The Beholden – Chapter One – Prague
In midflight, Stephan opened his travel book of Europe. He was only spending one day in the city of Prague but was captivated by its baroque antiquity. From above, the skyline was littered with spires built over the course of hundreds of years. Down below, the cobblestone pathways seemed to form one of the world’s biggest, yet romantic puzzles. Flipping back and forth, he looked over the pictures of the Charles Bridge several times. He had a strong appetite for learning. Military history and structural design were two of his passions. As he daydreamed, Stephan pictured himself standing on the bridge and looking out across the Vltava River. He could see bridge after bridge, one clearly different from the next. At other times, he envisioned he was in the middle of the Old Town Square during the Thirty Years War defending the throne from plundering mercenaries. Aeroflot Flight 103 was not due to touch down for another three hours. The fatigue of the journey overpowers his excitement and he falls sound asleep.
Stephan served in the 10th Special Forces Group of the U.S. Army. His call of duty brought him to the city of Basra in Iraq where the military strategy was complex. Young and overconfident, he placed too much trust in the civilian population while searching for hidden weapons. The locals set a trap for the promise of money and he was ambushed. As luck would have it, two men from the British Army were misdirected while on patrol and stumbled upon Stephan’s plight. Connell and Alden were two of the many Desert Rats that invaded Iraq in 2003. They were to meet him at the airport and spend the next day catching up while strolling through the historic core of Prague.
Stephan awakes by the tapping on his shoulder from the stewardess. “Sir, please. It is time to disembark. You are the only one left. It has been much trouble waking you.” In a dreamlike fog, Stephan grabs his carry on and leaves the plane. He turns on his cell phone. Oddly, all his contact information has been erased. He was not immediately concerned. He knew his friends would be punctual but he did not exactly know where to find them. Therefore, he decided to wait in the arrival lobby. He tried to remember their phone numbers. However, the more he concentrated, the more he realized he could not recall much of the flight. He could not focus on one individual he knew and this began to make him panic. After a half hour, his friends find him.
“We’ve been trying to reach you,” said Connell. “Did you lose your cell phone?”
“Something like that,” said Stephan. “Thought it was best to stay put.”
“It is great to see you, old friend,” said Alden with a calm sincerity.
“I am really wiped out and I am having trouble remembering anything,” said Stephan.
“Ah, it is the jet lag,” said Connell as he grips Stephan’s shoulder with a show of assurance. “Let’s go get a cold Kilkenny over at the Dubliner Pub.”
The three hailed a cab and they directed the driver to the pub. They traded war stories and rounds and the beer went down quickly. Alden was the familiar cold and polite Englishman. Connell broke from that tradition and could be rather loud at times but very sharp. Both men took advantage of the English right to let loose at the bar after a day of being cordially inhibited. However, Stephan still could not release all the anxiety created by his memory loss. Connell suddenly remembered the plane that had crashed on the runway before Stephan had arrived.
“When we did not hear from you Stephan, we began to think that was your flight that crashed,” said Connell as he gave Alden a concerned look.
“Did you catch a glimpse of the wreckage?” asked Alden.
“No, I slept right through the landing,” said Stephan. “What happened?”
“The plane’s front landing gear broke, blew the left rear tires, and tumbled off the side of the runway,” said Alden. “A terrible tragedy.”
“Yes, we thought we would have to scrape you up and put you back together,” said Connell.
“Well, that is certainly not why we all decided to meet in Prague,” Alden said comically.
Connell was about to reply but Alden overpowered him by calling for another round.
After a few more drinks, they staggered out of the pub and walked to the motel. They had reserved two separate rooms. His English friends were heading back to their home land the following afternoon. Stephan was to stay one more night before setting off to Germany.
“Tomorrow, we will show you some of the best architecture Prague has to offer,” said Alden.
“I can’t wait, said Stephan. “I’ll see the both of you at first light.”
At six o’clock in the morning, Stephan awakes amid sheer terror. He has no idea where he is. He looks out the window and cannot recall how he got to this place. He grabs the information booklet on the dresser. “How did I get to Prague?” he mutters to himself. He vaguely remembers he was to meet some people in this city. Stephan goes down to the lobby and out the door. As he walks down the street, he can hear the sound of a car accelerating behind him. The street is poorly lit. His vision is blurry and the vein in his right temple begins to pulsate. In front of him, he perceives some dark shapes. As he draws near, his vision clarifies and he distinguishes the figures to be of a woman and child. He starts to walk briskly and scuffs his heel on the stone walkway. The sound startles the child and as she turns to see what is behind her, she drops something into the street. The car with its dim headlights is speeding toward them. The young girl pays no attention and goes after her belongings. Stephan reacts quickly and with the speed of a Roman god, he grabs the girl’s arm and yanks her back onto the sidewalk. The car screeches and swerves to avoid them. The vehicle never stops and speeds off around the corner.
“Děkuju,” said the woman. “Děkuju, you saved me!” said the girl as she gave Stephan a big hug around his left thigh.
“It was nothing. It was my fault, anyway. I scared both of you,” said Stephan.
The two stop to gather themselves. Stephan continued down the street and arrives at the small, picturesque Crusader’s Square. A magnificent blend of Gothic and Baroque design. Like most tourists, he immediately becomes fixated on the Charles Bridge and does not spend time to fully appreciate the space. He turns around to get one more look at the woman and child. However, they are gone. Putting himself back on focus toward his original destination, the Old Town Bridge Tower imposes its defensive might and forces him to stop and gaze in wonder before starting across the river. The bridge is a very popular tourist attraction yet at this hour there is hardly anyone there. The balustrade is even more breathtaking than he could imagine. Thirty statues aligned like guards at their post daring enemies to strike out against religion. He walks slowly onto the bridge as if he was investigating the island of Crete, waiting for Talos to come alive and smash his voyage to pieces. His eyes were hooked on one of the statues that appeared to be glowing with the omen of St. Elmo’s fire. It was the statue of St. John the Baptist. Once again, Stephan’s eyes put him into a mind trip as he watched the statue motion and point his finger down King’s Road. St. John held a bronze cross that was visibly ablaze at the top. “The saint must be showing me the way,” said Stephan. He continues across the bridge and stops at St. Jude.
“Well, the caretaker of lost souls. What shall I do next?” Stephan boasts loudly. He walks to the side of the bridge and looks down the river. Scattered sunlight begins to illuminate the white stucco on the buildings. He glances down at the base of the statue and notices a newspaper that was left behind. He kneels down on one knee, picks up the paper and unfolds it. The paper, warm and in pristine condition, gives off the odor of freshly pressed ink. He strikes it as very odd that the paper is printed in English. The top story reads, Aeroflot 103 Crash Kills All Aboard. At that moment, Stephan becomes light-headed to the point of passing out. He feels something in his pocket. He reaches in and pulls out his airline ticket. Aeroflot 103. “That is not possible,” with a perplexed voice. “The paper must have the facts wrong.”
A tap on the shoulder and a voice says, “The paper is almost correct. You were chosen to live.”
Stephan turns to see his two friends. He is still dazed and speechless.
“It was you that was supposed to save that Czech girl all along,” said Connell. “Events got a little out of order.”
“We saved your life in Basra,” said Alden. “We saved you from certain death on that flight because we are forever indebted to you. Stephan, you are equally indebted to the girl.” Alden becomes strongly emphatic. “Your life is saved. In turn, you are to guard over a life. Just as she will become a guardian. We are beholden.”