Sunday, 8 December 2019

The Visitor
by Mariya Khan

I bite my nails as I wait for the rolls to finish in the oven. Zach and his mother are supposed to come over for dinner soon. Although it’s been four months since the war ended, I haven’t seen Zach since I healed him at the hospital. Ever since he revealed Edward was missing, I don’t know how to talk to him anymore. It’s weird to be around my brother’s best friend without him here. And Zach seemed so different at the hospital. Besides the prickly stubble, hollowed skin, and dirty fingernails, he had that exhausted look in his eyes that made him seem so broken.
How is he now? I wonder if he acts “normal” like the other men I’ve seen. Some don’t look like they fought in a war before, like they didn’t spend the past three years trudging through thick Pacific jungles. Others walk with a silent look on their faces. Perhaps Zach is applying for teaching jobs. I know he wants me to consider marrying him. He didn’t specifically say it when he left the hospital, but I knew from his goodbye kiss that he wanted to. Oh god, I hope Zach doesn’t today. I don’t know what I would say. Truthfully, if there was no war and Edward was still here, we’d probably be married by now. But right now I don’t know what I want to do with my life. I’m just working at the local hospital because I don’t know what else to do.
Take rolls out; set trays on counter. 
Oh, I hate how the sash gets caught in the oven door! I still don’t understand why Mother made me change into this dress. She thinks I look slimmer, even though I’m already slimmer from the war. It does not matter, anyway. Zach doesn’t care what I’m wearing. I don’t even care what I wear nowadays. Besides my nursing uniform, I only wear pajamas, since I never leave the house unless it’s for my shift.
Zach and his mother aren’t here yet, so I start washing the dishes in the sink. Ever since my return, Mother’s been forcing me to wash all of them before we eat. She says it’s because she’s getting old and too tired to wash anything after dinner. One more of the strange lifestyle changes she made while Edward and I were gone.
The doorbell rings, but Mother runs to answer. With their arrival, the house already feels transformed as their laughter echoes throughout. I can’t remember the last time Mother or I laughed at something. God, it must have been before the war, when Edward was still with us. Instead of going to greet them, I remain in the kitchen. 
Rinse the pot; scrape off the grease; wet and soap the sponge; scrub the pot; wash it off; place upside down on drying rack.
“Oh, hi, Kendra! What are you doing back here by yourself?”
I turn to face Zach’s mother, who is standing at the kitchen entryway. 
“Oh, just washing some pots. I’ll join in a minute.”
“You make Kendra work too hard, Denise,” Ms. Jennings laughs. “Let Zach help, Kendra!”
“N-No, I’m fine, Ms. Jennings,” I insist. “It’ll just be a minute.”
“Oh, relax! You know, ever since Zach’s return, he’s been more involved with the cleaning around the house.”
Scrub, scrub, scrub
“Wish he did when he was younger, though.” Her grin invites me to share her cheerfulness, but my fake smile grows smaller.
“God, Mother,” chuckles Zach.
Zach’s good-natured smile towers over his mother. I must admit, I miss that smile. His shirt and khakis fit him better than his uniform did in the hospital, and his tousled curls have grown so much that he has to brush them back with his fingers. He seems normal, at least.
“Leave Kendra alone, Mother. Your best friend’s over there.”
Zach’s mother howls in laughter and leaves the kitchen. Zach sheepishly smiles, his hand rubbing the back of his neck.
“Sorry about that. What do you need help with?”
“I’m fine, Zach.” The last thing I wanted was to be alone with Zach. It’s difficult to hide anything from him. And I don’t feel like trying to hide from him at the moment. “Seriously, don’t worry about me. I’m fine.”
Zach joins me anyway. He unbuttons the tiny buttons on his wrists and rolls up his sleeves. “I wash, you dry?” Before I can respond, his hands grab the scrubber I momentarily dropped when I said hello to his mother. I sigh and grab a towel to start drying.
We work in silence, even though I know that Zach is itching to speak. I notice him glancing at me while he washes. Maybe he’s trying to see if I seem okay. Maybe he’s not used to seeing me out of my nursing uniform.
“How’s your wound?” I quietly asked.
Zach smiles as he rinses soap off a spoon. “It’s just a scar now. Completely healed, thanks to you.”
I look up at his face. Now that I’m looking at it more intently, I can see wrinkles that fold into his skin and blend in with his slightly dark circles, and I see a glossiness in his hazel eyes. It seems like he’s been crying a lot. Is he still thinking about Edward and his friends from the war? Now that he’s home, does he constantly remember his memories with Edward and wish, like I do, that he can experience them again?
Zach must have noticed my investigative expression, because his eyes quickly shift back on the dishes and his smile disappears.
“I’m fine, Kendra,” he mutters, water splashing as he works. As he hands them to me, his fingers momentarily touch mine. His softened callouses tell me not to worry. They’re smoother than the ones I’d rub for hours at the hospital. They’re even different than the ones that said goodbye before the war. For some reason, I like these fingers more – I can feel that the pain has somewhat rubbed away but it still remains. I keep my fingers attached to his.
“Drop those dishes and come eat, you two!”
Our mothers both parade into the kitchen, their cheerfulness invading the quiet space. I immediately separate my fingers from Zach’s. Zach, irritated, turns around to face them. I refocus on the dishes, so no one can see my tears mixing with the soapy water.

* * * * *
Mariya Khan is a graduate of The George Washington University and Summer Institute at the University of Iowa International Writing Program. Her work has received awards from the Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition and appeared in the Summer Institute anthology Multitudes and Creative Kids. When she's not working as an Editorial Assistant at National Geographic Books, she's trying new recipes and watching crime dramas.  

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