Josef nervously wiped the sweat from the palms of his hands onto his loose fitting, tan, cotton trousers. He strode into the crowded market square. He deliberately slowed his breath, and forced himself to slow his steps as he slightly shifted his shoulder. It ached from the weight of the backpack that he carried loosely. He looked straight ahead as he made his way through the crowds, careful not to catch anyone’s eye, in an effort to not call attention to himself.
The market square was busy and crowded as it usually was at this time, just fifteen minutes before noon. Tourists and workers were getting on and off buses at the nearby stop. Others were milling about at the stalls of various vendors hawking their wares, the sound of their assorted sales pitches providing a counterpoint to the unorganized cacophony of horns, whistles, whirrs, tinny music, spatters and sizzles of food cooking, and pedestrian chatter. Some stood at the food stands while they ate, others squeezed around the few tables and chairs. Still others wandered over and sat on the nearby benches and the low stone wall that surrounded the water fountain at the center of it all, the shadow cast from the nearby clock tower providing little shade from the heat of the sun. Josef walked towards the fountain and chuckled sardonically to himself as he watched tourists toss coins into the pool at the fountain’s base, an improvised wishing well. In a few short minutes Josef would get his wish.
As Josef stood there he noticed a slender, dark-haired, young girl, no more than five or six, around the age his own Sophie had been. She was dancing around an older woman who wore a genial smile. The woman’s crease-lined face was framed by strands of gray hair that had escaped their matronly bun. Both of them sat down on a nearby bench; the young girl with an energetic plop as the older woman gingerly eased her tired frame onto the seat. The young girl was up again, dancing around and clapping to herself, as she whirled and twirled for the older woman. The girl’s sharp eyes glittered at the sight of three stray flowers, not much more than weeds really, that had forced their way up through the cracks in the fountain’s stone. She grasped her prize and brought them back to the old woman for inspection. “Flowers, for me; How thoughtful!” the old woman had exclaimed, as she handed two of the flowers back to the girl. The young girl laughed as she exclaimed, “I will keep one and I have one left over!” Her eyes darted over the crowd as her gaze landed on Josef. She began to run towards him with the “extra” flower, smiling and laughing to herself at the fun of this game she had made up. Josef could not help but be reminded of his own Sophie, how she too had often rushed up to strangers she caught unawares, smiling and waving. His love of Sophie had been why he had come.
Josef thought back to all of the bitter tears that he had cried and the sleepless nights of guilt that had turned to anger which had blossomed into rage. The pain at his loss burned, like a fire, and its flames had been fed by his friends who had lost loved ones of their own. What could be done against the ones that had taken his Sophie? Some of his friends moved away, could no longer bear seeing daily the place where their families had died. Some of his friends stayed, but turned to their work, or drink, or worse, to block out the pain. That was when Josef had joined the group that called themselves “The Followers”.
After listening to many angry speeches, and talking to some of the leaders of the group, Josef knew what he had to do, and he was recruited to avenge Sophie’s death, and the deaths of the others. “You will send a message with your sacrifice,” the leaders solemnly proclaimed as Josef accepted the assignment. It was then that he felt inside his chest something that he had not felt since her death. It was an emotion he could not quite put to words, but it felt as though something inside him had bloomed, it was almost like joy.
The squeal of the young girl’s laughter woke him from his reverie and he looked down at her as she smiled up at him and extended the flower to him, her eyes bright and shining, as the clock on the tower began to chime. He wanted to be anywhere but here now, and he choked back the vomit that had begun to rise in his throat as he realized that it was too late to call out a warning, too late to run away, any moment now he would get what he had thought he had wished for and planned for.
He looked down at the little girl and saw his Sophie, and for the love of Sophie he smiled. He tried to pour the love he had felt for his Sophie into his eyes, oh how he hoped that his love showed in his eyes. With love now in his eyes, he took the flower from this beautiful, smiling child as the world exploded in a flash of light and screams.