The Light through the Trees
JEREMY STOOD IN front of the picture window in his parents’ living room, staring through his reflection at the trees as they began to grow and link hands. He watched the soft, spreading indigo of sky fade to violet and then, eventually, black. He seemed to be doing that more and more lately—staring off into nothing and thinking.
Mostly about the war, but other things, too.
The house, technically, wasn’t his parents’ anymore. They’d left it to him—along with all of its unpaid financial obligations—when they skipped town. During the two months he’d been back in Heart Lake, he’d received a dozen letters from the bank, all of which he’d thrown away unopened, though he continued to pay the water and electric out of necessity. Three weeks after he left for basic, his mother had called to inform that his father had moved to Carbondale with some “stringy-haired hussy” he’d met online. She then proceeded to salvage whatever possessions she deemed worth taking from the smoldering wreck of her former life and drove four hours to stay with her sister in St. Paul, which was where Jeremy believed she still was, though he hadn’t called to check. It was probably for the best, he thought now. If she had stayed in the house alone, she probably would have drank herself to death.
He squinted into the deepening darkness and decided that now was as good a time as any. Dusk was his favorite time of day: when he couldn’t see anything and he couldn’t be seen. Invisibility was exactly what he wanted. He polished off what little was left of the beer resting on the windowsill and then added it to the haphazard pyramid of ten or twelve empty Miller Lite cans stacked against the wall. He threw his Carhartt jacket on over his broad, muscled shoulders, grabbed the rifle resting against the doorjamb, and yanked the door shut behind him.
Outside, the sub-Arctic air tasted sharp and clean against his teeth. It helped with the headaches. His Humvee had hit an IED outside Ramadi, and though the Army doctors had taken a look at him, there hadn’t been much they could do. In fact, they couldn’t even come to a consensus on what, exactly, was wrong. Brain trauma, according to Sergeant Swarzak, his squad leader, was a bitch. A hole, they can patch up. A brain—especially one as small as Jeremy’s—would be a challenge for anyone. To make matters worse, telling a girl in a bar that your Humvee rolled over an IED in Iraq and you now had headaches wasn’t guaranteed to get you in her panties the way a giant, jagged scar would. She might feel sorry for you, but that would be it. And the last thing Jeremy wanted was pity.
As he sank to one knee to dig another Miller Lite out of the snow pile by the backdoor, he could feel the migrainous headache that had blossomed inside his head hours before begin to lift. It was refreshing, like jumping into a pool in mid-January. He punctured the can with a think and drained it before crunching out across the snow behind the house. His parents had only owned an acre, but they were situated at the very edge of the city limits, so Jeremy only had to march fifty yards—past the fire pit and the trough he filled with rotten apples, corn, and a salt lick for the deer that came and went with impunity—to find himself in the middle of a dense tangle of jack pines and scrub brush.
Even though it wasn’t hunting season and he couldn’t legally discharge a firearm within city limits, that didn’t stop him from stalking the footpath that unwound for a mile behind his house. The neighbors were friendly, though solitary in the way people in the Midwest are, and they knew he’d been overseas. He doubted they would report him if they heard the crack of a gunshot, its wave rolling to them through the crystallized air. As Jeremy marched deeper into the forest—the smell of pine drifting all around him—he could feel the world behind him receding. On his regular excursions into the woods, he liked to pretend he was out on a night raid, the rifle’s stock lodged safely in the crook of his arm. The stillness of the forest suited Jeremy—not that it was exactly loud on Main Street when he walked to McDonald’s for lunch or the Kwik Trip when he ran out of beer, which happened three or four times a week.
They were both extremes, the desert and the cold. Both relentless. Like anything, you just had to get used to them, he thought, gazing into the dark doorways between the trees. His nightly jaunts had cut a fairly smooth trail through the snow, which was several inches less in the forest than it was in the open, but it had snowed recently and they were supposed to get a big snow again that night. They were predicting eighteen to twenty-four inches, though it hadn’t started yet. Earlier, the sky looked torn open and bruised with clouds. It was getting harder to see in the failing daylight, but he pressed on, the weight of the rifle reassuring him. He couldn’t recall how many times he’d jerked awake and found himself groping wildly for his M-16.
Returning to civilian life had been an adjustment. It still was.
Jeremy was a husky six-four, sandy-haired, and barrel-chested with clownishly large ears—not exactly Army material, not like Swarzak, who was five-six and built like a tree stump. Perfect for squatting behind low mud walls and bursting through short doorways. Their drill sergeant once remarked that if the Army could build boys like Swarzak, the war would’ve been over already. “What they feed you up there in Wisconsin, Kolozsi?” the drill sergeant wanted to know. “Corn and dicks?” Despite his size, the Army had still turned out to be an all right gig—in fact, Jeremy had been fairly good at it. The Army put a pack on your back, gave you a paycheck, three meals a day, and somewhere to sleep. He’d nearly re-upped right away, and was still considering it, if the Army would take him back. After taking orders without question for the past four years, he hadn’t know what to do with himself. There was no one to tell him what to do. No structure to his days. He ran eight miles a day and did pushups and sit-ups until his body quaked. Still, he felt himself going soft, not only mentally, but physically, too.
The sound of Jeremy’s approach startled a perched robin—weren’t they all supposed to be gone by now, departed for warmer climes?—and raised the bolt-action, Remington 30.06 to his cheek, peering down the tunnel of the scope. In the last five minutes, the forest around him had become a largely dark, undifferentiated mass, and it was almost as difficult to see with the night vision as it was without it. He could hear the steady shush of cars in the distance, slaloming up and down Main Street at the prescribed speed limit. He’d reached the point in the trail where he usually turned back, but decided to keep going. Maybe it was the extra beers he’d had, or the realization that there was nothing waiting for him back at his parents’ house. Funny, he still thought of it as his parents’ house, and supposed he always would, even when no one lived there or a new family had moved in.
Once his eyes finished sweeping the path for any signs of digging, he plunged forward into the unbroken, shin-high snow. He thrust his foot down until he found purchase with the ground and then picked up his plant foot and repeated the process. It was slow progress, and the snow’s sudden chill startled him, but he didn’t care. He had nowhere to go and nowhere to be. He soon fell into a rhythm and thought about Margolis, lazing in the shade of a juniper tree, smoking a cigarette during the five-minute break the LT had given them before resuming their patrol. Margolis, she’d been gorgeous—those piercing, green eyes—but she’d been tough as balls. She had the respect of even the most hard-core Army types in their platoon. She never let you forget, even for a second, that she was a soldier first and a woman second.
They listened to the thud of distant helicopters swooping down on rooftops, the rattle of small-arms fire in a far-off corner of the city riding the heavy, stale air toward them. The dust was everywhere, and their arms and necks were tanned to rust. Margolis blew out a thin trail of smoke.
“Shit’s fucked,” she said.
“Shit is fucked,” Jeremy agreed.
A burning tire or garbage heap threw an inky column of smoke over Ramadi. Shortly after, they’d shouldered up their gear and thrown their helmets back on, and an hour after that, they’d come under sniper fire and spent the night on some Wadi’s rooftop, popping amphetamines at regular intervals to stay awake. But that small, peaceful little moment, smoking with Margolis, had been a pleasant reprieve. The war—as shitty as it was—had been full of those.
Jeremy plodded through the snow, using the last of the light falling through the slats in the trees. A branch snapped beneath his boot and he froze. Nothing stirred, and once he’d determined it was safe to continue, he proceeded another twenty or thirty steps, maintaining strict noise and light discipline, when a blur of movement at his one o’clock sent him to a knee. He peered through the optic and detected, among the subtle gradations of gray and black, a thin, white shadow—nothing like the searing-white hot spot you got with a human, but a heat signature nonetheless. He lowered the rifle, squinting into the darkness. If he weren’t mistaken, in a tiny clearing not fifty yards from him, there was a doe with her large ears turned toward the night. Her ears twitched once, twice, straining, he thought, to hear something she couldn’t see. Jeremy didn’t breathe. He was fairly certain she was the same doe he’d seen in his backyard at four or five that morning, when the light leaked from his window and he laid awake on his bare mattress, reviewing mental snapshots from his tour, including the time he’d watched a five-year old boy buried a homemade bomb in a drainage ditch. The doe paused, and then took a hesitant step forward.
That’s it. Come on now.
Something moved behind the doe, and Jeremy felt his heart catch as a fawn traipsed out from a small stand of trees. He switched to the scope and thumbed off the rifle’s safety. The silence of the forest filled his head like static, the dull ringing he still sometimes heard and only noticed when he had nothing else to distract him, building. It was hard to know which blast had actually produced the ringing in his ears since there had been a few, but he had to assume it was the one that had sent him home. They’d been riding along in a convoy, on the way from one CP to another, when there’d been a flash and an incredibly loud bang.
The five-ton Humvee felt as if it had been lifted by its hood, held in the air for an instant, and then dropped again. Jeremy’s pulse slammed and his vision narrowed. He hadn’t known it then, but both of his eardrums had burst. He forced the Humvee’s door open and stumbled into a haze of dust that had turned the bleached-white afternoon to night. His body was thrumming with adrenaline. The refrain “I’m okay!” had been picked up around him, and he tried to join the chorus of voices, but he couldn’t push the words past the knot in his throat. The inside of his thigh was wet and warm, and he wasn’t sure if he was bleeding or if he’d simply pissed himself. The last time he’d seen Sergeant Swarzak, he had been lying unconscious beside the crippled Humvee with two or three guys working on him.
Jeremy could feel the snow beneath his right knee melting and seeping into his jeans. He drew in a deep breath and held it, following the doe as she stepped forward, pawing through the snow for food. Jeremy’s brain chugged through a series of quick calculations—distance, wind (zilch)—and knew he’d only get one shot. He had to choose. He drew a jittery breath and then emptied all of the air from his lungs, the way he’d been trained, and wrapped his finger around the trigger, enjoying its soft resistance.
And then he waited.
Joseph Pfister’s fiction has appeared in PANK, Juked, decomP, Right Hand Pointing, among others, and was long-listed by The Wigleaf Top 50 (Very) Short Fictions 2013. He is a graduate of the MFA Writing program at Sarah Lawrence College, and lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their dog, Roary. He is currently at work on his first novel. Visit him online at josephspfister.com or @joe_pfister.