"There he is!" his mother shrieked. "Oh my God! Oh my God! Look
at him – Paul! Paul!"
He was twenty-fourth. His mother had counted. They marched
through the door from the quiet transport into a screaming mess,
cameras and lights, frantic wives and husbands and kids. The
chaos hit him like a shockwave. Paul abstracted out the
irrelevant faces in the crowd as he had learned to, looking for
anomalies, tells that said he was going to die. The anomalies in
the Midwest airport were friendlies, his mother, his brother
Buddy, his girlfriend Terri, the rest just faces floating in the
glare of lights that followed the booms and cameras in a fierce
hunger for the right kind of crying, a smile of relief breaking
through visible tears.
Then Terri was in his arms weeping and his mother behind her and
Buddy waiting until they had finished. His mother was screaming
something but it didn't matter what. The cameras turned and the
bright lights and a falsely perky plastic bimbo thrust a handheld
mic in his face.
"Tell us how it feels to be home, soldier!" she said with a
Barbie smile. Except her hair was brunette, sprayed on
top of her make-up. The microphone poked him like a prod and he
knocked it away.
"I just got off the plane," he said. "I don't know how it feels."
"It's great to see everyone waiting isn't it," she said without a
question mark. He stared at her set smile. She blinked, made a
decision, and turned to a black guy. "Hello soldier!" she shouted
and the big guy gave her the smile and nod that she wanted. "Tell
us how it feels —"
Terri was still crying, climbing the front of his body as if he
were a tree. As if she wanted to find a hole and get inside. His
mother was hugging both of them and weeping with what she would
later say was happiness that he was back, he was back in one
piece, but it sounded like screeching in a horror movie to Paul.
As if the girl going down the cellar stairs alone saw the slasher
in the shadows.
Buddy waited for them to finish and took his older brother's hand
and gave it a shake.
"Hey, Paul," he said with a smile.
"Hey, Buddy," Paul said back.
The lights were a swarm of bees humming in search of a place to
nest. Families and friends swarmed in a chaotic swirl, noisy and
cloying. Other passengers tried to get past them to get to their
flights. The hallways were smeared with wet footprints from snow
outside and dirt on their boots. It was hot and dry in the
airport like the desert. He wanted a drink. He wished he had his
sunglasses handy. Terri gripped his arm so hard it was starting
to hurt. His mother was pressing her face into her hands and
waddling beside him, his brother walking behind by a step or two,
the only one of the bunch that he didn't want to hit.
The duffel bags came slowly around the carousel and the milling
crowds crumpled around the bags, stumbling along the conveyor
belt to pull them off. Families and friendlies ... felt ...
strange, was how Paul said it, later, talking to the doc. It was
standard to check in at the VA, and he did. It was strange to be
somewhere he didn't have to examine the surrounding crowd every
second for a too-thick coat, a face out of phase, some
"To be expected," the doctor said. "Yes?"
Paul shrugged. "I guess."
The doctor waited.
"And your mother?"
"What about my mother?"
"You were starting to say —?"
He shifted in the chair. Anxiety prickled his eyes and fretted
his chest. His chest felt hollow for a moment, waiting for
something to fill it. He tried to fill it with his voice.
"She keeps crying. She keeps holding on, and crying."
"Also to be expected. Yes?"
"It makes me want to hit her. Just shut her the hell up."
"Also to be expected. Did you?"
"What, hit her? No."
Paul rearranged himself. "Who the hell knows what they might do?
Do you? Do you think you know what you're going to do next?"
Doctor van der Haag controlled his emotions, a little too much,
Paul thought. "Yes, Paul, I do."
"Then you're as much of a liar as they are. You never been there.
The doctor's look was angled away. "I haven't been in combat,
"I'm not talking about combat, " Paul said. "Jesus fucking
Christ. I'm talking about that room."
"Ah," the doctor sat back, folding his hands out of sight in his
lap. He smiled across the desk as if a door had opened and
someone he liked was waiting inside. "Tell me about the room."
Terri was in his bedroom naked under the sheets. The cold winter
twilight was blue on the drawn shade. The smell of too much food
cooking in the kitchen filled the little bungalow. It made him
"Come here," she said, trying to be sexy. She let the sheet down
exposing her breast. Paul knew he was supposed to be excited. He
sat on the edge of the bed and put his hand on her thigh.
"Later," he said. "After the rest of them go to sleep."
She tried not to be disappointed but Terri was never much good at
deception. She would have lasted about ten minutes, over there.
"I just want to make you feel good, honey."
Paul moved his hand on her leg. He made a smile. "I know. I know
He felt as if he were talking to her through a window. He could
feel her there, somewhere, under the tented sheet. But he
couldn't be sure it was Terri yet, not by the simple feel of a
She was further away than she ought to have been, judging by the
distance to her face, her breast, the angle of her knee,
"I do want to fuck you, honey," he said, making himself sort of
feel his words.
She reached over and let her hand come to rest on his crotch. She
felt it stir a little and massaged it lightly, giving him her
"I am just so glad you're back," she said.
He looked at her, waiting for more.
She didn't intend to say it but did. "Aren't you?"
"Of course," he said. "Sure I am."
Her hand stopped pressing. She rested it there, letting him feel
the pressure, and she felt him against the back of her hand. She
could not make out his expression in the dim room. It was like he
wasn't moving a muscle or anything inside. Like he was still
"Hey!" Buddy shouted, knocking on the door. "Dinner's ready. You
two want to come out?"
"Sure," Paul called. Terri let him stand up and leave the room
before she threw the sheet back, dressed in a hurry, and stopped
crying long enough to make up a face.
Dinner was predictable. The script had been written. Paul had
seen Born on the Fourth of July and The Deer Hunter
and Platoon. He saw Jarhead and Three Kings
and Full Metal Jacket. He made himself sit through
Apocalypse Now. Back in school, they made him read Big
Two-hearted River, both parts. So he knew the story. He just
couldn't get his mind around how they kept doing it. Over and
So he made an effort not to think about things he couldn't
understand. He was not going to let himself be one of the
stereotypical crazy guys who came back and acted nuts. He knew
the routine and refused to play the game.
He sat through dinner and later that night, when his mother
finally went to bed, he fucked Terri spasmodically in the chilly
bedroom where he had been a kid. It felt weird, doing it in
there, after he had gotten his own place before he left. He
needed to get his own place again, more than ever. Terri said he
could come in with her and her roommates and he said thanks a
lot. No, he needed a place of his own, somewhere to be quiet and
get away from all the commotion.
"What commotion?" Terri asked.
"The noise," he told her. "It's like always pins and needles in
the background now, waiting for something to happen."
"I remember your Uncle Galvin saying after World War II how they
took him out to Kettle Moraine thinking he would enjoy the woods
and every time a twig snapped he fell to the ground."
"Yeah, well it's something like that, but not exactly."
"Well, what is it, then?"
She was sitting on the bed putting cream on her feet, one leg
crossed. He watched her rub it in and looked out the window at
the Greubers' rusted air conditioner still in the upper window.
"It's waiting," he said at last. "Waiting for something to
trigger. It's hard to explain."
She crossed over the other leg and worked the cream between her
toes. "Trigger what?"
He inhaled the scent of the lotion and remembered putting wads of
cotton into his nose. He was barely able to inhale through the
The first time he went into the room, four oh four was in the
corner, a young naked guy, soaked and cold. It was really cold in
there and the air conditioner blasted. The kid was holding
himself and shivering. Everyone else wore coats. Paul went over
and saw his teeth chattering, maybe he heard them or maybe he
made it up. He thought he remembered the uncontrollable staccato.
There were cuts and bruises on his body and his arms and legs.
Someone had worked him with a razor blade. His eyes looked like
animals' eyes. Then Paul heard a sound like a bug zapper hissing
and that set the kid to screaming. He screamed and screamed as
Johnny came around with the rod in his hand and thrust it toward
him. Johnny and Carl and Frankie laughed as the kid tried to
shrink into the corner, disappear into the wet floor. Johnny
poked the cold prod into his shoulder, making him wail like a
Perry Mirsky said something in his language and the guy stared up
at him, shaking, shaking his head. Mirsky said something else.
The kid replied. Then Mirsky again. Then the kid. He jabbered for
a long time, anything to keep it away. But Mirsky had the last
"Zap him," he said.
Johnny hit him with the live prod. The kid shrieked and he held
it there, the odor of burning flesh fighting with the sweet
chemical reek in his nose. Then the kid was shitting all over
himself, a greenish liquid ooze. The odors mingled, forever.
"I don't like the smell of that cream, whatever it is."
She finished rubbing it into the arch. "You like it when my soft
feet are on your chest when you get up like that."
He watched her finish then pull on high blue socks.
"I don't like the smell of that cream," he repeated.
She pushed her feet into loafers and stood up. "Then I better
wash my hands," she said, and she did.
Leaving Paul in the hallway waiting because he didn't know at the
moment where to go, what else he might do, where to turn. He
stood there waiting while she ran the water and then it stopped.
She opened the door and, coming out, almost walked into him.
"We'll go to the mall and you can pick out whatever cream you
She looked up into his eyes and smiled.
He knew she was doing everything she could. That's what made him
a little anxious. Everybody was doing everything they could. But
they lived far away on an expansive plain so vast he could barely
see or feel them or hear what they said. The distance and the
wind diminished everything. The wind was the kind that never
stopped. The plain was without perspective and all of the people
out there looked like ants.
"OK?" she said again, coming into what would have been his arms,
had they been raised.
He made himself say, "OK."
Made himself put his arms around her, made himself hold her
Made himself be like a puppet, a marionette, making the right
moves, saying the right things, being every bit as regular as
by Richard Thieme
... who is a professional author of books, stories, and articles,
which are indexed at Thieme
Works online. His Richard Thieme's Islands in the
Clickstream (July 2004) is a collection of past works, while
"Entering Sacred Digital Space", New Paradigms for Bible
Study: The Bible in the Third Millennium (June 2004) and
"Identity / Destiny", Prophecy Anthology (vol 1, 2004)
were anthologized. His "The Changing Context of Intelligence and
Ethics: Enabling Technologies as Transformational Engines"
appeared in Defense Intelligence Journal
(January 2007). His stories have been published in Analog
Science Fiction, The Puckerbrush
Review, Timber Creek Review,
Porcupine, Pacific Coast
Journal, The Potomac Review,
Red Wheelbarrow, Heartlands,
The Circle Magazine, The Listening
Ear, Words on Walls, Nth
Degree, Down in the Dirt,
Golf, Rogue, and elsewhere. His
articles have been published in Forbes,
Salon, Information Security,
Secure Business Quarterly, Village
Voice, Wired, Counter
Punch, Common Dreams, Internet
Underground, National Catholic
Reporter, Asia Times Online,
The Witness, and elsewhere. This short story has
been excerpted from The Room, a forthcoming book.