Joe’s body twitched in his bed, as he knew it would. He hadn’t slept since he left the war zone in Macedonia. Violent dreams with buckets of blood, screams in the night, these had been predicted in the article he had read. Now, safe in Amsterdam, he was living the symptoms.
He had just emerged from the face of a man soaked in blood, a knife in his throat. In the dream, Joe cut off his hands and head. He then caved in another man’s skull with a hammer, spewing red. Joe slaughtered a dozen strangers.
That morning he had woken up in his Skopje apartment. Outside was black. He dressed, walked around the three rooms, and took his coffee on the terrace. Many times he had sat there, looking at the River Varda below, and hearing the percussion of gunfire a couple of miles to the north. Now all was stone quiet. As he often did while leaving a room, he prayed to it. He thanked the apartment for keeping him safe in spite of the bombings and the gunfire, and he asked it to bring him back later, when peace had returned. Nobody knew he did this; he prayed in his mind. Joe grabbed his two bags, and walked down the marble side stairs.
A Radio Taxi was waiting. All other taxis had refused to take passengers to the airport because the insurgents had pledged to attack today and had fought to only one mile away. Albanski, the Islamic population, weren’t employed enough, they said. They just wanted equal treatment, they said. Joe didn’t care. The business loan office he had come to start never opened, and likely never would. A year before he arrived someone would be arrested for taking out a business loan. He had failed. The American Embassy found him a driver, one of the 60 percent unemployed, willing to drive him at three times the usual fare. The driver waited by his own car, a Zastava, an overweight, unshaven man who looked tense. He had removed the taxi sign from the top.
“You are leaving,” the man said the obvious.
“I wish I was too, but we are stuck.”
The drive was in the dark. Many times Joe had ridden taxis after midnight through the darkened, deserted streets of the capital. As they passed, he took one last glimpse of the Central Post Office, a building so ugly that residents bragged about how hideous it was, designed by a Brutalist architect after the huge earthquake of 1963. Then they were on the four lane highway. Not another vehicle was in sight. None of the streetlights were lit. The driver kept silent; he was risking his life. There weren’t even soldiers or checkpoints as there often were when Joe ventured outside Skopje.
Joe began to think about this being his last day. June 6th. That date might be on his tombstone.
When the taxi pulled up to the airport, the driver was visibly nervous. The car was the only one at the front curb. Quickly he got Joe’s bags from the trunk. He didn’t look at the American as he put the huge tip in his hand. And was off before he reached the door.
Inside was much as any other airport in the world, modern, metal and glass, an auditorium sized room. This morning the Skopje airport, where he had arrived three months before, was nearly silent. Everybody was down to business. Joe went right to the counter; there was no line. The woman checking his ticket and taking his bag hardly looked at him. When she did, her face almost accused him: so you are running.
An hour until liftoff waited, an hour filled with the possibility of attack and death.
One soldier manned the booth for the security check. He barely glanced at Joe’s ticket and boarding pass, and didn’t even ask for his passport.
The gate was the usual rows of red plastic chairs. They were half filled. Children played on the tile floor, or screamed as they chased each other. But the adults sat straight upright. Every face was serious. Soldiers were much more in abundance, especially outside on the runway.
For an hour Joe sat there, going to the bathroom twice. He faced the time as if this was all he had left in life. Thoughts jumped here and there, his dead parents with their constant fights, his three girlfriends he left after he grew tired of their lack of courage, their jealousy and their lack of belief in him. It wasn’t that his life flashed before him; it was just that he was flying back to failure in so many personal and professional ways. His supervisor wanted to meet with him when he got back to Chicago. He worried what that meant. And food. Somehow he remembered nights in Skopje’s limited restaurants. His favorite was called Sorrow for the South.
A low point was when the Slavic Dragons blew up the ice cream parlor near his apartment because it was owned by Albanski. The parlor had a Hawaiian theme, mostly posters on the wall, and Joe enjoyed the friendly man behind the counter. All destroyed.
The jet with MAT on the side taxied toward them, the roar growing louder and louder. No one left their seats, except two small girls who ran to the windows.
The plane parked near the gate, and the metal stairs on wheels, pushed by Slavic workers, attached to the door. A few passengers climbed down. Soldiers and an airline official took positions inside the gate. And the plane began to load. There was no announcement.
Joe’s heart pounded. He had been told by the American Embassy official that the flight might be attacked, particularly by rockets. Shooting down a plane would be a big step for the insurgents. The city was on a Level Two alert, just before suggested evacuation. He had insisted on going, getting out of that hell hole. Even now he could turn back. When he showed his boarding pass to the official, she didn’t look at him, but a soldier standing at her shoulder nodded his head sternly. He stepped through the door to the tarmac. Outside was cool; the sky was cloudy. Soldiers roamed in no apparent order everywhere, except a line on either side of the stairs. They all held rifles.
Climbing the stairs and entering the plane’s door was like entering a tomb. He didn’t look around. His face must have been tight like the other passengers. Joe took his seat by the window, placing his take-on bag under the chair in front. He buckled up. There was nothing he could do. He sat, thinking it was all fate. His coming to Macedonia, his divorce, his lack of success were all fate.
He looked out the window at the soldiers. There was nothing else to do. He couldn’t fight, he couldn’t fire a gun, he was in the hands of so much he didn’t care anything about. Even when he was yelled at by Slavic people, at one party particularly, because the rumor was that America was training the Islamic insurgents from Kosovo, he hadn’t felt anything. This was somebody else’s fight, but he might die anyway.
The time passed like infinity, but at last the plane’s engines roared, he felt a jolt, and they began taxiing to the one runway. Joe noticed the complete silence, except for babies crying. There were no announcements.
The plane rushed down the runway, and they lifted from the ground. Would he ever touch the Earth again? The wheels retracted, and they aimed for Amsterdam. He looked down at the precious ground, but could see nothing but hills and bare trees in the early morning gloom.
Joe braced himself for the rocket and the end. Not a bad way to go. A sudden fireball and without pain. He likely wouldn’t even know he had died.
Ten minutes ticked off second by second. He couldn’t help himself. He kept checking his watch. He prayed, though he didn’t believe in Christianity anymore. Then as if that duty was done, he let his mind drift back to Chicago. He really wasn’t flying to anywhere.
Someone else in the plane had been looking at his watch. At exactly ten minutes, Joe realized, he heard a laugh from a row in front. The man applauded. Applause spread through the seats, and he applauded too. Joyous, relieved laughter filled the plane.
They were out of rocket range.
As Joe twitched in his Amsterdam hotel bed that night, he thought of the moment. The twitching, he had read, was caused by a high level of anxiety over a long period of time. The people walking the streets of Skopje still had that high tension. They could die at any moment. The insurgents gutted a policeman directing traffic at an intersection he passed every day. A bank official’s fiancé had stepped on a land mine. Blood drenched dreams. In one he hacked up beautiful women with a cleaver. In another he avoided bullets as he hid behind a clothes rack at a department store. Dead corpses littered the floor. Terrible dreams. He awoke shaking and disgusted with himself. So he lay there in the soft bed shivering and twitching. He had a horrible headache. His body and his mind were shedding the tension like his skin might sweat. He dreaded sleep, but had several more nights of the horror to go. The future, a blank, had to await this murderous release.
Image: – Google images