When Jack finally opened his eyes, the world was on fire. His nostrils stung with the putrid, choking sea of smoke that blanketed the battlefield.
He could remember breakfast. They’d eaten in the canyon, having slept in a cave just like their enemies, stuffing their mouths with cold, diluted curry, knowing the next meal could be days away. There’d been twelve of them. Their camp had been engulfed in the sludgy blackness of pre-dawn. No lights allowed. No fires. They couldn’t take the risk. There were eyes everywhere in these dunes and their lives were on the line. The curry was runny and tasteless and the air was dusty and stale. No one complained. Their minds were on their mission and nothing else mattered.
The intelligence from the previous three weeks had been unequivocal: small bands of insurgents were moving steadily westward, away from the front lines and towards several points believed to hide weapons caches. The experts agreed this could only mean that the enemy’s supplies were running dry. Intel had also learned that an unmarked convoy would rendezvous to restock a key target at oh-six-hundred, and Jack and the boys would be there waiting for the liaison, cutting them off with a surprise assault. If all went as planned, they’d be one step closer to defeating an enemy that had until now always been one infuriating step ahead.
They’d arrived early, with plenty of time on the clock to find suitable positions to lay in wait. Two of the boys went ahead to lay detonators near the roadside, a distraction that would give them the opportunity they needed to strike.
Jack heard the fire of automatic rifles long before realizing the men at the road had been shot. He called for cover and the men scattered. Artillery shells whip-cracked through the air, tearing through the dunes. Men were screaming. Jack spotted the black metal tips of AK’s peeking from somewhere above the sand ridges, lighting in orange sparks as they spat bullets into the fray. But there was nothing he could do about them, for his entire focus was consumed by a new sound, a low thud followed by a faint whistling that every soldier feared and fled from.
He winced with gritted teeth as the screams and wails of his comrades washed over him. Jack never saw who fired the grenade launcher, and he nearly missed the black, smoking canister as it bounced across his path. It was almost playful in its approach, a harmless toy to be kicked back into the shadows. Jack dove for a boulder.
The only sound Jack heard when he opened his eyes was a dim ringing in the pit of his head. The air spun crazily with dust and sand and rain. When the rain touched Jack’s face he felt its slickness, its warmth. It was raining blood.
Lying on his back, Jack checked himself for wounds. He could move his arms, which was good. No serious spinal injuries. He wasn’t able to get up, but that was probably safer anyhow, he thought. Jack prodded and pressed against his chest, neck, face, and ears. There were bits of metal embedded in the Kevlar fibers of his vest and his sleeves were bloodied in places, but nothing to be worried about. Jack struggled to lift his body slightly to get his bearings. And that’s when he saw it.
At the base of his body were the two stumps that were, just seconds ago, his legs. Jack looked away. A violent gush of nausea and memory swept through him. Thoughts of home. Thoughts of Mom. Thoughts of cold Montana nights spent by the lake. Even thoughts of his brother.
But there were no thoughts of rescue.
Their orders had been clear, the stakes known to each soldier. They were too far out for anything to go wrong. A rescue would pose too much of a risk to command, which was already spread razor thin in the unending expanse of the bone white Syrian desert.
Despite the flames licking the air from pools of burning metal, Jack felt the coolness seep in. The creeping of death. Inevitable, unreasoning. The only warmth came from his own life force that leaked from his body and made the sand stick to his tattered uniform.
Jack snapped open the latch at his chin and let his helmet fall away. Pressing his sweaty hair into the cool sand felt good, a kind of comfort in the chaos. At least it would be quick. All twenty-eight years had been quick.
Day was approaching, and between the scraps of smoke Jack glimpsed what would be his last sight. The red streaks of dawn. There was no pain, only dawn.
Naomi tugged at her turtleneck, drawing it closer to the sharp line of her clenched jaw. She counted off the hours in her head since they’d woken up that morning. Was it really only thirteen? It felt like they’d been running for days. She ached. Why had her body chosen this moment to catch a cold? As if things hadn’t been stressful enough… Naomi sniffled, rankled by the thought of her misfortune. Then again, several hundred people packed into a small metal box breathing each others’ air for a half a day was a more or less guaranteed recipe for illness. Naomi sighed and rubbed her temples.
“You think they’ll have Nyquil there?” Naomi asked her husband, rummaging through her purse and snapping the last two capsules from their foil packaging. She stamped her foot in frustration as one of them slipped from her grasp and rolled away into the shadows. Her husband, Charlie, was staring bug-eyed at a scramble of letters and phonetic markings in the glossy pages of a small book. He turned his head slightly to gaze at her over the rim of his glasses.
“I dunno babe, we’ll have to ask when we land.”
Naomi sighed again, louder this time, and reached for another tissue to dab at her red nose. She realized she was down to the last couple of neatly folded rectangles. “Remind me to get more tissues when we land,” she said, suddenly feeling very hot under her sweater.
“Mm-hm, sure babe.” Charlie mumbled, returning his attention to the book. Naomi watched as he silently mouthed some word. “Huh,” he said suddenly, “The Chinese character for good is the combination of the characters of woman and child. Interesting.” He leaned towards his wife to show her something from the booklet but she turned away.
“I can’t believe we’ve been in the air for over nine hours,” Naomi said. Charlie wore a neutral expression. His mouth opened slightly, then closed again.
“It’ll be over soon,” He said, removing a highlighter from his lapel pocket and underlining something.
Naomi glared at her husband. “I just really want to land. I don’t know how you stand it.”
Charlie shrugged. “I dunno. Never really minded flying. Helps clear my mind I guess. It helps that I’ve got something to occupy myself with, too. You didn’t bring anything to read?”
Naomi let out a soft groan. “I don’t feel like reading. How are you not worried?”
“What makes you think I’m not worried? I’m worried.”
“You don’t look it. Reading books, napping. I can barely think of anything else.”
“Naomi, everything will be fine,” Charlie tried to put his arm around her but changed his mind, discovering that the headrests formed an awkward barrier between their seats.
“You say that now, like you know, but... Have you thought about how many things could go wrong?”
Another shrug and a sheepish smile. “What’s the point of worrying? It won’t change anything. We’ll have to just deal with things as we face them. Kind of makes me think of this famous guy that once said, ‘never be anxious about the next day–’”
“Charlie, don’t patronize me. I’m not in the mood. I feel like I’m gonna be sick.” Naomi tried to sink into the chair but her knees bumped the seat in front of her. She grumbled. Nothing was comfortable. Nothing was going right. And if this streak continued after they landed... Naomi didn’t think she could handle any more disappointment. Any more pain.
“Hey, only three more hours to go, babe,” Charlie said. Naomi didn’t look at him as she rolled onto her side and slid an eye cover into place.
“You did what?” Adrina snapped. Her voice was climbing by degrees and she knew she’d be screaming soon. Her knuckles blanched as she gripped the dented wood of the kitchen doorframe. A fleck of paint squeezed past her nails and drifted to the floor.
“I said it ain’t my fault. Lopez didn’t like me, never did. Not my problem,” Corey’s voice was monotone as he lit a cigarette, cupping the flame with his left hand and frowning.
“Not your problem? Not your problem! How about that empty fridge, huh? Or the rent next week? Is that your problem?”
“Get off my back,” Corey said.
“How you gonna provide for us when you can’t even hold down a decent job?”
“Decent? It was a janitor at the mall. You call that decent? Worst job I ever did.”
“So it wasn’t just because Lopez didn’t like you. You thought you were too good for the job.”
“And what do you think? That the kind of job you want me doing? Cleaning up people’s garbage? You think that’s me? Corey the garbageman?”
“And now what am I supposed to think? You can’t even be a garbageman! What does that make you? What’s worse than garbage?”
Corey fumed. “Watch that mouth, girl. If it weren’t for me you wouldn’t have nothin’.”
“Be a man and get your job back. Stop runnin’ from every little thing you don’t like.”
“Yeah, well you’re the one to talk,” Corey said, lighting his second cigarette as he snubbed the first one into the sink.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Adrina’s tone was level, but her voice was beginning to tremble.
“You know what it means. You can’t stick with nothin’ either.”
“You don’t even know what you’re talking ab–”
“You say I run from jobs, well, at least I don’t run from my kid.” Corey pushed out the words on a stream of nicotine-laden smoke.
“Get out,” Adrina said. She was shaking now and she could feel it coming, taking over her body. Beads of sweat began to form on her face and arms and her knees were beginning to fail. “Get out before I throw you out.”
“Yeah, whatever,” Corey said, brushing past her from the kitchen to the front door. He slammed it so hard that the living room light flickered.
Adrina collapsed to the ground, heaving and gasping for air. Everything hurt, and in a few moments she wouldn’t be able to move as the room spun around her. Crawling across the floor, she reached for the drawer where she kept the medicine. It was a new prescription. The pharmacist said it was better than the old stuff. Adrina didn’t care. Whatever it took. The pain was unbearable. And the stress of wondering how she’d buy more migraine pills with Corey out of a job again only added to the fear and confusion.
She strained to read the directions on the bottle’s label but her vision was already beginning to sway and blur. It was hopeless. With the last of her strength she wrested the bottle open and dumped a small handful of pills into her mouth. It was bitter, a stronger taste than her old meds.
“Oh God,” Adrina said as she curled into a ball on the carpet. “Oh God....”
She could feel the carpet’s waxy grime against her face, against her shoulders and in her hair. The room seemed to be swallowing her, drowning out the sound of thought and the memory of pain. She was sinking into the floor, deeper and deeper until there was only blackness.
It had taken Charlie and Naomi nearly three full days to reach their final destination. Naomi’s cold, though mercifully brief, had left her drained and irritable and ready for this necessary excursion to conclude swiftly.
Their local contact, a young woman in an oversized sweatshirt and platform sneakers, held a sign with their names scribbled in black letters. She introduced herself as Lily and led them to an idling shuttle bus. Black smoke chuffed from its crooked exhaust pipes.
“I guess the emissions laws are a bit more lax here,” Charlie said as Naomi frowned and shielded her mouth with a sleeve.
Naomi was all questions as soon as they stowed their bags and found their seats. “Will we be able to see her today? Does she know we’re coming? How far away is the center?”
Lily nodded, “She knows. The center isn’t far. Only one hour.”
“An hour!” Naomi exclaimed, collapsing into her seat.
“What’s another hour?” Charlie said. Naomi did not appreciate his attempt at optimism.
“You come from California?” Lily asked.
“Actually we moved recently, to Oregon. But, you know, the new place is very nice, great for kids. Just as good as the old neighborhood. Even better, probably.”
“Oh, ok,” Lily said, flipping through a binder and making a notation. Naomi chuckled anxiously as she glanced to her husband. It’ll be OK, he mouthed silently.
The double decker bus trudged steadily on. There were highways and narrow villages and stretches of gravel and dirt. There were cliffs and valleys, bridges and tunnels. The air outside was grey and pallid and Naomi was thankful for the air conditioning, sealed windows, and reclinable chairs of the bus. Much better than flying.
The center was smaller and older than it had appeared on the website. The entrance was lined with overflowing trash bins that gave off a rancid odor. Feral cats with mangled tails and missing patches of hair guarded the garbage with arched backs and bared teeth. Naomi shot a panicked look at her husband but he ignored her.
It was loud inside. Metal trays clanked and cackled on a flimsy pushcart being dragged into each of the rooms. Someone yelled incoherently from what was possibly a kitchen. The air was warm and wet. Mold grew from a few of the ceiling’s corners, having clearly but ineffectively been plastered over many times before. Naomi shivered. Charlie consoled her with a hand against her back.
“Please wait a moment,” Lily said, slipping into a side room that had been hidden by a door in the wall.
Naomi looked to her husband, shaking her head with knitted brows, “This isn’t good, is it, Charlie? Something is wrong.”
“Let’s just see. We’ve come this far. No turning back now,” he said. And then, as if an afterthought, added, “I’m sure it’ll be ok.”
“Are you really sure?” Naomi pleaded.
Charlie said nothing.
Lily’s head poked from the doorway and she motioned for them to enter.
The small room was crammed with stacks of papers, filing cabinets, and the smell of foreign food. An electric fan rattled noisily from the corner of the ceiling and one of the walls, groaning as it pivoted on a rusty mechanical socket. There was scarcely space for a desk and chair in the center of the room where a slender man sat across from two empty seats. He stood formally and shook hands with Naomi and Charlie.
“Welcome to Zhengzhou. I’m Mr. Zhao. I believe we’ve chatted through email.”
“Yes, of course, of course, thank you. It’s good to finally be here,” Naomi said. Charlie nodded politely and they sat.
Lily produced from a cabinet a set of miniature porcelain tea cups and poured them a fragrant, steaming tea.
“Your travel was ok?” Mr. Zhao asked as he fished for a file in a stack of papers on his desk.
“Well–” Naomi began.
“It was fine. Thank you,” Charlie cut in.
“That’s very good. Now, I’m sure you are excited to see Feifei,” Mr. Zhao said.
“Yes, we are, the sooner the better, in fact,” Naomi blurted.
“That’s fine, and you will. Very soon. But there are some things we need to discuss.”
“Sure. We know we still have some documents to sign, right?”
“Yes, of course,” Mr. Zhao said, but his manner revealed something else.
“Other things? What things? Is something wrong?” Naomi asked.
Mr. Zhao tilted his head down, looking over the rim of his wire-framed glasses with a thin smile. He held his palms up.
“Nothing serious. And nothing with your paperwork. You all seem to be very capable people, very right for adoption.”
“Thank you,” said Charlie.
“But something’s wrong,” Naomi said. Without meaning to, it had some out like an accusation.
“Well, there is development we need to tell you about Feifei.”
Naomi said nothing. Her stern eyes fixed on Mr. Zhao’s face.
“It is nothing very unusual, given her circumstances, but it is something you should know.”
“What is it?” Charlie asked.
Mr. Zhao’s chair let out a creak as he leaned back and drew in a long breath. “Sometimes, with children who grow up without close family, like Feifei, there are consequences, there is... resulting behavior. It likely will pass with time.”
“What kind of behavior?” Naomi asked slowly, cautiously.
“She doesn’t like to interact with others. She spends most of her time by herself, playing, sometimes looking out the window. It is not serious, but it may seem to you like strange behavior.”
“Does it seem to you like strange behavior?” Naomi asked. Charlie was watching her now.
“Our psychologist thinks it is only temporary. Like I said, we see this sometimes in smaller children. Trauma can affect a child in different ways. They need time to...adjust.”
“She’s been in your care for a year and she’s still like this? Why would you not tell us this before? We specifically asked if there was anything wrong,”
“It may not be anything wrong, we will just have to wait and see.”
“And what if it doesn’t get better? It’s not like we can return her!”
Mr. Zhao took a sip of his tea and glanced at Charlie, then back to Naomi. “I know this must be difficult, but this is not a serious problem. Many children just need some time. Usually they do better once they settle into life with a stable family.”
“Usually? And what about the others?”
“Hey, hey, Naomi,” Charlie said, patting her arm. Naomi pulled away, gasping as if the gesture disgusted her.
“We want to see her for ourselves,” she demanded.
Mr. Zhao nodded and said something to Lily, who whisked herself away from the conversation and back into the hall, letting the door shut behind her with a click.
Harold Dawson ran the fine toothed comb through what little was left of his once-full head of hair with a sigh. He could scarcely see the remnants of the young man in the mirror’s stare. There was no denying that age had taken its ghastly toll. At least he hadn’t squandered his youth, he thought. It was a reminder that helped him unfurl his brow and force a wiry grin onto his lips. There would be more days for worry and today was not one.
Harold shuffled about his apartment, slipping items into his sturdy leather attaché. He paused for a moment to admire the Italian craftsmanship. No loose stitching, no stretched buckles. There were the unavoidable scuffs and scratches, but they only enhanced its beauty, adding to its charm.
Harold had to admit he was a little nervous. It wouldn’t be his first award, and certainly not his first acceptance speech, but this one felt different. Perhaps the nerves were merely a physical response to a stressful few months. There had been the falling out with Paul Hannover, his long-time colleague and friend, and the normal decline of aging health. The chest pains were something new, but he’d have all the time to address health concerns once this week had been tidily wrapped up.
But in spite of everything, he’d finally done it. He had made his mark on his field of study. It was any scientist’s dream to make the kind of impact he’d made. And in evolutionary biology, no less, a formidable feat in a field that had been discussed, debated, and theorized over to no end for the better part a century. Harold’s theories and speculations had won him publishing deals and study grants, and twelve years and four books later, he had begun to enjoy a kind of mild celebrity status.
Not that you could tell it from the way he lived. The modest apartment boasted no extravagant luxuries. The north wall had been repurposed into a vertical workspace, cordoned into sections for writing lists and hanging notes and articles of interest. A simple metal rack on the opposite end displayed his unaffected wardrobe, a neat row of trench coats, pressed cotton shirts, wool pants, and tweed jackets.
On the south wall hung a series of awards Harold had collected over the years. Harold had spaced the plaques evenly along the wall, measuring the distances twice before driving their nails. It was disconcerting that a new award would mean re-measuring the distances, or else finding a new way to organize them. Harold brushed the annoyance away with a swat of his hand and began, for the seventeenth time that afternoon, to rehearse his speech.
It was the first of September and Professor Harold Dawson was pleased to note that the leaves were changing color as he stepped off the apartment stoop into the cramped Cambridge street. Students were milling about or slipping down the lanes on their bicycles. They all looked so young, freshmen, possibly, having just begun the Fall semester, with so much ahead of them. Years ago, being surrounded by their youth and energy was something he had enjoyed, a kind of invigorating inspiration. Now he found it all rather annoying. Harold winced as another cramp cinched his chest. Probably the Indian food. He would have to cut back.
It was only an eight minute walk to the hall where the ceremony would be held. Harold had always loved being so close to university. It was an institution like no other, and walking the very corridors that had been graced by Newton, Bacon, Hawking–and of course, Darwin–was a feeling like no other.
At the doors, Harold reached for his identification tag when he spotted a familiar face. John Clevitt was dressed in a dark blue suit and tie and extended his hand. “Hi, Harry,” he said.
“Well you’re looking sharper than usual,” Harold said with a smile.
“Saw it on the rack and got it on discount. I never know what to buy!” The men laughed. Then, in a softer voice, John said, “I’m glad you came.”
“Well, of course. You thought I’d miss this?” Harold asked. “One more for the wall.”
“Well, given the circumstances... With Paul.”
Harold studied his friend’s expression and was suddenly pricked by unease. “Come again?”
“Don’t tell me… Wait, you haven’t heard?”
“Well apparently not, what’s happened?”
“Harry... I don’t know how to put this, exactly, but Paul’s new book... It’s... Well, it’s extraordinary.”
“And? What’s that got do with my award?”
“Harold,” John said, taking his friend by the arm and leading him gently away from the earshot of others. “This is the next breakthrough in the field. I’m sorry to say, but it puts your latest work on ice.”
“What are you saying?”
“Well, you can read it for yourself if you like. I mean, I know you two had a rough spell, but–“
“Tell me straight, John. What happens when I walk through those doors?”
“I’m sorry, friend. I really am. But the association can’t give the award with the current state of affairs. There’s just too much in question about what you theorized in your paper. Our hands are tied behind our backs on this one. If there was anything I could do–”
“You could’ve told me before I showed up here and made a fool of myself!”
“Harry, I tried. God knows I sent emails and called and left messages. You didn’t get any of them?”
“It’s been a busy week.”
“I’m sorry, Harry. If I’d known–“
“No, no,” Harold said, dismissing his friend with a wave of his hand. Another pang hit him in the chest. Harold held his breath, waiting for it to pass, but instead it lingered. Then it intensified. Then, as if rearing back and charging forward, the pain bit viciously into him. Harold felt electricity whip through his veins like poisoned lightning.
“Harry? Hey, Harry! Are you alright?” John gasped, grabbing his friend’s wobbling old frame.
Harold couldn’t respond through his quivering lips. The pain was ferocious, unrelenting. He collapsed to his knees and slumped into the floor. There was a commotion, people running, gasping. A woman screamed. John was calling someone on his cellphone. And then everything went fuzzy and dark as Harold Dawson took his last breath.
Charlie Lewis watched his wife move listlessly across a cheap floral carpet seared by countless cigarette butts. She clutched a half-crumpled water bottle in one hand and a wad of tissues in the other. Her red and swollen lips quivered helplessly, and Charlie knew that more tears were on their way. Anger and frustration clung to the air as distinctly as the miasma of old nicotine. She’d been through so much, and now this. There was nothing Charlie could say to console her.
Until just two hours before, he and Naomi had believed that Feifei was to be a certain addition to their family. For months they’d carefully selected wallpaper and bed sheets and miniaturized, pink furniture. They’d purchased books from adoption experts and received copious amounts of second hand toddler clothes from Witnesses in congregations near and far. Everything had been set.
But the girl they’d laid eyes on at the center was hardly a shell of the one they’d conjured in their dreams. She hadn’t spoken a single word, let alone made eye contact with them. It was worse than they’d ever imagined. Charlie was praying but still didn’t have an answer he could work towards. He desperately wished they had more time. Time to calm down, time to think rationally. But their departure was scheduled for the day after tomorrow and after that there’d be no coming back.
“You said everything would be ok,” his wife said through choking sobs.
“I’m sorry, Naomi…” Charlie began, clearing his throat. “How could I have known?”
“Why didn’t those people tell us! We’ve been corresponding for years!”
Charlie wondered this himself and was unsure of how to answer. “Perhaps it’s as they say. Maybe it’ll get better with time?”
“Maybe? Charlie, listen to yourself! The girl spends every day standing in a corner or looking out the window.”
“But if Mr. Zhao is right, maybe it’s just a passing phase. He does have a lot of experience with kids, and–”
“How dare you defend him! That man, he lied to us, Charles.”
“I don’t know if I’d call it lying–“
“Oh really? So I suppose you think he just somehow managed to forget to tell us that the girl we were planning on adopting had a serious developmental disorder.”
“We asked so many times if there was anything wrong, anything at all, and they wait until we fly halfway around the world to finally tell us, ‘Oh yes, by the way, the girl is a mute. Sorry about that.’”
“She’s not mute, Naomi. They say they’ve heard her speak, remember?”
“Talking to herself! I’m not sure if that’s better or worse!”
“That’s true, but maybe with time–“
“I don’t see how you can be so calm! Are we even experiencing the same thing? Are you even here with me right now?”
“Naomi, please. Just sit down for a second.”
“I don’t want to sit down. These sheets look filthy anyway.”
“Ok, fine,” Charlie said. He stood up from the corner of the bed and went to her, but her expression dissuaded him.
“Look. Naomi. I’m upset too. This is not how I envisioned things working out.”
“Yeah, well that’s cause they’re not working out.”
“Ok, yes. I agree it seems that way. But it doesn’t change the fact that there’s a little girl in there that needs a home.”
Charlie tried to look past the pain in his wife’s eyes as he continued. “The thing is, we really only have two choices here. We either choose to adopt Feifei or we go home empty handed. And after all these expenses, I don’t see us being able to do this again, at least not for a long, long time.”
“Then we should demand out money back. Sue the jerks if we have to.”
“Babe, you know the way this works as well as I do. We can forget the money. We’ll never see it again.” Both Charlie and his wife had researched the process exhaustively long before starting it. For the few that attempted it, suing a foreign adoption agency was more headache than it was worth, and rarely resulted in a settlement or verdict favorable for the litigants.
“It makes me sick just thinking about it,” Naomi hissed.
“You and me both, but it’s water under the bridge. The question now is, can we do this? Can we raise this little girl?” Charlie said the words almost automatically, without fully understanding the implications behind the proposal. He was as surprised as his wife to hear them.
Naomi unscrewed the water bottle and finished its contents. She then tossed it into a small metal bin and collapsed next to her husband on the bed. The mattress beneath them groaned and lurched.
“I don’t even know. What do you think, Charlie? Can we?”
He was certain of nothing. The situation was daunting either way, but the possibility of actually leaving empty handed now and risking more years of saving, filing paperwork, and long distance correspondence was practically unbearable. If nothing else, the present situation was at least defined and tangible, and in some strange way, therefore manageable. The fact was, had they been able to have their own baby, there was no choice involved. There was no option of walking away. The baby could be healthy, or it could not be. There were no guarantees. Why should this be different?
Charlie scratched his face with the coarse stub of a fingernail, yet another casualty of the day’s string of stressful events. Finally, he spoke:
“Well... I think we’d do a better job than that orphanage.”
Naomi was silent as she looked into her husband’s eyes and sighed. Charlie brushed a strand of blonde hair from his wife’s face. Despite it all, she was still beautiful. Still strong.