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Breath & Shadow

Spring 2016 - Vol. 13, Issue 2


written by

Joanne Rixon

There's a gun. She likes its crisp, clear edges, the solid weight in her hand when she sits cross-legged on the bed in her dingy apartment. The room is dim at mid-day, because she's closed all the blinds to shut out the sky.


The bare lightbulb flickers. The other is burned out and she can't be bothered to fix it. The metal is warm on her palm as she dismembers the pistol, and it's still warm as she puts it back together.


She takes it apart again, runs a thumb over each piece. Catalogues their shape and heft until she knows them better than her own bones. Flicks her eyes to the drawer that holds the box of ammunition. There's nothing in particular that she wants to shoot, but she just knows: it's good to have a gun around. It's a Glock 17 Gen4 9mm, and it's beautiful.


She puts it back together, loads it. Unloads it, takes it apart again.


Sometimes the light from the streetlight stabs through the blinds; sometimes the gray haze of morning. The gun is the most constant thing in the world and even it wavers when she closes her eyes. She takes it apart, then puts it back together again. Apart. Together. Her hands remember what her brain cannot.


she thinks her brother is talking to her. His voice comes out of the phone, or through the panels of the apartment door. No matter where he is, he's fuzzy with distance.


"I made you an appointment, Lara," he says.


"You can't stay in here like this, it's not healthy."


He keeps talking, but no matter how she concentrates, his words don't sound like words. She hears only a jumble of noises. The walls of her apartment disappear, and then flicker back into existence before she can see what lies beyond them.


She blinks, and the windows are open. She looks out on her neighbor's trailer. A ragged tarp flutters over a jumble of old car parts and tires.


The withered shadows fall at odd angles, and the dry wind smells like asphalt and dust.


Past the trailer, the distance pulls on her like a fishhook in her lungs. It promises to show her what lies beyond, the shape of everything after. Her own shape is subtly different already, and she knows it. She can feel it. Her edges are blurred and unfamiliar and frightening.


Blink: beige and scuffed linoleum. Florescent bars along the ceiling, seventeen of them. They get smaller the farther away she looks, like her:


Smaller and dimmer. Two lines that narrow together but never quite connect. Like the lights, she flickers in and out of reality too fast for the eye to catch.


She sits in a shabby chair against the wall, waits. Doesn't make eye contact with the blank-faced man three chairs down. Conversations are dangerous territory these days. Even when she understands the words, they shift and tilt under her. In every sentence she can feel the abyss under the world threatening to swallow her.


Her therapist has no idea who she is. Every time she walks into his office, he skims her paperwork for identifying information: IED, medical discharge.


Her name.


Today is no different, and she hates him the same way she always does. He's the face of the diagnosis that says she's never getting better, but they have a system. He smiles and hands her yet another prescription.


She doesn't tell him that sometimes she imagines what his face would look like after she killed him.


Among the other things she doesn't tell him: the way the geometry of the sky becomes less rational every day. The way the future narrows and narrows the farther she looks. The thin spots she sees everywhere she goes, places where the fabric of the world is unraveling. She doesn't tell him any of these things, and then she's outside, squinting up at a flat sun in a hard blue sky.


Blink. Again. She doesn't remember how she got there.


"Army, huh? Thanks for your service," the cashier says, smiling and nodding at her sweatshirt, the U.S. Army logo emblazoned across her chest.


"Thank you for your service," the cashier says again, faltering at her lack of response.


What she hears is, “Thanks for all the nights you wake up weeping. Thank you for the inexplicable pain, and the painkillers that don't erase it, and thank you especially for the way you can't seem to stop taking them. There was never any point to it, but thanks. Thanks.”


She's too angry to speak, not drunk enough for tears, so she doesn't say anything back, just grunts, and pays for her Hot Pockets and case of Natty Ice, and leaves. When she walks out into the parking lot, the road stretches out, endless in front of her feet. The horizon's scorched angles are incorrect and also the only things that make sense to her anymore.


The world bends around her, and then she's back in her cheap apartment. A sliver of moon hovers outside the window in a clear sunset sky. Her Glock is warm and heavy in her hand. Her boots are laced to the top. The last can of beer is empty, and she has nothing else she wants to take with her.


She steps out the door into the sweltering, crooked twilight. The world is threadbare. When she bats at the fragile strands, the metal of the pistol in her hand breaks them apart. Stepping over to the other side feels like walking through a spider web.


On her second step, the edges of her self shiver toward a new alignment. She braces the Glock with her left hand, rests her right index finger along the frame just above the trigger. Somewhere, she thinks, there is a place where she can be real again. She doesn't know what it's going to look like, but she trusts the weapon in her hand to guide her. For the first time since the war, she's a single solid point. If anyone gets in her way, she'll go straight through them.


Shapes that promise color slowly coalesce in front of her. Hints of green and brown breathe like a kelp forest, nearly invisible under the camouflage of night. The breeze that greets her smells humid and young, and her feet are steady on the turf.


The gun sights pull her eyes forward. Her feet follow. Above her shine unfamiliar stars, and on the horizon the beginning of light, bright as an open wound.

Joanne Rixon lives in an undisclosed location with a rescue chihuahua named after a dinosaur; chronic pain and vile temperament, respectively, mean neither can be trusted not to bite a person on first introduction. Her fiction has appeared in Crossed Genres Magazine.

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