I sat with my legs pulled up, resting my head on my knees. I was covered head to toe, a long sweater, one of my dads of course, with a shirt extending below the sweater, just in case the sleeves rolled up. Jeans lay just tight enough on my long legs and were tucked into a pair of low boots. My long hair, something I was still getting used to after so many years of having it short, blew in the slight night breeze. No-one understood me, the way my mind raced and darted or how my body would have reactions all its own without engaging my brain. At twenty-eight years old I felt much older than my years and each day seemed to add another decade and weight to my shoulders. It was just after sunset, the waves quietly ebbing and flowing on the shore that stood darkening a few feet from where me. Once again my mind had played a nasty game of walking down memory lane and I was too exhausted to drive home from my appointment. It had been a painful day in physical therapy but I felt more emotionally drained than anything else.
The session had started off as it normally did and I had foolishly lulled myself into believing that perhaps today there would be no hiccups, no distractions, and no claws pulling me down. For most of the session that was true, I had even managed to use my arms to pull up my body, but then it happened, the wind taken from me and left me like a recently deflated balloon. The television was on in the weight room and as I lowered myself down from the bar my eyes caught it. There was some talk show blasting that was focused on everyday heroes, specifically dedicated to those in the armed forces, and as my feet found the ground Lt. Douglas of the US Marine's was brought onto the stage, his smile appearing genuine and heartfelt. Instantly I felt sick to my stomach and had to run out of the room to throw up because that smile of his was a very real reminder of the monster that lurked underneath.
I felt a shiver go through my body as I sat on the beach, the air cooling quickly as the sun set. I was still shaking from the memories that had flooded my weakened mind and pulled me into the darkness of old ghosts and demons. Being a marine I felt ashamed that I had not yet slain those demons and ghosts, more so that they still controlled so much of my life. Closing my eyes as I tried one of the tips from a therapist long ago, breathing in too relax and breathing out calm I heard footsteps and froze, breath catching in my throat as I gradually turned towards the sound. Slowly walking towards me was a man, his steps deliberate and calculated, as his footfalls appeared planned out. With a small smile I knew that in fact they were planned out, for he was avoiding stepping and walking on anything that might pull out the ground from under him. The cane he used going before to secure the way, almost like a guide dog, something I knew he had been offered but refused.
When he reached where I was sitting he sighed, obviously not thrilled about sitting down in the sand, but before I could rise up he was lowering himself down, he too refusing to let the demons win. "I knew you'd be here," he said after a beat, reaching into his pocket to pull out a cigarette case. I lifted a brow at him, turning slightly to face him, "How'd you know that when I didn't know I was coming here."
Giving me a wry smile he opened the case and took out a wrapper smoothing it between his fingers. "I saw the broadcast today, local hero on national television, blah, blah, blah." Rolling his eyes he began to pack, his fingers not needing to watch as the movements were almost instinctual at this point. Turning my eyes away I bit at my lip, in three seconds he had managed to bring all the emotions swelling to the surface, "You're a fucking bastard," I mumbled but didn't turn to face him.
Letting out a low chuckle, "I've been told that many times, might have to start thinking it's true." Unable to stop a smile I shook my head, "Trust me, it's true." Taking a small breath I turned back to him, "Yeah so it upset me, I'm fine, and you didn't have to come all the way out here."
His eyes narrowed for a fraction of a second before returning to neutral ground, "You're fine? Key, I've known you a long fucking time, you're anything but fine. You're sitting out on a deserted beach, balled up, shaking, and staring at the water like you want to swim in it and never come back."
It was the first time those thoughts had been verbalized, even admitted to the universe and I had to look away again. The intensity of Carter's gaze as he took me in, seeing things inside of me, and to my very soul was more than I could stand.
"I'm sorry, I know you fucking hate when I see what you don't want me too, but . . ." He fell silent, licking the blunt closed and going to his lighter, nudging my foot with his cane to bring my attention to the fact he was offering me first hit.
Taking the joint between shaking hands he lit it for me and I closed my eyes and breathed in, savoring the warmth that began radiating through me. I felt the smile on Carter's face as I raised my hand in his direction and his fingers took the blunt from me. Letting the air out slowly I kept my eyes closed, feeling my senses heightened, which from one hit I knew was impossible, but then again Carter always had the best shit. I heard him inhale and without words I took the joint from him. Ever since my return to California I was trying to figure out who I was and secure the ground I now stood on, for the ground felt anything but steady and solid under me. Carter was an army man; we had met at the beginning of a joint mission three years ago and had remained friends. Serving in the sand box made people either fast friends or fast enemies, and I had a handful of both. There were still men in the Marine Corp who did not believe that a woman should or could be a Marine, let alone a Sgt., but I had blown through those stereotypes and became both. It was a turn off for men who didn't want me there in the first place, but men like Carter, they were the ones I kept close, and the ones I knew always had my back. He had proven it time and again for me, up until the end in fact.
We each had our own demons, reminders of war best left at the door, or the gate as Carter would say. Carter often joked about how weed was a gateway drug and we could pick up the weed and leave the skeletons. It was one of the few almost Zen like statements I had ever heard him make and it still brought a smile to my face when I thought about it. His twin brother was definitely the calmer of the two, and maybe that was because he didn't have to face enemy combatants except through the computer screen or maybe it was because he smoked more weed. Either way the Fleming boys had the best weed around and I was glad that Carter always shared.
Taking another drag I opened my eyes as I passed it back to him, catching the fading light on his face, the scars illuminated just as I was sure mine would be, if they ever saw the light of day that was. Carter had been on the special team that went in to rescue three marines taken over the Turkish border, I was one of them, but getting us out was more dangerous than the attack on them in the first place, the camp we were being held in was littered with bombs and IUDs and it was one of those that had caught Carter on the way out. I was unconscious, another ranger holding me as they ran. On many occasions Carter had told me that he was glad he had gone first, taking the hit before Renfro, the ranger carrying me, touched it.
We were both in Bethesda, healing from wounds deeper than the surface ever showed when Ortiz died from his wounds. At first they didn't want me to know that there were only two left from the three taken, but whispers penetrated the haze of my uneasy sleep and soon I knew. It had sent me in a downward spiral that I couldn't explain; perhaps it was lack of my own justice, or the exhaustion of fighting enemies that were supposed to always have my back. It would be months before I would bottom out of this spiral, two weeks after being released from the hospital I was found in my bathroom with slit wrists and an empty bottle of whiskey next to the tub. I was sent to a mental hospital quietly, my family taking over my care from the Marines and still the darkest night of my experience had never been spoken of.
Carter had come to visit me, still limping from the hip replacement, but forcing a smile on his face despite the faint scars there. I was angry, fueled and filled by it and Carter was the only one who could get it out. He knew what buttons to push to make me talk because while the therapists tried to coax it out of me Carter could see the anger and knew that it was that particular beast that needed to be poked in order to release the demon holding me hostage. It was his specialty, or so he had told me, which was why he knew he was an asshole, and just as one pokes the tiger he prodded me until I exploded the truth at him.
Once the words were out I felt for sure my heart would burst and I collapsed into a chair, sucking in lungful's of air to steady my stomach to no avail. I ended up puking anyway and the spasms rocked me for a few minutes before I could finally breathe again. Carter said nothing during that time; he let me lead us still, though the hand under his thigh was clenched in a tight fist. He thought I couldn't see that, but I could, and though it was never vocalized I appreciated it. There would be another half an hour before I spoke and that was simply to tell him that the case was closed with the Marines and there was no talking about it. The firmness in my eyes left no room for argument and Carter simply nodded. I often wondered if his agreement was because he didn't know what to say or if he had other ideas in mind. Then again, it could be as simple as he too didn't like to be pushed and I was glad for that, it was something we instinctually understood about each other. That was how our friendship post war started, an agreement to leave things at the gate and travel down the road high as fuck.
It had worked until Douglas was on television and everything came crashing down on me, the whole thing I had buried long ago, everything I refused to speak of no matter who asked. Carter knew I would be upset and knew that the ocean and the call of the waves would be where to find me. Taking the joint from me I was sure he saw the shaking in my fingers, the trembles in my shoulders and the way my lip went in and out of my mouth.
When the blunt was done I lay back in the sand not caring that I was right on it, wasn't the first time I had let the sand be my bed.
"You keep staring at me and you're gonna make me self-conscious," I said after a moment, arching a brow at him.
"I used to stare at you all the time and you never complained, just like this in fact, course we had less clothes on and yeah we were in the sand but we did have a tent, well sometimes."
I opened my eyes and looked at him, gaze locked, but soon I was smiling, "Ass, of course your mind goes to sex."
Shrugging up a shoulder he chuckled, it was completely inappropriate but we both knew it was what I needed. I required more than distraction, needed to be treated as I always had been. It was crucial to be and feel normal Carter was the only one that seemed to comprehend and appreciate it.
Shifting to his side he leaned back, I watched him but did not move. There was a safe distance between us as Carter always kept but never made it feel awkward.
"Now I'm gonna have to help you up." I said, letting out a sound too often not heard, my laugh.
"I can get up on my own," he said, trying to be stern but his eyes were lit with a twinkle.
"No you can't, you're like a turtle, but lucky for you turtles are cute and I'll help."
"Gee thanks," he said letting out a dry chuckle.
"Did you bring food?"
"I'm an Army ranger, I'm always prepared." He said and reached into his jacket to toss me a package of gummy worms, my favorite.
"Isn't that the boy scouts?" I said, going on an elbow and taking the gummy worms. "You even remembered I like the sour ones, you shouldn't have."
Rolling his eyes he took out a bag of Swedish fish and opened it.
"I was never a boy scout, although I was a girl scout." Carter said, popping a fish in his mouth and grabbing one of my worms.
"Of course you were. Why does that not surprise me?" I said and reached into his bag for a fish. "Always a ladies man."
"That's me, and I've been thinking, maybe I should get the dog they offered, I mean what better way to pick up women."
I chuckled and then fell quiet, a dangerous place and we both knew it.
Carter grabbed his cane and shifted, "I need a burger, you coming? These fish aren't touching this high."
My eyes went to the ocean and then back to him, the only man who truly saw me, scars and all. I loved the ocean because it didn't judge me, but as I felt the tap of his cane against my foot I realized neither did he.
"Keaton, you still with me?" He asked me hesitantly.
"Yeah, a burger sounds good." I said, shifting up to my knees and putting out my hand, "Let me help you up first though."
"Yes, please help the damsel in distress," he said mocking a southern accent and I was sure lighten the heaviness that I had let in.
Laughing I stood, pulling on his strong hand, the few contact with skin I had.
"And you've always relied on the kindness of strangers."
"Well that and good fucking weed."
Laughing as we strolled away from the call that grew fainter with each step, I put my hand out and rested it on his forearm, almost ghosting his skin.
"Gotta have the weed."