I walked slowly down the creaking wooden stairs from the ground floor of our commandeered house, this makeshift fortress that had not held up well against even the snow. My boots sounded heavy on the sagging planks, but I knew that two feet away that noise would be quite inaudible within the ever-present howling voice of the wind.
My rifle was cold, cold through the gloves, cold in the bones of my hands which had clutched it for so long they seemed molded now to its shape. I reached the basement.
As the stairs gave way to concrete my steps muted altogether. To my left the wind swirled more fiercely from the open garage door. It was set half underground, and though a mound of sandbags piled a few feet into the garage formed a small windbreak, freezing air still dominated. I turned to the right and knelt in the corner, leaning my rifle against the wall.
There in a little plastic cooler partially concealed under junk-laden shelves was our food. Just a few homemade tortillas wrapped around some slightly moldy cheese. Weeks ago this cooler had been full. Dave’s mother had pushed it with trembling hands across a bedroom floor strewn with broken glass, being too weak to lift it up and hand it to us. But still she smiled. Her wise old eyes were glowing as she blessed us with the maxim of the revolution: “Arise and reclaim in America’s name.” A few days later she died in that bedroom, and we wrapped her up in the blankets and buried her in the backyard. Dave cried.
I took off my glove so as not to get blood on the others’ food, though we’d all become well acquainted with blood. The cold bit at my fingers. I pushed aside the cloth covering with white knuckles and grabbed my rations for the day. My stomach gurgled with anticipation and I told it to stop. This would run out soon enough, and I had absolutely no idea where we were going to get more food. I was carefully placing the cloth back when I heard a sudden scuffle and looked over my shoulder down the barrel of a rifle.
“Whoa whoa it’s me, it’s me,” I said, raising my hands, one of which held my little burrito. My voice was gruff and sounded unfamiliar to me. It occurred to me that I hadn’t spoken in two days.
Brian was standing there ready to shoot this intruder who was stealing our precious food. Supposedly, we were all in this together, every man, woman and child who didn’t work for the government was an honorary member of the revolution, but some people just wanted to scavenge off the resistance, using the chaos and general destruction left behind after the government’s first crippling counter-attack to scrub out a meager living in the streets. They knew that resistance fighters were the best supplied with food and medicine, because folks would bring us stuff. Stuff they grew in their gardens, homemade bandages, fresh water. Scrubs didn’t care about our fight, were content to live under the regime and the resistance at the same time. It didn’t work that way. We’d scared off a few already, and I got the impression that the normally stable Brian was now looking so trigger-happy because we were running out of food. I didn’t want to think about that.
I held very still. Slowly his eyes registered my face. The rifle’s barrel lowered an inch.
“It’s ok, it’s Aaron,” he called over his shoulder. I relaxed and dropped my arms.
“How’s it going?” I asked as I stood and retrieved my gun.
“Allright.” His eyes had flicked across the cooler. No, Brian, I didn’t take an extra ration. “Nothing out there. Nothing we can see, anyway. Anything up top?
I shook my head. “Naw. Been posted up in that window so long I’ve seen the stars move. Only thing that has, though.” I walked with him toward the opening of the garage. There was Beth, laying on the concrete floor with her rifle extending over the sandbags, her female form completely de-gendered by the bulky winter clothes we all wore. She turned her head around a bit as we approached, saw me and turned back to watching the dreary white swirl of the outside world.
“Who wants to sleep?” Brian and I hunkered down on our haunches, reducing our profiles. He examined my face closely for a moment then looked at Beth.
“Well, Beth?” he said.
“I’m good. You go.”
“Okay.” He turned to leave without another word. ‘Nice, dude,’ I thought, but the weariness in his voice tempered my admonition. I lay down next to Beth where the floor was still faintly warm from Brian’s long hours of residence.
The stock of my rifle settled into its well-worn spot on my cheek. The skin there had chaffed and healed and callused. Once again I viewed the world over the aligned sights. It focuses your vision; narrows everything down to that one point. Peripherals process information. You look for any abnormal movement, because nothing else moves exactly like the snow. You wait. You look down the barrel of a rifle for hours, get up, stretch, shake your head, lay back down and do it all over again. You empty your mind and listen to the wind. Sometimes it carries messages to you from far away, the sounds of battle or the screams of people dying, people who you will never meet. Sometimes it just speaks with its own primal voice and you know it is laughing.
Beth and I don’t say a word to each other. There’s nothing to say. Nothing good has happened since over a month ago when we seized the water treatment plant, our best fortification in this sector. After that minor victory it’s been varying degrees of defeat. Not crushing, not decisive, but small steps down a slope toward eventual failure. And more than death, more than dying—even in the ways I’ve seen men die—failure is what I fear the most. To admit that we were wrong. To have put so much out there, all the hopes of the people and the lives of mothers’ children, against the government, for god’s sakes…well if you lost against them it’s basically telling everyone who ever sacrificed anything on your word that you are stupid, unworthy of your trust. ‘Cuz then the regime can say: “You see, we were right all along, you should have listened to us, we can protect you because we are the strongest.”
And you don’t complain. You don’t gripe about the cold, or the hunger, or anything else. Not when you’ve watched your friends die for what you all believe in, die fighting. Not when you’ve lost your own family. Not when your buddy’s mom is buried in the backyard.
You sit in the cold. You cherish the growling in your stomach because you know that your enemy will never be hungry. And that is what separates you from him.
You point your rifle out an open garage door, out into the snow. If anything moves you shoot it. It’s that simple. You never think about shutting that door, going upstairs, and hiding out until it’s all over. Never. The enemy isn’t going to hide out, but they can afford to wait you out. They can sit there snug in their camps and tanks with heat and electricity and wait for you to die.
And if not us, then who? The kindly grandmothers who bring us cornmeal muffins baked in wood-fired stoves? Their little children, who spy for us? They all live in fear and give too much. It’s only us. And who are we? We are the resistance. Me and Beth and Brian and Dave are what’s left of the 1rst Platoon of the 3rd Company of the People’s Revolutionary Army, and we are here in this house holding the lines of the Northwestern Front.
“Hey.” Beth’s voice broke into my reverie, but my eyes remained fixed on the post of the front sights.
“I’m getting kinda worried about Brian.” She said it with a reluctant note. A pause. Then: “I don’t wanna…”
“I know, I know.” 'You don’t wanna talk smack about the guy who saved your life.' "It’s okay. We’re all under a lot of stress here. Maybe some relief will show up in a few days and we can ease off a bit.”
“Yeah, maybe. That’d be great. I hope—“
I heard it first. “Get back get back!” The low whistle of a mortar round was proceeded immediately by the crumping whoosh of an explosion. Right across the street. The sound of masonry blowing apart, muted by the snow. It sounded like smashing two bricks together with a pillow in between, multiplied a hundred times over. We threw ourselves back from the sandbags and landed in a heap together near the stairs. Another explosion shook the house; they were getting closer, or just getting lucky. I gathered myself together and helped Beth to her feet. Brian came running down the stairs with Dave close on his heels.
Brian was wild-eyed, just roused from sleep. Dave, our sergeant, was implacably cool as always.
“Fifty yards,” he said as he crouched with us in the corner. “That last one hit next door.” We ducked as another crump-whoosh rattled the roof over our heads, sending dust and small chunks of drywall down on us. It looked exactly like the snow outside.
“Get the food.” Dave settled into a position near the stairs, motioned Brian to another spot, and indicated that Beth stay where she was. “We might be moving out soon.” I grabbed the dingy backpack next to the cooler and began stuffing it with the remnants of our rations. I strapped it on and found a place to kneel. Then we just waited as more explosions tore through the neighborhood and eventually marched away into the distance. After a while there was only a disturbing silence.
“They’ll be coming soon.” Dave had been in the U.S. Army and knew about infantry tactics. His words left us itchy to move but resolute in our positions, holding our rifles steady. Mine’s an old lever-action 30-30. It was my dad’s hunting rifle. Dave’s got a nice bolt-action 30-06. Kinda slow to fire, but when he hits stuff, it goes down. Beth and Brian both have the best ones: Bushmaster .223’s donated by a sympathetic gun-store owner. They came with a lot of ammunition. Me and Dave were running out of ammo, but they were still pretty well stocked up.
Suddenly we heard a voice calling from outside.
“Come on!” Dave yelled back.
Around the corner of the open garage door came a kid, looked probably 16 or so, wearing flannels and blue jeans and too-big boots. He was carrying a skinny .22 and was completely out of breath. He found himself looking at three rifle bores.
“Yeah,” Dave said warily. None of us lowered our guns.
The kid saluted. “Private Emers, sir. Second Company.”
He turned a little bit so we could see the PRA flag patch on his right arm. It’s just three thick vertical stripes, red, white, and blue. His was set inside a square border, denoting a messenger. Mobilized infantry (which just meant they had cars and pickup trucks, but usually no gas,) were set on a circle. Medics were of course a cross. We were just plain old Infantry so we had a triangle. The little silver stud attached to the top point of Dave’s showed his rank.
You see, we couldn’t use radio communication. We tried regular walkie-talkies for awhile, but the first patrol that used those got slaughtered. Obviously the military had the capability to monitor those frequencies. Anybody with a walkie-talkie had that. But we just didn’t have anything to replace them. Let me tell you, fighting the United States military was very, very hard.
“Okay, son, what’ya got. For god’s sake, get in here.” The Quickboot staggered over to us and gratefully sank into a crouch. It looked like he’d been running for a long time.
“Sir, we’re being overrun. There’s U.S. units dug in all over town. They’ve captured thirty-two of the forty-one hardened structures. The mortar fire is coming from about a thousand yards from here. They’re that close and don’t care if we know it. Scouts saw infantry prepping for ground assault, and—they’ve got armor, sir. At least ten Abrams in this sector. Orders are to fall back to the water treatment plant and hold ground. Every unit we got in the area is meeting up there. Comes straight from Colonel Rickers, sir.” He dug in his shirt pocket and came up with a folded piece of paper and handed it to Dave. Dave opened it, glanced at it, and stuffed it into his pants pocket. He nodded. “Okay, son, get back to it. We’re outta here.” Private Emers took a short gulp of cold air and was gone. Dave looked at us. “Allright, you heard the kid. Let’s go.” If he had thought in that moment about the body of his mother lying in the shallow grave that we had chipped out of the frozen ground, he didn’t show it. And I thought how it was better that she had died before we had to move. Then a wave of emotion washed over me; simultaneous disgust and pride. Disgust at my coldness and pride that I’d become so hard in such a short time. We formed up and headed out of the basement, into the wind and the snow.
We moved quickly and quietly through streets that were strewn with fresh rubble which lay over older, ice-covered debris. Dave led the line, then Beth, then Brian. I took up the rear, looking backwards when I could and trying not to trip over the broken pieces of houses. We didn’t see anybody for what seemed like a long time; we had about fourteen blocks to go to get to the water treatment plant, and for the first six or so we were alone in all the world. We passed houses marked with graffiti and kept a close eye on them—these were government loyalists, businessmen and bankers and lawyers, who benefited more from working with the U.S. than from trying to win their freedom with us. They had been issued licenses which gave them the right to shoot resistance fighters. The kids who spied for us would go out in the middle of the night and tag on their houses so we knew who they were.
Then we saw the tanks.
We were making our way through a narrow alleyway that ran behind a block of houses when we heard the low-pitched rumbling. It sounded like the echo of an earthquake. We all froze and listened. Then the noise grew into a steady mechanical drone. We had all just stopped dead in our tracks, and I was the only one who could see them. First the long snout of a gun turning this way and that, like some alien spaceship’s probe in a sci-fi movie. Then the angular front tracks, squeaking a little. Then the massive turret. Then the body of the thing passes slowly by, seems looks it takes forever, like the thing’s eighty feet long or something, just like a big shark I saw in an aquarium when I was a kid. Passed by right in front of my face and scared me half to death. Then the tank is gone and the white sheet of winter closes over the place where it was. Coming up suddenly out of the snow like that, these tanks looked like angry creatures from another world.
We held our positions and waited for them to pass. Two. Three. A long moment of silent fear.
Then we saw the soldiers.
Ghostly figures swarmed up out of the freezing air; inhuman-looking, laden with bulky armor and gear which sprouted off them like mushrooms. Winter camouflage. Body armor. Goggles. Helmets with little swivel eyepieces for night vision. Futuristic rifles slung across their chests to make them easy to grab and target center-mass. Jogging in a tireless half-crouch, robot heads turning this way and that. Every now and then one of them would raise a gloved hand and touch his neck and speak. They weren’t using walkie-talkies.
We watched a whole troop of them go by, at least twelve, maybe more, it was hard to tell in the snow. Their camouflage really did its job. Then another group started past us. They were about fifty feet away. Just as I thought we were going to be left alone by some miracle, one of them cocked his head a little bit as if listening to some inner voice, called to his fellow soldiers. They leapt and skidded around shattered cars and blocks of rubble, pointed their weapons at our position, and opened fire.
The first volley wasn’t that bad. They were just shooting in our general direction because they didn’t know exactly where we were, it seemed. Plus they didn’t know our civilian-militia tactics and probably wondered if we’d just get up and run at the first bullets. We didn’t. This wasn’t the first time we’d been shot at, but I had a dreadful feeling—like I always did—that it was going to be the last.
I just rolled over away from their line of sight and squeezed off a few rounds through a fence, the lever-action of my rifle being difficult to work so close to the ground. I waited. Scrambled a few feet down the alley and fired again. Dominating automatic weapons fire came from the U.S. soldiers, and all I could do was cover my head and pray. It stopped. I scrambled a few more feet back and fired again, pretty sure I wasn’t hitting anything. Then I was empty. I communicated this to the others and we all took turns covering each other as we reloaded. Then we timed our fire to allow us to move: Dave would shoot around the corner, while Beth ran across the opening, then they both would cover Brian, then finally me. Bullets tore at the fence between us and ripped apart anything in their way but hadn’t found us yet.
But we were completely pinned down and we knew it. It was only a matter of time before they circled around and finished us off. We all looked to Dave and he was about to say something when out of the swirling snow to our left I saw something that gave us great joy: a streak of orange.
Lieutenant Logren came striding out of the gloom like a freakin’ angel, and along with him came several PRA fighters. Then more. Then more. He had tied that bright little rag onto his arm and let everyone know about it, so we could rally to him in just such a situation. He wasn’t afraid to be recognized in combat.
He pointed at Dave. “You’re with me!” Dave—Sergeant Spenner—showed us the biggest smile I had ever seen on a man, and together we all fought our way to the group of our PRA comrades. Then we posted up and really let ‘em have it. I got one soldier; blood is very bright in the snow. Four of us went down in about a minute. We kept falling back, falling back, and I noticed we were past the street we’d take to get to the water treatment plant, so I knew that had been captured and once again our only fortress was the thin air. Despite the valiant Lieutenant’s efforts, it was clear now that we didn’t have a chance. We tried our best but it wasn’t enough. The U.S. soldiers fought in tight, highly organized groups. They cut us down systematically, and as I looked around while reloading I saw that there was just eight of us left: my unit, and some others who I didn’t recognize. Lieutenant Logren lay bleeding on the ground.
Dave raised his hand and yelled “Fall back, fall back,” taking command, but a bullet pierced his neck and I watched as he slumped over gripping at his throat. Brian lost it right then and jumped up yelling: “PRAPRAPRA!” and was gunned down.
Beth and me looked at each other, nodded with some mutual unspoken grimness, and turned to fight our way out of there, anywhere. But as we did so another group of U.S. soldiers appeared around a corner. They simply stood and fired at us. Beth raised her rifle and was caught in the fire and the bullets just pummeled her. Just pummeled her.
I staggered back, my left arm suddenly on fire, and one of the soldiers pointed his weapon at the remnants of our group and fired a freakin’ rocket right into the middle of us. Dirt and snow and rocks and stray bits of metal flew up into my face and I was knocked back, smashing through something that didn’t want to break, and then my head hit the ground and the world went dark.
I woke up in a quiet place that smelled of disinfectant. I was laying down. I tried to move and immediately regretted it. My whole body was one big ache: legs, shoulders, face, bones. My left arm was completely numb. I didn’t know if that was good or not. I pointed my chin down a little bit and noticed that it was wrapped in bandages from the elbow down. I was in a hospital bed. My wrists and ankles were secured to its metal frame with thick plastic zip-ties.
I twisted my head around and saw what I expected to see: a makeshift aid station, filled with beds just like mine. But most of them held U.S. soldiers; however, a few prisoners were visible. Most of them looked worse off than me. I turned my eyes toward a window over my head and saw the courtyard of a local hotel. It was swept clean of snow and filled with the general hustle and bustle of military activity. Apparently we’d lost, and this was the new temporary command post. Great. I wished in that moment that I’d died.
The sun was going down: a slightly noticeable darkening of the dark world. I closed my eyes. From the nurse’s station I heard a radio announcer telling us the news:
“…the last remnants of the insurgents are being mopped up. The United States Government has delivered the victory that they promised us, and before Christmas as we’d all hoped. General MacPhearson, USMC, told our studio in an interview earlier today that we can expect a total cessation of hostilities in three or four days…”
I tuned the voice out of my mind. It was over. I thought about all the people who I’d known over these few long years, thought about my parents and little sister, dead in our farmhouse by a bomb from a U.S. plane; Dave’s mother buried in somebody’s backyard; the little kid who got crushed by a tank when he was tagging PRA on it; Beth, raising her rifle, the bullets knocking her down like she had no right to stand up.
The media called us insurgents. That was another way of saying rebels. But the U.S. would never say that word, because it reminded people that we were all rebels once, against the British. America was founded by rebels. The U.S. always called resistance fighters “insurgents” in places it occupied.
And that was how we saw it. The government had occupied America. And we were taking it back.
I don’t remember falling asleep, but when I opened my eyes again it was light outside. I heard a bugle blowing and looked through the window. There in the courtyard a group of soldiers was raising an American flag.