Chapter 1: December 29th
For it being late December, New York City’s weather was mild, with temperatures ranging from the low forties to the upper fifties on the Fahrenheit scale. Usually, it’d be a bother to her when the whole concept of winter was supposed to revolve around slush in the busy streets and snow dusting her balcony, continuously adorned with naturally and intricately designed snowflakes, but the concept didn’t quite come to mind as she stumbled into her apartment, exhausted from the months of what she called “hard labor” and jet-lag. The idea wasn’t that stretched when taking a few facts into consideration; after all, twelve months of being stationed in Afghanistan didn’t give her the luxury of sleeping in or feeling comfortable in a state of unconsciousness. Or even a day off.
With her bags dropped inconveniently near the front door and her clothes slowly being stripped away as she sauntered through her ill-lit home, her heart beat against her chest in an angst-y way, enough so that a thorough check of her bedroom and bathroom made her feel more at home in the apartment she had rarely actually lived in. With the last garments removed from her body, she indulged, without hesitation, in the luxury of a long, hot shower; emphasis on long.
Twenty minutes was all it took for her to feel better, more comfortable and more in touch with everything around her. It wasn’t as though she automatically felt safe in her own apartment – that was, in no way, possible for one to do. Coming home after a year spent at war doesn’t automatically change the trauma one endures – whether it be physically, mentally, socially, or sexually – which, in some cases, could all be applied to the hell she had gone through over those long months.
She hugged her towel tight to her chest as she stared at herself in the mirror. Most women would be terrified if they saw what she was seeing – or, what she allowed herself to stare at critically. Her makeup-less face was tan and red, her cheeks still irritated from the beating hot sun back east. Her eyes, a cold light blue, were tinted with a bloodshot that came, hand-in-hand, with her exhaustion. Her lips were cracked from lack of moisture and the violent change of climates. Her throat was bruised, a mixture of what some considered harassment as any other word would imply the necessity of a legal standpoint. Her arms were a series of blacks and blues, bruises mixing in with the detailed artwork of her numerous tattoos. Her hair – previously dark and grimy from the days spent in trenches made of dirt – was now light, but dull and in need of what some liked to call a make-over.
But everything she saw at that moment was nothing compared to what was underneath the towel – the treachery that she didn’t dare look at in fear of a mental breakdown or something of the sort. Emotions were hard enough to handle when you previously had spent your days watching people you knew die tragically, and the last thing that she wanted was to fall apart and slip into a dark hole in which she had no way of getting out of. Denial was common in soldiers who suffered from PTSD. At least, in her case, it was. In fact, “common” was almost a mild term for the denial she was enduring.
She focused on her shallow breathing as she entered her bedroom and, reluctantly, let the towel fall off of her, the rough fabric pooling at her feet before she advanced to a closet that wasn’t even half-filled. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to see that the only clothes she really had were a few pairs of pants and shirts, a few sets of shoes, and her uniform, protected by a thin layer of plastic, isolated in the corner of her pathetic-looking closet. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen the uniform, had actually been able to run her fingers over the dark blue jacket and numerous metals which she felt she did not deserve. Her chest ached at the thought of all the people she had known and how they’d never see their own uniform again – never wear it, never feel it, never witness the appreciation some people showed upon seeing the outfit. Never feel the pain of only wearing in when you were asked to attend a funeral. Never feel the blame that was bestowed upon you when a family was grieving. Would never see their family again. Would never see their family grow. Would never start a family.
She ran a hand over her face, feeling the warmth of the sunburn in her cheeks and feeling a hotness mixed with a moisture forming in her eyes. With a shaky breath, she pulled on a mere pair of underwear and a loose T-shirt before walking away, putting the uniform and all her thoughts that came with it aside. Moments passed and all she could do was stare out the window and count taxis in an attempt to get her mind off everything she tried so hard to forget. She knew first-hand how much of a struggle that was. No matter what she did, the subject was always in the back of her mind, and she knew, in her heart, that she wasn’t the only one. Her days in Afghanistan had ended numerously the same way: a mourning silence during a card game. She didn’t know what was more pathetic, the fact that the depressing and anxious silence was natural, or that most nights ended with a card game which no one won.
The sound of her cell phone ringing made her jump, immediately resulting in a sharp pain coming from her abdomen. Her heart raced even as she came to the realization that it was only a phone ringing, not gunshots or bombs going off or anything else which could result in immediate danger. Shakily, she walked over to where her cell was set, vibrating on her bed in an upbeat way. Her fingers grazed the cold platinum and silver as she started to recognize the number on the screen. It had been such a long time since she had actually used her own cell. When first arriving in Afghanistan, she was given a cell for emergencies, but rarely used it. Even the laptop that she had brought for communication she had rarely used as her relationship to her family seemed to have been severed years ago. With extreme reluctance, she picked up the phone, sitting on the edge of the bed as she croaked out an almost-forgotten greeting.
“Hello?” She answered, her throat rough and dry as she croaked out a raspy sound. The voice on the other end was deep, with a natural rasp that was so familiar to her that it was almost soothing to hear, despite its obvious unnatural and uneven tones. There was a shaky sigh on the other end and she threaded her brows together in both worry and confusion.
“God,” the voice muttered, “A call would’ve been nice, you know. Hell, I’d even take a text or even an email; anything to know you’re alive would’ve been fine.” Her heart leapt at the emotion in the voice – the anger, sadness, and then almost joy. She swallowed, followed by a sigh as she tried to calm her own emotions down.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered, her voice raw as the emotions ate away at her. “I’ve been busy…”
“I understand that, but still. I know damn well how much time you have between raids. You could’ve at least tried to show some initiative and contacted me. I tried – God, did I spend a hell of a lot of time trying to contact you – but ever call, every text, every email ended the same way: apparently unread.” He paused, whether it be to control himself and his mouth or to calm down his strong emotions, she wasn’t sure. “I’m not the only one, you know, who was worried sick about you. Jenny can’t – or couldn’t – sleep half of those nights. I made her quit her job just so she wouldn’t be as stressed.”
She had nothing to say, no words to offer him in light of this new information. Her throat, already dry with part dehydration and part pure emotion, suddenly became drier as she struggled to form her next words. Apologetic was something she felt strongly, but apologizing again and again wasn’t going to change the fact that no one had really heard from her in over a year, or that the probability of one thinking her to be deceased was extremely high.
“It’s late,” he said when she didn’t respond, “Jenny’s home now, so I guess I’ll leave you to… whatever you’ve been doing, or whatever you were planning on doing.”
“Okay,” she breathed, “I’ll talk to you tomorrow?” There was a long silence as she waited for an answer, like he couldn’t decide whether talking to her the next day would be good or bad. It made her feel uneasy to have such a long pause before he answered.
“Yeah. Goodnight.” As he hung up, she mentally questioned him. He wasn’t one to act by his emotions, but she had a strange feeling that his questions and answers, and just him hanging up in general, had something to do with the anger he seemed to have formed while talking about the little communication she participated in. She knew that a year was a long time for people to not talk, but she didn’t quite understand where he was coming from when he mentioned Jenny’s inability to sleep. Sure, war was dangerous, but it was only her life that was being risked. Jenny was perfectly safe in her apartment in Manhattan, and had never seen the hell and horror of working on the war front.
With a strange anxiety working its way through her, she let out a soft sigh and set her cell down on the table next to her bed. She leaned back, lying down on her bed the first time that year, dizziness creeping up on her, but leaving as soon as it came. Exhaustion covered most of the initial shock she had with the realization of how comfortable her bed was. Deployment did that to people. Before, people were critical of everything they had, but after, there was a sort of respect. At least for her case.
Even with her body being exhausted, she couldn’t sleep. A sick feeling stuck in the pit of her stomach as she laid there, staring aimlessly at the ceiling. She couldn’t identify the cause, only the effect it had on her. Even without the sick feeling consuming her, she knew that she wouldn’t sleep, not with the excruciating pain spreading throughout her abdomen. That wasn’t something she could ignore, not in a million years. And a part of her appreciated that.