The shrill screaming in the night, he remembered that most clearly. He felt it in the prickly cold that raced along his skin like an electric current. The empty percussion of blast waves signaled that high velocity, incendiary projectiles were now racing skyward, invisible in the darkness.
Tonight, suddenly, an orange blaze of light shaped incongruously like a chrysanthemum exploded above him.
His neck hurt, turned upwards to watch the death of the lights more than the explosion itself. Because the end of it, the fallout of the combustion, was the real 4th of July to him, not the thirty minutes of breathtaking show that made the crowds on the street stare, made the old lady next to him in her bathrobe grab his elbow in her birdlike fingers.
Children. At home, there were always oblivious children. They stared at the sky in rapt joy, totally unaware that these explosions could end in any other form but a gentle fadeout.
His ears were his early warning receptors. They sent ragged messages to his nerve endings that in a moment his world might end. Again. And again. His ears heard the small pop, the release of powders and chemicals from their holding tubes out on the pontoon on the Detroit River. He'd carried chemicals like that in Iraq. Knew quite a bit about how to maneuver them to terrify the enemy. Carried some still, in his backpack. In metal containers where they could not interact without his specific intent. It was hard to leave behind your expertise, what had saved you, there was an inexplicable, emotional attachment, he knew. His uncle had kept his dead son's broken down motorcycle parts in his trunk for a decade, until he could come to grips with his loss after the kid's accident. It was like that. If he had his materials, then some deep part of him felt safe.
He heard the pop again, felt it light up another current through his skin cells.
It was always the same. Blood vacated his brain, reversed from his toes and fingers, ran tornado-like into his gut where an immense primal reflex took over and puke started up his esophagus because it was all he could do to stay in place.
In the late night darkness of a partial summertime power outage, Detroit's mountainous steel and glass buildings in the riverside financial district look much like Afghanistan's rugged northeast, he thinks. Jagged reflections of grey and silver loom like the faraway glacier remnants that he had once guessed reached as high as 20,000 feet. July's oppressive heat strangled the few winds that came off the Detroit River, but he can't shake a twodimensional sense that he is walking not in a decaying city but again in a foreign war zone.
He'd been arrested on these streets as a kid, for typical teen hoodlum stuff. Hanging out in the park after dark with a couple of 40-ounce beers, smoking weed in an abandoned house. A judge offered to suspend his sentence if he'd join up in the military, in a convoluted attempt to get a boy off the streets and push the job of making a man out of a boy onto the tried and true shoulders of the armed forces.
He had found himself in the mountains of an ancient land, in a place he'd never imagined or seen in books. He had all his gear on and patrolled with 12 other guys. The sounds in the dark of night from those years still haunt him, the silence and then the explosive bursts.
These days, the popping sounds are benign.
You'd think the smell of cherries cooking in a neighbor's pan, a delivery dropped onto the welcome mat outside his front door would be a signal he might have gotten used to, telling him that he was home, that the nighttime explosions weren't the fragment grenades that had kept him awake during his tours of duty. A basket of fresh smelling lemons with branches and leaves still connected, a Tupperware from another neighbor filled with two BLTs wrapped in a striped cotton napkin. A note thanking him for his military service, sometimes. You'd think these things, delivered early on the 4th of July last year and again this year would have prepared him for the nighttimes, would have released some of his pain.
But there is that long, anticipatory moment. After the pop. Before the first explosion in the sky, the first 3D star, the first rotating circles, the first chrysanthemum. That is the darkest moment.
Will buildings implode and crumble to expose him? Will the soldier next to him have his head blown off? Will the shrapnel puncture his own chest, his lungs, his spine? These questions would come every 4th of July.
So he slips away from the crowds, he finds himself in darkened back streets. But the sky still lights up, there is still that terrible random popping that he can't shut out.
He walks and walks and the explosions are muffled by the shouts in neighborhoods as each set of fireworks goes off. Waves of spectators seem energized by something that causes destruction in other parts of the world. The shooting of rockets in the dark of night is not something to watch with a smile on your face, unless you are a crazy bastard, he thinks.
He finds himself more and more alone as he walks into the abandoned parts of his home city, thru what look like a movie set. They call it 'ruin porn', he'd seen TV segments on it, the New York Times Sunday Magazine did a full color spread on buildings that were once fantastic showplaces, now standing empty and decrepit, ignored by everyone that drives by. Their existence in a barely bustling city matches the disconnect in his own head. Half of him is here, half of him is lost in his past, wandering through the souks and mountains, unable to replant himself home.
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