Steve looked slowly from the bottle back to his partner, who sat patiently waiting for an explanation. He leaned forward, put his elbows on his knees, folded his hands and dropped his head, staring at the carpet, his mouth pressed against the back of his fingers.
Mike watched the young man draw in deep, shuddering breaths, but remaining otherwise immobile. He stared at the top of Steve’s head for several long seconds, his anger subsiding somewhat into compassion. Leaning forward, he put the scotch bottle on the floor between his feet.
“You’re having nightmares, right?” he asked softly. He watched Steve nod vaguely, as if unwilling to admit to that weakness. “You don’t have to be embarrassed about it. Everyone gets nightmares about something.” He touched the bottle. “But this, this isn’t the solution, Steve, you know that.”
Mike waited, but when there was still no response, he asked, “Why didn’t you talk to me about it? You’ve always been able to talk to me about things before.” He waited again, knowing what the answer was going to be but needing to hear it put into words.
Eventually Steve’s gaze climbed slowly from the carpet to the blue eyes of his partner. There were another few seconds of silence before he said quietly, “You know why.”
Mike nodded, a slight smile curling the corners of his mouth. “You were worried about me.” At Steve’s guilty nod, he continued, “I appreciate you thinking about me, about my health, but I need to know these things about you. This is you, this is your health, and it’s just as important to me, do you understand that?” Mike picked up the bottle. “This is a poor substitute for me, don’t you think?”
Behind his hands, Steve chuckled and a tiny smile briefly appeared.
“Let’s get rid of this, shall we?” Mike said as he stood and crossed to the kitchen, scotch bottle in hand. He went straight to the counter, took the top off the bottle and poured the contents into the sink. When it was empty, he turned to see Steve standing in the doorway. If the younger man was angry that the contents of the bottle had just disappeared down the drain, he showed no sign of it.
“There,” said Mike, putting the empty bottle on the counter, “now you only have me. Come on, we’re gonna talk.” He walked past the younger man back into the living room and sat in the armchair.
Shaking his head in reluctant compliance, Steve dragged himself back to the couch and sat heavily with a weary sigh.
“When did they start, the nightmares?”
“I had trouble sleeping when I was with you in the hospital, but they really started after I got home.” Steve snorted and a mirthless smile briefly crossed his face. “The only night I haven’t had one was the night I spent with Emily.”
“Lucky Emily,” Mike said lightly and they both chuckled. But the levity didn’t last long. “What do you see?”
Steve stared unfocused into the middle distance, once again hiding behind his clasped hands. “The whole thing,” he began softly, “from the moment I walk into the room, everything…until the second shot… I always wake up at the second shot…”
Mike nodded slowly. “Is it always a repeat of what actually happened, or is it different somehow…?” he asked gently, and Steve looked at him in surprise, brow furrowed.
“No, no, it’s different… after the first shot, things seem to move in slow motion… and I, ah, I have time to reach out to Jack, to try to grab the gun from him… I’m reaching for him, my hand is just inches from the gun but I can’t get to him in time, and he puts the gun under his chin and he pulls the trigger…” Steve was gasping slightly, shaking. He caught his breath and looked directly at his partner. “How did you know?”
Mike’s tiny smile was melancholy, and he sat back in the armchair with a sad sigh. “I’ve never told you about the first suicide I saw, have I?”
Frowning, Steve shook his head.
“It was during the battle for Iwo Jima – March of ‘45. Everybody was having a hard time, it was one hell of a fight, and there had been a lot of casualties in our platoon. One of our guys, O’Connor, from Boston, he was having a tough time.
“He’d started out being one of the easy-going guys in our outfit, always quick with a joke or a good-natured insult, just a really nice guy. But then he started getting quieter and quieter. Not many of the others seemed to notice, there was just too much going on; the fighting was almost non-stop. But I’d noticed; he was one of my closest friends.”
Mike stopped briefly and took a deep breath. He was looking inward, remembering, reliving. Steve sat unmoving, his eyes not leaving his friends pensive face.
“One night we were bivouacked behind the front line, getting a bit of a reprieve. We were all exhausted, dirty…hungry. I’d spoken to our captain about O’Connor. To his credit, he believed me, and he’d taken O’Connor’s sidearm away from him while we were behind the lines, just in case, you know…
“We were all sitting around eating the first hot food we’d had in days. O’Connor wasn’t eating, just sitting there holding his plate. I was watching him. One of the other guys walked past him and before anybody could react, O’Connor just reached up and grabbed the guy’s sidearm. Just yanked it out of the holster and put the barrel under his chin and pulled the trigger… Took the whole top of his head off…” Mike’s voice faded away. He pulled his stare from nothingness back to his partner. “Thirty years ago and I remember it like it was yesterday.”
“What did you do?” Steve asked gently.
Mike shook his head ironically. “Do? There was nothing I could do. We were in the middle of a war.” He paused. “But it never left me…months later, when I was finally stateside, it would wake me up in the middle of the night, out of nowhere. Just like you,” he said quietly, looking at Steve, “I would see him reach for the gun in slow motion, but no matter how fast I thought I was moving, I couldn’t get to him in time, I couldn’t stop him….”
“They went away,” Mike said reflectively after a long pause. “The nightmares just finally went away, by themselves… I think maybe it was because I finally convinced myself that what he did wasn’t because of my failure but because of his ghosts, his self-destructiveness…and that was something that I had no control over.”
Mike’s inner stare resurfaced, and he turned to face his partner’s moist eyes. Steve stared back, weighing the words, weighing the implications.
Then, with a reassuring nod, Mike got carefully to his feet. “The first thing you need is a good night’s sleep. Come with me.” As he moved past Steve towards the kitchen, he briefly touched the younger man’s shoulder. With a confused look at the retreating figure, Steve got up and followed.
Mike was at the kitchen sink, filling a glass with water. He put the glass on the counter and pulled a small medicine bottle out of his shirt pocket. With a quick glance at Steve, he popped the top off the bottle and shook out two tablets.
“What’s this?” Steve asked warily.
“Valium,” Mike said casually. “You’re getting a good night’s sleep tonight.”
“You always carry around sleeping pills?” Steve asked pointedly, knowing that Mike hadn’t left the hospital with any.
“I had the prescription filled this afternoon,” came the smug reply.
“What? When? I dropped you off at your place just before 8 for Jeannie’s call and picked you up at 9:30.”
Mike smiled mischievously as he handed him the pills and picked up the glass. “All these years and you still haven’t figured me out yet, have you?”
Steve took the pills almost absent-mindedly, frowning.
Trying his best to keep the mood light for the moment, Mike teased, “Hey, you haven’t solved the riddle of the newspaper yet – what makes you think you’ll figure this out anytime soon? Here,” he handed over the glass, “swallow.”
Steve popped the tablets into his mouth and took a drink of water, Mike watching him closely.
Taking pity on him, Mike smiled as he took the glass back and put it on the counter. “I’ll let you off the hook. I found the scotch bottle this morning. And I have Dr. Peters phone number too. I called him when you went to the bodega this afternoon. He had the prescription made up for me, and I had one of the unies pick it up at the hospital and deliver it to my place tonight.”
Steve smiled in spite of himself. “You never cease to amaze me.”
“That’s my job,” Mike chuckled. “You have about a half hour till you fall asleep, so we both better get ready for bed. I’ll use the bathroom first.” He exited the kitchen and climbed the stairs.
Steve watched him go with an affectionate smile. He glanced back at the empty scotch bottle on the counter. Truth be told, he was glad that Mike finally knew and that he no longer had a secret being kept.
# # # # #
In his pajama bottoms and t-shirt, Steve exited the bathroom and started down the stairs. The bedroom door was closed and the light off; he had wanted to talk to Mike before he fell asleep, to thank him for, well, for everything, he thought.
But he was brought up short at the bottom of the stairs when he saw Mike, in pajamas, slippers and dressing gown, sitting on the left side of the couch, a pillow on his lap.
Mike smiled at his confused partner and patted the pillow. “Come here, lay down,” he said easily.
Steve held his ground, frowning. “What?”
Mike’s smile disappeared and he cleared his throat self-consciously. “Look, for the past four weeks you’ve been looking after me. It’s time I got the chance to look after you.”
About to protest, Steve realized that it was very important to the older man that he be allowed to do this. And if he was going to be truthful to himself, he needed it as well. “Are you sure you’re up to this?” he asked as he approached the couch.
“Well, we’ll see tomorrow morning, won’t we?” Mike said with a grin. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.”
Steve turned off the table lamp, laid down on the couch, pulled the blanket over himself, and rested his head on the pillow.
“Comfy?” Mike asked.
“Starting to feel sleepy?”
“Good.” Mike laid his head back against the sofa and his right hand lightly on Steve’s chest. Seconds later, he felt the warmth of Steve’s hand over his. “You said it before, Steve. We’re going to get through this, you and I.”