I lay in the tall mélange of grass and weeds, the dampness of the soil below seeping slowly into my forest green camouflage and uncomfortably cooling my knees and belly. I remained motionless, moving only my eyes. Four of us were stationed out here in the old park; two snipers and two spotters. We were a ghostly line of defense for the eastern side of the town perimeter where brigands had been climbing over, digging under, and breaking through weak points in the perimeter fence. At first, basic supplies – like food, water, and medicine salvaged from the old city pharmacies – went missing. Not too troubling. Then, over the next month, crime exploded. We were hit almost every night and not just for necessities; heirlooms were taken from citizens’ tents, a bank was cleared of its gold jewelry reserve, an old woman and a sentry were killed, and a teenager was kidnapped from her tent while her parents slept one room over. We sent out supply details to bring back concrete, wood for constructing wall forms, and razor wire. Until the perimeter was secure, sniper teams were assigned to the surrounding desolation.
The first few nights were a shooting gallery, but the word must have gotten out that we were no longer an easy target. The last three nights had been calm. Even boring. Furnius, who was on gun duty tonight with Baker Team had been in training to be a Marine sniper during the Collapse. Even he let out a sigh of boredom. I allowed my attention to wander as I lay in the Autumnal overgrowth, investigating the rusting rails of the Oregon Screamer, a roller coaster that hadn’t been in operation for seven years. I tried to remember what it felt like as the four person car clicked up the steep hill.
Suddenly, memories flooded back in perfect clarity. Jim, sitting next to me, looked a little pale. Behind us, Zach and Tom shouted at him in that half-encouraging, half-belittling way that teenage friends are wont to do.
“Jim, are you gonna hurl? You better not, man! I spent good money on that funnel cake!” Zach shoved Jim’s shoulder a bit as he spoke.
“Yeah, Jim. I would have eaten it if you were just going to waste- HEY! Look down by the bumper boats! Tiffany Jones is down there!” Tom exclaimed. “She’s bending over! We might be able to see her tits!”
I knew we would need binoculars to spot a nipple, but I looked anyway. I was still staring down at her, trying to use telepathy to make her look my way when I was pressed against the back of my seat. We had gone over the edge! I twisted to look at Jim who met my gaze with wide eyes and a mouth half open in a scream that had frozen in his throat. I whooped excitedly in his face. Zach and Tom echoed my call as we sped downward through a tunnel of branches and then rose again. We could see Mount McLoughlin in the distance, a grey cloud clinging to its peak on an otherwise clear day. As we corkscrewed back down into the trees and then shot under the wooden midway arcade, I remember deciding this was the best summer I had ever had.
The yellow car finally slowed to a stop at the top of the platform and Jim leaned close to me, whispering, “That was actually awesome, but keep quiet about it.” He winked at me.
Behind us, Zach unfolded his gangly legs from the car and turned to shake Jim by the shoulders as Tom struggled to extract his pudgy body from the safety bar. “Jim! You didn’t spew, buddy! Congratu-fuckin’-lations!”
Jim kept his face impassive, maybe even a little moody and queasy. “Does our deal still stand?”
Zach shook his head and held his left arm out toward Jim. Jim pulled his Swiss Army knife out of the pocket of his cargo pants, flicked open the blade, and swiftly carved his initials into Zach’s forearm. Zach didn’t make a sound, but the speed at which his pursed lips turned white with pressure belied the pain he was in. I smiled at him, waiting for Jim’s reveal.
“Here,” Jim said, thrusting a red UV-proof sleeve into Zach’s chest. “I’m going to stuff a napkin on that and then you pull the sleeve over. Ready?” Zach nodded, still silent.
When they had finished Zach’s hasty battlefield dressing, Jim finally let his frown relax into a smirk. “About halfway through I started to have fun.” Before the last word was out of his mouth, Jim had taken off at a sprint toward the other end of the park. Zach cast a scandalized look back at Tom and I and took off after Jim, yelling at the top of his lungs, “We had a deal, you jerk!”
Tom and I laughed and decided to play a few rounds of pinball while we waited for the chase to end. Eventually, Zach and Jim found us and passed around two gigantic, buttery pretzels. As I savored the delicious dough I noticed that Jim’s pants had fresh grass stains on the knees. Zach’s hair was littered with green blades and twigs.
“Who won?” I asked, pointing at Jim’s knee.
“Zach punched me in the nuts and felt bad, so I guess him. On the plus side,” Jim held up a length of pretzel between his greasy fingers, “free pretzels for us.”
We spent the rest of the day alternating between the coaster, laser tag, and the seemingly endless sea of video games. At 5 PM we walked four abreast down the main cobblestone path, which was flecked with blue and pink bits of cotton candy, yellow popcorn crumbles, and green leaves. I felt like we were four fairytale adventurers returning from a quest that would be talked about for centuries.
One short year later saw the rupturing of the world economy and the outbreak of civil war in the United States. At first, there was a cause. The Western States Alliance – Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Arizona – and the Republic of Texas broke away from the rest of the United States to form independent economies that wouldn’t be burdened by the dead weight of underproducing states. When the Dakotas threatened to follow suit, the US government, in a panic over the axe of debt swinging over them, took out Minot, North Dakota with a nuclear blast. With that act, military bases across the former US exploded with activity. The fistfights that had been common before open hostilities turned into full-fledged fire fights. As the loyalties of individual bases emerged from the chaos, formal war began.
The usually industry-friendly cost of waging war turned out to be destructive. In two years of fighting, the Western States Alliance, Dakota, and the Republic of Texas had all experienced crippling inflation and the citizenry had to cope with shortages of the most basic goods due to rationing. People started moving out of cities and into more rural areas, leaving their nationalistic ideals behind in the superstructure ghost towns. Soldiers, not just non-coms but high ranking brass, simply walked away from their posts and hiked back to their families. Those without families settled in the first community they came to and started one. In tent communities, the populace was free from taxes and rationing, free from the dangers of a missile launched in desperation, free from globalized, macro-level concerns that were, frankly, unimportant when your immediate family is dying from exposure and pneumonia. We allowed the governments to have their useless war and started a new life.
And, so, here I was on my stomach at the Medford Extremepark where I had spent the single best day of my life. I longed to feel that relaxing, summer heat on my muscles. I allowed myself to close my eyes, trying to shut out the smell of the damp earth, the cold oozing of the moisture wicking its way into my clothes. I focused on the smell of cotton candy and caramel…
“Victor Team, movement at your two.” My eyes snapped open at Furnius’s voice over the radio. I slowly, painstakingly pivoted my rifle to the right.
“Copy that,” Carlos, my spotter, muttered. To me, he whispered that the target was a third of a mile out from us, walking our direction, and passing a large tree stump. I found him in the scope. He was wearing a black hoodie, which matched the attire of most of the brigands that had been hitting the city, but he didn’t seem to moving with any kind of obvious stealth. Despite his tall form that rose high above the overgrowth, he didn’t even duck. It was like he didn’t care if he was seen. Maybe he didn’t.
“Baker Team, I’m not sure that’s a proper tango. I’m going to observe.”
“Roger that, Victor. We’ll scan the area.”
“Victor Team, this is General Lansing,” a new voice announced over the radio. “Take your shot.”
“Sir,” I subvocalized, “the subject doesn’t appear to be a hostile and is not within range that he can do any damage to us.”
“I agree,” said Carlos.
“Gentlemen, I will not allow your indecisiveness to place this community at risk. I am ordering you to take the shot, how copy?”
“Sir!” I protested.
“How copy, Corporal!”
I sighed. “Roger. Take the shot.”
I lined my crosshairs up with the figures neck, accounting for bullet drop so that he would take the round directly in the chest. A bullet this size didn’t need to hit the heart directly to kill. I took in a breath and let it escape little by little. I pulled the trigger as the last volume of air left my lungs. The kick of the rifle knocked my view away from my target momentarily. Carlos whispered that the target was down before I could line my scope up and check for myself.
“Baker Team,” General Lansing said, “is the area secure?” Furnius confirmed that there were no other targets. “Victor, confirm that kill. We don’t want him reporting your position if anyone else shows up.”
I raised myself from the ground and scuttled, crouching low, over to the body. I pulled my pistol out about halfway there. The left hand of the body flailed outwards. I grabbed it to check for a pulse while keeping my pistol aimed at the head. My fingers ran over scar tissue. I turned over the arm to find letters etched into the underside of the forearm, crude because they had been done with a pocket knife. Jim’s initials.