His feet hurt.
Sure, everything else wasn’t doing too great either but his feet hurt worst of all.
And why wouldn’t they? As he wandered through the ruins of his once beloved city, his bare feet endured perpetual pains of sharp glass, rough concrete, and piercing pieces of rubble.
With the sounds of gunfire drawing nearer and nearer, the young boy began to hurry. He didn’t have any particular destination in mind but he kept going nonetheless. He realized long ago that he wasn’t necessarily looking for an escape; he was merely trying to stay alive.
His breathing became ragged and heavy as he stumbled through the various pieces of debris and climbed through the crumbling houses, trying to avoid stepping on the especially sharp pieces of rock. He could see a warm mist escape his mouth with every pant and after a short while began to feel a growing pain in his right side. Disregarding the pain his body felt and ignoring the tortuous fire growing in his feet, he continued to run through the ruins.
His foot-eye coordination failed him for a fraction of a second but he nonetheless landed hard on a deformed rock that was sharp, ragged, and bent his foot in a weird way upon contact. With a cry of pain and a moment of panic, the boy fell to the ground clutching his right foot. As he lay there among the rubble, the sounds of gunfire considerably quieter than they had been a few minutes ago, he began to feel a warm liquid run over his hands. He raised his head and looked at his foot and saw his hands were almost completely covered in blood.
He raised himself up to a sitting position to examine his foot further. Slowly, he removed his right hand from his wound and applied even more pressure with his left hand. Being careful not to aggravate the wound or make a mistake, the boy carefully grabbed a fistful of the fabric that used to be a shirt and ripped a large piece off. He then began to wrap his foot as best he could using this makeshift gauze. With the small yet painful wound closed up as best as possible, the boy sat back to examine his feet.
Both were covered in so much dirt that they were almost as black as the pair of shoes he was wearing on the day of the attack. This instance of falling and cutting his foot was not the first time he’d experienced such a thing. His feet were covered in scabs and scars that only formed over the past few days. Both feet were so dry and dirty and scabby that small aggravations were enough to tear open the skin and unleash onslaughts of blood.
It took a while for the boy to realize he had started to cry. It took him even longer to realize why it was that he was crying. He wasn’t crying for his parents, wherever they may have been, or for his destroyed home or for his fallen friends or for his destroyed city or for the terrible fighting that was happening all around him at this very moment. No, he was crying for the loss of those little black shoes. They had been a brand new pair that he was wearing for the second time on the day of the attack. They were small and hard and were made of leather; they were a gift from his father, which was in it of itself a rare occurrence.
The boy knew that if only he still had them, then his feet would be protected from the merciless battleground and he would be without this constant pain and suffering that made him wish to run up to a soldier, grab his gun, and shoot off his own feet.
Thinking of his shoes, the boy began thinking of the day of the attack, which had only been a mere three days ago.
He had been in his house with his family as they all prepared for supper. He and his mother had just come back from the market purchasing ingredients so he still had on his new pair of black shoes. He had preparing the dining area, his mother had been making the final preparations for supper, and his father had almost returned home from his work.
Just as he was setting the final dining spot, however, he felt a rumble coming from somewhere. He didn’t hear anything, he didn’t see anything, but he knew something was wrong nonetheless, a strong feeling in his gut told him so.
Suddenly a far-off vibration could be heard and it grew louder and louder until the sky instantaneously opened up into a chorus of mechanical screams and roars. The boy dropped the plate he was holding, ignored the loud crash and subsequent rain of broken glass, and ran outside. He looked up at the late, blue-yellow sky and saw multiple bomber planes race across the airy expanse.
Just then, he saw one of the bombers drop what looked to be a large black egg onto a neighborhood that was a few miles away from his own. The neighborhood lit up in a column of fire and smoke and the force of the explosion tore across the landscape and pelted the boy with such fury that his hat flew off his head.
Somewhere far off, the boy heard his mother scream his name. He heard her rush outside and run to his side. He felt her shaking his body and trying to pull her with him. However, he paid her no mind as his full attention was focused on the scene unfolding before him. Dozens of bomber planes jetted over his city and dropped bomb after bomb after bomb. Houses exploded, churches flew into the sky in balls of fire, parks and ponds were covered in layers of soot and smoke. His vision was getting blurry and for a moment the boy worried that he was about to pass out or even die. It took him a second to realize his eyes were overflowing with tears.
His mother finally succeeded in pulling him away and then commenced a terrifying period of 48 hours in which he and his mother attempted to make their way to the capital building of the city which had a secure bunker deep beneath the ground.
They travelled inseparably for the first day, running through alleyways, over rooftops, and across busy streets with their heads ducked and their knees bent. He never let go of his mother’s hand through it all.
That is, until, they met up with another group of survivors that was also making its way to the capital. At one point, when trying to cross an open street, the de facto leader of the group, an aging man with a patchy, white beard, ordered the members to cross the group one pair at a time. Before his mother could protest, another woman grabbed her hand, ripped her free of the boy, and dragged her across the battlefield. His mother cried the whole way across the street and began wailing hysterically as soon as they reached the other side. The boy also felt a moment of dread and unease but the leader’s reassuring hand in his own helped to calm his nerves.
However, just as they were about to make a break for the other side, a flurry of bullets began erupting from each side of the street and multiple bombs and grenades exploded all over the street. Deeming the street now impassible, the leader yelled across the street for the remaining members to head to the capital building where he and the boy would rendezvous with them there.
The boy’s mother would have raced across the street at that moment if not for some man holding her back and dragging her around the alley corner. After seeing his crying mother disappear from sight, the boy began to sob there in the alleyway as the sounds of war raged around him. The leader got down on his knees to look in the boy’s face and did all he could to assuage the young child before finally grabbing his hand and whisking him away.
From there the two of them travelled across the ruined city together. For almost 18 hours, the boy and the leader travelled in the shadows and under cover hoping to make it to the capital unharmed. And they would have, had it not been for an incredible stroke of bad luck and the leader’s selflessness.
When making their way slowly through an alleyway, one of the doors in the alleyway suddenly burst open and there stood a fully armed soldier. The soldier spotted the boy and the leader and began shouting commands in a language that was unknown to the boy. Without hesitation the leader rushed to the soldier and began wrestling him for control of the soldier’s rifle. Screaming through gritted teeth, the leader ordered the boy to run away and make it to the capital building and back to his mother. The boy still stood there, though, distraught as he thought of the possibility of losing yet another person. With tears in his eyes, he decided to stay by the leader’s side at all costs. The leader then looked back over his shoulder a second time, met the boy’s eyes with his own, and screamed at the top of his lungs for the boy to get away.
Terrified, hurt, and heartbroken, the boy ran. He ran and ran without thought. He ran even after he heard the sound of the fatal gunshot ricochet off the alley walls. He ran even after he heard the soldier bark orders at him as he gave chase. He ran even though he had yet to completely acknowledge the fact that he was now all alone.
The boy eventually lost his pursuer and collapsed against the wall of a house he had wandered into. As he sat there, trying to catch his breath as the sun’s dying light slowly moved across the opposite wall, it was then, at that moment, that the boy realized that at some point throughout all the chaos and mayhem, he had lost his little black shoes.
The boy did eventually make it to the capital building…or at least, where it once stood. In its place was a mountain of rubble that rose high above the boy’s head. He collapsed in front of the rubble as he realized, without a trace of doubt, that he’d never see his mother again; that all those people who did make it to the underground bunker were gone forever; that there was no hope left for the city or for its inhabitants; that he would be alone for the rest of his life.
There he broke. He collapsed to the ground and rolled around and around, sobbing. His face became a wet, sticky mess and he screamed so loudly that every breath hurt and every convulsion racked his insides until his stomach and sides were sore and cramping.
After he ceased his crying, he continued to lie there, in a paradoxical sort of undisturbed peace and calm, until night fell and the sounds of fighting began to draw nearer. That was when he began his barefoot wanderings.
After reminiscing on the past few days and after crying over the memories, the boy slowly rose from the rubble and began walking once more. He tested the makeshift bandage on his foot tentatively and was pleased to see it held.
He began walking again. Once more, he had no idea where exactly he was heading but he continued traveling nonetheless.
He limped along an alleyway when a door opening from the alley burst open and there stood a fully armed soldier. After looking around the alley, the soldier locked eyes with the boy and the two of them froze. After what felt like an hour had passed, the boy broke his trance and unleashed a terrified scream and turned around and ran for where he had come from.
Before he could get away, however, he felt a powerful hand envelope itself around him and pull him back.
“Wait, wait, kid, calm down.”
The boy resisted the soldier’s grip and fought against his pull.
“Kid, relax, I don’t want to hurt you.”
Unsure of the language the soldier was speaking but able to understand his tone, the boy ceased his struggles and looked at the soldier. The soldier was dressed differently than the one who had killed the leader; the color and design of his uniform were different.
Then the soldier removed his hat and sunglasses and smiled at the boy. His eyes were a beautiful blue that twinkled in a way the sun couldn’t and the boy melted in his arms. He burst into tears and collapsed into the soldier’s arms. The soldier slung his rifle over his shoulder and picked up the war-torn boy in his arms. He brought his radio to his mouth and spoke into it but the boy paid him no mind. He simply lay there in the soldier’s arms as the exhaustion and heartache escaped from his body and soul.
At some point the boy fell asleep and the soldier carried him to his convoy and back to his base camp. There he delivered the boy to the refugee center and personally clothed him in a new, clean set of clothes. While folding away the boy’s old, torn rags, the boy awoke in a start. He began to panic and looked around the tent bewildered and afraid, he began to hyperventilate and cry until the soldier went to his bedside.
“Woah, woah, woah, calm down, it’s okay. You’re safe now.” The soldier smiled again and once more his eyes lit up.
The boy calmed down and overcame his initial distraught. Then his eyes began to wander around the tent he found himself in. Cots lined the lengths of the tent, a few filled with people who looked as bad as the boy felt. While still looking around, the soldier spoke up.
“So tell me, what’s your name, kid?”
The boy looked at the soldier, confused.
The soldier cleared his throat and made sure to enunciate slowly. “What is your name?”
Again, the boy gave no response.
The soldier sighed and turned and called over a medic who spoke the native language. The medic translated the soldier’s question for the boy.
The boy looked from the medic then back to the soldier.
The soldier smiled and reached from behind him.
“Well, Mohamed, I was waiting for you to wake up before I gave this to you. Now I’m not sure it’s an exact fit but I made the best measurements I could. But after seeing the condition of your feet, I thought you’d appreciate these.”
Mohamed cocked his head to the side in confusion but before the medic could translate, the soldier brought his hands forward, each one holding one half of the soldier’s gift.
A brand new pair of clean, white shoes.