Part 2: Beneath the Shade of the Mushroom's Cap

Alan sat across from Zach near the window of a Starbucks. Alan's hands were wrapped around the cardboard sleeve of his coffee. He laced his fingers together, nervously squeezing the sleeve, waiting for Zach to give an answer to his proposal. It was a strange thing to ask somebody, even for a friend from his veteran's support group. Zach looked up from the smear of cream cheese on his half-eaten bagel. “Guess I'd be obliged to help. If you're gonna do it anyway. You sure this is safe? Ain't like someone wrote you a prescription.”

“Safe, yes, as long as we're responsible. Which we will be. That's why I want you there. In case I need help. If I get confused, I need someone there to get me back under control,” Alan explained.

“Well, guess it's worth a shot,” Zach conceded. “Whatever gets you to your zen.”

“Not exactly that simple,” Alan said, “and the path to enlightenment can get a little bumpy, I've heard.”

“And your sister's gonna be there?” Zach asked. “What's she like.”

“Artist, free-spirit type. She's kind. Avoids any real kind of responsibility, but I can respect that. At least she takes care of herself,” Alan said. “You'll like her. And she's going to have an old hippie lady with her, someone who's a bit of an expert on this kind of thing.”

“Glad at least somebody there will be able to tell me what the hell's going on. I've never taken that kind of trip before. But you better be ready, dude. I've heard it can bring up all kinds of memories. Even the kind you might not be ready for.”

Alan took a brief sip and considered this. “I might have to wrestle with some demons. Maybe this will get them to stop following me. Not a hundred percent certain how this is going to work. But I guess I'm about to find out.”

“You're a braver man than me, then. All my demons are heavily medicated. I don't even like to dream any more,” Zach told him. He folded the brim of his baseball hat in his hand, squeezing it in half like an accordion.

“You seeing a psych?” Alan asked. “Anybody?”

“Not for a few weeks,” Zach conceded. “It's easier not to deal with it sometimes.”

“That's dangerous, man. It'll catch up with you sometime. You've got to somebody to talk to, help you keep your head on straight,” Alan warned.

“You're right. You're right. You can only numb the pain for so long. It gets boring after a while. The not feeling. But feeling. Don't think I'm that brave yet,” Zach said.

“You will be. And you should do whatever it takes to get you there. If you have somebody to help you. Someone you trust enough to lean on. I think it can be bearable. But it never gets easy, I don't think. Not this kind of healing. We have wounds you can't see, only feel. And those aren't easy for anybody.” Alan drained the rest of his coffee. “I'll owe you for this. Help you any way I can.”

                                                                                                   * * * * *

Here, Julie sent a text to Diane to tell her she'd arrived. Her host opened the door in the next moment. “Julie, come in.”

Julie stepped inside Diane's home, a modest house she rented on a quiet street. Her front yard was shaded by a tall magnolia tree, its waxy leaves providing shelter to all who walked beneath it. Her backyard was surrounded by a chain link fence. Julie had visited many times.

Inside, it was crowded but cozy. There was a colorful mandala tapestry on her living room wall. Bookcases filled to capacity. Her coffee table held three candles, but only one was lit. On the window sill, the last remnants of an incense stick still smoldered. A hint of sage in the air. Diane's house was shaped like a long rectangle, living room at the entrance, a kitchen in the rear, and a bedroom and bathroom between them. It was called a “shotgun house”, and they were common in her neighborhood. According to legend, they were so named because one could fire a shotgun from the front door all the way through the back. Julie doubted this name had ever been put to the test. At least not in this house.

“Alan's on his way. He's bringing his friend Zach. Oh, and I have these,” Julie said, pulling the dried mushrooms from her purse and placing them on Diane's coffee table.

Diane picked up the plastic bag that held them, opened it and took a shallow sniff. She sealed them back up and remarked, “Still fresh. That's good. I'd like to make a tea. They're easier to ingest that way, don't you think?”

“Good idea. Thank you,” Julie squeezed her arm and smiled. Her tongue filled with the phantom taste of times past when she'd ground the dried mushrooms between her teeth, chasing mouthfuls with gulps of water to wash away the musty remnants. She'd only had the tea once before, but these mushrooms were much easier to drink in a tea than eat whole.

“Good, good. Now dosage can be a bit tricky with tea, but we'll error on the side of caution. Your brother's never tripped before?” Diane asked.

“No. No, he hasn't. But he's ready. I think. It was his idea, if you can believe that,” Julie spoke.

“Nobody's ever ready for their first trip. But that's okay. We'll take good care of him.”

                                                                                                   * * * * *

Alan had done everything he could think of to prepare. He'd run four miles a day for the past week. He used the mindfulness meditation technique Dr. Santiago taught him to keep himself calm. He'd filled the pages of his journal with his scribbles, all the thoughts, memories and emotions he'd begun to process ever since he started writing in it. Alan knew better than to read the older entries in his journal, lest he be plunged back into the darkness that spawned them. Instead, he chose to write about his relationship with his sister, and how it had changed in the past couple weeks, ever since he'd helped her with that flat tire.

Even with his anxious activities, it wasn't easy to feel ready. Instead, he had a growing sense of nervous excitement like when he was a kid and heard the clickclickclick of the roller-coaster as it pulled him up a hill before plunging him straight down into an abyss. Then he'd be pulled through loops and corkscrews, tight turns and more hills before he found himself where he started, disoriented but ecstatic.

Of course, he knew a roller coaster was a poor metaphor for a psychedelic trip. He'd been reading research articles and patient testimonials by people who'd taken this trip before him. Each one had been different, and the part of the trip that had brought healing seemed to be beyond words in terms of one's ability to express them. Hope this works, he thought to himself. Been hyping this up a lot. Hope I'm not setting myself up for a let-down. 'Recognize negative thoughts' he heard Dr. Santiago's voice in his mind. 'Let go of them. Don't fixate'. Alan nodded, and followed the path of a cardinal as it hopped along a chain link fence.

He pulled his pick-up truck in front of Zach's apartment on Third Street. Zach stood up from the concrete steps on his porch, threw the remnants of his cigarette into an ash tray, and pulled on the front of his denim shirt, a nervous tic Alan knew well. He pushed opened the passenger door from the inside.

“Hey, dude,” Zach said as he climbed in. “How you feeling?”

“Good, man,” Alan said, as he pulled the truck back into gear and they began to pull away. “Thought you gave up smoking.”

“I bummed this one from my roommate. Helps calm my nerves. Usually end up having two or three a week,” he admitted.

“Can't blame you,” Alan said. “Better than drinking, that's for damn sure.”

“Amen, brother,” Zach nodded, and took a sip from his water bottle. They drove the rest of the way in silence, their windows rolled down. Alan kept track of the cardinals from his driver's seat.

                                                                                                   * * * * *

It was a strange gathering, one Julie never expected to be a part of. She'd tried to get a read on Zach. He looked a little out of place, even more so than Alan. His frame was thick, like a football player from the 1940's. He wore a baseball cap with a fishing hook on his bill, blue jeans and a faded blue University of Kentucky tee-shirt. Zach caught her staring at him, and she quickly looked away, making him feel even more bashful by the look of it.

“You and Alan met after you were discharged?” she asked. “For some reason, I thought you must have fought together.”

“No, ma'am,” Zach told her. “I served as a marine. Zach was a soldier in the army.”

“Hoo rah!” she bellowed with a wink. This made Zach smile, so she pushed her luck. “But if you call me ma'am one more time, you'll regret it.”

Diane chuckled, but Alan sighed. Zach laughed too, and Julie noticed how cute he looked when he did, from the dimples that appeared on his cheeks and chin. He blushed even more, a glowing shine like the skin of an apple, golden and pink.

“You've never had any psychadelics?” Diane asked Alan.

“No. Well, I took extacy once. Does that count?”

“Not even close,” Diane told him, “but that's okay. What kind of experience do you hope to have? Julie tells me you want to go on some kind of vision quest. Something about the war.”

“Vision quest. That's one way to put it. Well, it's all very evidence based. There have been studies done, peer-reviewed, about the effects of psychedelics like psilocybin and MDMA on post-traumatic stress disorder. In healing from trauma, recovering from addiction. The effects are long-lasting, even after a single dose. There's a lot you can learn about it on the internet,” he said, rubbing his hand on the back of his neck. “More effective than therapy sometimes” he said, and chuckled. “But I know it'll be no cake-walk. Or miracle cure. Speaking of which, y'all ready to do this?”

“You fiending?” Julie joked. She punched his shoulder, a light jab. “Hold on, antsy pants,” she told him as she got up and went to the kitchen. “Diane and I brewed tea while you were on your way over here. Mixed with Ovaltine.”

“It tastes better than it sounds,” Diane assured them.

Alan took the cup Julie held out to him and looked inside. It was a dark liquid, pale brown, made opaque by the chocolate of the Ovaltine. He took a shallow sniff and curled his lip.

“Hoo boy,” Julie said, steeling herself for what was coming. “Just drink it Alan,” she told him, watching him study the murky potion. She drank deep and drained her tea in a couple of large gulps. “Whew, not bad,” she remarked as she wiped a drop of tea dribbling down her cheek.

Alan drank slowly, like a child being given a dose of cough syrup. Julie's right, it ain't bad, he thought. Then he looked around. “I don't feel any different.”

Julie laughed. Zach grinned too. “It's not like alcohol, Alan,” Diane explained. “You won't feel much of an effect for about an hour or so. It'll begin as a pleasant buzz, like smoking a joint almost, but a bit different. Then you'll begin having some strange thoughts. Objects may shimmer. Patterns will begin to blur and vibrate. That's when it's started. Once it has, let yourself go where your trip takes you. Do not resist. You may experience some dark moments, but remember, no matter how intense it feels, like everything, it will end. That thought won't occur to you when you're under the shade of the mushroom's cap. But we'll still be here for you.” She placed her hand on Alan's arm and squeezed. You want to hang out in the back yard 'til it kicks in? The magnolia's in bloom.”

“Yes,” Alan said, glancing out the window. “I do.”

Diane led them toward the back door, taking them through the kitchen. “Here,” she offered each of them a glass from a spouted pitcher she kept in her refrigerator. As she filled the cups one by one, she explained, “It's cucumber water. Takes the taste of the tea out of your mouth. Would you like some too, Zach?”

“Yes, please.” He reached out his hand to take a full glass, and Julie noticed that his arms were already pink from the sun even in mid-spring. Then she noticed the green stains on the cuff of his jeans, and remembered Zach told her he helped run a landscaping company. One for him and other vets. That's right. I should ask my landlord to hire them.

Waters in hand, they sat around a wooden picnic table beneath the magnolia's shade. Its pink flowers waved in the breeze, and a few petals lay scattered around the table like candy sprinkles. Julie sat next to Alan and across from Zach. She lost track of time as the afternoon sun dipped in the sky, lengthening their shadows. Julie's fingers were wrapped around her glass, now half empty as her companions continued to talk idly. She watched as water beaded down Diane's glass, forming a ring on the table. Sunshine split into pieces upon wood, spinning like a disco ball as Diane turned the glass slowly, spinning the light refracted in the ice and water.

“Pretty, isn't it?” Diane asked, following Julie's eyes. Julie nodded, and then began to feel the most pleasant hum creep up her spine, down her arms, and into her wrists and hands. It rolled down her thighs, into her feet and toes, and she smiled. It's started, she told herself, and felt a twinge of nervous excitement tangle in her gut. Alan's eyes widened, his pupils dilated. He looked at her, and she could see her own reflection staring back at her.

'You feel it too?” he asked.

“Yes,” she told him. “Enjoy it while it lasts. This is the easy part.”

He grinned, and drank the rest of his water. “Gonna fill this in the faucet. Y'all need anything?” Alan asked.

The others politely declined, so Alan walked inside, letting the glass door sigh shut behind him. Diane's eyes left him, and she smiled at Julie. “He reminds me of one of my old boyfriends. From a very long time ago.”

Julie blinked, but said nothing. Zach asked, “Whatever happened to him?”

“Vietnam,” Diane said simply. She looked away, but Julie saw Diane struggle against her tears. Alan came back and sat down with his water. “I miss something?” he asked.

“No,” Diane said in a hush. “Not a thing. Have a seat, Alan.”

“Zach,” Julie grabbed his attention. “How old are you?”

“Twenty-five. You?' he asked.

“Thirty-two,” she said. “How old do I look?”

“Thirty-two,” Diane told her. “But sometimes you act twenty-two.”

Alan snorted a poorly contained laugh. “You said it,” he chuckled, “not me.”

Julie smirked. “How do you like twenty-five?” she asked Zach.

“No complaints. Good to be discharged,” he told her.

“I bet,” Julie spoke. She placed her hands on the table and gripped the wood in her hands. “This feels good.”

“Yes, I know,” Diane agreed. “We should go inside soon. I have some music we can listen to.”

She led them back in, and they returned to Diane's living room. Alan and Julie sat next to each other on a futon couch. Zach leaned back in a comfortable reclining armchair. Diane went to a pair of turn-tables she kept tucked in a corner of the room, the walls around it lined in shelves that held hundreds of records, tapes and CDs. She pulled out one of the records, turned its sleeve, caught it as it fell into her hand and she placed it on the turntable. The needle dropped, and Ravi Shankar's plucked sitar came pouring out the speakers. Diane sighed contentedly, and curled up in a wicker-backed papisan.

                                                                                                   * * * * *

Alan relaxed, letting himself sink back into the futon. He felt Julie sitting next to him, her energy vibrating, thrumming just like his was. He looked up at the wall opposite him, and stared at the hanging tapestry. Its patterns began to flow, flickering like fire.

Julie felt very close now, and Alan experienced an intense and profound empathy with her. It was as if they were sharing the same pool of emotions, and Alan could feel hers as if they were his own. A sense of deep and heavy connection, linked to each other as if they still shared the same womb. She stared back at him, and he could see every freckle that danced across her cheeks. He closed his eyes for a moment. In a few seconds, he began to see lights glowing against his eyelids. Alan let his mind's eye follow the lights wherever they led.

                                                                                                   * * * * *

Julie sat next to Alan on the couch and began to feel the thrum of the trip begin inside her body. She felt like her spine was the fret of some kind of beautiful stringed instrument, a graceful cello framed by the curves of her body. A vibration began at the base of her spine, some kind of wild energy that radiated up through her back and to the base of her skull. But not all at once. She felt the energy growing with a pulse, a rhythm, both peaceful and endless. Like the lights on a stereo's levels that ebb and flow with the beat of a song, she could feel the energy bounce through her like the bump to a dance track.

Her eyes closed, and she could see a white light forming at the center of her field of vision. It started small, like a grain of sand, but kept growing, into a disc as bright and glowing as the sun. She began to feel a wave of benevolence coming from the light. It was an all-encompassing sensation of oneness and peace. Julie felt loved and protected like she was a small child still in her mother's arms. Only this was more like being held in the palm of one's hand by a being that was infinitely greater and more giving than any she had ever encountered before. Her eyes opened for a moment, and she could see light pouring in from from one of Diane's windows, shimmering with the movement of curtains and dancing on the white walls of her living room.

“The light. It's God's love,” she said to nobody in particular. “It's everywhere.” She looked at her brother sitting next to her and felt the same light from inside of him shining back at her. It wasn't the light she saw when she had her eyes closed, but one that she could feel with all the force of a tidal wave. All of the years of distance between them, when Alan was away from her, and when he came back and she had kept away from him, those years melted away in an instant. She felt closer to him than she ever had before.

But that wasn't all. Because when she looked at Zach and Diane, sitting nearby, gazing curiously back at her, she could feel the same light coming from them. It enveloped all of them, and connected them to each other like nerves in the same body. Only Julie sensed that this connection went further out from her than the confines in this room. Every person walking around their neighborhood, driving along the expressways in her city and further and further out were connected to each other like the gravity that holds a galaxy together, only now she felt as if she were at its cosmic center.

Julie looked into Alan's eyes, saw her brown irises reflected inside a blue ring. Even though Alan was staring right at her, it was like he was seeing through her. He was next to her, but also in another world. Sweat peppered his brow, and she almost asked if he was okay. But she didn't want to upset him, and she imagined that question might be upsetting. So she only placed the palm of her hand on the back of his and gave him a gentle squeeze. In her own hand, she felt the barest pressure return, like having one's pinky grasped by a baby's fist. She wondered what he was seeing.

                                                                                                   * * * * *

Alan was going through some heavy shit. His trip had begun gently, sitting in the warm sunshine beneath the magnolia tree and then listening to music. And even though he could still hear the music, he could no longer focus on it. He'd begun remembering things. Things he had buried long ago. Memories he'd tied to cinder-blocks to and dumped into the Ohio river. Now they'd come back, but they looked decayed, undead. People he'd seen dead and dying came up in his mind's eye still carrying wounds as fresh as the day they'd earned them.

It wasn't like a vision. These were only ideas his own mind was conjuring up, but he knew his mind and heart were going places, showing him things that he wouldn't have imagined without the 'shrooms in his system. He felt an inevitability.

It's like going on a roller-coaster,” Diane had said in the back yard. He could still remember her words. “Once it's going, you can't get off. Sometimes it gets scary. But remember, it's just a ride. Try to enjoy it. Like any ride, it will end.” Her words gave him cold comfort. His emotions had become twisted by these ideas. But now that he confronted them, he also realized they had no control over him. Yes, they were ugly. The experiences connected to these events still hung around his neck like a dying albatross, but now he realized it was a burden he'd carried willingly. Even though he felt he was burying his memories, he was only forging a chain, link by link, and now it hung heavy on his shoulders.

Then something happened. He imagined the ghouls turning into spirits. In his mind's eye, they became pure light. It was his imagination, but not quite. These visions had the feel of a dream, a lucid dream, almost. He felt he could let go. The chain slid from him, and he could almost hear the metal tinkling on the floor of Diane's living room.

He felt the warmth of Julie's hand on his own and wondered when she had put it there. But it didn't matter. Instead, he put his other hand on top of hers for a moment, and then leaned back, to stare at the ceiling. The record had ended, and after a minute of silence, Alan recognized Beethoven's ninth symphony playing from the speakers. He felt the music as much as he heard it, and let its energy cascade through his body. His consciousness grasped each note, and the music made him feel euphoric.

Diane knows what she's doing, he realized, and smiled at her. She felt his eyes and smiled back.

He felt a connection and a certainty in his heart to all of the other spirits in this room. It came strongest from the people here with him, from Zach whom he knew well, Diane who had welcomed them, and especially from his sister, Julie. Her energy felt like it was humming, and he imagined his may be too, but the mushrooms were now like a bridge between them. He could feel her emotions, her energy in his own, almost like a telepathic bond. He could tell she was thinking about him, about How are those scars inside him? and how to her, his scars were kind of beautiful.

More than that, he could feel other spirits too, the ones from the budding trees outside, some very ancient and strong. And though he couldn't see, he could feel the spirits of the dead who'd gone before him. Of Sergeant Blatz, who'd once been a second father to him, and to Jamali, a village boy he'd played soccer with. One day, they found him wounded by a sniper, dead in minutes. But that was okay, he now realized. Yes, it was tragic Jamali's life had been cut short, tragic for those he'd left behind. But Jamali's energy was still around. Some had imprinted on him in his memories and feelings for the boy, but his essence still existed, weaved into fabric of the universe, and this spirit might choose some day to be reborn.

How he knew this, he wasn't certain. But this energy. He could feel it around him. And he knew it would always be there even when he couldn't quite feel it this strongly. It was the same way radio waves still echoed through the aether, even though you could only hear James Brown if you had your FM tuned right. Roger, roger he spoke to the signal.

Alan felt a strong sense of love pervading the universe. It must be coming from those he shared the room with, yes, but he felt even the universe itself must be sending it to him too. And he felt darkness. Existence had its rough edges, but now he could see that wasn't all there is, even though sometimes it felt like it. He sensed these were truths that could not be un-felt, that once he 'd felt this spiritual connection to the rest of the universe and all the other spirits that occupied it, he could remember this connection even when he felt disconnected and realize that this disconnection was the illusion, that isolation was a trick played upon him by his mind, his dark thoughts and depression.

He looked at his sister and smiled. Julie. He wasn't alone any more. He used to think they didn't have much in common. At least not on the surface. But these past few days had taught him that they shared something important on an even deeper level, that the part of Alan that had been frayed and torn by the war was still strong and healthy in Julie. And the parts of her that were still growing, in Alan had been honed to a razor's edge. Together, they complimented each other, like a rose's petals and its thorns.

This image pricked an invisible finger that cried a drop of blood in his mind's eye. He imagined it falling into a red ocean, rippling out in gentle waves. A lurch in his gut reminded him of his fear and anxiety, of their existence in his psyche, and he was not eager to join that hell-ride. He tried to let go of the thought, but the emotion did not leave him.

“You okay?” Julie asked. She had seen him tense.

The darkness still gripped him, but Alan had begun to see its value. Its balance was necessary. For rest and renewal. Breaking things down. Decomposition. Aggression. But also ferocity and sometimes a mother's love. Incisors and claws. Part of a cycle. So he let it tug at him. And the darkness, he felt it inside him, and accepted it. Accepted the bullet's echo. Loss. It was like an emotional recoil, his heart pumping with the rhythmic thud of automatic fire. He had tamed it now. Only he could defend himself and others, if he needed to. And just as easily, he could keep a gentle heart.

He sighed, and Julie felt relief. She let go of his hand and leaned back against some pillow cushions. Diane's windows were cracked open, and she felt a gentle breeze cool her damp brow, peppered with anxious sweat. She could feel it evaporating, its wind a cool kiss upon her forehead.

                                                                                                   * * * * *

Julie's mind still felt a bit gummy, soft and flexible but beginning to relax into a more stable form like a piece of taffy left to harden on wax paper. It was like being in that in-between zone, in the space between being awake and asleep, when's one brain could zig and zag in strange directions, but before the conscious mind fully relaxed its grip. A twilight place. It felt good to be coming down a bit, like resting after good sex, peace in the aftermath of bliss. And like sex, or any good exercise, this trip had made her tummy rumble. Oof, but not too much yet. Her hunger had not yet pierced the mushroom's haze, but danced lightly at its edges.

“Hey, Diane?” She asked.

Diane looked up from her sketchbook. “Yes, dear?” She placed her pencil and sketchbook on a desk within reach. On its cream colored paper, a gray cat licked its paw in rough shades of graphite.

Diane's mind and gaze fought free from the cat's pull. “Can I have, like, half a banana?”

“On top of the fridge. Some utensils in the drying rack along with the rest of the clean dishes in case you feel too civilized to pull it apart with your bare hands,” Diane instructed. She grabbed her pad and continued sketching.

Julie found the bananas, pleased with their light leopard's coat. She liked them sweet and soft, but not too mushy. This one will do. She peeled the banana's skin back, delicately pulled half the banana out of its peel, and placed the rest inside the fridge, gold and brown keeping a pale secret next to a carton of almond milk.

On her way back to the front of the house, she peeked into Diane's bedroom. Good, she observed. Alan had stopped crying. He'd never truly freaked out, but had begun weeping, then sobbing. Julie had sat next to him, her palm on his back with Alan's elbows on his knees, head buried in his hands. But Zach had gotten him to stand back up and brought Alan with him into Diane's bedroom, then pushed the door half-closed. Alan was hugging Zach by then, holding onto him and crying into his chest. That was when Julie had decided to leave him alone. She was in no state of mind for that kind of intensity. Besides, Julie guessed it had something to do about the war. Like he'd stopped holding it in. Surrendered to it.

She'd felt the change in him, she realized. as she chewed her banana back on Diane's futon. Letting go of buried emotions was like steam being released from a boiler in an old cartoon: either the machine blew up, or steamed with a howling fury. Only Alan's steam had come in the form of tears, and it looked like Zach was helping Alan keep his hand steady on the valve. Good for him, Julie thought, realizing she shared responsibility for him among all his friends and family, that even though she was his twin, it wasn't an all or nothing thing, and she could just aim for the being the best person she could be for him. Alan wouldn't expect her to be perfect. He knew all her too well. And she knew him too.

She couldn't explain exactly what had happened, but it had felt like their souls were touching, like fingertips stretched toward each other across some small distance finally being able to reach. She had felt Alan, felt his heart. Like some weird psychic entity. Did that mean he'd felt hers too?

Sweet golden mouthfuls made their way into Julie's belly as she pondered these matters.

                                                                                                   * * * * *

Alan felt prickled heat on the back of his neck. His anxiety had crept back onto him. He wiped his tears on the back of his sleeves. “Oh, fuck,” he breathed in a shuddering gasp. “It's too much, man. “

“How do you mean?” Zach asked in a calm and measured tone. Despite Alan's tears, Zach had been around drunks that tended to be much more weepy.

“It's just too much all at once. Everything I felt came back again. About being there. Those weeks in Fallujah. All those deaths. Having to kill to stay alive,” Alan groaned. “What kind of way to live is that?”

“Ain't no way I liked living enither,” Zach told him. “But you did what you had too. We all did. Objectives, man. Not optional. But you should let go of the guilt. Leave that for the politicians and the high command.”

Alan let out a long sigh. He felt the anxiety soften its grip, but not completely loosen the coils around his gut. Zach's words had kicked around the emotions tied up to his memories of the war. It broke open his guilt like cracks in an eggshell. A pervading sense of calm slowly oozed through cracks, melting into Alan's heart and body. Cozy warmth chased away the cold pinpricks of anxiety, and Alan lay back on the bed. Now he was far enough away from his tears to feel a comfortable sense of catharsis. Like his soul had had a good cry that he'd been holding in for years.

His fear and guilt had ridden through him, much of it chased out somehow by the power of trip. It was a strange feeling, albeit a good one. Like some kind of force too big for his soul to contain had tunneled its way through him, like pushing one’s head through a tee-shirt collar a size too small, leaving behind a stretched ring that would never shrink its way back down. But that was okay, in this case, Alan felt. Like something’s opened in me that never should’ve been closed. He had been made to feel vulnerable and powerless, but in that vulnerability, had begun to feel connected to the energy, the life that surrounded him.

“This is what’s real, Alan turned and said to Zach.

“What is?” Zach asked. “Not sure everything you might think or feel on those mushrooms is real, dude.”

“No, it’s this feeling,” Alan said. “Like…like I’m not alone in my head. In what my body’s feeling. There’s this connection, this energy that vibrates through everything. And it’s not that this vibration isn’t real. It’s just that sometimes it’s hard for us to feel Guess these mushrooms help.”

“Heh,” Zach chuckled. “I get that feeling sometimes when I’m on my guitar. Like I feel that connection to the people I’m jamming with or playing for, but sometimes it’s like I can feel the music coming through me, like it’s coming from somewhere else. Think some people get that from religion. Hell, that’s probably why there’s so much good gospel music. You hadn’t felt anything like that ‘til you ate those ‘shrooms?”

“I remember feeling that way as a kid. And in high school, when I was around my buddies, or one of the girls I got to know. But I guess when I grew up, I had to figure out a way to turn that off.”

“Yeah, man, we all had to. Think that’s part of what boot camp is all about. So you can learn to be good at your job. Merciless when you had to be. And precise. The only thing is, they don’t tell you that the only way you can shoot like that without a moment’s hesitation is that you got to learn to hide a part of your conscience. The part that tells you not to care about the people you need to kill. And if you have to hide that part of your conscience too many times, it’s like it can only come back as a shadow. Or it’s trapped by guilt. I don’t know, man. I know a lot of marines who never got over that shit. Can be abusive. Or hurt themselves. Sometimes both. Hard to get fixed when you’re that fucked up. Especially when it might be months between doctor’s appointments.” Phil shook his head. “Could talk about this for too long, Alan. You still doing alright.”

Alan’s eyes widened for a moment. “Yeah, man. Think I’m following most of it.” He put a hand on Zach’s shoulder. “You need to help me remember how to understand this on the shit days.”

Zach grunted. “It ain’t easy, man. But part of it’s believing it even when you can’t feel it. If I start to get depressed, I feel hollow. Cut off. But what I figured out is, that’s the illusion. That’s the trick man. That even when you can’t feel it, that connection’s still there. It’s just your antenna that’s a little crooked, that’s all. And if you remind yourself that you’re still a part of everything, even when you feel cut off from it, that can help you get through it. Until you can find that feeling again. God, the universe, whatever you want to call it, you’re a part of it, it’s a part of you. You’re soul is like a tiny sliver of it and so is everybody else’s. That’s where we’re connected man. In our friendship and brotherhood. So when you’re feeling left out, ask for help. Or find something to do, a book to read, music to listen to. Go for a walk. Those connections are everywhere, and sometimes they’ll surprise you.”

Alan heard most of Zach's words as a distant rumble, a soft echoing thunder from miles away. His trip had led him to a quieter place, and he'd begun to calm. It was as If he'd made it to the other side of some kind of tremendous feat or epic ordeal. As if something old had left him, and something new had come in its place. In the absence of any rational thought, Alan contemplated the pattern of contours and shadows that made the texture of room's ceiling. The curves and lines seemed to vibrate and shimmer as he watched like watching ripples in a pond.

                                                                                                   * * * * *

In the course of a few hours, the mushroom's fog slowly lifted. In its absence came a calm and clarity. Diane ordered pizza. She rolled and lit another joint as they waited for it to arrive, and they listened to the Beatles this time, Sgt. Pepper's, the same record Diane had been spinning since she was a teenager, time measured not in years or rings, but with each pop and hiss. And she always remembered to lift the needle before the last haunting chorus that crept up unawares after two minutes of silence meant to lull one into a sense of complacency that could so easily and suddenly be shattered in the surprise.

So after the pizza came, they were listening to James Brown and sipping water, wiping orange-stained fingers on paper towels as they ate in a circle around the open cardboard box. In her fullness, Julie grew sleepy, and in minutes was curled up, her head resting on a couch pillow.

After a few more minutes, Alan looked up at Zach. “You can give us a ride home?”

“Yeah, bud, whenever you're ready.”

Alan nodded, and knelt close to Julie. He put in his hand on Julie's shoulder and rocked her gently. Julie woke gradually, albeit reluctantly, but in a few moments she was walking out the door with Zach and her brother, mumbling goodbye to Diane.

Zach dropped them off at Alan's apartment and waved goodbye from his truck once they were on their way inside. Alan dropped his keys on his coffee table and looked over at Julie, asleep once more in the crease of his futon.

In his bathroom, as the last of the water and toothpaste trickled down the drain, Alan stared at his reflection on the outside of the medicine cabinet. His eyes shined from the night light's glow, and hid an even smaller reflection of himself inside his pupils. He imagined this tiny infinity between his eyes and the mirror and everything else.

Then he went to bed, and slept. And dreamed.