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A Cradle Song: Part Three
by Mark Zubro; Illustrated by W.S. Reed

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A Cradle Song, written by Mark Zubro and illustrated by W.S. Reed, debuts in the Windy City Times as the new holiday classic. Filled with travail and woe, warmth and great joy, it is a story for the ages. It will appear in ten installments from October 17 to December 19 and will also be available for gift giving as an e-book and as a paperback. For the true joy and meaning of the season, this is the book you want to read.

A Cradle Song: Part Three.

Chapter Two: Matthew

Then one day in his wanderings, Matthew had found a hospital. Ill people coughed and shuffled in a huge gray room with dark plastic chairs. The people in uniforms seemed very busy.

Just as he got to the front of the line, the emergency room doors crashed open. Bleeding and screaming people had rushed in.

Matthew had been lost in the cacophony. Desperate people who had accompanied the screeching and dying patients had shoved him aside. One moment, as he'd been trying to inch out of the way, he was knocked over by one of the gurneys as it dashed by.

He'd picked himself up and found a corner to huddle in. He'd watched from there as the rush to heal flowed past. To him, his vigil seemed to last forever. While sitting in his corner, he'd fallen asleep. He'd awoken as another shrieking ambulance pulled in.

Matthew had given up and left. At least, he'd been warm while he'd waited and watched.

Each night huddled in his own narrow space, his mind swirled in confusion and worry. Fortunately, he had some blankets from his own home. Often, he'd pile all his clothes around him and he'd be warm as he leaned himself against the warmth of his wall.

Matthew most often fell asleep to the memory of his father. He'd loved it when his dad would sit on the side of his bed and sing songs in his deep voice. No matter what the problems of the day or how tired his dad was, he'd had time for a song for his son. The comfort of those memories were some of the few that Matthew could cling to. When he had those, he slept almost as well as he did when they were a reality.

Matthew would give anything for one more song just like he remembered.

Chapter Three: Luke

At the war, Matthew's dad was a medic. His name was Luke. In their town, he'd worked part-time in a bakery. He'd cleaned and toiled. Somedays, he brought home day-old bread. On rare days, he returned with a sweet treat that he and his family shared. At night, he'd studied to be a medic. He had more years to go before he'd get official certifications.

Like all wars, no one was sure who to blame. Someone started it, and someone was angry. Lots of people shouted and cheated and lied. The ordinary people in the gunsights of the enemy were always the ones who suffered the most. Some of those who died were fighters in uniforms. Others were civilians huddled in hovels or caught in the crosshairs as they rushed from building to building, sometimes missing life and safety by inches.

Some months before winter, in an obscure corner of the nearly forgotten war, Luke huddled in the camp as near to the fire as he dared. Not too close, as that would make him a target. Few remembered or thought of those who fought but that didn't make any difference to the bullets and bombs. Forgotten or remembered, they were just as deadly.

That evening, Luke stayed with a wounded child who was a stranger to him, a local who hadn't run fast enough or soon enough. As he treated the boy, he thought of his son and his wife and daughter. Memories of them were all that permitted hope to enter his heart. Luke put pressure on the wound to stop the bleeding, which eased off. The child had a fever, so Luke gave him some drugs from the emergency kit. They were low on all kinds of medicine, and he had to use them sparingly.

Planes and helicopters roamed the sky and buzzed overhead. From the surrounding hillsides and heavens above, gifts of death rained on him and his friends and foes alike. Their lethal, random choices of who lived or died wore down the spirits of the bravest.

Luke was an ill-trained medic trying to keep people alive. Local people, members from all branches of the military, sometimes battered and torn bodies from both sides showed up. He fixed them all as best he could to get them on to the doctors in hospitals in the rear. Sometimes, he held their hands as they spoke their last words. Every day, when he awoke, he wondered if this would be the day someone would be holding his hand as he breathed his last.

Every minute he thought of his wife, his little son and daughter, left behind when he had no choice but to go.

He slept between bomb blasts which meant that some nights he never slept at all, but he always tried to do his weary best to make the woundeds' pain and suffering go away, or at least, become less.

He wrote letters home, but now they came back unopened. He'd begged for leave, but they said the military needed him. He'd tried to go over his commander's head, so he'd become known as a troublemaker. That had caused his commander to send him to the most dangerous parts of the war.

Luke didn't dare try to go AWOL. If his side didn't catch him, the other most likely would. He knew they would kill him for sure. Even if he got away, he had oceans and continents to cross. He couldn't just walk home.

Then the most horrible day had come.

He'd been captured by the enemy.

The day had started in misery and ended in horror.

He'd been scraping together bits for breakfast for the wounded in the dim morning light. The drizzle when he woke had turned to rain.

He'd heard a few distant bombs go off, but they seemed far away. Then wild shouts broke out. People began to run in all directions. Then the gunfire went mad followed by a continuous bombardment. He ran to help the wounded, but they died faster than he could work. Ages of hours crawled past.

Bits of blood and brain, bone and flesh flew past him. Spatters of he dared not think what dotted his uniform.

Sorrow and anger for the folly and stupidity of war filled his heart.

As he tried to staunch the wounds and ease the pain, in his deepest heart he held onto compassion, gentleness, and the memory of his family.

The surrounding horror fueled by folly and stupidity might kill or maim him, but it would not take his soul. Hatred and enmity might triumph for the moment, but he would not let it erase who he was.

Compassion, empathy, and gentleness filled his heart for their suffering. The men, women, and children he treated would know at least something of the good of being human.

As the light of the gloom-filled day began to fade, he'd felt a searing pain in his left leg a few inches below his knee. He saw his pants were torn. Flecks of blood dotted the tear.

There was no one to examine him. He'd examined himself. It wasn't a deep wound. He'd put on a few dabs of antiseptic inside it, and as clean a bandage as he could find to cover it. He suspected it wasn't serious. He didn't take anything for the pain as he knew others far more seriously wounded needed the medicine more than he.

Luke had gone back to work. The terror of the assault and the rush of people to mend had, for a time, caused him to forget his own pain.

Then late that night, the enemy made their most fierce attack.

Chapter Four: Matthew

Every day, Matthew made a journey. In the time after his mom and sister had been taken away, his life had become a ritual of hiding and running and sneaking and starving and being thirsty.

At first, he was successful in going to their old apartment. He'd wait across the street behind some trash cans. Eventually, the landlord would leave for at least several hours. He'd use their old place to take care of himself. The food had quickly gone bad, but he could keep himself clean, and be warm for a little while until he braced himself to go out into the city to hunt for his mom and sister.

Once the landlord had come back early and almost caught Matthew. That time, the boy had run out the back door and through the alley. That was the day he'd been chased and found his current hovel.

He was more careful after that. To avoid the landlord, he crept into every nook and cranny and around every corner. Then one day, a month or so later, Matthew's key hadn't worked. So he had to find new places to spend the hours of daylight.

The adults in the city ignored him. A few tried to hurt him. Now, if any of them approached him, he ran.

He wanted to be clean and go to the bathroom. He knew if he went to the same places day after day, he'd be noticed so he tried to vary his route as best he could.

Different all-night laundromats were the best. Sometimes, he found an old gas station, or a coffee house, or the library. He'd find his way to the bathroom when no one was looking. He'd wash his face, neck, and ears the way his mom and dad taught him. He really wanted to take a bath or a shower, but he didn't know where to do that. He'd use the soap in the dispenser. He'd wipe off the damp with paper towels when they had them. When he could, he'd use the electric machines that made so much noise when they blew hot air.

Matthew hid in rubble and dirt and soot. Most times at night, he shivered. He wished he could change his clothes. Over time, he'd learned to sleep in all he owned instead of piling them all around him as he had in the beginning.

He'd accumulated a few things besides the blankets from his home. They had been bulky and heavy and hard to carry down the many streets and turns to his hovel. In his wanderings, he'd even found a few more that were threadbare and worn. At night, he spread them out and then folded and stacked them over himself as best he could.

He knew if his daddy was around, he would make everything all right.

But his daddy was gone. And now his mom and his sister were too.

Over time, he'd developed a pattern which he changed as often as possible so people wouldn't catch him and ask questions. On different days, he'd make different stops. He had to be alert and wary. He didn't know which adults would be kind or cruel, which might mean him harm. He knew about stranger danger.

Some days, he could sneak into the subway system. He followed some homeless adults at a distance and found places where they managed to squeeze in underground.

It was warmer and drier, but Matthew was afraid to stay underground too long. Someone could see him, or take him, or try to harm him. He saw homeless adults fighting. A few tried to take what little money he had managed to beg or scrounge.

If he stayed on a bus or on the subway, he knew to be careful to keep close to, but not be part of a crowd. If a bus driver or train conductor or security guard saw him too often and unaccompanied, they might get suspicious and ask questions. So he couldn't sit too long and not by himself. He tried to enter and exit with a crowd and linger near others so a casual observer would think he was with someone.

He got most of his water from a bubbler in the park. As it got colder, he sometimes had to crack the thin ice that had formed in the night. The water always tasted good and fresh. In the park, the trees were barren. He gathered bunches of the fallen leaves and took them to his hiding place. He found that the more of them he could stuff between himself and the ground, the warmer he would be.

He knew that during school hours, he couldn't go out as much. And scrounging at night was better anyway. Fewer people to avoid, more shadows to hide in. Also, it was better to sleep when the sun was out. The heat of the day helped. At night, he could keep moving to help him get warm.

On the streets, he'd seen some awful things. One day, he'd been approaching a trash basket on a corner. Two men had been hunting through it at the same time. At the same instant, they both grabbed onto a sandwich bag. They began shouting at each other and snatching at the bag. The bag ripped. The contents spilled out. One struck out at the other and then they were a flurry of arms and legs and shouts. Then they rolled on the ground as they cursed and fought.

People had stood by and watched. When the police finally came, they snatched and yanked and pulled on them as roughly as they'd been fighting with each other. One of the combatants tried to bite a policeman. He got clubbed unconscious for that. At the end, the officers dragged each of the combatants away.

After they were gone and the crowd had dispersed, Matthew had walked by the scene. He saw drops of blood on the pavement. He could see the contents of the bag, several moldy pieces of bread covered in crawling ants.

Another day, he'd watched a robbery. Ahead of him on the street, he'd seen an old woman walking with a cane. Two men rushed past Matthew and shoved her to the ground. They grabbed her purse and ran. Matthew had hurried to the woman. Several people joined him. They helped her up. She shook them off and snarled at them.

She'd complained and cried. She didn't want the police. Matthew had walked away mystified. He wanted to help. She needed it, but rejected all those who held out their hands or offered kind words.

Matthew didn't understand people very well.

Such incidents made him even more cautious. When he picked through trash cans, he kept careful watch on his surroundings. When he walked on the streets, he kept keen eyes out on the people around him. He was wary of the streets, but he had to eat.

Matthew was ashamed when he begged for money. He saw other kids doing it. Bigger kids. He avoided them. If he had anything, they would take it. Sometimes, they hurt him. He learned to run. And he could go very fast, but he wasn't a very big kid. So, he had to be extra vigilant.

End of part three. Part four coming next week

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