By James Garrison
Just the three of them remained in the outpost: Pierre the sergeant, Andre the new guy from the capital, and Joe the American. Then Pierre schlepped in the girl from the village. Slight, black hair, olive skin, no more than sixteen, a native girl whom Pierre said he had been eyeing since his second week there.
They had been left behind to signal if the Majdi followed the retreating army (a strategic redeployment the captain called it) and marched on the capital—though they knew that the Majdi did not march; his men flowed like the first fingers of an incoming tide, slipping silently around rocks and dunes and along crevasses. So these three soldiers were the captain’s eyes and ears in the great gray barrens of rock and sand, making their reports over a battered transmitter, alone in an abandoned stone fort on a promontory overlooking the desert.
There were still lights in the capital. From their high outpost, they could see the glow at night, just on the horizon, many miles in the distance.
They would remain for only twenty-four hours more. The retreating army would be in place and secure by then, not exposed to attack in the vast wilderness. For their escape, the captain had given them a good jeep and enough water and fuel to reach the capital. Two other jeeps were also there. Discarded from a prior war, they stood in the mid-stages of decrepitude on the slope below the fort.
So they had fuel and spare parts and enough water to make their exit when the time came—except for the girl, whom they would have to leave behind. “That was unfortunate,” Pierre said. Since the Majdi’s men would use her according to their custom and dispose of her as the offal of infidels.
The place itself was bleak, desolate. Andre, in his fresh uniform, his nostrils still tingling from the ocean air, had felt the contrast the minute he debarked from the plane and started up the escarpment. He felt it in all his senses: in the soughing of the wind and in the fine grains of sand that entered his eyes and nose and mouth and sought out every opening in his skin. He felt the absence of water and the fear of unquenched thirst. But most of all, he felt the desolation of the mind, the loss of hope, and the estrangement from those around him. Except, later, the girl. She had smiled shyly at him from the shadows of her shawl, and he wondered at her modesty—despite Pierre, whose porcine grunting came nightly from inside the cave-like fort.
From the first, Joe the American had not trusted Andre, that Andre could discern human form from shadows should the Majdi’s men slink among the rocks below or up the steep cliff. Joe had not slept for days, instead of keeping watch from the lookout post above the fort even when Andre was there. No one would sneak up on him—not Joe, a seasoned veteran of the wars. The will to live oozed from Joe’s pores, along with his sour sweat and fear of death mingled with the scent of contraband alcohol that came with each breath. But Joe rarely opened his mouth to speak, and never to say what he thought about the war, about their fate here in the desert.
Pierre, on the other hand, talked and talked and talked. That is when he was not sleeping or rutting or filling his mouth with stolen meat from the village or the outdated American rations they had to eat, and sputtering out flecks of food across the wooden table onto Andre’s letter—dark spittle blotting “Cherie” and “t’aime,” causing Andre to ball up the paper and toss it aside, then move to sit against a boulder, where he started over with a clean sheet resting on a month-old copy of Le Monde. That had been the night before the jeep.
Pierre was not afraid to die. He said so every two or three hours when he was not rutting or sleeping.
Andre had known fear from the start. From the moment he had landed in this place. Even more from the moment, the others had left, leaving him here with these two demented cast-offs and the girl. He knew it when he looked out at the bloodred sun sinking behind the empty horizon, and he worried over what it was that had led the captain to leave him in such a company.
The desert contained many shades but few colors. At midday, it was almost blindingly white. In the slanting sun, it was gray with dark opaque shadows like a faded chiaroscuro landscape. And at night, once the last sliver of moon had glided into the west, it was black, eternally and profoundly black. Even the stars like speckled ice could not dispel it. Only the distant glow of the capital, forming a thin bowl on the horizon far to their rear, seemed to pulse with promise. After the curfew even that light went out.
Andre, waking and feeling his rifle under his deadened arm, looked up and imagined smoke from burning buildings, yet he smelled nothing but the desert air, cool and stale. Some days the sky was crystalline blue, like the sky in a Renaissance painting he had seen in the Louvre, but now, on this, their last day, it was watery milk and the sun a faint moon-like orb wading through the murky reaches of space. Then he remembered what Pierre had done with the jeep, and the heavens seemed to close in on him like the lid of a coffin.
The girl had disappeared while Pierre slept, and he had roused in a fury, ranting at Andre that it was his fault for letting her go. And so it was because it was Andre who had been on watch, and he had made no move to stop her when she ran from the fort, going in naked feet across the talus in the early morning light. Pierre had taken the good jeep and raged off along the rutted track to the village. When he returned, a boiling plume of dust and smoke followed the jeep, and its tires were shredded. But the girl was beside him.
All he would say: the old hags had set a trap, but he had fooled them. One old crone, he had knocked silly and left lying in the dirt by the well. Probably the girl’s grandmother or aunt or something. Her mother was dead in the war.
The girl kept her head down, looking at the ground from under her shawl as he talked. Andre’s eyes stayed on her. Avoiding Pierre’s harsh glare and unspoken rebuke.
Joe prowled around the smoking jeep, and growled under his breath until he finally growled at Pierre: why didn’t you let the girl go, she hates you.
Pierre growled back that he had saved her; she was as good as dead back there.
Didn’t she go on her own, Andre asked.
She was crazy, Pierre snapped. She was going to kill herself. He could not let such a pretty bird fly into the net. A tame one at that. He grinned a yellow-tooth grin above his loose double chin.
Andre thought, he really means it.
The girl leaned against Pierre and held his arm. “See,” Pierre said, “she doesn’t want to die. Not really.”
So how do we get out of here, spat Joe, now that you’ve fucked up the only good jeep we got. And we can’t take her. We have to bring the ammo and guns and rations; we can’t leave anything for the Majdi.
“Burn it,” said Pierre. And I can fix that one. He pointed to a rusting hulk with four intact tires down the slope. A relic from the last war.
“Shit, shit, shit,” said Joe.
Andre was quiet, not believing Pierre could fix anything. But Pierre stashed the girl inside the stone fort and went to work on the old wreck, going back and forth between it and the smoking jeep that had been their salvation from this place, pouring precious water over the engine until it no longer smoldered.
Hours passed and the sun left them and the night came but Pierre continued to work. Still, no sound came from the relic’s engine, and finally, Andre had slept, to awake to the milky sky, the silence, and the memory that living depended on Pierre fixing the relic.
While Joe stood guard, Andre tried to help Pierre with the jeep. The girl came out of the fort to sit on a granite boulder and watch them, and Pierre did not send her back inside. As the sun rose and the day grew hot, the shawl slipped from the girl’s hair and her long skirt edged up her bare legs.
Now, Andre thought, she has abandoned all shame and hope, and it does not matter to her anymore, nothing matters. She ignored Pierre, but she smiled at Andre, who was closer to her age and not as ugly.
Andre offered her water and some chocolate from his rations, bringing a hissed rebuke from Pierre in her language. She snapped back at him in the same way and took the chocolate in a quick motion, saying merci to Andre. Touching his hand and smiling up at him.
Pierre glared at him, then told him: go relieve Joe. As Andre trudged up the hill, he could hear Pierre banging on the engine and cursing it, trying to will it to start, while the girl watched.
It was good that Andre went. Joe had found a bottle of Cognac, and he was nursing it down with the help of a canteen of water and singing softly to himself, some dirge about rain. A rations box lay open in the gritty sand, its contents spread haphazardly about—except for the cigarettes, one of which hung limply from Joe’s mouth. A thin streamer of smoke curled upward against a matching white sky.
Joe snuffed out his cigarette, grunted something in English, and with contortions to avoid spilling from his bottle, crawled to the far end of the trench. He closed his eyes and slept.
Andre held vigil over dull shadows cast by a blurred sun as the shadows sharpened, shifted, and faded into the afternoon. He thought of the girl, the time he had seen her remove her black shawl and wash her olive arms. Her mother had killed a goat, slitting its throat with a knife and draining the blood into a pan. “Nothing would be wasted,” Pierre said. Every ounce of the butchered animal would be saved and used, even the blood. A little was put aside for ritual, and the mother, now dead, had taken a finger and applied a small streak to the girl’s forehead while the goat still quivered beside them.
After the butchering was done, the girl had gone to the well and drawn up the bucket. Removing her cloak and the shawl, she had washed her hands and arms and the blood from her face, not only the streak on her forehead but also splatters on her cheek and neck. She did not have to worry about being seen because all the men were gone, either off with the Majdi or scouting for the captain. But Andre and Pierre had watched through binoculars from the hill above. That was when Pierre had declared that she was his girl, and Andre had not believed him.
Andre started from his reverie. Sometimes he only imagined shapes below, but now he was certain a form had slipped between two large boulders on the lee side of the promontory. Hefting his rifle, he squeezed off three shots, like wood slapping against wood—bringing a spray of gravel from one of the boulders. But no response or movement. If there had been any before. Only an echo and a high, twanging whine as the bullets ricocheted among the rocks.
Joe jumped up, eyes wide, flinging his arms out and swinging his head around. Nothing else animate appearing, only Andre with a rifle pointed at the barrens below, Joe cursed both him and the desert, then settled like a weary old dog back onto his rocky bed. He drifted away again, the bottle cradled in one arm.
Andre returned to his vigil, watching the shadows spread like spilled honey over the desert floor. His eyes burned, his neck grew stiff, and sweat ran down his back and in rivulets under his arms.
The sun disappeared into the folds of dark clouds, and Joe roused once more and surveyed the sky. Sand storm, he grunted, sitting up and stretching. Andre lifted his rifle from the rough stone ledge of the parapet and slid down into the trench. Going to eat, he told Joe. You watch. He reached over and snatched away the bottle. You don’t need this.
Joe mumbled a protest and shook his head, showing white stubble running halfway down his wrinkled neck and over his Adam’s apple. He rolled to one side and, struggling to his hands and knees, crawled up the incline to the observation post.
“Sand storm,” Joe said again and shielded his eyes to examine the horizon, where the sun had been swallowed by the gloom at the end of its arc. “If we’re lucky, it’ll blow south. If we’re not,” he didn’t finish.
Andre shrugged and left, rifle in one hand, Joe’s bottle in the other. A storm would make it easier for the Majdi to invest the outpost in the night. But it could also cover their escape.
One more night, one last report, then destroy the transmitter and the fuel and the weapons they were leaving behind. And the girl? Andre groaned. If only Pierre could get the jeep running. Where was Pierre? Andre had heard nothing from him in the last hour. Not even a howled curse or the clanging of the wrench against metal. From the path winding down from the lookout, he could not see the jeeps or Pierre. All he could see were an array of boulders and the chiseled cliff behind the fort, rising above it like an ancient monument, shielding the outpost’s farthest reaches with bleak shadows even until mid-day.
Doubt, and fear, curdled in his throat. Perhaps they were overconfident of this promontory, pointed like a vast ship’s prow out over the desert, its stern wedged against the sheer wall of towering rock. It would be a Herculean challenge to scale those walls or to sneak up the escarpment from the boulder-strewn desert below and then creep past the barricades and trip-wires for the mines. But he was convinced that the Majdi’s assassins would try. If they knew the three of them were still there, they would try. It was only within the womb-like interior of the stone fort that he felt safe.
Andre halted at a room-size boulder near the fort’s entrance and surveyed the promontory out to the perimeter. Where the hell was Pierre?
Down the slope sat the relic, its bonnet raised. The jeep intended for their escape, now inoperable with shredded tires and blackened engine, stood watch beside it. But neither Pierre nor the girl was in sight. Probably on Pierre’s dirty mat inside the fort. And the relic had not started—he knew it had not because he had not heard it.
He dropped his steel canteen onto a warped gray plank that served as a table and felt the blackened can on the G.I. pocket stove. Cold. Pierre had not rehydrated any of the dried meat he had taken from the village. Add water and, voila, a real meal—if you only had potatoes and red wine, and maybe some carrots and an onion. And rosemary. But the stove was cold and the cooking tin empty. He sighed. He’d have to use the last of his rations.
They were inside, and so were Pierre and the girl. Leaning his rifle against the boulder, he removed his kepi and ran his fingers through his hair. He sat on a flat stone and laid his hat on the table, top-down, then drank water from his canteen and stared at the sky. He drew in the dust and thought, measuring and weighing the years of his life, then weighing the odds of their extension, and hoping that Pierre and the girl would come out. Until finally the twisting fist of hunger drove him inside.
Edging through the dark entrance, he felt his way to the alcove where his sleeping pad was stretched out on the stone floor and his few belongings were stashed along the back and on a ledge above. Once his eyes had adjusted to the diffuse light from the entrance, he located the last of his rations and started out. Unable to resist, curious at the profound stillness, he glanced at Pierre’s bedding. No Pierre, no girl.
He shuddered. No Pierre here and silence outside. Perhaps he had fled. But how? The dead jeep and the rusting relic on which he had been working were still there. Quickly, quietly, Andre slipped back outside. Placing his rations on the makeshift table, he picked up the rifle and pulled the bolt back for reassurance that a round was chambered. He checked the pistol on his belt, then paused to look up at the sky as if searching for an omen. Finding none, he started toward the jeeps, his hand squeezing the wooden stock of the rifle, a finger caressing the trigger.
He moved in a crouch. Swinging the rifle side-to-side, pivoting around to check behind him, he searched for any movement, anything new or strange on the boulder-strewn slope. From twenty yards away, he saw a pool of black liquid in a depression by the side of the relic. Then he saw Pierre, legs wedged under the dash, head back, a deep black gash where his throat should have been, and a dark bib on his pale, naked chest.
Andre’s mind raced; his hands shook; but he was drawn nearer until he stared into Pierre’s open eyes, fixed on a sky that had turned from milky white to dark gray. Andre’s eyes darted about, taking in the points of the compass, heaven, and earth. He expected to see the girl, like Pierre, her soft olive throat…. And finally, he did see her. In a heap between two small boulders.
His eyes searched for the assassin. Fearing, anticipating, expecting the robed figure to jump out at him, the curved dagger aimed at his throat. Backpedaling and turning, he scrambled up the slope, toward the fort—but reversed himself when he heard a low moan. Running back, rifle in one hand, he reached the girl and pulled her up, searching for blood. Her black shawl had fallen onto her shoulders, and she looked up at him, her face contorted. Slowly she held out her hand, staring at it.
He didn’t see a wound. She must have touched Pierre, tried to stop the bleeding perhaps. She really did care for him, he thought, for nasty old Pierre. He did not think about Joe, that he had to warn him. He thought only about the girl, and how fragile she looked.
She began to weep, and she shook his hand away from her arm. He tugged at her, pulled her forward with him, almost dragging her, until they were huddled against the side of the fort. Leaning close to her face, he asked what had happened, even though he knew already, asked what she had seen, even though he could visualize the robed figure going from boulder to boulder while Pierre fretted over the jeep and the girl dozed nearby.
“Rien,” she said and shook her head. She had seen nothing, then she exclaimed some low guttural phrases in her own language. She wept.
Joe. He had to warn Joe. Even if it meant leaving the protected area in front of the fort where no one could sneak up on them.
It was almost dark now, and the wind was up, filling his nostrils with a dry brackish smell that lingered as a taste in his mouth. As he started up the path, she called to him, not his name, which she had never used, but a plea of some sort in her own language, and he went back. She grasped his sleeve at the elbow and held up a hand, small and stained with Pierre’s blood. He took his canteen from beside the table and poured water into the palm she held out to him in supplication, and with the loose end of her shawl, wiped off Pierre’s blood. It was not dry, but still sticky.
Forgetting Joe, he gave her water to drink and drank some himself. Thinking, the same metal opening her mouth had just touched. He opened the rations box and split its contents with her, only then realizing he was famished. She ate hungrily, and he did also—at first. But remembering Joe—and that one of the Majdi’s warriors might be near—killed his hunger.
He ceased picking at the nameless meat and placed the open tin on the plank table. He took the girl by the elbow and raised her up, forcing her to abandon the food, and steered her to just inside the fort’s entrance. “Stay here,” he said, motioning with his hand out. Use the torch, if you need it, but only in an emergency. And stay inside.
He did not know if she understood, but she did not object. Collecting his rifle and kepi, he hurried up the rock-strewn path with as much stealth and speed as he could manage in the all-encompassing night, only the dull glow of the capital on the horizon behind him to light his way. The wind had filled the air with fine grains of sand, and he had to clutch at his hat to keep it from flying away. The storm had not gone south.
When he reached the outlook, he called Joe, in a low voice.
No answer. And he didn’t see Joe, not even the capital’s reflected light on Joe’s pale face. There was no sound, except the wind brushing sand along the ground and over the rocks.
He called again. No answer.
He lowered himself onto his hands and knees in the bottom of the trench and took a box of matches from his pocket. Shielding a match next to the ground, he struck it against the box and held it out. Crouched down, rifle across his bent legs, he twisted first to his left and, seeing nothing there, to his right. Joe. Slumped down as before, where he had been sleeping with his cradled bottle. Except now, a long dark stain extended down the front of his tunic from his lowered chin to his crotch. Andre did not have to lift the head or look into the face to see what had happened.
He glanced about in the flickering match light, fearful that the curved knife would come over his shoulder next and open his throat this time. Joe’s canteen lay in the bottom of the trench, open, empty. The flame scorched his thumb; he dropped the match, and it flared out. Scrambling out of the trench, he ran down the path: stumbling and tripping and recovering again, holding onto his kepi, the rifle banging against his thigh.
The girl was outside, sitting with her back against a rock, her hands folded loosely in the lap of her long skirt. He plunged past her, into the deeper darkness of the fort and seized the electric torch from a ledge. Playing the beam over the worn ground of the open plaza, he stopped it on the girl’s face. She gave him a frightened look.
Now it was just him and the girl, and whoever was out there with the knife. Lurking inside the perimeter. And now, if the assassin had a pistol, he could shoot them both, and the noise would not matter because there was no one else to hear, to help. Just them and they would be next. They needed to escape this place. Slip into the defile at the back of the outpost and go across the desert to the capital. But they would never make it. It was three days on foot, and that in decent weather.
The wind whistled among the rocks and flayed grit from the cliff above them. Sand stung his exposed face, even within this sheltered area. Damn Pierre and his jeeps. Maybe the captain would send help. He laughed a hoarse, desperate cough. But he tried the transmitter anyway. The switch was on, the batteries drained. A low buzz came from it, fainter and fainter as he pleaded into the microphone. Then nothing.
He had to leave, get out of this slaughter pen. But he couldn’t leave the girl, so young, so helpless, at the mercy of the Majdi.
With the remaining water, he half-filled two canteens, then collected rations, ammo for the rifle, and two grenades. The rations and ammo he stuffed into a pack, and the grenades he clipped to his belt. One of the canteens he handed to the girl. Pressed it against her hands until she understood and took it.
“We go,” he said, pointing to the horizon. Despite the sand whipping around them, the lights of the capital still glowed, if only dimly. Hefting the pack onto his back, he slung the rifle over one shoulder and the canteen over the other then seized the girl by the arm and drew her after him, into the fort. To a narrow recess at the rear, their escape route if they were overrun.
Releasing the girl, he placed the flashlight on the floor and used his full strength to roll aside a large mill-wheel-like stone, exposing a dark hole near the base of the cave’s wall. Holding the light in one hand and pushing his rifle in front of him, he crawled through a short tunnel that debouched into an open defile formed by ancient floods. Once through and standing erect, he motioned with the light for the girl to follow. She hesitated, then understanding scurried out to join him.
They made their way down the passage, Andre in front, feeling his way along the wall until it opened into a long, deep crevasse that stretched down to the desert floor. With no other guidance, he tugged the girl toward the faint glow on the horizon. Bent against the wind, they struggled forward while the sand whipped their faces and pushed them at an angle away from the glow, until it too disappeared, either because of the curfew or the lowering clouds of airborne earth, leaving the horizon as black as the rest of their world. The sand surged around them, covering them with waves of dry grit, filling mouth and nose and ears despite the girl’s shawl and a towel he had wrapped around his head and face and neck. His kepi was long gone.
She stumbled as he tugged her along by the hand, and then he stumbled, too, and they both dropped onto a gravelly surface. A disjointed wall loomed before them. Together they crawled forward and into a small cave formed by giant boulders propped each against the other.
“We wait here,” Andre gasped and pulled the girl with him deeper into the depression under the boulders. Turning on the light, he swept it around. A scorpion, tail swaying in the air, ran across the girl’s bare ankle and into an opening under one of the rocks. She gave a squeal of fright and huddled close to him, and he slipped one arm around her shoulders.
Inside the little cave, they did not feel the great blasts of wind or the sting of sand, and despite the place and the storm, Andre felt safe and comforted by the girl’s dependence on him, her warmth under his arm. Removing his pack, he placed the rifle to one side and drank some water from his canteen. He motioned for her to do the same, stopping her after only a swallow. They would need the water for the trek across the desert, tomorrow and the day after, and the day after. He despaired. They lay down, apart from each other, and he dozed.
He awoke from a small movement near him, and he first thought of scorpions. But no. The girl had moved to lie beside him. The night was cold, and she nuzzled under his arm again. He touched her face, the smooth warm skin, and he felt moisture on her cheek. Tears. He felt sad at her tears, losing everything, having to flee her village. He lay awake and thought—fantasies, of his life, of the girl—but then he remembered the journey. They would make it, he swore it. He would do it for her. For them.
The wind had ceased its howling, and a dull light appeared outside. Through the opening, he could see that the storm had subsided, though fine particles of sand remained suspended in the air. He could see the girl’s face now. Her eyes were closed, her pink lips pulled up in a faint smile as if she dreamed of something pleasant. Still gazing at her face, he fell asleep.
He awoke and felt her hand gently caressing his cheek, then his forehead, and her fingers running through his hair. Swinging one leg across his body, she straddled him, and he gazed up into her eyes, and he saw there only dark emptiness. She jerked his head back. In his remaining seconds, he realized that there were many things he did not know or understand and that he did not have to worry about crossing the desert.
About James Garrison
A graduate of the University of North Carolina and Duke Law School, James Garrison practiced law until returning to his first loves: writing and reading good literature. His first novel, QL 4 (TouchPoint Press 2017), set in the Mekong Delta during the Vietnam War, has won awards for literary and military fiction. His most recent novel, The Safecracker, a tongue-in-cheek legal thriller, was released in eBook and paperback in September 2019. His creative nonfiction works and poems have appeared in online literary magazines and anthologies; his poem “Lost: On the Staten Island Ferry” was nominated for a 2018 Pushcart prize. For more information about James, please visit his site https://jamesgarrison-author.com/ or follow him on Goodreads.