Nick had made great progress but hadn’t completely rid himself of all his old habits—or emotions for that matter. It takes time for that to happen, to gain confidence where before there had been none. I could see both the improvement and where more was needed. He seemed to stand straighter now and meet people’s eyes, at least the people he knew well enough. He’d speak more freely, too, even expressing himself, asking for things he wanted. That was progress.
He was still showering after all the other campers had left that facility. He still didn’t like to be alone in a group of rowdy boys, none of whom he could count on not to start teasing him or calling him out. I no longer had to walk with him to the shower building or wait outside for him to finish, then walk him back as I’d done at the very beginning. He had no problem now doing that on his own and didn’t seem to give it a thought. Almost always the shower facility—and the campground for that matter—were deserted as the counselors were all settling their troops down for the night. The campers themselves were rarely out after showers. So he was usually the only one out that late.
I thought it good for him to be going out so carefree on his own. He had no problem doing so. Although, it had always been true that Nick wasn’t a coward. He was simply shy and uncertain in social situations, especially with male adults. Made me wonder what his association with the men he’d met in his life had been like and what his male teachers might have done to embarrass him.
I did sometimes sit outside on Fox’s steps, just to keep an eye out, but mostly I didn’t even do that. We all were in as controlled and safe an environment as we’d ever be in.
Then, one night, after a great day when he’d been so happy, a day when he and Dillon had done a medley of show songs for me, running them nonstop from one to another, a day when Nick had been as alive and happy as I’d ever seen him, Nick came in after showering looking ashen and trembling. I was shocked, seeing him like that. Not shocked enough to freeze me from acting. I quickly hugged him, walked with him to my bed, and sat him down. With my arm around him, I asked very softly, “What’s going on? What happened?”
With my comforting and his knowing he was now safe, his trembling got worse before it got better. He didn’t pull away from me at all, but actually seemed to sink into me a bit.
I didn’t ask anything else. I just held him.
The others were all involved in a fast-paced game they’d invented and were oblivious. Sometimes Nick would join them after showering, sometimes not, and if he did, it was always of his own accord, so they didn’t even bother looking in his direction when he came back each night.
I cuddled him till the shaking had stopped, then a little longer and finally, I slowly released him. He didn’t move away from me. I thought to myself that this was a kid who really was desperate for physical affection.
When he finally did sit up straight, I repeated myself, asking what had caused this.
“I was in the shower. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Lute was there, sticking his head in the stall. It scared me. Then he stared at me, like he was looking me over. The look in his eyes—it was like he was devouring me, like he wanted to do things to me. That scared me even more. He’s so big. I . . . I told him to go away. He asked why he should do that, that he liked what he saw. That scared me even more, I . . . I couldn’t help it. I got so scared I peed. He saw me do that and laughed. Then he rubbed himself. I could see he was hard.”
Nick shuddered, and I pulled him closer. It took a moment, but then he continued, his voice shaky.
“I told him I was going to scream. That got him. The look in his eyes turned to something else, not really fear but . . . maybe he realized if I screamed, he’d be in trouble. So he backed out of the stall. I turned off the water and stepped out, and he was still there. He had my towel. ‘I’ll dry you off,’ he said. ‘I don’t do that with the boys in my cabin when they shower, but I can with you. You’ll like how I do it.’
“His eyes were still all over me. His voice was weird, not like he usually sounds. I was still scared, but I’d seen how he reacted when I threatened to scream. So I said, ‘I’m screaming now,’ and took a deep breath and opened my mouth. He gave me an ugly look, threw the towel at me and ran off.”
I was seething. My first thought was to go track Luther down and explain just why he was going to leave Nick—and the rest of Fox, too—entirely alone. Explain it physically and thoroughly so there’d be no further entanglements with him. Explain it viciously and hurtfully. Explain it so he’d have to visit both a dental specialist and a physical therapist.
Then I remembered my personal commitment and that I was decompressing. Well, I had decompressed. This was the first time my emotions were aroused to the extent they were in a long time. If I was going to remain decompressed, it didn’t allow for me to do what I wanted to do to Luther. It meant I had to take another course of action, one that would be far less satisfying but perhaps the correct way to do things.
I took several deep breaths. I was still holding Nick. Somehow, the realization of that, that he was safe in my arms, comforted me more than it may have him.
I got them all in bed when it was time. I could see Nick looking at me as I settled in. When the lights went out, I saw him rise and walk over to me.
“I’m still upset thinking about him,” he whispered. I could hear a shake in his words. “He made me think of things I don’t want to think about. Can . . . can I sleep here? With you? I . . . ”
He stopped, uncertain what to say next, but I felt no uncertainty at all. There wasn’t all that much room in the cots we had, but then, Nick wasn’t a very large child.
“Sure,” I said. “But wait a second.”
I always slept in the nude. The boys all knew it. We were all males, and I thought it wouldn’t be a bad thing if they saw I wasn’t bothered by undressing all the way with them watching—that it was natural for males to be naked together, and gay or straight, it made no difference. Every night I took off my clothes and got into bed in the suit I was born in. A few others in Fox were now following my example. Nick was one who wasn’t.
I got out of bed, found my shorts and pulled them on, then got back into bed and lifted the sheet. Nick was lying next to me an instant later.
“Roll over on your side, facing away from me,” I asked him, and he did. Then I snuggled up against him, spooning him. He wriggled back against me. I could feel a faint tremor in him. I wrapped an arm around him, pulling him back against me as tight as I could without suffocating him, tight enough that it had to feel to him like he was in the safest place in the world, that no one could get him when he was like he was. He sighed and was asleep a few moments later.
I couldn’t sleep, however. The protective feeling that was so overwhelming me, having Nick in my arms, providing me with that responsibility, somehow brought back memories, ones I’d been holding off—of fighting. Memories I’d thought I could forget; ones that, by thinking I could forget them, I’d fooled myself into thinking I was decompressing.
Trying not to think about anguish from the past wasn’t the best way to deal with it. Facing up to things, that was what was needed. Not trying to cram them into a small box and bury them. Not when they wouldn’t stay buried.
Perhaps while Nick slept peacefully in my arms, while I had him to hold onto as my anchor, with his presence reassuring me of what was good in the world, this was the time to reacquaint myself with the demons that remained with me in the hope that afterwards, they might be stilled.
I held Nick and let my mind drift to where I’d prevented it from going for some time now. Nick’s presence made it possible for me to do that. Strange how that worked.
§ § § §
My mom was furious when I quit the fiddle the day I graduated from high school. But I’d had enough. I might have become good enough to play in an orchestra some day had I stuck with it, but probably not in a major one, and certainly not as a solo performer. And I lacked the passion that she had for making music. So I knew it made more sense to do something else. College was there, waiting, but I wanted a break. I wanted a change of venue, really.
Mom, well, when she was as mad as she was, she made sure I knew why. She ended up a long string of daily arguments that had gone on and on by finally issuing a fiat: college or get out. Get a job, live on my own and I would come to my senses quickly enough, she was sure of that.
I had a little stubborn in me, a little pride, and I said the hell with that. What I did only made her madder. I joined the Army.
I went into basic training, which isn’t much fun, but I was 18 and healthy, and I could keep up. I thought the drill sergeants yelling at us, trying to demean us, were just silly, something that might have worked on farm boys in the middle of the last century, but it was not the way to handle today’s teens. Anyway, I was working through that process and assumed I’d be sent off when I was finished training to be a deadly and competent killer to Afghanistan or Pakistan or one of the other hot spots where we seemed to be engaged. Instead, I was called out and asked if I had any interest in being an officer. They said my test scores had been high enough, they’d watched me get started in basic, and I seemed to have my head on straight—I’d helped some of the guys who’d needed it and the guys calling the shots liked that—and how about it? Would I like to become an officer?
That had stroked my ego, being asked. It was the first time in weeks I’d been treated with respect. That made a difference.
I said yeah, I’d give it a try. Well, long-story short, it didn’t go well. It was just as if I’d gone to college! Classes up the ying-yang, but they were coupled with more regimentation and saluting and wearing spiffy uniforms and all that, more than I’d put up with in basic. I didn’t like it from the outset. I stuck with it for a while, but finally told the guy running the program it wasn’t for me.
That left me with some pretty bad choices. I really didn’t want to go kill Taliban in some far-off country I knew nothing about. I didn’t want to hold down a fort in Afghanistan or help guard the border of Iraq or learn Farsi in Pakistan. There were a few other distasteful possibilities, but the thing was, I wouldn’t be the one making the choice; someone else would do that for me. I did have a choice, though, and I made it. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, but by making it, at least I wouldn’t be going into the kill-or-be-killed business right away. I’d be delaying that.
What I chose was to be trained in a Ranger outfit.
Man! If I thought basic was bad, wow! It was nothing compared to this. It was rigorous, exhausting, mentally challenging, nerve-wracking, and the pressure never let up. The worst part for me was the hand-to-hand combat training. I hated that with every fiber of my being. But it was one of the skills we had to learn. They had a different instructor teaching each training course. The hand-to-hand guy was Sgt. Mulrooney. He was as tough and hard a man as anyone I’d ever met.
Sgt. Mulrooney, for some reason I will never know, took me under his wing. It would be mere speculation why. I’d been a very laid-back kid and very green in the ways of the world, very innocent. I did have a temper, though it took a lot to arouse it, and when that temper flared, it stirred something in me that was rarely present: it wakened a determination, a focus, a loosening of restraints. Perhaps the sergeant saw all that. Perhaps he recognized it, and it meant something to him. Perhaps he saw a wad of clay that he felt could be beneficially shaped into something useful to the Army. I was never to know the reason, but I did become a project of his.
He could have ignored me. The Army was very good at that, at not seeing recruits as people but as machine parts. Its training staff tended not to consider any one of us, me included, as an individual person.
Sgt. Mulrooney was a tough, no-nonsense bastard whom I’d have called a bully if he hadn’t been only about four inches over five-feet tall. He had a barrel chest, however, and his slightly bowed legs were very strong. But he acted like a bully, even if a diminutive one. He was in everyone’s face all the time, which I suppose was somewhat comical when you weren’t the one going face-to-face with him, funny because he had to look up at you and you down at him for the faces to interact. However, when you were the one being yelled at, it was anything but humorous and nothing like the debasement we got in basic training. During our close up and personal confrontations with Sgt. Mulrooney, the words he used were scatological and personally offensive, demeaning, belittling and meant to sting. The way he chewed you out—and he meant every word of it—left a mark. The words also made us angry so we would fight harder. Exactly his intention.
Sarge was never satisfied with anything any of us did, and I don’t know how he was able to maintain such perpetual screaming without blowing out his vocal chords. But then I realized what it was: lots and lots of practice.
He had us an hour and a half a day. Which was plenty long enough; too long, really. Over an hour of learning hand-to-hand combat. Against each other. Much of the time it was of the no-holds-barred type of engagement. He told us we’d pay more attention that way, and we’d learn both offense and defense, and the bumps and bruises, the black eyes and broken fingers would all heal and shouldn’t prevent us from winning the fights we were in when they happened. If we stopped fighting because we’d broken something, in combat we’d be dead five seconds later.
I was crap at hand-to-hand fighting. It was the worst thing I’d ever done. I’d never been in a fight in my life and while growing up, Mom had me playing violin and kept on me about not damaging my fingers. Now, suddenly and without any past experience, I was being shown how to go about neutralizing a combatant with my bare hands while that combatant was trying to do the same to me.
Sgt. Mulrooney showed us the tricks of the trade and had us practice them. He observed each of us, gave pointers, and exhibitions. He’d call one of us out to go against him, have the class watch, and inevitably the called-out one would be lying on the ground—sometimes moaning and having to be hauled away on a stretcher.
After two weeks of this, one-and-a-half hours a day, learning and fighting him and each other, we knew a lot more about hand-to-hand mayhem than anyone should ever be taught. We’d also built up some sentiments about it and about those in our group. You can’t fight people that often without forming some opinions. I had good respect for many of them. I had grown to strongly dislike others.
Sgt. Mulrooney came into our barracks one afternoon during a rest period and asked me to come outside with him. I was immediately nervous. The guy was perfectly capable of breaking your arm when demonstrating a basic hold. Then, sometimes, he’d apologize.
I went out with him, and he said, “Let’s walk.” So we did. We walked past the barracks and mess hall and around the fort grounds. He told me he’d been watching me as he had all the others. He told me he’d seen me get angry at times. He said that was nothing unusual; we all did that during training. But, he said, I focused that anger in ways the others didn’t. They got random and often wild when angry. I didn’t. I channeled my emotions and now, after weeks of training, was letting what he’d taught me take over. He said I was a much better fighter when I was mad than when I was calmer, which was almost never the case. Most guys threw caution to the wind. I focused.
He said he wanted to work with me privately because I had potential he rarely saw in recruits.
I could envision hours and hours of hurt if I accepted his offer. His way of training—which tended to be the ending-up-on-the-ground-moaning sort for the one being trained—didn’t invite one to volunteer for extra side sessions. But on this walk, he wasn’t showing the gruff, shouting, abusive sort of persona I’d become accustomed to. He was talking to me like he was human and doing it with another human—me.
I found myself agreeing to work with him.
That was the beginning of a period of intense training. And I was too sore to move a lot—yet was still having to move, of course. But it was also a period of learning techniques and procedures, and the fear I’d had when I’d begun hand-to-hand fight training was replaced by a profound respect for both him and what he was teaching me.
He turned a seemingly purely physical activity into a physical one that had a strong dependence on intellectual involvement. And in the training fights with others in my platoon, I now was facing opponents with my head as much as my body. I was seeing openings and possibilities I hadn’t been aware of before. No longer was an adrenalin rush clouding my thoughts. I began, if not to enjoy the encounters, to recognize the value of them and to welcome the opportunity they presented. In the fights against the guys I’d learned to despise, I did have that better focus the sarge had seen in me. I now won those fights.
Graduation day was eventually upon us. We each had to fight three opponents. Sgt. Mulrooney chose one guy who’d we’d be well-matched against, one who we should beat easily, and one who was expected to beat us. We were instructed to put each of them down—to win the fight—but we were not to damage any opponent severely. We all knew how to do that now. We’d all been hurt time and again in training, but they were minor hurts. A broken finger or a mild concussion was about the worst anyone had suffered. That was if one didn’t count bruised egos. We’d all suffered them, and to some of us those were worse than physical pain.
The one match I was to have against a superior opponent was against a guy I’d developed a serious dislike for. He was the biggest and strongest guy in the platoon. He knew it and enjoyed it. He, more than any of us, liked to hurt his opponents. He liked to see fear in their eyes.
I hadn’t fought him since early on in the training. He’d hurt me then. I’d seen him hurt others as well. Sgt. Mulrooney had been in his face a lot, but it hadn’t affected his attitude. Now, the sergeant had put him against me, and I saw him smile when he called us two out. I also saw the sarge wink at me.
The guy’s name was Coney Driscoll. Big guy, surprisingly quick, accustomed to fighting. He hadn’t paid much attention to the training drills, to what Sgt. Mulrooney had taught. He’d been a brawler before the Army had got hold of him, and what he’d learned brawling, he brought to the training ground. He depended on his size. His technique was to rush his opponent, let his size dominate, absorb any blow he received on the way in, and then crush and humiliate the opponent. So far, it had worked for him. Except once. That was when Sgt. Mulrooney had had enough of him and had taken him on in what he called a training exercise so we, the students, could observe the proper way to respond when we were up against a superior fighter and a larger one at that, especially a cocky one who didn’t think but just ignored his personal safety and recklessly attacked.
Now, looking at Driscoll standing ten yards away, facing me, I had an idea what that wink meant. I’d seen how Sgt. Mulrooney had taken Driscoll down; I’d practiced the move myself in our private sessions. I looked into Driscoll’s eyes and saw eager anticipation. I didn’t know what he saw in mine. I knew what he didn’t see: fear. If that upset him any, it didn’t show. Driscoll might have been the best brawler among us, but he wasn’t the brightest guy in the platoon and wasn’t the smartest fighter. He didn’t care what anyone felt or thought when he was fighting them. He’d simply do his thing and win, as always.
He charged at me once the sergeant gave the signal. I waited. He closed on me, and I juked right, hoping to throw him off balance a bit and to slow his charge just a little. Just enough. It worked. He didn’t stumble, but he put more weight on his left leg, willing his body to move in that direction, and slowing his charge. I dropped really low and swept my right leg, scything at him just below his knees, kicking his left leg, his support leg, out from under him.
His weight was still coming forward, his arms reaching out, and I’d practiced this move to both sides over and over. My leg had some force behind it, and he lost his balance.
I cut him down like a sickle in a weed patch.
He came down hard on his front side. I was already rising by the time he hit the ground. I dropped onto him with my knees and my weight right into his kidneys, and to further the insult, jabbed my right elbow hard in the back of his neck, just to the side of his upper spine. I could easily have crippled him, maybe for life. Hell, I could have killed him. By then I knew how.
But I simply climbed off of him. He wasn’t moving. The sergeant looked at him for a moment, saw he was breathing, and said, “Matherly, Castro, drag this piece of shit back to the barracks. Make sure he doesn’t need the infirmary. Harrington, nice piece of work.”
Several more fights took place before I was called on again. This time it was against the weaker fighter I’d have to face. This was one of the guys I liked. We didn’t really have the time or energy to make friends, but you do recognize fellow souls, and Marty Shumer was one of those. He shouldn’t have been in the Army, and had absolutely no business training for the Rangers, but his dad and brother had been in that elite group, and his attitude was: so, by God, would he be. The sarge had told me that if he couldn’t win one of these fights, he would wash out. I was glad to be one of the ones he’d lose to. I didn’t want him in the Rangers. He just wasn’t the type to do that kind of job. He was small and had no interest in fighting. He’d only survived hand-to-hand so far because everyone in the platoon other than Driscoll eased up on him. They beat him but didn’t hurt him in doing so.
I was sure the sergeant paired us up so I could beat him and so they could honorably let him go. I even think Marty was expecting to lose. He must have realized by now he simply wasn’t cut out for the Rangers.
Marty looked at me, looked in my eyes. I could see what was always in his, even when we were in the barracks: fear. Except it was more apparent now.
Perhaps it was that fear that motivated him, fear that if he didn’t win now, he was out. But what he did was so unexpected, I wasn’t ready for it. He charged me, just like Driscoll had, except he screamed as he did. Screamed like a banshee and ran at me with his fingers out in claws.
I just reacted. Had no time for anything else. Reacted. When someone charges, best to get low. Best to sweep their legs or tackle them. In the second I had to think, I decided tackling him would be safer. I could ease him down to the ground that way.
So as he came at me, I waited, then lowered my shoulder, hit him low in the stomach, wrapped my arms around him and drove him straight backwards.
He wasn’t a football player. I doubt if he’d ever been tackled in his life. I’d never tackled anyone before this hand-to-hand stuff. But I’d learned how. How to secure the enemy, how to drive forward with my legs so he’d go over on his back. How to land on top with enough force to drive the air from his lungs.
Except this time, I tried not to land on him. In fact, I unwrapped my arms when he was halfway down.
Didn’t make a bit of difference. He went over backwards, but instead of hitting the ground flat on his back, he landed on the back of his head, and we could all hear the snap. He never moved after he hit. He was dead almost instantly.
The Army conducted a hearing. Sgt. Mulrooney and I were both investigated and cleared. He was able to put it down to a tragic accident and continue his career. I was not. I was inconsolable. Sgt. Mulrooney tried his hardest to get me to accept it as a training accident. It had happened. I’d done nothing wrong, and in fact had pulled up so I wouldn't land on him. This was simply a fluke. Not my fault.
So he said. It didn’t make any difference. I knew Marty had died because of my actions. However you cut it, I’d killed him. He was a nice guy, had a whole lifetime ahead, and I’d ended that. I couldn’t get over it. I went into a depression that lasted a couple of months, and then I was given an honorable discharge and turned loose. The sergeant told me the Army at first had intended it to be a medical discharge, but he’d gotten it changed. I was out of the Army, and I had an entirely clean record, just as he said it should be.
But I knew different. I was a finely tuned fighting machine with no fight left in me. None at all. I swore I’d never fight anyone again. Ever.
§ § § §
Nick was sleeping soundly when I came out of my memory, came back to the present, my arm still securing him to me. Rethinking everything I had, remembering it, I hoped that would quell the emotional reaction that threatened me whenever I forgot to prevent those memories from reemerging. Perhaps it had made a difference; I felt calmer than I had. That could have been because I was still holding Nick, though.
Moving carefully so as not to disturb Nick’s sleep, I got out of bed and slipped into my clothes. I wasn’t going to be gone long and hoped Nick would still be asleep when I returned. I didn’t want him waking and finding me gone.
I hoped Reggie would be in his cabin. Reggie spent most all of the time on the island with us, day and night. Sometimes he left the island at night and we counselors were in charge. He didn’t appoint a leader for those times. We counselors simply took care of our own tribes. It had worked fine so far. I’d been hoping Reggie was there that evening. I knew that he was as soon as I left Fox; his boat was tied up at the dock.
He put his book down when I arrived and was inside. This time, when he offered me a beer, I accepted. He grabbed a couple of Fat Tire ales out of the fridge, opened them and passed me one, then sank back down on the couch. He did me the courtesy of not sprawling. He sat up straight. I took a chair next to him.
We each took a sip, and I said, “Reggie, today Luther confronted my boy Nick in the shower and scared the bejesus out of him. From what Nick told me, I don’t know if Luther was just trying to scare Nick, or if he has a serious problem, a sexual one. I think he was just trying to scare Nick to get to me. But whatever his problem is, you have no idea how much I’d like to clean Luther’s clock for him.”
“You want to fight him?” Reggie asked, his voice showing his concern.
I shook my head. “I won’t fight, not for real, and here’s why.” I gave Reggie a condensed version, very condensed and brief, of why I couldn’t fight Luther, speaking of the training I’d had, how I’d been trained to fight to kill, but not mentioning Marty. I told him that I didn’t fight civilians, period.
“But that asshole needs to learn a lesson, and I’m the one who needs to teach him. You have to help. This is what I want you to do.”
It didn’t take long to lay it out for Reggie. When I went into detail about the crap Luther had been pulling, he was very willing to become an active accomplice.
§ § § §
Nick was still asleep when I returned. It looked like he hadn’t moved. I took a moment to just watch him sleep. To me, he was innocent and beautiful. I managed to get back into bed without waking him, and this time didn’t put my arm around him. I don’t know why I didn’t, but I guessed I didn’t want him to be embarrassed when he woke.
It didn’t take me long. I was out for the count in seconds, and that night no bad dreams invaded my sleep.