Uncle Joe

Uncle Joe’s on the phone again. He’s telling me to pick up cigarettes.

I tell him I can’t, they’re firing guns outside. There’s screaming in the hallway.

Uncle Joe is adamant. He tells me I should stop worrying. He tells me to be a man. “Are you a lion or a monkey?” he asks.

“But aren’t we all monkeys?” I respond.

I hear more gunfire, short bursts, then suddenly silence.

Uncle Joe says, “See? Nothing to worry about.”

Hours pass. The electricity’s been out for a day but I leave the windows closed. I sit quietly listening for footsteps and sweating from my pores. It’s close to evening when I decide to glance through the blinds.

Uncle Joe tells me I’m being a fool. That if he were there he’d put me out of my misery. He asks if I’ve found him cigarettes yet. He loves to smoke more than anything, he says.

I gather up my few essential possessions—keys, phone, wallet—and carefully open the door to the hall. There are blood smears to the stairs and corpses stacked in an apartment two doors down. I stumble outside into the warm summer air. The sky is darkening quickly, and fires consume much of the block.

“This is nothing, I killed tens of millions,” says Uncle Joe, his breath heavy on the receiver. “And I didn’t waste as many bullets.”

I tell him that I’m not interested in his history lessons. That I’m trying to survive. He scoffs at me and tells me to be a man. To be a lion. That it’s never enough to survive. That I need to conquer. That I need to confound. Then he asks about his cigarettes again.

I walk carefully through the vacant streets. I pass overturned buses and wrecked cars, bombed out office parks and looted strip malls. The air is choked with the smell of burning rubber.

“Do you like to dance?” asks Uncle Joe. “I loved dancing, I used to make everyone dance.”

I tell him about the death and destruction I see. He says it’s part of human nature. That I should act my age. That I should embrace the beauty of the carnage. He tells me there’s pleasure in watching others dance.

I finally come to a small park with a gazebo in the center and benches along the paths. Near the tennis courts a group of soldiers in red baseball caps arrange blindfolded men against a fence. An officer counts down from three. Gunshots echo against the trees. Blood gushes and bodies drop. Whiffs of gun smoke rise into the evening air.

"And now they're free," says Uncle Joe. I'm not sure if he's referring to the living or the dead.

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