Duty (a short story)

I was cleaning out my computer files when I stumbled across this short story I wrote a few years back for a writing class I had. The words just spilled out without any kind of set direction or message so when I actually entered it into a short story contest and received an honorary mention (with a nifty gift certificate to a book store, woot!) for the story I was pretty surprised! I thought I would share this little nugget with you, through the (relative) anonymity of this blog and the internet. I hope you enjoy!


 

The wind carried their laughter on the breeze, the soft and barely there sound of happiness. From where I stood, they were only faint spots, these children, hardly seen, and easily erased.

I ran a finger over the front of my jacket, but I knew what was there already. It was snug against my chest. It fit me, and it should. I was born to wear this jacket.

I moved closer to the elementary school. The sun cast a shadow from the building, and offered me refuge. The sound of my zipper hissed and my jacket gaped open. From my peripheral, I saw an insistent red blinking, but my attention was focused elsewhere.

A custodian walked across the schoolyard, past the children, cutting through their frolicking and games. His face was set hard, focused on the garbage he picked up. He reminded me of my father.

“Abba?”

“Be good for them.” There is nothing soft about his face, nothing meant for children.

“But where are they taking me?” A hand grips my shoulder tight from behind. I look at the unflinching blankness of my father, against the red frame of our door. I’m four years young but we are at eye level.

“Make me proud.” Without a goodbye, he turns and wheels away, his back ramrod straight. His words echo in my head but they offer me no solace.

The red frame of my door eventually fades from my mind, replaced instead by the coppery red dust of the desert of the military camp to which I have been given.

There is no friendliness here, nothing but the silent solemnity of the guards who stand at the gate as I enter, led by a young soldier along with twenty other boys, all older than I. I am small among them, insignificant.

I am barefoot. We walk and walk and walk, but there is nothing in sight. The gates we passed through are long gone, barely a memory in the white-hot day. The sand burns even as it rasps painfully against the tender, soft soles of my feet. I fall behind. My throat is like the dried skin of a fruit peel, left too long under the cruel heat of the sun. I try to swallow but almost choke as the walls of my throat close together.

“Are you alright?” A boy, maybe a year older than me walks beside me. He looks at me with huge brown eyes.

I nod once, but don’t speak. He looks at my feet. “Don’t you have shoes?”

I shake my head. He has shoes. They are worn and tattered and held together by fat, clumsy stitches, but they are shoes.

“We can share, if you want. I’m Ali.”

I look at him, but say nothing.

A desert cobra slithers across the road upon which we walk and freezes at the sight of us. It is poisonous, I know, and will attack if frightened.

“Which of you will shoot it?” The soldier look at us expectantly, evaluating us with cold, unfeeling eyes. He stands in front of our small band of children. The animal twitches its tongue flicking out, contemplating whether to run. I want it to run. I want to run. “Who?!”

Ali starts to cry. He is a year older than me, but he allows the tears to fall, unabashedly. I look away.

The soldier walks to him and spits at his feet. The spit is frothy against the dry desert sand. This close to the soldier, I can see the dull shine of the gun he carries. It looks heavy.

“You,” he says, addressing us all, “are no longer children. For today, I will make an exception. It will be the only one.” His voice is low and unforgiving, a snarl of disgust. He pulls that heavy gun, levels it at the animal and pulls, his hand jerking back from the force. “You are soldiers now. You do what you must.”

He turns his back on us and heads back to the front of the group. I take Ali’s hand and he allows me.

We walk.

***

I am eighteen, running across the sands of the military camp, my feet still bare, but weathered, strong, resilient. My laughter is caught by the wind and ripped away, in an attempt to steal my happiness as this very place does. It can’t, however, steal the joy inside me. Behind me, Ali whoops, louder, stronger than the winds.

We are going to America. In a week I will set foot in America.

Not to sightsee or anything so frivolous, but to do as our imam has taught us.

“Allah has given us a great responsibility,” he told us. “We must rid the world of the evils that exist. We must make it pure, as Allah intended.”

As we run, the sun pounds relentlessly on our skin, even as the vicious winds whip sand in our faces with a cruel, laughing snap. This –  the dusty buildings, biting sands and unforgiving Middle Eastern land – is home.

This is home, where I share a room with three other boys, each one trying to outdo the other, but none outdoing me. This is home, where I am a prodigy, where my name is whispered in reverent hushes and I am a leader. This is home, where I excel.

Make me proud.

We go to the nearest town to celebrate. Laughing carelessly, we walk the sand-covered sidewalk. We are stopped by a scream. We race over to an alley between the tavern and a food store. A white woman crouches, trying to shield her body from the heavy fists of a mammoth of a man.

“Stop it!” Ali is rushing over before I can stop him. She is a white woman, an American. She does not deserve our help.

Ali attacks the man, shoving him off the woman. It is not a fair fight, and Ali will lose. I move to step in, not to protect the woman, but to help my friend.

A bang, sharp and clear, halts me, mid-step. My eyes widen as Ali crumbles to the ground, his body unable to hold him up. Rage rushes through me, and without thought, my hand slips under my waistband to the cool metal resting there. With a flick of my hand, it is spinning through the air, the sun catching on the smooth silver and glinting off it wickedly. It lodges firmly in the chest of the man and he staggers against the alley wall, limp hands reaching up to grasp the knife. It’s deep in his chest and doesn’t budge even as he tries to pull it out. A moment later, he is slumped against the wall, one hand still resting on my knife.

I rush to Ali. Blood is slowly leaking out of a gaping wound in his stomach, as though it is reluctant to leave.

I push against the wound, and his blood gushes through my fingers, covering my skin. He groans and his eyes roll back.

“Ali, don’t die. You can’t die. We are going to America, remember? I can’t go without you.”

His eyes, those huge brown eyes look at me, calm with the knowledge of his impending death.

“You are a soldier,” he reminds me. “You do what you must.” Then, with a smile for me, for my reassurance, Ali lets go. I close those huge brown eyes, and whisper the Salat al-Janazah, a prayer for the dead.

As I board a plane, a week later, I am alone. The imam has already spoken with me. He prayed with me, advised me and reminded me of why I was going, but I barely heard him. My mind, on an insistent loop, played Ali’s last words. I only remember one thing the imam said to me.

“This is your duty.”

“Device activated.” The voice was a tinny mechanic sound in my ear.

There was no adrenaline rush, as I expected, no nerves, no anticipation.

I sat on the floor, in the shadow of the elementary school. Under my hands, the sand was cool and dead, not hot and alive. It was wrong. This entire country was wrong and that was why I was there.

I reached into my pocket and pulled out a small black remote, a single white button in the middle. I knew what I was to do. My finger applied firm pressure to that white button.

You are a soldier. You do what you must.

Make me proud.

This is your duty. 

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