Getting Existential

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Ben isn’t in a good mood, though. She eyes him from across the room as she loads up her tray. She should sit across from him instead of as far away as possible. He needs her; she can sense it. 

He doesn’t even look up when she joins him. Deciding there isn’t anything she can do other than be there, she starts eating.

“So…that’s it?”

She glances over at him, chewing a carrot. He’s staring down at his goat stew, eyes startlingly glassy, skin pale. “What’s it?”

“You just…fight like that…and then have dinner?” His hands shake, and his voice is dull. He must still be thinking about the bodies. The hands that had loaded them for transport. The trucks that carried them away. The Sector 1 staff are likely still processing the paperwork for the burials.

Not one of the young invaders surrendered. Not one. Why?

She scowls. “What do you want us to do? Fast? We’re hungry. Especially after a fight. We missed lunch, remember?” She tries to quell her roiling emotions, especially her sympathy for him. She was doing such a good job of not thinking about it, until he went and ruined it. She almost forgot the fact that he almost got himself killed again. She just can’t believe it, and still doesn’t understand why he didn’t evacuate with everyone else.

He looks like he might get sick. She shifts, wincing a little at the bandaged slash on her side; a dying swipe from a teen boy she foolishly tried to appeal to. Luckily, she managed to spin away before it went any deeper

They would rather be slaughtered than submit. They were young, and unprepared, but fierce. Relentless. Those kids had their whole lives ahead of them. Now, she felt closer than ever to thirty.

She felt more determined than ever to make sure that her kids had more opportunities in life.

“How old are you?” she asks distractedly.

He barely looks up. “Thirty-four. Why?”

She nods, and takes another bite. “Huh.”

He hasn’t spoken all afternoon, and his stunned numbness is deeply disturbing. He’s a zombie-like shell of his temperamental, hyperactive, annoying self. Didn’t she always wish he would shut up or disappear? But now…

“Hey, why don’t you tell me more about whatever…you were talking about before?”

The last thing she wants is for him to stop eating again. He doesn’t seem to hear her lame attempt to engage him in conversation, just looks absently past her as though they are separated by glass. He’s dragging her down, and making her float on the surface of reality.

The boy’s feather staff was just like her own. Where did he get it?

She shudders. Leaning forward, she puts her hand on his arm. Not only does it ground her, it gets his attention, and his eyes drag to hers. She strokes him, trying to soothe the trembles under his soft, lightly-haired skin, trying to bring them both back to the present.

“It’s okay, B.” The shaking seems to worsen, as though he’s moments from falling apart. “We only get a few raids a year all the way out here. More as people learn about the hospital. But we’re okay. We didn’t lose any of our own. It’s just a part of life out here. You’re okay.” Hopefully he’ll be leaving soon, anyway. Mostly because she suddenly can’t bare the thought of wondering where he is when he’s gone, what he’s doing, what he’s feeling. Whether he’s haunted the same way she was. She has the insane thought that if he left, she would be compelled to go with him. Abandon this nightmare just to stay near him. “I’m sure you want to go home. That’s totally okay.”

Even though this is the perfect excuse for him to bow out the way she’d been wanting him to do, she holds her breath, wondering what he’ll say.

He shakes his head, eyes welling. Her own eyes prick in response as she wrestles her contradictory desires. “I just keep seeing the blood. It’s all over the road. It’s like mud. Those kids…”

She pats his arm, then reluctantly sits back again to keep herself from catching his tears with her fingers, and pulling him to her body, shielding him despite their laughable difference in size. This isn’t the place. There are too many people who would see. After training day, the last thing she needs is more rumours.

“I just try not to think about it. Why don’t you tell me about other places you’ve travelled?”

Reluctantly, he focuses on the present again. It’s still almost a minute before he starts in a slow, distant voice, like it’s his memory talking instead of him. “I’ve been travelling non-stop since I graduated. I did my undergrad in Mexico, like I said, then my masters in Italy, and my Ph.D in Australia. Every summer and spring break I went to a country I’d never been to before for work co-ops and volunteer trips. I got my industrial mechanic diploma in France, and my pastry certificate in Switzerland. To be honest, I’m not really sure why I came here. I just felt…called.”

She pushes away another spark of curiosity about his finances. “That all sounds really lovely.”

Absently, he touches his tongue to a small spoonful of stew. “How about you?”

Trying to fan the spark of appetite, she answers eagerly. “I toured Africa, Asia, South America, and the Middle East for a year when I was eighteen. Then I started taking mission trips. So far, the Towers Foundation has operations in North Korea, Yemen, Afghanistan, Russia, Colombia, Ukraine, and Cuba, and of course, here in Somalia. This is my third full Qalcad mission.”

He bites off some bread, the teeniest smile at the corner of his mouth. “That sounds like the beginning of Yako’s World. Do you know where you want to go next?”

She smiled. “China.”

“So, are you a Christian or something?” He peered at her.

She snorted. “Um, no. Why?”

“What, then? Why do you call yourself a missionary?”

“There are non-religious missionaries. Travelling and helping people in crisis – that’s the job. God has nothing to do with it.”

“So, is that why you never go to the Sunday services?”

She smiles darkly. “Absolutely. Plus, it’s a little disrespectful to the Muslim culture here. I’m not even sure who started it. I keep meaning to shut it down, but Mickey won’t let me, since it’s good for morale.” Sometimes, she felt like a slave to the concept. And Chelsea had started that church.

“Don’t you want to rest on Sunday?”

“Why should I? There’s things to do whether it’s Sunday or not. I rest on Thursday afternoons, when I can.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Is that out of spite?”

“You bet it is. Why? Are you a Christian or something?” She tried to bite back the judgment in her tone. Not all Christians were terrible, after all. Ben had been an integral part of her church. Of course, he would have absorbed some of its statutes.

He seemed to think about that, his smile soft. “I don’t know. I don’t not believe. I just don’t think about it very much. It’s not really part of my life. I guess I check it off on the Census form, but I haven’t been to church in years, except for Christmas and sometimes Easter. When I was with the Santos family, that Spanish family, we went to church every Sunday, and I was part of the youth group with their kid who was about my age. I was also on the worship team. It was just so peaceful and nice.”

Sunday was the only normal day in her house. Theatre day, she called it. They got dressed up in their costumes, and put on their little act, as though they were a normal family. As though their garden wasn’t full of dead bodies. They’d stood when it was time to stand, and recited the creeds with the rest. Sang along to the songs. And Ben’s fingers had been sure and quick on the guitar, like he was weaving music from thin air. Those long-lashed shadows brushed his cheeks as he tipped his head to the stained-glass windows.

A voice stirred within her, making her grit her teeth, trying to ignore it. Once, when she was a child, it had comforted her, but now it tormented her.

Admit it. My house was a house of peace.

Don’t you have better things to do? Go save some kids.

For almost a year, her tween self had thought that maybe things would be okay, if she could hold on until Sunday and see the boy play. No matter what happened to her, no matter what bruises she’d had to hide, she knew she would have him. Even if they had never spoken. Even if he was always at the front of the sanctuary, and she was always at the back, one of hundreds of faces that he didn’t even see through the stage lights and his closed eyes. And then he’d left for college, and taken that magical guitar, but she hadn’t understood back then. All she’d felt was discarded, abandoned, and hopeless.

“So why do you do it, then?”

She looked up. “What?”

“Your mission work. Sounds like you’ve dedicated your life to it.”

More like sacrificed her life for it. And her soul. “I do it for the children. If I don’t save them, no one else will.”

That clear, dove-grey gaze is steady. For the moment, he no longer seemed haunted and afraid. And for a moment, she saw through the wall of his coyness, sarcasm, and effervescence to the sensitive, thoughtful, soulful man beneath. She saw all the way to the boy who seemed to care about music the way one might care about their own heart.

“Well, it’s good that we ended up here together.” He patted her hand.

“Sometimes it’s not so bad,” she said ruefully, squeezing his fingers, despite herself. “Just stop trying to get yourself killed, for God’s sake.”

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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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