The cop shoved Harlan Sykes hard into the chair of the interrogation room. He did it with such force that his teeth clicked together and for a moment he was worried that he had cracked them. His partner had excused himself from the interrogation for fear that his outrage might blind him and cause him to take things too far. He was seconds away from doing the same thing, but he had to know why Harlan did what he did. He took a deep breath and began:
“What kind of man attacks a priest without any provocation?”
Harlan responded, “A man with a damn good reason.”
He managed to catch himself before he let fly a racial epithet. Officer Bullitt didn’t see himself as a racist, just a man who said things he would regret later in the heat of the moment. He had been a cop for fifteen years and this was the first time he wanted to physically assault someone. Harlan Sykes had been arrested after getting in an altercation with a priest.
The priest had confessed that he didn’t know what he said to Harlan to cause him to lash out. They were just talking one moment and in the next, Harlan had knocked him on his ass and was pummeling him. What infuriated him the most about the situation, more than the complete lack of respect or the viciousness of the attack, was the fact that the priest had chosen not to press charges. Harlan Sykes would walk without so much as a slap on the wrist. Before Officer Bullitt would release him, he just wanted to know why he did it. What reason he could possibly have that would justify savagely attacking an old man.
“What reason could you possibly have for attacking a priest?”
“It’s a long story-”
“I have nothing but time.”
Harlan Sykes readjusted himself in his chair before beginning, “Do you have any military experience Officer…”
“Bullitt, and none except the academy of course.”
“Bullitt eh? You were a bit pigeon-holed by your last name weren’t you? That’s either a cop’s or a dare-devil’s last name. I, on the other hand, am an Iraq war veteran. I was second Marine division, eighth Marine Regiment. I was there in Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
“While I appreciate your service-”
“I’m getting to the point. Just thought I’d mention some background information so you can update my dossier if you want and to remind you how much of a cluster-fuck it was over there. Now I’m not saying that the conflicts and fire-fights I saw over there justifies my actions, it doesn’t. In fact the only justifiable reason I have is due to my experience with the Chaplain, Father Stoker.
“Chaplain Stoker was a big guy. He had the kind of paunch that one can only get from years of beer-swilling. He was middle aged and had a ruddy face. Every time he walked, the wooden rosary he had around his neck would clink against the medallion of Saint Anthony he had. Everywhere he went, clink, clink, clink. He shifted between joviality and somberness. This would have been an awkward feat for anyone to managed, but Father Stoker had this innate talent for sensing people’s moods and telling them exactly what they needed to hear in a matter that they needed to hear it in.
“He had served in the Gulf War and was easy to talk to. One of the pluses about visiting him was that he had a little stash of imported micro-brewed beers in the mini-fridge under his desk. Every time you visited him, you’d crack open a beer with him and just talk. Talking to him wasn’t like getting the first degree by the inquisition. Sometimes he would just listen. I assume that was why a lot of the guys went to him to talk and get things off their chest despite the fact that we had a therapist.
“The real reason I think a lot of the guys went to Chaplain Stoker as opposed to Therapist Skinner was due to issues with appearance. If you went to the therapist, you were labeled as weak, unable to deal with the stress of combat. If you went to the chaplain, you were a devoted Catholic. It was easier to justify in the judgmental eyes of your peers. As a result, Skinner did basically nothing and Stoker was constantly entertaining and talking to soldiers.
“The first indication that something was going on was when Private Remarque hanged himself in the storage room. A lot of us had seen something like that coming. He had just been in a fire-fight and was depressed. He talked to Stoker and Skinner pulled him aside in the mess hall and had a few words with him as well. Private Remarque would later slip off to the bathroom and use his belt to hang himself.”
“That’s a shame, a soldier cracking up like that.”
Harlan nodded pensively for a moment before continuing, “We spent a couple of days in mourning. We sent him home to his parents and someone ‘botched’ his paperwork to say he had been killed in action. To be honest, I get the idea behind it, but I doubt it brought any solace to the family or friends. A dead man is a dead man, how he died has little bearing. We had a ceremony and got drunk to celebrate his life and mourn his loss. Father Stoker spoke at the memorial and both he and Skinner offered their services if anyone wanted to talk.
“A few went to see Skinner, but more went to Stoker. Sometimes late at night when I was walking through the barracks on my way to go outside and smoke, I could hear the other soldiers whispering in his office. I could always hear his re-assuring tone and responses. When I passed by Skinner’s office, it was always dark and empty. Two weeks later, Heller would cut his wrists practically to the bone and bleed out on the bathroom floor.
“I was the first to hear another soldier screaming for a medic. I sprinted to the bathroom and found Jones cradling Heller in his lap and trying to apply pressure to his wrist. I knew it was too late. Heller was so pale. I stepped forward and tried to take his pulse, he was already cold. He had died hours ago, but still Jones applied pressure to the slit wrists and screamed for help. It took three soldiers to tear Jones away from Heller’s corpse. He wept the entire time.
“To be perfectly honest, the worst part about it wasn’t Heller’s corpse, but Jones’ horrible crying. I would wake up at night sweating with that scream resounding in my ears. It haunted me. I think that’s why I really lost it and hit the bottle. Drinking was the only thing that deafened that mournful cry as they tore Jones away from Heller’s corpse.
“The other soldiers tolerated or at least ignored my drinking. I must have been a real shit-show, but they stuck with me the entire time. I think that’s probably why when everything is said and done, I never could quite find it in me to pull that trigger. I’ve hit lows, but knowing someone has experienced the same thing puts it in perspective. In one of my worse moments, I drained an entire bottle of Jack Daniels and stumbled through the barracks. I was sneaking out for a smoke, but I ran into Father Stoker first.
“I slumped against the wall and was inches away from spilling onto the floor in a drunken hot mess when I felt a hand on my shoulder steadying me. I looked up and into Father Stoker’s face. He asked me if I wanted to have a sit-down with him in his office and talk. I nodded and I stumbled and was half carried to his office. He sat me down and began:
‘Not to offend you son, but you look like hell warmed over. Is there something you’d like to get off your chest?’
“That’s all it took. The floodgates splintered open and I broke down. I admitted to the dreams, I talked about how the sound of Jones’ wailing kept me up at night, I confessed to the horrible thought that my life was invariably F.U.B.A.R. and that I was coming apart at the seams. He listened to my incoherent weeping and babbling for a couple of minutes before he leaned back in his chair and spoke.
‘That’s a heavy load to be carrying on your shoulders, child. I honestly can’t begin to even put myself in your shoes. I can’t even fathom how you shoulder that. If I were you, I would opt out.’
“I slurred. ‘Opt out?’
“He paused as if considering his words carefully before continuing, ‘This world is so painful. You must have realized this. Life is an endless loop of hurting each other, hurting ourselves. If the pain were cumulative as opposed to being merely cyclical, it would be enough to tear God from the heavens in throes of agony. The world is a perpetual machine of suffering. All hope is not lost however, there are… alternatives.”
Harlan Sykes paused for a moment and Officer Bullitt leaned in on his chair and his physical cue pressed Sykes to continue.
“I couldn’t wrap my head around his words. Did he really want me to kill myself? Father Stoker made everything crystal clear. He stepped forward and took my hands in his as if we were about to pray. The prayer never came; instead he slowly turned my palms upward and exposed my wrists. He drug his finger across it and I tensed as if he had actually slit my wrists.
“He said, ‘I know that you have the strength to do something like this. You have strength to end the cycle. You have the strength to stop the suffering. You can save yourself from the pain.’
“I felt sick, I wanted nothing more than to get out of the room, but he had my hands wrapped up in his. The grip was so tight; I thought he might crush my hands. What finally pushed me over the edge was when he dragged his finger right along my vein vertically. I shoved him. Hard. He hadn’t been prepared for such resistance and the sudden attack sent him backwards tumbling over his desk. I stumbled out of the room back towards the barracks. I heard him righting himself as I left. I could hear the wooden rosary clinking against his medallion of the patron saint for soldiers.
“I just wanted to lie down, stop the room from spinning, and forget the chaplain’s words. My roommate had pulled guard shift that night so the room was empty, which was good because I was not the most graceful drunk and made quite the racket. I fell face-first onto my bed and drifted off. I couldn’t tell you when I first became aware of the sounds, but when I managed to identify the sound; I shot out of bed. It was the sound of something wooden butting up against a metal object. It was the sound of a rosary clanging against a medallion.
“I shot out of bed and tried to put as much distance between me and the chaplain. He was in the middle of the room, trying to approach me as quietly as possible. In his right hand, he had an old-fashioned straight razor. The look he had on his face caused me to raise the alarm. Soldiers rushed in and took the chaplain into custody. They would later find out that the razor he had on him had belonged to Heller and had disappeared from the scene of his suicide. There was speculation whether he had killed Heller or not. There was no doubt in my mind. Even if Father Stoker didn’t slit Heller’s wrists himself he still whispered the poisonous words to the emotionally enervated man that cause him to take his own life.”
“That’s one hell of a story, but it still doesn’t explain why you attacked that priest.”
Harlan Sykes nodded in agreement and continued, “You’re right about that. However that was not my last meeting with Father Stoker, I went to visit him. I had to have closure; I had to find out why he did it. I bribed the MP with a gift of a little something special for his hookah for the opportunity to speak to Stoker. I was led back to his cell and left to have a private conversation. The MP slipped into the backroom with some of his friends to partake and left me with the man who wanted me dead.
“Father Stoker was kneeling in front of his bed and praying. His rosary, medallion, and clothes had been taken from him. He didn’t even have a belt or shoes with laces for fear of him attacking someone or making an attempt on his own life. He was in a prison jumpsuit and for the first time, I felt like I was actually looking at the real Stoker. He ceased his supplications when he became aware of my presence. He simply spoke:
“‘You’re looking more sober.’
“‘Well I did have a sobering conversation last night.’
“‘I’m glad my talk had such a profound effect-’
“I snapped, ‘Cut the shit father, I just want to know why you did it. Why did you kill Remarque and Heller? Why did you try to kill me? More importantly, what the fuck is wrong with you?’
“Father Stoker replied, “I haven’t killed anyone. I spoke to them and then they elected to kill themselves. You were the only one who didn’t have the fortitude to go through with it. As for trying to kill you, I was only doing what I knew was right. I saw you stumbling down that hallway and I could hear your soul shuddering in remorse. To answer your last question, nothing is wrong with me. My eyes are just open is all and I am seeing everything as it truly is.’
“I didn’t interrupt him as he spoke of his time in Kuwait during the Gulf War. He spoke of oil fields blazing like hellfire casting illumination on the violence, violation, and villainy going on around him. He recalled receiving orders on highway 80 to fire at retreating combatants who had long since given up the fight. He spoke of carrying out those orders that would later become known as the Highway of Death. He spoke of man’s inhumanity to man. He told me that we were making Hell on earth and that people were becoming shells of their former selves who were crippled by the deeds we carried out.
“He pointed at me and said, ‘I was like you once, a boy in soldier’s boots afraid to shoot strangers. The war killed that part of me just like this war is going to desecrate your soul. I am trying to save your soul before that happens. I am trying to prevent the gates of Heaven from being closed in your face. I am trying to save your innocence. I saved Heller and Remarque and it’s not too late for you.’
“I called him crazy. I told him that he had flown off the rocker and went over the deep-end. I told him what the other prisoners were going to do to a man who took advantage of people in their emotionally weakened states. I told him how the rest of his life was going to be spent in agony and anguish. He had started weeping silently to himself at some during my invective. Finally, I told him that my soul had been tarnished long ago. I’m not sure if I really believed those last words spoken in the heat of them moment back then. I know that if my conscience wasn’t soiled then, it is now.
“I took off my belt and set it on the floor, inches away from the bars of his cell. I told him I was offering the same alternative he offered me. I walked away. Before exiting, I turned around just in time to see his hand reach out and pull the belt into the cell. I didn’t tell the guards that I had left. I didn’t want them intervening. Father Stoker tied the belt to the bed, looped it around his neck and sat down. He was dead for two hours before anyone noticed.”
Officer Bullitt spoke, “You do know that this is basically an admission of guilt? You are culpable in his death and can have charges brought against you.”
“Good luck trying to prove it. His death was a Godsend to the military. They swept him under the rug, he was another casualty of the war that had scarred him so badly that he resolved to take his own life. They managed to ‘lose’ the paperwork detailing his arrest. There is nothing to tie me to his death. I didn’t even receive a slap on the wrist when they managed to piece it all together. Well, I think that’s enough of story-time. I got what I needed to get off my chest and I should really get going.”
Harlan Sykes stood up and moved towards the door. Officer Bullitt moved in front of him and for a split second, the soldier thought he was about to be arrested again. The police officer questioned:
“You never did explain why you attacked the priest.”
Harlan looked at him appraisingly for a few seconds before he answered truthfully, “It was what he said that set me off. He said that he whole-heartedly believed there we are all inherently righteous and that there is good in all of us. I begged to differ. What Father Stoker did to those men and what I then did to him is more than enough evidence to prove him wrong.”
Written by EmpyrealInvective