When you were young by Melanie Griffin

Flash Fiction

Your lieutenant calls you up while you’re trying to get to the end of the latest Guardians of the Galaxy issue you’ve been able to get your hands on, the one where Starlord finally figures out who his dad might be. You’re squinting at the words, sprawled on your bunk next to Jenkins and his phone call home.

“Mom.” He shouts, holding the receiver sideways like his walkie-talkie. “Mom – yeah – hello? Mom? Mom.”

“Kahn.”

Jenkins bashes the phone back into its receiver, shaking the particleboard table that crouches between your beds. “Piece-a shit.”

You feel the shudder travel through the steel frame into the filling on your molar. Your shoulders hunch as if ignoring the order, but only as a microscopic arc of rebellion that immediately swoops up as if it’s a natural start to standing.

“Kahn.”

You straighten to attention, brushing crumbs off your undershirt on the way. “Sir.”

Your lieutenant nods and you relax, although not noticeably. He’s three months younger than you but better at caring, better at blocking the lazy doubts that creep into every crack with the sand.

“Your turn, Kahn,” he says. He doesn’t look back to make sure you shrug on your jacket or buckle your helmet, but he walks away to the rhythm of your gun clacking together.

By now you’ve gotten better at ignoring the yells of “Kahhhhhhhhhn!” that sometimes band together into a unified chant, pushing you out the scrap of door you’re always afraid will break on the backswing. But when you get outside, you inhale the silence and try to keep it in your nose like your girlfriend’s shampoo.

She’s your wife now – you keep forgetting that, keep missing her like you did in high school when your family took her away for a weekend that stretched out into forever and back before you could make out again late on Sunday.

You take off your plain gold band when it’s your turn, button it into your breast pocket because you’ve heard of bullets being stopped that close to a heart by a thick stack of paper, and surely metal beats paper. Your wife would like that story, anyway. She believes in God.

***

It’s quiet in the sniper nest.

(Too quiet, your brain insists on finishing, but just because you saw that in a movie at an impressionable age. As far as the rest of you is concerned, it’s never too quiet when it’s your turn. You pray for boredom.)

High above the rest of the base, tucked in the crotch of a functioning electrical pole (if you bump it with a fist, Skaggs’s porn DVD will waver on the rabbit-ear TV by his bunk), you let your eyes roam naked to the hills. They’re the same as ever; undulating tans you’ve almost memorized as they shift through the patterns of their days, with the angled metal shock of camp springing up under your chin. You can smell the latrine if you sniff too hard and taste the first salt of sweat beading on your lips. It’s got more seasoning than those flash-fried potatoes you got with your powered orange juice.

Nothing moves, so you strap on your binoculars, settle your rifle into its stand so it points alert at the horizon, and fish an extra wire out of the pocket labeled with your name, the one whose Velcro you keep loose so it won’t catch on itself or snarl out loud. The earbuds you find are a bitch to fit in with one hand, and, strictly speaking, not allowed, but the iPod they’re attached to connect you with home.

You won’t admit how much you need that except when you’re up here alone and scanning the landscape for death.

A flick of the thumbnail you need to trim floods your ears with shimmering guitars and a mournful voice. It makes you want to dance, or at least push a tuneless sing along out of your throat, but you have learned to stay still.

So still that between drills and raids and four-hour nights of Skaggs’s moans and Jenkins’s wails (they are both terrible mufflers) and nothing ever breaking up the desert as it wavers and bakes in the sun, your eyes blink for longer and longer seconds. At some point they stay down for an entire song, the one that blared over your girlfriend’s car stereo as she drove you to the airport for deployment. She didn’t listen to anything but the pop station, and that with only half an ear.

“I’ll pray for you,” she said, around tears and a kiss she’d started using on your wedding night. You’d nodded and kissed back and smiled with the cocky assurance of a second go-round, but you never did catch her gaze and sometimes you wonder what she thinks –

The whistling pop and searing chest pain rip into you at the same time. You’re wide awake now but can’t move, can’t get down any further than the wooden planks your head is drumming into splinters out of your control, can’t scream to drown out the music that’s still playing, somehow, assuring you that he doesn’t look a thing like Jesus, but he talks like a gentleman like you imagined when…

***

They send you back pinned in purple and heart-shaped copper. You are full of honor, and a certificate signed by the President says so. And yet.

And yet your body rejects pop music like it’s spoiled milk, triggering a violent voiding of rage over whoever is closest.

On your first ride out of the hospital, your wife turns the knob of the car radio. For a second you’re more grateful to her than you’ve ever been, pleased at her intuition that the only thing worse than silence right now would be mindless chatter, sure that you’re in the right hands. But when the Killers come on, you start punching without thinking.

“Shut up,” you say, faintly aware of something tearing, of something gushing out of you, but you don’t stop. “Shut up shut up shut up shut up –”

She takes you right back to the hospital and checks herself in for a black eye.

You get to talk to a nice lady a couple times a week. You sit in the overstuffed armchair across from her wingback and watch the wrinkles around her mouth move her bleeding lipstick up and down, and you hug her softness before you walk out her door, towering above her and feeling a little like her son.

You don’t have to pay her, or for the pills she hands you in bottles swallowed by your palm. You take them on time, according to the ding of the egg timer in the kitchen you share with your wife again. You let them wash through your bloodstream and whisk away your brain, and you feel like you finally know what it’s really like to get high, not like when you fucked around with pot in school, but to let go of control completely and not give a shit that you don’t have it anymore.

The pills are nice. And yet.

And yet, the bullet finds you every night. Sometimes it’s your gut and sometimes it’s your heart and, one time, your spleen, memorable because you didn’t realize you knew where your spleen was. You wake up soaked and sore and staring at the rigid back of the woman you love.

Or you would, if she could stand to sleep with you anymore.

She stays for six months before bursting into tears and saying, “I can’t take it anymore” like she was the one who got shot, and you hand over her music and her God and don’t protest when she leaves because this is a movie scene you’ve been rehearsing in your head for half a year. And yet.

And yet your life moves on in its slow grinding process, indifferent to whether you’re still holding on. After considering the bullets they kept in the rifle they let you bring home, you reach out your hand.

***

When you meet the girl, you are two weeks into being thirty years old.

Eight years of change have passed dragging their heels into the dirt of the moment but flying along the road of time. You’re still not quite sure how that works.

“You’re wearing that?” Your girlfriend – not new, exactly, but the differences between her and your wife and the blur of women you’ve been through in between keep surprising you – nods at your plaid with her purple stegosaurus cap.

You look down. “Yes?”

“Good.” She grins and brushes against the part of you that reminds you of sin and Skaggs if you’re not careful. You catch the keys she tosses you as she sails out the door singing show tunes.

You’re meticulous about locking up, securing the one-room flat stuffed with books (hers) and food (yours) and Internet (you share). That instinct and your gun leaning against your side of the white iron bed are all you’ve kept from before. Your girlfriend insists you keep your gun empty; you argue mildly but suspect she’s right.

You follow her bright tufts of hair escaping form the stegosaurus down the stairs lining your apartment building. It’s like the barracks, hastily put together with cheap material, but shellacked with a veneer of permanency. That makes all the difference.

***

You get to the bar and take a step back to hold the door open for a gaggle of women tottering on high heels. The last one in is the only one to glance higher than your forearm, the only one who doesn’t look like she wants in passing to lick the Don’t Tread on Me tattoo segmented down to your wrist.

“Thank you,” she says, and your girlfriend’s disapproval softens around her glasses.

“You’re welcome,” you tell the last girl as you all step into the looming cavern of colored Christmas lights and sputtering tea candles. You part like different schools of fish at the bar, where at one end a lift of your finger gets your drink in under the five minutes it takes the girls on the other side to decide.

“Youths,” your girlfriend says, but without her full venom. You clink your whiskey sours and she makes you flip through the karaoke songbook.

The girl fiddles with her straw, letting her mind rest idly on appreciating your symmetry.

“Oh my lord, that is the hottest man I have ever seen,” you overhear from one of her –what, coworkers? Friends? – who fans herself with a cocktail napkin.

The punk music that has been grinding away in the background cuts off.

“Awrightawrightawright! Time to get sangin’!” The growling carnival barker draws what crowd he can manage into the next room, including your girlfriend’s eagerness pulling you along.

“We have to sign up! Come on!”

And you go, because the only other times you’ve seen her this purely excited is when there is strawberry cake and she can eat it.

The girl ends up following you again, stopping at her elbowing mirroring your semi-amused expression when it sees the makeshift wooden stage and the machine smaller than your video game system at its edge. You share a brief bond of doubt before a bartender you don’t recognizes bounds onto the platform and touches a button. A name pops up on the bare plaster wall behind him. He turns around, startled.

“Oh shit,” he says. “I guess we better get a screen. I mean first up – Connie G.!”

The girl is already crimson under the cellophane shades, but it doesn’t go away when her crowd jostles her into the spotlight. She stands unmoving and grim, and your girlfriend whoops encouragement that you join half an octave lower.

And then the song starts.

The girl relaxes into it, drawing strength of familiarity – she sets herself on automatic and won’t miss a note, just like she’s washing dishes or filling up her car or sorting laundry – and the fact that she can’t really see anybody in the overbearing star pointed right in her face. She closes her eyes.

She doesn’t see you change. Your girlfriend doesn’t see you change. Nobody sees the bullets rushing at you or the dune rising up to drown you all.

You blink, hard, and it disappears from sight but the panic it leaves behind like salt from a pulled-back wave, or like sand, the sand that gets everywhere so that even now, now, on especially bad days, you will fish out a grain or two from between your sheets and fuck it all, won’t someone stop that goddamn song?

You’ve been rushing the stage, and you only come to when the machine is fighting your grip and you’re dashing it at the girl’s feet as she finally shuts up and looks uncertain about any escape routes that don’t involve forcing her way past your hip. You grab the mike and lunge towards her face, now trapped and very settled on terrified. You press your lips onto hers, pressing your memories and that goddamn song down her esophagus so it will get digested and shit out by a system unriddled by your own holes.

The girl reels back but still can’t find a way down.

“Sorry,” you say into the mike. “Sorry,” you say, and move, and the girl watches you pause at your new girlfriend.

“What the fuck was that?” your new girlfriend says in the middle of the stilled crowd. All you have for her – for them – is a shrug as you push your way out.

The girl eases offstage and lets her coworkers draw tight around her in a protective shield. Soon she will go back to own emptiness – she can’t bear to call it home yet – and listen to that album, and try to find where it goes wrong.

Melanie Griffin is a writer who works at a library circulation desk. Her fiction has been published in a number of literary journals, most recently The Mudsill, and in her free time she has gotten way into Animal Crossing exactly one year after everybody else.