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Drama

This story contains sensitive content

***Content warning: Story includes topics related to mental health, substance abuse, and suicide/self-harm***


“Tommy Boy, wakey, wakey.”


That’s definitely not a voice I should hear in my own home, considering I live alone. I am home, right? Filtering through my spotty memories, I confirm that I should be home. “Mmm-no,” I respond, tossing an arm over my face to hide.


“Get up, asshole.” Another familiar voice.


The freezing cold bag of whatever that someone presses against my neck jolts me out of sleep. Upright on the couch, I run my hands over my face, forcing myself awake further.


“We tried calling, like, a thousand times. C’mon, we’re going out,” my commander and best friend, Shaun, informs me. He pulls on my arm, but I refuse to budge.


“No.” I keep my face hidden in my hands to avoid questions and accusations. Likely hours have passed since I fell asleep and I can still feel a pretty decent buzz from my lunch of narcotics and liquor, so I can’t be certain my eyes won’t reveal my altered mental state.


“When did you get a dog?” Chuck, my other teammate, asks. I think only he and Shaun are here, but I won’t look up to verify that assumption.


“Not mine—neighbor’s dog.” My neighbor, Mark, got called for a last-minute business trip out of state and needed someone to take care of his daughter’s Golden Retriever, Lucy, for the weekend. His ex-wife, who usually took on the task, couldn’t help and I happened to be home when he was asking around our floor. Not like I have much else going on and Lucy and I are friendly enough when we pass in the lobby or hallway.


After Mark brought her by earlier, I popped a few painkillers and chased them with whiskey, then slipped into that blissful state of unfeeling before passing out entirely. After six years of constant action with a Special Forces unit in the Army, a little run-in with some not-so-friendlies during our last deployment put me in a spiral that’s so far been manageable, thanks to that cocktail of narcotics and alcohol.


I have found an ideal mix of the two that keeps me numb and quiets the noise in my head with none of my teammates or command any the wiser. This is made easier by the fact my schedule is incredibly accommodating to my routine of self-medicating; no going back to work until cleared by a med board.


“Why do you still have an oxy prescription?”


Shit.


Reflexively, I look up to where Chuck is standing by the kitchen island, holding the bottle in question up. I no longer need the painkillers for physical pain, technically, but they do a bang-up job in the mind-numbing department. As long as I tell the doctor all the right things, he never hesitates to write my prescriptions.


“Are you gahdamn kidding me, Tommy?” Taking a seat beside me and placing both hands on the sides of my head, Shaun pulls my face around, until we are eye level, and I watch him search for the obvious. “He’s high as a kite.”


I shake out of his grasp and push up off the couch. “I’m not going out.”


“Fine with me,” Chuck says flatly. He shoves my prescription bottle into his pocket before taking the path to the apartment door.


“Hey, those are mine!” I shout and Chuck stops at the door.


“You’ve had enough,” Shaun says. He signals for Chuck to leave us. Near the top of the list of things I don’t want to deal with is a one-on-one chat with my best friend/commander. “What the hell is going on, man? You look like shit, we haven’t heard from you in days and you’re poppin’ pills, now?”


“Doc prescribed ‘em to me which, by law or something, means I can take them.”


“Do you need them?”


“Yeah. Sure,” I answer on a yawn, dropping down into my recliner away from Shaun. Lucy makes her way to my side, pressing the broad side of her body against my leg. Hesitantly, I scratch behind her ear and she leans into my touch.


From my peripheral, I see Shaun shake his head. I gave up on trying to maintain eye contact because my eyes were having trouble focusing on him.


“It’s Alex’s birthday.”


I shrug. “Tell him happy birthday.”


“Chuck fed and walked the dog.”


“Thanks.”


“You’ve got one night to sleep this off,” he says, voice dripping with disdain now. “I’ll be back tomorrow, alright?”


“Yes, sir.” I follow that up with a mock salute.


“Tommy, promise me you’ll sleep this off and…not do anything stupid.”


“I promise not to off myself.”


He sinks a hand into the material of my shirt and pulls me close. “If I were you, I’d think really gahdamn hard about how important your position in my unit is to you before I come back tomorrow, got it?”


“Fuck. Off.” I push him away. Rage heats my skin, but my lingering high keeps me on the side of calm. More like I do not have the mental or physical energy to fight with him like I kind of want to.


Lucy rests her head on my knee while staring up at me, so I focus on her soulful puppy eyes. Shaun has a few more words for me, but I do not hear them. I don’t need to be told what a fuck-up I am. I’m well aware. The sound of the front door finally slamming shut is like music to my ears.


Solitude.


Thus far, I’ve managed to keep a lid on my spiraling behavior, keeping it between myself and the people in the photos on my wall, but it’s getting hard to hide now. The highs aren’t as high anymore and the lows are really, really low. My career is likely over. My teammates are obviously picking up on my withdrawn behavior and I push them further away with every ignored phone call or skipped outing. They are fed up with me.


Join the club, guys; I’m fed up with myself.


A mangled laugh escapes me. I need a drink.


With more effort than should be necessary, I push to my feet, past Lucy, and into my kitchen, discovering Chuck poured out the bottle of whiskey I had been working on. Dull rage threatens my peace until I remember the half-full bottle in my bedroom, so that is where my sorry ass goes.


First stripping down to my boxers, I drop down onto the edge of my bed and nurse that bottle for a rough several minutes, staring at the ground until I have reached that blissful state of absolute numbness. Not even bothering with a blanket, I fall back onto the bed and pass out.

***

The nightmare has its intended effect, sending me rolling off my bed and landing on the floor with a painful thud. I scramble around until I am sitting on my butt, then back up to the nearest wall. Comfort can be found in curling into myself, with my knees pulled to my chest and arms wrapped tightly around my legs. Burying my face helps to hide from the wreck of my life around me. And the tears flow freely as I beg my captors to let me die.


Please?


I realize they do not have physical control over me any longer, but somehow, they’ve embedded themselves in my head to where they are still ruining me from thousands of miles away. I need to numb these memories before they kill me.


Hell, every day that thought gets a little rosier sounding. A permanent escape from this endless torture. I pull my pistol out from its place beneath the nearby dresser and stare at it, leaving it on the ground beside me.


It’d be so easy...and quick.


My heart rate is out of control with no signs of slowing and I don’t know what to do about the breaths that seem too short and unfulfilling. I know there is a term for this physiological reaction to the psychological clusterfuck that is my mind, but I never bothered to learn it, much less get help for coping with this sudden onset of panic.


A deep belching sound alarms me and my head shoots up. Lucy. She’s sitting in the doorway, staring at me again. “Enjoying the show?”


Her ears perk up, making her look more attentive than before. Following a sigh, she makes that same deep belching noise, then slowly trots to my side, opposite the pistol. She sits down beside me, turned enough that her butt is pressed against my hip. Another sigh. I didn’t know that dogs could be so damn sassy. “Can I help you?”


It’s hard to get the words out with the limited oxygen I am receiving, but I am not in a good place right now and I need to focus my anger on something other than the memories. And the dog is the most readily available target.


My God, I’ve had girlfriends that couldn’t give me a pissed-off side-eye from over their shoulder half as effective as this dog does. Color me impressed. A little flutter of humor breaks through the panic overwhelming my system.


“You’re not supposed to be in my room.”


Lucy does not stand to turn, but instead, shuffles around while seated until she can place her head back on my knee. I watch her as intently as she has watched me since Mark brought her over. Her ears drop to a more relaxed position and she is a picture of calm. I’m hesitant to reach out and touch her. Being close to anyone, person or animal, is not easy for me when I'm in this state. I free one hand from where they are clasped around my shins, then cautiously scratch the top of her head with a single finger. Her hair is so soft.


“You look like a giant chicken nugget…a perfectly cooked chicken nugget.”


Her eyelids droop as I scratch more thoroughly, eventually adding more fingers, still unsure about being close to this ball of fur right now. More and more of that humor cracks the walls of my misery watching this dog succumb to my touch, though.


Slowly, I stretch out my sore legs and cross them at my ankles. The cool floor feels good against the back of my sweat-soaked and panic scorched legs. My mind clears of some of the fog that always gets me in these moments, so I take the period of calm to try and settle my breathing.


The panicky feeling never leaves me. To some degree, it is always lingering, waiting to overtake me at the slightest trigger. I may die of a freaking stroke from stress before that pistol ever gets the opportunity to do the job. I give the gun another look and another unbearable wave of panic slices through me.


A wet, pillowy object prods my hand. I open my eyes to find the dog nudging me with her nose. I pull my hand away, but Lucy takes that as an opportunity to drop her head into my lap. Her eyes dart up to stare at me. “Sorry, Luce. I’m a little messed up right now.” I exhale slowly, relieved that my breathing has taken on a slightly calmer rhythm, but my heart is still trying to beat out of my chest.


She sighs again and scoots in closer. Or tries to. I’m a ball of unmovable tension.


“You’re the first person—er, dog—I’ve admitted that to.” Everyone else gets the ‘I’m good’ speech. I place a palm on the top of her head and start a rhythm of gentle strokes from the top of her head down the back of her neck, scratching intermittently. “Some stuff happened to me and I’m having some trouble dealing with it…can you keep a secret?”


Her sleepy eyes open long enough to look up at me in what I’m going to take as an affirmative gesture because I really need this moment. “I was caught and held captive for a few weeks on my last deployment. They messed me up really bad, Luce.” Waking up in the hospital, I chose to never tell my team, letting them come to their own conclusions after finding me abandoned, left for dead in a desert compound. I never correct their assumptions, but I do wish one of them knew the truth or could see my pain. I’m alive and most days I don’t want to be. “They tell me I’m lucky to be alive because of the condition they found me in. But I don’t feel lucky.” Even I can hear the defeated tone of my voice and it pisses me off. “I feel cheated.”


Lucy nudges my hand again and I realize I have gone back to the ball of tension and stopped petting her. “Sorry, girl. Please don’t tell anyone what I said. They’ll try to cart me off to a head peeper. Then who will sneak you peanut butter crackers in the lobby?”


For a while, we sit there, me lazily petting Lucy and her softly snoring with her head in my lap until, around dawn, I'm able to follow her into dreamland.


Waking up some hours later, I try to recall the last time I slept that well while somewhat sober, but nothing comes to mind. Glancing at the pistol to my right, a sick feeling overtakes me, so I push the weapon back to its hiding place.


Not today.


There is a distinct coldness on my left side, now, where there had been warm fur for hours. Lucy’s gone and I’m surprised by how hollow that makes me feel.


It doesn’t take long to locate her, though. When I get to my unsteady feet, I promptly find the fat dog sprawled out on my bed, sound asleep. I should be upset this monster is hogging my bed, leaving her chicken nugget-colored hair all over my covers, but seeing how she’s bearing the burden of knowing about my demons, my dead heart beats a little harder for this girl.


I like this dog.


I crawl into bed and put myself right up next to Lucy. She sighs— contentedly, this time—then rolls over to her back, contorting until her head is pressed against my deltoid and paws in the air. I reach my opposite arm over and scratch her soft belly. “You scumbag. Can’t believe you took advantage of me while I was vulnerable and tricked my darkest secret out of me.”


“Tommy, you awake?” Shaun’s voice coming from just outside my room startles me. I never heard the door, much less him entering my apartment.


Not responding, I meet him at the open door. He looks me up and down, disapproval, along with something like sadness, clear upon his face. “What’re you doing here?”


“We need to talk.”


Exhaling heavily, I push past him to make for the kitchen, but stop in my tracks when I find four of my closest friends and teammates all sitting around the largest room of my apartment.


“Chuck, take care of the dog. Tommy, Sit. Eat,” Shaun orders.


Chuck does as he’s told and fetches Lucy. My chest tightens watching her follow him out of the apartment, presumably down to a grassy area outside for her to do her thing. Shaun pushes me towards the food sitting on the bar while the others watch me. They know better than to overstep Shaun’s authority right now and it kills me it’s come to this. Being cornered in my own home.


I sit and dig into the food. Or try to, at least. My stomach is turbulent with anticipation and anxiety about what happens next. I get three bites down before pushing the food away, having to breathe through some nausea. I know they are still watching me, but I keep my own eyes down. A new type of panic is swirling in my gut. I’m about to be figuratively stripped bare in front of my friends.


Chuck returns and gives Lucy her breakfast, but she pays it no mind. She takes up her position against my bouncing leg, giving me the most reassuring look a dog could give. I quickly move my hand to the top of her head, needing to feel her. To calm my breathing. To ease the ache in my chest. To save me.


Shaun starts on me and I can hardly register the words. I recognize he is expressing bitter concern about my behavior, though. I nod every so often, never speaking. I deserve everything they have to say.


I'm as much the center of Lucy’s world as she is mine right now. My focus is entirely on her, the only thing keeping my emotional dam from bursting. The calm I get from this dog’s presence could give any narcotic a run for its money. I slip down to the floor to get closer. Lucy knows what I need and presses her body against mine. I hug her, tight.


I need this dog.


Damn my friends for witnessing this moment. But I need them, too. A lifeline. Someone else to know about the hell in my head. Lucy shouldn’t have to bear it all on her own. I don’t want them to know, more I need them to. The tears spill from my eyes until I am sobbing uncontrollably into Lucy’s neck.


A hand squeezes my shoulder. “It’s okay to need help, Tommy. It’s always okay,” Shaun says with a gentleness I’ve never heard from him. He knows.


Thank God someone knows I’m broken.


“Thank you.” Pitifully, I repeat the words for everyone to hear, then bury my face further into the thick fur of Lucy’s neck. “Thank you, girl. So much.” My words to her are quiet and she responds by licking my ear.


I love this dog.

April 27, 2022 06:28

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3 comments

15:07 May 05, 2022

What a beautiful story, Kennedy. I am a dog lover myself. I know how calming their presence can be. No wonder they make wonderful therapy dogs. You described a dog’s behavior perfectly. No exaggeration and I loved that. I’m glad that it wasn’t a talking dog, as I was afraid it would be. Dogs don’t need to have some superpowers to help us get out of our misery. They just have to be themselves. Just be dogs. Lucy’s effect on you was believable, natural. Authentic. And you have a way with words, Kennedy. You wrote an excellent story for a f...

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Kennedy Cole
01:04 May 06, 2022

Wow, thank you so much, Gabriela! Your words are so kind and very reassuring that I may be on the right track 😆 and definitely a dog-lover here! Lucy is my real golden, so getting that part of the story down was easy thanks to seven years with her! I am definitely looking forward to being apart of this community, as well as more prompts! Thanks again, Gabriela! 😊😊

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01:28 May 06, 2022

You are positively on the right track, Kennedy. You ARE a good writer. I hope you’ll write more so we could read more of your stories. Give Lucy a big kiss from me. Love golden retrievers. What not to love about them? Lucky you! 🐕 Take care.

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