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The Asian girl lay face down on the rock. It was a big rock, one of those black volcanic things that looked like it would have been more at home on Mars than four hundred feet off Highway 50 in the Colorado mountains. Long and flat and table smooth, jagged at the far end like a snapped-off piece of peanut brittle, surrounded on all sides by wild flowers and the greenest grass. Beyond it, pines and boulders and the looming granite face of Mount Shavano. The girl was, Mannie figured, maybe sixteen. Yesterday she might have been pretty. Her brown legs were long and slender, thickly muscled and ending in a well-sculpted, high-riding ass that was neatly sheathed in a pair of tight pink running shorts. She wore one bloody sandal. pink. Looking at those long and sculpted legs he guessed that she must have been some sort of high school track prodigy. Her white T-shirt pushed up under her bra, and he couldn’t help but admire the sharp lines and curves of her back, the dewey sheen of her 105 © 2006 / 2007 Scott Milder Her chipped toenails were painted
skin, the near perfect symmetry of her exposed ribs. Maybe she had been a swimmer, too. She might have been pretty yesterday, but today much of her face was gone, chewed off, probably by a hungry dog or wild cat, leaving nothing there but a few strips of dried, jerky-like meat clinging to a slab of white bone. Her shoulders were pocked and grooved and missing big meaty chunks. The vultures had been at her. Mannie leaned against a fallen log, smoked a hand-rolled cigarette with his right hand, massaged his aching stump with his left, gazed thoughtfully at the dead girl and wondered where she had come from. There were a lot of gooks around Denver and out east toward Greeley. Quite a few around the Springs, too. She wasn’t the first dead person he’d seen as he’d made his way from Denver up the narrow, choked I-70 corridor. Abandoned cars had lined the shoulders from Arvada almost all the way to Idaho Springs. Some were flipped. Most were empty. A few were not. As he weaved the Datsun between the stalls and the wrecks he made note of the bullet holes in the windshields, the spatters of blood and dried chunks of brain smeared across the glass. It seemed some people were always in a hurry. He’d been relatively lucky getting out. When he’d heard the radio reports of the bombs in New York and D.C., he waited awhile, thinking, and when he heard about San Francisco and Seattle he simply strapped on his leg, threw a few things into his old army pack, grabbed a couple bottles of whiskey, and left. He hadn’t bothered to lock the door. Cars packed I-25 in both directions at a stand still, and he hadn’t heard that much honking since he’d spent that one wild weekend in New York City back in the early 80s. The ones headed 106 © 2006 / 2007 Scott Milder
north, he thought, were probably gonna be okay. The ones headed south, he thought, were asking for trouble. NORAD and Cheyenne Mountain lay to the south, and if ever there was a target it would be that. He wanted to go south, too, wanted to head on down to Los Alamos (also a target, probably), where his cousin Gil was a physicist at the labs there. He’d talked to Gil once on the phone about five years ago -- a stunted, awkward conversation about his dead aunt -- which meant Mannie’d had more contact with him than anyone else in the family. It seemed like the place to go. But there was no way he was gonna get into that standstill on I-25 and aim himself toward the Springs. That, he knew, was suicide. Because of the Tsar Bomba. The Tsar Bomba, code named Ivan, was, to the minds of those who’d actually heard of it, mostly myth. The most powerful manmade device ever created, it was detonated by the Soviets over the Arctic island of Novaya Zemlya on the day before Halloween back in 1961. Ivan was Kruschev’s dream, the thing that would match him up to Stalin in the estimation of his steely-eyed Comrades. The Berlin Wall was going up. France had just gone nuclear. The U.S. was rolling into Southeast Asia and was rattling its sabers at Castro. Kruschev was spooked, and he wanted to put the Western pigs in their place. Hence Ivan. Fifty megatons that motherfucker was. They’d scaled it back from a hundred because they realized, at almost the last second, that if they blew up something that big and the wind was wrong the fallout would very likely put an end to Finland and most of the Baltics. That was just like the Russians, Mannie thought. They liked to build things so big that there was no real use for them, and 107 © 2006 / 2007 Scott Milder
then call them “Tsar.” There was Tsar Kolokol in Moscow, which at over two-hundred tons was the world’s largest bell, and sitting next to it the Tsar Pushka, twenty feet long and the world’s largest cannon. And there was Jimmy Boris, this Russian kid back in Mannie’s platoon who had named his cock “The Tsar” and would, when stoned and provoked, whip it out and stroke it up and demand that Burnam do the same so they could compare. Burnam would laugh and pull on his joint and tell Jimmy Boris to put that big white hog leg away before Charlie decided to use it for target practice. Jimmy would go up to Burnam and flap his dick in the black man’s face and call him a chicken nigger. And they’d all laugh and laugh and laugh.... The Tsar Bomba, so designated by the U.S. but called Ivan by the Soviets, was a three stage fission-fusion-fission hydrogen bomb. To limit the fallout the designers replaced the third-stage uranium-238 fission tamper with lead. Ninety-seven percent of the energy came from the second stage, which made it a relatively clean, low-yield device. But still a motherfucker. Ivan weighed twenty-seven tons and had to be flown to the test sight by a modified bomber with no bay doors or extra fuel tanks. They used so much nylon on the parachute that the Soviet hosiery industry was shut down and the poor Russian girls had to walk around with bare legs in the Arctic winter for months. When Ivan blew, the fireball speared into the ground from four thousand feet and shot up almost as high as the release plane. They could see the cloud a thousand kilometers away. The blast shattered windows as far away as Finland. The largest bomb ever tested by the United states had a fifteen megaton yield. Ivan was more than three times that and its 108 © 2006 / 2007 Scott Milder
power output was one percent that of the sun. Just like the Russians. The Soviets supposedly decommissioned the Tsar Bomba after that one test, realizing that the thing they built was far too heavy to affix to an ICBM. The only way to deliver it would be with the modified bomber, which would be too heavy and too slow to reliably make it to its target in an actual combat situation. They figured they’d made their point. So they moved on. Mannie didn’t buy it. One of his old platoon buddies was a guy named Frankie DiGrassi. Frankie was one of the few guys to stick with the military after the war and he was now Major General Franklin T. DiGrassi, U.S. Army. General Frankie went into the special forces for awhile, moved up into intelligence and was now an Army liaison to the CIA. General Frankie knew things and when they had their five or ten year reunions he’d get all shitfaced and his tongue would loosen up. If his commanders knew the crap that rolled out his mouth when he was on the sauce, they’d disappear him pretty fucking quick. About eight or nine years ago Frankie’d been out in the Springs doing some work at Cheyenne Mountain, and before he flew back east he’d called Mannie up to go get a drink. That’s what Frankie always said: “Let’s go get a drink.” That meant five or six whiskey sours, followed by shots and some Tequila if Frankie was in a particularly rowdy mood. He might be a general, but he was still one of the guys. Mannie didn’t much like to see most of those old fucks anymore, but he’d always liked Frankie and wasn’t doing much else, so he strapped on his leg, got in the Datsun, and drove the fifty 109 © 2006 / 2007 Scott Milder
miles south to the Springs, where he met up with Frankie in some hotel bar downtown on Circle. They’d gotten themselves nice and pissed, as always, and, as always, Frankie started talking. This time the subject was Ivan, which Mannie had heard of but didn’t know much about. Frankie filled him in on all the historical details, put it all in the proper context, then revealed that he knew, for a fact, that Putin had reinstated the Ivan program and was commissioning another one. ICBM technology had improved vastly over the last forty years, and now Pootie-Poot figured they’d be able to come up with a delivery system that didn’t require planes. “Why?” Mannie asked him. “Who the fuck’re they looking to bomb?” “Who do you think?” Frankie replied. “Ain’t we supposed to be allies now?” Frankie chuckled. “Vlad may smile and shake the shrub’s hand every so often, but that sonofabitch is still KGB through-and-through. He’s hardcore. Part of the old guard.” He downed the rest of his whiskey sour and signaled for the waitress to bring him another. “He knows we’re gonna get into it over Iran one of these days, and he wants to be ready.” “All right. But ain’t it a little overkill?” “Sure. But you gotta understand the Russkie mentality. Bigger’s always better. They’re not like Don Rumsfeld. They don’t want a lean and mean and lightweight fighting force. They want to come in like a Richter-nine earthquake. They’re all about the numbers. Just ask the Pashtuns in Kandahar.” “Well,” Mannie said. “Shit.” “You know what else? They got the thing pointed right at us.” 110 © 2006 / 2007 Scott Milder
“Huh?” “Cheyenne Mountain.” Frankie stopped and smiled up at the waitress as she set his drink in front of him. He slipped her a ten, waved off the change, waited for her to leave before leaning in to finish. “Two-thousand feet beneath granite and cement in the center of a fucking mountain. They built it back in the 70s to survive a five-kiloton weapon. Even a ten or fifteen might not do the job. But a fifty? Shit. Nothing’ll survive a fifty.” He took a breath and smiled. His eyes twinkled. Mannie’d noticed this before: the relish Frankie took in spelling out all his beloved government’s many failures. “This is where the president comes when things get out of hand,” he continued. “This is where they bring the Joint Chiefs and the Supreme Court and all of Congress. What better way to ensure total defeat of your enemy than by dropping something on ‘em that’ll turn an entire mountain into one big-ass motherfucking crater?” Mannie thought about that. “Huh,” he said finally. “I’ll tell you what. If things go to shit, don’t go south. Head west and put the mountains between you and the blast. Because this spot we’re sitting on’s gonna be ground-fucking-zero.” “Huh,” Mannie said. And that was that. Mannie gazed upon the dead Asian girl and wondered where General Franklin T. DiGrassi was today, and -- if he was still alive -- how he felt about being right. ***** Mannie wanted to go south to find his cousin. But he wasn’t going through the Springs so he headed west instead, thinking to take I-70 through the Eisenhower tunnel then pick up Highway 24 at 111 © 2006 / 2007 Scott Milder
Vail and head south to Poncha Springs. From there he’d head west again on 50. His plan was to get as far as possible before cutting down to New Mexico, probably at Naturita, where he’d grab 141 down to Dove Creek, then 491 to Cortez and --if all looked well -- on down to Farmington. From there he’d see if the phones were working again and try to give Gil a call and see what was what. If that was no dice, he’d listen to the radio and decide where to go from there. He’d been pretty lucky. I-70 was choked with cars on the way up toward the pass, but he was able to keep moving and after Idaho Springs the traffic pretty much thinned to a trickle. He was just outside Silverthorne when the ground shook and the fireball leapt up from the mountains behind him. The stalled cars were gone by then, and the interstate was nearly deserted. He’d managed to wrestle the Datsun off onto the shoulder. He grabbed his sunglasses and got out of the car. He had no idea if he was still too close to the blast, but he figured it didn’t much matter now. If his ticket had been called, then that was pretty much that. So he put the sunglasses on and stood there for close to an hour, watching the night turn red and yellow in the east, watching the cloud rise into the sky from the south and east and make the mountains look like piddly little ant hills. He had no way of knowing what a fifty megaton bomb might look like, but if he had to hazard a guess, it would pretty much be this. After awhile, when the ground had mostly stopped shaking and it was clear that he wasn’t dead, he got back in the car and continued on his way. ***** And now there was this dead Asian girl. 112 © 2006 / 2007 Scott Milder
He’d just gone through Poncha Springs, which so far as he could tell was now a ghost town. He wondered where everyone went, where they thought would be safer than this little place hidden in the bosom of the Collegiate Peaks. He didn’t stop to investigate. He was approaching Monarch Pass when he glanced out the right-hand side of the car and saw the Angel of Shavano Peak. He’d seen pictures of her, of course, and had figured she’d be one of those things he’d like to see someday, if he ever managed to get off his ass and go on that road trip he had always meant to go on. But right now she was the farthest thing from his mind, so when he saw her she took his breath away. The car glided to a stop and he got out and gazed up at the mountain and the unique snow formation that really did look like a weeping woman with her arms outstretched. He knew the basic story -- how some old Indian princess had gone up to the mountain during some nasty drought and sacrificed herself to her God of Plenty so that her people could live, and how she appeared now every spring with her arms outstretched and her eyes all weeping, and how her tears ran down the mountainside and into the rivers and became the water that we drank. Mannie stood there by his car for awhile, staring at that beautiful white lady and -- without even thinking about it -started working his way up off the road for a closer look. He didn’t know why. He just wanted to get closer to her. To be as near to her as he could. He had his leg on but had left the crutches in the car, so it was slow going and before long his stump was shouting in protest. After an hour he’d barely made it one football length off the highway. And there he found the Asian girl, spread out on this rock, with the Angel looming like Christ up on his cross beyond her. 113 © 2006 / 2007 Scott Milder
He wondered how she died, this girl. The way her shirt was pushed up he thought maybe a couple rednecks had grabbed her and had had their way with her. But her shorts were still on, so maybe not. Still, he couldn’t help but think of that little girl with her bubbling flesh and screams and old ferret-faced Lester McCallum standing over her pulling on his dick and stroking his ginger pubes and laughing. Jimmy Boris hadn’t been there, thank God. Jimmy Boris had stepped on a mine the week before and so by then he and The Tsar were so many burnt and shredded pieces in a body bag. Mannie wondered what this girl’s name was. Was it something like Sun-Ho-Mook, or was she a nice American girl with a nice American name like Sarah or Annie or Beth? Did she speak with an accent, confuse her “l”s and her “r”s, or did she talk like every other fucktard pseudo Valley-girl twat from the Springs? Fuck you, like totally, for sure.... Where was her family? Where was she going? Why was she dead? He looked up at the Angel. She stood above them and opened her arms to the heavens and gave no answer. After a bit, as the sun started to go down and he could see that the eastern sky still glowed red, he turned and made his way back down to the highway. ***** Where he heard weeping. Mannie stopped on the edge of the shoulder and stood stock still, listening. The sobs were faint, muffled, almost inaudible, but they drifted to him on the light breeze and tickled at his ear like a 114 © 2006 / 2007 Scott Milder
feather. He looked up and down the highway. There was his car. To the east, nothing. To the west, a little four-door sedan sat half-inhalf-out of a ditch. He’d seen so many junkers on his way that he hadn’t even noticed this one. The sobs came from that direction. Mannie debated. He didn’t really want to help anyone. If whoever’d been driving the sedan hadn’t been able to keep it on the road, then that was their goddamned problem. But he thought of the way he’d seen the angel and how she’d stolen his breath and pulled him up that slope to where the dead girl was, and he wondered if maybe it had been something like fate that called him there, and if it was fate, then maybe fate had carried those sobs to his ears. Mostly, he guessed, he was just curious. His stump was screaming at him, so he reached into the back seat to grab his crutches and whipped off the leg. The relief when he dropped it to the gravel was almost orgasmic. He nudged the crutches up into his pits and clicked his way up the shoulder toward the sedan. “Oi!” He called. “Oi there!” The crying stopped. Mannie leaned on his crutches about fifteen feet behind the rear of the car and peered into the back window. He saw nothing. No movement or evidence of life. The windshield, he noticed, was shattered. “Oi!” He called again. “You-” The flash was like a light bulb popping in a dark room, and the bang was deafening. The back window blew out and he felt the bullet whiz past his ear like a bee. 115 © 2006 / 2007 Scott Milder
“Hey-!” Flash, again, and bang! This one dinged off his left crutch, ripping it out of his hands, and he tottered there for a moment, stabbing at the ground with the other crutch, trying to find purchase, before toppling with a thud to the asphalt. “Oi!” He screamed, and his voice cracked. “Stop shooting! I’m a cripple, goddamnit!” He lay there panting and staring at the car, which had gone in his mind from being a corpse to live, dangerous thing, and he waited for whoever was inside to do something. Anything. He wished to Christ he’d grabbed his army pack from the front seat. There was an old WWII German P38 at the bottom. Finally, there was the ka-chunk! of a door opening. A booted foot speared out of the darkness and crunched to the gravel. Above it came a skinny, jeans-clad leg. Then another. And then a whiteknuckled hand gripping a chrome-plated revolver. He squeezed his eyes shut, waited for the bang, wondered if he’d feel it when the bullet punched through his skull and starting bouncing around inside like a pinball. Slow, crunching footsteps. High, heavy breathing. His own guttural gasps mixed with the other’s. Then he felt the warmth of someone kneeling next to him. A cool hand rested on his forehead, and a light, tear-soaked voice asked, “are you okay?” and it was only then that he opened his eyes and looked up and found himself gazing into the wet, green eyes of the Angel of Shavano Peak.
116 © 2006 / 2007 Scott Milder