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HOT. HOT AS HELL. RELENTLESS SUN warped by thermals rising in sluggish, syrupy pillars above the dull landscape of rock and sand. The Shamal wind blasting his exposed cheeks with grit. The soft, steady rumble of the Humvee in front of him, fumes from the exhaust, and then a sudden, deafening sound as the unrelieved beige transformed into unthinkable things. Pink mist, a fireball—shining, twisted metal kiting awkwardly in the air and slashing down on him along with body parts. An arm, white bone with stringers of sinew and bloody, shredded muscle trailing from it. A leg, half a face, a hand … were those fingers? Disembodied phalanges snatching at the air in an attempt to break their fall?
What did you see? What do you remember?
A child screaming. And then total deafness, total blackness.
Sam Easton woke up shouting on the floor next to his bed, legs tangled and thrashing against the damp sheets he’d dragged to the floor during his somnambulant dive to safety. It had been three days since the last dream. He was getting better.
It took five minutes for his heart to subside into normal sinus rhythm, another five for his mind to firmly settle back into the present. He’d reluctantly given up the tranquilizers two months ago because they made him tired and fuzzy. They were also highly addictive and he’d felt that dragon growing inside him like a demonic fetus, so he’d slayed it to forestall any more dysfunction in his life. Those early days without the cute little oval crutches were bad, so bad that desperation had driven him to entertain more holistic options. The vast, dubious landscape of alternative medicine had frustrated him enough to consider voodoo, satanism, or anything else that didn’t entail a regimen of bark tea, yoga, or colonics. Whoever had come up with the notion that bowel-purging was equivalent to soul-cleansing was a masochistic idiot.
But it hadn’t been all bad because he’d learned a little about meditation, and lately, he found that if he took deep breaths and focused on the Maneki Neko lucky cat statue on the dresser—two paws raised for protection—he could cleanse his memory without pharmaceuticals or violating any orifices. Not entirely, but enough to function during the day without slipping back in time. That used to happen at the most unpredictable and inconvenient times—during job interviews, dinner out, while he was making love to his wife, Yukiko. She was the one who had given him the lucky cat. It was ridiculous, but it helped, and he had a very Machiavellian outlook on wellness.
The new antipsychotic Dr. Frolich had given him also helped, and the booze did, too, at least on a temporary basis. But that was expressly verboten, at least from a clinical perspective. Besides, he’d promised Yuki he’d stop drinking, although that promise remained woefully unfulfilled.
Not that she was here to keep tabs on him. Everything that was broken about him had finally chased her away three months ago. She’d been brave and loyal and patient, but everybody had a tipping point. He didn’t blame her for wanting some distance. For needing it. If he could leave himself, he would. He still regretted bringing that up in therapy.
Are you having suicidal ideations, Sam?
If, by that, you mean do I want to kill myself, then no.
He hadn’t exactly been lying to Dr. Frolich. He’d had enough death for a lifetime and he certainly had no plans to enact his own, but the thought did cross his mind on occasion. That was something he’d never confess to her because the repercussions would be endless and intolerable. And really, how many people in times of despair or hardship hypothetically pondered the idea of leaving this world prematurely by their own hand with no intention of acting on it? A lot, he was certain of that. Nihilistic thoughts were a dark, human indulgence, specifically a First World phenomenon by his estimation. Nobody who genuinely feared for their life thought about killing themselves; they just thought about survival.
Once he could trust his legs to carry him, he went into the bathroom, turned on the shower, and brushed his teeth without looking in the mirror. It hadn’t taken him long to break that very normal, knee-jerk human habit—just a simple check to see how you looked. Did you have crazy hair? Clear eyes or bloodshot ones? Dried drool at the corner of your mouth? But mirrors made you see things through another’s eyes, and nobody, including him, and maybe especially him, wanted to look at a bifurcated face.
Viewed from the good side, it was handsome, with sharp planes and a strong, straight nose inherited from his father. But the other half had been seared into waxen rubble that seemed to ooze over reconstructed bone. The plastic surgeons claimed they weren’t finished with him yet; but in his opinion, some things just couldn’t be repaired and he was beginning to accept that. Maybe one day he’d look at himself in the mirror again and see what was there, not what wasn’t.
A randy, neglected wife of a movie producer had told him his face was sexy and mysterious, like a half-finished picture of Dorian Gray. This literate cougar had been drunk and probably coked up at the time, putting her education to use in a way she’d probably never imagined back in college. He’d escaped her wandering hands and the awkward encounter easily enough, but the memory hadn’t left his mind. There was something profoundly sad and bent about it.
His rear side was a different story. Without his face staring back at him, he was just observing somebody else’s misfortune, and it was morbidly fascinating to him. Every morning when he got into the shower, he glanced in the mirror at the strong, ropy muscles of his back and buttocks, and the scars that crisscrossed them. A chunk of flesh missing here, a little piece missing there. Whole but not.
At least you made it back.
That day nobody else had, not Kev or Shaggy or Wilson, who had left behind widows and children—and not Rondo, a colonel’s son whose greatest fear wasn’t death but disappointing his father.
Copyright © 2021 by Traci Lambrecht