It was a glorious day for shopping. Paris was coming to life again. An early morning rain moved off. The sky had cleared redeeming the day. For Donna it was an absolutely perfect day, except for one small detail. Donna missed Alan desperately. The city was so beautiful, so romantic that she wished he were there with her, holding her hand and making dumb jokes. They would stroll in the evening along the Champs Elysee and take in supper at some quaint, dark Parisian bistro that they would forever refer to as “their place.” After dinner they would return to the hotel and make love if they chose, or simply sit at balcony of their hotel room, wrapped in a blanket, and watch the sun set over Paris.
She thought to go downtown and shop the big department stores. Not that it would take her mind off Alan, but it certainly would prove an adequate diversion. At breakfast Donna met a young couple from Minnesota on their honeymoon. The girl told Donna about a little out of the way shoe salon they had found. For Donna it was simply too much to pass up. Shoes were her ultimate weakness, and the thought of bragging to the girls back home of her “private” little salon made her tingle with excitement.
The salon was near the river, along a shady little street. Pushing through the big glass doors, Donna wanted to scream with excitement. It was if she had discovered the Shangri-la of shoes, and almost thought that she had died and gone to heaven. A saleswoman approached, smiling warmly.
“Bonjour, Madame. Comment ca va?” The woman bowed courteously. The saleswoman was tall and thin, and looked to Donna as if she had just stepped from a fashion runway.
“Bonjour,” Donna replied, her eyes moving over shoes displayed in the shop as if they were pieces in a museum, or rare jewels. She could truly feel her heart beating faster, her palms sweating in anticipation of discovering that perfect pair of shoes. “Ca va bien.”
“May I help you?” the woman inquired.
Donna touched the saleswoman’s arm, gushing. She had spent two years studying in Paris after college, but it had been years since she had used any French. Donna was surprised how quickly and comfortably it had come to her again. “You already have, dear. I think I died and went to heaven.”
The woman smiled politely. “If I may be of help.”
Donna found a stunning pair of black high heels to go with a cute black dress she’d picked up across town for a relative steal. She smiled thinking that her threatened spree on his card had become instead a search for that perfect outfit to wear when Alan arrived. The saleswoman packaged Donna’s shoes. Swept up in Donna’s infectious excitement she could not contain her smile.
“A bientot, Madame.” See you soon, the woman beamed.
“Absolutment!” Donna replied. She felt exhilarated by her discovery. Donna could already hear her bragging to girlfriends back home about the salon and the shoes she bought. “A bientot.”
As Donna was leaving the salon a little white Audi pulled to a stop just across the street. The Albanian driver was gaunt and anxious, and appeared, as though he had not slept in some days. He looked nervously around the street, but then caught himself. Taking a deep breath he concentrated on the task at hand. All this anxiety was wasted energy, he told himself. In a few minutes it would all be over. He would soon be with them all again, and that was all that he needed to do to settle himself.
He stared straight ahead, fighting the urge to close his eyes for fear of what the darkness held. Sleep was a curse now, a doorway into a world he wished to be free of forever. It was a world where the screams of the dying, and of those who begged for death and freedom from pain assailed him. He saw them in that dark world, the Serbian paramilitaries charging through the gate, the bullets exploding through the house, tearing at the curtains his mother had sewn, shattering the television, the furniture and everything else. He would forever curse himself that there was no time to think, no time to save anyone but himself. There was only the mad, confusing scramble to the ravine behind the house. He wanted to watch, to witness the horror before him. He would testify one day against the bastards who…but there would be no trials, no accused, no one even to console him. How could there be? Who was there to offer sympathy in a land where everyone had suffered so terribly?
“Oh,” he moaned softly. It was the first real expression of sorrow since that awful day. For almost five years he had carried this grief, haunted by the vision of a daughter raped to death in the yard, and of his father and wife and newborn son burned to ashes in the ruins of his home. What hell can be worse than that? What hell can compare with having no one to cry out in pain because everyone around has suffered equally? But a body cannot carry such things forever, for each soul is like a cup, and his cup had been filled well past overflowing.
Donna paid no attention to the Audi or the Albanian as she stepped from the salon and bent to fix her stocking. In the distance the sound of sirens could be heard. The sound grew as the Serbian Foreign Minister’s motorcade approached. Donna scanned the street for a taxi. The thought of walking back to the hotel was just too much. She was already looking forward to a long luxurious bath, and room service for dinner. It would be an early night. Donna would dream about surprising Alan at the airport in the morning.
There were few people on the street. There was a mother and two small children. Across the street two Indian-looking men talked casually. A policeman moved slowly among the parked cars, a long yellow ticket book in his hand. He paused from writing parking tickets when he noticed something odd about the man in the white Audi.
The sirens were louder now, echoing among the buildings of the street. Donna hoped that they would pass quickly so as to not spoil the otherwise perfect day. She noticed the policeman had slipped between two parked cars and had just reached the middle of the street, his attention fully on the man in the Audi. Somewhere in the cop’s mind he made the connection between the man and the approaching motorcade. At that moment the Albanian noticed him.
For an instant the Albanian man’s eyes flashed across the street where they met Donna’s. In that brief instant his gaze was almost sad and apologetic. She felt the man’s bottomless grief and felt her heart going out to him. An instant later the perfect afternoon was violently transformed.
It all seemed to happen in slow motion. The Audi rose and bowed absurdly outwards, as if trying to contain the bright yellow ball growing from within. Silhouetted against the flame the policeman stood frozen at the moment of detonation. In an instant the rapidly expanding flame consumed him. It moved on consuming the two Indian men, the mother and her children before reaching Donna.
There was no sound, no heat and no real pain. There was only the violent interruption of the moment before. The blue sky, birds across the street, and people were replaced by a world of white that erased everything. The force of the blast lifted Donna and snapped her back into the devastated salon.
There was only the fading sound of a distant eruption. Around her everything was dark and so shockingly silent. Her body felt numb and as heavy as if it was made of lead. It took some effort to move even a little, but still parts of her refused to respond. The vision in her remaining eye was foggy, distant and out of focus. Acrid smoke and burnt things made it difficult for her to breathe. The stink of burnt flesh, blood and hair filled her nose.
Donnas mind spun wildly as she struggled to understand what was happening. Trying to sit up she found one arm shattered and useless. Her legs had been torn away mid thigh, but thankfully there was little blood. The intense heat of the blast, which had seared away her clothes and much of her flesh, had cauterized the wounds to some extent. Her mind raced and fought for clarity. It fought to hear for the clear, logical voice of a doctor reminding her that shock was a patient’s worst enemy. That part of her took stock of the terrible damage done to her body. It implored her to fight for life even as the pain came on and her breathing grew shallow. That logical part of her ran through all the treatments for such wounds, the skin grafts, prosthetics, antibiotics, plastic surgery and more. Modern medicine was truly a miracle. There was almost nothing that could not be repaired or replaced as long as a body was willing. She knew that. She knew.
But another voice eclipsed that logical voice. This one resounded more deeply, with a truth and peace Donna had never known before. Too much damage, the voice told her, though she fought it at first. Don’t do this to yourself, it said as she struggled against the darkness enveloping her. She thought of Alan and missed his tender kiss and caring eyes. She thought of making love under the piano, and the tear upon his cheek when they were married. If she could only see him once more, she wished, but that voice came again, this time stronger. It’s okay, the voice told her, it is okay.
Donna lay back upon the floor of the ruined salon, her eye fixed upon the ceiling hanging in tatters above her body. She breathed heavily and felt trapped by her broken body. She breathed once more and felt her spirit break free.
Burn Down the Sky by WC Turck is available at Amazon as an e-book