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Writing Tournament 2011

Page history last edited by Volkes_Wagon 12 years, 3 months ago

Round one: "Reaching out to you"

 

Storybook Princess

 

     Yearning.
     To be honest, it pisses me off. Must be because the storybooks all promised dragons and towers and swords and shields, vampires falling for misty-eyed girls and werewolves howling their sorry little selves out at Her face in the moon. Juice squelches from their red, pudgy lips as they sink their teeth into steaks of Conflict, wine dribbles down their chin as they gulp down whole bottles of Drama--and then it's honey for desert, simple, pure, so syrupy sweet that it's nauseating.
     And they wonder why they're all sweating lumps of grease these days.
     When you're not born a princess with a blessing of charm and a curse of uselessness, you're lucky just to swallow grains of salt. You're angry and ugly and twisted and cruel, and while the princess dreams pretty fantasies in her shining golden tower, you're slowly dissolving in the dragon's stomach. But you're dreaming too. You ask yourself there, curled up in a ball as gastric juices melt your face into streaks of tears and raw flesh:
     "When will it be my turn?"

---

     Up there, the people never go hungry. They wear robes of freedom and crowns of glory as they make love to the world and the world makes love back, and they're kind and they're wise and they're strong. They have the capacity to laugh, because they're living life like it's really, truly worth it.
     They're beautiful.
     The old medicine man said that I had to build a tower brick by brick if I wanted to stand amongst them. So I turned my flimsy french fry fingers into ketchup stacking heavy mortar stones one on top of another, counting the days until I could live in that heavenly palace. I swallowed the pain, whole first-class courses, because the storybooks had told that progress required it.
     And the tower crept up.
     I was proud of it. I could savor for days the look of each heavy mortar brick, lingering on the parts stained the color of sour tomato sauce. When I rammed the flagpole into the top I thought myself finally full. One hundred feet above the ground I looked, got the guts to look at what I had been reaching for.
     The people up there had wings. There weren't any towers.
     I shoveled the frustration and disappointment and bitterness and self-loathing into my mouth until I was nothing but a layer of skin, dry and shrivelled and coated with fine salt crystals. I rebuilt my insides all out of sand.
     Laugh, pudgy red lips, laugh. I'm going to taste just wonderful for you.

---

     The old medicine man gave me a telephone the other day. I used it to call up the prince, and I asked him how he was, and whether he missed me, and why he had to be born with wings 5,000 feet too high for a tower built brick by brick to reach. He said it was because I wasn't trying hard enough.
     I spat into the telephone, "You're supposed to be coming for me. It'd be easy for you. I can't get anywhere when I'm rooted in the bottom of the universe."
     "You're already better off than a lot of people," he replied.
     He was nice. He was feeding me pity, which tasted like rotten tangerines. What he really wanted to say was: "There will always be someone better off than you, and there's nothing you can do about it. So shut up."

     Then he said, "Reach out to me. I'll be waiting with the dragon that guards the tower doors."

---

     Sometimes I wish the old medicine man had just told me the truth, that I was never going to be able to fly. I wish he had just let me wallow in the dirt. See, if I had never fallen in love with that palace of miracles up high in the sky, I might have been almost happy with someone who had scarred hands like mine and eyes as bruised and unforgiving. We could have wriggled through the mud together, burned heavy mortar stones together, turned to dust together.
     Guess it's too late now. I'll die trying to crawl out from the dragon's throat, laughing.

 


 

Round two: "Fighting for Freedom"

 

Desert Flower

 

                On the long yellow road a speck of dust appears against the tinted blue horizon. The boys grip their rifles, watching. Such images flicker across the eyes of many hopeful youths only to turn out to be illusions, and the boys know this. The dust shimmers idly in the distance; then grows into a sandstorm at a frightening pace, and a dry desert gust whips ground stone into their eyes and sends ripples through their shirts and faded jeans. Their hands tense against the triggers as they shout something in Arabic; but when they see who holds the flag rippling at the fore, smiles break out, and the rifles are hoisted into the air with inarticulate cheers.
                Ten armored vans are waved through the checkpoint and into the city, where sparsely posted soldiers whoop at them from along abandoned streets. The leading truck pulls up in front of a hotel, its residents long since evacuated, and Jari leans out the driver's window with his miniature flag.
                "We're back with the supplies!" he shouts to the boys stationed at the hotel entrance. "Unload and eat your meals, and then we're joining the battle!"
                The rebel soldiers drop their guns and run to greet Jari and his squad as the van doors are unlocked and supplies are carried out. Once Jari is hefted up and paraded on the boys' shoulders with his flag and booming laugh over the ceaseless sound of distant gunfire, the news spreads like hot wind up the five stories of the vanilla plaster hotel. In its eastern wall a large hole was blown out, and between the skeleton of metal and plaster and the blasted black rims injured soldiers could be seen peering over his arrival. The official city hospital still functions, but has long since overflowed.
                After Jari is put down and the soldiers are organized into a fireline, a man comes up and greets Jari.
                "I am glad for the safe journey," the man says. A red bandana decorates his throat and his face is darkened a deep shade of brown by the harsh yellow light of the sun.
               "As am I. But there was little danger from the start; the horned devil has become a mere ghost of what he once was. Yes, a mere shadow; soon to be snuffed out slowly and painfully under our boots!" Jari laughs like rolling thunder.
                The last van pulls up which sends hot sand rushing over the parched pavement, and waves of heat rise swirling with the morning sun. Rebels hop off at a run to help funnel the canned food and bottled water and medicine and an assortment of other supplies into the hotel, and sometimes chipped figurines or pieces of jewelry as souvenirs. Then a boy emerges who with his blue basketball tanktop and clueless smile stands out like a sapphire in a sea of gold. The man thinks to himself, this boy fell off the plane on its way to the Egyptian Pyramids.
                "Who is that?"
                "Ah, the foreigner!" Jari chuckles fondly. "Curious boy. He asked us to take him to the battlefield."
                The man shakes his head. "Madness."
                "You worry too much! He wants to fight, so let him help with some small jobs in the back. It'll be fine."
                The man watches the boy confidently greet several amused soldiers by the van and then trip on the empty cartridges littered in the streets.
                "That is no soldier, you can see at a glance--that is a tourist. You can't let him fight. This is shameful."
                He walks toward the foreigner and orders the soldiers back to their tasks. The boy glances up with laughing green eyes that are as sharp as bayonets.
                "Give me the gun," he commands. The boy says something in a foreign language and offers up his black rifle, only half-understanding why until it is wrenched out of his hands.
                "Why are you here?" he demands with heavy English. The boy blinks at the suddenly familiar cadence of syllables, then smiles.
                "Shit, it's been forever since I've been able to talk, you're a Godsend! I'm here because I want to fight."
                "You are an idiot. Do you want to die?"
                "Well, no. I think I'm prepared to risk dying, though. You guys are risking your lives for freedom, after all, and I admire that."
                The man looks at the boy's face. Its proportions are queer but if he squints and stares it is bearable. There is a healthy roundness in his cheeks, and when he smiles all his features seem to line up into their natural positions. His skin is a smooth, shining layer of light copper.
                "Who gave you the gun? And the..." He gestures around his head, his eyes flickering to the blue and white checkered headscarf covering the boy's hair.
                "Um, the..." Also at a loss for words, the boy points.
                Jari whistles at the two from behind the second truck. "Long live the headless tourist!!" he whoops in Arabic. He claps his hands and then flings them into the air with peace signs, and the soldiers nearby cheer.
                "Jari?"
                "Is that his name? Man, speaking English is great! Justin Beiber was the only thing they understood--I was stuck singing 'Baby, baby' for way too long!"
                "You talk fast. I cannot understand."
                "Oh, sorry, sorry. I got too excited. But man, I am so glad to meet you!" He holds out the hand just freed from the rifle. "My name is Jonas. What is your name?"
                The man stretches out a hand and snatches the headscarf away.
                "Idiot. You are not one of us. Can you not see what you are to them?" The heat from the sun bores into the back of his neck and he realizes that sweat is down the sharp angles of his face and soaking his bandana. The boy's smile disappears.
                Well, the man thinks to himself, it has nothing to do with me. Let the idiot do what idiots do and see if he runs home crying. Right now, what I need is a smoke.
                Most of the supplies have been brought into the hotel, and Gulfam and a few other soldiers come by with lukewarm bean soup that was heated in their tin cans by the sun. They hand the two their shares.
                "Thank you," Jonas says. The man shoots him a glare.
                "That was English, right? What did he say?" Gulfam asks with something like awe. The man recognizes it as a child’s face in the zoo. He sits beside them under the shade of the van. "You said you studied in America."
                "Only for a little while," the man mutters. With one hand he opens the can of soup and with another he reaches into his pocket to pull out a cigarette and matches. "I don't speak it very well. He said 'Thank you.'"
                "Really? Are Americans all like this?"

                The man shrugs and eats his meal. He imagines he is eating his last supper somewhere high and cool and isolated during dusk, and he is watching the sand and stars and sunlight dance in time to the desert wind's song. But he cannot stop himself from noticing the soldiers as they stare in wonder at the boy.
                "What was America like?" another soldier asks the man.
                "I don't remember," he grunts in between his teeth and the cigarette, trying to light a match. "It's been a long time."
                "Oh, what a shame! I'm sure it's a beautiful country."
                "After the revolution we'll all visit there together,"
Gulfam says brightly. "We'll learn democracy from the Americans."
                "That would be a dream come true," a third soldier agrees. "Can you ask the tourist what America is like?"
                "Are you talking about America?" Jonas asks. The man drops a lighted match, curses, stomps the flame out, blowing on his burned finger.
                "What did he say?"
                "I don't know, I kept hearing something like 'America.'"
                "Hey, he said something like 'America' just now, didn't he?"
                "Come on, ask him about America! That sweet land of liberty!"

                The man's cigarette finally catches. He breathes in deep and then blows out a stream of twisting white, turning to the boy with a black scowl. "They ask how is America?"
                "I knew it!" Jonas smiles. "Well, where I come from there's always trees around, lots of green trees, even in the city. I'm a college student, right. My friends and I party in the weekends a lot when there isn't too much homework--you know what a party is? I mean, like, an American party."
                "There are trees and parties," the man translates and gives the soldiers a flat stare.
                "Hey, he said more than that!" they complain.
                "Yeah, you sneaky locust!"
                "And what about the parties? What does he do in parties?"

                "They do not know what a party is."
                Jonas laughs. "We sing and dance! All night long if we want. Sometimes we're lucky and a friend's parents are out, and we all go and turn the music up and just trash the place."
                The man smokes his cigarette slowly and waits before asking, "When can you do it?"
                "Whenever we want."
                He turns to the soldiers and says, "He sings and dances."
                "Really? Isn't that just a festival?"
                "There's no special reason or day--they just do it whenever they want."

                Gulfam sits up grinning. "I knew Americans were different. They just are, somehow. So people can just open their doors and sing, sing sing whatever and whenever they want?"
                The man glances at the boy. "Yes."
                "I knew they were different. They've got the taste of freedom on their tongues, haven't they. I can see it from their eyes. See that? It's the look of someone who chose by himself where he's going in life."
Gulfam grins at Jonas, and Jonas smiles back like they had been friends since they were born.
                A question occurs to the man, and he wishes it hadn't. He does not wish to ask it. But he feels a sense of duty to ask it, and so he asks it.
                "Do your parents know that you are here?"
                Jonas blinks and the smile slips out of his eyes to settle in his lips. He looks at the man with a quiet, steady gaze and shakes his head.
                "We're done!" Jari sings. "Everyone in my squad but the tourist, we're moving out! Anyone else well enough to join?"
                The man tosses the headscarf back to Jonas and stands.
                "It's time. Prepare yourselves." In English he mutters to the air, "I think I will remember you."
                He leaves to pick up his gun and slips on his army pants and vest. Very quickly the rebels are organized into several armored vehicles, three of them the vans from that morning with their loads still in the backs, covered by rough brown tarps. The man joins the boys in the back of one of these vans.
The engine sputters and rattles their bones against the hard metal flooring as the wheels crunch into the hot dust and pavement and the van grinds forward, the whole mass jumping at each stone or pit on the road. Behind him the man can hear the other soldiers joking quietly and recognizes Gulfam's voice as one of them, but he chooses to watch the hotel bounce from the open back until it swerve out of view, and then he closes his eyes, listening only to the sound of machine gun fire that had been in the background for as long as he had been sleeping in the rebels' stronghold. The light, quick rapping reminds him of beads bouncing on wood; but as they drive closer it becomes fierce and loud and so merciless the boys are silenced and only look at each other and cradle their guns. And suddenly it is there in front of them, other rebel soldiers' voices are heard, they have arrived.
                The van stops and everyone hops off with silent grimness and the bated breath of anticipation. After Jari speaks to the leaders at the street battleground, he gives his orders to the soldiers, and they do not question, only wordlessly obey. But Gulfam feels a lead stone stop up his throat when he hears that he and his fellow soldiers are to lead the assault under Jari.
                With some disappointment, the man is assigned to help Qays's soldiers defend the streets already under rebel control. When he aims his rifle at the fringe of a loyalist's shirt just around the corner, it jams immediately. He curses his bad luck and starts to walk back to the vans for one of the spare guns packed in the supplies.
                Suddenly Gulfam breaks away from Jari's squad and runs toward him. "Sir, what are you doing?" he asks breathlessly.
                The man frowns. "My gun jammed. I'm getting a new one."
                Jari yells over the ceaseless noise that his squad is moving to the west street and beckons Gulfam to hurry.
                "I'm sorry, I've got to go," Gulfam says quickly, "um, please let that foreigner at least see the battlefield, just a little glance, right? I can't take him with me now, but around here it should be fine, yeah? Yeah, I knew I could count on you. Thanks man!" He leaves the man in a low cloud of dust and mixes into Jari's squad.
                Half believing it to be a joke on the too-serious man, the ever-black-faced old soldier man (there have been jokes before, on the old bachelor, bad jokes where he was the only one not laughing), he places one foot in front of the other again and again to the van. He throws off the tarp.
                Jonas winces at the sudden bright sunlight, then flashes a guilty smile when he sees the man's face.
                "Hi?" he says.
                The man explodes in hot Arabic, "What are you doing here!? How did you get in here!? Didn't we tell you to stay in the back!?" But he remembers himself and hisses, in English: "Why are you here?"
                Jonas looks at him as if only sad deprivation could make someone forget such a universally treasured purpose. "I just want to be here. With you guys. Fighting."
                "Psychotic boy!" The man glances behind him at the soldiers setting up the posts, but they are deaf to all sound except the sweet cooing of weapons from both sides. So this is how it must be, he thinks. Now what do I do with this devil of an idiot?
                He drags Jonas to the side of a building and hands him his camouflage vest.
                "Take this and stay here. Do not move."
                "Oh. Thank you," the boy says sincerely and puts on the vest. "But I told you, I want to fight. Jari already taught me how to shoot an AK-47, see?" He hoists a rifle up proudly. "You flip this switch and then-"
                "No use! No help! Bad wish." He hisses something in Arabic before gaining enough composure to coherently translate his thoughts. "This fight is our fight, not for a tourist. You do not belong here. Go home!"
                A sound like an airplane landing and an explosion in a nearby building. Frantic Arabic voices spring up from all sides, alarmed, desperate, in pain. The wall of a building was blasted out and through the flames the man can make out writhing black shadows that make his blood run cold, then boiling hot with blacker thoughts. He turns back to Jonas to tell him, but the fire lights up the boy's green eyes as the heat makes him seem to grow broader and taller and the man feels almost sorry for his mother and father left behind in America who could not pin down this proud winged bird.
                "No," the boy says. "I will not just sit in the back and watch how things go on a ten-inch digital screen."
                "This is not a game, boy."
                "See, that's it! It's not a game! Never a game! It's a real revolution, and if I don't see this with my own eyes I'll never be able to know what we've all been fighting for, and I'll regret it for the rest of my life. It's what America's all about, freedom, right!? I've come so far and there's no going back--I am ready for this and I'm not leaving without it, how do I make you trust me, how do I make you tell me your name!?"
                "Fine! Fine! Is that all you want? My name is Aamir!" he says in English, then repeats in Arabic, "I am called Aamir. Do you understand? Now go-"
                And the desert rain begins to pour in bullets, ash and blood, the soldiers running and Aamir pushing the boy along and feet pounding and hearts rattling and three squads caught behind in the last hard pummeling the regime's most loyal men had the ammunition to make. A hundred feet behind Jonas, Gulfam feels the fire engulf him and at his first step all he can think of is pain and terror and panic. And then the second step made him think this was what freedom meant, shedding everything behind with each step forward, a way of life, blood running through veins, sleeping, drinking, breathing through those days and nights spun long with his newfound people and it was worth it, God, was it worth it all, he'd do it again any day. He thinks of his family and is proud that his mother on Earth and his father somewhere watching him can both say this new world soon to bloom for his country was well watered with his blood, that his children and their children after that will all have a say in this brave new world--that we are free, and we have paid for it. And at the third step there is a beautiful white nothingness and that is the last thing he ever felt.
                Behind the frontlines, the remaining men devote themselves to setting up the rocket launchers seized from the loyalists in previous battles. Smoke and heat sting Jonas's eyes while rapid Arabic is being yelled from all directions, and then somehow he is in a crowd of arms and bayonets and is struggling to get free. He can hear the bangs and crackles of artillery as they burst under his half-closed lids like bright flowers in the desert, and with each roar and explosion his hair rises and his throat constricts a little more. At last he stumbles out to freedom. He pauses to rest, laughing, happy to be able to breathe again. Vaguely he sees Aamir stand up from the rebel launchers and scream. At who? Oh, he thinks, it's me again. What have I done now?
                A sound like an airplane landing.
                Heavy shelling is pounding out from both sides of the civil war, and alone in the line of fire, Jonas dashes to the nearest building with head held low and hands clutching the rifle close like it could somehow save him. A rocket explodes in his path, but he careens out with skin burning and ears ringing and eyes flashing but filled with a soaring sense of joy because he did not yet know that this was how Gulfam died, only that he had escaped from it. He ducks into a sewage drain to wait out the rest of the barrage.
                In the shade it feels like the desert does at night, cold and biting and heartless. When he turns and sees a creature with black hair, bloodied clothes and a face full of white he thinks to himself, Death has come for me.

                Aamir counts the charred corpses amid the rubble as if he is in a dream. He thinks to himself, So this is how it must be. There is a general feeling of bitter satisfaction in the late afternoon air. The horned devil must have been among the dead; and that is all.
                "Where is the tourist?" he asks Jari.
                "Who?" he responds.
                It has nothing to do with him, Aamir tells himself. It is not his fault at all. The idiot asked, practically begged for it. But still, he returns to the street where the fight had taken place, looking for places the boy could have hidden.
                "Jonas," he hisses softly. "You idiot boy. Jonas."
                And then, stiff and dazed, the boy steps out from the sewage and says in a voice rasping from dryness and lack of use: "I saw him. In there. It's him."
                The knot that had been growing in Aamir suddenly slackens.
                The discovery causes uproar, as every rebel who can abandon the dismal task of finding bodies tries to land one hit on the last spoil of war. Some whip out their phones, taking pictures and videos of the man who had caged the people's freedom for forty years being beaten and tortured amid a whirlwind of taunts and jeers. Every rebel soldier has some personal grievance with the man. They look at him and all they can see is the horned devil who deserves to die shedding tears of blood and who will most certainly be sentenced to eternal suffering in the afterlife.
                Jonas looks at him and all he sees is a tired old man begging for mercy. He looks at the rifle still clasped in his hand, and even with the late afternoon sun against his skin Jonas still feels cold.
                There are several celebratory gunshots, which is to be expected, but one of them is out of place. The bullet drives itself eagerly into the overthrown dictator's temple, killing him instantly and, it is to be hoped, painlessly.
                A silence more deadly than rioting violence falls over the rebels, and Aamir knows immediately that this was the first and last bullet those two young hands would ever fire. Look at him dropping the gun and that blank stare on his face. The idiot. The idiot. The poor young American idiot.
                The boy simply looks at them all with his clear green eyes strangely steady.
                "I didn't kill him," he says quietly. "Freedom doesn't kill."
                "Go away." Aamir presses himself between the boy's words and the men's rifles, presses his hand against Jonas's chest and throws him against the wall. "You never belonged. Go back to your country and your people. Tonight, we bring you to Benghazi, and you go home. Do you understand?"
                Jonas meets his dark eyes and says slowly, in Arabic: "Yes, sir."
                Aamir nods once, sharply, and lets him go. Jonas walks away toward camp with his borrowed army clothes spotted with sweat and blood that are not his, and his back is straight and his blue headscarf is rippling like a flag. The rebel soldiers watch him leave in silence.
                "Never let me see your face again, Freedom Fighter," Aamir prays in soft Arabic to the desert wind.

                On the long yellow road a speck of dust appears against the tinted blue horizon. The boys grip their rifles, watching. Such images flicker across the eyes of many hopeful youths only to turn out to be illusions, and the boys know this. The dust shimmers idly in the distance; then grows into a sandstorm at a frightening pace, and a dry desert gust whips ground stone into their eyes and sends ripples through their shirts and faded jeans. Their hands tense against the triggers as they shout something in Arabic; but when they see who holds the flag rippling at the fore, smiles break out, and the rifles are hoisted into the air with inarticulate cheers.
                Ten armored vans are waved through the checkpoint and into the city, where sparsely posted soldiers whoop at them from along abandoned streets. The leading truck pulls up in front of a hotel, its residents long since evacuated, and Jari leans out the driver's window with his miniature flag.
                "We're back with the supplies!" he shouts to the boys stationed at the hotel entrance. "Unload and eat your meals, and then we're joining the battle!"
                The rebel soldiers drop their guns and run to greet Jari and his squad as the van doors are unlocked and supplies are carried out. Once Jari is hefted up and paraded on the boys' shoulders with his flag and booming laugh over the ceaseless sound of distant gunfire, the news spreads like hot wind up the five stories of the vanilla plaster hotel. In its eastern wall a large hole was blown out, and between the skeleton of metal and plaster and the blasted black rims injured soldiers could be seen peering over his arrival. The official city hospital still functions, but has long since overflowed.
                After Jari is put down and the soldiers are organized into a fireline, a man comes up and greets Jari.
                "I am glad for the safe journey," the man says. A red bandana decorates his throat and his face is darkened a deep shade of brown by the harsh yellow light of the sun.
               "As am I. But there was little danger from the start; the horned devil has become a mere ghost of what he once was. Yes, a mere shadow; soon to be snuffed out slowly and painfully under our boots!" Jari laughs like rolling thunder.
                The last van pulls up which sends hot sand rushing over the parched pavement, and waves of heat rise swirling with the morning sun. Rebels hop off at a run to help funnel the canned food and bottled water and medicine and an assortment of other supplies into the hotel, and sometimes chipped figurines or pieces of jewelry as souvenirs. Then a boy emerges who with his blue basketball tanktop and clueless smile stands out like a sapphire in a sea of gold. The man thinks to himself, this boy fell off the plane on its way to the Egyptian Pyramids.
                "Who is that?"
                "Ah, the foreigner!" Jari chuckles fondly. "Curious boy. He asked us to take him to the battlefield."
                The man shakes his head. "Madness."
                "You worry too much! He wants to fight, so let him help with some small jobs in the back. It'll be fine."
                The man watches the boy confidently greet several amused soldiers by the van and then trip on the empty cartridges littered in the streets.
                "That is no soldier, you can see at a glance--that is a tourist. You can't let him fight. This is shameful."
                He walks toward the foreigner and orders the soldiers back to their tasks. The boy glances up with laughing green eyes that are as sharp as bayonets.
                "Give me the gun," he commands. The boy says something in a foreign language and offers up his black rifle, only half-understanding why until it is wrenched out of his hands.
                "Why are you here?" he demands with heavy English. The boy blinks at the suddenly familiar cadence of syllables, then smiles.
                "Shit, it's been forever since I've been able to talk, you're a Godsend! I'm here because I want to fight."
                "You are an idiot. Do you want to die?"
                "Well, no. I think I'm prepared to risk dying, though. You guys are risking your lives for freedom, after all, and I admire that."
                The man looks at the boy's face. Its proportions are queer but if he squints and stares it is bearable. There is a healthy roundness in his cheeks, and when he smiles all his features seem to line up into their natural positions. His skin is a smooth, shining layer of light copper.
                "Who gave you the gun? And the..." He gestures around his head, his eyes flickering to the blue and white checkered headscarf covering the boy's hair.
                "Um, the..." Also at a loss for words, the boy points.
                Jari whistles at the two from behind the second truck. "Long live the headless tourist!!" he whoops in Arabic. He claps his hands and then flings them into the air with peace signs, and the soldiers nearby cheer.
                "Jari?"
                "Is that his name? Man, speaking English is great! Justin Beiber was the only thing they understood--I was stuck singing 'Baby, baby' for way too long!"
                "You talk fast. I cannot understand."
                "Oh, sorry, sorry. I got too excited. But man, I am so glad to meet you!" He holds out the hand just freed from the rifle. "My name is Jonas. What is your name?"
                The man stretches out a hand and snatches the headscarf away.
                "Idiot. You are not one of us. Can you not see what you are to them?" The heat from the sun bores into the back of his neck and he realizes that sweat is down the sharp angles of his face and soaking his bandana. The boy's smile disappears.
                Well, the man thinks to himself, it has nothing to do with me. Let the idiot do what idiots do and see if he runs home crying. Right now, what I need is a smoke.
                Most of the supplies have been brought into the hotel, and Gulfam and a few other soldiers come by with lukewarm bean soup that was heated in their tin cans by the sun. They hand the two their shares.
                "Thank you," Jonas says. The man shoots him a glare.
                "That was English, right? What did he say?" Gulfam asks with something like awe. The man recognizes it as a child’s face in the zoo. He sits beside them under the shade of the van. "You said you studied in America."
                "Only for a little while," the man mutters. With one hand he opens the can of soup and with another he reaches into his pocket to pull out a cigarette and matches. "I don't speak it very well. He said 'Thank you.'"
                "Really? Are Americans all like this?"

                The man shrugs and eats his meal. He imagines he is eating his last supper somewhere high and cool and isolated during dusk, and he is watching the sand and stars and sunlight dance in time to the desert wind's song. But he cannot stop himself from noticing the soldiers as they stare in wonder at the boy.
                "What was America like?" another soldier asks the man.
                "I don't remember," he grunts in between his teeth and the cigarette, trying to light a match. "It's been a long time."
                "Oh, what a shame! I'm sure it's a beautiful country."
                "After the revolution we'll all visit there together,"
Gulfam says brightly. "We'll learn democracy from the Americans."
                "That would be a dream come true," a third soldier agrees. "Can you ask the tourist what America is like?"
                "Are you talking about America?" Jonas asks. The man drops a lighted match, curses, stomps the flame out, blowing on his burned finger.
                "What did he say?"
                "I don't know, I kept hearing something like 'America.'"
                "Hey, he said something like 'America' just now, didn't he?"
                "Come on, ask him about America! That sweet land of liberty!"

                The man's cigarette finally catches. He breathes in deep and then blows out a stream of twisting white, turning to the boy with a black scowl. "They ask how is America?"
                "I knew it!" Jonas smiles. "Well, where I come from there's always trees around, lots of green trees, even in the city. I'm a college student, right. My friends and I party in the weekends a lot when there isn't too much homework--you know what a party is? I mean, like, an American party."
                "There are trees and parties," the man translates and gives the soldiers a flat stare.
                "Hey, he said more than that!" they complain.
                "Yeah, you sneaky locust!"
                "And what about the parties? What does he do in parties?"

                "They do not know what a party is."
                Jonas laughs. "We sing and dance! All night long if we want. Sometimes we're lucky and a friend's parents are out, and we all go and turn the music up and just trash the place."
                The man smokes his cigarette slowly and waits before asking, "When can you do it?"
                "Whenever we want."
                He turns to the soldiers and says, "He sings and dances."
                "Really? Isn't that just a festival?"
                "There's no special reason or day--they just do it whenever they want."

                Gulfam sits up grinning. "I knew Americans were different. They just are, somehow. So people can just open their doors and sing, sing sing whatever and whenever they want?"
                The man glances at the boy. "Yes."
                "I knew they were different. They've got the taste of freedom on their tongues, haven't they. I can see it from their eyes. See that? It's the look of someone who chose by himself where he's going in life."
Gulfam grins at Jonas, and Jonas smiles back like they had been friends since they were born.
                A question occurs to the man, and he wishes it hadn't. He does not wish to ask it. But he feels a sense of duty to ask it, and so he asks it.
                "Do your parents know that you are here?"
                Jonas blinks and the smile slips out of his eyes to settle in his lips. He looks at the man with a quiet, steady gaze and shakes his head.
                "We're done!" Jari sings. "Everyone in my squad but the tourist, we're moving out! Anyone else well enough to join?"
                The man tosses the headscarf back to Jonas and stands.
                "It's time. Prepare yourselves." In English he mutters to the air, "I think I will remember you."
                He leaves to pick up his gun and slips on his army pants and vest. Very quickly the rebels are organized into several armored vehicles, three of them the vans from that morning with their loads still in the backs, covered by rough brown tarps. The man joins the boys in the back of one of these vans.
The engine sputters and rattles their bones against the hard metal flooring as the wheels crunch into the hot dust and pavement and the van grinds forward, the whole mass jumping at each stone or pit on the road. Behind him the man can hear the other soldiers joking quietly and recognizes Gulfam's voice as one of them, but he chooses to watch the hotel bounce from the open back until it swerve out of view, and then he closes his eyes, listening only to the sound of machine gun fire that had been in the background for as long as he had been sleeping in the rebels' stronghold. The light, quick rapping reminds him of beads bouncing on wood; but as they drive closer it becomes fierce and loud and so merciless the boys are silenced and only look at each other and cradle their guns. And suddenly it is there in front of them, other rebel soldiers' voices are heard, they have arrived.
                The van stops and everyone hops off with silent grimness and the bated breath of anticipation. After Jari speaks to the leaders at the street battleground, he gives his orders to the soldiers, and they do not question, only wordlessly obey. But Gulfam feels a lead stone stop up his throat when he hears that he and his fellow soldiers are to lead the assault under Jari.
                With some disappointment, the man is assigned to help Qays's soldiers defend the streets already under rebel control. When he aims his rifle at the fringe of a loyalist's shirt just around the corner, it jams immediately. He curses his bad luck and starts to walk back to the vans for one of the spare guns packed in the supplies.
                Suddenly Gulfam breaks away from Jari's squad and runs toward him. "Sir, what are you doing?" he asks breathlessly.
                The man frowns. "My gun jammed. I'm getting a new one."
                Jari yells over the ceaseless noise that his squad is moving to the west street and beckons Gulfam to hurry.
                "I'm sorry, I've got to go," Gulfam says quickly, "um, please let that foreigner at least see the battlefield, just a little glance, right? I can't take him with me now, but around here it should be fine, yeah? Yeah, I knew I could count on you. Thanks man!" He leaves the man in a low cloud of dust and mixes into Jari's squad.
                Half believing it to be a joke on the too-serious man, the ever-black-faced old soldier man (there have been jokes before, on the old bachelor, bad jokes where he was the only one not laughing), he places one foot in front of the other again and again to the van. He throws off the tarp.
                Jonas winces at the sudden bright sunlight, then flashes a guilty smile when he sees the man's face.
                "Hi?" he says.
                The man explodes in hot Arabic, "What are you doing here!? How did you get in here!? Didn't we tell you to stay in the back!?" But he remembers himself and hisses, in English: "Why are you here?"
                Jonas looks at him as if only sad deprivation could make someone forget such a universally treasured purpose. "I just want to be here. With you guys. Fighting."
                "Psychotic boy!" The man glances behind him at the soldiers setting up the posts, but they are deaf to all sound except the sweet cooing of weapons from both sides. So this is how it must be, he thinks. Now what do I do with this devil of an idiot?
                He drags Jonas to the side of a building and hands him his camouflage vest.
                "Take this and stay here. Do not move."
                "Oh. Thank you," the boy says sincerely and puts on the vest. "But I told you, I want to fight. Jari already taught me how to shoot an AK-47, see?" He hoists a rifle up proudly. "You flip this switch and then-"
                "No use! No help! Bad wish." He hisses something in Arabic before gaining enough composure to coherently translate his thoughts. "This fight is our fight, not for a tourist. You do not belong here. Go home!"
                A sound like an airplane landing and an explosion in a nearby building. Frantic Arabic voices spring up from all sides, alarmed, desperate, in pain. The wall of a building was blasted out and through the flames the man can make out writhing black shadows that make his blood run cold, then boiling hot with blacker thoughts. He turns back to Jonas to tell him, but the fire lights up the boy's green eyes as the heat makes him seem to grow broader and taller and the man feels almost sorry for his mother and father left behind in America who could not pin down this proud winged bird.
                "No," the boy says. "I will not just sit in the back and watch how things go on a ten-inch digital screen."
                "This is not a game, boy."
                "See, that's it! It's not a game! Never a game! It's a real revolution, and if I don't see this with my own eyes I'll never be able to know what we've all been fighting for, and I'll regret it for the rest of my life. It's what America's all about, freedom, right!? I've come so far and there's no going back--I am ready for this and I'm not leaving without it, how do I make you trust me, how do I make you tell me your name!?"
                "Fine! Fine! Is that all you want? My name is Aamir!" he says in English, then repeats in Arabic, "I am called Aamir. Do you understand? Now go-"
                And the desert rain begins to pour in bullets, ash and blood, the soldiers running and Aamir pushing the boy along and feet pounding and hearts rattling and three squads caught behind in the last hard pummeling the regime's most loyal men had the ammunition to make. A hundred feet behind Jonas, Gulfam feels the fire engulf him and at his first step all he can think of is pain and terror and panic. And then the second step made him think this was what freedom meant, shedding everything behind with each step forward, a way of life, blood running through veins, sleeping, drinking, breathing through those days and nights spun long with his newfound people and it was worth it, God, was it worth it all, he'd do it again any day. He thinks of his family and is proud that his mother on Earth and his father somewhere watching him can both say this new world soon to bloom for his country was well watered with his blood, that his children and their children after that will all have a say in this brave new world--that we are free, and we have paid for it. And at the third step there is a beautiful white nothingness and that is the last thing he ever felt.
                Behind the frontlines, the remaining men devote themselves to setting up the rocket launchers seized from the loyalists in previous battles. Smoke and heat sting Jonas's eyes while rapid Arabic is being yelled from all directions, and then somehow he is in a crowd of arms and bayonets and is struggling to get free. He can hear the bangs and crackles of artillery as they burst under his half-closed lids like bright flowers in the desert, and with each roar and explosion his hair rises and his throat constricts a little more. At last he stumbles out to freedom. He pauses to rest, laughing, happy to be able to breathe again. Vaguely he sees Aamir stand up from the rebel launchers and scream. At who? Oh, he thinks, it's me again. What have I done now?
                A sound like an airplane landing.
                Heavy shelling is pounding out from both sides of the civil war, and alone in the line of fire, Jonas dashes to the nearest building with head held low and hands clutching the rifle close like it could somehow save him. A rocket explodes in his path, but he careens out with skin burning and ears ringing and eyes flashing but filled with a soaring sense of joy because he did not yet know that this was how Gulfam died, only that he had escaped from it. He ducks into a sewage drain to wait out the rest of the barrage.
                In the shade it feels like the desert does at night, cold and biting and heartless. When he turns and sees a creature with black hair, bloodied clothes and a face full of white he thinks to himself, Death has come for me.

                Aamir counts the charred corpses amid the rubble as if he is in a dream. He thinks to himself, So this is how it must be. There is a general feeling of bitter satisfaction in the late afternoon air. The horned devil must have been among the dead; and that is all.
                "Where is the tourist?" he asks Jari.
                "Who?" he responds.
                It has nothing to do with him, Aamir tells himself. It is not his fault at all. The idiot asked, practically begged for it. But still, he returns to the street where the fight had taken place, looking for places the boy could have hidden.
                "Jonas," he hisses softly. "You idiot boy. Jonas."
                And then, stiff and dazed, the boy steps out from the sewage and says in a voice rasping from dryness and lack of use: "I saw him. In there. It's him."
                The knot that had been growing in Aamir suddenly slackens.
                The discovery causes uproar, as every rebel who can abandon the dismal task of finding bodies tries to land one hit on the last spoil of war. Some whip out their phones, taking pictures and videos of the man who had caged the people's freedom for forty years being beaten and tortured amid a whirlwind of taunts and jeers. Every rebel soldier has some personal grievance with the man. They look at him and all they can see is the horned devil who deserves to die shedding tears of blood and who will most certainly be sentenced to eternal suffering in the afterlife.
                Jonas looks at him and all he sees is a tired old man begging for mercy. He looks at the rifle still clasped in his hand, and even with the late afternoon sun against his skin Jonas still feels cold.
                There are several celebratory gunshots, which is to be expected, but one of them is out of place. The bullet drives itself eagerly into the overthrown dictator's temple, killing him instantly and, it is to be hoped, painlessly.
                A silence more deadly than rioting violence falls over the rebels, and Aamir knows immediately that this was the first and last bullet those two young hands would ever fire. Look at him dropping the gun and that blank stare on his face. The idiot. The idiot. The poor young American idiot.
                The boy simply looks at them all with his clear green eyes strangely steady.
                "I didn't kill him," he says quietly. "Freedom doesn't kill."
                "Go away." Aamir presses himself between the boy's words and the men's rifles, presses his hand against Jonas's chest and throws him against the wall. "You never belonged. Go back to your country and your people. Tonight, we bring you to Benghazi, and you go home. Do you understand?"
                Jonas meets his dark eyes and says slowly, in Arabic: "Yes, sir."
                Aamir nods once, sharply, and lets him go. Jonas walks away toward camp with his borrowed army clothes spotted with sweat and blood that are not his, and his back is straight and his blue headscarf is rippling like a flag. The rebel soldiers watch him leave in silence.
                "Never let me see your face again, Freedom Fighter," Aamir prays in soft Arabic to the desert wind.

Comments (4)

Volkes_Wagon said

at 8:57 pm on Nov 13, 2011

incomplete, obviously. experimenting with line length. also smth for dA stuff.
inspired by: https://secure.flickr.com/photos/flipimages/3875075350/lightbox/

Volkes_Wagon said

at 4:28 pm on Nov 27, 2011

scratch that.

Volkes_Wagon said

at 6:32 pm on Dec 1, 2011

Finally, it's got a direction. CRITIQUE IS VERY VERY MUCH APPRECIATED TT A TT i know it's just for some small online thing but there's over 6000 possible entrants and people who would possibly read this so you can't blame me for just slightly freaking out.

Volkes_Wagon said

at 5:55 pm on Feb 15, 2012

so anyone know anything about libya and what citizens did to welcome home freedom fighters?

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