When Charlie returned from the Lightning Fields, he craved Taco Bell. Maybe it was the electricity crackling in his bones, his blood, all the way down to his atoms and electrons. That tingle in his fingers? The jumpiness in his thumbs? Something deep inside him yearned for crunch and cheese, melted and mouth-watering. He ached with it.
His Taco Bell was modern, sleek, a recipient of a recent redesign Charlie found artful, yet unpretentious. He could see his reflection in the polished faux-wood flooring, and the tall eat-in counters were illuminated by a row of trendy Edison bulbs. Taylor Swift shook it off, shook it off, through the speakers in the ceiling.
As he stood in line, tall and muscular, jaw feathering from the simple thought of tasting those signature spices on his tongue, he knew all eyes were on him. His uniform.
He knew they wondered if he’d killed someone. Or many someones.
He knew they wondered if he manned tank (no) or Gatling (yes), but Charlie knew they would never really know. The way the weather pattern, another curse of the climate crisis, swirled the storm in a constant gale above soldiering heads. Even if he could convey all the intricacies of lightning searing a sky so periwinkle, so elegant in her constant nighttime splendor, haloes of afterburn spangling the ether like stars, Charlie could never give adequate voice to the manner in which the lightning found soldiers to strike. How that lightning—that screeching, yowling, hellfire—swallowed humanity as sure as any monster’s maw.
The Lightning Fields took people, good people, and made them charged and elemental. Unfamiliar.
But Taco Bell was familiar.
It was home.
It was coming to the restaurant from school with wadded dollars in his pocket when his mother was too drunk to care about his dinner. The bright thwack of her fist. It was forgetting the cockroaches scuttling in their apartment, and the constant, mournful cries from down the hall.
Taco Bell never echoed that pain. Taco Bell gave him laughter. Peace. Sustenance as much as hope.
Charlie approached the counter, and the high schooler, acne clustered on her chin, tried her hardest not to gawk at his massive build and wild stare.
“One Cheesy Gordita Crunch, please.” His voice was sandpaper on obsidian. He cleared his throat. “And a Baja Blast with extra blue.”
“Extra…blue, sir?” The young woman blinked.
“Yes. I want it to feel like swimming in the ocean.” Charlie appreciated the ocean. When water ate, it didn’t leave charred husks behind.
“Sure? I’ll see what I can do about that?”
Charlie nodded, paid, and stepped to the side. Alone.
When he had first enlisted, Charlie thought he would be able to distinguish the bodies of his allies from the bodies of his enemies—both sides fighting over one of America’s last oil deposits deep below the churning heavens—but no amount of rubber combat gear could temper the destruction. One blackened body, he soon discovered, was like another. And one morsel of knowledge he soon internalized, ingested, was how it felt to fight in a place where death illuminated the dark.
But inside his Taco Bell, this warm burrito of normalcy and easy breathing, Charlie didn’t feel the weight of what he’d left behind. Not now.
Tomorrow, Charlie would be forced to return. Tomorrow, he’d replace some green cadet forced into a night shift in the trenches, and when that cadet looked at him with dying in his eyes, Charlie would clap a hand on his shoulder and say, “Get your ass to Taco Bell, son.”
But not now.
Today, Charlie carried his tray to an empty table. He sat with his back to the windows. If he looked hard and close enough, he’d see the killing flashes on the horizon, and the reminder would ruin his appetite.
Hopefully, the cadet would survive the night.
Charlie stared at his food. The Baja Blast glowed aquamarine. The taco stood tall and proud. The cheese adorning the browned beef was a wispy dusting, an angelic zest, a crown as light as air, as delicate as sunlight dancing. And holding his meal was to marvel at its unblemished golden architecture. Its toothsome, half-moon shape.
But finally biting into the Cheesy Gordita Crunch was something akin to taking a swallow of Heaven—a high injected straight in the vein. As the cheese and meat and the luxurious flatbread gave way to the hard shell underneath, as the taco fell to fragments on the paper-covered tray, Charlie thought of the day the fighting would end. When peace would reign (Crunchwrap) supreme.
Charlie did not stop to think, as he savored, that the lightning felt the same euphoria when it took a bite out of humanity.
And Charlie did not realize, as he licked his fingers, sipped his drink, that certain cravings could not be controlled.
Cravings, like his for Taco Bell—lifelong and ingrained in the twisting double helix of his DNA—like the lightning’s devouring, could only ever be indulged.
Jared Povanda is an internationally published writer and freelance editor from upstate New York. His story “Clawing” was recently longlisted for Pidgeonhole’s THE BODY contest, and his work has also been published in CHEAP POP, Maudlin House, Splonk, and Riggwelter Press, among others. Find him online @JaredPovanda and jaredpovandawriting.wordpress.com