Once We Came Out of the Dark
At first it was the war. She had never cared much about the war, or paid attention, until the familiar red and gray clouds of smoke on dusty streets became meaningless background to her daily struggles, and the news reports were ambient music she paid no mind. She thought the war was unnecessary; all war was unnecessary, but there had been good reason for getting involved anyway, or they wouldn’t have, and it was so far away and distant that the eyewitness footage could have been from anyone and it would not have mattered, for it did not affect her. She could name several cities of strategic importance without ever finding them on a map, and the death count went higher and higher but the numbers stayed slightly incomprehensible, the facts so distanced from the feelings of grief and loss that others, but not her, experienced. The war went on and on, until she could not remember what it had been like before the war, but the blur was just as much from the inner confusion that war had not changed anything for her at all. There was no difference between war and not war and so the distance between the two faded until it was just as gray and blurry as the smoke. For her, at least, and so it did not matter.
And then they complained about the war; not the ones who complained that it was senseless or morally bankrupted, not those who had questioned the decisions or protested the loss from the start. It was the ones who were unaffected like her, happy to go along, those who had supported it from the beginning and pushed for it, demanded it, called for satisfaction and bloodshed of faceless enemies that had done them no personal harm. It was time to get out of the war, but the leaders could not untangle so many woven threads so quickly, and with each flight covered in flags they complained louder still he was not doing enough fast enough, not the right thing, and she did not have an opinion because it made no sense. She had seen them drive past the veteran and his sign asking for money while he slept under a little overhang that cracked a little more each time it rained, and their car had a bumper sticker for the candidate who would pay for the cost of any vet’s ammo but not his healthcare when he returned. One night the ledge cracked all the way and came down, and they said it was a shame for a vet to be so disrespected that something should have been done. But they still voted for the red bumper sticker anyway, so nothing was, and the others without shelter avoided the ledges as much as they could.
A man knelt, and they protested him for disrespecting the vets, the ones still alive, as if an unarmed black man kneeling was more dangerous than the nameless enemies others went to war with, and they made great bonfires that reached sky, gray and red smoke, until the jersey burned and they felt as though they had accomplished just as much as the vets who still avoided the ledges and waited for something to be done. They complained that he knelt but they did nothing, for nothing was actually wrong, and to protest the country was to disrespect those who were still at war, so long ago that no one could quite answer what we were still fighting for, and she was not tired because she had done nothing to wear herself out, only it was a bit draining. He was not kneeling to protest the vets, who also needed help, but the same people who did nothing and said nothing was wrong, and so then of course they had to do something and they said “look, he’s attacking the vets,” and everybody stopped noticing that the candidates on their bumper stickers were doing nothing to help, so more and more ledges came down and the crackling crumbling infrastructure killed more vets than kneeling ever could. That was a shame, but nothing could be done, because no one did anything, her least of all.
And it was then that she found the cave.
It was cool and dark and mostly quiet, but not the creeping quiet of an old creaking house, but the comfortable stillness of a calm night. She used the flashlight app the first time she went in, for there were monsters in the dark, the faceless horrors that pulled girls off jogging trails and crept up behind them in dimly lit parking lots. There were mudslides and sinkholes and hurricanes and cyclones, great storms and used needles and all sorts of dangerous rates of crime and spreading sicknesses in the hollowed out warehouses where factories once stood, spreading poisons in the ground and water; but this seemed to truly be nothing more than a cave. The light from her phone was antiseptic, almost clinical, and the white unnatural glare cast angular shadows with sharp, clean edges. But it was safe, and clean, and it was nice to stand in the quiet and the stillness and take a moment for herself, to relax and just be, unaffected by everything around her.
There was an election that was loud and noisy and perhaps a little unfair, and that seemed to make all the problems worse, though no one quite knew who to blame for what. Some argued that it had been the last guy, and some the kneeler, and some the current guy, but others still remembered that the last guy was cleaning up another person’s mess entirely and the kneeler had been responding to a problem that had existed long before he kneeled. The current guy was well liked and said things that people liked to hear, and he called himself a great friend to the vets but he was as bad as she was with the places on the map. It was okay for her to be bad with places on the map, for she wasn’t important and it wasn’t her job, but she wondered if maybe the guy in charge should be a bit better with handling a map. However, the last guy before him had known how to read a map, and still the war went on as more and more men kneeled and more and more ledges came tumbling down, so maybe knowing how to read a map was the problem after all. It was hard to think, and the images of gray and red smoke became different because now she recognized the dusty streets- there was one she had visited once, and there was one just down the street from her job- and she went back to the cave again and again where the quiet gave her a little more room to breathe, a little more room to think. When they asked her opinion she shrugged her shoulders and said nothing, and it continued on, and she could not remember if they were still at war and she lost track of who all kneeled and there were no more ledges to sleep under but the sidewalks were full, all sorts of people with signs asking for help. It was all a bit much and she preferred the cave, sitting cross-legged on the floor while her eyes adjusted to the dark. There she did not have to read the signs asking for help, the noises of pain and suffering of the people who kneeled.
Once on her way home she saw someone who looked just like her, and her sign was a bit newer and cleaner than the others, and it said she hadn’t been paying attention but she was now. And the girl was not just drained but tired now, for she had been paying attention. From the moment she woke up to the moment she went to bed everything was bad, and it played on the news, and the sky was so full of the red and gray smoke she no longer needed to watch the television to see it. It hovered beside her peripherals, it crept into the smell of her clothes, and she found herself breathing deeply on her knees in her cave, hands splayed on the soft gravel floor, panting for air. And they said it was everybody’s fault, or nobody’s fault, or at least not the person they did not want you to blame, and with everyone talking at once she couldn’t hear herself think and she forgot that someone had started the war and someone else had kneeled for entirely different reasons, and she forgot all the people who had used to live in the apartments above the cracked ledges who now slept on the street, because she didn’t care at all she only wanted to not hear the noise they made. She wanted to go back to how it was before, when she did not have to see the people in the street who she did not want to know, who begged her to help them when they were not her problem, and she did not want to admit that she had voted for the bumper stickers she saw the most and she might have been wrong, and so she crawled into her cave one last time and sat in the dark and chose never to leave it again; to let them all sort it out and fight it out because she had done nothing wrong that someone else had not also done, and there was nothing she could do to fix it. And finally the great roof of the cave cracked and it came crashing down, for in the dark she could not see the ledge she was under, and life went on exactly the same anyway, as though she had never left the world for her cave at all.