By: Don Tassone
Ben had fought in a “forever war” for 20 years when the US finally pulled out. He had passed up nearly two dozen chances to end his tour and go home. Not that he cared for the conflict. He stayed because he incurred a great debt in that faraway land and he felt duty-bound to repay it.
Ben was an only child, the son of an abusive father and a mother he couldn’t remember. She vanished when he was three. No one knew why.
For the next two years, Ben had a host of “mothers,” women who also lived in the trailer park. They kept an eye on Ben while his father was at work. On average, that was about three days a week. For Ben, those were the good days, when he was beyond his father’s reach.
The surrogate mothering stopped, though, when Ben turned five and started kindergarten.
“If you’re old enough to go school, you’re old enough to fend for yourself,” his father said.
Ben took a bus to and from school. Some mornings, his father was still asleep when Ben left. When Ben got home, his father was usually gone or passed out.
That was the routine all through grade school. By the time he was in high school, Ben started drinking. One night, he came home drunk, and his father cursed at him. Ben cursed back. His father came at him, but Ben, who was now as tall as his father, slugged him in the jaw and knocked him out. After that, Ben’s father never laid a hand on him again.
On his eighteenth birthday, Ben enlisted in the Army. He took a train to Fort Benning in Georgia. His father didn’t even say goodbye. Ben spent 10 weeks in basic training, then shipped out to Afghanistan.
Maybe Ben didn’t hear the command. Or maybe it was because he wasn’t used to being on defense. Or maybe it was just because he was still green. But he got separated from his unit, which came under attack in a small town.
Ben huddled behind a stone wall near a small house. Peeking over, he saw a group of soldiers advancing up the hill. For a moment, he was tempted to fire down on them. But then he remembered he was alone and realized that would be suicide.
“In here,” said a small voice behind him.
Ben wheeled around. A small girl stood in the doorway of the house. A man and a woman stared out from behind her.
“Hide in here,” the girl said.
Ben heard gunfire. It was coming from the town, from others in his unit, he suspected. Then he heard the soldiers just below returning fire. They were getting closer.
He knew he had to find cover. He didn’t know what might lay waiting inside the house, but he was willing to risk it. Staying low, he made a break for the open door.
When he was inside, the girl shut the door behind him. Ben looked around, his rifle still at the ready. The girl who had let him in had backed up against the man, who put his arms around her. A small boy, smaller than the girl, stood with his back to the woman.
The man said something in Pashto, which Ben didn’t understand. The girl looked up at the man and said something in Pashto too. He looked at her and nodded.
“Hide here,” she said to Ben, stepping quickly to the middle of the room.
The man and woman followed her. They grabbed opposite ends of a rug and slid it across the wooden floor, revealing a small trap door. The man pulled back the door, looked up at Ben and pointed down.
“Hide here,” the girl said.
Ben stepped over to the opening in the floor and looked down into it. He could see a ladder but nothing beyond that. Outside the sound of gunfire was growing louder. Realizing he had no other choice, Ben climbed down the ladder until he reached a dirt floor. Someone closed the trap door above him, leaving him standing in total darkness.
He heard footsteps above and the rug being dragged across the floor. He heard chairs being scooted, then low talking, then silence.
He heard a door swing open hard, then men’s voices. They were all speaking in Pashto, their voices rising. Heavy footsteps thundered around the room above him. He heard chairs being scooted again.
Then he heard a man yelling. Then another man yelling. Then gunfire and screams. Then thuds. Then no more screams. Then heavy footsteps. Then men’s voices. Then a door creak open. Then voices trailing off. Then nothing.
Ben waited in the cool darkness for what seemed like a long time, his heart pounding, until he was sure the soldiers were gone.
He climbed the ladder and slowly pushed the trap door up slightly. He peered out but could see nothing because the rug was covering the door. He pushed the door open all the way, but the rug still covered it. He made his way up the ladder and pushed the rug aside.
He looked around and saw the bodies of the man, the woman and the children lying on the floor, blood seeping out from beneath them.
The door was open. He stepped over to it, gripping his rifle. He looked around. Seeing no one, he shut the door.
He went to the woman and knelt beside her. No pulse. Then the man. No pulse. Then the boy. No pulse. Then the girl. When he put his fingers on her neck, she moved slightly and moaned.
She was covered with blood. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and scooped her up. She opened her eyes and cried out.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ve got you.”
He managed to open the door while holding the girl, then went out to find his unit.
Her name was Sadia. She was eight years old. During her operation at a field hospital, Ben waited, nervously pacing outside. Between maneuvers, he visited her there during her long recovery.
Without her father, mother and brother, Sadia had no one. So Ben sort of adopted her. He managed to stay near her and care for her throughout his first tour. Then he re-upped so he could continue to care for her.
He fed her, clothed her and gave her shelter. She called him Papa and gave him her heart.
Through the years, Ben watched Sadia grow up. He watched her fall in love and get married. He watched her have children and care for them lovingly. Sadia taught them to call him Papa too. He became their Papa, and they became his family.
It was a most unorthodox arrangement. But Ben’s commanding officers knew the back story. They always cut him slack, and for 20 years he was a reliable pair of boots on the ground.
When the US decided to pull its troops out of Afghanistan, Ben was torn. Should he go home or stay in the place which had become his home?
“Stay with us, Papa,” Sadia said.
He looked at her and thought of the first time he’d seen her. “Hide here,” she said. They had saved one another. But not just that. Because of her, he became the father he had never known. Because of him, she became the mother he could not remember.
Ben was honorably discharged. He handed in his rifle, gathered in his family and stayed.
Don Tassone is the author of four short story collections and two novels. He lives in Loveland, Ohio.