After going to bed, Susan curled up next to Jason and fell asleep, his arms wrapped tightly around her. He had been impotent again.
As he lay awake, listening to her soft breathing, thoughts of his coming adventure ran through his mind. He was almost unaware that a subtle change was taking place in the space around him.
It wasn't a particularly rowdy group, but there was enough noise to make it difficult for Jason to sleep. The room buzzed with a low murmur that hung in the air like a fine mist, with just an occasional burst of laughter or an unintelligible voice rising in the background. Jason watched figures moving in and out of the bedroom and heard evidence of a larger crowd beyond. He was amazed that Susan could just sleep calmly through it. But then, he was also aware that he was in that hazy zone between awake and asleep. If this was a dream, it was not an ordinary dream. A thick sense of reality pervaded it. Almost within his control. Almost within his grasp.
The majority of the crowd sat in wheel chairs or leaned on crutches, moving slowly around the bedroom, talking among themselves as they passed one another in some ritualistic procession. Many of them were amputees. He recognized a few from the VA hospital. Others had vaguely familiar faces, images from somewhere in his past. Some he was sure he had never seen before.
These were the kind of men that made him ashamed he had accepted disability status from the VA. They were the individuals who were truly handicapped, disabled and physically impaired. Jason had the greatest respect for them, and he knew most of them would resent his patronizing attitude. But he couldn't stop those feelings.
He felt awe that anyone could function as well as some of them did after such massive body trauma. Awe that anyone could go on with their lives in spite of seemingly insurmountable odds and endlessly recurring frustrations.
He ached with a deep sorrow that anyone was forced to function in that condition, for anyone who suffered the pain and agony that must accompany their devastating injuries.
He felt pity for anyone who lost something so personal and sacred as their own body parts. He imaged each and every one of them as healthy and whole, then suddenly stripped of that status. The thought brought tears to his eyes.
He was angry that the world was so cruel and impersonal that it allowed stupidity and arrogance to breed such things as war.
And mostly he felt shame that he was considered handicapped himself, yet had no visible, physical impairments. Outwardly he was healthy and whole but he had been awarded his disability because of an insidious chemical imbalance triggered within his own mind. He was the victim of a sly devil called PTSD.
Jason had to make a conscious effort to act normally around men like these, to dampen the emotional turmoil that the very sight of them fostered. They were a very proud and self-conscious bunch and sometimes appeared to sense his uneasiness. He hated for that to happen.
They all seemed to accept Jason for what he was, without making any judgments. And yet, Jason felt he took something away from them, even mocked them, by carrying his Veteran's Hospital Service-Connected Priority card. But these men didn't seem to mind. In fact, they seemed to have far fewer hang-ups with the concept than Jason did.
Every so often, one of the men would come over to the bed where Jason lay and say something like, "He's looking for you, you know. He's here, in the other room, waiting for you." It was always stated in a matter of fact way, not in excitement or fear. But the message carried a tone of solemnity and importance that went beyond the mere words. The messenger would give Jason a look that carried both understanding and support. Then he would move back into place in the procession of men that milled around the foot of his bed, filing in and out of the room.
Jason felt a powerful energy throughout the house. It rippled down the hallway and into his room like invisible shock waves, rocking whatever control he had over this particular dream state. He tried to shake off the dominating feeling of some alien power, but it was like a silent vacuum cleaner in the back of his head, slowly trying to suck him downwards into a nightmare. It was an exhausting and frightening sensation, and Jason knew it would get worse before it got any better.
One particularly healthy-looking man in a wheel chair, with no legs but with tremendous upper body development, showed deep concern while talking to Jason. He came over to the bed to offer his own words of advice.
"You know you're going to have to go see Him. Just remember, He's only as strong as you let Him be. His reality is only what you grant Him. Just have confidence in yourself. You might as well just go for it. You'll have to confront Him sooner or later, anyway."
Jason knew in his heart the man was right. There really wasn't much choice. If Jason didn't go to Him, He would come to Jason, perhaps here, tonight, in his bedroom. And there was no use getting Susan involved in this. No point in waking her from such a sound sleep. Or worse yet, no point taking the chance of dragging her into one of his nightmares.
Jason arose quietly, walking past the few men left milling around the bedroom. One chaired occupant gave Jason the thumbs-up sign, wishing him luck and offering support with his simple gesture.
As Jason entered the hallway that separated the bedroom from the living room area, he became aware of a heavy fog drifting through the house. He also noticed that everyone else was leaving. Only a few wheel chairs and limping figures moved around in the fog, the number slowly decreasing as they quietly disappeared into the mist.
He stood in the doorway, looking around the large living room. He eyed the couches and chairs, only half expecting to see anyone sitting in them. No, what he was looking for would be in some unconventional spot, in some unexpected setting.
He thought for a moment about what he was doing. He knew he was dreaming, yet his present state of consciousness was grounded in a keener awareness than if he had been awake. He was now looking for Him, who ever or what ever that might be.
Jason momentarily lost focus. He tried to think back, to remember. He knew he was on an inescapable quest but for a moment it suddenly seemed so confusing. He wrestled with his thoughts to bring things back into focus with some clearly defined purpose. The foreign brain waves interfered with his own thinking, making it difficult to rein in his wandering thoughts.
Jason felt a strangely familiar mix of fear and anticipation. There was no doubt he had to face Him. He had known for a long time that this moment would come. Although he dreaded it, he also felt an inner resolve and a sense of excitement that reminded him of his youth. There was no escaping the confrontation, no way out. It was best to just get it over with.
He knew if he started losing courage now, started questioning the underlying necessity of his quest, it would only make things worse. He had no intention of avoiding the inevitable. He clung desperately to a new sense of conviction and personal commitment. There was something honorable in moving forward with this kind of resolve. To do otherwise was not only dangerous, it was literally out of the question for Jason. It was not in his character to run.
A chilling sensation crawled down his back as goose bumps spread across the surface of his skin, his raw nerve endings blown on by a cold breath. His neck tingled as if someone were moving behind him. For just a moment, the floor and walls seemed to lose their solidity, pulsing and writhing like reptilian skin. His sixth sense told him something huge was towering over him, ready to attack him from behind.
He knew if he turned, nothing would be there. But the mere act of turning would somehow shift the paradigm, and would be an admission of the fear he felt. It would be a sign of weakness. If he was going to be taken from behind, there was no way to avoid it. If he turned in fear of that, he would be grabbed from behind after he turned. It was a lose-lose proposition no matter how he looked at it. He needed to draw upon an inner strength that seemed to have rusted long ago from misuse. What he needed now was the confidence and the resolve that emanated from the calm center of his being. It had been quite some time since he had tapped that source of pure energy. But he needed to find it now.
As he walked back toward the hallway, a chill moved past him. It was an ice-cold cloud drifting through this left side and moving ahead of him, calling his attention to the bathroom door. For a fleeting but intense moment his mind raced through the gamut of options, from looking for a hiding place or somewhere to run to devising a way to defend himself.
In there, that's where he would find Him. There was no doubt in his mind at all. The certainty of it washed him with a fear and a dread that weakened his knees and made him feel nauseated. He swayed for a moment with the sinking feeling of personal doom.
Well, it's show time, folks. He's in there waiting for me. Jason swallowed hard and took a deep breath as his head reeled with the realization that he was about to be part of an ultimate experience. He was about to confront his own death.
Well, shit! It was a simple statement of resignation to his fate. Overriding this momentary sense of desperation, there came an unexplainable but welcomed clarity. Suddenly, Jason felt an unusual sense of calm as he quieted his mind and accepted the fact that he had no choice. There was simply no option. He gathered his strength and resolve, centered his being, calmed his mind, and resigned himself to the inevitable.
If he couldn't be strong now, he would never again be able to claim his own self respect. This was no longer an issue of personal comfort or physical well-being. His very soul was now on the line. If now was the time, then now he was ready.
Jason walked to the open bathroom door and stood facing a blast furnace of radiant power. That was enough to bring back another surge of momentary panic, while he frantically searched his mind for a way out of his hopeless situation. But once again, almost as if Jason were observing the incident from a detached perspective, some inner strength cleared away the fear as he stepped forward through the open door into the dark.
There was something in the far corner. A shape. A mass of some sort. Whatever it was, it emanated the very essence of terror. Whatever it was, it silently drew Jason forward, tugging at his spirit while making him want to turn and run. A part of Jason's mind seemed to go numb from the fear. The shape in the corner undulated and pulsated with the power of the unknown. Its outline remained vague through the churning mist.
Jason forced his legs to take him two steps closer. As he neared the form, it slowly began to take on a definite shape. It was cloaked, a huge hooded form that seemed to have its back toward Jason, as if it were sitting on the stool sideways, facing the wall, paying no attention to Jason. Just as Jason thought he recognized the shape, it seemed to change, now appearing like an old, gray-haired man sitting on the stool, leaning forward, looking down.
As Jason squinted, trying to resolve the misted outline, he recognized the character first by its clothing. The black leather jacket, boots with chained spurs, and the silver of shoulder and belt chains were barely visible. As his heart sunk like a wet towel into his stomach, Jason braced himself. Shit! The fucking gay biker! The asshole I took out in Frisco. So that fucker really was the devil! God damn!! Back to haunt me!
The entire episode flashed through Jason's mind. He was alone on a weekend pass from training camp, just down the block and around the corner from Dodie's. Strip Alley. He had heard the roar of the motorcycles from two blocks away. When they all shut down at once, his curiosity drew him in that direction like a magnet. He was a well tuned, highly trained fighting machine, invincible on the streets of an ordinary city like this.
When he came around the corner, he first saw the row of Harley-Davisdon's, nine of them, leaning in a perfectly straight row facing into the curb, their shiny paint and chrome reflecting the flashing of neon signs and street lights from down the block.
All of the riders except one stood close to their bikes, silent, watching. A single biker stood on the sidewalk, near the wall of the building, towering over a cowering old man. The street bum sat backed against the wall, his brown-sacked wine bottle spilled beside him. Jason couldn't tell whether he had been knocked down or whether he had been sitting on the sidewalk against the wall when his visitors had come.
The biker stood over him with a wide stance, leather pants unzipped, dick in his hand. Jason had heard the harsh but lispy commands even before he had turned the corner. "Suck it, you old fart!! Suck it now!!" The moment Jason had rounded the corner the first of the kicks from the heavy black boots were landing on the old man's face and chest. Jason was in motion before he was even noticed.
On his second stride, he was airborne. As the biker turned, having noticed movement in his peripheral vision, his surprised face was turned directly toward Jason. Jason planted the edge of his shoe squarely beneath the nose on that pretty-boy, plucked-eyebrow face he would never forget. The biker's head went back with a snap and a splash of blood, leaving the leather hat momentarily suspended in thin air as Jason landed. Jason was intent on stomping one final blow on the downed biker before facing the others who had started moving towards him. He was fairly certain the first biker would never get up again. The last thing he remembered was doing his best to aim a sharp punch to crush the windpipe of an overweight mass of black leather that was pressing in on him.
He regained consciousness in Balboa Naval Hospital, all the way down in San Diego, almost 30 hours later. His head was wrapped like a mummy and he ached like he had never ached before. He had been beaten unconscious. He had never lost a fight so badly.
The jokes and sneers he had to endure over the next few weeks were something he never had gotten over, despite the fact that there had been several forays from the camp that had gone back up to the streets of San Francisco to avenge their comrade. The powerful mixture of rage and humiliation that the mere thought of that experience brought made him want to eliminate every homosexual on the planet. His only containment was in reliving the pleasure of watching his foot smash into the face of that biker. This biker. This symbol of the darkest perversity that held some invincible power over him.
As the figure on the toilet slowly moved its head, it somehow changed again with a subtle, insidious blurring. What rose in front of him was the Grim Reaper, straight out of the classical Medieval world, its skeletal face hidden deep within the folds of its hood. The infamous grinning teeth wrapped across the bony structure of the face and slowly opened and closed, emitting no sound. A long, empty silence grew while the figure itself grew, now towering its seven foot frame before him.
Jason felt all his remaining energy drain away as the eyes in their dark sockets suddenly came alive and glared at him. They first appeared like tiny red lights, then changed into fleshy, horrid eyeballs of a penetrating yellowish red. Death was looking straight into Jason's eyes, crushing the wind out of him and stealing his racing heart right out of his ribcage with a mere glance, riveting him to the floor yet forcing him backwards and off balance.
The eyes were fierce. The eyes were horrible. The eyes radiated pure horror. They were very alive but very inhuman, somehow out of place in the human-like skull. But they were powerful none the less. They bore into Jason's own skull, burning deep into his numbed brain with the ease of supernatural dominance.
As they stared at one another, eyes locked, Jason could see with his peripheral vision the shape of the bulk continue to change. He forced himself to concentrate on the eyes as horrible as they were, and not be distracted by the body. Like Protean on the beach, the shape that possessed the eyes was shifting, refusing to be pinned down to any particular form. Throughout the transformations, the eyes remained fixed upon him, steady beacons of glaring, radiating, penetrating power.
The specter went through every hideous form imaginable and some beyond belief. It represented all of the shapes and guises that ever struck fear in the hearts of men, from the Neanderthal to the present. It was a spade-headed, almond-eyed demon; a horned devil; all manner of hideous, gnarly beasts; hairy, powerful monsters with massive limbs; ferocious animals with gnashing teeth and razor claws; lizards and dragons; mythological monsters with multiple heads and hair of snakes. It went through the entire repertoire of Jason's personal fears and hatreds, from the bikers on the streets of San Francisco to the heads and body parts of the men he had pulled from the rivers of Viet Nam.
Through it all, Jason kept his gaze locked on the eyes of Death. He instinctively knew that by doing so, he would be less distracted by the changing shapes and would be less likely to react in terror when a particularly frightening form emerged. He realized that the shifting, changing outer appearance was merely a transitory reality that held no particular significance or immediate danger. The essence was in the eyes.
Look at the eyes, Jason, he told himself. Don't let your concentration stray away from the eyes. Nothing else is real. Stating this to himself seemed to rekindle his self assurance, bolstering his confidence. And as he said this to himself, believing it and embracing it, the eyes themselves seemed to change. They began to communicate with him. They were no longer fierce and devouring. They were powerful, but contained only as much fear as Jason allowed them. They were dominating, but only overwhelming if he let himself feel dominated. There was, in some odd sense, an intelligence and understanding in them, but only if he stood against their powerful surges of devastating energy and asserted his own identity.
The eyes never moved from their piercing gaze, never flickered, never blinked as the shape changed around them. Jason found himself moving closer, no longer afraid of the transitory thrashing claws and fire breath and surging poisonous fangs. As long as he remembered that the transitory surroundings weren't the underlying reality, that the eyes were the only reality he should focus on, he knew he would come to no physical harm. It was his soul that was now on the line.
The shape suddenly loomed forward, growing huge like a swelling balloon, with the wings of a bat held outward, ready to encircle him. But Jason didn't flinch. He understood that all the shape-changing was some kind of show, some kind of game, to evoke fear in any mortal being confused about the reality of the encounter. Jason wasn't confused. He knew he was facing Death. And he knew he could control his own death if given the chance.
"If you want me to go with you, I have no choice. I'm at your disposal," Jason said respectfully, confidently. But without changing his tone, without breaking his stare, he added, "But I'm not going to kiss your ass!!"
With that, the glaring orbs flared red as if hot coals were fanned in some fire deep within the Being. The eyes flashed with the briefest glint of mirth, like a flicker of light glancing off a distant, shiny surface. And then the apparition was gone. Simultaneous with the abrupt departure, there came a low, hollow, echoing laughter that slowly faded into the night. The whole scene, fog and all, just vanished. Jason stood in the empty bathroom and involuntarily took in a deep, quivering breath. He felt certain that at some point during the encounter, he had awakened, and now stood, fully conscious, alert and awake, in front of the toilet. His knees were so weak he could hardly stand.
He made his way back to his bed and slowly, gently lay down, working his way beneath the covers so as not to disturb Susan, contemplating the magnitude of what he had just experienced. The mental numbness wore off and the intensity of the encounter struck him in the chest like a sandbag dropped from the ceiling.
Jason woke in a sweat, his heart pounding, pulse racing, chest exploding, and his bladder about to burst. He was in his own house, in his own bed, with his best friend Susan asleep beside him. He groped with the facts to re-instate a sense of normalcy. Susan was there, spending the night for the first time in over a week. She was really there.
He immediately recognized that he was in the midst of a growing panic attack and needed to get himself under control immediately. God, what a weird dream. OK. Settle down now. Take some deep breaths . He quickly pushed himself to a sitting position, feeling the hard wall behind him. He frantically began talking himself down from his anxiety with the techniques he had learned in the therapy sessions with Dr. Bondurant. Yet the intensity persisted. His body jerked and twitched involuntarily, sharp pains shooting through his abdomen, intensifying the feeling of panic.
OK. What?? What's wrong? Calm down! You can just let this one drain away. Just let go!
The intensity of the anxiety and the spasms and cramps that washed over him took several minutes to control. It then took Jason a few more moments to realize his body was also miscuing, a typical somatic response when his anxiety reached this critical level. The stabbing pains in his abdomen were from his bladder. He had to piss, and he had to piss immediately.
Oh, damn. I really got to go. As he moved himself off the bed he stopped short. But I was just in the bathroom. A cold chill ran down his spine. Or was I? Was that all a dream? The intense pain in his abdomen moved him forward in a bent posture. He heard Susan stir in the bed behind him. He staggered forward on shaky legs and headed down the hallway to the bathroom.
In the back of his mind, he felt his vision was a premonition. But he also knew Death wasn't ready to take him. Or at least it hadn't been a few minutes ago.
A part of him was sure that when he walked into the bathroom, something hideous would be in there waiting for him. He quickened his forward pace as he ricocheted down the hall to the bathroom door. Encountering the supernatural was now a secondary concern.
He knew that even now, it wouldn't matter. The same rules held for this world as they did for the dream world, if that's what it had been. He concluded that he wouldn't even try to confuse himself with which was which. It really didn't matter. He had to piss. If Death is waiting for me on the toilet, it just doesn't have any class at all. So fuck it! The urgency of his physical condition brought out an arrogance, a defiant intolerance.
He moved straight into the bathroom without turning on the light. There was no one there. It wouldn't have mattered. As he leaned forward, straight arm propping him against the wall, he let his body relieve itself as his mind found an oddly similar relief. His legs were shaking from the adrenaline but he was regaining control. He contemplated the fact that he had just experienced something deeply significant in his dream and realized that relieving himself of physical discomfort would put him back on track toward bringing his panic under control.
He returned to the bed, still breathing heavily, his mind still racing along the outside edge of panic. Sitting upright against the wall, he continued his routine of slow breathing to calm himself and to help his errant body dissipate all its extra adrenaline.
"Jason, are you all right?" Susan asked as her sleepy head rolled toward him, her hand gripping his right thigh. "You're shaking. Are you alright??" It had been a long time since she had spent the night with him.
As he reached to his side table to get an extra, out-of-schedule pill and his glass of water, he thought to himself Ah, it's good to hear your voice. God, I'm glad you're here. I'm glad I'm not alone.
"Yah, Sue, Thanks. I'll be OK. Just hang on a sec." He gulped down the pill and took several deep breaths as he forced his voice to reply in a calm, low-volume response. His shaking hand went out to grasp her soft, warm shoulder, the feeling of her physical presence bringing with it renewed assurance that he would make it. "I just need to get myself calmed back down a bit. I think I'll be O.K."
"What was it? Another flashback?" Susan was sincerely concerned. She had seen this pattern before, which was why their nights together had been so infrequent lately. It was hard for her to deal with. But it was mostly Jason's decision that they spend so much time apart. She wanted to help more than he would let her.
Somehow she always seemed able to distinguish between his serious anxiety attacks and the less severe, but still upsetting, episodes in Jason's life. She had seen him reduced to a whimpering mass of barely-discernible humanity and realized that even someone as strong as Jason could be brought down. Most importantly, she seemed to know when he really needed help. It was something he just couldn't seem to ask for.
"No. It was something else. Something pretty heavy. I'll have to think about this one for awhile."
"What was it? Tell me about it." She rolled toward him and propped herself up on her elbows, looking up into his sweating face in the dim light.
Usually Jason didn't share things like this. Susan knew that. But she also knew it helped Jason to talk things out. Verbalizing them somehow made them tangible and got them out of this system. She was always ready to help him release those dark forces that kept tearing him apart when he refused to let go of them.
"It was Death, Susan. I just met my own death. I stared it in the eye and it went away. It wasn't ready for me yet. But it had come to see if I was ready. And I was."
Susan's hand gripped his thigh tightly. "Let it out, Jason. Tell me what happened."
"It was just that. I met my own death. It was waiting for me in the bathroom, of all places. Actually, it doesn't matter where it was. It was just here, like it had come to test me. If I wouldn't have gone to face it, it would have come to get me. I mean, if it really wanted me, it would just be here. It would reach right through this wall from behind me if it wanted to. It could just appear out of thin air if it wanted to. But it sat waiting for me. And I went and found it."
Jason went on with a few of the details, getting calmer and calmer as he talked. Susan massaged his leg gently, not interrupting. Finally, Jason seemed to sink back, loosening the hold on his rock-solid muscles. "It was pretty heavy," he finally said with a sigh.
Susan let Jason relax, feeling the tension drain away as his leg muscles became slack. She listened to his breathing get slower and finally take on a calm, steady pace. Her hand slid up his thigh as she kissed his knee. She knew exactly what he needed to drain away all the rest of the tension and the memories that created it. What he needed was the other side of intense physical sensation, the positive, pleasant side. As impossible as that had been for him lately, she would give it another try.
As her hand slid higher up his leg, fingers softly tickling his skin, Jason
slid down to a comfortable position on his pillow and gently stroked her silken
hair. Tears filled his eyes in the dark as he realized he was going to miss out
on something wonderful once again. He could tell already that his body just
wasn't going to cooperate.
To be continued.
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