Buildings stand as a eulogy of what was. Broken glass is spread out in webbed patterns on the concrete. No one is around.
“Lieutenant? Where are we?”
“But the town?”
It’s his nerves making him talk.
“But what’s it called?”
“Why?” I ask.
“I told my Mom I’d keep track.”
“Didn’t your mother die, Denninger?”
“Yeah. So? I still promised her. So, where are we?”
I shrug. “Well, it’s not Syracuse.”
I can tell he’s looking at me. I don’t turn my head. He’s one of the younger soldiers, maybe fifteen or sixteen-years-old. I doubt he’ll last very long. None of them will.
New recruits are afraid all the time. They’re soft and quick to huddle in groups, shaking as bullets rain down upon them, too green to duck. But not Kale Denninger. He’d watch the bullets falling, his half-moon face unflinching.
For the first week, the young ones shot at everything, at nothing. We lost five men because of it, though, no one told them. It wouldn’t do any good if they knew.
We march, pounding the cracked asphalt street with hard, succinct knocks. I curb the remaining fifteen soldiers in my Company around the corner. We funnel down a large street.
“What happened to everyone?” Denninger asks.
Corpses of women, children, and old men line the length of the road, arranged side by side as if sandbags in the gutter. I step over one.
“They all dead?” Denninger asks.
I nod scanning the torn landscape from corner to corner. “Combat rubble.”
“They look petrified,” he says, eagerly.
Denninger bends low inspecting them. Bodies are covered with a cast of fine dirt and left undisturbed. Nothing remains that would disrupt them. No stray cats. No skinny dogs to rip them apart. When was the last time I’d seen any animal that wasn’t a horse? Or rat? No birds or geese fly by anymore. Where are all the beasts and fowl of the field? Am I the only one left?
Denninger raises his foot and kicks the head of one of the corpses. The toe of his boot sticks inside the dead woman’s caved in skull. A cloud of dust looms in mid-air.
“What are you doing?” I grab his arm and pull him. “Move out.”
“You know what I miss?” Denninger is talking, again. “I miss summertime.”
I slow the troop to a stand still. On the ground, small tracks indent the dirt.
“Moretti, come here, take a look.”
Sergeant Aldo Moretti rushes to my side. He is one of the older boys, nearly twenty, an athletic build, with black hair and eyes, brown skin, and white teeth. He details the pattern in the dust.
“Possibly, if there were any,” I say.
“I heard bison used to roam these islands.”
I shake my head. “That’s not a bison track.” I move carefully around the faded imprint in the sand.
“Take a look, here. See how they sink unusually deep into the ground?”
Moretti nods, “so you’re thinking fakes?”
I shrug, again. “Just keep your eyes open.”
With my hand, I motion the troop to move forward. The soldiers return to their uniformed march–left, right, left. Left, right, left.
“I miss what it was like before the war.” Denninger continues, “I remember riding down the river on inner tubes.”
I pretend to listen to the young soldier’s thoughts. The truth is I miss the world before the war too. Lying in the grass. Chasing nothing but the wind. Dreaming.
I don’t recognize the sun as reflecting across ripples in the river, but rather from it penetrating shrapnel bursts. It’s rays illuminating the sharpened things, the ones that could pummel through my skin and wreck my body. Like this town, I’m waiting to fall.
“Back in line, Denninger,” I say.
The sun is setting, bathing the gray world in rust colored hues. Soon, the night will be collapsing upon us.
“Fan out. Let’s set up camp.”
The soldiers step out of line and rotate with their rifles pointed upwards towards the city skyline.
“Moretti, take two men and post a lookout up there.” I motion to the top of the street.
I lead the rest to a small grouping of overgrown shrubs in the corner of a parking lot surrounded by little one-story shops. I scan the courtyard. A wall with multi-colored bricks seems out of place from the building’s facade. I walk to it.
I peer around the wall’s edge and see down a narrow alleyway. The alley is dark and smells rank of moss and old urine. It cuts vertically west to a second street.
“Denninger, I want you and Michaels to take the first watch on the next street over. We’ll camp here.”
Two soldiers unravel a large blue tarp and hammer dense spikes with a rubber mallet into the asphalt. A second tarp, one with tan and cream camouflage is unrolled and strung up by white nylon rope to four posts spiked to the ground around the outside. Four smaller tarps, sewn to all four sides of the camouflage one, fold down and are tied to eyehooks at the bottom of the posts and form an enclosure.
The soldiers file under the makeshift tent.
I give out assignments of the night watch before settling my pack in the middle of the tent. The soldiers pick spots surrounding me. I feel like a light bulb gathering moths. We wait.
Soon the russet tinge of the sun fades. The dense cloud crusting over the Earth’s atmosphere stretches and expands to the ground. It scatters freezing mist in the form of tiny water droplets.
Inside the tent, the boys are restless.
“Settle down, settle down.”
I roll onto my stomach. I can feel the cold ground seeping through the plastic tarp. The acid in my gut eats at the abscess in my stomach lining. I burp bile and sit back up.
I lie on my pack and pull my knit cap over my eyes.
Most nights, I lie awake, distrusting sleep, and the environment, even the soldiers around me. Silence unnerves and scares me, more than the whistle of a shell coming, closer, closer, splitting the air and then the earth. It can’t be trusted, like this entire abandoned town, it lies in wait with its finger on the trigger.
At dawn, two creatures move, side by side through the dirt. The older one leads, the small one stays in his shadow. They follow the soldiers around the ruined city. They do not disturb settled dust. They do not enter a building, not one. Instead, they lie in crevices that have formed on the structure’s sides.
“Have they food?” the smaller of the two asks in a soft whisper, too light for the wind to carry.
“What do they want? When will they leave?”
“Us.” The old man rubs the sides of his face. “They’re looking for any people left. They’ll leave when they don’t find anybody.”
She stares into the weathered face of her grandfather. It seems to have been simultaneously melted and toughened by the sun.
“What’ll they do if they find us?” She asks though she has heard it all before.
“You’ll be taken to mine the Flats. And they’ll take me somewhere else.”
His blue eyes dim and then shift rapidly back and forth. A thin trace of white goop sticks in the corners of his mouth. She hears his stomach rumble.
“But where will you be taken?”
“Never mind Alabama. Forget it.” He squeezes her arm, “let’s go.”
Alabama has gotten better using her walkers. At first, balancing on top of rounded moose hooves and boards was difficult and would often send her head first into the fields. Though even with practice, she maneuvered in them clumsily, but her grandfather moved in his pair like an acrobat crossing a rope.
She looks at his skinny brown arms. His rib bones poke through the front and back of his t-shirt. Where will they take you, Papa?
From inside the soldier’s tent, the two hear a cough and bound back to the safety of their crack in the wall.
“Lieutenant, wake up.” Sergeant Moretti looms above me. A shadow covers his face. “More tracks.”
“Where? Show me.”
I pull on my boots and crawl over the soldiers strewn across the blue tarp. Moretti lifts a corner of the tarp knocking droplets of frozen dew onto the ground.
Outside, Moretti reveals a pattern of broken heart shapes encircling our encampment.
“I found them this morning,” he tells me. A breath cloud hangs over his mouth. “I was heading back from peeing in the alley. Elk?”
“Don’t think so. Elk prints are round at the edges. They look like wisdom teeth.” I place three fingers inside the sunken paw marks.
“Also, elk travels in herds, well, at least the females and calves do… or they did before extinction.”
“So what are these?”
He crouches next to me.
“Moose tracks. Maybe a cow and her calf?”
Moretti’s eyes shine.
“Real, live moose?”
“Don’t get ahead of yourself, Aldo. There’s probably less moose alive than elk.”
Moretti stands up.
I move to another section of tracks.
“Look how close the front hooves are to the rear ones.”
“And?” He asks.
“I’m just thinking how two moose prints could make one footprint.”
A crease forms in between Moretti’s furry eyebrows.
“I’ve seen it once before. People take a piece of wood and nail old hooves to it.”
“Why?” Moretti rubs his neck.
I inspect the track marks from several angles. In the dusty dirt, I can make out two different strides, one long and one short.
“Moretti, wake the boys. We’ve got some people to hunt.”
I lead the Company through the city and to its edge, tracking. A treeless landscape of gnarled shrubs leaking out of the dirt rolls along the horizon. I can smell rotting brine shrimp on the breeze.
“Think we’ll eat, today?”
It’s Denninger, again. I shouldn’t have allowed him to talk when we first entered the town. It’s all he has done since.
“Maybe. When we get to the lake.”
A swarm of black gnats cloud around us. The troop begins to swoop their arms to rid themselves of the insects. Sergeant Moretti raises his arm above the boys’ heads. Immediately, the gnats focus on the elevated limb. The boys seem amused, watching him moving side to side with the black haze.
“Let me try.”
Denninger lifts his arm above his head, but the gnats ignore him. He waves his arm. He snaps his fingers. Nothing.
“Why isn’t it working?”
“Your arm has to be the highest thing around. “ Moretti tells him.
“Let me try,” Denninger says.
Moretti ignores him. Instead, he moves the gnats into a figure eight. The soldiers call out directions.
“Make ‘em zig-zag!”
“Spell your initials!”
“I want to try it.” Denninger’s voice drops an octave. “Put your arm down.”
Denninger blocks his way,
“I said put your arm down.”
“Jesus, Denninger. Do you know who I am? I’m the Sergeant of this whole company. If I want to hold my arm up, I’ll hold my arm up.”
Kale Denninger’s face flushes. Moretti switches arms and pretends to conduct the gnats in a symphony.
“Back in line, Denninger,” he orders.
Denninger thrusts his balled-up fists into the pockets of his pants. He spins on his heels and falls back among the faction.
Moretti drops his arm. Straightaway, the gnats infiltrate the group.
We trudge down the slope of a soft mound. The stench of the brine shrimp grows. I can see the green water of the lake and hear it lapping up the beach.
“Sorry, Lieutenant.” Moretti catches up to me and leans in. “The boy’s troubled.”
“Should I take care of him?” Moretti smiles.
I look over my shoulder. Denninger is coming around the dune trailing behind. His eyes are squinting, and his lips are in tight parallel lines. I blow out a breath.
“No. We can’t afford to lose any more soldiers. He’ll learn his place in time.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
“I’ll let you teach him.”
As soon as we reach the beach, uniforms are stripped off, and the boys rush the water. They laugh and dunk one another under the swirls of green spume and from their mouths, spew a stream of the saline solution.
“You’re going to get sick,” Moretti tells them.
Two older boys sprint out of the surf and drag Moretti back in with them.
I pull off my boots and stuff both socks into their nose. Then I roll up each pant leg and strip off my shirt.
“Why’d he do that to me?”
I turn around. Denninger is sitting on the sand, still dressed and still angry.
“He’s the tallest, so the gnats followed.”
“He didn’t have to be. You could’ve let me be for a second.”
“Yep. Probably could have.”
Denninger’s bottom lip sticks out.
“Come on, Denninger. Don’t cry.”
He springs to his feet. His face is red. I see a thick blue vein pulsating in his neck.
“I’m not crying!”
“Take it easy, kid.”
I stand up.
“I’m not crying, damn it!”
“Hey, what’s going on?” Moretti is behind me. I can smell the salt water coming off his body.
“Nothing,” I tell him.
“You better watch yourself.” Moretti arches his height over the boy.
“Sergeant, let’s go. It’s a good day for a swim.” I turn around and walk to the shoreline. The kid’s troubled.
I watch the boys playing in the surf for over an hour. For a moment, I forget we’re at war.
An abstract shadow of Denninger falls across me landing on the beach.
“How many people do you think live on this island?”
He looks smug.
“What’s up, Denninger?”
“Just tell me how many people you think still live in this place?”
I twist my neck to see him.
“Did your mom make you promise to keep a census, too?” Moretti laughs. He dives on his stomach throwing golden sand upwards.
Denninger’s eyes turn dark.
“I was wondering on account of that sand castle over there.”
He points to a boulder.
We pick through tumbleweeds with puncturing stickers and get to the face of the rock. I kneel in the sand. The gravity has begun to tear the structure down, but I can still make out its castle form.
I turn to Denninger.
“You didn’t do this?”
“How’d you find it?”
Moretti and the rest of the group crowd around us.
“I had to take a dump.”
He points to a lumpy brown pile a few feet away. The wind picks up and assaults us with its scent.
“Damn it, Denninger!”
Moretti stalks toward the boy with his chest puffed out and his chin sticking forward. He grabs him by the shoulders and shakes him hard.
“You bastard! You tricked us into sniffing your turd, didn’t you?”
Moretti throws him to the ground and straddles him.
“You little asshole! I should shove your shit down your throat and make you eat it!”
“Go ahead! Touch my shit, I dare you!”
Moretti punches him in the mouth. I drag Moretti off. Denninger sits up. His lip is split open and blood gushes down his chin.
“You’re the asshole, Moretti, you brown back!”
The boys groan and move back.
Moretti lunges again, but I have him restrained.
“Moretti, take a dip. I mean it, cool off.”
I push him to the group.
“Here, make sure he cools off.”
The boys surround him and escort him down the beach.
I unearth a rock and roll it in my palm. It’s softball size and has a sharp nub on one side. I hand it to him.
“Here, bury it.”
Denninger goes to his feces’ and digs a moat around it.
“I should let Moretti beat the shit out of you, know that?”
He looks up.
“Why do you want trouble?”
Denninger lengthens his back.
“Why does he want to give me so much trouble?”
I swallow the bolt of anger inside me and decide to take another approach.
“Maybe you’re right, Kale.” I spit saliva into the sand.
Denninger drags his poop into the trench with the tip of his rock and covers it with sand and dirt.
I bite back my need to correct him.
“What do you want from me, son?”
It takes everything I have to sound sincere.
Denninger stands and tosses the rock into a pile of sticker bushes. He claps the sand from his hands.
“I don’t want Moretti to be in charge of me anymore.”
I look at the boy. He looks so out of place.
“What are you doing here Kale?”
“What do you mean?”
“How did you get here, in my army? You’re not fifteen, are you?”
He drops his eyes and looks out at the water.
“No, I’m not.”
“How old are you?”
“Twelve and a half.”
“How’d you get in the military?”
He doesn’t blink.
“I didn’t want to mine the Flats.”
“You an orphan, son?”
“Your mom’s dead. Where’s your dad?”
Denninger shakes his head, “No. He’s in the B Institute.”
“Oh. Crap! Sorry, kid.”
“He’s not crazy.” His shoulders stiffen. “It doesn’t matter what they say. I know he’s not crazy.”
“What do they say?”
“That he needs so much electricity he can’t remember me anymore. But he’s not crazy. He never was. He was sad when my mom died, that’s all. He didn’t mean to cut me so bad. He stopped after the first finger.”
For the first time, I notice the tip of the kid’s pinky finger on his right hand is missing. Denninger sees me looking and curls his hand into a fist.
“He told me he was sorry.” Denninger says.
I feel a sharp pain in my stomach.
“How long since you saw him last?”
“A couple of years. But I get word from his nurses about his progress…well I used to.”
Icy sludge fills my body.
“Kale, have they said your dad’s been sick, lately? Like he has the flu or his heart isn’t working, something along those lines?” I ask. The ice is replacing my blood.
“Yeah?” He scratches his ear. “He’s not getting enough blood to his heart.”
I place my hand on his shoulder.
“He’s too sick to see me, right now.”
“I bet you’re right about your dad, kid.”
“You going to turn me in?”
He searches my eyes.
“No. I won’t turn you in. But you’ve got to straighten up and listen to me.”
“I don’t want Moretti in charge of me anymore,” he says.
“Okay, you report directly to me from now on.”
Denninger smiles and agrees. The sun is in the middle of an anemic sky.
We backtrack through the city. Denninger marches in line with me. Moretti follows closely behind, scathing. We round the curving street and stop.
A child is sitting next to a fountain. Her thin face is smeared dirty. Her dark hair hangs down in her mouth. She is watching something inching up her arm. A cricket. The child’s eyes are shiny, watching it climb. Once it reaches her shoulder, she raises her other hand and smashes it. She peeks at its yellow remnants underneath, then scoops it up with her fingers and eats it.
The girl’s head snaps up, and she sees us. She slides into the fountain’s basin and scales the opposite side.
“Better get her,” I say.
The soldiers charge after her. Some whooping as they run. I stay behind, replacing her sitting on the edge of the fountain. Within seconds, the army returns, dragging the child spitting and biting along with them.
Her face is deformed. One side is raised a half inch higher than the other and protruding outward. Her cheek is red with a deep purple line down the center of it. I reach out and touch it. She howls.
“Your cheek’s inflamed. Do you have an abscessed tooth?”
She tries wiggling out of her captor’s grip.
I lean forward.
“Hey, kid, what’s your name?”
Denninger level’s his rifle at her. “Talk.”
“Put it away, Denninger. She’ll cooperate. Are you alone? Huh? Where’s your guardian? Where are they hiding?”
The girl lifts her head and glares at me. My boys tighten their grip on her.
“I’ll count to three. One…two…”
From the shadows a rare creature appears. He is aged and ragged, but he’s fast. He runs at us, his boney legs jettisoning him across the courtyard.
“Don’t! She’s mine! She’s my granddaughter, Alabama. She’s all right!”
Denninger switches his aim from the child to the old man.
The man stops in front of me. He’s missing most of his teeth. He watches the barrel of the gun, and he slowly bows. A wisp of cotton white hair rims his baldhead and trails down his neck.
“Please, she doesn’t mean any harm. She’s starving, that’s all. We’ll go. We won’t bother you anymore.”
He lifts his eyes toward the rifle.
“Put it away, Denninger.” I tap the end of his gun. He slings it over his back.
I look down at the old man’s feet. A rectangular board is visible between his toes and behind his heel. A piece of worn leather crosses the top of each foot.
“Are you the moose following us?” I ask.
He raises a leg exposing a tattered hoof. Moretti gasps.
“You move fast on those,” I say.
The old man nods.
“How long have you been out here?”
“My whole life, sir.” He tilts his head. “So has Alabama. There’s no one else, sir. No one else left alive.”
The old man twitches his nose. “Bombs. Starvation.” He looks over his shoulder at the human sandbags. “Couldn’t get any more in the ground, I’m too weak.”
“You know I can’t leave you two here,” I say.
“I do not know that.”
“Look at her! I think her tooth is abscessed. If we don’t take care of it, she could lose her jaw.”
The old man shakes his head. “No, sir. I’ve been taking good care of her. I irrigate it a couple times a day and make her swish with salt water.”
“The lake water? You might as well have her swishing piss!”
The old man glances sorrowfully at the child.
“Listen, if I don’t bring you in, you’ll starve to death,” I tell him.
“They’ll take good care of your girl. She’ll get food and medical attention and a place to sleep.”
“Yeah, but they’ll put her in the mines. She can’t go to the Flats, sir. She’s afraid of the dark.”
I look at the child, still trying to wrestle her wrists free from her captors.
“I think she’ll do all right,” I tell him.
The old man drops his eyes to the ground.
“You’d rather she stay out here, with you, starving, than to go to the Flats?”
He doesn’t look up.
“I don’t suppose, so.”
“We are going to take her.” I stand up. The girl begins to scream.
The old man rushes to her and wraps his arms around her. He cradles her head.
“He’s right, Alabama. You’ll be okay.”
“No! No!” The girl bucks and head-butts one of the soldiers in the stomach.
“And what about me, sir?”
Tears leave cleaned streaks down his face.
I shake my head.
“Our mission is to find inhabitants. That’s it.” I look at the child. “And we found one.”
“You’re not taking me with you?” His voice cracks.
“No. You know what’ll happen if I do.”
“Look, we’re meeting a boat in ten minutes. I’ll make sure your girl is put on the ship and given food.”
“All right. All right.” He pulls a piece of her hair out of her mouth.
“You be good, Alabama. Don’t give ‘em any reason to bring you back here.”
“What about you?” She asks. “Where are they taking you?”
The old man and I exchange looks.
“We need his help tracking other islands,” I tell her.
“That true, Papa?”
“Yes. Besides, the island’s not fit for anybody, anymore.”
He presses his lips against her forehead and whispers something in her ear.
“Okay. I’ll go.”
The old man kisses her again and lets her go.
We move quickly through the city, to the opposite side of the island. The girl hangs her head, crying. Far behind the troop, the old man’s following.
“He’s still there.” Moretti tells me in a low tone.
“I know. He’s making sure I keep my promise.”
“You’re not going to report him?” Moretti asks. “Or shoot him?”
“No. He won’t last long out here on his own.”
I glance over at Denninger, who is staring straight ahead and keeping pace with me.
I turn to Moretti, “as long as he keeps out of sight, nothing will happen to him.”
We return to the beach and stand on the dock. On the horizon, an enormous white ship buoys along the waves. A yellow raft with a motor is skimming the water’s surface towards us.
I crouch down in front of the girl.
“You okay, Alabama?”
The child puts her hand in mine, but her gaze is steady on the ground.
A patrol officer on the front of the skiff throws a rope to a soldier. The soldier loops it around a metal hook mounted on the pier.
I whisper in Alabama’s ear, “Listen, don’t you say a thing to him, understand?”
“Ignore everything I tell him, all right?”
She nods, again.
“Lieutenant.” The patrolman and I exchange salutes. “You found one?” He inspects Alabama.
“Yep. She’s a recent orphan. Parent’s bodies just turned cold.” I tell him.
“What’s wrong with her face?”
“Bad teeth, I think.”
I lift the girl placing her in the arms of the patrolman. He wraps a wool blanket around her and sits her down.
“How long you scheduled to stay on the island?” He asks. I see the child is watching me.
“Another week.” I lie.
He nods. “We thought you might need some supplies.”
He points to a wooden crate in the back of the small boat. Moretti and two others jump inside and remove the box.
“Be careful with her. She’s had it rough, here for a while.”
“See you in a week.”
The man starts the motor. He turns the boat around and guns it toward the larger ship waiting on the horizon.
“Stop! Wait! Alabama!”
I turn as the old man streaks past and races down the dock.
“What does he think he’s—“
A thunderous crack splits the air around us. The back of the old man’s head rips open, spilling his brains. He is propelled forward onto his knees.
He tries to steady himself with one leg planted on the dock, the other dragging behind. He wobbles, standing for a moment. His left leg is dead. He takes one more step then falls sideways into the water. The soldiers and I hurtle around.
A thin taper of smoke rises from the barrel of Denninger’s rifle. His static eye is peering through the scope while the other wrinkles into a squint.
“What the hell you do that for?” Moretti grabs the nose of the gun and yanks it out of Denninger’s hand.
“What?” Denninger grins. “Lieutenant said he had to keep out of sight. But you saw him, he didn’t stay out of sight.”
Denninger looks at the water.
“Hey, look at that. I got ‘em to do the dead man’s float without even trying.”
“We warned him, right?“ He says, facing me but not taking his sight off the old man. I shake my head.
I take the gun from Moretti and cock it. I aim and fire. A crude hole in the middle of Kale Denninger’s face opens. He is thrown backward to the ground. A veil of sand kicks up around him. He is staring upward, his half-moon face unflinching as white clumps of sand and salt rain down and is absorbed in the dark liquid bubbling out of him.
The soldiers stand with their mouths hanging wide. Moretti maneuvers around them and squats next to Denninger holding two fingers against the boy’s neck.
I nod and look over my shoulder. I can see the old man’s body sticking out from the underside of the dock. An arm and a leg stretch away from his body. They bounce on the current as if waving goodbye.
“You know, Moretti?”
I look past the dead man. I can scarcely see the outline of the ship in the distance.
“Of all my missions…the strangest by far, is this one…”
Across the water, at the point where the earth and the sky touch, the horizon is set ablaze in burnt oranges and blood reds of a falling sun.
“The one that came from the Great Salt Lake.”
I hand Moretti back the gun.