Ron Torrence



Julia's War

 

            Julia is so still on the patio of her new home that her only sign of life is the slight rise-fall of her chest. Despite the mild day, she’s chilled, so Mark had set a blanket around her shoulders before going inside.

            He returns to hand her a cup.

            “My very best hot toddy.”

            Julia stirs just enough to accept the drink, sips gingerly, then cradles the hot cup in her hands. Mark pulls a patio chair closer to look at her with intense, worried eyes, as if he’s trying to see inside her mind.

            “Doris emailed to say you’ve been traumatized by something so terrible you won’t talk about it.”

* * *

            Just a few weeks before, Julia had sat with longtime friend Doris at their favorite French bistro. A warm day bathed the sidewalk cafe with sunlight as liquid as a shower that dried as soon as it touched their skin. Accented with a sip of crisp pinot grigio, it was blessed relief from the storm of anxiety since her marriage had broken up.

            “What will you do now, Julia?”

            “Take some time to piece together a new life.”

            “Well, dear, you can’t continue to stay in that Residence Inn. It’ll bankrupt you!”

            Doris sat back to eye Julia’s slender, workout-toned body.

            “Well, you reap what you sow,” she said.

            “Now you too? Everyone’s so quick to judge me.”

            “If you hadn’t gone off to study art in Paris, you and John would still be together.”

            Julia tossed her napkin beside her plate.

            “At what cost, Doris? Life with John was all about John. Companionship meant Redskin season tickets and waiting in the clubhouse for him to finish his Saturday morning golf. So going to Paris was for me, Doris. Finishing my PhD was to complete what I’d left undone many years ago.”

            “You were always such a dreamer.” Doris shook her head as if dealing with a stubborn child. “You have to be more practical. Fending for yourself at fifty is no picnic. Believe me, I know.”

            “What if I am following a dream? Men do it all the time. At every stage of life! And their women are supposed to stand dutifully beside them. No one ever criticizes the men for that. But if a woman does it, then Katy bar the door!”

            Julia glared at Doris.

            “You have to admit I’m right.”

            Doris shifted uneasily.

            “Be at least a little emancipated,” Julia said.

            A smile pulled at Doris’s lips. She glanced at Julia from the corner of her eye.

            “At least you could have brought back a handsome Frenchman.”

            “Well, I did come back with an American.” She raised a hand to shush the sudden rise from Doris. “He’s five years younger, for god’s sake. Just friends.”

            Doris wagged a finger at her.

            “I know better. I can tell you’re involved by the look in your eyes.”

            Julia shrugged sheepishly.

            “So maybe I do have a crush on Mark, but for him it’s just platonic.”

            “You underestimate your charms, my dear,” Doris said.

* * *

            With the equity in the house tied up in the divorce, Julia lacked the money to buy a little place. So she’d rented a small town house on the edge of town. Mark, her younger American friend from Paris, had driven down from New York to help her move. Younger perhaps, but a bond had formed at the Sorbonne during his study of photography and hers of art history.

            Mark had a good laugh when Julia repeated Doris’s last remark.

            “When I helped you move your stuff, did all the nosy neighbors think you’d brought back a younger man?”

            “I’m sure they jumped to the conclusion I’d gone to Paris for that sole purpose. At least my ex-husband did.”

            “Kidding aside,” Mark said, “our walks along the Seine and visits to Rodin’s Sculpture Garden are my fondest memories of Paris.”

            Julia laughed.

            “That’s because you needed companionship after that beautiful mademoiselle left school.”

            Mark winced.

            “Much as that hurt at the time, in hindsight it was just an affair. But our times together changed my life.”

            “It was I who learned from you,” Julia said. “Your photography taught me a whole new way of seeing.”

            Mark looked around the just-moved-into living room. Sipped his favorite premium beer from the case Julia had gotten him as thanks.

            “This’ll be cozy for you.”

* * *

            A few days later, with Mark back in New York, Julia sat alone for dinner at a Greek café to contemplate her options in life. She vaguely overheard two men at a nearby table quietly speaking in French. From their accents she guessed they were French African. Suddenly she couldn’t breathe! Did one of them mention an explosion? She gaped at them, then quickly averted her eyes. But she couldn’t help taking another peek.

            They were discussing a bomb!

            Julia felt like she’d stepped into a bad dream that, as she overheard more, spiraled downward to a bizarre place where life’s nightmares morphed into reality. But was this real? Their accents were hard to follow. They spoke softly. Strands woven into the babble of conversations in the restaurant.

            Suddenly a man was at her table.

            “You speak French?” he whispered in her face.

            Julia stared at him.

            “Don’t you,” he said, struggling to control his impatience as if she were supposed to get with it immediately.

            She nodded weakly.

            “Who are you?”

            “I’m a Fed. Just leave it at that.” He leaned toward her with menacing intensity. “I saw how you stared at them…you understood!”

            “Yes.”

            “I can’t get their accents.” He gritted his teeth. “Tell me what you heard!”

            Julia’s stomach turned over.

            “They discussed a bomb.”

            The man grabbed her arm so hard it hurt.

            “You’ll stay with me as long as this takes.”

            Julia stared at him, openmouthed.

            “You understand what’s going on,” he said. “So get with it!”

            Julia glanced at the Africans.

            “Don’t look at them! Just repeat what they say.”

            Struggling for breath, Julia listened with all her might to a string of seemingly innocuous words. Then…

            “They’re talking about time to detonation…another man; can’t get the name…but the bomb will kill a lot of people!”

            “When? Where?”

            “I think they’re talking about tomorrow. I can’t get the time. They haven’t said where.”

            “Pay your bill and go outside. You’ll see a black SUV. Just get in.”

            “I’d really like to go home now.”

            “Just do as I say. We’re talking American lives.”

            With that the man left the table to walk nonchalantly toward the restrooms. The conspirators didn’t seem to notice.

            The black SUV sat at the curb as promised. Julia started toward it, then stopped. Maybe it would be better if she just walked away. Nobody knew who she was, and the man and his SUV seemed nearly as menacing as the terrorists. But the driver’s window slid down and a finger pointed at her. She had no choice but to go, and if this really was to help her country…

            The man in the restaurant never showed up. Instead the SUV pulled from the curb as soon as she got in and started through town. Only a driver and another man, who sat in a jump seat directly behind her as if ready to throttle her at the slightest misstep. The windows were so dark, she only saw blurred lights to either side.

            The drive took over two hours. And they were going very fast. Along the way the lights outside became less frequent until they disappeared altogether. Julia became drowsy. The ride ended on a dark, bumpy road. At the end she was led down a pitch-black path to what seemed like a farmhouse tucked among trees. She caught a glimpse of outlying fields in the moonlight.

            Inside was an everyday house, with a living room, kitchen, and a family room featuring a wide-screen TV. The man from the restaurant came out of the kitchen to hand her a bottle of water.

            “This’ll be difficult for you,” he said. “Never forget these are scumbags—the worst of the worst—and you’re here to save American lives. That’s the simple truth. So just cope with what you see.”

            With that she was unceremoniously taken to the basement. She was led down a surprisingly long corridor lined with closed doors. At the end of the hall was a padded room. At the center, under intense light, the bigger of the Africans was bound to a chair anchored to the floor. A muscular man, big as a pro football player, towered over him. The African’s face was already bruised and bloody.

            For the next hour Julia witnessed more intense hatred and brutality than she could ever have imagined, despite all the worst of TV news and horrible movie scenes. Naked hate saturated this dreadful room like clots of psychic blood as the large man rhythmically hit the African with ham-hock fists that thudded dully against his face, sides, stomach. The interrogation had erupted into raw violence, which seemed to please the muscular man, almost like sex.

            The world she’d so carefully constructed around the beauty of great art, the insights of nuanced reasoning, the togetherness of mutual empathy seemed far away now. Truth’s hard core seemed better defined by the crack of bare knuckle against facial bone, the maniacal clash of civilizations, the ultimate consequence of kill or be killed.

            Julia watched the African stare back at his tormentor through battered, murderous eyes. Through all the agony the terrorist remained unyieldingly defiant. His only words were vile expletives in French. If the situation were reversed, Julia harbored no doubt he’d kill everyone in the room without the slightest thought. Including her. The man from the restaurant kept looking to Julia each time the man spoke, but she only shook her head.

            “Nothing,” she said each time.

            Julia grew increasingly sick to her stomach. When she started to dry heave, the man from the restaurant quickly led her down the hall to a bathroom, where she vomited so hard it felt like some of her guts came out with the puke. Afterward, she splashed cold water on her face and dried with a clean towel from a fresh stack. She paused to look around an incongruously well-decorated, tiled bathroom replete with showers, a sauna, and a massage table. All the finishings of the finest health club had been assembled for the well-being of the interrogators.

            Then back to the ordeal.

            The muscular man was an expert in physical abuse. He knew precisely where to hit without knocking the man unconscious or killing him. He certainly had the strength to do that with a single blow. After repeated poundings, he knew when to draw back to let the man recover. It was virtually scientific. Julia became increasingly numb to it all. Periodically the man from the restaurant took her to a bedroom for rest. But never for long. They seemed to think she’d be translating jewels of truth at any moment.

            Julia wasn’t so sure.

            At other times the interrogation team took their breaks, leaving Julia to sit quietly in her assigned place in the event the prisoner might let something slip. Ultimately so brutalized, he simply slumped over, hardly breathing. At that point the interrogators were absent for increasingly longer periods. At first Julia was afraid to move, though it was clear the prisoner was so beaten and shackled, he was harmless.

            As the hours piled up, pity emboldened her despite the “scumbag” label.

            She sneaked one of the cloths from the bathroom to hold until the next break. Then, timidly, she moved close to wipe the gore from his face as best she could, fearing at any moment the interrogators would burst in to condemn her. But nothing, either from them or from him.

            After she’d wiped his face clean, one of his eyes opened to a slit. She raised a water bottle to put a few drops on his lips. Slowly he licked at the water, which she replaced repeatedly. She fished a mint from her pocket to place between his lips. Gingerly he took the mint between his teeth. Afterward, just a little, he seemed to straighten up.

            The big man burst in. He seemed oblivious to her ministrations. Instead he leaned over to study the prisoner carefully. He left as abruptly, without a word to her. The room settled back to silence. Still no interrogators. The prisoner’s lips moved. Julia leaned close to make out the guttural French.

            “Not much time left…”

            He looked at Julia through one slitted eye.

            “You’re like my mother.”

            “Is she back home?”

            He coughed.

            “When I was nine, the army burned our village. Every man, every little boy killed. But Mother hid me.”

            For a while his ragged breathing was the only sound.

            “Every woman was raped. Fifty, hundred times. I watched them rape my mother from the hiding place.”

            He coughed again. Fought for breath.

            “After days suffering she died. Many died like her. Only the strongest lived to bear their rapists’ children.”

            Julia’s moan reverberated from the torture chamber walls.

            It brought the barest shrug of the prisoner’s shoulders.

            “What does it matter? Later we did the same. By twelve I’d raped many.”

            An incessant buzzing grew louder in Julia’s ears. She gulped air frantically, fighting an urge to faint. The man went on as if it mattered little whether Julia was there or not.

            “She taught me to read. We had the only book in our village. She went to school. Could have been a doctor.”

            A man who seemed like a doctor himself came to examine the prisoner. Expressionless, he turned to Julia.

            “Stay here.”

            When he left, the African’s lips moved again.

            “They know I won’t talk. So now I die or they kill me.” One red slitted eye stared at Julia. “You too.”

            “Oh no!” Julia shook her head in disbelief. “I’m a citizen.”

            Somehow the man managed a laugh.

            “They won’t let you live to tell.”

            “They can’t kill me just like that!”

            “You don’t know them…”

            Julia stared at him, incredulous, but fear crawled from her belly to fingertips. The man sat so still Julia thought he’d slipped away. But then,

            “You’re smart like her…”

            The slitted eye closed.

            Julia hallucinated that behind the lids his eyes turned completely in their sockets.

But life stirred in him still.

            “Tomorrow. Railroad station. Go to 1022 Wilson Avenue. Apartment 306. Only you will know when you see it…so they have to take you. Not left to burn with me.”

            This time he fell silent for good.

            With a last look at the murdered murderer, Julia left the room. At least physically…

            The man from the restaurant was at the door to grab her roughly by the shoulders.

            “What?”

            Julia dug her nails into his arm.

            “We’ve got to get to Wilson Avenue!”

            She ran down the hall.

            This time he followed her.

* * *

            Julia quietly sips her toddy.

            “At first we thought you were overwhelmed by seeing the carnage at the railway station on TV.”

            Mark leans forward, elbows on knees.

            “What’s eating away all your vitality? Your love of life?”

            Julia feels the toddy drain down into her body. But otherwise she’s disembodied, only marginally aware of Mark.

            “Every night I have the same nightmare…savages are invading my neighborhood.”

            “It’s from all the damaged bodies you saw on TV. Everyone’s been depressed and sickened and frightened.”

            Mark’s voice is a mumble in the back of her mind.

            “Blood runs down the sidewalks. Everything’s in black and white except the blood.”

            “It’s the TV. Don’t you see?”

            Julia shakes her head ever so slightly.

            “The TV…” Mark persists weakly.

            Julia suddenly takes full notice of him.

            “No, Mark. This time I was involved.”

            He stares at her, astonished.

            “I’m not to tell anyone.”

            Mark eyes her strangely.

            “What’re you saying?”

            He looks at her beseechingly.

            “Julia, this is killing you! You’ve got to talk about it.”

            She returns to silence.

            “You’re the only one I can trust,” she says at last.

            And she tells him about the conversation in the restaurant. The sudden appearance of the federal agent. The speeding drive to the secret house in the country. The torture. And then…

            “We drove ninety miles an hour all the way to Wilson Avenue. They smashed in the door just like that! They tore the whole place apart. Even the walls, the floor. They ripped the furniture apart.

            “I saw it, just as he said I would. A small, grainy photo of an African woman. I slipped it out of the frame. Inside was a slip of paper. A diagram showing their hiding place in the railway station. It seemed we’d hit pay dirt.”

            Julia is mechanical, reportorial.

            “The Feds dragged me down to the SUV, and off we went at ninety again to the station. The driver jumped the curb right into the square in front. They leaped out, leaving me inside with all the doors open and the motor running.”

            Julia retreats into silence again.

            “They were brave men,” she says at last.

            “Did they make it back?”

            She shakes her head.

            “The explosion came minutes after they went inside. Just like you saw on TV. Except you didn’t feel the shock wave. Your biorhythms weren’t sucked out of you, and your ribs didn’t implode into your soul.”

            A deep breath.

            “I really don’t know what happened after that.”

            “Weren’t you hurt?”

            “I was just far enough away…but every day since has been a living horror.”

            “I can’t imagine going through all that.”

            “You know? Somehow you’re prepared for the chaos and pain. Maybe from what you’ve seen in the movies. What you’ve read. So I’ll slowly mend from that, even if the grief for all the victims will never leave me. What terrifies me, instead, what makes me shiver from an icy chill even in the middle of warmth…”

            She stares back in time with dazed eyes.

            “What, Julia?”

            “The hate, Mark. Naked, primitive hate—whether the attacker or the attacked—both sides against the other.”

            Her voice degenerates into a whimper.

            “And the women who were strong enough to survive lived to bear the children of their rapists…”

            Mark rises to tenderly adjust the blanket on Julia’s shoulders, leaves with her cup to quickly return with freshly warmed toddy. He resumes his place nearby, ready to spring to her aid at the slightest sign of need.

            “You and I shared such beautiful moments in Rodin’s Sculpture Garden,” Julia says. “But one thing always bothered me.”

            “You never said…”

            “I couldn’t understand why at the center of all the pathways meandering among such beautiful flowers, the paths lined with linden and laurel trees, and here and there throughout the expressiveness of Rodin’s sculpture…

            “Why at the center of those flowers and the splendid foliage and all the inspiration of Rodin? Why at the very center of the ornamental pool that’s the destination of the grand esplanade descending from the mansion is there a statue of Count Ugolino eating his children?”

            Mark stares back at her with narrowed eyes.

            “I wondered too. At first I was so intent on my photography I didn’t see it. But later when I worked with all the photographs—to see the depiction of that…”

            “It’s one of Dante’s darkest passages,” Julia says. “with gaping mouth and loose lip dribbling the drool of a starving wildcat, he crawls over the fallen bodies of his sons…

            “Why that at the center of all the beauty, Mark? I couldn’t understand it…until now.”

            “Why?”

            “Because I’ve seen raw evil with my own eyes. I know, now, that it’s embedded in the human DNA. It doesn’t attack us from the outside, but from within.”

            Julia stares into blackness. But not total blackness?

            “At the same time, it’s surrounded by exquisite beauty and the triumph of human creativity that stand against the evil. And each against the other throughout all human time like the countervailing forces of magnets.”

            A mean, angry bee, brought to life by unseasonable warmth, attacks Julia’s cup. She watches, indifferent to the danger of its sting.

            “And so we go on…”

            Unexpectedly—as unlikely as Julia had thought it ever could be—Mark reaches across the small space between them to interlock his fingers with hers and she with his in response to his touch, interlocking their lives...



Copyright © RonTorrence 2013
 
Ron’s story, “Persistence of Vision,” was featured in a special 10th anniversary edition of Eureka Literary Magazine in 2002. He has been writing for many years. His stories range from near mainstream treatments to pretty far-out, dream-like pieces. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Dirty Goat, Dos Passos Review, Nassau Review, Riversedge, Orange Willow Review, Slipstream, Oxalis, Ash, Potent Aphrodisiac, Rockhurst Review, Thereby Hangs A Tale, Typo, Sour Grapes, Circuit Traces, RE:AL, Reflections Literary Journal, way station magazine, West Wind Review, Wild Violet, and Pleasant Living. He has taught short story courses at the Writers’ Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and he’s published a non-fiction book, In the Owner’s Chair, (Prentice-Hall), a video, “Ten Keys to Success” which won the Best Business Video of 1995 from the Special Interest Video Association, and many articles in the field in which he makes his living, small business management, including work featured in the Wall Street Journal.