The Boy in the Rubble

I’m posting the pivotal chapter in my current novel, The Fire Within. I’d appreciate your feedback either through email or in the comments section below. This is the moment where the main character’s life takes a dramatic turn, which sets the stage for all that is to come.

“Stop the Humvee!” Bobby yelled at the driver who crept slowly along the road north of Baghdad.

“What the hell, Flash!? No!” the driver yelled back. “We’re in fucking no-man’s land here. I’m not stopping!” The driver surveyed the area around them quickly, but no one appeared to be lurking in the endless desert that engulfed them.

“There’s something out there in the wreckage! Stop the fucking vehicle now!” Bobby screamed becoming increasingly irritated.

“What is it?” another Ranger asked.

“It looks like a kid and he’s still alive. I can see movement.”

The Ranger, Todd Blevins, also known as Black because of his coal black hair, peered through the window of the Humvee following Bobby’s line of sight. A single wall wavered in the steamy desert heat smoldering among the ruins of the bombed out building. The acrid smell of war mixed with human waste and flesh permeated the air. Black crinkled his nose and squinted at the horizon trying to confirm a visual.

“I can’t see it,” Black said.

“It’s nothing. We can’t stop. Not here,” the driver said impatiently. The driver was Sergeant Sam Baker. Everyone called him Twitch for his preternatural edginess. Bobby wondered how Twitch ever made it through Ranger school.

Twitch’s emphatic nervousness aggravated Bobby. He knew what he saw. They were at war, but they were still human. They had an obligation to preserve human life where possible, especially when it involved children. Bobby thought of his nephews and nieces and how precious they were. He couldn’t imagine leaving a child out in this blazing heat to die alone. No one was around to help him, at least no one that was visible from the Humvee.

“Stop the damn vehicle, Twitch, or I’m fucking jumping out myself!” Bobby yelled.

Black touched his arm as if to hold Bobby back, but the contact was more to calm him down rather than hold him back. Bobby’s threat troubled him, but he trusted the young soldier’s instincts because they’d been right time and again.

“Wait I see it!” Corporal Mike Anderson said as he peered out the passenger window from the front. “Over there next to the wall. You can see his head moving. He watching us.”

Bobby relaxed a little. Mike had been one of his best friends since Ranger school. He always had his back. He trusted Mike, loved him like the brother he never had.

As if on cue, Black caught sight of the young boy at that moment. He pulled rank. “Twitch, stop the vehicle!”

Twitch considered arguing but thought better of it. Instead, he sighed heavily and slowly came to a stop. Black radioed the Humvee behind them to let the men know what was happening. They confirmed that they saw the boy, too.

“Drive to the right so we can get closer. I don’t want to have to walk too far without cover,” Black ordered. Twitch complied but he shook his head slightly and tightened his lips across his face as he did so. Disagreement contorted his face. He slowly guided the vehicle right as it bounced on the broken roadway. The passengers grabbed handles near the doors to maintain their upright positions. Twitch mumbled something unintelligible.

“Eagle 2, we’re going to pull up right here. Mike and Flash are going to get out and assess the situation,” Black talked into his radio. “Stay back and hold your position.”

“We’ll cover, sir,” one of the men in the other Humvee said.

Bobby looked at Black and then to Twitch who shook his head slightly.

“This is fucking crazy. All for some little shit who could be waiting to kill us,” Twitch said. Disdain dripped from his voice. “This could be a fucking trap. They don’t care about life here.”

“It looks like a little boy from here. I doubt he’s dangerous,” Bobby returned.

“You never know. What the hell happened here? Did we bomb this area?” Twitch asked.

“I don’t think so,” Black said. “It may have been some infighting.”

Twitch came to a stop at the closest point along the road to the child who lay about a hundred feet to the right of the Humvee. The tailing vehicle stopped well behind the lead.

Black looked at Bobby. “Alright, Flash, Mike, let’s check it out. Be careful but move as fast as possible. We’re only supposed to be patrolling the area, not conducting humanitarian missions. If I tell you to get back to the vehicle, you get back ASAP.”

“Thank you, sir,” Bobby said as he tapped Mike on the shoulder in the seat in front of him. “You ready?”

“Let’s do this,” Mike replied.

Both men opened the doors to the Humvee and stepped out cautiously. They said nothing but panned the perimeter around them. Other than the burned out building before them, there was nothing but sand, endless and relentless. The smoldering building, or what remained of it, provided the only contrast to the blindingly hot sand against the muted, unhappy blue sky. The pollution made everything appear dingy, and the heat made everything reek like rot, human or otherwise. Bobby could feel the sun searing his helmet. Sweat trickled down his back, but it was too warm to chill him.

Bobby’s heart pounded in his chest. He’d never gotten used to these situations. He was four months into his six-month deployment, but it never got easier for him. The same tense nervousness that filled every nook and cranny of his body now had shook him for much of his deployment. He couldn’t even use the latrine without feeling unease, dread. Something, it seemed, lurked around every corner. Something bad.

“You want me to lead?” Mike asked.

“I got it.” Bobby took one tentative step forward and then another. He could hear the rattle of the weapons from the guys in the other Humvee off in the distance. They stood around the vehicle and surveyed the surroundings carefully. The sun and sand stared back at all of them nonplussed.

Mike and Bobby closed the distance between the Humvee and the boy quickly. Before Bobby even reached the child, he knew the boy was no threat. He couldn’t have been more than four years old. He was scrawny with toothpick legs that were exposed beneath his torn pants. Both legs were scratched and scarred badly, and he could see that the boy’s knees were misaligned in an unnatural way. His shirt was missing and he had a bloody wound near his right shoulder that exposed muscle and bone. His body was covered in scrapes in bruises and he looked dazed beneath a wad of thick, wavy dark hair. He was soaked in the thin black smoke that stifled the air around him. Fear filled his eyes when he caught sight of Bobby coming toward him. He groaned and whined in the same instant as he tried to turn away, but the pain in his shoulder and legs pinned him to the ground like a tiny bear clamped in the throes of a vicious trap.

“It’s okay…it’s okay,” Bobby assured him as he bent down on one knee beside the boy. The boy shrieked meekly, but Bobby held up his hands as if to say he meant no harm. The boy tried to scamper away, but he simply shuffled his feet. He’d lost a lot of blood. Bobby felt a pang of agony rise in his heart. He doubted the boy would make it; they were too late. War had not made death any easier for Bobby. He’d seen plenty is his four months on the ground, but it had simply forced him to stare it in the eyes, not accept it or become numb to it.

He swung his rifle behind him so that only the strap showed across his uniform. He could feel the weight of it on his shoulder, but he hoped the boy would feel less scared if the weapon wasn’t poised between them. He bent down next to the boy to get a closer look, and the boy started when Bobby touched his shoulder. His dark eyes were wide and frightened. They darted between Bobby and Mike. He whimpered ever so slightly as if he were trying to be quiet to avoid being noticed.

“How’s he look?” Mike asked. Mike stood erect behind Bobby panning the area with his gun before him. If this was an ambush, Mike would be prepared. He signaled an okay to the Humvees. Black returned the gesture.

“He’s lost a lot of blood. We need to get him to the hospital.”

“You think he’ll make it?”

“I don’t know. He has a deep shoulder laceration and his legs appear broken.”

The boy whimpered again, but he didn’t try to escape.

“We’ll have to put him in Eagle 2. They have the room.”

“I know.” Mike turned his head toward his radio and pressed the button. “Eagle 2 we’re bringing the kid to you.” He let go of the button and the radio cackled as if it resisted the idea.

“Okay, hurry up. There’s an unknown vehicle approaching from the west. We just put visuals on it. It doesn’t look friendly,” Sergeant Matthews replied anxiously. Matthews was a fourth generation Army veteran with sharp instincts and a brusque manner. He was not a man the soldiers ignored.

Bobby surveyed the area around the child. The building or home had collapsed on itself and part of it had burned. He couldn’t see anyone else around. He stood up to get a better look.

“What’s wrong?” Mike asked.

“Where are his parents?”

“They must have been killed or captured when whatever happened here went down.”

“We need to find his mother.”

Mike shook his head. “Didn’t you hear what Matthews said? There’s an enemy vehicle approaching. We need to move.”

“We can’t separate this boy from his mother.”

“She’s not here! If she is, she’s dead.”

“You don’t know that. She could be trapped in there,” Bobby said nodding toward the collapsed building.

“We don’t have time. Get the boy and let’s move!”

Bobby stood up with the boy at his feet. The boy stared at him and closed his eyes slowly as if he was giving in to it all. Bobby watched his chest for a moment to make sure he was still breathing and then he stepped away from him toward the building.

“Where are you going?”

“I have to look for his mother.”

“Flash! She’s fucking dead or otherwise she’d be right her with her kid. Come back here!” Mike shuffled in place and looked back at Black and Twitch. The radio burst to life.

“Mike, Flash! Let’s get the kid back to Eagle 2 now!”

Mike looked at Bobby and then back toward the Humvees as if he didn’t know what to do, but it was too late. Bobby had quickly made his way to the rubble and began looking through the gaps in the fallen walls. The place still smelled like scorched wood. Parts of the building were blackened and smoldering, but no flames burned.

“Flash! Let’s get the boy!”

Bobby ignored him and continued to scour the ruins for the boy’s mother.

The radio cackled and two voices came on at once muffled and intertwined into a confusing babble of words. Mike reached for the button to say something, but then Black’s voice came through loud and clear.

“We have an unknown vehicle approaching from the west about 500 yards away. We need you back to Eagle 1 ASAP. Do you copy?” Black’s voice boomed with anger.

“Flash!” Mike screamed. “Flash! We have to get the fuck out of here.”

Matthews came on the radio and Bobby could hear intermittent words, but they were mostly broken.

“Flash! Let’s go!” Mike yelled again.

Bobby took one more step under an angled wall out of Mike’s sight and then he saw her. The boy’s mother. She had to be his mother. She had the same angular features and piercing black eyes as the boy. Bobby wanted to turn away, but he couldn’t help but stare at her. Her hijab had been torn away from her head and her hair billowed beneath her lifeless body as if she were playfully lying on the ground. A large stone portion of the building had crushed her chest and obscured her from the shoulders down. Blood drained from her pale face and the horror still registered in her wide open eyes. She stared up as if praying for her son. Bobby closed his eyes and shook his head imperceptibly.

“God damn it, Flash!” an agitated Mike yelled. Bobby could no longer see Mike, but he knew the familiar scowl that Mike wore when he was upset.

Bobby mumbled a quick prayer and turned away. Mike stood a few yards behind him, tense and on his toes. He quickly returned to the boy and lifted him up into his arms. The child didn’t resist. He felt as light as the house cat his mother kept back at home.

“His mother’s dead,” Bobby said solemnly.

“I told you.”

“She was crushed.”

“Let’s go! Let’s go!” Mike ignored him as they closed the distance between the building and Eagle 2. The horror of it all was lost on Mike. He’d seen enough tragedy play out in his first few weeks on the ground that he had become numb to it all.

“God damn it, Flash! You’ve put us in a dangerous situation!” yelled Matthews as the two men approached. Another solider took the boy from Bobby and put him in the Humvee.

“I had to look for his mother!” Bobby yelled.

Matthews ignored him. “Let’s move!”

The men in Eagle 2 jumped into their Humvee as Bobby and Mike backed away and then ran to Eagle 1. Black’s greeting was no less enthusiastic.

“What the fuck were you doing out there, Flash!? You put us all in danger! I told you when I said ‘get back,’ you get the fuck back. Was I not clear?”

Before Bobby could respond, the radio interjected.

“Unknown vehicle still positioned about 500 yards to the south. There’s some activity outside the vehicle. Several men are milling around and watching us. They have weapons. Do you want to engage?”

Black paused and looked at Bobby before he looked back to Eagle 2.

“No, do not engage unless you are engaged first.”

The radio fell silent. Bobby imagined Matthews cursing Black and Bobby. Matthews always wanted to engage. He seemed all too happy to kill.

Bobby joined Mike in the Humvee and shut the flimsy door behind him.

“Let’s move!” Black said to Twitch. “Stay right and let’s see if the vehicle follows us.”

Twitch put the Humvee in gear and eased right on the rutted road.

“Eagle 1, where are you going?” Matthews said through the radio.

Black shook his head disdainfully before he pressed the button on his radio. “Let’s head east and circle back around toward the base. I want to see if they follow us. This could be an ambush.”

Bobby looked back at Eagle 1 still parked in the space it had been just moments earlier. Beyond that he could see the other vehicle in the distance. Those men still stood outside as if they were guarding the road to the west.

Mike surveyed the horizon with binoculars. He mumbled something to himself that Bobby didn’t quite understand.

“You see anything?” Black said to Mike.

“Not yet.”

Black was anxious as he swiveled around the backseat of the Humvee looking for potential enemy combatants. They were on patrol trying to keep the area secure. They weren’t authorized to pursue enemies. Two Humvees with marginal weapons weren’t prepared for a full-scale engagement. Black radioed their base and relayed information to the command center.

“Sir, there’s a vehicle now approaching the east,” Mike said abruptly.

Black stopped talking and peered toward the east. He couldn’t see anything yet. “Where?” he asked.

“Over the horizon about a mile out.”

Black and Bobby squinted in that direction as the Humvee moved very slowly over the rutted road. Bobby didn’t see anything. He looked back to Eagle 2, which had just started moving into position behind their vehicle but remained 200 yards behind it.

Twitch turned to Black and said, “We should turn south toward the base.”

Black angled his head toward the radio clipped to his chest and spoke into it. “Matthews. Has that vehicle changed position?”

“No, it’s still there. It looks like the men are sitting on top of it. It appears they aren’t planning to come closer.”

Black sighed. “Turn south up ahead. Let’s get back to base.”

“Eagle 2 we’re heading back to base.”

“Got it. We’ll be right behind you,” Matthews said.

Twitch slowed to a stop at the turn in the road and eased the vehicle onto the smoother surface of the road heading south. Bobby stared out the window toward the west at Eagle 2 as it started moving again. He could see the other vehicle further in the distance. One of the men stood on top of the hood and peered at the convoy through binoculars as if he were studying their movement.

“The vehicle in the east has stopped,” Mike announced.

“Any sign of movement outside the vehicle?” Black asked.

“They’re outside now.”

“Any weapons?”

“Looks like they have only automatic rifles, no RPGs.”

“Let’s just get back to base,” Black mumbled.

Mike put down the binoculars and looked at the road ahead. Twitch hummed absently as he maneuvered the Humvee over a pocked portion of the road. The radio hissed and fumed in the silence as all four men sat tense in their seats trying to interpret what the enemy was doing. The area was supposed to be clear. Iraqi forces had long been pushed out by the ceaseless bombing.

Mike turned completely around in his seat and faced Bobby for the first time since they had returned to the vehicle. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.”

“You’ve been quiet.”

“Just thinking about the mother.”

The radio came to life suddenly and Matthews’ gargled voice filled the vehicle. “We have sight of vehicles coming from the north. Both have fixed weapons on top.”

“Fuck,” Black mumbled. He looked through the back of the vehicle but he could see nothing through the smudged window.

“Eagle 2 is still a ways back,” Bobby said to no one in particular as he peered out his side window. Mike was still turned toward the back facing Black and Bobby as if he was waiting for instructions. Their vehicle jolted and squeaked on the uneven road as Twitch slowed to navigate around a hole. Bobby started to say something to Mike who had a look of concern on his face.

The words had formed on his lips and his breath had lurched forward to propel them from his mouth, but in the instant he started to speak, a blinding blackness consumed the vehicle. A rush of intense heat surged upward and Bobby could feel the burning pain on his legs and chest. He felt the impact of the sand against his back but all he could see was darkness. His lungs burned and he couldn’t breathe. He felt like he was sucking in smoke. His mind raced as he struggled to find air. He gasped, but the pain was too much. It overwhelmed him and he lost consciousness.

Matthews saw the whole thing clearly from Eagle 2. His vehicle had closed the gap some with Eagle 1 after he saw the enemy combatants approaching from the north. He had just radioed Black and told him about the positions in the north. Matthews had told the driver to get closer and had the road not been so rutted they would have likely been on Eagle 1’s bumper by the time the IED had exploded.

The blast tore through the center of the Humvee ripping it in half in a fireball of an explosion. Matthews saw one of the Rangers fly from the vehicle and land in flames on the sand. The others remained in the burning carcass.

Without thinking, the driver stopped Eagle 2 and the three men bolted from the Humvee with their weapons at their side. Matthews hurriedly looked around to see if any of the other vehicles were approaching. None were.

“Eyes on the ground!” Matthews yelled to the other two soldiers. They didn’t need to step on any other IEDs. They crept toward the vehicle which burned rapidly. Matthews side-stepped it and rushed to the soldier who had been thrown from the vehicle.

He knew it was Flash the moment he approached the scorched body. He was unconscious and the legs of his pants still flickered with flames. Matthews batted the flames until they died away. The force that had flung him from the vehicle had rolled him in the sand extinguishing much of the fire that had consumed him after the explosion.

“Flash! Flash! Can you hear me?” He looked down at Bobby’s blackened face. He felt his neck for a pulse and could faintly feel one. He turned to the other two soldiers to yell for them to help him get Bobby back to their Humvee when he noticed Bobby’s legs.

From the knee down on both of his legs, the bone, muscle, and tissue had been shredded. His feet were completely gone and the dangling, burned flesh made Matthews want to wretch. He’d seen death before, many times, but something about the grotesque injury made feel sick. He winced in phantom pain.

Bobby moaned and his head rolled to the side away from Matthews.

“Flash!” Matthews said. He put his hands on Bobby’s face and pulled it toward him. “Stay with us, man! We’re going to get you out of here!” he yelled over the crackle and seething Humvee behind them. “Barnes! Mack! Get over here and help me get Flash to the vehicle!”

The other two soldiers stared at the burning Humvee helplessly entranced. Only the insistent screams of their commanding officer pulled them from the horror of the other three bodies entombed in the burning vehicle. One of the soldiers looked like he was still screaming as the flames reduced him to blackened bone. The other two were unrecognizable as human figures, blown to bits by a horrific explosion.

Barnes and Mack helped Matthews get Bobby back to the Humvee. Mack expertly guided the hulking vehicle back the way they had come as Barnes vigilantly watched the horizon for any advancing enemy vehicles. None came. They stayed put as if they were satisfied with the haul of their violence, content with three causalities and possibly a fourth if the one thrown from the vehicle didn’t make it.

Back at the base in the makeshift medical tent, the doctors worked frantically to save Bobby. He wavered in and out of consciousness as the chaos of people and machines whirred around him. He only remembered Matthew’s face hovering near his pleading for him to hang on. He felt Matthew’s rough hand around his and it reminded him of his grandfather, the war veteran who had died when he was just seven years old.

His grandfather bent down toward him and smiled his rare, but boisterous smile. His white hair waved in the wind, and he looked as alive as he was months before the heart attack claimed him.

“I’m proud of you, son. You’ve served your country. Now, hang in there. A good soldier never gives up,” his grandfather said.

“Papa…” Bobby muttered. “Papa…”

Bobby’s head lolled to one side and machines beeped in earnest. The tempo of the doctors increased and Matthews was pushed back as more doctors and nurses descended on the soldier.

“Is he going to make it?” Matthews asked fearful of the answer that he’d get.

“We need you to step outside, Sir,” one of the doctors said.

Matthews started to resist, but the doctor ignored him and grabbed the paddles next to the gurney. “Clear!” he yelled.

Bobby’s body jolted upward and Matthews turned away. He stepped outside and took a deep breath. Tears streamed down his face and he hurriedly wiped them away. He sat down on the ground next to the medical tent and prayed for his friend. Only God could save him now.

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