No one sends the mother’s article; it appears in my newsfeed like a sign from God. I imagine her writing: pools of blood, bullet wounds, a broken house, shattered glass everywhere, people huddled together crying while me and my sharp-toothed, dark eyed men hold guns to their heads. But I find her details sparse, controlled. She’d calmly written and edited this. My men and I were faceless villains, no distinguishing between who said what, who called the shots. She almost glanced over our reason for being there: she was staying with her sister, unaware her nephew was wanted for cocaine possession. She didn’t describe how, from her eyes, my flash grenade spent minutes arcing over her head and into her son’s crib, bouncing once before light flowered through the shell, over the night. She didn’t describe the deafening bang knifing her ears. She noted, instead, how the flash grenade was meant for American soldiers in the Middle East.
I served in Iraq for two years, Afghanistan for one. I never used a flash grenade. In SWAT I actually held one, got familiar with its weight and texture and usage. Holding any weapon is daunting at first, but once you go through the training, get complacent and easy with its power, it doesn’t weigh you down. Weapons carry literal and metaphysical weight. These weights aren’t separate—lessening the metaphysical lessens the literal. When you experience this, you learn facts are uncertain in combat. Only your gut and your commanding officers are solid, stones of reality around which all decisions must be made.
But when you’re the commanding officer, it’s only your gut.
In Afghanistan, my commanding officer’s favorite quotes were, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” and, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”
My flash grenade burst a hole in a two-year-old boy. He didn’t die, but he screamed. Through the mother’s ears he might have screamed like a demon or a banshee or some other nightmarish thing. I felt nothingness as sweet and simple as an apple.
I told the mother, as she recounted, her baby had only lost a tooth. My men stood between her and her baby. They shouted, kept the family down and quiet. She begged us to see the child.
“But why couldn’t I see my baby?” I imagine her saying. “My nephew wasn’t even there, and my baby was crying in a pool of blood—” she noted that detail, too, as succinctly as everything else “—and you still wouldn’t let me see him. Not even a glance. I would have settled for a glance.”
“I needed things to be organized, simple,” I say. “Too many people doing things, even if they’re sensible, ruins a delicate situation. You had to stay down, and I had to make sure you stayed down.”
She should say something more. I imagine her mouth moving; I sense her lecturing tone, but no words come.
The nephew hadn’t been home in weeks. No one knew his whereabouts, and we still haven’t found him. I called an ambulance for the child, and the medics carted him away. I put a hole in his chest, and I like to think calling the ambulance saved him. And right now he’s laying in a soft, white bed in a hospital in an induced coma. The article reported that his ribcage is still exposed, though his mother was too afraid to look at it.
I might. I might face what I have done.
When I finish the article I close my browser and sit on my porch. Should I be angry that I’m faceless? Is it worse to be faceless, or to be shown with the wrong face? Her clarity impressed me, the way she moved through the details so cleanly, but that is a gift of hindsight. I remember her chaos, trapped, unresolved within that scene. Unchangeable chaos altered or disguised through writing. She knelt, hands clasped together. She pleaded. Her hair greasy, sticking up after half a night’s sleep. She never screamed. Her voice was squeaky and choked, vanishing within her panic.
“You didn’t have to use a grenade,” I imagine her saying. “You could have come in yelling and screaming. That would have worked.”
“I know.” I know that now.
I am contemplating a cup of coffee in the silence of this morning. I wish I still smoked. The chair across from me now holds a body: the mother sits across from me with a cup of tea in hand. She has narrow features, a Wisconsin accent, and ash-blond hair. Her eyes are distant, skeptical. “Are you enjoying your omelet?” she asks.
“Here’s the thing,” I say. “No one really enjoys eating that omelet. We use that metaphor to soften things, make it seem like there’s a tasty reward waiting for us after those eggs get cracked and poured into the pan. It’s a lie. Metaphors are all lies. But this one is the worst kind of lie because it’s not even within the realm of accuracy.”
“So you’d take it back, do it over if you had to?” She sips from the steaming cup. I forget it should burn her mouth.
Nothing I say will satisfy her. I followed a proven procedure. There are always outliers, nuances in the reality of a moment that fuck up the formula. Math is uncertain in combat, but there comes a point when math gets tattooed into your gut. Trying to rip that tattoo out leaves me bloody and uncertain.
The mother sets her teacup aside and stands over me. I make it so she holds her arms out, and I stand, and I hug her, and I want to cry on her shoulder. I strip from her the bitterness and resentment, until I do not know if she is the mother any longer. There is only the certainty of her arms around my body, pulling me close.
David Bradley has a degree in Literary Studies and has published work in The Corner Club Press and SUNY Purchase College’s Submissions Magazine. In 2013 he won the annual Young Writers Award hosted by www.youngwritersonline.net.