Over the last six months Bogey had been to a hundred different VA clinics, but this marked the first time he entered one with the aid of a crowbar. He slid the claw under a side window and pushed down hard. The frame cracked and glass shattered, spilling onto the ground and the combat boots he had worn during his third and final deployment to Iraq. Bogey forced the window open and threw one leg inside, rolling into an office. He brushed broken glass from his pants and looked outside into the night. His hand traced the folds of scar tissue that peeked out from his T-shirt and crept up the right side of his neck.
The clinic was tucked away in a wooded area along the railroad tracks, only accessible down a half-mile paved road that cut between a Tru-Value hardware store and a 24-hour gas station where Bogey had bought a pimento cheese sandwich wrapped in clear plastic. The clinic was like an afterthought. As if they were still figuring out that the real problems started once soldiers returned home from war.
A cargo train announced its arrival on the outskirts of Pembroke with a prolonged blast of its horn. The sound reverberated through the window and as the train drew closer the building shook. One side of Bogey’s head was throbbing. He closed his eyes tightly and combed one hand through his short hair. In the morning he had woken up in Memphis and finished the last leg of his three-day drive from Boise to North Carolina, nights spent sleeping on a 1-inch memory foam mattress pad in the back of his old Dodge Dakota. He fished out the last Vicodin from his pocket and swallowed it.
Four desks occupied the dim office, each one littered with paperwork and photographs of husbands and wives and children. He rifled around the nearest desktop, thumbing through documents and glancing at names, thinking it wouldn’t be too crazy if he recognized someone. Bogey had served as a medic in the airborne infantry. When he left the Army three years ago he moved his family to Pembroke to be close to his wife’s parents. The clinic hired him as a nursing assistant and he earned minimum wage emptying plastic bedpans and removing Foley catheters from WWII veterans.
Earlier in the night, when he first drove into Pembroke, he’d stopped by his house without telling his wife Kelly he was showing up. The locks had been changed and she talked to him through the screen door with her arms folded.
Bogey lifted the crowbar and smashed a clock sitting on a desktop. The graffitied train cars rumbled past the window and the racket made his headache worsen. He’d built up a tolerance to pain meds over the last couple years—it would take almost an hour for the pill to do much of anything.
The final train cars rolled by the window. Overhead lights swathed the parking lot in a dull glow. Bogey’s truck sat in the margins of light near the tracks.
For the last six months, ever since he’d left Kelly and their daughter Layla, he’d been sleeping in VA parking lots across the country. At larger hospitals he parked close to other vehicles and pulled shut the curtains of his truck’s camper. At smaller clinics, like in Pembroke—ones hidden away from main thoroughfares and commuter traffic—Bogey parked just out of reach of the lights.
He remembered one desperately cold February night just outside North Platte, Nebraska in such a parking lot, curled up in his Army-issue sleeping bag, layered in long johns and his Carhartt jacket and doubled up on socks, when a security patrol car pulled up next to his truck. The swirling strobe light pulsed through the curtains and Bogey held his breath as the guard walked around his vehicle, shining a flashlight through the windows. The guard went back to his patrol car and idled a few minutes before leaning his head out the window. “I’ll be back in an hour,” he said. After he drove away Bogey had thrown on his boots and got an earlier start toward Texas than he’d wanted.
In the mornings he would walk into the lobby of the VA where he’d spent the night and check in to see a provider. Bogey waited until later to brush his teeth and eat breakfast, and with his scraggly beard, fingerless gloves, and a fake name, told them he was homeless and needed to see a doc.
“Can’t get to sleep,” he would say.
Or: “I’ve got nightmares and a killer migraine.”
Sometimes: “I have this really strong urge to lay my hand flat on a table, lift a hammer over my head, and bring it down as hard as I can on my knuckles.”
Since his separation from the military, Bogey had been faking PTSD. With an abundance of medical training and safety briefings on identifying symptoms in himself and his buddies, the Army had given him everything he needed. Who could say he didn’t have nightmares, that he wasn’t on constant alert, that his sex drive hadn’t plummeted? Who could say that he didn’t witness his best friend’s leg get blown off at the knee, that he hadn’t had to shoot a pregnant woman who lifted an AK-47 from underneath her black abaya, that his squadmates didn’t force him to pull teeth from a dead insurgent as trophies?
VA administrators would set him up with a case manager who handed him packets of information: obtaining a new social security card and government ID; using the VA healthcare system; a magnet with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number that he would later add to the cluster of identical magnets lining the inside of his truck bed where he slept. Physician assistants would give him a sample of Ambien, ask if he wanted to speak to a counselor, and if he was lucky, hand him a small sample of narcotics for his recurring migraines.
After leaving the clinic Bogey would down the Vicodin with a plate of scrambled eggs and toast at some small mom-and-pop shop, one where he could wash dishes in exchange for hot food. Occasionally he bummed a cigarette from a short-order cook and asked to use his phone to dial Kelly, but she never answered.
Bogey exited the VA office in Pembroke and walked down a white hallway, following the signs that pointed toward the pharmacy. He reached the lobby lit by humming emergency lights and continued to the large pharmacy window. The door next to the window was locked. Bogey pried it open with his crowbar and strolled inside, spinning the tool at his hip.
He made his way to the cabinet where the controlled substances stayed locked up. He cussed when he saw that the cabinet had been replaced by a tall safe with a keypad mechanism, like the gun case in his father’s basement. Maybe the upgrade was his fault—while Bogey had worked at the clinic, one of the male nurses supplied him with small numbers of Percocet lifted from the cabinet. He wasn’t sure he could open the new safe but stuck the crowbar in its steel doors and threw his body weight against it. Nothing. He wedged it in and kicked hard. The bar bent slightly and flung itself out of the crack, clanging on the ground and chipping the white floor tile. It wasn’t going to open.
The pounding at his temples was getting stronger despite the Vicodin. Bogey touched his fingers to his forehead and threw the crowbar into a glass cabinet behind him. The crashing hurt his head but it felt good to break something. He picked up the crowbar and did a loop around the pharmacy, striking anything that would make noise, that would shatter into pieces or leave a gaping hole. A bottle of Tylenol flew across the floor from his destruction. He smashed it open with the crowbar and ate a handful.
His headaches had started after the Army. Over-the-counter drugs were useless. An attending physician once gave him 500 mg of intravenous caffeine while Bogey was at work but it only left him wired. Nothing worked. When he had the chance to score some Percocet he took it and the pills started to feel like a warm blanket.
Leaving the pharmacy, he walked into the lobby and turned at the urgent care’s double doors. He broke a door handle clean off with his bar and entered the small emergency room. The nurses’ station sat in the center of the ER surrounded by five treatment beds.
In the Army he’d been authorized and trained to prescribe medications, suture wounds, treat mutilating blast injuries, and identify signs and symptoms of battle fatigue and PTSD. He couldn’t so much as start an IV at the clinic. Some of the registered nurses had served in the military as medics before nursing school. He imagined they laughed at him when he had to wipe an incontinent dementia patient or mop vomit off the tile when the understaffed custodial team couldn’t get to it fast enough. And he knew they loved it when he was fired for pissing hot.
At the nurses’ station he sat in a swivel chair and rolled across the tile. He picked up the phone and dialed Kelly but hung up after two rings. She wouldn’t talk to him. She hadn’t even let him inside to see Layla. He gripped the crowbar tightly.
The heavy door on the opposite side of the room opened and Bogey jumped up from the chair. A man in a blue work shirt walked backwards through the door, pulling a mop bucket with him. Dark water sloshed against its sides. Bogey recognized him as Abel, one of the custodians.
The janitor flipped the lights on, his back still turned to Bogey. When Abel spun around, Bogey had his crowbar propped on his shoulder like he was marching with a rifle in a victory parade. Abel’s shoulders tensed.
“Get,” Bogey said, and spat on the floor.
Abel lifted his hands in the air, palms out.
Bogey exploded the telephone with a strike of the crowbar and Abel ran out the door, leaving his mop handle propped against the wall. A painting hung above the mop bucket, a Vietnam-era medic dragging a wounded soldier by the collar, his free hand holding a bag of IV fluid in the air, plastic tubing running into the casualty’s bandaged arm. The soldiers were on a riverbank, and in the water’s reflection a pair of large, feathered angel wings sprouted from the medic’s shoulder blades.
In three tours as a medic Bogey hadn’t treated a single combat casualty. He crossed into Iraq from Kuwait during the initial invasion, fighting in Samawah and Baghdad. During Bush’s surge in he deployed to Samarra and two years later patrolled from a tiny outpost overlooking Sadr City. He was the only medic in his battalion without a Combat Medical Badge recognizing those who had treated casualties under direct enemy fire. And while Bogey never wished his guys would get hurt—he had spent years with some of them and they were family—he couldn’t shake the feeling that he had failed. He couldn’t call himself a combat medic, or even a soldier. He hadn’t served a real tour.
Midway through his last deployment, Bogey went home on R&R and took Kelly, who was pregnant with Layla, to Gatlinburg for a week-long vacation. When he got back to his unit in Sadr City, back to the cot he slept on in a room with twenty-three other men, a concrete room partitioned with camouflage ponchos hanging from parachute cord, his platoon sergeant sat him down and told him Orozco had been killed by an IED two days earlier. Just like that.
His platoon was different after, all except for Bogey who hadn’t been there to pull security at the blast site while others combed the street for Orozco’s missing body parts and slid them into plastic bags to be shipped home with the rest of his body. You don’t understand, they would say. And they were right, he knew it. He had no right to cry at the memorial service so he did not let himself.
Bogey walked around the nurses’ station, dragging his crowbar across the countertop and knocking down trays of medical tape, clipboards, and yellow ID bracelets. He lay on one of the medical stretchers, vinyl cracking in the crease where the mattress reclined. Black mold spread out from the corner ceiling tile. Bogey remembered the WWII barracks on Fort Bragg where he lived before marrying Kelly, how the mold infestation worked from the inside, poisoning the building for years before it was discovered.
He thought he heard police sirens for a second and sat up quickly, craning his head toward the entrance of the building. Bogey put his boots on the ground and peered into the lobby through the open ER doors. A memorial took up the entirety of the lobby wall. Framed portraits of uniformed Native American soldiers from Pembroke and the rest of Robeson County, all of them KIA, arranged in neat chronological rows. Above the collage of dead men, wooden letters:
ALL GAVE SOME, SOME GAVE ALL
THANK YOU LUMBEE WARRIORS
Bogey recalled the story of a small group of WWII paratroopers prepping to jump into Normandy the night before D-Day. They stuffed leg bags with spare ammunition and rations, applied war paint to their faces, and—under the encouragement of their part-Choctaw lieutenant—sported non-regulation Mohawk haircuts, intent on instilling warrior spirit and terrifying the Nazis. Throughout the remainder of the war, some paratrooper units suffered a casualty rate of over 150%. Not a soul untouched.
He wondered what it must have been like for them to come home. They seemed to carry it so well and so did their wives. After his last tour Bogey had sensed a change in Kelly. She never asked him what had happened over there. Maybe she was scared of what he might say or was being considerate of how Bogey was coping. To him it seemed that without a word she knew his secret: nothing had happened during three tours of combat. He had left and come home the same man and something about that was wrong. She never tried to get him to talk about it, and when friends told war stories at platoon cookouts she looked into the sky, past everybody, her own thousand-yard stare.
Everyone else returned home with scars. Bogey’s only scar was from his childhood, when he had pulled a pot of boiling water off the stove, badly burning his elbow and chest and up his neck. After it was clear Kelly saw him differently, he found himself occasionally going to dive bars with friends and sneaking off to tell people that he had won his scars from a near-miss rocket blast that killed two of his buddies. When he first started working at the clinic he felt the eyes of the doctors and nurses bore into him. They asked him questions about where he had served overseas and looked at him severely, nodding their heads. “Must have been tough,” they said. “Rough places.” The first time he heard this, Bogey reached up and touched his scar. Pretending that he gave more of himself made him feel close to his platoon members again, like he really sacrificed something, and reminded him of the training exercise at Fort Bragg when he and Orozco huddled together in a foxhole during a tropical storm, six inches of rain pouring down overnight, hands tucked in armpits for warmth.
Bogey took another lap around the nurses’ station. The pain in his head was pulsing now, made worse by the noise he was making. He walked into an adjacent room labeled PELVIC EXAM. Bogey sat in the seat and put his feet in the stirrups. He leaned over and grabbed a disposable speculum from the metal medical tray positioned next to the chair. He unwrapped it and held it like a handgun, aiming down the imaginary sights with a squinted eye. Bogey stood, twirled the speculum on his finger, and holstered it into his pants like a six-shooter.
The room reminded him of Layla’s birth at Southeastern Regional in Lumberton following his discharge. Kelly’s father—a retired Marine who came back from Vietnam with a limp—had met them at the hospital. When he had first held the baby, he said to Bogey, “Thank you for your service, son.” Bogey hesitated, trying to convince himself that he had done some good, that his scar was enough, that the rocket blast was hot and searing and he was lucky to be alive. “Thank you,” he said.
That week he drove to the VA and filed a claim for PTSD. He was sure it would make him feel better. He believed the lie to be harmless—no one would know he was faking it, and besides, they wanted him to be fucked up. Kelly wanted it, that’s why she was avoiding his eyes, avoiding any mention of his time overseas. Precedent had been set by all the men in his platoon, by the men and women in all platoons across all wars, returning home forever changed.
Bogey left the exam room and paced the ER. He unholstered the speculum and pointed it at a mug on the counter. “Bang,” he said, mimicking the recoil of a firearm. He aimed at the door Abel came from. “Bang.” He looked down his sights at the medic in the painting above the mop bucket. “Bang.” Bogey raised the speculum to his mouth and blew out the imaginary smoke emanating from its barrel.
His head was killing him. The Tylenol had done nothing and he had no buzz from the Vicodin. When his migraines first started, Bogey learned they wouldn’t fill prescriptions of sleep aids and narcotics without a long-term care plan. His hook-up in the pharmacy was not enough. The VAs were so often shorthanded that they were desperate to push patients through. He started hitting clinics farther from home with a fake name to score pain meds and it worked. Now he walked to one of the treatment beds and looked in the mirror, aimed at his reflection, and squeezed the trigger.
When he had first driven into town he parked in front of his family’s house. A corner shingle had hung by a thread of asphalt, just the way it had been the night he left. He parked against the curb as the streetlights came on and walked up to the door right away, not wanting to let his nerve leave him.
He tried the screen door but it was locked—the key on his belt loop wouldn’t turn it. He rang the doorbell and saw the curtains of the living room open. Layla smiled, waved a small hand, and disappeared. Bogey crouched a bit to see if he could see her again but she vanished too fast. He could hear inside footsteps from the porch. Layla said something and started crying.
He rang the doorbell again, knocked on the screen door. He started to feel something rise in his throat, something from deep inside him. The door swung open and Kelly stood with her arms crossed, her lips pressed tightly together. She looked at Bogey. He’d forgotten what that felt like and it made his chest a little warm.
“I know you don’t care what I have to say,” he said.
She looked down at her feet and didn’t speak.
“But I was hoping I could see Layla.”
Kelly shook her head. “I don’t see how that’s possible.”
“She knows I’m here.”
“Are you high right now?”
“Maybe we can talk.”
“You just left one night,” she said.
“That’s what they say. But it doesn’t help any.”
Bogey felt a pinch of pain in his neck. “Listen, I’ve barely slept.”
“Please leave.” She looked at him.
“Listen to me,” he said, raising his voice.
“I wanted to listen. But you never said anything. You held it in. You bottled it up. I didn’t know what to do.”
“You don’t look at me the same.”
She put a hand on her forehead, shielding her eyes, and he took a half-step closer to the door. She ran a finger along the bottom of her eyelid, looked at him a moment before speaking. “Tell me what happened.”
“Was I really that bad?”
“Whatever it is, you can get through it.”
“Nothing’s wrong with me,” he said.
“You can talk to me.” Her hands unfolded and she clasped them in front of her.
Bogey turned his head and looked at the dirt on the siding of the house. In the silence, he could hear the thick buzzing of insects and smelled the neighbor’s meat burning on the grill. “Nothing happened,” he said.
“You have to talk to somebody.”
“Nothing happened. That’s the point, that’s it, that’s everything.”
“I can’t help if you don’t talk to me. And I can’t have you around Layla if you’re on drugs. You need help.”
Bogey raised his voice again. “Listen to me,” he said. “Nothing happened, I’m the same I’ve always been.” He felt his face get hot. Pain crept up his neck and he felt his head start to throb. “I wish you could understand that.”
“Don’t you see?” Kelly asked. She started to pull the door shut. “Please talk to someone.”
When the door shut, Bogey had walked to his car and driven to the clinic.
Now, at the nurses’ station, he threw his combat boots on top of the counter, knocking over a cup of ballpoint pens. He swiveled closer to the workspace and picked up the phone he hadn’t destroyed yet. Next to the receiver a man smiled in a gold picture frame, his arm around his wife. The phone display lit up green and he dialed Kelly. He pinned the handset between his ear and shoulder. It went to voicemail.
He leaned back in his chair, eyes closed, rocking himself back and forth with his feet on the counter. His headache was thunderous now. Bogey threw the handset onto the counter. The dead signal tone droned steadily. He stood and slammed the phone on the floor. Hunched over and breathing heavily, his lowered head only made his migraine worse, and he put both palms face down on the cold countertop, fingers spread, and stared at his hands. Nodding slowly, he curled his fingers into tight fists.
He unfurled one hand and pressed it firmly against the countertop; with the other, he lifted the crowbar above his head and brought it down in one swift motion, as hard as he could, across the top of his hand, closing his eyes the moment before the contact crushed bone. He yelled like a dying animal.
Blood trailed behind him as he walked around the counter and through the curtains into the nearest treatment area. He kicked open a drawer, keeping his broken hand against his chest, and opened a package of sterile gauze with his teeth. He wrapped the hand, shaking involuntarily, and repeated with another bandage. Pain radiated up his arm. He could barely see from the hurt.
Spitting on the floor and wiping sweat from his forehead, Bogey looted the remaining drawers, tossing exam gloves, catheter kits, and oxygen tubing onto the floor. He kicked the metal sink. He kicked it again, denting its side.
In a pink plastic basin he found what he was searching for. He pulled a disposable surgical razor out of its packaging and set it on the rim of the sink.
Bogey had wanted someone to call his bluff. He had been driving back and forth across the country in a tailspin, high on Vicodin, hoping somebody would tell him to snap out of it. That it’s okay he is whole, that he served honorably, that he shouldn’t wish something had fucked him up.
“Can’t you see I’m faking it,” he wanted to say to them. He wanted to cry.
He looked in the mirror, into his own eyes.
He looked through them and into himself. Thousand-yard stare.
He picked up the razor and held it up to the mirror, focusing his gaze on the glint of the blades. He set it down. Reaching toward the top of a nearby cart, he took a pair of trauma shears. With his good hand he cut the hair from the sides of his head, as close to his scalp as he could get, his broken hand still cradled into his chest. The pain traveled up his arm and heated his scar. Hair fell onto his shoulders and down to the floor. He turned on the water, dropped his head into the sink, and ran his good hand through his work.
Now he stared at himself in the mirror and opened a packet of lubricating jelly with his teeth. He squeezed the jelly onto the sides of his head and tossed the waste on the floor. He lifted the razor and shaved to his scalp the hair that the scissors left behind. A two-inch strip of thick hair remained, running from the center of his forehead to the base of his neck. A warrior’s Mohawk.
When he turned the water off, Bogey heard faint sirens coming from the parking lot. Revolving blue lights lit the emergency room like an ocean, reminding him of that cold night in Nebraska when he lay huddled in his sleeping bag holding his breath, trying not to drown.