Sergeant Caleb Daniels wanted to save all the veterans from killing themselves. A machine gunner three years out of the 160th Special Operations Regiment, 3rd Battalion, he’d tried to kill himself, four or five times, but he was interrupted each time—once by his dead buddy Kip Jacoby; once by his girlfriend Krissy, whom he met at a strip club; once on a lake by his house in his canoe when the rain stopped and he saw the moon; and once when the demon called the Black Thing came into his bedroom in Savannah and said, “I will kill you if you proceed,” and Caleb said, “No you won’t, asshole, because I’m going to do it myself.”
At first Caleb thought he was crazy because he saw dead people, but then his roommate’s new stepdad, Wombly, a member of the Lakota tribe, saw a dead kid soldier with Alice in Wonderland tattoos following Caleb around the house. It was Kip Jacoby, whom Caleb had last seen on the tarmac at Bagram Air Force Base, slipping inside the belly of an MH-47 Chinook nicknamed Evil Empire—tail #146—the same Chinook that would explode in a remote region of the Hindu Kush forty-five minutes later, killing all sixteen men aboard, including eight members of his unit. Wombly took Caleb to a sweat lodge down the street to teach him how to become a medicine man, worship their buffalo god, and talk to the dead soldiers who had followed him home. Caleb saw bodies appearing and disappearing in the smoke, old Indian warriors, crows and bats and wolves. At first Caleb thought he’d gained power sufficient to make the Black Thing go away, but the Black Thing didn’t go away.
Caleb met another veteran who also saw the Black Thing and knew how to fight it. So the veteran and Caleb drove to demon camp in Portal, Georgia, where the layer between heaven and earth is very thin, and Caleb sat down in a chair in a trailer and got an exorcism from a group of strangers, and he found his ruling demon wasn’t PTSD, like the doctors said, it was a six-foot, five inch buffalo with horns—a manifestation of the war demon known as Destroyer. That’s when he realized it wasn’t for no reason he didn’t die on that Chinook, #146, the Evil Empire. The mission, he decided, was in America now. He knew the only way to save the vets from killing themselves was to kill the Black Thing first. He started a company, a factory in the woods that would hire a veterans-only workforce to rebuild old military vehicles—machines that would give life instead of destroying it. Then he’d use the profits from this company to counsel soldiers into not killing themselves. Some would recover with counseling, but some would not. Then he’d send these soldiers to demon camp for deliverance from the Destroyer. A modern-day exorcism of the trauma of war.
When I first met Caleb, one morning in June 2008, in an isolated parking lot beside the Allatoona Reservoir in the woods near Kennesaw, Georgia, he told me he wanted to talk about how the war had followed him home. But by lunchtime, over cheese enchiladas at the Mi Casa Mexican Restaurant, in a strip mall ten miles from the site where in 1864, 2,321 soldiers died in a single day at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain, he told me instead about the thing that followed him home from the war, the thing in the burning peach trees, the thing in the sandstorms and the dried riverbeds, the thing in the camel spiders that walked in the shadows of soldiers. It followed him across the Atlantic and sat beside him in the jet where he carried Kip Jacoby’s body home. It followed him to Florida where Kip’s father wanted an open casket and Caleb had to bring him to the morgue to convince him otherwise. It followed him back to Georgia and to Missouri, where he was born. Somewhere between Mi Casa and Portal, because Caleb said these things could transfer, and because these things are not limited to war, I started to wonder if it was following me.
JENNIFER PERCY is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she received a Truman Capote Fellowship in fiction. She also received an Iowa Arts Fellowship from Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program. Winner of a Pushcart Prize and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, her work has appeared in a number of magazines, including Harper’s, The New Republic, and The Oxford American. She teaches writing at New York University.