Washington, DC was much colder than home. Much, much colder. Hicks wasn’t at all surprised to see so many people bundled in coats and hats and scarves of all kinds as he and Carlisle left the airport down to the Metro station underneath. “I’ll buy your card,” he said, opening his wallet as he stood in front of a machine and map showing every line and stop in the DC area. “Have you been here before?”
“No. Actually, I’m very excited to see what’s here,” Carlisle replied.
“Quite a bit. Paulson’s invited me to visit a few times. I know it like the back of my hand.” Hicks revealed he already had a Metro card, one that was a few years old, and slid it across a sensor to see how much money was on it. “Okay. I got enough for our ride to Crystal City, so let me just put a few bucks in and…” A fresh card was spat out of the machine and he continued, “…there’s one for you. Make sure you hang onto that. “
“Thank you.” Carlisle held her card tightly, and followed Hicks down to the train platform. “Are you okay?”
“For now, yeah. Why do you ask?”
“Because I know we’re not here on vacation, and I want to make sure you’re doing alright. The last few days have been rough on you, and I hope that saying goodbye will help you start healing.”
Hicks nodded. He was fully aware of how every day since Christmas Eve had been horrible. Only yesterday did he start trying to better manage his anger and sadness. His heart was still aching badly, but it seemed like his worst emotions were dormant today.
Dormant, or he just subconsciously suppressed them again.
“You know… I wasn’t pleasant when I took you out to dinner on New Year’s Eve,” Hicks said. “I know there’re some good restaurants in the mall. How about I treat you to that and dessert?”
“Okay.” As the train screeched to a halt alongside the platform, Carlisle stood on her toes to give Hicks a kiss on the cheek. She smiled when he smiled, and squeezed his hand as they boarded the train.
Hicks knew it wasn’t proper to passionately kiss someone in public. He moved closer to Carlisle, putting his arm around her and using the hoods of their coats to cover themselves, before kissing her. It was a strange thing for him to do. He had never been a romantic person in all his life. While most of the other guys in his class hooked up and kissed in the hallways, Hicks was usually doing something else, not interested. Then again, he figured things would change if the right person came along, and it seemed like Carlisle was the right person.
He wondered, though, if things would be different if Paulson hadn’t killed himself. Part of him wondered if these feelings were some sort of emotional defense mechanism, trying to keep away a more serious form of depression. None of it was because he felt like he had a connection with her or that he could see himself spending the future with her; it was an involuntary reaction to a severe emotional crisis, a means of protecting himself from a horrible mental illness. However, it could also be a coincidence. He could really love her. He hoped that was the case.
They checked into the hotel room shortly before heading back down to the mall. Cold air circulated around the underground space, fueled by the constant opening of doors to the aboveground. It gave Hicks a good excuse to keep his scarf on, even when they sat down in a reasonably warm restaurant.
“So, if you don’t mind me asking, have you been on many dates?” Carlisle asked.
“No. This would be my second, if you count the nightmare that was New Year’s Eve.” Hicks paused. “Well, maybe we can count the time we went to lunch in Paris. I don’t know. Anyway, no, I really haven’t been on many dates.”
“I guess that would explain why you’re a little bit awkward with this. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. It’s just something I noticed.”
“Yeah, I really didn’t date in high school. None of the girls approached me, and I didn’t approach any of them.” Hicks snorted. “Who would have wanted to approach me anyway back then? I was bone-thin, I worked on my uncle’s farm, so I smelled like cow shit a few days a week. I wasn’t a nerd, but I also wasn’t like a jock or anything. I was just me. I kept to myself, I didn’t bother anyone, didn’t get involved with any drama, did my work, and that was it. I stayed in the background.” Hicks shrugged. “Is that a bad thing?”
“No, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Did you have any hobbies, or did you do sports?”
“I played football my sophomore and junior year. I struggled with putting the necessary weight on, and stopped when I enlisted in the Marines. I put myself on a different exercise and diet routine, and didn’t have time for it anymore. Over the summer in between my junior and senior year, before I enlisted, all the weight I put on for football kinda fell away and I was back to being really skinny.”
“I’m guessing your recruiter told you to put it back on,” Carlisle said. “A lot of the people in my program had to lose weight.”
“I tried. I really did try. Eventually, I got to borderline-this was right before my ship date-and my recruiter said, ‘You know what? You don’t have anything to worry about. Hopefully, they’ll put some muscle mass on you in boot camp.’ That wasn’t the case. No, my nickname all throughout boot camp was ‘skinnybones.’ Drill instructors never know your name until you get your uniform with your name on it, and even then, they just don’t care. I was called ‘skinnybones’ on graduation day, too. What were you called in boot camp?”
“Oh, I was called ‘punk.’ Apparently, my hairstyle is similar to what punk rocker girls have, without the absurd colors. I dunno. I just knew my hair was in regulation, so I really didn’t give a rat’s ass what they thought.”
“I don’t listen to punk rock, so I wouldn’t know. I think your hair’s nice, by the way.”
“Well, thank you.”
The conversation died down, and they tried to find another topic. Carlisle was looking up at one of the TVs, reading the nightly lottery numbers. Hicks was sipping his drink, opting for hot tea instead of alcohol. After all, the drunken rage he had a few nights ago was still prominent in his mind.
“Ever buy a scratch-off ticket?” Carlisle asked.
“Once,” Hicks replied. “I got nothing. But, I’ll tell you what I’d do with that kinda money. I’d get myself a small boat, and take it out to the bay every summer weekend, sail out into the Gulf of Mexico and watch the sunset. I’d pay off my mortgage, and then put some away for that continental road trip I was telling you about.”
“You’re the first person I’ve met who hasn’t said, ‘I’d give it all away.'”
Hicks shook his head. “I want to achieve my goals. More than ever now that… Paulson’s gone.” He sighed, the image of the hanging corpse starting to emerge at the center of his mind. “Anyway, it’s not like I’d ever hit the jackpot. Not with my luck. For now, I’m happy with what I have.”
“Yeah, I’m happy with what I have as well. I mean, it’s not wrong to want just a little bit more out of life. A boyfriend, for example, someone I can laugh with and spend time with.”
“Do you see that as me?” Hicks asked, smiling weakly.
“Maybe. I guess… you know, the last few days haven’t been the greatest, and I guess I need to see you when you’re happy, and when you’re functioning normally. Right now, all I know is ‘depressed Dwayne Hicks.'”
“Well, you’re not wrong. What you got from the airport probably wasn’t a spectacular image, either. After all, you’re right; I do suppress my emotions, and the consequences haven’t been pretty. Hell, it took getting fucking drunk to finally tell you just how upset this whole situation has made me. That shouldn’t have happened.”
“No, but, it did, and there’s nothing you can do about it. We learn from our mistakes, so, maybe it was something you needed to do in order to learn and realize that your current coping strategy isn’t working.”
Hicks nodded, looking down at the table. “I hope things start to change once I say goodbye to Paulson. Unfortunately, I have to go back to my unit after the funeral. Definitely not looking forward to that.”
“Can you take more time off?”
“I used up all my leave time. Won’t get anymore until next month. Russell can only give me so many extra days, and I can’t request anymore unless I have some kind of medical condition.” Hicks fell silent when a waiter finally returned with their food, and resumed talking as soon as the waiter was out of earshot. “I know it’s a few days down the road, but I’ll miss you. I’ll write to you, for sure. I have a feeling it’s gonna be a long time before we physically see each other again.”
Carlisle nodded. “I’ll miss you, too. I like our little conversations together. Also hoping you get something on a new unit soon. After all, we’re past New Year’s. Someone’s got to have seen your papers.”
“I hope so, too, but I’m not betting on that. I might hear something tomorrow, I might hear something next week. Like I said, though, my hopes on it aren’t very high.”
“It’ll come when you least expect it.”
Hicks didn’t respond, still feeling like there wasn’t much left he could hope for. Well, I can hope that Paige stays in my life. It’s something. Anything is better than nothing.
They managed to return to their hotel room before seven that night, both in a good mood, though Hicks was regretting ice cream as his dessert choice in winter. “I’ll take the first shower, if you don’t mind,” he said, shivering a little as he took his coat off.
“Okay.” Carlisle gave him another kiss on the cheek. “I had fun tonight. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Just . . . trying not to think about tomorrow, that’s all.”
“Thanks.” Hicks pulled his nightclothes out of his duffel bag before heading into the bathroom. He took that time alone to cry as softly as he could. I’m not at all ready for tomorrow. I’m going to embarrass myself in front of everyone at the wake.
He again cried when Carlisle went in the shower after him. Again, the hopelessness was horribly overwhelming. He knew his reaction tomorrow was going to be emotional. Everyone there is just going to have to deal with it. I can’t hold this back anymore.
In the morning, Hicks wasn’t at all interested in getting breakfast, despite Carlisle pleading with him and telling him that his mood was going to be worse with nothing in his stomach. Again, he refused. “I’ll have a glass of water,” he said. “That’s it.”
Instead of arguing, Carlisle got him the water before ordering a small breakfast for herself through room service. They didn’t leave the hotel until 0900, walking down to the Metro station, hand-in-hand.
Hicks did a piss-poor job of concealing how he felt, and he knew it. The redness in his cheeks, the bloodshot and dark circles under his eyes, and the wet streaks on his face made it undeniable that he had been crying, that he was upset about something. At times, he wondered if everyone around him could tell he was starving without the input from his gut, if everyone could tell that he had been neglecting himself for the last few days.
He wished he could smoke on the train. With that off the table, he turned to his scarf, slowly toying with it as he stared ahead at the old safety sign near the door to the car in front of them. He then looked down at his lap, still holding Carlisle’s hand as he continued playing with the scarf.
Carlisle rubbed Hicks’s arm, and squeezed his hand tightly when the computerized voice announced their destination was next. “Everything’s gonna be okay,” she whispered.
Hicks took a deep breath. If I cry, I cry.
When they stepped onto the platform, the ambience of the city was drowned out by Hicks’s own heartbeat. He focused on it, listened to its steady thumping, feeling the fist-sized organ throb within in his chest. By God, was he scared. All the important people in the USCM were going to be there. He was going to be the only man there with a rank lower than sergeant. He was going to be expected to handle this with great self-discipline.
There was a crowd of civilians and soldiers alike gathered outside a large funeral home. All were bundled in heavy, black coats. There was not a single bright color to be seen. Most of the military men were in dress uniforms, as was Hicks, who approached Colonel Russell and Sergeant Serrano near the main entrance.
“How’re you doing, Hicks?” Russell asked.
“I’ve had better days, I guess,” Hicks replied, silently hoping and praying neither man saw just how mentally and physically strained he really was. “Lotta people inside?”
“Quite a bit, yeah. Paulson’s wife is in there, too. Make sure you talk to her. She looks as bad as you do right now.”
Hicks shyly nodded, and looked at Carlisle. “I’m going in. I think I need to do it alone.” He let go of her hand, and began maneuvering his way through the crowd. It thinned out once he got through the door, where the funeral home director gestured for Hicks to sign in a large book. As he signed, he glanced up to see large poster boards plastered with photographs from nearly every part of Paulson’s life. His official military honors were laid out on a decorative table, all surrounding an open casket.
He glanced at the poster boards when he walked by, and paused when he noticed that someone had added a photograph with him in it. The picture was from two years ago, and it showed a smiling Paulson grasping the hand of a smiling Hicks, both standing in front of a USCM flag at a party. It didn’t take long for Hicks to see that several of the photos had him in them. In every one, it seemed clear that Paulson was proud of him, that he meant something to the older man.
I just had to go and let him down. Hicks swallowed past a growing lump in his throat, as he slowly turned toward the casket.
Paulson had been dressed in his best uniform. It was strange to see him without his medals and ribbons on. He looked asleep, but the lack of his chest rising and falling let everyone know he was truly dead. Hicks knelt in front of the casket, a thousand thoughts and emotions roiling beneath his surface. He noticed the morticians had all but erased the cuts in Paulson’s neck, made by the chandelier chains he hung himself with.
Hicks stared at the face of his dead friend, his mentor. Tears flowed freely, and he took a breath, his composure gradually falling away. “Sir, I’m sorry. I don’t know what it is you were battling. I don’t know what made you snap and decide ending your own life was the best course of action. You did a lot for me, more than I’ll ever deserve. You had a wealth of knowledge I’ll probably never find again in a man.” He sobbed. “Whatever it was I did, I’m sorry. I’ll try to be a better man. No one under my watch will ever commit suicide again. That’s a promise.”
A promise is a big deal. Hicks knew he could not break it, under any circumstances. He knew this was going to require so much mental energy. He knew this was going to require him putting the needs of others before his own, potentially sacrificing his own goals in the process.
What did that matter? He made a promise. He felt obliged to keep it. I can do it. I can prove I’m trustworthy. I don’t want to experience this again.
Hicks was unaware of the other mourners behind him. A young staff sergeant glanced in his direction, a look of sympathy on his face when he noticed Hicks’s expression. No one said anything, but they also wanted to kneel and say their final words to the deceased. Eventually, someone came over to tap Hicks on the shoulder. He turned to see Paulson’s widow, Julia, standing by him, her thin hand on his shoulder.
“Do you mind if I speak to you in private, Dwayne?” she asked.
Hicks took a breath, unsure if he wanted to leave. “Not at all, ma’am.” He stood up, following the short woman into a hallway, out of range of the other mourners.
Julia appeared to be restraining herself from crying, though she had been doing so all day. Gray streaks were beginning to show in her dark hair, and her features had become sharper in the last few days. She looked Hicks in the eye, saying, “I want to know what you know. Did he say anything to you?”
“No. I was going to ask you the same thing,” Hicks replied.
Julia took a wadded tissue from her purse. “I can’t even imagine how bad he must have been feeling to not tell you. He didn’t say a word? No hints at all?”
“If he gave any hints, I didn’t pick up on them.” Hicks felt the knots start constricting tightly around his stomach again. “I… completely understand if you blame me for this, ma’am.”
“No, Dwayne, I don’t blame you at all. It’s… This is something I’ve never had to deal with before. I wouldn’t know many of the signs that someone wants to end their life, and it’s even harder when that someone is away for long periods of time. The last time I saw him in person was July.” Julia’s composure faded swiftly, and Hicks hugged her, letting her sob in his chest.
“Unfortunately, I have dealt with this before,” Hicks said, quietly. “I’ve seen two people die this way. Then again, they didn’t let me try to help them. Ma’am, I promise, I’m not gonna let this happen to anyone, ever again.”
“That’s noble of you, for sure, but don’t get carried away by it, or else you could wind up being the person who needs the help most of all. I don’t think Adrian would want to see you in that position.”