combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2006


          "You sure you don't want to come?" Monica asks. There's a slight tone of pleading in her voice.

          "Positive," Tom says. "I want to catch up on the newspaper. I'm behind by two days." He's lying; Monica knows this. Tom wants her to go on the hike alone with Patrick, to talk to him and try to make peace, but she can see that his mind is made up.

          "Suit yourself," she says, and pulls on her parka, leaving it open at the front. Monica is five months pregnant with a child they hadn't entirely planned on conceiving. It is Saturday and they are at home, but the atmosphere in the house is tense and unpleasant. Patrick, Monica's brother, is staying with them for the weekend before he leaves for Fort Benning to start basic training, and she's furious with him. It's a good thing, Monica thinks, that they have a nursery now; the room used to be Tom's office, and would have made a very poor guest room.

          The hike was Monica's idea. She wanted to look for winter birds. If she feels cornered, she knows it's her own fault. Poor planning. She has the feeling that the two men, brother and husband, are ganging up on her.

          As soon as they get into the car, Patrick snaps on the radio. He's trying to ward off Monica's barrage of small talk, the filler she uses to avoid talking about the war he's going to fight. He's tried to bring it up calmly, but she acts as though she can't hear him. She'd rather pretend than spend her last days with him drenched in anger, and she's not sure she'd be able to keep her temper if the subject were opened. They talk about other things instead. They have talked about global warming, internet auction sites, sugar-free chewing gum, and the Keds they wore as children. They have discussed chia-pets, low-flow showerheads, IMAX movies, and their mother's underdeveloped taste in art. Now, while Monica drives, he chatters about his life in Brooklyn, where he's just left his job waiting tables in a French restaurant.

          "Most of the guys in the kitchen are Ecuadorian," he says. "They're real tough guys, and it took them a while to think I was okay, but now we get along. It's pretty rare. The cooks and the waitstaff don't usually get along."

          "Why Ecuador?" Monica asks as she drives. She's been to Ecuador with the Audubon society. She saw toucans, and seven different species of hummingbird. Patrick shrugs.

          "That's just where they come from," he says. "I started learning some Spanish, and now I talk to them in their own language." Monica is used to these rambling, self-congratulatory stories. Ever since they were children he has told tales about the favor he manages to garner from unusual sources. She notices that Patrick is referring to his former colleagues in the present tense, as though, as she suspected, he hasn't fully realized what he's done.

          "It sounds like you're going to miss them," she says, "and they you." She's skating around the edges of it now, testing the ice to see if it will hold her. She can't resist the temptation to take a dig.

          "I'll make new friends," he says. "New friends who speak Spanish, probably. I heard there are a lot of Hispanics in the Army. And the Spanish I know is mostly dirty anyway. I'll feel right at home."

          The parking lot at the trailhead is deserted. Monica has never seen it so empty, even in winter. She heaves herself out of the car and pauses to retie her hiking boots and to take her binoculars from their leather case.

          "Oh boy," Patrick says, full of sarcasm, "get ready. There might be a bird somewhere." He's teasing, she knows, but the contempt is sincere. He really does think that bird watching is a waste of time.

          The trail starts with a steep hill, then winds through a thick wooded area towards the creek that bisects the park; Monica has walked the same path many times before. She and Patrick start up the hill together, silent for now. There has already been a snowfall this year, and the frozen leaves crunch under their boots. The trees grow thick around them.

          Monica walks half a step behind her brother, watching him as he spots the blue blazes on the trees ahead and charges forward. He hikes with his head down, as though there were an important destination ahead. It's a waste of scenery, she thinks, even in familiar territory, but especially now, in his last days of freedom. Patrick has only been to Pennsylvania once since she moved here with Tom three and a half years ago. He had just started college then, and had been full of excited chatter about parties and dorms and all his new friends. It had seemed to her like a sudden change from that giddy excitement to his final departure from the school eight months later, but she knew there must have been a progression, a slower decline that she hadn't noticed. She'd been setting up house with Tom, painting the walls different shades of beige and eggshell, starting her job at the private high school, traveling to Latin America to look for exotic birds, all pursuits that seemed very important at the time.

          Patrick broke the news a month ago. It was early evening, and Monica had just returned from work. She didn't immediately recognize his voice on the phone.

          "Patrick?" she finally realized. "You sound different." For a brief panicked moment, she wondered if it was his birthday and she had somehow lost track, but no, it was only October.

          "It's been a while," he said bitterly. "I probably sound older." She tried to remember the last time they'd spoken. He was living in Brooklyn in a tiny apartment with a whole gang of friends. He was waiting tables. All this news had come months ago. She'd called him in July to tell him about the baby. And before that? Christmas, perhaps.

          "How are you?" she asked, trying to keep the guilty tone from her voice. She was in the kitchen, still squeezing into regular clothes then, trying to figure out whether she needed to go to the grocery store that night, or if they could make do.

          "Things haven't been so great," he said. "Still working at this same job."

          "You're still young." She was rooting in the refrigerator, checking the crisper for vegetables.

          "I don't know what the hell I'm doing with myself. I can't wait tables forever."

          "If you enjoy it, you can," she said. She opened a jar of pasta sauce and sniffed. She replaced the lid and put it back on the shelf.

          "I don't enjoy it. Aren't you listening? I'm sick of it." She'd wanted to snap at him that that's what he got for dropping out of school. Instead she adopted her calm, motherly voice, the voice she'd developed for use with panicking students, girls who couldn't concentrate because they'd been made fun of in the bathroom, boys whose parents wouldn't let them play soccer if they didn't get their grades up.

          "What do you like?" she asked. "You always liked music. Maybe you can do something in music." She couldn't identify with him. She'd known she was going to be a teacher since she was ten years old, and it was, so far, as satisfying as she'd imagined it would be. This kind of aimlessness mystified her, even when she was feeling well-rested and patient.

          "I thought about that," he said. "There are no jobs in music."

          "I guess you need to start making a plan, then." She stepped away from the refrigerator, annoyed. Tom would be home within twenty minutes, and she had no ideas for dinner. She could pick up take-out Indian food. He liked curry. She felt a wave of nausea at the thought of the spicy food.

          "That's what I've been trying to tell you," Patrick said. "I have a plan."

          "Good. Let's hear it." Monica stepped back from the refrigerator, really listening now.

          In her memory of the conversation, she stood in the middle of the kitchen for several minutes before she was able to think of a response to his news, but in reality she lashed back at him almost immediately.

          "Don't be ridiculous," she said.

          "I start basic training in just over a month." In the days that followed, she realized that this all made sense. He was exactly their target audience, young, broke, unhappy, hungry for something.

          "You don't even believe in this war," she told him. "They're going to send you to Iraq." They were like a different species to her, those people with flag magnets on their cars and Support Our Troops signs planted in their yards. They'd lived their whole lives, she and Patrick, and their parents too, believing that war was never the answer, sending money to any organization that claimed to be pacifist.

          "Joining the Army doesn't mean I'll go into combat," he said. "Do you even know what it means? Do you have any idea?"

          "It's still dangerous." She didn't know whether or not this was true, but it seemed like it must be.

          "People are going to die there whether I enlist or not. Might as well be me."

          "You've got lots of other options," she said. She was trying to be reasonable, but the words were coming out shrill and frantic. "Go back to school. Find a better job. Move back in with mom and dad." He didn't answer. She tried again. "I can help you," she said. "I can get you a job down here, near me."

          "I'll get an education," he said. "That's part of the plan."

          "You don't have to do it like that," she argued.

          "It's already done."

          "You can't," she said.

          "This is what I want," he said. "I hoped you could support me." She began to realize that he was serious, that the decision had been made without her. She felt as though she were talking to a stranger, someone who'd dialed the wrong number and just started babbling. Patrick never said things like I hoped you could support me. He was never so straightforward. When she heard Tom's car in the driveway, she lost her temper.

          "I can't believe you," she said. She hung up, slamming the cordless phone into its cradle. Tom came in.

          "What is it?" he asked.

          "Nothing," she told him. "I'm fine."

          "That's a lie," he said, and he coaxed it out of her. It was Tom's idea that Patrick should come for a weekend, that Monica should do her best to understand, and failing that, to pretend. He'd barely spoken above a whisper: "It could be your last chance."

          She's out of breath by the time they crest the first hill. It's embarrassing, though she knows it's just part of being an expectant mother. Mother, she thinks. She can't get used to it.

          "Are you all right?" Patrick asks when she catches up with him. "Are you cold? I don't want you to stress yourself, Mama. Heh, Mama."

          "I'm fine," she snaps. She doesn't mind the teasing, but the worrying is starting to grate on her. Even strangers do it, in the grocery store, in parking lots, as though her body is now their business. They start walking again and she continues to watch him, in his jeans and his Green Bay Packers sweatshirt. He looks very young, though he's only four years younger than she is. She is just enough older to have stayed a category above him while they were growing up, with different sets of rules. She always liked having a little brother, someone who wanted the things that she had, to whom she could explain things, of whom she could sometimes be in charge.

          She hears a rustle up in the trees and lifts the binoculars from around her neck. "See something?" Patrick asks her.

          "Just a couple of crows," she says, the brief flare of excitement extinguished.

          "I guess you won't be able to go looking for birds as much," he says, "with the baby." He sounds earnest; he is trying to imagine how it might feel to be Monica now.

          "I guess not." She's thought of this before. She can take day hikes, but she won't be flying to Latin America any time soon.

          "You might have to find a real hobby," he says, nudging her. "Something that's actually interesting." She swats at him with the back of her hand, and he grins and gallops away, out of her reach. It occurs to her that were they not related, she would not have chosen Patrick as a friend; the thought disturbs her more now than it did the first time it occurred to her, about her parents while she was in college. It doesn't matter, she realizes; choice is not a term of this equation. They're moving down the other side of the hill now, and the path begins to flatten out. Monica picks up her pace; it would feel good to break a sweat, to feel a sensation rooted firmly in the body.

          They crest another hill, and the next blaze on the trail isn't immediately apparent. Patrick, too, is squinting ahead, looking for splashes of paint.

          "I'm pretty sure it's this way," she says, starting off to the left.

          "I don't see anything," he says.

          "Me neither. I just remember." After a few paces she stops short. Patrick opens his mouth to speak but she grabs his wrist to silence him. She thinks she has seen a collared dove. She has never seen one before, only pictures in field guides. It's in the high branches of a sycamore. She looks through her binoculars, but she can't get a good view. She shuffles down a ways towards the tree, still looking, still focusing on the shape in the branches. She moves closer still, then around the side. She locks it in her view and studies it carefully. It is definitely a collared dove, rare in North America, even more rare in the winter. She wishes someone else were there to see it, someone who would recognize it and confirm the sighting. The bird doesn't notice her; it sticks its beak up under its wing. It hops around on the branch, a little to one side, then to the other. It takes off.

          "What the hell was that?" Patrick says, scurrying down the slope and over a protruding tree root to her side.

          "A collared dove," she says, still staring after it. "Very rare." She will be able to check it off on her life-list. As she's grown older, she's checked off fewer and fewer things each year. She's seen all the usual birds, the common ones, the ones everyone's got, and she has to work harder to generate novelty and excitement.

          "Congratulations," he says flatly. She's growing frustrated with introducing neutral topics of conversation and seeing him shoot them down. He is making it difficult to carry on a peaceful conversation.

          "I still don't see any blazes," he says, "do you?" She looks around.

          "No. Maybe we should turn back."

          "I'll just look a little farther down," Patrick says. "Wait here." She agrees, and he shuffles down the slope. He disappears from view.

          "Jesus Christ," she hears from down among the trees.

          "What is it? Are you all right?"

          "I think it's a fox," he calls.

          "Careful," she warns as she scrambles down the path, "don't get too close." He's squatting down, leaning over something, intent.

          "He's hurt," Patrick says. "His back foot's all infected." Monica still can't see the animal as she comes up behind her brother. She tries to look over his shoulder, but he moves to meet her, shielding the animal from her gaze.

          "Let me see it," she says.

          "You don't want to see this. It looks like he escaped from a trap or something." She manages to steal a glance around Patrick and immediately vomits into the leaves. The fox's fur is a beautiful auburn, but the back foot has turned a sick shade of black and green, and the fur all around is matted with dark dried blood. She catches sight of the eyes, their slit-like pupils squinting with pain and pleading, and cannot stand it. She turns her back, still gagging with disgust and horror. The taste of the stomach acid in her mouth is familiar in recent months, and she longs to wash it away with a cool splash of water.

          "Let's go," she says, "let's get away from here."

          "We can't just leave him. He's in pain. He'll never survive."

          "Come on," she says, "there's nothing we can do." She wants to be back in her house, clean and bright, sheets recently washed, countertops scrubbed with bleach.

          "We can't just leave him here," Patrick says again. "Some idiot did this to him. We gotta put him out of his misery."

          "We can't do that," Monica says. "Even if we had some way, it's not our place."

          "At least let's go tell someone. Does this park have rangers or something?"

          "I don't know, I've never seen one." She wants to get back to the car, to drive home and add the collared dove to her list, to lie down and rest in her cool, clean bed. She wants to be with Tom, to spend some more time with Patrick, and to have that time be pleasant. She's glad there are no rangers that she knows of; maybe now he will give up.

          "This could be tricky," Patrick says, standing. "If we leave to get help, we might lose him. God, if I could find the guy who did this." She can see a kind of tightness in his jaw, a primal anger. She's felt it herself while watching the news.

          "Patrick," she says, "please, let's just go home." She feels as though if she stays there much longer, smelling the leaves, hearing the sounds of the woods, she will be sick again.

          "Somebody's got to do something," he says. "Do you want to wait here while I go for help? Or we could tie my sweatshirt to the tree, so we can find the place, and then you can wait in the car while I find someone." She can see that Patrick is not to be dissuaded.

          "I'll come with you," she says. Patrick starts to pull the sweatshirt off over his head. "You'll be cold!" she objects.

          "I'll be fine," he says. It's his tough-guy act. She's seen it before. He played the last fifteen minutes of a middle-school basketball game with a broken finger, and it's been crooked ever since. He has only a thin T-shirt as an underlayer, and she can see the goose bumps already rising on his skinny arms as he ties the sweatshirt sleeves to a branch. Together they scramble back up to the last place they saw a trail blaze and start back towards the parking lot.

          "I'm going to see that thing when I close my eyes at night," she says. She can still taste the vomit in her mouth.

          "I'm sorry," he says, "that's a terrible thing for you to have to see." Monica is thinking of the things Patrick might see in coming months. This is nothing; this is good practice. By the time they reach the parking lot, she's beginning to feel seriously exhausted, an effect of the pregnancy that she hates even more than the morning sickness, more than the change in wardrobe.

          "Isn't there an office around here somewhere?" he asks. "A ranger station? Anything?"

          "There's a building with bathrooms," she says, "just around the corner here. But I don't remember ever seeing someone inside."

          "Well, we can always call the police," he says. "You can just call 911 here, right?"

          "That's only for emergencies," she says.

          "This is an emergency." She can see his fist clenching in his pocket.

          "Okay," she says, "go ahead, call them." She'll just let him call, let the operator reprimand him for misusing the service, and then they can go home and forget about it. Patrick pulls a cell phone from the pocket of his jeans. He dials, and she listens to him explain the situation. He answers questions. He nods his head seriously.

          "Thank you so much," he says into the phone, "I'll be waiting in the lot." He presses a button and slips the phone back into his pocket.

          "It shouldn't take too long," he says to Monica. "Then we can get you back home." They stand by her car to wait. Monica takes a deep breath but she can't think of anything inane to say. Patrick is staring into the distance. She suddenly feels hungry, aware that her stomach is now empty. She feels a wave of dizziness.

          "I don't see why we have to do this," she says, though she knows any argument now is futile.

          "It's the right thing to do," Patrick says.

          "It's not like we hurt its goddamn foot," she says. "I don't want to spend my last hours with my little brother watching a cop shoot a fox."

          "No," he says, "you just want to spend them pretending he's somebody else." She feels the accusation like a punch to her jaw, far worse than the sting of a random, false finger-pointing. She slumps back against the car. Her mind is running in very small circles, from anger to fear to denial to anger again, circles too swift and small to allow the formulation of entire thoughts. Patrick continues. "You want to pretend like I just dropped by to say hello, like I'm going back to a fancy college on a hill behind a gate and then I'm going to get a job in an office and make a lot of money and find a nice girl."

          "You're making me sound like mom and dad."

          "No, you're making yourself sound like mom and dad. I make one decision for myself, and you can't handle it because it's not what you would've done, and you're just so sure you know what's best. You don't even bother to ask what it's really going to be like." She's barely hearing him now. This whole weekend was a terrible idea; she should've just let him go, said goodbye over the phone, waited for the news that he was safe on some base somewhere.

          The police car pulls into the parking lot, and Patrick goes over to it without looking back at her. She can hear his disgust in his footsteps. An officer gets out. He's short and slim, his uniform crisp. Monica's eyes gravitate to the holster on his hip.

          "Good afternoon," he says. His voice is surprisingly deep, given his size. Monica pushes herself up and pulls her jacket tighter around her. The officer shakes hands with Patrick. "Thank you for calling," he says. "We've had some real problems out here lately."

          "I'll take you to the animal," Patrick says. "This is my sister, Monica," he adds, inclining his head in her direction.

          "Pleased," the cop says. "You might want to wait here, ma'am." She has the instinct to be offended by the sexism, but she realizes that he's right. She wants to stay right where she is. She wants to run in the opposite direction.

          "We'll only be a minute," Patrick says, looking sideways at the cop as though to confirm that this is the case. She unlocks the car and gets in as they disappear into the woods. She turns on the radio to keep her mind busy while she waits, but she can only find commercials. She imagines discussing the incident with Tom later that night, when they're settled in their bed. He will stay maddeningly neutral, though part of her imagines that this is all his fault. The visit was his idea.

          She hears the gunshot. She feels the jolt through her whole body, in her mouth, in her fingernails, all through her belly. She's never heard a real gunshot before; she's lived her entire life in safe suburbs. She hadn't realized how loud it would be, even from this distance. She feels the urge to drive away, to leave the fox there, to leave Patrick with his new friend, the cop. None of this has anything to do with her and her life. Everything has changed beneath her: she is now at the head of a family of three. She is the sister of a soldier, and she will be afraid of the ringing telephone. No one asked her consent for these changes.

          Her back is to the trail and the shot is still ringing in her ears, but she senses Patrick's arrival, and she turns around to watch him. He's got the sweatshirt on again, and he's taking his time crossing the lot; he is alone. The cop, she imagines, is still back there in the woods, getting rid of the body. As she sees the self-satisfied look on her brother's face, she wishes she had left him and gone speeding back to Tom, who would wrap her up in his arms, and the whole thing would never have happened.

          "You happy now?" she asks when he opens the door. "Done your little good deed for the day?"

          "Yes," he says, "thanks for all your help." She feels a drop of his spit hit her cheek. He continues. "Officer Johnson says to thank you, too. He says not enough people take responsibility around here." Monica wonders if he actually said that, or if Patrick is just embellishing the story to paint himself in a heroic light, as he so loves to do. But then, in this particular case, she thinks, he may be right. She was concerned with her own comfort, physically and otherwise. "You okay?" he says, leaning forward to try to catch her eye. "Mon, come on, let's go home. You should lie down."

          "Sorry," she says. She gives her head a shake to clear her thoughts and puts the car in gear.

          "It was just a fox," he says, and when she doesn't look over at him, he repeats himself. "It was just a fox." She is aware of a concept that she is refusing to grasp, a concept by which it doesn't matter what is objectively right and wrong. It matters only what is actually happening and how she responds. She sees all this laid before her like a map, like empty dishes set on a table before a feast.

          "It wasn't just a fox," she says, "it's you and your goddamn war. It's the stupid government and you're just doing whatever they say and you didn't even bother to ask and I don't want you to get killed." She isn't thinking of each complaint before it comes out of her mouth. They seem to be generated in her throat, not in her brain.

          "Stop!" Patrick yells, and at first she thinks he is trying to put an end to her diatribe. It's too late when she understands. They're already in the middle of the intersection, the car on the cross street screeching and swerving, leaning on the horn. She slams the brake on and stops on the far side of the intersection. She hears a high tone in her ears, the kind that only exists inside her head. Her right hand instinctively gravitates to her belly. She feels short of breath. The car has stopped.

          "Jesus," Patrick says, "you went right through it." Her heart is pounding. She feels the seatbelt across her chest and belly, where it slammed into her to stop her flying through the windshield. It takes her a moment to realize that she stopped in time, that they didn't hit the other car.

          "Are you okay?" she asks. Her voice sounds strange, faint. She can't look over at Patrick, in case she has caused him some harm. She, who was so eager to protect him.

          "I'm fine," he says, "totally fine. We should go to your doctor, though. You should get checked out." She doesn't reply. He's right; she knows she should. She feels that she is responsible for some injury, though everyone is fine. She sees her life stretching out before her in motherhood, a long line of hazards and disasters, just waiting to happen, right in front of her, wherever she goes. Right in her neighborhood, in her home, the safest place she knows.

          "Let's go home," Patrick is saying, "I'll drive. Let's get pizza tonight. Relax. We're all okay." He's trying, she knows, to create an air of safety. She sees through the act, but she's too tired to resist. She moves over to let him drive, and they keep going on down the road. She imagines Patrick driving a Hummer in the desert. She imagines him sleeping in a bunk. She thinks of all the boys who will be sleeping beside him, and who their mothers and sisters are. She thinks of the day when the war will end.

by Amy Knight
... who is a graduate student in writing at the University of Arizona. She is working on her first novel, which explores the effects of language loss on the life of a family.

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C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones