“Dude! Check it out!” He called to me, making sure that his voice wasn’t too loud.
I joined him at the window to find the large command center of the fortress. Desks loaded with computer terminals were strategically placed throughout the room. Men and women dressed in crisp military uniforms were manning these computers, many of them talking furiously into the microphones of their headsets. Several other soldiers, wearing the rank insignia of officers, were walking around to the different stations. Their faces were weary and full of stress. The unique challenge of coordinating the vital defenses of Fort Collins rested on the shoulders of these brave men and women. All along the walls were screens that had a vast assortment of images broadcasted by projectors mounted to the. The images ranged from tactical maps of the region, to surveillance footage of critical defense points, to what looked like a news reporter on CNN, broadcasting the latest grim war news to the public. In the center of the impressive room was a large illuminated table. Several older looking officers were huddled over this table, the soft white glow of the displays reflected onto their faces. The man in the middle of the group had his eyes narrowed into small slits as he studied a particular, unseen image on the table. He had dark grey hair cut into a slick military style crew cut. His figure was short and slightly husky and his grayish white camouflage seemed to do a poor job of hiding the man’s impressive collection of muscle. Two silvery stars were proudly sewed to the front of his chest. Another officer to the man’s right was talking quickly while pointing at the image that the other man was staring at. This officer’s face was uniquely chiseled from black stone, doing little to hide the distinct wisdom and experience the man had stashed behind those dark eyes. Two other nearby officers, who were participating in what was now clearly a military briefing, were obviously arguing with each other. Several inaudible exchanges ensued until the older officer in the center of the group held up his hand to halt the debate. He said a few words of his own which caused all the other members of the group to nod and salute. Several members of the group now walked away from the table and headed towards the door. Stan grabbed my arm and we both hid behind a pile nearby boxes that were sloppily stacked in a corner. This was just before the men entered the hallway. The ones who were walking towards the staircase passed our hiding spot without noticing us there.
“General Watson sir? A word?”
The familiar voice came from my very own father, whom I did not previously see inside the command center. I peaked over the boxes that me and Stan were hidden behind to see my father and that older officer, who I now knew was General Watson.
“Of coarse Chris.”
General Watson’s voice was deep and rich. His accent reminded me of a news reporter I had heard on a mid-western TV show.
“I appreciate you supporting Jenkins in there. Refortifying that slope to the south of town will make it unapproachable for enemy armor. That should buy us more time.” Watson began.
“Of coarse sir, but our only real chance of surviving this siege depends on 15th and 207th breaking through from Denver.” My father respectfully responded.
Watson nodded in acknowledgement. My father continued,
“But sir, what I really wanted to talk about is Camp Vu.”
An eerie silence immediately enveloped the hallway. Even from my distant hiding spot, I could see that every ounce of blood was drained from the General’s face.
“Sir, if the intelligence reports are correct, then the Chinese Army is committing a horror beyond comprehension. We must stop them. The last report we received indicates that the children from South Park have been captured and taken to one of the nearby camps.” My father’s voice was jittery and soft, I unfamiliar with this weary version of him.
“What can we do Chris? We are trapped inside this mountain” General Watson finally commented.
“Me and my men can slip through the besieging forces, and carry out a mission to rescue the children at Camp Vu.” My father proposed. General Watson shook his head in disapproval and said,
“We can’t do it Chris. Your rangers are a key part of the defense of this town. Even if the Intel’ reports are completely true; we have no idea where the camp is actually located. There are thirty thousand Chinese out there, how do you expect to slip past them?”
“My son and his friend survived the attack on South Park and made it all the way here. If two nine year old boys can do it, my rangers can do it.”
The older man thought to himself for a few minutes, rubbing is fingers on his hardened face. Finally, he announced his decision,
“I know you and the other parents here fear for your children Chris, I would too. But I cannot weaken the fortress to send you and your men out on a suicide mission. You say your son is alive and safe here, and that is a blessing from God Chris. You should try and spend some time with him while you can. When our situation improves and this siege is lifted, I promise you that we will find and liberate Camp Vu.”
My father moved his lips as if to speak, but he restrained the words that seemed to be at the tip of tongue. Instead, he gave General Watson an obedient salute. Watson returned the salute. My dad then turned and walked towards the staircase that we had previously used to get here. When General Watson re-entered the command center and closed the door behind him, me and Stan emerged from our hiding spot. All we could do is look at each other as we struggled to fully understand everything that we had just heard.
Deep in downtown Fort Collins was a small tavern called Geoff’s. It was nestled in between the many boutiques and restaurants that lined Main Street, directly across from the Jackson Hotel. Normally, the bar would have been off limits to people as young as me and Stan, but the siege had transformed the place into a gathering spot for everyone. They offered hot meals and sugary soda pop to people who came here seeking something other then beer.
Stan and I were settled into a cozy, leather padded booth. We were busy eating the massive cheeseburgers that the waitress had just brought us. She told how lucky we were, they were made from the last of the beef still left in town. Stan was able to think or talk of little else but what we had heard inside the mountain two nights ago. Stan took a large sip of Dr. Pepper and said to me in a whispered voice,
“You know Butters, I’ve been thinking.”
I looked up at him, to indicate I was listening.
“I remember those Chinese soldiers talking about taking me somewhere for re-education that night you rescued me. Maybe that’s where they were going to take me. We were going to Camp Vu.”
I gulped with the consideration of that idea. I was glad I was able to save Stan from it, if that’s where he was being taken.
“That’s only part of it!” said a gruff voice that came from behind me. I looked over my shoulder to see a skinny teenage boy leaning over me. He immediately seated himself next to Stan without invitation. The kid must have been at least been fourteen years old. He had a mop of brown hair that curled in several places, and a long and pale face. His eyes glowed emerald green, as if they were made of the shards from the heart of a dying star. He used these eyes to stare intently at me as he spoke
“Y’all are the kids from South Park right? I’ve heard of you two. The town has been talking about two lucky boys that slipped through the siege. I’m Daniel, Daniel Hoffman.” He offered his ghostly white hand to me, which I briefly shook.
“I’m Butters Stotch, and this here is my good friend Stan Marsh.” I responded.
Daniel grasped Stan’s hand. My friend’s eyes never left Daniel’s and he hopelessly tried to crush the older boy’s hand. Daniel seemed to be amused by Stan’s reaction, and he took a measured sip from the short glass he had next to his elbow. The amber brown liquid in the glass was suspended between several ice cubes. It gave off a rancid odor that made me suspect it to be whiskey. The smell of such strong liquor made me feel sick to my stomach, my father always made sure to not drink that stuff around me. Daniel, who showed little interest in leaving us, continued to speak.
”So you two have heard of Camp Vu? That’s a surprise; it’s a well kept secret around here.”
He took yet another sip from his glass and continued,
“Doesn’t surprise me that it’s such a well kept secret, it’s not something people want to think about right now. But it’s important for us, the young people in this war, to know about it. You two especially should know, because that’s where your friends are.”
Stan resumed starring directly into Daniel’s eyes, furiously looking for any possible hint of deception.
“Well uh, what exactly is this Camp Vu?” I asked. Of coarse I couldn’t prevent myself from rubbing my knuckles together to try and subdue my anxiety.
Daniel glanced around the room to ensure that nobody, but us three would hear what he was about to say. He chugged down the remnants of his drink and explained to us in a low whisper.
“Land and material resources aren’t the only thing the Chinese are after in this invasion of our nation. This war is going to be very costly to their army, and its only a matter of time till nuclear weapons are going to be used. They want another army, one composed of super soldiers.”
“What?!” Stan loudly interjected.
“The Chinese are kidnapping American children and reprogramming them. They plan to use them to fight the later parts of this war.” Daniel continued, ignoring Stan’s interruption.
“How do ya’ know?” I asked him?
“Because I was a prisoner there.” He answered abruptly. Stan and I looked back at his thin face in disbelief. He presented his left hand, which had previously been cleverly hidden. It was wrapped in thick linen bandages. Daniel slowly unwrapped the dressing to reveal a deep hole in the palm of his hand. Stan’s face immediately turned queasy with the sight of the horrific wound.
“This is where they implanted the devices they used to control us. The army surgeon who removed mine didn’t let me keep it, because they wanted to study it further. But it basically works like a dog collar. The commander has a remote control that he can use to make the device emit an electrical shock into us. It was their primary form of punishment. We were told that if we ever tried to leave the camp, the device would blow up.” Daniel explained, making sure that his voice was no louder then a low whisper.
Goosebumps formed across my back as the images of enslaved boys and girls my age, haunted me. The camp didn’t need fences, fear and pain kept everyone inside the perimeter of the prison.
“Luckily, the part about the device blowing up wasn’t true. The surgeon said he didn’t see any explosive parts in the device. That’s how I was able to escape. One night I decided I would rather blow up, then be their slave another day.”
Stan’s face was slowly filling with unrealized determination, he spoke up for the first time,
“How do we save them?”
“I know where the camp is, if we work together we might be able to save your friends.” Daniel answered.
We huddled closer together and Daniel began to whisper to us his plan. The ever familiar sounds of artillery shells exploding outside signaled the start of the nightly Chinese bombardment. Somehow, I wasn’t scared tonight, I was too busy hearing Daniel’s plan and excited about the idea of seeing my classmates again.
Daniel’s plan was daring and full of peril. We had only a small chance of success. If my best friend Kyle wasn’t stuck in that camp, I wouldn’t have considered going on this quest. Unsurprisingly, despite my own statements of doubt, Butters seemed to trust this older kid whole heartedly. I still couldn’t figure out why he would want to help, when all the other older guys I have met would never do something like this for us.
I took a break from these troubled thoughts to glance up at Butters, who was sitting in the small living room of our temporary home. He was busy cleaning and polishing his rifle. I was surrounded by messy collection of maps and books. Studying images of the surrounding area, and memorizing the positions of local landmarks could help us find our way around in the wilderness.
“Do you boys feel ok staying here alone while we go to the militia meeting?” The inquiry came from our two mothers standing at the doorway.
We both nodded back at her. My own mother smiled back at me and gave me a brief kiss to the forehead before she turned to leave. When the front door clicked shut, I knew it was time to go. I looked back over to Butters.
“You ready dude?”
“Yeah, I-I guess.” He responded half-heartedly. He began to re-assemble his rifle, the butt of which seemed to shine brighter then ever.
“Daniel will be down at the boat house waiting for us. He told me that everything was good to go last I spoke to him today.”
“You don’t like him, do you?”
I was completely startled by what he said.
“What makes you think that?” I countered, hoping that he was just speculating.
“Well it’s the way you talk about him. Kinda easy to see, ya know?” He had finished putting the final piece of his rifle into place and looked up at me for the first time.
I turned around to glare at the bookcase leaning on the nearby wall and said,
“I just don’t trust him and I don’t know anything about him. Now we’re about to risk our lives with him on this crazy mission?”
“Well, you wanna see Kyle again don’t you?
Butters hit it right on the spot as usual, but he continued on to say,
“I really want to save our friends you know, but well I’ve been thinking. You and me have been really close these past few days and well I know Kyle is still your best friend. But, I just hope that what’s between you and me won’t change after K-Kyle is back.” His eyes were glazed over, solidly glued to the floor and he was rubbing his fists together nervously.
I knew the words came from deep inside the kid. Yet I was unable answer them; I would probably regret not doing so later on.
His face sagged with my short reply, and he didn’t say anything else as he grabbed his stuff for the journey.
We snuck out of the house and through the town square without being noticed. On the side of the mountain that faced the river, was a large boathouse. It was made of whitewashed pinewood that was sloppily nailed together. Here was housed all of the canoes, kayaks and rafts the belonged to the citizens of Fort Collins. This side of the fortress was far from the reach of the Chinese, so were no soldiers were posted there to guard it. The creepy silence and lack of any other human presence made me intensely nervous. When Butters and I finally reached the door, I noticed that the padlock right next to the doorknob was missing. As I reached forward to open the door, I felt a hand grab my shoulder. I screamed out in shock as I spun around to see a teenage boy with brilliant green eyes laughing at me.
“You were so f*cking scared man.” He croaked through his laughter.
“That ain’t funny now, I coulda’ shot you!” Butters blurted out, his face was in a rare form of anger. His M1 was still pointed at Daniel’s chest. Daniel continued to giggle and said,
“Put that thing down before you hurt yourself kid.”
Butters did so, but his expression of annoyance remained. Daniel then took a sip from a stainless steel flask that was previously hidden inside of his coat and asked,
“So, are you ladies ready for this?”
Butter looked at me, expecting me to speak for the both of us. I just shook me head yes and he motioned for us to follow him into the boat house. The shack was dimly lit by a few dusty, low watt light bulbs suspended from the ceiling. Rows and rows of racks that contained a diversity of canoes and kayaks filled the room, making it an intimidating challenge to navigate through the place. We followed Daniel to the very back of the room. There, he had a black rubber raft hidden behind the last rack of kayaks. It was just large enough to fit the three of us and a few small bags of supplies. Daniel unzipped the duffel bag on top of the stack and pulled out a small map. Under the illumination of a brilliant white LED flashlight, he carefully explained our travel plans.
”Ok, like we discussed before, the safest way to slip out of here is to float down the Blanco River. We will stay on the river till we get to here. His finger was hovering over what appeared to be a small canyon that was cut into the rocky terrain by the river.”
“Dude, are you sure about this? Isn’t the Blanco supposed to be one of the most dangerous rivers in America?” I objected, hoping that there was some other way to get out of this place.
“It’s safer then sneaking though the enemy lines by foot.” He snapped back at me. He then turned his attention back to the map.
“From there, it will be a day’s hike to highway 83. It’s a road that leads from Denver, and it’s currently being used by the Chinese to transport prisoners and supplies to Camp Vu. We will try and stow away on board one of their supply trucks.”
“I thought we were going directly to the camp and liberating it from the outside?” I interrupted him again.
“This will allow us to infiltrate the camp and take it from the inside Stan. Besides, I don’t know exactly where the camp is located. It’s not like it’s on a f*cking map! All I remember is that the supply trucks use highway 83 to get to and from the camp.” He retorted back at me. He then took a deep breath and said,
“You seem to be having a hard time with this; do you really want to do this?”
I just glared back at him; I could feel my teeth grind together in frustration. Butters was quick to sense the tension in the air and immediately worked to defuse the situation,
“Look, uh fellas, lets just stop fighting and get going.” He said, unsure if it would work.
Daniel was the first to end our staring contest; he looked over to my blonde friend and said,
“Your right little man, lets roll.”
He gave Butters a rough pat on the side of his head and put the map back into the duffel bag. Butter and I then tied down our own belongings into the raft and strapped on our life vests and helmets. Daniel opened the large back door and we all three of us dragged the raft out of the boat house.
The familiar sounds of gun and mortar fire notified us of the nearby battle raging on. At least the Chinese would be too busy shooting at US soldiers to notice three kids floating down the river. The Blanco River was a violent highway of water and ice. It was at least fifteen feet wide and thirty feet deep. A scattered assortment of sharp limestone rocks poked viscously out of the turbulent river surface. All them were ready to rip up any raft or boat that dared to challenge their supremacy of the waters.
The unbearable weight of the raft was making the palm of my hand sting in protest. I was glad to finally get the craft to the edge of the river. Butters also dropped his side of the raft down, nursing his sore hand immediately afterwards.
Daniel ordered us both into the raft, and being the experienced and older boy; he was the one who pushed us off from the river bank. He sat in that back and had the responsibility of steering the raft though the gauntlet of river hazards. Since I was capable of using both of my arms effectively, I let the right handed Butters have the right side of the raft. The swift current of the river had no trouble carrying the raft down its journey that cut through the mountains. I was not rowing to move us forward, but to keep the raft from spinning out of control. As we continued to move faster and faster downstream, the mountain stronghold of Fort Collins grew more and more distant. The swift river rapids kept all three of us on our toes; we had to work together as a team to keep ourselves out of danger. Had the water and the surrounding air not been freezing cold, I wouldn’t have minded the constant splashes that covered my entire body. But each wave of arctic water was a swift slap to the face. Butters, seated next to me, was also soaked and shivering from head to toe. His hands and face were ghostly white from fighting the struggle for warmth, a fight that the frosty wind was winning.
“Row faster! It’ll help you keep warm” Yelled Daniel.
My heart began to pound faster with my rapid movements, which naturally made me feel warmer. But this fast pace was making my muscles ache from overuse.
“How much further to the place where we exit?” I called out to Daniel.
“It’s just over the Del Gado rapids! Hang on ladies; this is a class four rapids!”
I soon discovered the terror of a class four rapid. Ahead of us was a sharp turn in the river. The water was pummeling though a huge assortment of monstrous boulders at the river bend.
“Oh sweet Jesus!” Butters cried out as he stared at the obstacle in front of us.
“I’ve gone through it before guys. Just stay calm and do exactly as I say.” Daniel shouted as the river current continued to pick up speed. When we finally hit the rapids, Daniel called out,
“Here we go!”
A fresh surge of adrenaline floods my veins as we began the tricky task of navigating through the limestone boulders. Despite the large amounts of freezing cold water that kept splashing into the raft, we were doing alright. That was until I noticed, directly in front of us, the massive slab of limestone that resembled a skateboard ramp, poking out of the water.
“Left! Row left god damnit!” Daniel ordered us at the top of his lungs.
But the combined rowing power of me, Butters and Daniel did not prevent our raft from traveling up and over the rock. We might have survived this short flight in the air if our entire luggage had not been placed in the front of the craft. The unbalanced raft flipped over and I plunged head first into river. The melted snow of the Blanco River stung my skin with unbearable pain. I instinctively began to tread water, even though my lifejacket kept my head safely above the water. With all the strength left in my battered and beaten body, I kicked and paddled my way to shore. The sharp rocks all along the bottom of the river slashed and bruised my legs without mercy. But I didn’t care about that; I just wanted to get out of the frozen hell that I was swimming in. I finally crawled my way up the river bank, back onto solid ground. Nature showed little pity since a strong gust of wind hit me as I lied down on my back. I felt completely crippled from my struggle in the river water.
The chokes and coughs of a boy struggling to survive brought me out of my trance of exhaustion. I looked back to river bank. It was Butters; his blonde hair was plastered flat to the side of his head that was struggling to stay above the foamy water. I looked closer to find out that his life jacket had been ripped completely from his body.
“Huh-help me! Please!” He desperately cried through his rapid breaths for life.
Strength rekindled in me as I pulled my friend out of the water. We both sat there together in the dry winter cold. Only the shadowy glow of the full moon above us illuminated the surroundings. We only had each other for warmth in this merciless tundra. It seemed that our water soaked clothes were keeping us in a prison of misery, death would have only been a relief. Several hasty footsteps coming from behind of us announced the arrival of Daniel.
“You guys need to get out of those wet clothes right now! You’ll go hypothermic!”
Butters was the first to oblige. He quickly stripped off his water logged clothes as Daniel poured a large amount of gasoline onto a nearby, snow less patch of earth. He threw a match at the puddle and a surge of heat flowed from the newly created fire. The pale figure of my nude friend was huddled close to the fire. He was busy nursing the bloody wounds on his legs inflicted by the jagged rocks from the river. Finally feeling less shy and eager to join in the warmth, I removed my own wet clothes and joined Butters next to the fire.
“I’m going to go find the other duffel bags. They’re water proof, so I should have some dry clothes for you real soon.” Daniel said as he took off running down the riverbank.
To the casual observer, it was the epitome of irony that two kids could sit naked in these freezing temperatures. But the radiant energy, given off by the burning petroleum, made me feel like I was basking in the mid-summer sun.
“You know what that river reminded me of Stan?” Butters said to break the silence.
“The polar bear swim back home. Only without those gosh darn rocks” He answered.
I instantly remembered. Every year in South Park, a contest was held in March to see who could swim the most laps in the freshly melted Starks Pond. It’s too bad that Cartman, with enough fat to rival a whale, won the grand prize every time. I was only able to do a single lap this past year.
The awkwardness of the situation faded away as I continued to laugh and talk with Butters. Daniel finally arrived with our clothes. I unzipped my duffel bag and pulled on the first pair of boxers I could find. Butters and Daniel, likewise, began to get dressed. Butters was now wearing a set of white winter camouflage. It was almost identical to the one I saw his father wear.
“Y-You like it? My dad was somehow was able to get a set in my size a while back. He gave it to me for Christmas last year.”
“Pretty sweet dude.” I responded as pulled out my other puff-ball hat over my still wet head.
I looked at my watch, which was broken from hitting one of the rocks. I could only guess that it was well past midnight. The sky above me was glimmering with the stars of the Milky Way galaxy.
“Let’s stay here for tonight” Daniel announced as studied his map under his LED flashlight.
“Luckily, we crashed pretty close to where I intended to get off the river. Tomorrow we’ll sneak through this forest and find the road to Camp Vu.”
I had no objection to this plan. My muscles were fatigued and begging for mercy. The icy cold river had succeeded in infecting my mind with drowsiness. Butters was still massaging his battered legs, wincing every time his hand traveled over a wound. Daniel poured more gas on the fire as I found a cozy patch of earth to lie on. And before I could say goodnight, I drifted off into the mysterious twilight world of slumber.
I woke up to the mellow music of water hitting rocks. My deep sleep had succeeded in erasing some of the memories of last night as I sat up from my resting place. I noticed that Butters had cuddled up beside me sometime during the night. This caused me to immediately scowl, but I decided to let it go. The boy always needed to be around someone who he perceived to be stronger then him. It helped him to feel more secure. The skinny figure of Daniel, in his tranquil state of sleep, was lying immediately across from us. His thick wooly cap was pulled snuggly over his head and most of his face and his uncovered, pale hands where clasped around his stainless steel flask.
I looked up to see that the majestic reddish orb of the rising morning sun was perched just above the peeks of the eastern mountains. The light of which was reflecting orange off of the nearby snow covered slopes, making them appear like sheets of molten lava. I pushed myself up on to my feet and my eyes immediately found the roaring rapids of the Blanco River. The deflated remains of our rubber raft are wrapped around a brutal looking boulder. Its glorious days of conquering nature were over. The river, however, had spared the majority of our supplies from similar destruction. Several small nylon bags were resting along the river bank. I unzipped the nearest bag to find it stuffed full with food. Happy to find something to quench my savage hunger, I tore off the wrapper of one of the energy bars and began to munch away.
“Save some for the rest of us.” croaked the voice of Daniel from behind me. He had just woken up and was taking his first sips of whisky from his flask. I tossed him an energy, which he caught with his free hand. He sat down next me and we continued to eat our breakfast in silence. Meanwhile, Butters remained peacefully asleep, only the wispy vapor from his long breaths kept us believing that he was still alive.
“Butters? Butter wake up dude.” I called to him. He didn’t budge, so I moved over to him and shook his shoulder.
“Come on man, we’ve gotta get going.” I said in a louder voice. He started to move his legs and blink his eyes. But after only a couple of seconds of this, he returned to tranquil sleep.
I could see his lips moving, as if he were talking to someone in the quietest of whispers. I moved my ear to his face, hoping that I could decipher what he was saying.
“…so-so c-cold. Legs all sore and bruised…” he said in barely audible voice. I looked up at Daniel, who was also watching Butters with concern. I reached down and pulled Butter’s pants up to his knees. A loud gasp escaped my mouth as I saw all bruises and scratches embedded into the pale skin of my friend’s legs. The cold mountain air breezing up on his exposed skin must have brought Butters back to full consciousness. His icy blue eyes were now wide open, wincing every time my hand rubbed across one of his wounds.
“M-Must have been when I was swimming in that river, Oh god, I feel like, like sh*t.” he said, this being the first time I didn’t have to strain myself in order to hear him. And being the kid in town who never cursed, I could tell that he must have been in terrible pain in order to break his habit.
“Here you go little man, take this.”
Daniel was holding out two pills that he had removed from a bottle in his backpack. I propped Butters’ head up so that he could take his medicine. A few minutes are all it took for whatever drug it was the Daniel had given him to take effect. And Butters was finally back onto his feet, for the most part. It started to snow again as we prepared to leave, causing the bright morning sunlight to reflect through the mass of flurries, making the air glow bright white. Daniel plowed forward through the elements with his rifle in hand, bravely leading us closer to Camp Vu. My back was cramping up from the additional luggage I had to carry. Me and Daniel decided to take most of Butters’ gear, since he was having trouble keeping up with our fast pace. By that afternoon, my ears were frozen numb from the wicked chill and my lips cracked dry from the bitter wind. I suppressed this misery only with the thoughts and hopes of happier times, both past and of the hopeful future. Cold days like these would be spent in Cartman’s living room, playing Halo with Kyle and Kenny. Cartman’s mom would spoil us with a steady stream of cookies, hot chocolate and excuses to our other parents to keep us at home with her son. I only detracted from these fantasies to make sure that the limping figure of Butters wasn’t straggling too far behind me.
That night, we camped in a small clearing of that dense, evergreen forest. Butters sat right next to me of course, massaging his legs while humming a soft tune that seemed to be stuck in his head. Daniel was grinding his teeth together in frustration; his eyes were scanning the map in his hands. I kept my hands in front of me, soaking them in the radiant heat of the fire in center of our small camp.
“We have another day’s hike ahead of us. Although it’ll probably wind up being two days because blondie here’s so f*cking slow.” He said as he shot Butters a dirty look.
“Well, I-I’m Sorry.” Butters apologized, and dropped eyes down to stare at the flames of the fire in front of him. His face was half consumed by the shadow of night. After a moment, he opened his mouth to say,
“You fellas go on without me. I-I don’t wanna slow you down no more a-and be such a burden.”
“Don’t be ridiculous Butters. We’ll be alright.” I immediately cut in before Daniel could accept his offer.
“Well then rest up ladies, we’ve got a long day ahead of us tomorrow.” Daniel called out to us. He took a final gulp from his flask and rolled over into his sleeping bag.
Butters and I continued to stare at the dancing flames in front of us. Distant rumbles from behind us announced the commencement of the nightly bombardment of Fort Collins. As it seemed that the echoes of bloody war would never escape us, even if we were separated by miles of wilderness.
The morning march of the following day was uneventful. Butters seemed to feeling better from a good night’s sleep, since his limp was far less noticeable. We rested for a short time at the ledge of a large cliff. It overlooked a magnificent snow covered valley that was surrounded by the peaks of several mountains. Daniel was off in the bushes, taking a massive dump, leaving me and Butters alone by the cliff. We were both staring out at the valley in front of us.
“Beautiful ain’t it?” Butters commented in a misty voice.
“This land, well heck, this country? This here’s God’s territory.” He elaborated.
“All I see is more ice and rock for me to climb and trip over.” I responded bitterly. But my negative comment bounced right off of his impenetrable shield of optimism. He continued on as is he didn’t even hear me.
“You know Stan, this is where I feel most at peace, when I’m out here in the wild. I feel so, well so close to god. He worked so darn hard to make this world, I just love to admire it.”
I opened my mouth, but no words came out. He was right, and I joined him in admiring the wondrous world in front of me.
“God” Snorted Daniel, who was listening to our conversation from behind us. He sat down next to Butters with a smirk on his face.
“Why would god create such a miserable prison for us to suffer in?” He continued with a dark voice.
“God loves us and he must have a good purpose behind it.” I responded. Butters would be too fragile to endure a conversation like this. Cynics like Daniel are a threat to innocent and pure-hearted kids like Butters.
“Priest drivel taught to make you live a hollow life.” Daniel countered back at me with a chuckle.
“Nothing I’ve done is hollow or pointless.” I bickered back.
“If there even is a god Stan, he’s probably laughing his ass off at you right now. All because you’re too dumb to realize how ridiculous all that crap the church teaches really is. He enjoys watching people suffer in misery and delusion.”
“How the hell do you know what a supreme being thinks, huh? You don’t!” I barked back. I could feel the blood rushing to my face, heated by the simmering irritation in my mind.
“Its love ain’t it?” Butters interrupted.
He stood up in front of the two of us, a fire of unrelenting confidence burned in his face. Daniel and I both looked at him in surprised and uncompromising attention. What made this shy friend of mine break his streak of silent observance?
“Don’t you see it? I love this world and my life because it’s all I’ve got. Yeah I’ve experienced a lot of b-bad stuff, but why would it be because God hates me?”
“I can already see it, your one of those loser, happy-go-lucky kids that tries to see the good in everything. The world loves them, and society takes advantage of people like you all the time.” Daniel rudely cackled, a gesture that reminded me of Eric Cartman.
“People hurt all the time, you betcha they do. But just because there are bad people in the world doesn’t mean there aren’t some good people too. I have met a couple of good ones like Stan. I just know if I keep looking I will keep finding people who are kind.”
My checks turned slightly red when I heard this. I knew that what he said about me wasn’t entirely true. Daniel continued to pummel Butters with his rhetoric.
“Everyday that goes by, this world gets worse. More people get murdered, more families go hungry and more kids get hurt. There is never a day without sorrow.”
“Maybe that’s why you’re so miserable.”
Butters’ response came surprisingly close to Daniel’s heart. The older boy looked up at my friend in a mixed expression of surprise and confusion.
“L-look at you, you drink all the time, you pick on younger kids and talk about only the bad stuff that happens in your life. Only people who are without love or hope are truly unhappy. I well, I kinda feel sorry for yah.”
Butters icy blue eyes were filled with compassionate pity as he looked back up at the still bewildered Daniel.
“I have chosen to be happy because it’s better then being pessimistic and well, gothic. And that’s that!” He had his arms crossed now as he beamed outwards with self pride.
“Uh, why don’t we get going guys?” I said back, this shouldn’t be a big deal.
“Optimism didn’t save my parents you little sh*t, but Stan’s right. Let’s just get going.” Daniel muttered as he leaned over to grab his backpack.
We continued on at a much faster pace. Daniel’s stone cold silence and erratic body language only hinted to me the level of agitation in his mind. He only glanced back at me and Butters to make that we were still keeping up with him. I mostly kept quiet while trying to ignore Butters, who was humming some song under his breath. Butters must have still been thinking about his clash with Daniel, because would occasionally shoot the older boy a nasty glare.
Could the two be any more different from each other, but there was another thought lingering in my mind. It was Daniel mentioning his parents.
“Hey Dan, you know I’ve been thinking. We’ve been working together for a while now and well, I honestly don’t know anything about you. Where are you originally from? You mentioned your parents earlier, what exactly were you talking about?”
“I was born on June 17th, sixteen years ago in Denver. My mom was interpreter for the government and my father was a CIA agent. I never learned exactly what he did, but my mom accidentally mentioned to me once that his primary job was to profile international political figures.”
“Dude, your dad was in the CIA?” I interrupted.
“It wasn’t as glamorous as you think Stan. I have literally lived all around the world. I’ve never had a home for longer then eight months.”
“Oh, so are your parents working to fight the war?” I asked.
“No, my parents are buried under six feet of dirt in some far away cemetery. They were murdered in Shanghai a few months before the Chinese invaded us.”
“I-I’m sorry Dan.” Butters said. His voice was genuine and concerned. Daniel continued, his voice was in a trance,
“I can remember it so clearly; I can see and hear it as if it were happening right now. It was a damp and humid night in Shanghai. My father was on a mission that he was unable to tell even my mother about. My mom was working temporarily as a translator for the American consulate located downtown. Our apartment was in a discrete, high rise building. It was pretty small place that stank like burnt corn. Well, I was staying up late that night, playing Starcraft on my mom’s laptop in my room. She was already asleep, so she couldn’t tell me off for doing it. My father was lying on the couch in the living room, watching the tiny TV we had place there. It was the first time he had come home for two weeks. Suddenly, there was a huge bang on the front door. I peaked out of my room to see several uniformed policemen charging into the living room. My father, I guess suspected something like this would happen, had a gun with him on the couch and fired at the nearest intruders. The gun fire forced me to hide under my bed. But even from there, I could see them riddle my father with machine gun fire.”
He took a deep breath as he looked sideways at me. I returned him a sympathetic gesture of understanding. He continued the story,
“A minute later, they found my mother, who had been startled awake by the gunfire. She screamed for hours as the policemen ravaged her and beat her over and over again. She died must have died right after they left in the early morning, because when I finally got to her. She was already dead, I never got to say good bye.”
“How did you escape?” I asked.
“The police must not have suspected my father to bring his son to the country, so they never bothered to look for me. I had no idea of what do, so I hid out in the apartment for the rest of the day. Two officers from the CIA arrived later that evening; they found me hiding in the bathroom. They removed my parent’s bodies, taking them somewhere that I will probably never know. Since my father’s mission and purpose in China was top secret, he never got a real funeral. The US government hasn’t even acknowledged his death. They sent me to Fort Collins, where a family fostered me. Supposedly, my foster dad knew my real dad when they fought together in Operation: Desert Storm. Chinese closed in on Denver, while I was there visiting my girlfriend. We both tried to escape in the truck my foster family had loaned me, but they ambushed us on the road. That’s how I found myself in Camp Vu.”
His eyes now widened and his grip on his high powered rifle tightened.
“My time for revenge is near, here is the highway to Camp Vu” He said brightly.
I looked up, finally distracted from the story that had kept me occupied for the later part of our hike. In front of me was a carefully plowed, gravel road. The highway was cut sharply through the forest that lead deep into the mountains. About one hundred yards ahead of us was a road block. I could see three people, most likely Chinese soldiers, manning the station. Me and Butters now looked to Daniel for instructions on the next stage of our quest.
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