The Dying Cinders

 

**********

 

1. POLK, part 1

 

**********

 

As soon as I wake up, the thoughts will come into my head

Like, "Is this life really worth living or would I rather be dead?"

"Why people so misleading and never do what they said?"

Well I'm thinking "fuck being good" and shit, turn for the worst instead...

 

Que Hampton

 

**********

 

All is in my soul to scream. And yet? I am silent.

 

**********

 

 

Let me start from the beginning.

 

See, there's a lot of things they don't teach you in Polk. Evolution, mainly. But our classes (if you could call them that) always made time for the end or at least how it began. They taught us that the United States of America was the chosen nation of God until it was infected by a strain of sin so potent that not even God's endless supply of love and mercy could cure it. They taught us that we gave in to vice and debauchery bowing before the unblinking eye of our television screens, worshipping the $ like an idol, promoting foetal genocide and pornography and sodomy, and elevating Hamites to the level of men. Those were our crimes. And so, they taught us, God meted out his punishment in the form of a scourge. A scourge of the womb. If my father wasn't a doctor (a doctor who compulsively hoarded old medical journals in his pre- and post- MCAT days) they might have had me believing that too.

 

Smarter people called it the Global Fertility Crisis, back before this thing they called the world went to shit.

 

Whoever you are, let me tell you what I know about it.

 

It started in 1988 with a sudden and inexplicable 23% drop in global birth rates, followed by a 6.3% drop every subsequent year. The Crisis was top secret until a whistle-blower in the World Health Organization leaked a copy of its findings (known as the Hamilton Study) to a French newspaper in 1991. This triggered a global panic that, according to my father, left everyone in America glued to their television screens; riots in London, marches in Paris, unrest in Moscow, protests in Tokyo, bombings in Tel Aviv. In response to the Crisis (or perhaps to placate its own uneasy masses) the government created a new branch of the CDC known as the United States Refertilization Project USRP with the sole purpose of studying and eventually curing the Global Fertility Crisis. Somehow it wasn't until births completely flatlined in 1998 that the panic finally took America by the throat.

 

How do I know this?

 

When I was nine I made a book of clippings from the old newspapers my father kept during his time in DC (which he ultimately fled) and in it I pieced together what I believe to be the chain of events that brought us to where we are.

 

Some say it started with the assassination of President Buchanan in 1997, just half a year after securing his re-election, but I think it really kicked off in LA in 1999 with an explosive outbreak of AIDS that by 2001 had spread to all major American cities and the Northwest. That was when the riots started. When Atlanta went up in flames and protestors firebombed the White House and Jerry Falwell declared that the end of America was nigh. That was when gun sales went gangbusters and swelling militia movements retreated from the cities into `constitutional communes'; those who stayed behind launched bombing campaigns against federal offices and targeted attacks against US congressmen. And in the backdrop of all of this was as a growing consensus of one of two facts -- that the Global Fertility Crisis was either some sort of government conspiracy gone wrong or God's wrath on earth.

 

Either way, the national unrest of 2001 led to what became known as The Occupation when the government declared a national state of emergency and deployed over 250,000 US soldiers to all American cities, power stations, highway routes and water sources. The goal was threefold to put an end to the unrest, to protect the American industrial machine from total collapse, and to neutralize the increasing threat of the militia movement. What followed was what Congresswoman Feinstein referred to at the time as "a temporary suspension of certain specific privileges in the interest of public safety". What followed were 9pm curfews and the banning of public protests, non-commercial inter-state travel and gun purchases. They outlawed bulk purchases of food, water, medicine and clothing to ensure equal distribution. They suspended output of any radio, television stations or newspaper offices found to be `trading in non-compliance'. They erected quarantine zones out of whole city blocks to isolate the AIDS-infected and set up detention camps to hold anyone who infringed upon the new directives. Depopulated cities like Baltimore and New Jersey became open air prisons for those who remained. By 2003 (or so the official reports go) the Occupation had successfully stymied all the bombings, assassinations and riots, as well as curtailing the AIDS epidemic.

 

But that was where the newspaper clippings end.

 

Everything after that is just rumours rumours, and what you can see with your own eyes. Some say the Occupation ended when the military rose up and overthrew the government. Some say the Occupation just collapsed under its own weight through STDs, KIAs, lack of recruits, desertions and mutinies, etc. Some say that California and Texas seceded into their own republics and that the government sent the army south to reclaim them. No one knows the truth anymore. All anyone knows is America stopped being America the second it was over. What remained was the exsanguinated corpse of a once great country; ripped open, hollowed out, and left for the flies.

 

That's the corpse we grew up in, Parker and me, our inheritance from a time gone by.

 

We're going to make it our playground.

 

**********

 

The migraines came back. Jay palmed his skull, wincing. If someone stabbed a hand trowel into his brain, he wouldn't have noticed it. And no one did seem to notice, no one except Billy Locke, who sat behind him with a sneering, over-shoulder grin, squeezing at the teats of Lil' Bessie. His tin bucket was already 3 pints full by the looks of it. I know my way around a good set of teats, he'd once said stupidly, just ask all your mommas.

 

The shooting pains in his skull were bad. Giving Billy Locke the satisfaction of showing him up again was worse. And so, Jay grit his teeth through the agony and took hold of the waddling udder before him. Lil' Maye was one of the town's calmer cattle, but she was still a bitch to milk. Nevertheless, Jay stripped all four teats onto the cold stone floor, mopping up the mess with a cloth beneath his shoe, before he moved his tin pale underneath her udder and began milking her. It was boring work. Amongst all his chores Jay was unsold on milking, really. He decided to distract himself by thinking of Parker.

 

"Woohee!" Crooned Billy Locke, "Well lookie here, ain't I just a lil' ol' badass at this? Any a y'all over there at half bucket already? Christ Jesus, you all sure ain't! Watch me go at these goddamn titties!"

 

The rest of the class sniggered.

 

"That's enough out of your mouth, Billy," said Brother Wissop. He was the overseer of all chores involving the farmland, his land, land that provided eggs, milk and wool for all of Polk. "All of y'all remember what I told you. Squeeze, don't yank. Grip the base of the teat, and milk it until it sags."

 

The class sniggered at that too.

 

Despite his migraine, Jay allowed himself a moment of wonder -- how much older these idiots would have to be before `teat' stopped being such a funny word? He wondered if Brother Wissop wondered that too, judging by the rock-jawed farmer's wry frown. He wondered if Wissop just wanted to do what Jay always wanted to take Billy Locke by that scruffy black hair of his and punch a screwdriver into his eye socket. Instead, there was a knock on the barn door. Everyone turned to it. Where beams of morning light fell through the gaps between its plywood boards and dappled the hay-laden floor, a shadow moved beyond. Brother Wissop went to answer it, meeting their guest outside rather than letting them in. He closed the door behind him.

 

Jay had only just about milked his first quarter when a different shadow fell over him and Lil' Maye.

 

"Not even half done," tutted Billy Locke. "Tell me, Mixon, is there anything you don't suck at?"

 

Everyone else in class giggled; Brother Redwood's son Tommy, the Moss twins Alex and Carl, Shaun Bright, Curtis Stanfield, all of them. Jay flushed red, still with Lil' Maye's teats in hand. Don't rise to it, he told himself. You're not gonna win. So, he ignored Billy, and kept on milking.

 

"Hey," Billy Locke slapped his head. "I'm talking to you."

 

It was a light smack at best but with Jay's head the way it was, it may as well have been Walter Johnson swinging 42 inches of hickory into a porcelain vase. The boy seethed through his teeth like a hiss and squeezed Lil' Maye's teat too tight, causing the cow to moo and stomp its hooves, just narrowly missing his sneaker. Billy Locke grinned.

 

"You take a hit like a bitch, Mixon," he said. "This ain't the right place for you. You should be in the farmhouse stitching linens with Sister Garland and all the other girls. Am I right, boys?"

 

Jeers.

 

"You tell `em, Billy!" Said Shaun Bright.

 

Jay frowned. "Just... leave me alone."

 

"Where's the other weirdo?" Billy continued as if he hadn't even heard Jay speak. "Where's Parker? I get it. He thinks that just because he's the Pastor's son, he gets to skip out on chores. Am I right, Mixon? C'mon, where's the big nut-hugger at?"

 

"I don't know."

 

A dark frown passed Billy's lips. It was a smile Jay was painfully familiar with the angry one. Anytime Jay ever saw it, he didn't walk away without a bruise or a black eye or a fat lip. Only a few seconds later Billy Locke rammed his boot into Jay's bucket and split ten minutes worth of milk onto the floor. "Try again, faggot," said Brother Locke's son. The rest of the class went quiet the idiots were bloodhounds when it came to the sniff of a fight. `What now?' said their expressions.

 

Jay spat in Billy's face.

 

A huge wad with a shit ton of phlegm in it, hit Billy Locke in the eye. The older boy recoiled, half-stunned it had even happened, before that inevitable flash of red and roar of anger. An enraged Billy Locke punched Jay so hard the stool skidded out from under his legs as he fell to the floor. He cried out as Billy Locke climbed on top of him and shoved his face into the spilt milk and hay and cow pie residue. "Fuck you!" Billy yelled. "Fuck you!"

 

"FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!"

 

The barn door swung open. Through the cheers of his classmates, Jay somehow overheard Brother Wissop's yell of "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE?" but it wasn't Wissop's thick, veiny right hand that took Billy Locke by the shoulder and yanked him off Jay it was Pastor Evans. Billy hit the floor but shot back up, probably thinking it was Brother Wissop who threw him back (and was half ready to fight him too) but he froze in his boots the second he saw the Pastor's face. Billy Locke stopped. The cries of "fight!" stopped. All the boys got off their stools, folded their arms behind their backs, and dropped their chins to their chests in respect for him. Pastor Evans frowned at them all, surveying both their morning handiwork and their brief dalliance from it.

 

"Perhaps none of you heard me on Sunday when I called you all the last of your kind, the Fruit of God. Do any of you know what that means?" He turned to Jay. "Stand up, boy."

 

The migraine was almost unbearable now. All the noise, all the hitting, Jay couldn't even see through his tears, let alone think straight. He was only slightly aware of it when Pastor Evans' broad hand took his own and pulled him up off the floor. "Come on, boy." Said the Pastor. "Take a walk with me."

 

Brother Wissop ordered all of them to get back to work and "fill up those buckets" as Jay, slowly piecing his mind back together, followed Pastor Evans through the barn door. Outside, the morning air was cool. It helped the boy think through the haze. He scrubbed his eyes dry. Only then, when the world outside of his migraines came back into focus, did he truly realize he was in the company of Pastor Evans.

 

The tallest man in Polk by a full human head over the next man; lithe yet barrel-chested with hands like meat hooks, and a long, hairless, oval face fixed with deep set wrinkles, plumes of crow's feet and the narrow blonde-grey spike of a widow's peak the man who built Polk up and protected it from the chaos of the outside world -- that was Pastor Evans, and ever since he was a kid, the Pastor frightened him. No one in town knew anyone taller, stronger, sterner, or more powerful. And yet the Pastor was as all pastors were, pious and devout, lifting his once misguided flock with grandiose paeans to God every Sunday. His grey-eyed gaze cut through your veneer into your inner ugliness like a scalpel. Unable to meet those eyes, Jay turned his away. He looked to the east across a half-mile of prairie, where the sunlight glistened off the glass shards and barbed wire lining the upper level of the car wall.

 

"I knew your father in school, did you know that?" Pastor Evans mused. He led Jay in a stroll down the dirt track that led from the cattle barn to the Wissop farmhouse. "Before God turned his fury on the world, that is. Danny Mixon was the smartest boy in class and there wasn't a doubt in anyone's mind that he was college material."

 

Jay rubbed his cheek, already bruising purple. "Y-yes sir."

 

"Somewhere inside that frail shell of his, I believe there exists a good, God-fearing heart. Not that he would ever admit it. So far be it from me to seem surprised when I see his son engaged in petty brawls with his classmates."

 

I didn't start that fight, thought Jay. Fucking Billy Locke is always the one who comes and starts it with me...

 

"Sister Kinnoch tells me that you excel in all your other classes. Math, History, Geography, Bible Studies. This is good. I wish my son was as studious as you, Jay."

 

There's only one book Parker's ever liked, thought Jay, and it's not a school book.

 

"You and my son are quite close, aren't you?"

Jay shivered. Nowadays his father's influence spared him from Sunday service in the pastor's chapel, but as a child he clearly recalled his Grandpa Mixon dragging him there by the scruff of his neck. And just as clearly, he recalled the Pastor's baritone thundering of hellfire and brimstone, excoriating the vices that (in his mind) were the downfalls of the old world, citing such verses as Leviticus 18:22 as proof. "San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Reno, Atlantic City, New York, New Jersey, Portland, Austin and the like," he'd once said, "modern day Gomorrahs all, left to rot and rust into dust whence they came. As it should it be. Let those who defy God's will be baptised in the Lake of Fire, never to return."

 

"He's a friend," said Jay. "We play stick ball now and again."

 

Pastor Evans smiled that deep, cold smile of his. "'Now and again', eh? Eh! Good. My son is restless. I think he needs a good friend to look out for him. Someone to keep him grounded and wedded to his responsibilities to this town. Are you that friend, Jay?"

 

The boy bit his lip, praying that conversation would end soon. "I-I-I could be, sir."

 

"Good boy," said the Pastor. He stopped. Jay stopped with him and looked up at the Pastor's icy smile, willing his legs to keep him standing. "This is a good town, isn't it, boy? It welcomed your father back with open arms when he escaped from DC. Why not reward that loyalty? Come to service tomorrow. Let the people see you again. That would be nice, wouldn't it?"

 

"Yes, sir."

 

**********

 

I hated Polk.

 

If I'd known then what I know now, I'd have admitted that it was probably one of the few relatively safe spaces left in America. But back then it may as well have been a prison, for the mind if not the body. A small town of 300 people about 10 miles south of Fort Collins, nestled between interstate 25 and a fertile strip of farmland; historically Polk wouldn't have been much more than a pit stop in a greater person's road trip; just a bar, a diner, a high school and gym, a church, a super mart, a grocer, a butcher and a bakery, a sheriff's office and an abandoned factory, a football field, a local radio station serving three other towns across the county, and seventeen generations of local history. My father called it the "stereotype I spent half my life running away from".

 

During the Occupation, a group of militiamen blew up a federal office in Boulder and so the 4th Infantry Division in Fort Carson dispatched a battalion to root them out, garrisoning themselves around Polk High School: an unpopular sacrifice at the time. The then mayor often sent letters to the lieutenant colonel asking him to find more `suitable' lodgings for his soldiers but they stayed put for the duration of the Occupation, until central command ordered a pull out to relieve a besieged company on the outskirts of Denver.

 

My father said it took just two months for bandits to start sniffing around.

 

They came in small waves of five or six at first, opportunistic roamers stealing fuel or food before they hijacked a car and moved on, until the 7th of December 2006, when a group of 30 armed militiamen calling themselves the Mountain Crows stormed the town and took it over for a whole week. "They came in on Humvees wearing Kevlar and carrying carbines. I guess they must have snatched them from the old soldier's garrison by the school," was what my father had said of that night, "Your Grandpa thought they were deserters from the army. But it didn't matter. They wanted everything, our food, our clothes, our water, our medicine. That was when Polk realized that America wasn't America anymore and it had to defend itself from what was left."

 

Pastor Evans led the charge. He was ex-military himself and a veteran of Desert Storm. He and twelve others gathered together some hunting rifles from a nearby lodge and launched a fucking camisado against the Mountain Crows. They picked off the guards around the outskirts of town first, then freed fifteen girls that the bandits had bundled into a storehouse and raped, then charged the courthouse for a last-ditch shoot-out with their leader and his personal guard.

 

"After a lot of spilt blood and spent bullets the town was safe," said my father. "And Polk was in love with its saviour."

 

That was when Pastor Evans, the hulking born-again Christian who returned home from the Persian Gulf with the sole purpose of spreading the word of God, became the de-facto leader of the town. There may have been a pretence of democracy at first (holding public meetings at the town hall for the bigger decisions like a powwow with the elders) but over time people were more than happy to defer responsibility to him. First thing he did was to arm the strongest men in town with weapons recaptured from the bandits, give them combat training, and declare them the Black Bandanas, Polk's town guard. Next, he ordered people to withdraw from their homes on the rim of Polk to its central townhouses and he abandoned the high school. "He couldn't risk it becoming another soldier or bandit base," said my father, "... so he stripped it of its remaining supplies and had it torched."

 

After that, his focus was fortification. He took the Black Bandanas on a scouting mission into the north to siphon gas from every untapped station they could find on the interstate (which by that time wasn't very many) and procured over 350 cars, RVs, motor homes and bikes which they then drove back to town, creating a ring around Polk's new, smaller perimeter. One by one they overturned the vehicles and sealed the gaps with cement to create a wall, lacing it with barbed wire and constructing watchtowers and sniper's roosts at four points along the ring. The Black Bandanas kept it well guarded. Although bandits continued to raid us from time to time, few had ever gotten past the wall.

 

With defences and guards in place Pastor Evans' focus became Polk itself. To him, the Rapture was nigh, and his job was to ensure that his people were square with God before He came to claim their souls. He went from door to door offering prayers, encouraging people to attend his sermons, swelling the ranks of his congregation until two thirds of the town made up its number. He convened with the old teachers from Polk High and convinced them to resume the studies of their young, but also train them in survival and defence. And so, kids like me, the last of our kind, became pawns in a godly man's pet project. He had us all trained to shoot, to hunt, to farm, to build, and to survive so that we could protect Polk to the very last man.

 

"There is no heaven," my father told me. "And I don't like what Evans is teaching these people. But he's keeping us safe, son. In a world like this, that's what counts."

 

My father hated Pastor Evans almost as much as I did. He hated his religious bullshit just as much as I did. But he believed in Evans' ability to keep Polk safe. I didn't. I knew what was coming. Polk was a town living on borrowed time and one way or another the outside world was gonna pop the bubble.

 

I just didn't realize how soon.

 

**********

 

Jay came home from the Wissop Farm just a little after 3pm.

 

The morning breeze was gone which left a dry, chafing heat in its wake. Where Pastor Evans dropped him off, on the corner of Ellison's butchery and the boneyard behind his tin roof chapel, there was a water pipe used mainly for washing off the horses that some of the Black Bandana rode on their supply runs. Although Jay wasn't too far from home he had to have a drink. The sun was too hot, the air too dry, and his mind still too frazzled from Billy Locke's beating; he needed it. Jay washed his hands first, scrubbing away the barn's muck and grime, then cupped his hands beneath the pipe and drank it. It felt good to drink something cool.

 

After that he went home.

 

The Mixon house was a townhouse that he and his father Danny moved into after Pastor Evans built the car wall. It had everything they needed (except for running water) as well as a garage for the Mustang and a rear garden for their personal crops; mainly onions, tomatoes and potatoes. The adjacent house was vacant, so Pastor Evans ordered Danny to set up his clinic there (since the destruction of his original clinic during the Mountain Crow attack seven years ago). Jay crawled up the cobblestones and unlocked the door to the smell of freshly cooked chicken-and-potato soup mixed in with the thrum of an old beatbox and the lingering waft of cigarette smoke.

 

In the attic lights

Voices scream

Nothing's seen

Real's a dream...

 

"Jay?" His father called out from kitchen. "Come get some dinner!"

 

Leaving the things that are real behind

Leaving the things that you love from mind

All of the things that you learned from fears

Nothing is left for the years

 

"I'm fine, Pa."

 

Lights!

Voices scream

Nothing's seen

Real's a dream...

 

"You sure?"

 

Toys, toys, toys... in the Attic

Toys, toys, toys... in the Attic

Toys, toys, toys... in the Attic

Toys, toys, toys... in the Attic

 

He didn't want his father to see his bruised face. He'd put two and two together, call on Brother Locke's door, then refuse to treat his gout any further unless his son got an apology which he would and then a week later Billy Locke would crank the dial on the beatings the second he had another opportunity. "Yeah. Save me some for later."

 

His father assured him that he would. Jay sighed, making his way up the stairs to his room. His door was ajar. I thought I locked this, he thought. Warily, the boy slowly pushed it open and found a bombsite. The white and blue striped bed sheets were unmade, all his drawers were open, his coffee cup had overturned into a shit-coloured stain on his carpet, half his clothes were spilling out of his lacquered oak wardrobe, and his homework from Bible Studies class laid in scattered disarray over his desk. It was a like a typhoon had blown through the place.

 

"What the f-"

 

A hand clamped down around his mouth. Jay gasped. A second hand snatched his thin wrists behind his back and frog-marched him toward the bed. When a sneakered foot kicked his ankles, Jay buckled and fell face down into his pillow, groaning muffled groans through the fingers wrapped around his lips. A heaver body fell on top of him, belly to back, pinning him down, his attacker's hips straddling his ass like a saddle and wrestling him back down the second he tried to buck. When Jay tried to look he got his head shoved back into the pillow. When Jay tried to wriggle free he took a slap to the neck. The extra weight alone now pinned Jay's wrists behind his back, freeing his attacker's other hand as it slowly and deliberately slipped down to the ass-shaped curve of his denims -- to promptly snatch a half-smoked pack of Newports out of the back pocket. Jay shivered as a pair of lips hovered over his ear and whispered...

 

"Holding out on me, Pee-Wee?"

 

Laughing like a lunatic, Parker rolled off Jay's back and landed on the carpet. Jay launched up, furious, his heart thumping in his chest. "Jesus, Parker! That wasn't funny!"

 

"Thought you didn't believe in Jesus," he said between giggles. "Hope my Dad ain't rubbing off on you."

 

"Fuck you," he replied.

 

There was a bulge in Jay's crotch as he climbed off his bed. Parker noticed it. "...Are you hard?"

 

"Parker, fuck off."

 

The older boy grinned. "Is that your fantasy, Pee-Wee? A big fucking dude just breaking into your room one night and ripping your jeans off? Come on, is that what gets you going?"

 

You can be such a fucking dick sometimes, thought Jay. But instead of saying it (or answering his stupid question) he picked up the clothes that Parker had thrown out of his wardrobe in search of his hidden stash of Newports not that Jay blamed him. Between having a father who considered tobacco one of the many `vices' of the old world and their increasing rarity in the new one, cigarettes were a precious commodity now. Just like prison. "Did you have to fuck up my whole room just for that?"

 

"If you don't want me to fuck up your room, don't hide your shit from me."

 

Jay sighed. "Did my Dad let you in?"

 

"No."

There was a rattling sound. Parker muttered "heads up" and threw a small bottle in the air. Jay caught it in his hands. It was Tylenol.

 

"For your headaches," said Parker.

 

"Thanks. Did you trade for them?"

 

"No," If you could break expressions down alchemically then Parker's grin was one of equal parts defiance and stupidity. "Outside."

 

There were lots of rules in Polk. Observe the Ten Commandments, respect the Brothers, protect the Sisters, pay heed to the needs of your neighbour, abstain from obscenity, etc. Sacrosanct above all was one never go beyond the wall without permission. Only Pastor Evans and the Black Bandanas had that authority and they only exercised it when the need arose such as a scouting mission or supply runs. The last person to sneak out was Sister Bright. Her father was dying, and she only went as far as the super mart in the abandoned part of town to fetch medicine for his pain. Pastor Evans was unmoved. Jay vividly remembered the day, two and a half years ago, when the pastor called everyone to the town's square to witness her punishment. "Those who breech the wall from within or without endanger us all," he'd said that day, his voice smouldering over the silent crowd like a thunderhead. "Let no one place themselves in import over any one of God's remaining children on Earth." He then had her flogged twenty lashes and salt.

 

"It ain't as scary as my dad makes out. There ain't even much left out there except-" Parker paused. "What happened to your face?"

 

Jay covered his bruise, reflexively. "Nothing. I fell over."

 

"Like fuck you did," Parker climbed onto his feet. "Show me."

 

Don't get involved, Parker, you'll just make it worse, thought Jay. He didn't want to show him. Insistent, Parker pulled Jay's wrist out of the way so he could see it for himself. Jay watched the older boy's scorching russet brown eyes scrutinize the swollen purple bruise. He flinched when Parker tried to touch it. "Don't. It still hurts."

 

Parker frowned. "Who did that?"

 

"It doesn't matter."

 

Parker still had Jay's wrist in his hand. His grip tightened. "Tell me."

 

It doesn't matter! "...Billy Locke."

 

Parker sneered. He probably knew already without even asking but hearing the name made it real. It was no secret in town that Billy Locke hated both Parker and Jay. It all started two years ago when Danny Mixon's clinic went dry on dressings, morphine and painkillers. Pastor Evans called for a supply run into a hospital on the outskirts of Fort Collins and sent out fifteen Black Bandanas, led by Billy's father, Brother Locke, to replenish their medical supplies. But when the team got there they found a holed-up pocket of well-armed bandits and the run went south. Only Brother Locke and two other Bandanas survived the shootout -- with Locke's right leg blown to pieces by one of their sawed offs. When they returned home to Polk his leg was already gangrenous. Danny had no choice but to amputate.

 

His son Billy had hated them all ever since. But since Pastor Evans was the leader (thus untouchable) and Danny Mixon was the only doctor in town (thus equally untouchable) the only people he could take his anger out on were their sons.

 

"Don't do anything," He didn't say it for Billy's sake but Parker's. Jay was the only one on earth who knew what Parker was capable of when he lost his temper. Jay was the only one who'd seen first-hand the shadows and urges that danced around unbidden in the older boy's mind and if anyone else found out it would ruin them.

 

"I'm so fucking tired of that cunt," Parker muttered. "We should've taken care of him a long time ago."

 

They'd joked about killing him for months (when Parker suggested drowning him in a well Jay suggested slitting his wrists and making it look like a suicide) but only ever half seriously. It was still a small town and bodies were hard to Houdini. But who would ever think it of the pastor's son?

 

"Everyone in this piece of shit town is a fucking cunt," Parker said. "Billy Locke's a fucking cunt. His cripple dad is a fucking cunt. My bible-thumping Dad is a fucking cunt. Everywhere I go, all I see is a fucking cunt."

 

Jay chuckled, swallowing a Tylenol. His headaches would get better soon. "Is there anyone who isn't a cunt?"

 

"You and me," he spat. "Fuck everyone else."

 

Only then did Jay notice something unusual that Parker had his Walkman with him. He'd buckled it to his belt and hung the headphones from his sun-tanned nape. Parker's Walkman was one of only two material possessions that the older boy wouldn't share with anyone, even Jay, and he almost never took it out of his house. It was almost surreal to see him with it. Ever more so when Parker pointed to the bed and told Jay to sit down. He took a seat and glared at Parker as though he'd grown a second head when the older boy placed the headphones around his ears and pressed play.

 

"Are you feeling sick?" Joked Jay.

 

Parker shushed him. "Just listen."

 

Ask yourselves something, my children. It was a black woman's voice, late forties maybe, but professional, like Danny's. It was husky but opulent with a Creole tilt and she spoke with what Jay Mixon could only describe as a sort of belaboured yet earnest passion. It's quarter to twelve and you're going to die at midnight. How are you spending those last fifteen minutes? Ask yourselves that. I know some of y'all think you can try to live like the old world is coming back. It won't. And be grateful that it won't. In the old world, they told us how to live, what to read, who to fuck, when to think. That world was bankrupt. It strangled itself to death on its own antiquated sense of morality. But very soon, we'll all be dead too. We're all just dying cinders now, folks, those precious last sparks of a crumbled pyre. So, I say we enjoy what's left of our light while it lasts. I say we owe it to ourselves to live what's left of our lives freely. No rules, no judgements, no commandments, no grand overseers and dictators. I have people with me who feel the same. We're going south, past the Mexican border. We have land there. Acres and acres and acres of it. Somewhere we can live free. If there's anyone out there, anyone left who shares our beliefs, come join us. Come south with us and help us build a true land of the free. We're waiting. This is Octavia Wilkes, signing off. Good night.

 

The cassette stopped.

 

Jay frowned. "A cult?"

 

"It ain't a cult," Parker snatched his headphones back. "I found the frequency when I was tuning my Dad's radio equipment. It was just there for day and then it was gone. How random is that?" He bit his thumb. "I think we were meant to hear this."

 

"So... you wanna go to Mexico?"

 

"It's better than this shithole! Who could stop us if we really wanted to?"

 

Your dad, thought Jay. "It's a pipe dream. You don't even know how old that message is. Let it go."

 

Something flickered in Parker's eye then. A brief emotion. Hurt. But it was just a flicker, a flicker that disappeared before Jay could spot it. Instead it became something else, a churlish glint of angry humour. "You're a joy fucker," he replied. "You fuck the joy out of everything."

 

Sighing, Parker put his Walkman aside and reclined into Jay's bed. The younger boy watched the older one lower his head to the pillow, kick off his beaten down sneakers, then slipped two Newports between his lips and lit them up with a US ARMY embossed silver zippo.

 

"Grandpa used to call these `nigger smokes'," Jay laid down next to him and took one. "Back before they stopped making them."

 

Parker said nothing. He exhaled a plume of smoke and stared intently at the little sparks of orange light at the tip of the ash.

 

"You said you went outside," said Jay. "...Did you burn anything?"

 

He took another puff. Long and drawn out, with a deep exhale of mentholated smoke. Parker watched the fumes waft into the air with an intensity that something so simple as cigarette smoke didn't deserve. "Don't ask questions if you don't want answers."

 

But he did want the answers.

 

Jay wanted anything and everything Parker had to offer of himself. That's all Jay had ever wanted ever since they were 12 years old. Parker Evans was all of Jay's `wants' wrapped up into a person. He was lean and muscled, the ridges and contours of his chest and stomach sculpted out of the rigorous drills and training his father Pastor Evans submitted him to. His hair was a kinky tarmac-black tangle of curls and whorls, flowering over his ears and forehead like bangs. His eyes were his mother's, molten pools of brown oil, brown like the smatter of freckles over his sharp, narrow nose and bright like the twinkle of his dark grin. Colorado was in the grip of a heat wave and hours of training in the hot sun had turned Parker's skin a faint copper shade that suited him. He was half-Greek on his mother's side and it told in the way his flesh absorbed the sun's rays. If it were up to Jay Mixon he would have spent the rest of his days kissing, licking, sucking and swallowing every inch of that body like ice cream. Parker possessed a kind of dirty, smouldering male beauty that had infatuated Jay for as long as he could remember.

 

He couldn't help it.

 

As he watched Parker watch his own smoke plumes like a child at a playmobile, Jay's cock stiffened out in his denims. He watched the older boy's lips purse and parse nicotine like a beckoning call and found himself leaning in to kiss him.

 

"Don't," said Parker, recoiling. "You know I don't like that."

 

"What do you like?"

 

There was coffee cup on the bedside table. Parker snuffed his cigarette out inside it, put his hands around Jay's shoulders, and pushed him down to the bulge in his crotch. Horny and anxious, Jay bit his lip, and carefully unbuckled Parker's belt, unzipped his shaggy grey pants, pulled down his B&W polka dotted boxers, and watched with drunk fascination as a swollen seven and half inch cock sprung free and wrapped his warm mouth around it.

 

**********

 

Where was I?

 

Let's see. I've briefed you on this dying world and outlined how it got there, then I threw some light on the simpering, theocratic little nook of land where my existence ultimately came into being. Now I suppose it's time to talk about him.

 

Parker Evans.

 

He's the only boy I've ever loved. I can say that without flinching. He is my moon and my sun, as well as the black hole ready suck everything into oblivion. He's a flame. He's the flame. The flame that enchants you, that warms you, that illuminates the way for you the one you can't help but want to play with. But flames burn, no matter how easily you might forget it, no matter how much their pretty dance disguises it.

 

Where did it all start, I wonder?

 

Hard to say, really. I suppose it all started in 2007, when I was ten and Parker was eleven, and after Pastor Evans built the car wall. The Pastor held a meet in the town hall where everyone gathered to discuss Polk's future. I remember him telling them that us kids were Polk's future, and that to ensure our souls as representatives of the town, we had to be baptised not in mere water but in the waters of God's truth. What did this mean? It meant Adam's Cradle, a special teenage creche built for us out of the guts of an old nuclear bunker. Pastor Evans told our parents that to prepare their children for the coming of the rapture, he would sequester us inside this creche and re-educate us in the Word of God. The last of Polk will be its best, as he put it. Some objected, especially my father, but in the end, he took everyone under the age of 15 below the earth. The Pastor called it re-education. Truly? It was just his attempt at brainwashing us.

 

For two years they kept us beneath the earth and indoctrinated us in the Pastor's faith. Six women, school teachers in the old world, took charge of our teaching and care. They forbade us from eating pork and shellfish; we ate only porridge and potatoes and fish. We drank only water. They separated the boys from the girls to teach us our proper roles in life: he as the protector, she as the nurturer. They taught us that America was once God's shining capital on earth until it condemned itself by lapsing into evil; modern man partaking of licentiousness and greed, drugs and sodomy, heathen negro music and atheism and feminism. They taught us to reject modernity and devote ourselves to God and thus be born again. When we emerged from Adam's Cradle, two years later, Pastor Evans proclaimed all 32 of us as the Last Fruit of God and called upon the entire town to swear a holy commitment to our safety. They did. For the next four years they treated we Fruit of God as curious, precious porcelain dolls not to be touched lest we break. And all of Polk was happy to comply because all of Polk was now under the Pastor's thumb. In a world of 300 adults and only 32 children, we children only had ourselves to turn to.

 

But no one ever liked me.

 

I wasn't like the other boys. The Pastor's brainwashing didn't work on me. Somehow, I was still the same kid I was before the Pastor took us all underground and that made me the `weirdo'. And I wasn't strong like Billy Locke. I wasn't fast like Tommy Redwood, or super daring like the Moss twins, or a keen shooter like Shaun Bright, or great with horses like Curtis Stanfield. I was just the `clever' one. And there isn't much call for cleverness in a theocracy. But there was another kid in our group that didn't quite fit. The Pastor's son.

 

Parker was stronger than Billy, almost as fast as Tommy, and WAY more daring than the Moss twins. What Shaun had over him in target practice he made up for in his hand-to-hand, and with the right saddle he could ride just as good as Curtis. But no one liked him either. They couldn't confide in him for the same reason they couldn't pick on him -- because he was the Pastor's son -- so they just left him alone. Fear of the father made the son a pariah -- and that was how we found each other, two stragglers behind the herd.

 

We played together when the others wouldn't play with us. We looked out for each other when the adults were too scared to talk to us. He taught me how to shoot and fish, I let him sleep in my room when his dad beat him. We did everything we could together. Playing, drinking, eating, shooting, studying, cleaning, drying, frying, milking, shearing, plucking, skinning, tanning, etc. Grandpa used to say that we were closer than brothers. And that was how it was for us. Parker was my best friend.

 

But then something changed one day. Parker got cold. Distant. Not suddenly but over time. He came to my house less often, stopped sharing books with me, stopped helping me when we went hunting, he just... ebbed away. When you're that young and something so important gets taken away like that, your mind isn't mature enough to manage that stress or even understand what it's really going through. That was the first time I can recall crying myself to sleep, wondering why and when my best friend started hating me.

 

And then it happened.

 

It was late, 12 or maybe 1am in the morning, and a knock rattled my window. I woke up. It was Parker, shivering in a jeans jacket and cargo shorts. September of 2009, I believe, with a fast encroaching winter. I opened the window and let him in. Didn't ask him why he was ignoring me, didn't tell him how much he was hurting me, I just let him in and asked him if he wanted some of my daddy's cocoa. He had a wicked shiner, a gift from his father's knuckles no doubt, but we didn't talk about it. He only said "no" to the cocoa and asked if they could just "go to bed" like the old days. Even then, after what he did, it didn't occur to me to question him or why. I didn't care. My best friend needed me again. Nothing else mattered. So, I crawled back into my bed and opened the sheets for him. Parker, smiling, joined me. He kept to his side, I kept to mine. We weren't toddlers anymore, after all. We couldn't cuddle each other to sleep like we used to. We were already undergoing the bodily changes my father called puberty (Parker's transition a little faster than mine of course). Things were different now. They were different in a way I didn't comprehend at the time, but in hindsight, they couldn't have been any clearer.

 

I slept only a little bit that night. I got three, maybe four hours rest. I got none after Parker joined me. If he hadn't had his back to me I might've realized he couldn't sleep either. Maybe half an hour after that I drifted off (or at least I was close to it). And then, half-awake and half-asleep, my body jerked with the bed as the weight on it shifted. This rolled me onto my back and then I felt a soft weight depress my chest. I heard something unzip, smelt an odour I now know to be pre-cum, and then, only then, did I open my eyes.

 

It was Parker's cock. Hard, stiff, thin and veiny. I knew a cock when I saw one because for months up until that night I was experimenting with my own (all the Pastor's pablum about the sinfulness of self-pleasure was wasted on me) even though I hadn't cum yet. But I'd never seen someone else's cock before. And I remember stupidly thinking why's it so big? I didn't understand. I didn't understand anything yet.

 

That was why I didn't see it coming.

 

He pinched my nose, hard, nothing playful about it. I couldn't breathe. And the second I opened my lips for a mouthful of air, he thrust his cock straight through them. It wasn't a blowjob. I wasn't in the driver's seat. My throat was a warm wet hole and he fucked it. With one fucking plunge, he went so deep his fucking nut sack slapped me on my chin, and he grabbed my head with both his hands and he groaned this huge, guttural, bestial cry in the darkness. I heard him whisper my name to himself and curse. I only recall my first reaction as... spluttering, gasping for life like a hooked trout; I must have been bug-eyed as all hell. I don't think I was thinking. Looking back on it now, I think my mind did its best to just keep up with it all. I don't even remember how long it lasted. Could have been two minutes, could have been an hour (although it was probably closer to the former). All I really remember after that was confusion and tears.

 

The second he pulled his cock out of my mouth I ran into my bathroom and threw up a mixture of semen, cocoa, chicken noodle soup and bile into the toilet bowl. I wept, caught my breath, and went back to my bedroom, not knowing if Parker was still my friend anymore. But he was already asleep, like nothing had happened. And I was lost. And scared. And I couldn't go back into bed with him, so I slept on the couch downstairs and when I woke up the following morning he was gone.

 

After that, even though we shared all the same classes and chores, we didn't talk to each other for two long months. Those two months were the loneliest of my whole life. We barely looked each other in the eye, and when we did, Parker scrammed. I stopped eating (and dropped what felt like half my weight). Getting up in the morning was like resurrecting myself from the dead. And there was no one to talk to. Under Pastor Evans' law the penalty for sodomites was death by exile. Sometimes I thought about talking to my father and a few times I got close but I always backed out because I knew he wouldn't understand. How could he? And how could I explain something to him that I barely understood myself?

 

I missed Parker.

 

He frightened me, he hurt me, but I still wanted to be around him. And when he stopped talking to me after that night it finally hit me how much I needed him. And I couldn't stop thinking about what he did to me. I could be in the middle of shooting practice out in the fields behind the Wissop Ranch, loading a fresh clip into a 9mm, and my mind would suddenly explode with recollections of that swollen cock jutting back and forth between my lips. I kept seeing it and seeing it and seeing it until it stopped scaring me. It was like my brain just rewired itself and turned black to white. Everything changed. Some nights I fell asleep with tears in my eyes and my hand down my briefs, whispering his name... and remembering. Nightmares of my rape became wet dreams, fear became desire, hatred became longing. I needed him again. And I wanted him back.

 

And so, on the night of November 3rd, 2009, I paid him a visit.

 

Looking back on it now, it was a crazy risk. Climbing up the liana-strewn latticework of the two-storey Evans house and shimmying onto the ledge, wrenching open his bedroom window like a fucking burglar. Parker snuck into my room all the time, but I'd never had the courage to sneak into his not until that night. I found him spread out over the bunk of a remarkably well-kept room, naked from the boxers up, the moonlight burnishing those early contours of muscle he'd grow into so well. He snored like an ox. Just for a moment I stopped, and I watched him. I wondered why I'd ever let it get to the point where he scared me. I wondered if I'd ever get back the time we'd wasted not talking to each other. I wondered if he wanted me just as much as I was starting to want him. The pleasure he took from me, I wanted to give to him freely. I wanted to do things to him his father would kill me for.

 

Something took over me.

 

I knelt by his bedside, hooked my thumbs beneath the band of his boxers and pulled them down. His cock was soft, slung to the left over his growing tuff of coal-coloured pubic hair. The sudden chill woke him up. "J-Jay...?" he mumbled. "Jay, what the fuck...?" He moved to cover himself. "Don't," I said. "Let me do it, I want to. I'll do anything. Just don't ignore me anymore."

 

He was already getting hard again. "You sure?"

 

I was. And I swallowed his cock to prove it.

 

That was how it started. That was how we became something closer than friends or brothers. Blood meant nothing to us. Friendship was a fair-weather concept that couldn't capture our bond. We were the only ones we had in a world where we were the last of our kind. Nothing could keep us apart. I was the only one who saw Parker for Parker, the only moth his flame couldn't incinerate. No one knew or needed him like I did. No one deserved him the way I did. No one could give him what I could. No one could stomach what I could. Only I knew the truth. Parker wasn't just the flame, he was the darkness around it and the oxygen it fed on. He was the evil his father was so desperate to defeat and only I could love him for it.

 

**********

 

Parker was tired that night. He fell asleep almost as soon as he blew his wad and didn't even watch Jay swallow it (which, normally, he was wont to always with a wry, possessive grin). Although disappointed, the younger boy didn't much show it. Instead he allowed himself a sneaky pleasure. Jay rested his head atop Parker's lightly cinnamon-fuzzed chest and luxuriated in his slumbering personhood; his glacial heartbeat and light snore; the pre-scent of nicotine and Coors Light on his breath, the post-scent of spent semen and dry sweat clinging to his body. Jay fell asleep to those things. In his contentment, he imagined what it would be like if he never woke up.

 

But eventually he did.

 

Hours later, Jay awoke into a chill. The window was ajar, the now cold Coloradan air crisp and biting; his sheets balled up at the other end of the bed. And Parker was gone. Jay looked around but found only the midnight shadows of his furniture keeping him company. His backpack's still here, thought Jay. So, he didn't go home. Which wouldn't have been like him. Parker almost never went home without telling Jay first. Curious (and concerned) Jay slid out of his bed into a pair of black denims and one of his father's old Def Leppard t-shirts, laced up his sneakers, then went looking for his friend throughout the house. But he couldn't find him, not in the kitchen nor the bathroom nor the lounge. Where was he?

 

Unless... a cold thought crept into his mind. Jay quietly scrambled up the stairs and back into his bedroom (wary of waking his father). He did have that look in his eye... Shutting the door behind him, Jay went to his desk, unzipped Parker's backpack, and withdrew something from it, something more precious to him than even his Walkman. A 300-page ledger encased in hardback leather, beaten and worn down, its pages browning at the edges where Parker's sooty fingers turned them. He called it the Cook Book and he didn't share its secrets with anyone, not even with Jay. But (and not for the first time) Jay read it anyway, jumping straight to the list.

 

The East barn. D'alonzo's Mill. My Dad's car. Mr. Sparkles. The treehouse. The neighbour's treehouse.

 

The names were all crossed off, and none of them had been there the last time Jay read it, all except one.

 

Billy Locke's Old House.

 

He's gone outside! Jay was on his feet before he even realized it, running down the stairs and around the corner into the tiled kitchen then out through the iron barred back door to the yard. Where there was a yard post to which they chained their bikes, there was only Jay's Schwinn. Parker's Litespeed was gone. A wheel-shaped trail led out of his yard by its rear gate and ran down the footpath carving up the allotment gardens between the neighbouring townhouses, before cornering into the main street. What the fuck are you doing, Parker? Thought Jay as he unchained his bike and followed the trail.

 

All of Polk, aside from a scant few Black Bandanas manning the wall and patrolling the streets, was asleep. Although there was no curfew under Pastor Evans' rule, his men exercised the right to question the Fruit of God when they were out late at night ("for their own protection", it might have been said) and escort them back to their homes if caught without a valid reason. Jay kept himself mindful of this when he saw a Black Bandana on patrol up ahead, and ducked behind an abandoned mailbox for cover. When the coast was clear he cycled his way up the lane from the townhouses and across the empty square, pass the Black Bandana's barracks and the central watchtower towards the stickball field on the northern part of town, where the shorn grass met the main road into town and converged with the car wall via the main gate. Parker's trail led off road across the pitch to a dip in the surface, a trench between two knolls passing for a dugout, where the older boy's Litespeed sat abandoned.

 

Why did he leave his bike...? As he asked himself this, a beam of light passed around the edge of the knoll, moving in a concentric circles and around again. One glance behind him and he spotted two Black Bandanas manning the central watchtower, flashing their torches at the fields in search of intruders. Mindful of them, Jay stashed his bike with Parker's and escaped down the dugout to a tall patch of grass that he carefully made his way through, crawling on his belly and his elbows until the beams of light couldn't reach him. Where they met their extent, the wall began.

 

The wall was an ugly, imposing thing. Nearly three yards high, a twisted mish-mash of cars, motorbikes, vans, RVs and trucks all collided together and sealed up at the gaps with cement, plywood and scrap metal. Spools of barbed wire and shards of broken glass lined the top, making it difficult to scale. But somehow, someway, Parker found a weakness. A hole. The tall grass hid it well, and it was only small enough for teenagers to fit through, but a hole was a hole.

 

Jay crawled through it.

 

The outside world was a living bogeyman to those whom Pastor Evans called the Fruit of God. He taught them to fear anything and everything that originated from beyond the wall because in his mind it frothed with the sins responsible for spawning the Global Fertility Crisis, and it could easily infect them if they weren't careful. He ensured that that lesson burrowed its way into the brains of his wards. Maybe that was why kids like Billy Locke were so comfortable in Polk (easy to crown yourself king when someone reduces your world to a pond) but for kids like Parker, the wall was a noose, slowly strangling you. Jay didn't blame Parker for wanting to escape. Not at all.

 

Jay felt a sharp pain along his thigh crawling through the tunnel beneath the wall, he but didn't notice it until he emerged on the other side. Instead he climbed up from his knees and, for the first time in his life, beheld the outside world from the wrong side of the wall. It was just the other half of Polk; townhouses, fields, barns and stables, paved roads becoming dirt tracks; but derelict. It was like a reflection in a cracked mirror, similar but broken. Trash wafted across the streets. Homesteads stripped of all their precious possessions rotted from the rafters down and weeds sprouted from gaps in the tarmac. His blood dripped on it.

 

What the...? On his way through the tunnel something sharp had slice open his denims from knee to thigh, and a bloody gash dripped red. Fuck! The cut wasn't deep but it was painful, hard to walk on. He considered (for a moment) turning back home but he knew that he couldn't go back without Parker.

 

12:20am, Jay reflected, checking his watch. Sun up was a long way away, and the guards on the nearest watchtower were already switching shifts. There hadn't been a bandit attack in months and they were getting lazy, even Jay knew that. They wouldn't be hard to sneak past whilst it was still dark. So, keeping to the shadows of abandoned cars and dumpsters arrayed around the central road into the main gate, Jay hobbled off into the empty, broken half of the town in search of his friend. He wasn't hard to find. The night air was cold and crisp easily carrying the scent of smoke. Jay followed that smell down a row of crumbling houses to a turn off by the old Corner Mart (the one his Dad used to work at when he was a kid). It was a narrow side street caught between the Mart and a diner that ended in a kind of cul-de-sac at the back wall of a two-storey warehouse. There was a fire ladder suspended from the roof. When Jay looked up he saw the smoke plume looming over it. Why does he like heights so much?

 

Reluctantly, and gingerly, Jay went up the ladder, one foot after the other, until he reached the top, where the smoke clouds rolled overhead, and the snapping flames lashed at the air. And that was where he found Parker a silent teenage buddha sat at the edge of the rooftop, legs folded beneath him, palms pressed into his lap -- watching a townhouse burn to ash across the street. Billy Locke's old house. Parker gazed upon the spectacle with wide-eyed madness, entranced into delirium. Like some retarded child smashing insects with a rock, he marvelled at his handiwork like it was the axis of a universe, even as the soot blackened his face and the flames climbed high enough to spot from the watchtowers at the wall. He didn't care. When Parker burned things, he went into a different space and time, into a higher dimension where Jay and all the rest of humanity couldn't follow. But Jay still had the power to bring him back.

 

"Parker," Said Jay. "Parker, it's me. We gotta go. Parker!"

 

"...Jay...?" It took him a moment. Eventually though, the older boy looked back over his shoulder with dilated eyes and a crooked smile. It was as clear a face of insanity as Jay would ever see right before he snapped out of it and returned to this world, the true world, the world of shit.

 

**********

 

Parker told me it first started in Adam's Cradle, six years ago.

 

"It was my ninth birthday," he'd said, in one of those rare nights he was willing to talk to me about his feuerlust. "Remember when my Dad came in the bunker with a cake? I asked him about my Mom and he told me not to worry, I would see her when I was ready."

 

What he didn't know then, what we'd only find out once we left Pastor Evans' creche-like prison, was that his mother, Sister Christabella Evans, was dead. It was a random day for her, they said. That day she didn't do anything she didn't normally do the same routine all of Polk's wives maintained -- making breakfast, washing linens, tending the garden, fetching water, collecting her daily rations, etc. She ended that day with a cocktail of Tylenol, co-codamol and aspirin.

 

No one was willing to say it but most people in town knew why she was tired of her husband's fists. Whenever my father spoke to me about Sister Evans, it was always with a sad look in his eye; him shaking his head and recalling all the times he'd treated her fractured ribs and black eyes. Out of respect for his new wife, Sister Mary-Elizabeth Anderson-Evans, and out of fear of the Pastor, the town didn't talk about her much those days.

 

The fires started shortly after Parker's ninth birthday.

 

It was small things at first. Burnt toys in the sink or a bunch of drawings torched inside a waste bin. Those little mysteries popped up every few days or so. The sisters found it odd and disturbing but didn't seem to take it too seriously at first not until Sister Johnson's room went up in flames. I remember that night so well. We were all sleeping in our cots when Pastor Evans roared "FIRE!" and woke us all. He ordered us to join hands so he could take us from the sleeping room to the lunch room (where it was safe). We obeyed. But the sister's rooms weren't far from ours, so we saw the fire on the way out and what a fucking sight. Tongues of flame lashing out of the doorway, thick black smoke rolling out along the low ceiling, blackened rubble spat across the threshold. It was the first truly scary thing I ever saw, and I was holding Parker's hand at the time, so I just looked at him to make sure he was okay.

 

That look in his eye...

 

Infatuation wears itself noticeably on a human face. Parker, a boy of nine at the time, gazed into those flames with a passion that verged on the primal, some distinct urge tracing its way back in time to a cave-dwelling past where flint tools made the magical sparks that cooked our food and kept us warm and lit our way. His fixation with the flames was something ancient and terrible. Me being eight years old at the time I couldn't wrap my head around it yet but I was smart enough to know that Parker was responsible.

 

When Pastor Evans and the sisters got the fire under control with some old extinguishers, they inspected the room and found a pack of Newports underneath Sister Johnson's bed. Cigarettes were forbidden in the Cradle (for obvious reasons smoking wasn't such a hot idea in a converted nuclear bunker). Although she denied it, the consensus was she that she (somehow) was responsible and she was stripped of her duties in the creche. When the Fruit of God were released from Adam's Cradle and I was reintroduced to my father, one of the first things I asked him was "where is Sister Johnson?" He didn't end up telling me the truth until I was a bit older that Pastor Evans had had her tried in the courthouse. The sentence was thirty lashes and salt then execution by exile and no one had seen her since.

 

The fires continued outside of Adam's Cradle.

 

They began, in large scale, the day Pastor Evans took his son to his mother's grave. That day ended with the night that the old library went up in smoke. Soon after that, someone threw a lit match into the old mail box in front of Brother and Sister Locke's new townhouse. After that, the message board by Pastor Evans' chapel. A telephone pole here, an outhouse there every three weeks to a month (but never more than that) for almost six years, creating a feeding ground for rumours amongst us Fruit of God -- rumours of an evil creature named `Pumpkinhead' who rose from the depths of hell to terrorise Polk with his sinful pyromancy. The adults weren't as stupid as we were they knew there was an arsonist, a mortal arsonist; yet none of them were smart enough to connect the dots. And I wasn't willing to rat out my best friend.

 

In the back of my mind I always knew it was him. I couldn't prove it, but I knew it. Because I knew him. You'd find too many empty matchboxes in the garden near his home, or spent Zippos and kindling hoarded in his attic with his father's old radio gear. To me the only mystery was how his father couldn't piece it together. Then one night, maybe two or three weeks prior to night he first force fed me his cock, curiosity got the better of me. When Parker was passed out from the vodka he'd stolen from his father's hidden stash beneath the chapel cellar, I went through his backpack, the one he wouldn't let me touch. That was when I found his `Cook Book'.

 

The way my father first describes reading `Catcher in the Rye', I'm sure that's how I felt.

 

The Cook Book was a ledger of Parker Evans' pyromania. Inside it he kept clippings of old newspaper reports of local fires in Denver and Boulder, lists of different things around town he'd burned (some I knew of, some I didn't) and lists of things he'd like to burn. In one passage, he went into tremendously misspelled detail about burning Sunflower, his step-mom's pet tabby cat; how it screamed and squealed when he set its tail on fire, how it chased itself around until it put the fire out -- forcing Parker to hold it down and put a lighter to its neck. He described the charring of the fur and the blackening of its flesh, the seizing up of its ligaments in death, the salt taste in the air, everything about it. That was when I understood the depths of the darkness that existed in Parker Evans' heart.

 

But I still wanted my place there.

 

It should have horrified me. He should have disgusted me. In the old world, they locked people like him away in mental asylums, didn't they? Shouldn't I have told my father or Pastor Evans? If he was willing to watch and document his immolation of a cat how long before his `experiments' graduated to human test subjects? But I didn't care. I didn't want to care.

 

...No.

 

That's not true.

 

I did care. Parker's darkness was his darkness. And I wanted him, everything and anything, mind and body. He was not like other people, but... `person-like'. He was different, a being from a lower plane approximating humanity as best as he could. And I loved him for it.

 

He wouldn't admit the truth to me for another year, on some random night when Parker snuck into my room with another black eye and I cheered him up the way I always did, unzipping him and sucking him dry. We fell asleep together, like we tended to. And then...?

 

"Pee-Wee?" he said.

 

"Yeah?"

 

He paused. "I'm Pumpkinhead."

 

**********

 

      Thanks for reading! Comments and constructive criticism are always welcome, feel free to e-mail me at stephenwormwood@yahoo.com.

      Please see my other story on Nifty, Wulf's Blut (gay/sf-fantasy).