They were going to have to get up early to head to the airport on Christmas morning. For Hicks, that wasn’t an issue. It was past eleven-thirty that night, and he was sitting up in bed, his thoughts running wild.
There should’ve been a brunch that morning. He should have attended and talked to Paulson that morning.
That wasn’t possible when Paulson is dead.
The image of the hanging body appeared in his mind again, and he put his head on his knees to cry. He could still feel the wetness of the droplet of blood that fell on his forehead when he looked up at Paulson’s corpse. That feeling replayed, over and over, until his body couldn’t produce anymore tears.
He looked out the window. Snow was falling gently against the Parisian lights. A full moon was beaming down on them. The whimsical feeling everyone had this time of year was nonexistent for him, and the lack of it had created a small void in his heart. A small, and very painful void. This was the time of year where you forgot your problems and focused on being happy. Paulson’s death was extremely fresh; it was too soon. To be happy would be disrespectful to Paulson’s memory, almost like he hardly mattered.
It wasn’t like Hicks wanted to be happy now, anyway.
The minutes ticked by. Hicks watched the clock with a bored gaze. The shock had been slowly subsiding all day, leaving behind a sticky residue of depression. He cared a little bit more about his basic actions, what he needed to do just to keep functioning, and he knew he skimped on that throughout the day. He didn’t eat very much, didn’t drink very much water, and wasn’t sleeping. Being sad and stressed all day wasn’t good either. In fact, it made him tired, and yet he couldn’t sleep.
He tried to override that horrid pain of accepting the man he had put so much faith in was gone, and lay down to try and sleep. Somehow, his body made more tears in that short amount of time, and he found himself sobbing once more.
Hicks managed to get a few hours’ worth sleep. He awoke to feel Carlisle gently shaking him, and saying, “Time to get up. We gotta be at the airport in an hour.”
Without arguing, Hicks got out of bed, taking a change of clothes with him into the bathroom. As he dressed, he started thinking about Carlisle, and how she was sacrificing her vacation to help someone she had just met three days ago. Something about that didn’t feel right.
He was still tucking his shirt in as he left the bathroom, not saying a word. Carlisle was checking her bag, making sure she had everything. She glanced at him, and took a breath before speaking. “I heard you crying last night.”
“I dunno. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“You really don’t have to come with me.”
“Well, think of it this way. You’re blaming yourself for Paulson’s death. I don’t want that to lead you in a direction where you believe the world is better off without you. If you’re left alone, that could happen. And I don’t think the world is better off without you. You have so many years ahead of you to make something of yourself. Think of the events of your past where the outcome would’ve been drastically different if you weren’t there.”
“Don’t you have your own life? Don’t you want to be with your own family for Christmas?”
“Christmas is going to be over by the time we reach Alabama. Besides, I told you that I don’t want to be around some of them right now. I’d rather be with you.”
It was pointless to argue. Hicks sighed. “Fine. I’m probably gonna want someone with me when they announce Paulson’s wake and funeral. I just don’t want to take too much out of your life, or… become a burden and whatnot.”
“I’ll stay until you get that message about the wake, alright? How does that sound?”
“That sounds good. Let’s finish packing and get going.”
It definitely seemed like everyone was already home for Christmas. The hotel lobby was quiet, and Hicks didn’t have to wait in a line to check out. Once everything was finalized, he turned with Carlisle to leave, but stopped when he heard someone call out to him.
“Hey, Hicks! Wait a minute!” Serrano was walking quickly toward them, and held out his hand. “Look, I want to apologize to you.”
“Well, for being an ass when you first came to Paulson’s office. I knew you and him were close friends, but… I certainly didn’t know that was gonna happen. He never said a word to me, not one damn word.” Serrano sighed. “Trust me, I’m about as confused as you are. Can’t imagine how hard the last few days have been for you. Paulson was a good man. Can’t imagine whatever it was that pushed him over the edge.” Serrano looked at the floor, then patted Hicks’s shoulder. “Take it easy, hope you feel better soon.”
All the well-wishers he ran into didn’t make Hicks feel any better. Nearly all of them felt obliged to say that they had no idea why Paulson did it, and it continued to make Hicks feel like he was responsible for it. Although it stopped when they reached the airport, that awful feeling lingered.
Waiting around and doing nothing didn’t help. Hicks started digging back in his memory, thinking about the day he decided to talk to a recruiter. It was late in the summer, his senior year of high school not too far off. He drove into Mobile in the used truck he just bought a few months ago, after getting his driver’s license. Sure, the thing was decades old, but it worked. It made him feel a little more independent.
He parked on the side of the street and walked into the recruiting center. He didn’t have to wait for anyone, so he knocked on the open door of a youngish guy in a sergeant’s uniform. As he entered the room, he was stunned to see a tall, sharp-looking man in an officer’s uniform sitting nearby, a colonel, to be exact. Hicks expected the colonel to be cold, even a little distant, but he was dead wrong. The man introduced himself as Colonel Adrian Paulson, and talked to Hicks along with the recruiter. Even after Hicks signed his papers and made a date for his entrance exam and medical processing, Paulson continued to chat with him, taking the time to learn about him, before ending their conversation with, “I see the potential of a great leader in you.”
Hicks didn’t believe it then, and he didn’t believe it now. As the remnants of that memory returned to the dark recesses of his brain, he sighed, wondering how much more he needed to learn from Paulson before he felt capable of being that leader figure the officer saw in him. It was a false vision, and he knew it. He may’ve seen something when we first met, but he was proved wrong when I got put in this fucked-up unit. He put so much work into me and he shared his knowledge as best he could, but nothing worked out. That’s why he’s gone. He was too selfless for his own good.
On the flight home, his thoughts wandered again. At least Russell had promised that he wouldn’t send Hicks back to his unit right after New Year’s. At least he was being given time to heal, but he had no idea where to start, how to go about it. Maybe it would spontaneously happen during the wake, or the funeral. Somehow, he knew that wasn’t the case. Grief was complicated, and unpredictable.
Much like how they arrived in France, it was pitch-black when they arrived in Alabama. Hicks definitely wasn’t expecting to see this familiar place so soon. He wasted no time in marching through the airport with Carlisle to the long-term parking lot, where his truck was waiting.
“Just put your stuff in the back seat,” Hicks said, unlocking the vehicle.
Carlisle opened the back door, moving aside a plastic bag full of boxes of shotgun shells to set her duffel bag down. She then hopped into the passenger seat, buckling herself in as Hicks pulled out of the lot. She looked around, noticing ash marks on the floor and the dashboard. “This your first car?”
“Sure is,” Hicks replied.
“Huh. I’m on my second. Upgraded to a newer model.”
“I’m keeping mine till it dies and there’re no replacement parts anywhere. I got this used, good price, and she works like a charm. Everyone knew which vehicle was mine in the parking lot during my senior year.” Hicks weakly smiled. “I’ve driven all over the state with this thing.”
“Like a road trip?”
“Sort of. One day, I’d like to do a continental tour. Just drive all over Canada, and the U.S., then down to Mexico and Central America. Maybe I’ll cross into South America and drive all over there, too.”
“Sure.” Hicks sighed. “Maybe I should do that now, just to heal. Might be good for me to go out there and be completely alone for a long period of time, see things I might never see again. Can’t be that hard. I can ask Russell for an extended leave of absence.”
“If that’s what you wanna do, I say go for it.”
“I know. I… I want to say goodbye to Paulson first. I’m gonna hang around D.C. for a few extra days to talk to his wife, see if we can put together the ‘why’ of this… this tragedy. I hope they got word out to his son.”
“You know his family well?”
“I see them a couple times every year. Just this year, Paulson invited me to Easter dinner. They’re very nice people. His wife is head of an organization for homeless veterans. His son, Vince, fixes radar systems on deep-sea fishing boats.” Hicks paused, his thoughts looping back to his guilt. “I don’t even know if they’re gonna want to talk to me. They know that Paulson’s helped me quite a bit, and what if they see me as the reason he’s gone?”
“I don’t think they will. They’re grieving as much as you are. I told you, don’t blame yourself for this.”
Hicks didn’t respond.
It was surreal waking up in his own house that morning. For a brief moment, Hicks wondered if everything had been a bad dream, and he was waking up on the day he had to leave for Paris. Then that feeling of blood dripping on his forehead returned. The image of the hanging body was fresh, the feeling of screaming his throat raw emerged, and he knew that it wasn’t a dream, no matter how much he wished it was.
It took him a minute to remember he didn’t need to wear a uniform. After dressing in civilian clothes, Hicks walked out into the hallway, and peered over the railing to see Carlisle was entering the house, holding a large brown bag containing hot food from a nearby café. She smiled up at him. “You didn’t have anything in the fridge, so I went out and got something for us.”
“Did you get coffee?”
“Well, I appreciate it, thanks.”
“Your house is very nice, Dwayne,” Carlisle said as they went into the kitchen. “I hope you don’t mind I looked around before heading out. Did you do all the renovations on your own?”
“No, not all of them. The dining room, the bathrooms, and the guest room you’re staying in were all done by someone I hired.”
“What about the yard and the pool?”
“I did that myself. I made that a spring-summer project last year. It originally wasn’t supposed to be so… elaborate, but I really didn’t want to spend every fucking morning getting snakes out. I mean, that was a pain before I got all the nets up. ‘Course, they didn’t like getting dragged out. Almost got bit one time. We’ve got some big snakes around here. They’re even bigger in Florida. No, the real pain in the ass of building the pool were the gators. There’s a river about a half-mile into the woods that surround my yard. It feeds into this big swampy area that, unfortunately, people’ve died in. The gators tend to stick in that place, but they occasionally come up around here because they know there’s food. Anyway, one morning, I got up, got ready to go back out and put up the skeleton for the nets. I just happened to look in the pool, and there’s a medium-sized gator sitting in there.”
“Dwayne, I have to ask, why didn’t you build the net before the pool?”
“Big mistake on my part. I didn’t… didn’t plan it very well. It was kinda the first real stretch of leave I had in a long time, so I guess my mind was struggling with that transition. Anyway, I was not about to let that gator stay, but I can’t just shoot them the way I can with snakes. There’s a season for them, and that was three months away, so I had to waste a good four hours talking to a game warden because the damn thing’s on my property and I want it taken care of now. He wants all the information about my yard, like where my boundary is, where my neighbors’ boundaries are, of course that meant I had to call my neighbor, who was at work and I have no idea where he works. So, I tell the marshal, and he says, ‘I want a picture of this gator.’ I send him a photo, and apparently, he needed to get the opinions of a couple other wardens, and the whole time, I’m thinking, ‘I’m gonna have to call an exterminator, and waste more time and shell out money that I need to spend on this damn yard.’ Finally, the warden gets back to me, saying, ‘Okay, Corporal, it’s on your property. Go ahead and deal with it. Make sure you bring it by our building.'”
“Do you do a lot of hunting?”
“During deer season, yeah. I got into it after getting my granddad’s shotgun, which he got from his great-granddad. Hold on, I’ll go get it and show you.”
When Hicks got up to leave the room, Carlisle allowed herself to smile. She was glad Hicks wasn’t focusing on his grief over Paulson, and hoped that conversations like this would help him heal.
A minute later, Hicks came back with a worn, leather scabbard. He set it against the wall before opening it and pulling out a shotgun. “As you’ve probably guessed, I’m a little old-fashioned in a few regards. My house is old, my truck is old, and my gun is old. Sometimes I wonder if I was born in the wrong era.” He sat back down, laying the weapon on the table. “I don’t know the full story, but I know that this has been passed down in my family because it saved my ancestor’s life back in World War Two. I really didn’t know my grandfather that well. He passed away when I was six, and my mother was gonna sell the shotgun to a museum in Mobile. My dad said, ‘It’s been in your family for generations. Why don’t you give it to Dwayne when he’s older?’ So, she held on to it, but I never got to touch it till I was sixteen.” Hicks fell silent for a few minutes. “I wish I could’ve talked to some of the older people in my family more. Many of them are gone and I don’t know where the ones still alive are.” He stared down at his coffee. “I guess that’s what drew me to Paulson. He was a lot older than me, and… I wanted to get the wisdom and hear the stories that the old folks always have. I even showed Paulson my shotgun, and he told me that I could take it with me when I got my first base assignment. He never said why. And now I’ll never know his reason.”
“I think you’ll figure it out in time.” Carlisle touched Hicks’s arm. “You’ve got interesting stories of your own, and I’m sure you’ll make more as life goes on.”
“I hope so. Right now, I’m… I’m-“
“Needing to heal. That’s understandable. Grieving and healing should be your first priority. You were given time to do that.”
“I know. I just don’t know where to start.”
Carlisle continued to hold Hicks’s arm. “I wish I knew where to start as well.” She took a moment to think. “I know you probably don’t want to hear this again, but, start with telling yourself that it’s not your fault Paulson killed himself.”
She’s going to say that to me until I announce that it’s not my fault. It’s gotta be my fault. He would’ve said something to me if I wasn’t the reason. Hicks pushed away his coffee. “I need more time to think about that.”
“Please, don’t argue with me about this!” Hot tears stung his eyes. “Everything was going fine until you fucking brought that up! Just like with how you don’t like that I bottle up my emotions! I know! Please, don’t tell me something I already know! Makes me feel like nothing’s changed at all. You know what? You can go buy groceries. I don’t want to be around anyone today. If anyone asks about me, just don’t say anything. That’s all I want.”