Highway of Death
Z, alive, looked up into a gray sky, heard the searing sound of warplanes. His face felt like it had been carpeted, his right leg was in stinging pain from cuts and gashes. He sat up and saw wreckage around him, a gridlock sculpture, burning husks of cars and armored vehicles, metal debris everywhere. The air was full of smoke. Fires burned, the sounds of flame like rustling flags. Tornado-like plumes of smoke spun in place off in the distance. Dead figures slumped over in car seats and lying prone on the ground, their skins baked brown or black in color.
In the smoke a figure walked toward him. A silhouette shaded in fuzzy black, arms at sides. Z stood, waiting for the figure to emerge.
It's all dead bodies and dust, the figure said. He stopped, the smoke lifting from him, revealing a man caked in black, small lakes of blood scattered on his head and face. He stumbled. Z wanted to grab him, prop him up. But he was afraid, looking at a ghost.
Did we win? This was all Z could say. He knew it was absurd. They were leaving Kuwait. The bombing was constant, like breathing. But victory—it was what had been beaten into him. Ever since he had been conscripted.
Of course. The man laughed. Look around you. Don't we always win?
A series of planes swooshed overhead. It was like an alien invasion in the movies. His wife H left at home in Baghdad. A life interrupted. He hadn't seen her in months. Was she still alive?
How do we get out of here, is what Z wanted to ask next. Or, why are we still alive. But these were impossible questions.
The man pulled a pistol from his coat, held it to his head.
For Allah, he said. For Saddam. For our eternal glory.
He pulled the trigger. The man's head exploded. His body fell to the ground.
Z winced. The gunshot rang in his head for several seconds then abandoned him. He dropped to the ground, felt inside his jacket for the picture of H. It was slightly wrinkled, but the image was pristine. She was frozen in smile. A clear glass ball dangled at the base of her throat, the silver strand of necklace an orbit tracing her neck.
He knew he had to return home. He stood, saw tanks and vehicles approaching from the south.
He kissed H's face, returned the picture to his jacket interior. He searched for something white amid the debris he could use as a flag. But there was nothing that wasn't metal or fried.
Z fell to his knees, repeated his wife's name over and over, his voice drowned out by the buzzing of invisible helicopters.
Christian Bell lives near Baltimore, Maryland. His fiction has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Wigleaf, and JMWW Quarterly, among other publications.
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