There are two kinds of people in this life- the ones who start the fires and the ones who put them out. Miles was the kind of person who would put them out- both physically and metaphorically. He was the peace-keeping type, never could stand fighting, even as a child.
When he joined the military he had no clue what he was going to do with his life. But he had to pay for college somehow. He had to get out of the slum city where he lived- where there was gunfire every night and every surface was coated in a thick layer of graffiti.
He joined the fire fighting division of the UNA military, expecting it to be easy with no combat. How wrong he was. Three days into training they sent him out. Out onto the war front.
The images of war traumatized Miles, even if he only saw the aftermath. Dead bodies and blood splashed across the landscape, as far as the eye could see. Houses were destroyed; bullets and shells riddled the place. Miles and his team would scavenge the place to find any unexploded IEDs or bombs. And put out all the fires war left behind. Any surface that was torn with flame was soon covered with a soft layer of white. Then they just kept walking. Whole towns were set up in flame. Sometimes, in the distance, you could hear the bang and boom of war, the cry of some soldier dying. But, at least there was some routine those first few weeks. That twenty-ninth day, though, life changed.
They found an injured enemy soldier huddled under an abandoned tank.
“I got one!” Shouted Jackson, across the street from Miles. He pointed under the tank with the nozzle of the sprayer. Everyone crowded around to see. An enemy soldier, who had taken a bullet to the leg, was lying in the mud underneath the tank. Clutched in his arms was a little girl, dirt streaking her blonde curls and pink party dress. She was asleep.
Calling back up, Jackson and Miles hauled the soldier out from underneath the tank. Miles pulled out his never before used gun from his belt and pointed it at the man. The man dropped to his knees, the girl was now awake. She looked around, her big blue eyes fearful.
“Come here, sweetheart,” Jackson said, squatting down. He was studying to be a pastor and he had a way with children. Maybe they just liked the soft southern vibrato of his voice.
The little girl stood up and made her way shakily to Jackson. Scooping her up in his arms, he checked to make sure she wasn’t hurt. The soldier with the hurt leg stared at the ground with such intensity that Miles was sure it would bore a hole into the red mud.
Miles barked, “What’s your name?”
The soldier c***ed his head and said in broken American, “I is Sampson.” Sampson was an ironic name for such a scrawny soldier.
Still aiming the gun at Sampson, Miles said, “What’s your story?” The soldier never got to tell. He died then and there, his body falling into the clay mixed with mortar shells of the ground and his blood making the red mud redder.
Jackson sighed, squatting down to close the eyes of the fallen soldier, “Well, what are we gonna do with the girl?”
Miles said, “We can’t exactly take the girl back to base, ya know.”
“But what if we did take her back to camp? Say she survived through the gunfire, there was nary a soul left.”
“Jackson,” Miles breathed, “Jackson. They’ll still take her away. Put her in social services or something. Aw, man, why do you want her, anyway?”
Jackson shook his head, “I dunno. Just feels right. And she’s an orphan. Who has no sorrow for an orphan of war?”
“I don’t!” shouted Miles, sticking the gun back in his belt. “Look, man, I'm calling for backup. I don’t care what they do with the girl or something, but we can’t just stand here, waiting for who knows what. We got to move. War don’t stop for no one, Jackson.” The tagline was the famous Fire Division motto. It was stitched onto everyone’s shirtsleeves, reminding them to get a move on, to keep fighting the fires left behind. It didn’t work, not when a four year old child was on the line.
Jackson strolled over, a bit closer, shifted the girl who had attached herself around Jackson’s neck. “Please?” he begged, “I’ll take care of her, I swear.”
Miles sighed, a deep, bellowing sigh that seemed to fill up all the empty space in the sky. “Fine. Shifts about over, anyhow. We gotta get back.” They trudged back to the trucks, the little girl still clinging to Jackson. Jackson had decided that she would be called Cooper, even though she hadn’t said a word to him. Name or otherwise.
After they got back to camp, Jackson went back to the tent of the Fire Fighter General. Loud arguing was heard all across the camp, ringing in the ears of Cooper, who was sitting quietly next to Miles on a bench outside that tent.
Jackson ducked out of the tent, “He said fine. But she is mine. I gotta take care of her, and she eats out of my rations. I reckon’ that my draft is over in six days changed his mind.”
“What ever, man, she’s yours,” Miles said, his words chipped, “I'm just going to go write a letter home.” The tent stank like spoiled milk and dirt as he stepped inside as he dug his stuff out from under the tarp flooring. Pulling out a clean sheet of paper he began his letter.
(Evelyn was his girlfriend)
Life is tough in these here foxholes. Jackson brought home a girl… but not what you think…
Stopping to think, Miles was aware that there was someone else in the room. Standing at the door flap, Cooper was quiet as a mouse.
“Hey, girlie,” Miles said, turning around, “I don’t really like it when people read over my shoulder.”
Cooper crossed the floor and plopped down, Indian style, on the floor in front of him. “Can’t read,” she whispered, her big eyes searching Miles’ face. He was surprised that he was the first one she talked to, with Jackson saving her and all.
“Can’t read, huh?” Miles asked, “Want to learn? I could teach you.”
Cooper’s eyes shone as she sat down next to him on the cot for her first reading lesson.