- by Jonah Parker Ryan
“Toss ‘em up. I can hit all three ‘fore they hit the ground,” Pete said as he rested his arms on the barrel of his pellet gun.
“Three, I got a week’s ‘llowance says you flub ‘em all,” Chet said with wide eyes and a matching grin.
“You’re on. Toss ‘em up, I say,” Pete said as he raised the gun to his shoulder. Chet grabbed three bottles and tossed them quickly into the air, one after the other.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
All three bottles fell back to the ground, still perfectly intact. Chet grabbed his side in a fit of laughter. “So, would you be payin’ me in ‘stallments or one lump sum?” he asked, a huge smirk now plastered across his face.
“This gun’s actin’ all screwy. The ‘lignment mus’be off or sum’thin, but I’ve done compensated. Double or nothing I hit ‘em this time,” Pete said.
“You’re on. Keep this up’n I’ll be ownin’ y’for the rest o’y’life.”
Pop. Pop. Pop.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
“Dammit all,” Pete said as he tossed his gun to the ground and pouted.
“Wanna try’fer three weeks ‘llowance?” Chet asked.
“Go t’hell as if y’could do much better.”
“Reckon I could, my daddy says I’m’a great shot,” Chet said.
“Y’daddy has’t’a say that ‘cause he’s y’daddy. I wager you flub ‘em all too.”
“Fine, what’s the wager?”
“No wager, I jus’ don’t think y’can hit ‘em,” Pete said.
“Well piss off then. I ain’t shootin’ if there’s no wager.”
“All right, wager’s this: you hit ‘em all, I pay you four weeks ‘llowance. If’n you flub ‘em all like I think you might will do, we go back to being square, zero’n’zero,” Pete said.
“Petey, you beautiful fool. Toss ‘em up,” Chet said.
Pete tossed the bottles back into the air.
Pop. Pop. Pop-Pop. Pop-Pop.
Thud. Thud. Thud.
“Well, you’re a faster shot’n me I’ll give you, but your aim’s just as dreadful. Your daddy mus’be downright ‘trocious if’n he thinks you’re anythin’ but the pits,” Pete said with a smile.
“It’s this damn rifle o’ yours that’s the pits. The ‘ligntment must be out and out busted.”
“Can I have a go?” she asked.
Both boys jumped at her voice, neither had realized they were being watched. She wore a long, dark duster and a straw hat with a white feather pinned just off right of the center. She had dark hair tied in a knot behind her head and just the right amount of freckles sprinkled across her face to keep her forever young. She was near twelve years older than the boys but still south of twenty-three.
“Piss off. What’s a girl know ‘bout shootin’ anyways?” Chet asked.
“Reckon I can’t know any less than you,” she said as she pulled the rifle away from him.
“Alright, what do we get when you flub ‘em all?” Chet asked.
“Who says you get anything?” she asked.
“That’s our rifle and you gotta pay for the privilege o’shootin’ our pellets.”
“Oh, damn it, Chet, it’s my rifle. Jus’let’er have’a go,” Pete said.
“Fine. I guess she can be no worse’n you,” Chet said.
“Ma’am,” Pete said as he nodded at the girl, “Lemme know when y’ready.”
“We fixin’ to exchange pleasantries all day or shoot bottles?” she asked as she raised the pellet gun to her shoulder. Pete swallowed hard and tossed the bottles up into the air.
The boys stood open-mouthed as a rainstorm of bottle fragments glistened against the sun and fell to the ground. “For future reference, the ‘lightment’s fine. It’s your timing’s off. You shoot where the bottle is an’a moment later it’ll be gone and you’ll miss every time. You shoot where’n the bottle’ll be, I’d wager you hit ‘em more’n you miss ‘em,” she said.
A walkie-talkie hissed and the girl reached into the pocket of her duster. “Where the hell you at, Jules, I need you up on the Wall,” the voice on the other end said over static.
“Yes, Marshal,” Jules said into the walkie.
“Double time it, we got movement along the South Ridge,” he said.
“Yes’sir,” she said and switched off the walkie. The static ceased.
“You’re a Peacekeeper, that’s why you was able t’hit all ‘em bottles,” Chet said.
Jules smiled and took a bow for the boys. “Now ‘member what I told y’all, ‘bout your aim. Practice an I’ll shoot with y’all later. Best head home now,” she said.
“Yes, Ma’am,” the boys said in unison.
Jules watched as they ran full speed into town before she took off her hat and look up the side the Wall. It was a massive concrete and iron structure that surrounded the desert stronghold known as Providence. And it served one function, to keep the bad things out and the good things safe. Jules and her fellow Peacekeepers were renowned for their marksmanship. They patrolled the top of the Wall putting down hostiles before they became threats to the decent citizens of Providence.
Jules closed her eyes. The ride up the side of the five-hundred foot wall was just as terrifying as it had ever been. It wasn’t the height that bothered her though, it was the rickety lift. She was not the religious type but she still said a silent prayer whenever she rode to the top that today would not be the day the steel cables gave out and sent her crashing to her to her death. She opened her eyes halfway up and gazed down at Providence below.
It seemed peaceful from above; quite, quaint, and serene. It wasn’t much to look at but it had everything they needed: shelter, a hospital, general store, saloon, greenhouses-- it was hard to believe that Providence had been established less than one-hundred years ago on the outskirts of what was once known as Las Vegas, Nevada.
The lift drew to a halt when it reached the top of the Wall and stretching infinitely in all directions was dead earth where nothing good grew and even less good lived, otherwise known as desert. She looked towards the ruins of what had once been the central hub of Las Vegas; the Strip as it was called in the Old World. She could not conceive why anyone in their right mind would travel to the middle of this wasteland. Some of the elders who claimed knowledge of the Old World said Las Vegas had once been a brightly lit oasis, a capital of sin and debauchery known the world over. Whatever the case was, it was now just a pile of rubble, indistinguishable from the sand and rocks that surrounded Providence.
“Hey, there’s m’girl. When you gon’let me take you on that date?” he asked.
Jules felt her face flush. “Ask me t’morrow, Raj.”
“That’s what you said yes’day, and now yes’day’s t’day makin’ yes’day’s t’morrow now.”
“Ask me t’morrow,” she said again, unable to hide a smile.
“As y’wish, pretty girl,” he said and tipped his hat in her direction. Like her, Raj was a Peacekeeper and near enough in age to be her peer.
“Y’seen the Marshal?” she asked. “He radio’d me up. Somethin’ ‘bout South Ridge.”
“I ask y’everyday and y’jus’ say no. Marshal calls an’y’come’a’runnin’,” Raj said.
Jules rolled her eyes at him. “G’bye, Raj.”
“Goodbye, pretty girl,” he said.
The Marshal was a rotund man of sixty with a grey beard that stretched down to his belly and a bald head he kept hidden beneath a chocolate covered hat. He always wore a white button down shirt under a tan leather vest, and pinned to his right breast was a silver star that read, Marshal of Providence.
“Marshal,” Jules greeted him and squinted her eyes towards the southern mountains.
“Where the hell you been?” he asked. He sounded more irritated than he was.
“Had the mornin’ off. I’m on watch t’night.”
“You’re on watch now. God damned Outlanders came o’er the mountains t’day. Probably nothin’ givin’ how many we sent t’their graves but a threat’s a threat,” he said. He handed her a pair of binoculars.
Jules scanned the base of the mountains until she found them. “There can’t be more’n six of ‘em,” she said as she watched the small specks she knew were people.
“Six more’n I like knockin’ on m’door,” he said as he sipped a silver flask.
“Y’ think they gonna try’n move on us t’night?” she asked.
“I think they’d be damned fools if’n they try’n move on us at all. But I ain’t never put no stock in no Outlander’s intelligence,” he said and handed her the flask. Jules accepted and the liquor burned her throat and opened her sinuses. She shook the taste from her mouth. The Marshal laughed. “God damn it girl, y’do everything else like a man ‘cept drink like one,” he said as he took another swig.
“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment, Marshal,” she said.
“It sure as hell is. I tell you what, I wish I had ten o’you. I’d never have t’worry ‘bout the safety o’Providence again,” he said.
“Well thank you, Marshal.”
He waved off her gratitude. “You’re a hell of a shot, kid, but y’keep y’eyes open, hear? If’n any one o’those damned Outlanders come within our limits,” he said.
“I know, Marshal,” Jules said as she pulled an imaginary trigger.
She kept watch all night and compared it something akin to watching white paint dry on an already white wall. Shortly after nightfall the Outlanders built a fire, which made it easier to keep their location in sight, but they made to effort to move towards the stronghold. She traded her binoculars for night-vision and the black-grey blobs became black-green blobs. They kept their distance and near as Jules could tell they had simply set up camp for the night.
The Marshal radioed her shortly after midnight and with no news reported he decided to turn in for the night, “But, if’n they make even a step towards Providence I want shots fired an’a radio wake up, y’hear?” he asked as static hissed.
“Of course, Marshal, now sleep tight,” she said.
She brought the night-vision scope back to her eyes again and focused on their campfire for roughly the one-hundredth time. “One, two, three, four, five’n’six,” she counted out loud, “if’n y’all fixin’ t’do somethin’ best do it soon. Y’alls borin’ me t’spit up here.”
They did nothing except sleep, for hours.
She caught herself dozing somewhere around four in the morning and sprang to her feet. She grabbed the night-vision and counted them aloud again. Still six, only this time their fire had started to die. “Keep with it, Jules, only four more hours.”
She stretched her hands high into the air than bent to touch her toes. She took off her hat, untied her hair, and shook it free. Her dark locks fell to the middle of her back and she used her fingers to comb away the day’s tangles when something caught her eye. A bottle of clear liquor sat alone atop a cabinet in the corner. “Why not?” she asked herself as she stood on the tips of her toes to reach it.
She took a drink, and much like the flask, she had to shake the burn from her mouth. She drank again and found the second pull much smoother than the first, so much so that the third went down like water. She decided that three drinks were enough and she returned the bottle to its home.
She stayed on her feet for the remainder of her shift. The liquor had made her sleepy but she’d be damned if the Outlanders would take Providence on her watch. Movement from their camp finally came some thirty minutes after sunrise when they packed up their possessions and continued on their journey, away from Providence and towards the ruins of the Old Strip. She watched them go through the twin scopes of her binoculars until they were gone from sight.
She settled back into her chair and propped her feet up on the table and relaxed her eyes. They weren’t closed for long before a walkie-walkie hiss ripped her from the world of dreamers.
“Hey pretty girl, y’got a moment?” Raj asked through static.
“Ask me t’morrow, Raj,” she said playfully and smiled to herself.
“No, no, pretty girl, it’s y’eyes I need. Not sure what I’m’a lookin’ at,” he said.
“I swear, Raj, if’n I come all the way down t’your side o’the Wall and you’re down on one knee proposin’ marriage, well, I might jus’have’t’say yes,” she said.
“Damned if I don’t have a ring, but I’ll be keepin’ that in mind. Come now?” he asked.
“Be there in two shakes,” she said.
Jules walked the length of the Wall and exchanged looks between Providence below, and the endless expanse of desert beyond. The church tolled it bells seven times for the seventh hour of the morning. It was Sunday and the religious types would soon be lining up to atone for their transgressions. Jules never put much stock in religion, except on the lift, when she prayed to any deity that would listen.
“What y’got, Raj?” she asked as she entered his watch tower.
“Not sure, pretty girl, have a look,” he said and handed her a pair of binoculars, “See the clump o’greenery out there, ‘bout half way up the side o’the ridge, it just wandered in there.”
“I swear, Raj, if’n y’snuck out las’night and painted the mountains, ‘Marry me, Jules,’ well I might jus’have t’say yes,” she said.
“That’s twice y’brought up the prospect o’marryin’ me. Somethin’ on y’mind?” he asked.
“Come on, Raj, y’always knew it was only a matter o’when,” she said.
“Ask you t’morrow, right?”
“If’n you consider buyin’ me a drink a date how ‘bout t’day?”
“Eyes on the ridge, pretty girl,” he said.
“I don’t see nothin’,” she said.
“I done told you it jus’wandered in’em trees.”
She continued to watch until she saw it. It was a purple speck moving slowly down the side of the mountain. “I see it,” she said.
“Reckon it’s’a Outlander?” Raj asked.
“I never seen no animal that color b’fore,” Jules said.
“That’s what I thought too. Jus’wanted a second set o’eyes on it,” Raj said as he positioned his rifle on a tripod stand and stared down the scope with one eye.
“Come on, ‘least give it a chance ‘fore you shoot it. I watched me a whole team o’Outlanders las’night. They jus’ made camp’n wen’ on ‘bout their way,” she said.
“Don’t fret, pretty girl, I’m’a give it every chance nes’sary, but if’n it puts so much as a toe inside our per’rimiter-- pow,” he said, “Besides, when you start drinkin’ anyway?” he asked.
“Can’t a girl have any secrets t’herself?” she asked.
“If’n’I’m’a’gonna be y’husband in jus’a matter’o’when I’d think not t’the secrets,” he said.
Jules knew her face had turned as red as the setting sun and she was grateful Raj was too distracted as he stared down the barrel of his rifle to notice.
“Keep y’eyes on y’target, hear?” she asked.
“As you say, pretty girl,” he said.
“This sum’bitch mus’have’a death wish. It’s comin’ straight at us,” he said after several moments of silence. Jules grabbed the binoculars, held her breath, and wished it to turn right around and go back the way it came. She had killed dozens, but it had never quite set right with her; something about them being alive one moment and dead the next.
Raj drew a bullet into the chamber of his rifle as the purple mass neared the fringes of Providence’s limits, or the Kill Zone, as the Peacekeepers called it. “I am sorry, but it’s y’all or us,” he said as his finger began to pull back on the trigger. That’s when Jules understood what she saw through the twin scopes.
“No!” she shouted.
She dove across the room and tackled Ral just as his finger fully compressed the trigger and a loud bang filled her ears. “The hell has gotten in t’you?” Raj asked, his tone more confusion than anger. Jules grabbed the binoculars again, found the target still alive, and breathed a sigh of relief.
“That ain’t jus’ no Outlander, Raj. That there is a lil’ girl. Can’t be more’n eight,” she said as she offered him the binoculars, “an’have’a look at what she’s holdin’ in her arms. That’s’a baby and we ain’t no baby killers.”
“I don’like this, Jules. Marshal says’n Outlanders’n Outlander. They’re only varmant food we ain’t killed yet,” Raj said.
“I know what the Marshal always says but that there is a lil’girl. If’n he wants t’be the one t’put ‘er down then let it be on his hands. We ain’t no baby killers,” she said.
“That we ain’t,” Raj agreed, “let’s get down t’the gate.”
“I was jus’on’a m’way up. I heard the shot. We have activity this mornin’?” the Marhsal asked. He was waiting for the lift up when he crossed paths with Jules and Raj on their way down.
“It’s not like that, Marshal, we have t’get to the gate,” Jules said.
The Marshal stepped in front of her and crossed his arms. “The hell you mean we have t’get t’the gate. No one opens that gate ‘cept me,” he said.
“It’s not what y’thinkin’, Marshal,” Jules said.
“I ain’t thinkin’ nothin’ ‘cept I gots me a Peacekeeper skirtin’ the issue at hand and’a tryin’ t’open my gate and not tell me why, and I don’t like not bein’ told why,” he said.
“She’s a lil’girl, Marshal, a lil’girl with a baby in’er arms,” Jules said.
“And you was jus’a’gonna le’er in my city ‘fore consultin’ me?” he asked.
Jules found it impossible to look the Marshal in his eyes and instead watched her feet as if they were the most fascinating things in the universe. “We ain’t no baby killers,” she said weak and meek.
“I reckon y’not,” the Marshal said after a moment of painful silence, “She’s alone?”
“Yes’sir, save for the lil’one in’er arms,” Jules said.
“No more’n eight, nine tops.”
“Let’s go sort it out then.”
The two Peacekeepers walked in time behind the Marshal through the dust laden streets of Providence until they arrived at the stronghold’s main gate. “I need this open, ri’now,” the Marshal barked to the man stationed in the control room. ‘And you two, be ready to fire on a moment’s notice,” he said to Raj and Jules.
Jules gripped her rifle and anxiously watched as the mechanisms that controlled the gate began to grind and creak, slowly opening the city’s massive doors. The sound was hard to hear, the perfect pitch to drive a person slowly insane. They had tried to oil the gears in the past but the sun always rendered them as dry as bone. In Jules’ mind whenever the gate opened she heard the Wall crying.
The little girl was making a bee-line towards the gate. If she didn’t know what she was doing she certainly had a strong inclination. Jules held her rifle at the ready but harbored no intentions towards using it. Raj took a knee next to her and kept the child between the hash marks of his scope. And the Marshal stood tall, just in the gate, his hands resting on the ivory handles of the twin pistols he wore around his waist.
“That’s as far as y’go,” he said as he held out the palm of his hand towards the child. Either she was deaf or she ignored him because she kept on straight at him. He swore under his breath and unlatched the pistol at his right.
“Now, I’ve extended you more courtesy than any b’fore you, so the least y’could do is stop if’in I ask y’t’stop,” he said and drew his gun from the holster. Jules doubted it was the Marshal’s words and more likely pistol his now held in his hand, but regardless the child drew to a halt not twenty feet from the gate.
“Somethin’s wrong,” Jules said in a whisper only Raj could hear.
“I feel it too,” he said.
She gave his shoulder a reassuring squeeze.
“Easy does it now,” the Marshal said as he beckoned the child towards Providence. She resumed her journey towards the city, this time at a cautious pace. She shifted the baby in her arms from her right shoulder to her left and positioned the blankets over its head to protect it from the sun.
“Please help us,” she said. He feet were bare, cracked, and bleeding, badly burned from traversing the desert. “Please help us. Please help us,” she repeated her eerie mantra in a high pitched yet monotone voice. “Please help us.”
Jules became aware they had created a scene. She wouldn’t go so far as to say that all of Providence had turned up near the gate, but a gathering of sixty or seventy souls, roughly one-third of the stronghold, if her estimations were correct, had become caught up in this baby carrying child. At once her pleading stopped and she stood motionless, staring at the citizens of Providence. “We’re not gonna hurt you,” the Marshal said as he took a step towards her.
The child’s chest began to convulse as if something stuck in her belly sought to fight its way out. That something, as it were, was a mixture of blood and mucus she upchucked onto the ground and her naked feet. She wiped the extra from her mouth with the back of her sleeve.
“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she said.
Jules swore she could hear sand as it blew in the wind. No one said a word until she broke the silence herself. “It’s okay sweetie, y’safe now,” she said as she knelt next to the girl and took the baby in her arms. A repugnant smell filled her nose and she realized what she held was not a baby, not anymore, but the corpse of one that had been dead for weeks. Its flesh had started to decay and it felt to Jules like she held a mound of warm, rotten, uncooked meat. She let out a yelp and dropped the tiny body to the ground.
A beeping sound began from underneath the purple garment of the shoeless girl. “No,” Jules said. She tore the child’s clothing away and found she had been fitted with enough explosive to make a crater fifty feet wide.
A shot was fired and the girl’s naked body fell to the ground next to the dead infant she carried to their gates, but the beeping continued. The Marshal still had his pistol pointed at the child, but it didn’t matter now. There was no time to run.
Jules closed her eyes.
Her name was Rebecca, the girl we fitted with the bomb. And Aaron, the baby she carried. I think it is important to remember their names for as long as we can because history has a way of forgetting the person and only remembering the deed. In a way they become immortal, but they lose who they were. They become the very act that defines them, it’s as if that one, singular action is all they ever were. Rebecca loved birds. History won’t remember that--- but I will.
Aaron will be harder to remember and easier to forget. Even now it’s difficult to recall his face. He passed not two weeks after he was born. He smiled at me once. I’m not even sure if that’s true or if I remember it because I want it to be true so bad. He was born with-- the Sickness.
There was no rhyme or reason to who caught the Sickness. Not much was known about it either, except that it settled deep within our guts and ate you alive from the inside out. People who caught it burned with fevers hotter than the sun, and the blood--- it would come out as vomit, or diarrhea, or in the urine. Some of the older ones who caught it would walk into the desert carrying a gun with a single shot-- go out on their terms. I can’t say I blame them.
Rebecca caught it not long before-- The Sacrifice-- that’s what they’re calling it now. I know history will look back on this with mixed emotions. That’s putting it gently. History will record the Sacrifice unfavorably. She was only a child. She deserved better. But just as it is important to remember her name, it is important to understand why. It’s never enough to just know that something happened without knowing why.
We had tried for years to reach a peace with the people Behind the Walls, but no peace could ever be found. Those that ventured too close were shot; their bodies left to rot and decay in the hot desert sun. Some of them even made a game of it, taking away their knees and legs with bullets and letting them die of exposure. And through it all they regarded us as the monsters.
In truth we did hate them--- or rather we had come to hate them. The massacred our people by the hundreds and for what? All we wanted was the same chance at life they had; food, medicine. We wanted a way to take of our young, and our old. We wanted to learn from what they had built, not destroy it.
She was only a child, but Rebecca was dead anyway when we fitted her with the explosives-- she had the Sickness for over a week-- no one made it longer than three. She knew what was doing-- she knew she was dying. Yes, it was cruel using a child as a bomb-- and what’s more, having her carry the body of her dead infant brother-- it was too cruel. We deserve hell.
The idea was maybe the wouldn’t shoot a child. We had no way of knowing for certain, of course we didn’t. We gave her Aaron’s body to carry--- from far away a small girl, carrying an infant-- who could shoot at that? Turns out no one. She made it farther than anyone before her. They even let her inside, which is what we had been counting on.
The bomb wrecked the gate, made it impossible to keep us out-- it also killed better than half the city. We found little opposition when we charged inside. Most were dead or dying-- those that weren’t we dispatched quickly, cleanly.
We burned their bodies in the streets and the stench was overbearing---
It’s hard to remain hopeful in this world but because of the Sacrifice we have learned their secrets of medicine-- secrets they would never willing share with us. Some of us still die from the Sickness, though not nearly as many. And we have shelter now and we repaired the gate. We’re safe Behind the Walls.
Still, it’s strange living in their houses. They weren’t no different from us. Five fingers, five toes--- human. But maybe that’s just the way the world works. Maybe now it’s our turn to feel safe for a while.
I just hope we never forget Rebecca and Aaron, they saved us. They were sacrificed for the greater good and now we have something we never had before--- hope; a future.
Still, I hope we learn from the past and open our gates when a stranger comes knocking and looking for help. It could be a bomb, but chances are it’s just someone in need. And if we do open our gates and it is a bomb, well, at least we died doing the right thing.
I don’t know about you, but I would much rather die for the right reasons than live my whole life knowing that I made it all the way to the end by doing everything wrong.