But I am not afraid. There is no time for fear, only movement. I step over a barricade on the side of the busy street. No one tries to stop me. I move confidently, raising no question as to my status, of my right to be among the soldiers.
Before me stands the community center, an old factory converted over to the people within the city. It still bears the name of the manufacturing plant on the side of the worn down, stone wall. Directly beside the faded sign is painted Arabic, which translated to English says something like “center for the community,” granted my educated translation is actually as educated as I suppose it to be. I walk through the double doors with no resistance.
Inside, I see the people. Terrified people.
The reports are ambiguous in their narrative, but at the core share a common fact. The radicals are taking over the city. Terrorists. Explosions and gunfire have filled the air for hours. People are dying everywhere. It is only a matter of time before these people will die too, that is, if they stay.
But they don’t have to stay.
The community center is large, one massive room separated into a basketball court, several open classrooms, and a pitiful library. A large group of children sit on the cement court, huddled together in a tight group. Staff workers manically roam the area, yelling and screaming directions. Others sit in chairs, mumbling to each other, some elderly, some middle-aged, some clearly family.
I move to the children first. They are the most easily persuaded.
“We need to leave,” I tell them. There are at least twenty kids, mixed ages. Tears are a plenty, especially from a small group of girls that can be no older than ten. They look like sisters, but I am not one to judge accurately. To me, they are just dark faces in a dark crowd.
Some of the children move instantly to their feet. Others remain seated, unsure if they should be listening to the community center staff or the giant stranger before them. I repeat my command more sternly and a few more of the children comply by raising to their feet.
And then I see my brother, walking swiftly through the library. He yells commands more savagely, cursing beneath his breath with each refusal. He is the mirrored image of myself. Shaved head, tall, garbed in military attire. His skin is even paler than mine. Amongst the olive-skinned, Arab children, we are giant ghosts, oddities.
But our oddities demand attention. To some of them, we are their saviors.
I nod to my brother as he steps behind the large group. Together we corral them like cattle on a Texas farm. They listen intently and follow, completely ignoring the disgusted staff workers who try to persuade them that the community center is a safe haven.
I know the staff are trying to do what they believe is right, but this isn’t it. They are completely and utterly wrong. I push two of them out of my way, and by the third, a young gentleman with a mustache and white turban, I am angry enough to punch him squarely across the face. The rest of the staff are immediately deflated, and in turn, begin to evacuate the building along with us.
We filter the children through the double doors and allow them to flood the street. They are the military’s problem now. Not ours. There are more people to evacuate inside.
“The older ones next,” my brother says. He points toward the library. “They’ll take the most time.”
I turn back into the room, before feeling a tug on my pants. I am quick to feel for my weapon, but when I turn around I find it’s only a boy. A thin, frail boy.
I point my head toward the elderly, signaling my brother to continue. I’m not sure he even sees me. He is single-minded in his mission.
Lowered to one knee, I rest my hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“Thank you. Save me,” the boy says in broken English. I give him my best smile. He bares his white teeth in return.
“My hero,” he adds.
My smile is immediately wiped away. I am not a hero. But I nod anyways, if only to allow the boy the satisfaction of sharing his thankfulness. I grab his shoulders, tearing the rotting fabric of his cloak while doing so. I turn him toward the rest of the children, who are now nearing the other side of the street, where a military detail is collecting them.
An explosion, which can’t be any more than a few blocks away, shakes the ground beneath us. The small boy loses his balance. I shove him, forcing him into a run. He quickly regains his gait and is into the street before he can protest my force.
A long line of elderly citizens walk toward me. My brother yells orders behind them. In their condition, these people cannot go far, but anywhere is safer than this public stage.
“Across the street,” my brother says as they reach the doors.
Over his shoulder, I see some of the staff encouraging others through a different side door. Beyond the line of elderly individuals, there are few others left in the building. The strongest-willed. The expected few who will not take orders from light-skinned men, especially ones in military garb.
It takes an excruciatingly long time for the elder population to exit the building. We wait patiently, though inside, I feel as if I’m about to explode. I know my brother feels the same way. I can see it on his face, the anxious expression.
When the last individual is outside, we each grab one of the large metal doors and slam them shut. There is a chain tangled in a pile next to the center’s check-in desk. It is made for the doors. Together, we wrap the heavy links around the handles. And I secure the chain with a padlock that I find on the desk above where the iron once lay. We are locked inside.
Now, we are almost alone, save the one group of younger gentleman sitting in one of the make-shift classrooms.
My brother shakes his head, staring at the group. He then looks at me and smiles. He knows that they will not leave. They are the stubborn. The rebels I saw earlier. The ones who will never trust us.
“Hey white man,” one of the men calls to us. The rest of them laugh, even though the explosions, and the gunfire, are clearly edging closer. “Come over here.”
“Why are you not leaving?” I ask, as my brother and I comply with the man’s request. “This place is not safe.”
“Says who?” Another one asks. He wears a white robe and has a short, dark beard. He is Arab, but his English is perfect. No accent.
“Would you rather die here?” My brother asks smartly. We now stand in the middle of the sprawled out group. They lounge about as if nothing is happening around us.
“Would you?” the first man asks. “You’re the one that locked us in here. I think you know something that we don’t. And you sacrificed all of those others to keep this secret.”
An explosion shakes the entire building. The terrorists are close.
But the men remain calm.
“Or maybe,” my brother says, “we are keeping them out so they don’t make the same mistake twice.”
The group laughs together. “Stupid American,” the unaccented man responds. “Do you think that you can lie to our faces? For all we know, the terrorists outside could be American soldiers. More likely, for all you know, we could be the very terrorists that you are claiming to be saving the others from.”
The man pulls a black pistol from his robe and raises it above his head. His friends continue to laugh at him.
My brother and I remain steadfast, showing no ounce of emotion at their games. They do not see the danger they are in.
He lowers the gun to his lap, as another explosion shakes the walls around us. It sounds like mortar fire. “Isn’t it true that we all look like terrorists to you?” he says. “To you Americans?”
“Maybe,” my brother replies. He is not serious, but I can see the annoyance on his face.
“Well, in that case,” another man—a short, stalky fellow in a green robe—says. “Then my friend is right. We very well could be the people you are trying to save yourselves from. The Radicals.”
To the average person, his words could possibly be convincing. But not to us. These men are nothing more than traitors, American sympathizers, rats. They trade secrets to our country for the false hope that they will be protected. Protected by people like us. But they are not terrorists.
My brother’s gun fires before I can even grab mine. I see the blood spray from the back of the stalky man’s head. The others fumble for their own weapons, but it is too late.
I shoot the unaccented man squarely in the face before putting a bullet into the chest of the man beside him. Another bullet takes the second man’s life.
By the time I shoot the third man, the one in white—the initial speaker—my brother has killed the rest.
Around us lies a bloody mess.
My brother laughs, an ominous gesture. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a box of cigarettes and a lighter. As he places a cigarette into his mouth he shoots one of the men who is still struggling for life, writhing in a pool of his comrade’s blood.
I, on the other hand, pull my cell phone out of my pocket, while placing my pistol into the back of my pants. I dial 1 and wait for an answer.
On the second ring, a woman’s voice comes through the other end. “Status?” she asks.
“Hello to you too,” I say.
“Hmmph,” she manages at my joke. “Status please.”
I roll my eyes. “Targets acquired.”
The woman begins to laugh, nearly hysterical, even though my answer was not a joke at all. “Not yet,” she finally says.
I am confused by her response, as I see the bloody bodies all around me. They are dead, all of them. We were successful.
But then I see it.
My brother’s gun is pointed at me. I cannot defend myself. I’m not sure I would have, even if I had the opportunity. He is my brother. Why?
And I am on the ground before I realize what is actually happening. Immense pain surges through my head, but I still grasp for life, what little is left of it.
Though I’m sure it is only seconds, it seems like minutes of pure agony pass, as I hear my brother move above me. I hear her voice coming through my phone. It lies directly beside my face.
My brother’s hand picks it up from the pool of blood. “Targets acquired,” he says. “Wait, not quite.”
I do not see him, but I feel his presence hovering over me.
I take one more breath.
I hear the gun shot.
All goes black.