Saturday, June 11, 2022

SHOWCASE • “Memory Makes Liars of Us All,” by Eric Dontigney


didn’t meet Jesse until two years into my first tour. He was transferred into our unit following an incident that left him the sole survivor of his unit. He never spoke about it, but word gets around. The way we heard it, some idiot from intelligence ordered them into a box canyon on a recon mission. In the unit had gone and the Cricks were waiting on the canyon walls. It wasn’t a fight. The Cricks rained down death. In the confusion, Jesse managed to cram himself into a crack in the canyon wall. The rest of the men were torn to shreds by accelerated hunks of depleted uranium. That much is fact, confirmed by reports I read later.

What isn’t fact, but held as fact, is that Jessie waited in that crack for hours with nothing to look at but the charnel house the canyon had become. What can’t be confirmed, because the communications equipment was obliterated with the communications officer, is that Jesse ignored the standing order to return to base. Instead, he tracked the Cricks for two days and waited for them to make camp. He rigged a set of directional charges and left a circle of scorched earth where the camp stood. The thought of it makes my flesh crawl, but that kind of madness is part of Jessie’s story. They awarded him a medal for that escapade. I had asked him one night, after far too much liquor, what earned him that medal. He looked at me with an expression devoid of emotion and said one word.


With the exception of Hellstu, a grizzled old captain with more combat experience than the rest of us put together, Jesse frightened everyone. It wasn’t like our fear of the enemy. That was a rational fear. Our fear of Jesse was as irrational as a child’s fear of the dark and came from the same root. It was a fear of concealed monsters. The most unnerving thing about him was his silence in battle. We all screamed during firefights, unconscious, primal screams, but not Jesse. Even when he was showered with Dean’s blood, he didn’t scream. He took cover, advanced to a better position, and slaughtered the Crick that killed Dean.

You make friends fast in combat. Friends watch your back and help you carry the psychological load. Jessie was with us for months before anyone passed a word with him. For better or worse, I was that person. I remember that conversation with unnatural clarity, even though so many other things have faded out and softened in time. I used to think it was because that was when I noticed his wedding ring. In truth, it was because he made me think about the enemy.

We were bedding down for the night, out on some godforsaken moon with dirt a shade of purple that only belongs in bad dreams. Jessie was sitting alone, on the edge of camp, staring out into the darkness. I always felt like he knew something about the dark that not even Prophet, with his eerie sixth sense, knew. I don’t know why I went over that night. His solitude was nothing new and I wasn’t moved by it. Like so much of what matters, I think the why of the decision is less relevant than the fact that I made it. He didn’t look my way when I walked over.

“It’s not my shift for watch, yet,” he said, his voice soft.

“I know,” I said. “Mind if I sit with you for a while.”

He looked at me, his expression equal parts distrust and curiosity. He nodded. I crouched down next to Jesse and watched him out of the corner of my eye. Light glinted off his left hand and I noticed the wedding ring. That was rare in the field. Married people were discouraged from enlisting. The government wanted them at home and having children. He must have made it crystal clear that he wanted to join.

“How long have you been married?” I asked. It was a place to start.

“Ten years.”

“Any kids?”

“Two girls.”

“How old are they?”

“Alissa is six and Kiasa is two,” said Jessie. “You?”

“No, not married, so no kids.”

“Is someone waiting for you?”

“Not really. I knew I was joining up after school. It seemed cruel to get involved.”

“It would have been,” he said, “but it gives you a reason to survive.”

“Don’t you mean live?”

“Do you think we’re living?”

I picked up some of the purple dirt and let it run through my fingers. I can’t tell you what I would have given for that dirt to be rich, black soil, like the kind in my uncle’s garden. I almost cried right then and there. Did I think we were living?

“No, I guess not.”

I wanted to say something more, but what to say wasn’t clear to me. I thought about my family then. My father gave his grudging support to my enlistment and my mother waited to cry until she thought I wouldn’t see. My kid brother, a true pacifist, was horrified by my decision and refused to see me off. He wrote later to apologize and ask my forgiveness. I’d been hurt when I left, but hadn’t held it against him. It was easy to line-up behind a call to arms, but it takes a profound kind of courage to publicly defy one.

“So why did you do it?” I asked.

“Do what?”

“You know, enlist. You’re married. Isn’t that a reason not to join up?”

“That’s why I did it.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Most of these guys joined up because they thought they were saving the human race and all that crap they feed the kids. I didn’t have any illusions when I enlisted. I joined to protect my family. That keeps me fighting harder than I ever would have for humanity, whatever that is. Doing this is the ultimate expression of my love for them. If I die fighting out here, which seems probable, I know it’s because I love my family and not because of some blind hate for the Cricks.”

I was speechless. I was too young to understand. Later, when I was married and had children of my own, I came to understand the kind of love that drove Jesse. At the time, though, I lacked the vocabulary to understand his full meaning. I understood it enough for it to make sense of his relentlessness. Every Crick he killed was one that couldn’t bring the war to his family. It made my vague sense of duty and yearning for glory feel meaningless. He looked over at me and I saw a jagged white scar across his forehead. I wondered where he’d gotten it.

“What about you? Why did you join?”

I gave him a wan smile and said, “To save the human race and all that crap they feed the kids.”

He barked out a laugh and I almost fell over. I’d never pictured him laughing. In hindsight, I find that my life is recalled by critical moments, pivotal events that reshaped my destiny. Marriage was one. The birth of my first child was another. That moment when Jessie laughed was possibly the most important one.

“How long have you been in?” he asked.

“Two years in the field. Three years with training, if you want to call it that. You?”

“I’ve got five years in the field and seven counting training.”

“Two years for training,” I said. “Why so long?”

“Special Operations.”

I did a little mental math. With three-year tours and the one-month break they gave between training and tours, Jessie had been Earthside exactly two months in seven years. I thought that he must love his family about as much as a human being could. I mulled over that title, Special Operations, which we all took to mean a breeding ground for psychotics. The SO teams were tasked with those all but impossible missions and it took a hellish toll on the team members. Between the high casualties and the stress, most of them never made it home. They couldn’t adapt to normal life, so they stayed in or reenlisted. It did beg a question, though.

“If you’re SO, why did you get assigned to us?”

Jesse shrugged and said, “No other team would take me. They think I’m bad luck. And my wife insisted. Command wasn’t exactly thrilled, but Special Operations service is voluntary after your first tour. They couldn’t deny the transfer request.”

“I see,” I said.

He rubbed the scar on his forehead and said, “Do you know what the worst part of Special Operations was?”

“No,” I said.

“You see the enemy out of battlefield conditions. I saw them being people.”

I started at that last. We were taught that the Cricks were not to be seen as people. They were something other; murderous savages. I said as much to Jessie. He gave me an intense, searching stare.

“Think about it. We knew about the Cricks for twenty years before the war started. They certainly knew about us. They mastered space travel, which means they have scientists. Science requires a stable society and systematic education. Their military is at least as sophisticated as our own. It’s better in a few places, worse in a few, but overall they’re in our technological league. Murderous savages don’t develop weapons or space travel. They’re people. Don’t doubt it.”

“They slaughtered our colony without cause. Only animals would do that.”

 “Animals don’t attack without a reason.”

“But the history classes…” I started.

“Aren’t anything but propaganda. I asked my father about it. No one knows if the Cricks attacked first. You can’t have a war without an enemy, though.”

I let the idea that the Cricks were people, with education and culture, wash over me. I didn’t want to think about it. I hated Jesse Takahara a little for forcing me to acknowledge that maybe “our” cause wasn’t as righteous as we wanted to think. I thought back, replaying some of the fighting we’d been through, and considered the Cricks. I remembered one incident when we had boxed-in about two dozen and in a last, suicidal charge they had come out over a hillock. The first one over the rise had been silver, its tri-jointed legs pounding against the rock and soil, and it looked like something out of mythology, proud and chosen, molten in the noon light; but the last of its kind, racing toward its doom in the twilight of the gods. That was their leader, their Hellstu, I thought.

“So what if they are people?” I asked, angry and belligerent. “It’s not like we haven’t fought wars back home.”

“It just makes it harder, for me. Their soldiers are probably just kids, like you or Prophet, with families that wonder if those kids are coming home.”

“They’ll still try to kill you, kids or not.”

“I know, and I’ll try to kill them. That doesn’t mean I have to feel good about it.”

“I remember,” I said, soft as the shadow around us, “my lieutenant, before he got killed, told me that when you started to feel good about the killing, it’s time to go home.”

“Do you?” Jessie asked.

“Feel good about the killing?”

He nodded.

“No, I hate it. The first time that I killed a Crick, I felt so guilty that I almost let another one kill me. Training must have taken over, because I’m still here, but I’ve never been able to feel good about it.”

“I’m glad,” he said, holding out his hand to me, “I don’t think I could be friends with someone who did.”

 “You know,” I said, taking his hand, “I don’t think I could either.”

I thought he was fast asleep, but Hellstu must have seen Jessie and me talking, because we were always assigned together after that. You can’t help but get to know someone if you spend most of your waking hours together. When people talk about war, you always hear about fighting, but you never hear about the time in-between. For all their stupid decisions, Command did realize that tired soldiers got killed. So we would get stretches, weeks at times, where we were stationed somewhere away from the fighting with nothing to do but try to recharge.

During those times, Jesse and I would talk. I talked about my parents and brother; Dad the engineer, Mom the therapist, and Danny the student. I’d regale Jesse to tales about my glory days as a football player and how we won the Northeastern Province Regional Title my senior year. My coach called it the year of miracles. Jessie talked about going to a university in Tokyo. He studied Ancient Literature. He talked about the year he spent teaching before he joined the service.

Mostly, he talked about his wife. He told me how they had gone to the peak of Mt. Fuji at dawn and the mists had transformed the mountaintop into an island. He proposed that day and she accepted. They married a few months later. He told me so much about her, the lilting laugh, the one eyebrow that was ever so slightly higher than the other, the quiet art of her cooking, that I was half in love with her. She sounded like a goddess. At times, it was a quiet torment to hear him talk about her. The story of a love that transcended the millions of miles and the endless death between them made my life seem emptier.

I felt like my real duty wasn’t to fight the Cricks, but to watch Jesse’s back and make sure that he made it back to that love. I did save his life. If he hadn’t risked his life to save mine, over and over, it might have seemed like I was doing something important. Jesse, my friend Jesse, he lived through all of that, but not because of me. He was just that good, or just that lucky, or maybe he was protected by something beyond us all, a spirit that was called by the profound love between him and wife. Such are the thoughts of the young when surrounded by destruction.

Through one of those strange quirks of deployment, our tours ended at the same time. We caught a transport back to Earth: a two week trip. Muted screams from the cabins were common during the designated sleep periods. My own were among them. I snapped awake fast, you learn that in the field, and now that I think about it, I still do come awake fast. Sometimes, on the very bad days, I still wake screaming. The waking periods weren’t so bad. I ran into a friend from training, Peter Washington, who we all called Bacon for no quantifiable reason. He was missing an eye and the easy smile he’d always worn.

We compared notes over meals and found our experiences were more or less the same. The old adage had proved true: war was indeed Hell. Yet, there was an excitement on the ship that even military discipline and three years of stress fatigue couldn’t quell. People walked around with dreamy expressions on their faces or smiled out into the vast emptiness around the ship. Talk of real meals, real showers and seeing family overruled all other topics of conversation. At least, until people found out that Jesse was on board. The military is like a family and, when someone in the family does something exceptional, word spreads fast.

They had heard the stories about Jesse, and they grilled me. I understood in short order why he stayed in his cabin. He wasn’t stupid. He knew what would happen and cloaked his presence for as long as possible. After the second or third or thirty-third person came to his cabin, he emerged from his self-imposed hermitage. His only rule was, he wouldn’t talk about the war. You can imagine the disappointment. They had an honest-to-God hero and he wasn’t talking shop. After the situation was clear, he returned to his cabin and was left alone, except by me. He was a hero to everyone else, but he was my friend. I’d be spending my first night Earthside in his home and I’d be damned before I let him spend the entire trip in isolation.

Nothing moves you the same way as coming into Earth’s orbit that first time. There’s an eerie beauty to other planets, as there is often eerie beauty in dreams, but Earth is Mother and we had returned to her for succor. We all pressed up to our viewers, and I cried like a child when I saw those blue oceans, a blue so perfect it hurts. I remember Jesse’s hand on my shoulder. I looked at him and saw the shine of brimming tears in his eyes.

We strapped ourselves in for the re-entry. It was hard to sit still during the twenty minutes it took to get the transport down through the atmosphere and onto the landing dock in Tokyo. Transports going out always left from Brazil. Coming in they always landed in Tokyo. No one was ever able to explain to me why that was, but it was one reason why I was staying with Jesse and his family that night. I didn’t leave for the Northeastern Province until the next day and he’d extended the invitation without pause. The doorway of friendship swings both ways. We tromped off the transport loaded down with gear and took our first breath of Earth air. Nothing before or since was quite as sweet as that breath. The hint of forests and the sea mixed with the smells of food from the vendors outside the base. I cried again.

A bored corporal took us through the routine: name, rank, division, and the hard question, will you be returning to service? A number of people said no, Bacon among them. We’d talked about it and he felt that his eye was everything he needed to offer up in the service of the world. He had things waiting for him. As I understand it, he went on to become a legendary professor of Gravitational Engineering who generated healthy doses of fear and awe in students.

Jesse was in line ahead of me and told the corporal he would be returning to service. I felt my heart stop at his words. I assumed he would be staying at home. He had already done two tours. The corporal held out a pad and Jesse pressed his thumb against it. The pad registered his genetic code with the central database. The corporal read off the date and time of Jesse’s next deployment. War was a bureaucratic science. I went through the same questions, numb with shock. When the hard question came, I thought about Jesse in a firefight with no one to watch his back: I pressed my thumb against the pad.

We didn’t talk about it, just looked at each other and nodded. We understood the reasons. We stopped outside the base and I bought myself a hamburger with lettuce, tomato, pickles, and onions. I paid too much for it, but I had three years of pay racked up. There are no stores on the front, just the base commissaries. The pay adds up quick in those conditions. Jesse bought a tuna roll and we stood there eating our food, food made on Earth, ingesting home with it.

We caught a cab back to his place. It was a true relic of bygone days, an actual house passed down through his family for generations. He pressed his palm against the reader and the door opened for us. We stepped into his home. His wife stood there with the children standing in front of her, like works on display for a master’s evaluation. For a moment there wasn’t a sound, not even the slight whisper of breath. Jesse stared at his family and I saw his hands start to tremble. He approached them softly, moving more like a ghost than a man, and went to his knees to gather his daughters into his arms. They went willingly, squeezing his neck fiercely with delighted squeals of father dropping from their lips.

He released them and embraced his wife. It was not as I had expected. She wrapped her arms around him loosely and whispered something in his ear. He drew back from her. His face was mostly turned from me, but I could see enough to read his confusion. He shook his head in the negative and introduced me. His wife and daughters bowed in my direction, their minute Asian forms graceful as ballet dancers. I returned the bow, feeling clumsy and too large for their home, my short-cropped brown hair brushing their ceiling. The girls offered me shy smiles and that made me feel better.

We ate dinner seated on the floor. The girls were delighted by my gross mishandling of the chopsticks. Jesse took pity on me and gave an on the spot tutorial on the fundaments of their use. There was silence during the meal. It was utterly strange to me, both from the military and from my life before the service, but better that way. It served as an interlude from and a break with the life we had been leading, like a ceremony marked with solemnity and honor. The very little speaking that occurred was in Japanese. Jesse had taught me enough in the last year to muddle inexpertly through, eliciting indulgent smiles when I mangled their language. I took my A for effort with pride. After the meal, though, the conversation centered on my life. It was uncomfortable. I felt like a bumbling intruder inflicting foreignness on their home. Jesse and his wife put the children to bed early and I stepped outside. I made a flimsy excuse about wanting to see the night sky and breathe the air. It was an escape for me, but a chance for Jesse to speak with his wife in privacy.

They had a small yard behind their home with a tiny pond and a bench beside it. I settled on the bench and stared into the pond, watching the tiny fish skittering this way and that. After that, I leaned back on the bench and felt relief as I looked up at familiar constellations. I considered the vastness of a universe that I felt I had seen and knew too much about. My hand trailed along the ground, tickled by the feathery grass. Plain, green grass that would, were I careless, stain my pants as it had countless times in my childhood. I’d been there maybe an hour when I heard sharp voices inside the house. Not yelling and screaming, but I heard Jesse speaking with uncharacteristic harshness. I almost went back in, desperate that Jesse’s homecoming not be marred by anger. Better judgment overcame my first instinct. No one wants an outsider intruding on family affairs, no matter how good a friend. Their voices rose again, briefly, and fell below my hearing. I waited for what felt like a very long time.

Jesse came out of the house. I sat up and he sat next to me. He didn’t say a word. He just stared at the reflected stars in the still pond surface. I wanted to say something to ease his turmoil, but I didn’t even understand the problem. He reached up and rubbed the scar on his forehead. It was so like the first time we talked that I shivered. I could hear another transport coming down in the distance and I wondered if someone I knew was on it, excited to be arriving, or coming home in a bag.

“I was a good teacher,” he said.

“I’m sure you were.”

“I had this one student named Marie. She wasn’t the brightest student, but she was wise. Whenever she had something to say, everyone else in the room went quiet, poised on the verge of revelation. She wrote a paper for my class. It won an award.”

“What’s she doing now?”

“Nothing, ever again. She died a year ago, out there somewhere,” he said, pointing into the sky.

“I’m sorry.”

“We fight and kill and die over something that we’re not even sure happened. Why?”

“Survival. If we stop fighting, they’ll kill us all. They’ll keep coming.”

“So will I, no matter what, no matter how long. It’s all I have left.”

“What are you talking about?”

He stood and turned away before he whispered, “Amiko asked me for a divorce.”

I felt the entire mythology I’d worked up around Jesse and his wife come crashing to the ground. I almost fell off the bench.

“Good God…why?” I demanded.

“She told me that a husband lost in space isn’t a husband at all, just a shadow of things gone to dust.”

He walked toward the house and stopped shy of the door. He looked back at me and I could see some primary vitality had been broken in him; the spirit that had made him Jesse, supported by his unshakeable belief in his love for his family and theirs for him, had been shattered. The Jesse Takahara who looked back at me in that starlight was a stranger.

“My family has become a thing gone to dust. Memory makes liars of us all,” he said before going back into what had been his home.

Going home is impossible. Our mind stretches the truth, leaving false impressions and hiding the flaws. When confronted with the reality, disappointment is unavoidable. My father, who had always seemed invincible, a powerful figure with an even more powerful mind, had gotten old. There was more white than brown in his hair and his hands were covered in liver spots. Mother was no longer a bubbling fountain of energy, but walked with a limp. Danny had become a man, grown into the powerful figure I remembered my father having. Three years is a long time, but not that long, the white in my father’s hair had to have been there before, and Mother’s limp was something she moved around without thought, a habit of long practice, and Danny, only the changes in him could be accounted for by the time. Like Jesse, I had been betrayed by memory.

My first night back we went out for a steak dinner at the best restaurant within fifty miles. My father had finally retired from his job to enjoy his golden years, which meant that he was working twice as many hours for five times the pay as a consultant. Mother was still in private practice but had cut back her hours. She was getting inundated with soldiers, and their stories had been giving her nightmares about me. I felt a stab of guilt, but shoved it down. You can only accept so much responsibility. Danny had continued his education, double-majoring in political science and sociology, and was fulfilling all that his intellect had promised in childhood.

He told me his ambition was to put an end to the war if he had to become Chancellor to do it. Mother and Father gave him a pained look, stealing glances at my dress uniform. I told him nothing would please me more than an end to the fighting. There was a nasty moment when I told them I had signed up for another tour. Danny’s jaw actually dropped, his pacifism had only become more potent, and our parents grabbed one another’s hands. I didn’t try to explain because the decision was beyond the rational, born of shared pain and hope.

The whole evening was jarring for me. It felt like a sad mockery of the dinner with Jesse and his family. It was too loud and public. There was a subtle elegance to my dinner with the Takahara’s, a beautiful simplicity and a duality—aloneness and oneness with the group. In that restaurant, we were surrounded by all the trappings of elegance and none of the substance. We talked and laughed. We greeted friends. We all drank too much and talked some more. It was nice, but ugly. All I desired was to be alone. I was still reeling from Jesse’s announcement. I wanted to rest and find my balance again. No, that’s not entirely true. I wanted to find my faith again. I couldn’t, but when has that ever stopped anyone from trying? The temple was in ruins and I was dusting off the altar. You do what you have to do to survive.

One relief was that my family never asked me what it was like fighting the Cricks. What could I have said to sum it up for them? I could have told them that it was being afraid all the time, or that it was finding the heart of darkness in yourself, or any other number of clichés that say it all and tell you nothing. The truth was complex. Fighting the Cricks was drinking from the cup of bitterness, every day, knowing it was killing you, but telling yourself better to die slow than fast. That’s what it was for me.

That month passed quickly for me, as time away always does when you know there is something grim waiting for you. I slept straight-through the first few days. Fatigue settles in the bones and only hard sleep can wash it out. After my brief coma, I visited with old friends and teachers. They all seemed pleased that I had not managed to get myself killed. I started walking for miles every day, trying to outdistance the feeling of displacement—I didn’t know where I belonged. Beneath the outward pleasure that my lack of dying caused, there was hesitancy in everyone. I had been “Out There” somewhere, doing the things they heard about in the news. They treated me like I was different and they were right. I was different, but I couldn’t articulate the change even to myself. It was too fresh and we were all at a loss. So I walked.

I thought about Jesse a lot during those weeks. I wondered if he was signing divorce papers, dividing property, or rewriting his will. I almost called him a dozen times, but my mind went blank every time. Nothing I had to say would make it easier. I settled on sending him a message. I invited him to visit with my family before we shipped out again. He sent me a short, but friendly, message accepting the invitation. A mountain of weight dropped off my heart when I saw his name on that message. He walked out of one hell and into another. I couldn’t imagine what that did to him in those first days back. I think that I was afraid that he would request an early departure back to the front. A soul in enough pain will do unimaginable things.

When I went down to the Boston Depot to pick up Jesse, I found a changed man. He stepped off that transport carrying his duffel, in full dress uniform, and it was like watching someone walk away from everything behind him. His eyes were fixed on a point in the future, not the past. The change went beyond the expressive, but into the physical. He had always walked lightly, more like a stalking animal than a man. Now he marched, each step planted as if he meant to fix his foot in the earth forever. Gray had crept into his jet black hair and the lines around his mouth had become trenches. I caught his attention and those lines around his mouth softened. He walked to me with a lightened step, dropped his duffel, and threw his arms around me in a fierce hug. I was shocked. His formality had always been quiet but firm. I did my best to adapt to these changes on the fly. After he let me go, I reached down, grabbed his bag and swung it over my shoulder. We didn’t speak until we were on the road.

“I’m divorced,” he said.

“That fast?”

“Yes. It’s a courtesy extended to soldiers in my country. Given our mortality rate,” he shrugged.

“Jesse, I didn’t get a chance to say it when I was there. I’m sorry.”

“You don’t need to be sorry. I should apologize. I misled you.”

“How’s that?”

“The things I told you about my family were half-truths. They were how I remembered them or how I wanted to remember them. I read my old journal and enlisting delayed something inevitable. I’m sorry for lying to you.”

“You didn’t lie. You weren’t trying to deceive me.”

“True. How are things for you at home?”

“Different and, I don’t know, harder I guess. I thought coming home would be this huge relief, and it was,” I trailed off, not sure how to finish.

“People look at you differently now,” Jesse finished for me.

“Yeah, how did you know?”

“You’re a soldier now. In people’s heads, whether they admit it or not, they see you as a necessary evil. Your job is killing.”

“Do you really think so?”

“I know so. Your friends and family won’t admit it to themselves, so they can’t admit it to you, but my family was quite forthcoming.”

“Damn. What did you say?”

“Nothing. No words of mine would change their minds. It’s better to know.”

“Maybe,” I said, not at all sure I agreed.

We passed most of the drive to my parents’ home in silence. I pointed out my old school and the field where we practiced in the year of miracles. Jesse was a big hit with my family. As an educated man and a soldier, he could speak on a level with my family and bridge a gap between them and me. I had warned them not to bring up Jesse’s family and they steered clear of that topic. Given all that had happened to him in the recent past, I was awed by his ability to adapt to this family situation. In his shoes, I’d have been drunk for a month.

The next two days were a blur and then we were back in the cold depths of space. We rejoined our unit and were fighting like we never left. Prophet was in the infirmary with a broken arm, but Hellstu was still very much in command, barking orders and laying waste. There isn’t much about the first two years of that tour that warrants any mention. Jesse started screaming during firefights. It was a haunted, keening sound that would have broken my heart at any other moment. I was wounded once and Jesse twice. Jesse never mentioned his family again. It was surreal, but I followed his lead and left the topic alone. Instead, we talked a great deal about literature.

In the third year of my second tour, a couple of new assignments to the unit and me got cut off. I was in command once we got separated and I made the call to surrender. It wasn’t self-preservation or cowardice that led to that decision. It was the new guys. They had all the tactical know-how of tree stumps and leading them into a fight was no different than shooting them myself. If Jesse had been with us, I would have fought it out. The new guys were terrified, but I took it in stride. The Cricks didn’t torture or kill their prisoners. It was just indefinite confinement. You can live with almost anything, but you only die the one time. They marched us back to their base and stuck us in a cell. They fed us twice a day, not a lot, but enough to live on. For three days we sat around and, once in a while, a Crick would come and take one of us for questioning.

The intelligence boys got it right for once. The Cricks were asking us questions about, of all things, home. What kind of food did we eat, what was our family structure, or what kind of government structure did we have. I was mystified by these questions, but I followed protocol and repeated my name and rank, over and over again. They were mystified by this behavior. The Crick prisoners we took talked freely about such things. There was a kind of darkly humorous absurdity to the situation.

On the third day the cavalry arrived in the form of Jesse and Hellstu. They had penetrated the perimeter in a way no one could ever make sense of and cut holes in our cell walls. We would have made it away clean if not for one of the new guys. I try not to blame him, he was scared, but I do blame him. When the signal came down to halt, he kept moving. It was only a few steps before training took over and he stopped, but it was a few steps too many. A patrolling Crick spotted him and opened fire. The new guy’s head exploded. I still see that in my nightmares. Alarms started going off all over the place and we took off running. Jesse found me in the confusion and tossed me a weapon. The split second pause he took for that was what killed him. He got hit and stumbled into my back, taking us both down. I wrenched myself free of Jesse’s weight, swung my rifle up and killed everything that moved. I was lucky I didn’t hit one of our own guys. I rolled Jesse onto his back, trying not to notice the hole in his uniform behind his heart. His face was going gray, blood wasn’t moving anymore, but he managed to gasp out one last thing.

“Tell my family I love them.”

I wish I could remember what I said back, but the pain was too much. I knew he was dead, my friend of five years, who had saved my life so many times I had lost count. I wanted to kill everything, to burn the forsaken world we were on to a cinder, to unleash all my anguish in one fell burst and unmake everything. I got him up onto my shoulder and carried him, telling myself with every step that I just needed to get him to a medic and everything would be okay. I carried him for miles, telling myself that same lie, and killing every Crick I saw. Somewhere along the line we got picked up by some people Hellstu had standing by, but I would not let go of Jesse. I just cradled him in my arms, telling him that we’d get him all patched up. The personnel in the troop carrier must have thought I was insane, but they let me be.

The medics were standing by when we got to base. They took one look at Jesse and declared him dead. I grabbed the one who said it and started beating him in the face, screaming and ranting that Jesse was not dead and they needed to help him. They restrained and sedated me; for my own good and everyone else’s. I came around a few hours later, bruised and sore, but somewhat saner. Hellstu was sitting next to the cot they stuck me on. He looked at me and I knew, as I had known from the second I saw that hole in the back of Jesse’s uniform, my friend was gone.

“He’s dead isn’t he?” I asked.

“Yes, he’s dead,” Hellstu said.

I’d been harboring a shred of denial, but once the words were out, I broke down. Hellstu sat through all of it, waiting for me come back from the unthinking anguish that consumed me. It took a while, but I sat up and wiped the tears and snot off my face.

“Not the last time you’ll do that,” he said.

“I know.”

“You need to listen now, because this is important. Jesse knew the risks and so do you. He chose this life. He died a soldier’s death, rescuing his fellow soldiers from the enemy. You need to remember that, if nothing else.”

There was an inquiry into the incident. Command doesn’t like losing soldiers like Jesse and Hellstu hadn’t bothered clearing the rescue with them. Hellstu got off with an unofficial reprimand. Turns out he’d been given several dozen medals and it never looked good in the news back home to dress down a hero like that. Given my insane behavior and the mere months left in my tour, they discharged me. I went back to see Jesse’s family. They were informed of Jesse’s death, but they had met me and I wanted them to know Jesse was remembered. I also brought them Jesse’s last medal. It was in the works before he died and Hellstu gave it to me for Jesse’s family.

I told them that Jesse’s dying thought had been of them. Amiko insisted that I stay for a few days and we reminisced about him. Then I went home and spent months in a drunken haze, overwhelmed by the guilt of Jesse’s death. It took a year find a way to live with the great lie of my life.

Jesse Takahara had no last words. I had wanted him to have last words and, sometimes, I almost convince myself he did. What I told Jesse’s wife and children had been said so that my version, my vision, of Jesse would live on. And as I think about it now, I realize that he was right. Memory makes liars of us all.



“Memory Makes Liars of Us All”

A Tale from the Trunk, by Eric Dontigney

The above story spent the better part of a decade being one of my trunk stories. I don’t have the complete record for my submissions on it because I was tracking submissions in a paper notebook when I first completed it. If I still have that notebook, I have no clue where it is. I do know that Gordon van Gelder (back in his F&SF days) took a pass on an early version of it…or one of his assistants did at any rate. Mind you, this was back when you sent in physical copies of your stories and they sent back rejections on printed pieces of paper. (The Dark Ages, am I right?) To be fair, he or they were right to take a pass on it. At that point, it had really clumsy bookend scenes that would have expanded the universe of the story a bit, but they didn’t really do a damn thing to advance the core story. Plus, there were a lot of unnecessary words in there. Ah, the things you learn after writing dozens of stories and some novels.

Of course, the story went through many iterations after those initial rejections. My process was something along these lines. I’d pull the story out every year or two. I’d make some revisions, cut out the things that I finally had enough experience to recognize as bad, and send it out again. To be fair, I probably should have resubmitted the story to some of those magazines that gave me early rejections after I cleaned up a lot of the journeyman writer problems in it, but I didn’t. Instead, I just kept submitting the newer versions to different markets.

Some of the places that took a pass on it included Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and a bunch more I don’t have records for anymore. Yes, I got rejected by the best. These days, I wish I had a copy of the first version of the story and the various iterations over the years just so I could compare the early drafts to later drafts. I also wish I’d kept better records of who got which drafts along the way. I suspect it would be educational. Of course, during that same period of time, I moved like 10 times, lived in five or six different states, went through three or four computers, and computer storage evolved from 3.5-inch floppy disks and CD-ROMs to the early days of cloud storage. Frankly, it’s a miracle I still had any version of the story.

So, around about 2013 (God, I feel old), with a couple of novels under my belt, I pulled it out with the sense that this was going to be the last hurrah for this story. I did one last hard edit on it and started submitting it again. Lo and behold, it finally found a home with Stupefying Stories. Unlike so many trunk stories, this one has a happy ending, but I learned some lessons along the way. One of those lessons was that no story is ever really complete until you publish it somewhere. I was certain, just plain convinced, that the story was as good as it was ever going to be after I finished editing the first version of it. Of course, it wasn’t. It was, optimistically, as good as I could write it at the time. A decade of revisions between that first version and the final published version put the lie to that youthful confidence.

I also learned that you actually know that some stories are special. This was one of them. I wrote dozens of short stories after high school and through a fair chunk of my college career. I couldn’t tell you the names or plots of 99-percent of them. This story haunted me. When I’d have trouble falling asleep at night – which happened a lot in my 20s – I’d think about it. When some professor got especially boring, I’d think about the relationships in the story. I’d mentally toy with the story’s imagery as a way to stay sane while toiling at my work-study jobs or my crappy restaurant jobs. It never really went away. At best, it went dormant for a while before springing back into my conscious thoughts and demanding renewed attention.

I don’t regret going back to the story over and over again because it did eventually find a home. I’m also very proud of this particular story. It was one of the first times I wrote a short story that tapped into something real. Yes, it’s got the trappings of a science fiction story and a war story to boot, but that’s all window dressing. For my money, this story is all about relationships and the fictions we build around them. After all, who among us hasn’t idealized a relationship or a person we know? Who hasn’t looked back years later and recognized, with a start, that someone we thought well of was actually a pretty terrible friend or a blatant user? I know I’ve done it. I’ve found myself defending a person or a relationship even though, deep down, I rationally knew that it was unlikely that everyone else was wrong. I did it for the same reasons everyone does it. I was telling myself a story about what those relationships were or who those people were and didn’t want anyone else impinging on that story. While the characters in this story are a little more sympathetically drawn, the same principles apply.


Eric Dontigney is the author of the highly regarded novel, THE MIDNIGHT GROUND, as well as the Samuel Branch urban fantasy series and the short story collection, Contingency Jones: The Complete Season One. Raised in Western New York, he currently resides near Dayton, OH. You can find him haunting obscure sections of libraries, in Chinese restaurants or occasionally online at

SHAMELESS ADVERT: If you like Harry Dresden or John Constantine, you’ll love THE MIDNIGHT GROUND. READ IT NOW!


ray p daley said...

I've never read this before, but it's fucking brilliant. I'm saying that as a writer, I'm saying it as a veteran. I could feel myself standing next to those people, because they weren't characters. They felt as real as people I've served with.

Sometimes the bigger markets are clueless, as was the case here.

Eric Dontigney said...

Ray, thanks so much for your kind words! It's always reassuring as a non-veteran to hear that I didn't get the emotional context all wrong when writing about people in a military...even one I just made up from whole cloth. I'm glad you liked it!