The best news Hicks had heard in a very long time was that he would be with his new unit in exactly one week the day he arrived at the transfer barracks. When he wasn’t with Dr. Ranelli, he was in a large room lined with bunk beds, sitting and doing nothing for the majority of the day with around a hundred other Marines, also waiting to go to new units.
If Hicks hadn’t used up all his personal days for that month, he would’ve gone home until it was time go to his new squadron. The transfer barracks were boring, despite taking on small responsibilities like laundry and managing people’s appointments. When there was nothing to be done, he sat by his rack, reading or writing the exercises he had to do for therapy.
He still had to deal with an overwhelming loneliness. A few days after arriving, he set down the journal containing his exercises, and tore out a blank sheet.
“Dear Paige, I hope you’re doing okay. I know you were probably expecting to hear from me a lot sooner, but a few things came up that I should probably explain. When I returned to my unit, I snapped. Something was really wrong; I suddenly felt like I had a lot of energy, and I basically took over what was left of the unit. I kept them up late, and I set standards that were just too high on them. I became something I’m not, and it was horrible. Then, I swung back to being depressed. I blamed myself for every death I’ve ever had to witness, especially Paulson’s.
“This went on for a month. That’s why you didn’t hear from me, even though I should’ve wrote you as soon as I got back. I needed help, and I was so far gone that I couldn’t get it myself. It took General Russell coming to base to see what was going on for me to actually get the help I needed. I don’t want to think about where I’d be right now if he had ignored my unit.
“The good news is that I’m getting help, and I’m starting to feel better. The best news is that I’m going to my unit in a few days. I don’t know the sergeant, but I’ve heard he’s a lot more competent than Travin-well, anyone’s more competent than Travin. I know he’s getting the extra training he needs, and I hope he improves as a Marine. He fucked up a lot, but I have no ill will towards him. Maybe our paths will cross again, and he’ll be a better man. Maybe we’ll be able to get along as human beings.
“I still have a long road ahead of me in terms of recovering from my grief and depression. I’d definitely prefer talking to you face-to-face, but I know that’s not possible right now. Despite that, I think it’s important we start talking about our feelings for each other. We got off to a bit of a rough start, and I’d like to pursue a much better relationship. That is, if you want to. I can understand if you don’t want to keep seeing me romantically; I’ve proven that it’s difficult for me to process my own emotions, and that’s something very frustrating to you. It’s led to various other problems that I’m aware of and want to change. I doubt I’m going to change completely. Some flaws are around for life. I would hope that doesn’t prevent us from enjoying each other’s company, but, as I mentioned, I understand if you feel like we’re not meant to be together.
“I hope we can get together and talk soon. Love, Dwayne.“
Unsure if he had said everything he wanted to say, Hicks folded up the paper to put it in an envelope. He knew he was going to think of something long after he sent it out, so he held onto it, not sealing the envelope, just in case. When the mail officer came around that evening, nothing new had sprung to mind, so Hicks sealed the envelope, and sent it off.
The day before Hicks headed out to his new squadron, he received a reply from Carlisle. He was excited and nervous at the same time, and decided to sit where none of the other Marines could see him. He realized he was holding his breath as he opened the envelope, which he noticed smelled like Carlisle’s lotion. Pausing, he sniffed the paper, and felt another weight of loneliness drop into his heart. His insides were so battered from the grieving and depression, and that made the drop of the lonely weight more painful than it should have been. He could only hope that this was a good letter.
“Dear Dwayne, It didn’t bother me at all that you were late in replying. I was busy with my own unit, and I figured you were busy with yours. I’m fine, thanks for asking, but I’ve been worried about you. Even more so when I got your letter.
“The simplest thing I can say is that I had a hard time figuring out a response to you. I wasn’t very surprised to learn that you completely broke down upon returning to base. In all honesty, I should’ve suspected something was wrong, beyond your grieving. I wished I could’ve done something for you. If anything, I’m glad you’re getting help. You need it.
“When it comes to us, I don’t have a doubt in my mind that we can pursue a better relationship. I miss you as well, and I think about you a lot. I know things would be better if we were able to see each other regularly, but, for now, I’m okay with communicating by mail and video-call. I happen to believe that if we’re really meant for each other, some miracle will occur where we’ll be able to be with each other more often. However, I know you’re on board with the Marines for life. I can understand you putting your career ahead, but I hope you can find time for your personal life.
“I hope your grief counseling and therapy goes well for you. You deserve happiness. I love you. Hugs and kisses, Paige.“
The only thing that pained Hicks was the fact that the letter was short. He gave a quiet sigh, and opened his rack to place the letter alongside his other personal items. He stared at it for a few minutes, until someone came over, saying, “Time for your appointment, Hicks.”
After grabbing his jacket, Hicks followed an escort down to sick bay, and was left by Ranelli’s temporary office and quarters. The therapist let him in, and gestured for him to have a seat and some white hot chocolate sprinkled with nutmeg.
“Tomorrow’s the big day, huh?” Ranelli said, sitting behind his desk.
Hicks nodded. “Been waiting too long for this. Any excitement I should have… don’t know where it went.”
“That happens. When you wait too long, it’s difficult to feel that kind of happy excitement because you’re in disbelief that it’s actually happening. Like I mentioned, I’m traveling with you, so feel free to bring up any concerns.”
“Does this Sergeant Apone know about this?”
“Of course he does. He was notified as soon as you were made a patient of mine.”
“And he’s okay with it?”
“Well, he has to be. This is USCM protocol. Anyway, he does understand, and he’s willing to give you all the time you need to settle in.”
“Liking the sound of this new unit already.”
“Good. Now, how are you feeling this morning?”
“Kinda tired. I got a letter from my girlfriend. A good letter, so, I’m somewhat happy. I just wish I could see her more often.”
“This was the young lady you were telling me about a few days ago, right?”
“Ah. I’m glad things are continuing to work out between you two.”
“Thanks. I managed to eat a little more during breakfast. I slept through the night. Hell, I know I gotta get up at oh-four-hundred to fly out to New York, but, I’m okay with that. Overall, I just feel… I don’t know.”
“You told me you were tired, and then said you slept through the night. Is there something you wish to discuss?”
“Honestly, I’m very lonely. I usually function pretty good on my own.”
Ranelli nodded. “Have you made any attempt to talk to anyone here?”
“No. There’s no point when they end up leaving the next day. And everyone asks why they’re in transfer; I don’t want to tell people my situation.”
“You’re leaving tomorrow anyway. This is something we’ll be able to work on over time.” Ranelli glanced at his clipboard. “How was your mood yesterday, after your session?”
“Up and down, but mostly down. There were times where I wanted to force myself to be more energetic, because there was stuff to be done around the compartment, but something was holding it back, like I knew that any burst of energy would turn me into a monster again.”
“That is both a good thing and a bad thing. One, you’re aware of your extreme mood swings and don’t wish them to occur. That’s good. The bad is that holding such emotions back will result in them coming back rather forcefully, at a time you least expect. Emotions don’t disappear or dissolve. They need somewhere to go, and the only place they can go is out. You need a productive way to deal with the ‘manic’ side of your depression.”
“How do I do that if I’m not aware that I’m swinging into that side?”
“One of the problems, Hicks, is that you’ve suppressed your emotions over an extended period of time. These extreme mood swings are your subconscious way of releasing them, and getting them out, similar to draining an infection. When you’re not depressed or in mania, do something that exercises different parts of your brain-draw, write, paint, work out, do a crossword or word search, things like that. Interacting with people also helps. It gives you an outlet to express yourself without exploding or breaking down. Little things like that will help in stabilizing your moods.” Ranelli smiled. “I hope that you find those outlets in your new unit.”
When Hicks awoke at the early hour of four in the morning to be driven down to the airport, he thought about the morning when he headed out to Paris for the brunch with Paulson. Both of these mornings were cold, and dark, and just too damn early.
Hicks took his jacket off the hook on the side of the rack, and glanced over at some of the other Marines who were also getting ready to leave. He zipped up his jacket, and, for a brief moment, he saw himself in his bedroom, in his house, back in Alabama.
Back when everything was relatively normal. Back when Paulson was still alive.
Putting his duffel bag over his shoulder, Hicks sighed quietly, following the rest of the Marines out to the hallway. He noticed Ranelli among them, wearing a heavy tan coat and a golf cap, and carrying a large briefcase.
“Sit down, bus’ll be here in about ten minutes,” a sergeant ordered.
Hicks sat with the others on a long bench out in the hallway. He opened his wallet, making sure he had his important information, as he did when he was going to Paris. After putting his wallet away, he looked down at his scarf, and began stroking the tassels. He noticed that despite how many times he toyed with it, the scarf was still in good condition. Maybe I’m just that gentle, he thought.
On the bus, Hicks stared out the window, hoping that this would be the start of a much better journey. He wondered if Paulson was looking after him, and glanced at Ranelli. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” Ranelli replied.
“How do you know when someone who’s passed on… is watching you?”
“That depends on the individual. You believe in guardian angels?”
“Never really thought about it before.”
“I’d say thoughts like this are a step in the right direction for your grief. Of course, you still miss Paulson, and you still wish he was around. But, you’re starting to accept what happened, and you’re thinking about it in a different light. You’re beginning to hope that he’s watching you and guiding you in the right direction. I think that’s a sign that, deep down, you know that his death wasn’t your fault. After all, if you were responsible, his spirit wouldn’t want anything to do with you.”
Hicks nodded. “I still feel like I was responsible in some way, though.”
“Let that feeling exist. In time, you’ll come to terms with it.”
Hicks jolted awake when the plane landed in New York District. Much like the flight to Paris, he had slept the whole way. That wasn’t a surprise. He was often lulled by the shaking of moving vehicles.
Still, the same thing had happened when he flew to Paris.
As he walked through the airport with Ranelli, he wished that Carlisle was with him. He wanted to hold her close as they walked, and feel the joy of that intimate togetherness. As soon as he got to his new base, he would write to her. He would ask to go to a call center and video-chat with her.
It was late in the afternoon when the bus pulled into the base. Hicks knew this was it; all he could do was hope and pray this unit was better than his old one. With his bag over his shoulder, he walked through the gates, and through the main doors. He could hear laughing, which was a good sign to him. Despite that, he was overcome with shyness.
A stern-looking man with a cigar in his mouth strolled over to him, and held out his hand. “Corporal Hicks? I’m Sergeant Apone. Good to have you with us.”
“Thanks,” Hicks replied. “I… I-“
“Don’t worry too much. Just go get settled in, and meet the guys and gals here. They’re busy watching our resident jackass catch food in his mouth.”
That made Hicks genuinely curious about what life was like here. Apone’s “resident jackass” didn’t sound like an insult, but more like casual banter. In Hicks’s mind, that was an even better sign.
After placing his duffel bag in his new room, he headed to the lounge, where the entirety of the unit was watching a young guy with messy dark-brown hair and a soul patch under his lower lip catch peanuts in his mouth.
“How many does he got, Drevis?” someone asked.
“This is number thirty, Spunkmeyer,” Drevis replied, before throwing another peanut. “New record if he gets it.”
Hicks walked in, folding his arms over his chest. His scarf was still around his neck, and he was holding the tassels tightly. There’s no need to be shy. They look like they’re good guys.
“Damn it, Hudson, you’re drooling all over the table,” a young woman with short hair laughed.
They paused when they saw the newcomer from the corner of their eyes. Hicks felt his face grow warm when they all stared at him, and cursed himself for not having a less awkward and shy presence.
“Uh-oh, they finally got us a new corporal,” Drevis said. “You guys better stop horsing around and give him your attention.”
Hudson, the man with the peanuts in his mouth, started chewing them, and washed them down with a gulp of soda. “I got this, man,” he said, standing up.
Hicks knew that saying something and asserting his authority was necessary here, but he couldn’t find the right thing to say without coming off as an ass. He froze when he noticed Hudson was about to give him a big ol’ bear-hug, but before he could hold up his hands and tell him to back off, Apone walked in, and said, “Hudson, sit down and behave.” He looked around the room, nodding at how quiet everyone got. “Alright, people, we got our new corporal today. Say ‘hello’ to Corporal Hicks, and I expect each and every one of you to show him the same respect you show me, got it?”
“Yes, sir,” the Marines replied.
“Now, Hicks has been going through a couple of personal issues lately, so just leave him alone for a few days, and don’t be dickheads. That means you, Hudson.”
“I didn’t do anything, man,” Hudson whined.
“I’m just saying, be pleasant until Hicks gets settled in. Then we can both share the responsibility of babysitting you.”
“Is he normally a problem?” Hicks asked, nervously.
“No. He’s just a little goofy at times. Overall, he’s harmless.”
“Okay.” Hicks didn’t feel like diving into getting to know everyone just yet. “I’ll just… sit for a little.”
“Be my guest. We can get into business later. Evening chow’s in a half-hour.” Apone left the lounge, and Hicks sat on a couch, away from everyone else. He glanced over at the others, who had transitioned to a card game.
I definitely wasn’t expecting this. No one’s arguing or mad at each other. Everyone seems to know each other and respect each other. Apone seems pretty competent and doesn’t seem angry with anyone. This is the polar opposite of what I was just in. I don’t know how to act or respond. Hicks sat criss-cross on the couch, pulling his cigarettes and lighter out of his pocket.
Not too long after putting his lighter back, he heard someone approach him, and looked up to see Hudson. “Hey, why don’t you sit with us, man? We got a spot for you.”
“Why?” Hicks asked.
“‘Why?'” Hudson snorted. “Why not, man? You look a little lonely, that’s all.” He gave Hicks a genuine smile before patting his shoulder. “Up to you, though.” He then held out a wrapped chocolate bar. “Want one?”
Without a word, Hicks took it, and Hudson left him alone. What do I have to lose? I should go over there. It would help me feel better. Sighing, Hicks stood up, and walked over to the couch where everyone else was sitting. He saw the open space next to Hudson, and sat down.
It didn’t take a lot of time for the smiles and laughter to become infectious. Of course there was small talk, but Hicks could deal with it. It was too soon, and there were too many people around for him to have a “deep” conversation with anyone.
He’d save those for Carlisle.
That night, he let his mind slow down. His thoughts were still wandering in their own directions, but it was like they were on leashes; they wouldn’t get very far from the center of his mind. He didn’t quite feel as if this place was home, yet. Hopefully, this introduction and warmth would persist.
Eventually, the thoughts all crawled back to the center, and he managed to fall into a deep and restful sleep.
This unit was far more tight-knit than Hicks’s previous one. Its size granted him the opportunity to talk with everyone individually at some point, and they were incredible in combat.
As for his relationship with Carlisle, they didn’t talk much starting six months after he arrived at his new squad, because Carlisle’s unit was sent off-planet. He missed her even more, though his new teammates tried to buck him up. What made matters worse was that he had no clue when she returned, or if she was even alive.
That put a dent in his recovery. The feeling of just not knowing re-awakened his horrid depression. Again, he felt the need to be perfect, to get everything into shape. Apone was having none of that, and kept Hicks from spiraling out of control. It didn’t always work, and it pained Hicks to know that his new teammates had seen him at his absolute worst.
He was surprised to learn that nobody was leaving because of him. Even Hudson was sympathetic and tried to help. As good as he was on the battlefield, Hicks had issues with Hudson’s discipline on base, and it was often Hudson that Hicks would lash out at when his mania decided to creep back onto the scene. Such ugly displays would have made anyone else demand a transfer, but Hudson didn’t. Why, Hicks couldn’t figure out.
Hicks became used to not hearing from Carlisle. He had moments where he wondered if his memories with her were even real. He wondered if she actually existed, and he had similar thoughts about Paulson as time went on. The letters he kept from Carlisle said otherwise. She was real. He just didn’t know where she was, why he couldn’t talk to her anymore.
The photographs on the wall told Hicks that Paulson was real. At times, it was hard to look at them, even for a second, and Hicks was convinced that the hole in his heart wasn’t going to heal. All that remained around the hole were jagged scars.
A part of Hicks wondered if he could even let himself get close to anyone in his unit, but he knew he couldn’t emotionally isolate himself anymore. Dr. Ranelli told him it wasn’t healthy, and it would set his recovery back a great deal. He started with Apone, first offering to go with the sergeant out for drinks one night. They spent several hours talking, learning about each other. Hicks was a little surprised to learn that Apone used to train Marines who were falling behind on their training. It definitely explained why he was so patient, not only with Hicks, but with people like Hudson.
Moments like that gave Hicks hope, though his promise to Paulson weighed heavily on his mind. He knew he would keep that promise, no matter what, but he hoped and prayed that he never had to act on it.