“The Pledge”

2018 Colorado Book Awards finalist for Anthology

By Mark Stevens and Dean Wyant

There are a couple of ways to enter this world. For the most part, it’s one.

Departure routes? The count isn’t complete. New ways to exit are being dreamed up every day. Desma wondered when she might stop thinking about her father. She stared into the face of the insurance agent, but she pictured her father. She kept imagining a conversation with the man who had let her down so hard.

Conversation? Hardly. She would be the one screaming in his face.

The insurance agent’s lips moved. The words carried an earnest flavor. The performance was Oscar-worthy. The message dripped with sincerity, but he didn’t care. Not really. He’d move on to the next loser. She saw his lips move, but didn’t hear the words. She gazed at his inert eyes but he avoided eye contact. No surprise. Nothing new.

He kept yammering about creditors. Assets. Debts. Forfeiture. She didn’t need every freaking detail. What was worse? Her father’s chosen exit from Planet Earth, a.k.a. Planet Disaster, or the mess he left behind? The nothing?

The straight-as-an-arrow evangelical pastor, serving a genteel mix of hard-working parishioners in one of Denver’s close-in, overlooked neighborhoods, had embezzled his way to the point where the only reasonable way out was for him to light the fire first and shoot himself second. The only sensible thing to do was to let everyone else sift through the ash of what he’d left behind and see if they could find a scrap.

Nothing but dust.

He embezzled from Living Hope Assembly of God for years. He started early, the forensic accountants had figured out, and turned it into a fine art. He’d been ratted out by his long-time assistant, a glum housewife who could no longer live with the double-whammy guilt of the theft and tending to his sexual needs during their adulterous affair. Yes, that too.

Desma’s father killed himself just before she got back from her first and only tour of duty. He timed his exit so he wouldn’t have to say anything to her, so he didn’t have to face his daughter and try to cobble together a lie that would make a difference.

The insurance guy wasn’t going to say it, but she knew.

The arson investigators would confirm it soon. The fire was deliberate. Desma only hoped he’d made it painless, somehow, for her mother and for their pup, the ageless Basilio. The Mexican parishioners treated the dog like a member of the family—king—and the regal Basilio accepted their affection with grace and patience. He didn’t deserve to die in a fire.

All gone. Father, mother, Basilio, property, assets, nothing.

She ushered the insurance man out. That is, she stood and held the door open. He might not have been done talking, but she was done listening.

“I’ll be in touch,” he said.

Whatever. She didn’t want to be touched. He didn’t have a pocket full of magic cash that would cover the motel lease— another month’s worth was due—or take care of her needs for the next year. When she left the Army she should have followed up on all their offers—job training, résumé building, all that crap. Something to do with the GI Bill benefits. But she wanted nothing to do with anyone in uniform after what she’d done, how things had ended up. The men who came home in a box because of what she’d done.

Desma flopped on the dingy bed. Soft, smoggy Denver light filled the room. A stiff, faded yellow drape filtered the dead October sun. The room’s brightest hours, midday, evoked a sad pallor. She swore the room’s vents were positioned to inhale exhaust from passing cars. The bedspread carried a whiff of cat pee. The heater under the window clanked and whirred, its thermostat a joke of technology. Meaningless. The bathroom was a place she spent as little time as possible. The fewer minutes inside, the lower risk of contracting an as-yet-undiscovered third-world disease. She’d spent a few bucks at the Dollar Store for Pine Sol and cheap bleach. Desma figured it had to have made a difference, even if nothing looked better.

No insurance money. No job. A damaged face. And, alone. She left one war to fight another.

Walking equaled escape and salvation. The only problem? Walking equaled the need for calories. She grew hungry more quickly. Maybe it was her military metabolism. She enjoyed moving. And at least she wasn’t exiled in the motel room, alone.

But hungry meant food and she needed money for that. She was running short. She was running nowhere. She had nothing.

Thanks to dear old dad. Betcher bottom dollar. Yeah, right.

Was this beat-up dollar her last? Should she have saved money on the bleach? Was it time to go full Ramen? Nineteen cents a serving, those little silver metal packs of chemical who- knows-what, Asian something?

She pictured the line of creditors the insurance guy described, pictured them pecking for scraps off the carcass her father left behind.

She had no job. She owned a hard-to-look-at face. Mangled. Scarred. Could she interview with her face turned? Maybe? Could she find a job over the phone?

The fresh air might clear her head. Denver changed so much in the two years she’d been gone—one year in country after one year of basic and advanced training at Fort Gordon, Georgia.

She thought about Chris, the guy she dated when she first returned. He cut hair. He made enough that for a few weeks she felt normal. She allowed herself to look ahead, a luxury. She’d shown him the empty lot where her house burned to the ground. She showed him the church the parishioners were scrambling to rebuild. He seemed sympathetic and said the right things.

The lift didn’t last.

Chris had tattoos up his arms, down his back. Sinister shit. He didn’t seem to care about the disfigurement to her face and chest. He claimed we were “all disfigured” in one way, inside or out. He said the right things. It turned out he wanted to disfigure her some more. He had money. And coke. And weed (but who didn’t?). For a few weeks, it was fun. But every day revolved around when they’d do it, at least once and maybe more. Chris was lead dog. She fell under his shadow, under his wing. But drunk or high, he grew dark. And then darker still.

Was she desperate? How desperate? Not enough to endure the humiliation. Following the third time with the rough stuff, she kicked him out of her life.

If he would’ve hung around, she knew she’d kill him.

She knew how.

Did he think her face meant she knew pain? That she wanted more? In the Army, she’d grown inured to death. She would never reconcile the effort that went into organized killing in Panwar Province with everything she’d been taught by her pastor-father. Logic didn’t cut it. All she knew was that she was one of millions who had been sent to war over the millennia, more often than not in the name of some god. She’d given her pledge “against all enemies, foreign and domestic…” The Army said kill. Allegedly, the Bible said don’t. But it wasn’t the enemy that took the lives of her five fellow soldiers. It was her mistake, inching the ASV forward when the supply convoy stopped to fix a flat tire. After all the training, she’d gone too far. A lax moment and five men got blown up and somehow, she survived. She dragged the guilt around like a lead ball and uranium chain. She would live with the reminder forever on her face.

She walked to Riverpoint on a cool fall day, low clouds fitting her mood. It was once overlooked, almost trashed-out. Now the downtown stretch along the South Platte had gone glitzy upscale and brimmed with moneyed hipsters. She watched the skateboarders at the park. She drifted down near the ritzy coffee shops, the fancy walking bridge with its towering structure that led the way to LoDo. She eyed a sad homeless man on the corner of Little Raven. His tattered cardboard sign read Anything Helps in smudged letters. Anything helps— indeed. She would never go there, sink that far.

Would she?

She wandered, fended off the hunger. If she stayed in her sad room, she could count on precisely nothing happening. Out here, you were a pinball.

Getting slapped around but at least moving.

She could feel people pulling away, keeping their distance. Was it the camo military pants? The heavy boots? She wore a big gray baseball cap, a few sizes too big and the bill pulled low to shadow her face. Did she smell? No; she wouldn’t tolerate that. Everyone else had a purpose. Even the joggers and the lunchtime walkers, you could tell. They walked with purpose. They had direction. A goal. They had bank accounts and a place to go. They had things. They had stuff. They had routines.

She spotted an empty black metal bench, felt the urge to take a load off.

She tipped her head back, closed her eyes. The Army taught her the power of a positive mental attitude. She had done so much more in boot camp, and beyond, than she ever thought possible. If she kept her spirits up, she’d get her life back on track. In Afghanistan, she had considered herself in charge of morale among all the Joes. That is, until the day she screwed up driving over the moon dust, the dust of Afghanistan. She wouldn’t let her father’s bullshit smother her options. She’d find a spot. She’d find an exit plan from this entire nothing.

She needed to find that positive center.

A tiny, muffled cough caught her off guard. The sound was soft and gentle, almost cute. But from where?

She hadn’t noticed the plastic stroller tucked up against the side of the bench.

Desma stood, looked around. She was alone. Slumped in the stroller seat, a pint-size baby keeled to starboard, his face jammed into the side of the fabric seat. A blue blanket wrapped his tiny torso. A white knit cap covered his head. His eyes were closed and his minuscule fists were scrunched up by his chin, a little boxer pose. A fighter. Like herself.

“What the—?”

Desma sat back down, her arm protectively now on the stroller’s handle, giving it a little back-and-forth motion. The baby coughed again, the little mouth opening like a bird.

“And here I thought I didn’t have anybody, what about you, little fella? What the heck?”

Again, Desma stood and looked around. The path nearby snaked under a bridge and she stepped away from the stroller, looked to see if she could spy anyone in the shadows. Nothing moved.

Desma sat, stared off, a spot of strange pride blooming inside. She was meant to be here.

“I knew someone would find him.”

The voice came from smack behind her. Desma woke up startled and on guard. Had she dozed off for a moment?

The stranger was thin, scrawny. Her face was sunken, and Desma knew the look immediately. The dead eyes, a blink or two from desperate.

“That’s Carlton.” Such a fancy name for a little kid. The mother hid her shape under a few layers of coats and clothes. A sour stench hit Desma’s nose. The woman’s hands shook.

She was strung out, tense. She was distracted by a pink cell phone. Desma moved away from the stroller and the woman grasped it by the handle to rock it back-and-forth.

“How old is he?”

“Almost two months. Good sleeper, but he needs to sleep less and eat more, so little you know? You live around here?”

Desma sighed. “Yeah. Sort of.”

“Sorry to ask, but what happened?” The woman pointed to her own face but meant Desma’s.

“Roadside bomb. I’m the lucky one.”

“Sorry,” she said.

“I’ve seen worse.”

The woman’s phone squirted a tone.

She answered in a flash. “Yes?” She stood and turned, walked a few steps off. Desma couldn’t make out much in the way of words.

The woman came back. She looked at Desma, eyes pleading.

“Just watch him for a few minutes?”

Carlton burped.

“Well, I—”

“You been doing it already. Only another few.”

“You know, I—”

What else did she have to do? Desma shrugged.

“Where do you live?” said the woman

“Little motel by Chubby’s. Other side of the highway.”

The woman walked a few paces. She stopped and turned. She held up three fingers and then popped up a fourth, but kept her thumb tucked in.

And then let the thumb go.

“I’ll buy you a hamburger when I get back,” she said. “Or a burrito. I know a place, smothered. So good. Swear to God. We can talk. I’m meeting somebody. I need. You know.”

The woman fanned her hand out flat, let Desma see it quiver. Why would she think Desma thought it would be okay?

Desma nodded. What was the worry? Better to watch the kid than have it exposed to that. “Sure.”

“Good burger place. Real deal. Thanks.” The woman turned her back, long coat nearly dragging. She didn’t look back.

Desma watched her disappear down where the path ducked under the bridge. Maybe the baby sensed the mother’s absence.

He woke up, fidgeting and crying.

Desma picked him up. The smell told her everything she needed to know. How many minutes had it been? Eight? Ten?

The baby’s bottom was heavy. She foraged through a gray canvas bag hanging from the stroller. Bottle, can of formula, wipes, Pampers, powder. It wasn’t the first diaper she’d changed. Babysitting neighbor kids as a teen, orphans in Iraq, her grandfather with Alzheimer’s when he lived with them in his last six months.

She placed the baby on the bench, took care of business in the bright sunshine. The used diaper went in the trash. She brought Carlton to her neck, gave him a gentle nuzzle, put his soft hair on her neck and felt his small body twist and squirm. The baby’s presence stretched time. The baby filled her heart. In country, the word mother faded. War gave little reason to think about the future. Mother meant nothing. She had come home with a soul of bricks, heavy and complicated. Driving over the IED was her fault, inching forward. She should have disobeyed the voice commands coming over her headset. Everything. Her fault.

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Interview: “Blood Business” co-editor Mario Acevedo.