Vlad was lying in the rubble of a bombed out building amid the chunks of concrete and twisted steel. The buildings look like tattered paper, their facades ripped off and their interiors exposed, furniture still inside and the rooms look strangely like doll houses, blocks of concrete with steel sticking out of them twisted into abstract sculptures of war. Bricks and concrete pour into the streets like frozen streams. All shades of gray, black and whites, war bleeds the color out of life.
Vlad wasn’t trying to blend into the rubble so much as to become part of the rubble. His rifle jutted out in front of him looking like nothing more than an errant piece of pipe. His face was caked in dust, his lips were parched and cracked “Pfft”. He spat out some concrete dust as soundlessly as he could. He lowered his head back to the sights of his rifle. If someone spotted him up here they’d send a patrol to flush him out. He had a vision of an armed militia bursting through the door to the roof, machine guns blazing as Vlad scrambled across the rubble like a wounded spider trying to get away until his body gave out to the invasion of the bullets, and fall dead. The crimson of his blood pooling on the gray-white powdered plaster before soaking in, and absorbed away until it became nothing more than a dark blotch, part of the lifeless color of war. Even worse, he could imagine all someone on the street below had to do was simply aim and fire a rocket launcher toppling what was left of the ravaged building. These scenes played over and over again in his movie mind.
The sky was starting to lighten to a robin‘s eggshell blue, he could hear the twitterings of the first birds of morning, the sound of the birds, the last remnant of when life had been normal. Sarajevo is a beautiful ancient city of traditions, culture and history. It looks like any other European city. A Platz at the city’s center, ancient architecture, balconies lined with plants, the streets, empty at this time of day. Along with that history came rivalries that were long submerged and simmered for generations, and when the lid was thrown off, war came. Vlad saw a mangy looking dog sauntering down the street, stopping occasionally to forage in the rubble, suddenly the peaceful morning is shattered by the first gunfire of the day, the dog’s head snaps up looking in the direction of the gunfire, his ears perked up, at the sound of the next volley of gunfire the dog scampers off.
“Even a dog has sense enough to avoid war.” Vlad thought to himself.
No more of the birds would be heard either that day Vlad knew, leaving not silence, but an eerie emptiness.
This was the third morning he was lying in wait. The third morning without sleep. The third morning without eating. The third morning without a cigarette. The third morning without his wife, his daughter. And the third morning of going over the events that brought him here to kill his best friend, his life had become an act of remembering.
The last argument I had with my wife before I left, we were in our kitchen trying to keep our voices down so our daughter wouldn’t hear us fighting. My wife Kaja, the war and its deprivations had scrubbed her face of make-up down to its sheer beauty, her blond hair cut short, her clothes, once fashionable were worn but assembled for as much style as possible, she looked haggard, but her eyes shone with life and love, her smile brightened my world and my life. She was still beautiful the war hadn’t been able to take that away.
“Why does it have to be you Vlad?” She demanded.
“Because no one else can, no one else knows him like I do. Maybe I’ve been stalking Janus all my life, or maybe providence put me here to study him, someone to know his habits, traits, idiosyncrasies, to be the balance to his counter balance.” What I had said was true, and with each passing day it became more and more true, it seemed I was put next to Janus for a reason. Even from the beginning we were destined to be friends or rivals, we were a little bit of both.
I was thirteen when me and the other members of the national shooting team first heard of Janus. It was a time of great hope in our lives we were training for the Yugoslavian national shooting team. I had been recruited because I was thought to have been one of the best shots in Yugoslavia, but so had the other members the team, it was a great honor for us to be chosen. I was elected captain of the team because I was the best shot on the team, maybe in all of Yugoslavia. We had heard rumors of Janus before we ever met him. He was rumored to be the best shot in his province, and that he never missed.
One day shortly after that, we were out in the woods, our training field carved out of the forest, we were surrounded by lush, verdant trees. We were practicing on the firing line with our targets at the end of a rope and pulley system to deploy and retrieve the human shaped targets from the far end. We were all dressed in the team uniform, navy blue sweat pants with a white polo type shirt with the National emblem over our hearts. We were all shooting as one of the coaches walked down the line.
“Krystof!” He barked at one of my teammates, “aim at what you’re shooting at, don’t point the rifle and hope for the best!” We were of course the best shots in Yugoslavia, so we knew enough this was just a coaching tactic to motivate us. The coaches were all of the same mold, barrel-chested bullies, aggressive and belligerent, some ancient idea it would make men out of us. They acted as if they were drill sergeants and we their recruits. They thought they would tear us down and rebuild us in their image, they parsed out their praise for only what they couldn’t refute, excellence. It was our talent that made us rebels, we mocked and mimicked the coaches when none were around.
“Tomko! You’re not holding your breath as you squeeze the trigger, don’t jerk it!” and as he walked farther down the line I could hear him getting closer, “Ranko! Concentrate on what you’re doing! You can’t bully the bullet into the bullseye!” The coach got to the end of the firing line where I was just as I had finished my shooting and had retrieved my target. He grabbed it from me as I took it off the line and held it up as he looked it over. I could see the light shining through the holes, it was almost perfect only one errant hole outside of the bullseye.
“Vlad! Your shooting is exemplary!” I remember the coach in his overblown tones, “the head coach is right, someday you’ll lead this team to Olympic gold medals. Boy’s come look!” My teammates gathered round and all admired my shooting. It was then the head coach brought Janus out to the practice field.
“Boys! Boys! Settle down,” he said, “I want you to meet the newest member of our team, Janus. Janus is a remarkable marksman and I’m sure will be a leader in our goal to win at the ‘76 Olympics. Vlad as team captain you will make sure Janus is welcomed and acclimated to our team.”
“Yes sir.” The coaches stepped back and there was an awkward moment, he was dressed in a black leather jacket and a white button down shirt with far too wide of a collar, the fashion at the time. In the future the brilliant white shirt and black leather jacket would be a trademark of his, he was already developing his style. Janus saw my practice target.
“Not bad,” he said, looking at the target, “I bet I can shoot better than that.” Ranko being a friend and faithful to the team said, “Vlad is the captain of the team, and the best shot.”
“Are you the captain because you’re the best shot?”
“The team voted me captain.”
“Then it is an honorary title?”
“Let’s see what you can do.” I said, handing him my rifle. As I sent the target down to the far end of the firing line he said, “Your sights are a bit off but I think I can compensate for it.” Then Janus shot and when he pulled back his target, the bull’s eye was in shreds, five shots through the bull’s eye, it was clean; NO other holes.
“You always shoot like that?”
“Always.” There was another awkward silence then he said, “Let’s shoot again!” Because we had nothing else in common we shot, that was how it always ended. I shot well, Janus shot better, perfect.
The light was getting brighter in the morning sky, the sky was a now a robin’s eggshell blue. Soon the hunger would return, but he also knew the hunger would go away. Of more concern was the craving for a cigarette. He hadn’t had one in almost three days now. He hoped today would be the day Janus would return to his sniper’s lair. Vlad didn’t know how much longer he could hold out against the cravings, the elements, the boredom.
Vlad raised his head just enough to see a larger view of his surroundings. His city used to be so beautiful, the birds landing on the streets to pick at some errant morsel of food, the plants that lined the balconies, the architecture of ancient buildings. Now…all smashed, rubble pouring into the streets like a waterfall. Buildings methodically bombed by artillery, then ransacked by militia and burned, left for ruins and sniper’s nests. He hoped Janus hadn’t detected his stalking and changed positions, or he wasn’t now in Janus’ cross hairs at this moment. Vlad lowered his head back down to the sights.
With Janus on the team we became unbeatable, Janus lead us in victory. As the best marksmen on the team we were destined to either be friends or rivals, maybe we became a little too much of both. The memories were like snapshots in his mind that he liked to take out, look at, and remember those times.
One summer I had broken my leg I was laid up in the hospital my leg up in a sling. One afternoon Janus came in carrying a bunch of magazines.
“What happened there, tiger?” He asked, knowing fully how I’d broken my leg.
“What’re you doing here?”
“Visiting a fallen comrade.”
“What about the others? Are they here?”
“No, the coaches wouldn’t let them come, they’re making them practice.”
“Why aren’t you there?”
“I don’t need the practice as much as they do.” And he smiled slyly, I couldn’t tell if the coaches let him come or if he had snuck away.
“We may go back to find them better shots than us.”
“We won’t be gone that long. So, what’re you doing here?”
“Oh, remember when you’re a kid and some kids come back from vacation with casts on, and everybody gathers around signing the cast, I was always jealous and hoped I’d break something so everybody would gather round me and sign my cast.”
“I just thought it was time to join them.”
“Looks like you did it a little too well, it‘s laid you up and I‘m the only one here. Is it everything you thought it would be?”
“No, it hurts, I’d trade places back in a minute.”
“Well, you’re lucky you didn’t break an arm or the coaches would be having fits and you’d be off the team.”
“Then you’d have no competition for the number one position.”
“Ahhh, that’s not much of a worry anyway!”
“It isn’t, is it?” I threw one of my pillows at him, and he grabbed it and tossed it back, just goofing around for a minute before I noticed the magazines he’d brought with him. “Are those my computer magazines?”
“Look in the middle, I smuggled you in a Playboy.”
“How’d you get it?” I asked, amazed at such a prize.
“The old man’s a bureaucrat, they get everything, even decadent capitalist literature, so I liberated it from the state for you. So, where’s that pen? I want to be the first to sign that cast.
Over the years we had become best friends vacationing with each others’ families. One summer I went to Janus’ family cabin in the woods. It was a typical wooden hunting lodge, wicker furniture, rustic furnishings, hunting trophy’s on the walls, a fancy wood cabinet filled with rifles, and stairs that went to the upstairs bedrooms, the railings made of tree branches or made to look like them, a big living room table and big overstuffed leather coaches around a sunken living room near the fireplace. Janus’ parent’s were well off.
Janus’ father was older in his late 50’s or early 60’s with gray hair, a neatly trimmed mustache. It was made clear that dinner would be formal, a jacket and tie. When I came downstairs Janus’ father was sitting stiffly at the head of the table, which was set with a white tablecloth, china, crystal goblets. Janus came downstairs wearing his usual white shirt and leather jacket.
“Janus, go back upstairs and into the proper attire for dinner,” his father said, sternly.
“But this is going to be my trademark, so people will remember me after I’m dead.”
“It’s easy to die when you’re young and immortal,” Janus’ father grumbled, “people will remember you for your deeds not your clothes. And as for dying that’s not going to happen any time soon, is it?”
“Very good, since we’re in agreement that when you’re at the dinner table you will wear a proper coat and tie like you’re friend here, Mr. Smirtonev knows how to dress for dinner. Please go change.” Janus went back upstairs to change. Janus’ father smiled weakly at me, he seemed embarrassed, “so, Mr. Smirtonev, how do you like being the captain of the shooting team?”
“It is a great honor the others have bestowed upon me.” Which was the stiff formal answer the coaches demanded if I was ever asked the question.
“Good answer, that attitude will take you far in life.” There was an awkward silence both the old man and me didn’t know what else to say, the shooting team was the extent of what we had in common. Janus came back downstairs dressed as his father had decreed, and took his place at the table.
“There that wasn’t so bad was it? Why do we have to go through this every time Janus?” It was a rhetorical question, Janus sat there glumly, his father raised his glass in a toast, Vlad and Janus followed suit, “To my son, the only pleasure he has brought me in life is when he made the Yugoslavian National shooting team.”