Copyright © 2004 All Rights Reserved
The sun creeps lazily in through my windshield, and as my eyes flutter open, everything around me shares its warm glow. I squint at the cobwebs of sunlight caught in my rearview mirror, and for a blissful moment I have forgotten who I am. I am as light as the air I breathe.
I smell smoke. My memory, the hangover from my life up until now, returns and my heart is heavy, a grenade in my chest.
Birds circle by the side of the road. Probably a body.
I glance to the map spread out on my passenger seat. The towns I have already visited are circled. The towns that no longer exist are crossed out.
The engine starts, but then stutters and dies. With a groan, I pull myself from the car and stumble into the middle of the road. The pavement is warm against my cheek as I stare down the dotted line. I turn onto my side, reassured by the shape of the gun pressed against my hip. I turn onto my back, and I see birds start to circle above me. Not yet. I stand.
A yellow dirt road branches off past the circling birds. In the distance, the remains of a house are visible. If Iím lucky, the occupants were shot before they had a chance to flee. That would mean their car is probably still in the garage. The looters are only really active in the cities, and the government hasnít bothered to clean up its mess in this area, where foreign eyes are still afraid to peek.
As I walk past the birds, their lazy spiral reminds me of a tornado. I saw a tornado once, when I was a child. I watched through my bedroom window as a tunnel formed between heaven and hell, tearing up all that was in between. I saw houses and cars rise from the ground and fall apart in the air around it. I stayed safely in my bed, just glad to be out of its path, but part of me wondered where that tunnel would lead. If I had climbed out through my window that morning, and ran down that road, past the wreckage in its wake, could I have caught up with it? If I had gotten close enough to be lifted from my feet, pulled into the center of the tunnel, where would it have taken me?
I was right. The birds are feeding on a body. Not a human body, but that of a cat. I feel bad for the cat. Iíve grown numb to seeing men die, but even now an animal can get my sympathy. A cat canít shoot back.
We once wiped out a whole family, but spared the cat at my request. I ordered my men to line the children up in the yard and shoot each of them twice in the back of the head. Then, I ordered them to silence the screaming parents with pistol-whipping to the face and neck. Finally, I ordered them to bury the parents alive with the bodies of the children. When one of the men shot at the cat, I berated him and ordered them to leave the pets unharmed.
The birds that tear at the catís carcass are unaffected by the mangled scarecrow that slumps against the bottom of its empty cross nearby. The nails that had held it in place still pin handfuls of straw flesh to the wood. Past the cross lies a burned-out metallic skeleton that may have once been a working machine. Now its twisted frame resembls only a huge, hideously grinning face.
Did Dorothy pass this way? Did she walk down this road, back when the machine was whole, the scarecrow was on the cross, and the cat was curled asleep at its feet? Is this where sheís been sheltered this whole time?
The house is warped, as if frozen during the first stages of a collapse. As I approach, I notice smoke gently lifting through cracks in the roof. Either the rubble is still smoldering, or someone has remained here alive. The latter is unlikely. Even when we did leave survivors, the survivors didnít leave us. One man waited in the market outside our base until he saw two men in uniform and started spraying at them with an AK-47. Of course, he was just a local farmer who couldnít shoot the broad side of his own barn. He hit nearly everyone around them, but gave them enough time to load their guns and explode his heart.
Once, this woman who we had made a widow ran behind our car for almost a mile after we left her house. We drove just slowly enough so that she was always right behind us. We wanted to see how long it would take for her to grow tired and stop. When she started to slow, we got bored and reversed over her.
Now, as I knock on the door to someone elseís broken home, I wonder if a distant relation of hers will answer. I knock softly, afraid that any added force could send the whole house crumbling down. A man answers right away. He is my reflection. The defeat in his eyes, the fatigue in the lines on his face, the sad smile that could only be covering for a frown. I see in him what I see in the rear-view mirror each morning I wake up.
"Excuse me," I stutter, "my car broke down, would you mind taking a look at it? Maybe thereís something in your garage I could use."
He nods and walks past me in silence, closing his door behind him. I turn and follow, glad that he was cooperative. I didnít feel like using my gun.
He clears his throat and looks at me over his shoulder as he walks. "So what brings you to these parts? You seem pretty well dressed, I hope youíre well armed."
"Iím looking for somebody."
His eyes dart to mine.
"My wife, Dorothy. Have you seen her? Long dark hair, dark eyes, beautiful in a sad wayÖ"
"That describes most of the women in this area. Sorry I canít be of more help. Was she kidnapped?"
We walk in silence for a minute before my response.
"She left me."
"And came here? Not wise."
"Yes, I know. She did it to spite me, probably. She went to the one place she thought Iíd never go."
We reach the car, and he takes a look at the engine. I lean against the driverís side door. The sky is endless blue above me, and I feel as if I could fall into it and drown.
"Why is that, by the way?" He asks me.
"Why is what?"
"Why did she think you would never come here? I mean, I know itís a mess here, but so is most of the country at this point. Why here?"
"She thought Iíd be afraid. She thought that after the conflict, I wouldnít dare to return."
"You donít seem like a rebel."
"I wasnít a rebel."
He looks up from the engine.
"So youíre a soldier."
I almost tell him Iím an officer, before realizing the obvious dangers in doing so.
"Yes, I am a soldier."
He sizes me up, trying to picture me in a uniform. His mannerisms change immediately. Suddenly the tone in his voice becomes cautious, calculated.
"You should probably not tell this to many people around here. A lot of men had relatives who disappeared during the conflict."
"Rebels did their share of disappearing people too."
"That is true. There were no heroes in the conflict, only victims. Those in the middle always get fucked from all sides."
There is a silence, broken only by the birds. I can see in his eyes that he is deep in thought. He looks up.
"Could you describe your wife to me again?"
"I may be able to help you out. Tell me more about her, please. Tell me about Dorothy."
"Sheís tall. Not too tall, but tallÖ her hair is black, straight, and down to hereÖ" I hold my hand horizontally next to my throat.
"Her eyes, is there something about themÖ something unique?"
My words stumble on the way to speech, and I pause. "Her eyesÖ If you look into her eyes, you can see everything that is good about the world. They hold you, trap you. They are the first thing that anyone ever notices about her."
He closes the hood. "I may be able to help you."
The car forgotten, I walk behind him back toward his house.
"What do you know?"
He says nothing.
"Do you remember something? Do you have something that relates to her, what? What do you know?"
He starts running and I chase. He runs around the side of his house, to his back yard. When I reach him he is kneeling. In front of him is a shallow grave, overlooked by a bare wooden cross.
I stand over him. "Who is this?"
He looks up to me with a twisted smile.
I step forward. "Who is buried here?"
He looks back down to the grave. "Who do you think?"
I step again. A steady flow of words falls from his mouth.
"She knocked on my door two months ago. It was raining, and she needed shelter. I let her in, and told her she could sleep on my couch. I wanted to help her. I gave her warm, dry clothes and I started cooking her a meal. Stew. She joined me in the kitchen when I was cutting the meat. When I saw her eyes, looking at me from where she was sittingÖ I wanted her. I had a knife in my hand, and it gave me courageÖ"
I strike him with the side of my gun, but he keeps talking.
"I wanted her, I wanted her so bad I had to have her."
I knock him over and kick him in the ribs. He laughs with a wheeze as he clutches himself.
"If you only knew the things IÖ"
The gun is in his mouth, and he gags. I lean down so close I could bite his ear.
"Bullshit! This is bullshit!" A cold tear slides down my cheek.
He is still laughing as he chokes on the gun. I pull it from his mouth and strike him with it again. He spits out a tooth.
I rise and pace in circles around him, my arms curled over my head, the sky too large and too blue above me. The world wobbles and I nearly fall. Every mental picture I have of her flashes in my mind. This world didnít deserve her. I didnít deserve her. The night I came home and found her gone, I died. Iíve been dead ever since.
He gradually sits up, and wipes some of the blood from his face. He is still quietly chuckling. Or quietly sobbing.
My arm flies out and I press the gun into his temple. I tilt my head to the grave.
He is suddenly very still.
"I said fucking dig."
"Or Iíll kill you."
"Kill me then."
"Thatís what you want, isnít it?" I reach down with my left hand and unzip my fly.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Iím going to take a piss on my wife."
He tenses up. I can see him restraining himself.
"Or maybe I wonít. Maybe Iíll take a piss on your wife."
He slumps, then pulls himself to his feet.
"How did you know?" His voice is tired.
I zip myself up.
"Iíve seen too many like you. We killed her didnít we? We killed her and now you want to join her. And you want a soldier to finish the job." I toss the gun to the dirt at his feet. Slowly, unsure, he picks it up.
I drop to my knees.
"I never told you why she left. She followed me, one day. She followed me, and some of my men as we went on patrol. She watched us drive around the city. It was crowded, and there were a lot of people. A crowd started swarming our jeep. They ran in circles around us, yelling. Some of them started throwing rocks. It was terrifying, like we were caught in a storm. We couldnít show weakness. We couldnít let them get away with it. We took some of them and did things to them, in front of everyone. She saw us. She saw what we did and she screamed. I was wiping blood from my hands, and when I heard her scream, I turned and saw her. I waved. I still had blood on my hands, and I didnít know what to do so I just waved. When I got home, the house was empty."
He holds up the gun, his hands shaking. "I guess this will give closure to both of us then."
My voice wavers. "Even if I do find her, I know sheíll never come back with me. Iím sorry about your wife."
The safety clicks off.
"And Iím sorry about yours," he says.
In his eyes, I can see some hesitation left. Having just been in his position, I know what he needs to hear.
"I donít want to die."
His eyes narrow, and his hands stop shaking. I look up, and all I see is vast, pure blue, with a hint of green.
"Please donít kill me. I donít want toÖ"
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jay Heisler is a previously unpublished fiction writer, and a student at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia. Born in Halifax, his intended career is journalism.