J. Kelley Anderson


When I was a little girl, my parents thought that having a scraped-up tomboy was kinda cute. I’d spend all day outside the fences, on the salt flats, escaping the farm compound to carve oversized messages to the sun in the parched earth–love notes mostly, written in huge looping script. It was easy to stomp sneaker-sized lines into the cracked soil out beyond the irrigated fields. I decided that we’d get married someday, the sun and I, which was just as well since there was hardly anybody else around.

When I applied for the security force, at eighteen, my parents decided that my tomboyish nature wasn’t so cute anymore. Even less so when I was accepted. It was hard not to reminisce about those days as I sped back into the badlands of my childhood. I shuddered to think what my parents would have said about missions like this one, but what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt them.

I rode alone along a narrow stretch of battered road, toward the small outpost that had been the center of the recent attacks. The wind in my face was hot, but it was a wholesome kind of hot. It’s what I knew. The sun hadn’t forgotten me, even after all my time spent shut away in the halls of the military academies and all the months I spent scouting in the North, where the sunlight doesn’t seem to be welcome. The sun had waited. The sun was ever faithful.

I knew I was getting close. When the cobblestones ended in a ragged line and the road turned into a set of deep ruts and pockmarked earth, a bunker wasn’t going to be far off. The stones were the only building material for miles, and only the rebels would think of pulling them up. Legitimate citizens could simply requisition construction supplies. Not that there were any citizens left in this region. All of the outland farmers had been recalled closer to the capital city at the first signs of an uprising. That was protocol–even when it was just a handful of disorganized outcasts.

My captain advised the government that the land would do the job for us in the space of a month or two. After the rebels had raided what they could from homesteads and found the water mains had gone dry, they’d surrender or die. But our supervisors didn’t want to appear weak on “treason.” So they sent me. It didn’t make much sense, but I wasn’t going to turn my nose up at job security. The last thing I wanted was for my bosses to decide that my skill set was unnecessary. I certainly didn’t want to go back to farming.

I killed the engine of my bike and rolled to a stop at the edge of the torn up road. I hated that bike. It was a ridiculous thing, all shining chrome and soft blue lights. If I had thought that arguing against taking a vehicle that shone like a beacon on a stealth mission would have worked, I would have done it. But I’ve learned better. My equipment is my equipment whether I like it or not. So I make due. I tried to rub dirt on it as I entered the heat of the badlands, just so it wouldn’t be so damn reflective. Unfortunately, no water means no mud, and I wasn’t going to spare any of mine for the purpose. So, the bike just kept on shining like a second sun. I shook my head at the glimmering metal eyesore.

“If you’re trying to steal my heart, forget it. You’re just an imposter . . .”

I shot a glance upward and gave a quick two-fingered salute to the noon sun.

“You know I only have eyes for you.”

I smiled a crooked smile and went back to surveying the landscape. There wasn’t much to see. The ground was a flat, arid crust, with just the hint of a sparkle. It was typical of the badlands salt flats –the places that just weren’t fit for anything no matter how much water you pumped into the place. What wasn’t typical about this area was that there was more than just an unbroken line of horizon in all directions. Here, jagged outcroppings of dark stone erupted from the pale landscape like broken teeth. It looked like a huge hunk of volcanic glass had been hauled into this featureless place and then was blown to smithereens. I had no idea why, but I was thankful for them. They meant cover, concealment.

The remains of the stripped road bent around the largest mass of dark rock and disappeared a couple hundred feet beyond where the cobblestones ended. That’s where I’d find them. I couldn’t imagine them carting the paving stones very far, once they had dislodged them.

The plan was simple enough. As far as I know, I had invented the plan–not that anyone at the base ever seemed to remember that fact. It played to all of my strengths. Specifically, it relied on my ability to look harmless followed rapidly by being anything but. The look was key: I wore a ragged gray dress that seemed to have been some brighter color in a past life. My hair was a few weeks worth longer than the close-cropped style worn by most outland farmers, and I had a nasty looking scar on the back of my left forearm. The scar was meant to counterfeit the appearance of a sloppily removed identification chip. Beyond that, it wasn’t all that hard to give my already lean, angular face the hollow expression of a starving outcast. A little strategically placed dirt can really make your cheekbones pop.

One thing you can rely on these small-time rebels for is their predictability. They all seem to have the same fear. They expect to see a group of government heavy-hitters in shining black body armor like man-shaped insects disgorging from some monolithic battle-tank or personnel carrier. Moreover, they always seem to think that the full might of the republic war machine should have reached their doorsteps five minutes ago. So, what do they do? They pull up stones and hack bunkers into hillsides and rock faces. They burrow into the ground and peep out waiting for the sky to fall. Now, these hasty fortifications might be semi-effective against small arms fire, but they are pretty worthless against one miserable-looking girl in a torn gray dress limping across the wastes. Beyond that, tanks and aerial strikes don’t learn anything about the motives of an uprising. I do.As soon as I’d stashed my gaudy state-of-the-art bike somewhere out of the way, it wouldn’t be hard to believe that I had been an abused farmhand pushed into choosing a life of desperate wandering over the harsh injustices of civilian life. Hell, I wouldn’t have been surprised if most of these rebels had perfectly rational reasons for turning their backs on the republic. I could sympathize. But, I couldn’t sympathize with turning those reasons into petty violence against honest farmers and caravan runners. Where was the logic there?

I saw the bunker just where I thought it would be. Honestly, I’m being overly generous in calling the thing a “bunker.” It was far more like a pile of dirt and rocks closing the space between a sharp overhang of obsidian and a broad ditch cut into the dusty ground. I kept as far away from the shining stone hill as I could when I rounded the bend in the road. The last thing I wanted was to surprise some half-starved lunatic with his finger on a trigger. Instead, I walked just off the road, crunching barefoot prints into the salty crust of the soil. I’d abandoned my shoes with the bike.

I pretended that I hadn’t noticed it. I kept walking and staring vacantly at the ground just ahead of my feet. I walked like a marionette–like my slender legs had very little to do with the rest of me as they jerked my slumping form over the ground. After I was sure that they had had time to notice me, I snagged my foot on an imaginary rock and stumbled. I fell to my hands and knees. The ground felt warm and gritty and welcoming. The sun was hot on my neck and shoulders, and I thought briefly about blowing a kiss to the cloudless sky.

After a few slow moments, as if I were pondering just staying put, I rose and began to trudge onward. As expected, a hoarse voice called from the bunker.

“Hey! You alright?”

I looked around wide-eyed, like I couldn’t imagine where that voice might have originated in the midst of all this emptiness. Then, I turned toward the bunker. I shielded my eyes from the sun, not because I needed to, but I thought I looked even more pathetic with my thin, calloused hand held above my brow.

The structure was even more makeshift than I had thought. It was maybe twenty feet long, built of a heterogeneous mix of pale stones and irregular shards of obsidian. It was dotted with holes. I imagined that these were meant to serve as openings through which one could shoot, but I didn’t see any firearms. The only entrance was a narrow opening on the left side as I faced it, so that the strange wall made an odd little tunnel tucked against the sixty-foot rise of glassy rock. Standing just outside the entrance was a tall man in a long reddish coat. His hair was as black as the shining stone. I stared at him, as if I hadn’t heard his question. He waved me over.

I strung together tiny, furtive steps as I moved toward the rebel, clutching my left shoulder with my right hand. My “desperate and unsure” look is pretty bulletproof. At least I thought it was. When I was within ten feet of the man in red, he gave me a lesson in what desperate really looked like. His clothes were hanging unnaturally on a skeletal frame; even his chest looked concave. His eyes were sunken in dark sockets, like two bruises, and his lips were brownish scabs on skin that looked like weather-cracked leather. Thankfully, surprise and discomfort weren’t out of character.

“Who are you?” I asked, fixated on the man’s empty eyes.

He tried to swallow before he answered; all the sinews of his neck stood out.

“I’m Roderick.” His voice was like stone grinding on stone. “Who are you?”

“Isabella. I had to leave my home. There was trouble and I was sent away. Why are you out here?”

Roderick shook his head. He seemed to dislike talking. He motioned for me to follow and then turned and headed back into the shadows of the bunker. I joined him. The interior of the structure smelled like rocks, dirt, and decay. It was nothing more than a shadowy little tube of a building. The holes in the outer wall let in brilliant beams of light that found the floor at acute angles. The sunbeams almost seemed to be buttressing the stacked cobblestones of the wall.

Besides Roderick, another wisp of a man sat on the earth resting his back against the obsidian. He looked up for a minute as we entered and then looked back down at his feet. Just beyond him, dozens of firearms of various makes and models were leaning against the stone next to a few crates. At the far end of the bunker, three bodies lay with their feet toward the entrance. Even though their faces were lost in shadow, there was no doubting that they were dead. Nobody slept like that and the smell was unmistakable.

“We don’t have any water,” croaked Roderick after a moment. “So, don’t ask.”

I stared at him. “What are you going to do?”

Roderick stared at me with his blank eyes. He might have been considering how to answer, but the flesh of his face seemed to have lost the ability to show much expression, so it was difficult to say.

“Our friends went to get water . . . to the East. They should have been back.” His voice got progressively quieter as he spoke, as though he was slowly running out of breath. “We are going to try to go find them.”

I nodded. There was no great resolve in Roderick’s voice. No sense of either urgency or fear, just distance–like the life within him was so far from the surface that his voice had to rattle around his body before the ghost of it would finally drift out of his battered mouth.

Roderick shook his head slightly. “I’m not sure.”“But why are you out here in the first place?”

This was exactly the sort of vital information that I had been sent to retrieve. Ugh.

“Can I come with you to find your friend? I have nowhere to go.”

He nodded. “Free country.”

There may have been some irony in his thin voice. It was hard to say.

Roderick paced over to a long-range rifle that was leaning up against the wall by the entrance. He picked it up and slung it over his shoulder with visible effort. The man sitting on the floor seemed to take this as a signal and he stood up stiffly and shambled over to Roderick. The man might have been Roderick’s brother; they looked nearly identical, right down to their reddish coats. Roderick saw me eyeing the other man and gestured towards him.


Mitchel give me a slight nod and then turned back to Roderick. The two men stared at each other for several moments. They didn’t speak, but somehow I got the impression that they were saying something, or maybe reliving an old conversation or debate. Then, without warning, they both turned and filed out of the bunker. I was close behind.

It was hard to think of these phantoms of human beings as my targets. They looked worse than many corpses I had seen. At least when somebody dies in the fullness of life, they still resemble their former state–not piecemeal scarecrow representations of their old lives. I think if the republic could parade these two out as the faces of the rebellion, peace and security would be established for a long, long time.

From what I could tell, only Roderick was armed, and in his current state the rifle seemed to be more of an unnecessary burden than a weapon. Mitchel just walked with his arms hanging limply at his sides. If possible, he seemed even less alive than his comrade. I doubted that he could lift a gun, even if he had had one. Both men seemed to get smaller after we left the bunker, as if they were both made of shadow and the direct sunlight was withering them. It occurred to me that the sun was being overprotective of me, and I had to stifle a giggle.

As we walked, I quickly felt forgotten. The two rebels walked as if in a trance, and I followed several steps behind. They never looked back. They never spoke to one another. They just followed the road as it bent east toward the nearest farm compound. If I remembered the map I had studied for this mission correctly, the compound wasn’t far off. No more than five miles, I guessed. If their brothers and sisters in arms had gone that way and not returned, then it wasn’t because of the distance. Nor would there have been any resistance from the farmers; they would have been evacuated. Even the livestock would have been taken. The irrigation and potable water pumps would have been reversed and the place would be on lockdown. Part of the lockdown protocol was, obviously, a practical measure. But, other parts of the procedure were meant to have a psychological impact–to illustrate that in the absence of republic law, life itself abandons the land. The crops that couldn’t be saved would have been burned. Mattresses, clothing, blankets–anything soft–would be taken or destroyed. No human comforts would remain.

I would have liked to see the full effects of such a grim scene, but we never made it that far. Roderick made a sound like a death rattle and went rigid for a moment. Mitchel stopped a few steps later. In the distance, there were a number of darkish heaps littering the roadside. Without a word, Roderick moved forward as fast as his failing legs would carry him. We followed. I glanced over at Mitchel’s face as we walked. His eyes were wide and his jaw hung open. The expression looked like a silent scream, but there was something that seemed entirely impassive in the way he carried himself.

When we reached the bodies, I expect I was no less surprised than the two men. I never would have guessed people could die like that. There were seven of them–five men and two women. They were all within a twenty-foot radius, their limbs splayed out like discarded dolls. It was as if a strong wind had met them while they plodded along the roadside and simply blew the souls from their bodies, or maybe the sun just reached down and plucked the life from them. I glanced up at the cloudless sky.

“Show off,” I whispered.

Roderick and Mitchel stood shoulder to shoulder and took no notice of me. Mitchel was shivering.

I shook my head. There was nothing to learn here.

The dark bodies on the pale, shimmering flats looked like the strange stark letters of an unknown language. But I didn’t need to know the language to know what they said. It was a message from the sun–a message of requited love. A vow. Yet it was unfinished. Letters shouldn’t walk about on the page.

I moved close behind the two men. My nerve strike once rendered a brawny young man unconscious for seven hours. Neither of these men was brawny and neither of them had seven hours left. With one, precise movement I crumpled Roderick. Mitchel followed him down before he could even turn to see what had happened. Letters. Oaths.

I stepped back and looked around at the scene. Pale earth. Black stones. Dark letters. I knew what happened to bodies out on the salt flats. There were no scavengers and the salinity of the soil and constant attention of the sun would prevent most decomposition. The letters would remain, tattooed on the land, unless someone disturbed them. And I doubted that anyone would rush to give the rebels a proper burial.

A few steps away from the bodies, I lay down on the warm ground, my face toward the sun. Even through closed eyelids the world was blinding white and the heat was a gentle pressure. I sighed.

“I love you too.”

 J. Kelley Anderson is an alumnus (2008) of Ohio State Newark. He lives in Ohio and works at Franklin Park Conservatory. Anderson’s work has appeared in numerous online and print publications. His novel, Casting Shadows, was released this year by World Castle Publishing. Find him online at http://www.jkelleyanderson.com. He writes about this piece: “I do love dystopian wastelands, and nothing jazzes up a story like people dying from exposure. Who doesn’t like those things?”