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Short Story
5,316 words
SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017


by Roisin McLean

Behind him, the door latched shut with a heavy chuck-click, and before his knapsack hit the floor, First Lieutenant Stefan Forrest spun around in a crouch with an invisible M16A2. Get a grip, he thought, and straightened to six-five, then stooped to the peephole just to be sure. Satisfied with the all-clear, he picked up the Soldier’s Angels’ transitional knapsack and threw it to the hotel’s floral peach and moss bedspread, the seams of which did not match properly, peony to peony, iris to iris, as they should.

His Deaf mother, a tailor, devoted impeccable attention to such visual detail, a trait that had informed his senses, his way of thinking, of being. If she were here, she would shake her head and sign large about the spread’s example of productivity-crazed sloppiness. He imagined a bonfire-sized heap of limp and ragged quilting scraps with petrified body parts sticking out at all angles—yet another prickly image of past confronting present. Or present skewering the past. Hard to tell which took precedence. All he really needed was—. Was what? A good long dose of oblivion, he guessed.

He lay down beside the bed, clasped his hands under the black stubble of his buzz-cut skull, and assessed the situation while his eyes traced crescent swirls in the white stucco ceiling. Honorably discharged, almost home, and free. As free as any soldier back on U.S. soil who has learned the price. Which started the roller coaster ride from the trenches of his mind spiraling down to his bowels, where he, a shit-faced homunculus, hid from himself.


Survivor guilt gurgled in his windpipe with a snore. Soaked in fear, he awoke with a jerk half under the bed and bashed his forehead on the metal frame—hard proof that the weight of Carl’s headless body, splayed akimbo, was not trapping his legs, flooding him in blood. Moose wasn’t there either, dragging him to safety, with canines gentle yet firm on his arm. The box spring smelled of chemicals and dust, and a violent sneeze banged his head again in the casket-close space. Panting, he thrust his head from under the bedspread out to fresh cooler air. Twilight filtered through drapes wafting in breeze at the window. He recited his mantras. First, mind over body. Second, mind over brain—bizarre, he knew, but ever since he’d surfaced from oblivion at 212th MASH near Najaf, a transparent silver curtain had encased his brain like a cozy body bag, disconnecting “him” from his now former “self,” and everything changed.

His pulse and breathing gradually slowed. Moose, his chocolate Lab back home, couldn’t have been here anyhow. Stefan tried to sense her in his mind. Her velvet-soft ears. Her intelligent, gold-flecked eyes ascertaining his mood. Her tail thumping in a happy wag as she slept. The smell of fresh-mown grass on the pads of her paws even in winter. He tried to picture her, but her image rippled like desert heat.

Nearby machine roar clenched his gut. He wrested his legs free of the bed, sprang between it and the door, and twisted back and forth to gauge the whereabouts of the enemy, his good ear still learning to work alone. He flung the door open so hard it crashed into the wall and scared the daylights out of a pony-tailed maid steering a vacuum past his room. Too frightened to scream, she fled down the hall.

“Sorry,” Stefan called as she ran behind the vacuum, which careened and lurched until it banged into the wall, fell over, and blocked the hall. She leapt the noisy machine in a glorious stride and disappeared through a stairwell door.

An undeniably menacing figure, Stefan noticed, blocked the light spilling from his room to the dim hallway. And the shadow, of course, didn’t show his whole story.

He shut the door and didn’t startle at the chuck-click this time. He sat on the bed, folded his hands in his lap, and waited for the MPs. Not MPs, he corrected himself, hotel security guards.

Minutes passed. The vacuum roar stopped. No knock on the door. No sound.

He bounced on the mattress—the yielding of it a middle ground in time. Behind him, sandbags, cots, and hospital beds. Ahead, his comfy, king-size bed at home, an extra-long so his feet fit. Home. He sank his face into his hands, felt the cleft in his cheek, the throbbing egg on his forehead.

Mind over brain. Everything would be OK at home. Family. Church. Interpreting in sign language for the Deaf congregation in the front right pews—his mom, Aunt Sydney, and their long-time Deaf-school friends. As with Moose, their images wavered, a blur of signing hands.

The congregation would be proud of him, of course. At least on the surface. Had they prayed for his kills? Or would the kills make them shun him now? What on earth could he say to them? My name is Stefan, I’m a murderer, haven’t a clue what “right thinking” means, and “Semper Fi”? “Right-wing Christian” and “righteous pacifist” had become twisted rhetoric now that Iraq had torn him to shreds. Maybe it would make sense by Sunday. What day was it anyway? His head pounded. He touched the bump on his forehead and checked his fingers. No blood.

In the fluorescent-lit bathroom, he downed three glasses of cold water and peered at his face. A lunar landscape. Right temple with burgeoning purple-crested lump. Cavernous blue-gray eyes. High cheekbones. Shrapnel crater in left cheek. Dimples, which after thirty years still looked boyish rather than Marlboro Man rugged. Fear’s pallor had drained his skin of its desert tan. Funny. He didn’t feel afraid just now; it was only a nightmare. Only? Only recurring torturous memories that he both did and did not want to forget. He must remember and honor the dead, no matter what.

A shower would help. He twisted the silver-link watch over his knuckles and curled it behind the chrome faucet on the sink. After he stripped, he lost his balance—not uncommon when the hearing goes, he had learned—and landed on the toilet, where he sat for a while, elbow on knee, imagining himself as Rodin’s Thinker holding a cold wet washcloth to his fiery forehead. The throbbing marched to the beat of his pulse, like bursts from his rifle, without which he still felt vulnerable to the crosshairs of another.

The ceramic floor tiles, cold on the soles of his feet, reminded him of the two-day autumn between summer and winter over there—the dusty, bloody world across the sea. Stefan reached for the bath mat draped on the tub, whose white porcelain shone like the sunny smiles of Sunni children. They mass when he flashes packs of Chiclets, some shy at first but then friendly compatriots practicing salutes and marching hup until parade rest. Their hair is the same color as his, so dark the highlights shine blue in the sun.

He couldn’t reach the mat, so he stood and stretched for it, dropped it to the floor, raised the toilet seat lid, sat again. He tried to piss until it hurt, but nothing happened. No news flash there. Landstuhl nurses were forever tsk-tsk’ing at his teaspoon’s worth in the damn bedpan. He had strained so hard to merit their good graces he produced hemorrhoids instead of one-and-a-half liters of daily urine.

Without rising, he turned the sink spigot and listened to the water. When that didn’t work, he closed his eyes and pictured the bathroom back home. His Deaf mom had researched how to accommodate his hearing and bought a framed photo of Niagara Falls, which she hung at his toddler eye level when he sat on the “throne.” All that, when she couldn’t even hear water running, didn’t know it made sound, couldn’t know what sound was. He wept without tears. All he wanted in the world was her. And an hour of boredom. And to piss in peace. Carl can’t piss anymore, so why should I, Stefan asked of no one because he knew the doctors’ answer: it was all in his head. A head full of piss. Shit for brains. Welcome home.

Swaddled by steam in the shower, he got a crazy idea, too impulsive to justify, and it excited him in a way he had no choice but to indulge. He rushed to towel off and dress in white civvies, which he must stop calling civvies because now they were, as before—how long ago?—simply clothes. The cover of the phone book tore as he dislodged it from the drawer of the walnut-veneer desk. Running his index finger down the “Body Piercing” column in the Yellow Pages, he stopped short: no chalky desert dust coated his hand. He basked in cleanliness until a sense of inner filth erupted in his gut. His index finger rested on a large ad for an APP-approved studio called “Wild Will’s.” Probably swarming with anti-war youth, so slouched in their cup of apathy they couldn’t see past the rim. What with his military posture still branding him a soldier, they’d probably smirk in their self-righteous fashion. Or stare at his neck, no longer ramrod straight. No matter—he was set on this crazy idea, and there’d be plenty of time to rationalize it later.


Along the walls of Wild Will’s studio, chrome-framed photos and mirrors reflected superimposed views: cars on the street and a kaleidoscope of gems on rotating carousels— ruby, Volvo, emerald, Honda, topaz, Camry, sapphire, Lexus. The place felt right, and Stefan smiled, soothed by the colors of Christmas tree lights and of stained-glass windows backlit with sun. The absence of other customers suited him fine.

Alcohol tinged the air in the antiseptic back corner. White cartons emblazoned with red type lined the counter—STERILE gauze prep wipes, STERILE capped syringes, and STERILE latex gloves—with a BIOHAZARD on a bright blue canister for used needles. The padded chair felt comfortable with its adjustable headrest, but Wild Will, a Nam vet—“once a soldier, always a vet, and we vets hang together forever, y’know”—insisted on jerry-rigging some towels to support Stefan’s neck. A useless gesture—his neck was fused there—but he let Will do the fellow-vet thing. Will’s appearance inspired partial confidence: meticulously clean, well-groomed fingernails; flabby triceps; and a gray wispy beard sporting different kinds of crumbs.

“Ready? This will hurt a bit,” Will warned as he leaned in to begin.

No shit, Stefan thought, but he kept his mouth shut—best not to insult a vet with a needle in his hand. Stefan closed his eyes and pondered the irony of his decision, which is when he understood how really crazy it was: paying to insert metal into flesh from which shrapnel had been removed. Smooth—sharp. Choice—force. Peace—war. Holy War—what a fucking oxymoron.

Too angry to want to believe in God anymore—thanks to 9/11, Iraq, and now this curtain around his brain that effectively sealed him off from himself, the Marines, and the rest of the world—he refused to give up on Christ. One helluva conundrum, believing in the prophet but not the god. A god who chose not to intercede when the powerful elite garbled their secular agenda: Holy Oil. Our Father, who art in Humvee, hallowed be thy frame, thy pistons hum, thy war be won, red Ford, blue Plymouth, black Lincoln.


“So?” Will asked, handing Stefan a mirror.

Stefan jumped. Once again, he’d taken a mental powder.

He forgot and tried to lift his neck, which of course wouldn’t yield, then lowered and angled the mirror to check that Will had followed his specifications.

Three garnets paralleled the curve of his right ear lobe, like three stars in the Islamic crescent that proclaimed to the heavens every mosque dome and minaret, so he could honor each of the righteous-eyed lives he’d taken with 30-round bursts from his M16—three young lives, barely teens. Down the rubble-strewn street, two writhe, shriek Arabic—at him or for mother or Allah?—and finally slump against each other, still, silent, as silent as the blood pooling beneath them. Nearby, in the doorway of a pitted stone house, a twitching third lies on his side, his long black curls in a whorl around his head. The boy’s astonished gaze shifts from the AK47 on his fingerless palm to Stefan’s approaching boots, ankle-deep in dust, and then up to Stefan’s eyes, where the gaze fixes forever, life gone, just like that. The tingling starts in Stefan’s soles and rises, a systemic peristaltic wave that soon vibrates his knees, his hands, and the M16. It numbs his cheeks and clamps a lead skullcap to his brain, which strains to flee, can’t, and replays the scene in visual dry heaves because his eyes are impaled on the dead boy’s gaze.

“Can you see OK?” Wild Will asked.

Stefan shifted the mirror. Gracing the curve of each nostril were two steel beads, one for Juan, one for Denzel. Leading the convoy into Najaf, Denzel’s truck trips an IED and explodes. His arm with the “Ma” tattoo, severed at the shoulder and flung with the truck door, slams into Stefan’s bulletproof windshield, which crumples into accordion pleats of tie-dyed red and camo green.

“Hey, you OK?” Will asked, ducking to see into Stefan’s eyes. A crumb dropped from his beard onto Stefan’s white trousers.

Stefan nodded. Battery B, 3rd Battalion, 104th Field Artillery. Good men. But they’re jumpy and learn fast to distrust all Iraqis, all Muslims. Stefan objects in principle but can’t blame his men and doesn’t try to dissuade them; their lives there depend on their misplaced hate.

“Stay put. I’ve got just the thing,” Will said, gesturing to the back of the studio as he rose.

Stefan brushed the crumb from his thigh and tilted the mirror. A steel bead ring, a circle of friendship, pierced his right eyebrow to honor Carl, a South Jersey farm boy who looks up to him as to a surrogate father. Carl’s headless body props for an infinite second on the turret gun, a silhouette bleeding on a yellow sky. His torso and wobbly scarecrow limbs collapse in slow motion onto Stefan. The fall of body and darkness. The explosion in Stefan’s neck and ear, when sticky, salty warmth floods his face, runs up his nose and down his throat, and he doesn’t know if he’s choking on Carl’s blood or his own. The pall of half-heard whispers at 212th MASH near Najaf, whispers that didn’t stop in Landstuhl and won’t now or ever.

Stefan swung the mirror to his left. Bizarre, a deafened ear with tinnitus. His deaf ear heard ringing—sometimes exasperating beyond comprehension, sometimes soothing like the cosmos humming. Sometimes it didn’t ring at all. In the lobe of the deaf ear, a clear crystal now shone, a talisman of hope rooted in his flesh in honor of his mom and Aunt Syd’s think-positive, can-do ethic. Would they feel blessed he’s now half-deaf? Long accustomed to drifting between cultures, between the hearing and deaf worlds, Stefan knew he was now being torn apart—between Iraq and home, desert and river, past and present, faith and doubt. Lost, lost, and still not found.

Will returned with a manila folder. “Chicks go wild, dude, over piercings on the glans.” His salacious grin revealed a large silver bead in the middle of his tongue. And surprisingly small teeth, like those of the young Shiites, giggling and scrambling for Fritos and Oreos. Their skin is olive-bronze, a shade darker than Stefan’s.

“Just the thing you need,” Will said. He took the mirror from Stefan and handed him the folder, opened to His and Her photos of turquoise-studded genitalia. Will’s bald spot shone as he hunched near-sighted over the upside-down photos and admired his handiwork—or perhaps the excited genitalia, if his flushing pate was a clue. If studding your prick wasn’t crazy, Stefan didn’t know what was. And with that involuntary disgust came the clarity of stadium lights blazing on night sky: his intuitive rationale for getting pierced was to honor the fallen on both sides of the war, to rebel against the authority which made him a party to it, and to respect his lifeline, his Deaf family’s innate hope. All of which stood befouled by these studded pricks and clits. Whatever happened to monogrammed towels? Stefan wondered, feeling prudish and old, older than Will, older than Queen Victoria, a joke of a Marine. The kids shouldn’t see this—. Mind over brain. Home.

Stefan shoved the folder away and grabbed a wad of bills from his wallet. He hardly listened to Will’s aftercare instructions about H2Ocean, a can of saltwater spray. Stefan shoved the can in a pants pocket with the receipt.

“And—this is important—to avoid bacterial infection, no swimming for six weeks!”

Stefan smiled at the jingle of bells on the door, the breeze on his face. Just a few hours more, and he’d be home.


The southbound bus lulled him to sleep. When he awoke by the window, the aisle seat held only a People magazine. Stefan couldn’t remember a seatmate. It was a blank—another split suture exposing the curtain for what it was: an alien patchwork of BEFORE stitched to the unthinkable IN-BETWEEN, awaiting shapeless swatches of the YET-TO-COME. The shrinks at Landstuhl deemed the curtain a defense mechanism, but Stefan was convinced it had mutated like a virus, filtering reality and even childhood memories through Iraq. His gut told him not to tell the shrinks that. He bluffed and told them what he sensed they wanted to hear—“Yes, indeed, a miracle I knew sign language before becoming deaf.” Incredibly, they bought his absurd statement and sent him home without PTSD penned on his chart.


His swollen bladder stabbed a knife stroke of pain through his gut, and a deep voice on the other side of the curtain said blah-blah-blah pit stop. Stefan lurched and banged his forehead into thick windowpane. His arms were hugging his shins, with his knees tucked up under his chin. Pain and panic collided in his mind. Was he really here on this bus? Or was he comatose in Landstuhl, this trip his life’s reprise as his lungs filled with piss? Were these the death throes of memory? Why mask horror with horror? Wait—masking death throes was an act of compassion, not evil. Was the curtain God? Round and round, and back to ground zero. Stefan’s head ached so bad he wished it would explode. Passengers peeked and stared and gave him a wide berth as they piled off the bus to stretch their legs.

Mind over body. Mind over brain. He trailed the bus driver into a Wawa convenience store. Stefan liked Wawa’s; there was one back home. Everything would be OK at home. Newspapers lined the storefront racks: Asbury Park Press, Ocean County Observer. The words floated out of reach, wouldn’t process into meaning. He grabbed a bottle of Excedrin Migraine and joined the driver at the coffee machine.

“What state are we in?” Stefan asked.

The bus driver spoke through a yawn. “The Pope says a state of grace.” He chuckled at his wit and passed Stefan the carafe.

Pennsylvania? Kansas! “Pardon?” Stefan leaned closer with his good ear and poured rich Colombian Dark Roast into a small cup.

“New Joisey. Garden State. Take your time, Joe. I gotta see a man about a horse.”

Stefan looked around, wondering what era and bathroom the driver had in mind. He noticed out the window part of a sign not obscured by the bus: “—aghan’s Liquors.” Monaghan’s Liquors? Only then did Stefan recognize the store, his Wawa, his Route 37 outside. The joy that surged through his chest slammed to a stop, imploded into shame. The unexpected shock of it made him dizzy.

It took several tries to get the carafe back in the rimmed base. Stefan gripped the countertop. This wasn’t right. He’d lain tense in traction week after week fearing separation of head and body, recovered from surgery to fuse cervical vertebrae, and shared pride with ward mates for serving their country. With great ceremony, the commander had pinned Purple Hearts to their hospital gowns, everyone’s but Stefan’s. Not to worry, just a paperwork snafu; it would come after he was stateside. A blessing in disguise—without an award, he could pretend Iraq never happened. But it had, and here he was, and what the hell was wrong with him? How could he be unworthy of home? He reached for his piercings to be sure they were there. Under the crystal of hope, the lobe of his deaf ear burned hot and sore.

The bus driver left, disappearing around the corner, no doubt looking for a private wall behind the store. Stefan glanced at the fisheye mirror over the counter and met the eyes of a not-so-old woman with flowing white hair. Her eyes were his eyes, slate blue, recessed, haunted. He paid and headed for the bus but turned back to search for her in the parking lot. Did he know her? She had vanished. Was the curtain mutating again, conning his senses with more sophistication? He had to stop this, stop seeing things that weren’t there.

He collected his knapsack from the bus and nodded to the bus driver, whose relaxed face issued pleasure at recent urination. Lucky SOB, Stefan thought, You just don’t know. The bus doors swished shut behind him. His bladder felt like a football shoved up his ass. Why him? He flushed and spat on the macadam. Damn stupid question; he was alive after all. Why him? He headed on foot across Route 37 past the bungalows on West End Ave. to see if the river had disappeared, too.


Stefan stood on the boardwalk and sipped his coffee. Its steam twisted away on river breeze. He watched a motorcyclist play, cut the corner too close at the open-air Pavilion, skid on the gravel where the Edgewater Hotel used to be, right the bike, and gun up the hill toward the delicatessen with the sustained racket of an M16’s 90-round burst. Out of sight, the motorcycle backfired. Stefan dove behind a bench. The impact punched urine from his distended bladder.


He came to. Hanging off a bulkhead. Wet with sweat. Sprawled on a boardwalk. The scent of saltwater-logged hardwood signaled home. A few feet from his face, brown waves rocked and cradled a coffee cup. As he stretched to fish it out, the green plastic bottle of Excedrin fell from his shirt pocket and floated. Staring at the bottle as it bobbed on his reflection, he wondered if he was actually the reflection looking up at a bottle that half-hid his doppelgänger and the heavens beyond. Maybe he should hit the bottle. Maybe he already had. He sat up and patted his pockets for a flask. Finding none, he eyed his coffee-splotched shirt and yellowed crotch. The future smelled of piss.

He scouted the boardwalk for witnesses. At the far end of the bulkhead, an old man scooped a crab net from the water, inspected it, turned the net inside out, and shook back his catch. Must be less than 4½ inches, not a “keeper,” Stefan thought. By law, the young crab was the river’s charge. To check the waterfront panorama, he leaned back and right at the waist to compensate for his neck’s downward tilt. Not a soul in sight except for the old man—just colorful Victorians on the rise facing the river and the expanse of blue sky between their gables and tall evergreens on the southern bank.

He stared again at his soiled clothing and knew that his mom, whose senses compensated for her deafness, would smell the urine even if he clenched his thighs. Aunt Syd would smell it, too, if she stopped off for lunch from her UPS job. What time was it? He upended the knapsack on his lap. No watch; he must have left it somewhere. After scouting again for spies, he hunkered down behind the bench and changed into a navy blue T-shirt and frayed cut-off jeans, commando-style, with the can of H2Ocean shoved in a pocket.

His deaf ear’s ringing fell silent. In its silence, peace amplified the lapping of river waves. The wind shifted, and spray over the bulkhead felt good and right on his desert-parched skin. He closed his eyes. The rhythmic lapping soothed, reached his desiccated senses. He gulped the salt-water air, the smell of wet rope, a full-to-bursting lungful of air that resurrected a feeling of something he once knew. He squeezed the crystal in his sore left ear so hard his eyes flew open, pinched, and teared. He yanked up the knapsack flap, crammed in his sandals and soiled wet clothes, leapt off the boardwalk onto sand—wet Jersey shore sand—and tore along the narrow beach toward his mom, Aunt Syd, and Moose while he sang a capella with the gulls, I am coming home.

The strong odors of fuel at the boatyard turned his stomach, but he didn’t break stride, the familiar smell urging him on to the cove and the sun-dappled path that curved uphill through firs to a clearing, his back yard, home. Just shy of the path, he keeled over except for his right foot, which stuck flat on the sand. He instantly knew, of course, what had happened, what is bound to happen when running barefoot anywhere near a boatyard. The nail in his heel attached to a plank buried in the sand. With piercing pain, he unearthed the board and thrust his full weight on it with his left foot. The nail released him.

His blood seeped into the sand. Just like the blood seeps into the sand despite the steady pressure of Stefan’s hands on Juan’s gaping chest. Juan, crack-up comic who’s good for morale when the men slump into glum and grim. Juan, whose blood spews like geysers through Stefan’s fingers. The whole convoy is under attack, and the medic is too many trucks back. Juan gurgles the word “keelhaul” until he dies, which makes no sense. Is he saying “kill all”? “Kahlil”? Stefan’s deaf ear resumed its ringing.

Mind over body. Mind over brain. He sat on the damp sand and propped the wounded heel on his left thigh. In his pocket, the can of H2Ocean, the healing saltwater spray, jabbed his groin, and urine spurted and stopped. Stefan set the can on the sand and rummaged in the knapsack for the coffee-stained shirt, which he tied tight around his foot. Pausing, as though responding to a muezzin’s call from a mosque minaret, he prayed the prayer of watching helplessly as Juan died again on the back of his eyelids. Before he could think “Amen,” a burning bush howled “three of ours,” a smoldering beard yowled “three of ours,” and the breath of spring tide whispered “six of mine.” The can of H2Ocean toppled and rolled into the waves.

Hobbling, Stefan dragged the sodden plank to the scrub. He pressed the side with protruding nails into the sandy soil. No one else would get hurt now, not even a dog. He limped to the river, where small saltwater waves chilled the soles of his feet and stung the new wound. He waded in up to his calves, grabbed the floating can, and tossed it to the sand.

The river was shallow here, and he sat clumsily without leaning on his pierced heel. He lowered himself backward into the cold that shrank his testicles to walnuts. Rocked by waves, he half-floated, half-scraped the pebbly cove bottom. Above the saltwater scent, the fragrance of white pine and purple iris wafted down from his yard. It was May, almost June; the iris scent told him so. He sank his head into the cold. His right ear pulsed with the river’s underwater roar, and his left ear sensed only a hum of pressure—the same song but heard in decibel extremes. One river yet an alpha and omega in his head. “F’ing A,” Juan says with his contagious grin. “Amazin’ O,” Denzel croons in his laid-back drawl. Carl says nothing; he has no head.

Stefan came up for air and studied a quadrant of sky and tops of Loblolly and Eastern pines inland, from which gulls flapped to soar on the prowl over the cove. He shivered and shimmied out to deeper water, losing his makeshift bandage in the process, and swam, sputtered, and choked. The crawl, his favorite stroke, no longer worked; his fused neck held his nose under water. He switched to a backstroke and swam out past the cove so he could see downriver to the bay and the bridge beyond.

Noise exploded all around him. He searched the sky for incoming—nothing. He twisted in the water and spotted a motorboat upriver, its roar echoing off the banks as it bore down on the bay bridge and him in between. The water warmed between his thighs as his bladder released at last, and he waffled between physical relief and remorse—better to piss in a river than on a bus seat, but pissing in this river felt like blasphemy. Still pissing, he swam awkwardly toward the nearest land: the Point, his favorite beach, now deserted and abandoned to dune grass years ago.

As the motorboat passed, he hit the Point’s sandbar hard and scraped the back of his neck raw. He limped ashore and sank dripping on the weathered bulkhead. River and bay gusts collided at the Point, and wind-whipped sand stung his neck. Shivering, he stripped off his wet shirt and rubbed his arms briskly. Across the expanse of river opening into Barnegat Bay, a Ferris wheel towered over a horizon of houses. For a moment, as he warmed in the sun, all felt right with the world. A fleeting thought. Naïve. But he added to his mantras: Blood is thicker than piss.

Heading back by foot, he stepped gingerly, heel to toe, pain every other step, and ringed the crescent of cove with bloodied footprints, which melted into themselves and ever-changing shoreline. Headed toward the path that led up to his yard above the beach to a mom whose face he could only half-remember. What would half her expression look like when she saw him limping in; saw his crooked, bleeding neck; when he couldn’t show her a Purple Heart yet; when he confessed he could piss himself at any moment; when the thought first occurred to her that he’d lost his mind? He cringed at the thought of horror in her eyes. No curtain clouded her vision.

Damn the curtain. To protect his family from it, from him, meant heading to the depot for a bus bound to God-only-knows. To have come this far, this near, for nothing? “Mind over brain” didn’t seem to be working. A rogue wave, precursor to high tide, licked his ankles. His toes burrowed in the sinking sand.

No choice. Leave. As he stooped to grab his knapsack, ancient sounds prickled his skin, his nostril hair. He jolted upright to face his good ear toward the trees, the hilltop, where barrel-chested Moose barked her recognition. Stefan felt sound then in his sternum, which thrummed with pitches of impatient yelping, of the whine and slam of a rusty-hinged screen door, of his mom who rarely spoke—never could pronounce his name—calling “TEFFA? TEFFA!” and of twig-snapping, leaf-crackling, heart-tackling love, still obscured by trees, spilling down the hill to greet him. Watching the boughs at the foot of the path, Stefan backed into the river and waited, crouching, braced for the leap of his dog and the unconditional whole of his mother’s face.


—From McLean’s The Fifth Eye (Serving House Books, November 2016); appears here with author’s permission

SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

Roisin McLean

is the author of The Fifth Eye: A Collection of Fiction and Creative Nonfiction. She received her B.A. in English (both Writing & Editing, and Language & Literature) from The Pennsylvania State University, and her MFA in Creative Writing, Fiction, from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Her work has been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize, and was a semifinalist for The Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Fiction (Nimrod/Hardman).

McLean’s fiction appears under various pen names in Perigee: Publication for the Arts, Fiction Week Literary Review, Serving House: A Journal of Literary Arts, and Pithead Chapel: An Online Journal of Gutsy Narratives, and is forthcoming in the inaugural issue of the FDU MFA Alumni Anthology. Her creative nonfiction appears in Winter Tales II: Women on the Art of Aging, in OH SANDY! A Humorous Anthology with a Serious Purpose (all profits of which benefit survivors of Hurricane Sandy), and in Runnin’ Around: The Serving House Book of Infidelity. Her interviews with ex-pat author Thomas E. Kennedy appear in The McNeese Review and Ecotone.

McLean worked as Managing Editor for Macmillan Publishing Company and in hands-on book production for other publishing houses, both on staff and freelance, for over thirty years. She currently writes, revises, updates homes, and serves as Associate Editor for Serving House Books.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury