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Continuing Chapter 1....

***

 

Halftime approached. The atmosphere around the Yanks’ dugout was of enthusiastic disbelief, the murmurs growing into cheers of celebration. It was like 1950 all over again.

“We are beating the Brits! We’re going to advance in the Olympics! Clear a path!”

Then the chanting began:

 

“The Yanks are coming, the Yanks are coming, the drums rum-tumming everywhere! So prepare, say a prayer, send the word, send the word to be there! We’ll be over, we’re coming over, and we won’t be back till it’s over, over there!”

 

The son cheered along with the rest of the American supporters, Sam’s Army, as the team walked off the pitch. The fans felt like they had Great Britain on the ropes and that young Membrino would score again in the second half to give the United States a healthy two-goal cushion. Some of them may have not been knowledgeable in the ways of European football and there wasn’t a Tim McCarver-like presence to follow along with on television, but they did know that a two-goal lead in this sport was better than a one-goal lead.

The father, though, was cautious. He had seen dramatic implosions surrounding Team USA before. He recalled the Americans going ahead of Brazil in the Confederations Cup final in 2009 before the Brazilians came back and humbled their opponents with three second-half goals. He saw the same against the Italians in the group stages of the same competition. And being a Red Sox fan, he was used to September Swoons — until 2004, that is.

He took the safe road in thinking the British would have something to say about the scoreline in the second half, and he made sure that he told his son — and everyone else around him — that there were still 45 minutes left, and that anything could happen. That left the American fans, who noticed the father’s Liverpool jersey and the son’s England jersey as if for the first time, grumbling about Benedict Arnolds.

The son said, “Come on, daddy. You know we’re going to beat the British. We beat them in 1776, we can beat them today.” Tommy smiled so wide that the father couldn’t deny his son.

“We’ll see, buddy. We’ll see. I’m going to use the bathroom. Do you want anything from the concession stand while I’m away?”

The boy’s eyes lit up.

“Can you get me another soda and another hot dog? And one of those long horns that some people are blowing?”

The father laughed.

“A soda yes, a hot dog yes, a vuvuzela no. I don’t think customs would let us bring one into the country when we get back home, Tommy. How about a foam finger instead?”

The boy’s face fell.

“If you must. Spike will just eat it.”

“Don’t leave it lying around your room and he won’t. Your mother and I have been telling you to keep an eye on your stuff so the dog doesn’t get at it. Besides,” the father said, “what do you think Spike would do if he got his jaws around a vuvuzela and tried to eat it?” He winked.

The son brought his finger to his jaw, as if thoughtful.

“His barks would sound better than they do now.”

“And the idiot neighbors would call the cops again.”

The son mocked shock. The father simply laughed again.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes, okay? Don’t go walking around the stadium.” He kissed his son on the forehead.

The boy wiped it off.

The father squirted himself out of the row and jogged up the stairs that led all the way up to the Royal Box. He came upon a tall steward, standing at the ramp entrance. The man had his hands wrapped behind him, coming to a rest at the small of his back. He eyed the father warily.

“Excuse me, sir. I have to go use the bathroom. Would you mind keeping an eye on my son? He’s right there in the England shirt.” He pointed toward his son, a few rows away.

“Stewards aren’t babysitters, sir,” the steward replied pompously, giving the father a look of impatience. “We get paid to babysit this lot,” he added, waving his arm about, indicating the crowd, “not your son.”

The father dug money out of his pocket and peeled off a twenty-pound note. He grabbed the steward’s arm, tore it away from his backside and thrust the bill into his hand.

“How about now?”

The steward looked down at the note with wide eyes. He usually received five-pound tips from helping people find their seats.

“Which one is your lad, sir? I’ll make sure he doesn’t get into no trouble at all,” the steward replied, this time less haughtily and more with a Cockney accent.

The father smiled and patted him on the shoulder, then directed his gaze to his son.

“I’ll only be a few minutes. Just a quick bathroom visit, a trip to a concession stand and I’ll be back before the second half starts.”

“No problem, sir. He won’t move a muscle.”

The father took one more look at his son before he turned and started to walk down the ramp, a smile on his face. His hands were in his pockets holding onto the notes.

The force of the blast changed that. Instead of staying on his feet, the father found himself thrown forward, as if the hand of God lifted him up from where he walked and tossed him twenty feet. The notes flew out of his hand and burned in the ensuing fireball. The father hit the cement hard, dislocating his shoulder and sending him rolling. His momentum finally stopped as soon as his body collided with a concession stand, causing his body to shudder even more; he didn’t even feel his ribs snap. He didn’t even register the severe amount of pain that he was in. Someone close by screamed, and his ears did not even register it as a scream of terror; his eardrums were concussed. It was only then that he smelled burning flesh.

It took him several more seconds to realize the burning flesh was his.

Someone smothered him with a woolen blanket, and soon the fire that had encompassed his backside was out. The screams continued, but he didn’t hear a thing.

The father tried to get up from the concourse floor, but someone’s weight kept him down. He could detect people rushing past him, toward the explosion. Thick black smoke began to fill the concourse as well as pour out from the stadium’s wound.

Once more he tried to get up, and this time felt no resistance. His body screamed at him to stay down and not move, for movement caused his nerves extreme discomfort. He stood up and looked toward where he came from, expecting to see a wall with concessionaires near the ramp that led into the stadium proper.

All he saw was smoke, fire, and through it, the south side of the stadium.

It was at that moment that the father began to panic.

Disregarding the pain as he stumbled forward, the father said “No!” repeatedly, shouting it louder and louder until he thought he could hear himself. He began to run toward the ramp, but he tripped as soon as he got there. He fell on top of a burning woman lying face down on the cement.

She was dead.

He looked up toward the stadium and saw the ramp littered with bodies. Smoke poured off them. He even saw the broken body of his babysitting steward laying at a right angle — but not a right angle that would be natural for human beings.

The father vomited violently, his insides coming out of him with the speed of an unstoppable train. The stuff spilled atop the dead woman, splattering on her back and off it onto the concrete. The stench of vomit and burning flesh reeked, and soon the smell of acrid, black smoke would counter it.

He tried his best to avoid stepping on the bodies, but at that point, he did not care: His only thought was making sure his son was okay.

Yet as he walked up the ramp, tiptoeing through the bodies, he had an incredibly bad feeling he would not like what he saw when he emerged.

His breath caught in his throat as he surveyed the damage.

The scene was incredible.

The scene was horrific.

He could not believe his eyes.

As a Liverpool supporter, what he saw at that very moment reminded him of what happened at Hillsborough, the deadly crush that occurred during an FA Cup semifinal over 23 years ago. He had seen YouTube footage from the BBC of the event, and the scene had sickened him senseless. He recalled people rushing onto the pitch, using the advertising boards that ran around the playing surface as makeshift stretchers to carry the wounded and the dead away.

 This was Hillsborough on a much greater scale, he thought. This was September 11, Hillsborough and any terror attack rolled into one.

The thought made him want to puke again.

The blast vaporized three entire sections of seats near the United States’ dugout. Bodies were burning. He saw stewards from the southern side of the stadium running across the pitch to help, even though it would have been prudent to stay put and prevent the crowd from panicking. Fans, both British and American, also came across. Perhaps there were nurses, doctors, constables and firefighters on that side, but right now, they looked like Olympic sprinters.

He began to shout Tommy’s name repeatedly, hoping his son would recognize his voice, pleading for the boy to come find his father.

The father couldn’t see him. No one shorter than five feet came running toward him. His bottom lip began to tremble as his eyes searched the crowd on the pitch.

God, he prayed, if you’re listening, please bring Tommy back to me. It’s his birthday soon. I need him to come home with me.

The father did not hear silence in return, nor did he hear anything at all.

He began panicking, and it was almost like he wanted the dead steward to hand him his money back and to restrain him as he walked forward toward where he and his son sat during the first half. He couldn’t find those seats, though.

He stumbled forward, his feet kicking up shards of concrete, metal and plastic, the debris left over from the blast. He was surprised it wasn’t incinerated like the rest. He turned and looked up at the Royal Box and found it gone. Even up higher, the upper decks did not appear to exist.

He turned his head back toward the pitch and walked gingerly. People tried to stop him, but he shoved them aside, the pain still not registering. He got to what had been the Americans’ dugout and he shouted his son’s name again.

Once again, he received no answer.

He tried to climb the wall, but a wave of pain finally brought him to a halt. He finally noticed his hanging right arm and felt his back blistering from the flames. He leaned against the short wall.

He caught a glimpse of a white shirt upon a small child several yards away. The shirt had scorch marks, but the child’s arms were askew in such a way that the father had no reason to doubt that the child’s arms were broken.

The father dug deep and pushed himself up and over the wall, dropping down on his injured shoulder. He felt the pop knock his shoulder back into place. If he had anything left in his stomach, he would have thrown it back up. He pushed himself up to his knees and felt another wave of pain go through him. It would have knocked a lesser man to the ground, but he was a man possessed with finding his son. His son’s safety was the only thing that mattered to him at that moment. He ignored the pain.

He got to his feet and walked toward the broken child. It was only a few feet away. He kept his eyes on the child’s back the entire time and had a horrible feeling begin to sink into the pit of his stomach as he got closer. The child’s hair was the same color of his son’s. The shorts looked identical, though burned. The shirt, where blackened, had melted into the child’s skin.

“Oh, Tommy,” he said. “No, please don’t be dead.”

He hit his knees again and turned the child over.

It was Tommy. He looked like he was sleeping, but his mouth was slack. The father’s eyes became wet, and heavy sobs rattled his frame. His heart broke, and he didn’t care about a dislocated shoulder or broken ribs or that he had nearly been incinerated by the fireball. His son was dead because of that explosion, and he did not care about his own body. At that very moment, his world had ended.

He had no idea how he would tell his wife that her youngest child was dead.

The father grabbed his son in his own damaged arms and looked toward Heaven, crying, “Why, God? Why my son?” His eyes closed as tears cut rivulets into his face.

 

***

 

Jafar did not know if the explosion took place as planned. With the BBC on a commercial break, there was no way to know what happened. He looked to the CCTV monitor that showed the north side of Wembley Stadium as well as the area of Wembley Park surrounding the building.

At first, Jafar could not see anything different. Wembley’s floodlights were on, but after about a minute or two, the lights at the top of the stadium began to cut out as smoke rose into the sky, blocking the light from the CCTV cameras. A minute later, the BBC came back to the studio:

“We’re supposed to go back to Wembley for comment, but we have to shift gears as an explosion rocked the stadium just after the players left the pitch for halftime. These pictures tell the story,” the studio host said.

Jafar held his breath.

The cameras inside Wembley told the tale. Black smoke rose into the air, dissipating slightly. Bodies littered the pitch, and people from the south side flooded it. The scenes were chaotic, and Jafar tuned out the pundits who tried describing what occurred.

Then they showed the explosion, taped and taken from the wide angle camera that followed the action during the first half. The loge level went first. A fireball lifted fans into the air, the rolling inferno swallowing bodies whole. A second explosion took the next deck. A third followed. The BBC, in a fit of stupidity, then added the audio.

The screams sent goose bumps running up Jafar’s forearms and caused a smile to drift across his face. He heard the shock in the broadcasters’ voices. He wanted to see that replay, the replay of Wembley’s north side exploding, over and over and over again; he had heard that an American broadcaster, after seeing one of their space shuttles explode on replay so many times, demanded his producers stop showing it.

The terrorist could tell that many died from the blast he created, and with so many rushing to help, he knew those people would have nightmares until the day they died. He wanted to lord over that knowledge, the knowledge that he gave them those nightmares – payment for the nightmares that echoed in the ears of Afghani children, his young brothers and sisters in Allah, after the Americans struck his country in 2001. It was a vengeful slap, one that Jafar wished he could have seen live.

He prayed to Allah and asked for an announcement on the death toll soon, for he craved to know how many people perished.

He wanted to know before he took credit for what the world saw.

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