About the Author
Jason Myers is the author of five teen novels, including his debut, Exit Here., which became a cult classic. He lives in San Francisco, California. Find him online at JasonMyersAuthor.com or follow him on Twitter at @JasonMyersBooks.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Saturday, May 31st
THE CAR CREEPS TO THE END OF THE DRIVEWAY AND turns onto the gravel road, the tires kicking up a small cloud of dust that whips into a spiral in the dead air before disappearing just as quickly as it came. I roll my window down and swallow a heavy gulp of humidity and look at my mom and take a deep breath. She smiles real big, and it seems authentic, and this puts me at ease to a small degree. If she can feel good about my journey, then what is there for me to really, truly worry about?
My mom guides the car onto the boiling black asphalt in front of us, turns the radio up, and rolls her own window down halfway. Her long brown hair blows in the breeze coming in and shines in the sunlight. She looks so pretty. Way better than she ever has over the past six months. She’s wearing an olive green dress and white flats, and she slides her sunglasses over her eyes and says, “I’m so excited for you. You’re going to do great out there, Kaden.”
“I’m sure I will. It’s gonna be fun. New, ya know.”
“Something that you’ve never come close to living,” she says.
I turn my eyes out the front of the window. It’s so sunny today, and the sky is blue. White puffy clouds that look like zoo animals float everywhere above us. And a tiny bit of me still can’t believe that I’m doing this. That I’m going to San Francisco to see Chuck Palahniuk read and stay with my cousin James Morgan, and most important, that I’m seeing the final wish of my brother through. My best friend in the world. I’m doing what he wanted us to do before he died in Iraq. I’m taking care of the rest of the business he couldn’t be around to finish.
We glide past giant spaces of green country, horses, cows, hogs, and big houses that have stood in place for generations. My flight leaves the Cedar Rapids airport in two hours, and I am due in San Francisco at three twenty this afternoon.
That Patsy Cline song, “Walkin’ After Midnight,” comes on, and my mom looks at me and says, “Just remember one thing while you’re running around out there with James.”
“Don’t put too much stock into everything he says. He goes off about a lot of things.”
“Like what, Mom?”
She runs a hand through her hair and sighs. “Just things. He runs his mouth, and not everything is always worth listening to. He can get really carried away sometimes.”
I have no idea what she’s talking about. Not one stinking clue. So I shrug and I say, “Got it.” And we barely speak the rest of the ride. The rest of the way spent with me thinking about my brother, Kenny, and how big of a kick he’d get out of knowing I was actually going through with this.
I miss him so much.
My mom pulls up in front of the United Airlines terminal. She gets out. I’m trying to show that I’m not nervous. For her sake, not mine. I step outside and walk to the back of the car and help her pull my suitcase from the trunk. Then she hands me three hundred dollars and says, “I know we already gave you three, but here’s some more plus a prepaid phone card. I want to be sure you have everything you need out there.”
“I’ll be fine, Mom.”
“I know you will, sweetie.” She pats my head and hugs me and says, “Call me when you land. Okay?”
“I love you.”
“Love you too, Mom.”
She hugs me again, and I drag my suitcases into the airport and check in for my flight. I make it through security with no hassles and sit down next to these big windows that look out over the concourse and, beyond that, the endless miles of farmland and country that surround this place.
I have no idea of what to expect. I’m on my way to see my cousin, whom I’ve met once, in a city I’ve never been to, and the deep unknown of these two things combined is putting me on edge, so I slide my billfold out and pull a letter from it. The last communication I ever had with my older brother, Kenny. The words on the paper that changed my life forever when I first read them on that brutal winter day in December:
What’s up, man? If you’re getting this letter, you already know that I’m not making it back from this desert of murder and madness. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to. I’m so sorry, man. Sorry that I’ll never be able to see you again and throw the football around with you again and talk about girls and go creek dipping and quarry jumping with you in the summer at Leland’s property. I just wasn’t ready and prepared, and maybe I just wasn’t cut out for this day-to-day hell. That’s what Iraq is, Kaden. It’s hell. The brutal scent of death is around every corner and along every single road in this godforsaken place. This isn’t just a bunch of American soldiers shooting at shit, this is having to bear over hundred-degree temperatures. Frozen night commands. This is trying to look at a hostile crowd of people of all ages and trying to figure out which one is trying to kill you that day. We know nothing about the people or the place we’re going up against each day. The only thing we know is that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult to figure out who the enemy really is. A group of insurgents who arrived here to fight the jihad from one of the neighboring countries? Or members of a family who seek revenge on the soldiers who’ve turned their relatives into collateral damage, destroyed their neighborhoods, driven their people out of the area, and turned their country into a lawless melting pot of religious ideology and horrific street justice more brutal than you are ever shown on the screen of the televisions back home. I’ve seen decapitated bodies slung from buildings while entering certain neighborhoods. Children missing hands and eyes. It’s fucking sickening. Me and some of the other guys in our unit would get physically ill at times while we rampaged through houses and buildings, only to find a group of Sunni men lying face-first on the floor, hog-tied, bullet wounds in the back of their heads. Or a baby, man ? I saw the body of this baby girl who couldn’t have been more than three years old in a trash can in this house. Her throat had been slit and intestines pulled through her stomach. The rest of her family was found stacked together in a pile in the living room with all of their throats cut too, and there was a huge warning note written in Arabic about the consequences of working with the Iraqi Police and U.S. Commanders. I mean, what the fuck, man? What is this madness we’ve been committed to. Our presence, my presence, has brought brutal death to over one million Iraqis, and they’re not all insurgents, Kaden. Hardly any of them really are. We shoot at everything that makes a sudden movement. We hog-tie men and women in the middle of the night in front of their children before whisking them away in black hoods under the rotten cloak of Bringing Democracy to these people, which is just a code phrase for American Imperialism. It’s not right, and all of our soldiers should leave. I have already left, little bro. In a
flag-draped coffin that I’m not sure I’m really worthy of being buried in. We need to leave now before more Iraqis are slaughtered on these killing fields, before more of our soldiers are bled to death in these blinding whirlwinds of sand.
I know what you must be thinking, Kaden. Who is this guy writing you this letter? Where did your older brother go? Where is the kid who was so eager to leave for this fight and win this war for this just country’s noble cause?
Well, here I really am. This is who I was turned into. Telling you all of this is the responsible thing for me to do. Telling you how ashamed I was before my death by what I had taken part in: Blind homicide. Vast torture. The pointless destruction of homes. The massive roundup and incarceration of innocent Iraqis.
The list could go on, Kaden. And I’m certainly not the only one in my unit who grew despaired by how we all became complicit in the destroying of a country and its citizens’ lives. Nobody is into it anymore. Most of us just want to go home. That was when I first started reading books again. One of the other soldiers on the base was really into this writer Chuck Palahniuk. He’s the guy who wrote the book Fight Club. Anyway, this guy was always raving about Chuck’s books and how they were really helping him cope with being in Iraq. He’d been fighting for two years, and the only moments of life he had enjoyed during those years were the moments of downtime when he was able to be swept away into another one of Chuck’s stories and was almost able to completely forget for those few precious hours where he was and what he was facing. The true life-or-death scenarios he encountered in the neighborhoods and villages in and around Baghdad for fifteen hours a day.
The guy told me that anytime I wanted to get into one of his books, to just ask him. He had all of them there. I asked him what I should read first, and he told me to start with Fight Club. That I should read his books in the order they came out, because put together they reminded him of one giant text, each new novel a different chapter. So I asked him for Fight Club, and from the very first line of the first chapter I was hooked, Kaden. I read the entire book that same night. Those hours spent reading were some of the best I’d ever spent in my entire life. Something inside of me took a drastic turn. I felt awakened for the first time. Reading those books, it was like there was an author speaking directly to me and to the way I felt about my place in the world.
Most of the characters in his books were so easy to identify with. Characters who were lost and drifting amid a plastic culture. Characters who felt betrayed by the end results of doing what they were told would make them happy. It made me think hard about how natural the violence inside of us is. But how we should use it in ways other than killing people. The way we bottle things up and are scared of everything and scared of feeling life and living among each other. It was a revelation. A revelation that happened too late.
I mean, I always felt like that myself. How Dad always told us that you do this, you do that, you get through school, and you get a job, then get married and have some kids and then retire and then die. And that’s Happiness. He raised us as if that’s the only way of life there is and that anyone who strayed from that path was somehow not worthy in his eyes, and even though I think Mom didn’t really agree with him, I don’t think she knew how to ever go against his word and how he thought about shit.
It’s strange to have all of these feelings about this right now. And it’s so strange to write a letter to your best bud in the world in this fashion. Already dead. With no chance of ever being able to say this to you face-to-face, man. I can’t say for certain or anything like that, but I really think that if I’d thought about what would’ve made ME truly happy in life beyond Dad’s direct approval, then I don’t think I would’ve joined the military.
And this is why I’m writing this letter to you, Kaden. Because I need to know that you heard all of this somehow. I want you to start getting into good shit right now and do something fucking rad with your life. I want you to be happy, man. Read Chuck Palahniuk. See if it’s for you. My goal was to come back on leave and take you out to San Francisco this summer to catch him do a reading for his new book and meet him. Our cousin James, the author, he lives out there. I asked him about it in an e-mail, and he told me it would be rad to have us out there for that. But I’m not gonna make this one, buddy.
If you’re reading this letter, you’ve already said good-bye to me. I thought about this for a couple of months. That’s how important this is to me. I had to have the letter come from somebody in the States without sending it from here because of some of the vague information that’s inside about operation details my unit was involved in. I couldn’t have the military read it, so I had to pack it with Brady. It was also the only way to get it past Dad. I don’t want you showing this letter to either him or Mom, Kaden. I’m gone. And they shouldn’t have to have their final memories and thoughts about me rehashed and then smashed into rubble. Just let them have their peace about what they thought I still believed about this war and this military. You’re the one who matters now. I love you. Be something. Be anything. Go see what the fuck is out there, man.
I fold the letter and put it away. Take a deep breath. I miss him so much. Every time I read that letter, all I can think of is him and me shooting the shit about girls. Well, him telling me about girls and how to deal with them and how to talk to them. He always had lots of real pretty girls around. They were always calling the house and showing up unannounced and waiting for him after football and basketball games in high school. With every last feeling in my gut I miss my older brother, Kenny, so fucking much.
I walk to a vending machine and buy an A&W Root Beer, and then I sit back down and take another breath. Soothing the nerves. I’ve never flown by myself before. Never done much of anything by myself before. And here I am, fifteen years old, about to be in San Francisco for a week with James Morgan. A person I only know through the outrageous stories and tales from the mouths of other family members. Most of the stuff not very flattering. Most of the stuff pretty fucking ruthless. There was the big uproar he caused with some comments he made on the Charlie Rose show, when he apparently looked fucked on cocaine and went: “I’m pretty sure that the only thing in my life that has ever held me back is the loose association I still have with my parents and my brother and my sister. Once I cut those red chords completely, the sky’s the limit, baby.”
Or this one in Rolling Stone: “The only good thing I can say about my family is that they sucked. My mom and dad were Republicans, and I lost my virginity before my brother did, and he was four years older than me. I was banging chicks when I was thirteen behind toolsheds and concession snack stands while the rest of my family was busy affirming their future roles as people of no significance whatsoever. I mean, I gave my sister her first cigarette when I was twelve and she was fifteen. I was on a path to greatness by then.”
He’s not in touch much with his immediate family, but him and my mom have always had a close relationship. She’s always talked glowingly of him and always talked about taking a trip to San Francisco to see him, much to the dismay of my dad. The only time I’ve ever met him was at a reading he did in Minneapolis for his second book. He nodded and said what’s up to me, and then he spent the next hour talking with my mom over a cup of coffee at a table while I wandered aimlessly through the aisles of the bookstore, bored out of my mind. At that point I’d never read a book that hadn’t been assigned to me in school. I was never a very big reader before Palahniuk. Never had the urge to read before my older brother’s letter came in the mail.
a. my flights
I board my connecting flight to O’Hare. I have a window seat, and I buckle myself into it and put my head against the glass. I’m tired from the night before with Jocelyn. I already miss her so much. It was hard to walk away from her on Pheasant Road. Hard for me to let go of her hands and kiss her lips that last time. And I can still taste her on my lips. I can still smell her on my skin.
The flight is only half full, and I get the row to myself. It’s a short time in the air. Forty minutes it...
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