NO PISTOL TASTES THE SAME: Chapter One

AWARDS

1st place BooksShelf Fiction Award

REVIEWS

“A true literary triumph.” -Indies Today

“Delivered with the elegance and precision of a true wordsmith. “ -Literary Titan

“A visceral novel of wartime, recovery, and healing. Both a slow burn and a grenade blast, the prose spills a relentless tale of hard choices, unforgiving duty, and the depths of utter desperation.” -Self-Publishing Review

“Jacob Paul Patchen has done a brilliant job.” -Readers’ Favorite

“A powerful combination that lends to the recommendation that No Pistol Tastes the Same be included not just in the fiction collection of libraries seeing patron interest in either subject, but on book discussion lists about PTSD, trauma, and survival tactics.” -D. Donovan, Senior Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

“This novel, which cracks open post-traumatic stress disorder, will haunt you in ways you didn’t expect. A well-written and poignant read.” -Christina Consolino, author of Rewrite the Stars

“Exposes the tremendous power of our relationships to hurt and heal. I highly recommend NO PISTOL TASTES THE SAME for anyone who has a loved one with PTSD from any cause.” -Authors Reading

“With a brilliant portrayal of PTSD and one of the most unexpected plot pivots, No Pistol Tastes the Same is an enthralling novel with an intricate balance of grim realities and scenes of pure humanity.” -Indies Today


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Chapter One

To Feel Alive

No pistol tastes the same.

Mine

is a bourbon-muzzled truth maker;

as bitter

as those night terrors

of a columned world around me

       exploding;

as real as self-inflicted regret;

so familiar in my hand,

       and cold on my tongue;

It burns

       on the way down.


No pistol tastes the same…and mine…is a bourbon-muzzled truth maker.

His grandfather’s Vietnam era M1911 trembled in his crusty hand, and both heavy across his muddy lap. JP’s forest eyes, encrusted with dirt and dried blood, fixated on the gun­––a charcoal chunk of steel with dark brown and checkered grips. Two pounds of metal and shame was a sharp boulder pinning him to the V-shaped trunk of that tree.

Beads of rusty sweat rolled down his bristled face. His dirty blond hair waved with the breeze as he sat, defeated, in his farm clothes under the old oak shading his grandparents’ gleaming headstones. A faded American flag, stabbed into the grass between them, fluttered and whipped in the wind. The calloused bark scraped at his sticky back on a steaming spring day. But what he felt most was repentance…and that cold, loaded shackle chaining him to his past.

No, mine is bittersweet and savory.

His grandmother’s strawberry rhubarb pie, fresh from the oven and steaming on the stovetop, flashed into thought. How fitting. His chest shook as he exhaled, glaring at her shiny gravestone at the far reaches of the shadow cast by the tree his grandfather swore he planted at the top of that ridge the day after he got home from the war in ’69. The same ridge and the same tall oak that JP would ask his grandmother to picnic under on those hot summer days. Even then, her sweet smile and playful hesitation would spark the begging and pleading of a small boy and an old man until she gave in with a chuckle and announced, “I guess I’ll have to make some sandwiches.”

The crest of the ridge stood just a few hundred yards from the farmhouse. It proved to be an adventurous climb. One best traveled on his grandfather’s lap in the buggy or giggling and bucking in the back of the dump-bed Grandpa used for hauling. But on the days they walked, JP took a stick—his walking stick, ninja stick, bazooka, rifle, magic wand—because, without it, he might not have reached the top. When they did, the reward was great: a cool breeze and a view ripe with rolling hills and sagging power lines that cut paths through green woods and waving fields.

The hill on his grandfather’s sixty-acre farm was the perfect place for a boy with a wild imagination to explore. A place to play army on his belly, peering through his camouflaged binoculars at his grandfather tinkering in the barn or his grandmother sweeping the porch. A place to wait on her famous strawberry rhubarb pies as they baked in the oven, while he bang-banged at crows in the corn with orange-tipped toy guns and tree limb missile launchers.

As a kid, he snuck through the rows of corn with his stick tucked under his arm as a rifle, sweeping the muzzle back and forth as he crouched along the narrow pathways and gunned down the bad guys from row to row. Back then, his grandfather would bellow from the barn to stay out of the corn. But with his cornball hair, muddy war paint, and a missing-tooth grin, he’d be swaying the stocks again sometime later. Because some kids have imaginations too big for rules.

On extra brave days, after one of grandpa’s war stories or one of the X-Men movies, he tip-toed and belly crawled into the cow field and ambushed the small herd until they ran to the far corner of the barbed wire fence. His grandfather hollered about that, too. And JP, in full retreat, bounded back to the hilltop to snipe the distant army marching through the tall, golden grass and over the belly of the land his grandfather called ‘Paradise.’

It was a paradise for an only child left orphaned by a holy war and taken in by his gracious grandparents. And that spot under the bushy arms of the towering oak on top of that little knoll was his paradise. That chosen place his grandfather planted the tree so many years ago was more than just his favorite place to play or picnic. It was special: a shared spot, “their spot,” that belonged sweetly to his grandparents before he made it his own. For Grandma, it was a magical peak in her very own fairytale, with a green castle, backlit by blue skies, whose leaves flashed in the breeze. A place where, long ago, her noble knight reached deep into the pocket of his greasy jeans, pulled out his folded knife, and carved out those still prominent and beautiful, jagged letters: CLG LOVES BRG.

But now, with his bruised back against the sharp bark and a heavy pistol in his tired hand, JP knew this enchanted place would never feel that magic again. A gust of wind ruffled the leaves as a glare sparkled across his grandmother’s name: Barbara Rose Grimm. His gaze sank to the handwritten letters and pictures of home still clenched in his left hand. Sent by mail to Iraq and brought home in the bottom of his seabag, they now fluttered and flapped with the rising gusts, reminding him of what he came to do. He slugged a long gulp from his bottle of Jim Beam, then tucked the letters and pictures under the bottle to hold them still. The corner of a colorful photograph caught his attention, and he pulled it from the middle of the stack. His heart bounced at the sight of the last picture his family took together before he left for war.

They all stood under the shade of the oak tree. Lisa, his lovely wife, stood next to him in her favorite yellow sundress. Her blonde hair pulled up into a messy bun and her blue eyes gazing at his high-and-tight haircut with a smile. His gaze was upon his seven-year-old son, Adin, who was leaning against his marine desert cammies. Adin looked at the camera with his hazel eyes and a big grin upon his face, proudly wearing dirt stains on his brand-new jeans. JP’s grandparents, Charley and Barbara, stood next to him, both fresh from church.

The day the picture was taken, they splurged on hugs, kisses, laughter, and tears. They told stories about “the good old days” and ate Grandma’s fried chicken and noodles until they had to loosen their belts. Adin ran wild with his cousins, playing army in the barn and in the mud—rendering the comment “he’s definitely your child” from his grinning grandmother. But the mud stuck to them all. While wiping his boots clean in the grass, JP had contemplated whether he should bag up a pinch of it and take it with him. He wished the same for his wife’s and son’s kisses that lingered down the road as his hand waved out the window.

Looking back, the sorrow in their proud smiles had dug into him the most. A sadness he saw again and again––a sadness of which he was always the cause. And with that anguished thought, the life slowly faded from him as he stared into his son’s fuzzy eyes. Another tear tickled down his nose and splashed on the steel slide of his Grandpa’s M1911.

His grip tightened on the .45. I don’t deserve them. I don’t deserve any of them. He bit down until his jaw trembled. Hate and rage flowed through his veins—hate for himself and for his decisions, hate for the Corps, for the war, and for all of those who took away his happiness, one disfiguring explosion at a time. That hate brought a self-harming kind of satisfaction—the kind of pleasure one gets from feeling something, even if it’s the dragging pain of a rusty blade across the skin. But he needed that kind of pain. In his numbness, he needed to feel anything. He glanced at the happy life he held in his left hand, crushed it with his balled-up fist, and tossed the photo at his grandmother’s headstone.

“I’m the worst thing to ever happen to this family.” The words stung and clung to his tongue like a canker sore. He took a powerful swig of bourbon to wash them out.

As the wind came again, it agitated the paper and envelopes piled on the ground. They buzzed until the top letter slid and lifted into the air. With a crinkled tumble, it disappeared over the edge of the ridge. But he didn’t bother to move. Instead, he just sat there holding his bottle and gun, tormented. His eyes twitched as another piece of him soared away into the clouding sky. He let the bottle slip from his hand back onto the letters without bothering to twist the cap back on.

His vision and thoughts blurred, mixing with the past and the present, with the bourbon and the pain, blending with the hum of the interstate off in the distance. Or was it a helo, or maybe air support? He scoffed at the thought as anger gripped his throat. He knew what he was there to do, and with the storm building in the westward sky, there was no reason to wait any longer.

The pistol grip was warm and sticky in his grasp. The edges glistened like the worn-out rifles issued to his reserve unit. But things that flash bring death. He thought of the snipers who painted their rifles a sandy brown to blend in with the Death Land. His death land became cozy and kind, hugging his backside like a deathbed. The cold steel shivered when he jerked it to his temple.

No pistol tastes the same.

He snapped it from his head and jammed the muzzle into his mouth with both hands. His tongue pressed against the cool, smooth barrel. He tasted the iron in the steel, the blood on his lips and teeth.

Good, he thought. Bleed, you little bitch. Bleed.

The tree creaked and groaned. The leaves sounded like water raining down to wash away his sins. A crow cawed and took flight from the wood line to his right. His determined stare at the metal in his mouth broke at the swift movement and ruckus of the black bird laughing at him. He watched it flap and glide away into the murky wooded horizon.

Not even the birds give a shit about you.

His dirty fingernail punched through the trigger guard. The curved and familiar feel of death in his grasp was a comfort he did not expect. But there it was, the answer to all his torment, the cure for his illness, the drug to put him down.

A faint rumble came from beyond the hills and flickering canopy of the horizon. The air—a warm stew of sorrow and blunder—hung onto him like a sweat suit in the summer. Above him, the leaves and branches waved, distracting him from his mission. To the west, the sky boiled, bringing in another pop-up storm to soften the hard humidity. But it was too late to soften a thing. Only the pricks of memories and regrets were there to coddle him.

A gust blew up the hill in waves through the tall grass, and JP wobbled as dust and debris peppered his face. The sting in his eyes was gritty and sharp, but a welcomed pain. Louder and louder, the leaves shook. They felt bigger than they were, hovering over his head like the palms along the Euphrates. Those palm trees, with their sharp, jagged tips––like the dagger on his flak jacket––were such a conflicting contrast to their comforting tropical feel. His squad would take shelter from the sun under their pointy tips, and he’d drift off in thought to the last beach vacation with his parents—back before the planes took down those towers, and their business trip ended in flames and rubble.

He pinched his eyes tight, and the sound of the leaves took him back to that desert sand and tropical paradise by the river in a place of death and destruction. He saw the palms waving in the shadows of his warm eyes. He saw the young, dirty faces of his squad smiling and scarfing down Slim Jims sent with love from home. He felt them there beside him, joking and snickering, making fun of the gun in his mouth.

“What is that, a paperweight?”

“Is that from the civil war?”

“It looks like you’re trying to swallow your boyfriend’s cock.”

“You just gonna sit there all day and cry about it or what?”

“Do it, ya pussy.”  

Thunder grumbled from his left and rattled his thoughts. The earth beneath him shook and shuttered his spirit. Like a great quake through the crust, he wobbled and wondered if his world was splitting open. Or was it rockets launched from the back of a black Nissan truck?

Incoming?!  

His anxious eyes popped open, but the desert wasn’t there. His marine brothers were not with him. No bombs or explosions fell from the sky.

Jesus! Get it together, man!

A small branch cracked behind him and flipped across the ground. An eerily familiar sound, like a rifle round snapping by him.

A sniper?

His breath came faint and quick. His chest, tight and flexed. He ripped the pistol from his lips and scanned the hill behind him.

No. No, just a branch.

It tumbled and rolled until it met the edge of the hill and disappeared. The damp muzzle, splattered with blood and spit, fell back into his lap.

The clouds grew in the sky like dirty bubbles in bathwater, dulling the scenery. Flashes of light flickered toward him. He blinked at the sparks in the power lines on the next hill over.

What the hell?

Thunder roared up the valley. Lightning seared in the darkened sky. Bright bolts slashed the faded horizon. He shielded his eyes with the back of his hand and forearm. Both began to shake. His will began to falter. A streak of jagged lightning sparked down to the ground just past the next wooded hill, immense and brilliant, bigger and brighter than JP could ever remember. It was a storm like no other. The buzz and fizz in the air was electric. The lightning zapped across the sky and stabbed at the fluttering hilltops. The deep growl in the sky lingered like that of a snarling dog at the end of a thick, tight chain. Reds and greens flared in the black, bubbling mist flooding out the sunlight above him. Strange hums and horns echoed through the valley. It was clear to JP and all witnesses soaking in its wrath––this was no ordinary storm––this was the sky tearing open to the ashy depths of the Hellish void above them. This was the apocalypse. This was the end.

His teeth clenched until they hurt. “Good! Go on! Go on and end it all while it’s all ending, anyway!”

A tree snapped and crashed to the ground, and a faint black trail of smoke lingered in its place. Then, like a smack on the face, a large raindrop popped him in the forehead. It startled him, pulled him from his daze. He gazed down at the pistol with contempt, lifting it from his lap to examine it like it was broken.

Come oooon! Do it! Pull the trigger! Pull the goddamned trigger!

His finger twitched and rubbed across the curved trigger. Raising the firearm to his mouth again, he wrapped his lips around the muzzle.

A tremendous boom roared across the sky, a noise so loud his teeth rattled. An explosion that shook him from the ground into his chest and deep into his shaded memories. It threw him to the grass, where he squirmed and thrashed, tearing at the ground as he tried to crawl for cover underneath the soil. Another monstrous boom and blinding flicker curled him into a fetal position, where he covered his head and neck with desperate hands.

Oh, God! Here they come! They’re walking the mortars in on us!

“Take cover!” He yelled, clawing his way deeper into the earth.

The storm was upon him. Leaves and dirt, twigs and pebbles pelted his skin. Limbs cracked and snapped. A flash to his left, and the Iraqi rooftop ledge appeared. AK-47 and RPK automatic fire blasted the surrounding concrete. Chunks and dust splattered his face. An RPG swooshed by the building and exploded into the next house behind his squad. Fragmentation rounds from his team leader’s grenade launcher thumped and exploded into the windows ahead of him. Another RPG ripped from the rooftop diagonally to his right. It shook the two-story house they took cover in. Black smoke billowed up from the hole in the wall. His ears rang; his body was numb. He looked around in the chaos as his squad returned fire. Brass casings pinged onto the concrete.

Thump! Thump! Thump! The mortars came in threes, exploding closer and closer and closer. He shut his eyes as the rocks and pebbles rained down.

CRACK!

A thick branch above him split and fell mere inches from his face. The leaves slapped him on the nose, snapping him back to reality. Stunned by the fog of it all, he sat up and pressed himself into the trunk of that mighty oak.

A thin mist sprayed his face while the letters of his family and friends danced around him. They swirled with the leaves, tumbling in the breeze. Those not secured by the weight of water, mud, or the bottle of Jim Beam fluttered away in a blur. He sobbed and shook in defeat. Then he lifted his head and watched the arms above him whip back and forth, like hands frantically trying to get his attention. Crimson streaks rode the rain down his face. He slapped himself on the cheek.

Stop it!

Again, but harder.

Stop it, right now! You know where you are! You know what you came to do! It’s just a fucking storm!

He squinted up and hollered at the sky. “You’re just a storm! You ain’t nothin’! I’m not afraid of you!” His pistol stabbed at the air as he shouted. His chest puffed and rocked with a deep, shaky breath.

The rolling black clouds churned above him. He looked beyond the branches at the different swirls of gray, black, and blue. He felt connected, like the sky was a mirror, and he was staring at himself.

“I can’t live like this! God? Do you hear me?”

The thunder rolled across the farm, dampening his cries above. Or was it a reply?

“I can’t fucking live like this,” he confessed, defeated, to the damp tombstones.

The pistol slowly shook back toward his temple. He pressed it hard into his skull.

“You feel that, don’t ya?” He pressed until his neck slanted to the left, until the muzzle dug into his skin. Its pressure biting down above his jaw, throbbing and ricocheting through his head.

“Good. Cause it’s the last pain you’re ever gonna feel!”

The click of the safety sounded exactly like his M4. His gut turned as he blew rain from his lips. His finger trembled with the thunder on his trigger. He closed his eyes one last time to think of anything worth living for, anything he hadn’t already lost or damaged or hurt—anything he hadn’t pushed to the edge of hating him.

Then, in the buzz of the wind, something wet and flat slapped against his face, sticking there. He flinched, growled at the interruption, and snatched it—one of the pictures from the letters scattered around the tree. The photo felt heavy and awkward, like an unfulfilled promise.

He smeared the water drops from its color and shook it before bringing it closer to his face. He gasped at the image of the hill and oak outlined by a sunny sky. He remembered the picture well. Flipping it over, he read what his boy had written in orange marker on the back.

Don’t forget about me and your favorite spot! Come home soon, Daddy!  

Love,

your best buddy Adin