The Barter

By Jeff West

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Jeff wrote this piece in response to a theme writing prompt from a Prisoner Express newsletter but didn’t submit it as he felt it deviated too much from the original theme. He gave me the privilege and honor of titling his powerful short story for him. I am writing to him to see what he thinks of it.

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The war had been dragging on for a couple of years now, the armies pushing each other back and forth, the battles rolling through our small city again and again, the waves of soldiers carrying off our wealth, our food, even the men, whatever could be used to keep the war going, until the city had been scoured, scoured even of color, and now it huddled wearing shrouds of gray with accents of black ash and white snow falling from above.

I sheltered in a doorway so none would fall on me, though moving through the city without picking up a smudge or two of ash was impossible. Soot drifted down as I watched the street soldiers. At the beginning of the war they had come to take what we had but they had cleaned the city so thoroughly nothing was left for the widow or the orphan, and now instead of praying for them to go away we hoped they could come back so we could prey upon them, taking whatever we could beg, borrow or steal. Or barter, but most of us orphans only had one thing a soldier might want and when they came in from the field, fresh from battle, lusting after strange flesh, we were waiting. I was anxious to see one soldier in particular. I didn’t know his name, wasn’t even sure if he was in the city, though his unit was, and if he was still with them he’d be around sooner or later. I suppose he might have been captured, or even killed, and if that was the case I’d deal with it, but I was hoping to do it myself.

I saw him for the first time weeks and weeks ago. He had been slowly driving up the street looking at who was out and available. A boy sprang out of hiding and snatched a pack from the back of the jeep and tired to sprint to safety. The soldier was too quick. He snatched up his rifle and, before the boy had taken half a dozen steps, the soldier shot him down. He casually retrieved his pack, giving the body a kick before he got back into his jeep. He idled up the street and even though everybody had faded away at the sounds of the shots, he was still looking. But he never looked back. I know this because I watched him drive away as I stood over the body of my friend.

I dug a grave the next day, the same day the soldier and his unit pulled out of town. When I laid my friend down I promised I’d get revenge and I had everything worked out by the time I had the grave filled up.

He probably thought he’d gotten away with it but even I knew, young as I was, that there’s nothing for free in this world. An eye for an eye, that is what I had decided, but a half-grown boy who hadn’t had enough to eat for a couple of years wasn’t much of a threat to a full-grown man, a soldier, a killer. A gun would be best. Shoot him down like a dog. But a gun was out of the question. The soldiers had all of the guns, and soldiers don’t give them up. Not willingly. I could get a bottle of booze though. I was nasty, homemade stuff, but strong, and the soldiers guzzled it. So did I. The booze wouldn’t be enough by itself so I figured I would spike the bottle with a dose of morphine. My own special cocktail. But if the booze was cheap, the morphine was not. It could be had but it cost a lot. The bottle came easy enough but I had to stop drinking to save up for the morphine. That bottle I squirreled away gnawed at my mind, and so did my growing stockpile of food — the food I’d swap for the morphine — when hunger gnawed at my belly. My carefree days were over when I’d work when I was hungry or wanted to get drunk. Now it was a grind of one grubby deal after another without the benefit of a full stomach, without the comfort of the warm fog of booze, without a friend. I felt so low. The only thing I had to get me through it was the hope that someday I’d get revenge. It was enough.

He came on foot this time, carrying his rifle and a pack slung over his shoulder, this man I’d been waiting for and thinking of for weeks. A wave of relief and excitement rushed through me. I was happy to see him. I didn’t wait but went out to meet him and went through the motions haggling a price. We came to an agreement and I led him to the abandoned building, one of many. This one might have been a store but nothing was left except for some bare shelves and the display windows which lay in pieces on the floor. They crackled as we walked to the back room where I had a little nest. He was wary. He made me strip, went through my clothes, then searched the small room. He was happy to find the bottle where I had carefully hidden it, and so was I, though I squawked as he spun the cap off and downed half the bottle. We did some things and after he gulped the rest of the bottle. He must have realized something was wrong because he gave me a funny look and tried to gather his clothes up but he fell down to the floor instead, his eyes drooling out of his head. Then he went to sleep.

I tied him up, looked at the rifle propped against the wall and decided to go through the pack first. Food, clothes, extra bullets, even a few packs of cigarettes which were like cash. Other odds and ends. I picked up the rifle and sat, waiting for him to wake up. I wanted him to see it coming. Things kept circling around my head while I waited. Everything had changed. I had learned how to sacrifice and wait, how to endure and persist. I had an idea that grew stronger the more I thought about it, that I could use those things and build a new life. It all happened because of this guy, and it sickened me to realize in a perverse way I owed him, because he owed me a life and in a way he had given me one. He deserved to die, but I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t start a new life by ending one. I blew out a frustrated breath. Fine. The pig would probably die in the fighting anyway. I stuffed everything into the pack, even his clothes. They were too big but I could trade them for something my size. I threw a ratty blanket over him so he wouldn’t freeze. The pack was heavy, making me stagger a bit as I heaved it up onto my shoulders. It was a lot of weight to carry all the way to the next city. I would make it.

I looked at him before I left, thinking when he woke he could wiggle his way to the street. The thought of him making his way over all that broken glass in the front made me smile. I kicked him as hard as I could and left. I did not look back.

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If you’d like to respond directly to Jeff about his short story, you can contact him at this mailing address:

Jeff West #1599554

Mark W. Stiles Unit

3060 FM 3514

Beaumont, TX 77705

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