The morning she was leaving for Kangwa, Daddy made her milk-drowned over-sugared black tea. It was in the dining room, before the sun before the airport before the refugee camp before the massacre before she was kidnapped recruited trained before she knew snipers before she knew checkpoints, Daddy lifted the heat-heavy hair off her forehead and asked if she was ready saying We aren’t going to wait because Milla is not coming down to say goodbye.
Present Day, Washington DC
The bed is too comfortable. I’ve stripped the sheets. How can I sleep in this room where soccer shrines hang with the blue ribbons of state championships? Where a poster of Milla with her foot on the ball is signed at the bottom in black marker? Where her high school reading list lines the book shelf? Where all the objects of her past are intact except the plastic white stars lining the ceiling that no longer light up when I plug them in?
I go downstairs where the house is buzzing with Daddy’s high-tech security alarm, the AC and radioactive locusts. I open a Coke and lay on the couch with the lights out. I can feel Milla stomping down the hall, affectionate and graceless, going in the kitchen to make brownies.
‘Natalia?’ Carmen appears in the living room in emerald silk pyjamas. ‘Is the bed no good? I just bought it – it’s brand new.’ She turns on a lamp.
Carmen, Daddy’s forty-year-old Colombian-American wife, is from Barranquilla, and much prefers the house with a pool in Bogotá.
‘It was Milla’s room.’ I sit up. ‘It’s windy out.’ The trees beat each other in the back yard.
‘Ala, I’m so embarrassed.’ Carmen squeezes onto the couch next to me. ‘I didn’t think – so stupid of me.’ She takes out her gold earrings. ‘You know, I didn’t get to meet Milla, but your father and your mother have told me so much about her, I feel like I know her.’
I put the Coke down. ‘You talk to my mother?’
‘She calls sometime. She just wants to talk to somebody – anybody.’ Carmen pretends to be inspecting her manicure. ‘Are you going to see her?’
‘Is Daddy up?’
‘No. He’s the early bird, and I’m the night owl.’ She hops up. ‘Why don’t we move the bed into the study? What do you think?’
‘No, I’m fine.’
‘OK. Whatever you want.’ Carmen crosses the living room.
When Mom was driving, when she closed her eyes in her drunk Valium sway, did Milla see the red light? Did she see the other car coming? Feel it smash too late into her right side? Did she know she wouldn’t meet me when she died because somewhere I was still alive?
From the landing, Carmen calls, ‘Goodnight, cariña.’
I pick up my Coke and turn off the AC. I am the wrong sister in the wrong room, the daughter who left but the one who should have died.
After the women’s prayer group, Natalia left the confines of the tents – tarps stretched over a patchwork of corrugated tin. She walked along the outside of the camp, looking out at the border: a bronzed, anonymous seventeen-year-old. Near a pile of plastic debris and broken cooking pots, there was a Humvee.
‘Hello,’ said the driver in English. He was a large blond man. Under his American accent, there was a foreign undulation.
‘Hello,’ she said, apprehensive, looking around for any other person.
‘You should not be out here alone.’ He had eyes that looked like they were being drained. ‘The local patrolmen aren’t above rape in exchange for safety. You are part of the Faith Redeemed Ministry?’
‘Yes sir, we’re building an orphanage.’
‘I thought that most of you had returned to the States.’
‘Some of us have stayed with our pastor.’
‘Do you know that the army are heading east? They’re looking for rebels hiding in the camps.’
‘This camp is mostly widows and kids.’
‘You should leave.’
‘We want to finish what we’ve started.’
‘What about your family? Don’t they think you should be coming home?’
‘I see,’ he said, smiling and leaned out of the window. ‘I am Erik.’
‘Natalia. Are you German?’
She suddenly felt ugly in her tie-dye T-shirt, her worn Tevas, the gold cross necklace from Daddy. ‘I should get back,’ she said, gesturing weakly behind her. ‘They’re expecting me.’
Natalia woke with the screaming. She lay for too long sweating under her wool blanket. The shots seemed to be coming from the opposite side of the camp.
She crawled out of her tent and found people pushing in every direction. So she rushed to the pastor’s tent, but it was on fire. She stepped back, turning into a pile of men’s bodies, some face down, some spilled at odd angles, all of them curled and flailed against one another. And next to them was a heap of children lying like discarded toys, legs burned, their small heads full of bloody gaps. She screamed, but no one seemed to know her. Only a young soldier came towards her, dragging a woman already gouged by bullets and she ran – running towards the blue line of morning as if eventually she would become it. For it seemed to her that there was only the earth and no God.
Natalia was at the edge of the camp, lying next to an old woman with a mouthful of flies. A man was speaking over her in a language she did not understand. He was wearing fatigues and handed another man his gun, then carried her body to a truck bed. Over the scalding metal, she stared up at a placid sky. She knew then that she had died.
Erik held a canteen to her peeling lips and cupped the back of her head. He put a jacket over her waist, saying in English, ‘You’re in shock.’ He opened a medical kit. ‘This will sting,’ he said. Her eyes closed. His hum was louder than thought. Then he was gone, and she too went.
Then Erik said, ‘Open your legs,’ not knowing that she was only a body.
There was another man standing with him, bearded, uneager.
‘He has been trained as a doctor. He must look.’
The man said something. He looked even more harassed. Her body jerked when he touched her knee, causing the jacket to slip. There was dried blood on her thighs.
‘Breathe,’ Erik said, holding her shoulders to the truck bed.
Someone somewhere was making a terrible sound.
Erik pressed the jacket over her mouth. ‘It will all be over soon.’ He peeled one of her hands from the side of the truck and squeezed it.
Her foot kicked then her body dropped back. Tears wet the sides of her hair. Her legs parted.
‘Söt flicka,’ he smoothed the tears, ‘Let me take care of you.’
After he and the man had spoken, she was propped against Erik in the truck bed, her head under his chin.
‘We couldn’t interfere,’ he said, his fingers untangling her hair. ‘It isn’t what we were hired to do – it goes against the interest of the mining company allied with the Army.’
‘Why? What are you?’
‘I’m a mercenary,’ he said. Behind them, a truck began to pull away. ‘They are a private military.’
‘They’re leaving before the UN arrive. I’ve finished my contract. I could stay with you until they come. But you must call me Viggo.’
‘Because Erik has a criminal record, while Viggo is an accountant.’
‘OK. . . But then you’re going to go?’
‘Back to Stockholm. I’m going to open my own company. Not a little army but a group of analysts. You see, when governments outsource their intelligence, that group can work outside of the rules.’
‘I’m coming with you,’ she said.
He smiled. ‘Are you? How many languages do you know?’
‘I took Spanish. But I could learn more – you could teach me.’
‘I can’t go back.’
She sat with him looking into the wreckage of the tents, and though she was dead she tried to breathe.
Present Day, Washington D.C.
In the kitchen, his chair turned to the sliding glass doors, Daddy sits in his old robe waiting for the reprieve of morning. I can feel the tiredness radiate off him.
‘Hey, honey.’ He looks older than sixty in the hangdog of his neck and chin. ‘Have some of our fine Colombian coffee. You get any sleep on that old couch?’
‘No, sir.’ I pull up a chair next to him. ‘So when are you all going back to Bogota?’
‘Not for a while yet. I have to go in and throw my weight around.’
He puts a hand on the top of my head. It stays there for an impossible moment, then I get up and go to the counter.
‘This one looks familiar.’ I take down a mug. ‘Turkey Trot.’
He’s watching the birds outside. ‘You came in fifth.’
‘I don’t want you to think I’m ungrateful.’
‘I’d call you lucky.’
‘Somehow I don’t feel very lucky. Look, I can’t stay here, Daddy.’
‘Alright,’ he says slowly, his eyes on a red cardinal. ‘I’ll arrange something. Someplace safe.’
‘I’ll be fine. Don’t worry about me.’
‘My ass is on the line, Natalia. If you want to go elsewhere, we are talking a place of my choosing. And I’d like you to see your mother before you go.’
In the backyard, the sun is tearing the horizon pink.
‘I know you’re grieving,’ he says, ‘Don’t you think I know that much? I’ve had six years to try and admit Milla is dead. To do that, I’ve had to forgive your mother. There’s no escaping it.’
‘I don’t want to forgive her. Why should I? I don’t expect you to forgive me.’
He gets up, ‘Well I want to forgive you, but you make it so damned hard. You only stopped because you got caught – ‘ He cuts himself off, oddly out of breath.
‘Carmen says you have a heart condition.’
‘They scraped out my arteries,’ he says. ‘Pour me another.’ He holds out his mug. ‘You know you were my favorite.’
‘Daddy. . .’ I take the mug without meeting his eyes.
‘Well there’s no use hiding it now. I could’ve been more patient with her. Milla. But she was such a holy terror. Like your mother.’
‘Milla wasn’t a drunk.’
‘Well great God, who knows? She might have been. We never got to find out. I wasn’t patient where I should have been.’
I hand him his coffee. ‘I remember, Daddy.’
He takes the mug and rests it on his knee, watching the liquid slant then settle. ‘And do you forgive me?’
‘For all the things I wish I did and didn’t do.’
‘There was nothing you could’ve done differently. It was all always going to happen.’
Erik said some of us are damned no matter what we do.
The Kalahari Desert, 2002
‘What are you thinking of?’ he asked.
‘Sleep. Bacon,’ she said.
‘You need to centre. Find a focal point.’
‘How can I if I can’t see?’
‘Begin to feel your feet spreading on the ground. Empty your body. You must remember this when you’re frightened and know that terrible things are about to be done.’
‘Should I be frightened?’
‘Let go of thought, let go of your body.’
When he carried the heat of her in his arms, Natalia knew safety. She knew that if she could be with Erik, she would not fear death. If they could not be parted, death would be OK whatever the eternal boredom, possible nothingness, lack of personality. If she could be with Erik, death would take only her body.
‘Are you there?’ she asked.
‘I’m here,’ Viggo said.
‘Again?’ she asked.
‘I’m coming in,’ Nils said.
‘Who?’ she asked.
‘Again,’ Lucas said. ‘Almost over,’ said Christien and Natalia was cold.
‘Erik?’ she asked.
‘Yes,’ he said.
image by JonnyRannyBully