themselves. She had pushed each of them out. Women could do that. A fucking miracle, Rudolph said. A parasite, Goeretz told him. It’s a parasite living inside you eating you until you get rid of it. You fucking psycho, Rudolph said. He hadn’t been there. He had gotten the news in an email both times.
Are you afraid of dying? she asked him once. He told her: No. Bullshit, she said. Everybody is.
I ain’t fucking dying out here, Hernandez said, spinning his spoon around. All you motherfuckers write it down. I am too good for this shit. If somebody’s gonna kill me it’s gonna be somebody respectable.
Like me? Goeretz asked. Cause let me tell you, it would make my life a whole lot—
After Hernandez died they sent him a new kid from Nebraska: skinny, blond, bad skin. How the fuck did he get through basic? Rudolph asked. Rudolph was getting misanthropic. But the kid could dead-lift three-hundred-and-fifty pounds and didn’t have an ounce of fat on him. He was just built like a weed.
He introduced himself as Finnerty and then didn’t say much else for days, no matter how much Goeretz and Rudolph antagonized him. Nobody wanted him there and he knew it. He looked resigned to it. The first time they got sent out together he watched as he looked through the scope, lying low on the ground, breathing steady, and turned away again.
They say you’re the best, Finnerty said after a while. Nothing was happening.
Oh yeah, he said.
Nobody’s the best, he said. Stupid to worry about.
He didn’t say anything for a while. Do you keep track? he asked after a while.
Of what? he said, even though he knew what he was talking about.
How many people.
No, he said, and the kid didn’t say anything else.
He decided he liked him after a couple of weeks. Everybody else had to leave him alone once he’d made up his mind. Of course, he still wasn’t talking.
Couple of months in the kid asked: Why did you sign up? He looked at him like he was crazy. Why the fuck do you think?
Finnerty just looked at him.
I’m poor, he said matter-of-factly. My ma’s dead. Had to do something.
He took this in. Your dad?
Wasn’t too happy, he said. Not much he could do about it.
I’m from New York, he said, as though this was an explanation. Finnerty took it in equanimously.
You ever wonder about it? he said eventually.
All of it, he said. Whether we should be doing it.
You ain’t getting paid to answer those questions, kid, he told him.
No, he said. I mean— He touched the scope, his gun.
They’re bad motherfuckers, he said. You don’t want to get shot, stay away from IEDs.
You don’t want to start spewing this shit in front of everybody, he told him. Unless you want to start spending some quality time getting your head examined.
He grinned a little. Don’t worry, he said. I keep it for you.
Oh, fantastic, he said. Just what I need.
But where did Hernandez die? Bombs over Baghdad. Endless ordnance. You boys will get to see the beginning of something. You’re lucky. Dear Frank: I saw the bombing on the news and I want you to know that I am praying for you. Love Grandma. Dear Frank: You dead yet? We all saw the big statue coming down on the TV at work. Some Soviet Union shit. Maria’s coming over to watch tonight. Email when you can. Stacy. Dear Frank: I’m pregnant.
He remembers: Hernandez’s throat. His head tipped back too far. Hernandez had said: Twelve. Or was it: Twenty? Or—
Nobody asked them why they enlisted because they all enlisted for the same reason. Except that that wasn’t true.
Shit, Finnerty said when he showed him the picture. Shit.
Yeah, he said. He couldn’t really believe it either.
That’s a real baby, Finnerty said. That’s a real fucking baby.
All mine, he said, and started to laugh, hysterical, and later that night threw up into the dirt.
Do you like it? the woman who wasn’t his wife asked him once.
Like what? he said, even though he knew what she meant.
Killing people. Do you like it.
No, he said. I’d just as soon never kill anybody again.
She said: I don’t believe you.
She was probably right. He thought: what else would I do? And didn’t have an answer. He’d come back from the war and gone back again without leaving the city.
I don’t, he said.
I believe you, she said. But I don’t believe you’d stop.
He shrugged. Somebody has to do it. I’m better at it than anybody else.
She looked at him with an expression he didn’t like for a long time, so he didn’t look at her anymore.
What? he said finally.
Nothing, she said, and then stopped. I was wondering who told you that.
Nobody had to tell me, he said. His knuckles were scabbed over. Pretty obvious, don’t you think?
No, she said. I don’t think so at all.
How many seconds did he see Maria on the ground before they got him too? He doesn’t know. It doesn’t matter. It was long enough.
He’d seen worse. He’d done worse. That was what he was thinking: so that’s what it’s like. And then they took his children from him, and he stopped thinking for a long time.
We’re learning about the Colonies, Lisa said, spreading out her worksheets. Frank Jr. was sitting across the table from them, kicking at the legs of his chair, reading, face creased into a frown. And the Revolutionary War. I have to do a project.
Oh yeah, he said.
Look at their outfits, she said, and then looked him up and down, and made a face.
I’d look pretty stupid with a ponytail, he said, and she giggled.
They taxed stamps, and tea, she said, rocking back and forth slightly. He was pretty sure she didn’t know what exactly the word tax meant. And they made it so they couldn’t move past this line on the map. She pointed.
And then they were making people let soldiers sleep in their homes, she said, turning to him with wide eyes. And feeding them and stuff. And sometimes they caught people in ships and made them fight for them.
That’s pretty bad, he said.
Imagine, she said, pressing her little hands against his forearm and drawing back as dramatically as possible, if somebody sent a bad guy to live in our house. She looked over at Frank Jr. Frankie. Imagine. He looked up and blinked. He was chewing on Goldfish.
He tugged at her ponytail. You’d scare ‘em off, he told her, and she giggled.
I’d like you to do things for me, he said. I’d like you to refrain from mentioning this to anyone else.
Yes, sir, he said.
Good, he said, and paused. What we really need to do is save these people from themselves. They don’t want to be helped.
So it is our duty to help them, he said, and smiled.
How many people you killed by now, anyway? Goeretz asked him once.
Stopped keeping track, he told him.
Can you even remember how many people you’ve killed? the man asked him. The vigilante of New York. Dumbfuck in a Halloween costume, Hernandez would have said. That’s some weird fetish shit, Rudolph would have corrected him. Nobody would sell that to children.
No, he said.
And that doesn’t bother you?
They deserved to die, he said. I’ve only ever killed people who deserved to die.
If you believe that you’re a lot more stupid than I think, the man said.
How many people have you killed? he asked. The man started.
None, he said.
If you think that, he started.
He remembers: leaving the hospital. It was spring. There were flowers on the trees. And: there was nobody there. Nobody to get him. Nobody to leave with. They were gone. Bodies in some other morgue.
He doesn’t remember that night. Somehow, it happened. And the next night. Nobody from the police called him. He could have shot himself in the head and nobody would ever have known except whoever found the body.
Instead he deleted all the pictures on his phone and bought a gun.
The woman who wasn’t Maria said: I don’t know why you keep doing this.
You’re some kind of journalist now, right? Journalism suited her. She had a do-gooder streak that he suspected would not have survived much more time in a law practice, let alone a law practice run by a vigilante. New York was smaller than people thought. You’re supposed to want intel.
Not from wanted murderers.
I’m not wanted, he said, and grinned. Didn’t you hear? I’m dead.
Six of one, she said. Lisa held the egg thoughtfully in her hand. A baker’s dozen is thirteen.
He looked out the window. You never tell me anything anyway, she said. Not anything I can print.
Not anything actionable, he said.
Sure, she said. If that’s what you want to call it.
People don’t give a shit about the war, he said. Nobody wants to read about it.
Maybe they would if you told me whatever the hell you’re sitting on, she said. What you’re digging up.
I don’t have enough, he said.
By the time you have enough everybody involved will be dead, she said flatly. And then it won’t matter.
Why do you always say that? he asked. She was always saying that: Who cares anymore? They’re dead. Why bother with the story? He’s dead. He looked at her. Shit stop mattering after people die?
She opened her mouth to say something and then closed it again. That’s not—I don’t mean— She stopped, looking annoyed.
I’m not taking offense, here, he said. I’m just saying—say everybody who tortured anyone over there died tomorrow. You think—let’s never report that? That doesn’t matter?
Is that who you’re killing? she asked quickly.
No, he said. That was creative license.
She had picked up a packet of sugar and was playing with it. No, she said. I just—when we—met—she looked sour—I was at a law firm. Right? And then—well, whatever. But if the law works—
—Which it doesn’t—
—If the law works, she persisted, it provides—justice. Achieves justice. I don’t know. Good journalism—really good journalism—isn’t it supposed to do the same thing? If everybody’s dead—you’re telling the public about something that happened, but—nobody learns from it.
Because nobody gets punished, he said, and she looked at him. Her cheeks were bright red.
It’s pointless talking to you about anything, she said.
We’re just not gonna agree on everything, he said, leaning back and rubbing at the corner of his mouth to hide his grin. Shit-eating, Stacy used to say. I know, Maria always replied. He’s impossible.
I just don’t think, she said after a long pause, sounding like she was picking her words carefully, that you can—root evil out of the world by killing it off. That if you just killed enough people it would all be gone.
No, he said. But you can make a dent.
She looked sad. I think, she said, if you could kill everybody who failed your test—whatever your test is—you’d be the last person left alive on earth. And then you’d have to shoot yourself.
I would never dream of touching a hair on your head, ma’am, he said, and she smiled a little, wan.
Yes, she said. You would.
Sometimes when he thinks about Maria now she isn’t there anymore. Like a cut-out. An empty space. What was the fancy fucking SAT word Wade used for this? A lacuna. They’d looked down at bombed-out Fallujah and he’d drawn a circle with his finger.
Or he can only see her hair. Or her fingers. Or: Frank Jr.’s tousled hair over the back of the couch. Lisa doing a handstand next to the height chart on the wall in the late-afternoon light. Slipping back through the paint and disappearing.
Can you say hi to Daddy? Maria asked her.
She looked up at her past the camera and grinned, her baby teeth tiny in her mouth. Her hair was in pigtails. Hi Daddy! she said.
Where’s Daddy? Maria asked, and Lisa looked up at the ceiling, scrunching her face.
Space, she said.
You’re lucky, you know, Rudolph said to him once, before he died. He was rolling cigarettes. Nobody else did that. He liked that it made him unusual.
How’s that? he asked, and Rudolph lit one of them up. It was evening. They were in Ramadi: that, he can remember. He remembers Rudolph died in Ramadi in the summer. For a while he refused to die, and then all of the sudden, he was gone.
You got this perfect wife, this perfect fucking kid, Rudolph said. People give a shit about you. I go home, I sit in my dad’s basement. Count the days before coming back to this shitshow.
Your mom not around?
My mom’s in fucking California, he said. God knows where my mom is. He paused. You know, I went to see Goeretz’s people last time? Drove all the way out.
No, he said. You never said.
Real nice family, Rudolph said. None of this fucked up bullshit. No other kids.
Yeah, he said. I know. I remember.
Rudolph smoked in silence for a moment. I got this uncle, he said. Sends these emails to all of us. Like thirty of us. The most crazy racist bullshit you ever heard in your life. Dude calls black people negroes and thinks he’s being polite. He paused. He writes these emails about how John’s off defending the nation against rag-head terrorists. We’ve met like six times. Maybe ten.
How long we been doing this? he said. Almost five years? Fuck. I’m too tired to hate these sons of bitches.
You turning into a liberal on us, Rudolph?
He had a faraway look in his eye. We’re gonna be here forever, he said. And it’s not gonna do shit. He tossed his cigarette to the ground and the ember burned against the sand for a moment before he stomped it out with his boot. The sun was setting. And I got nothing else to do.
Marry a nice Iraqi girl, he suggested, and Rudolph choked out a laugh.
Sure, he said. Make my old man real proud.
Romeo and Juliet, he said. That’s some romantic shit, Rudolph.
I ain’t dying for some teenage girl, Rudolph said. You can write that down. I may be stupid but I’m sure not that kind of dipshit.
Karma karma karma, the jukebox said, and he put his hands on her hips. He wanted to get laid before he left so badly. He thought about saying: I might die soon. But she was dancing. She was prettier than all the other girls he’d dated. You come and go, she said. You come and go.
Do you promise, she said, never to love anyone but me? They were: lying in the back seat of his car. They were: sweating and punch-drunk on summer and fucking. They were: young. They were young.
Never in my whole life, he said, at bit her neck. The light was golden. Soon enough, he would go back. And she would be a dream.
We don’t know how you survived, they told him at the hospital. It’s a miracle, they told him. The bullet should have killed you. They showed him the x-ray.
Where’s my wife? he asked. Where’s my wife? Where’s my son? Where’s my daughter? Where’s Lisa? Where’s Lisa? Where’s Lisa? The television mounted in the corner of the room played game shows all day. People cried when they won a few thousand bucks. He imagined aiming his rifle at the screen and pulling the trigger.
He was on trial for killing people who deserved to die when he looked at her—not his wife, who was dead, but the woman who wasn’t his wife—and thought: she’s pretty.
There were pretty women everywhere—hot women, sexy women, beautiful women, women any man would want to fuck—but he couldn’t remember the last time he’d looked at a woman and thought: she’s pretty. The only pretty woman had been his wife. Your wife hot? they’d asked him. Beautiful, he’d told them. The most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen in your fucking life. Of course he believed it. But when he’d first seen her—
He was looking at her across the courtroom. She was like some kind of bright light that he thought he might be able to turn sideways and make vanish, as though she had never been there at all. He wanted to close his eyes and stop looking at her. He wanted to lie down forever. He was so, so tired. He thought that he might already be dead.
I don’t think I ever want to fall in love, Lisa told him.
Why? he asked.
Because you act stupid and are always sad, she said immediately, definitively, and he picked her up, even though she was too big, and had her stand on his thighs, until she was leaning all the way away from him, a V, giggling hysterically.
He and Maria spent most of their time in separate rooms once he came back. Came back the last time. She had turned the fourth bedroom into a study. He wasn’t sure what she did there. Talk to her mother on the phone. Her father was sick.
Sometimes she sat and stared at nothing. At dinner Lisa talked and Frank Jr. stared at his plate and neither of them said much of anything. How’s Stacy? he asked her once, just for something to say, and then realized he wanted to know.
She married an asshole and moved to Chicago, she said. She pretends to be happy on Facebook now.
How do you know she isn’t actually happy?
She looked at him. Nobody who pretends to be that happy on Facebook is actually happy.
He sent her an email. She replied inside three hours.
It’s good to hear from you. I haven’t heard from Maria in a while. I don’t think she approves of Tim. Tim’s sort of an asshole but he’s my asshole. I’m sure you can relate.
I did get that degree—I’ve got a job at some suburban school district now a couple towns over. Lots of paperwork and parents mad about shit. I got boring, Frank! I was always the interesting one (if I may be so bold). We all got boring except you I guess. But you were just a mysterious distant presence.
The kids sound great. How is Frank Jr. doing now that you’re back? I know he was having trouble a few years ago but it’s been so long and he was so little that I couldn’t really say anything about it.
I’m really glad you’re not dead, you fucker. Did you know Maria went off Facebook for a while? I was checking on that miserable website every day to see if you’d died. And then I thought, maybe he’s doing something too top secret for them to even say. Then she came back on when you were coming home and posted something sappy about it; all kinds of bullshit. You know Maria, she hates that shit. But that’s the code! I hate that fucking site. I thought about emailing you, I don’t know why I didn’t. Stupid. I even cried about it! You know I don’t ever cry about anything. But I thought—I mean, that was like, twelve years of worrying, right? That is too much. I can’t really talk to Maria anymore but when I thought about it that way I thought she must have been going crazy. I don’t know. I’m not blaming you, I don’t want you to feel guilty. She just probably felt like shit for the past decade-plus. On the other hand, she can be a crazy fucking bitch.
Give each of the kids a messy annoying kiss from me. I love all of you fuck-ups but you the most. Write back.
He found Frank Jr. one day lying under the piano bench, not doing anything. He stared down at him for a moment and then sat down next to him.
Anything exciting down there? he asked.
No, Frank Jr. said. I was playing war but I got bored. He paused. I ate all the cookies.
How’s your stomach feeling? he asked.
Frank Jr. thought about this. So-so, he said, after a long deliberation.
Could be worse, he said, and he nodded his little head against the wood floor. You just like lying down there?
I was seeing what it would be like to be dead, Frank Jr. said.
He reached out to push his hair to the side, away from his eyes. You don’t have to worry about being dead for a long time, he said.
I know, Frank Jr. said very seriously. But I was wondering.
Why? he asked.
Because that’s what happens in war, he said. People get dead. He paused. Get killed.
Yeah, he said. They do.
He looked up at him. You kill people, he said. Right?
I did, he said.
Frank Jr. looked back up at the ceiling, or the underside of the piano bench—he couldn’t quite tell which was in his line of vision—and didn’t say anything, just considered this. He unfolded his long limbs and laid down next to him, looking at the ceiling.
You don’t have to worry about that, he said again. You don’t have to go to war.
You did, Frank Jr. said.
I know, he said. It was different.
I didn’t have anything else, he said. And I didn’t have a daddy. You’ll be able to do whatever you want.
Frank Jr. didn’t say anything for a long time.
I want to be a veterinarian, he said soberly, and he laughed in spite of himself.
Your mom still saying no to a dog? he asked, and Frank Jr. nodded woefully.
We’ll figure out a dog soon, he said. Just for you.
You gotta understand, he told her. That was my whole life.
And they screwed you, she said.
Thirteen years, he said.
She scratched at a mark on the table. She was trying to think. He could tell. He had never really been able to tell what Maria was thinking. That had been her allure.
The institution, she said finally, or the people?
Well, now you’re getting philosophical on me.
There can be good lawyers, good cops—good drug dealers, she said, raising her eyebrows. That doesn’t mean—
All right, all right. Go home and write your column if you’re so fired up about it.
She flushed. I’m supposed to be reporting. Not that I’m any good at it.
So report, he said, gesturing at the folder he’d passed her when she’d arrived with his mug before lifting it to his lips. She sighed. And sure you are.
Somebody’s going to figure it out, she told him.
Someone usually does, he agreed.
Neither of them said anything for a while.
How old were you when you met your wife? she asked finally, and he started.
Nineteen, he said.
Oh, she said. She was surprised.
In a bar, he said. Downtown. Shipped out that week.
That’s very romantic.
Not really, he said. Time difference’s a bitch.
But it worked out, she said.
She was looking at him sadly; he tapped his fingers on his mug. It was a long time ago, he said. We were kids.
When I was nineteen… she said, and laughed.
What? he asked.
I had a bad job, she said. And I was dating a stupid boy.
Really, really stupid. He wanted to be a boxer.
I don’t know, she said. My mom hated him. I was bored. She paused. Then I dated a guy in a band.
He leaned back and laughed again, looking at her. So you were just looking for trouble.
Violent crime wasn’t exactly what I had in mind, she said. But I guess so.
He looked down at his coffee.
Shouldn’t have gotten yourself a vigilante boyfriend, then, he said, and she snorted.
No, I shouldn’t have, she said. You know, I saw him a couple weeks ago, and you’re all he wants to talk about. I think you threaten his sense of masculinity.
You don’t say, he said, and took a sip.
Well, she said. He says he has more principles than you—can you count principles?—because he doesn’t kill people—
He kills people, he interjected, and she waved a hand.
He has all these rigid ideas, she said. But obviously you make him crazy because he thinks it’s more manly to just shoot people’s heads off, which he doesn’t do, even if he thinks it’s ethically objectionable.
Well, Dr. Freud, he said. We’re getting into it now.
Also you were in the military and it kills him, she finished. Men are all idiots.
Duly noted, he said.
It’s true, she said. All of you. You in particular.
It was two in the morning when he paid the bill. She tried to slip the waitress some cash but he and Cathy had an understanding and she ignored her. He peered outside, into the darkness.
Probably worse for you to go alone than for me to go with you, he said.
Really, she said, but followed him out of the booth and let him hold the door for her. Her hair was orange in the streetlights. She was a long way from home.
I never come out here normally, she said, huddling into her scarf and pushing her fists into her pockets. He could see, for a second, Maria’s purple scarf: he’d brought it home with him once. Years after leaving her the first time. Why didn’t I get one? Lisa whined. It’s twice your height, Maria said, and held it up to demonstrate. Frank Jr. just looked on silently, barely outside of babyhood—two, three?—and he picked him up and patted him on the back while he regarded him soberly.
I like Queens, he said. My grandma used to live here.
I didn’t know that, she said.
Used to take me to games, he said. She didn’t know a thing about how baseball worked. Thought it was something my dad would have done. Bullshit, obviously.
That’s nice, though, she said. That was nice of her to do.
Yeah, he said. She was a nice lady.
Besides, he added, nobody expects the Punisher to be hanging out in Queens. She grinned.
Not glamorous enough, she agreed.
And look at me, he said, turning to spread his arms out. I’m all about that, isn’t that right?
She pulled her hair aside to cover how much she was smiling.
I’m just waiting to see you without your face all—fucked up, she said. Maybe you’d clean up all right.
Nah, he said. I’m an ugly fucker no matter how you look at it.
Hmm, she said, sounding skeptical.
He could tell she was surprised when he walked down into the train with her. What? he said. Man’s gotta get around somehow. Nobody’s out now anyway.
People are always out, she said.
When it finally came she sat next to him and leaned back against the window, sliding down on the seat. There was nobody else in the car. The fluorescent lights looked too bright for this hour of the night. She was still pretty. Even with the splotches under her eyes.
Does this one go above ground? she asked, yawning.
No, he said, and she hummed, and closed her eyes.
Someday, she said a long while later, you’re going to have to tell me. He looked down at her. She was practically slumped over on his shoulder.
Tell you what?
What you did over there, she said. The thing you don’t want to give up. Whatever happened in Kandahar.
I might die next week, he said, and she opened her eyes and looked up at him.
That’s an awful thing to say, she said.
I might, he told her. There’s a distinct possibility.
Calm down, I’m not planning anything, he said. He wasn’t any taller than she was normally and a perverse part of him was enjoying her tucked down next to him like this. I just know it might happen.
Do you think about that a lot? she asked.
All the damn time, he said, and she looked sad again, and settled back against him, head tilted back, watching the lights flash by.
Will other people know? he asked the LT. Or was he the Colonel by then?
No, he said. Nobody will ever know what happened.
Who are they? he asked.
It doesn’t matter, he says. It’s your job to kill them.
He doesn’t actually remember what happened in Kandahar. Maybe he would tell her if he knew. Probably not. He remembers feeling the blood on his hands. Sometimes when the LT sent him somewhere it was bloody and sometimes it wasn’t. Sometimes he could leave and it was like he had never been there, except that behind him he left the dead. I stay out of it. Up there, you know. Sniper. Sometimes he came out covered in blood. What he remembers from Kandahar is the blood. There were so many of them. No man should have that many people’s blood on his hands all at once. But there had been some reason—some thing the Colonel had wanted. Some reason they had died. He hadn’t ever found out. Had he? He had files. Encrypted junk. I need you to hide this, the Colonel had said. He wasn’t a soldier anymore; he didn’t have to listen—he was a civilian. But he had taken the CD and hidden it. Maybe you could never be a civilian again, after coming back. Twelve years. Lucky number. Lisa with a bullet in her brain. Straight through. It’s your job to kill them, somebody said to him once. He killed him. Herr Doktor Freud! The son has killed the father and assumed his place!
How peculiar it was, he thought, to discover that after the Colonel died he was just a dead body like all the other dead bodies he’d seen in his life. And yet somehow it never quite seemed as though he had really died.
Finnerty lasted the longest. Finnerty didn’t die. They stayed together through Iraq and back to Afghanistan. Years and years. And he still seemed young. No matter how many eighteen-year-olds came up after him, he still seemed young. Not to anybody else, probably. But he always thought of him as young. You want to protect him, Wade said to him once, before he died. He hadn’t even explained it to him; he’d just known. He’s like your—charge. Your responsibility. He isn’t, though. You know that, right? If something happens to him, it isn’t your fault. He’d really thought Wade was going to survive. He was the last of the first crew, except for him. He was about to be finished—people weren’t dying as much anymore. But they were still dying. And sometimes Wade had a look, near the end, like he didn’t want to make it home at all.
How many months were they in Kandahar? He can’t remember. It felt like forever. Look, guys, a young jackass everybody liked called Dickerson told them all, we’re spreading democracy. Isn’t that right? We’re in year ten of spreading democracy to these backwards fuckers, and maybe if we stay here just another decade or six—
You haven’t been here a decade, kid, he told him, and all the kid’s cronies laughed. They were, what—twenty-five? If that. What had he been doing at twenty-five? He’d been in the desert, waiting for emails about Lisa, watching people die.
Do you think we’ll ever leave? Finnerty asked the next day as they settled in on a rooftop. They were already covered in dust from the morning’s work getting up here and now it was ominously quiet again.
I think we might die on this roof, he said, and Finnerty sighed.
You know what I mean, he said.
There were no people on the streets except Marines. Maybe that was the only way to end the war: wipe out the hajjis and replace them all with Marines.
Someday, he said. World’s gotta end sometime.
Finnerty let out a hollow little burst of laughter.
We’re wasting our lives, he said.
We’re the longest arm of the state, he intoned, and then snorted.
Finnerty was starting to respond when somebody moved in a window across the street. He shifted position and opened his mouth to say something when—
—The building collapsed below them.
When he came to all he could hear was incoherent screaming in the distance and a dull noise inside of his ears. He rolled over and turned to look: the street was sunken and a whole row of buildings was rubble. He didn’t think he had broken anything, somehow. He was bleeding from his face. He pushed himself upright and turned to look for Finnerty, who wasn’t far from him, groaning.
He slung his rifle over his shoulder and crawled over to him. His ankle looked destroyed, but he wasn’t dead. Finnerty, he said. We gotta get up.
He made a noise and so he grit his teeth and pushed the concrete off his ankle. Come on, he said through his screaming, and hauled him up. Let’s go.
Where the fuck is everybody, Finnerty muttered as he dragged him down the street, hugging the buildings on the other side. Jesus Christ.
At least you’re talking, he said, and pulled him into an alcove down a side street. Fuck.
You got your radio? Finnerty said.
No, he said.
Me neither, he said, and looked hazily up at the sky. It looked like dust. Everything looked like dust. We’re gonna die out here.
Don’t be a fucking idiot, he said. You think I lasted this long to die in this shithole?
Not your decision, Finnerty said.
He leaned around the corner of the building to look down the street, and somebody shot at him. He ducked back and settled Finnerty down before settling in himself and trying to find something he could use to tie up his leg.
How do you even know who you’re shooting at? Finnerty asked.
I’m not shooting, he said.
It was impossible to tell how much time was passing. At some point another bomb went off a ways down the road, though there wasn’t much of a road anymore. Somebody shot at them and he shot back. Finally, helicopters flew over them toward the other end of the town. Slowly, the noise stopped, though the streets were still full of dust.
He reached down to grab Finnerty again and started to drag him down the remains of the road, but he was dead weight and pale and sweating. Come on, he said. Come on. Marines were running down the street past the rubble that was all that was left of the houses but nobody stopped to look at them, even when he shouted at them for a medic.
Let me go, Finnerty said. Let me go.
Shut the fuck up, he said.
He didn’t notice the bodies at first: and then he saw them. They were everywhere. Men with guns. Women. Children. Old men. He just kept moving down the road until finally Finnerty collapsed onto his hands and knees. His ankle and foot were so badly destroyed he thought they were probably going to have to amputate them.
Come on! he shouted. We have to get you to a medic so you can get out of this miserable motherfucking country and back to—
But Finnerty, on his hands and knees in the dust, was shouting: This isn’t a fucking country! This isn’t a fucking country! until he collapsed, unconscious, and he could finally just pick him up and carry him into the remains of the town, to find the Americans who would heal him.
They were in Kandahar for months more. But that’s the last thing he remembers.
You have to believe in the law, the man in the mask said. If we don’t have a law—
Shut the fuck up, he said, wiping blood from his nose. They ever decided to catch you you’d be locked up for life.
He didn’t like hearing that, he could tell.
When you were in Afghanistan—
—Could you just decide? Could you just—
You don’t know a single goddamn thing about it, he said. You have no idea.
He was quiet for a moment. Maybe, he thought, he was going to try to take him out again. His heart wasn’t in it, though. So he’d never manage it. What he did—he looked at people who deserved to die and put a gun to their head and pulled the trigger. The same as he always had. This idiot had no idea.
You spent all those years enlisted, he said finally. For the country. And now that you’re actually here—
This isn’t a fucking country, he told him, and slugged him in the face.
The next time he saw her was in Montauk. This is an extra level of paranoid, you know, she told him.
I like the beach, he said.
She looked at him skeptically. It’s winter, he said. Nobody’s here. Nobody cares.
You promised me something good if I came, she said. I’m beginning to feel duped.
I have something, he said. I promise.
They walked along the beach. My mom used to take me out here in the summers, he told her. With my grandmother.
Really? she asked.
No money for real vacation, he said.
We drove to the beach, too, sometimes, she said. But usually we had to make do with lakes.
He kicked some sand. He wanted to tell her something: something about being in the desert. Something about the sand on the beach and the sand in Iraq. Something about going back over and over and over again even though he didn’t have to. Leaving his children over and over and over again even though he didn’t have to. He had missed them. He had exchanged them for the desert. He and Maria had never talked about it—they had fought about him going and staying, sometimes, but never about what it was like. She hadn’t been interested. Or maybe she had been, and he hadn’t been able to tell. He’d never been able to tell what Maria was thinking. He wished he could ask her. But she would remain a mystery forever.
He didn’t know what to say to her now. This woman. She wanted to know everything, except that of course she didn’t; nobody ever did. They thought that they did, and then if you told them, they regretted it. He imagined Maria on the beach, kicking rocks across the sand, and found himself thinking, for the thousandth time, what he would do if she were alive again, suddenly—but it was pointless, because she was dead. And she was never coming back.
I never really took my kids to the beach, he wound up saying. She looked at him, curious. I don’t know. It just never really happened.
That’s too bad, she said.
Yeah, he said. It’s too bad.
They wound up sitting on a bench, watching the ocean. It wasn’t really that cold. Climate change, she said darkly. Her hair was blowing in the breeze and she kept tucking it behind her ear.
So, she said. What do you have for me?
He didn’t say anything for a long moment. He just looked out at the water. He could tell her something—anything—he could tell her anything about something he’d been involved with. He’d killed more people recently than she’d probably like to think about. But he wasn’t going to. He was going to give her the thing she wanted.
He reached inside his coat and pulled out the envelope with the CD in it. Here, he said, and handed it to her.
What is this? she asked, looking down at it.
I don’t know, he said honestly. Colonel Schoonover gave it to me to keep safe before he died. Before—all the shit. I think it’s stuff about—you know. But it’s encrypted. I can’t open any of the stuff. So you’ll have to figure it out. I don’t know why I didn’t just break it and throw it out.
She was still looking down at the disc. I can’t get anybody to help me do that, she said slowly.
Why not? he said. It’d probably go a lot faster. Doesn’t your paper have people who do stuff like that?
I— she started, and then stopped.
I’m dead, he reminded her. And I did—whatever is on there. Whatever he was—you won’t be lying.
She didn’t say anything.
I’m not lying when I tell you I don’t remember, he said. I can’t. Everything in my brain is—it’s just scrambled up. Might have something to do with getting shot in the head.
I believe you, she said.
He looked out at the ocean. The waves were dark and crashing steadily against the water. It was going to rain later.
What if, she started, you find out it’s something you regret?
He blinked, and turned back to her. Why would that be?
You say you don’t feel bad about—all of the stuff you do, she said. But what if this is—what if this is something you wouldn’t have chosen?
Plenty of things I did over there weren’t things I chose, he said. That’s how it works.
You know what I mean.
He worried his fingers together and looked out at the sea again, leaning his elbows on his knees. Maybe it will be, he said. But it’s done.
She sighed a little, and put the disc into her purse.
You know, I killed somebody once, she said, out of nowhere, and he sat up again, startled.
I killed somebody, she repeated. Her hands were in her coat pockets and she was looking straight in front of her. Nobody else knows. I probably would have gotten off. Self-defense. But nobody knows.
Christ, he said.
She sighed. I don’t—I’d rather be alive, she said. Obviously. But it makes me feel awful every day.
It shouldn’t, he told her.
I don’t know, she said. Maybe not every day. But some days. She turned to look at him. I think you’re full of shit, she said. I think you feel terrible.
He wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he didn’t say anything.
People have to kill other people in war, he said finally, when she simply sat there in silence next to him.
That doesn’t mean you can’t feel bad, she said.
You mean I should feel guilty because I did things other people told me too?
No, she said gently. I mean you should feel human. She paused. And nobody’s telling you what to do now. She didn’t say: And you’re still doing it. She didn’t have to.
He clenched his fingers together. They sat in silence for a while.
Why did you give it to me? she asked eventually. The—stuff.
It’s what you do, he said. Not like I’ve got much of a mouthpiece.
That’s not an answer, she said.
It was the right thing to do, he said, making a face, and she rolled her eyes.
Fine, she said, ignore me.
He pulled off his cap and ran his hand over his hair. I… he started, and stopped. I was over there for twelve years, he said. You know I stayed after Kandahar? I was that fucking crazy. None of my guys were left by then. It was fucking miserable. Every time I came home— He paused. I loved those kids, you know? he said. I loved them so fucking—but whenever I was home I just didn’t—I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. My wife and I had never lived together. So I thought, I’ll go back. I was the best of everyone. You know what that’s like? They thought I was a fucking god. The kids. The higher-ups just didn’t want me to leave. Especially—you know.
At first we all kept telling ourselves we were defending America or some ridiculous bullshit but eventually it all wears off. So I didn’t even have that excuse. Staying away from my kids for no reason except to rot in the desert or in those goddamn mountains. But I kept—doing it—
And now they’re dead, he said. And everything over there—you think we fixed it? You think we made those people’s lives better? We fucked them. So—so—the last—what, fifteen years? What did I do? What lasted? It’s all—it’s all gone—they’re all gone—
He was crying, he was mortified to discover. Just a little. He stuck a thumb in the corner of his eye. He didn’t want to be crying. But Karen—her name was Karen—reached out and touched his shoulder, and didn’t say anything, just waited, and once he had finished they watched the ocean some more, and then eventually got up, and left.
He remembers: the night they got married. A hall her parents rented in New Jersey. His mother looking stiff in the dress she bought for the occasion. Her parents crying until they both got drunk, which felt backwards. He barely remembers the actual wedding. They were twenty-one years old; she was almost twenty-two. But he remembers the party. Everything was cheap and nobody cared. Nobody minded. Everyone was happy, everyone was drunk. Stacy was crying and kissed him full on the mouth. Some of the guys came. Hernandez was already dead.
The thing he remembers the best is: that song playing. And looking at the dance floor: at the aunts and uncles and Marines and the couple of children, and Maria. Her hair was coming out of its updo. I’m a man without conviction, I’m a man who doesn’t know how to sell a contradiction. You come and go. You come and go. Karma… The lights were down. She wasn’t dancing with anybody else. She was inside of herself. And he felt—sad. He was too drunk to put words to it. But he would remember it forever, for years and years: through all his deployments, and redeployments, and her death. He felt, he would realize later, as though time had stopped, and he was visiting—and he would go on, and leave them all there. And he had.
In the desert sometimes he had thought he could see Maria: a trick of the light. He knew it was an illusion. Never the kids. Only Maria. He didn’t know why.
Now sometimes he dreams of her out there in the desert. Folding laundry. Not looking at him. He wants to say something to her but he can’t. He just gets to watch her as long as he can until she’s gone: until he wakes up or until the dream changes. And sometimes he dreams about the children: dreams about their warm little bodies pressed up against his. Lisa doing cartwheels. Frank Jr. at the piano. Sometimes he dreams so deeply he believes they’re still alive and when he wakes up, he starts to cry. But more often he knows that they are dead. No matter how real they feel. No matter how alive. Come back with me, he wants to tell them. He dreads waking. But he always does, and when he wakes up on those mornings, he is already crying. It does not matter that he can walk around the world now with some semblance of equanimity. The wound will never heal.