Paris burned the day my heart stopped beating. It was the first terrorist attack on the country since the nano virus invaded, spreading its creeping horror over the cities and farmlands of France. My parents and I, like so many other casualties, found ourselves caught in the middle.
We felt immune. I felt immune. Growing up in hot zones around the world numbed and protected me from death in the way a seasoned soldier might feel exempt from bullets or bombs after a few successful tours. But death found us that day.
It started with chocolate. Or the pretense of chocolate. I used the pretense of a trip to a chocolaterie to escape the military installation we called home. The military installation was in support of the medical base, erected solely to treat those who were in the later stages of succumbing to the nano virus. Overall, a pretty miserable scene for any 15 year old. The dessert rations had been entirely depleted since we were nearing the end of our six month tour of France, so I had an opportunity to exploit my father’s fondness for chocolate. I could escape the base without my motivations being suspect.
My father, Gustavo Garza, or “G” to his small stock of friends and family, always kept a chocolate bar hidden somewhere on his person or close at hand. When he worked in the hot labs he kept a little quarantine container with a dark chocolate sea salt caramel bar wrapped in fancy packaging on the counter in eye-sight from where he worked. I suppose it served the function of a good luck charm. He wouldn’t take that particular bar with him when he left, instead it remained behind in the hot labs, wherever on the globe the medical base was erected - a symbol of beauty and defiance, nested amongst the deadliest mortal enemies on the planet. A virus truly is the perfect enemy. It doesn’t choose sides. A virus, like a machine, does only as instructed. It writes out the history of its genetic code and only wants one thing, to live. To fulfill its purpose. To kill as efficiently and effectively as possible.
He picked the chocolate up during our many travels and decided it was too beautiful and rare and charming to eat. It became a symbol for him. That is how the Garza family operated. Chocolate and symbols and courting danger every step of the way. So there was a vial of nanovirus tucked up next to a decadent chocolate bar and I can’t really think of any better way to describe my father. He was a man of good taste and bad choices.
Both of those things got him killed.
I finished up my school lessons for the day, and headed back to our shared single room. I was relieved to be done with the daily french lessons from an indignant teacher who berated me for not trying hard enough to learn the local language. The rest of my education consisted of online courses I could work at my own pace that I’m fairly certain were taught by proxy robots, not actual humans.
The door to our room was ajar and my mother was perched on the chair at our anemic folding table. Perched because she was always sitting on the very edge of things, as if afraid to commit her entire body to one thing. This left her agile and able to immediately pivot from one task to the next. She was like a small, dark hummingbird. Studying, observing, manipulating, consuming, creating, and then flitting off to the next thing, her wings beating at a pace too fast for the human eye to discern.
She watched me enter the room out of the corner of her eye, where she always held me lately. Too distrusted and disgraced to keep me fully in her view. She set down the tablet she was tapping on and rose quickly out of the chair. It barely moved and barely made a noise, the legs scraping softly across the hard concrete floor.
“Finished already?” She asked, acknowledging me with a head tilt and then turning her body away, still keeping me in the corner of her vision. “We set up those French lessons for an hour.”
“What can I say, the French do not like me,” I shrug. “Actually - how do I say that in French? Les Français ne me plaisent pas?”
My mother, Julia Garza, let out a troubled sigh and ran a hand through her hair, brushing long, grown-out bangs from her face. Her eyes nervously flicked over to me and then back to the tablet. She reached down and clicked it off with an air of distracted finality.
“I think that’s close. But it’s not really the point. You’re not trying here, Elle. After what happened in Mexico City, I thought, we thought- you need to try harder,” She still avoided direct eye contact and instead moved to perch ever-so-lightly on the lower section of our bunk bed, facing towards the blank wall above the single cabinet shelf that contained all our meager belongings, head down.
“It’s just a French lesson, Mom,” I replied, plopping down heavily in the chair in front of me. I surveyed the table’s contents with a scowl. A bowl of fruit about to spoil. My mother’s tablet and an empty coffee mug. A few chip crumbs dotting the table next to the mug.
“No, it’s not just anything. It’s everything. Every single thing we do now, Elle. They are watching and scrutinizing. It’s-” She crossed her arms and sighed heavily.
“I’m never going to learn the language,” I told her, setting my hands up on the table, letting the sleeve of my sweatshirt roll up and reveal the mark of my transgression - the band looped around my wrist. “It’s not my thing. Languages are not my thing.”
“You did OK in Mexico,” She said, turning her head slightly towards me.
“I had an incentive,” I said, swallowing around the lump in throat. “What’s the point of learning French? How much longer are we going to be here, anyway?”
She shook her head and threw her hands up in the air, a gesture of futility.
“A few weeks, a month at the latest,” She said.
“So, again. What’s the point?” I shrugged. “Where are we going next? Do you even know? Is French going to help me there? Or ever?” I could feel my voice raising.
“What’s with all the shouting?” My father’s voice sounded from behind my back. I turned my head and saw his poking in through the door. Scruffy cheeks unshaven, pepper gray hair a little wild, glasses dangling almost off his nose.
“I suck at French,” I responded, turning back to eye my mother. She was looking up at my father, past me. Through me. I was just a ghost, haunting them with my poor French skills.
“Que mal, mija,” He walked past and ruffled my hair, plopping himself on the bed next to my mother and putting an arm around her shoulders.
“I suck at Spanish too,” I retorted.
He chuckled and squeezed my mother’s arm gently. She leaned into him a bit.
“It’s never too late to learn,” He smiled over at me, but there was a guarded look in his eyes. “You could get better. You’re not half bad, really. When you apply yourself to something. You could do anything you want, Elle. Be anything you want.”
“I know. I’m not a bad kid,” I whispered to them across the expanse. Me, slouched at the flimsy table. Them, huddled together, bodies turned away from me. Turned in towards each other.
In the space of less than a year I had become an interloper, a third wheel crammed into a small space with two people who treated me most days, like a stranger. Not their daughter.
It was exhausting and rapidly heading to a boiling point.
My father’s eyebrows shot up and my mother’s head fell just a fraction lower towards her chest. They thought I was a bad kid.
“Elle, no one thinks that,” My father responded quickly. Too quickly. A rehearsed line we’d practiced over and over again the last few months. “No one thinks you’re a bad kid.”
“Everyone thinks it. No one says it. That’s the difference,” I said, pushing away from the table. “I’m going out.”
“Where are you going?” My mother asked. I could feel her eyes hovering on me, but this time I was the one who avoided eye contact. “It’s not safe out there.”
“It’s not safe anywhere. I’m going to get some… chocolate,” I scowled down at the bowl of fruit on the table.
“Chocolate?” My father asked, sliding off the bed and walking towards me. “Come on Julia, we can’t say no to chocolate.”
He turned back towards her and she offered him a wavering thin smile in return. All that wordless communication that cut me off from them. It happened all the time. I hated it. I hated them for it. Back when I could, back when I had a choice to hate or not.
“You need some money, Ellie?” He asked, patting his pockets and continuing to bridge the gap between us. His impending proximity made me feel simultaneously panicked and elated.
I felt the sharp sting of tears in my eyes. He stopped right next to me, close enough to brush against my arm. So close I could feel the heat radiating through his hospital scrubs and lab coat. So close I could smell his cologne and deodorant and the very faint odor of the peppermints he sucked on instead of smoking cigarettes. It was hard for him here in Paris, there was temptation on every street corner. Everyone smoked.
“My little Ellie,” He reached out towards me, a crumpled twenty dollar bill clutched in his hand. I bit my lip, bit the tears back, and took the money.
“Who cares about the French lessons,” He said.
I looked up at him, eyes wet and shining. “You and mom.”
“Nah. French is for suckers. Spanish is the real language of love. Don’t worry so much. That’s our job. Your job is doing your homework and being a kid. Now, go out there and get me something good. Maybe some of those chocolate croissants from the bakery? I mean, no pressure. Either way, whatever you decide, it’ll be OK,” He squeezed my hand extra hard and turned back towards my mother, shoulders sagging.
My mother’s eyes flickered over to mine and met briefly. She flashed a fleeting, tight-lipped smile. There was no real warmth in it.
“I’ll be back soon,” I promised, turning my back to them and jamming my hands in my pockets.
“Don’t talk to any strange boys,” My father said, as I closed the door softly behind me. “Or any strange girls. Just, don’t talk to anyone. Especially in French.”
“I can’t speak French,” I shouted through the door, a small smile lighting up my face.
“I don’t really see the problem,” My father said with a laugh. I could hear my mother chuckle in response.
It was easier to talk when we didn’t have to look at one another, I suppose. It was easier to talk through closed doors.
I sent my parents a wave with the GPS coordinates of the chocolaterie, and scurried off base, scanning out with the armed guards at the front gates. They exchanged a look as I walked past them. “Careful out there,” The younger guard admonished.
I shrugged him off and stepped through the barrier into the Paris streets, wincing at the clang of the metal door behind me.
I never did get the chocolate. I got close. It was the last item on my itinerary. The chocolaterie was only four blocks from the base, so I planned to pick up the chocolate on the way back from running my other errands. Unfortunately, my quick trip had lapsed into two hours. I hadn’t communicated such a long stretch of time to my parents, so it wasn’t unreasonable that they were worried. They just wanted to know where I was and if I was safe.
The problem is that I swapped the band tracking my whereabouts with someone else, missing their frantic texts.
I should have known something terrible was brewing. This wasn’t my first time in a warzone. There are certain signs you become wary of… that seem harmless individually but become ominous when looked at as a whole. The restless natives. The overcrowding of the medical camps around the temporary military installation. The shuttered windows and hastily boarded doors. The huddled locals who turn suspiciously quiet when you enter a shop.
I could have been reading the warning signs but instead I was reading a handwritten letter, the main purpose for my charade that day.
The band I wore after sneaking off base, was not my own. I traded tracking bands with the chocolaterie owners son. His name was Anselme. He was attractive enough, slim with dark features and just a smattering of acne. A little mustache on his upper lip that tickled my cheek when he whispered in my ear. He spoke limited English and I spoke limited French, but we were fluent in the international language of love. We swapped bands sometimes and then we swapped spit. I liked how both his hands cupped my cheeks when we kissed, as if he were holding something precious. He always smelled like chocolate, but tasted like cigarettes. It was not an unpleasant combination.
I would come around to the back of the shop and knock on the delivery doors. His father opened the doors the first couple times, so I would smile benignly and ask after his progeny. He would waggle his brows and shout back into the shop, “the young lady is here to corrupt you.” Anselme would slink into view, an embarrassed, pleased smirk on his face.
Anselme asked where I’d go after I passed off the band to him. I never gave him a straight answer. After a few months of trying, he just gave up.
There were plenty of other ways to occupy our time. We kissed behind the shop, in the narrow cobblestone alleyway, pressed up against the brick wall. We kissed in the kitchen next to hot pans of cooling chocolate. It smelled like heaven. We kissed on top of his scooter, so passionately we both lost our balance and toppled over, the scooter muting our fall. His side mirror broke. I tried to give him money to replace it but he wouldn’t accept it. He shrugged and said something like, “it’s a small price to pay for love.”
I wish he would have taken the money. I didn’t love him. It doesn’t matter… he died that day, too.
The chocolaterie is where my parents finally caught up with me. In front of the shop with the faded gold letters on the window and the giant chocolate frog on a rotating display, next to truffles and butterscotch cakes. Paris during the initial onset of the nano virus was best summarized by a giant chocolate frog rotating in a window display. Opulent and decadent and completely ridiculously tantalizing. The sun glinted off the glass, and I shielded my eyes to look across the street at my parents, confused by their sudden appearance. They waved frantically, shouting across the street at me. My father was dressed in his lab coat, and my mother was wearing her ratty pink slippers. Their clothes, their obvious distress, further added to my confusion.
“Eleni!” I think they shouted my name.
The chocolaterie windows blew out from the force of a bomb exploding a block away. Glass splintered and rained down on me. I raised an arm to shield my face, feeling the sting of the glass slivers entering my skin. I staggered away from the building, my center of gravity falling and my legs going wobbly. Inside the chocolaterie, Anselme and his father stared out at me in shock. We made eye contact - Anselme’s eyes wide and terrified. His father grabbed the collar of his shirt and drug him to the back of the shop, towards the kitchen. That’s the last time I saw him. His hand briefly reached out towards me and I thought he said my name, but it was impossible to tell. The deafening silence sucked up all the air and oxygen, leaving only a sharp ringing in my ears.
I glanced back across the street. My parents had paused in horror. But another explosion, closer than the last, sent a shower of concrete and dust barreling towards us. A flight response roared up through my body and I took off from the sidewalk with all the force I could muster.
I sprinted towards my parents. They grabbed me up greedily, wrapping themselves around my cowed, shaking body and shoving me forward. Buildings exploded around us as we raced back towards the base. I felt the concussive forces in my chest and in the soles of my feet. My ears no longer registered sounds properly - there was a vague, muted wash of sirens wailing and possibly anguished screams. All I could really hear was the ragged pant of my breath. All I could see was my mother’s impossible pink slippers slapping against the pavement as she ran ahead of me. All I could feel was the strong grip of my father’s hands against my lower back and upper arm - shoving hard, urging us forward.
The base was in sight. At least, what we could see through the thick, billowing clouds of concrete dust and debris raining down on our heads. We ran through a fog of smoke, across narrow, cobbled streets. Sound came back in a scattered wave. I heard the screams of strangers in the buildings above us, shouting curses in garbled French as we passed, their cries lost in the ringing chambers of my ears.
We’d just turned down the last side street. The front gates were a thousand feet away, when the reverberation from an exploding artillery shell tripped me, catching my foot on an ancient sidewalk crack. I fell forward with no time to splay out my arms, hitting the ground hard and fracturing my skull. I lay stunned on the pavement. My parents dove on top of me, shouting my name. They formed a protective shield around my inert body, hiding me from the gravelly sprays of former Parisian buildings. Blood spilled from my head, pooling on the ground, seeping into my left eye and blurring my vision.
A bomb went off next to us. The impact shook us like ragdolls. The concussion thudded through our chests, hurtling us in the air. My eyes squeezed shut and I lost track of my parents, their arms ripped from me by the force of the blast. The left side of my body convulsed, rippling with a white hot pain that plunged me into darkness.
My heart stopped beating.