Justin La Torre
This is Billy on paper.
Billy is just like you. He has hair and skin just like you. He wears clothes just like you. He has a home and a car and he went to school, just like you. He walks on the same sidewalks you walk on. He shops at the same stores, and stops at the same traffic lights. He even watches movies and likes his coffee made a certain way, with a particular amount of sugar and creamer. From just about every angle, Billy doesn’t seem much different from you.
But Billy is not quite like you. That’s what they say, anyways. Billy can’t be like you. Billy is different.
Not that Billy really looks any different than most other people, nor does he act any differently than other people. But he’s different, no doubt about it. Why is he different? Well, that’s just what they say, right? They say he’s different, so he must be. Maybe you’re just not seeing it quite right. But you will soon enough.
This is Billy on duty.
The crack of dawn sees Billy and his comrades getting ready for the big day. They wearily tug on their clothing: heavy, cumbersome garments blotched with ugly shades of brown and beige, wrinkled from months of walking long stretches without rest and crouching down into holes for hours at a time. They wear the same kind of boots: rounded kettle bells wrapped in leather and lace. Their choice of headgear, cast-iron mixing bowls colored the same filthy hue as their clothing, makes their weary heads weigh ten pounds heavier. Aside from the chatter of shuffling bed sheets and footlockers, not a single word is spoken.
As the first of the morning’s radiant fingers start to poke in through the crevice between the drab gray curtains, Billy stops what he’s doing and kneels down, facing the direction of the sun. He bows his head down to the floor, arms stretched out ahead of him, unaware that at this very moment the entire barracks has become unstuck in time, and the eyes of every single person in the room are now transfixed on him, like onlookers to a circus sideshow.
Everyone is thinking the same thing. Everyone but Billy, that is.
A single suspended second stretches and stretches until it finally snaps forward to catch up with the flow of time, and all is normal again. Billy is back on his feet, and everyone is dressed and headed to the armory. They load themselves up with shell magazines, explosives, and hand radios. The faithful ones tuck miniature bibles and wooden crosses into their vest pockets. The brave ones slip combat knives into their belts and boots. The scared ones pray and grab bigger guns. They are all thinking the same thing: I hope I don’t need to use any of these.
Billy tucks a scrap of paper into the bottom of his left boot before slipping his foot in. He figures if the old wives tale worked for loose change, it could work for a good book, which was much more valuable. He was never one for superstition, but a little luck never hurt anyone.
Faithful men pray. Brave men brag about their dick size. Scared men brag about their dick size loudly. Billy reads books.
Only Billy has seen the paper’s contents: it is a page torn from a copy of A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway. It had been sitting in his footlocker since deployment, and after a week of no one asking about it, he took it for his own. Most of the words on the page have been scratched out by pen, with the exception of a single passage that reads:
“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
Billy finishes the last loop on his laces and stands up to make his way towards the door. As he begins to walk forward, a squad mate roughly shoves past him, causing him to bump into the frame of his bunk.
“Watch where you’re going, towel-head,” he mutters under his breath to Billy.
This is Billy at home.
Billy remembers 9/11 the same way you remember 9/11. He remembers what he was doing when it happened. He had just come home from his morning run and turned on the news. As he poured himself some coffee, a breaking story showed footage of New York just moments after the planes crashed. “An attack,” they called it. He remembers how he felt when it happened. Shocked. Awed. Confused. A little sore from the run. He remembers tuning in to the news every morning on his drive to work, and then again on TV when he came home. Every statement from the President, every last second of footage, even the zealous rants of conspiracy theorists, it all became like a daily mantra for him, a constant reminder of the inhuman “why?” that he couldn’t hope to answer.
He remembers what the President wore when they outed Al-Qaeda as the culprits behind the incident and announced that they were preparing to mobilize. Azure suit. Cerulean tie. A weary scowl. A miniature crumb on his upper lip from the blueberry pancake breakfast he had that morning. He remembers thinking how improperly sloppy the President looked with that crumb hovering just above his grim words.
Then he remembers how strange it was to see his friends and co-workers down at the office not long after that. As he walked by, the lively conversations concerning sports and weekend flings by the water cooler ceased. Documents were wordlessly dropped into his In-box without so much as a “Hello.” People were suddenly too busy to have lunch with him. One day, after he finished eating, he came back to his desk to find a typed note that read “GO BACK TO IRAQ YOU FUCKING TOWELHEAD.” His boss sent him home early and told him to get some rest.
Billy stopped watching the news and listening to the radio that day. He shaved his beard and tucked his turban to the back of his dresser drawer. A sense of moral duty and spiritual guilt kept him bowing to the sun each morning, however.
This is Billy in bed.
It is springtime. But Billy can’t tell the difference after being out in the desert for so long. Every day feels like summer. The sun beats down on him from the ass-crack of dawn to the shit-fall of night. Days blur and congeal together like the contents of a discarded MRE, left opened and unfinished. He hasn’t bathed in days. He hasn’t had a good night’s sleep in weeks. He lies doe-eyed in his bunk, the harmonious din of snores and grunts billowing around the room like clandestine buzzing clouds.
He quietly masturbates to the picture of his girlfriend taped to the underside of the top bunk, recalling the sweet perfume of her skin from the last time they made love. On the night before his deployment, after they both came, she shed tears of ecstasy and anguish, curling up in his arms and begging him not to go.
“Don’t throw your life away for a country that hates you!” she said. And yet, here he is, millions of miles from home, and is just as hated now as he was then.
His hand is dry and chafes him with each stroke, but he keeps going, pushing himself through the pain like he was taught to in boot camp. He climaxes silently, turning onto his side and wiping himself off on the white shirt he wore yesterday. He is rendered numb by the mixture of endorphins and norepinephrine coursing through his veins. It is a fleeting high, but it is enough to ease him into sleep just for tonight.
As his eyelids begin to droop, he glimpses the calendar hanging on the wall across from his bunk. It is March 20. Today is his birthday. And it is fucking springtime.
This is Billy on foot.
One day, Billy finds himself chased by a group of angry men wearing matching “God Bless America” t-shirts. Feet slap the concrete like hits on a snare drum. The guttural boom of Billy’s beating heart pounds rhythmically with each step he takes. Crazed yelling echoes through the air like hunting horns heralding the bloodhounds’ approach. Even as he ran for his life, Billy couldn’t help but feel like he was an action movie star, and some fucked-up composer was secretly scoring the entire chase sequence.
He rounds a corner and dashes into the nearest building, pressing himself against the wall and out of sight. He waits for the yells and trampling advances of his assailants to pass before he dares to peek out the glass display windows. A sudden “Can I help you?” piping up behind him causes him to yelp and turn around.
A bulky, clean-faced man dressed in brown fatigues sits behind a wooden desk, his face slightly flushed from the warmth radiating from outside. His head is neatly shaven into a buzz cut, and as he stands up from his seat, he reveals a tall and muscular build framed by large arms and thick legs sheathed in heavy leather boots. A brass-plated name-tag reads, “Hartman.” His eyes survey Billy curiously. “Are you okay?” he asks.
Billy looks around. Posters of a ferocious-looking Uncle Sam and soldiers in mid-salute line the walls. Large signs reading “There is strong. And then there is ARMY strong!” hang from the ceiling. There is an American flag perched in the corner by the door. He blinks in confusion.
“Where am I?” Billy asks.
“The recruiting office,” Hartman replies.
A pause. A breath. “…sorry for barging in.”
“It’s no problem, son. Those guys giving you trouble?”
“We had a…disagreement.”
“Well, they wanted me to leave the country. I didn’t.”
Hartman’s brow furrows. “Why’s that?”
“Apparently, I killed all those people.”
“The ones in the Twin Towers.”
The hollowness of Hartman’s thousand-yard stare seems to deepen as he continues to look upon Billy. He places his hands in his pockets and strides over, stopping within a few feet of him, his stare never breaking. He begins to walk slow circles around the room, his head turning to maintain his gaze upon Billy. All the while, Billy stands perfectly still, as if one wrong move would send him back into the cruel world outside, where the hounds were waiting to eat him alive. He finally comes to a halt in front of Billy. “Well, son, how ‘bout you let ol’ Uncle Sam help you with your problems?”
Billy is confused, but willing to listen. Unbeknownst to Hartman, Billy sees him as a sign from above that he can be changed, he can be redeemed, he can belong. Unbeknownst to Billy, Hartman sees his coffee-colored skin, wavy mop of dark hair, and lanky physique, and doesn’t see a terrorist at all. He sees another set of dog tags.
This is Billy after work.
The ASV ride back to base was alive with jubilant laughter and raucous shouting. The operation was a success. A village was shelled. Buildings were raided. Terrorists were blown to hell. Another zone secured thanks to the boys in brown.
Billy sat wordlessly against the back door, ignoring the nudging of shoulders and exclamations of how many towelheads got iced by whom. He stared out the window across from him, watching the vermillion glimmer of a burning village flicker away in the distance like a fading star, framed against his squad mates’ faces reflected in the glass. He is the only one in his squad to return with no spare shell casings left. No explosives left either. Even his hand radio was lost in the chaos of the sortie. His torn page from Hemingway is still tucked inside his boot, though it provided no relief in this moment.
Tom, seated to his left, clapped him on the shoulder and said, “And this guy here, this guy is a BEAST!”
“Yeah, how many of them camel jockey fuckers did you git?” Dick chimed in from his right. “Musta been at least 15 or 20!”
Harry, who listened on from the opposite end of the crew compartment, shook his head, muttering “Naïve little fucks” under his breath. Tom and Dick didn’t seem to hear him.
“Hell, he got one for every shot!” Tom bellowed, reaching over and playfully shaking Billy by his vest. “Look! Empty! Not a single bullet left!”
Billy remained silent.
“Aw c’mon Bill!” Tom clapped his shoulder again. “Say something! What’s the matter? Cold-blooded killer’s too cool to talk?”
“Watch out, Tom! If you piss ‘im off, he’ll blast the shit outta you too!” Dick held his right index finger up to his head, cocked his thumb back, and mimed blasting his own brains out. “BLAM!”
“Hey! Tom, Dick. Let him be.” Harry’s voice pierced the air like lightning, and boomed like a cannon blast. All eyes turned to him, then towards the front where Billy sat.
Tom chuckled, leaning back in his seat. “Hey, lighten up, Harry. Just jabbing his ribs a bit. Really though, how do you go in guns blazing and not have anything to say about it?”
“Clearly, the man doesn’t wanna talk about it,” Harry remarked gruffly. “Otherwise he’d say something.”
“Hey, he did kill a lot of goons,” Dick piped up. “That’s why we’re here, right?”
Harry sighed in exasperation. “Billy, don’t let these little shits get to you. You don’t have to say anything.”
“Well, surely he’s got something to say!” Tom clapped his shoulder again. “C’mon, Billy, give us a nice little speech, in honor of our victory tonight!”
At this, Billy pushed Tom’s hand away, his charcoal gaze blinking back into reality and slowly sweeping between the three of them.
“Victory?” he murmured. “What victory?”
This is Billy on break.
Although it has been two years since he had been discharged, Billy still can’t sleep at night. His mind cannot escape the thought of little Leyla, standing scared yet defiant in the scope of his rifle, screaming in a strange tongue at him. Leyla, who had charged at him, brandishing a stick in her hand. Leyla, who arched gracefully across the air as the shell passed in between her eyes and out through the back of her head. Leyla, whose eyes retained that same defiant look she had in life, even as a corpse. Leyla, whose wild screams echoed through the hollows of his head every time he closed his eyes.
Her name wasn’t really Leyla. That was just a name Billy gave her. Leyla’s story would never be told; Billy had erased it from the world. He would need to fill the gaps in himself. Leyla, who was a bright young student with a knack for mathematics. Leyla, who woke up early before mommy and daddy to bow her head to the rising sun. Leyla, who was the most beautiful girl in her village. Leyla, who was definitely not a terrorist.
Perhaps the gaps were better left as gaps.
This is Billy back on paper.
It is the first day of training. In an unusual twist of directive, the military superiors have decided to begin with an introductory training segment entitled KNOW YOUR ENEMY, reasoning that the urgency of the imminent threat at hand required a reevaluation of how to properly condition their troops for maximum performance. In order to defeat their enemy, they must be aware of who exactly is their enemy.
Billy is seated alongside his future squad mates in the mess hall at Fort Benning, which has been cleared of tables and filled with rows of folding chairs. A large projector screen has been set up before them, and once the last few seats are filled, the doors are shut and the film reels are sent spinning. An image flickers onto the screen, showing a still frame of a teenage Iraqi boy dressed in khaki shorts and a powder blue t-shirt. He is staring straight at Billy, eyes wide and defiant, as if he were peering through the screen right at him. He has Billy’s hair, and Billy’s nose, and Billy’s eyes. The picture bears a time stamp, partway cut off by the bottom edge of the projector screen. The date reads 03/20/1993.
An unseen narrator begins to speak:
“This is the enemy. He may look like just another little boy, but don’t be fooled, soldier. That’s how they get you. The enemy is just like you. They have hair and skin just like you. They wear clothes just like you. Some of them have homes and cars and have gone to school, just like you. They walk on the same sidewalks you walk on. They shop at the same stores, and stop at the same traffic lights. They even watch movies and drink their coffee made a certain way, with a particular amount of sugar and creamer. From just about every angle, they don’t seem much different from you.
But the enemy is not like you. The enemy is different.”