If I can just get through today, I’ll be one day closer to home and the way things were. Although down deep he knew this was a lie, Captain Williams told himself this every day of his deployment. Every night, he would close his eyes and visualize his World’s Most Wanted Criminals Playing Cards. First, he focused on the terrorists’ faces, names, and identifying details. Then the Captain imagined writing atop each card—in minute detail—that day’s raid, blown bridge, detonated IED, burn pit, kill, and lost or wounded Soldier. Except for the two joker cards, which were replaced with devils in these Command-issued decks. He imagined covering those with the intrusive sand that clung to everything in Iraq, avoiding those two cards at all cost.
The last night of his deployment, the Captain constructed a house in his mind. He focused on each room, creating a hodgepodge of his grandparents’ homes, two places he always felt loved and safe. He left the attic for last. And inside that attic, the Captain imagined a standard military footlocker. He placed all six decks of horrors that he had envisioned over those long months inside the footlocker. He sealed the footlocker with a padlock. He backed out of the attic. The Captain locked that, too. He traced his steps back out of his safe house, locking the front door behind him. All secure. He shrank the house to a speck of sand, dropped it into his amygdala, and buried it in gray matter. It was almost time to move forward with his life.
The motel was the same as countless others the Captain stayed in since he was kicked out of the Oxford House. The television was set to a 24-hour news channel and spat disjointed war statistics as he sat on the foot of the bed, looking but not watching. The Captain had excised all friends and family from his existence. They didn’t know him anymore, and he was tired of seeing his own failures in their eyes. A voice deep inside him said that if he doesn’t talk to them, he can’t hurt them.
He brought a bottle of Malbec to his face and peered inside…The Devil lives in there. The Devil reached his spindly fingers from within the bottle of red, placing the slightest of drops onto the Captain’s tongue. The pull is irresistible. It’s hard to breathe inside a bottle: It’s freedom and it’s prison, and the Devil is a liar. Every time the Captain picks up, he believes he can best the Devil; he will have control and be able to stop whenever he wants. But he fails worse every time he tries.
The drop turned to a sip. The sip to a gulp. One bottle turned into two and then into three. The room buzzed around the Captain as if it were a conduit of something familiar and dangerous. He was in a bad place and off-kilter. He needed to make sure his decks of horrors were still secure. He drank more furiously as he tried to make his way back to the footlocker, but he couldn’t remember which gray fold he left the safe house in. Meanwhile, the Devil sifted through the Captain’s synapses, tasting each neuron until he found the most foul, rotten tasting ones that hid the safe house. One point of his finger revealed the gaping footlocker, an offering on an altar. The footlocker glowed with promise, broadcasting, “Please take these precious, horrible memories. Twist them. Use them to pierce this Soldier’s heart.”
The wine was thick and heavy, and the Captain was swimming in a river of it. The tannin dried his mouth almost as badly as the sand and arid weather that haunts his sleep, the oakiness reminiscent of makeshift coffins too many of his Soldiers found themselves in. It became almost too thick to swallow. The Captain peered into the bottle mouth again, focusing just enough to see the Devil’s crimson, cadaverous hand grab his face—now more of a command than a mere suggestion—and pull what remained of his resistance into the bottle. The memories hemorrhaged out of the safe house and hit him in a flash flood of fear, shame, and abandonment. His only hope for survival of this onslaught was to drink until he couldn’t drink any more.
The Captain is passed out in a chair facing the motel room door, now habit since his combat deployments. The motel clerk unlocks the door, and Lieutenant Robinson walks in. The television’s cracked screen flickers. The air is dense with the stench of body odor, old vomit, and metabolized alcohol. Junk food wrappers and a dozen empty wine bottles litter the stained carpet. Browning, sticky liquid coats the dresser corner, and the Captain’s eye is bloody and swollen shut. The Lieutenant himself has wrestled with the same Devil.
Lindsey Neely (she/her) is a technical writer-editor based in the Washington, DC, metropolitan area. She is the proud daughter, granddaughter, sister, and friend of combat veterans. Find her on Twitter: @lindseyneely.