The Sun Never Rises: Chapter 23
I didn’t know if Max and Katie were going to call out to me this week. Sunday came and went, and no word from this story’s duo. But then I woke up this Monday morning and the next chapter was there…so here I am, your storyteller and hopefully, your friend.
This is, ultimately, a story of hope and love. Is it a stretch of the imagination? I don’t think so. There are literally millions out there who suffer from PTSD. There are also millions of abuse victims. Bring those two groups together and you have the basis for this story.
So get comfy, kick your shoes off, put your feet up on the ottoman, and let’s get crackin’.
The 4th of July
The first fireworks went off on the Third, some kids in a vacant lot, a block from our home, were just messing around as kids are apt to do, and someone had some firecrackers, pretty harmless stuff, really, and one thing led to another and there was a small explosion, the kind of thing happening across the country, just kids being kids . . . and I dove for the ground and covered my head, INCOMING, ENEMY FIRE . . . and I could hear their laughter, urban background music, but I could also hear the buzz of bullets disturbing the atmosphere over my head, air-displacement from the projectiles, and I could see the blood staining the hard-packed sand, and I froze.
Five minutes, ten, I’m not sure how long I hugged the ground, the grass soft beneath my cheek, when Katie found me in the backyard. She didn’t try to fix me, God bless her; she just got down on the lawn with me, stroked my hair, kissed the back of my neck, hugged me, and told me it was all right, my part of the war had ended, it’s just the celebrations, Max darling, shhh, now.
And then Mom, Dad, and sister Jeannie were there as well, “come on, let’s help him to his feet, gentle now, Max my boy, into the house we go, nice and easy,” and love carried me away from that battlefield into the womb of my childhood.
So I was up early on the Fourth, determined to meet the enemy head-on. I had breakfast going when Katie found me downstairs, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, kissing me, telling me everything smelled great. Mom and Dad, uncharacteristically, were sleeping in, it being a holiday, and my Lil’ Sis was working the early shift at the coffee shop near the Westlake Mall. The smell of bacon in a quiet home, a good woman in my arms, it should have been a trip on gossamer wings. Instead the air felt heavy, sprinkled with dread, as is often the case when one is about to face the dragon.
“What’s the plan, soldier?” Katie asked as she took her first bite of toast, her red hair framed by the early-morning sunlight through the window behind her.
I plated two eggs in front of her, added four slices of bacon, and sat down.
“There are festivities going on all over this damned town today, Katie, and I aim to see as many of them as possible. I was hoping you’d join me, just in case I need someone to pick me up.”
“And you think this is smart, big guy?”
“Smart don’t enter into the discussion, Kate. It’s necessary, and that’s the real of it. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life ducking for cover when loud noises go off. That’s just no way to live.”
Mom and Dad thought I just might be certifiable, my idea “crazier than a March hen” according to my mother, and I saw their point, and loved them for caring, but they weren’t crawling around in my head so they really had no idea. They said they would meet us on the waterfront at dusk to see the Ivar’s Fireworks Show, and Jeannie was home by then and said she’d meet us for dinner at Antonio’s at five, worry in her eyes and false bravado in her voice.
My doc at the VA had abandoned her plan to ease me off of Zoloft, so I was feeling mellow as we left the house and walked down the hill to Aurora Avenue. The sun was chasing away the early-morning marine layer, and the day held a promise of warmth as we boarded a northbound bus headed for Woodland Park Zoo.
“What’s it like, Max? War? I don’t have any frame of reference, you know? What’s that saying of the Marines, ‘For God, Corps, and Country?’ Is that what soldiers think about in battle?”
Green Lake was sparkling under the July sun. The park was filled with walkers, talkers, players, and watchers, little kids of five, little kids of forty-five, none a threat to us and yet, it felt like, they all were.
“That’s just propaganda bullshit, Katie, something said during recruitment speeches at college campuses. I can tell you, for a fact, and I’m pretty damned sure I speak for every soldier who has ever been in battle, when the lead is flying, your only damned thought is how afraid you are. Your own survival is front and center in your brain. It’s an animal thing, survival. At that moment, when you really don’t know if you’re going to make it one more day, you don’t think about loyalty to country or loyalty to the damned Corps. All you can think about is surviving, and covering your buddy’s six. That’s it! The whole damned universe is compressed and shrunken; that’s the whole reality of your world.
“And you pray! Atheist, Catholic, Muslim, or Southern Baptist, you pray your ass off, whatever comes to mind, just God, please, get me home in one piece.”
It was one continual battlefield. Green Lake became a watering hole in Kabul, the Ballard Locks a rendezvous point where the enemy lurked behind every tree and lamp post. Bottle rockets were I.E.D.s and I don’t know how I kept from breaking Katie’s hand, me squeezing it so tight, her wincing and continuing to tell me it was okay, she loved me, we’d get through it together, but we kept moving forward, always forward, and as we turned south, heading for downtown on foot, watching the sailboats on Lake Union, the explosions became muffled, and the screams of the wounded less shrill.
Jeannie was early, we were early, so an early dinner was the only solution, me the luckiest grunt in the place with Katie on one side of me and Jeannie on the other, two beauties spending time with the infirmed, helping me lick my wounds, spreading on a generous portion of loving salve. The food was good, it always is at Antonio’s, and Jeannie asked if she could tag along with us the rest of the evening, not sure how the hell I got so lucky to have a Lil Sis like her, but “God yes you can,” I told her, and the three of us left the restaurant in search of more crowds, more excitement, and more painful celebration.
On the Water
My dad’s buddy, George Pitkin, had a twenty-seven footer moored down on Pier Sixty, he was out of town, and said we could use it for watching fireworks, so we met my parents there, dad with a cooler of beer, mom with a picnic basket full of snacks, the boat full of family love, and on that boat we all sat, the sun heading for Hawaii and beyond, the sky changing to various shades of lilac and lavender, the whole shoreline overflowing with happiness. The air was a constant crackle of small-arms fire, occasionally changing to exploding shells, Katie’s hand always in mine, Mom, Dad, and Jeannie sneaking looks at me from time to time, gauging my sanity and my grip on the present.
And when the grand finale had ended, when the last starburst pattern had exploded overhead, the last whoop and holler from appreciative fans had slid into the dark waters of Elliot Bay, I thanked everyone, gave everyone a kiss, and realized that through the worst of that night, even as the explosions happened, seemingly, every five seconds, I hadn’t once dove for cover, hadn’t once thought about survival, or covering my buddy’s six, but instead had thought of my family, of Katie, and how much I loved them all.
And perhaps that was the first sign of recovery.
2017 William D. Holland