The Mission

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I wrote this story on Dec. 15, 2012.

Anyone from the Portland, OR area will probably remember that as the week of the terrible shooting at the Clackamas Town Center Mall on Dec. 11. This was the first shooting like this around here and it hit everyone pretty hard. I had a different story planned that week, but after the shooting, this is the story I wrote. The one I think I needed to write.

Sadly with everything going on these days, I feel that this story still applies, so I share it with you here.

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Flickering neon outside against a damp street. My breath fogged against the dirty window in the cold air. The panes were dusty, one was cracked, another missing entirely. Wind whistled softly in the gap. I curled my gloved fingers and stomped my feet against the bone purveying cold.

December was in full force and the building had long since given up any pretense of trying to keep it at bay. Darkness, cobwebs, and broken bottles filled the rooms. Heat was a distant memory for the exposed studs and peeling paint. The ceiling sagged as if it were a canvas tent and not waterlogged plasterboard. Warped floorboards creaked beneath my boots.

I was in unfamiliar territory here. Far from home. Far from heat, and light, and a snug home. Trepidation fluttered through my fingers and I clenched my fists. I didn’t belong here, but it didn’t matter any more, not to me. I had a mission now and I was going to see it through. There was no other way. Not after what had happened.

Cold, bleak darkness was closing in. Shadows were crawling. There was a war on, and I had to do my part. Not everyone could see it, but I sure could. In the dark looks, and hunched shoulders. The cold glances and colder replies. The enemy was insidious and crafty, but I could spot them. Amongst the crowds I could pick them out. I could do what had to be done.

I had to hold my nerve. This time I couldn’t run, I couldn’t hide. I wouldn’t again. Blood had been spilled. Men, women, children... my throat caught and I squeezed my eyes tight shut before tears could fall. I’d grieved before and I would later, but now I had a mission.

I slipped my hands down in the deep pockets of my thick coat. The scars across my knuckles tugged at the lining of my gloves as I curled my fingers around the hard shapes. We’d been struck first, but now it was my turn. I had our response right here.

A battered car rolled slowly past along the curb, belching fumes into the night air. Shadowy figures lurked within. I eyed them carefully through cracked glass but the car didn’t stop. It pulled past the intersection and disappeared from view.

I hunched my shoulders against the cold, adjusted the straps of my backpack, and waited.

Voices. Somewhere off to the left a cackle of indistinguishable conversation. I leaned in close to the glass, but still couldn’t see anything. It sounded like they were moving closer along the littered sidewalk. This might be my opportunity.

Moving quietly, I slipped out through what had been a door at one point and into the dank alley along the building. Carefully I edged to the corner and peered around.

There was a group walking towards me down the sidewalk. Just the sort I’d been looking for. The ones we called Strangers. Dark against the darkness. Black clothes and blacker stares. Their looks beneath a street light were sullen, their mouths grim. Their conversation, now made out, was as hollow and listless as their pace. A half dozen eyes swept back and forth across the street looking for trouble as they moved with the mindless familiarity of a pack.

I clenched my jaw. They might have been looking for trouble but they’d found me instead. My palms were sweaty in my gloves as I readied my hands in my pockets.

They were only a dozen feet away now. I took a hard breath. For the children, I thought, and swept out of the alley for them.

Their eyes went wide with surprise, but they recovered quickly, reacting as one. Hands appeared from pockets, already reaching for me. My hands were coming out as well, squeezed tight against shaking as I jerked my pockets empty. I was already upon them.

The one in the lead was young and thin, and pale in the night. Neon light from across the street cast his skin crimson. He opened his thin lips, but I didn’t give him a moment.

I shot my hand forward and slapped the object into his outstretched palm. He was caught completely off guard and stumbled back. The box was small, and unwrapped, but I hoped the warm smell of cookies wafting from it made up for the lack of adornment.

He quickly glanced at the box and back to me. I knew my face was grizzled, but I smiled anyway.

“Merry Christmas,” I said as I slapped another box into the hand of the man behind him.

“M-merry Christmas,” the young man stammered back. He blinked at me. “Do I know you?” he asked puzzled.

I shook my head. “Just a stranger doing my part,” I said.

Before he could say anything else I yanked him into a hug, patted him on the back, and let him go. He stood there baffled, his mouth hanging open while his eyes danced between puzzlement and confusion.

“Enjoy the cookies,” I said as I passed out hugs and boxes to the others in the group in equal measure. The girl in the back of the group actually hugged me back.

I smiled and nodded and moved off into the night. My pack still had lots boxes that needed targets.

A couple was slipping out of a bar down the street. I angled for them.

For the fallen, for the children, for us all, I had a mission, and I’d do my part.

Life for death. Light for dark. Warmth for cold. The world wasn’t going bleak, grim, and sinister without a fight.

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