February 26, 2021
Excerpt - Still Come Home - Winner of the Book of the Year Award for Indie Fiction
By Katey Schultz
Nathan Miller is on base in Afghanistan, serving his fourth and final tour. He has just received word that the “rules of engagement” for combat will be changed, via direct order from General McChrystal. The excerpt that follows shows Miller’s reaction to this news.
Nathan Miller swivels on his chair, unlocks the drawer, and grabs one bottle of Percocet. Still plenty left, should he need them, though even now—his first time opening one of the prescriptions—he questions his judgment.
Three tablets, chewed and swallowed with a quickness, the bitter sting a welcome distraction. His Ritalin chaser comes with surprising ease, as though Miller is watching someone else’s hands do the swift work. The twist and pop. The tapping of pills. He crushes two into powder with the bottom of his stapler and—just like he has seen in movies, at off-base parties back home, on YouTube, even—arranges it in lines, and then it’s gone.
A few minutes? An hour? Couldn’t be. His mind is so soft, humming white noise and elasticity. First snowfall in a hardwood forest, the daring tracks of rabbits through the powder. First kiss—not his wife Tenley but a girl named Sandra from art class, permed hair and a quick tongue. First finish line, back in his 5K days of blacktop and sprints. First art museum, that traveling Van Gogh exhibit, and he didn’t care if it were every other would-be painter’s story too. He’d been transfixed, brush strokes across canvas, across “centuries, across his eyelids and then gone. Blinked away with a signature and National Guard promotions. First time he didn’t stand up for a friend being bullied. First time he broke a girl’s heart. First time his daughter Cissy cried—not for nursings or at vaccines—but at goodbye, and goodbye, and goodbye, and goodbye. To be a father. To be fathered. First spanking.
The memory forces Miller from his desk to pace the hallway. Age four. Indiana. In the aftermath of a summer thunderstorm, Nathan walked to the end of his long driveway where dirt met asphalt, two-lane Indiana State Highway 67 stretching for miles. Here, the ground that only ever seemed to give up corn, gave up something else. Earthworms. Droves of them, writhing across the blacktop as if in pain. Nathan looked left, looked right. The puddled highway heaved with beautiful, slender creatures that—his kindergarten teacher had told him—did the most amazing, invisible work underground.
He looked left. Right again. Then left one more time. The big rigs would be coming soon the way they did, dozens of them every hour, splashing between one town and the next. The earthworms were helpless in the aftermath of the downpour, turning in circles, already starting to cook as water evaporated from the road. Nathan wanted to save them, every single one. For show and tell, he’d be able to brag about it, explaining how he had done his part to keep the Miller family corn’s reputation as best in the county, maybe even best in state. He imagined a vast colony of worms beneath his family’s fields, moving through the soil, helping the corn breathe.
He named them as he walked down the center of the highway, placing them gently out of harm’s way, and then it came. His father’s voice like a mad roar, Nathan pulled by the arm, shoulder whipping back as his head snapped like a knot at the end of a rope. Only fifty yards or so from his own driveway but still over the double yellow line and—My God, boy, you could have been killed, his father, breathless, What were you thinking? And Nathan felt the sentence on the tip of his tongue, That I could save them, Daddy. That they could help our crops, but there wasn’t time. Nathan’s pants down, bare ass to the sun, a truck blazing past, the whoosh of dust and dirt whipping around them. Was it horns from the semis that rang in his ears or the hurt? The hurt of it, his father’s palm hot and fast, making a point so that Nathan never forgot.
No difference, really, between being held back when he could have saved more earthworms and what these new rules of engagement in Afghanistan will bring into reality. Except these were human lives. Limbs that didn’t regenerate when cut in two. Families that didn’t regenerate either.
Reprinted with permission. Copyright Loyola University Maryland Apprentice House Press, 2019.
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