FICTION: Gravel & Bone

You go to the edges of the town that is no more, and you stare at the borders that used to be. You think: there used to be a mayor of this town. You think: this town used to be one of many. Staring at the blackened husks of bombed-out buildings, you think: this is not a town.

Gravel crunches beneath your boots and you pretend that it’s the ground-up bones of fallen soldiers. That’s pretty fucked up, Jack would say, and then he’d laugh and slap your back. You agree. You’re all pretty fucked up by now though.

When you told your parents you were enlisting, your father beamed with pride, and your mother told you not to be so fucking stupid. At the time you laughed and rolled your eyes, sharing a knowing look with your father. Now you think maybe your mother had a point.

Sometimes you wonder what your life would be like if you’d listened to her. You picture a college dorm, a cramped city apartment, a big house in a leafy suburb. You try, but you can’t imagine yourself in those places—the details fail you. The college dorm smells of smoke and ash and gunpowder; the wail of sirens from the street outside the apartment morphs into the whistle of falling bombs; and as you walk across your front lawn, thick mud sucks at your shoes and you struggle with every step.

Fucked up is right, you think, and you kick at the gravel and watch as bits of bone scatter around you.

#

He stands in front of you and grins with too-white teeth. You’re not sure what this one’s name is; politicians all look the same to you. Meet the new boss, you think, same as the old boss. It’s something Jack had said as you both watched the run-up to last year’s election on the small TV at base. He never did find out who won. You look up at the politician with his pressed suit and his shiny shoes and his smile that never reaches his eyes and you think Jack wouldn’t really have cared either way.

You’re not listening. You don’t have to. It’s always the same. You make up a speech in your head, and it makes no difference, no difference at all.

Your speech goes like this: ‘Your bravery, your courage and your dedication to our cause and country are all that stands in the way of our enemies. You are the last safeguard of freedom, defenders of liberty and democracy. When mothers tuck their children in at night, safe in their own homes, they know it’s thanks to you. You’ve done your country proud.’

It’s a rousing speech. You smile to yourself.

The politician’s speech is rousing too. You know it is—you know the words, same as they always have been and always will be. One day, on a distant planet, lines of spacesuit-clad soldiers will stand tall, eyes a-glitter with glory and honour and pride as they listen to those same words. That same speech, over and over and over again in an endless loop through time, words blurring together until they become indistinguishable—a mindless buzz of white noise injected into the vein to produce immediate, zealous patriotism.

You yawn, not so much bored as tired, and finger the empty pill bottle in your pocket. Around you, the soldiers clap, and you can tell how long people have been on the frontline by how straight their backs are as they applaud.

You lean over to Tom, who’s newer than you but older than most, and say, ‘What a load of bullshit.’

He glares at you and says in a hushed voice, ‘Shut up and show some respect.’

‘Jack would think it’s bullshit,’ you say.

‘Jack doesn’t think anything. Jack’s dead.’

#

He falls to the ground like a marionette that’s had its strings cut. One second he’s running for cover and the next he’s dropping, as if his limbs have turned to dead wood and all his busy movement was just a cheap trick—nothing but the tug of strings, jerking him this way and that. He lies there, motionless and forgotten, a discarded puppet.

He falls to the ground like a man who has been shot.

He lies there like a man who is dead.

#

You don’t punch Tom in the face, but you imagine it—the satisfying feeling of his nose breaking under your closed fist, the bruises he’d leave on your knuckles.

The first chords of the national anthem ring out over the rows of gathered soldiers. You think about gravel and ground-up bones. You think about blackened rubble that used to be a house—a home, with a mother who would no longer tuck her child in at night and knew it was thanks to you. You think about bodies falling to the ground with their strings cut. You think about Jack. You wonder what there is to be proud of and you place your hand over your heart and sing.

#

Before you were deployed, a medical screening determined you had ‘chronic anxiety’ and you were given a bottle of pills to help you sleep. They worked almost too well—you wandered around half in a daze, limbs heavy, eyelids heavy, everything heavy.

You place the empty orange bottle on your bedside table. It’s been months since you slept naturally. Lying in bed, you close your eyes and wait. You count one hundred and seventy two sheep before you give up, pull on some pants, and leave the barracks.

As you’re walking out, Tom’s walking in, and all that nervous energy keeping you awake buzzes under your skin, right down to the tips of your fingers.

‘Never talk about Jack like that again,’ you say, clenching your hands into tight fists.

Tom blinks back at you in tired confusion. ‘What?’

You punch him. His nose crunches under your fist, bruising your knuckles. It feels so good, you do it again. You do it again and again and again until strong arms grip you, pulling you back and pinning you against the wall.

Tom is on the ground, clutching at his face and groaning in pain. There’s blood all over his face, all over your hands. Someone’s shouting for a medic. You must have woken everyone up.

You wonder what Jack would do if he were here.

‘That’s pretty fucked up,’ you say and laugh.

#

‘Why did you do it?’ The shrink stares at you, expression blank and neutral in a way that makes you want to scream, just to see if he’ll flinch.

‘I don’t know,’ you say, because it’s easier than thinking about it.

‘Were you angry with him?’

‘I don’t know. Yes. Well, he’d said something earlier that day that got me riled up.’

‘And what was that?’

‘Nothing really. He just said something about Jack—a friend of mine who… I wasn’t going to do anything, I just let it go, but then I couldn’t sleep—I’m taking those pills, but they just don’t work anymore—and then he was there and I remembered what he said and I was just so angry and I don’t know. I just couldn’t stop. I just… I couldn’t…’

‘What exactly did he say about Jack?’

You pause. ‘He said that he was dead.’

‘And why did that make you angry?’

‘Because he was right.’

The shrink scribbles in his notebook. You lean forward and glimpse a few words. Anxiety. Depression. Post-traumatic stress? Personality disorder? That seems like a lot of things to be wrong with you.

‘Am I crazy?’ you ask.

He stops writing and thinks for a moment. ‘You’re not crazy, you’re just…not well,’ he says carefully. ‘Not well enough for active duty, certainly. But that’s okay. We’re here to help you.’

‘Oh.’ You’re not sure what else to say. ‘Okay.’

The psychiatrist hums quietly, nods, and writes you a prescription.

#

When you get home your mother hugs you tight, and your father asks you how you could be so fucking stupid.

#

The woman in the bed next to yours is crazy. You try to tell the doctor this, and he smiles at you indulgently. We’re all crazy, you reassure yourself. The whole army. The whole country. The whole world. It’s okay that this woman is too.

Her name is Sarah.

‘What are you on?’ Sarah says severely, as if she’s interrogating you.

You say, ‘Seroquel.’

‘Everyone’s on Seroquel. Couldn’t get off it if they tried. HA!’ Her laughs occur in isolation—just one ‘HA!’ and then nothing.

‘Inderal,’ you say. ‘Zoloft.’

She counts on her fingers. ‘Seroquel, Zoloft, Clonazepam, Lorazepam, Inderal, Chantix. I win.’

You nod. ‘Yes, you win.’

‘HA!’ she says.

#

‘I’m not crazy,’ Sarah says.

You say, ‘Yes you are. Everyone’s crazy. The whole world’s crazy.’

‘Not me. It’s these drugs. They fuck up your head.’

‘Your head’s already fucked up. The drugs are supposed to fix it.’

‘Nothing to fix.’

‘They’ll do you good.’

‘HA! They do someone good, but not me and not you, that’s for sure. No, this is all for some suit in a glass tower, cashing in fucked-up vets like poker chips.’

‘You remind me of a friend I used to have. He was always saying stuff like that.’

‘Used to? What’d you do? Scare him off, huh?’

‘I killed him.’

‘Fuck. You’re the crazy one.’

#

Some days, Sarah exhausts you. She’s almost more concerned with your mental health than the doctors are. She wants to know everything, what your current diagnosis is, what drugs you’re on, what dosages. When you tell her she always says the same thing: ‘HA! I’ve been on that before. That shit will fuck you up.’

Other days it’s almost as if Sarah doesn’t exist at all. She curls into a ball and doesn’t eat or speak or move, but you can hear her ragged breathing, so you know she’s not asleep.

One day you watch her, curled on her side with the blankets pulled up to her chin, and it’s several hours before you realise you can’t hear a thing.

#

The official cause of death is ‘multiple drug toxicity’ and you think of her list and her fingers ticking off each item. You don’t have to imagine what she would say to you if she could still speak.

‘I win.’

‘HA!’ you say.

#

They say you’re ready to leave. They say you’re fixed. You don’t feel fixed. They hand you a prescription and send you on your way.

You can’t stand your parents’ house, with your mother’s taut smile and worried eyes, and the disappointed set of your father’s shoulders as he turns away from you. You move out as soon as you can—’The doctors said I was fine,’ you tell your mother—and you rent a cramped studio apartment in the city.

You lie on the bed, springs poking into your back through the thin padding, and you close your eyes and try to sleep. In the street outside, the wail of sirens morphs into the whistle of falling bombs.

#

All you want to do is sleep—you can’t remember the last time you really slept. You just need a higher dosage, that’s all. The pills used to make you so tired—they’d completely knock you out. Now you shift and fidget with restless energy and stare ever-wakeful at the ceiling. Just a couple more ought to do it—just so you can get to sleep. You hold the pills in your palm for a second, before swallowing them down with a glass of water.

You close your eyes and see Jack. You watch him fall. You imagine your fingers are scissors and you reach out and cut his strings. He drops, flesh turned to wood, and splinters as he hits the ground. You grind him up beneath your boots, stomping and stamping and mashing until all that’s left is gravel, then dust, then nothing at all.

Words by Justina Ashman