Once, A Soldier

I want to tell you about her before I die. Won’t be long now. Someone should remember her.

Click.

We had gone to Tabor Park to see if we could see their ships yet. Silly, I know, but the radio had been talking about it nonstop. And who knows how big an interstellar spaceship really is? But the sky was bright, and the long grass bowed and beckoned in the rare sunshine. Sprinting across the field, we’d collapsed and tumbled, laughing. The flowers sent spouts of color skyward into the crisp blue. She rolled and unfolded to her feet, looked back at me. Her hair was a deep, liquid black, with flashes of purple in the sun. Eyes like almonds, set wide and vibrant living green. She was smiling, her arm outstretched. I could see her blazing through her eyes like the sunrise through the blinds. The sensations came back unbidden. The intoxicating scent of her, the full-body hum in my veins when she drew close. I was delirious, drunk on her.

She pitched forward and I ran after her, uncaring in the golden light of that perfect day. The sky seemed to stretch out to infinity like the possibility on a paintbrush. It was love, or the endless march of moments just like these. We were young, close, indomitable. If I close my eyes I can still breathe in the memory. It almost burst me, a swelling wave of all the little things swept by in the zeitgeist of happiness. I would do anything to go back to that perfection.

(Image provided by N.T. Narbutovskih)

Many more moments followed that one. A week, then a month of happiness. We had moved in together, to a small run-down house in Stumptown. That part of Portland was so close to the heart of the city and seemed to embody the promise of the future. The house had potential in every dusty corner, happiness waiting in every broken floorboard and cracked wall. The gaudy reds and blues of the painted siding, the neatly pointed and white trimmed roof. It was like a living thing. The cracked tile in the kitchen a broken heart. The trim softening like the inevitable expansion of a waistline. I spent my days and nights breathing life back into the dilapidated bones of it, the energy flowing from my hands. I sent my own life into the wood and plaster with every nail and stroke of paint. I was so close to finishing the first floor, and I knew every subtle mistake, every drip of finish or mismatched board.

It was perfect.

She had come home late one day, her heels clicking on the concrete of the walkway. The flash off her briefcase was all I needed to drop my tools and meet her at the door. I told her about my day, the words piling out like a burst dam. That was the day I had finished the wall in the kitchen, the last on the ground floor. The carefully troweled surface was covered in a pristine layer of barely dried eggshell. I had started as the light peeked in the window and finished as it faded out in the evening. I greeted her then started the tiny camp stove we used to cook. I put water on to boil, and I went to the shower in the still unfinished upstairs bathroom, measured steps avoiding the piles of tile and tubes of caulk.

When I came back I found her, jacket across the folding chair, her palette in one hand. It was splashed with searing colors, umber and taupe an afterthought by the crimson, cerulean, blinding white. She had already finished the wash of the sky. Her arm flew back and forth, a dry brush in her teeth as she coaxed a horizon from the emptiness. All my careful work with trowel and sanding block and the painstaking layers of paint undone in a flurry of energy. Destruction and creation. I should have been angry, should have been disappointed, but for some reason I wasn’t.  I skipped those and went right to awe. I had spent so much time making this wall perfect, smooth, and the same as every other wall. And it only took her a moment to see what it could be. I smiled as I made us dinner quietly, trying to fry a few eggs and toast to accompany a box of wine. I managed to burn the toast, the smoke filling the tiny kitchen. I opened the window, silenced the alarm, but she never stopped painting or said a word, and I knew she was there past the smoke. Finally, the air cleared. She stood back and the sunset from Mt. Tabor shone resplendent in our kitchen. I turned her around and kissed her, her hands setting down the pallet then wrapping around my neck. Her greedy mouth met mine, need reflecting my own as we made love there in our kitchen under the midnight sunset.

Click.

What was next? Ah, yes. The trip. We found an old claw-footed monstrosity of a stove on an internet posting. It was perfect, the hulking cast iron drowned under a patina of rust-promise and potential like the house we built. I borrowed my friend Kevin’s massive pickup and trailer. He wouldn’t need it until the weekend and his next guide trip. He and I got along despite our differences, or maybe because of them. I wasn’t too much of the outdoors type-he always gave me a hard time for being unable to skin a rabbit or tell how far to the next ridge. I told always told him, I’m not a soldier, never have been. I would ask him how to calculate the right amount of concrete to order or which stucco coat came first, scratch or brown. He would laugh and raise a beer in silent acknowledgement. To each our own.

She and I left early in the morning, the old farmhouse an hour down I-5. The drive was unusual for us; bicycles were all we needed in the city. While I drove, we listened to the radio, loud over the hum of the off-road tires. I remember checking my blind spot to shift lanes and seeing her there. She had her bare feet kicked up on the dashboard as she moved her fingers through the air outside the cab. Her hair whipped back in the wind, but she didn’t seem to notice, singing lustily along with the radio and fingering the top button of her plaid shirt. Take me home, country roads… That shirt had been mine, once. I think I’d had it since high school, forgotten and passed along from box to closet to box again over the moves and the years. I’d worn it on our first date, a lumberjack affectation that I thought would impress her. When in Rome, after all. The only thing that had impressed her was how warm it was, draped over her shoulders in the chilly air as we walked down Division street from dinner to drinks. She announced at the end of the night that she was keeping it. Her tone was final, her grin mischievous in the dim light of the door to her building. A truck belched a cloud of black smoke as it passed us, and I had changed lanes and moved my eyes back to the road. We drove on through the smoke and into the clear sunshine.

Click.

The next memory, always stealing in on the heels of the last, lurking in my head inevitable as that Tabor sunset. It always went this way. Nearly home. The trailer swayed and squeaked in protest under the weight of the stove. We stopped for gas. I had forgotten how much a truck went through, the half-tank we’d set out with proving woefully inadequate. We found diesel at a 76 store, squatting in dingy protest to the slick and modern EV charging station across the street. The truck inhaled fuel, the loud snap of the handle declaring its hunger satiated. Ours, however, was not. I immediately turned down to my phone. If I stared hard enough at the map, I could coax it into revealing the location of the optimal combination of value, flavor, and dining experience. After only a few seconds she laughed at me and pointed over my shoulder.

The Black Bear diner was right next door, and we left the truck and trailer in the parking of the gas station. Once installed in the booth, our meal was hamburgers, big ones, the kind with bacon and grease that triggered something in your brain to keep eating even though you knew you didn’t need it, probably should stop, just one more bite. Pack it on for the winter, neanderthal. French fries, wedge cut, sea salt, ketchup. She was never shy at the table, her own mountain of golden potatoes disappearing as fast as my own. I don’t remember what we talked about, but there was laughter. She made a big show of cleaning a dab of ketchup from my lip, voice raised so that everyone else in the diner cast sidelong glances at the two crazy people. I grinned and let her. That’s when the jet went by.

My dad took me to an airshow once as a kid. I still remember it, seared onto my brain with a branding iron. The staggering noise of a fighter jet at close range is primal. It’s a sound like a giant’s torn canvas, thunder that never ends, and a feeling that shakes you to your core and triggers the animal in you. It will reduce you to a quivering mass of mammal cowering in a cave as the thunder lizard hunts. It’s a wave that crashes over you, smothering every other sound, every sensation until raw unfiltered power seeps from every pore. But this wasn’t that. It was louder.

The windows had bowed in, the curtains fluttering over the faces of the diners yet to react. I remember the moment before they snapped back, the pressure in my ears. The jet was gone before the shockwave hit the restaurant; shattered windows blasted out into the parking lot. I couldn’t hear. I grabbed her hand across the table. She pulled me urgently. All I could think was that the roof was coming down. She led me through the smoke, back toward the shattered doors. We made it into the parking lot in time to see the thing that followed the jet. A sleek and narrow needle of smoked glass that left a tearing waver like liquid in the air behind it ripped along. The jet pilot was banking, trying to stay low over the river. The needle flew straight through the plane. A horizontal cloud of rapidly expanding bits of metal, flame, and what had once been a human cascaded into the water. The sound of the explosion came after. The single needle was followed by several more, turning hard and rocketing back to the north, the city, the people. A siren started somewhere. The diner’s radio had given up on the Beegees and bleated out the emergency broadcast tone. We looked at each other, the steady footing of our reality suddenly unsure. I nearly fell as my knees felt weak, threatening to buckle. I started to talk about what we could pack, where we could go, trying to list all the things we could carry if we could get home quickly. She said it out loud.

“There’s nothing but death back there.”

We took as much as we could from the 76. I moved to the closest analog the store had to a real food aisle and started stuffing cans, packages, bottles into the green duffel I’d found in the truck. Jerky, nuts, trail mix, canned meat, gods help me. The clerk was on the phone, trying to call the police and shouting at us. I tried to ignore him. I should have paid more attention. His first shot hit the bottles I was reaching for, the bullet going through the cans and bottles. It showered me in water and collateral energy drink. I swore, my shoulders thrown up by reflex as I ducked down and dropped to the ground. She was already there, reaching into the black leather purse. She motioned me down, then stood, her hands pulling up then forward. I watched them in slow motion, each second and hour, and marveled. The curve of her shoulder, the set of her jaw, the long sinuous line of her arms that ended in pearl and steel. She transfixed me.

Guns are a lot louder when they go off next to you. She shot him twice in the chest, the twin reports hammering my ears. I was cut off then. The sound left me momentarily insulated from reality and isolated off in my own world of silence. It didn’t register, did she really just do that. I stood slowly, the only evidence the clerk had existed the flecks of red spread across the display of tobacco cans behind the register. My eyes met hers, I’m sure in disbelief because she just looked back and her voice came then, low and steady and completely calm.

“We need to go now.”

I didn’t have time to process it. She was right. We had to go. We left the trailer, the rust-covered stove tipping perilously. It waited for the world to return to normal. The two top ovens and the lower rim made the caricature of a smile, the happiest stove in the burning world. I didn’t know how much we were abandoning.

We ran again, not for joy or love across the fields in Tabor Park. We ran for survival. We drove towards the jagged unrelenting mountains of the Cascades. Kevin’s pickup ate up the miles and let us drive around knots of snarled traffic on the blacktop. The vehicles streaming out of the city moved slower every minute. I’ll be eternally grateful that Kevin kept his ruck packed, gear and kit clean and stowed and everything in its place. It was tucked in the back seat of the truck. I guess he was typical of ex-military, but I’m not sure. Not many turn up in Portland. He used to talk about the problem with adventure was that most of it was usually mind-numbingly dull, sprinkled with moments of sheer panic. I never believed him, but what do I know? I’m not a soldier, never have been. Everything I might count as adventure had been with her and was new, vibrant, joyful. Who could have known the next adventure would be one of terror. The breaking glass and sirens assaulted us, soot clogging the air until we made it out of the town and past the smoke. Eventually the piles of ruined vehicles stacked up across all the lanes. The truck took us a long way south, nearly to Mt. Baker. But everything runs out of gas eventually. We went on foot.

I’d never seen a dead body before. I know, I know, the clerk, but I hadn’t been able to bring myself to look over the counter at the 76. But there were bodies everywhere now. The biggest surprise was the permanence of them; even days later along the trails, no one was there to bury them, honor the dead and return them to the earth. I had hoped that some others had made it out. But we saw the larger needles belched out clouds of smaller ones, each whining balefully through the air. It rained nearly every day now, the thick clouds a mundane and consistent companion to the many types of precipitation. Driving in sheets, gently drizzling, stinging at the edge of ice. And still the needles hunted.

The smaller needles looked like a diabolically stretched version of the finned foam footballs I played with as a kid. We saw one zip by once as we hid, slow enough to miss the trees but still moving with terrible speed and precision. They tracked along anywhere they saw sign of humanity, weaving along even the forest paths in an efficient and implacable ballet. We walked up a hill, trailing another man, the first human we’d seen in days. We didn’t dare shout, but our strides took on a new urgency. Every few minutes he would appear between the trees, revealed by the curtains of water and cloud. As we rounded a corner, we had heard the high-pitched keening, warbling as it gained in volume. Our mystery companion was silhouetted against the ridge above us, frozen against the pale ghost of sky.

I can still see him come apart. The needle must have entered his chest, its fat center transferring energy in furious proclamation of mortality. His head and arm were the largest part I could identify. The geyser of blood and viscera that followed it looked like a macabre party favor blasting lumps of confetti into sky. I dove to the side of the trail, unthinking, all animal. I had to live. I felt the shockwave as the needle passed, then the wave of panic as I realized that I’d thought only to save myself. I didn’t think-I called out to her, low as I could but probably too loud. My whole body vibrated with the need to jump up and find her, clamped still by fear of death. Too long of a pause, then she answered, and I could breathe again. I was overwhelmed by shame and guilt and elated that we were both still alive. The whole rest of the day I was a rag wrung out and left to dry.

It was too dangerous on any trail. We had struck out against the brush, feet and ankles and shins and legs tangling in undergrowth as we sought the rise of terrain. We needed to get our bearing, strike farther from civilization. Leave no trace.

There was no trail, there in the hills. I hadn’t expected how hard it would get. We had made our own way, as quickly as we could, stealing snatches of sleep between listening for the needles. We counted what food we had, and desperately searched for more. We were always moving. I wish I’d known more about what plants could sustain us; I could tell a king’s cup with the tiny pale-blue flower and clutch of deep green leaves but precious few others. Rosehips were a bitter companion, wax and chalk on the tongue.

Sometimes we moved faster, the hills gently prodding us along with a firm push in the back, our toes butted up against the front of our shoes. Other times slower, the lying helpful hills transformed to mountains, crags, peaks of despair. The hill would never end, could never end, you couldn’t see the top of it, but you couldn’t stop either. They made sure of that. We heard the whistling sometimes, even out there off the trails. It became a ritual, no less terrifying in its frequency. Drop down into the shrub or clumps of tall grass to huddle, barely breathing as I willed the shrieking missile to seek elsewhere. Once we had spent what felt like half the day huddled in a shallow depression. The sound would nearly fall away before it came back. I was sure it was searching for us. It knew we were out there, and it was only a matter of time before I wet the ground red with my own contribution. I held her close, rocking gently as I felt her whole-body tremble. That couldn’t be her though, she was the strong one. Or was that me? It left eventually, though we stayed still a long time after.

Click.

We huddled over the tiny rectangle of glowing screen. She cupped it gently in her handle like an egg. We had barely recharged it from an ailing solar panel I’d found in the bottom of Kevin’s ruck. It was a relic from a former life, months or millennia ago, still calmly reacting as it always had despite the complete revision of our reality. We clung to the artifacts of our culture, despite the silence that greeted us in them. Reception had gone long ago, disappearing suddenly unlike the hope we still clung to. Hope of finding others. Hope for life. We wrapped ourselves in that hope, and it replaced the tattered clothing, the fat and flesh that faded from our gaunt limbs.

Hunger gnawed and twisted, shrank and rose. It was our ever-present companion, occasionally knocked back by a sparse patch of berries or a scavenged handful of green. Mostly it sang to us, the grumble of stomachs easing us to sleep and the shouts of emptiness jolting us awake. Winter, such as it was, had nearly arrived and the foraging took from us as much as it returned. I never snared a rabbit or caught a fish, despite trying. TV had made it seem so easy. My childhood fantasies of adventure and nature were dashed daily; I was no modern Davey, hunting and trapping my way in the wilderness. All my skill in the kitchen with pot and pan amounted to nothing. The forest was my corner store, a bodega whose ingredients I knew nothing of. And so we starved, scraped, pleaded with the unfeeling trees. Kevin would have known all there was in the silent pines, all that he needed, but I didn’t. I’m not a soldier, never have been.

But we were still alive, barely. We had made it away from the worst towns, but the frenzied panic pace of the initial flight had slowed and finally ground to a halt. Desperation dictated where we would be, or try to be. A last stand for existence. The screen showed us a map, the roads and terrain of the former state of Oregon. It was devoid of the friendly blue dot that would tell us where we were. As if that mattered anymore; we knew that most maps didn’t. State lines, countries, names, the arbitrary lines humans drew in the soil to make manifest mine, not yours. We used the map to plan, talking in low tones to each other about finding more, finding safety, finding food. Finding anything. She didn’t talk much now, and it twisted me to see. Her vibrant self came through only in flashes now, and those few and far between.

Click.

I had heard them talking. The sun rose achingly slowly as the light moved from none to some to a grey wash. It wasn’t any warmer, snow falling, my hands and arms wrapped around her as she lay curled in my lap. The first human voices, save hers, I’d heard in months stabbed through the silence of the snow. The snow. It fell in huge, fat clumps, straight down. I could see each piece, the intricacies of ice and water bound together in tessellated forms like the jacks I played with as a kid. They built up quickly. The rising and thickening blanket threatened to smother us once again in the ice before they could find us. We lay in the tree bole, the sliver of silver-grey sky slowly eaten by the rising wall of white. I was a poor excuse for a blanket, knobby knees and bony ribs. Whatever I had, though, I would give to her. I’d watch her fade and couldn’t bear it. I had to give her what she needed. I thought I always would, everything, every piece of me from the moment we met. I hadn’t realized how easy it was to think only of yourself. Ever since the moment I dove to save myself on the trail, I carried with me the shame of selfishness. But it made me strong; my resolve to give myself to her reinforced and reinvigorated. I had no thought for myself, every time I heard her voice, saw her brush the hair from her eyes; no seed of desire or want, save her. To see her laugh was food in my belly, the sound of her voice water on my lips. She knew it, knew I drank her in just as she did me. We had each tried to smile more, to laugh despite the aching limbs. Pins and needles. She needed me now.

I gathered what strength I had and cried out, a wordless human sound against the silent and uncaring forest. I heard them stop, and breathed in, the icy air stabbing hot needles into my chest but I called out again, sobbing between racking coughs. My breath steamed the air in front of us. Again I yelled, my view of her obscured in the smoke-white fog that poured from my lips. Just as the blackness took me, they found us, wrapped in each other and lost to memory and frost.

Click.

I came back, slowly swimming my way out of the miasma of disconnection. White sheets, a window, sun. The sun. Motes of dust floated transfixed by it. Each photon born in the heart of the Sun had spent a hundred thousand slow years and eight fast minutes to die in the warm honey glow of that light. I had always taken comfort in the sun, the knowledge that its heat and light took such time and care to boil up from its fiery birth. It felt too good. I was dead, surely dead as the stranger on the ridge. My fading brain created some clever fiction as the final puddle of life and warmth crept from my body to rejoin the forest floor. I didn’t believe it when two people came in, steaming water in a bowl, my hands bandaged and unable. I looked back and forth to them and they made reassuring noises, pulled up a chair on either side. They fed me, the broth salty and heady. I wanted more of it but they urged me to wait, slowly, not too much. I had to regain my strength. I knew it, knew she needed me. I sipped the broth.

My lips were cracked, deep fissures running through them. My mouth felt sewn shut and torn back open. It hurt. The pain of sipping the thin broth was exquisite in its necessity. I kept on, learning the names of those who came. Only three, a woman and two men. They were my first contact with the settlement. The warren of underground shelters and furtively camouflaged buildings held pitifully few refugees. Couldn’t afford to be seen, had to leave no trace, they told me. I chuckled at this; who knew the admonishment of the national park service would take on such a tone.

Days later, when I could speak, I asked for her, her name the first words on my lips when I could finally open them. When they told me, I don’t remember what happened. Perhaps I screamed. I cried. I said horrible things to these strangers, swore at them for leaving her, cursed them for not trying harder, more, anything. Or perhaps I said nothing, did nothing, numb in body and spirit and no connection between words and reality. Maybe I sat there for days and relived every moment together, trying to think of what I could have done more of. There was a lot. Either way, I don’t remember.

Seeing her body though, I remember that. They gave me her things, the pearl handled gun among them. It was the last spark of hope extinguished. I said goodbye, said the words, but I’ll be dust before I let her go.

Click.

The sound of the last bullet sliding home is final. I roll the drum back into her revolver with an oddly satisfying snap. Maybe this is what soldiers feel like. I can hear the voices calling, the staccato reports of gunfire, the low thrum reply of their weapons. The whistling and keening of the tiny missiles, kept at bay by the EM generators. We had thought the generators would keep us safe.

She’s been dead so long, her body gone but I kept her alive, in my thoughts and my dreams each night. The shouting from outside is louder now, thumping of footsteps. Cordite and smoke in the air, leaching in around the door and through the windowsill like the leaking of memory. Its tendrils twist and curl around the armor in my mind to send it all flooding back.

The windows rattle in the frame, a thump through the floor and walls. Grenade, most likely, close. Or far. I have no idea, really. The gun is heavy in my hand, alien in a separate way from the ones outside. I look at it, the blue-gray steel of the barrel, fine details in the drum, its oddly beautiful and soft-seeming pearl handle. But what do I know about guns anyways? Dirty Harry, the thought jumps up unbidden. I refused to carry it at first, the memory it held too painful to bear. But now, I can hear the inhuman chattering, the whirring and stomp of armored foot, alien against the very human screaming from outside. I know what it’s for. I never thought I’d be able to shoot someone. But that’s ok; they’re not someone. If not for them she’d be alive. I grasp the door handle, breath deeply and close my eyes. I see her there once more in the golden sunlight of a perfect day, then open, out into the heat and the fear and the bullets and blood. She’d be alive.  I know she’s waiting for me, out past the smoke.

 

This story previously appeared in his newsletter at Narbutov.com.
Edited by Marie Ginga

N.T. Narbutovskih is a bestselling author and writes in the tech and security fields. His work has appeared in Metastellar, Air and Space Power Journal and Over the Horizon Journal for both fiction and non-fiction, and he has spoken on leadership and geopolitics at the USAF Squadron Officer School and NavyCON. His first book, Steel in the Blood, has received rave reviews and is available now wherever books are sold. Join his mailing list for exclusive early access and an opportunity to pre-order his next book at Narbutov.com.