Friday By R. J. O'Hara
It started like any other day.
Juma awoke at dawn, pulled the blanket off and crept carefully across the room, picking up his camera on the way. His wife, Aamina, and their six-month-old son, Nabih, lay asleep. Juma was thankful for the peace and quiet, a rarity nowadays. As he made his way toward the door, he looked back and saw Aamina's face smiling up at him. 'Did I wake you, my love?' he asked quietly.
'As long as you didn't wake the baby, I will forgive you', she replied with a wry smile. 'Going out to pick some fresh pomegranates for breakfast, are you?'
'Oh, but of course, my sweet. Any other requests?'
Aamina replied with the same thing she always told her husband when he left: 'Hurry back.'
'I will be like the wind, joon-am.'
Juma stepped out into the crisp morning air and began purposefully toward the bank where he could get the best view of the sunrise. When he reached it, he knelt down. Through the lens he took in the eruption of colours: orange, red, yellow, like the hills were ablaze with fire. For a moment, he brought the camera away from his face and stared, smiling peacefully. The sky never ceased to amaze Juma. He could look upon it a thousand times and still, every day, he was taken aback by its beauty. If only men would look up and realise that they all stand under this same sky, he thought, perhaps they could live as brothers. He brought the camera back up and held it very still, waiting for the perfect moment. At the edge of his consciousness he heard a faint humming in the distance
Jacob let out a long sigh as he wearily reached over to switch off the alarm. As he did every morning, he picked up the picture of his wife, Christina, and kissed it. He wondered if he might be able to catch her on the phone before she went to bed, but he didn't want to risk waking the baby. Naomi had been just a week old when Jacob had left for his second tour of duty. That was eight months ago. It killed him that he wasn't there. Every time he spoke to Christina and she updated him on the baby - she started crawling last week - he felt like packing up and getting on the next flight home. But he knew he couldn't. Rubbing his eyes, he walked over to the window of his tent and looked out. Another beautiful day. The sky was shot through with orange and yellow as the sun rose from behind the mountains. He decided to make the most of the morning air before it heated up. Stepping outside, he grabbed his radio and made a call to Schreiber, his mission commander. 'Morning, Major. What's the go?'
After a couple of minutes, the Major replied with a grunt, 'damn it Newhart, why are you waking me up at this god-awful hour?'
'My apologies, Major. Just eager to get up and at 'em', Jacob replied jovially.
'You mean, like, you're hoping we might actually do something today?'
'Yeah', Jacob replied after a pause.
'Do me a favour and go for a walk, will you? Come down to the base when you've expelled a bit of energy.'
'Will do, sir.'
Jacob set the radio down with a sigh and began walking toward the rising sun. He felt almost entranced by it. Living back in the city he never paid much attention to that sort of thing, but out here he had begun to appreciate it more and more. He walked a couple of miles through the sand until he came to a tree. It had started to heat up, and the shade was inviting. Jacob had been leaning against the thin trunk for about fifteen minutes when a man walked up and started picking fruit from the branches.
'Good morning', he said in English.
'Hello. Lovely day, isn't it?'
'Yes, beautiful. I am Juma.'
'It is a pleasure to meet you, Jacob', Juma said as he held out a blood-red ball. 'Would you care for a pomegranate?'
'Yes, that would be wonderful. Mamnoon.'
The man smiled, bent down and placed the fruit in Jacob's hand. 'Khahesh mikonam, doostam.'
The sky began to hum. 'What is that noise?' he asked as he continued to pluck the tree bare.
Jacob lowered his eyes, somehow ashamed. 'It sounds like a drone', he said in a low voice.
The man dropped his fruit and ran.
Juma's head and heart pounded, slightly out of sync. His eyes began to blur. His throat was torn to shreds as he screamed over and over again, 'AAMINA! AAMINA! GET OUT OF THE HOUSE! GET OUT!' He was still over a kilometre away; she would not hear him. He cursed the loose sand as his feet slipped out from underneath him over and over again. His muscles shrieked with pain but he did not notice. The hum of the plane grew steadily louder as it approached from behind him, like a cheetah quietly stalking its prey. A horrible feeling in his stomach told him that he would not make it in time, but he ignored it. He had to. Over fences, through bushes, between houses he ran until he could not go on, and then he kept running. Soon the drone was ahead of him, and getting further ahead by the second. Juma's heart sank deeper and deeper while the butterflies in his stomach died and turned rancid. The plane would be above his home any second now. He pushed himself harder, still screaming though no sound would come out. Aamina would be feeding the baby, perhaps changing him or playing with him and making him laugh that laugh that reminded Juma of his mother and oh God please, please
Jacob winced when he heard the explosion. He prayed for the kind man who had shared his fruit with him, and stood up to walk back to his tent.
'Six-thousand Afghanis per kilogram. The charges are sold separately; they are one-thousand-three-hundred each.'
'I'll take five. And I'll need a charge' Juma told him solemnly, counting out the notes. The room was dark and hot. There were other men standing around, some with guns. He felt uncomfortable.
'Is there anything else you need?' the dealer asked, curiously examining the wild-eyed man sitting across from him. He could sense a desperation about him, like he had nothing left to lose. From experience, he knew that these were the most dangerous men of all.
'Is there anything else?' the dealer repeated, a little louder this time. Juma looked up distractedly.
When Jacob got back to his tent he noticed a message on his phone. He picked it up and listened to it, his heart warming as his wife's voice filled his ears. He pictured her then: the slow wave of her blonde hair; the sparkle of her green eyes, flecked with amber and gold; the way her right eyebrow raised slightly while her left eye squinted and her tongue positioned itself between her subtly crooked teeth when she smiled. He missed her. The message implored him to come home soon, and he wished he could. Just then he got a call on the radio. It was the Major.
'Newhart, I've got some good news for you. You're going home. Pack your things and get your ass over to base. You fly out in the morning.'
Jacob dropped the phone, a smile spreading across his face.
Juma sat on his knees on the bank, watching the sun set behind the hills he had gazed upon so many times. This time he did not smile. He hardly even saw the sun - all he could see was the smouldering remains of his life. The charred necklace he had made for his wife after she gave birth to his son; the toy bear he had bought that same day, torn in half and singed. He held the green plastic bricks to his stomach and wrapped the tape around himself. He felt like crying, but that he would not allow himself. There was work to be done. By the time he had finished wiring the charge, using the detailed instructions the man had given him, the sun had disappeared behind the hills. He stood up and re-buttoned his shirt, then wrapped his heavy cotton jacket over top. Taking a last look at the hills he had gazed upon so many times, Juma turned and walked away.
Jacob stood and held up his glass. 'A toast,' he announced, 'to every man, woman and child who has lost their life during this terrible war, and to you men and women who are fighting to end it.' The rest of the soldiers in the room lifted their glasses and shouted in unison, 'oorah!' Jacob smiled and sat down. As he did so, Major Schreiber stood up from his table. The room fell silent as every face turned to look at him. He cleared his throat roughly. 'When this big waste of space walked into my office eight months ago, I took an immediate disliking to him. He talked too much and he was too enthusiastic for my taste. But, he's done his country proud.' The Major turned to look Jacob in the eye. 'And I feel privileged to call him a friend.' A tear began to drip down Jacob's face. He quickly wiped it away. 'Don't go getting yourself killed in that warzone they call a city.' He raised his hand sharply to his forehead, snapping his left leg into his right. 'Semper fi.'
Jacob returned the salute. 'Semper fi, sir.'
Applause erupted as the two men stood facing each other. Eventually the major dropped his hand, issued a respectful nod in Jacob's direction and sat down. Jacob sat down too, taking another sip of his drink. He smiled at the other men at his table and announced that he needed to take a piss. As he exited the door of the base and turned to walk towards the outhouses, he bumped into a man whom he recognised.
'Juma?' he asked, surprised. 'What are you doing here?'
'Please step aside, sir' Juma said, coolly yet imploringly.
'It's me. Jacob. Don't you remember me from this morning?'
'Yes. I remember you, Jacob. Now please step aside.'
As Juma's eyes met his for a brief moment, Jacob realised something. This was not the same man whom he had spoken to this morning under the shade of the pomegranate tree. Something had happened. Noticing the slight bulge under his jacket, Jacob's heart stopped when the truth dawned on him.
'Juma, you don't have to do this. Please.'
A tear dripped down Juma's face, followed by another. 'I have nothing left, Jacob. Your people took from me the only things in my life that mattered. Why go on living?'
Jacob shook with fear. 'I have a wife and child. Please.'
'So did I.'
Christina put down the phone and beamed with joy. She would have to begin planning a welcome-home party for her husband. Wrapped up in her favourite blanket on the couch, Naomi began to cry. Christina picked her up and gently rocked her from side to side. 'Don't cry, my angel. Your daddy will be home soon.' She turned on the television, which always seemed to calm her daughter down. A news anchor spoke from behind her desk.
' - gave his life to protect the rest of his squadron from a suicide bomber in Kabul. As the bomber approached the American base, the unidentified soldier tackled him to the ground, setting off the explosives taped to the man's chest and killing them both instantly. Official reports state that the explosion severely damaged several buildings and at least twelve military personnel were injured, but that no one else was killed. The man has been labelled a - '
Christina switched the television off and went to make herself a cup of coffee.
She thanked the Lord her Jacob was on his way home.