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The Second Home
We were flying. Or to be more precise, hurling towards the ground at approximately 50 miles per hour with only the camouflage parachutes strapped to our backs as our flimsy lifelines. Or, to be even more specific, we were hurling towards the ground in a blur of red and white, as our parachutes floated behind us, flapping crazily in the wind, as we prepared to meet our fates upon the foreign land of Afghanistan at Khyber Pass, a secret military point at which we were supposed to land, which was zooming in closer and closer as we dropped towards the ground.
“Couple more minutes. Keep close!” barked General Steinmeyer, looking equally ridiculous in his getup of huge aviation goggles, and layer upon layer of thick, bulletproof ski jackets. True, it was winter, and huge flakes of snow were starting to descend on us, but still, he just looked ridiculous.
I closed my eyes and imagined myself from an outsider’s view. Johnny Capurnical, just an ordinary 19 year old boy soldier. Except the fact that my father, once also part of the US Armed Forces, had disappeared in Afghanistan just two years ago. He was assumed to be dead, or worse. Rumors of Afghanistan-style torture had circulated around, leaving us to believe the worst. That’s why I was here. To avenge his death. I would kill every last Afghanistan man, women, and child out there. This is what I’ve been training for my whole life.
Even to this day, I can still see the pain in my mother’s eyes, as she read the letter of Father’s death with shaky hands. I can still hear the agony in her voice as she spoke in that fragile, delicate voice of hers. I can still smelling her salty tears dropping on my shoulders as she hugged me, still feel the heavy burden placed upon her body as I carried her onto the couch, where she lay sobbing for hours. She was all I had left. I was going to make sure Father didn’t die in vain.
Before I knew what was going on, I had smashed onto the ground. Hard. Somewhere in the distance, General Steinmeyer was screaming desperately for help, but his voice was growing fainter and fainter. The snow was descending upon me furiously now, covering me up like a blanket. That was the last thing I noticed before completely blacking out.~
“Leave the kid alone, he can’t be more than seventeen,” a heavily accented voice ordered. The sound of a rifle was unmistakable. Only the fear of death forced me to spring up onto my feet and grope around for my own trustworthy revolver and shotgun. No use. As soon as I had laid hands on them, I was already cornered by gunpoint. Four guns, in fact. I came here to win, to avenge my father. No way was I going to just give in to death this easily.
I faked a terrified look, and was smug to see the looks on all of their faces relax. All Afghan men, that was for sure. I wondered if they had children or wives, or families. Most likely, they did. It was going to be sad when I killed them all.
One glanced away for a split second, but a split second was more than enough time. I charged, tried to jump-kick their faces, but embarrassingly missed. Cringing, I shoved my hands into my back pockets, looking for my safety handgun. It wasn’t there. One of the men grinned at my look of confusion, and held something up in the air, my gun. “Looking for this?” he asked mockingly.
That was it. I lunged, baring my teeth as I did so. He merely stepped aside and watched me tumble into the flurry snow pile. Furious, I grabbed a frozen piece of wood from beside a nearby tree and swung blindly, feeling satisfaction as it smashed into something soft and fleshy. The man grunted and glared at me. I evilly smiled. Part one of my fantasy was coming true.
As I was about to give him another thwack in the leg, I heard some chuckling, and froze. I knew this laugh, had known it for the past 17 years of my life. Could it be...
“Kid, I think you’ve done enough harm to Frank here. Come inside kid, it’s warmer here,” he gestured to a village just down the road I hadn’t noticed before. “Yes, he’s a fighter alright,” my father smiled broadly.~
After a steaming, hot bowl of Shorba, a traditional Afghan soup and some Mantu and Kufta, meat dumplings, I was already starting to recover through my crazy morning. A few Afghan women, faces concealed by their heavy burqas, offered us some kind of noodles. They quickly dropped to their knees, bowed their heads onto the floors, and murmured a strange chant in either Pashto or Dari. I suppose it was some sign of humbleness, but who cared? I was tempted to throw the bowls at them, and spit in their faces. Father must have seen the look of vengeance on my face, so he quickly accepted the bowls and slurped some up.
Cautiously, I edged towards my bowl and peered inside. A delicious aroma of noodles and vegetables in a tomato broth floated up to my nose, making my mouth instantly water. The taste of chaka, or yogurt, and the mint-leaves lingered in my mouth long after I had swallowed my last bite. Not wanting to seem weak and easily caved, I gave a little sniff of insolence, and turned my nose up. Father grinned at me. He could see through my wall and knew I was caving in. “It’s called Aush, son. It’s a traditional Afghanistan noodle dish.” He winked at me.
I could hardly believe this was my father anymore. I had known him all my life as the strong guardian protecting me and Mother from any danger. Never had I known that he would give up his real life to be a part of this...hick little village. He had corrected me on that. According to him, he had wandered by here, badly wounded, and instead of killing him with a single shot, the village took him in, and all tended to him. He had grown to love the new styles of food and the long history of the Afghan people. Still, I just couldn’t see things from his side.
Maybe the expression on my face gave away how I felt, because Father grinned and dragged me up to my feet, out the door. “Well, kiddo, I’m going to take you to see something you’ll never forget,” he smilingly said.~
After a couple minutes of walking, we arrived at the village’s central square. It wasn’t that impressive actually, but the way Father kept beaming at me, told me I should have probably been excited by now. I wasn’t sure what we were supposed to see in this little square of dirt and grass, but he pulled me over, and sat me down on the outer ring of a circle formed around a huge bonfire.
I glanced around curiously. Everyone was holding hands with one another, and I cautiously reached over to grab Father’s rough, callused hand, and one of a wrinkly old lady wearing a “salmar kameez” as Father called it. It just looked like an ordinary dress to me. She hardly noticed as I slipped my hand into hers, and only smiled, and murmured something like a blessing.
Out of nowhere, a man heavily clothed in a “lungee” (turban) and a “chapan” (coat) stepped out of the darkness into the circle, his loud voice booming powerfully across the entire village square. To my surprise, no one seemed startled at all. I cast furtive looks at those around me. All were closing their eyes, and swaying in time to the chanting of the speaker.
“We’re celebrating Mid-sha’ban tonight, or as it’s known here, Shab-e-barat. It translates into the night of deliverance or the night of assignment. This is the time of the year where a festive nightlong vigil with prayers is held. Here, we also commemorate our deceased ancestors.” Father whispered into my right ear. It was no longer strange to hear him refer to this strange village with the term “we” or “our”. It felt natural, like it should have been that way all along.
In either case, I was too captivated by the chanting and power of the center man. He drew all of our attentions into him, charming us with ancient legends and folklore, translated to me courtesy of Father. He left us breathless with his reenactments of gods and goddesses, creating a mysterious spiritual feeling lingering even after he finished talking. I felt quite silly repeating foreign phrases after a man decked out in robes and a strange hairstyle, but since no one really seemed to care, I began to loosen up and have some fun.
He glanced over at me, and it might have been my imagination, but I swore a twinkle came over his eyes. Then he turned away, leaving me to furrow my brow. Father had seen the whole episode and softly laughed. “Recognize anyone you know, Johnny?”
I squinted through the darkness, over at the man. He did slightly look familiar, with his dark skin, milk chocolate eyes, and a scar over his left leg. Then it hit me. This was Frank, the man who I had viciously attacked on my first day here! I instantly felt ashamed for hitting such a great, loving man. I had misjudged him, based on some incorrect assumptions I had made before truly knowing these people. Instantly, I wished I could take it all back. All these people, they were just trying to help all along!
As if he could hear my thoughts, Frank turned back around to wink at me, then quickly tossed me a small trinket. It sailed through the air and landed down by my feet. I glanced around furtively, checking if anyone noticed. All eyes were still closed. I closed my fingers around the edge of the cool object in the darkness. It was a locket.
There was a gentle prod upon my back, and I whipped around, ready to defend myself against anyone who might have thought it strange to see a young white man among so many dark-skinned Afghans. My glare softened when I saw it was a plump, little boy, no older than 4 years old, carrying bowls upon bowls of food He gazed at me with those starry, innocent eyes and held out the bowl to me. I was speechless.
Graciously, I accepted casting my eyes down in embarrassment the entire time. Tentatively, I glanced upward to check he was still there. Seeing his bewildered expression made me suddenly uncharacteristically let out a low chuckle. The young boy saw my laugh, and his whole face lit up. He picked himself off his knee and started running towards his mom, standing only 10 feet away watching this all occur. He hugged her legs, and delightfully pointed back to me, and said something undecipherable. Puzzled, I turned towards Father.
Father had a bright smile on his face as well. “Son, what you have in your hands right now is a bowl of Shakar with rice. It is one of the most symbolic dishes of the night. Him giving it to you shows, well, acceptance in this community.”
With these simple words, I could help but feel my heart warming up a bit. All these trusting people, just wanting to help a strange boy they had never seen before in their lives. How could I ever had a single doubt about them? I stood up and smiled, bringing with me the bowl of Shakar, and a new feeling of hope back to my tent.~
“Johnny. Wake up. We have to go. Now!” It was the urgency in my father’s voice that woke me up. He always kept a calm composure. Never before had I heard him raise his voice.
Groggily I sat up from my sleeping bag. “What time is it?” I yawned, rubbing my eyes.
“It doesn’t matter. We need to get out of here. Before it’s too late!”
“Before what’s too late? What’s going on!”
It was then that I heard the gunshots and the blood-curling shrieks of a woman.
In exactly two minutes and seventeen seconds, I was out the door in my army outfit, ready to defend and kill. But defend what? Kill who? My allegiances had switched overnight, and I was no longer sure of my decisions. New friends or home? Father or country? These thoughts pounded in my head as I snuck down towards the town square, where more gunshots and clashing of swords could be hurt. My heart was pounding.
At first when I reached the square, I thought I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. No longer was this the tranquil area with the huge bonfire. Bruised bodies, Afghan and white alike, lay scattered over the entire fields, transforming it from a performance stage into a battlefield. Blood gushed from wounds in every body part imaginable...and even more. I turned away, disgusted. But this was my duty and this was my country.
Suddenly, a hand clamped down hard on my shoulder, and I whirled around. Imagine my surprise when I came face to face with my old General Steinmeyer. His face was bloodied up, his nose arm probably broken, and as he leaned towards me, his breath smelled suspiciously of beer. “Johnny,” he whispered. “Glad to see you alive.” He tottered towards me for balance. I was too terrified to do anything but hold him by the shoulders to steady him.
“You see that man right there?” he whispered, and pointed with a shaking arm. “That black-skinned one, right there in the center of the battle?” General Steinmeyer spat into the ground. Then he grinned at me. His front two teeth were missing. “Yessir, I need you to kill him.”
Not believing my eyes, I followed his gaze and found myself staring right at who else but Frank. Frank, the man who dug me out of the snow. Frank, the powerful man at the ceremony last night. Frank, the man who I had come to know as my second guardian. And now I had to kill him?
“That man has something we want,” hissed General Steinmeyer. “A locket we believe. There’s supposedly a secret message concerning some of our nation’s top spies in there. We’ll kill every last man, woman, and child here before we leave without it.”
My mind flashed back to last night. Frank had tossed me a locket in dead seriousness, there was no joking involved. There was a possibility that this was the prized possession General Steinmeyer was after. And he was less that a foot away from it! My heart began pounding even faster.
“Yessir, you see? I’m going to shoot him right now...just wait, then he’ll see that he’s not the only master gun handler out here. Oh, I’ll show him...” muttered General Steinmeyer, fumbling with his revolver. If I didn’t act soon, Frank would die. If I gave him the locket, there was a chance that he would let all of the Afghans go. But since he was drunk, and not thinking straight, there was no guarantee on anything. Frank had known I was part of the US Army, that part was clear. Yet, he still trusted me with one of the most valuable objects to the US. How could I let him down?
I swallowed, my heart throbbing in my chest, threatening to pop out any minute and expose my thoughts to the world. Slowly, I reached into the back pocket of my pack, and pulled out my revolver.
General Steinmeyer froze when he heard the click of my weapon. One pull of the trigger, and he would be history. He and I both knew that his fate now rested in my hands.
“Johnny,” he whispered hoarsely. I aimed the revolver to his head. “What are you doing?”
I swallowed. “Drop your weapons. All of them.” My head spun.
His eyes glanced around desperately, “But...”
“I said drop them.” My voice was so cold, I almost didn’t recognize it myself.
Stunned, he pulled off his pack, and all the weapons strapped to his waist and handed them over to me. I carefully eyed him as I took these all from him. One move, and either he or I would be gone from this world. Slowly, I turned my back on him and began to march towards the war zone.
“Johnny, have you lost your mind?” he pleaded. “Johnny, what’s going on?
I stopped, and coolly looked over my shoulder. For a second, my heart broke. One of the strongest men I knew, had never looked so fragile. But I pushed all feelings of regret back. Now was not the time.
“I’ve discovered my life’s priorities, General. That’s all I can tell you.” And with that, I left him, bursting with questions, behind in my wake.~
I didn’t know what I was doing. I don’t know what was going on. No one, including myself, knew when I would run out of time, and when I would leave this world. Every second that elapsed, every beat of my heart, was a reminder, that I was still alive, and I could continue to fight. And so I would continue to fight for the world, so that when my time came, I would leave with no regrets. All I knew right now, was that everything was going to turn out okay.