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Remains

by Christy Parrott

Brewer tried calling his wife before heading out. He pictured Amanda rushing to her phone, looking the way she did when they met, tight white jeans and a soft pack of Marlboros shoved in her back pocket. Nearby the click and grind of the Humvee’s engines told Brewer it was time to load up. “Come the fuck on,” he punched at his thigh. But she never answered.

He rode gunner in the second of five Humvees, filled with two dozen soldiers and one interpreter. He’d done this a million times. The convoy passed water buffalo and mud hovels. Always ready to take the first shot, Brewer eyed piles of trash and debris through his rifle lens from atop the rig. “Come the fuck on,” he scanned over the top of his sights. He knew what to look for: anything. Here was the only place he trusted himself; here, aggression was integrity. Or, as LT put it, “Anyone who thinks a target isn’t a target, prepare to get sent home quick.”

Eventually the convoy stopped at a home with shoes lined near the front door. Without asking permission, Brewer and Martinez stepped inside. They passed through the main room, into bedrooms and dressers. Martinez, who’d tattooed a cross, star of David, and Star-and-Crescent along his forearms searched the women’s drawers. “I’m taking no chances,” he said, more to himself than anyone else.

Brewer left for the courtyard, where a baby-faced arthritic man refused to make eye contact with anyone. Outside, Gardner spoke with two women across the street. With his pre-maturely gray high-and-tight and recently acquired limp from spraining his ankle on a PT run, Gardner looked more like a concerned therapist than a trained interrogator. Brewer recognized the Arabic words for “insurgent,” “bomb,” and “show me.” As the women spoke, they shifted in the doorway of their small home to prevent their children from clambering outside. Brewer stared at the old man in the courtyard, who gazed at something far off in the distance. In previous raids, they’d discovered rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades, mortar shells, but Brewer found nothing except a large stash of tea, excessive for one family. Brewer was sure the man knew something or someone. His wife and several children hugged the stone-and-mud wall a few feet behind him. Brewer waved for Gardner to join him and question the man.

“What were they saying over there?”

“Fish rajal mawjood.”

“What?”

“No men here.”

“Ask this guy why he has tea enough for several hundred hajis.” Brewer glared at the man’s thick eyebrows and surprisingly bright green eyes. The man wore that glazed domesticated look Brewer learned to recognize in his step-fathers just before they’d up and leave his drunk mother. He’d known she’d pushed them away, but he’d always wondered where they’d gone, and why they hadn’t taken him with them.

Careful not to gesture with his left hand to the Iraqis, Gardner threw them both up to Brewer and said, “He’s inviting us in for tea.”

“Tell him we’ve got no time for fucking chit chat.”

“I’m not telling him that man, that’s an insult.”

“Em-fucking-barrassment. See what you can find out.”

This man had secrets. Brewer was certain of that. Hell, even Amanda considered him a bit of a magician, always finding something out of nothing. Brewer walked toward a crab apple  tree while Gardner kept his hands at his sides and talked with the Iraqi man. Brewer surveyed the fruit, its branches hanging just over the clothes line running from the trunk to the home’s south wall.

Gardner’s practically playing patty cake trying to not offend anyone, when he’d rather strangle everyone before building a relationship with a man who’d as soon use his own family to kill them all. He’d give them a sermon if he could, Brewer thought. He kicked his boot hard against the tree trunk, shaking the apples, never losing eye contact with the old man. “When the bow breaks, the cradle will fall,” he hummed to himself. His trigger finger itching, Brewer ran his hand along the clothes dangling over the courtyard. He pinched off an apple, kissed its red-brown skin and took a bite, letting the juice run off his chin. He licked his lips and tossed the apple’s remains toward Gardner and the old man.

 

They didn’t find anything in the other homes they checked before heading back to the combat outpost. When a pile of trash exploded and hit the Humvee in front of Brewer, he thought, here was the truth. He rushed toward the scent of burning fuel and flames amid sand and smoke to the front of the Humvee where Gardner slumped in his seat.

“Fuck,” Martinez said, helping Brewer pry open the mangled door. Gardner’s right hand had blown off and melted with the warped dash. They pulled Gardner out and laid him near a sewer trench, where Martinez checked himself for damage.

“Did I get shot?” Gardner asked.

“Where’s your smoke?” Brewer yelled.

“Fuck, right.” Martinez shot a flare and soon a cloud of yellow consumed them.

“Check me for wounds,” Gardner yelled.

“You’re face is fucked up man,” Martinez said to Brewer.

“Perfect,” Brewer said. “I didn’t give a shit until you said something.”

“You’re still a pretty boy.” Martinez smoothed his eyebrows with his thumb and index finger.

“Who’s the fucking medic?” Brewer tried yelling over the firefight nearby.

“With O’Riesh.” Martinez ran to find Seltzer. Brewer yelled after him, “Get us another

Smoke.”

“That’s all I had.” Martinez ran for help.

Brewer ran his hand along the side of his face. Shards of glass felt like pebbly stubble on

his right cheek. Gardner moaned in pain. “Lift me up,” he asked. “It’s my hand.”

A piece of flesh stuck to Gardner’s forehead. Pink and delicate, it could have been an earlobe. Brewer brushed it aside. “You’re alright man. Just a little shrapnel like me.”

“I want to see it.” Gardner thrashed, his eyes wild.

“Relax.” Brewer grabbed him hard by the chin. “You telling me you can’t stand my face anymore?”

Gardner glanced to his side, saw his wrist ending in bone, flesh and tendons. Before the shock of it absorbed, Brewer took Gardner’s wrist in his hand and wiped the man’s blood over his left cheek. “Look at me, man. Just fucking look at me.”

Gardner saw Brewer covered in red. “Apples,” he murmured and passed out. Martinez rushed up with Seltzer, who folded Gardner onto a stretcher. Brewer stood and saw another body in the near distance, a young woman in a sewer trench. A road-side bomb, meant for Unit 20-2, had stripped the skin off her face. Her shirt and pants were tattered, shoes–if she’d owned any–were missing, yet one nipple appeared reddish brown and glossy. Next to her, footprints of a teenaged boy circled and disappeared. Brewer stood over the girl with his hands on his rifle. There she was, spread before him without demands, asking only for protection. His hands still covered with blood, Brewer dropped to his knees and covered her with what dirt and sand he could gather. He stared at the untouched flesh and thought of reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

“We’re going.” Martinez put his hand on Brewer’s shoulder.

“One smoke?” Brewer stood and punched Martinez in the chest. “We were fucking

Exposed!”

Martinez stumbled, caught himself and straightened out. He looked at the young woman

and said, “It’s love man.”

They made their way into the back of a Humvee, where they rode with several other of the less wounded. Brewer’s cheek began to throb, so he punched himself.

“You gotta be ready to get outta here?” Martinez asked. “Going home to see your lady?”

Brewer scanned for piles of trash ahead. “She doesn’t need me there.”

“Remind her who’s boss,” the driver said.

“Fuck off bucket head.” Brewer and a few others laughed.

“Last week I saw a dog lick blood off some kid.” Gardner held his mangled arm against his chest. “I got homemade chocolate-chip cookies held at in-processing. You think this’ll speed up getting them to me?”

“Fucking Gardner owes you his life,” Seltzer said.

“Just his hand,” Brewer said. “I could go for a smoke.”

“Never know what could’ve happened if you didn’t stay with it,” Seltzer said.

“Man, your hair looks like a damn dandelion,” Martinez blew at the few remaining blond hairs on the medic’s head. Brewer pictured his yard, weeds tall as trees by now, while Martinez patted him on the leg.

 

Back at the combat outpost home was as vague a concept to him as he suspected he was to anyone who’d asked about him. He knew the drill: “How’s so-and-so? He’s in Iraq. Oh.” Still, he called. Sometimes late at night when his infant son wasn’t awake and he couldn’t sleep. He tried to imagine the conversation going well, but it always ended in a fight, and he’d feel better about where he was.

This time, she did pick up. It was perfect. Right before his last route. But he needed to make it quick. “Never look back,” a Lieutenant slapped Brewer on the back of his head as Amanda answered.

“Hey, I’ll be home soon,” he said before she could greet him.

“Thank God. When?” Amanda exhaled into the phone.

“I thought you’d quit by now. Because of Matty–”

“I do everything,” Amanda paused to inhale. “They might notify your C.O.”

“My job? What do you mean?”

“I didn’t balance everything. No big deal. It’s just that there was a fee which I didn’t know about–”

“You coming, Romeo?” Martinez shouted to Brewer from inside their humvee.

“Hold the fuck up.”

“You don’t talk to me like that. I’m by myself. Matty’s teething.”

“Girls here scrub blood off walls, and I’m about to go into a mission where I might get my head blown off.”

“There was an overdraft,” Amanda said.

“I don’t need this.” Brewer twisted the metal phone cord in his fist.

“You can’t just hang up mad,” her voice wavered.

“Are you smoking in the house?” Before Brewer could hang up,  Amanda said, “Hold on, he’s crying, I’ve gotta put something in his mouth.”

Brewer pictured his wife shuffling across the linoleum in her slippers the way she did just before he left, the way his mother had always padded around the kitchen with a fifth tucked in her terry bathrobe pocket. He wondered if Amanda would rub scotch on Little Matty’s gums for comfort. Brewer overheard Amanda ask their son why he wasn’t cooperating. “Give him something if he’s in pain,” Brewer said into the phone. “Get it together.” Brewer waited and punched at his leg.

“Grant?” Amanda had returned. “Not me, right?” Amanda said as her husband dropped the phone.

Brewer didn’t glance back as his Humvee pealed out. “Come on. Come the fuck on.” He scanned his section. A different route meant anything or nothing could happen, same as always. A pile of trash, a small child standing still on an overpass, a string of dead animals tied together in a daisy chain, that sick term always reminded him of schoolyard girls singing Ring Around The Rosy, wearing their eyelet dresses and filthy knees. He counted aloud to himself, “One, two three,” as he kicked at the metal panel in front of him. Brewer squeezed the 50’s grip hard; it wasn’t tight enough until his knuckles turned white.

“Hunting season’s almost over, eh?” Martinez taunted him. Why wasn’t there anything going on? Brewer scanned. Nothing. An indecipherable pile in the distance. Nothing that could reach them. Let this be it, Brewer checked through his sights. Give me something. The instinctual wave of relief that it was nothing shamed him. What was next? Go where, do what? Everyone here would still be in hell, without him. What did Amanda say? “It’s still a party, even if you’re not there.” Brewer squeezed his grip even harder. They returned back to the combat outpost without incident.

“Brewer’s going home with blue balls,” Seltzer announced to everyone.

“Didn’t even get a raghorn,” Martinez joked. They played PS3 and popped NoDoz until it was time.

 

Five clicks from his house, Brewer ordered himself another round. His hometown bar was like every other he’d seen throughout his enlistment, where the beer was on tap and girls were dancing on the tables by the end of Tuesday nickel-draft nights. He’d met Amanda at the stool to his left. He’d tried to push her away, said something rude about women, expecting her to leave, but she only laughed and ordered them another round. She’d used the mirror behind the bar to apply pink lip gloss and sworn she was nothing like her mother. Then she had lit herself a smoke right there in the bar. What else was she willing to do? Only a few months later, he’d abruptly ended an argument between them in the parking lot by asking her to marry him. She’d stopped dead in her tracks and said yes. Brewer immediately begged her not to tell anyone, and she’d promised with teary eyes to keep their secret. Next thing, his friends were pulling him back inside, buying drinks and patting him on the back. He thought if they found out, they’d be pissed, but everyone seemed proud of him. Might as well let them, he’d figured. After a few rounds and a couple shots, he’d forget all about it anyway.

Now that he was back, no one knew him. Not really. Despite his last name stitched to the front of the camis he wore, in this place he was “Grant.” A nobody. He’d accomplished more in thirty minutes on a battlefield than he ever would at home. Brewer pictured his son, Matty, resting in his crib. His eyes suddenly wet, Brewer swallowed hard and punched himself. No. No fucking way! He decided to re-up right then and there. Grant Brewer was a lifer! He pushed the idea of family from his mind. The sensation moved from his throat to his groin, where it itched and stung.

A woman sat next to him, asked what they were drinking.

“I’m trying to let loose,” Brewer said.

“I don’t need to hear your story. Just wanted to know about the scratches,” she reached toward his cheek, the skin still abraded from the second-to-last run in Iraq. Brewer shot up, knocking the girl off the bar stool.

“There’s no way I’m coming back to what I started with.” Brewer threw back the last of his beer and slammed the glass down. A few guys stood, making their way toward the bar.

“I’m from here,” Brewer said.

The tallest of the three turned his ball cap around and said, “Take it easy. Just wanna make sure you’re both ok.”

Brewer kicked his bar stool away from him. “I’ll take a shot,” he told the bartender. “Might wanna slow down.” The bartender, a man old enough to be his father, kept both hands flat on the bar.

“Can I get some help here?” Brewer asked.

“No one’s fighting you, son.”

“That’s bullshit.” Brewer threw his empty glass on the floor. “Everyone’s fighting us!” Brewer stormed out, but not too late to hear the bartender tell the others to let him go. “The man just got home from Iraq.” Brewer imagined the patrons nodding.

Stupid bitch, he laughed as he let his engine warm. He’d fought with Amanda just before he deployed in the same gravel parking lot. She’d openly wept, “You can’t just leave us.”

“Men protect their family,” he’d said.

Now, Brewer sped down Church Boulevard toward home, smashing his palm against the steering wheel to the same song he’ d listened to before deploying, Drowning Pool’s “Let the Bodies Hit the Floor.” He sang, “One…two…three. Everything’s wrong with me…” In the rearview mirror, Brewer studied the colloidal scars and shallow pocks left from shrapnel on the side of his face. He sensed the light changing and pulled into the intersection, nearly hitting a boy only a few years younger than him. The boy noticed Brewer still in uniform and yelled, “Watch the road, Sergeant. Mission’s accomplished.”

“You have a safe night asshole,” Brewer yelled back.

The kid pulled his hoodie over his head and flipped him off.

God how he loved the fight, Brewer thought. But he won’t find it here. Not with traffic lights glowing like Christmas; not with McDonalds and Taco Bell staying open till 3 AM, keeping most people off the streets. He drove past a chain restaurant, full of families shoved into booths sitting behind plate glass. Guys his age. They’re all stuck, eating burgers and getting fat.

Across the road, a large banner stretched. “Remember Our Vets,” it read in bold black letters. Brewer lowered his window. “I’m not dead yet,” he yelled at the sign. Brewer rubbed at his face. The skin on his cheek throbbed. Soon, it would heal to a sick silvery pink.

Brewer drove past the liquor store his mother used to drag him to. He reached for his rifle, imagining he’d shoot out the Help Wanted sign in the window, only to realize his gun was no longer there.

She was the reason! If she hadn’t got pregnant, he wouldn’t have joined the Army. Amanda’s early emails promised backyard BBQs and forgetting all their silly arguments. “Just think how we’ll be laughing,” she’d written. Really, he joined the Army for himself because he was tired, because community college made him feel stupid. Her first emails said how much she loved him–her husband, the father of her child–that he was her hero who saved her, the rock she broke herself on. Now he knew what was really going on, and he didn’t even have his gun.

Plus, her latest emails had been different. Sent just after he’d called to tell her he was coming home, maybe for good. She wanted to make sure he understood about her new job bartending and Wanda’s watching Matty nights, and she just hoped it wasn’t too much for him. Why did he assume she’d chosen their place?

Brewer sped into the corner of his block. This was not home. Once outside his truck, Brewer smelled charcoal cooling on grills in nearby backyards. The door to his shed left to swing wide open. Had someone been there? No one had bothered to leave the front light on. He knew how to find out, real quick. Brewer jerked the front door handle, but it was deadbolt shut. “Come the fuck on.” He banged his fist on the door, then himself.

Across the street, Brewer heard a screen door smacked open and shut. “Welcome Home, son.”

Not bothering to look, Brewer waved over his shoulder. He checked under the mat for a spare key, but it was gone. “Fuck it,” Brewer muttered. He selected a rock from under the windows in the garden, surrounded by cigarette butts, and smashed the glass near the door handle. He reached past the shards and unlocked his front door.

Small cuts bled down his wrist. Brewer closed his eyes, imagined the young girl in Iraq, what she might have looked like, cupid’s bow lips, dark hair, green eyes.

Once inside, Brewer removed his web belt. Its metal buckle dragging behind him, hitting each wood step with a hard clack as he made his way upstairs. In the bedroom, filmy drapes rustled against soft blue walls.

“Grant?” Amanda raised slightly from their bed, red-rimmed eyes gleaming.

“Not dead yet,” Grant said. Belt in hand.

Neighbors heard the slaps and screaming. Across the street a man poked his wife in the

tummy. “Just back from Iraq!”

“How sweet.”

They giggled. And turned off the porch light.