The bed was wet underneath me like so many nights before. I didn’t need to think before I realized the urgent scream was my own. Her eyes were half-open, but I could tell they were focused on my face. This had occurred every night since I had been home. I stood up, sick of the images that were consistently playing in my mind.
“The doctor said it’s normal.” Her voice was full of drowsiness. She was my number one fan for a recovery, even though nobody knew if there would be one.
“That doesn’t mean it really is.” Nothing could convince me I would ever be normal again.
“Jack, what do you want me to say? No one has gone through this before, and we’re all just trying to help.”
“You don’t have to say anything. And you can’t help me if you don’t know what I go through. That’s like diagnosing a disease before ever asking the symptoms.”
The sigh that escaped her lips was frustrated. We never used to fight.
“So tell me. Help me see it. Please, I want to help you.” So much in her voice was exactly what I had heard during combat. How was I supposed to tell her that I would never condemn anyone to the things I had seen? People talked about those of us who went away coming back with no emotion, but there wasn’t room for it.
“What do you want me to say? I wouldn’t wish anything I saw on my worst enemy.” Her hand brushed the scar hidden under my shirt. Since I had been home, her hand found that same spot a million times. Similar to a child, returning to the same questions again and again, waiting for the right answer. Every scar has a story, and mine was one for the books.
“You were different, before,” she said. Easier to love. The words were written all over her face, but she refused to say them.
“What am I supposed to do? You want to hear the stories? I’m damaged. Do you want to be too?” Betty had always been there for me, and it was hard to talk to her like this. I remembered being with her before deployment. We would talk all night, and I watched her eyes twinkle and her dimples show whenever she laughed. It seemed so long ago, when it had really been only a few months. Her eyes didn’t sparkle, and her smiles were forced now.
“Tell me, Jack. What did you see over there? How did you get that scar?” Curiosity peaked in her voice, something Betty had always been good at. When she was interested, you had her full attention.
“I saw evil, Betty. Things we could have never imagined happening. It was horrible.” I closed my eyes and a million sights rushed back to me. Rows of lifeless bodies lay out in front of us. Hundreds of faces, but never any names. I pulled the shirt from my body, revealing the scar on my stomach. The gasp that escaped her lips was familiar to me. All of the nurses had done similarly as they were trying to fix me up. Deep and infected, it had taken months to heal. It was now a painful reminder of what had happened over there, and I was one of the lucky ones.
“This—people did more of this?” She said, hushed. You did more of this. Her blue eyes were full of judgment, as though I had had a choice.
“That’s not the evil Betty. Scars are just a part of the battles. I can’t describe to you what I saw, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Evil has many definitions.”
We couldn’t save them all. We tried. We gave them food, but…their stomachs couldn’t handle it. They were dying from overeating.
“Why can’t you just help me understand? I just want to help you! Don’t you want to get married? Don’t you want to have a family?” The more questions she asked, the more uneasy she became. She was finally realizing. Thirty years old, we were supposed to have a family. We were supposed to grow old together, and go dancing.
“You think I want to be like this? You think I don’t want to have a normal life? A regular job? I’m not trained to do anything but fight in wars. I lost the best years of my life, and what do I really get in return? Shipped back into society as useless as I was before!” I closed my eyes again, envisioning those I had tried to save. “Entire families had been wiped out.” My eyes shut, and I saw faces of people who I would never meet again, but would see over and over again.
“Families?” Like ours. Theirs no longer existed, and ours never would. “Who would do something like that?”
“Who was doing it didn’t matter Betty. What mattered is that is what people are capable of. That’s the world we’d be bringing kids into. I can’t handle that. I can’t allow you to stay with me in hopes of a normal life. I can’t be normal, and I will never tell a soul what I saw.” Behind my eyes was nothing. I was dead inside. “People always thank me for my service. They don’t realize how much of me is still over there.”
Betty’s eyes were focused on my face. “Jack…what are you saying?” Betty had aged since I had left. Not in the obvious ways. She had worry lines, and this sad look about her. So different from the girl I had known before I had left. I was the cause of her pain.
“I’m saying that I’m damaged. I already told you.” I couldn’t expect her to understand.
“I’m damaged too. I waited for you. I got newspapers every day. I heard the people were dying. I kept thinking maybe it was you. But you’re here. We just have to get you back into the swing of things.” I was alive, but I might as well have come home in a box.
“I can’t be that guy anymore Betty.” I sat down on the bed next to her for the first time since I woke up. I touched her face, and she winced. She kissed me, something we both could have enjoyed before.
“I know. I knew from the minute you walked through that door you had changed. I can’t give up Jack. There’s too much of me invested in this already. We just have to learn to fix each other.” My heart softened as tears formed in her eyes. I was behind those tears. I was making her cry.
“You deserve to be happy. You deserve a family, a nice house, someone who doesn’t wake up screaming every night.”
“And what do you deserve?” I had broken her spirits. She didn’t have any fight left.
“I deserve to know I didn’t hold you back from that happiness. I’m not going to be the cause of you missing out on your life. I love you, Betty. Always have, always will. But I can’t be who you need.” I kissed her forehead, something I had done so many times before. So many see you laters, but this was a final goodbye.
“I waited for you Jack. I didn’t move on. I sat here and hoped and prayed you would come back! Do you know what it’s like to open the paper every morning and pray your lover’s name isn’t in there? Why can’t you just let us be happy? Why can’t you just stay?” The hope in her eyes crushed me, I wanted to climb back into bed and never leave. She turned away from me, her back rigid with the rage building within her. “You selfish pig. Fine, leave.” Her eyes appeared almost as dead as mine. I turned to walk away, and I heard her get off the bed but before I could turn her fist was on my back.
“Jack, you are the biggest jerk I have ever met in my life. How could you do this to us? Why can’t you just get over yourself? You’re not even a soldier anymore!” Her screams were loud, but I could barely here them. I was physically standing in front of her, but I was too far gone. I couldn’t feel guilt like she wanted me to; I was doing the right thing. I turned to her again, as I was leaving.
“You’ll know where to find me. This new guy—He’ll be better for you than I ever was, I promise.” I gathered my things and left without another word. Soldiers like me, we were lucky to have escaped with our lives, but we were prisoners of our minds. Betty never would call me again, but as a former soldier I understood what I had had to do: taking prisoners was only fair during the war, once the war was over you had to let them go. I may have been a casualty of war, but Betty didn’t have to be.