I looked forward to seeing my friend Rick, a fellow US Army veteran, at this coffee shop in Port City. It was a sparkling day in early November, the temperature in the '40s. I intended to sit outside on the patio. At the age of 25, Rick was more than ten years my junior. We had a significant bond, however, in that we had deployed to Iraq together in 2010/2011. I was his first line supervisor with our Military Police unit. I convinced Rick to join me at college, as a way to settle him down. When he returned from deployment, he dealt with his girlfriend dumping him through self-medication, alcohol. I convinced him to play sports and go back to college. When he asked why I bothered, I said that all of my soldiers were still covered by my extended service plan.
Rick was visibly excited about his recent semester abroad. He was most intrigued with his visit to the shrine for Saint Padre Pio in Italy. Saint Pio's remains were exhumed in 2009 and displayed in a glass coffin at San Giovanni Rotondo in the Apulia region of southern Italy.
“It looked like he died yesterday, not back in the 60s," said Rick, his face flushed with emotion.
I was Catholic and Rick wasn't, so I was surprised that he took so readily to this icon of religious culture. I explained to him that the Church probably had touched up the body for public display. Padre Pio, also known as Pio da Pietrelcina, was a friar, priest, stigmatist and mystic of the Roman Catholic Order of Friars Minor Capuchin. Now venerated as a saint in the Catholic Church, Padre Pio became famous for bearing the stigmata for most of his life. This condition has been reported by several individuals throughout the centuries. People have claimed that their bodies bear marks corresponding to those left on Jesus’ body by the Crucifixion.
Halfway through our coffees, we were joined by Kara, Rick’s new girlfriend. She was tall and dark haired, and wore a Seacoast U. sweatshirt as she was taking classes there also. Because of work, she had not been able to go abroad with Rick. We talked for a while, then I left the two to enjoy their happy reunion.
Presently I was an assistant coach with the Seacoast University men’s hockey team. At 5:30 A.M. on this November morning, about two weeks after Rick had returned from Italy, I was setting up orange cones on the ice preparatory for practice. Coach Watson rapped on the Plexiglas near the benches, motioning me over.
“You’ve got a call, Barry,” Coach said. “In my office.”
I walked down the corridor to the office and took the phone off hold. “Barry, it’s Kara,” said Rick’s girlfriend. “Sorry, I didn’t have your cell number. Rick’s been up most of the night; he’s been drinking again, and I think he took pills of some type. I took him to the hospital; we’re both there now.”
“I’m going to break away here and come over,” I said. I checked with Coach Watson, and left for Central Parking to pick up my Jeep.
“He’s been acting strange, ever since he got back,” Kara told me at the hospital. “I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, and he is sitting upright in bed. It’s like he’s staring at the wall, or the closet.”
“Has he ever sleepwalked before, around you?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “But it’s not just that. Last week he claimed to see visions-of little children like running through the building where he lives-in the middle of the day.” She paused. “Do you think he might be PTSD after all these years?”
“It’s possible,” I told her. “I have heard of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder activating years after an incident.”
I was glad that my friend had this attractive and intelligent young woman in his life; she seemed genuinely concerned about him.
“How are your classes going,” I asked her.
“Oh, just two this semester,” she said, visibly warming to a brighter subject. “I’m taking a Chaucer class, 700 level, that is fun and interesting. And last week was kind of intriguing. We learned how-during Chaucer’s time-the 15th Century-people would acquire religious relics that were said to have healing powers.”
“What kind of relics?” I asked, suddenly very interested.
“In Christianity, relics usually consisted of the physical remains of a saint, or the personal effects of the saint,” Kara explained.
I asked her about the shrine of Padre Pio, recently visited by our mutual friend.
“Yes,” Kara said. “I researched Saint Pio after Rick emailed me that he was going there. Pio had the marks of the crucifixion appear on his body when he was living; some say he did this to himself with some chemicals, others claimed the marks were genuine.”
“That is very bizarre,” I said. “but then, I do believe that bizarre things happen in the world.” One of the nurses approached us, telling us we could visit with Rick now.
Kara and I entered the room together; Rick gave us a weary smile.
“What’s going on, pal?” I asked.
Rick closed his eyes. Kara placed a hand on his forehead.
“I’m sorry, man,” Rick began. “This is different than when I had those problems with my old girlfriend, after the deployment. I’m seeing these visions, Barry; I can’t sleep and just don’t feel right. And look at my feet, man. How the hell did this happen?”
Rick rolled the sheets back and showed how the tops of both feet had dark bruises on them. Then he showed me his right side. Removing an adhesive bandage, I could see that there was a scrape mark high on the right side of his abdomen, almost on the chest. It was starting to ooze.
I hoped that my face did not show the fear and turmoil that was rising in me.
“Rick,” I asked, “did you do this to yourself?”
“No, Barry! No, man. This all started when I got back from Italy.”
Then Rick started sobbing and said. “Kara..I am so sorry!”
Kara held his head against her; I went out to find a doctor or nurse. I met with a Dr. Wells in his office, after two nurses were dispatched to check on Rick.
I told Wells that I didn’t believe Rick was PTSD from our deployment, and that the problems he was having manifested themselves upon his return from Italy.
“I believe those wounds might have been self-inflicted,” Wells said. “However, I would like to know for sure. I intend to keep him here for a few days, for observation.”
When I returned to the hospital room, Rick was asleep. I spoke with Kara in the hallway and told her the intent of the doctors.
“Rick thought they would recommend that,” she said. “He asked that you pick up a few things from his place. His computer and some clothes and books. And check on Anka too, please.”
Anka was Rick’s 3-year-old German Shepherd, a female.
“I would be glad to, Kara,” I said. She gave me Rick’s room key.
This would be a great opportunity to do some sleuthing, and check things out.
The community center, where Rick rented a room, was known on campus as The Nest. It served as a food bank and offered low cost housing to college students.
Rick's predicament was tugging at something in my memory, and I was determined to find out what. Something was said or done on our last deployment that was related to this mystery.
When I unlocked the door to Rick's room, Anka recognized me immediately, running over to me wagging her tail.
First, I let Anka outside to do her business. Returning to the room, I made sure that she had food and water, then started my search.
I found Rick’s laptop and charger in a scarred wooden desk. On some open shelving nailed to the walls, I discovered some books and clothes, which I placed into his gym bag.
Continuing my reconnaissance of Rick’s room, I mentally asked for him to forgive my nosiness. It was for his own good.
I started to go through his old wooden dresser. Nothing else was in there that seemed unusual. Nothing under the old steel framed bed either. I started to leave, then quickly stepped back inside the room when I noticed Anka staring at the closet. Her head was tilted in a listening posture.
There was a milk crate on the floor of the closet; I stood on this so I could reach the back of the top shelf. I reached and felt a lumpy object in a plastic bag. Pulling it forward, I stepped off the crater and unwrapped the item.
It was a very old pair of leather sandals. Close inspection showed no sign of a manufacturer name. They were clearly too small for Rick to wear. And so ancient that it would make an unlikely gift for Kara.
I replaced them in the bag, then in the closet. I patted Anka on the head and exited the room.
As I walked towards Main Street and my Jeep, the cold November air swirled over and around me. My mind wandered, like it was hunting on its own. I remembered the final days of my last deployment, when I had warned the soldiers in my unit that collecting war trophies to take back to the states was not going to be tolerated. I was particularly concerned because Rick had expressed interest in taking home one of the old Iraqi Army helmets that were part of the memorial underneath the Victory Arch in central Baghdad.
Could Rick have swiped the old sandals-or anything else-from the Padre Pio shrine on his recent trip?
I returned to the hospital that evening. I told Kara that she could use my Jeep to go back to her dormitory, shower and change and rest, returning when she was ready.
She returned at 11 P.M.. I told her I would go back and sleep a few hours, then relieve her again maybe around 7 A.M.
“Hang in there,” I told her. “We’re going to figure this out and get him all the help he needs.”
I returned to campus, and went back to the community center. Sleeping in Rick’s room seemed, to me, to be an appropriate way to connect with my friend’s experience and explore his psyche more.
I found clean sheets to put on the bed and turned on the Bruins hockey game replay, to watch while I waited for sleep. Anka was resting peacefully on her mat, near the window.
I awoke with a start some time later. The television was now showing some late-night infomercials; I clicked it off. The luminous green dial on my watch read 2 A.M.
I let Anka outside for 10 minutes, then returned to the room.
I awoke a second time in darkness; I found that Anka was sitting and facing the closet again. Oddly, she did not respond when I called her name.
As I tried to slide back in to sleep, I found some solace in wondering if there was not anything supernatural in the recent travails of my friend. If he was simply neurotic and poised for a breakdown, I could find counselors at the local VA hospital to help him out.
In the morning, I was awakened by the late fall sunlight streaming in from behind the blinds. Anka was asleep on her mat. When I rolled over to face the window, there was an abrasive feeling on my right side. At first, I thought that I had rolled over on my cell phone, or my keys had slipped off the nightstand and got caught in the sheets.
When my hands reached for my side to check this out, the sheets moved as well. They were stuck to the backs of my hands.