The sun rose in the west the day he arrived home. He looked at it sideways, not alarmed, but curious the way a dog would be around a stranger. He shook his head and turned back to the door. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the flowers. They were dead. He flicked a dried leaf off of its stem then pulled the potpourri stick out by the roots, held it to his chest. He put down his sea bag and scratched his head.
He lifted his leg to put his foot through the door, but as the tip of his boot touched the wood, he stopped and looked at the door the same way he had looked at the sunrise. It would have served him well to kick the door in a few days ago, but now something nibbled at his nerves and he put his leg down.
Not sure. Doesn’t feel right.
Is this your home?
Home? Yes, I think it is. My home.
He fumbled in his pocket for a moment, unsure of what he would find, but certain the answer was there. It was. Keys. Keys he assumed would open this door. He moved around his bag and to the window beside the door. He looked through the film gathered on the inside of the glass and frowned. It was dirty inside. Scattered papers, no furniture. What looked like a toy in the middle of the room.
You should talk to her about this.
About the mess. She needs to be cleaner, pick up after herself. This is repulsive.
Sarah doesn’t live here anymore, remember?
Oh yes. And the boy?
She took him with her. I’ll meet them soon enough. Things to do first.
He used the bronze key to turn the lock, somehow knowing it was the one that would open this door. He opened his bag, pulled out the book and stepped in the house. He smiled for the first time since he had landed and left the keys in the lock, shutting the door behind him. He frowned again. Dust covered everything that was left, which wasn’t much. His old chair from college, he missed during his cursory glance through the foyer window. It sat in the middle of the room and on it was The Donkey wearing one of Sarah’s dresses. Again, Adam’s head tilted off-axis, but his pupils did not register a warning. The Donkey turned his head slowly and Adam saw that his eyes were plucked out like the last time he had seen it. Plucked out by birds. Maggots had used the holes to enter the brain cavity for dinner. He saw one of the maggots now sliding out of the hole, landing in The Donkey’s lap where it writhed in circles.
The Donkey shook his head. Looked down at the frock and smiled showing some of his teeth gone. He tilted his head to match Adam’s. Fleshy bits of skin grazed the neckline of the frock, staining it auburn.
The Donkey nodded.
You almost killed me last time, you know.
The Donkey shrugged, looked down at the paisley print again. Put a hoof on the hem and brushed off a maggot.
You here to finish the job, eh?
The Donkey shrugged again, put both hoofs up in the air.
Yeah, well, I won’t be here long. I’m going to see Sarah. She’s moved, but I guess you could see that. Took Johnny with her. I think if I can get upstairs, I have a chance at seeing her again, I really do.
The Donkey stared at him with the gaping holes where eyes once were—lifeless orbs boring into Adam’s skull. Looked up the stairs, where Adam was trying to get. Adam put his hands to his head and groaned, shaking his head back and forth with force. His eyes were shut and water formed at the corners of the lids.
Why am I telling you this? You are here, in this world. I need to move on, put you behind me. Get to where Sarah is. Johnny. Jesus. Oh Jesus. Go the fuck away or I’ll put a bullet through your skull and finish what the kid couldn’t.
When Adam opened his eyes, The Donkey was gone.
Job well done, Marine.
He walked over to the chair The Donkey had been sitting in and ran a finger through the dust. Licked it. It tasted like death. Nothing he was unfamiliar with. At the foot of the chair he recognized the toy he had first seen through the window. It was a child’s block that was missing its set and it looked lonely here in the room. Adam took a photo of the small baby bundled in blue out of his shirt pocket, kissed the crinkled paper and placed it next to the toy. Placed the potpourri stick still in his hands next to both. He smiled. He loved the way his son could be happy playing with anything, even a lone block and simple stick.
I’ll be back in a minute. Play with your toys while I go find your mom.
Adam walked into the kitchen and let out a low whistle. Trash spilt from the can in the corner and littered the countertops. Bottle caps, Heineken, on the edge of the sink, their bottle counterparts in a pile inside. It stunk like the mass graves he had discovered, a rancid mix of garbage and rotting flesh, but his trained nose knew it was dead animal and not human. He kicked a plastic bag but it lifelessly fell back at his feet. He stepped on it, the crunch loudly resounding in the stale room, and he moved to the corner of the cabinets. A cockroach and next to it a mouse, half-decayed on a slab of wood with metal cutting into the fur on his back, laid there, both appearing to look up at him.
Yo man, look who returned. The Prodigal Son.
Yeah, Adam. Welcome home. We was wondering when you was gonna show. Still carrying around that cowboy book, huh?
Adam wiped his eyes, furrowed his brows. He knew those voices, but they didn’t belong to a cockroach and a mouse. Still, that is what spoke. The half-decayed animal heads were raised, pointed at Adam. Grinning.
Lopez? Langford? That you guys?
Hey! He didn’t forget about us. I told you, Homes. No way Miller was gonna forget. He promised he’d make it back and tell the girls we loved ‘em. Craziest fucker in the fight. Gonna outlive us all.
Yeah, but I’m not crazy, guys.
Right. Says the guy talking to a dead cockroach and mouse.
To be fair, you started talking first.
Ha! Still a smart fucker, eh Miller?
Yeah, but listen. Things are different now. I know what I promised, but I gotta back out.
What the hell, man? You’re the only one left who knows what went down. Who can tell Lisa and Mel we didn’t forget about ‘em when we were gone. You can’t back outta that shit. Brother’s oath.
I know, and I’m real sorry for you both. But I got my own problems now. I’m in this fucked up place where Sarah left and took Johnny with her and I gotta get her back. She’s in the other place, the one right beside here, but not here, you know what I mean?
You hear this shit, Lopez? Miller’s gone loco. Finally lost it. Man, we thought you was the only sane one. What the fuck happened?
Adam shook his head back and forth, back and forth.
You guys were the lucky ones. You guys were the lucky ones.
The mouse and cockroach were unanimated, lifeless again, and Adam sighed. He looked at the staircase The Donkey had nodded to and walked towards it. At the top was a box with the ticket he needed to get to Sarah. He traced the words on the cover of the book and walked up the stairs. His right leg remained straight, the pins and scarring too tough to allow a bend. Half-way up he kicked a small stuffed toy, a puppy he saw, and his hand holding the book began to shake.
You’re just like them.
I’m not. I didn’t mean to kick you, I didn’t even see you until you were falling down the stairs.
It still hurts even if you didn’t mean to.
I know. You should have stopped the man and his son though.
I know. Believe me, I wish I had.
Fucking a dog is sick, you understand that, right?
Of course I do. Jesus.
Watching a little boy do it is worse. You’re no better than them.
I know. I’m so sorry. I know. I should have stopped it, I should have.
Big tears fell from Adam’s eyes, landing on his shirt. On the step beneath him. On the now-inanimate stuffed puppy. Adam picked it up and rocked it, stifling sobs in its fur, breathing in dust and balls of hair.
He took one big breath and placed the puppy back on the stair, sitting in the upright position as if it awaited a treat. A plush tongue made it look eager. Adam patted it on the head, continued up the stairs, pausing at the top at a closed door. He opened it. Put his hand over his eyes, squinting. It was bright, a ray of sun catching each dust particle on its journey away from earth. Adam knew he would be joining particles soon on a similar journey. Once his eyes adjusted, he looked in the center of the room. His and Sarah’s bed was gone—a stained, darker rectangle of wood marking its former place on the floor.
In the center of where the bed should be was a pile of letters, pink flutters from the past with perfect corners, smooth edges. All from him, unopened. She didn’t know then. Didn’t know the horrors he saw. Didn’t know the ways he suffered when she stopped writing. Didn’t know about the bomb-laden donkey that had taken out his right leg, about the Purple Heart that followed. Didn’t know about his plan to see her again, once he realized he’d left the earth and was living in an alternate universe. Didn’t know about The Gunslinger and the forty-eight times he had read it, formulating his plan to get back to her, perfecting it.
Adam rubbed the corner of the book with his thumb, retracing lines he knew would be there. The gunslinger on the cover of the book tipped his hat to Adam. His arm was crinkled and ripped through where shrapnel had pierced the pocket of Adam’s digital cammies, the pocket The Gunslinger never left. His hat was worn, like the pages behind him.
You know time is the thief of memory, right?
Yes, you’ve told me this before.
And still your plan is in place?
You know better than most. You’ve been in my pocket, watching, seeing. This isn’t real, this place. Don’t you miss home? Don’t you understand why I have to go back?
What is home? Not quite sure there ever was such a place.
I have never been more sure. It’s not a place, or doesn’t have to be I guess.
Where the world ends, there you must begin. I will miss you.
I wish I could say the same. I miss her more. I miss my old life.
Adam sighed and took off his military blouse, folding it neatly and placing it where the foot of the bed would have been. He carefully removed his boots, lining them up like soldiers marching off to battle. He put one sock on each boot, draped delicately over the tongue and laces. He then lifted his undershirt over his head, folded it with the same precision as the blouse, and placed it atop the pile. Lastly, he unbuckled his belt, threaded it out of the pant loops and wrapped it around his hand. When it was a perfect circle, he stood it up in front of the boots, took off his trousers and green skivvy shorts, pressing them into perfect rectangles, topping the pile. His fingers felt the chain around his neck where the dog tags fell. He rubbed each letter with nimble fingers, taking his time.
Finally, he sat next to the unopened letters where he might have laid his head, had there been pillows to catch him in his weary fall. Instead, he placed his head in his hands, took three deep breaths in and out, filled his lungs and calmed his heart, which echoed in the silence. She was there when he finally looked up. She was wearing the same paisley dress as The Donkey had been. The stains were gone, cleansed by her presence.
That dress looks much better on you, love.
God I miss you.
I miss you too. I wish you hadn’t left.
I know. I regret ever walking out that door. It wasn’t my place over there. My place is here, with you. With Johnny.
Don’t. I know I messed up. Give me another chance. You didn’t read my letters, you don’t know my plan.
I do though.
I’d risk anything. Nothing is right here. It’s all backwards. The sun comes up in the west here.
I know. It’s beautiful.
I’m sorry. But listen. Tell Johnny I’ll see him soon. I can’t wait to meet him.
Sarah was gone. In her place was a box that held Adam’s ticket home. He opened the box, lifted the gun out with military efficiency, opened the chamber, made sure it was loaded.
Somewhere in another universe, a life was lived out fully and with joy. The sun rose in the east as a father bounced a son he had just met on his knee. A woman in paisley brought them lemonade, a smile on her face. Adam placed the weapon to his temple. It felt cool and wholly unfrightening.
Kama is an MFA student at Northern Arizona University where she is the Editor-in Chief of Thin Air Literary Magazine. She is working on a linked collection of short stories which includes "When the Sun Rose in the West." This is her first fiction publication, however, her essays have regularly appeared in Military Spouse Magazine.