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SLCC's Premiere Art & Literary Magazine

The Crux

Meghan Flynn

For my Brothers and Sisters

Stepping into the 7-11, he paused briefly as he felt the benefits of an effective air conditioning system wrap around him like a chilly blanket, which he welcomed wholeheartedly because he hated the heat. Walking up to the counter, he addressed the middle-aged man that stood behind the counter. Eye contact was made as he made his request. "A roll of Copenhagen long-cut, original, please." The man behind the counter reached for his request with nimble fingers and placed it on the counter. "May I see some I.D. please?" Producing the required identification, the man reviewed it. "A veteran, I see. Well, Sir, thank you for your service." Thank you for your service? Thank you for what? Had the man any idea of what he was thanking him for, would he still be saying thanks? He decided to blow it off because he knew the man was completely without a clue, and naive as fuck.

Later that afternoon he sat in his favorite worn armchair, without his usual sense of urgency, cleaning his favorite weapon. The Colt .45 had many qualities that he admired. It was accurate, it was deadly, and it packed one hell of a punch for a handgun. He enjoyed the visceral feeling of breaking down a weapon. He felt actual joy in the methodical process of pulling it apart in order to clean it. He enjoyed the smell of CLP and the faint remnants of gunpowder that clung to the cold metal from the last time it had been fired. Didn't much matter if it was a .50 or a 9 mil., weapons were like women of different sizes; each had something to offer, each was beautiful, and each one could either kill you or save your life. Yet there was something to be said about breaking apart and taking care of something that could and would serve you later. A dirty weapon is a dead Marine.

He reached into his repurposed tackle box full of his weapon cleaning supplies to grab the plastic toothbrush that he used to scrub the inside of the slide, when he had a moment of realization that the toothbrush that he had grabbed looked familiar. It wasn't the toothbrush that he last remembered using. Where did it come from? How did it get into his cleaning supplies? Upon further examination, he recognized the Cookie Monster image on the handle and realized... it had been his daughter's. At least at one time. Once upon a time. Flip the switch. Turn it off.

As he scrubbed, the faint and familiar smell of gunpowder wafted into his nostrils and throughout the room. He remembered involuntarily; as it always happened with some trigger or another, a particular mission that he had been on in the outskirts of Fallujah, back in 2003, during the initial invasion. Martial Law had been declared and there was an imposed curfew of 2200 hours, anyone out after curfew was assumed to be up to no good. The time was around 0200 hours. As his company putted along in their M1A1 tanks, he had spotted with his thermal goggles, from the gunner's position, a white pickup truck chock full of native men, both in the cab and in the bed of the truck, pulling onto the road that they were patrolling just ahead of them. He had notified his commander, whose response had simply been, "make them go away." And so he had.

Amid the muzzle flashes, and thanks to his thermal goggles, he had a front-row seat to the visual of the men's bodies rocking and bouncing around as the projected rounds did their job. It had seemed almost comical at the time, the way a human body reacted to each projectile, as if some invisible force was tossing them about the cab and bed of the truck. He had felt nothing. He had simply been following orders. It was his job. His fucking job.

Later that morning, when the sneaking sunlight had afforded him better vision, he had walked back over to the truck to look at the damage that he had caused. The white pickup was riddled with bullet holes and what was left of the men was splattered all over the place. An arm here, half of a body there. The driver's brain sat partially in his lap, partially on the floorboard. The smell of blood and feces filled his nostrils. He felt nothing.

He looked down to see little beads of sweat, which had formed on his arms and hands and realized that he had been scrubbing the same place on the slide for the duration of the flashback. Mechanically, he set it aside and began cleaning the receiver. This is why his wife had left him, everybody had. He was all fucked up, damaged goods. He simply did not know how to be "normal" anymore. None of Them did. Never mind that, he had a job to do.

As he cleaned, he allowed himself to recall a time when the Amtrak, which had contained himself and his best friend, had gotten lost in the city, by itself, at night. Of course, they were ambushed. "Towel heads" were like cockroaches; they only came out at night. The Amtrak took heavy fire from all directions, eventually sending it up into flames. Some of the Marines escaped out of the back of the vehicle. He kept running back and forth from the vehicle to the safety of an abandoned and bullet-riddled building, helping his Brothers to safety, one by one. He could save all but one, his tank commander. The Gunny was still stuck inside the burning Amtrak. Flames grew and the heat was unbearably intense. When he tried one last time to get to Gunny, he grabbed onto the commander's flack jacket and pulled as hard as he could. The flack jacket, along with burned flesh, came off into his hands in burnt pieces. The commander was nothing more than a charred carcass now. The smell of burnt flesh was thick and sweet. Like a burnt marshmallow if you added in the essence of burnt hot dogs. He was gone. He could save all but one. Marines leave no man behind.

By now, these memories seemed to give him an odd sense of comfort, and an inexplicable, eerie calmness came over him. He moved on to clean the smaller parts on the outside of the Colt. The slide stop. The rear sight. He found pleasure in the movement that it required. In fact, this was the only time he had felt pleasure in a long time. He allowed for himself to feel it. What was the use of fighting with ghosts?

The small child that had been sent to them to 'beg for food' but was strapped down with more explosives than the poor little shit could carry. The child had had a sinister look in his eye, as if it harbored a hatred that was centuries older than he was, would ever be. The guys had been wary, but hey, it's a harmless child, right? Blood and bone fragments had been everywhere. The native woman that had approached the female checkpoint, laden with enough C4 to blow up an entire city block. His Sister had gone down with the bomb-strapped woman in a pile of unidentifiable red goo and pink mist. Both women had been under the age of 20. Protect the women and children.

They had given him a half-assed post-deployment assessment where they had asked him only two god damned questions and then sent him on his merry fucking way. "You're fine. Carry on, Marine". That's right. I'm just fine. Fuckin' peachy. Flip the switch. Feel nothing.

He had given all of his love, piece by piece, to each part of his favorite weapon. It was now clean enough that it would've even passed his Senior Drill Instructor's white glove inspections. Methodically, he put the pieces back together and then checked to ensure operation. He felt nothing as he loaded a single round, the last round he would ever need, into his Colt. He felt nothing as he cleaned up the toothbrush, q-tips, and lint- free cloth, putting them back into the tackle box. He sat for a moment, recalling everything that had gotten him to this point. He then cocked the hammer of the .45 and placed the muzzle against his temple. He felt the coolness of the metal, pressing against his skin. Never point a weapon at anything that you do not intend to kill.

Taking a deep breath, he surveyed the room, with the muzzle still firmly planted against the side of his head; he took in visually the ruins of a broken home. His wife had taken the children and had picked through the years of stuff that they had accumulated together, leaving him with the shit she no longer valued. He was among that pile of shit that nobody wanted. Closing his eyes, he thought of his buddies on the other side that were waiting for him. All he had to do was pull the trigger one last time. Steeled in his resolve he moved his finger to the trigger. Keep your finger straight and off the trigger, until you intend to shoot.

Then his cell phone rang. He startled slightly, and then curiosity caught him. He lowered his .45 and looked at the lit up screen of his iPhone. It was Campbell, a Brother who had been through it all, right alongside him. There had always been a keen sort of sixth sense between himself and the people he had served with. Setting the weapon down, he swiped the screen to answer the call. "Hello?" The voice on the other line said in a soft voice, "don't do it, man.”