Nate walked halfway down a narrow alley and opened a dumpster next to the back door of a pizza parlor. He pushed open the lid and stroked his beard. A near-empty bottle of McCormick vodka sat at an angle on top of the heap with its label up. He grabbed the bottle, finished it in a few gulps, and tossed it back in the dumpster.
The Department of Veterans Affairs had taken away his benefits. He couldn’t even get his hands on Ambien anymore. Sometimes, his head felt like it was shaking from side to side and bouncing up and down all at once. The pain in his temples was always there. He wished he hadn’t smoked the last of his pot that morning.
There was only one pizza box left in the dumpster. Nate reached over and pulled it out from under some rotten lettuce. It was empty. As he tossed the box back into the dumpster, he noticed something wrapped in an oily rag that had been sitting beneath where the pizza box had been. He reached down, grabbed the rag, and felt the contours of a Colt .45 pistol, which held four jacketed hollow point bullets in the magazine and one in the chamber.
Nate stood frozen in place, clutching the pistol and suddenly recalled some things he had been trying to forget. He thought about getting blown off the road in a Humvee in Iraq and losing his sight and hearing for two weeks, and how, several deployments later, half of his platoon had been killed in the mountains of Afghanistan. He remembered coming home and breaking the nose, teeth, and ribs of a teenager who had been sleeping with his ex-wife, and then feeling the torture of his dishonorable discharge, and the buzzing in his ears began to grow louder, as if being amplified by the bad memories. He began trembling again from the gnawing suspicion that the government was tracking his every move, to the point where he couldn’t even return to his post office box because someone might be monitoring it, but eventually, the trembling subsided as he squeezed the pistol grip more tightly. Everything grew so calm and quiet that all Nate heard was a steady buzzing in his left ear. The pistol was warm in his hand. This was his way out. He was no longer worried about anything, and he smiled at his decision.
A glade between the river and railroad yard seemed like as good a spot as any to finish the job. He wouldn’t leave too much of a mess for anyone, and transients who sometimes slept in the area were sure to find him within a day or two. They would even find the 500 dollars in Nate’s wallet that he had been keeping as an emergency fund. He reached the glade an hour after sundown. After unpacking a few essentials from his rucksack, he built a small fire and heated up some hotdogs, beans, and coffee he had bought at a 7-Eleven. He coughed gently and watched the vapor from his breath mingle with the smoke from the fire in the chill night air. Cold weather was just another miserable inconvenience that would go away soon enough, he reasoned.
As this was running through his mind, he heard rustling in the nearby branches. Twenty feet away, a towering man emerged from the trees at the far side of the glade and moved straight toward the fire. He sat down cross-legged on the other side of the fire. Nate noticed that he was wearing only jeans, work boots, and a t-shirt. Nate also noticed that the man was around 6’4”, weighed at least 300 pounds, and had a cratered scar on his left cheek that looked like it had been caused by a vicious bite.
“Cold night to be sporting nothing but a t-shirt,” Nate said.
“True, brother,” the man said, “but as I see it, this is only a temporary condition.”
“That’s a good thing, I suppose,” Nate said. “Are you hungry?”
“That’s a temporary condition, too,” the man said.
“Would you like some hot dogs and beans? I’d be glad to share them with you,” Nate said.
“It’s not a matter of sharing, brother,” the man said.
“Huh. Then what is it a matter of, brother?” Nate asked.
“It’s a matter of me taking,” the man said. “You see, I’ve had a real bad couple of weeks. Just got out of county jail today, and right now, I feel kinda unsettled given that I got nothing inside me but hate and a need for revenge. Now, what you’re gonna do is give me your jacket, all that food, and some money if you got any. After I eat, I’ll be on my way.” He pointed toward the railroad tracks and said, “Gotta jump a train right over there in a little bit, and it’s gonna be cold.” Then, he pulled a Gerber folding knife from his pocket, opened it to the lock position, and said, “You’re OK with all of that, right brother? You can go easy, or you can go hard. Either way, you’re gonna lose, and I think you know that. Just go easy, and everything will turn out fine.”
Nate pulled the .45 from his jacket pocket, aimed quickly and instinctively, and shot the man in the forehead. As he watched the back of the man’s head blow open like an exploding watermelon, he remembered his days in Iraq and Afghanistan with melancholy, and he realized right then and there that he had just entered a new phase of his life that might be worth living. He put on his gloves, gathered up all his supplies, and threw his ruck on his back. Then, he took the man’s knife and wallet, burned all the other items that might have his fingerprints on them, and headed toward the railroad yard.
He hopped a freight train heading east. Along the way, he disassembled the pistol and tossed the pieces into various rivers and lakes at distant intervals. He cut his hair and shaved his beard, too. After a reflective two-day ride, he got off the train in a Chicago rail yard and lost himself in the city for a while. Eventually, he found a room in a run-down neighborhood near the L tracks on the Near North Side just off of Lower Wacker Drive. The windows rattled with the passing of each train, and the room pooled with shadows cast by the single incandescent bulb that shimmered in a cheap lamp next to his cot. It didn’t take Nate long to settle into the steady rhythms of the city, and after a few days, he could feel himself beginning to unclench. He was still far away from anywhere he could call home, but for now, this would have to do.