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The shouts startled them. It was the boy, gesturing violently and swearing at Marina. She stood with the stiffened posture of a child who has found something unpleasant. Her hand bulged black with a pistol. “Why can’t you believe in these men?” she said softly.
“You can’t be serious,” the boy said.
“Don’t you think they might have suffered for us?” Her voice was rising. Her face narrowed, darkened. “Don’t you think their deaths might be important?”
“What do you want me to do?” The boy extended his hands in plea.
“You doubt like Thomas. My brother is guiding us. You must believe in him.”
“I can’t drive through the mines,” the boy stated.
Marina was not moving. “We can do anything we want.”
“They might be everywhere. I can’t drive around them. Even if I did, we’d get stuck in the fucking snow.” He edged toward her. “I’m just a volunteer, okay? I’m as scared as you are. Please just hand me the gun.”
“This is salvation.”
“You can all come back when the road is cleared and the war’s over — ”
“I could shoot your foot,” Marina said, lowering the gun and making the boy step back. “I could shoot your palm. I could crucify you with bullets.” The boy’s hands began to shake and color inflamed his cheeks.
“Listen to me, Marina,” Gisele said, removing her hood. “Do you see that there is a safety catch? You cannot shoot that gun if the catch is still on. All right? Check the safety and switch it. All right? Now you can shoot the gun.”
The boy’s hands continued to plead.
“Please drive us around the mines,” Marina said.
Violence and fear had sickened them, Carmen thought, fevers that drove them beyond comprehension. But she found herself incapable of interfering. Thoughts of Savic had clogged things. A madness of indifference.
“Don’t be stupid with this!” the boy yelled. “Let’s be calm. Let’s talk about it. Can’t someone help me?”
Gisele could see that this diseased woman with her ugly hands was going to relent, was going to hand the gun to the boy and they would return to the city, and the boy would have a story for his Red Cross friends. The dismissal of her husband delayed. You could count on nothing anymore — all of this cheap talk and inaction. So much hurry for this waste of time. She was tired of these people. She was suddenly hungry. She wanted to be back in her apartment, where she had only herself to rely on. But her hunger brought an awful thought, a stinging flush across her back: she had not hidden the loaf of bread or the Red Cross cans. The children of thieves had so often wriggled in, through the holes torn by shells. The boards she’d nailed were too easily pushed away. Surely they could make it back by afternoon!
The little bird startled her. Marina aimed the gun at the sky with outstretched arms, closed her eyes, and pulled the trigger twice. Two pops — each time she ducked her head. The boy jumped back, slipped, and fell. He looked as if he were about to cry. The snow kept falling, undisturbed. Marina lowered her arms, bewildered at what she’d done. Quiet again, as if the gun had been an apparition. The boy slowly rose, brushing his knees.
Then a delayed echo — two muffled snaps from the hills, like the splitting of wood. They looked toward them, not quite sure if they should be afraid. More rhythmic snaps, then a crackling that was surely rifles, machine guns. They all knew the sound.
“What are they doing?” Marina said. “It’s a cease-fire.”
Gisele replaced her hood as if it were a helmet. “Are you that stupid? Their promises are broken like eggs.”
“This one,” Carmen began, “I thought this one might last.”
The boy was indignant. “She is responsible!”
“I’m sorry,” Marina said, gently placing the pistol in the snow.
Then they heard the second sound, the one that produced instant terror, the unmistakable thump of a mortar launching its shell. Moments later, well behind the truck, the field rose into the shape of a tree, then collapsed.
“Can’t they see the goddamn cross?” the boy screamed. He scrambled up into the truck’s cab, and the women followed him, falling on top of one another. Another eruption, closer, and a shower of mud. “They’re shelling the fucking road.” He shifted quickly, farting in nervousness, moaning. The truck lurched forward, down the embankment, and into the field of snow.
“Look what you’ve done! Please, no mines,” the boy shouted into the windshield. The truck fishtailed, smacking away drifts. The engine roared like an animal.
Gisele, nearest the passenger door, pushed her head out the window, watching for the next shell, gauging their chances. It came in the road, just to their right, so close that the truck shuddered and her teeth ached. The windshield had cracked.
“Oh, fuck, was that a mine? I can’t do this. They’re killing us!” The boy’s neck grew purple. He had wrapped his arms around the steering wheel and was spitting every curse he knew. Carmen clutched his thigh, squeezing it only from a need to keep him from panic. She forced out the inane: “Keep it steady, we’ll be all right, we’re getting through.” Next to her, Marina continued to murmur the Lord’s Prayer, over and over, rubbing the cross at her neck.
“The mortar,” Gisele shouted, her head still out the window. “They’re chasing us with it.”
“Games,” the boy screamed. “It’s a cease-fire! It’s Red Cross!” His voice was hoarse, strained to its limits.
“Can you zigzag?” Gisele said. “Something?”
The truck swerved, shuddering again as if it were coming apart, but the boy seemed to be regaining his senses. He frantically rubbed the fogged windshield.
“We have to get back to the road, okay? Snow’s too deep. Can you see the road?”
“What about the mines?” Carmen said.
“The fucking road, can you see it? Too much goddamn fog on the window! Don’t breathe!”
“I see the road,” Gisele said, “just over there. We’re past the sign now.”
“Do you see tracks? Recent tracks? Anything?” He continued to rub the windshield in quick, desperate motions.
“I think so,” Gisele said, “but I’m not sure. The snow covers it.”
“We’re going back on it,” the boy said. “All right? It’s the only thing. Tracks mean no mines, right?”