They play games.
They remind Brody of the games Marines play—coming down from a mission or when they’ve been stuck in base too long. Wrestling mean and dirty. Physical and verbal chicken. Who can throw the hardest punch. Who can take it.
Except the barest brush of her hand, the smallest quirk of her lips, makes him hard, so their games always end the same way.
For the longest time, he thinks it’s the games that get her wet.
He and Jess never played games. Didn’t need to, he would have said, before Iraq. Have you seen her? What red-blooded American man would need more than that?
They are playing a game now. Wounded soldier; contrite wife. Willing to give all in the service of their country. Semper Fi.
It makes him wonder whether everything that came before hadn’t been its own kind of game-playing.
There were no games with Abu Nasir. The opposite, really. There was more truth, more reality, with him than Brody had ever known.
“A table furnished in the wilderness,” Brody whispered once, half-delirious with the pleasure of fresh fruit.
"His throne doth extend over the heavens and on earth,” Nasir returned. He cupped a gentle hand around Brody’s face, his eyes shining with what could only have been love.
“Hit me,” she says.
He’s just come out of the cabin’s john and she’s standing in the middle of the room wearing his t-shirt and nothing else. She’s buzzing with some energy he can’t name.
He stops short, wipes his hands down the front of his jeans. “What?” he says, trying for lightness. “You mean like spanking? Not my usual thing, but if you’re into it—“
“Not like spanking,” she sneers. “Like a punch. Like you hit those guys at the bar.”
“Come on.” She’s bouncing on the balls of her feet now, looking at him incredulously. “What are you, scared?”
“Carrie,” he says again. “I don’t hit people for the fun of it. And I especially don’t hit girls—women—even if they ask nice.”
This sets her off. “So it’s because I’m a girl, huh? You’re some kind of gallant soldier who protects the fairer sex? You get decide what I want and what I don’t want? Fuck you.”
She’s fairly jangling now--whatever’s twisting through her popping and fizzing like fireworks. He thinks if he turned the lights off, they might see sparks.
So he does—he throws a punch—though it’s more of a half punch, nowhere near his full weight behind it. It’s the only way he can think of to stop her spiraling further out of control. Honestly, he expects her to catch his arm, throw him down in some kind of jujitsu move and laugh at him.
He doesn’t expect her to stand there and take it.
He can feel the give of skin over bone, hear the sickening twack of fist on flesh. The sensations trigger an instant maelstrom of memory, the cool air of the cabin suddenly the stifling heat of a desert bunker, stale sweat and fear harsh in his nostrils. Every ounce of him readies to meet a dark face with his knuckles and he has to blink hard before he sees her pale one instead.
She doesn’t seem to notice his disorientation. And she’s not satisfied.
“Is that all you’ve got? You pussy. You cunt. I should’ve known you couldn’t dish it out.”
Her voice is like the thin edge of a blade, like nothing he’s heard from her before. It hurts his ears. He has no idea what she wants from this. The pain? The thrill of brinkmanship? He wonders if even she knows why she’s doing it.
But it doesn’t matter, because what he needs is for it to stop now. Stop before he slips any further into the heaving sea of his nightmares.
So he goes after her again, with more purpose this time. She’s well-trained, taught to compensate for her size with speed and reach, but she mostly feints, doesn’t use any of the defensive techniques he thinks she must know. He pins her shoulders to the floor without too much trouble, stares down at her, puzzled and breathing hard.
There are a dozen ways she could throw him off. But she doesn’t, just writhes under him in some parody of struggle. It’s a game for which he doesn’t know the rules. She’s naked under the t-shirt, and it rides up so he feel the warm skin of her belly, the give of her breasts, her nipples pebbling with the friction of their bodies. And just like that he’s rifle hard against her hipbone, rutting into her, trying to capture her mouth with his own.
There’s a pause. Then something in her shifts too, and her legs come up around his waist. She gasps into his mouth, then tilts her head so he can lick along her throat. The taste of her exposed skin sends a bolt of hunger through him bright as a magnesium flare.
She gets a hand in between them, pushes past the waist of his jeans, and strips him awkwardly, the space too small to hold both her fingers and his ramrod dick. But that’s alright, because he’s so ready he comes before either of them can even think about the zipper.
He buries his head in her shoulder, riding the aftershocks. When he looks up, whatever was roiling in her has smoothed out. She’s not smiling, but her eyes are so clear he thinks he could learn everything about her if he just looked into them long enough.
He doesn’t. He pulls the t-shirt off her instead, shoves out of his own wrecked jeans, and kisses down her body until he’s between her thighs. He tongues into her so deep there’s nothing left but her scent, her taste, and then she’s shaking, keening something for which there are no words.
A couple of months after Brody gets back, Chris comes down with some stomach bug that’s making the rounds of seventh grade.
Jess gets up with him three times in the night, and Brody gets up too, mostly just to hover, or to gather up the soiled sheets and stick them in the washer.
“The joys of parenthood, huh?” Jess says, as she climbs into bed after the third round of puking. She smiles at him wearily with shared—
--with shared what? He used to know. He used to know what it was they shared.
In the morning, Jess goes to work and Brody stays home on sick kid duty. It’s nothing he hasn’t done before, but that seems like it happened in a different life, to a different person, and he startles when he hears feet stumbling towards the bathroom.
Chris is standing in front of the toilet, looking pale and shocked.
“Aw, buddy,” Brody murmurs. “I thought you were done with this for the day.”
“Ugh,” says Chris, and lurches forward to retch again.
When the spasm passes, Chris wavers for a moment, and without really thinking about it, Brody steps in and scoops him up.
And then freezes.
Because he’s shocked by his son’s weight. He’d expected, the very muscles in his arms had expected, something lighter—thin brown limbs, loosely sheathed in cotton, huge black eyes.
“Dad.” Chris smacks at him weakly. “What’re you doing? I’m twelve, Dad. Put me down.”
“I, uh, I—“ Brody shakes his head to clear it. He lowers Chris to standing. “I just thought you might be having some trouble—“
“Well, I’m not. Jeez. I’m fine.”
He’s not fine, not quite. But Brody doesn’t interfere again, just shadows Chris as he makes his slow way back down the hall and flops into bed.
Brody looks around the room: at the clothes spilling out of the dresser drawers, logoed t-shirts and sturdy khakis and socks with reinforced toes; at the soccer trophies perched haphazardly on various surfaces; at the video-games and DVD cases and lurid-covered books that litter the floor. A rare wave of revulsion for this world—the selfish, unheeding luxury of the West—overtakes him. He misses bare swept floors, the call of the muezzin.
Something ugly must show on his face, because Chris says, “Dad?” again, tentatively this time, cautious.
“Hey, kiddo.” Brody forces himself to perch on side of the bed, to push the damp hair off Chris’s face and smile at him. He thinks Chris feels a little warm, but if he ever had the ability to judge a child’s fever with his fingertips he’s lost it now. “I’m just gonna go get you some ginger ale or something.”
But he doesn’t. He grips the kitchen counter and watches his knuckles go from red to white to red again. He wills the world to seem familiar, but it refuses, just swirls around him, alien and repellant.
He’s still standing there when the phone rings.
“How’s he doing?” Jess says.
“He, uh, he—“ Brody has to clear his throat twice before he can go on. “He threw up again.”
“Ah, man, poor guy. I just hope Dana doesn’t get this too. It seems awful. Does he have a fever?”
“I dunno, maybe,” he answers, feeling stupid. “He’s kind of clammy.”
“Well, go take his temperature, okay, and call me back. The thermometer’s in the same place it always was.”
She sounds patient, but he can tell she wants to yell at him for not having done this basic thing already. He doesn’t blame her. He wants to yell at himself. He’s a Marine Sergeant, after all. He’s been in charge of enough men to have dealt with everything from shrapnel wounds to heroin withdrawal, and usually in less salubrious conditions than a well-stocked suburban house. There’s no reason some middle-school flu should throw him.
“Brody,” Jess asks, sensing something, “do you want me to come home?”
He pulls the tatters of his competence around him. “No. I’ll call you back if there’s anything to worry about.”
He takes Chris’s temperature and finds it barely elevated. The thermometer is a newer version of the one they had before. A well-known object subtly transformed, like so many things in the house now. It feels awkward in his hands.
But when he hands Chris the soda, something about the way he holds it, both hands wrapped around the glass, taking small, careful sips, reminds Brody forcibly of the toddler Chris was before he left, and the world slots into place again with a precision so painful he has to turn his head away.
“What did you do,” she asks, “when it got really bad?”
She’s lying halfway across him, face pressed into his chest. Her hair is a smudge of light in the dim room.
“I prayed,” he says.
There’s a pause, and then she lifts her face to look at him. Her chin digs into his sternum.
“You believe in God?” She sits up, pulls her legs under her, looks down at him.
“You believe that some old white guy with a beard is up there organizing things? That he’s looking down at this shithole and making sense of it all?” Her voice is sharp, too loud for the middle of the night.
“No, not that. It’s not like that.”
“What then? What is your God, Brody?” It’s a challenge, but underneath he thinks she might really want to know.
“When you’ve had everything taken from you. When you’ve given everything and there’s nothing left to take or give. What’s left… The thing that’s left when everything else is gone. The thing that lets you keep going. That’s God.”
He swallows. Saying that hurt his throat. She’s staring at him and he can’t read her expression.
“I don’t know. If you’ve never been in that place, I don’t know if you can—“
“I have,” she says, voice quiet again. She’s kneeling now, her hands clasped in her lap, a column of pale skin that wavers in his sight like a candle flame. “I’ve been there.”
He used to run with Mike.
Now he runs alone. It’s okay. He welcomes the solitude, the chance to think about nothing but the workings of his body.
It’s taken him longer than he expected to get his mileage up. He’s still working on his speed. Maybe those years of captivity did something to his stamina. Maybe he’s just getting old.
The neat bungalows and well-kept lawns give way gradually to the white facades and neo-classical pillars of government buildings. The streets are wider here. He read once that they were built wide to make it difficult for citizens to build barricades across them in times of civil unrest. Or maybe that was some other city.
His knees and hips always ache a little, and he sweats even in the chill. It’s as if his body refuses to adjust to the humidity again after its long sojourn in the desert. But one foot hits the ground after the other, his lungs contract and expand around each breath, and he marvels at his own survival.
Almost everything is marble here, and what isn’t marble is brick. It all seems so solid. But if there’s one thing he’s learned in the past eight years, it’s that no structure is immune to the shattering power of a blast wave.
He knows that the CIA has taken the surveillance cameras out of his house. He knows because Carrie told him, and because he checked himself, with a thoroughness that left him shaking after.
But sometimes, when he gets out of the shower and there’s no one home, he pretends they’re still there.
He looks at his torso in the steamed-over mirror and imagines that her eyes are on him and not his own. He runs his fingers along the red edges of the scars and thinks he can feel her lips instead, brushing over the skin, nuzzling, sucking, taking him in.
Sometimes, he’ll let the towel drop, still watching himself in the mirror. The red fullness of his cock is always surprising against his civilian pallor. He’ll take himself in hand, still holding his own gaze, and imagine her talking him through it.
“I want to see you come,” he can hear her say, crisp, precise, even in the throes of passion. “You don’t have to hold back. Not with me. Fall apart for me, Brody, I want to see it. You’re almost there already. Just let go.”
And he does: hands sticky, breath raw, trembling with the force of it.
“It was real,” he hears her say. “It was real.” The words aren’t fantasy; they’re memory.
His face blurs in the mirror.
The tailor in Pennsylvania is good. The vest fits perfectly, as smooth as any of the expertly altered suits that hang in the dim backroom shop. Except that those clothes are made to protect and adorn the body; this is made to mortify and destroy.
Like a burial shroud, Brody thinks, as he tightens its straps in the tailor’s mirror, reminded incongruously of the length of plain linen they used to wrap Isa’s body. Cloth imbued with ritual meaning, conferring dignity to flesh on the verge of losing it.
Now the vest lies on the top shelf of his closet, tucked away behind new clothes and the things Jess never threw away, not even after eight years: a camouflage hunting jacket, from the few times he’d gone duck-hunting with her dad; team jerseys from the summers he’d played right field in the base league; t-shirts with the names of half-remembered beaches. The house has always been short of storage space, and he knows Jess has a box of Christmas ornaments in there, too, a box of baby clothes and toys they couldn’t bear to pass along to relatives or friends.
The vest is almost hidden in this, the detritus of his life, but as he lies sleepless, Brody thinks he can feel its presence still. It asks him whether he is pure enough to wear it, whether he has set his feet firmly on the path. He thinks he is, he has. The tugs he feels are nothing. The soft skin of his children’s cheeks, his wife’s hair between his fingers, these are mere fleshly anchors to a world he left behind long ago. For what is love to justice? What man would be so selfish as to put the love of these three ahead of justice for eighty-two forgotten souls?
In the closet, the vest awaits him. He imagines the wires going live, the green light flicking on, blinking out its deadly greeting. In the wide bed, next to the warm body of his wife, Brody shivers.