A chorus of sorries filled the room and they left. Almost immediately, I felt a bit lighter. The enemy was gone, the back of my brain roared. But no, they weren’t the enemy. There hadn’t been an enemy at all, just three overly excited guys.

It was all just an episode, I told myself, only an episode.

“Hey, Caleb,” Jackson said, “you here?”

When I nodded, Jackson smiled. “Good! That’s great. And you know where you are?”

I opened my mouth and tried to speak, but my throat was so dry that I could hardly get the words out. I managed to croak the word, “Home.”

“That’s right!” Jackson said. His joy was infectious and helped put me at ease.

He still had a firm grip on my shoulders and guided me to a seat. He let go of me and picked up the water bottle I’d dropped, twisting off the cap and handing it to me.

“Here, drink some of this.”

I took the bottle in my shaking hands and raised it to my mouth. Some of the water sloshed down my shirt, but that was okay because once the water hit my mouth, I felt another layer of fog peel itself away.

A few minutes passed and I became aware Jackson had joined me on the workout bench. I held onto an empty bottle of water, the plastic crackling when I lifted it to look at. Shaking myself, I tossed the bottle to the side and turned to Jackson.

“What happened?” I asked, suddenly afraid.

“Nothing bad,” he said quickly. “You’re safe, I’m safe, and so is everyone else?”

That didn’t make sense. Everyone else? “Is someone else here?” I asked. I honestly couldn’t remember.

Jackson sighed, his big shoulders slumping and bumping into mine. “Hudson, Benny, and Monte showed up at my house out of the blue,” he said.

He looked irked, though I wasn’t sure why. Hudson, Benny, and Monte were old friends of ours from the marines. Was he angry at them?

When I didn’t respond, he continued, “I guess they’re all here to gamble and wanted to hang out. Without letting us know they’d even be here beforehand. Anyway, they pressured me to get ahold of you, but when you didn’t answer, they decided they were going to come over and surprise you. I tried to stop them, but they’d already piled into their car so I had no choice but to follow them and attempt damage control. They were waiting at the door when I got here.

“I’m guessing you didn’t hear them knock because of the music. I let us all in and told them to wait in the living room while I got you, but I guess they didn’t like waiting. They barged in just as I was trying to tell you and triggered an episode.”

When Jackson was finished, he looked wrecked, like someone had just told him his dog was dead. “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to do more,” he said.

I cleared my throat. “Jack, know how those guys are. They’ve always been act first, think later.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, I can’t deny that.”

“You did everything you could. It would have been so much worse if you weren’t here and you know it.” He didn’t look too convinced. “They don’t know how bad my episodes have gotten,” I said quietly.

“No,” Jackson confirmed, “no I don’t think they do. It’s been a while since we all hung out together.”

“Okay, well let’s go out there and make them feel guilty enough about it that they buy us lunch,” I said, shrugging.

Jackson laughed again and this time, he sounded more like himself. “Deal,” he said, standing up and offering me his hand. I took it and he hauled me to my feet.

Thankfully, my legs weren’t as shaky as I expected them to be and I was able to walk.

I followed Jackson out to my living room. Three large men jumped to their feet when they saw us.

Monte began rushing toward us but managed to stop himself. “Shit, Tredway!” he said, looking at me with those big, dopey brown eyes he had, “We are so sorry, dude.”

“Yeah, man,” Hudson agreed, “it was fucking stupid of us to do that in a vet’s house.”

I buried the frustration that was starting to creep in. The same they felt would be enough to keep them from doing it again. Hopefully.

Monte, Hudson, and Benny stayed for a few hours during which time we drank a few beers, ate the takeout they so graciously bought, and caught up. After a while, I found myself truly relaxing. The more beers I drank, the lighter I felt until I was more relaxed than I’d been in ages.

Of course, that’s when they began reminiscing about the good old days overseas. I knew I should have left the room when it started, or at least changed the subject, but I stayed. It didn’t take long until nightmarish images began flickering through my mind, images of blood and bone. My mind raced to the day I nearly lost my life and my grip tightened on my beer can, making it crunch in my hand.

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