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The smoke still hangs in the air, the shouts and screams still echo into the sky, and he stumbles through the street, rubbing ash out of his eyes. There’s something metallic in his mouth and he spits, red flying out to land on what’s left of the sidewalk. He hugs the right side of the street, his fingers dragging over the rough concrete rubble. It’s hot. A thick, dry heat, the kind that blisters your skin, or maybe it wasn’t the heat but the sharp edges of broken down buildings, or the glass strewn on the street, mixed with dirty confetti from someone’s birthday party.
He remembered the party- he had been there. A little kid- cute, with straight blond hair that fell into his eyes. It bothered him, that kid’s hair; he remembered brushing irritably at his own curls whenever he saw the kid. He had brought the obligatory present, a pair of socks with Star Wars characters on them- who doesn’t like Star Wars? They were the last ones in the clearance bin at Marshalls, and he wasn’t really willing to spend more than five bucks on a neighborhood birthday party.
He curses as he steps on something sharp, hissing through his teeth as he glances down. He is missing a boot, and his other one was half gone. Blood spurts from a cut on his foot, a piece of glass protruding from the skin. He limped a few steps forward.
He sits down on a broken piece of concrete, leaning back with a sigh. The sky is hazy, saturated with smoke and dust and the horrors of war, but he sits and enjoys the view. Where else will he get such a picture perfect setting, the sun filtering through the clouds, the smoke rising in the distance? He lets out a small, short, sarcastic laugh- he realizes this used to be his house.
He remembered he had forgotten the birthday present the day of the party. He had gone back to his house, cursing the existence of four year olds, picking up the damned socks he had left on the kitchen counter. His roommate had wrapped them already, put them in a cute little bag with a card and a sticky note that said Sign! :) He cursed again, opening the drawer for a pen. Damned four year olds.
He picks up a handful of dust and let it trickle back down through his fingers. What was this? The desk? Bedroom wall? Kitchen counter? He studies the dust again. Something glints in the sunlight. Countertop, he decides. Damn. That was quality granite.
He gets up and climbs over the rubble, searching his former house. There wasn’t much left, just some broken down walls, a stray table leg, and a strange amount of nail polish. Figures.
There weren’t any pens in this drawer. This was the nail polish drawer, filled to the brim with blues and greens and reds, his roommate’s hobby. He rolled his eyes and slammed the drawer, hearing some of them fall over. He closed his eyes briefly, exhaling in irritation, opening the drawer and carefully straightened Miami Beet purple, shutting the drawer slowly and flipping it off for effect. Snagging a pen from the next drawer, he scrawled a message (happy birthday, I can’t believe you’re (four? five?) getting so big, have a good one, Brent) before shoving it in the bag and heading toward the door.
He sifts through the broken bottles, getting the brightly colored polish on his hands, dust and debris mixed in. Miami Beet. He wonders why nail polish companies insist on picking weird names. Rosy Future. California Carrot. He wonders where she is now. Hopefully California. But probably dead.
He turns the bottle of Miami Beet over in his hands. Besides a hairline crack on the base, it was in good condition, the color separated out a little. He gives it a small shake (click click) and cracks open the top, inhaling the smell. She paints her nails religiously, picking a different color every two weeks, working her way down the rainbow. She had been on some god awful green (Forest Arugula, or something) last night. She hadn’t gotten to Miami Beet. He slips the bottle in his pocket.
He stuck the gift bag on the table with the other presents, all significantly bigger than his. The kid’s turning four, not sixteen, he remembered thinking. He hid the socks behind a box wrapped in blue paper with a big green ribbon on top and walked towards the crowd of parents hovering around the kids. He had a birthday hat sitting askew on his blond hair, and his hand instinctively moved to brush his own curls out of his eyes. He huffed in irritation, shoving his hands in his pockets, rocking back on his heels. He had babysat the kid twice. He didn’t think it would merit a birthday invitation.
He walks by the remains of the roof, skimming a hand over the rough surface, the nail polish bumping against his hip as he walks. He kept his eyes trained on the ground, his gaze tripping over once valuable things; a twisted wedding band, half a photo album. For the most part, he ignores them. But he picks up the photo album and flips through what’s left of it. A man by a new car. A woman on her wedding day. A young boy at the beach, a hat pulled over his eyes. A young boy with a birthday hat, beaming next to a large pile of presents, his blond hair flopping over his forehead. He toys with the burned edge of the photo, his other hand brushing at his curls absentmindedly.
He saw the kid open his presents, the parents oohing and aahing with every one, while the kid smiled moved on to the next package. He finished all the boxes, getting up to play, when one of the moms handed him the small gift bag. The kid ripped out the tissue paper and held up the socks, R2-D2 on display for everyone to see, along with the bright yellow clearance tag. The parents politely oohed, exchanging glances. But the kid beamed and ripped off the tag, pulling them on over his own socks. He grinned.
“Look, Mom!” he said proudly, before running off to show his friends. Brent winked at the parents and helped himself to a piece of cake. Chocolate, buttercream frosting. Perfect.
Something catches his eye on the side of the road; a hint of blue snagged on the gray concrete. He trips his way over to it, still clutching the picture. He picks it up, a piece of cloth, soft cotton, burned on the edges, R2-D2’s dome still visible, the Star Wars logo intact. He lets out a small laugh. The sock survives, but the people don’t. He collapses onto the rubble, staring at the half-burned sock in his hand. He remembers the kid’s infectious smile, the way he would grin before saying his name. He remembers the kid coming up to him when he was leaving, whispering these are the best in his ear before releasing him and running back to his friends with a quick grin thrown over his shoulder. He rubs his thumb over the sock, his skin catching on the burned edges. Damn, he thinks, and he looks at the photo again.
The sirens went off first, and he looked up from the cake, mildly irritated to be interrupted at a time like this. He absentmindedly shoved the fork into his mouth as he scanned the clear blue sky.
And then the first round hit.
He wakes up on a mattress and for a second he forgets why that feels wrong. He rolls over, blinking in the light. People strolled by, a quiet hustle of humanity, punctuated by the cries of children and sobbing of parents. Not a birthday party. Not the ruined streets. A medical tent. He sits up, holding a hand to his side. He glanced down at his feet, and he swings them over the side of the mattress. He pats his pockets, breathing a sigh of relief when he feels the nail polish bumping against the photo and the sock wrapped around it all.
He glances around, No one seemed to be paying attention. He wondered if his roommate was here. Or the kid. There was a crazy part of him that wanted to give all the stupid trinkets he had picked up back. M aybe he just wanted to see them again. Or maybe he was just insane.
He closes his eyes against the pounding headache and when he opens them again, soft hands drift over his knee. He turns and looks, and a young woman stares back at him, tucking a strand of brown hair behind her ear. Tears form in the corner of her eyes and he quickly pulls her into a hug, gritting his teeth and willing his eyes to stay dry. He focuses on the little things; the way her shirt is a little too big, the smell of smoke lingering in her hair, and when she pulls away he smiles at her dryly. He pulls the Miami Beet out of his pocket and slides it into her hand. She stares at it, letting out a choked laugh and turning the bottle over in her hands. Her nails are chipped, a hint of Forest Arugula still showing. She laughs again, but a lump builds up in his throat, and he grits his teeth again, abruptly getting up and brushing past her. He walks away, wincing at the sharp stabs driving up his foot, barely noticing the rough ground. Someone had taken his one remaining boot.
He finally sits, his head clutched in his hands, watching with detached curiosity as tears begin to fall, splashing his bare foot. He swipes at his eyes. Damn tears.
He jerks away at a small touch on his shoulder.
“Piss off,” he mutters halfheartedly, and swipes at his eyes again. But he feels someone clamber up on the bench next to him and he glances down. Blue eyes look back up at him, blond hair falling into his eyes, shifting when he blinks. He stares in disbelief. The kid smiles, a small, sad smile, and looks down, his feet kicking quietly. He notices the bandage wrapped around his ankle, blood just beginning to stain the outside.
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the sock, handing it to the kid. He takes it, turning it over in his hands, his delicate fingers tracing the R2D2. He takes it back wordlessly and slides it on the kid’s injured ankle. The kid smiles again, and as he blinks, tears trace their way down his cheeks, soaking the tips of his blond hair. He brushes at his curls, but raises an eyebrow at the sock.
“I love Star Wars,” the kid whispers, and his hands slip around his waist. And Brent sighed, a heavy sort of sigh, and reached a hand over to smooth the blond hair out of his eyes.