EL CERRITO HILLS, CALIFORNIA
“Reach out to him,” my subconscious cautions. Somehow, I know I’m in a trance rehashing reality — in the twilight state between waking and dreaming.
I drift deeper to sleep.
I see the world through his eyes. It isn’t all harsh. There’s love, hope and desire. His gaze engulfs me, reflecting a deep pain and struggle.
The pink in his cheeks and wisps of blonde hair accentuate haunted grey eyes. My senses seem to grip him, and he asks questions through empty stares—questions his mouth seemed too powerless to utter.
“Hi,” he says through trembling lips. His voice is a desperate murmur.
“Hi there,” I answer with equal emotional detachment.
I stretch my hand forward like a concerned mother comforting a child. The kind gesture is met by the barrel of a gun.
A big gun. A military-style weapon of terror.
“Don’t shoot! No, no, no,” I hear my voice shouting.
The aroma of waffles and coffee drifts from the kitchen, reminding me it was a Sunday morning.
When my body jerks fully awake, I reach for George’s warmth finding only the firm mattress. I shiver, pulling a soft lavender throw over my shoulders. The anticipation of breakfast in bed meld with the panoramic view of San Francisco Bay through small slits in my window shutters. I admire the fiery sunrise over the city.
I’m still alive!
My skin feels clammy and my pajamas cling to my body. I couldn’t escape this dream, haunting me for days. I take in a deep breath, my nose reaching for the sweet jasmine scent of the flowers by my bed.
Light streaks shine through the half-opened blinds at a downward angle, illuminating dust particles stirring about the room. I watch the dust dance around me, somehow soothing—as if standing still in time and space.
I willed my mind to dance free with the dust, to just—be. My monkey mind made too much noise in its sleep. Jumping from branch to branch, preaching to me what I should have done. “You try to save the world all the time in your dreams, Caryssa. Why couldn’t you save that young man?” Why couldn’t you have stopped what he did—”
Quiet, mind! I realize I need to honor myself. Haven’t I done enough with twelve years of mega community service while trying to be the best mother possible?
Lazing around the crumpled sheets, I let my wakefulness follow my heart. Our blissful two-weeks in Hawaii came into focus. It had been the perfect antidote to the mass shooting I narrowly avoided. Picturesque mornings on the beach and surf on the Big Island, hiking and biking the volcanoes and other activities helped me forget how America’s rampant gun violence hit too close to my loving home.
The bedroom door was ajar, and George pushes it open with his hip. Carrying the delicious mound of food, he announces, “Good morning, babe! He’s still asleep.” He places my bamboo breakfast tray over my lap.
I look at the clock; 9:30. Tyler rarely sleeps this late. It was hard to know if it’s more bad dreams for him or a sporadic teen snooze marathon. “Maybe we should have stayed in Hawaii. Both of us were sleeping well there,” I comment before diving into the heap of waffles smothered in syrup with fresh raspberries and blueberries.
George opens the window, bringing fresh air and bright rays of sunshine into the room. “I’ve noticed your restlessness since….”
“Since that grim afternoon at the Golden Gate Grind.” I finish what he couldn’t say. It’s difficult for either of us to talk about, but we knew we had to. “I think it’s a delayed reaction with all the exciting distractions in Hawaii. After the initial shock and numbness wore off, I felt something I wasn’t expecting….”
George waits to hear the rest, but I wasn’t sure what I want to say.
“Something you weren’t expecting?” he edges on, encouraging me to talk. He pulls the breakfast tray away from my lap, letting its wooden legs settle on the floor, then wraps his arms around me. “Share babe. What are you feeling?”
“I don’t know, maybe it’s… survivor guilt.” I blurt out this revelation while glancing out my window at the sheer beauty of the world around me. The Bay and Golden Gate Bridge beckon me. “Let’s get outside today, the three of us. Go hiking or something.”
“After gardening,” replies George. “Planting flowers will be therapeutic for you. But you have no reason to feel guilty. Thank God you and your friends left when you did.”
I wonder if Anna and Julie are also experiencing shellshock.
Flowers…so appreciative of flowers. My eyes move to the modern floret arrangement that overwhelm the small vintage antique night table I bought in Beijing. A dramatic display of orchids, succulents and curly vines in a silver aluminum boat shaped container on a black base from George.
“Oh, believe me, I’m grateful for that. He’s been having nightmares too even though he wasn’t there. But it’s not even me I think about had I been shot… it’s him.” I point toward Tyler’s room. “I’m with him even more than you. That’s another thing I hadn’t expected: the emotional impact on Tyler.”
“It doesn’t surprise me. His mom narrowly avoided being killed in his peaceful home city,” George responded. “He’s fifteen.”
“True… and at the coffee shop his Mom frequented for sixteen years—where he went to do homework, baited by the promise of hot chocolate,” I reminisce, with a creeping sensation pulsing through my veins. Did this happen in my peaceful home city? In a gourmet cafe?
We remain silent a moment, our hugs needing no words. The only sound is that of birds and wind chimes. Then Tyler’s quick laughter adds to the delicate moment.
“He must be on those addictive YouTube videos again,” I comment.
George takes my tray, “I’ll go warm this up and get breakfast for Tyler. You rest.”
“Wait! There’s something else bothering me… I keep wondering if I could have helped him—”
“Caryss, please! You couldn’t have helped a young man in so much turmoil he pulled a gun on four people and killed them—”
“But he reached out to me! He spoke! Our eyes locked. What if I had given him human compassion?”
“What if he didn’t appreciate it then bang! Stop tearing yourself up over this.” My husband stood at the threshold of our bedroom with a look of mournful contemplation. “You need therapy—”
“No, he needed therapy and our social structure doesn’t take care of them. It shows where the values of our nation lie.” Okay, George played out my nightmare. Live in the moment. Breathe.
George nods, as if to show he understands. “Yes, he was likely traumatized by the military. A sense of powerlessness and disillusionment settled in, it sucks. Yet not everyone in the military goes nuts when they return.”
“Don’t you notice how many mass shooters were a former Marine or Army bait? So sad.”
George glances out the window at the sailboats in the San Francisco sunshine, saying nothing more. Then walks away to heat up my breakfast.
I stand at my window watching a freighter I’d seen yesterday come in through the Golden Gate, now-empty and returning. A ferry glides toward the city full of eager passengers getting to their work, shopping, life’s pursuits. Somehow, the reliability of the freighter and ferry bring a normalcy to the world and I’m reminded everything will be alright.
My cell phone pinged and it’s a text from Anna:
Can’t wait 2 hear about Hawaii! Paris was fab as usual. PS, Julie wants to do the women’s march next Saturday in the city.
With fingers hovering over my keys, I think about how to respond, then type:
Hawaii was double fab! No women’s march for me. Still trying to forget about our political reality after the coffee shop scene. How r u doing?
“I survived the loss of my girls. I nearly lost my grandson in an avalanche. If I’d been killed, I’d be with my daughters, I figure.”
What is she saying? Does she want to march for her deceased daughters? This is Anna, the strongest, most resilient, least selfish woman I know. She’s thinking of her grandson’s future now.
A big piece of my heart forever ached thinking how she lost her girls: the youngest at age twelve to a skateboarding accident. Her oldest a year later at age sixteen to suicide—two months after giving birth. A mother, deprived of her daughters, now the grandmother of a boy deprived of a mother.
I speed-dialed her number and pressed the speakerphone image.
“Thought I’d call rather than text. Nothing like a little human touch!”
“Are you okay? Stressing out over our near demise last month?” she asked.
“Oh, no I’m fine. I just prefer not to waste emotional energy on the march so soon after the ordeal.”
“Believe me… I don’t want to do it either. It’s Jules,” informed Anna.
“I have no wish to get caught in some wrath of rage, “I said.
“We can go into the city and hang out in the Ferry Building — go shopping and grab lunch,” Anna suggested.
Now that sounds enjoyable.” I sighed; the manufactured enthusiasm is gone. I didn’t want to be near any political protest.
Climbing out of bed, I stretch into Yoga poses when something caught my attention. A white dove had landed on the terrace below, watching me. A white dove!
Must be a mourning dove. No, too big. When I step closer to the window, the bird moved, its magnificent wingspan flashed, and I saw black at the back of its neck. I realized then it was an exotic Eurasian collared dove.
What kind of coincidence is this? I thought back to the angel that seemed to tap my head when Tyler was a small boy, seemingly sending me messages from God. Had the angel come back as a messenger, telling me to get more involved in spreading world peace? Some telepathic connection urging me to protest our militarized economy.
The dove made a cooing sound as it flew away, its squared-off tail showing a broad white band. Mesmerized by the sighting of the rare bird I barely noticed it had dropped something from its beak or leg.
I ran down the stairs to my patio and picked up an olive branch attached to a note. This couldn’t be real. I’m having another dream.
With shaking hands, I read, “I stand for life against death. I stand for peace against war!” Picasso’s quote that had been inscribed onto the back of Anna’s stolen La Paloma painting by Ava Ramírez, the daughter of a rogue CIA agent, found its way to my backyard zen den.
Her father had murdered Anna’s art gallery security guard and tried to frame his own daughter and friend after manipulating them to help steal a few of Anna’s prized art pieces. She then killed her own pet doves to symbolize how her father’s job kills peace.
And she’s been running for her life—from her own father and his business cronies ever since.
George and Tyler share concerned expressions as I run through the kitchen waving the note and shouting, “I told you so! It’s a message about the ravages of war from 1937 Spain to present-day Syria!”
“Are you going nuts, Mom?” Tyler asks. “Been talking to your wall again, to God?” My son referred to the time he caught me praying to the crucifix wrapped in rosary beads over the bed.
“I have to call Anna back—I’ll tell you in a second what I saw.” I pick up my cell phone and press my friend’s image.
“You saw Jesus himself, walking on water?” Tyler joked.
I ruffled his hair laughing. A glance into his neat room confirms he had cleaned it up for friends to come over. The gorgeous rustic-brown desk he had picked out himself at Urban Ore was polished to a shine.
“A beautiful dove landed in our backyard and dropped this!” I waved the note and Tyler stood with a dropped jaw and eyebrows raised. But before saying anything more, I step outside to leave a voicemail for Anna.
Anna mentioned that Julie does want to march for relevant and timely issues. After the FBI accused her innocent brother of being a terrorist, her beloved talking bird was murdered by feds to silence it and she narrowly escaped the shootout carnage with us, she seems transformed.
Maybe she’s had a political awakening and her dad’s glorified legacy of building our nation’s first ‘Liberty’ and “Victory’ ships has finally been crushed. Even back then, there was a major player in molding the war economy coming back to haunt us today. A player that resides at the heart of America’s defining theme.
The player is the infamous multinational corporation.
And … the one her dad worked for, Marinship, had its part in building our war-drenched, violence imbued society.
We shall see.