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The Smell of Rain

By Cameron MacElvee

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2018 Cameron MacElvee

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The Smell of Rain

Air Force Lieutenant and military interpreter Chrys Safis lost her leg fighting alongside Kurdish forces in Syria. Once back home in DC, her fiancée leaves, her military career ends, and her faith in humanity evaporates. With prescription drugs and alcohol her only relief from the pain, Chrys is on her way to becoming a statistic.

 

That is until the State Department calls and offers her an important assignment—to serve as a diplomatic liaison and interpreter for a Turkish national living in exile. Reyha Arslan, a wise and elegant woman with a tragic past, shows Chrys that there’s still beauty to embrace and reason to hope despite the world’s cruelty. With Reyha’s help, Chrys’s broken spirit starts to heal and she learns that the most significant love is often the shortest lived.

The Smell of Rain

© 2018 By Cameron MacElvee. All Rights Reserved.

 

ISBN 13:978-1-63555-167-9

 

This Electronic Book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185

 

First Edition: May 2018

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

 

Credits

Editor: Ruth Sternglantz

Production Design: Stacia Seaman

Cover Design by Melody Pond

 

By the Author

By the Dark of Her Eyes

 

The Smell of Rain

Acknowledgments

My thanks to Bold Strokes Books and Len Barot for giving me a place to tell my stories and reach a wider audience. I also owe a huge amount of gratitude to Sandy Lowe for believing in this story and supporting me in my quest to see it in print. Further, this novel wouldn’t have come to fruition without the guidance and counsel of my editor, Ruth Sternglantz. Thanks, Ruth, for once again guiding me through the potholes and plot holes.

 

I was blessed to have a number of consultants on this book, and each of them contributed to this story in important and significant ways. To each of you I owe a debt too enormous to ever pay back: to Major Stacy Miller, USAF (Ret.) for providing me insight into military life and the battles our returning veterans face daily; to Dr. Lori Deibler and the staff at USA Physical Therapy for helping me understand the struggles of amputees; to Dr. Karla Hauersperger for expanding my understanding of the medical issues many of our service men and women face; to Professor Stavroula Popovich for patiently giving me encouragement  and insight into the lives of Greek Americans and the power of the Yiayia; to my former student Cassandra Safis, who inspired me as a teacher and writer; to Dr. Nalan Babür, who long ago told me tales of Turkish life and encouraged me to see beyond the labels of race and religion; to the journalist Ama Tierney, who first opened my eyes to the bravery of Kurdish women and their continued commitment to the lives of women everywhere; to Professor John Liffiton, Director of the Genocide Conference at Scottsdale Community College, who tirelessly works to bring awareness of the Armenian Genocide along with the many other atrocities man has committed; and to Dr. Rhonda McDonnell for aiding me in uncluttering my prose, adding beauty to my static phrases, and pointing out the necessity of the story’s message.

 

I was fortunate to have the loyal readership as well as friendship of a number of individuals who have not only helped me reason through my story but who have also served as my own cheerleading squad. Thanks to Nadine Ausbie for that last-minute grammar check and our long discussions about the state of the world; to Deanna Banks and Barbara Christman for reading my drafts and encouraging me to stick with it when I was ready to give up; and to Jacky Abromitis and all the readers at LesFan who were willing to read the first sketchy draft of the story and give me feedback.

 

In addition, I am once again deeply grateful to Lodeerca, who often encouraged me with a bit of music, a taste of literature, a touch of art, or simply a dash of her wisdom and wit, which got me through a number of long, dark nights of self-doubt and despair.

 

And finally, without my partner, Taime, and our daughter, Eleanor Rose, my will to write and complete this story would not have been realized. The two of you have saved me from my nihilistic tendencies and encourage me to smell the flowers and dance in the rain. For this, you have my heart and my love.

For Dora, who continues to hope when all is hopeless

Chapter One

London, England

 

Wiring a bomb to the ignition was labor intensive. And, since he had no way of knowing when she’d return to her vehicle, he opted instead for a tilt fuse with mercury. He looked around the parking structure, waited until a car passed before he placed the device on the undercarriage beneath the driver’s seat. The intel he’d received indicated his target employed a driver who also functioned as her personal secretary and interpreter. That one would die instantly, probably not feel a thing. But he’d been sure to equip his device with the smallest amount of explosives he could manage. This way his target would be incapacitated by the blast and burn slowly. That fact would bring his employers a great deal of joy.

He pulled out his phone and took a selfie with the doomed vehicle behind him. He sent the image with a message, then looked around once more as he scratched at his neck beard and laughed. By the time he landed in Dammam, a celebration would be waiting for him, and another apostate would be in hell.

 

* * *

 

The loosely draped scarf covering her head accented her tunic and brought out the gold highlights of her mahogany hair. The men around the table watched her, mesmerized by her beauty, by her voice rising and falling like a cello solo. For the last two hours in Lord Hadron’s parliamentary office, hers was the voice saturating the air, dominating the men’s. She’d captivated each of them, three members of parliament and two members of Britain’s military intelligence. When the meeting concluded, she stood and took each man’s hand, then motioned for her personal secretary to come along.

“Mrs. Arslan,” Hadron said leading her to the door, “dear lady, your courage shines as brightly, if not more so than your late husband’s.”

Reyha Arslan inclined her head. “You honor me with your words, Lord Hadron.” Her perceptive eyes rested on the others, who were apparently envious of Hadron that he should be the one to escort her from the office. “Gentlemen, I assure you, I will not rest until Emin’s goals are realized. His legacy is now mine.” She took her leave, turning toward the hallway with her secretary following alongside.

Hadron caught up with her. “Let me walk with you.” He glanced at her profile, which was partly obscured by her head covering. “May I say, you’re looking quite well. I’m happy to hear doctors are optimistic. Indeed, America’s Mayo Clinic has a remarkable reputation. It was good of your doctors to make those arrangements.”

Reyha paused at the exit and watched the rain. Not looking at Hadron, she said, “Doctors are always optimistic.” She turned to her secretary. “Ophelia, have you our umbrella?”

Ophelia pulled one from her bag. “Yes, but please, I know your hip has been giving you trouble. Allow me to bring the car around.”

“I can send a boy,” Hadron said.

“No need,” Reyha said. Then to Ophelia, “I’m feeling much better today. I would not have you drenched bringing it around.”

“No trouble at all, ma’am.” Ophelia pushed past Reyha and Hadron. “It’s just there at Abingdon.”

“Let me accompany you partway,” Hadron said, having retrieved his umbrella from his assistant.

They exited and walked along St. Margaret Street with him holding the umbrella and helping her step around puddles.

Reyha held out her hand to the rain. “I have never gotten used to your country’s weather even after all these years in exile from my beautiful Konya plains and my busy markets of Istanbul.” She watched Ophelia dodge ahead.

“It’s a loss for Turkey, but a gain for the United Kingdom.”

They paused on the corner of Abingdon and Great College just as Ophelia made her descent into the parking structure.

“I hope my work will be a gain for many countries, Lord Hadron, including my own.” She stepped from under the cover of the umbrella. “See here, the rain has stopped and I am just meters from my automobile.” She smiled. “And you are being so gallant to walk with me.”

“I don’t object to your company. I think you know that.”

She laughed, knowing men desired her, yet she had no intention of being possessed by any man ever again. However, her amusement vanished when a blast punctured the wet air and rattled the ground. A plume of black smoke billowed from the parking structure’s entrance, and car alarms screamed in discord. People began running, yelling, pointing.

“Ophelia!” Reyha ran toward the entrance.

“No, Reyha, you mustn’t.” Hadron attempted to catch her arm.

But she broke away and pushed against the horde of people scrambling out of the garage. She collided with many of them, and her head covering fell to her shoulders. She pulled its end to her mouth and coughed with each breath of toxic smoke as she lurched forward with twisted steps.

“Ophelia!” she cried out again.

As debris from the damaged structure began to settle and the smoke wafted in waves toward the open air, she caught a glimpse of flames and struggled toward it. By now the sirens of first responders mixed with the mayhem of car alarms. A man barked at her to get out. She ignored him and took a few steps more. She halted when she recognized her car’s number plate, blackened and twisted, dangling from the vehicle’s remains. She dropped to her knees and screamed, twisting her mouth with each desperate plea.

Hadron reached her and fell next to her. He tried to bring her into an embrace, but she would not have him touch her. She pushed away and collapsed prostrate to the ground, shrieking and pulling her hair.

“It was meant for me! For me!”

Emergency personnel clustered around them. Security pulled Hadron to his feet and assisted Reyha to hers, but she continued to push them away while tearing at her hair and cursing at them in Turkish, crying out Ophelia’s name. Finally, a female officer approached her, put a blanket around her, and began leading her away.

“She should not have died.” Reyha staggered as she took limping steps. “She was my friend. My dear and faithful friend.”

The officer nodded as she led her from the destruction, back out onto the streets where emergency vehicles waited, and the sky released another surge of rain.

Chapter Two

Washington, DC

 

The steady hiss of hot water, almost too hot for comfort, drenched Chrys’s downturned head while her dark hair formed a curtain over her eyes. She held her face in both hands and wept.

“We do not break, Chrysanthi,” her grandmother said as she placed the phyllo dough in a baking pan. “We rise. We always rise. It is in our blood, our character.”

Chrys sobbed harder. “I can’t, Yiayia. There’s nothing left.”

She teetered on the shower stool when her right foot slipped, and her grandmother’s image dissolved. She was left with the sight of her severed leg below the left knee where the mottled skin glowed pink. She covered the stump with her washcloth and closed her eyes. The trace aroma of her grandmother’s avgolemono simmering on the stove careened her into another memory, one nearly as calming—the beauty of the desert, the smell of black tea and honey, and the whiff of flatbread cooking in a cast-iron skillet. But there was one scent she longed for the most, the smell of rain as it fell to earth, a rich fragrance tinged with the scents of damp reed grasses and fir trees.

The bathroom door opened, and her crutches clattered to the floor. She jerked with memories of exploding earth and red smoke carrying with it the stench of burning flesh.

“Mary?” Chrys gripped her chest.

“Sorry,” Mary said. She pulled back the shower curtain. “Are you okay?”

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Mary’s eyes dropped to Chrys’s hand on the washcloth before she looked away and pulled the curtain shut. “I’ve been home almost thirty minutes. I was getting worried—you’ve been in here a long time.”

“I like long showers.” But she knew what Mary feared.

“Right.” Mary’s shape bent to retrieve the crutches. “PT go okay?”

“Yes.”

“It won’t be long until they fit you for the definitive prosthesis.”

“Not long.”

“Sorry I bothered you.” Mary stepped out and shut the door.

Chrys slapped off the faucet and leaned against the tile wall. After clearing away her anger at the interruption, she began the process of getting out of the shower. With care, she held the safety bar the apartment manager had agreed to have installed and pulled herself out. She cursed when she saw Mary had set her crutches out of reach. Now she had no choice but to lean against the wall and hop toward them. Once she reached them, she snatched a towel and covered herself. Thankfully, the hot shower had steamed up the bathroom mirror, and she was spared the sight of her body. Within minutes, she’d dried and wrapped the towel around her hips and dropped it low enough to shield the remains of her left leg. She opened the bathroom door. Mary wasn’t in the bedroom. She lurched with her crutches to the side of the bed where she’d left her prosthesis hidden beneath sweatpants and a T-shirt. She cringed as she pulled on her underwear, then slipped on her shirt before looking back at the bedroom door. Then she set to work on getting her leg attached.

She dried the scar tissue again. Moisture was her enemy, hot spots and pressure ulcers a constant threat. Once she was sure the skin was dry, she pulled on a fresh protective sock, and over that, the nylon sheath. With the discolored skin covered, she relaxed and took more time securing her limb in place. It was only the preparatory prosthesis, one designed to fit the knob of her leg where doctors had removed the shattered bone and burnt flesh. It’d been refitted a few times as the swelling had receded, and now that she’d become adjusted to walking with it, in another week or two, she’d be fitted for her definitive unit consisting of a more elaborate socket, shank, and foot. And if she was lucky, one of those nonprofits might fund her running blade.

To run again, that was something to work toward.

She fell back on the bed and imagined the ground beneath her, falling away with each rhythmic slap of her feet. Those Nebraska back roads where she’d trained in high school, all those meets with the cute girls in running shorts. Even on deployment, she’d found a way to run. That’d been her only addiction. The one thing to keep her centered and whole.

She shot up when Mary knocked on the door and entered. “You got off early,” she said as she fluffed her hair, already turning to loose curls as it dried.

Mary sat on the corner of the bed. She hadn’t changed out of her scrubs, but she’d let her red hair out of its ponytail. “I texted you all morning, but you didn’t answer.”

“Sorry. I think my battery’s dead.” Chrys snatched her phone from the nightstand. “Forgot to charge it last night—it died this morning.”

“Long wait?”

“Only three hours today. Maybe the new admin is getting things turned around.” Chrys checked her phone, then glanced at Mary, who stared at the meds and empty beer bottles cluttered on the nightstand. “Anyway, I didn’t mean to worry you.” She bent down to plug in her charger, but her unsteady hands made it difficult. She gave up and sat back on the bed with her fists under her butt. The narcotic was wearing off, and her body cried out with anticipation of the pain prowling beneath the surface of her skin.

“I got two days off,” Mary said.

“That’s nice.”

“Michelle and Kathy asked if we wanted to come over Saturday. They’re having a Memorial Day barbecue. I’ll be on call, but it’d be nice if we could spend a few hours with them. They’ve been asking about you.”

“Not up for it.”

Mary’s eyes focused on the nightstand once more.

Chrys followed her gaze. “Maybe we can go to dinner or something. Catch a show instead.”

“I wish you wouldn’t drink on those meds.”

Chrys flared her nostrils, hardened her mouth.

“You’re not going to get any better if you—”

“Stop.” Chrys fell back on the bed again. “Just stop.” Staring up at the ceiling fan, she tried to follow one blade. Around and around and…When Mary touched her arm, she sat up and pulled away. “I saw my squadron commander today after therapy.”

“About?”

Chrys snatched an envelope from the nightstand, which caused some of the prescription bottles to topple.

“What’s that?” Mary asked.

“A response to my petition.” Chrys set the envelope on the bed. “The Physical Evaluation Board turned me down. I’m done.”

Mary drew a deep breath through her nose. “I know you’re disappointed.”

Disappointed isn’t the word for it.”

“You gave your country ten years of your life.” Mary laid her hand on Chrys’s leg. “You served honorably. You have no reason to be ashamed.”

Chrys examined Mary’s hand. It was inches from where the socket met the remains of her knee joint. She lifted the hand and set it aside. “I’m not ashamed. I’m pissed off.” She planted her feet and pushed off the bed. “My leg doesn’t affect my ability to interpret and translate. I can still carry a weapon and fight. I’m still useful.”

She returned to the bathroom and pulled a comb through her hair, all the while being careful not to rake the teeth over the sensitive spot where Army doctors had pulled out shrapnel and stitched a gash. After seven months, most of her hair had grown back from being shaved to the skin. But that one spot still resisted, and the scar, like a fat pink worm, was still visible even if she tried to make her curls cover it.

Mary came up behind her and leaned on the bathroom door.

Chrys made eye contact with her reflection. “I was supposed to pin on captain.”

“I know.”

“And how many military interpreters speak fluent Turkish, Kurdish, Armenian, and two dialects of Arabic as well as I do? Not to mention Farsi, Greek, and a smattering of Russian.” She threw her towel to the floor. “You know what he suggested I do?”

Mary shrugged.

“He said I should apply to the DLI in Monterey as a civilian instructor. Said I could train the next generation of interpreters. Said my experience and aptitude made me a valuable asset to my country. Yeah, right.”

“That’s not a bad gig, is it?” Mary asked. “The West Coast is beautiful, and I’m sure my mom would love it if we moved to that side of the country.”

“But it isn’t the work I was doing.” Chrys retrieved her towel and hung it up, taking her time to make the corners even and the edges smooth. “There’s so much more that needs to be done.” She studied the perfect crease in her towel. “For every woman we freed, two more were taken captive and hundreds more suffered. They’re still suffering. It just never ends.”

She turned toward the mirror and examined her reflection. There was a time she considered her smoldering black eyes and boyish youthfulness attractive. She could charm anyone, male or female. Yet now her eyes were always bloodshot, her youthfulness replaced by hardness, and she doubted anyone, Mary included, found her appealing, not with this mutilated body. She touched the left side of her face. It still showed signs of swelling, and the scars from the lacerations along her chin and forehead pulsed red. She touched an older scar cut into her right eyebrow. It had faded over the years and now glowed white against her dark complexion.

“Fell right on my damn face,” she muttered. “Didn’t even have time to catch myself.”

“Catch yourself?” Mary cocked her head.

But Chrys didn’t respond. Instead the sounds of others running and panting flooded around her. She passed a runner from an opposing team, a girl she liked. She turned to smile back at her, and her feet slipped on the wet gravel. Down she went face-first. Commotion gathered about her, parents rushed to her aid, but she pushed them away and sprinted ahead, determined to place in the top three. She came in second and laughed at the spectators who gasped at the blood gushing down her face and school jersey.

“So much blood for such a tiny cut,” she said, gazing at the dissolving images playing out in the mirror.

Mary stepped closer. “I know, but the scars will fade.”

“I meant this one.” Chrys pointed to her eyebrow and smiled, causing dimples to blossom in her cheeks. “Did I ever tell you when I went to the hospital to get this stitched up how Yiayia got so worked up with worry that when they wheeled me out into the waiting room she started cursing at me in Greek and swatting me with her purse? You should’ve seen the looks on the nurses’ faces.”

“You’ve told me that story.”

Chrys traced one of the new scars along her chin. “Imagine what she’d think of me now.”

“She’d be proud of you.” Mary touched her shoulder. “Just like I am.”

Chrys stepped away. “Yes, Monterey’s nice. Hell of a lot cooler than DC, I guess.”

“If that’ll make you happy.”

“I didn’t say it would make me happy. I said that’s what he suggested.”

Mary bowed her head. “I’m only trying to support whatever decision you make. It shouldn’t be hard for me to get a position there. Trauma nurses are always in demand.” She turned to leave.

“You can stay in DC. I know how much you like the people at George Washington.”

Mary paused. “What I want is to be with you.”

“But I don’t expect you to give up a job you love and follow me to the other side of the country. It wouldn’t be fair.”

Mary spun around. “What is wrong with you?”

“Sorry.” Chrys looked away.

“Do you even love me anymore?”

Chrys rubbed her face. “Of course I do. It’s just…I don’t know. I’m sorry.” She forced herself to pull Mary close, but every point on her body making contact screamed with pain.

Mary leaned in. “I miss you.”

“But I’m right here.”

“No, I want the old you back, the loud and silly you. The obnoxious shithead who yells at waiters for messing up her order, the sweet woman who always gives up her seat on the Metro, the one who makes me laugh at stupid stuff.”

“You really want that woman back? She sounds like a handful.”

“I do, and I want your joy back, your smile, your confidence.”

“I seem to recall you accusing me once of being overly confident. Arrogant, I think you called me.” Chrys forced a comical expression. The diversion didn’t work.

“Even after Mosul you came back smiling. When you buried your father and then your grandmother, you grieved for a month and got right back up. But this time”—Mary touched Chrys’s face—“this time I feel like I’m losing you.”

“Let’s go get some dinner,” Chrys said, pulling away.

“I need you to talk to me.”

But she wouldn’t burden Mary, couldn’t let her see the truth. “I haven’t eaten since this morning. I’m starved.”

“Please, I need you to—”

“How about Zenobia’s? Come on, I know you like their food.”

Mary frowned. “I’d rather have a plain old American cheeseburger and fries.”

“Why, Nurse Grady, that shit’ll give you a heart attack.” Chrys managed a weak giggle, but it did little to ease the tension. “Burgers and fries it is. Come on, let’s spring for an Uber. I can’t handle the Metro this time of night. Too many people.”

At the bedroom door, Mary pulled her to a stop. “I was wondering, if I sleep on your right side, can I stay with you in our bed tonight?”

Chrys studied the tips of her running shoes. Her left toe was turned out. She readjusted it.

“Please?” Mary asked.

“I don’t know.”

Mary patted her arm. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I asked.” She left the bedroom and from the hallway called back, “You know, I’m not that hungry after all. Go ahead and order in a pizza if you want. I think I’ll turn in early.” She disappeared behind the door of the second bedroom where she’d been sleeping for the last six months.

Chrys wanted to run after her, to beg her to understand, but it would do no good. Instead she returned to her bedroom and dosed her pain before grabbing a cold beer from the refrigerator. She drank it in front of the television with news reports of suicide bombers, school shootings, and missing children. There wasn’t one damn place in the whole world free of terror. Not one. And by her fifth beer, the television was nothing but background noise as she descended into darkness and passed out on the sofa.

That’s where she woke up the next afternoon.

Chapter Three

The meeting room stank of disinfectant and burnt coffee, and the overhead lights blinked sporadically—the fluorescent kind that hummed at a frequency only a few unfortunate souls could hear. Chrys was one such soul. She slouched forward with her elbows on her thighs and her head supported in her hands. The hum of the lights, the smell of the room, and the uncomfortable metal chairs made these sessions difficult.

Dr. Woodley took notes and congratulated each participant for his or her progress that week. Chrys wasn’t sure what progress actually looked like. None of them were ever going to grow limbs back or walk again.

“It’s like this,” said Ramos, a former Marine who’d lost his left hand and right arm up to the shoulder, “a man shouldn’t have to ask his lady to hold his pecker to take a leak. But what the fuck can I do? I’m afraid I’ll lop it off with these bitches.” He held up his prosthetic hooks.

“At least you still got your pecker,” said another man, Dworsky, a former Marine as well.

“You still got your dick, Dworsky,” Ramos said. “You just don’t feel it. Poor bastard. At least my lady can give me one hell of a blow—”

“Yo, Ramos,” interrupted former Army Specialist Torres. He was missing both legs above the knees. “We got women in the room. No one wants to hear about your lady sucking you off.”

The men in the room, sans Ramos, gave Chrys and the other woman, Morrison, apologetic looks. Ramos sneered.

Former Petty Officer Cherae Morrison, who’d lost her arm just below the right elbow, glanced at Chrys. They had an unspoken bond between them, and this wasn’t the first time Ramos had gone off about his penis and his girlfriend’s ability to get him off.

Woodley cleared his throat. “Torres is correct. This isn’t the place to discuss your intimate affairs, Ramos.”

Horrigan, a former Air Force pilot and now a quadriplegic, said, “You did tell us, Dr. Woodley, the purpose of this group is to allow us to speak about those things we can’t discuss with our families and friends. If Ramos is having a hard time with sex, I think we should talk about it.”

“But there’s a way to discuss these matters without debasing ourselves.” Woodley glanced at Chrys and Morrison. “Or making others uncomfortable.”

“Wait, wait,” Ramos said, waving his hooks. “I never said I was having difficulty with sex. I was talking about taking a damn leak.” He leered. “Besides, I’m sure you two aren’t having any issues. Am I right?”

“Give it a rest, Ramos,” Morrison said.

“And how are things with you, Safis?” Woodley asked Chrys. “Last week you told us you were thinking of applying to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey. Any progress with that?”

Chrys shrugged. She’d filled out the paperwork, had promised Mary she’d sent it in, but instead it lay hidden in her dresser under a stack of neatly folded T-shirts.

“Any word about funding for your running blade?” Woodley asked.

She shook her head.

“Some of us still waiting on hands.” Ramos clanked his hooks together. “Least you got your fake leg. Not like you need that enhancement.”

Chrys scowled. “I was a distance runner. Planned on doing an ultramarathon by thirty.”

Ramos slouched in his chair. “Whatever.”

Chrys turned to Woodley. “I’ve applied to two different nonprofits, but I know other guys need stuff, too. Lots of stuff.” She glanced at Horrigan and the other men in wheelchairs. “Special chairs and vans to carry them. I’m sure there’s a waiting period.” She rubbed her left knee, traced along the edge of the socket. “I just need to be patient, I guess, because there’s no way I’ll be able to foot the bill myself.”

Ramos snorted. “Foot the bill? Funny, Safis, real damn funny.”

“Shut up already,” Morrison said. “You think you’re funny, but you’re nothing but an overbearing asshole.”

Ramos rose to his feet. “Listen, bitch.”

Chrys instinctively came between them. “Go on, try me,” she said in a low voice while the scars on her forehead and chin throbbed.

Woodley rushed in and held out his arms. “Settle down. No need for this. Sit down, Ramos. Safis, sit.”

The group fell silent except for the angry mutterings of Ramos, who kept sneering Chrys’s way. Woodley went on to the next person, but not before writing down something in his notes.

When the hour ended, Chrys hung back out of respect to those in wheelchairs. She noticed only she and Morrison ever hung back. The others, the mobile ones, always ducked out quickly as if they couldn’t wait to get away from the sight of mangled bodies, as if somehow they could rid themselves of their own mutilations.

“Ramos is an ass,” Morrison said.

Chrys lifted her bag to her shoulder. “Yes, he is.” She started toward the door when Morrison touched her shoulder. She recoiled and turned around to apologize.

“So you think you’ll get that job?” Morrison asked. “At least it’s something.”

“I’m not excited about being a teacher, but I guess it’ll keep me from losing it.”

“Losing it?”

“My language abilities.”

“I thought you meant…” Morrison made a corkscrew motion about her head with her good hand.

Chrys smiled. “I’m certain I’ve lost it up there, too. But no, I need to speak the languages on a regular basis, or my fluency starts to drop off.”

“Right, I got it.” Morrison’s forehead creased. “I’m still trying to find something. Tried working at a supermarket, but”—she flapped her half arm, and the sleeve flipped in the air—“bagging groceries and stocking shelves takes me longer than most.”

“Something will come up.” Chrys checked the time on her phone. “I was going to grab some lunch before I get in line for my med check. You wanna come along?”

Morrison hesitated.

“My treat?” Chrys said.

“Sure. Thanks.”

 

* * *

 

They settled in at a table at a corner diner on Fourteenth and H Streets NW. Chrys positioned her back to the wall and faced the door. “Kind of warm for soup.”

Morrison held up her spoon. “It’s a lot easier with one hand.”

Chrys looked away. “Sorry.”

She didn’t know Morrison well, didn’t have much in common with her as she’d served in a different branch of the military. But she was a woman, wounded, and aware of the brutality of the world. For that reason, she felt a sense of loyalty toward her.

“Can I ask you something?” Morrison said.

“Okay.” Chrys pushed her sandwich away. The food tasted bland, and she really wanted a cold beer instead.

“Earlier when you said you were afraid of losing it…”

“Right, my languages.” She studied the sweat beading on Morrison’s forehead.

“I know.” Morrison wiped her mouth. “But have you ever thought about, you know”—her face twisted—“finishing yourself?”

“Have you?”

“Maybe.”

Chrys glanced around the diner. No one was close enough to hear them, but she leaned forward anyway. “You need to talk to your doctor about this.”

“I don’t want to be put on watch.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s irresponsible for you to keep those thoughts to yourself.”

Morrison’s mouth tightened.

“You got a kid, don’t you?” Chrys asked. “A son? Think of him.”

“I have.”

“Shit, Morrison.” She dropped her head into her hands and raked fingers through her sweat-damp hair.

“So have you?”

Chrys squeezed her eyes tight against the one memory always lurking in the background, prowling in her mind without end, with blasting shells and exploding earth, everyone scrambling for cover, leaping into truck beds, Diren holding the line, firing shot after shot while yelling for retreat, a truck bursting into flames, shit and brains and flesh spraying skyward, red smoke, the taste of blood.

She jerked when the waitress refilled their water. After the woman departed, she gazed into Morrison’s tormented face and admitted her secret. “Every day. I think about it every day.”

Morrison licked her lips. “Have you talked to your doctor?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t have a son. I don’t have a family.”

“I thought you had a girlfriend. Weren’t you guys getting married?”

Chrys sputtered. “It’s not the same. And besides, she’s…I can’t…” She sank into her chair. “It’s not the same.”

Morrison leaned on her good elbow and cast her eyes on the table. “My mom raised my brother and me after our dad ditched us. Now she’s raising my son. He’s still afraid of me, won’t come close to me. When she’s at work, he stays in his room and plays video games. When school starts back up in the fall, it won’t matter if I’m there or not.”

“Stop it. You’re his goddamn mother.”

“And like I said, my own mother is raising him just fine. Better than I could. Plus taking care of me and all the bills. Besides, I’m never gonna find a man who’ll want me, not now, not like this.” She touched her wounded arm. “I’m a burden. A fucking burden to my mom and son.” She scoffed and her shoulders collapsed forward. “I’m tired, too. So tired. I can’t get any relief, and the drugs don’t do anything. They just keep me from shitting regularly.”

Chrys folded her hands in her lap and stared at her plate. Mary did the cooking and cleaning and laundry. Everything, including shouldering the added burden of worry, the constant unspoken threat. Twenty-two vets a day dead by their own hands. But worse, the desire Mary once had in her eyes had been replaced with pity. Yet even Mary’s pity would turn to revulsion if she glimpsed the magnitude of the scars.

“Thing is,” Morrison said, her voice shaking, “I don’t want either my mom or son to live with the shame, and I want them to get my benefits when I’m gone.”

“That won’t happen if you kill yourself.”

Morrison fiddled with her glass. “But if it looked like an accident.”

Chrys winced. “Stop.”

“No, listen, I’ve thought about it.” She leaned in and lowered her voice. “I take the Metro all the time. Sometimes I stare at that warning sign, you know, the high voltage one along the track? And I think, I could step close, lean like I’m looking for a train, look at my phone, drop it just as a train pulls in, and if I time it right, the electrical shock will stop my heart before the train hits me.” She shuddered. “I won’t feel a thing that way.”

Chrys downed the remainder of her ice water and signaled for the check before responding. “I should report this.”

“But you won’t.”

A tour group of school children wearing matching T-shirts flooded into the restaurant, their loud voices and sweaty prepubescent bodies depleting the last of the oxygen. Chrys hurried to pull a pen from her bag, to scribble on a napkin.

“Here, take my number and promise me when you get these feelings, you’ll call me. Day or night, anytime, I don’t care, you call me.” She pushed the napkin into Morrison’s hand and closed it into a fist. “Promise, Cherae, promise me now or I’ll have to say something.”

“Does it matter one way or the other?”

Chrys sat back and stared past the swarming kids, out the window at the tourists strolling the sidewalks. They were oblivious to anything beyond their small world protected in a fragile bubble of security.

“No, it doesn’t matter. But for the sake of your son, let’s pretend that it does.”

Chapter Four

The bedroom reeked of sweat-soaked sheets, and the buzz of a television from an adjoining unit filtered through the thin walls. Chrys sprawled on top of the blankets with pillows covering her face. The bed moved, and she rolled to her side and sniffed. Some pleasant scent cut through the rank air. Coffee. She sat up, but recoiled when she saw Mary sitting on the bed next to her.

“What are you doing?”

“I brought you coffee.” Mary pointed to the nightstand where she’d placed the cup among the prescriptions and empty beer bottles.

Chrys wiped her face. “What time is it? You leaving for work?” She propped up on pillows and reached for the coffee, but her hands shook so much she was forced to set it back down.

“It’s just after six.”

“Why’d you wake me, then?”

“Six at night.”

Chrys blinked, looked around the dim room, down at her shirt, sweatpants. “I slept all day?”

“Looks like it.”

“Damn, missed PT. So much for being compliant.” She stretched her arms and arched her back, winced, and rubbed down her thighs.

“Drinking while on those meds isn’t compliant either.”

She avoided Mary’s eyes. “It’s only a few. Besides, it helps me sleep through the night.”

“Not last night.”

“No, not last night.” Chrys smoothed the wrinkles on her T-shirt. “Did I wake you? I’m sorry.”

“I was already awake. But, yes, I heard you. I heard you calling for Diren and Sirvan and Asmin. You seem to call out for them every time you have a nightmare.”

“I miss them.” She swallowed in an attempt to stop the onset of tears.

Mary touched her arm. “It’s okay, baby, you can cry.”

Chrys pushed Mary’s hand away and reached for her painkillers. But Mary intercepted her, grabbed the bottle, and studied the label. She shook it, rattling a few pills.

“You just had a med check last week. Where’s the rest of this?”

Chrys shrugged. “I’m in pain.”

“I know.” Mary placed the pill in Chrys’s hand, helped her hold the coffee cup steady as she sipped.

“I’m not sure I need coffee this late in the evening,” Chrys said. “But thanks.” She studied Mary’s expression. Pity and disgust, it was all there.

“Have you heard from the DLI?” Mary asked.

Chrys shifted on the bed and repositioned her left leg. “Thing is, I was reading up on some NGOs in Syria and Iraq. Lots of humanitarian organizations who could use interpreters.” She managed to bring the coffee cup to her lap, the liquid inside vibrating with her trembling hands. “There’s a few good ones, some like Doctors Without Borders.” She smiled. “Remember when you told your mom you were going to join up with them so you could be in the same part of the world as me? She almost killed you.” She chuckled and sipped her coffee.

Mary didn’t laugh.

“I also looked into another possibility. It’s just something to consider. You know how important that work is to me.”

Mary looked away.

“I told you about the foreign mercenaries, remember? That one gal, Kimberley something? And there’re others, too, from Germany, Spain, Japan.” Chrys smiled again. “It reminds me of what my uncle Manolis told me about the civil wars in Europe, how all these expats got caught up in the fight and joined revolutions.”

Mary’s jaw tightened. “Are you serious?”

“Why not? I have combat training. I understand the cultures, the languages. I know some of the other YPJ commanders, friends of Diren’s, that’d be happy to have me join them.” Chrys stopped when Mary started to cry, waited a few moments. “You know how important this is to me. I would think you’d understand that. These women are making a stand, fighting for their lives.”

“There’s nothing glamorous about fighting, no matter who’s doing it,” Mary said. “You’ve gone native that’s all, romanticized them.”

Chrys rose up, sloshing coffee from the cup. “Romanticized them? They aren’t some hippy-dippy social justice warriors whining about rape culture. They’re stopping rape. Killing the rapists. They’re fighting not just for themselves but for women all over the world.”

Mary scoffed. “And since when are you a feminist?”

Chrys sucked her teeth. “You think wearing stupid little pink hats and T-shirts with obnoxious slogans does any good? You want feminism? Let me see you join up with one of those NGOs over there and get a taste of what most women in this world face.”

Mary slapped the bed. “Do you hear how judgmental you sound? You have no idea what everyday life is like in this country. You’ve been so cocooned in your little imperialistic world, cheerleading and waving your flag.”

Chrys scowled. “I served my country proudly, did my job, followed orders.”

“And you’re done now. No more orders, no more deployments. You’re home safe. You don’t have to go back there and prove anything to anyone.”

Chrys gripped the coffee cup tighter. “The world’s abandoned them. I won’t. They need me.”

Mary slouched. “And I need you. Alive.” She stood and began pacing the room. “I don’t understand this. If you want to help them, take the position in Monterey, train more interpreters.”

“I don’t want to teach. I want to fight.”

Mary stopped pacing and glared at her.

Chrys drew back. She could see the conflicting emotions on Mary’s face—anger, pity, resentment, love, worry.

Mary took a deep breath. “I need you to listen. Yesterday, I got a call from Natividad Medical Center in Salinas. It’s about forty minutes east of Monterey. My mom found an apartment in Seaside. The VA clinic is there, too.”

“Wait, what?”

“The apartment’s a little pricey,” Mary continued, “but with your pay at the DLI, we should be okay. Unless of course they offer you housing. Either way, I figure the drive for either of us won’t be too bad.”

Chrys frowned. “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“I got offered a position at Natividad.”

“In California?” Chrys pressed the scar along her temple. “But when did you apply?”

“A month ago, after you told me about Monterey. I start in two weeks.”

“Two weeks? But I haven’t even sent in the DLI paperwork yet, and I—”

“You lied to me?”

Chrys held up her hand. “No, not lied. I was waiting. I’m not ready. You keep pushing me, and I’m not ready.”

“You may never be ready, but I can’t risk waiting until you are.” Mary scrutinized the nightstand, the bottles of pills and beer. “This hanging in limbo is killing me, and I’m scared it’s literally killing you.”

Chrys pounded the bed causing the coffee in her other hand to slosh over the rim again. “I said I need more time.”

“You’ve had time. Weeks, months. And nothing’s changed.”

“You think this is easy for me?” Chrys set the coffee aside and pointed toward the door. “You know how hard it is to see you go to work every day, come home and clean up after me? You think I don’t see the way you look at me?”

“I love you. I’m worried about you.”

“You’re repulsed by me, and I don’t blame you. I can’t stand to look at myself either.”

Mary sat on the bed. “I don’t care about the scars. You’re still gorgeous to me.”

Chrys put out her hands to keep Mary back. “Stop it. I don’t want your damn pity.”

“For God’s sake, you won’t even let me touch you.” Mary reached for her.

Chrys slapped her away. “Don’t. Don’t touch me. It burns.” She drew her legs up, struggled with her left, and cowered against the headboard.

Mary sank back. “You think this is hard for you? Do you know how hard it is to come home and find you drunk and passed out every night? Wondering if I’m going to find you breathing or not? You never leave this damn apartment unless you’re going to PT or group. You won’t see our friends. You won’t talk to me. All you do is drink and watch the damn news.” She tossed her hands in the air. “And I’m done. I’m done waiting for you to get your shit together.”

Chrys shivered and hugged her knees. Across the room, Diren leaned against the wall and watched.

“There was another way,” Chrys said in Kurdish. “We could’ve held them off.”

Diren shook her head. “No, heval,” she said using the Kurdish word for friend. “There was no other way. If only there had been.”

Mary turned her head. “Who are you talking to?”

“I needed more time.” Chrys looked past Mary and spotted her grandmother frying ladopsomo in a pan.

“Time is expensive,” her grandmother said.

“But I need more,” Chrys said in Greek.

Mary turned and looked to where Chrys was staring. “What are you…Who…?” She pivoted slowly and her chin began to quiver. “I’m gonna be straight with you, baby. I don’t know how much longer I can take this.” She stood and walked backward toward the door. “So a fresh start in California, for both of us, it’ll be best. You’ll see.”

Chrys rubbed her eyes and blinked. Diren was gone, and so was her grandmother.

Mary continued toward the door. “Gabby’s son will help me pack a truck and drive with us. I’ve talked to a few gals at work who’ll sublet our apartment until the lease runs out. All you need to do is sober up and decide to join me.”

Chrys finally focused on Mary, shook her head. “I can’t leave yet. I won’t leave. I need more time to figure things out.”

“You have two weeks. And if I’m really that important to you, you’ll be on that truck with me.”

Chrys ground her teeth. “You do not make decisions for me,” she said, her voice a deep growl.

“Be mad at me all you want. Yell and scream and have your tantrum, but we’re going, so get your paperwork in, okay?” Mary pulled the door shut behind her.

Chrys tossed her legs over the edge of the bed, but having slept the entire day in her prosthesis, she was too stiff to stand. “Don’t you walk out on me. Goddamn it, come back here.”

But the door remained shut. She tore at her face and hair and yelled a host of multilingual expletives, then heaved the coffee cup across the room. It shattered, spraying brown liquid against the white wall. She stared as an image of intestines uncoiling from a body materialized. She clasped her chest with one hand while the other snatched a prescription bottle, threw it, grabbed another, struggled with the cap. Finally, she popped a pill in her mouth, chewed it, and washed it down with stale beer. In moments, her breathing evened out, and she fell back on the bed where, like a trapped and wounded animal, she whimpered with the sounds of explosions surging in her head.

 

* * *

 

People eddied around the crowded Metro platform, the air heavy with the humidity of the summer day. Chrys leaned against a pillar and watched the movement of people while her eyes darted left and right, patrolling her surroundings. She adjusted the strap of her satchel draped across her shoulder causing her shirt to cling to her sweaty back. Her head hurt, and she was sick to her stomach. She kept swallowing, trying to keep the queasiness from climbing up her throat. If only she had a bottle of water to dilute the beer she’d consumed over the last two hours at one of her favorite pubs. But she deserved that small pleasure after her morning at the VA with the long wait to see a doctor followed by an hour of group and more of Ramos’s obnoxiousness. She checked the time on her phone. Her train was running behind, and the platform was growing more congested as people got off work. She needed to sober up, to get home before Mary and finish packing. In two days they’d be leaving, yet her paperwork for the DLI still lay hidden in her dresser drawer.

A couple crowded next to her. The woman hung off the man and played with his neck. He patted her ass, kissed her temple. Chrys looked away. It wasn’t out of disgust, but shame for her own failings. No one deserved to be forced into celibacy. Mary hadn’t signed up for that, for any of this. She deserved better, a whole and unblemished woman.

She stumbled when a man bumped into her, and she cursed him under her breath. Too many people, so much noise. The rattle of an arriving train caught her attention. It zipped along the track and came to a halt in front of her. But it wasn’t the one she needed. She slid down the pillar in defeat. Nothing was going right. No word about her running blade, not even an email. On top of that, her new definitive prosthesis hadn’t been fitted properly, and she’d developed pressure ulcers, so now every step brought pain. She’d have to wait until her file was transferred to the VA in Seaside to see about getting any relief. She was losing muscle mass, too, unable to keep up with the rigorous workout her therapist at the VA had designed for her. She had to stay strong if she planned on fighting again. But first she needed money to afford a plane ticket to Germany and a connecting flight to Syria where she could join up with other mercenaries. Maybe she should teach a semester, maybe two if she could tolerate it. Just enough to earn her fare. Then she’d tell Mary, set her free, set them both free.

Someone tripped over her and cussed her out, triggering her rage. She yelled at him while struggling to her feet ready to beat his ass. But the jerk disappeared into the throngs of people while others turned and looked at her with contempt. Pain crawled up her leg to her hip and back, and she spat on the ground and winced. She tried to distract herself by counting backward from a hundred in one language after another, but her eyes kept finding the high voltage warning signs down along the track. She turned away and faced the platform wall where her grandmother sat on one of the benches, her big purse on her lap.

“If it were not for hope, the heart would break,” her grandmother said.

Chrys lifted her hands and let them fall. “But my hope’s broken.”

A woman standing near watched her with wary eyes and stepped away.

When Chrys looked again, she saw her grandmother shake her head before dissolving into the pattern of the wall.

She pressed her fists to her eyes and swayed. “Shitshitshit.

A group of teenagers bumped into her. Two mocked her, one barking at her as he pushed her away. She fell back against one of the pillars and covered her face. The sound of an approaching train rumbled in the distance. She opened her eyes and found the track again. Morrison had said the key was to time it just right. No pain, just a quick death. She pushed off the pillar and glanced at the oncoming train. It wasn’t hers, but it would do. She pulled her phone from her pocket, began to lean forward, reaching her arm outward. Across the track behind the barricade, Diren made the peace sign, Sirvan opened his little arms to her, and Asmin and the others watched.

“Young woman!” Someone grabbed her arm.

Chrys stumbled back while the train screeched past her in a streak.

“You have to be careful. Don’t get so close,” the stranger said.

Chrys staggered to a bench. Right then her phone vibrated in her hand. She focused on the incoming number, but it wasn’t one she knew.

She answered gulping. “This is Safis.”

“Lieutenant Chrysanthi Safis?”

“Former lieutenant, yes.” She held her heart, panted for air.

“This is Sean Gordon, Secretary of State Collins’s chief of staff. Am I calling at an inconvenient time?”

“No.” She plugged her other ear to mute the crowd.

“Glad to hear that.” He paused, and she heard him speaking to someone while papers shuffled in the background among muffled voices. “I apologize. We’re in the middle of a situation, and I’m juggling too many things.”

“Situation?”

“How’s your Turkish?”

“My Turkish? Fine. What’s this—”

“Are you free tomorrow morning? Secretary Collins would like to speak with you to discuss an important diplomatic assignment.”

“He wants to speak to me?” She focused intently. “Yes, I’m free, but what assignment—”

“I have here,” Gordon interrupted, “you’re at the Riverview Terrace Apartments in Huntington.”

“Yes, but what—”

“I’ll send a team for you at ten hundred hours. Thank you, ma’am. We’ll see you in the morning.”

“Wait, Gordon.” She groaned. He’d already disconnected.

Right then her train barreled to a stop, and she pushed her way inside to a corner seat where she fell against the window. She began shaking, almost convulsing with the realization of what she’d come close to doing, and despite her best efforts to hold it in, she threw her head between her legs and vomited.

Chapter Five

It had taken an entire pot of coffee and a long, cold shower for Chrys to make herself presentable the next morning. No drugs, no beer. She couldn’t risk any indiscretion. It was the Secretary of State, after all. And now two agents escorted her through security and proceeded to guide her through the Harry S. Truman building. She was pleased to see hardly anyone bothered to give her a second glance. To an outsider, she figured she probably looked like another agent in her dark tailored suit. And although her civilian attire lacked the inherent nobility of her service dress uniform, she knew she wore it well. For even that morning, she’d stood in front of the bathroom mirror and admired the cut of her suit. Somewhere under those sharp lines and fitted trousers was a hint of the Air Force officer she’d once been.

She paused with the agents as one of them spoke to the receptionist. A moment later, a man rounded the corner and came toward them.

“Ms. Safis, Sean Gordon. Thank you for agreeing to meet this morning.” He extended his hand.

“Yes, sir, I’m happy to be here.” She shook his hand. “However, I’m uncertain for what purpose.”

“That’ll be explained shortly. And please, no formalities between us. Call me Sean.”

Gordon dismissed the two agents. “I can tell you, for the past week we’ve been trying to find the right person for this assignment with absolutely no luck. Our guest has very particular needs.”

“And who would that be?”

Gordon paused at the doors. “She’ll be joining us in a bit. Commander Banks, head of her security team, is bringing her over from the Hay-Adams.”

“Security team?” Chrys glanced back at the two men who’d picked her up that morning. They stood guard at the end of the hallway. “Diplomat?”

“Turkey, but she’s been living in the UK for the last five years.” Gordon started to open the doors, stopped. “Just so you know, she chose you out of all our suggestions. She said she thought you had honest eyes.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your head shot.” He grinned. “And I have my brother to thank for recommending you. Captain Kyle Gordon? You served as his unit’s interpreter six years ago in Mosul.”

“Gordon’s your brother? How about that.” Chrys studied him, the expensive tie, the silk shirt. “Good man, your brother.”

“The best. And by the way, he wanted me to tell you congrats on finishing up your degree and receiving your commission.”

Chrys shifted on her feet. “Yeah, he was always rooting for me.” She leaned toward the doors but noticed Gordon continued to linger, a smile on his face.


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