by Joseph Hirsch

In the violent remnants of what was once the United States of America, two boys are offered shelter from the storm, in exchange for their souls.

D I S C U S S I O N  F O R U M  |  R E T U R N  T O  S T  O N L I N E

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The house trailers were staggered in a herringbone formation, bordered on one side by a malarial creek, and on the other side by a basketball court that pointed cattycorner out to the dirt road, which ran alongside of the Elmwood Trailer Park.

The court was mostly empty, host only to an early morning pickup game of one-on-one, a HORSE scrimmage between two old friends who didn't need words to communicate. A missed basket, nothing but backboard, gave Michael Lawson the rebound, and he dribbled deep into three-point territory, almost to the other end of the half-court.

Robby Huppert, his best friend, moved to the sidelines, and into a merciful patch of shade. "Shoot it already!" he shouted, prompting Michael to dribble for a few more beats, in defiance.

"Cocksucker," Robby said in return. Then he shot his friend the bird, stripped off his white tee shirt, and used it to improvise a sunshade turban. Michael lined up his shot between pigeon-toed crosshairs, gently finger-rolling the half-inflated ball into a perfect swish.

"Yes!" he whispered, smiling widely, basking in Robby's contempt.

"Shit," Robby muttered, head down, hands on the cavernous hollows at the sides of his torso, in the curving spaces where a well-fed teen would have sported love handles. He swallowed a bellyful of pride and crossed the court to shake Michael's hand.

"Good game, Mike."

"You too, man," Michael said. A smile flitted across his lips, and then disappeared just as quickly.

His mother's shadow passed across the lone window in the double-wide that he called home, her silhouette bleeding through the American Flag which served as an improvised curtain, the tattered Stars & Stripes draped over the shameful domestic nightmare always waiting for him when he came home. As a consequence, Michael Lawson had become a very good basketball player.

Robby caught his roving eye and tried to distract him. He stripped Michael of the ball and dribbled across the bleary asphalt, down into free-throw territory.

"Check," Robby said, weaving a bowlegged cross between the arches of his legs. Michael solved the flamboyant riddle of his friend's dribbling by stripping him of the ball and dropkicking it, treating the two busted mercury vapor lamps as goalposts, sailing the basketball high over the rusted vinyl encampment.

The basketball continued floating on until it went crashing through a long-dead bug zapper, shattering both the chicken wire and the fluorescent tubing it housed.

"Nice job, douchebag." Rob adopted his customary slap-boxing stance, the praying mantis pugilist, both of his hands gone limp. "Come on, man."

And then he dropped his guard just as suddenly, stunned by the tears streaming down Michael's face. "Mike, man…" If he couldn't get Michael to stop, Robby knew that he would be joining him soon. "You can't do this."

"I'm sorry, man." Michael's voice cracked, and he caught a stray tear with a brush of knuckles. "She spends all day banging the ceiling with a broom. She thinks someone's on the roof. And there's nothing I can do to make her stop."

He sagged down to a low center of balance, his head tucked between his knees, his rump only inches from the concrete. Rob joined him close to the ground. "It's alright, man," he said in a soothing, even tone. "My mom is fucked, too." And his eye now strayed toward his own home, and then over each of the trailers. "This whole place is fucked."

That, he decided as he stood and brought his friend to his feet, was the most accurate summary of this hellhole to ever be uttered. With his arm over his friend's shoulder, Rob led Michael to a cluster of trees buckling under a light wind.

A gust of hot summer air, infused with traveling sand borne from the furthest reaches of the dustbowl, carried through the rustling grass, and soothed the two as they sat there, lulling them almost to the point that they didn't hear the low murmur of an engine, a real gas engine growling in the distance, picking up in carbureted increments until the telltale sound had drawn every fiend (including both of their mothers) from the house trailers, out onto the porches, and into the middle of the dirt road.

Michael and Rob stood up. Rob said, "They told them not to do that."

The statement might have sounded cryptic to the ear of an outsider, but Michael exactly knew what he was talking about. Tunk and Spider, those two cretins too putrid for hell, had warned all of the tweaking heads in Elmwood to stay off of the road, and to meet up on the basketball court. The heads were promised that they would get their tubes in due time. But the two dealers had found it difficult to convince the people in Elmwood of anything; it was hard to reason with people who brandished brooms, laboring under the conviction that demons lived on their roofs.

The sirens on top of the old police cruiser were still serviceable, and the duo put them to good use, sounding the red and blue wailers, punctuating the screams with some CB foreplay. "Hello, my fine little dope fiend friends. You didn't think your Uncle Tunk had forgotten about you, did you?" He shared a robust laugh with his partner, and then resumed on the squawker. Spider edged the sedan through the phalanx of needy addicts, crawling at 5mph through their ranks.

"I'm surprised that asshole can work the radio with his one good hand," Michael said. His voice was now an atonal flat-line, siphoned bereft of emotion. If he let himself feel anything, he would kill both of these motherfuckers at once. After all, they were killing his mother, weren't they? And Rob's? He looked over at his friend and saw his face stony, his jaw set, and he knew that together they carried a blood bond of absolute hatred.

"That's it," Tunk said, smiling gleefully, displaying rows of uneven, jagged teeth, with many empty spaces between the bucks and molars. His mouth was something like an antebellum cemetery, his grimy bicuspids like headstones.

Both boys watched in disgust as the cruiser drifted past them, rolling from the grass onto the basketball court, where the population of the small town now gathered around the cop car, like peasants around a robber baron's Rolls-Royce. Rob and Michael remained at the edge of the spectacle.

The car doors fanned open, and the two mutants emerged. Spider was as thin, tall, and seemingly as flimsy as a stalk of genetically engineered corn. His nose was halberd-sharp, his mind much less so. The purple bags beneath his eyes, which covered a good portion of his face, spoke more of reanimation than insomnia, as if he were not tired, but rather had died and then come back to life.

Tunk had one arm, his right. The left sleeve of his weathered leather bomber was pinned to his shoulder. There was probably a story behind the amputation, but he was such a perverse entity that his tale was probably best left unearthed. For some reason, Michael hated (and feared) him more of the two.

Even though he was short one appendage, he always seemed to be the more active member of the pair. He had been the one working the radio, and he was now the one heading to the rear of the car, opening the trunk.

"I can already smell it," Rob said, pinching his nostrils closed.

"Me, too." Michael grimaced.

The odor of phosphorus and ephedrine coming from the mixed batch was anathema to them, and aphrodisiac to the rest of their friends and family, some fifteen to twenty people, a few of whom were younger than either of the adolescent boys.

They fought their way to the rear of the police cruiser, and would have overwhelmed Tunk, if Mr. Spider hadn't suddenly brought a long-nosed .38 Taurus from its hiding place within the depths of his diamond-quilted field jacket. The jacket was reversible, and he never wore another. Sometimes he sported the reflective roadwork orange side, while on other days he chose the woodland green pattern. The .38 remained the only constant.

"Ease back, gentle brothers and sisters." He fanned the piece, and it had the desired effect. It was a crucifix, and they were the vampires. The distance the gun had placed between pusher and customer was now a wide enough gulf for Spider to notice the detached twosome, and for him to remark on it to his own friend.

"Hey, Tunk," he said, somehow keeping one eye on the crowd (along with the gun), and the other eye on the boys.

"Speak to me, brother." Tunk was having less luck with his one arm. He had managed to handle the town's allotted five tubes, but was forced to resort to using his chin to close the trunk of his car.

"Tweaksville's got a couple of holdouts." Spider smiled at the two boys, his eyes twinkling counterparts to the twin dimples at his cheekbones, a startling contrast to his anything but boyish ways.

Before he could ponder the mystery of the two abstainers, Tunk had stolen the show, his voice loud enough to co-opt all the rapt attention on the court. He didn't need the CB anymore.

"Alright," he said. "If you got money, we don't need it. Money's useless."

The cylindrical containers that were filled with the white chips of meth proved his point. Else, if banks still mattered, why would they store and transport dope in the same tubes that had once been used for banking transactions at drive-thru windows? At this point, banks meant about as much as the police.

"One at a time," Spider and his .38 advised, while Tunk continued with his soliloquy.

"Trade isn't really an option at this point. Maybe when you were younger, sweetheart." He gave a wink to Mrs. Huppert, and Michael saw her son flinch as he did so. Michael held Robby back. It had happened before. Both men had had their way with almost all of the women of this town.

But the poison they brought with them every week had worn the complexions of the women down to sandpaper, the sultry voices having morphed into the scratchy hisses of whispers oscillated through tracheotomy rings, the jeweled eyes filming to the cloudy milk of dilated addiction.

"I wouldn't fuck you," Tunk said to Mrs. Lawson, "with his gun." He pointed to Spider, and his thirty-eight, and it was now time for Robby to return Mike's favor.

What neither of the invading men knew, and what the town was intent on keeping secret, was that there were two girls in Elmwood, Lily Tidwell and Jennifer Ashton, who had reached the bloom of womanhood while managing to stay clear of crystal. They were now hidden, sequestered in a meadow far from the dirt road. And the signal would not be given for them to return until long after both of the men had departed.

In the meantime

"And you've already given up all your jewelry, your batteries, your TVs…" Tunk had distributed four of the five tubes, but he had possessed the forethought to hold out on at least one, lest he should imperil his hold over his audience, leaving no one to enjoy his grandstanding save Spider, who was so taken that he began to lower his .38.

Michael thought of dashing forward to steal the tube from Tunk, but he found himself preempted.

"Take him!" Michael heard his mother's voice, the same strained croak that constantly asserted that there were in fact demons crawling around on the roof of the trailer.

And he heard his own shouts. Not now, but the memory of his voice, pleading with her to please shut up so that he could sleep, to please stop scratching at the scabs that she was making worse with her incessant tweaked clawing, the holes she shredded in her skin that only made it that much easier for the airborne malaria to find purchase on her body.

He regretted his anger toward her, and bore his mother no ill will, even as Spider approached him, led by the dowsing of the praecox woman's finger. He pulled Michael away from Robert, who stepped forward to join his friend.

"Not you," Spider said, his threat backed by the revolver. Rob remained standing firm, despite the ventriloquist murmurs coming from the crack in Mike's set jaw. "What the fuck are you doing?"

His friend's response leaked out in grinding syllables. "Coming with you."

Spider, impressed by the unnamed boy's resolve in the face of the barrel, lowered the Taurus and pivoted toward Tunk. "What do you think, man? Looks like a twofer."

Tunk, after a moment's faltering, shrugged and relinquished the last plastic tube to the strawberry blond skeleton that had once been Michael's mother. He didn't give her so much as backwards glance as Tunk joined his scarecrow brother, surveying the gawky teens as if they were slaves on an auction block. The irony of the appraisal was not lost on him, and he separated Mike's lips, observing the inside of his mouth as if he was a prize filly, and the quality of the thoroughbred's diet could be gleaned from the gums.

"You boys don't like meth, huh?"

They let the rhetorical question pass, and it was just as well. Choice was no longer a luxury afforded by fate. Spider, enthusiastic about the live bartering, opened both of the back doors. Tunk, with his one massive arm, ushered the two boys into the back of the cruiser, minding them to "watch their heads," as if they had been arrested, and not stolen.

"Back when I was a rug rat," Spider began, as he pulled out, "they used to have something called 'Child Protective Services.'" A half-laugh leaked at the remembrance. "If they was still around, you boys would've been scooped up a long time ago."

The police cruiser reversed off of the basketball court, up the grass ramp, and onto the dirt road. Through the kicked up clouds of swirling dust and monoxide, Michael could barely discern the townsfolk, his mother among them, as they scattered back to their trailers to smoke, spike, or sniff the contents of the plastic bank tubes. Robby kept his eyes forward, his hands looped through the grating of the cage that separated the front seat from the back.

Spider and Tunk blotted out the view through the front windshield, leaving the character of the road to be revealed in blurring glimpses as it flew past their windows, and then faded through the rear windshield.

On Michael's side, a water tower had collapsed on its stilts, toppling into furrows of razed crops like a flying saucer that had crashed on impact. On Robby's side, the yellowing fallow acres were littered with dead cattle, the bloated contents of their spotted bellies exposed. In some cases, the udders had been ripped entirely free of the bovine corpses, and at least one cow had been decapitated.

Tunk wasn't claiming credit for the tower, but Spider had a few choice words for the cows. "Yeah, me and Tunk was bored a few hours back…" He winked at the boys in the rearview. "Had ourselves a little bit of target practice, didn't we, brother?"

His partner gave a noncommittal grunt, and then Spider said, "Too bad we didn't find a farmer."

For the first time since they had been abducted, Michael and Rob exchanged a look. Their eyes searched in groping panic for some kind of answer. Neither of them wanted to provoke the men who were now their guardians, fathers more sinister than the ones who had abandoned them and their mothers in the first place.

After some silent deliberation, where the sound of the Crown Vic was the only one to be heard, Rob finally took the bullet. "Where are you taking us?"

"The compound," Tunk said.

Rob looked to Michael and shrugged. It was now his turn. Michael leaned forward. "You going to teach us to cook?" He wasn't sure whether or not he wanted to know the answer.

Spider tilted the rearview, leered at him, and said, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, little doggie! Slow your roll!" He switched lanes, easing the cop cruiser into what would have been oncoming traffic, if there had been any other cars on the highway. They had transitioned from dirt to hardball a half-mile back.

"That's privileged information," Tunk said. "We don't just teach you to cook. You have to work your way up. Earn that trust."

The driver's side window creaked open and Spider jettisoned a thin line of spit from the gap between his two front teeth. "You cook without getting The Man's okay, you're in a world of hurt. In fact…" He looked over to Tunk. "We got us a little detour to take, don't we, boss?"

"Yes, we do," Tunk concurred, snapping open the glove compartment in front of him. He rifled through papers and empty spring-load magazines, as Michael and Rob looked on, waiting to see what he would produce. When he had found what he was looking for, Tunk slammed his fist against the crosshatched wire separating the front seat from the back, startling the boys until they jolted to the rear of the car. He laughed and kept his hand against the wire.

After overcoming their flinching reflexes, Michael and Rob leaned forward, a little more calmly this time. And now that they were calm, they could see what Tunk held, and they could see for themselves that it was a grenade.

"Holy shit," Rob mouthed breathlessly. Tunk, appreciative of the compliment, held the grenade out for a few moments longer. Rob stuck a tentative finger through the wire, rubbing an index over the ribbed body of the ordinance, which was about one-third of the size of a pineapple.

"Who wants to throw her?" Spider said, as if it were not an inanimate object, but a maiden awaiting christening. Rob had already informally volunteered. But his shit-eating grin, which spread from ear to ear, and surprised even Michael, made it official.

Tunk withdrew the grenade and replaced it in the glove box. The boys shifted in their seats, the foam upholstery crinkling beneath them as they moved about in the cabin. They stared out of their windows, while Spider and Tunk watched the road in front of them, as the cruiser ripped through space.

Michael and Rob had sat in cars before, but never cars that moved. Driving without tires, moored on four cinderblocks, always seemed to prove a very difficult proposition.

Outside, the sun had faded, bullied to the edge of the sky by heavy gray clouds, which hung above the car, and followed them all the way into what had once been a city. As they pushed through downtown, Tunk explained that the building covered with glass skin was a "skyscraper." Another brick building was a "schoolhouse." According to Tunk, the fact that he'd had to explain that to them was proof of how "fucking stupid" Rob and Michael truly were.

The city eventually relented to a scooped and excavated land of moonlike basins, cruciform lots and cement islands separated by wide curb radii, gas stations and churches overgrown with weeds and ivy, the identikit faces of the malls and prefab supermarkets covered with lesions of plastic detritus, beer and soda cans blown on crosscurrent drafts through the mostly abandoned land.

There was some activity in a long building that occupied its own strip of land, built to look like a castle, with browning faux ramparts overlooking an outdoor swimming pool and a parking lot. The sign above the structure said "Happy King Motor Court."

Michael leaned in toward Robby and whispered, "This is the farthest I've been from home, man." But Robby didn't respond. His nose twitched above the layer of beaded perspiration forming on the down of his peach fuzz. Mike could tell that he was thinking about the grenade, and what he might have to do with it.

Spider turned around in his seat, as Tunk opened the glove box, and then stepped from the car. "Alright. You're going to go to room one-o-five." Spider stopped speaking for a moment, regarded the nervous Robby Huppert quizzically. "You know numbers?"

"Yeah." Rob shook his head, and the rest of his body trembled involuntarily. His door opened, startling both him and Michael.

"Okay," Spider resumed, as Tunk placed the grenade in the boy's lap. "You're going to knock on room one-o-five and you're going to say, 'Give me an eight ball.' You got that?"

Robby nodded spastically. His sweat glistened over the grenade in his hands. Tunk, uncharacteristically sympathetic, placed a hand on his shoulder. "You know how to use this?"

His nodding continued, albeit in a more metronomic, less rapid fashion. He may have been bluffing, or maybe not. Michael wasn't sure. But the device seemed self-explanatory enough. Spider interceded, coaching Rob from behind the wire partition, Tunk's one arm still on the boy's shoulder. "Run it back to me."

Rob, summoning reserves of calm, leveled his gaze at Spider and said, "Room one-o-five. Ask for an eight ball."

"Good." Spider said. Tunk massaged the boy's right shoulder. "Now when he turns to fill your order, and either he goes to the bathroom or he lifts the mattress"

"You pull the pin on that puppy," Tunk said, taking over. "Chuck that bitch in there, and haul ass back to the car. Got it, little brother?" His shiatsu probe had worked its way up to the teen's neck.

"Yeah," Rob said, nodding again.

"I think he's ready," Spider said to Tunk. Then, looking at Michael, he asked, "You think your friend's ready?"

"Yes sir," Michael said, secretly ashamed at the relief he was feeling that Rob, and not he, had been selected.

"Alright," Tunk said, shoving the boy in the direction of the motel. "We'll be right here waiting for you."

Rob stumbled toward the structure, cradling the grenade to his chest like a swaddled newborn child. Light had faded almost totally from the sky, and the clouds that had stifled the sun were now working overtime to offer the same courtesy to the stars.

Tunk remained outside of the car, leaning on the hood. Spider, in getaway mode, kept his hands on the steering wheel. Michael could only watch.

A huge raised transom loomed above the motel, a vintage series of polka dots framing a sign that read "Peter Pan Liquor." The glass face of the storefront below had been shattered from one end to the other. All of the aisles and racks behind the counter had been picked clean, and the cash register had been shattered.

Useless coinage was scattered across the sidewalk that led up to the space where the double doors had been pried off their hinges.

At the motel, a door on the second tier suddenly opened. An obvious tweaking fiend, shirtless and stained with tattoos, made his way to the balcony and leaned over the railing. Michael watched as the man lit a cigarette with a strike-anywhere match. After a flourish of sulfur, the man tossed the match over the edge of the railing, puffed his cigarette, and scanned up and down the catwalk.

"Think they're using match heads?" Spider asked, leaning out of the car to address Tunk, who also seemed to be taking a keen interest in the man smoking up on the tier above them.

"Could be," Tunk allowed, without taking his eyes off of Robby, who was scanning the numbers of the doors on the floor below. "Red phosphorus instead of ephedrine? Possible." He crossed his one arm over the phantom of the other. Michael watched through the steel mesh as Rob shifted the grenade to his left pocket, and then knocked lightly on the door.

There was a pause, a momentary tension before the heavily painted door opened inward. The dealer could barely be discerned from this distance. His head was shaved, revealing swollen temples and a white scalp that was repulsively bald, the intimacy of the razor having sculpted something faintly reminiscent of a circumcised penis from the flesh.

Mike had seen Nazis before. He recognized the white laces on the shoes, coiling down from the tongues just above the obsidian-black shine of the steel toes, all the way up to the goosestep-ready calves. The dealer was tall enough to fill out the doorway, and Robby had to look up in order to address him.

The man nodded, listened, and then shouted something back into the room behind him. His form momentarily drifted from view, into the lamplight of the seedy motel room.

The moment the man turned his back, Robby began fumbling with the pin, awkwardly shot putting the grenade into the room, his form something like that of a discus hurling Adonis who had expected the weight of a lodestone, and gotten a boulder instead.

Robby ran back toward the police cruiser, where Spider shouted and Tunk ran for the passenger seat. Michael shook the caging so hard that it began to tear, and he suspected that the world, and not one room, was about to blow.

The explosion, though violent, felt anticlimactic. Glass and mortar flew, with a showering of splintery pieces making it as far as the car.

"Come on!" Spider shouted, and threw the car into reverse, just as Robby had reached the Crown Vic. He almost flew free of the cruiser, and probably would have gone barreling out into the parking lot, if Michael hadn't grabbed him and clutched him to his body. Bits of glass, cement, and maybe even shrapnel stuck out in Rob's blond hair, glowing like tinsel, reflecting light back from his smile.

"I did it," he said, to Michael and to himself, but not to either of the men who congratulated him as the car made it back onto the road.

"Good job, kiddo," Tunk said.

"Nobody cooks unless they do it in our kitchen," Spider added, as he arrowed the Vic back onto the main highway. A bullet-riddled sign bade them "Welcome to Nebraska," and grain silos at the roadside caught light from the fading sun.

The scene would have been altogether pleasant, if the familiar odor of ephedrine hadn't been steadily increasing the farther along that they drove. It tickled the glottis, reddened the sinuses, and made Michael and Rob cough until they thought they might vomit.

Tunk and Spider laughed at the paroxysms of the uninitiated. "You'll get used to it," the latter said.

"There she is," Tunk announced.

The boys sat up to take stock, and saw the cupola-buttressed dome reaching up to a mountainous height, floating into the ether above the walls of the compound, which only became visible as Spider accelerated to the crest of the next hill.

"Beautiful, ain't she?"

"What is it?" Michael asked.

"It used to be a church," Tunk said. "A long time ago."

As the Crown Vic pitched downward, diving into the valley, the place revealed itself first in triple-stranded concertina wire (sharp as hornets' stingers, running the perimeter around the mega-church), and next in a series of Quonset-like huts fronting the manse.

Dobermans and pit bulls struggled against their chains, frothing at the end of their metal tethers to taste flesh. The smell of anhydrous ammonia, which until now had been the most unpleasant odor assaulting the boys, was outdone by a smell coming from the walls of trash stacked easily to the height of flagpoles, standing to the sides of the concertina entrance. Plastic, glass, and Styrofoam leaked from the cubed miasma.

"This," Spider said to the two boys, "is home from now on."

A guard armed with an MP5 brought aside the concertina wire, with a gloved hand. The police cruiser rollicked over the pebbled ground, beyond the snapping jaws of the dogs, toward a gaggle of cars parked at the steps of the church.

Spider and Tunk hopped from the car, and opened the back doors for the boys. Michael and Rob slowly exited, staring around in disbelief.

"What the fuck?" Michael mouthed, without sound. Rob shrugged, and smiled. He had been floating on air since the scene at the motel; nothing like tossing a grenade to boost one's confidence.

"Alright," Spider said, pushing the two boys toward the steps. "Mr. Willis always likes to meet his new employees."

"A bit of orientation," Tunk put in.

"Yeah," Spider said. "So be on your best behavior. And keep your fool mouths shut. Got it?"

Rob nodded. "Yes sir," Michael said. Spider continued to push them toward the foot of the stairs. Then, just as quickly, he pulled them back. A beeping forklift, loaded with palletized and shrink-wrapped crates, hummed its way across their path.

"We got enough Sudafed to cure every cold in the Plains Triangle," Tunk remarked, by way of hyperbolic explanation.

The forklift bumped over the grass, heading in the direction of the nearest Quonset, and Spider pushed the boys along. Tunk led up the rear.

The Plains Triangle… The phrase reverberated in Michael's ears, along with "The Man," whose name had not been spoken until now.

Mike knew something of both, knew that "The Plains Triangle" was what people called the area that included the former territories of Nebraska, Colorado, and Wyoming. And he knew, from the sign they had passed, that they were in Nebraska.

As for "The Man"… Before he had run away from the Elmwood Trailer Park (a good decision in hindsight), Michael's cousin had told them all the legend of Charlie Willis, and of how he had escaped from a maximum-security death row, and then gone on to lead the riots that had finally breached the walls of Tecumseh Penitentiary.

From there, according to his cousin's story, Willis and a select band of prisoners took it upon themselves to assume control of the former Great Plains States, as well as the interstate amphetamine trade.

Spider and Tunk (whatever their real names were) had probably been with Willis when he had set it off in Tecumseh. And here, in this church, were the fruits of their labor: canned goods and cold medicine stacked in equal ration, pit bulls and MP5 machineguns, a main room large enough to encourage the showmanship of a flamboyant televangelist, his congregants, and the vanity of his Jumbo-Tron reflection.

And now, thanks to being indentured by their mothers (and one stray grenade), the boys had been welcomed into the arms of the illuminati.

Along with the sound of gunshots coming from outside, there was the racket of ball peens and drills echoing off of the domed ceiling, where workmen labored over removing a pane of stained glass, fixing a clear pane into the space it had once occupied, the final touch in the retrofitting of church into fortress.

"I could get used to this," Robby declared, and already Michael could feel his friend slipping away from him, into the greedy mania that had claimed every mind he had yet encountered in the short space of his life.

Spider, followed by Tunk, climbed a spiraling staircase, up to a landing of veined scaffolding, where an intense-eyed man observed a set of blueprints stretched between the hands of two workmen. The little man nodded, mumbled something to the men in hardhats, and then glanced up at the approaching party.

"Spider, Tunk," he said dryly, as if he had been expecting them, but took no solace from their arrival. The sight of new blood seemed to give him more heart. His eyes glowed as they took in Robby, and then came to linger on Michael.

"Hello, boys," he said, and then turned. They remained pinned to their spot, at a loss until Spider pushed them forward, and they followed the little man as he strolled onward. Moonbeams penetrated the skylight above, and splashed the far wall of the side room that they now entered.

The man walked from one end of the room to the other, where a throne was mounted on a pedestal. A carved wooden eagle was perched at the head of the chair, cradling a swastika engraved into the seatback.

Before taking his place, the little man, presumably Charlie Willis, pointed to the symbol and said, "Perhaps I should explain myself. I am not a Nazi by inclination. But it did help me survive in the showers at Tecumseh. If one didn't want to be raped," Willis rolled up his sleeve and displayed a faded India ink miniature likeness on his arm, "he kept a few of these on his person. Do you understand?"

Michael and Robby nodded. The man sat, and the polished mahogany groaned as it accepted him. "Tunk," he said. His star employee trotted to his side. Spider, a little bit hurt, remained where he was.

"I want to congratulate you boys on keeping free of the crystal. You wouldn't be here otherwise."

Tunk waited at the foot of the chair, a perennial lapdog. Charlie Willis took the pinned material of his sleeve and said, "It took our friend Tunk a little bit longer to realize the folly of amphetamines. Tell them…"

The one-armed guard took his cue, and said, "I used to shoot it. And I kept shooting until I got gangrene."

"He had to amputate his arm to stay alive," Willis commented. "All without the aid of anesthetic, correct?"

"A butcher knife and a surplus bottle of Jack," Tunk confirmed.

"Pity," Willis said, so faintly that Michael thought he might have imagined it. "But drugs," he continued, "have their place."

The kingpin dug into his pocket and extracted something too small to make out from this distance. By some imperceptible sign, he gave Spider the go-ahead to move the boys forward. Spider pushed their backs until they came to stand alongside of Tunk, still a good foot away from the man whose face was all shadow and hard jaw, even observed this closely.

The small object he held caught flawless light from the moon above. It was assuredly clearer than the windshield of the Crown Vic. There weren't many windows in their world, and none were nearly as clear as what Charlie Willis now held.

"Do you know what this is?" he asked the boys.

"No," they said in unison, transfixed.

"The meth that you've seen in your town or village, or wherever it is you hail from," he shook the semantics of their homeland from his mind, and plodded forward. "Whatever it is that your parents smoke, it's somewhere between twenty and fifty percent pure.

"But this…" He twirled the glass speck. "This right here is ninety-eight percent pure crystal meth."

Charlie Willis let that sink in, and then he said, "There is no one in the Plains Triangle, not even me, that can't be killed for this here. And that is what I mean when I say 'drugs have their place'."

As he replaced the chip in his pocket, Michael noticed Tunk's eyes roving with the speck, the addict fondly salivating at the memory, as if the loss of his arm (along with the threat of death) might not be enough to keep him from having a relapse.

Robby, already lost in the hunger of this world, didn't seem to arouse the curiosity of the drug lord in the same way that Michael did, partly because the boy did not seem very impressed. Charlie Willis spoke to him.

"You think I'm evil."

Was it a question? Michael didn't know, but felt that he should remain quiet at least a little while longer. "If there was another commodity, say a viable alternative fuel," Willis said defensively, "I would commit myself to that. But this," he said, standing, nearing the end of his audience with them, "is what we are stuck with."

He pointed a finger at the boy, then a hand at both of them. "This is what you are stuck with. This is your life and your job. I look forward to working with you in the future."

Charlie Willis walked away from them, and his chair engraved with the swastika, back to his workers and their blueprints. Spider and Tunk pushed them from the room, and the boys rushed down the spiral staircase, between fluted ionic columns, back onto the lawn of the church.

"This place is built to withstand an earthquake on the magnitude of eight-point-oh. Did you boys know that?"

"They didn't know that," Spider assured his partner, leading the boys away from the Quonsets. He held them back as the forklift passed for another go, and pushed them toward the sound of the gunshots.

Near the right-hand concertina perimeter, another balanced wall of waste stood high and precarious, swarmed by a cacophony of flies that was probably twice as bad in the daytime.

The only distraction from the hideous bank of waste seemed to be the target range, the source of the gunshots having finally been revealed in a row of paper targets that stood downrange from the five or six guards arrayed between wooden posts, firing MP5s at the silhouettes, littering the ground in front of them with hot brass.

Michael's ears rang with subsonic levels of tinnitus, and he wriggled his jaw from side to side in an effort to make them pop. Rob stuck his index fingers in his own ears and gathered a couple of nails' worth of moist wax.

"You boys," Tunk said, "will be replacing this Joe on 'Fire Brigade.'"

He and Spider shared a giggle. Michael and Rob, who had been working overtime to stifle bile from the beginning of their trip up until now, finally gave up the ghost and heaved the contents of their stomachs onto the dewy grass at their feet.

"Uh-oh," Spider said, giddily. "There goes lunch."

When the boys had recovered themselves, Spider explained the scene before them. His task was made easier by an inexplicable ceasefire on the range. The guards with the MP5s had stopped shooting, and had begun policing up their empty brass jackets, before moving downrange to inspect their targets. The only other sounds now audible came from the ongoing construction project at the mega church, and from dogs barking at their sentries outside of the Quonsets.

"This piece of shit got caught stealing, and he paid the ultimate price," Tunk said.

"Yep," Spider said.

Michael, until now, hadn't been able to level his gaze at the corpse. He finally forced himself to look for five seconds straight (a new record), before averting his eyes again. His stomach swam. Then he looked over at Robby; just as he feared, he saw that his friend was suffering from none of the same nausea.

"He thought he would steal some anhydrous from us," Spider said.

"And he got away with it for a while," Tunk took over.

"Until he had himself a little boo-boo and got all burned up," Spider finished.

The corpse was burned to ashen cinders, scarred so horribly by flame that, if pressed, Michael wouldn't have been able to say of what race the man had once been, before finding himself charred until holes had eaten through the sides of his face, leaving only a fossilized dental profile to be found, and pondered.

"You boys need to be careful on Fire Brigade," Tunk said.

He and Spider walked on. Michael and Robby followed, picking their way over the outstretched corpse. Its hand, Michael noticed, still clutched the fire extinguisher in a post-rigor mortis act of defiance. The smell of anhydrous ammonia, familiar now but ever hard to endure, trailed from the extinguisher in noxious wavy lines, following them as they approached a group of men dressed in patched Salvation Army tatters, gathered around a bonfire.

Crisscrossed planks of wood jutted from the mouth of a flaming MOGAS barrel. Similar planks were placed lengthwise across stones to form jerry-rigged benches. Outside of the fire pit, sets of fire extinguishers were arranged in lean-to formations, stacked so that if one was removed from the equation, the rest would topple to the ground.

These extinguishers didn't smell like anhydrous, and were presumably functional. Tunk still took issue with them, and ran forward to smack one of the three men arrayed around the fire.

"What the hell did I tell you about leaving those things so close to open flame?!"

"Twenty meters," Spider said, as the other two men stood to help the berated third in his effort to make it so. Once they had placed the extinguishers at a sufficient distance, the men returned to their huddle around the bonfire, and regarded the new boys from beyond the golden reflection of flame.

"Who the hell are they?" asked the one with the longest beard.

"These two," Spider said, "are old Sticky Fingers' replacement. Hopefully they have more sense than he did."

"Yeah," put in one of the other two men. "If you don't have an appreciation of basic chemistry, you're better off not playing with meth."

"That's why we're here," said the third, standing proudly and walking toward the boys. As he approached, the smell of fusil oil came with him. Michael and Robby recognized that smell from those lulls between weekly deliveries to the trailer park, when the villagers were forced to ferment their own alcohol in garbage bags. Michael silently wondered whether or not he would ever go home again.

"Come on over, boys," the man enjoined them toward the warmly licking flames, and the company which was unsavory, but was at least more welcome than the baying of the wolves and coyotes, or whatever that was calling from beyond the concertina.

They resigned themselves to the hard wooden benches. Spider and Tunk, their guides thus far, bade them farewell. "Good luck on Fire Brigade," Spider wished them. Tunk turned without further word. Life would go on without either one of them.

"So," one of the men said, his teeth encroaching one upon the other, "I'll bet you're curious about what this job entails…"

Michael and Robby looked at one another. Dirt, an admixture of cordite and creosote, covered their faces. Michael could barely make out his friend's blue eyes in the remaining light of the slanted moon.

"Well," another one of the men said, "it's like this." He stoked the even planks with a wizened tree branch. Cindery coals, erratically aflame, kicked up and forced all five of them to draw back from the fire for a moment.

"We don't do things like they do out in Cali," he continued.

"Nor down in Mexico." The cipher of the story passed liberally from the lips of one to another. They seemed to share the same mind. Michael hoped to never join it, at least not outside the labors of the workaday.

"Yeah," any one of the three could have said. "We don't have no 'super-labs.'"

He had declared the last derisively, as if what they had was much better. Michael and Robby drew close to one another, until they were sitting hip to hip, their knees clicking like castanets in an effort to gather more warmth.

"What we got instead is a bunch of little labs."


Hands from the dark brought them to their feet. And the boys, already used to rough treatment, allowed themselves to be brought to the edge of a cliff, pushed like rag dolls until they were staring down from a vertiginous height onto a pool of RVs, a parking lot full of motor homes, looking as if they were the audience for a drive-in movie theatre. The wall of trash, yet another inescapable bank of waste, might have been the blank tabula rasa presented by a huge projection screen.

Each of the mobile homes was connected to its neighbor by a thin clothesline, a string of hemp strung from the window of one camper to another. Michael suspected that this was where the drivers and passengers, the unseen road warriors, dried their laundry after washing it, either in a creek or in the sinks of their RVs, assuming they had any water in their tanks.

He found himself surprised, after only a few minutes of observing the lot spread far beneath the buttery slab of a crescent moon, when one of the windows on a camper opened and an arm popped out. The hand affixed a bag to the line and let it slide into a sagging no-man's-land between the motor home and its neighbor.

"What's he doing?" Robby asked.

One of their three coworkers, who had walked to the ledge with them, said, "He's doing his job, sonny."

The low grumble of an engine could be heard working its way through the parking lot. Michael searched for a car, or for perhaps one of the RVs to start moving, but he had yet to locate the source of the noise.

"It takes about three hours for them to manufacture a batch," their warder resumed. "A batch is about two grams."

"And when you think about that, and you figure there are about twenty campers down there, that's…"

He paused and gave the boys a chance to pull the arithmetic from the ether. "How much meth is that a day?"

Robby's mouth began to move, and his fingers twinkled like a poor man's abacus. Michael was less concerned with how much meth this little nightmare pumped into The Plains Triangle, and more interested in the source of the growling engine, which he had finally located, in the form of a camouflaged ATV that was presently gunning down the grassy corridor formed by the rows of RVs, until the four-wheeler came to idle in front of the clothesline, where the bag had just been placed.

"Three hundred and twenty grams per day!" Robby announced proudly, startling Michael.

"This one's sharp," one of the men complimented him.

"Yeah," another said. "He's a real keeper."

Michael watched as the man dismounted his ATV, snatched the satchel from the line, and placed the bag into a basket that was welded to the space where an antlered buck would have been tossed, had one been felled with buckshot during a hunt. After claiming the bag, the driver in the leather chaps remounted his ATV and drove off in search of other plums, dangling from lines strung between the motor homes.

"But," Michael said, realizing that he was spoiling the moment with his hunt for logic, "if they're cooking three-hundred and twenty grams per day…"

He struggled to work it out in his head, as Robby scowled, angry that Michael had rained on his moment. The men seemed equally offended that he should try to search for porous holes in their logic. "That would mean that those people down there are working twenty-four hours a day."

"Yeah," one of the men said, irritated that the new boy should waste his time with information that was already self-evident to him, and to the others on Fire Brigade. "There's a driver and a passenger. They sleep in shifts."

"Speaking of which." A yawn cracked across the bearded one's face. "We're going to rack out. You boys might want to do the same."

The bearded man walked into the middle distance between the MOGAS bonfire and the area to which the extinguishers had been removed, as per Tunk's orders. His friends followed him to the spot and made camp on green surplus canvas pallets.

One of them, after stretching and displaying the fully distended gourd of his belly, tossed the boys a couple of canned rations. "Good eating," he said. One of the cans landed between Rob's legs. The other one bounced off of Michael's forehead, before coming to rest between his feet. He held the can up to the firelight: Vienna Sausages.

"And make sure to sleep in shifts," an invisible voice from the dark warned.

"What do we do if there's a fire?" Michael asked the black void.

"Put it out," the cold wall responded.

Michael and Rob fell asleep shortly after that, bearing the advice of the tenured Fire Brigadiers off to the other side of dreamland. They shivered against the encroaching cold, joining together into an unselfconscious spoon, two fetal halves of one warm ball.

The chattering of their teeth served in place of lullabies, and the dank warmth of their armpits and crotches worked in lieu of gloves.

The MOGAS bonfire burnt on into the morning, the fire eating into the planks like a drove of pyromaniac termites, until the wood became coals, which gradually became a sooty barrel full of ash that quenched the last of the flame.

Michael was the first to awaken. He sat up on one elbow, shortly after the sun had risen and began lightening the sky by gradual degrees. Robby was still blissfully asleep, spittle falling from the edge of his lip to collect in a sticky pool at the side of his face.

The smell from the pyre was pleasant, the memory of last night's bonfire wafting gently out into the cold air. But it was shadowed with another smell, an uglier pungency that was nothing like the mesquite and evergreen musk coming from the MOGAS barrel. A wisp of ugly black smog, trailing beneath the cottony cloudbanks framing the sunrise, drew Michael to his feet.

He walked to the edge of the steep cliff and looked down into the valley, out at the parking lot, which had been mostly invisible last night. In the center of the rows of moored RVs, a jet of blue-orange flame strayed from the window of a parked camper, threatening to spread out to the clothesline, and maybe catch like contagion, on down the line to the next mobile home.

"Hey!" Michael shouted. His voice echoed up from the canyon, came back to mock him. But it did nothing to disturb the gaggle of winos still sleeping on their green canvas pallets. And it did nothing to stir Robby.

So, left with no choice, Michael slowly began to make his way down the steep hill, rousing mini-avalanches of red clay as he picked his way across the unstable shelf, descending to the edge of the parking lot, searching with his eyes for the ATV he had seen roving last night.

Some of the campers still had bumper stickers affixed to their rears, as if the opinions of their drivers, or of the institutions to which they had once subscribed, might still actually mean something. Michael was semiliterate and thus spared an understanding of their divisive nature.

"Hey!" His voice ricocheted in the vinyl-sided chasm. He pounded the sides of the campers in an attempt to draw the attention of the cooks, receiving nothing but sleepy grumbling for all his troubles. Following his nose first, and then his widening eyes, he found himself at the flaming camper. And only then did he realize that he had neglected to bring the extinguisher.


Tears welled in his eyes. And with nothing to offer (or to lose), Michael pried the side door open, and stepped inside.

"Hit him!" He turned in the direction of the voice, the grizzled tenor of an older man, and found himself facing a flashing wall of light, which sent him back into the blackness from which he had so recently awakened.

He blinked through stinging eyes, framed by ringing ears and a swollen forehead. Michael felt the whole hot mess that was his brain, cradled in hands as soft and feminine as his mother's had once been, in the years before she had succumbed to the drug.

That was a long time ago. And Michael would not have even remembered it, had not the sapping dislodged the memory for him. He looked up at the culprit, a man sitting across from him in an Afghan-draped rocker. The man creaked forward and groaned backwards, the wood of the chair seemingly as arthritic as its occupant.

The woman who owned the soft hands gazed down at him with equally beautiful eyes. There was sympathy, pain, and tears. Before this moment, Michael had thought his eyes the only pair on earth capable of carrying a salty cargo. It was a shock to see her crying, equally shocking to realize that the oldest man he had ever seen in his life had successfully managed to blackjack him with a coffee pot.

"Shit," the old man drawled, looking at the shattered remnants of the percolator. He set it down on a cabinet and stood. He fiddled with a drawstring and pulled the blinds open, admitting the sun whose morning rays instantly gave Michael a splitting migraine.

The headache probed the twin pulsing hemispheres of his brain. Through bleary eyes, Michael studied the contents displayed on the linoleum surface of the cabinet. Beside the shattered percolator used to give him a braining, there were Teflon plates and glass beakers, a Sep funnel and a vacuum tube, all of which, Michael presumed, were used to make the drugs that had made his world a nightmare as far back as he could remember.

Now that he was here, face to face with the literal architects of the hell that was his life, everything in that same old existence made much less sense. And it wasn't only the pain in his head that had him confused. It was, quite simply, that he did not hate these people. In fact, he felt sorry for them.

Sitting to the far right of the supplies, lightly caked with a haze of white powder, was a small jewel box, propped open and displaying a silver dollar-sized medallion.

"You're looking at my Purple Heart," the old man said curtly, adding, "with two Oak Leaf clusters."

"What's that?" Michael asked. The woman ceased her caresses the moment she realized he was conscious. Michael regretted having spoken.

"About a thousand years ago," the old man said, fixing him with a milky cataract, "there was a little something called the 'Vietnam War.' Ever hear of it?"

"Granddad," the girl said, chastising him in an attempt to deter the old bugger from what was so obviously a pet topic for him. In such a small environment, there might not have been many diversions, aside from those afforded by such conversations.

"No," Michael said, flatly. He hated to disappoint the old man. But no, he had never heard of Vietnam.

The old man bowed his head and nodded grimly, as if he had been expecting that. Michael felt relieved to know that the old man was, in fact, her grandfather. It was comforting to see that the pool of available men had not dwindled so far that Pops had a chance with one as voluptuous as her.

Michael Lawson had experienced one sexual encounter in his hardscrabble sixteen years on this Earth. And that was a hand job courtesy of a thirteen year-old girl back in Elmwood, one who was hidden whenever Tunk and Spider paid the trailer park a visit. It had been a good experience, and he was eager to repeat it.

"My name," the old man began, drawing Michael from his fantasies, "is Joseph. My granddaughter's name is Lily. Our surname is Flowers."

"I'm Michael," Michael said.

The old man nodded and redrew the blinds, which lessened the pain in Michael's head considerably. Joseph Flowers resumed his place in the rocker, and his granddaughter came to his side.

"Where's Billy?" the old man asked.

"Who?" Michael asked. He had met so many people in such a short a space of time. And most of them weren't very keen on identifying themselves, besides.

"I was going to pop him on the head and try to make our escape," Joseph Flowers said, lifting the jagged remnants of the percolator, which further crumbled as he set it back onto the linoleum countertop.

"Oh," Michael said. "I think he burned to death."

The old man shrugged, as much as he could under the strain of his spinal curvature. "Life will go on without him."

"So… Michael," the old man said. "Are you going to suckle at the crystal teat, or might my granddaughter and I enlist your help?"

Michael glanced once at the old man, and then let his eyes linger on the granddaughter in question, on the luster of her sandy blond hair, resilient against the powdery motes that usually turned filigreed gold into crackling straw.

His naked gaze rested on her breasts, pointing like the nosecones of twin rockets. They were bronzed, and swollen as overripe grapes. She wore a loose, dirty sweater. But her bust responded as if was engorged by a corset. She inadvertently solved the mystery that fevered Michael's pubescent mind, and he watched as she absentmindedly lifted the garment, and exposed the swollen mound of her belly.

"After all," the grandfather said, "she is with child." She covered the belly again, and sat on one of the chair's arms.

They awaited his answer. Michael thought about it, lowering his eyes to avoid the guilt that he knew the couple would inspire in him. A blackened patch on the floor caught his attention, and he was grateful for the distraction it provided.

"What's that?" he asked, pointing.

"Controlled blaze," Mr. Flowers said. "It's the fire I set to get you down here. I was planning to kill you, to crush your skull."

"But that wouldn't have helped you escape."

"Freedom comes in many forms," the old man stated, philosophically. "There are worse things than a little revenge. We've been stuck here for three years."

The old man had included himself in the complaint, but Michael thought only of Lily, and the plight of her unborn child. The old man's voice rose, and he pointed at his granddaughter's stomach.

"Ephedrine and lithium," the old man began a catalogue, fumbling among the solvents and chemicals behind him, tearing open a box of Sudafed that came from the same surplus that Michael had seen palletized on the forklift, back at the mega-church.

"Do you think these things are good for her to be breathing?" He stole his granddaughter's hand away from her side, his face red and etched with lines of age, his deranged eyes bugging. "Look!"

Lily turned the oval of her face, resembling, in profile, a depiction of the Lady of Guadalupe carved from cameo. Michael looked at her hands, stung with a myriad of what looked like paper cuts; one of the pink shreds was the size of a Venus flytrap's mouth. The white powder, which covered everything in the trailer, carpet and hair included, also found its way inside of the cut.

"She gets these cuts from opening those goddamn blister packets." Joseph Flowers let go of his granddaughter's hand and threw the Sudafed across the trailer. Then he waited for the boy to speak. Lily waited with the old man.

"Okay," Michael said.

The tension evaporated from the man, as if there was a literal valve secreted somewhere on his body, and it had been tweaked left with a resultant drop in psi. The man smiled, and for the first time Michael had witnessed love. He wanted it, and wanted to be a part of it, to be a member of their family at any cost.

"What can I do?" Michael asked.

The suddenly animated old man, well into his eighties, dug around into the clutter of his mobile home. While his back was turned, Michael snuck a few more looks at Lily, and at the protrusion of her stomach. He wondered where the father was, and also wondered whether or not it was abnormal to feel the way he did, mainly that the eclipse of her bulging abdomen somehow made her sexier to him.

"Now," Joseph Flowers said, both of his hands occupied, "if you can get us some gas, we might have a chance."

In one hand he held a funnel, caked with floury ephedrine dust. In the other, he held a red plastic can. Michael looked at the things the old man held. And then he looked at Joseph, with shocks of gray hair sprouting from his cauliflower ears, a fish scale scar traversing the length of his eyebrow, beneath the glowing azure of his cataract.

"Will this thing run?" Michael asked.

"I don't know." The old man's eyes twinkled. He was about to speak again, when the scratchy amplification of a bullhorn interrupted him, and the grumbling of an engine made the thin vinyl walls shake.

The roving ATV stopped in front of the trailer's open door, the driver having tilted the handgrips so that the front axle faced the two cooks, along with the new addition to Fire Brigade.

"Your battery dead?" he inquired.

"No sir," Joseph replied. It pained Michael to hear the old man render a courtesy to someone half his age. It should have taken more than a four-wheeler and a shotgun to command respect.

"Then honk for count," the driver said. He hunched forward, ready to push on, when the young Brigadier, minus his fire extinguisher, caught his eye.

"The fuck are you doing down here, punk?" The guard took his sawed-off Mossberg from the gun-rack behind him, which was opposite the nearly filled basket up front. He slung the gun across his cracked leather bomber, and stood.

"Putting out a fire," Michael said, willing the tremor from his voice and legs. Mr. Flowers crept out of the fray, to the front of the RV. He pulled a key from off the dashboard and stuck it in the ignition. After turning it, he gave a quick succession of honks, and then the vehicle to his right beeped as well. The chant was carried far down the line.

In the meantime, the guard had taken it upon himself to enter the motor home. He fixed his eyes on Lily, and on her breasts. The charred spot in the center of the rug, the very crux of Michael's alibi, and of the armed guard's inquiry, had fallen to the wayside. The old man came back from the front of the car in an attempt to steer the conversation.

"Yeah, he just about saved us," the old man said, patting Michael on the shoulder. The guard looked away from Lily, somewhat irritated. He regarded the spot on the ground as if it were dog droppings. Michael and Joseph didn't earn much more shrift than the black spot, located on this guard's hierarchy perhaps somewhere on the level of cockroaches. As for Lily, she warranted another lingering stare, which lasted even after the guard had descended the staircase, and remounted his ATV.

His brazen appraisal probably would have made the old man livid, if it hadn't also distracted the guard from the easy observation that Michael, supposedly dispatched from Fire Brigade, lacked even the most rudimentary of tools.

Over the sound of the fading ATV, and the distal call of the beeping car horns, the old man whispered, "Get the hell back to your barracks for count. And try to find us some gas!"

Michael tripped down the stairs and climbed his way back up the hill, toward the MOGAS barrel that had been restocked with two-by-fours in his absence, and now burned brightly. In his right hand, Michael held the red plastic gas can. In his left, he held the funnel with which he was supposed to draw fuel from the car, like a mosquito suckling on a patch of skin.

Hiding any of this stuff on his person would have been out of the question. It wasn't like a tin of Vienna Sausages, which created only a slightly conspicuous bulge in his left pocket, and made sitting for any length of time uncomfortable. He would have to do something else.

As Michael crested the hill, he visually scoured the plateau for an ideal hideaway.

None of the three soused degenerates from last night was anywhere to be found. Their pallets were there, and the fire points remained unmolested, the extinguishers still stacked one upon the other, in groups of three. The only person in sight was the charred corpse of "Billy," if he was indeed the one that Joseph Flowers had been asking about.

Swarms of flies, emboldened by the bright power of the sun, picked their way across the remnants of the body, sharing his corpse with droves of larval maggots, slinking in white pupated bloom across the cavernous banquet offered by his nose and ears.

Michael stifled a wave of vomit, and looked up just in time to see Robby sprinting toward him. Without thinking, he set the can and hose behind one of the makeshift benches.

"Where the fuck were you?" Panic, rage, and a little bit of fear laced his friend's voice.

"Putting out a fire," Michael said.

Robby was so excited that he let the explanation slide at face value. He grabbed Michael by the shoulder and pulled him along. Mike followed, grateful that Robby had at least selected a detour around the corpse.

"Am I in trouble?" he asked.

"No man," Robby said. "But you're missing out!" He placed his hand over Michael's shoulder and pulled him around behind the veranda of the whitewashed mega-church. A freestanding gazebo, latticed with ivy, held two pit bulls engaged in savage chomping combat. Two men held the dogs' chains with Mossberg sawed-offs slung across their backs. Their friends looked on, and laid cartons of surplus cigarettes for wagers.

A team of forklifts, which continued to stack the leaky garbage, intermittently fortified a symmetrical wall of trash outside of the concertina wire. Carrion flew around the empire of coffee rinds and infected hypodermic needles, protruding along the outlying walls of the rubbish heap. In time, Michael thought, the wall might come to rival the mountain that hid the RV armada of mini-labs.

"Welcome home," Robby said, and Michael knew that they could never be friends again. The buildings, which had seemed like Quonset huts, were in fact the bodies of Yellow Bluebird school busses. The fleet had been separated from the floorboards, tires, and seats, leaving only carbon monoxide-stained half shells to accommodate a variety of activities. Michael could see people through the half-open window of the first bus, standing naked and lathered. To the right of the school bus/building, a decommissioned propane tank hummed, as it was drained of water.

"No more creeks," Robby said, unaware of the permanent estrangement between himself and his former best friend, and clueless as to the reasoning behind it. Even if he had suspected, Michael would have never been able to make him understand.

"A real shower…" He pushed Michael in the direction of the school bus, whose ceiling had been heightened by a row of thin crossbeams, which served as stilts. There was a space between the sopping grass and the end of the overhanging bus, where sudsy runoff drained and formed sinkholes responsible for spraining many an ankle.

"I'll be next door," Robby said, pushing Michael into the cramped room of naked and dirty men, most of whom bore their scars and tattoos as naturally as birthmarks. They turned their heads up to the rusty spigots, like dictators addressing nations over microphones.

Michael checked the urge to say, "Excuse me," or to apologize as he brushed his way past the bodies, knowing that his kindness might serve as invitation to abuse, whose application could be limitless when the victim was naked.

He took off his clothes and slung them over a chin-up bar welded to the ceiling of the Bluebird. He patted the imprint of the Vienna Sausages to ensure that the can was still there, and then he turned on the faucet, feeling ashamed as the cold water washed over him. He marveled that he had been forced to commit so many sins, merely to enjoy the simple pleasures of a shower.

As the dirt collected in a pool at his bare feet, forming a sandy untreated morass of sludge, Michael thought of Mr. Flowers and of his granddaughter, suffering through the eternal snow of an ephedrine winter, with a baby, a goddamn baby on the way. Michael shook his head from side to side, feeling powerless, but feeling months of mud also drain from his body.

He used his blue jeans to towel off, wishing that he had also washed his clothes. His shirt was alive with lice and other vermin, and his pants were pressed to knife creases, hard from age.

The second trailer was filled along the walls with the same canvas surplus pallets he had seen over at the fire point. On most of the cots, two or three boys sat huddled together, comfortable and eerily free of strife. He had never seen kids so calm.

Most of them were younger than him, with only a few perhaps a year or two older. He saw the source of their trance soon after he spotted Robby, his outline shaded by the glow from a cathode screen planted in the center of the dusty room.

The orb held them in its Cyclops grip, a hypnotic chokehold beaming Technicolor pixels. A surplus stock of generic batteries sat on top of the device. Michael had seen them before, but this marked the first time he had seen a television in action.

Finding one without a smashed face usually proved a difficult enough task in and of itself. In the chaotic waste of their empty days, any unbroken glass called for a sledgehammer like crops for a storm, or an infant for milk.

Inside of the box, a small man waged war on a group of soldiers. His naked chest, lubricated with sweat and traversed by bursting veins, was draped with twin bandoliers of ammunition. The bullets were rapidly filling the street sweeper he kept trained on the army of the little men, who continued to filter out from their straw huts, and found themselves mowed down in his wake. When their number proved too great for him, the muscle-bound man snatched a grenade from the webbing of his utility belt, and pulled the pin with his teeth.

"That's what I should have done," Robby said, lamenting his performance at the motor court.

On the box, the soldier who was now bereft of ammo used his bayonet to eviscerate three of the oncoming little yellow men. He skewered them like shish kabob, before pulling the weapon free. Michael wondered for a moment if this drama had something to do with the same Vietnam that the octogenarian had mentioned back at the motor home.

Robby, his vanity fed by the striking resemblance between his feat back at the motel and that displayed on the TV, pointed a thumb down the row of cots and said, "As soon as he turns eighteen, I'm the dorm chief."

"What's the 'dorm chief?'" Michael asked. The gawky teen to which Robby had pointed already seemed to have matured past the confines of this yellow Bluebird. His head was almost touching the ceiling.

Robby spread his fingers like a starfish. "I'm supposed to do head count twice per day. And if something's wrong, I'm supposed to go directly to the church." The fingers closed around the palm to form a fist, and he gave Michael a playful punch on the shoulder.

"You were supposed to be here, man. But I covered for you."

"Thanks," Michael said.

"No sweat," Robby said, and then stretched out on his side of the cot. He stuck his hands together in prayerful supplication and let the flesh serve as his eiderdown. He yawned and said, "You'd better get some sleep, too, man. We've got Fire Brigade tonight."

Michael stretched as far as the cramped quarters would allow, his elbows touching boys at his left and right, musing that they were all nothing more than sardines trapped in a can, already gutted and picked free of bones. He dozed, but didn't truly sleep.

Rain pelted the sloping roof of the school bus, forming miniature tide pools that collected before flowing through the cracks in the ceiling, down onto the heads of the snoring boys that were cloistered together in the room. The action movie had ceased a few hours back, the batteries having died on the portable TV.

Moist droplets of water played an escalating game of Chinese water torture on Michael's scalp, each bead bringing him one wincing degree further from sleep, and closer to the humid and very unpleasant reality of his environs.

Robby was already awake, standing over Michael's face.

"Here," he said, passing him something in the dark. Michael fumbled with the brass surface, realizing, as he located the snap, that it was some kind of belt.

"It's got your canteen and your poncho. You're going to need them both tonight. You thirsty?"

"Yeah," Michael grumbled.

"Come on."

He followed the voice to the front of the yellow Bluebird, out to the entryway where the windshield had once been. A bus driver had sat here once, a stoic cog in the midst of energetic preteens, thanklessly shuttling them to and from school.

The dogs continued barking, their call and response as tireless as a preacher invoking the name of God. That and the slanting wall of rain lent the night a harsh edge, made even more unpleasant by the lack of illumination. Michael had no idea how Robby had found his way to his destination, or what his exact objective was.

"Here," his voice slipped through the rain and dark. His hand fumbled along Michael's belt for the canteen. He took the one-liter plastic container and fitted it on a spigot located in the belly of a large tank.

"This is the water buffalo," he said.

Rain pummeled the poncho that Robby wore. Michael decided to follow suit, stripping his utility belt bare.

"There you go." The canteen came back to him, overflowing with half-potable water, indistinguishable from the tsunami outpouring from the heavens above.

"Let's go," Robby said. Michael followed him in the direction of the battered flames, which were visible even from this distance. He was shocked to see that anything could even burn in this deluge.

He also noted, as they approached their three friends from last night, that Tunk and Spider's Crown Vic was parked to the rear of the mega-church. The car was within proximity to its guardian, the odd mastiff in the sea of Dobermans and pits. It snarled at the invisible humans, whose smell was obvious even on this stormiest of nights.

"Hey, boys," the bearded Brigadier greeted them. One of the beardless picked up his bundle and departed at their approach. He didn't bother to acknowledge his relief as he went.

"What's up, Jimmy?" Robby said, plopping down onto one of the benches, sanding his hands together for warmth, and then placing his palms above the low spurt of fire.

"Old boy down there…" Jimmy nodded toward the camper village in the valley, and tugged the drawstrings on his gray hooded sweatshirt, which was sewn into the checkered pattern of a flannel overcoat. "He seemed to have forgotten the benefits of cross ventilation."

Jimmy gave with a baritone laugh. "Cost him and his bitch dearly."

Michael's gut sank into his toes, spiking his heart with lancing pangs of hopelessness. If it was Joseph or his granddaughter who had burned up…

"Too bad for them," Robby said, joining Jimmy in a laugh.

Satisfied that the boys shared his joy for the suffering of others, Jimmy patted both Michael and Robby on the shoulders. Then he threw a headlock around one of his straggling brethren, and picked his way toward a school bus.

"I'd lay some pipe on that tweaking pudding," Robby said, eyeing the second story of the mega-church enviously, "if only Mr. Willis would let me have a shot."

Michael had been wondering where the women were hiding. Whosoever the architects of this Hades had been, they at least got kudos from Michael for having the sense to keep the sexes segregated. If they hadn't done so, a slew of rapes and barbaric assaults would have been as assured as the fate of anyone stupid enough to pet one of the rabid dogs; perhaps the workmen deserved the same fate, to spend their days fettered, manacled like subhuman canines.

"Of course," Robby said, pulling a glass stem from underneath the woodland print of his poncho, "I got crystal dick like a mother. So what good would I be to them, anyway?"

Robby fixed a soapy white chip into the bevel cut of the pipe. A skull was decaled along the mouth of the glass. He pulled a Zippo from somewhere on his body and torched up, lowering his head to hide the flame from the weather.

"Stand over me, would you?" He cocked his head up at Michael. Rain had caked his spiky hair to the side of his head in a plastered Caesar. A bright light that would eventually dim his corporeal being down to the last cell consumed his eyes.

The question almost formed on Michael's lips, but he checked the urge. He had asked it too many times, of his mother and of others back at Elmwood. Why? There was never an answer.

"You're a fucking dumbass," Michael stated.

If Robby was going to commit himself to this operation and sell his soul, then there was no way that he could split the difference between meth and meth's master. There was no keeping a handle on a habit, when there was no buffer the between source and the addict. He would waste away here, and probably fast.

Michael shook his head, grateful at least that Robby hadn't tried to offer him the pipe. If he had, Michael would have been tempted to slap it from his hands. Instead, he reached underneath the bench, fumbling for both the gas can and hose.

If it wasn't the Flowers family that had burned up a few hours before, then Michael was getting the hell out of here. And if it had been them, then he would douse his body with gas and use Robby's Zippo to self-immolate, essentially engaging in the same behavior as his friend, at only a slightly faster rate.

He trudged over the loosening mud, back in the direction of the cruiser. "Where are you going?"

"Take a shit," Michael replied, double-timing until the widening jaws of the mastiff sobered him. He remained paralyzed for a moment, standing just outside the range of the beast, close enough to smell its animal musk. He noted, with more than a little trepidation, that the dog was not neutered. Not only that, but the fully distended sack was larger than his own, even on the best of days.

Right now, in his terrified state of shrunken retraction, the dog had him beaten by twice. "Easy," he muttered, making headway with neither his nerves nor the mastiff, whose chained stake had almost been pulled free from the mud.

Michael's trembling hand somehow found its way over the bulge of the tin can in his pocket. His mind, bereft of almost everything but panic, telegraphed one last signal, a bit of common sense fed directly from brain to hand. He pulled the can from his pants, peeled the lid back, and offered it to the dog.

The mastiff, its paws sinking into the muddy quicksand, stopped snarling and began sniffing. Its cropped ears sagged, relinquishing their alert, and its tail pricked up. The purple carpet of its tongue unfurled onto the can, lapping first the excess juices, and then the sausages.

Hot breath from its nostrils tickled Michael's hand, and the dog followed up with a licking massage around the lifelines of his palm. He petted the dog, gave the scruff of its collar a firm squeeze, and then picked his way past the animal, heading toward the cruiser that had been making weekly stops at his village for the past few years.

His understanding of cars, the relationship between fuel and motion, was only slightly less nebulous than his grasp of engines, which was nil. He had confidence in his ability to steal gas when the time came, but first he had to locate the port, the orifice in the car.

It wasn't in the trunk, he knew that much. The trunk was for the plastic tubes. Was it secreted somewhere on the wheel? In the glove compartment where the grenade had been stored? Under the hood?

There was a slot, a nondescript box carved into the side of the car. It seemed large enough to accommodate the funnel length he held in his hand. Michael walked over to the spot, giving a quick backwards glance to the mastiff, wary that his tenderness had been a fluke bribed with processed meat.

The ruddy beast was curled on itself, content as a boa constrictor fatted on a field mouse. Michael pulled the little metal cover aside, and found himself confronted with a plastic circular face. He turned the face clockwise and it gave, snapping open and trailing a scent uncannily similar to the heavy incense of fossil fuels that emanated from the gas can.

Michael fitted the snaking bit of funnel over the hole, grateful that Robby or one of the other boys his age wasn't here to see this, standing ready with a lowball joke about fellatio.

He pulled, his Adam's apple pulsing like the bolt on a hot rifle coming to rest after fire. The impending rush burnt the cilia-like hairs in his nose. The smell warned him, but a moment too late.

Gasoline spurted from his mouth, blinded him and forced a white-hot panic to bloom in his mind and chest. He somehow found the necessary reserves of courage to hold the siphon in place, and fit the red plastic gas can at the other end of the hose, where it waited for the wildcat flow.

When the can was full, he removed it from the still-gushing fountain, and capped it, walking back in the direction of the MOGAS barrel. He could still hear the unimpeded splashing of the gas as it bled from the police cruiser's tank, onto the rain-soaked muddy surface. He derived infinite satisfaction from the image of Tunk and Spider loading the car up in the morning with bank tubes, preparing to make their weekly runs, only to find out that they had been beaten by someone half their age, and all without the aid of a weapon.

If everything went according to plan, he would be long gone by the time they made their discovery. As he approached, he saw Robby fix the glass stem in his mouth once again, and then spark up with the Zippo. His head lit up like a jack-o-lantern, scooped empty of seeds and overstuffed with flaming roman candles.

"How was your shit?" he asked, nary a trace of suspicion, irony, or even curiosity in his words.

"Good," Michael said.

The gulch filled with RVs screamed to him with its Siren call. And he wanted to heed it, to let Mr. Joseph Flowers and Lily know that he had come through for them.

But he was patient, and he took a seat on the bench, abiding the night, the moon, the barking of dogs, and his meth-smoking friend.

"You sure you don't want a hit?" Robby held out the pipe. Michael shook his head, bundling his hands between his warm thighs and tucking his chin to his sternum, lest any heat should escape from his body.

Light from the fire bathed his downturned face. The white-hot edge of the flame leaped from the barrel, burning the edges of the genuine cordwood mixed in with the two-by-fours. Trees were rare, almost as rare as gasoline, and Michael wondered where anyone had found them.

Thoughts of scarcity drew his eyes away from the cold and lonesome task before him, and toward the cozy windows in the face of the church. He thought he could discern the slim outline of a very delicate female amidst the rubbing crush of revelers that were passing back and forth, in front of the window. It was too much, and he had to stop looking.

Robby probed into the hot mouth of his glass stem, running his index into the chamber until the fingertip blistered, foraging for a last sliver to smoke. When the heat became unbearable, he brought his finger out and wagged it into the cold air.

"Shit," he said, the furrows in his brow creasing like crosshairs. "That's it."

"Where'd you get that?" Michael asked, wishing that he hadn't pried. He shuddered to think that Robby might have possessed the audacity to rip off Willis. If word of his theft got out, then the example they would make of him would be ungodly in its dimension.

"Don't worry about it," Robby said, rudely sparing him.

They fell into silence, the waning of Rob's buzz coincident with the weight of Michael's imminent escape, which, if the sound coming from the valley meant anything, had finally arrived.

The boys stood at the same moment, walked to the edge of the frozen cliff, and gazed down into the chockablock spread of campers. A mushroom cloud, a confluence of magma red and sunray yellow, blossomed into a self-contained Armageddon next to the RV that Michael had visited the night before.

He rushed back over to the bench where he had been sitting a moment ago. The gas can was right where he had left it, the siphon next to that. He picked up the can, and then the siphon.

Now that he knew where the car hole was, he could impress the Flowers couple with his skill, and maybe even spare himself a choking spasm the next time he and his family needed gas.

"Where are you going?" Robby asked, planting himself in Michael's path.

"I got it."

Robby pressed a hand to Michael's chest. "I'll take this one," he said. "I'm senior."

His high clearly hadn't waned, or even peaked. His brain, from medulla oblongata to hypothalamus, was still gripped in the trance of a smoky nitrous boost. Michael's adrenaline hailed from a different source, but he was sure that his rush was stronger.

He slapped his friend's hand away and said, "No, man. It's alright. I got it." He began his descent, moving sideways to achieve traction as he made his way toward the camper, thinking as he went that neither Joseph nor Lily had been the ones to suffer in the fire that Jimmy had mentioned earlier.

If either one of them had been burned, then there was no way that they could have sent Michael the ingenious smoke signal that had just been raised. And that was what it had to have been, he was sure: a brilliant red flag, a flaring phosphorus beacon sent out into the night to draw his eye.

And he was coming with the gas. Nothing could stop him, not even the weight he felt pounding on him from behind as he made it to the bottom of the hill, down to the edge of the motor home encampment.

He spun about, appalled to find that Robby was swarming down on him with both arms coiled around his throat, his legs locked around Michael's sides like a rabid blue gibbon monkey.

"Get off of me!"

Michael stumbled, banging both of their bodies hard against the side of an RV. Cooks began to awaken all around them, switching on their lights as the boys collided with the vinyl sides of their mom & pop labs. He swatted at Robby with his hand, the effect of his punches diminished by the gas can that he held, which he refused to relinquish, even at the peril of death.

Michael walked forward, looking beyond the walls of trash toward the black sky, and the stars which were too distant to have any bearing on anything here tonight, but which he somehow blamed for the cold that made him shiver when the sun went down, and the moon rose.

He blamed the stars also for the hope that now stirred in him, against the knowledge of every hideous day that he had ever endured up until this very moment.

And so he staggered, bringing Robby's weight with him like a dehydrated marathoner crossing the finish line, until he was at the camper from whose side the mushroom cloud had emanated. He leaned forward, fell to his knees, and in the process he threw Rob over his head, flipping him into a somersault from which he recovered almost as soon as he had landed.

Robby ran toward Michael, bum rushing him with a force that would have split bone, if it hadn't been interrupted by a door thrown open on the trailer at just the moment he would have made contact, which had the unfortunate consequence of turning Robby's force totally against him.

"Get in," Lily said.

Michael did what she told him to do.

Inside of the trailer, which now smelled more like the natural perfume of her hair, and less like the ephedrine nesting in it, Mr. Joseph Flowers looked down at Michael, his cataract-ridden eyes half an inch beneath his tie-dyed bandana.

"You got it?" the old man asked. Michael held up the can. Mr. Flowers smiled. "Give it to her."

Michael turned and handed the can to Lily Flowers. She stepped down from the RV and walked to the side of the vehicle. Michael walked to the base of the steps and divided his attention between her and his erstwhile friend, who seemed like he was beginning to shake off his coma.

"It won't get us very far," the old man said, salting Michael's effort with terrible honesty. "Mabel eats gas like a motherfucker!"

"Granddaddy!" Lily chided, tilting the gas can until it was upended.

"She hates when I call her that," he said to Michael, tapping the steering wheel. "That was her grandmother's name."

"Oh," Michael said, and looked just in time to see Robby shake off the haze of his concussion, stagger from the dust to his feet, and search for the culprit from beneath a jagged flow of blood.

Without thinking, and with no help from either the grandfather or the granddaughter, Michael picked up the biggest rock in his path, and threw an overhand fastball. The striation described was not bad for someone with no previous knowledge of baseball (or of any other sports outside of basketball and a brutal, pre-Queensberry form of boxing popular back in the trailer park).

The rock connected center mass, dinging flawlessly off of Robby's face like an arrowhead skimmed over the surface of a calm pond, drawing blood and sending him back into his coma. Between the end of his high and the two heavy blows he had just suffered, Robby was in for quite the traumatic headache when he next woke up.

"Let's go!" the old man shouted, having witnessed nothing outside of what was visible through his windshield. Lily capped both the car hole and the gas can, tucked a rebellious strand of hair behind the pink nautilus of her ear, and ran back into the camper.

Michael followed her into the car. They both crowded the old man, on whom their deliverance now hinged.

"Okay," he said, delaying the turn of the key in the ignition.

If the vehicle wouldn't kick, then not only were they stranded here, but they would also be punished for their attempted escape, and for the braining they had given to the de facto dorm leader. A vein pulsed in the old man's head, snaking from his bald, reddened pate, down to the salt and pepper patchwork of his remaining hair.

"Here goes," he said, turning the key and keeping his eyes closed, refusing to open them until after the motor sputtered to life. Lily sighed. Michael smiled, and said, "I knew it would work because I saw her put fuel in the car hole."

The old man gave with a harrumph. "You mean the gas tank." Laughter bubbled like hot asphalt in his throat. He pulled out and found his way into the alley, without the benefit of working side or rearview mirrors.

The thing lumbered like a dinosaur struggling against the black mire of the tar pits, sneaking past the unassuming ranks content to stay here and cook in cycles of two grams every three hours, until the compound imploded or the world outside of the wire wasted away from addiction, like a flowerbed unloved by gardeners and tended only by drought.

They rolled over the concertina wire and past the rubbish towers, escaping without fanfare, and without having met even the smallest show of resistance.

Their departure, their escape, was greeted by at least one novelty aside from the intangible satisfaction that freedom always brings, even in the smallest measure.

And that was the appearance of an entirely different species, a life form for which Michael had no name. He pointed to it as the thing passed by the window, and asked, of either Lily or her grandfather, "What is that?"

"Marigold," Lily said, gently into his ear. And when she saw that her words were too much, too fast, she leaned in closer and said, "Flower."




Copyright © 2009 Joseph Hirsch

A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R:

Joseph Hirsch: I served four years in the Signal Corps with the U.S. Army. My travels have taken me to Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, Germany, and Texas. I now live peacefully in Columbia, South Carolina.

Previous Publication Credits: Five of my short stories have appeared in previous editions of "Underground Voices Magazine," and a sixth story is slated for publication in January of 2009. My work has also appeared in "3AM Magazine." Some of my fiction will also be published in an upcoming edition of "Zahir: A Journal of Speculative Fiction."

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