Fiction from NER 41.1 (2020)
On a not-yet-hot morning in revolutionary Managua, as other ex-pats and sandalistas woke in hospedajes around the city and blinked at the new light coming in through the cracks in the walls, smelled the musty mattress smells, the earth and leaves in the courtyards, the faint reek of garbage and uncovered sewer, Laurie Atkins woke, too, listening to the increasing traffic in the street, the muffler-less roars—the bombs? Explosions every minute or so. Had the Contras come by night and nobody told her? No. That was yesterday, Sunday, and the bombs were for the Virgin—Virgin bombs—and today it was a Monday, a workday, and the sounds were the sounds of a truck backfiring. The movie bus? She stretched and rubbed her eyes and put her long thin arm around the young man next to her, who stirred only long enough to say in a voice so sad and thin and dear she could hardly stand it, “Off now, luv?”
She looked at his strange features, his long, hairless torso, and remembered how he’d leaned toward her last night under the big cane roof, down by the lake, tilted his head forward and looked at her from under his brow and said, “The world is corrupt!”
“Fascinating,” she’d whispered.
He was smart enough not to speak again for a while. Which she supposed is how she’d ended up sleeping with him. Lonely as she was, she couldn’t have stood a talker.
She rested her cheek upon his chest and listened to his heart beating quietly. It reassured her. She thought of her husband and son. Lou hadn’t wanted her to come down here. He thought she was going to leave him. “Nobody leaves her husband for a church group,” she’d said. Well, by now the church group was two-weeks home from its tour of war-torn Nicaragua, and even she had to admit Lou might have been right. Poor Lou. What could she say? That their son Derrick was gone? He knew. That she got tired of the pitiful demands of the living—make money, stay sane? Who didn’t?
The dead, of course, had different desires, so what Laurie had done was simply let herself go. Funny how she didn’t even have to try, only let it happen naturally if not painlessly, like childbirth. She’d gone eccentric—that’s what she called it, but it was hardly extreme. She’d read of mothers pulling out their hair in handfuls. She’d merely cut hers short.
She lifted her head and the young man’s heartbeat stopped and she felt a shot of panic. Anything could bring it on, but silence often did. Followed by the oppressive sound of her own breathing. The ridiculous noise of her saliva as she swallowed. All part of a terrible slide leading to the question: Is this what I’ve come to? She looked again at his chest and stomach and then down between his legs. Even in half-sleep, he stirred, wavered, and gradually hardened—then stood so eager and trusting she could weep.
She quickly looked back to his face and her panic ebbed. He was only the fourth man she’d ever slept with. The first besides Lou in more than twenty- one years. She thought of the pleasure she’d felt in showing herself to him, a stranger—and despite her inexperience at this sort of thing, she knew instinctively it was a pleasure she’d feel only once. She leaned down and kissed his brow, and felt no shame. Miraculous.
She sat up and dropped her bare feet to the bare tile. Clothes? What came off the floor—what came off last night. The same gray sweatshirt, inside out, outside in. The same underwear, same jeans. Until she could get back to her own room this evening, anyway. Her father had dressed like that and wasn’t he sane? No, dead. As might be the little girl in the photo hanging here on the bedroom wall: her first Holy Communion dress, a splash of white angel-lace in the center of an otherwise dark photo, face devout, eyes aimed upward.
She let her eyes linger for a moment on the photo, then gazed at the other objects hanging like deep-sea creatures on the pastel green wall: a papier mâché Santa Claus head, three plastic dolls still in their cellophane-front boxes, a wooden crucifix, a magazine cutout of a cute baby holding a jar of Vaseline petroleum jelly.
The young man’s trunk lay open on the dressing table, books and clothes on top. His guitar was propped in the corner of the room. Last night he’d told her he was a musician, and although he’d been reluctant to leave his wife and sons back in Toronto for eight weeks, getting to witness the last dying gasps of an empire was too much to pass up. So he’d had his agent rent this house in Managua.
“Mi casa es tu casa,” he’d whispered.
Dressed, Laurie Atkins stepped out into the courtyard, and then passed through a formal sitting room, four carved wooden rocking chairs facing a bare marble coffee table. She walked in a new way, small, deliberate steps, aware of her weight on different parts of her feet: the heel, the outside, the ball. She was trying to live a new way, hope-free, she called it, from now to now to now . . . But even as she tried, she knew she was failing miserably. She couldn’t shake the feeling that bad things would happen, terrible, horrible, unpredictable things. Days would succeed days and she’d be here, then she’d be someplace else. During one of her darkest days, Lou had told her that we either find meaning and dignity in a life full of sadness and loss, or—
“Or what?” she’d asked.
He looked at her and without even blinking, he answered, “Or we don’t.”
She opened one of the two tall doors leading to the sidewalk, and stepped out into the soft, early light. The air-conditioned movie bus was waiting. She climbed aboard and explained to the driver that the musico, Charles, was sleeping today, and then she took her seat near the back, just in front of the Irish rockers. One Leprechaun-looking fellow began to play a flute. She leaned her head against the window and listened as the bus wound its way through the city, passing early morning lines for ice, lines for rice, women with babies and men with bags waiting at unmarked corners, unmarked closed doors. She thought of her son. He’d quit college and dedicated himself to all of this. All of what? Even after four weeks here, it seemed the only thing clear in these dark cities and wide valleys was the sky at night. The Sandinistas had their billboards and posters and rah-rah slogans, but what came closest to anything she was familiar with, anything she could have attached in any way to Derrick, was stenciled in small letters on building walls, office walls, house walls, park sidewalks, restaurants— the painted words: Aquí no se rinde nadie. Nobody surrenders here.
The bus stopped at hospedajes around the city and began to fill with young men, mostly, but a few women, too. European and American tourists and sandalistas—those sandal-clad Sandinista enthusiasts—all to be extras in a war movie, soldiers for the day. Across the aisle from Laurie sat two Basque revolutionaries, chain smoking, keeping the bus in cigarettes. She hadn’t spoken to them since the first day when she’d innocently asked, “So you’re from Spain?” and one had given her a cold stare and the other a lecture on Spanish imperialism. What she remembered thinking during those torturous minutes was: Stupid child, don’t you know how easy it is to be right?
Dawn turned from orange to gray as the bus broke out into the smoky countryside, slowed for goats crossing, passed fresh tilled earth, cultivated and burned earth, earth-brown children already playing stickball in a field. She’d tried to understand Derrick’s passion when she first arrived, but she was tired now, and it took energy to invest life with meaning. She didn’t want to look at the men in wheelchairs on the side of the road anymore, at the soldiers on foot, going here, going there, carrying rifles or books or both, climbing into the back of lorries with schoolchildren. The bus passed ox carts carrying bricks, mule carts carrying fruit, trucks carrying soft drinks—and then another bus so full that the passengers stood on the rear bumpers and lay on the roof.
She closed her eyes and slept.
An hour later, on the shaded lawn between the prop truck and the costume truck, a Nicaraguan soldier (sitting with a group of Nicaraguan soldiers) shouted out a question in Spanish when she walked past: “Gringo, why are you an Immortal?”
The other soldiers laughed. The whole group was looking battle-weary, the result of costume and makeup, and they slumped on the ground and in folding chairs drinking coffee. They didn’t think she could understand, so when she stopped and turned they looked surprised.
Then it occurred to her that because of the way she was dressed (rawhide coat, broad black hat, black boots, and gray serge pants) and what she carried (lever-action rifle) that they hadn’t known she was a woman, either.
“Gringa,” she corrected.
They laughed, embarrassed. A red-eyed soldier pointed to a chair with his foot.
“My son,” she said, as she sat.
The soldiers looked at her.
“With a peace group,” she said, unsure of her Spanish. Their faces didn’t change. Had they misunderstood?
Then the red-eyed soldier smiled and said, “Peace group? We are also a peace group!” And the rest of the soldiers laughed.
She looked away. On the hill sat an old ranch, stone fences surrounding old white adobe buildings with red tile roofs. The country was wide and open, cattle land. These soldiers had arrived in their People’s Army fatigues, the army of the Sandinistas, but now wore the white smocks of a rag-tag nineteenth-century Nicaraguan army. They leaned on each other, arms across shoulders, elbows on knees. They leaned and stared, chewed on grass, sipped coffee from plastic cups.
“He was in San Juan del Sur,” she said. “With a fishing cooperative? San Juan. Must one say del Sur also?”
“Busy gringos,” the red-eyed soldier said. “They start a war—they start a peace group!”
More laughter, and she tried to focus on the original question: Why was she an Immortal? “So I came here,” she said. “I mean, I came to Managua.”
While she spoke more soldiers gathered around her on the lawn. Fifteen or twenty by now. One with a pocked face, another with tiny teeth—and a third handsome and smooth, a baby, fifteen, she guessed. And the red-eyed one, who rubbed his eyes and smiled.
“Then I went to a jazz bar last week,” she said. “And the Contras blew up an electrical tower outside town and the whole bar went dark.”
The soldiers shook their heads, confused now, and she thought of her students’ faces and felt instantly fatigued. She taught history at a small college and was used to seeing, or trying to see, the string of causes and effects laid out from A to Z. It had started with her and Lou, perhaps. They’d tried to teach Derrick to do what’s right and not to be afraid but to go where you need to go and believe what you need to believe. But maybe it went back even farther. Yesterday a soldier had cornered her and said, “You Americans are a beautiful people. Thomas Jefferson! What ideas! But you make us suffer so.”
“The bar went dark,” she continued, and the soldiers nodded, and waited patiently as she remembered how she’d made her way through the crowded Managua barroom in the dark, expecting at any moment to get groped, slightly scared. And it was there, listening to the jazz band that continued to play but without the electric guitar, the sax and drums sounding good together, much better, it was there standing in the dark with her soft drink that she met Celeste, lovely Celeste the casting assistant, who touched her wrist and leaned close and asked if she wanted to be in a movie. A movie? A movie about Colonel William Walker and his band of mercenaries called Los Inmortales, who took over the country in the 1850s. They needed soldiers, lots of soldiers!
“So I met Celeste,” she said. “You all know Celeste.”
“Is she for or against her government?” one of the soldiers asked. He squinted, pushed his hair off his forehead.
The soldiers laughed.
“Me?” Although her government had spent, was spending, millions of dollars trying to kill Nicaraguan soldiers, kill these very men she spoke to, it had nothing to do with her, and as far as she was concerned, well, if they wanted to know the truth, her son had come down here to help with the revolution. A sandalista! Could she explain it in Spanish?
“Against,” she said.
The red-eyed soldier asked, as well as she could make out, why, seriously, why the American soldiers, the mercenaries in the movie army, why they were called Inmortales.
She shook her head and felt the soldiers staring at her, curious, and morning tired. In the battle scenes to be shot around the ranch, and later in the streets of Granada, they’d know better than the rest how to run with a rifle, how to fall, how to shoot from their bellies, how to die realistically. She heard one of them say earlier that dying was really very boring so if and when he was shot, boringly is how he would die.
She felt her forehead grow hot and decided to risk a joke.
“Perhaps in the film we never die!” she said, but no one laughed.
The soldier with bloodshot eyes squinted and stared at her coldly. “And in real life?” he asked.
“Excuse me?” she said, not only embarrassed but severely distracted, too, because across the lawn toward the lake, where prop people were trying to keep a tablecloth from billowing up like a sail in the wind, there with his back against one of those beautiful sweeping trees she thought looked like a cypress must look like, there he was, sunglasses on, face turned her way. Could it be? His face so . . . what? So smooth? Why did men age so slowly? Was it some kind of American phenomenon? She thought of his face before she left, red and screaming, “You’re co-opting our grief!” and how she’d laughed and cried at the same time, amazed at his words. “Co-opting our grief? Our grief? Our grief?” hoping if she repeated them long enough she’d know what the hell he was talking about.
“Con permiso,” she said to the soldiers. And she began to stand, lifting her rifle off her lap and letting it dangle in her hands—but when she looked back to the lake Lou was gone.
All afternoon the director pointed to people between takes and said, “You, you, and you, have you died yet? No? Then die this time. Get shot and fall here. You here, and you there.” He looked like a bass player in a country western band. A tall, skinny Englishman in his early thirties, he wore shorts and no shirt, and a straw cowboy hat bent down on both ends.
Laurie Atkins rested in the shade on the sidewalk with the group of surviving Immortals, waiting for the final take of the day. It had been a long day of street dirt, hot sun, sewer mud, Coca-Cola, mineral waters, sliced melons, and many sprints down the same street. The Nicaraguans had ambushed them again and again, opened fire from the tile rooftops as the Immortals marched through town, the explosion of the shots sending them diving for cover, the horses spinning and falling, the carts overturning. She and her comrades fired and ran, fired and fell in the sewage and the dirt, scrambling on their bellies for cover, over and over again until the light was right, the action right, until the director was satisfied he had something.
Now they sat, their ranks decimated. Walker’s army of proud Immortals. In the film, this would be the Battle of Rivas, where Walker’s army first encountered Nicaraguan resistance after the 1855 invasion. It’s a massacre, an ambush, and afterward Walker would be forced to flee with only a handful of soldiers. But the cameras and reflector boards, the sound table, the wires and phones are reminders of the actual time, the actual date. She knew the director was playing games with time in the film, keeping anachronisms in-frame like the plastic clacker toys the local kids played with, an occasional Coke bottle, and in the film’s concluding scene, an American helicopter would land and rescue Walker.
She didn’t know the script but she knew that now that she’d survived the ambush, she had only the barricade to break through, and then, there’d be temporary safety, finally, in the hideout on the edge of town. She wanted to get that far but the extras were falling fast, only a handful left, and from where she sat she could see the growing gathering of the dead on the far side of the road. She bravely searched their faces. Bravely because twice since this morning she’d seen “Lou,” or whoever it was. Glimpses, only, but she felt irritated he was here—to rescue her? He’d written that he loved her, loved her, loved her, still. In a note he’d snuck into her handbag so she’d find it on the airplane, he’d written that theirs was a life like any other, full of loss and pain, but that didn’t mean she had to leave him, did it?
How could she explain to him that leaving had thrilled her? Or even worse, how to explain to herself what that feeling meant? Even reading his note on the plane over Mexico, then again and again in the hotel in Managua. Reading it filled her with awe, and not only awe for love, but awe for the terror that can waste so much love.
But the man who’d appeared and then disappeared all day long probably wasn’t him anyway. The eyes play tricks in the bright sun. Like now, sitting cross- legged on the sidewalk, she squinted across the street and could swear the young man standing with his back to a white wall—the-man-in-charge-of-dust, she called him, in charge of covering the cobbled streets with dirt so the red-tiled roofs and white walls of the city appeared exactly as they appeared one hundred and thirty years ago—that young man was Derrick, exactly. Standing tall, a baseball cap pulled peak forward, handsome as ever. He smiled at her—what a cruel joke! Where was his body? Washed and eaten by the fish? She’d dreamed of being underwater for weeks after they heard. They’d had a memorial service, but without the body she felt as though they were all pretending. She started laughing, actually, during the service, and since then, she’d occasionally been struck by a powerful desire to run her fingers through his hair. She wondered, if she’d seen the body and buried him, would she still have this strange compulsion? His hair. Who knew? But the cruel joke was that every time she did see him— like now in the crowd of dead Immortals across the street, the light soft and orange—every time she thought she saw him his head was shaved.
Laurie suddenly started to cry. Colonel Walker, his large black preacher hat set on his knee, by chance was sitting next to her on the sidewalk, reading the newspaper, a New York Times somebody brought from The International in Managua. A passionate basketball fan, he followed the progress of March Madness. Her madness too, she guessed, because when she burst into tears he instantly put a soft hand on her shoulder and said, that familiar voice asking, “Are you all right, ma’am?”
Because her bandana had been wrapped around her hand and stained with fake blood to simulate a wound, she used her sleeve to wipe her eyes. Really, though, she could see why Colonel Walker was an actor. In addition to the voice there was the face that (even when he talked about basketball) could look so Good, and then, with the most subtle and unexplainable change, suddenly so Bad.
“Fine,” she said. “Thank you for asking.” She wiped her eyes again. “You know,” she said, turning to face him more directly, “I was just thinking, when my son was a little boy, he’d come home from school and sit with his father and watch your show in the afternoon.”
Walker looked at her, confused. “My show?”
“He and his father,” she continued, “because our television was poor and not bright at all, they’d have to sit under a blanket in order to see. I’d come home, and there they’d be, the television and the two heads, little and big, under this plaid blanket, and sometimes, you know, of course, your voice! Isn’t that odd?”
Colonel Walker stared, his pale blue eyes widening and then ever-so-slightly flattening. “I never had a TV show,” he said.
“Oh,” she said, embarrassed, “are you sure?” And then, “Of course, forgive me. It must have been somebody else. Somebody who sounds like you.” She dared another glance at his face and the brave Colonel Walker nodded but she could tell he wanted to get back to his newspaper. Her tears were gone, and now all she was doing was babbling.
“You would have been awfully young anyway,” she said, looking away. “This was years ago.”
Across the street the cook sat cross-legged in his tiny cart, playing the drums on his pots. The cook’s buddy, Outlaw Joe, leaned against a wall behind him, looking like a hobo in his shredded trench coat. He was an American man about Derrick’s age, and he’d been killed early today during the first charge. At lunch he’d told her a little about his life, and life here in Nicaragua. He’d married a Nicaraguan woman, he’d said, “And it’s not an untypical family situation: her father’s dead, mother recently migrated to the States, sister’s husband crippled six months ago by a mine, younger brother just back from the front, lazy, a little loco.”
“Places!” somebody yelled. “Get ready!”
It was almost sunset now and Laurie joined the surviving Immortals, only fifteen or so, including Colonel Walker, in a line at one end of a street facing a furniture barricade—wooden rocking chairs, tables, old doors piled ten feet high down the block.
Some of the Nicaraguan soldiers took cover behind the barricade, and she could see their rifle barrels pointed out through the gaps. Another ten or so lay down in the street, their white smocks smooth, their hats still on, guns at their sides. The director yelled that they didn’t all have to be wearing their hats, that the guns didn’t all have to be right next to them, that they were dead, remember, so don’t move.
The sun hung low, just above the rooftops, making the sky orange and red. Wind swept the narrow street raising dust in plumes that slid across the dead and into the white walls. But it was still very hot and her clothes had sweated through, even her black felt cowboy hat soggy from the band halfway up the crown.
“Action!” the director said, and Colonel Walker began his resolute march toward the barricade. She watched as he walked into the sunset, into the imminent fire of Nicaraguan guns. Then Mr. Hornsby, one of Walker’s officers, jumped out and confronted the rest of the Immortals. Bald, an earring in one ear and a weapon in each hand, he cussed at them for the camera, calling them cowards, urging them to charge. They charged.
Trying to aim and shoot and cock, and aim and shoot and cock again while running was difficult. And because even blanks are dangerous at close range, they’d been told not to fire directly at anybody. The sound of the firing was deafening, frightening enough to make Laurie want to fall and hide. Seeing the guns pointed at her, seeing the smoke and hearing the explosion of the shots almost knocked her down. Yet even so she wanted desperately to get past the barricade. In the hideout, she knew Walker would use the five minutes of peace to play a hymn on the piano. Five minutes of peace, a book title, by the way, a book she used to read to Derrick, five minutes of peace, and she remembered the scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a movie Derrick and Lou had loved, how surrounded by the Bolivians, Butch and Sundance sat peacefully chatting before making their charge.
But up ahead in the street, Walker had suddenly stopped. Maybe twenty feet this side of the barricade, he stood waving his arms as if to say cut, cut, cut, but the Nicaraguans kept shooting. They’d been told to cease fire as soon as Walker passed the last dead man lying in the street, because at that point Walker would be too close and the blanks could explode that far out. But they’d continued shooting, and Walker was waving his arms wildly now, until finally Laurie and the rest of the Immortals passed him and stopped shooting, and finally the Nicaraguans did too.
Walker didn’t speak Spanish and she thought that was a good thing. Apparently he felt the shock of a blank go past his head, and his face and his English got the message across. It was the second time today he’d been almost hit.
The director sprinted toward the barricade as Walker retreated. They passed each other in the middle of the dusty street, and the dead Nicas in the road lifted their heads to catch the commotion. The director looked like a large, pissed-off bird, arms flailing, body bending at the waist. He spoke in the first angry voice she’d heard from him to tell the Nicaraguans, in British-accented Spanish, that the guns are dangerous, and for the tenth time, please don’t aim at anybody! And for godsake stop firing when Walker crosses this line!
He dragged a heel across the brown dirt. “Bien?” he said. Behind him the sky had turned a fantastic red now, and the barricade grew darker and even more formidable in shadow.
He ran back down the street toward the waiting Immortals. “Everybody get reloaded and do it just like before. That was very good, gentlemen. And lady. Colonel, I am sorry. That was really very good, though. Do it just the same. This is going to be fantastic.
“Places again, everyone!”
The street cleared. A rooster crowed. She caught her breath. She was trying to remember where it was she’d changed her mind, why it was she’d come. Lou, dear, have we buried our son? And what, by the way, was he doing in Nicaragua?
A black dog wove through the street from the far corner, sniffing the dead. They remained still, miraculously.
Flies buzzed everywhere. Neighborhood people crowded the street and sidewalk behind the camera to watch the last battle of the day. They sat in rockers and benches and on the ground. A boy, wearing a rubber Ronald Reagan mask with a big, goofy puppet grin, paused with his bucket full of ice and Coca-Cola bottles.
Laurie Atkins waited, rifle in her hands, in line with the other Immortals, while the dog sauntered here and there in the orange road, still sniffing the dead. A technician ran out in front of the camera with a light meter in his hand and did a few pirouettes.
“Silencio!” a woman yelled. The light was fading fast and the cinematographer was trying to hurry. Another Immortal next her, not an extra but an actor with a familiar face, winked at her. He wore a derby, carried a rifle in one hand, pistol in the other, knife in his boot. Tobacco juice trailed down his chin. Colonel Walker stood to her right, head down, rocking back and forth, occasionally taking deep breaths and then jumping up and down to stay loose.
“Places!” the woman shouted again, and Laurie remembered the exact moment she’d decided to leave home. An unpleasant day, wet and gray, and her head had been filled not only with everything she hadn’t done, not just the laundry and the floors and a stack of student papers, but as maudlin as it sounds, with all of the places she hadn’t been. She walked upstairs. Lou was in the bedroom, the door closed. She stepped down the hall and stood for just a moment outside the room. Then, as she reached for the knob, she heard him sneeze. That’s all. But something in the force of it irritated her, flooded her with anger, for the sound of it contained all of the force of his personality, his pit of sadness. She couldn’t bear to see him—she’d turned around without even touching the doorknob, and walked away, downstairs, and called Margaret to sign up for the trip. Why not? At the very least she had the right to see where he’d drowned, didn’t she? How could Lou deny her that?
He couldn’t, of course. But once here, after she ditched the church group and ducked down to San Juan del Sur and got a room in a little white hotel with blue shutters, she’d walked the shoreline searching the child-eating sea until she thought she was going to go blind. (He’d been swimming off the mouth of the river and the tide reversed, caught him in an outgoing current. She imagined him swimming fiercely into it, could hear his gasps, see his final frantic strokes. Didn’t he know enough to let it take him? To swim sideways? Did he really think he could beat back the tide with the force of his arms and legs alone? Did he refuse to surrender even as he watched the shore get farther and farther away?) Then she reread all of Derrick’s letters for the hundredth time, and she was struck by something odd. There was so little there! Nothing except perhaps that he had the bad guys right, and the good guys right, and he knew which side to be on. But he described nothing so rich as she could see from her window, the ocean and the waves breaking in broken white lines, and the wide beach and children playing baseball on the sand. And a pig crossed the infield and the kids played on, the pitcher pitching over the pig and the batter batting around the pig. And then later at the restaurant, the boy sweeping the street out front, and the old man who rode up on a horse and dismounted, leaving his horse ground- tied, the reins dangling in the dirt, while he slumped drunkenly against the door of a roofless house across the street and knocked, and knocked, and knocked.
Derrick had seen so little of the heartbreaking comedy around him, she thought, and she felt more acutely than ever the pain of his death, of his own loss, how even at twenty years old he hadn’t the foggiest notion of what it was to live. But what about her? She was forty-four and what did she know? Beyond the grief and the pain and the anger, what was left? What did it mean to live, and then to die? Why this mawkish breathing, this feeding of flesh, this . . . this what? This shame. That’s what she felt. Ashamed to be alive when he was dead.
On location, the same woman shouted silencio for the tenth time, and finally, finally, the street was silent. Laurie squinted into the sunset and at the barricade, at the dust and the dog and the dead. In San Juan del Sur, after rereading Lou’s note, how he love-love-loved her, she tried to write him back, tried to write how despite everything and her best effort to the contrary, she still loved him too. She thought about what that meant. Not happiness, certainly. But something more primitive, perhaps. To him alone she was not Laurie Atkins, sum of her actions, a biography. To him alone. No, not happiness but something more at one with darkness. Something that caused a warmth to rise in her, an elation, brief as could be, even at the thought of his name.
But not having the slightest idea of why, or who she was without him, she supposed her love to be quite . . . worthless. Was there any other way? And could he blame her for looking? Would he forgive her?
“Action!” the director said.
Colonel Walker in his suit and broad-brimmed preacher hat strode out past the camera onto the road, walking over and past scattered bodies, his black form ominous. Then Mr. Hornsby leaped out, weapon in each hand, cussing the rest of the Immortals, urging them to charge. The Nicaraguans held their fire and Laurie felt herself holding her breath, one beat, two. Then, with an unplanned groan, they attacked. They charged, the survivors of these days of mock massacre, sprinting into swirls of orange dust and sunset. She jumped over the first dead body in the road and thought of Derrick running home from school in first grade, angry because his teacher made him sit between two girls. “I didn’t cry,” he’d said, his grim mouth determined, “but my eyes watered.”
And then, even as she ran, she began to laugh. It would be a matter of principle with him, wouldn’t it? Aquí no se rinde nadie. He simply would not give up. And hadn’t she blamed everything on his death?
She closed in on the barricade, crouching, shooting, cocking, and shooting again. She ducked and turned and, God, how her legs ached! And God, how Derrick would love this! How many times had he practiced this very thing, charging, shooting? And probably Lou before him, and she had to admit once she got used to the sweat and the grime and the heat and the dust, it wasn’t half bad—because, well, because maybe boys know something in their bones, she thought. Maybe they know there’s no hope for any of us, and so they let it go in a last agonizing blood-curdling howl. A screech of defiance. A war whoop. No lamentations or elegies! No biographies and histories! Meaning? Let the living skip and dance over the dead in a final fateful charge on the barricade.
“Chaaaaarge!” she yelled.
The barricade loomed. The Nicaraguans waited. They’d been told to shoot over the heads of the charging Yankee Immortals but as she ran Laurie Atkins knew at least a few of them probably had her in their sights, their rifles suddenly blowing sound and smoke, mere whiffs of a timeless nightmare.