It was a sticky glowbowling alley, Burton thought, more so than most. He clicked his fingernails on the scorekeeper’s table and stared into the dark screen of the bolted iPad, waiting for it to activate. Overhead, a disco ball cast puckers of green light that reminded him of stars through night vision.
He didn’t feel well again, and he chewed his thumbnail until it became serrated. He’d kept the habit from nights on overwatch, and returned to it whenever the feeling hit him. His PCP called the problem chronic anxiety. The Navy called it a service-connected panic disorder. Whatever — to him these words were created for high schoolers with anorexia, safe-space liberals.
Still, he felt the sensation coming strong tonight. It wasn’t the alley or the spectators — sometimes he just felt an itch inside his mind, like he’d forgotten something, and whatever it was would fuck with him hard for the rest of his life. Some nights, he cried. He looked at his hands, and they seemed like they belonged to another person, like he was simply operating a body.
He sat still and did the thing where he shut his eyes and pretended he was someone else. When he opened them, he tried to notice things. Breathe. Overwatch.
A crowd of old men in service caps and VFW pins gathered behind the waist-high partition, clutching beers in unsteady hands. He saw the green light like stars, the thumbprints on the iPad screen. His doctor told him he should work on the hypervigilance. It was wrecking his blood pressure. He told him he’d work on it alright, and felt clever, because they’d both meant different things.
The Acronyms began arriving in pairs, dropping their gym bags at the adjacent lane, tugging on shoes by the tongue. The team was a dozen — some amputees, all disabled. A Wounded Warriors grant paid for the tours, the fundraiser bowling. Together they’d decided on “The Acronyms” because Petra had TBI from an IED and Daniels had PTSD. Gomez had tinnitus from CQB with his SAW, that sort of thing.
As he waited, Burton listened to the blood in his ears. He felt his neck cool from the stirred air. Someone clapped his shoulder from behind.
“You’re up. Ain’t just a continent, you know.” Daniels parked his wheelchair and pointed at the iPad, now glowing.
Burton punched in names alphabetically using callsigns — Gargoyle and the like. He took a quick count. Robbie was absent. He was gay, and therefore Skyflair, by consensus. The last name was Mercy. He served as anchor during competitions. Burton spotted him near the partition, performing a backbend stretch that looked like yoga. Burton enjoyed watching Mercy do things — his movements were thoughtful. He always seemed to be somewhere else, and Burton wondered where.
The lights dimmed, and people clapped in the dark. Burton stood to bowl first. He sent two balls downlane and made a spare. Woodard shouted from the seats, “Yo, lemme get that spare!” He waved a stump vigorously.
Burton took his seat and kept score while Gomez bowled as Cartel. Beside him, Daniels sat heavy and sipped foam from his complementary Bud. Some guys lost their legs and learned to run marathons. Daniels collected disability and ordered takeout most nights. He called the league his exercise. Tonight he’d strapped bowling shoes to the places where his legs ended. Burton helped hoist his chair up to the lane, where Daniels bowled as Fallout.
When Burton sat again, moments began to feel immediate. He called this feeling “when things turn to shards of glass.” The ringing in his ears felt like drowning. He went for his thumb, and this time, tore off a corner of the nail. The pain was excruciating, and that made the other feelings settle. Blood came, and he sucked it hard.
People cheered, and Burton bounced his heels. He looked around for Mercy. Sometimes they’d make eye contact at groups — VA huddles, team meetings — and Mercy would hold his gaze steady. Burton didn’t have the right words — it made him think of floating, how the water props you up. All you have to do is keep your lungs full. In those moments, Burton felt like he could be someone else, like he could climb outside his body and stay there.
Mercy was sitting on the partition bench, fingers folded in his lap. Burton watched his chest rise, then fall, and he tried to make his own match. He closed his eyes.
It was the ninth frame. Only Mercy was left. He walked quietly to the lane, resting a ball on his palm like an art display. Its surface was clouded with reds and grays. To Burton it seemed alive with mist, like a storm at sunrise.
Mercy stood on two prosthetics shoed with Chuck Taylors. He began doing Pride Rock, what the guys called his wind-up. He took a bent-knee stance, lifting the ball overhead, his face bowed. He worked the holes with his fingertips, then stood collected. He held the ball near his heart. He swung in backreach, and his arm hung suspended for a moment, parallel with the lacquered pines.
He once told Burton after a practice, “First, pick a single plank. Swing in parallel, and then just — release.”
His voice was soft when he said it, and Burton thought about the advice when he lay awake most nights. He thought about it when his doctor prescribed him medicines, and when he tossed them in the sink. He thought about it when the sickness didn’t feel like it was coming for him, but it was him. He thought about it nearly every day, and he wished he knew just why.
He watched Mercy release. The ball went off. It twisted downlane like a windswept petal.
Burton never waited for the crash — instead, he kept his eyes on Mercy. He was waiting for him to turn. He was hoping to catch his gaze.
Curtis J. Graham is a New Hampshire native and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. A graduate of the Mountainview MFA program, his work has appeared in Guernica, The Literary Review, The Wrath-Bearing Tree, and Assignment Magazine. He is represented by Alexa Stark of Trident Media Group.