Almonds by Elise Demeter
By the time the autopsy report came back two months later, it was too late for the results to matter to anyone other than Celia and Sebastian. Sudden infant death syndrome meant nothing to their small town, not when talk got around and escalated as wildly as it did. Ultimately, a dead baby was a dead baby. It didn’t matter that Sebastian was a decorated war veteran who put his men before himself, or that Celia was a volunteer worker at a women’s abuse and recovery shelter, or that they’d been trying for kids ever since Sebastian came home from serving two tours of duty overseas, because wouldn’t they just make the most wonderful parents? Peyton had been a pint-sized, pruny-fingered miracle, especially considering they’d been told that Sebastian was wretchedly, incurably infertile, that they had a one in a ten thousand chance of producing life on even their best of days. And yet they had done just that.
The love they showered upon Peyton was consuming and profound. They spoiled her cavity-rotten. At four months old, they thought nothing of giving her the universe: they built her a palace out of a bedroom and crafted a throne from plush animals and promised to indulge in her for eternity. And they truly would have given her Eternity and Forever, over and over again, without a second thought.
Sebastian had been the one who found her, skin already clammy, his hope in chest compressions and air force-fed directly into her lungs bleak. He screamed so loud at the sight of Peyton’s graying complexion that Celia thought he might have sleepwalked from the master suite and tripped directly into a war story. She burst dizzily from the bedroom to find him stooped over the diaper table, two fingers pressing down, relenting, pressing down, relenting, pressing down, into the hairline gaps between the ribs arching across Peyton’s chest, nearly twice a second, rapid, desperate. Sebastian’s fingers plunged deep against skin, until he felt a crack, tiny little wishbones that couldn’t withstand the urgency of his rhythm, feinting under the quick fluttering of knuckles and hands and fingertips. Celia watched as her husband tilted Peyton’s head back, too large for its body, weighted more than the rest of her, watched him bring his mouth to hers and try to huff recycled oxygen into her lungs. She could hear her own voice echoing in her ears, whimpering or crooning or pleading or choking on restricted sobs. She barely registered Sebastian barking at her–Get the phone, Celia, call someone, call an ambulance–as his fingers resumed beating a surrogate heartbeat into Peyton.
But it hadn’t worked. The medics carted Peyton into the back of their ambulance, her body miniscule compared to the aluminum box that caged her, her pallid face shadowed by over-looming bodies. Celia clambered into the vehicle to be alongside their infant as Sebastian tailed the ambulance in his own truck, riding dangerously close for the too-many blocks it took to reach the hospital, the trip a blur, every cell, every atom of his being hyper-stimulated by grief and terror and wild despondency.
They immediately began to retreat. t was natural, in a way: they cloistered themselves in their home, and left the door to the nursery sealed shut, and stopped talking to one another in more than single syllable murmurs. They abandoned work, and abandoned socializing, and abandoned self-care. Their hands forgot the texture of one another’s bodies. Their cheeks forgot how to dimple. Celia’s mouth grew swampy. The crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes turned baggy, spread like spider veins over her face. Sebastian’s hair began to mat. He started sleeping on the couch, stopped opening the blinds after he imagined he faces staring through windows from the sidewalk. He considered re-enlisting, as if submerging himself in wartime violence might be what it took to reach within himself and scratch at the pain he felt in his gut.
Fireworks had never set Sebastian off, nor had the sound of cars backfiring, nor loud arguments, nor crowded spaces, nor news reports that dug too deeply into military tragedies. He’d never been fazed by the standard catalog of triggers veterans struggled to cope with. Rather, he felt pressed in by the little things, trivial things, things that crept up on him at innocent moments: the way the fabric of his pants felt between his legs after spending extra time at the gym, or how endless the sky looked overhead when he stared up at it too long, or the high-pitch yelp of a dog being jerked into place on its leash. The smallest stimulants took him to a place he both feared and craved for its familiarity: the Middle East, Iraq, dropped him right into a part of his history that felt uncomfortably routine.
Sebastian knew that it bothered Renner–his squad mate, his confidant, who understood all the unsaid spaces between spoken words–in a way that was hard to put his thumb on. Jealousy, maybe, was the closest he could come to rationalizing it, and even that felt off. They’d served together twice, become so close that they felt like two halves to the same coin, were Velcro-ed at the soul in a way Celia gave up trying to understand. The military did that: gave you brothers where brothers hadn’t existed before.
More than a dozen times, Sebastian watched as Renner pushed his fingers back through sandy hair, eyes fixated on Sebastian’s face, as he posited, “I wish it was as simple for me as it is for you, man. I wish I could’ve left it all overseas.”
Except, Sebastian hadn’t left it anywhere. He just carried it differently, like a saddlebag, something he could pick up and set down and temporarily forget about, at the risk of it consuming him the way it did Renner. He saw the way Renner struggled in crowded places, or around strangers, or in loud settings. Saw the depth to the shadows under his eyes and the way his cheekbones stood out a little more prominently when he clenched his jaw. It had been Sebastian’s suggestion in the first place that Renner move closer: a journey that narrowed the distance between them from Rhode Island to Arkansas, to six blocks away. Maybe it helped. Maybe it wasn’t the proximity so much as it was attending weekly therapy. Maybe it was something else entirely.
“I wish it was as easy as you make it seem,” Renner repeated each time he fell back on the fail-safe of retreating to Sebastian’s back patio, where a pair of Coronas always waited, the sound of Celia humming as she worked in the vegetable garden serving as a centering backdrop. “I’d give anything to be half as strong up here as you are.” The image felt burned on the backs of Sebastian’s eyelids: Renner lifting his beer bottle, clinking its finish to his temple, smiling in a way that felt forced, sunlight dancing off the lengths of his eyelashes.
It started rather suddenly: Sebastian began reliving his time in Iraq within the prison of their bedsheets. Celia caught him in the middle of a sleep-fit more than once, his limbs thrashing before going catatonic, his mouth moving around words and phrases she didn’t quite understand. The first time it happened, she reached across the bed to press her fingers against his shoulder, to wake him as gently as she knew how. Sebastian startled so violently that Celia yelped, her teeth catching the tip of her tongue. His hand automatically reached for her wrist, gripping mottle-colored bruises into milky skin that left Celia pleading for release, while a room over, newborn Peyton screamed.
She tried to never make the same mistake again. Instead, she began slipping from bed when her husband grew restless, retreating down the hall, plucking their infant daughter from her crib and cradling Peyton in her arms, like holding onto something would be enough to break the spell.
She woke up in the middle of the night like she had seemingly a hundred times: the bed empty at her side, Sebastian missing, Sebastian several rooms over making noise. The backs of her eyelids were still imprinted with the swaddled form of Peyton’s sleeping body the way Celia last remembered her. Celia dug her knuckles against the wet line of her lashes and let her feet spill over the mattress, slipping unsteadily on newborn fawn legs into the hallway, into the living room.
The first thing Celia recognized with certainty was the tinkle of glass breaking, the second: Sebastian kneeling at the fireplace, palm flattening against framed photos that had been turned around on the mantelpiece for months. He wasn’t present, Celia knew at once. He was half-asleep. He was in his head-space. Still, she narrowed the distance between them and pleaded gently, “Sebastian, stop,” and reached for his arm, pulling at it by the crook of his elbow. Pink smudges tinted the glass around the picture of Peyton’s face, blood reddening her husband’s palm where glass had splintered into skin. She let go at once, aching between lungs and heart, tears springing back into her eyes, until they filled the lash line like a stream cutting through jagged mountains.
They’d tackled the Middle East together, they’d ached and lost and blistered and cried and yearned together. But that had been at a different time, in a different place. Sebastian’s grief was a wholly new minefield to navigate, and Renner was too naïve to that variety of pain to play guide.
“You’re not okay, Seb.”
Renner’s voice was familiar and steady and altogether unwelcome in its content. Sebastian kept his head bowed, eyes fixated unseeingly on the narrow angle of his kneecaps. He cradled the familiar feeling bottle of a Corona between his palms, its cap long discarded, the beer inside untouched.
“You need to talk about this to someone. To anyone.” There was a lasting quiet. “I mean, it helped me, having you around to talk to. You never know. It might help you, too.”
Sebastian nearly threw off the hand that landed against his shoulder. He just barely refrained from flinching.
“Come on, Seb. Talk to me. I miss her, too.”
He couldn’t, though. Renner wouldn’t–simply couldn’t–understand. They’d tackled the Middle East together, they’d ached and lost and blistered and cried and yearned together. But that had been at a different time, in a different place. Sebastian’s grief was a wholly new minefield to navigate, and Renner was too naïve to that variety of pain to play guide.
Even in the evening-dark of their bedroom, curtains half-drawn, Celia was glowing. The galaxy radiated in the apples of her cheeks, shone in the gloss of her eyes. She took Sebastian’s hand in hers and guided it to the velvety skin beneath her bellybutton, pressing his palm flat to her naval. Sebastian felt himself combusting from the inside out. He fell asleep with his hand still cradling her stomach.
He never thought he’d reach a point in his life where he’d actively crave the pain of marching so many days in a row through the desert on a recon task, that the soles of his boots began to decompose and meld to the heels and balls of his feet, until the leathered skin grew infected, bloated. Never thought he’d miss his underwear growing so threadbare that they nearly disintegrated against his thighs. Never thought he’d long for a time when his first concern upon waking would be safety, his second, strangely, finding a razor, because nobody ever remembered to pack enough disposables to last the duration of a mission. Never thought he’d want to re-immerse himself in such a terrible place, because at least there, the tragedy had been real, hadn’t come from within his own mind.
Even when he was asleep, Sebastian felt taken by a feeling of dread that he long equated with IED explosions and small villages, homes smoldering and children’s faces melting to the point of becoming unidentifiable, Fallujah in flames. He woke up breathless, his heart drumming a tattoo rhythm between his lungs, consumed with terror. How long had it been since he’d last found Celia at his side in the middle of the night? The backs of his eyelids were painted with scenes from the barracks. It was like being roused in the middle of the night by a higher-up to perform casualty collections miles from camp: his legs unfolded over the side of the bed in the same way they robotically had overseas, the floor too far from the mattress and startlingly close at the same time. He turned the corner from the bedroom into the hall and expected a massacre. Expected bodies in the room over, littering the carpet in unrecognizable pieces.
Instead, Celia struggled with a smile, a wan curve to her lips, Peyton propped against her chest. The infant clung to a strand of her mother’s blonde hair, fat fingers forming loose little balls. “We’re right here,” Celia promised, each and every time it happened, and Sebastian believed her.
Peyton’s eyes were chocolate almonds, bright and polished against olive skin, her pupils blown out wide, her attention bouncing back and forth between the shapes of a mother and father she didn’t yet recognize. Dark curls tangled tightly at the back of her head, further knotted by Sebastian’s fingers, constantly running an off-beat rhythm up and down the back of her skull. She’s beautiful felt like too obvious of a thing to say, and Our little miracle too gratuitous, and How absolutely perfect like a cliché.
But she was. Peyton was everything Sebastian had long ago accepted as being Out of His Reach. He wasn’t meant to have children, and yet, there she was, swaddled in the bassinet at the side of Celia’s hospital bed. Tangible, concrete, corporeal. Theirs.
She woke in the middle of the night to the sound of plaster and drywall splintering. At first, Celia couldn’t identify what the noise was. It was unfamiliar and terrifying, a crack loud and close enough that her mind tail-spun empathetically: Was this what nights had become for Sebastian? An echo of another time, another place? She glanced to her side to find the other half of the mattress deserted. The couch, Celia rationalized. They’d fallen asleep separately again.
But the noise resounded in her eardrums, and Celia found her feet moving of their own volition from the bedroom, past the closed door of the nursery and the nightlight glow of the bathroom, past the dining room, into the dark of the kitchen, where Sebastian’s silhouette trembled against a wall. She could hardly make out the deeper pitch of a hole near his shoulder. “Seb,” she crooned, monosyllabic, froggy. It stung in a loose sort of way, she realized long seconds later, when he didn’t acknowledge her. Celia watched in a frozen moment as he leaned into the wall, pressed his head against plaster, as the shape of his mouth moved wordlessly. “Seb,” she tried again, and stepped closer.
“I’ve done terrible things,” returned the whisper of his voice, so quiet she nearly missed it.
“Sebastian,” Celia tried in full, and cautioned a step closer. Moonlight streamed in through the window over the sink, highlighting the upturned angle of his nose. She thought immediately of Peyton. Her heart hammered sickly in her throat. She reached for her husband before they were anywhere near enough to touch, a dozen patterned tiles lying between their feet. “Come to bed,” she pleaded, more words and a greater request than either had uttered in weeks.
He kept his forehead pressed against the wall. “I’m a –” Sebastian started, and stopped, and started again: “I’m a – a –” But the words refused to come.
It was grief, and the war, and the flashbacks Sebastian lived through nightly, and the loss of a child. It was another one of those moments that Celia couldn’t break, and she recognized it – knew it intimately when, quicker than she thought he was capable of moving, Sebastian’s arm gravitated higher, his fist coming down violently against the wall under the first hole, punching plaster out of place. She jumped. She tasted her yelp belatedly, like bile and motor oil. She didn’t know how to handle him, his anguish on top of her own.
Carefully, Celia plotted her way around Sebastian’s back, to the cattycorner of the kitchen counter, where her phone was plugged in for the night, and dialed Renner.
His fingers traced an invisible rainbow into the sharp line of Celia’s jaw, followed the lobe of her ear all the way to the dimple of her chin and halted. They were cradled by the night-song of crickets, the slow whistle of wind between tree branches. In front of him, Celia’s skin reflected the taxi-and-yam yellows of streetlamps overhead. “It’s not even that I’m afraid of going to war,” he confessed to her–and the cloistered emptiness of the parkway parking lot–just over a whisper. It was a half-lie that the night around them swallowed, even though it continued to echo between his eardrums. “That’s not it.”
“But you are scared of something,” Celia intuited, and shifted her hips on the blanket that was sprawled out in the bed of Sebastian’s truck. Fabric wrinkled under her thigh. She stretched one leg forward, until it beckoned for a place to rest between Sebastian’s. His pants were coarse against the bare skin of her kneecap.
Sebastian’s lips stretched into a tight line that dissected the hemispheres of his face. “I guess.”
She reached forward. Her thumb caught his lower lip, full and soft under the pad of her finger. “You can tell me. I won’t judge you for whatever it is.”
There was something to the way the corners of Sebastian’s eyes crinkled into crow’s feet that left Celia feeling uncomfortable. For long seconds, Sebastian was quiet. His hand stilled where it had trekked back over its arch-line to rest angled at the hollow behind her ear. His eyes flickered down. The jewel on her wedding band glinted sunny-bright despite the darkness around them. “I just don’t want to carry it with me afterward,” he said at last. The words felt silly, unspecific. “I don’t want to bring it home with me. I don’t want any part of it to touch you. Or –” His hand abandoned its post to reach between them, wrist angling so his palm could lie mostly-flat over her stomach.
“Some day,” Celia promised, and covered his hand with her own, “once you’re home again.” She smiled easy enough for both of them. “It will come home with you, Seb. That’s how it goes. It doesn’t matter, though.” She leaned forward to press a kiss to his mouth, chaste, simple, the world cradled between the pucker of her lips. “We’ll get through whatever comes, together. Nothing could possibly happen over there to tear me away from you.”
Sebastian saw it in his dreams as clearly as he did the moment it actually happened: the Humvee on the road in front of their truck rattling from its tires up, in a tremor that shook it so violently, it collapsed to its side, smoke pouring from beneath it before a flame engulfed the front of the vehicle. Their own Humvee lurched to a standstill behind it, far enough back on the road that it avoided the blast. He barely tore his eyes away from the burning wreck, when he became aware of an urgent hand wrapping around his forearm, tearing Sebastian out the rear passenger door. He tripped over his own feet, stumbled, caught himself, pulled his tactical mask into place and reached for his weapon.
There was the sound of gunfire: he didn’t know if it was his own assault rifle discharging or if the sound echoed from those around him. The voices of his squad mates were intermingled with the unsettling of vehicles, of a nearby building folding in on its foundation. The road underfoot shook so hard he lost his balance, properly this time, knees hard on gravel. He cushioned his fall the best he could manage, breaking it with an arm splayed against ground. Dirt and dust clouded up in front of him, too dense to see through, slow-clearing. The world was tinted the colors of sand and teak.
Some yards off, between the plumes of smoke and debris, a dirty, round face peered back at him. It belonged to a boy who couldn’t have been older than eleven. His eyes were curious almonds in his face, his mouth a neat little bow, partly agape, innocent in an out-of-place sort of way. He wouldn’t have belonged in the middle of the chaos, but for the grenade he cradled between baby-fatty fingers. Sebastian scrambled to his feet, felt them beat unsteadily in their haste to close the distance between himself and the child, arms outspread, screaming, voice hoarse, words garbled, maybe not even words at all. He had to stop the kid from pulling the pin, positively had to –
The boy’s skin felt cold and downy beneath his fingertips. Outside Fallujah, away from Iraq, Sebastian’s hands released the pillow in their grip, pushed it against the slats of the crib, away from the child swaddled tightly in the center of the bed. Peyton was still.