I unsteadily creep over to my giant slab of a door and stick an eye up to the peep hole to find the stony features of Gabe Parr staring back at me.
Right. Drinks at nine. Completely forgot. Can’t imagine how. Ha. Ow my head.
With a little effort, I manage to work the deadbolts and heave the door open enough to admit the school guard.
“Evenin’, Mike, you bout ready ta…” he stops short on the threshold as he catches sight of my trashed features. “The hell happened ta you, boy? You look like ya either decided ta challenge a billy goat to a head buttin’ contest or made a pass at my first wife. Same difference. You get in a fight er somethin’? We need to go kick some ‘banger a*s?”
“Ah no, Gabe, no fights. Well, I guessh there was a fight, but that’s not where I got these. The fight came later and I kicked the s**t out of thosh guys. Coupla junkies.”
“Huh. Good. But then what in blazes did ya do ta yerself? That’s a pretty nasty gash ya got on yer noggin’ there.”
“Eh, I was out running the trailsh at school when it started to rain. Slipped an’ took a header into a tree stump. It’s fine, shouldn’t even need stitches. Hurts like hell though. Beers’h been helping with that.”
Gabe steps farther into the apartment, a single raised eyebrow the only sign of his disapproval as he sees the heaping remains of tonight’s binge littering the ground of my living room.
“Guess ya went an’ got started without me.”
“Sorry. Totally slipped my mind that we were going out, what with the head injury and all. Pretty sure I should call off going out for tonight, but you’re more than welcome to hang here for a bit. You want a beer? There’sh more in the fridge. I need another one too. Here, I’ll go get ‘em.”
“Na, hang on there, Mike, just hang on. I don’t want a beer and you sure don’t need any more either. Looks like ya already drank enough fer both of us tonight anyway.” He takes my arm, leading me back over towards my easy chair. “Why don’tcha take a seat over here an’ I’ll go rustle up a pot’a coffee right quick an’ help ya sober up some.”
“Yeah?” Hot anger flashes red across my eyes. I hate being patronized. “Well how about ‘screw you’ instead? What do you think about that, Gabe? I don’t want to sober up! It’sh my house you piece’a…”
Gabe’s grip on my arm becomes suddenly hard and painful. A dull grey steel slides over the normal sparkle of his eyes.
“Mike, I’m gonna stop ya right there. Yuv obviously been through some stuff tonight and I aim ta talk to ya in a bit here an’ help ya work through that, but I’m not gonna let ya be self destructive ‘bout it. Now, ya got two options. Ya can either take a seat nicely an’ wait fer me to go make’a cup, or I can put ya in a seat an’ go do tha same. Same result, different way’a gettin’ there. Yer smart ‘nuff ta know which one’ll be less grief all ‘round. Now, ‘fore ya start gettin’ ideas ‘bout tryin ta kick my a*s too, ya should pro’lly consider somethin’. Ya might be hot stuff with a coupla’ junkies like the pair you ran into tonight. Hell, ya could maybe even hang with me onna good day. But right now, in yer condition, ya really don’t have much a choice in the matter.”
I become aware that Gabe has put himself in a calculated position where he possesses all the leverage to make both of our body weights work in his favor.
“So, what’s it gonna be?”
As he applies the lightest bit of pressure to make sure he gets his point across, I feel how precariously overbalanced I am even without the added effects of the alcohol. There’s no doubt in my mind that Gabe could put me into the chair as easily as he says.
“Fine.” I turn and slump into the chair sullenly. “A*****e.”
“Good choice. Now, won’ be a minute. Then we kin talk ‘bout what’s got ya in this state. Ya should prolly think ‘bout whatcher gonna say, cause I’ll tell ya, boy, I’ve both seen an’ participated in enough benders ta know it wasn’ gettin’ whupped on by a tree’r throwin’ down ‘gainst a coupl’a punks that set this off. You just set there an’ think about it.”
For the next several minutes I sit in my chair, glaring venomously towards the kitchen as I hear Gabe clattering about.
“Hey, Mike, where d’ya keep the coffee?”
“Grounds are on the top shelf of the fridge. Filters are in the cabinet above the pot,” I answer grudgingly.
“Got it, thanks.”
Finally I sigh and inwardly concede defeat. It’s obvious that Gabe isn’t going anywhere and that I’m in no position to do anything about it. I settle back more comfortably into the chair and close my eyes, mentally trying to halt the room’s slow spin. Think about what I’m going to say. The man makes a good point; I need to figure out how I can successfully appease Gabe’s annoyingly friendly concern without coming off sounding like a drug addict or a mental patient. Relating the events as I actually remember them occurring sure isn’t going to cut it. I found that out the hard way three years ago. All telling the truth then got me was six months of psychiatric evaluations, a lifetime’s worth of bad dreams, and a truckload of self doubt and loathing. Trying to tell Gabe that I had disembodied voices in my head giving me instructions and was subsequently attacked by a giant nightmare creature, a disturbingly creepy old man, and a couple of druggies would go over about as well as trying to throw him out, if less physically painful. Best case scenario he just thinks I’m crazy, tells me to get help, and I lose a perfectly good friend. Worst he assumes I’m strung out on something and hauls me down to the drunk tank at the police station to sober up.
Gabe reenters the living room holding two steaming mugs and hands me one. He pops open the camp chair I keep against the wall for company and positions himself across from me. Taking a sip he grimaces.
“That is some turrible s**t. Now then, Mike, I believe ya were gonna regale me with the facts concerning yer current disposition.”
I look at the man facing me and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness wells up from deep inside my chest. There was a time I would have told Gabe everything, but I’ve been down that road before. Sharing my truth would only cause more pain and I can’t lose one of the only friends I still have. At the same time, although Gabe may talk like a hayseed country boy, he’s savvy enough to spot it if I try to outright lie. But maybe a part of the truth will be enough. I stare into the mug cradled in my hands.
“I almost killed a boy tonight,” I say softly, almost whispering. “The punks who jumped me, they were sixteen if they were a day. And I almost killed one of them. Hell, I wanted to kill him, or at least a part of me did. I stopped them easily enough. Had them beaten. But then…my gun was to his head. And I thought, just for a second, how easy it would be. That I could get away with it. That it was maybe even the right thing to do.”
I look up, tears in my eyes. What I’m telling Gabe may not be the whole truth, but the emotions are real just the same. “There’s a darkness in me, Gabe, a darkness I brought back with me from that shithole in Iraq. At some point it’s going to get out, and it scares the s**t out of me what might happen when it does.”
Gabe keeps his gaze fixed on me, a thoughtful look upon his face.
“Well, ya do know what yer problem is, right?” He looks at me expectantly. “PTSD, ya idjit.”
Gabe takes another sip of the horrible coffee and continues. “S**t, Mike, that ain’t nothin’ to be ashamed of. Hell, half’a us grunts that come back in one piece on the surface got some kinda’ s**t rattlin’ loose up there. An’ who wouldn’t? Not many folks’ve seen what we’ve seen, or felt what we’ve felt.”
That gets my attention. Could Gabe possibly have experienced the same horrors as me?
“And what’s that?” I ask.
He smiles, “Why combat a’course. The very real notion that another human bein’ is doin’ their damndest ta make sure ya don’t come out alive. And on the flip side that you’ve snuffed out the potential of another person; everythin’ they coulda’ ever been gone in an instant by yer hand.
“Mike, ya remember how I told ya about Billy dyin’? Well there’s a parta that story I maybe sorta held back a little. Now don’t be gettin’ all bent outta shape, I didn’t know ya as well back then. But I do now.” He shifts in the camp chair, pausing as if to collect his thoughts, before continuing.
“I found him, Mike. I found the sonuvabitch that killed my boy. Wasn’t hard. Went to a few places cops’re reluctant tah go, spread a lil’ cash, a few a*s kickin’s. Those f****n’ animals’ll sell out their own fer almost nothin’.
“Eventually I talked ta the right guy who graciously led me ta the flop house my boy’s killer was holed up in. When I found ‘im the lil’ b***h was high on sumthin. Layin’ there, he was in no position ta do anythin’ ta stop what I was about ta do ta him. Hell, he was so far gone, he maybe didn’ even know I was there. Had my pistol ta his head, probably pretty sim’lar ta how you did tonight. And ya know what I did?”
I shook my head.
“Not a goddam thing. The b*****d that killed my boy in my hands, an’ I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t, Mike.” There are tears welling in the old NCO’s eyes, a slight tremor in his voice.
“Now I’m gonna tell ya sumthin and you listen ta me good. Wantin’ ta kill someone, especially some evil muther that’d probly do the same an’ worse ta you if given half a chance? That doesn’t make ya evil. Hell, Mike, that makes ya human.” He wipes the back of his hand across his eyes.
“Billy dyin’ had me torn up for a good long time. I thought maybe his killer gettin’ the same might be what it took ta bring me back around. But in the end, it wasn’t. It was facing the anger, Mike, facing the rage an’ the fear. Lettin’ it get bottled up inside only served ta feed it.” Gabe gets to his feet.
“Now, I don’t know specific’ly what ya done or seen over there. Don’t much really care either. Only thing I know is ya gotta face it, admit what happened tah yerself, or it’ll destroy ya.” He moves to the door and opens it, stopping halfway through.
“I’m gonna go home, Mike, an’ I’m gonna leave ya here. Yer a grown a*s man an’ more’n capable of decidin’ whether ya wanna keep goin’ down this path,” he indicates the pile of bottles, “or actually try tah get better. Yer a good man, Mike, and I hate ta see anythin’ get in the way of that.”
My friend leaves. I sit there, staring into the space of my almost empty apartment, for what seems like a long time. Finally, I make a decision. I get up and throw the bolts on the security door and set the alarm. I go to the kitchen, find a trash bag from under the sink, and clean up the remains of my evening. I throw out the sludge in the pot; Gabe is a man of many talents but brewing coffee is definitely not one of them. I undress, get into bed, and lay there for a few long moments staring at the ceiling.
If only, Gabe….if only it was another human being trying to kill me that I was worried about.