Once again, not a travel story, but a second assignment in the Flash Fiction competition I'm in. My assignment for this round: a drama that takes place in a mattress store that uses a stretcher. Enjoy.
There is a quiet space that doesn’t hurt. The entrance fee is anonymity but once self is surrendered you are free to drift through endlessness like a balloon lost in the sky. I used to buy them just to let them go. There is a point, when you’re watching them rise, when that last tiny speck of red and the big blue Out There lose their edges. Where does one stop and the other begin?
“What’s the last thing you can remember?”
The last thing? A hot wind and the absence of color. Your voice: “He’s coming around.” I want to answer but you’re looking away and when I try to grab onto your jacket something stops me.
“I can’t move my arms and legs.” It seems as if I’m listening to myself from across a river. There’s something hollow about my voice; echo-like as it rushes off downstream.
“They’ve got you strapped down to the stretcher, sir. Can you tell me what happened?”
I shake my head.
You follow as I bounce down the street, carried by two weary orderlies. The hospital fades into the distance, disappearing behind a veil of smoke. Why are you bringing me to a mattress store?
“This isn’t the hospital,” I tell the orderly.
“Triage!” he shouts and I’m swept inside.
“What do you remember?” you ask me again.
But you’re looking for something I don’t have.
“Her balloon popped,” I offer but the words fall through my lips like stupidity.
I can see it so clearly in my head: the little girl in her purple paisley dress, big blue birthday balloon tugging her slender wrist right up towards the clouds. Her smile is brighter than the sun and I melt in her radiance. The whole world is at play. She’s swinging her arm and mine back and forth and her mouth is moving, but I can’t hear what she’s saying. The only sound is the boom ringing in my head.
I must have dozed off. I’m lying on a mattress.
“Sir, can you remember anything, anything at all?”
A young man in green scrubs presses a stethoscope to my chest.
I want to grab him; I think I might need a doctor. “Doctor,” is all I manage to croak.
“Yes, I am. Four,” he says and slips away, winding between the aisles of beds, shouting a number over each person.
“Please, sir. Try to think. You needed to tell me something. You have to remember.”
Yes, I must. A man isn’t this moment, he’s all the moments up to now bundled together and sealed inside his heart.
I do remember.
I remember a cake, covered in candles. How I was supposed to blow that inferno out is anyone’s guess.
I remember Aprils. I used to watch the rain slide down the glass. How gray everything looked for weeks. I kissed Olivia under the walnut tree in the middle of an April storm. Yes, I remember that.
I place my hand against my heart. “Whose blood is this?”
You turn away from me and say to someone else, “It’s no use, sir. The colonel’s too far gone.”
Lilly was released from the hospital today. They say it’s in complete remission; she’s healthy again. I brought her the balloon for her birthday and pretended that I had nothing else to give her but I couldn’t hold the secret inside me. It burst out, the news that she could finally come home. We strolled out of the hospital hand in hand, letting the smell of freedom make us giddy. To me, it was better than that first warm day in May. It was better than all of them combined.
But then he rushed down the front steps of the hospital, the man with black-fire eyes, and grabbed me roughly by the shoulder, shoving me back a step. Time had not changed him, it had only filled him with hate.
Bringing his putrid lips up to my ear, he whispered one hot, unsteady word to me. Then, he turned and fled.
“What is it, Grandpa?”
“Nothing. I have to make a phone call.”
I called you. I said the code word, but there wasn’t time to explain. The blast cut us off. Suddenly everything was fire and smoke.
I place my hand against your jacket, smearing a red palm print onto it. My mouth is full of blood.
“Retribution,” I murmur, my voice failing, “He said, ‘Retribution.’”
“What does it mean?”
This same man sent me a note once, nailed it to the chest of one of my boys. They’d left him hanging off a fence, rotting under the desert sun, his eyes already picked out by crows. He’d promised retribution for what we’d done, for the hospital and the school we blew up. Intelligence identified them as military targets. Our informers guaranteed that just on the other side of those civilian walls they were constructing weapons: bombs, shells, heavy artillery. We had no choice. Our boys were dying.
He’s going after the kids next. Eye for an eye. You have to evacuate the school.
I need to get you closer. I can’t get enough breath inside me to voice the words. Grabbing onto your jacket, I pull, raising myself to you and dragging you down to me.
Evacuate the school.
Seating herself on the mattress beside me, she fills the spaces between my fingers with hers. In her hand, all the weight of mine is gone.
Her smile twinkles across the distance between us. “You did it,” her loving eyes say, “Rest.”
I smile back at her. She’s still got that balloon tied to her arm. They let her keep it.
Everything is going to be okay. There will be no more retribution; it’s done now.
Here, there are no echoes from ghosts and no shadows either, only bright blue sky and an unpopped balloon rising up forever.