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Survivor's Guilt

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I watched the seconds tick down, having finished and packed up over fifteen minutes ago. Thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight, I hope Shelia doesn't mind that I didn't get her flowers, fifteen, fourteen, god if I didn't need the money and the okay to live in America, I'd walk out of the embassy right now and never look back, four, three, two, one! I'm free!

'Ready to go?' I asked. Shelia looked up at me, her square glasses resting on the edge of her nose. Her blouse was still neatly pressed after eight hours of work. Her blouse was simple, cream colored, accented by her high-waisted brown pants.

'Almost, give me a moment to finish up.' She leaned over her desk to read the fine print. She was tall for a woman; the top of her head came right to my eyes. Her sun streaked hair ranged from blond to brown. And as per usual she wore it pulled back into a loose braid that ended halfway down her back. Her round face so fun loving, it rarely lost its smile, but right now it rested in a tight line. I imagined her studying for exams in college with the same face, stern and ready for business. She stamped the paper and added it to the pile at the edge of her desk. 'Okay, all finished.' I grabbed her coat and helped her in it.


The sky lit up, so brightly any blind man would think it was daytime. Clouds of dust and smoke hovered over the battlefield absorbing and reflecting red light. Red light that seemed to spill across the sky running and pooling, reflecting the scene below as well as a mirror held above us could. The ear shattering crash of the exploding bomb reached us as the sky began to darken, but somewhat drowned out by the sound of the heavy artillery machine guns, most of us only felt the earth tremble beneath us. Displacing pebbles and shifting loose dirt. So common was this few men paused to ground themselves.

'They're getting closer aren't they.' The young soldier had been in the war only a few months but the question he repeated nearly every day stopped being a question and formed itself into a statement.

The planes soared overhead at a distance making them indistinguishable as enemy or ally.

'Hit the dirt!'
I slammed down my helmet as my nose hit the dirt. The familiar high pitched scream of a falling bomb filled my ears. 'Let it miss me.' I whispered. All around the dirt sprayed up like fireworks. Agonized screams drowned out all commands as the air raid continued. My heart pounded so loudly in my chest I thought it would burst right out.
'John! John!' Shelia yelled. I searched around me seeing only my hiding comrades, where was Shelia? Why was Shelia with me in Africa? 'John! Wake up!' Slowly I focused in on her. She stared at me eyes big with concern and a rarely present emotion, fear. 'My goodness, what were you dreaming of?' I gradually took in my surroundings. The hospital-like white walls reflected the city light from the open window with the too thin curtains. The chair in the corner had my belt and tie draped over the back with my shoes sitting in front waiting to be stepped into. My jacket hung on the arm, the leather set me back a fortune but style like mine is priceless. My heartbeat started to calm, but sweat stilled dripped down my face from my forehead.
'I'm all right.' I reached up and brushed some hair behind Shelia's ear. She slowly moved back putting her head on the pillow. I closed my eyes focusing on not returning form whence I just came; I could feel her eyes on me for a long time, but soon enough her breathing deepened and evened. I slipped out of the bed and stood by the window letting the air blow over me. I pulled the wet shirt over my head and tossed it on the chair nearby. 'Damn Germans.' I muttered pulling out a cigarette from the pocket of my jacket. I shoved it in my mouth while searching for the light I knew I didn't have. 'Damn Germans!' I said not quite quiet enough. The rhythm in Shelia's breathing broke for a moment and then continued back. The cigarette was shoved behind my ear and I stood in front of the window and let the breeze blow in the strong smell of the city. The D.C. night life hadn't quite died down yet and the swinger songs from the club down the street meandered up to my window. I stared at the sidewalk across the street, dirt and grime visible in the dim glow of the street light. Tossing the cigarette onto my discarded shirt I got back into bed doing my best not to wake Shelia, but she felt my cold body slip back under the covers.
'Are you sure you are all right?'
'Yes.'
'You can talk about it you know,' she said 'you don't have to be strong.'
'I am strong.'
'I meant that it's not a weakness to talk.'
'You wouldn't understand.'
'Try me.' She said the words as a comfort, but her eyes shone with competition.
'You weren't there, you don't get it. They are all dead. I came back, hell, I made it through Africa and Italy, I got all the way to Germany, I was lucky.' My heart beat began to rise. My eyebrows creased in frustration. 'My neighbors, classmates, cousins, they're all dead! And I can see them; every time I close my eyes I see their mangled bodies, all the blood.' Any other woman would have left once my voice raised but Shelia just stared at me, calm and ready to rebuke my statement. She paused and waited for my panting to cease.
'You can't feel guilty you know, just because you survived. If you dwell in the horrors that's all you'll ever see. We all suffered losses. It's what you do with the sorrow, don't live wishing you could join your dead friends. Live for them, live in celebration of them.' She paused considering her next words. 'War is a pit of sorrow and anger, some get lost in it, always craving more just to know that they can feel, but it's escapable. Just escape. War does not answer every question; being trapped there will consume you.' She turned away resting her hands on her pillow and her head on her hands. Just escape. Just escape? How do I do that? How do I forget what I've seen, done? I've killed friends, family, and fathers, how do I forget? But not forget escape. Understand. And prevent. Keep the next generation from dying in a world war.





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