Doctor Darlene told me to come back tomorrow for the ashes.
Pressing the empty collar and a pair of jingling dog tags into my hands, she looked into my eyes and said, “I thought you would want his effects, Ellen.”
That was the word she used, effects, a whitewashed term I hadn’t heard since my last deployment, when we were packaging the human bits left after a bomb into an eight-and-a-half by twelve envelope.
“Excuse my impatience, Doctor,” I said, “and my wartime instinct to dump the deadweight and leave behind gear that’s not strictly necessary, but what’m I supposed to do with this shit, pardon my French?”
“Something to remember Wolf by. Something for your girls to remember him by.”
“Better to cauterize the wound, cut out the cancer, put it all behind you, Doctor. Then you heal properly. Trust me: out in the desert, I learned a little about death.”
“Those girls are lucky to have their mother back. Good-bye, Ellen. And thank you for serving.”
And thank you, Doctor Darlene for your patronizing bullshit. Let me be the first to break it to you: it doesn’t take eight years of advanced education to learn how to put another living being down. I’ve done it myself with little more than a couple vials of spare painkillers.
I looped Wolf’s effects around my rearview mirror and turned on to the Old Prospect Road back toward Sabbaday Village. With every bump and frost heave, the tags swung back and forth, counting time.
I only stopped for the Carlson boy, who had to be the only soul in Sabbaday Falls more lonely than me. Head down, hood cinched, he was skirting the icy patches like a skittish colt, a good three miles from the nearest house in the village proper, and nothing but the telephone poles to keep him company.
“Any apples left?” I asked, gesturing at my sister’s orchard, which ran up the hill on the right side of the road.
“None good. All froze in the ice storm.”
“Trees, too, I bet. Branches all over the road.”
“A few trees down. But they were old.”
“Those trees up at the farm were old when I was young,” I said. “Need a lift?”
He slid into the passenger seat. He was taller than he seemed, a Daddy Long Legs of a kid, whose extra height seemed unjustified and insulting.
“You shouldn’t take rides from just anyone.”
“I know you. You’re my boss’s sister.”
“Heard she gave you a job at the orchard at Sabbaday Farm.”
“Beats picking your nose.”
“No one picks their own anymore. People from Away leave their money in a jar at the stand. Take what they need. Your sister never even needs to talk to them. There’s just a jar full of money at the end of the day.”
“Hardly makes more than enough to keep her husband in long underwear, I’d guess.”
“They love the honor system. The people from Away. I watch them. They always look around like to prove they could steal an apple if they wanted.”
“Good of my sister to make work for you. She doesn’t have to do it, you know.”
“Authentic. The people from Away like to feel authentic.”
I didn’t think I’d heard the word authentic spoken aloud in years, maybe ever, and certainly not by a Valley boy who’d be guaranteed to get beat up at school for that particular prissiness alone. I was kind of sorry I had picked him up; talking cross-wise at one another was no cure for feeling blue.
We rode in silence another mile or so, before a patch of black ice jerked the wheel loose from my hand. The back end swung toward the front. Wolf’s effects flew across the cab, we came to rest turned crossways in the middle of the Old Prospect Road without so much as a scratch on our asses, river marsh and gravel pit on one side and the rolling hills and a fallen barn on the other. My heart thundered, and my mood improved, despite the touch of guilt that at the ultimate moment I hadn’t given a single thought to my girls.
“Don’t worry,” I said, retrieving Wolf’s effects from the passenger side floor. “Survival’s like a wand. That’s what they used to say about me: Ellen’s touched by the lucky stick. You’re in good hands. Today’s not the day you die.”
“Lucky?” he repeated quietly, full of contempt and disbelief. He pressed his forehead to the cool glass on the passenger side window.
“Lucky,” I confirmed. My first tour, the army had transferred me to a squad picked clean by casualties around the time the brass made a hero out of Private Jessica Lynch and her now-famous firefight, even though common knowledge among the grunts was that Private Lynch’s weapon had jammed and a man was the one that deserved the honors for fighting to the death. The guys in the unit had told me that I wasn’t welcome and I was taking up a man’s spot. But two weeks later, on the road from Qubah to the Forward Operating Base at Salwan Pak, we passed through a village of no more than half a dozen houses, three burnt out wrecks, the husk of an oil barrel, a well, and a hundred and one places to hide an IED. The convoy stopped and the talk started, and I was the first one to get happy feet, because you didn’t need to be in country long to know a stopped convoy is a sitting duck, and I wanted to see my girls alive again.
The guys jumped all over me, saying, “Why don’t you shut up and make yourself useful and clear out the way if you’re so damn sure of yourself?”
The vertebrae lined up in my spine. My gear went light. I hopped off the MRAP, slung my weapon over my shoulder, and marched down the middle of the road as if I was walking down Main Street in Sabbaday Falls kicking tin cans. The sunshine was deafening hot. Motives were pure and obvious on their face. From a treeless ridge a thousand miles away, I was watching myself walk and I knew this one fact as certainly as I had known anything in my life: the IEDs weren’t going to explode. This was not their day. I was not their victim. Never would be.
The guys must’ve let me go three hundred feet ahead before the MRAPs growled to life and followed. Me walking in front, the pied fucking piper, pardon my French. Later, we heard another unit passed through the same town and took sixteen casualties. Not one, not two, but three IEDs exploded. That’s when the guys started using words like lucky, and fearless, and crazy, and I felt a pride of place in the desert like I’d never felt here in the Towahannoc Valley.
The Carlson boy considered my story, sifting it for falsehood, like a soldier who’s learned that relying on what passes for the testimony of your own five senses is doomed as counting on military intelligence. Discounting, haircuts, gap fills, guesstimates, extraordinary leaps of faith – a little of each plus some good luck might approximate a functional reality that you could rely on for basic decisionmaking. Nevertheless, there are soldiers in every unit who will bitterly profess until the day they die that there’s no reality in battle besides a bullet to the brain. In my experience, this type of soldier likes to fight. I got the funny feeling the Carlson boy might be born one of these.
“You hear the one about the lost dog?” he asked.
“How’s it go?”
“There’s a poster for a missing dog. Three legs, one eye….”
“Answers to name of Lucky,” I finished for him. “I know it. My husband loves that one.” I took a deep breath. “It’s more than luck, you know. People call shit down on themselves.”
He drew in a breath that sucked like an open wound. I glanced at him.
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to kick your puppy. Just trying to be honest. Authentic.”
“Watch the road!”
“Did my sister tell you to come out here?”
“No, no,” he said. “I came on my own. To check on the trees. Please watch the road.”
I turned back to the highway and suggested he come home with me to lunch.
“This is your lucky day,” I said. “Field rations are plentiful. God is good, and I’m bored, and all that happy horseshit that brings us together as a nation.”
Back at the house, which was finally mercifully free of the hot labored breathing of Wolf’s long demise and the fetid stench of the girls and me being cooped up for the last five days during last week’s early October ice storm, the Carlson boy folded his frame into one of the little chairs my daughters use.
“You might be more comfortable over there,” I said, indicating my husband’s chair.
“You mean, you might be more comfortable if I was over there,” he said. Something ancient and wounded and terrible appeared in his eyes.
I sliced my finger with the bread knife and swore aloud and bit the wound and eyed the Carlson boy with the purest enmity in my heart even as I aimed to give him comfort. That was my life now: caught between contrary impulses, a chicken salad sandwich and a swift kick to the ass, and there’s no body count to help keep score, so I can tell instantly whether I made the right choice.
“I heard about you,” I said. “I heard what happened.”
He stiffened like a death row inmate getting his first taste of the juice.
“My sister told me. She said they caught you in the Sabbaday Motel with some middle aged pervert, after months of emails and texts and photos, and no one bothering to ask why you were spending so much time at the computers in Sabbaday public library.”
The Carlson boy stared back at me, scratching at the base of his throat with long fingers. My sister had told me he was a basket case. Even with the trial coming up in a couple of weeks, the boy was still stubbornly refusing to condemn. They couldn’t shake him from the story that he was in love. The perv’s attorney was making the best of it, pointing out what a bad witness this boy was, his statements inconsistent and troublesome and never mind what the medics had said after examining the Carlson boy’s ass. He was pushing a plea to child endangerment and getting off with time served.
“You know what’s funny?” I asked.
“Things you expected to weigh you down in battle – country, family, duty, God – get light. You brush them aside like a curtain. But other things that ought to have been of no consequence — that ought to have taken a back seat to the care package my sister sent with the single fresh apple hidden inside, or the sweet emails from the girls at 2am desert time with the birthday party photos, or my husband’s sexy texts – took on sudden and unexpected weight. I mean, I’ll never forget that moment out in the desert when I heard from my sister what happened to you. Never. Frozen in time. Every last detail. A deadweight. Occupying prime real estate up here in my brain and God knows there’s not a lot of territory to waste. It was amazing.”
He smiled politely, even demurely.
I set down the sandwich in front of him and took a seat across the table.
“Kids must have razzed you when the news got out,” I said.
He nodded. “They told me I should kill myself.”
“Did you try?”
I snatched his left wrist and turned it over. It was white and smooth.
“I’m lefthanded,” he said. “I would have gone for the other one first.”
He picked up the sandwich and ate with dignity.
“It was kind of a relief,” he said. “Actually.”
“For everybody to know.”
For the life of me, I couldn’t understand what he was talking about, but I did feel a sudden, welcome sense of personal responsibility and purpose: my God-given job – my fucking religious calling — was to get this kid a one-way bus ticket out of Sabbaday Falls. Until the Carlson boy was waving at me from a Greyhound window, my husband wouldn’t become knowable and the freak October ice storms wouldn’t stop and Wolf’s ghost would haunt us daily, and one of the girls would end up wearing Wolf’s collar around her throat to the senior prom.
“Where do you think you’ll go once you graduate? Maybe to Boston? There’s lots of your kind of people there.”
“I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here. Get an ATV, and a job in your sister’s orchard. That’s what I was thinking.”
Something thick lodged in my throat.
“Put down the sandwich, son,” I said.
I took his hand. I really wanted to say something important to him. To apologize. No, that wasn’t the right word. Not to apologize. To explain. To testify. I felt that if I had fifteen minutes and a gag, I could say all that needed to be said without interruption.
“There are better places for boys like you than the Towahannoc Valley,” I said. “Than my sister’s farm.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t,” I admitted, but it had to be true. The inconvenience of having grown up out of place all his life would leave him. As soon as he found a home, he wouldn’t give it a second thought. This Valley was for other people. By bringing that sick man here, he had breached the rules. Broached the borders. Made friends with the enemy. Put every last one of us in mortal danger. He had to go. A single bad egg can bring a whole company of good men down.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“Let me put it another way: If you can get used to people talking shit about you and yours, if it stops eating at your soul, stop right here. Game over. You won’t ever know what I’m talking about, soldier.”
I rose from my chair, placed both fists on the tabletop, and loomed over him and the crusts of his chicken salad sandwich.
“What on earth were you thinking,” I whispered, “when you were with that man?”
“I thought if I gave him my body he would do something interesting with it.”
I thought I could scarcely know a person less than I knew the Carlson boy then. He was a stranger, an alien, an intruder, the kind of man from whom you looked away in the name of a greater good if one of the guys regrettably filled his belly full of lead.
“You don’t like me much,” he said suddenly.
I was startled by the truth, and I didn’t like myself because of it.
“It’s ok,” he said. “I don’t like myself much either.”
Rhea Carlson was a big, handsome, broad-shouldered woman with a booming voice. She was proud of her son. She bragged endlessly about games won that the Carlson boy had never played, girls he had never dated, and trouble he had gotten into, red-blooded trouble, kind that makes you know a boy was becoming a man. She stood up to the bullies. Sure, she had got herself punched in the face, but she wore that lost tooth like a merit badge. She was full of plans, a tireless worker, and utterly convinced of the rightness of her cause, whatever it was she set out to do.
But Rhea was only a worldbeater so long. A couple months, maybe even half a year. Then she took to bed. She wouldn’t show up for work, and there was no use calling her. A few weeks later, my sister told me, the Carlson boy would begin showing up at school skinny as a stick in clothes that hadn’t been washed in weeks.
“Maybe I should come in? Say hello?” I suggested. We were at the curb in front of their apartment. Exposed Tyvek showed on the north side and a cockeyed lamp marked the door. A stray was burying a rawhide bone under a shredded layer of weed-preventing plastic, and a few older women I knew were holding a communal garage sale across the street, all the goods marked according to household from which they came, with proceeds to be divvied up at end of day.
“You don’t have to,” the Carlson boy said stiffly. “You’ve done enough already.”
But I was already half out of my seat, confident as the day I led the MRAPs through the village, and everything made sense and the world was harmonious and every last grain of sand had its place. It was the kind of moment when you wake up from life and think to yourself, What’s happening to me exactly now, this is significant, this is something I will always remember when everything else is forgotten, this will stand out, edges as sharp as the day the memory was forged.
I knocked and called out for Rhea as cheerfully as I could. The Carlson boy pushed me aside, opened the door and went in.
“She can’t hear you,” he explained.
Their apartment was at the top of the stairs. It had just two rooms. The Carlson boy slept on the sofa in the room in front. Rhea’s room was down the hall.
“Hey, Ray!” I said brightly. “It’s Ellen.”
Nothing in her room stirred. The air stank of sweat and wet wool and urine and hopelessness.
I said, “You’ll never guess who I ran into?”
I sat at the foot of the bed and stroked a bump that must have been one of Rhea’s feet. I told her about Doctor Darlene and her high horse and how to people like us her first name was now doctor, even though we both knew her when she was putting out for the starting quarterback on the high school team.
I was fond of Rhea. I had a history with her: a year behind her in high school, and girlfriends, until Rhea got knocked up with the baby that would become the Carlson boy and then maybe a small fallout over money that was supposed to have been used for an abortion and ended up paying for baby shoes.
“Wolf died,” I said, when I couldn’t think of anything else to say. “I mean, we put him down. Bad luck, I guess. Or none at all.”
Rhea didn’t stir.
“But look who I’m talking to,” I said. “You’ve had some of the worst luck of us all.”
Rhea finally rolled over.
“You were always good with words, Ellen,” she whispered. “But don’t you ever act like you’re better than me.”
Right. Pardon me for giving a fuck. Why go where you’re not wanted? Why get mixed up in all that?
Back in the outer room, the Carlson boy was leaning over a filthy little table. He was hard at work with a little paring knife. I stepped closer, taking in his skin, the intake of his breath, his chest lungs rise and fall, his eyes blink and narrow, his forehead crease, his neck tighten. He glanced up suddenly fixing his eyes dead on mine.
“Did you kill anyone?” he asked suddenly, quietly.
Out of respect for the dead, I was about to answer “no,” as I would have anyone else who asked. But I decided to make an exception in his case.
“Nothing done there that I’m not proud of,” I said.
“I want to kill someone,” he mumbled.
“Shut your trap. Don’t ever say that!”
My mouth opened and closed, but I couldn’t come up with an answer I believed in. I pushed a pizza box to the floor and plopped down next to him on the sofa. For a moment, he froze, but then his left hand – his left hand only – came alive, whittling at a pile of apples that he was fashioning into miniature jack o’lanterns, each with its own singular expression.
I found myself wishing he would ask me something more, but I was too proud to prompt him.
“Did you pray?” he asked. “Did you pray when you were afraid?”
“Not really,” I admitted. “The prayers came like rust. After a while, I mean.”
I picked an apple from the TV tray where he had set them; already the raw edges of fruit were browning. I wasn’t sure how far I should go. From prior experience, I learned that the wives and girlfriends of the men I served with don’t like 2am calls from drunken women drawn to talk about the war, or anything else for that matter.
“It seems incredibly naïve,” I began, “but I started the war with something more than luck, you know. I had faith and God and a dashboard Saint Francis that you couldn’t have pried from my cold dead hands. And I was careful never to ask God or Francis for too much. Just get me through this next second, this next minute, this next hour. We can talk later about getting to watch my girls grow up. To show Them that I wasn’t just thinking only of myself, I made sure some of my prayers were entirely selfless: some for strangers, and some for starving children in Africa, who weren’t complete strangers because I had seen their swollen bellies on the news and paid $10 per month to keep a handful of them in rice and beans, and a picture came in the mail so I could claim at least a limited acquaintance and understanding of what it was like to be starving. Maybe even some for you.”
He greeted this news without expression. I slid closer.
“But a few weeks into my first tour, things changed,” I said more quietly. “I don’t know why. Maybe luck just naturally proceeds from God, or maybe it has its own sources, but any way you look at it, God took a back seat. He offered less comfort than I expected. Luck was altogether bigger, more generous. A little cranky, too, but so fucking present, so fucking authentic – it was the air we breathed, the blood in our veins, thick as heat. Whatever connection luck may have to God, it’s certainly older than religion, and to a warrior it’s a more, well, relevant concept.”
The Carlson boy muttered, “That man said I was lucky.”
His gaze flicked up to my face.
“Did you know that? It was the first thing he said: This is your lucky day.”
“He lied,” I said. “Everything he said was a lie.”
“How do you know?”
“I know about luck. I know it backward and forward and upsidedown. Luck’s a gift. It requires nurture and care. If you push it, and upset the balance, you’ll find yourself shit out of luck when you need it most. You know what I mean?”
He looked at me for more, and I swear he’ll be doing that forever: looking for more, always more.
“Think about it,” I insisted. “Did you feel lucky?”
Something defiant hardened the expression on his face. I rapped him on the head with my knuckles.
He shrunk from me, but it wasn’t much of a retreat. He remained close enough to hit with a spitball in the eye.
“These are for you,” the Carlson boy said, gesturing at the carved apples. “For your girls.”
“Thank you,” I lied. “Though the way I’m feeling since I’ve been back, I’m liable to burst into tears if one of those faces looks at me wrong.”
“Is there something I can put them in?” I asked reluctantly.
He fished a plastic sack from the mess.
“Does my sister know you took her apples?”
“I only took them to give them away. They’re frozen.”
“Turning to mush.”
“Don’t tell her I took them. I don’t want to get fired.”
In the dooryard at my house, a branch snapped under the weight of caked ice as sharp and sudden as a bullet singing by an ear. I threw myself through the back door and dove for cover in Wolf’s corner behind my daughters’ King Zhu Pets Battle Arena.
“What’re you doing, Mommy?” my oldest asked.
“Your mother’s a little jumpy,” my husband explained.
“Taking cover from Haji,” I said. “And trying to figure out who in God’s green earth first sold me that crap that there’s no women in combat roles.”
“Some poor stick-figure bastard on the other side of the world with the bitter misfortune of sitting on top of an ocean of oil.”
I extracted myself from the Battle Arena.
“And pardon my French. Don’t tell your Sunday school teacher I said bastard. That’s going to be our secret.”
The girls lined up like soldiers. I tucked hair behind ears. Blotted runny noses. Checked for fevers. Forgot my rage. I played at looping Wolf’s collar over their heads until they shied away.
“Girls,” I said, “I just want you to know Mommy found Wolf a cheap room in the great big dog park in the sky where the chew toys are plentiful and the squirrels slow and the fire hydrants painted fresh daily. Wolf’s a lucky dog.”
“Christ, Ellen,” my husband muttered.
“What? What’s the problem? The girls had their chance to say something nice to Wolf that they’ll always remember and not carry a burden of guilt around with them as heavy as an andiron every day for the rest of their lives. Didn’t you, girls? You whispered things in Wolf’s ears, one in the left and one in the right. Isn’t that right?”
“What the hell is wrong with you?” my husband snapped.
“Mom, are you going away again?” my oldest asked.
“Not unless those goofy politicians change all the rules,” I said.
“Ellen, just tell them no, for God’s sake. Reassure them.”
“That’s what a good mother would do, even if it meant lying, right, hon?” I asked our daughter, who was raised right, a girl as honest as the day was long.
She nodded obediently.
“I never said you weren’t a good mother,” my husband said. “You’re a good mother.”
“I’m bringing the girls down. Never should have come back.”
“They miss the dog is all.”
“I miss the dog. I miss the days when you’d hardly ever see anyone from Away in the Valley. I miss a handful of the best soldiers who you’ll never know the least thing about. Which is crazy, right? My own husband doesn’t know shit about my brothers. My brothers-in-arms. How is that possible? Who the hell are you?”
He shook his head slowly. “Sometimes I think they sent someone back in your place,” he said.
“Maybe. I’d sure as shit be the last to know. Ever since I got back, I feel like everyone’s looking at me. And no one would look at me if they knew my story. Not a single one. Or at least they wouldn’t look at me the same way. Not even you.”
“Listen. Sorry I said anything. My bad. Let’s try again.”
He offered to go with me to pick up the ashes tomorrow while the girls were at Sunday School.
I squeezed his arm. “I’m glad to have you in my platoon.”
I was overjoyed and somehow also vindicated when we overtook the Carlson boy walking by the side of the Prospect Road at nearly the exact same place as yesterday. I lowered the passenger-side glass.
“You again,” I said. “Just my luck.”
“Me,” confirmed the Carlson boy. He kept walking.
My husband eased up on the brake, and we rolled forward at the boy’s pace.
“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” I said.
“Groundhog day, I guess.”
“Second chance at love,” I said.
“Your sister says she doesn’t need me any more.” His tone was laced with accusation.
I shrugged. My supremely rational sister, a ruthless calculating businesswoman who made the farm turn a profit year over year by sheer force of will and cleverness and a little bit of bubblegum and baling wire, seemed really to believe the Carlson boy was responsible for the storm that damaged the orchard.
“Not my fault,” I explained. “She says you’re a bad luck magnet.”
“Luck’s got nothing to do with it,” my husband said.
“She says everything you touch turns to shit.”
“Leave him alone, Ellen.”
“Boy hasn’t the sense to go only where he’s wanted,” I said.
“Wish the army would adopt the same policy,” my husband said. “Then you’d never have gone away.”
“He’s trespassing on my sister’s farm,” I said, my voice rising. “She fired him.”
“It’s none of our business.”
“None of our ….”
I trailed off, staring at this near-stranger who didn’t have the least conception who I was, until I couldn’t look him in the face, the same as you might look away from a cowardly soldier.
I jumped out of the rolling pickup.
“Ellen! Where’re you going?”
I looked back at him, determined never again to take a ride from a man I did not trust. I leaned in, snatched up the urn Doctor Darlene had given us, and pushed it into the Carlson boy’s hands.
“Do me a favor,” I said. “Bring these up on the ridge. Spread them around.”
The Carlson boy stared at the urn, holding it as awkwardly as a newborn.
“But, wait,” my husband spluttered. “The girls….”
“Can always take a shovel from the firepit for the girls, right?”
He started to sputter something more, but I slammed the door. The Carlson boy locked me in a stalemate of staring, and both so stubborn we might have stayed that way all afternoon, except my husband lost his cool and slammed the car horn. The sound tossed me ass over appetite, and I hunkered down in the ditch, counting limbs and covering my ears, reminding myself that this body was just a loaner, only mine so long as luck held out.
The Carlson boy extended a hand, and, like you’d speak to a frightened dog, one that you were going to put down, said softly, “It’s all right. It’s all right. Nothing to be afraid of.”
“You’re the one who ought to be afraid,” I said bluntly. I had no idea what I meant. But I was suddenly afraid for the Carlson boy, afraid as I’ve been ever since the day my girls were born, afraid of what lurks out there in wait, and how neither God nor Saint Francis nor a mother had any chance of protecting these children from harm, and we could only rely, foolishly, on luck, this terrible, slender reed that was almost certainly going to give out one day.
I took the hand that was offered and pulled myself to my feet.
“Go on,” I said. “Get outta here.”
For a second, he didn’t move, like he was weighing the merits of defying me, but then in an instant, he scrambled up the slope and disappeared beneath the low limbs of the nearest trees, where the broken stumps of limbs lost to caked ice stretched toward the sky like an Iraqi soldier railing against his God. He reappeared again a few hundred yards up in a clearing on the ridge, where one of the trees had gone missing, lost to the ice and wind.
The sun sat low in the gap. The sky was white. I took aim at the boy’s back and squeezed off rounds: one, two, three. My husband came around from the driver’s side and dismantled the rifle I’d fashioned from forearm and fist.
“You think maybe Wolf still had a few months left in him?” I asked. “You think I put him down too soon?”
My husband closed his arms around me.
The Carlson boy took his place where the fallen tree had been. He upended the urn, and the wind blew Wolf’s remains back in his face. He tore off his overcoat and beat it until the last of the ashes came free.
About the Author
Scott David has published novels, a memoir, a guide to wine and cocktails, and numerous short stories under various pseudonyms, most recently in Evening Street Review, Entasis and Fiction Fix. He lives in Boston and Provincetown, Massachusetts.