This article is part of the That Insidious Beast series.
I can feel them long before we are in sight of Ashland City. It's not quite a smell, but it's not too different from the stench of a hog farm. My skin prickles on my arms and neck. They are congealed grease on my brain.
The three of them are rancid.
Fatso turns off of the highway and follows a county road that crosses a river. Must be the Cumberland. It's nearly dark and the river's water looks like oil. Bursts of radiance in the sky illuminate its banks and shimmer on the surface. It reminds me of Fourth of July fireworks.
On the other side of the river we fall in behind a column of stopped traffic. There are transports full of soldiers, light armored vehicles, and big freight trucks waiting to get through a checkpoint. Fatso drives off the road and cuts in ahead of the other vehicles. One of the trucks near the front of the line leaves an opening so Fatso can swerve back onto the road.
Try that move on a trucker without a big, creepy tender cross splashed across your hood.
The checkpoint is manned by MPs. One look at the truck and Fatso behind the wheel and the trooper waves us through. I remember Ashland City as a fairly quaint little town. It has grown and swollen unhealthily by the influx of troops and hangers-on from Fourth Army HQ.
Concrete pylons topped with immense broadcast towers have been erected in a perimeter around the edge of the town. Clustered around and between each pylon are slums of plywood and corrugated tin shacks.
Ragged refugees throng the roadside selling worthless trinkets, themselves, or just begging for charity. A few soldiers throw them candy bars or cigarettes, but these are the exceptions. Most of the soldiers stare straight ahead. Some shout angrily for the crowds to get back. They hurl curses or fire their weapons into the air.
Gaunt, half-human figures fall back in dismay. Women hold their babies out to the passing vehicles and wail for them to be taken.
They all turn away at the sight of the tender's cross on the hood of our truck. They are too ashamed or too afraid to face us as we pass.
We approach an inner ring of security walls topped with razor wire. There is a second checkpoint. The hardened guardhouse is buried in a pile of sandbags. A wooden sign erected next to the recessed door reads, "CAMP ISAAC" and beneath that, "HQ Fourth Army."
Heavy guns swivel to track us as we pull in behind a staff car stopped at the checkpoint. Beyond the fortifications I can see most of the original structures of Ashland City alongside newer military buildings. A flag flaps sullenly in the dead air above the guardhouse.
Fatso whistles. I can almost recognize the tune. He drums his fingers on the steering wheel.
Tap, tap, tap, tap-tap, tap-tap.
Clump, clump, clump, clump.
A battle-scarred hoplite strides up beside the truck. It is proportioned roughly as a man, but with thick, awkward limbs encased in hardened armor. There is no head, just a lump atop its shoulders and a ring of sensors and lenses.
It leans in towards the window with a whir of internal machinery.
Green sensor beams sweep back and forth across the interior of the truck. The light dazzles my vision. My arms and neck prickle with tension. The bomb taped to my chest feels as if it is glowing with heat.
After years of being misunderstood, I had hoped we finally had "our" story. I was wrong.
He had a yellow inflatable tube around his waist, the kind with a comical duck head. There was a tiny fish in one of his hands, and a trident in the other. In the background a squirrel wearing shades was water skiing.
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