***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Jonathan Miles
On the afternoon of August 23, 2014, Tanya Harris wheeled her younger brother, Cameron, to the Biz-E-Bee store on the corner of Reconfort Avenue and Division Street in Biloxi, Mississippi. Nothing about the afternoon or about Cameron or about Tanya herself suggested this would be her final time doing so; she was merely out of cigarettes, and her brother, slack-faced and sulky on a day that felt lethally humid, short on beer.
Tanya Harris is a squat, wide-hipped woman of twenty-nine whose gently popped eyes lend her face an expression of perpetual surprise or amazement, and whose flat-footed manner of walking appears consciously orchestrated, as though she’s never outgrown the fear of stepping on a crack thereby breaking her mother’s back. She’d recently dip-dyed one side of her hair, which is naturally a dingy shade of blond faintly slashed with premature gray, and on this afternoon streaks of a vividly chemical pink spilled down one side of a white T-shirt on which was printed hap-pay hap-pay hap-pay. Pushing her brother’s wheelchair down the center of Reconfort Avenue, to avoid the uneven jags of the sidewalk and the mini-dunes of sand swept there, she maintained the freewheeling stream of humming, commentary, rhetorical questioning, and singing that is her hallmark to family and friends. (“She does not shut up,” grumbles her brother, with acerbic affection. “Not ever.”) The chorus to Jay Z’s song “99 Problems” came flitting between observations about the “swampy-ass” August heat and her sharp denunciation of a neighbor whose neglected laundry, drooping on a mildewed clothesline, had already weathered, by Tanya’s reckoning, its third rainstorm. “Gonna need to re-wash every one of those shirts,” she muttered, over the fwap fwap fwap of her flip-flops spanking the asphalt. The sight of a chow mix, chained to a ginkgo tree in another neighbor’s front yard, elicited the same cluck of pity it had been eliciting from her for almost a decade.
Her brother Cameron wasn’t listening; or, if he was, he doesn’t remember it. As he explains: “She repeats things two or three times if you’re supposed to answer.” But Cameron was also, by his own admission, “a little out of it.” He’d popped his first can of Bud Light at noon, to wash down the Klonopin and Concerta he was taking for anxiety and memory loss, and he’d followed that beer with three, maybe five more. “Thermal angel blood,” he calls it, a reference to a blood and intravenous fluid warmer he’d seen medics use during his combat tour in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan was the last place Cameron ever walked—more precisely, on a ridge outside the mountain village of Sar-Dasair, in the Darah Khujz District of Zabul Province, where, in the early hours of March 22, 2010, Private First Class Harris and a fellow soldier wandered off-course during a foot patrol. Cameron was roughly twelve yards away when the soldier, a staff sergeant, stepped onto a PMN-2 land mine—a buried remnant from the former Soviet occupation. The explosion sheared off the staff sergeant’s legs, genitals, and right forearm and blasted seventy-nine pieces of shrapnel, along with bone shards from the sergeant’s legs, into Cameron’s body. One or more of those fragments severed the nerves of his lower vertebrae, instantly paralyzing him below the waist. Two doctors at the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany divulged the permanence of his condition to him on the evening of his twenty-second birthday, bookending the news with brief and awkward apologies for the poor timing.
Cameron’s most prominent physical feature, paralysis aside, might be the long alabaster scar that runs down the side of his face, from just below his left temple almost to his jawline. It’s a squiggly, sinuous scar, evoking a river’s course on a map, but it’s not, as one might reasonably presume, collateral residuum from Afghanistan. The scar dates to his early childhood, when he slipped while running on a slick fishing pier and snagged his face on a nail. The scar only adds to the rugged, almost harsh cast of his face, which is further amplified by his high Cliffside cheekbones, sharp-cornered jaw, the military-specs trim of his blond hair, and an angry vein in his neck that pulses and squirms from even the mildest aggravation. His eyes, however, cast a different spell: They’re wide and large like his sister’s, with a peculiar boyishness to them, as though his eyes retired their development at puberty while the rest of his features forged ahead. They impart a dissonance to his expressions that can sometimes be jarring; his temper, when it flares, can seem both fearsome and puerile. Most of all, however, those eyes highlight the gross tragedy of what happened to him in Afghanistan—that he had yet to fully graduate from boyhood when he was struck down in the Darah Khujz.
On this particular August afternoon, Cameron was dressed in his usual way: a T-shirt, this one advertising the Mississippi Deep Sea Fishing Rodeo, atop a pair of baggy black knee-length nylon shorts, and on his sockless feet a pair of red Nike tennis shoes that he sometimes called his “front bumpers.” The home that he and Tanya share is a narrow, half-century-old shotgun-style house that wasn’t designed with a wheelchair in mind, and, without shoes, his insensate feet often bore bruises from colliding with sheetrock and door frames.
Their hometown of Biloxi occupies a skinny, six-mile-long peninsula that juts eastward into the Gulf. For most of its history Biloxi was a fishing village, with canneries lining the water and shrimp boats and oyster luggers docked in its harbor. Immigrants drawn by jobs in this seafood industry—Slavs and Italians especially—lent the city an idiosyncratic seasoning, tilting its spirit more toward south Louisiana than to the rest of Mississippi lying north of the salt line. “Most were Catholic,” as the former Biloxian Jack Nelson explained in Scoop: The Evolution of a Southern Reporter, “and they brought with them a more relaxed attitude toward drinking, sex, gambling, and other human frailties.” In the 1950s, when the state dumped leftover dredging sand on the coastline to create an artificial beach, Biloxi began advertising itself as “the Poor Man’s Riviera,” a Deep South analog to Coney Island. Elvis Presley vacationed here. Jayne Mansfield had just left a Biloxi supper club, in 1967, when she died in a car wreck on U.S. 90. Casinos arrived in the 1990s, adding another layer of sheen, and yet, for all its synthetic, tropical-print ease and its tolerance for frailties, Biloxi has never comported itself like a resort town. It bears no illusions of itself as a paradise. It doesn’t mind the smell of fish guts. Its hands are cracked and calloused and it sweats a lot.
The Harris house, near the end of Reconfort Avenue, where the street dead-ends at the CSX railroad tracks, is the only house Cameron and his sister have ever known. Their parents bought it in 1985, just after Tanya was born. After their father left for an oilfield job in Texas when Cameron was three, and failed to return, the children remained in the house with their mother. They remained in it, too, after their mother was killed in a car accident on I-10 when Cameron was sixteen. And they remained in it as well—if more accurately beside it for a time, during the year they spent living in a FEMA trailer—after the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina devastated their East Biloxi neighborhood, their house included, just fourteen months after their mother’s death. “The back bay kinda swallowed up the whole street, and flooded us up to the ceiling pretty much,” Tanya explains, with a detachment that seems oddly clinical until you consider that Katrina, following so closely their mother’s death, was, for them, less disaster than aftershock, loss tailing loss.
The hurricane also explains why the house—which a group of volunteers from an Indiana church, with Cameron’s help, put back together—is so starkly devoid of family history. The living room, once a shrine to their mother’s porcelain collectibles, contained on this day a black vinyl couch, purchased at a Rent-A-Center closeout; a television propped on cinder blocks; a blue plastic coffee table upon which an Xbox video game console sat nestled amid its black burrow of cords; and nothing else. The walls, like those of every other room in the house, were unadorned, and painted the blunt white shade of mold-resistant primer. The only photographs of
Cameron and Tanya on display were the sole images, predating Katrina, that they know to exist: a half-dozen snapshots, taped to the refrigerator door, that came in the mail from an aunt in Alabama whom the Harrises visited twice as children. Every one of them is a group shot, with Cameron and Tanya posed beside cousins whose names they don’t remember. “That’s all we got,” Tanya says, pressing a fingertip to one of the photos—the only image of their mother they possess—as if to sponge a nano-droplet more memory from it. She hums, grunts, smiles. “Poor Cameron’s gotta take my word for it that he was such an ugly little kid.”
The outside shows minor neglect—curls of peeling paint, a cracked windowpane, knee-high weeds poking through the concrete—but no more than some of the other surviving houses on the street. At least half didn’t survive the storm surge: Nine years later, Reconfort Avenue remains pocked with empty lots. Forgotten-looking for sale signs stand wiltingly in a few of these sand and-scrub parcels, occasionally joined by newer-looking signs advertising, in English and Vietnamese, legal counsel for oil spill claims resulting from the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the spring of 2010. The effects of that spill greeted Cameron’s return home from Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas, adding insult to very literal injury—or loss tailing loss tailing loss tailing loss, an interminable freight train of misfortune. “I remember Tanya bringing home a sack of oysters, for this ‘Welcome Home’ deal she did for me, and saying, ‘Well, Tippo says these might be the last Gulf oysters we eat in our lifetimes,’ ” Cameron recalls. “And I’m thinking, well, shit. A lotta fucked-up shit’s happened to me, right? I mean, I could go down the list, you know. But no more oysters? Goddamn, man. I was just like: Maybe life’s really over now.” It’s unclear how earnest he is when he credits the oysters’ comeback for his endurance of a six-month murk of depression, though oysters—invariably cornmealed, fried, and slathered with ketchup—do comprise a notable share of his diet.
Of the street’s pre-Katrina residents, only two other households remain. One is a large Vietnamese fishing family known to Cameron and Tanya as “the Ducks” (a mangling of their surname), who keep sharply to themselves. The other is Mrs. Dooley.
Eulalie Dooley is a ninety-one-year-old African-American woman who’s lived on the corner of Reconfort and Division, directly across from the Biz-E-Bee, since 1965, when her late husband, Bobby, took a job with a local seafood processor. While working as a housekeeper and later as a home-health aide, she raised four children in that house, and later three grandchildren as well. She was the only resident of Reconfort Avenue who refused to evacuate for Katrina, which she survived—just barely, and, when one considers her age and frailty, rather magnificently—by climbing into her floating refrigerator. As the water rose, she punched out ceiling tiles using the sponge mop with which she’d armed herself for the storm. (The only chore Hurricane Camille had required of her, in 1969, was swabbing the floors; she’d expected similarly light duty for Katrina.) That feat of survival, reported on CNN, drew the Indiana church group to her home. A surplus of its volunteers moved down the block until they found the Harris house, teeter-tottering amid a sunbaked slosh of debris and yellowy mud, which they set upon with reciprocating saws and hammers and Midwestern Methodist cheer.
To longtime residents of Reconfort Avenue, Mrs. Dooley has always been known, fondly, as “Neighborhood Watch.” This is owing to her omnipresent vigils on her compact front porch, which, by her request, was the first thing the church volunteers rebuilt on her house. It’s not uncommon to see Mrs. Dooley on her porch at sunrise, quilting or crocheting while rocking in a chair that a charitable CNN viewer shipped to her “all the way from Florida,” nor is it unusual to see her there after dark, beneath the bluesy glow of a bug zapper, needles still flashing in her ever-kinetic hands. Despite the intricate demands of her stitch work, every passing car, whether familiar or not, is accorded a generous salute, her left arm fully raised, her arthritic wrist avidly swishing. As Cameron says: “It’s like our street’s got its own Walmart greeter.”
To him and Tanya, making their daily and sometimes twice-or thrice-daily walks to the Biz-E-Bee, Mrs. Dooley tended to offer more than a wave. “How y’all babies doing?” she’d call out, leaning forward in her chair, or, “What you babies out shopping for today?” From Cameron in his wheelchair she’d usually get a wan thumbs-up, or a meek and uncomfortable-looking shrug. He’s never quite outgrown his fear of Mrs. Dooley, dating back to when she caught him, at the age of ten, setting off fireworks beneath cars, after which she ordered him onto her porch and slapped him three times hard on his backside then told him to head straight home and have his mama to slap him there another three times. For years thereafter, up until Cameron’s mother died, instead of waving Mrs. Dooley would point a stern and crooked finger at Cameron as he’d pass by on foot or on his bicycle, denoting her surveillance. “That boy was never really trouble,” she says of the young Cameron. “More like he was always almost trouble.”
From Tanya, on the other hand, Mrs. Dooley’s greetings yielded reams of small talk, the kind of blithe sentiments you holler across a front yard, and oftentimes requests for Mrs. Dooley to hold up her latest stitching project for Tanya to see. On the afternoon of August 23, Mrs. Dooley was halfway through a lighthouse-themed quilt, which she was proud to exhibit. Tanya, whose mother collected porcelain lighthouses (“pretty much porcelain everythings”), told her it was looking beautiful. As artists are prone to do, Mrs. Dooley challenged the compliment by inventorying all the mistakes she’d made, forcing Tanya to pause the wheelchair in the street in order to acknowledge them all and politely object to some.
Cameron, Mrs. Dooley recalls, never glanced up. His expression looked dazed and bleary to her, but she didn’t think much of it; she knew he took painkillers, and chalked his torpor up to their effects. She didn’t know, or didn’t remember knowing, exactly what’d happened to Cameron or where it’d happened—just that he’d walked off to war, the same way her husband had back in 1942, but, unlike Bobby, Cameron hadn’t come walking back, he’d come rolling. Roughly twenty years before that she’d watched Cameron totter around the Harrises’ front yard in his diapers, his little pale legs fat like stacks of donuts, Tanya always shuffling alongside him with her arms splayed wide like a basketballer guarding against the fast break, Cameron’s high-pitched giggles audible even from the corner. Mrs. Dooley preferred, however, not to think about that hard trajectory, the jinxed there-to-here. The world, like her quilts, was riddled with imperfections, but the reasons for these were known only to its creator. You just had to trust that the intentions were good. She sank back into her rocker and watched Tanya push Cameron’s wheelchair into the parking lot of the Biz-E-Bee. His elbows darted out, momentarily, as Tanya jostled the chair over a crumbled curb, reminding Mrs. Dooley of someone startled from a particularly vivid dream.
Smokes, beer, Cap’n Crunch, a half-gallon jug of milk: This was Tanya’s shopping list that afternoon. For other staples, she sometimes drove her red Kia to the Winn-Dixie on Pass Road or to the Walmart Supercenter down by the beach, but because she was ten months into a one-year driver’s license suspension, owing to a DUI conviction, driving anywhere was a sizable risk. She tried to limit herself to shuttling Cameron back and forth to the VA medical center in Biloxi, which was not only necessary but seemed less likely to result in her arrest or at least in her conviction. For day-to-day shopping, however, it was safer to load up at the Biz-E-Bee, which stocks most of what you want if you don’t want much. Moreover, she figured the sunlight and salt air was good for her brother, whose moods tended to blacken in the late afternoon before the beer and the pills got to fermenting in his bloodstream. Sometimes during those hours, when he’d be playing the video game “Halo,” she’d notice that neck-vein of his seething, and a violent froth of drool bubbling at the corner of his mouth, and think: Time to make some groceries.
Today, however, wasn’t one of those days. Today wasn’t about “distraction therapy,” the clinical term that she’d later hear applied to her Biz-E-Bee excursions. Today was listless, hot, unremarkable. And, at around three thirty p.m., with none of the guests on that day’s episode of Dr. Phil tugging a single one of her heartstrings, Tanya Harris had stubbed out the last of her cigarettes. Her brother, down to a single beer in the fridge, shrugged his lukewarm consent.
Like the afternoon in question, the Biz-E-Bee store can seem, at a passing glance, unremarkable. It sits low-slung and slabbish on the corner, with steel bars shielding a random few front windows and neon beer signs and cigarette posters and local flyers crowding the remaining windows with a look of equal impenetrability. On some afternoons, this one included, shrink-wrapped pallets of soft drinks and cases of beer are parked out front. Most often it falls to a fifty four-year-old semi-employee named Ollie Morgan to unpack the pallets and haul their contents into the store. Ollie is more or less homeless—if you ask him where he lives, he’ll point west; ask him again, the next day, and that same finger points east—and the Biz-E-Bee’s owners, a Vietnamese immigrant couple named Lê Nhu Quỳnh and Lê Thị Hat, pay him in cash or merchandise, depending on his wants. Sometimes it’s a twenty-or fifty-dollar bill; other times, a pickled egg and a Yoo-hoo. In exchange for this fluctuant compensation Ollie also scoops up parking-lot litter and hauls the trash out to the dumpster, and occasionally babysits the Lês’ three-year- old daughter, Kim, who spent much of the first two years of her life confined to a playpen in a back corner of the store, by the mop closet, where her favorite activity was rolling a cold unopened can of Red Bull around the playpen. (Once the can warmed she’d lose interest, at which point her parents or Ollie would replace it in the cooler and fetch her a fresh one, cycling through a dozen or more cans a day.) More than anything else, however, Ollie appears to merely hang out, smoking cigarettes or chewing toothpicks outside by the front door, looking half security guard and half loiterer, his gaze sweeping the parking lot like that of a convenience-store store sometimes mistake his silence for surliness, but Ollie is mute. When he tries to speak, a bass monotone bleat emerges, like a foghorn. Little Kim sometimes imitates him, though the effect is more goatish—to her parents’ delight, and, to judge by his exuberant clapping, to Ollie’s delight as well.
Ollie was inside the store when Tanya entered that afternoon. The broil of the slanted sunlight looked to be defeating him; he was clinging to the front counter with a Yoo-hoo in one hand, his complexion liquid with sweat. She’d parked Cameron outside by the newspaper machine, beneath a window on which was hand-painted— not quite legibly, owing to the bars striating the words—we accept ebt. The brightness level of Cameron’s mood tended to dictate whether Tanya wheeled him in or left him outside, and today’s mood, while not overly dark, was lethargic enough to dissuade her from bringing him in. It didn’t seem worth the trouble. She asked if he’d be okay out there, to which he nodded vacantly—a groggy and almost pained-looking single nod. This brought a frown to her face, because while Cameron often seemed to “hole up inside of himself” in this way, as Tanya describes it, he usually did so in private—in their living room, or in the backyard by the grill where on breezier days he often retreated with a six-pack and some cigs with his ears plugged with Patsy Cline songs. That she was over-vigilant with his moods was established fact, but the six months that followed Cameron’s release from Brooke Army Medical Center—when the phrase “suicidal ideation” entered her life, hanging there like a spiral of storm clouds banked out in the Gulf—had left her with an acute fearfulness that felt as permanent as her tattoos. Even four years later, she couldn’t help but interpret sustained moping as the potential prelude to self-annihilation. A case of indigestion had once been enough to spark panic in her; it had taken Cameron half an hour to convince the VA social worker Tanya’d called that it was diarrhea, not suicide, currently threatening his existence.
She asked him again, with her hands on his forearms: “Cam, you sure you okay? You want something besides beer?”
“Naw,” he said, and without looking up flicked his left hand to dismiss her. “I’m all good.” All good: To her that’s what he’d always been, her all-good little brother. People hadn’t always gotten Cameron, who’d been a little too “sensitive”—her word—to fully connect with his high-school football teammates but not quite sensitive enough to click with softer-minded guys, the guitar players and tattooists Tanya favored. She’d never seen anyone fight harder than she’d seen Cameron fight one awful night after their mother died when he put Tommy Landry into the emergency room with what even the doctors called a “broken face,” but she’d never seen anyone cry harder than him, either: When their mother died he wept for twenty-four hours straight, came out of his room to smoke half a cigarette, then went back in and cried for twelve hours more. At the age of eight, he spent three days and nights camped beside the backyard grave of his run-over dog, to assist in case of the dog’s resurrection; for the entirety of that time his cheeks remained so wet and streaky that their mother fretted about mold developing. Their mother always said Cameron had a “low boiling point,” as well as “skin thinner than an onion’s,” and, as opposed to the Grinch on that Christmas show, a “heart one size too big.” People didn’t tend to see the bulge of that XXL heart much anymore, Tanya thought, probably because Cameron was so quiet—and he’d only grown more taciturn since coming back from Afghanistan, his quietude sometimes competing with Ollie’s. And those who did see it, like some of his nurses and therapists, seemed to ascribe it to his injury, because every veteran confined to a wheelchair gets awarded a heart one size too big. Tanya figured that was why the Purple Heart was a heart.
She turned to soak up one more look at him before entering the store. In retrospect, she says, he looked so bleak out there, slumped in his wheelchair, his T-shirt already splotched with sweat stains, his chin drooping toward his chest, his shoulders slumped inward, his expression betraying not a single forward thought—just the same backward thoughts he constantly recycled through his head, the what-if-I’d . . . questions with which he quizzed himself daily. But she doesn’t believe she considered all that then, in those few seconds before she slipped into the air-conditioning. Maybe some of it; Tanya’s mind tends to dart, like a bullfrog navigating lily pads. If anything, she was double-checking to make sure she’d parked him in the shade.
She was inside the store, by her own estimate, for five, maybe six minutes. A more precise measurement of the time, however, comes from the Biz-E-Bee’s co-owner Lê Thị Hat, known as Hat, who received a call from the store’s tobacco distributor at nearabout the same moment Tanya entered. A billing dispute kept her on the phone, according to her call history, for seven minutes and forty-seven seconds. She ended the call almost immediately after Tanya’s first scream.
During those seven minutes and forty-seven seconds, Tanya gathered up the milk and beer and Cap’n Crunch. Another customer was in the store at the time, a middle-aged man unfamiliar to Tanya and the owners. He purchased a pack of cigarettes and a Slim Jim and was out of the store by the time Tanya arrived with her arms full at the register. Ollie, she recalls, was standing a little too close to the register, appearing to be analyzing the nutrition label of his drained bottle of Yoo-hoo. If she hadn’t known Ollie was Ollie, she might’ve lined up behind him, but instead she squeezed herself into the aromatic space beside him and dumped her groceries onto the counter. Behind the counter, back toward the office door, Hat was scowling hard at whatever she was hearing over the phone or possibly from the way Little Kim was yanking her leg and pleading for something in Vietnamese, possibly both. After waving to Tanya, Hat’s descending hand morphed into a single-fingered wait gesture that she aimed at her daughter, who ignored it. Quỳnh, hunching on a swivel stool behind the counter, tallied Tanya’s purchase while half-listening to his wife’s conversation, at one point snapping, “Tell him I say bullshit,” which Hat ignored just as thoroughly as Kim had ignored her. Then, with a sudden whipcrack of a smile, Quỳnh focused on Tanya and her request for two packs of Bonus Value Lights, which he had to stand up to fetch from the overheard cigarette bays, emitting a wheezy but accommodating groan as he did so.
For the remaining four minutes, they talked. Neither Tanya nor Quỳnh can recall precisely what they talked about, which isn’t unusual when Tanya is involved: almost certainly the heat, they say; probably the amount of that week’s Powerball lottery, for which Quỳnh planned to drive to Louisiana the next day, as lottery tickets are illegal to purchase in Mississippi; and perhaps Little Kim, whom Quỳnh, by his own admission, relentlessly brags about. Kim’s had been a perilous birth, owing to underdeveloped lungs that landed her in a neonatal intensive care unit for her
first three weeks, so for Quỳnh every benchmark of growth—first steps, first words, first Coca-Cola—feels doubly momentous, a strike against fate that he savors trumpeting. At some point, they agree, Quỳnh must surely have asked about Tanya’s brother; whatever answer she gave, however, is lost to their memories. The unpaid total—$31.94, in blocky red numerals—shone on the register display as they kept talking, and as Ollie, beside her, gave up assessing his Yoo-hoo and turned his attention out the window.
Outside in his wheelchair, Cameron’s head lolled from a sudden burst of nausea—or rather, from some unfamiliar subspecies of nausea-like feeling—that rolled through him from the bottom up, from his gut northward to his head. But then, just as quickly and mysteriously as it struck him, the sensation disappeared. Maybe a weird spurt of heatstroke, he thought, or a late-blooming pharmaceutical side effect; or more likely some kind of gas bubble, a common hazard with Tanya’s cooking; or maybe it wasn’t anything worth diagnosing at all, because he seemed fine again. He fished out a cigarette and lit it. The parking lot was empty now, the dude who’d been in the store having left in a Ford F150 bearing Hancock County plates. From the truck window dude had chucked an empty sixteen-ounce Coke bottle on his way out. Below a vibrant yellow billboard for Taaka vodka across Division Street, traffic coursed east and west, all those cars and pickups glinting drearily in the shimmy-shimmy heat. Someone pulled into the sno-ball stand across Division and hopped out of the car fast, as though to remedy a bona fide case of heatstroke.
With the second or third drag Cameron sucked from the cigarette, the nausea returned, striking so hard and so fast that as if with singed fingers he tossed away the cigarette. He heard himself groan, and, as he’d taught himself to do with pain during his long convalescence, he clamped shut his eyelids to shove blackness into his mind. This blackness had always helped, for reasons he suspected were uniquely personal and maybe a little weird: Without it, the juxtaposition of the pain and the visible world compounded everything, because that visible world as he’d always known it had never included the varieties of pain he’d experienced. Plus the world, peopled or unpeopled, staring back at him in those moments added a layer of anxiety, left him feeling vulnerable, intruded upon, and in some peculiar way ashamed. Closing his eyes, he’d found, allowed him to meet the pain on a more neutral field—by taking the fight inside, rather than out, and away from prying eyes.
Except that it wasn’t pain, or really even related to nausea—not exactly, anyway. The sensation was more like an interior lightness or ethereality, as though helium were being slowly released inside him, or as though his bodily fluids were transforming into a buoyant vapor—a yeasty, floaty feeling. To try to extinguish it he produced a vigorous belch, but this had no effect. The not-nausea wasn’t exactly uncomfortable, he realized, yet it was alien and powerful, and wanted alleviating. A sudden gush of saliva swirled around and beneath his tongue as he felt himself beset with dizziness or faintness—again, something airy. Leaning forward in his wheelchair yielded some incremental relief, Cameron found. Leaning farther forward granted him another fraction of ease. He rocked himself forward to magnify this effect, swinging his head between his knees and feeling a slick rope of drool slap his chin.
And then. God, then.
Cameron Harris has gone over what happened next a thousand-plus times in his mind, in thunderstruck variations of his what-if-I’d quiz, and then hundreds more times to doctors, nurses, friends, strangers, reporters, television producers, to his parish priest, to the investigator from Rome, to the people who wrote him emails and letters and to the people who telephoned him in the darkest hours of the night from places like Malaysia and Albania plus the ones who showed up unannounced and trembling on his doorstep, but still, to this day, he cannot say if there was a signal, a command, a moment of purpose or clarity, or even an awareness of what he was doing. The closest comparison, he says, is a mindset that can sometimes develop during combat, when, flooded with the effects of adrenaline, the brain shifts into a state he likens to autopilot, and you find you’re obeying your body rather than directing it, that your hands and arms and legs are doing things you didn’t wittingly instruct them to, and you feel like a passenger in your own body, swept along by the force of action and some bone-marrow urge to stay alive.
What Cameron did, then, wasn’t conscious. He didn’t decide to do it. He says he didn’t even know he was doing it until after he’d done it.
Where his memory kicks in is the Taaka vodka billboard. Whether or not his eyes were open before then, his first visual recollection is the billboard, and his first sensation was the bizarre instability he felt staring at it, because the billboard was moving—was shifting within his frame of vision as though tilting from the collapse of its support structure, as though sliding off its struts. He was simultaneously aware of a strange and very close sound: the faint scritch of something on the asphalt beneath him. The tilting billboard above, the scrape-sound below: Neither made sense to him until he glanced down, but what he saw there didn’t make sense to him either, because those were his own red Nikes on the asphalt, which meant he was out of his chair.
Which meant he was asleep, and dreaming. Except that he wasn’t. He was awake, and he was standing. And what’s more—he was walking.