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A Green Umbrella MAG
Meriwether Frost carried a green umbrella with her everywhere for as long as anyone could remember. She would cross the street looking like some kind of giant highlighter amidst all the slate-gray rain, smiling her dreamy smile. She was a little crazy, old Meriwether, but no one minded much. She was the kind of older woman that was everyone's grandma, even though she was Joseph Frost's by blood. When the war hit hard and sugar rations were low, she still scraped and saved whatever she had to bake us cookies, dividing them equally no matter how many came around, and boy, were there a lot of us. We couldn't help but love her in the simple way kids do, and we never stopped.
The war had started the day the nuclear plant exploded. People died and got hurt, and for some reason that wasn't bad enough. A crazy bumpkin named Nerosis had used the nuclear plant to prove he was like a god – God could take people in and out of the world and God decided who would evolve, the way Nerosis had, with invisible energy called radiation that had killed and mutated his fellow beings. He was one of those guys who had a brain too big for a heart to support, who thought that just because he could fit shiny things together and make them go “boom,” it meant he was entitled to the world. He blew up the plant with a new little invention he had built, a nuclear gun, and wanted to repeat his attack around the world. Before anyone knew it, there was a scared country at the mercy of a madman and no one could move fast enough to stop it; a cute trick that history is too fond of.
Well, we kids grew bigger and so did the war. It rolled across the continents and snagged each of the countries in their sleep, so that the right before everyone shook their heads at the paper's growing recruit list, and the morning after, they scanned in bewilderment as their partners, kids, and siblings suddenly showed up in it.
The days stretched longer and the skies got darker as big cities did what big cities do, now without enthusiastic environmentalists. No one cared much about the trees since it looked like with or without them we were all going to stop breathing soon. Television news was vague at best, unsure where exactly the ally and enemy lines were. The internet got locked to anyone without government permission.
At home, we learned to go without sugar and salt, to sell our toys, to share and make things from what we had. We were all lean, always hungry, and always, always glancing at the sky, wondering when something would fall and turn us into news.
For all of that, we had people who loved us, like Meriwether Frost, and it stopped our hearts from hardening. Friends became family and family was priceless, because it's all we had left when the ration bags were empty and the water bottles dry. Those people were the ones who gave a damn if that newspaper list had your name on it, and would know and spread the word if you disappeared. Without them, we simply didn't exist. We stole little because we didn't think we deserved getting stolen from, and we didn't murder because enough happened an ocean away. The world got grayer and tougher, and so did we.
My eighteenth year rolled in about the same year the enemy tanks did, and we all got enlisted, non-negotiable. Joseph Frost and I and four other guys from our town got sent off to the Sixth Battalion, a small outpost in the middle of a huge, malodorous green jungle. We were sentries, scouting and securing the area for the main line. A week in, when the helicopter dropped us rations, Frost got this strange-looking package with a little card. Bewildered, he pulled out that bright green umbrella you could see a mile away. Amid the hooting and jeering I read the card out loud:
Joseph, my boy, this is for you and your friends. Keep it with you for good luck, and to keep your heads dry. They promised to deliver my cookies as well.
Love, Grandma Frost.
P.S. I want you to bring it back when you boys are done in that smelly old jungle, you hear?
And Joseph Frost rolled his eyes, among the catcalls of “Yeah, Joe, don't get your head wet!” He was a good boy, Joseph, and loved his Grandma Frost and told us sheepishly he would have felt guilty eating her cookies unless he listened to her.
So he carried it everywhere, strapped to his back like some kind of sword on top his gun. When it rained he would unfurl it, and get that faraway look he had when he thought about his family. Gradually, it became a comforting thing as we trudged through the cursed weather, seeing that highlighter-bright shape in front of us, knowing the only way we could possibly get lost was by closing our eyes. Good old Meriwether Frost – she was always thinking about us, bless that crazy old lady's heart.
Our battalion eventually split into ten small divisions, each designed to take strategic parts of the forests. We got sent to Division 5 with a solemn, guy named Kai; Ricky with curly hair and quick eyes; a standoffish, lonely boy named Levi, and our pal Rafi with a loud voice and the biggest hands I ever saw. We were all in charge of hacking and slashing the forest so there was a direct line into enemy territory. Our second week we realized the umbrella was lucky, and I guess you could say that's when it first became a sign.
It was raining, as usual, and we were all trudging in a pretty sore mood, except Joseph. He was humming, the only one not getting drenched. The day, already dark, was even darker with the clouds sobbing at us from overhead, and except for a certain distinct green shape, everything was a watery blur. As we trudged past the little clearing, Joseph went to close his umbrella, and that's when he slipped. He went down with a shout and threw out the umbrella like a hand, and, thank God, for the miracle, he did. If he hadn't, he never would have ended up suspended over a circular piece of metal he realized was a mine. He never would have shouted back, and we all never would have seen daylight after that. We stopped and later, we charted the area as best we could, going around at a safe distance. Kai was the first to believe the umbrella was lucky, but when he said that we laughed him off.
The second time, we weren't so lucky in avoiding the trap. N troops, those who had signed themselves over to the madness of Nerosis, had probably been watching us blunder through the forest, and when we stopped to rest, they attacked. But the leader happened to step right in front of Joseph and me. We ogled each other with eyes as big as golf balls. When he raised his machete and started to scream, Joseph Frost did the only thing he could think of, he smashed the guy in the throat with the green umbrella. The commander went down with a gurgle and his men hesitated, unsure what he meant, and by then we made it into the dark forest.
After that, we were convinced the umbrella was some sort of good luck charm. Later when Levi and Ricky got separated from us they found their way back because they saw the green umbrella weaving through the trees. Another time, we were just about to engage in combat, our guns raised, when there was a scream to stop. One of the enemy pointed at Frost's belt, where the umbrella hung, and everyone figured that the boys they were about to shoot were their own.
That day we found out that other divisions, after hearing our stories, were calling us the “Umbrella Division.” When the commander heard he visited us, and renamed us the Umbrella Battalion, chuckling that “umbrella” in the army meant to shield or bring divisions together. Joseph Frost and his green umbrella became the lucky charm of the army, and we all wrote a letter to Meriwether and sent her one of our medals.
Well, war goes as war will; you win some and lose some. We lost in that jungle-ridden country, and found ourselves waiting to head home to be assigned to another spot. The chopper wouldn't come for a month but that was fine since honestly a month of rest was a relief. I still remember when we got the news. It was a one of the few clear days we had; the soft blue sky peeped out from the corners of the treetops, and the sun had heart enough to fight the canopy to bless us with small, strong yellow rays. It was such a nice day that, when the letter was handed to Joseph, we felt cheated, like the world should have warned us with thunder and lightning and god-forsaken rain. When Joseph read it, his smile speak. He threw it to the ground and stomped out. It was a while before any of us had the courage to pick up that rectangle that had destroyed his happiness.
We found out old Meriwether had left this world. Everyone dies, I daresay, and no one knows it better than war boys, but this one stuck inside us better than any bullet. Grandma Frost had traveled out of town to a seller who always had a little extra flour for her to bake for the kids. She'd been on the way home when some crazy Nerosis follower got on her bus and shot her in the head when she refused to hand over her supplies.
The worst part was we knew the guy – we'd grown up around him and he seemed okay three years ago. Meriwether had even baked him cookies when he was a kid. Don't worry, the letter said, she didn't suffer. She died instantly, with a gold medal pinned proudly on her green sweater. We all stared at the letter thunderstruck and speechless, because a part of us, the only part left of the simple children we were who loved simply, had died, too. We hadn't said good-bye. We'd assumed that would always be there, and now the only thing left was to miss it.
Joseph Frost was never the same. I don't think any of us were. We drank to her that night, dry-eyed and too numb and bitter to howl or shake or feel, really. All that was left was the thinking. Thinking about the fact that, if it was all right for some punk to shoot a helpless, 86-year-old woman for not giving over her bag of food, the people we had left behind were now more painfully human than ever. Caius was a man and he was mortal.
When it finally hit us hard, the pain and the alcohol, we made oaths for revenge. Meriwether Frost was the final straw – we couldn't be helpless anymore. Levi, normally quiet and got really loose that night with grief. Meriwether had been especially kind to him, the lonely orphan boy always by himself. He started saying we should take things into our own hands. We were the luckiest men alive, after all. We had the green umbrella. Operation Umbrella started as an idea in that god-forsaken jungle, and it stayed with us when we got home, like another feverish jungle disease we couldn't shake.
Back home, the world was more washed-out than we remembered, people leaner and meaner. Outsiders had come in; desperate and hungry and changed the scene. The kids had stopped sharing. People had stopped looking at the sky and instead stared at the ground. Our neighborhood had turned into a battlefield. Countries couldn't keep up as their own people, driven crazy by need, turned inward into a civil war between N followers and everyone else. Big black N's were everywhere, on buildings, windows, and signs. N tattoos were stamped on whatever appendage they could be placed on – the more painful the better.
The world dimmed further as buildings and creatures were painted black. We were told it would be over in three years, that we were subjects of Nerosis. Rafi, red-faced and waving his big hands around, echoed the thoughts of everyone – like hell we were.
Kai, Ricky, Rafi, Levi, Joseph and I brought together anyone we could and launched our plan. Our army buddies got letters from us, as did relatives, and those we used to live next to and the girls we used to know. We got tentative responses at first, but they were serious. We stole from Nerosis troops, kicked his gangs from our towns, sent out signals to other towns and spread the word. Umbrella Town, they called us. Before we knew it, we became home base and we were the rebellion. We were fighting back. Not just because some shiny official in a helmet told us to, but because we were citizens and this was personal, made clear when some idiot killed our Grandma Frost. We painted a green umbrella on a black flag, a joke against the N's big ugly black flag, and let it fly. We painted it on buildings, on cards, and some got tattoos with the name of our leader – the unstoppable, relentless commander Frost who was taking the movement by storm.
First we lost Kai to an ambush a few towns away. Rafi went a year later in an explosion that blew him so unrecognizable that all we buried was his left boot. Ricky got an infection from a bullet wound. He was too sick to fight off a gang, but he took another guy with him, using his bare hands. We don't even know what happened to Levi – we just found him dead, looking out his window like it was the most normal thing to die staring outside. It was the only time he really didn't look lonely.
Frost and I looked on bleakly as our friends were set into the ground, thinking when we might be joining them, when we could finally sleep. The battle crawled forward, bringing more and more to our side. We managed to steal guns and food and begin our own supply line. Who knows when, but the world began to get divided into black and green. Umbrella Town spread and sheltered more and more until finally, we were able to coordinate large-scale movements into Nerosis's domain. We were cutting into his empire as we had cut through the forest all those years ago. This time we didn't plan to lose.
Then six years later, it all came crashing down. The bomb dropped from the sky, and it took a good chunk of Umbrella Town. The offensive came next. We never would have guessed Nerosis would come to us personally, but when that angry little man jumped out with a black N plastered on his chest, we knew who he was and how far we had really come. It was a long and bloody battle. Both sides lost a lot of people, and it seemed like we were doing okay – until Nerosis shot Frost. I was too far away to get to him, or do anything but shout for him, but he was going down and Nerosis was smiling his maniac smile at him. It was more than a little satisfying when I shot him in the arm. He lost his smile then, and started to scramble on top of a building. He thought he would get away. Maniacs forget what it is that put them in power in the first place. They forget what it's like to be angry enough to defy everything in your way. Well, I hadn't. I was just getting started.
I followed Nerosis, scrambling through empty spaces, gritting my teeth when it hurt and screaming in frustration, but I was not going to let him get away. This little man scuttling across the rubble like a bug had taken everything from me, including my best friend. I followed, mindless and enraged, which was my big mistake. When he got to the top, he flashed me his ugly smile and lifted a gun he'd been hiding. There it was, the gun he'd been boasting had blown up the nuclear plant, the piece of metal that had changed the world. It had been coated in gold, and I remember it seemed to flash even though the sky was dark. Going out with a bang was not enough – I was going to be blown away by nuclear energy. I froze.
At first I couldn't figure out what was happening. Behind his head a fluorescent, slightly battered green shape rose. Frost, still bleeding, swung the only weapon he had left, the only thing he ever really had. The green umbrella caught Nerosis in the chest and he went over the edge, down to break his neck on the rock below.
Joseph didn't last long with his wound. I don't know how he managed to climb the rubble. We buried him with our flag, right next to Grandma Frost and his family. Before he died he had called me in and asked one last thing: that we wouldn't forget.
“She made me promise, you know,” he explained. He pulled out that letter. He still had it, yellowed with age, the final one Meriwether Frost had written. Joe was right – we hadn't accomplished our mission yet.
“She'd like that, Joe. That's the best way to give it back – do what she did.”
He smiled his old, easy smile, the one I hadn't seen in years. He wore it until he died the following day, and I stayed a long time looking at it. It was the last smile of my childhood.
From here on, it all got new. I saluted one last time, and then I picked up the package and went to do my duty. I scrambled up a familiar pile of rubble in the rain one last time and found a good spot to bury the handle. I looked at the open umbrella for a long time, thinking about everything. Then I shook my head.
“Thomas Kindle, reporting for duty, Grandma Frost.” I said seriously. “You said to give this back when we were done. Well, ma'am, I'm givin' it back. Back to the world.”
The buildings of civilization lay in their shattered respite for a while, crumbled and tumbled and broken. There, under the muted gray gloom of the shadowy sky, the tattered remains of war were strewn haphazardly among the rubble and bullet shells, the bodies and the blood. The only thing that stood upright was that lone, battered figure, planted in the skeletal heap of a building that had taken both my best friend and my mission in life. The people who came in the next months saw it and pointed and let their warm tears trace down their cheeks, for all that they had loved, lost, and fought for. They set to work rebuilding that gray world, clearing the metal shells and empty bags that had once been bodies.
We cleared everything, and then the first tentative colors began streaming back, and the sky turned eggshell blue and the grass became tinged with green. Everything was cleaned except the pile of rubble housing the unmistakable thing, come rain or shine. We kept it there as our war symbol, to never forget what we stood for and died for and, more importantly, lived for. That neon green umbrella given to her grandson by Meriwether Frost because she loved him, and he loved her. That was all they had and needed in the end and beyond.