Daniel is eating dinner with Matthew in the office space of the city’s abandoned minor league baseball stadium. The men are not talkative. They are recovering from tense moments that occurred during the last mission. Daniel is a good spotter, but he made some mistakes. He watches Matthew, the shooter in their sniper team, open a meal packet. He opens one too. Daniel knows Matthew will not say anything when he is unhappy. To fix things, he has to get him talking.
“Do you think we can rely on them to keep watch?” asks Daniel.
“Why?” asks Matthew, “Because they are civilians?”
“Yeah,” says Daniel.
“Sure,” says Matthew.
“Do you know any of them?” asks Daniel. He looks down and spreads peanut butter on bread that feels like slightly damp particle board. It does not fall apart as he expects it to. He finds a packet of grape jelly and looks up at Matthew to coax an answer.
“No,” says Matthew. He is working hard to chew his food. “Just stories.”
“What stories?” asks Daniel.
“Like the guy with the face,” says Matthew. “He’s a born grenadier. He used to make his own explosives before they started taking supplies from Grumpies. You still won’t catch him using a grenade launcher. He wants to run into trenches and Dead zones and whatever. You’d think he’s crazy, but he keeps walking away with the same number of holes in his body.”
“What about the two little Mexican girls he was talking to?” asks Daniel.
“They sell burritos,” says Matthew.
“No, really,” says Daniel.
“They’re illegals,” says Matthew.
“Illegals?” asks Daniel. “Why are they hanging around with this bunch?”
“I asked Maria the same question,” says Matthew. “She’s the older one. She speaks OK English, but it was obvious she wasn’t born here.”
“What did she say?” asks Daniel.
“Short or long version?” asks Matthew. Daniel thinks about it. He feels the tension easing.
“Long,” says Daniel.
“Alright. So, Maria and Juana crossed over a couple of years before the Grumpies invaded,” says Matthew. “They had to work off what they owed the coyote in a sweat shop. They were basically slaves. The living and working conditions were crap. They weren’t allowed to go anywhere. The work was backbreaking, but maybe less so than it was back home. At least they got to eat every day, she said. In the end, they let them go after they paid off their debt.”
“That’s actually shocking,” says Daniel.
“Yeah,” says Matthew, “They didn’t believe it either. So after that, their cousin set them up to work in this crazy mansion. The owners were absurdly rich – huge place. There were a lot of workers to keep the place looking perfect, but it was this set up where the owners didn’t want to see them. So when the owners left, everyone would come out of their holes and work their butts off doing their job. When the owners came around, everyone would disappear. It was weird, but the girls loved it. The work was light compared to anything they’d ever done. They had their own clean beds, air conditioning, showers – they had to wear uniforms, but it was new clothing for them.”
“You’re making me sad,” says Daniel.
“Sucks, right?” says Matthew. “But she said they were happy. The other workers were like family. Well, she said some were actually extended family. Maria worked in the gardens. Juana worked in the kitchens. Life was good.”
“Then the EMPs hit,” says Daniel.
“Maria said she didn’t even know it happened,” says Matthew. “She said she was outside repairing garden boxes with a hammer. Then, she heard some people yelling to each other – just asking each other questions. She thought the owners were back, so she stood up to hear. She had an unobstructed view west from the garden she was working at. She said that she saw them coming like a swarm of ants across the field.”
“Sounds like the mansion was perfect for a base,” says Daniel.
“That’s what they were going to use it for,” says Matthew. “Maria said she just stood there watching them come. She didn’t know what to make of it. Then, she heard some taps. Workers just fell. She snapped out of it when someone close to her caught a bullet and she saw what that does to a head.” Matthew puts food in his mouth and chews slowly.
Daniel imagines the scene. It was probably a beautiful day. Everyone was just doing their job before it happened.
“Maria said she ran to get her sister,” says Matthew. “She just ran. When she got to the door, she couldn’t turn the doorknob because she still had the hammer she was using in her hand. When she got to the kitchen, everyone was standing around the appliances trying to get them to work. Everyone’s focus changed real quick once Maria told them what was happening outside. They all ran out, except Juana. She would have run out too if Maria hadn’t grabbed her in a panic and asked her what they were going to do. Lucky for her because no one else made it wherever they were going.”
“Shot?” asks Daniel.
“Yeah,” says Matthew. “So Juana said they needed to run through the mansion to the stables. Farm girls. Maria didn’t want to run outside, but Juana said they wouldn’t need to. The owners connected the stables to the house so they could show off their horses to guests without having to go outside. Sweet little Juanita took a kitchen knife to go.”
“Since you mentioned it, I think she’s going to use it,” says Daniel.
“Well, that’s where Maria’s eyes watered when she was telling me the story,” says Matthew. “When they got to the stable, there were two Grumpies from a fire and maneuver team lingering after securing the stables. The girls had to make a choice quickly: go back or move forward.” Matthew puts food in his mouth and chews it slowly as Daniel looks at him with anticipation.
“How did they take out two Grumpies with one kitchen knife?” asks Daniel.
“A kitchen knife and a hammer,” says Matthew. “The girls were raised on a farm or whatever they call them over there. They slaughtered their own pigs. Fast. Quiet. Physically, she said it wasn’t hard.”
“Yeah, but with a hammer?” says Daniel.
“They probably don’t use .22s to stun pigs before killing them in Mexico,” says Matthew. “Not poor people. Look, I really don’t know. Anyway, the girls rode off bareback on racehorses into the backcountry.”
“So why didn’t they go back to Mexico?” asks Daniel.
“Maria said they were mad as hornets,” says Matthew.
“She said hornets?” asks Daniel.
“No, I said hornets,” says Matthew. “They were angry, OK? They had nothing most of their lives. When they got something, it was a big deal. Then, someone just took it.”
“Does it make them happy killing Grumpies?” asks Daniel.
“I don’t know,” says Matthew. “But they feel like they need to.”
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