Fiction by Tyler Wells Lynch
It was a drought, they said, and pretty soon there’d be famine. Anyone could see that. A glimpse at our backyard would reveal an exposed hardpan stretching in every direction, its surface cracked like viral fissures where wheat once grew. They said the towns were dying, the governments volatile, and the people desperate—so few of them able to grasp the role of Jesus or water or the fits of capital. A religious incursion. An ecological anomaly. We, the lucky ones: Lucky for our well. Lucky for our family. Lucky for our home, a pre-war farmhouse so remote as to be a prison. That’s what they said.
They arrived on a Friday, coasting across the hardpan until close enough to smell. I think Mom had been praying; my stepfather Dirk, rebuilding a carburetor. Their names were Cottle and Edwin. They’d been walking since Colorado. Cottle, the older one, wore a heavy gray beard and a wide-brimmed leather hat. The younger one, about my age, slacked his jaw like a cartoon yokel and asked for water. I said we didn’t have any water, not for strangers anyway, and soon Mom was scolding me for refusing refugees from Gomorrah. “Whatever we do for the least of these brothers,” she said, jutting her finger out at me, “they would for us.” Then she sent me out back to collect some water.
I spent a lot of time digging holes, transforming the backyard into artifacts of boredom. What was once a lush sea of grass was now a scorched and barren moonscape. A therapist might call it catharsis, but really it was just something to do. Home was a place of confrontation, and while I was not afraid of confrontation, it seemed pointless. My tutors, the few I’d been privileged to before the Collapse, used to implore me to take a step back, survey the emotional landscape, chart a path. One gave me a laminated card with the words, God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. It conveniently omitted the part about having the courage to change the things you can.
Seeing this, my dad—my real dad—told me there was a third part about wisdom. This made up what was called the “serenity prayer.” I let the words have their moment, then burst into laughter. He did too. He took his pen and scribbled “talk is cheap” over the laminate. “Don’t let your mother see,” he said.
That was some years ago. Since then, with Dad gone and a stranger in his place, I’d taken to scandalous and unladylike things that appalled my mother: digging holes, scavenging for food, punching holes through rotted slats I found in the basement. “How beastly,” she’d say, then mumble a prayer to the vacant, candlelit den. Dirk would nod in agreement, but never so long as to lift an eye from the pilot burner he was fixing. He kept the other eye on the door, wary of strangers and food stocks, the candlelight flickering off his pupils like tiny stars. I imagined a coastline with gray waves, a droning light in the distance.
The five of us sat around the dining room table as sunlight danced on the wallpaper. I watched Edwin, the younger one, chew boiled potatoes with no apparent knowledge that a mouth could be closed. Catching my scowl he pointed his fork at me and said, “You know, Dora, you are the spitting image of a child of Bethlehem. Quiet. Obedient. Not nearly as pretty as your mother.”
He laughed. My fork clattered. Dirk looked up from his plate. I could see Mom holding back a smile.
“My nephew Edwin puts a low premium on words,” Cottle said. “We mean to show our appreciation for your hospitality.”
“Hospitality ain’t a virtue,” Dirk said, shoveling corn into his face. “It’s a luxury.”
“Nonsense,” Mom said. “Hospitality is all we’ve got. Only a beast would throw two strangers in need out on their own. You come to us as children as much as men.”
Cottle nodded. “We are all children, if not in flesh then in spirit. Whether you feel the light of youth is up to your own taste for nourishment, I often say. Times likes these demand the most of our patience.”
“I can feel the inside of my ribcage,” I said, poking at my potatoes. “What’s for nourishment.”
“You should be grateful you have anything at all,” Edwin said. “Girls I know—where I come from—don’t have much by way of property, flesh or otherwise.”
“Says the able-bodied man with the luxury to travel these lands relying on the kindness of strangers.”
Edwin blinked. Then he laughed and cleared his throat in a raspy hawk that betrayed a looming illness. “Little girl,” he said. “The famine hasn’t even hit these parts yet. Hasn’t even reared its head. But rest assured, it will. And when it does it’ll hit you like a fire in slow motion—invisible, but with all the same fear and panic and chaos. Come then you’ll be grateful to sell those bony little tits of yours for a few calories.”
The slap sent bits of potato flying through the air. Some landed on my plate. Edwin caressed the cheek where his uncle had hit him. He smiled, got up from his chair, and made a hat-tipping gesture to the room. As he left he coughed a yellowy mist onto the dining room wall.
“I must apologize for my nephew,” Cottle said. “He’s been through a lot since the Collapse. He lost his entire family in the coups.”
I forked Edwin’s half-chewed mush into my mouth. “You Christians sure are Christly.”
Dirk, who had yet to lift his eyes off his food, snorted a laugh and tipped the remains of his plate into his mouth. Mom glared at her husband and left without finishing.
* * *
They met in town, Dirk and my mother, waiting in line for the grain allowance and married only a few weeks later. To me this was a betrayal, a frantic rekindling of something snuffed out by the Collapse. My real father had abandoned us, that was true, but I’m not forced to look that betrayal in the eye each morning and say thank you.
Mom said she’d been wrong about fathers, wrong about their nature, their impulses, and the degree to which those intuitions should be shared with their daughters. All I heard in that was a rare mea culpa. She was afraid. She had overestimated our safety here and saw only another man—any man—as a means of protection. “You will respect Dirk,” she had said, as if reading from a recipe. “And you will learn from Dirk.”
But that wasn’t Dirk’s style. This was a man who said my time was better spent learning how to be pretty. Lipstick and blush. Skirts instead of pants. Some local bumpkin to woo—a man, of course. Because who else would protect me and the womb from which another, presumably male, protector would one day emerge? All this, even as the world collapsed around us. Under Dirk’s rule the house would become a nesting doll of protectors.
The irony was that my real father was everything Mom now wanted for me, a plainsman from some dime novel about horses. He had a big red beard and used to carry around a harmonica in the key of C. “The most practical of keys,” he’d say, then blow a tiny melody. Less often he’d carry a pistol, which he’d show me when Mom was out of sight. I could load a clip, chamber a round, even remove the slide for cleaning. But I’d never fired the thing. He kept telling me there were things I needed to learn. Was I too young or too old? Too manly or not manly enough? Did he read into certain mannerisms—the way I dressed, the tone in my voice— at first with patience for my own confusion on the matter, but then with a kind of refusal to understand?
I suspect it intimidated him. What to do, what to say. And when to say it—timing being so crucial to the raising of a daughter. There was a give-and-take, I’m sure, with he on the side of sink or swim and Mom on the side of ignorance is bliss. Whatever the plan, it failed. He left in the middle of the night without so much as saying goodbye. Maybe he predicted, rightly, that I would want nothing to do with goodbyes had I known his intentions, and would rather pull his teeth out through his nose.
* * *
After dinner I went out back to one of the holes I’d dug. Some months ago I made one deep enough to hide a full-grown adult. I’d covered the gap with an old door hauled up from the basement, leveling it below the lip so you could be standing ten feet away and not see a thing. This was my refuge.
I leaned against the earthen walls, the door above cracked enough to reveal a copse of stars, and brooded about my mother. Her demand for respect was, like her own marriage, the product of something missing, an instinct to dress up old wounds. She could look upon the fabric of society, which evangelicals like her always ascribed to marriage, and see it was torn. To mend the seams would be the defense of old habits. Marriage, respect, obedience, prayer—all those became the patchwork of recovery.
Before the Collapse I had this Buddhist tutor who claimed to live as if each moment were something she could feel—like a body, or a home. It was only the binds of past and future, the tense of consciousness, that robbed the present of its matter. The whole thing sounded like cultish woo-woo at first, but when things started to fall apart, with each day bearing less resemblance to the one before it, I returned to that memory. She had borne news of disaster with grace, and seemed to take on want itself as the root of her suffering. Talking to her I wanted nothing more than to want nothing. But “want” and the instinct to survive only partly overlap. I’ve felt real thirst, and “want” seems a weak way to describe it. What room remains for happiness, the joys of plenty—those were not things Mom and Dirk were interested in discussing.
My real father would never have separated the two. I can remember the way I used to laugh at the designs he used to mow into the grass: smiley faces, a steamboat, little curlicues like title cards in a silent film. And I would watch from the porch as the days passed and the lawn grew to reclaim those designs or, much later, withered into a cracked and sandy hardpan. Dad called them his “crop circles.” He actually had a tattoo of one on his right forearm.
When he left, two weeks before my sixteenth birthday, the drought and famine had already claimed most of what remained of the federal government. First duties went to the state of Kansas, then local municipalities, then squabbling tribes of provincials claiming hold over Christ or water or food stocks, but never both. Like most drifters, he left without a word. There had been a fight the night before, an especially nasty one in which I heard him say, “Hell is other people.” Mom slapped him and that was that—the last words I ever heard from my father. Now the memory taunts me like a mirror in a haunted house—not for what it shows, but for what it threatens to show. They never touch you, the ghosts, but they never leave you alone either. And the “want,” the one I’ve spent years trying to neutralize, is merely that he would have told me what I did wrong, where he was going, and was it really so much better there?
I guess that’s three things.
It happened like a dream: fast, without detail, even hazier in retrospect…
Some time in the night I am awakened by a swarm of moths. Their bodies perch and flutter against the window. Somewhere else, in between the sound of insects, I hear the rustling of fabric. Half-dazed, I struggle to pinpoint the source: the far end of the bed.
I freeze, suddenly alert.
The sound of flapping skin cuts the silence. I lurch forward to find the silhouette of someone standing over me. A man. Framed by the candlelight in the hallway, he’s masturbating in an all-out fury.
He reaches out, stuffs his leathery palm into my mouth, filling my nostrils with the scent of booze and oil. I scream once again but my voice is muffled by flesh. I bite down as hard as I can. The stranger grunts, recoils, grips his hand. I see now that it’s Edwin. He’s piss drunk and laughing. Another shape appears in the doorway. Mom. She lunges and starts thrashes him with a hairbrush.
He’s not laughing anymore.
He throws her off and she falls to the floor. I scurry over to her, wrap my arms around her only to find the two of us pinned along one side of the room with Edwin standing in the way of the exit, a black shadow with pants open and sagging at the waist.
“Get out!” Mom screams.
He tilts his head, confused. “I wanna get hard,” he says, then takes a step forward and drops his trousers to his ankles. “So goddamn thirsty, why can’t I get hard?”
A third frame appears in the doorway, behind Edwin. Mom and I look up. As we do, a blinding flash ignites the room like lightning to reveal the pulp of Edwin’s head decorating the wallpaper. A dial tone fills my ears. Darkness returns, a flaccid and shapeless body slumped in the center of the room, the image of the stranger’s burst skull printed across my pupils like an old film.
I hear my mother’s screams rise out of the dial tone.
Dirk buried the body in the backyard. I watched from the porch as he trundled the headless corpse, which had been rolled up in an area rug, across the length of the hardpan like a dung beetle with its prize.
“Human brains,” Mom said, stirring me from a spell. “Sopping wet, coagulating human brains on my ornamental wallpaper.”
The sun was rising, casting long shadows over the length of the moonscape. A murmuration of starlings billowed overhead.
“Your wall?” I said. “That’s my room. Probably haunted now anyway. Haunted by the headless rapist of Kansas. I’ll never be able to sleep there again.”
“You don’t own that room, Dora. You own nothing in this house save for what you earned, and you haven’t earned a thing.”
When Dirk returned Mom was on him about cleaning up the mess, not letting him think for a second he hadn’t sinned or, even worse, overreacted.
“I’m a problem solver,” he said, scrubbing the blood and dirt out of his jeans. “I saw a problem. I fixed the problem. Would you have me wait till he was finished with the two of you?”
“Is that all you know, Dirk? Rape and its cousin murder? Is there no measure in between?” Mom followed him into the kitchen where he began washing his hands. “Do you have any inkling for tact? Any inkling for sin? Or would you take a flamethrower to a hornet’s nest and call it pest control?”
“I don’t care what’s for tact and sin when my family’s in danger.”
“And what good it did! Even with that killer instinct, you let one of them go! Where’s that Cottle fella now but stalking some other poor family? Maybe planning vengeance for his nephew? When can we expect some more demons to arrive in the night, Dirk?”
“Well, what is it woman? First you say I’m a no-good killer, then you say I didn’t kill enough of ‘em. Would you have me kill the old skinflint or not?”
“If you’re gonna sin,” she said, “sin to completion.”
Dirk ignored this, or seemed to, then grabbed a mop and bucket and headed up to the horror show in my room.
I spent the rest of the morning in my hideout, whittling sticks into tiny spears to form a makeshift floor. Through the gap I could see the berm of Edwin’s grave baking in the hot sun. A boot toe poked out the side, making me chuckle. Of course there would be no investigation, but it still seemed a reckless burial.
Later, I found Dirk in the basement scrubbing blood out of my quilt. A triangle of sunlight was shining through the awning window, highlighting the rosy nape of his neck. He was muttering something about the wrong soap.
“I can’t get the blood out,” he said, back to me. “No matter how hard I try, it just sits there, taunting me. Why does blood stain? Is it oil? Tannin? Protein?”
“Don’t beat yourself up, Dirk, I’ll probably never be able to sleep again.”
“What would you have me do, Dora?” he said, dropping the quilt into the basin. “What would you have done?”
“It’s not what you did,” I said.
“It’s how I did it, then—not enough tact?”
“No. It’s just… you. I hardly even know you. You’re a stranger to me, and you expect me to worship your hand as it strikes down baddies. I haven’t left the house in months. I go days without talking to anyone.”
“I put food on the table.”
“I can feel the inside of my ribcage!”
He dropped the soap, stood, faced me. “You and your mother, you both have this thing with words. You needle them, pierce me with them like a pincushion until there’s no more room but metal.”
I shrugged. “Grow some thicker skin.”
* * *
Dirk’s grand plan was to show me what had become of Flint, the town about an hour’s drive away where he and Mom met. He saw it as a gotcha moment, a way to exact the gratitude I was so loath to give. I saw it as an act of liberation, willful or not, and the first he’d afforded me since marrying my mother and seizing the house for himself. The truth was I just wanted to get out of the house. If that meant an afternoon driving around with Dirk, then so be it.
He drove, of course.
On the highway we passed a column of refugees headed in the opposite direction. I wondered aloud if they were coming or going, searching for something or fleeing it. Dirk shrugged, unimpressed. “It’s all the same, isn’t it?”
I watched the column file past the window and into the rearview mirror. “I don’t think so,” I said. “When I’m finally free of this place, it won’t be because I fled something. It’ll be because I went in search of something.”
Dirk hacked up a laugh. “Searching? Searching for what, Dora? Your pa? The unlicked fribble that up and ran out on you and your ma?”
“Only I can call him an unlicked fribble, thank you very much. You never met the man.”
“Don’t have to to know. His deeds are well documented.”
Flint appeared as a row of dilapidated shacks, then as a huddled warren of slums that tightened as they neared the center. The last time I was here I came with my real dad to buy some house paint and a hacksaw. He’d been repairing a section of the porch and wanted to show me how it was done, from start to finish. We made an afternoon of it. The hardware store shared a space with a small diner, and we ate cheeseburgers as he detailed the difference between a coping saw and a hacksaw. Now all the shops were stripped and abandoned. About the street, on the sidewalks, slumped over balconies and within the slats of makeshift hovels, were bodies—tired and hungry, indistinguishable from the dying among them. All the doors and windows had been smashed or run through. The granary where Dirk and Mom met was also empty, just a deserted brick building that used to be a bank. I watched Dirk’s eyes scan the rubble as he twirled the cheap steel wedding band he’d cast himself.
We walked for some time, fending off beggars, until we reached the center of town, where a crumpled obelisk and a scaffold overlooked most of the ruin. Three semi-fresh corpses swung from a gibbet. Their tongues had been cut out and stapled to their naked chests with a sign in between reading, Gomorrans. I wondered if anyone remembered them, or if their deaths were some frenzied bid to forget altogether.
“So there’s misery to go around,” I said. “If you consider me privy to it will you lighten up and let me leave the house from time to time?”
He liked this, saw it as a revelation or something. “You should be privy to it as my second in command.” He smiled. It looked weird. “Don’t tell your mother.”
“Your second in command?” I wanted to spit. “I’m not some private in your personal army, Dirk. I’m not going to be your Joshua.”
“I just mean—you’re not like your mother. Her world is small and pretty and mostly in her head, and she’d like to keep it that way. What’s the harm in letting her?”
“That means knowing some truths that might otherwise be hidden.” “What kinds of truths?”
“Basic truths. Primal truths.”
He met, briefly, with a man he called his “fixer.” The fixer looked well fed compared to everyone else. He carried a 12-inch bowie knife in a sheathe and was flanked by some scrawny henchmen holding carbines. They asked me if I was a whore or a lumberjack. I tried my best to hold their stares and waited for Dirk to return. I hated waiting on him, almost as much as I hated relying on him.
On the way home we passed the same band of vagrants we’d seen on the way to town. I was surprised to see they’d turned off the highway and were roaming the plains. It looked like they were searching for something.
“Not long before one of those mobs comes our way,” I said. Dirk said nothing, but I could hear him thinking.
* * *
I was glad for the warm October. It allowed me time to get away from the house, to linger out among the holes I’d dug and plan some sort of escape. I thought about stealing Dirk’s truck, snatching the last few cans of beans, and pointing it east—somewhere with overcast skies and locals who’d seen a man with a red beard and a tattoo of a crop circle. But I didn’t know how to drive a stick-shift. I almost admired how such a vast swathe of ancient plains conspired to form an inland prison. It couldn’t have been so different two hundred years ago. They would have had horses back then, alive and roaming and never ogled for their calories.
He said his name was Colby. He hopped out of the bed of Dirk’s truck and approached the porch where I was sitting. His hand, suspended before me, waiting to be shaken, was ashy and gnarled. He smelled like sulfur.
“I don’t know you,” I said.
“Why I’m introducin’ myself.”
“Who is this?” I asked Dirk as he stepped out of the truck.
“I said I was Colby,” Colby said, holding his hand out with a leering smile. “Was Colby. Is Colby. Plenty of Colbys to go around, past and present. I’m this Colby. Now shake Colby’s hand.” His face was flush red and unkempt with knotted beard strands.
“We need some help around here,” Dirk said.
“With what? Finding more mouths to feed?”
“With protection. You said yourself this place is vulnerable to them wandering pilgrims.”
“And you trust this stranger?”
Dirk ignored me.
“I can hold my own,” Colby said.
“I can hold my own,” I said.
Dirk laughed and headed inside without meeting my eyes. Colby stayed behind, still holding out that puny mitt of his. I wanted to bash their skulls together and drink the soup it poured.
Of course an argument broke out between Mom and Dirk. He hadn’t mentioned anything about Colby, who stood at attention in the foyer, silent, like a thrall. Why was he here? And for how long? At what cost? It was a famine, Dirk said. The granary was depleted. Flint was starving. They’re going to come for our well. He’d seen a problem, struck a bargain, fixed the problem. Food and protection for shelter. Simple as that. That’s when he dropped the sack of canned goods on the kitchen table.
“How long?” Mom asked. “As long as it lasts.”
It, I thought. What was it? The famine? How soon before plague and war returned to reclaim the historical triumvirate of shit? Or by it, did he just mean what remained of the family?
A smear of bleach dulled the ornamental wallpaper in my bedroom. Dirk’s work. From the window I watched the sun draw long pimply shadows over the hardpan. I had an image of Dad returning with only the clothes on his back. Mom would welcome him with open arms, he’d apologize, and the three of us would ritualistically sacrifice Dirk to the God of the harvest or whatever. I’d paint my face with his blood and dance in the moonlight as the first rain in years flooded each and every one of the holes I’d dug.
I stood in front of the mirror and traced a finger along my ribcage. In another life, or another part of the country, I might relish the baring of these shapes to some lucky boy or girl I’d invited through my window. Here, though, I struggled to call anything my own. This wasn’t my bedroom, according to my mother, wasn’t my window or my food, hardly even my body. When you possess so little, the lust to reveal your shapes to someone else can wither into shame. I was just a skinny wench who preferred to waste calories digging holes while daydreaming about the ocean.
A gang of moths had collected on the window again, a handful of bristly little buggers with dead eyes. I could almost hear them. One had gotten through a crack in the window and was inching across the sill. I lowered my hand and watched it amble onto my palm. My fingers curled around it like a cell, and without thinking I sucked the critter into my mouth and chewed. It tasted bitter, with blotches of sweetness like old milk. Not good, but not awful. I could set a trap and salt them for preservation: maybe a bowl of water with a little sugar.
I left my room and crept down the hallway heading for the kitchen. As I reached the stairs I heard whispers rising from the den. Yellow candlelight flickered off the walls, and as I drew closer I could make out Dirk’s voice. “Any day now,” he said, followed by the stranger, Colby: “Patience has earned me my reward. I think I’m old enough to reap it.”
“Nobody in this house is growing old,” Dirk said. “Plain saw that before the Collapse. All we can hope for is to survive the day, survive the night. Rinse, repeat. All else is luxury, happiness and comfort most of all.”
“You’ll survive,” Colby said. “Your women, too, probably, I guess. Maybe. I don’t know. But your survival ain’t my business. My business is the promise you made.”
“And I mean to hold up my end. You just have to wait a few days.”
“You have the food to wait a few days?”
“Not for you,” Dirk said. “But you won’t be needing it.”
“I thought you was gonna let me git with the pretty one?”
“That’s my wife. You stay away from my wife. She’s off limits.”
“Touch a nerve did I? What’s saving her precious little bones? Dumb love? I had a wife once, ditched her after the Collapse and never felt freer. Dumb bitch’s probably in a mass grave in Topeka. You seem smart. Thought you’d’ve seen the light on them fancies.”
“I seen the light on how to protect my family,” Dirk said.
“Love’s a gratuity.”
“What’s a gratooty??”
“Gratuity. Like a luxury.”
“Well, why not say luxury?”
“Why not let me have my words and I’ll let you have yours?”
I left at that, crept back up to my bedroom with a steak knife in my pocket. I’d suddenly become privy to one of those truths Dirk struggled to keep hidden, and the feeling was one of lightness. Fear gave way to anger; anger, to silent rage. My feet drifted across the floorboards as a possible future revealed itself, only contorted, like a funhouse mirror. Still hard as flesh. It was not at the bottom of a hole that I’d come to bury those memories. They were here to stay—and so was I. A gift from the heavens. The manna. Were my mother of sound mind and not ravaged by shock, she might understand. Those moments were not long, but they were heavy. Not just feathery wisps of boredom.
It began with an altercation, as things often do.
I found her sitting by herself, staring at motes of dust in the corner of the bedroom. The house was quiet, idle, dulled by an acute midday heat. Dirk was… somewhere else. So I asked her, “What do you think is going to happen?”
“We will be rescued,” she said, not lifting her gaze from the middle distance. “A company of pilgrims will ferry us to sanctuary.”
“We’re going to starve to death,” I told her. “And there’ll be more to dress up our misery before it ends. Dirk will make sure of that.”
Our eyes met. “Enough with this doom and gloom. You and your father, always with the doom and gloom. At least Dirk acts. At least Dirk doesn’t just flip the table and quit.”
“What do you need a man to do your acting for you?”
She stormed out of the room as I gripped the shape of the steak knife in my pocket.
Once again I made myself silent, invisible, and furious.
I slinked from room to room, counting cans in the basement and stabbing my knife at invisible foes in the dark. I stacked wood and cans of paint. I carved circular patterns in the hardpan. From the porch I watched sunlight shadows inch across the ground, tallying progress as evidence of a moment, dead and gone by the time it’s felt. God, should she exist, might regard the advancing shadows as I would the beating wings of a moth: just a blurry trace of motion in constant flux, but always the same from beginning to end. These moments, it seemed to me, were only illusions. What’s to come is already said and done. And yet most remains hidden, beyond the horizon, even as each moment files past the window to become a ghost in the mirror, to form a more terrible prison than anything material.
So I sat there and waited for something to happen, for someone to start something, for some shape to materialize. In one moment I saw it all before me, a daydream or just a story to amuse myself: the reverberation of trauma, an altercation, imbued with the meaning I’d craved and the answers I’d wanted, forming as a loose band of vagrants that roam the earth. They’re migrating. A more wretched and downtrodden horde than any other—some amputated, others teetering on crutches, a few slumped in tottering wheelbarrows.
Again, like a dream without borders.
A leader emerges. He wears a wide-brimmed leather hat. He raises his chin to reveal a familiar face: Cottle. He has returned. And here’s how it happens…
Dirk snaps open the screen door and calls for Colby as I dash inside. Colby limps out, a grotesque eye scanning everything as he goes. Together he and my stepfather walk up the driveway to where it meets the road, watching the gathering approach.
Mom descends the staircase and joins me by the bay window overlooking the front yard. She catches sight of the mob and lights up. “My vision! They’ve come to rescue us!”
She makes a motion for the door but I grab her by the wrist and spin her back, point, say, “He’s returned!”
“Who?” she says. “Cottle? Come to apologize for his monstrous nephew? Let him. We have plenty to go around!”
I pull her to the ground and tell her to shut up. Through the crack in the window I can see the congregation and hear the voices as Cottle asks Dirk where the women are. Dirk, with shotgun linteled over his shoulders, spits and says they’ve abandoned this place.
Cottle smiles, clasps his hands in front of his waist: “Ease up there stranger, we’re only searching for food. We’ve been saved by a most awesome revelation. That which can tempt may also feed, and not a one for the other. We’re free to walk these plains with hardly a shuck of corn to sate us, for the manna is our own, our very selves.”
Dirk scoffs and lies about our whereabouts. The pilgrims fan out and surround Dirk and Colby, whereupon Colby relents, throws his hands in the air, and says, “Ya’ll don’t need to hurt me. I was just owed a deal by this man, but there’s plenty to go ‘round.”
“Quiet,” Dirk says.
Cottle steeples his index fingers and holds them to his mouth. He looks amused. “What sort of deal my son?”
“His wife and daughter are inside!”
Dirk readies the shotgun, then backhands Colby so hard he falls to his knees.
“He promised to share with me,” Colby continues, stroking his jaw. “Gave me a good deal too. Flesh for flesh. He got a pretty wife inside, plus a beastly little step-daughter. They was all to feed on me as I had my way with the youngest till I couldn’t come no more. That was the deal! We can still share, all of us. Have my flesh, just give me Dora’s—”
And then I see it. We all see it: the red mist, the thunderous blast that sends everyone for cover. I hear the second blast before Colby’s carcass meets the earth.
Now we’re out the back door, sprinting for the hardpan with a ringing in my ears. A third shot buckles the air as we leap from the veranda, Mom’s hand in mine—not knowing if it’s her prayers or my dragging her ass to cover. There’s a fourth report somewhere in the sprint but we never hear a fifth. We duck into my doored shelter and shut the lid and watch the first few pilgrims fan out across the hardpan, the house just a figurine behind them.
Minutes pass. They amble about the hardpan, shouting, just within earshot. Mom buries her head in the deepest recess of dirt, spitting prayers I’ve never heard.
Then I hear his voice. “Girls!” he shouts. I peer out through the gap to see Cottle with a shotgun leveled at my step-father’s head. Dirk, bloody and bruised, shouts in our direction: “Come out! Please, girls, come out! They just want to protect you!”
Mom, an apology already forming on her lips, lunges for the exit. I shove my elbow into her gut and clasp my hand over her mouth. My finger lights up as blood drips from the wound formed by her teeth. And now she’s clawing at me like a cornered rodent, howling nonsense and channeling some hidden wrath. “You’re the death of me, the death of us!” she screams, prying apart my arms as I hug her into submission. “Just like your father, you are just like your rotten godless father!”
Between all the howling I feel the darkness of the dugout fall in like a closing aperture. All the noise, all the confusion and the anger that comes of it—it centers on the space between my eyes, and it’s all I can do to simply flex and retract every muscle, plowing all that would be into the void before my chest, from neck to navel.
A lightness washes over me.
The air grows thin.
I take a deep breath and, for a moment, return to my space on the front porch. A few clouds have formed on the horizon. Some critters dance in the palm of my hand. Are they real? Of course not. No more real than the memory of others, or the shape of my mother at the bottom of this ditch, a slackened lump of flesh with eyes drooped and tongue lolled out to the side.
I let her fall to the ground. This wasn’t me, couldn’t possibly be me. Who would do such a thing?
A phalanx of men bearing makeshift blades and cudgels are combing the hardpan. I wait and watch through the crack in the door as their faces come into view, then their blades, their scruff, the whites of their eyes. I crouch deeper into the dugout. Mom’s vacant eyes stare up at me, frozen. I hear footsteps scraping sand and dirt until they’re just upon us. I force the memory of rain, watch it percolate and flower seeds in the mud, see the limbs of trees rise from the detritus to shade the earth and lure the birds, who are traveling south for the winter. Searching for food. There’s a cycle to this, a breath of renewal in suspended motion, until there isn’t—as if the motion of the earth stills and the seasons die, and even in the blackest space I see daylight explode like a thumbed faucet, hear the crack of the door as it’s torn open, feel the claws of strangers digging into my arms with a malice people hold for things that confuse them.
They haul me up out of the dugout and prop me face down on the ground. I wait for some horror to befall me.
“She’s dead,” one of them shouts.
“Who’s dead?” comes the response.
“The pretty one. Looks like the mother.”
I hear a scream, a wailing like a grieving mother—but somehow fraudulent. Even in mourning Dirk is full of shit.
“Truss ‘em up,” someone else says. “Take the living one to the basement and prep the dead one for harvest.”
A foot centers on my spine as some invisible hand ties off the blindfold. They pull my arms and legs back and zip-tie my wrists to my ankles. Then they spirit me across the scorching hardpan. I can feel the midday sun beating down on the back of my neck. I don’t see their faces but I can hear their voices. A damp must fills my nostrils and sends a shiver up my spine. The light of day gives way to shade. Floorboards creak, the air softens, and once again I’m prone on my chest in a corner of the basement with my hands and feet bowed behind me. Blind.
I hear Dirk in the corner, sniveling, whining, blanched with rage.
A pair of footsteps approach, scraping to a stop just a few inches from my nose. The figure takes a knee, blocking the scant light from the awning window. A hand touches my waist and arcs the contours of my side until it reaches my face. The leathery fingers drape my cheek, my lips, and in an instant, without thinking, I bite down until I can taste that gooey sweetness like the guts of a moth.
He screams, kicks me in the gut, and I roll onto my side and feel the handle of the steak knife pressed against my thigh. I’d almost forgotten about it. I brace for a rain of fists but Cottle’s voice breaks the rage and silences the room. “Mercy compels me to release the two of you,” he says. “But it seems I’ve confused your relationship. Tell me now: who’s who to who?”
I imagine some heart-to-heart, a reckoning of daughter and step-father, but it’s not a question I can answer.
“She is nothing to me!” he yells, spitting in my direction. “Nothing but a goddamn stranger! In my house! A stranger and a murderer in my house!”
Silence. It seems they’re waiting for my testimony. Talk is cheap.
“That may be,” Cottle says. “But whatever little game of house you were playing, it was toxic enough to take the life of my dear nephew, and while forgiveness is in my nature, hunger is not—that being the way of those we remember, and how we remember them. An eye for an eye. So whatever strife lay between you, it is trivial in the eyes of our father, who is eternal and beyond such human concerns as life and death and the memories between. Believe that, boys and girls, and I will grant you serenity in your passing to the beyond.”
I make a farting sound with my mouth.
Dirk scoffs, pleads with them to let him go, but the horde of footsteps scrape away, ascend the stairs, and slam the door behind them.
Now we are truly strangers, me and Dirk. Free in a way a daughter never can be.
I hear his whimpering, a confused sort of rage alloyed with grief. “How could you?” he cries through gritted teeth I imagine chiseled to the gum. “You witchy little ingrate. How could you? I was only trying to protect you! The both of you!”
The cement tastes acrid on my tongue. I wonder if calories can be leached from the damp walls of the basement, already steps ahead with an eye on that droning light in the distance.
“Answer me you filthy witch!”
I squirm away from the sound of his voice, try to coax the knife from my pocket. It won’t budge. I seek out landmarks with my fingers: the splintery wood of an old deck chair, the rusty steel legs of Dad’s workbench, the copper piping of the water heater, long out of use, and then: an old toolbox. I unhinge the latch and fish around.
“What’s that?” Dirk says. “You think you can escape? I’ll let them eat me alive for just a taste of you!”
A hammer, a box of allen wrenches, electrical tape.
“They say we’re food for the nomads of a new order. We must repent!”
He scrapes along the floor, squirming his arms and legs like a bow, drawing and loosing.
“Find your serenity in that, Dora! Pray you aren’t hurried to the lowest sewers of Hell!” A box of nails, a screwdriver, a staple gun.
I can smell his breath.
“Pray God is more merciful than me!”
A staple gun.
His teeth latch onto my arm, breaking skin. The pain tears through each muscle, awakening me. I roll over, thrust the gun out behind me until it meets flesh, and pull the trigger. He yelps, recoils, bites down on my shoulder. This one really stings. I pull the trigger again. He grunts, retreats. His agony, a snorting kind of groan, turns to braying laughter. “Flesh for flesh,” he cackles, in a sing-song tone. “Flesh is food, flesh is life, flesh is desire. That was the bargain, wasn’t it? Flesh for flesh? What a gas!”
Back on my chest, I manage to free the steak knife by grating my thigh against a leg of the workbench. I roll onto my side, blindly grab the knife and angle the blade against the zip-tie. The nylon cuts easily. I free myself, feel my spine sing with relief, and pull off the blindfold.
Dirk is curled into a fetal shape with splotches of blood caked around him. I see a few clouds drift across the sky through the gap in the awning window. That’s one option. But here before me there are tools—a whole workbench full of them.
“And I’d do it again,” Dirk says, mumbling to the small space between his face and the cement. “Soft, nubile flesh for soft, marbly flesh. We could be feasting this very moment, the three of us.”
A smattering of insects have swarmed the awning window to peer inside. My witnesses. I stand, catch my breath, and remove a hacksaw from the pegboard of Dad’s workbench. I approach Dirk and pull off the blindfold.
“Again and again and again and again,” he says.
“Where are the keys to your truck?”
“They took them.” He laughs, eyeing the hacksaw. “What are you gonna do? Saw your way out of here? Like a goddamn lumberjack? I’d go with the hammer if I were you!”
“Everything’s a nail to you.”
Footsteps upstairs. My mind is torn between the stairs and the window. Two very different outcomes: to be a beast or a ghost?
Either way I’ll need food.
So I vow to make this all a memory within a vision, a nesting doll of fictions, to wander the country until plains become mountains, mountains become valleys, and a coastline forms as a soft breeze on my skin. The smell of low tide, a smell I’ve only heard about. I’ll see a checkpoint in the distance with a uniformed guard holding a care package: water and Chef Boyardee. Their eyes follow me everywhere I go, guessing, judging, uncertain but knowing that whatever I did to get here, it was probably worth it. I ask the first person who knows. His name, his appearance. A big red beard. A tattoo of a crop circle. A harmonica in C major. The future is no different than the dreams you just had.
“The dykey lumberjack,” Dirk says, stirring me from one of them. “Off to save her own skin among the dregs of society. A new woman in a strange land. All alone. What’s changed after all?”
I graze the blade of the hacksaw along my stepfather’s shoulder, arcing slowly toward his neck. Our eyes meet, for what feels like the first time. They’re bluer than I remembered.
“I only wanted to protect you,” he says, tearing up. And I’m actually taken aback by his tenderness. For a moment, anyway. “I just wanted to keep you alive.”
I nod, caress his cheek, grip the handle of the hacksaw. A vein thumps beneath the steel like the beating of tiny wings. So fast and delicate. But nothing lasts forever. “This is how you keep me alive.”