“The Toothbrush and the Lie”

When I see Charlie’s toothbrush on the sink as I brush my teeth, once again, I leave it alone. After twenty-seven years of sharing the same six-by-eight foot space, leaving each other’s stuff alone, I suppose it’s out of habit more than anything.

They came to clean his stuff out of our cell and I don’t know what came over me. I told those bastards it was my hootch and I’d be the one to decide what to do with Charlie’s stuff, now that he was gone. They could see blood in my eyes so they left me alone. And for the first time in twenty-seven years, I was alone in my cell, with plenty of time to reminisce . . . .

You’d think people would have more sympathy for men who’ve fought for this country once they’ve gone crazy. People love you while you’re away risking your life in guerilla warfare, but once you come back, alls you get is a sea of cold shoulders. It’s enough to make a man hate; especially the Chucks that were the reason for the whole thing.

It didn’t take me long to lose Mary once I got back from my second tour. After you’ve murdered thousands of people—women, children—you’re a changed man. I wasn’t the same long-haired boy they drafted, that’s for sure. I was angry, drunk, and abusive, and eventually, after a year of that, my wife finally put me out. I was on the street for two years before I got so hungry and desperate for booze that I robbed an ice-cream shop. I’ll never understand why I chose that place. Whoever heard of an ice-cream shop owner with a sawed-off under the counter? He pinned me to the ground with the barrel digging into my neck and his foot pressed into my upper back, waiting for the cops.

In that moment, I experienced a sort of death. My life passed before my eyes in snapshots, faded gray and tattered by my constant cramming of them back down in my pocket of memories—the ones I couldn’t bear to stare at for too long. And then, I wasn’t there anymore; I was under attack. I flipped around and took the gook’s gun and fired, blowing his head against the wall behind him.

And then, I woke up.

They gave me life with no parole. And to pour salt in the wound, they stuck me in a cell with a goddamn Charlie. I told them they were no good fucking cherries, and if they didn’t get that Chuck son-of-a-bitch outta my cell, I’d kill him. Just like I killed his relatives back in Nam. I threatened the slanty-eyed bastard, and beat him within a splinter of his life for touching my toothbrush (which he never did again), and ended up in solitary for a week. Then, they threw me right back in there, with him reading his gook bible. And I knew I was stuck with him. For good.

Weeks turned into months and then years, and Charlie and I learned to work around each other. He never touched my stuff and I never touched his. And looking at his bed—the cold blankets pulled back, bible still lain open, its pages fanned and crumpled beneath it—I haven’t been able to bring myself to touch his things, even now.

***

Charlie comes to me in a dream and tells me he always considered me a friend, even though we never once spoke. Even after what I did to him. Even after I never once called him by his real name. He tells me he forgives me, and that I should forgive myself, too. He says he’ll be waiting for me on the bright side.

I gasp myself awake and stumble to the stainless steel mirror by the sink. I splash cold water on my face and struggle to breathe. I grip the edge of the sink with trembling hands, accidentally knocking Hao’s toothbrush onto the concrete floor. I stare at it for a second in disbelief. I had just thought of him as “Hao” for the first time. I bend down to pick up his toothbrush, but instead I fold up under the sink, cradling it and sobbing like a schoolgirl. Hao was never the enemy I made him out to be. He left me alone because it was my wish. He never hated me or my sins. He forgave me, respected me when there was no one else left that did. Hao was no enemy . . . .

And he was never coming back.

This story was first published in The Oddville Press, Volume 2, Issue 2. There are so many great stories in that issue, as well as the newest issue that just came out a few days ago. Definitely worth the free download! You can download both issues, as well as Volume 1, Issues 1-6 with this nifty little link right HERE.