Mel bolts up, her whole body shaking, and screams – breaking the silence of her still bedroom. It takes her a few seconds to collect herself, get her bearings.
She’s sitting in her bed, covers pushed down in heaps at her feet, black mascara smudged in streaks on her pillow.
She wipes the wet tears from her cheeks and tries to tell herself to be calm, to breath.
She closes her eyes, but only for a split second. Her whole body tenses at the memory of tires screeching and debris flying. Her head still pulses, dizzy from the spinning. She can feel the heat of smoke; hear the crunching of metal, the screaming, the sound of her head hitting the window.
She slowly spins her legs around, off the bed, and slips into her old, worn out slippers. She waits for a moment, just sitting there, with her feet dangling off the bed. The comfort of her slippers helps ease the anxiety she can feel surging through her body. Mel breathes – in and out, in and out.
She glances at the clock on the bedside table, 12:15.
When she stands up her legs falter a bit but she is able to keep from falling over. She makes her way, slowly, to her bathroom. Her fingers trace along the wall until they come across the light switch. She flips it on and covers her eyes from the bright light with the collar of her brother’s old Go Army tee she wears as a nightgown. Her hands brace the counter and her eyes stare straight into the mirror above the sink. A thin scar, etched from chin to cheekbone, still red and raised, stares back at her.
It’s not the scar that bothers her. Soldiers are expected to have scars.
It’s the remembering that comes with it that brings the real pain.
She remembers the scorching sun, Lynyrd Skynyrd blasting through the speakers, and Jess, sitting in the seat beside her. The details are clear in her mind but no matter how hard she tries, she can’t make sense of what happened.
A rush of emotion overwhelms Mel so she flips off the bathroom light and walks in darkness out of her room and down the hall to the kitchen. Even in the pitch black she manages to navigate her way through the twisting hallway. In the four years she had been gone, not much had changed about her childhood home. The old floorboards still creaked with each step and the smiling faces in the photo frames still felt familiar.
In the kitchen, she finds a pint of ice cream in the freezer. Vanilla was always her favorite. Her mom had stocked the freezer full when Mel moved back in.
After finding the biggest spoon she could find, Mel climbs up onto the granite countertop. She pulls her knees up into her chest, gently; her body still aches with each small movement. She pops the lid off of her midnight snack, and tries to numb her thoughts with the icy goodness.
On the way back to her room, Mel tiptoes slowly down the hall. Her eyes study each photograph. There’s the one of her and her brother on the day he was sworn in to the United States Army. It’s always been one of Mel’s favorites. That was the day she knew she wanted to follow in her brother’s footsteps.
Mel’s eyes move to the next photo. Her and Jess. They were six years old and covered from head to toe in mud. Their little bare feet hung off the tailgate of an old Toyota.
Mel jumps at the sudden squeak of the hardwood floor.
“Sorry honey, didn’t mean to scare you.” Her dad stands beside her and he sweeps his arm across her back.
“It’s okay. “ Mel mumbles softly as she rests her head on his shoulder. She was nearly his height but he always made her feel small, like a little girl he could protect forever.
“I miss her Dad.” She didn’t want to start crying, but the tears come anyway.
“It’s my fault.” Even though she was whispering the words seemed to echo down the hall.
“There was nothing you could have done. You can’t carry that – “
Mel lunges forward and rips the photo off the wall. Two little girls, smiling and giggling go crashing to the floor. The glass shatters and Mel collapses into the broken shards.
“I broke our promise Dad, I broke it.” The anger and pain came in a fury.
As Mel sits shaking on the floor, her father reaches down and takes his little girl in his arms. He walks down the long hall with Mel curled up into his chest. Her sobs are steady as she tells her dad about the promise her and Jess had made. They were supposed to be friends forever.
When they reach Mel’s room, he sets her in bed, pulls up the covers, and leaves her with a small kiss on her forehead.
It takes her awhile to fall back asleep. Quick flashes of that day await her every time her eyelids close.
There was no warning. One second she was driving, her and Jess chatting about boys they missed and things they wanted to do when they finally got to go home, and the next second there was smoke, spinning, flipping. Her ears are still ringing from Jess’ high-pitched scream.
The potent smell of burning rubber and mangled metal overwhelmed Mel.
“I’m okay. I’m okay.” She continued repeating these two words over and over as she tried to assess what had happened.
She was on her side: they flipped. Her face was bleeding: she could feel the sting of the tiniest pieces of glass buried deep in her skin.
Jess. Where was Jess? Oh God, Jess.
In the morning, Mel is awoken by sunlight streaming in through her open window. It is warm, and for a second, her lips twitch up into a slight smile. She can smell breakfast cooking and coffee brewing down the hall, so she pushes her feet into her soft slippers and heads into the kitchen. Her mom has bacon and chocolate chip pancakes cooking simultaneously on the griddle, with syrup warming up in a pot on the stove.
Mel eases herself up onto the countertop and her dad passes her a cold cup of orange juice, sans pulp, and two Advil. He knows his daughter well.
“Mel don’t sit on the counter, you’re not ten years old anymore.”
Mel reaches over and dips her finger into the pancake batter. She gives her mom a look of defiance as she licks her finger clean.
“You should go shower and get ready. Take a hot one, it’s good for your complexion.”
This time, Mel ignores her. She brushes a piece of stray, greasy brown hair behind her ear, and continues to sip her OJ.
Her mom rolls her eyes and clicks on the TV.
Mel’s head snaps up. The same images, already haunting her memory, are now streaming out of the television. She used to watch the 6 A.M. cartoons before school on that television. That little piece of technology used to make her giggle and smile – now it made her want to run, hide, and scream at the top of her lungs.
CNN was the first to report on the attack in Afghanistan, then FOX, then NBC. Even now, almost one month later, the news stations find a way to roll the footage at least three times a day. They showed the Humvee on its side, surrounded by flames and fragments of the now desolated convoy. They recounted the details of the supply mission, the unexpected ambush, and the devastation that several foreign missiles brought.
The banner at the bottom of the screen was always the same.
That was her. Lance Corporal Melanie Cade.
They called her a hero because she survived. And today, they expected her to stand up in front of thousands of people while the Governor of Texas praised and awarded her for her bravery.
Bravery. Mel scoffed at the word. She didn’t feel brave. She felt responsible, guilty, and angry. No matter how many times she heard that it wasn’t her fault, that there was nothing she could have done that would have spared Jess and the rest of the team, she couldn’t stop carrying the blame. She was driving, she should have paid closer attention, she should have done something, anything more. She tried to justify it in her mind, but telling herself it wasn’t her fault certainly didn’t erase the image that endured, relentlessly, in her mind of Jess’ lifeless body, speckled with dust and ash, lying limp in her arms.
Mel wraps her cold fingers around the two pairs of dog tags hanging from her neck and bites her lip, fighting off the tears.
They had promised to be best friends forever.
“Turn it off. Please.”
“Mel,” her mother whispers gently. “Sweetie, it wasn’t your fault.”
“I said, turn it off.”
Mel hops down to the floor, winces from the pain, and turning on her heels goes to take a shower. It would be cold.