A Glass, and Darkly - Cover

A Glass, and Darkly

Copyright© 2018 by The Outsider

Chapter 18: Disintegration

11 November 2004 – George Hill Road, Lancaster, Massachusetts

“I don’t know what’s up with my family, man,” Jeff commented before taking a swig from the bottle in his hand. “One second they’re all over me like white on rice, the next I couldn’t find them with the Hubble Space Telescope. It’s like they can’t make up their minds: they want to show me they’re happy I’m home, but they also want to give me ‘time and space to adjust.’ I know they still feel bad about last week.” Another sip. “Don’t bring up how Mom reacted to me be being wounded again, either.

“Of course not wanting to go to the Veterans Day events with Keiko and the kids today probably isn’t helping their confusion any. I don’t know if I can get into the ‘rah-rah, U-S-A’ stuff right now. That’s why I came here early, before the parades and stuff end. I’m sure other families will come by to visit afterward and I didn’t want to get caught in any sort of rush here. That, and I don’t really want to talk to strangers right now. My friends are still over in Afghanistan, half of the country couldn’t give a shit about folks in the military, and the other half wants to treat all of us vets like damn heroes!”

“‘Hero,’” Jeff snorted before taking another sip from his bottle. “A damn building crushed my leg, that’s all. I’m still here. Terry and Blow, along with the guys who went home missing pieces, they were the heroes in our Ranger platoon. If people want to treat folks like us as heroes, they should turn up at Memorial Day and Veterans Day events, not go shopping.” Jeff glanced at his drinking buddy. “I know you know what I mean.”




MAR 15 1968
FEB 28 1991


Ken’s headstone stood mute, a silent sentinel watching over his grave.

“Yeah. That’s what I thought you’d say,” Jeff muttered.

Jeff emptied the contents of his bottle into his mouth, then pulled another from the six-pack carrier next to his chair. He twisted it open with a hiss of escaping carbonation. He scanned the area around Ken’s headstone, assuring himself again that all was in order. As promised, the Veterans of Foreign Wars post here in Lancaster placed a new American flag at Ken’s grave before today’s holiday. Glancing around the cemetery Jeff could see flags marking other veterans’ graves swaying in the gentle breeze. His eyes followed a swath of grass from the cemetery up the hill where the bright, blue sky met the bare trees on the faraway ridge. Jeff pulled his old field jacket’s collar up against the growing cold wind.

“I’m glad Keiko and I kept the old pickup – and kept it registered – when I bought my car before the boys were born. If it wasn’t still in the garage, I don’t know what I would have done today. Gone stir crazy is what I would have done, I suppose. It’s a little tricky trying to drive with my left foot while my right’s lying across the bench seat. I’ll need a little more practice, but the short drive here went okay. Good thing the truck’s not a stick. That would have been a real challenge. I’ll probably sell the Passat to someone at Benning. Battalion has my keys, so I’ll just mail the title down if someone there can handle the sale for me.” Jeff stared off in the distance again.

“Part of me knows Shawna was right in what she said to me about Heather earlier this week. A bigger part of me couldn’t give a shit. What Heather did still gets my blood boiling. TC came by the house the day after Shawna, and brought Jeff by. He’s almost six now, has his mother’s blond hair and green eyes, and his father’s easy-going personality. Jeff was a bit wary of me at first but was calling me ‘Uncle Jeff’ by the time they left. He even asked me to read a book to him. It was good to see them again, even if their visit did keep reminding me of the rift with Heather.

“Anyway, I’ll find out what the plan for my rehab is when I go over to Donovan tomorrow. I hope it won’t be too long before I can get started with my workouts again. Going from working out every day to doing nothing kinda sucks. I’m starting to feel like I’m gonna come out of my skin. Other than when we were wounded in Panama, this is the only time I haven’t worked out daily since I was thirteen.”

Jeff sighed and pulled himself out of the folding chair. He slung it over his shoulder once he’d packed it away in it’s sleeve. He picked up his six-pack of root beer.

“I’ll tell Keiko and the kids I came by to visit. I’ll probably catch hell from your sister for leaving the house by myself. That’s one reason why they make cell phones, though: in case of an emergency.” Jeff hobbled to Ken’s headstone and placed his hand on top of it.

“I miss you, buddy.” He trudged back to his truck.

Sweat rolled down Jeff’s face the following day while he concentrated on his exercise. The machine he used worked his quadriceps, hamstring, and hip muscles with each push and pull of his thigh against the pads. Jeff and his therapist attempted to prevent atrophy in his right leg as much as possible. He battled his way through fifteen minutes on the torture device.

“Nice work, Jeff.”

“Thanks, Ma’am,” he replied while toweling off his face.

Lieutenant Nina Quentin smiled down at her patient. Jeff already showed her he wasn’t afraid of hard work. The man didn’t know the meaning of the word quit from what she’d seen so far.

“How’s that contraption feeling?” she asked while pointing to his fixator.

“Like about fifteen pounds I can’t wait to get rid of.”

“It’s titanium, Jeff. It’s only five pounds.”

“That makes me feel so much better.”

“Come on,” she laughed. “Back to the table with you.”

Nina waved to the low PT platform where she helped her patients stretch. After twisting him into various pretzel shapes she and Jeff sat at a table to discuss his treatment plan.

“Okay, we can’t do too much with your legs until that right tibia heals, other than that exercise I just had you try. There’s a harness we can use to keep you upright on that machine so you can work on your left leg, but I don’t want to work anything lower than your knees until you’re free of your fixator. For your upper body I shouldn’t have to make many modifications to your usual exercises, so you can use the gym I hear you have at home while you’re on leave.”

“What about cardio?”

“No running obviously, and no rowing machines right now. There is a table-top ergometer which has handles on what looks like the pedal crank of a bicycle. In fact, you could convert it to a stationary bike if you wanted to. The problem is it’s fairly expensive, like about fifteen to sixteen hundred dollars expensive. Swimming’s out for the moment because your fixator pins are a possible route of infection, otherwise I’d recommend it as low-impact and excellent cardio.”

“Tell me where I can order the ergometer and I’ll buy it, Ma’am. No sense falling too far behind with my cardio. I’m sure it’s going to be a while before I can run six miles a day again, right?”

“We’ll help you regain as much of your previous function as we can, Jeff. I’ll offer whatever suggestions I can along the way but, as I’m sure you’re aware, it’s going to take a lot of work on your part if you want to get back to maxing PT tests.”

Jeff nodded. As the lieutenant had suspected earlier, he wasn’t afraid of hard work.

Jeff hadn’t left the house by himself the first week he was home other than for his trips to the cemetery and his rehab session. The ration of shit Keiko gave him for his unauthorized Veterans Day trip to the cemetery still rang in his ears. Today, though, he’d had enough of the spacious, comfortable prison of a house on Hilltop Road to risk her wrath. He had to get out, move around, and interact with people other than his family for a change.

Jeff’s first stop after his jailbreak was a flag shop in Fitchburg where he special ordered an item. He also picked up a new US flag and two new snap-hooks for the rope of his flagpole. He could have ordered the items over the phone, or online for that matter, but that would have defeated the purpose of getting out of his house.

His next stop was the place he’d nominally worked for four years, though three of them were spent on leave of absence. Abby Sheerer still greeted visitors to Devens Medical Defense, and was still unfazed by the threat of a sexual harassment seminar after giving her boss a hug.

“You scared the crap out of us, Boss! Sean Brophy called to tell us of your injuries after he heard from Keiko, and we were all so glad to hear you were going to be okay,” Abby said while Jeff settled into a chair by her desk. “He told us about how you surprised Keiko and the kids with your homecoming, too. When are you coming back to work?”

“I won’t be out of the Army until next year, Abby, if they let me out on time that is.”

“Why wouldn’t they?”

“The Defense Department is extending some terms of service for retention purposes, especially in certain military jobs – jobs like a Ranger medic’s which requires lots of training, for instance. They call it ‘stop-loss.’”

“They can’t do that!” Abby gasped, horrified.

“Sure they can, Abbs. My enlistment contract specifically states that my term could be extended based on the needs of the government. I gotta get better first, though. I just started my rehab so it’ll be a while before I’m back in the game.”

Before Abby could ask another question a slick-looking man approached from the back hall where the offices were. Out of the corner of his eye, Jeff could see Abby give the man an almost-convincing smile.

“Yes, Mr. Haussmann?”

“I need you to file these,” the man said in a curt tone. He dropped a stack of folders on her desk while giving Jeff a dirty look. Jeff gave him a bored look in return.

Now that he was on convalescent leave, Jeff didn’t worry about maintaining his appearance in accordance with Army regulations. Four day’s growth of beard covered his face. A knit watch cap covered his Ranger-approved haircut. His clothes were decidedly disreputable. His ensemble for this day was a plaid flannel jacket over a well-worn hooded sweatshirt, sweatpants oversized to fit over his fixator, and untied work boots on his feet.

“Yes, Sir,” Abby replied with her smile still frozen in place.

Haussmann jerked a thumb toward the hall. Abby glanced at Jeff before rising from her desk.

“Why did you let him in here?” Haussmann hissed in what he thought was a quiet voice. Unfortunately for him, Jeff’s hearing was better than average.

“The vestibule doors are unlocked, Sir. Anyone can just walk in.”

Why are they unlocked?”

“Fire regulations require exit doors be unlocked during business hours in the absence of a panic bar on the inside, which those doors don’t have since the bars broke last year. If you recall, Sir, we’ve been asking to have those doors fixed for some time now, too.”

Haussmann glared at Abby.

“Get rid of him,” he hissed before leaving Abby standing there alone. She turned and walked stiffly back to her desk. Jeff rose as she approached.

“I didn’t mean to cause you any trouble, Abby,” Jeff whispered in French. Abby minored in French in college. “I’ll go.” She gave Jeff a sad smile.

“I’m sorry, Boss. He’s been bearable up until a few weeks ago. Until about the time we heard you were home, actually.”

“Hhrrmmm,” Jeff grumbled. “Is your cell number still the same?”

“Yes, why? Are you planning to harass me for a change?” she asked with a come-hither look.

“Are you trying to get me in trouble with Keiko, Abby? I can get myself in trouble, you know? Seriously, call me after work. I wanna hear about this butthole. Keep out of the line of fire here, okay?”

Jeff stepped out of the DMD office. He drove his truck out of the lot and around the corner. There he called Sean Brophy.

“Hey, tell me about this douchebag at DMD...”

Jeff’s excursions to date kept him near his house and off the highways. Today, however, he would drive east on Route 2 while headed for the Brophy EMS and Ambulance Group headquarters in Malden. Sean hadn’t wanted to get into the issue with Haussmann over the phone, so Jeff volunteered to make the drive. Remembering the traffic in the mornings heading toward Boston, Jeff waited until after rush hour to start his journey. Rolling east from Route 2’s junction with Interstate 1-90 Jeff started to shift into his autopilot mode when he noticed a huge sign a few miles down the road.

“What the hell is that...?” he muttered.

The enormous sign warned drivers they would soon enter a section of highway under joint military and civilian control. The sign was less of a shock than the fortified compound on his side of the highway after he passed the Shirley Road exit. A similar compound sat at a former rest stop on the westbound side of the highway just after the base and the Eastside Expressway. Signs along that stretch warned drivers not to stop unless there was an emergency. No other surprises greeted Jeff during his drive, save the number of cars on the road. He wasn’t used to the volume of traffic anymore. Sean met him in the lobby when he arrived at Brophy.

“What the hell are those compounds on Route 2 near Devens?” Jeff asked once in Sean’s office.

“Those are the Army’s security observation and control points. They built those last year around the time you deployed. The MPs patrol the section of highway between the two exits near those OPs. That section of the road is considered to be part of the base so the Posse Comitatus Act doesn’t apply. The State Police has jurisdiction there for traffic infractions, but the Army has jurisdiction if there are any base security issues,” Sean explained. Jeff shook his head. “So, you wanted to talk about your interim replacement?”

“I wanted to ask what the hell his problem was. I stopped in to visit and he gave Abby a ration of shit when he saw me.”

“Were you dressed as elegantly as you are now?”

Jeff glanced down at his wardrobe. He wore a nearly identical outfit as the other day.

“No, actually, it was worse but why should that matter? We never treated people like that when we worked together, regardless of what they wore.”

“Erick Haussmann seemed like a good match for DMD, and a good interim manager, until news of your return began to spread.” Jeff stared at his former partner.

“It’s not like I’m even close to coming back, Sean. I’m government property until next October at least! What’s his deal?”

“He managed to slip a clause into his contract saying that he couldn’t be let go until the end of your USERRA leave, which is in two years if you remember. Even still, he probably feels threatened.”

“How the hell did he get that clause past you two?” Jeff asked, meaning Sean and his father, Seamus.

“Dad and I weren’t looking for something like that, to be honest. During his interviews he seemed to understand he was only the operations manager until your return. It wasn’t until two weeks after he started in his position that someone in legal caught the phrase added by his attorney.” Jeff scrubbed his face with his hands and looked at the ceiling.

“So, what you’re telling me is I can’t have my job back until 2006? Doesn’t that violate federal law?”

“Unfortunately, no, it doesn’t because you’ll still get your job back at that point. The staff isn’t as happy as when you were in charge of the place, but the division is running fairly smoothly.”

“So I have to sit on the sidelines and watch him potentially destroy everything I helped build out there with this attitude of his? What have the towns we contract with said about his behavior?”

“It hasn’t been an issue until now.”

“So I might be shit out of luck, is that it? I might have nothing to look forward to after I ETS? I don’t want to just sit on my ass and wait for my portfolio’s dividend checks to roll in. That’s not living to me, Sean, that’s existing! I want this job back!”

“Jeff, calm down. We’ll figure this out...”

When, Sean? When the hell are you going to figure this out? You’ve had – what? – two years to do so? Tell me why I should expect you to figure it out in two more!”

Jeff didn’t give his friend and former partner a chance to answer. He lurched out of his chair, stormed out of Sean’s office, and out of the building.

Keiko noticed Jeff’s foul mood that night after she got home from school. It didn’t improve during the two weeks following the meeting with Sean. At this point she certainly wasn’t going to comment on his insistence on driving himself around, nor on the email she’d gotten from Sean’s wife, Beth. Jeff wouldn’t return his friend’s phone calls or emails following their meeting, either.

The Knox and Jarrett clans noticed the storm clouds over Jeff’s head when they gathered for Thanksgiving. Rather than join the adults in conversation before the meal, Jeff sat on the Jarrett’s back deck staring off into the distance.

“Jeffrey is having difficulty readjusting,” Keiko whispered to Kathy while they looked out the kitchen windows. Snowflakes stuck to Jeff’s clothes and hair while he sat motionless in a chair outside. “He feels cut off from all of his friends, both in the Army and out. His recent Army friends are still deployed in Afghanistan, are preparing to deploy, or rehabbing from their own injuries. Friends from his first enlistment are busy with their own lives. His work friends here seem inaccessible to him because of a recent argument with his boss and former partner. He feels cut off from us and feels unimportant at home.” She drew a shuddering breath while a tear fell.

“We forgot about him, Kathy. The day after coming home he tried to surprise us by making dinner for us. The kids and I repaid him by forgetting he was home, going to the dojo, and then out to dinner without him.”

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