Ruby

It lit up the bleak rubble like a spotlight and though it was small and muted, a trained eye could pick it out of the twilit remnants of this little town. And besides, its ruby glow was unmistakeable for a lit end of a cigarette; often times, it was the only sort of warmth a soldier was likely to find in the cold nights of the desert. Hope he enjoys it.

I sight it through my scratched scope, gauging the distance between us. 800 meters? Maybe 850. Not an easy shot, but manageable. I check the little flag I’d attached to the broken wall in front of me; hmm, a little too much wind and it looks a little like a cross wind was coming up from the other flag I’d set up down the street. A manageable shot was starting to get a little too difficult to risk it.

I peer through the scope again and train my sights upon the ruby glow again. I’d always liked this part, looking through my old, damaged scope. Like seeing through a little window into another person’s life, looking for the little hints that tell a story. The same little hints which set people apart from each other, the differences which define us.

Nobody is the same and life is sacred. We take the cards we’re dealt and we make it into something which resembles a home, a family, a life; like making a fire out of driftwood. But not everyone is dealt the same cards. The lucky ones start the fire with a proper hearth, bricks and lighter fluid.

I would have been happy with some newspaper.

Despite that, I still loved this, this little window. The man on the other side of this tiny glass tunnel seemed a little cleaner than his compatriots from the day before, maybe a rookie? Wait no, he was too young, with a frame too lanky to be of a man fully grown. Not a man then, a boy. A little sigh escapes me, it seems the enemy was getting just as desperate as we were, if children were to be fighting at the front lines.

Maybe he didn’t even know that a cigarette lit him up better than any searchlight could in this gloom. That ruby glow, that warmth, must have felt like a friend. Too bad it betrayed him like only a friend could.

The more I observed him, the more the little things seemed to pop out. It looked like he was holding a folded piece of paper, using the moonlight and that same reddish light to stare at it. Was that a tear? Ah, people back home then, maybe a family or a lady friend. Who knows, it might even be his children if he’d started young enough.

A shake of the shoulders, then a few more. Poor boy was sobbing, must have signed up in this war without knowing what he was stepping into. Son, war isn’t all it’s made up to be in those trash propaganda videos. A lot more heartbreak and a lot less glory. Friends come and go like the tide, heroes are forged from acts of atrocity and all the while you feel pieces of you dying as if in preparation for the real thing.

Glancing at the empty space next to me, I ponder how far I’d come. Once, I’d had a spotter, wouldn’t shut up sometimes. I return to my little window. God, I hate this silence.

I couldn’t help but wonder what brought this kid here. What he’d done, what had happened to him, to take up arms. Maybe it really was a misguided sense of patriotism. Or maybe it was something else, something darker. Revenge maybe. A dead brother, shot up at the frontlines? I’d seen that plenty of times, plenty of colleagues who’d joined the fight when a family or friend had been wronged. Those were always the crazier ones, more willing to die winning then to lose living. But at least they knew what they were fighting for.

Once, I’d known. We told ourselves that we were fighting for our rights. For freedom from oppression. But how right were we really? How could I hide behind the moral high ground if my choices have brought me here, patiently staring down a boy waiting for the opportunity to blow his damn brains out.

Those who came here and annexed my home may have been “Bad People”, but now, everyone seemed to be Bad in the dark of the battlefield. It seems that even morality had been lost to the fog of war. What’s left when the high road has been blown to smithereens?

And down here, with the rubble and the filth, the noise and the pain, neither right nor wrong stands to reason. All that’s left in the murk is the solid truth of survival. All we do now is survive and every new day, a victory. Maybe the only real reason I even fight anymore is to keep the routine going.

The kid just put down the photograph and now he’s looking up at the sky. I glance up too. A full moon hung heavy up there. It was a beautiful sight, almost otherworldly in this night. Like a god watching down from above, quietly judging. Let her judge, she doesn’t have to live down here. I’d once loved the moon, until I realised that she was just another outsider, held aloof above our war.

Looking forward again, I realise that the flags had fallen from their flapping stance, heavy with the knowledge of what was to come. I sighed again, looking through my scope. Once, it had been clean. But like me, it too had survived plenty of beatings to tell a story through scars and grime.

I hated this war. Hated what it had become. Hated what I had become too. All the things I’d done. Was it right to be heinous in the fight for virtue? And what glory was to be had, down here in the dirt? The glory to be nothing more than a murderer of children, it seems.

You know, I was wrong. I hate this little scope too. Hated it for showing me the innocence I was stealing.

I took a deep breath and let half of it out slowly through my nostrils. My heart slows, as it always has. The kid still hasn’t looked down and I can see twin tracts of clean skin flowing from his eyes to his chin, washed by tears.

At least he’s got something beautiful to look at up there.

Because down here, nothing is beautiful. Nothing is sacred, not even life. And God forsake anyone who thinks that. For if it really were so, that kid wouldn’t be here holding a rifle far too big for his skinny frame. And I wouldn’t be here, distracting myself with imagined stories of his life.

He takes another drag and that ruby glow illuminates his sharp features for the last time.

A muffled crack.

Maybe it’s about time I’d relocated, this broken building was a little too drafty for my taste anyways.

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