I lowered my head and choked on the stench of death.
The metal building blocked my view of the bodies, but could not keep the putrid smell of their decay from assailing my nostrils.
I turned at the loud clang of the door as it swung into the opposite wall and saw the troops as they entered the barracks. The floor vibrated from the thud of twenty or thirty gas masks as they hit the floor in rapid succession.
We were sent to help but so far, all we had been allowed to do is bury the dead. So many dead. Our uniforms were no longer green camouflage covered with the dirt of graves and blood of victims from head to toe. It felt so empty.
Our specialists had finally isolated the origin of the outbreak. Bacteria -- in the water.
The question remained how did it get there?
But I couldn't worry about that, I had a job to do. The gas mask seemed to weigh a hundred pounds when I picked it up from the floor. As my shin hit the corner of the bunk I swore under my breath.
I longed for the hot Texas summer that I had traded for this. A summer where I could go for a walk without my shirt just a pair of shorts and flip flops.
What ever made me think that being a soldier was a calling? An honorable life? Who can appreciate what we are doing here? Everyone in the village is either sick or already dead. There is no one to know what we are doing.
Honor the dead. Of course. Even in mass graves, I made sure that my men and women placed the bodies in the open gash of the earth one at a time. Carry them down carefully. No disrespect. Though it would take longer to bury them, it was the least we could do.
No one knew No one would ever know except God.
I reached for the corners of a body bag and nodded to the man at the other end. We lifted it together and headed down the western slope of the newest grave. The bulldozers arrived two days ago. In a short amount of time, they gave us seven very large, open graves. The down side was that we had to work in shifts to keep the process moving. Most of us could only stay at it for a four hour shift, so we worked four and slept four around the clock.
Except for me.
The bodies were keeping me awake. I closed my eyes, but there was no sleep. There were visions of my fingers as they pushed eyelids over vacant stares, bodies being dragged over to a body bag and the sound of the zipper as it was closed.
Sounds and smells of the dead.
It echoed in my mind.
I concentrated on the task at hand we reached the floor of the machine-made cavern and we laid the body to rest next to another. My partner headed back up ahead of me, kicking loose dirt down onto the hems of my pants legs. There was a time, not so long ago, that the dirt would have made me crazy. I liked my shirts and pants starched so heavily that they crackled as I walked. Not so much now.
Now, I would just be happy if they didn't smell so rank.
I got to the rim and saw that my partner had already enlisted the help of another team member, so I turned my eyes toward the far edge of the village.
Then I saw him a boy probably 6 years old.
He kneeled at one of the closed graves. I saw him cross his heart and suddenly it hit me.
Someone did know. Someone had watched us.
Watched us carefully carry each person into the abyss.
Saw that we were not cavalier with their dead.
Tears brimmed under my eyelids and I tried to fight them back. But they forced their way out along my cheeks.
I walked toward the boy. He was only 10 yards away.
Six feet away.
When I reached him, I lowered my hand to touch his shoulder.
He was gone.
As quickly as that he was gone.
An angel perhaps? I will never know for sure.
It didn't matter anymore if anyone else knew how we had treated the dead.
And that was enough.
That was enough.
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