I woke. Another night terror, momentarily stuck between the dream in my mind and the reality of a silent night. A dark night. As I regained proper conciousness, I realized my cheeks and nose were damp. The rest of me was damp from cold sweat, but it shortly became clear that I was crying.
His face was clear. I swung my feet over the edge of the bed, sitting up, needing to pee. I needed to gain my orientation and allow my eyesight to adjust. It was so dark. So dark, I considered that my eyes might not be open and I was still stuck in my mind. Using my sense of touch and familiarity with my surroundings, I stood and carefully made my way to the bathroom. My vertigo in the thick oppressive darkness and that ice cold feeling of dread in my gut made it clear I would unlikely be able to fall back asleep. Damn the insomnia.
I fumbled a bit in the bathroom, hoping I didn’t make an unintentional mess. I was the only one there, however (or was I?), so I brushed it off as a matter to be addressed in daylight. His face. That one night, also dark, but not like tonight…that…THAT night. There were too many of those. It lingered there in my head like a malignant tumor, stubborn, persistent.
My stomach released a loud growl, and it occurred to me that I’d fallen asleep without eating. Perhaps a midnight snack would calm me; just a little reason restored is all I wanted. I made my way in the darkness to the kitchen, stumbling once or twice over things on the floor. My poor feet. They’d taken many beatings over the years. It was an open floor plan, and the refrigerator was next to the back door. A sliding glass door. I was paranoid about how easily broken into it could be. I kept it locked and blocked and covered by long heavy drapes. Of course, there was always a stash of ammunition and a gun hidden somewhere (that’s only for me to know).
I opened the refrigerator, and was momentarily blinded by the sudden illumination. It cast an eery eminating glow over the island, to the living room area. Shadows came to life, the imaginary imps inside them dancing and shifting away from the light. It highlighted my nearly naked body. I looked at myself for a moment. Not too shabby, objectively speaking. And that prickling sensation, the heightened awareness, the ghost of adrenaline came over me. His face, his yelling. I pushed it aside for a moment and stared into the fridge. There was hardly anything there. Some condiments. Some dips. Some leftovers and side dishes. I grabbed the hummus, shut the refrigerator, and was blinded again by the sudden dark.
Making my way to a corner of the living room area, I found that small plug-in light I hardly ever used. It was so dark. Once I found the socket and plugged it in, the gentle light drifted out, reaching enough of the space so I could see my cabinets. I went back to the kitchen and opened the one in which I kept all my dry snacks, finding the pita chips and pulling them to the counter. I had a momentary lapse. I stood there staring at the pita chips and hummus, but I wasn’t seeing them. His face kept creeping into the forefront of my conciousness. Sweat, dirt, hateful tears, blood, carbon, all mixing together.
The pita chip bag crinkled as I opened it. I reached in slowly and extracted a chip. I popped the lid off the hummus and dipped the chip into it. I brought it to my mouth, tasting the salt and flour and chickpeas and garlic. My saliva glands immediately began excreting. Delicious. Repeat. Methodical, precise, habitual. The routine I’d developed from countless sleepless nights that resulted in 2 a.m. forays into the kitchen. Food was comfort, but not during the day. There wasn’t time in the day.
His face. Those psychotic eyes peering out from the gunk caked on his face, like a trapped animal. I had him cornered. I continued to feed myself, the habit, unthinking. His face was sucking me into the pit. It was dark that night, but it was alive. I had him cornered. He was screaming at me, his teeth, though dirty and worn, glared out of his face in the beam of my light. I felt the heat pressing on me, the stench of sweat and blood and carbon and rot hung in the air. He was screaming, yelling, but disarmed…halfway literally. His blood leaked out into the dirt, coagulating. In the crunch of a pita chip, I felt the anger, the focus, the fear, of that night. Adrenaline coursed through me like the penetrating rays of a nuclear explosion. He was losing blood rapidly. What remained of his body shook with the struggle of trying to stay alive. I knew what I had to do. I raised my weapon. I focused. Methodical, precise, habitual, right between the eyes. It was sudden, but quick, and anticlimactic. Not like the movies. It was never like the movies. The shot rang in my ears, amidst the rest of the chaotic noise around me and inside my head. He was screaming at me, and then…then, he was just gone.
The next crunch snapped me back. That cold stone in my gut felt as though it had grown. It began to subside as I became again aware of the soft light washing over the rooms just enough for me to see a bit in the oppressive darkness. It was such a dark night. I looked down at my mostly naked body again. The scars glared out of my skin like lightning in the night. So many of them. A rather extensive network of them. The guilt ate at me still, despite the damage inflicted upon me.
Suddenly that ice cold feeling of dread descended over me, making me catch my breath, making me stop mid-chew. There was someone here. Someone who didn’t belong here. Unwelcome. Methodical, precise, habitual, I reached into a drawer in the island and removed the Sig .357, ensured it was loaded, and steadied myself. But where was he?
As though he could read my thoughts, a pale bloodied face floated slowly into view from the corner. His face. His eyes glared out at me, his teeth bared in a horrible smile. The hole between his eyes oozed, a little dark target. Again. Focus. How was this possible? The lesson was always that even the right decisions in war are often wrong.
His face began laughing. Laughing at me. He knew, and I knew. Even in his death, he knew that he’d won. And I knew that he’d won. In my mind I was panicking. This can’t be real. Yet when I closed my eyes and opened them again, his pale bloody face remained. He slowly came closer, reaching out with one damaged hand, and the other half of his severed arm. I prayed. I asked for help. I called out to my brothers. As I backed into the living room area, his apparition following me, the face of one brother floated up in the darkness. He said nothing. He did nothing.
I pleaded, I begged. I backed up into an ottoman, falling over it. The panic was taking over, finding its way in through sleep deprivation. The guilt was eating me alive. His pale bloody face and outstretched arms crept ever closer, laughing horrifically.
I woke. It was a night terror. That’s what the doctor calls them. As I came to, I became aware of the soft gray light coming through the windows. It must have been about 0630. My breathing slowed. I wiped the tears from my eyes. I looked around. I was on the floor next to the ottoman. I saw the .357 laying near the couch. Upon further inspection, I realized it had been fired within the last day. The dread was upon me, but not as cold. These days, I find it hard to distinguish what’s real anymore.