The time was now (I was still a 20 year old college student), but our country was in a heightened state of war. Conscription was again initiated, and I was drafted. We were in such a war that it became necessary to even draft women, although still in fewer numbers than the men.
My family was really upset when I was drafted, and it didn’t really hit me until I had landed in my first battle. My sisters tried to take my place, but the government’s choice was final, and there was nothing they could do. My family had always been protective of me, because I am small and meek.
I do not quite remember my first battle; only that it was awful, and truly disheartening. While our country seems to always win its wars, this one was taking out our soldiers with a fervor rarely witnessed by men. When my platoon was loaded up into our train, I took out one of the photographs I kept in my pack. This one of Emmet and I before he had left for his study abroad in the summer to Japan. I wished that I could call him and tell him everything, and assure him that I was safe for another day. But these thoughts were overshadowed by doubt- the doubt that I would live through another battle. The general expectancy from the time you land is two weeks. Two weeks before you die and another is drafted to take your place.
I couldn’t even contact him if I tried- it was forbidden. Our rails were hidden so that the enemy could not predict our movement. Everything was on a need-to-know basis, and cellular phones would interfere with the cloaking devices if used within their range. The enemy was always on the lookout for us, and any signal from electronics not rationed by the military would be traced.
My friend, Kaden Mylle, from training came over to sit with me as we moved to our next undisclosed location. I tried to look out the window, but they were tinted so dark that the only thing you could detect was motion. We were not to know where we were. He sat with me most of the time, even though the other men missed his company. He was my age, but unlike me, he looked it. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with brown eyes and light brown hair. Like the other men, he had stubble shadowing his face. He pulled out a picture of his own, of a girl back home that heâ€™d been going to school with. Arielle Woodrich. He’d had a crush on her since freshman year, but had never gotten up the courage to say it.
We sat there, both looking at our loved ones’ faces. We had long ago (about two months- in our situation, that was a long time to know someone) told each other our stories. We were lucky to have been grouped together after training- it was our only source of comfort. Of normalcy. We were war-siblings. Every time we loaded up, we sought out each other, a wave of relief washing over us as we realized that we were not among those who were missing from our ranks.
We landed in a small city. If you asked me where, I would not be able to tell you. It was dusty and just about deserted, which was not exactly rare these days. The war had caused evacuations all over the world. Our latest barracks were in a square building, four stories high. It looked vacant from outside, which was good for us. Even though we had come in the middle of the night, we were still wary of being seen. As military operatives, we were never out of danger. We were always being hunted.
Although from the outside the building looked run down, caked with mud on the lower levels and spattered with dust, the inside was completely white. The walls were cement, painted with a thick white paint, and the floors were a shiny white linoleum. There were no windows leading to the outside. The walls were doubled, so within the walls you see from the outside, silent with windows like dead eyes, were the walls we saw as we walked to our rooms.
I bunked with the Chinese girl, Lao, who usually sits in front of us on the train. I did not know her first name. She was quiet, which suited me just fine. I did not need to talk.
I stripped off my jacket and boots, leaving me in my undershirt and pants. I put my boots under the bed and rested the jacket over the rail at the foot of it. As I lay down on my bed, with my pack between my body and the wall, I heard Kaden laughing in the next room over. Somehow the guys always seemed to find ways to entertain themselves. Laughing as if they were not in their current situation. He came in to check on me, which I appreciated. He had his towel slung over his shoulder. I hopped off my bed and grabbed my own towel from the small table at the end of the room, between Lao’s bed and my own. He waited for me at the door as I took off my socks, placing them with my jacket.
We’d gotten in the habit of sticking together. It wasn’t uncommon- many soldiers paired up. It was kind of like when we were six and we used the buddy system to swim in the lake.
We walked through the corridors, Kaden slightly leading, until we ended up in the shower room on our floor. Iâ€™d gotten over the whole shock of seeing naked men back in training. The room was large, with both public and semi-private showers, and men were filtering in and out. Kaden lead me over to the last stall-shower along the wall, which was gladly left open. The men were always considerate enough to leave at least a couple open for the women to use.
I stepped into the stall and Kaden stepped forward just to the side of it, where one of the big public showers began. It was just the same as the row of cubicle-style showers, just without the walls between them or the curtain behind. I pulled the curtain shut behind me and stripped down, wrapping myself in my towel so I could bring my clothes out to a bench just outside the stall. I folded my clothes and placed them next to Kaden’s. When I returned to my stall I took off my towel and hung it over the sidewall, where Kaden had hung his as well.
Kaden and I talk as we shower, although my voice has to be raised closer to a yell, since I’m shorter than most and my head doesn’t reach up over the wall. The showerhead beats down over the top of me, so my voice tends to get drowned out. Another soldier, Davis, gets in next to Kaden and we both say hi. He knows who I am without seeing me, and says “hey Stephens”.
After we shower we both head back to our rooms in our towels. Lao is already in her v-neck and sleep shorts, and I close the door and change into the same. I put my towel over my head and rub it for a bit. That’s about all I ever do to my hair, since it had to be cut pretty short when I arrived for training a couple months ago. Luckily, not as short as the men’s hair, we still have between one and two inches. A little “pixie” cut, they called it.
We stay in these barracks for three days. On the third night, the men are busy playing some videogame they found. The room at the end of the hall, a few doors down from Lao and my room, is where the console is, with a ring of men around it. They took a little while to figure out how to use it, and have since gotten pretty enthused about the game. None of us speak the language it uses, so the constant foreign voice in the room adds to their amusement.
I had little interest in the game, so I really just wandered between my room and Kaden’s. He said that he’s glad the game wasn’t in his room, because the constant milling about of players and onlookers had created a bit of a mess. Not that we’d be here much longer. We were never “safe” for long.
Early the next morning, as in 2am, a group of the guys decided to go out “recycling”, which is just a pretty way to say looting.
Not that anyone would miss anything- it was deserted.
It was a rule among us, though, that if you were going to sneak out, you do it in the middle of the night, and in numbers, just in case it’s not as deserted as you expected it to be. You could never be too careful.
The boys were about two blocks away from the barracks, looking through an old convenience store. Kaden, being popular, had been recruited for the night, and he in turn had brought me along. I didnâ€™t really mind it; I would be killed soon enough, so why not partake in a small venture? I just wished that we were better armed.
We all had our small, personal guns, as we were to have them on our person at all times. Kaden and another man, Thompson, had larger guns, which we usually couldn’t get ahold of while in the barracks.
I kept with Kaden and Davis, and we were the lesser adventurous of the group. The others had fanned out and were looking for anything entertaining. We stayed in a center aisle, slightly crouched, in the shadows, with a view of the windows. Most of the men had moved outside of the shop into the streets and to other buildings nearby. There were still a few of us in the store when I heard it. The first shot being fired.
Thompson gave his whistle and men shuffled outside. We were to check the perimeter and take out any targets. Hopefully it was just a rogue or two, and not an ambush.
We left the store and got into an alley. One of the men found his way over to us and informed us that it was just a single shooter. Then he asked Kaden to take care of it. He was good at staying hidden, and had incredible aim. He used to hunt with his father in Texas.
Kaden left me with Davis and the messenger, saying that he’ll meet me back at the barracks. A couple minutes later we were clear to move out onto the streets. We came out cautiously, guns at the ready. The shooter was still there, about 250 meters down the road, his gun on the ground. I didn’t know what he was doing.
A couple of our men were closer, about fifty meters from him.
And then he began to unzip his dirty, green canvas jacket.
Davis yelled, Thompson fired, and the man hit the button.
I screamed for Kaden. He had been sneaking in close. He had been somewhere in the shadows trying to get a good shot. And then the fire was catching on the buildings on both sides of the street, and the crates to the side of the road. Two of the men that were closer were limping, shrapnel impairing their movements. Davis pushed me up from my knees and grabbed my arm, almost dragging me back to the barracks. I was shocked.
When we got back, everyone was awake. We all grabbed our packs, put on our jackets and boots, and loaded up. The train was outside without us needing to even say anything. It was a frenzy, a panic- yet somehow, perversely routine. It all seemed so fast, so numb, like someone else was moving my body for me. In no time at all we were back on a train with black-tinted windows, sitting silently in our seats.
I sat facing the window, as I always did, hoping to see something. Something to focus my mind on. Something to take me away from my current situation. I pulled out the photo of Emmet and I that I kept in my pack. Then I reached in my jacket pocket and took out the photo of Arielle that Kaden had always kept in his. Davis had brought his pack with him on the train, and given me the picture and Kaden’s extra set of tags.
I still felt numb, just sitting there, staring out the window. Then I heard an all too familiar thud in the seat next to me. For some reason I got excited and turned around.
It was Lao.
“Hi” she said, somewhat shyly, with her hands clasped together in her lap, “I’m Lao, Katie Lao”.
I nodded, and after a few seconds successfully forced my name out of my mouth.
She paused, as if unsure of what to say, and then said “I’m sorry”, nodding towards the pictures I held in my hands.
Katie and I sat together on that train for hours, days.
Then it was as if we were coming out from inside of a tunnel, as the windows of the train began to lighten and become transparent. We could see outside. It wasn’t the best view; the corners of the windows had a charred look to them, like a vignette on a photograph. Probably warped by whatever mechanism had been used to blacken them.
For so long I had wanted to see outside, watch the trees pass by as we moved along. But I immediately took back the thought. I didn’t want to see. I didn’t want to see the fire, the ashes, the blackened sky. The helicopters being ripped from the air. Iâ€™m sure that if the train carrying us wasn’t soundproof, I wouldn’t want to hear anything either.
I couldn’t even tell where the ground was- it must have been covered with ashes, blood, and smoke. There were incredibly tall structures looming all about. But they were all broken up into parts. It took me a minute to realize that they were those giant storage containers, a hundred meters long each, as best as I could tell. Big, rectangular, metal cargo stacked one atop the other, towering above the ground. It seemed that we were crossing through a valley, like a giant flame-filled bowl of war and metal and ash. You couldn’t even see the sky- it just faded from the charred ground to the fires licking up the containers, military vehicles, and upward slope, and sizzling into the blackness above. It was a horrific scene that made my heart race.
If this was where they were dumping us next, then I am definitely not coming out alive.