What Part of Marine Don't You UnderstandBy: Heather Long
Matt McCall tapped his knuckles against the underside of the table and fidgeted. A bad sign. No matter how often he tried to stop, he couldn’t contain his hyperactivity. The apartment was quiet—too quiet. The Beretta M9 sat in front of him. All he needed to do was slide the clip in and pick it up.
Breathing exercises helped. Head bowed, he recited all of his accomplishments in his twenty-four years, from making the varsity football team one year early, to enlisting, to graduating boot camp and surviving his first firefight. Certainly accomplishments he could be proud of, each and every one.
None mattered a damn when a ridiculous injury—a blast piercing his inner ear drum, shattering it, left his hearing on that side blunted and his balance shaky. The continuous rap of his hand to the hard table hurt, but even that pain numbed after a while.
Returning to Mike’s Place shouldn’t be like coming home—not when he escaped his family in Ohio to return to Dallas, again.
You have to give it time, Matt. There is no hard and fast deadline on recovery. Some people take days, some months, some years. You’ll be ready when you are ready, and not one moment before then. James meant well with his advice.
His family meant well. Everyone meant well.
All I have to do is pick up this gun, load the clip and….
The knocking stopped and he leaned back in the chair, lifting his right hand. Raw, bloody stripes decorated the knuckles.
A low whimper dragged his attention away. The black Labrador at his feet stared up at him with a pair of soulful eyes. Jethro thumped his tail. Matt’s right hand tingled and he flexed the fingers. Jethro nudged his arm and Matt turned, giving the dog a comforting scratch between his ears. When his cell phone vibrated in his pocket, he didn’t reach for it. The buzzing hummed along his nerves.
“You need a walk, boy?” Rising, he packed the gun into the case and put it away, before grabbing the leash. “How about we make it a run?” Leaning against Matt’s leg, Jethro wagged his tail.
“Good morning, Matt.”
Fifteen steps, about the length of time it took he and Jethro to get to the curb before he ran into James Westwood. It almost qualified for a record.
“Morning, Doc. You keep lurking out here every day and people are going to talk.”
The doc laughed and fell into step next to him. Despite his retirement, he still looked like the button-downed Marine he was—far better than Matt, who needed a haircut and had worn the same pair of jeans for the last three days. Jethro wasn’t interested in talking and trotted ahead, stretching the leash out. His only concession to their slower pace included pausing to take a leak every five feet.
Better to let the world know he owned the spot. Every spot apparently. Despite the gloom, amusement spread through Matt.
“I called and you didn’t answer. So I thought I would walk over and check on you.”
“Your concern is showing, Doc.” He didn’t want to focus on the concern. “I planned to take Jethro for a run, so maybe we can talk later?”
“Let me change shoes and I’ll run with you. I’m parked right over there.” Not waiting for a response, Doc double-timed it to his vehicle.
The offer surprised him, but it shouldn’t have. Of all the doctors he’d seen in the last eighteen months, James kept in touch. He gave him hell when Matt didn’t show up for group. Maintained the perimeter with a vigilance to remind Matt he needn’t be alone.
He didn’t really want to run with the doc. Jethro returned and rubbed his head along his thigh. Stretching his fingers to scratch between the dog’s ears, Matt had to swallow a curse.
His knuckles were still bloody.
He could hope James hadn’t noticed. But it wasn’t likely.
“Guess I’m busted, huh, boy?” Jethro wiggled at the attention and Matt chuckled. Agreeing to keep the dog for a few weeks when he returned hadn’t seemed like much of a burden, but the Labrador proved repeatedly to be excellent company.
Matt didn’t want to have to give him back.
James returned, having swapped out his dress shirt and slacks for a green T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. “Ready?”
“Do you always strip in parking lots?” Matt grinned. A real smile, and his face ached.
“No. You’re special.” Doc laughed and motioned. “Let’s run.”
He hesitated. “Not going to ask me about my hand?”
The doctor gave him a level look. “Do you want to talk about your hand?”
“Not particularly.” Flexing his fingers, he enjoyed the stinging sensation stretching across the damaged skin.
“Okay then. Let’s run.”
The light jog was hardly a run, but he couldn’t go all out anymore. Not without risking tripping over his feet when the world took to playing tilt-a-whirl. But Jethro didn’t complain about the pace, trotting right at his side as they hit the trail.
And it felt good to stretch.
He dripped with sweat after the run. With James for company and Jethro eagerly keeping pace, Matt ran harder than he’d intended. He made sure the dog’s water and food bowls were full before stripping out of his clothes and getting in the shower. The hot water sluiced away most of the sweat. A hard scrub took care of the rest. His phone vibrated on the counter when he stepped back out. Wrapping a towel around his hips, he checked the caller ID.
Thumbing it on to answer, he dredged up a cheerful voice. “Hey, Mom.”
“Hey, sweetie. I wanted to make sure you arrived in Dallas okay.” Sounding upbeat, if hurried, she didn’t chastise him for not calling her when he’d arrived—the week before—or for avoiding her phone calls since.
Yeah, I’m a bad son.
“Yes, ma’am. Been settling in.”
“Good. I’m running late for a meeting at the bank. They approved the refinancing. Everything is going to be fine.” Tangible relief echoed in her words. With five other children, two getting ready for college and three spread out through junior and senior high schools, his mother shouldered a lot of the financial burden. Matt sent money whenever he could, dividing a full half of his disability pay so he could help. But she didn’t complain.
“That’s great.” He hesitated. “I got a dog.”
The pause on the other end of the phone worried him. Then his mother exhaled. “Really? What kind?”
“A Labrador. His name is Jethro. Some friends were training him, but they’re out of town and asked if I’d keep him company.” Okay, so maybe he hadn’t quite gotten a dog.
He combed his hair and grimaced. He definitely needed a haircut. It fell below his collar and covered his ears. Mike’s Place didn’t have a barber per se, but he knew of one across the highway. Maybe he and Jethro could take another walk.
“Send me a picture.” Was his mother smiling? “With you in it, too, please.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He laughed, the rusty sound rattling in his chest. “He’s a good dog. I like him.”
“I can’t wait to see him. Matty?”
“Call me later, okay?”
Dropping the comb on the counter, he leaned forward and took a deep breath. His chest didn’t squeeze so tight and the request sounded reasonable. “Yeah, what time will you get home tonight?”
“Probably nine my time? Brock’s got a game at six.” His baby brother, the basketball enthusiast.
“Cool. I’ll call you then, and tell Brock I said drive it forward.”
Silence and then a real smile wreathed her words. “I will, baby. Have a good day.”
Ending the call, he stared at the phone. Nails clicked across the tiles behind him, and Jethro shoved his cold nose against his side.
“Hey, boy. Want to go for another walk?”
Jethro wagged his tail.
“Yeah, me too.” He walked out into the bedroom. First things first, make the bed and clean up. Then dress. “Give me ten.”
Jethro walked over to flop in the doorway and waited patiently while he squared the room away. It took him a minute to find clean clothes. Gathering the dirty laundry into a pile, he’d wash a load while they went for the haircut.
After the haircut—he’d call the doc and make an appointment.
No more skipping.
“I know to get a diagnosis you need me to actually show up for appointments.” Matt leaned forward. He sat on the sofa in James’ office, with Jethro settled across his feet. Doc hadn’t minded when he asked to bring the dog with him.
“Matt, I had your diagnosis five minutes into our first session.”
The information surprised him. “You did?” The haircut helped more than Matt cared to admit. High and tight once more, he felt like himself and not some discarded piece of refuse who forgot he was a Marine.
“You have Post-traumatic stress disorder. You’ve been struggling with it since you came home.” Doc tapped his capped pen on the white legal pad in his lap.
“That’s bad. Right?”
“No, that’s normal. Matt, you can’t remember what happened without reliving it.” It sounded so utterly simple and reasonable.
“But I’m fine….” He held up his hand at James’ skeptical look. “Okay, I’m not fine. But I thought this was about my balance and my ear and feeling like a failure.”
“Why do you feel like a failure?”
“I’m a Marine, Doc. It’s what I know. But I can’t get my legs under me again. I pick up speed, start really running, and I get dizzy. The world turns upside down and then I’m on my ass. I have my legs. I have my arms. I have my wits. But I don’t have my balance.”
“Inner ear damage does that. Are you still going to your physical therapy?”
“For what?” He blew out a breath. He didn’t mean to be combative. But he wasn’t Jazz having to learn how to walk again, or Joe who needed to build up the strength in his back, or any of the dozen others working to overcome debilitating physical injuries.
“To work on your balance, to work on your physical fitness, to learn techniques to compensate when the world tilts.”
A bitter taste flooded his mouth. “I’m physically fine. I just can’t do my job.”
“You can’t return to active duty in a combat zone, no. But you aren’t impaired.”
Jethro whined and Matt stroked his head automatically. His heart thudded in his chest. “Every time I think I can do it—I can’t. How do we fix this?” The acrid taste retreated and he swallowed. He should have brought a bottle of water with him.
“We have to talk about what happened. You have to remember and not relive it.”
“I’m not reliving it.” Am I?
Shouts echoed in the hallway and feet thundered past. He jerked to a stand and started forward three steps. Jethro butted into him, the leash rubbing the cuts on his knuckles. Matt stopped, disoriented and looked at James.
No feet echoed in the hallway. He wasn’t in Iraq. He was in Allen, Texas.
“Holy hell on a biscuit.” He sat down before he fell down, and Jethro shoved his head under his hand. He couldn’t make it stop. “How do I make it stop?”
“Breathe, Matt. Look at Jethro. He knows you’re upset. Breathe.” If only James’ calmness could flow from the psychologist to him. Matt heard the words but couldn’t quite process them. “You haven’t hurt anyone, and you haven’t hurt yourself.”
“Why does my mouth taste like ass?” Sweat trickled down his neck. Oxygen burned in his chest with every breath he took.
“That’s the adrenaline. You got upset. You remembered and you were there. The bitter taste is adrenaline.”
“I’m getting short-changed here.” Amusement and disbelief warred with the craziness swirling inside him. Everyone thought his issues stemmed from a helicopter accident, including Matt. He survived the first, recovered, and his first night back on duty came the attack.
“No, it’s normal. With a lot of veterans, you start cooking and after a while, you can’t stop it anymore—that’s when you snap. You keep bringing yourself up to the boil and then retreat.”
“What gets me cooking?” And why hadn’t they talked like this before? The blood pounding in his skull eased and his heart stopped trying to pound its way out of his chest.
“With veterans it can be a car backfiring, a twig snapping, or a box dropping off a shelf. The sudden, explosive noise reminds them of….”
“Gunshots.” That made sense. He could actually wrap his mind around that.
“But that’s not what sets you off.”
“So what is it?”
“I know this will sound like I’m telling you that five plus five equals a pile of hay, but it’s people yelling or laughing or running. Large movements of people. It’s what set you off in the bar. It’s why you didn’t stick it out at Damon’s restaurant. It’s why going home—”
“Is hard. Everyone comes to see me. The house is always full of people, family, neighbors, kids….”
James nodded slowly. “Kids are loud. They yell. They run. What happened that day in Iraq, Matt?”
“Insurgents came through one of the perimeter gates. They rammed it in with three SUVs…one detonated at the gate. Killed four men and the driver.” The bitterness swam through his mouth again, but he kept petting Jethro.
“Where were you?”
He shook. “In my bunk. It was the middle of the night….”
“And what happened?”
Matt closed his eyes. Yelling erupted in the darkness, the alarm sounded. Booted feet hit the floor, and he jumped up and ran. Floodlights filled the yard and dazzled his night vision. Somewhere between the room and the courtyard, he’d armed himself. The truck came at them—the insurgents fired—Matt and the others fired back.
The world floated around him, everyone ran.
The shouts came intermittently like the volume being turned up and down.
He wanted to vomit.
Opening his eyes, he met James’ solemn gaze. “I’m seriously fucked up.”
“No. You’re only a little bit fucked up. But you’re talking about it now.”
Exhaling a shuddering breath, he scratched alongside Jethro’s neck. The dog appreciated the attention and leaned into the affection.
“Why now?” He swallowed the urge to be sick, the cold sweat leaving him fevered and chilled at the same time.
“Because you’re ready now.”
“Is that going to be my reaction every time I hear a big group of people?”
“No.” Doc shook his head. “Because we get better and I can help you.”