They came out of the asylum and felt the cold of the early morning. It was very gentle upon them. While Frank looked up at the sky and rattled his brain to recall the last time he had been out in the open on his own, Miller shivered, not with cold, but by the excitement that colored red his entire face and hands and neck. He wanted to run and shout in the ear of the next person, that now, he was free.
The derangement had not settled upon their handsome heads suddenly. It was all gradual. How they had become friends, only the world that they shared knew, and nobody else wanted to get into it. Dr. Schultz did once, and he immediately assigned them to the asylum. At the suggestion, Frank's wife decided to leave him. He had been told that she had later settled for someone else. Nothing connected Frank to this world anymore after it. He spiraled into a sharply and consistently alternating life state thereon and once, he had tried to stab a homeless man with a broken bottle outside a pub. That is when his life had been decided for the next five years by the town authorities. Once when he had mind enough to work upon such matters, he considered till age thirty to be the most productive and liberal in a man's life. Alas, now he would come out spending his last five in captivity.
Miller was a neighbor of Frank but separated by as many streets as he could count on his fingers while recollecting to whoever would hear him out, the number of times his father had thrashed him and his mother when he was only four. "It was just thrice but oh it would hurt so much," he would cry plaintively, and add to it every time, "it would hurt the whole month! oh!". He would live it all again, his limbs thrashing around to push someone away. Around five minutes he would take at it. Then he'd get exhausted and fall asleep, but still mumble. Any careful listener would hear him commit promises.
"Oh no, dad, stop it, please, don't hurt her, don't! I would be a good son."
Other times, it would not be about his conduct, but about the money that his old man wanted for betting. At such times, he'd pull ten invisible dollars out his back pocket and thrust them forward.
They passed out of the gate, walking side by side. They walked along the fence beyond which was "That Canal", which they had spent all their time looking at, from inside the institution. A couple of paces ahead, Frank felt he was walking all by himself. He stopped to look back. Miller was still talking to himself, but he had started lecturing someone in the empty air.
Usually, he liked this. Miller never ever came out of his world, and all Frank needed for those five years was this. When he wanted to talk, he would listen to what Miller was saying. He'd assume to be the person Miller was talking to. Once, Miller was talking to his boss, or so Frank thought, asking for a raise. He kept saying he had a lot more work now than before. He was turning red in the face, but Frank intercepted to play the boss. He did not expect Miller to let him help, but somehow, he calmed down. For a moment, their eyes had met and hurriedly, Miller had drawn his down to the ground and clasped his hands together, rubbing them sheepishly, like a child expecting a reward. Some progress it was, in Frank's opinion. He had given Miller his S'more that day, and Miller had been so happy that with a wink, he had told Smita about his raise. Smita was the matron there.
Frank had appealed to Smita to talk to Schultz. He thought Miller could get out of there quick, though earlier than him. Yet he insisted. He had been surprisingly persistent with it, and Smita had almost complained to the doctor had the latter not agreed to check Miller's progress.
Frank headed back for Miller who was gesticulating wildly and having some laughs, raucous laughs that barked the freedom he had finally got. As he got close to his friend, a giant from afar and close, he heard him ask the person's name.
"Bill? I had a dog named Bill," and he paused a moment, before continuing, "No, I am not kidding. No offense Bill, but I liked that dog. A frightening pitbull, that's what he was. He had these strong jaws that could bite anything, even wall. Now I wouldn't mind if he chewed off anyone but his kennel, I was afraid he'd break the wood and gulp it down. No, he was a good boy to me, good like you."
Frank stood there, a foot away, listening to the conversation. Miller grew solemn for a moment and continued. "But he had an issue. Sometimes, he would convulse." He shook his hands wildly, and acted it out, shaking from head to toe and rolling his eyes around, before suddenly stopping, and with a sad expression, resuming, "I'd not know what to do to him then, and nobody told me. He'd convulse and he'd froth and the foamy flecks on his lips would make my heart jump out of my mouth. Looked like he wanted to laugh, but someone was holding him back forcibly. All the time it happened, I'd dash to pa for help but he never listened. I was half afraid of going to him anyway. Every time it happened, he would call me up later at night, ask me to bend across his lap and he'd give me plenty of sore belting. He'd strike it where it hurt the most and he knew where it hurt me the most. I imagine that is how he beat mother too, behind closed doors-"
Frank gently pulled his arm and Miller paused. Then he continued, as he walked with Frank while looking back and talking,
"Bad! It was so bad you know. Us? We are heading back to our town. Yeah, I work in construction. No... "
This way, he kept talking the rest of the way, to Bill and didn't stop for no breath or some thought but kept going the talk. From where he left, that is all it was, talk.
"When I was growin' up, I'd jump up and down on my little ass when we'd watch Swat Kats. Pa, he liked it too," he said and stopped. Everytime he was reminded of him, it cost him much pain and much more effort. But then he'd run off now that it was over. "So in one episode, I remember the big cat and the small cat had their evil doubles, and good lord, what a thing it was! Been thirty or so years, and I still remember it."
Such moments made Frank laugh, but when Miller would recount his horrible past, dread would creep up within him and it'd evolve and it'd surge into his heart with abundant power to rattle him into one of his extreme moods. His most frequent extreme was being miserable beyond hope. All these years he had learned to keep himself still. Today was easy but he wondered like he had been wondering the last five years if they'd put him back in, were he to lose himself again?
With some luck, the pair arrived back to their home, to the boulevard that housed their homes on either side, three blocks apart. However, they never knew when they had arrived.
Pvt Peter had a feeling of great contempt for his life today. For a soldier of the US Corps, to be afraid is to die on the field. He could bottle his fear at will whenever he'd see the enemy, but today, he had failed.
He had been promptly discharged from duty because that day he had frozen and failed to shoot the enemy despite ample opportunity. It had cost his company the life of three friendlies. He had his reasons for defense but they construed it as trauma, and after they had lent him their ears aplenty, they resolved it quickly and dismissed him.
Before this happened, news had reached him that his street, the New Across had been bombed and buried under rubble. He had received sympathies and where he fell down to cry, he had received privacy and some times admonition. Right afterward, when he walked out of the camp with his company, to further advance their line, he saw his sixteen-year-old brother in that soldier who he had the chance to shoot. He knew his men would gut him down, for he was easily visible with a rifle on his shoulder. In this internal conflict, he lost the precious seconds that scored for his side, a loss, a heavy loss.
Immediate was his discharge and soon a new conflict was inside him. He didn't want to go back home. Would anyone be alive now? His mother, Samuel? He decided naught and he pleaded and requested and persisted. But all was overturned, rejected, ignored, and thus, he had set for home.
Just so it happened that the street on which Frank and Miller were, was the one filled with their memories. Around the bend where Rosie sold the doughnuts she had been making since her grandmother died and where she also sold some soda and whipped cream, was the bar that Joe managed. It was also the bar which Joe did not manage, for the boys that came there could rumble and roar to their liking and fist-fight and brawl. The cops did not care who broke a leg or a jaw. It was a haven for Miller, for he was a lot of tight and raw brawn.
As they walked, it was made apparent that Miller was rearing to go to Joe's, for he shadowboxed, fists flying and zapping crisp and nice in the air.
In one such brawl, he had lost one of his frontmost tooths, while displaying an alacrity that was unmatched and had shaken the bar for many to remember. It was also the last thing he had enjoyed before his home was bombed, the last thing before he snapped and started mumbling to himself. The brawl had brought the bar some business. Since then, Joe had hung a sign outside, which announced in squiggly letters, that drinks would be upon the bar for anyone who could beat Joe. In the two days between the brawl and going to the asylum, he had come to know of it. Today, he was gonna add something to his name: if anyone lost, they'd pay for all their drinks.
Frank watched with amusement as his partner, easily three or four inches taller, boxed and flexed his muscles that he had in plenty. But Frank was afraid of himself; he was responsible for both of them. He could feel this familiar dread climb up within him, quick like a squirrel and take ahold of his body. He was perturbed by what he saw all around. All the buildings had been razed down as if by a giant bulldozer, five times the size of a standard. Frank had no clue what had happened, and nobody was there to tell him. But Miller seemed to be conveniently misrepresenting his surroundings to himself. That seemed better, and Frank took his lesson and fought with himself. But he still had the question he had been asking himself since he had seen from afar these ruins: Where will this end? Would they find someone?
Soon he had one of them questions answered. From some distance they saw through the air that was marred with heat and dust, a man in uniform, walking with brisk and measured steps. Frank noted that his head told a sorry story for it was hanging down as if avoiding to look around and take in what was around. The distance between the pair and the soldier shrunk as they kept walking. Soon, when they came across, the pair eyed Pvt Peter, who eyed them back and slowed down just when they were to come in each other's line. He had stopped, for they had done the same.
A comfortable silence established itself between them before the Pvt turned and walked up to them. Miller was still shadowboxing but Frank, he was cautious. For an hour he had been wandering in doubt and for anything that came up now, he had only suspicion. As the Pvt walked over to them, Frank realized he was going for Miller. He felt protective of his friend and was going to intercept but the Pvt stopped a couple of paces away. Frank stopped too. The Pvt unstrapped his bag and undid his jacket. Miller mirrored him and undid his coat. Before Frank could ask, the Pvt exclaimed, "Mate, I need it, like he does." He narrowed his eyes. To him, Miller looked like a man with some practice, about to go for a bout. He needed it to let it all out and he would make up for the bulk of this man with the swiftness and grace which he possessed.
Frank retreated, for this was something Miller and the Pvt knew more than he did, and so he stood back and turned into a spectator, leaning against the pole.
Miller was looking at many things at once. In the Pvt, he saw his father, and as he mumbled to Bill, he saw his pitbull, and around the next bend, or the one after that, he saw his redemption at the Joe's.
The Pvt came close, his fists tight knuckles. Miller went for a jab to his right but missed and cursed. The Pvt's hook to the right was followed imminently by a sharp jab at the shoulder. Miller staggered behind and balanced himself on one leg. He sprang back but went slow, like a veteran, towards the Pvt, who waited. As Miller went across defending himself, the Pvt charged upon him suddenly. But Miller blocked the punches, which rained down upon him with speed and accuracy. Somewhere, Frank felt that Miller was fighting for Bill, and not for himself. Miller felt it too because he was still talking to Bill, calming him, assuring him that nothing would happen to him this time, that he would fight his father to the end and save Bill. But the flurry of punches never stopped coming up at him from his shorter opponent.
Frank felt that Miller would not last long like this. He knew the men were blowing steam but were anything to happen to either of them, a hospital might not be within reach. That brought within him a reaction, to which he fell in despair. He uttered something to Miller, without hope that the latter would listen. But Miller, who was back in that place in his childhood when he wasn't talking to himself, when everything was bright and hopeful and promising to him like life should be to a young boy, heard Frank and he looked back. He saw on Frank's face an expression of weariness and despondence. But a punch landed right across his face, cutting into his lip, a trickle of blood flying out and landing on the pavement where Frank stood.
Miller had staggered behind a little but he quickly balanced himself and wiped the blood on the back of his arm. The Pvt had shouted at him, challenging him to get back into the fight and finish it like a man. Somewhere in it, Miller found his father and started mumbling again. This time, he was not talking to Bill but to himself, like an incantation before the final blow. He raised his guard and the jabs and hooks all flew at him in a flurry that was fuelled by agony on the part of the Pvt, who was crying now. Miller kept guarding himself and waited, patiently, for the right time and the right mark to make his hit. In a matter of seconds, it came. The Pvt received a heavy knock on his left eyebrow that sent him flying down on the concrete.
The young Pvt was thick-skinned for he lay there dazed and sobbing, not wanting to get up, and he lay there crying to himself and roving his sight across the ruins he had avoided till now. Miller was still mumbling to himself, and shadow boxing but he had a smile on his face, a proud smile, and he kept repeating the name of Bill, happily.
Frank walked up to the Pvt and helped him up to his feet. His nose was running and he was weeping still. Picking up his bag after he had put on his jacket, he made to go his way but Miller stopped him. He placed his hand on the soldier's shoulder, and while looking to his left, downward as if someone was there, said,
"Bill, I won. Did you see that, Bill, did you see that? Did you see how I landed the punch? Did ya?" he was exultant about his victory.
The Pvt was confused, and he stood there, looking lost with a sorry face covered in grime and sweat and tears and an eyebrow that was swelling fast.
Frank came forward and just told him to come with them. The Pvt didn't get it.
"There is nothing where you folks are headed. Nothing at all," he said.
Frank handled himself this time, and insisted, once again, for the Pvt to come with them. He knew there would be nothing, no bar, no Rosie, no Joe, and no board with Miller's name on it, but in the world of Miller, he was finding solace. He wanted Peter to find comfort in that as well.
The Pvt reluctantly agreed, and Miller started whistling a tune to Bill, about hope.
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