The hot summer sun beat down on my exposed face. Today was the wrong day to wear full military fatigues. Despite the heat, we set out on our protest. The stench of freshly poured asphalt stung my nose as we marched down Main Street toward the Marine recruiting office.
“Next time we do this, let’s not pick the middle of July,” Sylvia yelled from behind me as her ten-year-old daughter Michelle complained about the heat.
“Next time we have a protest, Sylvia, don’t bring your daughter,” I shouted back, adjusting my helmet.
We were protesting our country’s involvement in some country I could not pronounce, much less find on a map. We had all agreed to decorate our uniforms with peace symbols and smiley faces.
We marched up and down Main Street for about half an hour, stopping only when the sounds of Michelle high pitched whine about the heat became too much to bear.
“We will set up here in front of the recruiting office,” one of our group said, pointing to the office across the street.
We had all brought tomatoes, eggs, rotten cabbage, and really just anything we had lying around the house fit enough to throw at the potential recruits entering and exiting the office. I had stayed up all night copying pamphlets about the evils of war. I made sure to include pictures of injured children in their blood-soaked clothes and the flag-draped coffins of the soldiers killed in combat.
As we chanted our protest slogans, we each took turns throwing the rotten vegetables at the prospects coming and going through the recruiting office doors. I took particular pride in knocking the pristine white hat off of a young marine, his red hair blazed in the sun. He glared in our direction as he retrieved his hat from the sidewalk. The group cheered wildly as he entered the office. I watched him take a seat behind a large wood desk, admiring his ability to ignore the incident.
The clap of Alex giving Sylvia a high five brought me out of my daze. “Nice shot, Sylvia,” he said to her as they passed one another.
In my daze, I had not noticed she had stepped into the street to throw her tomato at a poster of Uncle Sam with his stern finger pointing in our direction. The red-headed soldier came out of the office to clean up the mess; in that moment I felt a pang of guilt for what we were doing. I watched the others as they began to pelt him with the rest of the rotten vegetables.
Before any of us had realized it, Michelle, copying her mother, had stepped into the street to throw an egg at the soldier. Her egg hit a few inches away from him, leaving a splattering of yellow on his immaculate shoes. He turned his head to look at the group. Time slowed down immediately for me at that point. Without hesitation he ran from the sidewalk into the street towards Michelle. Sylvia’s screams filled the air.
“Don’t you touch her, you bastard. She is just a child!”
Then I saw what he saw: an oversized SUV speeding dangerously close to Michelle who was still standing in the street. I ran out into the road towards her just as the Marine reached her. He reached Michelle before I did, pushing her into my arms. I easily swept her up returning her to her a now hysterical Sylvia. Behind me I heard the screeching of car tires, the smell of the burning rubber mixed with the hot asphalt burned a path up my nose. I will never forget the dull thud the soldier’s body made against the car’s bumper as it was forced off the ground into the windshield. The protest group disbanded immediately, while I turned back to face the scene.
There was a large gash across his forehead. The blood from the wound mixed with the glass on the hood. I ran to him while the driver ran inside the office for help.
“Take it easy. Help will be here soon,” I said in an attempt to convince myself it would be all right.
His eyes opened and stareddeep into mine.
“The girl,” he sputtered, blood trickling from between his thin lips, tears in his eyes.
“She’s fine. Take it easy. Don’t speak,” I said stroking his forehead, ignoring the blood on my hands.
Closing his eyes, he smiled. Taking in one last breath, he died on the hood of the car with me still stroking his hair. My tears mingled with his blood as I waited with him for the ambulance.
I sat alone at the young Marine’s funeral watching Sylvia and Michelle from across the rest of the mourners. I turned to the street. The same group of protesters with their signs held high. I ignored my gut reaction to rush over and punch each on of them in the face. Instead I held my seat, my heart leaping as the guards fired the 21-gun salute.
“Hi, Sylvia. Hello, Michelle,” I said as they passed me in the crowd. “Thank you for coming.”
“Hi,” Sylvia said with tears welling up in her eyes. “None of them talk to me anymore. I had a change of heart since our last protest.”
“Yeah. Mme, too,” I said, sheepishly looking in the direction of my shoes. “I leave for boot camp in a few weeks.”
“I heard. You know how it is: small town. News travels fast.”
I stuck my hand out in an awkward attempt to shake hers. I was hoping that handshake would say everything I could not bring myself to say about what had happened. Sylvia ignored the handshake, taking me into a full hug.
“Thank you,” she whispered into my ear. “Thank you for what you did that day. Staying with that Marine. That was brave. Keep in touch.