Héctor came back from the war to drink, and to give the ghost of Davy away.
“I should re-up,” he said, more than once. “I’ve got a couple tours left in me. Hell, I spent so much time in Afghanistan I barely got to see Iraq. It’s just, you know. The alcohol is shit. No wonder those fucking ragheads can’t handle their problems. I couldn’t do it either, if I had to drink that.”
April brought him another Coors. Héctor had picked a campus bar, full of drunk college kids in ironic T-shirts and expensive tennis shoes. Their noise and closeness made April feel tight and old.
“I skinned a rat alive once,” said Héctor. “Did I tell you that story?”
“No,” April lied. “Let me finish this and get another beer.”
She came back with her drink and sat across from him, sick to her stomach. Maybe it was the loud music, or the yelling, or the cheap beer, or the plastic cups. The rat story wasn’t one of the ones with a funny ending.
“So Rodriquez had this rat,” Héctor began. “Have I told you about Rodriquez? He was the fat weirdo who was always writing porno stories and reading them out loud.”
“Yeah,” said April. Sweat stuck her bangs to her forehead. “I remember him.”
“So this rat just lived in the tent with us, but Rodriquez gave it food and shit, so it got pretty friendly. He could hold it. It got fat, too. Anyway, this one day, Nunamaker—did I tell you about Nunamaker?”
“Yeah. The guy who went to Catholic school.”
“All boys Catholic school. Maybe that was why he was such a fag. Anyway, it turned into this big fight, because some of the guys liked Rodriquez and his stupid rat, and some of them didn’t. I was just sitting there laughing, and Nunamaker was chasing the rat, and guys were trying to stop him like a goddamn cartoon. So this rat eventually gets stomped on, right next to my bunk. I picked it up to throw it away or whatever, but the little fucker was still alive. I took it outside, and parts of the inside were on the outside, and all of a sudden I wondered what the whole inside looked like. You know, without the skin?”
Héctor was yelling now, over the music. April wished he would go quiet again, into that tone that was bewildered and ashamed.
“So I skinned off a little bit, and, you know what? It was pretty easy. So then I did the rest, and eventually the rat stopped squeaking, and then it was less bad. It was just so small, though.”
April braced herself for the ending.
“Sometimes . . .” Héctor took a long pull of beer. “Sometimes, when I look at people, I wonder how they would look without their skin. Not so much with men, though. That’s kind of gay.”
Héctor stared at her, and she wondered what he expected. She didn’t want to know whether he’d pictured her without skin.
“Isn’t Rodriquez the one who wrote poetry?” she asked instead.
“Yeah.” Héctor sounded surprised. “He did. He wrote porn and poetry that were the opposites of each other. I mean, we gave him a lot of shit about both, but I think I liked the poetry better.”
April remembered Rodriquez’s poetry better than almost anything else from Héctor’s rare missives from Afghanistan.
I wanted to write you a poem myself, he wrote. But there is no fucking thing worth writing poetry about out here. I don’t know how Rodriquez does it.
The attached page, pulled out of a spiral-bound notebook, wasn’t love poetry. As far as April could tell, the part in English was about getting drunk in a town called Los Lunas and riding ATVs around in the desert with friends. That was how Rodriquez had done it, she’d wanted to explain at the time. Writing about where he wanted to be instead of where he was. That was probably how poetry was born.
Still, she sometimes wondered if the part in Spanish was what Héctor had wanted her to read.
Héctor patted his pocket. “Wanna go outside for a smoke?”
April carried her half-finished beer out to the sidewalk and sat on the stoop next to him, blocking the entrance to the bar. They passed a cigarette back and forth, half-blinded by the harsh sodium streetlights. Héctor rolled his cigarettes himself at home every morning; he said that everyone who went to war was allowed one affectation. He pronounced the word “affectation” with a stupid British accent, the way not even the fattest Queen of England had ever spoken.
“Are you still doing good in school?”
“I’m doing okay.”
“Are you still at Wooster?”
“No.” She had told him this before. “I transferred to Columbus State.”
“Are you still studying theater?”
“No.” She had told him this, too. “I’m getting my associate’s in technical communication.”
“That’s good. You know, to have a degree in something useful, instead of something fun.” He sighed. “I still think about re-upping sometimes.” Usually that statement was meant as a threat, but tonight he sounded sincere. “I mean, I don’t know why I want that back. But I feel like I belong there better than I belong here.”
April stretched her legs onto the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to move around her. A man in a baseball cap flipped her off but kept walking. “Maybe I should join up, too. Maybe I’d belong there.”
Héctor laughed out loud. “You wouldn’t.”
April stood up and plucked the cigarette out of his hand to finish it herself. She still felt like she was going to puke.
“Do you want a ride home?” she asked. Héctor stood and took the cigarette butt, putting it out on his knee through a hole in his jeans.
“Really?” he asked. “You wanna leave already?”
“Yeah.” April waved her hand at another knot of students passing by. Someone pushed the door open behind them, knocking it against her elbow.
“We could go to my place, instead,” said Héctor. “It’s pretty quiet. And I’ve got more beer there, too.”
“What’ve you got?”
“Or we could stop at the grocery store. I’ll buy you . . . well, whatever gay thing you like to drink.”
“Seagram’s,” she said immediately. “Cherry Fizz.”
“Yeah,” said Héctor. “That gay thing.”
He followed her to her car, and she drove them over to Kroger’s. She waited in the parking lot listening to the radio while Héctor went inside. Her stomach was eating itself.
“You’re a pretty cheap date,” he said, when he got back into the passenger side. April turned the radio up higher.
“I shot some puppies in the head once,” began another one of Héctor’s stories. They were curled up so perfectly in the sheets that April wanted to cover his mouth with her hand until he swallowed the story back down.
“We were on patrol.” Héctor shifted in bed until April moved her head off his chest so he could sit up. “Taking cover behind this wall. Nobody was shooting at us or anything, but we were hiding. It’s important that we were hiding, okay?”
“Do we have to do this now?” April asked. She felt so calm in bed with him, so relaxed.
“Do what now?”
“Do I have to hear this now? Can you wait until we’re drinking again?”
Héctor moved towards the kitchen.
“No,” said April. “I don’t wanna start drinking at 10 am.”
Héctor meandered around the bed, looking for his pants. “Ten am,” he said slowly, “is a fantastic time to start drinking. Possibly the only time to start drinking, unless you have to get up even earlier, for work or something.”
April couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.
“Drinking,” Héctor continued, “is the only way to make Davy seem reasonable, and if you start too late in the day, it might not work.”
April’s nausea reappeared, a layer of sucking mud coating the inside of her stomach.
“I’ve gotta study,” she said, untangling her legs from the sheets.
“Yeah, right.” Héctor snapped his belt around his waist. “Like you ever studied anything on a Saturday.”
“It’s a big test.” She hustled on her shirt without looking in the mess of Héctor’s dirty clothes for her bra.
“You could handle some of this.” He blocked the doorway. “It doesn’t have to be all on me.”
April didn’t know if he meant Davy or the stories.
“I’ll see you later,” she said, then stood there, waiting for him to let her through the door. Héctor finally moved aside. April walked by him with her head down, turning to get one last look at him before she went down the stairs. For half a breath, she thought she saw Davy staring over his shoulder.
Her mother was sitting in the kitchen when she got home, drinking coffee and watching The Early Show on a little television tucked among the appliances on the kitchen counter.
“Have a good night?” her mother asked. April held one arm over her breasts so that her mother wouldn’t see her nipples poking at her shirt.
“I was with Héctor.”
“Ah.” Her mother put her coffee on the table. “Is he in counseling yet?”
“Ah.” She tapped her long fingernails along the sides of her mug, then stood up. “Coffee?”
“Yeah.” April sank into the seat across the kitchen table, with her back to the TV. “He weirds me out sometimes.”
“A lot of times.”
Her mother put a mug of black coffee in front of her. April took it to the refrigerator to add flavored creamer.
“I mean,” she said. “I could tell he was getting weirder, in those letters. I just didn’t know how weird. He would write down these conversations he had with Davy.”
“Davy Hasslinger?” Her mother clicked off the television.
“Yeah. Davy. It’s like . . . I think he thinks that Davy’s still with us.”
“The VA pays for counselors, doesn’t it?”
“I dunno. He says it doesn’t.”
“April,” said her mother. “My baby. I wish you had better taste in friends.”
There was a time when April would have taken that as an insult. Now she wrapped both hands around the coffee mug and shrugged. “I just wish I knew what to do.”
“There’s nothing you can do. People have to help themselves.”
They sat together in silence until her mother switched the television back on.
She still had a shoebox of Davy’s things. His mother passed them out after the funeral. The shoebox was covered in duct tape, and Davy had written her name on the top with different colored Sharpies.
The boxes were such a surprise because, up until the very end, when he was mostly hallucinating, Davy insisted that he was going to live. That he had made these last gifts was horrible proof of all those late nights he must have spent alone, admitting the truth to himself.
Inside her box there were only three things, none of which she could take out without wanting to cry:
The first season of Darkwing Duck on DVD. Of all their mutual friends, only the two of them had really loved the show as children. For his birthday a year or two before he got sick, she had given it to him.
An autographed picture of Davy with Viggo Mortensen. Even the most elusive celebrities, it turned out, would make appearances for sixteen-year-old boys dying of brain cancer.
Last, a thin, pocketsize spiral-bound notebook. Inside was Davy’s masterwork, a retelling of parts of The Silmarillion starring kids from school. He had cast himself as Beren. April was Lúthien, and Héctor was Daeron. Never having read The Silmarillion, despite Davy urging her to do so until the very end, April had no idea if his retelling was accurate. Mostly, in the journal, the three of them fought orcs in the forest and hung out with dragons, the only things in the whole story cooler than elves.
Davy was a little weird.
April went online and put a copy of The Silmarillion on hold at the library.
Even as she looked through the contents of her box—wiping dust off of Viggo Mortensen’s face, making sure the Darkwing Duck DVDs were unscratched, leafing through the notebook—April kept looking up into her own reflection in the mirror. Not once could she find the ghost of Davy looking over her shoulder.
“So,” said Héctor, “now do you want to hear the dog story?”
They were in the back seat of his car, parked at the edge of a field full of long, swishing grass. Héctor had bought more Cherry Fizz, which was as close as April expected to get to an apology.
“Jesus. You shoot the dogs, right? That’s the dog story.”
“Well, there’s only one dog,” said Héctor. “The rest of them were puppies.”
“Jesus.” April sat up and put her drink down on the floor of the car. “That’s a joke, right? You’re fucking with me?”
Héctor shook his head. The glee he had taken in the horror of his story drained away in the face of her disgust.
“I mean, it wasn’t like the rat. I just did that. This is when we were . . . out. The dogs were giving away our position, so we killed them. We didn’t shoot them, though. I lied about that. It would have been too loud.” He slumped forward, pressing his head against the back of the passenger seat. The possibility of his tears paralyzed April. They sat that way through half a song on the radio.
“Hey,” whispered April. She picked up her drink and touched the glass bottle to the back of his neck.
“Hey,” she whispered again.
Héctor clicked on the dome light and turned to face her. He had not been crying after all. He looked too irritated for tears.
“That’s why I didn’t fucking write,” he said. “What good things were there to say? Your letters were like papers from back in time, like code I had to decipher. Even your worst news—I don’t know how many times you complained about moving back in with your mom—was like a joke. I couldn’t take anything back home seriously. And how could anything I said be real to you? Your letters had stickers on the envelopes.”
April swallowed. It surprised her that hearing something she already knew could still hurt her feelings.
“So you know who I talked to,” Héctor continued. “Instead of writing letters to you guys, I just talked to Davy all the time. I guess . . . I just didn’t expect him to follow me to Afghanistan, you know? Like, it made sense that he would be here, in America. It made sense that he’d track me to Parris Island, since I wouldn’t have joined up if it wasn’t for him. But I really thought, when I got deployed, that he would leave me alone.”
“What did he say?” April closed her eyes and then blundered forward. “Did he ever ask about me?”
Héctor snorted. “He didn’t say anything ever. That’s why I could tell him everything. He was just there. Shit, I don’t even know if ghosts can talk.”
“He’s not here, is he? Right now?”
Héctor looked around the car. “No. I mean, you’d see him if he was. Rodriquez talked at him sometimes, in Spanish. Like Davy spoke any fucking Spanish.”
“Show him to me,” April murmured. She wrapped her fingers around the armrest in front of her and squeezed it as hard as she could.
“How?” Héctor laughed a little bit. Even those trilling syllables were slurred. “I mean, he listens to me, but he doesn’t do what I say.”
April closed her eyes and tried to picture Davy on the Fourth of July, when she and Héctor had painted his bald head in red, white, and blue. When she thought about Davy, she could only picture the three of them at sixteen. The fact that she and Héctor had continued to age, that twenty-one had come and gone, was cruel as hell. It was as if their whole lives since had been a fever dream, the same way she pictured Afghanistan for Héctor, as if time was something hallucinatory and subject to change. Something that a good therapist could all but erase.
“There,” said Héctor, pointing. “Davy.”
April followed the line of his finger. There was nothing to see in the darkness outside.
“There,” repeated Héctor. “He’s squatting on the hood of the car.”
April squinted out the windshield. The tall grass swayed outside.
“What does he look like?” she whispered.
“He looks like Davy.”
“I mean,” said April. “How old is he? Does he have hair? What’s he wearing?”
Héctor turned to her with an expression of bemusement and pity. “He looks about our age,” he said. Each word carried its own grudge against her. “He’s got hair; it started growing back just a couple months after he died. He wears it long now. Not hippie long, but, you know, video game designer long.”
“And what’s he wearing?”
“Shit, I don’t pay attention to that. A gray T-shirt? Maybe some lame band logo. And jeans.”
April stared, trying to imagine this grown-up Davy so close, crouching in the dark and staring at them from the country of the dead. It was no use. Davy was still Davy to her, still young, still bald, still wearing that goddamn hospital gown.
“Tell him I say ‘hi,’” said April.
“Tell him yourself. He can hear you.”
She scrambled between the two front seats to sit on the driver’s side and press her palm against the windshield.
“Hi,” she said, the single syllable as reverent as a prayer. She turned back to Héctor. “What’s he doing?” April asked. “What’s Davy doing?”
“He’s got his hand pressed against yours. I don’t know why you can’t see him.”
April didn’t know, either. The glass warmed against her hand. She was desperate for that heat to not just be her own, for Davy to let her know that he was there. She closed her eyes to focus entirely on him, and for just a while Héctor was quiet.
April didn’t see Héctor for three days. Davy failed to appear. She wasted time standing in front of mirrors, in case he was the kind of ghost who could only be seen in reflection, and turned the air conditioning lower and lower in her mother’s apartment, in case he was the kind of ghost who drained the temperature out of rooms and only felt comfortable in the cold. No amount of preparation was enough to summon him. Whatever Héctor had that made him such a worthy companion, she wanted it, too.
An important project in her advanced technical editing class came and went. She got hers in on time, barely, and tried to imagine Davy looking at her disapprovingly when she got her score—he had certainly disapproved of some of the things she did when he was alive. But the only expression she could put reliably on his face was one of confusion, from when his failing brain was floating in drugs and he no longer recognized his surroundings.
This time, she called Héctor instead of waiting for him.
He sounded happy to hear from her.
“Come over to my place,” he said. “Like seven or so, after I’ve had time to grab some dinner. Unless you want to go out?”
“No,” she said quickly. “I don’t have the money.”
Héctor was quiet for a moment. “Okay, seven then. I’ll pick up some beer on the way home from work. Actually, you know what, how about some wine?”
“Aren’t you fancy.”
“I’ve been drinking a lot of beer lately. I’m gonna get fat and out of shape. Red wine is, you know, good for you. Tannins, or whatever.”
April wondered who the hell was teaching Héctor about wine.
She showed up at his apartment late. Héctor had already started drinking. He didn’t open the door when she knocked, so she let herself in, took a pint glass out of the cabinet, and sat down across from him on a cardboard box full of books. Héctor’s eyes took a while to focus on her. The room reeked of pot.
“Jesus,” she snapped. “I don’t suppose you saved any of that for me.”
Héctor giggled. “Sorry. I was with Mike after work, and he wanted to smoke.” He closed his eyes in a long, self-satisfied blink, and smiled. “It was good.”
It looked good. April wanted to be that far away from the world, at least for a couple of hours.
“Really?” she asked. “Nothing left?”
“Sorry, it was all his.”
April filled her glass with wine and chugged half of it. Héctor looked from her to the wall and then smiled beatifically at both of them. April finished her drink and poured another.
“Tell me a story,” she said.
Héctor was slow to reply. “I don’t think . . .” he said. April couldn’t tell if he was waiting for her to sit back down, or if he had lost his train of thought. “I don’t think I’m a good storyteller right now,” he finished at last.
“Tell me a story about Davy.”
“Why?” Héctor’s face closed up again. “Why do you always want to talk about him? That’s all sad stuff.”
“I just miss him.” The wine tasted like something out of a clearance bin.
“Yeah, well, he misses you. He never says, but I know. I don’t know why he keeps haunting me, when you’re all he ever thinks about.”
April closed her eyes.
“Shit,” said Héctor. “I missed you, too.” He tried to meet her eyes. “I miss you right now.”
Héctor got to his feet and made a mess of pouring himself some wine. “Yeah. The little fucker’s always hanging around.”
Instead of making his way back to his seat, he collapsed on the ground at April’s feet. “I’ve got a story for you, after all.”
“Yeah. So we’re out on patrol, right? That’s how all my stories start. ‘So we’re out on patrol.’ You know there were these kids under foot all the time. They never wanted money or candy or shit, like kids are supposed to want from GIs. I think they hated us.” Héctor was getting even lower as he spoke, so that he was not so much sitting at April’s feet as lying there, staring up past the ceiling and into the stars a hundred light years away.
“In fact,” he said. “These kids threw rocks at us. It was just me and Nunamaker in sight. These weren’t like, cute little pebbles, but fucking chunks of rock. And you’re supposed to ignore them, because you’ve got a helmet and shit, but they would just sit there and throw things until we yelled at them. We used to just shoot into the ground to make them go away, but we weren’t supposed to do that, either.”
He stopped. April finished her wine and wondered if he was asleep.
“Do you want to smoke?” Héctor asked. “Let’s have a cigarette.”
April didn’t realize how drunk she was until the room tilted as she scooted off her cardboard box and onto the floor. She lay down with her head next to Héctor’s but her body aligned in the opposite direction. He lit one of his cigarettes, took a long drag, then passed it over.
“This is a very short story,” he decided. “It still hurts, getting hit with a rock. It’s so fucking hot out there. I guess in Iraq we were some kind of liberators. But in Afghanistan? Everyone hated us. Everyone fucking hated us. So me and Nunamaker threw some rocks back. I wasn’t aiming for the kids. I don’t think I was aiming for any of them. But this little kid fell down. Did you ever hold baby mice at school?” He went quiet. Eventually April realized he was waiting for an answer.
“Yeah,” she said slowly. “We had a couple class rats in fourth grade. One of them got pregnant. We weren’t allowed to hold the pinkies, though.”
“Did you ever drop one?”
“No.” She paused. “Anthony Wilson used to sneak in at recess to hold them, though.”
“In my class, we were allowed to hold them. And one day, this really skinny girl dropped one. And it just shook and shook after that, until it died.
“My rock did that. It hit a little boy on the head, and he fell down and just convulsed.”
“Oh my god. Was he okay?”
“I dunno.” Héctor’s voice creaked but did not crack. “We just left him there like that. Me and Nunamaker got the fuck out of there and caught up with everybody else. We laughed. I kept waiting for the locals to come down on us about it, but we got redeployed before it happened.”
April was cold, like ice water starting at her toes and following her circulatory system to the heart. She had no idea what she was supposed to say, or what Héctor most wanted to hear.
“They were throwing rocks at you, too,” she said finally.
“We had helmets. We were wearing fucking kevlar. They were kids. He shook like he was having a seizure.”
His voice was raw. April could not imagine this scene. Her Héctor was unconnected, safe in her imagined Afghanistan, which was nothing like the one he had actually inhabited.
She looked over. “I missed you, too.” April reached a hand out, aiming for his face. She brushed her wrist and the tips of her fingers against his chest instead. Héctor reached for her hand once, missed, then reached again, and brought her palm to his lips.
April stared around the whole perimeter of the room, where the ceiling met the wall. Davy was nowhere to be found.