Dead Eyes and Pretty Ladies
Colby wasn’t even consciously aware of the screaming until he had burst through the door of Esther’s room and was seeking out the threat. He wasn’t even fully awake until he was half way down the stairs, Esther clutched in his arms, Charlie following behind yelling ‘wake up, wake up.’ It was debatable who he was talking to. Colby finished waking up about the time Esther stopped screaming at nothing and started just crying. Colby sat on the couch hard nearly crushing Don, who had fallen asleep there after the baseball. Colby gently rubbed Esther’s back.
“It’s ok, it was just a bad dream, it’s ok, it’s ok.” Colby wasn’t sure if he was telling her or telling it to himself.
“What the hell?” Don asked, sitting up quickly.
“Just a bad dream, just a bad dream, nothings hurting you, just a bad dream.” Don swung his legs around and Charlie sat down next to Colby, He began gently stroking Esther’s hair and whispering that everything was ok.
Alan stumbled in blurry. “What’s going on?”
“We had a bad dream.” Don provided, rubbing crud from his eyes.
“Oh, poor thing. What’s everyone doing down here?”
Colby looked around just beginning to processes where he was.
“She was screaming.” Colby said. “I thought...I don’t know...I think...” Colby winced. “I think I broke the door Charlie, I’m sorry.”
“You went into rescue and retrieval mode while half asleep.” Don provided. Colby nodded and held Esther a little tighter. “Good thing you keep your gun locked away.” Colby squeezed his eyes shut to avoid the hard look he got from Alan.
“Hey sweetie,” Charlie said. “Can you tell me what the bad dream was?” Esther shook her head. The heaving sobs had retreated into sniffs and hiccups. “Please?”
“Bad men.” Esther sobbed.
“There are no bad men here, sweetie.” Don said.
Esther shook her head. “Bad men in the park, and pretty ladies with holes in them. They can’t breath. There were bad men and I couldn’t breath.” Esther had worked her way into fresh tears. Colby squeezed his eyes tight and silently mouthed the word fuck.
“There are no bad men here,” Colby said. “No one will hurt you, I promise. No bad men.”
‘The bad men prefer blonds anyways.’ Colby thought.
Esther nodded and started to settle down again. When the crying had mostly subsided Colby handed her over to Charlie. “Let daddy take you to bed, ok? I’ll come tuck you in, in a bit.” Esther nodded and Charlie picked her up and headed up stairs. As soon as Charlie was out of earshot Don grabbed Colby.
“How the fuck did she see those photos?” He hissed.
“I don’t know!”
“What, you just left them out?”
“What photos?” Alan asked.
“I didn’t bring them home Don,” Colby pulled himself from Don’s grip. “I leave the photos at the office, so does Charlie.”
“What photos?” Alan asked again.
“Photos of hookers with their lungs and hearts cut out, left in playgrounds.” Don provided.
“Oh my god.” Alan said with not inconsiderable irritation. “And you let her see this? No wonder she’s screaming.”
“I left the photos at the office.” Colby stated again with considerable annoyance. “Charlie’s copies of the files are in his office. There’s no way she could have seen them. We don’t even let her watch the news yet, you know that.”
“Well she must have seen them somehow.”
“It wasn’t me, Don. You think I want her seeing the shit we’re dealing with? She doesn’t need that.”
“Well, she picked them up somewhere ‘cause normal kids don’t have nightmares about pretty ladies with holes in them.”
“Normal, Don? What the hell was one of the first things you told me about Charlie? He’s. Not. Normal. You think Esther’s any more normal? I don’t know where she might have seen those pictures but not from me and not from Charlie.”
Charlie came back in the room. “She read them.” He provided quietly. “She saw the files on the table and read them. We keep forgetting that she can read. I’ll talk to her in the morning about not reading stuff in folders.”
Colby put his face in his hands. “Oh, fuck.”
“This.” Alan hissed out. “This is what I’ve been worried about since day one. A fed, a fed, and...half a fed.” He said waving at Charlie. “Nothing but guns, and death, and violence. What kind of environment is that for a little girl I ask you? How is she supposed to grow up normal and happy if everyone in her life comes home every day with heads full of death and blood, if they come home at all? If one of you gets shot, again, how are we supposed to explain that to her? We’ll be lucky if she doesn’t have screaming nightmares every night for the next twenty years!”
Charlie slammed his hand on a post causing everyone to jump.
“She will.” Charlie said slowly and carefully “Even if we all quit our jobs tomorrow and take up accounting, she will have nightmares because she is my daughter, because for every new word she learns a meaning comes with it. She will have nightmares because that is the price of her genius, same as mine. When she is a little older and can understand I will sit down and explain that fact to her, and I will apologize profusely and at length for it but she is the only one I will apologize to.” Charlie gave hard looks to everyone in the room. “Now it’s late and I suggest we all get some sleep before we say anything we’ll regret in the morning.”
Charlie turned and left the room. Colby looked at the startled faces of Don and Alan and quickly followed. He understood their surprise. While Charlie was a good father he wasn’t exactly an assertive one and relied fairly heavily on other people for advice as to what kind of limits to set and parenting in general. Outside of Esther’s education he mainly let Colby and Alan take the lead.
Down in the living room Don watched as his father paced about.
“How can he be so dismissive of...”
“Sit down dad.” Don said cutting into a fresh rant.
“I mean she’s four years old.”
“Dad! Sit.” Don said raising his voice a little. Alan sat down and glared at his son. “Do you remember just before Charlie started school there was that month when he was screaming every night and no one could figure out why?”
“Yes, he was about four, but what..?”
“Mom thought he was being molested or something, fired all his tutors, took him to a shrink.”
“Who got no where. I remember.”
Don took a deep breath. “I know why he was screaming.”
“What? For how long?”
“He didn’t have nightmares for a month. He had them for three. After about a month he started sleeping on his face so he’d scream into the pillow and not wake you and mom up, but we shared a wall so I could still hear it. Ever night for two months I’d go in and wake him up so he wouldn’t choke to death on his pillow.”
“Oh my god Donnie. Why didn’t you say something?”
“Because I was nine and was almost as afraid of having him taken away as he was of being taken away.”
“We would never...”
“We were children dad. Ok?” Alan swallowed hard. “Want to know what was giving him nightmares?”
Alan nodded his head slowly “What was it?”
“We’d been playing out in the garage, found a bunch of your old anti-nuke pamphlets, the one’s you’d hand out at protests.” Alan’s put his hand to his mouth and squeezed his eyes shut, realization hitting. “Charlie being Charlie read the numbers, Charlie being Charlie did the math. Every night was mushroom clouds over LA, death from fallout, apocalyptic wastelands, everyone dead. He did the math but couldn’t deal with what it meant.”
“Oh, my god.” Alan breathed putting his face into his hands.
“You were just trying to save the world dad, there’s no crime in that.”
“Oh, my god.”
“Esther is Charlie’s daughter and as soon as she turned genius I knew this was going to happen and Charlie probably did too. Charlie lived through it; she’ll live through it.”
“I never knew.”
“You weren’t supposed to. Charlie never liked to talk about it, still doesn’t. I’ll lay you money Colby still has to shake him awake from something every other night. Why do you think he works on his boards until three or four in the morning? No sleep, no dreams. It’s just the way his brain works and it looks like it’s genetic.”
Alan wrapped his arms around himself and looked at his eldest son. “Is it so wrong to want my granddaughter to be happy?”
“She is dad, she has a great life, a loving family, a wonderful home, she has powerful, dangerous, genius people wrapped around her little fingers and she knows it. She is loved, she is cared for, which is a hell of a lot more than a lot of kids get. And Dad, on top of that she’s safe. You want to talk about bringing horrible things home? The amount of abuse, kidnappings, child killings I have to work on.” Don shook his head. “If there had been bad men in her room Granger would have killed them with his bare hands and he’s been trained to do it. If someone got past him Hell it self couldn’t raise an army big enough to stand between her and the LA Field Office. Shit, Edgerton would probably turn in his badge and just go rouge to get her.”
Don put his hands in his face and took a couple of breaths. He hated the awake but still tired feeling.
“Me, Colby...Charlie, we are what we are and we do what we do so maybe one day no one will have to do it anymore. Esther’s not going to go fed any more than Charlie’s about to quit CalSci and sign up for Quantico. She’s…better than that.”
Don looked at his father who seemed to be struggling for words.
“Let’s just get some sleep dad. We’ll deal in the morning.”
Alan awoke to the sound of harsh whispers and feet moving quickly down the hallway. Esther’s nightmares and Don’s secrets had kept him awake the night before and he had been hoping for a good night sleep. He checked the clock, it said two. Alan got up and followed the commotion down to the kitchen. Charlie was rooting through the freezer while Colby buzzed around looking panicked.
“I’m so sorry.” Colby said, he sounded like he was about to cry.
Charlie pulled a cold gel pack out the freezer and put it on his arm. “I’m fine. It’s just a little bruise.”
“What’s going on?” Alan asked.
“Every thing’s fine dad, go back to bed.” Charlie said.
“What happened to your arm?”
“We had a little nightmare.” Charlie said tersely.
“I didn’t mean to,” Colby said in some sort of defence. “I was asleep, I’m so sorry, should we go to a doctor?”
Charlie rolled his eyes. “It’s a bruise Colby, a little bruise, I’ve gotten worse during foreplay.”
Alan watched as Colby’s face collapsed. “Oh my god, I’m an abusive partner!”
Charlie slapped his forehead and gritted his teeth. “No you are not. It is late, I’m going to check on Esther and go to bed. I would like it if you would join me.” Charlie walked out of the kitchen giving his father a nod.
Colby wrapped his arms around himself and started pacing about the kitchen.
“What happened Colby?” Alan asked
“I don’t know.” Colby said his voice starting to crack. “I was having a dream, and they were trying to drag me out...and, I heard Charlie, Charlie said ouch and I woke up.” Colby looked at his hands as if he’d never seen them. “My hand was around his arm...I don’t remember Alan...I...”
“Colby. I’m sure it’s ok.”
“I...I can’t stay...I’m not safe...I’ve got to go, I could hurt anyone, I could hurt Esther...” Colby tried to push past Alan out of the kitchen.
Alan sighed and did something he’d never done with the boys, with the flat of his hand he reached out and whacked Colby up the side of the head. “Don’t be an idiot.” Colby jumped back and stared at Alan with big bugged eyes. “If all it took was Charlie saying ouch to wake you up you are not a danger.”
“Alan, I’m dangerous, I’ve been trained...”
“Is this the first time?”
“It’s been seven years, is this the first time you hurt Charlie in your sleep?”
“Then I wouldn’t worry. If this was a serious problem it would have come up before now.”
Colby slid down until he was sitting on the floor. He banged the back of his head softly against the cupboard a few times.
“What did you dream about?” Alan asked.
“What was the nightmare?”
Colby shook his head, “It was stupid.”
“I didn’t ask that.”
Colby sighed and Alan sat down on the floor across from him. “I was back in Afghanistan and we were raiding some house and...I mean we’d do this a lot, some farmer with a thousand year old feud over grazing land would send a note claiming his neighbour was a terrorist, occasionally they were but usually...there were always little girls in these shacks and they’d look at us and they wouldn’t be afraid, they’d just have these numb, dead looks in their eyes, it would be old men, mothers and these little girls five or six just numb and I always wanted to shake them, to round them all up onto a plane and send them somewhere where they were safe to feel something...And we were raiding this house and I saw a little girl all wrapped up but she had Charlie’s eyes and I was...I was trying to explain that she shouldn’t be there…and they were dragging her away and she had that dead look...” Colby pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes.
Alan frowned. He consciously knew Colby was Army and had been to war but it was always a part of his past kept hidden well away. “Do you dream about the war often?” Alan asked.
Colby shrugged. “It comes and goes, car bombs give me bad nights, certain smells. There’s this weird goat/incense combo, only caught it once in LA but oh man...” Colby shook his head. “That was a bad month.”
“It was that bad?”
“It was war Alan. I was a soldier, I followed orders and they tell you that knowledge is enough.”
Colby stared at some invisible point over Alan’s head. “You know it’s a beautiful country, Alan.” He said softly.
“Horrible, but beautiful. The mountains, the way the wind comes off them, and at sunrise the way the peeks erupt in light for a moment. The people are friendly when they’re not trying to kill you.” Colby blinked a few times and started to come back from where ever he’d gone in his head. “I’d go back you know?”
Alan raised his eyebrows. “You would?”
“Not as a soldier. There’s this valley about three days hike from the middle of no and where. We got reports there was a training camp in it. There wasn’t a soul when we got there but I remember standing on the end of this perfect, gorgeous, sheltered, green mountain valley and I remember thinking god what a place for a golf course.”
Alan gave a sharp laugh.
“I’m serious. You could put gods own 18 holes in that valley, it was perfect. And there was a little hill at one end with a hot spring, and you could do a boutique hotel on it, maybe 15, 20 rooms, a little spa, get locals to guide treks into the mountains.”
“You’ve put a lot of thought into this.”
“I can give you the coordinates of that valley in degrees, hours, minutes and seconds. I look it up on the satellite feeds sometimes. If tomorrow the hand of god came down over the region and said ‘enough is enough’ I’d be back there in a heart beat.”
“You know what you sound like?” Alan asked.
“A nut case?”
“You sound like an idealistic, hippie, peacenik.”
Colby chuckled. “Maybe a little.”
“Welcome to the club. Now come on, go back to bed before you catch cold.”
Colby nodded and stood up. “Good night Alan.”
“Good night Colby.”
Alan dug through the boxes. He knew exactly what he was looking for, the question was if he could remember where it was at three in the morning. He pulled down a box labelled ‘kid stuff’. It was dusty and the cardboard was half deteriorated. Alan opened it and was glad what he was looking for was carefully wrapped in tissue paper right on top.
Alan unwrapped two dream catchers. A friend of Margaret’s had made them for the boys not long after Charlie was born. The crystals woven into the pattern were dusty, and the feathers that dangled from them had seen better days.
He carried them up to the table where he set about trying to shine up the beads and crystals a bit and smooth down the feathers. There was a little brass tube with a cap attached to each. With not inconsiderable effort Alan pried the cap off one and fished out a little roll of paper. The paper was yellowed and the ink was faded but Don’s name could still be made out. Alan turned the paper over and on the other side wrote ‘Esther’ before rolling it back up and slipping it into the brass tube. The second tube opened easier. Alan looked at Charlie’s name written in his wife’s hand. Next to it he wrote ‘and Colby’.
He decided he would hang them up in the morning after everyone went to work.