One minute Bradley’s at the dinner table shoveling homemade rhubarb pie into his mouth and the next he’s tearing down the driveway in his Ford Ranger, clean Arkansas air slapping him across the face with that unmistakable feeling of home. It’s been ten months and twenty-three days, but who’s counting? Not Bradley. Not anymore. Not since he kicked off his combat boots, hugged his mom, and split a six-pack with his old man. Not since now, miles clicking along the county road as the Ranger pushes seventy and Bradley tries to make it to his brother Jared’s house in under ten, like before.
Before. His dad warned him about that. Bradley hardly listened. What could a gristmill manager teach an eighteen-year-old Army recruit gearing up for 21st Century warfare? But sure enough, the advice whistled in Bradley’s ears as he rounded the corner near the gas station and turned right over Little Patmos Creek. “There’s a before and after, son,” his dad had told him. “The trick is not getting stuck fantasizing about either one.” It made no sense at the time and didn’t make any more sense now. Bradley still owed the Army three years. “After” was hardly a thought. He shoved his father’s voice from his mind and focused on the road.
Out past the beam of the Ranger’s headlights, past the two-block town of Patmos, the hillsides of Hempstead County bristled in the early winter air. Before enlistment, Bradley hadn’t seen much further than that. But tonight, tomorrow night, heck for the next two weeks—who cared that he was small town? That he wasn’t even old enough to buy Bud Light? He’d been to Iraq and back. Sure, he was out of harm’s way most of his deployment, replacing gaskets and fixing flats as a wheeled vehicle mechanic on a forward operating base south of Tikrit, but who knew? Nobody back home had heard of fobbits, the derogatory name bullying combat soldiers used for the likes of Bradley.
At the party—a welcome home thrown by his brother—he’d expected the backslapping and WMD jokes that came later that evening. Even the uncertain gazes from folks who probably thought he’d been killing Iraqi citizens. What he hadn’t expected was this: the soft-eyed looks all the girls gave him, the respectful nods from guys he didn’t even know. In the ten seconds it took Bradley to hop out of his truck and walk across Jared’s yard, the entire party’s eyes found him. He felt their attention like a shot of adrenaline. He’d been places since graduation. He must know things now; he might even be traumatized. And brave. Surely he was very, very brave.
“Bradley!” Jared took the porch steps in one leap and rammed his chest into his brother’s. “Man, you’re solid as a rock! Look at you!” He pounded Bradley’s arm a few times and jostled him.
“It’s good to see you! Thanks for this.” Bradley waved at the porch filled with partiers, plastic keg cups in their hands. A few friends he hadn’t seen since graduation waved back. Most folks though, he didn’t even recognize.
Jared slung his arm over Bradley’s shoulders and walked him toward the porch. “Are you kidding? You’re all anybody talks about in Patmos these days. Hometown hero.”
“Really?” Bradley asked.
“I’ll bet you the crack of my ass you’ll be in the paper next week. Home on leave. Patmos’ very own.” They ambled up the porch steps, the crowd parting for them as they moved. “Great citizens of Patmos, Arkansas” Jared bellowed. “Private Bradley Coates, a.k.a RAMBO.” A cheer shot up from the porch, a few dogs barking at the outburst. “Welcome home, little bro. We fuckin’ love you. Don’t we fuckin’ love him?” Another cheer.
“Speech, speech, speech, speech…” the partiers chanted, stomping their feet over shaky joists.
Bradley froze. Even as a star wrestler in high school he hadn’t been singled out, not like this. What could he possibly give a speech about? In the Army, nobody looked at him dead-on unless it was some head-tripper doling out put downs just because Bradley hadn’t fired his M4 since Fort Jackson. Fobbits were all the same. Just a bunch of laborers, holing up inside the wire. Heck, Bradley could have spent the last ten months working for Jiffy Lube.
“I only have one thing to say,” he smiled in mock profundity. If his big brother had taught him anything, it was not to lose the moment, even if he had to fake it. “And that is: where’s the beer?”
Another cheer roared from the crowd, twenty red cups thrust his direction. Bradley looked at the eager faces shining beneath the porch light, their teeth clacking as if to say, Take mine! No, take mine! He grabbed the closest beer and slugged it down, the last gulp splashing onto his coat as more people shoved to get near, congratulating him.
Hugs and small talk ensued as the party buzzed toward midnight. Bradley felt overly aware of his size, his shoulders pressed too tightly into his coat, the plastic cup almost miniature in his palm. “You’re still growing!” his mother had written in those early care packages overflowing with Oreos and beef jerky. Bradley felt babied by this, though his mother guessed right. He was constantly hungry. Yes, from growing, but more from the long shifts and all that weightlifting he’d done to kill the boredom in between. It didn’t matter now. He was home on leave. He could have stuffed-crust pizza delivered to his doorstep at midnight if he wanted.
Music howled from somewhere inside the house. A small crowd huddled around a campfire out back. Bradley emptied his cup again and aimed for the keg, a little swagger in his stride. A petite brunette fussed with the pump, turning toward him as he approached.
“Sonya?” Bradley asked. He hadn’t meant to sound so surprised. She moved away his sophomore year.
“Bradley!” she chirped, giving him a hug. “Good timing. Can you figure this out?”
He took her cup and set it next to his along the railing. Sonya Winters had never given him a hug before. She’d barely been able to remember his name, always referring to him as “Jared’s little brother” or “the one on the wrestling team.” The keg was empty, but another waited. He tapped it and cleared the foam. While he worked, Sonya explained herself.
“My parents split, like two months after we left Patmos,” she told him. “It sucks for my dad. I feel bad for him. But mom and me came back here. I’m at the community college now. I have to take pre-calc again. Can you believe it? Slit my throat.”
“Here.” Bradley handed Sonya her cup.
“Thanks,” she said. “You look good.”
“Huh?” He inspected himself for a moment: ratty Converse and extra long Levi’s, a white cotton tee sticking out the bottom of his coat. He still hadn’t been able to shake the thought that he looked underdressed. Civilian clothes felt useless compared to DCUs. “Thanks. I mean, yeah. Sorry. I’m a little distracted…What a night… ”
He looked at her. She seemed expectant, but tired. “Well, cheers!” he said, finally.
“Cheers!” She smiled, and when Bradley tipped his cup to hers, she kissed him on the cheek.
He blushed, flattered, but turned away and walked into the house. Sonya Winters. She’d always been a flirt. Bradley remembered when Jared took her to prom, the way he bragged about her for weeks afterwards. “Tits like another planet,” he’d told Bradley, gesturing with cupped palms. “And she laughs when she comes, like she’s being tickled. Biggest fucking turn on.”
Girls like Sonya weren’t in Bradley’s league then, not that Jared hadn’t tried his best to set things up for his little brother. By the time Bradley got to high school, Jared’s reputation had carved a path for him whether he wanted it or not. It got him through the basics of small town sex with girls everybody knew, but nothing Bradley felt particularly nostalgic about. Where Jared had relationships, Bradley fumbled with dates and dances until sports became more manageable than girls. Where Jared had a shoe-in at the County Extension after earning his Associate’s, Bradley could hardly sit through Chem class, always fidgety in a chair. Yet both men were tirelessly loyal—to each other, to friends, even to two-block Patmos. The comparison with his brother, had Bradley made the connection, might have been something like two sides of the same coin. Bonded in material, no doubt, but depending on whom you asked, one always appeared in the shadow of the other.
Tonight, Bradley felt bolstered by all the attention. The beer helped. The cool, night air helped. The sound of friends, instead of generators, helped, too. He walked to the kitchen to fill his cup with water. He needed to pace himself if he wanted to remember how well all this was going. Before he turned from the sink, he felt a pair of eyes on his back.
“Big night, soldier.” It was a male voice, flat-toned—not local.
Bradley heard more feet shuffle into the room. Two men, judging by the sounds of their boots. That made three, total. He tried to ignore the way his stomach tightened, his knees locking into hyperextension. The stranger’s tone had a tinny familiarity to it, as though a squad of bloodied combat troops had just delivered their broken down Humvee and glared at him for looking so goddamn clean. “After you’re done baking muffins, see if you can’t get around to fixing our rig,” he’d been hassled more than once.
Bradley exhaled and turned around. He’d guessed right about the men in the kitchen—three of them standing there, a little stupid and slow-looking at the end of a long night. But he hadn’t guessed about the bag of crystal meth the stranger tossed onto the kitchen counter, or the tattoo that said INFIDEL poking out of his half-unbuttoned flannel. That’s what insurgents called American soldiers. That’s what almost every tip of the spear troop he’d met on base in Tikrit had inked somewhere on their bodies.
“You’ve been there, too, huh?” Bradley asked. He leaned his back against the counter; a kitchen island with salsa and chips stood between them. He could eat all that and then some, maybe root around for cheese and make microwave nachos. But not now. Not with this soldier and his two buddies filling the kitchen, their stares unflinching.
“Hell yeah, I’ve been there. Twice,” said the stranger. “Left my leg there, too.” He stepped around the island and tugged at his pant leg, revealing a high-tech prosthesis from the knee down, a fake foot filling out the toes of his shoe.
“Jesus,” said Bradley.
The stranger laughed loudly. “Look at you, whiter than a fuckin’ ghost. What are you? Giving blow jobs over there on base all day?”
The others joined, their laughter invading the kitchen. Bradley stepped around the island, toward the stranger. It wouldn’t take much. A sideswipe to the guy’s bad leg would send him to the floor.
Jared strolled into the kitchen, Sonya in tow. “What’d I miss, Taylor?” he asked.
“Nothing yet. But stick around and you might see Mr. Welcome Home try and get tough.”
Just then, Bradley lunged, ducking fast beneath Taylor’s arms and ramming him into the pantry door. What would have been a take down and two points back in high school was now just an awkward moment, Bradley the star fool. Taylor looked down at the boy wrapped around his rib cage and gave a chuckle.
“Well, how about that…” he said.
Bradley angled his weight into Taylor and felt the hinge on his prosthesis start to give. And as though it were as easy as shaking hands, Taylor slid one meaty arm underneath Bradley’s chin, securing a head lock. The other, he used in a guillotine—both illegal moves in any high school match, but who said anything about playing straight? Bradley’s head throbbed, his field of vision suddenly speckled into dying stars.
“Ah, relax,” said Jared.
Taylor eased up and Bradley slowly backed out of the position. Seamlessly then, he felt Taylor’s thick palms grip his shoulders and flip him around into a full nelson. Jared laughed then, too, seeing his brother face the kitchen, cheeks flushed and veins throbbing along his temples.
“What the fuck?” Bradley squeezed out.
“He’s just messing with you, bro. Isn’t that right?”
“That’s right,” said Taylor, releasing his grip. “Just like Iraq. A little hand-to-hand to keep things real.”
“Right,” said Bradley, stepping away and popping his neck. He had a mind to flee but it was his party, wasn’t it? He leaned against the kitchen island to steady himself. As he rubbed his hands along his throat, he felt a small impression where the buttons on Taylor’s shirt had gouged into his flesh like a tiny, faked bullet hole.
“You bring what I asked?” Jared said.
“Sure as shit,” said Taylor. “And the high’s almost as good as a fire fight.”
The others settled around the kitchen table, Sonya sitting on Jared’s knee. His brother took a hit from the pipe, electric white smoke crackling into the air. As if reading Bradley’s mind, Jared exhaled and looked at his brother.
“Don’t worry kid, it’s only every once in a while.” He smiled, then passed the pipe to Sonya.
Kid. The word didn’t sit well anymore. Kids didn’t enlist in the Army. Kids didn’t have keggers thrown in their honor, local papers touting their military accomplishments, strangers in airports thanking them for their service. Kids weren’t hometown heroes, but maybe Bradley wasn’t, either. He’d certainly been shown as much a few minutes ago, wrapped in Taylor’s death grip. He shoved his way out the back door and wandered into the yard. The night felt cool and damp, as if on the edge of a rainstorm. How long had Jared been hanging around guys like that? He’d acted so casual. Then again, he hadn’t heard Taylor’s crack about blowjobs—or had he? Bradley breathed deeply and kicked his feet along the top of the grass. No dust. No camel spiders. Just that sweet air laced with the sideways hint of a norther.
A few minutes passed and he heard the front door open and close, then a car pulling out of the driveway. Effing infidel, he thought. Weren’t they all fighting in the same war? Choking on the same sand? Guzzling the same chlorinated water that gave everybody the shits? “You’ll make a good team player,” a recruitment officer had told Bradley as he looked over his high school transcripts, noting the weight training credits and sports accolades. But as a wrestler he was the one in charge, long seconds between the ref’s whistle to start and end each match something like a buzz for Bradley as he maneuvered ankle picks and duck-unders, always quicker than his opponents. Teammates hollered from the sidelines, but those seconds in between were all Bradley’s—from the instant decisions he made locking arms with the other guy, to those rare moments he found himself pressed into the mat, body contorted into passivity, when he knew he’d been beat. That was gone now, and though Bradley had moments of cleverness on the roller board underneath a Humvee, wrenches and bolts in hand, those victories were quiet. Smaller. Hardly noticed in the great machinery of war.
Sonya’s laughter cut through the night air, the sound emanating from somewhere back inside. Bradley stumbled to the edge of the lawn and unzipped to take a piss. He could crash on the couch downstairs, but, no. He wanted his own bed. He zipped up and started walking down the driveway.
“Hey, hold on a sec,” a voice called.
“Who’s there?” Bradley saw a figure squatting near the shrubs by the mailbox, just beyond the reach of the porch lights.
“It’s Ashleigh,” she said, standing. “Sorry. The bathroom was locked. Can I get a ride? I’m just in the apartments above the gas station.”
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “I’m Bradley.”
“I know,” she said. “Nice party.”
She looked at him, her light skin visible through the darkness. Her blonde bangs were trimmed to just above her eyebrows. A few hairs caught in her thick mascara. She was older. Twenty-one? Twenty-two? They hadn’t gone to school together, he knew that much.
“You ready? That’s me over there.” He pointed to the Ranger.
“Yeah,” she said. “You good to drive?”
“Good enough.” Bradley shrugged. He hoped it was true.
Minutes later, they stood awkwardly at the bottom of the steps behind the gas station, sharing a cigarette. If this had been Jared’s moment, they might not have made it out of the truck, windows steaming in the damp starlight. But enough of Jared. Enough of folks thinking they knew what it meant to go to Iraq. War played out awkwardly, rarely as planned. Bradley’s war might be fought in tiny moments inside the wire, but it was still war. It wasn’t his fault nobody else could see that.
“It’s weird being back,” he said. He shifted his weight from side to side, gravel crunching underfoot.
“Kinda makes high school look like a cake walk.” As soon as he said it he regretted it, that kid in him always creeping around the edges, making it impossible for anyone to take him seriously. He glanced at Ashleigh, noted the way her lips curled around the cigarette filter as she took another drag. She seemed caught up in something else. If she took him for a kid, she wasn’t showing it.
“So?” she asked. “What’s it like over there?”
Bradley shook his head. “Nobody’s asked me that all night.”
She took the last drag and crushed the cigarette beneath her sneakers. “Well, you don’t have to say nothin’.” She reached for his hands. He felt the cold metal of her watch with the edge of his fingers and imagined how delicately she might remove it before going to sleep. Then he thought of her in bed, himself with her. She smelled like cigarettes and breath mints but Bradley suspected if he got closer, she’d smell different. He may be walking around without a combat badge, but surely there were some things he could still do right. He slid his arms around her waist and they swayed together, beer tilting the Arkansas sky.
Inside, they stumbled over clothing, the nightstand. From there it was easy, though. Bradley had been right. She smelled like sweetened citrus. The softest thing he’d touched in almost a year. A few minutes into it, he bit her nipples too hard, calling attention to their unfamiliarity. But he made a game of it—gentle kisses all over her body like a thousand apologies and when they finally did finish, Bradley nodded off, the muscles in his body relaxed so thoroughly his joints turned to jelly.
He woke just before dawn, the security light from the gas station angling into Ashleigh’s apartment. He got dressed and pulled a chair over to the window. When he reached to slide it open a few inches, Ashleigh woke up.
“Whatchew doin’?” she asked
“Here,” he said, taking a drag from a cigarette. He handed it to her.
“Thanks.” She sat up slowly. “What time is it?”
Ashleigh took a drag and handed the smoke back to him. He tapped the ash out the window. Outside, the warming sky still held a hint of darkness, trying to outgrow the night before.
“God, my head,” she said.
“I’ll get you some water.”
“No. You don’t have to.”
But Bradley was already up, muscled body walking toward her bathroom. He emerged a minute later with a plastic cup. He watched her drink, the way her throat stretched long and smooth as she raised her chin. “I gotta go,” he told her.
Ashleigh set the empty cup on her dresser. “K.” She leaned forward and kissed him, her tongue thick and cool from the tap water.
“Can I come by sometime?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I’m around.”
He drove home slowly, noticing frost across the pastures, a few shallow ditches iced over. Sunrise in Iraq always looked apocalyptic, the horizon announcing itself in fireball red, heat sizzling through the dusty air and warming each day much too quickly. Bradley rolled his window down and let his arm stretch into the morning air. It felt crisp, invigorating. Enough to make each moment seem fresh.
He let himself in quietly, the house humming its gentle noise. The refrigerator. The PC. Muffled voices from a TV left on in the back room. It sounded symphonic to Bradley, almost dream-like. Jared would stop by later, no doubt, probably with another grand adventure planned. Maybe Bradley would stay in this time. Or take the truck on a long drive, radio humming local country. He took off his coat and walked into the kitchen. Leftover rhubarb pie waited for him on the counter.