Jason’s eyes narrowed, as he peered through the smoke at the remnants of the armoured truck. His four UN comrades were now corpses on the Kenbito dust. Both his dad, and Uncle Jacko had pleaded with him not to volunteer for service in their native Africa, but he had longed to visit the place since childhood.
The thirty-year-old wondered if he’d survive the tour to marry his girlfriend, and have a family. Still supporting his weight on one arm, Jason glanced down at the diminutive old woman beneath him. He’d pushed her into the dusty alleyway, and protected her from the falling debris.
The big Londoner’s ears slowly started to hear muffled sound, following the explosion. He stared at the burning remains of the truck, and felt grateful, but vulnerable.
The muzzle of a rifle appeared around the corner of the building. Jason got to his feet, and assisted the old woman. His eyes widened as a young terrorist in a red and white football shirt, and combats appeared.
The stranger said, “Hello, Jason, mate.” He shook his head. “Still bleedin’ goody-two-shoes, I see.”
“Calvin,” Jason gasped. “How did you end up here?”
“Yeah, it’s a long way from Bethnal Green, mate.” Calvin grinned. “I came out ‘ere to be a mercenary, and make some cash.” He shook his head slowly.
“So, you’ll take anybody’s side as long as you get paid?”
“Yeah. I wasn’t surprised to see you here today.” He spat at Jason’s feet. “Jason Ambrose, the self-appointed sheriff of Year-Ten.” He laughed aloud. “You’ve never changed, except now you’ve got a little blue helmet and a new cause.”
“If you want to carry a weapon, why didn’t you join the army?”
“Are youkidding me, mate? You and those UN buddies of yours were the inspiration for blowin’ up the truck, but you weren’tin it—‘cos you’re still helpin’ losers, an’ little ole’ ladies.” He glanced at the old woman as she stumbled, and leant on Jason.
“So, now you shoot me like a bloody dog in the dirt?”
“Bye-bye, Jason.” Calvin raised his AK47 to his shoulder.
Jason’s weapon had fired before he was conscious of squeezing the trigger. The short burst of two rounds hit Calvin in the chest, and the noise was camouflaged by the constant shooting and ululating of the terrorists around the area.
Calvin fired a single shot as he went down. He dropped to his knees, staring at Jason in disbelief. He dropped the Kalashnikov, and fell face forward onto the dust; an unknown, unwanted mercenary.
Jason stood transfixed, looking at the old classmate he’d just killed. He was unaware of the woman anxiously tugging at his jacket. She was holding out his blue UN helmet.
* * *
It had been three hours earlier when the local United Nations Headquarters had received a frantic call from the elder of Kenbito; a township forty miles away. The man said he’d received word of an attack by rebels, and he feared for his people.
Sergeant Jason Ambrose, a Royal Fusilier on attachment from the British Army volunteered to lead the mobile patrol. He’d served in Iraq, and Afghanistan, so was no stranger to the fear and turmoil created by insurgents. Four other European soldiers who knew Jason were quick to respond.
Oscar, from Antwerp, had joked with Jason as they climbed into the armoured truck. “At least you and I will blend in with the locals, Jason.”
Karl, one of the three white soldiers grinned, and waved a forefinger at Oscar. They’d all been laughing as they boarded the truck. Every member of the crew hated racism, so joking about it had become the squad’s banter.
* * *
Now, after the explosion, the sole survivor was Jason. Accompanied by the slightly built Kenbito woman, Jason kept his rifle at the ready, as they moved between ramshackle buildings.
There was a blood-curdling scream, and Jason’s nostrils twitched when he sensed the aroma of freshly cooked meat. The acrid stench of burning rubber carried on the breeze.
“No,” he murmured.
The old woman looked up at the Londoner with sorrowful eyes, and slowly nodded. She might not understand his language, but she understood his tone, and recognised the smells of a ‘flaming necklace’.
The odd couple walked on in silence for another ten minutes until they reached the outskirts of the township. The horror of the rebels’ summary executions was reviled by every nationality, and it was difficult to bring the perpetrators to justice.
The woman stopped and pointed at a tiny house fifty metres to the left. It was made of chunks of corrugated aluminium, and plastic sheeting.
Jason looked from the house to the woman to see her repeatedly point to the dwelling, and back to herself. With pride, she nodded and smiled, showing her few remaining teeth.
“Yourhouse, old mother?” Jason said, and smiled down at her, pointing, and nodding his understanding.
She nodded vigorously before starting to lead the way. Her mouth was covered with one of Jason’s large hands as she was pulled back sharply into a doorway. She dropped her tattered canvas bag of belongings, but Jason dragged it back with his foot.
A group of three rebels appeared, and were approaching the woman’s house, but had not seen Jason, or the woman. The insurgents stopped, kicked in the fragile door, and threw in a grenade. The fuse lasted five seconds, and the building lasted three seconds longer.
Jason found himself once again looking at a cloud of dust settling on destruction. His mind drifted back to his colleagues. If he hadn’t left the truck to help the old woman, he would be dead too. He also thought of Calvin. Childhood bully turned adult terrorist.
Tears streamed down the woman’s face, and her frail body trembled.
The big soldier pulled her close to comfort her. He looked at her, and thought of relatives he’d never known. His father and Uncle Jacko were originally from Africa, but never told stories of their childhood. Many times Jason asked, but it wasn’t discussed.
The pair stood silently in the shadow of the doorway for half an hour. They watched the armed men lay waste to many houses. Jason’s objective was survival, and this defenceless woman was going with him when he moved on. He’d get her to the refugee centre.
* * *
The night came fast, like a black curtain which shut off all light. After a while, the moon flickered through sporadic, drifting cloud.
Jason tapped the woman’s shoulder. When she looked up, he pointed to himself, and her, before pointing out towards the wilderness. He used two fingers to signify walking.
She nodded understanding. Jason reached down to lift her baggage—an old canvas holdall which contained her remaining worldly possessions. The woman waved her hands over it rapidly.
Jason said, “I can carry it.” He gestured to lift the bag.
The woman opened the bag, and removed a small, tattered photograph. After kissing the print, she smiled, and secured it in the pocket of her dress. She pointed at Jason’s head.
He reached up, and grinned. “Well done, old mother.” He unclipped the chinstrap.
The woman took the distinctive blue helmet, and packed it in her bag. When the worn strap was tied, she stood, arms outstretched, trembling with the weight of the bag.
“We’re actually communicating.” Jason accepted the bag, slung it over his left shoulder, and they walked slowly into the night together.
* * *
After an hour of steady progress, they stopped at a rocky outcrop.
“We’ll rest, and drink.” Jason pulled out his green plastic water bottle, and unscrewed the cap. He offered the bottle to the woman.
She accepted, lifted it to her face, screwed up her nose, and handed it back.
“It’s steritabs,” Jason said, accepting the bottle. “We sterilise our water.” He put the plastic bottle to his lips, sipped some water, and raised his eyebrows.
The woman took the bottle, sniffed it again, wrinkled her nose, and took a sip. She licked her lips.
The woman took a long drink.
Jason accepted the bottle, and took another sip before securing the canister to his belt. “Jason,” the soldier said, and pointed to himself. He pointed to her, and inclined his head.
She screwed up her face, and backed away.
Jason pointed to his chest again. “Jason.”
The woman’s tired eyes lit up, and her teeth showed briefly.
“Jackson!” she exclaimed.
“Jaso—” he started to correct her.
“Jackson!” she cried again, triumphantly, interrupting him.
“J—yeah, Jackson,” he murmured, capitulating. “I do have an Uncle Jacko.” He accepted his new temporary name, and pointed at the woman again.
“Myr’yam,” she responded in her Kenbito dialect.
“Miriam?” Jason queried.
“Myr’yam!” she repeated indignantly.
“Miriam,” Jason said. “And that’s as close as I can get.”
“Miriam,” Myr’yam repeated softly, and smiled.
“First names already,” Jason said, displaying a trace of his usual humour.
Jason saw Myr’yam wince as she moved her left arm.
She used her right hand to touch a dark patch on the left sleeve of her dress.
“Let me look.” Jason moved towards her.
She backed away.
“It’s okay.” Jason whispered, and leant forward to gently roll up her sleeve. An inspection by moonlight confirmed Calvin’s stray bullet had found a target.
“Fortunately, Miriam,” Jason said. “It’s gone straight through, but I must clean, and dress the wound.”
Ten minutes later, Myr’yam was smiling, and looking from her freshly bandaged arm to Jason. Pursing her lips, she nodded at him slowly.
From his small pack, Jason removed, and swallowed two painkillers unnecessarily, with a sip of water. He offered two tablets, and the water to Myr’yam. She swallowed the tablets without hesitation, and sipped the water.
“Good girl,” Jason whispered.
He set a bearing on his lightweight compass, knowing if they went north they’d reach the main road. His plan was to avoid using the road except as a rough guide.
They were out in the open, when a droning noise and a flashing red light in the sky caught Jason’s attention. He watched direction of travel, and checked his compass. His lips curled with satisfaction. There was a tug at his sleeve, and he looked down at Myr’yam.
She was standing head back, sniffing the air. Her eyes opened wider, and she looked around. She pointed to a nearby acacia tree, and pulled on Jason’s sleeve.
He looked at her, confused.
“Jackson.” She squinted, and beckoned with her good arm, before running to the tree.
Jason followed her, but was more confused than previously.
At the tree, the fragile looking woman stopped, and turned to her companion.
“Myr’yam … Jackson!”She pointed up into the branches.
Jason looked around at the moonlit grasslands. He placed his broad back against the tree, bent forward a little, and cupped his open hands onto his right thigh.
Myr’yam hit his open palms with her left foot, his shoulder with her right foot, and climbed into the tree like a monkey.
Jason had another look around before he passed up Myr’yam’s bag. He slung his rifle on his shoulder before climbing. As he climbed, the woman moved farther up. He followed until they were within the foliage on a strong branch.
A distinctive bovine scent carried in the air, and Jason stared into the night. He touched Myr’yam’s arm, and grinned as he pointed at an approaching lone wildebeest.
She shook her head slowly, grinning, pointing farther out.
Jason narrowed his eyes. Gradually, like wraiths in the mist, two columns of golden coloured, feline bodies appeared, moving with stealth through the long grass. Four went to the left, and three to the right.
The wildebeest’s head raised, its nostrils twitched, and it started to run. It was a life-saving effort, but the large animal only managed one hundred metres. It was pulled to the ground, and once off its feet, it took less than thirty seconds before the struggle was over. The lionesses who’d performed the kill were already feeding when two male lions strolled past the base of the tree.
The alpha male stopped, and sniffed the air, appeared to look directly at the people in the tree, and moved on to feast.
Jason could almost taste the strong feline scent, and looked at Myr’yam, his eyes giving witness to his anxiety. He raised his weapon into the aim.
Myr’yam placed a reassuring hand on the rifle, and shook her head. She rubbed her belly, and pointed toward the feeding pride of lions.
When Jason turned to Myr’yam again, she’d closed her eyes.
* * *
Jason had an uneasy night. He felt deep guilt about Calvin’s death, but his thoughts turned to his survival as he listened, and watched the natural order of the wilderness. His eyes became accustomed to the semi-darkness, and as if magnetised, he watched the lions feeding.
The massive beasts squabbled occasionally as they ate, and it gave Jason the incentive he needed to stay awake, and let his companion rest. When the lions wandered a short distance from their prey, they were replaced by hyenas and jackals. There was a pecking order, and it was observed in daylight or darkness.
The sun crept over the horizon, and highlighted Africa’s wild, natural beauty. Less than three hundred metres away from the acacia tree, the pride of lions lay stretched out, resting after their meal. During the night, the wildebeest had been reduced to a carcass which had chunks of meat attached to the bones.
An early shift of vultures, and smaller birds cleaned the bones. Jason wondered when it would be safe to continue their journey. He was tired, but pleased the woman had slept. He would allow her to wake up naturally.
Myr’yam awoke. She put a forefinger to her lips and motioned walking, using two fingers, as Jason had done the previous evening.
Jason nodded, but pointed anxiously at the lions.
Myr’yam smiled. She touched her belly, and placed her palms together, before resting her head on them.
Jason nodded once again, and they got to the ground to set off again. The soldier led the way, but for the first fifteen minutes constantly glanced over his shoulder. Myr’yam continued with the slow, steady pace associated with her people.
Three hours after they left the safety of the tree, a Hercules cargo plane, passed low overhead with landing gear down.
“We’re nearly there, Miriam.” Jason glanced over his shoulder.
Myr’yam was lying on the ground five metres behind him; her eyes closed.
Jason dashed back, and knelt beside her. He looked around, before placing his weapon on the ground. “Miriam,” he whispered close to her ear. “Not far now.” He noticed in her right hand, she was clutching the tattered photo she cherished.
Jason took the small print from her hand. He recognised Myr’yam as a teenager, standing between two boys who could have been her brothers; both holding Kalashnikov rifles. Jason’s pulse raced as he stared at the photo. He’d seen it before. Before turning it over, he knew what it said on the back.
The big man carried Myr’yam for five miles in the morning heat. They were two miles from the remote UN base when a patrol vehicle approached. Jason was dehydrated, and exhausted. Hanging over one shoulder was Myr’yam’s possessions, and over the other was his rifle. Cradled in his arms like a small child, was the unconscious woman.
“Use me for the transfusion,” Jason told the doctor minutes later. “When she’s fully recovered I’m taking her home with me—to visit her brothers in England.”
“Her brothers?” the doctor said.
“Nelson, and Jackson Ambrose.” Jason nodded.
Taken from Smoke & Mirrors: and other stories