Authors: Tom Isbell
To Pat and Pam,
Wild animals never kill for sport. Man is the only one to whom the torture and death of his fellow creatures is amusing in itself.
Oceana, or, England and Her Colonies
Blood drips from fingertips, splashing the floor. A mosaic of white hexagons, outlined in black, now splotched with red. Droplets, then a puddle, a pond, a lake.
Blood. Purpling. Coagulating before his eyes.
Darkness presses against the outer reaches of his periphery, narrowing his vision. The world grows dim.
He reaches out a hand against the blood-smeared wall. Fingers squealing on tiles. Tries to call for help but the words get strangled in his throat. He collapses to the floor.
Eyes land on a knife, its razor edge trimmed in red. Blood.
Darkness closing in. The world reduced to a pinprick. Fatigue washes over him like a summer storm.
My final moments,
All come down to this.
He does not hear the door swing open, the swift stomping of feet. The ripping of fabric. The improvised tourniquet. Being lifted and carried, swept out the door, leaving behind a world of black and white and red.
E FOUND HIS BODY
on a Sunday morning. Three circling buzzards, their black silhouettes etched against a blazing blue sky, clued us in that
might be down there. Down in the gullies where the foothills gave over to desert.
At the very edge of the No Water.
We thought a possum. Perhaps even a wolf. Certainly not a kid fried like an egg, stretched out in the meager shade of a mesquite bush.
He wasn't dead, but if we hadn't found him when we did, he would've been. Maybe within the hour. Then this story never would've happened. There'd be nothing to write about because it all changed that late-spring morning, the day we found him dying of dehydration
at the edge of the desert.
He was sandy-haired, about our age, lying spread-eagled on the ground like a giant X. Red ran back to camp to tell the officers, while Flush and I turned him over. The sun had burned his face to a crisp, cracked his lips, swollen his eyes shut. Dried sweat stains marked his black T-shirt and jeans, and, oddly, he was barefoot.
Barefoot in the desert!
Blisters big as quarters, caked with dirt and blood, dotted the undersides of his feet.
We poured water from our canteens into his mouth. Some of it made it to his throat; the rest dribbled down his neck, carving trails in his dust-covered face.
The camp Humvees came hurtling across the dunes. The boy stirred, his eyes opening into a squint.
“He's alive!” Flush shouted. Master of the obvious.
He mumbled something neither of us could quite make out. I bent down, stretching my gimp leg out to the side so I could press my ear close to his mouth.
“What was that?” I asked.
I gave him another slurp of water. He tried to speak, the sounds painful to listen to. Like stepping on broken glass, all crunch and scrape.
Red jumped from the Humvee, Major Karsten right behind.
“Th-th-there,” Red said, with his tendency to stutter.
“Stand back,” Karsten said. No one didn't obey an order from Major Karsten.
Wearing desert camouflage, he marched across the sandy terrain, his boots leaving massive footprints in the earth. He knelt by the boy's side, picked up his right arm, and examined it. There was a thick burn mark there: a ridge of red scar tissue oozing pus. Karsten inspected it a full twenty seconds before feeling for a pulse. By then, other vehicles had arrived, disgorging brown-shirted soldiers.
“Get him to the infirmary,” Karsten commanded.
The soldiers loaded the boy onto a stretcher and slid him into the Humvee like a pan of dough going into an oven. The vehicle roared back to camp.
“Who found him?”
Major Karsten was looking right at us, his anvil-shaped face skeletal in appearance. The sun cast a deep shadow on the scar that angled from left eyebrow to chin.
“We all did,” Flush said.
“Ever seen him before?”
“Did he say anything?”
Flush was about to answer but I beat him to it. “He tried. Nothing came out.”
Karsten's eyes settled on me. I knew that gaze.
“Nothing?” Karsten asked.
“No, sir,” I answered.
His eyes narrowed as though gauging whether I was being truthful or not. “Come see me when you get back, Book. I want a full report. You LTs return to camp,” he said over his shoulder. “That's enough CC for one day.”
Black smoke belched from the exhaust and the remaining Humvees made doughnuts in the desert before ascending the ridge.
“I saw him first,” Flush said, his pale, round body sinking in the shifting sand as he and Red plodded up the hill ahead of me. “Why didn't Karsten ask me for a report? Why Book?”
“Do you want to m-meet with Karsten?” Red asked.
“Well, no,” Flush conceded.
“Then shut your p-piehole.”
That's the way it wasâpeople talking about me as if I wasn't even there. Sometimes I felt utterly invisible. Like if I turned around and took a suicide walk into the No Water, no one would notice. I guess that's why I buried myself in books. There was comfort there. Security.
As the heat seeped through the soles of my shoes, a sense of dread settled in my stomach. The prospect of facing Major Karsten was enough to send a wave of nausea through me. Of all the officers in Camp Liberty, he was by far the most feared.
But it was more than thatâI had lied. The boy
said something. Words I alone had heard. Words that raised the short hair on the back of my neck.
“You've gotta get me out of here,” he said, seconds before the first Humvee pulled up. And then, for good measure, he repeated it once more.
You've gotta get me out of here.
OPE BENDS HER EAR
to the cave's entrance, her body tense.
She's convinced she's hearing sounds. Not the noises she's grown accustomed toâscurrying rats, the flap of bats' wingsâbut something else entirely. A rustle of leaves? Something .Â .Â . human.
She fears the soldiers are getting close.
“Hope,” her sister whispers.
“Hope,” Faith says again.
Hope motions her sister to be quiet .Â .Â . and then sees the reason for her distress. Lying on black bedrock, their father's head lolls listlessly from side to side. Hope leaves the mouth of the cave and hurries to his side.
In flickering candlelight, she sees his cheeks are badly sunken, his normally robust face pale as chalk. When she places a hand on his forehead, it's scalding.
“He's burning up,” Hope says. She turns and sees the tears welling in her sister's eyes. Hope points to a small pool farther back in the cave. “Go soak a rag and we'll place it on his forehead.”
“What rag? We don't have anything.” Faith's voice borders on panic.
While it annoys Hope that Faith can't solve problems on her own, she's right about this: they don't have a thing. The last few weeks have been a desperate scramble from one hiding place to another. They've been forced to leave nearly all their possessions behind, burying them in remote patches of the wilderness. They'll have no need of them once they reach the Brown Forest and cross into the new territory.
they reach the Brown Forest.
Hope rips the bottom off her shirt and hands the filthy wad to Faith. “Here. Now go.”
Faith scuttles to the cavern's dark recesses.
Hope takes her father's hand. It's rough and callused, more like sandpaper than skin. She studies his left foot, now nearly twice as big as his right. It's purple and inflamed, with red lines shooting up the calf. All because he stepped on a jutting nail, its tip scarred with rust and radiation. After all they've been through, to have it come
down to something as simple as a little infection.
Which has grown into a big infection.
She stares at the cave's entrance, still not sure if she heard something. Drifting clouds obscure what little moon there is.
A voice startles her.
“Go easy .Â .Â . on your sister.” Her father, his words gravelly.
Hope grows suddenly defensive. “I do.”
Her father grunts. “She tries, you know.”
“Yeah, well, sometimes not hard enough.”
He forces a smile, the wrinkles creasing beard stubble. A corner of his black mustache angles up. “Sounds like
they're his words. Where else would she have learned them?
His eyes close. Then he whispers, “You're your father's daughter. And she's .Â .Â . her mother's daughter.”
It's true, of courseâno denying itâand it always strikes Hope as odd that two siblings, born mere minutes apart, can be so utterly different. It's obvious that she and Faith are twins. Both sport matching black hair, identical brown eyes, the same tea-colored skin. The only physical difference is weight; Faith is perilously thin .Â .Â . and getting more so by the day.
But in all other respects they are wildly different. Faith is shy, introverted, afraid to take chances, while
Hope is just the opposite: fearless, athletic, bold to the point of reckless. As far as Hope's concerned, they may as well have sprung from separate mothers entirely.
Hope remembers the day they raced sticks in the stream behind the house. What were they then, five or six? Although it was obvious Faith would rather have been inside attending to her dolls, she agreed to play, and they ended up shouting with delight, rooting for their tiny twigs tumbling down the mountain creek.
But when the soldiers showed up and the sound of bullets echoed off the surrounding hills, Hope and Faith forgot racing sticks. Forgot how to smile and laugh. The girls' last memory of that childhood homeâand their childhood itselfâwas their mother lying dead, blood pooling from her forehead onto the warped boards of the front porch.