I had a dream, I told my new roommate, Aaron. But the truth is I’d slept a couple of hours each night after I pulled double shifts for a week at Burger Mart. Now the sleep only got in the way of the voices in my head. On a nearby couch three black kittens slept.
“I’m listening,” Aaron said. He didn’t look up from his sniper video game. The living room of our apartment was strewn with empty cans of Monster, Red Bull, and Kitten Formula, but that didn’t seem to bother him. Aaron wasn’t decorated with a lot medals, but he had esprit up to here. Did two solid tours in forward operating bases in Eastern Afghanistan. Like me, he caught a little brain trauma when an IED blew through his patrol. Killed two of his closest buddies. Took him out of the only place he felt alive, doing something worthwhile. Now, he hid from his parents, a nineteen-year-old wife, and a newborn baby. He couldn’t remember their names.
“For every life we save here,” I said, “A life over there is spared.”
“Where?” he said.
“I thought that’s what we do here, Wyatt? Save feral cats.”
“We can save people too.”
He looked up for the first time, tried to make that connection just like I just did a moment ago.
“Great. When do we start?”
“My work is almost done here,” he said. This hijacked video game, Call of Latrine Duty, was the other thing that mattered to him now.
I picked up the other controller, fired away. The kittens woke up, ran to the TV screen, stretched out to reach the undead as their columns marched toward us.
“Zombies have taken over the House of Representatives,” he said. “Trying to turn the President into one of them.”
“These suckers are tough,” I shouted over the explosions from the hand grenade launcher weapon I used.
“That’s because they got all kinds of weapons: filibusters, media blitzes, and chainsaws.”
“We’re done,” I told him. “Assholes just flanked us.”
I put the console down. “Ever think the zombies might actually be the good guys?”
Aaron began to cry. He still killed them by the score. He couldn’t help it.
Two hours later, we were on the side of the highway on trash pickup duty ordered by Sheriff Dan The Man and his one-eyed cat. Dan said it’s obvious we had way too much energy going to waste. Might as well do something useful. That Dan, he looked after us.
I tried to explain we didn’t try to mug the elderly woman and her dog at the street corner, merely pulled her back as she began to step into traffic. Dan The Man and his cat eyed us both, sat in the patrol car, shook their heads.
“I did not sign up for this shit, no sir,” Aaron shouted. “Now my head hurts. You got any meds?”
“We saved that woman’s life,” I said, as I rushed about. At one point I picked up Wendy’s Meat Emporium, McDonald’s World, JC Penny Burgers, Hobo King, Taco Burger, Fat Chance Burger, Burger World, and Skanky Burger wrappers from every fast food restaurant in this little town. I read them like they were secret messages only to me.
Something didn’t feel right. I reached into my back pocket. “My wallet’s missing. Old lady and her dog must’ve stolen it.”
“Joke’s on her. We’re flat broke,” Aaron said. “Spent it all on cat food.”
He picked up a discarded child’s doll, held it up for me to see. He examined its sun-baked plastic body, the half-open eyes before he stashed it in his jacket.
“What are we doing here?” he said. “I thought we were saving lives?”
A strong wind carried a front of clouds over the mountains in the East. They stacked one on top of the other. A cold rain moved in, waited for thunder to signal the beginning. Dan and his cat pulled alongside us, rolled down his window, told us he thought we learned our lesson, that we should hightail it. He drove away, left us stranded. A steady intense rain the size of fat grapes pelted us as we ran for cover at the nearest fast food restaurant.
A teenage boy ahead of us took out a handgun and waved it around. He turned to Aaron and me, and the large Hispanic family behind us. The poor girl behind the counter already emptied the bills out of the register, even cleaned out the coins in the cash till.
“Is this going to take awhile?” I said.
The kid pointed the gun in my face.
“Who the hell are you two fuck-ups?”
The boy’s hand shook. He wore sweats under a dark hoodie that didn’t cover his baby face.
“Well, we’re hungry, for one. And two, you’re making everyone here nervous. That’s how people get killed.”
The boy stared at my prosthetic legs, pointed the gun to Aaron who still held the doll.
“We save lives, dumb ass,” Aaron shouted.
The family mumbled something in Spanish, backed out of the restaurant, got in their Dodge Caravan, and pulled into the highway traffic.
“Yeah, get your wetback asses back to Mexico.”
I shook my head.
“Was that really necessary? I mean you don’t know where they come from. Could be Guatemala. Could be Downey or San Pedro, for all you know. From the looks of you, your ancestors probably came over from a slave ship. Mine, too: bad potato famine.”
“My ancestors came from Pacoima. And you are dead, motherfucker.”
He pointed the gun to my head as I stared at the three kids behind the counter, worried about the bloody mess they’d have to clean.
Then Aaron walked up to the boy, reached over to move the gun barrel onto his head.
“I’ve been having a shitty day, so far. You might as well do me first.”
“Don’t listen to him,” I said. I trained the gun back to me. “He was wounded in the war. Has a wife and baby boy. He’s got the rest of his life to look forward to.”
The boy grabbed the bag of money from the counter.
“You’re throwing your life away,” I said.
He glanced at me, then Aaron before he walked past. His cold stare was beyond his years.
I felt like I’d peed my pants, while Aaron looked over the employees, and then behind us where scores of people rose up from behind the tables.
“We just saved twelve more lives,” Aaron said.
We drove down the highway in my Ford Fiesta to begin our daily routine of feeding the feral cat colonies. This piece-of-shit car was older than me, but for some strange reason it wouldn’t die, which is not to say it was reliable.
Even though it was only noon, storm clouds and rain darkened the sky like it was already night.
From a distance ahead, I saw flames on the side of the road and the wreckage of two cars.
“Slow down,” I said, but before Aaron could even react, he turned the steering wheel too sharp and rolled the car. Bags of cat food from the back seat slammed into us. The car landed right side up. The engine idled. It never sounded better.
Something wet covered my face, which had to be blood. It also happened to be Aaron’s blood. He slumped over the steering wheel. His eyes closed.
I tried to talk, and at first, it didn’t even sound like my voice. “Aaron, Aaron,” I mumbled.
He woke up with a start, looked around like he’d just woken up from a deep sleep. We were far from okay, but then we both saw the other wreckage and the people strewn in the middle of the road.
Aaron unbuckled our seat belts. Got out with wobbly legs, took my hand, and pulled me out of the passenger side of the car. I turned the ignition off as he dragged me out. I flopped like a fish for a moment. Saw the road, the sky and what unfolded in front of us.
Two cars — a minibus from the High Desert Christian Center and a Dodge Caravan — had collided head on. It was the same family we met back at the restaurant.
Aaron ran to the Caravan as smoke poured out of the front end. He pried the door open, got it half open, and crawled inside.
I limped over to the minibus. In the middle of the road, a boy and his younger sister sat next to their mother.
I made my way around them, walked faster. As I came closer to the bus, no one moved inside. The sliding door was gone. Both the driver and front passenger were wedged inside behind the console. The passenger made a rude gurgling sound.
Beyond the bus, several young men were strewn alongside the road like they were dropped, unconscious or asleep in the middle of nowhere. Inside, an elderly couple lay next to each other, hands clasped together, their eyes wide open.
I walked back to the boy and girl. The girl lay next to her mother now. The boy tried to wake her sister and mother and began to cry.
“Get up,” I said. “Come on, get up.”
In the Caravan, Aaron pulled out four little children, then crawled back inside, delicately carried their Abuela and laid her out next to her nietos. They wailed now. The father and mother were still inside; they were dead.
Aaron returned to our car, carried out a small fire extinguisher, put out the flames from their engine.
Cars approached from both sides of the highway. They slowed down now and pulled over. A flashing red light from a patrol car weaved through the traffic, headed our way.
The rain stopped, the clouds opened up and the sun shined in the distant mountains.
Aaron held a newborn baby in a carrier in one arm, while he dialed 9-1-1 on his cell phone. He shouted at the dispatcher. The look in his eyes told me he was in a faraway place.
I held the boy from the bus, but he was quiet now like his sister and mother. I set him down, walked over to Aaron.
“Dude, dude,” I shouted. “Specialist Bukowski.”
He looked up with all the urgency he’d probably had when he was on patrol in a desert war a year ago.
“What,” he said. He looked at me, irritated.
“You’re on fire.”
We stayed in a waiting room the rest of the afternoon, afraid to come out and speak to reporters. A circus formed in the little desert hospital’s parking lot. Aaron and I stopped counting the ones we saved, cried over the ones we lost, even though they were never ours to lose.
Aaron touched my shoulder, pointed to his wife and baby boy. He took his son, held him up, searched the eyes and I knew he saw himself. They walked out of the room.
I asked about the survivors, what would become of the children, and I was told that’s privileged information for next of kin, whom they were still trying to find but no luck so far. In the meantime, county services would go into action. For now, everyone wanted to shake my hand, was there anything I wanted, and I told them I just needed a paper and a pencil, a ride back home.
I filled two pages in less than half an hour. I wanted to tell those children all this was not their fault. Bad things happen. When the dust settled, I’d like to meet them, explain what happened. Of course, only when they were at a better place in their lives. I would be here for them down the line. For now, find a way to live, find a normal happy life, not that I’m an expert at those things.
I was not ready for any sort of tears, until a hand touched mine. Get up soldier, a voice said. I looked up. Saw her as she stood there. Her gown hung on her now. Short hair dyed purple from the last time I saw her, face and wrists dark with fresh bruises from her current boyfriend. She smiled. Cancer Girl. “Wyatt O’Brien,” she said.
She dragged a thing on wheels that held up a clear bag with a tube that went into her arm. She smiled, patted the side of my face. I asked where she’d been. She looked me in the eye, shrugged her shoulders.
“Vacation,” she said. “Funny how we meet at the strangest places. And how are you holding up?”
She got permission to take me home, drove along the highway into the heart of another sunset. We didn’t say anything for a long time. Then she said, “How long you been fighting the war?”
At the motel room she took the bed. The three black kittens and me, the sofa. I wouldn’t be able to stop her cancer as it spread throughout her body. Her cancer would become my cancer.
Some time in the night, she nudged me to move over. She held me, let me cry all I wanted, stroked my hair, sung a long forgotten lullaby from her childhood until I fell asleep for like the first time.