Head On

Bruce Shields


After Benny came home from Afghanistan, he slept like he was still under fire. Most nights, he would stay up hours after Walter would retire and watch old movies on TCM, sometimes reclined on the couch but always positioned so that the front door, as well as the open mouth of the hallway and of the kitchen, were within his periphery. He loved these hours, alone with the dull hum of the television’s radiation, absorbed as best he could be in these digital transfers of black-and-white film. For him, these old movies, drained of their saturated colors, were as good as dreaming.

The few hours he’d spend in bed, he didn’t dream but instead his mind rearranged objects in the room looking for ways to maximize safety or sometimes he worked through situations he anticipated encountering the next day. Maybe we should position the bed along the west wall, he thought, so that we would be facing the door. He always slept with an unloaded Luger in a safe underneath his night stand and a box of hollow-point casings in the top drawer of his dresser.

Lately, he’d become physical in his sleep, his mouth mumbling a sound almost like language but not quite. His words would slur into an incomprehensible moan, the sound of a muffled scream, a throat choked by a tautly-pulled rope. Sometimes his limbs would thrash, kick and punch. Upon waking, he could never remember what had happened and had to rely on Walter’s recounting of these details instead. A part of him doubted Walter—how could he have been so violent and not remember?.

Then, one night Benny pissed all over the both of them. The urine was warm and wet and once he realized what he’d done he tried to wake Walter before he rolled too far over to his side. Despite Benny’s gentle prodding, however, Walter’s leg still slid into the urine-drenched side of the mattress.

They rose together and set about cleaning up the mess wordlessly, the silence a more penetrating force than anything that Walter could’ve said. They stripped themselves of their nightclothes and ran a load of laundry and then showered together, an act of convenience more than intimacy. After they scrubbed a soapy mixture into the mattress, they let it air out rather than crawl back into bed. It was nearly five in the morning by that point and instead of spreading a pallet of blankets on the floor or sleeping on separate couches, Walter put on a fresh pot of coffee and fixed the both of them a pan full of scrambled egg whites.

“You have to do something,” he finally said. “I can’t have you like this, Benny.”

For Benny, it would’ve been easier to ignore Walter, shrug him off and act like he hadn’t done anything more harmful or unordinary than spill a glass of milk across the kitchen tile, but he was tired. Walter wasn’t going to let this go and Benny didn’t have the fight in him, not anymore.

He hadn’t sat yet and instead stood at the sliding glass window, staring out, allowing the weight of sleep to slowly lift from his body. For a condo, they had a fairly sizeable back yard and occasionally the two of them would host barbecues or just sit on the sun deck drinking an afternoon cocktail, but sometimes Benny thought the space was wasted. They didn’t need it, just the two of them. Now, though, he just peered into the darkness, scanning the yard, searching for movement or something out of the ordinary.

Finally, he turned to face Walter who was pouring coffee into two mugs and he could feel the weight of his face pulled into a sloppy expression of despondency. “Whatever you want, Walter,” he said.

“But that’s just it,” Walter said, handing Benny a cup that instantly warmed a tolerable but uncomfortable burn against his palm. “I want you to recognize that this is something you need. I just think you should talk to someone. I can’t be that person for you.”

“I never asked you to be.”

This was true. He’d never asked anything of Walter, even though there was plenty he could have. Benny knew that he’d brought home things that still rattled him, invisible things that he couldn’t quite put his finger on. What Benny carried with him was the desert; the sudden, random explosion of gunfire; the tension he’d developed by hardening his nerves in order to survive. It had changed him the way introducing an invasive species of a plant alters the terrain.

“No,” Walter countered. “You didn’t, but I have been anyway. I’ve done my best to let you work through this, whatever this is, but it’s taking a toll on me too.”

Benny thought about the times he’d find Walter stalking around in the hallway, nothing but the television’s emission casting a pale light, enough to catch his flutter of shadows. More than once, he’d seen him there, a presence waiting for something without saying what that something was. Benny imagined Walter was waiting for a break inside of him, a rupture, a  moment of weakness. How long would he stand there before returning to bed? Twenty minutes, sometimes? Is this what he meant when he said he was being that person for Benny? Was this the toll it had had?

“Just promise me,” Walter said, never one to allow silence to linger between them too long. “Promise me you’ll make an appointment to talk to someone.”

# # # #

Around noon, Alicia came by the house, decked out in her lazy-Sunday attire: crimson-red house slippers shaped like hearts around the toes and heather-gray sweats with a t-shirt that read Queen Nasty. The weather being oddly warm for mid-October, Benny had the windows and the front door open, allowing for a cool fall breeze to drift in. The openness of the house also allowed for Alicia’s voice to carry from the drive to the bay windows where she’d seen Benny standing there fixated on a small radio he held in his palms. She gave a swift and high-pitched whistle, a calling card of Alicia’s.

When Benny and Walter moved into the neighborhood three months ago, it was Alicia who was first to greet them, a shambling wire of a woman in her mid to late twenties. She’d seen them hauling furniture from their small U-Haul and had come down with a six-pack of Red Stripe offering to lend a hand. Neither Benny nor Walter knew what to think of this woman whose gaunt frame and general dishevelment spoke of recent grief. But she was nice enough and carried more than a heavy load of boxes, mostly books that Walter collected and refused to get rid of and dishes for the kitchen.

After they finished, they each had two beers on the front stoop while Alicia pointed to each house in the neighborhood, giving them the low down of who had families, who was a gossip, and who was best to avoid. That was in July and the three of them sat drenched in mid-afternoon summer sweat that had a sweet, rank, bovine smell to it, but the beer was cold and Alicia was pleasant enough.

Now, she was coming up the drive and she had her dog with her, a lean and muscular whippet sniffing the air for distraction. When she reached the door, she let herself in and asked what it was that Benny was fidgeting with.

“This?” he said, holding it up for her inspection: a little, black box with an orange interface surrounded by twin knobs and a panel of buttons. “Just an old CB radio I used to play around with in high school.” She regarded it, peering over the bridge of her nose, as either a thing that might contaminate her or simply something she had no business understanding. He put it down on the coffee table beside him, nose-level with her dog who vigorously sniffed at it as if trying to determine if it’s organic or inorganic. “It’s nothing, really.”

What he didn’t tell her was that it had been buried in a box since they’d moved in, but that afternoon he’d recovered it after hearing an electrical sizzle come from the back of the closet where it had been stored.

There was still cold, stale coffee in the urn that Walter had made after Benny drenched them in urine earlier that morning and he offered some to Alicia. She refused, said she wasn’t staying long, but just checking in to see how they were doing. “Apparently,” she said, “there was someone prowling about last night. Cops were all over this block. They flashed their lights in my yard. Woke me up. Scared the shit out of me, really.”

“What time was this?” Benny said, legitimately surprised.

“Four. Four-thirty, maybe.”

Benny scanned his memories, searching for any indication that he or Walter might’ve overlooked some sort of commotion a few blocks down in the hubbub of their cleaning, but nothing came to mind. He’d even surveyed the yard, hadn’t he? All he’d seen, or recalled seeing was the stillness one would expect at that hour, not even a passing headlight. He would’ve noticed the sweep of flashlights or the movement of bodies surveying each yard on this block.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

“Look, I even went out there in a t-shirt and my panties asking what the hell was going on. They told me they were looking for someone who might be dangerous and that I should go back inside. That’s what they said. Anyway, I just came by because I know you never sleep and I was wondering if you saw anything.”

Rarely did Benny have a drink this early in the day, but he felt as if he could use one now. He asked Alicia to come into the kitchen, have a beer with him. Besides, Walter was at work and wouldn’t be home until before supper and he could use the company. She asked if he had anything stronger than beer and he poured them each a gin and tonic while the dog ran circles around the backyard.

The drink was heavier on the gin than the tonic and it immediately made his head swim with a comfortable wooziness. He sucked it down as Alicia sipped hers and then poured another for himself before resuming their conversation. They’d been up at that hour—both, he and Walter—he told her. They’d been up and neither of them heard or saw anything. “I think I would’ve noticed,” he said. “I’m hyper alert to things like that.”

“Do you think I’m making this up?” she asked, more playful than accusatory.

“No. Nothing like that. I’m just saying it doesn’t add up.”

Not much added up these days, though. The civilian life was a wide expanse of possibilities and choices, not the regimented, monotonous day-to-day routines he’d mostly had as a Marine. The calculus was different and it made his brain hurt.

“I thought Walter usually slept in in the mornings. What were you both doing up?”

He shook his head, downed the remainder of the watery gin in the glass, then swirled the ice cubes around the perimeter. “I pissed on him,” he said, laying it out flat. “When I was asleep. I pissed the bed, I guess.”


“Walter thinks I should see a therapist.”

“Are you going to?” she asked.

Her voice, as well as her posture, softened and he couldn’t tell if it was sympathy or curiosity that had welcomed this change. He also wasn’t sure why he told her and a part of him wished he could take it back. If his life had been a videotape, he’d unspool the tape at this scene, cut out these few frames of their conversation and then splice the remaining tape back together creating a smash cut between Alicia coming to the door and her leaving out of it. But life didn’t work that way, so he just answered her.

“No. I’m not.”

“Well,” she said, leaning back now, the sharp-edged demeanor once again taking residence in her nerves. “I’m not going to tell you what to do. But if you are pissing your pants then whatever you’re doing isn’t working.”

After she left, Benny held the scrap paper that Walter had left for him in his hand. It had the number of a local clinic, therapists who had experience working with cases of trauma specific to veterans. He’d jotted the number down before leaving, making Benny promise that he’d call and set up an appointment. For a moment Benny had considered calling, for no other reason than to give Walter peace of mind. It seemed reasonable and easy enough, but it also seemed unnecessary. This will all pass just as everything else does.

He posted the scrap paper to the side of the fridge, a reminder in case he changed his mind, but he wouldn’t. Instead, it would remain there, a token of this particular time in his and Walter’s history together, and eventually it would be forgotten.

# # # #

That night Sunset Boulevard was on, a movie Benny had never seen and didn’t know much about. He found it strange, especially the way the camera lingered on Norma Desmond’s skeletal face, haunted and haunting, like her body held a secret, the toxicity of which was slowly eating her away. Benny found it all unsettling.

Occasionally his eyes would dart from the television and scan the room, slowly surveying the kitchen and then the hallway looking for movement, the shuffle of shadows, Walter prowling about and spying on him. In one instance, he thought he heard Walter call to him, though his voice sounded off, like he had a nylon bag over his head, the kind they sometimes used in movies when depicting a kidnapping. Hearing his voice, Benny turned the volume down and flipped on the corner lamp, but the room lit up to reveal nothing.

It hadn’t been the first time he’d thought he’d heard or seen something that wasn’t there and he reasoned it must have been his sleepiness finally wearing him down.

There was one time in the dessert when he’d been sent into Fallujah to clear houses of possible combatants. This was days after a suicide bomber exploded in a café downtown. He and his buddy had entered one house where there was a small family: an old man, his wife, and a young girl around eight. They were yelling but Benny couldn’t understand the language very well so he just started yelling back. In the middle of the room, they had this yellow and red rug and Benny kept staring at it, couldn’t take his eyes off of it. After a while, his buddy started yelling and he had his M16 pointed at the old man who was on his knees now, his weathered face worn into deep melancholic stone. But Benny kept staring at the rug. Then, it started moving like there was something underneath.

Eventually, it got to him. He couldn’t take it any longer, just staring at that rug, and he moved toward it, bent at the knees, and with one hand still gripping the stock of his rifle slung across his shoulder, he lifted the rug from the floor. Underneath was a woman, small-framed and completely naked. Hunched with her back curled over her knees, she was covered in a slick, honey-like grease. There was no way she would’ve fit under that rug, but there she was.

Slowly, she rose from her position with her hands raised in the air and backed herself against the far wall where the rest of the family were. The whole time, Benny had his rifle trained on her, but he kept thinking she was so pretty. Somebody that pretty couldn’t possibly be a threat. Somebody that pretty couldn’t be.

On the ride back to base he kept talking about what he’d seen, sorting through the details, getting it off his chest, but his buddy turned to him, confused and exasperated. “What the fuck you talking about, man?” he said. “What the fuck you talking about?”

There were cases, he was aware, where guys lost their shit. They couldn’t hack. He’d had a time or two over there, but after the woman under the rug he learned to keep it to himself, whatever he saw.

# # # #

He’d dozed off. That was the only way to explain it. It was morning and he was lying in bed though he couldn’t remember going to bed the night before. As he rose, he wandered into the kitchen where a dark aroma of freshly ground beans filled the air. He poured himself a cup and noted the nearly imperceptible changes in the arrangement of things: the hand towels that draped the rack beside the oven had been swapped from red to canary yellow; the table in the kitchen’s nook was about three inches further removed from the wall than usual; and the clock that usually hung above the table was now on the opposite wall, next to the fridge. Why had Walter moved these things, he wondered? Immediately, he thought of that movie he’d watched last August—Gaslight was the name of it—where a husband makes small alterations around the house, convincing his wife that she’s losing it.

Walter was in the shower. When Benny entered the bathroom he began to remove his clothes, leaving them in a pile beside the sink, and his cup of coffee, barely drunk, on the counter top. As he pulled back the curtain the shower’s steam rushed at him in a blinding gust that smelled faintly of almond and cherry. He stepped inside, the water bouncing off of Walter and spraying his naked skin in fragmented patterns. Stepping forward, he grabbed Walter from behind, pulling him into a slippery embrace and nuzzling his mouth against his neck. Was this an apology, a way of assuring him that everything was going to be okay? He wasn’t sure but Walter was receptive, turning around, and then kissing him.

He could feel himself getting aroused then, his penis slowly stiffening, pushing against Walter’s leg, and it was the first time in a while that he’d felt that way. It had been months since they’d had sex, Benny dismissing Walter’s subtle flirtations. Lately, when Walter would kiss him he’d reciprocate in closed-mouth pecks guarding himself against sex or when Walter would inch his spider-like fingers up his leg, soft taps snaking up toward his inner thigh and then his crotch, Benny would gently fidget in a way that forced him to return his hand to his own body.

Having him against his skin like this, though, felt warm and good.

He kissed him more aggressively and Walter’s hands moved across his back, grasping hard like he was going to fall off a cliff if he didn’t. Benny opened his mouth, tasted the soap-tainted skin of his shoulder, his chest, the hair around his nipples. From overhead the water sprayed against him hard and if he moved his face at just the right angle it beat down against him, giving him the feeling as if he were nearly drowning. He kissed him more, kissed the bristled bed of pubic hair around the base of his penis.

He wanted to taste more. He wanted to choke on the taste of him. He wanted Walter to split him open.

As he took his lover in his mouth he dreamed. He dreamed of a tidal wave carrying him away, pulling him beneath its undertow. He felt breathless, a pressure so great against his body and lungs that he feared he might collapse. He dreamed he was a part of the ocean, a wave rising into a violent crescendo only to crash in on itself, spread itself thin, become something so massive it loses itself.

He dreamed of the young girl he’d seen under the rug, rising like a phantom from a grave, covered in something sticky and embryonic. He dreamed he was taking her in his mouth, then, not Walter, and she tasted like sweet sweat.

He dreamed of the old man, squatted onto his knees beside him, reassuring him that Benny was going to be okay.

Then, he tasted something salty and bitter, not the taste of semen, but something more acidic, and he heard Walter scream, felt his hands against his shoulders, pushing him away. When he opened his eyes he saw Walter standing before him, the water still raining down over the both of them, and he was holding his semi-erect penis in his hand. Blood was seeping between his fingers, steadily dripping down and diluting against the shower’s watery floor.

There was more blood than he’d imagined there could be from a small scrape or bite. Or had he bit down harder than he’d thought? He couldn’t remember biting down at all, but his mouth had filled with warm blood and he had swallowed it rather than spitting it out, rather than having to look at it. But he couldn’t deny the blood pooling around Walter’s cupped hands, or the ashen pallor of his skin. Benny stood, reached toward him then.

“You fuck,” Walter yelled. Then he looked down, regarded himself for the first time, and when he returned Benny’s gaze, there was a perceptible fear in the light of his eyes, a terror so tangible Benny felt he could reach out and grab it, choke it between his fist, extinguish it so he wouldn’t have to look at it any longer.

“I’m going to be sick,” Walter said.

He didn’t get sick, but he nearly passed out, more from the shock of seeing himself bleeding than from the blood loss itself. Benny helped him out of the shower and toweled the both of them off before applying some styptic powder from their first aid kit to the wound. There were definitive bite marks on either side of the shaft and the thought of what he’d done made Benny’s stomach churn.

“We need to get this looked at,” Benny said.

Though there was a lot of blood, the area didn’t withstand a deep enough gash to warrant stitches. When Walter finally got around to asking what had happened, Benny shook his head and said that it had been an accident. He’d lost traction, his knees slipping under the soap-lathered floor, and his instinct had been to clench his jaw. Walter didn’t push it any further, but there was something emptied out in the expression he gave Benny that afternoon. Benny thought if he were to split him open all he would find was gas, noxious gas.

They were in the car, Benny driving, the both of them having just left the urgent care unit on Montgomery. The radio was on, turned low on a news program that neither of them were paying attention to. It mostly sounded tinny and full of static. Every so often, though, the broadcaster’s voice would chime in with a word that was clear, crisp, and loud enough to grab Benny’s attention and for a moment, it was if he were telling Benny what to say.

“I called that number,” Benny said, parroting what he heard on the radio. “I have an appointment on Wednesday with a Dr. Owens.”

“Thank God,” Walter said. “I just want you to try it out. You just need someone to talk to.”

“That’s right. I just need someone to talk to.”

# # # #

The transmission came the following Saturday. A quarter past one in the morning, it wasn’t as if Benny had been waiting for it or that he expected it, but earlier that day he had set the old, black-boxed CB radio on the end table beside the couch and had tested its frequency, mostly picking up nothing but static, but occasionally nearby law enforcement and truckers zooming past off the highway three miles from where they lived.

When the voice crackled from the box, it was mostly pops and fizzles at first and Benny had to tune the frequency so that it came in much clearer. “Can you hear me?” it said. It was the same man’s voice he’d heard earlier that week when driving Walter home from urgent care. “Can you hear me, Benjamin?” it said again, even clearer than before.

At first, Benny thought better than to respond. He was in the middle of watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and it seemed ludicrous that someone would be reaching out to him anyway. His hesitation aside, the voice was soothing, the trained voice of someone who hosted self-help seminars for a living, and he felt every raw tendon and hardened muscle in his body relax. The palm-sized speaker with its coiled cord tethered to the box was lying beside it. He picked it up, clicked the button on its side, and it was as if the piece of plastic cackled with electricity, awaiting his response.

“I’ve been waiting for you to reach out,” the voice said. “I’ve been waiting, but you never did.”

“I need someone to talk to,” Benny said. The words sounded small, like they belonged to a child.

The voice on the other end told him he understood, we all need someone to talk to, don’t we, but he wouldn’t be able to provide much help over a CB radio, especially one that wasn’t wired to an antenna and shouldn’t really be working anyway.

It must’ve rained at some point, though Benny couldn’t remember hearing the rain coming down, but everything outdoors was still glimmering with a fresh drench and the air smelled like soil. Benny had a flashlight with him and he swept its beam across the back yard, where the man had agreed to meet him. To his left he saw a black mass move across the top of the fence and land on the ground before it, its movements so swift and its body so deeply entrenched in the darkness that Benny half expected to be ambushed. But as he cast his light in its direction he could see it was the old man, the one he’d seen at the house in Fallujah, but his skin looked different than he remembered. It had a graying rot to it.

As the man approached, his stench became more and more pronounced, a smell like a bag of meat left out in the sun. He was sodden from the recent downpour, too and Benny realized he didn’t have anywhere else to go, being so far from his home now. His long hair looked like a head full of snakes, Medusa-like, touching down at his shoulders, a bluish black, the same color as his beard.

“I’ve been wandering around this neighborhood for a week now,” he said. “I didn’t know which house was yours.”

Alicia had told him the cops had scoured the neighborhood looking for someone dangerous. Dangerous, she said.

The old man came in for an embrace and as they hugged, an oily piece of skin peeled off the man’s cheek, sticking to Benny’s shoulder. The ripe stink of his body, now clung to Benny as well. A deep sense of relief flushed through him then. Finally, he had someone he could trust, someone who’d been there, had seen the things he’d seen. Finally, he could talk. Benny offered for the man to come inside, that he could make the two of them tea, but they’d have to be quiet because Walter was still asleep.




Bruce Shields is a recent graduate from Colorado State University’s MFA program, Bruce Shields lives and writes along the Colorado Front Range and is a general enthusiast of the weird, absurd, and uncanny. Previous fiction has appeared in as Kansas City Voices. He is currently hard at work on his first novel and a collection of short stories.