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Josh Wood

Deconstructionista: A Love Letter

 

There’s me and you, walking through the desert.

We find the nomads’ traps on the second day. Small metal slipknots just above the ground, barely bigger than my ankle. Like the tripwire for an IED. But you bend down and prod it with a bare finger while I’m standing there frozen, caught in the leftovers of too many bad dreams. I feel like we’ve been here before.

“What’re they hoping to catch out here?” I say. “Snakes? Rats?”

You straighten. You’re a silhouette with a blonde halo in the sunset.

“Hares,” you say. “These are rabbit tracks. The fuck they teach you in the army?”

I look down at the ground. In the sand, just west of the trap, there’s a bit of scat that looks dried out.

“That’s old,” I say.

But you point farther. There’s enough grass here that something with enough grit and determination can make a home, but only just. And there, in the biggest growth, is a hole, barely big enough.

“I never did much hunting,” I say.

“Excuses,” you say. “You’re just fucking blind.”

You bend down again. I peek down your shirt, but there’s nothing inside but darkness. You pull a knife from its place on your thigh. It doesn’t take much effort. You cut the string that holds the snare in place.

“Come on.” Knife goes back in its sheath. “Let’s get some dinner. I’m starving.”

#

An invasion of nomads. That’s what they told us when they crammed the two of us into a heavily air conditioned office on the third floor of some Hollywood corporate high rise with some newly minted Veep of a newly acquired property. We’d all seen the movies when we were young, marveled at the screen. Never really wondered where the sets had gone, never had much use for those thoughts. In our minds, this all really was happening long ago and far away.

But with a new studio buying the rights to the franchise, looking to tighten its grip on all related properties, they want their sets returned. Never mind they hadn’t been there twenty years earlier when the sets were built. They’re the legal owners, these Hollywood suits, and by god, they get what they want.

“You’re supposed to be good at this,” the suit said, leaning on his desk. Couldn’t have been out of his twenties, his hair done up with enough product to be a fire hazard.

“And discreet,” you said beside me. “Who told you about us?”

I straightened my tie. Shifted. Pulled at my collar. The veep gave me a grin like a shark.

“That wouldn’t exactly be discreet,” he said. “Let’s just say, in my business, people do end up owing you a few favors.”

“Meaning telling you about the cleaners they hired,” I said.

He smiled. Behind him, a potted plant looked like it needed water.

“We need a hundred,” you said beside me. “Plus expenses. To start.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Just a hundred?”

You nodded. “Each. For starters.”

Then it was just haggling.

Out on the street, you already making arrangements on your phone, we went our own ways to pack. I didn’t have anything to pack. The suit I was wearing. That was all. All of my clothes were still in my kit back at the hotel. So I decided to go for a stroll, right there in Hollywood. I didn’t find much besides hookers and star maps. Wrong kind of stars. Not like anyone left in this town ever learned to read the real stars, anyway.

I found a flower box at a restaurant. The patio was empty so I stopped. I touched one of their drooping daisies. Daisies aren’t usually that hard to care for. But this one looked sad.

A waiter came up, frowning. “Can I help you, sir?”

I looked at him. A head shorter than me. Scrawny. I looked at us, both of our reflections on the window. My bald head and the tattoos reaching above my collar. I clenched my fists.

“Your flowers need water,” I said to him.

Before he could say anything else, I walked away.

#

Our dinner in the desert consists of MREs and canteens of water. We’ve got enough for another four days. After that, we exercise the Scorched Earth clause in our contract. If the owner can’t keep his property, nobody will.

I have enchiladas. They taste a bit like dry pasta. It reminds me of home, of being back in the desert, hundreds of miles north of here, on another continent. No showers, no shaving, no backup. Just a few men, a radio, our rifles, and the waiting game we played with the terrorists.

“What’d you end up with?” I ask.

You look at your container. “Says its Mac and cheese.”

“Yum.”

We don’t say much. I look up at the stars when I take a bite. That’s one part of the desert you do miss. There’s enough stars hereabouts to lose yourself in.

“So where do you think they’re hiding?” you ask.

I shrug. “Well, they’re not in the huts. Probably heard us coming and made for better ground.”

“You don’t just up and leave a place like this.” You look over your shoulder, back to the village from another galaxy. Barely visible with the hills. “That well, the crew dug that when the movie was filming. It’s real. Probably still works too. Between that and the hares, this is a nice place to live.”

It hadn’t taken long to find their fires, or what was left of them. And the bones of all the animals that had fed the nomads, the bigger ones that the wind and the sun hadn’t made short work of.

“We should blow the well,” I say. “See if we can sweat ‘em out.”

You look at your canteen. “Then what?”

“Maybe then they bolt.”

“In the middle of the desert?” You shake your head. “An enemy force has just moved in, is trying to force you out of your home. They cut off your water supply. They have fresh water, food, enough gas to build fires for a year, and advanced weaponry you can use to hunt or trade to some local al-Qaeda for supplies you actually need. Where would you go?”

I choke down a bit of enchilada. “Not into the desert.”

“Me either,” you say.

#

The studio refused to spring for good seats. But with all the haggling, our take away pay is up to about fifty grand apiece. It’s amazing what a little threatening body language will do.

So we’re in economy class on the plane. All our guns and gear stowed in checked baggage. It’s amazing what you can still get away with in the world these days. It’s a long flight, with two transfers, so I’ve loaded my iPad full of movies. Specifically, full of Space Flight movies. I’m in the middle of watching a Sand Creature attack our hero on his first venture into the desert. The Sand Creature is played by a man obviously done up to look Arab, with a thick nose, olive skin, and a turban. He makes guttural noises as he swings his sword. The blonde hero doesn’t know how to fight yet, can only run. And the Sand Creature keeps swinging, destroying everything in his wake. In this case, it’s a bazaar. Several stands get cut in half as people of all different races, in all kinds of rubber suits and masks, go screaming and racing for cover. The hero cowers in fear, his blue eyes wide.

“I can’t believe you watch that crap,” you say.

I pause the movie as the slightly offensive alien is readying his death blow.

“Why’s that?” I ask.

“It’s pretty much like reading trashy romance novels,” you say. “It has no merit.”

I frown. “It’s entertaining. I don’t think it’s meant to have more merit than that.”

“Whatever.”

You sip your whiskey, your second little airline bottle.

“We can’t all read Anna Karenina three times,” I say.

You don’t look at me when you speak, turn back to your book. “Was the only book I had out there.”

As I hit play, the camera cuts between the terrified eyes of our hero, and the Sand Creature. The Creature lets out this terrible wail. His sword comes down. And another blade crosses it. Cut to an old man with a determined look. The hero’s mentor, stepping in at just the right moment to save the day.

#

That night in the desert, we fuck like wild dogs. We’ve been doing it for a while, nothing ever really coming from it. You’re hot, I’m decent looking. I guess it only makes sense. The moonlight coming through the tent lights up your tattoos, one on each arm, another on your back. I focus on that one, reach around, grab your tits, and come.

After, we sit in the dark. You sit up, wrap your arms around your knees. I can hear you breathing. I run a hand on your hip. It’s cool, which surprises me. You twitch.

“What’s on your mind,” I ask.

“I hate pillow talk,” you say. You stand and walk out of the tent.

I sigh. But then I stand and follow you. You’ve moved a few feet from the entrance, stark naked and unashamed, your shoulders thrown back and gazing up at the stars.

I walk up next to you and look up. Lean against the tree. My hand hits something, and I see a package of cigarettes fall from the branch. I look to you, but you don’t look at me. That’s the first time I notice you smoking, clutching the cigarette down by your thigh, trailing smoke upward and upward until it mellows out in the air above your head. I’ve never seen you smoke before.

“It’s too quiet out here.”

“Yeah,” I say. “But, you know, you get used to it the more time you spend out here.”

“You don’t have to tell me,” you say.

I look at you, look down at the village. Try to follow your gaze. So much of what goes on behind it is still a mystery for me.

“I still don’t know what happened to you in Afghanistan.”

You take a drag. “Do you need to?”

I shrug. “It’d be nice to know where your scars are.”

“You’ve seen me naked,” you say. “I think you know.”

I look you over. Yeah, I’ve seen them, the jagged lines in your flank, on your back. The one running the length of your left leg.

A breeze passes over us, and it makes me shiver, makes my naked junk shrivel up. You don’t budge.

“Not the kind of scars I mean.”

“Well,” you say. “Maybe I don’t have a story. Maybe I made it through without anything exciting.”

I grimace. Over the hill, I can see the igloo huts that are still left standing, all of them circling around a clearing, all of them like lanterns.  

I look up. “The stars look better out here.”

You nod. “I still miss that in the city.”

“This feels more real,” I say. “Being out here.”

“Jesus,” you say. “If you’re gonna get all philosophical, I’m going back in the tent.”

I shake my head. The sand is rough against my feet as I walk toward you. I reach out, try to take your hand. You jerk away. Eyes on the prize.

#

We’ve been through some shit together, you and I. Once upon a time, this was a three man operation. But Clay’s been gone I forget how long. It’s been you and me against the world for years, it seems.

The first job we took after he left, we went to this place in New Mexico. A little startup company. One of this young up-and-comer’s more experienced competitors had hired us to come in and basically kill the kid’s chances at success. And we took it, because hell, we need to pay rent, right? But there we were, you and me. We came in that night with our sledgehammers and our torches and gasoline.

We cut the power before we went in, put on masks. Inside, we found anything that even resembled a camera and ripped it out of its place.

Then we took the hammers to the computers. Knocked all of them off desks and smashed them to bits on the floor. It was cathartic, letting all our pent up rage out on those computers. And then we took to the walls, the screens that hung on them, the company’s logo. Everything we could get our hands on. Everything that would break. And that was the first time we fucked, you and me, tearing into each other right there on one of those desks, most of our clothes still on, just enough. There, in the remains of our good work.

After we finished, we doused the place in gasoline. You pulled flares from your bag, I pulled mine. We struck them, and I saw the look in your eyes. The smile when we tossed them and the gas went up with its animal hiss.

We stuck around outside long enough to watch the fire catch. And I wasn’t sure if you got more out of the sex or the fire. Your face was the same for both.

#

After I go back to the tent, after you start snoring beside me, I drift off to sleep. And I dream. In my dream, I’m in the Space Flight universe. I’m taking on the role of hero. But I can’t find clothes that fit.

One day, I go to the market to find something that will fit. All I can find is rags and dark vests. Not the hero clothing I should wear. Not the white tunic, the khaki pants. That’s the kind of costume I should be wearing, but none of the sellers in their ramshackle stands seem to grasp that. They keep pointing me toward the villain’s clothes or, at best, the scoundrel’s. I turn all of them down, point to the clothes I’m wearing. But they just look at me like I’m speaking a foreign language.

And then the screams start. In the distance, I hear the nomad’s war cry. He steps toward me and says something in his guttural language. Everyone around me starts to run. He pulls his sword out of its scabbard, slow and meticulous like, beneath the hood of his own costume, he might actually be smiling at my fear.

I try to run, but I trip on something. I fall back, my hands scraping against the hard rock and sand that is the foundation of this bazaar. I look up. The nomad raises his blade above his head. The sun is behind him, but I see the layers he wears, the color drained out of his clothes by the sun and sandstorms of the desert. I almost feel sorry for him. I know what it’s like to live in a desert.

But none of that matters. He sees the hero, whatever wrong the hero has done him. I know, because I’ve seen this movie, that my only sin was invading his territory. He barks something final. Then the sword comes down.

There’s no mentor to save me now.

I wake up, gasping for breath, still flat on my back in our tent. I look over at you, your back toward me.

I’m drenched in sweat. On my neck, I can actually feel the blade, the pain of being a head shorter. I rub the phantom ache.

I walk over to the same tree. I’ve put on my boxers, so I don’t feel quite so naked, slipped into my sandals before leaving the tent. I reach up and take your cigarettes down, light one. I don’t think I’ve smoked since Iraq.

I look down into the fake village that our nomads have moved into. Take a few steps closer. There’s a fire in the middle of the circle, where there wasn’t anything before. But there are no people around it.

Hell with it, I decide. Let them have their fire.

The dream brings those old days back clear in my mind. Reminds me of the videos we used to watch online in Iraq when news of another beheading came out. We’d go searching for the tapes. So morbid, so curious, like little boys finding a body in the creek. We just had to see it one more time.

            There were never any women in those tapes. But it’s amazing what your mind does when it has blanks to fill in. I imagine it was you, or your unit, captured by terrorists, blindfolded and put on your knees before a camera, waiting for the swing of the blade. I can’t imagine waiting, hoping for a rescue, knowing it would never come. 

#

In the morning, we check the camp again. We bend over the fire in the center, poke at the ashes. There are bones scattered in the black dust.

“Son of a bitch,” you say. “They’re getting ballsy.”

“They know we’re here. For them,” I say. “What’s the point in hiding?”

“They’ve got other traps,” you say. You pick up a skull. I had enough survival training to recognize it as a rabbit skull.

You toss it back into the ash. When you straighten up, stand, you wipe the black from your hands onto your shorts.

We wander around the rest of the camp, trying to find anything that might have changed. I walk up to one of the huts.

Inside, you can see where the film crew built the frame, the wooden skeleton of the structure. There’s nothing pretty about it. It was not originally built for inhabitants. Twine has been strung between the wooden beams, and on that, someone has folded clothes. Faded shirts, robes, unrecognizable sections of fabric. Cracks in the wall let the light through, but it’s not bright enough to see clearly. You add your own flashlight to the mix. A pallet lies in one corner. On the other side, a hawk stares at us. Doesn’t make a noise, just cocks its head to one side. Keeps staring.

I step forward. The hawk eyes me. Still doesn’t move. Below it, boxes covered in sheets. Noises coming from within. Something scratching. I pull the blanket aside, and there are rabbits inside. They hop around. Someone’s strapped a plastic gallon jug to the side of the cage and jury-rigged a spout for them.

“Guess they don’t cook them all,” you say.

There are old plastic chairs, boxes piled in them. I don’t try to open them. I don’t want to. Clothes are stacked on top. There’s dust on everything here. Against the far wall, three refrigerators in various stages of rust and decay. But they’re humming, generators, wherever they are, still pumping in power.

The hawk still stares at me.    

Next to the refrigerators, a line of five or six aloe plants rise up from pots, glorious and green, full-grown even in the desert.

“Come on,” you say, turning. “Let’s get out of here.”

But I don’t. Instead, I go over and run a finger on the nearest plant. It feels alive.

The hawk seems to have lost interest in me, its head sunk into its body, sleeping.

I open the nearest fridge and it pops the way breaking seals do. Light escapes, and it’s almost blinding in the hut. I blink. Inside the fridge, cold air and more bones, these longer than the ones outside, some of them curved in strange ways. And mixed among the crossed bones, mags for assault rifles, loose ammunition. And on the very bottom of the fridge, rolls of film, entombed in their little plastic cannisters, like I remember from when I was a kid.

“The fuck?” I say.

            I shut the fridge and open another. Same story. Then another, and another, all the way down the line. Every one of them is stuffed with half eaten food, and ammo, and film. I grab one of them and shove it in my pocket. Make for the exit.

            Outside, I can barely open my eyes. You help me out of the hut. But even squinting against the light, I can’t help shaking the feeling that we’re being watched.

#

We come back to our camp, and find footprints, deep impressions in the sand. Too deep.

“They want us to know they were here,” you say.

I shudder. I go into the tent, find my gun, and tie the holster in place on my hips. Breathe a sigh of relief.

When I come out, you’re going through stuff. Tearing the place apart.

 

“Weapons,” you say. “They take my fucking books but leave the weapons?”

You keep rummaging.

“Shit,” you say, as you throw an empty case to the ground. “They stole our fucking food.”

You reach down and, out of the box, hold up a dead rabbit, skinned and headless, glistening pink in the sun.

#

The rats pop on the spit, roasting over our fire. Of course we don’t trust the gift of the nomads. But they’ve cornered the market on hares.

“This is bullshit,” you say.

“Kinda thought you’d be used to high stake games by now,” I say.

“Fuck that,” you say. “In Iraq, everywhere. Nobody knew we were hunting them. Not until we popped one in the back of their skull. All the cleaning we’ve done, nobody’s pulled this kinda shit.”

I rotate the spit. Thankfully, they didn’t take all of our gear. The fire cracks. The spark lands on your bare foot. You don’t flinch.

We sit in silence for a while. When the rats are done, we eat. I never much cared for the taste, but when you’re hungry.

I look into the fire, already calming, the tongues of flame just barely rising above the glowing logs. I wonder what happened to you in Afghanistan, the parts you never talk about. The fact that I know you got there, you left, went Stateside for a few months, then got shipped back out to Iraq.  I know all about Iraq. But Afghanistan is a void in your history.

You’re watching the fire too. Eating your dinner. You don’t look back at me.

#

Later, I wake up. The moonlight bleeds through the fabric of our tent. I sigh. I didn’t dream. Just a gap in consciousness. Like time travel. One moment, followed by another, nothing tethering them together, anchoring them to real time. Just moments. We’ve been here before. Consciousness still comes on as fast as it did in combat, my body tensing, waiting for the time there’s going to be someone there, holding a knife against my throat.

There’s no one this time. I want to go out naked again, but I think of that feeling in the village. Think of someone there, just beyond the horizon, watching. So I throw on my pants and grab my holster.

Tonight, the stars make me dizzy. I can’t concentrate on them. I can’t look up at them. I look down at the dying embers of our fire. I kick dirt into them. Sparks and fizzle.

You’re there too, tonight, sitting on the ridge beneath the tree, wrapped in a jacket, watching the town.

The sand is still hot under my feet. I think about going to get my boots. But my feet are already calloused enough that it feels like somebody else is doing the walking.

I sit beside you, pull my knees up to my chest.

The nomads haven’t started a fire tonight. They know we’re here, they’re wary. Not giving away their presence.

“Couldn’t sleep either, huh?”

You shake your head.

“They stole my cigarettes,” you say. “Every last one of them. My books and my cigarettes.”

            I shake my head. “My iPad might still have a charge.”

            “Not the same.”

I try looking up at the stars again. But I can’t make out any constellations. My head is starting to hurt. I blame the lack of food.

“I wanted to be a gardener,” I say.

You look at me.

“When I was in Iraq,” I say. “Before. My mom would always go and work in the garden when I was a kid, and I would help her. I guess it’s ‘cause of that. I don’t really get a chance to do it anymore.”

You just look at me.

“Not a noble profession I guess, but I always thought I’d do that when I left the army,” I say. “But I can’t even keep a houseplant anymore. I water them, give ‘em sun, do everything you’re supposed to do. I know I’m doing everything right. But. They just keep dying.”

You turn and look back in the direction of the village. It’s a long moment that passes without a word.

Then you say: “I wanted a dog. Too much traveling though.”

Silence. Desert wind.

I grimace. Nod. “Guess we’re just fucked up all over.”

“I want to hurt them,” you whisper.

Your eyes are fixed on the village.

“I want to hurt them,” you say again. “I want to kill every last fucking one of the bastards.”

I think of the plants in their hut. I remember the film in my pocket. But I don’t mention it.

“How would you do it?” I ask.

You shrug. “Do the thing I’ve been avoiding all this time. Blow the well.”

I nod. I think of the Sand Creatures from Space Flight, of how they never had kids, or pets, or anything. Just an abstract menace.

“So we plug the well,” I say. “And then, what, wait them out? Pick ‘em off one when they come up here for our gear?”

You nod. “Guess you did learn something from the army after all.”

#

            The next day, we go down to the village. It’s empty. I go into the same hut I was in yesterday. The hawk is gone. The plants are gone. Everything valuable has been cleared out. The hum of the generators is gone, but the fridges remain, probably too cumbersome to move. I open one and, surprise, the rifle mags are gone. The only thing left in the fridge is dried out bones.

The film is gone. I reach into my pocket, rub my fingers along the ridged cap. Who the hell needs that much film? I think about putting it back, but what’s the point? It looks like they’ve already cleared out.

So what I do is I take it out, yeah, but I pop it open. Unroll it a bit, until I can see the first few negatives. Hold them up against what little light there is in the hut.

“What?” I say.

The first few pictures are of a kid, and even though there’s no color, I can pretty much guess that this is one of the nomad’s kids. It’s a boy, dressed up like the hero in the Space Flight movies. One of those department store costumes.

I unspool more of the roll. Photos of the huts. Photos of men in suits, wandering through the desert. In these huts, looking over the nomads’ things. A few frames of them talking to what look like government officials, shaking hands. In another, the same suit who hired us for the job. The way some of these are taken, you can tell that the subjects weren’t aware they were being photographed.

In other photos, a film crew, taking wide shots of the village. Then closer, on the threshold of one of the huts, a man dressed disturbingly like the hero of Space Flight. Then people entering a hut, then exiting. More filming.

And then back to the kids.

I roll out more film, but the rest of the photos are of the kids. There’s nothing else. I look at the empty fridge, like it could hold all the answers.

But there’s only dry bones.

I roll the film back up, put it back in its container, and then into my pocket again.

            Outside, you’re already laying charges in the well. “You really think all this is necessary?” I ask. “I mean, it looks like they’ve cleared out everything.”

            You don’t say anything. So I just go over and help you with the charges. We keep working, wiring them together, working up a sweat. The day’s getting hotter.

            My eye catches on a dark shape on the hill at the far side of the village, the side opposite our own camp. I can’t make out what it is, or if it’s even in the shape of a man.

            “They’re not gone,” you say. I look up at you, but you don’t stop moving. “They’re not. You know that. They’re still around. Maybe their women and children, their civilians, maybe they’re all gone. But the rest? They’re coming for us. And this thing just seals that.”

            I stop and straighten. Look back toward the hill. But the figure’s gone.

            When we blow the well, there’s no giant explosion. Just a tiny thud, and the ground shakes, and a few stones from the top of the well falls in. You go up to the well and start kicking. The stones don’t give at first, but you keep kicking, getting angrier and angrier, grunting with each kick. Then they start to fall into the well. No splash, no thud. They just fall.

#

            We spend the rest of the day around our camp, gathering our weapons, securing a perimeter as best we can. It’s one of those muscle memory things again.

            We have the high ground. But there’s only two of us. We take up position at the highest point we can manage without going up a tree, you facing the village, me the opposite way, the open desert road, hastily laid for the film crew, ages ago.

            “What do you think will happen,” I ask, as the sun sets and we sit, back to back, waiting.

            “Pincer maneuver,” you say. “It’s what I would do.”

            I flex my grip on the rifle, it’s sling over my shoulder. It’s like coming home.

            The desert is quiet as the night sets in. No city sounds. Nothing louder than thought out here.

            I steal a glance at you. Your face unreadable, your jaw clenched.

            “I always wanted more,” I say. “More than fighting, killing, watching other people die. I wanted a life.”

            You take a deep breath, let it out slowly, controlled.

“That’s not us,” you say. “We don’t get that life. We’re past it. You and me, and everybody else out in the damn desert. All of us who killed people for no damn reason but we were told. We don’t get a happy ending. We’re fucking—fucking locusts. We take what we can, and then we move on. That’s us. That’s our life. Fuck your garden.”

            I frown but you don’t see it.

            “What are they doing wrong here, exactly?” I ask. “What are these guys doing that’s so bad? Live here?”

            “Yes,” you say. “That’s exactly it. They want to live here. Someone else wants to use it for something else. Person B has a superior force. Person B gets their way. We’re the force. We’re the gun. That’s what we do. Kill the people we have to kill because we’re told to do it. We’re the deconstructionists. We tear things down. We don’t build. We wreck. We kill. And then we move on. That’s it. There’s been people like us forever. Don’t overthink it. Don’t philosophize. Don’t grow a fucking beard while you grow your fucking garden. That’s not us. You have to learn to love the process. You have to come to terms with the fact that the world has fucked you over and will keep fucking you over til you’re dead.”

            My heart’s pounding. I look at the moonlight’s dull reflection on my rifle. Check its sights.

            “All this time,” I say, “I thought maybe you and I would wind up together.”

            You don’t say anything.

            “Like, you get me, you know? You’ve been through the same shit I have.”

            “I know,” you say. “Like I say, though. That’s not us. I don’t plan on giving any of this up any time soon. I need it. And if you wanna be honest with yourself, so do you.”

            I think of the plants I have at home. Home being a tiny little apartment with nothing on its walls. Not even a dog waiting for me. I think of the plants withering and dying.

A sound near our camp catches my attention. I squint in that direction. Listen. Some sound, like an animal scratching, rooting in the dirt.

But it’s not an animal. There’s a figure there, crouched in the door of our tent. I pat you on the shoulder and nod toward the shape.

            The next thing I do doesn’t even register at the level of thought. Rifle comes up, levels. “Freeze,” I call.

            But it’s not my voice that comes out. It’s soldier-me.

            The shadow turns, holds something out at me.

            The rifle lets out three shots. Muzzle flashes. My arm tenses, catches the recoil. The shadow stumbles, then falls.

“Here they come,” you say.

I feel your body tense behind me. I know how all this goes.

A second later, three more come over my side of the ridge. Rifles across their bodies. I raise my rifle. No hesitating. Put three into the center one, and he goes down, just crumbles like paper. The other two hesitate. Raise their guns. Take aim. I put a round through one’s eye, somehow manage the shot. He falls back. The last one hesitates too long, and I pump three more rounds into his chest.

            There’s no backup. No one else comes up the hill.

            I turn to you. There’s still four on your side, further away than mine were, roughly 300 yards. One dead body lying on the ground. I raise my rifle, take out another. My shot hits his arm. He yelps, turns in my direction. Not quick enough. Another burst and he’s down.

            One of the three left takes a shot, and I hear your sharp breath. Another shot hits the tree behind us.

I line up to take a shot at the same moment you say beside me, “Fuck this.”

The hill beneath the three remaining shooters explodes upward. When I look, you’ve got the remote in your hand, and you’re smiling.

I can see one of them limping away as quickly as possible. Apparently you do too. Because you walk after him, calm and collected, firing as you go. And you keep walking, keep shooting, until he finally falls.

You turn, start pumping rounds into every nomad you can find, even the dead ones. When your mag finally runs dry, you stop. Just stand there.

            Somewhere, a coyote howls.

#

            “Couldn’t shoot worth shit,” you say, sounding disappointed. You bend down and pick up one of their rifles, examine it. Shrug, check for ammo, and toss it back into the sand.

            “The studio will be glad,” I say. I kick a rifle away from a dead nomad. One of the whole ones, fortunately. “They get their property back.”

             “Fuck that,” you say. “The studio, the nomads. They’re all the same. And I’m not giving any of them jack shit that they want.”

            I look at you. There in the moonlight. Covered in sweat, dirt. Your arm bound in a bandage, and the bloodstain on your shirt. Where do we go from here?

            “You wanna go scorched earth,” I say.

            “Damn right, I do,” you say. “That’s all I’m good at anymore. Tearing things down.”

            I look down at one of the nomad’s. His eyes wide open, brown in moonlight. His mouth hanging open, covered in sand. Blood turning brown on his chin.

            I think of the children, the wives, the people we never saw, the people the movies never cared for.

            “I wanna burn the bodies,” I say.

            You turn and shrug. “Good luck getting ‘em all down there.”

#

            It’s a small thing, starting a fire. Especially when you already have the kerosene.

            I put as many of the nomads’ bodies as I can find into a tarp and drag it down to the village. Toss them into one of the vacant huts without going in. Toss the tarp in after them. I try not to look at them.

            More charges, around the edges of the village, at the base of every other building around the edges, at the base of each oddly placed structure in the interior. Aside from the wooden shells, these are solid constructions. We need the force.

            I drown the buildings in kerosene, inside and out. I can’t stop shaking.

            We don’t speak. Just work.

            When I get to it, I go into that same damn hut. I shudder. I open all the fridges. All empty—except for the bones, too long, altogether too human. Curved in the wrong way. Snapped in places, their ends jagged, broken. I pull the film from my pocket, turn it over in my hand. Such a small thing. I think of the boy in his store-bought costume. Of my own dream, of being a hero.  

            I set it in the fridge and shut the door.

            Someone else’s story, someone else’s world.

            When I step out of the hut, I look around, trying to find you. Trying to feel like we’re being watched. But the feeling is gone. I scan the dunes. No figures draped in shadow. Nothing. The nomads move on, whatever’s left of them.

            I find you outside the circle of buildings. Come up, stand beside you. Your eyes scanning the village.

            When we’re a safe enough distance away, we turn. You pull out the transmitter and push a button. A second later, a charge goes off in the farthest building. Then another, and another, and another, until the buildings all start to crack, lines traced out in their roofs and walls, until finally it’s too much and the weight of them collapses, gives in to gravity.

            The fires start to spread as soon as the first charges go off, even though we can only see them in glimpses. When buildings crack, we get a flash of light. Then nothing. Until the fire finally catches the roofs, spreads to the walls.  It’s slow at first, but it only gathers strength as it goes. And soon enough, it’s spread to the entire village.

            We stand there until the buildings have finished their collapse. I watch you, your face blank as the fire lights it, back and forth between day-bright and pitch dark. The only sound in the desert is the fire crackling. Otherwise, we’re alone. No animals. No gunfire. No nomads. Just you and me, under the stars we’ve forgotten how to read.

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