Chapter 9: Terrors

In Iraq Tyler had gone about his duties as they were assigned to him. He’d tried not to concern himself overmuch with questions as to why he was there, because every time he did he would, unavoidably, start thinking of himself as a hypocrite. His platoon commander had appreciated his work ethic, his ability to do what needed doing. He killed three people while he was in Baghdad, two of whom he’d been sure had meant he and his fellows harm. He never forgot any of their faces, and he saw them often in his dreams, often with feelings of remorse. It’s fair to say he didn’t know what he was capable of, and he thought it advisable that he keep the gun he’d purchased safely stored in his luggage, because, as the days passed, he found himself stalking the streets of Oakland as if on a one-man patrol. He didn’t take anything with him that he wasn’t afraid to lose, because he knew the chances of his getting robbed increased the later into night he traveled, almost as if he wished a chance to prove himself somehow, in some grisly fashion. The only thoughts discouraging from continuing his routine in perpetuity were those of his brother, who not only loved him, but seemed to lose no chance at trying to help him: that is, encouraging him to see his friends, to try to find a girl, even a job when he was ready. Tyler believed it possible such sentiments wouldn’t hold out forever, and he didn’t want to know what would happen between them at that point. But he didn’t need a job: he had about $30,000 in his bank account. As for friends? Well, there was the Fantastic Four. As for a girl? Who knew even where to start? He wondered further at his capacity for self-destruction. Such considerations surely precluded ambitions toward romantic attachment. First he should defeat his demons. Perhaps happiness would duly follow.

One night he took himself through downtown, past crowds of yuppies and hipsters milling about on the sidewalks of bars and nightclubs, and gangsters and drug addicts staking out their turf only blocks away. A pretty young Asian girl stopped him and asked him to take a picture of she and her friends. Tyler didn’t know how to work her smartphone, so she told him, and he did as he was requested. The beauty of the young, carefree people before him was blinding. He continued on his way envious and sad: he still had so far to go before he would be able to move amongst them. He wished someone would accost him so he could show his capability for self-defense: if serving in the Marines had taught him anything it was that. He wondered what life had in store for him. Maybe he should go to Roseville to see his parents. Mickey himself had sometimes suggested as much.

That night he got home around 3:00 AM and lay on the couch staring at the ceiling with the lights on. Maybe a job was the answer, though such things were slim pickings these days. He’d also heard stories of how hard it was for veterans to find employment. Perhaps he could work for the government in some fashion. Maybe as a police officer. It was worth staying up to think about.

He turned the light off and closed his eyes but sleep was hard to come by. Eventually the sun rose and Tyler heard Mickey wake up and begin his morning routine. Tyler rolled onto his side, facing the wall. After Mickey left Tyler got up and decided to go get breakfast at Merritt Bakery, a restaurant by the Lake that he’d passed many times on his perambulations.

The place was busy. There was a crowd waiting to be sat. Tyler guessed, therefore, that it must be the weekend. At first he thought he would have to linger with the others, a thought that did not appeal to him, but, upon going through the front doors, he found there was a counter with a couple open seats. He took one of these and ordered a coffee and water from the waitress, a young, pretty black girl, short and with big eyes. She brought back his order and left him to peruse the menu.

It was noisy. There were a lot of customers, competing conversations, the frequent sound of dishes going into bus trays. Tyler didn’t like it. Maybe thanks to his lack of sleep he felt on edge, paranoid, and even, horror upon horrors, worried that someone he knew from his previous life might appear before him with a smile and questions. Thankfully this didn’t happen.

Before long the waitress came back and he ordered scrambled eggs with sausage, hashbrowns, and sourdough toast. One of the diners sitting next to him got up and a bus boy quickly came by to clear the space. Tyler turned away. His seat was at the end of the counter, so there was only one neighbor. He was for some reason afflicted with the belief, even the certainty, that something was going to happen to him. Why on Earth did he feel this way?

He sipped his coffee then realized he liked it with a little cream. He crossed his arms on the counter and stared at himself in the little mirror that was set up opposite him. He thought he looked tired, even suspicious. After this he planned to go straight home and watch TV, as the world still felt so far apart from him.

He overheard someone with an accent behind him: “Can I sit here?”

“The counter is first come first serve.”

“Okay, then I think I will.”

There was the sound of commotion, bags or other such large objects finding space on the floor, and then there was a new presence seated next to him, clearing throat — it was clearly a “he” — coughing and sniffing. Whoever it was must have a cold, Tyler thought without enthusiasm. He made a point of neglecting to investigate further. His neighbor made his drinks order and then fell silent.

A few minutes later Tyler’s order arrived. He thanked his waitress then started to eat. The food was good. He decided to try to be thankful he’d come here after all.

“Excuse me?”

Tyler wasn’t sure what he’d heard had been directed at him, but it came from his accented neighbor.

“Excuse me? Sir?”

Tyler took a sip of coffee before answering.

“Yeah?”

“Can you pass the cream and sugar please? I promise not to use it all.”

Tyler looked at the person sitting next to him, out of reflex, and a thrill of horror immediately gripped him, traveled up his spine to cascade about in his mind, serving to validate the uneasiness he’d felt all morning.

His neighbor smiled. “Please?” he said.

Tyler shook his head from side to side and looked again. It was still the same, terribly familiar visage that he’d seen in his dreams so many times before, carved into his memory.

“Are you okay?” his neighbor asked calmly.

“I… I… I’m sorry.”

“You have nothing to be sorry for.”

His body bucked and whipped beneath him, and the next thing he knw he had fallen to the floor, repeating, almost shouting, over and over again: “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

Of course he knew that face. It was that of the young Iraqi he’d killed in Sadr City, smiling down at him from his position of comfort.

There was an intrigued exclamation from the diners around him, but Tyler couldn’t look at any of them: maybe this is what losing your mind might feel like.

A crowd began to gather. The Iraqi only grinned, then reached for the cream and sugar himself.

Tyler stood up and pulled his wallet out of his pocket and dropped $20 on the counter before lurching away from his plate and making for the exit, knocking at least one person out of the way as he went.

He bolted out into the cold morning and walked quickly down East 18th Street, trying not to knock anyone out of his way as he went. He found a bench at the side of Lake Merritt and sat down. He put his face in his hands, and told himself it was impossible, that he was out of sorts, that this sort of thing could be expected from a combat veteran. How could any of them understand?

For some reason, as he sat there, he thought of Cather. What would he or Mickey think if they could see him now? That he was in considerable distress. No way around it.

He stayed on that bench for some time. Eventually he made it back to his brother’s house. He didn’t leave again for the rest of the day.

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