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The Thing You Want

Outside of what was left of Atlanta, they discovered the great brick house, hidden in a thick grove of walnut trees. The grass was so high in the yard around it that the blades had fallen over into brown clumps beneath their own weight.

They assumed it was abandoned, a prime target for a hiatus from the monotonous routine of marching and standing for reveille three times daily to identify stragglers. Since the young lieutenant was away tending to another small matter, they drifted closer and found themselves in an alternative world of silence and loneliness.

The war had not touched the house with slugs or shells. Rather, an invisible icy hand had peeled paint away and wilted flowers, leaving a dead flavor to it, as if it were somehow like one of the thousands of soldier corpses left on the battlefield unburied to slowly rot away.

They walked right up to the porticoed entrance and started to open the oak door. Someone inside, however, plucked it open first.

"What do you want?"

A withered, languorous old woman stared at them blankly.

"What do you want?" she said again, more irritably.

Cabe stepped across the threshold and brushed her aside. The darkened hallway smelled of cinnamon and lanolin, a combination that made him think of Egyptian mummies. He reasoned that the kitchen would probably be near the back of the house, so he started that direction, careful not to trip over any hidden obstacles.

"There's nothing back there," the old woman protested, pulling at his sleeve.

Cabe ripped his arm away and ignored her. There was a yellow light further along that contained the promise of something hidden.

"The only food I have is out in the cellar," she said, her voice cracking, something dying in it.

Cabe pushed a door open and discovered the kitchen, a bright room filled with hanging pots, a long bare table, and a cavernous stone fireplace which didn't appear to have been used in a great deal of time.

He also discovered a remarkable creature standing in the corner beside a large cupboard, poised as if about to climb inside. She was frozen in a moment of unbridled fear, though Cabe could see immediately that she was unusually beautiful, a rare flower on the cusp of blooming.

He stopped to study her and found that all thoughts and desires for food had evaporated into the silence. It had been months since he had seen anything that could stir that deeply buried portion of his instinct that now cried out so dramatically. In fact, he had been at home, on leave, when the last such surge occurred.

Now he looked at the sun colored dress, which made her velvet hair look like a flowery disk surrounded by daisy petals, and he realized that it was absurd to ignore it. He moved several steps closer and she still remained motionless, a statue of unknown substance, though definitely warm and alive.

"What are you doing?" Cabe asked her softly.

"Leave her alone!" the old woman said, appearing behind him suddenly with clenched fists and black marble eyes.

"Get her out of here," Cabe said, and the other soldiers complied, the door shutting behind them as they left. Cabe moved another step closer.

"What are you doing?" he asked again.

She still refused to look at him, though he could see movement now; her slender hands trembling and her lips mouthing attempts at some kind of speech.

"I'm just looking after my grandmother," she said suddenly.

Cabe snorted. "It looks the other way around to me."

He moved one more step closer.

The war was so insane. There was nothing good about it; no redeeming ethic or cause worthy of so much suffering. Beyond a certain impossibleness, right and wrong didn't matter anymore, and behavior was strictly a manifestation of the chaos around it.

No one deserved what they got, good or bad.

"You're very beautiful," he whispered.

She turned away from him to face the wall, as if unwilling to confront reality straight on.

It bothered Cabe that she did that. He reached out with one hand and pulled on her shoulder somewhat roughly until she spun around.

When her amber eyes finally made unwilling but inevitable contact with his, Cabe felt a shock that was both terrible and thrilling. In her eyes was a color so startling, so unpredicted, that it almost threw him into a kind of battlefield shock. She quickly looked down, but the magnetic force had already taken hold.

"You're about the only damn thing I've seen around here that's not worth putting a slug into without any questions."

He carefully set his rifle down on the table, without taking his gaze off of her. He ran his fingers through her hair and turned her head around again.

"Where did you get those eyes?"

The shaking moved from her hands up through her neck to her face and lips. The wall was behind her; Cabe solidly in front of her.

"What do you want?" she said, her voice trembling like everything else.

"What do all men want?" he said brusquely, reaching for bright yellow petals.

At that moment someone else entered the room. Cabe had the sixth sense common to survivors of war, and he turned around to reach for his weapon.

"What are you doing?" the young lieutenant asked, picking up the Cabe's rifle and holding it in a neutral position.

"Looking for food, sir."

"You won't find it in her dress, Private. Get out of here before this rifle accidentally discharges."

Cabe tried to glare at the young officer with hatred and found he couldn't. Instead, he looked back at the girl. Her position had not changed, and her eyes were still demurely averted.

Outside, everything appeared normal again. No one asked any questions. Something inside of him was dead, though, and at the same time, a tiny spark was flickering. No one deserved what they got.