The roses were decaying, petal by petal. Green leaves overtaken by patches and mottling spasms of brown and grey. The edges and undersides crinkling as though previously burned. They lay crumpled in the trash can, stems twisted and crinkled in all the wrong ways, blossoms and blooms frozen in time except for the march of destruction that would gradually devour them until they were no more.
Nestled in the depths of a half-open drawer right next to the trash were nearly a dozen pill bottles. Some of them were new, but a few of them had expired more than several years ago. The labels looked untouched and pristine and so did the lids, as though they had never been used. Most of them had only a few pills inside, and all of them had the word ‘SAMPLE’ on them in big, bold letters, as well as the prescribing doctor’s name: Dr. Anderson.
The room itself, despite the state of the trash can and the fact that this was within a one-star hotel, was immaculate. Every surface looked brand new, and the old vinyl floors did their best to shine through with the luster they had once had.
Inside the coat closet, nothing was on the floor aside from two pairs of shoes that were neatly lined up against the back wall. Clothing—mostly T-shirts and sweaters and a few jackets—were hung in order of what they were. There were two military uniforms on hangers, and from one of them hung a set of silver polished army dog tags. Further back in the closet and nearly hidden from sight in the darkness was a double-barrel shotgun. On the floor next to it were six packages of slugs.
There was a painting on the wall above the bed of a woman holding hands with a small boy. They stood in a field of wildflowers with the brilliant sun shining above them. Nestled between the painting and the wall was a photograph of a young man with haunted eyes, a wrinkled forehead, and a cruel frown. Blond hair was swept back and unkempt, as though he had recently awakened from slumber. He wore a distinctive army uniform, and his arms were folded defensively across his chest.
C r e a k…..
The front door opened with the brisk swipe of a key card, and Michael entered the room. He locked and dead-bolted the door behind him, toed off his shoes and placed them neatly in the closet, and padded into the cramped kitchen.
Nothing else but the clinks and clunks and thuds and crinkles and crackles of food and merchandise sounded throughout the tiny space as he unloaded his groceries. Three of everything, sometimes five of everything, because you could never be too careful. Paranoid memories of being pinned down in firefights for days with nothing to eat or drink always pressed him to buy extra everything.
Bread, protein bars, dried fruit, chips, trail mix, and various other items that could be shoved into overstuffed bags and pockets. Three lighters, three packs of matches, five empty water bottles, three pocket flashlights, five glow sticks, three small blankets, and various other emergency and first aid supplies.
He finished putting everything away, with each item having its own home; nothing was misplaced, ever. For a long time afterward, he just stood there in the kitchen and stared at the wall, the lines in his forehead wrinkled and deep.
He often got caught up in the tangles of his memories: The horror of dragging fellow soldiers from an overturned truck in the middle of a war zone, their bodies unrecognizable and mangled. The crushing understanding that he had to leave his finest friends behind in order to save himself and complete the mission. The sleepless nights and the panic attacks and the stark realities of war that most people could never understand.
A slow breath parted his lips, and he moved abruptly. Long strides carried him into the main room, and he sat down on the edge of the bed. He grabbed the remote control and stared at the TV screen. It was black. Blank.
He felt connected to that blankness. To that nothing. To that hollow, aching chasm he had been running from since his deployment.
An annoyed scoff and a flinch, and he twisted back toward his nightstand to grab his phone. The caller ID read, Dr. Anderson.
“Yeah?” His voice was raspy. Tired.
“Michael, it’s Dr. Anderson. I have been trying to contact you for hours; you missed our appointment this afternoon. Are you all right?”
“Would you like to reschedule?”
Dr. Anderson, his therapist, never asked him why he missed his appointments. He remembered that first and only time she did. He remembered feeling numb and overtaken by something he couldn’t describe. A whine in the back of his skull trying to crack it wide open. The kind of sensation where he was put on the spot without any answers to give. She had pressed him, ever so gently, but even a soft push was too hard for him back then, fresh from the battlefield with no idea what to do with himself. And it was still too hard now.
“Michael.” Her voice took on a crisp edge, like it did when she was about to ask him a question he didn’t want to answer. That tone left her mouth too often as far as Michael was concerned.
“You asked, I answered. What more do you want?”
“Okay, I’m going to reschedule you for tomorrow at noon. If you don’t show up again, I’m coming over.” It seemed unorthodox for a therapist to go to a client’s home—and besides, the hotel room Michael had been staying in for the last three months wasn’t exactly a home—but Dr. Anderson wasn’t a normal therapist. She had been close friends with his mother and often attempted controversial methods of therapy that didn’t always involve a stale office. If Michael was going to be honest with himself, which he almost never was, he appreciated the sessions at ‘home’ or at a quiet café or out in the woods. He didn’t like the idea of four walls with few escape routes.
He grated out a sigh and glanced to the wall clock above the oven. It read somewhere around dinner time, but he sure as hell wasn’t hungry anymore. He turned away and hung up the phone. As he did, the painting with the photo nestled next to it froze him in place, and he forced a thick, painful swallow. He studied the lines of the woman’s form, the way her shape fit perfectly within that field of blossoms. That little boy with a smile on his mouth and bright dreams in his eyes. It was nothing like his face now, which was drawn and rugged, his gaze wrought with nightmares and demons he could never escape from.