Time before the alarms, when violence was only overseas, seemed disconnected from the now—silent countdown.
Clark glanced at his watch. Only two minutes left.
He wished things could go back to the way they were, when his only worries had been never amounting to anything and loneliness. But something had changed. Now every sixty minutes the chemical makeup of veterans’ brains changed for five minutes. The interval never shifted left or right on the timeline. Clark looked at the crowd around him, wondered how many of them had served in the wars overseas, tried to pick them out. The man in front of Clark had a crew cut, maybe it would be him this time.
His watch sounded a high-pitched beeping just a second before a multitude of similar sounds engulfed him. Clark had set his watch a few seconds ahead on purpose; he found it disorienting when he couldn’t pick his own alarm out of the cacophony. He looked around him, person-to-person, careful to pass over faces so he wouldn’t have to hold anyone’s gaze.
Everyone still—hunters after a branch snaps. Veiled looks everywhere. Who were the veterans? Would they show signs of the sickness? The news people on television called them “crazed, Rambo-style killers.”
“Mannies,” Clark heard someone say under their breath.
The whispered word was slang for the Manic part of Manic Polarity. A Manny could hallucinate that the person next to them in line waiting for their chai latte was actually an Iraqi insurgent with a suicide vest strapped to his chest, or an Afghan mujahedin warrior waving an AK-47. If it wasn’t a hallucination a Manny could get what the television called a “paranoid delusion” and hear people whispering, plotting and scheming malevolence. It could be auditory; the singing of minarets, Arab voices consuming everything around them as if the whole world reverberated with praise to Allah. Many treated whatever happened in the Manny’s head as a mere triviality as long as they didn’t act out. But often times the Mannies did act out, and whatever broke them also burned out the hesitation to do violence. Many in the movement to quarantine Mannies touted gruesome attacks as examples of what they called, “a learned capacity for violence.”
The service counter had ceased production for the five-minute interval—before things had gotten bad they’d kept serving people, but now they waited until the the all clear. A couple of guys with short hair, wearing camouflage trousers and combat boots, shifted nervously from one foot to the other at the front of the line. Everyone looked at them, waiting.
Clark stared at the two soldiers and tried to remember the statistics he’d heard on the radio about rising Manny violence. He wondered what it was like to be one of them, gone to war for their country and survived only to return to be societal outcasts. Clark felt a pang of guilt, knowing he was glad he’d never have to know. One of the vets shook their head like a punch-drunk boxer. Behind the counter a pot of coffee ran over on the heat pad and steam billowed up. The young woman who’d filled the machine with too much water stood bewildered, her mouth a jagged circle of darkness surrounded by too white teeth.
“It’s gonna be okay,” a young man said, the word ‘manager’ on his name tag.
“Yeah, he’s gonna be all right,” the other veteran said, his voice so deep Clark wondered the shop’s cups didn’t rattle in their saucers. “My man is just taking a minute to work everything out is all.”
“He doesn’t look all right,” the manager said.
“How do you know if he looks all right?” the bigger veteran spoke again, filling the last three words with so much bass they hummed.
All Clark could see of the two veterans were the backs of their stubbled heads. The bigger one doing the talking wore aviators with lenses as black as he was. Clark saw them when the man turned to look at his much smaller friend.
“That’s not what I mean,” the pimple faced manager said. “I just mean that if he needs a minute to sit down he won’t lose his place in line or anything.”
“Of course he won’t lose his place in line,” the other veteran wrapped his knuckles on the counter. “I’m going to order for him. My friend here doesn’t speak English so well when he gets like this.”
The smaller man muttered Spanish and what sounded like broken French. His hands rubbed and raked his military “high and tight” haircut. As the manager asked the big one for their order the mutters turned to a frantic, canine whine.
“What’s wrong with him?” the kid behind the counter said.
“There’s nothing wrong with my man, you understand me?”
Unconvinced of his own words, the bigger man took off his sunglasses. His friend had started convulsing with small, Parkinson-like tremors. The shaking stopped, replaced with stunted sneezes. Clark took a step forward to get a better look, then recoiled in shame when he realized the noises were sobs. The man stood crying in the middle of Starbucks. Tears forged glistening streams over the lines of his face. The bigger man lowered his head and voice.
“Keep it together, we’re almost out of he—”
Clark’s alarm went off all by its lonesome, a town crier just ahead of the crowd. The silence, splintered a thousand times, gradually reformed around sobbing as the alarms stopped. The Manny coughed, hard, snot streaking his face.
“Oh my God,” the girl behind the register said.
A mother with her child screamed hysterically and charged the exit. People surged away from the crying man forcing Clark to backpedal. Everything slowed down. The Manny at the front counter pointed a gun at his big friend who put his hands up and started backing away. The manager stood gawking while the other worker hit the floor. Clark felt his feet leave the ground. He pulled himself into a ball as the crowd trampled him; his vision black with white motes trailing; a far off bell rang a quavering note in his ears.
The stampede had knocked over chairs, tables, cabinets, and sofas. Clark rubbed a bump on the back of his head and found his hair matted with blood. The manager was leaning against the coffee makers, each arm circling a machine so they held him up, the beef-cranberry of his brains on the wall behind him. A child lay on the ground not far from Clark. An old woman holding the child’s hand bled from her nose and mouth. Crimson streaks arced across the tile where people had tried to crawl, their hands slick with blood.
“I’ll fucking kill you, bitch!”
The veteran who’d been shaking had a woman on her knees with her hair knotted up in his fist. The woman whimpered and snorted. Clark fought the urge to throw up.
“Don’t, please,” the woman said. “I have children.”
The Manny sneered, revealing black rot teeth. The woman screamed and tried to pull away but the Manny clenched her hair as he leveled the gun at her head.
“Stop!” Clark said. “I’ve got the cops on the phone.”
Clark staggered to his feet holding the phone above him like a torch, as if it would ward off the Manny. He stared in horror as the deranged veteran stalked over and leveled the pistol at his head.
“Come again, pretty boy?” the Manny rasped.
Clark dropped the phone and held his hands up, palms out in front of him. He wished his hair was shorter so the veteran couldn’t ball it up in his hand like he had with the woman.
“Listen, whatever is wrong, we can fix it,” Clark said.
“You can’t fix me,” the man said. “They already tried.”
“Let’s go,” the Manny said, motioning with the gun toward the door. “We’ll take your car.”
Clark kept his hands up in front of him as he walked, stiff with fear. When they got to his car he got in and locked the doors, but before he could put it in gear and peel away the pistol appeared in the side mirror, pointed at his head. Clark froze, his heart beating like a washing machine with an unbalanced load. The sound of metal tapping on glass made Clark jump. He unlocked the doors and the Manny slid in the seat behind him.
“Fucking drive, haji,” the Manny said.
Clark felt something warm on his legs. The car filled with the smell of urine as he pulled out of the coffee shop.
“Did you fucking piss yourself?”
“I’m sorry,” Clark said “I just . . . I don’t wanna die.”
Clark watched the veteran’s face go blank, as if something deep in his head finally clicked.
“How the fuck do you speak English?”
Clark felt the small circle of a barrel pressed to the base of his neck.
“I’m an American,” he said, hot tears streaming down his face. “I only know English.”
“Shut up!” the Manny screamed. “Liar! You must be some kind of mercenary from Jordan or Syria. I’ll fucking deal with you when we ge—”
The windows shattered and burst into the interior like a bomb gone off. Just before the car spun away Clark made out the flashing lights of the police cruiser that broadsided them. The glass raked his face, one piece flew through both of his cheeks, another opened his lower lip like a zipper. When the car came to a stop the engine knocked and smoked. The back door opened. Clark sat up in time to see the Manny charge two police cars, his body doing an intense back and forth vibration as bullets passed through before he crumpled to the pavement.
Clark tried opening the door but couldn’t. The handle was slick with something. He rubbed it between his thumb and fingers before realizing it was his blood glistening on the metal lever. The world spun and he dry heaved, then vomited all over himself. Then blackness.
The nightmares should have been about the shooting. That would have made sense. At least then Clark wouldn’t have felt like such a freak. But the nightmares weren’t about the Manny losing it in Starbucks. Instead the dreams were of desert arroyos Clark had never seen before, the moon casting a pallor so pure through desert crags that it made the moon he woke to look stained with coffee. Then the dreams morphed to include the Tigris and Euphrates and run-down boroughs in Middle Eastern cities. This happened over the course of the first weeks back home from the hospital.
“Something isn’t right,” Clark said on the phone with his father.
“What do you mean? Are you having trouble . . . you know. Trouble with the trauma from the shooting?”
Always the mental health professional, his father used words like “adjusting” and “trauma” instead of “being normal” and “watching people die.”
“It’s not what you think,” Clark said. “I’m having dreams about places I’ve never been, Dad.”
“The minds psyche heals in strange ways sometimes,” his father said. “Just try to keep an open mind about what is happening to you instead of pushing away. This is important if you—”
Clark cut him off.
“I’m having dreams about Iraq. They haven’t been violent yet, but they don’t seem headed down a good path.”
Clark had dreamed of standing post on top of a dorm-like building seven stories high surrounded by fences crowned with rolls of razor wire. He’d watched through ballistic glass as red tracers arced through the night, leaving trails of closely wound blue coils stretched taut across his vision.
“It can’t be what you’re thinking,” his father said. “Manic Polarity, or MP, directly resulted from mass inoculation of the veteran population with a wonder drug specially tailored for their Hippocampus that was supposed to cure Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Desperate to curb veteran suicide the government went overboard with the dose and some veterans were essentially lobotomized. The vast majority seemed to survive unscathed as ticking time bombs, just waiting for alarms to signal their end.”
“Did you just read that out of something?” Clark asked.
It was so like his father to parrot the words of another instead of forging his own.
“Yeah, out of the last issue of Modern Psychology I had laying on my desk. They did a whole spread on veteran suicide and violence. Pretty scary stuff. I—”
Muffled voices filled a lull in his father’s verbose explanation.
“Son, I uh . . .” his father’s voice trailed off. “Listen, call me tonight, all right? My three o’clock just showed up. I’m really sorry but I’ve got to let you go.”
Clark had been standing with his back turned to the mall’s entrance while he talked to his father. A woman waited for him inside, found using one of the classier dating services. Angela, a half Caucasian half Laotian woman in her mid-twenties, would be waiting for him in the food court. Clark still couldn’t understand how liking nerdy fantasy books from decades past became a commonality they’d bonded over. But he knew that if he kept her waiting much longer he’d blow it, and then it wouldn’t matter how many wizards’ names he knew.
When he turned to walk through the automatic doors he felt anxiety surge through him—pulse spiked, acid churning in his stomach, sweating—although he didn’t know why. Fighting it, Clark forced himself to walk a steady pace through the doors and into the food court. A group of kids made their way from a hotdog stand to the soda fountain. Clark’s eyes bounced from one kid to the next, first checking their hands for a weapon, then their clothes for the bulge of an explosive vest.
What the fuck am I doing?
Clark dug the heel of his palm deep into an eye socket as he took the seat opposite Angela.
“Are you doing okay?” she asked.
Clark said yes and tried to gauge her reaction to their forced conversation without making it obvious. The damn nightmares were wearing him down, taking a toll on his body as well as his mind. He looked like he’d put on a hard decade in just a fortnight. Clark felt like he had.
The woman’s watch went off. Without glancing down she silenced it.
Clark had stopped wearing a watch after his had been stolen at the hospital. Most people never took their watches off, especially with the threat of Manny violence on the rise. The news wouldn’t let it go, it seemed like. Everyday back on the same old subject. Between the lack of sleep, trying to sort out the nightmares, and recovering from the “trauma,” as his father put it, the sound of alarms lost its familiarity and become startling.
“Was it too loud?” Angela asked. “I’m trying out a new watch that’s louder and connected to the internet so if anything crazy happens, I’ll be notified first.”
When Clark’s eyes didn’t seem to register over the dark bags under his eyes. Angela shifted in her chair uncomfortably and spoke again.
“You know, so I can beat the crowd,” she said, then laughed nervously. “They say that most deaths perpetuated by Manny violence are from people fleeing to safety. Nothing travels faster than information!”
Clark managed to smile at her enthusiasm. While the new wave of violence had sparked awareness he wondered if it was the wrong kind. People seemed to treat it as a natural disaster, like a severe drought or an especially hard winter. Angela smiled back at Clark without showing her teeth. She held her wrist up to him so he couldn’t help but take a gander at the gaudy alarm clock. Just when he was about to say something he knew he’d regret, a Marine walked out from one of the utility closets. Then another. Then another. Then finally a whole patrol made its way into the food court. There was no doubt in his mind that the Marines—gristled cheeks smeared with grease and dirt, body armor covered in dust, soles of their boots cracked—had no real substance to them. Clark tried to keep his focus on Angela but he couldn’t help but let his eyes flit over to the Marines as they slowly stomped through the food court, casting suspicious glances over everyone. Most of them looked really young, just barely old enough to buy cigarettes. A few of them appeared to be in their mid-twenties, with the Sergeant looking most mature of all.
Clark could sense Angela becoming anxious with his current agitation, which of course he couldn’t explain to her without sounding completely insane. How could he be having some kind of flash back to a war he’d never even been a part of? One of the Marines came close to the table where Clark and Angela sat and for a moment Clark was terrified that the large, well-armed man was going to ask them to leave. When the Marine moved away Clark tried relaxing.
“Clark,” Angela said. “Your hands are shaking.”
Clark looked down at his hands.
“I, uh,” Clark cleared his throat. “I don’t know what the deal is. This usually doesn’t happen.”
Angela stood up, her eyes narrowing on Clark.
“You need help,” she said. “I don’t know what you’re on, but you need to get your shit together.”
Clark couldn’t convince her to stay. He tried to explain what had happened as he sputtered while struggling to keep pace with her as she power walked out of the food court to the parking lot.
“Sir, we’re going to have to ask you to remain calm and speak with us.”
Clark nearly ran into the two uniformed police officers when they stepped in front of him. Angela kept right on walking, not stopping to look back as she threw open one of the doors and stormed out onto the concrete. Clark took short steps back as he looked up at the police officers’ faces. They both stood taller than him by about six inches and were what he’d heard called “tactical,” meaning they were equipped for a war zone.
“What . . . what is this all a-about,” Clark stuttered.
The officers both had M-4’s, and their hands went from being clasped in front of them to at the ready on pistol grips and stocks.
“Sir,” the officer closest to him said. “You are presenting symptoms of Manic Polarity. Do you have, or were you ever treated for, PTSD?”
Clark shook his head once as if to say no, but then again as if to clear it. The police officers’ eyes swept Clark’s face.
“I’m . . . I’m sorry,” Clark said, putting his hands up in front of him and taking a few steps forward. “I just don’t feel well. Something . . . in my head.”
First one leveled his gun at Clark, then the other. Both of the officers racked rounds into the chambers of their rifles.
“STOP RIGHT THERE!” the officer who hadn’t spoken yet bellowed.
Clark didn’t stop though. He felt dizzy and confused. He wanted to go home and sit on his couch and never leave again. He stumbled forward and didn’t feel the projectiles that made his body lift from the ground, limbs undulating, as his vision flashed yellow and white from the muzzle blasts. When Clark tried to push himself up off the glossy floor of the food court his hands slipped in something red and tacky. He coughed and wheezed sounds of suds and sucking, a bright red froth seeped from his mouth as if he were rabid.
Clark stumbled once more, his last time. Everything went black as the two police officers’ watches chimed softy, almost in unison.
Jason Arment served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a Machine Gunner in the USMC. He’s earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He has been anthologized in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volumes 2, 4, & 5; and 2017 Best American Essays collection. University of Hell Press published his memoir Musalaheen in 2018. He lives in Denver, where he coordinates the Denver Veterans Writing Workshop with the Colorado Humanities and Lighthouse.