Inside a trailer in Honaker, Virginia, is a 5-year-old girl who loves lemon-lime slush. She sleeps in a room with a quilted bedspread and matching purple curtains. She adores her cat Tiger, dogs Smoky and Rusty and a black, pop-eyed goldfish.
Her family is poor, and she is eating potted meat, blowing away cracker crumbs that fall into her lap.
"Daddy," she whispers when her father, a welder, comes home. He does not respond. His eyes are wild. He collapses into a rocking chair, his hands trembling, his breathing labored.
She doesn't understand her father's strange behavior. It's as though he's in the grip of the devil.
She hides behind the couch, her knees press against the shag carpeting.
Later, she will remember this moment as the first time she was afraid of her father.
A hole in her soul
Christal Presley, 34, held her breath for two seemingly endless days in mid-October. In Honaker, more than 300 miles away from her home in Atlanta, her father had just received a package in the mail. It contained an early copy of Christal's new book. On the cover: a sepia-tone snapshot of Delmer Presley holding his rifle in Vietnam.
Christal had staked her whole life on words crafted from love and pain. But what would they mean to her father?
Would they offer comfort like the conversations that resulted in the book? Or would they act as another trigger point for a man who never left war behind?
"Thirty Days With My Father" is a gritty memoir written by a woman haunted by what some psychologists describe as second-generation post-traumatic stress disorder.
The trauma began in Vietnam, affected Delmer and then, Christal, says psychiatrist Frank Ochberg, a trauma expert who served on the committee that defined PTSD in the post-Vietnam era.
Christal, he says, suffered profound injury. And it stayed with her.
Outwardly, her life appeared successful: She settled in Atlanta, owned a house, worked as an educator.
But she always felt a hole in her soul. She didn't know her father -- or herself.
How was it, she wondered, that a war that ended before her birth had marred her life in so many ways?
The book became Christal's salvation -- "my last resort to find happiness," she says.
But she worried about how her father would feel seeing his troubled life exposed to the entire world. Encourage him to read the ending first, she told her mom. That way, he will understand: It's not just an ugly portrait of pain. It's a book about healing.
Wishing for normal
Christal was only 5, but she remembers clearly that day when her family came undone. Her father, on his way home from work, had come upon ans accident on the highway. His friend, Josh Coleman, was dead.
It was the first time Delmer had seen a body since he returned from his yearlong tour of duty. Thirteen years had passed, but instantly, his mind reeled back to Vietnam: to underground tunnels brimming with snakes and booby traps laced with sharp punji sticks that skewered his buddies like meat.
Christal never knew normal again.
Gone was the man who gave her piggyback rides, ate mud pies and smiled as he watched her play an angel in a school play.
Delmer vacillated between depression, silence and sheer rage.
He locked himself in the bedroom his wife had decorated with shadow boxes filled with Delmer's medals, Army boots, hats, dog tags and a worn pocket-size military-issue Bible. The room screamed war, Christal says. She was scared to enter.