One Life For Peace
Cole left the administrative building through a side door to avoid the receptionist who persistently hit on him each time he crossed the lobby. Through the emergency door he stepped out onto slick pavement and pulled the hood of his jacket up over his head. He gave thanks again to Kellan for throwing it in his arms before he left this morning. The border city was misty today, the breeze carrying salty humidity in from the shores. It was the kind of damp that seeped between layers of clothing, drenching one from the inside out. It felt like sweat against his skin but he was determined to get some decent caffeine today. The office’s meagre break room sported only a ten year old coffee pot and Cole was too tired to pretend that its grim brew perked him up. So he left to go two blocks west to a cafe he knew still had access to a premium roast.
No one knew who their supplier was, Cole didn’t care. Coffee beans were hard to come by now since the war had choked up numerous trade passages. Yet this cafe kept supplying its consumers with nothing but a bold cup full of flavour. A lot of places had started watering down their coffee and not even bothering to make espresso since no one could afford it anymore. But this place. They not only sold espresso but offered artisan beverages both hot and iced. All Cole wanted was a black coffee but he would order something fancy for Marnie who always covered him when he went on his frowned-upon coffee missions.
Cole spied the cafe door half a block away; painted a neon yellow it stood out in this dismal city. Most places that had once had colour now seemed tarnished or dimmed form the war and the sea air that always made the paint peel. The yellow-doored cafe, The Apollo, stayed vibrant as if it had no idea the world had gone to shit outside its happy door. The door always looked freshly painted, and when Cole pulled it open he was greeted by laughter. One barista, the owner’s son had an outrageous sense of humour. He was never drafted because he was born with malformed finger joints, but if the war kept going he might be drafted regardless.
Cole joined the line and gazed around him, contented this place still stood strong. Behind the counter, black chalkboards told of the drinks offered with small drawings decorating them. Beside the hazelnut latte was a picture of a small beaver. Why they had placed a near extinct animal beside the drink no one knew, but Cole looked at the beaver and knew. This place was happy but it was also a testament to memory and commitment. It had survived this ghastly war, when a few kilometres northeast it was essentially a war zone. The owner’s wanted to give people hope. The beavers’ ecosystems had been hit hard by this war with the occupation of waterways, the deforestation, and the trapping that had occurred. It was a miracle there were even some still living, but some wildlife management people had stepped in and taken the last few south fleeing the bloodshed and hoping to make it to sanctuary in the southern colonies. It seemed more and more people were fleeing south, but this cafe, Cole knew, would stand here until it was torn down, or burned, or blown up. It would stay as a symbol of hope.
The line moved quickly and Cole smiled at the girl in the apron, “Hey, can I get a medium black dark roast and a medium hazelnut latte, please?”
“Sure thing, that’ll be $15.21 please,” the girl smiled tightly as she wrote the codes on the cups and looked at Cole, waiting to hear a complaint about the price.
“Here you go,” Cole handed her seventeen dollars and told her to keep the change.
She gaped at him and then smiled with her whole face as her eyes welled. “Thank you.”
He moved to the other end of the counter to let the next person order. That girl’s smile and gratitude had put him in a better mood. Cole grabbed the steaming coffees, popped the lids on them and waved goodbye to the staff. He pushed the door open, holding it for an elderly woman, just as the barista gave the punch line of another joke. He stepped onto the sidewalk with laughter ringing in his ears. His office was two blocks away and the coffees had been made extra hot. He slowed his pace and enjoyed the warmth of the coffees in his hands. It was his second favourite sensation, save for holding Kellan.
Thinking of Kellan made Cole wonder if he should have picked him up a treat, something rich and bad for his health. He was always eating the organic greens that grew in his personal greenhouse. As a doctor he was preoccupied with staying healthy and avoiding anything that might take him out of the wards. But with this war any one could die at each passing moment. Kellan exhausted himself at work and then came home and took care of Cole, he deserved a reward for his complete selflessness. The double chocolate brownies that the Apollo was selling came to mind just as he was crossing the road. He turned around and checked the time on his watch, thinking that if he walked fast enough he could make it back before Marnie’s cover story would be questioned.
Just as he completed the 180-degree turn he collided with the man who had been walking behind him. Being similar heights their heads collided. Both cursed, each head throbbing. Cole opened his mouth to make an apology. The man looked about to explode.
But a building beat him to it.
The office building on the opposite corner of the intersection burst open. The top three floors blew into the sky. Bricks and body parts rained down onto the street. Flaming masses littered the road and any cars nearby. Traffic halted and people scrambled out of their cars.
Cole heard the screams then. People in shock. People in pain. People burning. Sirens wailed in the distance like grieving mothers.
The screaming broke the spell on him. He turned back to the man he’d bumped into. He was gone. Cole looked down to see him crumpled on the ground, his head gushing blood. A bloodied chunk of concrete the size of a basketball lay a foot away. There was nothing to be done about him. Cole checked for a pulse just in case.
His eyes darted across the street. The building’s remaining floors were engulfed in flame. People spilled out of it like rats abandoning a sinking ship. Those who could walk, ran crying into the intersection. Those who could not crawled and limped out of the wreckage. Others simply hung out of the upper windows, arms flailing attempting to get help. Attempting to at least breathe in clean air. Despite these attempts for survival, a number of them tumbled out of the empty frames and fell to their deaths.
Cole turned away from the slack bodies draping concrete and cars. Panic had ensued in the obstacle course of rubble. Those who could move pushed past those who could not, leaving them in the dust that rained down upon the intersection. Great clouds of it drifted down, stinging Cole’s eyes and darkening the area. He wiped at his eyes with the sleeve of his jacket and scanned the masses for someone in need of aid.
In the middle of the intersection, a car was pinned on both sides by other cars and pieces of building. The woman in the driver’s seat slumped unconscious on the steering wheel, the car’s horn blaring into the dusty square. There was a little boy in the seat beside her who pounded his small fists against the window. Cole dashed to the car. He gestured to the terrified boy to turn away and cover his eyes. The boy looked confused as tears streaked down his sticky face. He scrambled away from the window and buried his face in his mother’s shoulder. Cole peeled off his jacket and wrapped it around his fist. He punched the glass with all his body’s power. His fist simply bounced off the glass. He cursed. The car must be new. The windows of all the new model cars weren’t made with glass, but this flexible material that was engineered to be stronger than glass.
He pushed on the window, looking for a weak spot, but found none. The boy had turned back to him with wide pleading eyes. They sparkled with fear. The front of the car sparked and flame caught. The boy inside whimpered and pounded on the window more. Cole’s heart raced as he looked for another way in. All the doors were locked.
He pushed on the window again. As if by pure determination he would find the spot he was looking for. He pushed on the top corner, heaving his weight against it. His hand slipped in. The boy recoiled in fear. Cole’s heart froze as his brain processed what happened. His hand had slipped through the glass. Both glass and hand remained unbroken and unscratched. As if the glass had simply become air that he could travel through. The boy wailed with fear, but there was no time for fear. Cole reached for the door lock and popped it open. He opened the door and helped the boy out of the car. He climbed through the car, coughing at the smoke that began to leach into the car. The woman was still unconscious, but he managed to unbuckle her and pull her gently from the car. He carried her as the boy trailed behind them to the other side of the street.
He laid her gently on the cement and checked for a pulse. It was faint but it was there. Her breathing was shallow but steady. There was a bloody gash above her right eye, it flowed steadily out colouring her ashen hair. His jacket was still in a ball in his fist so he unwrapped it and held it against the wound. He told the boy to hold the jacket against her head but the boy recoiled in fear.
“Hey, look at me,” Cole took the boy’s arm and held him. “What’s your name?”
“Buri,” the boy mumbled, his eyes wide and wet as he took in his mother’s limp form.
“Buri, you love your mum yeah?”
The little boy nodded solemnly.
“And she loves you. You have to be brave for her right now, can you do that, Buri?”
The boy gave him a small smile.
“She needs you to be brave and hold this right against her head okay?” Cole placed his hand on the jacket. “You have to press on it, now okay? It won’t hurt her, just press it against her head.”
The boy did as he was bid. He had gone pale with shock and his arms shook even as he pressed the jacket against her head.
“Keep pressing, Buri, you’re really brave,” Cole stood up on shaking legs. “I have to go but someone will be here in a second.”
He turned back to the destruction. The sirens rang in his ears as emergency vehicles and military personnel filed into the intersection. Firefighters hooked up the hoses and aimed the spouts of water at the burning ruin. Paramedics ran about with stretchers. Voices crackled over short-wave radios. The screaming that was so shocking before had become common and faded to background noise. Military personnel flooded the streets, arms at the ready. Scouts trooped through the surrounding streets and alleys.
Cole jogged up to one of the commanding officers, stated his rank, and briefed him.
“The building just exploded?” the officer confirmed.
“Yes sir, the top three floors were all immediately gone,” Cole pushed a sooty hand through his hair.
“Thank you. Please, see to the paramedics,” the officer dismissed him.
Cole turned back to the mother and child he had left at the side of the road. Paramedics were attending to the mother. They had lifted her onto a stretcher and an MP was crouched in front of the boy, asking him questions. Cole watched as the boy turned towards him and pointed, the MP followed his gaze and nodded. Cole froze as the MP motioned him over.
“Is it true that you rescued that boy and his mother from their car?” the MP was tall, taller than Kellan, but with none of his warm kindness.
“You need to come with me, sir,” the MP motioned Cole to follow him to one of the trucks.
“Why?” Cole followed but didn’t get into the truck.
“We need to debrief you back at head quarters,” the officer’s face was grim and dark with his stubble. “Please, if you’ll get into the truck.”
Cole knew it was pointless to argue with an MP, they never said anything more than the basics. He climbed into the truck and the door shut behind him. His reflection stared back at him in the window. Kellan always teased him every morning about putting too much effort into his short black hair; now the perfectly textured waves of his crew cut stood up at various angles. There were patches of soot and dust across his face that reminded him of night camouflage. The cream coloured shirt he had buttoned up in the mirror this morning while Kellan kissed his neck had become a piece of abstract art. Splatters of blood both wet and dry overlapped stains of dirt and soot. He cursed the war again and tamed his hair with his fingers.
He heard the crackle of a radio outside and cupped his hands around his eyes so he could peer out. The MP that had ordered him into the truck was radioing someone and then two more appeared by his side. They stood outside the door at attention and Cole knew on the other side of the truck two more were doing the same thing. Two minutes later the doors opened. Two soldiers piled in, one on either side of him, and two more sat in the front. All were dressed in full military gear. The one on the radio remained outside. The driver was a middle aged MP and he revved the engine before pulling away from the disaster. The tires bumped over pieces of rubble as the truck went north towards the border and the temporary military headquarters.
The drive was deadly quiet. Cole tried not to let his mind wander, he knew it wouldn’t help. Once they arrived, the MPs exited the car, heaved him out and marched him into one of the only untouched buildings in the military base camp. Head quarters. It was a drab beige one level building. No vegetation decorated it, not even a patch of dying grass. This far north everything was dead, grey concrete. One MP on each side of him, one behind, and one in front he was escorted through the lobby to a set of elevator doors.
“Are there more levels underground?” Cole couldn’t keep his curiosity quiet.
The MPs did not so much as look at him in response. Cole watched the orange lights above the door as they travelled down seven levels to the very bottom of the compound. The MP in front threw open the doors and they travelled down a series of hallways. A steel door opened into a windowless room that housed only a table and a chair.
“Sit,” the one in front ordered him.
The MP stepped out of the room and shut the door with an echoing clank.
Cole sat there on the cold metal chair, reeking of smoke and gasoline. His upper lip was salty with sweat. How long would he wait in here? After twenty minutes he couldn’t sit still anymore. He felt like a puppy in training. Like if he was good and sat still he might get a cookie. He paced the room. It just made the exhaustion hit him faster. He slumped back down in the chair. As the cold metal chair dug into his back again he remembered Marnie back at the office waiting for him and the coffee. He knew she’d be pissed. He couldn’t even remember what had happened to the coffees. When in the chaos had he let go of them? He imagined the hot dark liquid mixing with the blood and urine that undoubtedly soaked the road. The too sweet smell of the hazelnut latte mixing with the choking metallic scent of blood.
It must have been hours he sat there contemplating his actions that morning. Why did he choose this day to leave the office to get good coffee? There were people dying in this war that would kill for water and he complained about having to drink bad coffee. He knew he was being hard on himself, but the carnage in the intersection had brought it out of him. He should have done more. Would that young mother make it? What of Buri? Did he stay with his mum? Or did he wander away like a regular child and get lost somewhere? What was the story of the man he’d bumped into? If he hadn’t turned around and walked into him would he be alive? Cole wished he knew. He stood back up to restart his pacing minutes before the steel door opened and General Hogarth walked in, two MPs trailing behind him.
“Captain Everard,” the General said by way of greeting. “At ease, and please take a seat.”
Cole sat, his back straight as a rod.
“I’m sorry about dragging you down here with all the dramatics but you do understand army regulations.”
“I do, sir.”
“I have been informed of some troubling reports about this morning’s attack. You were there?”
“Yes sir,” his palms were sweating.
“And you saved the lives of a mother and young boy?” one of the MPs behind him was making notes on their conversation.
“That’s correct, sir.”
“How did you do so?” He placed his hands on the table in front of him.
Cole had a feeling the General already knew the answer, there was no point in lying or spinning it in a certain way. He opened my mouth and the truth came tumbling out, but as he told the events he realized that he didn’t even know how it had happened. The General’s face was grim as Cole recounted the story to him. Hogarth’s forest green eyes tracking Cole’s face for signs of lies.
When Cole finished sharing the events of the morning the General said nothing for minutes. His mouth set in a grim line, his thick brows knitted together as he contemplated something in his sharp strategic mind. He tented his fingers and lifted his eyes to meet Cole’s.
“We have a proposition for you, Captain. You are aware of our country’s standing in the war at the border, yes?”
Cole nodded and felt his body go very still.
“We are haemorrhaging money, men, and ammunition. We need something big. A game changer. If you truly managed to move your hand through the window of that car, you could be that for your country. This war could be over in months. Will you let us train you and help you refine these gifts? Will you return to active duty and fight for your country once more?”
In his mind’s eye flashes of torn bodies rained down upon his consciousness. Cole’s tongue became thick like the mud he had trudged through at the border. Words dripped down his throat before they could be formed like the blood of the soldiers he had killed and had seen killed. Could he go back into that hell hole? Would he give up his life, his life with Kellan, for the lives of his neighbours and fellow countrymen? He opened his mouth to speak but nothing could come out. His mouth was drier than the chunks of rubble that had fallen from the sky that morning.
The General seemed to sense his hesitation. After a moment more of searching his face, the lines in his deepened. His eyes once contemplative became hard and unyielding. Disappointment and frustration coloured his face.
“Captain, may I remind you that you owe a duty to your country. We cannot afford to have soft hearts when it comes to this war, too many lives depend on us. If you do not wish to acquiesce to our demands, you will force our hand,” Hogarth’s voice was colder than steel. He lifted a few fingers and an MP opened the thick door behind him. Two more MPs stepped heavily into the room, dragging another person in behind them. “I never wish to live up to the assumption that I am a cold hearted man, but in this case I find I have little choice in the matter.”
The two MPs pulled the third person up to his full height and Cole’s eyes went to his like a pair of magnets. Deep blue eyes that were pools of compassion, were now glossed over, almost hidden in deep pits of purple black that spread over the bridge of his once straight nose.
They had brought him in. Beat him. And now held him up like a bargaining chip.
Kellan lifted his head and met Cole’s eyes. A tear escaped his lashes and tumbled down his ruined nose. The pain in Kellan’s face was reflected on Cole’s. His hands formed fists as he sat still like a cat ready to pounce. His shoulders tensed as he looked at the man he loved. Suspended between two MPs with faces like stone. Cole took note of the blood and bruises on the knuckles of one of them. This soldier who swore to protect the people of his country had just beaten an innocent man, a distinguished doctor. He would be sorry. Hogarth would be sorry.
Cole felt his heart become ice in his chest as he watched Kellan’s eyes flicker and move in and out of focus. His tongue flicked over his cracked puffed lips. The lips that just that morning had been on Cole’s neck as he had gotten dressed. The lips that had smiled behind him as he worked on his hair. The lips that always came home in a grim line after losing a patient. The lips that now formed Cole’s name soundlessly before his head sank back down helplessly.
“Will you return to active duty, Captain Everard?”
Will you give your life for Kellan’s?