It had only been a moment.
Only a moment.
It was only a moment but in that moment the sun ceased giving off its heat, the weight in the soldier’s hands became like lead, and the twenty-year-old’s blood turned immediately to ice.
He felt suddenly cold beneath the sweat of the summer’s day, his hands shaking bad enough that he dropped his weapon into the steadily growing puddle of blood left by the old man. The butt end of the rifle landed in the puddle, splashing the soldier’s boots with red before falling against an empty oil drum, the sound of it echoing like bells in his ears. The soldier looked down at his feet and the blood stood out as a spot of black which was bubbling from the man’s stomach. The man, a local fruit vendor the soldier passed every day on his patrols, was moving his mouth slowly, trying to speak, though no words came; all that issued from the man’s mouth was more blood that came in a steady stream and running into his thick beard.
The soldier fell to his knees before the man as if in prayer and lifted the man’s head, his training fighting to take over, to steady him, to save him, to save them both. With one hand he lifted the other man’s head and with his free hand he grabbed his canteen and carefully laid it beside him so he could take the cap off. The solider took the top of the canteen off and offered the water to the man, who turned his head away from it until the water was removed and then he started to speak in his native tongue again, speaking too quickly for the soldier to pick out anything substantial.
The soldier concentrated on what the man was saying, hoping to catch something, some word, something that might give him a clue as to what the man wanted but as he held the man he realized that the hand holding him was wet with something and he laid him down to see what it was. The soldier laid the man down as gently as he was able to and examined his hand, which was covered in blood. The soldier looked from his hand to the man, and then to his hand again. As the soldier looked down at the man the dirt beneath his head started to turn as black as the wound in his belly. The soldier shook his head slowly from side to side – this wasn’t possible because he had only shot the man once, in the stomach, as a reaction to him running around the corner of a building, screaming at him. As soon as the soldier had seen him his training had kicked in and he had fired one shot but that didn’t explain this second wound.
Whatever had happened, he had to act quickly. This was a dangerous situation that could only get worse and he had to rely on all of his training to make sure it didn’t get that way. He had to think but his confusion was a thick jelly in his mind and it took a moment for him to return to his senses as the old man’s breathless muttering turned to deep, guttural grunts. He looked down and the man was twisting in the dirt, his hands flailing, his body writhing, and his head twisted to look back the way he’d come. The soldier followed the man’s gaze and saw a boy standing in the shadow of the building, watching the two men.
The soldier’s heart sank.
Bad had suddenly gotten worse.
The area he had been patrolling for the past month and a half was one of the last cities that had resisted the growing insurgency the war had created but it was an event like this that could start a firestorm in the area and cause real trouble.
The soldier held his hands out, palms up and empty, to show he wasn’t armed, hoping that the boy would understand that he meant him no harm. As he did that he also spoke the few words in the boy’s language that he knew, telling him that he was a soldier, he was there to help, and that he was sorry for offending the boy. What he said was more than a shade nonsensical but it was something and hopefully it might buy him some time to calm the situation down.
The boy’s eyes were hidden in the shade and his body was hard to read. The boy looked to be the age of the soldier’s nephew, which would make him around seven, and more than likely made him the grandson of this man. He repeated what he’d said to the boy as he stood slowly and the boy took a step closer. Unsure whether this was a good sign or not, the soldier stopped moving and held his ground. As soon as the boy had moved though the old man began convulsing more violently on the ground and started to force himself to speak, each word coming with a punctuation of red mist.
The boy moved another step closer.
What was happening?
The soldier faltered and moved a step away from the man to show he wasn’t trying to hurt the man, though the bloody hole in his stomach seemed to speak differently to that fact. The boy took another step closer and was revealed as left the shade and entered the sunshine and as he did the man began screaming. The boy seemed unfazed by this and, as the soldier looked at him, he realized that this boy couldn’t be the old man’s son or grandson because, from the look on the boy’s face, he couldn’t care less whether the man lived or died. The boy looked completely indifferent to what was happening before him but instead looked at the solider with what seemed like mild annoyance. The boy looked from the old man to the soldier. Even looking at him under a screaming sun the boy’s eyes seemed hidden, veiled and looking at him, the soldier felt mesmerized.
The boy stood silent, watching the solider as the old man struggled. The man had managed to roll over onto his belly and was pulling himself away from the boy, and off towards a row of houses that stood fifty yards away. Suddenly, as the soldier watched the old man slowly crawl away he felt a sharp pain flare through his throat. He brought his hand up to see what had happened and when he brought it away to examine it he saw it was covered in the same red as the ground and his fatigues were. He turned slowly and looked at the boy, who stood staring at him, his face full of a sudden and savage intensity and a slingshot held in one hand as the other hand pulled another ball bearing from a bag strung to his side.
As soon as the soldier removed his hand from his throat blood coursed down the front of him and soaking through his shirt and down to his chest. The solider took a step back, body wavering, and then fell to his knees. The boy pulled another bearing from his pouch and moved towards the soldier. The soldier, feeling like a boy himself now as the strength drained from him, held a hand up to the boy and shook his head from side to side and the boy stopped. The soldier smiled and dropped his hand, and as soon as he did that the boy had the other bearing loaded and the last thing the soldier felt was the sting of the steel as it entered his left eye. By the time the soldier hit the ground he was already cooling.
The boy turned his attention back to the old man, whose pace was slowing. The boy pulled another bearing from the small bag and loaded it as he approached the old man slowly. The man stopped, body shaking now, the blood from the small hole in the back of his neck dribbling out and down his body to join the pool that his belly was still making. The man whispered something to the boy, to the dust, to himself, then spat into the dirt and lay still, knowing what came next.
In another instant the boy loosed the steel bearing and the back of the man’s head erupted in a thick mist and he was finally still. Satisfied, the boy slid the slingshot into his back pocket and moved to the old man’s body. He knelt at the body and rolled it over onto its back. As soon as it was on its back the boy open the old man’s tattered and worn work coat and pulled out a small bag. The boy lifted the bag up and shook it and smiled at the sound of the coins.
The boy rose, put the bag into his pocket and began walking in the direction the old man had been heading. He couldn’t help but smile as his mother met him at the door.