It is very early in the morning when Bush comes to wake me up.
"Get up quickly," he says, his voice barely a whisper. His eyes dart restlessly like he's afraid of the lemon-colored light filtering through the windows. "We've got a body."
I sit up straight. Bush knows things but for the first time, I see fear and pain in his eyes. "Another foreigner?" I ask setting my feet on the floor. The ground is cold. My feet are wet. It's hardly comforting to think about. But still, the question drags in the silence. Is it a foreigner or not?
A week ago, we find a body beneath a tree. I found the body as I ran down to the bakery. It was small and at first, I thought it was a child who'd got lost when the bombs came. Then, as I moved closer, I found that it was a woman. Bush said she was too white to belong around here. Later, we found an identity card, soggy and half torn, in her pockets.
"An American." Bush had said, the words forming in his mouth like an old joke.
Two days ago, we found another body. It was burnt and barely recognizable but we knew it was male. "Don't know how to be safe," Bush said.
"Come out," he says now, firmly, like he's showing the world to a dog.
I follow Bush out of the room. The hallway is dimly lit but we know which place to put our feet. We both know it is foolish to brighten the lights so we stumble forward, quietly, like two lost sheep. I want to make small talks but Bush has a stolid expression masked on his face. He's hardly one to indulge in small talks anyway.
We live in a small house surrounded by trees and dirt. It used to belong to Bush's father until the war came and the man left and never came back. Now, it's Bush's. The house is cold and wet and small. There's a room, a short hallway, a living room, and an odd extension out to the back. That's where Ram is stationed, with bright eyes and red cheeks. He's the joker around, twisting jokes to make it fit. Once, he made a joke about Bush's father. I don't remember the joke or the severity of it but I know that I had to separate a fight that would have caused the rebels to find us.
Ram is Bush's brother-in-law. His wife —Bush's half-sister— Evelyn died of cancer a year ago. They are close but not so much. I am supposed to be the outsider but they call me brother. Sometimes I fear they do that because they can't leave me out. We need help if we want to survive. Right now, we are running out of food and clean water. The only ammunition we have is a rusted gun and four knives. They call me brother as if they are secretly saying: we have no other choice.
I used to deliver the letters around town but when the war came, I ended up in Bush's front door, teary-eyed and bloodstained. "Help me," I said to him. He let me stay.
"Who found the body?" I ask once we've reached outside. Wind tears through my body like cancer, spreading cold, callous hands around my chest. I immediately regret not taking my jacket. It isn't mine. I found it in a drawer in the room. Bush looked at me for a minute, knitting his hands on his thighs.
"It was my father's," he'd said, turning away.
Now, outside with the wind in our hair and dirt on our skins, I wish he can simply let me in.
"I found the body," he says, quietly. There's resignation in his eyes, almost as if he's been waiting for a day like today. Above, the sun is brown and lemon, a mixture of natural sunlight and smoke. I wonder what day today is.
"So is it a foreigner? Male? Female?"
We round a bend and go in through the other side of the house where Ram is supposed to be. Ram knows his way around flour and salt and sugar so he sleeps here where the things are stored. We call it a bakery because he uses his space to bake doughnuts and fantastically weird designs of cookies.
"Are we having Ram along?" the question hangs in the air. We both know that Ram hates seeing dead bodies. He tells us that it reminds him of the power of loss; of the vulnerability of humans and the hate and love of dead people. "He won't like it."
"I know that," he answers.
"So..." I stop. My blood runs cold, my cheeks go pale. It's the first time in days, maybe even weeks that I'm feeling like this. There's no way of describing the coldness that surrounds me now. It's like I'm halfway through hell, that thick cold before the desperate hot.
We find Ram in the space as expected. But he's sitting instead of standing. He's on his mattress, his back pressed against the wall. There's flour on his hands and body and face and he's looking at us. But he's not seeing us. Ram is the second body this week I suppose.
"What happened?" I run to Ram. He's warm like he hasn't been dead for long. I touch his mass of curly brown hair and his face. On his chest, like an emblem, there's a knife. I recognize the handle. Ram's name is on it.
"Killed himself?" I do not expect an answer. I know Ram. He likes living, likes to tell tasteless jokes. He was not an overly good person. Not all the time. Some days, he was an animal who lived outside of his body, outside of his soul. But he was a happy man even though the world was cruel.
Months ago, we all sat here, on his mattress, watching the stars. It was quite different, frankly, from all the other stargazing. We each had a bottle of beer, ones Bush's father had stored before the war broke out. My beer tasted bland. Ram joked about it, said it was someone's piss and Bush nudged my ribs. But it was a playful disaster. The stars were silver, untouched despite the wrongs of the earth. Ram stopped laughing, stopped being funny.
"I wonder how the new world would be like," he'd said.
Bush chuckled dryly. "I wouldn't bet on that, Ram."
Ram stretched out his feet —the same way he's doing now— and shrugged. "Still, I wonder."
I hadn't said a word because of how scanty the stars were, almost as though they knew that we simply wanted to immerse ourselves in the superiority of nature. All I wanted, that night, was to be able to count the stars.
Bush answers, "I don't know if he killed himself."
"Look at how he sits," I say. "His eyes are opened. He couldn't have done it."
"Are you sure?" Bush is wise. He knows everything. He was going to school, was the best in his class, and would have changed the world if he'd been given the chance. But chances aren't given. They aren't taken. There's simply an in-between now.
He's still talking. "His eyes are relaxed. His shoulders are. It's like he was expecting death. He could have killed himself."
Somehow Bush doesn't sound smart now. Disturbed is the word. But he isn't smart now.
"What should we do?" I ask. I am melting in Ram's cold gaze so I close his eyes and I stand up. My knees are cramped from bending in the cold but for once, I ache to lie down on my back on a snow-covered hill. "What do we do?"
When we find dead bodies, we dig graves for them and we push them in and say hail Marys. I wonder if we should bury Ram like that, without remorse, without fear. I wish the day will end but it's just getting started. Days like this never end. They begin and begin and begin until they stop abruptly like an unfinished movie. Ram's laughter rings in the bakery. There's flour on the table and a batch of melting cookies. Ram needs more than just a rushed grave and a prayer that's been rehearsed a couple of times.
"I don't know what we are going to do," Bush says. "But we can't leave him here."
"Bury him?" I spell the words out.
"No," I blurt out.
"What?" he shifts his weight.
"Don't you wonder why he's dead? Don't you wonder?"
He looks at me. I look at him. He blinks. I swallow. Then he talks. "Grab a shovel."
So we start to dig by the corner. His shovel slides in, maliciously hitting the dried sand while mine follows obediently, bending but firm. We do not talk during the digging process but we make his grave deeper than normal. It's not out of fear but we do it regardless of the scorching sun. Once his grave is ready, Bush straightens and looks up ahead.
"You don't think this is right, do you?"
Without Ram, I fear that we are going to die of starvation. Neither of us is good in the kitchen. Bush is good at waiting up. I am good at burying the dead.
"Ram wouldn't kill himself I tell you." But I am telling myself, ignoring the fact that my heart is racing and I am half dead in the simplicity of the grave and the mystery behind his death.
Bush stumbles back to the bakery and shouts for help. Ten minutes later, we drag Ram outside into the sun and nudge him into the grave. He falls in quickly, his face to the sky. We don't pull the knife away from his chest. We leave it in, his name scribbled on it. If the stars ever did come out, it would be three lonely dots. One for him, one for Bush, and one for me. Here in the scrappy house with nothing in sight except for trees that have since lost their meanings, we notice that we are the last two people on earth. The war is just beginning. Houses have burnt down. The government cannot help. But maybe they can. Maybe they don't come because we are not worth saving.
We have been waiting for help but today as I stand before an open grave, I know that I am waiting for the last bomb to blow up.
We start covering the grave with sand. In the end, Ram is nothing but a lonely memory and a fear within a fear. We make our way into the house and clean up space. When Bush goes outside for a smoke, I lie down on the bed and cross my legs.
Months ago, I was a simple man with a dream to be happy. I was going to fall in love and get married and love my children. Now, I am but a lost soul. In my mind and my body, I begin to question reality and if, in the end, I am worth surviving. Ram was not my friend but he was an okay person. I don't suppose there existed in this life or the one before a sort of man who could ignite a fire and yet instill a cold so unbearable.
It's the longest day of my life and it's not because Ram is gone. It's for the sun and the scrappy fingers of guilt around my chest. When I wake up, just for a second, I see Ram staring at me. I push myself backward, against the bed and scream. Bush runs in. I point to the wall. The room is empty save for Bush and me.
"He was here," I say.
"What the fuc," Bush groans. "No more sleeping."
I am the first to see the new visitor. She's running towards the house. Bush grabs my arm and yanks it. It's a sign to grab my knife. We run outside, knives ready. If today is the day we die, we go fighting. It's a rubbish thought but it's the only thing that erases the fear.
The lady falls to the ground. Her hair is dirty and long and braided. She's dark. She's Indian. Her sari is filthy but it doesn't seem to bother her. I reach down to pick her up.
"Don't," Bush commands.
"Please," she whispers. Her breathing is heavy and rough. "Please."
I take Bush back to the bakery. We can see her still on the ground. "Why can't we help her?"
Bush shakes his head. "Where did she come from? Everyone around here is dead. Why does she show up suddenly on the day Ram dies?"
It's a good question. "I don't know," I tell him. "But we need help around. She might be a good cook."
Bush goes to ask her if she knows how to cook. She tells him yes in English and then something else in another language. Then, he shakes his head and asks her how she survived.
"It's strange," she tells him, shivering slightly from the intensity of his gaze.
It's too early to know if she'll poison us but I take her into the kitchen and watch as she puts water in a pot.
"Spoon?" she asks.
I hand her Ram's own.
Bush stands by the door, hands on his waist. It's still noon and so much has happened. I don't think hard about it. I know that we are going to die tonight. Thirty minutes later or was it more, she set the pot down and served the food in three different places. One of the stars will have burnt out.
We sit together on the mattress still stained with his blood and we eat. The war is still on. We can feel slight vibrations on the floor. We can spot black smoke on the horizon. We can tell she's a dirty stranger. And we are hungry. We dig our spoons in and eat food that's bland and soggy.
"You'll stay here," Bush tells her after the food is finished.
"Oh, thank you."
Bush tells me, "If we die tonight, then we did good, right."
We do not die. And the war does not end. Every day continues, tainted with the mystery of Ram's death. And I can count the stars finally.