AFTER


JOSEPH WILLIAMS

Sometimes when he couldn’t sleep, Lieutenant Michael Chalmers stared at the wall. Sometimes he stared down the barrel of a VP-127 instead and thought about pulling the trigger. So far, he’d convinced himself not to and he considered that penance in its own right, but each night, his justifications crept closer to soulless recitation. Eventually, they’d mean nothing to him at all.

Why, he wondered?

The VP was always clean. He polished the grip each sunrise. It seemed important but he wasn’t sure how. Maybe because he was afraid it would slip before he was ready. Maybe because it was harder and harder to drum up compelling reasons to back away.

He was scared.

Words failed him utterly.

Sometimes, rather than contemplating the finality of the wall or the VP, he just closed his eyes until the world folded in, and that would have been enough provided his dreams didn’t strangle him. They always did, though, excepting the few times when he couldn’t remember dreaming at all. If nothing else, the predictability was reassuring. There was no such thing as a smooth transition into the night-world anymore. Sometimes, there were casualties. That, at least, was something he understood.

He didn’t drink. He didn’t take his meds. He was afraid of what they meant.

It was always startling to realize how close to the edge he teetered and to know he was capable of going all the way over if he stumbled into a sufficiently weak moment. Another wayward step toward the cliff. A loose trigger-finger. One split-second of greater despair than the rest.

He’d never thought it possible for someone like him. A smart boy. A good boy. It snuck up like no Kalak, Tsoul, or Mulek had ever managed to on the battlefield. Part of it was Furnace, but he supposed it had been brewing within him for a long time. How? Chemically, he guessed. All the anesthetic and prescription doses. Stasis. Confinement. Most of it was just silence and the thought of another day, let alone a year or fifty of them. It didn’t make sense. He knew he had much to live for.

He should have been dead. Sillinger cut him open on Furnace to save his life. When he returned home, the doctors cut him up some more to save his life again. The desperation and hopelessness didn’t set in until a few weeks after, but now they ruled his silences.

Still, he told no one. He wasn’t sure who to tell, anyway, because this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. He’d never had this problem, so it was just a glitch. A phase he would get through if he would just ‘man up.’

Why, he wondered?

He had no desire to be an unfortunate statistic or cautionary tale. PTSD. Parin blues. Post-op depression. Whatever was happening, he’d resolved to burden no one with his inadequacies. What good was it to pull hair-shirts over the heads of his loved ones simply because he was weak? Because he couldn’t cope?

Physical pain. Frustration. Fear. Shame. So much time and memory pressing down on him, and often too little of both.

The surgeon should have guessed it was coming but he hadn’t, or else was numb to the experience. Either he’d never had it himself or he’d had it too many times to remember what it was like the first time. Doctors, much like justifications for suffering through another day, all lost perspective with enough hours behind them. Enough bodies in their wake. Probably he’d treated too many soldiers just like Lieutenant Michael Chalmers. Probably he’d seen worse injuries on the battlefield.

So why the embarrassing melancholy? What made him sick?

Why did it matter?

Suck it up and move on. One foot in front of the other. He was a soldier, damn it. He’d been through worse.

Sometimes, he thought about calling Gallagher on the vidscreen. God knew she’d offered enough. It would be selfish to wake her though. He’d be letting her down in a subtle, irreconcilable way. She slept without a hitch while he lived in his own world of shame and pain, staring down blank walls of memory and retraction. Why drag her into misery with him? Anyway, he couldn’t articulate the suffocating hopelessness even with her as a conduit. The weight in his chest was too heavy. It was a private, shuffling journey through breathtaking surreality. A smothering hallway with no end.

He didn’t have a right to feel the way he did.

So he stayed awake into the small hours of the morning, alone, slogging through quiet catastrophes, staring down the barrel of the VP, daring himself to pull the trigger. He might let a few people down if he ever did, but at least he wouldn’t be there to see it. Only guilty tongues condemned the dead.

When he woke the morning after, he carved a tally into his wooden desk with a kitchen-knife as a reminder of where he’d been. How he’d survived. Tracing the lines was a poignantly disturbing sensation. It wasn’t like being on the war front where there was a certain sense of pride associated with kneeling at the wrinkled feet of death, humbly prostrating oneself, accepting its cold judgment, and living to tell the tale.

This was no triumph of spirit or combat prowess.

On the front, each foray into the diseased wastelands of mortality increased one’s rapport with death. You felt stronger when you returned to your squad and stripped your armor to bask in electric, cathartic vulnerability. To feel reborn. To feel like you would never die. To feel like you owned death.

This was the opposite.

Each morning, he staggered back from the precipice of utter defeat and felt weaker for it. Shaken. Dried out. Every moment of his life to that point was steeped in failure by proxy because he was willing to wager it all on nothing to an enemy that didn’t exist.

And still, he convened with death each night, not knowing why.

He had an idea he might lose one day. His footsteps would falter on the way back, his grip would slip, and he’d tumble into death’s embrace with his armor and hair-shirt collapsing in the dust behind him, the fear that swelled in his chest at last swallowing him whole.

And then it would all be over. Mercifully, blessedly over. Pain. Memory. The future.

There were worse things. Tomorrow, for one.

Most days, though, he could breathe a little, and he supposed that was the best he could hope for in the meantime.