I know, I haven’t posted anything in weeks. I don’t want you to think, even for a second, that it’s because I’ve forgotten about you. Or that I’ve stopped writing. On the contrary, I’m working on a book right now.
Well not right this second, right this second I am writing to you. To apologize. I have neglected my readers for too long, and I will do my best in the future to never let that happen again. I’m not promising that I’ll post something every day, but as often as I can between work, family, writing a book, and keeping a household.
To (sort of) make up my absence to you, I’m offering you this fragment of a story I started writing years ago. It was meant to be a fairly long story about a survivor of a terrorist attack, and his guilt for what he’d done wrong (both real and imagined) on that fateful day. One day I’ll probably finish this story, I really like the idea of jumping back and forth between different times without any warning to the reader. It’s the challenge of keeping the readability that I like. Alright, let me stop stalling, here it is:
First, there was the screaming. Just the screaming, no other noise, as if the horrible, blood churning screams of fear and pain existed in a vacuum. It filled my head, bouncing off the walls of my skull, becoming all of existence for a few fractions of a second.
It’s seems counter-intuitive, when I think back on it, but that really was the only sensation I was aware of. There was the piercing, stinging scream of my wife in my left ear. The hairs on my arms and neck stood on end and my head began to spin in every direction at once. The world dropped out from below my khaki shorts and plain, boring sandals. I didn’t know if I’d heard an explosion or not. Just my wife screaming, joining in the with countless hundreds of other people around us, screaming.
My lungs burned and I realized I was screaming, adding my own voice to the cacophony. I reached out with my fingertips, gripping nothing but empty air…
For a sickly, long moment I was suspended in the air, buffeted by heat from below, and from the blazing summer Sun above. Then I was falling, and my stomach churned. I could taste vomit and bile and blood. I could smell sweat, and fire, and burning meat; but I could no longer see anything. The world had gone dark, death moved in swiftly and even the sound of the screaming faded from me. My mouth and throat filled with acrid, stinging smoke, I could no longer put a voice to my fears. My fall ended abruptly, my head bouncing against what I assumed was a slab of shattered concrete. Something very sharp entered my side. A very haggard doctor would later tell me it was a piece of rebar that barely missed my lungs. He told me I was lucky, and he said it without any irony in his voice.
I don’t know how I got there, how many brave men and women risked life and limb to pull me out of the rubble, but I made it to a hospital bed in a room with another man. He lost an arm, an eye, and would require massive reconstructive surgery on his jaw. Again, the doctor told me I was lucky.
Both my legs are broken. Beyond broken, shattered is a better word for it, but I still have my legs. Lucky. Nine of ten of my fingers are broken, but I still have my hands and arms. Lucky bastard. I have a broken rib, but both my lungs are fine. Some guys have all the luck.
I watch the news incessantly. I want to know who did this to us, I want someone to blame. A handsome reporter with a dimpled chin interviews a young woman who’s lost her arms in the attack. She smiles on my television and tells the world that she doesn’t harbor a grudge. She is just glad to be alive. I don’t not share her positive outlook, though I am much better off than her, physically. Updates scroll across the bottom of the screen, and with each new jump in the number of dead, I grow a little angrier. Finally, I can no longer keep my eyes open and I catch the latest toll before I pass out: 257 dead.
That last bit hits me like a sledgehammer to the chest. My Laurie, she is one of those dead. She is going to be forever remembered as victim number seventy-two. I haven’t yet taken the time to grieve for her. Her family is waiting to have a service until I can be released from the hospital, not that it matters. My sister-in-law, Sibyl, feels free to remind me numerous times that there are no remains. Laurie was buried under the concrete. All the bodies under there burned to charcoal. She tells me this, like it’s my fault. As if I was the only one who wanted to be there that afternoon.
Laurie had been looking forward to the Fourth of July for weeks. For the first time in seven years we both had the following day off and could really unwind and enjoy ourselves. She was a teacher, but usually took on a summer job to help pay the bills. This year we had managed to save enough money so she didn’t need to work during the summer. It was nice having her around all the time, never having to miss her.
The festivities for the Fourth of July were always held in the Capitol Plaza, surrounded by the impressive concrete structures that housed the cog-like inner workings of state, county, and city government. It was 100 acres of stone, glass, and modern art that elicited strong reactions in those who laid eyes upon it. There was no middle of the road with the Capitol Plaza. You either loved it or hated it.
Laurie and I arrived relatively early, cooler in tow and picked out a fantastic spot in direct line with the stage. Roman Avenue passed below the Northern edge of the plaza, separating it from our cultural gem, the Performing Arts Coliseum except for a wide set of concrete steps that doubled as bleachers during public concerts. This is where we laid out our blanket and raised our feet up on the cooler’s lid. I put my arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, despite the sweltering heat.
The “Party Downtown” as the Fourth of July celebrations were unofficially known always featured a line-up of almost impressive musical acts. This year they kicked things off with a Doobie Brothers cover band who billed themselves as having an actual member of the Doobie Brothers on stage with them. It turned out to be a drum tech who’d performed sound checks for the band in the early 80s. An aging roadie who, it turned out, could play the skins like nobody’s business.
To keep cool, and to keep from getting numb asses, Laurie and I took turns running off to the shade to reapply sunscreen. She was meticulous in her application, and she questioned and searched me to make sure I did the same. It was during a trip back from the shade that I first noticed the girl.
She was sitting, separated by a few feet and miles of life experience, with her parents and younger sibling. They were all two rows back from Laurie and me, off to the left. She had a heart-shaped face, blonde hair, and an air of unaffected youth. The moment I set my eyes upon her, starting with her golden hair and moving down toward her long, lean legs, laid bare by a short, white dress, she seemed to look right into me. Her bright blue eyes flashed, a stunning contrast to her tan skin.
There was an initial glance, that flash of brilliant blue, and something else: a tease of a smile, one corner of her mouth lifting, her full lips beginning to part. Then she turns away. I could still feel her eyes upon me, even as I sat next to Laurie, snaking my arm around her waist.
I awake with a start, unaware that I had even fallen asleep. There is a disconcerting moment where I forget where I am. My vision is blurred by sleep, the hospital in a mid night lull; solitude creeps into the room and washes over me like a cold wave. I close my eyes tight and I see her face burned into my mind. Not Laurie, but the girl. A pang of guilt stabs at my heart and I try to wish away the face, full of youth, and bringing lustful thoughts to my mind. I try to conjure up my Laurie, the woman I loved, and doted on for 9 years, but I fail. The girl stays burned into my retinas.
I took several opportunities to glance over Laurie’s shoulder and take in all of this girl’s features. Her skin was creamy, pale, and freckle-less. Her sun-bleached blonde hair came to just above her shoulder, a few unruly strands reaching down and teasing the bared flesh at the bottom of her graceful neck.