Almost as soon as he realized he was alone, Hicks regretted his outburst towards Carlisle. Peering out the window, he saw she wasn’t touching his truck, and was walking down the dead-end street, turning at the corner to enter the busier parts of the neighborhood.
A small part of Hicks was glad he was finally alone, in his own house. He threw out the brown bags and Styrofoam coffee cups, and glanced at the sink, sighing when he saw he didn’t have to clean any dishes. Dishes were never an issue; cooking for one person made things much easier.
If it wasn’t so cold, he’d sit outside. He decided to busy himself by going out to the shed and grabbing some firewood. Today was the perfect day to make a fire, have a cup of hot chocolate, and do nothing. That was all he wanted to do.
As he headed outside, he looked over his fence to see his neighbor, an older gentleman called Frederick, taking his chainsaw out of his shed in the backyard. At this point, Hicks wasn’t interested in talking to anyone. I’m getting angry too easily.
“Hey, Dwayne!” Frederick called. “Didn’t expect to see you back so soon.”
Hicks froze. Every emotion started coiling tightly around his stomach. Jesus Christ, how do I explain why I’m home without exploding? “Yeah, I didn’t expect it either.”
“They said on the news this morning that a Marine general died in France. Isn’t that where you said you were going?”
The coils continued to tighten. Sooner or later, they’d contract. Sooner or later, he would no longer be able to hold them back. A lump was forming in his throat. “Yeah. General Paulson… committed suicide.” Hicks avoided eye contact with his neighbor, swallowing hard. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Shit, Dwayne, I’m sorry. I knew you were close with him. If you need anything, don’t hesitate to call.”
“Thanks. I don’t need any help right now.” Hicks opened the shed, and grabbed a few pieces of firewood. He shut the door behind him, and quickly disappeared into the house, not hesitating to close the window blinds. After tossing the wood into the fireplace, he knelt in front of it, allowing the coiled emotions to spring outward as forcefully as they wanted to. It was also the moment he realized that he didn’t have the mix to make hot chocolate. I’m such an idiot. I’m an idiot, and that’s why Paulson’s gone.
He sat on his knees, staring into the dark fireplace while sobbing. His fists were clenched, and the hole in his heart started aching. I’ll never be able to talk to people in public about this, not without blowing up into tears.
Instead of lighting the fire, Hicks covered himself with a blanket, on the couch, and began flipping through TV channels absentmindedly. There wasn’t anything on aside from football games. Hicks was usually more enthusiastic about that, but today, he wasn’t.
He started to doze off when he heard the front door open, and turned his head to see Carlisle walking in with bags of groceries. “Hey,” she said, “you okay?”
He nodded, not saying a word.
Carlisle smiled at him before heading into the kitchen. She was in there for twenty minutes, putting everything she bought into either the fridge or a cupboard. After throwing out the bags, she came back into the living room. “I got tea, if you’d like some.”
“No, thanks. I was gonna make hot chocolate an hour ago, but then I remembered I don’t have any,” Hicks replied. “Made me feel stupid.”
“You’re not stupid,” Carlisle said, gently squeezing his shoulder.
Hicks glanced up at her when he caught the scent of her lotion. It was a very light and sweet scent, like spring flowers. It brought on a memory from just a few days ago, when he was walking in a Parisian mall with Carlisle. She held his hand, and he chose not to let go, because of how warm and soft it was. It was a simple, yet comforting thought.
“Happiness is a very basic goal. It is something every human being strives for, no matter who they are. Sometimes, it may come as an involuntary reaction, other times, you choose it. Whichever way it comes, I hope you find a way to make happiness a dominant emotion in your life.” Paulson had said that on Hicks’s third Sunday in boot camp, after Hicks almost broke down from stress.
Happiness seemed impossible right now, but that didn’t mean there weren’t little things that could bring him some form of pleasure.
He didn’t want to say anything for fear of completely screwing up again. With that in mind, Hicks put his hand on top of Carlisle’s. It was just as warm and as soft as it was in the mall. He then looked up at her, and said, quietly, “Can you sit with me?” Can you, please? I’m honestly lonely. I hurt really bad. I recently lost a friend, and I just want someone close by. I’m not going to say that out loud because it makes me sound desperate and sadder than I already am.
“Sure.” Carlisle sat next to Hicks, and found herself being wrapped in the blanket with him. She smiled, resting her head on his shoulder.
Hicks pressed the mute button on the remote, and put his left arm around Carlisle, holding her close to him, protectively. “Do you trust me?” he whispered.
“Yeah. Why do you ask?”
“If you wanted to end your life, would you tell me so I could help you?”
“Do you believe I could help you?”
“I think you’d point me in the right direction,” Carlisle replied. “I don’t think something like that is going to happen, but if it did, I wouldn’t push you away.”
“Why did everyone else push me away?”
“I don’t think that was the case, Dwayne. I think they reached a point where they were wholly convinced no one could help them. Even Paulson.”
Absentmindedly, Hicks stroked Carlisle’s hand with his thumb, remaining silent until a thought finally surfaced. “Maybe I’m terrible at reading people. I thought I knew how, but… I guess I don’t.”
“I wouldn’t say you’re bad at reading people. You knew when I wasn’t happy about how you kinda pushed me away our first morning in Paris, and you felt bad and tried to make up for it. Heck, we never got to see the Eiffel Tower at night, but that’s okay. There’ll be other times.”
“Paige, I’m sorry.”
“No, don’t be sorry. It wasn’t your fault we didn’t go.” Carlisle pulled a tissue from her sweater pocket, and gave it to Hicks. “Look, let’s just not talk about it for a little while. I don’t know if that’ll help, but I think you need to focus on something else for now.”
“Yeah. Maybe that’s a good idea.” Hicks wiped the tears from his eyes before looking at Carlisle again. Their noses were almost touching, and the scent of Carlisle’s lotion was a tad stronger. She hugged him tightly, and nuzzled his cheek with hers.
“Ow, you gotta shave,” Carlisle said, smirking.
“I know. I didn’t do it this morning. I’m sorry.”
“You should also stop apologizing so much, especially since you’ve done nothing wrong.”
“It’s a habit. I’m s-” Hicks was stopped by Carlisle kissing him on the lips. It seemed inevitable given how they were pressed against each other. It seemed perfect as a blissful moment. Whatever needed to be done could wait. Whatever problems he had could wait. Experiencing this moment felt more important. He had never felt this before. He wasn’t expecting it to feel so good, yet he wondered why it felt so good.
They kept each other warm, since the fireplace still wasn’t lit, and fell asleep in each other’s arms. It must have been three in the afternoon when Hicks awoke, and saw the TV was still on, the fireplace was dark, and Carlisle was snuggled against him. As his memories fired back into place, he realized what kind of position he had just put himself in. We kissed, he thought. Was that a good idea? In the midst of his grieving, Hicks didn’t think dating someone was a good idea. His emotions were too volatile. One wrong move could break someone’s heart-and if it was his, that was a horrid combination with his grief.
After turning the television off, Hicks was tempted to get up and finally get the fire started, but he also didn’t want to wake Carlisle if she was still sleeping. His movement stirred her, and she stretched while smiling up at him. “Hi,” she said.
“Hey,” Hicks replied. He bit his lip, unsure of what to say next.
“Have a nice nap?”
“I guess. Wasn’t planning on it, that’s for sure, but it was nice.”
“It was. I mean, does that mean… we’re gonna attempt to go out?”
“I don’t know yet. I don’t think I’m capable of dating right now. I don’t know. I guess… I have feelings for you, but I don’t know where they’re gonna go.”
Carlisle nodded. “I understand. I won’t push you into something you don’t feel ready for.”
“Well, that’s the problem. One moment, I might feel ready. The next, I won’t. I don’t want you to be uncomfortable, or feel bad about yourself. You’re a very sweet person and if things were different, maybe.”
“Is there something you’re afraid of?”
“I just think this is a shitty way to deal with Paulson’s death. Whatever piece of my heart died with him is not being replaced by someone else. It can’t be. It’s not possible. I-I can’t… love right now. It’s too soon.”
Carlisle fell silent, trying to word her response without pissing Hicks off. “I think you can, but I know you’re having a tough time right now, so I’m just going let this go.” She stood up, placing the blanket back on the couch. “I’m going to make dinner for us.”
“Did I say something wrong?”
“No. I have to keep telling myself that you’re not emotionally ready for certain things right now. I’m the one who needs to learn how to better read people, especially since you’re the most introverted person I’ve ever met. You conceal every little thing you’re feeling, as if you’re afraid someone is going to be upset with you for expressing your own emotions.”
She doesn’t understand, and that’s fine. I hope she never has to experience what I’m going through. Hicks nodded, and then walked over to a closet to grab his coat. “I’m gonna go for a walk.”
Although the rules of nature stated that more and more daylight was around after the winter solstice, it was still getting dark pretty early in the day. The western sky was starting to turn a pinkish-orange, while a couple stars were twinkling overhead. Hicks walked down the street, cupping a cigarette in his hand as he put a lighter to it. The day could only get worse from here, right? Maybe I should ask her to leave. We can’t stay together if we’re going to argue about petty stuff like that. She knows I’m not ready. Why won’t she let it go?
He paused at the street corner, glancing at the wraparound porch of the small diner next to him. The street running perpendicular to his was lined with cars, all of their owners crowded into the diner. He could hear music and laughter and conversations, and he found himself becoming envious of others’ happiness.
As he walked by the front of the diner, the scent of warm food seemed to float in his direction. He hadn’t eaten since morning, and he was starving. Going in the diner was bad idea. One, Carlisle was already making something, and two, he didn’t feel like sitting among a lot of people.
There was a big difference between the quaint, Southern diner, and the fancy restaurant Hicks once went to with Paulson in Greece. Yet, he was thinking about that as he looked through the window at the happy people inside. He could vividly remember that hot August day when he joined Paulson for a late lunch in a beautiful restaurant overlooking the cliffs outside Athens. It was a moment to get away from his unit; in fact, that was Paulson’s plan for that afternoon, as well as a way to celebrate that the USCM accepted Hicks’s transfer notice and was sending it out to other units around the globe.
That was only four months ago, and yet it felt like it was four years ago. He was alive, then. It just feels so strange. The pain of hunger was suddenly replaced by the pain of a hundred knots tightening hard in his empty stomach. Another lump rose in his throat, and tears rolled down his face as he pulled the cigarette out of his mouth. Why were these emotions still so raw, so painful, and so uncontrollable? Because my heart is empty as well. I just lost someone I cared about, who cared about me, wanted me to succeed. I failed him, and now he’s gone. Shit, even if I became successful, he’s never going to see it. Hicks gave a quiet sigh, watching the cold breeze carry away the smoke he exhaled. I wish I could’ve helped him.
His frustration with Carlisle morphed into the all-too-familiar sadness of losing Paulson. Not wanting to be alone anymore, he walked back home, breathing on his hands to keep them warm. As he approached his driveway, he saw his neighbor, Frederick, sitting on his porch with a Cuban cigar in his mouth.
“Everything alright, Dwayne?” Frederick asked.
Hicks paused in front of his neighbor’s yard, then nodded.
“Why don’t you come up here and sit for a couple minutes? You look like you need to talk to somebody.”
Not wanting to be rude, Hicks walked up the steps to Frederick’s porch, sitting in a rocking chair next to him. “Look, I’m sorry about just ditching your conversation earlier.”
“Having a hard time because of Paulson?”
“Yeah, pretty much. I mean, I’ve known him for over three years. He never showed any signs of being suicidal, or depressed, or… anything like that. I know the signs can be hard to spot sometimes, but I don’t know why he didn’t tell me if he said he trusted me.”
“Well, it’s like you said; the signs are hard to spot. He probably had his own reasons for why he didn’t want to tell you.”
“I just wish I knew what those reasons were. It’s gonna haunt me for the rest of my life, and I’ve been feeling depressed and angry and very… frustrated for the last three days.”
“That’s grief, son. It’s not a fucking peach. Not by a longshot.”
“When will it end?”
Frederick sighed. “That’s not something easily answered. It ends when you fully accept what happened and that your life can go on without this other person.”
“I can’t accept what happened when I don’t know why it happened. He’s gone, so I’m never going to know why it happened.” Hicks rubbed his face. “I guess that means I’ll be like this forever.”
“I don’t think so. It’ll stop on its own time. You may not think so, but, it will. Dark days never last forever.”
Some people don’t think so. That’s why they commit suicide. Hicks stood up. “I’m sorry. I should be getting home. It was nice talking to you.”
He didn’t say anything to Carlisle when they were sitting at the kitchen table, eating chicken soup that she had made. Eventually, though, neither of them could take the silence, and Carlisle was the one to break it.
“Dwayne, I’m sorry,” she said. “I really shouldn’t be getting upset with you over anything right now.”
“And I accept your apology,” Hicks replied. “I’m not being very helpful, either.”
“Honestly, no, but it’s not your fault.”
“Look, I don’t want to have anymore of these back-and-forth battles with you. If we keep arguing, there’s no way we’d ever be able to have a successful relationship. I haven’t heard anything about Paulson’s wake or funeral. I don’t know what to do with myself. I just need someone, in my life, more than ever. I need someone to keep me distracted, keep me from being sad all the time. I don’t want this to be like my unit, where everyone is fighting, there’s no leadership structure, and there’s no hope of things turning around. Does that make any sense to you?”
“Okay, so… can we agree to keep arguments to a minimum?”
“I don’t think that’s something we can make a promise on, but we can try.”
“Thank you.” Hicks sighed. “I need a friend right now, that’s all. I don’t know why that’s so hard to say. It’s something I’ve probably been needing to say for years, but I haven’t because I’ve never found anyone whom I felt I could trust with what I’m feeling. I thought Paulson was it, and now that he’s gone, I need someone.”
“You need someone you can be vulnerable around.”
“Okay.” Carlisle smiled weakly. “Whatever makes you feel better.”