Step after step after step after step slapped against the stones worn so smooth they shone in the harsh sunlight. They kept their heads down and shoulders squared, a crew of three young men chasing each other around the square track at no more than a plod.
“I’m hot,” a child wined to his mother, swinging from her hand in an attempt to hold her attention. She promised him ice cream absently while taking a photo of the scene. She’d thought it would be more impressive in person seeing the soldiers at their sacred post. Instead it was brown grass, dusty stone fragments, and scraggly teenagers who wouldn’t meet their eyes as they walked in circles.
Another visitor bumped her arm as she snapped the photo. The woman glanced at the blurred picture logged in her camera roll and figured it wasn’t worth the effort to try for another. The boy got his wish, and they broke away from the small group to find him the nearest fast food joint with ice cream.
Heaven had been changing a lot in August’s mind lately, and that day in the sun it was an air-conditioned room with a cone stacked three scoops high with mint chocolate chip. There definitely wouldn’t be any dirt in his shoes or sweat on his brow threatening to run into his eyes or unseen force compelling him forward.
He rounded another corner. Some days August counted the corners, and some days the steps, but there was too much of a crowd gathered today for him to focus over their chatter.
Two more soldiers moved through the onlookers. August locked eyes with Ben who gave him a goofy grin. They’d both been called to the ruins within days of each other about six months prior.
Ben broke through the crowd and August was free. It was like there was some invisible thread tied around his heart that pulled him round and round the pile of stone rubble. When the force decided his time on the path was done, the string would drop away. He was free to walk off for the day, hopefully, while Ben and John were consigned to the two empty spots.
The tourists were buzzing as he wandered off. There was no guarantee one would get to see a change up, but they were the lucky ones. The field the ruins sat upon kissed the sparse beginnings of the forest about 100 yards from their post. The sound of grass rustling behind him gave August pause.
“No, the attraction ends back there,” he croaked. August hadn’t spoken since the previous evening, and a long night in the chilly air hadn’t done his throat any favors. He certainly wasn’t in the mood to shoo off the handful of tourists trying to follow him. They stared with so much hope, waiting for him to relent or maybe perform a trick. He’d gained a whole lot of empathy for zoo animals.
“Back there’s probably where they keep all the money they skim off the suckers who donate,” one man jeered as the handful of hopefuls ambled back to the group. August swiped a hand across his grimy face trying to let the annoyance dissipate.
A dirt path led to the barracks. That’s what they called the dump of a house that had been repurposed a century earlier into a dwelling for the soldiers. The storm door was holding on by a hinge, and the entryway floor groaned like it was going to give. The smell of mildew and general BO was becoming the smell of home, and August wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
He collapsed immediately into one of the threadbare armchairs in the living room. All the furniture in the house was a donation, a lot of it from charitable organizations that sponsored them or soldiers’ families.
There were usually at least a couple guys passed out on the couches at any given time, and today was no exception. August was just starting to drift off when the front door slammed, kicking up a wave of dust as the room shook.
“Stop, we can’t fix this place if you break it,” Morgan muttered half-asleep from the closest couch before rolling over into the cushions. Someone was always throwing a door shut, pounding a counter, or putting a hole in the wall. It was a raucous symphony that had put him on edge when he’d first arrived.
August came from a quiet house. Mom would be reading a book in the living room and Dad listening to music at an appropriate level while he tried to tidy up the constant mess in his office. When she was home, Larissa would be in her room painting for the latest exhibition she was trying to enter.
A book landed in his lap. August opened his eyes to see Adam peering at him over the edge of a cardboard box in his arms. “You read, right?”
August blinked at a weathered paperback with a shirtless man and beautiful woman clutching each other on the cover. He raised a dark brow. “Not this,” he said, but Adam had already dumped the box by the defunct TV and wandered out.
He rose reluctantly to return the book to where it belonged before anyone in the house caught him with it. The book landed atop a stuffed blue dog staring up at him. How old did these people think they were? August tossed the dog onto the couch with Morgan who’d get a kick waking up to it.
Most of the contents were obviously the junk a family didn’t want hanging around the house anymore, but August did find a disposable camera with almost all its photos left. It was the kind his mom used to buy him to take to sleep away camp in elementary school. He’d flip through the developed pictures with his parents when he got home and animatedly talk them through the story behind each image. The memory brought a cold, sickening twist to his stomach, so August pushed it back to the part of his brain labelled “do not touch.”
Cameron was the only one in the kitchen when he wandered through. What August really wanted was a shower then bed, but he could hear the water running in the bathroom overhead. Occupied. Instead, he stood in the fridge looking over the sparse pickings.
“What do you have?” Cameron asked with uncharacteristic interest. August let the fridge door swing shut.
“It’s a camera,” without thinking, he snapped a shot. Only 24 pictures left now, and he shouldn’t have wasted one on the Cameron’s signature scowl.
Cameron stood so suddenly his chair let out a scream against the kitchen tiles. He was lanky, lean, and not exactly the picture of intimidation with his curly blond hair and the dimple that appeared on his left cheek when he spoke. But there was something there in his eyes, so brown they almost swallowed his pupils, that had always told August to stay away from this guy. Or at least, don’t make him angry.
Trouble was, that seemed to be what he was best at somehow.
August clenched his fingers around the camera, waiting for Cameron to make some sort of move for the thing. Or for him. The other boy walked up to August slowly, eyeing him from head to toe like he was searching for his weakest spot.
“Don’t worry, I got your good side,” August said as evenly as he could. Cameron came to a stop in front of him.
“Keep it away from me,” he finally snapped before stalking out the door.
August tipped his head back against the wall behind him and tried to let the tension in his muscles slip away. It seemed like it was taking less and less lately to get him amped up. It was also taking longer to come back down.
He studied the yellow plastic camera one more times in his hands. 24 pictures left, and he wasn’t going to waste any more of them.