Souvenir
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Exodus

It is the third-to-last image. A young boy, standing in the yellow grit alongside the road, drags his foot in the soil and draws a rough picture. From this distance, through my camera, I cannot see what he has drawn. I want desperately to follow his shoe with my finger, to retrace his work. But it would only dirty my hand.

To the west, past the boy, are the huddled silhouettes of the city skyline. From this direction, the road is periodically buffeted by further waves of dust and grit, coarse and slightly wet, flaking off the buildings with each wind-shaking timbre. Somewhere in the city, they're playing music. To the east is dry pavement and the remains of homesteads, a gradually diffusing gasp of urban sprawl before the city's layout chokes completely into long stretches of empty roadway.

This place, the collection of benches and tents on a dusty road, is a waystation, a ground port in the outer burgs of Zrnyowycz. It's a temporary home for migratory workers and hopeful refugees. Recent days have seen more of the latter than the former, though there is some overlap: crouched in the dust, clutching a bulky camera and a bag slung underarm, full of journals and polaroid pictures.

This is the final stop. From here, each step I take will put me further from Zrnyowycz than the one before.



Lowroad

A boxy, lightweight automobile pulls up alongside me. Just as well, I've walked nearly as far as my legs are willing to carry me, and the city skyline still looms just as large as it did miles ago. From the passenger window, a man with silver earrings and round wire sunglasses smiles. The driver faces forward.

The message is understood. The door is unlocked, and I climb into the backseat, diagonal from the passenger. The interior of the buggy is dirty, but rather than the corundum grit of the waystation's surroundings, everything inside seems crusted with salt. The seat beside me is obstructed by a pile of large, folded metal devices. I pull my camera viewfinder to my eye, and the man in the passenger seat clicks his tongue. "No camera, please."

I lower my camera. He flashes his smile again. None of that yellow grit is anywhere on his body. He must not have left his seat for a long time. He would have had to enter the car in Zrnyowycz Central, if not sooner. He doesn't turn away from me, and I realize he's waiting for me to say something.

I clear my throat. "What are you doing in Zrnyowycz?"

"Tourists. You?" He has an accent I can't quite place, half-spoken and half-sung.

"Artist," I reply.

"And your bag?" The sun glints off his glasses.

"Souvenirs," I lie.

He beams at me. "I hope you had a good time."

My brain is cycling through a rotary file of code and disguised mannerisms. He doesn't have the courtesy to don chromatic dress, so instead I have to rely on innuendo. Tourist. Implying an outsider. Or is it just a veiled insult, an accurate summation that I am out of place? The wound in my hip aches so as to throw off my concentration. When I look up, the man in the passenger seat is facing forward again.

We won't speak again.



Highroad

It is the second-to-last image. Taken from the backseat, through the windshield, at a moment when the two men were not looking back. A shoulder from each is visible on either side of the frame. In the center is the double-image of a cement roadblock, first upright and then inverted, reflected on the hood of the car.

Flanking the roadblock are two immense rectangular war machines, fitted with projectile lances pointing — not at my ride — but outwards, past the camera. To Zrnyowycz. They are caked with windswept grime. I drag my finger gently over the photograph, dabbing at the residue to reveal the mustard yellow camouflage underneath. This pair, a gatekeeper repeated, tessellating in the back of the photo over the horizon. An armored offensive. A cordon tightening around the city.

Confusion finds my eye through the viewfinder. This is neither Red nor Blue. In this horde is not an ounce of the makeshift or obscure that peppered the all-encompassing conflicts in the city. This is an industry. A vast metallic hydra, pouncing from the dry marsh. The men in front of me get out of the car, jogging forward to meet the onrush of soldiers. I grab my bag of souvenirs and follow. Better to be with strangers than alone.

My feet have barely touched the ground, when I feel the soldier's baton collide with my scalp. Then I feel nothing but dirt in my mouth.



War Room

I come to cradling my bag and clutching my camera between bruised fingertips. The first thought bubbling into my mind is a question: did I hold onto the camera in my sleep, or did my attackers position it back in my hands after I dropped it?

No time. A soldier shines a flashlight into my eyes and studies my autonomous reaction. My head is still aching when they drag me on my feet, through tents of bespectacled mechanics and motor grease. A forward operating base. From my experience a base like this could be summoned in a scant weeks, maybe even days, if supported by enough money and manpower, as this one seemed to be.

I'm guided into a metal chair, across a plastic table from a bored woman in battledress smoking a cigarette. The soldier addresses her as Major.

She peers at me through past her cigarette smoke. "You were found exiting a warzone with suspicious cargo. Explanation?"

I cannot place her accent, but it is like none I have heard in Zrnyowycz. I clutch my bag of stories closer to my side. "I'm just a visitor, an artist heading home."

"And what is in the bag?" She gestures at it with her cigarette.

"Souvenirs," I say. "To remember. Just some pictures."

She taps the table. I swallow and nod, unzipping the bag and setting it open. She looks at the camera in my lap. "Your device. Take it apart."

"It's a camera."

"Show me."

I nod. Despite the tremor in my fingers, the camera comes apart as easily as it ever has. I set the lens barrel onto the table, then the flashbar, the strap, the body. Last, I place the rectangular film cartridge next to the camera guts.

The major points at the cartridge. At her insistence, I pull the stack of unused film from it, taking care not to get my fingerprints on the photochemical coating of the topmost sheet. The soldier behind her shines his flashlight directly onto the film. I cringe, and the major notices.

She locks eyes with me as she takes her cigarette and presses the lit end into the film. The paper sizzles and shrivels beneath the cinder. A wisp of tourmaline smoke rises from the warped surface. A moment later, she pulls her cigarette away and discards it in the dirt without taking another drag. She smiles. "Now we are both artists."

She grabs my open bag and pulls it to her side of the table, thumbing through its contents. She peels open one of my notebooks and scans it for a minute. I can't tell if it's the motor heat, or if I'm blushing.

The major breaks out laughing. She sets my notebook aside with renewed care, sliding the bag back across to me. "Iris Fall. Who do you think you are?" The tone is genuine. "Who do you think we are? There is no need for subterfuge. We are on the same side."

Taking my cue, I reach for my bag slowly. No-one stops me as I place my camera parts inside. I set the burned film aside — that goes into my pocket.

Her amusement hasn't faded. "You should take your souvenirs. Put them in a gallery. Make a diorama of the front, a meticulous timeline of events, an impassioned plea for the combatants caught in the middle and the civilians on either side. What will be the takeaway?"

I follow her words. "Zrnyowycz is in a bad place." I sigh. "Someone should really do something about it."

She smiles wide. "And so we will. You've done your part, Miss Fall. Everyone has contributed, made sure the city will be an appropriate host for us."

I utter a terse thanks. I get up, and they don't stop me.



Charcoal

Hours pass. More miles are put between myself and Zrnyowycz. The military does not harass me, even as I pass by their aggressive apparatus, the flood of soldiers spiraling down into the city.

I am to be one thread in the tapestry of justifications they will use. Their hand was forced. The situation was out of control. Someone had to stop the conflict, before there were no longer people left to be stopped.

I think about the women of Markettown. The workmen in the cafeterias. The hawks playing chess with human lives. The rebels sifting through the wreckage of a prison camp. Were there any who expected this? Who planned for this incursion?

In time the city would change. Half the buildings in Zrnyowycz would be burnt down and rebuilt from dust. Populations will be shuffled, birthplaces forgotten, gangs melted together and split apart. The combatants will only remember only how the bile felt when it rose in their throats, when they were so angry they couldn't breathe. The photographs will yellow and curl up and the colors will break into oils and chemicals, a muddled signifier with no event left to represent.

It is the last image. I put my hand in my pocket, over the burned film. It's warm to the touch.

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