They stood perfectly in line, all five of them. Their view, the deserted park that served as a border for their living quarters. Its grass had long before died, its trees were withered, and any wildlife that used to live there had moved on to a better place. Small craters littered the landscape. It was a place of desolation and the perfect indication of what life was like these days in New Moscow.
Timothy casually leaned on the rusty sign that issued the mine warning. Coming here had been his idea, as well as the game of daring they were about to begin. The scars on his young face clearly indicated his foolishness, his cold staring gaze his frightening character. This was a boy with power, the one you knew not to follow but found hard to turn down. Like many of the other children on the American side of New Moscow he had lost his parents in the civilian war that had raged between its inhabitants. The difference with the other boys was that he had actually seen his parents perish. It had mentally wounded him. And that made him want to wound others. Usually it would be limited to teasing and daring, the occasional fight, but never anything severe or life threatening. Today he would cross that mortal line.
“So here’s the drill,” he said, never taking his eyes off the field. “On each count of three, all of us take a step forward.”
A moment of silence passed. Then the oldest, and arguably the smartest one in the lot, Greg, started laughing. “You mean to go on a suicide run?”
Timothy nodded. All it did for Greg was trigger another stroke of laughter as he turned to leave, his little brother John trailing right behind him. It left three boys, one cold and firm, one shaking on his legs and one who simply stood silent, Billy. Being raised by his older sister, he was calm, considerate, but also highly influenceable. His lack of a father figure drew him to men of authority or, in this case, boys who showed promise of becoming one. Timothy knew no fear. Billy did, but would never show it in the other boy’s presence. He would walk.
Timothy finally glanced aside, observing his two fellow players, and betrayed a thin smile. He looked with particular amusement at the boy who seemed likely to wet his pants, obviously waiting for it to happen. When it didn’t, his smile disappeared as sudden as it had surfaced. Turning back, he began the count.
“One,” he said, “two…three.”
Two sets of feet put the first step. Between the third, a little stream of urine announced its late arrival. The trembling boy cried, silently muttering the word “No” over and over again, as if it would prevent the boys from continuing. On every count of three, they took another step, and another one, one fearless, one screaming inside. They passed the first tree. They passed the small craters. They were about to cross into the old playground that marked the center of the park, when Billy came to a dead stop.
“No more,” he said, with a force unexpected from him.
Timothy looked at him with interest.
“We went far enough,” Billy went on. “You proved your point.”
“What point?” Timothy asked with sincere curiosity..
“That you’re bigger than the rest. That you have courage. That you’re the hero.”
“Oh? That’s it? Timothy, this game is pointless. All it will lead to is a pointless death. I would follow you anywhere, but this has no poi…”
“I’m not trying to prove a point,” Timothy said.
“I’m not trying to prove a point.”
“Then what are you trying to prove?”
“Nothing. I just want to see what’s on the other side of the park.”
Billy was lost for words.
“Russians!” he finally said. “Russians who will beat you to death! Haven’t you been listening to the warnings?”
” I have,” Timothy answered, remaining very calm. “And I doubt any of it is true.”
“So you would risk your life walking through a mine-infested park? You would leave the safety of the community?”
“You think that’s safety? People are starving. We’re likely to starve. I’ll take my chances.”
Timothy took a few more steps, then turned to face Billy once more..
“Are you coming?”
Billy didn’t know. He had no idea what to do. A minute passed. Another. Then, he slightly shook his head.
“Too bad.” Timothy said, and started into the old playground. Billy stood nailed to the ground, helplessly watching his friend walk off. His nails were jammed so deep into his palms that all blood left his hands. He kept shaking his head. Timothy was already twenty meters away when he finally overtook his fear and ran.
At the park’s entrance, the frightened little boy saw everything. He saw Billy run. He saw Timothy turn. He heard the explosion before it filled the sky with red dust. He heard himself scream.