That gorgeous leather couch. It had been a gift from old friends. Old comrades. Sam paced in front of it, purposely stepping more forcefully than usual, just so he could hear the sound each time his foot struck the floor. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.Five steps. Atten… shun. About… face. Slide the right foot back. Pivot on the left heel. Spin. Come to attention.Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.Strange. His heart was beating at a regular pace. Sam felt oddly at ease for a man who had been diagnosed with PTSD. He couldn’t help the snort. Diagnosed, yes. Treated, no. Not unless you called those pills that had killed his libido and ruined his marriage “treatment.”Sam stopped on the third round and looked down at his feet. There had been much time spent looking at his feet when Marilou had left him. She’d lambasted him for at least an hour, enumerating all the reasons she was filing for divorce. If it had been so bad, Sam had thought, why hadn’t she saved them both the trouble and just left without any pomp or circumstance? He rubbed his big toe over a knot in the wood plank. They were oak, and he’d installed them himself, fifteen years ago. That and everything else they had made or installed during the renovation. The project had been one of the highlights of their marriage. They’d laughed together as they clumsily slogged through seemingly innumerable do-it-yourself projects. Sam had big dreams back then. They were going to really enjoy life, and make the most of their investment in the house. Walls had come down, paint had gone up. New fixtures. Flooring, of course. He’d taken some of their tax return after one of his deployments and given the cash directly to Marilou. Go, he’d said. Go buy new drapes, new furniture. Whatever you want for the house. Decorate it and bring some soul into this fresh canvas. Marilou had, and it had been beautiful. Standing back and letting her work her magic, Sam felt a sense of wonder in watching her set up their home. He’d done what he could, done everything he could to build this house into a home. In the end, it hadn’t been enough. When he was honest with himself, Sam wasn’t sure there was any amount of home remodeling that could truly cover up the ugliness of what happened to him when certain aircraft passed overhead, or when a car backfired or when something crashed down from a high up shelf. Living as close as they did to his last military base, the aircraft passed over frequently enough to have become a major problem. Still he stayed. Insisted he would get better. It just turned in to more deployments. Another contract. One more year closer to retirement.Once the diagnosis came down after he retired, there’d been so many pills. So many drugs, potions, meditations, deep breathing, massage, reiki… you name it, he’d tried it. Whether or not the VA would cover the cost of the treatment stopped mattering after a certain point. When you were having to wait so long between appointments and when the clinics were so full and crowded and you didn’t handle crowds well at all, what were you supposed to do?Please arrive fifteen minutes early.That fifteen minutes had him hyperventilating in a panic attack. Crowds were dangerous. You couldn’t tell the precise location of anyone. Faces melted in to one another and someone merely crossing the room could very well be someone looking for the perfect opportunity to stab you in the back. Not to mention how dirty it was, being in such close proximity with other people. Shuffled along like cattle through assembly lines. Especially so at a VA facility. All the sickness, both physical and mental. The smell. The sterility and sometimes lack thereof. Sam eventually gave up. He’d made one last effort and requested to be assigned to the clinic just outside town center. But the smaller, local clinics always sent you to the main hospital anyway. It wasn’t any more convenient or helpful. In fact, the smaller clinics offered little to no assistance except to act as administrative clerks, updating your charts and performing only the most basic of check ups and blood work. They couldn’t handle the shrapnel still sunk deep in his lower back any more than a librarian could. He let out a slow breath and lifted his head, rubbing his lower back. It was time for tea. The water was hot, and he wanted to brew himself a cuppa before it got cold. It would be cold soon enough. One last glance at the couch before he executed a left face, then made his way into the kitchen. He stood behind the granite countertop and occasionally glanced up at it from time to time, pushing the teabag down into the mug and slowly pouring in the steaming water from the kettle. The water immediately began changing color as the herbs released their active constituents.The couch had been a gift from his last command, after his retirement ceremony. During their last deployment together, they would entertain each other with stories of what they were going to do when they got home, or when they were discharged, or when they were retired. Sam’s stories centered on his study. He was a man of books; a man of words. The study had been the one room in the house that Marilou hadn’t touched. It was Sam’s escape, particularly in later years after Marilou had gone. Three of the four walls contained built in book shelves, each shelf stuffed to capacity with various tomes. Hardbound, paperback - it didn’t matter. Sam had everything from Socrates to Dean Koontz. Initially, the only furniture had been a simple writing desk, a lamp, and an antique wooden desk chair - with wheels on it so he could glide from desk to bookshelf and back again as he wrote. Sam was going to write a book one day after he retired. He would write a book cataloguing all their adventures: all their glory in which they’d reveled and the immense pains they’d suffered. The book would commemorate the men that had died in their unit, and the seven remaining “original” members. So when Sam retired, the guys had gotten together and had bought the brown leather couch. The command had already sprung for the shadowbox and the commemorative pen in its wooden case. The usual gifts offered at a retirement ceremony. His brothers in arms, however, wanted to outdo everyone else in order to show their appreciation for the man who had put himself in danger so many times in order to save their asses. So when the festivities were winding down, there was a convoy of vehicles to Sam’s house, and the men filled up the study with their broad, sturdy bodies, presenting the couch to Sam as ceremoniously as possible.It was a beautiful couch. Carefully crafted with smooth seams, soft rolled arms, well stuffed cushions, and a smooth back. The kind of piece that Sam, a man of simplicity and frugality, would never have bought for himself. The leather wasn’t the stiff type, either. It was soft and supple; quite smooth to the touch. He’d sunk into it on many nights, the smell of the whiskey on his breath mixing with the scent of the leather as he’d laid back. The whiskey kept the nightmares at bay, and the brown leather couch kept him comfortable enough to sleep. When the tea had sufficiently steeped, Sam lifted the cup and slowly inhaled the vapors, closing his eyes. It smelled like the earth. Like the woods on a summer day after a rainstorm. He thought about the times he and Marilou had gone for walks in the woods surrounding their little eastern town. The way the sun filtered in through the leaves, dappling across her face when a soft breeze picked up. Pleasant thoughts to keep flashes of a foreign desert at bay. Sam took a few small, measured sips of the tea as he entered the study once more. It was on the bitter side, this particular blend, but Sam wasn’t the kind of man who was going to add sugar or honey to a bitter tea blend. He would take the bitter taste, letting the tea sit on his tongue for a few moments before swallowing. Mug in one hand, Sam walked about the study, trailing his fingertips along the spines of the books on their shelves. He’d been retired for a full three years. Marilou had left him four years ago. One more year and they would have been home free, traveling the country in a camper, stopping wherever they pleased. She hadn’t been able to hold out, though. Not after she’d discovered Sam had been offered early retirement. During her litany of Sam’s failings as a husband, she had made sure to inform him that his refusal to take early retirement had been the straw that had broken the camel’s back. There had been no choice to make about the matter in Sam’s eyes, though. There was one more deployment coming up before he was supposed to retire, and Sam wasn’t going to abandon his brothers like that. Hell, when he’d spoken about it with the guys, they’d even told him to retire. Take what’s offered, get the hell out, and relax. Get away from the war and constant fighting. Sam had refused, though. He just couldn’t imagine life without them. Couldn’t imagine not going to war with them or joining them at the bar to swap stories. Three years had been plenty of time in which to build up his book collection. Plenty of time in which to write his own book. They were his memoirs, and an accounting of the lives of the men with whom he’d fought. A record of what life was really like in service to one’s country. Because it was never as portrayed in the movies. They glitz it out, doll it up, and present it to the public with a pretty little bow on its head. This book had it all, though. It was all in there. The good, the bad, and even the incredibly ugly. The things they had been ordered to do, and the good deeds they’d done for the local people both domestic and foreign. There were many games of soccer with Afghani children finally put to paper. They’d even managed to start a tournament during one tour. Sam’s team had won the tournament and he’d asked Marilou to send candy for the children as a reward. She had positively outdone herself, practically buying out the entire penny candy store and sending it in as big a box as she could find. But the good memories were intricately tangled up with terror, and so much pain. A full recollection often left a bittersweet taste in Sam’s mouth and mind that could only be purged by the burning of the whiskey he drank from time to time. He wasn’t an alcoholic, but he knew to question himself often enough because he drank to ease the pain. To obliterate the memories and to cope with the nights when he woke in a cold sweat, screaming and shaking. Shaking in his hand drew Sam’s attention back to the present. He was only halfway done with his tea. Taking a slow breath to steady himself, Sam turned once more toward the brown leather couch. Slow, measured steps. His heart rate was quickening and Sam focused on keeping his breathing slow and steady. No need to panic now. The leather was of such a quality that it did not even squeak or protest as he lowered himself down.Slow, deep inhale. The smell of leather filled his nostrils as he laid back in the corner of the couch. His legs felt a little numb, so Sam reached down with his free hand and gripped each pant leg, swinging one leg after another up onto the couch. He let out a slow breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding, then raised the mug to his lips and took another long swallow of the tea. Just a small bit left in the mug. The tremors continued, and Sam was grateful for the ginger and chamomile blended into the tea as his stomach rolled. At least he wouldn’t vomit all over the couch. He cast his gaze about the study again, taking in everything he’d built up and everything he had collected over the years. A final gift and inheritance. It was all to be donated to the local library. The shadowbox featuring all his awards and medals. It included a Purple Heart. He didn’t talk about it much. Didn’t like to think about the day he acquired that shrapnel in his back or the fallout thereafter. Marilou had been scared to death, and had traveled to Germany to see him in the foreign hospital before he was transferred to Walter Reed. The doctors had done what they could to remove the shrapnel, but they couldn’t get it all. It would work itself out over time, they said.Sam had insisted he was fine and that he be cleared for duty again. Men like Sam needed the Army. They needed the violent action and the stark contrast with the calm of down time, often gobbled up by military events and other get togethers. Work hard to play hard. They needed their brothers, who were sometimes the only people to understand the desperation and paranoia felt in times of quiet. Marilou had been previously married to an Army man who’s job revolved mostly around administrative duties. She’d had no clue what she was getting into with Sam, and she hadn’t been able to handle it. He gave her credit for her sixteen years of trying, though.Sometimes he wished she had stayed. Wished she had been there to hold him last week when he received the latest news about his old unit. Their deployment was going to be an easy one, Cole had told him. They were simply augmenting forces and providing extra security as operations overseas wound down and the troops were brought home. Sam never thought he would live to see the day. And he knew he wouldn’t. But he’d been happy knowing that it was happening soon. He wiggled his toes. They moved, but he didn’t feel the movement. Sam felt the tremors taking a turn toward becoming a seizure. The mug slipped from his grasp and fell to the floor, handle breaking off and skittering across the floor, toward the desk. He wrapped his arms tightly around his torso as his muscles tensed. It was a little worse than he’d expected, but Sam would soldier on through it. The cold was coming. The numb was growing.As Sam seized and the numbness crept up into his buttocks, the last bit of the hemlock, ginger, and chamomile tea flowed out of the mug and puddled on the floor, following the grooves of the grain in the oak flooring, creeping after the mug’s lost handle. On the desk, a news article next to Sam’s manuscript. His unit had been killed in a suicide bombing. Poison Hemlock. The herb that killed Socrates. And atop the manuscript was a short, handwritten letter. Lay me down with my brothers. Bury me in Arlington.