I clutched my brother’s hand, weaving through the tall bushes that grew beneath the shady pines. Behind us an empty playground and a marching line of children.
The leader of the band carried a bundle of white fabric. His name was unknown, unfamiliar face pale behind the vivid purple and black left eye. He walked with his spine straight, shoulders back, a cadet in training.
In a clearing, some distance from the playground, we stopped; the spot shadowed, dark, the bushes around us reaching well above our heads. I glanced at the faces near me, a handful of us from different grades but recognizable because the school on Rota Naval Station was so small. Beside me my brother shifted from one foot to the other, his hand sweaty in mine, fingers tight.
The boy with the white bundle shook it out. A pair of Navy issue dress whites, the rank a slash of black on the arm. He threw them on the ground and we moved up, circling, glancing at each other and then away.
“Wanna watch it burn?”
A lighter appeared, produced with anger and frustration, his dark eyes reflecting flame. He lit the fabric, the glow touching his black eye, the line of his nose and cheek. The uniform caught, burning, orange fire licking along the white and curling it into black char as we watched in silence.
I could hear him breathing, hard and fast as if he’d been running for his life.
Then I heard our babysitter calling, her voice rising in pitch at the edge of the woods. My brother pulled on my hand, the other children looking around.
“Come on,” I said, tugging my brother after me, heading back toward the playground. The babysitter’s tone became frantic, my name in her mouth stretching into a screech.
I glanced back once, to see the uniform burning at their feet, the boy with the black eye riveted by the flames.