There was one moment of eerie calm, the world suspended between the before of what had happened—what he had caused to happen—and the after, when the trajectory of history was forever altered, at least for that place. In the space of stillness, before the first screams tore through the smoke, he turned on his heel and, limping slightly, headed away from what had been a normal morning in the market. The crunch of loose gravel underfoot echoed for a millisecond off the ancient walls; the sound seemed to kick-start time itself. Then the after took over: an orchestrated cacophony consisting of shock, confusion, fear, and soon enough, despair.
That he still walked among the living took him by surprise. His death had not necessarily been part of the plan. Yet his survival had not been assured, a possibility he’d accepted with the requisite amount of fatalism. Yet here he was, heart pounding, ears ringing, most definitely of this world. He felt light, almost buoyant, even as he found himself covered in limestone and clay and a thousand bits of flotsam and jetsam he would never be able to identify
Alive! He willed himself to breath slowly; to act dazed; in truth, not an act at all. His adrenaline high was subsiding, replaced by a sense of displacement. For a brief moment, he allowed himself to be tossed and pulled by the surge of humanity running away and also towards the devastation. His mind cleared and he pushed forward, moving in a straight line, seeking distance.
The disaster vehicles were descending upon the shattered marketplace, their insistent mechanical alarm combining with scattered screams to form an inhuman wailing wall of sound. Billowing smoke partly obscured the burned-out stalls and scattered detritus as survivors climbed frantically out from under smoldering ruins, shouting for those missing, keening for those discovered dead. He closed his mind to death and injury, pushed down a memory that surfaced unbidden, of a ruined house, a frantic search, searing pain and the pitiful cries of a small child looking for the security that had just been ripped from him. If it hurt to relive that distant moment, even for an instant, it also focused him. He had done this thing. There was more to do.
With great effort, he brought himself back to the present turmoil and to the task at hand: Get away clean and report back. He set off again at a brisk pace, swallowing repeatedly, as if to digest the volatile mixture of pride and pain that filled his throat.
Breaking free of the crowd, he moved into the shadow of a building to catch his breath. He first sensed, then saw the young boy, perhaps seven or eight, staring fixedly at him. He’d seen the child before, when he first walked into the market, into his destiny, his head high, his heart full and his limp — battle scar and badge of honor — a clear identifier to anyone paying attention. A limp was something an observant little boy might remember and then describe to interested adults.
The two of them, both young and with their futures as unpredictable as a spring storm, faced each other in the hot mid-morning at the edge of a tiny village in a small country filled with large resentments. The young man’s hand drifted to the weapon at his belt even as his mind summoned forth a peculiar if accurate assessment: We are in a “Mexican standoff.”
He walked over to the child, squatted in the sand and rested his hand gently on the youngster’s shoulder.
“Tell me, who did you see at the market?”
“I saw many people,” the boy replied. “I saw you.”
“And who am I?”
“You are a man with a limp,” the boy answered carefully.
He nodded his agreement. “ I am a man,” he responded, “With a limp.”
The young man kissed him on both cheeks, rose and walked on without looking back. His life had been spared; he in turn had spared a life. The universe was, for the moment, in balance.
He experienced an almost exhilarating moment of clarity. What is to be will be.
Plainsboro resident Nikki Stern is the author of two works of non-fiction — Because I Say So: Moral Authority’s Dangerous Appeal and Hope in Small Doses. Her first work of fiction, Short Circuit, is due out this fall and includes several of her pieces from past Summer Fiction issues. More can be found at nikkistern.com.