by Dianne Rees

I could see the soldiers who patrolled the base from my food cart. I parked on the corner right across the fence line—a prime piece of real estate in my business. When the soldiers came strolling out of the barracks with a yen for things that tasted foreign, I sold them meat pies and tamales and sweet cakes soaked in rum. When they wanted to be reminded of home, I sold them cola and sausages nestled in hot dog buns. Today, business was bad. The torrential rains from the night before had made everyone sluggish. There was a lone soldier on patrol, walking up and down the fence line. He chewed gum and it made the muscles of his cheek jump. He held on to his weapon with an insolent disregard, even though no one was around to observe him but me. He stopped at a part of the fence almost ten yards from me. He didn't look at me. His eyes were fixed on other things.

He was watching two girls—children really—walking to the church school that was just down the hill. The soldier's eyes were dull and keen at the same time. You could imagine what he saw in the girls, their plaid skirts sliding up stick legs. One of the girls, Henriette, was more developed than the other. Her sweater strained against the two small bumps of her breasts. The other girl, Magritte, was at that androgynous stage. Her stride hitched as if she periodically forgot the mechanics of walking. They were both good girls. They always went to school early so they could help the sisters.

The soldier was handsome and when he called to them, his voice was soft and didn't seem threatening. When they came up close, giggling and flattered by the attention, he reached into his pocket, suggestively moving his hand in his trouser pocket. Magritte stopped laughing. She was starting to get what was going on, but Henriette was slower and she was still laughing when she saw the soldier withdraw his hand from his pocket, pulling out a twenty dollar bill. He smiled as if he was a conjurer divining magic. Margritte darted a glance a Henriette. She seemed embarrassed by her friend's inability to recognize danger. Henriette's dress clung to her body, hitching up at her rump. Her sweater stretched across her chest. The soldier leered, taking it all in. He whispered something to the girls. He waved the twenty dollar bill at them. He licked his lips and pantomimed licking something. "Mmmm, mmm," he murmured, mimicking gustatory delight. The girls' eyes widened. Twenty dollars is so much money. People are so poor here. So hungry. Henriette reached her hand in tentatively through the fence, and as soon as her fingers were through the gate, the soldier grabbed her wrist. He moved her hand to touch him there.

I didn't move. I am not the judge of what people do for money, for food. Tears were streaming down Henriette's face and Magritte looked stunned. She couldn't look away from the man's thing. He said something to Magritte and she blushed. He let Henriette's hand go and Henriette drew it back as if it was scorched. The man held out the twenty dollars, but just behind the fence line, and with his other hand he reached into his pocket again. He pulled out another twenty dollars. He whispered to Magritte and she started to cry but she kept looking at the money flapping in the man's hand. She turned around slowly so that her back was to the fence and drew her skirt up. He moved closer to the fence and I saw the expression of horror on Magritte's face as he seemed to rub against her. Her hands were shaking, but she kept her skirt held up, the skirt the nuns had told her to keep clean and neatly pressed. The soldier let out a grunt and pushed her away. Henriette reached for the money, but he darted away, laughing. "Sorry girls. My shift is up." He chortled uproariously at that. He zipped up his pants and picked up his rifle from the ground where he'd laid it. He spit, and the mucous liquid landed by Magritte's foot. Both girls remained outside the fence, looking at each other and then looking away. "But the money," Magritte said finally in a small, hysterical voice, as the soldier started walking away. The soldier looked back. "If you did that for money, that would make you a whore. Solicitation is illegal on this base." He said the word "whore" in our language so the girls would not misunderstand. He hitched his private parts up and chuckled, a low mean sound. He'd pulled a fast one with two thirteen-year olds and was quite proud of himself.

Magritte and Henriette ran. They grabbed each other's hands like first graders and they ran, but not towards the school. The soldier was still laughing as he walked towards the barracks. He was not ashamed.

Through shift changes, other soldiers came to the fence. They stood guard in ones or twos. They made conversations with the locals. Or they walked past the fence to my food stand and bought spicy meats and fruit juices or my few precious cans of soda. For the most part, the soldiers don't consider us a threat. I didn't see the soldier who took advantage of those girls and I didn't ask about him. I receive money and count out change. But that was not the end of it.

Magritte was alone, but Henriette had an aunt she had lived with since the day her mother had drowned in the bay. When Tante Macoup saw her niece's tear-stained face and Magritte's stony expression as they came in house, she did not berate them for not being in school. She shepherded the girls to the kitchen table and made them strong tea.

Henriette was soon sobbing and even Magritte, who normally kept her feelings inside, had tears streaming down her face. Tante Macoup told me this later. We are old friends. We went to school together and she has always confided in me.

Tante Macoup told me that Henriette was devastated by what the soldier had done and that she could barely stop crying to tell her story. In Henriette's story, the soldier reached through the fence as Henriette walked by and forced Magritte to do what she did next. Henriette told Tante that the soldier said he would not let go of Henriette unless Magritte came closer. When he forced Henriette to touch his member, Magritte rushed towards him to stop him and then he grabbed her by the neck and turned her around. Tante told me that Magritte's face turned red with shame as Henriette said this and more. I learned that the girls did not tell Tante everything. They did not tell her that they were led to the fence in the beginning by the soldier's handsome face and his startling blue eyes. By the way he looked at them as if they were women. They did not tell Tante about the money. And this is what they were most ashamed of. But why should they have said any of this, really? They are little girls and what the soldier did was despicable. Why should they have admitted to what everyone knows? That times are desperate and that things are not fair. It did not bear saying, in that kitchen, on that day, when they were still reeling from the sorrow of it.

When the girls finished with their story, Tante told me that she walked outside and watched the sun set over her run-down cottage. She thought about Henriette's mother, her sister, and about the way that some people do not recover from some things. She decided that the girls' story would not end at her kitchen table. She grabbed a boy who was running past in the dusty alley behind her house and she got a message to her son, Claude.

Now, Tante is my dear friend and I love her, but her son, Claude, is a no-account. He used to be in the army, in those days before the coup, when the dictator hired thugs off the street to do his violence for him. And violence came naturally to that boy. You could see it in his eyes, even when he was a small child. You could see it in the way he brought his fist down once, twice, and even three times more than necessary to administer a school yard beating. After the army, or perhaps during, he started dealing in drugs, in stolen goods, and other commodities. With the money he made, he brought his own house where he lived with his girlfriend who was only three years older than Henriette. She was a skinny, lank-haired creature who worshipped Claude and the heroin that he kept in ample supply.

When Claude heard what had transpired at the base, he was livid. He took the girls' dishonor as an affront to his own pride. On any other day, Claude was barely mindful that he had a cousin. And if he ever saw Magritte on the street, he was as likely as any of his other cronies to wolf-whistle at her and make lewd remarks. But on that day, Claude decided to avenge Henriette's honor and Magritte's while he was at it. He brought a cadre of his pals, thugs all of them, and they sat in Tante's kitchen, their knees knocking under the small table. Tante Macoup served them warm drink and liquor. She knew what she was doing. She was not ashamed to tell me this later. She shrugged as she recounted it. "You have a weapon, you have to load it," she said.

Tante made the girls come out into the kitchen. In their white cotton nightgowns, they looked every bit as young as they were. She made them describe the soldier's face. Claude's crew was silent in the kitchen. They were reverential. Not a word of disrespect passed their lips this night.

One of the small boys who followed Claude about as if he was a rock star was dispatched to the base to lure the soldier out from behind the fence with a promise of whiskey and a woman in a hotel room who would do special nasty things. The rest of the group waited a few minutes, then got up. When they left Tante Macoup's house, they walked out through the alley. They gathered planks with nails in them, loaded their pockets with stones, and more than a few of them, including Claude, flashed their knives, their switchblades. If Tante Macoup noticed this was a mob that has lost its ability to reason, to consider consequences, she did not say anything to call them back. She did not even tell Claude to be careful. This was something that she had stopped saying. I imagined her standing there, backlit in her doorway, her arms folded across her ample breasts. Knowing that Claude would come back blood-spattered and that much harder than he was before. But this night was for Henriette, Tante told me. For Henriette and Magritte. Having lost their innocence, their new womanhood demanded a sacrifice.

And that was what they got. In the morning, the soldier was found tied to a fence on the other side of town. He was beaten and bloody. When the Military Police came and untied him, when they removed the gag from his mouth, they found that the soldier's testicles had been stuffed in his mouth. He was alive, but just barely. He had lost a lot of blood.

I did not know immediately what had happened. I was setting up my food stand when the sirens split the morning air. There were two soldiers by the fence line that morning and they whispered urgently to each other each time their paths crossed. They glanced outside the fence line suspiciously. I sighed. Business would be slow again. That was all I knew then.

About half an hour later, Tante Macoup stopped by on the way to the church school with the two girls in tow. She would be walking them to and from school for a while, she told me. As they lingered at my food stand, Tante seemed itching to tell a story. The girls were hopping from one foot to another, wearing that condescending look that young girls get around old people. As Tante went through the tale, I watched the girls' expressions. Magritte's expression was stony. Henriette's was wide-eyed and shocked-looking and a little excited.

I asked her gently, "How do you feel now, Henriette?" She swiveled her head to look at me—she'd been watching the fence. "He got what he deserved," she said quickly. Then she said stiffly, as if she'd rehearsed the words, "The soldiers came here. We did not invite them. They said they were peacekeepers. They were not. That man, he should not have corrupted us like that."

I watched Tante Macoup. She was nodding at what Henriette was saying. She knew what had been lost and she would live with this. They would all live with this.

BIO: By day, Dianne Rees writes about science and the law. By night and early morning, she writes fiction that has appeared in Vestal Review, Spillway Review, Farmhouse Magazine, The Scruffy Dog Review, Planet Magazine, Universe Pathways, The Harrow, Halfway Down the Stairs, Atomjack, I Am This Meat, Neon, and The Indie Underground. She has just completed her first novel.