COLLATERAL DAMAGE by Julia Gourary
by Julia Gourary
Part I: Eddie
For eighteen years Eddie’s bullet was like some forgotten organ—the spleen, maybe. His cousin Denny had his spleen removed a few years ago, and the same thing: it was all right until it wasn’t, until one doctor felt a distended lump beneath cool fingers and then a flurry of signatures and warnings about lungs that may or may not collapse. Eddie is thankful that his bullet stayed under the skin, innocuous and clandestine, like a roll of undeveloped film. He never even told his ex-girlfriend; he just said he had a shoulder injury. She was still careful with it, though, as if it were something sacred, and he found himself doing the same. Over the years, the bullet’s importance swelled until it was no longer a foreign object lodged in him, but a tangible memory of its own.
And now that Eddie’s in jail it seems like the bullet is the only thing he has left, especially since Sam hasn’t called or written or visited since the trial. So, because he is afraid, he blinds his body to all the signs the doctors told him about. The pain, the tenderness—they tint his world with a dim red light, the source just out of sight. Besides, the pain isn’t so bad, not nearly as bad as the sore hope that Sam will visit. Today is Eddie’s birthday, and if she doesn’t visit today, he knows she never will. He wants nothing more than a lopsided chocolate cake and Sam’s voice to fill his hollowed-out ears.
He was only learning to speak in sentences when it happened, but he knew how to forgive. He knows now that Sam doesn’t, will carry what happened with her like her own bullet. Once, he asked her about it, and she said her memories were silent, like flipping through a set of photographs: the patterned linoleum squares under her knees, the dark metal of the gun, an impossible amount of blood, her hand against the car window. Now, eighteen years later, he made a mistake too, but she can’t accept that he isn’t the boy she built and painted gold.
Part II: Sam
This morning I take E’s kitten to the vet because her heart is beating too fast, like tiny cannonballs pelting my fingers. Besides, if she died, E would never forgive me and probably stop loaning me Bob Dylan CDs. The day I moved in, she brought over a green-bean casserole, which I thought was something people only did in movies, and introduced herself as E. Just the letter E. I couldn’t believe it at first because I can’t picture living my life with a letter as a name. It just isn’t right—a person deserves a full name. So, because of the casserole and the Bob Dylan and the nightly eleven p.m. check-ins (just to make sure I get home from work safe, because she saw a story on TV once about a waitress who was abducted by two dinner customers), I have to keep the kitten alive.
The vet doesn’t know me, but now he knows that I am slightly crazy, because the kitten is fine. It is my heart that is beating too fast. I haven’t done a project today, and it’s catching up with me. I go home and set the kitten up in the kitchen with a plate of milk and open the box that came this morning. I just couldn’t look at it because I knew if I were to put together the shelves inside it I would have to use Eddie’s screwdriver, and I can’t look at Eddie’s screwdriver right now. I’ve already organized the plates (large to small, plain to fancy) and my closet (red through violet, although I don’t have any violet clothes) and changed the locks on my door because E read an article online about how you should change your locks once a week. So the shelves are the only project I can do, and now, because of them, my mind pushes forward the fact that it’s Eddie’s birthday and leaves no room for anything else.
Inside my drawer of random crap I find a cheap birthday card with a hamster on it because Eddie doesn’t deserve balloons or a cake or a sister. Doesn’t he know I’m supposed to be the screw-up? I call Stella to ask if she’s going to visit Eddie, but she’s ten feet off the ground and staring at the ceiling fan. (“It’s like watching TV,” she says.) I put together the shelves, but they collapse when I’m done because I have left out the screws.
I turn on the TV, but it has a green tint, which makes everything look foreign. Green Oprah, green zebras eating a carcass, green, tight-faced newscasters. I look for something to eat and find only half a box of dusty soda crackers. Then I decide that the painfully white refrigerator looks too bare, so I print out a photo of three blond children and tape it up. For some reason, my brain has worked out while I wasn’t paying attention that E will be home by one, which leaves two hours until visiting hours are over. Maybe I should just drop off the card and leave. Besides, if I visited, I would be late for the dinner shift at the restaurant. And I still have things to do. I could call the mustached man older than my father who wrote his phone number on a napkin and slipped it in with the tip last night. Unfortunately, I have a rule that I don’t go out with customers who tip less than fifteen percent.
I hear E unlocking her triple-locked door and realize that I don’t know where the kitten is. I run through the apartment, squeaking the toy mouse E gave me. E knocks on the door.
“Hey, Sam, are you there?”
“Just a minute!” I yell to drown out the low hum of panic rolling across the apartment and through the crack under the door. Did I read somewhere that cats like to sleep in high places? Or was it low places? I can’t remember. I’m opening and shutting all the kitchen cupboards, slams mingling into a frantic music. Nested in the cupboard under the sink is the kitten, looking dead. I place one finger on her soft, white belly. No, her tiny heart is still beating. As I hand her over to E, I am relieved to no longer be responsible for a living thing. But once E and the kitten are gone, I’ll be alone with Eddie, and I don’t think I’m strong enough to forget for two more hours that it’s my little brother’s birthday.
Part III: Eddie
On Eddie’s bed is a letter. It’s been there for three hours, but instead of tearing it open like he thought he would, he buries himself in Steinbeck. It’s far easier to worry about Lennie and George than that letter, and whatever unknowable things lie inside it. When he finally picks it up, he sees that the address is written in languid script, which is wrong. Sam writes in short, urgent strokes. The letter is not from Sam, but Stella.
Stella has always been halfway out of Eddie’s life, one foot out the door. She’s always been the baby, only a few years younger but seemingly a lifetime apart from him and Sam. The last time he saw her she had dyed her hair from blond to raven black, which infuriated Sam. He has only something like a rough pencil sketch of her life: a rotating series of boyfriends that move in and out like actors on a stage, a rotating series of desk jobs she hates, and the drugs, which are why she can’t keep a job or a boyfriend.
She seems lost; her sentences zigzag across the page. She’s going out of her mind, she says. Her supplier overdosed, she went over to see why he wasn’t answering her calls, and he was lying there, eyes flung open like he had seen God. And she somehow got this idea from her friend that, because Eddie is in jail, he can “help her out.” She’s visiting next week.
He tears up the page until each piece contains nothing more than a single letter. He’ll write her back later, tell her not to come, but now he needs a minute to respond to the absence of a different letter, which feels like staring into the sun. He returns to Steinbeck.
At the bell, he walks to the laundry room through a thick haze, almost missing the door. A man about his age is already inside, throwing pairs of khaki pants into the machine. Eddie recognizes him from the courtyard, where he was doing jump shots at the basketball hoop this morning. He doesn’t give an indication that he wants to talk, and Eddie doesn’t want to pollute the crisp silence with words. They load pants into the rows of washing machines, then the dryers. Eddie finds himself staring at the machines, hypnotized by their collective rhythm until it becomes a vulgarity, like fifty ticking clocks in a room. Their swishes echo in his ears, synchronized with his breath. He sees himself from above, a red light radiating from his shoulder like in those aspirin commercials—
Then Eddie is on the floor, the man kneeling beside him.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” he says. If the officers find out, they’ll send him to the doctor, and he’ll lose his bullet.
“Are you dying?” the man asks.
Eddie sits up on the floor, his back against the nearest machine. He pulls up his sleeve to the top of his shoulder. “God, I hope not.”
One side of the man’s mouth quirks up for a second until he notices Eddie’s shoulder, swollen purple like a ripe plum.
“That’s a bullet wound,” he says, then lifts up his shirt to reveal a small crater a few inches from his belly button.
“Yeah. I don’t blame the guy, though. I did break in. I didn’t realize so many people keep guns in their houses.” He shrugs the wound away like a cut or a bruise, as though he didn’t once have a piece of metal embedded in his stomach.
“Mine was an accident,” Eddie says, then, “eighteen years ago.”
“Oh,” he says, “then what’re you in for?”
“I stole a car. Well, it was my girlfriend’s—ex-girlfriend’s—idea, and we were going to return it.” It sounds so moronic now, in front of this stranger. He feels an inexplicable urge to defend himself to this man, to show him he may not be the golden Eddie, but he’s not this Eddie either. “I’m really not the joyrider type.”
The man nods. “I wasn’t the larceny type, either.” He stares at Eddie’s shoulder again. “You know, you should really get that thing checked out. It looks pretty bad.”
“I know. I just—it’s a part of me now, you know?” Eddie wishes he could pour out the jumbled contents of his mind like Sam’s old coin collection.
The man’s eyes are blank. “Not really. I wanted that thing out of me as soon as possible. I kind of wish they had let me keep it, though.”
“The bullet?” Eddie’s throat constricts.
“Yeah. Doctor told me it was evidence.” Eddie doesn’t reply, just grinds his feet into the gray linoleum and pushes himself up, letting the machines once again overtake the silence.
Part IV: Sam
“One forty-three p.m. Sam departing for jail. Estimated time of return is?”
“I don’t know. Visiting hours are over at three,” I say. I’ve already started out the door twice, but never made it past the stairs.
“Estimated time of return unknown; no later than three thirty,” she says into her tape recorder. Lately E has been chronicling all of our comings and goings. (“Police can use these things,” she says.)
I’m outside the jail, which is red brick and not as scary-looking as I thought, but is sadder-looking. I should’ve visited earlier. I am a terrible sister, worse than that girl in the news who tried to sell her brother. The thought of Eddie alone in there hurts me so much that I almost turn right back around again. The basketball hoop outside doesn’t even have a net, which for some reason bothers me very much, and I know that the sky here is the same as the one above my building, but it doesn’t seem like it.
The visitor waiting area is full of different people with the same expression. When Eddie comes out I have to pinch myself because he’s not my Eddie, he’s another Eddie, blurry and out of focus, faded and drained of color like an old photograph. I grab his hand because my throat is too tight to speak.
“Sam.” Is he happy to see me? I can’t tell. I search his eyes.
“Happy birthday,” I say, and hand him the hamster card, which now seems ridiculously inappropriate.
“Stella wrote me,” he says, but what he means is: You didn’t. “She thinks I can get her drugs or something.” He smiles, which I take as an invitation to hug him, but when I do he cries out, clutching his shoulder. That is when I notice that it is purple and swollen and all wrong.
“Oh, my God, Eddie.” I search his eyes again, which look afraid, which look the same way they looked eighteen years ago.
I can see him gearing up to tell a lie, but he can’t lie to me, not his sister, not the one who caused this.
“It’s nothing.” I want to scream, and shake him, and make him whole again, make him my Eddie again without that hunk of metal inside him.
“You need to have it taken out. Now.”
He tells me he passed out this morning, but that the pain isn’t so bad, not now that I’m here, and that he can’t get his bullet taken out. His bullet, he says. I need the bullet out as much as he needs it in, but since it is in his body the bullet is more his than mine. And I can see that he won’t change his mind.
“You’re being selfish,” I say.
“No, you are. You just want me to get it taken out so you can forget it ever happened.”
Oh, God, my baby brother is going to kill himself. Who is this man in front of me, who steals cars and thinks he is invincible? He is going to die eighteen years after I almost killed him. I dump out the contents of my bag and line them up: hand sanitizer, three safety pins, two buttons, a bottle of aspirin, my little black notebook, cinnamon Altoids, a pen I stole from the Marriott. By the time I look up, Eddie is gone.
Part V: Eddie (Four months later)
Eddie finishes tying his shoes, the same dirt-caked ones from the day he arrived at the jail. He fingers the envelope in his pocket, feels for the hard metal inside. When the doctor first showed him the bullet, he could hardly believe how small it was, barely bigger than a quarter. He wants to show it to Sam, wants her to see how small it is, how small it was this whole time. In the distance he sees flashing car headlights. He steps out into an alien world, no longer tinted red, but bright white, so bright it blinds him.
Julia Gourary is a student and writer from New York City, currently a freshman at Yale University. Her poetry and prose have been recognized by the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. She was named a 2017 National YoungArts Finalist in Short Story and a finalist for the 2017 Adroit Prize for Prose. This is her first published piece.