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We All Fall
Michael is seven, with a smile as big as the sun, and the world stretched beneath his feet. He runs around the park, arms out-stretched. He is a fighter plane, imaginary shots exploding from his mouth, enemy planes falling to the ground around him. His mother sits at a bench and watches, book in hand, a smile stretching her lips, frowns in the crinkles of her eyes.
Later they walk, fingers entwined, through a trail that winds through the woods. Their arms swing back and forth, sweeping through the air. They point out the squirrels and rabbits they see, and Michael giggles when his mother starts to tickle him.
His mother points out pictures in the book she’s reading and tells him about war. She tells him this is what took his father from him. She tells him war left his father alone, dead somewhere, with no one to bury him. Michael looks up at her, eyes wide, clutches her hands, and believes.
Michael is thirty-seven, holding a crying little girl in his arms, lying flat behind brush that isn’t big enough to cover them completely. His body jerks with every rapid peal of gunfire that blasts into the air. It’s so loud, so close. Every time the sounds burst in his ears he tenses, waiting for the bullet that will rip through him, tear his insides to shreds.
He clasps his hand tight over the girl’s mouth, muffling the shrieks she hasn’t stopped since the first shots were fired. She shakes violently in his arms, like the rumbling before an earthquake. He holds tight, afraid to loosen his hold, less she slip away and fall. He doesn’t know her name, doesn’t know anything about her, and he’s afraid to die like this.
“It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.” He whispers the words again and again into her ear, nails biting her skin. Her teeth tear the skin of his palm. He feels blood run down his skin, smear against her mouth, and he closes his eyes, welcoming the pain.
The earth is shaking beneath them, heavy with the footfalls of soldiers and explosions that light the night sky. Michael can feel the heat creeping over him, pressing his shirt cold and damp against his back. The ground is hard and unforgiving beneath him, stray roots digging into his sides. Screams curl up into the air, so terrible Michael wants to claw his own ears off, till there’s nothing left but bloody stumps.
The shrieks seep down into his skin, blanketing him with their terror. Michael’s teeth rip through his lower lip. Blood rushes into his mouth, filling it with the same coppery taste that lingers in the air. He presses the girl’s head against his chest, covers her ears with trembling hands. Tears leak from her eyes, spreading across his chest like rain. Michael squeezes his eyes shut tight and holds his own back.
He remembers when he was little, watching people die on television. He thought he knew what it was like then, sprawled comfortably on his living room couch, images flashing up on screen. But he hadn’t been able to smell the stench of death, blood in his nose, and the salty taste of tears in his mouth. The screeching of the dying.
Michael closes his eyes and waits for it all to end.
Michael is twenty-four, it’s a Friday, and it’s his turn to go out and get lunch. He goes to the deli around the corner and gets sandwiches for everyone at the office. He comes back whistling. It’s practically the weekend, the sun is shining outside, and he’s got a date with Rachel tonight. She’s going to move in soon. He grins at the thought.
“Lunch is here.” He calls out, juggling his bags from one hand to the other. He tosses the bags onto an empty table, because he’s not delivering it to everyone. They can get it themselves. “Hey, get in here.”
The office is eerily quiet, and when he goes in search of his co-workers he finds them all huddled together around a computer screen. The smile on his face drops off as he gets closer; the sounds of sobs rise in volume with every step he takes. Melissa and Cheryl are leaning against each other for support, dark smudges of their carefully applied mascara running down their cheeks. His heart stutters in his chest.
“What’s going on?” He demands, eyes darting back and forth between everyone, but no one can bring themselves to look away. Brian’s eyes rise to meet his, and the terror there is like a punch to the gut.
“America’s being attacked.”
Michael shoves his way through the crowd of people around the computer, because there has to be some mistake, but no, it’s not a mistake at all. There’s shaky footage of the White House crumbling to the ground, explosions going off from within, people screaming and crying. Then, there is a reporter on screen. Her image is blurry, but the sight of her hand covering her mouth as the microphone shakes in her hand like a leaf is unmistakable.
“Oh my God. Oh my God.” She keeps saying it over and over, and no one is switching the feed. Michael stares transfixed, because he can’t look away. There is nowhere else to look. Not even when the woman turns, throwing up against the dark cement where she’s standing.
Fear is the sound of Michael’s heart loud in his ears. It’s the sound of loud broken sobs all around him and forgetting how to breathe. He grabs onto the closest thing his hands find, soft flesh, and holds on.
He remembers when he was younger, watching the footage of the twin towers on TV, crumbling to the ground, people jumping to their deaths. Michael’s mother had held his hand tight in her own, fingers trembling around his. He’d hid against her side, peeking out, staring as people died before his eyes. He remembers peeling her fingers away, going off to hide in his room alone, where he’d pretended he hadn’t seen anything at all.
Somehow, this time, it’s worse. There’s nowhere for him to hide now.
As the first signs of dawn begin to creep up above him, Michael’s blood shot eyes stare straight forward. The sounds of gunshots faded away hours ago, the fighting moving on. But he hasn’t been able to let his eyes close, even for a second. Afraid for the second he does, death will sneak up from behind and take him.
In his arms, the girl is asleep, her tiny fingers curled tight in his shirt. Her face is almost peaceful, as if she hadn’t been screaming her head off, panic in her eyes, just hours ago. He runs his fingers through the soft silk of her dirty blonde hair, the feel of it a relief against his rough skin. He watches her eyes twitch under her eyelids and tells himself everything’s going to be okay. He just needs to get her home.
It’s hard to get up from the ground, with her curled around him, but he manages it, with a hard shove. She mumbles something in her sleep, turns her head, but doesn’t wake. He breathes a sigh of relief, because he doesn’t want her to see what he’s seeing. There are bodies; everywhere he can look, sprawled across the ground.
He looks away, not wanting to see this, but his home is through them. It’s where he was headed when he found the girl, after one of his scouting missions for food turned up empty. She was curled up alone in the woods, screaming her head off in terror as the world exploded around them.
Michael cradles her in his arms, holds her face against his neck, so she won’t see the bodies if she wakes up. The stench is enough to make him gag. It’s heavy in the air. The smell of blood and guts and he wants to puke everything inside of him. But he keeps going, clutching her small body to him.
It’s not a battlefield he’s walking through. It’s a cemetery. He can hear his mother’s voice in his head, telling him war brings nothing but death and destruction. Her eyes had been solemn and shaded as she’d spoken, telling him that the world would end because of greediness and sin. He’d listened, breathless, but he hadn’t believed. He’d pushed it to the back of his mind, forgotten, because he’d had a life to live.
He believes now. He is watching the world end before his eyes, and there is nothing he can do about it.
Michael is twenty-six the first time he kills someone. He is with a group of five, searching for food for the tiny pack of people they have formed. He fires the gun without thinking, and when the body hits the ground he stares numbly down at the man while everyone else gathers the food supplies he was hoarding. The man’s empty eyes stare up at him, his hands clutched taut around his gun. It takes Michael a minute to realize the man is wearing a military uniform. A defender of the country they used to be.
When the others in his group go on with the food supplies, Michael stays to bury the man. He tears off a piece of the man’s uniform and leaves it atop his grave, so someone will know where to find him.
Michael’s feet are tired, barely working by the time he gets back to his home. Ian, who is on watch, nearly takes Michael’s head off when he gets close, because he forgets about the warning call. He dumps the girl into Ian’s arms gratefully, fingers numb. He stumbles after him into the old abandoned building that is their latest home. Ian gets the door open that leads underground, and when Amy meets Michael at the bottom he falls into her arms. He’s home again.
He stares up at the ceiling, unable to sleep. Amy’s warm body curls around him, soft puffs of air brushing against his neck, but all he can see when he closes his eyes is the bodies he walked past. The ones no one will bury. His body is moving, getting up, before he even thinks about it.
“Don’t go back out there.” He pauses; his jeans only half-way zipped up, and glances over at the blanket he just left, in the corner of the room. Amy is propped up on one elbow, watching him. It’s too dark to see her eyes, but he can feel the anger crackling in the air. He swallows and looks away, finishes zipping up his jeans, flipping the button with ease.
“I’ll be back in a little while.” He says, soothingly, his voice as low as hers because there are people scattered about the room, curled up around one another, in every available space, and he doesn’t want to be the one to wake them.
Amy shakes her head, her red hair flying back and forth, smacking the sides of her face. Her mouth is drawn tight, and her eyelids blink rapidly. Michael sighs and turns away. He doesn’t like making her cry, but he likes watching even less.
“You don’t know if you’ll be back. One of these times you won’t be back, and I’ll just be waiting, never knowing. What am I supposed to do then?” He wishes they were alone so she could shout, because the quiet shaking of her voice bleeds into his body, slipping through the cracks, and he can’t shut her out. Her fingers are twisting at a hole that’s already in the blanket, unraveling it slowly.
When he looks over at her, she’s trembling so much she’s shaking like the wind. Michael wants to grab her, hold her upright, but he’s all the way across the room, out of reach.
“The dead deserved to be buried.” It’s the only excuse he has. The only reason for why he keeps doing it and it’s the one thing she can’t ever understand. He wants to tell her about his mother, and his father, and how no one buried him, but the words get stuck in his throat.
Amy looks away, hand covering her mouth, biting back the words she wants to say. When she looks back, the lines on her face are bitter. “When you die, no is going to make sure you get buried. You’ll be just another body lying among the dead.” The tears leak from her eyes, pooling in the corners of her mouth. She doesn’t wipe them away.
He crosses the room to her. She looks away, but he captures her chin his hand. Her skin is warm and soft. He rubs his fingers over it, marveling at the feel. He loves her, has since the first moment he met her, shielding her and the little boy she’d been holding with his body from the explosion that tore them all off their feet. She’d stared up at him like he’d just saved them all. He wishes he could have.
Michael lifts her face to his, presses their lips together. He pretends he doesn’t taste her tears in his mouth; doesn’t feel her shaking against him. He doesn’t look back when he leaves.
There are more and more bodies these days. He digs hole after hole after hole and it’s never enough. Sometimes he leaves, shoulders aching, sweat dripping down his back, and there are still bodies left, lying waiting for someone to bury them.
When he rolls the bodies into the holes, they land with loud thumps at the bottom. He covers them back up. They disappear under an onslaught of earth, forgotten and faceless.
He doesn’t brother marking the graves anymore. The whole world is a resting place now.
The shots come out of nowhere. One rips through Michael’s gut before he can turn his head. His body falls without his permission, the shovel slipping from numb fingers. He hits the ground and pain shoots through him, faster than lightning.
He presses his fingers against the wound and they come away stained red. He stares, mouth open, gasping for breath. There are shots and yelling and the rumbling of tanks around him, moving the ground beneath him.
Michael looks at the man lying next to him; lifeless eyes stare back at him. Amy’s words ring in his ears, louder than anything else, and he reaches out. The man’s skin is papery thin beneath his fingers, like chalk, and he touches him gently, lowering his eyelids, till death is no longer staring him in the face. He closes his own eyes, satisfied. Someone stumbles over him, falling, their anguished cries filling his ears.
The last thing he hears is his mother’s voice, calling his name. He goes to answer.