He lies on his bed and watches the light patterns change on the ceiling.
It’s been twelve hours and seventeen minutes since he stepped into the front door and stood amid the balloons and friends and relatives who crowded too close, hugging and kissing and crying. Though he wanted to run away screaming, he forced himself to smile and say how glad he was to be home.
The house smelled like a mix of roast beef and cherry pie, but it made his stomach tighten. He missed his mom’s cooking, but there was so much of it. He had gotten out of the habit of eating, and they just kept trying to feed him. The home seems so alien it scares him. When he and his dad and Uncle Brad and his cousins Pauly and Jimbo went out to smoke cigars, he stood with his back to the house on high alert in the deepening twilight.
“You seem a little out of it,” Pauly said.
“Just tired. It was a long plane ride.”
“Now you can go to college like you always wanted,” his dad says.
He doesn’t know if he can focus any more, and even if he could, he can’t see himself fitting in with carefree undergrads. They may have read more novels or know more science, but he’s seen guys lit up like Fourth of July rockets. He’s seen a guy cut in half. He’s picked up body parts after a landmine blew up a jeep full of his friends. After three tours, there isn’t much he hasn’t seen
They call him a hero, but he’s not. He’s a survivor. He has a few scars on his arms and hands, but he’s intact. In country they called him Magic Man.
Now he hears screams all the time. He jumps when anyone comes up behind him. He lies on his bed and stares at the ceiling because he can’t sleep, and he’s afraid if he goes to the doctor, he’ll be branded a mental case and won’t be able to get a job.
He hears scratching at his door and bolts up, but it’s only Webster, his parents Golden Retriever. Webster’s gait is a little slower these days, but he still jumps on the bed with grace and crawls up against him. He gives a soft whimper and butts him.
It’s a small comfort to lie against this yellow dog, to feel his warmth and run his fingers through his soft fur. The simple repetition is soothing. He listens in the dark to Webster’s panting and hears him begin to snore.
He edges closer to the dog and wraps his arms around him. As always a curious sense of calm descends on him, and his body adjusts to the rhythm of the dog’s breathing. There’s no judgement, no too eager attempt to be cheerful, just unconditional acceptance. Webster might as well be part of him.
“Help me,” he says. “I want to come home.”