Before the drought, at this point of the trail, Andrew could remember the sky becoming nothing more than speckles of blue light that glimmered through the trees. However now, all Andrew could see was how large the sky really was; or rather, how dead the forest had become.
The tires on his mountain bike skidded slightly as they pulverized the large crumbles of dirt on the trail to dust. He knew the preserve well. Pretty soon he would veer to the left and begin riding on a trail of wood chips. The sign at the entrance of this part read NO BIKES, NO MOTOR VEHICLES, CLEAN UP YOUR PET’S WASTE. He blew past it, leaving a faint cloud of dust floating like an apparition behind him.
Wood chips spat up under his tires as he rode on, a few of them biting at his ankles. In minutes he would be out of the woods and onto the paved road that led down to Lake Michigan.
On the paved street, the road swooped almost endlessly, twisting and turning downhill. How the speed would thrill Andrew’s bones, and how the wind would envelop him like a cool sheet on a hot, summer night. He longed for it as wood chips scattered beneath him, cracking wildly under the worn rubber of his spinning tires.
As he rounded the final curve of the wooded path, the paved trail came into site, and there it sat, a faded green piece of heavy artillery, keeping watch over the lake. Andrew rode up to it, slamming on his breaks at the last possible moment so his tires would grip and tear at the pavement. He hopped off the bike and lowered it gently to the ground. The kickstand had fallen off years ago.
THE BOFORS 40 MM AUTOMATIC GUN, Andrew read on the sign before him. It was not uncommon to find old military weapons on display in this area. The area was known as Fort Westleigh, and had been a major center for training military units during both World Wars. It had since been converted into a 250-acre forest preserve.
Andrew walked along the right side of the weapon and became captivated by its size. He clunked his knuckles on the armor to see how solid it really was. This thing was the real deal, he thought as he rubbed his pink knuckles.
The rubber tires on the weapon came up to about his waist, and the barrel extended over the ridge and into the horizon of the lake. Underneath the barrel, at the edge of the ridge, were thick information plaques, bound together like a binder with heavy-duty steel rings.
“The Bofors 40MM gun is a famous anti-aircraft cannon,” Andrew began to read. “The Swedish company Bofors developed it in 1929 for the Swedish navy. It was a very popular World War II anti-aircraft system used by most of the Western Allies.” On the next page was a photo of a man holding a two-pound 40MM cartridge. It looked like those freakish ears of corn you would see from time to time in pictures from a hodunk state fair, with a caption: “World’s Largest Ear of Corn.”
He turned the page and found the specs of the Bofors: a muzzle velocity of 2,800 feet per second, maximum effective range—3,000 yards—single or automatic firing modes, and a complete weight of about three tons.
He walked around to the other side of the gun and saw where soldiers sat, ready to fire at intruding aircrafts. This specific weapon had only been used to fire down drones during training exercises in 1942. Still, how exciting that would have been. Andrew gazed at the seat and was overwhelmed with a sudden desire to sit in it. He looked to see if anyone was around. He was twenty-two years old and knew it would look a little strange to see someone his age “playing” on such a big toy. But there wasn’t anyone around. Only silence. So, he saddled up.
It was a tight squeeze getting into the seat. He sat his butt down first, then swung his right leg over the triggers, and bonked his kneecap on the bottom edge of the right trigger. Pain fired up his leg. His face scrunched as he rubbed his kneecap furiously in a counter-clockwise motion. If anyone saw him now, he began to think, how dumb he would appear. But still, no one in sight.
The pain eased, and was now only a dull ache. He settled his feet on the resting plates, and placed both hands on the triggers. The safety must be on, he thought jokingly as they didn’t budge at his squeeze. A wheel to his right aimed the barrel left and right, but that was locked as well.
He gazed out into the horizon of the lake, squinting in the sunlight. There was a plane—actually, quite a few planes—that appeared to be gliding towards him. Enemy incoming, he playfully imagined. But just like that, the playfulness of his thoughts fled as the incoming whistle, and following blast of aircraft fire ripped past him. A tree behind him shredded into toothpicks and suddenly Andrew’s ears screamed with a disorienting whine. Whistles turned into roars as more fire came.
“Enemy incoming! This ain’t a drill, boy!” Andrew turned shallowly to his left and saw he was surrounded by soldiers dressed in brownish-green 1941 field uniforms. “Start firing those mother fucking planes down before I fire you down!”
All of a sudden, Andrew snapped back into consciousness. He placed his hand on the wheel and began turning it counter-clockwise. The barrel rotated with a menacing squeal as he lined up one of the aircrafts in the Bofor’s site. Now all he had to do was pull the trigger and see where this baby went.
His finger depressed the trigger and a huge shock rattled his senses. Death and destruction pulsed through his entire body.
“What in the fuck are you doing, son? Pull that fucking trigger,” the commander shouted from behind. The planes still approached from the east, and so did their fire.
A shot ripped through the tire of the Bofors. A loud hiss followed as the machine slumped heavily to the left. Andrew quickly adjusted the aim, and pulled the trigger, this time holding it down. He held until his hands were numb from the force, and then he held some more.
A blazing flame erupted in the horizon. His heart pounded in his chest like a caged gorilla. Another plane’s wing fluttered off in a hail of smoke and spun dizzyingly into the lake.
“Let them Japs have it, boys!” A soldier hollered unheard before a round turned him into a mess of blood and guts. Another soldier shouted for a medic out of habit.
The planes approached closer and the fire roared from Andrew’s hands. And just like that, like a whistling demon, a deafening blast blew him from his seat. Completely disoriented and on the verge of consciousness, he tumbled head over heels through the sky.
Flashes of sky-blue and dirt-brown rolled through his eyes like film through a projector. His brain pressed against the top of his skull from the centrifugal force, and in one quick, spine shattering thump, he hit the ground and skidded to a stop against a tree.
He was on his back; his body, numb, but his brain still functioning. He was staring straight up into the glimmering sky, lightly covered by the feeble leaves of the tree.
Oh how dead the forest had become.
Kevin Tosi is a recent graduate from the University of Illinois, twenty-two years old, and ready for whatever is coming next in life… he thinks. He enjoys going on long bike rides that allow his mind to wander.