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By DeHart, Terry
OrbitCopyright © 2010 DeHart, Terry
All right reserved.
It’s been two weeks since the cars died, and we’re walking out. The bombs have shorted out every electrical circuit in North America, as far as we know. Yellow-brown clouds blot out the sun, and I’ve never been so cold. My family is here with me in the Sierra Nevada, Susan and our newly adult children, and I don’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse.
It goes without saying that I’m not expecting anything good to happen, so it doesn’t make me happy when I hear a light airplane approaching. We’re walking a deer trail that parallels the interstate. The plane is on us very quickly, and I motion for Susan and the kids to get under cover. We run into the pines. We press ourselves against the trees and look up. It’s been two weeks since we’ve heard anything in the sky except the occasional bomber, but this little bird is hanging from its prop and flaps, just above stall speed at tree-scraping altitude. It doesn’t fly directly overhead, but I catch a glimpse of painted aluminum above the pines. The plane makes a shallow turn and flies parallel to the interstate. I feel the pressure of searching eyes. When the pilot adds power to hold a sharper turn, we run uphill for better cover.
We get into a thicker stand of trees and form our four-person perimeter. It’s a sloppy diamond formation but it allows us to cover the highway with three guns. Susan gives me a flat look. Her lips are moving, and at first I think she’s trying to tell me something, but then I see that she’s praying, and I wonder if she knows it.
Our son, Scotty, is prone with his scoped .22. God help him, the boy looks like he can’t wait to shoot somebody. Our eldest, Melanie, is farthest from the interstate. She refuses to carry a weapon but I’m grateful that she still more or less follows my orders, no matter how it must gall her.
The Cessna drags itself over the freeway. The hum of its engine grows more businesslike, more attentive, and it rises and circles like a carrion bird. The pilot drops something. I watch the lumpy gleam of a bubble-wrapped package falling from the sky. There can’t be anything half-assed about it. It’s either something very good or something very bad. I watch its flawed shape pass through the trees and into God’s nature like a gift or a curse. I’m a naturally pessimistic bastard, and my pessimism has stood me well as of late, so I motion for Susan and the kids to put their heads down. The ground is matted with moldy pine needles. I listen to the buffeting sound of my breath pushing against the offal of trees. Time passes and there isn’t an explosion. It isn’t an improvised bomb at all and I hear people cheering, the voices of men, women, and children.
Another group is traveling the interstate. They’re on foot, and we’ve been trailing them for most of the day. It’s a group of a dozen armed adults and seven children. I’ve been watching them through my binoculars, choosing safe vantage points and trying to figure them out. The kids in the group are elementary school–aged, and the adults are well beyond their middle years. I think they’re grandparents walking with their grandchildren because it’s the way of the world, in hostile places, to thin out the connecting population of young adults.
They’re herding a handful of cattle and a half dozen sheep. The adults dote on the children, giving them rides on their stiff shoulders and carting them in the wheelbarrows they use to carry their supplies, but I can’t trust them yet. No matter how badly I want to place my family into the relative safety of a larger group, we’ve only been following and watching to see what they’re all about.
I don’t admit it to Susan, but I’m also using the group to clear the road ahead of us. If there’s any heat to be taken, it will fall on them. They’re down below us now. I can’t see them, but I imagine they’re waving and dancing at the prospect of salvation, or at least a meal. For a few seconds I think maybe I’ve gotten it wrong. Maybe they’re really not in somebody’s crosshairs. Maybe the bad feeling I have now is the result of my weakness for melodrama, or something I ate, or a lifetime spent looking through a half-empty glass. Maybe the airplane is actually a Civil Air Patrol bird, out trying to help people. Maybe Good Samaritans are still active in the world and maybe they’re doing their good works in this very time and place, and soon they’ll be dropping fresh steaks and cold beer and apple pie and linen napkins to everyone they see.
Yeah. And when the shooting starts, it’s the loud popcorn sound of rapid fire from multiple weapons. I flinch and try to sink into the earth, then I turn to check Susan and the kids. They’re okay; the rounds aren’t being directed at us, and I let my breath out. I’m relieved that we aren’t targets. I’m almost happy, but it has to be a slaughter down there, and my relief dissolves into the chamber of guilt that’s been burning in my guts since this fun-time began.
The ambushers are armed with 5.56 rifles. I know the sound well, from my Marine Corps days. Most of the rifles are firing three-round bursts, and that means they’re probably modern M-16s or M-4s. And the fighting seems far too one-sided. The people on the road are slow to respond. It’s an impossibly long five seconds before they open up with their shotguns, and they only get off a few rounds before their return fire falls silent.
We wriggle and burrow into matted pine needles. Echoes of gunfire roll past us and into the fingers and stubs of mountain canyons. My bladder feels impossibly full, though I haven’t had anything to drink since first light. I can’t see any movement, but my thumb reaches out to unsafe my rifle. My breath condenses around my head, and the ground steals my body heat. Exposed patches of earth are red with iron oxide, and wailing voices rise behind the gunshots, and my family is here with me, all of us on the brink of a mass murder, and I want to scream.
The firing winds down as the ambushers reload. A child calls twice for its mother, the last call a question, and a fusillade of fresh shots is the reply. Our peacenik daughter, Melanie, has to be eating her guts out. She keeps her head down and lets it happen, but she curses into the musty earth, and it’s as good a thing to do as any.
High misses and ricochets snap and crack into the pines on the opposite ridgeline. Twigs and cones and showers of needles fall in their wakes. We hug the ground and wait. I keep my head turned, cheek to dirt, so I can watch the children. I force myself to look into their eyes. I watch to see what the sounds of slaughter are doing to them. I hate myself for it, but I watch to see if the message is getting through: Don’t walk the road. Trust no one. Be ready, always, to dive into cover. Be ready to put rounds on target, RIGHT AWAY, and for the love of Christ listen to your old man.
Susan has always been a good mother, and she pushes her riot gun in the general direction of the killing. She watches the world over a brass sighting bead. I have no idea what this is doing to her.
Not ten feet away, Scotty holds himself tightly. He moves like a hunting reptile, every movement deliberate and barely perceptible, scanning in the direction of the killing zone through his 4-power scope. I don’t think he can see anything through the trees. His Ruger .22 is a short-range weapon, at best, but he’s locked onto the sounds of killing. His hands are rock steady, and I’m proud and sad, both. His sister, Melanie, is still cursing without sound. She curls into a ball and grinds the back of her head against the bark of a pine, and if I thought it would do any good, I’d join her.
The firing slows but it doesn’t stop. I can’t keep my hands under control. I squeeze the forearm of my AR-15 hard enough to make the fiberglass creak beneath my fingers. I have to force myself to relax. I quit smoking twenty years ago, but I get a craving for a Marlboro red. I want to pull smoke into my lungs to calm myself and to occupy my hands, if not my mind, but there’s more to it than that. I want to somehow show my solidarity for the people not a quarter-mile away who walked into an ambush. I want to wish them well but I also want to let them know that, nothing personal, we’re sitting this one out.
It’s a stupid thing to be thinking. I’ve had no shortage of stupid thoughts since this started. I hold tightly to the ground as the cries turn to moans behind the gunfire. Then a woman’s scream rises above the others. Her scream contains grief and outrage and hatred and I know she’s fighting back. Every person in the history of the world who ever made a sound like that was fighting back. A shotgun speaks up, and I can’t tell the good cries from the bad, but I wish the woman well. I wish her wild success in her wild pain, but I’m selfish, too, because my family is here, and I hope she takes a dozen of the goons with her.
The firing becomes sporadic, high-velocity bullets smacking into soft targets, passing through and whacking the road. There isn’t any more outgoing fire from the victims, nor so much as a hope for it. And then the firing goes on for far too long, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s unnecessary shooting. It’s target practice now, a ballistic maiming of the dead.
I want to signal my family, tell them to hold very still, but I’d have to move to do it. The ambushers are hot to kill, and they’ll be looking to shoot anything that moves. I try to tune out the shooting and pay attention to our close-in perimeter. I hear footsteps. Someone creeps out of the woods and moves downhill toward the fight. I get a glimpse of a man working his way through the trees. I put my rifle on him, but he passes out of my field of fire. I’m guessing it’s one of the killers. Their top cover. Their sniper or ground spotter.
I take a breath and lift my head. I don’t think he saw us. My heartbeat seems to be bouncing me off the ground. I try to get my breathing under control. I hear a floundering sound behind me. I turn to face it, the front sight of my rifle coming around slowly, too slowly, and it takes me a full second to realize there isn’t an immediate threat. I take another breath and let it dribble back out of my new, old-man lungs. The shooting tapers off. A few random finishing shots and then it’s over, but for the whooping and looting.
I stifle a cough. I’d sell my soul for a drink, but we don’t have any booze. The pine needles beneath us are damp and rotted. We’re stretched out on our bellies in perfect insect habitat. I hear whispered curses from Scott and Melanie, and a muted smacking as they slap at their clothes. They roll and writhe on the forest floor. Back before the world went mean, I might’ve found words to distract them from the revulsion of feeling vermin on skin.
The airplane straightens from its orbit and climbs and flies due south until I can hear only an occasional throb from its engine. I stand and lead us farther uphill. I find a place where half-buried boulders line the forest floor. It’s not a bad place to set up for a defensive fight, if it comes to it.
Susan’s face is set and pale, but her eyes are green fire. She’s very angry. I want to touch her hand. I want to hold her, but she moves away and tells the kids to strip off their packs and clothes. Her voice is as tight as her expression. I want to whisper something private and married into her ear. I want to push her untended hair from her face and kiss her, but I watch while she uses her ragged fingernails to flick and pull insects from the skin of our daughter and son. Fat, red-brown ticks are gorging themselves on the blood of our children.
Melanie turned nineteen this year. Scott is eighteen. I trace the new streaks of gray in my wife’s hair, then I turn to face the road. I tell myself that someone has to stand watch, but then I go to them because I’d rather be a good father than anything else.
Scotty has ticks on his back. They stand out like fattening tumors on his pale skin. I turn him around so he’s facing downhill. I hand him my rifle.
“Keep an eye out.”
“The safety’s off.”
I lean close and pull the biting jaws and burrowing mouthparts away from my son’s skin. Thin lines of blood run down his back. He shivers in the mountain air, but he holds himself steady while I tend to him. These days, even the smallest injury or infection is a serious threat. These days there isn’t any place for hesitation or embarrassment.
Susan checks and clears Melanie’s skin. It takes time. I use the back of my hand to knock the last of the ants from Scotty’s legs. He’s thin, too thin, but my knuckles are bouncing against solid muscle, too, and it makes me proud. It gives me hope.
We shake out their shirts and pants and coats and they get dressed. Susan asks me to strip and I know I should say something to break the stress, but I can’t think of anything that might do the trick. She waits for me to say something. When I don’t, she helps me out of my clothes. She delouses me and I delouse her and we dress in the mountain air, old lovers cooled by time and fear.
I’m anxious to get us moving again, but I grind through a long stack of minutes to make sure we’re not the next course on the menu. A single gunshot takes me by surprise. The boom of a pistol. We slip behind our chosen boulders and listen and wait, but there aren’t any more shots. I hear raised voices but I can’t make out the words, then a vehicle approaches on the road. It sounds like a diesel, and then we hear more. I think they have three trucks, in all.
The ambushers load up their plunder and the vehicles head south. I expect them to move quickly away, but they travel at a slow walking speed. At first I think they might be road hunting. Hunting for targets of opportunity. Hunting for us. But then I remember that the dead people had cattle and sheep, and some of the animals must’ve survived. The ambushers must be taking the beasts with them, probably haltered to the bumpers of their vehicles, fresh meat for the barbecue.
They move onto a plain and I watch them through my binoculars. I guess their number at two dozen. They stop and manage to drag the animals aboard their vehicles, a Brinks armored car and two military five-ton trucks. They pick up speed. I watch until they disappear into the road’s mirage. I wait until I’m as sure as I can be, and then we’re back to walking, taking our general direction from the freeway, but not walking directly on it. Our course is a series of zigzags as we angle from one area of potential cover and concealment to the next.
I can feel the pressure of Susan and the kids looking at me, but I have no idea what they’re thinking. Maybe they’re grateful to be walking an easy pace. I’m more paranoid than usual because the goons might’ve left someone to watch their back trail, but we don’t run into anyone good or bad, and my adrenal glands start to calm down. I’m tired and they’re tired, but we need to cover a few more miles.
I’m not happy to be walking in the same direction as the ambushers, but there’s no choice in it. I pick up the pace. I glance back over my shoulder and their faces show resentment, but they keep up. The kids were angry at me at first, for not letting them walk a straight line down the road, but they don’t say anything now. We only have what we have, no more and no less, and we have no choice but to walk our careful rays and obliques, hoping they lead to something better.
We’ve gone maybe five hundred yards when we see the bodies. They’re below us in the road in their large, medium, and small sizes. I don’t want to look, but I have to look, because we need to scavenge, too. Susan and Scotty cover me from the trail. Melanie moves to my side as if she’s made up her mind to go with me. She’s standing stiffly upright and her fists are clenched. Her mother helped her with her hair this morning, and she shakes her head, and her red ponytail writhes against her back. She’s never been one to shy away from doing what needs to be done. She looks as if she wants to find survivors and nurse them back to health. She looks as if she needs to find someone alive, to somehow give the gift of life in the midst of all this taking.
“Trust me,” I say. “They’re worse than dead.”
I don’t have to pretend that I’m pleading. Her eyes are forest green, darker than her mother’s, but flecked with gold. When she feels strongly about something, the flecks are very bright, but I don’t look away now. I know it could go either way, my daughter deciding to obey or defy. I’ve never been good at predicting the outcome of our battles of will. I try to put my arm around her but she sidesteps and squats and I stand like an idiot, looking down at her, wanting to make things better. I stand with her until my silence is too pathetic to bear, then I turn to the task at hand.
I scramble down into the roadcut, my knees bitching all the while. I tell myself I’m checking for survivors, but I hope I won’t find any. I feel naked when I step onto the freeway. Dark smears descend from the crown of the northbound lanes. Blood on shaded asphalt is the color of blackberry jam. I look for the wild woman who screamed her righteous cry into the face of death, but there’s no way to pick her out of the motionless crowd. The bodies are fanned out like blown-down timber, dead adults shielding dead children. They’ve been shot to pieces, nineteen bodies, all present and accounted for. The coats and shoes and socks of the adults are gone. The pockets of their pants are turned inside out. They’re traveling light now, without the blessings and nuisances of their corporeal husks.
The monsters have won again, if one can make the assumption that mortal sin will no longer be punished. The east-side drainage ditch is lousy with 5.56 brass. I pick up three of the empties and put them in my pocket. Maybe someday I can present them as evidence. I can’t deny that I’m pissed off enough to kill. If I were in charge of this sector, I’d insert Force Recon teams into these hills so the ambushes would go the other way, and peace would break out due to a general lack of freelancers.
I look down and see scraps of bubble wrap from the airdropped package, but the package itself is gone. There’s a group of bloody footprints. I follow them. They lead to a big ponderosa pine. A body is stretched out, its head propped against the base of the tree. It’s one of the ambushers; I’m sure of it. It’s a big bastard and it has a single, center-mass shotgun wound and two gold coins weighting its eyes. There’s another bullet hole in the center of its forehead. The body has a baby face. It’s the body of a big kid, and it’s smiling.
There isn’t a blood trail from the road to the tree, only footprints and spatters of blood. I guess the bastard got hit on the road and walked under his own power to the tree. The shot between his eyes came later. I remember the final pistol shot we heard, and it could’ve been this headshot. It’s a reasonable assumption and I tuck it away.
The body’s hands are knuckle-down at its sides, and there’s a pint bottle of whiskey lying atop its open right palm. It’s a bottle of Jim Beam. I pick it up. It’s three-quarters full. I unscrew the top and take a sip to rinse my mouth. Maybe I’d meant to spit it out, but I don’t. I swallow and a small warmth flares around the edges of my soul. It brightens the sky and makes my shadow stronger. I take a bigger drink and it’s one good thing in a world of bad ones.
There’s an open pack of Marlboros on the dead ambusher’s chest. I drag a pack of MRE matches from my pocket and light up. Holy God Almighty and the Angelic Host, it feels good to stand on the road and smoke a butt. I get a headrush and smoke the cigarette down to a stub, then I use my knife to lift the gold coins away from the dead boy’s eyes. I use water from my canteen to rinse them and then I wash my knife. The blood leaves dark fans on the road. I pocket the coins and whiskey and smokes, and then I turn to search the bodies of the victims. I try not to look at what’s left of their faces. I run my hands into their pockets, feeling the last warmth of their flesh. My hands are thick with coagulating blood, but I force myself to check them all. My anger makes me strong, and I don’t want to puke up the whiskey, so I don’t.
All I find is a shot-to-pieces folding knife and a bloody pack of Beeman’s gum. I can’t waste any more water, so I walk to the drainage ditch and scrub my hands with cold mud. I find a vine maple and wipe my hands on its leaves. I walk uphill to my family. I don’t have any food for them or news of the outside world, but the whiskey is a warm gift inside me, and damned if I’ll feel guilty about it.
I get back uphill and I hold up the coins and the smokes. I’m breathing hard. Susan’s nose twitches.
I shake my head. I start to feel guilty despite myself, but I’m committed now, so I put on a poker face.
“Give it to me,” she says.
I pull the pint bottle from my pocket. She takes it from my hand and I let it go. Her face is hard. She did a stint in rehab two years back, and she’s still on the higher path, and she still has zero tolerance. She lifts the bottle. She measures the fill level with addiction-calibrated eyes, then passes the bottle to Melanie.
“We might need this. I’ll know if any is missing, and I’ll know if it’s watered, too.”
Melanie says okay. She says, Don’t worry, Mom, then she gives me a look of disappointment to add to the other looks of disappointment she’s given me over the years.
They’re doing the right thing, of course. A group of Marines or soldiers in this situation would pass the bottle around, a lucky find, a small vehicle of escape, but Melanie correctly puts the bottle in the hip pocket of her jeans.
Excerpted from The Unit by DeHart, Terry Copyright © 2010 by DeHart, Terry. Excerpted by permission.
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