Hector Elizondo hadn’t been looking for it, but he’d found a solution to quitting smoking. First day I met him, he had a cigarette stuck between his lips. His goofy, smug smile held his cig at an upward angle so I thought he might stick the damn thing up his nose. He had that habit of talking while not taking it from his mouth, so most of what he spoke sounded mumbled. Hector had dark, scraggly hair, slightly balding in the back, and a beard running from sideburn to sideburn with no mustache. He looked a lot older than he was, and a newlywed with a kid by the yarn he was spinnin’ the squad. I was there to yell at him for littering his cigarette or the Croze would pick up our trail.
It was the tail-end of the fight for the thirty-third front. This was—you guessed it—just before Hiluanic liberated the prisoner camps all along the east coast. So the governments of Hiluanic and Crozanya were at each other’s teeth, and we got sent as an advance party to see if we couldn’t capture a whole harbor. That plan fell through, and that’s how I came to be standing at the apartment door, apologizing to the mother of my daughter that I could never see either one of them again.
The apartment I shared with Hector. Hiluanic pays its vets well enough I could afford some mini two-bedroom closet, especially reparations for spending three-quarters of a year as prisoners of Hell. The space may not have been all that much a step up, but we had very Spartan needs. Kitchen, bathroom, living area you could cram an old TV and couple’a folding tables in.
She had tracked me down on account of something I said to our daughter. I can’t remember what I’d said exactly—I was probably a little soused at the time, but whatever it was, it musta sucked the soul outta her eyes. She covered her ears, too, so I’m certain it was something expletive. No, I remember now. She was watchin’ her cartoons, and her little creatures got captured, and she asked me, “Daddy, how’re they gonna get out?” and I tell her, matter-of-factly, of course, that they’ll never fucking taste freedom again. Her mom sends her to her room then just starts tearin’ into me with her conniption fit, and pretty soon I’m telling each and every problem of hers that it’s no big deal, it’s no big deal.
You see, Hector had been stopping by in the middle of the night. Ever since we were discharged, he started showing up, always at the witching hour, asking to come in for a beer or something. I tell him to get in, stop freezing your ass off, and I almost ask him for his troubles like I was his bartender or somethin’. First time I noticed he didn’t stop shakin’, and I had the heat on, so I knew it wasn’t from the cold. I think he thought he could fool me, even screwed-up old me, but I didn’t say nothin’. He didn’t say nothin’ either. He sat there, rocking back and forth, me swaying from side to side, until his face screwed up and he starts wheezing out this pitiful quiet sobbing. After maybe ten to fifteen minutes, he goes quiet while I watched the upstairs doors to make sure no one stumbled upon him lookin’ for a glass of water.
Anyways, that was carrying on for a month before my wife had just about had it. She didn’t think he’d be a good influence on our Sarah. Then she found out I wasn’t, either. I try watching TV from time to time, and Sarah loved to sit by her war hero, Daddy. And she’d make her daffy comments about the TV and all I hear’s this whistling in my head and I feel numb, starting with my lips and shooting down until my arms and legs are paralyzed. Then out of the blue, nothin’ to do with the TV that I can recall, she asks me, did I win the war. I just sat there, dead to the world, not saying a damn thing, missing dinner and the trip to her parents. When they came home, she still found me sitting on the couch, just staring and drooling at the TV which they’d switched off before they’d left. Ever the picture of tact and social grace as kids were, Sarah whispers audibly to her mother, “Is Daddy alright?” But Daddy wasn’t home.
Then Daddy got a new home. But it didn’t change much. I thought it was their voices I couldn’t stand, their ignorance of what we’d been through, Hector and I, but it wasn’t that. Not exactly. I wanted the quiet of not hearing the buzz of electricity, or the clanking of knives and metal and the chopping of vegetables. I had become so bloated with grief that I was afraid of the minefield my daughter had become. I couldn’t stand the screaming of another innocent child being mutilated.
The Croze were sick fucks.
So as I say, my ex tracked me down to my new foxhole. She told me she’d been talking to Hector’s wife, Roberta. Uh oh. He screams in his sleep if I’m not around, see. Had to sleep in the living room full-time, and nobody’s getting any sleep, and he doesn’t wanna go to a counselor, so it’s just his ex-wife and kid at the therapist’s, talking about the same damn issue without a clue as to how to move forward, selfish shit that he is.
When I moved out, I told Hector he couldn’t keep doing this, ‘cause I knew all about it already at the time. I told him I was getting a new place, why don’t we pool our money together, and he just nods. Nods like his head’s gonna explode. He doesn’t scream at my place, but he wakes me up in the middle of the night and starts crying on my shoulder, just weeping, and sounding ridiculous as he does it, and I just sit and stare at the TV without turning it on. I tell him he can do whatever as long as I can watch TV and not be a part of it, but I never turn the damn thing on. It’s just for Hector. So he cries himself to sleep, I carry his malnourishing ass to bed, and go back to mine. Every month I cash the checks and this was how it went.
Then comes the aforementioned night my ex-wife reads me the riot act, asking me why I left, why I don’t get over myself, if Hector and I are gay. All during this I just shut down again until I thought I might collapse onto the lineoleum. That night, Hector pulls the same old routine. He cries on my chest and won’t let go for some damn reason. Will you stop crying, you stupid fuck, I say. I smack him. I slap him so hard, but his weak points aren’t physical. I call him a fucking faggot, I tell him to stop crying and man up because I am broken inside, and he’s a war hero and he should be tougher. He just goes statue-still on the floor where he falls, and I hit him and kick him for just a short little while until I feel bad, I feel something again.
Hector, he doesn’t feel anything anymore after that. Just sits and stares and doesn’t blink until it’s time to go to bed, but the nurses take care of his feedings and his bedpan now.
And what echoes in my ears from time to time until I smash enough bottles on the walls to make it all go away are the words the Croze war heroes said to me when they gunned down my squad, leaving me and Hector to be taken alive: “You’ll never taste freedom again.”
Moral of the story? There are no winners in war, kid.