“Purge the Earth of every last foreign flag-waving, puke-speaking son-of-a-bitch mother fucker you put in your crosshairs!”
That’s what Sgt. Beals remembers his commanding officer saying many months ago.
Slumped uncomfortably against the jagged concrete walls of a shelled bunker, Beals struggled to cling to some remnant of hope. There were the Before Times; the softness of his wife’s pursed lips on his cheek and his son’s ragged, straw-colored hair between his fingertips. Closing his eyes, he reached out to embrace his ethereal bride and child, but their bodies disintegrated into ashes (dust to dust) upon his touch. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; that phrase crept restlessly along the twist and folds of his brain.
He released the rifle’s magazine to weigh it in his hand. With what was either exasperation or a sigh of relief — he wasn’t sure — he felt that the magazine was empty. After looking to double-check, his fingers slid alongside his thigh for his sidearm. Drawing it, he slipped out its cartridge and counted two rounds. Beals ran his thumb across the top round, removing grime from the bullet’s metal jacket. The sergeant didn’t want to risk a misfire in the event he decided to end his own life.
Beals had found this bunker, this hell of a hole, five days ago and had been there since. He’d just run out of water and food, and as far as he knew, was the last man in his squad still alive. In fact, he hadn’t seen or heard anyone since a lone gunshot two days ago. All communications, friendly and enemy alike, had ceased. That’s when a new shot rang off in the distance, but Beals figured the sound to be a round cooked off in the smoldering ashes of Armageddon somewhere nearby.
Still, the sergeant was cautious. He craned his neck to peek through an overhead crack of cement to see if he could tell if it were daylight yet. He was waiting for the first crack of dawn to go topside, often forgetting that it could be daytime right that moment. Trouble was, the sky had been burned black years ago, two months before the real up-close-and-personal, whites-of-their-eyes fighting began. Beals often considered that he intentionally forgot about the sky just so he could hope the next sunrise was just a few hours away.
Raising his wrist towards his face, his hollowed eyes fixed its gaze upon his broken and battered timepiece, first with amusement, then resentment. Does time matter anymore? The thought was rhetorical. The once muscularly built army sergeant felt sinewy and brittle in the hands of anguish.
Goddamn it, he’d say to himself thinking back to his captain’s orders. “That is exactly what they want, you know.” He whispered these words upon the deaf ears of his now departed commanding officer many times, always whispering it to contain a rage that exhausted him. “They set us against each other on purpose.” He clung to these words; Beal’s wanted to spit in their faces. He hated the heralds of war for all their intent, rousing each and every person to kill each other with the reward being their own lives — life by death seven billion times over. Life, death; Beals occupied some ghostly space in between. He looked down upon the earth that scratched underneath his heel and wanted to sink into it.
There was a clang, like scrap metal falling over. Followed by a voice?
He jolted fully upright and pressed himself purposefully into a jagged edge of wall. The pain would sharpen his senses and assure him he wasn’t dreaming. Did he just hear someone? “Please God, don’t let this be a hallucination, not this time,” he begged to indifference. He didn’t really believe in God anymore.
There was more noise, a sort of organized rattling. Someone was definitely poking around the hollowed-out tank above ground, searching for who knows what. He’d already pilfered every last scrap of food, water, and ammo within a hundred yards before taking up shelter in the bunker. He couldn’t see who it was. The tank was out of his line of sight and so he’d have to wait either for whomever it was to glance inside his hideout before giving them a bullet, or be proactive and try to take the stranger by surprise. Neither option was attractive. Beals was having a hard time justifying each new murder considering how scarce human beings had become. Every day he’d think back upon all the people he’d killed, and how terrible it would be to wind up the sole survivor of this completely unnecessary worldwide conflict.
Sick, almost to death, of having to do all this fighting, Beals grasp turned his knuckles white as he put a stranglehold on his pistol grip. Every nerve tensed and he began to tremble with anger. “Fuck this shit. Fuck this!” He bolted out from under his cover into the open. There he froze with his gun pressed snugly into his right temple.
Just beyond the tank his eyes met the scavenger. There, picking away at the remains of one of his squad members, was a sickly looking German shepherd. The tattered animal was so emaciated and hungry, so bent on survival, as to not be entertained by Beals theatrics. “A dog? A fucking dog?” His heart sank into his bowels. His attempt to stage a drama disintegrated into nothing more than a wisp of smoke on the light breeze. “Look, this is what we’re doing to ourselves,” is the message he intended to convey. No point now.
He holstered his gun, swayed a bit as the adrenaline wore off and fell down into a pile of rubble. He thought about stopping the dog but that’s as far as it went. There were no rules anymore and the dog could very well be the last best friend he’d ever have. He waited for the animal to have its fill.
The dog finished eating and began pacing back and forth before the sergeant. Trust was hard to come by but so were other creatures. Perhaps realizing their mutual situation, the animal sauntered over to the hardened combatant once it determined that Beals wasn’t a threat. The sergeant reached out with every last bit of kindness to scratch the canine’s head carefully, softly. It was all the energy he had left anyway.
“They set us against each other on purpose,” he remarked as if the dog understood. Beals stood up; wavering for a moment as if he might fall back down, then steadied himself. As optimism tangled with waves of nausea in his stomach, he staggered slightly before taking command of his stride, then motioned for the dog to walk with him. “They really fucked us, alright. Well, I guess we help ‘em fuck us.” He felt like vomiting but hope held it down. He couldn’t afford to lose the calories anyway. The dog hesitated to follow.
He’d made it this far; couldn’t he hold on just a little longer for this goddamn dog? Couldn’t this dog hold on just a little longer for this goddamn human? Man and man’s best friend; they could rule the scorched earth and give the warmongers holed up below a lofty middle finger.
Beals flashed a broken-toothed smile at the dog. “Come, boy. We’ll rule the world as gods.” The dog set a tentative paw towards the sergeant. Confident they were setting out to begin a new life together, Beals turned his eyes away from the canine too late to spot a half-buried, unexploded ordnance round. “Yeah, we’ll rule the world as gods.” Those seven words dropped from his lips as he stumbled over the shell. No one was there to hear the trees fall.
Copyright © May 2016 John J. Vinacci. All rights Reserved.