by Cory Cone
Donnie’s window muffled the clank of swords and the pop of rifles as if they were being played from an old radio. He hopped from his bed, walked over his array of toy soldiers on the floor, and watched the bright display along the shore.
When he woke the next morning his neck ached from sleeping with his head on the sill. The beach was calm and quiet in the dawning light.
“Just a dream, Donnie,” his dad said at breakfast, when Donnie told him of the battle on the beach. “This summer home is old and creaky. You’re just not used to it yet.”
“Eat up,” said his mom, pushing a plate of pancakes in front of his doubtful face.
When his parents settled into their Adirondack chairs on the porch with their coffee and their books, Donnie went down to the beach. An unusual rusty odor haunted the salty air as he walked along the edge of the water, letting the waves wash over his feet.
Something brushed against his ankle. Bending over, he plucked a small bullet casing from the water and rolled it his fingers, then he walked toward the fort.
The fort was one of the artifacts along this stretch of gray sand that Donnie’s parents had used to convince him that spending the summer away from his friends would be fun. They said he would make summer friends and play games by the fort. Wouldn’t that be nice? Maybe, he’d said. But he really wanted to stay at home where he and his normal friends could spend the summer playing video games. Didn’t they care about what he thought was fun?
Still, with the casing in his hand and the smell of the sea on his nose, he had to admit that the fort was pretty cool. Stone, and carved directly into the face of a sprawling cliff, it looked like the sort of place that orcs or dragons would attack in a fantasy movie. There stood looming cylindrical towers with thin slot windows, probably for archers to use while defending.
He put the bullet casing in his pocket and tried to find a pathway that might lead into the fort. The beach grew rockier and rockier as he left the water’s edge and he had to take each step with caution. Up ahead, surrounded by two jutting boulders, sat a black entryway. Donnie navigated carefully over the remaining rocks until he stood between the two boulders and looked into the darkness. Musty air breathed from the opening, blowing Donnie’s brown locks about his forehead.
Footsteps echoed from inside. Donnie felt, quite suddenly, like an unwanted intruder, and turned around to escape discovery. The path back to the beach was too rocky, and any attempt to quickly pass over the mass of rocks would mean certain injury.
A boy wearing dirt-gray fatigues with a rifle strapped to his back stepped out of the opening. Donnie put his hands into his pockets and stood tall. He didn’t want the first kid he met out here to think he was a scaredy cat.
The boy looked Donnie up and down with a scrutinizing eye, then spit something brown out of his mouth. The wad pinged off of a rock. “New recruit?” the boy asked.
“Uh,” said Donnie, then pointed up the beach. “Just here for the summer. My parents got that house up there.”
“I know which house,” said the boy. “I’ll ask you again: are you a new recruit?”
Small faces poked from several of the archer windows. More leaned over the top, spying their conversation.
Donnie asked, “What sort of game is this?”
The boy looked out and over the water, the surface gleaming in the morning sunlight. “This is no game,” he said. “This,” he pointed to the fort and then out and away at the waves, “is life and death.”
Donnie reached out to touch the boy’s gun, but the boy pulled away. Donnie asked, “Do I get one of those if I play with you?”
“What did I just say?”
Donnie gulped. “Sorry. Do I get one of those if I’m … recruited?”
The boy ran a hand over his face and sighed. “Yes.” He put a hard finger against Donnie’s chest. “But get something straight. This is no team. This is no party. This is a gosh-darn battalion.” He lowered his hand. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Lieutenant Fireball.” At that the boy finally smirked. “Go on home and ready yourself. Be back here at sunset. There will be a uniform and rifle waiting for you inside the barracks.”
Donnie didn’t quite understand this game, but Lieutenant Fireball seemed very enthusiastic. “I can’t wait.”
Lieutenant Fireball grunted. “If you want out, don’t come back. But the offer’s off the table after tonight. Come back tonight and you’re in, don’t come back and we won’t blame you. It’s a tough war we’re fighting.” He looked up and into the eyes of the young boys looking down from the fort. Donnie couldn’t help but think this kid could be in Hollywood one day. He was good at this.
“I’ll be here,” said Donnie. “Why can’t we all play now?”
“Games,” said Lieutenant Fireball, spitting again, “are for children.”
Donnie left the boy and all those others that were in the fort and headed back to the shore. Not a single one of them watched him go; their eyes were all trained on the horizon.
Donnie ate a lonely cold-cut sandwich with a can of Coke for lunch. His parents had the same, but with wine. Before long, both of them were back out on the porch with books. They looked relaxed, they looked happy. But for Donnie the afternoon dragged on.
He went down to the water again for a while and skimmed the shore for more bullet casings and found twelve before he walked back to the house with the casings jingling in his pocket. He spent the last hours of sunlight setting up his army figure toys and movies. When the sun had set, he went downstairs.
“I’m going to go play with some friends.”
“The kids you met at the fort?” asked his mom. Donnie had mentioned them at lunch.
“Stay away from the fort at night, Donnie,” said his dad. “It’s too dark to play over there.”
“Sure, okay,” Donnie said, and then he left the house.
Lieutenant Fireball was waiting for him at the black entryway to the fort. “Welcome back, Private,” said Lieutenant Fireball.
“Happy to join up,” said Donnie.
“Your things are this way.” Lieutenant Fireball led him through the door and down a stone hallway until they reached a room. It was candlelit, with maps and all sorts of firearms and swords hung from iron hooks in the walls. In the center of a large oak table lay a sword, a rifle and fatigues. A dog tag that read “Private Donnie” lay on top of the fatigues.
“Wow, I can have all of this?” said Donnie, smiling so wide his cheeks hurt.
“Private, you need all of this if you hope to make it one night here.”
“Sounds good to me.” Donnie changed into the fatigues, strapped the rifle to his back and attached the sword to his belt.
Countless small faces watched on from the shadows or peered through openings of the inner stone structure. Donnie smiled and waved, but only a few waved back.
Lieutenant Fireball took him to the top of one of the fort towers.
“You’ll defend from up here tonight,” he said and scanned the watery horizon with his eyes, squinting and focused. “You won’t need the sword unless something gets inside or scales the walls. That isn’t often. Your rifle will do just fine.”
Donnie unslung the rifle from his back, tested the site out over the water.
“Know how to use that thing?”
“Sure,” said Donnie. “I’ve played with Nerf guns and I have some war video games too.”
Lieutenant Fireball huffed and shook his head. “Best get some practice.” He looked over his shoulder at a gaggle of boys eating soup out of a large bucket. The soup looked awful. “Private Bonkers!” he cried. A fat boy stood up.
“Sir!” said Private Bonkers.
“Set up a box over there. New recruit needs a target.”
Private Bonkers left the group and walked across the fort roof to the boxes. Deftly, he piled three of them on top of each other.
“Okay,” said Lieutenant Fireball. “See if you can hit the middle box.”
Donnie took aim. The gun sat heavy in his hands. He settled his gaze, took a deep breath, and then shouted, “Boom!” Lowering the gun and laughing, he said, “Nailed it!”
Lieutenant Fireball stared at him with his mouth hung open. “Are you daft, Private Donnie?”
“What?” said Donnie playfully.
Lieutenant Fireball was not laughing. “Pick that rifle back up.”
Shame slithered through Donnie’s body. What had he done wrong? Why was this kid getting so angry? He lifted the rifle again.
“And fire when ready,” said Lieutenant Fireball. “This time, actually pull the darn trigger.”
Donnie steadied his grip. He hadn’t realized they took it this seriously. If they wanted him to pull the trigger he would, and this time he’d yell so loud it’d scare Lieutenant Fireball right off the edge of the fort. Donnie took a deep breath, placed his finger on the trigger, and squeezed. He yelled boom! again, but no one heard it over the roar of the rifle. The middle box exploded.
“That’s more like it!” shouted Lieutenant Fireball.
Donnie dropped the gun. His ears rang so loudly he thought they were bleeding. “This is a real gun!” he cried.
Lieutenant Fireball put a hand on Donnie’s shoulder and looked into his eyes. “This, Private Donnie,” he said, “is a real war.”
“Prepare arms!” a child cried from across the fort. All around them small bodies moved with formulaic precision, taking their stations. Many poured out from the black doorway at the bottom, fanning along the rocks. Off in the distance, along the glistening twilight waters, shadows floated inward, shore-bound. Donnie spied ships, and squinting into the night he saw other things as well.
He saw monsters.
Lieutenant Fireball brandished his weapon and gave Donnie a final slap on the back. “Stand ready, Private. They bring krakens tonight!” He vanished into the fort.
With trembling hands Donnie retrieved his fallen rifle from the ground. At the sight of the monsoon of shadows heading inward he had wet his pants. No one noticed. They were too focused on the battle to come.
Private Bonkers settled in at Donnie’s side. His plump cheeks spread in a wet grin. “It’s a bit shocking, the first battle I mean,” he said.
“I don’t think I want to play anymore,” said Donnie.
“You’ll come around.” Private Bonkers took aim with his rifle. “Our work is important Private … Donnie was it?”
The boys shouted down below. Darkened ships breached the land. From the hulls crawled armored, ghoulish creatures. Flesh hung from their bones like paper mache. Their eyes were hallowed and deep, and tufts of cerulean mist wafted from the their gaping mouths.
“I can’t do this!” cried Donnie. “I want to go home!”
Private Bonkers nudged Donnie roughly, laughing. “Come on now!” He fired, splitting the skull of a ghoul wide open. The creature splashed limply into the water. “This is the best game there is, Private Donnie! The fate of the world is at stake every night, and we’re the ones who keep the darkness at bay. Now lift up that gun and take part in the adventure!”
A creature of gargantuan proportions lunged turbulently toward the shoreline. Eight towering tentacles flailed at its sides, splashing down and lifting raging waves from the water. Upon its head sat a creature, not human, that looked to be steering the beast. It called commands down to the others in the water.
Donnie lifted the rifle and pointed the site at the rider’s chest.
“Private Bonkers,” said Donnie, steadying his aim.
“Yuh?” Private Bonkers fired again. His shot missed and pinged off of a rock.
“Where did you live before you came to the fort?”
Private Bunkers’ cheeks spread even further. “Now you’re coming around, Private!” He fired again. This time he hit the tentacled beast just below one of its onyx eyes. Black oily liquid flowed from the wound. “Same place we all did, just up the beach.”
Some of the children down below abandoned their rifles and engaged in one on one combat with their swords, slaying the creatures that made it to shore. Blasts of smoke and sparks burst from the archer holes. The battle raged on with a violent yet practiced rhythm.
Donnie steadied his arm and focused his eye. The rider in the waves shouted and pointed and glowed from the mists that rose from its rotten mouth. Donnie breathed deep of the tinny, rusted air and then squeezed the trigger.
“Boom!” he cried.
Cory Cone lives, works and writes in Baltimore, MD. He studied painting at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where he met and married his wife. His work has appeared in a handful of fine journals, including Niteblade, Grim Corps, The Colored Lens, and Every Day Fiction.