At about what age do young boys stop fighting over whether or not their pretend bullets merely maimed or killed their friend?
“You can’t shoot me. I already shot you!”
“No! You only shot me in this arm, so I shot you with my other hand!” Are they just playing together one day when one of them finally realizes it doesn’t make sense to argue about it?
“It’s just EEE.MADGE.IN.ARY…idiot! Your pretend bullet didn’t hit me anywhere! It’s pretennnd.” Or does the game just fade away and they wake up one day not knowing what they have lost?
And, in times of war, is it different? What do boys do then? When danger is expected and reality harsh. Are boys still just boys?
The boys playing here in an overgrown sun drenched paddock, a few trees plotted here and there for shade, are left, for now at least, to do what young playful boys do and enjoy the freedom and escape of the games of youth. It’s not the same as it is for the older generations. They haven’t merely done what the grown-ups try to do, that, ‘stop and smell the roses’ nonsense. No, they dance and drink of the miracle of life unquestioned. They let the day take them away, to a place not of here, a safe enjoyable destination full of unashamed desire. It’s not a thought, something they must remind themselves to do, or act at, it just is. It is a blessing of childhood. Elton is running. He trots like a horse, jiggles like a sweaty pregnant sow with prepubescent boobies, and he nervously giggles like a girl. It ain’t graceful. Imagination runs wild in this one. He bounces along in fear, not just of his friends armed with lasers, hand guns and retractable claws, but he must also be wary of the fiery hot lava pits and the deadly panther that roams these parts. A small slice of his laughter is from real fright–imagined danger–but real fear. Gosh, the thrill of the game. His friend, James, hides, grinning from ear to ear, behind a sunburnt bush. His hands are clasped tightly together with index fingers pointing to the cloudless, late summer sky and his thumbs are cocked and ready to fire. James chose to go with a hand gun today. He checks a knuckle to see the safety is off. He waits patiently. Like a ninja. Elton’s heavy footsteps give away his position. Armed and looking down the fingers, James pounces on his friend. “Pow! Pow!… Pow!” James fires three deadly accurate shots, two to the chest and one dead between the eyes. Elton clutches both hands to his chest; apparently the head shot did not kill him. A long and loud time of writhing and screaming in pain later, and James stands above his victim.
“Looks like it’s a nice day to die, my friend.” He blows swirling smoke away from his expelled fingers and triumphantly puts one bare foot on his successfully hunted pray. From a nearby tree another bare foot foe appears, falling from the sky yelling, “Cowabunga!”
This one is deft of foot, scrawny, little, and cat like. He army rolls across the dry and prickly yellowed grass once, twice for good measure and from the contraption on his wrist, fires off a retractable claw. This new foe’s aim is also deadly. Blood sprays from James’s guts as the claw grapples down. Spit sprays from the enemy’s mouth as he tries to mimic the noises.
“Sploooosh” and “Kersplurt.” Smitty is this boy’s name. His head and mouth move in exaggerated movements and out of sync to his speech “Come. Ovah. Heayah.” In mime like fashion he draws on the invisible tether and brings his screaming victim closer. Elton comes back to life ever so briefly, “Finish him!” he bellows, reaching one arm to the heavens, and with his last and dramatic dying words, “…avenge me.” Limp arm crashing to the itchy ground, he lies motionless, with one eye squinting open, watching, smiling. Drawn hand over hand to his doom James will not give the enemy the pleasure of pleading mercy. It will be a good death, a warrior’s death. Plus, it’s Smittys’ turn to win. James, however, is not destined to die today and Smitty is to be denied his victory. The appearance of William saw to that. Not Willy or even Bill, this young man was William. No older than the other boys, but almost a foot taller, and wider across the chest. He looks upon them, not with anger, but with a sad sort of disappointment and loss. The seesaw of responsibility versus fun was heavily grounded on one side for him. The game is over, that much is for certain. William is sad that it is, sad that he had ended his friend’s fun just by being. He remembered playing the games, just not how it was he managed to play them. Elton, who had been waiting patiently on the itchy grass for his revenge to be dished out, spoke, unaware of William’s presence, “C’mon, kill the greasy scuzbucket already. Kill him until he is deh…” Sitting up he spies the reason his friends stopped playing, “…ed.” The smile is gone from his face.
If a bike was to back pedal as fast as Elton did, it would take off in reverse. “Oh shit, sorry William, we didn’t see you man. We were just playing around. We didn’t mean no harm or nothing, man. Shit, I swear, man we woulda never…” William doesn’t even look at him, ignoring the words that weren’t needed to be spoken. James however, does speak up. “Shut up Elton.”
“What? I was just saying is all. We didn’t mean nothing by it is…”
Smitty uses a little bit more force, “Shut it, you fat lard.” He follows it with a burning glare that seems to work. William smiles because he thinks he should. “It’s all right Elton.” He extends a hand to help his friend up, “We all know you aren’t fat.”
“That’s right,” says Elton, finding his feet, planting one hand to help support his weight, “Dad says I just got to fill upwards a little more and I’ll be right.” “Yeah, if you think tall and fat is all right!” Says Smitty. A smile, whisper thin and too grown up for William’s face smirks over at Smitty, and with it he drops Elton back on his chubby ass. The tension in the air is broken by laughter, a moment in time, out of time, the boys laugh full and hard and loud and without a care in the world. Like boys should. The rest of the afternoon went much the same way. Each boy knew their part to play, when to joke, dance and what songs to sing. Strangely beautiful, much like a choreographed dance they enjoyed each others’ company late into the sun setting day. Walking in no particular direction. With no specific goal in mind. Careful not to get too close to the adults so as not to be dragged away from their fun. And careful also not to get too close to the fence line, because of the dangers that lurked on the other side of it. Drooling, chomping, decaying things.
If you’d asked any of these boys at this stage what they had done all day, you’d be lucky to get a groan or a grunt. Maybe a shoulder shrug and an “I dunno”. Truth be told, they had a very productive afternoon. Why, they named Old Lady Polkinghornes’ Wart. The one that called that spot on your face where the skin of your nose joins your cheek home. Sir Pussington was his name. They sang a song about him.
Believing they had solved one of the world’s greatest mysteries they rhymed orange with doorhinge. An in depth conversation followed that. The usefulness of the letter ‘Q’ the topic. And as they often did they discussed a long running theme about which super power would be the best. Smitty, coming in to that age, decided being invisible might be pretty good. Productive by any one’s standards.
Elton and James did most of the idea raising, James speaking and Elton encouraging. Smitty mainly called Elton a fat ass while William smiled and added just enough to not raise suspicions of his underlying thoughts. In this manner of aimless wondering, an afternoon gone, but certainly not wasted, they came to find themselves by the tree. Atop Windy Hill, the highest peak and a lookout of sorts for the compound they called home. For the second time that day, the laughter stopped. Three sets of eyes fell on William. He didn’t notice. His eyes were fixed squarely on that tree. Sam’s tree. Three boys stood still watching. One boy walked forward. Over the crest of a hill into the setting sun he walked alone with leaves blowing by. A warm seasonal breeze brought a warning of a change in the mood and the weather. Sam’s tree. If Sam wasn’t helping in the garden, back for the dinner bell or generally just not where he should be, Sam could be found at Sam’s tree. A unique boy, a good boy, Williams’s kid brother.
Always smaller, always slower and always on the outside, but never really sad because of it. Content with chasing behind the bigger boys, laughing with little legs pumping, happy and in awe of the games they played. He did his best to not get in the way, but ultimately, he always did. Instinctively, he knew when to leave his older brother alone. He would go to that point, then a little bit further. Why? Just because. After, he would go play by the tree. Lately, that had been often.
Guilt and deep sadness caused a stabbing pain in Williams’s heart, taking his breath and churning his guts. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes as his throat began to tighten and burn. He had cried so much in the last few days and was sick of its draining effects. No more tears, he decided. Smiling courageously he turned to look back at his friends.
One by one they raced to Williams’s side, Elton that chubby, awkward step behind. Unafraid to show feelings, they pat him on the back and embraced him briefly. They had all witnessed more than their own fair share of loss. It never got any easier. Words were useless.
Three days. Sam had been missing for three days now. An unexplained disappearance with no trace of his whereabouts. Three days ago Sam got in Williams way. Three days ago Sam fled, emotionally hurt and unwanted, to his tree. Not a sight had been seen of him since. Everyone knew what three days alone in these times meant. Sam would not be seen again
The weight of emotion was too heavy for William to bear. Cry again, he would. He fell heavily to his knees and sobbed gently into his hands. The ‘If Onlys’ drowning his soul. If only he hadn’t been so mean to his kid brother. If only he had sent him back to their parents. If only he’d gone with him.
If only…if only… His friends did what they could to help him with his burden, giving him some space and time before helping him to his feet. There was no shame or judgement, just love and friendship.
Dark clouds had moved in, blocking what was left of the sun almost gone over the horizon. This was Sam’s favorite time up in his tree. His young mind full of joy and wonder. He loved to watch the sun set, day turn into night.
Without discussion the boys climbed Sam’s tree. In a strong branch a few meters off the ground, the four of them sat quietly. The sky was painted a tumultuous display of pinks and purples. Wind buffeted them and threatened their safety so high up. A storm was coming.
On the ground below, leaves danced and swirled. Windy Hill earned its name most days, blowing natural debris from the surrounding grounds here to be collected. There was a mountain of mulch, undergrowth, and leaves nudging the trunk like an old friend. It seemed it never really moved. It was never raked, never organized to be put there, it’s just where it always was. In a pile, under Sam’s tree. From the lower branches Sam loved to let his legs dangle, count how long he could hold on before falling into the cushioned pile.
The smell of it now, earthy and dead, wafted upwards, stronger and more pungent than normal. The death tang more evident and sticky than it should be.
With the storm and night coming, the gentle suggestion of death on the air, the boys decided it was time to go. Mourning was important, but safety was too. Smitty got down first, James followed close behind. Elton, chubby, clumsy Elton struggled with holding his weight while he descended. His arms weakened quickly and his breath got frantic and deep. Smitty yelled instructions for his friend, James did too. William, still in the tree, wanted to help, didn’t want to see his friend fall, but was helplessly stuck above. Elton made it a few more feet down, not wanting to fall, but too fat to do anything about it. Knowing that he would plummet regardlessgave him angry, scared tears. He shook with pain and worry. The cursed, thick wind blew his hair across his face and wobbled the tree. Gripping, willing strength to his burning limbs, his foot slipped in a sap like substance, a branch already fractured gave way. He hung momentarily. James and Smitty looked away, screaming their nononono’s. William reached out a hand, crying his friends’ name, but to no avail. Elton fell.
The cracks of branches rang crisp across the paddock. The cries of the boys got lost in the wind. The snap of a bone, wet and thick sickened them all and the thud of the boy hitting the ground silenced them. Elton lay whimpering in shock in the pile of leaves. His mind took a moment to check and see what the damage was before feeling anything. Swift and nimble, William was out of the tree, and the other boys joined him by Elton’s side. Blood pooled from a compact fracture to Elton’s leg. White bone and yellow cartilage poked through the white, chubby shin. The four boys looked at it.
William acted first. Elton was pale, repeating “Shit damn, shit damn,” over and over again. The pain hadn’t hit him yet, that was good. William took off his shirt and told James and Smitty to hold Elton still.
They had all been told what to do in this situation. It took only seconds for the seriousness of the situation to register, and they were at it. They started working as a team, tending the gaping wound, using the shirt as a tourniquet.
That thought, that, “Shit damn, shit damn, things couldn’t possibly get any worse” thought. It is a curse. A call to the universe to prove you wrong. No one is as big as the universe.
Red tainted and soaked into the leaves. The smell, that smell of copper and earth mixing, it stung their nostrils. Wind howled, and the sun was now gone, retired for the day. Gusts picked up the debris of the earthy pile and flung it at the boys while they tried to tend their fallen friend. No rain, not yet, but it wouldn’t be far away.
William set Smitty off in search of a suitable tree branch, something to splint the leg until they could get home. William and James moved Elton so that his back was rested up against the trunk of the tree. Being out after dark was not an option
Smitty moved almost knee deep in the mulch pile, searching for a suitable piece of wood. He flicked leaves and moist dirt everywhere, rushing in his search. Something moved by his foot. Something touched him. Something gripped hard on his ankle. The something pulled.
Smitty screamed and kicked. Thrashing like a fish out of water, he fell heavily on his ass. Smitty must have thought that terrible, ‘things can’t be worse’ thought, and in answer, rain fell, lightning flashed, and thunder boomed. The leaves moved. The something revealed was a young boy’s arm. The something had a face and teeth, and the something was hungry.
Elton screamed and pointed when he saw the monster that was once his young friend. James froze. William stood. Clumps of moist earth fell from its leathered features. A gasp of death, dry and searching, rasped from its cracked lips. Sam was at Sam’s tree. A skin and bone version, wearing Sam’s dirty clothes, smeared in mud, and crawling with insect life, hungered for flesh. Not the Sam they knew.
Smitty finally managed to get his hands on a decent piece of wood. It was not going to be used for his friend’s leg. No, he was going to use it on his young, dead friend’s head. He raised it up to the sky and swirling, wet winds. With one hand, he brought it down quickly. William caught it, slapping in to his palm before it could meet the desired target.
Simply, “No,” he said, and he took the branch from his friend. One swing, strong for a boy his age, broke the little monsters grip, freeing Smitty to scamper back to James and Elton. Sam, the little creature not alive, but not dead, did not feel the pain of the blow but moaned in anger at losing his meal.
The Sam monster was broken. It did not possess the upper body strength in its young, dead arms to drag its useless lower half across the wet ground. An injury to its back, the cause of Sam’s death, had seen to that.
It reached and clawed at the meat so close to it, whined and groaned, gurgling blood and black rich dirt.
If only…if only… thought William.
He said the good byes he didn’t think he would ever get to say. He looked at the yellowed devil’s eyes belonging to the monster, once, but no longer his brother, and he brought the tree branch down. Once, because he to. Twice, because he was angry, riddled with grief and sadness. Three times, well, just because, all he had left was…if only.
His tears were camouflaged by the wet weather, but nothing could silence his pain. A cry of desperation and hurt beat out all other sounds, and momentarily stopped the world.
He had blood splatter on his face, diluting with the cold rain and running off his clenched jaw.
He had guilt
He had sorrow.
He had some answers.
This boy, who had watched his friends playing freely earlier in the day, he knew then, what was asked earlier.
He knew…there are no boys in times of war.