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“Why do you keep asking where I was?”
“Why don’t you tell me the truth?”
“No. No you’re not.”
Alex glared at the doctor sitting across from him. The man had been condescending, insensitive and not easily satisfied. The two had been sitting in his office for more than two hours; he had gone through the story of that day three uncomfortable times. Each time Doctor Saunders had been unsatisfied for one reason or another. Pain was being replaced by anger.
“Where were you at the time of the explosion?”
“I’ve told you this before.” replied Alex, willing himself to keep calm
“Tell me again.”
Alex slouched back in his chair in disgust. He had told his story so many times and it was becoming tiring. Just the thought of that day was bringing it back. He could hear the sound of the crowds, feel the heat on the back of his neck and smell the sunscreen and chlorine. He was back in the park once again.
The water park was packed today. The high temperatures of the July 4th weekend had brought more visitors than usual. Alex Caison carefully scanned his zone. The water sparkled and rippled in the noon day sun and seemed to beckon tantalizingly as he wiped his sweaty brow.
As he scanned his zone Alex glanced at his watch, the time was 12:35. A smile pulled at his lips. During a sweep of his gaze Alex’s heart skipped a beat; a little girl was floating face down in the river. She wasn’t moving. Alex fumbled for his whistle his heart pounding faster and faster by the second. He blew a short blast on his whistle. The girl still did not move. His months of training were taking over, without thinking his hand was coiling the strap of the rescue tube, as he slowly brought it up to his chest. His knees bent, as he prepared to jump.
The girl suddenly lifted her head, laughing at her friend. Alex released the breath that had been ready to blow the long blast on the whistle that would signal he was entering the water. He shook his head, as his heart began to slow to its normal rate. ‘Never a dull moment’ he thought, darkly and he resumed scanning his zone.
The explosion came moments later. Alex was thrown to the right by its force, and he could feel heat on the side of his face as a wall of hot air and debris bombarded him from the left.
He was knocked to the ground and his head collided hard with the cement deck. For a moment Alex lay on his side unable to move. He couldn’t hear anything. The ringing in his ears silenced everything else. Slowly he began to sit up, his head pounding and feeling as if it weighed more than it should. Looking down at his body, his jaw dropped.
His left side was covered in dirt and numerous small cuts and nicks. In a few of them small pebbles clung to the wounds. He reached up and felt his face.
His sunglasses had been knocked off, but they had deflected much of the debris from his face and eyes. Overall the damage was worse the lower down on his body he looked. His flip flops were gone, he could see one lying a few feet away, but the other was nowhere to be seen. Slowly his hearing was returning and as he pulled himself slowly to his feet wincing as his torn skin stretched, he began to look around in bewilderment.
The air was hung with dust and smoke. A small fire was burning in some dry grass near where the explosion had seemed to originate. It seemed that he had only been 40 feet from the epicenter.
“Forty feet you said, right?”
“You said one hundred feet last time.”
“I don’t know, I could be wrong.” replied Alex defensively
“No you’re not, according to the FBI report you were approximately fifty feet from the epicenter.”
“So why did you stop me.”
“Why did you lie before?”
“I don’t know I guessed!”
“How far is it from river zone one to river zone three?”
“You mean, down river?” asked Alex looking perplexed
“Yes, there is a strait section there, how far is it between the two spots?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know…thirty feet.”
“It’s actually thirty-three feet.”
“So you can tell me how far it is from one spot to the other, but you can’t tell me how far you were from the explosion?”
“I told you! I guessed!”
“And were off by more than fifty feet?”
“I guess…I don’t know, what does it matter!?”
“You can continue.” said Saunders dismissively motioning to Alex as if giving him a cue.
Alex glared at Saunders angrily before, reluctantly, returning to his story.
The air was hung with a hazy cloud of smoke, dust and debris. He could hear people screaming now. A woman with blood coming from a large cut on her forehead was staggering around desperately crying out for her child. Across the bridge that connected the banks of the “lazy river” Alex could see a group of his fellow lifeguards running toward the bridge carrying two backboards and the first aid bags.
When they reached Alex they seemed to gape. One of them came forward and had him sit down, while the other four took the medical bags and began to run further into the carnage. The guard who had stayed was someone he knew. Her name was Peggy Anderson.
“Stop.” interrupted Saunders once again
“Are you sure it was Peggy Anderson who came and looked at you?”
“Ok, continue.” said Saunders tiredly
Peggy pulled bandages from the bag and carefully cut them into strips. She applied the bandages to the worst areas, mostly his legs which had taken the worst of the damage. When she was done she told him to get to the other side of the bridge and evacuate with the rest of the guests. Alex agreed numbly, and Peggy took the bag and ran off toward the rest of the guards, hurriedly removing a charm bracelet from her wrist that was getting in the way and shoving it into a pocket. Alex began to slowly limp across the bridge.
“Stop!” said Saunders loudly, almost yelling with clear exasperation
“Why are you lying Alex? Do you think I’m an idiot, do you think I didn’t research where you were that day?”
“That’s the truth!”
“Then why do I have five guards testifying that they saw you on the other side of the bridge assisting in first aid efforts until all the guests had been evacuated?”
Alex averted his eyes for a moment, his finger picking nervously at a hole in the leather chair, the material underneath felt exactly like that of a rescue tube. The smell of sunscreen filled his nostrils and he determinedly repressed the association. Finally after a long moment of silence, Alex spoke, quietly, carefully and in a measured tone.
“I was there.”
“You didn’t leave after the guard tended to your injuries?”
“No. Peggy told me to, but I wouldn’t.”
“Peggy, told you to leave?”
“Ok. Tell me what happened.”
Alex watched as the guard ran off to rejoin the others. He took a few steps toward the bridge, looked back at the guards, hesitated and finally turned and began walking back toward the carnage.
As he got closer to the epicenter the level of destruction intensified. Leaning against a trash can, Alex found a woman whose arm was bleeding profusely, a piece of wood sticking out of the upper arm. Alex crouched down next to her and reached into his hip pack and removed a pair of examination gloves. Carefully donning the gloves Alex began to talk to the woman as he had been taught. She was responsive and coherent.
Alex removed a handful of gauze from his hip pack and began to pack them around the protruding piece of shrapnel in an effort to stop the bleeding. He knew better than to remove the object, for fear that the bleeding would spiral out of control. Alex had the woman hold the gauze and maintain pressure on the wound while he moved onto other victims.
After about three or four patients he heard a shout for help from a guard a little ways off. He sprang to his feet and ran over, at the same time, two other guards came running.
The guard who had requested assistance was Evan, a three year guard. He was desperately trying to stop the blood that was pouring from a large wound in a young man’s chest. Seeing the problem the three guards dropped to the side of the boy and using bandages and gauze tried to apply enough pressure to stop the bleeding.
The boy was still conscious and was thrashing around and making it hard for them to firmly push down on the wound. Alex carefully swung himself around so that he could hold the boy down, his knee pressing sharply on the charm bracelet on her wrist. The bleeding wouldn’t stop. It wouldn’t, no matter what they tried.
“Alex?” asked Saunders leaning forward, concern in his face for the first time
“Yes?” replied Alex still with a far off look in his eye, not looking at Saunders
“Are you all right?”
“Yes I’m fine.”
“That guest died didn’t they.”
“Yeah. We didn’t get to her in time.”
“You mean him?”
“That’s what I said, ‘we didn’t get to him in time.’”
“No, you said her, just now and while you were telling the story.”
“Oh…I didn’t mean to.”
“You also said that you knelt down on the persons charm bracelet, but it was a boy.”
“Oh…I’m not sure why I said that. I didn’t mean to.” said Alex starting to sound slightly defensive.
“No, I don’t think you did.” said Saunders, leaning back in his chair, looking thoughtfully at Alex
There was a long pause as Saunders simply contemplated Alex, while Alex himself merely sat staring at the leg of Saunders chair, still with the same far off look in his eyes.
“Tell me Alex, what caused the chest wound?”
“What?” said Alex looking up for the first time in over twenty minutes
“What caused the wound?”
“It might have had something to do with the bomb.”
“What caused the wound?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do.”
“Yeah. Big piece of wood or metal, maybe a piece of the fence, hit her in the chest.”
“You mean him?”
“Yes, of course.”
Saunders again leaned back in his chair, appearing to be deep in thought. Alex once again returned to studying the wood of Saunders chair.
“Where was the piece of shrapnel when you arrived?”
“Where was it.”
“In the chest.”
“How were you applying pressure directly to the wound then?”
Alex opened his mouth to respond, but no answer seemed to come. Slowly, Alex closed his mouth with a look of confusion.
“Tell you what, we’ll come back to that one.” Said Saunders dismissively “Who was the first guard to reach this boy?”
“A third year guard, correct?”
“I see… so if he came across a boy with a large piece of shrapnel in his chest he would know not to remove it, correct?”
Alex didn’t answer right away. Something was changing. His hands were balled up into fists so tightly that his hands were shaking. His face remained determinedly calm, but something was building inside of him. This was not grief, but anger.
“He would have.”
“Then why was the piece removed?”
“I don’t know.”
“Are you sure it was Evan who was the first one there?”
“I think so…I mean…I don’t know!” said Alex angrily
“But if he was the first one there why was the piece removed?”
“I don’t know.” Said Alex, his fists were still clenched and shaking
“Sure you do.”
“Yes you do!”
“Alex why was the wood removed?”
“Because Josh fucked up!”
Silence followed this statement. The type of silence that seems to last forever, and seems to push on your ear drums to the point where it is unbearable and you think that, surely, your eardrums must burst under its weight and pressure.
Alex buried his head in his hands. After a moment or two he leaned back in the chair, arms crossed glaring angrily at the book case behind Saunders. Saunders was still leaning forward in his chair, gazing intently at Alex.
“Josh messed up?”
“He took the wood out of her chest, which caused the bleeding to spiral out of control.”
“You mean him?” asked Saunders
“So you’re angry at Josh.”
“It’s his fault that they died. I had to look into their eyes as they died…I had to listen to them tell me what they wanted their family to know before they went. All because he didn’t know what he was supposed to do.” Said Alex coldly
“What did they say? Before they died I mean.”
“I…I don’t think that’s something I can share.”
“Tell me any way.”
Alex looked loathingly at Saunders. He had grown to hate this man. Almost out of spite, Alex decided to answer.
“Tell my sister Tyra, and my parents that I love them, and I’m sorry I have to leave them.” said Alex flatly, staring determinedly at Saunders
“I see.” Said Saunders looking down at the papers in his lap
“Why do you feel nothing?” asked Alex coldly, but Saunders merely turned a page and ignored him
“The boy, was he a guest at the park or a lifeguard?”
“Are you sure?”
“What was the boy’s name?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Let’s not play that game again please.”
“I see.” Said Saunders flipping through his packet of papers and stopping at a certain page
“Zorran Morel, seventeen years old, born January fifth, 1996 to Jordon and Freda Morel Siblings, none.” Said Saunders looking up from the file
Alex glared back at him. The anger was building once more.
“Zorran Morel had no siblings, are you sure it was him that you cared for? Are you sure it wasn’t a fellow guard?”
“It was another guard.” Said Alex breathing heavily
“Who was it?”
“I didn’t know her name?” said Alex quickly
“You mean him?”
“Yes, of course.”
Saunders thought for a moment. His deep blue eyes seeming to be in subtle contemplation of his next move, much like a chess player.
“Alex, did you know that in the bombing only one guard was pronounced dead at the scene?”
“No I didn’t.”
“One guard, cause of death severe chest trauma.”
“Why…why does it matter?”
“Tell me everything again, from the beginning.” Said Saunders quietly
“I was on stand. The explosion knocked me down, I hit my head. I got up and Peggy came to me and bandaged my leg, and after he left-“
“Stop! You said he!”
“I meant she.”
“No it wasn’t a mistake, Peggy didn’t care for you. Evan did.”
“You’re right. I forgot that part…I’m sorry.” Said Alex quietly
“Don’t apologize. Ok, so Evan bandaged your legs and then what?”
“I stood up. He told me to evacuate with the rest of the guests, but after he left I decided to stay. I helped I think four or five people and then I-“
“It was six Alex. Six, remember?”
“Six. I remember.” Said Alex breathlessly
“I cared for six people and I was looking for more survivors when I heard a call for help. I ran over and Evan was trying to-“
“No Alex, remember it was Josh not Evan. Josh screwed up, not Evan. Ok, keep going.”
“Right it was Josh. So we tried stop the bleeding, but they were thrashing around so I held them down while the others tried to control the bleeding, but we couldn’t.” finished Alex quietly
“Good Alex, and who was the person who died?”
“No, Zorran didn’t have a sister named Tyra, and he wasn’t a guard.” Said Saunders slowly leaning closer to Alex, who was staring again at the foot of Saunders chair.
“Who was it then Alex?”
“I don’t know who he was.”
“You knelt down on a charm bracelet, it was a girl Alex, who was it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes you do!”
“Alex who was the guard who was killed, I know that you know!”
“I don’t know! You know, why do you have to ask me!”
“Because you were there and you have to say it.”
“:Why!? It wasn’t my fault...not my fault, not my fault.” His voice trailed off, tears were beginning to run down Alex’s face now
After a moment Saunders spoke again, more gently than before, but still with force and insistence.
“Who was the guard Alex.”
“It was Peggy. Oh my god, it was Peggy! Oh Jesus I killed her!” Alex’s words became frantic, his sobs were intensifying and he was rocking back and forth in his chair.
Saunders leaned forward even further and put a hand on Alex’s shoulder. His sobs continued for a long time. When his grief had abated somewhat, or perhaps when his body simply ran out of tears, and Alex’s sobs subsided Saunders spoke soothingly to Alex for the first time since they had met.
“It’s going to be all right Alex. Now that you have allowed yourself to remember what happened, we can start the healing process.”
“The healing process?” Snorted Alex still breathing in shuddering gasps
“Yes, the healing process, but you have to accept that it wasn’t your fault.”
“It was my fault! She was my closest friend. I told her everything, we spent more time together than apart…she meant the world to me, and I let her die.”
“You didn’t kill her. A mad man with a bomb did.”
“If I’d just gotten there before Josh, she would still be alive…”
“You can’t think that. She probably would have died anyway, it was a serious chest wound.”
“But how do you know!” he was shouting again, he hated this man, he hadn’t known Peggy he didn’t know what a loss it was to him, to the guards, to the world.
“Why did you make me remember this you son of a b****! I was perfectly fine not remembering it!”
“Do you really think you were fine!?” asked Saunders incredulously
“I was fine!” repeated Alex defiantly
“Alex for the last six months since the explosion, your grades have dropped from A’s and B’s to C’s and D’s. You have skipped almost two weeks of school that we know of, and probably more. Your parents are worried. You have been suspended twice for fighting, and threatening to kill Josh. Before this he was your best friend. The last six months have not been good Alex.”
Alex buried his head in his hands, his body shook with silent sobs. Saunders reached out to rest his hand on his shoulder, but Alex shrugged it off. Gently, Saunders tried again. This time Alex allowed the hand to remain.
“How can you ever make me forget what happened that day?” asked Alex quietly between sobs
“I can’t Alex. I’m no slouch of a shrink, but I can’t make you forget.”
“Than what can you do?”
“I can help you heal and rebuild. I can listen, I can talk, make suggestions, hold your hand if you need it, but a lot of it will be up to you. You have to forgive and let go. You see Alex, the trick is not forgetting, no one ever forgets what happens. The trick, is learning to live with it.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“You’ve told the story in its entirety. That’s a big step.”
Alex didn’t look at Saunders for a moment. He had unwillingly told this man everything that had happened following the explosion, but nothing of what had happened before. Saunders had not asked, and he had guarded the secret well. He wasn’t sure if he should part with it now. Two hours before he wouldn’t have, but now, things were different.
“Dr. Saunders. I haven’t told the whole story” said Alex, hesitantly
Saunders had been shuffling his papers, but upon hearing this he stopped. He looked surprised at first, but did what he could to hide it. Leaning back in his chair he contemplated Alex for a moment, his cold blue eyes seeming to search his for the answer to what he had missed.
“I left something out.”
“What was that?”
“You never asked what I had been doing before I went on stand at river zone four.”
“What were you doing?”
“I was on break.”
“I see…with who?”
A funny look had come across Saunders face. It was as if he knew, but he couldn’t. They had told no one. There hadn’t been time. Alex glanced down for a moment. He could still see her face, the feel of her hand in his.
“I was with Peggy.”
“I see and-“ began Saunders, but Alex raised a hand
“I’m going to tell you. We were alone on break together. We were talking and…
Alex smiled at Peggy warmly. She was one of the funniest people he knew. He looked at her for a long moment. She noticed, he could see her casting him looks out of the corner of her eye. She was so beautiful.
Alex stood and went to throw away his trash. The two were sitting in the guard room. A small simple structure that was hidden carefully out of sight of the parks guests, it was where the guards always took their breaks. The room was small, musty and cluttered. Rescue tubes were hung on hooks all around the room, deflated tubes littered the floor and other items were packed into corners with no rhyme or reason to their placement.
Alex came back to the picnic table that had been shoved into a corner of the cluttered room and sat down next to Peggy. He had been sitting across from her, but she made no objection.
The two sat for a moment in silence. Peggy Mentioned a video she had seen on YouTube, and upon hearing that he had not seen it she pulled out her phone. As the video loaded the two leaned in closer to watch on the tiny screen. The video was taking a moment to load, and Alex kept glancing up at Peggy. At first she just looked back with an awkward questioning smile, then she simply stared intently at the loading screen, and then finally she met his gaze without looking away.
Peggy’s hand was resting on her leg. Slowly Alex reached out and caressed the back of her hand, wondering at its softness. He could sense here surprise, and for one terrifying moment he thought she would pull away from the contact, but slowly her hand rotated over and Alex gently took it in his. The two sat for another moment, hands clasped, oblivious to the sounds of the park. Slowly Alex leaned in.
“We were together. I got off break at noon. We were together for exactly thirty-five minutes.”
Saunders face was beginning to lose its appearance of calm, detached interest and surprise was beginning to show, if almost imperceptibly. A sad smile played across his face. Alex kept talking, his voice calm.
“Thirty-five minutes. I’m not saying I loved her. I mean, how could I have, we weren’t even together for an hour. A man with a bomb made sure of that.” Alex ended, darkly. “I just wish I had, had the chance, you know? I wish I had a chance to ask her on a date, to drive her home, to kiss her a second, third, fourth, fifth time. I never met her parents or her sister. I never got a chance to see what would come of our relationship. Would she have been the one? I can’t say she was, but now I can never say she wasn’t.” Finished Alex with a choked smile
“I’m sorry.” Said Saunders, his voice quiet, and Alex could tell, he actually meant it.
Alex looked around the room and his eyes paused for a moment at the desk in the corner. Files were neatly arranged and a cup of pencils, all carefully sharpened to be the same height, sat next to a computer. In the corner of the desk was a single photograph. In the picture Saunders was smiling, his arm around a tall attractive woman with blond hair. Also in the picture, one on either side of each parent two teenage girls, twins. Alex smiled slightly, he understood.
“I just wish I could relive that moment.”
“What moment is that?”
“When we said goodbye, at the end of our break.”
“You’ll always have the memory at least.”
“No, I want to relive it. I want to yell at that stupid boy and tell him this is the last time you’re ever going to see her…but I can’t.”
There was a moment of silence, and Saunders was about to say something when there came a low buzzing from his pocket and Saunders removed a cell phone and looked, at it, holding it at arm’s length, trying to see what was being displayed on the tiny screen.
“It looks like we’re out of time for today.” said Saunders, shutting off the alarm.
“Do you want to tell me about that moment before we go?”
“No. That memory I save just for me.”
Saunders looked like he was going to argue for a moment. A part of him almost seemed to want to hear the story, but in the end he just nodded. The two stood and shook hands, and slowly, both stretching stiff muscles walked to the door and left the office, Saunders turning out the lights as he went.
Peggy and Alex stood in the doorway of the guard room, holding each other in their arms, neither wanting to let go. They knew they would have to leave eventually, but both wished that they wouldn’t have to, that time would recognize the importance of the moment and pause, even if only for a second.
Her silver charm bracelet glinted in the sun and brushed against his hand as she held it in hers.
“This is crazy.” She said quietly with a quick laugh
“I know.” He said, just as quietly with a smile “But it’s great.”
The two smiled at each other. To them everything seemed wonderful, even the sounds of the park no longer seemed so mundane. Slowly, reluctantly, the two left the guard room, only dropping hands when they re-entered the public part of the park.
The two walked across the bridge, still reveling in each other’s company. When they reached the other side they exchanged one last smile before parting; Alex continued straight while Peggy turned to the right.
As Alex took up his rescue tube and slipped the strap over his head, he turned, feeling like it was important that he did, like he might miss something. Peggy was still walking through the park heading away from him. Even from thirty or forty feet Alex could see her bracelet sparkling in the sunshine, but oddly not as bright as before, as if the metal had been coated in grime.
Alex watched as she moved further and further away from him. This girl had been everything to him. His friend, his counselor, his go to for advice, everything, and now, he thought with a smile she was his girlfriend. He couldn’t help but wonder where they would end up. He didn’t know what the future held, but, he hoped it included her.