The Lesson by Christopher P. Collins

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close up of a game console joystick


The Lesson

begins as I descend the first-floor steps into the furnished basement, knuckling my right hand around the polished stoneware Army cup purchased a week prior at Gettysburg National Military Park, the hot coffee—black, no sweetener, no milk, an Army burnt blend—just cresting the cup’s black trim.

Stepping into the darkened basement, I listen to my unaware 14-year-old son, at 0527, his last few days before the start of his freshman year of high school, radio orders to his digital squad: “Fucking kill him! Kill him!” through a camouflaged headset, this one complete with microphone and noise-cancelling capabilities. I set my cup on the end table and finger-shove his right shoulder. He flinches.

“Patrick!” I snap. “Do you know what time it is?”

Wearing a white t-shirt and blue shorts, his snippy “No” validates his teenage indignation. He looks back to his game. “Hold on guys,” he radios into the mic. “It’s my dad. Pause for two, copy.”

Flicking my wrists up past my ears, I motion for him to remove the headset. Instantaneous eye-roll. “It’s five-three-zero, Patrick.” I emphasize each number. He turns and squints at the illuminated clock hanging on the back of the wall.

“Actually, it’s only 5:28,” he smirks. With two fingers and a thumb, I squeeze between my eyes with my left hand. Breathing deeply, I start flicking the fingers on my right hand. Thumb: “You’re up way too early.” Index: “You’re not to play Xbox until you’ve eaten breakfast.” Middle: “What have I said about cussing on Live chat?” Again, an instantaneous eye-roll.

“Fine,” he mumbles. “Guys,” he radios, “I’ll be back. I got to go eat, breakfast.”

I breathe.

“Dad, can I play after?” he asks.

“After you eat, Patrick. I really don’t care.”

I snatch my coffee cup from the end table as he pushes the power button to the game system. But before I reach the first step leading upstairs, he hesitates, then asks, “Dad, did you ever kill anybody? You know, up close. Like Josh and me do playing Division?”

In his game, he role-plays a tactical shooter during a bio-terror attack. Patrick says, “Me and Josh are excellent up-close killers. You get more game points that way.”

I turn and set the stoneware Army cup back down. “Come here, Patrick.” I lead him by the shoulder to an expanse of soft carpet behind the leather couch. “I’m not going to hurt you, okay?” I say.

“Okay, Dad,” he says. He puffs his chest a little, but I know he’s nervous.

Placing his back against my chest, I wrap my right bicep and forearm around his neck, grasp my left bicep, and then apply tension to each of his carotid arteries. He uncomfortably wiggles against my right forearm—a fleshy sleeve tattooed with an Oslo Viking Sword decorated with three skulls and the letters OEF and OIF*. Since he is my same height, I stretch my right hand, gripping tighter my left bicep to gain more leverage, and use my left-hand to force his head forward. Then, I hear that unmistakable wheeze.

His legs shake; he drops to both knees. I kneel to one. Terrified, he gasps, “Dad.”

Twisting tighter with my right arm to both sides of his neck, I add a little more pressure to the back of his head with my left hand and forearm. He attempts to wriggle free but only collapses onto the carpeted floor. Crying.

Quickly, I release my arms.

Shunting his shuddering body from mine, I rise, move to the end table, and tightly seize the stoneware coffee cup with both hands. Lying on the floor panting, he spits saliva and snot onto his shirt and carpet.

“You remember Dan, our tour guide at Gettysburg last week?” Patrick just stares at me. “Remember the Wheatfield, that field just east of Little Round Top?”

“Yeah,” he breathes heavily.

“It was day two of the battle. Four thousand men died at Wheatfield, Patrick. Four thousand men. And many in hand-to-hand combat. So many that Dan said you could walk across the Wheatfield without ever touching grass.” Patrick wipes his face with his fingers. “I could’ve had you in less than 10 seconds.”

I swallow the remaining coffee. It’s lukewarm. “Killing’s not a fucking game. Ever.”

He wipes tears and snot from his face with the back of his hand. “You never forget it, Patrick. It stays with you. Forever.”

Gripping the stoneware cup, I turn, ascending the basement steps.

Christopher Philip CollinsChristopher P. Collins is a 12-year veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve having completed three combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. His poetry collection, My American Night (UGA Press, 2018), was awarded the 2017 Georgia Poetry Prize, judged by David Bottoms. He completes his Ph.D. in literary nonfiction at the University of Cincinnati in May 2018. He lives with his wife and two children in rural northern Kentucky.




STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Daniel Lee


*OEF and OIF stand for Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

  1 comment for “The Lesson by Christopher P. Collins

  1. As a person thinks, so he/she IS. To be in war is to be conditoned to violence, unless one can learn to identify with the soul and the God Within each of us. God is Love, God is Good and it is mankind who creates evil in our world, by way of one’s thougths.

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