The soldier stared at the stars shining above him.
“…nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two,” he whispered hoarsely. “Twenty-two stars.”
They glittered, calling to him to join them in the sky.
Suddenly the wind blew, kicking up dust so thick that it filled his nose and his mouth, reminding him that he was still down on the ground. Spluttering coughing he tried to prop himself up on his elbow but the world began to spin. He flopped back down again, a hot pain shot through his skull.
He tried to lift his arm up to check the damage but it felt suddenly like it was weighed down by elephants. He tried again, managing to get as far as his eye, rubbing the dust from it, which gave him a tiny relief. There was something sticky. Pulling it away he saw something red.
Somewhere inside he knew what it was, blood.
A memory struck him, hitting him like a missile.
The little girl.
She was so skinny, the ragged grey dress she was wearing hung off her small body. She couldn’t have been any older than ten. Her caramel colored skin had a chalky unhealthy hue like she had been ill, her long chestnut color hair tangled around her face.
But it was the eyes that stuck the soldier.
Big, brown like his daughters’ back at home, except these weren’t full of joy, like his baby girl’s, but sadness.
She was standing in the middle of the dirt road that leads to seemingly nowhere.
“Wha’ the fuck’s she up to?” said Second Lieutenant Graham Turner slamming on the breaks of the truck.
“Probably lost,” replied the soldier. “Either that or her parents dumped her out here to die.”
He nudged the truck forward a little.
“What are you doing?”
“Getting her to move,” replied Turner. “She not just going to let us run her over.”
“What the fuck’s wrong with you man?”
“Wha’ the fuck’s wrong wit’ you?” he spat back. “We’re fightin’ a war remember?”
“Not against a little girl, we’re not,” said the soldier. “We’ll take her back to base and try and find her parents.”
“It could be an ambush.”
He grabbed his gun and hoisted it over his shoulder.
As he exited the back of the truck, he was sure he heard Turner muttered. “Right bleedin’ ‘eart that one.”
He slammed the door shut, the truck rolled forward a little.
There was a click, a whoosh….then the world seemed to be on fire.
That was the last thing he could remember.
He propped himself up again, sweat pouring down his back, the world still moving like a merry-go-round.
He could see the truck, now just a lump of twisted metal. He was glad it was dark so he couldn’t see the full horror.
Where was the rescue crew?
Where was the little girl?
It was all too much, he lay back down again. It was at that moment he realized he was dying.
He counted the stars again. There were still twenty-two.
The soldier was starting to shiver, a coldness was overcoming him. The numbness that had started in his feet was slowly spreading up his body. Soon he’d be up there with the stars.
A warm hand enclosed his shoulder.
“We’ve got a live one,” a voice said but it sounded far away, so far away….
“Oi, mate,” this was a different voice. Harsher, unfriendly.
The soldier opened his eyes. He was no longer in the sandy landscape of Afghanistan but a leafy green park.
“The park’s closing,” said the voice again. “You need to hop it and find somewhere else to kip.”
The soldier didn’t move, he lay still on the wooden bench looking up at the stars.
“Look, mate, I don’t get paid enough -”
The soldier turned his head, his eyes rested on a small man dressed all in green, Park Ranger emblazoned on his chest.
The ranger gasped, taking a step back. It had been almost a year but people still reacted the same way. All they saw the massive dent in his skull army surgeons had tried so desperately to fix. It’s why he could never go home. He never wanted his daughter to see him looking like this, like a monster.
He picked up his backpack and slung it over his shoulder and made his way to through the park gates.