In the forest deep, leaf sweet darkness, a woman pleaded.
‘Jesus,’ she cried. Then quiet.
Against instinct, Aiden headed to the silence, afraid and alert. Old mute woods, thick night, oak and ash chromed with moon. Fennel spiced his nose. Soothed his dusty throat. He tasted the scent and scouted on, sleek and slow in the scrub.
On a dell bank the woman lay limp and torn. Down the dell, in the colder night, a girl curled in the brackenfern. He went there, twig breaking steps, and her arm rose. ‘No more,’ she said.
‘It’s all right.’ He knelt and lifted her head on his thigh. Thought her there blind. Her eyes buried under foul swelling. ‘I’m here,’ he said.
‘My teeth hurt.’
‘You’re a brave lady.’
‘Tooth fairy will fix it.’
‘Funny,’ she said, and her last breath spent on his wrist.
A far ridge, a man loped black against the moon, a curved utensil in his hand, swinging with his stride. ‘Beast,’ said Aiden. He parted congealed hair from the girl’s cheek. Laid her down. Slack and stained and warm in the dirt.
Back at the tent he retched in his sleeping bag. Sacrilege scenarios breaking his rest. Daybreak, the rain clawed, breezeless on the door mesh. Birdsong and ripe June smells. Aiden rose naked. Peed on a shrub. Squatted at a brook and shaved in the humid downpour. He towel pat his face and lit the single burner. Brewed up coffee. Poured a cupful and filled a flask. Spread jam on a raisin scone and ate it with his brew. He had planned to list his provisions but decided against an inventory in the wet. There was plenty, he was sure. Maybe a week’s worth. He dressed and topped a water flask and packed his rucksack and continued up country.
Midday the rain died and the sun hurt and birds piped high on summer.
Near dusk he picked up on a trail. Rut of trodden stems bending off through dense woods. He dropped the rucksack and studied his map and compass. The ordinance showed forestry and rivers and hills. The odd farm. Nearest town was nineteen miles west. He knelt and unclipped the rucksack. Frisked out a can of pilchards and a tin opener and fork.
Dusk cast. Sun sunk and moon thin in a lilac sky. He fastened up and followed the track. Fatigue hurting. He had been thinking of pitching for the night but felt exposed now in open plain. The path seemed recently flattened and he thought it prudent to trail it for a bit, see where it led, if anywhere.
In woodland dark he parted hickory and scanned the log cabin. Moonlight varnished the rooftop. Solar panels lit glacial. Smoke wicked from a brick chimney. Three chairs sat on the porch. A low fence squared a garden. Aiden lay under the bush and watched. The cabin looked serene, lamplit and curtain drawn. A home. A shadow passed on the window. Rose giant then fell small. He hoped the person a well one.
He glanced at his watch, the luminous dials at eleven. Normally he’d be camped now. He fetched a flask from his khaki trousers side pocket and uncorked it and swigged a nod of whisky. Resumed his surveillance. Another swig, the alcohol hit. A wolf called out. Aiden thinked it silver, on a bluff, lonely crooner to the lonely moon. Cries rose afar. Canine brethren. Ancient chorus of the ages.
He sank in cushion leaves. Wished his wife’s presence. Regrets came and weighed and drained and his eyes closed and the flask spilled.
The shotgun nozzle bunt his chest. Torchlight on his face. ‘Fart and you’re weed feed.’ The old man wagged the single barrel and held up a rope. ‘On your belly.’
‘I was passing.’ Aiden snatched his rucksack. ‘I’m heading for Vinton.’
The gun cocked. ‘My twelve gauge says belly.’
‘I didn’t do anything.’
‘Your diseased ass is on my land.’
‘No.’ Aiden slapped his chest. ‘I’m a negative.’
The old man sniggered and stooped over him, torchface shaking. ‘You’re a snake, son. Sneaking and peeping on my home. Waiting for bedtime.’
‘I’m immune. I swear.’
‘Sure you are. One in fifty thousand. Don’t insult me, son.’
‘There’s maybe six hundred negatives in Ohio. My brother told me. He was a doctor.’
‘And you happen to be one of them.’
‘That would make two on my doorstep.’
‘What are the chances? Two here in the middle of nowhere.’
‘Slim.’ Aiden dusted nettles from his elbow. ‘Say I was a virant. Doesn’t make me a snake. Most are decent people.’
‘Who rots decent, son?’
‘Folks that pass in their homes.’
‘Hmm. It’s the creepers I hate. Crawlers like you. Gutting anything that moves.’
‘I’ve seen it.’
‘Spite, that’s what it is. Thrill kills before they reek.’
‘I tried to help.’
‘Truth is I can’t tell a snake from a saint in this light.’ The old man aimed the torchbeam and the barrel at Aiden’s crotch and shook the rope. ‘On your guts and hands behind your back.’
‘My eyes are clear.’
‘Belly or buckshot.’
Aiden rolled onto his stomach, his face in the dirt. ‘I’m a damned negative.’
Shotgun tucked under his arm, the old man crouched, a knee on the spine. He bound Aiden’s wrists. ‘We’ll see in the morning. Spit of pus and you’re in the grave.’
The old man roped Aiden’s ankles. Switched off the lamp and sat on the cane sofa. Gun on his lap.
Fireside, Aiden fidgeted on the floor. Charred logs puffed tired in the hearth. ‘A girl died in my arms.’
‘She’s on your shirt, son.’
‘I didn’t ask her name.’
‘Cutters never do.’
Small hours, the old man left the room. Aiden heard floorboards strain upstairs. He wrestled tight binding. Within minutes the old man returned to the sofa.
First light, he untied Aiden’s ankles and walked him to a field at gunpoint. Ordered him to kneel. Aiden knelt and the nozzle probed his shoulder and he slumped face down in the weeds. The old man gripped his elbow and hauled him round on his back. Hunkered, he stared seriously, breath wheezing, eyebrows shifting, scrutinising. There was no pus. No yellow worm threads.
‘Lord, punch me,’ the old man said. He roughed Aiden’s hair and turned him over and cut the rope with a knife. ‘Sorry for the hassle, son.’
Up on his feet, Aiden clenched and flexed his fingers and rubbed his wrists.
The old man lowered the shotgun and pouched the blade on his belt and offered his shaky palm. ‘Kyle Taylor,’ he said, and Aiden took a weak handshake.
‘Good for you, son.’
‘I thought you were going to shoot me.’
‘I’m all talk.’
‘You had me fooled.’
‘I was more crapped than you.’
‘What if I had been a virant?’
‘I’d have blown your skull.’
Headed back to the cabin, Kyle nodded at an iron corrugated outhouse. ‘That’s stacked with logs. Enough for a winter. Birch. A rare heat.’ They walked beat and solemn, fresh sunshine on their backs, the truth blatant between them.
A moss path led to the back door. Scrapped with seeds and leaves and bark chip. The path was string tapered from vegetable patches on either side. ‘Carrot and beets,’ said Kyle.
Indoors he stood the shotgun in a corner near the washing machine. Filled the kettle from a water pail and placed it on the wood burner stove. Struck a match and lit a crunch of paper. Placed it inside the oven. He bunched tinder shavings on the paper. Plotted four logs on the caught tinder. Shut the iron door. He took two mugs from a wall rack and put them on the table. Spooned coffee into the mugs. They sat at the round pine table and Kyle stared at the hearth fire in the adjecant living room. Aiden watched the fire too. Weak aflame. Through the silence the kettle boiled and Kyle put on a padded glove and poured the coffee. He raised his steaming mug and watched the fire.
‘Lordy,’ he said, and swigged a hissy taste.
Aiden took a sip and looked down at his boots. ‘Two on the doorstep,’ he said, his eyes fixed on catnip twined in a lace.
‘What’s that?’ Kyle jerked as if shocked from sleep.
‘Two on the doorstep.’ Aiden looked at him, keeping his eye. ‘You said it.’
‘Yellow as bile.’ Kyle gazed back at the flame and his bottom lip trembled. He sucked a sorting breath. ‘My Julia is in the dirt. I buried her two days ago. Right beside her husband, Roy, my son in law. I laid him the day before that. They’re out back under a maple. My place is done next to theirs.’
‘I believe you. Now believe me, there are two here on my doorstep.’ Kyle took another drink and smacked his mug on the table and rose, his body a constant tremor. ‘Fate’s a queer master, son. Time you and Shell were acquainted.’
The cot sat under the window in a lemon room. The infant was asleep. A blanket lifting with gentle breath. ‘Shell Blue,’ whispered Kyle.
‘My granddaughter. Never wakes before eight.’
Aiden squeezed the cot bars and his breath switched rhythmic with Shell’s. He felt worn and elated and his face flushed with a crimson rush. Then he took a discreet step back. Rigid and guarded. He was no warden, he thought. Cold with logic, he regretted tracking the broken stem path.
Kyle’s hand crimped Aiden’s shoulder. ‘Did you have children?’
‘Me too.’ He patted Aiden. ‘Come on. I’ll show you how to make Shell’s feed.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘There’s no wet nurse here, son.’
In the kitchen, Kyle prepared Shell’s meal. He fetched a glass canister from the wall cupboard and sat it on the worktop. It was half full of fluid and five Pyrex bottles were sunk in the bottom. Kyle tapped the container. ‘Stream water. A minute from here. Plumbing’s gunked.’ He rolled up a checked shirt sleeve and dipped a hand and pulled and emptied a bottle. ‘Always put a sterilising tablet in the tank.’
He opened a plastic tub and counted nine spoonfuls of powdered milk into the bottle and poured boiled water to the nine ounce line and screwed on the teat and shook.
‘Now for the cooling.’ Kyle placed the sealed bottle in a pot of cold water. ‘You want it lukewarm. Tepid. Test it on the back of your hand.’
‘Back of your hand.’
‘Like this.’ He lifted the bottle and tipped it and milk spurt onto his fist. He offered a shot to Aiden. ‘Try a squirt.’
Aiden tilted the bottle, a spray on his knuckles. ‘It’s roasting,’ he said, shaking his hand.
‘Imagine the injury to a baby’s mouth.’ Kyle put the bottle back in the cold pot, a puckish glint in his mucus eyes, a wily grin. ‘Three minutes is just right.’
‘How old is Shell?’
‘Three months next Tuesday.’
‘Does she eat anything apart from milk?’
‘Good question.’ Kyle scratched a floss of gray above his left ear. ‘Shell’s on four nine ounce feeds a day. Every three hours. Try feeding her half a rusk in a week or two.’
‘Me.’ That harsh logic again. A rusty thirst. The urge to flee.
‘You, son.’ After a short quiet, Kyle said, ‘Mix the rusk into her bottle. Before the cooling. Only her morning feed for the first few days.’
‘Cereal biscuit. Melts in hot milk.’
‘You’re claiming my life.’
‘I’m begging Shell’s.’
Kyle lifted the kettle and eased the spout into the water pail. Glugged half full, he put it on the stove. ‘Shell’s colicky so don’t rush it,’ he said, and sleeved sweat from his forehead. ‘When she keeps down her breakfast add rusk to her night feed. Gradually introduce more solids and cut down on the milk. Soft cereal, mushy carrot and potato, creamed rice, that type of thing.’
‘We need to discuss this.’
‘Time’s a mugger, son. And I’m jumped.’ Kyle arched breathy and touched his back. Pinched his kidney. ‘Shell’s room is stacked with everything she needs. Clothes, nappies, toiletries. There’s a ton of stuff in the basement.’
‘I’ve never held a baby.’
‘Shell’s tame as a foal. She ain’t crabby. And every provision is here. Years of stock. Salt, sugar, flour, pasta, cereal, rice, tins. Most type of vegetable seed. We have dried meats, dried fruits, jams, honey, marmalade, powdered milk and powdered egg. Powdered egg is best scrambled. The basement’s a larder. And there are plenty boxes of matches and candles. Solar panels are mighty reliable, mind.’
‘I’m going southwest.’
‘There’s a commune in Vinton.’
‘Ah. The Green Brigade.’
‘Something like that. There are maybe forty of them.’
Wheezy and frail, Kyle sat in the fireside chair. ‘Living off the prairie,’ he said, and kicked a log into the flame with his boot heel. ‘God country.’
‘They grow crops. Some hunt. There are a few anglers. I’m an archaeologist. I worked on a dig in the Hill Country last summer. Spent a month camping with them.’
‘A bone digger. You don’t look like one.’
‘How’s that? What does an archaeologist look like?’
‘Old. Decrepit like me. You’re hardly twenty.’
‘You’d never know it.’
‘So I’ve heard.’
‘Bone digger camper, eh.’
‘I like camping. At least I used to.’
‘Dump a turd and bury it,’ said Kyle. ‘Your gear is quality. I’ll hand you that.’
‘Good equipment lasts a lifetime.’
‘It’s packed under the basement stair, by the way.’
‘I know quality when I see it.’
‘Can’t cheat on winter.’
‘You camped in those remote places in winter?’
‘I liked the solitude. Me and the elements and the bones.’
‘And you think because the greenies lived outside the herd they survived.’
‘You don’t think it’s feasible.’
‘Unlikely is all.’
‘They’re cut off. Miles from anyone.’
Sat up straight, Kyle’s arm carved an arc in the air. ‘This cabin was a hunting lodge. My father built it. Six summers of muscle and sweat. Access is from the river. Trees cram the banks. You can’t see the cabin from there. Doubt anyone knows this place exists.’
‘There’s another route. I found it, remember.’
‘Lordy knows how. Out back, sycamores hide us. And our front is red oak and hills. Thousands of acres.’ Kyle coughed and dredged and spat into the flames. He settled in the chair. ‘God’s own must often stumble into God Country.’
‘Hardly I’m God’s own. There was a path through the woods.’
‘That would be the kids. I warned them about leaving tell trails. Julia and Roy were hikers. Fresh air addicts. Trust me, son. Few have trampled the grass here.’
‘How did you transport the supplies?’
‘Roy’s boat. A thirty two footer.’ Kyle bent and speared logs with the poker. ‘Sailed nine, ten weeks ago. During the outbreak in Mexico.’
‘Big enough. We got everything up in one trip.’
‘Where did you get the fuel? Pumps were dead long before Mexico.’
‘Julia sniffed global during Korea’s quarantine. Biblical. She drove town to town in the jeep. Topped a wagon load of jerry cans and stored them in her cellar.
‘Sharp as a spike. Boat’s moored, hidden out there, a kinda cove.’
‘What’s your grouch with Vinton?’
‘No grouch. I wish your greenies nothing but mercy. But you don’t get more remote than here.’ Kyle put on the padded glove and lifted the steaming kettle and poured the coffee. ‘Damn virus came from the sky, son. The roof fell on everyone.’
After his coffee, Kyle checked on Shell. She was sound. Safe in sleep. He idled at the cot. ‘Child,’ he whispered. ‘You have a life.’
He slouched back to his chair. ‘I’m bagged, son.’
Aiden stood quiet at the window watching the sky. Ocean of blue. His empathy hurt. Veins spate with emotion. The old man felt like kin.
‘Shell is yours now. Your own.’
‘I don’t know.’
Bunked in the chair, Kyle closed his eyes and blew. Clatter breath. ‘Lordy, son.’
Aiden went into the kitchen and scooped water from the pail with a pot and rinsed out the mugs at the sink. He tried the taps. A dry judder, like a truck braking, not a drip. He turned off the taps and checked on Kyle over his shoulder. The old man was snoring, chin on chest, hands spread on his flat belly. Sunrays forked through the window. Lit his gouged face. Aiden thought he resembled a prime man.
‘Lord, punch me,’ he said in tribute, and he went out the back door.
Rope burns welt his wrists. He loosened the watchstrap a notch and checked the time. Near ten past six. Guessed he had been up since five. He wolfed fruit air. Face lifted at the sky. Sore sun. Sleepless nights on his back he felt worn to the marrow and strolled through the sycamores to the river. He saw the boat in a rocky inlet. On a reed bank he sat on a log and looked out over the sun starry calm. Birdsong all to himself.
Walking up the back path, he smelt the rot. Early sweet decay. He knew it would sour rancid in the heat. Same odour as the streets and malls. Hospitals and churches. Town halls and city halls. The same vile ferment of his wife.
Squatted, he linked hands around Kyle’s waist and rose with him belly down over his right shoulder. Weight of a boy. He carried him out the back door, past a broccoli crop toward two grass mounds and a slope of earth with a spade stumped like a mast. Under the maple he stood in the grave and laid the old man on his back. He took off his shirt, spread it over the thin face, filled in the grave, and stood head bowed quiet.
‘Lordy, Kyle,’ he said, and saluted the dirt.
After a wash at the stream he went back to the cabin and sat in the fireside chair. Kyle’s shape was in the seat. He shifted and fitted and watched the smoky logs. A green flame danced and he thought about Shell, on whether Kyle could have taken her, and of her horror if he couldn’t. As he mused over this, the child began to cry.
‘Hello, miss.’ Aiden leaned over the cot and Shell stopped crying. ‘You smell.’
Treacle brown eyes shone and sussed him. He touched her cheek. Tiny fingers wrapped his pinkie. ‘Shit,’ he cried, snapping his hand away.
Shell jumped and squashed her face and squealed.
‘Shit.’ He circled her cot, hands messing his hair. ‘Shit, shit, shit.’
She tensed and shivered and bawled.
‘You got lungs like a whale.’ He bent into the cot and fondled her ear. ‘Moby Dame,’ he said, nervy.
His touch and voice calmed her. The contact lightened him too. Her trust response. ‘You’re stuck with me,’ he said. ‘Let’s sort you.’
It was a task undressing her. She kicked and slapped and wailed. The babygro was damp and warm. Unclipped and removed, he peeled the diaper tabs. He tugged the nappy, swabbing her soiled bottom with dry folds of the padding. Twice he turned away for a clean breath. Glad the procedure was obvious, he wrapped and binned the spongy lump in a under the cot bucket.
He held her in a crooked arm and lifted a gown from the dresser and wriggled it onto her as he skirted the stairway to the living room. He had no clue to the order of things, but the way she gnawed her hand he thought it wise to prioritise her food. He kept her in one arm, her back against his bare chest, and fetched the prepared bottle from the pot. Shell seemed to elongate. Her eyes widened, mouth gaped, her arms and legs stretched starfish. She booted and reached and vibrated at her feed.
‘Tame as a foal, Kyle.’ He stumbled to the couch and offered the teat.
Her eyes scrunched into teary slits and her head turned from side to side. When the teat was here, her mouth was there, and she yelled trembling feral.
‘Take it, lady,’ he said, trying to catch her. Milk leaked and ran with her tears. Elbows paddling, he persevered and her mouth claimed the elusive prize.
‘Bravo.’ He wiped her chin with a fingertip. ‘What a performance.’
Quick tremors shook her small frame. She gulped loud and fast and her wet eyes focused on him. Instinctively, he kissed her forehead. A gush of bubbles rushed in the bottle. She had stopped feeding. He winked and she smiled. A fleeting favour.
Serious again on her breakfast, Shell watched him, her palm folded on his thumb, and Aiden was at once her keeper.
‘Ass mutts,’ said Rees.
Dung mucked his boots. Coyote scat. He hacked the soles through grass and stamped and scraped, rucksack scuffing his hip, rifle pointed groundward. Noon sunflare cooked him. Bruised and peeled his bald scalp and crust middle age lines on his neck. He squinted over the plain. Fit lime grassland. Hills blistered pink. Far trees embraced and waltzed, heat haze trickery. ‘Pop a berry,’ he said, kicking a shrub airborne. He crossed a field and vaulted a fence and headed into town. Swore on his balls to find a hat.
At a main junction, near a derelict bus, he unstrapped his gear and dropped his dungarees and crouched. Along the road, past shut shops and tomb apartment blocks, dogs barked. No sight of them. Sounded like a pack in flight. Masterless. Orderless.
‘Bow fucky wow,’ he said.
He shat and blew his nose. Snot into red bikini pants, done with them, sniffed out. His abuse on the fabric. He remembered the woman who had worn them. ‘Cockle doll,’ he said, and wiped his anus with the silk crotch. He dumped them on the shit and rose hoisting his denim shoulder straps. A vehicle’s engine turned over. Chattered up littered streets. The starter stammered, coughing and choking, deader with each ignition turn. Stutter died.
Rifle raised, Rees ripped six rounds, aimed at a cloud, a solitary pearl in the lagoon sky. ‘Pickle yir cockles,’ he shouted, and jigged around his mess hysterical.
Outside a gun store he sat his rucksack on the sidewalk and unclipped a pouch and drew a crowbar. He knelt and jemmied the shutter base, grunting and jabbing and bending. Locks sprang broken. He lifted the cage and easy burst the entrance door and pouched the crowbar. Shelves were heavy stocked. He tinkered with rifles and shotguns. Loaded a pistol big as his fourteen size boots and posed at a full length mirror. Pistol holstered in his thigh pocket he pulled and fired. ‘Howdy, pilgrim,’ he roared, grinning to his eyebrows, his reflect other felled to glints. Felt like the floor cracked.
He snatched his crotch and cat about the shop. Fiddled his erection. Liked it jumpy against the zip. He pillaged under-counter drawers. Opened boxes of bullets and cases of gun cleaning kit. Dropped them soon as he’d sniffed and seen. He sat on a swirl chair and twirled. Imagined the gunsmith proprietor everyday loving the joyride. Knew him surely dead.
Metal tastes stuck his mouth. Dried his tongue clothy. He spat and hoisted his heels and slammed the proofed counter glass. Helled on smashing it. The casing shook unbreakable. He hammered harder. Cramp flood and sogged his calves. He stood and hopped and bawled, ‘Stick my hole,’ and muscles worked true and he hobble sat and sneezed and his ears popped and he heard his presence louder about. Tight on the chair he unzipped and bat thinking a vagrant strangling a nun. He seen her hogtied, pants split, death dizzy gurgling a psalm. His spell seized and ran and hit and he wore grinning to sleep.
A creature chewed him. His popped eye saw the torso him sinewy between serpent teeth. Saliva mud washed his eye him down the gullet into a urine pond. Buoyant in the piss he saw his pale heart sink beating bleeding.
Stewed awake he yelled, ‘Maw,’ and leapt and grabbed his rifle and blasted the shop window, an erratic salvo, maybe ten shots. Smoke sheets rose. Glass fangs rooted from the timber framework. He supposed the space a demon mouth. Jittered sober he burped and farted and peed on the chair and zipped up.
He stashed away bullets. Four fat boxes tucked into his rucksack. He yanked the till and swiped a sponge of bills. On his way out, shoulder ramming the door, he tossed the notes overhead and not a glance back shouted, ‘Ought’n that cover it.’
Fast up the freeway he reached the turret bridge. Half a mile concrete expanse. Midway over, at a rest crescent, he leaned on the railing and watched the river. Black syrup waters. A rowboat strayed oarless. He bawled, ‘Carp bite’n, skipper,’ and gobbed phlegm and walked on, middle of the road, barren asphalt slapback echoing his laughter madder.
Through the dip townside, cobbled sidewalks narrowed. He took a short lane into a suburb. Willow tree paths. Warren avenues, laced cul-de-sacs, cars and vans and trucks in driveways empty. Ghost street show lots. Home windows blind strung. A bereaved place. Neighbours entire dying and dead, he knew.
Dogs came out from behind an RV. A fur line. Four broad breeds on the gable slab. A mastiff led onto the lawn and raised a hind leg and sprayed on a kiddie tractor. A loud splash. Rees guessed alpha, the dog eyeballing him, growling. He moved his rifle strap off shoulder and cocked the weapon and scoped the alpha and tapped the trigger and nodded at the watcher pack and said, ‘Bet’s yir bitches. Balls like his.’
He hit the liver nose. Skull broke and caved and tongue and brain and jaw fell meat chunk. The pack fled bawling, ears to tail tips hackled, ripping shrubbery, leaping fences, the terror dimmer the further they bolt. ‘Balloons them balls,’ Rees said to the carnage bleed.
He strapped on his rifle, slung shouldered, and strode over the lawn and crept at the bay window. Him and hound bits and houses across the street reflected back. He dunked his nose against the glass and saw inside. A woman lay on the sofa. Quilt on her. He knocked, but she didn’t shift. Her head on the cushion, facing the ceiling, eyes open. Like she was thinking colours to paint it.
‘Cut yir grass for a popsicle.’ He tried the slide door. Jam locked. He breathed on the glass and finger sketched a cupid arrow and heart. A man entered the room holding a basin and flannel.
‘Cain’t find yir doorbell,’ Rees said, hands up surrender. The man ignored him and sat on the floor and wet the flannel in the basin and petted the woman’s face with the damp part.
Ducked away and up the gable, Rees shouted, ‘I’ll roun back git in. Fore she cops.’