Chapter no 11

Forgotten Ruin

On the way over to talk to the prisoner Kurtz’s heavy weapons team had managed to capture, I ran into two Rangers from one of the rifle squads. One was the typical age of the average Ranger. Early twenties. Maximum rage and physical prowess intersected at around that point. Plus, youth could absorb the constant damage of Rangering. But the other was a man on the far side of middle age. Not typical for a line Ranger. And other than the command sergeant major and the captain, no one was even remotely that old. Not even the first sergeant. I’d never seen this guy around. No one with gray hair and hunched over, limping like an old man. Not at Fifty-One or here on the island.

They were sitting on opposite logs along the trail I’d been following out toward that area of the defenses. Like they’d been coming the other way and had stopped for a chat. But not to chat. The old guy looked like he was having trouble breathing.

I stopped to see if I could help.

“You guys all right?” I asked. “Anything I can do?”

The older one held up his hand before he spoke. His hand shook and the skin there was wrinkled and liver-spotted like he’d worked in the sun all his life and thought sunscreen was a conspiracy by the government to control our minds. He’d either ditched, or lost, his assault gloves. Or any of the other kinds some of the Rangers preferred to use when sticking their hands into nasty places. Like I said, a lot of them liked a brand called Mechanix. I just had the issue gloves that came with the RLCS loadout. And there was probably never gonna be another store where I could buy the other kind ever again. So…

“He ain’t doin’ so good,” said the other Ranger. He was carrying both of their MK18 rifles.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Most messed-up thing I ever saw,” said the younger one. “Last night about zero-three-thirty we’d just been repositioned to support a machine- gun team. Bravo got hit hard earlier. So, we’re in the LLC waiting to go forward, and this… I don’t know what you’d call it, but this is what I’m callin’ her… this witch is what she looked like, she just comes out of the

darkness along our flank and points right at Sims there…”

Sims, the old man, began to cough, and his lungs gave their best performance of an actual death rattle.

“She’s shriveled up and old and she’s got a big crooked nose, nothing but a sack on,” the other man continued. “But her eyes were like nothin’ I ever seen before. Like looking into an ocean that ain’t got no bottom to it… know what I mean?”

I did. And that creeped me out. But go on…

The one telling the story fumbles for some smokes he’s got in one of his cargo pockets. He lights one and hands it to Sims. Rangers never smoke in the field. Only when they’re drinking. It’s always dip when they’re operational. So these guys are pretty shook if they’re breaking out the pack they brought along in hopes of finding a bar somewhere in the post- apocalyptic future.

Sims is hacking up a lung but he’s gonna smoke anyway. Ranger gonna Ranger as they say. Personally, I don’t think Sims needed a smoke so much as an iron lung. Or a full team of geriatric specialists at this point.

Sims takes the offered smoke and inhales weakly, coughing, forcible coughing like he’s trying to hack up something that won’t come unstuck. I’m pretty sure he’s gonna die right on the spot there at the worst of the coughing fit. But he doesn’t.

I notice the other Ranger holding a smoke out for me.

I take it. Why not try to fit in, I tell myself. I quit two years before I joined the Army. But hey… it’s like ridin’ a bike and all. Or falling off one, as they say.

“Ain’t had one since Honduras and that was the real deal down there,” said the one handing out smokes. I notice his hands are trembling a little too. The forest around us is all quiet. I’m guessing some of the Rangers are sleeping in shifts while they can catch it. It’s been two nights now without sleep. Three is the accepted Ranger maximum.

The cigarette calms down Sims’s fit, but he just keeps his weathered old face toward the ground. After a moment he takes off his bucket and I can see his hair hasn’t just gone gray. It’s stark white. Pure bone-white. Like he saw a ghost.

“I’m Sims and this is Matthews,” the old man tells me, and we just sit there smoking in the quiet woods. Occasionally Sims coughs softly. Then

he mumbles, “I’m dyin’, man.”

“So this… lady…?” I prompt. ’Cause I’m curious. And afraid. And I’ve found knowledge is a good cure for fear. I always restrain myself from asking a survivor or loved one about the symptoms someone they knew had before they died. Even I know that’s selfish. As in self-interested. I don’t ask. But I gotta admit it here… I wanna know.

“Ain’t no lady,” mumbles Matthews. “Was a witch fer sure. I’m from Appalachia. I heard enough about ’em down in them hollers ya ain’t supposed to go to, to know one is right in front of me and all. Reyes was right. Confirmed. Except he called her a brujita. That’s Rican for witch, y’know?”

By Rican I assumed he meant Puerto Rican Spanish. Brujita I knew. Surprise. I speak Spanish too. That one was easy. Italian, French, and Spanish all unlock each other, more or less.

Bruja. Witch or sorceress.

Old Man Sims picks up the story from there. “She comes outta the darkness,” he wheezes. “One minute she ain’t there and we got NVGs on and everything. Next minute she just appears out of the dark and points right at me…”

Sims indicates himself by stabbing his bent and bony finger into his plate carrier.

“I open up on her, but she’s gone in the next second.” He coughs. “I’m firing into nothing but smoke. And…”

He takes a long drag on his cigarette and mumbles something I can’t hear. Like maybe he was just swearing.

“What was that?” I ask.

Sims looks up at me sharp and angry.

“I said… I can still hear her laughin’. Thought it was out across the forest and over the outgoing fire last night, but… it’s still there in my mind, man. I can hear her laughin’ like she’s up in the attic of my head. In some old rocking chair. Just slow-rockin’ and laughin’ at me. This is really jacked up. I didn’t enlist for this, man. One more and I was gonna get out and go to Cali and maybe become an actor or somethin’. That’s…”

He starts coughing again.

“That’s what I say,” he finishes once the fit is done.

The forest is silent, and some crow flaps off moving from one tree to

another. Its wings make a leathery hush and when it lands in a tree nearby it just watches us like it knows what’s going to happen and there’s nothing we can do about it.

Okay. I officially have the creeps.

Sims looks at me, not angry this time, but like he’s asking me to believe him. To understand. To say something like, Oh yeah. That’s happened to me, man. That’s nothing. It’ll clear up.

The emotional equivalent of when the doctor tells you to just put some cream on it. Nothing to worry about. It’ll clear up.

That’s what Sims needs to hear right now.

But I’m just sitting there with my half-smoked cigarette. Listening. And thinking about witches who can curse you and make you old. Just like that. That’s gonna really cut down my chances with the cute co-pilot. Getting turned into an old man and all.

“She said…” coughs Sims, who flicks the butt of his cigarette off into the wet forest. “Para… malda City or something. Then… Hilly po-yahss. And then, all of a sudden, I felt like I got the flu and had a heart attack all at once.”

Matthews chimes in. “We didn’t see what happened until first light. When Kurtz made us stand watch until his guys got more ammo. That’s when we could see that Sims got turned into an old dude. So now I’m takin’ him back to the chief for a look. What do you think’s wrong with him? Ya think they got somethin’ besides Motrin for somethin’ like this? I mean, this is messed up, man. He’s only twenty-two!”

Sims starts to hack up a lung. Both of them look at me.

Unlike them, I know what the old woman said. Para… malda City or something. Then… Hilly po-yahss.

Para maldecirte, gilipollas. Curse you, bastard.

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