Jumpies were out there somewhere in the desert. Just because we
couldn't see them didn't mean they weren't there. Sometimes they'd
get you with the sun in your face and you'd just see little dark
reverse-vapor trails. How the hell they wore black in the desert
in broad daylight, I'll never know. One of the most important things
we used to scream at the new guys was never to shoot off their guns
too close to anyone's ear. Out here, sound was life. If your ears
were no good, you'd never hear them coming.
desert used to scare the living shit out of me. I came into this
war thinking I'd be trudging though silted dunes like snowdrifts.
As it turns out, it's more like a thousand-square-mile gravel pit.
This was A-OK by me until I figured out that if you don't constantly
look at your feet you trip over the little cracks where moisture
evaporates to the surface. At the very least, this means you're
marching with your head down and that fucks up your stride. At worst,
it meant you'd be looking at your feet when the great big stupid
Jumpie slugs hit you in the top of the head and moonroofed your
Dinks was in the fox-hole with me. He had grown up in the camp with
me at Two Guns and I knew by the way he was breathing that he had
caught something. Every few minutes we switched sides so one of
us wouldn't be staring right at the sun for too long. A fox-hole
in the desert needs to be watched on both sides, and we had all
heard stories about guys going sun-blind. It was a pretty stupid
place to stop, and we knew it. Pieces of machinery stuck out of
the ground and decayed in uneven patterns like partially-exposed
corpses. There were no real corpses out here, of course. Anything
motionless that wasn't made of metal or protected by fire after
dark would never see another sunrise. The smarter ones of us always
knew it was the wildlife that would come and chew up our buddies
after dark, but some of the dumbass kiddos talked about cannibal
Jumpies. One thing's for sure: when you're out of sight of civilization,
people believe some dumb-shit things.
nearby metal hulk was most of an old car. There were some like it
back at camp that were drawn around by horses. Tucker and Mr. Ed
had snagged it right off the bat and instead of digging a foxhole
proper they had settled into the front seats. I swung my weapon
around and looked through the scope at Mr. Ed. He was looking down
at the dashboard. Tucker must have seen me turn because he gave
me the finger.
fucking around," said Leftenant Price.
a dick, Pricey," I said.
whacked the top of my helmet. Hard.
the fuck?" I turned on him. He had his hands in the air.
told me to, man." Meaning the Leftenant.
Leftenant and Todd Sixbury were across what was left of the road
that ran through this section of desert. They were out in the open
like Dinks and me, and the LFT seemed like he was starting to think
it was a stupid idea, too.
can eat a dick, too, Mox."
shoot the messenger, bra."
turned my weapon back out over the stretch of road that snaked out
well, I guess it must have been the South. For the
moment I wasn't staring at the sun and my bedazzled retinas started
to resolve again. There wasn't much to see anyway. Just an old dust-colored
layer of asphalt that was cracked in about a million places.
people thought there was oil out here, but none of us believed it.
Gasoline was $54.50 a gallon then, and that stretch of desert had
been sucked dry long ago. Every once in a while we'd come across
a couple of holes in the ground where some enterprising Jumpie had
put up a little makeshift derrick, but there was never any sign
that the black stuff had come out. Mostly we watched the road because
the Jumpies would sometimes bring cartloads of stolen children down
them. Christ knows why they stole children. They always had plenty
of their own. We had all heard stories about Jumpie children being
as thick as rat-babies on their cave-floors.
to think of it, that's about all we did know
gotta take a piss," said Dinks, making a motion with his elbow
behind me that felt suspiciously like he was scratching his balls.
I said, "try not to get any on ya."
A PISS!" Dinks shouted. We were supposed to call it out whenever
we had to leave the fox hole for some reason. We hadn't seen anyone
out here except those sun-flare outlines for about a week. At the
time, it didn't seem like there was any good reason to be quiet,
and Moxie blew off the Leftenant's sharp stare. He chewed on a sickly
warm protein bar and unzipped his fly.
sand makes a weird sound in the desert when you pee on it. It doesn't
puddle or get muddy, it just sucks the moisture up almost as fast
as it falls. You get a little white salty spot where you were standing,
but that's about it. I didn't know what on earth could live on soldier-piss,
but if you took a leak out there it sure as hell didn't stick around
long in the dirt.
was in the fox hole by myself then, and I was trying to watch both
sides of the road at once, and after a few seconds I realized I
hadn't heard anything from where Mox was standing. I looked over
at him just in time to see him zip up without having gone. Mr. Ed
noticed what Moxie was looking at right about the same time I saw
the hill?" Mr. Ed said. We called him Mr. Ed because he had
a drawl that sounded like he had come kicking the same cow turd
all the way from Texas.
was a woman in the middle of the road, holding an ancient hunting
rifle in one hand and a small child's hand in the other. They were
toddling along the road so slowly that none of us had noticed them,
walking out of the sun like the Jumpies always do. Five rifles chambered
rounds at the same time, safeties clicked off, scope covers popped
up to reveal the delicate optics beneath. It had been a long time
since any of us had shot anything. Dinks crouched down and started
goose-walking back to the fox hole.
we got?" the Leftenant barked.
can't see very well," came Moxie's reply to my left. We were
all nervous so there was all sorts of chatter.
lady it looks like, and a baby."
right, shut the fuck up," Price yelled. "Dinks, what do
they look like to you?"
Moxie had just managed to crawl back into position next to me, "Yeah,
a woman and a kid. Mom's got a gun."
fucking shoot," said Price. I heard snorts from the firing
line. One of them was mine.
packing, Pricey. We need to do something."
not going to do anything, God dammit
woman kept walking toward us.
a trick," said Harry Tucker, peering through his rifle scope.
"You've seen them before. The kid has a belly full of grenades
or the mom is carrying some C4
Tucker was a former basketball player from a New Jersey prep school.
Trouble at home had derailed his college plans, and landed him here.
We didn't hold it against him then, and he was right; the Jumpies
would throw their children's dismembered limbs at you to trip you
up if they had to. They were ferocious, and they never surrendered.
Yet here was something none of us had ever seen before. It's situations
with no precedent that have the greatest potential for disaster.
There's a French word for it, but I've forgotten it.
still, some part of us wanted to believe that a lone woman and child
meant something other than treachery and sudden death. That's why
we all breathed a sigh of relief when the woman finally saw us.
She stopped and talked with the kid, stooping to its level. We thought
it was a little boy, but we couldn't be sure. Sometimes the boys
had long hair and the girls were bald. None of us knew why.
two of them sat down for a minute in the middle of the road.
hell-o?" Moxie said. He took his eye away from his carbine
scope for a moment and looked at me questioningly.
shook my head.
your eye on them," I pointed.
mother had taken out some sort of food and was dividing it between
the two of them.
got to be shitting me," I heard Tucker say.
own stomach growled.
that day, I had eaten probably my thousandth protein bar. They tasted
like the plastic they were wrapped in, and they were always room
temperature. The instant you opened them, you had to wolf them down.
If you didn't, you'd be eating a frosted-desert-dust bar instead.
Or you'd attract the scorpions and ants. The ants were worse.
woman and child were eating what looked like bread.
what's wrong with this picture?" I asked.
Private. What's your point?"
was the last time you saw corn or wheat?"
this like 'I Spy'?" he yelled.
did they get bread?"
Leftenant was silent for a moment, considering.
matter," he said. "Keep your eyes open. Mr. Ed, check
Ed began a slow and steady check of the other four directions. We
were still completely alone. At least, that was, as far as we could
was no government in this country. I had always assumed it was the
desert. The weather and critters were too much for the sort of people
who were politicians. There might have been some tribe leader or
something, but they never let us get close enough to figure out
who was in charge. We didn't see them in groups of more than one
or two usually, and the ones we caught were doped up to high heaven
on something. When they sobered up, they'd break their own necks
or bite off their tongues and bleed to death. How the hell could
we argue with that? No discussion, no interrogation, no hesitation.
It was pretty fucking scary.
home, I lived off-base in a pre-fab frame house with two double-wides
for neighbors. I had a yard with grass that didn't grow too good.
I had a dog that my parents were taking care of. It wasn't much,
but it started to sound pretty nice right about then.
woman and child finished their bread and gave each other a hug while
doesn't look good," Tucker said, nervously.
the fuck up, man," I said, but I thought it looked bad too.
There's a word in Japanese for these crazy bastards who used to
fly planes full of bombs into battleships, but I can't remember
not shoot!" the Leftenant yelled as authoritatively as
he could manage.
stood up and started walking back toward us again. The woman had
slung her rifle, but it was still within easy reach. None of us
spoke Jumpie, so we didn't know if she understood or not.
they're coming for us, man
" Tuck said. I heard a safety
safety your weapon right now. Right fucking now, private!"
that I think of it, fear is pretty damned authoritative sometimes,
woman and child were walking faster now.
the gun down. Ma'am, put the gun down!" Todd Sixbury
shouted to her.
birenh vladovostyk," she replied. She did not drop the rifle.
the fuck is that supposed to mean?" Moxie said to me, across
the butt of his rifle, "You better do something, man."
it fell to me to 'do something' is a question I never did get a
satisfactory answer to. Pricey, Todd Sixbury, and Mr. Ed all outranked
me. I was about the last person that was in a position to do anything.
But Mox and I had a sort of understanding and I figured the other
guys were in on it, too. Leftenant Price was three steps up from
a drooling retard when it came time to make decisions. If we stood
around like this much longer, this lady and her rugmonkey were going
to be walking right into our foxholes.
I shouted. It was the sort of shout I would use to get a dog's attention.
Strangely, even though she had not responded to any of our other
yelling, this tone of voice apparently meant something to her. She
was wearing a long, black robe of some kind with layers over layers
and weird little black rags tied around her elbows and knees. I
could see her face a little, but only enough to see that it was
the typical desert-hardpan mug that all Jumpies had. She stopped
for a moment and focused on me. I stood up slowly with my carbine
over my head.
the fuck are you doing, Private? Get back in your
began. Moxie must have given him the fuck-off hand that I would
have if I had had two free ones.
slowly mimed the action of putting my carbine on the ground in front
of me. As far as I could tell, the lady followed the motions, but
I guess in whatever hell-hole that she lived in this wasn't as unambiguous
as I had intended. I motioned for her to do the same. She cocked
her head slightly to the side. After a moment, she slowly reached
around for her rifle in its hide sling.
reaching for the trigger
would be denial later, but I clearly remember Tucker saying these
words as the lady tried to unsling her cheap, old, mass-produced
assault rifle. There was all sorts of talk just then, but I remember
" Leftenant Price said.
ewe need to put that day-own
" Mr. Ed said, pleadingly.
" Moxie said, with an urgency that made me duck my
head and hop back into the foxhole.
was during this weird little scuttle that I missed the important
part of this entire story. I sure as shit heard it, though.
Somebody shot the mother. Where she had been standing there was
just a little black pile of rags in the middle of the road. The
child was holding a limp sleeve instead of its mother's hand.
your fire, you stupid fucks!" yelled Price.
didn't do it
" I could hear Tucker say.
fucking saw it!" Todd Sixbury shouted back.
you, Toddy, you shot her." I looked up in time to see
everyone start pointing carbines in the wrong direction.
a word in Latin for when a bunch of scared swinging dicks who haven't
been home in a year and a half start pointing guns at each other,
but hell if I know what it is.
heard it, too, Tuck," Moxie said from behind me.
when it got really bad. The first shot had been just a quick sharp
bang, the second noise was more like a badly-tuned car backfiring
a dozen times. Tucker's carbine rattled from my left and I felt
Moxie go limp behind me. I was still trying to get turned around
in the hole when all hell broke loose.
I said, none of us had fired our guns in a long time.
reached my arm out and snagged the strap of my carbine, which was
still on the ground where I had left it like an idiot. Rounds started
falling near me and I put my helmeted head down into my hands like
they show you to do so you don't get shot in the forehead.
was like a sack of potatoes on my back and I tried to turn toward
the old burnt out car where Tucker and Mr. Ed were holed up. I couldn't
quite swing my carbine around, but I saw the flashes and I saw my
friends shooting at each other. Mr. Ed took a bullet in the throat
that was intended for Harry. Leftenant Price was coughing blood
onto the desert sand, and Todd Sixbury finally managed to get the
aim right. Tucker got one in the side of the cheek after a second
or two and he started flopping around like a landed fish. Sixbury
shot him a couple more times just to make sure he was dead.
Todd," I said. He turned his rifle toward me and I put up both
know, I know, man," I said, hoping that he wouldn't decide
that I thought Tuck had been right.
wasn't reaching for shit."
nodded and tried to breathe. Sixbury lowered his carbine, but I
kept my hands up.
Sixbury shouted. Price was crawling around in the hulk of the car,
clutching at his stomach. He couldn't get quite enough breath in
to scream, but he coughed a couple of times trying.
Ed was facedown in the dirt, motionless.
was right about then that I noticed the kid. She was only about
ten feet from our part of the road just then, and running at full
speed. It must have been a little girl, I think now, because she
had really big eyes. I guess I've known a few boys with big eyes,
too, but not like these. Somebody had popped a couple of cat's eye
marbles into a grinning little grubby urchin face. I didn't have
too much time to look at them, though, because right beneath them
there was a smile with four missing bottom baby teeth, and right
below that was a belt of grenades wired to a plastic syringe plunger
in her hand.