Well, Sonny thought as he backed his yellow Mustang -- his baby -- out of the old barn where he parked it, Luki was mostly his usual self then, when we first came home.
Because at times he’d still been in a lot of pain, and a few times he’d had plenty of -- too much -- pain medication, and then there had also been those other, weirder times that Sonny couldn’t explain. Luki would just check out right in the middle of a conversation, stay completely blank until he’d suddenly say, “He was just a kid,” or, “He had the greenest eyes.” Those times never lasted long, though, and Luki’s pain got less and less, and Sonny just didn’t expect the thing that happened to Luki not long after they got home. It was almost like Luki… died inside. Like whatever made him Luki drained off and left Sonny a handsome and heart-wrenching Luki-like shell.
It didn’t really matter that Sonny knew psychological trauma did this to others: soldiers, agents of the law, people who relied on violent skills to guard the world against violence. This development in Luki astounded Sonny. The very idea that Luki Mililani Vasquez could be so overcome, so incapacitated that people felt the need to watch over him, medicate him, counsel him, be careful of him, for God’s sake. It was like weaving a wall-sized tapestry, spending hours with it and knowing every warp and weft intimately, and then one day discovering the image had changed from day to night, ocean to desert, rock to dust. How could it make sense?
But Sonny also knew immediately that he didn’t have the power to bring the real Luki back. So he lived his daily life keeping Luki always in his field of vision -- at least figuratively -- and he did what he could to help him find what was real from one moment to the next, make sure he got where he needed to go when he needed to be there. Theoretically, that wouldn’t be difficult. But Luki, even broken as he was, always wanted to do things Luki’s way.
Luki was supposed to go to psychotherapy, as he was obviously having trouble processing the fact that he’d shot and killed that young guard, whom he insisted on remembering as an innocent kid, completely discounting the indisputable fact that if he hadn’t shot first the green-eyed kid would have killed him. Luki still had the badge he’d so sneakily reenlisted for behind Sonny’s back before they even knew Luki’s teenage nephew Jackie was missing. Sonny hadn’t wanted him to do that, but the agency shield had come in handy when it turned out Jackie’s sicko kidnapper also happened to be a large-scale moonshiner. Who would have imagined such a coincidence!
Sonny still harbored no great fondness for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, but he had to admit his pleasant surprise. The powers that be at ATF wouldn’t let Luki resign, not until they saw to it that he took advantage of every resource they could throw at him that might make him well. What was happening to Luki wasn’t unusual, Sonny had learned. Agents of the law sometimes killed people and -- if they were good people themselves -- it messed with their heads. Or hearts, perhaps. So agencies like ATF had a response in place involving professional care, and they enforced -- by means Sonny didn’t understand -- their directive that the sick must be treated. And Luki seemed to take the Bureau’s no, you can’t resign at face value.
So Luki was supposed to go to the therapist, and he was supposed to take the pills the agency psychiatrist prescribed to go with the counseling. One for depression. One for anxiety. One for nightmares. Sonny thought Luki might have tried them all, but he knew for sure that after the first few days he wasn’t taking any of them, and he certainly wasn’t meeting with the psychotherapist twice each week. Not even once a month. For the most part, what Luki did was lie in bed, sometimes sleeping but sometimes not. And when Luki wasn’t sleeping, he spent a great deal of time staring, and sometimes patting Bear, who looked annoyed but long-suffering. Luki would turn the TV on and not watch it. He’d read but never turn the page -- wouldn’t even remember to put on his reading glasses. He would come to the dinner table and not eat. Some days he stayed in bed, got up to piss, maybe drank some water, asked, “What time is it,” and went back to bed no matter the answer.
Thank goodness for physical therapy; if not for that scheduled activity, the physical demand, and maybe exactly the right kind of guy for a therapist, Luki might never have left his bed except to go to the toilet or the couch. Sonny couldn’t begin to explain what was different about PT -- why Luki would do that but nothing else.
Whatever the explanation, on PT days, Luki showered and dressed, actually had coffee and breakfast, and with Sonny behind the wheel of the Mustang, rode to Sequim to the clinic. He went in and listened to instructions and tested his muscles to their full capacity, and sometimes he stayed dressed and out of bed until dark.
He went to PT three times a week, thanks to Sonny, who had begged Luki’s doctor to make that a must, because Luki wouldn’t go to psych therapy, and an extra PT session was better than no extra session at all. His physiotherapist, Val, was a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and himself suffered PTSD -- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a fitting name for the condition. Sonny didn’t think Luki’s assignment to Val’s caseload was an accident. Luki didn’t talk to Val, of course. He didn’t talk to anyone. Not even Sonny or his uncle Kaholo. No one. Well, no one except Bear. But when Val talked to Luki, which wasn’t a whole lot, Luki seemed to listen.
And though Luki’s mind, heart, and soul gave no sign they might be healing, his body regained its fitness. Sonny had never truly realized just how monster strong Luki’s deceptively compact muscles had been. He’d never tried to quantify it in any way until he watched Luki squat well over three hundred pounds before the thigh muscles were even firmly healed. Rather than having lost any strength, by the time Val had worked with Luki for five or six weeks, Sonny thought Luki was probably stronger than ever.
And he was utterly beautiful. And now, having backed the Mustang out and pulled it around to the house, Sonny sat with the engine idling, watching Luki, the only real lover he’d ever had or ever wanted, approach the car with the same sure stride and icy gaze he’d always had. He wanted him. He lusted after every inch of soon-to-be sweaty skin and well-trained muscle. Wanted to drag his tongue up every salty valley, mouth every rise and mound, coax him hard, and suck the cream from his cock.
But -- even on PT days -- Luki wasn’t interested. He rolled over and went to sleep before Sonny could so much as kiss him good night. Or if Sonny reached out to hold Luki, or tried to walk into the shelter of his arms, his blessed arms, he gave Sonny a quick squeeze and platonic peck on the cheek. And Sonny really, really needed holding.
“Give it a little time,” Kaholo had said on the phone.
Sonny knew he might be right -- they’d only been home three and a half weeks.
“Don’t give up on ‘im, Sonny.”
That pissed Sonny off. He was the one who was there every day, trying to keep their life in some kind of order, trying to outlast Luki’s trouble. “I’m not,” he said, sounding more vexed than he’d intended. “I won’t, I can’t. But I don’t know what to do. I can’t just wait for him to get over this when he isn’t even trying.”
“Well… I know a little bit about this, about how it might be for him. Did Luki ever mention to you about the time I was in Vietnam? What my job was?”
“You were a sharpshooter, a sniper.”
“That’s right. So of course you know that the only job a sniper has is to kill the man in his sights. The thing is, even back then we had good optics, good enough to get a really good look at the human being on the other end. For me, well, I’m fairly practical.”
Sonny smiled at the understated description, even though Kaholo couldn’t see the expression a thousand miles away in Nebraska.
“So,” Kaholo went on, “I figured a job is a responsibility, and a soldier’s gotta take the job he’s given, and in a war some jobs are less… desirable than others. Time and again I’d get my mark in my sights and shoot him dead. In my mind I said words for the stranger -- which is just my way -- but then I forgot him. But one time it turned out different.
“My platoon was hidden, see, in a gulch, thick vegetation down there, and we knew we couldn’t be seen from camp, even though it wasn’t far. But we had to move -- we had to join up with the rest of our company. We figured out a way to go -- we wouldn’t be in their line of sight if we crossed the stream and headed up behind a rise. But every time we made a move to get out, the enemy knew, and they hit us hard and we’d go running back to hide. We couldn’t figure out how they knew our movements. Finally, my lieutenant spotted motion on a tiny ledge high up on a rock face perpendicular to the cleft we’d taken cover in.
“‘That’s where they’re getting the news from, Hula Boy,’ he said. ‘That’s your mark.’ So I did my job, got the Viet Cong soldier in my sights. But he wasn’t much more than a boy. He was alone, looked scared. I started to lower my rifle -- no man wants to shoot a child. But just then our soldiers started to move, the first two stepped out to cross the creek, and I saw the boy pick up a flashlight and start to signal. I lifted my gun, took aim, and fired. It was part of my job to make sure I killed the mark, so I watched through my sights. He looked right at me, his eyes liquid brown and resigned. A red fountain poured down the side of his head, and then he fell… Shit,” Kaholo said. “It’s hard talking about that, even after all this time.”
“Kaholo, you didn’t have to --”
“No, Sonny, I didn’t have to. But I thought maybe, if I told you how that tormented me for months -- hell for years, off and on, maybe I can help you understand my nephew a little bit -- maybe understand all he’s going through and all he’s putting you through.”
“Yes,” Sonny said, feeling overwhelmed.
“Luki and me, we’re not much the same, Sonny, except we’re both big Hawaiian dudes.” Kaholo laughed, and it gave Sonny permission to do the same. But then Kaholo continued. “And then too, his heart’s as soft as mine, maybe softer. He told you about that guard, right? No more than a boy, green and scared and undoubtedly regretting signing on with Marcone’s bunch -- though if his family owed loyalty he may have had no choice. A man can see all that, you know? When you look at your mark, if you have any experience of violence… of a soldier’s life, a cop’s life, Luki’s kind of life… You can see that scared boy and you know him like he was your son or your brother.”
“Green eyes.” Sonny swallowed. “He keeps saying the kid… guard had green eyes.”
“Yes, and I’m thinking that’s like code, Sonny. It’s shorthand for everything he thinks he saw. Luki saw all that in a flash. And then he fired his gun and killed the kid.”
Kaholo went silent for a moment then, just when Sonny was going to try to figure what to say, the old man spoke up.
“The thing is, Luki’s just the kind of man who’s going to have a hard time putting that aside, I think.”