Science Fiction military memory Grief war

May the Pain Guide You Home

By Daniel Roy
Oct 24, 2020 · 2,847 words · 11 minutes

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Photo by Jordy Meow via Unsplash.

From the author: A shared memory recording brings together a soldier's grieving mother and a shell-shocked war reporter.


Alison remembers the States united.

These memories are real but they fade so fast. She remembers explosions that didn't scare her witless on the Fourth of July. The smell of hamburger meat on the grill, so different from burnt flesh.

Gone.

She remembers San Francisco as it is now. These are not her memories but they still make her wince. She hears the crisp snap of sniper bullets chipping off concrete and shattering windshields, the mournful wail of sirens announcing an air strike. She smells the burnt metal of the school buses that residents have upended along Portrero Avenue to obstruct lines of sight into the Mission District.

She sees children braving stray bullets to scavenge for car batteries or peddling grimy trinkets on dirty blankets in the Mission Dolores Park market. Their eyes are haunted even when they play.

These memories, too, begin to fade.

The pain... the pain lingers.

Maureen can see Mrs. Demir's dead son in her eyes. Her hair, poking out from the corner of her dark red hijab, is curlier than Ali's, but there's that same golden hue, rare for Turks, that she found so striking in the young EUAF peacekeeper.

She shows her the press pass.

"Mrs. Demir? I'm Maureen Hugh. The memorist from the Hürriyet." Maureen covers her heart with her right hand. The woman smiles despite the flash of pain that storms across her gray eyes.

"Of course. Welcome to my home, Maureen." She steps aside to let Maureen inside. "And please call me Zehra."

Zehra's apartment is small but tastefully furnished. The fifty-year-old woman favors rich burgundies and purples, which Maureen sees everywhere from the shade of the couch to the accents on the carpets she hung on the walls to keep out Istanbul's winter chill.

Zehra takes Maureen's coat and invites her into the living room. While Zehra busies herself in the kitchen, Maureen takes a closer look at the portrait of Ali occupying the central space on the mantel: he's smiling that lopsided, confident grin she fell in love with, his hair slicked back and his uniform looking crisp. Various mementoes surround the picture: a pair of battered dog tags, a frayed and tired teddy bear, postcards he sent from abroad, a running trophy.

Zehra soon returns with a silver pot, two tea glasses, and a small bowl overflowing with sugar cubes. Her dark golden hair flows freely down to her shoulders, the hijab gone.

They sit facing each other. Maureen drops the sugar into her glass with deliberation, dreading the conversation to follow. She takes a deep breath.

"I can tell you as little or as much as you want, Zehra. It's entirely up to you. Understand?"

Zehra swallows hard.

"The EUAF officer who gave me your name... He says you were with Ali when he—." Zehra's voice trails off.

Maureen nods. "I wasn't in the same vehicle when the strike happened; nobody in that car survived. I was three cars down in the convoy. I stood by as the medic team tried to save him. "

The woman looks at Maureen, staring at her dirty blonde buzzcut. "Are you military too? Or a Free Coast rebel?"

"My mom was born in California and fled the war in '78; I was born here in Istanbul in 2082. The reason I was in San Francisco with Ali is because I was an embedded journalist with the 24th for Operation Broken Wing on assignment from the Hürriyet. I was documenting the lives of peacekeepers on American soil."

"Does it hurt to have your memories extracted?" asks Zehra. The question surprises Maureen.

"No, not at all." She can tell Zehra wants to avoid the painful subject of her son's death a little longer. "It's neurological forensics more than extraction: the neurochemical echo of firing neurons lingers in your brain for a few days. If you subtract the 'noise' of normal brain activity, you can read that echo and record it in an artificial neural network."

Zehra gets a faraway look in her eyes. "Like tuning out the chatter of the living to hear the whispers of the dead."

"You're more of a poet than I. I think of it as pulling down my pants so some technician can read the seat prints off my butt."

Maureen expected outrage at her loose Army joke, but instead Zehra breaks into easy, generous laughter, which makes Maureen smile. She has her son's easy laugh.

"Tell me about the footage," says Zehra.

Maureen nods, and collects herself.

"I'm here specifically about the memory footage where your son is visible. I was with him until the end, so that takes us from the moment of the attack to his passing. During that time, I was looking at his face, which means my editor needs your permission to publish."

Zehra nods. She goes to speak, then stops herself, furrows her brow.

"Can I experience the footage before I decide?"

Maureen was afraid of this. Editorial policy at the Hürriyet says she needs to secure permission before any of the footage can be shared. Otherwise, she grants Zehra too much editorial control over the publication's content.

"Zehra... The footage is hard. Ali didn't go easy, you know. And besides..." Maureen swallows, her throat sore. "I—Well, I liked your son. The emotional track is tough to sit through."

"Yet the Hürriyet wants to publish it. So I'll see it eventually."

"It will be edited. They'll cut out the, ah, more intense parts, and they'll rerecord the emotional track with a professional emoter to tone it down."

"I want to see the real thing before I decide, then."

"Zehra—"

"Please. I need this."

Maureen closes her eyes. She knows what her editor told her to do next. She's to say the memories are still being reconstituted, that she'll need a few days to get them to her. The Hürriyet will send an editor to sweet-talk her, and they'll hold the footage hostage until Zehra agrees to the waiver.

Maureen stares into Zehra's eyes. So much like her son's.

She thinks of her own mother, lost without memories, her brain wiped clean from years of trying to escape the truth of her ravaged home.

Maureen takes the playback circlet out of her bag. Zehra's eyes go wide.

For a moment, Maureen remembers her mother. She's too caught up in the memory to notice the EUAF convoy slowing down as they come up on Stockton Street Tunnel from Chinatown. Besides, they're far enough east of the 101 that they don't need to worry about a Rebel strike.

As her EUAF Humvee drives south across the rubble of Chinatown, she lingers in the memory of her mother. Not as Alison is now, vacant, lost in an eternal, contextless present. She remembers Alison as she was in Maureen's youth: strong, shaped by the hard life of a war refugee into a woman of steel and grace, forever proud and defiant in the face of a God that spit in her eye when she was thirteen.

The Humvee's sudden deceleration brings her out of her reverie. She looks ahead, between the driver and the shotgun passenger, and sees the back of the truck ahead nearly hit their front bumper. The driver, Lieutenant Hoffmann, a young female EUAF officer with a square jaw and short, spiky black hair, curses in German.

"Something wrong?" asks Maureen, leaning forward between the seats.

She can tell Hoffmann is agitated. Her companion, Lieutenant Sy, a broad-shouldered black man with a French Foreign Legion sown below his EUAF patch, is glancing at the sky through the windshield, squinting against the morning sun.

"Nah, it's all good ma'am," says Sy with his warm, rolling accent, Senegalese by way of a Paris suburb. "It must be the head of the convoy entering the tunnel. Just being careful."

The truck ahead comes to a stop, and Hoffmann slams on the brakes. She looks over her shoulder to back up, but the Humvee behind her is pushed up against her rear bumper.

"Hey! Hey! Back it up! Back up!" yells Hoffmann, rolling down her window to wave at the other vehicle. A few seconds later, the vehicles behind back up. Hoffmann sighs in relief.

"See?" Sy gives her a big, white grin. "Nothing to worry ab—"

It takes Maureen a dreadful moment to understand what happened next. For the eternity of a few seconds, all she can feel is the emptiness of her lungs, the ringing of her head from the impact of the front seat, and a loud, vibrating pain reverberating from her ears to the core of her being, pulsating with her heartbeat.

She tries to breathe but can't. Adrenaline floods her brain, trying to snap her out of the sledgehammer shock of the impact. She can see Hoffmann, slouched over the wheel, holding her head with bloodstained hands. Sy is wheezing with shock.

The windshield shattered from the breath of the explosion and peppered the two soldiers with broken glass. Maureen's ears are drowned with the noise of angry wasps. She doesn't feel pain, but she knows she wouldn't feel anything right now even if she were mortally wounded.

Up ahead through the broken windshield, she can see fire and black smoke rising in the blue of the sky. She tries to count how far ahead the attack landed. Two, perhaps three vehicles ahead—

Ali!

"Hey! Stay put!" yells Sy through the roar in Maureen's ears. But Maureen has already opened her door and is stepping out, broken glass crushing under her boots. Through the ringing she can hear bursts of automatic fire and hoarse voices barking orders. In the distance, an air siren sings its lament.

Hunched over and still shaking, Maureen makes her way to the truck ahead. She can smell burning rubber and gunpowder, and the smoke in the air makes her eyes sting. Past the truck is another one, tipped on its side by the blast. Numb, she moves past three soldiers firing up at the top of the tunnel. Their voices are hoarse with gut-clenching fear.

Then she sees it, two vehicles back from the mouth of the tunnel: the Humvee that Ali rode in, or what's left of it.

Maureen straightens, no longer concerned with dodging enemy fire. She breaks into a run towards the fiery crater. The explosion has thrown back Ali's Humvee into the truck behind it, and it's now squished along its length like a stubbed cigarette. She sees angry orange flames rising from the front of the Humvee, and something red and wet splayed across the shattered asphalt.

"Ali!" She can barely hear her own voice. Someone is yelling her name, but she doesn't care. She burns her hands on the car door as she pulls at it. Ali falls from the vehicle, hitting the ground like a bag of meat.

His face is covered in blood, except for those big gray eyes, wider than she's ever seen them before. He's breathing fast, staring at God, somewhere beyond the pain of the world.

A rocket flies overhead, slams with a breath of hot and angry air into something airborne. Beyond the ruins of Stockton Street, a drone spirals down in a hail of flaming steel. Someone hoots.

"Ali. Are you OK, Ali? Ali!"

She resists the urge to shake him. Ali gasps at her, exhales a thick bubble of bright-red blood. Someone curses at her to get out of their way, then pulls her back.

A young medic kneels down next to Ali. He garrotes both his legs, one by one, to staunch those awful fountains of blood gushing from his thighs.

With nothing else to do and the immediate threat of the rebel drone gone, Maureen begins to cry: dirty, noisy tears that choke her up and crunches her face into a grimace of pain and anger.

Battlefield medics surround Ali, all silently busying themselves over his blood-soaked form. She can't bear to watch, but she does it anyway.

EUAF fighter jets soon fly overhead on drone patrol. The soldiers begin to relax. They lower their guns and walk closer, forming a circle around the tragedy unfolding among the chunks of asphalt. Maureen can't stop sobbing, so she does it as quietly as she can. She wipes her eyes, watching the medics butcher the man she loves in an attempt to save his life.

Maureen barely notices the officer staring at her from the other side of the circle. He finally walks around the group, and taps Maureen on the shoulder.

"Hey. Walk away, memorist," says the officer in Italian-accented English. "That's enough recording."

Maureen feels her fists clenching in response. Part of her agrees with the officer's plea for decency, but she knows she can't afford to ignore this. "I have permission to record," she says. "This is my job."

"Not this," says the officer, emotion making his voice raw. They stare at each other.

"Hey," says Hoffmann, stepping up to the officer, half her face obscured by her own blood. "Leave her alone."

A soldier nods, then another.

"Let people see this," Hoffmann says. "Especially this."

The officer relents, turns back towards the medics huddling over Ali. Maureen steps forward, and the soldiers part to allow her a closer look.

The medic team continues to work, filled with purposeful tension, their movements quick and precise. But then a shivering shock goes through them and they freeze. A murmur echoes around the soldiers. The whole gathering stops breathing.

The medics get up, avoiding each other's eyes. For a long moment, they form a still tableau, each staring into their own private distance, the bloody remains of Ali between them.

Zehra is panting as the recording comes to an end. The kindness is gone from her eyes, choked by the shock and horror of remembrance. She's breathing in hard gulps—Hah! Hah!

Maureen knows exactly how she feels, of course. She tugs the playback circlet from Zehra's golden hair, but Zehra's eyes are still wet and empty. She grabs Maureen's arms with hands like talons, and buries her face into Maureen's shoulder. Her tears come in short, hard shrieks of pain.

"I'm so sorry," says Maureen as she strokes the woman's hair. "I had no right."

Maureen wraps her arms around Zehra, and they weep together, openly, bound by the solace of shared grief.

The tears eventually abate. The two women cling to each other even as Zehra finally looks up, her eyes red and puffy, her face twisted by pain.

"I'm sorry," repeats Maureen, uselessly.

But Zehra shakes her head.

"I was at my son's side when he died."

Maureen feels tears well up again.

"There was nothing I could do."

"You bore witness."

"He loved you, you know," says Maureen. "He spoke of you often."

Zehra nods, trying to pull herself back together around this tiny, glowing piece of knowledge. The tears come back, gentler this time.

"He wrote about you," says Zehra. "That's why I agreed to meet you. I knew you cared."

Maureen looks away, twisted by the pain of happier days. Time passes.

After a while, Maureen gets up and busies herself in the kitchen. She makes Zehra and herself a simple lunch of bread, olives and cheese, which they share in silence on the couch.

"Your mother... She must be very proud of you," says Zehra at last with a fragile voice. Maureen turns to her, eyes wide.

"My mother doesn't remember me," says Maureen. "When she came to Istanbul... Her childhood was too painful. She became a memory addict."

"My God... She wiped?"

Maureen nods. "Total brain crash."

"Do you ever send her your memory records?" asks Zehra, her voice still raw. She eyes the playback circlet.

Maureen shakes her head. "I used to send her memory letters. Travel videos. It's no use. I stopped a few years ago. Besides, all I see these days is war. She's had her share of that."

Zehra pats Maureen's hand in a gesture at once maternal and sisterly.

"You never gave up on Ali, not until it was over," she says. "It was useless of you to hope but you still tried. Maybe it's time to try again."

Maureen looks at Zehra. She's smiling despite the fierceness of the pain that flickers in her eyes.

"What can I possibly send her that—"

But then she knows.

Alison remembers the States united. Not the smoldering ruins of the homeland, but a vibrant land, full of defiant optimism, before the dream ended.

She remembers children running through the streets without fear of snipers or stray rockets. The bark of dogs running through sprinklers in the summer heat, the crystal laughter on her lips as the summers lasted forever.

The memories of the war are not her own, but they remind her of all she's lost. They're a light guiding her home, what's left of it.

Zehra's grief reminds her of a mourning woman from long ago. Someone she hasn't been for a long, long time.

And for a moment, Alison remembers her daughter.


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Daniel Roy

Daniel Roy is crafting tales of hope for a cold, uncaring universe.