Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
By Jordan Johnson
The room was uncomfortably warm and humid, the way rooms full of people seem to get. I sat before them all, bright beams from the stage lighting only adding to the heat and discomfort of this place. The rows of people in studio seating combined with the hot, moist air made me feel like I was gazing into the maw of some unnaturally large beast, and for an instant, I understood why the fear of death is second only to the fear of public speaking. The glass eyes of the small legion of cameras only added to my discomfort, and I could see even the members of the crew were reflecting the eager looks of the crowd.
Row upon row of silent people watched me as I stared back from the plush leather of the chair next to the host. With all of those eyes watching me, I felt paralyzed, and I jumped when the man who introduced me to the crowd before the break touched my shoulder.
“You okay?” He said quietly, but we both knew the microphones on the collars of our shirts caught it perfectly. I looked up at him, not at his eyes, but at the ugly red bow tie I'd stared at when we'd met in the green room. With a concerned look on his face, he leaned back in his office chair, anxious to see me begin, just as everyone else in the studio audience was eager to hear me speak.
A voice came over the studio through speakers hidden in darkness behind the lights above.
“And we're on in five, four, three, two,”
The host adjusted his posture and put on the well-practiced grin that I'd watched him wear on my own television a few times. The crowd applauded and cheered as a ball of ice grew in my guts as the show's theme music played.
“Hello everyone and thank you for joining us. If you're just tuning in, we have Francis Edwards with us tonight, and he's here to share his story with us.” His expression moved perfectly as he spoke from the smile of joy at welcoming his viewers to a somber look with a furrowed brow. It was like watching a clown's makeup change color. “Mr. Edwards, are you ready?”
“Yeah,” I lied.
“Why don't you tell us about yourself and how you became involved in what happened.”
“I was a photo journalist. I was one of eight reporters from different news organizations that cooperated to attempt to get into Burkina Faso to try to document some of the events that happened. All of us knew it was dangerous—we'd be smuggling ourselves in. We'd only been able to socialize for a while on the flight over, but I'd come to respect and befriend all of the people that were going.”
* * *
The weather in Marrakesh was beautiful. I remember how lazy the morning felt as I stood naked on the balcony of my hotel room and watched as light from the sun seemed to charge the entire city. Behind me, I heard Maxine roll over in bed and I stole a glance at her form covered by the sheets. We'd met on the flight over. She was a journalist from...some European country—I was never good with recognizing accents, but her English was better than mine—and like me she'd fought tooth and nail to get her network to let her come. We'd hit it off, and after a few glasses of champagne to celebrate our landing what might have been a career-making story opportunity, we'd hit it off and spent the rest of the night celebrating.
“What are you doing way over there?” She sounded hungover, but I could still hear the smile in her question.
“Watching the sunrise.”
“You'll get a burn.”
I smiled and started toward her, but my phone ringing on the dresser stopped me. I picked it up.
“Francis, it's Joel.” Joel was the unofficial “leader” of our excursion. “You up?”
“About halfway. What's up?”
“There's been a change of plans, we have to leave before noon.”
“Really? What happened?”
“My contact fell through. I had to find someone to get us across the border short-notice. Get your shit down to the lobby as fast as possible. If you're not down here by quarter-past, we're leaving you behind.”
I cursed, already trying to throw clothes on.
“Yeah, and if you can find Maxine anywhere, tell her the same. She's not answering.”
“I'll knock on her door.” I said and hung up. Maxine must have guessed something was wrong, she was already closer to presentable than I was.
“What's happening?” she asked, adjusting her hair in the mirror.
“Joel's coyote fell through.”
“The person who was supposed to get us into Burkina.”
* * *
I paused for a moment, lost in remembering that night in Morocco, and the elevator ride with Maxine the next morning. I could still see the conspiratorial grin she shot me that told me she was loving the adventure. All I could think about was the fact that I never found my left sock.
I snapped out of my daze. “Yeah?”
“Do you need a moment?”
“No, I'm fine.” I cleared my throat and continued. “Two years ago, Burkina Faso wasn't of much interest to the first world. The little countrys most profitable export—its gold—was dwindling, and in a single year, the country's exports dropped to less than half the year before. Despite an initial economic boom, Burkina was in quick decline as western investors pulled out to make sure they didn't get sucked into the economic vacuum.”
I could see a couple people in the front row seeming to slump in their seats with boredom. I didn't feel bad for them. The boring version of the story was just easier to tell.
“The fact that Burkina was plummeting even further into poverty wasn't what brought us there. It was the fact that ten different aid workers had not come back, and a letter home from one of them supposedly talked about a plague that was spreading among the gold miners. Several international health organizations tried to send doctors to investigate, but were turned away by government officials, claiming that there was no plague and that there was no cause for alarm. When a team that smuggled themselves in as missionaries didn't come back and didn't send any sort of contact about what was going on, one of the people at my network—the one we all joked about being a conspiracy nut—freaked out. He convinced me to go, and like the team that disappeared, we had to smuggle ourselves in. We know now that the country was in the midst of a violent coup, and that the government was pretty much done for the moment the quarantine went into effect. For the next year, nobody got in or out of Burkina, and it turned into a lawless hell on earth.”
* * *
Riding in the rusty old pickup wasn't so bad, but the constant drum roll of the jungle foliage slapping at the windows made me feel bad for Maxine, who rode in the back with two other members of our group. The cab might have reeked of tobacco and sweat, but I glanced through the rear window to give her and the others an apologetic look. I was only in time to see a large leaf slap her square in the face. I tried not to laugh, but the driver's grin told me he thought the sight of my friends getting the sense slapped out of them by the jungle was a bonus on top of the money he'd been paid.
Suddenly, the foliage wasn't assaulting the truck anymore, and we were on a dirt path, bouncing our way toward a small cluster of buildings built on either side of the parallel lines carved into the ground by so many tires.
“What's that?” I asked the driver.
“Checkpoint.” he replied. “Don't say anything.” The grin was gone. It was time to go to work.
We slowed to a stop as a dozen men with guns seemed to emerge from every hiding place the collection of corrugated sheet metal had to offer. Joel's truck had been ahead of ours, but they weren't anywhere in sight. They were probably already through.
“It's okay,” the driver said through a heavy accent. “I've got this.” he reached under his seat and pulled out an envelope I knew was full of cash. With deft hands, the driver took five bills, fifty-thousand of the local currency--just under a hundred dollars—and stuffed the envelope back under his seat. I fidgeted with my camera case at my feet, clasping and unclasping the latch as one man wearing a red tank top and blue track pants strode toward us. When he was closer, I realized he was probably not even twenty one.
My French wasn't the worst, but I didn't speak any of the local dialects at all, and I was left wondering what the driver and the young man were talking about. The driver shook the young man's hand, a practiced gesture that let the bills change hands quietly, and that seemed to work because the young man smiled and started walking back to his buddies, his rifle slung across his back.
I noticed the sunlight glint off of something on the ground, and I pulled out my camera. One of the guys in the back, Rodney, told me that watching me put the telescopic lens on my camera is like watching a sniper put a rifle together in the movies. I smiled to myself as I peered through the viewfinder at the place where the glint of light had been. The smile faded when I saw that it was fragments of broken glass. Then I saw the brass casings of spent rounds. Then I saw a tow truck, half-obscured by the shanty shelters. Attached was a pickup just like the one Joel and the others had been in. The glass on the back had red on it. I lowered my camera to see the line of a dozen men raise their rifles as the one the driver had paid lit a cigarette.
* * *
“We managed to get ourselves into the country, but by the time we saw any evidence of the chaos, it was too late to go back. We were ambushed by a group of bandits claiming to be some sort of checkpoint. I'd like to say I was a hero, like in the movies,” I said, “but I wasn't. I don't know how the hell we did it, but Maxine—one of my colleagues—and I managed to get away, running into the dense jungle. We left our cameras. We left the driver. We left Rodney and... and... fuck, I can't remember his name. Andrew, I think.”
My curse echoes in the studio, and even though I wait till the count of ten, nobody tries to break the silence this time.
“Maxine had been hit just below the collarbone.” I said, but I knew the moment I said it, I should have lied and said she'd been killed instantly, said she didn't suffer. I looked down at the front row. I'd heard a rumor that some of the family members of the others might have been in the audience. A kind lie might have been better than the truth. To my left, I heard a sound, I thought it might have been a sob, but it could have just as easily been a cough or maybe even a sneeze. I looked to see if I could spot a familial resemblance to Maxine, but the bright lights shining at me made it impossible to make out any detail.
“I'm sorry, I shouldn't have agreed to this. I'm sorry to disappoint you all.” I stood to walk off the stage. I didn't want to be here anymore. I don't know what made me agree to this in the first place. The crowd began to murmur as I started to walk, and by the time I was at the exit backstage, the sounds from the crowd had grown to a sea of chatter and whispers.
Outside, I ducked into an alleyway, and for a second I was in the jungle again. I heard the door I'd just come through open and shut again, and I sat down between two dumpsters to hide. It was probably someone coming to try to convince me to come back, to give people some closure. Fuck 'em. I was relieved when nobody discovered my hiding place, and for a while I just sat there, in the dirty alleyway surrounded by litter.
I hadn't heard someone approaching, but when I saw a shadow move in the light of the street lamps, the sound of footsteps was already right next to me. I looked up to see an old man holding his coat. He was wearing a blue button-down shirt and his gray hair was combed neatly. He looked down at me.
Then, he sat down across from me, probably ruining his clean clothes and straining himself in the process of lowering himself to the alley concrete.
“You're her father.” I guessed.
“I am.” he nodded.
“I'm sorry.” I said, “I couldn't save her.”
“I know.” he smiled.
We sat in silence for a minute, listening to the sounds of traffic all around the city.
“Tell me what happened next.” He said.
I looked at him and sighed. He was prepared to wait all night if he had to.
* * *
We had run through the jungle for who knows how long. I could have kept going, but Maxine had suddenly stopped to vomit up blood. I never had any first aid training, never was a boy scout, not even a single band-aid on me.
She collapsed in the mud, and I grabbed her, turned her over so she didn't drown in the muck. I held her as she coughed and gasped and clutched my arm, digging her nails in like it would help her hang on. I held her long after she let go.
I didn't have the tools to bury her, and I didn't want to just leave her in the mud, so I carried her. It wasn't a conscious decision. A snapping branch behind me that could have been anything startled me, and I picked her up and ran. I ran until fatigue and near dehydration made it impossible to go further. I buried her under a tree, using sticks and a flat rock to dig. Adrenaline and panic had blurred time, and I wasn't sure how long I'd carried her, but her body had begun to smell of death. I couldn't imagine that smell coming from her. I wanted her to smell like Champagne and room service again. Once she was buried, I slept for another day. The next morning, some hunters from a nearby village found me huddled under the tree, saw the flat stone I'd used as a grave marker. They carried me to their village, where I'd hidden and worked with them to survive the rest of the year. When we got news from a villager from the next village that UN troops were on the way, I'd gone to visit Maxine's grave one last time.
The plane ride back to civilization seemed so alien at the time. A paramedic sat with me almost the whole flight back, asking the same questions over and over. What was my name? Why was I in Burkina? Who was I with? Where were they? That last question always clenched my guts and my throat so tight that it would be several minutes before I could speak again, and the paramedic started all over. When he realized that I couldn't get the rest out, he stopped trying.
* * *
Maxine's father nodded slowly. I didn't know what I expected from him, but his calm expression and acceptance of everything I was telling him wasn't it. We sat in silence for a moment, then a few minutes longer until he took a breath.
“What you did, back there--”
“I know, I shouldn't have walked out.”
“No, that's not it. Nobody could have been expected to make it through the whole thing without feeling something. The fact that it means so much to you is a great comfort to me.” I stared at him, and he continued. “Maxine meant the world to her mother and I, and we'll never stop feeling the pain of her loss. But in a way, it helps to know that we're not alone in that. You did what could be expected of a man amongst predators, and I can at least thank you for not letting her be alone.”
I nodded, unable to speak again. He stood, placing a hand on the rough brick of the building to steady himself as he made the effort. Without thinking, I was on my feet, helping him the rest of the way.
“I'd be honored if you'd join my wife and I for dinner next weekend. We won't ask you to relive everything like that again, but getting to know you would mean a lot to us.”
“I'd like that.”
Jordan Johnson is a legally blind writer from western Wisconsin, and is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin: River Falls Professional Writing program, and writes a blog on disability issues at Unsightful.org. Jordan has always been immersing himself in something creative, be it role playing games, art, cooking, or writing.