Walking along the hard packed dirt trail, he found it hard to stay focussed. Birds screamed at the snap of fallen twigs underfoot as he lumbered along, head forward, eyes down, mind elsewhere. A deer in the nearby wood, raised its head and froze in alarm at the sound of approaching footsteps. A resident beaver slid hastily but silently into the water and disappeared with only a few ripples as evidence of his existence.
Someone had told him that getting back to nature was helpful, “soul soothing”, he believed was the exact description they’d used, but as he tread over the ground, his footfalls loud and trudging, his calf muscles burning at the sudden insult of an unexpected workout, he felt anything but soothed.
Alongside him the river flowed gently, carrying leaves and other detritus to unknown destinations; the sun created a spectacle of light as it caught and refracted off of every miniscule ripple on the surface of the water.
His breath was coming in short gasps, he chastised himself for having believed his friends’ words. This was not enjoyable, it did not erase anything, in fact it was pretty damned quiet – too quiet and that unnerved him. He stopped walking and raising his head, he gazed into the depth of the woods. He scanned as far as he could see down the trail ahead of him, he turned and repeated that action behind him. He cocked his head slightly and listened intently for anything out of the ordinary. Branches snapping, distant voices, rumbles, he wasn’t exactly sure what he would hear. Without much thought, he moved quickly to the trail edge, his boots now in the grass encroaching the edge of the pathway. He slowed his breathing and tilted his head again. He swore he heard a whisper. He peered into the tangled twisted undergrowth of the wood across the trail; his breath barely issued from his lungs, his heart beat loudly and a bead of sweat dripped down the side of his face.
He stood there frozen, listening for more than a minute, examining the pattern of tangled underbrush, memorizing its pattern and scanning for any sudden changes in that pattern. By now his body was in a half crouch, his hands gripped the straps of his daypack. Movement, the pattern was broken, his eyes locked onto the spot and examined the detail. His breathing halted completely and his hand instinctively went for his sidearm.
A chickadee hopped from a grapevine to the woody stem of a nearby raspberry bush.
His mind was suddenly in a free-fall as his hand closed around empty air and his brain recognized the pattern as the movement of a bird.
“What the hell!?” His mind screamed.
In his confusion he looked down to his side where his hand continued to open and close around the area where his sidearm had been for so many years, as if the repeated action would call it forward from some other parallel universe. As his eyes scanned downward he noted his hiking boots, brown with reddish laces.
“What the hell?” His mind called again to him.
These boots were not black, not highly polished, the laces were not black. He was wearing khakis, they were not black pants. He expected to see black. His mind struggled to understand as his back straightened and he took a deep breath.
“huhhhhh” He exhaled, turned his face skyward, closed his eyes and threw his shoulders back. A fly buzzed his face and he swatted at it. Across the trail the chickadee had since taken up a place on the ground scratching for seed, it now sat staring curiously at the creature near the roadway, ready to take to the air should it demonstrate any threatening behavior.
As reality began to flood his brain, his breathing normalized and he relaxed his shoulders. He opened his eyes and peered once again in the direction he’d last seen the chickadee. Happily the chickadee called, “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”
He reached above him, snapped off a piece of branch and angrily threw it at the bird. “Stupid Bird!!!” he yelled as the chickadee took flight and disappeared into the treetops.
“Arrrgh!!! This has to STOP!!” He shouted to the woods around him. “I can’t keep living like this, this is INSANE!”
Embarrassed, he quickly scanned around him, praying no other hikers were in the area and had witnessed his separation from reality. He took a deep breath filling his lungs and with purpose, exhaled loudly allowing his shoulders to fall downward. He stepped back onto the trail and continued his trudging. He had another 2 miles to get back to the parking lot.
“Okay, no more of this.” He thought to himself, “I’m going to hump outta here, drive home and crack open a beer on the back porch. To hell with this getting back to nature and trying to reclaim my calm bullshit, it won’t work for me.”
He shuffled the rest of the way to his car, head down, anger seeping from his pores, teeth gritted and the image of his smiling friend, telling him that it gets better if you “reclaim your calm”. The anger making his mind ignore the world around him. Those were words he wished he’d never heard. There hadn’t been a day passed where he hadn’t thought of that incident, triple locked his front door, padlocked his backyard and only gone out to get supplies every few weeks. Wife had been gone three years now, told him she wanted him to snap out of it. He told her to come back when she could show him how. He growled at the thought while fishing his keys out of his pocket. Counsellors couldn’t help him, cut him off when the money dried up, money dried up when they kicked him off the force, “Unfit for Duty” those words ate away at his soul each morning he opened his eyes.
He was so absorbed in his own angry thoughts he didn’t notice the camper trailer pulling into a spot across the lot. As the camper came to a stop, a deafening report was heard and a huge cloud of blue smoke issued from the tailpipe. In less than a second, he was on the pavement, his heart beating out of his chest, his eyes scanning for feet underneath the car, his head turning looking for a safe place to crawl to, without much thought, he rose slightly and flung himself against the side of the car, pinning himself with all his strength. His hand instinctively reached again for his sidearm, only to send his mind careening again as it closed over dead space. He wasn’t sure where the shot had come from. He was scanning his surroundings but none of it made sense, trees, grass, pavement with car spaces marked out evenly. Where was the building? Was it behind him? His mind scolded him, “Of course it’s behind you, you moron, otherwise you’d be dead now!”
The side door of the camper opened and out bounded a yapping Jack Russell followed almost instantly by a gleeful young boy of about 7, screeching joyfully as he gave chase. The noise interrupted his internal calculating and his heart sank to his belly as he saw the happy child running after the dog. He forced himself to a half crouch, ready to spring from behind the car toward the boy, “GET DOWN!!!” He bellowed. The boy stopped in his tracks and turned, staring frightfully at the man.
As both parents issued from the camper’s front seats in alarm, he stood up, once again reaching for a sidearm that did not exist, he began moving toward the boy, looking over his shoulder toward the building…only, when he glanced, there was no building, just more trees. The little boy began to cry as his mother ran toward him, sweeping him up in her arms. The father ran around to close the gap between his family and this deranged lunatic running across the lot. “What the hell’s your problem buddy!?” the father screamed.
The spell was broken. His movements slowed, he’d only taken two or three steps toward the kid before all of the energy drained from his muscles. It didn’t make sense. He stopped, looking at them, looking behind him at the trees, a port-a-john sitting at the trailhead. He put his head down and raised his hand to cover his forehead. He breathed in a deep heavy breath. He half turned back toward his car, raised a hand toward the family in apology. “Oh shit, I’m sorry man,” He mumbled as he started fishing for his keys again, “Sorry, sorry, just had the shit scared outta me…..sorry.” He called toward them.
The father gathered his little family together in a huddle, occasionally glancing toward him as he watched their reflection in the mirror. He really needed a break from this. It was this exact reason why he rarely left the house, bad enough his neighbors thought he was crazy, he didn’t need the whole world judging him. He slid his 6’2 frame behind the wheel of his 6-year-old super-charged sedan. As he closed the door, he put his hands on the wheel and began taking deep belly breaths. Tears began to stream from his eyes. He was so exhausted, he was dreading the drive home. His muscles were sore and felt heavy. He cursed his friend again. In a way, he was jealous, how did that guy get better so damned quick when he couldn’t? He did everything they told him, hell, he even got himself a dog, he was a perfect patient, he did all the homework, he even laid off the booze while in therapy. He banged his hands against the steering wheel. “Not fair!” He said to the inside of his car. “Why can’t I get better…” He let that thought hang unfinished, the words of his therapist echoed in his mind, “Try to notice your negative thoughts and change them….you’re not alone…..people get better at their own pace, there’s no timeline on this.”
He swiped the tears from his eyes. “Hey!” He raised his head and looked out the window. Directly across the from him, about 10 yards from the car was the father from the camper, waving at him, “Hey!” He shouted again and motioned rolling down the window. As the window came down, the man said, “Hey, Hi, uh, my wife wanted to know if you were okay…”
He waved him off dismissively, “Yeah, no, no, I’m fine, don’t worry about anything alright? I’m sorry if I scared your kid.”
The father began to walk slowly and cautiously toward the car, hands outstretched and visible in front of him. He held something in the fingers of his outstretched right hand and he was talking, “Look, man, I know you didn’t mean anything, y’know. I get it, sometimes shit just happens, huh?”
He stared dumbfounded at the man, what the hell did this guy want? “Look, buddy, I get it, okay?” The guy stopped about 2 feet from the open window, “I know. I mean, what I’m trying to say is, I get it, took me almost 10 years to shake it. I’d recognize it anywhere…….thought maybe you could use this.” He gestured to the card he held between his fingers.
He reached out the window and took the tiny piece of rectangular paper from the guy’s outstretched hand.
TRAUMA SUPPORT SERVICES and in small letters centered below it,
Free of Charge for all Emergency Services Personnel, We’re here for you 24 hours.
He looked up at the stranger standing beside his car and suddenly he couldn’t breathe, his body shook in a convulsive manner, the tears began to flow from his eyes and his heart felt like it would burst from his chest. He sobbed openly staring at the man outside his window.
The man came closer, put his hand through the window, squeezed his shoulder and said, “It’s okay, buddy, it’s okay, you’re not alone. My number’s on the back if you ever want to do anything. You’ll never be alone in this again, ‘kay. I know.”