“Freedom” by Marie Scherrer
The first night back from Iraq, I saw him. He was swimming across the Puget Sound, his strokes long and slow, as if he was enjoying a leisurely swim in the Caribbean. Except he wasn’t. The State Prison hovered in the background, perched on McNeil Island like a fortress. A moat of frigid, deadly waters separated the convicts from the mainland.
I flattened my nose against the apartment’s bay window and blinked. In the middle of winter in Washington no one would last long in the black waters before dawn, before the ferries started running and a hypothermic swimmer could be rescued.
Maybe I’m still in Iraq and this is all a dream. My stomach rolled at the thought: the long walks to the port-a-jon in the pitch dark, cramming into tomblike bunkers, mortars whistling over our heads. The sound of the train that jolted me awake could have been incoming. I heard the whistle, felt the sheets vibrating under my skin, but when I opened my eyes, I was in a silk nightgown, not an oversized Army PT uniform. I was sleeping on a mattress, not a cot, and I had my own private bathroom for the first time in over a year.
When I looked again, he was still there, and so was my bathroom. The prison’s blinding spotlights lit up the island like a carnival. The water sparkled for several feet from the shoreline, then faded to black. He hadn’t made it there yet, and even if he did, he wouldn’t make it out alive. A drug dealer who attempted the swim was found barely alive a few hours later, clinging to a buoy near the island’s shore, ten toes and fingers snapped off his limbs like icicles from a roof. The smarter ones disguised themselves as visitors, or hid in the back of supply trucks and floated on ferries back to the mainland.
But somehow, this one was now over halfway to the Steilacoom shore. And he wasn’t slowing down.
I wasn’t sure if I should call 911, scream for help, or wait until he emerged onto the rocky shore. A year living in a dusty tent in the desert makes you raw, skinned of the outside world. I had forgotten the customs of civilian life. An earlier run for wine and chips left me confused and bleary eyed. The blinding lights, endless rows of florescent choices, box upon box shouting “buy me!” left me longing for my simple, camouflaged life again.
“Where exactly did you see him again?” the cop asked for the fourth time in one annoyed breath. He squinted out the window towards the water, but there was nothing to see.
I pointed my finger towards a spot shimmering in the rising sun and wondered if it was just another nightmare. During the few seconds I looked away to call the cops, he had vanished, as if he had known I was calling.
“Like I said lady, no one’s missing from the prison and even if there was, he wouldn’t make it ten feet in that water,” the cop said. He shifted his eyes toward the mountain of duffel bags and camouflage gear piled in the corner of the otherwise bare living room, then to my chest. “Seen any action over there?”
I tied my robe shut, and smoothed back my frizzy, tangled hair. I reminded myself to start worrying about things like appearance again. The way he was leering at me, I wasn’t sure what kind of action he was talking about. “Sure, with my husband.”
We hadn’t seen each other for almost a year, and were facing another one. When he was coming in, I was going out, barely a three month overlap. But the stars were on our side when he found out his unit was heading to Talafar, a mere two hours from the Mosul Air Base. “Kris, nothing’s going to keep us apart. I promise I’ll find a way to get to you,” he said over the satellite phone from Kuwait. And he did. We had one exquisite hour alone together in my stifling tent, just enough time to get me pregnant and reminded of my incompetence and career ending stupidity by my commander.
They were printing the orders to send me home a month early when it happened. Thirteen days later, I was no longer pregnant and back on duty. But my career in the Army was still over – the damage had been done – and I put in my request for a discharge the day my feet touched American soil.
The cop, obviously disappointed, handed me a Western State Psychiatric Hospital business card and mumbled, “Take it easy, I know it must be tough just getting back” on his way out the door as if he’d said it thousands of times to people like me – the ones who left a piece of their soul in the desert.
The train’s screeching whistle invaded my dreams every night after that. I would reach in the dark for my M16 and Kevlar helmet, sometimes crashing to the wood floor before realizing I wasn’t in a bunker. Driving was unbearable: the smell of the exhaust and sound of blaring horns carried me back to stifling, garbage strewn streets congested with hundreds of the same orange and white Toyotas. I narrowly escaped side collisions trying to avoid soda cans or dead animals I feared had been disguised as IEDs. Every cell phone was a remote detonator.
“Just transport yourself back to that day.” The shrink, a bushy bearded civilian, waved a pen light back and forth in front of my shifting eyes. “Please, call me Dan, instead” he said, in a soft, controlled voice when I called him “Sir.” He told me if I thought about the traumatic event while watching the light, my brain would somehow process the trauma, store it in a more adaptive file.
I imagined a gelatinous mass sucking chunks of sand coated tires, palm trees, mud brick buildings from overflowing rusted cabinets, then spitting the gnawed mixture into neat manila folders with typed index tabs.
“Anything?” he asked when I shut my eyes, burning from the workout.
I shook my head.
He glanced at his watch. “Let’s try exposure therapy. I’ll slowly expose you to the events of that day. After several sessions of increasing exposure, thinking about it will no longer be traumatic. Are you ready?” He nodded swiftly and I followed his cue as if in a trance. “Great!” He clapped his hands, too enthusiastically I thought, like a magician preparing a trick. “Close your eyes and imagine the scenery as it was that day. Look around, smell the air, listen to the sounds around you.”
I closed my eyes and saw waves, strong arms stroking through black water.
“Describe where you are.”
“I think…it’s the Sound.”
“Can you describe the sound?”
“The Puget Sound.”
A deep breath. “Now concentrate,” he snapped. Think of that day when you lost your—”
“Son.” His innocent smile haunted me, ocean blue eyes and wavy dark curls, the desperate way he clung to me. “I saw him in a dream…before I even knew I was pregnant.”
“Back to that day Kristine. Describe what you see.”
My boy, but an older version though, his face dusty and smudged, the same crystal blue eyes, waving for help on a desert road. “Stop! We have to stop!” I yelled. The crushing of gravel under sliding tires, and oily, black water. I couldn’t help him.
The next night he stood motionless in the shadows between the rocky shore and the train tracks. The drenched pants and shirt plastered to his thin body made him appear naked. I watched him in the dark, trying to convince myself that he wasn’t real, merely a statue erected in the dead of night.
But as I took a step back from the window, he took a step towards me.
I heard a whistle, soft at first, then blaring louder. He remained motionless on the tracks, the train blasting towards him. Its headlights sliced a line in the darkness, catching his sunken dark eyes and a sullen face smudged with mud, unmoved by his impending death. Stop! A sharp pain cut through my stomach as if I had been stabbed, and I collapsed to the pulsating floor as the train blew by.
No screeching brakes, no cries for help, not a spot of blood on the tracks when I checked the next morning.
Before the back-to-back deployments, Ben and I spent many misty cool nights sipping beer on the balcony, gazing at the ferries shuttling between the prison and the mainland. With their sparkling lights and open decks, those who didn’t know where they were headed thought they were party boats. But if they looked closer, they would see that the heads inside all belonged to men, and these men were not tipping back cocktails, or sucking on cigars, or even talking – at all. “That’ll never be us,” Ben would say, shaking his bristly head. “Family torn apart. Freedom taken away.” We would guess what bad act had landed them a ride on that ferry, and be glad we were not its passengers.
Next to the prison, the island housed the state’s center for sexually violent predators. A center, not a prison, because they already served their time. Except they weren’t free. The “castaways” we called them. Beyond rehabilitation. Left to die on the island because no one wanted them living in their neighborhood. The scant mile that separated them from me – close enough to see them strolling inside the razor wire – seemed to be getting closer.
I needed Ben now, but he was unreachable. Always mission first, family second. That was Ben.
I waited to tell him about the baby until our second desert rendezvous, because I wasn’t sure if he wanted it. He was career military – West Point grad with his sights on General in thirty years – and we hadn’t even talked about starting a family yet. It was scorching hot that day. The minute I walked outside the airport terminal to meet his convoy, the air singed my face like a hair-dryer on high heat. “Only got a few minutes,” he told me, loaded in fifty pounds of full battle rattle – pouches, helmets, and plates that protected the important parts.
His platoon had been tasked to transport a prisoner from Talafar to the jail on the Mosul base, a dilapidated Iraqi airport we occupied after the invasion. I led Ben through the terminal serving as division headquarters, past dusty laptops lining neat rows of collapsible plastic tables and map boards papering the crumbling walls, to a quiet spot on the roof.
I broke the news of our upcoming arrival over the clamor of Blackhawks buzzing in and out like bees in a hive. I thought I saw a tear, before he sniffed and mingled it with the sweat dripping into his eyes. It was our secret, something that bound us together even though hundreds of desert miles separated us. He snapped a photo of me resting my hand on my still flat belly, my M16 strapped over my shoulder, the sand colored city of Mosul peeking out from behind the wire.
My Commander tried to send me home early after everything went to hell over there, but I wanted to stay. I joined the Army to escape my life – a depressed, cancer-ridden mother who didn’t know or want to tell me who my real father was, a string of failed relationships with angry mechanics and factory line workers, and a hopeless town in the middle of an Iowa cornfield with no prospects. The day I signed my name on that contract felt like the first day of my life.
By the time he realized his mistake it was too late. My soldiers were told to keep an eye on me. After all, someone who went through what I did is expected to be on edge for a while. But there was no time for coddling. We were packing up the milvans and armoring the Humvees; in three days we were heading south, the dreaded convoy through Iraq into Kuwait, and then finally home.
I was sent on a last minute supply mission to the markets in Duhok, a Kurdish town in Northern Iraq. In the past, I reveled in these brief getaways. The enticing scent of cardamom, dazzling flowing garments, hypnotic melodies purring from narrow alleyways caressed my senses like new love. For a fleeting moment I felt like an exotic, mysterious woman, bells chiming, belly gyrating – no longer a soldier, forced to camouflage the feminine.
But that day I was on edge. The Kurdish children, cheering “Mister!” and “USA!” chased after us like pesky flies. I clutched my M16 close to my chest, my finger on the trigger.
My soldiers begged for one last chance to feast on a two dollar meal of kebabs, rice, and flatbread. I wanted to get back, but they pleaded until I gave in. I pulled guard with my supply sergeant while they went inside the crowded, smoky restaurant. But we were two women alone, and guns didn’t deter the crowd of teenage boys that appeared within minutes. They circled us, nudging against our backs, taunting us with “hi whore, you slut,” terms they picked up from pirated American porn films. Word spread quickly that the female soldiers were there to satisfy the men’s sexual needs. “Pleasure Women” we were named, plucked right out of the movies to get blown to pieces in Iraq.
I yelled at them to get away, that we were armed, but they laughed and pushed in closer as if our guns were toys. When I waved mine at the crowd, they grew wilder. “Whore no shoot!” a boy screamed in a mocking shrill voice between short hysterical gasps. The others joined in, swinging their limp arms and gyrating their hips.
A final choking gasp for air, screeching brakes, a flash of his face covered in mud, a loud crash—
“LT, oh shit, what just happened?” My driver swept his rifle over the heap of quivering bodies, hands pressed against ears, faces to the ground, the smell of gunpowder. “Who the hell fired?”
I dropped my finger from the trigger and slung my rifle over my shoulder. I wasn’t sure.
“It’s too goddamned late to send you home now,” my commander said. He rubbed the palm of his hand over his bald head and pulled in a few deep long breaths. “No one was hurt, just an accidental discharge,” I explained, but he would not make the same mistake. He stripped my weapon and put a guard on me twenty-four-seven until we crossed over the Iraqi border and all the weapons were accounted for and locked away.
He tried to call me, along with my mother, Dan, a couple of other platoon leaders from my old company. No one I wanted to talk to. “We know you’ve been through a lot, but you can’t isolate yourself,” he said, more worried about a black suicide mark on his command than my welfare. “We’re worried.” my mother unconvincingly recited in the voice mail. “You just can’t ignore what’s happened to you.” I turned off the cell phone and collapsed into a deep sleep.
I dreamt of a prisoner – bruised and bloody – in orange overalls, his head shaved to stubble, digging frantically under a fence like a wild dog. When he slipped into the hole, black freezing water poured in around him. But his overalls had caught onto the fence. He choked and twisted, swallowing the muck into his lungs until he was completely engulfed in a coffin of mud.
I woke to the sound of pounding at my door and mechanically walked to the front door, my finger turning the lock before I realized I was out of bed. I stopped breathing and waited for the next knock, but it didn’t come, and I began to doubt that I had even heard it. When I gathered enough courage to look through the peephole, I saw the water, black and silent.
A few years ago I heard that one of the prisoner’s families had filed charges against the state for abuse. The man, a hulking armed robber, was beaten so badly that he had irreversible brain damage. The prisoner was asleep in his bed when the night guard attacked him. He beat him with a nightstick until his face was unrecognizable. He then shoved his gun in his own mouth and pulled the trigger. After the media caught wind of the story, the state apologized and offered to send him home to be cared for by his family, all expenses paid for the rest of his life. No one knew what set the guard off; he had been there for fifteen years, a good worker, a family, close to retirement.
“I’m suffocating here,” Ben said to me the last time I saw him. Something was different about him – his eyes fierce but frightened, both the hunter and the hunted. I knew that they had some trouble in Talafar. The day before, an Iraqi kid, barely eight years old, had tried to run through the gate and was shot dead. They found his father ducked in the shrubs on a hill overlooking the base. He was armed with binoculars and a cell phone, gathering intell for the next attack. Ben’s platoon was tasked with transporting him to the Mosul base prison. He sacrificed his own kid,” he said, shaking his head. “Who would do that?” Word got out that the guy arrived bruised and bloody.
I planned to join his platoon’s convoy to Duhok that day. It would be our last time together in Iraq. I was eight weeks pregnant by then and shipping home on the next available flight. We knew that we had no time for a long good bye. Ben’s commander was expecting him home by dark. But our separation didn’t sting as deep this time. I was taking a part of him with me.
The drive out of Mosul was tense that day. A couple of weeks earlier a Sergeant Major and his driver were beaten to death by a mob in the street and dragged through the town until their uniforms were torn to shreds and the flesh fell off their bodies. Once the money for school renovations and public gyms ran out, and the occupation turned from months to years, excitement turned to resentment. They wanted us out, and it showed in their fierce stares.
The second we left the gate we were on alert, fingers on triggers, scanning the alleyways and rug draped balconies for lookouts – cagey men clenching cell phone detonators. Rusted orange converted taxicabs crowded the streets, and drivers futilely pounded on their horns when there was nowhere to go. Ours joined in, cursing when we were forced to slow down, veering onto sidewalks, charging through every red light.
We let out hot, relieved breaths when tents replaced the mud buildings and the stink of the sewer faded. The clay colored pavement turned to dusty roads bordered by sandy hills dotted with palm trees and shepherds swaddled in dingy wraps. Dusk was settling in. The tangerine sun overtook the exotic land in a soft golden glow, charming us with its false sense of security.
The boy stood alone on the bank of the road. Barely three years old, his crystal blue eyes drenched and frightened, he raised his thin arm as we grew closer. I knew him from somewhere, enough to know we couldn’t roll past him. “We need to stop,” I yelled from the back seat.
“Sir?” The driver glanced over at Ben, but didn’t slow down.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Ben yelled over the roar of the Humvee engine. “Stop for what?”
“The boy,” I said, “He needs help. Something’s wrong.”
“A set up, that’s what’s wrong.” Ben motioned forward with his finger to the driver. “We’re not stopping.”
Maybe it was the growing child inside of me, or a last chance to make amends for the damage we had done, but I couldn’t leave him there alone. I swung around as we passed him, his arms still waving, trotting behind us as the distance between us increased. I was desperate, as if my life depended on his. “We’ve got to stop!”
Ben ignored me. I knew he was thinking about that kid who was killed at the gate. How his father used him to get to us
“No one would use a kid that young!”
Ben turned his head to the window, silent, his clenched jaw throbbing under his skin.
“What if it was our son? Would you leave him on the side of the road to die?”
“You’ve got to be—”
He cursed and with a circle motion of his finger, his driver jerked the wheel into a wide U-turn.
When we reached the boy he was smiling widely, no sign of swollen eyes or fear. “American! Mister!” he squealed, clapping and jumping as if the circus had rolled in.
Ben jumped out and squinted into the horizon, shadows moving in. “There’s nothing out there. Where the hell did he come from?” The hills were vacant, as if they had been evacuated.
The boy, barefoot and tanned, climbed into the Humvee and found the radio buttons. “Home?” I asked him. “Mom and Dad?” He frowned and shook his head.
“We’ve got to get out of here. It’s not safe,” Ben said, looking nervous.
“But what about him? It’s getting dark.” The boy turned still, watching me with a worried look on his face. “We can’t leave him.” He leaned in close to me and clutched my arm. “He’s scared to death, just look at him.”
“Sir? Are we ready?” The driver squinted at a gravel truck approaching ahead. “Someone’s coming.”
“Kris, get in,” Ben said. “The kid’s okay. They’ll pick him up.”
The boy wrapped his arms around my neck and clung to me. I couldn’t let him go. If he doesn’t care about this boy, would he care about ours?
He yanked my arm but I shrugged it away.
“Come on, we’ve got to go!”
The truck was fifty feet ahead of us and picking up speed. I held on tight to the boy and waited for it to pass, but it was heading straight for us. Ben yelled something: “I love you Kris,” or “It’s not your fault,” I like to pretend, but the truth is I couldn’t hear him over the piercing squeal of wheels, bending metal, the sickening crunch.
I was lying in the road, face down, the boy underneath me. Sand and rocks had ground into my face and hands, but all my limbs were intact. When I shifted my weight off the boy and tried to lift my body, he wriggled from my grasp. Feet pattered toward the truck, tires reversed, loose pieces of metal clinked against a bumper, and the truck limped off down the road.
The Humvee was on its side, half in the ditch, half on the road. The driver was lying motionless against the passenger door, blood running down his forehead. A single boot stuck out from underneath the vehicle, attached to it the sound of gurgling, and then silence.
Ben’s body was pinned chest down under the front of the Humvee, but his head, the helmet torn from it, rested in a water-filled ditch, covered in black thick mud. He looked like he was swimming, free style, his face ducked into the water. But his head didn’t turn for a breath. I lifted it – flapping like a doll’s, mud pouring from its crevices – out of the muck and slapped it like a newborn baby.
The pounding started again the next morning. Outside, a deliveryman in brown balanced a bulky box on one arm. “Delivery for Kristine Wood,” he said, dropped it inside my door, and pushed a clipboard at me to sign.
“Were you here last night,” I said, “knocking at my door?”
“Here? At night?” he said with the same raised eyebrow unease as the cop. “No ma’am. Don’t work past five.”
A letter inside, from the Army Personal Effects Depot, addressed to Mrs. Ben Wood, stated that the box held Ben’s personal belongings. Buried under layers of stained uniforms and worn boots, I plucked out a brown envelope, inside a picture of me on the roof of the terminal. On the back Ben had written: 4-15-2004! The day our baby was to be born.
When Ben left, it went with him. They told me it was the shock that caused it, but now I like to believe Ben needed the company wherever he was going.
When the waves rolled in from the island that night, the water’s reassuring emptiness sparkled in the moonlight. He wouldn’t be back. We were free.
Marie Scherrer served in the U.S. Army for four years, one of which was in Mosul, Iraq with 101st Airborne Division. She holds graduate degrees in Law and Clinical Social Work and lives in the great plains of Kansas with her veteran husband and two children. Her awards include the Kansas Voices short story contest.