"Sir? I'm sorry… Sir? Could you excuse me?"
B.J. blinks and turns to see the woman trying to get past him in the aisle, and he realizes he's been spacing out again. He wonders how long.
"Of course. I'm sorry," he mumbles, moving his shopping cart to the right so the poor woman can pass. He feels like a blank slate. He probably looks like one too.
He blinks again, tries to get his focus back. He's supposed to be choosing a spaghetti sauce and for the life of him, he can't remember which brand Peggy uses. His hand drifts from jar to jar as tries to figure out which to get. It's as if this is the most difficult thing he's ever been asked to do. Suddenly his hand flinches and he inadvertently knocks a jar to the floor… it crashes, sounding almost like a distant gunshot… broken glass everywhere, red sauce splattered on the tile—
Red blood. Gushing up from wounded chests, splattering his clothes and his face and getting into his eyes. Red blood that would stain his skin, that would pool in his boots. The cold sounds of the OR… doctors asking for instruments… nurses repeating the requests… the sound of steel and flesh and the ksssh, ksssh of suction. Ugly open wounds that needed fixing, limbs that needed to come off, bleeders that needed to be stopped, lives that needed to be saved. Lives that weren't always saved.
It sounds distant, the voice.
"Sir, if you step away, I can clean that up. I, uh… I need to clean that up."
A young man is looking up at him expectantly. The kid, obviously a worker here in the store, is holding a mop. B.J. looks down at the red sauce splashed all over the floor, and he finally steps back from it. "I'm sorry," he mumbles. He can't seem to get much volume out of his voice. "I didn't mean to…"
He takes a few more steps back as the young man begins to mop up the mess, and then suddenly he abandons his shopping cart and the few purchases that were in it… and he strides quickly out of the store. All of a sudden he's sure he can't finish the grocery shopping today.
Peg's not going to be happy, but hell. If she wants spaghetti sauce badly enough, she can get it herself.
He walks briskly to his car, then just sits inside it, feeling disoriented and lost. He shuts his eyes, puts his hands on the steering wheel and grips tightly. Grips very, very tightly.
Just breathe… relax and breathe.
Five weeks now, he's been home.
Has it really been that long? It doesn't seem that long.
The first week was a blur. The seemingly endless travel to get home… first to Tokyo, then to San Francisco. Too much time spent in the air, hours upon hours of listening to the hum of a plane engine. Jumbled thoughts, a potpourri of emotions. Leaving behind the last two years of his life… heading toward his family and his future.
Then, upon finally landing on California soil, the hellos, the kisses, the hugs, the laughter and tears. Not even recognizing his own daughter… that's how much she'd grown in two years. The first time she said, "Daddy," right there in the airport, he broke down and cried.
Week one was about relearning. Reconnecting with his wife and daughter. Remembering how to pay the bills, mow the lawn, fix the toilet that seemed to back up every other day. Reinserting himself into his old life.
By the second week, things had calmed down a little. There was a semblance of a routine, but he still felt muddled, like there were cobwebs in his head. He kept waiting for them to clear but they wouldn't.
Five weeks now, and he'd hoped things would be a lot easier by this point. Not that they're hard, per se, but his brain's still foggy, his footing unsure.
And sometimes he can't seem to do the simplest things. Like go grocery shopping.
He takes a deep breath and opens his eyes. Already he's starting to rehearse in his head what he's going to tell Peg. "Sorry, honey… I tried." "I'll go back tomorrow. I'll be able to get whatever you need tomorrow."
He feels like an utter failure.
He starts the car and backs out of his parking space, feeling tears prickling in his eyes but refusing to let them fall. It takes a lot of blinking, but he finally clears his vision, and drives home.
"Erin's been asking for a puppy."
The words penetrate his brain, but he's not sure they make any sense.
"I mean, she's been asking since before you got home. I just thought I'd mention it. To be honest, I really don't think we need a puppy right now. Maybe after Waggle is gone—not that I'm looking forward to the day when Waggle dies, mind you—but I think one dog at a time is quite enough. Don't you, honey?"
If he's supposed to answer, he has no idea how.
"B.J.?" Peg turns to look closely at his face. "Are you all right?"
He's lying in bed, and even though it's been weeks, he's still not quite used to it… to be in an actual bed, a king-size bed that he can share with another human being… with soft, clean sheets, and a fluffy pillow. He wonders if the novelty is ever going to wear off.
His wife is on her side of the bed, staring at him, waiting for some kind of answer.
"I said, are you all right?"
"Hey doc, am I gonna be OK?" "Captain Hunnicutt, can you help me?" "Beej, help me out here, this guy's in bad shape."
Despite the voices in his head vying for attention, he nods at his wife. "Sure. I'm OK." He squints at her, studying her face, trying to block out the memories and the sounds and the confusion. "Who am I supposed to be?"
Peg's expression shifts from concern to something that looks like fear. She backs up, getting off the bed, as if she's not sure he's safe to be near. "What? Why would you ask me that?"
Something in his brain clicks, and in that instant, the commotion is gone. Suddenly he feels completely lucid, crystal clear… it's a rare feeling lately. He smiles and puts on a reassuring look. His wife must think he's losing his marbles. "I'm sorry, Peg. I'm just really tired." He pats the bed, and she gets back under the covers, though her expression remains wary. "Still adjusting, still have a lot on my mind. Just bear with me, OK?"
Now she finally smiles, and she gives him a soft kiss on the mouth. "Of course. I understand."
She's been extremely understanding lately, he realizes. But it's not like either one of them had any idea what this would be like. How long it would take to shake off the war… how hard it would be to get back to normal. She's been forgiving him his mental lapses and his occasional inability to do the most basic things. She's been waiting it out, and he wishes he could tell her this will all pass in the next week or two, but he has no idea when it'll pass. Or if it ever will.
"I'll be OK," he tells her, wondering if it's a lie.
"Of course you will," she says. She sounds entirely convinced, as if the alternative isn't even an option.
B.J. turns around and sees the car that has come to a stop at the curb. The driver is waving him over. He tugs Waggle's leash to momentarily halt the dog. "Yes?"
"I'm afraid I've taken a wrong turn. Could you tell me how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge?"
B.J. smiles. He may have been gone for two years, but he still knows his hometown like the back of his hand. He'd never forget anything as basic as how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge. "Certainly." Waggle sits patiently as B.J. begins to gesture, "You'll want to continue down this road for another three miles. Start counting traffic lights. At the fourth light, make a left. That'll take you south into—"
Korea. The whoop, whoop, whoop of the chopper blades. The wounded soldiers screaming. Everyone running, because every second counted. Hawkeye calling for litters, plasma… Potter barking orders, determining who should be doing what… Radar taking notes, reading minds. From chopper pad to ambulance to OR. The clockwork efficiency of the whole unit. The mind-numbing familiarity of the process. The bodies, the bodies, the bodies…
And B.J. snaps to the present once again. He's fully aware that he stopped talking in mid-sentence, but he doesn't know how long ago that was. The driver's staring at his face, half-smiling. "Make a left at the fourth light and…?"
B.J. shakes his head, struggles to get back on track. "It, uh… that'll take you south to the Bridge. Can't miss it. Lots of signs showing you the way, too."
"Great," the man says, waving at B.J. "Thanks so much!"
B.J. sighs and watches him drive off, then looks down at his calm, obedient dog, just sitting there at the end of the leash. His dog seems more knowing than he does. "Let's finish up this walk, shall we, Waggle? I think I need a nap."
One day, during his lunch break, he runs across the street to the drug store to pick up a couple of things for Peg. He impulsively snatches a postcard from the rack at the checkout counter… there's a picture of a cable car on it, not that it matters what the photo is. He scribbles Hawkeye's address on it, and hastily writes, "Hawk, I think I'm going crazy." He mails it before he has a change of heart.
"Honey? You got a letter from Hawkeye." Peg hands him an envelope and he stares at it as if it's a completely foreign object to him. It's about a week later, and he's actually forgotten that he wrote a cryptic note to Hawkeye in a weak moment.
Lots of weak moments lately… but does that give him the right to burden his friends? He feels guilty now, thinking Hawkeye has his own problems to deal with, his own adjustments to make.
He's still contemplating the letter in his hand as Peggy picks up Erin and takes her out the door to play on the swing set in the back yard. He watches them through the window, Erin laughing and her hair billowing out behind her as Peg pushes her on the swing. A bittersweet smile comes to his face. It's so strange. He missed them for two years and now that he's home, he doesn't feel entirely here. They still seem far away.
He looks back down at the envelope and rips it open.
There isn't even a salutation… no "Dear Beej," nothing. It just starts right in.
Take it from me, Beej, I know crazy. And you're not even close. You're the sanest, most grounded person I know. Everything's going to be fine. You're going to be fine. Having trouble sleeping? Having trouble concentrating? Focusing? You think you're the only one? You're not. We're all going through it. It's normal, Beej. It's going to pass. Trust me, I'm a doctor.
You're fine. I know it. I'm positive of it. But just so I can tell you that in my soothing, reassuring voice, give me a call when you get this letter. It'll be good to talk.
A drop of water splashes onto the letter and B.J. realizes it's a tear. He looks up and blinks rapidly, letting out first a shaky breath, then a shaky laugh. For a moment, he can do nothing at all, just sit there feeling relief and serenity and solace overcome him. He can't really put his finger on why. It's not the words, necessarily, that Hawkeye wrote. It's a combination of a number of intangible things: just seeing his handwriting, hearing his voice in his head, knowing he cares. Of course, the words are calming in their own way: the steadfast belief that Hawkeye has in him, the assurance that everyone's going through the same thing, the conviction that it's all going to pass. From the day they met, Hawkeye has always been his anchor, his support, his constant.
He looks out the window again, at his laughing wife and daughter, at his slice of the American dream, at his picket-fence life. It is going to be all right. Hawkeye's positive, and now he's positive, too.
More tears, and some laughter. Three thousand miles away, and he's still my anchor.
B.J. puts down the letter and picks up the phone.