I swung around to see Miller standing at the back door, his blue wool scarf wrapped around his chin up to his open mouth. He’d returned home from school. His eyes were wide with fear and confusion. “What’s the matter with Taylor?”
I shook my head and ventured a weary smile. “I don’t know, honey.” I walked to Miller’s side and put my arm around his shoulder. The parka was cold but I was grateful Miller didn’t flinch. “I don’t think he knows, either.”
No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty.
—A Christmas Carol
I was back in Afghanistan. I stepped out from my barracks into a blast of heat. It felt like stepping into an oven and I was the turkey, all trussed in my body armor and helmet. Sweat began pouring down my back, my forehead, stinging my eyes.
“Let’s load up,” I ordered. Me and thirteen other men climbed into assigned Humvees in the long convoy. Doors slammed shut. Someone in mine yelled out to crank up the AC. It was just another day in the sandbox. Another routine tour of the perimeter. We took off with a jolt. Jon was strapped in the gunner’s turret. The merciless sun baked the landscape, turning it a hundred shades of yellow. Dave was sitting next to me, telling me how he was going home for Christmas and who was going to be there, and all I could think was that he had a helluva big family. Then he told me what they’d eat for dinner, elaborating about his mother’s chocolate bombe cake. He described it with loving detail—the rich chocolate center, the whipped cream on top—I wanted a taste of that cake so bad and told him so.
Then he took off his helmet, just to wipe his brow. It was against regulations, but what the hell. It was just for a minute. One minute I was looking at his face, and the next I heard a deafening explosion and was flying. Then everything went white. I couldn’t hear anything but the pounding of my heart in my ears. I blinked but couldn’t see anything.
“Dave!” I shouted, my throat burning. A fine dust filled the air and my lungs. I could hardly breathe and coughed my guts out. I tried to struggle to my knees but my back was twisted and I screamed with pain.
Panic swelled with helplessness. I was vulnerable. I couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, I was hurt. But my sense of smell was working overtime, picking up the acrid and pungent scents of diesel fuel, burning rubber, and something so bad it left a taste in my mouth. I rubbed my eyes and strained to see through the fog.
My sight gradually returned and I realized I was in a billowing cloud of smoke. As the smoke dissipated, I saw I was lying in my own blood, my leg bent at an odd angle. My back was twisted. But I could move my head. I saw bodies—parts of bodies—and burning metal chunks and wheels of what was once my convoy. Wreckage was everywhere. When I could hear again, the screams were deafening.
“Dave! Where are you?” I cried in a panic.
I looked wildly for my gun, groping around my useless body. My heart pounded faster and my blood pressure rose and my muscles tightened. Suddenly I felt something in my hands. I grabbed it tight.
“Taylor! Stop! Wake up!”
I heard crying and whimpering. I blinked hard, coming further out from the gray smoke. Through the haze I recognized my bedroom. Then I saw my mother’s eyes.
“Mama,” I said in a choked voice.
“Taylor, let go of me,” she said tightly.
Awakening further, I saw that I was kneeling on the mattress and gripping her arms. My fingers sprang open as I immediately released her. She slumped back a few steps, rubbing her arms.
“Mama, I’m sorry,” I managed, breathing heavily. I still felt the heat of the desert on my back, and my mouth was so dry I could hardly talk.
She was breathless with fear, still rubbing her arms. She looked at me with a combination of concern and caution. “You were having a nightmare,” she said, trying to keep her voice calm. “I heard you cry out.”
“I have them every night,” I said.
I sat back on my haunches and mopped my face with my hands. When I realized where I was in my mind, in my crazed state, what I could have done . . . Just the thought that I could have really hurt my mother scared me like nothing before.
I swung my head up to look at her. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she answered quickly. She reached over to the light and flicked it on. The golden halo of light was instantly comforting. “I’m fine.” Then she stepped closer, albeit carefully, the way one would approach an injured animal. “But you scared me. Your eyes were wild. Like you didn’t know me.”
I sighed and shook my head. “I was still in my nightmare,” I said in a low voice. “It’s so real. I was back in the war.” I could feel my heart rate speed up just remembering. “I was in hell,” I said, ending it. I was shaking and needed to pull myself together. Looking up, I saw her stricken face watching me. I was scaring her. “You should go back to bed.”
Her face crumpled in worry. “Will you be okay? Should I wake your father?”
“No. I just need to be alone.” I looked at her and felt the weight of what I’d done. “Thanks for waking me up. I didn’t know it was you. I’m sorry I grabbed you.” My gaze raked her arms, studied her face, her stance. “Are you sure you’re all right? Please tell me, did I hurt you?”
She rubbed her arm but shook her head. “You scared me more than anything.”
“Mama, I’m sorry.” My voice broke and I bent my head in shame.
“I know,” she answered quickly, but she didn’t come closer. “Will you be all right? I can sit up with you.”
“I’m awake now. But, Mama”—I looked up and held her gaze—“I want you to promise me that if I’m sleeping and having a nightmare, you won’t come near me. You won’t let Miller near me. I don’t know what I’m doing. Promise me.”
Her eyes were round with fear. “I won’t. I promise.”
I exhaled my fears and nodded. “Good.”
Her gaze scanned the room. Clothes and trash were strewn about, and dirty plates from my scrounging through the kitchen. The room smelled of stale food and the telltale scent of cigarettes.