The loud flashes pierced into his eyes as they ushered him before the cameras. The shrapnel of sharp questions sliced into inextricable loss that the men behind the massacre could never tally up or scratch away, and for which they still hadn’t apologized.
He still flinched from the stench left in the wake of the carcass that had once been his home, the hillock of his humble life, the now obliterated pile for which he had moved hard mountains. He had wanted to die with them, but he was halfway through a twelve-hour shift when he got the call. At the moment his cell phone chirped, he was selling a pack of Marlboros to a gloomy guy sliding dimes across the counter, grumbling about the economy. But he knew he had to go on.
He couldn’t believe the news and he couldn’t close the store. There was nobody else. And if he didn’t move a hundred dollars by day’s end, they’d be short for the month. There were no savings.
The pilot had lived, ejecting just before the Hornet rammed into their humble stucco home. He wanted answers, but his neighbors only offered spooky silent stares. Shadowy details loosened once they saw his dark inquisitive face. The deaths had been sudden. The wreckage would be remunerated. The tall thin plumes could be seen as far away as Poway.
Now he was here. Lost in a crackling haze of slapdash queries he’d somehow felt obliged to answer. The journalists asked him what he thought of the pilot, but they’d never know the fluke of this sacrifice. They asked him what he was going to do next. Forgive so that he could go somewhere and grieve, but not forget.
God, he had loved them. It wasn’t so much not seeing his daughters grow up or his wife grow old or even his grandmother’s kind smile, but the comforts of their happy routine. The knowing twinkle that came when she read his mind. His kids discovering some pedantic joy he’d somehow overlooked. All now dry and irreplaceable rivers frozen into the hazy pool of memory.
He couldn’t remember the words that the cameras and the microphones had recorded. But he must have said something. The phone never stopped ringing. The letters kept coming. They’d even tracked down his email address. They called him a hero, but he had only done the right thing. And he wanted to go back to work because it was the only regular routine he had left. Even if it meant crying and remembering in the lonely terrain of the dark while they sung the stark ballads now attached to his name.