IN A DARK TIME
What does one do when the world disintegrates in jet fuel and flames, and one isn’t there for the destruction?
Sheila Rogers went shopping. She wandered through the rain-slicked streets of Munich near the Hauptbahnhof in the city’s center, looking for a store where she could buy warmth and comfort. She needed to wrap her body in fleece, to shut out the icy rain and the endless looped videos of two towers vanishing in shrouds of smoke and splintered stone, interspersed with talking heads who read from papers clutched in frightened fingers.
She paused on the corner, waiting to cross. Red reflections from the traffic lights flamed in the wind-gusted puddles. She glanced at the coin-operated newspaper rack on the corner. Osama bin Laden’s mad eyes glared from the front page of Suddeutche Zeitung; the headline read “U.S. suchen bin Laden.” She shivered as she realized, deep in some primal place, that he and his kind would destroy whatever civilization still existed in a chaotic world and there was nothing she or anyone else could do about it.
Carson hadn’t left the hotel room for three days, subsisting on take-away that Sheila picked up on brief forays into downtown Munich. Bratwurst and pizza and coffee and rolls nourished his body but not his psyche as he hunched on the gray duvet that covered the bed in their miniscule hotel room. He suffered, blamed, craved revenge as he watched the creepers on CNN, the only channel broadcast in English, trail across cyclical images of towers toppling, people plummeting a thousand feet, and endless darkness billowing through city canyons.
He mourned, too, for his high school buddies who, in their offices high above Manhattan, earned more money in a year than he made in five. Now those he had sometimes envied, whom Sheila had never met, plunged from lofty windows and suffocated in hell-riddled stair wells. Carson cursed the hijackers and Mohammed, but most of all, he cursed himself for living while his friends died.
Carson wanted her to suffer with him. She wanted only to be warm.
Jet lag hung on her like a wet woolen overcoat. Drizzle collected in her hair and on her face as she pushed along the crowded sidewalk toward the four-storey department store. The long flight from Denver, the strain of trying to remember her high school German, and the first reports of tragedy at home as they’d stepped off the plane had petrified her brain, as the weather had frozen her body.
Chestnut vendors huddled around glowing grills; the acrid smell of charcoal and blackened husks mingled with exhausts fumes and rain. Sheila had never tasted roasted chestnuts. She thought of buying a bag, but a wind carrying a hint of winter crept beneath her light jacket and nipped her skin. Instead, she hurried through the revolving door of Hertie.
Heated air blew against her face as she entered, and she shuddered as her body adjusted to the thirty-degree temperature difference. Except for the signs and sounds in German, she could have been in Macy’s or Nordstrom’s. She browsed through a rack of sweaters, mentally converting the dual pricing of Deutschmarks and euros to dollars. As she picked out a turtleneck, thick socks, and a woolen jacket, she thought of Carson, whose wardrobe was no warmer than hers. She could comfort him with clothing, appease him with alpaca, but she’d be damned if she would. Let him pry himself away from the tube. Let him straggle through the streets, cold and forlorn. Let him be alone, as he’d left her alone, drowning in his misery.
Even before this fateful journey, Carson had forsaken her, their connection thinned like a filament stretched beyond its tensility. He had been physically faithful, of that she was sure; he was an honorable man. Honor, however, did not seem to include cherishing and nurturing a long-standing habit, the custom of marriage.
Sheila handed over Deutschmarks and received a quilted jacket, two turtlenecks, and a long scarf in exchange. Shrugging into the coat, she zipped it to her throat, and wrapped the scarf around her neck, looping the handles of the bag holding her sweaters over her wrist.
Outside, she pulled her new jacket closer and ducked her head against the wind that funneled down from the Alps into the street. She hurried to the hotel and climbed the two flights to their room.
As she entered, Carson eyed the brown shopping bag. Disgust mingled with sorrow. “Where have you been?” he asked, his voice rough with weeping.
She answered his accusation rather than his question. “I was freezing.” Dropping the bag on the bed, she took off her coat and scarf, and pulled her tee shirt over her head. He stared at her breasts, and for the first time, she was embarrassed by his gaze. She turned away, pulling a turtleneck on and tucking it into her slacks.
He looked back to the television. “The police were here. All international travelers are being investigated. They’re expecting five million people for Oktoberfest in two weeks. They don’t want a repeat of that.” He nodded at the screen, where once again home-videoed horror unfolded in slow motion.
“Surely they don’t think we’re terrorists.” Sheila snapped open the suitcase and folded her tee shirt into it.
Carson turned his head and frowned at her, then upped the volume as he focused once more on the carnage in New York.
Sheila shivered, but now it was rage that rocked her. She snatched the remote from her husband and punched the “off” button.
“What did you do that for?” he cried as he lunged for the control.
She tossed it across the room. It bounced off the wall and skipped across the floor to land under the bed.
“Damn it! What in God’s name is wrong with you?” he shouted. He knelt and ran his hand over the carpet, searching for his lifeline to film at eleven.
She screamed at him, a wordless, keening cry that struck at him like a leaping tiger. He twisted toward her and put up both hands to fend her off as she pummeled his back. He managed to grab her wrists and shoved her away. “Stop it!”
Her arms fell to her sides, hands fisted against her thighs, as tears welled and spilled over.
She held out a shaking arm and pulled up her sleeve to expose the veins, blue against her pale inner arm. Her voice coiled between them, venom-laced. “Where shall I put this blood that still flows? Would my dying appease the gods and bring back Daniel and Seth and—and all those?” She flung her arm toward the television while a sob as dark as a raven’s croak beat its way out of her throat. “I can’t go home. I can’t give blood. I can’t bring comfort. What do you want me to do?”
Sheila,” he whispered, still kneeling. “Don’t.”
He slowly rose and opened his arms to her, but she only stared at him as the sorrow of the survivor settled into her soul.