A maniac had killed her guards, broken into her hotel room, and offered her the choice of seif-al-din or a bullet. She'd pleaded with him.
Not for her life.
For a life I didn't even know was there.
Oh, G.o.d ...
Violin had busted down the door. I'm not even sure if I have it straight in my head why she went to the hotel at all.
There was a fight. Shots.
The killer, Ludo Monk, died.
Junie was shot.
She did not die.
But the bullet did terrible damage. Awful damage.
Irreparable. Cruel damage.
I sat in Junie's hospital room, drinking bad coffee, watching her sleep, watching the news on TV. All regular programming was canceled. Everything was news coverage except on the movie and cartoon stations. The reporters all managed to do stand-ups in front of debris, or rows of bodies under sheets, or with flaming buildings behind them. Their producers cooked up catchphrases and labels and did everything they could to buzz them out into the social media floodwaters.
Fox News called it the Battle of Atlanta. They went out of their way to make sure they painted the current administration as villains willing to go to war with their own people.
MSNBC went with the Fall of Atlanta. They demonized the warmongers who were willing to rain fire down on U.S. citizens. In substance, it was no different from what Fox was saying.
All the other networks followed suit, and since the war itself was over, the press as a whole whipped public opinion into a frenzy of outrage that was unbelievably powerful but aimed in the wrong direction. They demanded that the president be impeached, despite the fact that his actions had likely saved the entire country and probably the whole human race. They wanted to crucify the Joint Chiefs and everyone in uniform. They wanted heads to roll.
But they were all pointing their arrows at the wrong target.
When the story of Vice President Bill Collins's suicide broke-a story intentionally delayed because of the national emergency and while his wife was being notified-there was a moment during which all the screaming, yelling, and finger-pointing ground to a halt. The press and the congressional witch-finders were like a pack of bloodhounds that suddenly had to decide which trail to follow.
As for the president ... he addressed the nation again that night with a speech that was perhaps the most eloquent I've ever heard. The press, of course, cynical as ever, tore the speech apart and nitpicked the soul out of it.
I was genuinely surprised, though, that over the next few days several of the more intelligent politicians from both sides of the aisle stepped up to support the president. Perhaps they realized that to continue tearing him down would weaken the nation as a whole and likely crash the stock market. And perhaps they had some quiet coercion from people behind the scenes. Mr. Church comes to mind.
But I'd like to think that it was evidence that, as fractured and flawed as our system is, there are still some good people working to keep the ship of state sailing and to steer her out of dangerous waters. Maybe that makes me naive and idealistic. If so, that's fine with me. I need something to believe in, something to fight for.
Deep into the heart of the third day after the battle in Atlanta, Junie finally addressed the thing that neither of us had dared talk about.
I turned to see that Junie was awake. I kissed her tenderly on the forehead and on her lips.
"Joe," she whispered, "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"No," I told her. "No."
Then I knelt beside her bed, laid my head on her chest, and we both wept for a long time. My broken sternum hurt so bad; my broken heart hurt so d.a.m.n much worse.
Later. So much later, she said, "Maybe ... we can adopt."
She said those four words in a small and fragile voice. My breath caught in my throat and for a moment I dared not reply for fear of saying the wrong thing. At times like these even well-intentioned words can destroy.
So I said, "Is that what you want to do?"
Junie was a long time answering. "You've never once said anything about wanting kids."
I said nothing. Waiting.
"I mean ... we're not even married. I'm being so presumptuous. This would never have even come up if..."
She didn't say it. How do you say "if an a.s.sa.s.sin's bullet hadn't killed our baby and robbed us of ever having our own kids"? How do those words fit into your mouth?
I got up from my chair and sat on the edge of the bed and looked into her eyes. I brushed away a tear, looked at the wetness on my thumb, pressed it into the flesh over my heart.
"I love you," I said.
It was the first time I'd spoken those words to her. It was not the first time I'd thought them.
"Oh, G.o.d, Joe," she said, "I love you."
It was all I said. For that moment, though, it was enough. There would be time for the rest, for anything else. For now, this was the firm ground beneath our feet.
It was the only safe place to stand.
On an unseasonably cold afternoon in late September, I went to an Orioles game with Rudy Sanchez. I'd barely seen him since Atlanta. As a specialist in postviolence trauma, he was in high demand. When I called to ask if he wanted to help me watch the Orioles spank the Red Sox, he surprised me by leaping at it.
I had season tickets right behind home plate. A gift from Mr. Church, who has a friend in the industry. Rudy and I got there early. Ghost was allowed in because he was dressed like a service dog and pretended to help Rudy with his one eye and bad leg. In truth, Ghost likes baseball as much as any sane American. Being a canine doesn't change that fact. We bought hot dogs and big cups of beer and for a while it was just the three of us in the box. Ghost dismantled his hot dog the way he does, eating each side of the bun first, then licking off the mustard and relish in turn, and finally eating the hot dog. He wasn't even finished before he began eyeing mine.
Rudy looked older than his years, and worn to a brittle thinness.
"How are you doing, brother?" I asked him.
He took a bite of the hot dog, chewed it thoughtfully, sipped some beer. Finally, he said, "It's not just the statistics, you know."
I said, "What?"
"This thing, Joe ... it's not just about how many crimes were committed, how many bombs went off, or how many died. It's not about that."
"This has done something fundamental to the American people," he continued. "In some ways it's completed a process that began with the fall of the Towers. It's like the gradually stripping away of innocence as the result of a pattern of abuse. We've lost so much of our optimism, so much of the belief that we can survive anything."
He sighed and drank more beer. People were drifting into the stadium now, walking in ones and twos, dads with kids, groups of friends. There was a lot of laughter.
"I hear what you're saying, Rude, I do, but I think you're saying that because you're worn out. You've been at this twenty-four/seven. But you're standing so close to it, all you can see is the pain. I think you've gotten yourself a nice dose of PTSD."
He started to object, then raised his head as if listening to something, and gave me a small shrug. "Maybe. I'll consider that. However, I do think that it's partly true. We have lost some innocence." He nibbled his hot dog. "I remember reading articles in psychology journals about similar losses of innocence after Kennedy was killed. And Martin Luther King. And after John Lennon."
"Violence always leaves a mark," I reminded him. "A pretty smart guy told me that once upon a time."
"And now we are all badly marked." He shook his head. "I don't know, Joe, but I'm afraid that I'm beginning to lose faith that the good guys will actually win in the end."
I set my beer cup down-well away from Ghost's inquisitive snout-and placed my hand on Rudy's shoulder.
"Sometimes they do," I said.
He kept shaking his head.
I leaned close and very quietly said, "Junie got the results of her last panels."
He winced, preparing for the worst.
"She's totally cancer-free."
I don't know what reaction I expected. Laughter, shouts, a bromance hug. Instead Rudy put his hot dog and beer down, placed his face in his hands, and his shoulders shook with silent tears.
"Hey, man, I said ... don't, it's cool..."
And then I realized that he wasn't crying.
He was laughing.
It was the kind of laughter that comes from way down deep on the cellular level. On the soul level. A laughter that has to brew a long time before it bubbles to the surface. Sure, there were some tears mixed in with it, but there was also a lot of relief. A lot of hope renewed.
Sure, f.u.c.k it.
But under the September sun in a Baltimore ballpark, with my dog drinking Rudy's beer and the stands filling up with people, Rudy Sanchez and I laughed and laughed and laughed. Soon, without understanding anything about who we were or why we were laughing, the people around us started laughing, too.
Oh, yeah ... and the Orioles kicked serious a.s.s.
Also by Jonathan Maberry.
King of Plagues The Dragon Factory.
Patient Zero Dead of Night The Wolfman Fire & Ash.
Flesh & Bone Dust & Decay Rot & Ruin.
Bad Moon Rising Dead Man's Song.
Ghost Road Blues V-Wars (editor).
Redneck Zombies from Outer s.p.a.ce (editor) Out of Tune (editor) Nonfiction.
Wanted Undead or Alive.
They Bite Zombie CSU The Cryptopedia.
Vampire Universe Vampire Slayer's Field Guide to the Undead (as Shane MacDougall) Ultimate Jujutsu.
Ultimate Sparring The Martial Arts Student Logbook Judo and You.
Graphic Novels Marvel Universe vs. Wolverine Marvel Universe vs. The Punisher Marvel Universe vs. The Avengers.
Captain America: Hail Hydra Klaws of the Panther Doomwar Black Panther: Power Marvel Zombies Return.
Bad Blood Punisher: Naked Kills Wolverine: Flies to a Spider.