My entry to the 2013-2014 CBC Short Story Contest. The bad news is that it was passed over by the judges. The good news is that you may read it here!
The Enduring Mission
Being in a state of hyper-vigilance, Mitch was forced to watch every person that stepped onto the bus. He was a stellar soldier. He could quickly scan and assess any person in about half a second. His motive was clear. He knew that it was crucial to be quick when determining threat.
On this bus, in particular, there were two people he did not trust. The teenager in the hoodie, and the young woman wearing a pair of those damn wraparound sunglasses. Why does he have to wear that hoodie when the weather is so fine? Is he hiding something? Why does she continue to wear those sunglasses? She should take them off when she is on the bus. People need to see her eyes. Her eyes will reveal deceit.
Today, Mitch was especially anxious. The bus was making far too many stops, more than usual. This was worrisome. Each stop meant vulnerability. Each stop made him more tense, so tense that a bead of sweat was now sliding down his left cheek. He would always sweat when he was nervous, and lately, especially lately, being nervous had become a habit.
Mitch didn’t normally leave his apartment. He tried to play it smart, and he didn’t put himself in such danger unless it was absolutely essential. However, today, he had ventured out because of necessity. He really needed to get a job, which means that he had to go to a job interview, and that meant he needed to endure a trip on public transit.
In his mind, logical processes were taking place. However, two voices seem to control the proceedings. As the bus continued its route, winding through the streets of the city, there was a calm voice that was trying to sooth him. It was his own voice, emanating from the recesses of his mind, and it was reciting a mantra… “Relax Mitch. There is no need to be cautious. This is Winnipeg not Afghanistan. Relax. Relax, and be normal again. Live your life like a regular person. You’re not Sergeant Mitchell anymore.”
The soothing voice worked well. His tension began to abate.
However, as Mitch noticed the bus approaching a stop filled with people, his tension began to surge anew.
Now, his soldier voice took command…
The bus lurched to a halt. As fresh passengers began to board the bus, Mitch began to scrutinize and assess every new person. First, an elderly woman… she looked harmless. The second person, a teenage boy… Mitch was relieved to see that he had no backpack, as teenagers often carried.
The third person was a young boy, 10 years old, with olive skin, dark hair and eyes, carrying a soccer ball…
For a second, Mitch just stared at the boy. Then, he blinked once and his mind was suddenly dispatched, overseas…
In Afghanistan there was a young boy that would come around his platoon’s camp. Mitch’s men loved the boy. They treated him well, giving him food and candy. One of the guys, a Private from Winnipeg named Paul Mendoza, even gave the boy a soccer ball. Mendoza and the kid used to kick that black and white ball around in the dirt for hours. The camp would be filled with smiles and laughter when the kid and Mendoza played together.
Then, one day the Afghani boy came around again. However, this time Mitch noticed that he wasn’t smiling and happy. Instead, he seemed strangely anxious and nervous. In addition, the boy was wearing an unusual winter parka and he didn’t have his soccer ball, all of which seemed to be highly irregular to Mitch.
Events occurred rapidly. Mitch witnessed the boy begin to cry as he opened his parka, then reach inside and grasp at something… A DETONATOR!!! which was clearly attached to a boy-sized vest supporting two deadly Claymore mines!
Sergeant Mitchell reacted rapidly and decisively…
Mitch blinked once more and he was quickly returned to the bus.
Suddenly, it was like a claxon was ringing inside his head. Mitch sensed great danger. He wasn’t armed, and he wasn’t exactly sure what he would do, however he knew that everybody’s safety depended on his swift action. Instinctively, he jumped his feet, knowing he had to do something to protect everybody on this bus.
Then, Mitch noticed a fourth person boarding the bus… a young dark skinned man, who seemed to be accompanying the boy… it was Private Mendoza.
Abruptly, the ringing in Mitch’s head stopped. Confused, he plopped back down into his seat with a thump. Breathing hard, trembling and still sweating, he stared, slack-jawed, at Mendoza and the boy as they sat on a bench seat near the front of the bus.
As the bus pulled away from the curb, Mitch was still trying to make sense of the situation. His eyes were wild and his upper lip was twitching. Other passengers, upon noticing his wild demeanour, now began to glance in his direction with dreadful expressions. Awkwardness, permeated with strains of fear, spread down the rows of seats as even more of the other passengers now stared at Mitch.
At the front of the bus, Mendoza too began to notice the unease of the other passengers. He looked around to see what is occurring, and to his disbelief, he saw his old Platoon Sergeant Mitchell staring directly at him. Instantly, Mendoza’s eyes light up. He knew Mitchell lived in Winnipeg and he had always meant to look him up one day.
Mendoza smiled and spontaneously nodded a friendly hello to his old Platoon Sergeant.
Mitch did not nod back. He was too distressed and confused. His mind was on fire, conflicted, switching gears from the past to the present.
Meanwhile, Mendoza arose from his seat, patted the boy on the shoulder, and casually walked towards Mitch. Mitch just stared at him, still slack-jawed, as Mendoza sat down on the seat right next to him.
“Sergeant Mitchell, it’s good to see you. I haven’t seen you for a long time.”
Mitch just stared. Finally, he blinked and said, “Mendoza?”
Mendoza smiled, “Sergeant Mitchell, you do remember me? Private Mendoza?”
“Yes, I remember you. Of course I do,” Mitch confirmed with a crooked smile.
“Sergeant, I want you to meet my boy, Paul Junior.” Mendoza waved for his son to come over. The boy slowly walked back to Mitch’s seat and stood in the aisle.
“Paul Junior, I’d like you to meet Sergeant Mitchell,” said Mendoza as he placed his hand on his boy’s shoulder.
Paul Junior stuck his hand out toward Mitch. Mitch, still looking a little confused, managed to clumsily take the boy’s hand and shake it gently.
“It’s good to meet you, Paul Junior,” Mitch said.
“That’s my boy,” Mendoza said proudly. “He’s a good boy, and a great soccer player. Aren’t you Paulie?”
Paul Junior blushed and then smiled sheepishly. The boy’s shy smile actually caused Mitch to smile as well.
Mendoza looked over and patted the empty seat just across the aisle. “Paulie, why don’t you sit down here while I talk to the good Sergeant,” he instructed. The boy nodded, and quietly sat down on the empty seat. He stared out the window and began to roll the soccer ball in his lap while he watched the city go by.
Mitch sighed. He was more relaxed now.
Mitch nodded toward Mendoza’s son. “Do you know who he reminds me of?”
Mendoza replied, “Yes, I do know who you are thinking of. I know…”
“I have to admit to you, just now when I saw him getting on the bus I immediately thought of that Afghani kid,” Mitch was choking up a little, as he said the word “kid”.
“Are you sure you want to talk about that?” Mendoza asked.
“I have to talk about it.” Again, Mitch choked up a bit. “I had a flashback when I saw your son. It was all so real.”
“Really?” Paul Mendoza’s eyes opened wide in surprise, shocked by Mitch’s revelation.
“I can’t believe I did what I did to that kid back in Afghanistan,” Mitch whispered, still choking on his words and attempting not to sob out loud.
“You know you did the right thing. Don’t blame yourself,” Mendoza attempted to provide solace. “Blame the insane sons-of-bitches who strapped land mines on that innocent kid and sent him out to do their dirty work.”
“Yeah, you’re right. But, I still just can’t stop thinking about that…” Mitch was hanging his head down and away in an attempt to hide his tears.
“You know you saved everybody’s life, don’t you know that?” Mendoza explained. “We all came back home alive because of what you had to do.”
“Yeah, I know,” Mitch was weeping now. “Everybody went home alive… everybody except that poor boy… and me.”
“You?” Mendoza asked.
“I’m still there. I’ll always be there.”