Six Degrees (a short story)

I thought I’d share a short story I wrote a while ago. This is by no means my best work; really, it’s pretty crappy–I’m not much of a short story writer–and too agenda-driven for my taste. However, I think it fits the theme of the blog. Feel free to correct factual errors, offer constructive criticism of the story, or share your thoughts on it.

One: The Worker 

The line of cars at the arsenal gate wasn’t too long today, not an hour-long wait like it had been in the months after 9/11. David had quickly learned he shouldn’t drink an entire cup of coffee before joining his carpool and to be prepared to inch toward the gate, show his id badge, wait for the guards and dogs to search and sniff the vehicle, all to make it to work in the morning.

If gas prices hadn’t been so high, he would’ve ditched the carpool months ago. Cutting down on the amount of money he shelled out for gas each week was the bright side. The downside was listening to John’s philosophical musings on humanity. David took refuge behind his newspaper. “More troops to Afghanistan this week. We should’ve bombed ’em back to the stone ages and been done with it. Get our guys home. I’m ready for some good news.”

“How do you bomb them back to the stone ages when they already live there?”

John’s questions were always ignored. Not that silence ever shut him up.

“And girls—Army has women in it, too.” Greg tapped the brakes again. “Is this line ever going to move? C’mon, guys, just let us through. I’ve got an eight o’clock meeting.”

“My neighbor’s daughter’s over there. Can’t remember if it’s Afghanistan or Iraq. Mary’s always talking about it when we see her. Comes over to borrow a cup of flour and talks for an hour about her daughter-the-soldier. Gets old, you know? Guess I can’t blame her.” David ruffled through the paper and found the sports section. His team had won. Now that was good news.

Two: The Neighbor

Mary let the TV in the kitchen blare while she cleaned up the breakfast dishes. Faces flashed on the screen, a talking head, followed by a scene of the aftermath of a car bomb. Bloody-faced men, their nostrils flared, screamed words that were incomprehensible and universally understood. Donna was there: so brave, so proud to be serving her country, so scared. Mary sensed it hidden behind the words in her emails. She had left for Afghanistan earlier this month, leaving her husband and child at the army base and her mother at home, holding her breath, praying in the darkness of night.

She would exhale only when her child came home. Mangled, scarred, paralyzed—it didn’t matter as long as Donna was breathing. But when she watched the news,

“And turning to other news,” the talking head was saying, “another Hollywood star is back in court today, facing charges of DUI . . .”

Please, God, please. Mary flipped off the television. Bring my baby girl home safe. That’s all I’m asking.

Three: The Daughter

Private Donna Wilcox held her rifle ready as Westra kicked open the door of the house. Every dwelling had to be searched for Taliban sympathizers. She rushed behind him, sweat pouring down her body. A family within: husband, wife, young children, now scattered as the little ones scrambled for hiding places.

Donna trained her gun on the family as Westra and Rossman searched the house. The faces of this family held the sum of all the emotions that she had seen—and felt—every day since she arrived. Sometimes she stayed awake at night, remembering the people she had seen during her waking hours: twisted lips, jaws clenched, eyes that held hatred or fear or pride or resignation at the relinquishment of privacy and dignity.

The remains of the family’s breakfast sat on the crude table: chalow. The scent of onions lingered in the air. Breakfast, just like her husband and daughter would have in a few hours, a world away from here.

One child’s eyes peered out from under the table, a little girl with big brown eyes like her own baby girl’s. Donna hoped her child would never know the meaning of war.

Four: The Father

Omar seethed as he watched these Americans intrude on his family. He was not part of the Taliban, not an al-Qaeda sympathizer, just a man resigned to constant warfare around him during his lifetime. Why could his land not know peace? Why must they be surrounded by enemies?

But not just enemies outside, but the enemy within himself, the war he battled every day to remain faithful to his god, to fight his lust, his cowardice, his weakness.

Mervat clutched the baby to her breast. There were circles under her eyes. She was still  exhausted from giving birth two weeks ago; still unclean from the bleeding; still torn from the violence of pushing their second son out. If only Omar could provide some measure of privacy from the soldiers so she could nurse. His eyes narrowed to slits, watching the woman with the rifle, the men searching the few possessions his family owned. A woman soldier? She ought to be at home, caring for her children, as his Mervat did when she cooked from their meager food stores.

Just leave my wife and children alone, he wanted to tell the soldiers. I’ll do anything to keep them safe. Finally, they left. Perhaps they went to their death. Perhaps, if he left his home, he too would go to his death. Who knew? “Do not leave this house,” he told his children. “It is unsafe.”

Five: The Child

Of course Sharbat left the house. The air was hot and heavy within, and although it would be the same outside, there was a sense of freedom in the streets that called to her. Perhaps she might see something interesting or at least figure out what these soldiers wanted with her people. Were they going to make the Taliban go away? Would they have more food then?

When mother and father weren’t looking, she darted out the door, ignoring the knots in her stomach. What were these soldiers after when they came to Afghanistan? Why point guns at her family? Things were bad enough as they were; there was so little water and the qorma had been more rice and onions than meat recently. Her mouth watered at the thought of lamb or even some lavash. But the ever-present anger of war hung in the air like the suffocating heat, stifling her.

She kept close to the walls of the neighboring buildings. If she hurried, she could reach the marketplace and look around, then run home before prayers.

The marketplace was crowded, the narrow, crooked streets packed with people. The muddy canal below the bridge stank. No one would notice a little girl in this crowd. She saw a man out of the corner of her eye and turned to look. A foreigner. American or British, she guessed. She wrinkled her nose and swatted a fly. A reporter: they swarmed like flies now. Taking pictures, talking to people, asking questions. Probably American; you could tell someone was American just by looking at them from the way they walked. Some were nicer than others.

This one stood close to the makeshift shop in a rusty freight container where she had wanted to go. Sighing, she turned away to return home for prayer.

Then the sound came from behind her. Fierce burning pain hit her neck and the world exploded in a white-hot fire of screams and confusion and she fell facedown on the pavement, clutching her throat. Darkness expanded in her mind. . . .

Six: The Photojournalist

James McConnell snapped a photo of the child as her face exploded in terror: whites of her eyes expanded, lips tightened as a roar came from within, the small neck pumping blood onto her body. He couldn’t afford to help her, even if there had been anything he could do to help. Self-preservation trumped mercy. If he got enough shots, kept sending the photos back home, surely others would care what happened here.  His camera captured pictures of the marketplace’s chaos from the car bomb. Blood, smoke, people running.

But a camera didn’t convey the smell of the fire, the screams and sirens, the pounding under his feet as people fled. He tried to tell his friends in America how this felt. Words proved as inept as the camera, though. The child, that child—she had awoken that morning not knowing that she would die hours later. Nothing could tell anyone the change that he had seen in her: the small face, gaunt but alive, reduced to a mass of pulp. He pushed the memory of her face from his mind but the image returned like a shadow, following him wherever he went.

Seven: The Worker

David glanced over the newspaper to see the line of cars slowly decreasing, then returned to his task of reporting the news to his fellow car riders. “Another bomb in a marketplace over there.”

“Saw that on the news. Suicide bomber.” Greg drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.

“Something like twenty people are dead. Civilians, too. Couple of children.” David forced himself to study the photo beside the story, then shuddered. “Horrible. I mean, look at that kid. Not that much younger than mine.” He showed it to John. “I can’t imagine.”

“You can’t imagine or you don’t want to imagine?”

Shifting in his seat, David turned the page.

Inspired by Sara Groves’ song “Abstraction” and a line from an Alexander McCall Smith novel: “Behind every tragedy, there is a me and you.” And of course, the “six degrees” game.


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