Survival

Again, I want to offer a free story for your enjoyment. This one appeared in the extraordinary Word Riot E-Zine. Word Riot is edited by the mighty Jackie Corley. I once took part in a reading with Jackie (along side Paul Blaney and others) at the KGB Bar in New York City. She is smart and very talented. If you aren’t familiar with Word Riot, you should definitely check it out. We were reading as part of the launch for an anthology called The Flash from Social Disease Press. The book features 100 writers (including Steve Almond, Rick Moody, Carlton Mellick III, Paul Blaney, Jackie Corley, Nathan Tyree, and 94 others). All proceeds from that book go to Amnesty International.

Before we get on to the fiction, a quick note: I have reviewed Todd Haynes’ I’m Not There for Target Audience Magazine. It should appear this fall. I hope that this is the first of many appearances in that fine magazine.

And now:

A Matter of Survival

by

Nathan Tyree

The first time you kill you tell yourself that it’s only a matter of survival. You say, softly so no one will hear, it was him or me. I had no choice, you say. You look at the dead man’s eyes (if you ever get that close) and try not to imagine the light that should be there. You try to think about the sand in your boots and how it is abrading your sole. You try to focus on the itch at the back of your neck. Any small annoyance will suffice. Anything will do as long as you don’t have to imagine the dead man smiling at his wife.

Your buddies have no idea. They will slap you on the back and tell you how you have saved all of them; tell you that you’re some great fighting machine. All the while you’re trying to convince yourself that it was only a matter of survival.

The second one is easier. You can grit your teeth and, with a little concentration, block out the dead man’s children who want to weep and tear their clothes in your head. It was him or me, boys, you’ll say loudly enough for the others to hear this time.

By the fourth or fifth you can’t even see their faces any more. By the seventh the dreams and night sweats have vanished. By the tenth you no longer imagine the light that should be in your eyes. You tell jokes and talk about women. Your buddies laugh and marvel that you are born again hard. None of them suspect that there is something rotting inside of you.

After the war, when you rotate back to the world, you start to miss it. You can’t sleep in your bed any more. It’s too soft and the room is too quiet. Sometimes you catch yourself measuring the distance and the elevation between you and a stranger, calculating how much to lead for the wind. It’s then that you can feel the rifle in your hands.

You don’t open up in the 7-11 with an Uzi. You don’t kill your best friend’s wife. You wouldn’t do that even if you had a best friend. Maybe you drink a little more than you used to. And maybe, once in a while, you catch yourself with the cold end of your .45 against your temple. Even so, you think that mostly you’ve adjusted well. You only wish that they would have warned you.

All through basic they drilled it in hard: you could die over there. What they never really made you understand was, you could kill too.

This story previously appeared in Word Riot

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Cigarette Burns

This is my first post on this new blog. I want to start by sharing a free story, which appears below. Before reading it, though, you may check out those tabs up above to learn a little about who I am.

Cigarette Burns
by
Nathan Tyree

The problem with punching yourself is that you instinctively hold back. Even if you don’t want to, you pull the punch. Your hand just will not hit your own face with the same force it reserves for the faces of others. This is a real problem. After awhile I gave up the hitting. For a time I toyed around with cutting myself. Apparently this is some sort of fad. Teenage girls compete to see who can inflict the most damage on their own arms.

Cutting, however, has a down side. It’s messy. Even a slight slice oozes blood. You have to bandage it right away. Then you must clean up the stray drops that have found their way onto the furniture. Then, days later you can accidentally re-open the wound, and you have more cleaning to do.

Cigarettes are better. The first time you touch a lit cigarette to your arm, you have to do it quickly. You will find that you pull away automatically. Still, it works well. The pain is searing. Intense. The skin melts. Even after the cherry red ash is pulled away, the pain remains. The blister rises immediately. Then, after it pops, a hole forms in your arm. It takes weeks to heal. The burn creates a lovely scar, which serves to remind you that you are still alive. Sort of.

With practice you can hold the heat against your skin longer. Do it slowly. It hurts more this way. It’s best to drag the process out. Pain brings a rush of endorphins. It snaps you back to life.

I was busy working on the cigarette trick. She was already half way out the door. It comes quickly. The darkness. The need. The hunger. She was talking, but I wasn’t listening. I had shut her out. It was better that way.

Standing in the bedroom door, her eyes sparkling with anger, cool, soft light streaming around her like some diaphanous corona, she looked unreal. She looked like some sort of fairy tale princess. Just a little goose girl, about to alight from her place, and fly away. She was really very beautiful. But I couldn’t see it. Not then.

I was shrouded by the darkness of the bedroom. Hunched on the floor. She couldn’t see what I was doing. She didn’t know. That was best. If she knew I was hurting myself, she’d try to make me stop. I couldn’t stop yet. It didn’t hurt enough yet. I had burned a hole deep in my forearm, and decided to work on another spot.
“Are you listening to me?”

I wasn’t. I couldn’t. Everything about her was bringing me misery. I  couldn’t smell her hair from where I was, but I knew how it would smell. Like violets. Depression doesn’t hurt. Cigarette burns hurt.

“I’m trying to explain. Listen to me”.

“No.”

“Will you please listen?”

“Why?”

Depression feels like nothing. That’s the part no one understands. It is deep, black, nothing. You feel dead. Empty. There really isn’t a metaphor that can do it justice. Pain is better. Anything is better. Drugs, sex, self mutilation, these are all just ways to stave off the hollow, rotting flesh, empty, dead skin sack feeling that drains all the color from the world.

“Damn it. John, I love you. I’m sorry. I just want to explain what happened”.

Suicide is not a real option. Death just seems like more of the same nothingness. Agony, now that is an improvement.

For a time I played with the idea of cutting off my own fingers. But eventually I’d run out of digits, then where would I be? I’d have to find something else to excise, and who knows where it would all end.

She turned. She had given up on getting me to understand. She was leaving. This was final. Gone. I didn’t want her to go. But, I couldn’t work my mouth to tell her to stay. I really fail in this area.

So, as she made her final exit stage right, I lit another cigarette, and went to work on the other arm.

This story has appeared in The Coffee Faucet and Dogmatika.