by Mason Binkley
He came home early from work yesterday afternoon, still wearing his white coat. A stethoscope remained coiled around his neck like a noose. As he drifted inside, he forgot to close the front door. “I was drafted,” he said.
I wrapped my arms around him and laughed. “Not funny.” I tried to kiss him, but his lips were stiff and cold.
“Military officers came to the clinic this morning. They told me there’s a shortage of doctors.” Fingers trembling, he showed me the draft papers. “They said it’s an emergency. They need me.”
We went to the beach today and sat in the sand. Dark-gray clouds stretched across the horizon and suffocated the sun. Rain from those clouds fell ceaselessly into the ocean, a hail of bullets. Wind rushed over choppy waves and onto shore, howling and singing warning songs. We leaned onto each other and waited for the rain to arrive.
“We should try to leave the country,” I said.
He shook his head and looked down at the sand. “That would be too dangerous.”
On our last night together before he departed, we climbed onto the roof of our house with pillows and blankets and made love, the stars pulsing and swirling in jubilant madness. I fell asleep with my head on his chest, trying to memorize the rhythm of his heart and the rise and fall of his lungs.
I awoke alone to sunlight and birds chirping. I stood on the roof and screamed his name.
I have been following the news, searching online, and calling state agencies, trying to learn whatever I can about the war, but the government has seized control of the media, internet, and means of communication, and has restricted travel. Accurate information is impossible to acquire, truth and propaganda hopelessly blurred.
So many people speak of victory and peace. An aura of contentment surrounds them as they go about their lives.
I have told everyone I know, “The war isn’t over. He hasn’t come home.”
My friends and family have distanced themselves from me. “He left you because he stopped loving you,” my sister said. “Why can’t you understand?”
At 3:00 a.m., he called from somewhere… To finally hear his voice!
My love, he said doctors have become useless and the military needs more soldiers. He is learning how to fight, this man who only wants to heal. He must have looked so awkward when he first held a weapon, an assault rifle melded to the same hands once used to check pulses and close wounds.
“They say the war’s over,” I said. “They say—”
“I have to go,” he whispered. “I hope to come back soon.”
Last week, at the nearest military base, I begged what appeared to be a guard on the other side of the gate to let me enter. He stood maybe twenty yards away, feet clamped together, arms at his sides. Dirt and grime streaked his uniform. His shoes bore holes. He did not respond. He did not even look in my direction. I threw pebbles until one struck him in the head, but still he did not budge. Perhaps he was not a person, but a decoy.
The base itself seemed to be desolate. Grass and weeds stood several feet high and crept up the sides of unlit buildings. A banner in the courtyard said, “VICTORY!”
I spent the entire morning meandering up and down the aisles of a grocery store, pushing an empty cart. I imagined hordes of people running in and out, stumbling over each other and grabbing everything they could, the roof trembling from nearby bomb blasts. I wanted confirmation of the war to prove I was not losing my mind.
But, cheerful music played through the speakers as men and women calmly filled their carts with groceries. Crushed pecans. Blood-red tomatoes. Raw meat.
“Have you heard about the war?” I asked a woman sniffing an orange. She smiled with sparkling teeth and shook her head, walked away.
Now, as I sit alone at the same beach, I envision ships slicing into the water and jets cutting across the sky. I picture red waves splashing onto shore – a graveyard of scattered limbs, a feast for the birds – as ashes from chemical clouds twirl down. The sun no longer shines and flowers no longer bloom.
Of course, what I actually see differs. I see sunlight on crystal-blue water. A child builds a sandcastle, the upper level slanting to one side. An elderly man walks alone in a leisurely, meditative way, leaving behind footprints. A dolphin’s fin breaches the water’s surface and bright-white seagulls fly overhead, the smell of salt hanging in the air.
It’s infuriating, this façade of normalcy.
I try to convince myself he will eventually return, maybe to this exact spot. In my gut, however, I fear nobody can live to tell about a war that has become so secretive.
Mason Binkley lives with his wife and identical twin boys in Tampa, Florida, and works as an attorney. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Pithead Chapel, Jellyfish Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other places. You can find him online @Mason_Binkley.