A Hard Day
It had been a hard day. He felt like he would never get the hang of this. He felt like no matter how much training, how much practise, and how many adaptive gadgets he had, he would never figure this new life out.
He'd been practising this route for days now. He had done it several times with an instructor, who gave him cues and kept him from walking into the street. By the end, he'd done it without any word from her, and though his stomach flipped in anxious leaps, and his grip on the cane was rigid, he took a sigh of relief when he made it to his destination and back home again. She had expressed pride and pleasure at his intention to increase his skills so quickly; he had worked hard. His attention to detail had grown so much. She didn't know the only reason he worked so hard was to get out, get away from his family home where he was feeling stifled and lost. He had no intentions on becoming some amazing super hero. As far as he saw it, he shouldn't even be still walking at all; he should have gone down with his men. He was living on someone else's dime.
He was angry, and he bristled at everyone. He had come home to his parents' place, his childhood home, until someone figured out what to do with him. He'd gone through denial, that had come first at the hospital, until he'd been deposited at rehab and forced to face his injury and what it meant for him. He'd bargained. He'd made all kinds of bargains: with the doctors, with the stars he couldn't see, with God, with all the gods, and when nothing would grant him this plea, he got angry.
His father had received much of this anger. They fought some horrendous battles. His father tried to pull him out of his sadness, out of the self-imposed prison he had built around himself. But Auggie was beyond his father's encouragement. He hated that his father seemed to think that the explosion Auggie had been in was in the past, and that if Auggie just worked through his pain and anger that he would be okay again. He wanted Auggie to go to counselling, which was the last thing Auggie had wanted to do. He didn't want to go talk about how he should be dead like Billy. It was not going to make things okay. Ever. He wasn't going to be happy again. Not with the weight of their deaths, not with the weight of this darkness in which he was drowning constantly with him, never abating. He couldn't be that man before, and his family just was not getting that. He couldn't get past this and be happy again.
He didn't even want to go home. He was stifled there. He couldn't talk about anything, not his job, not the reason why he had gone to Iraq, not what he was going to do next, not any of the life he had been living, not with a counsellor, not with his family. Glencoe was his past. Everything was his past.
Being in Glencoe was like trying to play the part of a man he knew nothing about. He ran into people he'd known when he was younger, and he felt awkward, obvious, and ruined. He felt their pity and their condescending attitude and he hated it, and he hated himself for attracting this new attitude towards him. And he couldn't change it, it was set in stone. He'd gone off as an active soldier, a top notch computer hacker, a happy-go-lucky man with a mission beyond him at all times. Running. Seeing. Now he was lost. Shuffling. Blind. And it wasn't likely to ever change. They'd told him numerous times there was always hope of the possibilities coming in the future with stem cell research, but there was nothing that could be done for his sight now. He was blind. And to him that meant death, death of who he was, who he had been. He was a ghost, dealing with the aftermath, listening to people tiptoeing around him.
They'd asked him what he wanted to do. There were options, they said. He wanted to get back to his men. He wanted to protect them, help them to make it out of there in one piece, make it up somehow for Billy and the guys. All he wanted was to go back and do this. He didn't want to sit somewhere in an office, answering phones or updating programming for software. The life he'd had was the life he'd wanted, and he wanted it back. Nothing less. He wanted to serve his country. He wanted to keep his friends and his family safe.
And now he couldn't even cross a road.
His instructor kept quiet. She'd been doing that for most of these recent trips out. He was expected to navigate as if he were alone. These were the streets he grew up on, for chrissake, and he was terrified to make the next step. He had made good progress with this cane technique, the instructor had praised him. He was almost to stage four in learning to use the white stick he had loathed to take on, the beacon of disability he thought it to be. But he wasn't proficient enough to be alone yet. On his own street. He had to have someone watching out for him now. He couldn't save his men. And now he couldn't save himself.
How could he move on from this? He just wanted to go back. There was nothing for him in the life he wanted to have. No place for a blind man. Langley would never let him in the building, what could he do for them now? He was a field operative, trained to move fast and keep eyes on everything.
The traffic whizzed by him. He turned, thinking he had reached the corner, but the curb stayed straight there, and the sidewalk continued. There was no cutaway. He turned back, searching for the corner with his cane, stepping ahead once, twice. He had not been paying attention, and that was doom for him now. He turned again, searching. Traffic was in front of him now. Was that the same traffic that had been beside him, or was there an intersection now? He reached out, searching for the pole with the button for the cross signal. There was nothing there. Where was his instructor? Why didn't she come to him? He would not ask her for help, he was tired of asking for help. He had to ask for help all the time now and it made him sick to his stomach how helpless he was now. He could walk, sure, he could talk, he could remember. Physically, he was able. But not being able to see, that changed everything. If he'd been in a wheelchair, he could still drive, still hang with his friends and follow the conversations and gestures, watch TV, make connections with people, get across this goddam street wherever it was. This affected everything he did. Even his sleeping was messed up. He was tired all day and couldn't sleep at night. His brain got muddled from the sleep patterns and surely this moment was one of those times, because he could not figure out where he had gone wrong, and where it was that he was right now.
That was when something in him snapped; maybe it was the last shred of hope inside. He was tired. He was tired of wanting his life back. He wanted it, all or nothing. He should have died with his men. That would have been better. He wasn't a hero; he did not deserve that medal they pinned to his uniform as payment for his sight. He had to live with their deaths. He had failed. That bomb was for him as much as the others and he'd failed there, too. He only half-died, he had to live with their deaths, and he wanted right now, right this instant, to finish the job.
He swung the cane hard to his right and then let it go in a flash of hot anger, stepping forward, stumbling over the curb. He righted himself and took two more steps, hearing the sound of cars, some beside him, some in front, he wasn't sure how many, it could have been two or a dozen, he didn't care. Brakes screeched around him. He hoped it would be fast, but then there was nothing but the sound of a horn, loud, to his left. Another vehicle started up and drove away, and he heard someone shout stupid idiot from somewhere. His hand hit the edge of metal, some part of a car, and the horns blared again, from two sides now. He stumbled, not knowing where he was and why he was still alive. His left hand hit the pavement and he felt it scrape hard enough to bleed. His knees had buckled below him, and the horns sounded far away, along with someone screaming his name. He bent down, his forehead nearly touching the street, and his emotion poured out of him in animalistic screams. Someone took his arm, and someone took his other arm, and as if in a dream, he felt himself moving, stumbling, and placed somewhere on a curb. Cars hummed back to life, a small crowd of voices echoed around his ears, and the pathetic sound of a siren throbbed in the air, until he tuned it all out. He didn't want to still be here.
The voices got stronger. Someone stuck something sharp in a part of his body that could have been his thigh. Or his arm. He couldn't be sure. The painful sobs subsided and everything went numb. He may have been pushed to lie down. He felt everything moving and he didn't care anymore. He was done being here.
When he woke up again, he kept his eyes closed, not wanting to open them and still be here in this body. He could smell that familiar smell, the hateful smell that all hospitals have. For a split second, he had a flash of hope that this was where it had began, and all that had been a dream.
There was a firm hand on his own. His father was in Iraq. He'd come to be here for Auggie. How had he made it so quickly? He didn't want to believe he was still there in Glencoe, it couldn't still be this.
His father only called him that at home. It was his mother who had given him that name and his father always thought it was silly. But he still called Auggie by that name in the house. It had become the whole family's term of endearment for the youngest Anderson.
And Auggie opened his eyes. His lip quivered when there was nothing still, but he did not cry, he did not turn away from his father. He just lay there, saying nothing.
"I'm sorry, Auggie. I'm sorry, Son. I was wrong." His father didn't sound like himself at all. "It's not okay, is it? I just wanted you to be happy, Son. You're my boy, and I just wanted you to be happy." And his father's voice broke.
Auggie wanted to call out to his father. He wanted to hug him, but he couldn't move. His father's grief barely touched him where he was.
He was released to his father's care after being checked physically, and then being referred to counselling and given an appointment for the following day. His Dad took Auggie to his car, and didn't say anything most of the way home.
And Auggie knew he had disappointed him. He'd disappointed his mother, too, and his brothers. He'd given up. He'd never done that before, he had been the best at everything. He'd gone off on a wild mission, trying to get past what he felt had been a betrayal, and he'd come home broken. He had done it to himself.
"August," his father said, his voice stronger now, more like himself. "You have to get some help, son. I know I keep saying this, but I can't lose you, son, and I almost lost you today. I already went through almost losing you once. Auggie, you need to talk to someone about this. What do you think Billy would say about what you did there?"
Auggie felt the air go out of his lungs. Billy. His Dad knew that Billy had been his friend, that he lost him, that he missed that friendship more than he could bear. How dare he put Billy's name out there? Auggie felt the sting turn into disgust. What would Billy think of him? Billy would not think it was cool that Auggie gave up and threw the gift of the rest of his life away. How would that give Billy a legacy? How would that help what they had been trying to do? Billy would not want him to drown in his misery. Neither would Jason or Chris. He couldn't let them down. And that was what he was doing, every minute he sat in misery, feeling all the negative, self-pitying thoughts he could. It wasn't helping what those guys had stood for. It wasn't finding Nasir, the traitor, whoever he was, and making him pay for the lives he stole. He still had his life. He was the only one who could right that wrong.
But he still had no idea how to do this. He had agreed to counselling. Maybe they would know. Maybe someone would know how to help him find his purpose.
When he got home, he followed his father into the house. He still wasn't prepared to talk to them, and his mother let him pass without a word. He imagined she and his father had discussed him and he didn't want to have to face any of what truths they threw at him. He ate a little when she came to his room with some supper, but he couldn't fill the empty place inside no matter what he did, so he went to bed early.
Counselling was not as bad as he had expected. And in a way, it was worse. He didn't think he needed it, still, because it was just a lot of talking and no doing. He wanted to do something. He needed to do something, and talking was not his strong suit. He filled out their forms and gave them some answers and they checked all the right boxes. He lied when he felt they were too close, and he didn't answer at all when he knew they were too close. He went through four weeks of two sessions per, and even though he wasn't any closer to coming up with a way to help his friends that were still over there in Tikrit, doing the job he should have been doing, his head felt a bit clearer.
And one day, as he came out of the counsellor's office, and made his way through the lobby to meet his father, he heard footsteps approaching him. Not his father, he knew, because these were ladies' heels clipping near, but when the voice called his name, he only took a second to place it.
"Joan," he said, turning. "What... are you doing here?" She had come to visit him once in the hospital after he returned stateside. She had told him how sorry she was, she had told him she would do whatever she could for him, and if he needed anything, she told him to call her without thinking twice. But then, she had gone, calmly and quietly, and he'd assumed she'd felt he was no longer a part of the CIA, because he had heard no more. Of course, he hadn't called her, because he didn't need anyone. But she hadn't contacted him, and it hurt.
What he hadn't known was that she had gone home, dazed and distraught that her best operative, and one of her best friends, was in so much pain, and was so lost. Her guilt, her sadness, her inability to know what to do to help him had upset her too much to try again until she had strength to give him more. She had immediately gone to Arthur, who tried to ignore the whole situation and pretend none of it had happened. And when that didn't work, she stepped up her game.
"I spoke to your father," Joan told him. "I called looking for you. I told him we were friends from the Smithsonian. I got it out of him where you were, and I told him to let me come pick you up."
"Joan?" Auggie asked. "Why?" None of this made much sense.
"Come on, my car's parked just outside. Um, what do you need?"
Auggie took a breath. It would not be the first or the last time he would teach this new thing he knew called Sighted Guide, which he had never heard of before, and now had intimate knowledge of.
"Here's the car," Joan said, taking him to the passenger side and opening the door for him. He found the door she held and touched the roof as he climbed in, so he wouldn't bump his head. She closed his door with a warning, moved around the car, and climbed into the driver's seat.
"Joan? Why are you really here? I mean, it's great to see you and all, but..." Auggie knew this was not a random pick up. Joan was business.
She didn't turn the engine on. She faced him. "Auggie. I have a proposition for you."
"I've been given the DPD. It's... well, it's a good place for me. I feel right about it."
"Oh, that's... that's great, Joan. I'm glad." It was awkward, being so close to someone and not being able to know what was going on in their head, not being able to read their eyes. It was especially awkward because this was Joan.
"Thing is, I'm getting a team together."
Auggie said nothing. He was barely able to breathe. Joan wasn't just making small talk; Joan never made small talk about anything.
"I need you on that team." Her voice was definite. He didn't need to see her face for that.
"Joan, uh... I don't know if you've noticed..." He waved his hand in front of his eyes. He hated to say the word blind, it wasn't a word that was him, and it made it too real.
"Auggie, you have skills that we need. Mainly, computer skills. No-one in the business can hack into unknown code and translate like you. You were a good field operative, Auggie, and you were good, but that's the past now. I want your future in my tech ops. I need you, Auggie."
Need. He hadn't figured on anyone needing him ever again, he figured he would be the burden that would always be the one in need. This flipped the tables right over.
He let out a small chuckle. "What would you need me for?" Auggie asked. "I can barely find my way from one side of my house to the other."
"That will change," Joan said. "It's all going to come, Auggie. I've watched you learn things all the time. You take the time, you study your NOC, you get it down, and you complete your mission. This is not that much different."
Auggie's mind turned ninety-degrees in a new direction. If there was a purpose to all this stupid training, if there was a way to get back to what he had to do, what he loved, he would do it.
"I've read about adaptive technologies-" Joan began.
"I know," Auggie said quietly. "They teach computer classes in rehab."
"I didn't think it would matter."
He heard Joan pause. She was looking straight at him; he could hear her breathing and her voice aimed toward his face. "It matters. All of it matters. We have work to do, Auggie, and I'm not going to lose you to some stupid technical difficulty. I did not lose you to that bomb. There's no reason why we can't figure this out, since you are still here.
"You are still going to outpatient rehab, right?" She didn't break a beat.
"They call it Orientation and Mobility, and yes, I have to go there almost every day and do their little walks."
"What about reading Braille?"
"Yeah, that's not gonna happen," Auggie said, turning to face the front of the car.
"Have you tried it?"
"Yes. I don't have the patience for that."
"You'd better learn patience, Auggie," Joan said sagely. "You're going to need it now."
Auggie turned back to her. "You really want me back there? What did Arthur say?"
"He's not in charge of the DPD," she said shortly.
"I come with a whole new set of problems," Auggie warned her.
"Like I said. We'll figure it out. But you need to get to work at it. If I'm going to put in for all this expensive equipment from the big boys upstairs, I'm going to need a blind guy there to be able to use it."
For the first time in what felt like a lifetime, Auggie cracked a small smile. Of all people. Joan was going to bat for him; she was going to face her higher ups and demand his return and on top of it, demand for the things he'd need to set up a special office. He knew about all of the stuff they were coming out with, there had been a computer lab at the VA rehab centre, and he had been encouraged to use it. He knew there were screen readers and scanners and Braille printers and displays. He didn't want to know about them, didn't want to have to need something so blatantly... blind.
But this changed it up again. He was needed. He wasn't sure how true that was, but Joan was not one for bullshitting. She didn't play with people. She'd never played him for anything, and he respected her for her honesty. She sounded as serious as he'd ever heard her. She wanted him enough to come all the way here from DC to woe him back to her department, to her team.
"You need to learn Braille. I need you at your top capacities for this, Auggie. Treat it like an op. You learned languages. You learned how to pick locks. You learned about art. You tackled them and got them down, Auggie, and no-one could crack you for faults in your covers. Get this down. Get your life back, Auggie." She started the engine. "I'm taking you home. You need to do some heavy thinking."
"How long do I have?"
"When do you want your life back?"
Auggie shook his head. "Why, Joan? Why are you really here?"
"I told you, Auggie. I need you. I need to figure this out as much as you do, but we can work this."
The more Auggie thought about it, and he had plenty of time to think about it on a car ride with no views, the more he realised that he had escaped. He was the only one who was able not let their deaths be in vain. He was the one that could make what they had tried to do matter, and in a way, he was lucky. He had been lucky twice, in fact. He obviously wasn't supposed to be dead. He had a purpose, just like he'd had a purpose before. But now he had Billy's purpose, he had Chris's purpose, and he had Jason's purpose to carry. This time, he would not let them down. He needed to get back on his feet. He needed to do whatever it took to prove Joan's faith in him; he could not let her down, either.
As she pulled into the Anderson yard, Auggie turned back to her. He wondered if she found it strange talking to him now when he couldn't look back at her. He couldn't read her face to know if she gave any sign of being shaken by his new physicality. But she sounded sure.
"I'm in, Joan," he said. "I can't stay here any more. I want this."
He didn't see the smile that crossed Joan's face, but he could hear it when she put her hand on his arm and said, "Just think about it for a while, Auggie. Call me. You know how to find me. Are you okay to get in?"
Auggie turned as if to look at the house out the window. He dropped his head, nodding.
"I'm okay," he said, in a low voice, feeling like those words might finally be true. "I'll be fine."