Some days are bad. Low. Can be anything sets me off. Rain, that will do it. Then I’ll just lie in my room all day and feel sorry for myself. The nurses try to cheer me up, but it never works. I just want to lie there and think about how no one on earth has ever suffered more than me.
It was on one of those days, a few months ago, that MacReady came to visit. I hadn’t seen him for years, not since he’d been a patient back in ’77.
And back then was the first time I’d seen him since the camp. First time I even knew he was still alive. One day I’d shown up for group and there he was.
We’d talked after the session. He’d said he’d been living alone up in a cabin the mountains for a while. A buddy had visited, hadn’t liked what he’d seen and next thing Mac knew the guys in white coats showed up and hauled his ass down here to the VA. He didn’t like it. Too many people.
Strange, for me I prefer it when there’s people around. Being alone that’s the scary part.
Back in ’77 MacReady had admitted he’d been having some problems with booze. I’m guessing he didn’t get that one figured out yet. It was ten a.m. when he came to visit me and the whisky smell on his breath was from that morning, not the night before. When you’re skipping the cornflakes in favour of a shot of J&B that’s kind of a sign.
But I can understand it. He has a lot to try and forget. We both do.
I’d been in the dark so long I’d forgotten what the daylight looked like. It was pitch black in the hut and it was always at night they came to take me out and do their thing with me. So when the guards opened the door during the day the light in my eyes was agony and I hid my face in my hands. Then when the door was closed and locked again I heard the sound of someone moving around. A guard playing some oh-so hilarious mind game with me, maybe? I sat as still as I could, until I heard the voice, clearly an American voice, say quietly.
“Jesus Christ, I am so screwed.”
“Right there, bud.”
A gasp and a scrambling sound in the dark, and the voice again. “Who’s there?” Aggressive. Don’t mess with me. Scared. Please.
“It’s okay, I’m an American, Captain H.M. Murdock. It’s okay.” There was some silence. Maybe he was trying to see me in the dark. I was glad he couldn’t. I’d been in here for weeks and would just scare the hell out of him.
“H.M.? So what’s your name?”
“Just call me Murdock.”
When he spoke again he sounded as if he was smiling. “Lieutenant R.J. MacReady.”
“Just call me MacReady.”
I grinned. “Will do. You a pilot?” This was the hut where they brought the pilots.
“Yeah, Army. You?”
“Same. You wounded?” One poor guy they threw in here had a gunshot wound in his leg. They were real pissed off when they came to get him for interrogation and found he’d bled to death. I got a long session with the cane for that one. How the hell they figured it was my fault I don’t know.
“No, I’m okay.” MacReady said. “They smacked me around a bit.” I decided not to tell him that eventually he’d come to consider it a good day when he only got smacked around a bit.
He sounded young. “This your first tour, MacReady?” I asked him, sounding like I’m some grizzled veteran myself. He answered in an almost normal voice and we started talking about life back home and about flying of course. And for a few hours we managed to forget just how much trouble we were both in.
We couldn’t ignore it forever though. Later, after a long, long silence, he spoke again. I’d been dozing off, but woke up fully as I heard his voice. Quiet.
“They’re going to torture me.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yeah.” No point in trying to tell him anything different.
“I won’t talk.” The words were defiant but the voice shook.
“Yeah, you will.” I said, sounding tired even to my own ears. “Trick is to talk a lot.” I don’t know if he turned towards the sound of my voice in the darkness. His silence sounded shocked. “Just talk and talk. Tell them so much that they have no clue where the truth is in among all the bullshit. And admit anything they ask you to admit. You will in the end anyway so save yourself time.”
“Anything they ask you to. You bombed villages, killed babies, raped their women. Admit everything, because that way you’re admitting nothing.”
“Half the stuff they ask you to confess will never have happened and lots of the rest will have happened at time or places you can’t have been present. So if you admit to every single thing they accuse you of then you have to be lying. No one will believe anything you say.”
“Okay.” He said it slow, like he wasn’t sure it made sense. Hell, I’m not sure it does make sense, but it’s kept me alive for a while. I make stuff up and let them try to figure out how true any of it is. It’s amazing how much junk I can come up with when the electricity is flowing.
The door opened.
They took us both. It was one of their favourite tricks to make the new man watch the other get tortured. And the new man wouldn’t get the same that night. He’d have to spend the day in the hut thinking about what he had to look forward to.
When they didn’t have another pilot to play that game with then it would be one of the other prisoners. They’d quickly figured out how fast I would talk when it was Face they brought along to share the experience with me.
Now in the dim light, as they cuffed him, I could see MacReady looked as young as he’d sounded. Good looking too. That was bad.
He was in big, big trouble.
I didn’t think he’d live longer than a month, but two months later MacReady and me were still room-mates. He seemed to have taken my advice and he babbled non-stop when they were on him. The rest of the time though he pretty much stopped talking at all. I tried to get him to talk about his family, his home town. Even just about flying. But I rarely got more than a grunt out of him.
He’d gone some place in his head to escape. Trouble was, that was a prison too. I learnt that later, after I want into my own head. When I couldn’t think of anything more to say to the interrogators and they still kept torturing me anyway. Then I just had to go someplace. Someplace else. And for a long time I couldn’t get out.
So I talked to MacReady. I remember I talked a lot about the A-Team. I told MacReady if they ever took him to the other prisoners that he should find Smith. Tell him Murdock sent you. Smith would take care of him.
But to be careful out there too. Not to trust anyone, not really. I even had to include the team in that. They were amazing guys, but no one was superhuman. A man being tortured more regularly than he was being fed could turn into someone else. Someone who might screw you over to earn a single day free of beatings. Or bash your head in for a stale crust.
His voice was raw, a rasp. “So who do I trust?” It was the most words he’d said in one go for a month. I didn’t answer for a long time. Then I thought of something my grandmother used to say. I used to think of her often when I lay there in the dark. Of the way her rough skinned but gentle hands smelled of bread dough.
“Just trust in the Lord, Mac.”
His laugh was harsh and painfully close to a sob. He didn’t answer.
The day they took MacReady away the last time I forced myself to look into the light as they dragged him out of the door. “Find Smith,” I shouted after him. “Tell him I’m alive. Find Smith. He’ll take care of you…”
He never did find Hannibal, he told me later, when we were once again living under the same roof. Once again together in a place where the doors locked only on the outside. They took him off to another camp. He was certain he would die there, but the place was liberated and he got to go home. Except it wasn’t home any more. It’s hard to go back when you’re no longer the same person who left. He spent the next several years getting as far away from people as he could.
Seeing him in the VA when he was a patient and seeing him when he came to visit me made me think maybe I didn’t have it so bad after all.
I did have it real bad for a long time. While I was still in my head and all I could see all day was the darkness. But lately…. well there are still bad days, but there are less of those than there were.
People. That’s the difference. MacReady got as far away from them as he could, but I didn’t. I let people in. The doctors and of course my friends. Until I realised I didn’t have to live in that dark place any more. That there were people out there in the light who could help me.
Hell of a way to get cheered up, seeing someone who seems worse off than you. Thinking, hey, my life is pretty crappy, but at least I’m not drinking Scotch for breakfast and getting in training to become a hermit.
Lying in bed, I listen to the sound of the night staff moving about in the hallway. Soft light comes through the hatch in my door. I always get them to leave that open at night. The TV is on too, its glow feels warm. This room is never dark.
It’s six months since MacReady came to visit me and I haven’t heard from him since. I wonder if maybe he found some solace in the isolation he craves. He told me he was taking a job as a chopper pilot for a science station down in Antarctica of all places. Staying over the winter, months of darkness and cut off from the outside world. He’s still trying really hard to get away from people.
“Thought you hated the cold,” I’d said. He’d shrugged.
“There are worse things than the cold.”