My Brother's Keeper
(Author's Note: This follows and includes spoilers for "Hawk's Nightmare.")
B.J. kept his arm wound tightly around Hawkeye's waist as he steered him in the direction of the Swamp. "This way, Hawk," he said, his words not slurred, because he'd only had one beer. But for Hawkeye, it'd been another all-night drinking binge at Rosie's… another night of continually bending his elbow until he got well past blotto. And that meant yet another night of B.J. dragging him home, keeping him upright just long enough to get him to their tent, where he could go horizontal and stay that way until he slept off the whole sorry episode.
Another night of B.J. playing babysitter and mother and mate. Another night of worrying, watching, wondering.
Wondering what had brought this on, for one thing, though he had his suspicions. This wasn't your run-of-the-mill drinking. Hawkeye liked his booze, for sure, but this—what'd been going on lately—this was something else. This was bordering on scary.
Hawkeye was self-destructing on a nightly basis, and there was really nothing B.J. could do, except watch it happen over and over, and then be there for the aftermath. Be there to support and comfort. Play the role of best friend, because that's what he was.
They'd become instant best friends, in fact, back on that day at Kimpo Airfield, when they shook hands and traded quips. For B.J., meeting Hawkeye was like meeting a long-lost brother. But that didn't mean he understood the guy. He loved Hawkeye, of course, but the man was often baffling and exasperating. Was there a more complex person in B.J.'s life? No question about it, there was not.
"Beej?" Hawkeye said now. Somehow he managed to mutilate even that one simple syllable.
"Yes, Hawk." A ghost of a smile came to his face as he waited for whatever insanity was about to cross his friend's lips. Even when he was sober, Hawkeye's verbiage often tended toward craziness. Drunk? Well, drunk he was usually downright nonsensical.
Though not always. There'd be times when a sloshed Hawkeye would ramble quite eloquently on one topic or another, making lucid arguments, eliciting an intelligent dialogue. It was really something. The things that could come out of this guy's mouth… Most people wouldn't be able to express them stone-cold sober and with a dictionary in one hand and a thesaurus in the other.
Tonight was not going to be one of those nights, though. Tonight the nonsense won out. "Beej, there's sticky candy underneath my boots."
To humor him, B.J. looked down at his feet. "No there's not, Hawk."
"I'm sure." He pulled at Hawkeye, who was listing a little to the left, and kept him marching onward. It was slow going. "How you doin'? We're just about home."
"Crabapple Cove? Dad?"
"No, Hawk. Home as in the Swamp. We're still in Korea."
Something that sounded like a groan. "I don't like Korea."
B.J. had to smile at that. "So I've gathered," he said.
"It's brown. You notice that?"
"There's a certain brown tint, yes, I would agree with you there," B.J. said as they finally reached the Swamp. He pulled the door open, managing to juggle that motion with hanging onto a limp, leaning Hawkeye. "Your bed awaits, my friend," he said, gesturing to Hawkeye's cot. "Lemme take off your boots for you. Sit."
Like a dog obeying a command, Hawkeye promptly sat… and very nearly fell off the edge of the cot. B.J. caught him and steadied him. He leaned down and untied the boot laces, aware that Hawkeye was watching with drunken rapt attention.
"Those laces look good enough to eat," he said, and B.J. wondered if they still looked like candy. No, the candy had been underneath his boots… whatever that meant.
"We don't eat laces, Hawk," he said with infinite patience in his voice. It was as if he were talking to his baby daughter, explaining the confusing ways of the world to her. "We untie them, and then we take off your boots—see?" He lifted Hawkeye's left boot up. "And then you lie down and go to sleep. How's that sound?"
Hawkeye shook his head, his eyes locking on B.J.'s, and B.J. didn't like what he saw there. Dismay, maybe even fright. "I don't want to dream," he said, sounding pitiful, like a little kid terrified of monsters under the bed. B.J.'s stomach dropped.
This was, almost certainly, the reason for the excessive drinking over the past few weeks. The month before, Hawkeye'd had a very disturbing episode of sleepwalking and intense nightmares, and a visit from Sidney Freedman may have helped him identify the problem, but the anxiety behind it still existed.
The incident had frightened B.J., too. Nothing like waking up in the middle of the night to your best friend's blood-curdling screams as he writhed in the cot next to you. Nothing like looking at sheer terror in his eyes as they stared right through you.
Sidney couldn't prescribe a cure because there wasn't one.
So, not surprisingly, the drinking was an escape, an attempt to hide from the nightmares. B.J. may have suspected as much, but hearing Hawkeye articulate it made him immeasurably sad. "I'm sorry, Hawk," he whispered. "I know you don't want to dream. Maybe you won't. Maybe you'll just sleep soundly, like a baby."
"Maybe," Hawkeye muttered, but he didn't sound convinced.
"Here, lie down," B.J. said, gently pushing Hawkeye backward. "I'll be right here—there in my cot," he pointed, as if Hawkeye didn't know where he slept, "so if you need anything, you just let me know. OK?"
Hawkeye, tired, drunk, defeated, only nodded and closed his eyes.
B.J. put a hand on Hawkeye's shoulder and rubbed lightly, trying to soothe. Then he finally moved to his own cot and just sat there, watching Hawkeye slip into unconsciousness. The two of them were alone in the Swamp; Frank was on post-op duty. Outside, the compound was quiet… only the sound of crickets filled the night air. B.J. wasn't entirely sure of the time, but it had to be after 1 o'clock. He would take Hawkeye's early-morning shift in post-op. There weren't many patients in the hospital, and all were doing well, due to ship out soon. B.J. was sure he could handle it.
He kept his eyes on Hawkeye, almost afraid to move, not wanting to make even the slightest noise. The way Hawkeye was lying there, with such an innocent, tranquil look on his face, B.J. was reminded of his baby daughter. He used to love watching Erin sleep. She was a constant wonder to him. So small and pure and perfect. Hawkeye was none of the above. Hawkeye was… indefinable.
The worst part, B.J. thought, was that he didn't have anyone to talk to about his roomie's worrisome behavior. Normally he'd chew over his problems with Hawkeye, but what to do when Hawkeye was the problem?
No, not "problem," that wasn't the right word. He loved his friend—he wasn't a burden or a problem. He was just an enigma, with any number of issues and neuroses and fears, and all B.J. wanted to do was help. Somehow, some way… fix him.
B.J. was certain he could, if he only knew how. He fixed wounded soldiers all the time… he was good at it. The fierce desire to help, to make better… it's what had driven him to pursue medicine. It was a large part of who he was. If his best friend was the one needing help, well then B.J. was even more determined.
He absently rubbed at his face, feeling spent and utterly alone. The camp was about as still as he'd ever experienced. It was almost spooky. There was only the sound of the crickets. Maybe, B.J. thought, they were talking to him. Maybe he should try to figure out what they were saying. He needed someone to talk to; might as well be crickets.
If he weren't so damn tired, he could try writing to Peg.
No. Bad idea. He almost laughed bitterly but caught himself, mindful of his sleeping tentmate.
On a similar night many months ago, soon after B.J. had arrived at the 4077th, he'd walked a drunken Hawkeye home from the O Club, put him to bed, and then, just like now, sat there staring at his troubled friend, wondering who this man was, wondering what demons haunted him. Sometimes he saw a sadness there, behind the laughter and the wisecracks, and always he saw the tiniest hint of instability, threatening to break through and take over. B.J. worried. He worried a lot. And that night, as Hawkeye had slept, B.J. had poured it all out in a letter to Peg.
When he got her response, he was caught off guard by how callous it was.
He may be your best friend, but he's not your responsibility.
She didn't understand. This relationship, this best-friendship… it was complicated. And everything was heightened over here, in the middle of a war zone. Her concept of friendship was probably something like having the neighbor over for tea. She couldn't comprehend the way people relied on each other in a war, the way they needed to cling to each other. She'd never been thrust into a situation like this. B.J. always felt out of his league here, like a 10-year-old pitcher who suddenly finds himself on the mound in the middle of a Yankees game. The people around him were paramount.
Honestly, B.J., he doesn't even sound very likeable. He sounds like the kind of loud, obnoxious guy that people avoid at parties.
Except the war was no party, and Hawkeye's brashness wasn't off-putting at all. He actually spoke for many, voiced the frustrations of all the folks who witnessed the things they had to witness on a daily basis. Hawkeye said the things that needed to be said.
And people liked him. B.J. liked him. B.J., in fact, adored him. He took the time to explain that to Peg, wanting desperately for her to understand that Hawkeye was more than a malcontent who got drunk and ranted against the war. But even as he painstakingly tried to describe the true nature of his friend to her, he realized something was getting lost in translation.
You needed to experience Hawkeye firsthand to understand Hawkeye.
And even then… Even then, all bets were off.
It didn't matter, he decided, what Peg thought. She wasn't here and she couldn't know. B.J. didn't need to ask her permission to have a best friend.
It's just that it left him without a sounding board. He'd tried a few times in recent weeks to talk to Hawkeye himself, tried to get him to bare his soul. He made an effort to sound casual… concerned but not judgmental.
"Why're you drinking so much, Hawk?" And "Is there something you wanna talk about?" And "You're my best friend, I would help you with anything, you know that."
Always, always, his queries were met with a dismissive wave. "I'm fine, Beej." And "We drink over here, it's what we do." And "Everything's hunky-dory, why wouldn't it be?"
Things bottled up inside Hawkeye, until they emerged in the form of sleepwalking through the compound or screaming himself out of a night terror.
This was just the way of the Hawk, as B.J. was starting to come to grips with. This was how things were going to be.
B.J. rolled his head from side to side, stretching, untangling some knots. He leaned over and yanked off his own boots, then fell sideways onto his cot, suddenly bone-tired. Long day, even longer night. At times like this, in the wee hours of the morning, he had a hard time believing he was in Korea. His life didn't seem real.
He shut his eyes and it felt like he was only asleep for a millisecond when Hawkeye's wail bolted him awake. He nearly leaped out of his skin, and did in fact leap out of his cot, going immediately to Hawkeye's side.
"Hawk? Hawk, wake up. You're OK, you're fine."
Hawkeye's mouth was a perfect O, his eyes huge and dazed, as he sat there staring at B.J., panting hard. "Nightmare," he said unnecessarily. B.J. nodded, holding onto Hawkeye's arms as though he might lift off like a chopper if he weren't locked in place.
"Tell me about it?" B.J. wasn't sure he really wanted to know. Hawkeye's subconscious was often a scary place, even just to take a peek into.
Hawkeye took a deep breath, shook his head. "Gone, mostly. I remember bombs and dead bodies and screaming. There's almost always screaming. But it's fading already."
"Good," B.J. said, mostly for something to say. There was not much good about the return of Hawk's nightmares, or the fact that neither of them was likely to get much sleep on this night. He placed a hand on Hawkeye's chest, felt the jackhammering heartbeat. I'm here and you're all right, he wanted to say. Tell me how to help—I'll do whatever I can…
But in the end, he said nothing. The words didn't seem adequate. He was sure he'd said them all before anyway, at one time or another. Second verse, same as the first…
Silence fell between them for a long moment as they sat there, waiting for pulses to slow, for nerves to calm. B.J. noticed that his friend's eyes were sharper now, the drunken haze gone, the blueness having shifted from cloudy to vivid.
If B.J. had ever seen more intelligent eyes in his life, he couldn't remember when.
Eventually Hawkeye said, "Go back to bed, Beej. No need for you to sit up with me, like I'm some kid who needs his mommy and a glass of warm milk."
B.J. nodded and did as he was told, but his concern didn't fade. Hawkeye was right, though. He was an adult, he could take care of himself. And B.J. needed his rest; no sense in both of them being zombies tomorrow.
He settled on his cot and glanced over. "Goodnight?" It came out a question.
B.J. shut his eyes, wishing there was something more he could do. Always wishing he could do more, be more for his best friend.
He rolled over onto his back, and a single tear slid down the side of his face. Can't fix everything, Doctor. Get used to it.
He was starting to drift a little when he heard Hawkeye's voice. "Beej?"
"Hmm?" Sleep was pulling at him, dragging him down. His eyes wouldn't open.
"I know you want to help," Hawkeye said. "It helps just knowing that you want to help. Y'know?"
It took some time for that convoluted sentence to sink in to B.J.'s muddled brain, but eventually he replied, "'Kay. Good."
"Though I don't know why you bother," Hawkeye continued with a trace of self-pity in his voice. "There's so much wrong with me. I'm probably a lost cause."
B.J. forced his eyes open a slit. Hawkeye was staring up at the ceiling as he lay there, his blanket twisted around him. B.J. couldn't see his expression; his face was obscured by shadows.
"What a coincidence," B.J. said softly. "I specialize in lost causes."