so much for the afterglow
by Kyra Cullinan

we never talk about the future
we never talk about the past anymore

The silence is going to kill him.

It's doing it slowly, ringing in his ears, pressing cotton-thick against them, and the harder he tries to ignore it, the more oppressive it becomes. He lies in bed at night and can feel it stretching out around him, all that audible emptiness. Hears, in the silence, the beat of choppers in the distance, the midnight crackle of the PA system starting to life.

Not that the country is ever truly quiet. Only people from cities make that mistake. In the belly of the night, he can hear it all around him: the house creaking and settling deeper into itself, the ticking of the radiator, an owl, somewhere, far away. The sounds of home, the sounds of childhood. And he loves them of course, because this is what he missed, what he spent every moment in Korea aching for. But over it all, the bombs are sometimes so loud.

On summer nights there are crickets and invisible frogs which peep in the blackness beyond the screened windows. But sometimes he steps out into the utter quiet of a snowy morning and he can't bring himself to start the car and shatter the stillness. He walks the three miles to work instead, hearing the crunch of his boots breaking the crust of snow, feeling his toes go numb. (He amputated a boy's entire foot once, dead already to frostbite; the buzz of a bone saw in his ears.)

In Korea, he talked constantly. Wisecracks and puns, a steady stream of verbal armor to block out the noises around him, the horror that was every single breath. Here, there's no need to build a wall of sound around himself, and he's quiet, quieter than he's ever been. Afraid that if he makes too much noise, all the (screamingexplosionschoppers) sound inside him will pour out and something will break forever. Him or this fragile world and its small noises, and he's not sure which he's more afraid of.

Instead, he listens. To the steady rhythm of small town hearts through his stethoscope. The sound of his fingernail flicking against a syringe. His pen scratching across the prescription pad. In the evenings, to the rustle of his father's newspaper. Lets his world dwindle to these tiny details, like if he can make them important enough, the other noises will fade away, the war will turn out to have been nothing but a terrible dream.

Time creeps onward, measured by the emotionless, eternal ticking of his clocks. His secretary threatens to fix him up with a different girl every few months, and he chuckles, refuses quickly, masking his panic again with jokes, a familiar barrier of words. Doesn't let on how his stomach turns at the thought because all he can remember is too many faceless, sticky fumblings in the supply closet. Liquor and sex -- or the closest he could get -- with the same girls whose eyes met his over surgical masks and gaping chests.

BJ comes to visit one bright autumn day, just like he said he would. There's a conference in Boston and he rents a car and drives north, bringing his family with him -- his wife, belly swollen, and Erin, who's not a baby at all anymore. In the living room, Hawkeye listens to the sound of ice melting in ginger ale instead of gin. (When he drinks now, it's alone, pouring one glass, not two, of alcohol from clear bottles instead of a makeshift still.) Small talk filling the air, choking him, getting in the way of all the important, real, unsaid words. They discuss property values, New England weather, California politics. Margaret, who still writes BJ, has asked after him. Inanity pounds against his ear drums. Separates here from there more irrevocably than distance and a handful of years has already.

Later, his father offers to show Peg and Erin the pond so Hawkeye and BJ can catch up. They walk in the other direction, away from the house and across the fields, and Hawkeye listens to the dry crackle of dead leaves underfoot with every step.

"It sure is pretty here," BJ says (and his voice is thin and taut with exhaustion because they've been in the OR for 19 hours straight), looking at the foliage in the distance. Hawkeye's hands are in his pockets, and he watches the brown, faded grass beneath his feet. A pause, as they walk, and then, "How are you, Hawk?" with all the earnestness BJ's always been so good at mustering.

Across the valley, someone is chopping wood, and each stroke echoes (like gunfire) in the crisp air. Hawkeye thinks about how he hasn't slept a full night in longer than he can remember. How when he does, he dreams in snatches of Korean, or sees Colonel Blake, or chickens and babies and jungle and hell, hell, hell, bleeding from his past into his futureless present. How nobody told him it comes home with you. East Asia creeping into Crabapple Cove, which will never be the same again.

The house door bangs, and Erin's voice calling them floats across from the yard.

Hawkeye can tell his grin is crooked, but he clings to it just the same, even as he avoids BJ's eyes.

"Oh, fantastic," he says, and the world rushes in his ears.


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