It was supposed to be the summer job of a lifetime, working as a chef at an upscale “summer camp” for adults. But, the air conditioner was broken again. After closing, the stale outdoor air brought little relief. The path to the cabins housing seasonal employees was dark but short. She stopped in her tracks when she came across one of the windows. With her pupils dilating, she couldn’t look away… 

(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)

When you have a dream so vivid you wake up in a cold sweat, your heart thumping, your eyes wild and large with terror, you should take it seriously. You could shake it off, take a shot of the Bushmills you left on the nightstand the night before, make believe that everyone has bad dreams. “It don’t mean nothing” they use to say in the platoon. This one was the latest installment in an alternate life, one only lived in the darkness of the night and the depths of the subconscious. You know what I mean, whether you admit it or not. It eventually gets impossible to tell which is the real world, the dark terror of the night, or the so-called normal life of day. Night versus day. Day versus night. Which is real, which is imaginary, or are they both real? Or imaginary?

Mine started the night we razed a village in the mountains of Afghanistan. It could have been anywhere: southeast Asia, Europe, a thousand years ago in a desert or jungle. It is a turning point from ‘normal’ into the unreal and then the terror of the new reality. The new world I had entered that night was where I traded my humanity for what I rationalized at the time was basic survival. I didn’t need to empty the clip and reload, I just turned my soul over because it was easier. Yes, ‘easier’ is the word. Simple as that. Who was the bad guy, the target? We didn’t know. We took them all down. When the dust settled they were just bloodied bodies strewn through the houses and streets. Kids, women, old men. They never had a chance, but that’s the funny thing about war.

If given a chance, we might have been the bodies. That’s what we told ourselves. Didn’t matter that most of them, if not all, were just innocent bystanders. They were there. We took them down. Then we moved on, not realizing that from now on, our world was different from the rest. We’d crossed a path, opened a door, and stepped through into a life that we would never return from. Not with drugs, not with booze. Not with support groups, counselors, not with yellow ribbons and people saying, “Thanks for your service.” We were on a one-way trip into Hell and there was no coming back. No glossing over by the politicians, sending guys into a cauldron of evil they themselves never had to face. Easy for them. The saddest part, that differentiates the truly lost souls from the rest, is that, looking back, I’d do the same thing. Like I said, the loss of our basic humanity. We just go on living, walking among the normal, as though we’re just like everyone else. But we aren’t.

It was a scorching summer in the daytime world I lived in. I worked as a cook at a military camp in the southwest. Not a real military camp, but a make-believe one for people that wanted to live a week or two of vacation playing at a make-believe war. It’s what the world had come to. Alternate reality for entertainment. There was a president who claimed his exclusive private high school academy qualified him as a veteran. It didn’t. He also accepted a Purple Heart from a real veteran as though he’d earned it. He didn’t. I didn’t care. I wasn’t a real cook either. We had a chef that dreamed up the gourmet meals and I followed orders in the preparation.

Following orders was something I had experience in. Good food in the military, not so much. If we offered real army cooking, no one would be there. Might as well let them have real bullets, too. Of course, we didn’t. I loaded the blanks myself each day before breakfast. By day I worked a twelve-hour shift feeding the ‘troops’ fancy food on fine china in an air-conditioned restaurant. It could hit well over 100 degrees out there. Probably the first times those guys had to sweat. For me, the longer the shift the better, as it meant a shorter night. Less time in the other reality. They also used guys like me to help make the experience more authentic. Real vets. They didn’t realize how close to the edge I was. Maybe they should have.

Late in August I had a particularly bad stretch of nights, waking wide-eyed and sweating. I’d been given orders. The dark side wanted to seep its evil into the normal side. Like I said, I knew how to take orders. It would no longer be just my personal agony. I would bring the shadows into the light of day. The bullets I loaded that morning were the real deal. So were the bloody bodies.

I sleep better now. I live in only one world, the dark one. My windowless cell in solitary is ten by seven. Should have been here all along, but I was just taking orders.