4938 words (19 minute read)

Chapter 1 and 2


Luft / The Battle Within /


Chapter 1

Major Hugh Dégaré bolted upright, blinking in the abyss-like darkness surrounding him. As adrenaline pumped through his body, accustomed to racing from deep sleep to full throttle through years of practice, the familiar sights of his bedroom came into focus, everything tinted silver with moonlight through the bedroom window. A sound from across the room pulled his gaze to a corner. His wife, Elizabeth, sat on the floor, arms clutching her legs against her chest while the shoulders of her petite frame shuddered.

He was wide awake now, senses on overdrive and heart racing. In one gesture, he threw off the covers and jumped out of bed. Surefooted as a leopard, he hit the floor moving, crossing the distance in two purposeful steps.

“Are you all right?” he said.

She cowered into the corner, clutching herself tighter. “Stay away.”

Kneeling, he reached out to caress her leg, the tribal tattoos on his arm a black void of light against his skin. She shrank from his touch, and he froze. What had gotten into her? “What is it?”

She wiped her eyes and stared at him, her eyes reflecting the moonlight. “You hit me.”

He shook his head. That can’t be true. Reaching out again, he moved to stroke her leg and offer reassurance. “Was it a nightmare?”

She swatted away his hand. “You hit me,” she said deliberately, heat rising in her voice as she pronounced each word like she was speaking to an idiot. Even in the dark, the set of her out-thrust jaw was unmistakable.

A knot began to grow in his stomach and he shook his head slowly, grappling with the information. “I would never do that.”

“Look!” Her hand jerked up, pointing to her face.

A tone in her voice made him hesitate, and he stared at her a moment longer, then dragged one hand over his crew cut. Standing, he turned on the light, squinting as darkness fled the room. Elizabeth’s blond hair hung in her face as she looked up at him, her eyes peering through the tresses. He’d fallen in love with the blue rings circling the edges of her pupils, but all that was there now was anger. His gaze was pulled to her cheek, where the shape of an angry welt was forming. The knot in his stomach doubled. Moving closer, he held out his arm. Where to begin? “How?” It was all he could get out.

She cast a penetrating look at him. Apparently satisfied with whatever she was searching for, she stood and walked slowly towards the bed, never turning her back to him.

“You were dreaming, flailing around,” she said, voice trembling as she clutched her arms to her chest. “I reached out for you, and when I did, you hit me. You were about to hit me again when I screamed.”

Could it be true? He turned away, unable to meet the unspoken answer in her eyes.

“What were you dreaming of?” she said.

He opened his mouth, but nothing came out. Something touched his arm and he flinched as if burnt, eyes darting behind him. It was only Elizabeth, reaching out to him. But for an instant, he’d thought he might still be dreaming. As her hand settled on his shoulder, he focused on the two misshapen fingers on her left hand, souvenirs from a car accident in university that had ended her promising career as a gymnast. Focusing on her fingers, he willed the remnants of his nightmare from his head.

“Was it the same one?” she said, her voice growing softer.

He slowly nodded, then looked away. “But different, too,” he said. “More vivid.”

She stepped closer, enveloping his chest with her arms and resting her head on his back. His own hands came up and covered hers, and for a while they simply stood and swayed.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Tears welled in his eyes and he clamped his lips tightly together. “I’m the one who’s sorry.”

She said nothing, but wetness trickled down his back as she softly cried. “Do you want to talk about it?”

He shook his head. Even if he wanted to talk about it, could he? The wrenching in his stomach at the mere thought of his dreams suggested otherwise.

“It’s getting worse,” she said.

He stiffened, like someone had just walked over his grave. It was true. The dreams had been coming for years – at least since his second deployment to Afghanistan – but he’d never hit her before.

“I know,” he said finally. In a flash, he thought of everything he’d fought for in a long career of serving his country, his dreams of their future. He needed to get this under control. “I can handle it.”

Raising her head from his back, she gently turned him to face her. The top of her head barely came to his nose, yet he felt strangely cowed, as if she drew strength from some hidden reservoir that he couldn’t match.

“It’s okay to ask for help,” she said.

His head sagged. “I’ll lose everything I’ve worked for, everything we wanted.”

“Oh, my brave soldier,” she said, whispering softly as she stared up at him. “You don’t need to command a battalion for us to get back out west. We can retire to some farm in the foothills whenever we want; we’ll find a way.” She reached up and caressed his face, tracing one finger along the network of crow’s feet that had recently appeared. “Besides, you can’t save the world by yourself. There’s no shame, you know that.”

Reaching up, he slowly pulled her hands from his face. “That’s what they say,” he said. “But I’ve seen how people get treated. Like they’re contagious.”

“Just think about it,” she said, radiant eyes shining at him. “Please?”

He met her gaze, the posture of his large athletic body strangely meek as his shoulders slumped, rejecting a lifetime of training to proudly wear the uniform of his country. But the sight of the swelling on her face overwhelmed him and he dropped his eyes, helpless against the glaring reminder of what he’d done. He’d never trained for this. With the weight of her gaze on him, he nodded, almost imperceptibly, then took scant comfort when she squeezed him tightly.

After several minutes they separated and he turned out the light. Crawling back under the covers, he cradled her until she fell asleep, her breathing becoming rhythmic and deep. Then he let go and rolled onto his back, folding his hands across his chest like a corpse. As he stared numbly up at the ceiling, the darkness of the room closed in with a physical presence. He shut his eyes and wished for sleep, shuddering slightly as an image of the dream returned.

Was this what it felt like to go crazy?


Chapter 2

Hugh sat on the upper level of a double decker bus headed into downtown Ottawa, staring listlessly at windows covered in thick frost. As the six-thirty bus left the Eagleson Park & Ride on a cold February morning, he pulled out his BlackBerry. Yet, the harder he concentrated on his inbox, the more images flashed across his eyes of Elizabeth cowering from him or the welt on her face.

His uninspiring inbox didn’t help his mood, consisting mainly of e-mails reminding him about National Non-Smoking Week or warnings about upcoming network outages. How could anyone enjoy working at National Defence Headquarters? Letting the BlackBerry flop in his lap, he scanned the bus, jammed with people. Nobody talked, or even really looked around. Closing his eyes, he leaned his forehead against the icy window, savoring the coldness.

A vibrating in his lap drew his attention back to his phone and he glanced at the screen, berating himself for his conditioned response as he did so. Instead of Departmental propaganda, it was from Elizabeth.

Thought you might like the number for the therapist I used to see.

He’s really good. Nobody at work has to know. Think about it.

Love,

E

xxoo

At the bottom was a name and number for a Dr. John Taylor. Sighing, he closed the e-mail and stared blankly to his front.

What had happened to him? Less than a year earlier he couldn’t have imagined doing anything other than being in the Army. He’d had a great career, and his future looked bright. Then he’d been posted to Ottawa, something his career manager had said was important to get promoted. Ever since, the most soldierly thing he did was put on his uniform.

He’d known working in the headquarters would be challenging – he’d heard all the stories – but there was something beyond the job he couldn’t put a finger on. Lately, he was always irritable, maybe because he hadn’t slept a whole night in what seemed like forever. People increasingly annoyed him, especially crowds, and his jet black hair was even sporting flecks of grey. Whatever was bothering him, he needed to sort it out ASAP so he could get back to normal.

His stop was coming up, so he grabbed his bag and headed for the stairs. Hunching under the short roof of the upper level, he stumbled down the narrow steps, eager to escape the air of resignation wafting off the other commuters. Then the bus was stopping and he was spewed forth into the dull cold of downtown Ottawa. As he walked to the entrance of National Defence Headquarters – NDHQ – his breath condensed in the cold air, mingling with that of other people.

NDHQ was built from the same grey concrete as almost every other government building in Ottawa, distinguished only by twin towers at either ends of a main centre block, a north one and a south one. After clearing through security at the main entrance, he navigated a labyrinthine arrangement of cubicles to get to his workspace on the ninth floor of the south tower.

Even after six months, the drabness of the building still bothered him, everyone arranged like broiler chickens in battery cages. With their five foot high walls in bureaucracy blue or grey, the cubicles provided enough space to give the illusion of privacy, but not enough to actually conceal anything. Arriving at his own cubicle, he paused briefly to take in the sole distinguishing feature, a name plate which read – Major Hugh Dégaré, Information Coordinator.

When they’d moved to Ottawa the previous summer, Elizabeth had been supportive enough to act impressed with his new title, but he’d quickly corrected her. While it was true he managed some of the information flow in his directorate, it was mostly non-essential administrative issues that probably would’ve sorted themselves out had he not been there. Not exactly fodder for a motivational poster. Hell, in the big scheme of things, getting shot at would probably be better than working in the Headquarters. At least in a combat zone he could shoot back.

He pulled a makeshift curtain across the entrance of his cubicle and began shedding his civilian clothes to put on his uniform. There was a rule against changing in the cubicles since the walls weren’t high enough to prevent most people from seeing over the top, leading to the potential for embarrassment or offense. Practically, since the locker room was on the fifth floor of the north tower, almost everyone ignored the rule. Still, few people came to work this early, so it was normally safe.

On this morning, Lieutenant-Colonel Dan Williams, his supervisor, made a rare early appearance, walking down the corridor just as Hugh was donning his pastel green service dress shirt.

“Morning, sir. You’re here early,” Hugh said, hastily doing up buttons, but it was useless. Although Williams couldn’t see anything and so couldn’t be offended, Hugh was obviously changing, so the damage was done.

“Lots to do,” Williams said, businesslike as always. The man had a personality like a rock. “Maybe find the locker room?”

He grimaced as Williams’s head, shaved bald to compensate for his thinning hair, bobbed away over the tops of cubicle walls. Williams’s capacity for churning out paperwork was enormous, which made him a superb staff officer in the eyes of many in the headquarters. Hugh wasn’t so convinced, especially considering that much like a self-licking ice-cream cone, Williams’s output never seemed to get anything done.

Still, doing paperwork was probably the best employment for the man as it wasn’t like he’d be any good in a firefight. Williams looked like he’d collapse from holding a rifle, never mind shooting one. It really was easy to become lazy in a headquarters. In fact, he’d missed his own work-outs for almost a week. Vowing to hit the gym later that morning, he finished changing, then went for a coffee.

When he returned, fresh coffee in hand, he sat down on the exercise ball he’d bought to replace the cheap rolling chair in his cubicle. He pulled out a tin of chewing tobacco, grabbed a pinch and stuffed it in his lower lip, relishing the shiver that came with the harsh taste. He’d tried quitting – even switched to Copenhagen hoping the foul taste would drive him away – but he felt naked without a dip in his mouth. Spitting into an empty cup, he logged on to his computer.

The first thing he did was Google Dr. Taylor. Elizabeth had been seeing him for a couple of years, but had stopped almost a year ago. A quick search turned up his name, revealing that Dr. Taylor primarily used cognitive-behavioral therapy – whatever that was – and specialized in about twenty other disciplines, including post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD.

A brick formed in his stomach. It seemed so real – was he really considering seeing a psychologist? Even with the events from last night still fresh in his mind, he wasn’t convinced therapy would help. What was sitting around talking about dreams going to do? Especially with a guy who probably knew nothing about the military.

He scrolled down the page until he found Dr. Taylor’s hours. The clinic didn’t open until ten o’clock, so he had a couple of hours before he could call. Time to get to work. He spat tobacco juice into the cup on his desk, then brought up a memorandum he needed to finish.

A light rapping came from behind him and he glanced over his shoulder. Major Bill Roach from the administration section occupied what passed for a door to his cubicle, his uniform so disheveled he might possibly have slept in it.

“Dégaré, I need that floor plan,” Roach said.

He swiveled on the ball, athletic body ramrod straight. Even sitting, his head came to Roach’s slumped shoulders. He blinked once, slowly. Why did Roach insist on calling him by his last name? It had been a long time since he was a recruit.

“I finished that weeks ago.”

About a month ago, Lieutenant-Colonel Williams had tasked him with reorganizing the section’s individual cubicles into a single open area, or a bullpen, to promote better workplace collaboration. But since everyone worked on different things, Hugh figured the only thing the bullpen would likely promote was aggravation. But, if his boss wanted to give him make-work projects – even a goat-rodeo like this one – that was his prerogative.

Roach shrugged and as he did, Hugh’s eyes were drawn to the way the man’s uniform bunched at his plump stomach. His eyes narrowed. Sad.

“Format was wrong,” Roach said. He leaned closer, as if sharing a secret. “Take some advice, less time in the gym, more time working. You’re not in a field unit anymore.”

“Nobody told me it needed more work.”

“It came up at last week’s coordination meeting.”

“The one I missed?” He willed his face to remain blank.

“I did my part, can’t help it if the system misfired,” Roach said, eyes sliding around the cubicle. “Not much in here.” He took an invasive step forward. “What’s that?”

He followed Roach’s gaze to a three foot long, midnight black shillelagh on his desk. Unbidden, he thought of his friend Mitchell and how he’d received the club as a gift from him the last time they’d met. Two months later, Mitchell’s body was being flown home from Afghanistan.

During this brief reminiscence, Roach had shouldered past and snatched up the shillelagh. He was testing the weight and seemed poised to take a trial swing. Hugh jumped up and placed a meat-hook hand on the club’s shaft, arresting its motion like it was stuck in a vise. Their eyes locked.

“That was a gift,” he said, plucking the shillelagh from Roach’s grasp. His other hand came up to the head of the weapon and he cradled it briefly before setting it gently back in its stand. He turned back to Roach, adjusted his large frame. The small cubicle suddenly seemed even more crowded.

Roach met his gaze for a second. Then, he began edging toward the entrance, taking shuffle steps to traverse where Hugh stood like some mythical Titan.

“Yeah, well it’s a nice club, Dégaré.” Slouching out of the cubicle, he glanced back, eyes going to Hugh’s nametag. “What kind of name is Dégaré, anyways?”

Hugh sat on the exercise ball, his back to Roach in dismissal.

“It’s French. Means strayed or lost.” He didn’t add how his parents had named him Hugh, meaning man with spirit, to offset the negative connotation of his last name. Too much information to share with a waste of rations like Roach.

Roach sniffed. “Just make sure that floor plan doesn’t get lost. Williams is busting my balls to get contractors in and I can’t do anything until you’re done,” he said, then turned and walked away.

He closed his eyes, breathed deeply and counted to ten. If Roach spent as much time doing work as trying to get out of it, he’d be the most productive person on the floor. Thankfully, the man was an outlier, although lately he personified the increasingly pointless disruptions that burglarized Hugh’s time.

Adding the floor plan to his to-do list, he returned to the memorandum with renewed determination. In a way, it was like filling sandbags, keep shoveling until one was full, then get a new one. Except sand bags were probably more useful. A rueful grin broke over his face and he took a last breath, then emptied his mind to focus on the task at hand.

He never seemed to catch his breath after that and before he knew it, it was sixteen-thirty and he was one of the last people there, as always. He did a last scan of his inbox, then smacked his forehead. Damn. He’d done nothing with Elizabeth’s e-mail.

With an impatient glance at his watch, he brought up Dr. Taylor’s contact information and stared at it. What should he do? As troubled as he’d been this morning, work had calmed his nerves. Last night seemed distant, like it was months ago. Surely a few nights of good sleep would sort him out. Even as he thought this, the image of the welt on Elizabeth’s face returned to him and he tensed. Torn, he wrestled with himself, then picked up the phone.

“What are you working on?” Lieutenant-Colonel Williams’s voice sounded right behind his ear.

He jerked his head around, then hung up the phone. “Just personal stuff, Sir,” he said, ears burning. Why did it feel like he’d been caught doing something he shouldn’t?

“Well, if there’s nothing to do, don’t do it here. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Williams said. He rapped his knuckles on the edge of a cubicle wall and pointed at Hugh. “See you tomorrow.”

“Good night, sir,” he said, watching Williams retreat to his office. From experience, he knew he didn’t want to be told twice. If Williams saw him again, he’d be just as likely to give him more work as to force him to leave. Plus, he’d met his quota of motivational clichés for one day.

Once Williams was out of eyesight, he got changed, already looking forward to leaving. He really did feel much better than when the day had started. As he pulled on his jeans, it struck him that night-time worries always seemed less urgent in the light of day. Maybe it was a good thing he hadn’t called the psychologist. With a last scan of his cubicle to make sure he hadn’t forgotten anything, he grabbed his backpack and headed to the lobby.

                                                       *     *     *

Hugh walked through his front door, seething. The heavy snowfall during the day had made the commute home torturous, with snarled traffic and buses jammed with frustrated travelers. But it had been the oblivious man engrossed in the bass beat emanating from his headphones – and who had spilled coffee on him – who had tipped the scales. No wonder he couldn’t handle crowds anymore.

“Elizabeth?” He walked into the kitchen, but the only answer was the tinny echo of his voice. A yellow post-it note covered with her flowery writing was stuck to the fridge and he bent closer to read it. She was at her yoga class, which a glance at the microwave clock told him would be over soon, so she’d be home shortly. Then again, considering the traffic, she could be a while.

He could start supper, but tonight was only leftovers, which he’d warm up when she got home. They always tried to eat together, so he had a few minutes to kill. Grabbing an apple, he strode to the mud room and into the garage. The aroma of sawdust hit him like a wave and he stood for a second on the landing, holding the door open and inhaling deeply.

Flicking on the light, he descended the bare wooden steps into the garage, crunching away at the apple. Under the fluorescent lighting, which he’d installed himself, he scanned the workbench paralleling one wall, wondering if he’d have time to do anything. Working with his hands always helped him relax, but just being in the shop made him feel better.

He tossed the apple core into a garbage can in a corner of the room beside a mini fridge, then walked over, opened the fridge and pulled out a beer. Bottle in hand, he rummaged through a nearby drawer for a bottle opener when the grumbling of a car engine and the crunching of tires on snow came through the garage door. She was home.

The front door slammed shut as he continued to search in the drawer, the frustration from his drive home returning. Using his whole hand, he shifted the clutter around, forcing it from one side of the drawer to the other as he tried to spy the metal opener. Seconds later, the door to the mud room opened and he glanced up. Elizabeth was there, snowflakes still melting on the shoulders of her coat.

“Glad you made it home safely,” she said, gliding down the stairs to come over and hug him. “The roads are terrible.”

He set the beer on the counter and reached up to place his hand over hers. “How was yoga?”

“Cold,” she said, shivering. “The room was drafty and the heater was broken. I haven’t been warm since I left home.” She stepped back, trailing a finger onto his shoulder. “What are you looking for?”

“Bottle opener.”

“Can I help?”

“I got it.”

“One of those days?”

“Every day is one of those days,” he said. Suddenly, there was a sharp jab in his finger and he hissed in pain, yanking his hand out of the drawer. Elizabeth leaned in to look over his shoulder and he tensed, hand balled into a fist. He opened his fist slowly, expecting to see blood trickling from his injured finger, but it seemed fine.

“Are you okay?” she said, stepping away from him.

“Mmm-hmm,” he said, raising his finger to his mouth.

“Did you call?”

“Call who?” he said, returning to the drawer with a vengeance.

“My old therapist, Dr. Taylor. Remember?”

He exhaled sharply, closing his eyes. “I totally forgot,” he said, turning around to peer dejectedly at her face. He raised a hand to her cheek. “How is it?” At first he could barely make anything out. She looked flushed from yoga, but the more he looked, the more the unforgiving garage lights highlighted the sheen of cover up.

“You said you would call.”

He felt trapped, not knowing what to say. He moved to brush aside a strand of hair that had fallen across her face, but she flicked her head back, out of his reach.

“Don’t try to distract me,” she said, eyes flashing. Sometimes she knew him better than he did himself. “Did you even look into it?”

He studied her face for a second longer, then abruptly turned back to the drawer, pulling out tools and laying them on the counter. “Things got busy.” 

She moved beside him. “This is important, honey, I worry about you,” she said. “You could tell your boss you – ”

“It’s under control,” he said, forcing his voice to remain calm. “And talking to my chain of command won’t help. It’ll just make work even more awkward.”

She placed a hand on his shoulder. At her touch, he flinched, his elbow knocking the beer bottle off the counter. It tumbled to the ground, striking the concrete floor in an area not covered by the rubber matting he’d painstakingly laid down when he’d set up the workshop. With a sharp crash, the bottle shattered and beer splashed over the floor. He slammed the drawer shut with both hands and reached for a roll of shop towels.

“Let me help,” she said, moving to pick up the roll at the same time.

His hand flashed out almost of its own accord and grabbed her outstretched arm at the wrist. “I don’t need your help,” he said, voice barely under control. He spoke his next words slowly, emphasizing each point. “I don’t need any help.”

“What are you doing?” She squirmed in his grip, trying to draw back. “Hugh, you’re scaring me…”

He pulled her closer, opening his mouth to speak, then stopped, mouth half open. This close, the dark blue mark flowering on her cheek underneath the cover-up was unmistakable. The fury which had come over him so suddenly departed in a flash, leaving him feeling sick, spent. Jerking his hand open, he released her and looked at her dumbly. What the hell was he doing?

Silence descended over the garage, broken sharply when she slapped him, her palm striking his cheek like a crack of lightning. With her backhand she struck him again, across his other cheek. He stood penitently, embracing the sting of her hand. If only whatever was wrong with him could be so easily solved.

“You have no right,” she said, her voice trembling. Tears welled in her eyes, but she made no move to wipe them. “I love you, but if you ever raise a hand to me again, it will be the last time.” 

 His eyes stung as they watered up. “I’m so sorry, Elizabeth - ”

“Stop,” she said, clutching her arms across her chest. “If you were sorry you’d get help.” She glared at him a moment longer, then turned and moved toward the stairs.

“I’m scared,” he said to her back.

She stopped in mid-stride, her body erect and proud.

“I don’t know what’s happening to me.”

She paused, then faced him, her brow furrowed in concern. “You should be scared, Hugh. I love you, but if you don’t even try to figure this out, well, I won’t live like this forever. I deserve better.”

 He hung his head as she climbed the stairs and entered the mud room. As much as she’d always told him he was the only one for her, even saying she’d never marry again if anything ever happened to him, he didn’t doubt her threat for a second. The decision to call Dr. Taylor had just become incredibly easy. Still, what kind of soldier couldn’t handle a few bad dreams?