The soldiers showed up on Mari’s birthday, so she thought it was her fault. I told her it was only coincidence, but Lily took her away anyhow. Lily said I was wasting my time; it was never about Mari’s birthday. “Mari is a woman now. No matter what you tell her, she’s going to think everything is her fault. Your validation is obsolete. From now on, she’ll always look for things she can blame on herself.”
That was twenty-eight days ago. The soldiers are still here. It wasn’t Mari or the soldiers. Lily wanted to leave. She just needed a good excuse. An army of soldiers marching around in the apartment building was good enough.
The soldiers never sleep. Day and night they march up and down the stairs in a collapsed, winding circle. The building is three stories tall with crosscutting half staircases between floors. There are just enough soldiers that they are always passing one another going in the other direction. All of them are there for the same reason, going in the opposite and same directions all at once.
Marching is not a quiet form of transportation. We can hear them all the time. No one has slept well since they showed up.
Things at work weren’t going well either. My boss, Patrick, launched what he called The Encouragement Program. I was chosen to be the first participant because of what he referred to as my “consistent and impressive performance.” My Encouragement was named Sean. We shared my office. He did the same thing I did. The exact same thing. They gave him my clients, or rather made me share my clients with him. The premise behind the program was that competition would foster higher productivity. Then once I was outperforming my Encouragement, they would send Sean back and bring in another Encouragement for someone else. We would do this until everyone had been through the program and start the whole thing over again. In theory, the program would improve overall performance so much that before long, we would have to hire in more people on a permanent basis. It was supposed to be good for everyone.
For a while, Brian—he lives on the top floor—thought it was his fault the soldiers were there. He never said so, but he’s been tiptoeing around this place ever since they got here. He had told me about a time a couple of years ago when he hit his girlfriend. It had never happened before and hadn’t happened since. He said it was a cross between a punch and a slap, but closer to a punch. They had been sitting on the couch on a Friday or Saturday night, and his girlfriend, Shannon, kept talking on and on about the next trip she wanted them to take. She always had them going on trips. This time it was a cruise. Brian felt himself getting angry like he usually did when she went on like this, but this time his anger didn’t plateau; it grew and grew until he reached over and popped her in the face. Just like that. One minute nodding and pretending to agree and the next, bam! He punched her in the face. He said he was as surprised as she was at what he had done, and for the next few minutes, they just sat there on the couch with blank expressions, Shannon tenderly feeling her face and he gingerly squeezing his extended fingers. It left a big dark bruise on her face. They called off work for a week to give the bruise time to fade. When their respective supervisors asked, they each said the other had surprised them with a cruise. He had never told anyone else about that, and for the life of him, couldn’t figure out what made him tell me. But he did. He didn’t ask me not to tell anyone, so I tell everyone. Not because I don’t like him. I do. But now he makes me a little nervous about myself, and talking about it helps keeps my nerves at bay.
After a couple weeks, my Encouragement started to get the best of me. I was doing my best, but I was exhausted and this Sean guy was like a machine. A machine wearing a disguise of prosthetics and make up to look like me. He told me this one night when we were working late. Well, I was working late. He just stayed to tell me how he had managed to do everything faster than me and ask why I wasn’t doing it that way. I told him to lay off. I hadn’t been getting much sleep lately. Up to that point, I had done a good job of keeping what was going on at home a secret, but I was exhausted and that night I slipped and said, “You try and sleep every night with an army marching outside your door.”
So I had to tell him about the soldiers, and he told me that was no excuse. That he didn’t get much sleep either on account of having to wake up two hours earlier than normal to put this whole “get up” on. Neither of us believed the other. I never thought he looked that much like me to begin with.
Lisa, from down the hall, thought they were there to take her away. That they were just waiting for the right time when no one would notice. I’ve tried to calm her down, always over the phone, because she won’t come out anymore. I tell her that if they were there for her, she would already be gone. That if they took her, if that’s what they were there for, then they would leave once they had her, and even if no one noticed she was gone, we would certainly notice the soldiers were gone, and someone would do something to get her back or at least make sure she was okay. It didn’t do any good.
She worried about not being missed. She had family—kids that lived a couple miles away, but they hadn’t come to visit since she had moved in. That was five years ago. Every once in a while, she would get a postcard or a couple of pictures in the mail.
Then the inevitable happened. Patrick called me into his office to let me know the company decided to let me go and keep Sean. Part of it was because he was so likable and efficient. Everyone liked me, too, to a degree, but I was just too “innocuous.” He was sorry, said the whole thing was his fault. Except for the part where I couldn’t keep up with my Encouragement. It was an experiment gone horribly awry, and he was canceling the program immediately.
There was one guy in the building, on the second floor, who didn’t act like it was his fault, so naturally for a while there, I thought it was. I had one conversation with him in the parking lot where he said he admired the soldiers’ determination and patience. Aside from that, he had always been a nice and unassuming older man. Heavy. Not the way old football players get heavy. He was just round. His chest was puffed out so much it changed the angle his neck came out of his chest. Even when he was relaxed his head tilted to the sky. The only way for him to look at you was to look down. But he always looked at you with a smile.
He had been a surgeon. Or at least I think he was surgeon. That’s what I get from the conversations we have when he’s sitting in his car. We pass each other in the mornings, he going to sit in his car, I leaving for work. He’s still there when I get back, and when he sees me, he rolls down his window and calls me over to tell me another story about taking things out of people.
“That’s what I used to do,” he says. “I was the best. For me, everything was like silk. I slid my hands inside, and it was like there were eyes on my fingertips. Really. I could see everything I felt.
“But then I took out too much. I just couldn’t stop myself. Mason Kendall. He was only nineteen. There was just too much cancer inside. I didn’t realize how much until I was inside. And I couldn’t stop. I had to take it all out and it killed him. I guess part of that cancer was keeping him alive. It feels like blasphemy to say so, but it has to be true. At the hearing where they took my license away, I told them they were all just wasting their time. There was no way I could practice medicine anymore. I knew too much about it now.”
There was a Russian living there, too. No one knew his name. He had a kid. They always looked like they hadn’t slept in weeks, even before the soldiers came. They had pale, grumpy faces with dark bags under their eyes. They wore tracksuits and never talked to anyone but each other. On good days, they would grunt or mumble something back when you said hello or good morning. They’d never look at you, though. They acted like they were up to some kind of no good.
When the soldiers showed up, the Russian started packing up his things, and every night he would drop a box out of his window, run downstairs, and put it in the dumpster. After seven days, there were no more boxes, and the Russian was the most pleasant man in the building. You couldn’t walk past him without him trying to strike up an ultra-polite, canned conversation. “Well! Hello, sir! It’s good to see you. You look well. And how is your day? I hope you enjoy this nice weather. I know I will. My son and I are going to the park to throw a baseball back and forth. Then we eat hotdogs and cheeseburgers, drink light beer, and come home and watch The Tonight Show.”
Now that he was happy, he seemed more sinister and threatening than ever.
One night I went to the dumpster to see what was in the boxes. They were full of trinkets, magazines, birthday cards, church programs, uniforms, and board games—all from Russia. I knew what he was doing. Turning the past into a secret you can throw away can seem like a viable solution when faced with undefined danger.
Then there was Mr. Responsible. He wouldn’t shut up about how he thought it was all his fault because he hadn’t paid his bills. He never used to talk to anyone, but now it was like he was permanently stuck in the throes of a chatty anxiety attack. He was certain all of his credit and collection agencies had gotten together and hired this private army to march up and down the steps in circles to shame him into paying. Debt can make people crazy. He finally broke and got a loan from his father to pay everything off. The soldiers didn’t go away, and he felt even worse than before because now everyone knew he owed everyone money, and his only solution was to borrow more money. That’s when we started calling him Mr. Responsible.
One day there was a couple sitting in a car in front of the building looking lost. They wanted to know if I had seen Lisa. I had, but her fear made me protective of her, whether I wanted to be or not. They said they were her kids. They had knocked on the door and she wasn’t answering. They stood there for ten, fifteen minutes. It sounded like she was in there, but it was hard to tell for sure with all the marching and stomping going on. Had I seen her? Did I know if she was there? Her car was there, so they imagined that she was. We could see the soldiers marching through the window in the front door, and I thought it was strange her kids didn’t question their presence.
“I saw her not long ago, but I’m pretty sure she went out. I think someone came over and picked her up. She had a bag with her. I think they were going away for the weekend.”
Her kids were about my age. They were visibly disappointed. For a second, it looked like they were going to have an argument over if they should stay or not, or if they should just break in and wait. Before it turned into anything real, they both kind of gave up and drove away.
Back inside I called Lisa. “They’re gone,” I told her.
“Thank you, Simon.”
Simon was her son’s name. It was a slip. Probably an intentional one. I held the phone next to my head for a few minutes after she hung up. I needed to call and see how Mari was doing.
Lily said Mari was at practice. She was in track now. She was busy most of the time. Probably wouldn’t have very much time to talk to me for the next few years. That’s just the way it goes. It wouldn’t be any different if we were all still together. If I wanted to, I could come to one of her meets. It would be okay as long as I just sat in the stands like one of her fans. She had a lot of fans. She’s quite the runner. She was making quite a name for herself. She added that it was probably better if I didn’t complicate things.
“That’s fine. I just wanted to say hi. Does she ever ask about me?”
“She used to. Not so much anymore. She talks more about the building. That’s how she remembers things now, places. The things that happened in the blue building. If she brought up anything else she would only blame herself.”
“I know,” I say. That’s not what I want for her. Mari’s better off. And so is Lily. Then I tell her that I can’t help but ask if she ever misses anything.
She tells me that she knows one thing for sure, that she doesn’t miss is all that noise. She can still hear it. Marching up and down those stairs. She said the sound was like an old factory time clock getting punched over and over and over again. And she kept saying that, over and over, until I hung up.
It was shortly after that that the uprising happened. You don’t send an army someplace if you don’t mean for them to do something.
One day, all at once, the soldiers stopped marching, kicked our doors in, and stormed the premises. It lasted for hours. When they were done, there was nothing left. Everything was destroyed. It’s one of those things you don’t want to start describing, because every detail invites more questions, and no one cares if this is the last thing in the world you want to talk about, the questions still come. We all just want to put this behind us as soon as we can. This happens all the time.
There were a few of us that made it out okay. I was one of them. Obviously. Maybe everyone made it out. I don’t know. We didn’t keep in touch. I only know the ones I saw walking away made it. We had no loyalty. No one suggested hanging around to dig through the rubble to check for the others. If we were going to dig, there would have had to be someone screaming for help from under all that debris. The surgeon made it. I saw his big silhouette walking off into the distance. Brian made it, but only because he was away on vacation when it happened. I don’t think Lisa made it. She might have, but something tells me she’s gone. The Russian made it but probably not his kid. Russians are magnets for undeserving tragedy.
The funny thing was that in all that rubble, there weren’t any signs of the soldiers. Nothing. It was like they had never been there at all.
Not long after that, I went to one of Mari’s track meets. Lily wasn’t lying. She was good. Really good. Everyone knew who she was. There were people with her name painted on banners, some of them so big they took four people to hold.
I was in the stands right over where she was limbering up with a couple of other girls on the team. She was telling them about the uprising. That she used to live where it happened. She brought me up. There were details she gave in blurry watercolors. She said that somehow I had brought the whole thing on them. I was to blame.
Now, I agreed with Lily; Mari had become a woman.
I didn’t stay for the whole thing. I had participated in a lot of clubs and sports in school but never track. I had no idea the meets were all-day events. Once Mari’s events were over, I started making my way to the exit. Before I left I turned back once more to see Mari. That’s when I spotted Sean. He was sitting two sections away wearing a white t-shirt with “Go Mari!” scrawled across the chest in blue paint. He was looking right at me, clapping. Clapping because I was leaving. I froze, staring at him, waiting for him to wave or even just give a smile or nod of recognition, but he never did. Then another event must have ended because everyone else in the stands joined him, applauding and stomping their feet on the aluminum bleachers. It sounded just like the reverberating footsteps of those soldiers marching up and down the stairs. As I left, I knew that this would keep me up at night the same way the soldiers did, only this would never go away.
Nathan Willis is from Ohio and is currently working on a collection of short stories.