Everything Explodes

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“Oh, Lanie,” Ben called in a singsong voice as they left the hospital grounds. He practically bounded along beside her, seemingly recovered from the moment they had shared during their dance. She, on the other hand, still tingled with the heat that his hands had left on her body. Her abs contracted at the thought.

“What?” she asked distractedly, tamping down her swirling emotions of arousal, guilt, and hesitation. With each step toward the bunkhouse, she ached to go back, and stay with him for ever in the world of their dance. She felt unsure of her next move on this treacherous terrain that she’d been walking for so long.

“I think you’ve got something behind your ear!”

“Ah, come on – ”

But he had already reached for her head. His fingers tickled her ear as he pretended to search her hair. Triumphantly, he produced a small, white, paper flower.

“What? How did that get there?” His voice was full of silly, feigned astonishment.

She shook her head and kept walking, a sudden wave of tears pressing behind her eyes. He pocketed the flower and kept pace with her. The crunching of their footsteps echoed in the greyness of the evening as they made their way down the road. It was a little chillier than normal tonight, and Lanie realized she was walking closer to him than usual, drawn to his heat. I’m cold, nothing more.

“So, what do you want to show me?” he asked lightly, with only a hint of disappointment. 

“It’s important. That’s all I can say right now.” She edged away from him. The last thing she needed was more heat. She needed to distance herself, or she might not be able to do this.

He glanced at her, his smile dimming, eyes questioning. “Will I…like the surprise?”

Her heart tugged. The way he asked the question reminded her of baby Simba on his way to be trampled by antelopes. But she wasn’t Scar. She only wanted to keep him safe. Better he be a memory than a corpse.

“It will be a shock at first.”

His brow furrowed as he tried to try to puzzle it out. “Well, whatever it is, thank you in advance. I didn’t do any of this for a gift. I meant what I told everybody up there. And I meant what I told you while we were dancing, and by the river. I really do feel at home here, more than I ever have. Maybe in my life. I think I’ve finally found what I’ve been looking for.”

Oh, no. Her hold on her resolve was slipping again. If Jake wouldn’t be waiting for her soon, she wasn’t sure she could keep going. “Goldberg – ”

He rushed on, twisting his hands. “Professionally, I mean. For the longest time I thought architecture and engineering was the dream, you know? I thought getting out of construction would mean I had made it. I thought having a skyrise office and wearing a suit would make me feel something. Like I was worth something. But I didn’t last six months.”

Putting his hands in his pockets, he tilted his gaze to the stars peeking through the grey curtain of dusk. His laugh of wonder held a note of surprise. She wanted to put an ear to his chest and dive inside of the sound.  He had no idea that he had been her lifeline in a time where she felt like she dangling just above the abyss of utter despair, even if they had never spoken. Never touched. Never even looked into each other’s eyes.

“But this! Here! The kids. Building again. No pollution. No safety net. I know you’re really angry every time I get hurt. But Lanie, you don’t know how satisfying it is to know that I’m really in the trenches now, not floating off in some safe, self-righteous bubble. Whenever I volunteered before, the worst that could happen was getting paint stains on my fingers. Or a glitch in a water reclamation system. Or a parent getting mad at me for their kid’s grades.”

“Hey. Listen.”

“And I know, I know, I shouldn’t have argued with you so much about the playset at the hospital. But come on, an unauthorized, moonlit, clandestine construction job? You can’t make this stuff up. And you can’t get it anywhere else. This place is in my bones!”

“Well, that’s great, but – ”

“Lanie. Please. Just let me finish, okay? I’ve been going over what you’ve been saying. About how I can’t keep fighting against you, sneaking around, and overextending myself.” 

“And putting yourself in constant danger,” she muttered.

“Right! So, I was thinking – ”

She groaned loudly.

“No! You’ll like this one, I promise. I think the problem is…I’m jealous of you, Lanie.”

The words brought her to a halt. “Jealous? Why?”

“Because! Your job is so eclectic! You get to do so many things. Every day is different for you. And as much as I love teaching, the one thing I miss about my other volunteer trips is that it was usually in a big city. Tons to do. Most of it depraved.  But still. I needed more. And I need that here too. Variety, and excitement!”

His fervor made her head spin.  “So what? You want to join the security reserve? Become a medic?”

He shuddered. “God, no. I have zero desire to go near guns. Or sew people back together. Or, like, workout. But I want to expand. Make it official, so It’s not a constant fight between us. I love the custodian work at the hospital. And I’d like to make my own plan to provide at least some tutoring to the hospital kids until Ali has hers ready. At least for this year, they’ll have something. And I can consult with you to make sure it’s efficient. I want to be put on rotation in the kitchen. Even if it’s just doing dishes. Hopefully I can help with the cooking, and rationing. I’m a trained chef, as you’re aware, and I know a thing or two about nutrition. I want to work at the farm, too, maybe set up some hydroponics to save water! Help with maintenance, since I am a mechanic. And I really want to learn more about the growing process. So many engineering problems to solve here. Oh, and the preschool. I have extensive childcare experience, and I love little kids. And of course, I know how to do budgets and reports and all that paperwork stuff. Not my favorite, but it can be relaxing after a long day of labour. All the random things I’ve been learning all my life have been preparing me for this.”

Finally, he took a breath. They were halfway to the south side. He stopped and faced her, posture straight, hands behind his back. She stopped too, facing him. It looked like he was fighting a grin, but he lost. He radiated with joy. Purpose. Satisfaction. None of the self-loathing and recrimination. As always, Ben bounced back.

Caution slowed her response. “What’s with the resume? You sound like you’re giving a job interview.”

“Chief de la Torres,” he said, his voice grave and formal, but his lips still twitched, and his eyes still danced. “Qalcad is an incredible place. Everyone says it’s your favorite. You’ve built it with your dedication and intelligence. From what I can see, no one here cares more, or works harder for this place than you, even if you’re at a distance most of the time. And that’s why all of my mishaps are incredibly stressful for you. But I hope you believe me when I say I’m in love. I love this place as much as you do, in a way I never expected, and can’t even really explain. I want to be able to really consult and plan with the team, because I have so many ideas, and I know a lot of them are good ones, despite your grumbling. But the last thing I want to do is fight with you, or make you worry, or feel disrespected. I want to work witIh you.”

Don’t react, she ordered herself. Don’t hurt him. Don’t stamp out his light. She tried to clear her expression, but it was just too hard, hearing him reflect her feelings so clearly. The intimacy of sharing that mysterious, inexplicable passion together nearly took her breath away. Did he realize what he was doing to her? She didn’t think so. That’s what made it even more difficult to resist him. She needed to shut him up, somehow, before she fell apart.

She couldn’t though, and he didn’t notice her turmoil. “And because I know how hard it will be for you to leave and go to China, I want you to have someone here, who loves this place as much as you do, who can be everywhere and anywhere, and do almost anything.” He held the flower out to her. No tricks. No jokes. Just a simple offering. “Will you do me the honour of making me the Operations Manager of Qalcad Jamaame?”

Trembling, she reached out and lifted the flower from his palm. Silently, she fixed her attention on how grey it was in the dying light.

“My hope,” he went on when she said nothing, still hopeful but a little less confident, “is that for the rest of our time together this year before you leave, you could train me, and supervise me. I will do exactly what you say, and won’t complain even once. You can mold me however you want, and you won’t have to worry even a little while you’re gone. I’ll stay on as a permanent staff member, like Emma and Aaron. I think I’ve proven that I’m not afraid of the danger.”

 All of this was too much. Why was he making this harder than it needed to be?

“I’m here. You’ve got my hands, my incredible brain, and winning personality.” He flashed a smile, then made himself serious again. “And a willing heart. All of me. For whatever you need, as long as you’ll have me. Hopefully for a really, really long time. I want to be your left-hand man.”

“Don’t you mean right?” She was so dazed that this was the only thing she could handle asking right now.

He kept pace with her. “Well, you’re left-handed, so.”

How had he noticed? Since childhood, she’d worked to conceal it, and even when she stopped believing in the supernatural connotations, it had become so ingrained that she didn’t think about it much anymore. Being ambidextrous came in handy in a lot of ways.

She sighed and looked up at him, at the door of possibility he’d opened for her. She stepped through, just for a second, just for a peek. The two of them poured over plans and budgets. Evening paperwork turned into late-night strategy sessions with laughter and ideas. He taught her to play the guitar, arms wrapped around her and guiding her hands. She showed him what to do when the well in Section 4 malfunctioned. Laying her hand over his, she showed him just how to manipulate the nob above the inner pump until the water started gushing again.

She finally felt like he was listening to her. No more fighting. Just the good parts of this turbulent friendship that they had developed, somehow, in this hostile and dangerous environment. A relationship that had taken root inside her again, and sucked up all of her self-control, resolve, and attention.

A relationship that would continue to take more and more until there was nothing left. Her heart. Her mind. Her soul. All of her.

With unintentional violence, she crushed the flower in her hands. A sharp stinging pricked her chest, but she couldn’t’ take the action back, so she threw it to the ground and straightened. Finally, she was able to control her expression. She put everything she had into emptying herself of all emotion. All thoughts except one. Sometimes it was necessary to hurt someone to save them.

She had a job to do, and there was too much at stake. “No.”

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“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him.”
~ Romans 15:13


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