Set back from broken paving stones and thickets of snarled weeds, the shadow of the Pollock house looms large upon the earth. Beneath the broken bedroom windows on its faded facade, a wooden rocking horse sits on a bare timber porch. Thick glistening cobwebs stretch beneath its moss-covered limbs like high wires, a legion of beady-eyed spiders lurking in the wings. The floor around it is covered in debris; a sprawling mass of food wrappers, dried leaves, crumpled rolling papers and scraps of pornography congealed into a putrid mess by time and rain and sun.
The house is a monument to decay.
It is a place where people stop and stare from across the street, where the stench from cracked drains and rotting furniture makes their stomachs churn. Some are brave enough to step inside, foolhardy youths who run terrified of their own shadows which sneak up on them in abandoned hallways and echoing rooms.
It was however a place which once knew light, where a man, a wife and a son knew transient peace and happiness. Where a dream of all that was good in the world became a reality. It is also place where a war hero fought his most terrible battle, a thousand miles from the middle eastern deserts which tempered him in flames.
In truth, Carson Pollock never wanted to fight. He had signed up for the reserves in crisis of ego, spurred on by middle-age, prime time adverts and a heart filled with worthlessness and self-doubt.
Be the best that you can be.
He arrived in the Nad-e Ali district of the Helmand Province with fear in his heart, taping photos of his wife and child against the concrete walls of the barracks to cauterise his anxiety: Mary dressed in white outside the courthouse, her hands wrapped around his waist, a snapshot of a young woman much in love; his son Michael crawling across a thick carpeted floor, the fashions and furniture remnants of two decades past, so much time and distance between those memories now. That the prints were crumpled and smudged with fingerprints mattered little to Carson. They were his inspiration. ‘I will not die here,’ he told them. ‘I will return.’
His company came under fire daily, found themselves sprawled in dust or sheltered behind ancient rusted vehicles waiting for each barrage to end. Cigarettes hung from their mouths and misery filled their hearts. Carson’s thoughts were constant though, his heart singular in purpose.
I will not die here. I will return.
It was Davids who first noticed his weakness. He and the other Hispanics had formed a clique upon arrival, had found comfort and laughter amidst the harsh landscape of the Afghani mountains which loomed around the camp like crumpled gods. No one else had realised that Carson would aim his M16 on a slightly wayward course, that his trigger finger sat idle when the enemy was near.
Davids confronted him about it in the mess hall, made Carson’s cheeks burn crimson with embarrassment.
‘Don’t be scared to shoot a gun, homie’ he said, his voice jovial but his eyes cruel.
The rest of the table burst into laughter, a joke to them perhaps, ignorant to the shameful truth hidden in plain sight before them. Try as he might, and as much as he had deliberated, Carson could not take a life. And so, he said nothing in return, simply shook his head, finished his meal then walked out to the yard with trembling hands in his pockets.
He hid himself behind the munitions containers, watched the sun slowly collapse in furious reds far beyond the hilltops. ‘I’m not scared,’ he said, though the miserable worm of truth in his heart wriggled knowingly. ‘I’m not.’
Riggs had followed him from the hall. He was another private, a lean man with narrow eyes and the vintage moustache of a vaudevillian. He sat down beside Carson and offered a smoke. ‘Ignore those sons of bitches,’ he said.
‘Thanks,’ said Carson.
They sat for a moment in the still of the courtyard, a generator humming close by.
‘They always stick together, don’t they?’ said Riggs.
‘The spics,’ he sneered.
Carson felt his chest tighten. ‘They’re jokers. That’s all.’
Riggs grew ashen-faced. ‘They’re taking over, man. Our houses. Our schools. There’s a war back home and we ain’t winning it.’
‘I’m not sure about that,’ said Carson.
Riggs smiled and pointed at the tattoos on Carson’s forearm. ‘Sure you are,’ he said.
Carson felt a hole open inside his stomach, a cosmic tear which threatened to consume every ounce of strength and dignity he had left. He looked down at the cross with two swords, a marking he had tried to camouflage amidst a sleeve of tattoos, though now it lay like a glistening jewel on a murky sea bed. No more than a few inches tall and wide, it had blurred over the years, much as his memory had of the person he once was.
‘It doesn’t mean anything,’ he said.
‘A war merit cross meant a lot to thirteen million nazi soldiers,’ said Riggs.
Carson shook his head. ‘I think you’ve got yourself confused.’
Riggs took a drag on his cigarette, the smoke creeping out the side of his mouth. ‘I don’t think so, man. That’s a rare sight to behold. And you should be proud of it. You can dress it up with superheroes and tribal shit, but that thing right there means something.’
Carson lowered his head to the ground, remembered the group of friends he had once been a part of, a group of skinheads who lived on the edge of his town, the vinyl sofas in their yard, the barbecues and parties on long summer nights when he was barely into his teens. No matter their politics, he had told himself. No matter their ignorant points of view. The skinheads challenged him in the end, him and all the others, made him prove he wasn’t just turning up for the girls and the drinks and the drugs. And he had yielded up his arm and let them tag his flesh without hesitation, too scared to countenance or risk their wrath.
And as for the tattoo?
He kept it hidden amongst the others, looked at it occasionally, to remind himself what a fool he once had been. ‘I was a kid,’ he said at last.
Riggs patted him on the shoulder. ‘You don’t need to justify it to no-one,’ he said. ‘And you don’t need to worry about those taco sons of bitches.’ He glared over at the mess hall, lips drawn tight into a snarl. ‘They’re all the same. Each and everyone one of them. But I got your back.’
Carson looked up at the sky, the sun clear and bright in a sea of pastel blue, the heat on his face suddenly overwhelming. ‘Thanks,’ he said. ‘I’m grateful.’ But the agonising knot in his stomach told him he was anything but.
The pranks began and grew in audacity over the weeks that followed: Carson’s bunk mattress taken from his bed and hidden in a wardrobe. His boots filled overnight from top to bottom with sand. Carson made these discoveries alone, always looking to the shadows to see if Davids was delighting in his handiwork, but he never was. There would simply be a gesture in the mess hall, a wry smile or tip of the hat, that let Carson know exactly who his tormentor was. And then one day, it went too far.
Carson had considered the photographs off limits, that such images of family would be sacrosanct amongst even the basest of men. Instead, he returned to the dorm one afternoon to find them mutilated beyond repair, their heads cut from their bodies and pasted onto scraps of crumpled pornography, the joyful expression on their faces rendered unimaginably sordid. Carson felt the swirl of a tempestuous fury, a scream that would be heard from far across the desert if he dared to release it. But instead, fear once again sullied his heart, and so he hid the photographs beneath his pillow and lay back on the bed, staring up at the fan blades spinning in the rafters, and wondering when his misery might end.
He told Riggs about it in the mess hall, watched his face turn red and eyes narrow with anger.
‘Deal with them,’ he said. ‘Or I will.’
Carson didn’t say a word.
‘Maybe they’re right about you after all? Maybe you are some chicken-shit coward.’
Carson glanced up, stopped chewing his food then slowly lowered his eyes again.
‘Goddamn it,’ said Riggs.
That night, Carson dreamed of burning prairie fields and a sky the colour of blood. He was alone and running from a sea of flames, which somehow seemed to follow his every step, no matter which direction he took. He knew it was a dream, but his chest felt tight, his breathing laboured and throat parched. Eventually, he could not go on. He turned slowly to face the wildfire which stopped its pursuit then unfurled itself towards the sky like some terrible beast rising on its haunches and, for a moment, there was only heat and the brightest of lights before the world collapsed into darkness.
He opened his eyes to the squeak of bed springs and the weight of something beside him.
‘Don’t he scared, homie’ said the mass beside him.
Carson dared not move. He lay on his back, eyes wide open, and listened to the creaks, coughs and snores which echoed around the pitch-black dormitory.
‘Your boy Riggs had some harsh words for me. Made a lot of accusations,’ said Davids. He was lying next to Carson, the pair of them flat on their backs and staring up at the dark. ‘I don’t like to be disrespected.’
‘Then stop,’ said Carson.
Davids spoke slowly and clearly. ‘Do not disrespect me. You know nothing of me. Maybe you trust too much in other people. Maybe that dumb ass cracker is playing you for a fool.’
Carson felt a flicker of rage in his chest, a flame which sparked memories of all the sneers and jeers and helplessness of the last few weeks. The words he spoke next were without thought of consequence, more reflex than attack: ‘Have the guts to own your actions, you border jumping bastard.’
The pair of them lay there for a moment, side by side, the night drawn tight around them.
‘I know what the tattoo means,’ said Davids.
Carson felt his throat constrict, watched the ceiling above him blur into waves and pulses of shadow. He wanted nothing more than to lose himself in that darkness, to be swept into the whirlpool no matter what might lie beyond. Beside him, Davids raised his arm and pointed at the tapestry of blue and black ink across his forearms.
‘See this one?’ he said. Carson let his eyes adapt to the half-light. He could just make out Davids’ fingers placed beneath what seemed to be a bird of prey, its wings drawn back and feet poised to attack. Only as his eyes shifted into focus, the tattoo sharpened into the shape of an angel, her wings surrounded by flames. Beneath her, a small scroll contained four simple words.
La venganza es mía.
‘Vengeance is mine,’ said Davids. He lifted himself up slowly and stood tall in the darkness, a black mass of unimaginable threat. ‘Sleep well, homie.’
Carson lay there for a long while after Davids was gone.
La venganza es mía.
He thought about his wife, imagined her ironing, smiling, as their son walked into their kitchen. He was twenty now, his own man, beginning his journey in the craziest of worlds. And then he thought about Davids words and the image changed, his wife and child gone and all that remained were bare walls, harsh lights and emptiness. He thought again about the photos.
Nothing was sacred anymore.
‘You believe them or me?’
Carson didn’t know what to say. ‘You,’ he said.
He and Riggs were walking side by side around the camp perimeter, the desert sands sprawling out around them.
‘Good,’ said Riggs. ‘I’ve got your back, man. Don’t worry about a thing.’
‘I don’t want any trouble – ‘
‘Too late. Those sons of bitches want to pick a fight, they can have one.’
Carson thought again of his family. ‘I need to get home,’ he said.
‘We’re stirring this up. I can’t risk it. He’s a lunatic – ’
Riggs smiled and slapped him on the back, hard enough to knock him forwards a few steps. ‘We’ll take care of that bastard,’ he said.
The siege began just before dawn. In truth, they should have seen it coming. The days before had been light on gunshots, the checkpoints as procedural as a toll booth. Some of the men were preparing to fly back home and the mood around the camp was of quiet relief. And then the rockets hit. That most of the men were fast asleep only made matters worse. Carson woke to the sound of glass shattering, the windows frames along the far side of the dormitory, exploding inwards beneath a hale of sand and rock. The men around him scrambled to their feet, a collective confusion followed by a savage realisation: the attack was real.
‘Oh shit,’ he said.
Another explosion ripped through the front of the dormitory, sent Carson crashing against the wooden floor beneath a cloud of dust. He lay there for a moment, ears ringing, and muscles battered, as if he had fallen from a great height hard against the earth. Only when he sat up did he realise the scale of the carnage around him.
The dormitory roof had been ripped apart by the blasts and two of the walls completely levelled. What remained was a relic of what once had been, as if a thousand years had passed and he had woken up in its decrepit remains. Above him, the starlit sky was filled with plumes of grey smoke. He got back to his feet, felt a tingling sensation across the top of his thigh and looked down to see a hole in his leg the size of a pineapple. He stared at it for a few seconds then dabbed his fingers to the wound, unable to comprehend a change to something so familiar. The flesh was seared and crisp to the touch, no hint of the terrible pain he was anticipating. And so, he walked on through the carnage in a haze of disbelief, past the blackened bodies of fellow soldiers on an undulating beach of steel and wire and crumbled concrete, towards a landscape lit up by flashes of gun fire and the bellows of desperate men.
It was Riggs who snapped him out of it. Carson might otherwise have sleepwalked out into the yard, an easy target for the ten or so armed insurgents who had breached the perimeter wall. That Riggs was laid out flat on his back, the left-hand side of his face torn back to bone and muscle hardly seemed to matter anymore. A thick crown of blood-soaked dust glistened beneath him,
‘Thank you,’ said Carson.
And it was in that moment, he realised exactly what he had to do. There was no hesitation in picking up Riggs’s semi-automatic rifle and charging forwards, no other thoughts in his mind than his wife and child. His purpose – to be with them again – was pure and undiluted.
He had never felt more alive.
How many insurgents he killed, he could not remember. How much peril he had been in, he did not know. All he would recall in the years to come was that he knew no fear, even when they had returned fire and forced him into shelter. Even when he had found himself trapped in the mess room with someone he had grown to despise. Davids was crouched by a smashed window, his face a mixture of relief and trepidation.
‘Are you okay?’ he said.
Carson smiled. ‘Never better.’
‘We going to stick this out together?’
Carson curled his finger around the trigger of his rifle. ‘Sure,’ he said.
The siege was over in less than an hour and all of the insurgents killed. Many of the home team, rank and file soldiers like Carson, were badly wounded. Others would never wake to see another dawn. The medics had found him blacked out in the mess hall and evacuated him by helicopter at first light. And, though he kept drifting in and out of consciousness, he could hear them comforting him, that he was a hero back at the camp.
People had seen him running straight at the enemy, they said, that he had fought like a lion.
He opened his eyes and glanced out at the desert knowing he would never return. The hole in his leg was his passport back home. In the distance, he could just make out the smoking ruins of base-camp, took time to think about those he had left behind. None more so than Delian Davids whose body was found in the mess hall, a single bullet lodged in the centre of his skull.
‘La venganza es mía,’ Carson muttered to himself and he was right.
The taxi pulled up on on his family’s quiet suburban street on a stiflingly hot summer’s day. It had taken two months for Carson to rehabilitate his leg and his formal release from the United States army followed soon after. Even now, as he stepped out into the pavement, his thigh felt strange, a phantom sense of something lost that put him ill at ease. He stood for a moment and stared at the house he once called home, how fresh the white painted façade was, how manicured the lush green lawn. These were the things he remembered most from myriad dreams and fantasies yet somehow better and brighter than before. That he was so close to seeing his family again made his stomach cramp, his mouth suddenly as dry as the desert sand. It was only when he looked at the red mustang on the driveway that his mood darkened. It had no place in his dreams and fantasies. It had no place in his reality.
His hand was shaking as he reached for the doorbell, the chimes of a Beatles song he could not quite place. He glanced to his left, saw the white rocking horse at the far end of the deck, how half was lit in sunshine and the other lost to darkness.
Mary was talking on the phone as she opened the door but immediately fell silent. He could hear a distant voice on the other end of the phone repeating her name. Mary? Mary?
‘It’s good to see you again,’ said Carson.
Mary didn’t say a word. The colour had drained from her face, her shoulders stiffening with tension. He took the phone from her and switched it off. ‘Is Michael here?’ he said.
Mary shook her head.
‘Good,’ said Carson.
Inside the house, Carson heard the thumping of heavy footsteps on the staircase until a man he knew of, yet did not know, appeared next to his wife. Many nights before Afghanistan, Carson had sat in his car across the street, watching his wife and son carry on their lives without him, living with an interloper who had made them happy, provided them with all that he could not.
It was this man who was staring at him now inside the walls of Carson’s home, his lean face creased into a scowl beneath a shock of blond hair.
‘Is this him?’ he said.
‘You can’t be here,’ said the man. ‘There’s a restraining order.’
Carson grinned. Since Afghanistan, he knew that the old rules no longer applied. Nothing was sacred anymore. ‘I came here to see my family,’ he said. ‘Not you.’
The man stepped between Carson and his wife, poked a finger in Carson’s chest. ‘You need to get gone, you son of a – ‘
Carson reached inside his jacket for the handgun, whipped the butt of the handle hard into the man’s face. He was surprised how easily his cheekbone shattered, how spectacularly the man crumpled to the floor. Mary was screaming as her boyfriend tried to get back to his feet, his eyes filled with hurt and confusion, and, for a moment, Carson pitied him, much as he had Davids before the bitter end.
He raised the gun and fired two shots at the man, watched his skull rupture and crack back hard against the timber boards in the hallway.
Carson turned to his wife.
She was crying now, and he knew there would be worse to come. How glad he was to have finally come home. How grateful he was for the war that had shaped him.
‘I’ve missed you,’ he said as he pulled the door shut behind him.
Laurence’s bio: British writer who lived in America stumbles into Canadian Deathmatch. Carnage ensues. Let’s roll the dice. laurencejones.uk