Close to the Life Left Behind
Brock steals televisions in daylight because the world is not filled with special ops missions or days spent evading snipers. You spend enough time hunting down and assassinating terrorists and suddenly a trip with your brother to the redwoods doesn’t seem so spiritual. He came back changed, but not in the way I heard other vets returned.
He pulled up to my driveway, his truck bed filled with a giant box, some massive LED flat screen he had no need for. He asked if he could keep it in my garage, his apartment too small for such luxury. That was the second one he’d brought me. My garage was filled with small appliances, artwork taken from the walls of museums, a motorcycle driven off the lot of a dealership. He unloaded the television, put it next to the other one. I asked what he was going to do with all the stuff. He took two lawn chairs from his truck and a cooler of beer and we sat down. He pulled at the collar of his shirt to scratch the galaxy-shaped scar by his heart.
* * *
I slept with my neighbor’s wife. Or, she slept with her neighbor’s husband. She waited for Brock to leave and she came over. My wife was gone on a business trip, another in a long line of important things. Brock had asked the night before why I was cheating. I asked him why he stole. He clinked his bottle of beer to mine and said, “Living and trying to find a way to live are not the same thing.”
Fiona sat naked at my kitchen table, drinking wine from a box. I was naked and drinking. I had agreed to tie her up, something I had never done or thought of doing. I needed the wine to ease into it.
“Does your brother need help?” Fiona asked. “I mean, shouldn’t we do something before he gets caught?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“What happened to him?”
“Nothing. He’s doing better than anyone I know.”
We got more drunk and did not talk about our spouses or jobs. We told strange stories we’d heard and went upstairs when the box of wine was empty. Fiona took rope out of a bag she’d brought over. She instructed me on the best ways to bind her, the most sturdy knots. Through all the tying, I thought about the ropes fraying the bedposts, splintering the wood if the binds pulled too tight. Before we started, before I put tape over Fiona’s mouth, I asked, “Now what?”
“Just do what you’d normally do,” she said.
I hesitated, held a piece of masking tape over her mouth. “I thought that was what we’re trying to get away from,” I said.
* * *
Brock walked in with a case of beer and said nothing about Fiona being there, wearing my wife’s bathrobe, sitting in our living room. Fiona and I were already drunk, but took more beer.
“I’ve never stolen anything in my life,” Fiona said, out of nowhere. She seemed surprised to have said it.
“Me, neither,” Brock said. Fiona looked at me and I shrugged. He drank.
“How do you do it?” Fiona asked.
“I just walk out. Sometimes, I get a clerk to load it for me. It’s all confidence and acting like you already own the thing you’re walking away with.”
“That’s it?” Fiona asked.
“There ain’t no magic in it,” Brock said.
* * *
Fiona once asked me if I was unhappy in my marriage, despite our self-imposed gag order. We’d just had sex in an alley. No one had seen us or even walked by.
“I don’t know if I’m happy or not,” I said. That seemed untrue at the time, like I was lying to both of us. I loved my wife, but I had the things I wanted and then it seemed like there was something else.
* * *
“I love my husband,” Fiona said. “I do.” She pulled her dress back on and I’d noticed, somehow for the first time, that there was nothing about her that was better than my wife.
“But you needed the new thing,” I said. We got in our cars and drove to our homes and I never mentioned that this version of life with her was just like the one I already had.
* * *
Brock brought over a video game console tucked under his arm. He walked right in and took the machine out of the box. He started hooking it up to my television. Fiona prepared a salad in the kitchen.
“I always know where to find you,” Brock said.
He played some game where you’re hunting for a treasure vault in the post-apocalypse. You shoot crazed mercenaries and mutated insects that hurl poison. I wondered if he was trying to get close to the life he’d left behind.
Fiona brought dinner into the living room, asked Brock if he’d like to join us.
Brock shot the king of the mercenaries in the head with a sniper rifle. “I just noticed that both of your houses are the same model, except one is the mirror of the other. Just noticed that today.”
I said I had noticed that. Fiona played with her salad, said it needed salt or kale or something.
“Either way,” Brock said.
* * *
Brock never talked about the things he had done in the name of country or national security. He said, the one time I asked, that it was not because of trauma or stress, just that he couldn’t talk about it, even though there was nothing to tell.
“I was conducting field ops in a country that’d been invaded by another country. We swept through this heavily shelled city center. Buildings crumbled. Burned-out car frames. Men walking the streets with automatic weapons. We came upon this group of boys and girls playing soccer, right in the middle of it. Their world falling down around them and there they are, just kids.”
I asked him if it was normal.
“That’s not it at all,” Brock said. “Those kids played because they needed to go about their lives.”
* * *
Later, Brock came over and told Fiona and me that he wanted us to help him walk out with something big. He wanted to show us how it worked. We went with him to this big department store. He picked out a refrigerator, said it didn’t matter which one. He asked an employee to get the model from the back and found another to load it up onto a cart. Said he hurt his back in the war and needed help getting it onto the truck. I stayed back and watched it go down. Fiona was off shopping for an office desk.
The clerk who helped Brock take the refrigerator out to the truck never asked for a receipt. Brock talked to him about the endless days sweeping the desert for militants and weapons caches. The kid tied the thing down in the truck bed and secured it with the help of another employee. “Thank you for your service,” the kid said before going back to work.
We stood at the edge of the lot, waiting for Fiona to exit the store.
“You going to leave your wife?” Brock asked. “Is she worth it?”
“I doubt it,” I said. I tested the ropes to make sure they would hold. “I like the life I have right now.”
Fiona approached and a tall man, an employee from the store, came running toward us, hollering for us to wait. Brock opened the door and got in the driver’s seat and started the engine. He told me to get in, but I waited. Fiona looked at me and I froze. The man yelled the whole way and was out of breath when he reached us. He held out a bag to Fiona. “You forgot your purchase,” the man said.
Fiona took the bag and thanked the man. She got in the truck and I tested the rope one last time. We drove away with a refrigerator that didn’t belong to us, back through the city with all its sounds and movement.
Justin Lawrence Daugherty is the co-founder of Jellyfish Highway Press and founder of Sundog Lit. He lives in Atlanta and tweets @jdaugherty1081. He also edits Cartridge Lit and New South.