“Are you OK? Are you OK?”
The question is screaming again and again, but I don’t hear an answer. The ear-shattering noise is still screeching through my head. The stench of burning flesh and blood makes me want to throw up. There is smoke everywhere. I stare at my gunner on the floor. Blood is everywhere—pouring from his face, splattered down the turret. I see the terror on his face as he looks at me, tries to talk to me, and all that comes out is a blood-gurgling moan.
The smoke is getting thicker, my breaths are coming in great shuddering gasps, while my heart is hammering inside my chest. I try to make everything slow to something my brain and body can cope with. I taste blood in my mouth…metallic rust. I crawl towards him, but I slip on my sweaty palms, I drag myself forward, but he’s gone, eyes vacant, no gurgle, gone, too far away… blackness… creeping blackness… I’m crouching on the floor… what… where… Jiyu is standing not far off, white as a sheet, tears streaking down her ashen face. But how the hell is she here. I don’t understand. She’s home. Safe. I know. I left her there.
“Please. Its just the smoke alarm. Please.”
Slowly her words penetrate my fog and I snap back to reality. I stumble to the corner of the room focusing on getting my breathing under control again. She knows better than to touch me and crumples down opposite, watching, waiting.
The kitchen is a mess. The sprinklers have kicked in. She sits there watching the soot flow into tiny black rivulets. We can fix the kitchen.
What I don’t know is if we can fix us.
On most days he never showed emotion beyond fatigue, moving in a fugue state. But today was different. He was toggling between hyper aware, cold fury burning with dangerous intensity, and withdrawal, a chasm that just couldn’t be bridged.
Freya looked for her sleeping bag, this wasn’t a time to stick around. They had been through this several times, and it always ended with him breaking things and mum remaining as still as a cadaver, while she herself ended up a sobbing mess.
For years they had been following the steps provided in their reintegration training, but nothing seemed to work. When his temper exploded, it was so furious and rapid, that there was no time to duck for cover. He may have been the veteran, but they were the casualties in the closet. Neither their friends nor family wanted to be around them. The police had coded their house a risk house. At first her mother had tiptoed around him. Soon the kid gloves were off and they sparred like trained fighters. But he had thirty to her every ten pounds and eventually she just broke.
Now she just stood, unaffected, or worse still, would walk away, like his pain didn’t matter anymore. But he had been trained to never surrender.
As she walked to the train station Freya knew that today was not going to end well. Yet she continued walking. This way the pain would last longer, but at least the cut wouldn’t be so deep.
Sweat trickles down my back making the ends of my short hair stick to my neck and my feet slip within my shoes. Why does it feel like the air-conditioning has been reduced? With every little nod of people’s head, with every stop for a brief consult, the pounding in my head gets louder and louder. On an empty floor I exit to the service stairs and make my way down. As I enter the sweltering heat of the basement I rip off my mask and quickly drop it, along with the now empty syringe, down the hazardous waste disposal chute. From there I make my way to the pediatric unit where the gloves are disposed and the coat is exchanged. The clock is ticking, but I force myself to continue unhurried along the planned route, making a few more deviations and exchanges, until I finally emerge out of the hospital.
There are literally thousands of people waiting outside. The press are jostling to capture that one exclusive picture or statement even as the hospital’s public relations representative harangues them over loudspeakers imploring them to be patient. Special prayers are being conducted for his speedy recovery. Little do they know – The King is dead; all hail the new king.
I can do it. I can do it. I keep telling myself that. I’m trying to do it. But I’m not the graceful fish that I wish to emulate; I’m the aimless hovering jellyfish. I’m unable to do it.
Confusion lays siege to my brain. I forget to breathe. When I finally breathe, I forget to turn my head. Now I’m drowning in brine. My unsynchronized limbs start flapping and kicking, stirring up a tempest. Cluster bombs explode in my brain and lightning flashes before my eyes. Somewhere in the background a voice of reason warns me to relax, allow buoyancy to assist, but it’s drowned out by a mind-numbing scream for oxygen. I glance upwards. Move towards the light, move towards salvation.
Finally, I break through the surface of the water and a blast of warm humid air rushes into my lungs. I’m coughing, choking, in pain. But the rigor mortis that had seized my brain has started receding. I’m not drowning. I’m safe. It’s OK.
They loaded ur body on the ambulance
I thanked the doctor
People came lauding and grieving
I smiled politely nodding
Chatter and anecdotes were exchanged
I served them tea
Some lay on your bed to rest
I offered them pillows
Some laid you to rest beneath the dust
I offered them thanks
Call us if you need anything, they said
What a strong girl, they felt
But no I was not strong
I was crumbling inside
Barely held together by a taut smile
Yet I live by your word daddy
‘The world is full of bastards
Don’t show them how you feel’
Come here baby, he says.
A cold clammy dread travels up my veins. The match is over and I can feel his eyes on me. I hold my back erect and continue to stack the clothes. Maybe, just maybe, it isn’t me he’s talking to. The chair groans as he rises and saunters over to me, his greed burning my back. Calloused hands dig into my skin leading me backwards. The air conditioning bites my exposed body. For a moment my rebellious mind forgets its place and fights me, pounding at my head, attempting to claw out of my eyes, ripping through my skin, curdling my stomach. But its treacherous attempts do not touch my face. Never my face. I feel the weight laid over me, the stubble grating, the force prying me apart. I feel him press down harder. I love you, you know that right, he says. Something somewhere shatters. A dispassionate calm settles over me. The pounding in my head becomes a steady buzz. The room takes on a shade of grey. The television plays a soothing lullaby. The cold recedes. From a distant realm a hollow reply drifts in. I love you too. But I know not this creature. It is not me. It can’t be me. I am not here. This body is not mine.
My heart thumps so loudly that it thunders in my ears, as my blood flows with the fury of a tempest. My palms sweat as my body gets hotter and hotter. What have I gotten myself into? An overpowering fear of impending doom makes my muscles tense up. The oxygen is depleted from my lungs and I can breath no more. A jolt and my life flashes before my eyes. And then I’m falling and falling, racing towards imminent death. My stomach has dropped off, my intestines are floating freely about and everything that was inside is about to hurl out. I try to call for help but nothing comes out. It’s too hard to inhale. Somewhere in the distance I hear my son scream my name. My baby needs me. I want to rush to him. I try to get away, but I am trapped. Restraints hold me firmly back, while someone is pulls down on my cheeks, stretching them. My own nails bite into my flesh as I clench my hands so tightly that the blood stops its flow. And then just as suddenly… the silence of the grave.
The shackles disappear. “Out”, I vaguely hear someone say. “Out”. I want to get away before he changes his mind, but my body simply won’t respond. I am weightless and numb. By sheer will I force my feet to move one by one, away from this narrow escape.
Suddenly a little body wrap itself tightly around me. “Mum…O mum”. I will my heart to slow down, my jitters to stop, and my lids to lift. I find myself looking into a pair of the most clear brown twinkling eyes.
“I love you. You are the best”, he says. I hug him back. My beautiful boy.
I smile and acknowledge to myself – I’ll ride that crazy roller coaster a hundred times, just to see that Twinkle in his eyes.