Been bad since I been back. Nothing's right anymore. It's like I went over, did my time, got stuck in three consecutive tours of duty, and while I was festering in some desert crap-nest everything went off the rails. I like to think that maybe somewhere the Real Me is living the life he was meant to live. Wife didn't cheat on him; didn't default on the mortgage. Maybe the Real Me has good dreams instead of bad ones, the dreams of the just instead of the nightmares of the guilty.
I go to sleep every night, and just as I'm falling asleep I see the faces at my window: the Iraqi boy with the paper hat; the old woman, all her teeth gone to rot; Sergeant Adams, Jake Kowalski. Sometimes they come in my room, sit on my chest, and steal my breath.
I wake up every morning remembering bad dreams. But it's not the war dreams that bother me. It's the dreams of the big red barn. Tall under the full moon. Windows like eyes. Big door like a big mouth. I know where that barn is

Meals-Ready-to-Eat: MREs. Different s**t in different rations, and "s**t" is the operative word. Sloppy Joes look like runny diarrhea. The vegetable lasagna looks like runny diarrhea. The chili macaroni stuff, well, that looks like runny diarrhea given over to grubs and maggots.
I do like the Cajun rice and sausage, though. Thank God for small favors.

The say it's probably PTSD: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Not that I get much help for it. For all the rah-rah-go-troops fanfare, the VA says they just don't have the money. Plus, it's not like I got a leg blown off at the knee or anything. Not like Gomez.
Today, I decided I'm going to tell somebody else besides the shrink.
******** it. I'll tell Gomez. Yeah, he'll laugh at me. Probably punch me in the shoulder, call me a p***y or something, and I'll ask him what the word for "p***y" is in Mexican, and he'll tell me to shut the ******** up because he grew up in Wichita and not Tijuana.
I'll tell Gomez...

The FRH's, Flameless Ration Heater, heats up MREs. Fill it with water, and the s**t heats up. Sometimes you put the FRH into a sleeve and stick the MRE over top it. I've seen some where you just hold the heater underneath it, and I've heard tell of others where you just drop the whole MRE into the bag. I guess it's got magnesium or something in it that makes the heat. Bastards get pretty hot. They gotta be to cook through all that runny diarrhea.

I thought it was off the rails before but that wasn't true. No, now it's really, really, definitely, undeniably off the rails. Gone south. Off the reservation. AWOL, FUBAR, SNAFU.
Tried calling Gomez, but he wasn't picking up. It was late, figured he could be asleep. So I went to his house, this little ramshackle roach motel just outside town. See, we're brothers, in the way that we both got shot at together and shot the enemy together, and so that means he trusts me enough for me to have a key. So I went in.
Jesus Christ, Lord Almighty, it isn't a dream. It isn't a dream. There they were. Sitting on Gomez' chest: Kowalski; the Iraqi boy; some goddamn pirate CD and DVD merchant out of Baghdad who I hadn't even remembered until now. They were sitting on his chest, had his mouth open, and were pulling the breath out of his throat in threaded tufts like it was yarn or fog or something, working it with their dead fingers. Gomez' eyes were open, pupils gone to tiny pinholes. I made a sound and banged my knee on a side-table. A lamp crashed to the ground. The things, whatever they were, hissed at me and fled through the window. The closed window. Clean through the glass.
Gomez woke up. And we talked into morning.
He's been seeing them since he came back, too. And he's been dreaming of the big red barn. The barn down off Mill Street. I told him we better call the other boys. Been too long, I said. You come back from a bad place and a bad situation, and sometimes you push everything about that awfulness to the margins, even the few things that were good. Like your brothers.
Shouldn't have let it go that long. Gomez agreed.
Before we called Danny Boy and Maynard, Gomez said something, something that still give me chills.
He said, "I guess demons follow you home."

MREs, we call them al kinds of other things: MRE Antoinette; MRE Osmond (or "Donnie and MRE" wink ; Meal, Ready to Excrete; or Morsels, Regurgitated and Eviscerated. Some say they're "three lies for the price of one"-it ain't a meal, it ain't ready, and you damn sure can't eat it. I knew a guy who called the package of hot dogs the "fingers of death," since they looked like... well, gross gray fingers, like the fingers that tried to pull the living breath or soul or whatever out of Gomez' open mouth.
A lot of MREs come with these too-sweet candies. Call 'em "charms," in the way that they're bad luck charms, not good luck charms. You don't eat them because they're bad luck. Story says you eat them, and you're not coming back unless it's on a stretcher or carried on a blood-slick tarp.
I always ate them, though. Like I was spitting in fate's eye.

The barn looked hungry. Like a tall red giant, or the face of one at least, all hollow-eyed and open-mouthed. Nobody lived here anymore, and the farmhouse just up the driveway looks like it's about to fold in on itself, deflating like a blown tire. But the barn? The barn seems like it has a new coat of paint. Wood doesn't have a bit of rot. In the moonlight, you can see the windows are clean and clear.
And as Maynard points out, you can see the faces through the glass, watching us come. Their faces. The dead faces.
I have to tell Danny Boy to relax, to wait, or he's going to just start shooting up the place with that AR-15 of his. Maynard echoes the sentiment, and actually puts his hand on the weapon and has Danny Boy calmdown a bit. That was always their deal; Danny on the cusp of crazy, crazier than a s**t-house spider, and Maynard with the calm voice, the crass joke, the softening presence behind those wire-rim spectacles.
Gomez says he going in. He got his old M1 Garand -his grandfather's weapon, he says- and he marches right up to that barn. Well, I don't know that he marches, exactly: that fake leg of his is rough stuff, barely fits his stump thanks to the efficiency of the good ol' VA. But he limps with purpose and throws open the door.
And it's dark inside.

Even with the flashlights on, it seems like the barn swallows the light. I see movement up in the hay rafters, but pointing the light up there earns me a glimpse of nothing. Maynard calls out, says he sees something down here, something "lookin' at him," but when we all throw our beams in that direction, we see it's just a deer skull and antler rack hanging on the wall. We laugh. It feels good to laugh. It doesn't last long.
'Cause that's when they swoop down, hungry.
At first I think it's just a few of them. The little Iraqi boy darts in front of me but I can't get a shot because Danny Boy is backing up and he's in my FOF, my field of fire. I see the old woman toward the door with a wooden cart, and with powerful arms she closes the door.
The flashlights start to flicker, wink out. One by one. Mine goes first. I feel feet kick me in the chest. Hands pull my wrists taut, leaving me spread on the floor like Jesus on the cross. My .45's gone, and I don't even know where.
Before his light goes out, I see Maynard's down, too. I see Kowalski perched on his chest like a big vulture, drawing out his breath. Behind them I see a bunch of shapes getting closer. I see Private Keens. I see that mercenary ********, Bobby Utrecht. I see two little girls. They're not dead like they were in Baghdad. Not blown to pieces. Not shot. Not bloody. But they're dead, all right. Dead hands reaching.
The his light goes out.

I feel my breath leaving me, tugged away in great vomited ropes.
My cheeks go cold.
My hands are numb.
Every sound is a bad echo, incomplete and distant.
But I hear one thing.
I hear Gomez yell out: "MREs!"
And there's a little thought in me that wants to laugh and say, yep, s**t, we are Meals, Ready to Eat, aren't we? Morsels soon to Regurgitated and damn sure Eviscerated.
Then, though, I realize: Gomez means something else entirely.
You can make a bomb out of an MRE, you know that? Not a big bomb. Not like the bombs you find strapped to lunatics or underneath Humvees.
But it's a bomb nevertheless.
The FRH, the heater, gives off hydrogen.
You can capture that. Blow it to hell. Make a bang. Make some shrapnel. Gomez was always good with the MRE, the Meals Ready to Explode.

Don't know how many he made.
Lots of white flashes and hot shrapnel stinging my cheek.
Lots of dead faces illuminated in flash-bangs.
My .45 is back in my hand, and the blood is coming back to my fingers, toes and lips.
The demons follow us home. The AR-15 barked fire. The Springfield in my hand spit bullets.
It was war, all over again. The dead, dying once more.