Shuk shuk shuk…
That sound. It startles me.
It seems to run through me, jarring, like a cellular ringtone. What’s making the noise?…I have no idea. Anxious and confused, I look around? It’s dark—where am I—I feel myself tremble. It’s hard to see, my vision shadowing over, gray as a storm. I feel strange, queasy, out of place—something’s not right. Strife whirs in my mind, like flies around a corpse. Is this a dream? A coma? A cryogenic state like Vanilla Sky? I can’t tell. The air is stale, walls on six sides, claustrophobically tight. I find it difficult to breath. Fear surges, panic claws at dura. I’m really shaken up. What the hell is going on? I feel lost…
Shuk shuk shuk…
The noise again, louder.
It’s grating, I shudder. Movement, sudden. I’m falling. I see light. Prismatic images. Confusion, fear. Is this a seizure? I brace for impact, but land gently. Gravity seems less here—wherever here is. I scour my mind, try to think outside the box. Nothing comes, my thoughts too scattered. Time moves in fits, shifting in lulls and instants. The darkness is gone, but I still can’t see. I really need answers, I haven’t slept in forever. I’m tired. I might be blind. I don’t know where I am. I feel a breeze, hear a faint trickle…a smell. Is that coffee?
The noise finally stops. Thank God, I whisper, I hope it never comes back, my voice adrift in the stillness. I try to focus, sweep for reason. But it’s difficult, my thoughts splintered and strewn. I search my mind, detecting for memories. Inhale, breathe. I must figure this out…before that damn noise returns. Exhale, relax. The clock is ticking.
Think! Start simple—my name….
My name is Eth-an, it comes to me finally, in two pieces. I have a name…that’s good. I’m someone. Whew. My tension eases, but only some. Yes, I know my name, but who I am, I still don’t know. At least I have a name, small victories. I feel other memories, they lurk in dark spaces. Don’t over think, don’t push. Let memories come when they’re ready. Easier said than done. Uneasiness heaves, impeding my grasp, keeping me in limbo. But I have a name. My name is Ethan. I am somebody. Inhale, breathe. Take solace, it’s something. Exhale, relax.
The meditation helps. Parts start to unite, and I begin to remember. The smoke is clearing, and I am starting to see. I’m young, clean cut, wearing a uniform, thick with Kevlar. There’s a helmet, the color of sand. It triggers more recall; my vision improves, images tessellating, shaping clarity. I’m a US Serviceman. My name is Staff Sargent Ethan McMunn. The pieces are beginning to fall into place.
Minutes tick, mental pictures sharpen. But I need more intel, my brain still fragmented. I’m frustrated, still cold with fear. I’m a soldier, I’m not supposed to be afraid, but I can’t help it…I am. I think of my loved ones. I think of my wife, Alma. Inhale, Breathe. I think of my parents, my two younger sisters. Exhale, relax. What’s that…is that voices I hear?!
My inner picture sharpens, pixels shifting with new imagery. I’m on a boat, out on the Gulf of Mexico. It’s my boat, a twenty-foot center console. Above the sky is clearing, the water settling from storm, fishing rods angled to sea. But as I look out to sea, I see a fan, blades whirling easily, like a chopper prop in dream speed. I see faces flash by, then hear the voices in the distance. But that’s not possible. I’m five miles out in the Gulf, seawater all around. Shit, I wince, fighting back panic. Inhale, breathe…exhale, relax.
The info’s overwhelming, my fuse short with frustration. Why is this happening to me? The question hangs in my mind like spent cordite. I’m glad to see the faces, hear the voices, they are familiar, and bring a measure of comfort. But the calm is greatly offset, my mind concussed with ambiguity. What’s going on? I have no clue. It makes no sense. The faces are my parents…and I’m in a room that I know. I recognize the ceiling fan, the soft pastel wall treatments, the sound of the coffee maker, the open floorplan. I recognize it all. I’m in the den, adjacent to the kitchen. I’m flat on my back…
…I am home.
My parents hover above and speak in quiet tones, moving in and out of frame. The talk is mostly of my younger sisters; Marcy’s a sophomore in college now, Nola’s a frosh. This makes no sense. Last I remember they were both in high school. Then they talk of last night’s dinner with the Mallon’s. The linguini was to die for. The conversation is casual, but there’s an underlying angst, palpable as it is grieving. I try to call out. I need to speak to them. I hear my voice, but they don’t respond. Why can’t they hear me? Am I dreaming? Am I in another dimension?
The view changes again, I’m moving. I see my father in close-up. He looks weary, much older than last time I saw him. His face is heavy with stress, lines etched deeper than I remember. I’m suddenly upright, moving toward the living room. How? Again, the question looms, infuriatingly out of grasp. It makes no sense. I’m not walking. How am I moving? My boat moves with me, as does the whole scene, even the sea. We’re being carried.
I finally settle, upright and eye-level, my view improved. I’m still in my boat, the ocean all around, yet I have a panoramic view of the home I grew up in. I see the kitchen to the right, the den to the left, a trio of sunny windows linking the two, and the comforting fuss of my parents going about their day.
Voices pull me from the daydream. One in particular. I recognize it immediately. She’s here. My love—Alma—my wife. She moves into the living room, is greeted by my parents. Seeing her fills me with joy, boundless love. I try to call out, my heart livened with angst…but again, no one hears me. They begin to speak. I quiet and focus. I want to hear what they say.
My mom speaks first. “We wanted to have you over and show you this.” She points to me and Alma turns, moves closer. My heart swells as she nears. I meet her eyes. I love you…Alma, hello? No reply. There’s tears in her eyes.
“It’s beautiful,” she says, tuning to my parents.
“It was a picture of Ethan when he was out on his boat during his last leave before the accident.”
Accident? What accident?
“It was his favorite thing to do,” my mother continues. “He loved that boat. And since he also loved to do puzzles, we had the picture sent off and made into one. We finally finished it yesterday, and Herbert glued it into a picture frame.” Mom turns and smiles at dad. “We want you to have it to commemorate the two-year anniversary of his loss.”
Two years? Loss?
“Oh my God, this is such a beautiful gesture.” Alma says, eyes shining brightly through tears. “It’s the second piece of good news I’ve gotten this week.” A smile rising from her clinched jaw. “I got a call from the Army Review Board yesterday, I wanted to tell you in person. They discovered new evidence during the review. The accident was not Ethan’s fault. The IED had been detonated remotely, not due to error.” She grabbed their hands and squeezed. “And they caught the guy who did it, a notorious insurgent. He fessed up, explained how the bomb had been rigged to make it look like a mistake by the soldier trying to disarm it. It was a setup from the start, Ethan had no chance. It was designed to kill and inflict ongoing terror by destroying reputation and morale.” She shook her head and sighed, her anger bleeding off in degrees. “It wasn’t Ethan’s fault.”
“Oh, thank God!” Mom cries and hugs dad.
“the investigation has been ended, his record cleared, all benefits and full military standing restored. He’s to be exhumed and buried in Arlington, with full ceremony.”
Mom and Dad hug each other fiercely. Looking back at me, Alma then says. “I think the picture should stay right where it is.” She smiles, the expression so powerful it penetrates the astral plane, feels like sunrays on my skin. “It’s the perfect spot, this is where he would want to be. He loved this house, and he loved that boat.” They huddle and hug, weeping in joy, a trio of celebration.
I begin to cry, too, taste sea in the trickle.
I remember it all now.
I see the bomb, the jumble of wires…the white-hot flash that blew me into a thousand pieces.
I’m shocked, but I am not sad. I did my job, I did it right.
My Name is Staff Sargent Ethan McMunn, and I am no longer.
My name is Ethan McMunn…
…and I am finally free.