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SANTA OLIVIA CHAPTER ONE

They said that the statue of Our Lady of the Sorrows wept tears of blood the day the sickness came to Santa Olivia. The people said that God had turned his face away from humankind. They said that saints remember what God forgets about human suffering.

Of course they said that in a lot of places during those years.

For a long time, there was dying. Dying and fucking. A lot of dying and a lot of fucking, and more dying.

The day the soldiers came, Our Lady's tears dried to rust in her shrine. There were bullhorns and announcements about a wall, a new wall to the north to bracket the wall to the south. A cordon. People could stay or go. Elsewhere in the cordon it was different, with wholescale evacuation and reparation, but there was no help for those who wanted to leave Santa Olivia.

Some went.

Most stayed. They stayed because they were sick and dying, or because they were orphaned and confused. They stayed because it was home and they had nowhere else to go and the sickness was everywhere. They stayed because the soldiers didn't really want all of them to go, because the soldiers didn't want to be all alone in the hot, arrid cordon between two countries.

But it wasn't home anymore, not exactly.

After the reservoir had been secured and the golf course seized for recreational purposes, after the bulldozers and the backhoes had chewed and leveled the terrain, after the cement trucks had poured foundations and the cinderblock walls had begun to climb, the soldiers explained. There was a meeting in the town square. It took place in the evening. There were generators to fuel the arclights, because the power grid had been down for a long time in that part of Texas. General Argyle was there, a middle-aged man with a face like a knotted fist. His spokesman explained, bawling through a bullhorn.

We are at war!

This is no longer a part of Texas, no longer a part of the United States of America! You are in the Buffer Zone! You are no longer American citizens! By consenting to remain, you have agreed to this! The town of Santa Olivia no longer exists! You are denizens of Outpost No. 12!

No one knew what it meant, not exactly. There was something about sickness and something about the scourge to the south on the far side of the original wall, the revolutionary the soldiers called El Segundo. But there was too much dying to be bothered. If the soldiers brought money and food and medicine, and doctors who hadn't succumbed to the plague, that was to the good. It had always been an isolated place.

Santa Olivia; Santa Olvidada, soon to be forgotten by most of the world.

Outpost No. 12.

What Carmen Garron remembered most about that night was the humming generators and the light. She was thirteen years old, and for the last six years of her life, there had been precious little of it after nightfall. Generators were scarce, fuel to be hoarded for important matters like refrigeration. Now, here! Light, white-hot and spilled with reckless abandon, throwing stark shadows. It highlighted the general's clenched face with its incipient lines. It teased out the lurking sickness in her aunt and uncle's faces, in the faces of their neighbors. It lit up her cousin Inez's nubile features, and her own.

And the soldiers... the American soldiers looked so strong and hale.

Carmen Garron liked soldiers.

After the barracks and the other buildings were finished, there were more soldiers. They didn't want to be bothered with the town's troubles, so arrangements were made. With the Army's blessing, Dan Garza declared himself in charge and his men took care of security. They swaggered through the dusty streets, deferring to no one who wasn't in uniform. They weren't allowed to carry guns - no one in Outpost except soldiers were - but they carried lengths of metal pipe and weren't afraid to crack heads if they felt like it. People muttered, but what could you do? As long as they kept the peace, the General didn't care.

Old Hector Salamanca, who owned a good chunk of real estate in town, made arrangements, too. He was a shrewd old fucker, too scrawny and stubborn for the plague to take. His arrangements were made with the Chief Warrant Officer and involved liquor and food and generators and kerosene. His businesses thrived. Bodegas turned to bars and brothels, and people could buy what they needed in his shops. As long as it kept the peace and kept the soldiers happy, the general didn't care.

Sister Martha Stearns and Father Ramon Perez also made arrangements. She was a diminutive blonde woman with an intense gaze and a sense of purpose that owed nothing to divine calling; despite her nun's garb, she was in fact an orphan of the church and had never taken vows. Handsome Father Ramon, who was himself only a novice despite his priest's collar, knew this. They kept one another's secrets. It wasn't their fault. Father Gabriel, the last real priest in Santa Olivia had caught the plague and hung himself from the bell tower before it could take him.

Go forth, fornicators! he had shouted before he plunged, perched on the narrow walkway, the noose around his neck. Go forth while you may, go forth and seize the day! Fuck your mothers, your brothers, your sisters and fathers; fuck in the streets like dogs, you sodomites and whores! Why not? Death rules all! God has turned his face away!

Then he jumped.

That explained all the fucking, in part.

What Sister Martha and Father Ramon arranged for was medical care. Once a week, a doctor from the base would hold a free clinic at the mission church with its ancient adobe walls, and anyone could come. He taught Sister Martha enough about medicine to care for the townsfolk the rest of the time. They made those arrangements with the army Chaplain, a sincere fellow who hadn't the faintest idea neither of them were true clergy. As long as it didn't interfere with care and well-being of his soldiers, the General didn't care.

General Argyle cared about three things. He cared about his men; and they were men, all men. There was a story that once women had served in the Army as officers and everything, but it was only a story. He cared about patrolling the southern wall and keeping his section of the cordon secure.

And he cared about boxing.

One thing about the general - whose full name was William Peter Argyle - was that he loved boxing. Loved it. It was said he'd been a boxer in his youth, a junior heavyweight of some promise, and maybe it was true. Anyway, he couldn't get enough of watching it. So the soldiers held boxing matches on the base, and on the third Saturday of every month, there was a match in the town square.

For the first year, they were mostly exhibition matches; soldiers fighting soldiers. When that began to bore the general, he made an offer. Higher stakes made the matches more exciting. If any of the townsfolk were able to defeat one of his champions, they would win a considerable purse and safe-passage to the north for themselves and a companion. Out of the cordon, back to free territory in the U.S. of A.

A lot of men tried. None of them ever stood much of a chance, but they tried anyway. They put brawn and heart and sweat and blood into the effort, fighting until they were knocked down too hard to rise and lay gasping on the canvas floor. And that made the general very happy.

"Men ought to strive for what's beyond their grasp," he said once. "That's what makes 'em men."

What he thought of women, no one knew.

There were no women in the Army and no women on the base, except for the local women hired to the cleaning crew and they had to leave the premises before sundown. Married men had to leave their wives behind when they did their tours in the cordon. Single men with sweethearts were forced to abandon them; single men without sweethearts were forced to reconcile themselves to the fact that they'd not find lasting love until their tours ended. It had been declared illegal for military personnel to wed denizens of Outpost.

"Why?" Carmen Garron asked her first soldier-lover. She was seventeen years old, but she looked nineteen and had told him she was. Her aunt and uncle had passed, taken by the sickness; her cousin Inez had gotten her a job waitressing in a diner the soldiers liked to frequent. It didn't quite pay enough for her share of the rent on their apartment.

Her first lover was a clever boy from somewhere out East, with brown hair, spectacles and a wiry wrestler's body.

"Because." He stroked her warm flesh, her skin damp with sweat. His face looked a little naked without his glasses, but his gaze was sharp and earnest. "They don't want people to know you exist. Not for certain. They don't want anyone to know. You understand that, don't you? That this used to be part of America?"

Carmen shrugged. "I guess."

His palm shaped the curve of her waist, dipped lower. "Trust me, they don't."

She looked at the top of his head as he bent to follow his hand with his lips. "What about the general's offer? The boxing?"

He glanced up and laughed. "No one will ever win. And anyway, General Argyle's a little crazy."

"Okay," Carmen said uncertainly.

Her lover peered at her. "So you understand?"

A little bird in her heart uttered a single warbling note and died. "Yes," Carmen Garron said sadly to her first lover. "I understand."

He came and went, that one, after his tour ended. And then there was another who said much the same thing. He wasn't as clever, but he was fun and funny. Life settled into certain rhythms. By day there was the diner, by night, most nights, there was the soldier. Like the other, he gave her an allowance that enabled her to pay her share of the rent. Once a week, there was a visit to the free clinic in the mission. The Army doctor gave her a certificate of health and a week's supply of condoms. He wasn't authorized to offer any other form of birth control to the female denizens of Outpost, no matter how hard Sister Martha argued for it.

The third soldier was different.

He was a boxer; that was where she saw him first. Fighting in the ring in the town square on the third Saturday against a young townsman named Ricky Canton. Carmen should have been rooting for the local challenger, the underdog; everyone did. Instead, her gaze was fixed on the soldier.

He was a big Minnesotan farmboy with a nice, easy smile and a lazy, looping left hook that looked much slower than it was. He used it to pummel Ricky Canton up and down the ring.

"Go on!" Inez nudged her cousin.

In between the fourth and fifth rounds, Carmen Garron slipped through the crowd, made her way to the outside of the soldier's corner. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her.

"Hi there." He slid one muscled, sweaty arm through the ropes, touched her hand with his gloved fist.

The bird in her heart warbled.

"Hi," Carmen whispered.

It took three more rounds for Ricky Canton to go down for good, but he did. The Minnesotan farmboy stood in the center of the ring, tilting his head modestly as the referee raised his hand in victory. And then he went back to his corner, leaning on the ropes, lowering his head toward Carmen's.

"Can I buy you a drink?" he asked. "At Salamanca's?"

She flushed. "Of course."

She was twenty years old, still in the first flush of youth, and he was her first love; her first true love. His name was Tom Almquist, and on nights when she was alone, Carmen whispered his name to herself like a prayer. Like her first lover, he was earnest; like her second, he was funny, although it was humor of a slow, careful kind. But he was different.

"I'll marry you," he whispered the time the condom broke, his lips pressed to her temple. "Don't worry. Either way, I will."

"You can't!" Carmen whispered back.

His massive shoulders rose and fell. "Don't care. I will."

And maybe he would have found a way, because Tom Almquist was a determined young man, and when he found out that Carmen was pregnant for sure, it only made him more determined. But two weeks after they knew for certain, Tom Almquist was killed when his squadron was sent to investigate a report that El Segundo's men had breached the southern wall some twenty miles away. There was a breach, but it was a small one. And there was a booby-trap and a bomb.

The bird in Carmen Garron's heart went silent for a long time.

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