My body is confined within itself. I can hear the music, feel the beat, but my hands stay clasped together, my hips only sway in easy, tiny movements. I’m standing on the dance floor but all I can do is tap my foot, and smile when someone moves to grab my hand and spin me around. I can feel it for a moment in that spin, the freedom waiting on just the other side of the mountain that is my newfound reserve. I want to move. But I can’t.
Do you have an iPad?” His voice is a ghost of gravel, softly echoing the strength it used to have. Ebony eyes look at me over the golden-wired rim of thick reading glasses.
“I do,” I nod. “But it’s pretty old, so I don’t use it very often.”
His shaky hands, weary after so many decades, set down his pencil and I’m struck by the meaning of my words. I hope he doesn’t catch the parallel and suddenly my chest tightens.
I don’t mean you, my heart whispers, urging the words toward 80 years of love and despair seated on the other side of the table.
But he is already turning the next page, the topic forgotten, the meaning lost in translation and left tumbling in the washing drum of my mind.
“Don’t tell her that she’s smart,” I said. “Tell her that she’s hard-working. Dedicated.”
My mother stared at me, bewildered. “What? Why?”
“Because that’s what you did to me. You told me I was smart and I never tried to be anything else.”
I wrote this quite a while ago, after hearing a story about a man who died trying to save fellow soldiers. Unfortunately, it’s not an unusual story; the hero who gives his life for others during a war. But this particular news article, it made me wonder. What was the man thinking? What would have happened if he had lived?
“A flamingo.” Coffee nearly flies out of my nose and I cough, trying to prevent myself from choking on the liquid mixed with laughter.
“Any animal in the world, and you choose a bright pink bird?” I wipe my mouth and look with incredulity at the man next to me. Corporal Anderson Tyler is a bull of a man, with the arms of a gorilla, the sturdiness of an elephant, and the unwavering focus of a viper. He sits next to me, cutting pieces off of a chunk of wood. I can’t tell what it is yet, but I know it will soon come to life as all the others had.
“Yeah, but it’s like the most popular bird. It’s the bird all the humans copy and all the other birds want to be.”
I nod. “So you want to be the Homecoming King of aves.”
He chuckles at himself but shrugs. “I guess that’s a yes.” I laugh and sip at the rest of my coffee. We sit in a large tent, soldiers and corporals and lieutenants buzzing all around us. Many of them are discussing the new rumors of the enemy that had reached camp, or trying to gain the eye of the general who is newly in attendance, but Corporal Tyler and I prefer to hang back and watch until given orders.
I lean back in my seat, eyeing the new general. He doesn’t look like much, just a thin man with a thick beard, but the stories I’ve heard of him are anything but dismissible.
Something dark moves in the corner of my vision. I turn my head and look to the opening near me. A man appears, one I knew well. He is a native, a translator, and his name is Hamad Usain. I look down at his hand. He sees me watching and closes his eyes, then his hands make a quick movement and he tosses what he’d been holding into the tent. It rolls to a stop just ten feet in front of me.
One second. Shock registers. I’ve worked with Hamad for three years and had never seen this coming. I know the names of his three little girls. He knows the name of my mother and the story of my first day in kindergarten. He’s played baseball with Corporal Tyler and several of the other other men in the tent. He loves his country and his god and peace.
Two seconds. I find myself on my feet. Everyone is shouting now, backing away and turning around. My sergeant stands in front of the general, attempting to shield him. I consider throwing it, but we are surrounded on all sides by soldiers and tents, going on for several layers, far outside my capabilities of throwing, no matter how many times it has been suggested that I be the pitcher.
Three seconds. Suddenly, I’m not on my feet. I’m curled up on my side near the front of the tent, squeezing my body as tightly as possible around a ball barely the size of my fist. I imagine my abs, my stomach, my spine, see in my mind how they will be ripped apart in milliseconds and I hope that it will be enough.
Four seconds. I see my mother. I see my sister and her son, lifted onto the shoulders of my father. I see the girl I’d kissed just days before leaving the U.S. I see the faces of men, women, and children, covered in dirt and cloth and blood. I see the gun that never leaves my side. I see the dream I’ve had since preschool of swimming through the Great Barrier Reef. I see the class I’d taken after high school, the one I’d liked but hadn’t studied hard enough for. I see the things I had done instead of studying. I see my favorite bar and my favorite burger. I see the piece of wood Corporal Tyler had been cutting. I see the general. I see the U.S. flag hanging above him. I see my second grade teacher, the one who first taught me about the army. I see rain. I see the picture of Hamad’s daughters. And then I realize: I don’t want to die.
Five seconds. I squeeze my body even tighter, squeeze my eyelids closed until I see stars. And then it feels like my whole body is on fire and I think, This isn’t so bad. I had thought dying would hurt more.
And then I realize that the roaring in my ears isn’t death. It’s life. I hold my position, wondering why the grenade hasn’t gone off yet, wondering just how long I’ll have to wait to die. I don’t want to die. I swallow. I count to three. I slow my breath. This is impossible. I count to three again. This doesn’t happen. I count to ten and I almost laugh, realizing the magic of reaching the number. I hear voices, at first garbled and then clear. “You’re okay. You’re alive.” I open my eyes. And nothing is the same.