“Three! Two! One!”
“Happy New Year!”
Flashes of colour filling the night sky. Explosions. Screams of fireworks. Crash. Boom. Floods of colour. People yelling. Screaming. Laughing in the street. Crowds of people. Everywhere.
Fireworks. Screams. Explosions. Fireworks. Joy. Explosions. Explosions. Iraq. Afghanistan. Mortars. IED’s. Fireworks. New Years! Excitement! Alcohol! Parties! Fireworks! Explosions! War. Pain. Death. Wounds-visible and unseen. Fear. Bombings. Explosions.
Laughter! Awe! Excitement! Red! Gold! White! Green! Fireworks!
Terror. Loss. Blood. IED’s. Bodies ripped apart. Stench. Explosions. Explosions…
Samuel Thornton hated New Years. He was of the opinion that it was over-rated. An excuse to get drunk, have meaningless sex, produce resolutions that would be forgotten by March. Samuel Thornton hated New Years. What it did to his uncle, Daniel, the man who had not hesitated in taking him in when he was ten years old and facing the foster system. What it did to his cousin, Timothy, who had served his country proudly despite seeing the effect that war had left on his father; divorced, living paycheque to paycheque. Hurt.
Samuel hated fireworks. Hated them. He made a point of spending the holiday at home. None of his university or work friends able to persuade him otherwise. The curtains would be kept tightly shut. Music would play. Anything in a pitiful attempt to block out the noise. The explosions. It never worked. Always failed. Year in. Year out. It failed.
They told him. Each year. To go. Go have fun. Go with your friends. Go. Away from our demons. And, each year, he would roll his eyes at the arguments and, simply, be there. Younger. Unable to send the demons from the room. Simply. There.
They were discussing Samuel’s classes, sitting in the brightly lit lounge room, warm, safe. He was the first in their family to go to university. They were unspeakably proud of him. The explosion was sudden. Without warning. Voices stilling with the explosion. Tension. Fear. Pain. Memories. Emotions tipped through the room. Palpable. Bitter. Tearing the fragile fabric of calm in a single, vicious movement. England. Fireworks. New Years. Explosion. Desert. War. Death.
The illegal ones were always the worst. Always unexpected. You could brace for scheduled fireworks. Prepare.
These. These unexpected noises. Brutal. Memories flooding back. The atmosphere changing in a second.
Daniel Thornton cringed, arms raising instinctively above his head. Protectively. He had not seen combat for over twenty years. Noises. Explosions. Fireworks. Explosions. Death. The day his convoy had exploded. Heat. Sudden. Explosion. A week from their unit shipping home. Loud. Fear. Blood. Explosions. The day his best friend had been torn to shreds. Beside him. Covered with blood. Only survivor. A broken leg, concussion. Not right!
“It’s ok!” Samuel’s voice reached Daniel quickly. “It’s just one. Just one firework. Just an idiot! It’s ok!”
The words sank into his conscious. He was shaking, huddled against the wall in the corner of the warm room. No recollection of moving. He nodded once. He was back. A flash of relief in his nephew’s eyes before a hand was extended. Patient, ready to pull him to his feet. Home. His son… His son needed them both… He took the offered hand. Squeezed Samuel’s shoulder. “Good Lad.” His eyes were locked on his son as Samuel managed a crooked smile before moving to crouch beside his cousin.
Timothy Thornton’s body shook with violent, uncontrolled shudders. He had sprung up, reacting instinctively to the noise that had been a daily event three short years before. Needing safety. His shattered legs, damaged irrevocably, twisting, crumpling under him. Pain. Terror. Memories of that bombing. Being crushed. Buried under rubble. Helpless. Explosions. Pain. Pain. Fear. Death. Noise roaring in his ears.
“Tim! Tim! You are safe.” A voice to latch onto.
No! Fear. Sam! Sam! He shouldn’t be here. Just a kid. A kid. His baby cousin. Not safe! Pain. Fear. Shaking.
Daniel. Watching. Heart twisting. His son. His wonderful, brave son was never meant to feel this way. Helpless. His own hands still trembling. Not calm enough to speak. Not yet. Unable to fight through his own lingering panic to reach his son. His son.
“Tim. Tim, come back to us. You are safe. Home in Cornwall.”
Lies. Fear. Pain. Pain. Fear. Noise. No. Silence… Silence? Pain. Oh, God. The pain!
Daniel. Willing himself to speak. “Tim.”
A different voice. Older. Tired. Deeper. Etched with remnants of fear. “Come back to us, Lad. It’s safe.”
Dad. That voice. Dad.
Sam. Dad and Sam. Safe?
“Tim, it’s safe.” Sam’s voice. Worried.
Open eyes. Please God, don’t see Chris. Dying. Unable to help. Trapped. Open eyes. Slowly. Breathing too fast. Too fast! Panic. Pain. Hazel eyes looking into his own. Chris had blue eyes. Hazel. Same. Worried. Scared.
Dear. Home… Safe… Silence… Safe?
“Sam?” A croak. Was it a dream? Please, let Sam be safe!
Relief flooded the hazel eyes. “Yeah.” Another crooked smile that didn’t reach Sam’s eyes. He hated fireworks. “Tim? Can I touch you?”
A sharp breathe. Fear. Panic. Pain. No! Sam! Asking. Worried. Good kid…
“Yeah.” His mouth was dry.
Daniel watched, relief flooding him. Tim had curled defensively. Huddled into himself. He couldn’t image his son’s pain. Sam carefully reached out and placed his hand lightly on his cousin’s arm.
“No!” A guttural scream. A violent flinch at the contact. Still shaking.
Daniel’s eyes closed. His boy. Hurting…
“Tim.” Sam. Soft. Gentle. Keeping his hand in place on the arm.
What had they done to deserve this kid? Daniel watched, helpless. Sam stretched on the floor beside his cousin. Eye level. Good kid.
Eyes locking. “Sammie?”
“Too old for you to call me that.” Another half-smile. “Let’s get you up, yeah?” Sam’s voice was still very soft. Gentle. Even. Careful.
Pain. God. Pain.
“You back?” Sam waited patiently.
“Yeah.” Eyes locked on Sam’s. Safe. Safe. Safe.
“Going to get you up. Going to hurt like hell.” Desperate apology. Sam tightening his grip, just a little, over Tim’s arm.
The hand tightened again, careful. “Don’t you dare apologise. Not for this. Not ever. You hear?”
Pain. Oh God. Pain!
Sam frowned. His cousin had lost more weight. It was far too easy to ease the big man to his feet, and with Daniel’s help, half carry him to the long couch. Tim’s face, grey, head drooping, teeth clenched against unbearable pain. Damn fireworks. It was too early. Only nineteen hundred hours. Too early.
“Sam?” Dan’s voice. Tired. Defeated.
Turning sharply, Sam was ready to argue against the shame, weariness and self-loathing that he could hear in his uncle’s voice.
“You are a good lad.” Daniel watched Sam relax at the unexpected words. “Being here…” A shrug.
A grin flashed across Sam’s face. “I get free food. You are stuck with me.” It was times like this his uncle seemed to forgot how badly Sam had needed him when he was just a child. “Should I get him something? For the pain?” Troubled eyes returned to his cousin. His idol.
“Give him a minute.” Daniel was staring at his son. “He’ll tell you.” Too old a face. Grey. A drop of blood on his lip where his teeth had clenched over it. Scars.
Daniel spared a glance for his nephew. So young. “Fine.” He chose to ignore the sceptical roll of hazel eyes.
Sam sat, cross-legged on the floor, silent. Waiting. It wouldn’t be long. Never was. Tim would regain control over the pain. Eyelids fluttered and opened. Residual panic.
Sam. No! “Shouldn’t be here, Kid!” Panic!
“We are safe. We are at home!” Sam caught a shaking hand and squeezed it. Hard. Reassuring. “It’s safe.”
Pain. Silence. Pain. Sam… Good kid. Such a good kid… Safe.
“Tim? Tim? Let me get you something? For the pain.” Sam’s voice, pleading now.
“No.” A reassurance. “No. Will fade. You talk. That helps.”
“Sentimentalist.” Sam’s careful teasing. “I was thinking of working in the hospital here once I graduate. Think you can put up with me again if I moved home?”
Topics from before were seamlessly resumed. Picked up where they had been dropped, scattered. The only difference. Fear did not now circle the edges of the room. It choked its occupants. Strangling them in its gleeful grasp. Never letting go. Bitter. Fear. Hurt. Memories.
Dan sat close. Tim’s arm had flung out and rested over Sam’s shoulders. Sam seated as close to the long lounge as humanly possible.
For a moment it was calm. For a moment they could pretend. For a moment, while the only one among them, who had never seen combat but remained touched by war, spoke, they could remember that they were loved. They were needed.
Fear. Pain. Panic. Nightmares. None of it mattered. They were. Simply. Completely. Family.