By Natasha Luttjeboer
Nothing is harder than making a decision that could kill you.
I didn’t have to join the army, I knew that, but there was nothing left for me here. Nobody worth staying for. That could change if I signed up, my life could get so much better, but I could actually die. I haven’t lived enough to die.
I mean, its suicide to join them. “War is brewing,” that’s what everyone said. Some people thought it’d be with Russia, others were sure about the Middle East. It didn’t really matter; America was itching for a war. That’s why you could ‘become part of the cause at your local mall.’
It didn’t really matter to me. I just needed a way out.
“You signing up, kid?”
I glanced up to see an old man.
I turned back to my beer and my view of the registration table.
“Wanna take a walk?” His accent was harsh and almost as strange as his words.
“No, I’m just going to head home.”
“I’ll walk you out.” He gave me a smile, like he knew something I didn’t.
My eyes narrowed. “I’m fine, thanks.”
“Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.”
“I have one.” I snapped.
His smile crumpled and I immediately felt guilty. “I’m sorry, I’m just a little on edge.”
“I know the feeling.”
I only stared at the dark-skinned pensioner as I grabbed my bag and started heading out. He fell into step beside me.
“You okay, kid? You look a little dazed.”
I nodded. He patted his hand against his leg.
“You know… I was in a war.”
I racked my brain for something to say. “Which one?”
“It doesn’t matter. They’re all the same.” He kept his head straight, eyes dead ahead. Suddenly, I felt the urge to talk to him.
“So, uh, you don’t think I should sign up?”
He shook his head. “It’s not up to me.”
“But you know what it’s like. You can tell me?”
“Never ask an old man for a story.”
We had reached the parking lot. I could see my car from where we stood, but where could I go?
“I have time.”
“My name is Jarred.” He looked at me and the air went thick. “And I was conscripted for a war at nineteen years old. There was no choice for me.”
He took out a cigarette and, after he lit it, I watched the embers crawl towards his dry lips. Honestly, I was surprised he could afford the habit during these times.
I inhaled the second-hand smoke. “So you wouldn’t understand why I’d choose to.”
When he exhaled to speak, the smoke swirled like the storm in his eyes. “They make their tin soldiers feel like heroes so they can hide from the safety of their beds.”
I bit the side of my tongue. “But you fight to save people.”
“You’d think so. My father did too, but the morning I had to leave I woke up crying.” Jarred twirled his cigarette around his fingers. “Only got six months of training before I was sent to the front. We were at war with America. I’ll tell you, you fuckers are hard to beat.” He smirked. “But it was an American that saved my life.”
An old car parked next to us. A ginger man in cargo pants got out, I caught him looking at my father’s watch before he scurried into the center.
“I’m telling you, I owe everything to that one act of kindness. My wife and two daughters, my grandchildren. All because one man lived by his heart. He understood that we weren’t fighting; our governments were. We were just there to be martyrs. A statistic.”
Jarred’s hands were shaking and his cigarette was burning out.
“They sent me and the other crows to this danger zone. There were only a dozen of us, maybe less. ‘Few of them had kids. We were just there to scope the area.”
He flicked some ash at the ground. I had forgotten about the beer in my hand.
“The details are blurry but the man next to me went down… It’s easy when you’re behind a trigger.”
My chest constricted. “Jarred, don’t-“
“They threw grenades at us. The wall we took cover behind crumbled like old bread. A piece of it found me. I shouted for my friends but none of them answered. I wasn’t alone though- some poor American was stuck in the rubble with me. I tried to reach for my gun but the stone was pinning me down. I was armed and helpless.
“The American had his gun. He aimed it at me for the longest time. He kept muttering and tightening his grip, but his finger wasn’t even on the trigger. He really wanted to kill me. A man just a few years older than you.
“When he lowered the gun, his comrades started calling out for him. I was the enemy but he looked more afraid than I felt. Right before they found us he stared at me with so much love and despair that I felt it with him. He opened his mouth to speak when another soldier found us, a much older man. As soon as he saw me, the older soldier’s heart swelled with hatred- and I felt that too.
“The man, no, the boy that saved me tried to calm him down. They started arguing. I had no idea what they said because I couldn’t speak English. The older soldier got really angry but I couldn’t move, so when he took out a knife and stabbed the boy, I could only scream.
“Afterwards, he ran away. The older man never told people what he did and he got to live through the war.”
There was a pause before Jarred patted my shoulder and told me he had to leave.
I stared after him. “What about the boy?”
His shoulders slumped and for a moment he put a hand over his eyes, like he wanted to cry. His cigarette was nearly finished.
“Cut real deep. His insides were falling out and I couldn’t look away.”
Jesus. “What did you do?”
“I got up. Pain was a bitch but I managed to move that bloody rock and get to him. My arm was dislocated but I could still feel… There was no hope for him. So I took the gun from his belt and shot him, between the eyes. That’s when I looked away.”
I shuddered, but I was grateful that this all must’ve been years ago. “Do you regret it?”
Jarred took a deep breath. “His last word was my name.”
The spell was broken. “What? How did he know-“
“I researched him after the war. Hard life. Dead-beat father, sister committed suicide-“
“-but he spent his last few years well; happily. He told people stories of the future. Of time travel and peace. Such crazy stories. He even told people why he went to war. He wasn’t sure at first but, if you can believe it, was some old man saved his life outside a mall. He went to war for that man.”
My head was spinning; before I could fully understand what Jarred was saying to me the ginger man in cargo pants was there. He looked scared.
He had a switch-blade. He was shouting for money.
Jarred stood in front of me, one hand up in surrender, the other slowly reached for his wallet.
“There’s no need to be rash, here’s your money. We can all walk away from this.”
The ginger man pointed at my father’s watch. “Hand it over.”
I couldn’t. “You have your money.”
“Give me the god-damned watch.”
Jarred took a step forward and moved to gently lower the knife. “Listen, you don’t-“
There was a blur, and I don’t know if it was Jarred or the ginger man but someone cried out. Jarred fell to his knees, as I caught him the ginger man jumped in his car and sped away.
I could only scream.
I pulled Jarred to my chest. He held my hand until I calmed down.
“I came back to thank you.” He wheezed. “Because right now there’s a nineteen year old boy about to be conscripted, and you’re going to save his life. My life.”
The ground swayed beneath me. “That doesn’t- I don’t understand.”
“You knew my name. You saved me. You let me see how bright the future was when I was sure there wasn’t one.”
I couldn’t speak. There was so much blood.
I swallowed my fear and found the will to talk. “But how can I do this? I don’t-“
I faltered. Jarred was still. His cigarette had burned out. Then I was on the floor- sobbing. I couldn’t breathe anymore. My thoughts suffocated me; thoughts of everything that just happened, of everything I still need to do.
Nothing is harder than making a decision that will kill you.