Jonathan Warren walks through the maze of corridors until he finds the little room. Anxiously, he puts on the earphones and adjusts the wraparound visor. The image before him is crude: Road, desert, truck.
Describe that day, his therapist says.
We drove up in a Humvee...
No. Tell it as if it's happening now.
We are on a black route. The worst kind.
He isn't sure he can trust his memory. He knows he was in the commander's seat, right front. Scott Stephenson, his best friend, was sitting behind him. They had been inseparable since they enlisted two years earlier, the God-fearing California surf punk and the half-crazy Kansas street kid. They bunked together, drank together, learned to shoot together. They were lost boys reborn as hard Army muscle, shaved heads in Kevlar helmets, feeling as bulletproof as their steel-plated, 12,000-pound truck.
Staring into the visor, Warren studies the computer simulation of gray pavement stretching before him. He knows what lies down that road, amid the flames and churning black smoke: the test his whole life was supposed to prepare him for. For years, he's fled the memory, drinking until he can't recognize himself, smoking pot until he's numb, swallowing pills until he can sleep.
Now, the therapist insists that he slow the memory to a crawl, uncoil it, examine it inch by inch.
He closes his eyes. His heart pounds. He sees it now, the worst part, the moment he glances back at the burning truck and realizes Scotty is trapped inside.
What do you see? his therapist asks.
What do you do?
In the dream from his boyhood, Warren and a younger brother are being chased through the woods by a swarm of vicious bees. His brother falls behind. To save him, Warren sacrifices his own body.
It was how he saw himself. His life made the most sense to him whenever he took a punch in a schoolyard fight for a brother, or threw a punch on behalf of an insulted girl, or played football with a dislocated arm because his high school team needed him.
"He was born with a savior complex," says his mother, Denise.
He grew up the oldest of three brothers in a five-bedroom tract home in Laguna Niguel, with evangelical Sunday school and a strong sense of God's personal disapproval. "You don't have permission to be a child. You have to be perfect," his mother says, ruefully now, of the upbringing she gave him. "There are only two options. You're either saved or you're going to hell."
In school he was popular, a good student, with light blond hair and broad shoulders, an image from a surf-wear poster. But his mother sensed a seething anger that he felt free to vent only when he was brawling or wearing a football uniform.
He started a fight club at a Christian college, where he lasted just two semesters. Boredom was suffocating him, making him do crazy things. He rode waves till 2 a.m. and led drinking trips to Mexico, where he danced with someone else's girlfriend and left the bar with his nose turned sideways.
He grilled cheese steaks at Hooters. He mixed cocaine with Robitussin and saw demons. His parents braced for the late-night call informing them that he was in jail or dead.