I wanted out.
I glared at the wall. The same fucking wall I’d been glaring at for the past three fucking months. It was still an off-white or gray shade, the sort of mediocre color that was supposed to be soothing or some shit like that. It had started to drive me nuts by the second week, and I was pretty sure it’d only taken that long because I was too out of my mind on pain meds to notice until April.
I’d spent my birthday staring at the damn wall. Not that I’d wanted to celebrate. Or even had anything to celebrate. One year shy of thirty and I was done. Done with everything.
Zed came to talk to me right before he and the rest of the unit shipped out in the middle of April. For the first time since I’d met him, he wasn’t smiling. I knew I should’ve reassured him. Made some joke about him being the pretty one now. Everyone knew that’s what people in my position were supposed to do. Make the person who came to see them feel better about the situation.
I knew he felt guilty about what happened too. He told me as much. Somehow, he thought that if he’d been hanging out with me instead of hooking up with the yoga instructor or whatever the hell she was, I wouldn’t have been in this bed. I knew that wasn’t the case, and I didn’t blame him. I told him that much, but I knew he wanted more from me.
I hadn’t been able to give it to him. I didn’t have anything left to give. It was taking everything I had just to make it from one minute to the next.
I was relieved when I heard the unit was moving out. I considered Zed my friend, but I didn’t want to see him. I didn’t know if I’d ever want to see him – or anyone else – ever again. I put up with the people here looking at me because it was their job, and I knew they’d seen worse. None of them looked at me the way everyone else did. Or the way I knew everyone else would. The way people looked at every disabled vet or any victim of a horrible accident. That combination of pity and revulsion, followed by shame at their disgust.
At least, the first lieutenant who’d come to see me last month had been able to keep his face blank with military perfection. He’d expressed his sympathy and then started to discuss my options.
What fucking options?
See if I could transition into some sort of desk job? Become a poster boy for the military: protecting us at home as well as overseas? Recruiting? I didn’t blame the army for what happened to me. Hell, it was my own damn fault that I’d ran into that burning building. I had no one to blame but myself.
I still loved my country and my military. If someone asked me if I’d sign up again, knowing where it had led me, I’d answer yes without hesitating.
But I didn’t want to be a fucking recruiter.
I was a soldier.
From the moment I signed those papers, it was all I ever wanted to do, all I ever planned on doing. The army had given me a sense of purpose, a direction. They were the closest thing I had to a family for a decade.
But I was no good to them anymore.
I was no good to anyone.
I started to turn my head, feeling the now-familiar tug of the scar tissue tightening around my cheek and jaw. It wasn’t pleasant, but it also wasn’t painful anymore. Not really.
Maybe I’d just gotten used to the pain.
I supposed that was part of it. Oh, it was still there, though not as bad as it had been when I first woke up, but present enough to still need pain relief every once in a while. I’d had them wean me off the drugs as quickly as possible, but there were times it was too much, particularly at night. I’d never slept well, and all of this made matters worse. Much worse. Those were the times I wanted meds.
Well, as much as I wanted anything anyway.
I heard the sound of footsteps slowing slightly and knew someone would be entering my room in a few seconds. The faintest hint of interest sparked inside me at the thought that it should be time for Nori’s usual shift.
I finished turning my head, waiting to see the dark-haired nurse who was one of the few people I didn’t mind seeing. The other nurses and doctors were all fine, but there was something about Nori that somehow managed to find a crack in the darkness I’d pulled around me. The darkness that wasn’t a cloud, but rather a fucking shell.
From the moment I’d heard how badly I’d been injured and what it meant for my future, I’d lost interest in pretty much everything. Except her. I didn’t know how or why, but that damn girl got to me more than I wanted her to.
It wasn’t Nori, and I settled back under the black.
Dr. Catlin Fellner had been my primary doctor in the burn unit, and she was the one to give me the bad news. In her early fifties, she was a plain woman, but something about her demanded attention and respect. She was a little under five and a half feet tall, but I had a feeling she could’ve given some of our biggest drill sergeants a run for their money.
“I looked over all of your charts and progress reports,” she began in her matter-of-fact way. “No infections. The dressings on your arm, as well as a couple places on your chest and back, still need to be applied.”
I tuned her out, knowing the rest of what she’d say. Nothing much had changed over the past few days. There’d been some concern in the beginning about how the skin on my arm and my broken bones would hinder one or the other from healing. I didn’t know all of the medical jargon or explanations for any of it, but I did know it hurt like hell and the mess of scar tissue I had left wasn’t pretty. It hadn’t been my arm, however, that had kept me here this long. That award went to my lungs since I needed regular breathing treatments for longer than they’d expected.
“Xavier, are you listening to me?” The doctor’s voice was sharp.
My eyes jerked back to her. “Not really,” I answered honestly.
Dr. Fellner’s eyes narrowed. “I know you don’t want to be here, but I won’t release you until I’m satisfied you’re well enough to go home.”
I almost scoffed at her and asked what home I was supposed to go to. My home for the past ten years was wherever the army sent me. Except, if I was truly honest, I’d never really thought of any of those bases as home. Despite all of the shit in my past, Philadelphia was still what I thought of when I heard the word home. As long as I had one person in that city who cared about me, it was still home.
And I had that, no matter how much I didn’t want it anymore.
I knew what I wanted didn’t matter to Father Doron O’Toole though. Not when it went against what he believed was right for me. The problem was, everything he’d done for me since the moment we met had made me want to be a better man. And I’d tried my hardest to succeed.
I walked down the street, resisting the urge to pull my hood up. It would hide my face, but it would also keep me from having my peripheral vision. I wasn’t an idiot. I knew I was in some serious shit. I’d been away for nearly two years, fending off the threats that Martinez had sent my way. Now that I was out, I knew he’d come after me even harder.
After all, I was the reason he was rotting behind bars.
What a lot of people didn’t understand about the kind of life I’d lived was that the concept of honor among thieves wasn’t entirely inaccurate. To use less than noble purposes to take out someone else’s crew was one thing.
But no one liked a snitch.
No matter what Martinez had done to make me want to betray him, no one in my world would ever forgive me for what I’d done.
I couldn’t forgive myself.
But not for turning in Martinez or testifying against him. Those were the only right things I’d ever done.
And it had all been for nothing.
I heard the footsteps behind me, and for a few seconds, I thought about running. Jumping a train into the center of the city and getting lost there. I could run somewhere else, start new. I could get a job that paid in cash, make a life for myself.
I didn’t move any faster. What was the point? I’d kept myself alive in juvie, somehow thinking that when I got out, things would be different. But as soon as I stepped outside, I knew that was a lie I’d told myself. I didn’t believe it anymore.
The first hit didn’t take me by surprise. The fact that there were three of them told me that Martinez’s people thought I’d fight back.
Or maybe they just wanted me dead.
That was okay.
I lost count of how many times they hit me, and it even stopped hurting after a while. Everything stopped. I drifted above it all, feeling my body jerk and twitch under the assault.
I waited for it to be over.
Except I heard someone shouting, saying the cops were on the way. I heard the unmistakable sound of a shotgun being cocked. Then more than one person running away.
Then I heard the voice again, closer this time. A man’s face blurred in my vision.
“Oh, kid. What’d you do?”
I’d been almost as close to dead then as I’d been when I arrived here. Broken ribs, fingers and collarbone. Bruised internal organs. A concussion.
The man had picked me up and carried me to his car. I barely remembered anything until a couple days later. That was when I’d come to and found out that my savior was a priest in his late fifties. A priest who’d pulled a shotgun on three gang members.
Even I had to respect that.
Father O’Toole hadn’t stopped there either. He’d stayed with me in the hospital, given me a couch to sleep on and a place to work. He’d helped me get back into my senior year of school and graduated. He’d supported my decision to become a soldier and had been there to see me off when I’d left for boot camp. He was always there when I went back to the city. Always ready to give me words of wisdom.
He really was my family.
“I was going to tell you, Xavier, that we’ve decided to release you.”
The doctor’s words immediately pulled my attention back to her.
She gave me a thoughtful look. “You’ve been doing that a lot lately, haven’t you?”
I shrugged, not quite sure what she was asking.
“Disappearing inside your head,” she clarified.
I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t like I was going back to the army and had to worry about some shrink’s profile, but if she thought I was depressed, it might make her change her mind about letting me go.
“We want you to be healthy, Xavier.” Her voice softened. “Body and mind.”
I said what I knew she needed to hear. “I’m just stir-crazy, doc. Not used to lying around. Eager to get out of here.”
Her expression was skeptical, but she nodded. “Tomorrow evening. Let Father O’Toole know when to pick you up.”
I nodded in agreement, my thoughts drawn back to the father.
I’d always hated that word until I’d met Doron. He’d shown me what a father was really supposed to be. It didn’t matter that he’d had nothing to do with my creation. He’d shown me what it meant to be a man, what it meant to be loved.
He was also the only reason I hadn’t killed myself yet.