by: Sydney Haines
It’s been six months since Sierra returned from Afghanistan. She spent most of her time patrolling the city streets, even making friends with some of the locals. There hadn’t been much activity where she was stationed her first few months; the worst, a small car bomb detonating a few blocks down from the forward operating base. No one was injured, and Sierra had been thankful for the lack of combat those few months in Afghanistan. She of course had the training, and she enlisted knowing the risks. But seeing it for herself, trudging through the heat, automatic rifle in her hands; she wasn’t so sure she was ready for the responsibility the dusky camouflage and metal in her grip placed upon her.
The laid back atmosphere, low level danger and lack of the horrors Sierra had imagined when she enlisted soon became a distant memory. As her unit got word of the Islamic State presence in Afghanistan, they learned they were to be sent to aid those already deployed and help stop the spread of ISIL’s control while retrieving foreign hostages; often innocent journalists whose brutal ends were filmed on camera. Large, unforgiving blades embedded in guiltless throats. Sierra had seen a lot of horror in Afghanistan, but those images replayed as frequently in her subconscious as the trauma she endured and witnessed firsthand.
Sierra had lived, for three years, in a moderately sized two-bedroom nestled above the waters of Lake Michigan. She had just turned 18 and left her parents’, and was admittedly nervous being on her own. For the first several months, she only watched her favorite horror movies during the day. She kept her bedroom door locked at night, her deadbolt on the front door locked, as well as the lock on the slider doors. A few low nightlights were spread about the house. Sierra eased into her new independence slowly, but a full year after moving out then moving into her small place by the lake, it began to feel like home. Two years after that, she was shipped to Pakistan, and her deployment lasted fourteen months; she was given an honorable discharge, and she returned to the small cottage.
It became clear, after a few days, that the house didn’t belong to Sierra anymore. It belonged to the echoes of gunshots and IEDs, shouts of comrades on her side or terrorists and the bombs strapped to their chests. No longer did the twenty-two year old leave nightlights on- she left the entire house pitch black, because she had gotten used to seeing in the dark. The horror movies she used to love gathered dust on her bookshelf, because she saw bloodshed behind her eyelids every time she blinked and didn’t need to see anymore. She was trapped in the confines of terrifying flashbacks, taking place in the cottage she used to call home; blasting music to drown out the wails of dying Marines and the roar of convoy vehicles that thundered and boomed- deafening- like a snarling, vicious hybrid of a freight train and deranged wolf whose breath pounded hot against her ear.
The air is warmer today as Sierra scrapes the aluminum shovel across the asphalt of her driveway, nudging snow and sleet in small borders along her yard. Her ears catch every crisp rustle of leaves; her heart lurches at every screech of a hawk and squealing whistle of wind. The woman’s senses are sharpened to the point of exhaustion- her eyes scan every visible surface when she enters a room, and again every few minutes, then again when a new sound reverberates within hearing distance. But her hyperarousal goes both ways: being on constant high alert, those senses can dull and grow sluggish. So, when she fails to catch the crunch, crunch of snow flattening under booted feet, the shovel falls from her grasp.
Sierra whips around toward the intruder, one hand digging her trust switchblade from her pocket and the other reaching for her belt- only to discover her gun missing. Her muscles relax, if only the slightest of a fraction, as she recognizes the faces of the figures approaching. She has to remind herself: I’m not in Afghanistan. I’m home. I’m in Michigan. I trust this guy- I think. She throws a quick glance around her. Instead of the harsh, unforgiving heat of Middle Eastern weather and the mirages often visible in all directions, she sees nearly melted snow; far off in the distance, the waters of Lake Michigan grey in the wintry afternoon. Desert sand soaked with blood is nowhere in sight.
The oncoming figure approaches, friendly smile in place and a small beagle at his side- Cherry. Sierra remembers the dog’s name first, and a passing thought wonders if it’s the fact that Cherry was less likely to toss a grenade at her feet.
“Hey,” Sierra’s voice is automatic; monotone. She kneels to scratch Cherry on the ear, and the hound dog licks her cheek in greeting.
Micah, the dog’s owner- and her neighbor- puts a hand on her shoulder. “How have you been?”
Sierra jerks back on reflex and rises to her feet, meeting Micah’s gaze.
“I’m sorry,” he explains, “I just haven’t seen you out in a while.” She wants to wipe that look of pity off of his face with the butt of an M-16.
“Haven’t felt like going out,” Sierra replies, her voice neutral. Micah was a friend before she’d been deployed, but now she looks at him like an enemy. She knows everyone is an enemy now.
She avoids the look of concern, returning to task. It’s quiet for a long moment; the scrape of the metal on concrete, a few bird’s calls in the air, before Micah speaks again.
“Hey, would you happen to know anyone who wants a dog?”
Sierra looks back at him, obvious question in her glance. She just shakes her head no.
Her neighbor sighs. “That’s too bad,” he says, reaching down to pat Cherry on her head. “Valerie and I are moving- can’t take Cherry with us. Gotta find someone to leave her with. I’d hate to drop her at the pound or hand her over to someone I didn’t trust.”
The quiet returns, and Sierra ponders offering to take the dog herself. Probably end up shooting her during a flashback, she thinks to herself.
“I’ll keep an eye out,” Sierra responds. Micah gives her another few seconds of speculation before nodding.
“Well, alright,” he says. “I’d better get back to helping pack up the house. You need anything, just holler, ok?”
A mumbled “sure” as Sierra dumps a shovelful of snow on the growing pile.
“Take care, Sierra.”
She doesn’t know if Micah hears her snort of laughter, because he’s jogging off toward his place again with Cherry in tow.
Sierra watches out her window as Micah and Valerie load the last of their belongings in a moving truck, then glances at Cherry roaming the fenced-in back yard. They didn’t find anyone who would take her? She wonders, but shakes her head, deciding to forget any concern regarding the dog. She plops down on the couch, grabbing her television remote to mindlessly flicker through channels once again.
Maybe ten minutes pass when there’s a knock at Sierra’s door. She jumps to her feet, the switchblade she keeps in her back pocket already gripped in one hand as she approaches the door.
A glance through the peephole reveals Micah, and she retracts her blade, stuffing it back into her pocket before unlocking several of the deadbolts on her door. When she opens it, she’s greeted with a shape darting past her- in the form of a short, round Beagle- and into her living room.
She looks back at Micah.
“Sorry, I, uh…” he hesitates for a moment. “Do you want to hold onto Cherry for a little while?”
Sierra blanches at this question, opening her mouth to speak but finding no ready answer for him.
So Micah continues: “It’s just, I’m still sifting through possible new homes for her, and I can do that from Illinois, you know?” He explains nervously. “But I’ve got nowhere else to take her. I know you could use a friend right now.”
Sierra watches Cherry sniff around her house, a flicker of unrecognizable emotion rising inside her. She turns back to Micah.
“I’m-“ her voice is hoarse. “I don’t know that I’d take care of her very well.”
But Micah shakes his head. “I know you will.” He holds up a bag- Sierra can see a dog food bowl and leash sticking out of the top. “What do you say?”
Sierra hesitates, but sees no way to react besides a nod. Micah thanks her, gives her his cell phone number, then says his goodbyes. She shuts her front door, slipping the locks back in place, and turns to the beagle now laying sprawled across the carpet, one of her slippers in his mouth.
She realizes, watching Cherry rip stuffing out of the left foot of the only pair of slippers she has, that any elation or joy of this turn of events was shadowed under hints of doubt and anxiety. It’s been a long time since Sierra had a pet. The boa constrictor she owned in college needed a small rabbit and a clean sweep of its aquarium once a month, as well as a full water bowl. That was about it.
That was less concerning than Sierra’s thoughts that she’d hurt Cherry; two years ago, she’d never think twice about that. But considering the amount of personal items she’d have to replace since she returned from duty- mirrors, dinnerware, as well as the holes in the walls from the time she unloaded her handgun onto the drywall- she wasn’t so sure an animal was the best idea.
But that other feeling, the one hidden by her personal doubts, was a feeling not unlike hope.
“So, Sierra. What brings you here today?”
The psychiatrist, Angela something- Sierra didn’t even attempt to pronounce her last name- was met with silence. The veteran before her kept a tense posture, looking around the room and seeming to consider answering before sighing in relent.
“I’m here for help,” Sierra says, avoiding Angela’s gaze. The latter waits for more explanation, then after a few seconds begins to scan the medical documents in her lap.
“You were diagnosed with severe post-traumatic stress while you were in Afghanistan, is that correct?”
“Well, that’s what my file says, isn’t it?”
Angela knows her client’s demeanor is one of her lines of defense, so she doesn’t push it.
“You never got treatment until now- it’s been over half a year.” Angela straightens the papers of Sierra’s file and lays them neatly on her desk, leaning forward onto her knees. “So why now?”
Sierra doesn’t reply for a few short minutes, but Angela is more than patient. The darker-haired woman is familiar with PTSD as well as the walls those with the disorder will build as a defense mechanism.
Angela is almost startled when Sierra does speak. “My fuckin’ neighbor gave me his dog the other day,” she says.
Waiting a few seconds for her to continue, Angela responds: “You don’t seem to be happy about that.”
Sierra just sighs, shaking her head. “No, I am- I mean,” she runs a hand through dirty blonde hair, “I’ve known him, his wife and dog for a few years. I’ve always loved his dog.”
Again, there’s a few moments of silence before Sierra speaks.
“I’m afraid I’m gonna hurt her.”
“The dog?” Angela inquires, and Sierra nods a response.
“I haven’t exactly been known for handling the flashbacks well,” Sierra explains hesitantly, “which is one of the reasons I was discharged.”
Sierra goes quiet again, and she doesn’t care how long she has to sit in here- she’s not planning on talking about that. Nor thinking about it.
Thankfully, Angela doesn’t ask.
It’s been two months. Sierra gives a look of disgust at the medications in front of her: Inderal in the morning, Buspar and Prozac mid-day and Trazodone for sleep. Xanax when she’s feeling particularly anxious. She won’t deny that they’ve helped, but she’ll never be comfortable being on so many medications at any given time. She’s taking them as prescribed, but Angela had warned her that sometimes, the flashbacks and nightmares could be stronger than the pills.
Tonight happens to be one of those nights.
Sierra had nodded out while writing a research paper for her History class. She’d been particularly stressed over the assignment, figured a Xanax wouldn’t hurt; later, when she calls Angela to tell her about the incident, she wonders if that was the cause.
She’s dreaming of her friend, Michelle. Sierra sees, along the filmreel playing in her head, the way Michelle would joke with or tease her. She relives late nights looking up at the stars, having strange conversations about universal energy and vibrations. She remembers Michelle kissing her under those same stars.
Then she remembers the barrage of bullets that hit the operating base, and the impact of her commanding officer’s body against hers as he tackled them both to the ground to take cover. Sierra can see her hands fumbling to grab her rifle and an extra set of ammo. She smells smoke, hears the deafening boom of IEDs and grenades, the shouting commands of her unit as well as similar toned voices in another language. Some of the shouts turn into cries of pain, and Sierra does everything she can to focus on setting up defense.
It isn’t until she stumbles over Michelle’s body, sprayed so abundantly with bullets that Sierra has to do a double take, that she finally wakes up.
She screams awake, and hardly notices Cherry’s yelp of surprise as her feet accidentally kick into the beagle under her desk. She darts to the floor, sliding across the carpet to grab the pistol under her mattress. Sierra cocks her weapon, shuts and locks her bedroom door; then she heaves her work desk across the shag carpeting- the difficulty of the task doesn’t slow her down.
With a loud thud, the desk is overturned and shoved hard against the closed door. Sierra crouches at the door, the gun cocked, as she listens for sounds of enemy soldiers.
Cherry trots up beside her, placing a paw on Sierra’s knee, and looks up at her with questioning irises as if to say, “Mommy? What’s wrong?”
Sierra jerks slightly, looking down into large, innocent eyes. She hesitates for a moment, then curls an arm around Cherry’s chest, pulling her close.
“It’s okay, Cherry,” Sierra says. “I won’t let them hurt you, okay baby?”
Cherry gives a quick, sloppy kiss to the wrist holding onto her tightly. The images of blood and smoke, of Michelle’s injuries as she lay dead in the sand, her fellow soldiers darting off in different directions to take cover- they all begin to fade as Sierra watches the small animal in her arms. She still hears gunfire, and her head continues to pound from the echoes of IEDs blasting in her eardrums.
But she lowers her gun, clicking the safety latch and setting it to the floor, before pulling Cherry into her arms. Sierra can’t decide if her tears are of grief, terror and despair, or if they’re tears of relief. The pops of bullets begin to fade, Cherry moves to lick clean Sierra’s tears, and the blonde smiles- a real, genuine smile that she hasn’t felt on her features in a very long time.
Bio: I’m a 24 year old female student at SCF. I am studying for a degree in English and Library Sciences; I plan on studying many more topics and may work on getting other degrees. I currently work as a Student Assistant at the SCF library, and in my free time I enjoy writing, drawing, jewelry making and crochet, playing guitar, and reading.