Sasha came back from Kandahar in pieces, a sack of broken glass in the shape of a woman. She knew her edges stuck out at hard, invisible angles, waiting for an unwary hand to snag and recoil, so she kept her eyes closed through the flight to Chicago, immersed in civilian travel-murmur but not part of it; when the flight attendant offered to help her with her bags after landing, she said no thank you. She read his nod as relieved, the quick turn from her on his heel more so—thought about making a remark, I don’t bite and it isn’t contagious, but didn’t.
This was the way things were going to be from here ‘til forever.
Then folks were standing, bustling for their carry-ons and banging elbows into each other. Sasha levered herself out of the small seat, breath held against the tight ache in her guts, and eased her own pack from the overhead to follow the mass exit. The persistent flow of travelers swept her along the jet bridge to the airport, kept her from dragging her feet as the distance between then and now closed. Four months and as many hospitals, long enough that the tan had leeched from her skin and the residual grit had washed out of her hair—or, she’d lost it when they’d shaved her to do tests at the German layover. Four months like a nightmare; four months like a mirage.
“Sasha,” a voice called as she exited the terminal into baggage claim, but the first thing she saw was the dazzlingly strange expanse of wide, white, winter sky outside the window. Only second did she see Liz, who was standing to her right with one hand raised halfway to her mouth. The light haloed her, slouching in jeans and a high-buttoned black trench coat, pale hair a nimbus of tangles. She might have lost weight; difficult to tell.
“Hon,” Sasha replied, loosening her grip on her pack.
“Oh, shit,” Liz said.
The foot of space between them closed like a slamming door as Liz lurched forward and wrapped soft arms around her neck, sagging into her. She grunted, knees giving slightly, and Liz cursed again before letting go.
“I forgot, I’m sorry. Let me take your bag,” she said. “Fucking—good to see you.”
That was all she managed before her voice cracked and she put that fluttering hand over her eyes. Sasha heaved a low, long breath and shifted her pack, setting it on the ground. Liz trembled, quiet tears, and Sasha put a tentative hand on her arm.
“I’m home,” Sasha said.
“It’ll be like I never left,” she continued.
Liz shook her head and patted Sasha’s hand. Her gaze flicked up, skated over what Sasha already knew was there, what she felt tugging whenever she spoke: the twist of red, young scar tissue mapping up the side of her face from jaw to cheekbone, leading to the divot nicked into her left ear. “I wish you’d just told them to go fuck themselves, and let me visit.”
“I couldn’t be sure I was going to be discharged,” she said, posture straightening. “What could I do, ask for transportation and travel orders for my partner?”
“Yes,” Liz said.
Sasha tucked her chilly hands in her pockets, reopening the gap between their bodies. The sleepless, fevered nights she’d spent at Walter Reid, waiting for them to promise her she could transfer back to active duty, looped in her mind’s eye.
“Well, it certainly doesn’t matter any more,” she said. Her lover’s lips narrowed in response. “Let’s go home.”
Liz rubbed the heel of her hand over her eyes, one after the other, smearing away tears though the bruise-purple discoloration below them remained. “Okay,” she said.
Sasha ducked her head and followed as Liz tugged the pack onto her own strong shoulders to lead the way through the afternoon-busy airport. Her shadow trailed behind, dogging Sasha’s steps, and she kept her eyes on it rather than her partner’s uncombed hair.
She’d read the same books that Liz had—on wounded warriors, on trauma, on homecoming—but there hadn’t been words to encompass what she wanted to say about the burning in her bones, lodged under her skin like a piece of shrapnel that no doctor could cut out. She slipped her hand out of her pocket and flexed it. Ligament and bone rippled, spidery, under pale scar-flecked flesh. She shuddered and hid it away again. In daylight, she suspected she’d just snapped under the pressure.
But if she had come back in pieces, she feared something else might have slipped into the cracks.
Sasha crossed her legs at the ankles and laced her fingers between her knees. The doctor smiled, glasses on the end of her nose in danger of slipping free, and put her notepad aside. The bands of ragged scar tissue on Sasha’s abdomen ached with tension. Silence spread between them like ripples smoothing on the surface of water, hiding all manner of devils beneath.
“I know that it’s difficult to start talking to someone new, after the rapid changes you’ve been going through with your transfer,” the woman began.
“With my discharge,” Sasha corrected.
The doctor tilted her head in acknowledgment. “But you’re home, and you’re a veteran now. How’s your significant other taking it?”
“Liz?” Sasha frowned. They’d had every meal together for the past three days, stayed in each others’ shadows, shared showers, re-learned each others’ bodies with nominal success. But in the dark, while Liz slept, Sasha had seen the gleam of her own bones through her skin, had stuffed her face into her pillow to stop seeing, stop the invaded, horrified shaking that chased on the heels of the visions. “It’s fine.”
“Has she said anything about your—”
“The scars?” she cut in. The doctor nodded. “No. She touches them. She cried over them. She hasn’t said anything, though.”
“Do you want to talk to her about what happened?” she asked.
“I will when she’s ready. I’m fine. I’ve had time to get used to it.”
The other woman leaned forward in her chair. “You have not. You’ve been bounced from hospital to hospital, isolated from your unit, and swept up into this homecoming. I don’t want you to think you need to put on a brave face for me. I have your previous therapist’s notes; you did transfer them. You were having severe flashbacks.”
Sasha winced. “May I add that I was sedated for quite a lot of that?”
“Of course,” the doctor said. “That doesn’t mean what you said wasn’t true.”
“Look, I’m home, I can walk—I got lucky. I have all my limbs, okay? I feel pretty good about that. I was going to retire early anyway, now I got out earlier. I’ll readjust. If I have trouble, I’ll let you know. I’m still me.”
The doctor stared at her for another long moment. Behind the woman’s friendly façade, Sasha saw a flash of steel—no surprise, in a VA-recommended therapist. Sasha looked away first, face warming, and inspected a dun-and-blue painting of a desert oasis hanging on the far wall. It clashed with the yellow-cream wall paper. I’m still me, all me and only me.
“All right,” the doctor said finally. “I will note that repression can be catastrophic to a woman at your stage of recovery, as I’m sure you already know. So, weekly appointments, on Wednesdays?”
“Sure,” she agreed. The therapy was paid for, and Liz would feel better if she went.
“Then let’s talk about what you want to return to. What it was like between you and your partner prior to your deployment?” the therapist asked, picking up her notepad.
“Damn.” Sasha laughed, flattening her palms on her thighs. “You don’t joke around.”
“No,” the doctor said.
So they spoke, and Sasha spilled out safe memories like golden threads.
Liz’s eyes were stunning, lined in kohl-black pencil, their edges shaded delicately with purple glitter. Her fingertips traced circles on the damp rim of her wineglass. Sasha watched, the din of the restaurant fading to a dull roar as Liz’s blunt, handsome hands hypnotized her. The plane ticket for her return from leave was tucked in a travel folder on their table at home; from there, to Afghanistan.
“Our last night,” Liz murmured.
“I’ll be back before you know it,” Sasha said.
Liz gripped the glass to take a sip of the last lingering wine. “If you come back. If the next thing I see of you isn’t your ghost.”
“Christ,” Sasha said. She nudged Liz’s foot under the table. “Don’t say that. I’m going to be fine. I’m good at what I do. I’ll be done with my tour soon enough, and then we’ll take a secret vacation.”
“And then there’s that,” Liz said. “I won’t even be able to really talk to you while you’re gone.”
Sasha sighed. “It is what it is, hon. You can call, you can email, we just have to be careful.”
“Fuck those guys,” she spat.
Sasha had to grin—in that fancy dress and delicate makeup, her Liz still couldn’t keep her mouth clean. “Let’s get out of here,” she said and tossed her napkin to the table.
At home, after an interminable drive, the air sparked between them. A stumble through the darkened hallway to the bedroom ended with Sasha’s hands under Liz’s silk dress, yanking it up around her hips. If it tore, Sasha would buy a new one. Liz muttered obscenities in her ear as they pressed up against the doorframe, working a hand between them to undo her shirt buttons. Sasha squeezed her thighs and bit her neck; Liz ripped a button off in frustration.
“Fuck,” Sasha growled. She hefted Liz with her hands, lifted with her back the way she knew not to do, and Liz squealed as her feet left the floor. Heels dug into her butt while Liz clung to her shoulders and she strode into the bedroom.
“Big strong fucking marine,” Liz gasped out, all red-faced delight and smeared makeup.
“Big strong fucking woman,” Sasha corrected.
“Yes, ma’am,” she replied as Sasha dropped her on the bed.
Later, Sasha put her hand on the rise and fall of her lover’s ribs. “Do you really think I’d haunt you?”
“I hope you would,” Liz whispered.
“I don’t believe in ghosts. Nothing like that.”
The quiet fell again.
If I die, I’m just dead, Sasha thought.
“Can you get the sauerkraut open?” Liz called from the kitchen.
“Sure!” Sasha replied.
She sat the three pound weight on the floor next to her foot and rotated her wrist until it popped. Without the PT, her left shoulder would stiffen and the nerve damage would render her arm useless, but her joints didn’t always appreciate it. She swung a leg over the work-out bench, made her way to help Liz with dinner. It was just reubens, but real food remained a treat after so long on hospital fare. She rounded the corner to the kitchen and appreciated the sight of a brilliant sunset through the glass door to the backyard. Pink and gray clouds scuttled across the sky.
“That’s lovely,” she said.
“Mm-hmm,” Liz murmured, arranging sandwiches on a baking sheet.
Sasha rubbed her partner’s side through the starched white dress shirt she wore to the office, then slipped past her warm body to the counter and the offending jar of pickled cabbage. She braced her elbow and twisted the cap of the jar, but it was stuck.
“Damn, that’s on there,” she said.
Again, she pushed with the bulk of her torso, straining her shoulder. She bared her teeth. Her arm quaked. She clenched her hand and bent low over the jar, stomach protesting the sudden flex.
“Honey,” Liz said.
Sasha bit the inside of her cheek and thumped her head against the high cabinets. Her hand slipped from the jar and she breathed, one-two-one-two-one-two. Arrows of shock-sharp pain flew from shoulder joint to fingertips and her stomach gave a twinge. Liz eased the jar away. Sasha heard the cap pop a moment later. She stood with eyes closed, the cool wood of the cabinet pressed to her forehead to ward off the burning in her sinuses.
The night she’d told the doctor about—when she had been a big strong fucking marine—was not going to happen again. Not if the best she could do was a three-pound weight. No lifting a whole woman, not if you couldn’t open a goddamn jar of sauerkraut.
“Food’ll be ready in about fifteen,” Liz said quietly.
“Yeah, okay,” Sasha said. Her voice was a croak. Why’d you ask me at all, if you could do it? she wanted to yell.
She left the room to the sound of Liz’s measured, quaking breaths—trying to hide that she was crying. Sasha couldn’t make herself look. Instead, she went to the bathroom, kicked the door shut behind her, and gripped the cold porcelain sink. She stared into her own eyes from inches away, took in the stunning scarlet weft of the scar lining her face as well.
The sun set a moment later. She knew, because a faint luminescence glittered to life across cheekbones and chin, eye sockets and fingers. The heat in her bones, like a touch of amphetamine, stopped the shaking in her arm. The thing in her, the passenger she’d brought back stuffed into her scars and riding her skeleton, woke with the night.
“Nothing has changed,” she informed her reflection. “I am in control.”
It seemed to lift an eyebrow.
She slapped the light-switch, plunging herself into blackness for a precious moment before her eyes adjusted to the dull, eerie glow coming from beneath her skin. Real as concrete, real as the lingering hurt that lived in her gut and shoulder. She flipped the switch on again, and no amount of warmth in her bones could stop the tremor in her hand.
Blue-white light filled her eyes as Sasha woke gasping, thrashing in an unforgiving grip with hands clawing out, heels dug into the mattress. She pitched sideways, scrambled out of the strangling sheets, swept the night-table over on its side with a crash and followed it out of the bed to the floor. Her head smacked the base-board and her knee—bare—crunched down on glass.
“Shit, fuck,” Liz shouted above her.
Sasha’s hand, clutching the leg of the bedside table, glowed wild and alien like a biology-class dummy cloaked in translucent plastic flesh. She heaved a breath and screamed it out, a raw howl, kicking away the last of the sheets—or Liz pulled them free; regardless, they were gone. The yowl dissolved into a wet, chest-wrenching sob. She curled around her belly, holding herself. Revulsion stuck her eyes closed.
“Get it out of me,” she cried, flinging her arm up to the bed. She made a fist. “Get it out, I don’t want it, take it—”
“Should I call your doctor?” Liz asked, frantic.
Sasha laughed, a hoarse bray, and curled up tighter. Her betrayed, betraying body quaked, nose running, her sobs followed by hacking coughs and cramping abdominal muscles. Liz waited.
“Do you see it?” Sasha asked instead when she could wrangle an unspent breath.
Liz grunted, neither agreement nor disagreement. Then her voice rose, shaken, “There are more things in heaven and earth—”
“Don’t you quote fucking Hamlet at me!”
“You’re not yourself,” she began.
“Fucking right I’m not myself, look at me.” She rolled to her knees. Pain cut through the nausea and displacement—she was in her bedroom, not in a ravine surrounded by blue-white glow with a knife in her belly—but she kept moving through it and stood. “I’m not me. I’m not me,” she said, shaking into tears again and collapsing forward onto the bed on her hands. Her bleeding knee smeared against the side of the mattress.
“I don’t know what to do,” Liz whispered.
“Just go,” Sasha said.
“Please,” she said, catching her breath one more time. Her face throbbed with her pulse as if swollen. “I had a flashback. I’m going to be fine. But I want to deal with it.”
“The book said I should never leave you like this,” Liz said.
“I’m telling you what I need.” Sasha lifted her head, saw her lover’s face in the dark by her own light, wondered what Liz saw in turn. Judging by her flinch—the flinch she’d been expecting the first time Liz touched her ruined shoulder, her belly, her face; the flinch that had never come—she knew the invasion for true. She saw. “At least I’m not crazy.”
Liz let out a short, choked laugh.
“Give me a day, Liz. I can’t stand you looking at me right now,” she said.
“Fuck you,” Liz replied with no heart in it.
Sasha shook her head and staggered from the broken glass and overturned table. “I’m going to wash up. Can you stay with your sister?”
“I’ll be gone when you get out of the bathroom,” Liz said.
Sasha locked herself in the small, white-tiled room and sat on the side of the tub. The fluorescent light cut her skeleton-glare to nothing. If only the doctor had any idea of all the shit she was keeping at bay behind a creaking, cracking dam. It had been easy enough to hold herself together during the hospital rounds, but Liz’s patience and love and honesty were impossible to face with prevarication. The pretense of being real again, being in control again, sloughed away under her calm stare.
The front door slammed. Sasha dabbed at her lacerated kneecap with toilet paper. One of the places she’d been free of scars—maybe not any longer. She hadn’t really expected Liz to leave, but she hadn’t been lying, either: she could take no more. No more of her rebellious eldritch body, no more of her lover’s unintentionally castigating sympathy. It was down to her, now, the lie given to all her delusions. Her and the corpse of the sure, certain self that had fallen apart under a feral moon thousands of miles away, her and her haunted bones.
The moon was yellow and monstrously huge overhead, baleful—too bright for safety. Sasha kept her eyes on the truck in front of her and her peripheral vision on the sides of the road. Her convoy jounced along rutted terrain with a muted animal roar. Mountains kissed the black sky in the distance, discernible only by their lack of star-speckles. The troops in her transport were far more silent than usual, as if the glare of the hunter’s moon had sealed their lips shut. The hair rose on the nape of Sasha’s neck. There was a fine line between superstition and intuition.
“Hey, Peak—” she murmured.
The explosion tore her words from her along with her breath, a sudden cacophony and then the body-slam of the rolling, tumbling transport going down a small hill. Her ears rang and her body heaved as she came to a stop with dirt under her palms outside the truck. Her left arm collapsed unceremoniously, dumping her face-first and disoriented into the dust.
There was gunfire. The moonlight showed her chaos when she lifted her head; three trucks destroyed of their five, a melee of enemy combatants firing in close quarters and swarming from behind a craggy rock in the near distance. Out of the corner of her eye she saw metal and turned her neck—vomited. The horror of it was greater than the agony she couldn’t yet feel. A thin but still far too generous spike of metal had punched through her upper shoulder, her own gore painting it in the sickly light. Another explosion; the truck she’d been thrown from, judging by the trajectory, aflame.
By the nightmare-light she saw the man as he came for her, fumbled for her gun—pinned underneath her body—one-handed while he hurried toward her. She realized too late how distant she was from her fellows and the fighting. He grabbed her by the left arm and wrenched her onto her side, eyes flashing in the refracted flicker of the fire. His free hand snagged her gun and ripped it away, threw it into the scrub. She bared her teeth and yelled through a grimace when he began to drag her from the flames and the conflict, to a certain death on camera at a later date.
This is not how I fucking go, she thought.
Sasha Brooks was a marine, and she knew her business.
Kicking her heels into the rocky dirt, she shoved her body weight into his legs, forcing him to wrench her wounded arm further—nausea again as she felt the metal twist inside—and then made an injudicious grab up the line of his thigh. His yelp gratified her when she got a handful and dug nails in as hard as she could. He dropped her arm but she hung on like a limpet, then rolled onto her stomach and propelled herself forward with a mighty leap to bull her head into his middle.
They fell. She screamed as the rocks slid and they went down a ravine hidden in the dark. The metal in her flesh ripped loose a further inch and she could not even make a sound to encompass the feeling. She landed on top of the soldier and punched her free hand up under his jaw, clawed for a grip. Her fingertips dug into the meat of his neck. Light flared, dazzling her night-ready eyes. Her grip slipped. She blinked and saw his bones, a young man’s bones, the fine lines of jaw and cheek, lit blue. He had no scruff; his face under the glow was almost a child’s. Sasha gasped for breath, staring into his eyes as he stared into hers.
Then the knife flashed up between them, faster than she could rear back, sliding smoothly across her cheek and catching on her ear. She knocked his arm sideways with her deadened limb, thought he had missed until her blood splattered his child’s face in a wave. She glimpsed his hand holding the knife. It, too, was lit up like a deep-sea fish, incongruous and ghostly.
Shock, she thought. Move fast.
He spoke something to her before she bore her whole weight onto the hand around his throat. His legs kicked; his torso heaved. She locked her ankles around his, rocks tumbling down from the edge of the ravine to pelt them both. Her breath rang in her ears. He struggled and died beneath her fingers, which had begun to shake. She leaned up to brace harder.
The hooked blade went in vicious and smooth.
Her mouth opened. She felt the wind on her tongue, hot and dry. Her hand was its own alien thing now; it refused to let go. His eyelids fluttered. The glow of his bones flared, flashed like fireworks. His weakening hand dragged the knife in her gut sideways, spilling parts of her that were not meant to touch air. Finally he went limp as she lay on him, cold with fear and oncoming shock, but she did not let go.
“I’m taking you with me,” she managed. She could not save herself, all personal mythology destroyed with her failing body, but this she could do.
The light fluttered, peeled out of his flesh like a white butterfly. She blinked, blinked again, vision blurred. The glow wrapped tendrils around her wrist and sank into her clinging fingers. It felt like a kiss, warm damp lips caressing her from the inside out. The current slithered soothing and welcome over her aching, battered body. The horror melted away.
Above, a voice cried out, “There’s a light here—I found her!”
She was still staring into the young man’s eyes—this young man with his protected bones, his heavenly skeleton, who she had never known and who had never known her, who had murdered her, who she had murdered—when the scout tumbled down into the ravine and didn’t curse, just let out a weak breath. The gentle glow emanating from her body guttered.
His radio, next: “It’s bad.” Fingers hot on her throat. “But she’s fucking alive. Medic, get a medic.”
Sasha tossed the stained wad of toilet paper in the half-full trashcan and stared at her knee, which was sluggishly oozing blood and lymph. The sting was mild, negligible. She stood and unlocked the bathroom door, slipping out into the mausoleum-silent house. Her bare feet padded with dull thuds across the hardwood floor to the bedroom. Liz had left the lamp on her side of the bed lit. On Sasha’s side, the table lay in shambles. Her water bottle had rolled halfway under the bed and the glass from the broken lamp was scattered across the gleaming wood. With careful feet she swept forward to the edge of the disaster zone and bent low to open the sideways drawer of the desk. Her pistol fell naturally into her hand. She checked the magazine and the safety.
The gun was a solid comfort as she walked with chin held high through the dark hall. The bathroom mirror framed the set of her jaw, the glaring wound marring her face, and the knot of tissue where the shrapnel had punctured her shoulder. Her tank-top bared most of it. She laid the gun on the edge of the sink, barrel pointed toward the mirror. Her heel edged back to close the door.
“So I’m not me,” she said to her reflection.
Once more, she palmed the dimmer-switch to off. The enclosed space filled with shadows, as if from a child’s nightlight—tranquil colors cast on the walls. She stared into the mirror and spun the pistol to face her body against a skin-crawling resistance in the back of her mind, the ingrained muscle memory of safety. Her litany of horrors: mutilated stomach and shoulder, nerve damage, jobless disabled veteran, a drain on her lover, facial scarring, never passing for normal again, future a blank and all plans destroyed, dead in a ditch in Afghanistan but rescued and, despite it all, haunted.
“I didn’t save myself,” she whispered. The thing had saved her, cast light for the scout to see by, warmed her shock-cold limbs, kept her heart beating.
She put her palm over the gun and stroked a steady finger across the familiar curve of the trigger-guard, daring to dip briefly inside. Her heart pounded, blood thudding in her ears, her cheeks, the base of her tongue. The silver metal of the gun and its black embossing both caught her inner light, reflected it like fire. She looked up into the mirror once more. Despite the twist in her guts, the instantaneous recoil that swept cold hands down her spine and tried to wrench her away, she watched the shimmer flow across her bones. For the first time she traced it, the ripples and iridescent eddies. Tension in her muscles built and compounded, wound to spring, but she stood stock steady and kept staring—into her own eyes this time, not a dead boy’s. She did not look away, long past when her knees locked and her feet began to take a chill from the tile. The mirror-woman, fractured woman, stared in return, demanded witness.
Sasha lifted a hand heavy with the weight of her survival lashed to it and put it against the mirror, touched her other self’s palm made of hard glass. The ghost-light gave her enough to see one vital, true thing by: her eyes. There was Liz, who would return in the morning, and this. From the shifted topography of her face, through the alien luminescence of her bones, a part of Sasha remained, glared out with fierceness as familiar as the rest was not. The gun was a true weight in her hand to replace the phantom as she picked it up and tapped the mirror in clinking salute, as if the turning could be so simple. And yet—wondrous strange; and therefore as a stranger give it welcome—perhaps it was.
© 2013 by Lee Mandelo.