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.
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
"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
"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
"Nice job, douchebag."
Rob adopted his customary slap-boxing stance, the praying
mantis pugilist, both of his hands gone limp. "Come on,
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
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
"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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
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
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?"
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
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
"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
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,
"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.
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
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,"
"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,"
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
"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.
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
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
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
"I want to congratulate
you boys on keeping free of the crystal. You wouldn't be here
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.
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
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.
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
"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.
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
"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
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?!"
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.
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
"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
"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?"
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,
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.
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
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
"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?"
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
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
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.
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,
"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."
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
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.
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?"
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
"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
"Will this thing run?"
"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
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?"
"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
"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
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
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
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
"Putting out a fire,"
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?"
"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.
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
"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
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
"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."
"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
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
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,"
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,"
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
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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!"
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
"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
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
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
said, gently into his ear. And when she saw that her words
were too much, too fast, she leaned in closer and said, "Flower."