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The Girl Who Speaks For Dead Men
I remember sitting in a classroom decorated for Halloween, I remember the kid sitting next to me smelled of toast and the teacher was yelling at a little boy for wiping bouggers on the desk; outside it was raining just a little, and inside it was warm and cosy. There was a knock at the door, the class went silent and my daddy entered the room. For a long moment, I couldn’t move. Then I ran to him, it felt like flying; his arms wrapped around me and everything was…alright. I don’t want to say that everything was perfect, because nothing ever is; life just became, happy. Having a loved one at war is lots to take in. My daddy was away when I was born, I think that’s something my mother never forgave him for; and something he always ashamed of.
As a child, I didn’t understand where my father went. All I knew was that I missed him, and that I’d give anything to have him back home. I knew that it was dangerous, because I could hear my mother praying for him every night. I remember her words exactly ‘God, don’t let him die, God, don’t let him die’ over and over, she didn’t think I knew, but children always know more than their parents think they do. Her prayers were very upsetting for me. I would try to cover my head with my stuffed animals, but even if I couldn’t hear the words, I knew she was saying them. Since my grandpa died at my fifth birthday party, I knew what death was. When most children were afraid of the bogie monster and the dark; I was afraid death would catch my daddy. My mother would tell me grandpa had ‘been taken by angels’ but even at that early age I didn’t believe her. I knew he had been taken, but I didn’t understand why angels, who are good, would take my grandfather away from me. So I decided that it was death that did it. Death, to most people, looks like the grim reaper; for me it was very different. I decided that death must be a creature that sneaks up behind you, so that no one will ever see what it looks like. My daddy must have wondered why I was always making him stand with his back against a wall, or standing back to back with him; or more my back to the backs of his knees.
I remember daddy being a very big man, with no hair and who wore military uniform. He had strong arms, and twinkling blue eyes. When I was very little, I idealised him. He made my mother stop praying in the way that scared me, he made my mother laugh which was something she never did otherwise and he made me feel safe. Whenever he wasn’t there, I was very afraid. I remember having the constant fear that things would fall apart. I had the constant feeling that everything was very fragile, like a china ornament. I think I got this feeling because my daddy was only ever home for a short amount of time; the whole time he was there I would be afraid of him leaving. I must have put him through hell; I was always begging him not to go. He would tell me ‘This is the last time’ which was, obviously a lie; I know I must have made him pretty miserable by saying that because he never lied, only ever about that one thing.
I remember one time; I took his cap off him and wore it. I thought it was really cool, to be just like daddy. I walked around the room, trying to walk like daddy. He thought that was pretty funny. Then my mother came in. I told her ‘Mommy, look! I’m just like daddy!’ I thought she would be happy. I thought she would be proud of me, for being like someone who was as wonderful as daddy. She wasn’t. She tore the cap off and hit the side of my head. That was the first time she ever hit me. Daddy jumped up and started shouting at her, and she shouted back and slapped him. I started to cry, and she turned on me.
“No! Hailey! Not you as well, not you as well! Swear to me!” She screamed, taking me by the shoulders and shaking me hard “Swear to me!” Daddy tried to pull her away from me “Don’t Olivia, she doesn’t understand, she’s only little!” but my mother wouldn’t let me go. She clutched me, shouting at daddy. I must have been seven at the time. I remember it perfectly. Right down to the earrings my mother was wearing.
It was only years after that I understood my mother’s reaction. She had always been against what daddy did as a solider. She came from a family of Quakers. So I guess the romance between a Quaker and a Marine would have been a little like Romeo and Juliet. It was very strange, growing up with two people who were so different. To be honest, I still don’t understand why on earth my parents were ever together in the first place.
I must have been about nine at the time; I was in English class doing a spelling bee. I’ve always been terrible at spelling, so it was embarrassing for me. Thought my school life, kids have always teased me when I couldn’t spell. I had this horrible teacher who used to love making me stand up and spell, she would cackle with the rest of the class when I made a mistake. There was a man at the back of the classroom with a huge camera balanced on his shoulder. To be totally honest, I didn’t think much of it at the time. I had to focus very hard to make my spelling the best it could be. Then the teacher asked me how to spell Sargent, and asked me if I knew any sergeants.
“Yeah, my daddy.” I said. I felt his arms rap around me and I burst into tears. The man with the camera hurried down, between the desks, and the class clapped.
That was the first time that I can remember, that I was filmed. I have a face that the cameras like, it was explained to me why, but I forgot. After that, I had quite a few interviews, and many pictures taken. My friends used to find it exiting, that Hailey was on TV, I never cared very much. What mattered to me was that daddy was home. I resented the film crews and interviews for taking up the precious time I had with daddy, but not enough to make a fuss.
It was also at this time I first became aware of how political my daddy’s job was. It was this point that my mother’s family began to ask me if I would like daddy to be with me always and ‘wouldn’t it be nice if there was no war in the first place’ and asking me if I thought daddy was a good man for going. I was very confused by these comments. My mother never actually mentioned that daddy was at war, so it came as a slight shock to me. It was not so much the things they said, that upset me, but the way they said them. They were smug; they wanted to hurt my daddy by making me say I wanted him back always and wished he didn’t have to go. I was on the news and on an advert for ‘support our heroes’ or something along those lines. I thought it was wired, why they would show someone crying in an advert. I was used to happy adverts, like for herbal essences or chucky cheese or something.
At that age, I really didn’t understand what war was. I knew it was a dangerous place, and that daddy had to wear a special uniform to go there. Beyond that, I knew nothing. I’m not sure if I’m glad of this or not. If I had known, I would have done everything in my power to stop daddy from going back. I would have screamed and clung to him at the airport seeing him off, I would have thrown myself in front of the plane taking him away and much more. But I did not understand. So when we saw him off, I would stand near my mother and try not to cry. She always cried more than I did, I was ashamed of that. Now I understand more, I’m surprised she didn’t do more than cry. But as a child, I thought she was being weak.
I was fourteen when my daddy was killed. He was killed by, not a bomb, not an enemy bullet; but friendly fire. One of his own men shot him. I remember exactly where I was. I was walking home in a thunder storm, when my mother called me.
“Your father is dead.”
That was all she said. Then she hung up. I remember standing there, the water was soaking into my socks, the rain was pounding against me, and the wind was tearing at my hair; but I didn’t feel any of it. I could see the world around me, but I felt I wasn’t a part of it. Daddy and I had built our own little pretend world of safety, a world where he would come back, and at that moment it shattered like glass. We should have cut the threads of that world years ago, when I was younger; we should have faced the truth at some point. But I wasn’t strong enough.
My mother and her family wouldn’t go to the funeral, and my friend’s parents wouldn’t let them go. So I went with daddy’s friends. All though the service. I sat there, wondering if one of them had done it; if one of the young men surrounding me had shot my daddy. I remember the coffin, covered in the American flag, being carried by six men in uniform.
They shot rifles, up into the air, after they buried him. I couldn’t stand that. A gun ended my daddy’s life; they should not end his funeral. I was only a little girl. The media was there, filming them firing the guns, I was not strong enough to go up against them all and tell them to stop. That day, everyone hugged me. I didn’t want to be touched by anyone, but I wasn’t able to push them away. Daddy’s friends hugged me that was the worst part. As their arms slipped around me, I wondered if those same arms had held the gun that killed my daddy.
There were protestors at his funeral. Strange, angry people with ugly signs. Most people expected me to be angry at them, for the horrible songs they sang and the signs they carried, but I wasn’t. I was angry at the man who shot my daddy. There was one angry woman with a sign, who sang louder than the rest. She had a skinny, ugly face, with thinning hair and bright blue eyes. I remember looking at her, and thinking she was the ugliest woman I had ever seen. That made it impossible for me to hate her, with such a face and such an angry heart; she was to be pitied.
After my daddy’s death, my mother and I moved to New York. I think that my mother secretly hated living in our sub suburban town, and I didn’t miss it. New York offered new freedom for me. At fifteen, I was going to about one day of school a week, if that. I spent most of my time walking the streets on my own. New York is so full of people; you can dive into a crowd and forget who you are. I liked that. My mother really lost it at that point. She refused to leave the house, and would try from time to time to lock me in with her. I was a fifteen by that point, and taller than her, so she could not stop me. After daddy’s death, my mother lost interest in everything, including food and water. I would have to charge into her darkened room, pull her from bed and force her to eat and drink. I could see the hate in her eyes when I did that too her. To be totally honest, I did it for the wrong reasons. I did it, not because I loved her, but because I knew if social workers got wind of my situation I would be taken away. I had become very self-absorbed. I avoided people. I disliked having conversations with anyone; I pushed everyone away from me.
The commemoration of my daddy’s death loomed up before me. I was always trying not to think about my daddy. Every time I saw the American flag flying high, I remembered the flag that lay on the coffin with my daddy inside. I walked the streets, seeing the homeless and read the news.
It struck me suddenly that my daddy died for a country he should have been ashamed of. My daddy’s final sacrifice went to a country I wish I was not a part off. I remember the ugly woman full of anger who was at his funeral, and think her image portrays America more accurately than the eagle.
I became very, very angry with people. It struck me that they were so full of hate and anger, and I couldn’t stand it. Life is short. There are many people who deserve life and can’t have it. There is no point in wasting life hating people for being gay, Muslim, white, black, female, young, old, poor or whatever. I stopped accepting other’s views. It used to be that I simply thought ‘everyone has different opinions’ but I grew further and farther away from that belief. I was sick of hearing people say that loving another was wrong, simply because that other was the same sex. I was sick of people saying they had the right to carry a gun, because guns kill and I was sick of death. I was ashamed of being American, more than that I was ashamed of being human. It felt like that all people could do was hate one and other, condemn one and other and kill. We’d grown past the point where we were afraid of lions and tigers and bears attacking us, and instead were more afraid of one and other. From that fear grew a hate stronger than everything else we had ever created. All the literature, music, architecture, medicine and beauty were nothing next to the power of the everyday man to hate.
The president came to one of the gatherings of people who’ve lost someone in the war. My face allowed me to sit in the front row; the camera people still liked me. Watching the news later, I saw that most of the time the cameras were on me and the empty seat next to me reserved for my mother. They must have liked the way I cry.
“Today is the day remembers the brave sacrifice of the men and women who fight to serve their country.” Said the president “Our brave boys.” He pretends to wipe away a tear. “But we also remember the sacrifice of those who loved them.” I can’t hear the rest of the speech. I stare at this little boy, who can’t be more than three, standing on his seat crying his eyes out. He clutches a picture of a young man. He is crying so hard, he wasn’t whimpering anymore, only making a tiny gargling noise. His mouth is open; his tears rolling down his cheeks, in and out of his mouth and down his chin.
The president lays a reach down on the new stone memorial they have built for the glorious dead. I stand behind him, remembering the last time I saw daddy. He was walking away from me, his strong shape framed against the American flag. I place the wreath down below where his name is carved in stone, trace my fingers across the letters that spell his name.
I stand again, take a deep breath and look up at the sky.
“Hailey…” I notice the president is looking at me, reaching out his hand to me. The cameras must be rolling. “I am so sorry.” He reaches his hand closer to me, waiting for me to shake it.
“I won’t shake your hand. It has my father’s blood on it.” My voice comes out a snarl although tears still run down my face. I turn and walk away from him. I leave the park, trying to walk in a straight line; the reporters follow me, shouting questions, trying to get in my way.
I charge back to the apartment my mother won’t leave. Slam the door and lean against it. My phone starts to ring and doesn’t stop. The house phone does the same; I wonder where they got my numbers from. There is a policeman at the door who stops them from shouting though the mail box anymore. My mother is so out of it, she doesn’t even notice the noise outside the house. Because the apartment is on the second floor, the press feel that we can hear them if they shout at us. I close the curtains and sit in the middle of the floor.
I know my daddy would be ashamed of what I did. He always had the utmost respect for the president. It hurts to know this. But I’m not daddy’s little girl anymore.
My daddy is dead and buried with an American bullet in his head.
I have to leave the apartment to get groceries. I wake on the carpet, not remembering when I went to sleep. I change my clothes and head out the door. There are several policemen there and a policewoman who try to make a small tunnel with their bodies. The press over powers them and cameras are pressed up into my face, people scream at me. I try to push between them.
I’m not a little girl anymore. I am strong. The flashing lights of cameras hurt my eyes, and people’s shouts hurt my ears as I head for the local groceries store. I push into the store, there is another policeman at the door who locks the door after I step inside and leans against the door. Like a mob the press stands at the window. I’m the only one in the store. That and the boy who works here. His family own the store.
“Hey Harrison, how you doin’?” I head for the dairy section to get milk.
“I ain’t so bad.” Harrison says He has a soft, calm way of speaking. “How you doin’?”
“You look better than I thought you would.”
“I’m gonna take that as a compliment.”
“You do that honey.” He says. I head into the fruits section with the milk. “You seen any pictures of yourself?”
“You look better in these than in real life.”
“Why you looking at pictures of me for?” I shout over one of the shelves.
“Can’t avoid them girl. They’s ever where.” He says. Somehow he can make himself heard without shouting. “What your mama say ‘bout all this?”
“She don’t think nothing about what’s happened. Why would she? Was me who dunnit wasn’t it?”
“You’s gonna have to fix that ugly accent of yours, you sound like a hill billy if I ever heard one.”
“Could say the same to you.”
“Yeah, you could. It’s not me the press is huntin like the po-lice after a fella who’s stolen money.”
“Maybe I only use this accent to talk to you, you don’t speak nuthin but hill billy.” I answer. There is a long pause.
“If it means anything, I think what you did was beautiful.” There is another long pause. “But I’m just some fella workin minimum wage in a ugly groceries store who don’t speak nuthin but hill billy.” I drag the shopping basket with me to the counter.
“It does mean somethin’. You know why? Cos even even fellas workin minimum wage in a ugly groceries store who don’t speak nuthin but hill billy count to me. They count a lot ok?” I begin unloading goods onto the counter.
“You know your money don’t count nuthin around here.” He mutters.
“I havta pay Harrison, they’s people watchin.”
“Yeah but can you?”
“Sure I can.”
“Don’t put yourself though this girl.” he smiles “Let’s just say, thems groceries are a present from me to you.”
“No…” I am about to continue but Mr Buttee, the man who owns the store appears from the staff room behind Harrison. Mr Buttee is a fat man, with a heavy moustache that’s greasy.
“Hello Hailey, how you doin’?”
“I’m doin purdy good.”
“Now, how’s we gonna make believe you pain for them’s groceries?” He smiles at me, his eyes twinkling.
The press has thickened by the time I leave the groceries store. I can’t press though them. They’re all screaming at the same time there is a sea of cameras and reaching hands.
“Sign me sign me!” A girl screams next to me. I turn and look at her, she thrusts a magazine at me with the title ‘The girl who speaks for dead men’ written over my head. I take the pen she hands me and sign my name in the bottom left hand corner. From nowhere spill more people. All thrusting magazines and newspapers after me.
“Hailey you inspire me!” I sign another magazine “Hailey be strong!” I write my name over and over “Hailey you go girl!” I don’t understand why these people want my autograph.
“Please Hailey answer me this one question, come on baby it’s for Vogue!” I look at a skinny woman with large round glasses “Yes Vogue. All we want is a few words baby, just a few words.” I sign another magazine. The woman elbows a young man who’s shouting and says “What will you do next?” She continues to struggle with the young man who keeps on shouting something I can’t understand.
“I’ll fight the hate. I’ll fight the lies, and I’ll fight the power.” I say.
The press has become closer to me. I’m trapped. Then a huge boy leaps in front of me, spreads out his arms and leans against the people. There are screams and shouts of protest.
“Stay behind me!” He shouts and continues pushing. I stay just behind him. The people are pressed back only in front of him, the close in again as soon as they can so I stick close to his back. Someone rips the hat from my head, I keep walking. I come to the bottom of the apparent complex. The boy opens the door pushes me inside and closes it again.
“Thanks!” I try to yell though the glass. He can’t hear me. So I walk into the complex. I bump into a very tall young man.
“Hey there baby doll I’d like a word with you.” he bocks the corridor ahead of me. I try to step around him, but he steps into my way. “Just a few words baby doll that’s all.” I step again and he blocks my way. “You see I work for a newspaper, a big newspaper…”
“Get out of my way.”
“Now, now cool your guns! Just a few words, baby doll, I just want to talk to you that’s all.”
“I thought I told you to get out of my way.”
“You did. And I decided not to.” He sneers. I swing the groceries bag up between legs. He doubles over in pain and I step over him. He grabs my ankle I hit his wrist with the groceries bag and start running up the stairs.
“You’ll regret this you little slut!” he shouts after me. I slam the apparent door and lock it. I turn my phone on and immediately it rings. This time I answer.
“Is this Hailey Raymond?” A woman’s voice asks.
“This is Time magazine, we’d like an interview.”
“Alright, I’ll give you one. But you’ll have to give me something too.”
“What would that be Hailey?”
“Security. I can’t leave the building; I can’t even leave this apartment.”
“There aren’t any police there?”
“There were, but they’ve gone
somewhere else now.”
“Will you leave that apartment? We can find you a safer place.” She says coolly. I glance at my mother’s shut bedroom door.
“Um… no.” I answer.
“Because your mother won’t leave?”
“No. Because I don’t want to leave this place. We have a good view.”
“Hailey, the press already knows about your mother. Everyone knows. They know everything, and want more. So don’t lie.”
“How do they know?”
“The press is good at finding information. It’s our job. Anyway. We can move you and your mother to a much safer place of residence; it won’t take long before they figure a way in that place.” There is a short pause. “Whatever you do. Don’t read the New York post.” She sighs “Someone is going to need to get you someone in PR.”
“Anyway, about this move, we can get a helicopter on the top of your apartment building. Do you think you can convince your mother to leave?”
“Well we don’t want to drag her out.”
“I can drag her out.”
“That won’t look good.”
“Who’s going to see?”
“I don’t know that’s why I’m concerned.”
“I’ll get her out.” I sigh.
“Alright, I’ll leave it to you then.”
I stand in a podium, surrounded by people. The sound of their shouts hits me like a tidal wave. I take a deep breath.
“You all came here today, because I didn’t shake the president’s hand, and gave him a piece of my mind.” The crowd starts clapping. “Know that this is just the beginning. Someone said onetime to me, ‘be the change you want to see’ I intend to live by that now. My daddy died for a country that didn’t deserve to have him is a citizen. He died fighting for a lie. In many years’ time, all he will be is a name carved in stone, among the hundreds of other names. Today, I start a war without guns, without droids, without bombs. Today I start a war of words. A war of words against a government that’s been reliant on people not fighting back, on people caring about the wrong issues. It’s time we fought the government with their own weapon, words.
To the people who say my daddy was a hero, he was. But no thanks to the uniform he wore or the country he served. He was a hero because he tried to do what he thought was right. That alone is what makes a hero. You don’t need to risk your life, you don’t need to know how to fire a gun or throw a grenade. To be a hero you have to have strength; not of the body but of the heart. We all could be heroes, every single one of you here.
Our president talks big about war, he talks real big. Mark my words though, if he were drafted he’d wiggle is way out of the front. He’d never send his own children to his war! No! That’s left for the people like my daddy to do! Sure, the old men those old veterans talk about war, they talk real big to. But they don’t go off again! They leave it to the young men, with young families to waste their lives killing and being killed.
I don’t know how many of you will be with me when I fight this war, if I have all of you or none of you I will still fight.”