An explosion. Perfect in every way. Shrapnel flies in all directions, shredding and destroying everything in it's path. Some of these things are people, some innocent tents, and the tires of a nearby Jeep. The village has successfully been destroyed. Nothing stirs, nothing even breathes within the ruins of it's once grand walls. Everything is pieces on the ground, barely recognizable as having been a building, or a person, or even a child's favorite toy, only a short time before. When the war is over and the people return, they will return to nothing. Everything has gone exactly as planned, except . . . except that Private Kouji Minamoto cannot help but feel guilty. Yes, this is war, and yes, war is cruel, but . . . why destroy the villages of people who aren't even involved? Why must innocent villages be purposefully and cruelly demolished? Is this what war is really about? Is this really how it all is supposed to end?
Several miles away from the pointless destruction, Takuya Kanbara sits in the middle of a deserted village, fiddling with his watch. It's not working. It doesn't matter what he tries, the watch just plain refuses to keep time. He's tried smashing it against a rock, which only succeeded in cracking the face. He tried squinting at it and messing with the little nob on the side, which only succeeded in hurting his eyes. In fact, it seems that everything he's tried has involved injury to something, and he's just about to give up when . . . the watch starts ticking. 'What's wrong with this thing,' he thinks, carefully putting it back around his wrist. 'And why does it hate me so much?'
"It's just a watch," a quiet voice says, causing Takuya to jump about three feet in the air.
"How did you know what I was thinking?"
"I didn't, but I've been watching you this entire time . . . and you've taken out quite a bit of frustration on that innocent little watch. Is something bothering you?"
Slowly, Takuya turns around. He knows that he should be cautious, maybe he should even be picking up his gun and pointing it toward the voice, in case it belongs to an enemy, but somehow, he just can't bring himself to do that. What if it's some kid guilty of nothing more than a little curiosity? What if it's a refugee, already scarred and beaten by the war? What if having a gun in his face would be the straw that broke the camel's back? The possibilities were endless, and not a single one of them was pleasant.
"Does it look like something is bothering me?"
"Well, yes . . . but I thought I'd ask. It seems more polite that way."
Takuya doesn't even try to contain his laughter. Polite. Polite, he said. Who cares about being polite during the war? Oh ma'am, would you mind if I blew your house down and shot your son in the stomach, blew his guts out, in fact, all to win some petty little war? Are you sure? Okay, thank you ma'am. Maybe when I'm through with all of this we can have some tea and biscuits. How was that for polite?
"Are you going to be okay?"
It takes several more minutes for Takuya to calm down, but when he finally does, he appears sane again. "Yes, I'll be just fine. As soon as this motherfucking war is over. Then everyone will be just fine. Fine as fine can be, fine as a frog's hair, fine fine fine . . ."
His voice eventually fades into nothing. The stranger silently observes. He hates to admit it, but this young soldier is right . . . nothing will be okay until the war is over. Then, everything will be just fine, as long as you're the government, or in some other part of the world, somewhere where all of this is just a story on the evening news.
"So now would you like to tell me what's bothering you?"
Takuya gives the stranger an incredulous stare. "Are you kidding me?"
"No, why would I kid?"
"Because, because . . . that's not the point! The point is that, is that . . . that's the stupidest question I've ever heard . . ." Takuya pauses, pondering this. Is it really? What's so stupid about it, anyway? How is this kid supposed to know what's wrong with him? He's not a soldier, is he? If he is, he's a very poor one. No uniform, no weapon, no haunted look of death or determination . . . He just looks like a regular kid. And what's a regular kid doing around here anyway? This is a war zone, isn't it? If he looks hard enough, Takuya could find his troupe wandering around, trying to find all the "regular kids" in order to get them out of here. So how in the world did they miss this one? "Who are you? And what are you doing here?"
"I believe I asked you something first." Takuya just stares until the stranger finally concedes. "My name is Kimura, Kouichi Kimura. My village was blown to smithereens a couple of months back. I've hidden out around the Bridglynn area for quite some time now. It seems to be one of the few places they haven't touched."
Kouichi sighs a little, starting to wonder if this stranger will ever really tell him what's wrong. He highly doubts it. "The armies. The perpetrators of war. The destroyers. All of the people who come around and demolish things without a second thought. That's who they are."
"Oh." Takuya digests this new piece of information, ponders it for a moment, and starts to walk away.
"Wait, where are you going?"
"To stop them."
Kouichi stands and runs after the soldier, trying vainly to think of something helpful to say. Is there anything that will give him pause? Any word or phrase that will grab him and make him wait? Any . . . anything that will give Kouichi a chance to find out what he wants to know? "Are you sure you want to do that?"
"Of course. It's wrong of them to go around destroying peaceful little villages like that."
"But-don't! Oh . . ."
"Do you not want me to stop them?" Takuya turns slowly and gazes into the young man's dark eyes. They're impossible to read. Here is all the pain and loss he'd expected to see. Here lies the haunting realization that a war is on, and it doesn't just affect the soldiers or their families back home. It affects everyone.
'Someday we're all going to go home, and we're not going to like ourselves much anymore.' Who had said that to him? Kouji tried to remember, but couldn't. It seemed like so long ago, when life had been so normal and he hadn't yet been forced to kill anyone. Back when he'd been enthusiastic about the coming war. Imagine that. Enthusiastic about war. Could that have really happened? Was it really real? Had any of the time he spent in that base preparing for war been anything more than a dream? 'Someday we're all going to go home . . .' Who had said that? He knew it would haunt him for weeks to come, creeping up on him in the quiet moments just before sleep prevailed, or right before he pulled the trigger in some important battle. Maybe it would catch him at dinner, while he ate his poor rations and watched his fellows eat the meat and bread he'd stolen for them. Or maybe, just maybe, it would catch him in the act of stealing, and he would be caught and thrown into jail, or worse. Far worse. He didn't want to know what the Generals could do to him if caught in a sour mood, which they undoubtedly would be if they found that he was the one who'd been stealing their food that last couple of months. They might tear him to pieces and eat him for dinner. He imagined himself on their long wooden table as sleep slowly overtook him in those chilly hours just before dawn.