One of the three soldiers moves away from the other two. Arrow tenses, waiting to see if the two salute him. If they do she will fire. For a moment she's unsure, unable to read their gestures. Then the soldier steps out of the narrow corridor her bullet can travel through. He has, in an instant of seeming in-consequence, saved his life. A life is composed almost entirely of actions like this, Arrow knows.
She watches them a while longer, waiting for a detail to emerge that will dictate which one receives the first bullet. She wants to fire twice, to kill both of them, but she isn't confident there will be that opportunity, and if she must choose just one of the soldiers she would like to make the right choice, if there's a right choice to be made. Ultimately she doesn't believe it will make much difference. Perhaps one of them will live, but he'll never understand how slim the margin of his existence is. He will chalk it up to luck, or fate, or merit. He'll never know that an arbitrary fraction of a millimeter in her aim one way or another will make the difference between feeling the sun on his face ten minutes from now and looking down to see an unbelievable hole in his chest feeling all he was or could have become drain out of him, and then, in his final moments, in-haling more pain than he knew the world could hold.
One of the soldiers says something and laughs. The other one joins in, but from the tightness in his mouth it seems to Arrow that his laugh is perhaps only for his companion's benefit. She ponders this. Does she shoot the instigator or the collaborator? She's not sure. For the next few minutes she watches the two men smoke and talk. Their hands trace hard shapes through the air, physical punctuation, sometimes pausing, like knives poised in anticipation of a strike. They're both young, younger than she is, and if she wished herself into ignorance she could almost imagine they were discussing the outcome of a recent football match. Perhaps, she thinks, they are. It's possible, even likely, that they view this as some sort of game. Boys throwing bombs instead of balls.
Then they both turn their heads as though called by some-one Arrow can't see, and she knows the time to fire has come. Nothing has made a decision for her, so Arrow simply chooses one. If there's a reason, if it's because one shot is easier, or one of them reminds her of someone she once knew and liked or didn't like, or one of them seems more dangerous than the other, she can't say. The only certainty is that she exhales and her finger goes from resting on the trigger to squeezing it, and a bullet breaks the sound barrier an instant before pulping fabric, skin, bone, flesh, and organ, beginning a short process that will turn motion into meat.
As Arrow readies her second shot, in the time between the tick of one second and another, she knows that something has gone wrong. The men on the hills know where she is. She abandons her shot and rolls to the side, aware of eyes upon her, that a sniper has been hunting her all along, and the instant she shot she was exposed. They have set a trap for her and she has fallen into it. A bullet hits the floor where she lay an instant before. As she scuttles toward the skeleton of a staircase that will lead her nine flights down and out of the building she hears a rifle fire, but doesn't hear the bullet strike. This means either the sniper has missed entirely or she has been hit. She doesn't feel any pain, though she's heard you don't at first. There isn't any need to check if she's hit. If a bullet has found her she'll know soon enough.
Arrow enters the stairwell and a mortar comes through the roof and explodes. She's two flights down when another lands, sending the ninth floor crumbling into the eighth. As she reaches the sixth floor the texture of the situation shifts in her mind, and she veers into a dark, narrow hallway and moves as quickly as she can away from the mortar she knows is about to penetrate the stairwell. She manages to make it far enough to avoid the steel and wood and concrete the explosion sends her, a multitude of bullets as interest paid on the loan of one. But then, as the last piece of shrapnel hits the ground, she turns and runs back toward the staircase. She has no choice. There's no other way out of this building, and if she stays she will collect on her loan. So she returns to the stairwell, not knowing what remains of it. The sixth floor has collapsed into the fifth, and when she jumps to the landing below she wonders if it will bear her. It does, and from there it's a matter of staying tight against the inner wall where the stairs meet the building, where the weight of the upper layers of the collapsed stairway has had less impact.
Reprinted from The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway (pages 3-12) by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright 2008 by Steven Galloway.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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