The Girl Who Cried War
Author: coritherien

Chapter 11
Closure

May 8th, 2008

Erin?”

I became vaguely aware of fingers snapping in front of my face.  I came back to reality to see Aimee, looking confused and a little bemused. 

“You alright?” she questioned, furrowing her brow seriously but her quivering upper lip betrayed her.

“Fine,” I giggled back, forcing it but she didn’t notice.  “Just preoccupied.  I have Connolly’s essay due tomorrow and I haven’t even thought about it.”

She nodded, but the smile was wiped off her face.  She knew I was lying.  Yes, I had an essay due but I always left them for the last minute and it never phased me before.  She knew I was lying but she would’ve rather died than press the issue. 

In truth, I had been thinking of Nate.  I guess that much was predictable.  I had been getting better, though, I truly had.  I had learned, by now, to keep up appearances in public.  I could even feign laughter and happiness like nothing had ever deterred me.  I had pieced my life together around the gaping hole he had left, and while the hole remained, black and spiraling, it wasn’t as daunting as it had been three months ago. 

But I wasn’t perfect, and I wasn’t whole, and there were still moments that put a blockage in my lungs and halted my breathing.  This morning, it was Daniel Abbot.  Nate and Daniel had been close friends, before graduation.  I would go so far as to call them best friends, but they grew distant when Nate left for the service, which I understood.  Daniel had always been my favorite friend of Nate’s.  He was kind; he bent over backwards trying to incorporate me into their group when I first started dating Nate.  He was a genuinely good friend.  I hadn’t seen Daniel since Nate’s funeral.  But I saw him this morning, dropping off his little sister at the freshmen building at school.

When he saw me, he ventured over good-naturedly, but it killed me inside.  He asked as to my wellbeing, and asked after my family, and I repaid him the courtesy.  I could manage it, until the conversation turned to our mutual loss.

He confessed to me that he hadn’t slept right since February and that every day was a struggle because the simplest things reminded him of Nate.  And as much as I wanted to express that I understood, that I knew exactly what he was going through, I couldn’t.  I ran.  Not physically, but my mind wandered until it couldn’t be touched by such sorrowful conversations.  Daniel realized he hit a still-sore nerve and quickly backtracked. 

But the damage had been done.  It had been three hours already, but my mind hadn’t yet stopped buzzing. 

Aimee slammed the locker door shut in an effort to keep our tower of books from clattering to the floor.  “C’mon,” she said, “we’ll be late.”

I looked down, and saw that I had no books in my hands.  “Late?  For what?”

She rolled her eyes, but her smile once again danced on her lips.  “The assembly, I told you at least four times.  I think it’s about prom.”

I clambered after her, because she was hopping to the bottom of the staircase before I had even reached the top.  We entered the auditorium and were greeted by 400 odd voices blending into a cacophonic discord.  We sat quickly, in the first empty seats we could find, near the stage.  Tawny plopped down beside us, but we spoke minimally.  Things had been more than awkward between the three of us since the feud ended. 

Two rows ahead of us, I saw Mattie turn to look for a friendly face.  I waived amicably; he saw me in the corner of his eye, froze, and pretended not to notice. 

The ringing whine of an unhappy microphone elicited screeches of pain, and then silence, from the rowdy audience.  Ms. Vicario, our principal, walked onto the stage more somberly than we’d ever seen.

“There better not be a problem with the prom,” Aimee muttered, nearly fuming. 

“Good morning, juniors.  We have gathered you today to hear a very special presentation.  The subject matter, you will find, has hit very close to home these past few months.”

Her gravely voice trailed off and, if I hadn’t known better, I could’ve sworn her eyes swung to me for a split second.  It must have been my imagination. 

“Show our guest some manners, students.  This man has traveled a very long way to share a tale that I’m sure will touch some of you.  Please give a warm welcome to Mr. Donald Fontaine.” 

With that, she handed the mic over to a gruff, scrawny man who really needed a haircut.  He was probably only in his thirties, but his unkempt appearance aged him a whole lot.  He grinned, bearing coffee stained teeth, and faced the audience like he was about to give a performance. 

“Hello, kids,” he said, a tone higher than I would’ve expected.  He sounded like a kid who hadn’t yet hit puberty.  “Thank you, Ms. Vicario, for that introduction.”  He strutted across the length of the stage like he owned it, and was silent for a moment.  I assumed it was for dramatic affect. 

Finally, he plopped down in the center of the stage and clutched the microphone close to his mouth.  “The tale I’m about to spin,” he murmured at a volume not really conducive to large crowds, “isn’t a happy one.  It is neither joyous nor uplifting.”  He let that sink in for a moment.  Some of us looked around uncomfortably.  Then he continued, peering at us down the bridge of a pointed nose.  “But I do hope it’s inspiring.

“Let me start from the beginning.  I’m a journalist, and I have been for twelve years now.  A freelance writer, which means that I am my own literary agent, so to speak.  I find jobs by myself, on my own time, and I answer to no one.  I am my own boss.”  He grinned, smugly, and brushed a few imaginary flecks of dust off his shoulder.  “Primarily, I write for The New York Times.  We’ve established quite the rapport over the years.  And my latest assignment was to cover the war in Iraq.”

Uh-oh. 

I felt the eyes of those around me as they sought my face, waiting to see what I would do.  Aimee, on the other hand, tensed up and avoided looking in my direction entirely. 

For a minute, I felt my lungs tightening.  A sense of claustrophobia set in.  Suddenly everyone was too close. 

Fontaine’s face sobered, and as he spoke, my respect for him rose.  A little.  “When I first got the job, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I needed the money desperately, but I wasn’t sure if I was willing to risk my life for it.”  He stood and resumed his previous pacing.  “I went with another journalist I studied under for a while, something of a mentor to me.  We spent two months observing the every day lives of the soldiers over there.  We witnessed raids, hunts for insurgents, and shootings from afar.  We saw how unprotected the soldiers are, with nothing but rifles to carry and Humvees to ride around in, if they’re lucky.  In the safer areas, soldiers walk on patrol.”

Did Nate have a Humvee?  Or did he walk on patrol?  Why didn’t I know? 

“Danger is a constant there.  Perhaps the only constant,” Fontaine continued. 

He went on, telling horror stories he’d witnessed.  He threw in a few heartwarming tales for good measure. 

“Some Iraqis,” he insisted, “primarily the kids, really do appreciate the soldiers.  They think the school the soldiers built recently is God’s gift to man,” he chuckled. 

And then he broached the one subject I’d been dreading.

“How many of you heard about that explosion over in Fadhil a while back?”

Almost every hand in the auditorium shot up and subsequently, every eye shot in my direction.  Aimee and I remained frozen in our seats. 

Fontaine didn’t seem to notice the diverted attention.  “At the time of the blast, I was in a market strip just behind that construction site.  I was so close that some of the debris landed within feet of me.” 

Aimee grasped my hand and held it tightly, trying her best to keep me grounded.  I barely felt it.

“It was the biggest blast they’d seen in a while.  The soldiers on patrol in the area were on foot, because Fadhil was supposedly one of the calmer areas in Baghdad.  The investigation has led to a pack of insurgents who had been terrorizing a platoon stationed over in Mosul for a while.  For a change of pace, it seems,” Fontaine drawled, his voice dripping with disdain, “the pack temporarily relocated to Fadhil.  The poor soldiers caught up in the blast were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, trying their best to rebuild a broken country, and that act of bravery cost three out of four of them their lives.”

My chest constricted now, and tears threatened to spill down my cheeks.  I sucked them in and forced myself to think of something, anything else. 

It wasn’t working.

This man had seen Nate’s very last moments.  What had they been like?  I willed him with all my might to continue speaking, and yet I closed my eyes to it, trying to shield myself. 

“In the moments just after the blast, I was…in a state of shock,” Fontaine murmured and now I got the feeling he wasn’t really speaking to an audience any longer.  His eyes were downcast, but they were seeing something that couldn’t be found in our dim auditorium.  “My instinct was to run head-on into the blast, to help the injured, to do what I could.  But my feet wouldn’t budge.  And the Iraqis,” he exclaimed incredulously, “the Iraqis barely flinched!  The ones in close proximity to the blast took several steps backward but then, they went about their business in the market place as usual.”

He shook his head, and it was clear that this was a fact he was still marveling at.  “There was a plume of smoke behind them as wide as a lake, as high as a building and a fire at their feet raging, growing, snuffing the lives out of people they probably knew personally and they couldn’t be bothered to look up.  Screams sounded, but they were distant, muffled, and it became obvious that they belonged to those clinging to their very last moments.  The people around me, they chewed on kebabs and plucked pomegranates and went on their apathetic way.  How many explosions do you have to witness to be able to ignore them?”  

He moved on then, but I stopped following him.  My mind, instead, was busy imagining a cloud of smoke as big as he described, and a fire roaring just behind people who couldn’t give a damn.  So, a whole market place had watched Nate and the other soldiers die without even a glance in their direction.  This just kept getting better. 

Fontaine began to finish up his spiel then, sensing the audience withdrawing their attention—it was almost time for lunch.  “Covering the Iraq war was both eye-opening and terrifying.  It takes something like a war to make you realize just how many 18 year old kids have more courage in their pinky fingers than you have in your whole body.”  He laughed, but there was no real humor in it.  “I don’t know how I can help the war effort, but I do know that it was the first time in my life I’d ever been apart of something as important.  That’s why I’m planning another trip.”  He smiled now, a toothy, plastered grin.  “Thanks for listening, guys.  Any questions, come up and talk to me.”  With that, he hopped of the stage. 

There was a mad rush to the exits.  Nobody had any questions, nobody cared any longer.  Nothing stands between a teenager and lunchtime. 

I exited the row behind Aimee and made a beeline for Fontaine; Aimee caught my arm before I’d gone very far.

Erin,” she pleaded, “nothing that man can say will change anything.  Talking to him is only going to rehash your most painful memory.”

Her eyes were wide, scared.  I knew she was right but, in that moment, nothing could have stopped me.  “He was there, Aimee.”  My voice sounded strangled, unfamiliar to my own ears.  “He saw it, and he’s going back.”  I wrenched my arm away and she watched me, miserably.

I waited for a moment when he was separate from the administration still gathered by the stage.  When I ventured forward, none of them looked particularly surprised.  Respectfully, they backed away from Fontaine who regarded me now with subtle interest in his icy gray eyes.  A tough of intrigue, but mostly I saw boredom. 

“Autograph?” he murmured.

“I—what?”  What on earth was he talking about?

He cocked an eyebrow and looked me up and down.  Sizing me up.  “Do you want an autograph?”  He enunciated this time, his tone so condescending that I found it hard to believe this was the same man that was just pouring his heart out to us. 

“Uh, no, thank you.  I was wondering about that explosion.”  I felt the words leave my mouth, but I didn’t recognize the voice. 

Fontaine dropped his stack of articles in a tattered briefcase.  “What about it?”

I blanched.  For a while, during his presentation, I thought he might actually have been a decent person.  Now, out of the spotlight, he reverted back to the pompous, self-important jerk I first saw walk out on stage. 

I took at deep breath and looked at him squarely.  “I knew one of the soldiers that died.  His name was Nathaniel Richardson and he was only 18 years old.  So I was wondering,” I spat, “if you remember anything else about that day.  It’s the only thing I have left of him.”

This time when he looked up, I saw I had his full attention.  “Let me guess,” he muttered, the corners of his mouth turning up in a sneer.  “Boyfriend?”

I narrowed my eyes at him but remained otherwise frozen. 

He shrugged, hopped up to sit on the edge of the stage and studied me.  I crossed my arms defiantly. 

“Sorry to disappoint you, Hun,” he sighed.  “What I remember is what I told you.” 

I expected his answer, but my heart fell anyway.  “And you’re going back over?  Back to Fadhil?  When?”

I was amusing him; he didn’t even attempt to hide it.  “I’ve got a 9 P.M. flight for tonight.” 

I found it hard to contemplate another minute in his condescending company.  “Okay,” I murmured, already turning away, “thanks for your time.”

“Wait,” he called.

I considered ignoring him.

“What was it you thought you would get out of me?  Reassurance?  Closure?”

I faced him again.

“I don’t know,” I admitted.  “I just…I have no idea what his life was like for those five months over in Baghdad.  He wrote me letters, but he kept the details out.  I have no idea what good he did, what battles he was in, who he helped.  I don’t even know what his living conditions were like.  It was the last place he ever saw, and I don’t know a thing about it.”

His face softened and a little humanity poked through.  “It’s not something I can describe,” he said, almost apologetically.  “It’s something you would have to see for yourself and it’s not like that’s going to happen any time soon.”

Just like that, a part of my brain clicked involuntarily into place.  Looking back, I can only describe it as a moment of insanity but at the time, it was the only thing that had made sense in months.  I had my answer, and with it came a wonderful, haunting sense of hope.  Maybe then I’d be able to get a taste of that damned “closure” everyone was so big on.

“Unless…” I began.

I saw his brow furrow for a minute, and then understanding and disbelief flickered across his face.

“You can’t be serious,” he argued.  

“You have no idea how serious I am.”

He started to laugh incredulously.  He hopped off the stage, grasped my forearm, and yanked me further away from the cluster of teachers I knew weren’t listening.

“Why in God’s name would I take you with me?” he whisper-shouted. 

My voice was calm now, though.  I hadn’t felt such peace in a long time.  “Because I can offer you a whole lot of money.”

That interested him.  “He cocked an eyebrow.  “How?” he asked incredulously.  “You’re a high school student.  I’m a paid writer and I can barely make ends meat.”

“Trust me.  I can pay you.”

It didn’t seem to quench his suspicions.  “Okay, maybe so.  Did you think about your parents?  I’ll not be charged with kidnapping as soon as we return to American soil.”

“I’m 18,” I lied.  “I can legally leave whenever I want to.” 

He scoffed at me.  “That won’t stop them from calling the cops.”

I shrugged.  “No, but if I leave of my own volition, what can the cops do?”

“This is crazy,” he exclaimed.

I held up my hands, as if his answer didn’t matter to me.  “Hey, if you’re really in the financial position to turn down $5,000, then be my guest.”

I watched with satisfaction as his mouth gaped.  I could’ve told him I was the president and gotten a similar reaction. 

“$5,000?” he stuttered.

I leaned in close, like I was entrusting him with a secret.  “And I’ll cover your airfare.  That has to be, what?  Another $1,000, maybe $1,500?”

His eyes widened even farther.  He clutched my hand like it was a lifeline and shook it vigorously.  “I might regret this, but I’m used to ignoring my morals.  You’ve got yourself a deal.” 

12:12 P.M.

Aimee nearly pounced on me when I exited the auditorium. 

“What happened?” she squealed.

“A whole lot more than you think.”

Her brow furrowed when she saw that I was smiling.  “Are…are you okay?”

I opened my mouth to explain, but then decided against it.  “Follow me.”

With that, I raced up the main staircase, Aimee right behind me.  We reached the third floor in record time.  I skidded to a stop in front of Carla’s locker, amazed that she was actually there when I needed her.  Things were finally starting to go my way. 

“Carla,” I panted, steadying myself on the locker next to hers.  Aimee wheezed to a stop behind me.

“Where’s the fire?” she laughed at us.

“Carla, how much do you love me?”

“Not as much as you think,” she grinned.  “Why do you ask?”

“I need a huge favor, the biggest favor I could ever ask you for,” I pleaded.

Now I had her full attention.  She looked thoroughly concerned.  “Anything, Erin, you know that.  What do you need?”

I didn’t quite know how to phrase it.  “How much money do you think you could withdraw from your bank account without your parents noticing?”

She rolled her eyes.  “My parents are sitting on more money than they know what to do with.  I could take out a million and they wouldn’t notice.”

This was really going to work.  I could hardly believe it.  “Would you consider granting me a loan, so to speak?  I swear to God I’ll pay you back before the year is up with interest!”

She scoffed at me.  “You’re practically family,” she exclaimed.  “How much do you need?”

Now, I hesitated.  “$10,000, if you can,” I said.  “I totally understand if you can’t, it’s a lot of money, I know—”

Erin!” she cut me off.  “That’s chump change to us.  The perks of being a Richardson.”  She rolled her eyes again.  “When do you need it by?  And do you mind if I ask why?”

I shook my head.  “Not here.”  I turned to face both of them.  “Can you meet me at Dunkin Donuts after school?  And Carla, if you can have the money by then, I’ll love you forever.” 

“No sweat,” she smiled.

Aimee just nodded warily.  She had no idea what was going on, but she knew it couldn’t be good.

2:36 P.M.

 

“You’re going where?!”

“He agreed to that?”

“What the hell will you tell your parents?”

Erin this is crazy—”

“Guys!” I shouted over their sputtering.  “One at a time, my God.”

“I’ll go first,” Carla said.  “What are you thinking?  Going into a war zone with a perfect stranger—you can’t be serious.”

“That’s what Fontaine said,” I laughed. 

She scowled at me.  Aimee took a shot at it.

Erin,” she pleaded, “please, please don’t do this.  You don’t even break the rules, never mind the law!  You won’t park in the teachers’ lot at school but you’ll fly to the other side of the world without blinking an eye?”

Carla was beside her, nodding like it was her job.  “Erin,” she murmured, “what exactly do you think you’ll find over there?”

I sobered quickly.  Boy, they were professional kill-joys. 

“I don’t know what I’ll find,” I admitted finally.  “I couldn’t begin to guess.  All I know is…is that I’ve been an emotional wreck for three months straight.”

I searched for the right words, sifting through the horrible memories that were resurfacing.  “Nate’s death is in the back of my mind, every minute of every goddamn day,” I whispered.  “I just want peace again.  I want—I need—to be able to accept all this.”  Tears welled in my eyes and I cursed them.  “And I thought maybe if I see Fadhil and I meet the other soldiers, I’ll get an idea of what he went through.  Maybe if I see the bombed area…I don’t know, maybe I can actually movie on.”

For a long time, we sat in silence.  I stirred my full latte but no longer wanted it. 

“Okay,” Carla said finally. 

I glanced up.  Tears were racing down her face.  She pushed a brown paper bag across the table.

“$10,000 in full,” she whispered.  “I get it.  I feel it, too.”

“Tell us what we need to do,” Aimee smiled.

I swiped at my eyes.  “I wrote my parents a letter explaining but they can’t see it until I’m out of the country.  I’ll try to get you into as little trouble as possible,” I told Aimee, “but I can’t promise anything.”

“I’ll live,” she shrugged.

“I’m telling them I’m sleeping at your house tonight.  You’ve got to get that letter into my mailbox any time after 10 A.M. tomorrow.”

She smiled.  “Easy enough.”

“Carla, as if you haven’t done enough already, I need one last favor,” I said apologetically.

She waived it away.  “Anything.”

“I need a ride to Logan Airport at 6.”

“Not a problem.”

“And guys?”

They glanced up.

I smiled.  “Thank you.”

 

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