Our column crept into the misty clearing without a sound, but for aberrant whispers of the woods behind us. We ached for a chance to lie down or the freedom to walk straight, but experience taught us better.

An encampment lay ahead.  Soldiers ate and laughed under the tent, hosting a carnival in the middle of a calamity. My nose savored the smell of roast beef and gravy, my stomach groaned for it. Caro shook her head and cursed under her breath; Carlos’ eyed the camp, his rifle shook in his hands. 

Our captain turned to us. We were only fourteen now. Not even ghosts followed us into the mists.

“Keep moving, like we talked. Keep the same pace and make it to the ridge. Don’t wait for me, don’t waste your ammo.” We did as ordered and marched around. 

Our captain broke off to warn their colonel of the enemy. No transmissions, only face to face. An unencrypted transmission might as well be a homing beacon. Besides, you can tell who a real human is face to face. It was the superior officer’s privilege. Six others had already invoked it. I will eventually be next in line.   

That company looked like they could spare a few men. When the captain caught up, I said as much.

“Not taking that chance.” His catchphrase. He was right, of course. Every company looked after themselves. 

Caro glanced back, jerked around and pointed.

They ran out of the woodwork, like hornets from a nest.

I looked to the captain. “People?”

“Some are,” he said, “and some are not.”

They sprinted from the trees, the ghosts from my hometown who’d been gutted of fatigue, fear, sweat, and rage. We drew our rifles, the soldiers in the campground scrambled around like ants. Mr. Carson, our frowzy old mailman who always stopped for a toke, charged directly for the camp colonel. He vanished flailing puppet-like into the hysteria. My ex-girlfriend screeched my name, her voice like an eagle’s shriek. It cut through the clamor, and crashed into my chest. 

She stood stock-still. Looked like some corporate mannequin. It wore a mismatched outfit: a pink dress, green pants, and happy face rain boots. 

I opened fire.

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