They were running through a slum. The boy had fallen behind and gunshots hailed from all and any direction. The order was take cover. The boy was behind boxes, some four-hundred metres back. He saw the man, long black straight hair; thin and impoverished. He was dressed in light leathers and white work shirt. He held a rifle upwards.

More shots from the front; he turned away, a building was on fire. He looked back. The boxes had been kicked down, the man over the boy aiming. The world had stopped. He couldn’t shout, his voice failed, his arms heavy with anticipated grief.

The boy died.

And the world began turning again – sound, colour and light clamoured and screamed for attention and action. He raised his rifle and shot twice. The man in the light leathers fell, red circles already staining the work shirt.

He didn’t speak in the truck back to the barracks. He rarely did and the scar across his face discouraged question or boast. He went home as usual; his wife was troubled but didn’t press her woes. He sat and ate in silence; staring off into space. Occasionally, he would glance at his boy.

His failure to save the boy; he held that close to his heart. He didn’t want to forget.

Eventually his wife, her hands white and eyes tearful spoke to her husband:

“The superintendent visited today and warned us again about tenants; they need to be quieter.”

The scarred soldier rose from his seat; walked to where his son was sleeping and crouching, the leather of his boots creaking; he stroked the boy’s head gently.

“He’s dreaming.” The soldier murmured. He rose back to his feet, walked to his wife’ taking her hands in his, he kissed them.

“Don’t worry I am looking for more work; the superintendent is a friend, he will understand. If not, money will help him.”

The room was fading into mere shadows around them; as the sun set, the sounds of life in the city before the Valley could be heard. Cars, horns, feet on concrete; the lights from the bars and casinos gave the city a pale yellow-pink glow. The darkened sky above spread to eternity over the city, the slums of the Valley, the Plateau and far beyond.

Clear and bright, aside from the moon shone a star. Fierce and magnificent.

——————

In the morning, reporting for duty he was to be on patrol again in the slums. He hadn’t been assigned there since that day. It was haunted, a bad omen to return. He thought of his wife and their son. He was haunted.

He broke down walking to the truck; falling to one knee a hand on his face. He showed no tears, made no sound. His comrades helped him to his feet, for Pero was close and he would lash him. Call him names and question his virility. Insult his wife and child, his mother and father. The soldiers knew; they helped each other.

He arose, shakily; groggy from the vision of the boy dying in front of him. He stumbled to the truck, gripped the sides with hands drained of strength; pulled himself aboard. He was on duty, they needed the money. What could he do? What could anyone do?

When they entered the slums; they found street merchants. Pero had banned them. The scarred soldier and a younger man, no more than nineteen, made to arrest the vendor. He dropped his goods and raised his arms above his head, fear registered clearly on his drawn face. His arms shook; he bent his elbows, unable to hold his arms straight for fear. His held his palms open. Look, I have nothing.

The scarred soldier paused; the man was only trying to make a living. The young soldier grabbed the vendor and pulled him roughly over to the awaiting truck.

The street seller was doing what he had to do, to survive. Look after his family. He was doing what we all must. The scarred soldier walked over to the truck. He reached for the vendor and pulled him out.

“Run. Now.”

The vendor froze. He feared a trap. The moment was lost.

“You there, get that rat on the truck and get back out there hunting.”

Pero had spoken.

To Chapter Twenty-Two – The Festival of Fire Part II

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