2nd Place – April 2022

The Warrior and the Artist

by Gary Christenson

I am a damaged human being.

Yup, on the bat-shit crazy scale from one to ten, I’m a six or seven most days. The shrink who examined me, an over-educated VA fool, diagnosed me with PTSD. Instead of helping, he prescribed a cocktail of drugs to “reduce my anxiety.” I could have punched him. Instead, I refused the drugs and banished myself into the forest east of Seattle.

Last night was tough. Nightmares ruined my sleep. Dreams about hand-to-hand combat, mortar attacks, and burning to death in a Humvee tormented me. On bad days, I’m convinced my nightmares and PTSD are God’s punishment for my sins while serving in Afghanistan.

It’s been a rough journey…

***

For several years, I’ve lived in a cabin ten minutes from a country road. As I exercised on a path in the woods, screams punctured the forest’s tranquility. After trotting toward the sounds, I peeked from behind a tree and saw two men. One grunted as he raped a young woman, while the other watched and chanted, “Harder, harder.” I tip-toed toward the watcher and locked him in a stranglehold. He passed out and seconds later I snapped his neck, killing him. I did the same to the rapist. The military trained me well.

I rolled the rapist off the woman and pulled her torn skirt down to her knees. She jerked away and screamed, “Don’t touch me!”

After she sobbed for several minutes, I asked, “Will you allow me to help you?” She glared at me in response. A while later, I said, “I’ll get my car. If you’re still here when I return, I’ll drive you to my cabin where you can recover.”

Her voice quivered, “I’m Marjorie and right now, I hate all men, including you.”

“I’m Danny.” Minutes later, I returned and opened the passenger door for her. We rode in tense silence. She locked her arms around her shoulders and stared ahead, refusing to look at me.

Inside my cabin, she squeaked out, “I want a shower.”

I handed her a towel, washcloth, and robe. “After your shower, you’re welcome to take the bedroom and sleep. I’ll be gone for a couple hours while I dispose of the evidence. Let’s not involve the police.”

Marjorie said, “Right, no cops.” She glared at me and locked the bathroom door.

I grabbed ten feet of wire and two lengths of heavy chain from my storage shed and drove back to where the bodies lay in the clearing. Searching through their pockets, I found car keys, three hundred dollars in cash, fake IDs, and two switch-blade knives. I pocketed the cash and knives and walked to the highway to find their car, a seven-year-old Ford. I started it, didn’t worry about fingerprints or DNA, and returned to the clearing.

After loading bodies into their trunk, I drove to the nearby Silver Mountain Falls where water plunges into a deep lake, a disposal zone. I hauled their bodies out of the car, punctured their stomachs to release decomposition gasses, and wired chain around their bodies. I shuddered from head to toe after sniffing their nasty body odors. The lake swallowed them with a swooshing sound after I pushed them over the falls.

My sister Helen lives four miles down the highway. She and her husband grow organic vegetables, raise chickens, and operate a chop shop deep into the woods. I parked the Ford in their driveway and knocked.

Helen answered. I handed her the keys and said, “Trade you a Ford for clothes that will fit a woman your size and two inches shorter.”

She grabbed the keys, sniffed, wrinkled her nose, and said, “Five minutes. Wait outside.” Minutes later, she handed me a duffel bag. “Pants, tops, sneakers, socks, and underwear, all clean.”

“Thanks. Don’t ask.” I turned and walked back to the clearing to retrieve my car.

Marjorie’s snores vibrated the thin bedroom walls when I returned to my cabin. After stripping off my stinky clothes, I showered. Sitting, I drank whisky. My twitching diminished after two drinks.

Later, she emerged from the bedroom and toddled toward the bathroom. I told her, “My sister sent clothes.” I pointed toward the duffel. “Dinner is rice and meatloaf in an hour. Okay?”

Marjorie nodded, grabbed the bag, and locked the bathroom door. When she emerged, I handed her a glass of whisky. “You look better. Booze will help. Dinner in thirty minutes.”

She glared at me and downed half the glass in one gulp. “Should I ask what you did with those men?”

I stared at her. “What men? They only exist in our memories. Their bodies and car disappeared in the mist.” My voice quivered as I tried to sound uncaring.

She almost smiled, broke into tears, and sobbed for a long time. After I served dinner, I poured more whisky. Midway through dinner, her tears flowed again. She rubbed her eyes and frowned at her plate.

I have lived with deep emotional trauma for years and knew that rushing her to talk wouldn’t help. After we downed several more drinks in silence, I told her, “I’ll sleep on the floor. You take the bed.”

Her face twisted into a strange expression, which I pretended not to see. “Rough time in Afghanistan. I’ll wake during the night thrashing and screaming. Stay away.”

Her voice was hoarse. “Don’t come near me when I’m in bed.”

I told her, “Both of us have traumas to resolve. I want sleep, nothing more.”

The next morning, I woke before her, started coffee, and prepared breakfast. She unlocked the bedroom door and said, “I hurt everywhere, especially my head.”

While cooking eggs, I said, “Breakfast will help. Okay with scrambled?”

***

Two sunrises later, Marjorie said, “You screamed last night. It sounded like you killed an enemy soldier. Horrific memories?”

I stared at her. “Yeah. You don’t want to know more.”

Over coffee the next afternoon, Marjorie admitted, “I was stupid and put myself into a dangerous position where those assholes could rape me. They would have killed me if you hadn’t rescued me.”

I nodded and said, “Good timing.”

Minutes later, she asked, “Why didn’t you get treatment for your PTSD?”

I sighed, stared at the floor, and said, “The VA wanted to anesthetize me with drugs. The shrinks expected me to bitch about my mother. Military brass told me to man up. I suggested they rot in hell and moved here. I’ll face problems my way.”

She asked, “Has your condition improved in the last year?”

“Only a little, but I’m alive and not drugged.”

That evening, after several drinks, she told me, “I’m an artist, but I have a dark secret. Can I burden you with a confession?”

I nodded and said with no expression, “Whatever helps.”

“I can’t make a living selling my art. I supplement my income by moonlighting as an escort for older men. Are you shocked?”

“We do what we have to do. What’s important is how we feel about ourselves. I’m not judgmental of others, especially considering the things I did in Afghanistan. We both must confront our inner demons and move forward.”

Marjorie studied the floor. “I wanted you to know the rest of my story. The risks I took with men often got me into trouble. I regretted my actions later.”

I avoided her eyes. “In my experience, judging ourselves is dangerous. We should accept ourselves and appreciate the people in our lives. It’s difficult to forgive ourselves, but necessary.”

She burst into tears and sobbed. I choked up and couldn’t speak. Minutes later, we half smiled at each other.

I cherished that moment.

The next morning, I drove us to her apartment in Seattle. My gut quivered as I watched her exit my car because I didn’t expect to see her again.

***

Four years later, I entered a Seattle Starbucks after attending a church meeting. A woman ordered a tall latte. Her voice sounded familiar. She turned, and I recognized her. “Marjorie, is that you?”

Surprise crossed her face before she broke into a smile. “Danny? Good to see you. I’ll grab a table. Let’s catch up.”

We sipped our coffees. “My art career has blossomed. I’m featured in a small show at a gallery on Capitol Hill next Friday.” She paused before saying, “You look good. Thanks again for your help.”

“Glad to hear we’re both doing well. You’re a successful artist, and I’m employed as a homeless counselor in an outreach program sponsored by a local Church. After you left, I realized I had to help others to heal myself. I’ve worked in the city over three years.” Seeing her again made my heart flutter.

Marjorie touched my hand and said, “Please come to my exhibition next Friday.” She removed a flyer from her purse and wrote on it. “That’s my phone number. Call me soon.”

I smiled at her, feeling healthier than any time since Afghanistan. “I’ll be there. Thanks.”

Writers’ workshop and writing group