Familiar yet unfamiliar.
A piercing gaze confronted his eyes… heavy, dim and lifeless. A dark sea of ash bordered, dominating the pale skin which struggled to surface. Erratic strands of hair clenched a soft face, attempting to cloud a peculiar innocence. The limited figure produced a weak, powerful cry, “Help me…please.” The words seemed forced, foreign. Different.
The accent tainted the clarity, yet the desperate, hopeless cry was a clear appeal to his humanity.
“Johnson! Johnson!” A shout called out, demanding, dominant, insisting he followed the rest.
“Go on, I’ll stay close” He did. It was his job to.
Just another casualty of war, right? Johnson struggled. He remembered the warmth of his family, his wife, his two sons, and his only daughter. He missed them. But Johnson’s harsh qualities clouded his morality; he was strong, powerful, ruthless?
The sky began to clear. A beam of humanity presented itself. He turned back; he had to. Cautiously, Johnson approached the figure, clutching his firearm beside him. The hopeless gaze transitioned to one of fear, but without surprise. Johnson loosened his grip; no threat was present, it was only a little girl after all. Instinctively, Johnson grasped a small, fair hand, one which trembled as he grew closer, exerting significant force to release a thin leg, tainted with the deep crimson of blood. Johnson’s strong grunt contrasted that of a weak, helpless cry. The figure clutched a sheet of fabric attempting to conceal the hair which had escaped, a wound perhaps? However, the persistence appeared to be an attempt to preserve a shred of innocence, femininity, beauty.
The remains of a fragmented building provided enough shelter to escape the harshness of the elements. Inside were the charred remains of powerless individuals, clinging to their faith for support. The beautiful patterns of the carpeted floor had been destroyed by the unforgiving flames that had visited. Johnson surveyed the barren floor, searching for something to stop the girls bleeding leg. He reached for the fabric which elegantly rested on the girl’s head.
Johnson retreated. He reached for a small book beside him, searching for any intact pages, yet the same fierce “No” assaulted his ears. Johnson began to lose patience. With an intentional disregard, he tore the pages from the book, layered them, and pressed the pages against the girls wound. Johnson was met with a look of disgust. “You can go back out there if you want,” she cowered. Hesitantly, she held them there.
He asked her name.
“Amal… My name is Amal…”
Johnson surveyed the desolate grounds. He found a small room, dimly lit, with little space for comfort. Yet the privacy presented by it was exactly what he was looking for. Amal kept close, shuffling along behind him until Johnson sat down.
Amal sat opposite him. The gaze of uncertainty still remained mutual. Tension brewed. She became unsettled, and the pain intensified. The room didn’t help. Instead, it created a focus that nurtured the pain. She needed a distraction.
“This is your fault!”
Johnson confronted Amal with an angered glare. “Mine? Mine? If it weren’t for your people, we wouldn’t be here.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“You wouldn’t understand; you’re just a little girl.”
Amal withdrew. The aggression Johnson emitted was unpredictable, dangerous, something Amal feared. “I just… I just wanna know why you’re here, doing this. It’s not fair.”
“As I said, your people caused this. 3000 people are now dead. That is why I’m here.”
Johnson peered through the small window which concealed the barren streets. The sun began to tire, darkening the already blackened sky. Johnson and Amal became restless. The air lay still, peaceful, worryingly quiet. Johnson and Amal remained, alone, together, waiting for the night to guide them.
“I’m sorry for what they did in New York; we’re not all bad; it’s them. We can’t stop them.”
“That’s why we’re here. The Taliban, Al Qaeda… all of you must be dealt with.”
“Don’t you see? It’s not all of us; it’s them! And you’re just like them – innocent people are dying because of American terrorism!”
Johnson grew curious about Amal. Her understanding left little to be clarified. “Where did you learn your English?”
“Huh, oh, my father, he taught me. He knows all about you Americans; he was over there for a while.”
Johnson responded with a shallow sigh. “Well if you know all about us Americans, you would know we do what is necessary and fair. I didn’t ask for this; you did. You should be on our side, look at how you live. Oppressed…”
Amal produced a sigh of hopelessness. “What about the innocent? People like my brother? He was only 11 when your people came and killed him.” Amal failed to produce a tear. They had run out.
Johnson stumbled into lonely thoughts and began to remember the warmth of his own family. “I’m sorry to hear that; my daughter is the same age.”
The tension eased.
“What was his name?”
“Oh… Abdul… after my father.”
The pages pressed against Amal’s leg were soaked with the stain of the blood. Desperately, Amal reached for another book beside her, the letters ‘Q… U…’ followed by a tear which hid the rest. Amal said a prayer and opened the book, hesitantly.
Johnson paused. “Stop! I know what that book means to you. Here,” Johnson drew his blade firmly pressed against his uniform, took the knife and proceeded to cut down the camouflaged legs of his uniform. From that he produced a long strip of fabric, much like a scarf. With a hint of paternity, he reached for Amal’s leg, propped it on his knee and proceeded to bind the fabric around her wounded leg.
“My children cut themselves all the time.” This was a gross understatement for the ravine-like opening cascading down Amal’s leg.
Amal rested. “Tha…thank you.”
Eventually, the smoke began to clear. The moon let out a beautiful cry, illuminating the small room through the small opening they called a window. The light caught Johnson’s eye: “It’s time I go.”
“Wait! What about me? I’ve nowhere to go! I lost my family when the planes flew over.”
“What do you exp… fine, follow me, but keep quiet.”
Amal struggled to keep up. Her leg dragged, heavy, limp. She reached out, clawing Johnson’s uniform, her fingertips barely gripping the surface. “I can’t” Amal hesitated “go on or we’ll both die.”
An unexpected soft gaze flushed Johnson’s face “He…here… get on my back.” Amal’s thin frame felt weightless; his own children were much heavier.
“It’s not much further.”
Amal’s senses began to wear. As her grip began to loosen, Johnson tightened his own grip. Amal lost all strength, her head crashing on the strong broad shoulders of Johnson. Her senses were lost.
Johnson grew closer ensuring his Journey was taken with absolute caution.
He reached base. Met by the rifles of his Frie… Comrades, but they withdrew, catching a glimpse of his tattered uniform which loosely held his rifle, knife and a few other pointless things, followed by his helmet which he had managed to clip to his vest. Beside it the words ‘U.S ARMY’ stood proudly.
Johnson too stood proudly. For the first time since joining this confounded war, he felt genuine pride, gently carrying the one who had taught him so much. This was the one he would insist on being tended to in the medics’ tent by the best military doctors the US could source.
The soldiers examined him and his bundle with a puzzled gazed.
“Hey! Johnson, who’s that?”
“Get me Smith! Quick!” Johnson was met with dispassionate stares, but they listened. Johnson had that power.
Johnson gently lay Amal on a bench. It was surprisingly stable. Smith entered the room, a medic, but not only that. He and Johnson had joined together; they’d been friends since high school.
“Take care of her.”
Johnson walked calmly up the pristine white staircase that led to the solid oak door of the Lieutenant Colonel’s office. With each step he thought of Amal’s words and her face, both of which held wisdom that one so young should never hold.
He held his resignation letter in his hand. He had never felt prouder to be an American.