The dust was starting to die down with the passing of the last storm. The heat was picking up on the highway, turning the asphalt into heat devils and the desert into baked tufts of dirt and sand. Windows were down, and the speedometer read sixty, the radio at ninety-eight point five megahertz. Tuned to the classics! And the army squawk box was turned low so they wouldn’t get any distracting chatter from Regimental HQ.
Corporal Atkins looked at the seat next to him and spotted PFC Fitzgerald sitting with his boots on the dashboard. He saw the business end of the SCAR sitting on his lap and pushed it away with his index finger. Whether the safety was on or not, he didn’t want to hit a bump and find out the hard way.
“So what?” said Fitz.
“What happened next?”
Fitz smiled and put both feet down on the floor. His hands flew up, providing some manual illustrations to the tale he began unrolling again.
“Well, he comes into the house. And she’s screaming at him to stop acting all crazy and shit. And I’m under the bed. All I can see are his boots. But man, if shoe size is any indication…” he paused for emphasis. “Anyways, this guy was a bear. Real fucking crazy too, from the sound of it. He kept going on and on about how she was cheating on him.”
“She was,” Atkins said. Fitz waved him off and kept talking.
“Whatever, the point is, she’s trying to tell him not to freak out, and he’s not even supposed to be there, and he’s stomping around looking this way and that, tossing her clothes out of the closet and everything. Finally, he gives up, which was good because, I swear, he looked everywhere but under the bed.”
Atkins hummed an affirmative and nodded.
“So he figures she’s alone, breaks down, starts crying! He’s saying how sorry he is, how much he misses her, how much he wants her back, and how it will be different this time. I’m telling ya, it was pathetic!”
“So you got out with all your teeth intact… again?”
Fitz slammed his boot up on the dash again. “What can I tell you? I’m lucky like that! Besides, a girl needs a man who’s around, not some seasonal laborer who ain’t even at home half the year.”
Atkins shook his head. He could make the obvious point of how migrants have it hard as it is — moving from state to state to work the farmlands, being paid on an irregular basis, no security, no benefits. Bad enough to have to deal with all that. They didn’t need the added stress of wondering if their husbands and wives were cheating on them. Then again, he and Fitz didn’t exactly lead a charmed life either. Whatever a man had to do to stay happy and loose, he couldn’t begrudge him for that. Not too much anyway.
“Right here!” Fitz says, slapping him in the shoulder. Atkins looked over and saw the turnoff, nearly past them now. He cranked the wheel around and brought the Humvee into a sharp turn, nearly sending Fitz through the window. Their left front tire skimmed into the gutter, throwing Fitz the other way, his helmet grazing Atkin’s shoulder. When he got them righted on the dirt road, he gunned the gas and sent dust clouds up in their wake. Taking a moment to steady himself, Fitz gave him a look.
“You alright there, man?”
“Me? Yeah, of course! Ship shape!”
“Driving’s a little more suicidal than usual. You sure?”
“Like I told ya, ship shape.”
“Okay…” Fitz said skeptically, retrieving his SCAR and putting it butt-down on the floor. He eyed Atkins, wondering if he was more hungover than usual. But then, the sentry post appeared on the horizon, and his attention snapped back to their front bumper, to the chain link fence slowly emerging out of the dirt. Then to the pockmarked field beyond it, the sloping earth, the tattered debris.
They drove for another five minutes before the road came to parallel the fence and the guard post was just ahead on their left. A hand was raised in the sentry booth, the heavy barreled weapon drooping as the gunner waved to them.
“Who’s on today?” Fitz asks.
“Uh, Perkins, I think,” said Atkins.
Fitz grabbed the handset from the radio and brought it to his mouth. He checked briefly to ensure they were on the right frequency before keying the button on the side.
“Bravo Two to Sentry one-nine. How’s the weather up there, over?”
Atkins looked up just in time to see Perkins swing by overhead, his hand going to the mike in front of his mouth. He turned from the border momentarily to watch them scream by.
“Just fine, you bunch of AC pampered assholes, over.”
Fitz laughed and quickly responded.
“Got any housekeeping for us today, over?”
It took Perkins a couple of seconds to reply.
“Just some gutters need cleaning. Tell the maid to get on it, over!”
Fitz hung up the mike and shook his head. “Always chipper, the guys who pull morning duty. Especially after pulling an all-nighter!”
“Guess that’s why they don’t have to clean up their own shitty mess.”
“You got that right.”
Atkins pulled them into a tight turn towards the fence and hit the brakes just a few feet from running into it. The engine idled as he let it run, keeping the AC blowing and the radio blasting the tunes. He looked over to Fitz and nodded in the direction of the field.
“Are you shitting me? I gotta do this alone?”
Atkins shrugged. “Driver takes the wheel. Shotgun gets the shaft.”
Fitz flashed Atkins a look that told him how much he hated him. Popping his door and slinging his SCAR over his shoulder, he went to the back and grabbed everything he needed to get the job done — two industrial-strength garbage bags, a trench shovel, some rubber gloves, and a sanitary mask. He packed them all into one of the two bags and set for the fenceline.
Atkins breathed a sigh of relief as soon as Fitz was gone and placed his hand on his stomach. How could he explain to his friend and subordinate that he was too squeamish to deal with a mess produced by the most heavily-fortified border in the world? With the possible exception of the 38th Parallel?
Best to just let him earn his bones, he reasoned. One of the few perks of working one’s way up the chain of command, aside from job security and slightly better pay, was that the duty got less hazardous and messy. What good were perks if you couldn’t enjoy them?
Just a few feet from the vehicle was the access door, a single steel frame with chain link innards, the side facing him locked by a bolt that could only be opened from the Arizona side. Fitz unbolted the thing and slung the door open, pausing only to look back at the sentry tower. Perkins waved at him again before placing his hands back on the gun, communicating thanks and sympathy in that one gesture. Fitz flipped him the bird and ducked on through.
Past the door was the remote sensor: a standing tube-like appendage with a bulbous, LED-laden device on top. Fitz was sure to pause as he came close, giving it a moment to read the RFID card embroidered into his vest. All Guardsmen had them as a guarantee against accidentally setting one of the mines off. As he waited for the thing to finish reading him and chime the all-clear, he scanned the area that ran along the border, the pockmarked field of caked dirt the sentries called the Kill Zone. Where the dirt had been disturbed, he could see the porcupine quills of freshly planted Anti-Personnel mines breaking the surface. Elsewhere, the dirt was a deep brown or black, usually not far from a fresh mine.
Only one spot today contained the splattered remains of poor Whiskey Bravo that had chanced to cross the field the night before. Perhaps it had been more than one; two buddies, a couple, a small family. After the APs got them, the vultures quickly moved in and took anything that was still fresh. The carrion birds often triggered mines, confounding the mess and adding to the clean-up crew’s workload.
Clean-up crews like me.
The sensor chimed, and the LEDs turned green. Fitz began to pace forward into the field, kicking at the caked dirt. Past several groups of quills with their temporarily dormant sensors, making his way to the pile of flesh, bone, and ripped clothes rotting in the morning sun. Soon, he was close enough to see enough to make out what was left of the brave soul (or souls) that had perished the night before.
As usual, the remains were scattered into a circular pattern, but most of that was in pulp form. In terms of solid remains, there were only two large pieces, some minor bits strewn between them that looked to have been picked pretty well by the carrion feeders already. One piece was covered in a length of ripped denim with the remains of the leg still inside. The femur had been ripped out from the pelvis. A few feet over, an arm with some of the person’s ribcage still attached lay, though the hand appeared to be missing. From this, he could surmise that the WB had been alone when he went down. Most likely, he was hit by one AP after he tripped its detector. It exploded in midair and knocked him down onto another. The dispersal pattern and what remained of him seemed to confirm this.
It was always like this, he’d been told. The crossings still happened mostly at night. No one ever seemed to want to chance it during the day. Somehow, the old instinct prevailed, reasoning that the cover of night would protect them from retaliation. Of course, it didn’t. The automated mines detected people day or night, and the sentry towers had all IR optics and automated targetting, everything they needed to spot and fill intruders full of 7.62 mm-sized holes.
But of course, it rarely came to that. Those who tried to make it through the mines, thinking they had a route mapped out or the deployment figured out, never prospered. No matter how clever, nimble, or stealthy they were, the remote sensors always found them and ended their lives. The border was closed.
And yet, they still tried.
A single vulture stood over the pieces, tearing any remaining flesh from the femur. Grabbing the bag from under his arm, Fitz began to kick at it to make it flee. The vulture squawked and protested but eventually flew away.
“Greedy little scavengers,” he said, slipping the rubber gloves and breath mask on. Lowering his goggles into place to protect his eyes — one had to be sure harmful bacteria and disease weren’t getting in through the tear ducts — he grabbed hold of the remains and began stuffing them into the bag. The arm proved the most difficult; getting it to bend at the elbow was tough once he got it into the bag. Given that there was little meat on it, did it make sense that it would be in rigor? He tried twice, nearly ripped the bag open, and had to bring it out again.
“What’s going on out there?” he heard Atkins yelling with the window rolled down. Fitz yelled back at him over his shoulder.
“Just a minute, Goddamnit!”
Finally, he put the elbow joint above his knee and pried it hard. The whole thing cracked like a chicken bone and was finally small enough to dispose of. He tossed it in the bag, threw the other assorted bits in after it, and tied the other bag around the whole thing. Slinging that over his shoulder and repositioning his SCAR, he made his way back to the fence.
Fitz was still sitting with the window rolled down when he got there.
“Seriously, what took you so long?”
“Just drive the fucking vehicle.”
Fitz threw the bag into the back, into the yellow bin marked Biohazard. He tossed his gloves and mask in next, then hopped back into the cabin without another word. Atkins shrugged and waved one last time to Perkins and brought them back onto the dirt road, gunning the engine for the next post and the next potential mess.
It took several moments for his breathing to steady, and when it did, PFC Fitzgerald uttered a silent prayer that he was lucky enough to be in their section at least. The scuttlebutt was that on different fronts, the Kill Zone still looked like it did back in the old days. Back when countless FBs ran the border and tried to get to safer ground. He could only imagine what kind of a mess the morning crews had to deal with back then when the sun rose and revealed the aftermath of the night’s holocaust. But most days, he tried not to.
“Jeezus, I’m hungry,” said Atkins. “What do you think about hitting up the cantina today? Get some steaks or BBQ?”
Fitz took a deep breath and tried not to think about throwing up.
“I think I just became a vegetarian.”