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Pete Conrad


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“Fear is pain arising from the anticipation of evil.”

— Aristotle


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The southern live oak that had given great comfort, shelter, and shade to May Wellbeloved’s family for four generations had died five years ago, having succumbed to oak wilt. It was a fast-spreading disease that took the imposing tree in just one season. May mourned the loss of that tree as she peered out of the back screen door of the white colonial house her great-grandfather built with his own hands in 1904. She blamed herself for not catching the fungus sooner — for not noticing that the spotted leaves were dropping in mid-summer when the tree should have been producing flowers and nuts — for forgetting that its foliage should have been the same deep hue of mossy green that she had treasured for the past sixty-six years she had known the tree — for letting her ancestors down. That tree had protected her family from the hot Georgia midday sun and from several hurricanes for one hundred twenty years. Now, it was gone; the spot it had shaded replaced by a lush and verdant green lawn, the tree’s wide and glorious trunk the sole remnant for May’s imagination. Her father had said the tree was over three hundred years old. He had a habit of divulging that fact, as if it were top-secret information, to everyone who visited the rural two-acre Johnsonville, Georgia property. May’s father was Johnsonville’s first black mayor, serving the small community of less than a thousand inhabitants from 1970 to 1988, when he died of a stroke at the age of fifty-four. Mayor Wellbeloved was truly well beloved by all. He was an honest, stern, and demanding man who expected the residents of Johnsonville to behave with the same reverent morality and social dignity that he demonstrated as their mayor. Mayor Wellbeloved also expected these qualities of May, his only child. In fact, the residents of Johnsonville still  spoke highly of Mayor Wellbeloved some thirty-odd years after his passing — and equally of the barbecue he hosted for the community under the colossal oak tree. That barbecue was such a successful event that by 1975 it was held annually over the long three-day Labor Day weekend. Most Johnsonville residents attended the barbecue, with invitations and RSVPs sent out a month earlier requesting their preference for which day they were to attend — Saturday, Sunday, or Monday.

May gazed through the screened door onto the sprawling lawn where the live oak had for so long spread its enormously thick limbs out over the pristine, spring-fed Robin Lake. She reminisced about when she was a teenager hanging on the twisted rope swing that once dangled from one of the tree’s abundant and strong boughs. Oh, how she adored to climb up the two-by-four ladder her father had nailed to the wide trunk, grab hold of the rope, push herself off, and gather more and more speed and height with each oscillation until she built up the nerve to let go and fly. May would squeal with a nervous laughter that children often masked their fear with as she splashed down into the lake’s clear and cold water. She continued to lumber up the side of the tree and swing into Robin Lake, right on up until it was felled when May was well into her sixties. She still  shrieked with delightful fright each time she let go of the rope, because sometimes fear feels good, and often forces people to appreciate the life they have been given.

When she was thirteen years old, May named the southern live oak tree “Medusa” for the way the tree’s sprawling limbs reminded her of the mythological creature’s writhing head of snakes that she was reading about in The Golden Fleece  in her eighth-grade English class. The unfortunate coincidence about naming the tree Medusa was that May wore her hair in neat rows of nappy-chic Bantu knots, and her father was all too keen to use the Medusa moniker on her as well. May rested her graying head of hair, still tied into Bantu knots, against the screen and smiled as she recalled Mayor Wellbeloved calling her Medusa in that soft, southern gentry accent of his: Yo’ homework done, M’dusa? You gon’ scare them boys ‘way with that M’dusa head a hair a yours , he’d say. And then he’d howl exuberantly as if he had delivered the cleverest joke ever told in southern Georgia on any bright, blue-skied day. Medusa was a nickname May hated to be called then , but that she now longed to hear spoken from the Mayor’s lips. How she wanted him to call her Medusa one last time.

What May most admired about The Golden Fleece  was Perseus’ boundless courage. Perseus was the ultimate hero — courageous, clever, tenacious, and exceedingly handsome. He was a man who would do anything for love, including slaying the sea monster, Cetus, to save his beloved Andromeda from certain death. Her Perseus, her husband Winston, was seated at Medusa’s wide stump, drinking black coffee out of a mug inscribed with “I’m a Grouch ,” scribbling down simple architectural plans on an old grocery list.

Medusa’s stump was glorious, measuring twenty feet in circumference, and when Scotty Highland and his crew from the local mill felled the tree, Winston was adamant that the stump be planed level, exactly thirty-three inches tall, so he and May could continue to celebrate the tree’s gift in the form of an outdoor table. Winston went as far as painstakingly covering the stump with a half-inch-thick coat of clear epoxy to seal and beautify the wood, and before he laid down the sealant, May covered the top of the stump with photos and memories honoring the tree’s life: Mayor Wellbeloved with an assortment of family and friends at his annual barbecue, her as a child climbing up the ladder to the swing, a Gone with the Wind  thirty-year commemorative flyer, and several photos of her and Winston under the tree. Now, four comfortable, padded chairs encircled the stump that was still the main focal point of the backyard. May let the screen door slam behind her as she walked toward Winston, coffee pot in hand. The sun was just stealing above the southern pines across the lake, giving light and warmth to the entropy that was slowly creeping into Johnsonville.

“I thought you didn’t write plans down, Mister I got it all right up in here? ” May said, as she tapped mockingly on her skull while simultaneously kissing Winston on the crown of his head. She refreshed his half-filled coffee mug and plopped in the chair closest to him.

“Jes’ tryin’ ta work it all out, May,” Winston said, not looking up, but setting down his ruler and bringing the hot coffee to his lips. He wore an expression of anxiety on his face, which wasn’t natural for him. He was always May’s rock — the foundation on which her life was securely fastened, and a man who feared little. Or so it seemed, but not today.

May tried not to worry. “Will you start it today?”

Winston looked up at her and caught her eyes welling with tears. “You know I won’ let anythin’ bad happen to you, Mother.”

Winston sometimes called May “Mother” because of the long line of blue tabbies she’d cared for since getting married. May loved every one of her cats, but Winston was indifferent to them. Amadeus, their twelve-year-old cat, was the only one left now. He was kicking around the property somewhere, most likely tormenting a defenseless chipmunk or salamander. Independent and easily agitated, Amadeus was not a friend to Winston — the cat wouldn’t so much as let Winston touch him. Still, Amadeus was the only “child” May and Winston shared together, regardless if he and the cat liked one another.

“I know, Winston, it’s just that this is… this is…”

May was searching for the right word.

“It’s war ,” Winston said in a matter-of-fact tone as he spread his left arm across Medusa’s stump and clutched onto May’s right hand. “And I take my vow seriously that it’s my duty as your husband to protect you.”

May flashed a sentimental smile.

“You’ve always taken such  good care of me, Winston.”

“Well,” Winston lobbed a crooked grin, and returned to his plans.

When Medusa was felled, the live oak produced a considerable amount of good, strong wood — too good to burn, in Winston’s opinion, so he paid Scotty to haul his portable milling saw over to the house, and together they milled Medusa into stacks and stacks of usable lumber. Scotty took the raw lumber back to his mill to kiln dry, and May utilized the enormous mountain of sawdust to mulch around her shrubs, trees, and ornamentals — Medusa continued to give precious life to the Wellbeloved property even in death.

For the entire week following Medusa’s transformation from three-hundred-year old shade tree into kiln-dried dimensional planks, Winston designed an architectural plan to build a barn to replace the tattered sheds that so unpleasantly squatted to the rear of their driveway. Medusa provided more than enough lumber to frame and floor a barn that measured thirty-two feet long by twenty feet wide, and with a tall gabled roof for storage. As far as wood materials went, Winston only had to purchase the tongue-and-groove boards fo

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r the barn’s exterior walls and plywood sheathing for its roof. He prepared the tough Georgia clay, leveling it precisely, and poured fifteen three-foot Sonotube footings with cement at each eight-foot interval. This was the barn’s foundation, which was set twelve inches higher than grade, and provided an easily accessible, cool hiding spot in summer for Amadeus. The work was tough and fulfilling for a man who had spent his entire adult life, before retirement and after a tour in the U.S. Army, as a structural engineer up in Atlanta, where he helped to construct the city’s tallest buildings.

Scotty and a few of his men helped Winston erect the barn’s framing, roof, and floor — it took just three days — and Winston, with May’s assistance, completed the barn together over the course of the late summer and fall, transforming the barn’s skeletal framework into a work of beauty and craftsmanship. The barn’s long side, with two windows, faced the house, the driveway in between, and a single window faced the woods to the side of their property. There were no windows on the short ends of the barn; the side facing Robin Lake was used to stack two cords of firewood left over from last winter under an overhang in two neat rows and covered with blue canvas tarps. An entry door was placed next to a large traditional double barn door between the windows that faced the house. The barn was elegant in its simplicity — Winston was pragmatic with the design, which was strictly utilitarian, except for the hinged ornamental cupola on the top of the roof — that was May’s creative touch. Atop the cupola, which could be opened from the inside for easy egress to the barn’s roof, was a weathervane adorned with a flock of wrought-iron sparrows. They were May’s favorite bird, and the weathervane, with its poll of darting sparrows in perpetual flight was the barn’s highlight.

The inside of the barn was stark — its walls unfinished and littered with an assortment of lawn tools, and the miscellaneous bric-a-brac one collects in barns, its ceiling rows of parallel joists with a plywood loft to store larger items, and its floor a creaky layer of Medusa’s knotty limbs. To Winston, the barn was perfect in every way — including the exterior color, with eight-inch wide pine boards painted traditional barn red. May had insisted the barn be painted to match the house — colonial white, but Winston asserted that barns of such southern gentry must  be painted barn red. It was an argument that had lasted for several weeks after the barn was completed, with the barn standing in gray primer until Winston finally caved in to May’s insistence of a color that matched the house. He begrudgingly drove down to Calef’s General Store and bought four five-gallon tubs of the same colonial white paint that colored the house. The paint went on when May was out of town for the day visiting friends over in Lafayette, Georgia, a forty-minute jaunt due west of Johnsonville (much like her father, May was the social butterfly of the house, while her husband was the introvert). Winston got halfway through one side of the barn and changed his mind — the barn just had to be red . So, he drove back to Calef’s and exchanged the three unused tubs of white paint for barn red and hustled back home. He managed to paint the entire barn — two coats — by the time May returned home later that evening. She said nothing when she saw the color of the barn, and would have been more shocked  to see the barn painted white. Winston was stubborn — it was his worst quality, but May grew to accept the hideous color. Now, five years later, the barn — Medusa — would be called upon to save their lives. Color no longer mattered.

T Minus Two Days

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The early morning dew and sweet Georgia breeze gave no indication that the United States was a nation at war — on its own turf this time. For only the second time in contemporary American history, war had broken out on its own soil. A conglomerate of Soviet, Middle-Eastern, and North Korean armies had attacked with the finest of military, logistical, and tactical precision. They called themselves The People’s Liberating Army (PLA) . The U.S. had finally pissed off its enemies one too many times, and its allies were mute as a result of the current administration’s inability to commit to the UN and NATO, after several nation members were attacked by the PLA, and the U.S. had withdrawn its support of a number of global initiatives and treaties. In short, the world left America on its own to fight a war that could have easily been prevented had its leaders governed with respect and dignity.

The PLA systematically and violently dismantled the U. S. government. A sniper’s deadly accuracy blew the president’s head off while he gave a last-ditch effort  speech in Geneva, pleading for the UN to intervene, but his relentless criticism about the organization’s legitimacy and authority over the course of two perilous terms in office sealed the fate of the American people — the UN simply would not intervene. The vice president and the speaker of the house were both beheaded on live television. Ranking members of Congress were either gunned down or killed by suicide bombers as they attempted to flee Washington or their home states. Massive conventional explosions rocked the Capitol and the capital cities of every state, the national power grid went offline, and transit systems were methodically sabotaged. Even the U.S. military wasn’t immune, with worms and viruses infecting many of its computer systems. To seal the deal, electromagnetic pulses rendered the complicated U.S. military infrastructure blind, its systems of communications stripped down to nothing more complex than walkie-talkies. The U.S. was thrown into such a state of chaos and confusion that its usually law-abiding citizenry simply could no longer endure the anxiety. Rioting and looting became the order of the day, with conservatives and liberals blaming each other for the array of military and political blunders that allowed the attacks to happen, further propelling the country toward a new civil war. Americans became their own enemies, turning on each other with little hope of recovery. And while the U.S. unraveled from within, the PLA advanced its directive to march right onto its soil with nary a defensive strategy to stop them.

At least the war wasn’t nuclear — yet.

To get further into their heads, the PLA had systematically placed radicalized sleeper cells into hundreds of tiny American towns spread throughout the country, from rural Kentucky mining towns to upscale Californian beach communities to Mississippi delta villages and every place in between. No American was safe from the PLA’s reach, and no American intelligence agency had discovered the PLA’s cunning strategies until the bombs started to detonate and it was too late. Radicalized martyrs sacrificed themselves at crowded shopping malls, post offices, grocery stores, travel hubs, and other public gathering places, taking with them thousands of civilian casualties. The PLA’s scheme worked exceptionally well — Americans took to their homes, hunkered down with their loved ones, hoarded whatever food and supplies they could find, and prayed that the war would soon be over, hoping the invasion would stay clear of their  town, wishing the fight on their neighbors , be they some other local township or a state they would be hard pressed to identify on a map.

The PLA consisted of five hundred thousand soldiers divided into six armies that invaded U.S. soil via Portsmouth, New Hampshire; Seattle, Washington; Niagara Falls, New York (via Canada); Chicago, Illinois (again, via Canada); Brownsville, Texas (via Mexico); and Tampa, Florida. It was the PLA that had invaded Tampa, successfully knocking out MacDill AFB and Central Command, that concerned Winston as he stood over the neatly-stacked pile of the barn’s leftover lumber in the driveway. That army was currently marching northward, its mission to sack Atlanta and take control of its international airport, and getting closer and closer to Johnsonville with each passing hour. The trouble with Johnsonville, Georgia was that it was a very small town located directly off Route 75, just twenty miles south of Atlanta. Route 75 ran directly through Johnsonville, cutting the town right down the middle. Heading north up Route 75, the PLA had an estimated eighty thousand well-armed troops, tanks, and other wartime apparatus that made such offenses effective. And although Winston and May lived in a quiet neighborhood that bordered a large body of water — Robin Lake — Route 75 lay just one thousand feet due west of their property, with a clear sightline of the highway.

Stories of the PLA looting, raping, and murdering all Americans that crossed its path were corroborated by PLA-produced videos uploaded onto the now-crippled internet — expertly-made videos depicting, in gory high-definition detail, the horrors the PLA committed against America’s citizens. Winston watched several of these videos on Scotty’s cell phone just before the entire Georgia power grid went offline, and he imagined these horrific images as he fired up his small generator, flipped the power on the table saw, donned his safety glasses, and started cutting the leftover tongue-and-groove boards. He need not consult the modest diagram he had scribbled down earlier, for his and May’s survival plan was simple — he’d build a false wall inside the barn to conceal a three-foot-wide living space that he and May could hide in while the PLA marched on through Johnsonville. I

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f they remained quiet and prayed that the barn — their hiding spot — wouldn’t be torched or otherwise discovered, they would remain safe, and life as they knew it would go back to relative normal in a week or two or three, after the PLA had marched on through. Winston’s strategy was genius in its simplicity and form — with one man’s love for his wife the only incentive required. Winston looked up between cuts and across the lake at the hundreds of vehicles that clogged Route 75 — vehicles stuffed with people desperate to flee the atrocities of the PLA. There was just no place to go unless you owned a helicopter or private aircraft — and the FAA had restricted all private aircraft from taking to the air while the military attempted to resurrect the systems that would let them engage in aerial combat. The chaos of attempting to flee the invading army was further complicated by the use of Russian SCUD missiles, lobbed from mobile launchers at targets both strategic — large cities (Orlando, Tallahassee, Macon, Jacksonville) and random — small towns (Florence, AL, Miramar, FL, Spartanburg, SC, Laurel, MS) as it marched north. Across the country, no American citizen within five hundred miles of any PLA division was immune to its vast, reaching devastation.

The American military complex forgot about little Johnsonville, Georgia — there was no sight of U.S. forces either in the air or on the ground, and Johnsonville’s residents were simply on their own. It was likely that the PLA would take a week or more to file through the town, so their hiding place needed to be stocked with enough provisions to last, in Winston’s estimation, three weeks, though that number was just his best guess. May’s job was to gather water and as much food from their kitchen as she could find, just in case the PLA was driven back by a resurgence of American military resistance, which was proving to be minimally successful in other parts of the country.

Winston had framed out half of the false wall with Medusa’s leftover lumber and was now cutting the pieces that would be used for the slender door when a car pulled into the driveway. It was Ben Rollins, the crotchety old man from two doors down who lost his wife to Alzheimer’s a year ago. He was probably ten years older than Winston, which put Ben into his eighties. He slammed the car door and wandered toward Winston, who had switched the generator off.

“Mornin’, Winston,” Ben said.

“A fine morning it is, Ben.”

“Wha’ kind a project you get yourself into now?”

“Jes’ cuttin’ up these here boards from Medusa. Figure they be good ‘nough for the fireplace this winter.”

“A shame…”


They shook hands. Ben picked up a short two-by-four and scrutinized it. “That tree helped bring this community together.”

“Sho’ did.”

“You can tell an engineer cut these boards. Very precise. Hope you’re not one a them moody Virgos, too? June was a Virgo. Temperamental, moody…” the old man teared up, “Jesus, I miss that woman.”

Winston put a hand on Ben’s shoulder. “Us, too. And as a matter a fact, Ben, I’m not a Virgo. You wanna sit for a spell? May’s cookin’ up some lunch.”

“I don’t wanna put you out or nothin’.”

“No trouble at all. Thank the Lord for that Coleman stove. A man can’t live on cold coffee and soup for long, and that’s what’s comin’.”

“It’s inhumane, Winston.”

Winston escorted Ben to the stump and pulled out a chair, Ben plopped down, huffed because old men huff, and Winston paced up the back porch steps and spoke through the screened door.

“May, we got a guest. It’s ol’ Ben. You got another slice a cheese and some iced tea for him?”

“That’s the last of the cheese and we got no more ice,” May said from the kitchen.

“Fine, then,” Winston said, “whatever we got’ll do,” and he rejoined Ben at Medusa.

“It sure is frustratin’ when you go and throw a piece a wood in the stove and it don’t fit ’cause it’s too long,” Ben remarked, and staring out at glimmering Robin Lake.

“Yep. Sure is,” Winston replied.

A moment of silence passed as the two men watched the sun’s reflection pirouette across the surface of the lake. Hundreds of dragonflies hovered and darted above the water like silent helicopters. The sun was warm, the breeze was temperate, the company gracious — it was a perfect Georgian autumn day.

“By the way, Ben, I’m a Gemini.”

Ben chuckled. “Witty and curious. I should a guessed.”

“I never knew you were so interested in astrology, Ben.”

“What else an old man got ta do with his time…”

“Heard the Falcons gon’ be lookin’ for a new QB after the war.”

Ben flicked a wrist in the air.

“Don’ look at me. Bum wrist.”

They giggled, and again let a great comforting silence envelope them. Often, it’s the silence shared between people that is the most intimate. This was likely the last time Winston and Ben would ever see one another. And they both knew it.

“Happy Labor Day,” Winston said.

“Oh, I forgot that was today. Same to you, Winston. I remember that final Labor Day barbecue Mayor Wellbeloved gave — before God called him home. Right up here under Medusa,” Ben said as he patted Medusa’s stump. He pointed to one of the faded photos under the thick, glossy epoxy. “There. That’s me and the Mayor right there. He was a good man, Mayor Wellbeloved.”

“The best. Thirty-four years ago this weekend was his last.”

“Bless his soul,” Ben replied and crossed himself and tumbled into a fond memory, deeply immersed, his emotions ulcerated onto his face.

Winston peeked at the photo. “I remember that day, Ben, but I remember them chicken wings a his even mo’.”

“I never ate a more perfect chicken wing, Winston. Crispy on the outside, juicy on the inside. And his macaroni and cheese?”

“Ta die for. Man could make a macaroni and cheese likely ta bring my britches up a size or two.”

“I wonder how many hogs the Mayor fed us over the years.”

“Gotta be a hunnerd or mo’, I’d say.”

“Thank the Kimballs for donatin’ ‘em.”

“Yep, good people, them Kimballs.”

Once again, the two men slipped into a salient silence, each recalling their fondest memories of Mayor Wellbeloved and the epic barbecues, their heads nodding as if listening to the ghosts of their pasts, and smiling wide grins.

“You ever get that fried chicken recipe before he died?” Ben asked.

“Recipe ascended with the Mayor ta heaven.”

“The Lord sure is a lucky man.”

“He surely is.”

They looked at each other and laughed.

“I was just picturing in my head, good ol’ Mayor Wellbeloved settin’ down with God and eatin’ barbecue — and God’s got a beard full a sweet Georgia mustard sauce!”

Ben erupted with laughter. Winston smirked.

“That would  be a sight,” Winston supposed, “a fine sight I suppose.”

“It occurred to me, Winston, just now… we’ve been neighbors for some thirty-odd years now and I don’t hardly even know a thing about you. May’s family , sure, but I’m sorry I ain’t never got around to asking you about your roots.”

Winston had told the story of his youth to Ben on countless prior occasions. Winston didn’t recoil at Ben’s request, though, but prepared to tell it to him as he had done before. Ben was old and forgetful, and so was Winston. Perhaps they both needed to rejoice in the comfort of some much-needed sentiment — for Winston’s history felt more real than the reality they now endured.

“No need ta apologize, Ben. Not much ta say anyway. I know very little ‘bout my parents. My mother Lucy was born in 1932 jes’ outside a Kingston, Jamaica, in Morant Bay. My father George was born in 1930, in Trench Town, Jamaica. That’s everythin’ I know ‘bout ‘em. Well, I also know the date and location they died. You know how the news gives an ambiguous number a people killed by some event, like Hurricane Harvey or world wars or bus accidents?”

“Sure do.”

“Well, my mother and father were two of a-hundred-fifty people killed in Hurricane Charlie — August seventeenth of fifty-one, in Morant Bay, Jamaica. I don’ know why they were there — whether we lived there or if they were visitin’ family. I only know that I spent the next fourteen years in Robin’s Nest Orphanage on the north side a Jamaica, near Montego Bay, ‘til a white couple from Monrovia, California adopted me and brought me back to the states. I was fifteen. The Carters were nice enough people, though I tend ta believe their Christian beliefs were the main reason ta adopt an undesirable black teen, such as myself, from a second-world country. Now, stay with me, I’m not here ta badmouth the Carters, because they did something truly wonderful for me — removed me from a painful world, showed me love, made sure I had a decent education and, most importantly, naturalized me as a United States citizen.”

“Sometimes God works in mysterious ways.”

“He sure do. Without them, I wouldn’t a had the chance ta go ta Georgia Tech, and most important of all, meet the woman I’d spend the rest a my life with.”

Ben grinned. “Now  I hear that Jamaican accent.”

“It’s a tough ting ta hide, Ben,” Winston slipped easily into a Jamaican Patois, “but in Jamaica we would say, wata more ‘an flour.” 

“What’s that mean?”

“It means that this is a time a great difficulty.”

“And so it is. You’re good people, you and May.”

“We feel the same about you, too, Ben.”

Ben’s face was somber.

“Have you heard the news today?”

“I can’t stand ta listen to that radio, Ben. So, no, what’s the news today?”

“They got Ryan.”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph. Who’s in charge now?”

“I believe it’s the secretary of homeland security.”

“Well ain’t that jes’ a kick in the ass. Anybody know where the PLA is at now?”

“Tifton, I heard.”

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“Tifton? That’s only a couple hundred miles away. They’ll be here in two days.”

“The trucks and tanks will be. It’ll probably take a week for the foot soldiers to reach Johnsonville, and another week for them to march on through.”

“God help us all.”

Ben’s face brightened up, “they’re still being held back in New York, Chicago, and San Antonio, last I heard. Bastards didn’t count on the American people gettin’ downright ornery — stupid sons-a-bitches forgot about nine-eleven — and neither did we. Radio says they’re getting their asses whooped, but it looks like we’re in a heap a shit, Winston. Them big cities can fend for themselves, but we ain’t gonna get much support down here in Bumfuck, Georgia.”


“I was down to Calef’s this morning and you know what I heard that Med Willis saying?”

“What’s that, Ben?”

“Says he and a few of his boys went snoopin’ down south a couple days ago. Says the PLA animals are just shootin’ people in their cars — like ducks in a pond — nobody’s safe, Winston, kids, women, even they dogs an’ cats. Can you imagine that?”

“I can’t,” Winston shook his head in disgust.

May let the door slam behind her as she walked to the two men, three grilled cheese sandwiches and three glasses of iced tea, without the ice, on a platter. She set the lunch down on Medusa and kissed Ben on the forehead.

“Ben. It’s good to see you,” she said.

He half stood up, but she tapped her hand on his shoulder, quelling his graciousness.

“Always my pleasure, May.”

She sat down. “Dig in, fellas. This may be the last hot meal we have in a while. I’m sorry there’s no more ice.”

“Ice is a luxury,” Ben said, “it don’t make life worth livin’.”

“Least we got all the fresh spring water we can drink right there in Robin Lake,” Winston replied.

They each ate a sandwich, savoring every bite, eyes on the lake, and relishing what short time remained of their freedom.

“May, this sandwich tastes better than any meal I’ve ever eaten in my life,” Winston said.

May rolled her eyes.

Ben shook his head, and with a mouthful, said, “I’m grateful.”

“We’re happy to have the company, Ben,” May said, and then asked, “what are you going to do?”

“I got my .308 Winchester and a few boxes of ammo. If things get bad, I’ll take out as many as I can. Hell, I got nothing to lose now that June’s gone. What are you two gonna do?”

Winston looked at May. “Bout the same as you and a whole lot a prayin’.” He changed the subject and asked, “what’s the food situation down ta Calef’s?”

As much as Winston and May adored Ben, there would only be room enough for the two of them in the barn’s hidden space. This was something that they discussed the first time Winston explained his idea of the false wall inside the barn. They could not let a single soul know of their plans. It was bad enough that they risked being cooped up in the small space for a week or two, praying that the PLA didn’t use the barn for target practice or torch it just for the hell of watching it burn. There were so many things that could go wrong, and one of their neighbors ratting them out, whether intentional or not, was not an option.

“George still has some stuff left,” Ben said. “He said he’s got some of that Franco-American shit with your name on it. Better get on down there and stake your claim before somebody else with bad taste claims it.”

They all laughed.

“You know how I gotta have my Franco-American, Ben.”

“It’s practically lore ‘round these parts, Winston.”

Lunch over, Ben stood, chugged the remaining tea, and took in one last gaze of his friends, Medusa’s stump, and the lake.

“Well, I better get on home. I’d like to think that this whole damned thing was all hat and no cattle, but I wasn’t born in the dark.”

“Nope,” Winston said as he stood. He shook Ben’s hand, “we’ll make it through to the other side, Ben.”

“I’d like ta think so.”

“Why not head over to Lafayette? It’s not in the PLA’s direct path.”

“Frig Lafayette. I’m eighty-two years old, for Christ’s sake. I’m not running. Nah, I’ll greet them bastards on my own front porch with my gun if it comes down ta that.”

“I wish you luck, Ben.”

“Peace be with you, Winston. May.”

Ben and Winston’s hands were still locked. Ben didn’t want to let go because he knew deep in heart that this was his end. He’d never see his friends again. May stood and hugged Ben tightly. Ben nodded his head, got into his car, and drove away, not uttering another word lest he burst into tears. As the car left the driveway, a pang of guilt surged through Winston’s gut. He turned to May, thinking that he’d find comfort in her eyes. But she just shook her head, gathered the dishes, and walked back inside. He knew that May was right — Ben might do just fine with them in the barn, but he might also inadvertently get them all killed, which was a risk they couldn’t take.


Amadeus curled up near the corner of the barn, drifting in and out of cat slumber while watching Winston as he cut and carried the lengths of lumber inside the barn. Inside, Winston framed out the false wall by using two-by-fours and screwed everything together so as not to make too much noise banging nails, which might encourage unwelcomed curiosity. Ben had been gone only an hour or two, and there was plenty of daylight left. Winston was making tremendous progress, his stamina that of a man half his age. He screwed what would mimic the outside wall to the studs on the inside of their hiding spot, leaving the area between the actual outside barn wall and the first stud open to create a slim doorway of less than sixteen inches — a space just barely large enough to slip through. At that sixteen-inch measurement, he ran the boards all the way across the entire side of the false wall. It wasn’t difficult work, but he could have used another hand to help position the boards in place while he teetered on the old hand-me-down ten-foot aluminum ladder. The ladder had been Mayor Wellbeloved’s, and was spattered with every color of paint, from the white on the main house to the evergreen on the shutters to the pale yellow Ben and the Mayor painted Ben’s house (June’s favorite color was yellow) and to Winston’s barn red. That one aluminum ladder, bought down at Calef’s in 1954 by May’s then-twenty-year-old father — long before the thought of holding a political office entered his mind — displayed a history that many people might take for granted. Not Winston, though. To him, that rickety, old ladder that ought to have been recycled by now was as sentimental as the lines of his own face. Every spatter of paint on that ladder corresponded to some life event experienced by Mayor Wellbeloved, May or Winston. That ladder was a book, a love letter, and a gift — a memory of a great man. And Winston revered that hand-me-down ladder as if it were gilded in gold because Mayor Wellbeloved had told the same stories over and over again of painting houses and pruning Medusa and having to set the ladder on several cinder blocks because it was six inches too short to climb onto the house’s roof without them and of hanging the Christmas lights every day after Thanksgiving. The ladder also did double duty as a sawhorse, and even as a gurney when twelve-year-old May twisted her ankle across the street in the field where the wild Southern Highbush blueberries ripened every July — and still do. That was a favorite story of Mayor Wellbeloved’s to tell — how when May got the inkling to make a blueberry pie for her mother who was upstairs sick in bed (in the early days of the story, the Mayor usually left out the part where Mrs. Wellbeloved, Mary, had suffered a heart attack, which then caused a stroke, and left her essentially an invalid, barely able to speak. Mary was only twenty-eight and suffered from a congenital heart birth defect. It was nobody’s fault, but she would die only a few weeks later, there, at home in bed with her husband and daughter by her side. It wasn’t until later in life that the Mayor sometimes included Mary’s story). The blueberries were ripe for picking and May was excited to bake something for her mother, to prove that she could do it all by herself. When May had picked a basketful of blueberries, she waved to her father, who was standing at the edge of the driveway, taking a break from painting the house and chitchatting with Ben. As he waved back to his daughter, she suddenly disappeared in the tall grass. He heard her cry out and he and Ben ran to her aide. She sobbed that she twisted her ankle on a rock — that rock!  — but when the Mayor looked down, all he saw was a pebble the size of a walnut. The Mayor saw that she was upset that she spilled the blueberries and he held his laughter until later that evening when he told the story to Mary in private. He asked Ben to get the ladder and bent down and helped May pick up every blueberry that spilled and when Ben came back with the ladder, they carefully placed May and her basket of berries onto it and brought her back to the house, making loud ambulance noises and zigzagging all the way. Needless to say, she forgot all about her pain by the time the pie came out of the oven. Mary said in a low, raspy voice that May’s blueberry pie was the best thing that she had ever tasted in her life.

So, while the stories were never about  the ladder, that ladder often played a supporting role in so many of Mayor Wellbeloved’s stories and had become a member of the family. Plus, the ladder was still sturdy enough to perform its duties safely.

May stood at the open door and peered into the room. It was empty, save for Winston standing on the ladder. The space already felt cramped to her. Winston blushed, embarrassed that she noticed the emotion on his face as he

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reminisced about the blueberry story.

“I brought you some water,” she said, “you know how your head aches when you get dehydrated.”

“Thank you, Mother,” Winston said. He stepped off the ladder and took the glass of water and gulped it all down in one single swallow.

“I don’t know why you keep hanging on to that old thing when Calef’s got brand new fiberglass ones in stock.”

Winston felt the ladder’s cold aluminum, running his fingers over dried clumps of paint, looked at May, and said, “oh, I dunno, I kinda like its history.”

“You’re a sentimental old fool whose gonna break his neck climbing on that rickety thing.”

Winston smiled and handed her the empty glass, “I love you, too.”

May returned the smile, knowing that her husband was the most selfless man on planet earth, “how do you feel about all of this?”

“I pray ta God that we won’ need ta use this little room, but I’m sure glad I’m puttin’ the effort in. How’s it going inside?”

As May started to speak, Amadeus slinked into the barn, mewing through a dead chipmunk he clutched in his jaw. He plopped the floppy, headless rodent at Winston’s feet, and coiled around May’s legs, cooing and purring loudly. Winston bent down to pick him up, but the cat hissed at him and bolted out of the barn. Winston shook his head, scooped up the dead chipmunk, walked past May and into the main part of the barn, opened up the window, and tossed the corpse into the woods.

“Twelve years an’ I never been able ta touch that cat,” Winston said.

“Don’t take it too personal. I’ve gone through the supplies. We could use more canned vegetables. Maybe some fruit cups? We have enough water, if we conserve, for about two weeks. If we eat one can of food a day and a granola bar or some canned fruit, we might have enough to last three weeks. Do you think that’s enough?”

“It’ll have ta be. I need some supplies down ta Calef’s, anyway. I’ll see what George got left. If anything.”

“Be careful,” May said and headed back inside the house.

Winston spent the next hour building a rudimentary door for the opening with plywood and siding and several long piano hinges. The door opened up into the space and worked flawlessly. He found an old, heavy deadbolt from one of the sheds he tore down when he built the barn, and installed that inside the space. It wouldn’t stop a heavy foot smashed against it, but it would stop a leaner from pushing in on the door and discovering them. To the naked eye, the room was complete, though in reality, it was far from done. A worried look came about his face as he peered around the small room. A rudimentary septic system would be necessary — for even a week’s worth of two humans’ waste would be impossible to keep and store inside the barn — and would have to be dealt with meticulously. Winston wasn’t sure that May had thought about that aspect of life hidden inside the barn — she was always a very private person when it came to bathroom habits. It was getting late and he found himself anxious that Calef’s would run out of the required supplies. Plus, they needed more food. The sun was beginning its final descent into the earth as Winston carefully oiled his tools, hung them in their rightful places, and hopped into his trusty, ancient pickup truck, hopeful that Calef’s still stocked what he needed.


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Calef’s General Store carried just about anything a rural country store could stock — row upon row of household goods and food, a lumber and general merchandise section for the locals’ home projects, and all the touristy treats and goodies one would expect from a roadside establishment: boiled peanuts, peaches, pecans, fireworks, and the like. If you needed a lawn chair, Calef’s had it. Bibs for that impromptu pig roast? Calef’s had it. Penny candy? Calef’s had it. The store did a bustling business and was the pride of Johnsonville, with enormous roadside billboards spread across fifty miles of the interstate in both the north and south directions — eight gasoline pumps, plus two for tractor-trailers, and an automatic car wash. Winston once regretfully splurged for the Platinum Full Service Wash  (clear coat wax, triple foam polish, undercarriage wash, rust inhibitor, Wheel Brite, tire shine, and complete surface protectant) for $21.99 plus tax  only to realize that he could have done a better job in his own driveway and saved the twenty-three bucks.

Today, Med Willis and a dozen local men guarded the store’s entrance from the diaspora of Floridians and South Georgians fervent to make their escape from the enemy invading from the south. Calef’s gasoline and rations were for locals only  — no out-of-state interlopers were permitted. Med’s men were highly-organized, well-armed, and polite. Although there was a nearly constant stream of cars pouring off the highway, their terrified occupants desperate for food or gas, the Johnsonville men smiled and waved the cars back onto the highway, apologizing that the store had been cleaned out for days of its groceries and gas, and assuring them that there were provisions just five miles north in Morrow, which was a complete fabrication.

Winston realized that tomorrow was going to be a long day and that he didn’t have the luxury of time. He had never built a septic system and wasn’t quite sure if his plan would even work. Goddamned political egos, he thought, got them all into the mess they were in now. But he would be damned not to be a pacifist as the world around him crumbled and went to shit. His ride to Calef’s was surreal — the roads patrolled by the good citizens of Johnsonville — men, women, and children armed as well as any homegrown militia might be. They were well intentioned, these militants, if not downright involuntarily required  to defend Johnsonville against their invaders, both foreign and domestic. Husbands and wives drove pickups with children and grandparents in the truck beds, patrolling the streets near the highway, attempting to keep the peace. Winston wondered if these were their final days — if these people were going to be the first victims of the hell that was slowly marching its way towards them, though he was moved by their spirit, eager to defend the honor of a country they dearly loved.

Winston rolled down his window. The pace to Calef’s was slow enough that he could carry a brief conversation with the drivers of the vehicles as they passed. Mostly, the passersby wished he and May luck with whatever fate was in store for them and he returned their well wishes. Winston was a well-known and respected resident of Johnsonville and was permitted to pass through to Calef’s without question. He stopped his truck when he saw Med Willis sitting on the roof of his Jeep Wrangler, sixties-era M-60 machine gun across his lap. The big gun seemed out of place in Med’s small hands, whose real name was Melvin. The Med moniker was given to him because he had spent three years as a pre-med student at UGA before dropping out altogether, the program too rigorous for his type-A personality. It wasn’t that he would have made a bad doctor — it was just that Med couldn’t handle the stress of being one. Winston kept his truck in drive as he spoke.

“Evenin’, Med,” Winston said.

“Evenin’, Mr. Sparrow.”

“I applaud what you all are doing here. Takes a lot a guts ta make a stand.”

“Way I see it, if we don’t, nobody will. Them sons a bitches are gonna storm through here one way or the other. Makes no sense to me in goin’ down like a coward.”

The comment wasn’t meant as an insult to any placatory agendas other Johnsonville residents may have taken, and Winston didn’t take it as such.

“What’s you and May got goin’ on?” Med asked.

“We gon’ hunker on down in the homestead. Hope for the best, and pray for a quick resolution.”

“Are you armed, Winston?”

“I got that ol’ pea-shooter Ruger twenny-two and a few boxes a ammo. Fraid I’m not launchin’ much in the way of an offensive.”

Winston laughed, but Med was dead serious as he hopped off the Jeep’s hood, handed the machine gun to a teenage boy propped up in the Jeep’s bed, who Winston recognized but couldn’t name, and retrieved something from under the Jeep’s driver seat.

“Here,” Med said, and handed Winston a worn Smith & Wesson .357 magnum, “there’s only six rounds, but it’ll blow a head clean off.”

Winston took the heavy, powerful, gun in his hands. He placed it behind the passenger seat, hidden out of view, not planning to use it.

“Thank you, Med. I’ll return it when we’re in the clear.”

Med uttered a bittersweet snicker, reflected a moment, and hopped into the Jeep. “You take care of May.” Med sped off toward the onslaught of evacuees currently invading their town.

Winston drove into Calef’s parking lot, where a solitary pickup truck was parked near the front door. He recognized it as Julie Calef’s truck. She was the only child of George and Virginia Calef, whose Johnsonville, Georgia lineage went back to the Civil War when a great-grandfather of George’s came down from New Hampshire as part of the Union Army. Lonnie Calef never returned to the north permanently, having found his place amid the destruction that his Union Army had created during Sherman’s March to the Sea. Sherman’s “scorched earth” policy left little infrastructure behind in Johnsonville, Georgia, in its path of all-encompassing and widespread destruction. When the Union Army’s Fourteenth Corps disbanded on August 1, 1865, Lonnie returned to his Barrington, New Hampshire dairy farm just long enough to sell it, returned to Geor

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gia, and pledged the proceeds of the farm’s sale to the good citizens and ex-slaves of Johnsonville. Lonnie was just twenty-three years old. It was a tough life, living amid the southerners as a Yankee, but he had made a connection to the people of the growing town on the lake and he was compelled to help its inhabitants rebuild both its infrastructure and character. He employed some of the very men he fought during the war, and hired just as many former slaves who had nowhere to go now as freed men and women. Winston knew the story of Lonnie Calef well — and thought briefly that the Calef lineage might be in danger of ending in the next few days as he slammed the truck door and walked to the front door. A single light shone inside.

Winston found himself staring at a faded black and white photo that hung in the window of the store. It was of a sixty-odd-year-old white man standing with a twenty-something-year-old black man in the very spot that Winston now stood — on the front porch of Calef’s. The men wore matching painter’s overalls, wet paint brushes in hand, and they were spattered from head to toe in white paint. Their wide-mouthed grins conveyed camaraderie borne by decades of unconventional and unconditional friendship. The photo was dated 1905, and the caption read: “Mayor Lonnie Calef with Josiah Wellbeloved, painting the store – again .” Winston, standing cross-armed, smiled genuinely. Suddenly, a single gunshot rang out loudly, startling him back into the present day. He turned to look toward the highway, but he couldn’t see the source of the gunfire. Med and his Johnsonville militia still waved the traffic back onto the highway, northward, toward Morrow and their empty gas stations and grocery stores.

The brass bell rang out of tune as Winston opened the creaky door. His stomach turned to knots as he scrutinized the store — there wasn’t a scrap of food left on the shelves. As he made his way to the registers, a voice called out his name. He turned to see Julie Calef scurrying down aisle three, toting a large cardboard box his way. Winston rushed to her and relieved her of the hefty box.

“Thanks, Mr. Sparrow. How are you?” she asked.

Winston placed the box onto a checkout counter.

“Jes’ fine, Julie. And yourself?”

Julie was nineteen or twenty — Winston couldn’t remember — with bright raspberry pink-colored hair and a deeply solemn face. She slipped behind the counter and found the magazine she was reading before Winston came in.

“I saw it was you standing outside. This is for you,” she said and she motioned toward the box, “from Daddy.”

“Let me guess,” Winston said, as he and Julie said in unison, “Franco-American.”

They laughed. Winston opened the box and rummaged through its contents: twenty-four cans of Franco-American, a dozen cans of chunk light tuna, three boxes of Pop-Tarts (two frosted brown sugar cinnamon and one frosted strawberry), seven cans of creamed corn, five cans of peaches, and one box of Count Chocula cereal.

“I’m sure glad you came in,” Julie said, “I was afraid your box was gonna get stolen.”

“I was ‘fraid you wouldn’t be open.”

“Daddy wanted to make sure you got that box and he wants me to stay as long as I can. But ain’t nobody comin’ in anymore. We’re out of just about anything you can eat.”

“Where is yo’ daddy?”

“Boarding up the windows. I don’t know why we don’t just up and go over to Lafayette.”

“Yo’ daddy’s a proud man, Julie. This is his town. He’s not gonna ‘bandon the good folks a Johnsonville.”

“I still think we’d be safer in Lafayette.”

“Maybe, but you ain’t the mayor of Johnsonville. He is.”

She shrugged.

“Julie, there’s no more food or water?” Winston asked.

“Fraid not. Daddy pretty much divvied up what we had left. I’m waiting on a few of the families to come in and get the boxes we made up for them.”

“Fine. I need some items from the lumberyard. You mind?”

“Take what you need. Daddy says everyone’ll square up when it’s… well, when everything’s done. And back to normal.”

“It’s mighty virtuous of yo’ daddy, Julie. He a good man.”

Julie shrugged and turned her attention back to the magazine as Winston grabbed a shopping carriage and walked through the store toward the lumberyard. He made a beeline through the home goods aisle. There was still plenty left on the shelves — just nothing that could be consumed. He grabbed a dozen boxes of quart-sized Ziploc bags and twenty Tupperware bowls with lids, and tossed them into the carriage. He walked through the camping section to find it in complete disarray. It seemed that others had the same idea — that war was akin to camping and produced similar problems. He searched through the detritus of unusable camping gear and was joyful when he came up with a water filter — the gravity type that could filter four liters of water in a few hours. This piece of equipment might be vital if they were forced to drink the water out of Robin Lake. He also found several bottles of chlorine dioxide drops that would also treat un-potable water should they need to. In the lumberyard, there was no wood to be had; presumably every piece of dimensional lumber and plywood was scooped up to board houses. It didn’t matter to Winston — he was there for plumbing  supplies, which were still available in abundance. He rooted through the plumbing materials, carefully assembling the items he needed — a ten-foot length of three-inch PVC piping, PVC glue, a forty-five-degree flanged fitting, a roll of pipe strapping, fittings, and a Y-fitting. It all went into the carriage — he had the remaining needed items at home. He pushed the carriage outside to the bags of crushed stone. He didn’t need anything fancy, just enough stones to fill in the hole he planned to dig tomorrow. He jotted down what he had taken on a scrap of notebook paper he found on the concrete floor, left the carriage near the crushed stones, and found his way back to Julie. She was still staring at the same page in the magazine she had been when Winston had left her. He laid the list on the counter.

“This is what I took. Give your father my best.”

“Okay, Mr. Sparrow. Good luck. Oh, and Happy Labor Day!”

Winston wanted to say something to her — anything — that would make everything better. He wanted to tell her about his plan and that she would be welcomed to tuck herself away in their little bunker, but he just couldn’t. She and her family were on their own just as he and May were on their own. Besides, it was far too late to start offering contingency plans. Instead, Winston sighed, “I plum forgot. The same to you, Julie,” rapped on the counter twice, scooped up the box of food, and ambled out the front door. He set the box in the truck’s passenger seat, drove around the rear of the store, and backed the truck through the open chain-link fence to the bags of crushed stone. He filled the bed with twenty fifty-pound bags — a thousand pounds — all the truck could handle, and hoped the half ton of crushed stones would be enough. He closed the chain-link gate behind him and drove back to the main road. Med’s militia faded in Winston’s rearview mirror as he drove the short distance back home. Besides his  truck, the streets of Johnsonville were desolate and apocalyptic, yet there was something oddly comforting to Winston about the barrenness of it all.

Winston pulled into the driveway and stopped the truck. Its blurred halogen headlights lit the barn up as he put the truck in park and worried there alone, staring beyond the barn’s thin walls and picturing the tiny room that they prepared to hide in. Damned fools, he thought — ideologues, too egocentric and stubborn not to stop this war from starting in the first place. He detested them all — and wondered why humans had evolved into such abhorrent creatures to think that war and hate actually solved problems. He shook his head and stroked the Cheyenne’s bench seat. The vinyl seat was cold and calming, an old friend who had been there for him for many years. He would have liked to weep, if only momentarily and silently, for the great loss his country and indeed the entire world currently experienced, but he didn’t want to appear feeble in May’s eyes. He shifted the truck back into gear and parked it on the lake side of the barn in an attempt to obscure it from the view of the road. He pulled the box of food from the passenger seat, already forgetting about the powerful .357 magnum hidden behind it.

May was still awake when he marched triumphantly through the back door with the box of food. She was sitting at the kitchen table rummaging through family photos and had gathered a collection of her favorites to take with them into the barn. She didn’t look up when he came in.

“You get what you need?” she asked.

“Yes, Mother. Ol’ George set aside this here box a rations for us.”

He shook the box of Count Chocula in the air and smiled. She looked up just long enough to see what he was holding, and went back to shuffling photos.

“That what we’re gonna call ‘em now, Winston? Rations?”

Winston looked sheepishly at his wife. “We’ll get through this.”

May nodded, but didn’t look up at her husband for fear of breaking down entirely. She only quietly murmured, “I know.”

And right at that moment, Winston was grateful that he could never give her children — that his insides weren’t right, that they didn’t have to worry about any damned children the way George Calef was forced to worry about Julie, or that he was a failure as a father who other women might have left long ago. But May didn’t go, she stayed with Winston despite his inability to procreate — even though she had expressed from nearly the day they first met how much she wanted to be a mother and he be a father to their children. Winston recognized this as

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the purest, most unadulterated and selfless pure act of love — staying with a man despite his absence of virility. Winston had vowed to keep her safe, and all of this — the apartment, as he called it — was solely for May. Had he been alone in the world, like ol’ Ben Rollins, he might be sitting on Ben’s front porch with him, awaiting the enemy’s arrival, locked and loaded.

But love does what love needs in order to survive.

The Apartment

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Winston was eager to complete the barn project and was surprised that May hadn’t woken him when his eyes opened and saw the time on the battery-powered travel clock. Its loud ticking belied its petite frame. It was 7:45 a.m. He sprang out of bed, dressed, found his favorite Rusty Wallace #2 cap, and reveled in the wafting aroma of fresh-brewed coffee as he floated downstairs toward the fragrance.

“Good morning, my love,” May said the same way she had said it a million times before as Winston rounded the corner into the kitchen.

“Good mornin’, dear,” Winston replied, “I’ll have our apartment finished today. We can move the supplies out there by this afternoon.”

Winston kissed May on the crown of her head. She reached back and touched his right shoulder, holding him there for a moment. “Apartment. I like that. It doesn’t sound so… ominous.”

A stale English muffin with warm red raspberry preserves was breakfast. Normally, Winston would have dashed out the back door, coffee and English muffin in hand, to begin his day. Today, however, he felt compelled to linger at the kitchen table, still littered with photos and family memorabilia, to make certain that May remained calm to all that was happening around them.

He sat down in his chair as she spoke. “There’s no telling what they’ll do if they come into this house. I know I can’t save them all, but dammit, Winston…”

Her defensiveness trailed off.

“Make sure you got all a tha Mayor’s photos and my favorite picture of us,” Winston said, defusing May’s reaction.

She nodded. She knew the photo he was referring to.

“That was the first one I found,” she said as she looked at him. May noticed the worried look on his face. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

Winston lied when he said, “nothin’ really. Jes’ wanna get this all done with.”

Truth be told, Winston was deeply concerned over the waste that he and May would generate with even the shortest of stays in the apartment. Even if the PLA marched straight on through Johnsonville, leaving the town undamaged, it would still mean a three- or four-day stay in the apartment. That’s three or four days of food waste, and more importantly, their human waste. Emptied cans could be “washed” with a bit of water and stored inside a Ziploc bag, urine could simply be poured down the rudimentary septic system Winston planned on building this morning, but what would they do with the rest?

After a moment of reflecting on their dilemma, Winston said, “we’re gon’ need more water. Fill anything that closes with a lid with water — coolers, jugs, Tupperware, whatnot. I’ll be outside.”


Winston had tossed the plumbing supplies inside the barn the prior evening after he got home from Calef’s. He left the crushed stones in the truck and was anxious to get the crux of the hard labor out of the way while it was still relatively cool. He immediately started digging a hole — a two-foot square by three-foot deep pit that Winston hoped would be large enough to contain the human waste they were forced to dump into it. Ideally, the entire hole should have been dug directly underneath the barn — there was certainly room, with a twelve-inch crawl space that Amadeus enjoyed to sleep in — but that wasn’t possible, so he dug the hole as far under the barn as he could — on the corner that faced the woods and was nearest to the driveway — with about half of it under the barn, the other half outside of the barn. It took him nearly two hours to dig and fill the hole halfway with the crushed stones. A verily cautious man, Winston carted the excess dirt to the edge of Robin Lake in a wheelbarrow and dumped it into the flowing water, afraid that the fresh digging might arouse suspicion. He cursed his back for causing him so much grief, and yearned for the strong one of his youth when he could have dug and filled that hole in a fraction of the time it took him today.

Every now and then, a car came down the road, and each time Winston skirted out of sight, anxious at the thought of being discovered, and each time the vehicles kept rolling by. He had moved his pickup in front of the barn so as to conceal his activities as best as he could. He wondered how ol’ Ben was faring two doors down and thought about taking a quick break and visiting with the old man, but they had already said their good-byes and Winston was afraid that he’d slip and tell Ben what he was doing.

Soon, a wheelbarrow packed with dirt was all that remained of the hole. The dirt would help to conceal the out-of-place crushed stones when he was done. Winston found his three-inch circular hole bit and battery-operated drill in the barn and bored a hole for the pipe. The hole, drilled through the floor two feet from the outside wall, would be difficult, if impossible, to completely conceal, and he recognized this as a liability. He pushed the PVC pipe through the hole and into the pit, secured it inside the apartment with the pipe strapping, and filled in the pit with the remaining crushed stones. A layer of green garbage bags to assist in quelling the anticipated odor, the remaining dirt, and a few squirts of flat black paint across the bright white PVC pipe to tone it down, and Winston still wasn’t satisfied with the results. The pipe was just too damned conspicuous to his eye, yet it was critical to their safety — he kept rationalizing that it was just not feasible to hoard their shit inside the apartment, crammed into plastic bags or even sealable bowls. Back inside the barn, he found a couple of unused wooden pallets used to stack cord wood on, a dozen ancient concrete cinder blocks, and an old, metal basketball hoop and its rotted backboard he was saving for someday. He stacked those items over and around the pit, hoping the entire ruse would remain undisturbed and fool any prying eyes that might spy his plumbing handiwork.

Inside the apartment, he cut the PVC pipe (which hung mid-air by pipe strapping) at knee-height, about three feet from the wall, and installed the forty-five-degree flange. Essentially, what Winston had created was a crude version of the plumbing found under every flushable, household toilet, only his creation “floated” several feet in the air and was meant to have waste poured down its throat. He tested the contraption by taking a long, satisfying leak into it. And it worked brilliantly.

Next, he carefully notched eight observation slits into the apartment’s walls with a knife (four at his eye level, and four lower on the wall, at his eye level while kneeling. Two slits faced the house, two slits faced the driveway and road, two faced the woods, and two faced into the barn) — he would have a clear view at all angles without the risk of being tempted to sneak a peek out the barn door.

Three years earlier, a late-November hurricane had threatened the Georgia coast with massive destruction. The meteorologists had promised a storm the United States’ southeast region had never seen before. The storm’s name was Linda and it ended up fizzling out in the Atlantic, but a week before the storm was slated to hit Georgia, Winston had bought a stack of aluminum sheeting down at Calef’s and fabricated hurricane shutters for the house’s windows. He made twenty-six such panels, which were now stacked neatly in the barn, in a variety of sizes ranging from two feet by two feet to three feet by six feet. Winston arranged those panels along the apartment’s road-facing side, low on the wall (the tallest height being three feet), and screwed them to the wall’s studs stacked four-deep, which would give them approximately a quarter of an inch of armored protection — not enough to stop a large-bore bullet, but thick enough to slow it down.

Winston was nearly done — just a few more items were needed. He walked in on May finishing the packing and was surprised by the sheer volume of stuff  she had gathered to take into the apartment that was neither food nor water.

“You wan’ me ta call U-Haul?” Winston asked as he rooted through a kitchen drawer. He pulled out a handful of dishtowels — the ones with the black roosters on them.

“It does  seem like a lot,” she replied, and spying the towels in Winston’s hands, said, “excuse me, but what do you think you’re doing with those?”

“I need ‘em.” Winston smiled widely. He was busted.

“Oh no you don’t. Those are my good  towels. Use these.”

May reached under the kitchen sink and pulled out a dozen stained cleaning rags and handed them to Winston while simultaneously jerking her good dishtowels from Winston’s strong clutch.

“Those nasty ol’ things?” he remarked, scrunching his nose in disapproval.

“They’ll do for whatever you need them to do.”

“Okay, you win, Mother.”

“Lunch will be ready soon.”

“We can start moving the supplies out there this afternoon. We’ll have to move in by tomorrow. Maybe tonight.”

“I’m ready.”

Winston took the old cleaning rags into the apartment and, using brads, tacked the rags above the observation slits to make flaps that concealed their movements and any light that may show from inside the apart

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ment. He looked around and thought the apartment to be complete, and then he had an idea. In the basement three-quarter bathroom was a traditional shower with a shower curtain. The curtain rod was an older-style tension rod that measured seventy-two inches at its greatest width, but could adjust down to forty-one inches. Winston loosened the rod and took the entire unit — rod, curtain liner, and shower curtain (with a gloriously vibrant yellow and black monarch butterfly print) into the apartment and adjusted the rod to its shortest position. It just barely fit the apartment’s three-foot width. He tightened the pole and May could now have her privacy. Still, he dreaded the prospect of explaining their waste dilemma to her.

May called out a welcomed interruption from the stump. Lunch was ready — a can of heated Franco-American for Winston, a peanut butter and grape jelly sandwich for her, and the last of a bag of out-of-date potato chips shared between them. The weather was warm and belied the impending threat. It was just past one in the afternoon.

“It’s done?” May asked.

“As done as it’s ever gon’ be.”

“We’ll be safe in there?”

“I reckon.”

“I trust you.”

Lunch ended all too quickly and Winston was excited to show May his handiwork, so he took her by the hand and led her into the barn. She couldn’t believe how well the wall came out, and that she couldn’t tell it wasn’t the actual outside wall — from inside the barn, his false wall was an exact replica of the outside wall. Inside the apartment, he explained where he thought things should go and why: toiletries, Ziploc bags, and Tupperware were to be stacked behind the shower curtain, food and drinking water along the false wall, their wall-to-wall bed near the door, and any other paraphernalia scattered judiciously throughout the apartment. He demonstrated how the deadbolt on the door worked and how they could see outside through the observation slits. Then, Winston explained their waste situation.

“I like the privacy, Winston, but I’m not sure I can… I can… I’ll be able to, well, I don’t think I’ll be able to do my business  down there!”

May became agitated.

“Fortunately, neither of us will be doin’ are business down there. It’d sho’ as hell clog the pipe in a matter a days. Nah, we gon’ hafta do are business into a bucket or pail or somethin’ and then, stay with me May, we’ll hafta mash it with a fo’k and some water ‘til it’s liquefied. Then we can pour it down this here drain. But the mos’ important part of this is no toilet paper. It’ll clog the pipe up. We’ll have to use water an’ a rag. It’s got to be this way.”

May’s face contorted as if she eaten a mouthful of sour grapes, “you mean, you’ll  have to mash it up.”

Winston had known for a long while that he’d be relegated to doing the shit work.

“Alright, Mother, I’m a be the official shit mashah.”

Winston scooted past May and into the main area of the barn. He scooped up an old pitchfork, turned his cap to the side, and marched throughout the barn, as if he was the leader of an imaginary marching band.

“I’m King Shit, the shit mashah! Nobody be messin’ with ma shit, now, ya hear!”

May burst out into a fit of laughter as he stopped, looked intently at something imagined, and pointed his pitchfork in that direction. “Hey, you kids! Get yo’ hands off a ma shit! I’m a mash it up, now, ya hear?!”

They cackled for a minute or so until a strange, terrifying, rumbling sound filled the silence and quelled their laughter. They sobered instantly and stepped out of the barn. The rumbling was surely coming their way, but it was difficult to pinpoint its exact location.

Suddenly, an enormous helicopter painted in a desert camouflage and with a large red star on its tail appeared from just over the tree line from across Robin Lake and flew directly over them. The helicopter, a Russian-made Mil Mi-24 gunship, flew so low to the ground that Winston made eye contact with a North Korean soldier hanging out of the bird. Winston gestured his own bird and thought that the helicopter might turn around as it banked hard and turned toward their little downtown and Calef’s. A moment later the helicopter was out of sight. The fury of its oversized guns rang throughout Johnsonville as it fired a few dozen rounds. Winston hoped they were just warning shots.

“What do they want?” May asked, nervous and trembling.

“Jes’ scoutin’ ahead, I suppose. Let’s get them supplies inside. Everythin’ll be okay, May.”

“Uh huh.”

May discounted his words as they headed inside the house. She didn’t want to alarm Winston by telling him how she really  felt about the gravity of their situation — she knew that no matter what they did or how well they prepared for whatever was about to happen to Johnsonville, it wouldn’t be enough. She always had a bit of a negative attitude — a pessimist to most, a pragmatist to herself — towards the world and its insufferable suffering. And Winston, well he had always been the idealist — the optimist — a romantic who always looked on the bright side as if the obstacles life handed to him were merely challenges to troubleshoot. Winston was May’s yang to her yin.

And so May stacked the canned goods into a wooden crate while Winston took two dining room chairs outside to the barn. He was startled when the very same helicopter again flew slowly over the house. He hadn’t heard its raucous engine this time, but as he looked up, the North Korean soldier trained a rifle on him and squeezed off a round. The bullet nearly sheared Winston’s head clean off, but instead took a large chunk of the barn’s siding, revealing the white paint underneath. He scurried into the safety of the barn as the helicopter whizzed away.

Winston set the chairs inside the apartment and a few moments later, May slipped through the door with fresh linens and several blankets. She was shaking, although she didn’t mention that she had witnessed the near-fatal encounter.

“I’ll make us a nice bed,” she said, “and will you bring that memory foam mattress downstairs? It’s too heavy for me.”

“Yes, Mother, I will.”

“Those chairs are too big. Bring ‘em back inside.”

“I know.”

For the next several hours, they filled the apartment — all sixty square feet of it — with food, water, and as many comforts as May could think of. While Winston neatly stacked their rations against the far wall, she created a bed with stacks of blankets, pillows, and sheets on top of the foam mattress. As he set up the water purification rig in the corner that faced the woods and driveway, she hung a calendar and several of her favorite pictures around the apartment, which was made considerably smaller with the “bathroom” taking up a good portion of the square footage. He sorted and stacked their supply of plastic bowls, hand cleaners and sanitizers, paper towels and toilet paper, while May organized a neat row of plastic bins, which held assorted items such as playing cards, batteries, flashlights, candles and matches, medicines, salves, a small first aid kit, magazines and a stack of books she had been wanting to read, and clothes and underwear. Winston lovingly gave her a quick squeeze on the butt as he placed a large flashlight near the door. May giggled and said, “cut that out,” and he winked at her. Lastly, and for some reason he wasn’t sure of — perhaps he was afraid the old aluminum ladder would be melted down and made into enemy bullets, or perhaps he was just being a sentimental old fool like May had said — he struck two big nails into the studs high above his head and hung the ten-foot memorial on them. The ladder completed the apartment.

As he put the items away, he systematically calculated all of the calories contained within each of the foodstuffs they had managed to scrape up. The number was approximately 126,000. Winston furrowed his brow as he tapped on a calculator and consulted the calendar. He held a can of Franco-American in his hand.

“Hmm,” he murmured.

“What is it?” May asked, “wish all you could eat was that stuff?”

Winston smiled and shook his head in mock disgust.

“Saturday, October twenty-second,” he said.

“What does that mean?”

“It means we have forty-five days a food if we ration it out fourteen hundred calories a day. October twenty-second is when we run out a food.”

“Can we eat less? To make it last longer?”

“We could, and pro’bly will, but we have ta be careful. I wouldn’t go much lower than that.”

“Let’s hope the bastards are long gone by then,” May snapped, “let’s hope we have to bring all of this stuff back inside.”

“I don’t see why we would be spending any more than a week out here. I think it’s good we’re bein’ cautious, though.”

He put away the can and calculator and lay down in the bed. It was comfortable and he nodded his approval. He pat the spot next to him.

“You wanna give it a whirl, May?” he asked coyly.

“We’re gonna be spending enough time in that bed. Plus, we have a perfectly good bed upstairs.”

Winston bounded out of the bed. It was going to happen.


There was enough gasoline left in the generator to run the house for one more night. Winston fired it up and it rumbled loudly, spitting and coughing through its last half-gallon of juice. It was just sufficient to heat the hot water tank to near scalding — just the way Winston liked it — and after a dinner of boxed macaroni and cheese, tuna, and canned peas (all mixed together, it would be their final hot meal for a while), May and Winston shared an intimate shower. They caressed and washed each other’s naked bodies — the same bodies they had grown to know intimately — and while they had each grown old and their bodies had lost the power of such youthfu

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l seduction, they reveled in each other’s compassionate adoration and tenderness. Perhaps they did  imagine their youthful figures, unblemished skin, and backs that didn’t ache at the end of the day. But, truth be told, their love endured because they trusted each other unequivocally, while learning to forgive each other’s idiosyncrasies and flaws. So what if Winston insisted on painting the barn barn red  and not colonial white? So what? Their shower ended when they emptied the hot water tank, and they made love that night on the bare mattress in the master bedroom; it was slow and tender, sentimental and passionate, comforting and reassuring. Perfect.

Winston and May spent the remainder of the evening sitting at Medusa’s stump, silently reminiscing of their life together, and gazing at the reflection of the stars in Robin Lake as the black sky’s muted abyss lightened with flashes of gunfire off in the distance. The PLA was advancing quickly.

Amadeus curled up at May’s feet, like he did most evenings. Winston read the fret in May’s eyes as she gazed down upon her cat. While Amadeus spent the majority of his life outside, he was still very much an indoor cat, preferring to remain inside on cold or rainy nights, but eager to escape when the weather was pleasant enough to hunt for skinks, green anoles, chipmunks, or other critters.

“I’m worried about my cat,” May said.

“I know.”

“What do we do?”

“We can’t bring him inside with us. I’d be too risky.”

May remained stoic, and sighed, “I know.”

She picked the cat up, stroked his blue-gray coat several times, and set him down gently. He meandered away, heading toward the woods just beyond the barn.

“If it’s clear, we can set a bit a food out for him, somewhere in the barn, maybe.”

“You’d do that for him, Winston?”

“Of course.”

She reached across Medusa and clutched tightly onto his hand. They shared another moment of reflective silence until Winston cleared his throat and said, “strange, isn’t it, how the crickets are hushed?”

She hadn’t noticed, but it was true — the male crickets were usually busy chirping their love songs to the females or warning other males that might invade their territory. Tonight though, the crickets were quiet, as if they had become extinct. May and Winston trained their ears into the cool of the night, hoping to find some sort of solace in a sound that would normally be unpleasant.

“I think they’re jes’ as scared as us.”

Suddenly, a mortar round thundered uncomfortably close by, perhaps only five or six miles away. The long procession of vehicles clogging I-75 North only yesterday was now a slow trickle, with barely a vehicle passing by on the highway every ten minutes or so, folks who probably intended to wait out the invasion in the comfort of their own homes, only to be shocked by the scope of the PLA’s invasion.

“We should probably sleep in the apartment tonight,” Winston advised.

They both looked toward the growing flashes of light off in the distance.

May nodded.

They cleaned up what mess they had made earlier in the kitchen, performed their usual evening routine that included brushing teeth and putting on pajamas as if they were merely going down the hall to bed. Instead, when they were ready, they walked out of the house they shared for nearly forty years together — the house that May’s great-grandfather had built in 1904 — locked the door behind them, walked into the barn, closed the makeshift door, and disappeared into the tiny apartment hidden behind the false wall. It was a cozy space — a most special place, built out of love, for love.


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To the rear of Calef’s Country Store stood a five-acre orchard planted with straight rows of McIntosh and Red Delicious apple trees, and though the harvesting season had only begun, the Johnsonville residents had picked every tree bare. The sickly sweet aroma of apples decaying on the ground around the trees wafted throughout the acreage as squadrons of ignorant honeybees and yellow jackets flittered from rotted apple to rotted apple, sucking in the fruit’s succulent, sweet syrup.

At the rear of the orchard, a full eighth of a mile from the store, Julie Calef rested her back against a post of the split rail fence that enclosed the orchard, her face turned upward toward the cloudless sky. With her lavender cotton panties coiled around her left ankle, her purple sundress hiked above her hips, her legs splayed as wide as they could go, her boyfriend Mick’s tongue was buried deep inside of her, flickering in and out. The sun’s warmth on her face was as hot as Mick’s tongue. He was young, but he was skilled, especially since Julie had forbidden intercourse until the couple was married. Oral sex was permissible, however, and they partook in a lot of it. Julie had already taken care of Mick — his semen seeping into the quickly browning grass — and this was his reciprocation. As she climaxed, tugging on Mick’s brown tufts of wavy hair and pulling his mouth hard onto her, his tongue as deep as it could go, she let out a wail that caused a descent into a fit of laughter, pondering if anybody had heard her come.

Julie drew Mick to her lips and kissed him passionately, still giggling at the racket she had made and tasting her own salty nectar. She was twenty, Mick eighteen. They met in high school when his parents moved from Atlanta. He was a sophomore, she a senior. Mick’s real name was Michael, but he preferred Mick in homage to his personal hero, Mick Jagger. They were polar opposites as far as couples went — Julie the bright star, destined to leave Johnsonville to attend Savannah College of Art and Design when the occupation was over, and Mick struggling to find his way in a world that only confused and evaded him. Mick played guitar, but could not sing nor compose lyrics, while she excelled at nearly anything she attempted. The one thing Mick did  excel in was pleasuring Julie, whether by tongue or the gentlemanly manner in which he treated her. She pulled her lips away from his and became sullen.

“Why do you have to go, Mick? Why can’t you just stay here with me?” she asked.

“My father says it’ll be safer out in Lafayette.”

“You probably can’t even get there what with the traffic jammed up and all.”

“We’re gonna take the four-wheeler trails — through the woods.”

“That’s just stupid.”

“Look, Julie, please don’t be angry. I got something I wanna ask you.”

Mick shifted his position onto both knees, pulled up his dingy jeans and dug into the front pocket, and produced the tiniest of diamond engagement rings — so small that the cut was impossible to identify with the naked eye. He shifted again — this time onto one knee.

“Whatchya got there, Mick?” she asked.

“Julie Katherine Calef, will you marry me?” Mick asked in a quivering voice.

She held out her ring finger and Mick slipped the ring on. She gazed at the single sparkling gemstone and back to Mick.

“Oh, Mick, I love it.”

“Well, is that a yes? You wanna marry me after this shit is done?”

“Yes, Mick, I do, I do!” she exclaimed, and pulled him into an embrace, her back still fixed against the fence. Her voice and excitement trailed off as she asked, “but what about Lafayette?”

“I gotta go. Daddy says anybody that stays in Johnsonville is a fool.”

“Please don’t go.”

“Come with us! There’s plenty a room in the truck! We can be together!”

“Daddy wouldn’t go for that. Besides, he needs me at the store.”

“Damn that ol’ store to hell. Ain’t nothing left on the shelves, anyway! He can look after the store hisself!”

Mick hoisted himself to his feet, walked five paces away from Julie, and folded his arms across his chest. Julie stood, pulled her panties on, and walked to her man-child. She hugged him from behind.

“That damned ol’ store brings a lot a comfort to the folks ‘round here. And we gotta finish boarding the house up. I’m sorry, Mick.”

“I gotta go,” he said, and with a sad smile, he took Julie by the hand and led her back toward the store, which was nearly seven hundred feet away.

“Daddy says it’ll only be for a week or two,” she said as she pulled away from Mick and danced and twirled, skirting in and out of the apple trees. Her smile was infectious and Mick cheered up, just a little, and walked slowly toward the store.

“Oh, Mick, I want the prettiest, whitest wedding dress ever! And you’ll look so handsome! And we’ll dance the night away!”

Julie stopped suddenly. “Wait!” pondered a moment and then pranced, “where do you want to honeymoon? The Caribbean? Hawaii? How about Europe?”

“I was thinking more like Vegas.”


Mick laughed, “I don’t care where we go just as long as we’re together.”

He stopped, closed his eyes, and bowed his head just a little, imagining their wedding day, while Julie danced and twirled. She was twenty feet away from Mick when she heard the low rumbling.


Mick didn’t hear her as he spoke excitedly, “we can rent one a them stretch limousines! Or maybe even get a horse-drawn carriage. My daddy’s friend Buck got one…”

“Mick? What is that ?”

“…prolly get it real cheap and I don’t know if I should wear a black or a white tux. What do you think? Black or white?”

“Mick!” Julie screamed as the Russian Mil Mi-24 gunship that had just passed over the Sparrows’ house beat a course directly toward them. As Mick opened his eyes, the helicopter gunner already had them in his sights.

“Run, Mick!”

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Mick burst into a sprint and headed for the store, following Julie, who had already started to run. As the gunner opened fire, Julie darted under a large apple tree and took cover behind its sturdy trunk. Mick continued to sprint to the rear entrance of Calef’s where Winston had only recently filled his truck bed with crushed stone. But Mick couldn’t outrun the helicopter or its large-caliber bullets. The gunner fired, missing Mick, corrected his aim, fired again, and Mick fell dead. Julie ran back to him, but he couldn’t be saved. Before she could begin to mourn her loss, the helicopter turned back toward her. Julie, her hopes and dreams dashed, stopped and stood her ground in defiance of the enemy, expecting to suffer the same fate as Mick. Strangely, the helicopter just flew over and back the way it came, headed south to the columns of PLA soldiers that marched quickly toward Johnsonville.

Gone with the Wind

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By the time May and Winston settled into the apartment, it was past ten o’clock. Last-minute adjustments delayed their slumber, like finding the safest location for the oil lamp and shifting supplies so there was a clear path to the “bathroom,” setting up Amadeus’ food and water bowls in the barn in the corner closest to the door to their apartment, and Winston remembering that he had forgotten his Ruger .22 and bullets in the upstairs closet, but when they finally did settle down, the apartment was remarkably comfortable. The tiny space was dark and warm, and after a few minutes, May asked Winston to turn off the oil lamp because even at its lowest setting it brightly lit the room. They lay there for about an hour or so, their senses adapting to the moans and creaks of Medusa’s planks.

“It’s kinda like campin’,” Winston said it a soft voice that still sounded too loud for the apartment’s confined space.

“When have you ever known me to enjoy camping?”

“I didn’t say we’d like it.”

“I’m worried about Amadeus.”

“He’ll be fine,” Winston comforted her. “He’s got food and water and he’s as resourceful as ever. I left the outside door open a little for him.”

“But what if he can’t find the food and water?”

“As long as there’s a supply of chipmunks out in them woods, he’ll be just fine. And I ain’t never gone a day without seeing at least a dozen of the furry things scurrying about.”

A mortar round exploded somewhere off in the distance. Winston thought that it sounded like a thunderclap, which, ironically, could be comforting to those who enjoyed thunderstorms. Winston was that type of person, finding comfort in the maelstroms of life. May was not. Her body softly trembled. Winston shifted his position so his back was against the cold steel of the hurricane shutters that lined the apartment, and spooned her, his head propped up with a hand, his mouth to her ear.

“Close your eyes and I’ll tell you a story,” Winston said.

“Ooh, I like your stories.”


“I remember the first day I laid eyes on you. At the ol’ Fox Theater in Atlanta where I got a job takin’ tickets at the box office. It was January somethin’ 1969.”

“It was January fifteenth. A Wednesday. And you were…” 

“Now May, this is my story.”


“I was takin’ tickets. It was the thirtieth anniversary of Gone With the Wind …”

“Technically, it was the twenty-ninth anniversary ’cause the movie was actually released in 1940. It was filmed in 1939.” 

“Hush, now.”

“I’m just sayin’.” 

“Are you tellin’ the story or me?”

“Go on.” 

“It was my first day on the job and the film festival was runnin’ for five days. Now  I remember. It was runnin’ from Wednesday ta Sunday with matinees on Saturday and Sunday. I was goin’ ta Georgia Tech. It was the second semester of my second year.”

“And I was still a senior in high school.” 

“Yeah, goin’ ta that highfalutin Woodward Academy jes’ ‘cross town. You were like an angel to me when I saw you, floatin’ down the road, dressed in them bell-bottom jeans and with that crazy head a hair a yours.”

“Really, Winston? Crazy?” 

“You paid the admission and handed me yo’ ticket stub. I tore it in two and our fingers touched a little when I handed yo’ half back to you. I remember yo’ fingers were warm. And soft, unlike anythin’ I’d ever touched in my life. And you said, ‘thank you, Mr. Winston,’ and vanished inta the crowd. I wondered how you knew my name and it drove me crazy that I would never see you again. I looked for you afta the show, but I had ta help with the clean up. How did that pretty little thing know my name, I wondered all night and the next day…

“Then, on Thursday, it was a miracle. There you were again. I took yo’ ticket and you went inside. This time, you smiled at me an’  said, ‘thank you, Mr. Winston.’ I was intoxicated, but I didn’ know what ta say and I couldn’t exactly desert my post. And then you were gone again.”

May smiled as Winston continued. “I was hopin’ ta see you again on Friday, and lo and behold, there you were. This time, before I handed you back your ticket stub, I asked, ‘how do you know my name?’ You said, ‘cute accent, Mr. Winston,’ and then pointed to my nametag. I felt so dumb, but that’s what you do to me. You make me stupid. Then you turned back at me and said…”

“Yes, I’ll be back again tomorrow, Mr. Winston.” 

“I’ll be back again tomorrow, Mr. Winston. The next evening came, but you never showed up. I was so broken-hearted that I contemplated not goin’ into work that day. In fact, I wasn’ even scheduled ta go ta work that day, because Saturday was ma day off. I was just gon’ cover fo’ a white kid said he needed the day off. But I wen’ in and there you were. Before we were even opened, there you were. Waitin’ fo’ me. You said, ‘my name is Maybel, but everybody calls me May,’ and you hung out yo’ hand. I shook it like we were negotiatin’ somethin’. I said, ‘Winston.’ You said, ‘I remember,’ and then you asked, ‘aren’t you gonna ask me out on a date, Mr. Winston?’ But before I could answer, you said, ‘I like the movies.’

“And so the next day we went to the movies to see Gone With the Wind . As we were sittin’ there waitin’ on the movie ta begin, I asked what was so great about it that you had to come an’ see it five days in a row. I’ll never forget what you said to me. You said, ‘I just like how the south loses.’ May, I couldn’t stop laughing ta save ma life. A year later, we were man and wife.”


“Good night, my love. Sleep well.”


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It was a restless night. Neither Winston nor May slept well. They tossed and turned, their minds weighted heavily by the imminent invasion. At one point, Winston got up to pee and bumped into the wall. He nearly fell backwards onto the bed, but regained his composure and used the toilet contraption without further incident. He checked outside, peering out of every slit, shifting his position from each vantage point several times. It was quiet. Too quiet. Peaceful, even. There was no gunfire off in the distance. No mortars lighting up the midnight sky. No revelry from Johnsonville’s militia down the road. Winston wondered if they had given up and gone to take cover in their boarded up homes with their loved ones, or if they were lying in wait for the enemy’s arrival, ready to ambush an opponent they wouldn’t defeat with their paltry small arms, even if some were military grade. In a deeply unsettling way, the quiet was even more frightening than the anticipated, constant report of weapons — a sound that Winston had psychologically prepared himself to hear. But it hadn’t come. He double-checked, in his mind’s eye, the route the PLA was coursing, and wondered if they had somehow changed course and shifted their immense army to smaller roads and tributaries. Winston had lived in the Greater Atlanta area since he was eighteen and knew the roadways and byways well — there was no other roadway an army could use to skirt around Johnsonville and make it to Atlanta. He checked on his rifle. It leaned against the wall near the door, loaded with ten rounds, plus he had several hundred more rounds in a box that he placed in the space between the studs. Tired, he went back to bed, relieved that he hadn’t woken May. He lay next to her, wondering if he had done the right thing — building this false wall and upending their lives. He closed his eyes and eventually fell back to sleep.


Just before sunrise, Winston awoke to a faint noise in the main area of the barn. He somehow managed to sleep for a couple of hours and felt mildly rested — or it may have just been the adrenaline surging through his veins that gave him a high. May was still asleep. Though she did have a rough night like Winston, she had been gifted with that rare ability to fall sleep in almost any situation, even on a noisy airplane or bus, and under almost any condition, their present state notwithstanding. Winston stood and peered out several of the slits, but didn’t see or hear anything unusual. It was still, quiet, and peaceful. He unlocked the deadbolt, pulled the door open and carefully peered into the barn. Nothing. No movement. No strange sounds. Feeling confident, he c

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losed the door behind him and stepped into the barn, and then the fifteen feet to the barn door, which remained ajar. He peered outside. Nothing. Suddenly, Amadeus meowed behind Winston, startling him.

“Damn, ol’, fool,” Winston said to himself.

Amadeus looked up to Winston and meowed loudly again. He bent over to pick the cat up, knowing that it would just bolt off as he had done for the past twelve years, but to Winston’s surprise, Amadeus let him. Winston held the cat’s face to his own, praying that the temperamental animal wouldn’t gouge at his eyes. But instead, Amadeus sniffed Winston’s mouth and relaxed, purring contently. Winston shifted Amadeus, again expecting the cat to leap out of his arms, leaving deep, bleeding scratches, but the cat remained calm as they checked his food and water bowls together. The cat had eaten a hearty portion of the dry food, and had spilled the water bowl, which wasn’t unusual. There was roughly twenty pounds of dry cat food left in the apartment. Winston would refill the food bowl later. He placed Amadeus down and took up the water bowl. Rationalizing that they had to conserve their own water supply, and seeing as it was still clear outside, he made his way down to the lake and dipped the water bowl into the cool water. Amadeus trotted behind him, but stopped ten feet from the water’s edge. The highway, from this vantage point, piqued Winston’s curiosity, but he couldn’t make out any movement on the road. He would attempt to sneak a peek at the highway overpass from the end of the driveway just to make sure he wasn’t missing anything. He placed Amadeus’ bowl down and splashed his own head and neck with the lake’s cool and invigorating water. The whole scene felt surreal, as if the population of the entire country was misled into believing that they had been invaded.

Winston strolled back toward the barn, but stopped at Medusa. He gazed at the photos permanently sealed into the wood and traced the outline of the Gone with the Wind  thirtieth-year commemorative flyer, thinking about the story he had told May last night. He was one of the lucky ones. Coming out of Jamaica, Winston was given the chance to live the American Dream . And now, standing in an America occupied because of oligarchic political ideologies made no sense to him. He wanted to go back in time to that moment when he fell head-over-heels in love with the Georgian country girl with the Bantu knots and the smile that drew him into her heart.

As Winston reminisced, sounds of heavy artillery and gunfire suddenly erupted. The reports were rapid, as if an entire army of soldiers had been given free reign to unleash a torrent on its enemy. He looked back up to the highway, and to his horror, he observed a column of military vehicles making slow progress north on Route 75. He bolted for the barn, jostling Amadeus’ filled water bowl from hand to hand. He scanned the area for the cat, but he must have sprung into the safety of the adjacent woods. Winston’s pace was fast and deliberate as he headed for the barn. The gunfire was growing louder with every step. Ricochets of bullets and glowing tracer rounds, those special incendiary shells loaded at every fifth or six position into magazines for accuracy, bounced and leapt off his own house and property. Just as Winston made it to the barn’s edge, a Jeep carrying four or five of the brave Johnsonville militia plowed into the front porch, destroying it. Winston, ten feet from safety, turned back and hid behind the blue-tarped stacks of cordwood. Some type of rocket or RPG hit the Jeep and killed all but one of its occupants, the blast so forceful that metal bits of Jeep and wooden chunks of house, along with a severed arm and other gore, rocketed as far as his hiding spot. He poked his head around the corner of the cordwood to check if it was clear.

Winston was frozen as he watched a lone survivor suddenly erupt from the Jeep. It was Med Willis. He was unarmed, bloodied and injured, and in full survival mode. He hopped onto what remained of May and Winston’s front porch and beat loudly on the front door, even attempting to kick it in, but he didn’t have the strength.

“Winston! May! It’s Med! Melvin Willis! Please! Let me in! You gotta help me!”

Though Winston peered around the corner, he couldn’t see Med at the front door. He only heard his futile appeals for help. Giving up, Med limped toward the back porch and door, and despite his better judgment Winston decided to help Med. He was stuck outside, too. The violence had all happened so suddenly. Winston felt like a fool, getting trapped outside of the safety that he had so painstakingly planned and built, and all for the adoration of a cat that until today hadn’t shown a lick of affection toward him. He knew the Willis family well. They were good churchgoing people — part and parcel of the Johnsonville family, though seldom seen in public. Winston often saw Med’s father, Earl, down at the eastern end of Robin Lake where a flowing tributary creek emptied into it. It was a good fishing spot, known well to those in the know from this part of Georgia. They might spend a couple of hours man-gossiping and catching up before one of them had to get back to the trivialities of life. And perhaps Winston owed something to Med’s father for the quiet times they shared together at that fishing hole. On an impulse, and unsure of just what they’d do with him if they got him inside the apartment, Winston whisper-yelled, “Med. Med Willis! Melvin!”

But Med couldn’t hear Winston’s voice over the racket of the artillery fire, which now engulfed Johnsonville. Med stomped onto the back porch and tried the door. Winston had locked it behind him when he retrieved his forgotten rifle last night. Med tore the screen door from its hinges and tossed it to the ground, pounding hysterically on the sturdy wooden door. And as Winston stood to wave Med down, three Russian-made Tigr troop transporters, vehicles similar to the American Humvee, pulled slowly into the driveway, and a mish-mash of nearly thirty soldiers from Russia, North Korea, and the Middle East spewed from them. Winston ducked down, terrified that his hiding spot had been discovered. The enemy soldiers were in no hurry to catch Med as they meandered to his desperate position — a rat in a trap. Spying the scourge that hunted him, Med put his right hand through the door glass and fumbled for the knob on the deadbolt.

“Get out of there, Med,” Winston mumbled, knowing that there was no knob on that deadbolt. The only way to get that back door open was with either a key or a heavy foot. Winston felt helpless for both he and Med when a hand on his shoulder startled him. He turned slowly, expecting to see an AK-47 pointed at his head, but was relieved to see May hunched behind him. She was just as terrified as Winston, but she motioned for him to follow her, and they both skirted through the cordwood and around the side of the barn that faced the woods. There, a gray, four-foot stepstool was stationed at the window in the barn that faced the woods. She was first, as she lumbered up the stepstool and flung her body inside the barn. Winston followed. When he was inside the barn, he thrust his body back out the open window, retrieved the stepstool, and closed the window, flipping its latch. The barn door was still wide open, but the enemy’s backs were to them, watching their latest victim being pulled from the porch. Winston, still clutching Amadeus’ empty water bowl, tossed it next to his food bowl. They had barely closed the apartment door when a dozen soldiers teemed into the barn.


May thrust herself onto the bed and jumped under the covers for safety as Winston picked up his .22 and stood with his back against the door, at the ready should their hiding spot be discovered. They were both terrified. Just on the other side of the false wall, they could hear, smell, and feel the soldiers, who were appropriating several small cans of gasoline and oil meant for the lawnmower and weed whacker, assorted tools and other paraphernalia that might help the PLA. May and Winston heard strange words that sounded like orders being given, and commands being obeyed.

“Khudhuu alnnaft walghaz!”

“Nieum sydy!”

“Ant! Jalab hadhih al’aqmashat fi shahina!”

“Nieum sydy!”

May poked her head out from under the blanket and Winston shifted his position to the slit that faced the house. He slowly lifted the dingy cloth and peered outside to a disorienting cacophony of sights and sounds. The PLA soldiers surrounded Med and they were shoving him back and forth, Med’s eyes wide with panic and fear as he pleaded for his life. He circled around and around, searching for an escape and praying for a rescue. He would get neither.

“What’s happening?” May asked, forgetting to use her quiet voice.

Winston turned and shushed her.

Several PLA soldiers wielded large daggers, and when Med was shoved toward them, they held out the blades as he fell into them, the razor-sharp edges slipping easily into Med’s fleshy abdomen. He stopped pleading for his life and fell to his knees when the third or fourth piercing stole his will to survive, both hands attempting to hold his entrails inside his gut. Two PLA soldiers caught Med’s arms and he flailed violently, his small intestines flowing slowly from his belly and forming a pile on the ground. Another soldier stood behind him and grasped his tufted head of ginger hair (as a child, Melvin’s mother would gently caress his hair to help him fall asleep — it was redder then — and it was his mother’s placid face that he now pictured at his journey’s end. She held out a cookie, and said, “it’ll be okay, Melvin. Come to your mother now.” It was a chocolate chip cookie — his favorite — fresh from the oven, buttery, and its dark cho

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colate chunks warm and melty.). The soldier’s grasp was so forceful that Winston thought it would have snapped Med’s neck, but, unfortunately, it didn’t. Spitting and snorting, the soldier whispered something into Med’s ear.

“They gon’ kill Med, Mother.”

“No, Winston, no, no, no…”

Med grunted, “Momma?” as the soldier pierced the delicate tissue of Med’s angular neck, driving the blade through it in one easy thrust. Med was lucky — the soldier’s blade was sharp. He choked and gagged on his own fiery blood, attempting to scream, as the soldier sawed back and forth several times, exposing Med’s spinal cord. Then, with technical precision, like a chef carving the holiday bird and finding the connective joint tissue of a turkey’s leg, the soldier detached Med’s head from his torso, his heart continuing to beat out a steadfast rhythm. A copious amount of blood spewed from Med’s severed neck as the two PLA soldiers let go of the torso. The soldiers cheered, some discharging their weapons into the air and into Med’s body. The soldier held Med’s head up high in great victory, paraded it around the jubilant group of men, and drove it down onto the three-foot high, wrought-iron fence that protected May’s beloved teacup roses from hungry deer.

Med’s head faced Winston with a death stare that caused him to gag. He stumbled toward the bathroom area of the apartment, inadvertently pulling the shower curtain and rod down upon him as he bent to vomit into a bucket. The contents of Winston’s stomach emptied, his heaves painful spasms of regret and sorrow for a man he had known since birth. Had the enemy not still been rummaging through the barn’s contents, and making its own loud racket, their apartment surely would have been discovered. Med’s death was the single most repugnant sight Winston’s eyes had ever beheld.


Winston quickly and quietly remounted the shower rod and curtain, and took his place at the slit facing their house. The back door was no match to a heavy steel-toed boot to the deadbolt, as the soldiers went about their business of ransacking the Sparrows’ home. He watched helplessly as soldiers flowed into their home, and moments later as they streamed from the house with armfuls of items that May and Winston either found no use for in the apartment or were too large to bring with them: Ramen noodles, condiments, magazines, other edibles such as flour and pancake mixes, May’s good towels, blankets, pillows, and an assortment of other items. Winston was grateful that he had built their apartment — for he knew that they would have been killed just like Med, or worse for May, at this very moment.

May flung the covers off and lurched toward Winston, on her knees and weeping. She wrapped her arms around his legs and gripped him intensely. She had never been so frightened in her life. He placed a soothing hand to her shoulder, but truth be told, he was just as scared as her. He said, “it’s okay, Mother. We’re safe, May. We’re safe.”

From where he stood, Winston could see from the house to the driveway and road simply by shifting his head from slit to slit. This he could do without disturbing May’s clutch, which only intensified with every crash and thump from the soldiers inside the barn and outside in the driveway.

“Hurry! Take that!” A startling shout came from just on the other side of the false wall. Laughter, and the unmistakable sound of a basketball bounced off the barn’s floorboards. Suddenly, the basketball crashed into the false wall several times. Winston watched as two North Korean soldiers exited the barn, one bouncing the basketball, the other carrying a toolbox that he had since he was twenty. He switched his view to the front slit. As quickly as they came, the soldiers climbed back into their Tigr troop transports and the trucks departed one by one back toward Calef’s, the highway, and the gunfire. The last truck to depart waited for the final two North Korean soldiers.

“Come! Come!” Shouts came from the Tigr, presumably from an officer. The soldier dropped the basketball in the driveway, and they trotted to the truck, hopped into the rear and it sped away. The basketball rolled along the side of the driveway and stopped just shy of Med’s head. Winston had forgotten the basketball tucked away somewhere in the barn. Reinstalling the old basketball hoop was a project he kept putting off since rebuilding the barn, mainly because there were no longer any children who lived on their road to play with, but also because he was getting too old to shag the balls when he missed shots. He had  managed to install a new backboard shortly after he painted the barn. It faced the driveway, hanging just above his head where he now stood in the apartment. The basketball hoop lay on top of the pallets that hid their septic system, never to be enjoyed again. And thoughts of playing basketball with the Mayor clouded his mind.


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Winston stood at the front-facing slit for the next couple of hours, peering out through the small hole until his eyes were red and weary and his back ached. May released her clasp around his legs and was now seated upright, her back against the cold aluminum hurricane panels. Every now and then, May asked Winston if it was still clear outside and he replied, yes, it’s still clear , every time. It was remarkably quiet — too quiet. Winston prayed that they had seen the worst of the invasion — that the enemy was swiftly back on the march to Atlanta and another town north of them would soon be dealing with the same horror that the PLA had briefly brought to Johnsonville. He sat down next to May and took her hand into his.

“I can’t believe they killed him, Winston.”

“I have a feelin’ we lost a lot of our neighbors today.”

May burst out in tears, her emotions getting the best of her.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“Ya don’ haf ta apologize for feelin’.”

“I just feel so helpless in here, Winston. Like we could a done something for him.”

Winston didn’t tell her that he had tried to get Med’s attention, which nearly cost them their own lives, too.

“I been thinkin’ a lot about the Mayor lately,” he said.

“Oh?” May replied, “why?”

She was happy that Winston had changed the subject.

“First time I ever met ’im was right here in this driveway a few months after you and I met at the Gone With the Wind  film festival. It was summer break and I wanted to, you know, tell ’im my intentions.”

May laughed through swollen eyes. “That man made us walk with all of our luggage from the bus depot to this very house.”

“There’s a reason for that, May.”

“I remember my feet tellin’ my head there weren’t no reason for the Mayor to let us walk that distance. I was so angry with him.”

May laughed that laugh when you’ve forgiven somebody for something that happened so long ago, that all it was now was funny.

“Now, jes’ stay with me, May. I been thinkin’ a whole lot about a whole lot a things lately. That walk was one of ‘em, but it’s not why  I been thinkin’ a ’im today. And you hit the nail right on the head.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean ta say that the Mayor was tryin’ ta teach us a life lesson — that love isn’t a sprint or a race; it’s a long, slow walk, and sometimes it takes a long spell ta get ta your final destination. But, you gotta walk that walk together . It was a test.”

“We’ve walked that walk, Winston. For nearly fifty years now.”

Winston leaned over and kissed May’s temple.

“Yes, we did. And I’ve enjoyed walkin’ by your side. But that basketball today reminded me a something else he taught me that day.”

“You never did tell me what you two talked about that day.”

“I’m a tell you now. Jes’ stay with me. When we walked down this here driveway, you remember what he was doin’?”

“Of course — playing basketball with the boys from the neighborhood, like he always did on Saturday afternoon. He said to me, ‘hey, Medusa,’ and I said, ‘Daddy,’ and kept walkin’ right on past him. Ooh, I was so angry.” She laughed again.

“Yeah, you were. He hailed me ta stop and we both watched you huff your way into the house. He smiled at me, stuck out his hand, and said, ‘Maybel’s told me a lot of good things about you, Winston.’ I was so scared, but he put me at ease right away. His handshake was firm, like a man who tol’ the truth. Then he dug his hand into a pocket and gave each a the three boys a quarter and said, ‘go on now. Get yourselves some ice cream. Tell Mr. Calef hello for me. Same time next week.’ The boys thanked him — I ‘member the looks on their faces, like they not used to having a quarter in their pockets. Anyway, the boys left, leaving us standin’ alone in the driveway. He hands me the ball. ‘You play?’ he asks. Yes, Sir, a little, I said. I prefer football, meaning, of course, soccer. ‘Let’s practice some free throws,’ he says, ‘an’ call me Mayor.’ And so we stood out there on the free throw line he drew in chalk on the tarmac. I threw first and missed. He said, ‘visualize the ball goin’ in the goal.’ He called the hoop a goal, which I guess is proper. I liked that, but I still call it a hoop. Anyway, he hands me the ball again. I shoot and miss. I keep missin’ and he’d shag the ball wherever it went, bring it back, and say, ‘try again,’ until I got the ball ta go in. Must a been my tenth shot I reckon. He never once said, ‘good job.’ Now it’s his turn. He puts the ball in easy on the first shot, then said, ‘now, over here,’ and we shifted to ninety degrees a the hoop — a

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three-point shot position. No backboard ta help ta get the ball in the hoop. ‘Go on,’ he said, ‘jes visualize the ball going in.’ I shot that ball and on the third try I got it in. I was so proud a myself, but I didn’ wanna show it in front a him. Again, the Mayor didn’t say anythin’ encouragin’. He only asked me, ‘how did you do that?’ I didn’t know how to respond, or what he meant, so I said that I just pictured the ball going into the goal. He placed a hand on my shoulder, smiled widely, and said, ‘no, that’s not it, but someday you’ll figger it out.’ And we went in the house together.”

“And that was it?” May asked, “what was the reason the ball went in?”

“Not very pedantic, I know, so stay with me May, but in one lesson, shootin’ baskets in this here driveway, the Mayor shared with me his secret ta life. Mental attitude, which had nothin’ to do with visualizin’ a ball goin’ through a hoop — that was the reason. Sure, I didn’t give up. I just corrected what I was doing wrong in my head  and tried it again and again until I got it right. And I been doin’ that since the day I met yo’ daddy. Mother, I know people are born the way they’re gonna turn out — leopards can’t change their spots — but I hope I corrected and changed when I needed to.

“Where is all of this coming from?” May asked.

“I dunno. I just wanted you ta know.”

“You are  the best  husband I could have ever asked for, and you will be for a very long time. We may not have agreed on everything, like the color of this barn, but we have  made a good team.”

“I guess the point is… if we gon’ be in here a while, together, we can’t let ‘em get in our heads. We gotta stay strong up here.” He tapped on the Rusty Wallace cap that rested crooked on his head.

“I understand.”

Winston laid his head on hers and they both closed their eyes, each thinking about the late great Mayor Wellbeloved. Winston was afraid to tell May that he didn’t have a good feeling about their predicament — that he felt this was the calm before the storm — that he wasn’t sure if perseverance and patience would save them. Suddenly, the sound of several motor vehicles pulling into the driveway stole their reminiscing. Winston stood and looked out the front observation slit to find a caravan of three blacked-out Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen  armored trucks. These were not the same utilitarian military trucks that had chased Med down. Those trucks were painted in a desert camouflage scheme, contained no creature comforts, and were only meant for armored troop transport. And while these expensive flat-black Mercedes-Benz military flagships were also designed for troop transport, they were of the utmost caliber of luxury, and meant for only the highest-ranking officials. A fourth vehicle — a Tigr troop transport — parked sideways across the driveway. Six heavily-armed PLA soldiers and an officer spilled from the Tigr. The soldiers took up defensive positions around the caravan of Geländewagens, while the officer waited for the drivers to open the passenger doors.

Winston presumed the three passengers who emerged from the trucks were some of the PLA’s multinational division leaders, judging by their decorated uniforms. They were, in fact, the PLA’s ranking generals — one for each invading nation: North Korea, Russia, and an Iranian who represented the interests of the Middle East. The generals stretched and walked with the North Korean officer toward Med’s stiffening body. Winston changed slit positions to follow them as they stopped at the body. The North Korean officer bent down to examine the corpse and expressively demonstrated with his hands the precision of the decapitation. Then, based on their hand gestures and facial expressions, the officer and the generals appeared to engage in a serious discourse regarding the Sparrow residence. The Russian general motioned for the drivers to dispose of Med’s corpse in the woods, which startled Winston, because the general seemed to point directly at him. The three drivers took hold of Med’s body — one each taking an arm, the other Med’s legs — and slowly hiked the corpse past the barn, out of sight and into the woods.

The North Korean officer spied the basketball, picked it up, and bounced it on the ground. It had lost some of its pressure over time, but the officer dribbled and held the ball like a man who had done it before. The generals said something that made the North Korean officer laugh, and they all meandered to the street and down the road in the direction of Ben’s house, the North Korean officer bouncing the basketball all the way down the road until they were out of Winston’s sight. It looked like they were considering moving into the neighborhood. And Winston’s heart sank into his gut.


Ben had been sitting quietly on his front porch drinking warm sweet tea, rocking in his chair, and clutching the rifle in his lap. He witnessed Med’s Jeep crash, and heard the horror of his beheading. As he watched the Russian Tigr troop transports speed away, he assumed that May and Winston had been slaughtered on the hallowed grounds of Mayor Wellbeloved’s property, and he wept silently while he prayed for their souls to be delivered to Him.

And in the lull between the trucks leaving and the generals arriving, Ben napped like old men nap. He dreamed a vibrant vision of his wife, June, and of the day they were married. It was a typical Southern Georgia shotgun wedding in the spring of 1957. They were too young — both seventeen — but June was pregnant and it was the right thing to do. Just as Ben was about to kiss the bride, an odd and deliberate knocking sound disturbed his slumber. He left June at the altar and opened his eyes into a squint. There, standing before him on the flagstone pathway that led to the front porch, was the North Korean officer, bouncing the basketball slowly and methodically, watching him. Startled, Ben abruptly stood and trained his large-bore rifle at the officer, the glass of sweet tea sailing from its resting spot on the arm of the chair and shattering on the porch. The soldiers targeted their rifles on Ben, the officer bounced the ball, the three generals watched on from a safe distance, and a bird landed and perched in a nearby tree to gawk at the commotion.

“You come any closer and I’ll blow your fucking gook head off,” Ben warned.

The officer bounced the basketball several more times until securing it under the wet pit of his right arm.

“Hello, my friend. How are you today?” he asked.

“One step closer and I’ll be doing a whole lot better!”

“Of course! Of course! Look! A basketball! I am armed only with a basketball.”

“Them other fellas aren’t.”

“No. They are armed pretty heavily,” the officer laughed, “but so are you. May I approach without you blowing off my fucking gook head?” he asked.


“I would just like to talk. If we wanted to kill you, we would have done so while you were sleeping. But you are old and our customs dictate otherwise. I am required to honor your age and wisdom.”

Ben waved the officer onto the porch with his gun. The officer approached slowly and bowed his head to Ben as in Korean tradition. Ben held firmly onto the rifle as the officer bounced the basketball occasionally while they conversed.

“I am Major Chaek Sojwa of the People’s Liberating Army. What is your name?”


“Well, Ben, soon our vast army will crush Atlanta… and Amer—”

“Like you crushed New York?” Ben interrupted, “got your asses whooped up there, didn’t ya?” he snickered.

Major Chaek frowned, kept slowly bouncing the ball, and asked, “do you  like basketball?”

“Can’t say that I do. More of a football fella myself. American  football.”

“I prefer basketball. It’s the only sport where a player can legally draw a foul against his opponent. You actually make them commit an offense against you . Much like your American president did to provoke the PLA to invade your country. And so, while your American forces may be fighting the PLA bravely in other parts of America, this  army of PLA soldiers has enjoyed great success. I believe it was your famous General Patton who once said in World War Two about the Germans and Japanese — ‘we’re going to kick them in the ass, twist their balls and kick the living shit out of them all the time.’ Well, Ben, it is now our turn to kick America  in the ass, twist your  balls and kick the living shit out of you  all the time.” Major Chaek laughed. “Do you like kimchi?”

As Ben started to ask what kimchi was, the Major heaved the basketball at Ben’s face, catching him in the nose and breaking it. Ben’s rifle shifted away momentarily, and Chaek seized it and punched him in the gut, sending the old man reeling to the floorboards.

“Put him with the other prisoners,” said Major Chaek as he gathered up the basketball and bounced it against Ben’s house. Several soldiers entered the house to scavenge for food and supplies while two other North Korean soldiers trotted onto the porch, picked up Ben’s unconscious body, and followed the generals back to the Sparrows’ house.

Winston didn’t see Ben’s limp body tossed into the back of the Tigr, but he did murmur oh oh  when the entourage marched back down the driveway and onto the back porch. None of the generals seemed to notice Med’s open-eyed death stare as they passed by his mounted head. Hell, they didn’t even seem to notice Robin Lake and its pristine waters. Or had they? Perhaps the helicopter that had flown overhead yesterday had scouted out the Sparrow residence for the generals and their house had been chosen for its location. Major Chaek tossed the basketball into May’s hyd

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rangeas as he trotted up the stairs.

“What is it?” asked May, sitting at Winston’s feet.

“Looks like they plannin’ on movin’ into our house.”


“They jes’ marched on into the house, and here come a big ol’ truck backin’ down our driveway.”

“Oh dear.”

A Russian Ural-4320 backed down the driveway, and to the Sparrows’ back porch. Major Chaek stood, hands on his hips, and instructed the PLA soldiers to move gear inside the house — communications equipment, from what Winston could make out — and the Sparrows’ possessions out of the house. Electronic equipment flowed from the truck and into the house, and just as quickly, the contents of their house were systematically removed and tossed into the back yard — coffee tables and lamps, books and bookcases — anything that took up space that didn’t provide comfort.

“Looks like they makin’ our house into their headquarters,” Winston whispered.

“What do we do?”


The First Days

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Neither Winston nor May slept much the first night. Winston stood at the observation slits, constantly shifting his position throughout the night, and watching the swarm of enemy combatants invade their home. May begged Winston to sit down and rest — she had no interest in watching what was going on outside — and he’d often shift to his knees and watch through the lower slits, but those lower slits caused his knees to ache. It was more comfortable to stand. They each found a hushed voice to speak in while in the apartment, like when talking in a movie theater or at a funeral. As the evening went on, the sound of gunfire came from all directions: automatic fire from one side, mortars detonating from another, and single assassination-style reports coming from everywhere, including from across the lake. The ground trembled with the slowly creeping heavily armored vehicles that passed through Johnsonville on their way north toward Atlanta. Winston wasn’t shocked so much by the sheer volume of enemy soldiers as much as he was by their highly-coordinated military conduct and precision, especially given that the PLA was comprised of vastly diverse soldiers from severely distinct countries and cultures. Winston was further impressed that the majority of PLA soldiers spoke some English, be it fluent, broken, or bad — English, it seemed, was the predominant language spoken between the forces of the PLA.

The brown and gold rooster clock from the half bathroom just off the kitchen now hung from a finish nail to the right of the apartment’s simple doorway. The clock ticked loudly in the tiny space — loud enough that May wondered if it could be heard outside. Winston checked the clock — it was just after two in the morning when he decided to lay down next to May, who had been drifting in and out of sleep for several hours. He did it more for her than for himself. He spooned her as if they were in their own bed upstairs in the house and lay there for the next few hours. He was too exhausted to completely succumb to sleep with the din of the military vehicles passing by on the highway, the sporadic gunshots in the distance, and the loud racket of Winston’s generator that now powered several spotlights keeping him awake.

Winston was an over-thinker and over-achiever, with a mind that constantly churned. During that first night, Winston put himself in his enemy’s head, rationalizing the logistics of what was happening inside their house and what they were likely plotting, while also knowing that none of the toilets would flush given that Johnsonville’s municipal sewage system and water supply had been offline for months. The residents of Johnsonville were told to conserve their wastewater. Mayor Calef had sent out a flyer saying: If it’s yellow, it’s mellow. If it’s brown, flush it down . The flyer made Winston laugh at the time, but now he fretted, thinking of the mess he’d have to contend with if the house’s new occupants flushed with reckless abandon. He was then reminded that neither he nor May ate or drank much of anything, nor did either of them use the facilities. He chalked it up to nerves and the gruesome events that had unfolded earlier, but made a promise to himself to insist that he and May would eat and drink consistently, lest they cause their bodies internal harm. As he closed his eyes, he wondered why he hadn’t seen the generals since they arrived. Johnsonville was approximately twenty miles due south of Atlanta. Why did they make a military offensive headquarters so far away from their targeted city?

The next morning, three Russian soldiers speaking enthusiastically startled Winston awake. The soldiers must have been standing no more than a foot from his head. It felt like he had slept for less than an hour as he pushed himself up to his feet. May was already awake, reading The Postman  by David Brin, her back leaning against the outside wall. She raised a finger to her lips warning Winston to be quiet.

Winston’s back screamed from the awkward position in which he had slept. His moves were cautious and deliberate as the Russian soldiers carried on their conversation. He flipped the towel up and peered outside. Sure enough, three Russian PLA soldiers gabbed about military matters, judging by their hand gestures, body language, and tone. Winston realized that he was chilled and he had to urinate. A cold front had moved in, which was uncharacteristic for early September in Southern Georgia. Winston grabbed his black hoodie from a hook near the shower curtain, put it on, and pulled the curtain open. He and May both winced at the harsh, grating noise of the curtain rings as they scraped loudly across the metal rod. His old man bladder screeched as he unzipped his fly and aimed his stream down the pipe. Unfortunately, the urine made a loud, babbling, hollow noise as it travelled down the length of pipe and into the rudimentary septic system. Winston, terrified that the Russian soldiers outside could hear the noise, interrupted his stream with great pain and grabbed an empty twelve-ounce plastic bottle to finish in. He was relieved, yet he grew concerned when the stream didn’t slow and he nearly filled the bottle, with only a capful of room remaining. He turned to May as he slowly poured the fluid down the pipe, careful not to let it make any sound. She sat there, staring up at him, and smiled a wide grin.

“You think that’s funny, do you?” he whispered, a smile creeping onto his face.

She nodded and turned her head back down into her book. Winston rinsed the bottle, cleaned his hands (he had set up a wash basin, which was their largest stainless steel mixing bowl from the kitchen), checked to see that the soldiers had left, kneeled down to May, and kissed her forehead.

“I had to do the same,” May confessed.

“How long you been awake?”

“A couple hours.”

“You hungry?”

“I could eat.”

“Good. How would you like a western omelet and some crispy bacon?”


He kissed her again, pushed himself up, and stepped into the apartment’s kitchen area. It was difficult to remain quiet  and discreet , but considered that their very survival relied on these two very deliberate actions. Winston poured dry Count Chocula cereal into a plastic bowl and handed a package of two frosted strawberry Pop-Tarts and a bottled water to May. She faked being disappointed.

“No bacon?”

“Doctor said ta cut back anyway.”

She opened the package and took a bite of a Pop-Tart.

“Doctor can go screw himself. I’ll take the bacon.”

Winston was actually  disappointed. He decided to drench the sweetened cereal with water before he sat back down next to May. The cereal instantly turned soggy and he regretted adding the water. Still, he powered through the mush and ate it knowing that there must be no food waste whatsoever, especially given their new predicament.

The day dragged on without much excitement until the port-a-potties arrived mid-morning. Winston had been standing at his post — in the corner that was kitty-corner to the house and the driveway, which gave him a superior viewing position relative to the activity happening outside — when a Russian Ural light cargo truck backed into the driveway with six of the electric blue contraptions. He watched a half-dozen soldiers systematically offload the portable toilets and set them up along the outside wall of the house, just opposite the barn. Meanwhile, May finished reading The Postman  and was now on to Post Office  by Charles Bukowski.

Winston peered out of the slits for hours on end, watching soldiers come and go. By the time twilight came, the confines of the apartment had become boring, repetitive, redundant, and tedious. May looked out the slits several times over the course of the day, but she didn’t quite understand what Winston got out of the voyeurism. He was plotting and scheming, thinking, two, three, four weeks ahead, knowing that at some point, he might have to leave the relative safety of the apartment to scavenge for food and water if the PLA remained on their property. He watched his enemy’s habits and studied their schedules. Winston was learning.

It’s a beautiful thing when two people can communicate nonverbally, and after such a long period of time together, May and Winston had the art of nonverbal communication down to a science. Verbal communication became secondary, and these skills were critical now more than ever. In fact, they spoke many languages together — facial expressions, minute body and eye movements, breathing and grunting, and

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of course, bedroom and lovemaking languages, which were probably the most important of them all — a shift of the head, a nod, a wink, a tap, a nibble, a tug, a smile, a frown, an eyebrow raised, a breath, an mmm — all were used at some point during their stay in the apartment — even in the dark. It had probably been twenty-five years since Winston last asked May, verbally, to scratch his back, but even as they both sat, listening to the commotion around them, Winston leaned toward May and dipped his back. Her hand instantly moved under his shirt and scratched his itchy spots. A less-familiar couple may have already given up their position to the enemy by speaking too loudly or even by speaking at all.

May whispered, “I’m nervous that I haven’t, you know… gone.”

“It’ll come. Our bodies jes’ gotta calm down.”

“I hope you’re right.”

“You wan’ me ta sneak inside an’ get them Fleet enemas we left under the bathroom sink?”

May shook her head in mock disgust. “Go to sleep.”

“I love ya, May.”

“I love you too, Winston.”

As soon as Winston closed his eyes, a faint scratching sound came from outside the door. Both May’s and his eyes popped open as they trembled with fear, their hearts racing and wondering what made the noise. Scratching again, then the soft and distinct purr of a precocious feline.

“Amadeus,” May whispered.

“Son-of-a-bitch, that cat’s gonna get us killed,” Winston said, standing.

A large flashlight lay next to the door. He turned it on, keeping the beam aimed at the wall, creating just enough light for him to see in the blackened room. He peered out of the slits — two Middle-Eastern sentries were posted at the back porch, near Med’s head (Winston wondered if it stunk and why they kept it there). There was no way to know if any other soldiers were in the barn, but gauging by Amadeus’ presence, Winston had to assume that the barn was clear. Amadeus meowed. Winston remembered that he had tossed the cat’s water bowl in the barn on the first day. He filled a small plastic container with food and grabbed a bottle of water, and set them by the door.

“I don’t wanna see him,” May said.

Winston nodded, and then slowly opened the apartment door. The light from the apartment was just bright enough that he could see into the main area of the barn. It was in disarray, with its contents strewn about — bins of Christmas decorations scattered and shattered, empty cardboard boxes littered the floor, and garden tools tossed about. Winston turned off the flashlight, picked up the food and water, stepped out of the apartment, and quickly closed the door behind him. This was the closest he had been to the enemy since they invaded his property and he was nervous, especially since his only weapon — the small-caliber .22 rifle — remained inside the apartment. Amadeus curled around his feet as Winston let his eyes adjust to the room. The open barn door let the moonlight spill in, with just enough light for Winston to make out a clear path along the outside wall of the barn and find a safe, inconspicuous place to set up Amadeus’ bowls. The cat was ravenous, which concerned Winston, because this — this meowing at their hiding spot in the middle of the night — was clearly a problem. It just couldn’t continue to happen. He decided that, as long as the nights were like this, with few enemy soldiers milling about, he’d attempt to feed the cat. If he could just close that barn door, Amadeus wouldn’t be a liability. Winston stroked Amadeus as he crunched on his food and then returned to the apartment, hoping the cat would go away when he was satisfied. Winston didn’t want to cause Amadeus any harm, but he would if it became a choice — he would always choose May. This sentiment he kept to himself.

“How is he? How does he look?” May asked as Winston lay back in bed.

“He’s jes’ fine.”

“I’m worried about him, Winston. What if one of the soldiers finds him and kills him?”

“Then that was his fate, May. Nothin’ we can do about it.”

She didn’t like to hear that, but she knew it was true — there was nothing they could do about an old tomcat roaming the property. His life was in his own hands now. May wouldn’t have liked to know that Winston was thinking how easy it would be to snap the cat’s neck in order to preserve themselves. Nevertheless, the Sparrows huddled under the covers and listened to the ambient sounds of war off in the distance, and to the two Russian soldiers’ low conversation. Their eloquent monotone phrases lulled Winston to sleep.


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As sunrise approached, so too did a new cacophony. Several large Russian troop transporters pulled alongside the road, and a bevy of soldiers offloaded into the driveway and lined up in three long rows, their commanding officers hurling orders. May had been awake for an hour or so and was reading under a battery-operated LED light. She didn’t bother to look out any of the slits, but Winston took extreme interest in the events going on outside. He got up, used the facilities, and handed May a package of Pop-Tarts.

“Did you go?” Winston asked.

May shook her head.

Winston returned to his place at the slits, his hands digging into the box of Count Chocula. He would finish the box this morning (leaving them many meals short). May was nearly finished reading Post Office . She didn’t care for it too much, Bukowski being a brute with the English language — and women.

The new soldiers were a collection of the three invading nations, with no single country maintaining a military advantage over the other, though there were far fewer Middle-Eastern soldiers as compared to the Russian and North Korean troops. However, they appeared to be equals with matching ranks and positions. Winston was fascinated by the military display as he crunched loudly on the cereal, as if watching Saturday morning television, and he lost count when the number of soldiers passed sixty. It was their third day in the apartment, and for the first time since the enemy had arrived and appropriated their home, he saw the three generals. They emerged from the back porch and strode to their respective subordinates — the officers in charge of the troops — and Winston heard the generals addressing them in English, though he couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. After approximately ten minutes, the generals returned inside while the officers addressed their troops in their native tongues for a moment and released them. Winston comprehended the generals’ directives when one of the troop carriers backed up to the barn’s big doors and a half-dozen soldiers began removing the barn’s contents, tossing his and May’s possessions haphazardly into the rear of the trucks like garbage. Winston spied Amadeus’ food and water bowls in the truck and felt bad for the cat, but only for a moment. Though he made observation slits directly into the barn, he was too afraid to look through them for fear of being seen.

“What’s going on?” May asked.

“They makin’ room for somethin’ in there. Tossin’ all our stuff inta trucks. There goes the Mayor’s ol’ tinsel Christmas tree.”



May went back to her book. She was now reading Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness . She would have it read in an hour. Winston fretted about their food and water supplies. They had both consumed more water than they planned, and neither of them had evacuated their bowels yet, which would require even more water usage. He shook the worry from his head, eager to understand just what the enemy had planned for the barn. Half of the sixty or so soldiers marched off down the road toward Calef’s, while the other half cordoned off the Sparrow property, erecting chain-link and razor-wire fencing, building fortified gun positions and a gated entry point at the end of the driveway. Winston sighed loudly.

“What’s going on out there now?” May asked.

“They fortifyin’ the property.”

“What you mean, they fortifying the property? ”

“Razor fences. Guns. Big  guns. Looks like we in here for a spell.”

May put the book down, her hands to her face, and sighed heavily.

“Okay, Winston, I hope I can do this.”

It was an accusation.

“You can. We  can, May, jes’ stay with me here.”

“I’m trying to, Winston, I’m really trying.”

“That’s a good girl. We’d already be dead if I…”

Winston let it go.

“I know.”

May went back to Heart of Darkness  while Winston watched through the slits. The clatters of wood crashing against the false wall alarmed them. Winston kept two cords of firewood stacked neatly in the center  of the barn (usually five cords, but not this season since they were under siege) so he could easily walk around the perimeter and use the outside walls to hang tools and the like. Plus, rodents were less likely to nest in the center of the barn than in the crevices against the walls the stacked firewood created. It sounded like the soldiers were tossing the firewood against the false wall to open up space in the center of the barn. Winston quickly placed his back against the apartment door — it wasn’t that  sturdy. May looked up from the book, her face ashen with the possibility of what would happen if that door did spring open. The soldiers continued to heave the firewood into the door when, suddenly, the bottom of the door jerked inward a good two inches. Winston shoved a foot against the bottom of the door, but he couldn’t push on it hard enough to close the gap. May could see the soldier’s hands shiftin

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g the firewood from one stack to the other.

“No! No! No!” came a sudden command from the barn. “Stop!”

The wood tossing stopped.

“You idiots! What are you doing?”

Winston presumed that an officer discovered the soldiers tossing the firewood unsystematically against the wall when he had ordered them to stack it neatly. The next sounds Winston could visualize — the officer demonstrating how to restack the firewood neatly against the wall, utilizing what remained of Winston’s meticulous example, the soldiers watching on intensely.

“Like this! Move this wood outside, now!”

The officer’s loud footsteps rang hollow as he stormed out of the barn. Winston couldn’t move just yet for fear of the pressure pushing against the agape apartment door. He maintained his defensive position while the PLA soldiers restacked the firewood like the officer had demonstrated, outside with the other cords of wood.

“I’m no idiot. He’s an idiot,” a Russian soldier mumbled to himself as he grabbed a handful of the firewood. As the pressure on the door was relieved, Winston closed the gap with his foot until it was back to normal. It took less than a half hour for the soldiers to finish and exit the barn. The immediate threat over, May went back to her book while Winston gawked at the soldiers outside and listened to the soldiers in the barn complain in Russian. Soldiers came and went during the course of the day, many with supplies for the razor-wire fence and guns and ammo, and others with provisions. At one point, a large American truck backed into the driveway and box upon box of foodstuffs was offloaded and delivered into the house. Winston noticed one large cardboard box in particular mixed in with several boxes that appeared to be Russian-made versions of U.S. military ready-to-eat meals (MREs): it was a case of Twinkies, which caused him to immediately salivate. Winston slumped next to May, defeated and craving a Twinkie. It was silly, he knew, and he didn’t share this feeling with May. She seemed to be okay, keeping her head in her books and her mind off the war. But there was something symbolic in that case of Twinkies that stirred Winston’s emotions. He couldn’t quite place it, but it felt like good old American pride — freedom, perhaps. Seeing that familiar Twinkies logo made Winston want to take up that little .22 rifle of his, storm out the barn door, and take out as many of the enemy as he could — just for the satisfaction. But he wouldn’t — his place now was here, to protect May, and that was that. This was not a time for bravery — it was a time for quiet survival. It would take a lot more than a Twinkie to pull Winston out of the apartment and risk losing everything he had worked so hard to save.

Still, Winston craved a Twinkie.

The day in the apartment crept by slowly, with May reading and Winston gawking. He sat on an old wooden Coca-Cola box at the lower slit that faced the driveway. It was the perfect height, so he didn’t have to constantly stand. Neither of them had defecated, though they were both eating well enough and drinking often. Winston mastered the art of urinating down the shaft without it causing any bubbling noises, but May, because of her female plumbing, had to urinate into a large, plastic Tupperware bowl and pour it down the drain. It had already become old hat.

Winston watched the soldiers complete their fortification by installing three large generator-operated lights, like those he used to see often on Interstate 75 when the crews worked on the road at night — big, bright lights, on wheels, staged along the driveway flanking the port-a-potties, with a fifty-five gallon drum of gasoline staged near the back porch and Med’s head. Next came two industrial gasoline-powered generators that looked capable of powering half the neighborhood. Soldiers functioning as electricians wired the generators, running two heavy-gauge wires through the living room window to two separate electrical panels that powered all of the equipment inside, and another cable to a panel outside that powered the lights. The soldiers tested the lights in the daytime, and the bulbs were so bright that Winston squinted. Soon, the Sparrow property looked like an internment camp — he and May its sole prisoners.

Just before dusk, a Russian Tigr tooted its horn at the gate. A moment later, it pulled down the driveway and parked directly in front of Winston’s forward-facing vantage point. Two PLA soldiers emerged, ripping Julie Calef from the rear of the truck. She was naked and appeared to have been assaulted, her face engorged and bruised, hair partially torn from her scalp, and blood streaming down the insides of her thighs. Julie was a frightened feral animal, anxious to be put down. A small group of soldiers assembled around her, ready to pounce on whatever life  might still be left in her.

“Aw, shit,” Winston said, knocking his head against the wall.

“What is it now ?” May asked, somewhat disengaged with the reality just outside the wall.

“They got Julie. Julie Calef.”

May climbed across the bed toward Winston, but he placed a gentle hand on her shoulder. “No no. Stay right there. You don’ wanna see this.”

He watched a dozen soldiers encircle Julie until one brave Russian grunt unzipped his pants, his weapon at the ready. The two soldiers who had delivered Julie to this frenzied mob pushed her face into the side of the barn and held her steady against it, kicking out her feet and holding her arms in a spread-eagle position. Her eyes were at the same level with Winston’s, and may have locked with his had she not already given up during her three days of torture. She did not fight back or cry out as the Russian PLA soldier raped her, her head crashing loudly into the side of the barn, weak whimpers clearly audible inside the apartment. Winston closed the flap, unable to bear witness to the atrocity, and unable to aid the girl whom he had known since birth and who had been so helpful to him only days ago. May stared into infinity, listening to Julie, wondering if she had the same horrific fate awaiting her. The soldiers’ brash cheering became so vociferous that Winston scrambled to his feet, grabbed his rifle, and opened the apartment door before May even realized what he was doing — he was determined to stop Julie’s suffering one way or the other. He was out the door before May got to her feet.

“Winston! You fool! Get back in here!” she shouted, not concerned about being heard above the deafening shouts of the soldiers outside.

Winston heard May’s pleas and stopped mid-barn and turned toward her. Tears streamed from his eyes, though his face was twisted into rage. He lowered the rifle and looked around the barn. It was empty, except for several gardening tools, including a shovel, that still hung on the wall near the window he and May climbed through on the first day of the invasion, and a dozen military cots now took up the space. This was bad news. The barn was now a barracks.

“You can’t save her,” May said tenderly.

Defeated and overwhelmed, and still undetected, Winston staggered back into the apartment. He set the gun down, May locked the door behind them, and he looked out the slit to see Julie. Several other soldiers had lined up, eager for their turn with the pretty, young American girl. Suddenly, the throng was hushed and parted in two — it was the North Korean major beating a path toward Julie and the Russian soldier who was mounting her. Major Chaek reached the soldier just as he climaxed, and without warning, unsheathed his steel-gray Kizlyar combat knife and drew its glorious blade across the assailant’s neck. His hot gore sprayed Julie’s back, and she renewed her struggle to escape. Major Chaek grasped the soldier’s hair, his neck agape, and shoved him to the ground where he would bleed out in seconds. He sheathed his weapon with haste.

“Hold her still!” he ordered the two men who had control of Julie’s flailing arms, “and you fall in line!” he shouted at the crowd of soldiers, some of whom had attempted to wander away, unwilling to be witnessed as bystanders, but quickly assembled at his command.

Major Chaek spoke in perfect English as he addressed Julie, who was on the verge of unconsciousness. Winston’s eyes and ears were mere inches away as he spoke softly into her ear.

“I am Major Chaek Sojwa. I am truly sorry for this crime against you,” he said, “but war is war and to the victors go the spoils. I know, I know, you are thinking that is a cliché. And rightfully so. But if you think about it, war itself  is a cliché, is it not? In reality, there is much more at stake for us than simply losing this war. For example, we, the PLA, as victors, will be forced to maintain this country and its citizens. We will be obliged to help rebuild America’s infrastructure, find employment for displaced workers, feed, house, and clothe them. Rebuild the economy, which your leaders failed to do after the election of your ghastly president. The tasks are simply innumerable. Now, I ask you, is that really winning ? I say it’s losing and you arrogant Americans have won yet again.”

“Bullshit,” Winston whispered to himself.

Julie mustered all the strength and courage she had left. “Go to hell.”

“Alas, I am standing in hell. Here, in America, it is my hell. However, I see that you are suffering. Let us end that now. I will help you, but I shall first endeavor to scold my men for their very, very poor behavior.”

Major Chaek took Julie in his arms and teetered her toward the ranks. They were precisely lined up and silent. He promenaded her, still naked, through the lines of men, holding her upright with his left arm, and mockingly demanding, “this savagery  is no longer a part of the PLA’s mission! No longer  shall

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we rape and torture our enemy’s children! No longer  shall we inflict unnecessary and excessive pain on our enemy. For we are men of much higher principles than this barbarism!”

Suddenly, the Major unsheathed his Kizlyar blade and drilled it through Julie’s heart. She was just as surprised as Winston was. They both fell to their knees.

“From this day forward,” the Major shouted, “we simply kill  any and all Americans who cross our path! We will send them  to hell! We are the killers of the infidels! We are the scourges sent upon them! We are the People’s Liberating Army!”

The rows of soldiers erupted with cheers and cries, their ranks disassembling, the Major glorified for his great wisdom and leadership skills. He left them to celebrate, giving new orders to his officers, and saluted Med’s head as he disappeared back into the house with the generals. Four soldiers carted Julie’s and the soldier’s corpses into the woods, presumably to the same spot where Med’s headless torso now rotted.

Winston pulled himself to May’s side — she was softly weeping — and they lay together, their emotions suffering and drained. The soldiers’ uproar eventually died down, and May and Winston slept through the night and into the next day, neither of them able to comprehend the barbarism they witnessed, but thankful that they had this time together in their safe place. Med, Julie, and unknown scores of other Johnsonville residents had suffered alone. And while May slid into the abyss, Winston’s internal rage strengthened and solidified.


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By the beginning of the fourth day in the apartment, May and Winston were growing accustomed to the abrasive noises that permeated the apartment — soldiers speaking in both English and foreign tongues, engines droning, helicopters flying overhead, and gun and mortar reports in the distance. It was after ten in the morning when Winston’s eyes opened. He sat up and spied May’s slippered feet under the shower curtain, with the bucket on the floor behind her feet. She was going, he thought, that was good. He lay back down, listening to the sounds outside, and longed for the afternoons when he would sit under Medusa before she was felled, or at her stump afterwards. He’d close his eyes and take in the warmth of the sun, its rays inducing a tranquil slumber. A light aircraft might whirr high above. Ben might be cutting his grass, the fragrance sweet to his senses. Birds might sing him a lullaby. The clouds might decorate the sky. The travelers on Route 75 might help to lull him to sleep as they passed by, and May always kissed him gently on his sweaty forehead, stirring him to wake for iced coffee and a small snack, what she called “afternoon tea.”

Winston heard her struggle, her low grunts obviously painful. He didn’t want to embarrass her, so he stayed put in bed wishing he could do more for her. This was just all so animalistic and barbarous, he thought. He could tell by her movements and quiet sounds that she was “dealing” with her own waste and felt proud of her, knowing how belittling and humiliating the experience was. Soon, Winston would have his turn.

The curtain opened and closed and May sat back down on the bed.

“I don’t wanna talk about it,” she said.

“I’m proud a you. That was a hard thing to do.”

May was on the verge of tears.

“I used too much water and I’m worried about Amadeus.”

“Use as much water as you need. As far as that cat goes, I’m sure he’s doin’ jes’ fine. Probably pretendin’ ta be with the resistance. You know, like Snoopy.”

Winston said the word “resistance” with a French inflection that made May smile.

“Make me some breakfast,” she said, “biscuits and sausage gravy, two eggs over easy, wheat toast, bacon, more bacon, and fresh-squeezed orange juice.”

“What, no grits?”

“I think I ordered enough.”

“I’ll see what I can whip up,” he said and pushed his old bones to an upright position. He rifled through their foodstuffs, chose their breakfast, and sat back down next to May, who had already finished Heart of Darkness  and had Moby Dick  opened on her lap.

“I’m sorry, ma’am, but we out a everythin’. Can I interest you in a stale brown sugar cinnamon Pop-Tart and half a can a peaches?”

“This restaurant sucks.”


At noon on the fifth day, an enclosed truck pulled to the Sparrows’ gate. Two ambulances — both emblazoned with EMT/Fire Rescue graphics from Tampa and Oldsmar, Florida, near where this particular PLA division began its invasion — followed through the gate. May fell asleep reading just as Queequeg tried to eat the protagonist, and Winston, nodding off at the lower slit, jerked open his eyes when he heard the vehicles turning into the driveway. As they approached, he realized that the cots in the barn were not meant to be a barracks, but a makeshift hospital. The enclosed truck carried medical devices and equipment, which was quickly and efficiently offloaded by a swarm of soldiers. Their loud activity in the adjacent room woke May up, and within minutes, a brash generator buzzed to life. It sounded like it was positioned on the same outside wall as their septic system — which caused Winston major discomfort at the thought of its discovery.

No sooner had the improvised hospital been prepared when four bloodied trauma patients were carried into the barn. Winston couldn’t identify their nationalities as they rolled on by, but he assumed that they were all PLA. They were accompanied by two teams of doctors and nurses — one Russian, the other North Korean. They worked on the patients for several hours, their directives calm and calculated, though difficult to hear above the generator’s drone. By dusk, they had all fallen back into their routines — May reading, Winston peering out the slits, a dozen or more soldiers milling about the compound, and the generals, presumably, in the house calculating their next offensive.

Winston was frustrated that he had not considered that the enemy might actually occupy the space in the barn next to them when he built the apartment. He wasn’t entirely positive that anybody else in the barn couldn’t see their shadows or feet shuffling about. He had built the door with a small gap for easy, silent operation. So, with an unfortunate and regretful tone, Winston advised May that there could no longer be any lights on after dusk — she would have to read during the daytime only. May balked at the edict, but put Moby Dick  down and went to sleep, which was uncharacteristically earlier than ever, even for her.

Winston kept watch well into the night, finally getting his nerve up to peer into the barn. Sure enough, it was now a makeshift trauma center. Sometime before midnight, one of the wounded soldiers died, his heart monitor screeching its monotone warning. He watched the doctors and nurses scramble — they appeared to also be living in there with the patients — and the monitor was silenced almost immediately. Two Russian soldiers loitering near the port-a-potties were directed to take the body into the woods. They bounced out of the barn with the corpse, and walked out the front gate into the woods.

May hadn’t stirred. Winston checked on her — she was in deep REM sleep. He checked on the house; Med’s head was still jammed on the wrought-iron fence, and it angered him. He had wondered if it was possible to sneak out of the apartment, dislodge the skull from the fence, and dispose of it properly. But now that the barn had been converted into a field hospital, there was little hope of ever leaving the barn, which was ever the more disconcerting since Winston knew that they would run out of fresh water soon.


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It was a thirteen-year tradition, their annual trip in the fall to Savannah — Georgia’s oldest and most beautiful city. May, an avid reader and patron of literary fiction (even though she taught math to middle school students in the Henry County Regional school system), counted Flannery O’Connor among her favorite authors. Each year, a literary symposium — the Annual Ursrey Memorial Lecture — was held near Flannery’s childhood home in Savannah, where erudites would converge to commemorate her great literary achievements.

May had dragged Winston to Savannah since 2009 when the symposium held its inaugural lecture. While May attended the event, Winston enjoyed walking the compact, historical city. He’d sit and watch the immense cargo ships maneuver the Savannah River for a spell, their impossibly heavy payloads an engineer’s fantasy-cum-reality. Then, he’d stroll the city’s numerous squares and explore the seemingly ever-changing, lush flora and discover and rediscover monuments and statuaries scattered throughout the city. Savannah was always a place of discovery for Winston, which he enjoyed, because he had zero interest in literary fiction. Or fiction. Or reading. But husbands do what they must to maintain order and civility in their marriages, which is why he drove the nearly four-hour trip each way every fall for the past thirteen years — it just made his wife happy.

There was a photo titled, Me and May in Savannah, 2010 , from their second trip to the lecture. They had just eaten at the 17Hundred90 restaurant, which was also their weekend getaway hotel, and h

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ad wandered toward Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home — a five or six minute leisurely stroll from the hotel. It was still early in the evening; the sun was sinking, they were satiated, and Colonial Park Cemetery was on the way. And Winston had discovered something earlier in the day in the cemetery that caused his hands to tremble slightly during dinner, though May hadn’t noticed his quivering. He led her into the graveyard and to a section near the west boundary, but Winston, like a good husband, let May  make the discovery — and acted surprised when she did.

She had always known that her family was descended from slaves, though there was never any mention of the Wellbeloved surname as a Georgia slave owner in any historical documents that they could find — that was what the Mayor had always told her, and his father had told him the same — that very little was known of the first Wellbeloved. May had performed the requisite internet genealogy searches, only to find dead ends. But on that trip in 2010, Winston, err, May, discovered a gravestone with their family name. May fell to her knees when she discovered the sandstone marker, its chiseled impressions still deep and legible. It read:

Yet in this heart’s most sacred place, thou, alone, shall dwell forever. Henry S. Wellbeloved Felled in a duel June 6 1876 Defending emancipation’s honour Aged 67 years ≈ His adoring wife May Bell Wellbeloved Died April 20 1889 Aged 39 years

Upon learning this new information, May set out to find her great-great-grandparents’ story. What she found shook her to the core. Henry S. Wellbeloved was a Welsh blacksmith who immigrated to the United States in 1831 at the age of twenty-two. Back in Wales, he had developed a ploughshare edge that was considered state-of-the-art in its day. Tales of the American notion, Cotton is King , had made it to Wales, and the young Wellbeloved journeyed to America with dreams of financial prosperity dancing in his head. He landed in Savannah and opened a blacksmithing operation, which became moderately successful. He was never more than a homestead landowner, but could afford certain luxuries that made life easier, such as horses and a yoke of oxen to pull a laden Conestoga wagon around to potential customers. Henry traveled the Deep South, scouring for business, selling his ploughshares to farmers of cotton, barley, corn, and wheat, finally settling down in Johnsonville in 1849 after nearly twenty years on the road. Still unmarried, he bought a one-acre farm on the outskirts of the town. He also bought a slave, Wormley, and his pregnant wife, Ursula, from a cotton farmer in Atlanta known to mistreat his slaves. Henry, as an abolitionist, had seen so much violence and agony inflicted upon slaves that he vowed to one day help in any way that he could. He took the couple in and treated them as equals and privately manumitted them, understanding that Georgia law prohibited slave owners from freeing slaves. The three worked the small farm together, sustenance farming and sharing in its bounty, and early in 1850, Ursula gave birth to a daughter, who they named May Bell after a particularly genial house slave at their former owner’s cotton plantation.

Life was easy for the trio until the Civil War broke out. Even then, as a foreigner, Henry could remain a pacifist without recourse, only pledging allegiance to the Confederacy to keep him and his adopted family safe from harm. Johnsonville didn’t see much in the way of combat until Sherman’s March to the Sea. Being southeast of Atlanta, Johnsonville was besieged by General Howard’s Union Army of Tennessee. Howard’s XV Corps, commanded by Major General Osterhaus, swept through the area. Under General Sherman’s scorched-earth policies, Johnsonville was razed, along with scores of other Georgian towns between Atlanta and Savannah. Wormley, who was pressed into service by the Union Army, proudly served his emancipating country, but never returned to Johnsonville, a casualty of war. Ursula, May Bell, and Henry escaped to Lafayette in hopes of waiting out the conflict, but all three of them contracted typhoid, and Ursula died. She was only thirty-two.

Henry, now the ward of a fifteen-year-old ex-slave in post-Civil War Georgia, returned to his property in Johnsonville, where he met Lonnie Calef, a northern man half his age, but equally as ambitious to rebuild the community. The two set out to reconstruct the town, and with the townsfolk’s help built Calef’s Country Store and the infrastructure that would become modern-day Johnsonville. Henry and May Bell cohabitated for the next ten years, which was forbidden under Georgia’s miscegenation laws. They loved each other very much despite the age difference (Henry was forty-one years older than May Bell) and racial divide. Lonnie, who was the only man Henry trusted with his secret, told Henry that his home state, New Hampshire, had no anti-miscegenation laws and thus it was perfectly legal for interracial couples to marry. Henry asked May Bell to marry him, and after a few months of apprehension she finally accepted, and the three of them traveled to New Hampshire in the spring of 1876 where Henry and May Bell were married in Lonnie’s hometown Methodist church.

Upon returning to Georgia, the couple honeymooned in Savannah, but the trip turned tragic when it was discovered that they had been married in a Union state. A local member of the Ku Klux Klan named Raymond Edgar (a cotton exporter with an office directly on River Street in Savannah) challenged Henry to a duel (though a dying form of violence, duels were still fairly common in America’s south in the late nineteenth century). Henry, who rarely used his sidearm — even while roaming the violent south selling his ploughshares — never even fired a shot before the bigot felled him with a bullet through the chest. May Bell, who barely escaped the frenzied, racist mob, made it out of Savannah and back home to Johnsonville. Upon hearing the news of Henry’s death, Lonnie traveled to Savannah where he buried his friend in the place where Henry had begun his American journey. May Bell, who was pregnant, gave birth to Josiah Wellbeloved, May’s great-grandfather, and the man who had built the Sparrows’ house. It wasn’t until May Bell’s death that Lonnie commissioned the headstone to be erected in their honor. By then, the memory of the duel was long forgotten.

And it was that photo of her and Winston, taken in 2010, standing outside of Flannery O’Connor’s childhood home, with the inscription Me and May in Savannah, 2010 , just after May had discovered her family’s headstone, that she now studied as it hung on the wall inside the apartment while thinking of the story of her family during the Civil War.

May was going stir-crazy. Winston could see it in her eyes. They had now been trapped in the apartment for fourteen days and found themselves spending the majority of their days under the blankets and listening to the activity outside. Occasionally, Winston peeked out of the slits, but it always seemed to be the same show — soldiers coming and going, a constant stream into and out of the port-a-potties, the generals emerging from the house and using Medusa’s stump for daily briefings and lunch — it was all fairly mundane, and Winston could tell the time of day by the noises he heard outside. He and May were just about out of water and on a rationing regimen to conserve what remained, and his concern grew that they would run out.

Fewer and fewer patients were being treated inside the barn now, and on the seventeenth day, two days after they ran out of water, the cots and medical devices, doctors and nurses, and generator were evacuated from the barn, along with most of the medical supplies, packed inside a Tigr troop transport and carted away. Winston assumed that they were relocating the facility to somewhere up the road, closer to Atlanta. He also decided that he would venture out of the apartment later that night to have a look around. He had been scheming since before they took up residence in the apartment, and was confident that his plan would work. He and May were thirsty, and Winston was ready.

Water, Water, Everywhere…

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Winston saw that the front of the property was the PLA’s main fortification and heavily guarded, but he had no sightline to the back yard, which was bounded by Robin Lake. And from the comings and goings of the soldiers, he comprehended that their back yard was where the soldiers lived in their tents when not on patrol. However, Winston suspected that because they had not engaged in conflicts since occupying the Sparrow residence, the soldiers had somewhat relaxed their guard. That evening, he kept tabs on the few dozen or so that made camp in the backyard. May had been sleeping since nightfall and didn’t awaken when Winston donned his black hoodie and slipped out of the apartment at one a.m., three hours since lights out , when the three giant lights lining the driveway and one of the big generators were switched off. He took three empty plastic milk jugs (tied together with a length of rope knowing the filled jugs would weigh about twenty-five pounds), the stepstool, and his .22 rifle.

Winston closed the apartment’s door behind him and stepped precariously toward the window that faced the woods, not entirely positive that the barn was empty. To his surprise, the barn had been cleared and swept of all debris, though the garden tools still hung where he had left them. The barn hadn’t been this clean since it had been built. The PLA kept the house floodlights on and the second genera

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tor running all night, which was more than adequate to both illuminate his surroundings and provide an audible cover of his movements. When he crossed the slightly ajar barn door, he was met with a blank gaze staring at him. He stopped frozen in his tracks, and turned his head slowly and deliberately to face his opponent, only to realize that it was Med’s death gaze, his face now skeletal and nearly absent of flesh. Winston promised that before this conflict was over, he would bury Med’s head, giving it the respect it deserved.

He carefully lifted the window and slowly poked his head outside. It was clear. He locked the stepstool into its open position and lowered it out the window. He leaned out and lightly dropped the gun and empty milk jugs on the ground. Next, he had to get his lanky body out the window. He lifted his legs through the window’s opening, letting them dangle outside, and followed with his torso. The entire process felt like an hour had passed since he had first closed the door to the apartment, but in reality it was only a couple of minutes. As he contorted through the window, he lost his balance and fell hard to the ground. Luckily, he was able to shift his falling weight, landing on his ass and not on the gun or empty milk jugs. The pain in his tailbone bit considerably. He held back a yelp, picked up his things, and looked up at the six-foot high razor-wire fence now surrounding the property. The trick wasn’t so much getting past  the razor-edged fence, but it was being able to get back inside  the property unnoticed. Winston pushed the gun through the hungry razors — careful not to inadvertently slice open a finger — tossed the jugs over the fence, and set the four-foot tall stepstool at the fence’s edge. From there, he latched onto a thick branch that hung low over the razor wire and pulled himself up, giving thanks that he still had the upper body strength to haul himself over the deadly fence (as a teen in Jamaica, he used to earn money by shimmying up the tall coconut palms and retrieving the sweet fruit for generous tourists). He reached down, collected the stepstool, and shimmied across the top of the branch to the opposite side of the fence. As he let the stepstool down, the sleeve of his hoodie caught a smaller branch, causing him to lose his grip, and Winston fell hard to the ground, again. He immediately stood, knowing that he must have made some sort of noise as he fell, pulled the rifle through the fence, collected the milk jugs, and bounded into the woods.

There, under the safety of the evergreens and red oaks, as he walked off the pain from falling, a Russian guard heard the commotion and rushed to the spot where Winston had crossed the fence and shined a bright flashlight into the woods. Winston stood motionless behind a red oak as the beam crossed back and forth until the guard gave up and went back to smoking a cigarette near the port-a-potties. After several moments, Winston stashed the stepstool behind a tree and stepped away silently through the woods toward the highway overpass, along a path of matted pine needles. He knew these woods well, even when lit only by the moon’s soft glow. He walked a hundred paces before turning south toward Robin Lake. As he made his way to the water, Winston’s nose was assaulted by a rank stench he had never smelled before. It was sickly sweet, rancid, and it made his stomach turn. His eyes searched for the source of the odor, but he couldn’t find it, and he continued to the lake.

At the water’s edge, he dipped one jug after the other into the water, filling them to the top. He snapped the covers on, and looped and tied the rope around his belt — the weight of the three jugs nearly stripped the jeans from around his waist. From where he stood, the Sparrow house was one hundred fifty feet to his left. The night was quiet, save for the muted, foreign conversations coming from inside the tents on his property. There was no longer gunfire, helicopters, or soldiers marching by — there was only peace and the tranquil reflections of earth’s benign orbiter observing from high above. A beaver swam by, just out of view, causing a swath of ripples in the lake. Winston breathed in the night air, its sovereignty quenching and invigorating. He wanted to spend the rest of the night in that spot, and yearned for the freedom that generations of Americans had fought so hard to preserve. It was going on three weeks being cooped up in that barn with no end in sight. As soon as another few weeks, he’d have to leave the safety of the apartment to search for food, a worrisome prospect, given the unknown condition of Johnsonville.

Suddenly, he felt the need to get back inside the barn. He hadn’t left a note for May and he grew concerned that she might leave the safety of the apartment to look for him. As he turned and headed back, he was greeted by a familiar sound — Amadeus softly droning in the night. The cat’s green eyes glowed in the moonlight — he sat ten feet behind Winston, patiently awaiting his master’s response. Winston smiled widely. May had expressed deep concern for Amadeus for the first two weeks of their stay, but she abruptly stopped mentioning him, the cat food that was going uneaten, and his welfare. It was as if May had decided that he was dead, yet here was the cat sitting right here before Winston’s eyes. He set the rifle down and picked Amadeus up. The cat felt the same weight to him, and appeared to be the same healthy animal he had known for twelve years. And the damned thing seemed genuinely relaxed in Winston’s arms, his purring loud and content. Perhaps a diet of chipmunks and salamanders had been satiating. He put the cat down, picked the rifle up, and headed back to the barn. Amadeus followed closely behind.

Again, the stench of human decay made Winston feel sick to his stomach. He knew  what the odor was — it was Med’s headless torso, Julie’s naked body, the body of the soldier who had raped Julie, and God only knew how many dead PLA soldiers. Looking for the spot where the corpses had been unceremoniously dumped, he walked to the path that led back to safety, and then turned toward the highway overpass, stepping softly over the brush beneath his feet. Another fifty paces and there they were — the stink unlike anything else, their forms slightly obscured by the growing mound of garbage the soldiers dumped on them. This was their landfill. Winston could make out the blued, decomposed flesh of Julie’s body to the side, along with Med’s torso. The other bodies were under the opened cans and food wrappers and fouled toilet paper and all the other waste. He stood within eyeshot of the I-75 overpass; the road was just as quiet and still — as was the entirety of Johnsonville. A chilly breeze caught him and he shivered as he turned and headed back to the barn, Amadeus on his heels. Winston had a plan.

Only twenty feet and a razor-wire fence separated Winston from the barn. Still aching from his first crossing, Winston hopped the fence once again, though this time in reverse, and now laden with thirty-five extra pounds of weight (the water and stepstool). He pulled himself up the tree trunk and climbed onto the limb that hung over the razor wire, scooted across the limb, and let his body down easy, the drop only three feet to the ground. He landed on his feet, and stepped briskly to the window. He waited a moment, his back pressed to the barn. Feeling confident that he hadn’t been found out, he set the stepstool at the window and peered inside. The barn was still clear. He pushed the window open, and just as he pulled himself into the barn, May’s voice rang out like a church bell on Sunday morn, startling him. In a second, she was at the window.

“What you doing out there?” May whispered.

“Gettin’ water.”

“Well, get yo’ black ass back inside.”

“Now stay with me, May, there’s something I gotta do.”

“Yeah, and it’s getting yo’ black ass inside this barn right now.”

The timber of May’s voice was creeping up. Winston put a finger to his mouth, shushing her.

“Don’t shush me.”

“Hand me that shovel.”

“For what?”

“May, quit askin’ me questions. Just hand it ta me. Quickly, now.”

May begrudgingly removed the shovel from its hook and handed it through the window to Winston.

“Hold on,” he said, as he bolted to the fence, tossed the shovel through, and darted back to May. He untied the milk jugs and handed them one at a time to her, leaving the rope tied and dangling from his waist.

“Now get back inside the apartment,” Winston said, “I’ll be back in a couple hours.”

“Where you going?”

“A titty bar, May, what’s you think? I’m gonna go assess the situation,” he lied.

May sighed, but did not question Winston’s stubbornness.

“Be careful you damned ol’ fool.”

“No,” Winston replied, winked, and then did his trick over the razor-wire fence.

May watched him go. He turned back to her, his rifle slung across his shoulder. She thought she saw virility in his eyes. He gave a quick nod, pulled the stepstool into the umbrella of the woods, and then dissolved into the darkness. Amadeus was sitting there in the woods looking back at her and she understood why he hadn’t come back — the fence. He mouthed a silent meow, and then followed his master into the woods.

May set the water inside the apartment and then shuffled to the open barn door and stood there, staring at Med’s skull. She had no feelings about it whatsoever, as if it was just a prop used to teach anatomy to schoolchildren. Had the Russian soldier who was now smoking his cigarette and sitting at Medusa’s stump turned and looked over his shoulder, he would have surely seen her, and it would have been all over — it being May’s life, and probably Winston’s, too. She continued to stand there for five minutes in a stupor, wo

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ndering why she couldn’t just go sleep in her own bed. She didn’t have to wonder what her husband was going to do and he didn’t have to lie to her — he was going to bury Med and Julie. Why  he was going to bury their rotted corpses was an easy conjecture — to Winston, it was simply the right thing to do. May went back to the apartment, closed and locked the door behind her, and was asleep when her head hit the pillow.

Winston found the bodies amongst the trash. Amadeus unearthed a nest of baby rabbits. Both discoveries were equally gory. He tied his handkerchief around his mouth and nose, and proceeded to dig a hole as quietly as he could, leaving his rifle within easy reach should he need to defend himself. The hole was close to the highway overpass, perhaps twenty-five feet past where the bodies and trash had been dumped. Winston silently rejoiced at the soft soil, happy it wasn’t that damned solid red Georgia clay so prevalent in the southeast. Clay would have made his task infinitely more difficult, perhaps impossible. He made piles of dirt around the edge of the hole as he dug. The grave wouldn’t need to be overly large because the bodies were somewhat decomposed from the weeks they were exposed to the unseasonably warm weather, and Med’s body was sans thinker . Suddenly, the stock of Winston’s own gun crashed down upon his skull, knocked him unconscious, and he fell face-first into the grave.

Yong Woo-jin

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Yong Woo-jin was born in 2005 in the North Korean city of Pyongsong. The city of 300,000 was a hub of nuclear science and chemical weapon research, with as many as a half dozen university centers simultaneously developing weapons programs by the year 2020. The universities staffed over 10,000 researchers after the United States’ 2016 election, in response to the new administration’s hardline stance on its Non-Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. In short, North Korean nuclear possession was not to be tolerated. However, North Korea’s Supreme Commander, Marshal Kim Jong-un, took great liberties to test America’s patience by developing and firing test missiles into the Sea of Japan. The country never did develop its own reliable intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile, but they were still a nuclear country, aided by Russia and a Middle-Eastern faction of wealthy oil tycoons. Pakistan, the only Middle-Eastern country to acquire nuclear weapons, did not participate in what would come to be known as the Great Liberating War . The conflict responsible for starting the new war was the invasion of South Korea by North Korea. The United States originally excused itself from the conflict, its military overburdened by combat in the Middle East, but ultimately it sent troops to South Korea. Ironically, the United States’ goal was not  to advance into yet another world war, but to halt its inevitable expansion onto American soil. The tactic proved to be a massive military blunder, backfiring on a tremendous scale as a result of xenophobic leaders who do not possess the mental capacity to bargain with those of whom they were already afraid.

Woo-jin grew up as normally as any other North Korean boy. He attended twelve years of compulsory school where he performed above average. An only son from a low social class, or songbun,  Woo-jin didn’t have many friends, not even on the football (soccer) team on which he was a star player. Though his songbun status was perhaps the lowest acceptable rank, his coaches had often expressed to him that if he continued to improve his playing (though his position was that of fullback, he was an adept scorer) he might one day be invited to play for the North Korean National Football Team, which would improve his family’s status. He was that good. But Woo-jin wasn’t interested in playing professional football — he was a devout Buddhist who secretly enjoyed learning about the history of the world, an activity strictly forbidden by North Korean edict. He intended to apply to the Korean Buddhist Federation for permission to attend the country’s sole three-year college that trained Buddhist clergy.

However, shortly after his sixteenth birthday, Woo-jin was pressed into military service — as all  young North Korean men and women were. Conscription laws in times of war lowered the age from seventeen to sixteen and increased compulsory time spent in the military from ten years to an indefinite term, or until the war was won. He was sent away to training camp, where he did well and became a member of the Korean People’s Army Ground Force, pledging his allegiance to Supreme Commander Marshal Kim Jong-un.

Woo-jin took part in the extravagant football games organized by competing officers, his being the authoritarian Major Chaek Sojwa, a man from a higher songbun who was relentless in his company’s pursuit of victory. Woo-jin was a naturally talented football player, which earned him favorable and lenient accommodations from Major Chaek during training, but Woo-jin’s low songbun status produced animosity between him and the other trainees (unfortunately, because of his grandfather’s employment as a lawyer and his Japanese lineage, the Yong family was considered “tainted blood” to the Workers’ Party of Korea and could not be part of the ruling status for at least three generations, or until Woo-jin had children). Major Chaek thought him to be a clumsy soldier, but highly valued his athleticism and made a lot of money betting that his team could beat all of its competitors. Indeed they did, thanks to Woo-jin.

Before his seventeenth birthday, Yong Woo-jin was a member of the force that invaded and conquered South Korea. He marched the one hundred twenty-miles from Pyongyang to Seoul on foot as a part of the “cleanup” crew, who meticulously collected and documented all North Korean casualties. He managed to march the entire distance without taking a single life — doing so would have violated the most basic tenet of Buddhist ethics, given that his crew was ordered to kill any South Korean soldiers they encountered. He covertly let that duty fall to the other soldiers in his unit, though on more than one occasion he popped a round or two into an already dead soldier just to keep up the appearance that he was obeying orders.

After Seoul was conquered, Woo-jin was assigned to light duties, including serving as an ambassador of sorts. His task was to blend in with the South Korean people as much as possible and disseminate rhetoric that portrayed Marshal Kim Jong-un as sympathetic to their plight as new citizens of North Korea. He was good at it, a slender young man with an affable face and a genial, soft-spoken demeanor. One night while on patrol, he rescued a South Korean girl, quite by accident. Woo-jin had just completed his patrol of the Sajik-dong administrative district when he heard a muffled cry coming from a dark alleyway between two of the neighborhood’s tall office buildings. He quietly investigated the sound, thinking it was a wounded animal. He was surprised by what he actually found — a drunken North Korean soldier attempting to rape a young girl. Unfortunately, rape was a common tool of war, still used prolifically throughout the world. An anger Woo-jin had never felt before swelled and burst in an instant as he pulled the soldier off the girl with such violence that the soldier soared ten feet, his face slamming against the corner of a dumpster so hard that his left eye exploded from its socket, taking the optic nerve with it. Woo-jin checked the soldier, who was rendered unconscious, and when he turned back to assist the girl, she was gone. He’d had a good look at her face and vowed to remember it until the day he died.


For the next week, Woo-jin searched the Sajik-dong administrative district for the girl; he wanted to make sure that the soldier hadn’t hurt her. A few days later, he discovered that the soldier, Dong-joo, was a member of his own division. He hadn’t seen the soldier previously, and he only recognized him by the fresh bandages on his left eye when he barged into their barracks one night. The entire company crowded around the soldier, who told an elaborate story about how he came upon a young girl being violated by a hostile  and how he fought off said hostile, and after delivering the girl to safety, he was jumped by several others who took his eye. Woo-jin slipped away, knowing the truth of the matter, relieved that Dong-joo had been too drunk to recognize him now as a comrade, and went back out on patrol.

It was one month before Woo-jin and his company were scheduled to deploy to Tampa, Florida. He walked gleefully through the Sajik-dong administrative district handing out propaganda material and spoke casually to the residents of Seoul about their reclassification as North Korean citizens. South Korea had no caste system — no songbuns — and Woo-jin appreciated feeling equal to the South Koreans he met. In North Korea, he couldn’t speak to anybody outside of his low songbun — not even the majority wavering  class. He made his way up a long rice line, speaking and smiling to everyone he met, even those who spit at his feet or called him waygook , a derogatory name for someone who is not Korean.

And there she was, standing with her mother and two sisters in line. Woo-jin acted as normal as he could, though the girl’s radiance and beauty caused him to slightly tremble. He spoke to the mother first, who didn’t exactly warm up to him. She made a shuddering, guttural noise in the back of her throat, and spit out a tremendous wa

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d of phlegm at Woo-jin’s feet. Still, he pressed on, respectfully introducing himself to the girl and her two sisters. He didn’t mention the incident, knowing that even though the assault was not her fault, it would bring shame upon her family. Woo-jin was shocked when she spoke to him.

“My name is Park Seul-ki.”

“I am Yong Woo-jin.”

“I recognize you from…”

Her remark was somewhat coy, but cautious as not to bring attention to the attack, which she had kept to herself. While her mother and sisters accepted their family’s rations, Seul-ki whispered a thank you for coming to her aid that night and instructions to where and when they could meet again — if he wanted. Seul-ki’s mother bellowed for her, and then she was gone again, not looking back.

It was an oddly pleasing sensation for Woo-jin. He had never been in love before, and wondered if this was what it felt like. He marched back to the barracks, which were just outside Sajik-dong in a park near what was once the U.S. Korean Embassy. There was certainly a spark, but North Korean statutes were strict about soldiers fraternizing with the enemy, or for that matter with North Koreans associating with South Koreans, especially now that they had begun the process of assimilation under Marshal Kim Jong-un’s supreme leadership. Forbidden love, in this instance, meant a death sentence to Woo-jin, Seul-ki, and both families.

Love always triumphs authority though, and in the few weeks they shared together, Seul-ki and Woo-jin met every day in secrecy until he shipped off to America as a member of the PLA’s Tampa invasion force. In that brief time, she became everything to him — his love, his confidante and friend — even though his North Korean army had conquered, subjugated, and occupied her country. But Woo-jin was unlike other North Korean soldiers. He protected her and her family, supplied them with extra provisions, and promised to return to her.

The evening before he left, he confided to Seul-ki that he had never killed a man — not a single one — and that when he fired his weapon, he always aimed above his enemy’s head because of his desire to become a Mahayana Buddhist. He even considered fleeing North Korea if he wasn’t chosen to attend the Buddhist College, but that was before he was pressed into military service. Woo-jin did not believe that violence solved problems — he spent many days at temple begging Buddha to forgive him for taking the eye out of that soldier — and vowed to never take another man’s life. His military career was nothing more than a means to survive, because deserting North Korea for any intention was an act of treason punishable by death. Now, he wasn’t sure that he still aspired to become a Buddhist monk, having found love in Seul-ki’s heart. Woo-jin was the most honorable man she had ever met, and she pledged to remain faithful to his memory while he was away. He promised to stay safe and send word back when he was able. Then, the two kissed. It was their first. They were both nervous. Woo-jin touched Seul-ki’s hand softly and pulled away, apologizing profusely for kissing her while not married. She sensitively explained to him that because she permitted it, the kiss was acceptable. And she liked it. They ended up making quiet love while Seul-ki’s sisters and mother slept in the next room. The next morning he was gone, with only the memory and her photograph to worship.


Woo-jin held the small photo of Seul-ki while discreetly attempting to masturbate in the tent that he shared with three other North Korean soldiers (who had no trouble publicly displaying their personal sex acts). Unable to finish, he hid the photo in his state-issued copy of the Han Sorya novel, Jackals , rolled over and fell asleep listening to the same noises that Winston and May heard for so many years. He liked it. In fact, he’d fallen in love with America from the moment he stepped on the Tampa shore and hoped to someday send for his family, and perhaps Seul-ki and her family, when the war was over. He thought about the prospect of living in this part of the world. It was vastly different from North Korea, but the surroundings felt comforting. With the images of life in a new world pirouetting in his mind, Woo-jin silently recited a favorite Buddhist prayer over and over until sleep overtook him:

We reverently pray for
eternal harmony in the universe.
May the weather be seasonable,
may the harvest be fruitful,
may countries exist in harmony,
and may all people enjoy happiness.


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Winston opened his eyes. His head ached, and he could smell the steely aroma of his own blood wafting in the dense air. The sun was up, though the light in his surroundings was dim. His feet and hands were bound with the rope he had used to haul the milk jugs, and he was no longer in the woods. He was lying on cold concrete at what felt like a forty-five degree angle. Blood spattered his hoodie and his head pounded like he had just come out of brain surgery. Winston turned his head to his right and saw his gun, the shovel, and the remains of what looked like a red fox, all just out of reach. A voice came from his left.

“Jesus, what came over you, Winston?”

Winston turned, but couldn’t quite make out the figure speaking to him, though it must have been a Johnsonville resident since the man knew his name.

“What’s you mean?” Winston asked.

“What, were you planning on burying  them bodies?”

“They deserve some respect.”

“But at what cost? My livelihood? I could never allow that.”

“I’m sorry. I don’ follow. Livelihood?”

Winston shook off the pain and rested his weight on his left elbow, still unable to recognize the man speaking to him.

“That trash pile. It’s my only source of food now that I’m stuck up here, under the bridge.”

Winston glanced down, past his toes — he and the stranger were tucked up under the I-75 overpass.

“It ain’t much and I gotta deal with the stench of them bodies, but it’s all I got. You gon’ mess that shit up if you move them bodies. Them assholes’ll get suspicious and come lookin’ for whoever moved ‘em. And here I  am, fuck all if only a few feet from where they toss their trash out. I’m sorry, Winston, but I had to do what I did to survive.”

“Them bodies are Med Willis and Julie Calef. And who are you?”

Winston was quickly regaining his strength — adrenaline surging through his body, he unsure of this man’s intentions.

“Shit, that was Med? Thought he smelt familiar.”

The man cackled for a moment, and then hushed himself up.

“Gotta be quiet. They’s always somebody lurkin’ around. And you say that’s Julie? Damned shame. Why they gotta always kill the pretty ones? She had one hell of a smokin’ tight little body. Guess the spoils of war can’t all be fatties and queers.”

“Who are you?” Winston asked again.

“It’s me, Jimmy. Jimmy Mabry, from Calef’s Carwash.”

“Ah. Now I know who you are.”

Jimmy was the foster son of the Johnsons (no relation to the founding father of Johnsonville, Theodore Johnson) who became their ward when he was thirteen, some fifteen years or so ago. For whatever reason, the Johnsons never said, but they didn’t adopt him, instead kicking him to the curb when he was eighteen and the fostering checks came to an end. After that, Jimmy just sort of hung around Johnsonville, taking odd jobs here and there — picking apples during the harvest, mowing lawns during the summer, working at Calef’s Carwash, and the like. George Calef gave him a room (a converted storage room) and the key to the men’s restroom at the carwash and that’s where Jimmy lived for the last ten years. He was a harmless nuisance who never bathed, and who mostly went ignored. That is, until the wallop to Winston’s skull.

“You been livin’ under this bridge the whole time?” Winston asked. He sat up fully, his head nearly hitting the concrete underside of the overpass as his eyes adjusted to the backlit space. Jimmy looked like a man who had been on the street for far longer than Johnsonville had been occupied. He smelled the part, too, nearly as rank as the nearby corpses. Winston saw his red handkerchief now tied around Jimmy’s head.

“Locked myself in my room over at the carwash, but man when the shit hit the fan, I fuckin’ high-tailed it outta there. They was shootin’ people like ducks in a pond. Was livin’ outside for a spell until I found this here gem. Got a roof over my head and a steady supply a food. It’s mostly noodles and scraps, but sometimes I score big. The other day, I found half a steak. It was still warm, Winston. Still warm!”

Jimmy smacked his lips and reflected on the piece of meat, and took a serious tone, “that’s why I couldn’t let you fuck it up for me.”

“I understand. You see anybody else out there?”

“Sure. Lotta folks livin’ outside. You hear them one-off pops every now and then? That’s just Johnsonville’s finest gettin’ their asses capped. BAM!” Jimmy snorted, “gotta be quiet, Winston, real quiet.”

“That’s too bad.”

Winston took Jimmy’s information in and contemplated his own predicament. It was daylight — too late to go back to the apartment. At least May knew what he had been up to — that his intention was to bury Julie and Med. She would worry that he hadn’t come home, surely, and hopefully she’d assume that the task had taken him longer than planned and that he’d got stuck in the daylight and would be home tonight.

“Where you been hidin’ out, Winston

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? Ain’t you married to that pretty math teacher whatshername ?” Jimmy asked.

Winston had anticipated this question and his reaction was quick.

“Yep… we foun’ an old shed down the end a the street, ‘bout five doors down from our house. The old Harris camp.”

“Sweet. Is it safe?”

“Safe enough.”

“You got food?”

“A bit.”

Winston saw that Jimmy’s wheels were spinning.

“It ain’t just that Franco-American bullshit, is it?”

“Now, Jimmy, I happen to like that bullshit.”

Jimmy shook his head, “I guess I’d eat it if’n I had to.”

“Jimmy, why don’ you go an’ untie me. I’m not gon’ hurt you.”

“Nah, you might get it into your head to kill me. No way, Winston.”

Killing Jimmy hadn’t even crossed Winston’s mind until Jimmy planted the seed.

“How about you untie me? I gotta get back to my wife.”

Jimmy shook his head gain, “nope. I got some errands to run. Don’t go hoppin’ off. This area is crawlin’ with commies and gooks. But I know how to get around. Safer in the day — you can see ‘em.”

“You gon’ jes’ leave me here?”

Jimmy crouch-walked to Winston’s gun and grabbed it.

“In case you’re wondering, I got your knife, too. Don’t go anywhere, now. Like I said, this place is crawlin’ with commies and gooks needin’ target practice. I’ll be back soon.”

Jimmy slid down the underbelly of the overpass, made sure it was clear, and then dashed off to the right, away from the house. Winston knew Jimmy was heading to Harris’ empty shed, but had no idea how long it would take for him to return. Winston ran the route in his head. The municipal water department was just on the opposite side of the overpass and just as secure — if not more secure — than the current state of May and Winston’s property. One of the PLA’s tactics before the actual invasion was to infiltrate small-town water treatment plants and weaponize the chemical agents against the citizens. The raw chlorine used to treat the water could easily be collected and introduced into the water system. The problem was that, in most instances, the chlorine alone wasn’t enough to kill, it being sufficiently diluted by the time it reached even the nearest homes to the water treatment plant. But it did make a large number of people sick and it did instill fear into the general American populace that caused them to strengthen its water plant defenses. The theory was that if the enemy could penetrate water treatment plants so easily, it could also use more lethal chemical agents or toxins that would certainly kill a human with far fewer parts per million than chlorine. Even Johnsonville installed a more robust security system around their modest water treatment plant, with additional closed-circuit cameras, biometric door locks, and twelve inches of razor wire added to its eight-foot fence.

Winston waited ten minutes to be sure that Jimmy hadn’t run into any hostility before going to work on the rope binding his hands. He scooted on his ass to the shovel, wondering how Jimmy could have been so dumb to leave such a dangerous weapon behind, and grasped it with his hands. The grip was awkward, and as Winston attempted to shift the shovel into a position where he could scrape the rope against its sharp edge, it slipped out of his hands and slid all the way down the steep concrete bank and to the ground. He scooted down the slope like an inchworm until he reached the shovel. The bright sun instantly gave Winston a headache. He peered around, but saw no sign of life. Again, he positioned the shovel — this time sitting on the blade. Though it was uncooperative and difficult, Winston dragged the rope along the blade’s edge until the rope’s fibers began to shred and fall away. As he made his way through the rope, he suddenly heard the voices of foreign combatants coming his way. He sped up his efforts to free himself, increasing both the pace and pressure in which he scraped the rope against the metal edge.

Korean. It was Korean. Winston recognized the two voices, since he’d been hearing them for weeks now. They were just a couple of enlisted pukes, there to perform their daily routine of discarding the camp’s enormous amount of trash. They were still the enemy, nonetheless, armed and dangerous. Finally, the rope broke, and he was able to twist out of the bindings and work on releasing his feet. He hadn’t realized just how tightly Jimmy had bound his hands. They ached and were a bit numb, which didn’t help as he tried to untie the knot that bound his feet together. It was a fancy knot, and the voices were getting louder. Winston couldn’t assume that it wasn’t a patrol — he only knew the voices sounded familiar. He couldn’t untie the knot quickly enough, and he couldn’t flee, so he scooted back up to the very top of the underbelly of the overpass, the shovel resting on his lap. He continued to work on the tight knots as the voices slowly faded, and Winston eventually freed himself and made his way back down the concrete to the ground. As far as he was concerned, he now faced two  threats — the PLA and Jimmy, who would no doubt return disappointed that Winston lied to him about the shed and May and the food. Winston would have to deal with both threats equally. Winston had a surreal thought of what the occupation did to its American victims. Had the war really  turned Americans on each other, and was he prepared to treat all other Americans he encountered while outside as a threat? Winston shuddered at the thought.

Once out in the open, Winston felt reinvigorated and hungry. He hadn’t eaten anything since yesterday’s meal of canned creamed corn. How he loathed creamed corn. His stomach rumbled loudly, and he stealthily made his way back to the trash pile. Sure enough, several fresh loads of garbage had been dumped on top of the four dead bodies. Winston surveyed the trash, initially surprised that the enemy hadn’t simply left the garbage in bags until he realized that trash in bags created a larger pile that took longer to decompose. Smart, he thought, clever. He rummaged through the garbage. There wasn’t much to scavenge, and he wondered how hungry a man must be to make a meal out of this rubbish. He picked at the remains of a salad, half of a tomato, some meat — probably beef — and a dill pickle quarter that was surprisingly satisfying. And then, like a jewel hidden within the soil, there it was, the second uneaten half of a pair of Twinkies. Winston scooped it up and scrutinized it — it appeared to be unmolested, the forgotten twin that was now his delicacy. He rushed back to the underpass, where he unwrapped the pastry and practically inhaled it. The indulgence was a sugary epiphany that renewed his strength and supplied him with the courage to finish the task he knew in his heart he had to complete.

A Burial

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May slept peacefully through the night. It was a quiet evening in Johnsonville. The war had shifted northward, toward Atlanta, and other Georgia towns were not having peaceful evenings. Their residents were being shot on sight, their daughters and sons violated in the most extreme ways, their hopes and dreams evaporating like the blood that spilled from their necks. Their worst nightmares became realities, thanks to governments and countries that could no longer feign harmony — like married couples just going through the paces, existing together as strangers, seeking to regain the autonomy that they once had when they were younger. Like bad marriages, this was also how governments and countries and peace treaties divorced.

She awoke somewhere around the time that Winston was devouring the Twinkie outside. She rolled over in bed to feel for his familiar shape, but it was not there.

“Winston?” she said too loudly.

He surely would have hushed her, but May had momentarily forgotten that she was sleeping in a hidden place inside their barn while their country was under siege.

“Winston? Are you there?” she asked again.

She sat up in bed and studied her surroundings. Her disappointment percolated when she recollected their current situation. She stood, stretched, and looked out the slits, first toward the driveway, and then toward the house. Everything appeared status quo as far as she knew — enemy soldiers milled about, several of them positioned at the gate, others walking in or out of the house.

Suddenly a voice from the inside of the barn demanded, “who’s in there?” in Korean, and then again in English. May didn’t understand the Korean, but she did understand the English and realized that the soldier had heard her. She froze in place, too frightened to even scratch her nose. After several moments, she heard a ruckus outside, and the soldiers were gone. She tiptoed back to the bed and trembled under the covers. She had to pee.


Woo-jin and another North Korean soldier were tasked with trash duty. Every morning after breakfast, the two made their rounds through the encampment, beginning inside the house. The generals’ private quarters were upstairs in the master and guest bedrooms. Each room and bathroom had a trash bin, each of which was emptied into a large, waterproof canvas bag. On the main floor was a wastebasket that needed emptying twice a day because of the food waste. The living room had been converted into a military installation — the PLA headquarters for the upcoming Battle for Atlanta . Usually, there were fewer than a dozen other officers working alongside the three generals. Enlisted soldiers were not permitted in the house unless they were performing some sort of tactical

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duty — or emptying the trash.

Today, Woo-jin was the dumper, pouring the contents of the waste buckets into the canvas bag held open by his partner, another North Korean soldier who was virulently loyal to the PLA, despite his lowly songbun status. Woo-jin was keen to keep his eyes down and follow his superior’s directives, especially when in the company of his zealous partner. Woo-jin was thankful that they hadn’t yet received the order to empty the port-a-potties — Middle-Eastern soldiers, who must have made enemies of some low ranking officer with a bad attitude, emptied those once a week when the big vacuum trucks came to suck out their contents. It was a smelly, gross affair that he never wanted to experience. It was bad enough having to dump the trash where four dead bodies lay rotting, two of them his ex-comrades, though he did say a Buddhist prayer silently for each of them every time he made the trip to the trash pile. He wished he could show some other form of respect to the corpses — perhaps by burying them — but that treasonous action would surely get him killed.

Woo-jin spoke fondly of Seul-ki as he and his compatriot walked the heavy load to the trash pile. They were ordered not to bury the two American bodies with the garbage, as that would be construed as giving them an honorable entombment — even though it was garbage. They dumped the trash, Woo-jin happily jawing on about the love he had found, while the other soldier listened, annoyed at the banal conversation.

Woo-jin thought he saw movement near the overpass and stopped momentarily to look, afraid of what he might see. Soldiers routinely came back from patrol, excitedly telling stories of how they found Americans hiding and took great pleasure in killing them. His partner was like those soldiers — far more eager to spill blood than Woo-jin was — and so he quickly turned and led the other soldier back toward the encampment, not interested in being a part of further bloodshed. Watching Julie raped and murdered was more than enough violence for him.

As they walked back to the encampment — the only way in or out was via the armed gate at the end of the driveway — they stopped near the barn so the other soldier could fire up a cigarette. As Woo-jin continued to speak of his love for Seul-ki and the plans he wanted to make after the war, the other soldier hushed him. He thought he heard a female voice coming from inside the barn. The soldier rushed to the still-open barn door and peered inside, his rifle locked and loaded, cigarette slung from thin lips, its smoke burning his eyes.

“Who’s in there?” he said in Korean, and then again in English.

Woo-jin followed closely and peered inside the barn. It was empty.

“There’s nobody in here!” Woo-jin said.

“I know  I heard someone in here!” the other soldier cried.

Woo-jin laughed, “you’re going mad!”

“I am not going mad. You know, nobody likes you. All you ever do is drone on and on about your stupid girlfriend! We all wish you would just stop talking.”

The soldier stormed off, leaving Woo-jin standing in the barn alone contemplating what the soldier had said. It was true that he droned on and on about Seul-ki. He missed her terribly and wanted to go back to Korea and care for her and her family. But he also knew that it would be practically impossible for them to ever be together. North Korea maintained a ten-year enlistment in its army during peacetime, and an infinite wartime conscription term. Unless the PLA lost this war, he was in it for the long haul. Seul-ki would surely be married off by then, and she would only be a memory.

As Woo-jin turned to go back to his quarters, a hand slapped hard across his face, sending him reeling to the ground. His immediate superior, Major Chaek, sneered down at him. Woo-jin remained stoic despite the rifle being jammed into his kidney, causing severe pain.

“Lance Corporal!” the Major shouted, “what do you mean by not performing your duties? You neglected to empty this trash!”

He pointed to the stump, and sure enough, he and the other soldier had forgotten to empty the overflowing trash barrel near the stump. The generals had taken to having meals and meetings at the stump, and the barrel spilled over with garbage. Woo-jin scrambled to his feet, bowed, and shouted, “right away, Major!”

The Major huffed away, having proved his superiority, while the other soldiers continued about their day, openly snickering at Woo-jin’s misfortune. Woo-jin, who was still holding the large canvas sack, trotted to the barrel and transferred the trash from one receptacle to the other. No other soldier that could  help him would, including his partner who shared the garbage removal responsibility — he just flicked his cigarette to the ground, sneered at Woo-jin, and sauntered back inside his tent. As Woo-jin filled the bag, he gazed at the photos sealed into Medusa’s stump of May and Winston with the Mayor and other family and friends. He caught himself smiling at the Gone with the Wind  thirtieth-year commemorative flyer. His mother adored that old American movie, he recalled, after watching the film with her on a bootlegged USB drive since Western culture was banned in North Korea. She liked how strong Scarlett O’Hara was, and how the southerners were resilient and courageous, and that they rebuilt the south after losing the Civil War. And here was Woo-jin, exactly where the story had taken place. He noticed that he was being watched by several men, so he scooped up the canvas bag, hauled it over his shoulder, marched to the gate, and requested permission to leave the compound to go back to the trash pile. Permission was denied at first because all soldiers leaving the encampment must be in pairs, but Woo-jin pleaded with the sentry that the Major was very angry with him, and that he would give the sentry a pack of Camel cigarettes if he let him leave the compound alone this one time. The sentry gave in and granted Woo-jin permission to leave.


Winston made quick work of the hole, keeping an eye trained on the area around the overpass, and expecting Jimmy to return at any moment. He hadn’t heard any “one-off pops” today, so he assumed that Jimmy must still be alive. Winston imagined that Jimmy would skirt along the fence line of the water treatment plant up to the road — the road he and May lived on — cross it, and disappear into the relative safety of the tall field of grass. The field occupied a great deal of the area flanking the blueberry bushes, and the thought of being ravaged by several species of ticks so prevalent in the southeast fields of grass caused Winston to squirm. Jimmy would then have to travel a half mile or more, going past the Harris camp until he reached Flippen Road, pass through a couple of back yards, finally reaching the Harris shed. When he found it empty, he’d have to do the same in reverse, without getting caught or sidetracked. Winston had time.

The shovel blade went in smoothly, quietly. The area around the overpass, under the loam, was sandy and pliant. Winston was grateful. He dug one large hole for both bodies, which was far easier to dig than the hole for the apartment’s septic system. He was nervous, but he also made a promise, and once back in the safety of the apartment, he could reconsider future trips made to the outside.

It took twenty minutes to dig the hole. He marched to Med and Julie’s bodies and cursed Jimmy for stealing his handkerchief as he rifled through the reeking garbage searching for something to wear on his hands. He found two plastic grocery bags that probably came out of his very own recycling bin, emptied their contents, turned them inside out, and used them as gloves. Julie was first. Winston removed as much debris from the bodies as he dared, trying to remain quiet. Her arms were above her head, her body face up, and just about the only recognizable feature remaining was her long, flowing raspberry hair — her body was bloated with maggots and patterned in an alluvial pattern of deep mauve. Med was below her, their bodies creating a tight v-shape, and their legs posed in a grotesque, prancing death dance. The two dead PLA soldiers were face down and off to the side, under more garbage. Winston gripped Julie’s forearms with his bagged hands — an animal had gnawed off all of her fingertips and most of her hands. Her feet were trapped momentarily between Med’s legs, but Winston tugged harder and dragged her corpse toward the hole. There was no sign of Jimmy’s return yet. The relocation was going fine (Julie’s skin had pulled away from the meat of her forearms, which formed a nice anchor for him to hold onto) until Winston dragged her body over a single red oak shoot. The sprout was just firm enough that it tore a gash in Julie’s frail, putrefying abdomen. The weight of the viscous lividity caused her to split into two equal pieces, and her wormy entrails spilled onto the ground.

Winston lost his balance and fell backwards, partly from the change in weight from losing half of his load, and partly because of what had happened — this woman he had known since birth experienced a singularly horrifying and lonely death, and he was failing to give her the veneration that she deserved. He punched the firm ground with a tight fist until his fingers bled — wanting to bellow or to somehow take revenge on those bastards that had taken over his property, those who had invaded his country, or those inept politicians in Washington, D.C. who had fucked it all up. Instead, he lowered his head and wept softly. After a moment, he lifted his head and saw Woo-jin gazing at him. Winston was at a severe disadvantage, on his ass, without his gun, and the only weapon he possessed — the shovel — was fifteen feet away at the hole. Still, he scrambled to his feet

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and faced his enemy, wondering how long he had been observed.


Woo-jin heard the shovel penetrating the earth as he approached the trash pile. Winston wasn’t being as quiet as he thought. Woo-jin placed the canvas trash bag down and readied his weapon, training it on the black man digging the hole. He crouched down, and when Winston started dragging the girl’s body toward the hole, Woo-jin understood what was happening. This man was burying his dead. Woo-jin thought it was honorable and remarkable that this man would risk his own life for the sake of the dead. And then she tore in two.

Woo-jin watched as Winston wept for the girl. He stood and walked slowly toward them, his standard issue DPRK Type 68 pistol, the only weapon he was issued, at the ready. When Winston saw Woo-jin, he stood and raised his hands over his head. Neither man said anything. Woo-jin, seeing that Winston was unarmed, marched right on up to him, his quivering pistol trained on the old man.

“I help,” Woo-jin said, in broken English.

“Scuse me?” Winston asked.

“I help. I no hurt you. You no hurt me?”

Winston surmised the request. Clearly, if this PLA soldier wanted to kill him, he would have already sent a bullet through his heart. Winston was a reasonable man, and perhaps that’s what he also saw in Woo-jin’s eyes.

“I won’t hurt you.”

“We hurry.”

Woo-jin holstered his weapon, turned and ran back to the canvas sack, brought it to the trash pile, and emptied it. In an instant, he sprang back toward Winston and laid the canvas bag next to Julie.

“Roll,” Woo-jin said.

Winston rolled Julie’s top half onto the canvas sack while Woo-jin did the same with her bottom half.


Winston motioned to the entrails that remained on the ground.

“We get we get. Hurry hurry.”


Together, the enemies moved Julie quickly to the hole and gently placed her body next to it.

“You put,” Woo-jin said as he snatched the shovel and sprinted away.

Winston rotated Julie’s body off the canvas sack and into the hole. He turned both of her halves upright and folded her arms across her chest. Woo-jin returned with the shovel burdened with her innards and placed them on top of her, near where they belonged.

“Hurry hurry. Take that,” Woo-jin said, still carrying the shovel and pointing at the canvas sack. Winston grabbed the sack and they scooted back to the other bodies. Winston placed the sack next to Med and grabbed ahold of his shoulders. Woo-jin slid the blade under Med’s belly, and with one hand on the shovel’s handle and one hand holding onto Med’s pants, he and Winston rolled the corpse onto the canvas sack in one piece. They transported the body to the hole and placed it at Julie’s side.

“Hurry,” Woo-jin said again, sprinting back to the trash pile with both the canvas sack and shovel. Winston was getting tired. By the time he got back to the trash pile, the sack was near the PLA soldiers and the shovel was readied under a body.

“Hurry hurry.”

Winston gave Woo-jin a queer look. Though there was room in the hole for a third body, but certainly not a fourth, he hadn’t planned on burying any  of his enemies.

“We bury for honor,” Woo-jin said, “no matter what crime. They son, too. They husband and father, too. They make mistake.” Woo-jin stepped a pace closer to Winston, and with great conviction said, “we all  make mistake. Now hurry hurry.”

Winston and Woo-jin carried the first PLA soldier’s body back to the hole and placed it on top of Julie. They widened the hole, Woo-jin using the shovel and Winston on his knees digging with his hands, just large enough for all four bodies to fit. They went back for the last body, the soldier who had raped Julie, and placed it on top of Med. Woo-jin shook off the canvas bag — it was covered with black blood and maggots — and rolled it up.

“You cover now.”

“Thank you,” Winston said.

“My name Woo-jin.”


Winston held out his hand to the young PLA soldier. Woo-jin shook it and ran off, back to the encampment, praying that nobody had realized how long he was gone.


Winston finished burying the bodies, still keeping an eye out for Jimmy, and was faced with a problem he hadn’t anticipated — he was left with an excessive amount of sand. From where he stood, it would be impossible for anybody to see the burial site unless they physically walked to the spot, so he piled the sand onto the grave creating a mound, found a fallen branch that still had some leaves left on it, and swept the evidence of their dragging Julie’s body. It wasn’t perfect, but it would have to do. When he was done, he climbed back under the overpass to await Jimmy’s return. He’d have to wait until dark to go home.

He rested at the far end of the overpass near the water treatment plant, five feet up the steep concrete incline, and out of the hot sun. He thought about Woo-jin and why the PLA soldier chose to help bury the bodies instead of just killing him. There was something in Woo-jin’s eyes, he thought, empathy, perhaps compassion.

Winston rubbed his fingers along a long welt on his lower abdomen. Even through his hoodie it was considerable — a reminder of a time in his life that had caused him grievous pain, and a topic that was always off-limits with others. One of the perks of becoming a naturalized United States citizen was the eligibility for active military duty. Winston enlisted in the army in 1971, just months after he and May were married. His rationalizations were that the experience would be good for him, he wanted to serve his new country, and the G.I. Bill might help pay for a college education, and all for just two years of service to his new, beloved country. May naturally despised Winston for a long while for that decision, and for springing it on her after they had exchanged vows. But Mayor Wellbeloved supported him, citing it as one of the smartest and bravest decisions a young black man could have made in the highly turbulent, post-civil rights era. May eventually came around and accepted Winston’s decision, but she wasn’t happy about it.

While Nixon was sending battle-weary troops home, new recruits like Winston arrived in Vietnam to perform an extensive military cleanup operation. Though America’s participation in the war was decelerating, Winston was given a tough job — perhaps the most dangerous job in the army after M60 Machine Gunner. His Military Occupational Specialty was as an Explosives Ordinance Disposal Technician, or EOD. His job was to locate and disable the thousands of landmines that both the enemy and allied forces had buried and left behind. Locating unexploded ordnance and Viet Cong booby traps was stressful, though Winston quickly garnered a good reputation for his calm and cool disposition.

Suddenly, he was propelled back to 1973 when he and his EOD partner, Huy Tran, roamed Southeast Asia demining and detonating an assortment of U.S. and Viet Cong mines and booby traps. They were a good team, if not opposites, Winston the tall and lanky black American with the Jamaican accent, and Tran, a five-foot-two inch Republic of Vietnam marine twice his age at the time, and a master of vovinam , Vietnam’s national martial arts. Tran spoke impeccable English — probably better than Winston. The phonetic way to pronounce Tran’s surname was H-wee , but Winston had taken to pronouncing Tran’s name who  because of the way it was spelled on his uniform — Huy. And it annoyed Tran.

He reflected on Tran. EOD technicians worked in pairs, scouring large swaths of land as a unit, and on one day early in 1973, he, Tran, and a dozen other EOD technicians were clearing a minefield of U.S. M16 bounding anti-personnel mines. Grunts called them Bouncing Bettys  because when stepped on, the mine launched into the air to about waist height and detonated, inflicting mass casualties for up to a thirty-foot radius. Winston had located an M16 mine and was in the process of demining it, carefully digging it out of the ground (landmines were usually detonated in situ, but because this particular minefield was so heavily laden with mines, the risk of percussive denotations was high, thus their orders were to demine fifty percent of located landmines — the remaining mines were to be detonated remotely.). Tran, per SOPs, was moving twenty-five feet away from Winston, using his minesweeping equipment to clear a path. Unfortunately, Tran’s metal detector did not pick up the plastic M14 mine underfoot, ten feet away from where Winston now worked. The M14 was a smaller anti-personnel mine, often placed near M16 mines, and intended to disable its victim. Regrettably, EOD superiors had no knowledge of the supplemental deployment of these M14 mines in this particular minefield. The mine detonated, fragmenting Tran’s metal detector and driving a large piece of shrapnel into Winston’s gut. The mine amputated both of Tran’s legs to the knee and sent him into shock. Winston, despite his own incapacitating wound, quickly attended to Tran’s life-threatening condition by quelling the torrent of blood flowing from his legs, using his own belt and M8A1 Scabbard knife as a tourniquet. Winston was awarded a Bronze Star medal for his selfless act in saving his friend and partner, and he was also granted an early honorable discharge. He went back to Johnsonville and May. Winston, sitting there under the overpass, thought that Woo-jin had the same gentle qualities as Tran. And that gave him great comfort, knowing intimately that not all of his enemies were barbarians.

Winston was tired, his eyes suddenly too heavy to keep open. Soon he was fast asleep, slumbering in a prone position, the shovel in his lap

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. An hour later, his eyes popped open and he sensed somebody nearby. He scooted the short distance to the ground, scanned his surroundings, but saw nothing at first. Focusing where he had just buried Med, Julie, and the PLA soldiers, he saw Jimmy, shaking his head in disgust. Winston closed his eyes, scooted back up to where he had fallen asleep, and readied the shovel. He had one thing going in his favor that he hoped Jimmy would recognize — a single bullet would send the nearby PLA troops dashing toward the bridge and both of their causes would be lost because there was no place to escape to — no place to hide.

Suddenly, Jimmy turned and strode toward the overpass. He saw Winston asleep, but didn’t wake him because he was hungry and wanted to eat. He was not impressed with the ruse Winston sent him on — there was no food, supplies, or May in the Harris’ shed. Jimmy was upon Winston and he slammed the rifle’s butt into the “sleeping” man’s ribcage. Winston wasn’t expecting that, and he reeled from the pain, the breath thrust out of his lungs. He coughed and spit, trying to get the air back into his chest, but he had taken enough of Jimmy battering him. He scooted out from under the overpass. Jimmy scolded him like a schoolchild.

“You had to go and fuckin’ bury them?” Jimmy seethed through gritted teeth, “even the gooks?” And complained, “and that shed? It was totally empty. I was almost caught, like, eleven times. Now, tell me where you’re hid…”

As Jimmy yacked, the earth shook from a large explosion somewhere off in the distance, perhaps as far south as McDonough, ten miles south of them. Whatever it was, it was big and caused a bright flash unlike any Winston had ever seen. Dumbfounded, Jimmy looked in the direction of the blast and Winston took a gamble and jammed the shovel’s blade toward Jimmy’s chest. Unfortunately for Jimmy, as he turned back to Winston, he bent down a few inches. The shovel’s blade pierced Jimmy’s neck, causing far more damage than Winston expected, nearly taking his head clean off. Jimmy was just as surprised as Winston as he fell backwards, the .22 rifle falling from his hands and to the ground. Jimmy didn’t die like they did in the movies. His body jerked violently and he coughed loudly, the blood spurting from the gash Winston had inflicted. Afraid that he was being too loud, Winston placed a booted foot over Jimmy’s mouth. And when it was over, he dragged Jimmy’s corpse to the trash pile and arranged the body amongst the garbage in an effort to maintain the appearance that nothing had changed.


Woo-jin made it back to the encampment. Nobody cared that he was away for some twenty minutes longer than it normally took to dump the trash. Other soldiers, even those of the Russian and Middle-Eastern armies, ignored him as if he were blight. He marched down the driveway, past a sleeping May and the generals drinking tea at Medusa’s stump, and to the lake’s edge where he promptly and discreetly washed away, as best he could, the maggots and bloodstains that discolored the canvas sack.

Woo-jin understood why the other soldiers didn’t like him. In fact, just about the only time he was appreciated was when the North Korean soldiers played a version of European football called songun , which in the Korean military was called the Gundaesliga, a bastardization of the famous German Bundaesliga. Woo-jin was good at songun, which was why he ended up with an “easier” job than other soldiers of his status. In boot camp, Woo-jin scored a goal in every game he played, which was unprecedented, and was why his North Korean General, Kim Kyok-Chun, upon hearing of Woo-jin’s unique sportsmanship by Major Chaek, kept him near. Someone as talented as Woo-jin could be useful against other generals and their highly-competitive tournaments.

The hours pressed on. It was another mundane day for everybody in Johnsonville, except, of course, for Jimmy Mabry. Stories came back from the front that the battle for Atlanta was a tough one, and that the Americans were putting up a brave fight, though they were losing. Just before dusk and after dinner, Woo-jin and his compatriot performed their same task of collecting the garbage. This time, they remembered to collect the garbage at the stump. Woo-jin was the canvas sack-holder tonight, and as his partner dumped the waste in the sack, Woo-jin once again gazed at the photos sealed in the stump. Suddenly, Woo-jin recognized Winston as the man he met in the woods. This was his house. Before he could further investigate the photos, his partner grunted that they were ready to go dump the trash.

Woo-jin was silent as they made their way to the trash mound. He was nervous that the other soldier would discover the missing bodies, make a fuss about it, and alert the superiors. Then, surely, there’d be some form of investigation, and Woo-jin wasn’t confident that he could lie about his knowledge of Winston and the bodies. He made the suggestion to empty the trash on the opposite side from where the bodies had been. The other soldier didn’t care, but Woo-jin did  notice Jimmy’s body. It already stunk. He wondered who it was, and assumed that Winston was responsible for it being there. As they were leaving, Woo-jin stole a moment and looked toward the underbelly of the overpass. He wasn’t certain, but he thought he saw a dark figure lean back into the shadows.


Winston watched from the shadows of the overpass as Woo-jin and his partner emptied the trash, and he waited until after ten o’clock lights out  before he attempted to make his way back to the apartment. He sat under the overpass for hours, contemplating what he had done to Jimmy, and what explosion could have made such a loud booming sound. He concluded that while it bothered him on a spiritual level to take another man’s life, at some point, Jimmy was going to be harmful to his family. Hell, he probably would have already hurt them had Winston been truthful about his and May’s situation — would he have raped May and taken all of their food? Killed her? This new world was no time to be democratic. It was survival of the fittest and Winston proved to be the fittest — or luckiest — since he hadn’t actually set out to kill Jimmy. Time was the only arbiter in this game of fate, and to survive, one was forced to take risks. Jimmy was only a pawn to Winston’s king. As to the explosion, he guessed that it was the PLA blowing up whatever infrastructure was left of the Georgia electrical grid.

He wound his way through the woods and back to the spot where he had left the stepstool — it was still there — and waited for nearly thirty minutes, watching the ebb and flow of the soldiers on his property. He was more frightened in the dark than in the daytime; at least in the daytime he could see his enemy. He had been away for twenty-four hours and was worried about May. Her psyche had crumpled over the past several days, though he hoped it was only his imagination. Satisfied that it was clear, he climbed up and over the fence and was soon at the barn window. He peered inside, but he couldn’t be certain if the barn was empty, and so with nothing more than faith, he pushed the window up and climbed in. He reached outside for the gun, shovel, and stepstool, hanging the shovel where it belonged, and hugged the wall back to the apartment’s door and pushed on it.

It was locked. He tapped and waited a moment.

“May,” he whispered, “open up, it’s me.”

Still nothing — no sound or movement.

He could push the door open, but that would make noise and render the door inoperable, and he wouldn’t be able to fix it without making a racket. He tapped with his fingers again. May was a deep sleeper who routinely slept through her own alarm clock. Again, he tapped on the door, getting more brazen, and tapping louder.

“Mother, wake the fuck up,” he said, his whisper cracking into a voice.

He waited. Still nothing.

Winston, with no other choice, was forced to seek out another refuge, outside.


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Winston cursed May for not waking up or for falling asleep or for not waiting up for him or for not walking the floors  for him, like the Mayor had done when May’s own mother Mary was sick in the upstairs bedroom. Winston cautiously made his way back through the window, over the fence and into the woods, sans shovel this time. He was exhausted and starving, and what little food he ate today — the Twinkie being the highlight — had worn off twelve hours ago. He left the stepstool where he had before, though he made a better effort to conceal it, and made his way back to the trash pile. He hovered over the growing mound of trash, Jimmy’s body in rigor mortis and fouling up the place. There was nothing there to eat that he would dare put into his mouth.

He handled the puny .22 rifle as if it were his trusty old Vietnam-era M16A1 semi-automatic rifle, and the memories of Tran earlier in the day made Winston smile as he rounded the corner of the overpass and walked along the water department’s fence line. He peered into the empty facility grounds — it was deserted, and an eight-foot tall fence topped with razor wire enclosed it. There was no way over that fence, unlike the stunted one that currently surrounded his property. He continued to walk, his eyes in Johnsonville, but his head in Vietnam. He and Tran had seen plenty of combat in Vietnam, and they’d witnessed many of their compatriots blown to bits, too. It was a job that hardened a man’s heart and kept him from wanting friends, becaus

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e one reckless moment sent men back home in body bags. Their fragile emotional states or clumsiness might kill them. Tran was different, though. There was no way he and Winston could have been EOD partners and not been friends, because with great risk came empathy, and to truly excel as an EOD technician, you had to watch over your partner. The reward was an unbreakable bond. Winston had always regretted that he lost touch with Tran after he was sent home to Georgia, but there weren’t too many days that passed by that he didn’t think of the tough little man and he wondered how many of the enemy that now occupied the U.S. felt the same as Woo-jin.

Winston realized that his reminiscing caused his concentration to wane. His head needed to be in the here and now, and as he prepared to cross the street, he was startled by a pair of Middle-Eastern soldiers on patrol. They walked leisurely past Winston with nary an inkling that he was there, concealed behind a concrete pillar built into the overpass’s immense structure. One of the soldiers cradled a box in his arms. Winston crossed the road and found himself in the tall, tick-infested grass he detested since moving into the house after the Mayor passed. His original intention was to check on the Harris property five doors down and crash in their shed, but curiosity got the best of him, and he decided to check out the status of his beloved little town. He waded through the thick grass and to Little River — a tributary of Robin Lake that he had all but forgotten existed until now. He was grateful that it was still running this late in the year as he knelt down and immersed his face in the clear and refreshing water. He gulped it in, never realizing just how dehydrated he was. He took in as much as he needed, and stood, feeling invigorated and alive. He decided to check out Calef’s.

Winston strode along the river until he came to a large water pipe that crossed from one side of the river to the other. The waterway wasn’t that wide, perhaps ten feet across at this point, but it was deep, and Winston precariously balanced his way , tiptoeing across the pipe to the other side. Calef’s was just on the opposite side of the woods. He decided to check out the apple orchard behind the store on the off chance that he could find an apple or two the town’s residents had missed. He trudged through the woods until he reached the clearing that became the orchard. Johnsonville felt deserted and abandoned — almost safe. But he knew that wasn’t the case, and he proceeded into the orchard with great caution, taking inventory of the trees as best he could under a Georgia midnight sky. He came up empty, and headed toward the store. There was little hope of finding any food left on the shelves, but he was curious as to its condition. The apple trees gave him a sense of security as he flittered through them — rifle in hand and at the ready — and reached the rear of the store, where he had so recently loaded up his truck with crushed stone.

The store was dark as Winston crept closer. The PLA had built a fence around the perimeter of the store — the same six-foot chain-link fence topped with razor wire that was around his property. He scouted the area for signs of movement — sentries stationed at the corners or patrolling its perimeter — but he saw nothing. It was peculiar. Just as he decided to take a closer look, the same two Middle-Eastern soldiers Winston crossed paths with earlier sauntered up to the fence. They prattled like preteen girls — lots of lada lada ladas and chuckling. The soldier with the cardboard box dropped it on the ground with a loud thud. He opened it up, dug in, and tossed five items over the chain-link fence. The soldiers chatted a bit, and then casually walked away, back the way they came.

Five men, wearing only soiled underpants and laden with heavy slavery-era-type ankle shackles, rushed to the items the soldier had tossed over the fence as soon as the soldiers were out of sight. Winston recognized one of the men as Mayor George Calef, the purveyor of the store. The men devoured the items, which Winston now saw were dry blocks of ramen noodles — one for each man. Winston looked on in horror as a sixth elderly man crawled to the fence line, combing the ground for his meager rations, but there were none left. It was his neighbor, Ben. Although it had only been a few weeks since the invasion, Ben had changed drastically, his once plump gut flat and flaccid, his gray skin wilted and lifeless. Finding no sustenance, Ben leaned his back against the fence and prayed that God would release him from this hell so he could be with his wife June. Winston lowered his head, wishing he could do something, but he was just as hungry as they were.

The five men who had eaten recessed back into the darkness. Winston, huddled next to a large McIntosh apple tree with branches that sagged to the ground, pushed his way into the sanctuary of its branches to rest. This was just as good as any place, he figured, and he felt camaraderie with his fellow Johnsonville neighbors, who now appeared to be POWs. Winston propped his back up against the tree trunk. The pungent odor of decaying apples was strong under the refuge of the tree’s embracing limbs. At least there were no bees. He closed his eyes and let his head fall back against the tree, wondering what he could do to help those caged men. He wondered why they were alive when he had heard the Major give explicit orders to kill all Americans they came across.

When he woke, he was shocked, for in his sight, as dark as it was under the tree’s canopy, hung a single perfect McIntosh apple two feet from his face. He reached out, grabbed hold of the fruit, and gently twisted it from its stem. Even in the darkness, he could see that it was perfect. As he brought the apple to his mouth, he thought of ol’ Ben and how ravished he looked. He took the apple away from his mouth and turned it around in his hands. It wasn’t much, but it was nourishment. He placed the apple down next to the tree’s trunk and crawled on his knees, slowly rotating around the trunk, searching for missed fruit. Suddenly, Winston choked up, having discovered a trove of apples that had gone undiscovered. There must have been twenty or more apples hanging right there in front of his eyes. He picked eight off their stems and stuffed them into the pockets of his hoodie. He ate one in less than a minute.

He picked up that first apple he had plucked from its stem, and poked his head out of the tree’s hanging limbs to surmise the situation. It was clear. He crept quickly toward the fence, the apples knocking about, his rifle ready to sting, which is about all the damage it would probably do to an armored enemy soldier. Ben was still slumped over against the fence as Winston reached him, and bent down to his old friend.

“Ben. Ben, it’s me, Winston,” he whispered.

Ben stirred.

“I got something for you.”

Winston pulled out the apple and displayed it to Ben.

“You ol’ fool,” Ben said, “what you doin’ out here?”

Ben could barely form the words with his mouth.

“Now, stay with me, Ben. I need you to eat this here apple.”

Winston tried to push the apple through the chain-link fence, but the fruit was just too large to fit through the wire.

“What you got there, Winston?” a voice came from the darkness.

Winston looked up to see George Calef standing there in stained underpants, his eyes deadened.

“George? What’s happened?”

“They raped us all, Winston. Julie, my wife… me. Did they rape you, too, Winston? Or May?”

Winston didn’t know how to respond other than saying, “I’m sorry, George.”

“They took Julie away. I dunno know where, but… I hope they killed her. They shot Beatrice. They made me watch, Winston.”

George remained expressionless. Winston wanted to tell him about Julie, but he didn’t have the heart.

“Is that an apple, Winston? For Ben?”

The other four men came from out of the darkness, all in the same disheveled condition as George. Winston didn’t recognize any of them.

“I have apples for everyone,” Winston said as he peered around, looking for enemy soldiers, “one each.”

“They won’t be back ‘til morning,” George said, “they know we got nowhere to hide. Did they rape May, Winston?”

“No, they didn’t rape May,” Winston replied, “she’s safe.”

“That’s good, Winston. They raped us all, but…”

“I don’ think he deserve a apple,” one of the other men said, pointing to Ben, “he as good as dead.”

“…how safe can she be when you’re here?” George asked.

Winston stood and tossed five apples over the fence, scattering them away from Ben. The men bounded, snatching them up, and sunk back into the darkness to devour them. Winston bent back down to Ben, took a bite out of the apple, and pushed the piece through the fence.

“Here, Ben. Eat this. Quickly, now.”

Ben turned his head and Winston slid the fruit into his mouth. Winston took another bite and pushed it through the fence again. Ben took the fruit into his mouth and chewed.

“It’s good,” Ben said.

“Eat it up, Ben. It’ll give you some energy.”

The two did this until only the apple’s core was left. Winston pushed it through the fence, and Ben devoured it, swallowing seeds and all.

“Why, Winston?”

“The war, Ben? I don’t know, I guess…”

Ben cut him off, “no, I mean why help me, Winston? I’m just a tired old man, ready ta die.”

Winston scratched at the scruff of his neck, and said with confidence, “you’re my best friend and friends look out for each other. And God damn it, Ben, we men don’ say this enough, but I love you. I’m sorry for this. All of it.”

Winston was sorry for not letting Ben in on his secret and for not allowing him to stay with him and May in the apartment. He pushed his fingers through the fence. Ben gr

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abbed ahold of them.

Ben chuckled, “you were always a sentimental fool.”

The night sky was beginning to turn. Dawn was swiftly approaching. Winston decided that it was time to get back to safety, and hoped that May was awake now.

“I gotta go,” he said to Ben, “I’ll be back.”

“Peace be with you my friend,” Ben said, and as Winston evaporated into the apple orchard, he heard, “I love you, too.”


Winston made his way back through the orchard, into the woods, over the pipe, through the field of tall grass, across the road, past the water department, and under the overpass in minutes. His heart raced and he was out of breath, but he otherwise felt good. He knew that at 6:00 a.m., the soldiers would have morning physical training for an hour, and then eat breakfast from 7:00 – 7:30 a.m. Trash runs were always immediately following breakfast and dinner, often after lunch as well, and always by Woo-jin and his partner. The rest of the day was divided into odd tasks and a whole lot of parading. Every now and then, some battle-scarred vehicle might show up, and one of the Russian soldiers — apparently, the generals’ personal mechanic — would cart his tools from his tent, fix the vehicle, and send it back on its way. Several intense games of soccer were played out of Winston’s sight, in the grass near Medusa’s stump, and always after lunch. Lunch for the officers was at noon, the grunts ate from 1:00 – 1:30 p.m., and dinner was from 7:00 – 7:30 p.m. Lights out was always at 10:00 p.m. The big lights and one of the generators would go off, and the houselights around the Sparrow residence would come on, including several spotlights that were normally on a timer, but the PLA had rigged them to stay on constantly.

As the sun rose, Winston had his best chance to scoot back inside the barn without detection since the soldiers had taken to eating their meals at Robin Lake’s edge. He stood behind a tree near the fence and observed for a moment. Determining that it was clear, he hopped the fence and set the stepstool up at the window. He peered inside — the barn was empty. Satisfied that he was alone, he opened the window, pulled himself up, lugged the gun and stepstool into the barn, closed the window, and tiptoed toward the apartment door.

But he wasn’t  alone. Sitting in the open doorway was a Russian soldier who had gone unnoticed by Winston’s survey. The soldier smoked a cigarette with his back turned toward him. Winston stopped in his tracks, mere feet from safety. His heart pounded while his hands sweated and slipped on the stepstool.

He silently mouthed, “come on you motherfucker.”

A second Russian soldier, who was out of Winston’s line of sight asked, “do you have a cigarette?”

The first Russian soldier dug into his shirt pocket, shook the last cigarette out of a pack into the other soldier’s hand, and passed him a cheap yellow lighter. He fired it up.


The two walked toward the mess tent. As soon as the Russians moved, Winston stepped quickly to the apartment’s door and lightly tapped. A moment later, May unlatched the door and he was safely back inside.

Basketball, Again

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Winston kissed May on the forehead and she flopped carelessly back onto the bed.

“I brought you this,” Winston said and handed her the apple.

“Oh, that’s nice. I’ll have it for breakfast.”

He hung his hoodie, put away his gear, used the facilities, and cleaned up as best he could. He reeked, but he needed to eat and sleep. He tore open a can of Franco-American and ate it with his fingers while standing at the slit nearest the house. Breakfast was over for the enemy, and he watched as Woo-jin and his partner walked past with the trash. As he lay down next to May, he noticed that all three gallons of water were near the door, practically still full. He pulled one jug to him and took a long pull from it, and then handed it to May.

“Have you had anythin’ ta drink since I been gone?”

May shook her head and took a swallow of water.

“You need ta drink, Mother.”

“I drank the peaches juice,” she said, “I figured it was still water.”

“More,” he said.

May drank a few ounces more.

“You don’t need ta be gettin’ dehydrated.”

He looked at the calendar — it was Monday, September 26. May would normally be getting ready to go to church for daily readings and he would have a few hours to putter around the yard by himself. He didn’t remind her.

“Did you miss me?” Winston asked.

“Yes, I did. Did you have a good time?” May asked back.

“What do you mean?”

“Last night. You were out with your friends?”

Winston had no intention of telling May the truth about his time outside — that he killed a man and saw Ben, George, and four other Johnsonville residents being held captive like kill-shelter animals, but that last question and the fact that she had not drank a drop of water in nearly two days concerned him.

“No, May, I buried Med and Julie. I came back late last night, but you must have fallen asleep, so I stayed outside.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I hope you gave them my best.”

May rolled over and closed her eyes.

“Have you eaten anything?” Winston asked.

“I told you I ate all the peaches. We need to get more peaches the next time we’re at Calef’s.”

He spooned her and said, “okay, the next time we’re there,” and he fell into a deep sleep, his exhaustion overwhelming. At some point late in the morning, he woke to a strange and odd tickling sensation on his legs. He scratched at them and rolled over, attempting to go back to sleep, but the irritating feeling stirred him to get out of bed to investigate. May slept soundly while he fumbled for the Coleman lamp. He hated illuminating the apartment, fearing that the light would cause unwelcome attention, but it was daylight, and he suspected he knew what caused the tickling sensation. The lamp flickered as the ambient blue light illuminated the apartment brightly. Still, May didn’t stir. He gawked at his legs with concentrated eyes and gasped loudly when he discovered that his legs were infested with ticks. He immediately shed all of his clothes and tied them inside a green garbage bag, reached for an empty plastic container, and set it near the lamp. He raked his fingernails across his skin, finding the flattened ticks and pulling them off with haste, and placed them into the plastic container. The task was gross, and he felt sick to his stomach. The ticks were adorned with white markings on their backs, making them easy to find on his dark skin. He felt his nether regions with great scrutiny, inspecting every crease and crevice of his body for the parasites, thankful that he had caught the infestation early enough that none had affixed themselves. He checked his arms, scalp, and torso. May grunted in her sleep as he examined the bed, pillows and covers as if it was a crime scene, and he picked several ticks from the bed. The only place he couldn’t check thoroughly was his back, and he stood and rubbed his back across a 2x4 stud so forcefully that bloody welts formed. It took him two hours to rid himself and the apartment of ticks, and at the end he had collected over three dozen. Satisfied that he had found them all, he poured just enough isopropyl alcohol into the plastic container to coat the ticks. He lit them on fire and watched as they burned and shriveled. He went back to bed and slept restlessly, imagining the ticks crawling all over the apartment. He kept the Coleman lamp close by and flicked it on every now and again to double-check for more ticks. He didn’t find any.




Thump. Thump.


The thumping woke Winston from a deep sleep. He had only been out for a few hours when a Russian soldier spied the old basketball hidden amongst May’s hydrangeas. The soldier bounced it against the side of the barn. Another soldier remembered seeing an old basketball hoop around the other side of the barn, and within minutes he was thwacking nails through the backboard and Medusa’s thin skin. Winston was caught off guard and jumped to his feet. He watched helplessly as the nails invaded the apartment a few feet above his head on the short-sided wall that faced the road. The soldier had missed the studs completely, but not by much. Winston, as an engineer, understood that those four nails — as thick and sturdy as they were — would not hold up to the repeated barrage of the basketball smashing against it. The hoop would eventually fail.

As soon as the hoop was up, the basketball started hitting the wall and bouncing off it. Winston watched as the nails immediately began to slowly pull away from their tenuous grip. He pondered a solution with what limited resources he had at his disposal.

May stirred, “is that the boys from down the street?”

“Yes, Mother, it is.”

“That’s nice. I think we have ice cream in the icebox. Share it with them, would you?”

“Yes, Mother.”

Winston grabbed the stepstool and the rifle. Though the nails hadn’t bit into the studs, they were close, and as the soldiers played a rough game of two-on-two (Russians against Middle Easterners), Winston used the rifle’s barrel, resting it against the stud for leverage, mustered all the strength he could, and bent the nails over to better secure the hoop to the barn’s wall. He hoped the trick would hold, and he lay back down next to May. He was concerned for her mental well-being, but unsure of what actions he should take. Right now, at this very mo

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ment, his exhaustion trumped May’s mental anguish, and would have to deal with it when he was fully rested. He closed his eyes again and fell back into a deep slumber, listening to the soldiers curse and laugh at each other, and the basketball bounce against the barn. It would remain like this for the duration of their time inside the apartment.


Winston awoke the next day at mid-morning. May sat upright in the bed, staring blankly at the wall three feet from her face.

“Good morning, mo cherry,” Winston said.

“There’s nothing for breakfast, Winston,” she said as she chomped on the apple, “this isn’t enough.”

May was on the verge of tears.

Winston got up and rummaged through what was left of the food. It was true — no cereal, no Pop-Tarts, no eggs, no bacon, no pancakes nor waffles, no toast, no grits, no sausage, and no maple syrup. He pulled out a few of the remaining items and displayed them to her.

“Creamed corn?”

May shook her head.


May shook her head in disgust.

“I know. Green beans.”

“Without salt pork?” May quipped.

“You ate  all the peaches. Oh, hey, look.”

Winston found a package of four cups of mixed fruit in light syrup and held them up.

“Will this do?”

“I suppose.”

Winston found two plastic spoons and napkins and sat next to her. He handed her two fruit cups. And they ate breakfast together on the twentieth day hidden inside the barn. Winston finished his in a few minutes, while May attempted to relish the food for as long as she could. He threw his trash away and looked through a box where he remembered seeing a few games packed. Perhaps playing a game would help keep May’s mind sharp. He pulled out an old deck of Uno cards. May still savored the fruit.


May shrugged. Winston dealt the cards. May went first.

“So how was it out there?” She asked.

“It was… interesting.”

“Did you see anybody?”


Winston changed his mind.

“Well, I did meet a North Korean soldier.”


“Now stay with me, May. He was actually very nice. He helped me bury Med and Julie. And we buried a couple of his own.”

“Are you crazy, Winston? These people are not your friends. You could have gotten yourself killed!”


“And I would never forgive you for that.”

Winston smiled.


“Already Winston? I swear to God you cheat.”

“I do not cheat. I strategize.”

“That’s not even a word.”

They laughed. Winston was happy that May’s mental disposition appeared to be returning to normal. After three games (Winston, two, May, one), he put the game away and found a box of old photos and mementos. They discussed the circumstances of Winston meeting Woo-jin, and how the young North Korean soldier reminded him of his Vietnamese EOD partner, Tran, as they sifted through years of memories. May didn’t press him about Woo-jin. She remembered that Winston’s Vietnam-era days — and the years that directly followed his discharge — were difficult to speak of. Winston was one of the lucky veterans who was able to thrive in a nation that would not let them.

After a meager lunch, Winston pointed out Woo-jin. May thought him handsome and that he didn’t act like the rest of them. Winston agreed. They observed Woo-jin as he watched yet another basketball game. It appeared to be part of national pride at this point, with each faction gathered and rooting for their respective team. May and Winston laid back down, their peaceful world shattered by the noises of unsportsman-like conduct and the basketball smacking against the side of the barn. May didn’t read, and all Winston did was think about the horrors he had witnessed — that they were all just victims in somebody else’s war. It was all he could do to not stick his head out of the barn door and scream, “keep the fucking noise down! People are trying to think in here!”

Out Again

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They were out of water by morning. Winston succeeded in making May drink, but she just didn’t want to take in as much as he needed her to. He also realized that he had grossly miscalculated bathroom activities. Getting the “processed” feces down the pipe took far more water than he had anticipated, as the liquefied waste became a paste that clung to the inside of the pipe. Before sunrise, while the soldiers were still at breakfast, he made a break for the woods to get more water. May objected; he implored the importance of water, and she implored the importance of his life. They were both right — however, one must be risked in order to save the other.

Winston dipped the three jugs into the lake and brought them under the overpass. It was a cool, pleasant day, but the sun’s placid rays warmed his tired body. He had never felt so fatigued in his life — and he had served his country in Vietnam. Soon, winter would come with its own set of challenges, which he didn’t yet have the inclination to fret over. He half-expected Jimmy to jump out at him, but then he recalled killing him and wondered why he felt no remorse. Anticipating that Woo-jin and his partner would soon be making their morning trash run, he stayed hidden under the overpass, laid his head back onto the hard concrete and closed his eyes, awaiting their imminent arrival. Naturally, that’s when Amadeus chose to make an appearance. The cat brushed against Winston, who, without opening his eyes, leaned down and stroked the cat.

“Where you been?”

Amadeus’ purring droned loudly in the silent Johnsonville air. Winston scooped the cat up, placed him on his lap, and ran stiff fingers through his fur, recalling the horror of his own recent tick infestation. Amadeus sat contently for his master.

“Looks like you been eatin’ perty well. Mother will be glad to hear that. Don’ feel any ticks neither. That’s a good thing.”

Suddenly, Amadeus bolted from Winston’s lap and disappeared into the thicket. Winston crept down the concrete and turned his eyes toward the trash pile, and just as he expected, the North Korean soldiers were making their morning trash run. He would sift through it when they left.

Winston watched as Woo-jin excused himself from his partner, who appeared to react with disgust, dropped the canvas sack, and stormed off, leaving Woo-jin scurrying toward the overpass, and to where Winston was currently hiding. Winston pushed himself and the three jugs of water as far up the underpass as he could, but ten feet up, one of the milk jug tops came off and spilled water, which ran down the underpass and toward the ground. Woo-jin plopped down in the spot that Winston had just occupied and pulled something out from his shirt when the water trickled next to him. He stood, unholstered his pistol, and aimed it into the darkness of the overpass — at the shadowy figure that was Winston.

“You come down!” Woo-jin barked, “now!”

Winston scooted on his ass down the concrete, unable to leave the water behind, and brought the entire bundle along with him, with his rifle resting on his lap. As he made it to the ground, the bright morning sunlight briefly blinded him. Woo-jin took the opportunity to strip the rifle from Winston’s lap and tossed the gun behind him.

“Hey now, that’s an antique,” Winston complained.

“Quiet. What you do out here?”

“I was thirsty,” Winston replied, nodding to the jugs of water.

“Where you stay?”


“There more of you?”

Winston wasn’t sure how he wanted to answer the question, “jes’ me and my wife.”

“You kill that man?”

Woo-jin motioned with his head toward the trash pile. Winston nodded.

“Why?” Woo-jin pressed.

“Let’s just say that I love my wife.”

Woo-jin pictured the photos of Winston, May, Mayor Wellbeloved, and the others sealed into Medusa’s stump, as well as Seul-ki’s, as he interrogated Winston. Woo-jin smiled.

“She have funny hair.”

“Don’t say that to her face, my man. But, yeah, she do have funny hair.”

“Your house there. I see you, your wife. In tree…”


“Ah, trunk. Tree trunk.”

“Yes, that’s our house,” Winston affirmed.

Woo-jin lowered his gun and motioned to Winston as if asking permission to sit.

“Go on. I won’t hurt you,” Winston said, “you got the gun.”

Woo-jin sat on the concrete, leaving five feet between him and Winston.

“You like Gone with the Wind ?” Woo-jin asked.

“It was our first date.”

Winston smiled and pictured May in his own head.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Woo-jin said.

“You, sir, are no gentleman.”

“And you are no lady.”

“You should be kissed by someone who knows how.”

They both giggled.

“That’s funny,” Winston remarked, “how something fictional can be so real. Or bring such different people together.”

“Or how something so real can be so fiction.”

Woo-jin waved his arms as if they both occupied an immense film set.

“I never thought of it that way, but you got a point.”

“My mother, she like that movie very very much, but my country…”

“Yeah, we know all know about your country.”

“I love my country, but sometime I am ashame.”

“Me too. Woo-jin, right?”

Woo-jin nodded and dug into his shirt. He pulled out two two-packs of Twinkies and displayed them to Winston as if they were bars of gold.

“You like, Winston?”

“Very much.”

Woo-jin handed Winston a package.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I steal them from Major Chaek. I no like the Major. He a prick.”

“Sounds like he’s

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a major prick…”

They laughed.

“I no want get caught, so I fake…” Woo-jin searched for the correct English word and said, “ttong,” and motioned to his ass.

“Oh, you hadda take a shit? That’s why your buddy left so fast.”

Woo-jin nodded and made a wet raspberry sound with his mouth. Winston laughed almost too loud, but caught himself.

“Well, thank you for this.”

Woo-jin tore open his package of Twinkies and devoured them. Winston tore open his package and ate one, keeping the other for May. She wasn’t as big a sweets fan as Winston, but she would appreciate the treat — and the story of how he got it. Woo-jin looked at their surroundings. Though they were seated under an immense concrete highway overpass and the scrub brush was gangly and overgrown, the morning was peaceful, sublime, and relaxing. Woo-jin leaned back and gazed up at the flawless Georgia sky, taking in the solace. Winston followed suit.

“I like it out here better,” Woo-Jim said.

“Me, too.”

After only a minute or two, Woo-jin got up.

“Gotta go. Big Day come soon.”


Woo-jin shrugged.

“They no tell us — just know Big Day coming.”

Woo-jin unceremoniously walked off, but turned and said, “be careful, Winston. Bad men around.” He dropped the Twinkie wrapper at the trash pile, collected the canvas sack, and disappeared into the woods.

“Indeed, my friend,” Winston said to himself, “indeed.”

Winston refilled the one water jug that had spilled, hid all three of them in the thickets near the grave, and climbed all the way to the top of the embankment beneath the overpass. There on the ledge were Jimmy’s possessions — a blanket, a pillow without a pillowcase, and assorted tchotchkes. There was no food, and it all reeked of the dead man. He lay on the cold concrete ledge, closed his eyes, and pondered what to do with his day on the outside.


Winston had told May that he wouldn’t be back until the soldiers were eating their dinner — just after nightfall. It was early, but it was daytime, and certainly more dangerous to be out and about gallivanting as if his small town was not part of a country at war. He had deliberated for less than ten minutes before deciding to take the risk and leave the safety of the overpass. He slid down the concrete embankment, let his eyes adjust to the sunlight, and shuffled back to the trash pile. He rifled through the new batch of garbage Woo-jin and his irritable partner had delivered, but there were no scraps that looked edible — even to his ravenous belly. He did find a clean sandwich bag and placed the Twinkie inside. He checked on the grave to find it still unmolested, hid the Twinkie with the water in the brush, and then Winston was on his way — to where, he was clueless, though Jimmy did  say that there were plenty of people living outside.

He tracked his own footprints back across the road and into the tall grass, and was nearly caught by a column of Russian Kombat Jeep-like vehicles that escorted an American panel van. The trucks passed by him and stopped at his driveway. When it was clear, he bolted across the street and into the field. He squirmed with the thought of running through the tick-infested field again, so he skirted the edge of it, careful to keep out of the tall grass. It was a far more dangerous trek than just careening straight through the middle of the field. Near the edge of the woods, on the bank of Little River, Winston turned back to look at the corner of his property, just barely out of sight of the soldiers who guarded his driveway, and watched as the panel van backed down the driveway. It was still very queer to him that this site — where the very generals who were running the campaign against Atlanta had chosen to set up headquarters — was practically bereft of any form of security with only a dozen or two soldiers at most milling about the place. Queer, indeed. He balanced across the pipe over Little River, and hid when he reached Calef’s apple orchard. Sneakily, he paced to the central corridor of the orchard, once again using the trees as cover, and headed due north, which was one hundred eighty degrees away from the store. He didn’t want to be seen by Ben, George, and the other men being held captive behind the store. He just didn’t have the courage yet to witness their suffering in unmitigated daylight.

A hundred or so feet from the rear of the orchard, Winston happened across a decomposed body. He didn’t recognize it as Julie’s boyfriend, Mick, but only as another poor bastard casualty of this pathetic war his president started. He said a quick prayer for the dead man, which was unlike him, and continued to the back of the orchard until he found himself deep in Georgia woodlands. This flora was familiar to him, as he, May, and Mayor Wellbeloved often strolled this area in the winter because of the beech trees and their edible nuts. Mary had taught May as a young girl how to collect the prickly beechnuts, and husk and gently roast them for use as a pie filling. Mary’s family had always been too poor to afford the expensive nuts for Christmas pecan pie, and the beechnuts were abundant and free after the first frost — they just needed collecting and processing, which May took over after Mary died. She also assumed the tradition of making the Christmas beechnut pies. When Winston came into her life, he helped. Usually a daylong affair, Winston often carried along a heavy iron skillet and built a fire right there in the woods where they sat on the cold ground and shelled and roasted the nuts right there on site. The nuts were good to eat just out of their shells, though folks not used to eating them often experienced gastric difficulties. Roasting the nuts rid them of the chemical compound that caused the discomfort. Winston was one of those people who had to watch his beechnut intake. It made him fart for days. May, not so much.

Frankly, Winston had forgotten about the beechnuts as he scoured the ground searching for them. It was still a little early for the trees to release them, but it had gotten cold enough a few nights for some younger trees to release their nuts. Winston filled his hoodie’s pockets with the jagged nuts, and emptied them near a tree that was a Johnsonville landmark. All around its smooth bark were carvings of expressions of love that dated back some four or five decades. Winston scrutinized the tree’s skin — though the expressions of love varied from pierced hearts with initials inside to plain words and phrases, the hearts proliferated. He found his own heart, one that he had carved the day before shipping out to Vietnam: WS + MS TRUE LOVE 4 EVA was inside. He traced a finger along the heart’s faded curves and beamed. He remembered thinking that he’d never see May or Johnsonville again on that frightening flight over to Vietnam. But he did make it home, in almost one piece, and the two of them created a beautiful world together. He found Mayor Wellbeloved’s simple carving: LW + MW, and he choked up when he read the newest carving: MICK N JULIE 4 ALWAYS.

He sat with his back against the tree and shelled the beechnuts. For every four that he shelled, he tossed one into his mouth. They were bitter, but provided him with a much-needed amount of fat, protein, and carbs. Two hours later, after scrounging the forest floor for as many nuts as he could find, he set off once again to the north, his pockets laden with the life-giving nuts. The railroad tracks that connected Atlanta’s southern suburbs with the metropolis were a scant quarter mile from the carved beechnut tree, and Winston soon found himself walking along the tracks, keeping close to the tree line. Morrow, Johnsonville’s sister city, was a three-mile hike from here, and he was curious as to its current state.

It took a solid hour of trekking for Winston to make it to Morrow’s city limits. He thought at the very least that by now, he’d meet up with other survivors or an enemy patrol or two, but he then reasoned that it was probably unrealistic to expect the PLA to occupy every square foot of America, or even Georgia. He stopped to rest, one foot perched on a slick iron track, and wondered — are we all dead or are we just cowards ? Certainly, there must be survivors, resourceful men and women like he and May who had found a way to endure the occupation. Or maybe they were nothing more than fools for not fleeing when they could have — for not simply driving as far from the front lines when they had the chance. Regardless, it was too late now to switch survival strategies. They were both stuck in that barn for the foreseeable future.

Rifle ready, he crept slowly toward the Morrow train station and past the sign that read Your Future is to-Morrow . The town was empty — save for the remnants of a firefight. Just like Med and his small band of Johnsonville insurgents, the good people of Morrow put up a good fight, though ultimately paying the price for their patriotism. Corpses, mostly Morrow citizens, littered the streets, their bodies giving life to the turkey vultures and other scavengers that feasted upon them. He pressed on, skirting the buildings of their small downtown. It was an apocalyptic sight, like one out of a highly-produced war movie, every window blown out and blackened by fire, exteriors pockmarked by mortars, and cars burned and still smoking. The scene wrenched his gut.

Suddenly, a convoy of four PLA vehicles turned the corner and headed Winston’s way, west toward Morrow’s own Plug’s Pond. He hit the ground, lying motionless next to several sour-smelling, rotting corpses, and prayed that he went unnoticed. He didn’t dare to look up and kept his face hidden while the convoy passed by, dangerously close. When the convoy turned the corner, he sprung to his feet and followed it, staying

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brazenly close but out of sight. Winston smiled when he heard May’s voice in his head, “stop being such a dumbass, Winston .”

It was getting late in the afternoon, and he would soon have to head back home if he wanted to cross the fence during the soldiers’ dinnertime. He darted across Morrow’s Main Street, cut through a hamlet of seasonal homes, and made it to the edge of Plug’s Pond to where Little River began as a runoff that fed Robin Lake. Approximately double the size of Robin Lake, Plug’s Pond was more of a local summertime destination with a small beach Winston had never visited, but he heard that it was a pleasant place to lounge and grill burgers on its built-in hibachis. The homes on Plug’s Pond were similar to those of Winston’s neighborhood, occupied mostly by longtime residents of the area. He hugged the shoreline for a quarter mile until he saw — on the opposite side of the lake — a large home with an even larger barn than his. The very same type of razor-wire fence that currently enclosed his property also surrounded this one. It was as if this house on Plug’s Pond was a duplicate of his own on Robin Lake.

Suddenly, a bullet whistled inches from his left ear and split open a red oak behind him — then another and another. The soldiers guarding the house across the lake had seen Winston and opened fire. Though he didn’t see them, the convoy of trucks that had just pulled into the Plug’s Pond compound turned around to intercept him as he bolted back into the woods. Instead of crossing through the hamlet, he doubled back and ran along the water’s edge to Little River, scampering along its bank for a mile or so before stopping to catch his breath. His heart raced, his breaths were shallow, his lungs hurt, and Winston had never felt older in his life — or so alive.

“Fuck you!” he screeched, and then giggled. It was quite unexpected, the giggling, but there it was as plain as day. He leaned against a tree to catch his breath, and chomped on a handful of beechnuts. He had lost many running, but his pockets were deep and there were still plenty of them left. After a moment, he continued his journey back to Johnsonville at a casual pace, thinking about what he had seen in Morrow. He arrived back at Calef’s apple orchard just as the sun’s last rays bloodied the sky in a brilliant swath of crimson ribbons. He slinked back inside the McIntosh apple tree that had been so bountiful before and plucked nine more of the ripe fruit, and he crept stealthily to the fenced cell where Ben and the others were being held. Winston found Ben still slumped in the same spot that he had left him in days earlier. He looked the same — a weakened and broken old man waiting for Death to visit.

Winston sidled up to the fence and whispered, “Ben, you still with me?”

A despondent smile came across Ben’s face as he breathed, “I was dreamin’ we was all tastin’ the Mayor’s barbecue chicken again. We was under Medusa in all her glory. Kids was swingin’ into the lake. June was there, too. My sweet June. We was all young and had nothin’ to fear, Winston. We had nothin’ to fear.” Ben choked up.

The other five men stumbled into view, and Winston tossed five apples into the cell. The men said nothing, each taking the fruit back into the dark recesses of the cell to quickly consume them.

“Ben, I got something for you. Hold out your hand.”

Winston dug into his pants pocket and pulled out a handful of beechnuts. Ben mustered what strength he had and cupped his hands against the chain-link fence. Winston poured the beechnuts into Ben’s hungry hands.

“You shelled these for me, Winston?”

“Indeed, I did.”

With one swift motion, Ben pressed his palms to his lips with trembling hands and guided the nuts into his mouth. Most of them made it inside, and he mawed gleefully on them. While he chewed, Winston, once again, bit an apple into chunks and pushed them through the fence. He was a mother bird feeding his chick.

“I’m gonna miss May’s beechnut pie this Christmas.”

Winston wanted to say something positive, like we’ll have pie, ol’ Ben , but he just couldn’t give the old man false hope. Not after what he had seen up in Morrow and in Johnsonville.

“Jes’ been up to Morrow,” Winston whispered, “it’s the same there as it is here in Johnsonville. Everybody dead, Ben, the enemy occupyin’ the entire area.”

“They ain’t all dead, Winston.”

“No? I ain’t seen a single livin’ soul while I been out here.”

“I see ‘em all day and night walking through that apple orchard in a daze like they was zombies.”


“People. I seen George Calef and his family out there jes’ today. Teddy Johnson and Med Willis, too. And others. You ain’t seen ‘em, Winston?”

Winston realized that Teddy Johnson was one of the men in the cell with Ben. He hadn’t recognized Teddy until Ben mentioned his name just then. It appeared as if Ben’s mind, like May’s, was failing. Ol’ Ben had an excuse — he was an old man — but May’s mind had always been as sharp as a tack. What frightened Winston the most was the swiftness that it seemed to have happened. He promised himself to engage with her more often, like when they played Uno. He pushed the remaining chunks of apple through the fence along with the pit.

“No,” said Winston, “I’ll keep an eye out for ‘em though. I did see Jimmy Mabry the other day…”

“Me too! Said he got a lead on a safe place ta stay. Maybe some food that he was gonna share with us. Ain’t seen him in a few days, now. Probably got caught, the poor bastard.”

Winston tried not to regret the decision he had made regarding Jimmy — and the life that it ultimately cost, and said, “I gotta get back before I  get caught.”

“Where? You an’ May up in your house still?”

“I can’t say, Ben. I just can’t say. I’m sorry. It’s for everybody’s protection.”

“I understand. Thank you, Winston. God be with you.”

“Stay strong, Ben. This all ends soon.”

“But does it?”

Winston stood erect, “yeah, it does.”

Winston bolted back through the orchard and skirted the edge of the woods. He paused momentarily at the road, carefully looking both ways, and crossed it quickly. He paused once again under the overpass, removed one of the three apples from the orchard, and placed it on the ledge at the closest side of the overpass to the trash pile, along with a handful of beechnuts. He collected the three hidden water jugs and Twinkie, and hurried through the woods back to the edge of his property. He found the stepstool where he had left it, made sure all was clear, crossed the fence, and made it back inside the barn without a sound, only stopping briefly to examine the large crate that now resided inside the barn. His heart pounded as he scratched a finger across the door, not knowing if May would respond to the summons. Luckily for both of them, she heard him and opened the door. He set the water and gun down and collapsed onto the bed, his body completely fatigued, the adrenaline and rush of being in such danger causing him to crash physically and emotionally. He pulled out the two remaining apples and Twinkie, set them on the bed, and turned his pockets inside out and let the beechnuts fall haphazardly onto the blanket. A single tea light flickered in the furthest corner of the apartment behind the shower curtain, barely illuminating the space. It was all just enough .

“I brought these for you,” Winston said, his eyes gazing up at the barn’s high ceiling.

May collected the beechnuts and tossed them into her mouth one after the other.

“I was worried sick about you. Is everything okay out there?”

“No. What’s in the crate?”

“I don’t know, but they kept me up all day maneuvering that thing inside.”

She picked up the Twinkie and held it up as evidence.

“Where’d you find this gem?”

“That’s for you, too. My new friend, Woo-jin, gave it to me.”

“The enemy man? You seen him again?”

“Yes. And we spoke. He seems like a good kid. Scared.”

“Winston Sparrow, that don’t make no sense you speakin’ nicely ‘bout some Kraut invaded this country. He gon’ shoot you ‘tween the eyes next time you seen ’im.”

“Keep that high yeller attitude to yourself, May, and keep yo’ voice down. And they ain’t Krauts — not a damned one a them. He’s Korean.”

North  Korean.”

May tossed down the Twinkie, “well you can have it,” and finished off the beechnuts, tossing them angrily into her mouth.

If Winston had any energy left in his body, he would have wept right there and then. Or told May about Morrow or come clean about the POWs being held at Calef’s. Or sleeping under the overpass. Instead, he rifled through their provisions searching for something to eat. He was famished. To his horror, little food remained. Assuming it was a mistake, and that May must have moved the provisions around, Winston checked the area where they kept the emptied cans and trash to discover that while he had been outside, May ate through their rations — including his beloved Franco-American Spaghetti-Os. He tried not to overreact.

“You eat my Franco? And the green beans?”

May looked over at him sheepishly and said, “I been famished, Winston. It’s just not enough calories. I’m sorry.”

Winston sighed loudly, but couldn’t become enraged with her. He’d been hungry too, so he knew what it felt like to be forced onto a starvation diet. Not to mention that he’d been spending time outside while she’d been cooped up in the apartment with little else to do but listen to her stomach rumble. All that remained were a few cans of chunk light tuna that was only in their pantry as an occasional treat for Amadeus, two cans of creamed corn, and other assorted pantry goods: a box of granola bars, a jar of May’s homemade muesli (gross), four cans of

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whole tomatoes, and three cans of black beans. That was all of it, not counting the bag of cat food propped up in the corner.

“Don’ be sorry,” Winston smiled, as he pulled the top off a can of black beans and dumped them into a plastic bowl, “I got vegetarian chili.” He opened a can of whole tomatoes and dished them on top of the black beans, stirred, and took his place next to May. She munched loudly on the apple and he ate the “chili.”

“Needs a little chili powder — and salt, pepper, cumin. Some beef would be nice. Couple a bay leaves. Onions an’ peppers.”

“I’m sorry, Winston.”

“It’s alright, May. I’d a done the same.”

“I’m sorry about your friend…”


“It’s just that, well, he’s our enemy. Doesn’t matter the way he feels about it. He’s still out there and we’re in here.”

“I know. I understand. I’ll be careful.”

“That’s all I’m asking.”

After the meager meal, he cleaned up, rinsing out a dozen or more emptied cans and using up a gallon of their drinking water in the process. He carefully and quietly set the cans in a bin, and joined May back in bed. He placed the uneaten Twinkie on a 2x4 above his head and settled down to sleep.

“Goodnight, May. I love you.”

“Love you, too.”

May rolled over and felt guilty for consuming such a large amount of their food supply. She just wanted all of this to end, for she felt herself slipping away ever so slightly, her mind and body unable to cope with the stress of being an unintentional prisoner on her own property. She couldn’t understand why she didn’t feel as strong as Winston. She was smart, educated — a resilient woman by any standards. Still, she felt like Winston’s Achilles heel. She prayed herself to sleep, begging for the strength to see this ordeal through. And despite his fatigue, it took Winston hours to fall asleep, his mind racing with thoughts of finding food, how long this war was going to go on, and wondering just what that new crate in the barn contained. Though it was dark inside the barn when he returned, the barn door was uncharacteristically closed, and he thought that he remembered seeing the international sign for radiation on the crate. But he supposed that it was just his mind playing tricks on him. He finally fell asleep sometime after midnight.


Many of the soldiers in the Sparrow encampment worked rotating shifts of four hours on and four hours off for twenty-four hours a day, which made for extremely fatigued soldiers. At the 3:30 a.m. shift change, two Middle-Eastern soldiers chatted in English at the apartment end of the barn,

one relieving the other (they were both born and resided in the United States — Scranton, Pennsylvania and Dayton, Ohio to be exact). If the barn’s exterior wall was removed, Winston’s ass would have been no more than six inches from the soldiers’ faces. The off-duty soldier put earbuds in an old MP3 player he had stolen from a middle-aged man he had killed in Tampa. The other soldier turned to walk away just as a loud fart startled him. He turned back to the soldier with the earbuds and said, “you’re gross,” and walked away.

“What? What did I do?” the other soldier asked.

“You farted!”

“I did not!”

Inside the apartment, Winston’s eyes popped open. Though he was sound asleep, he knew that he had farted loudly — loud enough to be heard on the outside. He listened to the Middle-Eastern soldiers argue about it, trying to keep his laughter contained. The Middle-Eastern soldiers parted, both insulted by the lack of etiquette for an act neither was responsible for, while Winston softly chuckled.

May stirred and said, “that woke me up.”

“Sorry,” Winston said, grinning from ear to ear, “go back to sleep.”


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Woo-jin and his partner made the usual post-breakfast rounds, clearing away the trash and debris from the Sparrow property. They walked to the trash pile in tense silence. Just before they reached the pile, Woo-jin’s partner said, “I do not like you. You never speak, but when you do it’s always about your girlfriend. And you are favored by our Major only because you are a good football player. But we all know you are no better than this trash pile.” He shoved Woo-jin onto said trash pile and stormed back to the encampment.

Woo-jin got up and brushed the garbage and maggots from his uniform. He certainly didn’t feel  like he was a favorite to the North Korean major and wasn’t sure what caused his partner to be so abusive, but he was well aware that his comrades didn’t like him. He emptied the trash. It wasn’t an easy task to complete alone. Jimmy’s body was rotted and bloated, but there were no new bodies added to the pile. He checked on the grave — it was still there, unmolested. He needed a friend and made his way toward the overpass. Winston wasn’t there, but he discovered the apple left for him. Woo-jin had never eaten an apple before. He’d seen them for sale in the upscale markets in Pyongsong, but the black market cost for one fruit was more than ten percent of the average North Korean’s weekly wages. This apple was perfect, and he knew that it was a gift from Winston in exchange for the Twinkies. He picked it up and rotated it in his hands — a shiny orb of green and red deliciousness, he wouldn’t risk bringing it back to camp where it might get stolen or raise unwanted curiosity of how he acquired it — so he chomped down on it. He didn’t expect the fruit’s juicy pulp to explode with such sweet nectar as it ran down his chin and soaked into his collar. He was enchanted with the apple because it was everything he had hoped it would be, and he sat down next to the beechnuts to fully enjoy the experience. It ended all too soon, and he tossed the pit into the woods and turned his attention to the beechnuts — obviously also left by Winston. He sniffed them, tossed a few into his mouth, and spit them out as soon as he bit down. He did not appreciate their unique bitter flavor. He sauntered back to camp and wondered what tedium was in store for the day. Suddenly, a brash cacophony of mechanical reverberations shook the ground. Woo-jin was familiar with these sounds and he picked up the pace toward the encampment. The Russian T-14 Armata main battle tank was waiting at the gate when he arrived, and another T-14, gimping its way down the road backwards, came to a slow stop behind the first.


May and Winston were awakened by the thundering rumble of the two Russian battle tanks. The enormous beasts shook the barn as they crept slowly down the road towards the Sparrow residence. Winston stood and peered out the forward facing slit while May sat up, trembling with fear from having been awakened so jarringly. It was a sensation neither of them had ever experienced before — the bellowing machines vibrating the barn with such violence that Winston was concerned that it would collapse around them. Mayor Wellbeloved’s favorite picture crashed to the floor, the glass shattering in a thousand shards, and bins stacked with emptied cans rattled and fell over as the tanks rumbled closer and closer.

“Them are the biggest things I ever seen on wheels,” Winston said in awe.

“What are they?”

“Russian tanks. Two of ‘em.”

Winston, despite the exhaustion from being outside the previous day, stood at the forward slit inside the apartment watching as Woo-jin ducked inside the gate and was immediately reprimanded by his superior officer. The exchange was brief and Woo-jin marched down the driveway, somewhat dispirited and visually angered. He paused momentarily to watch the lumbering tank roll toward the barn, and Winston noticed his disheveled appearance from being pushed into the garbage heap and the apple juice stain around his collar.

“Rookie,” Winston said in his normal voice.

“Who?” May asked, and placed On the Beach  on her lap and clutched it tightly. She wasn’t sure if she was ready to begin reading the big, bleak book.

“Woo-jin. He dribbled apple juice on his collar. His superior off—”

“You gave him an apple?” She cut him off.

“Yes, I did.”

“That man’s nothin’ but trouble if you ask me.”

Winston shook his head at May’s intolerance.

“He ain’t shown me any ill will.”

“Yeah, well, give ‘em time, he will.”

Woo-jin leaned against the barn and watched the tank pivot and promenade down the driveway. His stay was brief as Major Chaek barked at him again, and Woo-jin dashed to the back yard and out of Winston’s view.

Winston grabbed the Twinkie he had stolen away and ate the snack without looking at it, his eyes fixed on the cadre of soldiers gathered to watch the tanks move through the gate and down the driveway. The first tank idled past the port-a-potties and rolled into the back yard where it spun around to face the street. As it did so, it drove up and onto the bed of Winston’s 1972 Chevy Cheyenne pickup and crushed it, instantly rendering it scrap metal. Soldiers clapped enthusiastically at the destruction and cheered loudly when the tank’s crew emerged, waving back as if they were celebrities. The second tank hobbled down the driveway backwards, its gearbox stuck in reverse, and stopped dead in its tracks ten feet away from the barn.

Winston could no longer tell what day of the week it was or how long they had actually been in the apartment. Neither of them had kept track since they both thought they’d only be in there for a few days to a week, or two at most. He assumed they would keep track of their days by marking the calendar, but th

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ey stopped marking it. Now, many weeks later, Winston was lost as to what day it was, but it was  getting cold. May swept up the broken glass from the floor and rehung the photo on the wall, pausing momentarily to admire the smiling faces staring back at her. She felt hopeless.

The Russian general emerged from the back door of the house, stretched, gazed with pride at the big T-14 Armata, and marched down the steps past Med’s skull. The Russian mechanic who serviced the vehicles that sometimes gimped down the Sparrows’ driveway joined the general and together they admired the damage to Winston’s truck. Behind them, Woo-jin pushed the mechanic’s heavy tool chest, which was slightly taller than he was, across the lawn. The scrawny boy could barely move it, with its drawers laden with hefty tools and instruments, and when he reached the junction where the grass met the driveway, he turned his back to it and gave a sturdy heave-ho onto the pavement. But the front wheels dug into the soft grass and the chest fell over on its back. Though he tried, Woo-jin was unable to prevent the chest of tools from falling over, and it went down with such a loud racket that it echoed over the constant din of the generators and the idling T-14. Drawers filled with hefty forged and power tools opened and scattered their contents onto the pavement, some up to ten feet away. The mechanic rushed to the chest and pushed Woo-jin to the ground when he tried to help collect the strewn tools. He stayed on his ass watching the mechanic frantically gather his beloved tools, eschewing all offers of help from fellow soldiers. Woo-jin spied Major Chaek speeding toward him, and he rushed to his feet and bowed his head in submission. Woo-jin tensed up, expecting to be hit or otherwise punished, but the Major only spoke in a soft, compassionate voice.

“Tomorrow we play football. We win,” Major Chaek said.

“Yes, sir,” Woo-jin said with eyes trained downward.

The Major stormed away, saying to the mechanic, “hurry to clean up this mess and fix the tank,” and he disappeared inside.

The mechanic eyed Woo-jin with such contempt that Woo-jin slinked away in embarrassment, back to his tent to change his soiled uniform.


The mechanic pushed the tool chest to the rear of the T-14 Armata with the busted drivetrain, chocked its tracks directly in Winston’s view, and silently went to work. Within an hour he had the tank’s drivetrain eviscerated onto the ground, grunting and standing with arms folded, assessing the trouble, and making a plan. After only two hours, he buttoned it up, and the tank was back up and running. Winston watched the entire process with his engineer’s curiosity, and May read her book in defiant silence.

The mechanic stood behind the tank while its commander climbed in and fired it up. Black diesel fumes and smoke bellowed from the T-14’s exhaust and into the barn, burning Winston’s eyes, and he felt the uncontrollable urge to cough. He fell to his knees to cough into the blanket, hoping that his hacking was drowned out by the T-14. May didn’t fare much better, her eyes burning and tearing.

The mechanic didn’t flinch, being used to such offensive odors. He unchocked the tracks and waved to an assistant who then gave the signal for the commander to put the tank into a forward gear. The mechanic bent to listen for any odd-sounding click-clacks coming from the transmission, and as he did so, the tank rolled backwards slowly, as if it weren’t in any gear at all. The mechanic, disappointed, motioned to shut it down when the transmission suddenly lurched into reverse gear and launched the tank backwards. The mechanic, unable to scuttle out of the tank’s way, was pinned against the side of the barn. Luckily, his beloved chest of tools, combined with the strength of Medusa’s timber, kept the tank’s heft from crushing him.

Winston, choking into the blanket as quietly as he could, felt the barn shift with the weight of the tank resting on it. May dog-eared the book, bounded out of bed, and shrank behind the curtain. Suddenly, a seam between the plywood boards fractured just above the metal hurricane shutters. Winston, who was still on his knees rubbing his wet eyes, felt as though the tank was going to burst through the wall and into the apartment and their ruse would end with their executions. As he launched a futile effort to push against the wall, now making splintering noises, a fissure opened several inches, allowing the mechanic’s horrified eyes a peek into the apartment. In an ephemeral moment, his and Winston’s eyes met, the exchange of information omnipotent. Suddenly, the mechanic’s tool chest failed him, its shoddy Chinese construction yielding and buckling under the tank’s weight. Tools erupted from the chest like a Christian eviscerated for medieval crimes. The tank’s shifting weight swiftly decapitated the mechanic, spraying blood and brain matter onto Winston’s face. Just before the metal hurricane shutters buckled and bent inward, the tank’s commander shifted it into a forward gear and pulled up the driveway. Medusa’s springy lumber frame rebounded back into its original position, although there was now a two-inch gap in the plywood sheathing that covered the outside wall. If a prying eye peered upwards and into the gap, they just might see the goings-on inside the apartment.

The soldiers outside whorled into in a frenzy, rushing to aid the mechanic only to collectively gasp at the sight of his decapitated body flailing like a slaughtered chicken. It was unfortunate, really, since he was knowledgeable with any type of vehicle, regardless of its make or model. An officer sent two Russian flunkies into the barn to check on the crate that was stored inside. They rushed in and inspected the crate — it was centered inside the empty barn — and ran their eyes along Winston’s false wall thinking that it was the real, outside wall. It passed their inspection and they reported their findings back to the officer.

Winston would somehow have to fix that gap in the wall, but it was still early and the morning light was bright. He wiped the mechanic’s gore off his face and found May, who was still crouched in the corner. She remained stoic as he silently assuaged her into going back to the bed, gently leading her by the arm. They paused briefly at a small pile of dirty clothes near the toilet, and he selected a ripe black t-shirt. They lay down on the bed, held each other, and listened to the cacophony just outside the wall, too scared to make too much noise. When he felt it was safe, he carefully twisted the t-shirt along its length and pushed it down into the gap just enough to keep some sort of sound barrier between them and the outside, and cautious not to let any part of the fabric fall below the five inches from inside to outside. He was thankful that he had sprung for the more expensive eight-inch-wide pine siding boards instead of the six-inch planks — the shorter boards surely would have splintered and broken, revealing their hiding spot.

Major Chaek summoned Woo-jin to cart the mechanic’s body to the trash pile. The boy, who now wore a clean uniform, picked up the mechanic’s head — it was heavier than he imagined — and laid it onto its own torso. He rummaged through the mechanic’s strewn tools, choosing the largest screwdriver he could find, and pushed it into the mechanic’s left eye, threaded it behind the septum and through the right eye, and plunged the remainder of the screwdriver into the mechanic’s chest, all while his superior officer and several soldiers watched. Woo-jin thought he would have been reprimanded for treating the mechanic’s body with such humiliation, but he perceived a faint smile on the Major’s face as he grabbed the corpse by the feet and pulled it up the driveway behind the T-14 Armatas, which were just leaving the compound.

“Make sure you clean it up,” the Major said to Woo-jin, pointing out the trail of blood from the mechanic’s body.

“Yes, sir!” Woo-jin exclaimed.

He dragged the body onto the road and through the woods and dumped it near Jimmy’s body, but as far away from where they dropped any food that Winston might scavenge. He looked around, hoping to see the friendly black man’s face, but Winston was in the apartment, daydreaming of Mayor Wellbeloved’s barbecued brisket, a delicacy the Mayor reserved for family events, and wondering where their next meal was going to come from. Woo-jin walked to the overpass and peered up.

“Hello? Winston?” he gently inquired.


He stood near where Winston had left the apple and stared at his feet. He wanted nothing more than to be with Seul-ki, but he knew that going home and building a life with her was unlikely. With his brief respite over, he trotted back to the encampment, found a bottle of bleach, and scrubbed the mechanic’s drying blood from the driveway. It took him until mid-afternoon to remove the stains, but he was happy that he finally had something to do other than emptying trash. When he was done, he and a few of his teammates kicked a football around the Sparrows’ back yard under the watchful eyes of Major Chaek and General Kim Kyok-Chun, who supervised the practice with folded arms and gritted teeth. They were pleased with the team they had strung together, and especially with Woo-jin, who took natural command on the field, which was a dichotomy to his life as a timid, clumsy soldier.

“He’s good,” the general said.

“He is a poor soldier,” the Major replied, “but we will be ready.”

“You have no goaltender, Major.”

“He will be here soon.”

“Good. Big Day coming.”

“Yes, General.”

With that, the general returned inside as the Major stepped off the porch and closer to the football action. Ten Korean soldiers took up two sides and batted the football acros

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s the Sparrows’ wide yard. Occasionally, the ball landed in the Russian or Middle-Eastern living quarters and they taunted the Koreans for engaging in such a frivolous activity, but they always returned the ball into play, especially when Major Chaek glared and grunted at them. After an hour or so of practicing, an American pickup truck pulled into the driveway and a Korean soldier emerged from the bed. Major Chaek smiled widely when he recognized the man.

“Come! Come meet your goaltender!” Major Chaek commanded the team.

The ten men marched to the driveway to meet their new teammate, gasping when they saw him. Woo-jin’s blood boiled.

“This is your goaltender, Sang Dong-joo! He is a member of the Korean DPR National Football Team, and as such, a national hero. As some of you may recall, Sang Dong-joo came to the aid of a young girl back in Seoul who was being brutalized by, one can only assume, a Republic of Korea savage. This is when he lost his eye — a martyr for the great Democratic People’s Republic of Korea! And, despite losing his eye to our enemy, Dong-joo is still a great and powerful football player. Please welcome him!”

The team greeted the newcomer with much fanfare, while Woo-jin’s reaction was subdued, mindful of being obvious about the hatred he felt for this man — the one who violated Seul-ki. Woo-jin briefly recalled taking his eye after the attack, and a rage swelled inside that he feared and knew he must subdue and control if he ever wanted to see Seul-ki again.

The players took the field again, and continued practicing for the big game. Woo-jin did whatever he could to score against Dong-joo, but he was just too talented of a goaltender. None of the players could score against him, which both pleased and angered Major Chaek. The scrimmage ended in a stalemate and the soldiers went about their normal activities. After dinner, Woo-jin collected the canvas trash bag and started to empty the bins into it by himself, wondering if he should ask the Major about his suddenly-missing partner. As he started to transfer the trash from the barrel near Medusa by hand into the canvas bag, Dong-joo strutted up to him.

“I’m supposed to help you,” the one-eyed man said, “nice game today. You’re a good defenseman.”

“Thanks,” Woo-jin mumbled with lowered eyes, still working on the trash, and intentionally refusing to acknowledge Dong-joo’s deft sportsmanship. Dong-joo waited patiently for the compliment that Woo-jin wasn’t going to give, wondering why a man he had never met before was being rude to him, and assumed Woo-jin was jealous of his athletic ability. A half-eaten sirloin steak (the majority of their meat came freeze-dried in cans with a shelf life of 25 years) with plenty of good meat still left on the bone lay on the top of the trash. Woo-jin salivated — he had never tasted a sirloin steak — and he was tempted to keep the meat for himself and enjoy it in the relative safety of the toilet — but with Dong-joo hovering over him, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to hide it. Thinking that Winston might find it, he attempted to place it gingerly into the canvas bag, but as he did, Dong-joo saw the steak and tore it from Woo-jin’s hands, emitting a very Western, “whoa!” and promptly bit down on it, indifferent to who might be watching. Dong-joo was a protected favorite, even more so than Woo-jin, and he consumed the steak with much spectacle. Woo-jin finished emptying the bin while Dong-joo ate. There wasn’t a scrap of meat left on the bone when he was done. He burped loudly and motioned for Woo-jin to open the canvas sack, dropping the bone on top of the trash.

“Get that side,” Woo-jin said.

Dong-joo grabbed the sack and they were off. They walked in silence until they reached the trash pile, neither man interested in making conversation, which was a relief to Woo-jin. They dumped the trash as prescribed and went back to the camp where Woo-jin showed Dong-joo how to fold and store the bag.

“Rest up, Comrade. Big day tomorrow,” Dong-joo said as he disappeared into what used to be the mechanic’s tent.


Winston watched as the two solemn soldiers walked the routine, up the driveway, down the road twenty paces, into the woods, and to the trash pile. Of course, he could only see as far as to the end of the driveway. He noticed Woo-jin’s new partner and his one eye upon their return — Dong-joo wore no eye patch, choosing instead to showboat his crimson sunken socket. Winston was anxious for night to fall so he could repair the wall under the cover of its dark embrace — or perhaps to go out and search for food. At lights out, the three bright lights and one generator were switched off. One loud generator continued to hum, powering the electronic equipment inside the house, while giving him cover in the event that he made noise. The gap in the wall made him paranoid all that day, and they had eaten through the very last bit of their food supply. After midnight, Winston removed the t-shirt that he had earlier stuffed into the gap, leaned his back against the inner false wall and, using the barrel of the rifle, he applied direct and increasing pressure to the plywood where it split. It took no more than a minute, and he was able to close the gap to almost-new condition. What he really needed was one or two short lengths of 2x4 lumber to wedge between the outside wall and the still structurally-sound hurricane shutters to help keep the splintered plywood from buckling back inward. He thought there might be just what he needed in the main part of the barn.

“May, watch outside. I need ta go into the barn for a moment.”

May checked outside, gave him the all clear , and stood guard, peering out the slits while he cautiously entered the barn. Inside, the stark room was dark except for the moon’s soft glow coming through the cupola. The half-dozen soldiers that guarded the encampment wandered predictably about the property with nothing really to do but to check for intruders — they had no reason to suspect that anyone lived inside the barn. He closed the door behind him and checked along the outer walls hoping to find just one scrap of 2x4 he could use. Winston scoured between every stud until he found what he was looking for near the rear window — a foot-long piece of 2x4. He grabbed it, and before he went back inside the apartment, examined the wooden crate. It was covered with radioactive markings and the top was hinged. It was all very rudimentary, like the crates of surplus mines Winston found throughout Vietnam during the war. He placed the 2x4 on the floor and opened the crate, surprised it would open at all. Inside was what looked like a couple dozen oversized red backpacks, each with the same radioactive markings as the crate and emblazoned with a logo that read Tabari . It was a fancy logo with a stylized capital “T” and “abari” in a modern script font. Curious, he picked one up. It was heavy, weighing probably fifty pounds or more, its heft immediately causing his lower back to ache. He closed the crate’s lid and placed the backpack on top where he could better examine it. There were no zippers, no way to get into it, and no other markings on it. He squeezed and felt the contents inside, but couldn’t feel anything discernable other than a solid, square, hard mass. Oddly, the backpack’s sole strap was shaped such that it wouldn’t have fit comfortably over a human shoulder, and he guessed that the strap functioned solely as some sort of handle. The backpack’s only other feature  was a single grommet in the bottom, and a pin-like rod that he presumed fit into said grommet.

“Hurry up,” May whispered, loud enough for Winston to hear.

He put the backpack back into the crate, snatched the 2x4, and crept back into the apartment.

“Well, what is it?” She asked.

“I rightfully don’t know, Mother. I reckon some form of weapon.”

“Well, Genius, isn’t that some sort of radiation mark on the box?”

“Uh huh.”

“Then they nukes in there. Winston, they nukes in our barn.”

“Now, stay with me May, I haven’t ever heard of no nuclear weapon the size of a backpack. Doesn’t even make sense to me.”

“Neither do us livin’ in our barn.”

“Touché. Now would ya let me fix this here thing? Then I gotta go out for water an’ food ’cause I ain’t ready to eat Amadeus’ food.”

May didn’t argue any of it. She knew what she knew, and she knew that she was right, hungry, and thirsty. She pulled the metal hurricane shutters out while Winston pushed the piece of 2x4 into the space. The wall was as fixed as it was ever going to be, the splintered plywood sheathing pushed back into place.

Winston donned his black hoodie, gathered the items he always took out with him, and prepared to leave the safety of the apartment once again.

“It’s late. I can’t promise you I’ll be back by mornin’ light.”

“I know. Just be careful. I hate when you go out.”

Winston shrugged and kissed her. And he was off.

Just before May locked him out she said, “please find my cat. I’m worried about him.”

“I will.”

And as Winston climbed through the window, May pushed open the door and said, “I love you, Winston.”

Winston, whose left foot teetered on the stool outside of the window, smiled, put his right hand to his lips, and blew her a kiss. She closed the door and watched out the slits, like she usually did when he went out, and waited for signs of enemy response. After a few minutes, she drank the last of the water — perhaps a cup or two — lit a tea light candle (though Winston had forbade her to light candles at night), and read On the Beach  for about an hour before falling asleep. The candle burned itself out two hours later.

McDonough 30253

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Winston scaled the razor-wire fence in seconds and disappeared into the dark of the night. He filled the jugs and left them near the fence line along with the stepstool, and made his usual rounds, first using a small flashlight to check the trash pile for edible food. He came up empty, except for discovering the mechanic’s headless body near Jimmy’s nearly decomposed corpse. He noted that the body was away from possible foodstuffs, and appreciated that Woo-jin had done that on purpose. Winston was ever-grateful for that token of friendship, even though the scraps of food left remained unpalatable. He stopped at the grave, which was still unmolested, and he sat under the overpass as he pondered checking in on Ben and the other captives. Unsure if his psyche could handle such emotional turmoil, he decided not to visit them. Instead, tonight, Winston would make his way south to McDonough, a town of roughly twenty thousand inhabitants, less than ten miles from Johnsonville. Surely, the PLA hadn’t killed all  of McDonough’s inhabitants — he and May and Jimmy were living proof that there were survivors. Well, perhaps Jimmy was a bad example, but he, in fact, had survived the PLA’s initial assault only to be felled by Winston’s defensive hand.

Winston hoped that perhaps McDonough would have food to spare or news to share. As he slowly made his way to the main road, he called out soft pleas for Amadeus, “here, kitty kitty. Amadeus, where you at?” Winston didn’t waste too much time searching for him — he was more concerned with getting safely up and onto the highway, which was high above his head. The banks of the overpass were far too steep to climb, especially at his age, so he made his way back toward Calef’s to walk up the off-ramp to 75 North.

He skirted along the water treatment plant’s fence to his own road, but instead of crossing it and confronting the field of ticks, he paced right on up the road toward Calef’s, keeping an eye out for PLA patrols. This was where he met Med and the other men, children, and women of Johnsonville, who had briefly defended their beloved town from an army of tens of thousands of soldiers. And he would be a son-of-a-bitch if he didn’t remember just then that Med had given him that loaded .357 magnum. He wondered if it was still stuck behind the truck’s passenger’s seat, and regretted not bringing it into the apartment — it sure would have felt a bit heftier in his hands rather than his little .22 rifle.

Winston gazed across the street at Johnsonville’s pride and joy. Calef’s carwash, gas pumps, and store were all dark, and it appeared that its entire contents — the unusable stuff like children’s inflatable toys and Georgia-themed knick-knacks — were scattered across the parking lot in what looked like a scene from a bad post-apocalyptic film. He strained to listen for Ben and the other men behind the store, and after a minute of silence, he turned his back and hurried up the off-ramp onto 75 North. The highway was an opaque and silent serpent as he slinked down it, walking as far into the safety of the shoulder as he could. Abandoned vehicles littered the roadway, as if their occupants merely shut them off and wandered away in search of solace they would never find. He didn’t bother searching them, assuming that they had already been scavenged by the PLA, so he pushed on quickly down the northbound side of the highway. Some of the vehicles wore bullet holes and blood, and the closer he got to McDonough, the more corpses littered the road — all of them civilian. Some five miles south of Johnsonville, Winston poked around in some of the vehicles that appeared benign. The five dozen or so vehicles he investigated were either empty, rummaged through by the PLA or other hungry Americans, or were such gory scenes of unhindered and brutal violence that Winston didn’t have the heart to disrespect their occupants’ final resting places — even though his belly rumbled loudly.

Winston thought again about Vietnam and Tran and mine detonation and May and Ben and Med and Julie as he now walked the white centerline, still cautious, but less frightened than being outside in Johnsonville. There, in his occupied hometown, the threats were real, both foreign and  domestic. Here, the roadway was so eerily peaceful that he felt little threat. It was so flat and straight that he could see a vehicle’s headlights from miles away in either direction, and he let his guard down and his mind wander. As he strode briskly toward McDonough, he felt deep within his heart that the road was only leading him to heartbreak. And though he didn’t want to think about it, he couldn’t deny that he and May had somehow drifted apart while being cooped up in the barn. They couldn’t engage in meaningful conservations and they stopped playing games altogether. They both stunk after weeks of not bathing. Evacuating their bowels in such an intimate setting was humiliating, smelly, and embarrassing, and with no way to properly cleanse themselves, a filthy matter. Quite frankly, the apartment was a prison cell — even being imprisoned with someone that each unequivocally loved, and even though they had committed no crime other than to be American. He thought about teaching her how to climb the fence to get outside, but it was too dangerous. One slip and they’d both be dead. Hell, he was surprised that he hadn’t already been caught, but the risk was worth it — he intended to survive this ordeal and go back to loving his wife.

Blind with regret for allowing their relationship to flounder, Winston nearly walked into a lone car abandoned on the highway’s white centerline. It was an older beige Cadillac, probably a late 2000’s model. It was the only car in sight, which aroused his EOD technician senses, and he became highly suspicious of his surroundings, recognizing the Cadillac as a potential trap. The highway shoulders were overgrown with dense swaths of sweet gum and scrub pine, leaving few places for him to hide and giving a potential enemy plenty of places to conceal themselves in ambush — but none came. He surveyed the area, controlling his breathing to shallow, open-mouthed breaths, listening intently for a careless foot to rustle the crisp leaves of the fall’s recent shedding or catch a glimpse of movement from beyond the scrub line, but he neither heard nor saw anything suspicious and turned his attention back to the Caddy. He paced slowly around its perimeter and peered inside; no dead bodies, no blood, no sign of entry or exit. He spied something thoughtfully set on the tan leather back seat — three VHS tape-sized packages. Pressing his face to the rear window glass, Winston saw standard issue American military MREs — meals ready to eat — three of them — just waiting for him to snatch them up.

Winston circled the car several more times, peering inside, and determining his next steps — take the sustenance or continue his journey to McDonough. The calories contained in those packages could nourish him and May for three days. He wandered to the highway shoulder and found a rusted out trailer hitch ball, brought it back to the Caddy, and rapped it once on the rear windshield. The safety glass gave way and crumbled. He took cover behind the rear bumper and surveyed his surroundings again, and when he was satisfied that he wouldn’t be ambushed, he set the rifle onto the roof, scrambled up the trunk, reached into the back seat, clutched the booty, and squirmed ass-end back off of the car. He grabbed the gun and darted to the safety of the scrub line, squatted to the ground, and waited. Nothing. No soldiers streamed out to kill him. No sniper took him out with a single accurate shot. No hungry locals confronted him. Still, he waited a solid five motionless minutes before he moved. Grateful for the nourishment, Winston stuffed the MREs into his hoodie and continued south toward McDonough. He thought about turning back, but he was so close to his destination that he may as well sally forth. Besides, May wasn’t expecting him back to the apartment until tomorrow night. He was outside for the next day at minimum.

An hour later, Winston crossed the McDonough town line. The closer he got to the McDonough exit, the more bodies and burned out vehicles littered the highway. This was the scene that Ben had relayed from Med — the PLA shooting anybody they came in contact with — men, women, children, pets — all gone, killed while they attempted to flee the invasion.

“Poor Med,” Winston said aloud, startling himself.

The town’s highway exit was a consumer mecca, replete with every form of boxed capitalist consumerism from chain restaurants to enormous grocery stores and home improvement outlets. He and May only went to McDonough occasionally, when they required items not available at the local Johnsonville mom and pop stores, like Calef’s. Still, they knew the town well enough. A queer scent suddenly assaulted Winston’s nose as he marched down the on ramp and into the heart of McDonough. It was a sweet, sickly odor, reminiscent of the Mayor’s barbecues. Well, not exactly the barbecue itself, but the aftermath — the cleanup — when all of the guests had departed and the Mayor would fire the giant grills up once more to scrape off the crusted and burnt meat that was left on the grills. It was that fleshy stench that bit Winston smack at the base of his throat. Had he had anything in his stomach, he might have vomited, but he fought back the retch and kept moving, marching into a scene of destruction unlike anything he had ever witnessed — not even in Vietnam.

The town was wholly destroyed — eradicated from the earth’s memory, as if it had never existed. Winston surveyed the dev

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astation, and an incredulous feeling of helplessness overcame him and he fell to his knees. What once was a thriving metropolis was now reduced to a burnt-out skeletal framework where buildings once stood. His boots kicked up ashes — of wooden frames, store products, food, and people — and it clogged his nostrils and burned his eyes. He thought he could taste the bodies, his mouth filled with a rancid, salty, charred tang, which sickened him even more. He dashed through the debris, perhaps a mile or more, through a torched landscape that did not yield. Molten, car-shaped forms shimmered in the dark moonlit night sky like a hardened pyroclastic flow of obsidian, clogging the burnt-out hollow shell of a town. Harrowing shrieks of the dead filled Winston’s ears as their charred bones and skulls crumbled under his worn canvas combat boots, forming a thick gray dust that stung and choked his throat, and coated his entire body. There was nothing here for him but death and heartache, so he turned on his heels and rushed back toward the McDonough I-75 on-ramp, back to his home and to May. Johnsonville, Winston now understood, had been spared compared to the total and complete annihilation that McDonough suffered. He yearned for the solace of May’s comforting words and loving embrace. And she needed his strength and support now more than ever. He had scored enough calories to last them a few more days, and prayed silently that this hell would be over soon.


As he reached I-75 North, Winston slowed his pace, though his heart still pumped furiously with the adrenaline of witnessing such total destruction. No, extinction was the word he wanted to use, especially if what he suspected was true. This was no longer conventional warfare, he agonized, recalling the results of the American conventional  warfare that ravaged villages in Vietnam. This  destruction was different — it was all-encompassing, with nary a structure left standing. The soot that choked his nose, clung to his clothes, and turned his favorite blue Rusty Wallace #2 cap black, was reminiscent of the stench that Agent Orange left for months when it was used against the Viet Cong. Even after its controversial and provocative use, and whether unscathed or horrifically wounded, there were survivors, be they lucky bastards or unfortunate victims. But here, in McDonough, there wasn’t a single survivor.

And then it dawned on him…

“It can’t be,” he said, “it jes’ don’ make any sense.”

Winston stopped dead in his tracks on the centerline of I-75 North.

“That is  nuclear,” he burst out with remorse, lamenting the backpacks emblazoned with the radioactive markings hidden in his very own barn and only a few feet from where May now slept, “she was right.”

He stepped up his pace, hoping to beat the sun, which would be up in an hour or so, and decided to get May the hell out of that barn. He could do it. He could help her climb up and onto the branch limb and heave herself over the razor-wire fence. She could do it with his help. Winston could just make out the Cadillac’s form from which he acquired the MREs coming up in the distance, probably less than a half mile from where he now slowly jogged. As he fretted over the fact that the PLA was storing a nuclear arsenal on their property, he neglected to spot the three figures coming at him quickly from the shoulder. Before he realized the threat, one of them clocked him in the chest, which sent him reeling to the hard pavement. It hurt Winston’s old man bones, but his quick reflexes had his rifle trained on the figures before they could relieve him of it. He squared off against his assailants, which he recognized as three locals, based on their shabby appearance and soot-black faces and clothes.

“What’s you gon’ do with that peashooter, ya ol’ coot?” said the boy in the middle, presumably their leader. The other two boys snickered.

“I’m a shoot yo’ balls off first,” Winston retorted, scrambled to his feet and whispered, “then I’m a shoot yo’ rogue and peasant slave here through the eyes,” raised his voice and taunted, “that’s what this  ol’ coot gon’ do!”

Winston didn’t understand the rage he suddenly felt against his fellow Americans, but understood that if these boys pressured him, he would kill again. A quick survey found that only one of them — the one to his right — was armed. He held a .38 special at his side. Still, they could overpower him if they wanted, but he would take at least one of them out with him.

“We’d like our MREs back, Sir, that you stole  from us,” the boy with the gun said, “and we’re asking real nice, Sir. Real polite-like. We don’t want any trouble.”

He  was their leader, not the one in the middle, Winston decided. He stood out among the other two, like he was once somebody before the conflict had divided the nation into two combatant factions even before the PLA declared war on the United States. And he was much older than the other two he now recognized.

“Not a chance, Chief. I need these.”

“Listen here you filthy nigg—,” the boy in the center started, but was coldcocked before he finished the sentence by the leader’s .38 special. The boy bent in half with a brief and humiliating stupor, but quickly regained his composure, a trickle of blood flowing down his cheek.

“I told you more than once never to use that word again,” the leader said, turned back to Winston and apologized, “my wife was African-American.”

The manner in which the boy lingered on the word was  told Winston all that he needed to know about the man.

“I’m truly sorry,” Winston replied.

“I still need them MREs back.”

“Now stay with me here,” Winston replied, “how about we barter for them?”

“Whatever else you got on your person we can outright take, Sir,” the leader said, and inched closer toward Winston, “there’s three of us, and only one a you.”

“There it is,” Winston smiled, “Army Ranger. Probably served in the Gulf War, maybe Afghanistan, but you got out? Not a company man, though.”

The leader’s face twisted, his armor somewhat chinked.

“How’d you guess that?”

“They’s something you learn in the military that sorta sticks with a man his entire life. That’s respect. And you almos’ got them mini Claymore’s set properly.”

The leader’s face grimaced, and he smiled ruefully.

“Don’t be ashamed, son, but would you like to see how I would a done it?”

“You a military man?”

“Army Ranger through an’ through, but no company man — like you. Was an Explosives Ordinance Disposal Technician in ‘Nam, ’71 to ’73. Earned a ticket home for this.”

Winston pulled up his shirt and hoodie with his free hand to reveal the scar that ran horizontally the entire width of his abdomen, dividing his navel into two asymmetrical half-moons.

“Nearly cut me in two,” Winston said, not proud of the fact.

Both boys blurted out some sort of audible exasperation. The leader deflated into pride and held out his hand. Winston took it into his own hand.

“Cole Meriwether. This here is Mike and Earl.”

Mike and Earl both nodded.

“Winston Sparrow. From up in Johnsonville. Where you boys from?”

“Here,” Cole said, “McDonough.”

“We’re from Forsyth,” Mike replied.

“We been walkin’ north on 75 lookin’ for somethin’ ta et,” Earl, the boy Cole had coldcocked, added, “thought we’d score somethin’ at the ol’ Flyin’ J in Jackson — they got everythin’ a man could ax fer, but they ain’t even had one god-damned Ding Dong left. Not even a god-damned boiled peanut left in the pot. God-damned PLA took all of it.”

“Then blew it all to holy hell,” Mike chimed in, looking as if he could burst out in tears.

“I know,” Winston empathized, “we in the same boat up in Johnsonville. Jes’ hungry.”

“Yep. We were up there a couple a weeks ago thinking that Calef’s might have something left, but all we found was a bee’s nest a PLA soldiers,” Cole said, “damned near got killed trying to get away from ‘em. We’ve been poking around this area for weeks now, but there’s little to find other than beechnuts.”

Winston shook his head and asked, “did you see, well, I guess, what happened here?”

“Nah, but we heard it,” Cole replied, “we were all the way over in Lafayette when it happened. Ain’t nothin’ there either.”

“I think I heard it, too,” Winston recalled, remembering the day about three weeks after the PLA had commandeered their property, when he was busy killing Jimmy. If he had spent the day like he normally did, with May sleeping and he watching the PLA soldiers go about their business, it would have been the one and only day he’d see all three of the generals leave the Sparrow property together — just as they had come in, chauffeured in those fancy Mercedes trucks. They were gone a few hours, and he did  recollect hearing and feeling a large explosion from somewhere down south. At the time, he just assumed it was the PLA blowing up the power grid. Now he realized what really happened.

“Them MREs are the last from my private stash,” Cole paused and added, “but you go on and keep ‘em if you can show me a better way of setting them Claymores. I got me a few cases of ‘em hid that I scored from the Army Reserve Center in Macon just after they blew the place to hell and the Army abandoned us. I’d sure like to kill me as many of them bastards as I can for what they done to my fam—,” Cole choked up, unable to complete the word, “but I was an UAV Operator, so…”

“A drone pilot?”

Cole nodded his head, “got no practical experience with them things other than what they taught us in boot camp.”

“Alright then,” Winston replied.

The four men walked back to the Cadillac. They spoke quietly about the war, the cond

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ition of the United States, and, of course, the extreme damage to McDonough. Winston said that he thought he’d see more people, and Cole agreed, adding that they’d come across a few Americans scavenging for food and shelter, but the area was eerily devoid of survivors. They all agreed that the destruction didn’t reflect “normal” conventional warfare, but Winston didn’t discuss what was stored in his barn, especially since all of them had most likely been exposed to nuclear fallout while foraging through McDonough. They stopped at the Cadillac’s rear bumper.

“I seen them wires running through the door handles plain as day,” Winston said.

Mike put his face to the driver’s side door window and peered inside and muttered, “I can’t see ‘em. How’s an old man see ‘em?”

“They’s four of them mini Claymores daisy-chained in that one car. That’s three too many. Jes’ cause you got ‘em, don’ mean you should waste ‘em.”

Cole returned, “I wanted to make sure whatever door was opened they got blown to hell.”

“I get that, but I got in there jes’ fine, didn’t I?” Winston asked, and continued, “now, you two,” he pointed at Mike and Earl, “take watch, one to the north, the other to the south.”

They looked to Cole for approval.

“Go on,” he confirmed, “it’s cool.”

Winston placed his rifle on the Caddy’s roof, removed the MREs from his hoodie, and placed them next to the rifle. He looked into Cole’s eyes for some sort of affirmation that he wouldn’t be deceived.

“You can trust me.”

“I know.”

Cole observed Earl and Mike, who had taken up observation positions twenty feet north and south of the Caddy.

“I’ll keep an eye on them two knuckleheads,” he said.

“Okay. Like I said, you got four mines in here, which is three too many.”

Winston reached for the Caddy’s rear driver’s side door.

“What are you doing? You’ll blow us to hell,” Cole said panicky.

“Trust me,” Winston said, and tugged gently on the car’s door, pulling it all the way open. He motioned his arms up in a “ta da” manner when nothing happened. A Claymore mine positioned on the rear floor fell over, the wire wrapped around its firing pin harmlessly loosening and unraveling.

“What the fuck?” Cole grumbled.

“These weapons are better in a controlled environment. You place it, you see the enemy, and when they get close enough, you detonate it. Bang. Enemy dead. Simple. But in this application, you’re using them in an uncontrolled environment.”

Winston carefully removed all four Claymore mines from the Caddy, moving door to door, and explained what he was doing. Cole nodded understandingly, taking in Winston’s sage advice. He explained to Cole why the mines probably wouldn’t have detonated, and why only one mine was needed to create a deadly trap inside the car. Cole watched Winston as he laid the four mines on the ground, and systematically and quickly unarmed them.

“Ya see, Cole, in an uncontrolled environment ya need enough back pressure ta depress tha clacker. Sure, ya had the firing pins tied directly to tha doors, but these things only weigh two pounds. Maybe they’d detonate when tha door was opened, but maybe not. And these mines aren’t sympathetic to another — they won’t all go off when one goes off…”

“Why didn’t you just take them all when you took the MREs?” Cole asked, “why did you leave them?”

Winston placed the four unarmed mines on the driver’s seat, walked around to the front passenger door, opened it, and disappeared under the dashboard. Cole followed, kneeled beside Winston, and curiously watched him go to work.

“Oh, I had every intention ta come back an’ do exactly what I’m doin’ now,” Winston explained, as he sliced three slits into the underside of the Caddy’s dashboard just beneath the glove compartment with his knife.

“What are  you doing?” Cole asked.

Winston threaded about a foot of the detonating cord that Cole had previously used to tie the mine to the Caddy’s door through one of the slits. He opened the glove box, which only contained the car’s operating manuals, found the detonating cord, and pulled it into the glove box. He tied it onto the glove box’s locking mechanism, and closed it.

“I see what you’re doing,” Cole said, smiling and nodding.

“What’s the one place people gon’ look if they riflin’ through a car searchin’ for useful things like guns an’ gum?”

“The glove box.”


Winston pulled the detonating cord taut, grabbed a mine off the driver’s seat, opened the legs on it, and pushed them through the two remaining slits. The mine went in with considerable effort, and it was now positioned under the glove compartment, awaiting its unwitting victim.

“You may wan’ ta step away for this part,” Winston warned Cole.

“I’ll stay here, thank you.”

“Suit yourself.”

Winston pulled the detonating cord through the eyelet of the mine’s firing pin — it was the toughest part of the job because of the low light, but the sun was beginning its slow rise, giving just enough of a glint that he could complete his work. He tied off the end and pulled himself into a seated position on the Caddy’s floor, his feet resting on the tarmac.

“I’d like to have one a those Claymores, Cole.”

“It’s gonna cost ya.”

“What you got in mind?”

“An MRE.”

Winston held out his right hand, “deal.”

Cole took it and they shook on it.

“Tell me about your family,” Winston said, and adding, “I’m lucky that I still have my wife with me.”

Cole looked down, still crouched like a child playing a kids’ game.

“Bethany. That was her name. And my son, Tommy, well, he was only ten.”

He nearly broke down, but remained stoic and continued, “we dug in, like a lot of us, you know? Just waiting for them to go on by… we thought we were safe. Our house was at the end of a mile-long dirt road. I mean, you gotta really be lookin’ to find it… anyway, they did. Our contingency plan was to hide in the crawl space under the house if it became necessary. I was at the front window with my AR-15 when the bastards pulled into the driveway. Bethany and Tommy were upstairs napping. They didn’t responded to my calls. I emptied an entire clip on the PLA, but they were on my porch before I could reload. I dropped the rifle and bolted to the basement, praying that my wife and boy were already in the crawl space. But they weren’t. What I heard, Winston… I should a done something… but I… I couldn’t move. I froze up. And when them PLA bastards finally left…”

Cole’s eyes glossed over and his hands trembled, he reliving every moment of the nightmare that had become reality.

“I’m sorry, son. I’ve seen my fair share of tha horrors this war done brought to our shores,” Winston said, trying to conceal his own pain, “an’ I can’t even pretend to apprehend what you’re feeling.”

“Why don’t you give them ol’ knees a rest?”

Winston nodded and patted Cole on the shoulder, knowing that he could say nothing to ease his pain, reached behind him, snagged a mine, and slid it and a length of detonating cord into his front pocket. Unfortunately, as he and Cole stood, they found themselves at the business end of Winston’s .22 rifle, with Earl pointing it toward them.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Cole asked.

“Now hold on fellas,” Winston said.

“Hands up,” Earl said.

“Gimme the gun,” Mike demanded, pointing at the .38 special that Cole clutched.

“You ain’t gonna shoot me,” Cole said.

“I’ll shoot you in the God damned face, man, and I mean it!”

Winston spied the bulging outlines of the MREs tucked inside Mike’s filthy denim jacket.

“All of this over three MREs?” Winston asked.

“You seen any other food out here ya dumb foreign niggah?” Earl squealed. He looked at Cole, expecting to see some sort of disappointment on his face, but there was none. Cole handed the gun over to Mike, who instantly trained it back at him.

“How many mines you put in that car?” Earl asked.

“Two,” Winston said.

“Bullshit!” Mike erupted, “what’s that in your pocket?”

Winston looked down and smiled, “well, I guess you caught me red handed.”

As Winston started to pull the mine from his pocket, a Russian Tigr infantry patrol vehicle bounded into view, coming at them from the north. It wasn’t clear if the Russians had seen them yet, but as all eyes turned toward the Russian vehicle, Cole yanked on Winston’s .22, attempting to wrench it free from Earl’s feeble hands. Earl felt Cole’s tug and pulled back on the gun, his finger, unfortunately, was still on the trigger. The gun’s small, brilliant flash sent a lethal bullet into Cole’s pounding heart, and it was seen by the Russian Tigr commander who signaled to his gunner to train the 7.62-mm roof-mounted machine gun on their position. Earl dropped the rifle with an incredulous feeling of guilt as Cole’s arterial blood spurted. Earl and Mike fled southbound on the northbound highway while Winston made a vain attempt to save Cole from the Russian’s large-caliber bullets. Winston said, “I’m sorry,” picked up his rifle, and bolted into the scrub brush, ignoring the burrs and thorns that scratched his face and hands.

The Russian Tigr was at the Caddy in seconds, screeching to a halt. Its crew of ten Russian soldiers disembarked the truck with great haste and took up defensive positions. The Tigr pressed forward for another hundred meters and cut down Mike and Earl, who had neither the wit nor gumption to dive for cover into the thick barren brambles, sweet gum, and scrub pine that lined the highway. They died like cowards, and the stolen MREs would now nourish their enemy. Cole, on his knees and gasping for air, his lifeblood nearly drained, was mercifully and unceremoniously gunned down with a clean shot to the head. Several soldiers emptied their Kala

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shnikov AKs into the dense brush in an attempt to strike Winston, while another soldier unwittingly checked the Cadillac’s glove compartment. He and two of his compatriots were killed by Winston’s clever strategy, their bodies pierced by hundreds of quarter-inch stainless steel balls, while the mine wounded two other troops.

Winston sprinted through the nearly impenetrable overgrowth of vegetation and through a maze of abandoned neighborhoods until his legs and lungs could carry him no more. He had traveled several miles east and found himself at the rear of a Pentecostal church on U.S. Route 23 at the very northern side of McDonough. He knew this area well. Johnsonville was less than ten miles north, though he’d have to cut through a few side streets to get home. The sun’s morning rays cut brilliant swaths through the tawny pines that lined both sides of the church property. Winston was exhausted; vehicles parked haphazardly around the church impeded his progress as he wandered toward the church’s rear entrance. It was so difficult to get to the door that he was forced to climb over several vehicles, and stood on the hood of a car and discovered that the parking lot and lawns surrounding the church were likewise jam-packed with vehicles. As he surveyed the sea of vehicles, he noticed that there was little evidence of combat, bullet holes, or shattered windows, which gave him a modicum of hope that this northern part of McDonough had been spared. He hopped off the car’s hood, which reminded his body just how much pain he was in, and paced up the four steps to the rear door. The dewy morning air steeped Winston’s tired bones, but his curiosity was piqued because so many vehicles were parked outside the church. He slowly pulled the door open toward him six inches and was met with a swarm of common black houseflies that escaped from inside, and he choked on the rotted stench that immediately assaulted his nose. He slammed the door, knowing what horror awaited him if he walked through those doors, turned his back, slid down the door, and wept softly, holding his knees to his chin like a child. The worn green welcome mat with the words Christ is the Head of THIS House  felt luxurious as he laid his head down and passed out from exhaustion.


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While Winston closed his weary eyes, May stood at the slits watching the enemy’s morning activities. Ten North Korean soldiers, dressed in red from head to toe, including knee-high socks, exercised and practiced their football skills in the driveway. One of the soldiers tossed a football through the ball hoop several times as the other soldiers laughed. She recognized Woo-jin and noticed the one-eyed Dong-joo, who wore as much blue as the others wore red, and thought that a one-eyed soccer player seemed out of place. She hadn’t had water since Winston left and she was parched. She grasped the fact that Winston was not coming home — not while the sun was up — and the fact that they were now completely out of food. She left the slits and rifled through the area where they kept their provisions, praying to find some  scrap of sustenance, moving the accumulation of trash and empty cans out of the way. She forgot herself at one point and tossed an empty tuna can into the corner when she came up empty-handed and, unbeknownst to her, the noise was heard by a North Korean soldier who was shagging a ball from behind the barn. He stopped for a moment, tilted his head and listened for where the noise was coming from. After a moment of silence, he pressed on, as the team was readying to leave.

May, defeated, crumbled on the bed, feeling like she would dissolve into a good old-fashioned crying jag, but she knew she couldn’t. She was forced to just sit there , like she made her students sit when they were out of line in her class. Her just sitting there  was very different from day one of Johnsonville’s invasion and only got more and more maddening as time ticked by. Hungry, dehydrated, and alone, May was frightened, and would remain that way — at least until Winston made his way home tonight. She left the shower curtain slightly ajar, her eyes scanning the mess hidden behind it — trash, dirty clothes (they were now all  very dirty), boxes of memories and photos and supplies — when she spied Amadeus’ big bag of dry cat food propped up in the corner. The bag was open and there was plenty of food left inside, and she thought if Amadeus wasn’t going to eat it… 

She scooted on her knees over to the unsealed bag. They usually used a monkey face-shaped clip to seal the bag, but they had forgotten it in the house, so the bag’s top was slightly open. She opened the bag and sniffed at its contents. It certainly didn’t smell  like chicken and brown rice, but it didn’t exactly smell offensive to her hungry belly. She shoved a hand into the bag and grabbed a handful of the kibble, and without giving herself a reason to second-guess her decision, stuffed it into her mouth and chomped down. Aside from being dry and aggravating her thirst, the cat food didn’t taste that bad. She sat next to the bag and ate until her hunger was sated. Had she had adequate light in the apartment, she would have seen the Indian Meal Moth larva she was also chomping on.


Meanwhile, outside, the gate opened and let in the same Russian Tigr troop transport that had encountered Winston, Cole, and the other two meatheads down in McDonough. Following it was North Korean General Kim Kyok-Chun’s personal Mercedes-Benz Geländewagen armored truck. Major Chaek, who was dressed in the same red soccer clothes as his players, was there to greet both vehicles. The Russians laid out their four dead men — one of the wounded had succumbed to his wounds en route — and the other two wounded soldiers stood at attention and bleeding from their injuries. The eleven North Korean soccer players (the Red Team) gathered around the Russians and gawked at them.

“Tell Team Blue leader to have someone come and get these wounded men,” Major Chaek said to his Middle-Eastern radioman, who darted back inside the house to make the call to Team Blue headquarters up in Morrow where the infirmary had been relocated.

The Russian Tigr commander explained to Major Chaek what had happened on their routine morning patrol, while Russian soldiers stripped the dead men of their weapons, gear, and personal items, including their boots.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Major Chaek replied, “we must never underestimate the Americans and their insolence. They are feral pigs.” He looked around and saw his favorite batting post, Woo-jin, attempting to make himself as small as possible. Major Chaek smiled widely.

“You,” he pointed at Woo-jin, “remove these bodies at once.”

“Yes, Sir!” Woo-jin screeched, and writhed through the crowd of soldiers who did not part for him.

“Make haste. We move out in ten minutes. And do not soil your football uniform, Lance Corporal Yong.”

“Yes, Sir!”

“You men keep practicing,” the Major barked, and disappeared inside the house.

The Red Team players snickered as they knocked the ball around and watched Woo-jin struggle to drag the first body up the driveway. He pulled it into the woods and to the trash pile, only stopping briefly to look for Winston before bolting back to retrieve the other three dead soldiers’ bodies. The second and third corpses became heavier and heavier, despite them being smaller in size than the first. By the time he grasped onto the fourth soldier’s feet, he was exhausted, doubting that he could perform well in the football game.

General Kim and Major Chaek emerged from the house, eager to drive the short distance to the Clayton County Sports Complex and its American football field.

“Why haven’t you finished yet, Lance Corporal Yong?” Major Chaek demanded as he and the general promenaded to their awaiting Mercedes. The rest of the North Korean team had already loaded into the Russian Tigr transport. Woo-jin stood silently at attention, embarrassed at not completing his assigned task.

“You have failed me yet once again,” Major Chaek said. He pointed out Dong-joo and ordered, “you! Help this man.”

Dong-joo sprang out of the truck and took hold of the dead soldier’s shoulders, walking forward while Woo-jin walked backwards, carrying the legs. Major Chaek hopped into the Mercedes, and it pulled away.

Dong-joo was infuriated, his one-eyed gaze terrifying. He pushed Woo-jin to move faster and faster through the woods, Woo-jin’s feet barely keeping up, and when they reached the trash pile, Dong-joo gave one final thrust and let go of the Russian’s stiffening arms, which sent Woo-jin and the corpse reeling onto the three other bodies he had just moved. Dong-joo dashed away laughing while Woo-jin scrambled to his feet, pushing the bloody corpse off him. He looked over his shoulder to see the back of his red shorts and shirt discolored and browned by the quickly oxidizing blood that soaked through the Russian soldier’s clothes. He let out an enormous sigh and sprinted off after Dong-joo.

By the time Woo-jin got to the transport, which was waiting for him on the road, Dong-joo had already jumped in the back and bolted the door. As Woo-jin tried to open it, his eyes locked with Dong-joo’s single unemotional eye that glared at him through the window in the door. Suddenly, the transport started to move. At first, Woo-jin stood there and watched the truck pull away but he quickly realized, soiled football uniform or not, he was compelled to play in

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the game — or it would surely mean his death. The image of Seul-ki’s silken face inspired him to sprint to the quickly accelerating transport, hop up onto the rear step, and hoist himself up to the truck’s roof to the same Russian gunner who had earlier cut down Earl and Mike, and who now offered his hand and drew Woo-jin up next to him. They nodded at each other as the gunner surveyed the area for hostile Americans, and Woo-jin rested cross-legged, taking in the striking Georgia countryside, and pondering his fate.


May had fallen asleep, but she was rocked awake mid-morning by the sudden crash of a pickup truck’s tailgate as it slammed down just outside the barn’s thin veneer. She heard voices, but none that she recognized, which was unusual. Being cooped up inside the apartment and surrounded by the same voices for weeks on end had become an intimate one-sided relationship — she and Winston usually recognized particular soldiers, their habits, and schedules. The barn’s door opened, which was odd because it wasn’t yet noon according to the brown and gold rooster clock that hung crooked from its finish nail. It was only 11:00 a.m., a full hour before the Iranian general’s daily inspection of the barn’s contents. Noon was when the general usually emerged from the house to check on the crate of backpacks in the barn, before taking his lunch with the other generals at the stump.

Through the slit, May watched several pairs of soldiers bring in a dozen unmarked cardboard boxes roughly the size of dorm room refrigerators, perhaps three feet by three feet, into the barn. What happened next startled her even more — she felt the boxes being stacked against the false wall and their door, and if it took two fit soldiers to move just one of the boxes into the barn, how could she or Winston possibly move them if needed?

She waited for them to finish inside the barn so she could open the door to make sure there was still access to the apartment, but instead, the pickup drove off, leaving one of the cardboard boxes in the driveway. Two soldiers carted the Sparrows’ six-foot long card table out from the basement and set it up mid-driveway. It was their rummy table. Before June died, she and Ben and May and Winston and occasionally several other couples would gather at that table under Medusa’s cooling embrace in the summer before the tree was felled. They’d sit at Medusa’s stump afterwards, and play rummy until it got dark, usually scoring so carelessly that by the end of the evenings only a hunch gave away the winner. It was usually Winston, who played a curiously infuriating game of rummy by holding his cards until the end. He’d often go out all in one dramatic play, leaving the other players frustrated, the points they still held in their hands often enormous.

May clutched onto that memory, longing to have a rematch with Ben and June and her husband as she watched a Russian officer open the box and order two other Russian soldiers to empty its contents onto the card table. This all took place within ten feet from where May now stood. She had often wondered why Winston spent so much time staring out these slits while she spent her time reading books, and now realized just how interesting it all was just outside of their walls. The Russian and Iranian generals emerged from the house, the Iranian general pausing a moment at Med’s head, which was now nothing more than a skull with a tuft of hair on its crown, flittering in the cool October breeze. The generals laughed at something the Iranian general said, and they joined the Russian soldiers at the card table. May listened to every word they said, her eyes growing wide at the large, intricate, and spidery-looking flying contraption set on the card table.

“Ah, General Shateri,” the Russian general said excitedly, “we have finally developed a drone capable of carrying a twenty-five kilo package thirty-two kilometers in under thirty minutes.”

“And fully automated, General Geiman?”


General Geiman turned to the Russian officer in charge of Drone Technology , “please, Captain Jennings, explain to General Shateri the drone’s technical specs, but not too technical the General doesn’t understand.”

They all laughed.

Captain Jennings explained, in one long breath, “the aerial robot is fully automated and controlled via this master controller,” as he displayed the controller to the generals, “the master controller is synched to our RTK transmitter on the roof…”

“I must ask, Captain, what does that mean?” asked General Shateri.

“Real time kinematics. GPS, if you will.”


May looked up, but couldn’t see beyond the house’s second-story windows, and noticed that the Russian officer, Captain Jennings, spoke fluent English without a trace of accent (he was a sleeper-cell Russian agent, born in America to cold war-era Russian spies and employed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Labs in California).

Captain Jennings continued, “…this RTK transmitter is linked to four American Global Navigation Satellite Systems for its waypoint information and it enjoys an optimal targeting area of one meter. The master controller features a ten-inch, ten-eighty-pixel display that the operator, me, can use to verify the target, and has a thirty-two kilometer range, or twenty miles, enough to reach downtown Atlanta or the airport from a safe distance.”

Captain Jennings placed the master controller down, trained an index finger at each part of the drone as he spoke, and continued, “these particular drones have been adapted from an agricultural management platform with a gimbal that holds its high-def camera and radar subsystem. Its eight props span two meters and the one point four-kiloamp hour battery will carry a payload of over fifty pounds, twenty-five kilos , for up to four hours stationary, and can fly at speeds of up to thirty-nine knots, and as I mentioned earlier, has a range of twenty miles.”

Captain Jennings clacked his heels when he completed his explanation.

“Exceptional!” clamored General Shateri.

“A demonstration, Captain Jennings?” asked General Geiman.

“Of course.”

General Geiman turned to General Shateri. “It’s just like General Kim to miss this demonstration over a meaningless soccer game.”

“Football. These generals have been rivals since they were children in North Korea. Rivalry is good.”

“Competition is a preoccupation that threatens the outcome of this war.”

“It is just a game with an old friend.”

Captain Jennings instructed one of his two subordinates to retrieve a backpack from the crate inside the barn. May tensed as she heard the soldier come in, open and close the box, and pace back to the captain, who took the backpack from him. He displayed it to the generals, “this, of course, is the Tabari Low Yield Thermonuclear Pack , like the three we field-tested in McDonough. Each pack contains a one-kiloton-yield nuclear warhead, and when detonated at an altitude of one thousand feet, each warhead produces a thermonuclear blast of three hundred thousand degrees Celsius, resulting in complete and total obliteration within a one-kilometer radius. And as you observed, when these packs are used in a daisy-chain application, like in McDonough, no infrastructure remained, and human fatalities were estimated at nearly one hundred percent.”

“What I am most impressed with, Captain Jennings,” General Shateri remarked, “is that your team has overcome, what is the term when multiple bombs cancel out one another?”

“Fratricide, General. That, along with its high-yield battery and lifting capability, is what has taken us this long to achieve — coordinating the networking structure so the Tabaris will detonate at precisely the same time, regardless of location relative to one another. Two Tabaris detonating closely together a fraction of a second apart might cancel each other out. We have overcome that problem.”

“Bravo,” replied General Shateri.

General Geiman took the pack from the captain, eagerly adding, “imagine, General Shateri, once we have control over the American people, a single Tabari flown high above one of their sold-out American football stadiums. There’s enough power in just one Tabari to erase one hundred thousand lives from existence in an instant. Now imagine ten thousand of these drones strategically placed all around the United States and  fully autonomous with minds of their own, recharging themselves and relieving each other when necessary, all the while monitoring the Americans’ every move. Then  the American people will comply with us and they will submit  to the power that the PLA possesses.”

“How many of these weapons have we manufactured to date?”

“We are in possession of the remaining twenty of the initial twenty-four our laboratory has produced.”

“One remains in Moscow,” Captain Jennings added, “undergoing tests to increase thermonuclear capacity. We don’t want them too large  as to cause unnecessary radioactive fallout. It would be unsafe for our comrades. We want them just the right size  to take control of the American people.”

General Geiman said, “Russia maintains the world’s largest reserve of nuclear weapons. Had we simply desired to wipe the United States from existence, we would have utilized our one hundred-megaton Csar Bombas  and lived our lives in peace without the American plague and its pestilence.”


“Sir, may I?” Captain Jennings asked, took the Tabari from him, and continued, “permit me to demonstrate and further explain.”


“There’s a hole located here  at the bottom of the pack,” he pointed out, “and this firing pin.” He pulled a six-inch long, one-inch diameter

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metal shaft from a pocket sewn into the backpack and connected it to the Tabari via a short length of flexible wire.

Captain Jennings’ assistants held the drone at chest level while he slipped the pack onto the drone’s platform just behind the camera, and then pressed the pack’s single strap through a simple locking mechanism. He plunged the firing pin into the hole at the bottom of the pack.

“There. It’s fully readied ,” Captain Jennings said whimsically.

“Is that dangerous?” General Shateri asked nervously.

“Yes, very,” the captain replied, “however, the firing pin isn’t just a symbolic failsafe. Once inserted, all  networked Tabaris come online, readied  and awaiting the commanding officer’s instruction. If I were to depress this arming button ,” the captain displayed a switch under a clear, protective shield on the master controller, “after a two-minute countdown… boom, regardless of the automation script we’ll run for tomorrow’s display in Atlanta,” he thumbed back at the house, “I should mention, to disarm the weapon, you must enter the proper nine-digit code here ,” Captain Jennings demonstrated, pointing to a keypad on the master controller, “if you simply pull out the pin… boom.”

“It’s elegant in its simplicity,” General Geiman remarked.

“With respect, Sir, we only have twelve drones. Tomorrow, those twelve will carry Tabaris to their pre-determined sites and detonate, but eight martyrs will have to hand-carry the remaining packs.” He snapped at an assistant, who darted back inside the barn, dug through the crate, and brought out a Tabari. This  backpack was different from the others with only one strap — this backpack had two straps and was designed to be worn.

“We have General Shateri’s expertise to thank for this.”

Geiman nodded appreciatively.

The assistant turned his back to Captain Jennings, adept at demonstrating the backpack’s features. Captain Jennings slipped the backpack’s straps over the assistant’s head and under his arms, pulling them tight behind his back and around the Tabari, now resting on the assistant’s abdomen, and brought the straps through a locking mechanism.

Captain Jennings explained, “the straps, as well as the backpacks, are made from a cut-resistant ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene  material, ten times stronger than Kevlar. Its electronic locking mechanism cannot  be disengaged once it’s engaged, and is quite permanent. Only my assistants and I know how to unlock the backpack.”

“We expect our martyrs to carry through with their moral obligations,” General Shateri said.

“Precisely, Sir. This backpack steps in should they… waver or have second thoughts.”

He unlocked and removed the backpack from the assistant, who replaced it back into the crate.

“Permit me to demonstrate the drone in flight.”

The captain nodded to his assistants, and they pushed the drone high above their heads and held it steady.

“Here we go,” Captain Jennings said, and flicked a switch on the master controller. The drone’s eight helicopter blades whirred to life. It was much louder than its thin, resin-skinned rails implied. The captain piloted the drone straight up and at such a high rate of speed that it was out of sight and at its one thousand foot detonation altitude within a minute. The generals squinted, watching the drone ascend, until they could no longer see the drone. It was silent at altitude.

“I can pilot a single drone or all twelve manually, or I can input coordinates and instructions via an automation script with this master controller, making them completely autonomous,” Captain Jennings reported, “and I can view all of their cameras here.” The captain turned the master controller’s big LCD display toward the generals. “Smile for the camera!” and both generals saw themselves as clear as day being recorded by the drone’s high-definition camera. The generals were duly impressed, both waving and smiling toward the drone.


Captain Jennings pushed up on the clear plastic protective cover that safeguarded the arming button from accidental triggering, and pushed it down, arming all of the nuclear bombs in the crate, plus the one that currently hovered above them. The red armed  light glowed brightly in the midday sun. The generals looked at each other and then back to Captain Jennings. A three-digit timer started counting down from 120, 119, 118…

“As you can see, all of the Tabaris are now armed and will detonate in less than two minutes.” Captain Jennings flicked the arming button on and off, “notice that the arming button serves but one purpose. I can now only disarm the Tabaris with the proper nine-digit code.”

Captain Jennings keyed in the code and the arming light dimmed as he brought the drone back down to the ground where it was boxed and returned to the stack in the barn. The generals took their places back inside the house just as General Kim, Major Chaek, and the rest of the North Korean soldiers returned from the game.

May had listened with great intensity to every word. After the demonstration, she lay in the bed and pondered the implications of what was stored just outside her doorway. And she longed for her husband’s safe return and to tell him everything that she had discovered.


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The football game was played in Morrow at Clayton State University’s Laker Field, the area’s only regulation-sized soccer field. North Korean General Huy Lo Fook and General Kim Kyok-Chun had grown up together in the very same North Korean town, and their military careers nearly mirrored each other. They were friends and rivals, enemies and adversaries — as close as any non-blood brothers could get. General Huy, the son of a Vietnamese mother and thus considered descending from a wavering lineage, was obligated to perform better than many of his classmates, including General Kim, who was born high of the core caste. Huy’s father was a Korean War hero who was awarded the Order of Soldier’s Honor-Second Class  medal for bravery during the war, serving as an infantryman in the Korean People’s Army Ground Force. He was a great and honorable man who single-handedly saved nine soldiers from drowning when their transport truck was fired upon, killing the driver. The truck then overturned, and cascaded down an embankment into a swollen river. That one small medallion pinned to his father’s uniform opened doors for Huy that would never have otherwise opened for him, he being of the same songbun as Yong Woo-jin. Huy ascended to the highest rank attainable by his wavering caste — Major General, a one-star general, while Kim reached the highest rank attainable in the Korean People’s Army Ground Force — a four-star General of the Army.

General Huy commanded a dummy PLA headquarters in Morrow — the very same site where Winston was fired upon while searching for food. The decoy HQ was an integral and tactical PLA strategy, making it extremely difficult for American military forces to effectively cut the head off the snake . As many as fifty of these dummy HQs saturated the greater Georgian landscape, spread far and wide from the south to the north and west (the east coast was left somewhat on its own due to the thermonuclear testing in McDonough and the yet-to-be-determined radioactive properties of the fallout, though due to the bomb’s inherent relative low yield, radioactive fallout was believed to be minimal). Each decoy HQ looked and operated the same way — approximately fifty heavily-armed PLA soldiers dug into a residential property, usually near a source of clean water, outfitted with sophisticated communications equipment powered by gasoline-driven generators, and three generals representing each warring faction who ran the site. Of all of the sites, only one contained the actual commanding generals of the southern invasion, and they were camping out at the Sparrow residence.

General Huy’s Blue Team had won the previous two games against his adversary General Kim, but Kim had enlisted celebrated one-eyed goalie, Dong-joo and savvy athlete, Woo-jin to play on his Red Team. Both teams gathered on the field, each taking a side. Other than the eleven players on each team, two referees, and the generals and their respective majors, the only other people present were six Russian soldiers who took up defensive positions around the field. It was a risky game, but one that had to be played before the PLA dealt its final blow to Atlanta the next day. Securing and keeping the Atlanta airport intact was the integral mission of the southern PLA invasion, as it was to become the PLA’s main southern base of operations. The generals didn’t know when they would next be able to compete on the football field.

Major Chaek used only three words to motivate the Red Team, “you must win.” They took the field for a truncated game of two thirty-minute periods.

Woo-jin’s attitude was positive despite being cajoled, beaten, and generally pushed around by his comrades and commanders. Another man might have thought about tossing the game or performing poorly to avenge their treatment of him. But Woo-jin only desired to perform at his peak athletic ability and help win this game for his superiors. He successfully concealed his soiled uniform from his superiors by keeping his back out of their view at all times, including while on the field. At the first chance, while on the offensive toward the Blue Team’s goal line, an opponent intentionally kicked his shin — a red card viol

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ation in regulation play, but not here — their feet became intertwined and they both crashed hard onto the slick brown grass, soiling his uniform. Blue Team was awarded a free kick, and Major Chaek scolded Woo-jin and the Red Team. It turned out to be the only free kick awarded during the game, which did not please the Major.

Dong-joo was able to prevent the Blue Team player from scoring, and Woo-Jin was thankful for not having that  red mark upon his player record. The match lasted for nearly two hours with a score of 4-3, and Blue Team won again, despite Woo-jin making two of the three goals while one other Blue Team player scored one point. It was a good day with both generals and teams congratulating each other on a job well done. All too soon, the North Korean soldiers were back at their stations after a quick lunch and carrying out their assignments, including Woo-jin and Dong-joo who gathered the afternoon’s trash and brought it to the trash pile. Woo-jin tensed up as they reached the trash pile, replaying in his head what had happened only a few hours before.

“Why did you push me down?” Woo-jin asked.

“Because you are weak.”

“I am not weak.”

Dong-joo kicked at one of the stiffening Russian bodies in the trash pile and said, “this  man died for his country and the People’s Liberating Army. He was not  weak, and yet he  is dead and here you are alive. Would you  have the courage to die for our country?”

“Of course,” Woo-jin lied.

Dong-joo shook his head, “no. No, you wouldn’t. You long for a girl — low Korean trash  — who you will never  reunite with, and I hear you praying  to Buddha every night. They will not save you. They cannot  save you. Your head must be in this war at all times.” He removed his sidearm from its holster and placed it to Woo-jin’s temple. “Would your Buddhist God save you from my bullet?”

Woo-jin did not flinch and replied, “if it is His will for me to die, then no, but Buddha is not a god…”

“Such bullshit. I could kill you right now and nobody would care — not your God, not your girlfriend, not even your comrades or superiors. Nobody would care. I would be doing them a favor.”

“That’s not true. I would be missed by someone .”

Dong-joo scoffed, “you’re pathetic. You should pray  the Major kills you quickly for losing the game today.” He holstered his gun and stormed off.

“You should, too,” Woo-jin mumbled.

He finished emptying the trash, folded up the canvas sack, tottered to the underpass, and sat there motionless, hoping that Winston would show up. He was not worried about getting in trouble for shirking his duties; Woo-jin needed a friend.


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Winston slept soundly for a few hours and would have continued sleeping had it not been for the bizarre sensations he experienced while curled up on the church’s concrete steps. Crumpled into a protective ball, his lower back squelched out in agony as he slowly stretched out his cramping legs. As his eyes flickered open, he felt an odd sensation of warm, wet bologna being dragged across his hand, followed by his cheek, forehead, and then back to his hand. He would have sworn on the Bible that he smelled cheese, too. When his eyes dragged open, he was startled that a bloodthirsty, ravenous carnivore was attacking him! He scooted his body into an upright position against the church door, still too weary to defend himself, yet frightened by whatever creature it was that had decided to devour him right there on the church steps. When his eyes adjusted to the bright light, he discovered that his attacker was a small, fuzzy dog. The dog sat attentively next to him, watching him as if he were some long lost lover. Winston chuckled.

“What do we have here?”

The dog did not answer, though its tail swiped away a clean arch of grime from the walkway, its overgrown fur waggling at a mile a minute. The dog could barely see from behind its shabby beige and white fur, and its mouth was a golden shade of orange. Winston locked eyes with it, and then it attacked! The little dog jumped onto Winston’s lap and licked his face, muttering high-pitched grunts and whimpers. Winston let the dog love him and he stroked its grungy coat and checked its sex.

“You a little girl, but what kinda dog are you? A Shih Tzu?”

The dog was obviously someone’s well-mannered indoor pet that had somehow survived the war. Winston picked her up and placed her squarely on his lap, instinctively checking her over for injuries — and ticks — and speaking to her in a child-like voice.

“No, I believe you not a Shih Tzu. What’s that other one? Tell me,” he pulled her ratty fur away from her face to witness the happiest eyes he had ever seen, though they were crusty with discharge. Winston pulled his trusty handkerchief from his back pocket, wet it with the tip of his tongue, and cleaned the black, sticky substance from her eyes. She didn’t seem to mind the grooming. He was perplexed by the carroty color around her mouth, so he leaned in and sniffed it. She lapped at his face again, her tongue tickling his overgrown nostril hairs. He laughed heartily, which he hadn’t been able to do in a long time. In fact, he laughed so loudly that he quickly sobered, waiting for trouble to creep around the corner.

“I’ll be a damned fool if that there shit ‘round your mouth ain’t nothing but Velveeta cheese. And where they’s Velveeta cheese, they’s noodles. Now where’d you come across them goodies, huh girl? And what’s your name? Stella? Angel?”

The dog didn’t respond to either of those names, but relaxed in the loving and comforting embrace of Winston’s rested arms, her ears upturned to his soothing voice.








Not even close.

“Mus’ be Daisy, then.”


“I dunno… how do you feel about Muffin?”

The dog sprang to attention and barked once.


Another woof. Winston chuckled, “alright, Muffin it is. Well, darlin’, I can feel you got a couple a full-blown ticks under this here matt a fur. Prolly got more, but they’s nothin’ I can do at the moment. Ya see, the world’s done shot itself to hell, but let’s have a looksee around and see if we can’t find the source a that orange face a yours.”

Muffin hopped off Winston’s lap as he stood and stretched. He guessed that it was about noon, and his stomach reminded him just how hungry he was. From where he stood, the sea of cars and trucks dictated his course, which was through the tiny yard behind the church. Muffin took charge, leading him toward the side building that didn’t appear to be a proper rectory, not that Winston knew anything whatsoever about the Pentecostals. Several decomposed bodies littered the grounds, too decayed to recognize. He and Muffin walked around them and to the front door of the building, which was slightly ajar. Winston readied his weapon, anticipating engagement as he pushed the door open.

“Honey, I’m home,” he spoke in a moderate voice. “Hello? Anyone here?”


The building, which consisted of little more than a disheveled office, two small rooms, and one bathroom was still intact, confounding him. The real and tangible devastation inside the church he had discovered was a dichotomy to this  building, its contrasting tidy condition piquing his curiosity. He stepped over its threshold. Several large, well-nourished cockroaches scattered as he paced cautiously through the building. Muffin scampered through one of the open doors and disappeared inside, its dark interior hidden by the shadows. He pushed the bathroom door open with the barrel of his gun. It was sparse — a toilet, sink, and medicine cabinet, dankly lit by a window. The door to the room next to the bathroom was slightly open.

“I’m well armed. I don’ wanna hurt you if’n I don’ haf to.”


He pushed the door open to find a storeroom, crammed with children’s toys and stacks of bags and boxes. A window with closed blinds at the rear of the room was completely blocked, and Winston moved on to the last room to his right — the room Muffin was currently in. He could hear the dog rooting around.


He paused and listened intently for signs of human activity, but all he heard was Muffin’s rumblings. He stepped into the doorway. This room had two windows — one each to the rear and to the right, and even though they too wore blinds, the bright noon sun shining through lit the room up.

Winston discovered the source of Muffin’s orange face. The room served as the Pentecostal’s food pantry. Though it wasn’t large by any means, three shelves held all types of food. Winston gazed at the bounty, his salivating mouth whetting his appetite. His eyes ran up and down the shelves — all types of canned soup, canned tuna and chicken, dozens of cans of sardines, raisins, rice mixes, canned chili and Sloppy Joe meat, a dozen cans of his beloved Franco-American (raviolis, spaghetti and  Spaghetti O’s), canned beans, fruit, vegetables, sacks of beans and rice, pancake and corn muffin mixes, several cans of cat and dog food, several cases of bottled water, plus the source of Muffin’s orange face: an open case of boxed macaroni and cheese, its powdered cheese spread grossly across the floor. Muffin had torn several of the packages open and crunched on the dry noodles and lapped at the powdered cheese (not exactly Velveeta, though). Hundreds of cockroaches, both

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large and small (and more than a few giant ones), also munched on the nourishment.

“Well, I’ll be damned.”

He raised a blind, thinking the bright sunshine would scare off the cockroaches, but only a few of the smaller ones scattered. He grabbed one can each of sardines, French-style  green beans, and Franco-American, making sure no cockroaches tagged along, and he sprinted out the door. He set the cans down on the concrete landing, went back to the pantry, grabbed a can of dog food and two bottles of water, stopped at the office desk on his way back, and rolled the springy desk chair outside.

“Muffin. Come. Come on. Let’s have some real  food.”

Only the sardines came with a pull-tab to open the can. He tugged on it to reveal the oily, silvery fish, tossed the top aside, put the can directly to his open mouth, and fed the fish into it with an index finger, still standing. He had to remind himself to chew. Muffin joined him outside and waited patiently, her tail wagging and tongue dripping with anticipation.

Winston looked down at Muffin. “I can’t tell you how delicious these things are,” and held the empty can to her snout. She lapped at the remaining juice and oil. He opened and drank a bottled water in one long gulp, and poured water into the sardine can for Muffin. He pondered how to open the cans of food without pull-tabs, and he remembered learning a trick to open cans without a can opener. He tested the theory first on the can of dog food. It was cheap, store-brand food, but it provided better nourishment for Muffin than dry pasta noodles. He sat on the landing and scraped the can’s top across the concrete, back and forth, and back and forth. After a minute of scraping, he turned the can over, pushed in on one side of the top, and it easily gave way.

“Well, look at that, Muffin. You hungry?”

Muffin barked once, ran in several circles, and cozied up to Winston. He plopped the dog food right onto the concrete landing in a pile that Muffin devoured as it smacked down. A couple of light taps and the contents of the entire can were out — and in Muffin’s hungry stomach. Winston did the same, sitting in the office chair with his beloved Franco and the green beans, and enjoying the cool Georgian day. It was brisk, though temperate for this late in the season, and storm clouds were developing to the south. Rain was imminent. He needed to get back to May with whatever provisions he could carry, but he had to wait for the cover of darkness to climb over the fence. He estimated that he was a three hour’s walk from Johnsonville, and wary that he’d be walking along unfamiliar routes. Would he run into PLA patrols, other hungry Americans eager to strip him of his provisions, or both?

He tossed the empty Franco can to Muffin. She licked it clean. After sitting for a while, and when his imagination considered the monstrosity inside the church that must have been a slaughter of its congregation, Winston explored the storage room for something he could use to carry provisions back home. As he rummaged through the garbage bags and cardboard boxes, he found a pair of jeans in his new size (he had lost twenty pounds so far), a couple of t-shirts (one emblazoned with George Michael’s face  and Faith  in script lettering; the other a faded Rage Against the Machine  concert tee from their 30th anniversary world tour), a brand new bag of four boxer-briefs, and two t-shirts for May (one with the word LOVE  stylized with the American flag; the other with I’m a Brad Paisley Girl).  He searched for proper women’s undergarments, but came up empty. Truth be told, the George Michael tee was most likely a women’s shirt, but his song Faith  had been looping inside of Winston’s head for days, so finding that shirt was kismet. Grossed out by the sheer number of cockroaches that emerged when he shuffled the bags and boxes around, he took the new clothes outside, disrobed down to his socks, and put the new garb on, choosing the Rage  t-shirt. He tossed the sooty clothes aside, and appreciated that the bags and boxes of clothing must have been charitable contributions that hadn’t yet made it to charitable organizations for distribution.

Back inside, he restacked the bags and boxes neater than he had found them. Despite the quantity of items in the room, there didn’t seem to anything that he could use to cart provisions back to Johnsonville. He could  empty a bag of clothing or even a box or two, but carrying them home wouldn’t be practical. As he shifted the children’s items around, a doll buried somewhere in the pile of filthy toys sprang to life, startling him when it said in a deep voice, “my name is Suzie. Do you want to play?”

“No, Suzie, I do not want to play,” he said as he uncovered a vintage red Radio Flyer wagon buried underneath the toys.

“I think we got a winner here, Muff,” Winston remarked excitedly.

He plucked the toys off the wagon, eager to get moving back home, and hauled it up and out of the clutter, but was disappointed to discover that the wagon was missing a wheel. Still, he set it down on the level concrete floor in the office to test its stability. He picked Muffin up and set her down into the wagon, and the wagon remained stable, so he grabbed the handle and pulled. Muffin briefly lost her stability, but Winston thought he could work with it. Then he had another thought. He ran outside and searched amongst the vehicles that surrounded the church. He peered inside their windows, slightly anxious, but he found no corpses or signs of struggle in any of the vehicles. He had a thought as he squeezed through the tight spaces between the vehicles and sought out only open or unlocked minivans, of which there were many, not wanting to make unnecessary noise should car alarms blare and hostiles be nearby. After searching several minivans, he found what he had been searching for — a folded pram-style stroller.

Winston took the stroller back to the building, extended its somewhat challenging folding mechanism, and locked it into place while Muffin looked on. It was perfect — over-sized smooth-rolling wheels and several nooks to stuff with provisions. He rolled the stroller into the pantry and loaded it up, careful to read labels and take only canned goods that contained the highest calories. It didn’t look like much when he was done, but it would have to be enough — for now, anyway. He thought about hiding the rest of the provisions nearby or using the Claymore mine he still had stuffed into his pocket to save the food from looters, but the weapon might unintentionally hurt hungry Americans. He decided to leave the remaining provisions unprotected and unhidden, and he gazed down at Muffin, who looked pitiful with her overgrown fur and orange face.

“Let’s see if we can do something ‘bout that,” he said, remembering seeing a medicine cabinet in the bathroom. When he walked into the bathroom, he saw his face in the mirror — his cheeks were sunken and the wrinkles around his eyes were darkened by the soot that made his skin appear as if he was wearing blackface makeup. The sparse stubble that poked from his neck and chin and cheeks reminded him why he never grew a beard. He opened the medicine cabinet to find it empty, though a shriveled bar of soap was at the sink’s edge. On a lark, he twisted both water faucets on. To his surprise, a slow stream of water trickled out of the spout. It wasn’t much, but it was  enough to wash the soot off his hands and face, and though the water stank like iron ore, it made him feel a little more human.

Winston felt the urge to use the toilet, especially since there was now something in his stomach. He opened the toilet lid. It was dry and empty, except for a couple of cockroaches that scampered out when their refuge was discovered. He pulled the top off the toilet. The tank was half-filled. Muffin stood in the doorway and watched Winston sit on the toilet seat. “I’d like some privacy, please,” he said and closed the door partially. He discovered a folding door (hidden behind the bathroom’s open door) within reach, so he pushed it open and ran his eyes around its contents. The closet was stuffed with towels, toilet paper, and the paraphernalia that one keeps in a bathroom. And when Winston eyed a package of four pristine rolls of toilet paper, he just about wept. He finished, cleaned up, and flushed, not surprised that the toilet tank didn’t refill, and rifled through the closet searching for anything usable. An old package of adhesive bandages proved to be empty, but he did find a package of four AA batteries, the type he needed for his small flashlight. He set them aside.

“This place a gift from God,” he remarked to Muffin.

He found a bin on the bottom shelf, hidden behind a box of rags. He pulled it out and found combs, a hairbrush, electric razor kit, tweezers, bottles of alcohol and hydrogen peroxide, those fingernail files he couldn’t quite name but saw that May used, plus several used disposable razors. He opened the electric razor kit to find scissors and several length attachments. More importantly, he discovered that the razor was not electric but battery operated. He turned the razor on, excited about the possibilities. The razor sprang to life, but quickly whirred dead.

“Damn it.”

He found the battery compartment and opened it. Four rusted AA batteries stared back at him. He looked down to Muffin and said, “I know what’s you’re thinkin’,” as he replaced the old batteries with the new ones. This time, the razor sprang to life and stayed whirring. Winston removed his cap and gazed at his disheveled appearance in the mirror. The man that looked back at him was only a fraction of the man that he once was, and not all that long ago. He ran sti

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ff fingers through his hair, which had never grown to this length, and ran the razor over his neck and face, reducing the long hair to stubble. He let his eyes fill momentarily with tears, grieving for his country and loved ones, before swiping the razor across his head and creating a clear swath of skin from temple to crown. He didn’t stop until his entire head was as bare as it was on the day he left for Vietnam.

The faucet continued to provide enough water for him to wet his face and froth the soap. He lathered up and chose what appeared to be the least-used disposable razor from the bin and shaved his face clean. When he was done, he appeared ten years younger, and somehow felt it, too. Muffin, who watched him the entire time, looked up at him with human eyes. Her appearance spoke volumes to him.

“Come on,” Winston said, grabbed the bin and a rag, walked outside, and sat on the step. Muffin gleefully followed.

“This will make you feel better.”

He brought the scissors out carefully, and watched for Muffin’s reaction as he held them close to her face. She didn’t flinch. He cut a large chunk of matted fur away from her eyes, and then another and another until her entire body resembled a hipster Guinea pig. Muffin remained still and compliant, eyes calmly examining her new master. Winston found an inch-long comb attachment for the battery-operated razor, the longest one available in the kit, and proceeded to run it gently over Muffin’s body, her remaining fur falling to the ground en mass. When he was done, she looked like half the dog she was when she first “attacked” Winston. She, too, also felt younger.

“You are unusually compliant,” Winston remarked as he completed Muffin’s hairstyling. With her fur so short now, he saw the condition of her skin, which was deplorable, appearing to have been ravaged by fleas and ticks. There was little more he could do for her now, though he did find several bloated ticks on her underbelly and one near her ear that he carefully pulled out with the tweezers, and he dabbed a bit of hydrogen peroxide around the areas where the ticks fed. When he was done, she scampered in large circles around the back yard, leaping over the two decomposed corpses (Winston would never know that those bodies were Muffin’s owners), and back to Winston.

“You’re welcome, Muff.”

Winston was ready to get back to May. He stood at the pantry’s door with his hands on his hips, second-guessing as to what should be done with the remaining provisions. He decided that he’d leave them where he found them, hopeful that other hungry Americans would find them. Besides, if he did  have to go out for food again, he knew where this place was. He pushed the baby stroller through the woods and onto U.S. Route 23, and started the journey north. Muffin tagged along.

“No, Muffin, stay.”

Winston walked. Muffin followed.

“Go on, now get.”

Still, she persisted. He understood the implications of helping this animal out, and knew that she was going to follow him no matter what he did, which is why he had taken all of the wet cat and dog food from the pantry. He continued walking north up the long and lonely road, passing by scores of buildings and neighborhoods, all seemingly deserted. He hoped the former occupants of this area were somewhere safe and far from the enemy, though deep in his heart he knew they were all dead.

Several miles north, near an area with many strip malls, he saw a group of people milling about in front of a burned-out gas station. They were definitely not PLA soldiers, but unkempt Americans forced onto the streets — like him. They all stopped dead in their tracks when they saw each other, suspicious of each other’s next move. It was surreal to be afraid of your own countrymen, but the war did  pit Americans against each other for the basic necessities of survival. But the group went about their business when they saw that Winston was no threat, which felt even stranger to him. He pressed on, Muffin at his side, and then, again, a mile down the road, he saw more people out in the open. There appeared to be a semblance of community, but he didn’t engage them, though seeing them gave him a modicum of hope. He counted more than twenty people, and not one behaved like Jimmy — crazy enough to get himself killed. Still, Winston kept a hand on the partially hidden rifle that rested on top of the provisions. As he walked through the town, a group of three men and one woman approached, coming from the north. They slowed as they passed by Winston, but didn’t stop.

“Where you from, Mister?” one of the men asked.

“Jes’ came from McDonough,” Winston replied, still walking.

“Woo-wee,” the man said and stopped. Everybody stopped.

“You are a survivor?” the man asked.

Winston nodded his head.

“That’s a cute little doggie,” the woman said. Her face conveyed such a deep feeling of tragedy that Winston felt guilty. “Where you headin’?”


One of the men shook his head. “Better not. Just come from that way. It’s a bee’s nest a PLA pukes up there.”

“We was  six,” the woman said.

“Thank you,” Winston replied, and continued to walk.

“Good luck.”

Winston stopped and said, “they’s plenny a supplies in the building behind the Pentecostal church down the road a ways.”

“God bless you.”

Soon enough, he was back to the lonely dull country road. Unlike Route 75, here the PLA could easily come up on him quickly around a bend or over a hill if he wasn’t vigilant. At the intersection of US 23 and GA-42 in Stockbridge, he skirted along the trees to avoid the openness of the wide highway. Here, it was beginning to feel less safe, but he pushed on, faster and harder the closer he got to home. He was just north of Johnsonville, and would have to turn south and walk along what were usually busy roads, connecting one city to the other, to find the way that would bring him near the old Harris homestead at the end of their road. He determined that he couldn’t bring all of the provisions inside the apartment, and he decided to hide them in the Harris’s old shed — the very same shed he had sent Jimmy to investigate. He could retrieve the provisions when they were needed.

As Winston thought and walked down Flippen Road, he came across an intersection with gas stations on both sides. The droning of generators alerted him that the pumps were being used by the PLA. Sure enough, the gas station was heavily guarded with soldiers most likely from his property and a Russian Tigr troop transport had just finished refueling. The truck pulled out and headed in his direction. He didn’t have time to maneuver the baby stroller into the woods with him, so he pushed it to the ground and dove for cover under the live oaks where he and Muffin watched the truck roll past, south to where he had just come from. He waited five minutes before returning on their journey, and would have to hide several more times before coming to the place in the woods where he could see the Harris property through the trees.

He removed his hoodie and tied the sleeves and hood into a tight knot, effectively creating a sack. He stuffed the shirts and underwear into the small pockets in the hoodie’s shoulders and filled the remaining space with as much food as he could, leaving room to twist the opening shut. He left the makeshift sack in the woods and paced cautiously through the trees, the stroller rolling loudly across a bed of pine needles, and crossed through the Harris’ back yard to the shed. The lock had been shot off, but the door functioned properly. He opened the door slowly, anticipating squeaks. He was so close to his property that he could hear the din of the generators.

He moved a lawn mower aside and pushed the stroller next to it, leaving the food inside, and mounted the Claymore mine that he had acquired from Cole down in McDonough, jamming it between a 2x4 and the wall, and aimed straight at the door. He rigged it so anybody opening the door without first disarming it would get a face full of stainless steel balls. He pushed the arming wire through one of the rust holes in the rear of the shed, closed the door, and wrapped it loosely around a nail head on the outside of the shed. It didn’t have to be tight — it just had to tighten enough when the door opened to engage the firing mechanism. Satisfied, he headed back to where he had stashed the food. Suddenly, an odd whizzing noise interrupted his escape back into the safety of the woods. He looked for the source across the horizon when the shape of a large drone descending into his own back yard caught his eye. Winston thought he saw one of the backpacks currently being stored inside the barn hanging under the drone. And it all made sense.

Back to the Barn

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A layer of low-hanging, thick clouds hid the mid-afternoon sun. Winston was cold. He and Muffin bolted across his own street into the blueberry bush field, skirted Little River for several hundred feet, and turned north until he hit the Johnsonville exit off-ramp, the heavy cans in the makeshift hoodie-sack rattling all the way. He kneeled, his breaths labored and short. He looked down at Muffin, who looked up at him. He set down the rifle and the provisions.

“I’m too old for this here shit. This the tick field. I’m a hafta carry yo’ ass lest you wan’ some mo’ ticks.”

Winston shoved the rifle up into his left armpit, and secured Muffin beneath it. He loaded his right arm with the hoodie-sack, and slowly made his way through the field of tall grass. He stopped twenty feet from the road

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to wait for two Russian Tigrs to roll past. When it felt safe, he poked his head out, saw that the road was clear, and bolted across to the relative safety of the space between the highway overpass and the water treatment plant. He placed Muffin down, his arms prickly and sensitive.

“You gotta stay keepin’ quiet now. Still  don’ know what I’m a do with you.”

He and Muffin walked toward the underside of the overpass, his rifle at the ready. As he turned the corner, he was face to face with a standard issue DPRK Type 68 pistol.

“Drop the gun,” the soldier said, “and put your arms up.”

Winston dropped the rifle, bents his knees a bit, and set down the provisions. He put his arms up and recognized the face that belonged to the gun — it was Woo-jin.

“Woo-jin?” Winston asked.

Woo-jin quickly looked from Winston to Muffin and back, his face clearly communicating that he didn’t trust the dog.

“Oh, she’s alright, Woo-jin. Friendliest dog I ever met. Name is Muffin.”

Muffin barked, startling Woo-jin, who took Winston’s rifle, holstered his own weapon, and said, “keep it quiet.”

“May I?” Winston asked, slowly lowering his arms.


Winston picked Muffin up and stroked her short, unevenly cut, fur.

“Sit,” Woo-jin said.

He and Winston sat under the overpass. Winston set Muffin down between the two men. Though she was quiet and obedient, Woo-jin eyed her cautiously.

“How you been?” Winston asked.

Woo-jin shrugged.

“What’s eatin’ you?”

Woo-jin gave Winston a confused look.

“What’s bothering you?”

“I want go home. I don’t like here anymore.”

“I can empathize with that.”

“Other men treat me bad. Say nobody care about me.”

“I care ‘bout you, bud.”

Woo-jin searched Winston’s face and found signs of compassion.

“Thank you.”

“How’d you like that apple I left you? And the beechnuts?”

“I like very much apple. Not nuts. They taste like sewer.”

Winston smiled, “well, okay then. Maybe I can find you another apple.”

“Yes. I like very much,” and then Woo-jin frowned, “I go. It dangerous. I been gone so long.”

“How would you like a dog ?” Winston asked, picking Muffin up and plopping her down on his lap, “she behaves very well. Go on, give her a pat.”

Woo-jin placed a timid hand upon Muffin’s head and patted. His affection was awkward and unnatural.

“Ain’t you never pet a dog before?” Winston asked.

“No. Dog in North Korea called sweet meat. Very delicious. It is said that dear leader Kim Jong-il ate two dogs per day.”

Winston’s brow furrowed as he took Muffin back and placed her on his lap. Woo-jin smiled.

“I no eat dog, but maybe my comrades do.”

“Yeah, so no pet doggie for you.”


“Do I smell fresh… bodies in the pile?”

“Russians. Killed on this road,” Woo-jin pointed up at the I-75 overpass, “south of here. Look like shotgun.”

“I see,” Winston said, knowing that he was responsible for their deaths.

“I got go before they look for me.”

“Take care.”

“Be careful, Winston. Don’t be here after dinner. My new partner very bad.”

“The one-eyed dude?”

Woo-jin nodded, “he a prick,” and solemnly walked away, grabbing the canvas sack along the way. Winston and Muffin watched him go. When he was out of sight, Winston grabbed the provisions and rifle, placed Muffin onto the hoodie-sack, and scooted up underneath the concrete overpass to the ledge where he had first met Jimmy (his stuff was still there). He had time to kill, so he settled in to rest, laying on his back and relaxing his head on the goodie-filled hoodie. Muffin climbed on top of him and settled on his chest. He stroked her fur for a moment until they both fell asleep.


May watched Woo-jin traipse back through the front gate. It was an hour after his trash partner with the one eye had come back. She also watched them leave together shortly after lunch. His demeanor was certainly different then — somber and subdued — than it appeared now — a smidgen happier. She even saw him glance out into the woods where he had just come from, confirming, in her mind, that Winston was out there ready to come home. She was eager to be with her man, but she was forced to face the fact that she must wait until lights out, and he had to somehow shift the heavy boxes of drones out of the way of their door without making noise.

The drone and nuclear backpack were put away this morning after the demonstration, and the main barn door was now guarded. She could sometimes see the guard through the slit that faced the house when he shifted his position, but one of her duties when Winston was out was to make sure the window he came back in was unlocked. She unlatched the apartment door and opened it slowly to find four rows of boxes stacked three high. She placed gentle pressure on one stack just to see if she could move it. At first, the boxes didn’t budge, but as she continued to apply pressure, the boxes slowly moved, first an inch, six inches, and then a foot, until the stack stopped at about eighteen inches past the others, giving her just enough room to wiggle her way through the slight opening. She popped out into the barn, and quickly and quietly shifted and restacked the boxes. It was heavy work, but it was also gratifying. The final three boxes left only an inch between the edge and the door opening. She looked across the room to find that the window’s latch was  locked. She shuffled slowly across the barn floor to the window, unlatched it, and made her way back to the safety of the apartment. She sat on the bed feeling exhilarated — she now understood how Winston must feel when he was outside.

Without much to do, or anything other than Amadeus’ cat food to eat, she leaned her back against the wall and opened On the Waterfront , intent on finishing it by the time Winston came home. She was quickly reminded that it was that time of the week when the PLA’s portable toilets were emptied as the sewage vacuum truck parked next to the barn slurped loudly, swallowing the liquefied contents. Still, May put the book to her face and delved back into the story.


Woo-jin, feeling good about seeing his American friend Winston, sauntered back into the camp and momentarily lost control of his senses when he caught himself staring out past the razor-wire fence, searching the woods. He wondered where Winston slept. Surely, it couldn’t have been anywhere nearby since the PLA occupied Georgia from Atlanta on south. He constantly overheard fellow soldiers triumphantly bragging about violent clashes with Americans while out on patrol, and the varied ways that they killed them. After all, Major Chaek had  given the order to kill any and all Americans. Woo-jin was saddened as he thought about a recent story from his tent-mates about the prisoners behind the store, how the soldiers spit and defecated in the food scraps that they fed the captives, and how these soldiers laughed at the terrible things they did.

He shook the imagery out of his head and turned his thoughts to Seul-ki, whom he prayed to marry after the war, and rinsed the rank canvas sack in Robin Lake. As his mind played out scenarios of his reunion with Seul-ki, he walked back to his tent, which he shared with three other low songbun North Korean soldiers. He was anxious to rid himself of the sack, a constant reminder of his low standing. As he entered the tent, Dong-joo looked up at him. He was alone, sitting on Woo-jin’s cot with Seul-ki’s photograph in his hand, which meant that he had surely searched his belongings for it. Woo-jin dropped the canvas sack.

“Give me that,” Woo-jin asserted.

This  is the girl you swoon about?” Dong-joo asked, “she is homely, like a boy.”

Woo-jin, raging, edged closer to Dong-joo, who warned, “I wouldn’t,” and motioned that he would tear the photo.

“She looks familiar to me, but I can’t quite place her face.”

Woo-jin prayed that Dong-joo wouldn’t remember Seul-ki, for recalling her meant recalling how he had lost his eye, and unquestionable retaliation.

“Maybe I seen her face on a can of silkworm pupas?”

Woo-jin burst out in uncontrollable laughter, and Dong-joo couldn’t help but join him. But Woo-jin’s laughter was a ruse, and the moment Dong-joo made the mistake of wiping the tears from his eyes, Woo-jin pounced on him like he had that fateful day he had taken Dong-joo’s eye. Woo-jin simultaneously seized Seul-ki’s photo from Dong-joo’s hand and wrapped his fingers tightly around the thief’s neck. Dong-joo flailed his arms wildly and connected with Woo-jin’s face, exclaiming, “there! That’s what I was looking for! There’s the soldier! Fight me!”

With that accusation, Woo-jin leaned back in embarrassment. He didn’t want  to be a soldier. He didn’t want  to fight Dong-joo. He didn’t ask  to be a part of this war. He didn’t desire  to take anyone’s life. As Woo-jin hovered over Dong-joo, relieved he had Seul-ki’s photo, Major Chaek burst into the tent.

“What is this?” the Major shouted.

Dong-joo and Woo-jin sprang to attention, standing as straight as arrows, their eyes glaring forward.

“What is this contraband?” he demanded to know of Woo-jin. Major Chaek ripped Seul-ki’s photograph from Woo-jin’s hand, the same way he had ripped it from Dong-joo’s hand only moments ago. Major Chaek gazed at the photo for a moment.

Woo-jin didn’t know how to answer the question. It was well known that personal items from home, such as photographs and letters, were strictly forbidden, though many of the PLA soldiers possessed said items.

“I asked you a question!”

“A ph

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oto of a girl, Major!” Woo-jin replied.

In a reasonable voice, Major Chaek said, “this is not a photograph of a girl, Lance Corporal Yong. This is the photograph of a ghost,” and he methodically tore it into dozens of tiny pieces that fluttered to the grass below his feet.

“Yes, Sir,” Woo-jin responded, gulping, blinking, and fighting his emotions.

Major Chaek got into Dong-joo’s face the way that military drill instructors sometimes do, and noticed that Dong-joo’s neck was reddened.

“Did Lance Corporal Yong do this to you, Corporal Sang?” he asked.

“Yes, Sir!”

“I see,” he said, and turned to Woo-jin and asked, “what were you doing with such forbidden contraband in your possession?”

Woo-jin was nervous and kept silent.

“This is not a rhetorical question, Lance Corporal Yong. Why did you have a photograph of a girl  in your possession?”

Woo-jin softly replied, “I do not know, Major Chaek.”

“And you assaulted a superior when he attempted to relieve you of such forbidden contraband? Yes?”

“Yes, Sir,” Woo-jin responded.

Major Chaek turned back to Dong-joo and asked, “Corporal Sang, what punishment do you propose I levy against Lance Corporal Yong?”

Without hesitation, Dong-joo barked, “Sir, Corporal Sang observed the sewer truck pumping out the portable toilets and believes they need washing!”

“That’s a good start,” Major Chaek said, eyeing Woo-jin, “use water from the lake, but do not rinse in the lake.”

“Sir!” Dong-joo belted out, “the Corporal also requests permission to be excused from trash duties with the Lance Corporal.”

“Request denied. You are both a disgrace to the Major, General Kim, and Supreme Commander Marshal Kim Jong-un! You are dismissed.”

Woo-jin and Dong-joo saluted Major Chaek and bolted out of the door. Dong-joo made a beeline to his private tent, while Woo-jin watched the sewer truck exit the encampment, its belly hungry for the next batch of excrement. Soldiers were already lining up to use the portable toilets because they stunk less when they were empty.

Woo-jin found cleaning supplies in the Sparrows’ upstairs bathroom and got to work, scrubbing the portable toilets in between the soldiers using them, many who intentionally “missed” the toilet. It would take him until dinnertime to get them as clean as Major Chaek requested, painstakingly dumping one filthy bucket after another near the trash pile.

After dinner, he and Dong-joo made their usual rounds in pensive silence. Woo-jin expected Dong-joo to throw him into the trash heap again, but he was only met with ambivalence from a partner who acted like he was invisible. And they were fine with that.


Winston awoke at six o’clock, a full hour before PLA dinnertime. Muffin had somehow rolled onto her back without falling down the steep concrete incline, and she hopped onto her feet when she felt Winston stir. He rooted through the provisions and plucked out two items.

“Let’s go see if we can find some apples, and bring this here can a peaches and some raisins to good ‘ol Ben.”

He placed the rifle and Muffin on his lap and slid back down to the ground, not bothering to check the trash pile for edibles, and dashed toward the road, Muffin close on his heels. He stopped at the road, but Muffin kept running, straight out into it. She stopped mid-road, turned back, and barked at Winston, thinking that this was a game.

“Shit,” he said and bolted across the road and into the field.

He continued running until he came to Calef’s apple orchard, and he and Muffin pressed forward toward the rear of the store. Winston vigilantly scoured the trees for apples and surveyed the surrounding area for PLA soldiers. There wasn’t an apple or soldier to be had. Despite his better judgment, he crept slowly up to the fence. It was still light out and he could see the prisoners, their gaunt and ghastly features brilliantly glowing orange by the waning sun, whose gingery rays lit up the stormy sky. Ben, it seemed, hadn’t moved an inch since Winston last saw him. But he was alive and in good spirits when he recognized his friend.

“Winston! It’s so good to see you.”

Winston kneeled to get down to his height.

“Ben. How are you?”

“Oh, we dead, Winston, we walkin’ talkin’ dead in here.”

“Cut that out, Ben. They been feedin’ ya?”

“Oh, sure, Winston. Why it was just the other day they served us chateaubriand.”

One of the men chuckled softly in the darkness.

“Who dat?” Ben asked of Muffin.

“Her name is Muffin. Found her down in McDonough.”

“She a Lhasa Apso.”

That’s  what she is. I thought Shih Tzu.”

“A common mistake.”

Ben put four fingers through the fence and pet Muffin’s coat. She stood in benevolence, enjoying the attention. Ben enjoyed it, too.

“Heard we was leavin’ soon. They all packin’ and movin’ closer to Atlanta,” Ben reported.

“Is that true?”

“Come back in a couple a days and I’ll tell ya.”

“Sorry I ain’t got nothin’ for you today, Ben,” Winston said in a slightly louder voice and coughed while he discreetly opened the can of peaches, “they feedin’ ya okay?”

“Oh, I can’t complain. It’s enough to get us by.”

“Good. Eat these,” Winston whispered, pushing the can of peaches to Ben and motioning for him to be hush about it. Ben winked and put dirty fingers into the peaches, pulling them out one by one and eating them like sardines.

“Oh, we been seein’ a bunch a ‘mericans rootin’ ‘round them trees night after night, jes’ lookin’ fer apples. Them gooks got one, ya know — you kin kinda see the body from here.”

Ben aimed a crooked finger toward the center of the orchard. Winston stood erect and scoured the area in the direction Ben aimed. Sure enough, he could just make out the curves of a rotting corpse. He kneeled back down.

“Know who it was?”


Winston would divulge to Ben neither the atrocity he had witnessed in McDonough nor the contents of his and May’s barn, but they did chat quietly until the sun set. Woo-jin and Dong-joo should have by now taken care of the trash, and it was now safer to cross the road. Ben had finished eating the peaches without causing a ruckus, and Winston slipped the raisins through the gate to him.

“Okay, Ben. I gotta get. You take care now.”

“You, too, ol’ friend. Give May my love.”

“I will.”

Winston scooted off in a low crouch, whispering, “Muffin, come,” and kept moving. He looked back to see her lay down next to Ben, his four fingers still outstretched and lovingly patting her. Winston didn’t stop moving, and turned back to face where he was heading, hoping that she wouldn’t follow him. And she didn’t.

He crept across the road, making it back to the overpass in record time. He climbed up to the ledge, retrieved the provisions, and meandered slowly back to the fence to find the stepstool and water where he had left them. Lights out was probably still a couple of hours away, so he sat with his back against the tree he would climb when it was all clear. Suddenly, Amadeus slinked into view, holding a writhing chipmunk in his mouth. The cat stood there momentarily, gazing at his master as if to say, “I’m cool,” and then disappeared back into the woods. It was only a fraction of a moment that Winston was eager to share with May, for it would bring her much joy.

And then the rains came. In an instant, a torrent of rainwater soaked everything under the Georgia sky. The winds whipped up in a frenzy, sending tree limbs crashing to the ground. Winston instinctively leapt into action. He tossed the provisions, the three water jugs, his rifle, and the stepstool across the top of the fence, jumped up onto the tree branch, and climbed over. He dropped to the ground, gathered his things, and brought them to the window. He placed the stepstool under the window to open it, but it opened from inside.

“Gimme those,” May said.

Winston handed her the jugs (all three now only half-filled and missing their caps), provisions, and gun, and she carried all of it into the apartment before he was inside the barn. He twirled his hand around at May, concerned about the mess he made climbing through the window, systematically removed all of his clothes, and wrung them outside the window as best he could. May found a large towel inside the apartment and sopped up the water from where Winston stood naked, holding his wet clothes in his arms. She nudged him into the apartment while she finished mopping the floor, praying the residual wetness would evaporate before the next time someone checked on the weapons. Winston, damp and shivering, hung his wet clothes and cap over the shower curtain and unpacked his hoodie, setting the provisions out for May’s inspection. He slipped on the clean I’m a Brad Paisley Girl  t-shirt and submerged under the covers. She finished up and closed the door behind her, the rain beating down loudly on the barn’s roof.

“That’s about as good as I’m gonna get it,” she said, seeing Winston’s frame shivering under the blanket. She frowned and slid under the blanket and pulled him into her warm embrace.

“You’re so cold,” she said.

“Uh huh.”

“And what you do to your face and head?”


“It looks good,” May complimented while she rubbed her cheek across the scruff of his cheek, “it feels good, too.”

“I found some food.”

“I see,” May said, looking over her shoulder at the cans he had lined up, “but dog food?”

“I also found a dog. Her name’s Muffin. She followed me here from McDonough. Left her…” Winston nearly divulged his secret about Ben and the other captives. “At the apple orchard, she run off… so the dog food’s yours if you’d like.”

“Funny. Did you happen to see…

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?” she almost couldn’t say his name.

“Amadeus? Hell, he havin’ a blast out there. Saw ’im just now with a chipmunk in his mouth and he run off.”

“Good. That makes me feel better. Now, how about I warm you up?”

“Oh? By the way, how do you feel about Brad Paisley?”

“Shut up.”

May climbed on top of Winston. They were both ready for their overdue reunion, and they made slow, quiet love listening to the rain pour down outside until their bodies gave in to love’s enduring fatigue.


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Rain fell for two straight days. But May and Winston didn’t mind — the racket of the deluge allowed them to speak in more than just a whisper. They devoured Winston’s newly found provisions, put on fresh underwear, and May wore the Love  t-shirt. They played board and card games, read books, looked through old photo albums they hadn’t in years, and made love several times a day — the way newlyweds made love when their passion for each other was new and intoxicating. The apartment felt less like the prison cell it had come to symbolize.

Winston admitted to her what he had discovered in McDonough, and she told him everything she heard about the nuclear bombs and drones stored in the barn. They were both perplexed as to how and why the war had gone this far — that the American military establishment hadn’t yet intervened here in Georgia, and that the war had gone nuclear — on American soil no less. Winston didn’t know much about nuclear weapons, but he did  know that together the United States and Russia possessed enough large, high-yield  thermonuclear warheads to cause irreparable damage to the earth, should they engage in that type of warfare. The smaller warheads the PLA developed were just that — small — but if produced in the numbers May told Winston about, well, that’s a worldwide game-changer for policing and tactical offensives. Whoever controlled these low-yield nukes and automated drone technologies controlled the world.

Before dawn on his third day back, Winston awoke with a screaming bladder. The sun was rising and it looked like it was going to be a good day for Georgia to dry out. He relieved himself into the pipe, but it didn’t make the usual burbling noise of the urine flowing down into the makeshift septic. Suddenly, urine spilled out from the top of the pipe. “Oh dear,” he said loudly, waking May.

“What’s happening?” she asked.

“Pipe is clogged,” he painfully strained to quell his urine flow and grabbed an empty water bottle to finish.


“I think I can fix it from inside.”

Winston found the dirty, wet towel May used to clean the mess in the barn days earlier when he came in from the rain. It was still damp. He slowly pushed a length of the towel into the pipe, letting it sop up the contents, and left if hanging there a moment. He found the bucket they used to defecate and liquefy their waste in, and squeezed the towel’s wetness into it. Though the task was quick, it was sickening because the contents of the pipe were not merely liquid, but slurry-like in consistency. He repeated the process, bringing the slurry to about six inches from the top of the pipe.

“What happened to it?” May asked.

“Dunno. Probably the rain. Maybe it’s just full.”

He wiggled the pipe around, and tugged upwards on it, hoping that introducing air into the pipe would cause it to drain, but it wouldn’t budge. He inspected it closely with his flashlight, where it passed through the floor and to the outside.

“I’ll be damned,” he said, “looks like the whole barn shifted an inch or two when the tank backed into it. Pipe is bent ta holy hell.”

“Can you fix it?”

“No. I gotta get up underneath there and see if I can shift the rocks ‘round the pipe, maybe free it up so you can pull it up a few inches, and outta the sludge that must be down there.”

“Now? Can it wait? How do you propose to go outside an’ get under this here barn what with the soldiers out there?”

“There’s a foot a crawl space unnerneath there.”

“We should wait ‘til later, when it’s dark.”

“Now stay with me, Mother, if I can get out there now, while they at breakfast and it still kinda dark, I can be back inside in ten minutes.”

May pondered his suggestion and huffed.

“Okay, go, but be quick about it.”

“I’ll rap my knuckle on the pipe twice when I want you ta pull up. Jes’ a few inches now.”

May nodded and Winston disappeared out the door. He brought the stepstool with him as he closed the window behind him and quickly disappeared under the barn, next to the old pallets and cinder blocks that hid the septic system. May heard him as he scooted underneath.

Winston, on his back, pulled his body forward through the barn’s saturated and muddy underbelly using his heels and the floor joists. The ground was steeped with nauseating human waste, and the darkness was a frustrating hurdle, but he could make out the silhouette of the pipe only three or four feet from his hands. He scooted across the sharp crushed stones, which caused severe pain to shoot through his back, but he soon found his hands wrapped around the pipe’s greasy shaft. He rapped twice, and she knocked twice back. He positioned the pipe just to the top of his left shoulder and pushed, tugged, pulled, and jerked on it, but it didn’t budge.

May did the same from above with matching results.

Irritated, Winston knew what he had to do — shift enough crushed stones to relieve the pressure on the pipe, and so, one handful at a time, he moved perhaps fifty pounds of the stones, often checking the pipe’s hold by pushing up on it. Again, he rapped twice, and again, they attempted to move the pipe. He could feel it loosening and shifting upwards, and in one short motion, the pipe lifted several inches and emptied its disgusting contents into the crushed stone — and onto Winston. He gagged at the odor and scooted back out from under the barn, but immediately dove back under when the entire camp began to buzz with excitement. He crawled on his belly this time, through the spider webs and detritus, to just below the apartment, closer to the house than to the septic system. He rapped twice on the floor where he imagined May would be. She knocked back. She was observing the camp’s activities through the slits, and understood that he was probably stuck underneath the barn until darkness came tonight, some twelve hours away.


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An American pickup truck pulled into the driveway, its bed filled with American prisoners. Winston inched closer to the driveway to get a better look. When the prisoners emerged, Winston immediately recognized them, and his heart sank.

“Damn,” he cursed.

May, who had almost finished reading On the Beach , put the book down and peered out the lower slit that faced the driveway when she heard the truck.

“That’s ol’ Ben,” she gasped, “and George Calef, and the Morse brothers.”

That’s  who they are, the Morse brothers,” Winston whispered to himself.

“And that’s Margaret O’Leary’s boy,” May said, “oh, and Scotty.”

“…and Med’s brother, Scotty,” Winston whispered. His head and eyes darted toward Med’s head, still anchored to the iron post — his face was no longer recognizable, for which Winston was grateful.

“What are they doing with them?” May wondered aloud.

Winston was somewhat relieved that he wasn’t witnessing this with May because he still didn’t have the courage to tell her that he knew about these men being held captive all along. He wouldn’t have been able to lie to her any longer, and deep down in his heart, he knew what was about to happen, recalling what Ben had told him three days ago. The rain was their temporary stay.

The soldiers, who spoke English, pushed the American prisoners toward the port-a-potties, yelling and cursing at them, and ordered them to sit near the toilets. The prisoners, still wearing only their soiled underwear, obeyed and kept silent. As the PLA soldiers talked softly about their fate, Major Chaek spewed hateful rhetoric about the men and America in general. The soldiers, who now only numbered about thirty, huddled around the six American prisoners, taunting them and spitting on them. Woo-jin, at the rear of the swarm, only mouthed insults when he found himself being scrutinized. He did not like the way the American prisoners were being treated, and prayed that their suffering would come to a quick and painless end.

One of the Russian soldiers who had delivered the prisoners disappeared inside the house, where the three generals were gathered over a large map of downtown Atlanta. There were twenty red dots plotted on the map, spread out in a pattern. Sophisticated equipment whirred and blinked, and the PLA soldiers performing complex military calculations in the living room belied the banal goings-on outside. The Russian soldier stood at attention, awaiting acknowledgement, while the generals spoke.

“Twelve drones will strike these inner perimeter positions,” said Russian General Geiman, while pointing, “eight martyrs will hand carry the Tabaris into these highly-populated civilian territories. While the Americans insist on fighting a conventional warfare on their own land, we have delivered nuclear warfare to them.”

“Excellent,” said North Korean General Kim Kyok-Chun, “Honorable

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Marshal Kim Jong-un pledges the DPRK’s enduring support in this most important endeavor.”

Iranian General Shateri acknowledged the Russian soldier without looking up from the map, “you have delivered the prisoners?”

“Yes, sir,” the Russian soldier replied.

“I have decided to no longer keep them. Have Major Chaek kill them.”

“Yes, sir.”

Winston’s vantage point did not give him a clear view of the soldiers. He saw mostly legs, and his head was probably three feet from the barn’s outer wall. He didn’t want to risk being seen by the PLA, so he stayed put, though he could  see his Johnsonville friends while they were seated. He hoped they couldn’t see his face under the barn. The Russian soldier emerged from the house and he relayed the instructions from the general. Major Chaek was pleased.

“Line them up,” he ordered the Russian soldier, and thumbed toward the barn. Soldiers pulled the prisoners to their feet — most of who could barely stand — and lined them up against the barn at the corner nearest the house. Ben held his position at the corner of the barn proudly and without any assistance.

Winston’s heart sank into his stomach, speculating at what might happen if they killed these men right there on his property, while training their weapons towards May and the nuclear arsenal stored directly behind her.

May, upon realizing the grave danger that she  was in, hurried to the rear corner of the apartment — as far as she could physically move away from the bullets — and crouched in the corner to wait out the gunfire.

“According to the Geneva Convention, you can’t kill us,” George Calef coughed, his voice raspy and rough, “we’re prisoners of war. We have rights.”

Major Chaek unsheathed his blade and strolled over to George, pressed the cold steel into his neck, and advised, “if I slit your throat and watch you die, the Geneva Convention will not save you. Nor will your military or anybody else. But I am a reasonable man and therefore I will not kill you.”

The Major sheathed his knife and addressed his quieted soldiers. “Comrades, these men are the leaders of this community. They have sacrificed their lives and livelihoods for the greater good of the public. I, for one, admire such an honorable sacrifice. They fought valiantly and honorably, attempting to fend off the might of the awesome solidarity of this People’s Liberating Army!”

The soldiers cheered loudly, shoving their rifles high in the air.

“Six volunteers step forward to assist these men in achieving glory,” Major Chaek ordered. Almost before he had finished the statement, he had his six volunteers.

“Not you,” he said, singling out a North Korean soldier, “give your weapon to Lance Corporal Yong.”

The soldier found Woo-jin hiding from Major Chaek in the rear of the pack and handed him an ancient AK-47 rifle. Woo-jin walked forward and presented himself to Major Chaek.

Major Chaek said, “I must presume you know how to use this weapon.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Line up.”

The six soldiers lined up across from the six prisoners, Woo-jin aligned with Ben. Suddenly, Captain Jennings crashed out of the house and marched up to Major Chaek. They saluted each another and Captain Jennings whispered in Major Chaek’s ear. They saluted each another again, and the captain marched back inside the house.

Major Chaek chuckled and addressed the entire assembly, “please forgive me. I must demonstrate humility for a moment. It seems that I have neglected the delicate contents that are currently stored inside the barn. Line them up along the driveway.”

Soldiers who were not on the firing squad shuffled the American prisoners along the driveway and parallel to the tree line and the razor-wire fence. The firing squad repositioned. Ben was still standing next to the barn , still aligned to Woo-jin, who was anxious and tense.

A hush fell as Major Chaek readied his signal.

Suddenly, Ben stood at attention, placed his right hand over his heart, and loudly sang, “mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord…”

Major Chaek unsheathed his knife and raised it in the air, “ready!”

“…He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored…”


“…He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword…”


“His truth is—”

As six hungry bullets sped for their intended targets, Scotty Willis attempted to flee over the razor-wire fence. Instead of instant death by the shot of an expert marksman, the bullet hit him in the shoulder and he reeled head first into the fence. The razors shredded his naked body, and Major Chaek would not allow him to be put out of his misery. It took ten minutes of agonizing bleeding out for Scotty to die, hung up on the fence. George Calef, the Morse brothers, and Margaret O’Leary’s son died instantly. Ben, now on his knees, was stunned that he was still alive. He checked his body for bullets, but did not find any. Laughing, he stood back up, his ancient frame hunched and lurching, and he resumed singing, “His truth is marching on…!”

Major Chaek stormed to where Ben stood in defiance, pushed a finger through a large hole in the barn’s wall, and barked, “Lance Corporal Yong, come here! What do you mean by this?”

Woo-jin scampered the short distance to Major Chaek, “Sir, I must have missed my target, Sir!”

The entirety of the group of soldiers erupted in laughter. Major Chaek didn’t halt or admonish them.

“You missed? Well, that’s comforting! Because you have killed this innocent barn!”

Major Chaek yanked the AK-47 out of Woo-jin’s hands and tossed it to its rightful owner standing ten feet away.

“You are not worthy to hold such a glorious weapon!”

“Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!”

Major Chaek grabbed Woo-jin’s sidearm and stuffed it into the trembling boy’s hand.

“Shoot him with this  if you just missed .”

“Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! His truth is marching on…”

Woo-jin trembled with fear as he placed the gun to Ben’s forehead. Scotty Willis moaned loudly, just feet away, and Winston could barely keep his cool, stuck under the barn and watching the horrific events unfold.

“Lance Corporal Yong, do you mean to disobey a direct order to kill that man?”

Ben said in a tiny voice, “go ahead son. It’s okay. I forgive you,” his face that of a man who was anxious to reunite with his June.

Woo-jin edged the gun closer to Ben’s forehead and held it there a long moment only to drop it to his side, a coward amid his peers. Major Chaek unsheathed his steel-gray Kizlyar combat knife and without emotion thrust it deep into Ben’s gut. Ben stumbled a few feet and fell to the ground, his head bouncing on the dirt, and turned toward the barn’s current sanctuary. His eyes instantly locked with Winston’s. Ben recognized his old friend, smiled, and reached his right arm under the barn where he and Winston briefly locked hands. The moment was too ephemeral for Winston, who ached to help Ben reach his destination.

“Peace be with you,” Winston whispered loud enough for only Ben to hear.

Major Chaek seized the pistol from Woo-jin’s shaky hand, and hovered over Ben’s flaccid body. He turned to Woo-jin, who stood at attention, facing Major Chaek.

“You are a disgrace to the PLA. You make this man suffer greatly.”

But Ben wasn’t ready to die just yet. He released his grip on Winston’s hand, found a substantial rock that Winston had tossed under the barn during construction, pulled it out, and with his last morsel of energy, crashed it against Major Chaek’s knee, catching him off guard and shattering his kneecap, which sent him stumbling to the ground. Ben attempted a second strike, but the Major composed himself and shot Ben in the head.

Major Chaek belted out, “take him away!” and Woo-jin was seized and ushered inside the house to be dealt with later.

Winston froze with fear that he would be discovered. If Chaek turned his head to the left, he might catch Winston’s silhouette under the barn. But as luck would have it, several soldiers helped the Major to his feet and brought him inside, leaving only six dead and one dying American.


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Winston remained motionless for what felt like hours after watching his friends’ bodies being carted off to the trash pile. Major Chaek was whisked away, presumably to Morrow, where the PLA hospital was located. The earlier buzz around camp had simmered to a negligible din since the morning’s excitement, and soldiers on watch spoke about Woo-jin and Major Chaek openly in their native tongues. Winston worried about May and hoped that she hadn’t watched their neighbors and friends die, and he scooted methodically and quietly to where he imagined her to be inside the apartment. He hadn’t heard any movement from above since he thought he heard her move quickly just before the firing squad opened fire.

He knocked softly twice on the floorboards under the bed.


He shifted two feet closer to the septic area and knocked again.

Still silence.

He shifted yet another two feet closer to the septic and knocked.


His feet were perilously close to the edge of the barn, so he carefully rotated his body one hundred eighty degrees. Now his head was nearly on top of the septic system. Witnessing the actual horrors of war did permanent damage to one’s psyche, Winston and May included, and he wondered if she was huddled in a corner, paralyzed with the fear of being ca

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ught and killed like the others.

Though the earth was damp with rain and sewage, Winston was surprised to see that sewage continued to seep out from the apartment through the floorboards onto the light-colored crushed stones, despite his fussing with the pipe earlier. But even in the low light of the barn’s underbelly, Winston noticed a difference in color — this sewage was somehow brighter. He reached up and swiped the floorboard — it was blood — May’s blood, and a lot of it.

Panic and terror overcame him. He rapped a little louder on the floorboards than he should have, and whispered, “May… May… Mother, are you still with me?”

He listened intensely, blocking the outside world, and pushed his frame onto his elbows, his head between two of Medusa’s sturdy joists, his ear held firmly to the floorboards. He tapped with a knuckle and thought he may have felt some sort of shuffling above.

“May, I’m gonna come an’ help you. Stay with me, now… stay with me.”

Winston lowered his head and rested his chin in his hands, his cheek painted with May’s bright blood. His mind ran through all of the possible scenarios — she could already be dead — she could die before he got back inside — he could surrender and hope for compassion from the PLA — or a speedy death. Or he could somehow try to help her.

Of course he would help her, but for now, he was unable to climb out safely from under the barn in broad daylight. And he regretted not telling Woo-jin where they had been hiding. Maybe he would not have trained his weapon at the barn. Winston scooted to the side of the barn that faced the woods and poked his head out. Soldiers went about their day as if nothing had happened. He wondered if he could successfully make it into the barn unseen. It was risky. Still, he was ignorant to May’s actual condition and was compelled to do something .

Suddenly, a commotion broke out in the back yard, the soldiers again whipped into a frenzy. Winston shifted to the opposite corner of the barn to check it out, some thirty diagonal feet, to find Woo-jin being led toward the lake by two soldiers. The other soldiers fell in behind them and followed the procession to the lake. This was Winston’s chance to slip back inside the barn — while the soldiers were preoccupied. He scooted back to where he had discovered the blood and rapped loudly on the floorboards, “I’m coming in, May. May?”


He pushed the stepstool to the edge of the barn, eager to get to May, when four boots walked by, just inches from his head. They stopped at the septic system. One of the soldiers spied the stepstool and yanked it out from under the barn.

“What about this?” he asked.

The other soldier took it into his hands and felt its girth.

“Nah. Too light.”

The soldier bent down and pushed the stepstool back under the barn, and complained, “what the…” when it wouldn’t go back in, and pushed harder. The stepstool was hitting Winston in the head and shoulder. He shifted out of the way and the stepstool went back under.

“What about these concrete blocks?”

“It smells like shit over here!”

“Must a been that same fuckin’ gook. I remember seeing him clean out them toilets a few days ago. Must a emptied them buckets of shit water here.”

“Yeah, but I could a sworn I saw him bring them outside the fence. Kinda felt bad for the little dude.”

“Fuck him. Major’s gonna make him suffer.”

“Yeah, these’ll do just fine.”

Winston listened to the impeccable English that these soldiers spoke, and watched them pluck the concrete blocks off the wooden pallets.

“Get a couple more guys, and grab them pallets, too.”

Winston thought surely that their deception was over as he watched the soldiers’ feet systematically uncover his handiwork. It took only a few minutes for the work to be done. One pallet was removed, and then the other, and Winston felt his stomach in his throat.

“You see this?”

“What is it?”

“I dunno. Maybe an old septic system?”

“House is  old as shit. Doesn’t matter anyway — we’re outta here in the morning.”

The last two soldiers carted off the pallets, and Winston slowly emerged from the protection of the barn. The soldiers had all gathered at the lakeshore, where he assumed that Woo-jin was being drowned. He felt sorry for his new friend, but he had May to save, and she was his only priority. He put the stepstool down in front of the window, but as he slid it up, Captain Jennings walked through the barn door with three soldiers.

“Charge the drone batteries to full capacity.”

“Yes, Sir,” came from several voices.

Winston waited several minutes, listening to the soldiers move the boxes of drones out of the barn and to the driveway. He was vulnerable out there in the open, and anxious to get to the safety of the apartment, and to May. When he thought he heard the last soldier exit the barn, he checked again, slowly raising his head just enough to get a look inside the barn. Save for the crate, the barn was empty. He silently crept through the window and closed it behind him. The barn doors were left wide open and the soldiers charging the drones were busy setting them up and running power cords, while the remainder of the camp was preoccupied with Woo-jin. Winston crouched low and moved to the apartment door, opened it, thankful that he didn’t have to kick it in, and was shocked at what he found. Blood. And lots of it.

May was swaddled on the bed, wrapped in a blood-soaked blanket. She was unconscious, but alive. Winston gently peeled away the blanket to reveal a bullet wound in the upper thigh of her left leg. She wore only a pair of boxer briefs and Love  t-shirt, and she had used the .22 rifle’s barrel and the George Michael  t-shirt as a splint and tourniquet, the word Faith  showing prominently.

“Good girl. May, if you can hear me, I’m gonna move you ‘round a bit. Gotta check on this here wound — see if the bleedin’ stopped.”

She stirred a little and mumbled, “I don’ wanna get up yet,” while Winston straightened her legs flat on the bed.

There  you are. Stay with me now.”

He unwound the tourniquet only a few rotations when the wound erupted and sprayed blood onto his face. He quickly retightened it, but her leg still bled.


“Shhh, now. Soldiers still outside.”

“It hurts.”

“You done good, May, with the tourniquet.”

She fell unconscious again when he lifted her leg up to check for an exit wound. He felt all around her leg but didn’t find one. He knew by the amount of blood that the bullet had hit an artery, but there was a chance that it had only nicked it. God help them if the artery had been severed — that would require surgery, and their surrender. There was just no way of knowing the scope of the damage until he could remove the tourniquet without her bleeding out. He shifted her body and raised her legs to both keep the blood loss minimal and lower the risk of her going into shock, and he rifled through their meager collection of medical supplies. They did  bring a few medicines into the apartment — adhesive bandages, some Neosporin-type salve and isopropyl alcohol — but not much more than that — nothing that could be used on a wound like hers — not enough to quell the bleeding if Woo-jin’s bullet had severed an artery, and Jesus there was blood still leaking through the tourniquet. He scratched under his cap, trying not to recall the memories of Vietnam and Tran and his own wound that nearly killed him. He stood there alone, a desperate and conflicted man.

When he opened the curtain, he found a wide swath of blood near the back corner of the apartment where she had hunkered down, where it had seeped through the floorboards — and found the bullet hole just above the metal hurricane shutters. Winston guessed that the bullet ricocheted off the back wall and struck her. He tried to gauge the amount of blood loss by the stains on the floor, bed, and clothes, but he couldn’t. It was just a lot .

He bent to her unconscious ear, and whispered, “May, I gotta go out an’ see if I can find help. I have an idea. Stay with me an’ I’ll be back. I love you.”

He kissed her on the lips and left the apartment. Praying that the soldiers wouldn’t see him in the broad daylight, Winston bolted to the low-hanging branch, put the stepstool down, pulled himself up, reached down and plucked the stepstool off the ground, and scurried over the fence. He plopped down on the other side and hid the stepstool, painfully aware that he had no way of knowing if May’s condition would worsen while he went for help.

He ran off through the cover of the woods along the property and fence line, toward the shoreline. The soldiers were vulgarly loud, taunting and insulting Woo-jin, giving Winston cover. He saw his beloved truck and its crushed bed, and wondered if Med’s .357 magnum was still there. Crouching and cat-like, he crept to the lake’s edge and saw his friend face up on the ground, his arms and legs spread-eagle under the two pallets that were laden with what Winston estimated to be three hundred pounds of cement cinder blocks, and his head submerged in Robin Lake. The soldiers hooted and snorted as Woo-jin pulled his head from beneath the water’s cold surface and gasped for air. He held it there for a few seconds before disappearing back under the surface. It was only a matter of time before his strength would give out and he would drown.

Winston felt a rage build inside him, wishing he could do something for Woo-jin, who only had compassion in his heart. He silently prayed for the young man, but his primary allegiance was with May. As he turned to leave, he saw the one-eyed North Korean soldier bend down and pull Woo-jin’s head out from the w

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ater. Winston appreciated the soldier’s empathy, and slinked quickly away in search of medical supplies.


But this is actually what Dong-joo said to Woo-jin:

“I knew  your girlfriend’s face looked familiar and now I remember why. It was you  who did this to me. You  took my eye. My only regret is that I was unable to finish her off. But when I get back to Sajik-dong, I’m gonna find her, fuck her, and kill her and her entire family.”

And he let Woo-jin’s head slip back beneath the water.

Dong-joo pushed through the crowd of soldiers watching Woo-jin struggle to survive and strutted toward the house. It was nearly lunchtime and he needed to press a grunt into service to replace Woo-jin for trash duty. The dead Americans had been removed, and two North Korean lance corporals were busy cleaning blood and brain matter off the driveway and barn. It was Major Chaek’s last order before being carted off to the hospital to have his broken knee fixed.

Captain Jennings had lined up the twelve drones in two rows in the driveway, and two technicians were busy charging each drone’s large-capacity battery, getting power directly from the loud generators. As Dong-joo pressed one of the blood-cleaning soldiers into trash duty, Captain Jennings caught his ear.

“Corporal Sang, I have a very important mission for you,” Captain Jennings said, not looking up from fumbling with a camera he had taken off a drone.

“I was just going to have one of these men…”

“I know. You need an assistant to help you with the trash.”


“Yes, Sir .”

“Yes, Sir,” Dong-joo replied.

“Hei,” Captain Jennings said to the soldiers cleaning, “you two are the new trash crew — for today, anyway.”

The two soldiers stood erect, saluted, and said, “yes, Sir!”

“See. That’s how you do it, Corporal. Show them the duties and report back to me.”

“Yes, Sir.”

“Oh, and Corporal, make sure you, ah, relieve yourself. You may not have another chance for a long period.”

“Sir, may I ask… where will I be going?”

“Nowhere, Corporal. You’ll be going nowhere.”


Winston darted through the woods along the shoreline and raced past the trash pile to the bridge overpass. There was no time to follow the off-ramp to Calef’s, so he climbed up to the ledge, crawled to the edge of the overpass, and jumped onto the steep concrete. His old canvas combat boots dug into the soft earth and he used his hands to pull his body up the twenty-foot tall embankment to the highway. At the top, his foot caught the top of the wooden post and he fell hard on his ass as he leapt over the metal guardrail. He hoisted himself up and searched the horizon for signs of the enemy, not even sure what he was going to do. What exactly  did he expect to find in that hospital in Stockbridge, assuming that it had been looted by the PLA? And what exactly would he do  with any such medical supplies he did find? Lights out was ten long hours away.

And suddenly he realized that maybe the answer had literally been staring him in face all this time. Instead of heading south on the highway, he headed north, back toward Johnsonville and Calef’s. This was a dangerous place to be, out in the open in broad daylight and within sniping distance of his own home. He jogged vigilantly down the long off-ramp that led directly to Calef’s front door. Without stopping, he continued past Calef’s and onto Johnsonville’s main thoroughfare — Liberty Street — a mixture of residential and commercial buildings with flanking cross-streets. As he passed by the old Trip’s Pizza , he heard voices shouting from inside. He slowed his pace, intending to stop, when two PLA soldiers emerged from the darkened store, their uniforms disheveled and untucked. Winston sped up, across Liberty Street and down the first road he came to — C Street — when bullets whizzed by, shattering windows and barely missing him. Two houses in, he was out of their sight. He headed straight down the obviously deserted road, past boarded-up houses with doors ripped from their hinges, past homes burned out by lobbed grenades, and past dozens of hollow, decomposed corpses.

He looked over his shoulder and found that he hadn’t been pursued. Winston slowed his steps, mostly because his tired body squawked at him, but he also needed to change direction. He was on C Street and needed to be on L Street. At least he was on the correct side of Liberty Street. He walked the remaining nine blocks through the neighborhood’s back and side yards, aghast at the all-encompassing death and destruction.

Nothing was spared in Johnsonville as he trampled through the wasteland, and he wondered if the entirety of America looked like his home. On K Street, he hid behind a house and waited — watching and listening for footsteps or a Russian Tigr on the prowl for survivors. Five minutes evaporated and he advanced slowly into his objective’s back yard. The rear sliding glass door was shattered. He stepped over the crunching glass and into the house where he found himself in the living room.

“Eh hem,” he announced loud enough for anybody in the house to hear, “oh Lucy, I’m home. I’m a friendly. It’s Winston Sparrow if anybody here.”


A moment later, Winston was rummaging through drawers, bookcases, and closets already turned inside out by the PLA and wandering American survivors. He opened all of the kitchen’s closets to find them barren, and searched through the bathroom’s linen closet, the cabinet under the sink, and medicine chest — all for naught.

“Come on, Med, don’t let me down,” he said aloud, speaking to the man whose head currently adorned his wrought-iron fence. Winston paused in the hallway, hands on his hips, overcome by a sense of overwhelming futility. The door to the garage was wide open, the sun’s rays trickling in through the half-open garage door. He stepped into the garage, which was a disaster even before  the PLA invasion. He rummaged through boxes stacked high and filled with reminders of a life lived until finally he spied what he had hoped to find — a box labeled School stuff  on the top shelf of a shaky metal rack of shelves. He waded through the stacks of items that really should have been thrown away years ago  and climbed on top of a sturdy deep freezer. He snagged the box, placed it on the freezer and sifted through the folders, loose paper, and books, and found what he had been searching for, though he didn’t actually know what it would be named — Field Guide to Emergency Medicine  — he kissed the book. “Thanks Med.” Winston was grateful that Med had kept the medical school textbooks, which were now nothing more than souvenirs. He kept searching, hoping to find medical supplies he could use to patch May up with, but was disappointed when he came up empty. He would have to make due with what few medical supplies they had brought into the apartment.

Winston made his way back to the overpass’s safe underbelly — it felt safer than being inside Med’s abandoned house. He cut through the neighborhood’s postage-stamp yards, anxious not to repeat his previous run-in with PLA soldiers, and was alarmed to find that Johnsonville was now teeming with PLA soldiers patrolling the streets and byways of their little town. He presumed that they were the very same soldiers he watched day in and day out coming and going from his property. On H and B Streets, he waited for Russian Tigrs to roll by before continuing, and he finally made it safely to the underpass where he leafed through the medical book and found the chapter titled “Shrapnel and Projectile First Aid.”  As he read about tourniquets and their danger, and how to perform field surgery to remove bullets, a queer sound invaded Johnsonville. He scooted down to the ground to investigate, and all he had to do was look up; Winston was rendered speechless by what he saw hovering high above his house. He watched the twelve drones quickly ascend to defensive positions, forming a perimeter around all of Johnsonville. When a drone soared high and hovered directly above his head, Winston scrambled back under the overpass. He decided that it would be safer to wait until dark to make his way back to the barn. Getting caught now would surely be May’s death sentence. The hours he had to wait wouldn’t be wasted — he’d become an expert in field surgery.

The Long Day

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Major Chaek returned to the encampment several hours later, his entire right leg encased in a plaster cast, to find that Captain Jennings had assigned Dong-joo to guard the barn’s door. He wore an armed Tabari backpack, and he attempted to appeal to the hobbling superior officer, but the Major wouldn’t hear it — not now that the soccer game had been lost — not now as they prepared to engage the United States in home turf nuclear warfare. He found Captain Jennings and his two assistants standing in the driveway, the master controller in Jennings’ hands.

“Sir. How’s the knee?” Captain Jennings asked.

Major Chaek shook his head in disgust, “It was imprudent of me to let my guard down, Captain, and I paid the price. The elderly Americans… they remember… they remember the wars they fought in… and the excuses why  they fought those wars never mattered… they may be feeble, but they are tenacious, and we must remain diligent in our pursuit for victory.”

“Agreed. An update, Sir.”

Jennings pointed coyly up to the heavens

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. Major Chaek looked up to see the twelve drones hovering high above their heads, so high that they were inaudible, in a circle formation around all of Johnsonville.

“Here, take a look,” Jennings handed the master controller to Major Chaek.

Twelve live, high-definition videos streamed their feeds back to the Major in real-time. All of Johnsonville was covered — from the Sparrows’ residence where they now stood, to Calef’s and downtown and beyond. One video feed was a zoomed-in view of the two of them talking, and another zoomed in on two PLA soldiers emerging from Trip’s Pizza.

“Remarkable,” the Major crooned.

“I’ve targeted myself. Watch closely.”

Captain Jennings sprinted away, past Medusa’s stump to where Woo-jin still struggled for breath at the shoreline, around the house, past the damaged front porch, and back to the Major.

Major Chaek watched the screen intently as the drone’s camera followed Captain Jennings’ every move. Had he observed another drone’s feed, he would have seen Winston’s face pop out momentarily from under the highway overpass.

“Outstanding,” Major Chaek said while the captain caught his breath. He handed over the master controller.

“Thank you, Sir.”

Captain Jennings keyed a simple command into the keypad, and the entire encampment stopped to watch the twelve large drones descend and land in the driveway in two straight rows of six.

“All drones will be fully charged,” he reported, “all Tabaris are armed and stored, of course, excluding the one Corporal Sang is currently wearing.”

“Yes, and why is that, Captain?”

“I modified that particular Tabari to execute its countdown should our position somehow become compromised. Corporal Sang’s finger has been inserted tightly into the Tabari in lieu of the firing pin. Should it be removed, the countdown will immediately commence, and as you have been briefed, when one Tabari begins its countdown, they all  count down. As long as they are within a twenty-mile radius of the master controller.”

Captain Jennings made a grand motion simulating a large explosion.

“It would be an honorable death.”

“It would be a most impressive  death. From Macon to Marietta and beyond would be obliterated.”

“And is there a failsafe?”

Captain Jennings pointed to the display on the master controller, “yes. As I mentioned to the generals earlier, you must enter the nine-digit disarming code here.”

“And what is the code?”

Jennings looked at the Major curiously.

“Certainly you cannot be the only officer to know the code.”

“The generals and my two assistants…”

“What is the code, Captain, or should I bring this matter to the Generals’ attention?”

The captain lowered his voice. “Three, one, four, one, five, nine, two, six, nine.”

“Clever. We don’t want to risk a simple mishap detonating these bombs prematurely.”

“No, Sir. Sunrise is at 7:34 a.m. My men and I will be at the ready before dawn.”

“I believe tomorrow to be our Thanksgiving Day, when we claim this land as our own.”

“I believe that to be ironic, Sir.”

“Carry on, Captain.”

Dong-joo stood at attention at the barn door as Major Chaek passed.

“You have a most important task ahead of you, Corporal Sang. Perhaps this mission will make amends for you losing the game today.”

“I will not disappoint you again, Sir!”

“Where is the prisoner?”

“At the water’s edge, Sir!”


May dissolved back onto the bed, found Bukowski’s Post Office , and tore several pages from it. She searched the apartment frantically for something to write with, but came up empty. Feeling like she was about to pass out, she reached down and wetted her fingers with her own blood from the saturated t-shirt tourniquet and inscribed “𝜋” on several of the torn pages as many times as she could before she fainted.


Major Chaek limped past the stump and to the shore where he saw Woo-jin’s head bobbing and out of the water, his lungs gulping for air, his eyes glassy and wet with fear. Major Chaek knew that look well — it was the face of a man who knew he was at death’s door. He paused to watch Woo-jin momentarily, unaffected by the soldier’s anguish, turned his back, and entered the house.

Woo-jin watched Major Chaek hobble away through the distortion of Robin Lake’s cold water, and continued his Buddhist meditation — alternating calm, shallow breathing with long periods of holding his breath under the water. Seul-ki’s pure image cleansed his mind of the panic that might overcome other men. He slowly counted to ten with his head submerged under the water, eyes wide open, and let his head’s natural buoyancy lift his flared nostrils to the surface to expel carbon dioxide and fill his lungs again with oxygen. He did this until the curious PLA soldier came by every now and again to check on him, at which times he feigned suffering. By lights out, Woo-jin was all but forgotten.


Winston readied himself as the sun set. He had studied all that he could about bullet and shrapnel wounds, and was confident that he could help May, even with only the meager medical supplies in the apartment. If she were still alive, she would be in shock. He understood what to do, and he tried to keep his feelings of helplessness at bay. But those feelings were difficult to quash as he stood at the side of the trash pile and contemplated the six new bodies, naked and bloodied. He knew every one of these men — had called them friends, partook in their families’ most important celebrations and achievements, and loved and respected them like his own family members — especially Ben. He longed to have the shovel that hung in his barn so he could bury them with Julie and Med, whose respective father and brother now lay there among the corpses.

Sunset was coming earlier and earlier, and tonight it would be at 7:19 p.m., during the PLA’s dinnertime, and less than an hour before the trash crew would show up right where he currently stood. Winston affirmed his decision to go back to the apartment during dinnertime instead of waiting another excruciating three hours for lights out. He returned to the underpass to wait, re-reading Shrapnel and Projectile First Aid  under the dusky evening sky. Amadeus crept out of the cover of the pines and sat ten feet away. Winston looked up and set the book aside when he recognized his old friend. He slowly shifted his body to the ground and held out a hand, rubbing his thumb and fingers together.

“Come on, kitty,” he said in a low voice, “Amadeus. Come see daddy.”

Soft kissing noises prompted Amadeus into motion. He slinked to Winston, purring saliently, and rubbed his blue-gray fur against Winston’s folded legs. He patted the cat cautiously, the cat feeling considerable and healthy to Winston’s touch.

“Looks like livin’ outside been good to you. We goin’ back inside soon.”

Amadeus climbed onto his lap. It took a moment or two for him to find the perfect position, but when situated, he let his master gently caress and stroke him, Winston collecting and discarding the overgrowth of shedding fur until 6:45 p.m., when it was time to get ready to go. As Winston prepared himself for his journey back to May, Amadeus was suddenly spooked and ran off, and a familiar clicking sound behind Winston alerted him that he was not alone. He stopped what he was doing and slowly raised his arms.

“I’m unarmed,” Winston said.

“I’m armed with an M-24 sniper rifle, Specialist Sparrow,” the voice from behind said, “you can lower your arms and turn around.”

Winston turned to see a U.S. Army sniper in blacked-out fatigues, his blue eyes staring back from a blackened face. A pair of night vision goggles rested on a patrol cap, and he held his big gun in front of him with both hands.

“Sorry for the dramatic uncocking, but I didn’t want to startle you.”

“Well, ya did. How you know my name, soldier?”

Winston tottered a few paces closer to the sniper.

“Your impressive military service record as an EOD Specialist in Vietnam. We’ve been watching you for some time now.”

“Oh? How is that?”

The sniper pointed up.

Without looking up, Winston knew exactly what he was talking about. “Drones?”

“Them Predators ain’t never been more useful. PLA thought they disabled our satellite links when they infected our ground control stations with a virus… and they did… but we got ‘em back up and runnin’. They three of ‘em up there now watching us.”

“What the hell took ya so long ta get your asses here ta Georgia?”

“I can’t rightfully answer that, but let’s just say the PLA is very clever. They have dozens of these identical camps spread throughout Georgia. It took us a while to figure out that this  was the camp with the real  generals and nukes… you do  know they have nukes?”

Winston nodded his head.

“Well, we’re here now , and we need your help.”

“My wife  needs my help right now. You got the guns. They probably ain’t more an twenny or thirty PLA soldiers in there now. Go on — take ‘em out, but I gotta get while my getting’s good. S’cuse me, Sergeant.”

Winston turned and walked away.

“Specialist Sparrow, the United States Army has enacted the President’s Reserve Call-Up Authority. I’m sorry to say, but you’re back in the Army again as an EOD Specialist.”

Winston stopped and turned back to the sniper.

“What’s your name, Sergeant?”


“Sergeant Duffy, I don’ know if my wife is alive or dead inside that barn we been hidin’ out in, but my first  priority is to tend to her well-being if she’s alive.

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The U.S. Army, the president, whoever that is now, and this war all  come after that. You dig?”

“Sir, we are not unreasonable men. This is for you.”

Sergeant Duffy handed Winston a large black backpack with the words U.S. Army IFAK  printed on it.

“From my corpsman. Individual First Aid Kit . Got morphine, needles, thread, tweezers, scalpel, headlamp, antiseptic wipes, blood-clotting gauze, and more. Tend to May, Specialist Sparrow. You have until twenty-two hundred hours. Then I need you to deliver those nukes right up there on that ledge. You know, where Jimmy Mabry’s stuff is. You do  remember Jimmy Mabry and what you done to him?”

“That was self-defense.”

Sergeant Duffy shrugged and said, “maybe. But the Predator sees what the Predator wants, know what I mean?”

“How do you I propose I get them nukes up there?”

“Easy. One-by-one. Over the fence, like you been doin’ all along, and place ‘em along that ledge.”

“That don’ make sense ta me. Why don’ you jes’ storm the place and take ‘em all at once?”

“It’s too risky. The nukes are armed…”

“They weren’t armed yesterday ,” Winston remarked, frustrated and growing upset.

“You don’t realize just how lucky you been when you leave that barn. They’ve stepped up their patrols tonight. Every seven minutes, two PLA pukes pass right by that window, stop at the corner of the barn, turn around, and go back, ‘round the water to the other side of your house, and repeat. You haven’t seen ‘em yet since you’ve been out all day.”

“What’s that got to do with the United States military preventin’ this from happenin’ in the first place?”

“Like I said, it took some time… we had to monitor dozens of replica encampments… look, if we spook just one of them PLA soldiers, they won’t think twice to lettin’ ‘em blow. And then the lights truly will go out in Georgia, and hundreds of thousands of American lives will be lost.”

“Why don’ you jes’ come on up to tha fence line and I’ll hand ‘em to ya, ‘stead a me cartin’ my ass up an’ over it twenny times?”

“Because there’s only a few of us taking up covert positions nearby.”

“So what’s tha plan?”

“At zero three hundred hours, a Russian Tigr is gonna ‘break down ,’” he said using air quotes, “at the spot where you usually cross the road to get to Calef’s. They’ll wear Russian uniforms and speak Russian, but it’s us. When you have nineteen nukes, we’ll load them into the truck and go. We gotta get ‘em twenty miles away — that’s their range.”

“I counted twenny a them nukes.”

“The one-eyed gook standing watch outside the barn door is wearing a nuke that’s rigged to blow if his right finger comes out the damned firing pin hole. At zero four hundred hours, be at the ready at the door because his head’s coming off and you’ll have to keep that finger inserted in the nuke.”

“Is that really even plausible?”

“We’ll know two minutes later if it blows. Do you have a way of removing the finger?”

Winston displayed the knife he kept in his pocket.

“That’ll do.”

“So now I got a loaded nuke in my hands. What then?”

“Get outside the camp and run one mile, if you can — to Speer Road — the blast radius is three-quarters of a mile.”

“You expect  that last one ta blow, don’t you?”

“Unless we can disarm it.”

“Do you have intel?”


“I see. We’re dispensable.”

“Better Johnsonville than all of Georgia. Also, you should know that no quarter will be given.”

“That’s a crime against humanity.”

“Our enemy  is not humane. We’re just returning the favor, but like I said, we will take no prisoners alive, whether friendly or foe. You’ve got your orders. Do you intend to follow them, Specialist Sparrow?”

Winston paused.

“I do.”

“You got a watch? I have eighteen hundred fifty five hours and eleven, twelve…”

Winston displayed his watch and synchronized it to the sergeant’s.

“You’ll also have to synchronize your movements to their patrols. Remember, seven minutes is all you have. We can’t afford any mistakes.”

“I gotta get if I’m gonna make it back inside while they eatin’. Any other surprises for me?”

“That’s it other than do not pull the pin out of the nuke. I’ll be in the field watching your progress. Good luck, soldier, and for the record, I don’t intend on dying tonight.”

“Nor I, Sergeant.”

Winston darted to the fence wearing the medical backpack. He was nervous about crossing the fence while the PLA soldiers were still active, but he had no choice now that he’d been pressed back into service. He watched and waited for the patrol to pass by, made it over the fence without incident, and placed the stepstool in front of the window. He peered inside. The door was closed and it felt safe to continue. He pushed up on the window frame and it didn’t budge. It was locked, but he didn’t panic, at least not yet, knowing that he had six short minutes to get inside. He had prepared for this exact scenario in the event that it would actually happen. The windowpanes were held in their frames by a thick bead of caulking, which was normally on the inside  of the frames, but these windows were factory seconds that George Calef kept in stock for years and saw a frugal customer in Winston when he came into the store looking for cheap windows for the barn. The windows had been constructed backwards with the caulking on the outside, meaning that if Winston could somehow remove the bead of caulking that held the windowpane to the frame, then he could remove the glass entirely and get inside.

But time was at a premium. It was nearing 7:30 when prowling eyes might discover Winston’s activities. Despite the war, he still carried a wallet filled with photos, cash, and credit cards. He chose the weighty American Express card, pushed it hard into a crevice and managed to snag some of the caulking out from the groove. Applying slow and direct backpressure, he pulled the entire line of silicone caulking out in one long piece and shoved it into his pants pocket. The glass pane loosened, and all it needed to come out of its slot was a light tap near the top. He held the glass gingerly and placed it inside the barn, but it caught on something and cut the tips of his fingers.

“Fucker,” he whispered.

He positioned the glass as far to the right inside the barn as he could and looked at his fingers under the moonlight. There was blood, but the cuts weren’t deep enough to require stiches — they were just another pain in Winston’s ass. A bigger problem would be if the patrol noticed the missing windowpane before he could replace it.

He huffed louder than he should have, climbed into the barn through the still-locked window, ditched the stepstool behind the wooden crate, and was happy to see that the now-empty drone boxes did not impede his entry to the apartment. He waited a few minutes for the patrol to go back around, and found an old tube of clear silicone caulking. As expected, the tube had dried out, but he cut a corner off, hoping to squeeze some out. He unlocked and opened the window, repositioned the windowpane, and ran as much silicone around the edges as possible — a few inches on the two lower corners and a few dabs as far up on the windowpane as he could reach. He lowered the window gingerly — the caulking would dry by the time he reemerged from the apartment — and tugged on the apartment door, disappearing inside at the same moment that Dong-joo opened the barn door, thinking that he heard something move inside. He zipped his flashlight around the barn but saw nothing amiss and closed the door.


“May, you still with me?” Winston whispered as he closed the apartment door. He set down the book and first aid backpack and checked her pulse. She was alive, her breathing shallow and rapid.

Winston quietly and methodically emptied the contents of the backpack, hung his cap, strapped the headlamp around his head, and turned it on. The headlamp’s three red LEDs lit up the apartment brighter than he expected, and the rosy hue caused May’s blood to appear black.

He shook her gently, hoping to pry her awake, and checked her temperature. She felt hot to his touch, but her heart beat strongly. He didn’t know if that was good or bad, but he was thankful nonetheless that she was still with him. He opened the book to a dog-eared page and read, his finger tracing the words.

May moaned and inhaled deeply, “you tryin’ ta rattle me, Winston?”

“You’re awake.” Winston replied, reached for a jug of water and held it to her mouth, “I need you ta drink as much water as you can.”

“I’m not thirsty.”

“Oh, you wanna start tellin’ me how ta save your life? Drink.”

“You insufferable.”

“I been told.”

Winston held the jug with firm hands to May’s lips until she shook her head, “no more.”

“A little more. You doin’ good.”

May took a little more. Winston set the jug down.

“Lemme know when you ready for some more. Gotta release the pressure of this here tourniquet. Was the blood bright red?”

May nodded.

Winston slowly untwisted the tourniquet, eyeing the wound. May responded with clenched fists and an anxious expression while blood flowed from the wound. He wiped the area where the bullet went in, using the antiseptic wipes from the kit.

“You done good, Mother.”

“I feel it, the blood going back into my leg. It’s tingly.”

“That’s good, that’s good.”

Winston released the tourniquet fully and removed the t-shirt. The wound was considerable. The 7.62-millimeter AK-47 round had penetrated at an angle, causing more damage than he originally presumed, and there was no exit wound, which meant that the bullet was st

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ill in her leg. The wound continued to bleed considerably, but it was better to keep the tourniquet off even if the femoral artery was hit. Winston hoped she could keep her leg.

“It’s prickly.”

“Let’s get you onto your back and elevate that leg some more.”

“I’ll try.”

Winston put one hand under her hip, the other under her knees. May used her elbows, and they rotated her body until she was flat on her back, and he put his own pillows under her knee. Winston saw on her face that she was in pain, and he knew first-hand what a wound like this felt like. He found and hung a saline IV bag from one of the nails that supported the basketball hoop, trying to remain stoic for the next step. He’d never injected a shot in his life, let alone prepared an IV drip. He was nervous.

“The IV is saline. Book says it helps your body make new blood.”

She nodded as he found the morphine in the kit.

“What’s that?” she asked.

“Morphine. It’ll help you sleep.”

“But I’m already sleepy.”

“This’ll seal the deal. I don’ need you dreamin’ a us runnin’ along some romanic beach in Jamaica and you start moanin’ out my name. This’ll make you sleep soundly .”

“Oh, Winston…,” May softly moaned and smirked, watching him work on her.       He had to remove the bullet and he was just following the book’s instructions, thankful for Duffy and the first aid kit. If he did  manage to deliver all of the nukes to the U.S. military, hopefully there would be help for her. If he was caught, then nothing here mattered. At least she’d sleep through the nuclear explosion.

“This gon’ pinch.”

“They always say that.”

Winston expertly prepared the vein, tied off her arm, inserted the needle, and started the drip. He squirted the morphine — all of it — into the line.

“I saw Amadeus today. Let me pet him awhile. He sends his love.”

“He’s okay? Amadeus?”

“He lovin’ it out there.”

“That makes me happy. I thought I lost you.”

“I thought I lost me.” May, close to tears, cried, “I love you so much, Winston.”

Winston kissed her forehead, the tip of her nose, and then her lips.

“We gon’ be alright.”

She raised a hand and put it to his cheek, the cheek with her blood still on it, “you  make me happy. And pie.”

“Now, May, let me do my work here,” he said, looked at her and feigned a grin, “you make the pie.”

The morphine worked instantaneously. He didn’t tell her about Sergeant Duffy, the nukes, or the mission he had been pressed into. When she asked about where he found the military first aid kit, he lied and told her that it was with the medical book, hidden in Med’s house. As she drifted off to sleep, he found two types of forceps — one straight and one that looked like scissors. Fancy tweezers, really. Right before the morphine took full effect, May appeared to remember something. Her eyes grew wide, but her mouth couldn’t verbalize her thoughts.

When she was unconscious, Winston once again consulted the book. He was about as ready as any other seventy-two-year-old man about to remove a bullet from his wife of fifty years. He switched the headlamp’s red LEDs to bright white and focused their beams into the wound. He spread open the destruction on May’s thigh with the forceps and a wince, quickly sopped up the blood, and tossed the gauze down on the bloody pages with the pi symbol, not noticing the primal scribbling. A metallic glint shone deep inside her muscle tissue. He clamped onto it, gently applying forward and backpressure, and removed the amoeba-shaped bullet. She was lucky it hadn’t hit her anywhere else, like her chest.

Winston’s emotions flared for a fraction of a second as he pondered what might have been. The bleeding did not subside; he stuffed gauze deep into the wound and grabbed a tube of instant clotting gel. Suturing the artery was far beyond the scope of the book’s instructions, but he did determine that it hadn’t been severed. When the gauze was soaked through, he removed it and quickly squeezed the gel into the wound. The blood flow immediately halted and he was relieved. He applied several elastic bandages that acted as stitches, dressed the wound with blood-clotting gauze, and wrapped it tightly.

The entire procedure had taken a little over an hour, and he had some time before his next mission began, so he sat next to May and watched her breathe slowly, matching her breathing with his own. He couldn’t imagine a life without her by his side. As cliché as it sounded, she was his rock and his savior, a woman every bit as strong as any man he’d ever known, and probably even more so. Winston lamented that he had never met May’s mother. He would have thanked her for raising a daughter who wasn’t afraid of anything. He didn’t sleep; he only watched May’s eyes flicker and flutter under closed lids, praying that she was dreaming only happy visions. They had a long life to live together and a community to rebuild when the war was over. They only had to make it through the night.


At 9:45 p.m., Winston readied himself. He remembered seeing that May had packed some of his army things in the bin labeled Memories , searched through it, and found his old uniform and decorations. He swapped out his trusty old Rusty Wallace #2 cap for the camouflaged boonie hat he wore the day he and Tran had earned their way home. He also stuffed his trusty M8A1 Scabbard knife into his combat boot — it was sharper than his pocketknife, and he’d need it to cut off that PLA soldier’s finger. He tightened up his boots, donned his black hoodie, and grabbed the first aid kit’s black backpack. The rifle would have to stay behind.

As he slipped out the apartment door, May quietly mumbled, “nine… pies…”

Winston paused and waited for her to say something else, but she went right back to sleep. He closed the door wondering what she was trying to say. The big overhead lights went off, and as usual, only one of the generators remained operating. It was precisely 10:00 p.m.

He moved to the crate and opened it. A great warmth greeted him, emitted from the armed nuclear weapons, and a faint scent of what might be described as spent laser printer toner cartridge  struck his nose. He estimated that he had fifteen minutes to deliver each Tabari to the overpass, which meant he had zero time to waste. He grabbed the first one and carefully maneuvered it into the black backpack, but it wouldn’t fit. He left the black backpack inside the crate, and instead put the single armstrap of the red Tabari backpack over his shoulder, crouched, and waited for the patrol to go by. At 10:04 p.m., he saw the tips of their helmets pass to his right, and then a moment later, back to his left. According to Sergeant Duffy, he had until 10:10 p.m. to cross the fence. At 10:05 p.m., he opened the window, crawled out, closed it, put the stepstool down, grasped the branch, pulled himself up — the heavy Tabari backpack weighing him down — leaned down and grabbed the stepstool, pushed his laden body onto the top of the thick branch, scooted over the razor-wire fence, and lowered himself down safely on the other side. He stashed the stepstool in its usual spot, and waited behind the tree, watching the patrol go by. At 10:11 p.m., he dashed to the overpass and crawled up the steep concrete incline on all fours. At the top, he placed the warm Tabari pack onto the ledge and slid down, nearly losing his balance. He hit the concrete surface harder than he would have liked, and limped back to the tree. It was 10:16 p.m. At 10:17 p.m., the patrol went by, and at 10:18 p.m., he climbed back up the tree, over the fence, dropped down, and climbed back through the window. It was 10:22 p.m., and he just narrowly avoided getting caught by the patrol. At this pace, he knew he wasn’t going to make it, but he sallied forth like the good soldier that he was, stole another nuke, and repeated this process again and again and again and again, ignoring his exhaustion and his body’s joints and back screaming out for him to slow down, rest, stop, or die. He just did . At 2:30 a.m., he checked in on May. She still slept peacefully, for which he was grateful. He took a swig of water and continued his mission. So far, he had succeeded in moving fifteen of the twenty Tabaris to the ledge without incident. Winston managed to shorten the time it took to cross the fence after the first few rounds, which made up precious time. He would have to move two Tabaris at a time on his next two crossings, a daunting task, given their weight and Winston’s fatigue. The good news was that these two Tabaris had full shoulder straps and were far easier to move than those with only the single strap. He slung one over his back and the other over his shoulders so it hung facing forward. He didn’t buckle them because of a mechanical contraption that he suspected meant they were vests for suicide bombers. Another man might have made the mistake of buckling the backpacks, forever sealing his fate, but not EOD Specialist Sparrow.

Winston attempted to cross the fence again, but the second Tabari simply weighed too much. However, the branch he had been using bore several nubs where smaller limbs had broken off. From the stepstool, he placed a Tabari over one of these nubs, and left it dangling in the air while he crossed the fence and secured the other nuke deep inside a large knot where a much heftier branch had once grown. He plucked the second Tabari from the nub, and as he crossed the fence, lost his grip on it. The red backpack tumbled eight feet to the ground, thudding as it hit the pine needle floor. A moment later, he caught a glimpse of the patrol coming back around. He made himself as flat as he could behind a large limb, and prayed that neither of the PLA soldiers w

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ould turn and look in his direction. They passed by once. Winston waited, sweating profusely. They passed by again, and he grabbed the Tabari and started his descent. He plopped to the ground and reached for the Tabari that had fallen. Suddenly, Dong-joo appeared, flashlight in hand and trained into the woods. He had heard the noise when the backpack hit the ground, and left his post to investigate. The light beam scanned over where Winston had taken cover. Dong-joo put the flashlight away, unzipped his pants, and pissed near Winston’s window, looking backwards over his shoulder, and making sure his absence went undiscovered. He zipped back up, which was complicated by the fact that his finger was still implanted inside the Tabari, and went back to the barn’s front door, eager for daybreak to come.

Winston grabbed the Tabaris and wheezed all the way to the overpass. This time, though, he hid the backpacks in the brush, stood upright — as erect as he could — and tried to catch his breath, but it was becoming harder and more labored. He checked his watch.

“Ten minutes,” came a low voice from behind.

Winston jumped and turned.

“Why the fuck  you always gotta do that?” Winston asked, “sneaking up on people an’ givin’ ‘em heart attacks.”

The soldier who stood before him wore a Russian uniform.

“Please, keep your voice down. I’m American.”

“Yeah, I figured that from your impeccable English.”

“Ya mog by govorit’ po-russki?”

“English is fine.”

“I’m here to help, Sir. You have two left and the truck will be here in nine minutes. I’ll move these, but we need those last two.”

“Three. There’s three left.”

“I understand. I’ll try to meet you at the fence line.”

“Now we talkin’. Don’ know why nobody thought a that before,” Winston shook his head in disgust and jogged back to the fence. Like before, he waited until the all clear, retrieved the last two Tabaris from the crate, leaving only the black army backpack inside, planning to retrieve it when he returned. He scooted out the window and saw the soldier awaiting his arrival on the other side of the fence. Winston tossed one and then the other over. The soldier caught them both, and they saluted each other.

As the soldier disappeared into the night, Winston found his way back to May’s slumbering side, this part of the mission complete as far as he was concerned. He checked his watch — it was 3:03 a.m. He checked her dressing. The wound still seeped blood and the gauze was almost soaked through, but he was optimistic that she would recover fully — though he was somewhat concerned because her leg was hot to the touch and starting to swell. He hoped his own throbbing chest would calm down by 4:00 a.m. for the next part of his mission, and that he wouldn’t fall asleep and miss it. Suddenly, a ruckus brewing at the edge of the driveway alerted Winston, and he peered out the forward slit.


The young “Russian” private who had assisted Winston was ordered to do so by the commanding officer, a veteran army ranger lieutenant, who was in the passenger front seat of their stolen Russian Tigr troop transport, anxious to engage in his role as a Russian officer. The Tigr appeared as if it had just come out of battle — the engine block spewing steam, the armor replete with manufactured armor-piercing bullet holes. The forged damage was indeed a work of art.

He, the driver, the roof-mounted gunner, and two infantrymen waited inside a carwash bay at Calef’s while their young compatriot retrieved the nukes. At precisely 3:07 a.m., the driver guided the Tigr slowly down the road toward the Sparrow encampment, and stopped the truck between the power station fence and the overpass, its ass end positioned right where Winston had crossed over and into the field. The driver opened the hood, signaling to passers-by that the truck had broken down.

The private lumbered quickly over the one eighth-mile distance from where Winston hid the Tabaris, and back to the truck, carrying two of the backpacks. While he placed them into a false floor compartment in the rear of the truck, another “Russian” soldier ran back, grabbed two backpacks, and this continued until all but three of the Tabaris were secured. The operation was scheduled to take twelve minutes.

As expected, though only a little more than midway through the mission, the big spotlights at the edge of the Sparrow driveway lit up and illuminated the Tigr. One of the American “Russians” remained in the shadows to wait for further instructions for securing the three remaining Tabaris.

Three Russian PLA soldiers, their automatic rifles cocked and trained, cautiously approached the Tigr. The American “Russian” major stepped out and greeted them while calculating the risks of taking them out. Chances were that they wouldn’t make it five miles before all twenty Tabaris blew and wiped Georgia off the map if they engaged. The next minute or two would prove to be pivotal to the success of the mission.

“We understand you have a very talented mechanic stationed here, Comrades,” he said in Russian.

The suspicious Russians stopped ten feet from the truck.

“What is wrong with the Tigr?” one of them asked.

“American rednecks had some antitank munitions. Caught us off guard, south of McDonough. Here, look at the damage,” he waved, “but we got the fuckers. Ten of them.”

One of the Russian soldiers lowered his weapon to take a closer look at the damage.

“See?” the American “Russian” said, as he placed an index finger through the hole, “it has the circumference of Sergei’s dick.”

“Fuck you… Sir,” the American “Russian” Sergei, responded from the driver’s seat.

The American “Russian” commander laughed, turned to the Russians, and said “Sergei is very sensitive about his dick.”

They all laughed, the ice broken and trust established. The other two Russians moved closer. One moved to the rear of the truck, which was open, and peered inside. All of the soldiers, both faux Russian and PLA, nodded politely to one another.

“It is unfortunate. Our mechanic had an accident and lost his head,” a Russian soldier said, and then smiled widely, “quite literally.”

“He was very talented.”

“Did you call this damage in?” the other Russian soldier asked.

“Our radio is damaged,” the American “Russian” commander said, and motioned to the radio inside the truck, and to another “bullet hole” in the door.

“Damned American hillbillies are the ones we must keep in check,” the Russian said.

“Agreed,” said the American “Russian,” “though they have long been somewhat of an ally to us. Oh, how they keep the American government busy with pettiness over statues and obsession with the Germans.”

“It must be tiring constantly fighting a domestic enemy.”

Another Russian asked, “does it run?”

Sergei, the driver, said, “yes, but we must drive slowly,” and turned the engine over. The Tigr started up, and black smoke bellowed from the rear end, choking the soldiers standing back there.

“We hear there’s a good mechanic due west, in Palmetto. That’s where we’re assembling in the morning.”

“I know where that is. Thank you, Comrade.”

“We will let them know to expect you.”

The Russian soldier memorized the truck’s military identification number.

“That would be ideal,” said the American “Russian” commander as he and his men got into the Tigr. Sergei closed the hood, hopped back into the truck, turned it around, and headed slowly back the direction they had come, leaving behind one frightened American soldier (still hiding on the ledge), and four armed Tabaris. The operation had failed. Like the three Tabaris that had leveled McDonough, four Tabaris detonating would leave Johnsonville and the surrounding area razed and uninhabitable, collateral damage. It was now the American “Russian” unit’s sole objective to get the sixteen Tabaris in their possession twenty miles away from the master controller in Johnsonville that controlled the nukes. The American “Russian” major radioed both the stranded soldier and Sergeant Duffy to advise them of the situation. Duffy informed them that the operation would carry on as planned — the Russian Tigr crew to continue toward its objective twenty miles due south. There was no way to get word to Winston that the operation had failed. He’d soon be opening the door, expecting Dong-joo’s head to explode. If Winston opened the door and startled Dong-joo, the North Korean soldier was just the type of man who would pull his finger out of the Tabari. That’s why Dong-joo was chosen.

The Russian Tigr turned onto I-75 South and cruised as quickly as possible without drawing attention to its mission.


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Winston watched the three Russian soldiers make their way out the front gate and toward what he expected was the “broken down” Russian Tigr parked under the overpass. He checked his watch and thought about the last thing May had said to him, nine pies,  and turned it over and over in his mind. What did she mean? He looked around the dark room. It was peculiar to him how well he could see in a room that had no windows, but he and May were now so accustomed to the darkness that she could almost read her books in it.

The clock, Mayor Wellbeloved’s photo, the aluminum ladder, several of May’s favorite paintings, jackets, the .22 rifle, and a calendar that still read September when Winston knew that it was October… these were the items around the apartment, but none of them gave any meaning to nine pies.  

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Then he recalled seeing “𝜋” scrawled in blood in the torn book pages that he threw out with the bloodied bandages. He rifled through the trash, found the pages, and searched for some sort of meaning, but he came up empty. He didn’t understand what 𝜋 meant, other than pi, the number, which he often used in his engineering work.

Minutes later, Winston watched the Russian soldiers return and shut off the bright spotlights. Two of the soldiers stayed at the front gate while one approached Dong-joo, passing the twelve drones still lined up in the driveway. Winston shifted his position to hear them talk.

“What was that all about?” Dong-joo asked.

“American hillbillies shot up a Tigr. They came looking for our mechanic. Does your jacket fit good? You look like you’re hot.”

“Fuck you. I could kill you all right now.”

The Russian laughed, “I don’t think so, my friend,” he turned and motioned to the kitchen window where Captain Jennings sat at the kitchen table, his head buried in a laptop and the master controller by his side. “He can stop the countdown. I must go. In a few hours, America will be ours.”

Winston stroked May’s hair and spoke softly into her deaf ears, on one knee in front of her as if he were going to propose. “I don’ know if we gon’ get outta this, but if we don’t, I think I’m happy you won’t be awake for it. I want ya ta know that I love ya May, with all this big, stubborn heart a mine. I’m sorry I made you come out here an’ live like an animal. I hope you can forgive me. Jes’ stay with me a little bit longer. I gotta do a little thing here.” He kissed her on the head and lingered to take in her scent. A moment later, he was at the barn door, standing a foot behind Dong-joo, armed with only his two knives and a roll of medical tape from the first aid kit. He set all of the items on the crate. At 3:59 a.m. he watched the last minute tick away, second by second, until the last ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, he wrapped his fingers around the door handle, four, three, two, one…

He turned the knob and opened the door just as a brilliant flash of bright red blood sprayed from the right side of Dong-joo’s head. Winston heard no gunshot. As the life force left Dong-joo’s body and he began to crumble, Winston wrapped his arms around the North Korean soldier, recalling that Sergeant Duffy said it was the right finger that was wedged inside the Tabari. He caught Dong-joo’s right arm and held it in place while his left arm found stability under the nuke, and he dragged the lifeless form into the barn, setting it down as quietly as he could. He closed the door, hoping he hadn’t been seen, but just in case, he pulled the sidearm from Dong-joo’s holster and took a defensive stance behind the door, anticipating an enemy offensive. He waited thirty seconds, and went to work on the finger. He pushed the scabbard knife’s razor-sharp blade into the joint between the proximal phalanx and metacarpal bone, and the finger easily separated from the hand, which fell to the floor. He reached up for the medical tape, tore several lengths off, and secured the finger inside the Tabari.

Now to the nuke itself. Winston ran his blade along the thin edge of the strapping that held the nuke to Dong-joo’s torso, but the damned thing wouldn’t cut. Winston was perplexed. He held his body above Dong-joo and thrust the knife into the strap with all of his weight, but the strap didn’t give at all.

Suddenly, the bright lights in the driveway flickered to life and the barn door flew opened. Winston knew it was over. He dropped the knife and slowly put his hands over his head.

“What the hell is this? Who are you?”

Winston turned to see Captain Jennings and two Russian soldiers with their weapons trained on him.

“Hi. I’m Winston Sparrow. I live here.”

The Russian soldiers barged inside, strong-armed Winston into custody, and took him outside to a waiting Major Chaek. Captain Jennings carefully surveyed the barn.

“Hold his arms,” Major Chaek barked. He withdrew his Kizlyar blade from its sheath, the same blade that had ended so many of Winston’s friends, but if this was the way he was meant to die, then he was honored to be killed by the same hand.

As the Major drew the blade across Winston’s neck, Captain Jennings yelled, “STOP!” from inside the barn. A moment later, he emerged holding the empty black army-issued first aid kit backpack and the Tabari backpack from Dong-joo. “He has the Tabaris!”

“What do you mean?” asked Major Chaek, whose blade trickled with a drop of blood from Winston’s neck.

“This man has somehow stolen the Tabaris. The crate is empty.”

“I swear — I just came back for some personal things, like my shovel . Check my wallet!”

Major Chaek shrieked, “defensive positions!”

The encampment’s thirty soldiers scrambled around the Sparrows’ property — behind the fortifications at the top of the driveway and at the edge of the lake, behind the barn, house, and Winston’s flattened truck — wherever there was suitable cover, there was a PLA soldier armed with a weapon.

Major Chaek pulled the wallet from Winston’s back pocket, and the driver’s license from it. He read it and turned his head to confirm both the number on the house and the face on the card. The man was telling the truth, and Major Chaek turned and looked toward Medusa’s stump.

“The man from the tree…”

“Yep, that me. You should also recognize my friend Ben and a few others. You killed them.”

Winston didn’t know whether the U.S. Army was still out there or if they had abandoned him or if they had successfully driven the nukes to a safe distance or if Johnsonville was going to be sacrificed.

Major Chaek punched Winston in the gut, “where are my nuclear weapons, Mr. Sparrow?”

Winston coughed and choked, still being held up by the two Russian soldiers.

“I don’ know what you’re talkin’ about.”

Captain Jennings tossed the black army backpack and stormed into the house, reported his findings to the generals, and came back outside, master controller in hand. He presented the master controller to Winston, who took in as many of the controls as he could while Captain Jennings ranted, “we are all willing to die for our cause. When I arm this, you will have two minutes to decide your fate.”

The captain motioned to his two assistants to load the last remaining Tabari into a drone. They held it up and the captain sent it high above their heads where it hovered silently. He armed the Tabaris — all twenty of them, including those whose whereabouts were unknown, the counter ticking down from 120. Winston had no idea that the Russian Tigr with the American “Russians” and sixteen Tabaris had been ambushed and was currently taking heavy friendly fire  from a local American militant group intent on destroying the Russian-made troop transport, damned be the white flag of truce that was raised. The Russian Tigr was only ten miles away, well in range of the master controller.

“You can stop this now. Tell me where they are,” Major Chaek implored.

“I gotta apologize, Sir. I didn’ have time to clean the upstairs toilet for your stay—”

Major Chaek punched Winston in the kidney. Winston reeled with pain.

“I will make you suffer for the last thirty seconds of your life,” Major Chaek said, and held his Kizlyar blade to Winston’s groin.

“Jeezus, you gon’ cut my balls off?” he said.

Captain Jennings displayed the master controller. Sixty seconds left.

“I will do more than that, Mr. Sparrow.”

Captain Jennings pleaded, “come on, now. Do you really want millions of lives to be on your head? We’re not talking just Johnsonville gone, we’re talking the entire state gone. All because of one stubborn nigger . Tell me and I’ll disarm them.”

Winston could see that Captain Jennings didn’t want to die, but that n-word really got his goat, “nobody wants ta speak ‘bout the air around them ‘til a niggah got their hands wrapped ‘round their throat.”

“Thirty seconds,” Major Chaek said, and pressed his knife firmly into Winston’s groin.

“Okay, okay,” Winston said, “I’ll tell you everything.”

He watched Captain Jennings disarm the nukes with a code on the keypad; he didn’t quite get the number sequence, but he saw the pattern and counted the number of digits the officer pressed — nine. He recalled that the Mayor often espoused that life was nothing more than patterns, and that while people could fall into good patterns or bad patterns, they always had the power within them to change their patterns. Winston smiled widely.

“You have nothing to smile about, Mr. Sparrow. You are about to die,” the Major said, “unless you become forthright this very moment.”

“May I sit?” Winston asked, “my old bones…”

The Major motioned for one of the Russians to bring a chair from around Medusa’s stump, and he happened to return with Winston’s favorite chair. He set it down in the middle of the driveway and shoved Winston into the chair, whose mission now was to stall as long as he could. He looked up at the drone that interrupted the predawn sky’s tranquility.

Major Chaek held the black backpack up and asked, “are you working with the United States Army?”

“Yes,” Winston said.

“Go on.”

“They come ta me yesterday, told me what I hadda do. I done it, and now I’m sittin’ here on my own property, in my own chair, talkin’ to you.”

“Where are the bombs?”

Major Chaek punched Winston in the face when he didn’t immediately answer. Again. And again.

“Sir!” Captain Jennings said through gritted teeth.

Winston coughed and spit blood, his mouth and left eye instantly swollen.

“Now now… you gotta play nice.”

“Just kill him,” Major Chaek said to one of the Russian soldiers, who cocked and aimed his rifle

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at Winston’s head.

“Might as well,” coughed Winston, “them nukes are long gone by now. Member that Russian Tigr from ‘bout an hour or so ago? They took ‘em. Headed east. What was it? Twenny miles ta get outta range a that thing?” He pointed at the master controller and laughed, but while the American “Russians” in the Tigr pleaded with their fellow American aggressors , some dumbass in a Don’t Tread on Me  t-shirt got spooked and opened fire on them, which resulted in several of the militants dying. Unfortunately, all  of the army rangers were killed and the Russian Tigr was torched, a false victory for the United States.

“Sir, I called the Palmetto Group to ask about that Tigr, but they did not answer. I assumed the radioman fell asleep. I was going to alert you, but… this happened.”

“Do it,” Major Chaek said, “we must find those Tabaris.”

Unexpectedly, a tiny shot rang out and the Russian soldier with the gun to Winston’s head put a finger to his forehead, surprised to see blood, and slowly collapsed, dead. Heads turned to where the shot originated, and there was May standing in the doorway, Winston’s tiny .22 rifle in her hands, the IV bag hanging from the trigger guard. She fired again, this time harmlessly wounding her own home.

“You leave my husband alone!” she commanded.

Major Chaek slowly unholstered his sidearm and raised it toward May. She lowered the rifle, the strength she had found to protect her husband suddenly failing her, and she fell on her knees to the barn’s floor. Major Chaek took aim. Winston, still unrestrained, bounded out of his chair and shoved the gun away. As Major Chaek retrained the gun on Winston, a hailstorm of bullets erupted from the field across the street. PLA soldiers fell one by one. Major Chaek half-ran with his leg cast, taking cover inside the Sparrow residence and firing haphazardly toward the field, striking one of his own men in the back of the neck. Winston dove for cover behind the barn. Captain Jennings, clutching the master controller, was hit once, twice, three times… but still managed to arm the Tabaris. His dying eyes caught Winston’s incredulous gaze as he heaved the master controller onto the roof of the barn. One final blow to Jennings’ abdomen served to help the momentum of the master controller find a spot high on the barn’s steep roof.

Winston rolled to the barn door and leapt inside, falling next to May. He quickly checked on her — her eyes were open, but she was delirious.

“Thank you, my love,” he said, and barged into the apartment. He grabbed the Mayor’s aluminum ladder off the wall. It was tricky getting it through the slim door, but he managed, only losing a few precious seconds. He stepped up onto the Tabaris’ wooden crate and rested the ladder’s tip on a rafter that framed the cupola. He jumped down, grabbed the .22 rifle from May’s hands, hopped back up onto the crate, and climbed the ladder to the very top. There was a reason he had installed the cupola on hinges — and that was for easy egress to the roof’s peak. He unfastened the latch that held the cupola firmly against its waterproof seal, and threw it open. It crashed hard against the rooftop, its glass shattering (oddly enough, at that moment, he pondered that he’d find replacement glass down at Calef’s after the war), set the rifle into the open cupola, and hauled himself out onto the gabled roof. He estimated that there were just seconds left before his world would end, and he reached down and grabbed the master controller by the very tippy-top of its antenna and pulled it toward him. Several PLA soldiers saw him and trained their weapons at him, but the army rangers had stormed the gates and were now on the Sparrow property. When Winston finally had the master controller in his hands, the timer read three seconds. He keyed the numbers 3-1-4-1-5-9-2-6-5 into the keypad and the countdown stopped at zero.

He looked down the cupola’s opening to find May looking up at him, her strength melting, and her head fell back to the barn floor. He tossed the master controller into the cupola, took up his trusty .22 rifle and stood brazen, a man intent on surviving, a man hell-bent to release his fury against the PLA, a man wearing an I’m a Brad Paisley Girl  t-shirt, and ready to spend the currency he held in his hands. He had eight bullets. His attention was drawn to the U.S. soldier who was left behind, now near the tree and taking heavy fire. Winston took aim, starting first with his attackers, rotated his body, and started picking off PLA soldiers one by one.

“This one is for Ben!”

“This one is for Julie!”

“This one is for George!”

“This one is for Mick!”

“This one is for Med!”

“This one is for May!”

“This one is for America!”

“And this one is for me!”

When the gun was emptied, the fighting was over, and only the deteriorating echoes of the gun’s reports remained over Robin Lake. He stood high above the scene and looked down upon the bloodshed — all of the PLA soldiers lay dead, a few U.S. soldiers were injured, and he himself had been shot twice — near the left clavicle and through the right leg, but he didn’t even realize it yet.

“Get your ass down off a there, you damned old fool, before you get hurt,” May shout from below.

Winston smiled. “Yes, dear.”


By the time Winston climbed down the ladder, the army rangers had rounded up the only four PLA survivors that remained — the three generals and Major Chaek, who were all hiding inside the Sparrows’ house. He handed the master controller to a U.S. Air Force officer who brought the drone down safely, landing it in the driveway where the other eleven drones lay shattered from the firefight.

A convoy of American military vehicles, many of which were ambulances containing corpsmen and medics, made their way onto the Sparrow property. Winston put an unconscious May into one, and she was off to the military hospital at the Atlanta international airport. After his non-life-threatening wounds were tended to, he saw Sergeant Duffy interrogating Major Chaek in the very same chair used for his own interrogation, and limped over.

“Sergeant Duffy? Can I have a word?”

“Specialist Sparrow,” Sergeant Duffy said, a broad smile making his middle-aged face seem younger, “it’s actually Colonel Duffy. I apologize for the deception.”

“That was quite  the deception. Jes’ how many were you really?”

Colonel Duffy’s face reddened a little, but confided, “just over a hundred thirty thousand?”

“Scuse me? Did you say a hundred thirty thousand?”

“Yes, Sir” he turned to Major Chaek and said, “PLA was countin’ their chickens before they were hatched, and they may not have hatched if it wasn’t for you.”

“I can’t take full credit… you owe my wife May one helluva thank you, though she  jes’ may take full credit.

“How did  she do it?” the Colonel asked.

“Never underestimate the power of an elementary school math teacher with a Ruger twenny two.”

They laughed.

“Your wife will certainly be rewarded for her actions. You, too.”

“Give mine ta May. I already got my reward,” Winston felt the scar under the t-shirt, “What you gon’ do with this piece a shit?”

“I’m afraid that’s classified.”

“I see. Well, somethin’ jes’ dawned on me now seeing as you wanna reward me and May an’ all. Scuse me a moment.”


Winston hobbled over to his flattened truck, and shook his head in disgust. He turned back and said, “was the Mayor’s truck,” and tugged on the passenger door, but it wouldn’t budge. He walked to the driver’s side door, which was unlocked, opened the door, climbed over the seat, and unlocked the passenger door. He walked back to the passenger side, opened the door, and Med’s .357 fell to the ground. He looked at Colonel Duffy, who watched him intensely, as did Major Chaek. Winston scooped the gun from the ground and walked back to Colonel Duffy and Major Chaek.

“Seems to me, Colonel Duffy, that you recently told me that no prisoners would be taken.”

“Well, Specialist Sparrow, that was then. Objectives have changed.”

“Look over there. Ya see that young woman?” Winston waved to her, and she waved back, “her name is Lieutenant Nancy Drew. Yep, jes’ like the detective ‘cept she a medic. Fixed this mess goin’ on over here,” he waved a hand around his own body, “seems ta me that it wouldn’t be nothin’ but an educational experience for her ta fix a kneecap, specially when this here gun belonged to that poor ol’ head you see displayed on my good wrought-iron fence. Fine young man went by the name a Melvin, Med, Willis.”

Colonel Duffy paused, waved to the Lieutenant, and motioned for her to join them.

Lieutenant Nancy Drew trotted over. “Yes, Sir?”

“This man has a knee injury,” Colonel Duffy said.

Lieutenant Nancy Drew was perplexed.

“Now, wait a minute. You can’t let him do that to me,” Major Chaek cried.

Winston bent over to get Major Chaek’s attention, “hey, hey, look here. I ain’t got nothin’ ta say ta you,” and he shot Major Chaek’s left kneecap, giving him a matching pair of destroyed knees.

“Thank you, Colonel Duffy and Lieutenant Drew.”

Suddenly, an uproar erupted from the waterline. Colonel Duffy and Winston bolted toward the commotion, Winston slowed by his injuries. While scouring the encampment for enemy survivors and gathering the dead, a half-dozen rangers had discovered a PLA soldier and moved him to the stump, where they prepared to beat him. When Winston arrived, he recognized the prisoner as Woo-jin.

“Stop it! No!” Winston shouted, “this man is no enemy!”

“He’s PLA!” a voice yelled back.

“He’s an ally!”

“Back away from the prisoner!”

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ordered Colonel Duffy, who asked Winston, “is this the soldier you met with under the bridge?”

“Yes! We traded food… and stories… hope… and friendship. He helped me bury…” Winston choked up, but continued, “his name is Yong Woo-jin. Go ahead. Check.”

A ranger found a military-issued wallet that contained a North Korean identification card. He showed it to Colonel Duffy, who confirmed Woo-jin’s identity.

“He is still a prisoner of war, Mr. Sparrow.”

“I understand.”

Winston held his hand out to Woo-jin. He took it, and Winston pulled him up and said, in a truly horrible Clark Gable voice, “you should be kissed by someone who knows how.”

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Woo-jin replied, his impersonation not much better. And Winston pulled the young man into his arms and embraced him as if he were a long lost son.

“I thought I lost you. How’d you do it?”

“Buddhist breathing technique.”

“Incredible. You’ll have to show me one day.”

“I would like that very much.”

Colonel Duffy rested a hand on Winston’s shoulder, “I’ll request clemency.”

“Thank you. This man got a girl back home who misses him ver’ much.”

With that, Woo-jin was escorted away. And as Winston watched, he pondered again what it was that made nations constantly war with one another. He certainly couldn’t answer that question, but he had a feeling that if he, an aging black American Vietnam War veteran who placed all faith in his Christian God above could grow to care so deeply for a young North Korean PLA soldier who placed so much faith in his  God could do it…

He shook his head and shrugged it off, it  being far too complicated to understand. There was much to do at the Sparrow compound. As he made his way to the barn to clean the apartment up, Muffin trotted down the driveway past all of the soldiers, and to Winston. She barked once and sat in front of him. Winston bent down and picked her up and she lapped his face enthusiastically.


He kissed the dog’s head, grateful that she had given Ben comfort before he was called home.

“You mus’ be hungry, girl. Let’s go get you somethin’ ta eat.”


By the end of the day, the American military had completely disassembled the PLA’s encampment on the Sparrows’ property: the razor-wire fencing, all of the tents, toilets, drones, and equipment inside the house was removed to a secure location. The army was kind enough to leave one generator and the lights for Winston and May, as well as several drums of gasoline to last for several months.

Winston and Muffin were left standing alone in a yard that appeared as if it had been hit by a tornado, but with little evidence of a war remaining. There was just one more thing he needed to do before the day ended. Earlier, he had placed what was left of Med’s head in the black first aid backpack before the army could arbitrarily take it away to burn with the rest of the PLA bodies. He had also negotiated for the army to leave his friends’ bodies in the trash pile so he could properly bury them. Now, Winston and Muffin walked through the woods to the graves that contained Julie and Med and the two PLA soldiers, unimpeded by a razor fence or bullets. He pushed the shovel’s sharp blade into the earth and dug a small hole. He sat at the edge of the grave, pulled Med’s head out of the backpack, and set it into the hole.

“When May was shot, first person I thought a was you, Med. I was gon’ run to your place to find somethin’, I dunno, that could fix her up. And I did. If you hadn’t a gone to medical school and saved them books… well…” He covered Med’s head with earth.

Amadeus watched intently from a distance, unsure of the new dog that sat by his master’s side. Winston saw the cat and called him over. Amadeus reluctantly crawled toward him, hissing at a disinterested Muffin.

“You gon’ hafta get used to each other, I guess.” Winston picked Amadeus up and stroked him as they all walked home, Amadeus purring loudly, content in his owner’s secure embrace, and Muffin gleefully trotting beside them. He grabbed cans of cat and dog food from the apartment and fed the cat on Medusa’s stump and Muffin on the ground beneath it. He took his usual seat and gazed at the photos — they looked different now, almost foreign to him. A brown MRE package was set in the center of the stump with a note on it that read:


Thank you again.

Enjoy the turkey tetrazzini.

It’s the least gross of them all.

— Colonel Duffy

He tore the package open, only now realizing just how hungry he was, and ate the meal voraciously. Tomorrow he would find a way to get to May up in Atlanta. But tonight, he, Amadeus, and Muffin would sleep in the apartment with the doors wide open.


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The brass bell rang out of tune as Winston wrapped up his shortened day. He had come in to the store for a few hours to cover for three employees who were currently eating barbecue over at his place. It was the third annual Labor Day barbecue that he and May now hosted. The celebration started the year after The Great Liberating War , as it was now known. Winston didn’t look up as he wiped down the belt on checkout lane three.

“I can’t say that I’m not unhappy you back. Did ya get some a them chicken wings? I’m still confounded that I can’t figger out the Mayor’s secret recipe.”

He looked up expecting to find his three employees, which he did, but six other  eyes were staring back at him.

“You should be kissed by someone who knows how,” the man said.

Winston nearly broke down in tears when recognized Woo-jin, Seul-ki, and their two-year-old daughter.

“Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” Winston replied, threw down his rag, and ran to the visitors. He plucked a giggling Woo-jin off his feet and laughed, “I can’t believe you finally made it!”

“This is Seul-ki.”

“I am honored to finally make your acquaintance.”

They hugged tenderly.

“I have heard very much about you.”

“It ain’t all  bad I hope.”

“Most of it is.”

Winston paused. Seul-ki grinned.

Winston said, “you got his sense a humor. I like that,” and bent down to the height of the little girl who clung to her mother’s side, “and what’s your  name?”

“Maybelle with a E ,” the little girl proudly said.

“Wow! What a pretty name. Did you know? That’s my wife’s name.”

Maybelle shyly nodded her head.

“Would you like to meet her?”

Another nod.

“Well, let’s go!”

As they left, Winston paused on the porch, staring at the faded black and white photo still hanging in the window of Calef’s Country Store. It was of an aged white man standing with a young black man in the very spot that Winston, Woo-jin, Seul-ki, and Maybelle now stood. The men in the photo wore matching painter’s overalls, wet paint brushes in hand, and they were spattered from head to toe in white paint. Their wide-mouthed grins conveyed a bond and camaraderie borne by decades of unconventional and unconditional friendship. The photo was dated 1905, and the caption read: ‘Mayor Lonnie Calef with Josiah Wellbeloved, painting the store – again .’ Winston, standing cross-armed, smiled genuinely as he gazed upon the photo as he had done countless times before. Suddenly, a car’s exhaust backfiring rang out loudly, which startled Winston back into the present. He turned to Woo-jin and asked, “know how to paint?”

“I think so.”

“Good. We start tomorrow.”

They walked the short distance to the Sparrow residence, the Yongs wheeling their luggage behind them, and discussed what had happened in the three years that they had been apart, and how they all came to be together, which is another story altogether. But new leaders were elected or overthrown, new policies were adopted and enacted, and lessons were learned, which was all anyone could have asked after the Great Liberating War .

The Sparrow residence swarmed with Johnsonville’s surviving residents and more than a few transplants from McDonough who had moved into Johnsonville homes left otherwise unoccupied. May was elected Johnsonville’s mayor with a unanimous vote, and her first act was to re-establish her father’s time-honored Labor Day Barbecue. At age seventy-three, she was the town’s second-oldest citizen, two years younger than Winston, still spry and energetic, despite the limp from Woo-jin’s bullet.

Amadeus sat in the kitchen corner watching May pull one of her famous blueberry pies out of the oven, with Muffin nearby, her tongue wet with anticipation of a careless hand. The house smelled of sweet blueberries as Winston and his guests walked toward the back door. They had dropped their luggage off at Ben and June’s house two doors down, which is where they would stay indefinitely, and it took a solid thirty minutes to get through the crowd and inside the house. May watched from the window; Winston Sparrow had turned out to be so much like her own father — caring, loving, generous, democratic, and resistant when required. The people of Johnsonville crowded around him as if he were a rock star, congratulating and complimenting the fine barbecue. He introduced Woo-jin and his family to the Johnsonville citizens as new fellow residents, and the Yongs were welcomed with opened arms. When they finally made it inside, Winston said, “Mother, this is Woo-jin, Seul-ki, and… Maybelle .”

“Welcome to

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our home,” May said, and shook Woo-jin and Seul-ki hands.

After introductions and getting-to-know-you  small talk, Seul-ki offered a plastic container. “This is for you. It is a traditional Korean dish called kimchi.”

“It should be perfect,” Woo-jin chimed in, “she made it in Seoul two week ago.”

“Thank you,” May replied and opened the container, its pungent, sour, spicy, and garlicky odor striking her and Winston at the backs of their throats.

“It’s cabbage?” May asked.

“Yes, with spices and fermentation,” Seul-ki said.

Winston said, “well, it smells divine. I never had kimchi before.” He grabbed a fork, and dug in, choosing a crisp, wet piece of the Napa cabbage.

“It’s spicy,” Seul-ki warned, giggling.

Winston offered the first piece to May, who took a small piece into her mouth and chewed. Winston was more adventurous, taking a much larger bite. His eyes grew wide at the enormous spicy tang, but he charged through without incident, nodding his head up and down emphatically, muttering, “delicious,” between swallows.

“That is  delightful, honey. Will you show me how to make it?” May asked.

“Of course.”

May sliced out three portions of her dessert onto paper plates. “Try some warm blueberry pie?”

“We’ve never had blueberries before!” Seul-ki said excitedly.

“You’re in for a treat then. We picked musta been a hundred pounds or more this summer jes’ across the street,” Winston said.

May laid out the plates, and turned to ask Maybelle if she would like some pie, only to find the little girl laying on her side and petting Amadeus and Muffin simultaneously, both animals rolled over on their backs.

“I think you gon’ do jes’ fine here.”

About the Author

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Pete Conrad writes about real life from a darkened room in the Dover, New Hampshire area. Mr. Conrad has a degree in English, Literature, and Cultural Studies from the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg. He is a bass player, sentimentalist, ice cream devotee, and lover of the Oxford comma.


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Copyright © 2018 Pete Conrad

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

This is a book of fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

For all inquiries:

Please visit www.suicidalflower.com


Printed in the United States of America

Book design by Pete Conrad

Edited by Erika Tobiassen

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