'343'

By Daniel Ford

I.

A stuffed duck peered at Mike from a shelf above the cashier’s head.

Ducks were her favorite. He didn’t remember why. She was just crazy about them. She made him call her baby duck. It was the only pet name they had, and she always lit up when he said it.

“Sir?”

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Your change…?”

The teenage cashier with too many piercings and tattoos awkwardly held three bucks and a handful of coins in front of him. She was more annoyed than confused. There was a line—the usual suburban snake of grumps, foot-tappers, and thrifts eager to use their coupons.

“Right.”

“Do you want a receipt?”

“No, that’s okay.”

As Mike started walking away someone pulled his jacket.

“Excuse me? You forgot your bag.”

The woman had blond hair and heels.

“Thanks. Lost in my thoughts. I appreciate it.”

“Any time,” she said. “You mind me asking if you were over there?”

She motioned to the dog tags on his key chain.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“In that case, I should be thanking you.”

“That’s not necessary. I was doing it for my mother.”

“A momma’s boy, huh?”

“Born and raised.”

“And here I thought you guys were just bags of muscles.”

“I’ve got those too, but I love my momma.”

She giggled. Her laugh sounded like Muddy Waters’ “Kansas City” on vinyl.

Mike felt a pinch in the back of his neck.

“What are the odds you let a grateful citizen buy you a drink?” She asked.

“It’s a little early…”

“Didn’t say it had to be alcoholic,” she said.

“‘A waste of a drinking occasion,’ my father would have said.”

“Come on, we can start with coffee.”

Mix caffeine with whatever was happening? Mike thought. Probably not a good idea.

He was attracted to her honey maple rasp and stonewashed eyes, but he could feel the sweat moving in a long stream down the back of his knee. His socks were drenched inside his boots.

“Rain check.”

Mike’s father didn’t raise him to avoid giving his name and number to a beautiful woman, but he needed to immediately freak out in a secure bivouac. Outside, fall was closer than it had been yesterday. He tossed his bag in the trash and marched to his car, not even remembering what he bought.

Deep breaths, he thought.

Mike was still sweating when he sat down in the driver’s seat, but he wasn’t as angry. He started the car and turned the radio on. Music helped him ease out of it. He popped open the glove compartment. A picture of her was taped inside.

“Home,” he said.

The GPS charted his route.  He turned his blinker on and waited for the traffic to die down so he could make a left turn. It took a bit, but the delay made him feel less surly.

“Fuckin’ duck.”

II.

“Are we ever going to leave this bed?”

“God, I hope not.”

“We have to at least attempt to do something today.”

“I’d argue that we’ve done plenty already.”

“I mean real things.”

“That all seemed pretty real to me. Seriously, what could you possibly want to do out there when you could keep making love to me in here?”

“You’re insatiable. Aren’t you hungry? I’m hungry.”

“One of us can go get food and the other could stay here and hold down the love fort.”

“Don’t say ‘love fort’ ever again.”

“Roger that.”

“Trying to get used to the lingo already? Can you believe the draft went that high?”

“With our luck, yes.”

“The news says things are improving, but now we need more muscle over there?”

“I’ll give you a full briefing when I get back.”

“I prefer you give it to me right now.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Ugh. ‘Ma’am’ doesn’t sound good on me.”

“Everything sounds good on you.”

“He bedded the girl and is still in hot pursuit. You’re not going to use those lines on other women over there are you?”

“Come on, give me some credit. I’d never re-use old material.”

“Bastard.”

“We’re not going anywhere, so get back under the covers.”

“Fine, but only because I’m chilly.”

“Pretty sure all my heat is gravitating to one place at the moment.”

“Well, I’ll just have to go where the heat is I guess. Consider this your incentive to come home.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Now I’m using teeth.”

III.

Mike’s fifth therapy session didn’t go well.

He didn’t mind talking about things, which made his panic attacks even more arbitrary. If he were anyone else, every session would feature a breakthrough. For him it was chatting with a therapist who seemed just as disappointed that they hadn’t found anything close to a root cause.

Damn my parents for being loving and supportive, Mike thought. Would have been easy to pin all this on an abusive mother or absent father.

“Are the attacks happening more or less frequently?” Ernest asked.

“Same amount. More powerful.”

“Takes time.”

“I’ve been back a while.”

This room reminded Mike of most of the accommodations over there—federally mandated gray walls and IKEA-like furniture built by the lowest bidder. Ernest didn’t have a beard, which unnerved him a little bit. The guy could probably go a month or two without shaving.

How much knowledge and life experience could he actually have without the ability to grow facial hair? Mike thought.

Ernest paused his questioning to write a few more illegible lines in his notebook. He did a lot of writing during these sessions, which also caused Mike anxiety. His pen movements were swift, especially when he was crossing out full paragraphs. Mike was impressed that someone could think out loud and on the page simultaneously—even if that person was wrong most of the time.

“Do you feel like killing anyone during these episodes?”

“No. Feels more like high school heartbreak.”

“Did someone break your heart in high school?”

“Of course. Feels like we’re fishing here.”

“We are. Could you possibly have anything else to reveal?

“I was an altar boy as a kid.”

“Did you get molested?”

“No.”

“Too bad. You’d be rich.”  

Mike had told him about the killing. The fear, the sweating, the loneliness, the fire fights, the bullets he took, the blood, her death, the crying. The ability to open up about it all only provided more questions.

Ernest rubbed his cheek where his therapist beard should have been.

“Can you still get it up?” He asked.

“You’re pretty old. Can you get it up?”

“Nothing wrong with your sense of humor. So you didn’t think of any fresh ideas?”

“It’s pretty random.”

“Like the duck?”

“Like the duck.”

“Thinking about her doesn’t necessarily trigger an episode then?”

“If it did, I’d be in an asylum by now.”

“You think about the good and the bad?”

“Everything. I cry about it. I have a drink. I usually don’t have to flee the premises or check myself into the emergency room.”

“You don’t remember going?”

“Not until I regained consciousness. Woke up to a pretty hot nurse. Wish I hadn’t soiled myself when I walked in.”

“What were you doing before?”

“Can’t remember. In line for a movie maybe? I vaguely remember a woman screaming into a phone.”

“How many of your buddies died over there?”

“We lost guys too fast; I didn’t have time to make friends. I can’t picture faces. I only have snippets of a couple of guys. How he was shot. What info was on his dog tags. A hometown or two.”

“Ever feel guilty you survived?”

More old territory, Mike thought. Spinning in circles.

“Yeah, but I’ve always had bad luck. I guess I was saving up all my good luck to make it back. Living and carrying on seemed the best way to honor those guys who didn’t make it. Certainly better than being angry all the time.”

“Damn.”

“What?”

“You’re well-adjusted.”

“I know. Pisses me off, too.”

IV.

Mike examined a bright blue beer bottle before bringing it to his lips.

Bud Light sucks unless you’re drinking it for free on a back deck with your brother, he thought.

He was alone at the moment. Phil had gone in search of meat they could dump on the grill. God willing, he’d return with a pair of cigars as well.

Phil and Mike didn’t have to be soldiers here. Phil had served well before all the real shit went down, but the system had used him just the same. Wounds of peace could be just as deep as those from war.

“Burgers?” Phil asked from the screen door.

“Got hot dogs?”

“Both?”

“Affirmative.”

Mike finished his beer and started another.

“How’s therapy?” Phil asked, carrying a plate of red beef patties and pale hot dogs.

“Fine. You?”

“I’m still fucked up.”

“I’m not. It’s a problem.”

“Want to fucking switch then, Sally?”

“Just stating a fact.”

“Seriously, let’s trade my aggression and depression for your ‘episodes.’ Jesus, you fought a war for years. I get a decade’s worth of paper cuts and I can’t sleep at night. Shit’s fucked up, man.”

“You did more than that,” Mike said.

He let his brother rant for a while and then got up to examine the disaster on the grill.

“These animals are deader than they were the first time,” Mike said.

“Shut the fuck up.”

“What are we going to eat now?”

“Adjust your skirt, sit down, and finish your fucking beer.”

Phil scooped up the blackened meat and dumped it into the trash barrel.

“You want help?” Mike asked.

“I’m not going to fucking tell you again. Keep fucking drinking!”

Mike laughed as Phil went back into the house fuming and did as he was told. He pounded his beer and then guzzled the next one. Then he opened up another and eased back into his deck chair.

While Phil dealt with solving their dinner crisis, Mike stretched out his legs. The alcohol was starting to hit home. His boots felt heavy and reassuring on his feet. Someone suggested he give sneakers a try, but Mike knew he’d never feel safe. Boots kept him ready. Poised.

He woke up one morning to find mortar shells for breakfast. The forward operating base’s makeshift walls fell apart like particle board. His roommate grabbed his M16, headed into the heat without his boots, slipped on the recently waxed tile in the hallway, and was decapitated by a shoulder-fired missile. Mike put his boots on, threw the body over his shoulder, and grabbed the head by the hair. A wall collapsed on him soon after. A military working dog found him a day later alongside the pieces of his roommate. He was half dead, but still had his boots—the only things he needed to stay alive.

“Chinese will be here in thirty minutes,” Phil said, returning bare-chested. What was left of his shirt ended up with the discarded meat. He slammed the grill cover and roughly threw on a white V-neck t-shirt. Mike would check his brother’s walls for holes later.

“You didn’t even ask what I wanted.”

“You haven’t ordered anything other than chicken and broccoli since you’ve been alive.”

“Maybe I wanted to switch it up.”

“I just calmed down,” Phil said. “Do you think you could lay off?”

He couldn’t have been too mad because he revealed a pair of Ashton cigars. Mike pressed the dark brown tobacco under his nose and inhaled deeply.

There isn’t a flower or perfume that smells this good, Mike thought.

Phil lit his and walked to the far corner of the deck, becoming a small burnt orange smudge. His midsection was fuller now, but his arms still contained the brawn he developed during his military career. Both brothers had inherited their mother’s obsidian hair, but Phil’s was graying prematurely like their father. Phil smoked his cigar like he did most things: swiftly and without enjoyment. He put it out in the half-broken terracotta platter next to him long before Mike reached the midway point of his. 

“You’re an asshole,” Phil said.

“But a concerned one. You’re lucky to have me as a brother.”

The brothers waited for the food on the deck despite a drop in temperature.

 “You remember when Mom would force Dad to grill during the winter?” Phil asked after what felt like a year of silence.

“I don’t think anyone ever forced Dad to do anything. I think it was the other way around. Dad forced his grilling on Mom.”

Their father loved being in charge of dinner. He’d grill anything and everything. Mike remembered him stationed in the backyard wearing a Yankees beanie. Half frozen beer on the side burner he never used. The dog whined incessantly to be let out, but their mother wouldn’t dare because that mutt would have died laying out there in the snow waiting for the old man. His face used to get redder than the raw meat. Mike couldn’t remember him happier.

Their father never talked as much as when he was out there with a poker or spatula in his hand. He wouldn’t shut up. If he had to have a serious discussion with anyone, he’d bring home a couple pounds of steak tips and take forever to cook them. Whoever needed straightening out would be standing out there in all kinds of weather willing the fire to burn hotter so they could run into the house where he wasn’t chewing their asses out. The family had the mother of all cookouts when he died.

He never saw Mike in uniform.

“What was that bird he tried to cook once? You know, the one where Mom ended up so pissed because it tasted like gravel?” Phil asked.

“Pheasant?”

“That’s it. Worst Thanksgiving ever.”

“Pretty sure we ended up at McDonald’s and you threw up after eating twenty chicken nuggets in five minutes.”

Mike’s stomach burped, reminding him their takeout was late. He could tell Phil was anxious because he kept lighting his shoelace on fire and then quickly extinguishing it. He didn’t stop until the material blackened and fell into a pile of ash below his feet. The metallic scratch of the lighter held Mike’s attention until he started drooling boorishly. Phil smacked his arm in the “what the fuck’s wrong with you” manner only brothers can pull off right.

“You’re sure you’re not messed up?”

“Yep,” Mike said. “I’m going to take a piss.”

“Breaking the seal two beers in. That does not bode well for the rest of this evening.”

“I’ve had seven.”

“In that case, make sure you don’t piss all over my floor. Find some toilet water!”

Phil’s bathroom was still his wife’s. She had moved in with her mother when Phil had gotten too aggressive to be around her and the boy. They spoke often. She wasn’t giving up on him. They made it work and the kid was handling it well. They were functionally maladjusted.

The beer flowed swiftly out of Mike. His head felt a little fuzzy, but he wasn’t drunk. He couldn’t remember the last time he drank enough to feel inebriated. The medication kept him pretty level.

Mike glanced at the clock on the wall. It was stopped at a quarter to four. He had no idea how long he’d been here. He hadn’t wanted to stay this late. It had been days since he last visited her. He washed his hands on the pink hand towel and headed back toward the deck.

Phil had lit all the Tiki torches surrounding the deck. A half dozen takeout cartons were on the kitchen table.

Mike didn’t feel hungry, he felt panicked. Maybe he was drunk.

Drank and smoked too much without eating, he thought. As always.

However, his body told him he wasn’t cocked. He couldn’t tell if he was dizzy or disoriented from the water now pouring out of his eyes. He knocked over a food container trying to grab onto a chair. Phil yelled from the outside. Something about being careful.

His legs gave way, but his boots kept him upright. Mike took another deep breath and tried to focus his attention on the screen door. If he could get there, Phil would realize he needed help.

The deck was on fire. Mike blinked a few times to prove what he was seeing was real. Phil hadn’t been annoyed; he was the one in danger.

Mike’s training took over. He burst through the screen door, leaving it hanging stunned on its hinges. He wrapped his arms around Phil’s midsection and sent them both into the calm surface of the pool.

The spiky smell of chlorine invaded Mike’s nostrils and he lost consciousness before he could realize the fire hadn’t been real.

V.

Mike finally made it to the cemetery after he left the hospital.

Phil had been in the bed next to him with a few broken ribs. There was a bouquet of flowers on the table near his bed. Mike was discharged before his brother woke up, but he was pretty sure Phil had been faking sleep so he didn’t have to talk to him.  

Mike noticed someone had brought her flowers as well. They looked out of place though. She never cared much for plants. She preferred to have a bowl of fruit or a painting to add color to a room. Something she couldn’t kill and then feel guilty about.

Mike had been sweating through his fatigues in a desert mess hall when she died.

A full bird colonel had approached him on his way back to his bunk. He hadn’t had his helmet on during morning drills, so he had braced himself for a good hiding. Half the world was on fire, but God forbid his lid was unprotected. Protocol trumps perspective in the Army.

He had given Mike the news empathically. He had saluted the officer, thanked him, and went to his bunk to cry privately. Nothing happened at first, but eventually, he wept for days.

The enemy had sent snipers to the U.S. It took a while to eliminate them all. The Army had to take over a few cities. There were refugees at Denny’s and Costco. Traitors were suspected everywhere. The news media would have gone even crazier had the government not suspended the First Amendment for a few months. It took years to sort out. All the soldiers serving in the U.S. ended up institutionalized. Forgotten. 

She ended up in the ground.

There was no romance to it. She hadn’t been driving to meet Mike’s incoming flight. She just ran into dumb luck with a bullet attached to it. Copycat snipers sprung up in a few towns. She had been stopped at a light, the bullet pierced the windshield. Mike had heard from some people in town that a few assholes behind her had honked their horns.

He never knew what to do standing in front a tombstone. Typically, he hung around until his feet hurt. He thought about and discussed her so much outside these gates that he had nothing left by the time he visited.

Despite her preference for life and happiness, she was much more comfortable dealing with death than he was. She had an older family, so she dutifully attended funerals, brought holiday decorations to cemeteries, and recited a handful of prayers if nothing else seemed appropriate. She knew when to be solemn and when to lighten the mood. Mike was by her side for quite a few of those moments, and she never failed to make everyone feel a little better. Mike, on the other hand, giggled awkwardly when he should have been silent and stoic. He was assigned grave duty when he first landed over there. He just dug the holes, filling them in was another private’s job. He kept death at arm’s length, and it rewarded him with a ticket home and a lover in a casket. 

At least Mike’s episodes abated while he stood here motionless. That’s how he knew she didn’t have anything to do with what was happening to him. Memories of her, large and small, were everywhere he went, and they were always welcome additions to his daily life. He wasn’t religious by any stretch, but he believed there was a script people couldn’t possibly understand. It wasn’t his time to be with her, so Mike had to be satisfied with the time that came before.

When he got drafted, both of them just assumed they’d have plenty of time to work it out when he returned. If he returned. He often thought about what their wedding day would have been like. Her side of the church would have been full. He supposed he could have hired a few people to supplement his shrinking family. All of his friends (and Phil) would be standing up beside him. She probably would have taken pity on him and loaned him a few bodies so that his parents weren’t lonely.

Mike would have loved her wholeheartedly forever.

He checked the time discreetly. He didn’t want her to think he was bored. After his poolside heroics, the doctors upped his medication. Mike figured they would have been impressed that his subconscious instincts led him to help instead of hurt. Over there, he would have been given a medal and a promotion. The Army may have even burned down the deck to ensure the feel good story had a ring of truth to it. Instead, Mike got six pills and a schedule. 

“Goodbye, baby duck,” he said.

Mike couldn’t keep a smile from forming on his face. He let it have its moment before he headed to his car.

VI.

Mike took an open seat at the counter of his favorite diner.

Diners were one of the rare things they disagreed on. She hated them. She always complained the food was too greasy. She had a strange phobia of eating where she could watch her food being cooked.

"Coffee?" Thomas, the owner, asked, already pouring Mike a cup.

His gentle face was betrayed by a pair of thick horn-rimmed glasses he claimed he had been wearing since the late 1950s. He opened the place at five a.m. thirty years ago, yet his button-down shirt and black slacks didn’t have a visible stain or wrinkle. He was lean, bald, and the horniest widower Mike had ever met.

"Actually, do you have tea?"

"Are you shitting me?"

"Yes, keep pouring."

"I'll be back with your chili, asshole."

Mike didn’t make it a habit of pairing chili with his morning coffee. He was skirting the line between breakfast and lunch, so Thomas was probably hedging his bets. He liked to have Mike’s food ready before he ordered it. Thomas never gave him a menu and loved to use him as a guinea pig for new recipes. He didn’t charge, so Mike couldn’t complain about the extra bathroom time some of the man’s experiments induced.

Mike added a few extra sugars to eliminate some of his coffee’s strength. He listened in on the conversation the older regulars were having about the hometown AAA team’s tough late-inning loss last night. So-and-so blew the save, and the much-heralded, brawny outfielder struck out four times. These old timers were cataloging statistics with the ease of Bill James. They were even sophisticated enough to include WAR, FIP, and OPS+, but most of them agreed that they were bullshit. A guy was a baseball player or he wasn’t.

Mike tuned out and absorbed the diner’s music. He was convinced Thomas had his daughter positioned in front of a cassette tape boom box. Mike did have to admit that there usually was a respectable amount of oldies, folk, and classic rock. There are few places in the world he was able to relax (thanks to recent events, that list was even smaller), but he felt right at home with these old bastards, degenerates, and hungover hipsters.

“I had a feeling I’d run into you soon enough,” a voice said behind him.

Mike swiveled in his seat and found himself staring at a familiar pair of long legs. She had her blond hair worked into a ponytail, which matched perfectly with her dark yoga pants and purple sneakers. Her torso was all rebel; she wore a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and a black leather jacket that made him long for a Marlboro Red.

“You going to gawk, or ask me to join you?” She asked.

The typically mute and motionless South American regular sitting next to Mike immediately shifted to the next open stool as soon as he caught sight of her. He encouraged her to sit down with his broken English and wayward eyes.

“Do you mind?” She asked.

“Of course not, ma’am,” Mike said. “But I’d watch him, he gets handsy.”

The guy didn’t understand, but nodded his head vigorously.

“I’ll take my chances,” she said. “Do all military guys talk like you?”

“We’re polite killers. I’m Mike.”

“Nikki.”

She grabbed his hand before he had a chance to fully extend it. Her grip was as strong as any commanding officer’s.

“What can I get you, darling?” Thomas asked.

Mike noticed his baritone dropped an octave.

“Oh, I’ll have whatever he’s having,” she said.

“He’s having coffee and chili.”

“Really?”

Mike shrugged.

“Well, that won’t do,” Nikki said. “What do you recommend?”

“For you?” Thomas gave her an exaggerated once over, which made her giggle. “Tea, scone, and half of my bank account after our inevitable divorce.”

“Make it a blueberry muffin and you’ve got a deal. They look delicious!”

“Can I expect my omelet any time soon?” Mike asked.

“You’re getting chicken pot pie today. Homemade. You’re going to love it,” he said. “At least you better, I ordered ingredients for a week.”

Thomas walked away, but not before giving Mike a couple of animated fist pumps.

“So, this is where you hang out?” Nikki asked.

“Either here or the strip club,” Mike said. “I work the afternoon shift.”

“I’d pay good money to see that. What do you actually do for a living?”

Shit, Mike thought.

He wasn’t looking for anything, but he certainly didn’t want to scare her away completely. Another added bonus of surviving that desert cemetery was a decent combat pension that allowed him to be pretty fluid about employment. He worked as a bouncer one night, a grocery clerk the next. He may have even worked security for a local strip club. The low point was signing up to be a clown at a farm hosting an event for military families. Some kid stole his red nose.

“Well, I…”

A hand slapped Mike’s back. He almost spilled his coffee all over Nikki. Ernest’s clean-shaven chin appeared over his shoulder.

Gang’s all here, Mike thought.

“This cover band is making a hash of this Warren Zevon song, don’t you think?” Ernest asked.

“I think this is him,” Mike said. “The speakers suck.”

“You guys want to move this to that table that just opened up?” Thomas asked. “I’ll send this knucklehead’s chili over when you get settled.”

“Chili and coffee?” Ernest asked.

“We’ve been here already,” Mike said. “Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.”

Nikki eagerly strutted over to the table. Mike caught Ernest’s arm.

“Is this allowed?”

“As long as I pay, sure,” Ernest said.

“In that case, after you.”

“You mind if I excuse myself to use the ladies room first?” Nikki asked.

Mike made a big show of gesturing toward the restrooms. His goal was to keep her interested long enough to figure out if he could still be interesting.  

“You like Warren Zevon?” Ernest asked.

“He’s okay.”

“Do you have a favorite song?”

“I’m partial to ‘Searching for a Heart.’” Mike held up his hand. “It’s not a thing, I just like the tune.”

Ernest laughed and Mike half expected him to pull out his notebook and write it down.

“I’ve always dug ‘Werewolves of London,’” Ernest said.

“Then can you tell me what the hell that song is about?”

“No idea.”

“You’re the worst. Why was I referred to you again?"

“The government likes cheap.”

“They didn’t pay you to follow me, did they? As you can see, I’ve already got someone on my tail.”

“Are you considering asking her out?”

“I feel if I answer that question, I’m going to get an invoice tomorrow,” Mike said.

Mike’s hand started shaking. He didn’t notice it at first because his mug was empty and he still hadn’t eaten anything. He knew he was in real trouble when the tremors reached his elbow. The diner’s sweet symphony of assorted languages, whitewashed porcelain plates meeting cheap metal tables, and fry cooks flirting with waitresses coalesced into a high-pitched whine that threatened to lacerate his eardrums. Mike could see Ernest’s concerned expression, but he knew if he didn’t use whatever motor skills he had left, he wouldn’t make it to the bathroom. He sloppily exited the booth, slurred incoherently, and took three long strides past the counter. 

Mike lowered his shoulder through the bathroom door, sank to his knees, and lifted the seat without studying its condition. He violently threw up a mix of half-digested coffee and medication. The sight of it made him vomit even more. He emptied myself out, but his body refused to believe it. Dry heave after dry heave forced his head further into the bowl. It felt as if all his ribs were cracking. The ringing in his ears was deafening. He wept as hard as he was throwing up.

Mike’s body finally began to accept he had nothing left to give. He swallowed hard, forcing down whatever stomach acid had been on its way up. He flushed the toilet and collapsed.

He felt drunk, as if he had spent the morning chasing gin and tonics with rotgut whiskey. He could hear a voice shouting at him. Phil. His brother was trying to open her door. He kept telling Mike to be quiet.

Mike’s deployment date was close. Phil had decided his brother needed a sendoff that would require a liver transplant. Mike drank every shot handed to him and smoked a cigar every hour. A cheap champagne fight broke out, which added a layer of suds.

Phil lost his grip on Mike, whose head slammed against the door. He didn’t feel anything and tried to drunkenly explain that there was a trick to the lock. He didn’t get a chance to try it. She was standing in front of them with a baseball bat in her hands. She thought someone was breaking in. The rest of the men scattered.

Mike fell into her arms and then immediately hit the floor. She didn’t have the upper body strength to catch him. She made him crawl to the bathroom, poking him with the end of the bat to keep him moving. Mike managed to slide into the tub before she dumped a gallon of ice water on his head. He lost his breath and started crying. All of his insecurities and fear rushed out.

“Why are you with me?” He asked. “You could be with anyone. Why did you choose me? You can run away after I leave. Don’t wait for me. I love you too much to see you waste your time. I don’t want to die. I want to stay here with you. Why are you with me?”

“Because I love you” was her answer to most of his questions.

The others she ignored. She was his forever and he couldn’t believe it fully. All her love didn’t seem possible.

Didn’t she harbor some kind of unrequited love for someone? He thought. How could she possibly love him with her whole heart?

He was laid out like a starfish thinking about all this when she returned hours later to dredge him out of his emotional waste.

“Get up,” she said. “Get up and I’ll figure out a way to make it all go away.”

She may have only said it once, but Mike heard it on repeat.

Get up.

Get up.

Get up.

Mike shouldn’t have looked at himself in the mirror. His cheeks were hollowed out and he was the color of a Styrofoam cooler. He didn’t have the strength to splash water on his face, so he unlocked the door and rejoined the world.

His breakfast companions hadn’t left.

“You want to talk about it?” Ernest asked.

“Not until I’m legally obligated.”

“He’s fine,” he said to Nikki.

Mike didn’t want to face her, but he did. The cloth she pressed to his forehead was cold, but her smile was warm.

“Welcome back,” she said. 

VII.

Mike needed shaving cream.

He had been using soap and water for weeks since prematurely trashing his last purchase. His skin was getting raw. He could have asked Phil for some, but it had been awkward since Mike had saved him from flames that hadn’t actually existed. The only good thing that came out of the whole scenario was that his wife and son moved back in.

Mike considered banning shaving all together. Would have been a hell of a lot easier. He looked good with a beard, but she used to hate it. A beard meant she wouldn’t kiss him. He couldn’t live without her lips, until he had to. 

Deep fall had set in, so he knew the ducks would be gone. He glanced at the front counter on his way in and was proven correct. He walked down the center aisle, confident he would escape this trip unscathed.

They didn’t have his preferred brand. He eyed the cheapest one and noticed soap was on sale.

Do I need soap? He thought. I’m still showering, right?

A guy in line started chatting up the women in front of him. Mike’s ears honed in and heard him deliver a line that would have made Bill Clinton blush. The woman was visibly offended. Her voice sounded familiar. Sure enough, it was Nikki, who had a young kid with her. She hadn’t mentioned him. He could be a nephew. Either way, considering how well their last meeting went, he didn’t blame her.

Mike watched the guy back off. She wasn’t in any trouble and didn’t appear to see him.

Small miracles, he thought. Now, do I want “Alpine Shower” or “Misty Springtime?”

That’s when it jumped him.

Mike started to see numbers form, but they didn’t mean anything. They appeared one at a time. Over and over again. The sequence didn’t add up. He wasn’t looking at a birthday, anniversary, or an online password.

He shut his eyes. He thought he heard shouting, but couldn’t tell if it was part of the episode or reality. It sounded like an ambush or tactical strike. Each shout he heard sounded like hot metal striking flesh.

“Wake up soldier,” Mike said.

He was in his apartment, which was a mess. The table was set, but dinner was abandoned on the stove. Deep pink lipstick rimmed an empty wine glass. He heard laughter coming from his bedroom. He had a towel wrapped around his waist. He followed the trail of discarded clothing. He pushed the bedroom door open and found her curves ensconced underneath a slim sheet.

“Hey,” she said.

“You’re not real,” Mike said.

“You keep saying that, but I keep showing up.”

“I needed to get shaving cream. And now I’m here.”

“Take off your clothes and get back in this bed.”

“I’m only wearing a towel.”

“My lucky morning. Not too many of those left. Get into the bed and bring that with you.”

His towel had parted.

“I want us to do it 343 times. You’re not going to stop until I tell you to.”

“What did she say?” Mike asked out loud.

He was half back in reality. He could see her in the bed in the paper supplies aisle. He could reach out and touch her hips next to a 12-pack of toilet paper.

She gestured to him to lie down. She never wanted him to leave the bed. But there were postseason baseball games to watch, a fantasy football team to manage, bank accounts to worry about, affairs to get in order before basic training. All she needed was for him to be next to her and he kept putting it off. He always walked in to a comatose lover buried underneath every blanket he had. He’d squeeze her firmly, reclaim a square of the comforter, and fade to sleep adamant that he’d make it all up to her the following night. It never happened. He ran out of tomorrow nights.

“Did I stutter?” She asked. “How are you going to follow orders when you can’t hear shit? Or are you embarrassed because I caught you checking out that blond?”

“I was just being friendly. I’m only human.”

“What could she possibly have that I don’t?”

She threw the sheet off the bed. Her skin was illuminated like a soft white light bulb. She moved slightly so her ass was in full view, and then laid flat on her back. She fully opened her legs.

“How much wine did you have without me?” She asked. “I said make love to me, silly. Maybe I’ll break you, and you won’t have to leave.”

“The Army would probably draft you instead.”

“I’m too much to handle,” she said. “Stop wasting time. Let’s get to it. I want my 343.”

343, Mike thought.

3.

4.

3.

The numbers.

They came one after another again, slowly this time.

3.

4.

3.

343.

His draft number.

The woman ahead of him in line for the movie was reciting a telephone number. His brother’s clock had been stopped at 3:43. All those baseball stats at the diner must have included a three, a four, and a three. The soap was three for $4, and the shaving cream was three bucks. his change from his first pharmacy visit was $3.43. It had never been the ducks.

Son of a bitch, Mike thought.

His mind flipped solidly into the present and started working on a new callous for his newly discovered wound.

“He’s got a gun!”

The screaming hadn’t been an illusion. The customers in the aisles had hit the ground. Those by the registers were catatonic. The guy from before had Nikki’s arm in a vise grip. His other hand held a .38 Special snub nose. He had it pointed at the cashier. His speech was slurred, his clothes were dirty, and his hair was unwashed. Mike could see the outlines of the guy’s dog tags in the back pocket of his fraying khakis. Maybe Mike knew him over there. The man had come home and lost his way. Or maybe it was the other way around. The danger was real this time.

“Sir, please drop the gun,” Mike said.

The man lowered the weapon to his hip and turned his head just enough to survey his new enemy with his peripheral vision. He shoved Nikki away.

Mike felt pretty dumb. He was unarmed and was putting a crowd of people in more risk. He hadn’t consciously raised a fist in anger since he arrived back home. The only advantage he had was that this guy still had his back to him.

The guy’s elbow flinched and his right foot moved just enough for Mike to figure out he had made up his mind to shoot.

Mike’s forearm disrupted his aim, but didn’t disable his trigger finger. A bullet tore through Mike’s right bicep. There was more screaming. Mike ignored the pain and threw his left fist into the guy’s face. The robber dropped immediately. The gun discharged again, but the stray bullet only shredded a bag of cheese puffs. Mike picked up the gun and emptied out the rest of the ammo. He walked calmly to the hardware section and grabbed an extension cord. He turned the former soldier over on his stomach and tied his hands. The threat had been neutralized.

“You can call the police now,” Mike said to the cashier.

She yelped, but picked up the phone. Mike felt hungry and a little lightheaded.

“There’s a lot of blood, so she should call the paramedics too,” Nikki said.

She was right. His shirtsleeve was bright red.

“Thanks,” he said.

Once the paramedics arrived, they stopped the bleeding and bandaged Mike’s arm. They told him to stay put until they gave him a final once over after they checked out some of the older customers who were finally calming down. The cheese puffs hadn’t made it.

Nikki’s kid stared at him, trying to get the courage to ask something.

“Did it hurt?”

Mike shrugged.

“Just bad luck with a bullet,” he said.

“Were you a solider over there?”

Mike nodded.

“Well, thanks for saving my mom,” the kid said.

 “Sure thing. How old are you?”

“10.”

“You like school?”

“No.”

Mike laughed.

“Just don’t join the Army someday,” he said.

The kid made a face that clearly showed his frustration with yet another adult telling him what to do. Mike could see Nikki giving the police officer an earful. She was going to press charges up the ass.

His body started freaking out, starting from the pit of his stomach. He was going to throw up all over this kid. Or throw him through the automatic door.

A worried survey of his immediate surroundings found his draft number missing. The cop’s badge number was a mix of fives, sevens, and nines. All the price tags in the area were out of sight. None of the promotional signage featured a three, four, or three. The kid was the only person within a foot of him.

The kid.

Fuck me, he thought. He’s 10. Three plus four plus three.

Mike flashed back to a peach orchard.

She stood up and proudly showcased a small peach. She held it close to her smile. Norman Rockwell would have had a field day.

The present returned. Mike decided not to wait for the paramedics and resolved that growing a beard was a safer alternative.

The kid stared at him awkwardly again.

“Take it easy,” Mike said.

 

Daniel Ford is an author based out of Boston, Mass. He's also the co-founder and co-host of Writer's Bone. His short story, “Cheap,” can be found on Amazon. Ford is currently in the process of shopping his first novel, Sid Sanford Lives!

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