“Okay, I’ve changed,” I said through the door of the coach’s office. “Make this quick. I feel silly wearing your cheerleader uniform.”
“Sandy, you’re going to be wearing it for the pep rally tomorrow,” said Monica, one of the cheerleaders at our high school. “This is the best time to get the uniform fitted so come on out. Oh good. You put the bra on too.” Monica had given me one of her bras along with balloons filled with uncooked rice to use as bra stuffing. She thought it would help make the uniform fit better. I thought about not wearing any underwear, but decided to go ahead and wear the panties too. “Did you put that thing in the front of your panties to make sure you stay smooth in front?” I just nodded. As embarrassed as I felt, I really doubted there’d be any kind of activity down there.
“You look cute,” said Janet, another cheerleader. “Guys usually look goofy when they wear a dress. But you’re shorter than Monica and you don’t have all those muscles or any of that yucky body hair.”
“Well, Monica let me use that depilatory cream that you can use on your legs and face,” I said. I’ll be hairless on my face and legs for weeks.
Stephanie laughed, pointed at my head and said, “And speaking of hair, just look at his! It’s not particularly long, but the way it’s messed up right now is really cute. You should be a permanent member of our squad.”
Frowning, I said, “You’re hilarious, Steph.” One of the girls, Bridget, was sick and Monica had talked the coach into letting me substitute instead of an actual girl since I had helped them with the routine this week anyway and someone new wouldn’t have time to learn it. I didn’t want to do it, but Monica is very persuasive and very cute.
Mandy, another cheerleader said, “You should wear that to the Enlistment Center. It might keep you out of the military.”
I said, “The fact that I’m shorter than Monica and underweight will do that.” Avoiding being conscripted into the military was a lot of guys’ goal.
While there was no shortage of volunteers considering the stakes of the war, they still needed as many warm bodies as possible. Ever since the Sino-Canuck Alliance decided they wanted a bigger piece of the global pie we’d been under constant threat of attack inside the borders of the country. The war had been raging for three years and it looked like we were in the final stages. The fear was that the SCA would launch a last ditch attack right into the heartland. The military had somehow lost track of the SCA’s last carrier group over the skies of New Detroit.
And even though we were under threat, the powers-that-be decided we should all continue as if everything is normal. No one knew where the attack would be; just that it was felt one was imminent. So school was still on and so was our pep rally.
Monica kneeled in front of me, fussing with the hemline of the uniform’s skirt. Trying to talk with a needle in her mouth, she said, “Anyone ever tell you that you have sexy legs? I’m serious.”
Folding my arms across my chest, I said, “Since I don’t usually wear a dress, no.” I was annoyed that I couldn’t put my arms where I usually did because of my fake boobage.
Monica stood up and pointed at me. She said, “Well girls, what do you think?”
Stephanie said, “He looks super! I don’t think he’ll need that wig.” She adjusted my hair with her fingers. “See how feminine that looks?”
Monica grinned and said, “You’re right. I was worried about the wig falling off anyways.”
Mandy said, “Let’s see what he looks like with make-up. We have time.”
Glancing at the clock on the wall, I said, “It’s thirty minutes to our next class. I don’t think there’s time.”
Monica said, “Nonsense. We can do a little make-up right quick. It’s not like you’re getting ready for a date. We’ll do it up right tomorrow.”
As Mandy pulled out her make-up bag from her purse, I said with a whine in my voice, “Really? It doesn’t seem worth it.”
Mandy said, “We’ll be quick.”
“Besides,” said Janet. “The coach will want to see what you look like. She was skeptical that this would work.” She pulled her phone out of her purse and got the camera ready.
Frowning, I said, “Me too.”
Mandy quickly went to work, brushing on some powder foundation, eye shadow, mascara, blush and finally pink lip-gloss. I never felt more ridiculous in my life.
Janet said, “Great job, Mandy. You should do this professionally.”
Grinning, Mandy said, “Well, I do want to be a make-up artist.”
“I feel stupid,” I said feeling stupid. “Can you take the picture already so I can wash my face and change?”
“Sandy, you look very pretty,” said Monica. “Not stupid at all. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear you were one of us.”
Mandy said, “Wait. Don’t take the pictures yet. Sandy, go ahead and put the socks and shoes on as well. That way we’ll have the total look.”
“Okay,” said, aggravated. I slipped the girly white socks with pink trim onto my feet and slid on the cheerleader shoes.
When I was done, Janet lifted up her phone to take the pictures. She let out a wolf-whistle and said, “Steph’s right, Sandy. You should consider joining our squad. Coach always thought we should have six girls.” She took a few quick shots with her camera.
“I never should have agreed to do this,” I said annoyed. “Besides, do you want me to get beat up?”
Stephanie said, “Nobody will beat you up. You might get asked out on a date…” All the girls laughed.
“Are you guys done?” I asked, feeling my face turning beat red. “We’re all going to be late for the next class.”
“Yeah, we’re done. Let’s…hey. Did you guys feel that?” said Monica with a worried look on her face. We all felt a low vibration, like something really big hitting the ground.
“There it goes again,” said Janet, looking randomly at the walls and ceiling.
Then the whole building shook. Dust sprinkled down from the ceiling and the glass in the coach’s window rattled.
“Guys, this isn’t good,” said Monica. She ran through the door next to the coach’s office and out into the gymnasium. We all followed her. There were a handful of students in the gym and they were starting to lie on the floor.
The school’s PA system made a loud cracking noise and the principal’s voice said, “Attention students. Head for the nearest shelter. This is not a drill. Do not go to your lockers or stop along the way. Head for the nearest shelter immediately.”
There was a nearby explosion that rocked the whole building, and part of the gymnasium wall collapsed, exposing the outside. Nothing more came from the PA system.
A teacher, I wasn’t sure of his name, rushed into the gym and shouted, “Girls! You must leave now. We’re under attack! Get to the shelter!”
Monica and the other girls hesitated for a moment, and then all four of them ran for the exit. I just stood there a few moments looking at the sky through the gaping hole in the collapsed wall. I could see smoke rising and I could see part of a carrier fleet floating overhead. Small drop ships were plummeting from a transport.
I thought, oh my God! It’s actually happening. No one believed it would happen here. We’re too far in. Too protected. Or at least that’s what everyone thought. I was brought back to reality when the teacher was shouting again.
“You too, Miss!” shouted the teacher, waving his arms towards the exit door. “You must hurry!” He thinks I’m a girl. Dammit it all! It’s bad enough to be attacked, but I have to be wearing a cheerleader uniform when it happens.
There was another explosion, so I turned quickly and followed the girls out the exit into the hall. I saw them ahead of me and I ran after them. The hall was quickly choking with panicked students. I looked back and saw that one teacher as well as several others yelling at the other students to hurry. There was another explosion and the whole section of the building behind me, the hallway still filled with running students collapsed amid screams of horror.
A boy running past me grabbed my hand and pulled me. He said, “Run! We have to get out of here!”
The hall was filling with dust and smoke, making it hard to see where the exit leading outside was. Screaming kids and yelling teachers created a surreal and confusing scene. The boy had a death grip on my hand and dragged me along the hall, over other kids who had fallen in their panic.
Finally we made it outside. The air was filled with screams, explosions, smoke, dirt and debris. The school was on fire. I saw some kids lying on the ground, not moving and then I heard the staccato report of automatic weapons. To my left I saw men wearing the SCA uniforms gunning down students.
The boy pulling me suddenly lost his footing on some debris and fell, letting go of my hand. He yelled in pain and shouted to me, “My ankle!”
I instinctively tried to reach down to help him up. He brushed my hand away and said, “Run girl!” I hesitated a moment and then after hearing more shots being fired; I left him and ran to where I last saw Monica and the other girls.
It was mayhem. Bullets ricocheting off the walls and the decorative fountain in the school’s courtyard. People shouting and screaming. Some were picking up rocks and bricks and were throwing them at the soldiers. The sirens of police and emergency vehicles filled the air. I looked up into the sky and saw the huge SCA carrier looming in the sky along with more drop ships.
“Sandy! Over here!”
I looked in the direction of the voice to see Monica and the others standing in a doorway from the other side of the school. I ran over to them.
When I arrived, they pulled me into the building. Janet said, “Don’t let them see us!”
Breathing hard, Monica said, “The soldiers all seem to be over there. I think we can take this hall to the back side of the school and head to the shelter from there.”
I looked around. The hall was empty of people. Papers and notebooks and even some chairs were scattered through the hall. A bullet thudded into the steel door we had just passed through.
I said, “Sounds like a plan. Let’s go.”
We quickly ran though the empty hall and out the back entrance. It was oddly quiet as we ran along the fence towards the neighboring houses. There was a gap in the fence where we could exit the school grounds. I looked back at the school. Except for the part we just ran though, the school was ablaze. Houses on the other side of the field were also on fire. Black smoke filled the sky.
Janet said, “The shelter is near that shopping center about four blocks from here. There doesn’t seem to be any shooting over here.”
As we ran down one of the streets, there were other people, running from their homes or getting into their cars and going the same direction as us. Horns honked and people shouted.
A blue minivan driven by an obviously frightened woman pulled up beside us. She shouted, “Mandy! Where are you and your friends going?” I saw a boy and a girl inside the minivan.
Mandy ran up to the woman and said, “Mrs. Caruthers! Are you okay? We’re headed to that shelter over there.” She pointed in the general direction we were headed.
Mrs. Caruthers shook her head and said, “You and your friends get in. They just announced on the radio that that shelter is full and they’re turning people away. It’s a zoo there. I’m headed to the Eastside shelter. The roads are still open that way.”
As we climbed into the minivan, Mandy asked, “How far is the Eastside shelter?”
With a chirp of tires, Mrs. Caruthers launched the minivan on down the street. She said, “It’s about five or six miles from here. It’s on the other side of town. Hopefully it’s away from everything.”
We weren’t the only vehicle on the streets of course. Cars were being driven wildly as people hurried to escape…to anywhere. Civilization was breaking down quickly. Drivers ran stop signs and careened all over the road. I watched in horror as two people were mercilessly run down by a speeding motorist.
Bombs started dropping randomly in the neighborhood we just left. I saw more drop ships landing behind us. Black smoke roiled over the rooftops. Horns honked. Sirens blared. People ran up and tried to open the minivan doors. Mrs. Caruthers held the steering wheel steady and carefully drove us through the mayhem.
No one in the minivan spoke as journeyed on as Mrs. Caruthers drove through lawns to avoid a multi-vehicle pileup. As we drove past a neighborhood shopping center, we saw people breaking windows, climbing over each other to get to food and weapons.
No sooner had we passed the shopping center than a large truck blasted through an intersection and hit us broadside, causing the van to skid sideways into the curb. There was a dull groan of tortured metal under the minivan as it rocked to a stop. The truck just backed up and drove off.
Mrs. Caruthers sat for a moment or two dazed in her seat. She finally whipped around and jumped from her seat to where her own kids were sitting and crying. She cried out, “Ross! Cathy! Are you okay?”
Crying and scared, Ross said, “Yes, Mommy.”
Cathy crying loudly said, “I’m scared!”
Mrs. Caruthers hugged her children and said, “Thank God you’re okay.” She turned to us and said, “Are you girls okay?”
Monica looked around at us and said, “I think so.”
I opened the sliding door opposite of where we were struck and stepped outside. I saw the rear wheel laying flat, snapped where it had struck the curb with the van sitting on top of it.
I poked my head back inside and said, “The van is toast. We need to find another car or walk.”
That’s when I saw her kid, Ross with a huge gash in his arm, and blood was now everywhere. Mrs. Caruthers went to the front of the minivan and pulled a package of tissues from the glove compartment. She took the whole package and pressed it against Ross’s arm and held it tight.
Mrs. Caruthers said, “You girls go on. Try to make it to the shelter.”
Mandy said, “Well what about you? We can’t just leave you here!”
Wiping her hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand, Mrs. Caruthers said, “We’ll be okay. I need to take Ross to the shopping center and try to find some bandages.”
“You can’t go back there,” I said. “It’s a mob!”
“I’ll be okay. You girls need to go,” said Mrs. Caruthers. “I’ll be fine. Really.”
Monica said, “But your kids…”
Hugging her kids, Mrs. Caruthers said, “The military will be here soon. In fact, I saw a military truck go past my house just before I left. Look. I need to triage Ross’ wound or he’ll bleed to death. You girls need to go.”
Mandy said, “How can we leave you like this? We’ll help.”
Looking desperate, Mrs. Caruthers said, “I beg you, go. I can’t make it to the shelter now. I’ll find a place to hold up until help arrives.”
An explosion rocked the van, rocks and shrapnel rattled against the metal of the van. Mrs. Caruthers got up, and scooted her kids out the side door. She looked earnestly at us and said, “Really. I’ll be fine. Go on, please.”
Mandy hugged Mrs. Caruthers and said, “We’ll tell the people at the shelter where you are.”
“If we’re going, we need to go,” I said looking up at the sky and seeing more drop ships. I thought to myself, how many do they have?
As we ran up the street, I kept looking back at Mrs. Caruthers moving slowly with her kids in tow. We shouldn’t have left them, I thought. One last look back as we turned to go up a different street, I saw a police car pull up beside her. I hoped that was good.
We hurried along two streets of houses without incident. We kept close to the houses rather than run in the streets. The fighting seemed far away. We were about to cross an intersection when I looked around the corner house. I waved my hand for us to stop.
Coming up the other street was a squad of SCA troops. Their black uniforms were unmistakable. Whispering I said, “Let’s go back a couple of houses. There was one where the front door was open. Hurry!”
After the five of us entered the house, I closed and locked the door.
Janet said, “Maybe we can avoid them by heading down the alley?”
I said, “Let’s take a look.” We all started towards the back door of the house.
As we entered the kitchen at the back of the house, a soldier standing at the door, looking through the window spun around, pointing his automatic weapon directly at us. Mandy started to scream. We all thought we were dead.
“Quiet!” hissed the soldier. “Get down!” He crouched down next to the window, still peering outside.
“Thank God, he’s one of ours!” I said. The soldier turned to me and smiled.
He touched the brim of his helmet and said, “At your service, milady.” He thinks I’m a girl? Oh…I’d forgotten I was still in the cheerleader uniform and make-up. He glanced around at us and said, “You’re all girls. High schoolers?”
Stephanie said, “Yes. Issur Demsky High.”
The soldier grimaced and said, “Oh man. That’s where those Canuck bastards landed their main force. From the radio chatter it sounded pretty brutal.”
Monica rolled her eyes and said, “Oh my God yes! It was just horrible!”
The soldier looked at us with sad eyes. He said with a grunt, “I was in high school just six months ago.”
He didn’t seem to be much older than us. Probably only seventeen or so. A draftee.
The soldier looked out the window and squinted. “It looks like it might be clear at the moment. We should probably move out.” He stood up, but we stayed crouched.
“Where’s the rest of your unit?” I asked.
The soldier shrugged and said, “Dead. Scattered. Who knows. We were on the highway headed towards Fort Schwarzkopf when we saw the drop ships. We were given orders to recon. We were just a few blocks from here when drop ship came down right in front of us. We actually ran into it. We were outgunned and outnumbered so we scattered.” He paused a moment while he looked again out the window.
“Where are you girls headed? This neighborhood is kind of a no-man’s land,” said the soldier.
Monica said, “There’s a shelter, in that direction I think.” She pointed in some random direction.
The soldier nodded and said, “That’s on my map. It’s about 10 klicks from here. It should be safe. It’s actually the National Guard base for this area.”
Pointing at his helmet, I said, “You have a comm-link, right?”
Shaking his head, he said, “Busted.” He sighed as he looked us over. “Looks like I have a new mission. To escort you girls to the shelter.”
Looking at the chevrons on his shoulder, I said, “What’s your name, sergeant?”
He stood a bit straighter and said, “Sergeant Lawrence O’Reilly. You can call me Larry. And your name?”
“Sandy,” I said. Actually it’s Alexander, but my parents started calling me Sandy when I was little and it stuck. Most didn’t know that, so I’ve always just been “Sandy”.
Larry smiled and said, “Sandy. That’s a pretty name.” Monica and Janet gave each other knowing looks and giggled.
“My friends call me Mandy,” said Mandy.
Stephanie said, “We won’t say what everyone else calls her!” Janet laughed
Larry frowned and said, “Okay, knock it off. Nice to meet everyone, but we need to go before it gets dark on us. We’re heading out down this alley. We probably should stick to alley’s. Stay close to me and keep your eyes peeled.”
I said, “Everyone stay frosty.” Larry gave me a look and I shrugged. “I’ve always wanted to say that.”
Larry slowly opened the back door to the house we were hiding in. He looked around in all directions and holding his automatic rifle at the ready, we crept out of the house. He paused to listen again at the back gate. He unlatched it and looking up and down the alley, we stepped into the alley.
All around us were sounds of small arms fire, sirens, explosions and occasionally a scream. But thankfully, none of it seemed to immediately near us. We hurried along the fences lining the alley, gravel crunching under our feet.
When we approached the next intersection of the alley and a paved street, Larry raised his hand to indicate we should stop. He eased himself close to the edge of the fence. He turned to face us and put his finger against his lips. From around the corner, came the faint sound of voices. Speaking French. Damned Frogs! They were just a few feet from us.
Larry took a quick peek around the corner. He jerked back, and raised his hand with three fingers raised up. Whispering he said, “We’re going to have to backtrack and find another way around.”
As she turned around Stephanie disturbed some bug and it flew into her hair. She reflexively said, “Ack!” and started swatting the bug from her face.
“Shit!” hissed Larry. He spun around and raised his rifle. Two men in the black uniform of the SCA came around the fence, raising their weapons. Larry fired three bursts, two at the men he saw and one into the fence. Both men in front of us went down and we heard the third drop from behind the fence.
The shots were loud! Dad and I had been to the range a few times, but of course we always used ear protection. Monica and Stephanie both jumped and squealed at the report of Larry’s rifle.
Angry, Larry pointed his finger at Stephanie and said, “You almost got us killed. I don’t care if it’s a rat sitting on your head, stay quiet!” He walked over to the edge of the fence. “Someone’s bound to have heard that. We need to move and quickly.
As we passed the fallen enemy soldiers, I paused to pick up one of their weapons thinking it would come in handy. I wanted to grab an extra magazine as well, but I had no way to carry it.
Larry stopped and turned to face me. He said, “Put that down, Sandy. I don’t want you hurting yourself.”
Indignant, I said, “I know how to shoot!”
“Put it down, now! You’re more likely to shoot one of us than an enemy!” Larry barked at me.
Holding the weapon against my fake boobs I said, “I’ve shot a rifle before!”
Larry pulled the weapon from my grasp and tossed it. Angrily he said, “We don’t have time for this. Without proper training, you’re a bigger threat to us and yourself than to them. Let’s go.” He started running across the street.
The others ran after him. I just stood there a moment, shocked to be treated that way. As Stephanie passed me, she said, “Yeah Sandy. Stop being stupid and listen to the sergeant. We’re cheerleaders, not soldiers!”
I looked at the weapon lying on the ground a few feet from me. I thought of retrieving it, but then thought better of it. Frowning, I hurried after them.
From around us, shouts went up. The shouts were in French so I had no idea what they were saying. But the voices were close and that was enough to scare the hell out of us.
We were running along the fences in the alley again. Larry stopped to open a gate into somebody’s backyard. He said, “We have no cover in this alley. We’re completely exposed. We need to go from house to house.” He surprised me when he took my hand. “Stick close to me, Sandy,” he said over his shoulder. “Tighten it up, girls. We can’t get separated.”
We crept quickly along the fences in the alley until Larry found a gate that would open. As he opened the gate, Larry said, “Stay low.”
When we reached about halfway across the yard towards the front gate, the backdoor of the house opened and a woman motioned us to come inside. We all looked to Larry who nodded at the woman and we ran to the open doorway.
The woman quickly closed and locked the door after we were inside. The woman whispered, “If you had gone out that gate, you would have run into twenty or so of those hoser bastards. Don’t get near the windows. Otherwise you should be safe to stay here until they move on. They’ve already checked this house.”
Stephanie said, “They didn’t find you?”
Shaking her head and grinning, the woman said, “Those hose heads didn’t do a thorough search. I was hiding under my bed.” She hefted a black twelve gauge pump action shotgun with a pistol grip and muzzle break and said, “But I was ready to take a few of them with me.”
Larry grinned at the woman and said, “Yes, ma’am. I wouldn’t want to mess with you.” He crawled over to the window and carefully peeked out. He said, “Looks like they’re about to check your next door neighbor’s house.”
Suddenly shots from a semi-auto rifle rang out and two enemy soldiers fell backwards off the front porch. Someone shouted, “Fuck you, you Canuck cocksuckers!” Several more shots were fired and another soldier took a hit in the arm. Two members of the Sino-Canuck squad tossed flash-bangs into the house and rushed inside. The chatter of an assault rifle on full auto was heard, and then silence. The soldiers who rushed the house, walked slowly out.
We watched in silence, as the soldiers proceeded house to house with occasional small arms fire.
We were all huddled close to Larry. He patted my knee and said, “I think it’s safe for us to move on. I’ve lost my bearings. Ma’am, do you know which way to the shelter?”
She pointed in the general direction we were headed. She said, “That way. About two blocks you’ll come to a strip mall. That’s about halfway.”
Larry smiled and shifted his position. He said, “Good. We’re close.”
As Larry started to stand, the woman whose house we were in said, “Are you guys hungry?”
Janet said, “Oh God yes. I’m starving!”
Monica looked at Larry with pleading eyes and said, “Can we eat before we leave? Please?”
Larry frowned and said, “I hate to impose on you ma’am. We don’t have a lot of daylight left.”
The woman smiled and said, “No imposition, sergeant. And my name’s Catherine, by the way.”
Larry forced a smile and said, “Well, Catherine we appreciate your offer. I guess we can afford a few minutes to eat. You guys do look tired.”
Catherine smiled and said, “It’s nice to have people here with me. Come girls, back to the kitchen.”
Catherine pulled out what was left of a loaf of bread and some sandwich meat from her fridge. She also had some sodas too. “Help yourselves, girls.”
I made a turkey sandwich for me and a second one for Sergeant Larry. I sat down at the kitchen table and he sat opposite me. Janet and Stephanie sat at the table after making their sandwiches. Monica pulled up a chair next to me. We all sat in silence as we ate. It was the first time since the attack started that we felt we could relax.
Larry looked up from his sandwich and wiped his mouth with a paper towel. He said, “So. All of you are cheerleaders at your school?”
Before I could answer, Mandy who had been mostly quiet this whole time said, “Yes. Except for Bridget, this is the whole squad.”
Larry smiled and pointed at me and said, “You, I was pretty sure were a cheerleader, but I wasn’t sure about the rest of you.” Of course I was still in the cheerleader uniform and still wearing make-up.
I looked down at the table and said, “Well, about that…” out of the corner of my eye I saw Monica shaking her head and frowning. Larry was looking at me to finish my comment. I barked a short laugh and said, “I guess our pep rally for tomorrow is canceled.”
Janet started to cry. She said, “So many of our friends are dead!”
Unsure of what to say, Larry said, “I know. That’s terrible. But I’m sure most have made it to the shelters or have found hiding places. Before we lost our radio, we heard chatter about local National Guard units, the police and citizens forming pockets of resistance. The military will be here soon to make those Canuck bastards wish they weren’t ‘oot and a boot’ in our country!”
Stephanie said, “I sure hope my Sam is safe.”
Larry looked over at Steph and said, “Is he your boyfriend?” She nodded. “I guess all of you have boyfriends?”
Monica, Janet and Mandy all nodded. Monica, looking at the floor said, “We hope we still do.”
Larry looked at me and said, “What about you? Do you have a boyfriend too?”
I frowned and shook my head. I said, “No.”
Larry said, “I’m not trying to be nosey. I’m just trying to learn more about you girls.” He finished off his sandwich and looked back at me again. He said, “But it surprised me you don’t have one. You remind me a lot of a girl I knew in high school that I managed to date a few times. Like you, she was gorgeous and a bit of a girly-girl. But she wasn’t a cheerleader. She was a gymnast.”
I felt my face flush when Larry suggested I was gorgeous. I said, “Thanks for sharing that, sergeant. Is she waiting for you back home?”
Larry shook his head sadly and said, “No. We’d stopped dating before we graduated. She went off to college somewhere I think. And please, call me Larry.” He downed the rest of his soda and said, “We need to go. Thank you for your hospitality, ma’am.”
Catherine smiled and said, “I’m glad I could help.”
Mandy said, “Why don’t you come with us to the shelter? It’s not really safe to stay here, is it?”
Catherine shook her head and said, “I’ll just slow you down. I’m fine here. Really.”
As Larry checked his gear, he said, “You’re welcome to join us, ma’am. I’d welcome another gun, that’s for sure.”
“Let me have a gun,” I said not hiding my annoyance.
Larry shook his head. He said, “No. You’re too sweet of a girl, Sandy. I don’t want you tainted by war.”
I folded my arms and said, “I think it’s too late for that. Besides, I’d rather be tainted than dead. You don’t think I’m capable?”
Larry surprised me by brushing his fingers through my hair. He said, “Shooting a human being is serious business, sweet pea. It’s not like shooting paper targets. After you kill someone, even a Canuck POS, you can never wash your hands enough.”
Before I could reply, Catherine said, “You guys need to get going. It’ll be dark soon. And trust me, I’ll be fine here.”
Larry shook Catherine’s hand and said, “Thanks again, ma’am. Stay low and keep your lights off.” He then looked directly into my eyes and said, “We need to get you girls to a safe place. Come on. Let’s move out.” He walked up to the front door, opened it slightly, peered up and down the street and then left the house.
As we moved to the door, Monica leaned over and whispered in my ear, “I think he likes you. He’s always talking to you.”
I sighed and whispered back, “He can just get over it.”
It took us over half an hour to make a harrowing trek down two blocks to the strip mall. We had to dodge several SCA patrols. We all got a gruesome close-up look at war as Larry had to slit the throat of a Canuck soldier who was between us and our destination.
Several parked cars were burning in the strip mall’s parking lot. The smoke provided us with some cover as we sprinted across the lot to the buildings. Many of the buildings in the strip mall we also burning with gaping holes knocked in their sides. Bricks and other debris was scattered over the scarred parking lot. I was here just yesterday at the Game Center. Now it lay in ruins. Damn these blood-thirsty Canucks! I’m swearing off maple syrup and I never liked hockey anyway.
Larry looked around the corner of the end building we were hunkered down behind. He turned back to us and said, “Dammit! It looks like the SCA has set up a freakin’ command center in that bombed out Target. There must be a least a hundred SCA regulars and a dozen or so Special Forces. The shelter’s on the other side.”
Monica said, “Let’s just go around then.”
Larry frowned and said, “It’s not that easy. If they’ve set up a command center here, it means they control this whole area. Possibly even the shelter.”
“Well isn’t that just great!” Janet said in a loud, angry voice.
Larry’s eyes flashed at Janet as he said, “Not so loud, girl!”
Stephanie said, “Yeah, pipe down, Janet.”
Standing with Larry, I looked around the corner and saw several soldiers look in our direction. I quickly pulled my head back and snarled, “Crap, Janet! They heard you!”
Larry took another quick look and said, “They’re not moving, so it’s okay I think. We need to check the backside. If it’s clear, we’ll cross the street and into that residential area.”
None of us had noticed. When Larry stood up and turned around, just a few feet from us stood a soldier in his black, SCA uniform, his Chinese made assault rifle held at ready. We all stopped in our tracks, frozen. Larry started to bring his own weapon up. The enemy soldier fired a single burst. Two slugs hit Larry in the chest, stopped by his body armor, but still knocking the wind out of him. The third bullet hit his arm, going clear through. Some of his blood splattered onto my dress. He fell backwards to the ground dropping his weapon.
“Larry!” I shouted as I ran to him. The SCA soldier raised his gun to finish Larry off, execution style. I shouted again, “No! Please!”
A brick suddenly bounced off the soldier’s helmet. Monica picked up another of the bricks strewn all over the parking lot and started to throw it at him. The soldier spun with his gun raised, ready to shoot Monica.
I grabbed Larry’s weapon and just pointed it in the general direction of the enemy soldier and pulled the trigger. I’d never fired a fully automatic weapon before and my shots were wild, ratcheting upwards striking the solder in both legs, across the body armor on his chest, slapping into his arm and finally in his head, just below the brim of his helmet. I couldn’t stop pulling the trigger and the weapon chattered a few more times before the magazine was emptied.
As I was firing, the soldier discharged his weapon and managed to hit Monica in the shoulder. The soldier slumped to the ground, dead. Monica screamed and fell backwards.
Janet and Stephanie both screamed and started crying hysterically. Mandy dropped to the ground next to the wall and curled up into a ball.
Larry jumped up and jerked his weapon from my hands. He said, “Thanks. You saved my life, but you girls need to get the hell out of here. They heard that and will be on us in a second.” He popped the empty magazine from his gun and slid a new one in and cocked it.
Larry looked at us in disbelief and shouted, “Run! I’ll try to slow them down.”
I picked up the dropped SCA weapon and said, “I can’t leave you here to die! And Monica’s been shot! She bleeding bad!”
Larry shoved me and shouted, “That’s what I’m paid for. Go!” He turned to pop a few rounds into a couple of soldiers rounding the corner.
Frantic, I spun around taking in the scene. We had no time to run anywhere. Monica was lying on the parking lot, a pool of her blood forming around her shoulder. Janet and Stephanie were just screaming and crying. Mandy was on the ground, shaking terribly. There was no way I could get them out of here.
I stood next to Larry and sighted down the assault rifle at the corner. I said, “Looks like we make a stand.”
We stood there for a few moments, our tense nerves near the breaking point. We waited. No one came around the corner.
Larry approached the corner and look around. He looked back towards me and said, “They’re bugging out.”
Then we heard a distant sound. An odd sound like buzz saws on steroids. Coming over the roof tops we could see three black dots swiftly approaching us. And suddenly the three dots turned into three Aztec attack helicopter gunships, their twin 40mm cannons spinning up, bullets bouncing off the sides and the canopy as the retreating Canucks started firing.
A loud buzzing sound came from the 40mm Gatling guns as they unleashed hell into the Canuck position. Spent shell casings rained from beneath the twin cannons. I stood next to Larry and watched in awe as the Aztec’s ground up everything before them. People, walls, and vehicles all went down before the withering fire.
The Aztecs moved on, but a dozen or so APCs pulled into the parking lot next to us and soldiers began to pour out. We just stood there as the soldiers ran across the parking lot to inspect the carnage in front of them. I doubted there’d be any survivors to detain for questioning.
An APC stopped next to us and one of the men getting out looked like an officer. He approached us along with several other soldiers. Pointing at Larry, the officer said, “Sergeant. Where’s your unit? What are these civilians doing here?” Pointing at one of the other soldiers walking with him, the officer said, “See to that civilian before she loses any more blood.”
The officer nodded a few times in silence as Larry recounted how he’d lost his unit, how we’d met up with each other and how we’d had to fight almost door-to-door to get here. While he was talking, another soldier with bandages and other medical looking paraphernalia, triaged Larry’s arm.
With a scowl, the officer, a lieutenant, said, “Good thing we caught up with you, sergeant. That shelter you were heading for has been over-run. There was a National Guard unit there for the shelter security. They were all wiped out. We have no idea at this point where all the civilians were taken.” The lieutenant stretched his arm in the direction of the shelter and said, “All of the city, north and west of this position is held by the enemy.”
Stephanie fell to her knees and wailed, “I can’t take it anymore! My family! All my friends. They could all be dead!”
The lieutenant just looked at her for a moment and then looked at each of us in turn. Turning to another member of his team, the lieutenant said, “Corporal. We need to put these civilians in the truck with the others and stay with them to the staging area. Private, go with the corporal to the trucks and get a stretcher for that injured girl.” The two men ran off towards several trucks that had arrived after the APCs. To Larry, he said, “How’s that arm, son?”
Larry grimaced a bit as he pivoted his arm around. He said, “I can still fight, lieutenant.”
The lieutenant smiled and said, “Good man. You’re with us until we can get this mess straightened out.”
Larry turned to look at us. He said, “Go with the corporal when he returns with the stretcher for Monica. You’ll be safe now.”
Mandy ran up to Larry and hugged him and he winced from the pain in his arm. “Thank you so much, Larry! We’d never made it this far without you.”
Larry smiled at us. He said, “I’m glad I could help.” He stopped as the two men gently placed Monica on the stretcher and started walking quickly back to the trucks. Larry waved his good arm and said, “You need to follow them.”
Janet just nodded at Larry as she passed. Stephanie squeaked a feeble “Thank you.”
The lieutenant reached out a hand towards me and said, “Miss. I’ll take that weapon.” I’d forgotten I was still holding the assault rifle. I handed it to the lieutenant.
I smiled at Larry and said, “Thanks, sergeant. You’re our hero for sure.”
The lieutenant said, “Fall in sergeant. I’ll assign you to a unit.”
Larry smiled weakly at me, and looked at the ground and started following the lieutenant. He stopped and said, “Sir? May I have one minute?”
The lieutenant stopped and turned around. He looked at Larry, then to me. He smiled and said, “You have two.” He winked at me and walked away.
Larry stepped up close to me and looked into my eyes for a few moments and took my hands in his. He said, “Sandy, I’m so glad you’re safe. I really wish I could have gotten to know you better. When I’d gotten separated from my unit, I was looking to surrender to the first Canuck patrol I came across. But when I saw you, I knew what we were fighting for. You inspired me.” He grinned. He suddenly looked more like the kid he was rather than a soldier.
I felt my cheeks flush again. I smiled at Larry and said, “I don’t believe for a second you’d surrender, Larry. You’re too much of a fighter.”
Larry was fumbling around in his pocket. After a moment, he pulled a shiny metal object out. He said, “I’m not really supposed to have this with me.” It was a metal locket with a fine, silver chain attached to it. “This was my mom’s. She gave it to me to give it to the girl I loved. I have a feeling I’m not coming out of this, so I’ll never have a girl.”
Larry took my hand and pushed the locket into it. He said, “Here. I want you to have it.”
Shocked, I said, “Larry, I can’t accept this! Keep it to give to that special girl in your life.”
Larry smiled at me and said, “That’s what I’m doing, Sandy. You’re that special girl. I insist you keep it. A beautiful locket for a beautiful girl.” He placed my other hand on top of the hand with the locket.
I was appalled. I should have told him when we first found him in the house that I wasn’t a girl. Looking into his earnest eyes, there was no way I could tell him the truth now.
I looked at the locket in my hand. It really was a beautiful locket. I said, “I don’t know what to say, Larry. I…”
Larry said, “You don’t have to say anything.” The palms of his hands were suddenly and gently caressing the sides of my face as he drew my face closer to his. I just froze. I had no idea what to do or what to expect. I was half afraid he was going to kiss me. He just stared into my eyes for several moments.
From a short distance away, I heard Mandy shout, “Oh for God’s sake! After all he’s done, just kiss him already!”
We both smiled at the outburst and then suddenly, Larry pressed his lips against mine. His hands slid down to wrap around my waist and he drew me closer. Without really thinking about it, I put my arms around his neck. I don’t kiss guys. I’m not interested in guys. Not even a little. But the passion of his kiss consumed me. I’ve never been kissed like this before. All the passion and energy he put into his kiss overwhelmed me. He wasn’t pressing hard or making me uncomfortable. The kiss was sweet and gentle, but very powerful. I never wanted this moment to end.
I closed my eyes and surprised myself by moaning softly. I pulled him closer. I returned the passion of his kiss with passion of my own. The emotions of the past several hours finding release in his embrace.
Finally, he pulled away. Our lips were still close. He smiled and looked deeply into my eyes. He gently pressed his lips against mine once more, but only for a brief moment. He pulled away, his hands on my shoulders.
Larry looked away for a moment and said, “You should probably get going.”
“I…I…” I was left speechless. As insane as it sounds, I wanted more of his kiss. I knew right then, that I’ll never be kissed like that again. I nodded and with a bitter smile, I started to turn to join the others in the truck.
“Oh. Just one more thing, Sandy,” said Larry. He acted embarrassed and studied his feet for a moment. Finally he said, “I…I was just wondering, if. Ah, if all this ends in time and…and things kind of go back to normal, I…uh…I was wondering if I could take you to your prom.”
Just what the hell did he expect my answer to be? After that kiss and what we’ve been through that I’d just tell him no? I smiled at him nervously. Despite how his kiss made me feel about him for that tiny moment, he was still a guy. I couldn’t let a guy take me to the prom. I didn’t even want to go to my prom. I mean, it’s not like there wasn’t a war going on! The war would have to end in the next few days.
I took a deep breath and said, “I’d be honored if you took me, Larry.” I felt safe in saying that. There more than likely wouldn’t be a prom and I knew I’d never see Larry again, no matter what happens.
“Thanks! I’ll hold you to it!” He handed me a piece of paper and asked I put my contact information on it. At first I hesitated, but again I knew I’d never see him again. Larry smiled broadly and turned and ran back to join up with his new unit.
I just stood there a moment and watched him run as I softly touched my own lips.
“Sandy!” I heard my dad shout as I got off the bus with a mob of other people, including Monica and the others. Mom and Dad ran up to me and they both stopped and looked at me curiously. Dad said, “What’s with the get up?”
Monica laughed and said, “It’s a long story!” Her attention was suddenly diverted and she shouted, “Mom!” and we were forgotten as she ran to greet her family. The other girls quickly dispersed into the crowd to meet up with their respective families.
It’d been two weeks since we last saw Larry. We were eventually taken to a large military facility. So we could all stay together, we kept the ruse of me being a girl. I was issued girls clothes and Monica did my make-up for me. We had to be sneaky about things like showers.
I hugged Dad and then Mom as I fought back tears of joy. I learned later that Mom and Dad had been relocated to a facility on the other side of the country. Communications were in complete disarray.
The war had ended abruptly three days after that horrible attack on our school. In a daring attack, a troop transport managed to land on the SCA’s last carrier. From all accounts it was viscous battle ending in the complete destruction of both vessels. With nothing left to wage war with, the SCA called for a cessation of hostilities.
Despite how things looked on that awful day of the attack, most of the city was not burning or destroyed. Thankfully our house had been spared any damage. Utilities had only been restored that morning.
As we entered the house, Mom said, “Sandy, go wash your face and change your clothes. I like how pretty you are, but you need to look like our son again.”
“Sure, Mom,” I said as I bounded to my bedroom.
Before changing though, I plopped down in front of my terminal and flipped it on. It was a combination, TV, computer and communications device.
As I skimmed through the posts by friends, a call flagged urgent flashed on the screen. I switched to the phone and saw a rather haggard looking young woman materialize on the screen.
“Sandy Peterson?” asked the woman on the screen.
I said, “Yes. Speaking.”
The woman said, “This is a priority call. We had some problems and have been trying to reach you for days.”
I said, growing worried about what she was talking about, said, “It’s okay. I only got back home from a shelter today.”
The woman looked like she’d rather be someplace else. She said, “We’re trying to notify everyone who has a loved one in the military. I’m afraid I have some bad news for you Miss Peterson. Sergeant Lawrence O’Reilly was killed in action on the final day of the war.”
My heart leaped into my throat and I felt tears start to build in my eyes. I said, “Are you sure? I mean, I don’t know how you got my number.”
The woman looked at a something off camera and said, “He had you listed in his records as his girlfriend. Is this information correct? If so, we have a commemorative flag we can send you. I…I know it’s not much, but a grateful nation gives its thanks to you for your sacrifice.”
I started crying. Crying hard. This was crazy. Larry was just a guy I’d met for only a few hours. Important hours to be sure. I lost a guy friend just last year to a stupid traffic accident and I’d known him for years. I felt bad about it, but I didn’t cry. I didn’t become emotionally incapacitated. I felt numb. I felt sick and I couldn’t stop the flood of tears.
Without thinking, I grabbed the locket I was wearing around my neck and screamed at the screen, “No! You have to be wrong! He can’t be dead. He just can’t!” I’ve never been so wracked with grief in my life. And why? Over a guy? Thousands of guys have died in this idiotic war and they’re just statistics. A senior I knew from last year was killed in this war and I my only thought was that it sucked that he died so quickly after getting out of school. But nothing more.
“I’m terribly sorry for your loss, Miss Peterson,” said the woman on the screen. “He was on the final assault on that transport. Despite their stunning victory, there were no survivors in the resulting crash. I know it doesn’t stop the hurt, but he died a hero. Because of him and the others on that transport, many more lives were saved. Once again, a grateful nation offers its condolences.” The woman tried to force a smile and then the screen went blank.
I just sat there staring at the blank screen, heaving sobs. I wiped the tears streaming down my face with my fingers and saw the black smear from my make-up. To me, spending the last week and a half dressed as a girl was just an embarrassing experience to joke about years later.
But I was shaken to the core when I realized that for one brief moment in the life of a complete stranger, I really was a girl. The girl. *His* girl. In that last kiss, the last kiss he’d give to anyone was all the love and passion that he’d never get to give over a normal lifetime. And it was me who got that kiss. That kiss.
I folded my arms on the desk and collapsed with my head buried in my arms, and cried. I knew I could no longer deny it. For only a moment, in that kiss, I had fallen in love with a guy, Lawrence O’Reilly.
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