Captain Lise Sheridan—recently discharged honorably from the 10th Combat Support Hospital, U.S. Army—knew with tremendous certainty, as she sat in a Studio City kitchen, that Danny Gold would step into the doorway to ask if she was okay because she was taking too long getting the Coke Zero out of the fridge. Danny had been asking stupid questions again. Or maybe they were just questions that were too hard to answer. She popped the top of the can deliberately, sat down at the small table, and sucked at the edge of the can, all in an attempt to slow time. Lise needed these moments when she was away from other people. Other people were dangerous. The doctors at Walter Reed had said it might be like this, but what soldier, or Army nurse for that matter, ever listened to a shrink.
This excerpt is from Katie Rogin’s novel Life During Wartime (Mastadon Publishing, 2018) and is reprinted here by permission of the author.
“Katie Rogin’s riveting debut, Life During Wartime, is a smoking, sun-drenched portrait of a nation at war with itself. Set during the 2008 financial crisis, Rogin’s story of the desperate search for a missing combat veteran explodes into a searing social commentary that resembles, in scope and ambition, Robert Stone’s Vietnam-era work. It’s a powerful, wrenching, thoroughly necessary book.”
— Whitney Terrell, author of The Good Lieutenant
“Tell me about a good day in Iraq.” When Danny had asked this, that now-familiar hum on the surface of Lise’s skin spread across her arms and legs.
“There were no good days.” She had answered him, but her voice wasn’t part of her anymore.
“Tell me about a better day then.”
“I thought you wanted to hear about truck and raw—I mean—” slower now, as she found the right words: “Shock and awe, carnage and mayhem.”
“I need a scene at page 60, a respite, a quiet moment when everyone, including the audience, can take a breather.”
“Before the hero recommits?”
“The memory comes and goes.”
“Can you remember a good—a better—day?”
She spat it out quickly: “I was coming back from the gym in the Green Zone and there was a mortar attack. Nobody got hurt.” This wasn’t true. Her friend Nina would have spotted it for the lie it was.
“Anything else? Maybe not moving, just sitting around? Maybe you stood looking out at the horizon, the mountains maybe, and you thought of home. Maybe not mountains, but the desert?”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” This was when she finally extracted herself from the couch and made her exit to the kitchen. Nina would have smiled approval at this.
There were days when Lise thought this was the worst thing she’d ever agreed to, including joining the Army during wartime. Telling a Hollywood screenwriter stories, secrets, and statistics about being an Army nurse in Iraq, trying to translate her words for traumatic amputations into words he could use. And maybe the second worse thing she’d ever agreed to was to sleep with him, often just to break the tense silence between them. Nina had shaken her head very, very slowly when she had found out.
The VA docs had given her a lot of acronyms and abbreviations, but in the end it was simple: she’d been in a war zone for 18 months and she had got hit in the head. Even in her support group—run by the annoying Nik, up in the Sierra Madre hills—she was the only one with no visible evidence of war. Even Nina had a small scar on her left cheek. But they all said it was fine, no worries, Captain, you fought like us, you took care of us. You were there.
Danny twisted his upper body into the doorway, leaving his legs around the corner out of sight. “You okay?”
Lise turned away from him so he wouldn’t see the little smile on her face, which really only made her usually down-turned mouth look neutral instead of happy. “Just having a moment. Refueling.”
“How about a little drinking down at the Moon?”
These words were the potent code between them for an extended series of intimate events. Lise swiveled to face Danny as she gave serious thought to his offer. He was suggesting they abandon the screenplay, head to his local bar, have a few drinks, return to the apartment and have slow civilian sex. She was moved by the fact he thought this would make her feel better—or even, good—and she was relieved he was giving her activities in which she wouldn’t have to talk so much. The words weren’t coming, or they were coming in mixed-up jumbles. The VA docs called them crazy salads and she already had a full day of them. The little girl’s birthday party she had attended that afternoon had been confusing, with too many new people, too many words. She had hoped Nina would stay by her to translate, but that hadn’t happened and Lise couldn’t remember why.
“Sure. Sounds good.” She said this with a sense that she possessed her own voice, which surprised her. Drinking always helped her say the right words.
“Let me just change my shirt,” he said.
Danny disappeared to the bedroom while Lise sat feeling un-girl-like in her Army-issue T-shirt and a pair of jeans she’d borrowed from Nina. She wasn’t primping for the bar, but Danny had to wear the exact right shirt to signal he was an employed, produced screenwriter who was drinking to get his lover into bed and not because he had writer’s block or couldn’t sell a script. It was a thing like this that made Lise think Danny was an idiot. Why couldn’t he just wear what he was wearing and leave the apartment without thinking? She thought of Major Beck telling everyone to slow down, speak calmly, know you’re doing the right thing—even as she was rushing-rushing with a Marine’s bloody body knowing he was just seconds away from losing a limb or two. If she could just slow down time with Danny, then maybe.
Nik always said he and his Vietnam guys had talked about going back to the world when their tours were over. For them, the world was home. But when Danny took more than five minutes to decide which of his many shirts to wear, as he was doing now, Lise thought of this place as a broken world. When Danny made love to her though, with his smoky single-malt breath and his large smooth hands, as he would a few hours from now, his ignorance floating away, she thought she was the one who was broken.
They sat at the short end of the bar. Lise leaned into the dusty posters shellacked to the wall and looked up at the television that hung over the other end of the bar. She saw uniformed people moving among the wreckage of a train crash. She couldn’t tell if she was accelerating or slowing because of what she saw there. She put her hands in her lap and looked away. Danny looked to the bartender hoping to order, but the guy ignored him, drying glasses and checking levels in bottles in his speed rack. Lise leaned reluctantly toward the bartender and his wall of bottles, feeling a spotlight on her face. The guy suddenly came alive and moved toward them. Lise hoped he’d take their order from Danny, but he smiled at her.
“Hey, sister. How’s it going today?”
“I’m good.” Lise cleared her throat and looked away. “We’re good.”
“Feel like a civilian yet?”
She must have been really drunk, moved to telling stories filled with memory gaps. She hoped she hadn’t boasted, but then what were war stories anyway but extended bragging. Half the bartenders in L.A. seemed to be vets of one war or another. Some were ex-hippies, some ex-G.I.s, some both—all of them hungover or clean and sober. Lise felt at home with them, but always resisted the initial recognition and camaraderie until she yielded to it. She didn’t like the way it eclipsed Danny, though, with his fan of credit cards and clean shirts.
“Danny?” She looked to him, signaling the ex-soldier behind the bar exactly how she wanted this to go, reserving judgment of Danny for herself and no one else.
Danny ordered his whiskey and her beer and as the bartender faded away, Danny slipped his hand along her back, felt her tense and then sat back, keeping his hands to himself. Lise knew he was thinking that she just needed a drink.
“How much longer do you think you’ll stay out here?” Danny could mistake heavy conversation for small talk.
Lise answered immediately, as if she knew for sure. “I was thinking about maybe getting a job, a nursing job. Keeping charts in a doc’s office maybe. Pay is shit, but I got mad skills.” If her numbness could accommodate a want of any kind at all, it was to be in an ER or on a paramedic truck on a Saturday night in some gun-ridden neighborhood. She looked at the television again. The news people sat in a studio talking to each other, very concerned.
“You don’t want to go home to Denver?” He was asking if Lise was staying because she wanted to be with him.
The bartender delivered their drinks and they sipped away the tension. And then that familiar B-minor electric strum came from the speakers around them.
She’d heard the song her entire life, born two years after it was released. Her father had played it endlessly whenever his dark moods hit, bellowing to her mother about how it was the true signal the 60s had really ended. Fuck Altamont and Watergate, this—he would flap the album cover in the air—was the death knell, with dueling guitars, in our bicentennial year. But when Lise had heard the song in Los Angeles, it had a freshness that surprised her, reaching a place in her that war and memory loss hadn’t touched.
She could see Danny’s body sway slightly to the song. Why had she so quickly agreed to meet this screenwriter? She was slow to make all other decisions except the reflexive kind. Maybe it was the weather. The light in this place was different than light she had known elsewhere—not Rocky Mountain light or Baghdad light. And the palm trees did this silhouette thing against the blue, blue sky—a blue Lise knew she had never seen before except maybe in some paintings once at the Denver Art Museum. And Danny stood among these colors and shapes and when she heard the song on the radio—it must have been playing when she first met him—it made her feel close to—what? She remembered pulling into the parking lot, watching Danny step to greet her—this moment of repair, made of blue and sun and breeze and twin guitars and the warm smell of colitas rising up through the air. She had felt un-broken for the first time since the Green Zone attacks, since Ramstein and Walter Reed, since—when?
“No, I don’t think I’ll go home to Denver,” she said, finally answering his question. “Let’s get out of here,” Lise added, leaning toward Danny, reaching to touch him, wondering if the bartender was watching and not approving.
Lise nodded because she had lost the words.
“I was just getting this idea, this click in my head.” Danny talked and Lise lost the thread as he re-routed her away from what she had just offered. “I was thinking, what if—now hear me out—what if the unit doesn’t get caught up in the deaths at the school and the private doesn’t confide in the nurse. What if—” Danny droned, spinning Lise’s stories back at her with differences slight and extreme, building a war tale that bore no relation to the world she knew. Had he been listening at all? She thought of calling Nina again—wondered why Nina hadn’t returned her last call—thought of thanking her again for lending her the jeans, confiding in her that this guy was clueless, what was she doing with him? Nina would laugh, remind Lise she was supposed to be the older, wiser one.
“Isn’t your script about the Cash?” She occupied her mouth with the beer bottle immediately after she got the words out.
“It is—wait, you’ve never called it that before. Cash, like in CSH, combat support hospital?” Danny pulled his eyebrows together. “I need to write that down.” He slapped at his pockets, found nothing and grabbed a BevNap from the bar stack. The bartender appeared with a pen for Danny, wiggling his nose at Lise as if writers without pens on their person gave off a stench. Lise noticed her nose was wrinkled too.
Maybe telling her stories to Danny would get her back on track. Telling him about Baghdad, about treating the wounded, might give her order again. She hardly remembered anything though, but somehow she was able to retrieve recollections from deep in her muscles. She felt so far away from herself even when she was telling her stories, so far from the roaring sense of purpose being an army nurse had given her. She wanted back into that.
Lise’s mother was a doctor and the one thing the daughter of a doctor couldn’t do was become a nurse. Her dad taught history at the University of Denver and preached from his Eames lounge chair, stabbing at guacamole with blue corn chips. Other than the Broncos, he wasn’t keen on people who wore uniforms. Lise caught sight of the train wreckage on the TV screen again and thought maybe she would call her parents, talk to them, holding the phone close to her ear.
At some point she had escalated to tequila shots with the beer and Danny had moved his bar stool so his knees were between her thighs. She leaned back into the wall and listened to him spin his tales. He wasn’t behaving really badly or in a way he hadn’t before, but definitely in a way that would not fulfill the earlier promise of the evening. Desire was fading instead of spreading through her. She wanted out and away from him. He was too drunk now anyway.
Lise had to half-support Danny when they walked back to his apartment. The boulevard was noisy and dirty, but it was populated and seemed safe to her as they moved from too-bright spaces to too-dark ones. They turned into the murky dim light of residential streets and she slipped into vigilance before she realized it, checking behind them as they walked the three blocks, peering ahead and then checking behind, constantly scanning for movement. She was amped way beyond reach of the calming alcohol when she dumped him on his bed. She stood over him, watching him shudder a little as he mumbled and curled up. Lise flipped open her phone, told Nik’s voicemail that she needed to talk to someone who got it, and buzz-drove the Jetta out to the Sierra Madre hills where the vets waited for her.
No one answered the bell at Nik’s so Lise put her face close to the big picture window. Someone was zonked out on the couch and she could see the blue and white lights from the television kaleidoscoping over him. The canyon around her made nature noises and she wondered what was actually in the woods. Her heart rate had dropped as she drove, but now it was climbing again—and she found the erratic rhythm a relief after Danny-time. This was not a good sign.
Nik pulled open the rough wood of the front door and stepped out into the dark.
“Friend or foe?”
Lise walked past him and through the doorway without answering.
“Permission to enter, granted,” she heard him say behind her.
Lise moved through the living room where a couple of guys—one may have been Acevedo and another was definitely Maxwell—were playing Call of Duty IV. She went into the bathroom and shut the door. Her jeans were hanging on the shower rod where she had left them. They had dried. She put her face to the crotch and was relieved to find it smelled of lavender soap instead of urine. She quickly pulled off Nina’s jeans and slid into her own.
“You okay in there, Sheridan?” Nik called to her from beyond the door.
“I’m good. Just changing back into my clothes.” She opened the door to him.
“Any thought about why you pissed your pants the other night?” Nik could be such a shrink.
“If that’s how you want to play it, tough guy.”
Lise didn’t want to do this right now although she knew eventually she would have to have a Nik session. Group talking was one thing, but his war veteran self-help guru magic really came out in what he called sessions—marathon one-on-ones where he helped you with your shit in allegedly epic ways, got you straight, got you spiritually on the mend so you could make a life. You had to come back for tune-ups and weekly groups were always good, but after a Nik session, vets could deal. At least that’s what he advertised. Lise was of two or three minds on Nik and his ways, but she did suspect that Nik’s hillside held more wisdom than Danny and his crowd.
“You seen Nina?” Lise wanted to return the jeans.
“Haven’t seen her, but I think she left her backpack in the kitchen.”
“But she usually has it with her. It’s got all her stuff in it.”
“It’s here, she’s not. What can I tell you?”
Lise woke up sure she knew where she was only to realize she was mistaken. She smelled Denver and then the Green Zone, as if her nose was switching channels. Then she smelled cooking bacon and her location came to her: Major Beck’s family’s apartment above the garage, Sierra Madre, CA 91025.
After her visit to Nik’s the night before, she had headed out intending to drive all the way back to Danny’s in Studio City, banging on his door, waking him up. But as she came down from the canyon and passed Nina’s street she had taken a right, circling the block and pulling up along the curb. The main house where Nina’s landlady and her family lived was lit up. Lise could see the party decorations still on the walls. Why didn’t people clean up after themselves? Lise couldn’t remember where Nina had gone after the party or maybe Nina hadn’t said. From the car Lise could see to the rear of the lot where Nina’s rental house sat. That house was dark. Lise and Nina had been talking about her moving out of Major Beck’s and into the other bedroom at Nina’s. The stillness of Nina’s place seemed something more than uninviting. Lise had felt warned off. She had moved her foot from the brake pedal to the gas and driven straight to Major Beck’s. Danny probably wouldn’t wake until morning.
She had actually slept most of the night, which surprised her—she usually only slept once she was sure the sun was coming up. She was glad not to wake at Danny’s, where his early morning industry made her feel grumpy and hung over even when she wasn’t.
Lise lay under the sheet wondering if she could breathe away her morning anxiety. Maybe if she just skipped the shower she wouldn’t have the attack. She thought the word “steak” instead of “attack” and immediately pictured a large breakfast on a table in front of her: meat, eggs, toast, potatoes, orange juice, coffee. She thought of diners, Formica tabletops, aprons with stains. The bacon smell pulled her from the bed, but she wasn’t hungry. It was simply time to start another day.
Lise would connect with Nina today. She would make an effort to do that, if she could find the sustained will. She would make the rounds of the usual places—where they drank, where they talked, where they sat in silence. She would speak to the people they knew—Jen the landlady, that guy Nina had been maybe sleeping with unless he’d gone back to Afghanistan. She would go to Nik’s again—tear Maxwell and Acevedo away from the joy stick, make Nik pay attention even when Lise barely could. She didn’t have the energy to be concerned, she told herself, she just wanted to see her new friend, her new friend who hadn’t returned three voicemail messages, who had left her backpack where she wasn’t, who hadn’t been seen since—when?
She stared at the shower stall, the dread rising in the lower region of her throat as she knew it would. She bathed in the sink, cupping water from the faucet in her palms and splashing it awkwardly into her armpits and between her legs. There were puddles of water all over the tiled floor when she finished and she was careful not to slip as she reached for the towel. Iraq War Veteran Dies in U.S. Bathroom. She saw the headline, but couldn’t tell if it was The Denver Post or another paper. It didn’t scare her, it just made her feel stupid. Most everything else scared her—that she could remember. She needed to get certified in something new, get a job, save some lives. She needed to actually feel something other than fear. For now she would lie down on the unmade bed—until the dizziness passed, until the electrical firing in her brain stopped. Then she would look for Nina.
The rental house was empty. Lise didn’t knock, didn’t hope Nina would answer the door. She knew Nina wasn’t there so she just walked inside.
The house was still and dusty. The windows were open, but everything was in its place. The kitchen and bathroom were spotless. Shampoos, conditioners, and moisturizers were lined up in a neat row. A frying pan and a dish stood in the drying rack. The bed was made and Nina’s clothes were put away neatly in the closet and the drawers of the wooden bureau. A messenger bag from New York hung on the knob of the closet door. Lise looked under the bed and found nothing. She pulled the edge of the spread down, smoothing the fabric in place, and sat up on her knees. The hooked rug carpet made a raggedy circle under her. She couldn’t remember what she was supposed to be thinking.
“Mommy’s in her bedroom,” the little girl said when she opened the door to Lise.
“Why are you opening the door to a stranger?” Lise didn’t know how to talk to children.
“You’re Captain Lise. You’re Nina’s friend. You were at my party.”
“I could be anybody.”
“But you’re Lise.”
“I forgot your name.”
“It’s okay, you don’t have to be sorry. Mommy forgets stuff all the time.” Lise waited. “My name is Mia.”
The conversation had clearly run its course so Lise stepped into the house and closed the door behind her. The little girl was wearing a kind of plastic basket on her back that held plastic arrows and the thing that shot arrows. Lise couldn’t think of the words for these objects.
Mia indicated that Lise should bend down and lean in close to hear her whisper. Lise didn’t like being this close to a small person. What if she pushed her by accident? She’d break into a million pieces. Mia cupped a hand around the side of her mouth and Lise reluctantly moved her ear into the warmth of the little girl’s palm.
“Mommy got in bed in the middle of my party. She won’t come out.” They both straightened up and Mia pointed toward the back of the house. In full voice Mia announced, “Daddy said he was fuck piss.”
“You mean, fucking pissed?” Lise asked.
Mia nodded very seriously, allowing herself to say the grown-up words only once. And then she fled, bare feet slapping on the wood floors, toward where she had pointed. The arrows made a muted rattling sound as she moved.
Lise heard Jen call from the bedroom.
“It’s Lise Sheridan. Is this a good time for a visit?” Lise shouted back. She thought she heard Jen say something like come back to the bedroom, but Lise didn’t want to venture any further into other people’s private spaces. Looking through Nina’s place had been enough. She stood in the living room for a moment, realized she’d been holding her breath and let it out in a slow exhale. She breathed deeply in and out again and then walked toward Jen’s voice.
Lise hesitated at the bedroom door. It was partially closed and she dreaded what she would find on the other side.
“Lise, is that you? Come on in. I’m dressed.” Jen’s voice came from behind the door.
Lise pushed herself through the doorway and over the threshold into the room. Jen lay on top of the made bed, propped up against several pillows. She wore several shirts layered over each other and jeans and navy suede Pumas.
“Sorry to greet you like the Queen, but I just needed to lie down. Kind of having a bad day.”
“You wear shoes in bed?” Lise couldn’t help but ask the question.
“Kind of having a bad week, if you know what I mean. What if I have to leave all of a sudden? So the sneakers are on.”
This conversation seemed reasonable to Lise, but she didn’t like standing over the woman on the bed. It reminded her of hovering over bloodied prone bodies, military and civilian, in all the places where she had seen the injured.
“Did Nina lock herself out again?” Jen asked.
“Nina’s not around. I’m looking for her.”
Jen sat up, triggered by something in Lise’s flat tones. “Weren’t you at the party together?”
“I’m sorry I left early.” Or maybe Nina had been the one to leave first.
“Oh please. I left early myself—and I’m the mom. Twelve seven-year-olds is dealable, but their parents are another story. Especially if you run out of adult beverages. The juice-box mafia will turn on you in a heartbeat.”
Lise didn’t really know what the woman was talking about. “You didn’t see Nina after the party?”
“You sound like a detective movie.”
“She hasn’t picked up her messages, hasn’t returned calls. She’s probably off on a lost weekend with what’s-his-name. It’s not a big deal.”
“What is his name?” Jen had a worried look on her face—a look that Lise’s face should have matched.
“Sergeant something.” Lise couldn’t really remember what the guy looked like. “I’ll check the house again, if that’s okay. I have a key.”
“Wait. Let me give you her mother’s number—I don’t know why—just in case.”
Jen rolled toward one of the bedside tables. She retrieved an Apple phone like Danny had just bought, a pad of paper and a pen.
“Here.” Jen handed Lise the paper. “Her name is Diana Wicklow. Call her. Maybe Nina told her where she was going, if she went somewhere.” Lise stared down at the piece of paper, the name and number scrawled across it, legible and threatening. If she took the information, it meant she might use it, which meant she thought Nina was in trouble, which meant she was in trouble herself. “She’s cool. It’s okay,” Jen added.
Lise grabbed the paper and left. She walked out of the room, down the hallway and straight to Mia’s room.
Lise blundered into the room, disturbing carefully placed toys. Mia sat on the floor amid a plastic population of small animals and people. She still wore the basket of arrows. The little girl said nothing, just folded her legs and held them to her chest. She kept her eyes open.
Lise bent down, crushing horses and firemen, and lifted the skirt of the bedspread. She thrust her head under the bed. There was more empty dusty space, like at Nina’s. She turned her head to the little girl.
“There’re no monsters there, Captain Lise.”
Lise exhaled and lay her head down on the floor to rest. Maybe she could just lie there for a few minutes.
Lise checked the rental house again. This time she found Nina’s phone. It was lying shut and silent in the drawer of the bedside table—a place she hadn’t thought to look before. Why was it here? Lise opened the phone. The locked display told her there were seven messages waiting. She shut the phone in her palm. It made such a satisfying sound as it sprung close, but she couldn’t help but feel that Nina was locked away behind the display, inside the plastic and wires.
Lise sat in the Sierra Madre police station and stared into her empty hands. No obvious tools of any trade, just creases and calluses and a scar on her right thumb from failing to master an old sewing machine when she was 12. The detective sitting at his desk across from her had a gun in a holster at his belt. As he did his paperwork, pulled things from drawers, and reached for the phone, she could see the holster shift position to fit his moving body. Guns were everywhere.
In Iraq each day at the Daily Morning Report, Lise had to show her pistol to the people who keep track of those things. It was just to make sure the doctors and nurses hadn’t lost their weapons since they refused to walk around with them strapped to their bodies. For some of the medical staff it was an important point to make about the difference between them and the soldiers on both sides. For others it was a way to pretend that they were still at home, like the pirated cable in their residences and the golf clubs leaning against the wall and the rooftop cigar parties. Almost every doctor and nurse Lise knew was relieved to give up their weapon when they were discharged. Lise had unloaded and cleaned the pistol the way she had been trained and handed it, grip first, to the discharge sergeant. As the metal left her hands she felt that slight tremor when priorities are restored and worlds right themselves.
“What else do you need from me?” Lise reached for her Colorado driver’s license on the detective’s desk.
“Just a few more minutes.” He watched her slide the license closer. “Sure, you can have that back. Oh, and I’ll notify the VA. They like to know this kind of thing for their records.”
“I bet.” Lise hadn’t meant to make a face when she said this, but it happened anyway.
“This is a favor for Nik,” the detective explained. “He helped me, I help his—and you. And this Nina Wicklow. Usually, as you know from all that television you watch, this is way too soon to file a report. But given the circumstances this’ll be more than a missing persons thing pretty fast.”
“She’s not dead.” Lise said it as a fact not an argument. “It’s only been a couple of hours.” Another almost-fact.
The detective looked at her, not with pity but with another fact. “It’s been overnight. And you’re here.”
Yeah whatever, Lise thought. “She doesn’t have a gun anymore.”
The detective shook his head from side to side like what was he going to do with these kids today. “Easy to remedy.”
“She’s just missing,” Lise said, as if she was reading an item on a menu to a waiter.
“I can get you someone to talk to. A counselor. Other than Nik, if you want.”
“That’s okay.” She dropped her eyes to the floor. “It’s all the same.”
Lise leaned back in the chair, realizing she was gaining energy from all this. It wasn’t taking anything from her, it wasn’t making her weary as she thought it should have. She was raring to go. She slipped into her speedy hyper-tasking mode, doing her super-competent 360 thinking, sensing everything keenly, people neutralized and objects coming alive as allies. “Will you call her mom?”
The detective looked at the paper in front of him. “Diana Wicklow, New York area code?” He shifted his gaze to Lise who immediately looked away. “I think I’ll hold off for a few more hours. Maybe we’ll have something to tell her.”
“You have my cell?”
“Yes, Sheridan. I have your number.”
“You’ll call me when you know something?”
“I’ll call you when I know something. You do the same?”
Lise sat in the Jetta for a long time in the parking lot of the police station. She didn’t want to go to Nik’s. Even though he had cleared the way for her to talk to the detective, he would still be angry that she had gone to someone else for help. She didn’t want to go home to Major Beck’s. He was just a little too chill about everything sometimes. Lise wanted to indulge in the rushing-rush emergency she was experiencing. That meant she would go to Danny’s—drink, fuck, roar to loud music, then re-pack it all into a nicely wrapped gift of imprecisely told stories he could use in his screenplay, stories that didn’t hold.
Even preparing herself ahead of time didn’t make it easier for Lise to be with people—especially Danny, who always ended up with all of him inside all of her. And this time what she had prepared for did not happen and she felt alarmingly disconnected from the world.
He wanted to write. She could drink, she could talk, she could shout over the music, but he was going to write while she did all this and she couldn’t touch him until he was done.
Drinking alone was one thing, but drinking while someone else didn’t wasn’t exactly Lise’s idea of a good time, especially as she was trying to tamp down this rising bad voodoo energy from her very bad day. She needed a partner in crime and Danny wanted an official source. Danny wanted blood and guts and heroism and administrative details to keep it all real and prove he’d done his research with a real live witness. All Lise could see was Nina in bad places. All Lise wanted was to obliterate those images.
“Lise. You need to focus for me. Does this make sense? Let me read this and please listen. Would it happen like this?” Danny read, trying to change his voice for different characters and the stage directions. He conjured no new images for her so she listened harder, but what he said was not what she heard. Her mind spasmed and a tremor of terror went through her limbs. Should she run to somewhere where she understood what was going on?
Lise’s brain played a fabricated Nina movie loop: a series of images of Nina in every bad place she’d likely ever been, somewhere not safe, but not too far from sanctuary. Lise saw California colors and shapes, mashed them with colors and shapes from Iraq, and tried to feel—pain, grief, a sense of urgency, anything. But the numbness asserted itself with calm resolve.
“What do you think?” Danny looked at her expectantly.
“I think that’s probably about right. People call each other by their names and nicknames a lot and their ranks. So maybe you want to do that some more.” She hadn’t heard a word he had read to her.
“I think that’s called direct address. Like if I said, I think that’s called direct address, Lise. Or, what do you think, Captain? Is that what you mean, Lise?” He wasn’t smiling enough for her to be absolutely sure he was being funny on purpose.
“That’s exactly what I mean, Danny.” She smiled too. Making stuff up for the movies was more fun than lying in real life.
Danny closed his laptop, a good day’s work behind him.
“What were you thinking for dinner?” Danny asked.
Lise had stopped at Starbucks before she had walked over to the police station. She’d had a venti something she couldn’t remember and crunched on a caramel-tasting thing she thought was called a biscotti. That, and the beer she was drinking, had been her sustenance for the day so far.
Danny sat by her on the couch and she felt crowded.
She stood up and pulled out her phone.
“I need to make a call.”
“Sure. I’ll change my shirt while you do that and then we’ll go get something to eat. I know, no sushi. Too complicated.” Danny vanished from the room.
Lise fished the paper out of her jeans, uncrumpled it to find the name and number still legible. When Nina’s mother answered the phone, she sounded groggy, but Lise remembered she’d been an ER nurse, maybe still was, and assumed her hands were already moving efficiently despite being half-asleep.
Lise talked, said official things, asked if the Sierra Madre detective had called her. Danny appeared in the doorway and she slipped into another mode, dropping the filters, losing herself a little as she explained who she was to Nina’s mother and why she was worried.
“Will you come find her?” she asked before she hung up. Nina’s mother was maybe still talking, she wasn’t sure.
Danny stepped to her, but stopped a few feet away, sensing there was a perimeter he shouldn’t cross.
“You know Nina?” Lise looked at Danny’s laptop, lying on the table, quietly folded, holding all its information.
“How’s she doing?”
Danny opened his mouth, then quickly shut it, sensing something else intruding. “Dead gone?”
Lise shut her eyes. Did she have to explain everything to him?
Katie Rogin’s writing has appeared in VICE, PANK, Intellectual Refuge, The Chattahoochee Review, Streetlight, Quartz, The Rumpus, The Brooklyn Rail, The Millions, and Sports Illustrated. This excerpt is from her debut novel Life During Wartime, published by Mastodon, an imprint of C&R Press.