Rubbing the crick in my neck, I surveyed my old room in the soft light. I’d inherited the four-poster full bed from my grandfather Morrison McClellan, a famed shrimp boat captain who was lost at sea. I’d painted this room myself, the Citadel blue and navy colors, in my senior year of high school in a burst of excitement after getting my acceptance letter. Over the bed I’d hung the insignia of the Marine Corps in a place of honor when I accepted my commission. The painted pine dresser that had held my elementary-school clothes now held the new civilian clothes I’d purchased since my honorable discharge. They were neatly folded, the socks were rolled, my war medals were polished. This was the discipline of the Marines I’d been trained in.
One window overlooked the front of the house and the narrow road that, if you turned left, led to the docks and the Miss Jenny. If you turned right, it would take you to Pinckney Street. I rose from my bed and walked to the back window, crossed my arms, and looked out. The trees, shorn of leaves, appeared as cragged fingers in the moonlit night of winter. The mighty Jeremy Creek was merely a blue mist in the distance. But in my mind’s eye it raced, glistening, under brilliant-blue skies. How many hours had I spent looking out at the creek winding its way far out through the waving grass on its way to the Intracoastal and the ocean beyond? How many dreams had I had, standing at this window, of traveling far beyond the borders of McClellanville, of South Carolina, even the South?
If I had known then that I’d travel to the other side of the world, to a place far from my beloved sea, to where water was scarce and sand dominated the horizon, would I still have gone?
The answer came readily. Yes. I was proud to have served my country. Yet standing here now, I knew that war was never the glory-filled battlefields of a boy’s dreams. War was beyond the imagination of a boy. Back here in my old room—a boy’s room—I mourned the loss of my innocence.
How did I end up back here? I wondered in weary dismay. All that I’d worked so hard for, all my dreams and ambitions, had been blown away that day in the Humvee along with my comrades. This broken body was still alive, but my spirit . . . my soul . . . had died that day.
In a sudden flash, the memories of that day flared up in my mind with the force of a bomb. I fell back onto the bed, my palms over my face as though to block out the view. But nothing could erase the images from my mind. They were branded on my brain, searing memories of smoke and screams, of burning rubbish and dismembered bodies. Dropping my hands, I pushed up to sit on the side of the bed, feet on the floor, elbows on my knees, feeling the heat scorching my body and sweating profusely. I rocked back and forth, a soft keening in my throat.
God help me, I was out of Afghanistan, here on US soil. Why couldn’t I shake the anxiety and stress of life in the war zone? I lived in perpetual fight-or-flight mode. It was a cruel irony to be in my childhood room where I’d once felt safe, when my instincts told me to remain vigilant, wary of everyone. The welcome-home party had taken every ounce of my hard-won discipline and waning energy so as to keep a stiff smile and make even the briefest utterances and replies. Clutching my blanket, I felt my anxiety levels rising off the charts. I knew I had to lie low, to cling to some semblance of control. I had to remain in my cave. Fight-or-flight was an instinct developed by humans to danger since the days of the cavemen. It was either that or get eaten alive.
The last guest had finally left and the house was quiet. I lay on my bed as the last vestiges of my panic attack eased and I could breath normally again. My mouth felt like cotton. I needed water.
The scent of pine and cinnamon potpourri floated in the darkened hall as I followed the glow of under-cabinet lights in the kitchen. Stepping into the room, I stopped short, surprised to see my mother standing at the sink with a teakettle in her hand. She spun around at the sound with a gasp.
“Taylor! I didn’t hear you.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
She seemed flustered, even nervous, clasping her robe close at the neck. It was the first time we’d spoken to each other without a crowd of people around us in over a year.
“I couldn’t sleep. I’m making a cup of tea.” She raised the kettle in her hand. “Would you like one? Chamomile will help you sleep.”
I shifted my gaze to the back of the kitchen, where I knew my father used to store his stash of booze. “I’m looking for something a little stronger.”
“Oh. Well, there’s beer in the fridge.”
“Doesn’t Daddy usually have a bottle of bourbon around?”
Her smile slipped. “Uh, yes,” she stammered. “But I don’t know how much is left after the party. It’s over . . .”
Her voice trailed off as I was already walking to the far cabinet by the rear windows. Many nights in high school I’d sneaked a swallow from the bottles I found in there. If my father had ever discovered the levels of his amber liquid lowered, he never questioned me about it. Opening the cabinet, I almost smiled with relief. There were two bottles of Jack Daniel’s, one almost finished, the second unopened. I reached for the full bottle.
I could feel her eyes tracking me. It made me nervous. “This’ll help.” I indicated the bottle in my hand. I headed toward the door and my escape.
“Don’t you want a glass?” she asked.
“How’s your headache?” Her voice was full of concern. “That will only make it worse. Dehydrate you. Do you want some aspirin?”
I stopped to look over my shoulder. Even in the low light I could see worry etched across her tired face. She’d grown thinner. Her face had a few new lines.
She said comfortingly, “Are you all right?”
No, I wanted to tell her. I am not all right. I was anything but all right. My hand squeezed the neck of the bottle and I tried to allay her fears with an attempt at a smile. “I’m just tired. I, uh”—I ran my hands along the short, stubby hairs on the crown of my head—“I wasn’t expecting a party.”
“Oh.” She was crestfallen at the implied criticism. “I wanted to surprise you.”
My head thrummed and I felt my thirst for bourbon intensify. “You did.”
She smiled weakly, unsure of how to take that. “Well, go on to bed.” She gave a quick wave of her hand. “I hope you feel better in the morning.”