Blank Stares and Empty Skies
“If we’re going to die tonight, then at least we’ll die right.” Alex smiles smugly, biting into an Oreo cookie. He presses one into my palm as well and I close my hand around it gratefully.
It’s so dark that I can’t see the white cream sandwiched in between. I pull the Oreo apart and start working at the middle, peeling the paste away with my tongue, licking, licking, as though I’m the little girl who’s just been awarded her lollipop for good behaviour.
I shove what’s left into my mouth and allow the remains to dissolve slowly, relishing the sweetness, and agreeing one hundred percent with Alex’s declaration.
The two of us are holed up in a ditch we’ve hastily dug out before nightfall, but neither of us can sleep because the ground is fucking cold and our clothes are damp from sweat and nerves. It doesn’t help that the mist has set in, curling around the mountainside and leaving us even wetter than before.
Stars wink in and out of the fog and I think to myself that I may very well be lying in my own grave. There. We’ve prepared it all, nice and ready, waiting patiently for our time to come.
It would be so clean and simple.
I’ve even drafted my last rites should the need arise. They’d include a kindly request for unlimited Oreos in Heaven and some dry clothes.
Wait, am I even allowed to ask for that?
I shiver, not sure if it’s from the cold or the thought that even up there, we may run out of those blessed cookies.
“Yes,” I whisper back. “How I’ve dreamed of dying in some hole, stargazing and bingeing on junk food… Hey!” I perk up momentarily. “I think that’s the North Star!” I reach out to a random point in the sky and in all honesty, I haven’t the slightest idea if it’s even in the right region.
“Yeah, right. You’re full of bullshit,” I assume he’s rolling his eyes at me.
“Alright, so maybe I am,” I admit, “But if I really believe that’s the North Star, then what’s to say that in my reality, it’s not true?”
“Sami, I really believe you’ve gone insane. So I suppose in my reality, it must be true!”
“Oh, you think I’ve gone bonkers. Take a look at yourself in the mirror. Mister I’ll go die in a ditch somewhere, but it’s all good, as long as I’ve brought along something tasty to eat. Like this is some effing horror movie and you’ve got to have the popcorn!”
He’s got me heated; I want to holler his head off now. And I realize that’s exactly what he was going for. Because the teasing takes an edge off the weariness and the fear, even if only for an instant.
With Alex by my side, chuckling lightly, I almost convince myself that we’re safe. But, the temporary distraction doesn’t last. I know he’s only being brave for my sake.
We fall silent. He squeezes my hand. I return the gesture.
The night is still, aside from that one damn cricket who won’t shut its mouth and the mechanical chew-swallow, chew-swallow of cattle grazing in the fields around us. It’s no wonder that I barely notice them; the darkness is thick enough that even my fingers are shapeless when I raise them to the North Star.
And then, just as suddenly, the cows take shape. Hundreds of blank stares turn towards me. The sky lights with fire. What a beautiful shooting star. I don’t even have time to be afraid before it falls and the earth erupts, sending dirt and debris flying into my eyes, ears, mouth.
Coughing. Spitting pebbles. Rubbing my stinging eyes. Ringing. Ringing.
I lose my hold on Alex in the impact.
“Alex!” I shout, frantic, as another rocket dives in our direction. The cows scatter, wild with fear.
I’m not cold anymore.
I hear my commander’s voice over the radio. “In-coming. Take cover.”
One of the cows closest to me explodes, blood and flesh splatter my face, hot, reeking of rancid meat. My stomach turns. A sweet bile rises to the back of my throat.
How many times had Alex and I bet on the amount of cows that must explode here? What with farmers allowing them to wander freely through these parts.
Now, I’m covered in cow bits and a hysterical laugh escapes my lips. It’s irrational- we’re being bombed and there’s nothing remotely funny about it, but I can’t hold back the urge.
I turn to Alex, wanting to share with him the irony of the whole scene and that’s when my mind snaps back to attention. Fumbling in the dark, I find him beside me. Shake him.
My hands come away wet. The can of Cola must have spilled. Except, it’s hot and sticky like the cow bits.
“Alex, can you hear me?!” My heart catches. I shake him harder.
“My leg,” He grunts through clenched teeth.
I rip at his shirt-sleeve, wrapping it tightly around his thigh. My hands tremble and I try desperately to steady them. Knot the cloth around his gun magazine. Begin to turn.
Alex struggles against me. “Fuck! Sami! Please stop it. Stop! It hurts.” He’s sobbing now and it’s all I can do not to give in.
“Listen to me, God-damn-it, I need you to stay with me, alright? I’m here. You’re not alone. Grab my hand.” He grips it tight. “That’s it, there you go.”
I tighten the turn-a-kit robotically. Turning. Turning. Not thinking.
His screams grow faint.
The ringing in my ears drowns everything else out…
I wake shivering. Confused. Throw back the sheets. They’re soaked through with sweat and nerves. The cricket is still chirping and I resolve to silence the damn thing once and for all. I reach for the pocket knife resting on my nightstand and tread into the hallway.
My pyjamas are pasted to me uncomfortably; I can’t quite manage to catch my breath. Listening intently, I pass through the house, tiptoeing over the loose floorboards, attempting to sneak up on the damn thing before it realizes what it’s got coming.
I can feel my heart pulsing through my hands, pounding faster.
Alex’s blood is wet on them. Warm to the touch. I gag and retch at the scent of it.
“Alex, I’m here now. I’m taking care of you.” I swear, I’ll stop the bleeding.
I’m tearing at my pyjamas, winding them over the knife and rotating slow, biting down hard on my lip to stop the tears.
Footsteps. Creaking behind me. I jerk up, expecting to see that poor cow blown to bits.
Instead, I find myself gazing steadily in Buddy’s soft brown eyes. He approaches me slowly, licking at my face, whining and nudging me; begging for a good pat.
The knife clatters to the floor and, surprise, surprise, that damn cricket finally shuts up.
I stand there, gaping for a good moment.
Then, my legs give and I sink to the floor.
“Oh, Buddy!” I hug his tiny body against my chest and bawl, snot dribbling down and matting his fur. A torrent of grief and sadness hits me, but I don’t understand where it’s coming from, because that night, I saved Alex’s life.
He begged. Pleaded with me. But I kept at it.
My fingers run rhythmically through Buddy’s fur. Back and forth. Back and forth.
Back and forth. Back and forth.
I’m running through isles of graves.
Am I lost?
There's the rose bouquet arranged neatly. Nice and ready. So clean and simple.
His name written in large block letters. A true hero. The bravest of them all. R.I.P.
Another declaration I find myself agreeing with completely. A declaration as loud as I imagine eternal silence can be.
I lay down beside him and we are once again side by side in the ditch. I remove a semi-crushed Oreo from my back pocket, rest one half on the roses and pop the other into my mouth.
Alex never gave a flying-fuck about roses. He was more of a coffee, cigarette kind of fellow, if you ask me.
I crunch down hard on the cookie. There’s no need to be discreet anymore. The night’s stillness has already been shattered.
By blank stares. A shooting star. Cow bits and dirt raining down.
The stupid beasts don’t even understand we’ve been hit when the ground opens up and swallows them. I don’t understand either.
The Cola spills. No. Too hot to be soda. Alex’s blood is all over. My mouth fills with metal and vomit. I’m sinking and sinking. There’s so much blood and I can’t find where it’s coming from.
I try telling Alex that I’ll just bandage him up. That all he needs to do is hold on a little bit longer.
What I manage is, “Alex. Alex. Alex.” As though my mind has forgotten every other word. I’m pressing- putting pressure on a wound I can’t even find. I seem to have frozen on his name, unable to order my thoughts beyond fear, desperation, and its repetition.
Alex. Alex. Alex.
A prayer of sorts. As though calling him enough times will bring him back.
But, it’s too late. He’s already gone.
And he takes everything left in me with him.
Sometimes, I’m certain I saved Alex that night, but then I’ll remember his name etched into the gravestone.
A true hero. The bravest of them all. R.I.P.
What a shitty way to die.
Sometimes, I’m certain I’ve died along with him.
How else could I be so empty?
“There you go Alex. We died right in the end,” I tell him. My voice hitches.
I pull one of the roses by its thorn and a little droplet of red beads up on the edge of my thumb. I rub the leaf between my fingers; I smell of blood and roses.
Buddy nudges me impatiently. “Alright, boy. I’m letting you out for a pee, don’t you worry now,” I say, willing my reluctant self to get up off the floor.
He follows me over to the screen door and we step out into the yard. I breathe deeply.
Here I am.
I am alive.
Here I am.
I can smell the roses from my neighbour’s garden. There’s not a trace of rust to taint their lovely scent.
A certain calm washes over me. The sun climbs its way up from the horizon; there are no blank stares or falling stars in the quickly brightening sky. The despair seems, perhaps, to be a little less consuming.
Maybe Alex did die in my arms that night. And every night since.
I don’t know if I’ll ever manage to let go of the regret. Or stop searching through the fog for a way to save him still.
But, I do know that for right now, I’ve made it till dawn, the stars have stayed put, and my dog, Buddy, is waiting, eager to curl up beside me in bed.
Letting us back in, I crawl under the covers, and snuggle close to him. I shut my eyes and pray the nightmares away, so that I too may finally rest in peace. Because I am so very tired.
I feel Buddy warm against me. Alex’s blood is hot at my fingertips.
I swear I’ll stop the bleeding this time. No way is he going to die on me tonight. Now way in hell.
And then, I am drifting off. Floating away into a nothingness of blank stares and empty skies.