Smoke hung like a storm cloud over the southern part of the city, thunderous blasts rumbling underfoot. Abandoned cars clogged the road, doors flung open as a pack of looters dug through glove boxes and suitcases. They wore black and gray, careful not to mark themselves with colors. Stuffing garbage bags full of watches and forgotten cell phones and GPS systems, they moved through the blocked stream of cars, smashing windows and whispering. Their eyes twitched toward the south, where flashes lit the dark morning.
“How’s it look?”
“Clear enough. Let’s go.”
Ben reached back and took his wife’s hand. Together, he and Shanna crossed Ridge Avenue, toward the east. They passed posters pasted on old stone walls, pointing to the ports on the Delaware River. UN SHIPS LOADING EVERY MORNING: 7-9, they read. Beneath them, others said MY BLOOD RUNS RED! DOES YOURS? and THEY BLEW THEIR CHANCE, SO GO BLUE! Ben and Shanna ignored those. They had been there for months, all over the city, plastered on top of each other until the walls encroached upon the sidewalk. Nobody thought much of it at first. The war was in other cities, not here in Philadelphia. Until it was here, in Philadelphia, and the UN’s posters covered the walls, helping people escape.
“We need to get to the river and follow it north,” Shanna said. “Then we just go to the first ship we see with people.”
They continued heading east as the sun rose over the colonial buildings, shining on the narrow windows of empty homes. Distant gunfire popped and echoed through the streets. The stench of decaying trash became all too familiar, as was the scent of smoke. It stung their eyes and sent them into fits of coughing as the wind pushed the smoky storm cloud farther north and the gunfire and explosions didn’t seem as faint.
Crossing Broad Street, they saw the cracked clock tower of City Hall, crumbled and coughing smoke from its ornate, cream windowsills and mansards. They saw bodies. Corpses, dozens of them, their arms wrapped in red or blue tags, strewn between cars and near buildings whose walls were pocked and blackened from battle. They were splayed unnaturally, contorted and drooping like forgotten playthings. Some corpses had no red or blue identifications, but were mixed with the fighters, nonetheless. The traffic lights blinked red, but no one was alive to see them. Shanna covered her nose to mask the stench of death. They didn’t linger for long.
The couple passed under a bridge and by a park; they saw the sunlight bounce off the Ukrainian Cathedral; they watched a blue car tear by shouting slogans from its speakers; they saw tracer rounds chase it; they stepped over pamphlets and they stepped over torn, charred American flags. It was an hour of careful, watchful walking– surveying each street, eyeing potential exits– that brought them to Delaware Avenue and the river. Here, the sun twinkled on the dark water while the waves lapped the docks, the scents of war drowned by the odors of fish and seaweed. Ben took a deep whiff.
“Smell that, honey?”
“Dead fish never smelled so inviting,” Shanna said. She filled her lungs and looked north, upstream, where a single ship sat in the water. “There it is! The boat! See it? It has that light blue UN lettering on the bow.”
“Oh yeah, that must be it.”
“We’re almost there.”
It took another twenty-five minutes before they came to the dock. An old set of railroad tracks ran behind it with dozens of faded loading crates on the other side. The ship in the water was a civilian ship, about eighty feet long, with two main decks that were painted with the UN’s markings. Sailors walked the decks with UN helmets and light blue vests. None of them carried rifles or looked ready for a fight. They unloaded cases of bottled water and pallets of non-perishables. A half dozen people with guns did stand at the cement dock as the UN workers unloaded, but they weren’t wearing the UN’s helmets or light blue vests.
“Shit,” Ben said. He watched them, crouched in a grove just south of the port.
“Who are they? Red or blue?”
“What does it matter?”
Shanna didn’t respond.
“What do we do, now?”
“I mean, we still have to go, don’t we? It doesn’t change anything,” Shanna said.
“But nothing. That boat is still our only way out and we cannot stay here. Not any longer.”
“Yeah. You’re right. You’re always right.”
Shanna kissed Ben on the cheek. They shared a shaky smile for a second.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
They emerged from the woods, their palms open over their heads. The crunching under their feet transitioned from leaves to the crackle of rocks and pebbles, but the fighters didn’t notice. As the couple got closer, they saw a camera crew on the sidelines, filming the unloading of goods. A reporter stood a few feet away, practicing a monologue while she looked at her makeup in a mirror, “– and they deliver the goods to those still trapped in the city, risking their lives in order to help the civilians in danger from the approaching opposition–” Their attention was so acutely spent on watching the north, that they failed to noticed the storm cloud lingering nearby.
One of the fighters spotted the couple. A blue band wrapped over his arms, another one tied to his combat vest. He raised his rifle and called out, “Stop where you are! Don’t move!”
“Is this the ship for the refugees?” Ben asked.
“Quiet! Bernard, help me search them.”
Another fighter came to his side. They were stone-faced, chalky from soot as they patted Ben and Shanna down with rough, heavy hands and threw their phones on the ground before declaring they were “clean.” All the while, the reporter giggled and dragged the cameraman closer to the couple, careful to frame the scene so the fighters were in the background. She touched up the powder that caked her nose and wiped her bangs away from her eyes before swallowing her smile and drooping her shoulders as though carrying a heavy weight.
“Here we are,” she said. “With two refugees from the war, fleeing into the arms of our boys in blue. Tell us, what atrocities have you seen in the streets that have made you run from your home?”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Ben said. “I just want to get out of here, okay?”
“Things are that bad, are they? The city defiled by the red horde and their traitorous ways. It is despicable, don’t you think?” she jabbed the microphone back at them.
“Lady, we just want to leave. Can you let us go?” Shanna said.
“Of course, of course. First, just tell me, have either of you experienced any personal turmoil from a family member or perhaps a friend taking the side of the enemy in this fight? A brother at odds with the family or a coworker who took up arms? That would be devastating and the country would be there for you if it happened.”
“Alright, that’s enough. Come on, Shanna,” Ben pulled his wife past the camera.
“Wait, can I ask for a statement of clarity on your current–”
A blast cut the reporter off. Past the railroad tracks, to the west, there was another explosion, followed by rattling gunfire. The fighters reacted like fighters, rushing towards the battle, pressing themselves into cover and shooting their rifles at the sounds of gunfire and the puffs of smoke, into the hazy fog of combat where figures were deformed and unidentifiable, simply silhouettes like the targets they practiced with, raining down shots with thunderous, echoing blasts from their rifles as the storm intensified. The reporter did her own shooting, directing the cameraman to keep rolling, plugging her ears with her fingers and shouting over the roar of the firefight. In the chaos, Ben and Shanna scrambled across the cement like ants caught in a rainstorm, making for their colony that was the ship. They clung to each other as bullets whizzed and snapped past. One of the soldiers called out in pain. The reporter wasn’t talking anymore. There were fewer gunshots and more cries. The bullets still whizzed and snapped. They could smell the sharp, burning air. UN workers shouted for them to hurry. Gunshots got closer. Another explosion. Rocks and debris fell like hail. Then a punch. It felt like a punch, but it was wet and hot and made Shanna scream when she saw the blood draining from her husband’s ribs. She got quiet when a punch landed on her, too. As her consciousness faded and darkness found her, the UN ship left the port and beyond it, across the Delaware, she saw an American flag tearing in the wind.
Joel Troutman is a young student who is far too interested in manga, anime, and hip-hop for his own good. He likes wearing sweaters and ties that make him feel professional, more writerly. His greatest achievement, up until now, is being the only player on his varsity soccer team to have never scored a goal.