[ToC]

 

THE SEAMSTER

Zachary Tyler Vickers

 

 

We look and look, only having to kill them if they find us. When we do we pretend we're MacArthurs or Washingtons or Roosevelts. Our feet smell of mold, knuckles wind-burnt, necks peeling in the too-close sun, tides of salt sweated into our clothes. We rehearse emergency HazMat and gas mask protocol. We are here, but not.
     Some Hostiles have bred mongoloid scorpions the size of Labradors kept on chains that clank in the dark and leave trails of rust in the earth. Others scarf cobras around their necks and zipper teeth of the captured into their stomach flesh, forming these great mouths. They snip their tongues to counteract interrogations, and gobbledygooking and baying pulls in the wind, always encircling us. Forests of bear traps hang from dead apricot trees. Ripples of distant gunfire, the low frequencies of shrapnel mortars. Schooner graveyards bulkhead miles of shore. The Troglodytes of the Armenian Fief bark and yelp from their burrows, cords of electricity running in to create their anti-West agitprop pornographies.
     Everywhere, burned and ripped Old Glories.
     Which I collect and stitch best I can. They don't look right, frayed patches of stars where stripes should go, stripes perpendicular. We wear them as capes or kramas. Except me. Mutch asks, Why not? I joke that stars and stripes aren't in season. This is our tenth month, the umpteenth time we've done this dance. It's the one thing we have jurisdiction over.
     I joined up with AMERICON because sous-cheffing at The Olive Garden wasn't cutting it. I dropped out of SUNY Fredonia. I'm tired of sousing. Sous-chef, sous-SUNY, sous-parent. Now I'm sous-Chief, but it's different. You might be sousing over here but at least you've got your reasons, your rifle, and you're not microwaving Alfredo.
     Commander Ferlong receives the next transmission.
     Coordinates for possible WMDs are relayed. We look and look, neutralize and incinerate any confiscated munitions. We inspect mechanics garages in Olde Saigon, scuttled ships along the foaming Korean surf, pagodas across the Indo-China Commie Narrows, secret compartments in Buddha shrines still smelling of incense and gunpowder. We follow thick cables to abandoned caves, sled grooves to rubbled airfields. We locate nothing.
     The disappointment is beginning to make us all ugly.
     "Intel's on a bombed-out school in the Alluvial Lowlands," Ferlong says.
     So we hump and sneak the scenic route, always combing the tracks of our feet and tires. We cross a dune, a crumbling highway, and notice ahead in the flats one hundred naked bodies suspended on large wooden spikes, kabobbed in one end and out the other. The smell is wretched, fat birds circling and screeching. "Transylvanian Kingdom's quick work," one of us says, covering his mouth, fending off the gags.
     One of the bodies lifts his head, "Sure was."
     Maybe seventy of the one hundred also lift their heads and nod gingerly in agreement.
     "Identify yourselves," we say.                
     "I'm Boris. We are refugees of the Balkan-Turkic. We were looking to take sanctuary in the Tibetan Neutral Zone when we were intercepted by the Impalers who believed us to be moles of the Armenian Fief Trogs." Boris gulps. "I thought we were traversing a nonpartisan route. I might've miscalculated." Some of the other impaled grumble curses. One tries to shake his fist at Boris The Miscalculator but winces and slumps.
     "You're certain it was the Impalers?" one of us says.
     "They were wearing their trademark souvenir Vlad Tepes Dracula shirts."
     "How long have you been like this?" I ask. "My Jesus, your agony!"
     "Two days. They didn't impale us right," Boris says. "They missed many of our lungs and spleens and such. We're so malnourished that the weight of our bodies won't sink us to our deaths. So we just hang here baking in this awful heat. The pain has become more a dull ache unless we flail too much. I've got a burn on my intimate place that is much worse. Or if I get an itch which I obviously cannot scratch. That's torture." True. Some were pierced through the rectum and out the mouth. These stunk horrible, themselves pooled around themselves, picked at by vultures. But others had poles in a hip and out the clavicle, having missed the organs and spine. "The Impalers are getting sloppy," Boris says. "The Trogs have really got them on their heels. They looked exhausted and at wits end."
     "During your refugeeing or impaling did you observe huts or hangars or convoys marked with three stripes and/or the letters G or V?" Commander Ferlong asks in his shrill musty voice. "Yellow triangles with the nuclear trefoil? Come into contact with any lung irritants, vesicants, organophosphates, pesticides, precursors, anthrax or smallpox?"
     "We did see some Proud Dutiful Children in dump trucks. They wore their mummified facial turbans but also with gas masks fitted over them." Boris flips his wrist toward the main crumble of abandoned asphalt where our convoy is idling.
     "Could be PDC decoys."
     "Or maybe the WMDs have gone mobile?"
     "Pardon," Boris says, "but can you get us down? We don't want to die like this."
     "Negative," Ferlong says. "How can we get you down if we were never here?"
     "Sir," Private Mutch says.
     "Don't sir me, soldier. You're familiar with protocol."
     Ferlong has mavericked through three conflicts, sniffing out needles in haystacks. His lungs rattle with anthrax spores and his white beard stinks of vegetation scorched with napalm. When he tells us that warfare is in his blood we know he's being modest. He understands how to keep the guts and heart independent. We saw him Jack-O-Lantern a Hostile corpse's chest, then light a small campfire atop the bowels so that the flames couldn't be detected at night by the majority of the outlying unfriendly circumference. The smell was putrid. "It's just a chimenea, you nitwits," he wheezed, noting our early horror, heating coffee where the stomach burst and shriveled. Smoke meandered up the neck and out the mouth.
     "Why do we have all those aid packages then?" Mutch asks. "Aren't they protocol, too?"
     To this Commander Ferlong sighs. He scans the vacant perimeter, then nods the OK. We set to it. But the few we slide off gush and pool. "I don't know if we can, Boris," Mutch says. "I'm sorry, but it appears these javelins are keeping everything inside you." Boris bites his lip. "Well," he says, "just saw the poles? That way we keep everything inside and it'll look like our people rescued us, which saves you from any attention."
     "Leave it to a refugee to find a loophole," Ferlong says with an eye roll.
     So we cut them down and offer rations. Mutch knocks around one of the aid package soccer balls from the supply truck with the kids who keep tipping over when they try to kick it because of the javelins. They thank us, shuffle off, dragging the poles in their torsos, looking like martini olives once they're silhouetted on a distant dune.
     That night we rehearse HazMat and gas mask protocol twice.
     "Why do we do this when we haven't found a stitch of nothing?" we ask.
     "Do you know what happens to the brain in a G or V attack?" Commander Ferlong says. "It inhibits your cholinesterase in the peripheral and central nervous systems, which then causes acetylcholine to accumulate, making your neurological assignments to vital organs go fucky. If you gear-up in seconds you'll already have the runny nose, the watery eyes and pinpoint pupils, migraines, chest tightness. If you gear-up improperly, you'll convulse until your bones break or lungs tire or heart pops or you piss and shit yourself into a welcomed quietus." Ferlong reaches for his belt. "And the body? Know what mustard gas does to the sweaty parts?" He strips right there in front of us, baring yellow scars from huge blisters under his armpits, his inner thighs and genitals. Except his unblemished scrotum, which he admits was so disfigured from the cytotoxin that doctors removed it and fashioned him a prosthesis.
     So we rehearse HazMat and gas mask protocol once more.

*

The bombed-out school still has the English alphabet on the chalkboard, the desks turned upside-down like drowned ponies. There's a foot inside one. Pieces of masking tape all over the walls of the principal's office where intel hung, the wastebasket filled with the damp ashes of shredded documents and a tattered Old Glory. I pull it out and stitch what's left to another from the pile in my Humvee. The stitching keeps reminding my hands about something delicate. There are muscle memories I'd rather not remember. Above the principal's desk is a world map with dotted lines rendered across Eurasia, indicating provisional borders of all UN-recognized territories occupied by warring extremist factions, or Hostiles.
     There are darts sticking in the America part of the map. The darts say MADE IN USA.
     Somehow those darts got over here, perforating Texas, Iowa, and my Indiana.
     We locate the gym rigged with lame-duck Soviet-era claymores, the casings rusted off. Inside, dunes collide, the far wall blasted out, hundreds of wood palettes on which nothing rests. We make camp and practice HazMat and gas mask protocol.

*

Days later, during the hump to the next coordinates a hundred miles east of the bombed-out school, we find about seventy scalps fashioned into yarmulkes floating in an oasis, a fresh mound of mass grave, charred javelins, and a deflated soccer ball. "The Army of Jerusalem had itself a fucking Levaya," Ferlong says. Mutch sits by the oasis and puts his flag cape over his head, and we watch the red white and blue figure shudder.
     I sit beside him until he pulls the cape off.
     "I hate this place so goddamn much," he sniffles.
     "I know," I say.
     "But you know what I didn't expect? How much I am also enjoying myself."
     "I know."
     "You a father, John Remington?"
     "Far from it."
     "But you're a son. I got one of those." Mutch turns to me. "You ever think about what you inherited? I do. I think about the things I didn't even know about myself until I came over here and now I'm scared to death I bestowed them on my boy."
     "You asking me if there's a difference between patrimony and patriotism?"
     "I'm hoping to God there is."          
     Then Private Mutch runs over to the deflated soccer ball, and as he kicks it in anger there is an explosion, and I tumble backward in the gritty shockwave. When I sit up, or am helped up, washed in bloody-eared silence, Mutch is long gone.

*

After the helicopter transports his body away, after several hours when the timing is as right as it's going to get, Ferlong says something. My head pounds, his shrill voice thin and far faraway. Turns out I'm pretty good at reading lips. He says: That's the last time we fucking help anyone! We rehearse HazMat and gas mask protocol, check the functionality of our auto-injectors. I hear this constant buzzing and others tell me when I breathe my ears whistle, like I have two deviated septums on the sides of my head. Then Ferlong gives orders to offload all the aid packages and do something else but his lips move too fast.
     "A gun probed ass?" I sound underwater, drawling every syllable like I'm tasting it.
     Somebody speaks it slower for me: a controlled blast.
     "Why not just leave them?" I ask.
     Ferlong enunciates: Because. We. Are. Denying. The. Enemy!
     So we perform a controlled blast. I feel the kaboom in my chest, and not much more.
     And I know that by enemy Ferlong now means everyone.

*

We make camp in a salty creek bed and hood our low fires so they cannot be seen by the Huns of Mesopotamia that travel at night with the chained mongoloid scorpions. One of our auto-injectors is dosed with Anascorp anti-venom, though the bodies we've discovered during surveys have puncture wounds right through the stomachs and shoulders and throats, stinger-circumferences so big we can fit our fists clear through. The other auto-injector is dosed with atropine, which Ferlong calls our Belladonna. But the auto-injectors don't thwart against Soman nerve exposure, which irreparably inactivates cholinesterase by a process called "enzyme aging." So we take pyridostigmine bromide tablets every eight hours with hydration because two major side effects are cramping and nausea, and some of us groan sick in our sleep, though now all I hear is that faint buzzing, my breathing and ear whistling.
     The black horizon rumbles with ballistics and catapulted flaming garbage, which comes to me as subwoofer jabs to the lungs that follow flashes of explosive light behind thick ashen clouds, like a shadow puppet show in an apartment fire.
     I remember Dad talking about Atropa belladonna long ago. That it was a beauty aid for enlarging women's pupils. Joking that that was how Mom saw everything, couldn't put a lick of anything past her. Mom doing that thing where she pretended to be mad by stomping her feet but, flattered, would involuntarily pat her hair. She looked like some eleventh-hour thespian auditioning for a musical. When did all that joking stop? When did things stop being funny? Dad's new government contracts at Belle Cosmetics are developing prototypes of camouflage with time-release PB amalgams, scorpion repellants, and atropine-absorbents. The contracts are Dad's attempt at bonding, or rerouting. So when I return home we have something to talk about besides why I dropped out of school to be here and not there.
     Someday this company will be yours, Dad says with an increasingly limp salute.
     I think about what I've already inherited. I've got Dad's red hair, Mom's nose. Though Mom had hers done, pupils now pinpoints from all the benzo for the insomnia caused by Belle Cosmetics' downsizing, the taxes and overhead. Dad's hair is all plugs redder than the gray that patches into his beard, maybe for the same reasons. He didn't tell me his government contracts are really to keep it all afloat, and doesn't have to. It's in his beard.
     It's just horrible to see. Your parents aging, struggling against the current of time, pulled by the undertow of their sacrifices and foot faults. You grow up and witness the mint condition fabric of their being, the one you swore by as a child, tearing, and realize that while they fought to protect you they were also fighting to protect themselves. Then you're in it yourself. You get a sense of just how fragile everything is, humbled and enraged by the finiteness. But you also see how meaningful even a blown kiss becomes, or a soccer ball in the desert, understanding its inconsequential shelf life in relation to history, yet you do it anyway.
     If they ask why I did it, I don't think I'll respond. It's neither here nor there anymore.
     Somebody sits up startled and groggy. I read his lips. He hears DeWalt saws whining and screaming. Somewhere, the Subcontractors of the Balkan-Turkic under General Contractor Cengiz Kaan have got a victory. Tomorrow we'll find scorpion carcasses riddled with nails from Bostitch guns that the infantry keep toolbelted on their denim hips, pneumatic hoses running to compressors on their flannel backs. We'll find Hun corpses stacked and plumbed with a bloodied level, their hearts hammer-drilled out of their sternums.
     The last thing Dad said before I left was: Remember that some mistakes are too big to make up for. And I'm finally figuring out what he meant by that, thinking of Mutch kicking that ball that wasn't just a ball anymore, that little scrap of red-white-blue cape that fluttered into the blackened crater that replaced him, tucked into his fist before the chopper left, maybe given to his son who's name I don't know, and won't ever, except for his last, which is Mutch, and thank Christ the empathy sidles up and my ears really start to whistle. They whistle so bad I blow the bloody cotton swabs right out, and have to wait for the clouds to light up again before I can pick them out of the creek bed and stick them back in.

*

I don't hear the assault, the tit. I sleep right through it.
     Another scrap of Mutch's cape turned up and the Balkan-Turkic Subcontractors believed the scalp yarmulkes were just a poor misdirection. They tracked us with land surveying equipment—transit-levels and magnetic locators and planimeters—following the subtle dips in the earth where we combed our tracks. Caught us off guard and scrambling to tat. Sand softened the vibrations, and I unfelt the dozers roll up welded with chainsaws, the backhoes duct-taped with blowtorches. Still no match for our brand of artillery.
     By the time I yawn, wincing from the strain on my perforated ear drums, their crew is neutralized, their machinery rigged with plastics. The last Subcontractor is restrained, hands C-clamped behind him, Mutch's cape in his breast pocket. On his knees, he's as tall as Ferlong. His Bostitch cordless drill is against his forehead, slowly boring the tan hairy flesh, a little poor lobotomy. Ferlong's interpreter tries to decipher intel. The Hostile wails, strands of spittle stretching in his toothy mouth, tongue nub flicking gibberish the interpreter shrugs at but brings me to tears, seizing my lungs. I sweat through my clothes as if I've quit too much cold turkey.
     When patience thins, we slam some framing handbangers through his ears, deep into the lobes, using an eight pound sledge. Then, like the others, we lacerate three crude slashes down his chest for the mark of the Sri Lankan Liberation Lions.
     And I think of the family dog, how Dad can't raise so much as the paper to reprimand it.
     I get a runny nose, queasy from the sickness of relation, or lack of it.
     Then we're Oscar Mike toward the next coordinates. The whole hump I'm dragging the Hostile's moving mouth. Its weight pulling on my bones so much that my right foot lags behind, tingling and completely asleep. We camp in trampled brush. We practice HazMat and gas mask protocol, check the functionality of our auto-injectors, take PB tablets with hydration. Ferlong pitches his tent inside a kneeling elephant skeleton.
     I tow my dead leg into its ribcage where he's at the other end hooding a fire in the skull.
     Prffbellurpehcchkyevullkinkdurdamatk.
     "Sir, could you please face me when you speak?"
     Oh, right. You. Are. Pale. And. Homely. Soldier. Go. See. The. Medic.
     "Sir," I say. "All this looking is not sitting well with me."
     It. Is. Our. Mission. To. Look.
     "I know. I just didn't expect to find what I'm finding."
     You. Are. Feeling. Surprise. Soldier. He puts a tin of coffee into the fire. Luckily. We. Only. Use. Ten. Percent. Of. Our. Heart's. Faculties. He lifts a leg in the manner of releasing a tremendous fart. It. Too. In. Time. Shall. Pass.        
     "Isn't one of those faculties mercy?"
     No. Mercy. Is. A. Phenomenon.
     The hooded fire inside the elephant skull throws shadows. I assume crickets are wild the way Ferlong rubs his fingers together as I've seen him do before, and I'm reminded of the tall grass near Cedar Lake carbuncled with deer ticks and those thrumming insects that Mom had me catch and put in old Mason jars for evening picnics, Dad wrestling me and the dog, forgetting the shirt and tie he was ruining, all of that memory tied up neat in those amplified jar chirrups, the sound just one of innumerable things I begin to mourn.
     "That man you killed was restrained and helpless. It feels different than the rest."
     The. Hostile? Ferlong pulls the gotcher-nose bit, like Dad would, pinching my nostrils and sticking his thumb between his pointer and middle fingers.
    
His fingertips smell of gunmetal, calluses so thick you'd be hard-pressed to uncover prints. Things. Still. Astonish. You. He wiggles the thumb between his fingers. The. World. Still. Holds. Wonder. He puts the nose back on my face. I'm. Sorry. For. That. He stares at his now empty palm. Once. You. Get. As. Old. As. Me. These. Things. Won't. Surprise. You.
     "I can tell you what the Hostile was saying!" I try, ears sirening. "I read his lips. I deduced consonants based on his tongue nub flicks enough to figure it out. Would you like to know what he was trying to tell you while you drilled his face?" One of the cotton balls pops out again and lands in the fire and for a moment things brighten.
     Ferlong shakes his head. Not. Unless. It. Is. A. Longitude. And. A. Latitude.
My ears might be bleeding. I feel on the verge of spilling over into my eleventh percent.
     "You got kids, sir?"
     Ferlong puts his hand on my shoulder and squeezes too tight.
     That. Leg. Is. Turning. Blue.

*

We look and look and locate nothing.

*

The bruise from Ferlong's squeezing doesn't fade. It deepens. His hand like a star across my pale shoulder, my skin fabric-thin. Between the Irish white, my sunburns and blue leg, all exposed in the portable showers, everybody starts calling me Old Glory.
     I go see the medic. He has no idea what's wrong with me.
     The shoulder bruising could be from a lack of vitamin C and/or K, probably, he tells me; a blue numb leg can be symptomatic of no B-12 in the diet, and a prolonged shortage of vitamin D can cause sunburning and a weakening of the ear drums.
     You appear to be suffering from multiple deficiencies, he says, and pumps me with IVs.
     We hump along the winding Jhelum of Punjab, within earshot (or chestshot for me) of the hooded suicide bombers detonating against the concrete borders of the Tibetan Neutral Zone where we'll resupply from an unmanned MMIST CQ-10 Snowgoose flown in by someone somewhere far from us. Up a walnut tree hanging over the river we find an urchin with a shotgun, sobbing. The translator again shrugs at the balderdash. So Ferlong looks at me. I focus on his lips and tongue nub. "He's runaway. The other boys pick on him, call him River Runt." I turn to Ferlong, "We should take him with. He's only five or six."
     Negative. Ferlong taps his hands. I look closer at the urchin and notice his knuckles are painted red, a trademark of the Red Fist. Each blooded knuckle is a confirmed kill. The boy says it's quiet and shady up there and the other kids are mean.
     I imagine him no bigger than Mutch's boy even though I have no clue.
     Ferlong puts a hand on his sidearm.
     "Sir," I say. "He's alone. If we shoot we'll just draw the rest of them to our position."
     The urchin still sobs, hugging the gun between his neck and shoulder. Ferlong snorts, frees the pistol of his grip. We follow the river for the remaining hour or so of daylight, make camp, rehearse HazMat and gasmask protocol, check the functionality of our auto-injectors, take PB tablets with hydration, and I notice the blue has spread up my thigh and into the tip of my trigger finger. One of my molars falls into my coffee tin.
     When I go back to the medic he asks how long have I had the runny nose and watery eyes, the chest tightness and gasping? I don't know. When I describe the ache in my bones, the strain on my heart, he checks me for nerve exposure.
     You show signs of contamination, he says, but I can't find what you're contaminated with.
     "Doc," I say. "I think I'm growing up."
     Well, he says, There's no IV bag for that.
     That night, I lurch around camp and collect all the capes. I have to be delicate with my bayonet, cutting them off the drooling, the maybe snoring, those sucking their thumbs out of habit or clinging to the last innocent thing yet to be burned off.
     Finally, Ferlong's tent. I kneel between his cot and the fire he's bonneted out of saturated fronds and gently sidle my blade up against his throat until the cold of it wakes him. "Shh," I whisper, or at least think I do, not able to even hear myself.
     Whatisthis? he says, too loud, because I hear it swimming in the buzzing.
     I let him know about his volume with a little more pressure from the blade.
     This. Better. Be. A. Midnight. Shave. To. Comply. With. Grooming. Protocol.
     "Take your pants off," I tell him.
     I. Will. Do. No. Such. Thing!
     "I know you have sons," I say. "It's that certain kind of Ferberizing you give off. You stink of it. I won't tell you what that Hostile you drilled was trying to tell you about his kids. But you better do as I say so I don't have to hear about yours."
     He slides down his pants.
     You've. Crossed. Into. Unreturnable. Territory. You. Neonate.
     "I know," I say. "Now give me your nuts."
     He turns his eyes to me, disgusted. So. You're. A. Poodle. Faker?
     "I'm not queer. I'm just not cut out for this kind of ugliness."
     He grumbles—ymothfukbitniugslk—fumbling in his briefs. He wheezes and coughs, and I smell old glories of a different kind rebel out, ones I loathe but also, to my chagrin, envy. He disconnects the prosthetic. I take it and put it in my duffel. He snarls at me. Treason! Soon. As. We. Make. Tibet. You're. On. A. Chopper. Discharged.
     "Dishonorably, I hope. I'm not wanting this kind of honor, sir, respectfully. Not after knowing what they're saying. Can you understand that? Anytime I look at their mouths and tongue nubs. I can't be responsible for more lost sons and fathers."
     This makes Ferlong swallow so hard his Adam's apple, which is bulbous and massive, moves my bayonet up and down, my whole hand, my arm and chest, or maybe I'm the one moving his Adam's apple, tethered to something forgotten and deactivated down the unwell of his throat. Either way, one of us is moving the other.
     "Commander," I say. "Are you surprised?"
     In his eyes, the glowing embers of what remains of his fire jumping and dying. I keep the bayonet where it is and he lets it. He sleeps with his pistol but never reaches for it. In fact, he pushes it away and onto the floor. His jaw trembles and I can tell he's fighting another campaign within himself, the tenets of parenthood, refusing to blink. No, he says.
     "I'm going to leave now," I say. "I need you to let me go AWOL until morning."
     I. Know. Where. You. Are. Going. He yawns. You'll. Get. Your. Hell. At. Sunrise.
     And he rolls over.
     I follow the river back downstream and find the urchin Hostile still sobbing in the tree.      
     "I'm sick," I tell him. "I'm suffering from multiple deficiencies." I lean against the tree. I explain how walnuts are rich in vitamins and minerals and omega-3s, which help inflammation, circulation and skin conditions. I show him my blue leg, my sunburns, and gesture wildly to try and represent the enormity of wounds I cannot offer.
     The moon looks like a headlight in heavy fog. The urchin tosses me down a single walnut and I thank him, crack it and chew the meat to a waxy paste. Maybe I start to hear the Jhelum's current returning amidst the buzzing.
     What that whistle? the urchin gobbledygooks.
     "Despondency!" I sniffle, rippling in the wind. "Can I please have another walnut?"
     I sit on one of the tree's great roots to catch my breath and chew. Moonlight and flaming catapulted garbage and flares knock in the sky, reflecting off the river. The urchin's face is sooty, a red smudge on the tip of his nose from a knuckle during a thumbsuck. His hair is long and his tongue nub might be infected. When I tell him I brought him a gift, he lights up so much I swear I can also see him glowing in the rushing Jhelum spume.
     What? What? What?
     "My commander's balls." I hold them up. "You take these to your chief or whatever. Those boys won't be picking on you anymore. You'll be second-in-command, I bet." I show him the duffel of flag capes. "You took down every single one of us. You were spectacular. A magician with that smoothbore. Something to be proud of, kid."
     The urchin looks at his red knuckles and, muscle-memoried, aims. Die Stars and Stripes!
      "If you like," I say, wiping my nose on my sleeve. "I won't feel a thing of it."
     But he doesn't. He lowers the gun. Why you help me? I enemy.
     "I get picked on, too. Everyone back there calls me Old Glory. They tell me that I must look like Betsy Ross's underpants." I hold up the bag of capes. "Our enzymes are aging. I don't think we're going to be able to do this kind of thing much longer."
     Who is Betty Rust?
     "You'd absolutely despise her," I say, and smile.
     Thank Christ Almighty I'm still surprised when the urchin smiles, too. The boy sets his gun in the crotch of the tree and opens his mouth wider, laughing, hopping limb to limb, shaking. Walnuts drop around me, faster than I can collect them, thumping off me, heavy as any lineage, light as the lake-effect churning off the banks of Michigan.  

 

 

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"'I felt more like a guinea pig than a wounded soldier,' said a former Army sergeant." —New York Times