03 April 2012


A low rumble emitted from the pit of Jack's stomach making him wince as he slowly got up from the paisley blue tattered couch. His knee was throbbing again and he nodded silently as if to acknowledge the pain.

Moving toward the kitchen door, he stumbled, a grimace flashing momentarily across his face. He braced himself, propping his back up against the wall just beside the kitchen door. He closed his eyes, his heart thumping wildly in his chest.

Clamping his mouth shut and keeping his back flat against the wall, he forced the still air to flow evenly through his nostrils. He knew he would have no choice but to go see her now. How he hated making the trip. It always reminded him of how frail and vulnerable he had become. Time had weakened him, and ignoring the pain was no longer an option.
He hated thinking of himself as anything but invincible. Seeing her, that was the only time he that he had to acknowledge and admit to that truth. Her truth. He knew he could no longer hide; he needed her. Without her, he was frail, weak, useless. She had always known that. And, as much as he hated to concede, he knew it too.

His heart began to race.

Silently he willed himself to concentrate on controlling his breathing. As pearls of sweat beaded upon his forehead, Jack recited a mantra in his mind: deeply in, slowly out. Slowly, he began to relax as his breathing slowed and he opened his eyes to look about the room before him.

The paisley blue tattered couch beckoned to him from about ten paces across the room. If he moved slowly, very slowly, he just might make it before his knee decided to give out completely.

A low pitched whine emitted from his belly.

Jack looked down at the culprit and then over his shoulder into the kitchen. A loaf of half eaten bread, sat on the counter beside open jars of peanut butter and strawberry jelly. He sighed at the sight of his uneaten feast, his stomach grumbling in concurrence. But he knew he couldn't risk another step.

Biting his lower lip, Jack slowly eased his back down the wall, allowing his feet to splay before him. At last he sat on floor, panting as though he were running a marathon. Without warning, the mantra started up again in his head: deeply in, slowly out. This time his body complied without hesitation.

Leaning his head back against the wall, he allowed his eyes to close...

...It was truly a glorious day. There was a brisk breeze, not a cloud in the sky, and for the moment at least, no sign of trouble. There were five of us that day: Mitch, Tech, Sam, Port and me. As we meandered our way to the chow hall, we joked about how quiet it had been lately. In different clothes, and on a different street, we would have been just another bunch of nut heads, fooling around and on the look out for trouble on a beautiful sunny day. But we weren't just a bunch of nut heads. We were five young men, far away from home who shouldn't have had to spend their youth in such a shitty place. But we weren't complaining. We talked and laughed jovially amongst ourselves, amusing each other as best we could, seemingly unaware of our surroundings. Outside the mess hall, we went through the usual safety rituals. We each took a turn to clear our weapons, then we lined up to wash our hands, and then paused to hang up our gear; everything except the weapons. No one had been assigned to monitor these tasks, but it didn’t matter. As young as we were, we all understood it wasn’t the time, or the place, to try to be an individual. It’s odd how you learn to adopt to new ways of thinking. Despite our homegrown good manners, we had learned that a meal complete with two sides, plus a salad with dressing, two rolls, a desert and a beverage, or three, could easily be consumed in less than ten minutes, without any signs of indigestion. We had learned that it’s probably not a good idea to sit too close to the kitchen; if you got too close to a propane tank when it exploded, things could get real nasty. We had learned to scan for faces that didn’t fit. We had learned that you could be vigilant and relaxed, all in the same instance. And we learned not to spend any longer than we needed eating lunch. There were no places. Only targets. It wasn’t just a cafeteria. It was a potential tragedy waiting to happen, and none of us wanted to risk being a feature on the six o’clock news. As we got to the front of the line, we gazed upon the offerings and groaned in unison at the only downer of the day, so far at least. We were in a slump again. It had been chicken and rice, with some kind of legume – at least that's what they said it was – every day for the last four weeks, at both lunch and dinner. And although we hadn’t heard the official story, we knew the supply trucks hadn’t made it through. It didn't matter though. We were a team. We were alive. We were together. And that was enough. Eventually, we had our fill and it was time to start heading back. We cleared away our trays and gathered up our things as we prepared to leave. We'd almost made it to the exit of the mess hall when we heard the sound we'd all been trained to hear: Pa-pap-pap-pap...

Jack jumped, jarring his back against the wall, his eyes open wide.

Several loud knocks echoed down the hallway.

Jack?” There was panic in the woman's voice. “Jack, are you in there?”

Jack smiled broadly.

Jack? It's Dr. Hathaway. Just bang on the wall if you can hear me.”

Instinctively, Jack raised his right hand to his throat. Allowing his index finger to trace the scar beside his Adam's apple. Ignoring the woman's voice down the hall, he swallowed and closed his eyes again...

...We looked at each other then. We primed our weapons without looking down to see what our hands were doing. It was instinct and instinct was good. Instinct could keep you alive. Nodding at each other, we turned to face the exit. We moved together as if we'd rehearsed the choreography, and made our exit...

Jack? We're coming in.”

...As soon as the door opened there was a burning sensation in my throat...

Somewhere down the hallway a key rattled in a lock, followed by hurried footsteps.

... It was a bullet tearing its way through my larynx...

Oh my God, Jack?”

Still propped up against the wall, with his eyes still closed, Jack allowed his body to go limp.

Jack?” The woman cradled his torso and checked for pulse. “He's breathing, but barely, call an ambulance.”

Slowly, tenderly, she swept her velvet fingers across his clammy forehead and down to the scar on his throat. “Don't you leave me, Jack. Don't you die on me, you old bastard. I need you. Do you hear me? I need you.”

She was here. And now, now she needed him. Jack tried not to smile. He could feel the pain disappearing already.

© Ehmee Smith, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ehmee Smith, with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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