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.