by Alex Miller
I swallowed a pink pill after breakfast, gripped the sink and stared at my face in the mirror, waited for waves of happiness to overtake me, for my gray world to explode into rainbows and zebras and hippy flowers. It didn’t work. Sometimes drugs aren’t enough.
Later I smoothed my tie and locked the apartment door behind me. I set off down the hallway thinking dark thoughts. Mostly I dwelt on my job and all the ways my boss would make my life suck for the next eight hours. This line of thinking metastasized into a generalized anxiety. Terrible ideas ran like a hellish news chiron directly into my brain—the president is incompetent … possibly a madman … the banks are collapsing … the economy is fucked … jobs are fucked … the Middle East is at war … the war is all our fault … … partially all our fault … our fault and the fault of our incompetent president … possibly a madman.
I froze midstep. Blinked. Rushed back down the hall to make sure I’d locked the door.
Once I finally made it outside, I saw Lucid Thomas sitting on the stoop. He didn’t live in the building, but it was his favorite stoop. He muttered at everybody who walked by. A lot of people walked by. As I came down the steps, he stood up to ask me for a dollar, but when he saw it was me he nodded and sat down.
“Do you know what a water buffalo looks like after it’s been shot?” he said. Lucid Thomas only had five or six stories. They were all about Vietnam, and he told them over and over. “It looks dead.” Lucid Thomas used his hands to make an animal shape in the air. “It looks dead.”
“I know all about it,” I said. “Tell me something new.”
Lucid Thomas thought for a moment.
“Dolphins are psychic,” he said. “If you swim up close, they’ll read your mind.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” I said.
“Do you know what a dolphin looks like after it’s been shot?” he said.
I walked away, headed up Broadway to the metro station. I passed red-brick buildings and people and an occasional tree. I concentrated on the trees, hoping they would grant me the peace that modern pharmacology had failed to make good on.
My friend Jeremy died. According to Facebook, he died. I found out last night. I didn’t think I’d sleep but then did, a little, I guess toward dawn. Jeremy died in Afghanistan, and I don’t know any details yet, and maybe I never will.
I remember something Jeremy said when he was on leave during his first deployment. This was several years ago, when he served in Iraq. He said that after we got through with Fallujah, it looked just the same as those black-and-white photos of places like Dresden and Yokohama that got bombed in World War II. Craters in the streets. Buildings dark and gutted. He told me I wouldn’t believe it even if I’d seen it. He said he’d seen it and still didn’t believe it.
I walked along the sidewalk and looked up at all the buildings, imagined them burning until they were nothing but skeletons, the ghosts of buildings. I wondered what would happen to all the people who lived in them. The crowd thickened as I approached the station. It perched high above the street, with a long covered stairway leading up to it. It looked like some giant mechanical insect looming above the neighborhood. I stood at the foot of the stairs. Commuters jostled past me. I thought about my job—the abject grayness of my cubicle, the long hours I would spend there, the pointlessness of it all, the bleakness, the way the sickly light projected by my computer monitor would bathe my face, painting it with a corpse-like pallor.
“Fuck it,” I said. Not that anybody cared.
I took a tentative step backward. To either side, people streamed up the stairs, heading to work or school or wherever else they were required to be. I turned and walked away from the station. With every step, I grew more confident in my decision. I kept going for a long time and wandered without any clear direction. Eventually I ended up at Sakura Park. I sat on the concrete steps of the gazebo and looked at the cherry trees. Tiny petals dropped off limbs and fluttered for a second before joining others in a pink mat on the ground. Kids played on swings and a slide. I tried to remember what it felt like to be one of them, to forget everything bad in life and run around wild and happy. I remembered when me and Jeremy were kids and played in parks, played army and war. I remembered shooting him with a stick that was a gun and how he fell in the grass. He played a trick on me and pretended to be dead. I crept up as he lay motionless and peaceful. “Wake up,” I said, nudging him. “Wake up.” His eyes popped open blazing blue and we took off running.
I sat and listened to kids and birds and the soft noise of wind shushing through the cherry trees. I pretended to be happy. When that didn’t work, I stood up and started walking again. I went to this Mexican restaurant where I’d eaten with Jeremy for the last time. It was only about a year ago. This time, the waitress tried to put me in some crappy booth in the back. I stopped her and asked for a table by the window. The restaurant was sort of depressing, the kind of place that feels greasy no matter how many times they wipe down your table. Sitting alone in the back would have made me want to kill myself.
I remembered how, when Jeremy was here, he’d ordered the enchiladas. I stared at the empty seat where he should have been sitting. I remembered how he was always so skinny in high school, but the last time I saw him his arms had grown thick and hard. The army turned him into a different kind of person, one with skull tattoos and a thin blond beard, like one of the G.I. Joes we played with when we were kids.
I imagined Jeremy sitting across from me in the restaurant.
“So how did you die?” I pretended to ask.
He rubbed his beard and looked out the window at all the people, but he didn’t see the people.
“Same shit, different day,” he said, peering through time and space. “We were in Kandahar. Everybody was in Kandahar. It was morning and already hot. The lieutenant drove my team in a Humvee through acres of grapevines south of Alkozai village. We’d taken the same road a thousand times. The truck kicked up dust, and with the sunlight and dust and grapevines, we could have been in France. That’s what I was thinking about when the shooting started—how maybe once I got out of the service I’d take a trip to see wine country, Burgundy or Bordeaux. This next part sounds crazy, but it’s true. At first I thought it was the vines shooting at us—the plants—you know? Like the bullets were just exploding out of the grapes. I raised my rifle and opened my mouth to yell for the team to return fire, but no words came out because there was a bullet in my brain. I saw the sun and dust and bright trails of tracers, and already I was dead. I’d never been so dead in my life.”
“What did you say?”
A waitress walked by carrying a tray of dirty glasses, looked at me like I was crazy.
“Nothing,” I said. “Sorry. It was nothing.”
I walked around the city for the rest of the day. I swallowed several pink pills, more than the warning label recommended. I wandered through some shops, visited more parks. Nobody in the city cared about Jeremy. Nobody in the city cared about anything. I’d watched them all day. They hailed cabs. Bought donuts and coffee. Listened to music through earbuds. Tapped fingers on their iPhones. Nobody cared. I wanted to stand on a corner and shout, tell everybody that Jeremy was my friend, and now he was dead, and everything was wrong, and everybody should know it, everybody should care. But instead I just roamed the sidewalks for a long time, looking and thinking but never once saying or doing much of anything, because, to tell you the truth, I’m just as useless as everybody else.
I walked back to my apartment in the dark. Lucid Thomas sat on the front steps and grinned as I approached, his teeth yellow like pus from a wound.
“One time I shot a mother and child. Thought they were tigers. Shot ’em in the head.”
“I know,” I said. “You told me already. You told me a thousand times.”
“Kid,” he said, incisors flashing like fangs in the streetlight. “I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe.” I ignored his insanity, which felt familiar and downright cuddly next to the frantic apathy of the city. I climbed the stairs to my rented home. I lay in bed. I tried to watch something funny on TV, but all I could think about were AK-47s and Hellfire missiles. The hour grew late. I closed my eyes and saw Jeremy as I’d known him when we were children. I laughed and chased him through an empty field. I shot him with a stick that was a gun and watched him fall. I crept up to him and saw he was full grown. Sunlight reflected off grass and his yellow beard. His eyes were closed. “Wake up,” I said. “Wake up.”
Alex Miller is a writer and graphic designer who lives in Pittsburgh. His fiction has appeared in Maudlin House, Fifth Wednesday Journal and Rabbit Catastrophe Review. “Kandahar” will appear in his short story collection, “How to Write an Emotionally Resonant Werewolf Novel,” which is slated for publication in summer 2019 by Unsolicited Press.