Excerpt: Walking Wounded

May 23, 2015

“Johnny?”

For a moment John’s voice froze, and so did his hand on the telephone receiver. Then he asked cautiously, “Kevin?” It couldn’t be. He hadn’t heard that voice in years. Where had the time gone? But there was no one else who ever called him that. He had always been “John” to everyone else, or “Lieutenant,” or now just “Mr. Hanson.”

“Yeah, it’s me.”

The silence stretched out so long that he was almost ready to add audio hallucinations to the list of his afflictions. But then Kevin said, “Would… would you mind very much if I stopped by?”

John’s throat closed up at that and his eyes filled with tears. Damn the old emotional hair-trigger! He hadn’t had this strong a reaction to anything for longer than he could remember. “No,” he finally managed. “No, of course not. When?”
He heard a deep sigh at the other end of the line and realized this must be just as hard for Kevin as it was for him. Worse, maybe—Kev would’ve had to get up the nerve to make the call and risk being turned away.

“I can be there tonight,” Kevin suggested. “Say by eight? And if you could recommend a hotel—”

“Nonsense. You’ll stay here.” He bit his lip, wondering if he’d said too much, if the offer would be misinterpreted. Or not.

“I mean—there’s room enough, I have one of those futons. It’s not too lumpy.” He pushed aside the image of Kevin sprawled on dark blue sheets, relaxed and sleepy. No. Forget it. That was part of the past now. What they’d had between them was over.
But maybe there could still be friendship.

“Oh.” Was that disappointment, or relief? “That would be fine, thanks.”

“Right. Um… I’m in Portsmouth, you know. You found my number—do you need the address, or directions?”

“No, I can find you. Just thought I should ring first. But if you’d rather not be bothered—”

“No!” His vehemence surprised and embarrassed him. “No, of course, not, I—” Damn these tears too! “It’s… it’s good to hear your voice.”

“Yours too. I’ll be there soon, Johnny.” Such a world of promise in the soft tones—a ray of light, a lifeline.

John cradled the receiver gently, then dropped onto the sofa and closed his eyes. His mind flew back to that afternoon in officers’ training school, the first session of a class on biological weapons. It was just another class, one he really did not want to take and hoped he’d never have occasion to use. But he’d skimmed through the textbook; he had his notebook at the ready. He was good at the academic side of military training; this was just another class.

Until Kendrick, K. walked in and gave his name to the instructor.

There was something about the man, the way he carried himself, that caught John’s attention immediately. Then the new student ran his crystal-blue eyes down the row of desks and spotted the empty one just behind Hanson, J. He looked up, their eyes met—and John’s breath caught in his throat as his heart started beating wildly. It’s him. He’s the one. My God, of all places—it’s him!

He forced himself to look polite rather than pole-axed and gave a casual nod and smile. The new student blinked once, took his seat, and the instructor started his lecture before anything more could be said, while John thanked whatever deity was in charge that there were no students whose names fell between theirs.

How was this possible? All his life—since puberty, anyway—he had been attracted to people who fit Kendrick’s general description: fair, blue-eyed, trim and compact, exuding an aura of physical competence. In his teens he had dated a few sporty girls, to their mutual disappointment. When he got to university, he finally sorted out that what he was looking for was a man who fit that description. Who, in fact, fit the precise description of the young officer sitting directly behind him. It was uncanny, as though his deepest, most secret fantasy had taken shape and walked right into this classroom.

John didn’t hear a word the instructor said that day. From the moment his eyes met Kendrick’s until the bell rang to signal the end of class, his mind was full of that face—the lean angles of jaw and cheekbones, a squarish chin framing a perfectly shaped mouth, brows like two quick brushstrokes above those extraordinarily blue eyes, and a nose just a little too small for perfect balance and looked as though it might have been broken sometime in the past.

John wasted the government funds being poured into his education as he wondered how a set of relatively ordinary features could fit together to produce perfection. It took all his willpower not to turn around and stare. He was able to control himself only because he knew that if he turned around, he’d have to say something, and if he tried to do that, he would sound like an idiot.

Kevin admitted, later, that he’d been in the same state of numb astonishment, staring at the back of John’s head. Neither of them gave the slightest indication of interest, though, not right there in the classroom. Gay men were still extremely circumspect in the British Army—a man’s sex life was best kept private if it didn’t involve shagging any life-form in a skirt—and in any case, a class on biohazards was hardly a pickup bar.

John was so disconcerted that, as soon as class was over, he made a beeline for the men’s room and hid in a stall while he summoned his courage to talk to the new student. By the time he came out, Kendrick was nowhere to be seen.

It wasn’t until later, when John was frowning at the selections in the cafeteria vending machine, that a voice at his elbow said, “You don’t want to eat that—it’s leftover samples from class. Want to go find some Chinese?”

Kevin could have said, “Want to go find some fried earthworms?” and John would have accepted as promptly. On the way to the Chinese restaurant, he learned that his fantasy man, whose name was Kevin Kendrick, had a voice as low-key and attractive as the rest of him and a comfortable manner that would put anyone at ease. Although Kevin was from a military family, he was by no means certain he wanted to make it his life’s work as his father had, but he’d been willing to give it a try. He had only arrived the day before, to take a few specialized courses at this training center.

“And what about you?” Kevin asked. “Why the Army?”

John hadn’t really ever been asked that question; the recruiters had been happy enough to have him and were more interested to know that he spoke French and a little German.

“I suppose it sounds a bit antique,” John said, “but I thought a few years in the Service might teach me something. And it’s like jury duty, in a way. Someone has to do it, and if you only leave the dirty work to those too stupid to avoid it, I’m not sure that would leave me feeling all that safe. I’ve thought about going into police work, eventually—thought the military background would be useful.”

“Responsibility,” Kevin said. “You don’t think it’s a dirty word. That’s a nice change. Are you an oldest son?”
“Only son,” John said. “Only child. My parents died in an accident when I was twelve, and my grandmother raised me the rest of the way. She’s gone now, as well.”

“I’m sorry.”

John shrugged. “Thanks, but that was a long time ago. She was ninety-eight, so it wasn’t unexpected.”
“No other relatives?”

“Some distant ones somewhere, I think. No one close enough to come to her funeral. I suppose that’s another reason the Army looked attractive—I’m not a big joiner, but it’s nice to know I belong somewhere. What about your family?”

“The Brigadier—well, that’s what we all call my father—he’s retired from the Army. My mother has the kind of resourcefulness you’d expect for someone who’s raised three kids as a military wife. Older brother, younger sister, various cousins and uncles and aunts. Quite a lot of cousins, enough to spare. Would you like a few?”

“Not until I’ve met them, but thanks—Damn, it’s closed!” A sign hung on the locked door of the Chinese takeaway, printed in both English and Chinese. “This happens sometimes,” John explained. “Mr. Cheng’s an herbalist on the side, and sometimes he just closes the shop for no apparent reason.”

Kevin looked up and down the street and spotted the sign over the Indian restaurant a block down. “All right, then. What do you say to Indian?”

“I like it better than Chinese, actually, and Kandahar’s quite good. Usually crowded, though—would you mind takeaway?”
Kevin gave him a sidelong glance and a half smile. “I think I’d prefer it.”

They wound up taking nan, raita, matar paneer, and curried lamb back to John’s flat. The food was excellent, as it always was, and he had no classes until the following afternoon, so there was no time pressure.

The beer helped too, no doubt. But it wasn’t only that. John felt comfortable with Kevin, as he seldom had with anyone else, and it seemed to be mutual. Or possibly Kevin was one of those fortunate souls who were naturally gregarious, who could talk with anyone about anything. John found out later that he was only half right; as a military brat, Kevin had indeed learned to be personable and make friends easily, but not to the degree that they had clicked.

It had been so easy, so natural. They were sitting on the sofa, watching the late sports news—nothing important to either of them—and they talked over the news reader’s monologue. It was the usual caution at first, hints about pubs and films, the little signs and countersigns of establishing gay identity, until Kevin said, quite frankly, “Why don’t you just ask? I don’t have a girlfriend—have had, but probably won’t again. Don’t have a boyfriend either.”

The unapologetic challenge in those beautiful eyes captured John’s heart, then and there. He’d always been shy, never good at quick clever lines, but he heard himself say, “Mind if I apply for the position?”

And Kevin said, grinning, “Which position? Or are you versatile?”

“Side by side,” he’d answered, embarrassing himself again.

Kevin’s smile lit up the room. “I’d like that.”

John smiled back, reached up tentatively to touch Kevin’s face, and closed his eyes as Kevin leaned in for a kiss.

It had been like coming home. The taste of his lips, the warmth of that strong, muscled body, even his scent—it all held a faint familiarity, as though this were something they had done many times before. And as the weeks and months passed, it only grew better, unlike John’s other—admittedly few—liaisons. The fellow students he’d dated at uni had generally wanted nothing more than no-strings sex, and for John that was a turn-off. The other extreme—the sad but tenacious lad who might have become a stalker if he hadn’t been so pathetic—finally pushed John’s patience to the limit, and the break-up had been loud and acrimonious.

Kevin was different. The sex was wonderful, but so was all the time in between. They’d had fun together. Even a simple walk along the shore became something to look forward to. They were both signed up for extended training, so after a couple of weeks, Kevin had abandoned his bedsit and moved in, ostensibly to save money. John had become comfortable, had started thinking in terms of settling down.

And then it all went to pieces.

They had not seen each other since the day before John’s unit shipped out for Bosnia. And their parting had been—well, not quite what you could call bitter, more bewildered—each of them staring at the other, thinking his lover had gone mad. They had never properly discussed their choices of specialization. They had mentioned possibilities, each mildly derisive of the other’s ideas, and they’d simply stopped discussing the matter.

That, John knew now, had been the second-worst mistake of his life. His duty choice had been the absolute worst: he had chosen to sign up as a UN peacekeeper, with likely assignment to the Balkans. He was going to prevent war, to protect civilians. The best sort of work for a soldier.

He had been an idealistic fool. So many of them had, even high-ranking officers. How could anyone have foreseen that chaos? The whole society broke down and went back to the Dark Ages. Kosovo. The bloodbath.

He still shied away from thinking about it, for his own sanity’s sake. It had been years before the nightmares stopped.

But that choice, naïve though it was, had at least been consistent with John’s basic personality. He had gone into the military more out of a desire to protect the helpless than to strut around in a uniform and make guns go bang. Kevin’s choice was a total surprise. Calm, brilliant, rational, amiable Kevin had decided to apply for admission to that exclusive crew of trigger-happy, cloak-and-dagger maniacs that called itself the SAS.

If Kevin was still with that mob, he’d have access to all sorts of military information. He would have been able to learn of Lt. John Hanson’s nervous breakdown in the midst of that horror in Bosnia. Of his botched suicide, probably even of the months of medical leave and therapy, and the disability pension. And the fact that he was now back in university, studying psychology in a desperate attempt to find a way to weave his shredded soul back together.

Why would he come to see me now? I must be nine kinds of a security risk! One thing he knew about the SAS—it was one place where sexual orientation was still a major issue.

Which, of course, was why Kevin’s decision had come as such a shock. “The SAS,” John had joked, when Kevin first told him of his intentions. “Where men are men and sheep are scared. You can’t be serious—”

“It’s necessary,” Kev had said. His jaw was set and he was using the voice that said he’d already made up his mind. “Johnny, terrorists are real. Someone has to stop them. It’s like what you said the day we met—if everyone backs off because it’s a brutal job, then the only ones left to do it are the brutes.”

“It’s what the job will do to you that worries me. That kind of thing would eat you alive. It’s mad.”

“No madder than going into a war zone with orders against fighting. It’s not as though the UN is taking the Serbs’ weapons away, you know.” Kevin’s fair skin had been flushed with emotion. “You’ll be nothing but a helpless observer—there’s no peace to keep! That whole operation is a political farce, Johnny—an exercise in military impotence!”

They’d finally realized that no matter how readily they might agree on other things, this was one subject that would always divide them. So they dropped it, made love frantically for the few days they had left, and parted on more or less amiable terms.

The parting of ways didn’t change how John felt about Kevin, but time and distance had put an end to the relationship. They had exchanged a couple of brief, superficial e-mails—of course, they had never been indiscreet enough to write anything, anywhere, that might be considered compromising—but there had been so little left to say. I thought I knew you. I thought I understood you. Or, more truthfully, I thought you knew me. I thought you cared enough to stay with me.

And that brought John back to the mystery of the phone call. Why now, after all these years? What was there left to say?
Or was Kevin waiting for John to say, “You were right?”

No problem there. He had been right. Diagnosis: Delayed Stress Syndrome resulting from Military Impotence. Take two Viagra and a bottle of sleeping pills, call doctor in the morning if you’re still alive.

Yes, Kev, you were right. And if I know you, you’ll say, “I wish I’d been wrong.”

John jittered away a quarter of an hour,, trying to see the humor in a sitcom that was the least annoying offering, but finally gave up. The sole point seemed to be that no matter how bad your life was, this family was worse, and watching the actors snipe at one another was more painful than amusing. There was a football match on, too, but he could no longer tolerate that fierce conflict over something so meaningless as kicking a ball from one end of a field to the other. Not after watching that same us-and-them intensity turn ordinary men into genocidal monsters.

I liked sports, once.

I used to have a sense of humor.

But something else had not changed at all, despite all that had happened. One thing he had tried to forget, that now assumed enormous importance.

I still love him. Want him.

What the hell am I going to do?

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2 Responses to “Excerpt: Walking Wounded”

  1. Angela says:

    Thanks for the excerpt, i really liked it :)

  2. Denise dechene says:

    Very moving excerpt. There is a lot of emotion there.

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