It was tantalizing to behold, the boulder-sized glob of yellow-
ish-orange stone, illuminated by the dappled sunlight in my driveway.
My sixteen-year-old, Luke, helped Dr. Jurcik carry it inside to my home
My bliss ended abruptly when Luke hastily deposited the monstrosity
on my credenza, resulting in a loud “clunk.”
“Try not to scratch the furniture,” I said. “It’s all I have to bequeath
you when I die.”
He shrugged. “Dad said I could have the leather couch in his apart-
ment. That sounds like a better investment.”
“Thirty-five pounds of gold,” Dr. Emil Jurcik said. “That comes out to
a value of approximately one million dol-
lars. Think of how many desks you could
buy with that amount of money.”
Luke’s eyebrows shot up.
“Mom, that’s more than the money you
lost on those stock options.”
“Let’s not broach that subject right now,” I said.
“What you see here used to be electronic waste,” Dr. Jurcik said.
“Computer parts, old VCRs, cell phones. That sort of thing.”
“And now it’s gold?” Luke said. “How’d you manage that?”
“That’s what I’m here to talk with your mother about, young man.”
“Whatever you do, don’t leave her alone with it,” Luke said.
“Goodbye, Luke.” I shooed him out into the hallway, then turned my
attention to my new client, Dr. Jurcik.
When I began my practice as an intellectual property attorney, I chose
to work remotely from home. It gave me time to pursue other interests
and set my own time schedule. And all I had to do was put up advertise-
ments on the Internet and the inventors came calling.
That’s how Dr. Jurcik found me. He was willing to drive all the way
from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, to do it. I was en-
amored by the way he rolled his r’s at the end of a word, such as vaterrrr
instead of water. It was disarming.
“This will shift the paradigm of environmentalism, our economic fu-
ture, and stun the scientific community around the world,” he’d told me
over the phone.
I hear that sort of thing a lot. Inventors are great boasters.
Dr. Jurcik turned out to fit the bill as a prototypical Hollywood stereo-
type of an Eastern European professor. Small in stature, salt-and-pepper
mustache. Apt to lose his glasses on top of his head.
I offered him a cup of coffee at my kitchen table.
“I didn’t think they gave out degrees in alchemy anymore, at least not
since the Middle Ages,” I said.
“A very narrow field, I’ll admit,” Dr. Jurcik said. He took a sip and
asked for a spoonful of sugar.
“You need a diverse background to become credentialed,” he said. “I
have advanced degrees in chemistry and metallurgy. And I’ve also made
an extensive study of the Late Medieval period in Europe.”
“You’ve studied history?”
“Most of the important scholarly work in alchemy takes place then.
That is, until King Henry IV of England made it a felony in the year
1404. Most alchemists don’t believe this is binding anymore. Especially
in the United States.”
“You have anything to substantiate your claims? I’ll need to see a mar-
ketable process before we can proceed.”
He rooted around in a well-worn briefcase, then pulled out some dog-
“You can indeed turn lead into gold these days. All you need is a
particle accelerator, an endless supply of energy, and a terrific amount
of lead. You end up with such a minuscule amount of gold that it’s not
“But you have something better?”
“Ah, yes. Electronic waste, we have an unlimited supply of it. Twenty
million tons is disposed of worldwide every day. Only a tiny percentage
gets recycled. The rest of it sits in landfills, poisoning our groundwater by
leaking substances such as mercury, cadmium, and lead.”
“E-waste for short. I’m talking about computer motherboards, key-
boards, DVD players. LCD televisions that no one wants anymore.
That’s the real magic here. We need a lot of it to produce a single ounce
of gold, but fortunately we have a lot to work with.”
“Sounds like you could become very wealthy doing this.”
Dr. Jurcik secured his eyeglasses on his nose. He looked me straight in
the eyes. “Beyond your wildest dreams,” he said. “That’s why the alche-
mists of old were so enthusiastic about it.”
I made copies of his notes, gave him some standard legal forms to
sign. He climbed back into his Subaru wagon and departed.
I made a quick scan of his research papers. The whole thing seemed
preposterous. He didn’t segregate the materials. According to his notes,
he just dumped the whole mess into an apparatus he had developed and
flipped the switch.
Still, I was enamored. Luke caught me examining the golden nugget
in my office, tapping on the side of it and listening for an echo.
“Are you considering biting it to see if it’s real?”
“I would if I could get my mouth around it.”
The chunk of gold captured my imagination. I ignored the stack of pa-
perwork that spilled over in my inbox. It could keep until later in the day.
Instead I found myself returning to the Internet forums, reading inflated
opinions on how this particular stock is over-margined or another has
garnered way too much short interest. There were opportunities galore
out there if only I had the capital to purchase some options contracts.
If I can find some way to leverage this immense dome of precious metal, I
could get back on track, I thought.
The giant dollop of gold sitting on my desk rightfully belonged to
Dr. Jurcik. He did say he might pledge it as perhaps a down payment on
legal fees. That meant I had a claim on the gold, at least in the broadest
view of the law.
The rest of my Saturday was ruined as far as accomplishing anything
constructive. Try as I might, I couldn’t concentrate on work. I kept turn-
ing around in my chair and checking on the massive blob on my creden-
za. Maybe it was just the lighting or my fertile imagination, but I could
swear that thing moved.
I told Luke to get his things together after dinner, I would drive him
over to his father’s apartment building. Neil and I separated two years ago,
just when Luke was developing into a teenager. That time was fraught for
all of us. If Luke was affected by the shuttling back and forth between
our marital home and Neil’s apartment every week, he didn’t show it. I
would have liked more time with him but Neil forbade it. Something
about me being a less than positive influence on our son.
Neil described our marriage as one big chemical reaction, a process
that converts two or more substances into something completely new.
He’s a biologist so he says irritating things like that. I argued with him
that the original elements are still there, lurking just below the surface.
I was flummoxed when he agreed with me and suggested a trial sep-
Just like Neil to use my own words against me.
I made myself my normal Monday morning cup of coffee, mahogany
black right out of the French press, with a hint of sugar tossed in. Still in
my slippers, I traipsed into the office, prepared to tackle some legal briefs.
Maybe take a break by 9 a.m. to peruse the financial forums.
I’d forgotten about the large mound of reconstituted e-waste on my
credenza. The sight of it caused me to let go of my coffee mug. The black,
inky coffee spilled along the cracks and divots in the wood floor all the
way to the area rug under my desk. The giant rock of precious metal had
lost its golden hue and darkened to a rainy-day gray. Worse, it had begun
to warp and deteriorate. Its once oval shape now resembled a mountain-
side where half had been blown off by a geothermal explosion. It was
melting, right there on top of my credenza.
I could see the outline of a computer keyboard sticking out of the top
of the brackish mound. It peeked out, gray and misshapen, looking for a
way to escape.
I summoned all my courage and touched the crested butte of gray.
It felt rough and plasticky, like the square bin where I kept my old LP
I regretted not checking on it that Sunday. But Sunday was my day
to do absolutely nothing, to recline on my sofa in a T-shirt and running
shorts and catch up on episodes of Billions. Neil usually took Luke to
church. Good for him.
I frantically tried Dr. Jurcik on my cell. An automated voice told me
that his voicemail was full. He probably never bothered to retrieve his
messages. As intimidating as that molten gray dune of lava was, I decid-
ed to push on with my work that morning and then catch up with Dr.
Jurcik later the next day. I mopped the coffee off the floor. I even ate a
tuna sandwich in front of the gray menace while I perused some intraday
“Who am I kidding, looking at this stuff?” I confessed to the sinister
mound of circuitry behind me. “This is how I went broke in the first
It glared back at me.
I decided to ask Luke to carry it out to the garage on Wednesday,
when he was scheduled to return from his father’s apartment.
By Tuesday morning a large portion of the gray blob had dripped off
the credenza and onto the floor.
What looked like a melting motherboard pooled on the floor, capaci-
tors and PCI slots erupting up from the sludge. A river of wires and plas-
tic parts meandered past solid-steel desk legs, oozing into the crevices
between the wood planks. The dull-gray mass of coagulation threw off an
acrid, pungent odor. I was afraid it might burrow right through the floor
into the basement, not stopping until it had tunneled straight to China.
I spent the day rescuing my files and relocating them to Luke’s bed-
Then Luke surprised me by showing up that afternoon after school.
“I thought you weren’t returning until tomorrow.”
“Can’t I stop by for a snack and to see my favorite mother?”
“You’re here to see the gold.”
“Of course I am,” he said, grabbing two Oreos from the kitchen cab-
“I have to warn you, things have changed.”
“You found a way to spend it already?” he said, finishing off the cook-
ies in one smooth motion. He opened the door to my office and stood
there, mouth agape, black cookie crumbles clinging to his teeth.
“What’s this? And what happened to my golden college fund?”
“I don’t know. It’s somehow reverted back to its essential elements.”
“No, this is something new. And hideous.”
“That’s why you’ll be staying at your father’s until I get this situation
I couldn’t risk his prolonged exposure to it. For all I knew it was emit-
ting carcinogenic vapors.
He tapped the gray motherboard on the floor with his shoe. “It’s like
we’re living inside that movie about the killer globule, The Thing.”
“You’re referring to The Blob with Steve McQueen, and please step
away before it eats your tennis shoe.”
I rustled around in my basement, looking for an old hazmat suit left
over from a previous client. I stepped into the white, plastic bodysuit and
pulled the neoprene hood over my head. I adjusted the anti-fog visor on
my face and approached the gray effluent with trepidation. It was diffi-
cult handling a shovel in my oversized rubber gloves, but I managed to
get ahold of it alright.
With great effort I inserted the blade of the shovel under what I took
to be a dot matrix printer emanating from the ooze. With all my might, I
heaved. Not an inch of it budged. To make matters worse, the shovel was
caught fast. It stuck straight out into the room, a sideways flagpole. I quit
in a rage, stomping out of the room and removing the hood to catch my
breath. Later I watched that shovel slowly become enveloped by the gray
sludge. I felt like tossing the hazmat suit in after it.
By the next day the gray monster had bloomed into a muddy mass
two feet high that took over half my office. A fax machine emerged from
beneath the gray quagmire, right in front of my built-in wooden shelves.
Who uses fax machines anymore? I worked a safe distance away on my
spare laptop at the kitchen table.
I was determined to reach Dr. Jurcik. Only he could reverse this eco-
logical disaster that was happening in my office.
I phoned Washington University and asked for Dr. Jurcik’s extension.
“Can you spell that, please?”
“Emil Jurcik, he’s a professor there.”
“We have no record of a Jurcik. We have a Dr. Jurkiewicz.”
“Fine, what does he teach?”
“Why not just connect me to the Alchemy Department, please? I’ll
speak with whoever picks up the phone there.”
“I don’t know if the wizard is available right now.”
I could hear snickering in the background. I hung up, humiliated.
I remembered that the Mackrells, neighbors of ours on an adjacent
street, became fed up with the consistent flooding of their pre-war-era
basement after every major rain. In due time insects infiltrated their
house, mobilizing in their custom kitchen and sending Sheila Mackrell
into a tizzy.
They hired a pest control company to nuke the bugs and put the house
up for sale.
I needed Neil’s permission before I could sell our home. And I didn’t
want to alert him to the ecological terror that had seeped into an asset
we were both still responsible for. Especially because I’d squandered most
of our assets before, namely Luke’s college fund. My goal was to sell the
house, split the proceeds, finalize our divorce, and move on from this
“Where will you live?” he said.
I moved my phone to the other ear. “I haven’t thought it through that
“Of course you haven’t.”
“Neil, are you going to make this a thing?”
“It’s only because this is how we ended up in this situation in the first
“Neil, it’s been two years since we separated. The house is the only
thing holding us together.”
“At least we still have that.”
There was a long silence before he said, “Luke told me there’s some-
thing wrong with the house, that’s why he’s been living with me all this
“Luke has a vivid imagination. Remember when he wanted to develop
his own cryptocurrency?”
“That was your idea.”
“Yes, but he believed me. Very impressionable, that one.”
Neil finally gave in. He always does. I counted on him to do that.
I glanced at my office door. The gray mass was flowing past the desk
chair that I’d forgotten to liberate. Too late now. My next call was to Fay
Fay’s a Realtor from this well-connected family in Grosse Pointe; ev-
eryone knows at least one of the Buntings. Fay would know someone
who would covet buying a Grosse Pointe Park original, despite a few
minor bumps and bruises. Not to mention a grayish toxic goo taking over
the spare bedroom/office.
“That’s quite a pungent bouquet,” she said when she arrived, pulling
a handkerchief out of her purse and holding it to her mouth and nose.
“Where is the offending organism?”
I escorted her to the door of my office.
She raised up on the toes of her high heels, examining the gray in-
“A little staging can do wonders, right?” I said. “Perhaps place a big
winged-back chair in front of it?”
“It’s fairly conspicuous, I’m not sure we can hide it.”
“What about air fresheners? I could bake some cookies the morning
of the first showing. I hear that can do wonders.”
She removed herself from eyesight of the calamity and took refuge
the kitchen. “There’s not enough chocolate chip cookies in the world that
will mask that odor.”
“Or,” I continued, “say it’s a piece of modern art. People go for that
sort of thing nowadays.”
“What do you think we can list the house for? I owe two hundred
thousand on it.”
“That much, huh?”
“I’m hoping I could split the proceeds with my husband. We’re sep-
Fay thought for a minute. “You’d better forget about price and just
concentrate on finding the right buyer. For whatever you can get.”
Fay scheduled three showings the next day. I vacated my upstairs of-
fice each time, leaving my client documents securely locked in the filing
cabinet in Luke’s bedroom and removing any clutter from the kitchen.
I returned to find most of my house intact, including the protruding
blob that occupied my office. I checked a Realtor app on my phone for
Large family liked the backyard but are looking for a larger home.
Single woman would prefer an updated kitchen. And more closet space.
Young couple is having trouble with financing and have stopped looking for
a new home altogether.
After that the showings trickled to a standstill. Fay Bunting stopped
returning my calls. Not that I blamed her.
By then the toxic mess had breached the doorway of my office and
slithered into the hallway, threatening to intrude upon the kitchen at any
moment. It had already devoured Luke’s pair of hiking boots.
It was at that point I realized I hadn’t seen Luke in almost a week. I
scheduled a breakfast with him at the Original Pancake House, the one
over on Mack Avenue. Oh God, it’s come to this? I thought. I’m scheduling
meetings with my own son.
“How’s it going in physics?” I began after we sat down.
“That class is nonessential,” he said, tipping the dispenser and engulf-
ing his gold-rush-style flapjacks with syrup. “I dropped it.”
“Does your father know about this?”
“He doesn’t ask about school.” Luke held up the empty syrup dis-
penser so the waitress could see he needed a refill. “He doesn’t ask about
much of anything.”
“Come hell or high water, you’re taking that course next year, buster.”
“Speaking of high water, do we still have a house to go back to?”
I sighed and let my fork rest on top of my banana pancakes.
“I’m not sure.” I suddenly wasn’t very hungry.
Luke had no trouble digging into his flapjacks. He spoke in between
chewing. “You should sleep at Dad’s. There’s always the leather sofa in
front of the TV.”
“I’m not quite ready to admit defeat and move in with your father.”
I pushed my plate away. “But I’m not sure how I’m going to be able to
practice law like this.”
“We could live off my stock portfolio,” he said.
“Where are you going to get the money to invest?”
“I was going to borrow it from your golden nugget nest egg. Until you
found a way to lose that too.” He grimaced and shook his head.
“What do you want from me, Luke? I’m doing the best I can.”
“Try being the responsible adult around here?” He mopped up his
remaining reservoir of syrup with toast. “Is that asking too much?”
I was too tired to reprimand him for that comment. I dropped him
off at school and returned home. The gray mudslide had flowed right
through the kitchen and into the living room. This thing was pushing me
farther and farther away from my family, from my home, from my law
practice. I was forced to wash the dishes in the upstairs bathroom. Never
mind doing laundry. That had become a thing of the past.
I sat at the top of the stairs and watched the gray river roll past me. I
thought I could see a flat-screen television, its grayed-out screen surfac-
ing high over the morass and then plunging back beneath the surface.
Soon it would gush right out my front door and into my neighbor’s
rose garden. Then it would become the city’s problem.
All I could do was wait for my life to fully unravel and then perhaps
take some responsibility for the hole I’d dug myself. Until then, it was just
me and the gray demon.
It heaved and seeped through the house below me, content to slowly
After I reached my wit’s end, I booked a consultation for a
zipper supplement surgery. Being at home with my family for the winter
holidays had been slightly less than torture. My dad retired three days
before his sixty-sixth birthday and, since then, had made it known that
“everything’s about me now. I don’t care what anyone else wants.” I felt
something building in my chest, sitting there and ominously growing as
each day passed by, and I knew for sure that it wasn’t my sense of holiday
cheer. During the last few days I spent with my family, even the sound
of my dad’s voice was enough to cause my heart rate to spike.
For the first month I was back in my apartment almost 700 miles
away, the attacks started creeping up on
me like those cartoon cavemen with clubs.
I would be going about my day, minding
my own business, when one of them would
sneak up behind me and club me with an
anxiety attack. Racing heart, tight chest,
gasps for air. Uncontrollable crying. Inability to focus until after the
attack subsided. After the first attack, I thought that it was my body’s
way of coping with the tension I had experienced while at home for the
holidays. A releasing of the pressure valve, so to speak. But after the
second and the third attacks reared their heads, I knew that this was not
a release, but probably a sign of something bigger going on.
I remembered seeing a commercial on TV weeks ago about a new
treatment for anxiety called zipper supplement surgery. In the commer-
cial, a woman stood in front of the bathroom mirror while a voice nar-
rated the scene. “Do you struggle with your feelings? Do you feel like
you need to just let it all out? Then you may be a candidate for zipper
supplement surgery!” The woman slowly unzipped herself in a way that
made me feel like a voyeur as I watched. As the zipper tab moved farther
away from the base of her neck, I could see all of her emotions fall out
of her chest and into the sink, words like “anxiety” and “stress” and “joy.”
They filled the basin and tumbled effortlessly onto the floor, sliding to
a resting point that the emotions themselves looked comfortable with.
Some stopped under the edge of the vanity, while another leaned back
against the woman’s toes.
At first, I didn’t understand why something that had become so com-
mon needed a commercial, but I guess zipper supplement surgery had
become just like any other medication. The commercial continued to
play as the woman, fully zipped up, stepped over her feelings as she left
the bathroom with a smile on her face. “Ask your doctor about zippers!”
Before seeing the commercial, I had tried almost all of it: deep breath-
ing exercises, yoga, meditation, watching my diet, better sleep habits –
every exercise and lifestyle change I could manage. Nothing worked. As
time went on, I increasingly just wanted to stay in my apartment and curl
up on my couch, making myself easy prey for the little anxiety cavemen
with their attack clubs.
I explained this to the doctor during my consultation for zipper sup-
plement surgery. “I’m worried that this is going to take over my life,” I
said, “and I don’t have time for this to control me. I know that sounds
“No, it makes sense,” he said. His shiny bald head gleamed under the
examining room lights. “The purpose of zipper supplement surgery is to
provide a coping mechanism for those who are struggling.” He contin-
ued typing notes into the examining room’s computer. I assumed he was
working toward building some kind of patient file for me and, as I talked,
he took notes to determine whether or not I was a viable candidate for
I wondered why he didn’t finish the sentence after the word strug-
gling. Did he think I was trying to take the easy way out of learning
how to deal with my feelings? The sadness, the hopelessness, the fear I
sometimes felt about anything and everything with no apparent cause?
I told myself to take deep breaths as I felt my chest tighten. Recently,
when my chest tightened with the anxious feelings that snuck up on me,
I could feel the acid from my stomach rising in my chest and up toward
the back of my throat. That made everything tighter, as if there wasn’t
enough room for my insides and my anxiety in the same body.
“Based on your symptoms and what we’ve talked about, it appears
that you’re suffering from multiple issues.” He began rattling them off
– general anxiety disorder, depression, and another that I was sure I had
resolved by now, but apparently hadn’t. “I’m going to go ahead and rec-
ommend the zipper supplement surgery for you. Let’s go ahead and get
that scheduled,” the doctor said as he clicked through various windows
on the computer screen. He picked up a card from a stack in the drawer
to his left, scribbled a date and time on the card, and handed it to me.
“When you call to preregister for the surgery, they will give you more in-
formation about what you need to do before checking in on your sched-
uled date.” The doctor looked at me and must have sensed something in
my facial expression. “Have you had surgery before?”
I swallowed. “No.”
The doctor looked at me as if he was reconsidering his recommen-
dation. “Don’t worry,” he said. “It’s become a pretty standard surgery.”
As I walked out of the examining room, I looked down at the date
and time scribbled on the appointment card. I had two weeks to prepare
myself for a surgery to permanently change my body so that maybe, just
maybe, I could find a way to learn how to deal with the feelings that I
just kept pushing further and further down into darkness. He didn’t ask
if I had insurance or provide me with any recommendations as to how
someone pays for a zipper supplement surgery. I guess he just assumed
that I could afford it.
In the two weeks between the consultation and the surgery, I
tried convincing myself that this was just one big set of body piercings.
After all, I was comfortable with people pushing needles through differ-
ent parts of my body to adorn with jewelry, so in my logic, there shouldn’t
be that much of a difference. Right?
To try and calm my fears, I went online to the clinic’s website to see
if I could find more information as to just what they, the surgeons, were
going to do to me. I had so many questions as to how this works. How
this didn’t work. There had to be something that a person gave up in
order to have a zipper installed in their chest.
After digging deeper than probably necessary or safe, I found a video
of a surgeon installing a chest zipper. In my head, I wasn’t sure why I
needed to clarify where the zipper was to be placed because, in all hon-
esty, I had only seen people with zippers inserted into their chests. If it
wasn’t for the tell-tale zipper pull popping out of shirts, then it was the
lump right at the base of the neck in the winter, when people tried to
wrap the pull up in their scarves to prevent the metal from absorbing
the cold air. I clicked on the “play” icon in the video screen and began
First, they knock you out. With anesthesia, not violence – a com-
forting thought, considering I likened my anxiety to aggressive cartoon
I fiddled with the volume on my laptop as the video continued. On
my screen, an operating room opened up before me as a reassuring yet
slightly clinical voice explained the procedure.
“Once the anesthesia has gone into effect, surgeons then open the
chest cavity and score the sternum tissue.” I watched as the camera zooms
in on the sleeping body on the operating table. There was so much blood,
enough blood to remember why I decided against going into any kind of
medicine despite being told that I had the smarts and compassion to be
successful. The surgeon had cut through the layers of this person’s body,
different shades of flesh and pink and red, and then hands off the scalpel
to another set of hands. The surgeon then took a tool I hadn’t seen before
from a headless set of hands and my eyes wide. The surgeon inserted this
thing into the opened chest on the table, pressed it against the sternum,
and the video recording captured the sound of tree trunks cracking as
they’re being felled, sturdy and strong trunks being broken fiber by fiber.
The tool itself looks like a demonic eyelash curler, which only reinforced
my opinion that the ones you can buy at the drug store were, indeed,
medieval torture devices. To make it worse – the surgeon does this more
than once. This poor person’s sternum is almost completely torn apart.
The video continued. “Once the sternum is marked, the zipper is
measured and adjusted to account for the patient’s anatomy.” I shudder
at the narrator’s use of the word marked. I watched as the surgeon lift-
ed the long, seemingly heavy zipper off a steel tray lined with the same
bluish liner you see on TV hospital dramas. The surgeon placed the zip-
per just where they wanted it to be. “Once the zipper is measured and
placed,” the narrator said, “the surgeon stitches the zipper into place. As
the patient heals, the skin will bind to the zipper and it becomes a part
of the patient’s anatomy.”
A lull in the action. Everyone prepared for the first stitch. The sur-
geon took a thick, bent needle from the assistant and dips it into a vial
of clear liquid that I assumed was to help the zipper bind to the patient’s
Next, the surgeon positioned themselves to best reach the bottom of
As the surgeon pierces the skin, the patient’s body convulsed as if
being shocked by a defibrillator. The patient’s back arched, shoulders
tucking in toward the spine ever so slightly, and the upper body fell back
to the table with a thud. What I just witnessed made my eyes widen. I
started to sweat. I wondered what made a sedated body move like that.
“The stitching process can take as long as six to ten hours, depending
on the patient’s response to the stitching serum.” While the narrator
spoke, the surgeon prepared for the next stitch.
Before I could watch another convulsion, I slammed the lid to my
laptop shut and whirled around in my desk chair. “What am I doing?”
I asked myself out loud, hoping that something in my apartment – the
gray walls, the couch, the bright teal rug in the middle of the living room
– would have an answer for me.
As my surgery date crept closer, I did what I needed to do to make
sure my life was arranged before this procedure. I drank as much water
as I could the day before, knowing that I couldn’t have anything to eat
or drink after midnight, during the darkness between today and tomor-
row. I had a friend who was willing to sit and wait while the zipper was
installed drive me to the hospital. I didn’t want to be alone because, for
some slightly rational reason, I was worried that I was going to die and
not come out of this alive. Maybe those anxiety cavemen were going to
leap out of my chest and bludgeon me to death. Or maybe they would go
after the surgeon and his team, leaving me sedated on the operating table
with the inner caves of my chest exposed for the world to see.
The last things I remember before being wheeled off to surgery are
spotty. The odd shade of blue-green-gray on the walls. How the colors
around me felt dull, even before the anesthesia sent me off to dreamland.
My friend saying that I shouldn’t worry about the anxiety cavemen blud-
geoning me. (When did I tell her about those?) A nurse collecting my
clothes in a clear plastic bag with a cotton drawstring. The anesthesiolo-
gist telling me to breathe deeply as they placed the mask over my mouth
and nose. Me trying to fight back against the mask, feeling the wild
hysteria of someone trapped and unable to breathe. A nurse or an aid or
someone wearing scrubs gently but firmly grabbed my wrists. “Ma’am,
you’re going to be okay. Just breathe deeply,” they said in a soothing tone.
I remember breathing too shallow, too fast, before the edges of my vision
Sometimes I think of the conversation I once had with a friend —for
simplicity’s sake, we’ll just call him Friend—one night after class when
I lived in the last city where I had an address. Friend was a captain in
an Army airborne unit, served four tours in Afghanistan and Iraq, and
almost died while practicing a jump. If he hadn’t joined the Army out
of his felt obligation to family tradition, Friend says that he probably
would’ve joined the Franciscans. Friend, like me, was a writer who was
in graduate school because he just wanted to teach. That evening in class,
we discussed an essay he wrote about how he would sometimes wake
up in the middle of the night and conduct security sweeps of his house.
Friend and I had talked about how PTSD changes not just survivor’s
minds, but the minds of those around them, too.
“Sometimes I wonder why my PTSD does to my kids. Especially my
daughter,” Friend said as we stood under the streetlight halfway between
the English building and the parking garage. The part of campus that
surrounded us was rather quaint, student living learning community and
other university-owned houses that looked like little Swiss chalets. The
mid-fall trees still held onto some of their leaves, but the ones who had
given in to the wind and the rain lay plastered on the concrete sidewalk.
The tab of Friend’s zipper pull gleamed in the light as it partially peaked
out from under the collar of his shirt. The same thing happened as peo-
ple walking past on the sidewalk caught the light from the streetlamps.
It wasn’t yet cold enough for the zipper pulls to be hidden under scarves
and coats yet.
I thought about what Friend had said about his daughter. I thought
back to my experiences as a kid and how, more than once as an adult, I
looked up things my dad had done or still does on the internet, looking
for some kind of explanation for his behavior. The hyper vigilance, the
insistence on being tough and going so far as to refusing to let my sis-
ters and I cry when we were hurt, the requirement that everything had
to always be secured—car doors, windows, kitchen cabinets—but yet it
was against the rules for my sisters and I to lock doors in the house. My
dad always told us that, even as adults when we would come home for
the holidays, that we weren’t old enough to have earned or deserve that
level of privacy. I didn’t mean to cry—after all, Friend and I had this
conversation before, just not as personal—but I felt my voice crack and
the muscles around my eyes contract.
The thinking to myself shifted to thinking out loud. There was too
much in my head that, in reality, would take years of therapy and the zip-
per supplement surgery to begin to cope with. “The worse part was when
we were little and tried to wake him up for anything. My dad sleeps a
lot, and when it would be dinner time or we’d have to ask him a question,
we’d have to stand far enough away where he couldn’t reach us when he
woke up. Heaven forbid you should touch him, because he would come
out of a dead sleep with the intent of going for your throat,” I said.
“Did he explain why he did that?” asked Friend out of curiosity.
“All he would do is yell,” I said. “I figured it out when I was older,
but when you’re a kid, it’s terrifying thinking that your dad would try to
hurt you just because you woke him up for dinner. But as an adult, it’s
harder to grapple with the other ways he’s done things that have hurt me
mentally and emotionally, because I can’t always walk away from those
Friend gave me a side hug. “I needed to hear that,” he said. “I needed
to hear that.”
I don’t know how long the surgery actually took. I woke up in a ge-
neric-looking hospital room with the same kind of familiar surroundings
I saw before I was knocked out for surgery: the strange blue-green-gray
paint color, the beige curtain separating the beds in the hospital room.
My friend sat beside me, reading a book. “Hey sleepy gus, you’re awake!”
she said, putting her book down on the bedside table next to the phone.
The table itself looked awkwardly bare.
I tried to move and sit myself up a little straighter, but my lower back
and hips screamed in pain just as much as my chest did. “Agh!” I cried as
my body flopped back on the bed. The surgeon told me during our con-
sultation that moving would be quite painful for the first few days after
the surgery as my muscles and joints learned how to move again with the
addition of the zipper. I panted as if I had just tried to run a 5K. My
lower back and hips felt like they had just spent hours in yoga class doing
vinyasas that only involved corpse pose and bridge pose.
“Yeah dude, you might want to take it easy. They had you in there for
awhile,” she said.
“Like, a good twelve hours at least. They kept giving me progress
reports, but dang, you seemed to be taking forever. It’s Saturday.”
My surgery was scheduled for Friday. A whole day had passed with-
out me knowing. I could see the sleeplessness etching itself into my
“You didn’t have to stay after the surgery was over,” I said.
“Are you kidding? I want to see what this thing looks like!” Not quite
the response I expected, but my brain was still cloudy from anesthesia so,
to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
There was a pause. “Can I see it?” she asked.
“Oh!” I imagined myself shaking the cobwebs out of my brain. “I
mean, I guess. I don’t know how to do this, though.”
My friend gently fiddled with the hospital gown until enough of my
chest was exposed that she could see the zipper, but not so much that
I would flash anyone who walked into the room. I gasped, not having
braced myself for what I would actually look like post-op. She whistled
through her teeth. “Dayum! That has to hurt like a bitch.” Her tone
sounded more like she was talking about someone’s new tattoo instead
of a completely foreign-to-the-body device implanted in my chest. But
really, was there that much of a difference?
The newness of the zipper shone menacingly in the artificial light of
my hospital room. It felt heavy, like a folded weighted blanket sitting on
my chest as I felt my lungs and diaphragm adapt to breathing properly
with the added pressure to inhale and exhale. Blood, my blood, had
dried around the seams where zipper met flesh. In some ways, I wanted
to know what it felt like to unzip the zipper, what sensations happened
when all of your feelings just came tumbling out of your chest and into
the world. In other ways, I wished my friend would cover me up again.
The zipper’s metal made my skin feel extra cold. I felt my eyelids flutter
with sleep as the doctor walked in.
“Good to see that you’re awake,” he said in a rather upbeat tone. I
tried to stay awake, but my body decided that it had enough activity for
My friend picked up her book and waved. “I’m going to head out now.
I’ll text you later to see how you’re doing.” I nodded, not thinking to ask
where my clothes and phone were.
The doctor looked up my charts on his little device he held in his
hand. “You’ve had quite the ordeal the past day or so, miss,” he said. I
thought he sounded a little patronizing and I didn’t like it.
“That was kind of to be expected, don’t you think?” I tried to chuckle.
Even that hurt.
“We had you in there for almost fourteen hours installing the zipper,”
the doctor said as he took my pulse and listened to my heart. “Each
time we wanted to make a stitch, we had to time it with a lull in your
convulsions. There must have been something in there that wanted out
The cause of my anxiety, possibly? I felt the sarcasm that dripped
from my thoughts pool in the base of my skull. The convulsions ex-
plained why my back and hips felt the way they did.
The doctor finished checking my vital signs. “I’ll let you get some
rest,” the doctor said. It wasn’t long before I felt myself falling asleep,
letting any leftover drugs take over my system and work their way out.
Months later, I found myself sitting in my desk chair with that famil-
iar feeling of tightness and panic. I was still learning how to move again.
The physical therapy twice a week helped some, but even the cute ther-
apist with the bright blue eyes and the buzzed dark hair couldn’t bring
my body back to what it used to be. “Some people just never regain full
mobility after this surgery,” he said with a sad look on his face. “No one
seems to understand why.”
In other words, I may never fully heal.
I kept trying, though, because sitting still just made the feelings feel
that much worse. I had to retrain my muscles on how to bend and twist
again. We spent some physical therapy appointments just bending and
twisting, while others we would stretch and toss a medicine ball back and
forth. The therapy room was always bright and sunny. The aides were
always friendly. Getting up and moving became a bright spot, even if my
body felt after the lightest half hour of stretching.
Sitting in my desk chair, the pressure of my feelings against my zipper
became more and more intense. I tried to control my breathing, just like
I had been taught. Focus on something tangible. Deep breath in, deep
breath out. Keep looking at the random nail a previous renter had left
in the wall above my desk. My skin and muscles that held the zipper in
place began to ache, the kind of ache you get in your belly after you kept
eating Thanksgiving dinner long after your stomach told you that it was
full. It looked so easy, unzipping the zipper and letting your emotions
tumble out. The woman on the commercial could do it. The people in
the videos I watched as part of my consultation could do it.
Why couldn’t I do that?
I knew that I couldn’t wait much longer to unzip the zipper without
doing damage to my healing incisions. I got up and made my way to the
bathroom. I glanced at myself in the mirror and already saw the tears
running down my face. If someone asked, I couldn’t give them a reason
as to why I was crying, let alone tell them why I was having yet another
one of these attacks. I peeled my shirt off and exposed my zipper, its
silver color contrasting with the violet purple walls of my bathroom.
Slowly, carefully, I tugged at my zipper pull and unclenched the teeth,
pair by pair. As I created space for my feelings to fall out for the first
time, I winced. I didn’t know what this would feel like. I didn’t know
what to expect when something actually fell out of my chest. What
would those feelings look like? Where would they go?
I kept unzipping, and tiny pebbles fell out of my chest, slowly at first,
but gaining more momentum as I continued to unclench zipper teeth.
The pebbles hit the floor and slid under the edge of the vanity, landed in
the sink, bounced off the counter and into the toilet. Tiny pebbles like
the ones my friends’ toddler-aged children picked up at the park and put
in their pockets for safe keeping. Pebbles continued to fill the sink and
cover the floor. A tiny pile of them sat in the toilet, waiting to be flushed
down the drain
My breathing was quick and shallow, panting almost, as I stood root-
ed to my bathroom floor and stared into the mirror. My zipper was
completely undone, top to bottom, and I could catch the faintest glimpse
of my sternum and ribs in the open space of my chest. I couldn’t look
at anything except myself in the mirror, making eye contact with only
my reflection as I continued to cry. It was as if my emotions needed yet
another escape route beside the one carved out specifically for them.
What had I done?
I wiped my mouth on the back of my hand even though nothing was
there. I felt a tense kind of satisfaction, similar to what it feels like after
throwing up and the muscles around the stomach have just started to
I stood in front of the mirror until my breathing returned to normal.
As I zipped myself closed, I winced as the tugging of the zipper pull
forced my skin to move in ways it wasn’t meant to move. The tears came
back as exhaustion descended. I rinsed my face with some water and
looked at the pebbles. I thought about leaving them where they had
landed, possibly making a note to clean them up later. Going to bed
sounded like the next logical step, but I stood there, feeling paralyzed, not
knowing what to do now that I had put my body back together.
Instead of getting ready for bed, I slowly sank to my bathroom floor
and sat there, knees to chest in a way that I thought I would never sit
again, and stared at the pebbles. What to do with them, what to do next,
did not come to mind. All I could do was sit and stare at them.
Another February, another funeral.
Daniel Pjowski, Danny, has always hated February. When he was a kid it
was the dismal weather he hated. Dark clouds harassed the Pennsylvania coun-
tryside with ice and rain, not the jolly idealistic “Winter-Wonderland” snowfall
from classic Christmas movies his mother played every December. This was real
weather, real sleet and wind that chilled you to your core. You couldn’t go sled-
ding or build a snowman. There was nothing holly jolly about February, in fact
everything about February was dismal. The weather, the holidays, and even worse
it was always hard for him to spell. Now to Danny, February is now when people
die. Aunts, uncles, and friends all seemed to die in February, just to make the
month that much worse. What made this February harder than the rest was that
only a year had passed since they had buried Julian forever in the orange clay of
Southeast Georgia. That February would have been the hardest, but the numb-
ness that comes from so much shock and pain at once caused Danny to forget
the entire month
Danny fails again to tie a black tie around
his prickly unshaven neck, a twin to the tie they
buried Juju in ( Julian preferred to be called Juju)
and he fixes a few stray blonde hairs that fell in
front of his blue eyes, unused to the length his
hair had grown to.
I don’t see it. People always tell me I look like Grandfather, I never saw it
looking at him. All I saw from him was disgust and anger.
Danny presses a gold pin with two crossed rifles into the lapel of a black
jacket, his mother’s idea. He has long lost any zeal and care for patriotism or his
past in the military, but his mother thought it would be a nice gesture, since it is
something he had in common with his Grandfather.
Bastard never even gave me a chance.
Most of the guys Danny knew were taught how to tie ties from their fathers,
a passage of manhood shared between fathers and sons. Danny had asked his
father and he only sighed and told him he couldn’t, he didn’t know how to either.
He told Danny when he was younger that his father knew, but Grandfather
couldn’t have cared less.
The tie is wrong again. Fucking hell.
Danny was ignoring his phone, the funeral wasn’t for another three hours and
his family promised not to psychoanalyze him, but that didn’t stop another dig-
ital flood of “HEY BUD HOW YOU HOLDING UP?” from extended family
and his father (who either didn’t know or didn’t care). He stood there, eyes fixed
on himself in the mirror, his mind wanders to how he must have looked a year
ago. His hair was cropped short and professional then, his neck was cleanly shav-
en, and everything about him was put together, tidy, professional, except for the
tears that streamed from his eyes. Now it was the opposite, now he stood there
brushing unkempt blonde hairs, tugging his collar from some stubble, but his
eyes were simply dry… and tired.
Danny stood there and tried to picture himself as his grandfather, to see what
people saw that was similar, to understand why they were the same. He imagined
his hair white, added jowls and sags to his face, he pictures wrinkles cracking and
crossing upon his forehead, but he doesn’t see it.
He keeps only a few essential things in his room, he feels things are better
that way, too much clutter meant too many memories. He wasn’t much for nick-
knacks either, but there a small classic green plastic army man toy next to his
mirror. A featureless and unremarkable toy that stood strong and dutiful on the
corner of his dresser, anonymous and forgettable.
When Danny was a kid his grandfather caused tingles to flash across the back
of his neck and his palms to sweat.
There was only one time he could remember spending time with Grandfather
alone as a kid. The freckle-faced teen who watched him when his parents were
out of the house was sick with something his parents called “mono.” His parents
loaded him into their Lincoln Town Car and dropped him off at the big black
door of his grandparents’ brick Victorian house. Danny’s little white arms held a
clear tub of Snyder’s pretzels against his chest. The pretzels had been long gone,
and in their place was a conglomeration of plastic men and little plastic war
Grandma opened the door, a relief for little Danny. “Oh who’s this here? A
“Jackie! Guess who’s here! It’s Barry Williams!”
“Barry Williams? The kid from The Brady Bunch? He ain’t no Barry Williams,
Diane… That makes no goddamn sense” a low voice rumbled out the front door.
“Oh don’t mind that old grump come on in I was just starting to make some
sandwiches, do you like ham? I got chip chopped ham and cheese.”
“Yes grandma.” Little Danny’s small voice quivered a little. Danny scurried
into the old brick house, sticking close to his grandma’s skirts. Danny had been
to his grandparents’ house many times, Christmas, Easter, the usuals. Every time
he was able to hide in a crowd, behind his cousins and the grown-ups… hidden
from the empty glare of his grandfather.
That was it. It was the way his grandfather looked at him. His eyes wide and
his lips tightly pressed together. White tufts of hair made up fraying eyebrows.
Unblinking eyes that were light blue and strained.
Grandma led Danny through the white living room. It was a room that
Grandma called the parlor, and Danny wasn’t allowed to sit on any of the white
leather couches that lived there, his mom told him that they were the most valu-
able things in the house. It was silly to Danny though, couches you couldn’t sit
on. He still did, on occasion, when his grandfather was in the living room and he
was sure he could get away with it. There were three places you could go from the
parlor, but only two places where kids were allowed to go. Kids could go right,
through the wooden archway to get to the den, or head straight into the dining
room and kitchen area. Only Grandma, Grandfather, and other grownups could
go left into the cellar.
Cousin Jay always said there’s ghosts down there and that Danny had an older
brother who went down there and never came back. That’s why Danny is an only
child, he told him.
The actual living room, the den, had a gray box TV in the corner with a VCR
built into it that whirred and could rewind a tape extra fast. They didn’t have
any cartoons on VHS, they always just watched boring black and white movies,
so Danny never bothered with it. The grownups never watched cartoons. The
couches here were made of soft warm fabric and were decorated with the same
red flowers Grandma kept in her garden out front. In the center of the floor was
a dark blue rug with swirling green vines and flowers, Danny called it the jungle
rug, his mom called it “Oriental.”
“You can play right here Danny, I’m sure your little men will have a lot of fun
on the jungle rug.”
Danny just smiled, nodded, and dropped the bin of fighters.
“I gotta’ take care of my petunias and poppies so play here and I’ll check on
you, and don’t worry, your grandfather will be about the house too so don’t you
worry about being left on your own. When I get back we’ll all sit down for ham
and cheese sandwiches. Oh, and don’t let your grandfather smoke in the house!
And Danny. . . get me if he does anything scary.”
Danny had finally gotten his knot tied but he had to break his promise to
himself to avoid his phone. Swiping away two texts from his mom, a couple
texts from a couple of cousins, a missed call from his dad, and a message from a
stranger on a dating app, Danny had ignored the concerns of all the loved ones
in his world, and a half-hearted “HEYYYY” from a stranger and had found the
instructions he needed for tying a full Windsor knot from someone else’s dad on
It took three attempts and a single F-bomb but Danny had made it happen.
Danny always had a way of making it happen before last year, before that funeral
in Georgia, before his honorable discharge, and now he was pleased to be in form
once again. His therapist reminds him weekly to celebrate the small victories.
Danny used to be dependable, sharp, clean, loyal, almost everything the brass
wanted him to be. He was athletic and quick, punctual. Nervous, but not postal
worker nervous. Julian was nothing like that, but he was everything the buck
sergeants wanted him to be, cool, funny, laidback, and with hair just within regu-
lation. Danny was textbook, Juju was cool. I can’t think about him right now. As
the smallest thought of Juju (all the guys in Charlie Company called Julian Juju)
crept in, Danny’s lower lip shook, his skin grew cold.
I should have been there. I should have gone down there.
Danny had been playing quietly for ten minutes. The green men, Danny’s
favorite, had taken a defensive position behind some sandbags and TV remote.
The green men were strong, brave, standing proudly before the faces of the evil
gray plastic soldiers. The war had started as a result of a tragic attack the cowardly
grays had done against the pure of heart, civilized greens. A plane had crashed
into a humongous green building (an idea that Danny had stolen from the news
one day) and the grays were preparing a horrible weapon!
“Crack Crack Crack Crack Crack”
“Pew Pew Pew”
Explosions, gunfire, and droplets of saliva spewed out from Danny’s lips. It
was a glorious war, and the greens were winning and tearing down statues.
The cellar door, back near the white room, slammed shut. The battle paused.
The staggering of heavy footsteps was unmistakably his grandfather’s. A hob-
ble he had as long as Danny could remember. He’d overheard his parents talk
about it in the car after Easter one year. They’d been talking for a while, but
Danny didn’t listen until he heard the word mortar, which sounded cool, so he
couldn’t remember much of the details, just his parents worrying about a knee
replacement and a VA, whatever that was.
“What are you doin’? You playing war?” There he was, standing in the archway
to the den, his arm helping him stay upright against the brown arch. He wore a
white T-shirt tucked into his jeans, his gut fumbled over his belt. He shadowed
Danny, who was laying on his belly with a small green grenadier in his hand.
Danny was petrified. He stared back at Grandfather silently.
“Cat got your tongue? Not a game you should play anyway. Let me see that
clicker.” Grandfather hobbled over, bent at the waist, and removed the cover
three greens had moved behind, exposing them now to the machine gun fire
of the evil grays. Grandfather continued his expedition, knocking through the
greens, causing many casualties to the greens and a few grays, and slowly fumbled
his way onto a floral couch. He kicked his feet up onto the arm rest, and turned
on some boring grown up show about some rich guy, Bill, taking care of his kids
in the city with the help of Mr. French (who for some reason reminded Danny
of his mom). Danny knew the show was Family Affair, but he liked to tell his
parents it was called Boring Affair. Mom seemed to prefer the new funny shows
like Everybody Loves Raymond but cries at night sometimes after dad would
make jokes like Ray. Dad liked the show where the episodes were an hour and
the clock would tick between commercials. That guy used his gun to stop bad
guys. That guy was cool.
There’s a lot of old people here.
Danny had made it to the funeral. His eyes were bloodshot, but it was a
funeral so his grim expression camouflaged him with the rest of the mourners,
even if his pain wasn’t the same as theirs. He shook a couple of his cousins’ hands,
hugged his mom, nodded to his dad and hung his coat.
“Dan, are you ready to go see him?” His mother had crept behind him in the
funeral home. She always had a way of sneaking up on him as an adult, likely
utilizing her small size to dash between tall crowds and into his blind spot, which
had grown hard for people to do since his six months in and out of the wire
“Mom, I told you about what that does to me.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to… your father went ahead to save us some good seats
and I told him I would go with you to the casket.”
“Mom, there’s like ten people here.”
“I know, but I don’t want people to think we don’t care, in case there’s pictures.
Plus you know we’re really here for Grandma.”
With his grandfather there, Danny was no longer able to make the explosions,
shout commands, or depict any aspect of the battle the way he wanted. He made
Danny’s skin crawl.
Maybe he’ll yell at me, maybe I’m doing it all wrong.
The greens were on their own without “Danny-support.” The greens were
stuck in place on the jungle rug. Fighting off groups of grays daily, writing letters
to their green Suzys and Marys, and hearing about baseball games through an
imaginary radio, the faces of the green men, although featureless, made Danny’s
heart heavy. And the grays! There were more and more grays after every skirmish.
Danny had no idea he had so many grays and he kept finding more and more. He
found them under the couches, an end table, and he found them behind stacks
of books. They climb out from the floor and join the fray, women grays, children
grays, all rejecting the presence of Danny’s handsome strong greens. The grays
would crawl under the jungle rug with their gray families, it was where Danny’s
toy helicopters and jets couldn’t find them. Danny could hear them crying in
between battles. Both green and gray.
The battle was going poorly and Danny was getting bored. On the TV Grand-
father was watching something about cowboys. They were fighting Indians with
their six shooters for some reason Danny didn’t understand but rooted for the
Danny flinched at the sudden sound of Grandfather’s voice.
“Black Echo.” He said it once again and followed it with a snore.
Danny was relieved his grandfather was asleep and couldn’t look at him. He
turned back to his war with a renewed sense of vigor.
But, things had changed.
Off the rug, near the TV, were a bunch of greens. A lot of greens, some of
them in dresses. It was a crowd of greens and there were grays there too. They
were shouting at a group of greens who had guns. The crowd carried signs and
yelled, the gunmen yelled back. Danny didn’t make the sound, but he heard the
crack of rifles anyway.
Grandfather started to shake, groan, cry even.
Danny couldn’t see Grandma through the window. He was supposed to get
her if Grandpa started to smoke, or shake. . . something scary.
Danny’s heart began race. The screams of agony and terror coming from the
floor filled his body with ice. He backed away from his grandfather, from the TV,
from the jungle rug, all the way into the white room. He backed away further
and further until he felt the sharp corners of an open door push in between his
shoulders. His body lurched forward at the sudden impact as he ran into the open
cellar door. He hesitated before turning and looking through the open door and
down into the cellar.
Sgt. Valdez had picked Danny to check out the hole. It was early September,
and as Pfc. Whelker put it, “hot as balls.” They’d been outside the wire for six
hours on some shit intel from a desk jockey about a stash of mortars. The FOB
had been hit with seven mortar shells over the past three weeks and a couple of
the ANA guys got injured, one of them died, but word in the guard towers and
the chow line was that Colonel Sellers was pissed about a destroyed cache of
coffee he had hid. The local elders had nothing to tell them about mortars so the
good Colonel set the company about searching for them on their own.
They’d been through four houses with their translator they lovingly called Mo
Bags (Mohamed Bashir was his real name, but the company felt the nickname
made him more trustworthy.) They were on edge that day. They’d all been alter-
nating through the night on perimeter security, but the Colonel wanted every
breathing person with boots and a rifle for this one, so they mounted up with the
rest of the grunts in the company at 0420. The eight-man squad was sweating
through their armor, exhausted from being yelled at in a language they didn’t
even come close to comprehending, and deprived of a full nights sleep.
Now they were at house five.
House five was a simple one-story building, a couple rooms. It looked like the
family shared a bedroom and there was a table with five plates on the table, each
with the remnants of a recent meal on them. Outside the house Sgt. Valdez and
Mo Bags were questioning a military age male, a woman who Juju guessed was
34, Danny figured 38, but neither were sure, and two little girls with bare feet
who were holding each other in the shade. Cpl. Patterson tried handing them a
Snickers bar, but they didn’t even budge. Not even for some chocolate.
Danny and Julian had jack shit to do at the moment. Half the squad was
pulling security around the perimeter or monitoring comms traffic in the truck.
They contemplated throwing rocks at each other for fun, but ultimately decided
that would only further aggravate an already pissed off Valdez. Danny spotted a
small yellow flower and picked it out of the ground.
“It’s a flower, Juju.”
“It’s cute. Like a daisy.” Julian hit Danny with a sharp grin and a wink.
“Yeah, it suits you.” Danny locked eyes with Julian and tucked the flower into
the webbing of his IOTV ballistic body armor next to his grenade pouch.
“Goddamnit, fine, fuck.” Valdez turned away from Mo Bags, and headed
straight for Juju and Danny. “Andrews, Pollack quit fucking off, Patterson the
kids don’t fucking want chocolate. For some reason Mo Bags keeps telling me
this is the place, the family doesn’t know shit, but something is off and it’s not
whatever they had for breakfast. So we’re gonna’ flip the place. Juju, Pollack, I
need the two of you with me.”
“You know you really shouldn’t call him Pollack, shits offensive Sgt.” inter-
Valdez turned to Patterson, “Patterson shut the fuck up and keep an eye on
Mo Bags. Make sure Smith and Whelker stay hydrated on the perimeter and
keep an ear open for any radio chatter.”
Valdez called it flipping, but it really was breaking and entering.
They went through their room with only a few clothes tucked in a chest,
flipped their mattress over. The family must have been fairly well off for the vil-
lage since they had a couch and old TV set in their den with a VCR.
“Yo Pollack, these guys got 24 on VHS. What fucking year they living in?”
Valdez was knocking through a stack of VHS tapes on a bedside table.
“—Sarge, Pjowski, I think we’ve got something here.”
Danny and Valdez left the bedroom and headed to where they assumed Juju
had made some kind of discovery. Juju had moved aside a small chest that was
filled with loose linens. Under the chest was a hole that Valdez figured was around
three feet in diameter, just barely big enough one of them could fit through. “Pol-
lack, toss me a Chem light.”
Danny set down his assault pack, pulled out a Chem light and ripped open
the black plastic sleeve, cracked and tossed the green glowing tube to Valdez.
Valdez dropped the light into the hole. Juju looked over the edge and whistled.
“Goddamn. . . Looks like there’s more. Pollack you’re up, I think we found
“I’ve got this one Sarge.” Juju had seen the color on Danny’s face fade away as
he looked into the narrow hole. Juju was the only one Danny had told about what
he saw at his grandparents’ house who had believed him.
“Careful Juju, turn your Nods on and keep on your toes. Mortars gotta’ be
around here somewhere and they might not want to hand them over. We’ll pull
you out when you’re clear.”
Danny locked eyes with Juju and silently mouthed “thanks.” Juju just winked
and jumped into the hole. Valdez handed him his m4 and gave his helmet a slap.
Barely a second passed before-
Crack Crack Crack.
Three flashes blinded Danny and Valdez at the edge of the hole as the familiar
sound of an m4 firing a burst rang out.
Danny locked arms with his mother and crossed through the double doors
into the viewing. Someone handed him a pamphlet with a picture of his grandfa-
ther on it, smiling in a green dress uniform, his collar tightly pressed, his tie neat-
ly knotted around his neck. They wandered past groups of mourners mingling.
Chit-Chatting next to flowers and a casket. “So sorry for your loss,” was their go
to response to Danny and his mother’s presence. It’s strange how beautiful all the
flowers are and how polished a casket there is for this man.
Danny and his mother stopped at the casket. It was the first time the sight of
his grandfather didn’t terrify Danny. He looked peaceful; the funerary team had
done an excellent job painting patience on his face. There was a picture of Dan-
ny’s grandfather from when he was a young man. Before the war. It was him and
Danny’s grandma in Florida and they were smiling outside an old Thunderbird.
Grandfather was wearing a yellow shirt and embarrassingly short shorts. This was
the first time Danny ever saw a resemblance between him and his grandfather
and there was something off-putting about how familiar his grandfather looked.
“If you look at your graduation photo you look just like him.” Grandma had
limped next to Danny, her cane tapped against his black dress shoe. “This was
back when we were in college together”
“Grandfather went to college?”
“Oh yeah, before the war. He studied English, hehe you’d never guess it but he
used to write the sweetest poetry… Good lookin’ too.”
“Then how did he end up in Nam?”
“Grandma that’s scandalous.”
“Hehehe. . . Your Grandfather dropped out looking for work to support us
before he got drafted.”
“I’m sorry, I never knew. . .” Her eyes were red, despite her polite smile. “are
“Yeah,” a little smile crossed her lips and with a tinge of sadness in her eyes, “I
told him to quit smokin’ so many times, but after he started smoking in the war
he didn’t stop. He wasn’t always so stubborn.” Grandma got quiet for a moment.
“Y’know, I didn’t lose him in the war… at least not literally, but a lot of him was
lost to it. I still had part of him until now, and I thank God for that… I’m sorry
about what happened to you, finding Julian like that-”
“I don’t want to talk about him. I’m- I can’t” Danny’s knuckles on his free
hand squeezed tightly until they turned white, trying to block out visions of Ju-
lian. His smile, the way he opened beers with a lighter, the way they made Danny
collect his gear, the toppled chair, and the tight bedsheet wrapped around Juju’s
neck when he found him.
Diane, Danny’s grandmother, recognized the look in Danny’s eyes when she
mentioned Julian. It was the same look she used to see in the Marys and Suzys
who’d receive the letters saying that Johnny wasn’t coming home.
A musky, humid breeze swept upward from the dark opening into the base-
ment. The steps were dusty and wooden. They creaked every time Danny
heard his grandfather descend into the cellar. From where Danny stood the stairs
went on forever, there was no light to be seen at the bottom. Danny anxiously
looked around him to see if his grandfather was watching, then took a step down
into the stairwell. He blindly reached around for a light switch but found only an
L-shaped flashlight that he accidentally kicked while stepping onto the second
The yellow light helped Danny find the steps and not fall, but he still couldn’t
see the bottom. Brick walls lined both sides of the stairs and Danny let his hand
drag along the wall to help his balance.
Creek Creek Creek.
Each step Danny took caused a stair to let out a small cry and a sharp breath.
He continued going down more and more stairs, and still could not see the
bottom of the stairs. The walls began to grow more and more dirty… more and
more narrow. Danny felt as the bricks faded away and dragged his hand along
the stone and dirt. He kept going. Then he began to hear voices in the distance.
Someone was crying ahead, muttering something he couldn’t understand.
Then he heard someone shout in a language he didn’t understand.
Crack Crack Crack.
Three gunshots somewhere further.
The stairs ended. A light green glowstick lay on the dirt ground, providing
only a faint green glow. Roots hung low from cracks in the ceiling. The air reeked
to Danny, it smelled of gunpowder and another scent that reminded Danny of a
dead rabbit he had found in his parents’ yard. The air was cold and wet on Dan-
ny’s arms. He crept forward… heading towards what voices he could hear.
The voices were just whispers, but Danny could feel them growing louder. He
was getting closer. The ceiling grew low and narrow and Danny, despite his small
height, had to hunch over to continue forward. Soon, Danny begins to make
out a soft voice repeating “nononononoooo.” Eventually Danny gets to a small
opening and has to crawl to pass through. He gets on his hands and knees and
brushes his way into the hole.
Danny points his flashlight at the source of the whispers as fast as he can.
There’s a man in green, sitting in the dirt, arms wrapped around his legs gently
rocking back and forth. His green shirt is plain but dirty, and he has two huge
pockets on his chest and a belt around his waist that reminds Danny of Batman.
He has one of those metal helmets that Danny’s toys had, a black rifle sits on
the ground next to him. He’s got a red pack of smokes sticking out of one of his
pockets. His blue eyes are fixed on something Danny can’t see from where he is
and he doesn’t notice Danny at all.
There’s another man sitting next to him.
He has a checkered square pattern on his gray uniform. He has a big bulky
vest that has pockets that are filled with bullets. A small yellow flower is tucked
into his vest next to one of the pockets. He has a helmet too, but he has big
black night vision goggles and he looks like the guys Danny sees on the news.
His head is in his hands and Danny can’t make out his face. Danny notices four
red cans of Folgers coffee, the kind his dad drinks, and a black rifle with a laser
pointer leaned against the wall. His eyes are locked on whatever the other man
is looking at.
Danny swings his flashlight following their eyes.
In the dirt of the cave Danny finds a black puddle. He drags his flashlight to
the middle. Two boys are there. At first Danny thinks they’re sleeping, three holes
in each of their backs. They were the same height as Danny, but Danny thought
they were wearing Pajamas. One had a round straw hat. The other wasn’t even
wearing shoes. Neither were moving.
The flashlight flickers and Danny hears a rattle as both men stand up.
The green man turned to Danny, terror in his gray eyes, “You aren’t supposed
to be down here.”
The gray man looked at him too, his eyes were sad and heavy, “Danny?”
Hearing his own name sends electricity through every muscle and joint in his
body, he turned to run back through the tunnel but was already at the bottom of
the stairs. Startled, he climbed only a few steps into the light of the cellar door,
and burst into the white room screaming, tears running down his face.
Danny had told his grandparents and parents what had happened but no one
believed him or listened, they told him he had seen too many movies. Grandma
yelled at Grandfather to stop watching Westerns around the boy. As he grew
older he forgot more and more of the details. He began to think it was just a
dream, and by the time he was a teenager he was convinced that it was just a kid’s
daydream. He dismissed it and never spoke about it, but always maintained a fear
of his grandparent’s basement. One night in their CHU, when neither of them
could sleep, he turned to Juju and asked him what he was afraid of.
“Losing myself out here, I guess. How about you?”
Danny chuckled, “You’re gonna think I’m lying. . . or crazy. . . but I have a
thing about Cellars.”