Cliffside outside Incheon, South Korea
Friday, August 21, 2020
I remember humanity’s storm. I remember what it did to me, how it hurt me. Looking out the window of my home, I saw a monster on the dimming horizon. It was a natural evil that took no mercy or prejudice in its destruction. Putting a hand to the glass, I looked up to see my grandfather gaze upon the sky, fear etched upon his face. He was never afraid. But that’s what its power could do. The first helicopter came quick and low, breaking through the growing breeze with its rhythmic thump, thump, thump. That sound would follow me for the rest my life. Thump, thump, thump, thump… …Thump, thump, thump, thump. The Apaches flew in circles around the rescue zone, keeping it secure. The air was thick with the smell of smoke. Directly above, the sun shone through the blanket of yellow haze. Diesel fumes enveloped the mountainside road, choking what trees remained.
Soldiers looked on anxiously from behind idling, tan military vehicles. They didn’t know if any more mines remained buried beneath the road. But First Lieutenant William Emerson and his team didn’t care. They went in, as they always did, with a blind eye to danger.
Nearly half of the refugee bus hung out over the cliff into the hot air. A blast from the mine had carved out a chunk where the driver used to sit. A tree growing out from the side of the cliff tickled the bus’s underside, just under its entry door. Rocks cracked and clicked under the weight of the bus. The aluminum groaned and slowly warped.
Two steel cables had been threaded down the center aisle of the bus through the square back window. They attached it to the front of a burly Oshkosh M-ATV at the opposite side of the twisting road. Descending down the two lines were William and one of his dedicated master sergeants, Alvin Darrow. Together, they moved slowly towards the front of the bus, feeling the bus tilting more and more with every step.
“I think everyone is out, Lieutenant Emerson,” said Sergeant Darrow, sweeping each row of seats.
“I think you’re right, Darrow,” William said. William stood a few steps in front of Darrow, his back to the open cliff. His harness was wrapped tightly around his lower body, his arms tense on the quivering cable. A carabineer clipped into the cable’s terminal winch hook was the only thing stopping William from falling.
A loud thud sounded, followed by the sound of something rolling down the center aisle of the bus. The two men looked at each other with identical incredulous expressions. Just then, the aluminum frame of the bus shook violently, teetering off the edge of the cliff with a metal moan. William ducked his head down to see what was rolling. A soda can shot past his feet and launched off the front aisle steps and onto the glass windows above the dashboard, shattering them. Wind whistled as it entered the bus. William and Darrow grabbed the seats nearest to them for support. The bus stopped moving and all fell silent.
“We need to get out, sir,” Darrow said with an edgy tone. “It’s gonna go over any second now.”
“Not yet,” said William calmly. He had noticed something moving near the bus’s front door.
“Careful, sir,” Darrow cautioned as he leaned forward over the bus seat, trying to see what William was looking at.
William descended slowly down the front steps of the bus, into the small stairwell leading out the door. He stopped, unable to believe his eyes.
“Sir?” Darrow inquired. “What is it?”
“Not everyone is off the bus,” William said slowly.
Darrow watched as William knelt down and put his left arm out. A child, no more than seven years old, was nestled down on the bottom step, holding his knees close to his chest, shaking. There was blood on his forehead.
“Hello,” William whispered to the boy. The boy didn’t look up.
“Anyoung,” William whispered again. The boy looked up with one eye.
The bus jolted and began to slide forward. With another jolt, the motion stopped abruptly.
William looked back at Darrow. “Get out of here,” he said. “I’ll take care of the boy.”
“I’m not leaving you, sir,” Darrow said, sternly. “This thing could go over any second and I’m going to be the one taking the credit for saving your ass at dinner tonight.” William chuckled. “Sarge, dinner will taste much better tonight if you’re alive. Don’t make me make this request an order.”
“Don’t have to, sir. I’m leaving… after you grab the kid.”
William smiled at Darrow and then looked back at the boy. He took off his helmet and put it down beside him.
“Oh, now you’re just being stupid,” Darrow muttered under his breath.
William then unclipped his carabineer and braced himself between the dashboard and the stairwell and sat two steps up from the boy.
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?!” Darrow shouted. “Get clipped back in, sir!”
William fixed Darrow with a severe look. “Look around,” he said, gesturing to the bus. “Clipped or unclipped, this bus is going to go over. I want to be comfortable while talking to my friend here.” William opened one of the Velcro pouches on his pants and took out a tiny model of a Bell V-280 Valor tilt-rotor aircraft, the aircraft William and his team used. William gambled the boy had seen one before; they were all over the Korean skies. The boy reacted to it immediately.
“Where are your parents, buddy?” asked William, twirling the model in his fingers.
The boy looked past William. He pointed to the blown out section of bus near the first row of seats on the left side. William twitched in anger.
“Okay,” he sighed. “Listen, we need to get you off the bus, okay?” William said kindly. The boy retreated back behind his knees. “Hey, hey, hey,” William said, moving a little closer to the boy, “it’s okay. I know you’re scared but you can’t let your fear keep you in here. Let us help you.” The boy’s posture changed. He looked up and lowered his knees. “That’s it,” William said, extending a hand to the boy. The eerie groaning started again.
William looked out the window and saw the tree next to the bus slowly ascending. The bus was tilting again. He heard his teammates and fellow soldiers on the road shouting for them to get out. There wasn’t much time.
“Uh… sir…” said Darrow, worry creeping into his voice. “This might be it.”
Rocks crumbled under the weight of the bus as it slid forward. All around him, backpacks, suitcases, newspapers, errant pens, all started sliding towards the front of the bus, tipping the bus further over the edge of the cliff.
William looked back at the boy…
When you have nothing as a child, you think the world is over. I should know. When I was a child, I had everything taken from me. I was going to make sure nothing more was taken from this boy… William knelt back down and whispered into the boy’s ear.
Darrow watched as the boy nodded and wrapped his arms around William’s neck. William stood up. “Let’s go, Darrow. Now!” he ordered.
With one hand, William clipped himself back onto the hook behind Darrow and started walking back up the ever-steepening aisle. The shaking started again. Wind howled as it passed through the broken windows.
Darrow started running up the incline. William, holding the boy tightly, slipped on piece of paper and fell. Darrow didn’t notice until he was at the back of the bus, getting ready to jump out.
“Sir!” he cried, looking back at William.
“Go!” William yelled. “Get out!”
William carefully guided himself back to the stairwell. A thunderous rumbling came from below the bus as it began to shift and shake. The cliff had given way. William was thrown into the dashboard, his cable now fully taut. They had only seconds left.
William pulled out his handgun, aimed it at the locked bus door, and pulled the trigger, shattering the glass. He covered the boy’s head with one hand and unclipped himself with the other. With a few frantic steps, he leapt through the door as the bus fell out from below them in a rush of rocks, metal fragments, and guardrail. Seconds later, William and the boy were happily greeted by the sensation of soft leafs and hard bark. The tree had caught them.
An explosion below rang out through the scorched valley. William panted in elation. “You all right?” he asked the little boy.
The boy nodded.
“You did great kid,” William assured him, patting his head.
“Sir!” someone called from below, “Hey! Sir!”
William looked down through the branches to see Darrow hanging off the end of his cable about eight feet below him.
“Sergeant Darrow!” William shouted with glee, adrenaline coursing through his veins. “We made it!”
“We sure did, sir. Good thing you were wearing your contacts. Could have been a teeny bonsai you were jumping into.”
“Yeah,” William laughed. “Actually, one fell out. Lost it on the bus!”
Paramedics strapped the boy into his seat aboard the humming Valor. William leaned in through the sliding cabin door under the plane’s large wing to check on him before takeoff.
“You okay?” he asked the boy over the aircraft’s massive whirling carbon fiber prop rotor blades, giving him a thumbs up.
The boy gave two thumbs up back. A bandage now covered his forehead.
“We’ll have you home soon, buddy. I’ll be with you the whole flight.”
William ruffled the boy’s black hair. From behind his back, he revealed the miniature Valor and gave it to the boy. The boy took it with delight.
A loud pop from behind made William turn around. Three hundred feet down the road, an EOD robot had just disarmed an unexploded mine near where the first one had hit the bus. Before retreating, the North Koreans had left thousands of the damn things everywhere. Out of the corner of his eye, William spotted Sergeant Darrow hobbling towards the plane. Two other soldiers were helping him, his arms sprawled over their shoulders.
“Sergeant!” William called.
“Don’t worry, sir,” Darrow responded, “it’s probably just a tear.”
“No, it ain’t,” interjected a paramedic, reaching to grab Darrow. “This man has a dislocated knee cap. He’ll be out of action for weeks. Lucky son of a bitch.” William sighed at the thought of losing one of his best men. He and Darrow had been together all the way through Superman School, Kadena, and now Korea. But now, it seemed like every day the war was drawing quicker to a close. Allied coalition forces were holding the front just five miles south of where the original DMZ had been before the conflict, a place which had laid in relative peace for sixty-seven years.
Setting a hand on the sergeant’s shoulder, William said, “You can watch us kick ass with an ocean view back in Kunsan. By the time you get better, the war will be over!” “Where’s the fun in that, Lieutenant?”
“Never believe war is fun, Darrow. Some wish they were in your place.”
“Yes, sir,” Darrow said apologetically.
William took one of the soldiers’ place and helped his friend into the cabin. Shortly thereafter, the rest of his team boarded and got situated. A second Valor next to theirs started its engines. Together, the two aircraft kicked up dust, soot, and road debris. Just as William was about to shut the sliding door, an Army corporal ran up to the aircraft through the blowing dust. He motioned for William to step out.
Stepping heavily to the ground, William shouted, “What is it, Corporal?”
Leaning in closer, the corporal shouted back, “Message from Brigadier General Rose, sir! You and your team have been reassigned, effective immediately!” “To where?” William asked, confused. “We’re supposed to be headed back to Kunsan! My team have a week of assigned R&R coming!”
“Not anymore, sir,” the corporal responded. “You’ve been reassigned to Incheon FOB! All of your team’s effects are being shipped there as we speak!” “What’s the rush?” William asked.
“Brass has pinned down a time!”
“The final invasion of North Korea!”