"I'm so fucking tired. The chopper better damn well be somewhere near."
"It doesn't matter, we'll take a break in five minutes whether we're on the chopper or not."
The boy's cloak caught on the bush as he swung out from cover, his unloaded rifle at the ready to menace the shadows. The girl's rusting lawn dart caught the moon's light a moment as she prodded the cloak off with an annoyed shiver. Together the two young adolescents moved shyly from shadow to shadow across the dark elementary school yard, mud glistening in the constant hazy light rain. They'd been moving away from the burning city since that evening. Both still remembered the orange light dully pressing against the massive windows over the swimming pool, pressing around anxious townsfolk and neighbors and friends. Jets somewhere above the high metal-beamed ceiling, all the battles far off in the city. Restlessness, uselessness, nobody having a thing to do, the soldiers nervously watching the road. Both remember a sound like heavens parting: the battle already lost. Massive cannons tearing at the air and the bursts of machine guns frantically pounding. A cloud of dust, sand and blood, the barricade blasted away, thunderous armor beyond. A shower of glass, orange light spilling in, all the tumult drenched in it. Panic. No purpose in the world but to run. Both remembered how, angry and vengeful, the invaders having no mercy, the long autocannons slowly turning their gaze to the civilians, the frantic flight, the bullets not stopping a moment, eviscerating effortlessly the grownups standing tall over the two ninth graders. Both remembered, but neither could stop to think about it.
"Say..." The black haired boy was ducking behind an AC fan. "We are going in the right direction? Right?"
"I..." She tried whispering loudly from behind cherry tree a few meters away.
"We saw them over there, right?"
Sprinting to his side, the girl ran into the unit with a hollow noise. She braced herself against the top grill, then on her knees. She smiled at the boy. "You've known me...what...seven years now? Don't be stupid. You know I don't have a fucking clue."
On a hill just past the expanding radius of destruction, in the last light before the sun finally set, they had seen a steady stream of helicopters flying due east, away from the softly glowing city center. Maybe they'd take them away somewhere safe. It hardly mattered.
"Ah. Well, we haven't seen any soldiers since we..."
"We haven't, have we now? Just the..."
"...that patrol." An image flashed in both their minds of the enemy soldiers they found dead by the entrance to the bike trail, where the boy had gotten his marksman’s rifle from - the marksman’s rifle for which he couldn’t find even a single round. They had desperately wanted to wait somewhere, go hide in the bushes: maybe the friendly soldiers were still around somewhere. Common sense had gotten the better of them. Whoever was responsible would be running just as fast as they could to get out too. Nobody was safe anymore.
The girl shrugged nervously, tugging at the sleeve of her windbreaker. "No, but that was a good sign."
"We know this area was secure, at least, probably not too long ago. Maybe it means were not too late yet either."
"Say, how the hell are we going to get across to that blacktop?"
Across the soccer field and playground was the blacktop, and beyond that a gentle slope that fell away to the street. The girl stood poised to move. "There's nobody around, we'll be okay."
"You hear that? That's gunfire in the distance. People are being shot. You...you...I...we...saw... I say we play it safe."
"Don't be a dumbass..."
"It's okay; I'm even more of a dumbass than you'll ever be. I'll get us both killed horribly because I still say we just walk down."
"I’m thinking, maybe not the walking bit.”
They both ran as hard as they could across the empty playground. They'd both gone to elementary school there together, and it was almost nostalgic for both, ducking skittishly through the same place they'd played at so many times before.
The girl stopped halfway across the blacktop. "Hey, hold up a minute."
The boy stumbled over himself as he stopped abruptly by the girl’s side. “Wha, you crazy, run damnit!”
“We’re standing on top of a hill, you see anything that looks remotely like a soldier from up here?”
“You’re nu…but…wel…” he looked frantically into the shadowy streets that ran along the edge of the school’s plot. “There still could be…well…maybe you’re right.” He de-clenched and took an appraising look around him. "So, since when was this place so small? It’s kind of weird being back here. Remember Ms. Linai? You didn't have her, I'm pretty sure, but she'd always line us up facing that way, instead of like everyone else."
"Nah, I think she left before second grade. You must have had her for first. Actually, I can't say really remember any of it too well. People talk about childhood memories…I didn't do anything here, didn't really know anyone."
"In all four years?"
"Pretty much. I was an idiot back then. A blind, boring, selfish, unwitting idiot. Hey, well, still am really. You know. Screw it, don’t know why I’m telling you this. I haven’t talked even…welll…crap… It doesn’t matter, you already have an opinion of me, you know what kind of person I really am. Can’t imagine anything I say can change that.”
The boy shifted. “Well, people seem to like you.”
“Heh. Anyone who ever liked me didn’t know me then I guess.” She glanced back at the boy, the moonlight glinting off her dark eyes and the makeshift spear loose at her side.
"I...wha…I..." The boy gazed at his feet. Something passed on his face. "Say, what's this? It looks like a puddle of..."
The girl saw it too. She got on her knees and sniffed the dully reflective puddle. "That's gasoline. Or fuel. It smells different from gas station gas, whatever it is. That's...that's aviation fuel! I'm pretty sure."
“How you know what avia…”
“Airshow, like, two summers ago. I remember my smells.” She hazarded a faint grin in the dark.
"And look over here, a military issue backpack...and the grass is completely trampled coming up from the road there. And here's a toothbrush someone dropped..."
"This was the helipad...wasn't it? Holy shit, this is where they were evacuating from!"
The girl dropped her makeshift spear, ran over to the backpack and pulled out a pistol and a crumpled, heavily highlighted military map. "It looks like they pulled back...I can't tell where exactly anybody still might be operating. There's...there's still far more blue to the east than west, so let's just keep heading that way." She thumbled around with an empty clip for the pistol and started loading rounds.
"It's ironic that they'd just happen to choose here, of all places."
"Yeah...” The boy fiddled with his raincoat’s zipper. “Hey, I...I didn't know you felt that way."
"Hmm? How do you mean?"
"About yourself. I mean, we know each other, right? It’s like you said…there’s nobody could possibly… All through school I knew people that liked me, that said hi to me, maybe stopped to talk about the crappy grilled cheeses, but I couldn't…I...I just knew that I was an ass...that if I tried to become close...I mean, how could they possibly like me? I'm not a good person.”
She stared at him blankly. “The hell you mean by that? You probably just insulted someone there an…”
“Damnit, I didn’t mean to… Crap, this is why I never talk about this. I…we should just…move on. We’re kind of in the open here anyway.”
“No.” There was something quieting about how she held herself. “I…please let’s talk about this a moment.”
“We have a thing, I don’t want to ruin it. But…it’s just that whether or not I’ve had that sort of friendship, like, ever, I…like them too much. Maybe. Or maybe I want them to like me too much. What a selfish thought. Whatever it is, I just can’t talk about, you know, this, with them. There’s a barrier, a wall, something psychological maybe. Gods knows.”
“You know…” she spoke slowly, thoughtfully, “I kind of understand what you mean. Hell, I don’t know.”
“I’m not making any sense. I’m sorry, but…you understand? I don’t expect sympathy from you, but…you do, don’t you?”
She gave a nervous smile, chuckling.
“I’m just glad that someone is there, that I have…well…”
“Me, huh. Well, congrats bro. Say, I think we’d had better eat first. I think the fighting is mostly over anyway, so we should be safe here, at least for the time being“
“Well…yeah, if you think so. We might probably not be in such a very good position if anybody comes this way, maybe. We are kind of still in a sort of open space.”
“Wha, you don’t think it’s a good idea? I told you I’d get us both killed, didn’t I?”
“I think we should probably be moving. Maybe, I don’t know. You probably have a good point.”
“Don’t be so spineless.”
“Even if you have no fucking clue what you’re doing, you gotta have bravado! Gusto, friend, gusto!” She drew her energy bar with a flourish, deftly like an adept duelist. “Nuts, nuts and glory!”
When the boy stopped laughing, he sat down beside the girl and began eating a dry cereal bar he had stuffed in his back pocket. “Bravado, eh?”
“Yeah…yeah, I’m just as spineless as you, only I don’t show it. Besides, you’re right, we need to move fast as soon as we’re done here.”
“How honest of you.” He saw how uncomfortable she looked. “We can be spineless together, then.
“That’s the most pathetic thing I’ve ever heard. So sure.” Even with the burning destruction of the invasion, with the power out, it was still a far darker night than either of them had ever seen. The stars were unusually clear when the clouds and ash parted in slivers, and the girl watched them intently as she finished off the last of her energy bar. A dull explosion thudded in the night and gave a faint glow to the eastern sky. Maybe the battle had somehow gone on east without them, to the docks.
The boy shifted the rifle on his lap. “You still thinking east?”
“I’m thinking we kind of have no choice, now do we?”
“I suppose not. Say, earlier, the barrier I was talking about…there’s something about you, like…like I’m not afraid of talking with you. Like the barrier isn’t there as much, or something, I don’t know, but I’m glad.”
“You think so?” She stared intently through the clouds. “There’s something earnest between us. It’s…strange. Alien. I want to run away, but there’s something keeping me from doing so. And I’m glad I’m not. Well, not from you: I do feel like running away from the fucking murderers. Definitely.”
The boy chuckled. “I see. And...oh fuck PATROL!"
The bursting report of the patrol's rifles covered the schoolyard in sound as the two children ran back to the shadowy playground. Muzzles flashed somewhere down below the hill on the street. The boy barely kept gripping his useless rifle as he pelted away frantically after the girl. Something hard went whistling past the girl’s ear as she slid down behind a wood bench, the one she’d used to eat lunch at sometimes. The boy whispered rapidly, leaning limply against the cover of the slippery tire swing. "Really? Now? Damn them!"
"You see them?”
"No, just saw their ride. Caught a glint down by the road."
"Well…then. Say, you have better cover; I’m dead if they come for us like this. Maybe I can risk it...how many are there? You're in a better spot to see."
The boy strained to see into the darkness. An idea struck him, and he shouldered his rifle and looked down scope. "I think I see...maybe...seven. Yeah, probably se…" Slicing, the bullet passed easily through the boy's upper chest with a blast of air and heat, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. The boy choked for breath, gargling, voiceless, dying and helpless.
The girl stared at the corpse. She froze, gripping the pistol, curled up behind the bench. "My...the only...I..." She shivered in horror. "I don't want to die, I don't want to die, I don't want to die, I don't want to die, I don't want to die, I don't want to die – now there’s no… – I don't want to die, I don't want to die, I don't want to die, I don't want to die – why did I…fuck… – I don't want to die, I don't want to die – and I asked...oh gods, I don't want to die..."
The soldiers were moving up the hill. The girl could hear them speaking smoothly into their headsets.
"...I don't want to die, I don't want to die, but maybe I don’t...no, I don't want to die...the bastards...I don't want to die..."
The flashlights made intense holes in the darkness around her, searching.
"Maybe I should...dammit...but what good is it...I will survive...I will..." She thumbed the safety on the pistol.
"I don't want to die, I don't want to die, I don't want to die..."
"I DON'T WANT TO DIE!"
The corpses of seven soldiers and two ninth graders - a boy and a girl - were found in the schoolyard when the suburbs were retaken a month later. Four soldiers had died from bullet wounds, two from knife wounds, and one from blunt trauma. The girl had been shot several times by light machine gun fire from the squad’s IFV, dying at almost the dead center of the blacktop, a sole body apart from the others, alone. Now, a monument stands there. It’s standard fare for a war memorial, a laden, battered soldier leading a group of little kids by the hand, but the artist appears to have understood more about what happened than the commissioner. He has the face of the boy found by the old tire swing. The soldier’s eyes are not brave or weary or determined, but tired, scared, and lonely, and looking directly towards the old wooden bench.