By: Michael Degnan
It was ten minutes before the bombs went off that Charles first saw her, the woman of his dreams, in a park in Washington DC. She sat cross-legged on the grass, strumming a guitar. A soft breeze rippled her long, colorful dress like a parachute.
Was it a stretch to say she was the woman of his dreams? Perhaps, but he had told a friend just a couple of weeks before that he wanted to meet someone who wrote songs. It wasn’t much more defined than that, but as he spoke, the image he had in his head was similar to the woman in front of him, from the long, straight dark hair to the way she cradled the acoustic guitar in her lap.
Charles approached cautiously. With a soft, polite smile, he asked if she minded if he listened to her play. She said okay. He ran his hand through the dry grass. He looked towards the calm sky. He listened to the music as closely as he could. Her voice was full and confident. The lyrics were like a strange, sad poem. It was impossibly beautiful, he thought.
“Did you write that?” Charles asked.
As the woman nodded, the first bomb went off. It must have been a couple of miles south of where they were, probably somewhere on the National Mall. The second bomb was much closer.
Charles turned towards the explosion. He watched the smoke stretch towards the sky, darkening and expanding. He couldn’t grasp what was happening.
When he turned back, he saw the woman running towards the far end of the park, holding the neck of the guitar in her hand.
Before too long, DC had turned into a war zone. This isn’t a story about war, so it’s not important what the cause was. It might have been the effect of a series of unending overseas wars. It could have been domestic terrorism, encouraged by American leaders themselves, those more interested in their own power and wealth than the ideals they claimed to defend.
Either way, in the following weeks, violence, destruction and death escalated across the city.
Charles drew into himself more than usual. He spent most of his time in his small apartment. He kept the lights off during the day and only used a small desk lamp at night. He ate noodles for most meals, usually just topped with olive oil and herbs.
More than anything, he listened to music and he played his guitar. He tried to remember the song that he had heard the young woman play. He wondered what her name was. He wondered if he would ever see her again.
Tom Petty once said that music was the one real magic he had ever encountered. But is it magical enough to make war disappear? Is it magical enough to reconnect you to the woman of your dreams?
Everywhere Charles went, he looked for the young woman. But soon he started to doubt whether he would even recognize her. Maybe she had been the woman at the cash register. Maybe she was the one reading a book at the bus stop.
After a few months, he accepted that he wouldn’t see her again. He told himself that it didn’t matter. He knew nothing about her anyway.
Bombing continued across the city and soon across the country. It was less frequent, but the number of casualties grew, as did the fear and unrest.
On a Tuesday morning, Charles’ phone vibrated. He listened to a voicemail from his mother telling him his brother had been killed in an attack in New York City. He took several heavy breaths. He felt like throwing his coffee mug against the wall. Instead, he grabbed his guitar and left his apartment.
Charles took the bus to the first bomb site, now a National Park Service memorial. Benches arched in circles, radiating out from a granite monolith with names of the deceased.
No one was there, and little interfered with the morning’s stillness. The only sounds were of light traffic a block away and an occasional airplane overhead.
Charles started to play his guitar, quietly improvising a song in memory of his brother. He closed his eyes and let the music take him to his childhood.
When he looked up, he saw her, the young woman from the park.
“Did you write that?” she asked.
Charles nodded. “For my brother. He passed away.”
“My best friend did too.”
“Are you okay?”
She thought about it. “No, I don’t think so.”
She sat next to him. “My name is Samantha.”
She lay her head on Charles’ shoulder and softly sang the melody she had played several months ago in the park. He felt the warmth of her breath against his neck. From nowhere, in a moment of wondrous clarity, he had a vision of the two of them, twenty years in the future. They were teaching their daughter how to play the guitar. They were happy. He smiled and started humming along to her song. It was like magic.
Michael Degnan writes from Portland, Maine. His short fiction has appeared in numerous journals, including Every Day Fiction, The Drabble, Ariel Chart and 101 Words.