Our first twelve hours in the refugee camp are over: we made it through the night. Twenty four hours since we buried Paul. Maybe thirty six since he died. I can’t even be sure of that, since I was knocked out when he was shot the second time. My body contorts when I think about it; with the first bullet, he went out not knowing my fate, but with the second he left thinking he had certainly failed to save me. My chest tightens and I do that kind of silent screaming that comes before crying.
My plan is to stay in bed until someone tries to make me get up, and then to still refuse. What is there possibly to do here? With any luck – not that it matters – some of my books were in the bags we brought with us. But I don’t know if even reading could help me escape right now. There is no escape. This is all there is, probably forever.
Staying in bed only works through the morning. The cramped room is stuffy, and though I drift in and out of sleep, I am fitful. My mind and the poorly muffled whispers of the others in the room won’t give me any peace. But those voices all go quiet when I sit up hurriedly and throw my legs over the side of the bunk. I haphazardly slip my feet into my boots and make for the door.
“Anna?” my mother says. She doesn’t bother to actually ask a question.
“I just need some air,” I tell her. It’s the closest thing to the truth.
The afternoon is hot, and the air isn’t exactly ‘fresh’ but it’s at least open air, or as close to open as you can get in a three foot wide walkway between shantys. I walk aimlessly, not even bothering to keep track of the turns I’m making. What does it matter? the grieving nihilist in me asks. Do nihilists grieve? Or are they just like “fuck it nothing matters anyway”?
I shove my hands in my pockets as I walk around. This is our world now – this war-torn hell is home. So many have died, so many more will die. The thought takes my breath away – how many more? How soon? I think of everyone back in our bunk and how little agency we have. It would be mercy if a missile hit our camp and just took us all out – we’re only living so we can die later, right? The war will end eventually – it may take until there are no Americans left to punish, but it will end. Even if some of us do make it, the likelihood everyone left that I love will make it is…nonexistent.
So what? I need to answer the question one way or another – Paul is dead. Eventually someone will claim the lives of the others, and me as well. I’d rather die by my own hand than wait for another Marty to come along. Paul died trying to save me. I’m a liability – next time who will it be, my father? My mother? Kara or Dylan?
I kick an emptied can, its label torn off, for a few feet before I get bored and abandon it. It’s still the afternoon, but the sun is on its descent as evening nears, so some of the narrow alleys between buildings are in the shade. I pick one that seems the most abandoned and least disgusting and sit down. I try to mentally recite some poetry, some Emily Dickinson (who was well acquainted with grief). I get halfway through “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” before crying. And I don’t try to stop myself, I just let it come.
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
By the time I come back to my senses, finding my eyes puffy and irritated by so many tears I didn’t bother to wipe away, it is dark. I don’t know how it happened, but day came and went. Forty-eight hours since Paul died.
This realization that I am alone in the camp at night sends me into a panic, and I jump up. Looking up and down the aisle, I can’t even remember which way I came down to get to this spot, let alone any of the turns before that. Okay…eenie meenie? I go left.
I jog a few steps, walk a few, start jogging again, make myself slow down. Stop completely. The hair on the back of my neck stands up, and I get the feeling I’m being followed. I turn in a circle, looking all around but see no one – I am alone. I arbitrarily pick another direction to start walking in; I decide that if I run, whoever may or may not be following me would start running too. So long as the person thinks I am unaware of him, he’ll stay back. Right? I force myself to refrain from breaking into a run.
I ball my fists and walk, albeit briskly, taking turns whenever the spirit leads or whatever. Oh fuck it, the adrenaline in me won’t let me move this slowly – I start running.
In a moment, I hear them: footsteps behind me, chasing me. I was right; I am being stalked. Absolute terror takes control of my raw body and tears sprout afresh. I don’t look back.
A rough hand grabs my wrist and I shriek.
“Anna!” he yells. “Stop!”
“Oh God,” I exhale, turning to face him. “JJ!” My legs wobble under me; I fall to the ground and weep.
He gathers me up in his arms and I wrap my arms tightly around him and sob into his shoulder.
“We’ve been looking all over for you,” he says as he starts walking. “You had us worried sick.”
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, but I doubt he can understand me since my face is buried. I am sorry, I think – more accurately, I’m ashamed of the attention.
When we get closer to our building he stops. “Are you ready to go back in?”
“No,” I say honestly. I’m dreading seeing everyone after causing a stir. “But won’t they be worried?”
He slowly lets me down onto my feet and sits, then pats the ground next to him. “Another ten minutes won’t hurt.”
I sit and curl up next to him. “What’s the point?”
“To just…talk. Without so many people.”
“I mean what’s the point of anything, JJ – you really think any of us are going to make it out of this?”
“I guess we have to just hold out hope. I mean, no, we’re not all going to make it. But you will, and I will. I’ll make sure of it. I promised Paul, remember? You’re under my watch now – I won’t let anything happen to you.”
“Anna!” Jamie appears around the corner. “JJ?”
I find a pebble a few feet away to stare at, hoping this won’t turn into a confrontation. But JJ takes the opposite approach, gruffly remarking, “We’re busy here.”
“Yeah, I can see that, but so are the rest of us – looking for you, Anna.”
“I just… needed a minute. But I’m okay now. I’m okay.” I pull myself up to my feet and make one last attempt to wipe my face.
JJ leads the way and gives Jamie an aggressive shoulder as he passes. I follow but Jamie reaches out and cups my elbow as I pass. “Anna-”
“Don’t touch me,” I mutter, trying not to get the attention of JJ’s anger. I can’t handle any more action today.
He glances ahead at JJ, then back to me. “Be careful with him.”
“Be careful with – are you kidding me? Just stay away from me, Jamie. You don’t know what you’re talking about. He’s a hell of a lot safer than you,” I hiss.
Jamie takes a deep breath and finally starts walking, falling in line behind me as I take a few quick steps to catch up to JJ.