The days leading up to New Year’s were slow and fittingly gray. Hicks frequently checked his mail, and messages, hoping someone had something on Paulson’s wake and funeral. On New Year’s Eve, he didn’t bother, knowing that everyone was probably relaxing for the holiday.
“Do you do anything for New Year’s when you’re home?” Carlisle asked, after joining Hicks for breakfast.
“No. I don’t see the big deal, honestly,” Hicks replied, taking a sip of his coffee.
“Well, you’re shedding the old year off, and looking forward a new year, full of possibilities.”
Hicks smirked while shaking his head. “You’ve known me for a few days, Paige. You think I’m able to just let the past fall away?”
Carlisle sighed, looking down. “No.”
“Exactly.” Hicks’s smile became more genuine. “Tell you what; let’s do something different today. Maybe we can go to dinner tonight. Mobile’s not Paris, but I’m sure you’ll find it just as charming.”
“If you say so, then I will absolutely go to dinner with you.”
“Thanks.” Hicks looked down at his coffee, then back at Carlisle. It was painfully tempting to ask if she thought of this as an official date between them, but he felt like that question could spark another argument. They had been doing well with avoiding arguments over the last few days and Hicks wanted to keep it that way.
Before the silence could become awkward, the phone started ringing on the kitchen counter. Hicks stood up, toying with the ends of his scarf as he walked over. It had been cold enough to where he wanted to wear the scarf around the house, not to mention it fed his nervous habit of playing with the tassels. He continued to stroke the tassels with his thumb as he picked up the phone. “Corporal Hicks,” he said.
“Hey, Hicks, it’s Colonel Russell. Just checking in to see how you’re doing,” Russell replied.
Hicks started squeezing the scarf in his fist. “I’m… doing alright.”
“You still sound like this is hard to deal with, son. Well, if it makes you feel better, Paulson’s wife isn’t feeling the holidays, either. The wake is going to be on January third. She wanted it earlier, but, you know, everything’s slowed down for New Year’s.”
“You talked to her?”
“Yeah. In fact, she even asked about you, wondering how you were taking this.”
Hicks’s cheeks flushed with warmth as tears began welling up in his eyes. “I’m really not taking this well… I mean, the last few days… getting out of bed has been hard. I don’t feel motivated to do anything.” He clenched his fist harder, feeling the tension spread to his stomach, where it created an array of tight knots. “Has there been any news on a new unit?”
“I did send a memo out for you, and I haven’t heard back. Hicks, I’m sorry.”
The tears began to drip down his cheeks. Fluid ran from his nose, and he sniffed, knowing full-well that Russell would hear it. I can’t deal with this anymore.
“We’ll probably hear something after New Year’s. Try to keep your head up, alright? Don’t be afraid to talk to a counselor. You listening?”
“Yes, sir,” Hicks replied, softly.
“Paulson wouldn’t want you to give up. There’s always an end to the tunnel, and you’re gonna see that light, okay? Now, I’ll have someone on my staff get plane tickets ready for you and Corporal Carlisle. You should get them tomorrow or the day after.”
“This is in Arlington, right?”
“Nearby. The funeral will be in Arlington. Don’t forget to wear your dress uniform.”
After hanging up, Hicks took his scarf in both hands, massaging and stroking it as he sobbed. Without a word, Carlisle got up to hug him, and he switched from holding his scarf to holding her. He gently massaged her upper arm, and rubbed her back.
“News about the funeral?” Carlisle asked.
“Yeah,” Hicks sighed. “Russell’s getting us both plane tickets.” He ran his hand through Carlisle’s hair. “Still nothing on a new unit.”
“You’ll get it. Don’t worry.”
“It feels like it’s never going to happen,” he sobbed, and squeezed her tightly.
“It will happen, okay? Don’t give up.”
Hicks had a hard time believing that. He rested his forehead against Carlisle’s, giving another sigh. “I know you said that you’d leave after the funeral, but-” he choked on more tears, “I don’t want you to go.”
“Then I won’t go. Just let me call my neighbor to look after my cat, alright?”
“Okay. Now, are we still going somewhere tonight?”
“Did I promise that?”
“Then I can’t go back on it.” Hicks didn’t want to go anywhere. Maybe things would change later, but not right now. He didn’t let go of Carlisle; he didn’t want to. But, he wished this disgusting torrent of emotion would stop, or slow down. Deep down, he knew that wasn’t possible. Just how deep was this infected wound that he should’ve drained a long time ago? It seemed bottomless. It seemed like it would never fully drain. It seemed like Paulson’s death and the fact that no one seemed to want him in their unit was only making it deeper, making that infection worse.
Carlisle gently pulled away. “I’m gonna go make that phone call. You should try to eat something, and have some water.” She patted his shoulder before leaving the room.
Feeling oddly weak, Hicks sat down at the table, looking at his breakfast. It was now cold, and unappetizing. His coffee was cold as well, and he stood back up to place both in the microwave. Why is it that I don’t want to eat, yet I feel so hungry at the same time? I feel sick, almost. It’s . . . like that same feeling of dread I had before Paulson hung himself.
That’s why he couldn’t eat. He had that dread feeling, and he didn’t listen to it. That was why Paulson died. Paulson didn’t have to die, if only Hicks paid closer attention to that dread feeling.
Instead of putting the dish and cup in the microwave, Hicks tossed the food in the garbage, and dumped the coffee in the sink. I can’t eat anymore.
Carlisle came back in the kitchen, confused when she saw Hicks standing by the garbage can. “What’s the matter? Did I make a bad-“
“No. I can’t eat.”
The restaurant near the center of Mobile was crowded with people all going out to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Hicks’s mood had improved, albeit slightly, over the course of the day. Having not eaten at all, he still felt weak. The anger and sadness had caved in to his most basic needs, but that didn’t mean they were gone for good. For now, all he was feeling was weakness, a nauseous hollowness in the pit of his stomach.
Carlisle occasionally glanced at Hicks while reading the menu. She was taking her time in looking at her surroundings. However, they were technically on a date, and they weren’t going to get anywhere by not speaking to each other. Slowly setting the menu down, Carlisle adjusted her shirt. “Dwayne?”
He looked at her. “What?”
“If you don’t mind me being brutally honest here, I just want to talk to you. I know everything has kinda gone to shit for you, and I’m trying to help you.”
“Okay. Find something we can talk about,” Hicks replied. “You know what, I got something; how about we talk about the fact that we’ve been doing pretty good about not arguing, and you’re trying to find ways to stir that fucking pot.” He gave her an icy gray-green stare. “I really want to know why.”
“Why? Because I don’t know how to help you. You are sad all the time, and you don’t seem to do anything about it. You blame yourself for something you didn’t do-“
“I’m not treading that ground. Not today, not tomorrow, until I get some fucking answers on why Paulson killed himself. I don’t see why that’s so hard for you to grasp. I really don’t. I’ve said it several times that this is something I don’t want to talk about, and yet you think it’s Okay to try to talk about it. What gives? Really, w-what’s the matter with you? If you want me to be brutally honest here, you doing this doesn’t make me want to love you. It’s not . . . It’s not fostering those feelings that I have for you. If you actually care about me, you won’t prod at things that I’m not ready to talk about.”
“When will you be ready to talk about it? I’m not gonna let you crawl back into your shell just because you’re uncomfortable. You need to face these problems eventually.”
“Well, ‘eventually’ isn’t ‘now.’ Stop acting like next minute will be ‘eventually.’ You doing this just makes everything worse. Maybe you should just go home if that’s gonna be your strategy with me.”
“I’m tired of seeing you like this.”
Hicks took a breath, struggling to keep the boiling cauldron of emotions from surging outward. “Big deal. If you can’t put up with it, then leave. You doing this is not helping. You’re not giving me any room to just… feel what I feel-“
“I’m giving you lots of room! You just keep suppressing it! You need to stop doing that! You’re not gonna start healing until you tell someone how you actually feel!”
“Really? I’ve been a lot more open with you than I have been with other people my entire life! Is that not good enough for you? What do you want me to do?”
“Get angry, Dwayne! Covering it up is making it worse! Go ahead! I don’t care!”
Again, Hicks pressed down on the lid of his emotions. Not here, not in public. Not now. Even though it was getting more painful to hold down by the minute.
That night wasn’t memorable, nor could Hicks remember it starting shortly after he and Carlisle returned home. Once Carlisle was in the shower, Hicks left the house, and got back in the truck to drive down to a convenience store next to the restaurant they ate in.
The feeling of hopelessness and sheer anger was overwhelming. No news on a different unit was what really set him off. He wished he could tell Paulson how bad this was bothering him, how much he felt like staying with Travin and his incompetence was going to screw his career, how much he felt like he was the reason that two soldiers under his command had killed themselves.
But that was no longer possible. Paulson was gone, and he was never coming back.
Hicks drove all the way down to a secluded spot near Mobile Bay, a six-pack of beer in the passenger seat. I just want to forget. I don’t want to deal with this anymore. No one seems to care. Even people who claim they do really don’t. They don’t listen.
After parking, Hicks took the six-pack and walked into the patch of woods separating the lot of a small grocery store and a short, sandy hill overlooking the bay. He set the pack next to him as he sat down by the edge of the hill, and yanked a can free from its plastic binding. I’m going to forget. I really don’t care what happens at this point. It’s pretty obvious my whole career is going to be short-lived, and terrible. I’m going to be remembered for making three men commit suicide. Tears started rolling down his face, as he drank the contents of the can. It’ll all stop soon. It’s gonna go away.
Seeking such unrealistic goals never had good consequences. It didn’t take very long for Hicks to be slumped with his back again a tree, empty cans strewn around him. His face and eyes were red with drunkenness, and he was muttering something about how nice it must be to forget childhood.
The anger was still there. It refused to leave, and it took advantage of Hicks’s weakened state of mind to finally erupt from the cauldron in which it was being suppressed. It didn’t completely explode, like Hicks thought it would, but it was definitely leaking its hot, toxic contents all over his brain. He stood up, stumbling away from the tree with a half-empty can in his hand. He walked past his truck, his mind completely focused on his anger, and how it felt all over his body. It was like someone had given him a shot of adrenaline. He felt compelled to do something destructive, to really let people know exactly how he was feeling.
He continued to stagger toward home. It was a very long walk, but he was nearly unaware of that. In fact, it was pretty late at night when he returned, seeing Carlisle sitting in the living room, watching a movie on TV. She looked up when she heard him fumbling around with the doorknob, and opened it for him, letting out an exclamation of shock when she saw how drunk he was, stinking of alcohol, and carrying the damning evidence in a can.
“You wanted me to get angry,” Hicks spat. “Here it is.” He threw the can across the room. It landed in the kitchen, spilling its remaining contents on the floor. He pointed at Carlisle, breathing heavily. “I killed Paulson! I killed him, and I killed those two soldiers! Nobody can rely on me for anything! They can’t even rely on me to help them when they reach a dark point in their lives! I tried being that calm center for my unit, and in order to do that, I had to put my own feelings beneath me! I bailed my men out multiple times! I shouldn’t have to do that! We need to be a team, and we’re not! Travin is a fucking moron! He shouldn’t have even been allowed into the Marines! Somehow, they put all the mentally ill soldiers under my command when I became a fucking corporal! They need to go home! They’re ruining my career, as is Travin!” Hot tears streamed down his face. “I’m not going anywhere! I’m never going to go anywhere in life! I killed those men, because I failed to take to heart what Paulson taught me! I wasted his time, and that’s why he fucking killed himself!”
Carlisle was frozen in place, unsure of how to react. After all, Hicks had made no move to hurt her, or himself. Not to mention, she wondered if this was his actual anger being released, and not just a drunken rage. It didn’t stop her from clenching her fists, hoping she didn’t have to hit him.
Luckily, she didn’t. Hicks’s speech ended there, and he turned toward the stairs. He stumbled and grabbed onto the railing, suddenly unable to lift himself up. He slumped down, still holding the railing. Carlisle helped him up, saying, “Alright, you’re going to bed.”
Hicks awoke from a fitful sleep that had been plagued with nightmares. The fact that today was the start of a new year didn’t even cross his mind. Actually, not much was crossing his mind at all, aside from wondering what exactly had happened last night. Why was his memory so fuzzy?
A sudden stabbing headache as he sat up in bed answered his question, and vague memories began flooding back into his head. I got drunk last night. He rubbed his face, alternating between feeling scared, and wincing from pain. Paige… No, I didn’t hurt her, did I? Did I drive? Hicks slowly got out of bed, taking a bathrobe from the foot of the bed. He struggled to push past the headache as he left the room, going downstairs in search of Carlisle. “Paige?” he called. “Are you okay?”
He got no answer as he got closer to the guest room, and he feared the worst. I hurt her. I got drunk, and I hurt her. Tears stung his eyes, and he felt another surge of pain enveloping his head. Opening the guest room door, he called Carlisle’s name again, and breathed a sigh of relief when he heard, “I’m in the shower!”
Speechless, Hicks nodded. He sat on the bed, and realized the whole room smelled like Carlisle’s lotion. It didn’t take away the pain and the frustration, but it reminded him of when they held hands in Paris, when they snuggled together on the couch.
Carlisle came out of the bathroom, smiling when she saw Hicks. “Good morning. You-” She was stopped when he grabbed her in a tight hug.
“I’m sorry I got drunk last night,” he whispered. “I’m sorry. I… I thought I might’ve hurt you.”
“No, you didn’t hurt me. You didn’t hurt anyone, actually,” Carlisle replied. “I think we both did a lot of things wrong last night, Dwayne.”
For a moment, they paused, trying to collect their thoughts in order to word them properly to each other. They ended up sitting on Carlisle’s bed, talking about what had happened. As Hicks pieced together the events of the previous night, he found he had done exactly what Carlisle said: he got angry. He unleashed an emotion that he had suppressed for years. He told her exactly how he felt.
And yet, things felt like they hadn’t changed. Of course, Paulson was still dead, and Hicks was still attached to the same damn unit. After Carlisle gave a brief summary of the alcohol-infused speech of rage he had given the night before, Hicks lowered his head, feeling like it was better to cry rather than speak.