By Sarka Kocicka
The smell was the first thing, worse than decaying fish. More like decomposing flesh and sewage. I hated the night shift. But at least I didn’t have to see anything, not like in the day when the grey faces of the village jostled over the rubble, pulling at my pants to stop and help them. If I could, I’d help them all, even the dead ones. They deserved a proper burial. Not like this, bodies piled like rucksacks, smaller than I imagined but a hell of a lot heavier.
Every night I did the rounds, stopping at the same spot to take a piss. Hot urine had never smelled better. Tonight it lasted longer, probably from the beer I drank, thanks to Tom who brought a truckload from town yesterday. God knows we needed a drink. But now I was dry, my tongue clicking the roof of my mouth, lips split at the corner. I took a swig of water and walked on, coming to the cliff, the only spacious view around. I watched the sun come up over the horizon, a red and orange glow growing bigger and brighter. It was a welcome bit of beauty in this wasteland, a reminder of how good it was to be alive.
It made me think of those days, the days of Christmas lights and blue skies. Summer days of candyfloss clouds. What Marion used to call them. Pink. She saw everything pink. It always made me smile but not enough to put the bottle away and promise never to touch it again.
Here in the village it was easy to drink. Not like I used to, though. One of the conditions of re-entry was to clean myself up. For good. And I finally did, the second time around. But at home I wasn’t given another chance. Opening the door to an empty house still smelling of sharp lemons and bleach, walking down the hall, looking left and right, each footstep like breaking ice. Gone. She took Marion. She took her toys, her books, her clothes, but left the Barbie doll sheets. Nothing else remained, not a single shoe or a dress on the line. All that was left of them was the beat in my head. And the photos, scattered in the drawer. My favorites, like the one of Marion on a swing when I was allowed to take her to the park. She was squealing, head thrown back in an innocence that startled me, trusting me and the rhythm of my hand. Believing in our family, not knowing the end had come.
So I left the house, pushed the key under the door, took one long look goodbye. From the outside, the house appeared the way it always did, burnt red bricks, a lopsided porch, the white paint chipping off the shutters. The garden we’d worked so hard on had dried up, twigs sticking out of the earth, like nothing had ever bloomed. But they had bloomed, the roses, inching up the lattice wall behind the cabbage and the herbs. That day, I looked at the house as though seeing it for the first time. Lit up but not lighter. A glimpse of skin and shiny wooden floors, her honey curls falling in her eyes as she dressed and undressed her dolls, instructing them to get ready for bed. Those smiles. How could I miss it? I did, I missed it. I swore I saw her, playing quietly in the middle of the living room, spread out on the brown rug like a sea turtle. I saw her more than her mother. Loved her even more. I wanted to give her the universe. I felt like I could give up everything, even drinking. Maybe I was a lousy husband but I always tried to be a good father, folding Marion in my arms, rubbing her back, spending Sundays reading Goldilocks with her perched in my lap. But then Cheryl didn’t want me there anymore. She pushed me away, kept trying to prepare me that I wouldn’t see them again. Nothing would prepare me, though, for what was next. The army took me back.
The sound of a snake rattled in the sand, or maybe it was the wind. I stepped back from the edge. It was time to head back so I turned and completed the circle, past the other side of the bombed-out building. I took a greedy gulp of water and looked up, another cloudless day. My shift was over.
When I got to the bunker, I heard Tom stir.
“We’re off twenty miles tomorrow,” he sat up. “The west village.”
“Got it,” I said and walked to the sink, scrubbing my hands and splashing lukewarm water on my sweaty face. In the mirror, I noticed the grey in my own skin, under my eyes, a hint in the stubble of my chin, no longer so blond. I didn’t dare look into my eyes.
“Anything goin’ on?” Tom asked.
“Nah, pretty quiet.” I put the clipboard down, didn’t need it. It was always the same. No one had the energy to escape. They had nowhere to go. They’d rather die in their part of the village if they had to. It was what they knew. And no one came for us, no guerilla attacks. We didn’t matter anymore.
Tom appeared beside me, a fresh can of beer in one hand, resting the other hand on my shoulder. “Jesse, what’s happenin’?”
“Just tired, man,” I said.
“You ain’t still thinking ‘bout that girl, are ya?’ He looked at me, his right eye peering tighter than the left.
“Course not.” I’d tried my damndest to force that image from my mind.
“She was a nobody,” he said, tucking in his shirt. “A real man does what he wants and doesn’t look back.”
I nodded and took off my pack. He’d been watching me since that night, uneasy if I went near the phone or talked to the other troops.
“Can I trust you, kid?” he said, more like a threat than a question.
“Yeah, man,” I said.
“Good,” He sent a knuckle into my arm, which in my morning haze didn’t hurt much. “Not many people in my life I can trust.” Tom chugged the beer and after a loud burp, crushed the can and tossed it onto the pile that was growing in our bunker. Another smell I’d have to endure. And the flies it attracted. I walked to my bed, eager to peel off the uniform and wash away the stench.
Tom was my superior and after two years in the same operation, we were bound to become friends. Tom wasn’t a usual friend, though. Didn’t seem to have a conscience. Not in these hills, not when the women screamed at us not to kill their husbands. Tom said they were the enemy, that they deserved the same torture they’d put our men through. But our women weren’t there, our wives, our sisters, our daughters. They didn’t have to bleed to death, twisted and naked beside their men. At least he let the children live.
It wasn’t like this before, it’d gotten worse when we changed camps, delaying the trip back to our old lives. When Tom didn’t get promoted, it hit him hard, stuck in the bottom heap of officers with no way up. We were trapped together and I had to accept it. So I continued the rounds and handed out food in the village. I wrote letters every day, even though I never got one back. I wondered if they reached Cheryl and if they did, whether she showed them to Marion. By now, Marion could read them herself. But after what happened last week, I couldn’t write anything. I couldn’t get the words out. Not the proper ones anyway.
After Tom left, it was my turn to sleep. I crawled onto the thin, bumpy mattress that smelled of sleepless nights and pulled the sheet up over my body. I drifted in and out, unsure if it was real or sleep, images blurring together like a finger-painting on dirty canvas. The canvas spoke, too loudly, and when I woke up the bed was wet.
“You feelin’ restless?” Tom asked me that evening at dinner.
I stared at my half eaten plate, a sudden punch in the pit of my stomach.
“I know I am,” he clasped his hands. “How ‘bout you? You feelin’ restless too, buddy?”
I forced myself to take another bite of cold mashed potatoes and chewed slowly, not looking up, fighting the urge to vomit over the whole goddamn table.
“I think we should pay a visit to the other side, the village with the sixteen huts,” he said. “I saw something suspicious.”
For Tom, something suspicious meant one thing. “Sure, no problem,” I shrugged, pretending not to care.
The edges of his mouth pulled into a tightrope. “You better have my back.”
“Yeah,” I took a sip of warm soda. “Okay.”
“Good.” He pushed his plate away and stood up, towering above me, his bulk overpowering, though I didn’t consider myself small. “All set. Let’s go.”
We grabbed our backpacks and I followed him in the dark, stepping a little behind but not lagging so much that he’d notice. Passing villagers, arms outstretched in torn cloth, I longed for a cold, stiff drink.
I tried to think of something to distract him, to put him off, but when he made up his mind, there was no slowing down. “Maybe we should’ve brought eggs,” I said, stepping over a child with hallowed eyes and cheekbones retracting up into his skull.
Tom’s pace quickened. We rounded the corner at the top of the dusty hill. He paused for a breath and looked at me, his amber eyes dancing in a strange ritual, jagged and pulsing.
It was then I wished I could’ve stopped him. On that hill. I wished I could’ve convinced him to turn around, go back to our bunker and have another beer.
“What the fuck is this?” Tom asked, approaching what looked like the head of the table. He ripped the meat out of the man’s hand and slapped him hard across the face. “You think this’s okay? Taking food while the other village is starving?”
“Sorry, sorry,” the man said as the others started speaking in their language. From what I could tell they were all sorry.
“Speak English, morons,” Tom raised his voice and pulled out his gun. “Get up. Move away from the table.”
The four men jumped up, the women ran to their side, clutching their children.
“Out with the kids,” Tom forced the children out of their mother’s grip and shoved them outside, slamming the door shut with his foot. One woman tried to run after her son but Tom intercepted, throwing her to the sandy floor. “Jessie,” he glared at me, “do something.”
I was paralyzed, my boots stuck to the ground as Tom corralled the men into the far corner and started towards the three women who were crying hysterically against each other. Images of the other night struck me. I couldn’t watch it again.
“Your gun. Take out your fucking gun,” Tom pointed at me then at the men. “Make sure they don’t move.”
I fumbled with my holster and pulled the gun out, walking to the group who were shouting sentences I couldn’t comprehend, wild-eyed, desperate.
“Tie ‘em up,” Tom said, pulling the rope out of his backpack and throwing it at me.
I picked up the grimy rope, circling it around their feet, their hands, their bones and sticky skin. When I got to their faces, their eyes pleaded with mine, blackening with each tightening of the rope. I’d seen that look before.
A blistered hand got through the ropes and tried to grab me. It was the youngest of the men, a teenager, the eldest son maybe. He spoke in his language with a drawn slowness, probably trying to reason with me. Then he said, even quieter, “We thank. Please, sir, we thank.”
I met his gaze, wanting to say sorry, that I didn’t want to hurt anyone, that I didn’t have a choice.
“Jesse,” Tom’s voice bellowed. “Get over here.”
I jumped up and wiped the muck off my hands. I walked towards Tom who had his arm around the same woman who’d tried to run earlier. She was the prettiest of the three with long dark hair and hazel, thick-lashed eyes. The other two women crouched at her feet, clinging to each other.
“Don’t I owe you a birthday present?” Tom asked, running a hand down the front of her dress.
“No,” I said. “You don’t.”
“Trust me, the first time won’t hurt.”
“We’re supposed to be here to help them.”
“You fuckin’ pussy. You wanna get shot too?” he aimed the gun at me. “Don’t joke around, kid.”
The woman squirmed and he squeezed her ribs, making her cough and cry out. Her eyes were feisty, though, with fight left.
I had to say something, had to make this stop. “Tom, you made your point. They’re afraid of you. They won’t do it again. Let’s go back and get a drink.”
“No. This is it.” His face reddened and the veins on his neck began to throb purple. Spinning the woman around, he ripped her dress, yanking off her panties. He was turning into an animal and all I could do was watch.
There was shouting from the men’s corner. The woman stood naked, her hair slicked to her face and her dark breasts. The other women covered their faces.
“Jesse, take her. Let’s celebrate.”
The woman sank to the ground, holding her knees, her eyes fixed on something, or nothing, three feet away.
Tom pulled her hair, making her look at me. “Fucking do it or I will. I’m not wasting prime ass.”
As Tom looked down at her, relishing his victory, I wondered if I could rescue them. A swift sweep of my arms, wrapping everyone up, pulling them close and out of there, away from Tom and the dangers their rescuers were capable of. It was what I had always wanted for Cheryl and Marion, to protect them. Instead I’d run away, into the quicksand of drunkenness, surfacing from relapses but never long enough. In the end, it was Cheryl who had to protect Marion from me.
“Do it now,” Tom said, as he opened the woman’s legs, black as the gun he raised at me.
I looked at him, then at the woman. I couldn’t do it, even with a gun to my head. So what? Let him kill me. Get it over with. Maybe it was better to end it, right here in a hut in the middle of a nowhere village. I sure as hell deserved it.
“Jesus Christ,” Tom said, slipping the gun back into its holster. He tugged at his zipper and took off his pants. “I’m not gonna wait forever. Neither’s she.”
My whole insides went venomous as he mounted the woman and wedged himself inside her. Tears streamed down her face but she didn’t scream, no one did, not like the other night.
I lifted my gun and aimed it at his back, at the giant beacon of an ass, and got ready to pull it. The gun was heavy, my finger moist, and I prayed for his life. For my life. For everyone we’d hurt.
His grunts had overcome him. The two women on the other side of Tom gawked at me, their faces frightened as I approached. I put my finger to my lips to silence them. The gun wasn’t for them but it was all they could see. The woman under Tom kicked and tried to push Tom off her. “Oh no, you don’t,” he grabbed her wrists and butted her forehead, making her eyes flicker shut from the blow. “I’m going to finish this.”
“Not this time,” I said from behind and hit him on the head as hard as I could. He rolled onto his side and went for his holster, just as I pressed my gun against his temple. “Don’t move.”
“Okay, okay,” Tom raised both his hands and I grabbed his gun. “Are you serious?”
“What does it look like?” I moved back and raised my gun. “I’m finishing this.”
“Jesse, come on,” he began, but the more he spoke, the more his words bled together, from far away, from another town, another country, not part of this world at all. There was nothing he could ever say.
My finger tensed and the gun went off, right into his chest. His eyes grew bigger than I thought possible. He reached out, his mouth a loose oval, trying to speak but there was a second shot, a third, a fourth. I couldn’t control it anymore.
Then there was silence.
I didn’t do the rounds tonight. Didn’t have to. I was the one in charge so I made a Private do it. I was busy, anyway, had to tidy up and pack. I found a garbage bag and threw out the remains from the fridge, the dinner we’d left on the table, the stuff from the room we shared. There were a couple cans of beer left but I didn’t drink them.
As I pulled Tom’s clothes off the shelves, making a square stack, I wondered where I ought to send it, if anyone would ask for him. I dug through his duffle bag, looking for clues of his previous life but there were no photos, no letters, just an old blue Yankee hat. Under the brim, scribbled in black was the name Davie, a person Tom had never mentioned. Perhaps a brother, a son, a memory he could’ve fought for.
I wiped the dried blood off the dog tag I’d unclipped from his neck, placed it in the hat and slid it carefully into the duffel bag. Tomorrow I would give it to the Major and explain the story.
I’d saved a woman, the others too, their disbelief of answered prayers, as I untied them and left the hut, dragging Tom’s body to the nearest shrub and covering him with a blanket. I’d sat there for a while, slumped against a rock, sweat trickling down my forehead and into my mouth as the stars above cast their judgment. And then I’d made my way back to the bunker, with the half-moon glowing above me, and didn’t look back.
As I lay in bed, waiting for the sun to rise, I pulled out the photo. The other one, discolored and folded at the corner. It was taken a few months after our wedding, on a blanket in the backyard, the day Cheryl found out she was pregnant. We were lying there intertwined, looking up at the sky. In her hair was a daffodil, a yellow one that matched her long braids. She used to do that, pull flowers from the garden and tuck them behind her ear. Always wanted to look pretty for me, and only now I noticed it. The flowers made everything shine, her hair, her sweet song eyes, her smile looking right at me. I smiled back, seeing it all like I never had before and nothing would ever make me stop.
Sarka Kocicka was born in Brno, Czech Republic, raised in Toronto then moved to Vancouver, New York, Seoul, Tampa, Singapore and now Bali with her husband and 16 month-old daughter. She studied International Relations at the University of British Columbia and toured internationally as a musician and theatre performer but her true passion is writing and sharing her globetrotting adventures.