The boy, Private Hankins, and Sergeant John Fitzgerald sat in a cell. The guard opened a slot in the wall, and slipped in three dishes full of a cold greenish soup.
“Soup’s up,” the guard said as he left. The three soldiers crawled from out of their corners in the cell and moved towards their food. The boy began to shovel it into his mouth as quickly as he possibly could. Hankins started to eat in disgust.
“This is disgusting,” Hankins said. No one said a word. The only sound was the slurping coming from the boy.
“You know, we’ve been here for two years,” Fitzgerald said slowly, “and there has not been a single meal when you haven’t complained.”
“Whatever, Sarge,” Hankins went back to prodding at his food. The boy finished eating. Fitzgerald went back to his less than fine cuisine. And they all sat in silent apprehension.
The giant clock that could be heard even through the prisoner of war camp struck twelve.
“Now?” asked the boy.
“Now?” asked Hankins
“Now.” said FItzgerald. Hankins and the Sergeant pulled at a loose slab in the concrete cell door. With much effort, the dusty gray square came free, revealing a tunnel.
“Do you remember being captured by these pigs?” Fitzgerald asked the two other soldiers.
“They’ll remember this. This is when we disappear.” And with that, the three men began their escape.
The boy crawled through the tunnel. He inched forward, and then there was a slicing sound. He had slit his elbow against a piece of sharp rock in the ground. He whispered a cuss.
“Move it boy,” said Fitzgerald.
“Yes, sir,” the boy said. He drew a deep breath and continued, but whimpered every time his left elbow touched the ground. He looked forward, past the dirty walls of his the tunnel, to the light at the end. Sweet daylight, beautiful daylight. But it was so far away.
“How much longer?” Hankins asked. He was at the back of the party, and couldn’t see the light.
“Not much more,” Sergeant Fitzgerald replied. He was in the middle. The tunnel was about a two feet wide and high.
“I can see the light,” said the boy. His thick blond hair was matted down with grime. His face was covered with dirt. Not that they could see him. The only light they had was the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Now how much longer?” Hankins asked. They had barely moved a foot.
“It stinks in here,” Hankins added.
“Shut up, Hankins,” said Sergeant Fitzgerald.
“It really does stink, Sergeant. Reminds me of home,” said the boy.
“What? Your pitiful life as a street urchin?” Hankins asked. The boy tutted in annoyance, but said nothing. It did stink though. The tunnel smelled like rotting meat. The putrid scent filled the boy’s nose. It did remind of home, living underneath the butcher’s house, down where he threw the meat he couldn’t use. The butcher never thought to look down there. No one would be desperate enough to hide down there. Not a soul.
The boy remembered how he had had to steal, and how his mother had told him on her deathbed how disappointed she was in him.
They continued to crawl and crawl. There was a long silence.
“It really does stink in here,” Hankins said.
“Shut up!” Sergeant Fitzgerald yelled with all of his experience training new recruits. They stopped making progress for a while.
“I’m sorry,” Hankins said, after what seemed like hours.
“Good,” said the Sergeant.
“Keep it down, or they’ll hear us,” said the boy. They didn’t speak again for a long time. They continued to crawl forward. The stench was growing and growing. Hankins’ heart started to pound. What if they all died here, without a trace. What if the guards came back into their cells and found them gone, and would have no idea what happened to them. What if they tunnel collapsed upon them and they died. What if the tunnel collapsed upon them and they didn’t die? What if they just stayed here, forever? Unable to move, unable to speak, unable to die? And still Hankins crawled onward.
“The light isn’t getting any bigger,” said the boy. They had made what seemed to be absolutely no progress. All that grew was that unbearable stink.
The Sergeant could imagine a monster in the dirt, coming up out of deep below the surface of the Earth to kill him, reeking of that unbearable scent. A giant terrible beast, clawing its way up to their tiny tunnel, was ready to devour them in one single enormous bite.
“What are you thinking about, Sarge?” asked Hankins.
“Shut up, private.” And onwards they crawled.
“Have I ever told you about my son?” asked the Sergeant.
“No,” Hankins said.
“Since I got captured, he has nowhere else to go. I don’t even know if he’s okay,” the Sergeant said.
“Yeah, he could be living on the street by now, or be dead.”
“I’m sorry,” the boy said.
“Yeah, me to,” the Sergeant said.
The Earth above the three men started to tremble.
“What was that?” Hankins asked. They were all silent.
The boy could feel his own heartbeat against the floor of the tunnel. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. He could feel his hands trembling against the ground. He felt an earthworm sliding across his leg. And he could see nothing but that treacherous, never-growing light. He could smell the stench of the basement full of rotting meat, and he could smell his mother telling him how disappointed she was.
And he screamed a blood-chilling scream. It was of pure terror and anger, and a wild savagery inside him. He began to thrash his limbs. Dirt started to fall, and still the boy’s scream knew no bounds. He screamed for the anger inside of him. He screamed for the despair. And most of all, he screamed for that light. That never coming, beautiful light.
Dirt was coming down hard. and still the boy kept thrashing wildly, so the Sergeant shot him.
There was another long silence. The two remaining men did nothing. Hankins scarcely moved a muscle, such was his terror.
“Sarge?” Hankins asked, feeling out for the Sergeant’s leg.
“We’re gonna have to climb over the body,” said the Sergeant.
“What?” Hankins asked.
“You heard me.” the Sergeant began to push past the body. He shoved the boy’s skinny frame against one side of the dirt wall, and squeezed his way through. This was one time he was thankful for the lack of light. He didn’t see the blood dripping from the boy. He felt it. He felt the warm liquid against his bare hand. Finally, he was past the body.
“Hankins? Are you coming?” the Sergeant said.
“Yes, sir,” said Hankins. There wasn’t the tiniest trace of complaint on his lips. That stink. He noticed it again, after the thought of the boy had left his head. He remembered it well from the war. He could smell that very smell on the battlefields. It was the smell of death and fear and pain and now, to Hankins, it would also be the smell of dirt and blindness. Hankins could now occasionally see the light over the Sergeant’s body, and it looked so small. What was the point? It was so far away.
“Sir,” Hankins said, “I’m just about done for today. Do you think we could make camp? The light is just too far away.”
“No, Hankins we ca-” but then he spluttered, for he had gotten a mouthful of dirt.
“Please, sir” Hankins begged. His voice was unnaturally high-pitched, like a tired schoolboy.
“Hankins, we can’t,” the Sergeant said.
“I’m going to spend the night here, sir,” Hankins said, “I want to be with the boy.”
“Hankins?” the Sergeant said. The stink was still around them
“I want to be with the boy,” Hankins said, his voice still in that unnatural high voice.
“The boy is dead,” the Sergeant said.
“I know, but I need to tell him that you didn’t mean it. You didn’t mean to kill him,” Hankins said. He paused. “You know, sir, I really love this smell. It smells like joy to me. Anyway, in order to visit him, I’ll need your gun.”
“Hankins, I can’t,” the Sergeant’s voice started to crack. He could not be here alone. He could not be alone in this darkness, with this infernal stink.
“Then you may want to move sir, if you don’t want to visit him to,” Hankins started to punch up at the dirt ceiling, and the dirt over broke down and fell onto him.
The last thing the Sergeant ever heard from Private Joseph Hankins was, “Don’t worry, I’ll tell him you didn’t mean it.”
The Sergeant started to cry. The tears burnt their way across his dirty dirty face.
“Hankins,” he whispered, “come back, Hankins. Please.”
He was sobbing, tears pouring from his eyes. He sat against the wall for a long time, crying. He wept and wept and wept. He sat there for hours and hours
Finally, he looked up. The stink was still in his nose, the sting of salt against the cuts on his face were still there, but the light was bigger than he had remembered. It was so much closer than it had been He started to crawl toward it. It was growing. The light was on his face. It burned his eyes, but he didn’t care. He smiled. It was getting bigger, and bigger, and bigger. He was at the end of the tunnel. All he had to do was poke up his head, and he was free.
John Fitzgerald sat in an uncomfortable chair. He stood up. He sat back down. He paced around the small room. He sat down again. He fidgeted. He cracked his knuckles. He cracked his back. He sucked on a breath mint
“The children are outside. Its recess,” the adoption woman had told him. Since when had recess been so long? Finally, after what seemed like years, the door opened. A young woman came in.
The Sergeant sat up immediately. The woman smiled at him. Then, the door opened again, and out came a boy of about nine.
“Dad?” the boy asked, wonder and astonishment on his face.
“I’m back, son, I’m back,” the Sergeant said. He was never going to be in that tunnel again.
Felix Phillips, Age 13, Grade 8, Mark Twain I.S. 239 for the Gifted and Talented, Silver Key