It’d been quiet for several minutes when the “All Clear” siren blared. Sue crawled from under the table and scanned the bowling alley. Bob and Ellie lay under their table in lip-locked passion, arms and legs entwined. Most everyone else was emerging from under tables, faces studiously nonchalant. Down at the far end of the alley, a colonel in battle fatigues blithely bowled on, as if there weren’t a war going on outside.
Did she hear a scream?
“Sue? You okay?” John asked.
“Do you hear screaming?”
He cocked his head, concentrating. “Nope, nothing. We’re good.”
“Should we head over to the hospital and see if they need us?”
“And piss off the Captain after he ordered you to take a forty-eight hour R&R?”
“But — they may….”
John shook his head and pulled her toward the alley. “Doctor’s orders. Go on, you’re up,” he said. “I’ll get us another beer.”
She watched him make his way across the room before picking up her bowling ball. She checked her position on the boards; made sure her thumb was pointed up. She shook her head to clear it.
Her form was magical today. Nothing but strikes. Three more to finish the game.
Three more for a perfect game. Wash away the memories. Allow everything to fall into order.
The ball rumbled down the lane. The pins all fell down.
She wanted to pump her fist and scream in triumph. She couldn’t muster the enthusiasm.
“Right on, Babe,” John said, coming up behind her. He set the beers on the table and wrapped his arms around her shoulders, nibbling on her neck. “Mmmm,” he mumbled. “Whaddya say we make like Bob and Ellie and finish this game later?”
She pushed him away. “You just don’t want me to beat you. Besides, ‘later’ there’s the USO show.” She grabbed a beer and took a big chug. It was ice cold, a welcome change from the tropical heat. “Go on, you’re up,” she said. “I think Bob and Ellie are out.”
“Hey you two, get a room!” John yelled. His ball went airborne, dropping to the boards with a thud. It careened down the lane, crashing into the far left pins and sending them flying. A strike.
“Sheesh, John. You didn’t even aim, and you got a strike.” While she must worry and fret, plan and meditate, never waver a millimeter from her position or form.
“Pure power, Babe. Pure power,” he answered, curling his arm in a muscle salute.
From faraway, she heard a faint, high-pitched scream. “Shhh! Did you hear that?”
John cocked his head to listen. “Nope, nothing.”
It sounded like a child — a terror-stricken child. “No, I hear her. I hear her!”
“No one’s screaming. It’s okay,” he said, rubbing her back. “You’re okay. Come on, let’s finish the game.”
She concentrated on his eyes, steady and reassuring. “Yeah. Finish the game.” Two more frames. She focused on the lane and the ball. Perfect game — that’s what she needed.
She moved her mind to a quieter place, where there was no screaming. No distractions.
One more strike for a perfect game. Perfect. Where nothing was broken. Nothing was wrong.
Another scream, rising in pitch and volume. Then, a breath of silence, a soft hiccup of indrawn air, before the wail resumed with a harsh screech, grating, shattering the walls she had so carefully built.
She clamped her hands over her ears. She couldn’t shut it out. Her game wouldn’t be perfect at all, but wrong, wrong, wrong.
Wrong as a little girl, no more than five, carried into the ward, her body covered in burns, her pain and terror so intense even morphine couldn’t touch it. She’d screamed until her throat was as raw on the inside as the flesh covering it.
There was nothing Sue could do — couldn’t hold her, because a touch would only bring more pain to that ravaged body.
She’d honored the girl by sitting as close as she could. She listened to each cry until her soul was scored and imprinted. She’d stayed, enduring because the girl had to.
Finally, hours after it started, the scream faded with a last harsh breath.
Sue took the little hand in her own until the orderlies came to take the body away.
Empty and drained, she hadn’t been able to cry for that little girl.
With the noise of the bowling alley echoing around her, she swallowed down the lump in her throat. She would not cry.
She would not cry because once started, the tears would never stop, and others needed her attention and healing. Maybe later, much later when she returned to the States, leaving war and destruction behind, she could afford to let go.
From the corner of her eye, she saw John hiding behind a pillar, downing a straight shot. The familiar twinkle was gone from his eyes, replaced by a look that darted around the room, never settling on any one thing. Bob and Ellie snickered their way into the restroom where they’d no doubt lock the door and turn on the spigots, trying to drown the sounds of their wanton sex.
All of them had their walking nightmares, and some of their crutches were more dangerous than others. Bowling for perfection wasn’t so bad, was it?
She sighted down the lane and released the ball. It clattered into the pins with a crash.
For a second, there was blessed silence.
Pam L. Wallace lives in California. Her stories have appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, and Abyss and Apex. This is her fourth story published by Every Day Fiction.