“Daddy, let’s go! We’re gonna be late!”
“’Course we’re not, Ellie, Daddy knows a shortcut,” he replied to his daughter, who was standing in the mid-morning drizzle and bouncing on the balls of her sneaker-clad feet. With a soccer ball under her arm and her white-blonde hair tied into pigtails with ribbons that matched her jersey, she epitomized a young soccer girl.
Her father jogged out the door to join her by the car, a coffee-filled thermos in hand.
“Well come on then, jump in! What’re you sitting around for?” he teased.
Ellie made her best pouty-face at her father before opening the back door and settling in for the ride.
As they backed out of the driveway the girl and her father buckled their seatbelts and fell into their usual pre-game conversation.
“Playing the Mustangs today, yeah?”
“Yeah,” Ellie replied.
“I’ve heard they’re pretty tough competition. You think the Sharks can match up today?”
“Daddy, come on. Who do you think would win in a fight, a mustang or a shark?”
“Well I s’pose that would depend on what grounds the fight was staged…” The pair’s conversation drifted off to study the finer points of land-and-sea battle between land-and-sea creatures. Ellie was properly distracted from their tardiness.
As they pulled into the lot, Ellie’s foot tapped on the floor of the car and her mind raced with all the fields and all the teams there and the possibility that, oh no, she might never find her team! She unbuckled her seatbelt and stretched her head out the window in order to better see the fields. As her father drove slowly past the sidelines, a mass of blue and gray suddenly came into view.
“I see them, Daddy! I can’t be late!” Ellie grabbed her bag, jumped out of the car, and ran straight into the path of an oncoming car.
He was just waking up. The day was already getting off to a horrible start. He liked to wake up to the rising sun, counted on it even, but apparently the gods had decided that he should wake up damp, late, and grouchy this morning.
The clouds frowned upon the muddy fields as if they had done something wrong and deserved to be punished. Mangy kids ran and screamed, kicking up mud and making the fields squishy. If he thought about it, it really wasn’t the kids he hated. No. He didn’t hate children. It was the memories that came with seeing them that burned inside him.
He made his way out from behind the shed where he had slept. It seemed that it was the only dry bit of ground in the whole county. He adjusted the battered but polished medal on his chest, and started toward the parking lot, muttering to himself as he went. When he would think about it later, he would realize what a sight he must have been – a tall, striking man hiding his salient features in a slouch and a scruffy beard, walking straight across a field where the game was already in motion.
The crowd of spectators parted like the red sea as he stalked past, but he was used to that. He was used to all the whispers and furtive glances and upturned noses; by now they were a sort of comfort.
The mud continued to squelch under his boots until he reached the comforting solidity of the blacktop. His usual haunts were less than two miles away from this place, deeper in the city, and if he wanted to secure a good spot he needed to get started right away. Maybe today he would even earn enough for a real breakfast – none of that McDonald’s crap.
He was just going over the necessary elements of his ideal breakfast when a sharp movement caught his eye. A young girl, maybe 7 or 8, had just jumped out of her car, presumably hurrying to her soccer game. Normally something like this would barely register in his busy mind, but instead he felt his body jerk into action when he saw a car hurdling toward her. He felt his blood run cold. He sensed himself flying toward the girl as if his feet never touched the ground, and heard her surprised squeal as he tackled her into the gravel, absorbing the impact with his own shoulder. He looked down to see two bright blue eyes staring back at him in a frozen state of shock, and felt her body go just as rigid beside him. The car screeched to a halt in what would have been a second too late, and he heard doors slam and feet pound toward them on the pavement.
The slam of falling pillars and the deep, resonating pounding of mortars surrounded him in a fog of chaos. He felt a trickle of blood rolling down his leg but he couldn’t – he wouldn’t – stop. He set down the two terrified children as easily as he could onto a bed of debris and sprinted back into the building.
Bits of ceiling were falling to his left and to his right as it became harder and harder to find a clear path. Even as he ran he went through a list in his head of all the rooms that had been and still needed to be checked. There were many rooms.
He stopped suddenly, ears straining. Over the boom of artillery he could hear the faint cry of a child through a door at the end of the hallway. He quickly moved toward the voice, only to discover that the door between them was locked.
“Get away from the door!” was his only warning to the voice inside.
One, two, three, thunk! One, two, three, thunk! One, two, three, CRASH. The door fell inward to reveal a room with a mass of beds now scattered about and a group of young children huddled together on the floor. Despite the chaos of the situation, an eerie contrast existed in the stillness and silence of the children. Their frightened eyes were wide with shock; it was as if fear had glued them to the floor. He seemed just as frozen, as though the whole world had abruptly stopped turning in that moment. The absurd stillness was short lived, however, and was interrupted seconds later when one of the high-reaching windows exploded outwards from increasing pressure. The sharp cries of the children spurred the man back into action, and he ran to them – scooping three of the smallest into his arms. Before he left, he did a quick head-count: five pairs of wide eyes staring back at him, three frail and shaking bodies in his arms.
Plaster and dust fell like hail around him as he carried the three small children to safety. He dumped them gently beside the others outside and wove his way back into the dying building. One, two, three left turns, second door on the right. The other children in the room were older, so he could only manage to carry two more at a time. He grabbed the next two and made his way back into the obstacle course from hell.
“Two more trips,” he muttered to himself as he dropped the next two shaking kids outside. The state of the building became more and more dire as the minutes flew past. Now the steady roar of a gas fire acted as the melody behind the deep bass pounding of artillery. Smoke from the fire was an added hindrance, now making it even more difficult to weave his way back to the room.
He sprinted through the door and grabbed two more kids, shouting, “Stay here! I’ll come back for you, I promise!” to the last little girl rooted to the ground in the middle of the room. He struggled to keep a grip on the children as fire- and adrenaline-induced sweat covered his body. They barely made it back that time, and when they did the man turned to look dismally at the decimated building. There was one left. Even as he stood there in indecision, his only known entrance was engulfed in flame. At almost the same instant, one of the great pillars crashed down, leaving a gaping hole in the wall in front of him. It was his last chance.
“No!” a little boy screamed as he took a step forward. “Stop! You can’t!”
The roar of the fire drowned out the boy’s cries as the man sprinted for the last time into the building. He searched frantically for a path through the scorching flames, knocking down a bit of charred wall in his way. Right, left, left. His disorientation disappeared the instant he heard a frightened cry.
He flew toward the open door just as he heard the whiz of an explosive sailing through the air. He reached the door and saw the little girl there with her wide, oddly bright blue eyes staring at him for a split second. A grenade exploded in the corner of the room. The force of the blast threw him back into the hallway just as the rest of the room burst into flames.
Ellie was tugged out of his arms and into those of her father as he muttered, “Ellie, Ellie, you’re alright, you’re safe now.” The driver slammed his door and ran to the father and daughter, face ashen and hands shaking.
“Oh God, oh God, is she alright? Is she hurt? It’s all my fault, I wasn’t looking, I – ”
“I’m okay,” Ellie said in a small voice. “That man saved me.”
The father and driver slowly turned to look at him. The man was still in the position where he had fallen, shaking and muttering incoherently.
The girl’s father stuttered. “I – er – I can’t thank you enough,” his face turning from a state of intense relief to wariness as he bore witness to what seemed to be a small fit in front of him.
“I tried – I couldn’t…I couldn’t leave her, but I…the heat – ”
“Woah, woah, woah, slow down there,” Ellie’s father said, concerned. He set her down and took a crouching step toward the man. “Are you alright? Do we need to get you to a hospital?”
“NO!” the man screamed, jumping away like a wounded animal. “Why in the hell would you think that?! Do I look hurt? Injured? Dying? And even if I did, how would a hospital help, huh? Hospitals don’t help people,” he let out a deranged laugh, “All they do is cause more pain.”
He looked out at the crowd of onlookers that had now gathered and said loudly, “You all think I’m crazy, don’t you? The crazy man who sleeps outdoors and tramps around this town, the local madman that ‘disrupts local activities’ and ‘is a nuisance to society’ and ‘gives our children nightmares’! Yeah, don’t think I don’t hear you people all the time, oh, all you do is talk, talk, TALK!”
Ellie’s father backed away, hands held out as a sort of buffer. He reeled in shock, wondering what had happened to cause this episode of what seemed to be PTSD. Despite the worrying state of his daughter’s savior, Ellie’s father was still immeasurably thankful for what the strange man had done.
“Okay, okay, we don’t have to go to a hospital. I’m sorry I upset you. I think we’re all just grateful that you were there in time to save Ellie.”
In fact, this was not the first time that he had helped someone from the community.
As the man looked through the crowd, he saw a boy he had pulled from an open sewer grate last spring. He saw a little girl to whom he had given a band-aid after she fell off of her bike. He saw a dog – now leashed – that he’d found roaming the park and returned to its grateful owners.
When they looked at him, the community saw an unstable man. In the faces of those around him, however, he saw reflections of his innumerable but unacknowledged good deeds, and even reminders of his years of service. He looked at Ellie, and her bright blue eyes took him back again to the burning hospital room. He stood shakily as the crowd of concerned onlookers surrounded Ellie and her father.
Caught up in their own lives once again, the crowd didn’t seem to notice the man as he quietly slipped away and walked purposefully toward town.
The only two that took note of this were, in fact, Ellie and her father. He scooped her up and said pensively,
“I think he needs help.”
Ellie looked thoughtfully at the man’s retreating back, his posture tall and strong despite the violent outburst just minutes ago. Looking at her father, Ellie replied, “Maybe helping us is all he needs.”