Her mother could have cried when she saw her on the news, interviewed by Brian Willliams, no less ! He was such a perfect young man, with his sleek hairdo and that cryptic little smile of his. And so considerate.
She poured herself a glass of whiskey and dialed her son's number.
' Honey, turn your TV on.'
' I know, Mom.'
' Brian Williams is so handsome in a white shirt ! I hope your sister realizes - '
' Mom, she hardly cares about that kind of -'
' Yes, well, she did survive, didn't she ? God has a plan for everyone, you know.'
' Mom, I - '
' But look at her ! In a ponytail and jeans, she looks like a dog's dinner.'
' She's fine … '
' No, she is not. If I were to be interviewed by Brian Williams - '
' Mom, she's an icon. Everyone in this country is in awe of her.'
' Oh, are they now ? '
' Cut her some slack, will you ? You should be proud of her, and glad that she's made it, somehow.'
A few miles across town, John was standing in front of the TV with his feet wide apart, his hands tucked under his armpits. His wife looked tense and exhausted as the newscaster from NBC news introduced her as the lone survivor of a crew of 20 Californian elite firefighters who had perished in the inferno in New Mexico two years ago. He asked her how she was doing and she said she missed her buddies badly, that she was still trying to figure out what had happened. It was obvious she was fighting back her tears.
'My little warrior,' John thought.
Her clear green eyes were mesmerizing as she was telling the anchorman about the rigorous physical and mental training her whole team had undergone to become the cream of the firefighting corp.
He hoped she would be holding up. She was a fighter. That's why he loved her. She was always so positive and brave. She would make it this time again. She dug her heels in, that's what she did. She was tough as a nail. She was extraordinary.
He called out to the bathroom door :
'I'm proud of you, sweetie pie, you look awesome on TV !'
Siobhan stepped out of the shower, snatched the towel from the rack and pressed her face into it. It felt warm and soft on her skin. It reminded her of that summer night with Tom ages ago, when they were teenagers. She had been lying on the swing on his parents' porch, her head resting on his lap. He was stroking her hair absent-mindedly, smiling down at her while listening to some story she had just made up.
She winced on recalling the patter of a heavy summer downpour, the simple comfort of it all. They had been friends from the crib, the two of them. In the village, people said they were as thick as thieves. She had a sudden flash of his transluscent skin while swimming in the river. The sprinkle of freckles on his nose when he wrinkled it against the sun.
She remained still for a few minutes as she heard John hollering behind the door, then she dried herself quickly, got dressed and walked to the cabinet without looking at her reflection in the mirror. She opened it and fished for the Vicodin tablets she kept hidden behind the Listerine bottle. She poured two into her shaky palm and swallowed them.
Only as she was closing the door of the cabinet did she look at her face, and it was so blurred it made her sick. The whole TV thing had been a mess. She had agreed to the interview (only) because she wanted the whole world to pay attention, to honor her friends again. To stop the small talk for once.
And they had. They had. But that was not enough. Nothing was these days. Everybody seemed to be running around in circles, satisfied with their own worthless little lives while Tom and the others were lying six feet under, charred beyond recognition.
How fair was that ?
The thing was, deep down she even doubted she'd done it for her pals. She kept wondering why the others had died and she was left to survive. Of course, as a lookout she had been positioned on a hillside a mile away from the crew so when the blaze was fanned by hot winds and the conditions suddenly worsened she was the only one who managed to outrun the fire. She had radioed the crew to tell them to get out, but they couldn't. People kept telling her she had done her best. But what was the plan there ? Her mother ranted about God's Grace. Her husband wouldn't stop boasting. She just felt like screaming her head off. Why did they keep prattling when all she needed was -
Was it so hard for them to tell her they loved her ? That it meant the world to them that she was still around, that she had managed to survive. Was it so hard to tell her that they cared, that it made a difference that she was not dead ? Because she often wondered. She didn't feel loved, cherished the way she ought to be. She didn't feel any warmth. She was lost. There was nobody around. It was a waste land, empty, empty, desolate. And what was the point of surviving only to feel so shitty all the time ?
She heard John knock on the bathroom door : 'Your BFF just called. She is expecting you for lunch tomorrow. You get to see the new baby before everyone else, lucky you !'
The whole place turned into a kaleidoscope as the sunshine rippled from the countertop to the brand new toaster to the copper saucepans hanging from the wall, lined up for battle. Charlotte was blabbering on and on about her wonderful double-electric breast pump, how it made her new-mom life a whole lot easier. It was portable, efficient and so reliable she could barely believe her eyes. She told Siobhan she had expected to feel like livestock at the beginning but eventually everything was working out fine thanks to the amazing staff lactation consultant at the hospital. She had explained how to select the best pump, the one that most closely mimics baby's natural sucking pattern.
Whatever a double-electric breast pump looked like, it was certainly attached to a cord of some sort and Siobhan could well imagine it strung around Charlotte's neck : just a little pull and she would grow purple in the face, then her bluish tongue, her sweet indigo eyes would pop out and it would be time to tell her what she seemed to forget so easily :
'Tom is dead, you silly bitch. Tom died in the fire that day. He was crazy about you. He wanted to start a family with you. His little Nana. And all you do instead of mourning him ? You beget an evil spawn with that knucklehead, Paul. Paul ! How could you ? Tom is dead. He was my buddy, my fellow-firefighter of twenty years. He was as good as gold, as they say, and you are defiling his memory.'
' Siobhan ? Are you paying attention ? You look weird today.'
Siobhan snapped out of her reverie and tried hard to focus on Charlotte's mouth :
' You need to pull yourself together, girl, get a grip ! Look at me. I refuse to be defined by what happened. You've got to do the same. Move on ! '
But why did people cling to their platitudes ? Why couldn't they be real, intimate, kind, once in a while ?
A few months later, Siobhan parked outside the funeral parlor and leaned back into the headrest. She took a deep breath. Shit was happening again. But not to her. Not to her, and that was new. When she walked in, the varnished coffin looked like the upscale case of a musical instrument. A violin or an alto. As she tiptoed up the aisle to hug Charlotte, she realized it was open.
How creepy is that ?, she thought. Who wants to look upon a dead baby ?
Charlotte was weeping silently. Siobhan clasped her hand and held it tight.
'How can I help, Cha ?,' she whispered.
'Look at him, please, look at my baby one last time. Say goodbye.'
And so she did. He was pale, with a shock of dark hair. A perfect pebble left behind by the tide. Before she knew it, Siobhan had stroked his cheek. He reminded her of Tom somehow. No evil spawn. Just a lovely baby boy.
SIDS, Charlotte had said on the phone. You hear about it, hoping that it is never ever going to happen to anyone you know. And yet.
She saw Charlotte smile through her tears.
She had not meant to - She had never wished for that. Of course, there had been bad blood, jealousy, envy, a bit of scorn maybe. She couldn't deny it. But this …
She heard the shuffling of feet. They were asked to take their seats as the service was about to start. Before sitting, she cast a glance over her shoulder and spotted John in the back row.
His hair was the color of clouds on a Monday morning. She had not noticed. But she did notice he had showed up in the middle of a workday to support her friend, to support her. As he had over the last couple of years, she realized. It must have been hard for him too. The way she kept pushing him away as if he were irrelevant. Yet he wasn't. He was just waiting for her behind the scenes. Waiting for her to recover.
What if the events of New Mexico had not singled her out,? she mused. What if they had drilled in her a channel that connected her more closely to the others instead ?
Pain is our common ground, she thought. The building block of our humanity. One day or another, everyone gets his share and we are all equally powerless when it strikes. Compassion and kindness then seem to be the only feelings that make sense. And this should be true at all times.
As a child, she had been hammered into loving her neighbour and stuff. It had all sounded like a wonderful multi-colored hot-air balloon you'd never be able to reach at the time. Now she saw the urgency of it, away from the rigmarole.
We are all survivors, she thought.
She didn't need to pose as the one and only. Her surviving had been random, as had the demise of her buddies, of the baby here.
She was no hero. People didn't owe her anything. They had their own agenda. It was a shame it had taken the death of an infant to make her realize all this.
He didn't get to live but she did. She'd make it up to him, she vowed. She didn't know how yet, but she would. In a thousand ways.
She turned around again and saw John wink at her, a wink like a flare path on a landing runway.
Now, that was a start.