“Thanks for the lift, Mikhail,” I said.
“Don’t mention it, cousin. Welcome back,” he grunted.
“You’ve changed,” I said, aware that a permanent scowl now marred his once jovial features.
“A lot happened while you were at uni, Alexei, it’s not the same world…” He broke off as his phone rang. He flipped it open while keeping the other hand on the wheel. “Mikhail…What? Again? Don’t these people learn?...No, no, I’ll deal with it…No, stay put--I’ll come to you. You’re near the bridge?...Fine, see you in ten.”
“Something wrong?” I asked.
“Nah, just a bit of house cleaning to take care of. It’ll only take a few minutes--then I’ll drop you home.”
With a near inhuman display of mechanical precision, Mikhail drove off the highway and followed a dirt road into Vojislav Wood. Uneasiness spread through me like a malevolent cancerous growth. Who was this stranger beside me? What had happened to the carefree, fun loving prankster with whom I had spent my youth?
Mikhail drove off the track into the small clearing to the left of the bridge that spanned Vojislav River.
Three people awaited us in the clearing. Two unkempt, rugged young men held a woman with a dark complexion between them. Tears stained her dust-caked cheeks. Gnawing doubt blossomed into fear.
Mikhail took a pistol from the glove box. “Come or stay, don’t care either way. Just don’t get in the way.”
While at uni, I had heard rumours of bad things happening out here near the border. Jumping out of the 4WD to walk beside my cousin, I tried vainly to reassure myself that he could not possibly be part of such insanity.
As we drew closer, I realised that the men were not restraining a woman but a teenage ethnic girl. She had probably been using the wood as a shortcut to get home from a part-time job. Her eyes widened at the sight of the gun.
“Kneel down and put your hands on your thighs,” Mikhail snapped as he chambered a round.
Whimpering helplessly, she shook her head.
Mikhail pressed the gun against her stomach. “You can have it in the guts or the back of the head--your choice.”
I stepped forward. “Mikhail, you’re freaking me out! Let the girl go.”
Deadpan eyes met mine. “I told you not to get in the way, Alexei.”
“What has she done to you?” I demanded.
“These ethnic filth take our jobs and our land--and spread their insidious religion everywhere they go. If we don’t act, our heritage, our society, will be destroyed.”
“Violence is not the solution, Mikhail.”
“It’s the only message they heed, Alexei.”
Jesus, I prayed in desperation, if you’ve got a miracle up your sleeve, now’s the time to play it. Immediately, a vision of unmistakably clarity flashed through my mind.
Although shocked by the knowledge the Lord had imparted to me, it also gave me strength. I pushed the gun to one side.
“Back off, Alexei,” warned my cousin.
Ignoring him, I lifted the girl’s narrow chin. “Your great-great-grand father, what was his name?”
She looked at me blankly.
“Come on!” I all but shouted. “Your great-great-grand father was famous. Tell us his name!”
“Akhmad,” she stammered.
“Tell us his whole name!”
Her dark eyes darted about frantically.
“Come on girl, think!”
“Shamil! Akhmad Shamil!”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Mikhail jolt as though struck.
“Recognise that name, cousin?” I said, refusing to relinquish my grip on the gun.
“Do you recognise the name?”
“Yes, damn you! He’s our great-grandfather. But this girl…related to us…how did you know?”
“That’s not important. What is important is that this girl is our second cousin, once removed,” I concluded.
“Your great-grandfather’s one of them?” one of Mikhail’s comrades asked, aghast.
I was unsure whom Mikhail hated more at that moment, the girl, or me.
Drawing the girl from the slackening grasp of her captors, I put my arm around her protectively. “Come, cousin, I will walk you home,” I said to her.
“Don’t make me shoot you too, Alexei!” Mikhail threatened, aiming the gun at me now.
“Don’t you get it, Mikhail? Do you have any idea what you’ve been doing with all this ethnic cleansing? If you go far enough back through the generations, you will find that our two nations share the same ancestors--we are all cousins! You’ve been killing your own family!”
I escorted the girl safely to her home.
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