The small company of soldiers had been dispatched from their forward operating base early that morning with instructions to find the bridge. No one knew what it was called and they only had the vaguest notion as to where it might be, but there was a bridge and command wanted it found. They were building as many new bridges as they could, of course, but the enemy was proving to be exceptionally good shots and they had a limited supply of engineers and sappers. “There’s a bridge,” the General had said. “Go find it, that way we can get troops across the damn river and secure both banks.”
It had taken them most of the morning and they had gotten lost several times along the way, but finally, just around noon, they had caught sight of the bridge to the north of them. It was just upstream from where they were, but they could see it, teasing them, just out of reach. It was old and rusted with girders that arched up and over the river. The pylons were made of stone that looked as if it had been hewn and taken from a quarry decades before. It was hard to tell from their position, but the deck of the bridge appeared to be made of wood. It would probably not support tanks or other armored vehicles. But that was fine. It would bear the weight of their soldiers. Lots of them. And that was exactly why they had been sent to find the bridge.
Seeing the bridge and actually getting to the bridge proved to be something of a challenge. The road curved away from the river and so they had to try and navigate the backroads that crisscrossed the countryside using only a compass and their general instincts as guides.
They had no maps. They had no internet either. The pulses had been detonated early in the fighting to blind the enemy forces and the conventional weapons that followed had done plenty of damage to the actual infrastructure as well. Roads were full of the divots of mortar holes and the fields, which the farmers had been all too happy to burn to slow their progress were still smouldering. A wind from the south had cleared most of the smoke away, but the air still stunk of it. The sullen looks that were thrown their way as they passed through a small town made it clear that the populace was not to be trusted. Signs of war were everywhere.
No, they had to find the bridge themselves on that hot, humid afternoon. So when they crested the hill far in the northeast of the county and caught sight of the river below it and saw the bridge glittering in the sun it was with a large sigh of relief that the Captain spoke:
“Well, there it is. Finally.”
Then, they sped down the hill toward the river.
They almost missed the turnoff. Watkins caught sight of it just in time- a bike trail that split off from the main road and headed off to the right. The Captain called a halt and sent Maher and Glansky further down the road to investigate. They came back a few minutes later shaking their heads. “That’s not the bridge, sir,” Glansky said. He leaned to his left and spat onto the asphault. “Ain’t nothing but a pile of rubble.”
“All right,” the Captain said. “Let’s go check out this bike path.” They advanced slowly and, after a mile or so, they rounded the bend in the track and saw the bridge. The Captain ordered the company together and, with Maher and Glanksy taking point, they walked up to the bridge and took stock of what they were looking at.
“Well,” the Captain said. “It’s a bridge.”
The sun was shining, the river was flowing. It appeared to be a perfectly normal day and a perfectly normal bridge. Shaking his head in distaste, and with the realization that they didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. This was the only bridge over the river. This was the one they needed. This was the one they had spent hours searching for. So, they advanced out onto the bridge, weapons at the ready, bracing for anything that might happen but nothing did. The river still flowed. The sun still shone. The sky was still blue. The world turned beneath them and life went on. It was so tranquil and peaceful, that a sense of serenity fell over the soldiers. They were all, in turn, struck with the realization that nothing that they had done these past months mattered at all. They would all die eventually, maybe even today, but the sun, the sky, the river and maybe even this bridge would keep right on going.
No one spoke as they advance down the last few yards of the bike path and up the small slope to the bridge itself. The ground dropped away underneath them into what seemed to be a flood plain of some kind. The deck of the bridge was made of sturdy wooden slats and the two towers that supported the span were old and rusted with a latticework of iron and steel running between them. As they walked out over the bridge, they passed a historical marker, which spoke about the history of the bridge and how it had served as a major route for commerce between the county seat of the next county over and the then Territorial Capitol behind them. None of them stopped to read it however.
The vegetation and trees came to an end and the Captain nodded to Glansky, who, returning the nod, raised his weapon and advanced out at the head of the small company. They were out over the river now, fully exposed and Glansky was wrestling with the same conflict that had tormented him for months now: Russian dressing or Thousand Island dressing?
Glansky was bored. It had been a long afternoon and a longer war. They had been traipsing around every backroad of this godforsaken county looking for this damn bridge and now they had found it, Glansky wanted to get back to base, get back to the action and finish this war off once and for all. It had to end sometime, right? Everyone thought maybe one month, maybe two and the rebels would capitulate. They were already taking to the hills- groups of partisans launching attacks, harassing their troops and generally being a nuisance.
Some of the guys, like Maher, were all ready to tackle the mopping-up phase of the war, but not Glansky. Glansky was getting out. Glanksy had plans. Glansky had dreams. Glansky was going to open the best Jewish deli in the state of Nebraska and hopefully do his bubbe proud and bring the old traditions back. One of his earliest memories had been going with his bubbe and his Grandfather to the closing of Katz’s Deli in Manhattan. The place had been chock full of tearful old people, ordering their favorite things for the last time and he hadn’t really grasped the significance of it until he was older, but Katz’s had been the last of the old delis. The traditions were almost gone- living on only in bits and pieces. Bagels here. Pastrami on rye there. Matzah on the shelves of the grocery store around Passover time.
Glansky had learned all the recipes at his bubbe’s knee. Bagels, blintzes and borscht- the great trifecta of any good Jewish deli. Of course, there would need to be more than that. You need sandwiches like pastrami on rye. Sufganiyah for holidays like Hanukkah, apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah and, naturally, he would need a good Reuben. To Glansky, there was no more supreme culinary experience than the perfect Reuben.
The question of the reuben nagged at him. He had tried it both ways- with Russian dressing and with Thousand Island dressing and to be honest, he couldn’t decide which way was better. He felt like the Russian dressing was more traditional, but in the cultural zeitgeist, the Reuben was more associated with Thousand Island dressing instead of its Russian counterpart. Maybe he could offer it both ways? No, that wasn’t right either. Wait… what if they served the sandwich with Russian dressing and did like reuben balls or reuben egg rolls with Thousand Island dipping sauce. Glansky liked the sound of that. It seemed like a fair compromise. He would sleep on it and see how the notion felt in the morning. In the meantime… in the meantime, he focused back in on the world around him.
They were about halfway across the bridge now and that’s when Glansky began to feel like something was wrong. There was a small hamlet- village, township- he wasn’t sure what it was- a collection of buildings, on the far bank and there was no movement there. We’re walking into a trap, he thought to himself. They advanced a few more steps. Yeah, this is a trap for sure. He was about to actually say that out loud when he felt his foot hit the tripwire and-
Watkins was nervous. His orders had just come through. If he could get back to base in one piece, he’d be going home- home to Melissa and hopefully, just in time to meet their daughter, Delaney or their son, Aidan. (They had decided to let the whole gender thing be a surprise.) He was going to be a father. It seemed crazy, in a lot of ways. In college, he had been ambitious, with crazy, sprawling dreams of law school or med school or a PhD or space travel or backpacking across Asia and teaching English or going into the Peace Corps- he had changed majors a bunch of times.
All of that had fallen to the wayside once he had met Melissa again. They had been friends since high school, but had gone to separate colleges only to fall back into each other’s lives on summer thanks to a trail raising project in Klamath National Forest out in Oregon. Dating, love and marriage soon followed.
And now, Watkins kept surprising himself at how little he could be happy with. He didn’t need to change the world. Just a nice job- nothing too fancy. A nice house- maybe four bedrooms, a basement, two car garage. He didn’t need the world. He just wanted a nice, comfortable life. Melissa was really all he needed.
Then the damn war had happened. Melissa had been drafted right along with him, but the puritanical government had forbidden women from serving on the front lines, despite the objections of the High Command- a quarter of whom were women themselves. So, Melissa had been locked in a communications bunker, location unknown. She was hacking cellphones, monitoring rebel radio frequencies and communicating via scratchy video messages or phone calls. They had seen each other in person once, about eight months ago apparently just at the right moment.
I’m going to be a Dad. The thought ran through his head a million times a day and although he and Melissa had a week’s leave the month before he had hated coming back to the front lines. He dreaded every day. He just wanted to get through every day, but there was that thought running through his head again. I’m going to be a Dad. The thought was amazing, it was marvelous. It was… well, scary as hell, to be honest, but scary in an exciting kind of way. He had so many things to show him. Or her. So many books to read. What if the kid is into sports? Watkins had never been into sports- or all that physically fit for that matter. His military service, thankfully, had helped him on that score.
The excitement was compounded by the fear, of course. A million ‘what ifs’ tumbled through his head a day. He had spent a happy few hours browsing through the abandoned shell of a bomb-damaged library a few cities back and came away with an armful of parenting books. He had spent every spare moment he had reading them. He wanted to be good at this. He didn’t want to screw this up. There was a little voice in his head that whispered to him at night, This is the most important thing you will ever do. Don’t fuck it up.
A flicker of motion jerked him back into the present and he moved his rifle upward, tensing up only to relax just as quickly as he realized it was just a bird. The day was beautiful. The sun was shining in cloudless blue sky its reflection bounced off of the river perfectly. The blue of the sky fell into the river and seemed to absorb it, turning the river a deeper shade of perfect blue.
Watkins became aware of the silence, gradually as they advanced across the bridge. There was sun in the sky, warmth on his face. There should be noise. But there was nothing. Not even birds. The land was silent. The bridge was silent. The tension was growing and stretching and every hair on the back of his neck began to stand up and right before he was about to speak, right before he was about to give voice to thought and then there was a click and-
Maher was hoping for trouble. In fact, he was eager for it. He had been waiting for a chance at this. It was redemption time, bitches. His first encounter with the rebels had not been a pleasant one. They had been just outside of Peoria- not even on the front lines- in fact, Maher had never gotten close to any heavy fighting. Yes, Maher thought of himself as the unluckiest soldier in the whole damn army- always a bridesmaid and never a bride- always just so close, so tantalizingly close to the front lines, but never actually getting to fire his weapon at a real live rebel. Other people he knew had been blown up. Other people he knew had been sent home with injuries and scars bumps and bruises. Other people, but not Maher, the unluckiest soldier in the whole damn army.
It should be noted that to every other soldier that Maher came into contact with he was the luckiest son of a bitch ever to walk the face of the Earth. Which is why what happened that afternoon on the road just northwest of Peoria so galling, It was why he had never told a single soul about what happened to the convoy that-
There had been an explosion. It was unexpected and close, but the first signal that they had walked into the ambush. Then there was another, bigger explosion, the heat was searing and then he was flying backward, thrown clear somehow- clear of the entire ambush.
He landed hard. It turned out later that he had cracked a rib. But that was it. The wind was knocked out of him and his ears rang momentarily and although he could hear the sounds of gunfire and the cries of battle in the distance he didn’t move. Every part of his body was urging him to get up, get back in the fight and, you know, help, fear, laziness, he was never sure what held him down or why he didn’t move. It didn’t feel like fear. But he was afraid that it was fear. He just lay there, staring at the sky, listening to the sounds of chaos unfold around him.
The gunfire faded and he decided to fake like he had been knocked unconscious. It had worked well enough. Even gotten him a week of leave. But he had never been able to escape the shame of it.
He had been watching, waiting and hoping for a chance at redemption. The next time, he swore. The next time, he’d be brave. The next time, he’d do better. The next time the rebels would see a soldier.
The next time was here. It was now.
Maher’s focus was on the opposite shore. There was not a flicker of movement and it was starting to make him nervous. He wasn’t sure what was over there- it looked like a small village or a collection of buildings, but there were enough of them that they should have seen some sign of life by now. The village was at the bottom of the hill along the river and then the ground rose rapidly behind the main street of the town. There were too many trees up there, Maher thought. Way too many trees. This was bound to go sideways on them.
The questions kept piling up in his brain as they advanced out across the bridge. How would the ambush happen? Where would it come from? How many would there be?
Then the really terrifying thought came to him: what if he couldn’t do it? What if he froze? And just like that, his mind flashed back to that sunny day in his youth when he had been trying to impress Allie Westby, the cutest girl at summer camp. They had been in Wisconsin, along a lake whose name he had long since forgotten- but the cool spot on the lake- the thing that all the cool kids were doing was jumping off of the bluff and into the water. It was the thing to do that summer- and Allie, brave and fearless with long, auburn hair that cascaded down to her back as the girl that all the boys wanted to impress.
Plus there was Eric Roderick. Eric was the camp bully, who had made his life a living hell for most of the summer who had dared him to jump off the bluff. So, he had made his way up to the top of the bluff. He stood there at the top, hating that a crowd had gathered. Hating that Allie was there. Hating that Eric was there, taunting him, yelling at him, calling him a chicken. The walk to the top had been the longest walk of his life and from the top, it looked terrifying. It was so high. So goddamn high and that’s when he froze.
The jeering and taunting didn’t stop- in fact, it grew worse as he stood there, frozen to the spot. It wasn’t until Eric began to climb the bluff, threatening to push him off the top that he had finally become unfrozen long enough to half jump, half fall off of the bluff and land into the water.
When he finally dragged himself back to the shore, Eric was back down at the bottom of the bluff, pointing, laughing. “He looks like a wet beaver,” Eric laughed. And that had sealed the fate of the rest of his summer. Wet Beaver had become his nickname. Allie ended up making out with Eric at the dance that night and he had started counting the days until he got out there.
Maher shook himself out of his reverie and back into the present. He had been a boy then. He had been young. He had frozen then. He had frozen at Peoria. But not here. He was not going to freeze here, he wa not going to-
The Captain thought a lot about marlin. He also had one hell of a hangover. The General liked his tipple and, more to the point, he had this unfortunate tendency to insist that his officers drink with him, so the Captain had. And now, the afternoon sun was making him pay for the bourbon, rye and whatever else the General had been shoving down everyone’s throats the night before.
The war had to be over soon, right? They would all be going home real soon- he hoped. Home for the Captain was a houseboat in Key West. At least he hoped so. He had an offer in on one- his papers were coming any day now. Frank at the 22nd had already gone. Kelly. Johanna snf Maurice? All mustered out. His number would be up and then-
He closed his eyes for a moment, feeling the warmth in the air, the sun on his face and thinking about all the fishing he was going to do. He had almost caught a marlin once in the Gulf. He had been just out of college and rootless, a vagabond who had hitched his way down to Florida and found work on a charter boat that would take tourists out for a day of fishing for game fish out in the Gulf. Usually it meant sailing around and letting them drinking beer, but ridiculously, that day, they had stumbled into a whole school of marlin- something he had never seen before or since and everyone was hauling them in with whoops, cheers and half-drunken screams and bellows, saying things like ‘Yee-haw!’ and ‘Jackpot!’
Since everyone else was having a good time and because the Captain had been running charters out in the Gulf for twenty years and had never seen so many marlin together ever, he grabbed his pole and the rest of the crew grabbed theirs and they dropped anchor and started fishing.
It didn’t take long for him to get a bite. His pole bent down to the water and the fight was on- and just when he thought the pole was going to snap, the line went slack and then went taut in an unexpected direction as the marlin leapt skyward and jerked his pole clean out of his hands. The memory was still vivid in his mind even after all these years- the marlin arched over the water, drops of water pouring off of it as it sliced through the air. The drops of water caught the sun just right and looked like a shower of perfect diamonds just for a second before the marlin crashed back into the water and snatched his poe right out of his hands and took it with him back to the bottom.
It was that moment, he had realized later that had made he gawk in amazement. Just for a second, for a fraction of a second, his grip on the pole had relaxed and that had been all the marlin needed. Yes, he had almost caught a marlin in the Gulf of Mexico once.He was looking forward to the opportunity to do so again. But first, he opened his eyes again.
First, he had to flush out these damn rebels and secure this bridge. It couldn’t be that hard to do, right? And then, tomorrow, maybe, his number would finally be up.
This war… the damn war seemed to never end. It had consumed the middle of the country and tore the country in half. He hadn’t wanted to go to war- he hadn’t actually known or met many soldiers who had, but he had done it. He had put on the uniform, did the training, rose up through the ranks little by little, step by step and when idiot Captain Burke had stepped on a rebel landmine near Terre Haute, a battlefield promotion had followed and so he became a Captain.
There had been so bad days. Some terrible battles. A long siege in Omaha. He had lost friends and his fellow soldiers, a lover or two he had taken had died or drifted away as his lovers had a tendency to do. It had been okay at first- ugly, but necessary, but as the days had turned into weeks, the weeks to months and the months to years he had just gotten more and more tired of it all and now…. Now he was exhausted. Every day, he woke up exhausted. Exhaustion was etched into his face. His knees ached- and not just in cold weather any more. His back was killing him.
He should be happy about this. The end was close. The sun was shining. The river was beautiful- hell this old bridge was gorgeous. He could spend hours here, just taking pictures and soaking in the idyllic peace and quiet of it all. He could even- he reached his hand up to his mouth to cover his yawn, lay down under a tree- maybe the tree right over there, he thought and take a nap. He grimaced at his own laziness. This is why the war needs to end, he thought. I’m getting too damn tired. And tired people make mistakes and in war, mistakes can get you-
The crystal sands of time slip away far too quickly for my liking. He was going to be a Poet. Or had been on his way to being a Poet, once, in another life. High on the hill above the bridge, concealed in a deer stand they had placed in a tree, the Partisan Commander scribbled random thoughts and fragments of sentences down in his book. They were nothings, fragments, half-sentences, dreams and factuals, counter-factuals and what ifs.
The pen stopped moving. “What is it?”
“They’re advancing out onto the bridge.”
“Good,” he said. “The tripwire is in place?”
“Has been for hours.”
“Good.” The pen started moving again. ‘Does anything actually matter?’ The phrase had been rolling around in his head quite a bit of late. And who could blame him? They were on the ropes. Hope was dwindling. They were left with hidden weapons caches and stinging resistance attacks. He was bound for a firing squad or would catch a bullet somewhere, he knew. He tried to get back to his poem, but he couldn’t. It was too hard. “The crystal sands of time slip away far too quickly for my liking…” he whispered to himself. He had tried to recite a stanza or two once in college- one of the early drafts, one he had discarded after that open mic poetry slam at the local coffee house up in Madison. I wonder if that coffee shop is still there, he thought.
Now that was a tempting notion. Some of their people were starting to do that, he had heard. Slipping way. Melting back into the local populace. He had followed orders and taken to the hills as had many others- because, well, they were still in the fight. None of the rebel high command had surrendered. No armistice had been asked for and none had been given- it was coming, he assumed. And he knew the rest of his men had escape plans of their own. But maybe, just maybe, if this were the end, maybe he’d go back to Madison and see if that coffee shop was still there. Maybe then he’d actually get this damn poem polished up and finished. ‘The Crystal Sands’ seemed like a good title… he nodded to himself and wrote that down in big block letters at the top of the page.
He snapped the book shut and squinted down at the bridge below. They were close and then-
The bridge exploded, an orange and yellow fireball consuming the center of the bridge, spreading outward seeming to obscure and consume everything for a moment. Steel and iron, wood and stone were flung skyward and the noise was incredibly- shattering the idyllic silence and peaceful summer day. The partisans watched in silence as the bridge collapsed in on itself, the debris falling into the river and drifting away downstream.
Then it was silent again. The dust began to clear and they saw that they had achieved their objective. The bridge was gone.
“Let’s go,” the Partisan Commander said to his men. “They’ll be coming soon.” He looked on in satisfaction as he men quickly began to gather up their supplies and weapons. “Nice job, McCluskey,” he said to their explosives expert. “But maybe, next time a lighter touch with the C4? We don’t know how long we’re going to have to make this stuff last.”
The Partisans headed to the northwest as quickly as they could, moving out of sight and into the hills before night fell. The sun was sinking lower and lower on the horizon now and the shadows were starting to grow. The world turned beneath the soldiers on each side as the great war that had consumed half the country and was just now starting to enter its final bloody days. More would fall before the end. More would realize that nothing that they had done these past months and years mattered at all. Too many had died and in dying, only reminded those left that they would all die eventually, maybe even today. The sun would still shine. The sky would still be blue. The river would still flow.
All that was left of the bridge was it’s piers- two old, stone piers- monuments to the works of the past. Headstones that marked the graves of the men that died there that afternoon.
Once, there had been a bridge here.