in the interest of closing your eyes and waking up once more before there is only sleep, they are telling me it is time to go. i've gathered my things and piled neatly they're waiting as if they've nothing better to do, their arms strewn about the place, legs already gone. i don't care as long as the heads haven't fallen away again.

the tree out front was hit by lightning last night so we buried my favorite notebook underneath what was left of the people that lived inside of it all these years. at least no one ever really liked them anyway, except us, i liked the small one with the big ears.

lately i've been collecting all of my pencil shavings, i am sure that the pencil holds every universe i've ever known and especially the ones i haven't. i do not want to discard the bits that are trapped inside the sharpener's translucent red plastic. i let myself wonder if each pencil has a different universe in it, sometimes.

they are telling me it is time to go, they will not tell me where to go, and so i've been sitting here for too many long years.

I am sitting in an empty room, my hands in a death grip on the mug full of cold coffee. We have orders to move on, the regiment and I, different fires to piss on half a continent away, but I cannot bring myself to move.

They are telling me it is time to go.

It's not the way I wanted things to end. Not even during the horrible days of the separation and divorce, long before the war, when it was all I could do just to keep going. I never wanted her dead. I never wanted to see her again, but I had forced myself to reach a place where I didn't care if she lived or died, and from there I could move on with my life. I certainly didn't expect to find her in the camp outside Des Moines, among the anarchists, greenies, and the other politicals. She hadn't expected to see me, either, though she didn't seem surprised to see me in uniform again.

"Prisoner E-5346, sir." The soldier led her into the room, and as she raised her head to look at me I could see the shock in her eyes.
"You?" she whispered. "Oh, no. Not you." She collapsed into the chair and huddled in on herself, clearly expecting the worst.
I flipped through her file. There was little there; she had been picked up in Minneapolis and sent to Des Moines for interrogation, but there was no indication that she was considered a serious threat. The inprocessing notes showed that she'd been associated with a rebel "front group", but I snorted. Even in these hyperpolitical times after the Wet Firecracker War, nobody serious thought a literary society was a hotbed of sedition, much less rebellion. Annoyance, maybe.
"You must have annoyed somebody in the MPD," I said lightly. "There's really nothing in here to justify holding you."
She looked up at me warily. "Are you going to let me go?"
I nodded. "No reason to hold you. We'll probably put you on the next train north, if you want to go back to Minneapolis."
She nodded.
I looked at the guard who had brought her in. "Take the prisoner back to her barracks."
She stood and turned to go, but stopped and looked back. "Why are you doing this? I thought you would have me shot."
I sat back in the chair and stared at her. "For what? There's nothing in your file that justifies a full interrogation, much less wasting a firing squad on you. You were just hanging out with some people the MPD thought were suspicious. Or maybe you annoyed one of them enough to indulge in some petty retaliation. I can believe that."
She looked away, and I thought I heard a sniffle as her shoulders shook slightly.
The guard looked a bit shamefaced as he approached her, and his voice was unusually gentle as he called to her. "Let's go, ma'am. The colonel says you're done, then you're done."

As they reached the door, she stopped and turned again. "You look pretty good," she said, and for a moment I flashed back on the time we met in the Cleveland airport, decades ago, when she was young and vivacious in her plaid skirt, plain blouse and leather boots. Two months after that we were married, and everything changed. Then she was gone.
The sergeant major, who had been sitting quietly to my left all the time, stirred. "She must have been quite something, in her day, sir."
"Yeah," I replied. "She was." There was a short, awkward silence as I stared thoughtfully at the door, and then I reached for the next file. "K-2819. Bring him in," I said to the guard.

Several hours later, when the last of the interrogations were done and we'd remanded those who deserved it to the civilian courts for trial and -possibly- execution, I headed for the mess hall. I had always made it a habit to eat with the troops, and since they'd regrown my pancreas there was no reason not to make sure the cooks were doing as good a job as they could with the rations. Murphy being Murphy, I heard the alert sound just as I was sitting down to eat. The troops around me reacted quickly, hitting the floor and unslinging their rifles as they began to move toward the doors and windows. I could hear an amplified voice outside bellowing "STOP! MOVE AWAY FROM THE FENCE! IF YOU TOUCH THE FENCE WE WILL OPEN FIRE!" The troops heard it too, and got to their feet with disgusted looks on their faces. One or two of them looked out the windows, but the rest returned to their tables and sat down. There was one shot, and then nothing. I stood up and moved to the door, in time to see a limp shape fall to the ground next to one of the fence posts. A medic was running toward it, then knelt over it briefly before standing up and walking back to the aid station. I stood in the doorway for a moment. There would be paperwork, and I cursed softly for a moment before the emptiness in my stomach reminded me that I hadn't started, much less finished, my dinner.

In the morning, they brought me the paperwork, along with orders from the War Department in St. Louis. We were alerted to head for Salt Lake City, where we would become part of the army assembling to bring the rebel Pacific States Alliance back into the Union. First, though, the paperwork for the dead prisoner. I opened the file and stopped suddenly, my breath frozen in my throat. "No," I croaked. "Not like this. Why?" Major Alvarez, the S-3, looked puzzled.
"What's wrong, sir?"
"The dead prisoner," I said, but I couldn't get anything else out past the tightness in my chest. You will not cry, I raged to myself: be silent, old man!
"She was your ex-wife, yes?" Alvarez asked, the blank look still on his face. "I would think you'd be pleased, sir."
"Get out," I whispered.
Alvarez blinked, saluted, and left after I acknowledged his salute. I couldn't stop looking at the file. Captain Heredia of G company had been staff duty officer and done the post-mortem investigation, what little there was to be done of it. According to the other women in her barracks, she hadn't gone out for the evening meal, instead staying in her bunk after the evening roll call. She had gone out, presumably to the latrine, and then she had been shot by the guards when she approached the fence. Why? It made no sense. She would have been free in the morning, released with a train ticket and a few paper dollars for meal money. What had she been thinking?

I was still sitting there, staring at the file, when Alvarez came back. "Sir...the staff wants to know when you'll be ready to go."
"Go?" I looked at him blankly. The word made no sense to me in that time, that place.
"Yes, sir. The movement orders for the regiment? To Utah?"
I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes. "Have Sergeant Mendez fix my pack. I'll be along in a few minutes, Major." He leaves, but I can't seem to move from my chair. I am filled with a deep sadness, worse than anything I have known since my old friends and most of my family died along with Washington, five years ago. I reach out for my mug of coffee, but it is cold, and I remember how she used to like iced coffee, and I just sit there, cradling the mug, staring at nothing, wondering why.

I am sitting in an empty room, my hands in a death grip on the mug full of cold coffee. We have orders to move on, the regiment and I, different fires to piss on half a continent away, but I cannot bring myself to move.

They are telling me it is time to go.

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