combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2004

And a Child Shall Lead Them

          It began with two rows of snowmen facing off in the back yard, armed with twig rifles. The battle that ensued was dreadful. Wooden catapults behind the ranks spewed round after round of ice-covered snowballs. Heroic shouts of triumph drowned out the agonizing groans of those who were hit. After three hours, the North prevailed, leaving snowmen shattered over the muddy ground.

          Breathless and rosy from exertion, a dozen or more children trudged home, promising to reconnoiter the following day in the side yard across the street where the snowy terrain remained virgin pure.

          Back home, Eli and Sara scarfed down dinner, their fingers stiff from the cold. Their mother was busy bringing food from the kitchen stove, their father immersed in the TV evening news. Only little Joshua was not preoccupied, bang, bang, banging of his spoon on the high chair tray, then smiling at the others.

          The following day was the Sabbath, but it was so cold, no one attended services. Instead, the children gathered across the street, ready to resume the fight. The snow lay undisturbed, but the fluffy whiteness was now encrusted with a glaze of ice that crunched under foot. Mookie, whose yard it was, laid claim to the territory directly under the icicles, seeing their potential as ready-made weapons.

          Not tall enough to harvest icicles, Eli gathered his army around the base of a large oak, its spreading branches supporting a tree house where the children played in the summer. Its sturdy platform would give added dimensions to his battle plan.

          Once more snowmen were lined up facing each other like so many infantrymen. Once more a supply of snowballs were stacked behind. By ten o'clock they were ready, neighborhood children playing a game of war.

          As before, the battle was intense as combatants peered from behind the barricade, discharging snowball missiles before ducking back. As before, the lines of battle were clear, separated by ten feet that no one dared cross. Then as Mookie momentarily broke ranks to knock down an icicle, Eli raced across the no-man's land and grabbed four-year old Khaled by the back of his down-filled jacket, hauling him screaming to the other side of the battlefield.

          "Shut up Khaled! Prisoners are supposed to be quiet."

          "Nobody said we'd cross sides." The little boy pulled in vain toward the other side where Mookie, his older brother, stood watching.

          "In a real war, captives are killed," Eli replied, his voice low and menacing.

          "You're changing the rules, so I quit," stormed the little boy.

          "You can't quit. So shut your mouth or I'll beat you up." The words were barely out of Eli's mouth when he was plunged face down in the snow, tackled by Mookie who had circled the yard under the cover of a snowball blizzard, his path uncontested as he brandished a sword-like icicle.

          "Run, Khaled! Run!" Mookie cried as he pressed the icicle against Eli's neck.

          The little boy tore himself loose and staggered back where he was put back to work making more snowballs. Meanwhile, the older boys turned toward the other side and hurled a cover of snowballs, allowing Mookie to dash back.

          Now Eli's troops hunched behind the protective stack of snowballs, while Mookie gathered his troops and whispered a series of orders. Khaled, was to sneak around the house and retrieve a coil of rope from the garage. They would take prisoners and use them for ransom.

          During the lull, a contingent from the opposing army mounted the ladder to the tree house. Now they skimmed off blocks of encrusted snow from branches and hurled the icy brickbats at Mookie's troops with dangerous precision.

          But with half of Eli's army fifteen feet off the ground, Mookie's corps quickly overcame the remaining ground forces. Using the rope, they tied their prisoners to the tree trunk below, their snowballs stacked tantalizingly out of reach.

          "Take down the ladder," Mookie commanded, his voice resonating with power. "It's time for lunch."

          The conquering North turned and marched obediently through the gate, disappearing into their respective houses up and down the block, leaving the prisoners to fend for themselves.

          The sounds of street traffic and low-flying airplanes muffled their cries for help. Passersby only smiled and waved at the children, then hurried out of the cold.

          It was two o'clock before Sara worked her wrists free, and three o'clock before she could release the others, using their bonds for a rope ladder for those high off the ground.

          They stumbled home and flung themselves into the living room, numb with cold.

          "Looks like you had a fun-filled day," smiled their mother, looking up from rocking Joshua to sleep.

          "It wasn't fun. Mookie had us trapped in the tree house for hours."

          "Of course it was fun. But you must be hungry after all that time in the fresh air. See what you can find for yourselves in the kitchen."

          The newspapers crunched underfoot as the children rose stiffly, wiping off the mud from Mookie's yard.

          In the kitchen, they devoured huge sandwiches and planned their revenge. "We just won't let Mookie come to our house any more," declared Eli as he poured two glasses of milk.

          "Right. And let's not talk to him in school, either."

          The next day when they arrived at the bus stop, they were ready to brief the troops. But Mookie and his friends had arrived earlier and drawn a line in the snow.

          "Well, so what? Eli's birthday party is next month and you can't come," Sara sniffed.

          She was rewarded with a handful of snow thrust down her back, accompanied with hoots and guffaws from Mookie's friends.

          By the week of Eli's birthday, Sara's threat was irrelevant. Meanwhile, there were endless opportunities for sabotage, tripping children who walked the hall, trashing homework and stealing coats, gloves, hats or whatever was needed most. Finally, Eli and Sara gave up riding the bus. It was less hassle to walk. No matter. Spring was just around the corner.

          Sara and Eli's parents shook their heads in bewilderment. "What is this world coming to? Why, when I was young —"

          Eli's birthday party was restricted to members of the Southern army. Together they commiserated, justified, and resolved vengeance.

          "I know — let's egg Mookie's house!" Jordan cried.

          The following day, they did it. And they did it again — and again.

          At first it was fun to sneak out, hide afterward and act self-righteous when questioned. They would see the police coming up Mookie's driveway, lights flashing, only to quietly drive away twenty minutes later.

          Then spring rains washed the house clean. Little else changed. Eli and Sara walked to school and continued suffering indignities. Meanwhile, the tree house, now enclosed in a bower of green-yellow leaves, was a constant reminder.

          "I hate that tree house," Sara said as she gazed out the window.

          "Be nice," her mother murmured from where she was cleaning the fireplace. "Mookie is your brother's best friend, and Khaled and Joshua will be playmates when he gets big enough to cross the street. We have to be good neighbors, you know."

          Sara did not reply. She just stared at the box of tall matches resting on the hearth.

          Later that evening, she slipped into the dark and silent living room, took a handful of matches and went into the storage shed for lighter fluid, then crossed into Mookie's yard. The ladder to the tree house was cool to the touch. It took only a minute to get to the top, spreading the fluid sparingly, mindful that an empty can would generate questions. Then returning to the ladder, she tossed a lighted match onto the platform on her way down.

          Back home, she put away the fluid and matches and went upstairs. Eli joined her at the open window as sirens screamed their arrival at Mookie's house. "You did it?"

          She nodded. "What do you think?"

          "It's beautiful!"

          There was a knock on the door. Without waiting for a response, the mother entered, followed by a police officer. Seeing them standing at the window, she wrung her hands distractedly. "Don't be upset. It can be rebuilt."

          The police officer stepped forward and faced Eli. "Did you have anything to do with this?"

          "No sir."

          "He and Mookie are best friends. Why should anyone —" The mother put her arm protectively around Eli's shoulders.

          "I'm sorry, Ma'am. I had to ask. It's required."

          "I understand. Can I get you a cup of coffee?"

          They went back downstairs.

          Sara and Eli returned to the window. Neither spoke until the firemen had left and the yard was once more empty. If Sara saw the curtains at Mookie's window move, she made no comment.

          The next day Sara and Eli's school lockers had mysterious fires, their contents totally destroyed. The excitement provided a topic of conversation for two weeks.

          Finally the principal had enough. He called a meeting of parents, teachers, police and social workers. A battery of reporters dutifully recorded what was said. The principal laid down the law: no more fighting — at least not in school. To ensure this, they would re-draw the district boundaries. The dividing line would be on the street where they lived. Sara and Eli would remain undisturbed. Mookie and his friends would attend school on the other side of town.

          "They ought to move," Eli said as he stared at the house across the street.

          "If you don't like Mookie, find someone else to play with," his mother said. "You and Sara should go to the Aqua Center. There are plenty of your friends there. I'll pack a lunch so you can spend the day."

          Reluctantly, the children gathered towels and swimsuits, setting out in the hot summer sun. They cut through a small wooded area, crossed a narrow stream and balanced themselves briefly upon the commuter train tracks. Then they found themselves in front of Mookie's new school, far from their destination.

          The schoolyard was filled with children even though school was out for the summer. They were rocking back and forth on lopsided swings or shooting baskets. Sara and Eli perched themselves on a fallen log in the middle of a patch of tall underbrush where they were virtually hidden. They began eating their lunch, idly watching the activities on the playground.

          Bored, Sara began snapping the rubber band wrapped around her lunch. Tzingg-gg, tsunk-k tzing-g-gg —

          "Here, let me." Eli stretched the rubber band across his thumb and index finger, turning it into a slingshot. The ground was littered with stones of various sizes, weapons unlimited. He took aim.

          His first shot nipped the bare thigh of Joanna playing in the sand under the monkey bars. She barely noticed, giving it an absent-minded scratch.

          "Do it again!" Sara was now wide awake.

          The second stone was larger and aimed toward the monkey bars crowded with climbers. It hit the sunburned shoulder of Suny, Mookie's new best friend. It was followed by another that caught him between the eyes.

          What happened next was a blur. Suny lost his grip and as he tried to catch himself, grabbed onto Ethan, and they tumbled down together. Their combined weight caused another to lose his grip. In seconds, the entire assembly tumbled down, crashing onto Joanna, Miriam, and three other children who had been playing in the sand below.

          Blood was everywhere. Ethan had caught his ankle on the buckle of Suny's sandal, raking off a strip of skin from foot to knee. Joanna lay with her leg twisted like a question mark, another was covered with blood from a sand bucket shard that had pierced her arm. The others were not visible, hidden by bodies fallen on top. Then onlookers obscured the view.

          "Time to go," Eli whispered.

          They moved in the direction of the street, undetected in the milling crowd. Someone had called the police and sirens added to the general hubbub.

          The accident was carried on the national news that evening, reporting seven injuries, three of them serious, with pictures of the playground, police cars, ambulances, and hospital. There were interviews of bystanders, the school custodian and playground equipment manufacturers.

          "I'm glad you were at the pool all day," their mother murmured as she placed a slice of cantaloupe on Joshua's high chair tray. She shook her head. "Such a terrible thing to happen to innocent children."

          "Whoever caused it deserves to have the book thrown at him," agreed their father as he finished his coffee and settled down to read the business page and the comics.

          It took a month, but after more reviews, interviews and overviews, the news story finally died. Injured children were released from the hospital although Joanna would face three operations before she could walk without a limp.

          Meanwhile, Mookie's family went on their usual two-week vacation. Then it was July and time for the Fourth, a reprieve from summer ennui.

          Every year was the same. The Sunday before the Fourth, they would travel across the state line, buy fireworks and store them in the shed at the far end of the yard. On the Fourth, they would transport them to a large field for a cookout, picnic and celebration.

          They drove for many miles before deciding to stop and make their purchase and lingered, choosing just the right ones. By now, everyone was ready for an early dinner, arriving home just after dark. Although Joshua had fallen asleep, he awoke fully alert, for this would be his first real Fourth of July.

          It took three trips for the children to load up the shed while the adults went into the house. Meanwhile, Eli and Sarah fended Joshua's pleas to light just one sparkler. Finally, they gave in. Standing next to the shed, he held it over his head, like the Statue of Liberty, while Sara and Eli went back to the car for the final load.

          Then something else happened. While they were gone, Mookie's family had returned and Khaled had run over to say hello. Excited at seeing his friend, Joshua raced across the yard to greet him. But his foot got caught on a protruding root and he went down, the sparkler flying out of his hand, through the door of the shed, igniting the remaining lighter fluid that had tipped over.

          The blast was horrendous. Its force exploded Joshua's lungs, killing him instantly. Khaled, seriously injured with shrapnel from the shed, bled to death on his way to the hospital.

          The investigation that followed took only a few days. Sara and Eli were not blamed. It was an accident.

          The picnic never materialized. Instead, the town held a memorial service on the Fourth of July. With flags at half-mast, the mourners stood in an unincorporated field with heads bowed, as the high school band played God Bless America.

by Beth Staas
... who is the widow of a WWII Air Corps Cadet and the sister of a German POW of that same war. She has recently retired from teaching at Waubonsee Community College, and has posted some of her compositions and a usage guide on her website. She has published two novels, The Two Percent Miracle and An Audience of One; and works in more than two dozen periodicals, including Success, Entrepreneur, Southwest Airlines, Lady's Circle, Chicago Tribune, and Barrister.