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C.O.

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It was pissing rain, and Walt wasn't happy about it. He'd spent some time in New Mexico, trying to dry out his bones, trying to find a place as arid as his own heart, and he didn't want this, didn't want crowds, and drizzle, and a bunch of flagburners giving him pitying looks.

They were worse than the picketers who'd met him at the airport gate with spittle and jeers.

College kids, mostly; grad students he guessed. Signs smeary with rain, and umbrellas and shared cigarettes. Walt crushed his own butt with his bootheel and turned his collar up. The rain crept down his spine anyway. Stuffing his hands in his jacket, he squinted into traffic, waiting for a break that would enable him to cross to the coffee shop on the other side of the street, a safe distance from their good intentions.

Cub's Coffee smelled as brown and greasy as the coffee looked. The walls were spattered and waterdamaged, and the chairs all looked broken. The place suited his mood.

"Can I get some ham and eggs?"

The guy behind the counter was wearing a smeared wifebeater and a hangdog look. He nodded morosely and shuffled off toward the grill.

"That coffee will kill you, man," warned the man two stools over. He was a bandy little guy, maybe 26, with mutton chops wide as dog's ears, in a shabby green suit jacket and brown cords.

Walt nodded, took a hot swallow, muttered, "I hope so."

"Drinkin' to forget," Muttonchops pronounced sagely.

Walt cut him a look that said Shut Up.

Muttonchops was apparently blind, which seemed entirely possible, because his glasses were as thick as ash trays, and he ignored Walt's warning.

"It's raining out there to beat the band, huh?"

Walt tapped his pack of Lucky Strikes on the counter's edge, and balanced a cigarette on his lower lip while he patted himself down for matches.

A flaring hiss and a whiff of sulfur, and the little guy was leaning forward with a light. He cupped his hand around the matchflame and resettled himself on the stool nearest to Walt. Its red vinyl upholstery was split, revealing white fibers reminiscent of cotton candy.

"I read in the AMA Journal that those things can bring on the big C."

Walt only glared at him as he coaxed a cherry to tip his cigarette.

"Yeah," he grunted. After what had seemed like years, the counterman slid a plate of curdled eggs and a slice of parched ham thin enough to see through in front of him. Walt rested his cig in the ashtray and tucked in.

"How long have you been back in the states?" the other man asked quietly.

Walt couldn't swallow his mouthful of eggs.

He gritted his teeth and made them go down.

Trying not to whistle through his teeth, he stared at the Rorsach eggblot on his plate. He saw his mother's butter colored front door. He saw a field of daisies. He saw Murphy's brains mashed in the bowl of his helmet. He closed his eyes.

"You been out west, huh?"

Walt's head turned so quickly he felt like he might have pulled something.

"A lot of you guys spend time out west. The sun, you know? My brother Stan said it rains like 8 months a year there." His tone was placating.

"Yeah," he said again, trying to get a grip on this guy. He looked like a schoolteacher. Or a grad student. One of the flagburners, maybe.

"You have a sunburn," the older man informed him.

"Who are you?" he heard himself ask.

"My name's Frohike. Melvin Frohike." He held out a hand, in a stiff, formal way. He looked suddenly uncomfortable.

"You a flagburner, Mr. Frohike?" Walt made no move to take the offered hand.

"A lot of pretentious symbolism, in my opinion. But if you mean am I a conscientious objector, then, yeah. But you're no babykiller," he said, apologetically. Kindly.

For a long, bad moment Walt thought his breakfast was going to paint the floor.

He was clutching the fork so hard the bones of his hand creaked.

"Were you drafted?'

Shaking his head, a tight screw to the left, then the right, then panting again.

"Why won't you shut up?" It wasn't growling as he'd intended it to be; instead it was a soft plea. Fuck. He was close to losing it. Eyes skittering for an exit, he stood up to throw a few crumpled bills on the counter.

"You look like you need to hear somebody talking. Stan looked like you did. When he got home."

Walt spread his hands on the counter, trying to steady himself. He wanted to make sense of something; he couldn't think anymore. He wanted to sleep a night through without waking himself up with the dry heaves. He wanted someone to understand him, help him understand himself again. He hated the way the rain made his scars ache.

"What does he look like now?"

"He's a couple years older than me. Taller. Better looking." It wouldn't be hard to be taller and better looking than this guy. He looked like someone auditioning for Second Crackpot on the Right.

"Was he drafted?" Walt wasn't sure why it was suddenly important to know.

Frohike, who, standing, only reached his shoulder, tucked his long brown hair behind his ears and stared at the floor as if lost in thought.

"Nope. No. He was a career guy. You know that sort?"

Walt didn't nod, but he got the impression Frohike knew the answer.

"Well, he was that sort. But he had a hard time over there. He had a hard time."

"What's he do now?"

"He was a cartographer in the army. When we were kids, he used to draw these treasure maps, and we'd hide our dad's penny jug. And my dad would have to... Stan would never show him where to dig. He could only use the treasure map. He lost it once, and I had to sneak out one day while Stan was at Scouts and dig it up for him."

"What's he do now?" It felt like the mildewed little room was holding its breath; the air in his lungs was stagnant and muddy.

"He feeds the worms." Frohike kicked the counter's scuff guard with the bulbous toe of one brown shoe, gently. "Stan had a hard time over here, too."

"Yeah." Weird as it was, Walt wished he could cry. Wished he could work up a manly tear or two for the little guy's dead brother. But he didn't have any left. It had rained so long there.

"He didn't know why he was over there. I think he thought he did. But then..." He shrugged, lifted his face to look at the younger man.

"If you go west again, you should let your hair grow out. When I was seven my mother gave me a crew cut and we went fishing on Uncle Wolfgang's boat and my scalp, no lie, it was as red as a bottle of ketchup."

Absently, Walt ran a palm through the softening bristle of his lengthening buzz. His hairline was eroding like an old beach. His Grandpa Sergei was bald as an egg; Walt had been careful to wear a cowboy hat in New Mexico.

"Isn't that a pain in the ass to take care of?" Walt tipped his chin to indicate the other man's mousy hair, loosely trapped in a pony tail, shorter strands tucked behind his ears.

Another shrug from Frohike.

"Yeah." Walt wondered why he was still talking to this man. "Well. Thanks for the light."

"It's still raining," Frohike observed.

Walt frowned at the plate glass window, the dreary rivulets coursing down fly specked translucence.

"I live upstairs. If you wanted to wait it out. There's a game on."

Walt kept his eyes on the rain for a long moment, glanced at the rumpled man at his side, then back at the black streets and glazed cars.

"Did he kill himself?"

"Yeah." Frohike cleared his throat. "He couldn't talk about it. I think he thought he was doing us a favor. His wife Mary Ann didn't seem to think so."

"I have these nightmares."

Frohike nodded.

"I don't know who I am anymore. Sometimes... sometimes I think I'm a ghost. Like no one sees me. Like I'm not really here. Like if I touched someone, my hand would go right through them."

Frohike, whose natural expression seemed already doleful, bit his lip.

"I have a bottle of J and B." His voice was muffled, foggy.

Turning on his heel, Walt clapped his hands over Frohike's rubbery ears, the cool plastic of his eyeglass frames against his wrists, the frames shifting, propped up from Frohike's nose by the pressure, revealing grave hazel eyes.

"You don't even know what I am!" His brown eyes searched the older man's fiercely.

Frohike made some inarticulate sound. Realizing he was mashing the man's lips closed with the press of his own palms, Walt dropped his hands and took a step back, felt the blood pack his face with color.

"Sorry," he muttered. It had been a long time since he'd touched a person who had better than an inch of stubble on their head. The other man's hair, even his sideburns, had been surprisingly soft.

"It happens. What's your name?"

"Walter Skinner."

"Then that's what you are." Frohike resettled his glasses. "Where were you born?"

"Peoria. Illinois."

"You're Walter Skinner from Peoria, Illinois. Your friends call you Walt?"

Walt was nodding slowly.

"Beamish and Rover called me Walt. And Murphy." He felt his eyes fill, impossibly. He hadn't cried since... since... it had been 18 months at least. "They're dead now."

Frohike didn't look surprised.

"I'm sorry." For a while he didn't say anything. He checked his watch. Melvin Frohike gave Walt a long, steady look. "The game is on. I got 50 bucks says the Steelers make the Patriots cry like little girls."

Something that had been hard and dry in him softened a little, let the rain fall, and Walt swiped his eyes with the forearm of his jacket.

"I'll take that bet."

END