The whole village was ripe with emotion. People stood all around us in swarms, throwing stones and trash at our faces and feet. The villagers close enough reached out with long, skinny arms and slashed at our bare chests and torsos – raving dogs, every one of them. The entire community engulfed us, shouting, screaming garbled and incomprehensible incantations. None of us understood them, but surely there must have been a language in between howls. The sad part was that with all this madness, this abuse, we did nothing. Nothing was all we could do.In gaps between the ravenous mutts, through the dry dust in the wind, I noticed a mother and her son standing together with several other families. The boy, bare save for a pair of rugged brown shorts, latched himself to his mother’s left side. As he turned his head, we locked eyes for a split second. Time stopped while I looked into his dark brown eyes. He could see our pain, the exploitation – it wasn’t the first time he saw it. Then, as we were forced to walk on, a hint of a smile formed on the boy’s face, and he snickered.We began our shameless walk to the end, to the finish line of a painful marathon – each one of us the athletes, the villagers the game makers. There were no losers in this competition, however; we all would earn a medal. It was a prize we looked forward to for months. Fame, minus the fortune – it was an end to the torture.Our journey paused. Several meters ahead of me, one of my fellow soldiers had fallen out of line. They must have acted against the pack. Amid the deafening shouts I heard a faint cry. A pack master dressed in camouflage had stepped forward waving a wooden bat in the air. The bat was clearly defined in the colorless sky. Then in strong blows, the bat rushed down. With each thrust, the bat grew darker and darker, until it was soaked with blood. Glaring at each of us, the master licked his weapon in one motion, slurping the life liquid from the club. This was followed by an even louder outcry from the savages.There were two of us left.
Immediately afterward, we felt a tug at the chains and the walk resumed. This time each of us pulled our slumps out as straight as we could, despite our exhaustion. Nobody wanted to risk a repeat of the previous slaughter. The alpha’s temper was not to be tested.
The finish line was growing near. Due to the unwelcoming flatness of the area, we could see for miles, at least until our vision reached the vicious, blinding storms to the east. And before we knew it, we had reached the edge of the finish line: an altar. The group of dogs piled around the dilapidated wood structure and began rooting and whooping. Some of them had brought signs, but I had no idea what they said. I imagine they read some derogatory message against America. But I didn’t care. After months of torture, I learned that feeling nothing was the best strategy in these hopeless wretches of the world.
The plan was to bring us to the center of the stage, one by one, and film our deaths in the most thoughtless and careless way possible. On the front of the stage stood a pork-of-a-man with a Kodak video camera loosely strapped to his palm. He was the director and everything had to be perfect.
Since I wasn’t in front of the line, I wasn’t the first to die. A young man named Caleb, he was ten years older than I, was forced down on the stage, his face turned against the top of a cement block. Another dog swinging a past-its-prime machete stood to the side making practice swings.
With a wave of a hand, the machete came down on my buddy’s neck. His head rolled off the edge of the block and into the soot. They didn’t even have enough respect to have a bucket.
I was the only one left.
Despite being cloudless, the sky was bleached an empty, sandy gray. And even with this harboring atmosphere in a realm of hell, I could feel that it was early August back home. This would be the time when Miranda would be taking Paulie clothes shopping at the mall. This would have been his first year of school; he would be starting kindergarten. For so long Miranda had been pressuring me to spend more time with the both of them, because these were the years that go by the fastest. But who was I to care? Sure, I loved them both, but what I really cared about was the future. And despite rigorous planning, even though I had meticulously set everything up to where I would retire at just the right age with just the right amount of money, it was for nothing. My future ended here. Not beside my wife. Not years after Paulie’s college graduation. I would die in front of dozens of barbaric hounds whose only sense of love is predation.
The next moment took place quicker than I had anticipated. The filthy beasts ruthlessly kicked Caleb’s headless carcass off the altar – it met the ground with a loud slap. The man with the camera motioned the brute to lead me to my place at the table. As suddenly as I closed my eyes standing as a viewer of the atrocity, I opened them at the table as a participant.
The cameraman faced me, grinning with victory. Then, he said in clear English, “I love you, Tom. Don’t you forget that.”
Suddenly, the man’s face turned twisted and contorted. The colorless sky turned to a white ceiling. The gritty sand turned to speckled-white tile. The merciless mongrels that once surrounded me in hatred were now only blank stares from nurses in teal. Instead of staring into the face of a sinister director, I was peering into the sweet, wrinkled face of my dearest wife.
“Miranda…” I mumbled. Then I noticed her bleeding nose and busted lip. Her cheek was bruised. “What happened?” I couldn’t move to hug her however; my body was constrained.
But why? She had nothing to fear from me. I did all I could to protect her and Paulie. How could they do this to me? Then in a rush it came to me.
The war. My survival. My violence. My poor Miranda.
My eyes moved to a mirror that hung in the corner of my room. A gray old man stood in my place, and a photo of an older Paulie was propped up in a silver picture frame near the window behind me. Outside I could see many old folks strolling around with their family and others sitting alone near a great fountain. A fence separating the facility from the parking lot stood like blackened knives scorched by fire.
Sniffling, Miranda stood from behind the observation desk and kissed my head; her body was trembling. Softly, she whispered in my ear: “I’ll see you again soon, honey.”