Authors: Kristin Fletcher
This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons--living or dead--is entirely coincidental.
Broken Arrow copyright @ 2014 by Kristin Fletcher. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles or reviews.
It wasn’t all that much of a noise. The front part of Jake Reynolds’ brain was telling him, “It’s just a car door slamming,” but the back part of his brain–the part that brought him home from Afghanistan–had already slammed his back against the front windows of the bank. His arms were raised in the proper position to hold the M4 rifle that wasn’t there.
People walking on the street froze for a second in a combination of anxiety, compassion, and fear. With the Marine base in town, most were used to this type of thing once in a while. Soldiers and sailors recently returned sometimes acted strangely when there was a loud noise or a sudden flash of light. It was not uncommon in these years of war. Some had learned the hard way not to interfere... especially not to touch the person whose mind was still in Kabul or wherever.
Jake’s back mind finally let his front take over and his arms lowered. He looked around at the nervous faces watching him. “Sorry,” he said. “I guess I’m still a little jumpy.”
At least this time, it wasn’t on base
, he thought to himself as he walked on down the street. Every incident on base got reported somewhere to someone and eventually the report made itself back to the hospital and into his file. Last week, an empty semi-trailer bounced noisily through a particularly deep pothole on base and the next thing Jake knew, he could hear a voice that sounded like it was a thousand miles away calling to him, “Soldier, you are home. Soldier, you are safe.” Then another voice, much louder and gruffer, screamed out, “Marine, ‘ten-hut!” and his back mind brought him to his feet.
The faces looking at him then were also filled with a combination of compassion and fear, but not because they were afraid of what he might do while his back mind was in control. These were fellow Marines and sailors. Their compassion was because they knew what he was going through. Their fear was that next time it could be them lying on the sidewalk with their hands holding tightly onto a helmet that wasn’t there.
Why did he keep acting so crazy? He wanted to go back and finish his combat tour. The Marines wanted to discharge him with a section eight. Sophie, his therapist, kept telling him that his actions weren’t crazy, they were just misplaced. On the wall behind her desk, in an expensive-looking frame, was a small, square sheet of parchment with fancy calligraphy on it. In ornate black letters with gold trim it said, “Abnormal behavior in abnormal situations is normal.”
She would point to that and say, “You do what is normal in a combat zone. We just have to convince your mind that you are back in a normal, safe environment.”
Maybe if there had been anyplace that was actually safe in Afghanistan, it might have been different. Or maybe if it had been a loud noise that had saved him out in the village that day, he would have been able to put it all behind him. But there was no place “safe” in Afghanistan, and it wasn’t a loud noise that saved him. It was a click... a snap... a
. It was a sound made only by one thing in the world: a demo cap triggering.
His back mind took him to the ground before his front mind even heard it. That’s why, when the explosion occurred fractions of a second after someone hit the trip-wire, he was eating dust while the rest of the squad was eating shrapnel and debris. Everyone except the Lieutenant was dead instantly. The squad leader screamed for a few seconds and then joined his men.
Jake’s back mind kept him pinned to the ground as a small group of fighters came out to inspect the bodies. There was no doubt that they were dead. The two closest to the blast had been nearly disintegrated. It was their blood and gore which covered Jake and camouflaged him with the look of death so that they didn’t bother to finish him off. The insurgents were very pleased with their work as they stood laughing at the scene before them. The laughter was soon cut off, however, by the hollow chuffing of the twin fifties mounted on the backup hummer.
Jake could hear someone giving commands. He could hear the medic scream, “We’ve got a live one,” but his body still wouldn’t move. There was a blur of places and faces that seemed to go on forever, and then he was stateside with no real memory of anything that happened after the fifty calibers opened up.
Jake’s first real stateside memory was a soft, beautiful voice calling to him through the fog, “Soldier, if you can hear me, squeeze my hand.”
“I’m not a soldier, ma’am. I’m a Marine,” he heard himself saying in reply.
“Yes, you are,” she replied sweetly. “Can you tell me your name?”
“Staff Sargent Jacob Reynolds, ma’am.” he replied instantly. Then coming to almost full consciousness he asked, “What’s your name? ...And where in the hell am I?”
“I’m Sophie Bryant,” the enticing voice answered. He could see that the beauty of her face matched her voice. “And you are in the Naval Hospital at Camp Pendleton. Do you know how you got here?”
“Am I the only one?” he asked.
“There are many other patients here,” she answered.
“No,” he said. “Did anyone else in the squad survive?”
Sophie didn’t answer. Instead she continued to hold his hand in hers. She brought her other hand over and lightly stroked the back of his hand. He could see tears welling up in her dark brown eyes. ...He was the only one.
“How long?” he asked.
“You have been here for just under four weeks in a psychotic coma,” she explained.
Jake bristled. “I’m not psychotic,” he stated forcefully. “I’ve taken enough tests over the years to know that I’m not like my mother.”
“I know about your mother’s schizophrenia,” Sophie said gently. “And I’ve read enough of your files to know that you have exhibited none of her symptoms. Psychotic coma merely means that it wasn’t the actual force of the explosion that put you into a fugue state.”
“You’re a shrink?” he asked in surprise. “You’re too pretty to be one of the squirrels.” He smiled at her and continued, “I thought you were a nurse.”
“And yet, I gather nuts for a living.” Sophie laughed softly as she said that. Her red lips were parted in a broad smile, revealing her perfect teeth. “I assume that was one of your mother’s descriptives?” she asked.
“Yes, it was,” Jake answered. “I’m sorry. But with my mother’s problems, I’ve spent my life dealing with one type of shrink or another. I can’t say that I have found the ‘nut gatherers’ to be all that helpful.”
“Unfortunately,” Sophie explained, “there isn’t much that psychiatry can do for severe schizophrenia. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, on the other hand, responds very well to treatment. I am a civilian psychiatrist who specializes in treating PTSD.”
“Is that what you think I have?” Jake responded defensively.
“We couldn’t tell while you were comatose,” she replied, “but it would be a miracle if you didn’t.” She paused, but continued to stroke his hand. “I can help you work through it, though. Let’s wait and see what develops.”
Doctor Sophie Bryant wasn’t sure what was different about Staff Sargent Jacob Reynolds, but she found that she was attracted to his case–and him–in a very special way. Maybe it was because she was on duty when he was first admitted. In some ways he was unique in that he was whole and healthy–at least externally.
Except for some minor scarring from various old injuries, Jacob’s body was perfect. And unlike many other Marines or sailors, there was only one tattoo. On his right forearm was the eagle and anchor of the Marine Corp with “USMC” above it and “Semper Fi” beneath it in military- looking letters. As she looked at him that first day, she thought to herself that he was perfect in every way— except for the fact that he was unconscious and totally unresponsive.
She had been present as an evaluation team poked and prodded his unconscious body. Mild electric shock was applied to test muscle response. A small pinwheel device was slowly rolled several times up and down each leg and arm and then on his back and abdomen. One of the technicians even mildly stimulated his penis to see if there was a response. There was. The final conclusion was that all neural pathways were intact, but the mind itself was shut off. MRIs showed no evidence of concussive damage, so they made the diagnosis of “psychotic coma” and Sophie was named primary physician for his care.
Being primary didn’t mean that she had to spend hours holding his hand and talking to him, but she did. There was something about him–a strange bond seemed to exist between them from the moment she first saw him. If she were the patient and he were the therapist, she would put it down to transference. But he was the patient, and she was the therapist. It wasn’t transference. It was... it was... she didn’t know what it was, but it definitely was there.
Each day she would stop by his room after her shift was over and sit at the edge of his bed. She would tell him of the weather and the day’s events. She would hold his hand all the while she was speaking, and then, just before she gave him a kiss on the cheek as her goodbye, she would say, “Soldier, if you can hear me, squeeze my hand.”
He never did squeeze her hand, but on the fourth Friday afternoon, when she asked her question, he mumbled back that he wasn’t a soldier, he was a Marine. His mind had switched back on. The question now was how badly it was damaged. The horror of war is damaging enough; knowing what you are capable of doing can be overwhelming. The trauma of watching your friends die in front of you can be horrifying and leave permanent scars. But when you are the sole survivor of a close-knit group that was extinguished in the blink of an eye, the aftereffects are often almost irreversible.
Her own father had never recovered from his wartime experiences. The Army called it something different in those days, or ignored it all together if you could walk and talk at the time of discharge. He would never talk about it. But he would scream with nightmares in the night and sometimes succumb to his nightmares during the day. It got to the point where he wasn’t able to work, so he stayed home and drank. Drinking made it worse.
It was the Fourth of July when she was thirteen that it happened. She had gone to a party at a friend’s house. When her mom didn’t come to pick her up, the friend’s dad drove her home. Because the house was dark, he insisted on walking her to the door to check that everything was okay.
It wasn’t. Several windows on the house were broken and no one answered his knock or yells. He told her to stay outside and opened the front door. After he looked inside, he took her back to the car and called the police from his cellphone.
Her father had used the couch and piano to barricade himself into the corner of the living room. Her mother was dead on the floor. He had emptied a rifle and two pistols into the walls shooting at what only he could see. The last bullet he used on himself. The inquest ruled that the loud popping of fireworks in the neighborhood had evidently triggered a severe PTSD episode and he had killed his wife thinking she was an enemy soldier. He then killed himself when he thought he was going to be overrun.
As a young girl, Sophie was already interested in medicine and leaned toward the field of psychiatry. But after that, she vowed that she would make a difference for soldiers and others who could never totally “come home.” Seventeen years later she was a “psychiatric trauma specialist” who could probably have made well over six figures in private practice, but instead worked for a much more modest salary at the Naval Hospital at Camp Pendleton.
Sophie had helped many young men and women leave the horror of war behind them and truly return home. Each case was important to her, but never before had she become so personally involved with a patient. There was a connection between her and Sargent Reynolds that was much more than therapist and patient. She cared about all her patients. Maybe that is why she had such a high success rate, but there was something more with Jake. There was... an attraction.
That attraction would probably never have proceeded beyond an interesting side note to Jake’s treatment if Bunker Seven had not exploded.
Group sessions were difficult for Jake. Individual sessions normally concentrated on the past. It was relatively easy to talk about the events of his childhood. It was harder, but not impossible, to talk about events in Afghanistan. It was even possible to talk about that day–as much of it as he could remember. But in group, the emphasis was on now... on the present. “How are you handling today?” was one of the questions each member of the group was required to answer in each session.