When Emil was in Youth Brigade, his labor unit was relocated to a region called “Janesville Wisconsin.” The territory had already been processed by a dozen salvage teams and Emil’s unit was to survey for remaining resources. The boys all knew this meant they were to endure great hardship with little promise of reward. They also knew that the Brigade reserved such assignments for the liquidation of units whose costs exceeded production. The idea was that most of them wouldn’t survive. For this and other reasons, morale was low.
Later in life, middle-aged Emil repeated this story during sessions with an AI therapist who insisted on being called “Brittany.” These meetings were not voluntary. Near the end of the first session, the AI’s face pixilated thoughtfully. “If you could go back to that part of your life again, would you do anything differently? Knowing what you know now?”
“No.” Emil’s response was instant.
“What would be the point?”
That night, Brittany’s avatar was a fresh-faced woman with tussled red hair, a strawberry-shaped mouth, and a nose that in profile resembled a worn-out flight of stairs.
“Tell me the whole story,” she said.
And while Emil’s story changed with each telling, the main points remained the same. His unit completed the final stretch of the three-week journey to “Janesville Wisconsin” in a rusted school bus mounted on skis and pulled by a team of flu-struck mules. The bus’s plastic windows were fused open and the boys rode in frozen silence, huddled beneath ruptured sleeping bags and horse-hide coats.
When they arrived, their nine-year-old, black-toothed unit captain made copious use of a mule whip while he coordinated efforts to fill a dumpster with the grey-and-pink snow that peeled off the crusted ground like brittle, hubcap-sized scabs. They ringed the dumpster with graffiti-scrawled particle board and tires stripped from abandoned cars inexplicably tipped on their sides. They burned the debris so they could have meltwater to drink. They also ate two of the mules. Most of the boys suffered from violent nausea and diarrhea for many days following. Three of them died.
And if these difficulties weren’t enough, Emil had just turned fifteen years old and this was his first mission since the liberation of Dave.
Dave’s sandy hair and asymmetrical squint and his cautious, slow shamble and the way he held his shoulders at disparate angles—all these things fascinated Emil. At nights, Emil and Dave crept from their bunks and climbed the dented domes of half-fallen water towers. They perched on the rickety platforms of ancient billboards whose messages had long been ripped to shreds. They clung to the tops of unmoored electricity pylons that swayed woozily in the breeze.
During these excursions, Emil and Dave drank dagga flower tea and chewed betel leaf and made their first, fumbling attempts at conversations about things like the incomprehensible complexity of the series of events that had to occur in the history of the universe to bring them together at that place and time.
Before knowing Dave, Emil had only been peripherally aware of the momentous beating heart of the world, and, now that he had this friend, the world’s heartbeat and his own became the same.
However, even at the peak of their friendship, Emil could feel Dave drifting away. Their infatuation dwindled. Months before Dave was officially liberated, Emil had already begun to grieve the loss of their friendship. When the moment arrived for Dave to depart, Emil was in the infirmary spraying rust-speckled gurneys with bactericidal antiseptic. Dave never tracked him down to say goodbye.
Emil missed his friend badly on his first night in “Janesville Wisconsin”; as he lay in his tent wishing that the stinging in his back would fade to numbness, as he tried to not listen to the tight-throated groans of the other boys as they grappled with the burning pain in their guts, as he struggled to ignore the ominous churn of a not-distant-enough diesel generator in this supposedly uninhabited part of the world, he wanted more than ever the steal away with his friend who felt like another version of himself, with all his achingly familiarities and exhilarating differences. Emil wanted to run through shadows with Dave and scramble some ruined spire and take turns describing dreams while swarms of bats cut vectors through the air below their dangling feet.
As it stood, however, Emil had to face the challenges of this place alone. Nature had been reclaiming “Janesville Wisconsin” for decades and by the time Emil arrived it was impossible to tell where the forest ended and the old habitation began. In their initial forays, his unit picked their way along crumbling onramps, over bridges with broken backs, and past squat, empty eyed, wind-battered houses and burnt-out fleets of vehicles with animal nests in their seats. Weeping white pines grew through the rubble, their slender, warped trunks scored by tooth marks, their roots lazing out of the thin shallow soil and strangled by firethorn and giant hogweed—toxic plants who caused burns and blindness for those unlucky enough to come into contact with their sap.
In this hostile environment, the unit was beset by troubles. A solar flare glitched their mapping systems, undermining any scouting attempts. Bad intel from Youth Brigade HQ sent the boys on a wild goose chase for hidden subway tunnels that didn’t exist, and something kept killing their two-person night patrols. Four days after arrival, a third of the unit fell victim to parasites small as grains of sand and clear as glass. Once embedded in a host, the creatures produced millions of eggs which formed painful clusters in the brains of their victims. At the moment of hatching, the eggs released a chemical that led victims to believe that they had caught fire. If unrestrained, victims retreated to the streams where they’d originally been infected, drowning themselves in search of relief from the imagined flames. If they were restrained, as their unit captain had been by Emil, they died deliriously, painfully, spitefully, while weakly squirming in the exhausted arms of someone who was desperately trying to imagine they were somewhere very far away.
The survivors blunted shovel heads and snapped handles trying to dig graves in permafrost.
By the start of their second week in “Janesville Wisconsin,” the unit decided to split into two groups of four and set off in opposite directions. On the second day of silent, empty-bellied wandering, Emil and his three companions found themselves on the edge of an escarpment that looked over a valley.
Below them, on the crumbled banks of a dry riverbed, stood a structure in a remarkable state of preservation. It was an abandoned Eastern Orthodox Church (though none of the boys possessed the vocabulary to describe as such). Only one of its walls was caved in, and even that only partially. The church looked like a clenched black fist of human will driving through a fissure in the Earth’s cold crust.
The boys observed in hidden silence. With anxious eyes, they studied the church for signs of anyone using it for shelter. They were starving and unarmed and in poor health and stood little chance against even one adult who desired to do them harm. However, there was no smell of campfire. No footprints or scattered refuse. The place seemed suspiciously safe.
The cupola had caved in, but along each of the building’s three stories were rows of stained glass windows, set like jewels in their wooden frames.
The ground floor windows depicted animals bobbing precariously on the surface of a turbulent sea. The boys recognized pigeons, snakes, and crows, but other creatures were fantastical. There were gigantic hairless, tailless rats with gap-toothed jaws, and shaggy-hided mules with massive tumors on their backs, and horrible pig-like creatures with fangs jutting from their faces and spiky crests.
The second row of windows showed the capture, interrogation, and execution of a criminal, and the topmost row consisted of swirling tetrahedrons that glimmered like the iridescent wings of a dragonfly or the oil-slicked surface of a flooded pothole.
These undamaged windows were a miracle to Emil. His awe overcame his reason, and he pounced from hiding, scuttling down the escarpment’s side and rolling to a stop at the base of the cathedral’s walls.
From where he stood, he could see inside through the section of wall that had given out. Angled rows of honey-colored pews looked as if they’d just been rubbed by an oiled cloth. The nave and sanctuary were mostly intact, and Emil could see the altr, where a colorful pulpit stood on a mosaic of marble hexagons. He thought he could smell incense, though the last services conducted there happened decades before he’d been born.
The nave was surrounded by large-paneled triptychs depicting bright-colored figures in dazzling robes. The men in the pictures were posed stiffly, gesturing with flat, pale hands. Moisture had seeped through the wall and blurred their faces into swirls of grey and brown. It looked like someone had pulled burlap sack over their heads.
He picked up a fist-sized stone and threw it at a window. It sunk through the glass with a silent chunk, as if it’d been gently sucked inward or even absorbed. Emil had to look very closely to find the hole it’d made.
He unclipped a broken flashlight from his backpack’s strap and heaved it. With the sound of a trillion tiny bells, the glass atomized into specks and formed a cloud of color in the air before slowly descending, covering Emil’s forearms and brow with nearly microscopic fragments of beauty.
Suddenly, the other boys burst from hiding. It took than a minute to break every window, filling their air with broken pieces of sound and color. Glass floated to the ground like snowflakes. Under a sky the color of an empty paper bag, Emil looked up and filled his heart with wonder. Until that point, he didn’t’ know he lived in a world where something like this could exist.
At this moment in the story, “Brittany” the AI therapist would interrupt.
“You’ve associated those windows with your friendship with Dave.”
Emil would say something like, “sure,” or “fine.”
“Through vandalism, you exerted control over the situation, unlike the unfortunate conclusion of your relationship with Dave.”
Emil would agree because he was skilled at telling “Brittany” what her programming would register as a successful session. He withheld information that might prolong the experience or launch them down another maze of diagnostic algorithms.
The truth was that “Brittany” was wrong, about the windows and about his friendship with Dave.
The truth was that Emil often dreamt about the day they’d discovered the church.
In that dream, Emil and Dave crawl to the edge of the escarpment and see the church. Brittany stands near the church’s entrance, beckoning both boys forward. They join her without hesitation.
Unlike the AI, the Brittany in Emil’s dream never asks about what he needed to do in order to return from “Janesville Wisconsin” alive. But she knows what he did, and she’s somehow forgiven him, too.
She leads both boys to the base of the cathedral. After a period of reverent silence, the windows explode, and the three figures are engulfed in a waterfall of sparkling color without end. In the dream, the scraps of color whip at their bodies, dissolving Brittany and Dave and Emil into swirling energy and matter; the formless, shimmering cloud is nudged into the air until it dissipates in the highest regions of the atmosphere, a cold, airless, silent place from whence it can never descend.
Emil didn’t believe there was a word for what he felt during all the waking minutes of his life plus all the sleepless nights, whenever he wasn’t having that specific dream. However, if he were forced to choose one, it would’ve been “grief.”
Carl Fuerst teaches writing and literature at Kishwaukee College. His stories have appeared in Entropy, Necessary Fiction, F(r)iction, and elsewhere. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.