Oct/Nov 2018  •   Fiction

The Shift

by Michael Beeman

Image salvaged from public domain

It started a few months after my first tour. The change. The shift.

I saw some action over there, so I can see why they set me up with you. I came back okay, though. It's not like I have PTSD. It's not like there's anything wrong with me. Plenty of other guys got it worse.

I was working support and logistics, trying to figure out how to move an entire platoon through a land-locked country. That's 30 soldiers, their food and water, their weapons and ammo, their vehicles and equipment. It isn't easy. Afghanistan is only civilized in some places. Kabul's modern enough, with an airport, colleges, shopping malls—hell, it's even got a zoo. It looks like a city over here. But once you leave Kabul, or drive north of Bagram, it drops off. Roads can be hard to come by. Next thing you know, you're back in the Stone Age.

I joined the guard in college to pay for tuition. I figured I'd be helping out after snowstorms, packing sandbags during floods, lining the streets when the Red Sox won the World Series, that kind of thing. But then the Military's budget shrank. People stopped enlisting. They needed to get the bodies from somewhere, and there's where we came in. I'm not complaining—I knew what I signed up for. But I never thought I'd be sent to war. I never dreamed I'd be getting shot at.

We weren't at the spear's tip over there, but the threat of an attack was constant. We got ambushed once driving through a valley near the Pakistan border. One second I'm sitting shotgun in my Humvee, turning to my driver to bitch about the heat, the next bullets are slamming our truck, rocking us side-to-side. It felt like rioters about to tip us over. We tried to return fire, but no one could find a target, so we ended up hunkering down and calling for help instead. The Taliban disappeared as soon as our back-up got there. It could have been a lot worse. No one got hurt. Not that time, anyway.

I finished my tour and went home two weeks later. I came back in one piece, and I was thankful for that, believe me. I married my girl Lorie the same month I got home. We had the wedding at the overlook outside of town, just like I always promised. Renting the resort for the weekend used up the rest of my signing bonus, but it was worth it. You could see a good 60 miles: our whole town, our entire lives, right there in front of us. The buildings were small as toys, like you could reach out and pick them up. Lorie's mother cried when she saw us standing there before the ceremony, just taking it all in.

After the wedding, I slid back into my old life so quickly it was like I never left. My boss at the hardware store held my position, just like he said he would, and soon I was working full-time again. Lorie cut back her schedule waiting tables at the diner and started taking classes at night. She wanted to study architecture but had put that off when I was sent overseas. To keep our apartment, to save for a bigger place once I came back, she'd started pulling double-shifts instead. She spent her free time on the couch, off her aching feet. With me working again, though, she could go back to school. She would take a few classes at first, just until we figured things out, then step up to a full load. We talked about having a kid, too, but Lorie wanted to finish her degree before all that. There wouldn't be the time afterwards, she said. I was disappointed, but of course I knew she was right. So we postponed things, which was fine with me. A child could wait a little while, until we saved a little more.

I didn't make much between the Guard and the hardware store, but we were comfortable enough with both of our incomes. Once Lorie cut back her hours, though, the money went quick. We burned through our savings her first semester, a lot faster than I expected. The deposit on a new condo, higher rent each month, gas getting her to and from school, a few surprise repairs to patch my old truck together: the costs added up. Soon after her second semester started, I realized we weren't just running low. Before long, we would be broke.

That might have been it, Lorie going back to school and the money drying up—what started everything. A few weeks into her second semester, about four months after I came back, I saw it for the first time. The shift.

We were sitting on the couch when it happened. I was trying to balance our budget after a long day at the store while Lorie read through a textbook beside me. A late basketball game was playing on TV in the background. I wasn't doing very well with the math. We could pay our bills—if barely—but each time I added up our expenses I got a different number. I wasn't off by much, 20 or 30 cents, half a dollar at the most. Insignificant amounts. But I never got the same total twice. I must have added those same figures two dozen times without ever getting the same result.

I was getting ready to try again when I felt something in the room change. A sudden stillness. It felt like the air pressure had dropped. The game was still playing on TV, but it sounded muted, somehow. I glanced over to Lorie to see if she noticed anything, and that's when I saw it.

Lorie must have been watching me for a while, because when I looked at her I got that feeling. You know how you'll catch a stranger's eye on the bus or in a crowded restaurant and get the feeling they've been looking at you for a long time? It was like that. She just stared at me glassy-eyed. But there was something else there, too, something behind her empty stare. A hunger, I'd guess you'd call it. This needing.

Lorie smiled then, and when she moved, the shift ended. She returned to herself. I told myself I imagined it all and went back to balancing our budget. In a few moments I forgot that odd sensation, the strange look she gave me, and the weird feeling that came with it. Things returned to normal. Until the next time.

As her school year went on, I began to notice these shifts more and more. At first the changes only happened when we were talking about our money problems. Lorie was completely still then. She never spoke or moved. She didn't even blink. The way she stared, it was like she was seeing right through me, right into my thoughts. Once, when I was driving us home from a movie on a rare night out, I felt her staring at me for over a minute. I didn't dare turn my head. I didn't want to see what was staring back at me.

I got called up for another tour soon after Lorie's second semester ended. In a way, I was relieved. I would make more money again, and that would help. We could get by on what we were making, but if we wanted a child after Lorie finished school, we would need a lot more, at least some kind of savings. The kind you get from combat pay. I told myself these shifts were just my anxiety from returning to the civilian world, managing our money problems, planning for the future, and my own worry over all the uncontrollable things in life. Just seeing my first bonus on paper slowed my pulse and evened my breath.

I saw some action that tour. I was sent to an FOB up north. We were attacked twice the first month. A Humvee got hit by an RPG coming in with supplies a few weeks later. And I was lucky—I was inside the wire.

I spent that tour at the base, trying to find a way for all the logistics to make sense. But things don't make sense in war, as a rule. You might eat your lunch at the same time every day, as part of your routine. You get comfortable. You always sit at the same table, then always in the same seat. You start to feel safe. Soon you need to sit at the second table from the door, in the seat facing west, at exactly 1300 hours. Then one afternoon you skip lunch and the mess hall is hit by a mortar. Your table is just twisted metal. What can you do with this information? Nothing. So you just try to get through it all. You don't worry about what makes sense and what doesn't. You try to get home. Not everyone does.

But I got home. I finished my tour and shipped back, and I told myself that was it, that was the last time. I felt even luckier than before. I had tempted fate twice, and I got off light.

Things didn't just go back to normal when I got home again: those first few months were even better than before. Lorie was doing great at school—a 3.5 GPA and an internship lined up for the next semester. We went out more, caught up with our parents, saw friends we hadn't seen since the wedding. We stayed up late at night talking about the future, talking about our future, like when we were kids again. The shift that came over Lorie before never happened, and I knew I'd been imagining it the whole time. It was just the stress, the worrying about money, my lack of control over all the unpredictable things in life. I would look back at later and laugh, I told myself.

But I didn't tell Lorie.

I know the stigma about vets and PTSD, and I didn't want to scare her. The last thing I wanted to do was worry her with some crazy story. So I kept it a secret. I didn't say anything. I'm glad I didn't. Because after I'd been home for about half a year, it started again. The changes. The shifts. They came back.

The next time Lorie changed, she was asleep.

I woke in the middle of the night without knowing why. I think it was the silence that woke me. Her breathing seemed too shallow. The kicks and jumps and twitches she usually makes when she's deep asleep were all gone. It wasn't a look she gave me then—her eyes were shut—but I saw it right away. It's hard to describe what was so different. It was as if her features had sharpened. I looked at her and saw that although she looked like my wife, although she shared the same features, although she had the same delicate eyebrows, the same dark hair spread across the pillow like a black puddle, the same full lips parted slightly as she slept, she was an impostor. Does this make sense? It was as if music always playing in the background, her music, a song specific to only Lorie, was gone. As if everyone has a personal theme playing their entire lives, and hers had cut to nothing.

In a moment, the shift was over. I watched the change slip out of her. With a sigh, she returned to her normal self, my sleeping wife.

Me, I didn't sleep.

The shifts started happening more often after that. At dinner once, Lorie changed for five minutes. She froze staring at me across the table. I stopped eating, stopped moving, and stared back. I was sure someone else at the restaurant would see, but no one noticed. After it was over, she caught me eyeing her and gave me a confused look, like I was the one acting strange. Other times the shift happened quickly—sometimes only for a fraction of a second. Mid-conversation, mid-word, she shifted. Her face fell slack, as if a shadow had fallen over her, before she just as quickly shifted back.

I tried to ignore it all. I tried reasoning with myself, telling myself it was anxiety, stress, the effects of those mortars, all those explosions, the memories of bullets slamming the Humvee, rocking it like an angry mob about to tip us end over end. The things that still wake me up at night.

It didn't work. And that's when the weird stuff started.

Once your eyes are opened to an essential truth, you start to find it everywhere. From then on the shifts weren't limited to Lorie. My boss at work, customers at the hardware store, strangers on the sidewalk, they all shifted, too. I saw a reporter on TV shift while her partner prattled on about the weather. Pictures around our home took on a certain menace. Once, even my own face. I glanced into the bathroom mirror one morning and found someone else staring back. I looked away and ran from the room.

It was right in the middle of all of this that Lorie gave me the good news. We were pregnant.

Normally, I would have been thrilled. Even though she was back at school, we could have figured something out. She could have found a way to finish early, before the baby, or taken time off and gone back to classes later. I could have worked a second job. These things are not unheard of. It would have been difficult, but not impossible. But everything was much more complicated. I wasn't sure if my wife really was my wife anymore. Sometimes an impostor sat across from me wearing Lorie's skin, parroting her words, telling me it loved me, and now it had a child inside or it. How was I to know she didn't carry some motionless thing instead? How could we bring that into the world? I began to hint at other options.

We drove up to the spot where we were married a few weeks ago to talk everything over, and it was like nothing had changed. Below us I could still see the house I'd grown up in, the back yard where my brother and I had spent hundreds of afternoons playing as kids. Lorie lived a few streets away, and we could just make out her roof and chimney among the other houses in the neighborhood. Our new condo was on the third floor of a four-story building at the far end of town, almost out of sight, but if we squinted we could tell ourselves we saw the white siding, the glint of our windows at the horizon. I felt like reaching out and grabbing all the houses in town, one-by-one, just snatching them out of the distance. If I held each up like a toy, if I looked through the windows, I could expect to see entire families inside. If I searched through them all, I knew I would find the one with us in it: me, Lorie, and now our new child.

So that's why I'm here, that's why I'm back. We'll need money for a down payment on a real house. We'll need to start saving for the kid. I felt better just signing the papers to re-enlist. Once I get back overseas and start making real money again, once I pad my bank account a little bit more, I know it will stop. I just have to make it a few more weeks, and everything will be fine again.

But until then, can you do something for me? Please, move around more. Don't sit so still. Just move around, you know? Even small movements. Anything. Just to let me know you're still there. To let me know you're still real. Let me know you haven't changed, not really.