The day with Carlisle almost felt like a blur, and it made Hicks realize he needed to better adapt himself for situations like this. He usually equated being comfortable with being alone, but here he was, comfortable and not alone. When he wasn’t alone, he was dealing with Travin’s incompetence and his subordinates demanding to know when things would shape up.
“Can’t you just get a fucking pair and slap Travin till he snaps out of it?” one Marine had asked, angrily. “Forget it! Just sign my papers and get me outta here! I didn’t leave home to be wasted like this!”
Hicks simply stood there and took it. It didn’t feel like something worth getting upset about.
The balance of not being alone and being comfortable felt strange. He followed Carlisle around that day, taking whatever she offered, and trying to be pleasant compared to how he was in the morning. While they were in a multi-floored department store, Carlisle brought up the fact that Hicks didn’t bring any civilian clothes, saying, “If you want, we can get something you’d be more comfortable in.”
“I don’t know,” Hicks replied. “I didn’t bring a lot of money.”
“You’re letting me stay in your room. I’ll pay for your clothes.”
“You’d do that?”
“If it means paying you back, yeah. Go ahead, pick whatever you want.” She smiled at him, gesturing towards a men’s clothing store. “And I bet you’ll look great.”
Hicks glanced over his shoulder at Carlisle, unsure of how to respond. He shoved his hands in his pockets before heading into the clothing store. In truth, he didn’t feel like wasting his time with doing stuff like this. He had plenty of civilian clothes at home, and he wasn’t going to be staying here in Paris for very long. Besides, he’d be returning to his base afterwards. There was no reason to buy any civilian clothes. Should give Carlisle the chance to repay me. I don’t know if we’ll get another time for that. Hicks still wanted to make things easy for Carlisle, so he browsed through the large rack of articles on clearance, hoping he could find a cheap outfit. But he couldn’t stop thinking about his transfer, or rather lack of.
How do I communicate that I’m losing hope? I can’t, and I shouldn’t. No amount of begging is getting me out of my unit. It’s a process hundreds of Marines go through, and I shouldn’t be treated differently. People would hate me for it. They’d demand to know why this can’t be done for everyone. They’d be angry, and there’d be chaos among every rank. Nothing would get done, and people could get killed. Life isn’t fair. That’s something I learned a long time ago, and I learned to accept it. Good things will happen though; they just take their time, and they’re worth it in the end. Hicks finally grabbed a winter coat, a turtleneck sweater, and jeans, not caring how they looked, and walked briskly to the changing rooms. He locked himself in one of the small rooms, sitting on a bench, and began to cry. Come on, this’ll be over soon. You’ll be out of there before you know it.
Twenty minutes later, Hicks stepped out of the changing room, carrying the articles of clothing he settled on. Carlisle was standing outside the entrance, and she walked in when she saw him. “That’s what you want?” she said.
“You can get more, if you want. You’re gonna be here a few days, right?”
“No. No more. This is it.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. Thank you.”
“Yeah. Let’s pay for these, and then we can go to lunch, if you want. This is your day, we go wherever you want.”
“It’s not my birthday, but, if you say so.” Carlisle shrugged. “Are you sure you’re okay? You sound like something’s bugging you.”
“No, nothing’s bugging me. I feel fine. I’m a little hungry, that’s all.”
She bought his excuse. After paying for Hicks’s clothing (and making him change), Carlisle walked alongside him, leading him down to the ground floor where most of the restaurants were. As they stood on an escalator, she touched Hicks’s left hand, then gently squeezed it.
Hicks barely showed any reaction, but he acknowledged how warm and soft Carlisle’s hand was. He massaged her hand with his thumb as he thought about how close his situation was to being hopeless. Paulson thought I had a lot of potential when he met me at the recruiting station in Mobile. When will that potential show? Am I going to be stuck my whole career? Is this as far as I’m going to get in my career? Hicks continued to fidget with Carlisle’s hand. I’m never getting out of there.
His thoughts made him lose his appetite when they entered a small restaurant facing one of the mall’s parking lots, but he forced himself to eat anyway.
“You were okay with me holding your hand?”
Hicks glanced at Carlisle. “I didn’t mind it.” He looked at his glass of water, then back at Carlisle. “Does that mean you like me on a level that goes a little beyond just being friends?”
“I… don’t know. I mean, you’ve been extraordinarily kind, and… well, I really shouldn’t try anything because we’re probably never going to see each other again after Christmas.”
“We exchanged addresses, though, and you said you wouldn’t mind spending Thanksgiving at my place because your relationship with your family isn’t the greatest, and I said that I wouldn’t make things chaotic or uncomfortable.”
“Right. The other reason I’m not sure is because you haven’t expressed much interest in me, at least on an emotional level. You don’t even care about how I look and you definitely don’t seem interested in sex. You respect me because I’m a Marine, too, and we have a few things in common. That’s literally it. We’re kinda stuck with each other because I didn’t book a hotel room.”
“I’m socially slow,” Hicks replied, “if that makes any sense to you. Being in a shitty unit doesn’t help.”
“There’s no way your unit is… destroying everything you have.”
Hicks was certain a normal person would’ve snapped at hearing that. He looked at his water glass again, and tried channeling his energy into something else, namely playing with ends of the scarf Carlisle had bought him when she saw it outside a shop near the restaurant. “When two people commit suicide, and you don’t know if you could’ve done something to prevent it, you start to look at yourself in a bit of a negative light. I didn’t know either man very well, but, it was still hard to comprehend. I hope that, if I get a new unit, I can take the time to learn about this and learn to prevent it. I don’t like seeing people hurt in the mind, and I’m pretty sure a lot of people in my current squadron are hurting in the mind right now. They won’t let me help them, and I don’t know how to help them. They don’t care about me, and I’m struggling to care about them. I really hope I’m sent to a unit where I can bond with everyone, and help them if they need it.” He kept looking down at his scarf. “Is that too much to ask?”
“I don’t think it’s too much to ask. And you mentioned one person in your squad committed suicide, but you didn’t say anything about a second.”
Hicks nodded. “Drowned himself in the pool. Now, no one’s allowed in there without a partner, and it’s locked at night. I never know what’s going on. They don’t tell me.”
“I’m guessing it makes you feel a little insignificant.”
You can open up, just a tad. It’s not gonna hurt. Someone needs to know how you feel. “It makes me wonder if there’s something wrong with me, if I’m bad at my job, or if I seem unapproachable. I know what they need is someone to listen to their problems, and even though I’ve tried to be that, they don’t accept it. It honestly makes me feel kinda worthless.”
“But, you’re not. It’s something wrong with them, not with you. You’ve obviously tried to help, and they rejected you. It’s time to move on.”
“If I move on, they might hurt themselves.”
Carlisle sighed. “I understand that fear, but, if what I’m hearing is correct, then the damage has already been done, and they need help from a professional. That’s it, I’m sorry. You can’t let this become too much of a burden. Sometimes, you need to be a little selfish. You need to take care of yourself. It keeps you from becoming depressed and feeling like your needs don’t matter. That’s pretty much the real reason I moved down to Alabama. When you live in a place where you don’t get to meet a lot of new people, and you’re constantly around your family, things become strained. No one gets a break, people get bored, and then you start getting accused of things you didn’t do just to make things more interesting. I was tired of feeling like nothing I did mattered, so I moved.”
“Have you felt better?”
“Absolutely. Accept when everyone back home found out where I went and decided to just march on in uninvited last July.” Carlisle rubbed her face. “I mean, there’s nothing I can do because no one’s getting hurt, and I can’t say ‘Don’t show up at my house ever again,’ because then arguments are gonna start and people are going to accuse me of hating them for some reason.”
“There are programs within the USCM that might be able to help you.”
“Those are for when someone is being abused. I’m not being abused.”
“General Paulson could do something for you.”
“Then people are going to worry that I’m being hurt.”
“Tell you what; I’ll talk to him tonight about it. He won’t misinterpret anything I say and he’ll probably understand.”
“Hicks, you don’t have to do that.”
“No, but . . . I want to. It’ll give me something to do and think about when I’m waiting for a new squadron.”
“Didn’t I just tell you that you sound like you need to take care of yourself first?”
“You’re one person, and you’ve been nice to me beyond what I can really comprehend. I don’t know if I want a deeper relationship-I need to think about that first-but, if we can maintain a friendship, that’s fine. Let me do one last favor, that’s all I ask.”
Carlisle shrugged, and nodded. “Fine. If that’s what you really want to do, I won’t stop you. Just, promise me one thing: I really don’t hate my family. I just want to learn ways I can communicate with them better.”
“Okay. I’ll remember that.” While I’m at it, I might as well tell Paulson about how waiting is just dwindling my hope. I can do it without getting mad. He couldn’t explain the sudden, tiny feeling of courage developing in the center of his core, but it was there, and that was all that mattered. Being out in public with a lot of people around didn’t feel quite as uncomfortable (though he’d still prefer to be in a quieter place). When they left the restaurant, Hicks initiated the hand-holding. It didn’t require saying anything. It didn’t mean much of anything to any onlookers. They were both out of uniform, so it wasn’t against the rules. This is my boundary for now. I’m okay with this. Take it slow.
For a brief moment, he thought everything was going to be okay.
It was a little after three in the afternoon when they returned to the hotel. They were both soaking wet and cold as the snow melted into their clothes.
“You’re right; I probably should’ve got another outfit,” Hicks said while wringing out his scarf.
“It’s water. It’ll dry,” Carlisle replied, sitting on the chaise and shaking the half-melted snow out of her hat. “Now what should we do?”
“Well, I’m still gonna talk to Paulson for you. Afterwards, maybe we can go see the Eiffel Tower, like you wanted. It’s gonna be dark in an hour anyways.”
“There’s nothing you want to do?”
“Nothing I can think of. Maybe tomorrow. I’m gonna get changed, and head downstairs, if you don’t mind. I shouldn’t be too long.”
“Okay. Wait, one more thing-” Carlisle stood up to give Hicks a kiss on the cheek. “Thank you.”
Hicks bit his lip, blushing. He didn’t smile at all. “You’re welcome. I’ll be back.” Even when he walked out into the hallway, he couldn’t bring himself to smile, just a little. I’m not a lovey-dovey person. Maybe I’ll get more affectionate the more comfortable I get. I’d rather not think about how long that’ll take. He stepped in the elevator, only to be joined by three other people. Instantly, he retreated into his head, putting up all the defenses as he backed into a corner. He shoved his hands in his pocket, looking at the floor, then forced himself to look up. Don’t do that. They’ll think something’s wrong with you. He let out a quiet breath. Finally, the doors opened to the ground floor. The three strangers left, not saying a word to Hicks. He stepped out, walking briskly toward the main entrance. The snow had let up a little, which was fortunate as it took some time before he could find a taxi to get him close to the base.
Once inside, he made his way to Paulson’s office and knocked on the door. There was no answer, and after waiting several minutes, knocking again, and receiving no answer, he was about to turn and leave, when he saw the man in khaki from earlier, Serrano, coming down the hallway with a folder in his hand.
“You again, Corporal,” Serrano sighed. “You want to see the general?”
“It’s kind of important,” Hicks replied.
“Alright.” Serrano opened the door and went behind his desk to set the folder down while Hicks opened the door to the inner office and stepped in. To his surprise, the room was almost completely dark. “General?” Hicks looked around the room, and heard a soft creak. The room was cold, so he first assumed there was a bad draft blowing something around. He spotted the light switch next to the door, and flipped it on.
The sight that greeted him sent something crashing down within him. Not just in his heart, but in the center of his soul. He stared in sheer horror at General Paulson’s hanging body. His belt, wrapped tightly around his neck and tied to the light fixture in the ceiling, was cutting into his throat and blood was dripping down and landing on the carpet. There were a hundred things Hicks had to do, but he was frozen in place, choking on every emotion that had been bottled up for the last two years. He couldn’t stand, and collapsed to the floor as he let out an inhuman scream.