by John Woods
Sean Bell, Loan Le, Seth Porter and Dan Reilly
The nine-foot hole in my backyard is where I see my family’s future. Right now it looks like a house’s foundation, an empty basement shaded by dying apple trees thirsting for the severed roots I’ve cut. Concrete walls hold back the earth. I stand now with hands calcified in drying cement and picture the storing of cans and cots and water jugs and firearms. A hard future of will and endurance.
I wipe sweat from my yellow eyebrows and spit in the grass. Adjust the Glock .45 holstered to my thigh, even though I’m off work today, not caged in an armored truck.
My wife’s a solid blonde woman, pear-shaped. She comes from good stock. She has round cigar scars like charred bullet wounds along her breasts and thighs. Looks like she’s been in a war like me. Wouldn’t have married her if she weren’t as hard, if she didn’t see what I see.
Our house is off Sandy Ridge Road outside Barnesville, a small town tucked away in dark Appalachian foothills populated with German and Scots-Irish ancestry. I built the house and the gravel road snaking to it through gnarled woodlands.
The Ohio Valley resembles a hilled stronghold for pale Americans, cowering from the swelling demographic and cultural tide. My former classmates are haggard and lost, with oily black hands and defeated eyes shaded with coal dust. They drink away useless sorrows, waste breath damning big government, and criticize a modern world leaving them in the dust of history.
The meek old boomers who raised us throw bitch fits about secularization, congregate before the cross and pray for deliverance. They all stagger through life as if displaced, imagine betrayal and abandonment, think it deserved. I’m far more proactive. I prepare for the coming fire. I do not collapse to despondency. And I am not white trash. I despise pathetic illiterates, even the ones who wear pointy sheets over their heads.
I hear a car churning gravel and get into position aside the porch, sun at my back.
When I see it’s Emily in the Escape, I holster the gun. My son Karl hangs out the window and waves. Before she even parks he jumps out and skips into my outstretched arms. He’s a cute boy and looks like me at that age, hair almost white and eyes hot cobalt. I kiss his cheek and squeeze him close, feel his breath. He points his finger down the road and tells me God’s coming.
“God’s comin’ here, Daddy.”
I haul him up onto my shoulders. “Think so?”
He points again. “Comin’ up the driveway.”
“Coming, Karl. We say coming.”
Emily balances an armload of groceries. “Reverend Davies,” she says. “He’s jogging on our road.”
I kiss her and take the supplies. We stack the cans eight feet high in the mudroom. We’re gearing up. I have a sheet on the wall noting all products and expiration dates. Every time I count the grain bags, canned fish, MREs, gas cylinders and water jugs, I understand it won’t be enough and won’t last more than a few years. So I sometimes wonder what would be enough. What could do any good.
Before going outside, I tell Karl to help his mother make supper. I left three trout in the sink and nudge him forward. “A man who can’t feed himself isn’t worth a damn.”
“I ain’t starving,” he says.
“Not starving.” I kneel down. “Me. I keep it simple. Think essential nutrients. Eat stuff raw. Your mom.” I nod respectfully. “She’s got the magic touch. Could make a gym sock taste like Christmas.”
I spin him around and send him towards Emily.
Outside I wait and listen to birds chirp. The country surrounding our home is not ideal, deep forests and overgrown field, multiple tactical assault points. I’d have German shepherds patrolling the perimeter, trained to attack femoral arteries, but Emily’s allergic.
Soon Reverend Davies huffs and puffs up my driveway. He’s wearing a gray sweatshirt with GOD written in white letters across the chest. Some things are just too damn sad to laugh at. He used to be respectable.
He squats and takes a few breaths. He’s fit and sinewy with short gray hair. Hawked face and silver mustache like a cavalry general. “Morning, Tom.”
“Do you know where you are?”
He notices the gun, shakes his finger at it. “I’m just out running.”
I remind him he’s on my land.
“Tom, I’m just running.”
Emily comes outside and grips my arm. “What’s with the sweatshirt, Reverend?”
He laughs and says, “My wife. A gag gift.”
“Think it’s appropriate?” she asks.
“She’s a firecracker, Mrs. Schmidt. She can’t help her lovely self.”
The wind rustles dead leaves into rigid dancing. I hear the Brahms Emily put in the CD player and my son stacking cans in the cupboard.
We stare at the reverend. He wipes at the letters across his chest as if there’s a stain.
“I’m actually here for a good reason,” he says. “Thought you were just running,” I say.
He lowers his head, steadies his breathing. Waves at me dismissively.
“Say what you came to say,” Emily says, squeezing my bicep.
“We have shit to do.”
He tries to stand tall but his shrapnelled legs won’t allow it,filleted scars healed smooth like dried glue. I’d take Bouncing Betties over IEDs any day. He doesn’t look at us but only surveys our single-level home. “Peter told me he ran into you the other day,” he says. “At the hardware store. Said you all had an interesting conversation.”
“He mocked our supplies,” Emily says. “The lumber and concrete. The ammo. He said none of it would save us.” She brushes her hair over her ear in that way that makes me crazy. “I said all of it had a better track record than his Bible.” She shrugs.
“He didn’t like that. Started talking at us.”
“Was kind of one-sided,” I say. “More like a monologue.” “I’m mentoring him through seminary.”
“Alright,” I say. “A sermon.”
His knees crack like burning cinder as he rises fully, taller than us. He clasps his hands before him as if at the pulpit. There’s a severity about the devoutly religious I can’t help but admire. “Neither of you have much faith.”
“We believe in things, Reverend. Spiritual things. My wife thinks Obama’s the Antichrist.”
He scowls. His jaw twitches. “Don’t make fun of me.”
“We don’t have to,” Emily says, smirking.
“You three need to be in church. We can put Karl in Sunday school.” He spreads his withered hands. “I want you all there. To be of our fellowship.”
“Just out running,” I say.
Emily lets go of my arm. Playfully taps my butt and goes inside. Reverend Davies looks after her. “It’s just down the road,” he says. “You are more than welcome to come. It’s a good community.”
I smile at the black ace of spades tattooed on his wrist. His sweatshirt doesn’t quite cover it. Everyone knows he was a combat medic during the Tet Offensive, that he and his unit took shriveled fingers and ears and pricks as souvenirs. I tap my wrist. “All this God bullshit. You should fucking know better, Davies.”
He frowns at the ground, rolls his tongue against his cheek, and then raises his eyebrows at me. “So should you, Schmidt.”
I pull the Glock free and level it at my side. Tap my index finger against the trigger guard.
He steps back and puts his hands up. “I’m leaving, Tom.”
“I know it.”
He walks backwards and looks at me kindly, the finest sincerity.
“You guys can’t go it alone, Tom. None of us can. You understand?” I aim at the tree to his left and pull the trigger. And a thunderous crack sends God running down the road I’ve made.
In our bed I watch her as she reads beneath a dim book light. Her long hair waving across the sheets and her glasses balanced at the end of her freckled nose. She narrows her eyes at me and purses her lips. Makes me smile.
She laughs and palms my face. “Stop gooning, creep.”
“You’re beautiful, sweetheart.” I snatch Jane Eyre from her hands and set it on the dresser. “Enough of this trash.”
She grins and folds her glasses into a case. “Yeah. Just pretend like you aren’t the most romantic and passionate man I’ve ever met.”
I manage my best pompous British accent. “Holy Hell, Margaret. Why hath thee not adorned my socks with fleece?”
“You’re such a big dork. Deep down.” She brushes my forehead, fingers the deep dents and cuts as if they were Braille. Kisses my scarred lips. “I miss your smile in the day, you know.”
“Mayhap your judgment is rudimentary and bespeaks a delusional temperament befitting your sex.”
“Nope.” She shakes her head and kisses my chin. “Caught you watching me. You dropped your superman face, sir.”
When we make love it’s usually slow, meaningful. I’m more than okay with that. I take my time and worship her flesh, kiss each heavy curve. I lose myself in the blue veins webbing her chest. Afterward I curl against her as she sleeps. No light but the stars open and endless. I feel comforted beside her warmth under cold sheets. I don’t sleep much or well, not after the crickets stop and I’m left in that dark silence. I see myself back in a desert hell where nothing breathes. So I just watch my wife sleep and leave the soldier in the shadows.
“Ah, man,” she says, waking, pulling her legs away and cuddling against my chest. “You need to cut your damn toenails.”
“I just cut them last month.”
“You could climb a tree with those fucking things.” She kisses my nose, rubs my wide hairy shoulders. “Shouldn’t have shot at him.”
“Won’t be back.”
“He should get used to it.” “Don’t like it when he cries.” “He shouldn’t ever cry,” I say.
She stares into me. “Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to protect him from some things.”
“You know it would.”
“He’s just a boy, Tom. Can’t expect him to be as tough as you.” She looks over at the clock on our bed stand, the bottle of her Zoloft, the 2013 calendar. I think about civilizations long buried. Prophecies of doom from eradicated races, dead cultures. The dates are arbitrary, it turns out, but it’s worth considering where these premonitions came from.
“He needs people other than us,” she says. “Kids to play with.”
“Why? Most kids his age act like they’re functionally retarded, just like their parents.”
“I’m serious. It’s important, to have friends, other people. We all need that.”
“Yeah. Well. You point me to a group or organization that’s worth a shit, people who think like we do, value what we value.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
“This area, it’s all church. Church and bars. People like us don’t belong anywhere, baby. We once did, but not anymore.”
She pets my stomach. “It doesn’t have to be Davies. Those Baptists are crazy. They handle snakes and speak in tongues. Roll around on the floor.”
“Mom took me to the Methodists as a kid.” She laughs uneasily. “I never believed a word. But, there was something … comforting about it.”
“You grew up with it, too, had to have done you some good. Maybe you wouldn’t be as strong as you are now without it.”
“Sure did you good, too.” The scars staining her skin are from previous men, a breed she once figured she deserved. “All those smart choices you made.”
She waits a long time. Then says, “There are still good people out there, Tom.”
“And they will be the first ones to die. Being a good person will get your head blown off, get your family killed.” I kiss her shoulder and brush hair from her ear. “The people out there who are like us, are doing just what we’re doing. All we have now is each other. That’s our comfort. This, preparing. Knowing what’s coming. Getting mentally hard. This will save us.”
She still won’t look at me. “Just sometimes hard to see the point in it, Tom.”
“With no future.” She reaches under the pillow and touches her loaded 9mm, making sure it’s there for her in the dark. “No future worth living anyway.”
I kiss her neck and cup her breast, feel her heartbeat. “Though I suppose that’s the way it’s always been,” she says. “Yep. Suppose so.”
She rolls over and her blue eyes level with mine. “Don’t listen to me.”
“I’m not, honey.”
I only dream memories. As a child I’d play in the Presbyterian courtyard. Vance Sherman and I fought with blunt sticks splitting knuckles and welting stomachs. Beyond the stained glass we could still hear my dad preaching damnation and salvation. Even then, in my little black suit and clip-on tie, I saw that colorful hallowed savior as nothing. His likeness imagined and captured in a material easily broken. Once Vance landed a berserker swing to my jaw and shattered my baby teeth. I tumbled over a headstone and hit the ground and couldn’t speak. I breathed blood and dirt. And in this I tasted divinity.
Every day I see millions of dollars in twenties stacked like hay bale cubes, and I know I’m looking at the world’s kindling. I work for Stieg, based out of Cambridge twenty miles west of Barnesville. They prefer hiring vets because we’re conditioned. My right hand hovers effortlessly over a polymer grip. I load ATMs from Barnesville’s 7-11 all the way to Columbus. I took the job as a means to stay frosty and to constantly carry a gun. I don’t want to be without a chair when the music stops.
My partner Walter Rugg’s a good man with a kindness about him that concerns me because I doubt he’d shoot someone to save my life or his own. He’s fat, but the man can be fast when he wants. I’ve been next to him at the range and he’s a quicker draw than me. He places his shots center mass. But purple silhouettes aren’t people. The state made all ranges switch from black to purple targets so nobody would get accustomed to shooting people of a certain color. It’s just one more thing.
Walter often asks me about Iraq. I often ignore him.
The daily course of money delivery from one armored receptacle to the next. One man driving, one man delivering. If the man gets jumped on the outside, the other has to leave him. Take the money and run. Company policy. Men are expendable and paper isn’t. I wouldn’t do that to Walter. He’d do it to me. He’s a company man and obeys rules. There are swarms of good-natured, law-following people like Walter. He wears a wooden cross around his neck, under his Kevlar. Says it will protect him. When the time comes, people like this will be cockroaches under boot heels.
“A bunker,” I say.
“What exactly do you think’s going to happen, man?” Beyond the bullet-proof glass sprawls downtown Columbus.
In the city my spirit dies. I feel small and hopeless. Alone and insignificant. But it fuels me, reminds me of what’s coming, why I prepare for the rising storm.
All I see is human garbage. I can’t even tell who’s a national. Wealthy delusional yuppies prance around staring into their little digital screens, made from minerals mined by African death squads. Filthy degenerates litter the sidewalks and gas stations, doing nothing at high noon, kept alive by the government tit. This is the nation I fought and killed to “defend.” I look at them all the way men look at monkeys. And I wish the military could just sweep it all clean with an iron broom.
Walter’s calloused knuckles look like split sausages. He breathes heavy.
“You prepare for what’s coming,” I say.
“I don’t even know what that means. I mean, I sometimes get scared, about the future. But I don’t know what to do.” He turns the truck and maneuvers around a pothole. “That’s a big one there.Jesus.”
Down the street from a lecture hall a gaggle of coeds saunter clumsily with hand bags and high heels, the palsied twitching of female parts.
“It’s the culmination of what’s happening,” I say.
“Cultural collapse. Fragmentation of society. Values going to shit.” I grind my jaw until it hurts. “The browning of America. This multicultural chamber pot eating itself after infrastructural and economic collapse.”
He tries not to frown, though he knows what he’s started. “You can’t know that, Tom.”
“You don’t. Stop being an idiot.”
“Read any civilization’s history, and then take a look around.” “Ain’t that simple.”
“It is that simple,” I say. “Clear as crystal if you see how it all works and always has. In chaos we go back to natural order. Lions with lions. Bears with bears. Fucking wolf packs. We instinctually seek out our own. Those are the rules. I didn’t make them up, so don’t get pissy with me.”
He drives past a gangland street corner just off campus. From Athenian pillars to Somalian shacks where indolent simians squat on porches. They yell at our truck, demand money, raise large bottles. Walt won’t look at me. He seems upset. I’ve offended his sensibilities and couldn’t care less. But soon he says, “I gotta tell you, whenever I see a black guy with a white girl, I get physically ill. Like, in my stomach.”
“You think about your daughter,” I say.
“I think about my little girl. Yeah.”
Soon we’re clear and in another sector. His eyes dart across the bank skyscrapers, monoliths beneath which suited businessmen scuttle. We get paid fifteen bucks an hour to protect fiat currency representing nothing more than the Fed’s word and jean fiber. He watches me from the corner of his vision, hesitant. “What about Jews?”
“Israel is the closest thing now to a racial state.” I watch my mouth move in the rearview. “We taught them well enough.”
He frowns and squints as if thinking deeply. “You’re not talking about the end of the world. That’s not what bothers you.”
“End of the white one, Walt.”
He shakes his head. “I don’t want to hear any more of this bullshit.”
“This isn’t shit. This is happening. We’re getting bred out of existence.”
He rolls his eyes. “You’re preaching, Tom.”
“Well, I’m not fucking sorry.”
“Just shut up.”
I tongue my molars, canines. “All you have are fuzzy feelings, how things should be. I have centuries of human history. People are stupid, and race is nature’s uniforms. It can’t be another way because it never has.”
“America’s different, Tom.”
“No. America’s a fucking failed experiment. Only racially homogenous nations survive.”
“Homogenous? Goddamn.” He flitters his hand.
“Collective identity is essential for self-governance. This country’s going tyrannical, because it has to. We must be forced to get along. Until it all falls apart, anyway.”
“You sound like a cheap textbook. You recite this trash in front of the mirror?”
“It will crumble,” I say. “Dark meat and white meat, eating each other. Then whose camp do you want to fucking be in, Walt?”
He glares at me, shifts his pudgy weight towards the window. “I’m not ashamed for loving my people,” I say.
At the end of the day we drive back to Barnesville along Route 18, flanked in pasture and rolling hills. We haven’t said a word to each other in hours. Walter finger-drums the steering wheel. “I figured you out, Schmidt.”
“Think so huh?”
He points his finger knowingly. “You only think all of this because of where you’ve been. Over there. That’s why this awful crap makes sense to you. It’s not right.”
“Not right as in not correct?”
“Not right as in wrong. Like, morally.”
“It’s sad you think that matters, Walt.”
We pass the barren land strip-mined and cratered. Fracking rigs tower along the ridge, flaming sentinels over the forests where I used to play. Water spills down the wasted slopes, licks over rocky streambeds like tar. The ground trembles. Black smoke churns along the horizon.
After storming Fallujah I guarded the oil convoys. I drove over blistered children twitching in the red sand. Shot insurgents with a mounted .50 caliber Browning machine gun. Their bodies thrashed into spurting parts, only able to be collected with a shovel.
“I just feel sad for you, bud. You’re a hard case.” Walt fiddles with the knobs to find something entertaining on the radio. “But I’ll still pray for your dumb bigoted ass.”
I stare out and watch tractor squads push dirt. I imagine piles of emaciated corpses bulldozed into mass graves, unmarked and forgotten. “Thank you, Walt.”
When I get home, Emily’s cleaning her field stripped AR-15 on the kitchen table. It’s not the best assault rifle by any means, but it’s what the government issues to military and police combatants. When the time comes, having a weapon that uses the same ammunition will be very practical.
Supper’s on the stove: broccoli, macaroni and cheese, and grilled salmon. She lays aside the black barrel and the oil rag and stands to kiss me. When I feel her against me and in my arms, I know I’m home.
We sit and I help her oil down the parts. I sip coffee and pay close attention to the dismantled tool before us. There’s a beauty in its mechanics. Emily appreciates such things only for their equalization of violence. Of power. She feels safer.
She tells me Karl’s in his room reading. “Should talk with him,” she says. “Caught him watching some Spanish thing.”
I put down the smeared cleaning cloth and cup my coffee in both hands. We don’t have cable because I know it’s poison. Television is America’s lead pipes.
“He got a video from the library. Mrs. Moore suggested it. Told him he should learn Spanish when he’s young.”
I hand her the spring and stock. “I’ll go talk with him.” “Reverend Davies ran on up here again. He had his wife in a jogging suit too. Asking for you.” She shrugs. “Was kind of cute. Seeing them together like that.”
“You shoot them and bury them out back?”
“Nope. Just not strong enough to bury them myself, honey.”
“Should’ve shot them. Thought Davies would get the point by now.”
“Want me to go shoot Mrs. Moore?” she tilts her head. “Her commie husband too?”
I head down the back hallway while Emily laughs and tells me she loves me.
Karl’s lying on his bed reading an illustrated version of the Grimm Brothers’ Fairy Tales. It’s the same book I read as a kid, not Disney-sugar-coated. He wrestles me to the ground where we roll around laughing, pinning and conquering. I never let him win. He must always slap my arm and concede. Each time he lasts a little longer.
When I sit with him on his bed, he tells me what happened at school and why he’s so hungry for Mom’s supper. He mentions a bully named Lucas. I tell him to punch Lucas in the balls next time he wants his lunch money. Then I tell Karl to kick him in the face while he’s down so that he won’t get up without thinking about why he’s down.
“You understand?” I say.
We sit there for a time. My boy has a clean room with all of his medieval Lego toys in order. “Mom said you were watching something earlier.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Mrs. Moore said it would help me with something.”
“I don’t know.”
“Yeah.” He reaches for a Lego raft to fiddle with but I push itaway with my boot. “She’s a nice lady, Daddy.”
I put my finger under his chin and tilt his head up to mine. “You don’t need to learn Spanish.”
“She said lots of people speak Spanish here.”
“In the United States.”
“They need to learn English. Too many people died for it to be otherwise. You don’t need to learn Spanish.”
He nods and his feet dangle off the bed, kicking. “People who used to live here?”
“Not really here,” I say. “Farther south and west of us. But yes.” “And we killed them?”
“You didn’t and I didn’t. But our people murdered them. Yes.” “Like the Indians.”
“Yes. Like the Native Americans. Murdered. Don’t let anyone paint it different.”
He looks at his hands and bites his lip. “And that’s why we don’t have to speak Spanish?”
“Don’t feel guilty. Could just have easily been the other way.”
“How come it wasn’t the other way?”
I feel my vision blur, my mind dim. I hold his hand and don’t let my voice shake. “Because we understood something they didn’t. Something important. Something we can’t ever forget.”
“What was it?”
“I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
“Is it bad, Dad? Is it a bad thing to say?”
I watch his face, that fearful curiosity. “No. It’s a sad thing to say.” “Okay.”
“Do you know the difference?”
“I don’t know.”
I put my arm around him, feel his heart pounding. I’m close to crying but won’t. “Right now, you need to study your English. The grammar. Get it right and perfect.” I look on his bookshelf and see the little copy of Elements of Style I gave him. It tilts beside thin paper where he’s practiced writing in cursive. “Then, if you want to go visit a country, like Mexico or Spain or somewhere, you should learn Spanish. It’s respectful. But not until you have perfect English. You shouldn’t ever need another language here in your own country. You understand?”
He nods, slowly examines his hands. “Most dads aren’t like you.”
“That bothers you.”
“I don’t know,” he says.
We sit in silence. I study his Lego world of ancient fighters.
“Most dads aren’t men,” I say.
“You make me feel safe.” He swings his legs. “But I get scared.” “Of me?”
“I don’t know.”
I stare at the top of his small head. My boy’s head. It contains my best parts and the future good I want to put there, to make him better and stronger than me. But too much goodness could get him killed. “I love you.”
“Do you love me?”
“Yes.” He reaches for my gun in its holster and his fingers touch the grip.
I swat his hand away. “You’re not old enough.” “When will I be old enough?”
“When you have to be.”
We don’t usually watch the news because Emily and I don’t need to be reminded of what we already know. But tonight she sat down after supper and righted the antennae laced with tinfoil. President Obama gives a fine “progressive” speech and seems determined to end our “involvement” in the Middle East, but in practice he’s just delivering the same past decade bullshit. Someone’s steering this train and it’s not him.
Emily squeezes my hand. After returning stateside my friend Vance Sherman and I found menial work. He chose United Dairy, and I guarded play money. On our days off we started drinking bourbon at dawn, wore our desert fatigues and watched dune- coon terrorists beheading Anglo journalists on YouTube. We’d scream at the sun and shoot buckshot at squirrels and clap each other forcefully whenever they ruptured into wet tatters. Once we flipped through an old yearbook, found our stupid childish selves, then cried together until our eyes burned pink. Then we sparred with wooden spoons dipped in rodent blood and pretended they were combat knives. He always got me, the red streaks across my stomach a reminder as to who was truly stronger. After a few months we got the calls we didn’t know we were waiting for.
We were both propositioned by Blackwater and other private contractors with ominously ambiguous names. To return without rules or boundaries, to do what we did best without consequence. Vance signed on for a half-million-dollar contract and is now still hunting insurgents in Afghanistan, his brutalities never recorded.
After refusing, I spent my evenings with the .45 in my mouth, dragging it along my temples. It was impossible to move backwards, to forget, believing life was horrific and the future pointless and any meaning contrived fantasy. I longed for an apocalypse, a firestormed earth. But I figured it all out, got myself centered, and those nights are long behind me.
Emily and Karl now validate my choice. Though I still sometimes have regrets, about not returning. Emily knows it and that’s why she’s squeezing my hand.
“I love you,” she whispers.
“Yeah. Me too.”
The television continues on. Drug violence along the southern border, kids ransomed, teachers executed, women raped. Increased illegal immigration, amnesty for filth. The economy crashing further into irreversible depression. Growing unemployment. Half of the U.S. population under five years old is non-white. Children in public schools are suffering under multicultural mandates, bilingual accommodations; we’re told to tolerate the vermin as they gnaw our house down. More than forty percent of citizens don’t know what happened in 1776. Washington D.C., well isolated, is owned by Wall Street. Electronic surveillance is slated to increase along with prison privatization. Amidst this detritus and cultural ruin are celebrity gossip and hair growth stimulants. Viagra and spray-on tans and clothes for pets.
I hope those climate change advocates are right and the earth will soon kill eighty percent of us, swallowing us deservedly into nothingness. I just hope my people will survive, as they always have. It’s never been pretty when we’re backed into a corner.
I’m glad my guns are always loaded.
“More of the same,” Emily says, rubbing my chest.
We watch the screen and sit amidst the flickering light.
Commercials now. Weather next.
“You read him his bedtime story?” she says.
“Yes.” I sip my water. I didn’t realize my throat was so dry. “You need to use your paycheck next stop we make,” she says.
“Need better cots. More water jugs. Finish installing that well pump.”
“Goodwill too,” I say. “Get him clothes couple sizes higher.” “Winter coat.”
Emily lays her head against my shoulder. “Feel burdened by us?”
“Like you’d rather be doing something else.”
“Nope. Shut up.”
She holds my hand to her cheek and squeezes. “We make you weaker.”
“Stop it, baby.”
“It’d be easier without us.”
“Yeah, shithead. I know.” I tickle her until she squeals. “Good thing I don’t like it easy.”
Her kisses are the sweetest honey, my warm goddess. I lie down in her golden curls and taste her breath.
She turns off the television and reaches for me in the dark.
Today it’s my turn to drive and when I hear the gunshot outside it’s a distant memory and friend coming to greet. I stand with the Glock already drawn and steadied low. Through the armored glass I see Walt’s body crumbled outside the convenience store, the sliding doorway brain-splattered. Only neck and jaw remain and hairy red rivers of Walt slide around scattered bone and drain into nearby sewage grates. An old man in a yellow raincoat carries the polymer case stacked with only ten thousand in twenties, fives, and ones. He’s running fast. The shotgun’s barrel sticks out from underneath his trailing coat flaps.
I’m supposed to immediately drive and leave with the remaining millions. But I look out the surrounding window slits and see no one else and quickly know the man’s going it alone. I open the metal door unprotected and step into the familiar smell. I raise the Glock and place a bead on the running man’s back, beneath his white hair.
The bullet hits his neck and that arterial spray means it’s over. But when he spins around I finish with a double-tap. Two holes erupt from his chest, misting the air red.
He falls deadweight and drops the case and shotgun. I check my flanks. Through the convenience store windows I see crying shoppers on cell phones. Across the street people are not lying flat on the ground as they should be. Men are only standing and watching like steers. One girl takes pictures with her cell phone. A college-aged boy has a little black notebook where he scribbles fast. He raises his head, and we stare at each other. In the distance I hear sirens.
Adrenaline still tears underneath my skin. The gun smoke, recoil tremors, blood scent, and empty brass casings still rattling near my feet. All so fast and pure. It’s a waking sense of time coming fast.
And I’m ready for it.
I feel stronger than I have in years.
I holster my weapon and go stand over Walt, ruined and faceless. Muzzle flare scorched his jaw and teeth black. His cross necklace slipped over his neck stump and now lies soaked and twisted. Who he was is now nothing more than meat chunks scattered across concrete.
I tell myself Walter Rugg was careless and weak as I know I’ll never be.
Gary Malfred runs the Stieg operation in Zanesville. He’s fifty-two, fading fast and struggling onward for a comfortable retirement that will never come. I sit in his office and stare at him slumped behind his desk. His fat head is sweaty and he rubs his nose bridge continuously. This is the first time a crew member has died. He’s run Stieg for twelve years. He offers me the whiskey he drinks and that I’ve refused several times.
He tells me the man’s name was Harold Bloomfield. He worked at the local library in the archives and specialized in ancestral research. On weekends he volunteered at the animal shelter. Attended the Presbyterian Church as a Deacon. People in Cambridge spoke well of him. Said he had a nice laugh.
“They’re not telling me much, Tom.” Gary sips his whiskey and grimaces. “I don’t think we’re looking at charges.”
“Is that even possible?”
Gary sits back and rests the glass on his knee. “Police got witnesses. Said you shot him in the back. You told the officer that yourself.”
“They forget that Harold blew Walt’s head off?”
“They ain’t forgot.” Gary takes another sip. “You’ll be okay.” “I better be.”
“We’ll look after you.” Gary brushes his nose. He seems to think for a time. “No. Nothing’ll come of this. We lost a man too.” I stare at him and think about the ridiculousness of such a statement, as if human lives were interchangeable and of equal value. I just want to go home and be with Emily and Karl. I haven’t called her yet. She doesn’t know. My hands won’t stop shaking.
“I just wish I could change all this,” Gary says. “I truly do.”
I just keep staring, entwining my fingers to be still. I wish Harold Bloomfield wasn’t white.
“I guess you’ve seen all this before,” he says.
“Okay,” he says.
“You have my statement and my number. We done?”
“You shouldn’t have gotten out. Should have just drove away.
Would have been easier.”
“We’re definitely done.”
He sets the glass down and looks at me with pleading wet eyes.
“Why you think he shot Walt?”
“He wanted the money. We carry guns for a reason.”
“That’s it, huh?”
“It’s not fucking complicated,” I say.
Gary nods as if this answer could actually satisfy. He looks at his desk calendar. He then sits up and flips through loose papers. I see they’re job application forms. “Times are hard on people right now.”
“Wait awhile,” I say.
Emily works as a technician at the Barnesville pharmacy. Her job doesn’t involve shooting people. She’s taking classes at the community college to become a pharmacist. Her education is often impractical, because of the required cores.
As I drive home, I remember this.
She once took her Geology course online to save time. She watched the lecture series in the dark living room, the laptop’s bluish hum ghosting her face. I crept down the hallway and stretched across the floor, listened and peeked at her from around the corner. The professor’s voice was a whiny squeal, but his words were intense, wondrous, and dismal. Hundreds of millions of years of earth’s history, tectonic plates shifting, continents breaking apart and colliding, volcanoes triggering climatic hells, ashen wintry death and then life and then death. These manic cycles make human existence so obviously irrelevant, no different than a trilobite, than a dinosaur. Nature is indifferently genocidal. And these mountains and canyons stand witness, all older than consciousness, than imagined gods.
What I couldn’t ignore, lying there, my eyes fixed on the ceiling’s shadows, was the evolution of us. We are nothing romantic or noble, just horny bonobos who figured out tools, made up an intellect prone to self-deception, to rationalize meaninglessness. And the webbed migration of tribes, all people blending without difference. And like the billions of species preceding us, extinction is our destiny.
I felt then an old feeling, my brain fracturing, boiling my eyes. That buried realization clawed up. Life is just an extravagant opera, played out on this absurd ancient planet, still splitting, ever changing, and oblivious to us. And we Aryans are just the predators of a burning stage, a coming graveyard.
When she heard me crying, she rushed and stood over me.
She hadn’t been taking her Zoloft then, the pills chalky sand in the toilet. So I expected her to be sad for me, cry with me and hold me to her chest, even though I feared she felt violated, spied on. But she knew I had been listening the whole time, had maybe turned up the volume for my benefit.
“See, Tom.” She gave me the sickest smile. “Just a stupid blink.” She left me there, as if I’d somehow deceived her, all this time, as if I didn’t already understand.
What she’ll never understand is the alternative to my thinking. What would happen if I discarded the ideology and then truly accepted reality. What would happen is I would take the .45 and finish her and Karl while they slept, and then lead myself outside, finally purge my mind in a cold field beneath empty stars. Just to expedite the whole damn story.
When I get home, I wash my face with the garden hose. Rinse my neck and scrub black powder from my trembling hands. I squint against the sun and pace along my trail in the high grass, toe loose dirt over the bunker’s edge, watch it unravel and sift over the dull concrete like an offering. I hear Karl crying inside when he should be at school.
They’re both in his bedroom. Emily presses a wet rag to his bleeding eyebrow, readies a bandage moist with antiseptic. He lies sobbing across her lap. When he sees me in the doorway, his swollen eyes dilate and evade like a suffocating fish.
“What’re you doing, Emily?”
“You’re home early.” She doesn’t look at me, so she must know what I told him. “I’m helping our son.”
“You’re not helping him. Let it bleed.” I snatch her hand and twist the bandage free. “Let it hurt.”
I squeeze his cheeks and make him face me. He’s blubbering through pudgy skin. “He wouldn’t go down, Daddy. Lucas’s bigger than me.”
“Fuck that.” I take his hand in mine. Squeeze his fingers down into a tight paw, sharp knuckles. “You punch him in the throat.” I poke beneath my Adam’s apple. “Snap it upwards.”
“Tom! Goddamnit!” Emily pulls at my arm.
“He’ll fucking go down.”
His face shudders back at me and tears pinch from his puffy lids. He won’t stop crying, tries to put his arm around me. I slap it away. His mother has crawled against the nightstand.
“You’re weak, Karl. A stupid little sis. You know what’ll happen to you?” I shake him until his teeth clack.
He stutters spit and choked whispers. “I’m sorry.”
“Do you want to die easy?”
“I’m sorry, Dad. I’m sorry.”
I pull him to my chest so he can’t see me. Stroke his hair and cradle his head. He trembles in my arms as if freezing, bawls into my shirt. I didn’t do this to him. I shove him away and rush out to the kitchen where I slam home a magazine in the Glock. Rack the chamber and head out the door.
I’m seconds from getting in the truck before Emily’s slapping my neck and pulling at the gun screaming. I shove past her but she keeps at me. My face and neck collaged in welts before I let the gun drop, and then I fall against her, sinking us both to the gravel.
We rest our backs against the tires. Our faces flushed and pained. My eyes dry. She balances her head across her knees and watches shadowed grass.
Soon I pat her thigh and wave her inside. “Go on. Help him. I’ll be in soon.”
She glares at me. “You will?”
“Tell him I’m sorry.”
“I’m going to wait, baby. I’m going to wait until Lucas turns eighteen.”
“And then I’m going to kill him.”
Emily pulls herself forward and heads towards the house. She picks up the pistol and weighs it in her hands. “Well that hardly seems in tune with the natural order of things, dear.”
“Karl deserved what he got. But—”
She’s already gone inside. Slams the door behind her. I wait several hours until the day has passed. The crickets grieve nothing in the rising dark. She’s singing to him as the cold finally numbs my hands still. I watch their silhouettes fuse beyond the pale curtains.
At four in the morning I quietly pull back the covers and slink beside her warmth. My calloused hands are scaly with concrete and my eyes ache from the work lights. She hesitantly rests back into my arms. I brush her hair and kiss along her broad collarbone. “I’m sorry, baby.”
“Not me you have to be sorry to.”
I set my head against her soft breast. Pet the delicate hairs between her thighs. “I shot a man today. He murdered Walt, for the money. So I killed him.”
There’s a long silence. I can’t feel her breathing. And then, “Oh my God, Tom. Those fucking niggers.”
It tickles sharp, uncoiling in my guts, and then slithering up my throat. And I can’t help but laugh.
She pries my fingers off her. “Stop that. Please.”
In the morning Emily refuses to turn off the television. Some witnesses call me a hero and others call my actions barbaric. That college kid with the notebook explains how easy it would have been to shoot Harold in the leg. He talks of three shots and learnedly references police brutality and court cases. He says economic hardships push people to do horrible things and that society should understand. I memorize his face and all he says for future use. In the coming storm, if I’m ever given the chance to save him, I’ll make sure to let him be swallowed under. He’ll die because of those moronic sympathies.
They show Harold’s picture, smiling, and interview his mother, ancient and wrinkled in a nursing home chair. Already there’s speculation that he lost his job and pension and needed money to pay for his son’s kidney transplant, or something. Every time his picture comes on, Emily grips my hand while I just stare at her.
She says all of this fuss will die down. She says this hopefully.
Gary calls frequently and says I’ll be looked after. He says people are looking for answers and excuses and someone to blame. He says Walt’s wife wants to talk with me.
When I call, her voice is a drowned mouse. But I still understand. She says, “Every day he left our house wanting to impress you. Did you know that? But you couldn’t even protect him, Tom Schmidt. With all your bullshit!” She chokes. “Could you?”
My employee picture’s been on the news: my stern face is immutable; a stiff black collar tightens my neck.
“Hello? Answer me, goddamnit!”
“I’m still here, Mrs. Rugg. And Walt isn’t. You should think about why that is.”
When I hang up Emily’s behind me with the AR-15 aimed in my face. I throw up my hand as the firing pin snaps down on an empty chamber. “Boom,” she says. Her eyes are shattered ice, but she still smirks playfully. Then she throws the gun across the table and leaves without a word.
I face the wall, hold its edges, and count to sixty. But I can’t steady my breathing.
I stand over the empty bunker. No ceiling. Water pooled in the muddy corners. The more I study what I’ve made the more I see the aftermath of a home plucked tornado-like from the earth, ruins instead of beginnings.
I hear running along my driveway, and I know it’s God coming to visit. I turn to face Reverend Davies.
“You must feel real protected, Reverend.”
“I’m just here to see you.”
“You don’t like phones?”
“I like running better.” He stands at my side and catches hisbreath. “You wouldn’t have answered anyway.”
We both watch the concrete dry on the northern wall’s bedroom. He kneels down and peers into the massive rectangle, the celled rooms. “You’re really doing it,” he says.
“Noah had his ark.”
“This won’t save you from a flood.”
“He said he’d never destroy the world by water again. Thought you got paid to read and comprehend fairy tales.”
“This won’t save you.” His mustache twitches. “From God.”
“What do you fucking want? Want to swap gory stories? Compare notes?”
“I’m here to see if you’re okay.”
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
He moves to put his hand on my shoulder, but doesn’t. “It’s a hard thing to do. What you did. You know I know.”
“So you know it isn’t hard at all. Your stupid flock isn’t here.
Who do you think you’re performing for?”
“I’m here for you. And I just want you to know that.”
I laugh at the dirt. “You’re really something else, Davies.” I get in his rutted face. “What you want is a fellowship of the guilty, the damned. You expect me to make you feel better? Or are you just pissed because I didn’t get spit on?” I tap his chest. “I offend you. Because I’m stronger than you drugged-up lost fuckers ever were, and I’m dealing.”
“You seem to think so.” His stare is tarnished copper. “But you don’t know what strength is. You don’t understand. You haven’t lost enough.”
The wind is a damp whimper between us. It takes me a moment. “You only care about judgment. That’s why you’re here. Judgment.”
“I’m trying to help you, Tom. It is hard. To live with. It tore me apart. Ruined me.”
“Until a crucified nitwit saved you.”
“Until God saved me. Yes.”
I smile, recovered, dominant. “It’s nothing I haven’t seen or done before. Nothing I won’t see or do again.” I understand, finally. “You’re just pathetic. You think you’re forgiven, and that that matters. But you can’t see outside yourself. You can’t see what’s coming.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “None of this is about me.”
He looks to the trees and seems to be thinking about what to say next. He’s searching for meaningful words, flipping through a mental index of Bible passages. He’s trying to produce a script and counsel a man lost. But soon he says, “Tom, I want you to really listen to me for a second. Okay?”
He raises his hand, as if testing a fire’s heat. “There is nobody coming out here to kill your family. Or to kill you. We’re both home now.”
“You don’t know that,” I say, all but screaming. “You can’t see. Not yet. How ourworld’s dying.”
“You don’t have any people, Tom. You’re alone. I don’t understand who you think you’re doing this all for. And you will drive her away. Then what will you do?”
I quickly draw my gun. “You didn’t seem to understand my meaning last time. You come back here again, I’ll blow your fucking heart out your back, then drop an unregistered piece on you, say you were threatening my family. Wanted my little boy. It’s common enough knowledge that you baby killers snap.”
He looks at me, as if studying something foreign and without discernable precedent. He shakes his head. “You’re a sick man, Tom.”
“Never seen so much hate in someone.”
“It helps.” I aim at his chest.
He steps away in long painful strides. “Now. I believe you’d actually kill me.”
“Oh yeah, Reverend. You can put your fucking faith in that.”
From the porch I sit and watch my boy play in the yard. He takes his Legos out there and gallops plastic horses across the castle edge of our bunker. Watching him play gives me childhood visions, coming to remind me like some faraway song. Of things lost and no longer as they were. A brief sliver amongst all time where something worthwhile and pure existed.
He’ll sometimes wave, a solemn gesture. He keeps his distance. I’ll just nod and hope he can see me smile.
Emily looks at me differently, cautiously, in a way I never thought she would. At night she won’t respond when I touch her. So I have more regrets. They come and burn corrosively, whenever I see she’s not who I thought she was.
Killing is no longer an element resting in her husband’s past across oceans. It’s now in the immediacy of her marriage. Women respond differently to it all. Even in war. Misguided sympathies borne through some maternal instinct. I’m only alive because of this stupidity. Wailing mothers prayed for me against the hot sand. Their shawled faces with stunning amber eyes, their nurturing russet hands pressed against my pallid bleeding skin, all nursing the very man who murdered their families.
Recently, I’ll look out at the bunker hole and calculate how much more room for food and gear and living space Karl and I would have if it were just the two of us.
Now she joins me on the porch after sleeping all afternoon without reason. She’s wrapped in a blanket and stares out at the sunset. She does that more and more now. Just stares out from blonde caverns. I’ll watch her blue eyes searching and always wonder what she’s thinking but never ask.
“I’m taking Karl to church with me tomorrow,” she says.
My ribs flex taut until I can’t breathe. Then I gnaw at my cheek. I realize I always knew this would come, her eventual betrayal, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less. “No. You aren’t.”
“I expected something from you, Tom. Something tender. Some regret. Even if it was just over how the world was, what you had to do.” She smiles at me like she has to. “But it’s still so easy for you. Isn’t it?”
“You’ve always known me. Through and through. I never hide anything from you.”
“Then maybe I just fooled myself, honey.”
We watch leaves cut across the ground, and then fly in the cool air of a dying light. We watch our son silhouetted against the red sky. He clashes horse-backed knights together.
“We’re all going to burn,” she says.
A worthless judgment caused by guilt, unfounded and easy and weak. A weakness in her I don’t dare acknowledge. I don’t feel disgust. Only anger, a strong and immovable defiance. “We’re going to make it,” I say. “Our people. Our culture.”
She only gazes out at the yard, our boy playing along the concrete edges of our future beneath a sinking star.
I see a struggle worth fighting and a victory ensured. There are others like me. We will hide in the ground while civilization burns around us. Escape the world others have made. We will let these animals eat each other. We will await the coming scraps. And one day we will crawl forth strong and unscratched. We will kill the weak and stupid and mongrel herd and stand with heads high and triumphant, our eyes surveying a country where all could be the product of our vision. We will return again, reclaiming a world gone wrong and stolen from us.
“We’ll all be killed in the end,” she says. “It’s getting closer every day. No stopping it.”
“We’ll survive it, Emily. And I’ll fucking drag you by the hair if I have to.”
She looks at me with a harsh sadness about her, like she understands the truth I’ve somehow forgotten. “The sun, Tom.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
John Woods grew up in Appalachian Ohio and graduated from Ohio University in 2009. He has been published in Fiddleblack, Midwestern Gothic and The Rag. He has written an unpublished collection of short stories and two novels. He is looking for a brave literary agent. He can be followed on Twitter: @JohnWoods333
ABOUT THE RAG
The Rag is the home for literary guts and steel. We are an electronic publication hell-bent on true grit and uncompromising action. We call this “literary entertainment.” We publish new fiction monthly on our website www.raglitmag.com. You can read online, or free downloads are available in PDF, Kindle and ePub formats.