Hicks didn’t know until today that it was possible for someone to go around with such a heavy heart and still be walking as if nothing was wrong. He knew that it was written on his face that something was wrong. That’s how bad he hurt.
Julia Paulson was kind enough to invite Hicks and Carlisle to her home in the DC suburbs to talk and have some coffee and breakfast. Considering there was nothing else to do, they spent most of the day there, talking. Hicks lost interest in the conversation rather quickly, feeling like any hope of answers was lost when he found out that not even Julia had any idea what could’ve driven her husband over such a dark edge.
It was around one in the afternoon when Hicks overheard a conversation between Carlisle and Julia. He paused when he heard Carlisle’s voice while he was in the bathroom, and listened for a moment.
“…I’m worried about him,” Carlisle was saying. “Is grief always this bad?”
“People grieve in their own ways,” Julia replied. “I struggled when both my parents passed away. Luckily, I had Adrian with me, but that didn’t stop me from feeling lonely and lost. Now, I’m faced with the fact that I have to live alone. I have a job, but it’s going to be awful coming home every night and not seeing him, not getting any messages from him. All those feelings eventually stop. It takes time, it takes a great deal of healing and accepting what happened.”
“I want to help Dwayne. There are times where he’s accepting of me, and times where he pushes me away.”
“Do little things for him. Housework, and that sort of stuff, especially if he’s not feeling motivated to do anything. Like I said, grief effects everyone differently. He could recover soon, or he might spiral downward. Pray that doesn’t happen.”
The days leading up to the funeral were largely eventless, at least for Hicks. Carlisle took advantage of being in the city to explore and see the tourist attractions, while Hicks stayed in the hotel room, usually sleeping. Like the wake, he was dreading the funeral. He knew the funeral was going to be formal. He knew the procession was going to contain hundreds of officers, including people who worked with Paulson, and people who hardly knew him. The only civilians present would be Paulson’s widow and son.
When that day arrived, Hicks forced himself out of bed to get every little part of the dress uniform correct. He stared at himself in the mirror, taking notice that his cheeks were beginning to hollow. The circles under his eyes had gotten darker. Everything in his body seemed to hurt. He was afraid of how he was going to feel after the funeral. It didn’t matter how many times he said goodbye; the guilt and frustration were ever present, and painful, like claws being dug into every single organ within him.
A small part of him was so tired of being sad.
Before even stepping off the train near Arlington Cemetery, Hicks could see hundreds of people in uniform gathered. As he and Carlisle walked closer, they could see the hearse holding Paulson’s casket. Hicks took a breath, wondering how long this would last. How long would he have to wear a mask of no emotions in front of so many important people? How long until he could let his emotions burst forth again?
There was the procession, the gun salute, the eulogy, and finally, uniformed pallbearers carrying the casket of General Adrian Paulson to a freshly dug grave. Hicks held his salute as the casket came by. That was his friend in there, someone who had given him so much, in exchange for so little. Paulson had come to Hicks’s rescue when the skinny recruit had second thoughts and doubts in his first weeks of boot camp. He worked with Hicks to organize his transfer papers when it was becoming clear that his current unit was horribly dysfunctional. He extended a hand of personal friendship, and talked with Hicks about so much more than his job and the weather. He taught Hicks how to be a leader, how to care about the men under his command.
As a reconnaissance squad for their battalion, Hicks knew that each member of his team had a vital role to fill, from as simple as providing local security for the squad against hostiles to the work he did, calling in and directing air and artillery strikes against enemy targets. He knew how to forget personal disagreements and get the mission done, but he hated being frequently left in charge when Travin began to stumble.
After well over a year with Sergeant Travin, Hicks felt like he had failed. That feeling of failure was still there, and he was certain that was a reason Paulson committed suicide.
He felt like cracks were beginning to appear in his mask. Tears were dripping down his cheeks as he continued to hold his salute. Everything inside his chest was aching. He watched the casket be lowered into the ground, and he felt the mask start sliding off.
That was it. The casket was buried, and Paulson was no more than a memory in the hearts of those who knew him best.
Hicks waited until most of the people gathered had left before approaching the gravesite. Like he did at the wake, he knelt in front of the headstone, and cried. His fists were clenched tightly as the tears ran down his face. The feelings of hopelessness and emptiness and anger and frustration and loneliness and sadness were overwhelming. That sensation of knots tightly coiling around his stomach had moved up to his chest. The knots began slithering around his entire chest cavity, and slowly tightened. He couldn’t speak, but managed to squeak out an “I’m sorry.”
This is all my fault.
He knew that he was going to have to return to his unit in two days.
I want to quit.
He knew he wasn’t going to see Carlisle in person for a long time.
She’s the only thing keeping me from wanting to jump off the roof of a building right now.
He knew it was very likely he wasn’t going to hear anything about a new unit anytime soon.
I wish I could talk to you one more time, Paulson. I just need your guidance now.
The knots abruptly released, and Hicks sobbed hard. He didn’t notice Colonel Russell and Carlisle coming up behind him, witnessing his emotional eruption.
Russell waited for the crying to subside before speaking. “Hicks, I got some good news for you.”
Resting his arms on the headstone, Hicks stared ahead to the rest of the cemetery instead of making eye contact with Russell. “What?”
“Well, I got a message last night from a unit that needs a replacement fire support specialist and seems to be interested in getting you on board with them. That was it, though. They looked at your papers and said you seem like a good fit, so I sent them the remainder of your documents, and I’m waiting to hear back.”
That should have made Hicks feel better, and yet it didn’t. Perhaps it was the lack of this new unit saying, “Yes, we want him right now” that wasn’t dulling the painful frustration.
Carlisle knelt next to Hicks, putting her arm around his shoulder. They stayed until neither of them could stand kneeling in the freezing dirt anymore. Carlisle helped Hicks stand up, and walked him out of the cemetery, holding his arm.
Although he had done nothing throughout the morning, Hicks felt like he just finished a full-body workout. But, it wasn’t the pleasant soreness of having accomplished such a feat. It was the painful soreness of trying to exercise while he was horribly sick.
He was drained, physically and emotionally. It felt impossible to move on, not when he had no answers as to why Paulson killed himself. As he sat in the hotel for the rest of the day, the familiar feeling of hopelessness kept swimming around his head. He was certain that the unit that saw his papers was never going to get back to Russell. He was certain that he was going to be stuck with his current squad until he decided to quit. Quit, and go home to bounce from job to job until he really decided enough was enough.
Several hours before Hicks had to get on a flight to Europe to rejoin his unit, he had a brief moment where he was thinking a little more clearly, where he was thinking about Carlisle. He felt like he had let her down, like their relationship was not going anywhere, and wouldn’t go anywhere anytime soon. It felt rushed, incomplete, aimless.
And yet, he wanted to move forward. Hicks set his duffel bag down before gently shaking Carlisle awake. Her eyes slowly opened, and she smiled at him. “Hey,” she said. “Getting ready to leave?”
He nodded. “I want to apologize for how bad of a person I’ve been for the last week or so.”
“Don’t apologize. It’s not your fault, Dwayne.” Carlisle sat up. “Whenever you weren’t so upset, I enjoyed my time with you, and I really want to see you again sometime soon. You’re… I hope you start to feel better soon.” She was silent for a moment, looking in Hicks’s eyes for some sign of hope within him. “I love you.”
Hicks pondered what he just heard. He felt like Carlisle was being true to herself and her feelings, but he had no clue what to say or how to feel.
And he was running out of time.
The best he could do was leave her on a positive note. He didn’t want to pile anymore guilt on himself, and he didn’t want to leave Carlisle feeling like she had failed with him. Hicks kissed her, and found himself being pulled into a hug. When they pulled apart, he said, “I love you, too. I’ll write to you, I promise.”
As he left the room and closed the door, he knew that was it, and he couldn’t bear it. It was another loss he had to deal with, and being so weakened from losing Paulson wasn’t helping at all. He felt as if someone had slashed out another piece of his heart. He knew it was possible to see her again, but he didn’t want to wait so long.
Those awful, heavy feelings lingered with him as he waited for his flight, and as he got on his flight. Why wouldn’t they go away?
I have to shove them back down again. Don’t focus on them. You’re going back to your unit. You can’t sink to their level. You need to force yourself to put up with it, and at least try to make it better. Hicks gazed out the window, pondering how to do that.
After landing, he again contemplated quitting. He wasn’t ready to go back. He needed more time.
I don’t have a choice. Hicks made his way out of the airport, beginning to feel sick to his stomach. Then again, that feeling had become a daily occurrence ever since Paulson died. Maybe he’d become numb to the nonsense his unit was probably doing right now.
The base was quiet when he got off the bus and walked toward the gate. Hicks entered the main complex to find Travin, a lanky man with stringy brown hair and pointed features, sitting at his desk, flipping through a set of documents. He was looking exhausted, and significantly less tense than he usually was. “‘Evening, Hicks,” Travin said.
“Good evening,” Hicks replied. “Is everyone asleep?”
“Yeah. A couple more of them got sent to new units, including Jenzi.”
“Good. He needs help, after some of the shit he’s said to me.” Hicks sighed. “Is there anything you need me to do?”
“No, not right now. Just go on to bed.” Right before Hicks left the room, Travin said, “I’m sorry about Paulson.”
Hicks felt like someone drove a nail into his heart. You’re one of the reasons I’m failing, therefore you’re one of the reasons Paulson killed himself. “There’s… no need to be sorry.” He walked out of the room before his anger grew out of control, marching down the hall until he came to his personal quarters. After unloading his duffel bag, Hicks took a quick shower, knowing that he probably wasn’t going to get any sleep that night. It was already very late, and his deepest primal desires were telling him that he needed sleep. He also needed to eat, as he had barely gotten any food in him for the last three days.
Something deeper than his primal desires was beginning to stir, though. It was so deep that not even his subconscious mind was picking up on it. The disgusting residue left behind by his suppressed emotions had seemingly slithered into this dark little corner, building on each other. Not even a psychic would be able to notice it. Hicks himself didn’t notice it.
But it was there, and it was growing, faster and faster with every passing disappointment. It was gaining control of every repressed emotion inside him. It was shutting out his basic need for food, for water, for sleep.
He lay in bed, knowing just about anything was possible tomorrow. He knew he was going to have to call back what little leadership skills he had in order to keep his men under control. He knew he was going to have to be that calm center.
But, how long was he going to remain calm?
Hicks awoke from a night of bad dreams. He sat up in bed, half-expecting to be home, or in a hotel room. Looking around, he saw he was in his dingy private quarters on base. For a moment, he wondered if the last two weeks had been one long horrible dream. He wondered if he had been in cryosleep, given how vivid and detailed and long that dream felt.
As he got up and got dressed, he knew it hadn’t been a dream.
Hicks went out to the mess hall, finding the remaining members of his squad sitting at the table. It was definitely quieter, but that didn’t mean all the problems had disappeared. He sat down, not saying anything and observing what was going on.
Travin walked into the room, holding a sheet of paper. “Hicks, when you were gone, were you told that there’s another unit interested in you?”
“Yeah. Have there been any new developments on that?” He wouldn’t know. He never knows.
“No. Just wondering if you knew that.”
“Yes, I’m aware.”
“You’d think he’d get better treatment because he’s a corporal,” someone at the end of the table muttered. “Surprised his friend that died didn’t get him anywhere.”
The room went silent, and Hicks felt a slight twinge in his stomach. The twinge revealed itself to be another knot, and it tightened rapidly while rising into his chest. Finally, it snapped.
In a split second, the Marine that spoke had been lifted by his shirt, and thrown from his seat to the floor. He lay there in shock for several seconds, staring up at Hicks. “You’re not supposed to do that, sir-“
“I don’t want to hear a word about Paulson outta anyone’s mouth! Do you understand?!” Hicks shouted.
The silence continued, save for everyone’s breathing. Travin had retreated into the hallway, mumbling a shocked curse to himself.
Hicks glanced around the table, eyes blazing with pent-up rage. The fact that no one was arguing, no one was moving was… oddly satisfying. He swallowed past a lump in his throat. I can do this. I can control them until I finally leave. Even if that never happens, I can keep them in line. He breathed. “I’m not dealing with anyone’s bullshit anymore. I’m not gonna submit to any of you anymore. All the dysfunction? It stops here, right now.”
A few of the Marines around the table gave each other fearful looks. This was definitely not the Hicks they knew, not anymore. And Travin wasn’t going to stop him.
The day progressed, as did Hicks’s wrath. After breakfast, he dragged his remaining Marines outside, into the bitter cold. He drilled them until lunch, he kept them in the rifle range until dinner, and the hours until lights-out were spent reciting basic rules.
Still, the fire within Hicks wasn’t being extinguished. His mind became locked in something awful. He felt motivated, for once, to push himself harder, to push his men harder. Anything was possible, now. He could shape these pathetic excuses for human beings into Marines. Not to mention, they didn’t trust him with their personal problems; why start now? It was pointless.
Hicks spent the night rearranging his quarters, making it as neat and spotless as he had kept his rack in boot camp. He went out into the hallway at around midnight, and shouted, “Everyone up! I wanna see you out in this hallway, fully dressed, right now!“
Five minutes later, the Marines emerged from their rooms, looking at Hicks with confused expressions.
“Face forward, eyes straight!”
They stood at attention.
Hicks paced down the hall, giving dirty looks to each man. “I want this fucking hallway mopped, and I want the fucking walls, doors, and hinges scrubbed. You got that? When you’re done with that, you’re gonna clean your rooms. I don’t wanna see anything out of place, or wrinkled, or dirty. Got it? No one is gonna fucking sleep until I say so! We’re only as good as how clean we are, now get to it!“
The hours slowly ticked by as the skeletal squadron swabbed the deck and sprayed disinfectants on the walls and doors. At two, someone spoke up, “Corporal, is there something wrong? This is bordering on cruel.”
Hicks approached the man, who turned back to his cleaning. Not buying it, Hicks yanked him up, hissing, “‘Cruel’ was not doing this with you earlier. We wouldn’t be the fucked-up mess we are if you people were disciplined! You’re all gonna stand outside your rooms for ten minutes when you’re done!”
“This man’s as insane as fucking Jenzi!” another Marine yelled. That earned him a round of personal insults from Hicks, as well as having to stand outside his room with no sweater.
“Fucking hell! Travin is incompetent, and Hicks is a psychopath!” someone else snapped.
In short, nobody slept that night. Not a soul.