It begins with the false spring: warm fog and a thin film of rain always on the skin. A February thaw is sweetly cold like ice cream and doesn’t smell at all like the real thing. You know a true April spring by the smell of the loamy earth underneath. In February, what’s under the ice is still dead. The smell of the trickster thaw, the strawberry spring, is only ice melting. New Englanders know this the way they know there’s always one more big storm after April Fool’s Day.
Amelia Gowan is from California and, until three years ago, never lived north of the Mason-Dixon line. She fell for the false thaw her first winter in Maine and has never trusted spring since.
Amelia lives each day through a series of rituals performed with small, careful movements. She wakes at five-thirty and walks in the dark for half an hour through the quiet city streets. Portland is the only city she knows that sleeps. She showers and eats breakfast at the white Depression-era enamel table with the red chevron border. Breakfast never varies: a bowl of Scottish porridge with milk and a scoop of blueberries, a handful of almonds, and a big cup of coffee, thick with cream. While she eats, she watches the dark, choppy Back Cove water. She lives in a two-story Queen Anne-style house, which was converted into apartments in the seventies and half-heartedly put back together again before it was sold to her. It retains some of its Victoriana in the tower room that gives it a lopsided, bulgy look, and the strange ornamental fire escape that sprouts out from the upstairs kitchen.
No one bothers her here. She does not even have a cat.
This is Amelia Gowan, age thirty-three. People never assume she’s a war veteran, but once they know, it rises to the surface like the reality under an optical illusion: here is a woman who is firm and purposeful, comfortable with bureaucracy. It’s easy to imagine she’s killed someone, and she has – five someones, in fact. She has killed more people than Jack the Ripper. She thinks about that a lot.
“What do you even do, besides paint and go to farmer’s markets?” her friend Cal asks when he calls from Japan and she has nothing new to tell him. It is his third trip abroad in the last three months. Cal works on computer games and does not, in his role as content designer, have to travel anywhere, but he volunteers. He and another friend, James, live in Boston, but Cal is from Tucson and the New England weather makes him anxious.
“There’s a winter farmer’s market,” she admits. “Organic Christmas trees.”
“You make it so hard to respect you,” he says, and she knows he can’t understand because he hates quiet. And at one time, she hated it too; at one time, she was as topsy-turvy as Cal, or worse. He and James were in the war with her, and they know what she was like before. When Cal calls, he expects her to tell him something exciting, although for the past ten years he’s received nothing but unsatisfactory reports. James doesn’t ask for excitement, but sometimes he tilts his head when she does something he doesn’t understand, as if cataloguing her changes.
On this cold and thickly damp first day of the spring semester, Cal would be more disappointed with her life than usual. On her morning walk, she doesn’t encounter any strangers with fascinating stories. She hasn’t decided, on a whim, to jump on the ferry and visit any of the islands off the Old Port. There will be a few surprises on the first day of class, none of which would interest Cal unless someone stripped naked or blew something up, or blew something up while naked. She’s tried to explain to him that she hardly ever encounters performance art, but he has an unshakeable belief that groups of art students, if sat together long enough, will take off their clothes.
She wears a gray wool dress with a ruffled cream petticoat underneath the skirt and likes herself in the mirror: the short, smooth bell of black hair, the even features in a face with no color around it but the red of her ruby earrings. This isn’t one of the days when her own eyes are a little unfamiliar to her; she exists only in the present and not in the doubling-over of many other days, where she is both Amelia Gowan, professor of art, and Amelia Gowan, Army linguist.
On the drive to campus, she listens to the Thelonius Monk version of “Lulu’s Back in Town.” Each semester is the dawn of something fresh, and she wants new music for it. These are her small changes. She loves each day’s details, rotating in their tight spheres. But no one, however well ordered, is immune to the larger rotation of change. She knows this, and yet persistently believes in her own control, maintained through ritual. And perhaps in a way the larger changes are under her control as well; it is she, after all, who is about to unwittingly engineer the unraveling of her precise and careful life.
She teaches drawing to freshmen every semester, and can pinpoint the exact moment five students (always five, no more and no less) decide to drop the class. You will keep a dream journal, she tells them, and you will write every dream you can remember in that journal. You will draw from it instead of asking me what to draw when you’ve run out of ideas. They all hate it, because it’s daily and annoying and feels silly, but they’ll start to enjoy it – in a few weeks, they’ll come in eager to talk about their dragons or their murders or their underground caves. They won’t realize that with each day they’re paying more and more attention to the details of the dreams they draw, and they always stop writing down their dreams when the class is done.
She has always painted from her dreams, which are vivid and largely narrative, with clear beginnings, middles, and ends. Remembering them is one benefit of being a bad sleeper. The previous night’s dream has stayed with her all morning, and as she explains the dream journal, some of it darts through her mind – the impression of a bronzed old Polaroid and a coral roof, stucco, the blue sky, all whitewashed in the strange desert sun, and a man standing by a fence, his head slowly fading in and out of view. She won’t paint that; she never paints the desert.
The memory makes her falter, and she looks up. The students are sleepy in that soft, warm way that happens only on winter mornings in a fluorescent-lighted classroom, with a wash of whitish-gray light through the windows. They stare at her with glassy eyes. When she first taught, it made her feel like each pair of eyes was a bird pecking at her skin, exposing nerves to the air. She’s used to it now and hardly even notices the thin ribbon of panic that runs through all her classes, but right now it spikes and she’s sweaty, suddenly, under her arms and on her upper lip. The room is cold. Too much coffee, she thinks, and then her eyes fall on Andy Hobbs, who’s been dead for ten years. He gives her his wide, happy smile, and she smiles back before she realizes what she’s doing.
It’s strange, the things people want to know. Since the war, she has been asked no less than seven times if she had to shave her hair while she was in the desert, to prevent lice. She’s asked almost as frequently if she met Saddam Hussein – or Osama bin Laden, by a few who don’t have a solid grasp of geography. No one asks about Andy. Sometimes it seems as if she and James and Cal are the only ones who remember him.
Amelia was a terrible soldier. In boot camp, the other girls began tallying how many pushups she was ordered to do by the end of the first week. She lost twenty pounds and was almost refused her position at Presidio, and spent almost the entire year there on restriction for various infractions.
“I just hate being told what to do,” she said on a rare phone call to her mother, blowing out smoke so the noise was obvious through the receiver.
“Don’t complain to me,” her mother said. “You only joined because I told you not to.”
Things were no better when she was stationed at Fort Hood, although she managed not to lose her rank. This was largely due to the fact that she had slept with her supervisor, who bailed her out of jail for public nudity twice.
When she was transferred to Fort Bragg as a brand new sergeant, she was given a soldier to supervise: Andy Hobbs, eighteen, smug, first in his class, unimpressed with everything. He had that look, that sulky face, that said he was going to be a problem, and she expected him to be as difficult as she was. But he was more than obedient, for her; he did everything she said and asked for more. Being the boss suited her, and Cal and James suited her, and Andy especially suited her. They had a riotous, alcoholic year before they were sent to Iraq, and then five months of going from village to village to talk to the local people around Tall Afar before Andy and James drove over an IED.
Andy Hobbs is dead. Amelia watched it happen, saw what was left of the body, went to his funeral. Every year in June, she and Cal and James go to James’s father’s house on Peak’s Island for the anniversary. They get drunk and James points out constellations to Cal while she falls asleep next to the bonfire. And Andy Hobbs is sitting here in her classroom.
She finishes reading the syllabus aloud, then dismisses the class, without breaking. The boy who is, impossibly, Andy Hobbs walks out of the room with his messenger bag slung across his chest, and she doesn’t watch him. But she knows that gait, she remembers loving the way he walked. The moment the door closes behind the last student she scrabbles for her roster and scans it for a Hobbs. No, no Hobbs, not an Andrew nor an Andy. The school helpfully puts students’ pictures beside their names, but over half her class is missing their pictures, and he’s one of them. There are three boys without pictures who responded to their names during attendance. She finds the first and second online, but the third, Miles Shannon, she can’t find anywhere. It must be him. Miles, not Andy.
That evening, she texts Cal, I have a student this semester who looks just like Andy.
Shit, Cal replies. Are you going to kick him out?
I think that’s unethical. Maybe, she replies. She wouldn’t do it, even if she could.
Miles, not Andy.
By Friday, she’s convinced herself, nearly all the way, that they just look a little alike and her mind is filling in the rest. It lasts until she’s walking around the room to look over the students’ shoulders at what they’re drawing. One girl is scribbling her name in increasingly hard letters, dripping with barbed wire; another has a picture of Jackie Kennedy taped to the side of her drawing pad as reference. She dreamed that they worked in a call center together, she explains. Amelia avoids the last row until she can’t any longer without looking strange.
Miles is drawing a Ferris wheel in the middle of a forest.
“Is that what you dreamed about?” she asks without thinking.
“No, I just thought of it today,” he says. He tilts his head up to look at her, smiling, but must see something awful in her face. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she says. “You just look like someone I knew.”
And it’s all there, all Andy – the dark hair and the blue eyes and the wide mouth with the curled-up edges that made him look like he was always smiling. Pink cheeks, pointed nose, tragically wholesome. He’s younger than Andy was, but seems older. She has the urge to run her fingers over the line of his jaw in a way she never allowed herself to do with Andy – couldn’t, because she was his boss.
“I’d like you to follow instructions, please,” she says instead, and doesn’t go near the back row again.
On Saturdays she paints in her attic. It has one large east-facing window and no insulation, so she can only store her canvases there from November to April, and has to work fully clothed in the winter. There’s something restful about it even on the coldest morning, with her nose leaking and her fingertips stiff, bare and red in fingerless gloves. The pain is dull and not entirely unpleasant, and even if it weren’t, the morning light would be worth it.
She paints with no plan or style in mind, only dreams. She’s not a Surrealist, however; the tendency of her sleeping mind to be as tidy as her waking mind provides her with plenty of lucid material. The dream of the man with his head fading in and out is still with her, but she won’t think of it. Instead, she begins with the sea. The ocean is a recent subject. Not a friendly calm seascape or even a rough ship-going sea; her ocean is a hundred miles from land, vast and miles deep. It doesn’t resemble the bigness of space, which has always made her feel as if she’s part of it, however insignificant. The sea is alien, and she, watching, is an alien in it.
Her dreams are often invaded by the sea – she dreams she’s reading in a bookstore and the books become books about whales and sharks, cold water begins to seep in at the ankles, and the tide pulls her out with the chairs and windows and bookcases, out to the deep water and huge piles of rocks not organized by any human hand. The land under the water drops off – perhaps fifty feet at first and then, abruptly, hundreds or even thousands. When she studied classical mythology she was puzzled by the stupidity of the Greeks’ explanation of how the world was formed, but in these dreams she understands the impulse to believe in giants. Putting that vastness into place requires the leviathan.
Her latest series of paintings is full of the water, and especially those rocks, which somehow frighten her more than anything else. What wild thing lives there, miles away from human life, after all? She paints the rocks and, always, the faintest suggestion of something just moving under the surface.
She is minute in her painting. She draws grids on her canvases and can spend hours on a single square. In grad school, at the suggestion of Peter, her graduate mentor, she tried free painting, dripping, letting her brush take her wherever it wanted, and not only hated every second of it but produced terrible work. She has no use for big brushes.
“You want to draw your paintings,” Peter said. He had a long, nasal voice and a contemptuous smile, a tendency to yell with no provocation. He terrified everyone. “The amount of control you think you have is impossible to achieve without becoming too rigid.”
But he was also the one who told her again and again to paint the war.
“Aren’t you the one who hates confessional art?” she asked.
“War isn’t a confession,” he said. “It just seems like a waste to have all that material and paint fairy tales. There’s nothing there.”
But she wouldn’t paint the war, and he gave her a B for her effort, saying her style was frigid and airless and that she gave nothing.
Cerebral, hermetically sealed. She doesn’t mind these terms as much as she minds dainty or delicate, but she can’t understand. Sometimes she looks at her painting and is filled with embarrassment at the raw terror seeping out from under the meticulous detail. Why, in the painting of the woman looking at her reflection in a hall of mirrors, does no one notice that the reflection is different from the real woman in a thousand small, horrible ways? She does paint confessions, not fairy tales. Her instructors were all male, and she wondered – but dismissed the thought out of hand until she had a show a year after she finished her degree. One reviewer was female, and called the work sinister, and then Amelia thought perhaps it was a thing only other women could see. There’s a fear, tucked away sideways in her brain where she can’t think about it very often, that even Cal, who knows and loves her, doesn’t really believe in his secret heart that women also have that uncertainty of essential self, that men don’t believe women carry fear of existence with them.
While she mixes her paint in film canisters, she thinks about Miles and his Ferris wheel – all that glee and noise bursting out of the staid pastoral background. Maybe, she thinks, maybe this ocean deserves a carnival. She mixes pink – not a subtle pink, but bubblegum – and canary yellow, turquoise, orange-red. It’s already there in her mind, harlequined horses and a black-and-white striped awning, spinning so far below the water’s surface that the only light comes from the carousel’s blinking bulbs. The bottom two-thirds of the canvas is already covered in pale green-gray – the top of the water, with thick peaks of foam – and she washes layers of darker and darker green until most of the canvas is a flat black with green under it.
She can’t look at the canvas while it dries, or even touch it. That deepness, in which something might appear at any moment with its mouth open, makes her so uncomfortable that she turns the easel to the wall. But she puts the line of small bright tubes in front of her while she sketches the carousel, whistling “The Entertainer.”
On Sundays, she walks to the Brealu coffee shop for a café breve and Eggs Benedict. When she’s finished she takes out a small notebook and sketches things that catch her fancy – people in intense conversations, funny dogs, or her food if she’s very bored.
The Sunday after the first day of the semester, she puts in her order and moves to the side, out of the line, to wait for her drink.
“What’s in a café breve?” the man behind her asks. His voice is low and slow, almost a drawl – Miles’s voice. She isn’t surprised.
“It’s a latte made with half-and-half instead of milk,” Robert, the barista, replies.
Miles grins at Amelia sideways. “What’s it taste like?” It’s the kind of question that might irritate a barista who likes the line to move quickly, but Miles is that tenth person out of ten who can ask such a question and get not only a thoughtful answer but begin a debate among the rest of the customers. Andy was like that. He had a way of stooping down a little and focusing on people that made every group feel like the group having the most fun. You were always more interesting, quirkier, said funnier things with Andy around.
“It’s very creamy,” says the woman behind him.
“Too creamy,” the young girl with her adds.
“Oh, I love it,” the woman says. “It’s not bitter at all.”
“I drink black coffee,” Robert says, “so I don’t really like them.”
The four of them look at Amelia, who orders café breves.
“It really is more cream than a human should ingest in a month,” she admits, and Miles grins again.
“All right then, I’ll just have a vanilla latte and a croissant, thanks,” he says, and stands aside next to Amelia. She nods, as she would upon meeting any student outside the classroom.
“Fancy meeting you here,” he says.
She does feel fancy, and is glad to be wearing her red coat with the bow enclosure.
“I live a block away,” he says. “Not usually awake this early though. The snow plows woke me up.”
“Oh,” she replies. She hopes she sounds uninterested, even as she tries not to look him over from head to toe, measuring him against Andy.
Their drinks and his croissant are ready at the same time and he follows her, but takes a seat several tables away. He doesn’t look at her as he licks his fingers, sticky with honey from the croissant, but she can see by his small, secret smile that he knows the unspoken rules and is obeying up to the letter and no farther.
Robert delivers her Eggs Benedict. He knows her Sunday ritual as well as she does now, and likes to arrange her food with a bit of flair. Atop the creamy hollandaise sauce, he’s put a circle of caramelized onion and a single slice of mushroom. She thanks him with barely restrained reverence.
“If I ask for a bite,” Miles says, not looking at her, “will you stab my hand with your fork?”
“No,” she replies, “but you can’t have any.”
“Hey,” he protests.
“Get your own,” she says without thinking, and knows: this is the line, and she’s crossing it.
It isn’t that she doesn’t enjoy her students, but she’s never wanted to associate with them. The heady days of partying with undergraduates are gone, the department head says at their pre-semester meetings, waving around the ethics handbook that gets thicker every year, but even in her friendlier days Amelia couldn’t pretend students were her peers. The disparity in experience is too big to bridge.
Miles is, of course, different – although she supposes if asked, every professor fired for inappropriate conduct would say the same thing. He’s an adult only by the barest technical margin, but his smile, first in the classroom and now here, sitting exactly far enough away from her to maintain social etiquette, contains something that says he’s been an adult for a long time already.
And, of course, he might be Andy.
“Can I get an order of that too, please?” Miles asks Robert when he comes back with another café breve for Amelia. “Extra hollandaise?”
Amelia pauses with her fork above her food. “That’s a good idea.”
“Well, you can’t have any of mine,” Miles says. “Because you’re selfish.”
So self-possessed, more than any teenager has a right to be. She didn’t feel like a human being until she was twenty-three, and it took much longer to feel like someone who could take care of herself. But Miles seems as if he were born taking care of himself as well as others, someone who asks after people’s mothers and genuinely wants to know how they’re getting on.
“I’m also not giving you my ham, even though I’m a vegetarian,” he adds.
“You should have ordered Eggs Florentine then,” she says.
“No,” he says, “I’m just going to leave it here so you know it’s going to waste.”
The hollandaise is salty, thin enough to stay on the right side of gravy, and the ham is light. She focuses on that rather than the fact that she’s just had a conversation with a student – a conversation very like one she might have with Cal and James, or like she used to have with Andy. He’s as tall as Cal, but Cal is gawky and tends to pull his shoulders up, arms tucked against his sides, apologizing for his over-long limbs, while Miles seems comfortable with his height and big hands and big feet. She’s not sure if Andy was like that – it bothers her that she can’t remember.
His breakfast comes when she’s still staring out the tall windows. She’s barely tasted her coffee. The pleasure of her rituals lies in the deliberation, the slow stimulation of the senses, but she’s too distracted to taste or touch or smell anything. And, she notices, she’s got a spot of hollandaise sauce on her skirt.
“Well,” Miles says, and she realizes he’s finished his food in under three minutes. “I have to go. Got to paint.”
She has a vision of him, suddenly, painting in her house – head cocked to the side, biting his lower lip the way he does when he draws in class.
“Hm,” she says, raising her coffee in a salute.
He smiles his slow, pleased smile at her, buttons his coat, and makes his way out of the café. She watches him go, seeing Andy Hobbs and wondering who Miles is, if not Andy.
The vertigo begins on a Wednesday. Amelia prefers to start things on a Monday, for organizational purposes. She’s always pleased when the first of the month falls on a Monday, or her period, or a billing cycle. That the vertigo does not coincide with the beginning of the week confuses and irritates her.
She’s used to the occasional feeling, which comes upon her in the middle of the grocery store or the classroom, that the ground is shifting under her. It only lasts a moment before she rights herself, but is as startling as that moment just before sleep when the body spasms. It’s discomfiting, but doesn’t last long, and because thinking about it sometimes brings it on, she forgets about it as quickly as she can. When she tries to describe it, she can only say it’s in her head, which leaves her feeling stupid because, of course, that’s exactly what vertigo is. But it goes further than that; it’s as if she finds herself, occasionally, at the edge of some internal cliff and has to pull back. But it doesn’t interfere with her daily life, and it comes and goes without any identifiable trigger.
But Wednesday – three Wednesdays after the beginning of the semester – the ground begins to shift under her as she walks to her morning class, and doesn’t stop. She staggers and reaches out for the nearest stable thing, the lamppost, trying to look as if she has a pebble in her boot and is stopping to shake it free. When the proper length of time has passed – and what exactly is the proper length of time for the situation, she wonders? – she starts off again, shrugging her shoulders like a boxer going in for another round. Within a minute it begins again. She feels the drag of gravity, not downward but sideways. She stops again to prop herself against a snow-covered bush and waits. After a moment she pulls out her phone and pretends to check a text message. It’s seven-thirty in the morning and only a few students walk along the pavilion in the blowing ice and snow, but they stare at her with bland bemusement. Who is this creature unable to walk in a straight line, checking her phone in the middle of a snowstorm? Once again she presses on, keeping a hand on the bushes to guide her and hoping it looks to anyone outside her head as if she’s a whimsical creature trailing her hand through the snow.
Once inside, the feeling stops.
“What the fuck was that,” she mutters in her empty office.
In the afternoon she’s almost afraid to walk back through the pavilion, but she reaches her car without incident.
On Thursday morning she goes for her usual walk and thinks about the incident for several blocks in the quiet just before sunrise. Perhaps, she thinks, she was dehydrated, or hypoglycemic, although she had felt neither thirsty nor hungry. When she turns the corner, there are two men on the opposite side of the road walking in her direction. They’re twenty or so yards away when the ground goes unsteady under her feet, bumpy where she knows the sidewalk is smooth. She catches herself against the brick wall of an old warehouse and slides in the ice, going to her knees.
The two men stop to stare at her. “All right?” one asks warily.
“Fine, thanks,” she replies. They walk past her and one of them calls her a drunk bitch. She tries to feel indignant – it’s the middle of the week, after all – but she sees herself from the outside and laughs instead, and then laughs harder when they look back at her and she realizes she’s only cementing their opinion.
Later, walking through the pavilion again and surrounded by students, she grits her teeth and slowly puts one foot forward at a time and tries not to tilt her head or think of falling. She watches the straight lines of the trees and buildings, aligns herself with them, and doesn’t look down.
“Go to the doctor,” say Cal, James, her brother, and her parents.
“Make an appointment at Togus with Dr. Reed,” says Dr. Fager when she finishes Amelia’s physical.
“Shouldn’t I schedule an MRI?” Amelia asks.
“You don’t have loss of hearing or involuntary eye twitching, no signs of stroke or seizure. Your ear canals are clear and you haven’t hit your head recently, and you’re otherwise perfectly healthy.” Dr. Fager looks over her chart with his eyebrows raised. “I’ll be honest, Ms. Gowan, what you’re describing sounds very much like a panic attack.”
“Panic attack,” she says, disgusted.
“Yes – I really do recommend Dr. Reed. He specializes in PTSD.” Dr. Fager spins away in her chair and comes back with a pamphlet entitled ‘Returning Veterans.’ “I’ll write you a referral to Togus. Are you in the VA system already?”
“Hm,” she replies. She throws the brochure in the trash on her way out of the clinic.
“You should go,” James tells her. “I’ve had to go for years. It’s not that bad.”
James, in the passenger seat of the vehicle that blew up, was deafened in his left ear and burned on his left arm and shoulder.
“I don’t need to go, though. I probably just need to get my eyes checked,” she says.
“Bullshit,” James says. She imagines him, perched in his favorite black and gray striped chair, wearing his ancient red cardigan. For Christmas three years ago she and Cal stole the cardigan and had it patched up, but they still refuse to be seen outside with him when he wears it.
“I’m not going if there’s nothing really wrong with me.” And she won’t go; she can’t, in all good conscience, take up a spot that could go to someone with worse problems.
“How often do you find yourself going through it again?” James asks. “You’re worse than Cal. At least he admits there’s something wrong, even if he won’t do anything about it because he’s an idiot. He gets set off by smells or tastes and tries to pretend like he’s not freaking out, but I know him, and I know you. I know when you’re freaking out, and you’re doing it right now, aren’t you.”
“Maybe,” she says. She opens her mouth to tell James about Miles, to tell him everything, but she sees Andy behind her eyes again and she’s gone.
Because sometimes it really is like that and one sound, metal on metal perhaps, or that particular thick noise of sand in the wind, can drive her back over and over and she is there in the driver’s seat of Cal’s and James’s Humvee because she and Andy knew the way back and Cal and James didn’t, and they switched at the last minute. Andy threw a careless “Jimbo can come with me” over his shoulder as they left the southwest village. If things had gone differently it would be her dead and Cal injured and who knows, who knows if they would have lived through the night afterward.
That drive. Andy’s back as he jogged away from her. Salt stains in rings down his brown t-shirt. He shrugged into his vest and waved out the window as they drove out of the makeshift forward operations base in Tall Afar, and the next time she saw him he was blown apart inside their truck. The explosion is never the thing she remembers because it’s oddly muffled in her mind, as if she saw it through soundproof glass. Cal pushed his door open and ran before Amelia’s brain caught up to her vision. She stopped the truck and didn’t run but walked with the intense particularity of the drunk, one foot after the other, upright. Of course, it was only a little explosion and Cal was being dramatic about it as usual, just a little spark, nothing to be worried about. When she reached the driver’s side Andy would be there laughing. She smelled diesel fuel. Andy would say that scared the shit out of me and it was all right, he and James would just have to ride in the back of the other Humvee and they’d come back later with a tow chain. Even as she stepped in the red sand clotting into dark brown mash, she thought of all the paperwork she would have to do and how she would make fun of Cal for screaming so much, she and Andy would tease him for months. And then she was next to the truck and she saw Andy.
She almost touched him. No, she thought, you don’t touch an injured person or you might break his neck. But there was nothing there to break.
Cal shouted from the other side of the truck, in a trembling voice, “I can’t wake him up.” She could see the top of his head through the open door. Did James look like this, like Andy? Did he have a face?
“Don’t come over here,” she said, walking around the truck, still one foot after the other. “Just stay right there.”
The metal frame of the truck was carved out in a ragged circle, twisted into a curl. Cal had James spread out on the ground. James was so dirty, Amelia thought, like he’d rolled around in ashes, and his arm was open, raw and dark brown with slimy patches of his shirt stuck to it.
“He was on fire,” Cal said. He shook so badly his teeth chattered. “I can’t wake him up.”
The gunfire was fast, so fast she was almost indignant about it, angry with the gunmen because they startled her and made her breath seize up. She and Cal lost their minds for a few moments as bullets hit the sides of both trucks and they both screamed, covering their heads and James, before she slid under the still-burning truck and Cal followed. They each grabbed one of James’s legs and dragged him with the bullets still coming in bursts from different directions.
They were trapped there for hours and killed all but one of the nine men shooting at them, but when it comes down to it that’s never the part she thinks about. It’s those careful footsteps toward the smoldering vehicle she remembers, one foot after the other, the smell of the diesel and the burning canvas. The red mash, spattered everywhere, the mess in the cab – Andy. She’s there every day.
“You should go tomorrow,” James says again. “Just try it once. I’ll even go with you.”
“Maybe next week,” she lies. She has too much to do, and tomorrow is Sunday, after all. Miles might be at the coffee shop.