Fiction: War Torn
By Corey Villas
He had gone into town to pick up his usual haul - canned meats, bottled water, batteries, candles, matches, toilet paper, whatever he could get his hands on. The day was unseasonably warm for this late in the fall, not entirely uncommon in the Southeast. Wearing his trademark laceless combat boots and an army helmet, he was loading all of his essentials into the back of his Chevy when a group of boys came up behind him. He recognized them from several encounters before, too many to keep count.
“God damn, he smells like fart and rotten garbage,” the blonde-haired boy said.
The others howled, one boy laughing so hard that he had to lean against another boy to stop himself from falling over. The man ignored them, his belly hanging out of the bottom of his stained shirt as he reached across the bed of the truck for the last strap to secure his cargo.
“When’s the last time you took a shower, you crazy bastard?” the short, red-headed boy tormentingly asked.
“This dipshit probably doesn’t know how to clean himself, bet he can’t wipe his ass right either,” the blonde boy mocked.
The man got into his truck and closed the door, ignoring the boys, and started the engine.
“That’s right, go home and hose yourself down, you damn weirdo,” the man heard through his window as he took off down Maple Street, heading out of town for home.
This was a normal day in the life of Randy Boggs. It had not always been like this, though. Before the war, he lived a normal life, working in a local auto shop turning wrenches and doing body work. Some might even say he was handsome. But all that changed after Vietnam. When he was drafted into the Army, the last thing his Mama told him the day he left for basic training surprised him: you come back to me the same, don’t let over there ruin you. He figured she just meant don’t get killed. But as it turned out, some things might be worse than death.
When he returned home in ‘71, he tried to live his old life again, to pick up right where he left off. But anyone that knew him from before knew that he was not the same man he once was. Things were bad at home, where he still lived with Mama. Sometimes he would sit at the window in a kitchen chair, staring outside for hours, silent, unresponsive to anything, lost within himself. Other times, Mama would catch him biting his fingernails so badly that all shred of nail was gone, blood running down his hands and wrists, oblivious to the mess and the pain. She even came home from bingo one night to find him with a skewer of whole squirrels he had trapped and kabobbed in the backyard. Things got worse when he got fired from the auto shop. The owner, Mr. McGill had moved Randy into the office to keep him away from tools and loud noises, trying to help a veteran and a once good employee. But when customers began to complain about him - his hygiene, his uncomfortable and awkward demeanor, his inability to communicate, one even claimed he thought Randy was going to attack him - Mr. McGill had no choice but to let him go.
As time went on, Randy began to slowly assimilate back into some semblance of life. But even as he did, he could not shake the feeling of being unsafe anywhere and everywhere he went, constantly exposed, vulnerable. One day, he went to the grocery store to pick up a few things for Mama, and returned with an Army helmet from the surplus store the next town over. He began to wear it everywhere.
Some time later, Mama got sick and eventually passed. She left the trailer, the couple of acres of land, and the little bit of money she had all to Randy. When she died, Randy became a recluse, and had been ever since. His new hobby quickly became stockpiling survival goods. He built a ramshackle wooden shed to store all kinds of supplies in, hoarding them in there for whenever he might need them. Stores in town began carrying more of the items they knew he’d buy, as his visits into town were only to buy more and more supplies and nothing else.
This is when the torment from locals began. Mostly just kids, like the group of boys giving him hell. But there were others. Not too long ago, a group of mothers had started a petition for the sheriff to ban Randy from town, calling him a “dangerous nuisance” and “a threat to the safety of the town’s children.” Another time, when Randy got bent out of shape about a store not having SPAM in stock, the owner called the police. No reason was given as the police hauled him off to the local jail, where he spent the night screaming and cowering in the corner of his cell. The police let him go early the next morning, mostly because they couldn’t take the noise anymore. But nonetheless, he continued his trips into town to restock, never concerned with what might happen.
When Randy returned home, he drove around back to his shed and immediately began unloading his latest haul. He stocked and organized everything in great detail, taking note of how much he had of every item. As nightfall neared, Randy locked up his shed and went inside for the evening.
Once inside, he sat in front of the TV and watched whatever station he could pick up, the images blurring in and out, the static contorting the shapes on the screen. Randy watched, unblinking, not concerned with the poor reception, not even aware of it. When he realized he was hungry, he went to his freezer and pulled out a frozen TV dinner - salisbury steak, corn, mashed potatoes, and a small brownie. After he microwaved it, he returned to the living room to watch more of the static waves roll across the screen. He ate his dinner, watching TV as the night wore on, like so many others do. But he was not there, and hadn’t been for a long time.
Suddenly, a loud thud came from atop his trailer, filling the living room with its reverberation. Randy broke his stare from the TV, wondering if he really heard it or if it was only in his mind, like so many other things.
Then another thunderous bang echoed throughout the trailer, this time from near the front door. Randy dove to the floor, covering his head with his hands. Looking up at the kitchen counter, he could see his helmet sitting on the edge. He frantically crawled to the counter, reached up and felt around, quickly grabbing it by the strap and pulling it down.
Another loud thud rang out from the roof. Then, only a second or two later, Randy heard glass shatter from down the hall, where he could see a rock of some kind laying on the floor. The thuds and bangs grew. Randy put on his helmet and crawled under the coffee table in the center of the room, his half-eaten TV dinner almost falling as his back bumped the table from underneath.
The deafening noise continued. Randy looked around from his position on the floor, scanning in terror at what was happening. He couldn’t discern what was real and what wasn’t, reality from horror, the present from the past. The faces of his fellow soldiers flashed before his eyes. The smell of napalm, of burning foliage, of diesel filled his nose. He buried his face into the floor, holding his helmet in place, screaming the inhuman screams and sobs of true, brutal, unobjectionable fear.
Then, through the noise, he could hear voices. Not just voices. Laughing. His eyes widened, realizing his enemy was close, just outside. He crawled to the door, where he kept a .270 bolt action rifle propped up in the corner, loaded and ready. Grabbing the gun, he clutched it to his chest and rolled across the floor to a nearby window. The sounds of the attack against his trailer still radiated throughout, another window breaking somewhere near the bathroom.
Randy climbed to his knees, eyes wide and heart racing, overcome by the kind of involuntary relentlessness that takes over in combat. He swung the rifle around, smashed the window with the butt, and slid the barrel out. The noise of war continued on, the smashing of the window blended in with the sounds from his enemy’s attack. Without aiming, he fired the first shot into the darkness, not hearing the blast or feeling the recoil. He pulled the bolt back and pushed another round into the chamber, and fired again. He fired two more shots until the weapon was empty.
Randy fell back to the floor, out of the enemy’s line of fire. He began looking for the box of ammo to reload, when he realized the thuds and cracks had stopped. All he heard was silence. He climbed to his knees again, and peered out into the night, but could see nothing. He got to his feet, pulled his pants back up over his belly, and made his way to the front door. Seeing the box of ammo on the side table by his keys, he reloaded the rifle quietly, slowly, listening for any sounds of the enemy from outside.
With the rifle tight in his sweaty hands and pulled snug against his shoulder, Randy opened the front door and stepped out. The porch was littered with rocks and bricks, a result of the attack on his trailer. He stepped down the few stairs to the yard, the grass was wet under his bare feet. He readjusted his helmet and continued onward, patrolling the area for any sign of the enemy.
That’s when he saw the body. He kept his rifle at the ready as he approached it. When he was close, only feet away, he saw bright blonde hair, not black hair like “Charlie” always had. He knelt down to look over his defeated enemy, rolled the body over, and saw the face of the boy from town earlier that day, the one that had made fun of how he smelled. He realized as he examined the boy that the bullet must have hit him in the back as he ran away, a massive exit wound in the center of his frontside, just under the chest plate. Randy didn’t bother checking for a pulse - he knew death when he saw it. He could feel the tops of the boy’s ribs in the exit wound, heat radiating from his flesh, his lifeless eyes shimmering in the light of the moon.
Randy could hear the sirens coming down the road, turning onto his property. He had left the door open so they didn’t have to knock. When they entered, they found him sitting on the couch, watching a static-filled TV and eating the rest of his dinner, enjoying the small brownie.
From the back of the squad car, he watched the coroner wheel the boy into the transport vehicle, the body bag off-white and zipped closed. As the car made its way down the gravel driveway and onto the road, Randy knew what he had done and why he was on his way to jail. But instead of being full of emotions, he was full of nothing. He was empty. No remorse, no fear, no self-preservation. As if nothing happened at all.
At that moment, for some reason, he suddenly heard his Mama’s voice as clear as ever, saying what she had told him years before when he left for basic - you come back to me the same, don’t let over there ruin you - unsure if her voice was real or in his head.
Corey Villas, born and raised in North Carolina, is a graduate of Auburn University. In addition to A Thin Slice of Anxiety, his fiction is scheduled to appear in 2024 in Close to the Bone, Books ‘N Pieces Magazine, and The Piker Press.