We should have seen the demons in Andy about the time he pulled out his night-vision monocular and crawled under my house. Instead we just stood around in the dark.
That was seven years ago. Andy Kubik had recently returned from Iraq and dropped by for lunch because a mutual friend thought we might get along. Stationed at an Air Force base nearby, he rumbled into my small Alabama town on an enormous black Harley, like Thor returning from war. Even before everything that followed, even before the cracks started to show, Andy seemed like a man formed from two conflicting types of clay: the heroic and the vulnerable. The godlike and the human. He removed his helmet and goggles, revealing his curled blond hair, and transformed into something smaller and quieter, apologizing for the noise before he dismounted.
After lunch that day, Andy spent three nights on our sofa, which spooked my wife. Relax, I told her. This guy's a war hero. One of the greatest alive, maybe.
Andy worked for the Air Force as a sort of supersoldier. He had fought in covert operations and killed bad men in scores, and according to the Air Force itself, Andy's actions in Afghanistan – his personal actions – "were overwhelmingly responsible for breaking the back of Taliban resistance." So if the guy needed to crash, he could certainly use our couch.
I pestered him for details about his life overseas – had he worked alone? in a team? – but Andy showed far more interest in the mundane details of our lives. The make of our daughter's crib, the maddening sound of a stray cat mewing under the house, the history of our little town. "My wife would love this," he said one day, sitting in the kitchen. I hadn't known he was married.
Conversation drifted with Andy. From backpacks to foreign policy to photography. Books, movies. "My son loves that one," he said. I hadn't realized he had a son.
"You may be wondering about this scar on my face," he said one afternoon. We hadn't noticed, we said. "Right here," he said, touching the left corner of his mouth, where his lips met with a certain indistinctness, as though someone had erased and redrawn the line. "It's no big deal," he said.
One day Andy pulled out a small rucksack. "I want to show you something," he said.
He dug around for a moment, then found photos from Afghanistan, shots of the dozen or so Special Forces and British SAS operators who made up his team. He talked a bit about what happened there, mostly funny stories about surviving Afghan food. I remember the watchful way he laughed; he never closed his eyes or looked away.
Later, after dark, Andy and I sat on the porch, and he showed me his night-vision monocular and something he called an infrared pointer. I hadn't realized the military let people carry these things around back home in America. While my neighbors slept, Andy's laser danced over their roofs.
Beneath the house the stray cat wailed. I hissed something about waking the baby and threw a lump of grass into the dark crawl space. Andy frowned and flicked on the monocular.
I remember how funny that seemed at the time. How cool. The warrior, the thunder god, stooping to combat a stray cat after enduring years of real war.
Soon enough, though, we'd see that the war wasn't done with Andy.
A few months after his first visit, Andy showed up at our house again. "I want you to hold on to something for me," he said. He would soon leave the Air Force, he said, and head to West Virginia. He had a plan but wouldn't elaborate. I understood; being Andy's friend meant accepting redacted conversations. He lived in a classified world.
He hauled out an opaque plastic box, about the size of a suitcase. "I'll send for it later," he said, "but I know you'll keep it safe."
Sure, Andy, I said. I'll keep it safe.
Later that night I lay awake and wondered: What on Earth is in that box?