I stand in the midst of it all. My haggard frame barely fills itself. It stinks of sweat, as my skin is caked in grease and soot.
My eyes are hooded, my cheekbones sallow. The subway station is densely packed with a thousand hustling and bustling, pushing and shoving bodies.
The cacophony of long stilettos and hard soles clacking against the cold floor with the consistency of a cavalry charge reminds me of machine gun fire. M-16s chambered in 5.56mm rounds – their glinting edges ruthless, their lead bullets ripping through my comrades.
Even with the presence of a thousand people, I still feel alone – alone, like the haunted sighs of Daniel’s last breaths. Alone, like me in agonising panic as I frantically caked battlefield mud onto the gaping hole in his chest.
The blood just kept flowing, each pump of his heart growing further apart until all that remained was silence, juxtaposed against the screams of other men.
A kind-looking, bespectacled man taps me on the shoulder. His concerned frown complements his tousled brown locks and his unevenly knotted work tie.
He looks young, yet stressed enough to give him slight wrinkles on his forehead.
“Sir? You all right? You’ve been standing for around five minutes now, looking all … moody and hunched.”
I desperately brush away a forming tear in my eye and give him a tight smile, telling him I’m fine in a hoarse voice.
He doesn’t buy the act.
My eyes are cobalt stone, lifeless and empty. The kind man’s eyebrows, like oozing slugs, furrow in worry as he glances down at my embossed name tag and the army khaki uniform. There was a moment of connection between us.
A glinting sparkle gradually floats into his dark pupils, which suddenly dilate, making them blacker. When he opens his mouth again, his tone changes, more serious, and slow now.
“Corporal Samuel. Sorry, I didn’t…realise earlier.”
He clasps my hand tightly between both of his, and shakes it firmly. His smooth, yet textured skin rubs against mine, providing a blanket of warmth.
“Thank you for your service to this nation. And please know that I’m always here for brave men like you. Men who have sacrificed.”
On the word ‘sacrificed’, his voice cracks and turns husky. He clears his throat.
This man, who was probably rushing late for an urgent work appointment, this random stranger from this crowd of a thousand bodies, had acknowledged me as not just another face, but as a person.
I am unable to speak.
A myriad of memories gather and mix with my thoughts to create a flurry of sudden emotions. It begins to swirl faster and faster. Stronger. Growing, like a roar of a million whispers rocking my eardrums, and like a thickening bolus edging its way up my throat, until it becomes a rapid hurricane. The hurricane explodes.
The man is taken aback as my 21-year-old self slams into him, perhaps a little too hard, wrapping his arms around him.
I hug him tighter than I hugged Daniel’s cold body, because truth be told, I had lost everything.
Mum left for another money-laden man in his 60s after my addiction started, believing me a burden, instead of human.
Dad passed shortly after – a drunk drive, which ended in a pool of blood.
My arrogant brother is in Shanghai working business deals for his tech start-up, sneering at my purposeless existence – never enough to garner his care.
The military was my only solace, providing purpose through its harsh, persevering, and non-discriminating principles.
Many nights left me sobbing in my bunk, from the deafening admonishment of the drill sergeant, yet I took comfort that the admonishment was equally as deafening for a female cadet, a black private, or a higher-ranking corporal.
Yet, just as I thought it was safe to smile, Afghanistan came, giving me someone I cared about – Daniel – only to rip him away carelessly.
The man pats my back gently as I hug him tight, sobbing erratically into his shoulder, breathing in his freshly laundered shirt. I don’t want to lose him, either.
He introduces himself as Daniel. Perhaps a coincidence of fate, but I think not.
He pays for my train ticket, and together we ride to our destinations. We sit next to each other in an understanding silence. He catches me staring at him, trying to read his face, and he smiles warmly. He speaks.
As the minutes pass, we talk about our lives’ trials and tribulations. Where the battlefield reaped from me with its cruel scythe, Daniel gives back to me like a beacon of comfort.
People say that a home is much different from a house. A house is superficial, but a home is your shelter, where one can feel emotionally secure.
As I watch the New York skyline rush by the train window, I gaze at the reflection of us two men among the flashing reds and whites.
I know that in that single moment, I am home at last.
Sword and sceptre,
Midnight to Elysium,
Are you the delighter,
Or are you the delirium?
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