Nicholas Rombes is the author of A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, 1974-1982 and writer of the 10/40/70 column at The Rumpus. His fiction has appeared in The Oxford American, Metazen, matchbook, McSweeeney’s Internet Tendency, Exquisite Corpse, and other places.
During the weeks when the helicopters stopped coming, after Tyrone’s death, we began to explore. The faraway explosions and gunfire stopped. We took this to be a truce, and loaded up the Exploratory Bags with weapons, flags, flares, and food. Three of us went. I wanted Katy to join us, but she refused. She thought it was a trap. In her office, she moved out from behind her old wooden desk taped over with maps, and she put her hand on my cheek. She leaned forward and kissed me gently between my eyes. Her breath smelled like the spring fields I used to walk in.
“Take this,” she said. God, Katy. She gave me a folded slip of paper. Inside some hieroglyphic marking, in bright red. It meant nothing to me. Her office was full of propaganda posters, in bold strokes and hues, indecipherable, recalling enemies I could not remember or had never known, their faces exaggerated and misshapen.
The three of us walked off the campus, and into the town square. Carlton, Marion, and me. Carlton was already crazy, but in a good sort of way. A hunchback, but we loved him. He was attuned to the irrational, and sometimes this helped. Marion was younger, maybe even in her teens. She wore thick mascara and loved shooting her gun. She carried more ammo than the rest of us, some of it even strapped to her calves. She chewed gum from ransacked vending machines. I carried the marking flags, twelve of them.
We made our way past the stone statues of heroes or villains—who could tell the difference?—in the town square, defaced but not destroyed. The reared granite horses with missing hooves. The stone swords broken off. Symbols of heroes and battles we knew nothing about. The war stretched forever in the imagination, reaching back centuries. The earth beneath our feet was mostly rubble. Black birds filled the sky in swirls. The sight of a pack of wild dogs spooked us, and we took shelter in an abandoned warehouse nearby. Inside was the rusted skeleton of some giant machine, like a monstrous pre-historic insect.
We slept there that night, and in her sleep, Marion called out the name of someone. She struggled. I wanted to comfort her, to smooth her brow, to whisper that it would be alright. In the morning, Carlton was the first to notice that the machine was moving, slowly. Enormous round gears deep inside rotating almost imperceptibly, humming as delicately as swarms of faraway insects. The machine sat in a pile of rusted dust, as if it was slowly disintegrating. The shafts of sun from the falling-apart roof illuminated deep and cavernous parts of the building.
“We need to climb inside,” Marion said, unstrapping the wooden rifle from her shoulder. In this light, she was so fragile, so confident. Did she, I wondered, remember the name she called out in her dream?
“The flags, first,” I said, unpacking them from by bag. Twelve of them, each a shade of blue, marked with a bold white X. I laid them out before us, and attached a small, pointed, wooden shaft to each. We each took a handful and arranged them around the machine, sticking them into the floor. Why? We had forgotten why long ago. It was a ritual of some sort, probably meant to protect us, but none of us really believed it. We did it out of habit, out of guilt.
Marion led the way. Then me. Carlton, with his perpetual cigarette, followed. The machine was warm inside, damp. We climbed over oily shafts and long pieces of thick iron that appeared to have been warped by some long-ago heat. Everything was deeply rusted, and in a short time our clothes had become dusted in a dull orange. We crawled through warm metal wire, like wicker, towards the center of the machine.
After about fifteen minutes, we reached the slowly moving gears, at least twenty feet in diameter, wet with black oil. They rotated in complete silence, in opposite directions, controlling some mechanism that we could not see. What were we scouting for, exactly? Clues, perhaps. Signals. Something to help make sense of this all, this war that seemed to have no purpose, no history, no future end in sight. Something to help us make sense of ourselves. I think that’s what we were after, though we never spoke of such things to each other.
Carlton took some pictures and scans and notes, while Marion tried to locate the mechanism that generated the movement. I was the one who noticed the graffiti, the first we had ever come across in our own language, painted in bright red on an enormous piece of collapsed metal:
What was it, the last line of some great epic? The iterations of some crank-head teenager? A message from the enemy? Nonsense?
Before we could talk about it, a terrible rumble shook the machine, as if it had suddenly breathed to life.
The gears began rotating faster.
Sparks flew like science fiction.
Marion and I dropped everything, and ran.
Carlton delayed, and was lost.
By the time we had climbed free of the machine, the heat was already scalding our backs. I fell and Marion grabbed my hand to save me. Dust as sharp as crushed glass blew against our faces.
We escaped the warehouse, and once safely clear, for no reason, fell to the earth and laughed. We were too dazed to mourn the loss of Carlton. That would come later. We were in the middle of the so-called war zone, but there were no bullets, no tanks, no mines. Just us, and the smoldering warehouse in the distance.
We were in a field. The setting sun cast everything in a dull, miraculous orange. Marion rolled over in the weeds, pulled up her pant leg, and showed me the strapped-on ammo.
“Take it off, please,” she said. “It hurts.” I noticed for the first time the small mole just above the bridge of her nose.
I gently peeled off the tape from her bare skin. She flinched and nodded. The ammo fell away.
Her bare calf there before me, tender.
In some impossible way, she had become mine.
And I had become hers.