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The Stone Soldier
The Stone Soldier
There was a crease in the soldier's forehead, matching the determined frown that graced his lips; indeed, the entire stone effigy seemed to exude concentration. He was a crouching tiger, prepared to strike, but his young appearance and innocent eyes suggested that he was not far from being a cub. Perhaps it was because of that youthful aura that the rifle seemed immensely out of place in his hands.
Carelessly, I snapped a picture, not caring that I probably cut his arm out, and fingered my identification card that I wore around my neck. It sported the logo for the National Youth Leaders Conference, the camp I happened to be attending at that moment. So far, it had been fun; despite the work we had to do, I loved the sightseeing. Well, most of it.
“I liked Vietnam better,” I mentioned to my friends, Jackie and Khailee, referring to the Vietnam Memorial where we had just been.
“Oh, I don't know,” Khailee said thoughtfully, “The soldiers in the field here are more moving than the wall at the Vietnam Memorial, since you get an actual visual, I think.”
Yeah. That was exactly why I preferred the other one. Often I felt uncomfortable and out-of-place at the solemn memorials that called for emotion, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial fit that bill perfectly. Not that the Vietnam one didn't, but it was far easier to not be awkward there, next to a giant wall, than it was while encircled by statues of soldiers.
“War is depressing,” Jackie sighed, a change from her normally cheerful demeanor, and effectively making my problem worse. To be honest, I never knew what to say when we got onto these deep topics.
“It is,” Khailee agreed immediately, never one to shy away from solemnity as I did. “Especially when you think about the citizens and not just the soldiers... all the poverty and homelessness that results from war. It's horrible, isn't it?”
“Yeah,” said Jackie, and I echoed her, all the while searching for a new subject to change to. Before I could bring up the upcoming new Harry Potter book for the twelfth time, though, Jackie checked her watch and shrieked.
“Oh! We're going to be late!” she cried, rapidly enlisting both hands to grab one of Khailee's arms and one of mine. Comically, she began to drag us towards the bus. Letting myself be pulled along, I felt immensely relieved, and once we had reached the bus, we started to discuss where we would eat (“You guys promised we'd go to Subway today!” grinned Jackie). The bus was taking us on our way to the heart of Washington D.C. for lunch.
Half an hour later, I had a sub in my hands and was chewing on it contentedly. Walking the streets and seeing the basic sights of such a big city (as well as doing some shopping) was an appealing idea, and we didn't want to waste time sitting and eating. Being a group of three giggling girls, we must have attracted some attention on the sidewalks.
“Books-A-Million!” Khailee exclaimed as she saw the store, her eyes widening until they looked like saucers behind her black-rimmed glasses. I groaned.
“Please, no. I love books too, but I already spent too much money at the Smithsonian's,” I said with a smile, playfully punching Jackie in the shoulder as she coughed out a word that sounded suspiciously like 'nerds'.
“Five minutes,” Khailee pouted and clasped her hands together to illustrate her words. Jackie giggled at her antics and shrugged noncommittally, and I made a face at her but didn't protest. As one, we turned at the corner, making for the bookstore that I knew would tempt me terribly.
“Maybe you should hold my money for me,” I sighed to Jackie, but she didn't answer. Turning to her, I realized she hadn't heard me; instead, her eyes were fixated on some point in front of us, one of her eyebrows raised ever-so-slightly. A quick glance to my other side confirmed that Khailee was looking in the same direction. With an odd sense of foreboding, I followed their gaze to the end of the sidewalk.
What I saw made me shudder almost involuntarily.
There stood a lady, in her thirties or forties by the looks of it, standing in a posture that looked almost territorial. Blond hair was mussed and dirty, a mop set above her pale face; the general aura of dirtiness surrounding her identified her as homeless. Clothes that looked more like rags were draped on her stocky frame, and her shoes – were they really shoes? To me they looked more like worn-out cardboard boxes. Stunned, I returned my eyes to her face. Where I lived, there were few homeless people, and none I had ever seen were like this. The woman's calculating sneer was offset by the fierce glint in her eyes, and as she noticed us looking at her, I saw her fists clench. One of them seemed to be holding a piece of paper.
She screeched suddenly, a long string of swear words that took me by surprise, and my legs involuntarily took a cautious step back. I must have looked a picture of shock at that moment, having forgotten that my two friends were on either side of me. Khailee took my hand to drag me forward, shaking me out of my stupor, and I stumbled forward after her. Passing by, we tried to keep our eyes away from the lady, and at first, she merely scowled at us.
Then, in a swift movement that at the time seemed so fast that my eyes didn't register it, she leaped in front of us. More ugly words and curses poured from her mouth like snakes, as she unclenched her fist and shoved the piece of paper in our faces. In her hand lay an envelope, crumpled and dirty as if she had pulled it out of the trash.
When I looked down into it, unsure what she wanted and already offended by the slurs directed towards us, I only found that it was empty. Khailee again tugged on my hand, Jackie pushing on me lightly from the side. Quickly, we sidestepped the lady and scurried off in the direction of Books-A-Million. We left her with her hand still outstretched to where we had been, her back to us.
“Poverty,” Khailee murmured after we had hurried to what was tacitly decided a safe distance away, “and homelessness. I hate it.” This registered in my brain after a moment, and I took a sharp silent intake of breath. So that was what she had meant, when she was talking about the travesties that happened to the citizens who were affected by war. Sure, maybe that woman's status wasn't due to war, but it ended up as the same result – the same, terrible, heart-wrenching result.
“It was horrible,” I agreed with true feeling, an answer that was finally more than monosyllabic. It passed unnoticed by my friends.
“Well, that's what we're here to fix, right? Being 'Youth Leaders', and all,” Jackie smiled at us and I felt a smile rise on my own face to answer hers. The rest of the distance to Books-A-Million was covered in a comfortable silence.
We saw the woman again, once more on the way back to the bus. This time she was sleeping on the ground without even a blanket, but looking oddly peaceful. It was an extreme contrast to when we had last seen her, and we each glanced at her once as we passed. Nothing was said of it, but an understanding hung in the air between us, perhaps a change within each of us. I know there was a change in me.
As the bus drove us back to the hotel, we again passed the Korean Memorial. Though the field of stone effigies was a bit of a distance away, I could almost see the sparkle of naivety in hollow eyes and the rifle sitting awkwardly in the hands of the stone soldier.
[Events fictionalized a little bit. Hope that's all right. :) ]
This will certify that the above work is completely original: Rebekah Cramerus.