Naomi awoke to the sound of screaming. She snapped into a sitting position, tossed her sheets aside, and got to her feet in one single reflex. A little girl’s voice, now whimpering and crying, rang out through the house, and Naomi felt something ache powerfully in her chest.
Some part of her was surprised that it had taken this long. Alyssa was only a child, but the losses she had suffered were ones that most adults could hardly imagine.
Naomi took careful steps down the hallway, trying her hardest not to scare the girl more in her approach. Being gentle was something that she still had yet to grow accustomed to, but it was yet another skill that she needed to learn. Pushing on the half-open door, Naomi peered inside.
Alyssa continued to sob, wrapped up in her blanket like a cocoon, grabbing a stuffed octopus as though it was a life preserver. It didn’t look as though she had even noticed the door opening, and Naomi realized that she was likely still asleep. Alyssa’s favorite, a huge teddy bear dubbed Bluebeary, lay abandoned on the floor.
Avoiding boxes and plastic bins, still half-full from the recent move, she knelt down next to the bed, carefully shaking Alyssa awake. Alyssa let out a small, quiet whine, slowly forcing herself up with tears in her eyes.
“Alyssa.” Naomi’s voice was little more than a whisper. “It’s okay. I’m here.”
Alyssa said nothing. She simply stared at her knees for several seconds, before launching herself into Naomi’s chest and letting a fresh wave of tears take over.
“N-Naomi...it h-h-hurt,” Alyssa cried out between sobs. She wrapped her arms around her adoptive mother, clutching her for dear life. “I dreamed a-about the explosion again, an-*hic*-th-the fire…”
No wonder she’d pushed her bear onto the floor. It must have reminded her of the rigged one in the package. Naomi let out a quiet breath, briefly cursing the injustice of it all, before she hugged Alyssa back.
“I know, I know, I’m so sorry. I wish that I could have paid more attention, you never deserved that.” Her words were the truth; unbeknownst to Alyssa, Naomi had had several restless nights before, filled with regret and blame for the girl’s near-death.
“I r-remembered my Mama and Papa...too…” Alyssa choked on another sob. “They didn’t even...didn’t even know what-*hic*.”
None of the victims knew what was coming.
“I’m sure that...whatever happened, they were thinking of you.” Naomi slowly, gently, ran her fingers through Alyssa’s hair. “They loved you with all of their hearts. They still do.”
The two of them sat in silence for a while longer after that. Alyssa’s hiccups and sobs lessened in frequency as time went on, and eventually, she was still, her breath slow and much more even. She hadn’t stopped holding on to Naomi, leaning into her shoulder.
“I’ll make you another appointment with Helga.” Naomi said it more to herself than Alyssa, although Alyssa responded with a slow nod. “I’m not a therapist, unfortunately.”
“I like her…” Alyssa mumbled sleepily. “Naomi, can you stay here, please?”
“Of course. I’ll make sure that the nightmares don’t get you again.” Pulling up the blankets, Naomi reached down towards the nearest stuffed animal for a makeshift pillow. “I can protect you from them, don’t worry.”
Feeling Alyssa snuggle up to her made Naomi feel like she was the richest woman on Earth. Amazing, that once she thought about it, one man was responsible for all of this. She had already paid her dues on that front, but it never hurt anyone to be appreciative. Especially when that person had been convinced of their inevitable death only months prior.
Naomi turned, unable to keep the smile off of her face. “Goodnight, Alys-”
She was already asleep.
Maria blearily opened an eye, shoving the comforter out of her face. She felt like shit, especially considering that it wasn’t even light out, but something stopped her from going back to sleep. That something was probably what had woken her up, too.
Breathing. It was heavy, labored; it sounded as though its owner had been running for a long time. Not the kind of breathing one would expect from a sleeping person. And the only other person in the room-
It was another panic attack, Maria realized, something clicking into place inside her head. He hadn’t had one of these in a while, but of course they were still bound to happen. Maria tried to force herself to be comforting before reaching over to the lump of blanket next to her.
“Hey, moron.” She brushed against what was probably his shoulder, which wasn’t the right move, judging by the way he jumped. Maria mentally smacked herself, but it was too late to take it back now. “Fuck, I’m not good at this, I’m sorry.”
She felt him stir, some of the comforter slipping off of him. Maria could see his face, eyes shut and mouth letting out short, heavy breaths.
“It’s okay,” she tried again. “You’re here with me, okay? Breathe. Just breathe.” She kept her hands at her sides, forcing herself not to touch him until she knew she had his permission.
It took several minutes, but Erhard’s eyes opened, and Maria suddenly felt him reaching over to her, one hand tracing over her exposed skin with a shaky touch. As though he were checking for something.
“B-bruises.” Erhard’s voice trembled uncharacteristically. “I s-saw...bruises. On everyone. On you .”
“Bruises...oh, damn it, why didn’t you say something? You can’t just bottle this shit up and expect to be fine.” It became even harder not to touch him, but Maria somehow resisted the urge. “You matter, okay? Your own feelings and trauma matter. You’re not just a fucking robot who can endlessly do tasks without a break, and you need to act like it.”
“I can’t-” Erhard was barely audible. “I just don’t feel...like a human. I’m a number.”
“No, no, no, no. No. You’re not a number. You’re not a prisoner. You’re Erhard Muller, you’re 25 years old, you’re a German-American trauma surgeon, and you are living in the real world, not that goddamned refrigerator.” Maria was using every single ounce of willpower in her being to not start shouting. “And so help me God, I’m going to smack that into your head.”
“Don’t, please.” That was the only thing Erhard said, before he carefully slipped his arms around her. “I’ll try to remember that, I promise.”
Maria felt herself grin as she returned the favor. “Good. ‘Cause you know how serious I am about smacking people.”
“I do know. Firsthand.”
“It was only the one time. Don’t sound so serious.” She rolled her eyes, grabbing the blanket from the edge of the bed (when had it gotten pushed that far?).
Suddenly, Erhard was up against her, leaning in and placing a gentle kiss on her lips. It only lasted a few seconds, and was certainly one of the least physical things they had done in a long time, but the fact that he had made the first move this time made something in her heart leap. He’d gotten so much better at it, too.
“Sleep well, Maria.” With that, Erhard pulled the blanket over both of them, curling up into a ball. “...Thank you, too. It’s because of you...I have a reason.”
It was the same thing he’d said to her all those months ago, although she actually heard it this time.
Claire awoke with a start, before cursing and throwing her sheets on the floor. She hated the fact that these stupid nightmares kept happening. She’d convinced herself that she wanted to die, so why was her near-death bothering her this much?
Regardless of the reason, it was bothering her.
She got out of bed, instinctively grabbing for a pack of cigarettes. These cute little cancer sticks were pretty much the only thing that could calm her down. Unless she decided to contact-
No. Not now. He didn’t need to see this. Claire knew how much that weirdo worried about her, not just her habit but every method of coping she had. And in this moment, she needed to cope.
Claire cracked her door open, stepping out onto the apartment’s balcony. She grabbed for a chair - of the cheap, plastic garden variety - then flopped down into it. Grabbing the lighter on the table, she lit up, taking a long drag before exhaling and watching the smoke disappear into the night sky.
She forced herself not to look down. The scars on her arm and leg ached when she did. This was the same sixth-floor balcony that she had jumped from, and looking at the ground would probably bring up the same memories of
falling flying hard impact crunching breaking shattering bones blood so much blood
so she stared harder at the sky instead, taking another puff. The night was clear, the moon full and bright. Crickets chirped.
There was something strangely soothing about it, and Claire realized that he was probably rubbing off on her. Maybe some day, she’d turn into a ridiculous flower-growing pacifist like him, always preaching about the wonders of life. That image made her giggle.
It probably beat the alternative, though. Maybe if she became more like him, she could go to the mall without remembering what it felt like to be shot. That memory stung almost as much as the balcony, and she loved going to the mall.
Life wasn’t fair. Claire took a last inhale, before placing her cigarette in the ashtray. She stood up, brushing her hair out of her face, before going back inside.
As she pushed the balcony door open, Claire could have sworn that she saw something flying through the sky.
He gasped, his eyes flying open. Another night terror, of demons and death, corpses and disease. How many had he had this month? He’d lost count at this point. And moving to Mexico was supposed to help with these, but his nightmares didn’t seem to have gotten the memo.
“Dad?” A small, gentle voice drifted up from the bed beside his. “Dad, was that another-?”
“Rose,” the man whispered. “Y-yes, I...I had another one.” Before he could say anything else, his daughter was at his bedside, her eyes wide with concern.
“Oh, Dad, no…” She ran a hand over his forehead, gasping. “You’re so warm. Did you get a fever or something? You need to stop working so much, I don’t think it’s good for you…”
“That...might be so.” He laughed weakly, but he could still feel the sweat trickling down his back. Sartre’s heart pounded adrenaline into his veins, no matter how much he tried to stop it.
“I wish big brother was here,” Rosalia whispered, partially to herself, and he felt something sink in his chest. “He’d know what to do.”
“I’m sure he would.” Sartre tried his hardest to smile, although it was strained by years of fatigue and regret. “Such a clever boy, always poring over books and studying everything he could. He was a wonderful student...and son.”
“I can’t wait to see him again.” Rosalia smiled too, hers coming far more naturally. “It’s been six years, hasn’t it? I know he’s so busy, but I know he’ll come back at some point. And I’ve been writing to big sis Maria, too, I wonder if she’d like him?”
Sartre’s entire body felt like lead. The lies we tell children…
“I’m...sure that he’ll be very happy to see you.” He chose his words carefully, forcing every hint of regret out of his voice. “Although, to be perfectly honest, I doubt he’ll want to come back.”
“Why’s that?” Rosalia’s smile melted away, her eyes drifting down towards the floor. Sartre took a long, deep breath before he responded.
“Before your brother left...I made a horrible mistake. I did something to him that I should never have.” Sartre sighed, feeling older than he had in a very long time. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he never wants to see my face again.”
The room was silent for a long time. Rosalia simply stood there, her expression downcast. She laced her fingers together in front of her chest, before slowly shaking her head.
“No, I don’t think so. Big brother’s never been angry at anyone. No matter what you did...I think he’ll forgive you. Whenever he comes back.”
“I don’t suppose I can argue with you,” Sartre chuckled. “You’ve always been astute, Rose. You know people better than your father does.”
“You really think so?” Rosalia’s smile returned, full force, and she reached forward to grip Sartre’s hand. “Thank you so much, Dad! I promise, the house’ll be nice and clean when he comes.”
“I must admit...I can’t wait for your brother to come back, either.” Sartre was glad that Rosalia didn’t seem to notice his refusal to look her in the eye.
“It’ll be soon. Just you wait.”