I’m sitting behind a bush staring at an airstrip with an assault rifle on my lap, and for the life of me I can’t remember why. But Toto, I am definitely not in San Diego anymore.
Not the war, either. Women don’t get drafted, and I am not in the desert; behind me and across the field are forests, almost but not quite jungle. I’m wearing civilian clothes; my whole shirt and my lap under the CAR-15 are a cherry-wood mess of someone’s blood; the knees of my jeans are stiff and itchy like they’ve been soaked and then dried under the mid-day sun (wolf’s bad knee he stumbles and my wrist slips from his hand and i’m going under, the swift cold makes me gasp and fills my chest). These little details tell me I am not dreaming. Where is everyone?
There were six of us at some point. Eight counting the CIU guys, Adal and what’s-his-name (ryan says “de qué se trata todo esto” to germán, friendly, a half second before the point-blank suppressed shot hits his brain and adal’s beer bottle shatters on the tile) so where is everyone?
I can’t remember who I’m here to shoot or what’s wrong with me (it fills my chest and batters me against a rock) or where everyone is. I put a hand to the back of my head where the pain is and my hair is crusted. Preacher said I shouldn’t be doing this (“your pupils aren’t the same size”), and where is Preacher anyway (can we not assume this is goodbye)? Something about an RPG we found. He’s going to blow up a truck and while they’re all running I’m supposed to shoot someone. But really I just want to go home because the last thing my husband said is that he was leaving me (“get off your cross, you were never gonna medal.”). This must be on the news by now. Eight cops missing in Mexico, among them couple of young veterans and a former Olympic FemaleAthlete™ and Captain Vining’s son; they love that kind of drama.
The airstrip is not much more than a hangar, half canvas and half aluminum, and a squat little ancillary building with all the shingled charm of a dead armadillo. But there are several trucks and three little Cessnas and about forty guys unloading stuff; something kind of big is going on which is why I’m hiding.
(“i can hotwire a plane”) Shotgun will get us out of here, even though Shade had his doubts about the kid. Oh God, it should be Shade behind this bush, he’s the better sniper, we argued about it (wolf’s hand on my shoulder like sand on a fire: “okay frank and annie”) and now Shade’s dead (staring at the sky i closed his eyes). They got him. This much I remember now. El Reino del Día, the rebels du jour. They want to free Michoacán (have you ever heard a butterfly?) from the godless evil influence of (heathens and wizards and serpents and their “puppy-bitch Calderón”) the United Sins of America.
El Reino was starting to be a real problem down here (raptor eyes painted on walls – eye am eye, don quixote), and so we came like we often do to teach the local cops a few SWAT tricks. It’s good to have friends here when some scumbag makes a run south. We were just trying to be neighborly, and Rafael invites us to his family’s half-ruined hacienda out in goatfuck nowhere for drinking and dancing and that’s when it all goes to hell. My first time ever in Mexico.
R.I.P. Shade, by the way. His real name was Paul Bandhauer, and he was a misogynistic shit of an ex-Navy SEAL. His heart stopped the minute the round hit. I got his shooter.
Now I look out across the airstrip and past the men unloading and fueling planes, at the opposite edge of the woods, at the skewbald truck that Preacher (why did you take his gun away) is going to blow up. Preacher kissed me (can we not assume) before he went, even though he doesn’t know my marriage is over. I don’t know why they gave him that name; he is a man of action, not (why did you take his) words. Shade (i closed his eyes) always talked for Preacher, said he’s been like that since Fallujah, but he’s all right, really (why did you take his gun away). I still can’t believe Shade is the one who died first; he was like a (knight with his banners bravely unfurled) movie action hero, and what harm does it do at this point for me to say that I actually kind of (“if you even think about cozying up to me i will turn you inside out like a tube sock”) liked him.
Actually, Shade didn’t die first; Fastball was dead already. Oh for God’s sake, Adal and Ryan died first; I keep not counting them because they weren’t SWAT. I saw them die, because (in the night, drunk, I slipped out and) I couldn’t sleep. So I saved everyone’s lives, or what was left of them. Fastball (can hotwire a car? “that turned you on a little”) died on the way out of the hacienda but we killed the ones following us, all of them, because we didn’t know which ones were dirty (eye am eye). We had to leave Fastball covered in a sheet (in the night, drunk, I slipped out and into his room, but one of the dancers was there under the sheet with him) because we had to move.
Again, R.I.P. I don’t know much about Jay “Fastball” McLaren besides the fact that a few beers made me contemplate casual adultery with him. He knew a hundred drinking songs and how to hotwire a car. He got shot in the belly and took a while to die; we had to carry him over the wall and through the orchard. I got his shooter, too.
Of all things, I remember the way Shotgun (“because he gets sick unless he rides up front”) looked when we covered Fastball with the sheet; I remember he looked how I felt. We’re not military like Preacher and Shade; we had never watched anyone we knew die. Shotgun’s an English major and a hobby pilot (“I can hotwire a plane” offhand just trying to one-up fastball and damned if it’s not going to get us out of here) whose dad happens to be Ops Support Captain so the kid works hard as hell for his mediocrity. His dad will be as shocked as anyone by the fact that his son is saving our lives. Shade was bitching that Shotgun was going to slow us down, and Shade’s the one who got shot through the chest in mid-sentence (shotgun holding onto preacher like he’s trying to keep him still even though preacher might as well be the one staring at the sky with a hole in him).
I look across the airstrip at the little ramshackle radio building and something sings through the static of my (hey honey gonna swing by radio shack on the way home and pick up a) memory. This whole thing was my plan. Wolf is going to use Preacher’s distraction; he’s going to try and get to the radio equipment while I shoot whoever it is I’m supposed to shoot (eye am eye don quixote). Wolf needs to somehow contact the military and get a helicopter out after us.
No. Yes. Wait. That is what we said, which confuses me because I’m staring at three planes and Shotgun (“that’s a cessna stationair! i can fly that thing!”) was so excited about playing the hero. So Shotgun must be dead. It must just be the three of us. But I haven’t the faintest memory of Shotgun dying. Trying to think about it, I slam against a blank wall in my head, and it seems to firm up when I poke at it.
And even weirder: I remember something now, but not what I was trying to. The leader of El Reino; he’s here somewhere. He’s the one I’m supposed to shoot (“and the sheep will scatter”) when the truck blows up. It was the best we could do with only three people. I am completely blanking on the name of the man (of la mancha) I’m supposed to shoot. I do remember that Wolf didn’t think the plan would work; he was reluctant but didn’t have a better idea. He kind of quit being leader after his hand slipped off my wrist in the river, and for some reason everyone looks to me now, even though I’m greener than the forest canopy (a storm of orange!). But I guess trees aren’t a SWAT comfort zone; it’s more my thing (fireweed blushing against blue ice, the hands of dad’s watch showing the way south). Preacher seemed more than willing to play his part even though it was probably (why did you take his gun away “it was in his mouth” oh thou bleak and unbearable world) very ill-conceived.
So I’m waiting for the truck to blow up, and then when I see the guy (raptor eye am i) I am going to shoot him. It’s simple enough to keep my mind on, and that comforts me. It’s useless to try forcing myself to remember the details of (the wound in his shoulder spurting like I’ve never seen “must’ve tore an artery” and he’s hanging onto a tree standing in a lake of his own blood before I help him sit down, before I hold him and try to get his heart not to work so hard and fast at emptying him) what happened and why Shotgun’s blood is all over my clothes. And now, of all things, my vision suddenly goes, like I’m underwater, and my target could be standing five feet from me and I’d miss the shot.
Shotgun’s real name was Zach Vining and he stammered fast like he wasn’t sure what he wanted to say but had to say it quick before someone interrupted. He took a round in the shoulder, nothing serious, probably walked two miles through the woods bitching about it, before it suddenly decided to bleed him out in two minutes flat.
My nose is running and my body’s shaking like someone’s pumping it full of bullets. I can almost hear Shade’s rant about woman snipers. But it’s not because I’m a woman (preacher’s wet face turned up to a storm of orange!), it’s because I hit my head on a goddamned rock. I haven’t cried since I was thirteen. We’re all falling apart out here (so many we could hear their wings – have you ever heard a butterfly? – and we went to them thinking it was rain, to cover our tracks, but the forest floor and the branches were just covered with them until preacher stepped out and set them all coruscating into the bright sky, oh whithersoever they blow).
I squeeze my eyes shut and back open so I can see again and look toward the hangar, because I remember that Quijas, my target, is inside, and I am just waiting for him to poke his silver head out to find out why his truck is exploding. Arturo Quijas, not Quijote, but that’s why Man of La Mancha keeps getting stuck in my mind. As it happens, the windmill that Señor Q. is tilting at had some of my friends in it, so he’s going to die with a hole in his head.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been sitting here, but it’s been a pretty long time, longer than it should have taken for Preacher to get around and get line of sight on the truck. It occurs to me that Preacher might have died. (his real name was no, no, no) It occurs to me that this whole thing might have been easier if I had never gone wandering in the dark and seen (“if you’re gonna be trolling for bone” shade said at dinner “at least take off your fucking wedding ring” because he didn’t know, and when I hit on him I thought he’d kill me, he shoved me up against a tree, i thought because i was married, but no, it was because shade was the one who understood preacher, and i’m so sorry, oh my brave beautiful boys, and if i had it all to do over again), if I’d only just been able to sleep, we all would have died quick with just the pewwft of a suppressor and alcohol-laced blood suddenly drenching our pillows in the middle of a dream. And Quijas would have paid the bounties and my husband would have felt like the excrement he is and life would have gone on.
I’m thinking this and I’m looking at the end of my rifle (“i wasn’t going to pull the trigger i just had to shut up the voice that kept saying i wanted it, i had to prove it wrong, i would never leave you here”) and then it happens. The RPG comes shrieking and I can’t believe how perfect, as the crappy old truck dies a spectacular death of fire and metal flung high against a sky shredded with clouds. And it means he’s alive (I would never leave you here) and we haven’t lost yet, because now these rebel assholes are going loco with fear. I put the CAR-15 to my shoulder and hold my breath, and what’s left of my mind extrudes through the iron sights right at that doorway. Some thugs come out shouting en español and brandishing AKs as they head toward the truck, but I see not even a ghost of Quijas.
Is he even real? I must have some reason to believe he’s here, but I can’t remember why, now. Did I see him? Recognize him? That silver hair, those hawkish eyes painted on every wall? Did I see him and come up with this plan? Why did anyone even listen to the girl with her brains bashed in?
But I’m tired of waiting (“get off your cross, you were never gonna medal”), so I move carefully around the treeline toward the hangar. There’s a gap (the wound in his shoulder spurting like I’ve never seen) between the canvas and the aluminum that I can clearly see from here, and by God if I’m not going to go (it was less like a kiss and more like a flash grenade) and see what I can see through it and end this one way or the other.
My name is Elizabeth Warczak, and I’m a cop, former biathlete, and musical theatre fan from San Diego. I was born in Alaska, and I’m now about as far south of home as anyone can be. Today, and last night, I have seen things (storm of orange!) that will never seem real to me no matter how much time I have left to look back on them. And that’s about enough of that.
I stand up and (onward to glory i go).
Mishell Baker is a graduate of the 2009 Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workhsop. Her stories have also appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Redstone Science Fiction. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Los Angeles, and she occasionally tweets about motherhood, writing, and mental illness at @mishellbaker.