What Child is This?
(Chapter 1 of a novella, Tooth and Nail)
They call us Grits. It’s good a name as any, I guess.
At first it was just stories about the Darwins freeing children or animals out in the country, meaning they take them away and nobody ever sees them again. We didn’t believe it for awhile, but then the Provost shut down that preacher’s radio station for saying children were disappearing. Mama and Daddy sent us into the woods behind the back pasture with the dogs and the animals. We sharpened tool handles and hid food. Then Mama and Mrs. Leabo got arrested selling bootleg produce up on Cardinal Ridge Road. The KinderGuard caught Daddy and Uncle Gene during a sweep at a healing. They never came back.
Fondren ran away to join the Provos in the Debatable Lands, so I took care of our little sisters and the animals. That’s how it happens. Suddenly, you’re alone. I never thought I’d wish school started.
I let the pigs and the cows go and kept Lola’s horse tied up in the brush with us. I moved the lot of us out to Uncle Gene’s fish-camp on the Aucilla river, off Sinkola Road below the Miccosukee dam. The trailer had rust holes and leaked and wasn’t big enough to cuss a cat in, but I told Lois and Lola we were just camping for awhile.
“Soon Mama and Daddy’ll come back and we can go home.”
Lola ate her Vienna sausage and kept quiet, but not Lois. Lois is a pistol ball. “We ain’t neither,” she said, the salty Vienna-water dribbling down her chin. “Mama and Daddy ain’t coming back, and we ain’t got no place else to go.”
“Shut-up,” I told her. “You’ll scare Lola.”
She was scaring me. I knew we couldn’t keep eating out of cans right on. First thing next morning I went outside and looked at the sky. It was clean as the inside of a barn. I tapped my thumb on the handle of the Wrist Rocket sticking out of my back pocket and did some thinking. The wisteria hung like grapes from the vines in the thickets and the bare branches of the hardwoods, the first haze of green buds looking like a trick of the light. A good day to go noodling for catfish. So after warning Lois and Lola again to stay out of sight, I took Bear with me into the woods. I left Chilly with the twins. She wouldn’t move unless they did. I wasn’t worried about them. They knew how to lie still in the palmettos behind Uncle Gene’s rusted out propane tank and stay clear of the Darwin highway patrols.
The sun slanted across the black trunks of the trees as I picked my way through the heavy thickets and came out of the woods at Sinkola Road near the little wood bridge. I ducked underneath and slid down the bank to the sand path that follows the river like a white shadow. I went fast now. I was in a hurry to find some good holes, scoop’em, and get back. The sweat ran down into my eyes. I wiped my face on my sleeve. Bear panted behind me and sometimes waded in the shallows. Once, a baby breeze with a little bit of winter still in it blew across the water and tickled the back of my neck like a turkey feather.
But noodling took longer than I thought. The water was low and the best holes were dry, so I had to go way down past the lower 319 bridge to find any good ones. The Aucilla is the color of weak tea, and slow as a car out of gas except when they’re letting water out of the lake. I took off my shoes and tied them together and strung them around my neck and waded into the trough up to the pockets of my jeans, feeling for holes with my bare feet along the ooze and the cracks in the slope to the muddy bottom. If I found a hole that went back far enough for something to hide in it, I took a breath and went under and searched it out with my hand. I waded along downstream about a quarter-mile like that. The bank climbed to a ledge ten or twelve feet high, shaggy with roots between the dark streak in the clay that told the high-water mark.
I got in a bigger hurry, and once, feeling around in a hole, I didn’t notice an outcrop above it was strowed with gnawed limbs and sticks. I almost grabbed a beaver instead of a fish. I touched fur and yanked my hand out just in time to keep my fingers. A little piece on down, though, I grabbled a nice-size channel cat, mouth wide enough to stick my whole fist in, and carried him to a place where I could flip him up onto the bank. But Bear was off chasing a rabbit, and a racoon ran out of the woods and snatched my fish before I could climb out or say shit for breakfast. I cussed myself for a careless fool. The sun was hanging right over the river before I could find any more holes.
The bank sank to low, tangled overhangs and sandbars, with the woods creeping almost down to the water. I got two small bull-heads in holes close together right under the bank and waded out and found me a gum sapling near the water’s edge on the south side of the river and marked it with my pocket knife. I made me a stringer with one of my shoe strings and buried my fish at the foot of the sapling and run the end of the stringer through my hightops and wound them around the base of the tree. Wading back into the river, I glanced at the sky There was only a little patch of puffy clouds the size of two small tobacco plants floating there.
About an hour later, maybe a hundred yards downstream, I found a black pool of water about chest-deep, that promised a good hole. I poked around with my toes and found a big limestone crevice, and that’s when I got stupid.
I didn’t want to believe a hole that damn good was empty. I kept ducking underwater and grabbing hold of the limestone crack with one hand and shoving my other arm in up past my elbow and feeling all around in the slime and loose gravel with the other. I was skint raw to the shoulder. I almost got my arm stuck in there at the last. It was a dumb-ass thing to do by myself. One of Daddy’s cousins drowned ducking a hole by himself like that.
I got loose and came up coughing. A big drop of rain hit me on the nose. I looked up. The patch of clouds had swolled up as dark as leaf-rot over the river and swallowed the sun, hanging west now, in a white blur between the banks. The wind was up, and whipping the tops of the trees. It smelled like seaweed and the Gulf of Mexico. There was a low rumble behind the wall of trees, like a load tumbling off the side of a pulpwood truck. Bear paced in the shallows and whined to get between my legs.
It was then I remembered Lois is scared of thunder too.
I waded onto a sandbar in a drizzle and got mad all over again remembering that big cat. My jeans and tee-shirt stuck to me. I stomped up-river in the shallows and then climbed onto the bank and up into the trees to dig up my string of fish. They were little, but better than nothing, and one still barbed me for not being careful. I shoved the two fish in my back pockets and sat down on a black root to pull on my shoes and lace them up again.
All at once behind me I heard a noise. My hands froze. I’d heard that sound only once before, when I was little, when Daddy and me were noodling from the jon-boat when they sounded the warning siren up at the dam, only we never heard the siren because Fondren had broke his collarbone racing motorcycles, and there wasn’t anybody in the boat to listen out because Daddy had called me in to help him cover the back door to a hole with two big ones in it, and we were both under the water.
What we did hear when we came up alongside the boat sounded like pissed Jesus coming with water-wings. Daddy had just time and sense enough to let go his fish and grab me by the shirt and swim away from the boat before the surge of water crashed into us and snatched us tumbling downriver with it. Daddy clung to me with one arm and snatched hold of a low limb in the overhang of a water hemlock with the other. He almost drowned trying to get me up in the branches. He started going to church with Mama right after that.
I jerked a knot in my shoes and ran down to the bank and looked out at the water. It was dark and foamy as Coca-cola now. The rain was coming down like Noah’s first day in a boat, and the current was fast enough to tumble a cow, and I was on the wrong side of the river from the fish-camp. I swear I never heard any siren. Maybe I was too far down or maybe I was underwater. But people say sometimes they don’t sound it on purpose, because the Darwins run the dam now, and they’re looking to drown somebody big in the Provos.
The rain poured off me like I was standing under a hose. The frogs started croaking in the trees. I staggered around trying to think like Fondren would and not panic. If I followed the river only as far as 319 and then climbed up onto the highway and crossed the concrete bridge, it would be a lot quicker. But there were road patrols all over the highways. The last thing Fondren said before he left was don’t ever cross the highway in the daylight. There was nothing for it but to cut through the woods. I took off straight into the streaming trees with Bear right behind me, dodging the scrub thickets where I could, crashing through, ripping clothes and skin where I couldn’t. I had to find the pulpwood trail that skips the highway and cuts north through the woods to Sinkola Road. It’s a dirt road, the kind the Darwins are scared of.
Me and Bear got lost in the scrub for a good while before we stumbled across the trail, not much wider than a truck-bed, with two ruts down the middle and the old pine stumps sticking up here and there out of the weeds. We ran and splashed through the ruts for two or three miles. I could hardly suck the air in fast enough. The bottoms of my pants-legs scrubbed together, and my high-tops farted water. Sweat and rain stung my eyes. Some places the weeds grew up between the ruts so high they hung over and slapped me across the belly, and once the trail dipped and disappeared into a mud-puddle as wide as a shallow pond, and I could see the Aucilla again behind the trees off to the right. A water-turkey skimmed across the puddle and plucked a frog without a flap of his black wings. I didn’t slow down, and Bear hit the water like a fist right behind me. We came out of the trail on Sinkola Road just about a hundred yards shy of the wood bridge. The dark water sucked and foamed just under the boards. We hauled-ass across like deer and went for the thickets again.
I was out of breath and soaked to the skin, more with sweat than rain by the time we reached the propane tank lying on cinderblocks in the palmettos where I left the twins. I found Lola’s horse Ginger still tied up in the bushes standing under a chinquapin, but the twins weren’t there. I didn’t get real scared until they weren’t at the trailer or the split-trunk pin-oak we picked for a Meeting Tree.
“Lo-la! Lo-is!” I hollered and listened. But the only sound in the woods was me blowing like a dying cow and the rain slowed back to a drizzle pissing on the palmetto fronds.
I squatted in the wet scrub and grabbed Bear’s big wet head with both hands and put my hot face against his cold nose. “Where’s Lola and Chilly?” I said. “Where they at? Find’em!”
He panted, pricking his ears at Lola’s name. He shook off the water and rustled through the palmetto sniffing in a circle. Then he took off through the scrub toward 319. I stared after him. U.S. 319 goes to Tallahassee. I ran, with my balls drawed up in my crotch like a turtle in his cooter-shell.
It was hard keeping up with Bear through the thickets, but all I could think was how I left my little sisters alone and Lois must have got scared of the thunder and so they came out of the hiding place into the open and were probably going to try and cross the highway in the daylight to get back home. I ran, and the wet briars and the branches ripped my tee-shirt some more and whacked me in the face, and it hurt like hell. I got a stitch in my side, but I pinched it hard and put my other hand out like Shannon Sharpe and kept on running after Bear. Sometimes the vines and bush-tangles closed in so thick I had to stop, out of breath, and hold it anyway to try and listen for him crashing through the underbrush somewhere ahead.
I stumbled out of a cane-brake onto the ridge of a steep slope, and there was Bear down below, trot-sniffing the dead leaves along the rim of the sinkhole near Mr. Dudley’s place. I skidded down the slope to the drop-off. Big black trees tottered over the sink like something pushed them and they were trying to keep their balance on the edge.
I grabbed hold of Bear’s collar. I’d kept making new holes in it until he was grown, and now I just hung on to it and hoped it wouldn’t break while he pulled me along with him. He pulled hard and I kept tripping over the roots of the big trees. Wet stuff from the ground stuck to Bear’s nose, but he just snorted and kept on going with his head down, sniffing along the rim of the drop-off.
Then he stopped so quick I nearly fell on top of him. He hung a black paw in the air and sniffed at a bare stripe of clay kicked up in the leaves, about the length of a doll’s arm. I knelt and put my finger into a soggy sneaker-print. It was just like mine, only smaller. The heel of the print streaked towards the four-foot drop-off. I stared out at the water. It was still as a black mirror. Nobody’s ever found the bottom of that sink, not even Fondren, who can hold his breath for two minutes. The old people say there ain’t one.
I looked and looked around on the ground, but the rotted leaves said nothing. I let go Bear’s collar and put my head against my soaked knees to think. Bear sniffed the spot in a circle, whining like a pup. He knew Lola can’t swim that good. I got a bad feeling, worse than about the KinderGuard. Fondren and me used to come here to go swimming after cropping the secret tobacco in the summer. I was barely strong enough to grab a root and pull myself up the slick sides onto the bank. If either one of them fell in . . . . I looked up. Bear had raised his nose and was sniffing the cool air moving across the black water. I watched him and thought about praying. I knew he’d tell me in a minute.
All a sudden he jerked around the other way, and God-a-mighty on a come-along! I grabbed hold of that old nylon collar again, and he dragged me slipping and sliding and crying too, I guess, back up the slope and tear-assing through the scrub.
I hung on to him through the slash pine and the blackberry briars and the palmetto all the way to the break in the fence around Mr. Dudley’s melon field. When I let go his collar and climbed through after him, (we were getting close now, and he was Chilly’s best pup and already he knew something was wrong) he led me across Mr. Dudley’s field at a kinda sneaky trot. The melons were long gone, and here and there the field was waist high in big wet patches of Bahia grass. Two buzzards floating on a breeze above a screen of live-oaks ahead showed where the highway was. Bear’s tail stuck up like a black flag, then halfway across the field, it shot straight out; he could smell the bastards already.
We hunkered down under a live-oak in some camphor bushes on top of the clay road-cut near JackAss Curve and looked down. The hair along Bear’s neck and between his hind legs stood up like porky-pine quills; he growled softly. We were too late. A KinderGuard road patrol had my little sisters trapped in the ditch against the road-cut the other side of the highway.
I could see four Darwins wearing khaki, with darker khaki vests and field caps. Three were going after Lois and Lola. One had a medical badge on his sleeve. He was standing back at the edge of the pavement shouting orders to the two wading into the ditch. One of these was a Frankie reject with something wrong with him; he grunted and couldn’t talk. But I didn’t know about the Frankies then. I just thought he was big and slow. The other one was short and built like a road barrel. They’d already darted Chilly and muzzled her, and a Darwin, all bumped-out with muscles under his clothes and a barb-wire tattoo around his neck, was throwing her into the back of their LandRover.
Down in the ditch, Lola was crying. Her red hair stuck to the sides of her face. She twisted around and dug her fingers into the clay wall and tried to climb it, screaming for Chilly.
“Shut-up,” Lois told her. She had one end of her belt wrapped around her fist, swinging the buckle in the air. The two Darwins in the ditch edged closer, watching for an opening. Bear growled again, and I made him lie down and stay. He whined softly, but he stayed.
I crawled as fast as I could through the camphor bushes from live-oak to live-oak above the highway and kept out of the open until JackAss Curve was between me and the Darwins. Then I slipped down the slick road-cut feet-first into the ditchwater and crawled back towards my little sisters on my elbows like a gator through the water and the weeds. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there. I couldn’t see them yet, but I could hear my little sisters. Both of them were screaming now.
I had crawled just across the highway from them when all a sudden there was a rustle in the bushes above me, and I saw Bear flying off the top of the road-cut. He cleared my ditch and hit the ground as light as a pinecone dropping in the grass. The only sound was his nails scraping the pavement. I raised up a little in a patch of weeds. All I could do was watch. Bear was a black streak, and they all had their backs turned and never saw him coming. He hit the Frankie carrying Lois in the small of the back mid-air, and pitched him and Lois both out in a puddle on the shoulder of the road. Then he had the Frankie by the throat, but not before he could holler. Three pistols came out. I reached into my back pocket for the Wrist Rocket. The fish were still there, but the Rocket was gone.
I wanted to do something. It was useless. There were too many of them even if I had the Wrist Rocket. I kept thinking what would Daddy do? What would Daddy do? And then it come to me, hard as an ass-whipping with a belt, that I could give up or I could lie still, but I couldn’t do shit to help them. A buzzard glided in and landed in the top of a tree across the road without a sound and waited there like a hunkered black angel. I lay as still as Lois, and then so did Bear. But not before he opened up that Frankie’s throat like a pumpkin grinning.
The Frankie staggered to his feet. He was making funny noises. Then he fell to his knees before the muddy wheel well of the LandRover. Blood spurted against a tire like somebody taking a red piss. The Darwin with the medical badge went running over with his pistol out and darted him, and he pitched forward and shut-up and lay still.
The Darwin doctor came and stood at the edge of the road with the pistol in his hand and scanned the camphor bushes on top of the bank where me and Bear had been. Then he put the pistol away and called to the fat Darwin, who was standing in my ditch now, looking around with his pistol too.
The man with the barb-wire tattoo had already put Lola in the LandRover. One of the back doors was open, and I could see her inside with a fifth KG. He wasn’t wearing a field cap. He was trying to calm her down. Barb-Wire leaned through the front window and talked to somebody on the radio.
The doctor and the fat KG picked up Lois hands and feet from the ground where the dead Frankie dropped her and carried her to the back of the truck. It was just across the road from me. The belt was still wrapped around her fist, and the buckle scraped the pavement. Her eyes were frozen wide open. They got dart-guns for little kids too.
I think she could see me. Even though she was seized up with what they shot her with, she seemed to be looking at me with the same begging in her eyes as when Daddy came in and told us somebody left the gate open and the cows got in the secret crop. They strapped her into a car-seat next to Chilly in the back of the LandRover. Her neck was stiff as a Barbie doll’s. Then the doctor said something to the fat Darwin and slammed the door and went and took a leak down in the ditch behind the truck.
The fat Darwin goes over to where Bear lay in the road. He squatted down and pulled each dart out and capped it on a rubber magazine stuck to his khaki vest. Then he stood and nudged Bear with his boot and rolled him off the pavement and down into the ditch like he was road-kill. Barb-Wire came up from talking on the radio and said something to him in a low voice, and they both looked scared, like they thought maybe somebody was there somewhere but didn’t want to go beating the bushes to find out.
I edged a little closer. The doctor came back up out of the ditch from taking a leak, and the three of them stood in a group, talking, just a grenade throw across the road, only I didn’t have no grenade then. They argued about who was going to take the tags and other stuff off the dead Frankie. Then the doctor cussed and went over to the front tire where the dead man was and yanked the tags off him quick and stuffed them into his pocket and started taking off his bloody clothes and boots. The fat one brought a black plastic sleeping bag and stood around looking like he might spew, while the doctor and Barb-Wire took it and layed out the Frankie and zipped him inside, naked as a baby, and I remembered Mama saying shrouds don’t have no pockets. They put the bloody clothes and boots in another bag. Then they swung the black plastic sleeping bag up into the back of the truck with Lois and Chilly and slammed the door again, and they all went and got something from a cooler strapped to the front bumper of the truck and stood around swigging it without saying anything.
I crawled a little further along in the ditch until I was lying in the fat Darwin’s boot prints. I could hear the KG in the back seat of the LandRover talking to Lola. The one without his cap. He was telling her our parents sent them. He wore round wire-rimmed glasses like the Provost on the enemy TV station. He had Lola in his lap. He was rocking her and wiping her face with a Kleenex. He had lots of candy. That’s the way they sneak up on your head, Prayerz says, vague as skim milk.
I know I’m gonna get it one day. That’s all right. We’re all as good as dead. Somehow though, like when Tinker got it, or if me or Fondren or one of the Lights boys gets it, I don’t mind so much, thinking about it anyway. But when I think about my little sisters, or when I think about how StellaMaris got it, it’s like The End, and I just want to kill as many as I can. It’s like putting your hand down in a catfish hole and grabbing hold of something you thought was a fish but it ain’t, and now you’re afraid to let go of it, and you just choke it hard as you can. I shoved my face down in the ditch-water to keep from screaming. I didn’t know about the camps then, or I would have done what Bear did. I would have got it right there.
* * *
Prayerz says they Youthenize the dogs and horses. Nobody knows for sure. They take the little kids to a Re-Fi camp outside Saganville. The Darwins tell them their parents ain’t fit to have them no more and teach them to believe in the Human Gnome. Some of the girls are sent to an X camp where the Darwins harvest their gonads to make Frankies. We know because some got away and came back here to warn us. I try not to think about it.
We fight them with any old DW we can get our hands on and sometimes, on Silent-Night or when our bullets are gone, we fight them with hatchets and knives. I made me another slingshot from an old inner-tube. I use lug-nuts instead of rocks because they spin and kill better. There’s us and there’s the Provos, and there’s the Floridistas below the DMZ running the blockade in the Gulf to resupply the Provos. They know they’re next once the Darwins control the Debatable Lands.
The Provos get resupplied at the mouth of the Ochlocknee River. They’ve been fighting the Darwins ever since they started saying there ain’t a Georgia or Florida or any other state anymore. Sometimes we join up with them for a big raid, like when they hit the Frankie base camp at Apalachicola last summer. But it’s safer for us to stay in small packs spread out across the Debatable Lands. Colonel Z, the Provo commander, laughs and calls us the Holy Terrors. Prayerz is our leader. She’s killed more Darwins than any of us. I guess I love her like my own mother, but I don’t dare tell her that.
They call me Youngun, though I ain’t no more. My Christian name is Paul. Little Paul, after Mama’s daddy, but we don’t use Christian names out here. You can do bad by yourself, and it’s best to leave God out of it. We ain’t just a bunch of Holy Rollers killing people for Jesus. We’re way past that.
“Don’t worry,” Fondren said when he came back and I told him they had our little sisters. He hadn’t found the Provos, but he did find Prayerz and them. “I know where they take them,” he said. “We’ll get them back.”
He wasn’t even mad. He’d changed some in six weeks. We’d always been careful since Mama and Daddy were gone. But Fondren was more than careful. He moved through the woods like a buck, stopping and listening every few steps. And if he didn’t like what the wind was blowing, he’d drop and disappear on his belly into the palmetto like a lizard.
We were hunting some canned food the girls and me hid along one of Mr. Dudley’s fence-lines near Patterson Still Road when it happened. Fondren sent me to fetch the shovel. The KinderGuard were still around, but it was raining again, and we thought it was safe. I know Fondren was thinking about our little sisters or he never would have let any KG get the drop on him. This one just popped up out of the palmetto. Sometimes they leave a trained talker behind if they know children are around. This one was young, just out of their Normal School probably. His back was to me when I returned up the path in the pouring rain with the shovel. He’d lost his field cap, and his hair was plastered to his head like ours was. His khakis were all ripped up from being out in the scrub, and all that was left of one sleeve was the rainbow with the number 13 they all wear to show they’re not superstitious anymore.
Fondren’s sixteen, but he’s little, like Daddy’s people. “I know you,” the man said, holding out his hand like he wanted to be friendly.
“You’re safe now. I’m not Special Force.” He had a TV accent, like the host of “What’ll You Do For A Dollar.” He would have shot Fondren with the dart pistol right then if he wasn’t green. He didn’t know about the DW, Uncle Gene’s Colt, shoved down into Fondren’s pants behind his back. The KG aren’t allowed to kill, only Frankies can do that. They think they’re good and that justifies them. We think different. We ain’t good neither, but at least we know it.
I knew what I had to do. There wasn’t any time to find a rock. He never saw me. I had to run to get the shovel handle to go in, but it was raining, and he never heard me coming. It was like sticking a watermelon. He turned around before he fell. His eyes were popped out like he hadn’t been getting his salt ration. Then he fell like a sack of dog chow and lay there propped up in the weeds wheezing with the shovel handle sticking out of his chest. Fondren yanked the Colt and shot him twice to make sure.
“Get the horse,” he said, kneeling beside the Darwin. “Hurry up!” He was already busy stripping off the man’s stuff. He never said nothing to me. It was like I brought the shovel and what I did never happened.
I couldn’t move. My hand hurt from the splinters in the shovel handle, but I didn’t want to look at it. The man’s eyes were still open, but you knew he was dead because he never blinked at the rain drizzling on his face. They were looking at Fondren, but that didn’t bother him no more than Monday. I felt like a little ball in tall grass.
“Do what I said, goddamnit”
I went back up the path sucking at the splinters in my hand, looking at the same puddles and wet bushes I passed just a few minute ago, and thinking, I ain’t ever been here before. But the truth is I really didn’t feel much different. I just had a splinter in my hand now. When I got back with Ginger, Fondren had gone through all the man’s pockets and taken his pistol belt and boots and even his socks. We don’t leave them nothing but their navels. The horse sniffed at one bare foot.
“He must’ve been lost,” I said, holding the horse bridle with the rain running down my face. I wished Fondren would close the eyes.
“I remember him from school,” he said, pulling on the man’s boots. “He was a grade ahead of me. Fuck’im. Least he died close to home; that’s more and we know about Daddy and Uncle Gene.”
I turned away. I didn’t want to cry. Maybe I didn’t. Maybe it was just the rain. Fondren got up and yanked me around facing him.
“Here,” he shoved the dart pistol down in the waist of my pants with the rubber grip against my stomach. It was still warm from the man’s hand. It’s easy to make them into a DW.
I didn’t look at him. I didn’t like the way his eyes looked, like the dead man’s. He still looks that way, I guess. I just don’t notice it so much anymore. He thumped me hard in the chest the way he used to Old Times in the hall when he was in sixth grade and I was in third, and I was so proud to be his little brother. That seemed like more than a long time ago.
“You’ve one of us now,” he said.
And that was it. I found the Darwin’s field cap in the bushes. I’m still wearing it.
We picked our way through the trees and the palmetto, leading the horse by the bridle, and about dark we hit the dirt road that only the locals know about, and went south. We didn’t stop pushing Ginger until we were well south Tallahassee in the Debatable Lands. I gave her to some locals, some of StellaMaris’s people, to keep until I find my little sisters.
That was more and a year ago. I’m thirteen now. Fondren said we’d get the twins back, but we never did. I used to go off sometimes and cry about it, but I don’t no more. I don’t think Fondren ever did. We creepy-crawled all the holding areas around Tallahassee, but we never found them. We even hit the Gnome at the old teaching hospital where the Darwins make Frankies. Some prisoners we took there told us about an X block, but if there was one, it was moved. They begged us not to kill them. The Darwins say they don’t believe in killing, but they just do it and call it something else.
The young one started to cry, but the Corporal was real Broad-Band and got pissed off. We didn’t get it, he said. They were in charge now, and it was a good thing. It’s what Mama and Daddy told us the Scientists and the MovieStars and the rest of them meant when they talked on TV, the ones who weren’t killed in the earthquake when the Darwins took over. “Now that we’re in charge,” they’d say, “Things will be a lot better. There won’t be any more foreign wars and pretty soon everyone will live two hundred years.” We tell them different.
“When you start raising the dead, let me know,” Cheese said to the Corporal, cocking his pistol.
I was watching the door. Every time I glanced back the young one was looking at me. He had pimples and lots of chocolate on him. When we herded them into the walk-in freezer and made them lie down side by side, he reached up and grabbed me by the ankle. He pinched like a girl.
“Man, please…” I jerked my foot away.
“If we don’t shoot you, somebody will,” Prayerz says, and shot them all in the head.
They control the big cities like Tallahassee and Saganville (some still call it Jacksonville) and most of the DMZ between Orlando and the coasts, but except for a Frankie base camp here and there, they stick to places they can resupply on the big highways. The Provisional-FLA controls the Gulf between St. Marks and the mouth of the Suwannee River. We control the Debatable Lands.
Cheese jacked a Bronco, and we keep it hidden around with the locals. We use it to cover ground fast. Fondren bends a beer can a funny way and leaves it on a certain fencepost near Mayo. The Bronco shows up on a canopy road in the San Felasco Hammock. We can drive in close to a guardhouse on I-10 using the back-roads and come out of the Osceola and hit them and be sixty miles away by daylight.
In the Debatable Lands, only the flies and mosquitoes bother us. Unless there’s a sweep. Then we hunker down in the palmetto off the maps and don’t move. There’s others fighting besides us. Some have names, like the Woodbane, the Rosemary’s Ghost, the Glasgow Rangers, the Remember Blountstown. There’s a pack near Bainbridge called The Fire Ants. Some, like us, don’t have any name really. The locals just call us The Children. Sometimes we get resupplied from the Provisionals; sometimes we trade or steal what we need from the others. Some of us pray to God, but a lot of us stopped praying to anybody a long time ago. The Darwins pray to an old piece of paper hung on a secret wall somewhere that nobody can make sense of anymore. We see it at night on our portable when their Think-of-the-Children TV signal goes off the air. It makes me miss school, but I don’t tell nobody.
* * *
The truth is still the truth, even in enemy territory, Father Roberto says.
We found him starving in the woods near our camp at Devil’s Millhopper. We thought he was a Darwin spy, and Fondren and Cheese staked him to the ground over a red-ant bed to try and find out who sent him here. He cried and cried, but he didn’t know anything. He’d just wandered across the river with his holy bag like John the Baptist in a black shirt, eating lizards and drinking pondwater. At first he wouldn’t say who he was.
“I’m a priest,” he screamed finally on the ant-bed.
“There’s no Catholics around here,” TeeJay muttered. “I’m Presbyterian.”
“He’s a priest, all right,” Prayerz told us, looking through his grip. “You’ll never get anywhere with him. Let him go.”
We didn’t cut him loose just then; we might’ve had to kill him. We just killed the ant bed and sprayed him and let him lie for a while first. He got over it. You can get over just about anything if you keep shooting it. He’s tall and skinny like Uncle Gene was, but kind of hunkered over and wore-out looking. Born tired and had a relapse, I guess. He’s all cracked lips and glasses and wears a black hat the size of a hubcap. He stomps around the sink-bottom in the bluejack chopping with that machete we gave him like he’s blind and deaf both. We ain’t told him about the poison sumac down there. Prayerz surprised us all when she started sleeping under a lean-to in the scrub with the rest of us and let him have the dome tent. Sometimes when I’m bored I go down there and hide in the scrub near his sign and watch him giving Lord’s Supper to himself. He don’t act like any preacher I ever knew. He’s useless as tits on a gator, but we feed him anyway and give him flour and some stuff he needs for his sermons. He prays for us even if we don’t believe anymore, and fusses at us a little for not coming to preaching.
Fondren asks him why he don’t take supper with us on Silent-Nights.
“I try not to believe in killing,” he says.
“If people are the same as apes or dogs and cats, what’s wrong with killing them?” Prayerz wants to know. “We can’t all just sit around singing “On Eagle’s Wings,” Father.”
Prayerz wasn’t always like she is now, but don’t none of us dare ask her what happened. You can guess though by the double X tattooed on the back of her hand.
In Prayerz’ group there’s nine of us left after Tinker and StellaMaris got it. Pretty soon, I’ll know more people dead than alive. StellaMaris was the only son her daddy ever had, and he gave her her own deer rifle when she was twelve. I carry it now, but I miss more than I hit. StellaMaris could dot the eye of a Darwin taking a dump in the woods at two hundred yards. She got it when the Frankies ambushed us on the river near Smith Creek last winter. We were unloading a few fast-movers, along with some hooch and about a couple-hundred rounds from a Provo airboat. The hooch we trade with the locals for stuff we need, and we give a little to Father Roberto. Some of it gets drunk up by us. The fast-movers are for the Blackhawks trying to find our gas pump.
Besides Fondren and me, there’s TeeJay, Nathan James, Buddy Lights and his three little brothers, then there’s Chucky Cheese and Prayerz.
TeeJay’s mother was hanged in front of him off the Ochlocknee bridge because the Frankies know his daddy’s a road-side man with the Provos. TeeJay grew up working fire-works shows, and later helping his mama and daddy make road-sides from dynamite and blasting caps in a shed behind their house. He’s only a year older than me, but if the Frankies knew he could make a road-side as good as his daddy and mama, I reckon they’d have hung him too. Before StellaMaris got it, when we were off by ourselves, sometimes we’d talk about things we both used to do Before, like running around behind the stands at the football games and going to the Dairy Queen or riding dirt bikes and trying to keep your eyes wide open in the wind. After Smith Creek, he changed, though. One day just after it turned cool again, I was helping him pack nails and lug-nuts into pieces of pipe, and I asked him did he like Fords better than Chevies. He told me to just shut-up.
I don’t know what Nathan James saw. We think he used to be a preacher’s kid, but we don’t know. He never says much. He’s about fifteen, but he follows Fondren around like a pup. He leaves little crosses on the Darwins on Silent-Night. He makes them himself out of the wooden pop-sickle sticks he collects from dead Frankies. They’re afraid to throw anything away in the woods.
“Get Right With God,” he writes on them with a pencil stub. I told that to Father Roberto, but he doesn’t think it’s funny. I like Nathan James okay; he gives me all the chewing gum he finds.
Buddy Lights and his little brothers are what’s left of a family of shrimpers from Carrabelle. They know the lower Ochlocknee River and the gulf around Panacea real good. On Silent-Nights, they carry oyster knives and fifty-pound-test-line for weapons. Buddy’s big and scary-looking, like a Frankie, but he did his Eagle Scout project at the E.R. in Sopchoppy. He carried StellaMaris out of the river on his back, and he stayed with her through all the screaming at the end. There wasn’t enough of Tinker left to worry about, and I don’t like talking about him.
Cheese never says where he came from. The Projects in Jacksonville, probably. His eyes are bloodshot from drinking hooch when Prayerz ain’t looking. He never washes his face, and if he gets a lot of blood on his pants or jacket or something, he don’t give a shit. He escaped from the Re-Fi Camp in Saganville with Prayerz, and one day, he says, he’s gonna go back there and scorch it. He’s the only one who can get away with calling Prayerz “Sis.” I guess we all know he loves her.
I told you about Fondren. Daddy used to say Fondren was going to hell with both hands, because he got into trouble a lot, which is why Daddy took his dirt-bike away from him and sold it. If he had his way, we’d be doing RoadKill every time a d/c Suburban comes down the highway with a bumper sticker that says “War is Not the Answer,” but Prayerz won’t let him, (some roads we’re supposed to leave alone so nobody knows we’re around) and it pisses him off that the Broad-Band People go along same as always. Sometimes he takes the scope rifle away from me and draws a bead anyway. Advanced Drivers’ Ed, he calls it.
“Uh-oh,“ he says, winging a tire, and a van full of Tallahassee car-poolers goes spinning out. “Shit happens,” and he laughs like hell.
Prayerz is seventeen and looks like Britney Spears with whacked-off hair, and eyes black as the Ochlocknee at night. She wears a NorthFace jacket, with her school letter sewed on the back, “Queen of Angels.” with some foreign words. The Darwins hate all that.
“What’s it mean?” Fondren asked her. Sometimes he tries to shine up to her when Cheese ain’t close by. She gives him a razor-blade stare.
“It means ‘Fuck you, Jack, I’m riding shot-gun.’ ”
You don’t mess with Prayerz. The only one she’ll let sleep near her is Cheese, and him not too close. She said if any of us ever tried anything with her, she’d cut off our gonads and sell them to the Darwins. She would, too.
* * *
We owe a debt and only hell-fire or Jesus’ll pay it, the radio-preacher used to say. If there is a hell, I guess we’ll bust it wide open.
“If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands,” TeeJay said, packing road-sides and bottles of hooch into the back of the Bronco. There’s a Darwin R and R convoy going to the coast at Jacksonville. A little bird told us what day.
The Okeefenokee Provisionals blew the I-10 bridge over the Suwannee, so the Darwins are using Highway 90 between Greenville and Live Oak. It’s a good place to hit them; there’s a two-lane steel bridge near Big Shoals. All that metal screws up their cell phones and Sneaky-Pete. My Grandaddy used to be a road-crew foreman for the State Highways and Bridges, and he helped build the Highway 90 bridge when Daddy was little. In Old Times, when Daddy used to take us to Atlantic Beach, we used to beg him to take Highway 90 so we could ride over the old bridge. The tires would whine over the steel grate in the span, and we’d lean out the window to look down at the dark water where water skiers were said to fall and get tangled up in moccasin nests. Me and my little sisters would make a wish and raise our legs in the back seat as high as we could and try to keep them up for as long as the tires whined, but that was a long time ago, and it don’t pay to think about it a lot.
RoadKill is trickier than Silent-Nights because we have to do it daylight; that’s when the Darwins move around. We set up at night, though. We find us a place along the side of U.S. 27 where the Darwins put out Jersey-Walls. We hook the winch cable on the front of the Bronco to a piece of re-bar sticking out a hunk of Jersey-Wall. Then we hide the Bronco in a low place beside the road so the sun’s in their eyes and the Darwins can’t see the cable-slack across the highway. TeeJay and me set up the road-sides, and we hide and wait for daylight and pray for no Blackhawks. It takes some nerve. Jersey-Wall is big, and heavy as a pulpwood truck. Cheese is good at it, though. You have to let the first LandRover get real close. Then you throw the Bronco in reverse at the last second and snatch the end of the Jersey-Wall around into the highway. If you do it just right, you’ve got yourself a bad wreck. And if you blow your road-sides just right, you’ve got yourself a bad wreck on fire.
Hitting the Darwins on the old steel bridge is sweet, Prayerz says. Her and Cheese and Buddy Lights plan it out. They ask TeeJay can he rig up a couple of hay-trailers or something with the See-4 the Provisionals gave us. We’ll roll them up onto the bridge at both ends and trap the Darwins on the span. TeeJay says he can do it. He’s excited about using the See-4. The Provos respect what he can do with just fuses and blasting caps and want to see what he can do with military stuff.
“Why do they call it See-4?” I asked him. It looks like the white plastic stuff we used in fifth-grade to make models of how the glaciers made Niagra Falls.
His eyes get happy when holds a piece of it, like before StellaMaris got it, when he used to talk about cars. He grins. “If you’re looking at one truck when it goes off, for half a second you’ll see four.”
* * *
We came out from our hiding place at dark and set out on the back-roads lights-out. Cheese pulled over near Cherry Lake, and Fondren and Buddy got out on foot to look for Darwin checkpoints under I-10. We listened out the windows for Buddy’s whistle and picked them up again below the underpass. Everybody kept a look-out for Friendly graffitti, and about five miles up the road Prayerz spotted Mickey Mouse ears chalked on the pavement in front of a burned out Swanee Swifty.
A couple hundred yards further up, a hand-made road sign for Armageddon Paint-ball appeared on a tree by the side of the road. Cheese slowed down and turned off onto a pulpwood trail and cut the engine. Acorns popped under the tires. We coasted to a stop in a sand-spur track with bushes and trees growing up close on both sides. Cheese flashed the lights twice, and then it was dark as the inside of a cow, so dark you feel like you’re breathing in night instead of air. A dog barked somewhere. You don’t want to drive very far back into one of these trails at night. Most of them are booby-trapped. You wait until you see a light in the woods, and then you call out the window.
“I’ve come to see a man about a dog.”
Sometimes it’s a man, sometimes it’s a boy. This time it was a woman. It was hard to tell how old.
“God bless the beast and churren.”
Sometimes if they can spare it, they’ll give us something to eat. Sometimes, we eat better than they do. You learn to eat like a wild dog. Stufff yourself in hide-out with beans or tuna -fish from a can. Go on RoadKill and not eat for two or three days. Once, back last winter, we had to move in the daylight because the Blackhawks spooked us. We came up on a Holiness church back in the possum haw where a bunch of people, mostly Grannies and Retards, were hiding. The Frankies were making a sweep. They’d taken everything there was to eat or drink down to the electric motor on the wells. The people in that church were more than skinny. Even the little kids looked at us like we were fat chickens. I remember it because there was a playground with some monkey-bars almost taken over by the dead vines, and me and StellaMaris put down our DWs and climbed to the top and hung upside-down like monkeys, and I started giggling and then she did too. Fondren told us to cut the shit, but Prayerz told him to shut-up and leave us alone.
The moon wasn’t up yet. Nobody got out of the truck. Fondren just talked to the woman through the window. We never saw her face, and she never saw ours, but once I thought I might have seen the dark shape of a pistol in her hand on the door-panel.. Fondren told her what we needed. He tells her we’ll give her ten bottles of hooch apiece for the hay-trailers.
“Wait.” She says, and I hear her moving back through the bushes. Then I hear hers and a man’s voice talking in the woods. It sounded like an argument.
“Come on,” Tudor Lights, the oldest of Buddy’s little brothers, said in the dark. “Shit, or get off the damn pot.”
The man didn’t like parting with his hay-trailers, but hooch is better than money. You can trade it for another trailer or just about anything—food, shoes, shotgun shells, pipes and wire and metal tubes for road-sides, which is why the Darwins arrest you if they catch you with it. In an hour, we had two hay trailers, along with some cracklin-bread and Diet Rite Cola. We had to make two trips hauling the trailers to the steel bridge. The woman leaned in the window and hugged Fondren’s neck before we left with the last one. Maybe they hold secret church out there, because I could smell her. She smelled like Mama on Sunday. It didn’t settle my stomach any.
“God help you,” she whispered, “Both of ours are out there somewhere, or we hope; we ain’t seen them in a year.”
“Mama, close your eyes,” Prayerz mutters, and we pull away lights-out.
I don’t think anybody’s mama closes her eyes anymore. Every time I remember it, the smell of Chanel No. 5 gives me the crickets. I guess my mama feels the same way that one did, if she’s alive. Kill them all, and let God sort them out.
* * *
We unloaded the Bronco in the dark about three miles from the river alongside a ditch on a dirt road, and then checked our D.W.s under a chunk of moon shining through a gap in the oak trees. An acorn hit the roof of the Bronco like a pistol shot, and everybody hit the ground, all but Prayerz and Cheese.
“I’m tired of ducking,” Cheese said. He wasn’t laughing.
I fished out the five shells from my pocket and slid them into the breech of StellaMaris’s rifle, one at the time. Fondren took a Diet-Rite can from the floorboard and bent it a certain way and left it on the dashboard, and we followed him single-file into the trees. About a hundred yards into the piney-woods, I heard somebody crank the Bronco on the road behind us and drive away.
Fondren sees the best of us at night, but how he knew the way, I don’t know, unless he could already smell the river. Nobody was sure we were headed right to cut the highway. We came out of the woods and climbed over a fence into a pasture waist high with cane-brake weed and tall grass, with about a million stars in the sky. Here and there the grass was flattened out in hurricane circles by wild hogs. Fondren brought us up under a clump of turkey oaks on a little hill, and we took a knee and listened for highway sounds. It was a pretty warm night, and we could hear the crickets chanting back and forth across the pasture like a football crowd. I un-slung StellaMaris’s rifle and leaned on it. Dew beaded up on the barrel. The moon was way above the trees now, and we had only a couple hours of dark left.
“Tell me you ain’t got us lost out in this Krackerstan,” Cheese said behind me.
“Shut-up, I ain’t never been lost a day in my life,” Fondren shot back.
“Fuck the day, what about tonight?”
I didn’t like being between them. They’re like two dogs meeting in the road. If Fondren says the Jaguars suck, Cheese says no, the St. John’s River goes north because the Falcons suck. I knew Cheese probably had his hand on the butt of the pistol sticking out his pants.
Prayerz came up and told them both to shut-up. She called Buddy and his brothers to the front and sent Cheese and Nathan James down the line to watch our back. The Lights boys know all the constellations. Buddy and Denver crept to the edge of the drip-line and looked out at the sky.
Denver Lights shifted his D.W. and pointed to a crooked W of stars hanging above the tree-line at the left end of the pasture. “The Big Sister,” he said.
“The road’ll be other side of those trees yonder,” Buddy told Prayerz.
We crossed the pasture to the tree-line one at the time, and about thirty yards into the woods climbed over another fence into some stagger-bushes. There was the highway at the bottom of a little hill, with a white road-sign sticking up out of the dark beside it, U.S. 90 west. We followed the road, walking along close to the bushes near the fence-line, and even I could smell the river now, and pretty soon we saw the steel-cage bridge up ahead with the dew winking and blinking on the bolsters like our yard at Christmastime.
Fondren raised the pump-gun over his head and laid it across his shoulders with an arm draped over each end like Jesus on a shotgun cross. I whispered something about it being pretty cool him finding the bridge. Somebody in back told me to shut-up. Fondren swung around.
“Hey Cheese, you owe me an apology, man. You hurt my feelings back there.”
* * *
I’m wearing one of daddy’s flannel shirts for a jacket, and I take it off and tie it around my waist to help TeeJay set up the roadsides between two steel girders near the middle of the bridge. We run the fuses out of sight behind the guardrail. The whole time I’m thinking, maybe they won’t come. But of course they will. We work in a hurry, and my hands sweat and my tee-shirt sticks to me. TeeJay rigs the hay-trailers with the See-4 using a couple of egg-timers, and we finish everything up at early light. Everybody but TeeJay and me goes to the bushes and weeds along the slopes of the cause-way leading to the bridge and then away from it. The road smells like new asphalt, like there’s no war out here yet, and even though the pavement’s getting plainer all the time, I feel like the night hasn’t really gone; it’s just crawled down inside me and hunkered down. I’m cold with sweat, so I untie Daddy’s shirt from around my waist and wipe my face and put it on and button it up and look around for a good tree limb.
I see a clump of trees on the right slope of the cause-way, about thirty yards in front of the bridge. The one closest to the road is a pig-nut tree and easy to climb. It’s still got some leaves, but the very top branches are mostly bare against the gray sky. It’s overlooking the bridge, so I sling the rifle and shimmy up and get my legs around the lowest limb and climb about half-way up, where there’s a good fork I can straddle, with a knot sticking out one side like a hog’s snout. There’s just enough leaves left in the fork for cover and still have a pretty clear shot down between the steel girders of the bridge below. I settle in, with the rifle-butt against my stomach and the barrel laying across a sucker. StellaMaris blacked the breech and the barrel so the light can’t shine off them, and then she wrapped stock, barrel, and everything but the breech with strips of her undershirt, dyed a greenish brown with river-water and dead leaves, so it makes no noise if you bump the rifle against a limb or anything. I want to put my face against the stock just to see if I can still smell her girl-smell on it, but I ain’t, because I said I wasn’t going to do that no more.
It’s getting more daylight all the time. Pretty soon I can see every leaf around me, and then I can see way out over the bridge to where the highway disappears in a tunnel of woods just past a big dip in the road, a few hundred yards to the northwest. The light breaks as pretty as you please across the tops of the trees in that direction all the way to the horizon. The trees are mostly spruce pines, with here and there a poplar or a pin oak with the leaves blown away like somebody’s been at them with a scatter-gun. The highway works in and out and in and out of the mist and the trees into the distance like a black ribbon in a girl’s hair.
I give a low whistle and let everybody know where I am and look around below to check out everybody else. Only Prayerz, watching for my signal across the cause-way near the bridge-landing, looks up and waves. Cheese and Nathan James lay along the weedy slope below her, only their heads and shoulders show in the sand-haw alongside the first hay-trailer, the hitch sticking almost straight up like a fist. Cheese looks like hell with handlebars, but Nathan James is wearing a clean black tee-shirt under a green flak jacket he took off a dead Frankie. “Gone to find myself. Be back later,” his tee-shirt says across the front.
Fondren’s on my side of the highway. He leans back against a concrete pylon just below the bridge pavement, the pump-gun cradled in the crook of his arm. He’s cleaning his fingernails with something sharp and flicking it at some flood-rocks below the road-bed. Across the bridge at the edge of the grass just off the road, Buddy Lights squats beside the other hay-trailer and pretends to be finishing up changing out the tire. His little brothers are out of sight below the cause-way. TeeJay’s the only one on the bridge, ducked behind a girder, ready to light the road-side fuses after the hay-trailers go off.
All a sudden a pick-up appears from the wrong direction. Everybody jerks around. I nearly piss in my pants because if the Darwins knew what we were up to, this would be the way they’d ambush us. The pick-up slows down. But it’s only a woman in a beat-up Chevy Off-Road with a broken antennae and two little girls with some fishing poles in the back. The little girls are singing Joy to the World. Fondren shows himself with the pump-gun. The woman slams on the brakes with a screech, throws it in reverse and stomps the accelerator. The tires squawl, the truck shoots backwards, then spins around into the other lane facing the other direction, and the woman stomps it again. The little girls in the back hang on and never stop singing. The truck disappears in a cloud of blue smoke and burnt rubber. It drifts up into my tree and makes me think of Old Times and Fondren and watching the older boys burning donuts in the high school parking lot on Friday nights on their dirt bikes after the football game. Fondren returns to the pylon and goes back to scraping out his fingernails.
When my heart stops pounding and the smoke clears, I check the rifle sight on a speed-limit sign on the other side of the bridge near the dip in the highway, and then feel in the pocket of my jacket for my chewing gum. I lean back against the tree; the hog’s snout sticks me in the ribs and helps me stay awake. When I get sleepy, I remember the Blackhawks out of nowhere the last time we were set up on a river, and I’m wide awake again, checking out the sky.
I keep looking at my watch for no reason. Time don’t mean shit. A lot of it goes by. When you sit without moving, you start shaking afterwhile. Away over the tree-line to the south, a pair of black specks boogie over I-10 toward Tallahassee, but they keep going. A murder of crows flies into my tree and raise hell in the limbs overhead. Somebody says later it’s a bad sign.
* * *
I look down at Prayerz squatting in the weeds. She’s watching me without really looking, a black-eyed blank stare. Her hair moves a little in the breeze. She’s far enough away I can imagine I see her lips moving, saying You’re okay, Little Paul, but I know she’ll never. I know she can’t. That’s all her black eyes are really saying, I can’t.
I’ve got to pee. A rabbit runs over my grave. In the corner of my eye, something moves. To the northwest, a LandRover shoots out the tunnel of trees. Right behind it’s another and then a dark green bus, like a schoolbus, and then two more LandRovers. There’s a gunner with a WeedWhacker on the roof of the first and last.
I give a low whistle and the thumbs up, and somebody passes it across the bridge to Buddy Lights. Everybody lays still as pavement. I check out the sky quickly in all directions. I don’t see any more Blackhawks. I’m not cold anymore, but my teeth start chattering anyway. I clamp my jaw. There’s a hum of tires. I yank the rifle-bolt and click the safety off and sight the first LandRover in the scope. It’s maybe two hundred yards from the river. I can see the gunner on top. I lose him then find him again. He has blonde hair and sunglasses. The sun glares on the windshield. The convoy hits the dip in the road. There’s a trick of sound. I can’t hear the tires anymore. It’s so quiet I can hear the breeze rippling the leaves all around me, and the sun is shining on everything just like it used to.
I keep the crosshairs trained on the white lines at the top of the rise. Somebody turns the sound back on. The gunner’s head rears into the sight. He waves at Buddy Lights. Frankies are stupid and nobody gives a shit about them, not even the Darwins. It’s hard to keep the blonde head in the scope. He’s on the bridge before I can put my finger inside the trigger guard. More tires whine on the steel grate. I hear Nathan and Cheese rattling the first hay-trailer up onto the road, and then the piss hits the palmetto; Buddy and his brothers open up at once. The blonde gunner swings his barrel around.
I squeeze the trigger, and the rifle jumps against my shoulder. The windshield shatters, but the driver just floors it. The gunner opens up wildly. Bullets spark off the girders and thunk the limbs above my head. A big branch pops and crashes down, knocking off my cap and almost taking the rifle and my right arm with it. I hug the rifle against my chest and wet my pants and don’t know it till later.
When I look down again, Cheese has cranked the timer on the trailer and he hauls-ass for cover with Nathan James. Prayerz moves up to a bridge post and shoots into the first Landrover. Behind her Cheese and Nathan James skid down the slope into the sand-haw just ahead of the Frankie rounds whacking the pavement. The first driver swerves too hard into the other lane to try and miss the trailer; his truck clips the last girder, spraying a shower of red sparks. The blonde gunner goes flying over the side of the bridge and lands on his head in the flood-rocks about a dozen yards below Fondren.. He’s not moving, and Fondren doesn’t even stop cleaning his fingernail to look. The truck flips onto its side and slides to a stop in front of the trailer.
Four Frankies climb out shooting and running for Prayerz’s side of the cause-way. They all wear helmets and green cammies and their heads look too big for the rest of them. They’re strong and not so slow when they’re being shot at. They’ve got lots of clips and don’t try to save none. Their D.W.s rattle like woodpeckers on a tin roof, and bullets whine off the girders. Prayerz pops out again and shoots down three. The fourth one turns around in his tracks and ducks down the side of the burning truck and runs past the hay-trailer for the clump of trees on my side of the road. Then a funny thing happens.
It’s like everybody decides to stop shooting for about five seconds and watch and see if he makes it. There is only the smell of gunfire. His helmet falls off. He’s a big black kid with a bottle-cap haircut, and I can hear his boots whacking the pavement. Fondren flicks the nail away and raises up, resting the barrel of the pump-gun on the bridge pavement. He fires and pumps and fires again. The Frankie turns round and round on his way to the ground and then crawls to the white line in the road and lays still with his ear against it like he’s listening for what’s coming. The D.W.s start rattling again. The first hay trailer still ain’t blown. I hate waiting for loud noises. I raise up a little to peek around the tree-fork.
The driver in the next LandRover guns it and sideswipes the first and tries to plow through the trailer, but all a sudden it explodes in a loud orange ball, and the backwash hits me so hard I lose my balance and almost drop the rifle again. A piece of StellaMaris’s undershirt snags on a sucker and saves my butt. I can’t hear shit anymore for the ringing in my ears. It smells like the fourth of July. The LandRover rolls by under me trailing fire from inside and I can feel the heat on my ass. Frankies jump out the doors. Their clothes are on fire, and they roll across the pavement screaming, their rifles and helmets skittering off into the grass.
Cheese walks up onto the road with his pistol pointed down at his side. He isn’t in any hurry, like he’s coming up from the house to check the mailbox. He stops beside the burning truck and looks down at the Frankies like he might be waiting for them to stop rolling around and get up and shake hands with him. Then he raises the pistol slowly and empties it at them —I can hear again, it pops with a noise like a kid’s cap gun— and now they all lay still in the road.
There’s still the bus. It’s stopped on the bridge. The driver is dead. TeeJay already lit the fuses. He stands up on the railing with a hand on a girder, ready to jump. He’s looking right in the windows, and waves at the ones still alive. Then I lose sight of him because all a sudden the trailer at the other end goes off with a lot of smoke and noise. Burning pieces of LandRover tumble in the air over the tops of the girders and land in the river with a hiss. Something boomerangs toward me and hits the leaves the behind me. It’s the crook of somebody’s arm with the wristwatch still on it. I don’t look back there again.
Through the smoke I see Buddy Lights and them standing in the road shooting Frankies. The last truck is rolling along with nobody driving, The gunner is gone, but now a Frankie with glasses wearing a fatigue cap twisted around backwards climbs up into the turret behind the Weed-Whacker and starts spraying the road, and the Lights boys have to run for it, hurdling Frankies sitting up that ain’t dead yet. The truck rolls slowly to the railing and stops against a girder with a jolt like one of my little sisters is driving it.
I have four rounds left. I pull the bolt and raise my rifle and find the Frankie in the scope. He’s old for a Frankie, with the thick glasses strapped to his head. He’s got zit-scars all over his face like General Sherman in the old photo in our history book at school. It’s lots easier when they’re not moving. This time I remember to hold my breath the way StellaMaris told me. I close my eye just as the rifle jumps against my shoulder again. The bolt is warm and almost feels good on my hand, but it’s not that cold out today. When I lower it, the Frankie is slumped over the turret with something pouring out the top of his head and running down the windshield.
I notice the green bus again. It’s still sitting there in the middle of the bridge with the sun shining on top of it. Teejay should have blown the roadsides by now. The doors never open. The Frankies look like little kids in the windows of the bus. Then I see TeeJay ain’t jumped. He’s gone Laos or something. He’s down on his belly over the side of the bridge trying to yank the fuses. There’s nothing I can do but hug the tree-fork again. The bus disappears in triple flashes of red fire. I close my eyes. It’s funny, but I never hear a thing. A backwash of heat blows past my face. When I open my eyes, what’s left of the green bus is blown around sideways with the top gone. It’s burning in the bright sunshine. I don’t see TeeJay. I think he probably got it.
The sun on the smoke makes shadows moving across the bridge. The Frankies still alive inside the burning bus sound far away, like the little kids out on the playgound at school after we’ve come back inside. I sling the rifle and lean back against the tree-fork so I can’t see the bus no more and take out a piece of chewing gum and tear it in two and put one half in my mouth. The pops and stutters of the guns are far between now. The sun is warm on my face. It’s fall. I remember the little girls singing; it must be nearly Christmas because most of the leaves are gone on the pignut tree. You couldn’t ask for better weather. I chew my gum a little while and then climb down. There’s nothing much to do now. I find my hat lying in the road and put it on.
Three soldiers hiding in the floorboard of the last truck are KinderGuard. (Frankies don’t surrender.) They come out with their hands raised, yelling and pointing at the bus. One of them tries to run for it. I look at the blue sky. Somebody shoots three times, the third shot goes off a little while after the other two. When I look back across the bridge, Buddy and his little brothers are stripping the Frankies lying in the road at their end. Fondren starts on the ones at ours.
All a sudden TeeJay comes running up onto the bridge yelling something nobody can understand. He doesn’t have a scratch on him. I guess he got bounced into the river by the back-blast. He looks pretty stupid, soaking wet, yanking on the door when the top of the bus ain’t there no more.
Prayerz waves everybody down the bank. Cheese is watching her back. The Lights boys are already in the water. Fondren stops to kick a couple of Frankies lying around our end of the bridge. Fondren doesn’t like messing up his pump-gun. He gives it to Nathan James and comes and snatches the rifle away from me and smashes in the heads of the ones that holler. StellaMaris’s undershirt ain’t green no more. Already the black flies are buzzing around our clothes and faces. Nathan James trails pop-sickle sticks like flowers.
Fon’s collecting trophies. He’s found the blonde gunner’s sunglasses lying on the pavement, a nice lighter and lots of cigarettes. Everybody’s pretty pumped except for TeeJay. He’s still yanking at the door of the green bus. He’s definitely gone Laos. There’s something smoking on the other side when he wrenches it open. His hands stick to the door. There’s a smell like bacon burning. I look at my watch. It’s only been fifteen minutes since the first shots.
Prayerz yells for us to get our ass in the river quick. The Blackhawks will be all over us in a minute. TeeJay pulls his hands away from the bus door and part of the skin peels off and sticks there. He falls down on his knees in the road, clawing at his face like bees are stinging him. He’s making a sound like I ain’t never heard anybody make before, and it ain’t crying.
Prayerz comes up in front of the smoking bus and looks in. There’s no sound in there now except the fire popping on the plastic seat cushions. She takes a step back like somebody pushed her, and then points her D.W. at TeeJay. TeeJay moves his burned hands away from his face and holds them out like he’s begging for something. His zits are bleeding.
Only he saw the little kids in the windows. The Darwins were taking them to Re-fi.
“Tee, get down in the water—NOW!”
Cheese grabs him quick around the armpits from behind and pulls him up to his feet. I help get him down the bank, and we slosh into the water. It’s cold but I hardly feel it. There’s a loud noise. I look up. The sky is filled with crows. It sounds like cheering.
Somebody beside us grins wearing sunglasses.
“If you’re us, thrive on chaos; if you’re them, stay out the bushes.” Nathan James laughs like hell.
“Shut-up,” TeeJay screams.
Upriver, we wrap up the D.W.s and the rest of our stuff double-quick in bundles made with the Frankies’ flak jackets and ponchos, and two of us climb out and bury the bundles in the woods under a pile of pine needles. It smells like Christmas coming with helicopters. My hand touches somebody’s digging next to me. It’s Fondren. He doesn’t look at me. He’s already forgot what we just did. He ain’t even thinking about it. If he was, he’d be cracking jokes. We crawl back in the water on our bellies. Prayerz is still trying to get Tee to be quiet. He thinks there’s somebody alive back there under those bodies on the bus. I just want to go home.
We wade downriver into some overhang and hunker down with just our eyes and noses out of the water, waiting for dark, while two Blackhawks whump back and forth over the trees. They think we might be here but they ain’t sure. The water is cold. After a while, I can’t even feel my face anymore. We huddle together to keep as warm as we can. Once, a Darwin airboat trolls by with a half-dozen Frankies sitting with their feet hanging over the side, so close I could hand one a piece of chewing gum, so close I’m scared they’re going to hear my teeth chattering. It takes a long time for dark to come, even in the overhang. Waiting and waiting, it’s hard not to fall asleep at the end. But you know you’re dead if you do, so we keep poking one another to stay awake. Dusk comes early this time of year, like a dim mercy on the black water rippling through the overhang, and the sun finally goes down into the trees. The Darwins don’t like to be out here after dark. They give up and go home. But not before Buddy Lights has to hold TeeJay’s head underwater to keep him quiet. When he lets him up again, TeeJay ain’t breathing no more. Buddy says he tried to feed him air, but TeeJay just opened his mouth and let the river in.
In the pitch dark we crawl up out of the water and dig up our stuff. Out of the water the air feels cold as shit, and my teeth are playing a tune, but I can take it. I have to take it. We’ll make for a Hen-House. A girlfriend of a girlfriend somebody used to know in Suwannee County. There’s another argument first. Prayerz wants to go back alone to check the bus. Buddy and Cheese say hell no. Prayerz says she’s going back, she’ll meet up with us later.
Buddy shrugs. Cheese says he’ll go with her. Prayerz leans into him and whispers something. He ain’t happy, but he doesn’t argue with her anymore.
We don’t bury TeeJay. I button his shirt. Cheese just puts some rocks in his pockets, and we wrap some canvas around him and slide him into the current, no words or nothing, except Prayerz crosses herself in the dark when she thinks no one’s looking. I guess it’s just as well, because TeeJay wasn’t religious. Pretty soon now and I’ll know more people dead than alive. It don’t pay to think about it too much.
I used to read about bad things like what we did, but it was hard to believe they really happened. Now I do them all the time, and dream sometimes I don’t.