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The rubble in the streets from the various explosions had never been cleared. The people of Kazurk lived their lives around debris. The children played on the mounds of clutter, and it only took one slice from a broken, rusty piece of metal for them to stop wanting to play near it –that is for the children who did not succumb to tetanus- The streets were still never cleared of rubble, and the children eventually stopped playing.
Amina Tengo walked the ruined pathways of the city every day to her job. Ever since her parents had died, she was forced to help her foster family make ends meet. She trudged through the streets very carefully, for she was experienced with cut legs and avoiding the debris. She had no shoes, but, being the resourceful ten-year-old that she was, Amina was able to fashion a pair using a few pieces of wood and string.
She remembered her true parents vaguely, that they had been hard workers for Government. Amina was raised to worship Him, and they even had a portrait of Government in their living room. She would stare at the picture for hours in her more idle days, but one night men in black coats came took her parents away. Mr. And Mrs. Tengo were put in charge of caring for the girl while her parents went on a trip. Amina wondered when they were coming back.
A snake wriggled from underneath one of the blocks of concrete, and Amina stood watching it intently while keeping her distance. Suddenly, she realized that she had been dawdling too long and would be late for work, so she sprinted through the street. Some of the rubble tripped her up, and she fell to the ground, snapping the wooden sole of her left shoe and skinned her leg. She got up and forced herself to walk with the horrendous stinging of her leg oozing with blood.
Jakol W’Thali, an imposingly tall and dark man with black hair and deep, penetrating, terrifying eyes, was Amina’s boss. He saw the girl limping toward her post and rushed to her side, looked at his wristwatch and screamed, “You stupid girl! You’re late! I should fire you on the spot!”
With that Jakol struck the girl in the stomach with the barrel of his gun, and she fell to the ground, tears welling in her eyes. “I give those damned Tengos some financial help, and this is the thanks I get! This is the filth I am always stuck with! Ignorant peasants!”
Amina rose slowly and hobbled to the armory shack. The guard handed her a rifle, and she began her appointed rounds. Her job was to guard against the evil men who stole into Kazurk to cause explosions. Government had been sending military to aid the town ever since the first attacks, and since General Jakol was an expert on explosives, Government appointed him the leader of the resistance against terrorism. Unfortunately, even someone so powerful as Government could not stop those evil rebels who chose not to strike at day but at night, and their attacks had been growing in frequency. Alas, General Jakol said that Government would not allow possible harm to come to children, for the terrorists could easily strike out of their child-level perception. Amina still did not understand why she was not allowed to help General Jakol and his elite squadron at night guard, but she recognized his authority as absolute just like Government’s voice. She made her patrol, pacing back and forth on her hurt leg and looking out past the outskirts of Kazurk. She was given a break after two hours, and she took the opportunity to obtain a drink of water from the rationing station. Her sweet break was all too short, and she felt with every step searing pain of her torn leg when blood coursed through it. An hour into her second shift, Jakol broke a loaf of bread and gave each worker a piece. Amina took this lunch break and spent it with her friends under the awning of the bakery (which had long been closed down). Bailo and Juga were nearly on the top of her list of favorite people; the three would spend their idle time chatting frivolously of Government’s glory and power. As Amina sat down, Bailo greeted her warmly, and his sister followed suit. They ate their pieces of bread and spoke of nothing for about fifteen minutes before the three were broken up again by their appointed rounds. Every day Amina dreaded this shift in her day. It was a long stretch, four hours of pacing without a significant break.
At one hour into her march, Amina’s leg was throbbing so badly that she could barely stand. Two more hours passed, and Amina’s tongue had become so dry and swollen that she forgot the screaming pains in her leg. Amina dwelled upon the thought of the terrorists that had managed to sneak into Kazurk and steal most of the water. She vowed to find the responsible men and bring them to justice and end the terrible rationing. If only she knew where the cowards hid! At last four o’clock came, and Jakol provided the briefing of day’s end.
“Everyone! You managed to avert yet another disaster today! While you dutifully guarded your country, no terrorists attacked us!”
A cheer let out from the group; Amina cheered loudest of them all.
“Your work for the day is done! You are the greatest soldiers in the world, and you all deserve blessings and a feast. Please report to the armor station for your pay. Thank you all!”
Amina thought bitterly to herself as she walked to the armorer. She might actually HAVE a feast if the rebels hadn’t attacked the aid trucks. Almost nobody could safely get into or out of Kazurk except powerful men from Lord Government’s army, for evil men nested just past the outskirts of town, and they despised and envied the people of Kazurk for their blessings and freedoms. Amina guarded against men like that every day, and they were the most blatantly fearful cowards for their subversive night efforts. They feared the might of the Kazurk militia! The heathens would pay for their treachery.
Because she had been late for work, Amina received two iron coins instead of her usual three. Bailo and Juga collected their pay and joined Amina on the trek home. The three children were far too tired and hungry to feel like talking, and none of them thought much of it. Their line of work was difficult. They passed the rusty sign, and the three went their separate ways home. After the long walk, Amina finally arrived at her foster parents’ home. As she limped in through the doorway, her mother asked where her pay was, and Amina handed her the coins, “Where is the third?”
Amina explained her wound and the consequences of her delay. Her mother was nearly in tears as she gave Amina a hug to make the pain of hunger and wounds go away. “There will not be enough for food. The collector is coming tonight.”
The girl liked the collectors, for they were rather kindly men. They also ensured that the money of Kazurk was kept flowing. She could not understand what made her mother so nervous about their coming. To pass the time, the two played a game of scraps with an old and worn stack of playing cards. Amina would throw a card to the floor, and her mother would try to take the card by aiming and hitting it with a card of the same suit. They let out a chuckle when Amina overthrew her card and watched it flutter to the ground. Amina decided to end the game when her mother’s aim became too shaky to pose a challenge. She also kept peering at the doorway until Amina asked, “What is wrong?”
“The collectors are coming, Amina.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
Her mother shuddered, “…nothing, dear… I’m just so excited to know…”
The squeak of the opening door startled the woman, and she stood quickly to look at the intruder. She realized it was her husband and relaxed slightly, “It’s collection day. Do we have enough?”
He replied, “I made seven pieces today, what about Amina?”
“She made two because she arrived late.”
“Well! I’ll be damned if I allow them to…Amina, you’re leg is hurt! What happened?”
Amina answered, “I fell in the street when I was running to work because I was late.”
Her father bent down and gave his daughter a hug, and then he got to his knees and placed his palm on the wound, a sign of forgiveness and empathy. “For whatever happens tonight, it is not your fault. Here is one piece,” he said, placing a coin in Amina’s hand. “When the collector comes, go buy as much bread as you can from the vendor in town. Do not come back without the bread, but do not be out after dark, ok?”
“Yes, sir!” Amina respected only one man more than her stepfather, and nothing could make her go against his wishes.
Another knock came at the door, and a tall man dressed in black stepped into the house. “It is time to pay your taxes, Tengo! Let’s see…you have one working daughter, that’s two pieces, and your house tax is three…and your, erhem…amnesty tax will be 5…” He paused his speech to give Amina a pat on the head, and she decided that the time was right to get the food.
As she exited, her father said, “We only have 8 coins to pay you.”
Amina was already away from the house, hearing the collector say, “Well, then you’ll not be able to pay the amnesty tax, so…” before the sound trailed off into mumblings. A sudden shout from her father was quickly cut off, and Amina stood still in the street. She began to walk back toward the house slowly, but she remembered her father’s wish and continued toward the center of town. She stopped for another moment when she heard her mother scream. Amina was fearful of the consequences wrought from her father not being able to pay. Perhaps the collector would like to have her coin, as well? As she thought, she looked through the street and saw a large building with Government’s face plastered on it, and her heart rejoiced. She remembered her discipline and continued on her quest to gain some bread even through the distant cries of her mother in the sunset. When she finally reached the plaza, she saw men in black coats operating kiosks selling bread and more luxurious foods like apples and tomatoes. She stepped up to one of the covered stands and asked for as much bread as one piece could buy her, and the tall man handed her a small portion of bread from a stale loaf. Amina happily began her trek home, and on her way back she heard a couple speaking in whispers. “I have seen the soldiers and Kathgar’s mercenaries. They’re getting more nervous every day!”
Amina wondered who Kathgar might be.
“Nobody is coming. Who would be foolish enough to take on the armies of Ilan? Certainly not some outlander!”
Amina was jolted into remembering her father’s command as she heard the thudding of boots walking into the room where the couple spoke.
“Well, all I know is that Kathgar has been persecuting our kind long enough! I…what are you…?”
Amina was already gone from the window when she heard gunshots echo through the street. She was desperately trying to get home while the street was still visible. Walking in the dark with broken shoes would certainly have been a nightmare. She figured the firings came from terrorists, but she had no weapon with which to fight them, so she jogged home as fast as she could.
Amina pushed open the door and saw her stepmother lying in the corner, sobbing. Her father lay on the floor, unconscious, with a large bruise on his forehead. Amina handed the bread to her mother who in turn rose slowly and divided it, tears dripping from her eyes. From past collections, Amina knew that the best course of action was to head to her small room without saying a word.
Several weeks later, Amina was walking to work with her head down so that she would not trip and hurt her leg again. She had been successful at arriving early to work every day because she was determined never to be late. General Jakol was suspicious of various adults in town, and he ordered Bailo and Juga’s parents to be taken away because they were aiding terrorists. Her two friends had to leave, and Amina never even got to say good-bye. She missed them because the other children were to wary of danger to even step foot outside. Her perusal was interrupted as a yellow piece of paper caught her eye. She picked it up off the ground and looked at it. It had writing that was her written language. She also saw a much different form of writing that she couldn’t recognize.
When she arrived at the outpost, Amina showed Jakol her treasure, and he promptly snatched it from her hand, demanding, “Did you read it?” before tearing it to shreds.
“No, sir. I cannot read! Will you please tell me what it said?”
Jakol spoke nervously, “Get back to your station, you stupid girl!”
Amina ran to the armor shack and received her gun. Then she went to her usual post on the outskirts. For the entirety of her seven-hour shift, she felt ready to explode with curiosity. If something could make the great General Jakol so fearful, Amina felt she must find it. Her shift ended with the usual congratulatory speech, and she headed for home. As she walked out of the outpost, she noticed Jakol staring at her angrily. Amina decided to run as far as she could in fear of the man, and when she felt she was far enough from him, she began hunting for another piece of paper. Unfortunately, an hour of searching yielded no treasure for her, so she returned home to see her parents playing scraps sullenly. As Amina told them of her find, they looked at her confusedly. Apparently, they had not seen any pieces of paper, so they were not very curious about it. They offered her to join their game, and Amina joyously accepted.
Hours melted dusk into the night. The three Tengo’s sat playing the game, and the parents tried their hardest to forget their difficult days and talks of the invaders. Amina’s mother jumped when a knock came at the door, saying, “Nobody is expected today!”
The door opened, revealing the collector who walked toward Amina. Her mother hugged the girl just before the collector threw her aside. He picked Amina up and began to walk out, shoving her father to the floor when he stepped in front of the collector. Soldiers waited outside as he stepped out. They had orders to kill anybody who tried to stop the collector on his mission. Amina’s parents huddled together, shivering in anger and sadness.
The tanks rolled into Kazurk slowly, for the rubble had served to hinder the movement of the division because every single pile needed to be inspected for insurgents. Sergeant Toalit was in charge of forming squads to scout for enemy positions, and Bill King, Tom Bridges, and William O’Toole were the best recon men Toalit could drum up. The battlefield of Kazurk was extremely quiet, and the men grew more anxious and scared when no enemies were found. They knew enemies were hiding and that the locals were not happy with their arrival, for they had found caches of their golden leaflets torn to shreds. Bill climbed to the top of the mound first and saw one of the leaflets skewered on a rusty nail. He picked it up and read it to himself.
“People of Ilan! Throw up your hands and lay down any weapons you own, and we will not harm you. We come to free you from your oppressive government.”
Bill assumed that the scratchy writing above the English was the Ilanian language. Tom and William finished climbing the mound, and the three gave the signal that it was safe to pass. The division continued its mission toward the center of Kazurk.
At night the men laid down wherever they could find rest. Some would be so scared they sobbed and moaned for their mothers. Others slept soundly. Bill and a few others were appointed to take the night shift for guard duty. While on patrol he saw a man in the alley fiddling with something on the ground. He apprehended the tall, black haired Kazurkian and took him to the resident translator and interrogator, Kotha. The two spoke for a few hours, and Kotha told Bill later that this man was a general of Kathgar’s army, and he felt quite certain that he could dredge hatred for the invaders by blowing up houses. “He certainly is a prideful man! He made it a point to tell me he was the only man who could operate bombs in the city! At any rate, it’s a good thing you caught him, Bill. We don’t need the civilians against us any more than they already are.”
Bill felt quite proud of himself as he returned to his duty. The remainder of the shift fluttered away uneventfully until he was relieved to gain some sleep. As he lay in bed, he began to think again of the intelligence they had on Kathgar. The bastard was taking children and putting them in buildings with weapons so that the invaders would not drop bombs on them, and Bill also feared what would happen to the children if their army became too close. It would be a matter of ease to massacre so many people in such close quarters! Kathgar also promised that every single Ilanian would go down with him, fighting or not. Bill had yet to see a single person roaming the streets of Kazurk.
In the morning the march continued, and the division was finally close to the center of town. Another large pile of rubble halted the way, and Bill, Tom, and William were once again assigned to scout for enemies. Bill cleared the mound at a run and tripped over a large piece of concrete. He felt blood trickle from his knee as William ran up the hill shouting, “You alright, Bill?”
Bill could not get up for the pain as William bent down to picked him up. Bill heard a whizzing sound followed by the thud of William’s body hitting the ground, head widely opened from the bullet wound. Bill quickly rolled himself down the mound to the rest of the men, receiving scrapes and cuts along the way from the rough debris. He touched a wet spot on his cheek and realized that it was William’s blood splattered on his face. Amid the pounding gunshots of combat, Bill fell into a stupor, nearly fainting. The other men could not tell if he was injured, so they did not try to move him.
“The bastards got Tom!”
Bill could hear the yells of his friends and the screams of the wounded as clearly as a death knell.
“Joe! You ok?!”
“Kotha! Get down!”
“Don’t worry! He just got my arm, sir!”
“AAAHHH!! My stomach!”
Eventually the firing ceased, and Bill stayed sprawled out on the ground with another man’s blood caked onto his face. The screams of enemy soldiers and their incoherent rambling echoed just as loudly as his friends’ cries of anguish. The fighting stopped, and the enemy retreated from the center of town. He saw Kotha bringing Tom down over his shoulder and laid him on the ground gently. Bill got up to watch as the medic cut open Tom’s shirt, multiplying his yelling at the sight of a large hole in his abdomen as if it were made of tissue punched by a fist. Kotha gripped his arm tightly to stop the flow of blood, and he watched with stony eyes as his friend fell into shock and died within minutes. Bill got up and did his best to help carry the wounded from the mound, limping up and down the rubble.
The men who remained traveled over the mound to survey their taking of the center of Kazurk. The wind rustled scant trash, scattering it about the cracked pavement of the plaza. Bill felt his stomach shudder in fear, for enemies could be hiding in the houses waiting to massacre all of the soldiers. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a person rushing him, and Bill turned to fire. He saw it was a woman with her hands raised, tears pouring from her eyes and babbling madly in her own tongue. Kotha appeared with his arm in a makeshift sling and spoke with the woman. “I can barely understand her, but I think she wants us to help her daughter.” The babbling continued, and Kotha said, “The guards have left the house where the children are being held.”
Word rang joyously through the division that the enemy had truly retreated from Kazurk, and Bill accompanied the woman and Kotha to a disheveled building across the center of town. The mother pounded desperately at the blocked door. Bill moved her aside and smashed it open with all the force his body could muster.
Bill saw the children’s’ eyes squint as fresh beams of light flooded the room except for those who would never open their eyes again. Bill stood in the doorway staring at the children cramped together in the little room with barely enough energy to stand. He heard a slight clopping of wooden shoes, and he turned just in time to catch the little girl as she fainted
Amina woke up in her bed a week later. Her recovery had been a lost memory, but somehow she knew that her sleep had been long. She turned to see a meal sitting beside her bed on the table. A man in green who wore a sling asked her how she felt, and Amina tried to get up. The stranger helped her to rise and handed her a pair of boots, saying, “These will not fit you by a long shot, but they’ll be much better than wooden sandals.”
Amina tried on William’s boots and found that they were indeed much too big; however, they were quite comfortable compared to her makeshift shoes. Soon, she recollected her ordeal in the collector’s prison. She was able to spend time with Bailo and Juga before they were consumed by fatigue and dehydration. Walking outside, Amina tried not to remember her trials.
As the sunlight poured into her tired eyes, she crossed the center of town. Men in green stood next to large boxes handing out packages of food, and Government’s men in black were nowhere to be found. As she walked in the direction of her house, she saw a man with a large hammer smashing the plastered face of Lord Government. She also saw her stepfather walk by the wall and spit at it before catching sight of Amina. He ran to her more excited than Amina had ever seen him. Her heart raced as she ran –albeit clumsily in her new boots- to her loving stepfather. Her heart raced in joy as she hugged the man, and soon her mother appeared to offer hugs and kisses. Mrs. Tengo wept in joy for having both her loves in her arms again, and Mr. Tengo sobbed quietly as Amina asked why Government’s face was being destroyed.
I write short stories, and maybe I'll come up with a better signature some day, as well