The swamp was waist deep. A rank miasma occupied the air. We trudged through algae, ducked vines that hung down like Garden of Eden snakes, and brushed against things that could kill us. At least bombs were no longer falling out of nowhere, replacing soldiers with craters and filling the air with fire. The enemy decided it wasn’t crazy enough to follow us in here. It seemed like the whole war was a competition to see who was crazier; like a bunch of 13 year olds playing Dare.
I was the ammo-carrier, bringing up the rear. On my back was a satchel of bullets and clips, instruments of death.
The day was only half over when we heard a wheezing and choking behind us. We turned and saw Scallop foaming at his mouth, with blisters and pustules raging across his face. A gigantic convulsion shook his whole body. He fell forward into the swamp. Everybody retreated a few steps. They whistled for a medic who came treading over, not in much of a hurry if you ask me. He put on gloves and a mask and lifted Scallop’s lifeless body out of the swamp. Water drained from his flesh like through a spaghetti strainer. The medic felt for a pulse. He gave it ten seconds then yelled to the generals up ahead that the man was dead.
The second-in-command came over. Even through his thick, bristly beard we could see him scowling at us, like it’s our fault.
“We can’t bring him with us,” he barked.
“What do you want me to do?” The medic asked.
The second-in-command looked at me. “You, find a rock and tie it to him. Make it so they can’t find this corpse.”
He’d only been dead less than a minute, already Scallop had become a thing you’d give to a bunch of student doctors to play with. How long do you have to be dead to be a corpse?
I looked around. “We’re in a swamp. There are no rocks.”
“Find something, asshole.”
There was nothing but lily pads and peat moss and angry soldiers around me. Peter swam over, the only one to acknowledge my predicament. Peter is the biggest soldier in the troop, but also the gentlest. Peter was kind to all. Maybe when there is nobody to be afraid of you start to see the good in everybody – that was his only weakness as a soldier. I certainly don’t see it. Some people are just rotten to the core. I can’t find the good in them with the Hubble telescope.
“Come on, let’s do this. It’s not pretty, but it needs to be done,” Peter told me.
He was right.
We felt with our hands for something heavy. Einhart joined in. Einhart was the type of guy who dated girls just because they were pretty and kept books by his bed he never read to impress these same pretty girls. “He was a tank mechanic, what good is that without tanks,” Einhart announced. “Rumor is they’re running out of food. Better stay useful, boys.”
“Shut up, Hart. Be respectful,” Peter told him, looking down at the dead man.
Einhart asked, “Why’d they call him Scallop anyway?”
I guessed, “Because he used to be a fisherman, right? Do you catch scallops?” I thought about it some more. “Is a scallop a fish or a bivalve?”
“Fuck if I know,” Peter said.
“What’s a bivalve?” Einhart asked.
“Fuck if I know,” Peter repeated.
“Something with a shell,” I explained. “Like an oyster.”
“Oh.” Einhart said, “I thought it was because of his face.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know. Because of all of his zits.”
We looked down at Scallop and went quiet for a second. Chirping broke the silence followed by the wop-wop of gunfire. A parrot, bright blue and green, fell dead from a tree. A group of soldiers cackled. The bird bobbed for a few seconds and then stopped. It’s rainbow colors looked like an oil stain on the black water. None of the generals scolded them for wasting ammo.
Peter looked at me. “How much is left?” He asked.
I checked the pack. “About a quarter,” I told him.
He gave me a partial grin.
“I think I feel something,” Einhart yelped. He kicked the swamp floor with his foot. “Yep. Feels heavy. Like a big log or something.”
We all reached down and groped whatever it was. “Okay, on three, lift it up. One. Two. Three,” Peter counted.
It wasn’t that heavy but it would definitely keep Scallop from floating away. When we got it to the surface we could see scales and a long snout. It wasn’t a log but a dead crocodile. “The dead for the dead, huh?” Einhart noted, and he was right.
We tied Scallop to the crocodile without much fanfare and let them both drop. Almost immediately they disappeared in the murky dark water. Soldier and crocodile. We turned around and plowed through the swamp to catch up, nobody talking about what just happened. Moving on.
Is that how quickly I’ll be forgotten?
I came to the dead parrot that was still floating in the brackish water. An explosion of tropical color on the torpid swamp. While the others weren’t looking, I took it and stuffed it in the pack with the ammo. I don’t know why. I guess I couldn’t stand to see something so beautiful left behind. I wanted this march to mean something.
“I really hope we get out of this fucking swamp. I think I’m turning into a toad.”
“You’re already a toad, Hart,” Peter joked. “Let’s just get back.”
We caught up just as day was slipping into night and Autumnal colors churned in the pregnant sky. A swirl of pink and pumpkin paint masquerading as clouds. The swamp dried out into solid ground but our boots still squished as we walked. The generals told us not to rest. They said the enemy was still following us and we had to keep going. Nobody knew what to believe anymore.
Three hours later, the night sky was cut in half by a blazing, arching orange light. The light from a star burning out, a million years in the past, just reaching us now? A rocket shot from a ship, thundering into a village, scattering body parts like seeds in a field? God’s ironic smile revealed in an amber parabola?
For no reason, they started shooting into the treetops, like they were going to hit a missile miles away. I silently urged the generals to stop them, but they just laughed at it. They enjoyed this display of unwarranted aggression.
The second-in-command finally spoke. “Alright. Alright. Put your dicks back in, boys.”
The soldiers who did the firing came over, laughing. “Fill us up, ammo boy.”
I took out some cartridges and handed them over, feeling my pack getting lighter, which wasn’t a good thing as far as staying alive and all that.
We kept marching, through forest and exhaustion. The only thing that kept my feet moving forward was the picture of Annabelle I pulled from my breast pocket every mile or so, like the plastic rabbit in front of greyhounds, I was chasing after it. It reminded me there’s a place where the trees don’t explode and the land doesn’t turn into soup. Where the women don’t pull knives out of their privates.
In it, Annabelle is half smiling/half laughing at something off-camera. There’s a monkey cage in the background so I’m guessing I took the picture at a zoo somewhere. It’s just a picture, but it’s like I can feel her when I look at it, like I’m transported back to that day. I don’t recall that zoo, just her. It’s been so long, though. I wonder how much else I’ve forgotten.
I can’t quite remember her voice, either, or the way she entered a room, but there’s this feeling instilled in me that her unbridled joy fixed my chronic discontent, her touch could cure whatever blues enveloped me. She was like aloe. A corner puzzle piece. A crumpled-up bill found in the laundry. I might not recall the sound of her laughter, but I know it would always make everything right, and it will unfailingly make this right once I get back.
I searched the ground and found a pile of rocks. They were arranged into some sort of small gravestone marker. I picked them up and stuffed them in the pack. The buried don’t need them as much as I do right now. You can’t shoot a gun with rocks, but at least it might buy me the time to get to Annabelle again.
A gunshot cracked the silence. We all froze, looked around. The second-in-command held up his arm, nonplussed. “Hold your fire,” he shouted. General #1 came striding out of the trees, smoking the stub of a cigar and brandishing a smug grin.
“It’s okay,” General #1 announced. “Keep walking.”
We obeyed, bee-lining through the trees. I did a count. There was somebody missing.
Peter was in front of me. I could see his head swivel as well, doing his own count. We knew better than to ask questions.
All night we walked while the stars sizzled overhead. Our eyes adjusted to the dark and you could see the depth and dementia of the war in the burned outlines of the forest. In what was missing.
We came to a clearing. It was now dawn. We hadn’t slept. There was a small structure in the clearing. Delirium seasoned the air. We gathered around it, deciding whether to investigate, considering the possibility it was a trap.
“It could have ammunition in it,” Peter suggested. I had the feeling he was looking out for me. “Or food,” he added.
Everything was running out.
The second-in-command walked down the line, observing our rank, making grim calculations. He settled on Thompson, an army journalist. “You’re going in,” he told him. “Hey, this could be something to write about,” he said, chuckling, avoiding any attempt at sincerity.
Thompson looked worried. “With all due respect, that is not my role here, sir.”
The second-in-command tilted his head back and forth and pursed his lips in a mocking display of considering Thompson’s words. His hand gently massaged his gun. “Well, then the way I see it, you really don’t have a role at all.”
Thompson emitted a defeated, heavy sigh. The next words dropped from his mouth like icicles off a warming roof. “Okay. Give me a gun.”
“That’s the can-do spirit,” the second-in-command told him, clapping him hard on his back. “Give this brave writer a gun. He’s a soldier now.” He laughed. So did others.
We all backed up and watched Thompson enter the structure, his hand with the gun shaking like a dry alcoholic’s. I stood behind a tree and crouched, just in case, others did the same. He wasn’t in there for more than a minute. When he emerged he was carrying a pile of bones across his chest like firewood. He dropped them on the ground. “Bones. It’s just bones.”
The second-in-command bristled. “What do you mean: just bones?”
“Bones, like, what holds us together. That’s it.”
I wasn’t sure he was right about that: about what holds us together.
We rushed in to take a look. I don’t know why I followed. Probably just not to stand out. Maybe I was curious. Maybe that’s the thing about me: maybe I’m no better than the rest. The room was only about 100 square feet but every one of them was covered with bleached white human remains.
I thought of Annabelle, lying naked in chalky moonlight.
“Are they ours?” Someone asked.
Peter answered, “How can you tell? Bones are bones.”
Einhart joked, “If they get up and try to shoot at us, you know they’re theirs.”
“I think we’re safe with this group,” I replied.
Einhart picked up a humerus. “I’m going to make a flute out of this one.”
Peter stuck his meaty jaw two inches from Einhart’s forehead. “You do that and I’m going to make a flute out of you!”
Einhart shriveled up. “What’s your problem?”
“That could be one of our men.”
“If you haven’t noticed, we’re shooting our men too.”
The room went silent. Neither of them budged. I didn’t know if I should say something or let them fight about it. The other men closed in, smelling violence. Someone knocked over a pile of bones, they rattled like wooden wind chimes. This caused me to laugh, but also gave me an idea.
“Hey, you can use this.” I pulled the dead parrot out of my sack and handed it to him. He gave it a strange look. We all looked at the clump of feathers and beak in Einhart’s hands with similar expressions.
Einhart looked unsure. “Bird bone flute, huh?”
“Sweet sounds, man,” I told him, though I had no idea what they sounded like.
Peter shrugged. “The ancients did it.”
I could see Einhart struggling with his decision. “It’ll do,” he finally said.
I exhaled. I hadn’t noticed I wasn’t breathing. I wondered if it was possible to voluntarily suffocate yourself, just hold your breath until your face is blue. If things ever got that bad? Other soldiers looked disappointed, they wanted the fight.
Peter put his hand on Einhart’s shoulder. “Let’s get out of here, man.” We followed, leaving the bones behind us.
Once we were outside, the generals told us when we reach the sea there would be boats waiting. Then they instructed us to keep marching. It’s been two straight days now on our feet.
The others talked about the boats as if they signaled the end of this madness. The generals didn’t tell us where the boats would take us, just that they’d be waiting. I figured they would probably take us to a worse place, probably a desert or a tundra, some awful place people are incomprehensibly willing to die over, but at least we would be out from under this canopy of disease and death.
We walked until the moon replaced the sun and satellites carved up the bruised sky.
That night the generals handed out a packet of white ambrosia pills with instructions that we needed to take one every 12 hours. There was also one green pill, in case we were captured by the enemy. They said one pill would make us fearless, two would make us delirious and see things that weren’t there; so only take one at a time. They were real specific.
I took two. After what I’ve seen I wasn’t worried about the things that weren’t there. Immediately angels appeared in the treetops and I felt the ground tingling under my boots. I heard music in the susurrus of the breeze. There was beauty again. It was painful.
For some time, I forgot I was carrying 40 pounds of ammunition, I forgot where I was, I forgot about the forward movement of time, even, until Einhart hit me on my shoulder. “You’re holding up the line,” he complained. I turned and saw thirty children with scared faces staring at me. I saw their eyes pooled with dread.
I shouldn’t have taken two.
I marched on because that’s what we do. I don’t know for how long or where. The Earth rotated, it’s only goal to tip me forward. There was a constant hum in my ears that made them melt. I felt my lips fall off my face. Everything slowly seemed to be crumbling. There was a heavy fog. It felt like the entire world was made of it.
Out of the ether, Annabelle appeared, nervous, biting on her lip. “Annabelle?” I whispered, afraid if I made too much noise she’d run away. What was she doing here?
“Who are you?” She asked, confused.
“It’s me. Your love.”
She shook her head. I reached out for her hand, but she withdrew it. She continued to stare at me like I was abstract art before dissipating back to vapor. I felt her in the fog all around me, but it wasn’t a comfortable feeling. I couldn’t shake it. It was like touching ice that was so frozen your finger sticks to it, so cold it burns.
I was walking around in a daze. I hit something in the dark. A soldier shouted, “Kick me again and I’m going to shoot you in the dick!”
We were camped out, apparently… finally. I was sleepwalking. Or else dreaming. Or maybe I was a ghost that came back for one more night on this wretched Earth. I don’t know. The ambrosia did funny things to me. There were no answers, just questions. That’s what this life does to you as an ammo-carrier. I don’t fire the guns, I just load them, and whenever my load is light it means a lot of people have died.
It means I may be next.
We were up and walking again. The double dose of ambrosia wore off and there was something different. Things were changing. The sky was more exposed, the trees less tightly packed, the clouds filled with sodium grit, the air shifted from sweat to sweet. One letter that changes everything, like God to sod, help to hell.
The generals announced that we were getting close. This made our coterie of killers nearly squirm with delight. It made me nervous. I was getting closer to Annabelle, but at the same time, further away. Would she remember me? Would she still love me?
Peter came up to me. For the first time since I’ve known him he didn’t look strong. “Do you think we’re really going home?” He asked.
“I don’t know. They won’t say.”
“What are you talking about? They told us last night the boats were going to take us home. It’s over.”
It must have happened when I was marooned on the double ambrosia effect.
“Really?” I asked.
“Dude, where are you?”
There were numerous ways I could have answered this question. Physical. Metaphysical. Emotional. Like Confucius. Like Stephen Hawking. Like John Wayne Gacy. The question, although I’m confident it was rhetorical, made me stop in the mud and think. The soldier behind me crashed into my back and shouted, “What the fuck, man?” That question, too, led me down a labyrinth of twisted answers… like, yeah, what the fuck?
“Come on,” Peter said, and I followed. Because that’s what I do: I follow.
When the trees turned to shrubs and then that turned into grassland, the excitement became unbearable, we became like noisy mosquitoes, buzzing and biting. Then the ocean appeared, glinting and vast. The light was like from a dream, golden and fine. I thought everybody was going to run and dive right in the water, like little kids, but then I realized that there weren’t any boats. This had everybody quiet, scanning the empty sea, pondering. Despair is too sunny a word. Picture a group of children finding their favorite stuffed animal ripped to shreds, their new puppy the culprit, laying lifeless next to it, choked to death from the stuffing. Yeah, like that.
We looked to the generals who themselves were looking at the sea with disappointed expressions. The fact that they didn’t know what was going on was worse than the feeling that they were lying to us. At least when you’re misled there is somebody in control.
I plopped down on the sand and took out my picture of Annabelle. My eyes went misty. Would I ever see her again?
Peter sat down next to me. “Is that your girl?” He asked, staring ahead.
“Yeah.” I handed him the picture.
He took it and furrowed his brow. His jaw hung open like a ransacked drawer.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“What’s your girl’s name?”
“Annabelle?” He repeated.
“And you’re from Ohio, right?”
“Yes. What is it?”
Peter removed a picture from his breast pocket. “This is Christy,” he told me, handing me the photo. “We’re from Oregon… supposedly.”
I looked at it. It was a picture of Annabelle. Annabelle in front of an elephant. Or Christy in front of an elephant. They were identical, the girls, the pictures, all except for which part of the zoo they were taken in front of.
“I don’t understand.”
Peter shook his head. “I don’t either.”
“But…” I couldn’t finish the thought.
We sat in the sand, holding the pictures of our loves. I looked back and forth between them. In each picture, she was wearing the same outfit: a black tank top with a long purple skirt, a Navajo opal necklace draped across her chest. The light was consistent in each. They had to have been taken on the same day.
There was a biting ache I had to dislodge from my chest. “I don’t know why you have a picture of Annabelle, but if you’re doing this to fuck with me, then…”
“Calm down. I’m not fucking with you. Think about it. Where did you meet Annabelle?” He asked.
My mouth was open to speak but nothing came out. I tried to answer his question, but my tongue couldn’t push out any words. I don’t really remember a time before the war. All I know is I’ve been holding this picture of Annabelle next to my heart for what seemed like forever. When you’re in love, the details don’t matter, right? I just know Annabelle has always been waiting at home for me; if she’s not real, then maybe home isn’t either? Maybe that’s why the boats aren’t here? There’s nowhere to go?
The second-in-command stood in the foaming tide. Fellow soldiers flanked him on either side, peering into the horizon. Nobody knew what to do. My thoughts were so loud they cancelled everything else. I thought about the green pill. It was the size of a shirt button, but seemed bigger than this whole world. They say the Universe started from a hot, dense pin-sized mass. Then the Big Bang happened and sent everything speeding through time. Everything: every galaxy, every planet, every tree, every mountain, every woman and every man, every atom in you and me started from the same small thing.
What if the enemy is us? What do we do then?
I still wanted to salvage this war, save something. “How do we know which one is real?”
Peter looked at me like: ‘come on, idiot.’
Out in the ocean, just beyond the waves, a dolphin crested the water, pure muscle and sleek, grey skin. Water spouted six feet out of its blowhole. Three more dolphins followed, lobbing their bodies out of the ocean, twisting in the air. They were swimming north, away from the war. We watched them approach, speechless. When they got even with us, the sunlight reflected off their shiny bodies and hit us on shore. It was like the light in the hospital room when you emerged from your mother’s womb, blinding and terrifying. They kept swimming, playfully leaping in and out of the water, oblivious to the soldiers on the beach.
It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
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