By Sam Arrington
“This doesn’t kill kids. It kills adults, but not kids.”
Early on a doctor had told him that. Now he just repeated it whenever the silence took him to some place he didn’t want to be.
A small girl was sleeping on the bed in front of him. Her frame was overwhelmed by the bulk of the large bed. She was asleep and the last of the daylight was fading on the mountains outside the window of her hospital room. It cast a beautiful rose glow on her skin.
A nurse entered the room.
“Take a break. I will come get you if I need to.”
The nurse stared at him until he looked up at her.
“A real break, like we talked about. My dad said it worked for him when he got back. I think it will help.”
He nodded to her and left the room. He walked down the wide hallways, through all the suffering and disinfectant, until he was outside. Two security guards were smoking cigarettes and he stood near them looking off into the parking lot. People came and went in their cars.
One of the guards noticed the tattoo on his forearm.
“How long were you in?”
“OIF or OEF?”
“A little bit of both.”
“Yeah, me too. 101st.”
“Eighty deuce for me.”
They both decided to stop there. When they were done with their cigarettes the guards left.
He had spent his nights since the war tormented, writhing in his own sweat, his brain flooded with adrenaline.
He stopped sleeping in her room after he woke her during one of his nightmares. The nurse told him he was talking in his sleep. She looked sad when she said it. She pitied him as his daughter’s veins burned with poison and he hated himself for it. He started sleeping in the waiting room.
During the day, he sat beside her praying for time to slow down. It never did, but as the days passed the staff at the hospital learned not to stand behind him or startle him so it was manageable.
There was something in him now telling him he had to stay with her. He took the vaporizer from the pocket of his jeans and looked at it. It was no bigger than an ink pen. A small reservoir of oil on one end. He placed it on his lips and inhaled deeply, holding it in for a moment and wondering if it was the right thing. Then the calm washed over him and he knew that it was.
That night, the sweat and dust and the sour smell of gun powder remained at distance and he slept next to her. He matched her stillness. She was his daughter and he was her father and they were content there in a place that usually will not allow it.
She fought hard for another week. They watched movies and listened to music. They laughed. The nurses looked the other way when he carried her outside one morning to see the tulips. Her teacher called and her friends came to visit.
They were asleep again and she was wrapped in his arms when her body began to cool.
He was with her, protecting her, as she went wherever it is we go when we are done here.
Sam Arrington grew up on the East Coast and enlisted in the US Army after the attacks on September 11, 2001. He served eight years, including combat tours in Iraq and deployments as a combat advisor in Lebanon and Yemen. He now lives in Washington with his wife and two sons and spends his days teaching, writing, and coaching baseball.