**********

 

2. POLK, part 2

 

**********

 

Fear not of men because men must die

Mind over matter and soul before flesh

Angels hold a pen, keep a record in time

Which is passin' and runnin' like a caravan trader

The world is overrun with the wealthy and the wicked

But God is sufficient in disposal of affairs...

 

Mos Def

(Yasiin Bey)

 

**********

 

"Not so bad, is it, Pee-Wee?"

 

There was a rusty faucet in a nearby car lot that still had some water running. Parker ran a thin trickle to scrub his face and hair clean of the soot. Jay watched him from the shadows of Brother Daniels' broken-windowed old butchery. The moonlight was strong enough to burnish the sparkles of water rolling off Parker's freckled neck.

 

Ignoring the stiffness in his pants, Jay agreed. "No, not really. It's kind of cool actually."

 

"My Dad's always had a mouthful of shit," Parker gargled some water and spat out black phlegm. "And those fucking dummies in town just eat it up. We're not sheep like them, Jay."

 

There was a rag in Parker's back pocket. He wet it, tossed it to Jay, and told him to wipe the ash from his face too. If the smoke of the blaze rose high enough to spot from the watchtowers then the Black Bandanas almost certainly knew about it, but since they hadn't come out to investigate, Parker reasoned that they would dismiss it as a forest fire and leave it be. Still, it didn't help to go home caked in evidence. Years and years of unstopped fire-setting had made an escape artist of old Pumpkinhead.

 

"You know what Octavia Wilkes says?" Parker grinned. "She says `if we can't share what's left of the new world with the people who still want to live in the old one, then leave them behind'. You think she's wrong?"

 

Jay sighed. "You're still thinking about Mexico?"

 

"Come on! You know she's right! All of us are gonna be dead soon and after that there's nothing. Nothing! No hell, no heaven, just nothing. You wanna spend the rest of our lives pretending to be good Christian boys doing chores and going to church on Sunday? We're probably the only ones left in this whole fucking world still doing that! Fuck Polk. And fuck my father. Let's go to Mexico, Jay. Me and you."

 

What about my Dad? Jay thought. He didn't dare say it out loud lest Parker call him a pussy. But the thought remained. What about Danny Mixon? Jay didn't hate Danny the way Parker hated Pastor Evans. For a time, he did; when Pastor Evans sequestered all of Polk's remaining children inside Adam's Cradle. A sense of betrayal and abandonment ran like a nerve through Jay's mind back then. But once he and the other Fruit of God returned to town to begin their schooling and chores, Danny Mixon made it his business to ensure that his son had a secondary (and truer) education in the shadow of the first. Sister Kinnoch taught him that God created the world in seven days, but his father taught him that the universe came into existence via a distant event known as the Big Bang.

 

His father taught him evolution, and that human history began not with the Garden of Eden but with a dispersal of Palaeolithic peoples from Africa thousands of years ago, that they developed stone tools and controlled fire until a revolution to place, one from hunter-gatherer to agricultural subsistence. Villages formed and warred and traded with one another upon the domestication of horses and the invention of the wheel, until certain villages became towns and certain towns became cities and certain cities became civilizations with the temperance of metals – first of copper then of iron. As the pharaohs raised pyramids in Egypt, Akkad split into Assyria and Babylon and would war for centuries until their successors the Persians built a vast empire and clashed with Greece. The ambitious project of a great Macedonian king would fail, succeeded in spirit only by a city-state turned empire known as Rome, Rome that spread the roads of civilization from Britannia to the Levant, Rome that collapsed under the weight of its own greatness and split in two, east and west. As east became Byzantium and the west fell to the Germanic tribes, Christianity began to spread. The Merovingians united the Franks until usurpation by the Carolingians, foremost of all Charlemagne, who took resurrected the ambition of Rome in the west as the Vikings ranged as far as the Americas and the Umayyads overran Hispania. Christianized kings ruled over the feudal lords who ruled over the manorial poor who prayed to the same God that begat them their lowly state. Christendom failed to retain the Holy Land but reconquered Spain; Genoa and Venice and Pisa began the prototypical web-work of international trade even as famine and Black Death ran wild across Europe. But time delivered an aesthetic outburst of creativity, the renaissance, that spread from Italy outward, as the increasingly corrupt church split itself into two with the rise of Martin Luther – Catholic and Protestant. This was a division that would disrupt the European project for centuries to come even as England thwarted Spain's dominion over the new world yet lost that half that world to the rebellious state known as America. America, a new Rome in the West, built on the bones of its native race and by the sinew of unwilling African labour; a slave society of liberty birthed in the backdrop of an increasingly enlightened Europe ungirded by revolution in France. A king fell and, later, an emperor known as Napoleon attempted again the work of Caesar, revolutionizing law and war only to fall to European coalition, leaving behind a modern world. With no powers left on earth its equal, an industrializing Great Britain created an empire upon which the sun never set. It took the Queen's colours to China and India, Africa and Australasia, to the Caribbean and the arctic, gave the world the steam engine and the concentration camp, until Germany, reunified and imperious with a Kaiser at the helm, attempted to catch up to the British in the great game of imperialism and shook the balance of power. As various European nations scrambled into a series of complicated pre-emptive alliances amidst the arms race, a single assassination in Sarajevo plunged the entire world into four years of chaos. This Great War, not the last of its kind, destroyed the Ottomans, re-drew the maps of the world, led to the downfall of the Tsars and the birth of communism, as well as the rise of Japan and America as world powers. A league of nations formed to prevent such a calamity from ever happening again -- but its failure to promote disarmament, its failure to coax America to the table, and its failure to stop Japan's withdrawal over Manchukuo, led to its demise. A cunning little moustachioed despot, embittered by Germany's humiliation at the Treaty of Versailles and resentful of his Jewish neighbours, took heed of this, and transformed first his party then his nation into the penultimate enemy of the world. The threat of Nazism in the west and the dangers of Japanese ultra-nationalism in the east finally drew America to the fore – and the whole world once again plunged into the madness of war. When the dust settled, and an exhausted Europe laid down its arms, the once great British Empire began a long and slow process of decline as global power shifted towards two ideologically opposed poles – capitalist America and communist USSR. Their long cold war, frozen in stalemate by the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction, determined the makeup of decolonization, the fate of the Eastern Bloc, as well as the shape of economics to come.

 

If the Global Fertility Crisis hadn't doomed the world from 1988 onwards – who knows what would have happened next?

 

But of course, history couldn't be that simple.

 

What was going on in Africa when Rome fell? What was China like before the Han dynasty? Why did he know so little about the Aztecs and the Incas? Those were questions Jay always wanted to answer – and those questions made him inquisitive and questioning. His father gave him that -- the ability to question, the freedom to think for himself. It was why he didn't buy into Pastor Evans' religious bullshit the way everyone else in Polk did. Parker was immune to it too, but his reasons were personal – and it was natural for strong sons to rebel against strong fathers. Jay had no muscle or fortitude or hidden grudges; just a secret education that made him sceptical of zealots.

 

How could he abandon his father?

 

"What if it's just us?" Jay said. "What if we went to Mexico and we were the only ones who believed it?"

 

"Well what if we stay here and my Dad ends up lynching us?" Parker shot back. If Pastor Evans knew even a fraction of what Jay knew about his son, Parker was a dead man. And Jay wouldn't be too far behind.

 

Just a few yards to their east, the flames unfurling around the old Locke townhouse finally ebbed, after chewing through the ceiling and rooftop (which collapsed inside itself). The building burnt down to its very foundations, leaving nothing behind except a blackened, smoked-out husk and the molten piles of rubble that once were furniture, photo frames, and glass. The smoke rose high over the horizon. Parker reasoned you could see it for a mile out at least – that meant it was time to get going. Once they were clean, the older boy proposed they take a shortcut through the southern part of the old town – one that led to a second breach in the wall that only he knew about. But as Jay stood to leave his whole body seized up from the thigh. He seethed through clenched teeth.

 

"What's the matter?" Asked Parker.

 

"I cut my leg coming out of the tunnel," said Jay.

 

Parker ordered Jay to show him. He turned to his side and prised open the split part of his denims. The younger boy watched the older one stare at his gash. "You got it dirty," he said. "Clean it up and bandage it before it gets infected."

 

"Bandage it with what?"

 

Parker grinned, pointing his thumb over his shoulder to the north. "Come on, let's take a detour."

 

We've already been outside for so long... Thought Jay. "Can't we just go home?"

 

Parker was already on the move. "You can't walk all the way back home on a bum leg, you'll slow me down. Come on, let's stop at the old drug store on 5th. It ain't too far."

 

The drug store was where Sister Johnson used to work before Pastor Evans selected her and the six other `sisters' of Polk for Adam's Cradle. Jay found it hard to walk. "It's stiff," he said, referring to his leg. Parker growled in annoyance then came back, roping Jay's arm around his shoulder. "Hussle it up," he said, marching the pair of them up the street towards the corner at 5th. Jay hid a grin. He didn't like feeling like a burden, but he'd take any excuse to have Parker touch him (even if it was just this, rib to rib and arm to neck).

 

The old drug store of the Johnson Family was on the corner of 5th and Main, which led northeast all the way up to Route 87. Like other stores in the abandoned part of town it was derelict, stripped of all its worth in supplies and useful materials. But unlike other stores the Black Bandanas boarded this one up with plywood. They smashed in the glass doors and replaced them with nailed wood and tore down the big neon sign that once said, "Johnson's Druggist". Pastor Evans was very keen to make sure no one knew this was once a drug store.

 

"My Dad writes up notes on everything he does and locks them in a safe," Said Parker, fishing out a pair of keys. "I take his keys off him when he's asleep though. I know all his shit, Jay. He hid a fucking stash of meds out here just in case the town got ransacked again."

 

Jay helped remove one of the boards barring the rear door that Parker then unlocked. The store was a wreck from within. Cobwebs covered the cracked ceiling; needles, trash and empty drug bottles littered the floor. All the shelves were empty. The Black Bandanas had done a very good job of picking them clean. Jay followed behind Parker as the Evans boy took out a battery torch from his pocket and led him inside. A faint beam of yellow light criss-crossed around the empty aisles, as syringes and old pills crunched beneath their sneakers.

 

"Back in the day, the soldiers used to sneak down here from the garrison at the high school and snort," said Parker. "Sister Johnson's mom used to whore with `em. All the coke is gone though, my Dad burned it."

 

They went past the front counter where the open cash register still had a few dollars inside and turned left down the front aisle to the office door. Parker unlocked it. Squeaking mice scurried away as it creaked open. A beam of torch light passed across a broken lampshade, an overturned bookcase and a fractured oak desk. Across the floor were papers torn from the business' books and scattered out like a mosaic. Parker flashed the light at a spot in the corner where the floorboards looked noticeably loose.

 

"Hold the light for me," he said.

 

Jay took it from him and held it in place as Parker went over to the spot and prised open each loose plank, one by one, and yanked out a mahogany suitcase. He paused.

 

"What' wrong?" Asked Jay.

 

"The combination lock is broken," Parker opened it easily. "And there's stuff missing. Paracetamol, bactine, Nyquil, the tranquilizers... fuck! Maybe someone else knows about my Dad's stash?"

 

"Can we just get out of here, please?"

 

"Fine, Pee Wee. There's still some dressings left anyway. Here," Parker tossed Jay a roll of sterilized medical wrapping, still inside its plastic bag. When Parker put the suitcase back, Jay gave him the torch then pulled his blue jeans down to wrap the dressing tight around his cut thigh. It still hurt but it wasn't bleeding, at least. His Dad would stitch him up once they got back home. Jay bent over to pull up his pants. The torchlight fell over his crotch and sparkled up the little fuzz of ginger pubic hair spreading out of his white briefs.

 

"What are you doing?" Said Jay.

 

There was a devilish grin in the darkness. "Don't."

 

"Don't what?"

 

"Don't pull them back up," said Parker. "Turn around."

 

Is he serious? "You wanna fuck here? Now?"

 

With his free hand he pointed at a rolled up sleeping mat in the corner behind the overturned desk. It was clean, which meant it was Parker's – which also meant he'd been sleeping out here from time to time. "We've got hours before sun up and no one knows we're here. Turn around."

 

"Let's do it back home where it's safer to-"

 

Parker's expression hardened. "I said turn around."

 

Jay felt the heat rise to his cheeks. Parker was serious. Finding weird places to fuck was never his thing (the risks were too big, no matter whose son he was) but then hearing the word "no" wasn't really his thing either. Sighing, and with his belt and jeans around his ankles, Jay turned his back to Parker. He kept his arms at his sides. The cold night air brought the Goosebumps out of his skin. His cock got stiff.

 

Parker's voice went low and husky. "Take off your briefs."

 

Jay hooked his thumbs into the elastic band and pulled them down his legs to his ankles. His manhood swung free and hard. Already, he smelt his own pre-cum in the air. And before he Parker even asked him to do so Jay bent over, eyes to the ground, and reached behind with both hands to spread his ass open. The pink bud of his asshole puckered and contracted in the torchlight. Behind him, Parker's footsteps drew closer, until he heard Parker's jeans unzip, and felt the outline of a stiff cotton-encased dick slide up the groove between his cheeks.

 

Something banged at the front doors. Jay and Parker froze. Seconds later came another bang, this one much louder than the first, followed by the sound of smashing wood and a loose door banging against a wall. And then voices; gruff, unfamiliar voices. The two boys scrambled, Jay yanking his underwear and jeans back on, Parker shutting off his torch and ducking behind the doorway to see what was going on. Jay followed him. They saw two men walk through the front door on the other side of the store. One, a red-bearded fatso in a Nike hat; the other a tall and shaggy-haired blonde -- both armed with sawed offs and waist belts full of 12-gauge shells; both wore full backpacks bulging with supplies. They barrelled in, overturning a fallen chair in their way and muttering to each other about a man named Wuhrer.

 

"He said they've got muscle but they're mostly green," said the blonde on. "Said he was gonna find a pretext for a parley to throw them off."

 

Shit! 55ers! Thought Jay.

 

Parker turned to Jay and gestured "shush!" with a finger to his lips, pointing at a tin hatch on the floor. Jay glanced at it, it was the door to a crawlspace beneath the store. Understanding the point, Jay nodded then carefully made his way across the room in small, creeping steps.

 

"Well I don't understand why we don't just storm the place. They got... what? Fuckin' half our number handy with a firearm? Why's he fucking runnin' scared from a bunch of Bible-thumpers?"

 

Jay prised the hatch open by his fingertips and slid in, making space for Parker to join him inside. Once he'd put the suitcase back beneath the loose floorboards the older boy followed him inside then fixed the hatch shut. They heard the office door's knob rattle.

 

"That's weird," said the red-beard.

 

"What's weird?"

 

Two pairs of thick heavy footfalls rapped the floor, the ceiling above their heads. Jay and Parker wrapped hands around their mouths. Through the hatch door they saw beams of thick torchlight wave across the room. "I thought I threw on the lock the last time I left," he replied.

 

"Thought you broke it?"

 

Jay felt something furry tickle his ankle. He flinched (and Parker glared, they were close enough in the darkness to catch each other's eye) but he didn't give them away. A little squeak wondered off from his feet into the distance of the crawlspace.

 

"Nah, just picked it. Goddamn it, Clavis. Quit malingering and help me get the meds."

 

Parker pointed upward. Jay nodded, understanding the implication ("they're directly above our heads!") and following his friend when he moved aside a few steps to stay out of view from the hatch door. The pair above them were not as careful, telegraphing their clunky movements with each step. The floorboards groaned where the extra weight stopped, and they were equally as loud as they pulled up the boards and retrieved Pastor Evans' med stash, thumbing open the locks.

 

"The fuck?"

 

"What?"

 

"There's no Tylenol, no dressings, no tranquilizers, half the fucking stash is missing!"

 

**********

 

I suppose now is a good time to talk about the 55ers.

 

My father said it started with the militia movement in the early 1990s, about half a decade before the birth rates flatlined and America went on the slow train to implosion. "The leak of the Hamilton Study in 1991 shook a lot of people's faith in the government," he'd said. "Back then, people couldn't believe that the higher ups would try to hide something so big from them. It fermented a wave, a wave that Pat Buchanan rode all the way from the McLaughlin Group to the White House."

 

The angry cynicism fuelling the late `90's protests had earlier origins. Fears over the Global Fertility Crisis fused with older conversations and became national talking-points as the reality of the crisis finally hit home for America -- if the birth-rates really were declining then what did it mean for traditional America to leave the door open for immigrants or to promote miscegenation? How could you preserve the American birth rate if you sanctioned gay rights? Why was the state better equipped than the states to bring the country back from the brink when the state had spent so much of its resources on pointless foreign jaunts; deposing Noriega and kicking the Iraqis out of Kuwait and the like? Why was that America's job? Running on those themes helped Buchanan secure the nomination from incumbent George H. W. Bush and later defeat the Democrat candidate, Bill Clinton, in a narrow but decisive victory in the US Presidential Election of 1992, Republicans retaining both the House and the Senate.

But there were people out there who felt that electing President Buchanan wasn't enough.

 

To them, Republicans and Democrats were just two sides of the same coin. To them, beating the system by playing its game was a non-starter, or in the words of my Grandpa Mixon; "a demon trying beat the devil in a fork-throwing contest". To them, you didn't fight Roe v Wade in the courts, you fought it in the clinics. Thus, when Senate Minority Leader George Mitchell led a Democrat blockade of every single piece of legislation President Buchanan proposed to re-write the course of American social policy, those people felt vindicated. So? What's left for you after a broken state handicaps the states? Nothing's left -- except yourself.

If real America wanted change then it was up to real Americans to make it. If there was an infection deep in the heart of their country, then it was up to America's truest patriots to excise it. That was the unifying philosophy driving the militia movement of that era and it swelled their ranks to the hundreds of thousands in all 50 states over the course of a decade. They proliferated arms and retreated into privately owned compounds where they performed combat drills and drafted plots of a new American Revolution. They were a powder keg. And they went off in two stages, between the assassination of President Buchanan in 1997 and the flatline of global births in 1998. That was when all the angst and anger exploded in violence, when the firebombings of federal buildings and abortion clinics became a common occurrence, when state senators were routinely assassinated and known homosexuals were lynched in the streets. But not everyone was in favour of pro-active violence. These more moderate militiamen retreated from urban life to create small self-run localities they called Constitutional Communes, where they could `observe the true principles of the United States Constitution without threat of government interference'. This created a rift in the movement – the Revanchists advocating terrorism in the name of national rebirth and Reservationists declaring the sanctity of local autonomy and the right to self-defend.

 

If not for the Occupation that rift might never have healed.

 

When the government deployed the military to quell the unrest and recapture lost territory, the militias responded by creating an informal covenant, a union of sorts. According to the articles in those last few months before the total demise of American media, the leaders of over two-thirds of all US militias gathered together in a secret meeting in Cheyenne (the first and only city the militias ever took and held from the state). As the founding fathers once did they drew up a set of unifying principles known as the Pledge to Reaffirm the True Values of the Constitution, the PRTVC or `Cheyenne Pledge', and declared themselves the Fifty-Five Thousand Army, a union of over 55,000 separate militia groups and factions. When the Occupation ended and left a gutted America in its wake, so far as Polk knew, there was no known power left in America that carried the weight of the 55ers. They had weapons, armour, notoriety and worst of all conviction in a very simple goal – to build a new and true America before God took the last generation of humanity home to the hereafter – and thereby proving their holy worth.

 

That was what they claimed, anyway.

 

Although Polk always turned away roamers, their stories occasionally snuck into town; stories about what was happening to the rest of America. Some said that the 55ers were a band of ruthless cutthroats. Others said that they were heroes struggling to rebuild what remained of American civilization. But back then, it wasn't the 55ers that scared me. Cheyenne was their Mecca and there were more drifters flowing to it than from it. What scared me was the world that those former people were running away from – the world that Parker wanted us to cross to get to Mexico. What was that world like if its survivors saw a city run by those nutjobs as a safe haven? But even back then, when we knew so little about what was going on outside Polk's wall, we knew that the 55ers were dangerous.

 

Parker and I kept silent in that crawlspace as the two militiamen cleared out the suitcase full of meds and worked out how they would "explain this" to the leader of their group, Wuhrer. They didn't leave until sunrise. We tried to hoof it back to Polk before we anyone realized we were gone but we were too late. Halfway down the highway, a F-150 XL cut us off. A search party of six Black Bandanas (Brothers Le Charles, Moss, Ridgley, Hosta, Chamberlain and Stanfield) led by Pastor Evans himself, leapt out of the pick-up truck. We were caught.

 

Polk is my childhood.

 

And that moment, that cold morning in March, was the beginning of my childhood's end.

 

**********

 

It was cold out, that night.

 

Jay sneezed. His nose turning red in the chill. "You look like Rudolph!" quipped Brother Daniels, who climbed up to the top of the watchtower with two mugs of hot cocoa in hand – one for him and one for young Jay. And he was grateful for it. It was unusually cold that night, so cold that half the town's windows had frosted over. The cold bit into his boots and froze his toes, it turned every breath into an icy cloud. It was the coldest night since winter.

 

"Thank you," said Jay.

 

He sipped some cocoa then he pulled his coat's fur-trimmed hood tighter around his ears. Brother Daniels sat himself on the plastic patio chair next to Jay's wooden stool. The older man took two big gulps before setting it down and picking up his PSG-1. He settled the stock into a comfortable grip by his shoulder. "Did you see anything while I was gone?"

 

"Nothing," said Jay. "Just some stray dogs."

 

"Good. But keep your eyes peeled. Guard duty ain't the gig folks make it out to be."

 

An easy one, thought Jay. Amongst the Fruit of God, the sentiment was that guard duty was one of the most boring chores ever – which it was. The shifts were long (anywhere from 6 to 12 hours) and the punishment for falling asleep at your post was a lashing and a month-long reduction in rations. No one liked guard duty. So, when the annoyingly kittenish Sister Kinnoch assigned him to the eastern watchtower with Brother Daniels for the rest of the week, Jay knew it was part of his punishment. At the end of his shift he'd only get a few hours' sleep before rising at sun up for lessons and even then, he'd have to report to the schoolhouse an hour early to help Sister Kinnoch set up for class. The consensus was that Jay had gotten off easy – in the past Pastor Evans had whipped people for going outside without permission – but it didn't feel that way. What was worse was that he hadn't seen Parker in three days. That was what really hurt.

 

Three long days since Parker breeched the wall to burn the old Locke townhouse and Jay hadn't seen him. No one had seen him. Pastor Evans didn't even allow his son to attend lessons – instead he was under lock and key in the great house where he and Sister Mary-Elizabeth Anderson-Evans lived. Jay felt like he was walking around with lead in his chest. It was the longest he'd ever gone without seeing Parker in years. He hated it! And he hated Pastor Evans for it.

 

It's not fair, Jay buried his face nose deep into his arms as he folded them around his knees. It's not fucking fair at all.

 

"YAHOOOOOOOO!"

 

It came from below, along with the roar of a revved hog and the crack of a gunshot into the night. Brother Daniels shot up out of his seat and loomed over the iron rail, Jay joined him. On the other side of the wall in the wrecked part of town and two blocks shy of the main gate, two men rode down the cracked street in a spangled chopper, whooping and yelling "Yee-haw!" and "Yeah boy!" and "Whoo-hoo!"

 

"Shit! They're moving too fast!" Said Daniels as he kept his eye on his sight.

 

Jay blanched. "Are they gonna ram the gate?"

 

The chopper peeled down the street on a crash course for the front gate only to stop and spin with an audible and brash screech, burning tracked rubber prints like a brand into the gravelled tract. The man on the rear seat grinned and hurled a bag over the car wall. "JUST A LITTLE GIFT FOR YA, YA COWARDS!" he yelled, as his driver revved up the hog and drove back where they came, the engine's roar fading away.

 

The bag was a good thirty yards from the eastern watchtower.

 

"Go see what that is, Mixon!" Said Brother Daniels. "I'll keep watch up here."

 

Jay froze.

 

"Mixon, did you hear me? Haul ass!"

 

"R-right," A 12-foot ladder ran from the edge of the watch tower's roost to the street. Jay carefully threw his feet over and climbed down, one step at a time, and walked over to where the bag fell. It was hemp and tied at the mouth. And smelly. The smell was so repulsive that Jay could barely pick it up – but when he did, and he untied the string sealing it up – his red cheeks went white when he saw what was inside.

 

Jay dropped the bag. And he projected a chunky grey soup of bile, ham hocks and potato bits all over his boots and slacks. Up in the roost Brother Daniels yelled at the boy to tell him what the fuck was inside the bag, but the boy couldn't stop coughing and spluttering. So, the Black Bandana strapped the sniper rifle to his back and came down the ladder of his own accord. "What is it, Mixon, what did they throw over the wall?" He asked.

 

Jay couldn't reply.

 

Brother Daniels kicked the bag with a hard boot. A head rolled out of it, severed from the torso of a black man by about an inch beneath the ears. Bloated and purple, its eyes gouged out, its nostrils stuffed with copper-coloured cotton. There was a bloody paper chit stuffed between what was left of its smashed teeth. Grimacing, Brother Daniels pulled the paper out of its mouth and read the note aloud;

 

"Pay what you owe... or you're as dead as this nigger."

 

There was an alarm bell by the watchtower. Brother Daniels ran and rung it, summoning the Black Bandanas from the barracks in the centre of town. A torch light went up at the northern tower and a second bell joined the first. Jay knew nothing about it. Perhaps half an hour passed. He only became aware of things when a soft hand took his – Sister Garland. When he looked around now he saw dozens of Black Bandanas, all of them armed with holstered 9mms and shouldered AK-47s with three spare banana clips apiece. Some of them inspected the head. Others checked the gate to make sure it was secure. They debated calling a search party together and going after the 55ers. Some were in favour. Some were against. Most agreed that they needed to speak to Pastor Evans first.

 

"Jay," said the sister. "Jay Mixon, are you hearing me?"

 

He looked up at her. "Sister?"

 

"Go on home, son. There's nothing left to see here."

 

"Yes ma'am."

 

Residential was only six blocks away. The Mixon townhouse only seven. Yet somehow it took Jay the better part of an hour to find his way home. He didn't remember much of his walk. He passed by a patrol of Black Bandanas at one point then and fell over an old trash can at another; stared at his reflection in a puddle of frosty rainwater for a spell, then threw up some more into a gutter, all the while stumbling home. It was almost daybreak, but word hadn't spread about the events at the wall -- if he believed in God Jay would have thanked him for that. He didn't want to think what people would ask him tomorrow once they found out about it. The boy walked up the slope of his driveway. The full weight of his tiredness hit him the second he unlocked the door.

 

"Dad?" Jay came inside. "You awake?"

 

There was no reply, but he heard clinks and scrapes and whispers of "fuck!" coming from the kitchen. Jay followed the sounds. And there he was. Parker. Same as he ever was, curly-haired and coal-eyed with that limitless grin painted across his face. Jay's heart rose. Then it fell again when he saw the condition that Parker was in. His left eye and cheekbone was purpled up and swollen, a deep welt to the forehead spilt blood down his eye and nose, his jaw yellowed with bruises. His lip was split. Hand-sized red marks ran the circumference of his freckled neck and he bled from cuts to the knuckles on both hands. At least this time Pastor Evans didn't walk away unscathed.

 

Danny told Parker to hold his arms up. He did. Danny wrapped dressings all the way around the boy's ribcage and snipped them just beneath his armpits. When he saw Jay in the doorway, gaping like a hooked trout at his best friend's smattered canvas of a body, the doctor yelled for him to "do something useful and grab an ice pack". Jay quickly snatched one out of the cooler and gave it to Parker for his facial swelling.

 

"Thanks," he said.

 

Jay smiled, sadly. "Don't mention it."

 

"You can't stay here," said Danny. He dabbed Parker's cut forehead with some cotton soaked in antiseptic as he said it. "Once you're patched up you need to go home."

 

"Dad!"

 

"Jay, I'm sorry but you know I don't have a choice."

 

Everyone in that room knew it. To the good Pastor, his son wasn't his son at all but a stray dog he had to keep in line. Where the dog went wandering, his owner followed. A grim-faced yet calm Parker turned to the younger boy's father and thanked him anyway. Danny Mixon was about the only adult in Polk that Parker seemed to respect. He never argued with him, never talked shit about him (even when Jay wanted him to) and Jay never understood it.

 

And then a heavy fist pounded the door.

 

Jay, Danny and Parker froze.

 

"Danny!" The Pastor's booming baritone was loud and distinctive. "Danny Mixon, I know you're in there!"

 

It was Pastor Evans. Already?! Abruptly, Danny pointed out the stairwell in the hall. Parker took the hint and ran upstairs to hide. "Hide my equipment!" Said the doctor to Jay, as he scrubbed his hands in the sink and made his way out of the kitchen towards the front door. As Danny greeted the Pastor, Jay found a garbage bag in a draw and swept all the cotton, bandage wrappers, syringes and dressings into it, then hid his father's surgical scissors and stitching spool in the knife drawer. Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck! The smell of blood was in the air, but it was too late so do anything about it! Pastor Evans and two of his Black Bandanas, their boot-steps heavy with the loaded weight of their shoulder-strapped AK-47s and ammo belts, marched into the kitchen with Danny in tow. Jay automatically noticed the dark circle beneath Pastor Evans' eye – Parker really did fight back this time.

 

"Hello, boy," The Pastor smiled faintly at Jay. "Have you seen my son?"

"I already told you, he isn't here." Danny interjected.

 

The Pastor's knuckles were badly swollen and plum-coloured. He caressed one hand with the other as his eyes searched for clues that his hosts were lying to him. There were none. Frowning, a deep set downward curve sculpted into a face of stone; Evans told his men to "Search the house," and the Black Bandanas split off. One went upstairs, the other down the hall into the lounge.

 

"Jeremiah, there's no need for-"

 

"Did your son tell you what happened at the wall?" Said the Pastor, cutting Danny off.

 

Danny looked at Jay. "What's happened at the wall?"

 

That severed head's face flashed through Jay's mind again – and he suppressed the urge to hurl. When Jay couldn't explain it, Pastor Evans did it for him. "It seems that little jaunt our sons took has angered some 55ers on recon out of Cheyenne. They've demanded a supply of meds we can't afford to give them."

 

"What's our next move?"

 

"I've requested a parley with their leader," said the Pastor. "A man named Wuhrer. With any hope he's the amenable type and he'll waive his demands for a fairer offer once we explain ourselves."

 

The look on Danny's face told Jay that his father didn't like the direction that this conversation was going in. "What do you mean, explain ourselves?"

 

The Pastor glared at Jay. "You know exactly what I mean."

 

"Now you listen here," Danny pulled his son behind him. "There was more than one kid out there three days ago, Jeremiah. They don't care who it was so don't involve Jay. I swear if you say one word to them I'll leave this town for good and then you and your men can pick the shrapnel out of your own wounds."

 

Jay's eyes went from his resolute father to the stone-faced Pastor as they glared at each other. There was no one else in town that would dare talk like this to Evans, much less call him `Jeremiah'. But with leverage came courage. Danny Mixon was the only trained surgeon in town and in a world like this those skills were as precious a resource as water. Losing him was like losing an eye and the Pastor knew it. And judging by the way his bruised fist shook inside his other hand, that simple fact enraged him.

 

Pastor Evans turned his frown into a thin, terse smile. "We're holding a town meeting tomorrow to discuss our response. I'll keep the boy out of it."

 

"Thank you."

 

Just then the two Black Bandanas returned from their search of the house. "All clear, Pastor," said one of them. "He's not here."

 

Evans' tight smile grew even tighter. "Do let me know if you see my son?" he said to Danny, then led his men out of the house. As they slammed the door behind them Danny pulled the kitchen curtains and watched them climb into a pick-up truck and drive off. As soon as they were out of sight, he released the heavy breath he'd been holding.

 

"Dad?"

 

"Parker can stay the night," Danny frowned. "But only one night. After that he has to leave."

 

"Thank you, Dad."

 

**********

 

Never trust a man of God.

 

Cheyenne was the hot seat of the 55ers and militiamen crossed the border into Colorado regularly, especially runaway groups who turned to banditry to fund their escape. With Polk just a few miles off Interstate 25, how was it that Pastor Evans kept Polk out of their hands for so long?

 

I wouldn't get an answer until a few days after it was too late.

 

**********

 

Parker flipped the Zippo with his thumb. The flame was bright and terrible in the darkness, and the moonlight a pale phantom bestrides it -- remarkably faint and insignificant. The flame was a romance in his eyes, imperceptible to the lesser. He flicked it off. Tonight, wasn't the night for his enchantments? He said little. He just laid there on the eastern side of Jay's bed, covered over in half his bed sheets, turning to his friend once the allure of the flame wore off. Jay gazed up at the ceiling.

 

"Sometimes," said Parker, "I wanna burn Polk to the ground."

 

Jay smiled, eyes on the ceiling. "...Sometimes I wish you would."

 

"Just don't have enough gas," He paused in thought for a moment. "Hey."

 

"Yeah?"

 

"I meant it about Mexico," There was no doubting it. Jay flattened his right cheek on the pillow and caught a glimpse of his friend's eyes in the darkness. The resolution was unmistakable. "Maybe Wilkes is a hoax, maybe she isn't building fuck all down there, maybe she's dead. Who knows? But fuck it, it's gotta be better than this place."

 

Maybe finding out could cost us our lives, thought Jay. He didn't doubt Parker's belief in Octavia Wilkes' rogue radio plea -- he doubted the plea itself. Polk probably was the piece of shit town he and Parker thought it was, and the thought of saying goodbye to the cult of Pastor Evans was a sweet one. But the world beyond Polk's walls wasn't even a world anymore – it was a wilderness, one where madmen did decapitations for message making. How would they even get to Mexico? Planes and trains were a luxury of the old world, props in a forgotten play -- they'd have to steal a car, as well as enough fuel to make it across two whole states – which was a conundrum in and of itself. Cars were a dime a dozen, but good fuel was rare. Stabilizers kept the town's supply usable but just like the rest of Polk's key resources – food, meds, ammo and water – the Black Bandanas kept it under close guard. If they wanted to get to Mexico, then the first step was finding a way to somehow outmuscle Pastor Evans' men and escape with enough fuel (and food and water) without getting caught.

 

It was a pipe dream.

 

Mexico? Burning the town down? They were just pipe dreams. And Jay was never more aware of himself as a kid than when he dreamt them. Just a kid in his bedroom dreaming stupid dreams. "Go to sleep," he said to Parker. "You're keeping me up."

 

"You didn't say no."

 

 

*********

 

Beauty is fleeting.

 

Why?

 

Because death wills it.

 

And there is so much death to come...

 

*********

 

The bells over the chapel chimed at noon. In Polk, when Brother McGee rang those bells on any day other than a Sunday, everyone knew it as a summons. Over the course of an hour more than 250 people left their work stations and sewing circles. They poured into the streets and marched towards the town centre. Jay and Danny Mixon were amongst them. With his head down and hands pocketed the boy went unnoticed (as he hoped he would) by the crowd. But he heard the whispers. That a road crew threw a head over the wall. That two Fruits of God had betrayed the town by going beyond the wall into 55er territory. That Pastor Evans was a convening a town meeting to discuss what to do: talk or retaliate?

An arm folded around his shoulder. Jay looked up at his father, who smiled down and pulled his boy close. "It's going to be okay, Jay," he said. "Everything's going to be fine."

 

The brothers and sisters of Polk gathered together at the limestone steps of the county courthouse, its tall white pillars still cracked with bullet holes from the Mountain Crow shootout all those years ago. Black Bandanas stood guard and ushered them in two by two through the derelict metal detectors into the antechamber, where they'd arranged almost 300 chairs (mostly folding and wicker) into two columns of 150 divided by an aisle. Six seats faced the `pews'. Pastor Evans had one. His second wife Sister Mary-Elizabeth Anderson-Evans had another. One was absentee (presumably for Parker) but the other three were taken by Brothers Willard, Moss, and Shaw – the top three men of Pastor Evans' personal guard. They each carried holstered 9mms and batons. Their vests were black and bulletproof.

 

The townsfolk took their seats. Jay and Danny found theirs halfway up the right-hand column, but Pastor Evans was aware of them, his eyes trained on Danny from the moment they stepped in. After around twenty minutes of foot shuffling and light chitter-chatter the courthouse antechamber fell silent and the Black Bandanas closed the lacquered oak doors.

 

Pastor Evans arose. "First. Let us give thanks to He who gave us breath and body, He who carries us from one day to the next by the greatness of His love."

 

"PRAISE BE TO GOD," replied the townsfolk. "TO HIM AND ALL HIS GLORY."

 

The Pastor shot Danny a final glance before he began. "Thank you all for coming so quickly today. Know that I do not call you from your duties on a whim. We indeed have important matters to discuss. Four days ago, two Fruits of God leapt the wall without permission and stole medical supplies from a group of militiamen under the banner of the Fifty-Five Thousand Army. The Bandanas brought the boys back and I have punished them for their misdeeds. However, the leader of that militia, a man named Wuhrer, has demanded his recompense in medicine."

 

"How much does he ask?" Asked a brother.

 

Pastor Evans frowned. "More than we can spare."

 

Light murmurs abounded.

 

"I have requested a parley," said the Pastor. "And it is my hope to convince him that he asks more than we can provide, and come to an agreement on a more suitable way to repay his group for their losses. And so, I have called you all here today to discuss my proposal before I bring it to Wuhrer."

 

Someone in the pews asked, "What do we propose?" of him. The deep grooves of a frown formed in Evans' stone-forged face as he replied, "We do not have enough medicine to share. But we do have three larders, each one sufficient to feed Polk for three months under heavy rationing. What I propose is that we offer up the contents of one to Wuhrer and his men and with that come to the agreement that this matter is settled."

 

The murmurs grew heavy and solemn. Capitulation! Hissed a brother. We worked so hard last harvest... said a sister, and so many men lost their lives on those supply runs... Theirs was an understandable train of thought – how could they sacrifice even one larder after all the sweat, blood and tears it took to produce them? Jay recalled that harvest, those runs. Pastor Evans had the entire town summoned for service and burial whenever a Bandana lost their life beyond the wall. They gave their lives for our sustenance, he'd say on those cold mornings by the boneyard, praise Him for His glory that they art received into his bosom.

 

The whispers were fraught. And then someone stood up.

 

It was a winter-haired octogenarian named Sister Pryce. Jay recalled her yelling at him as he and Parker once trampled her cabbage patch during a game of tag, years ago. As she took to her feet everyone in town glanced her way. "Pardon me, Pastor," said Sister Pryce. "But I've still one good ear on me, and it hears ill. I lost my eldest boy on those runs. Y'all remember my son? They brought him back shot to pieces over some cans of spam I believe. And with my head held high I kissed him away to God right there on his cooling board because I believed my son died for a purpose. Begging your pardon, Pastor Evans, but I don't believe that purpose was filling the belly of some heathen bastard banging down the walls of my home! I can't believe it! I shan't!"

 

Murmurs of agreement filled the air. The Pastor's cold grey eyes went from Sister Pryce (as her remaining sons helped her back onto her seat) to a younger sister in one of the rear rows who then stood up. "Meaning no disrespect Pastor but I think a good many of us agree with Sister Pryce. Our brothers worked so hard to get that food last year. The whole town's gonna be relying on that food come winter! Why should any of us go hungry on account of what Danny Mixon's boy did out there where he wasn't supposed to be in the first place?"

 

Jay froze.

 

Danny launched up from his chair and took the floor. "I hope the good sister isn't so naοve to think that my son is the first to go beyond the wall without permission? Or so uninformed that she doesn't realize my son didn't do it on his own? And I hope she remembers who it was who set her daughter's broken leg in a splint when she snuck into the Wissop stables on her own last fall."

 

The sister, offended, silenced herself.

 

Pastor Evans glared at Danny. "Regardless of how it happened, we have to negotiate. I share Sister Pryce's misgivings, believe me I do. But the only alternative is bloodshed."

 

At this point what was once whispers was now full-blown chatter. Brothers and sisters of Polk turned to each other and mulled over the debate. "It ain't right!" yelled a brother, though he wasn't brave enough to stand up and say it. And all around him Jay overheard a growing, angry agreement that Pastor Evans' proposal of turning over the larder was too unfair. And then a brother, Myers was his name, stood up and spoke. "These folks speak true, Pastor. It was God's grace what gave us those larders. Parcelling it off to those thugs out of Cheyenne over those what worked so hard to build `em ain't fair. I say there's gotta be another way to mollify `em without giving up our food or our meds."

 

Pastor Evans sighed. "What do you suggest, Brother?"

 

But Brother Myers did not have an answer. He went silent on the point and sat down without anything further to add. But then a voice from behind him, a sister's voice, shrilly cried out; "Give them the boy!" Jay's heart thumped in his breast as others grunted and nodded in agreement. "It ain't our fault!" said a brother to his right. "Why should we all have to pay?"

 

"Listen to yourselves!" Yelled Danny. "We're being blackmailed by militiamen and you want to blame one of your own? Instead of standing together? Is this what stands for solidarity in Polk?"

 

"Solidarity?" All heads turned to one of the seats closest to the front. It was Brother Locke, father of Billy Locke, who said it. Legless from the right knee down, the former Black Bandana needed his makeshift crutch to stand. And there was nothing but fury in his eyes. "What solidarity have YOU shown? When was the last time you came to church or pitched in on the farm? And that pencil-neck boy of yours? Not ONCE has he taken his responsibilities to this town seriously! All the other Fruit of God have shown it! My boy's top of his class in tracking and hunting! He was born to be a bandana! What's YOUR son gonna do for this town?"

 

Danny sneered. "I saved your life, Caleb..."

 

"I owe you no debts," he hissed back. "All I owe is to this town and may the Lord strike me down before I watch any of these good men and women go hungry because YOUR reckless boy went sticking his nose where it wasn't welcome!"

 

By now more than half the crowd was on Brother Locke's side. And they were vocal about it. Some clapped him, some cheered him, some stood for him. All were loud. Danny looked around the antechamber as if surrounded by strangers. An uncharacteristically reserved Pastor Evans watched the crowd voice their support of Brother Locke's statement as well, his keen eyes tracking the tenor and tide of the debate. It had not shifted in Jay's favour.

 

"Let us be clear," he said. "You all are proposing that we submit Jay Mixon to the 55ers as placation for his trespasses into their territory, correct?"

 

"What other choice do we have?" Said Brother Locke.

 

"Have you all gone insane!?" Roared Danny. "You're not touching my son! You promised me, Jeremiah! You promised me Jay wouldn't be involved!"

 

Pastor Evans, arms folded, sighed. "I did nothing of the kind, `Brother' Mixon. If American democracy still exists anywhere in this land, then it's right here in the courthouse. Polk has the right to determine the fate of its citizens by consensus and by right of God: `He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with him freely give us all things?'"

 

Danny Mixon almost spat his disgust. "...`Has the Lord as great a delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.'"

 

The Pastor smiled coolly. "To quote isn't to believe,"

 

"To believe isn't to adhere," Replied the doctor.

 

But by then the Pastor had had enough. When he stood up the crowds went silent and he called out to them as if drawing a gavel on the matter. "I called this meeting to discuss our response to Wuhrer and his 55ers. You've rejected my proposal and offered one of your own. We cannot make the decision lightly, but we must make it. So, we'll vote. Hands in favour?"

 

There was a pause. Danny scanned the crowd. Jay didn't dare look. Silence maintained. And then, behind the Mixons by some thirteen rows, a single hand rose. A second went up. Then a third. And then six. Then fifteen. A wave of hands launched into the air around Danny and Jay, one after the other, until more than two thirds of the room had consented. Jay felt his blood run cold.

 

"All opposed?" Said Pastor Evans.

 

A stunned Danny raised his hand. He looked around himself waiting for others to join him. Some looked ashamed, some sympathetic, some adamant – but although a third of the townsfolk had not raised their hands to condemn his son -- none of them raised a hand to oppose it. To see Danny Mixon then was to watch a man's very faith in humanity ebb and erode in real time.

 

"...Bastards," he spat. "You heartless bastards!"

 

"That's enough," said the Pastor. "I am sorry, Brother Mixon, but the town's decision is clear... and final. For his intransigence and defiance of our laws, Polk has no choice but to submit your son to Wuhrer and his 55ers as recompense for his crimes."

 

"You can't do this!" Protested Danny.

 

It was too late.

 

Pastor Evans pointed out two of his Black Bandanas standing guard by the antechamber wall. They swung their AK-47s behind their backs by the straps and booted through the crowd of seated townsfolk to get to a trembling, almost deaf-mute Jay. Furious, Danny pulled his son behind him and warned the bandanas to stay back. The first took his cudgel out and clapped Danny across the face with it. Jay screamed for his father as the second snatched him away. Blood oozed through the gaps in Danny's hand as he cradled his own face. Faces of horror surrounded them but none intervened. Jay was thrown into the arms of a third bandana as he yelled "Dad! Dad!" but he was powerless to help. The Black Bandana with the bloody cudgel ordered the doctor to "stand down" or "get his head cracked". But Danny didn't listen. He pulled his face out of his hands, his eye turning purple, his nose caked black with blood, and ran the opposite side of the row out into the walkway between the pews, roaring like a madman, eyes on Pastor Evans as he charged up the aisle towards him. The crowd gasped. Jay gaped on helplessly. Brother Shaw, the bandana closest to the Pastor, un-holstered his 9mm and peppered three shots. One struck Danny's arm. The second took out his left eye. The third caved his chest. The son screamed as the father fell, collapsing into a heap just a few yards shy of Pastor Evans' seat. All of Polk rose up from their seats and stared dumbfounded at their doctor, dropped like a deer in the hunt, their gasps of fright shattering the silence. His fingers twitched for a moment, just a moment, then stopped cold as his blood pooled out beneath him. Brother Moss knelt to feel his neck for a pulse.

 

"He's gone," he said.

 

The stone-faced pastor nodded. "Take the boy away."

 

**********

 

To this day I still wonder why my father did what he did.

 

Hatred?

 

It wasn't a secret that Danny Mixon and Pastor Evans didn't like each other. All of Polk knew. And Danny Mixon was the last man in town clever enough to play his position. That's why he refused to teach anyone else his surgical skills, knowing full well that made him disposable. Maybe he thought – if I can't save my son then I'm going to kill the son of a bitch who let it happen. Maybe years of bowing to Jeremiah Evans and tending to his men's wounds only to get screwed over when it mattered most; maybe the outrage of that finally snapped his patience in half. I didn't realize how much I loved my father until they took him from me. And I didn't realize how much I hated Polk, the shitty little town that raised me, until I watched its people condemn me to death. I bet good old Pastor Evans didn't want it to go down the way it did (after all those events cost him his one and only surgeon) but does that matter? Does that absolve him or the people that raised their hand in that room?

 

Danny Mixon was good in a world where good people are almost extinct.

 

He raised his son alone and taught him almost everything he knew about the world. He cared for the health of pseudo-pious nutjobs who loathed him for his lack of willingness to submit to the teachings of their local overlord. He could have told the whole town about Parker's involvement in the trespass into 55er territory, but he kept his mouth shut because he knew that Parker didn't deserve to die for sneaking over a fucking wall. Not once did he raise his hand to me in anger. And he was as kind to others as he was to me. He always did what he thought was best, even if that meant the worst for him.

 

He was a fool.

 

I learned a lot of lessons that day. It taught me what kind of world I really lived in. If you read enough of the old world's books you'll lapse into a false sense of security about other people -- that they're inherently good and that no matter what they do, all they really need is a reminder of their goodness to pull them from the brink. But you know what? The truth is the opposite. The truth is that people are evil. And once you strip away the pretence of civilization they revert to that same savage Cro-Magnon smashing his rival's head against the cave wall to get ahead. Law? Morality? Modernity? Equal rights? Who were we kidding? Good people are genetic outliers. They're symbols of what we wish we were. They try to shield us from ourselves with reason and ethics, but shit is still shit no matter what shape you mould it into. In this world of shit, goodness is a disease of the mind that blinds you to danger and renders you unfit to respond. It's paralysing. And the people who have it, people like my father? They don't survive long.

 

I had to hold on to my immunity.

 

**********

 

There was a light knock. Jay sat on the floor with his knees drawn up to his chin and his arms wrapped around his legs. Keys jangled on the other side of the cellar door, which slowly croaked open for a single ignis fatuus of candlelight to wander into his cell. It was a girl, 20 or 21 years old, blonde, her face freckled up like a mug of milk sprinkled with chocolate shavings. Jay didn't know her. But she came every day for the last three days; mornings with water and porridge, evenings with water and buttered bread.

 

Jay watched her sad smile as she put the wooden tray down at his feet. She kept the candlestick close to her. "How are you today?" She asked. "Still not eating?"

 

As a reply, he kicked the tray over with his foot. Porridge splattered all over her dress and his sneaker. The noise drew one of the Black Bandanas to the door who barked, "Sister Redwood, are you alright? Is everything okay in there?"

 

"Everything's fine!" She had a slight drawl. Growing up, he'd listened to enough audiobooks on cassette to know that it was southern. She wasn't from around here originally. Maybe Georgia or South Carolina. "I'm quite alright, just a little spill, darling!" Then she turned to Jay. "Come on, kiddo, you need to eat. Ain't no other way you can keep your strength up."

 

He looked away.

 

She sighed. There was a leather satchel hanging off her thin shoulder. Sister Redwood set her candlestick down to unzip it, withdraw a bible, and flip it to a bookmarked page. "Revelations 21:4. `He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed a-"

 

"I DON'T WANNA LISTEN TO YOUR FUCKING BIBLE!" Screamed Jay.

 

Sister Redwood froze. Men yelling at women was not uncommon in Polk, but novitiates daring to raise their voices to their elders was. She looked shocked. But she did not chide him. Rather she frowned, put her bible away, and folded her hands into her lap. "Jay, I'm so sorry about what happened to your father. No one wanted that to happen."

 

He scoffed. His memory of a hundred and a half hands thrust into the air for a death sentence reverberated. He would never forget his father's eyes, one glassed over and the other shot out, his teeth skinned back in a shocked, agonizing scowl. No one stood up to help him. No one stood up to help his father. Polk was ready and willing to sacrifice the Mixons to save its own skin. Sister Redwood tried to encourage Jay otherwise, asking him to at least ask for some water to "keep his mind right" when the time came for Wuhrer and his 55ers to claim him.

 

If I starve myself, thought Jay, you all lose your fatted ram. Heh. It's almost worth dying just to spite you all. It was a cheering thought. But the truth was opposite -- none of these people were worth dying for. `Pumpkinhead' was right all along – they should have burned the whole damn town down.

 

Sister Redwood sighed, realizing that her work here was fruitless. With her candlestick in hand she stood up to leave and rapped her knuckles on the cellar door. She said, "I'll keep you in my prayers, kiddo," as the guard at the door let her out. He locked it back just as quickly.

 

With her candlelight gone there was little light left in his prison, just a few blades of bone pale moonlight falling onto the cold stone floor riddled with dust, straw, cobwebs and hundreds upon hundreds of little black kernels of mice shit. Jay crawled over to the rusty tin bucket he'd been using as a toilet for the past three days, and took from underneath it a key wrapped in a paper note (smuggled through the cellar window bars two days ago). Jay unwrapped the note and re-read it for what had to have been the sixteenth time, misspellings and all.

 

Sorry abot what my dad did. Wat for my sigal before you unloc the door.

 

-      Pumpkinhead

 

Jay held the note and key to his breast like a life preserver. He's coming for me, thought the boy. I've just got to hold on.

 

**********

 

I felt like dying when they locked me in that cellar. I felt like killing too. I felt like killing Pastor Evans and Brother Locke and his son and the Black Bandana who shot my father dead. I've come to believe that there is something inside us all that aches for destruction. We like misery, we like death; we revel in crumbling towers and broken mores. Even fiction is just a peep show at the struggle of others. That's why no one's content with happily ever after. We're all just scum pretending to be better than we are. I was too.

 

That's why Parker's special.

 

He really isn't like other people. He never hid it. He never even questioned it. He lives his evil with every breath he takes. He operates on a different plane. Higher or lower? Well that depends on you, doesn't it? Everything that would have made him an abomination in the old world makes him a survivor in this one. I was going to learn that for myself, witness it first-hand. But back then, when my whole hometown decided to serve me up on a platter for the 55ers, I only saw my best friend fighting to save me from them. And that was what kept me going. That was what kept me from giving up. My father was dead, but I still had Parker. And I needed him then more than ever.

 

What was contentment to me (then)?

 

The twinkle in his eye as he torched things. The sense of reckless abandon that seemed to seep from his pores, intoxicating me like a drug. My lips around his cock. A belly full of his cum. I didn't give a fuck about Mexico. But I'd follow him to the ends of the earth just to be near him.

 

I couldn't die just yet.

 

**********

 

Jay woke to the smell of blood.

 

It was rank and raw and everywhere, rusty and pungent, filling up his nostrils and choking him. He could taste it in the air. It was the first thing he was aware of – the first warning sign that something was wrong.

 

Is this the signal? He thought. Alarmed, Jay crawled out of his straw pallet, quickly unzipped his jeans to empty his bladder into the bucket, then he fished the key out of his pocket and quietly crept outside. His sneakers were whisper quiet as he trod up the stone stairwell to the ground floor door. Jay pushed it open.

 

A Black Bandana, Brother Abner, sat slumped against the white painted corridor wall. He was dead.

 

What the hell? Jay peered over his body. Thin rouge wounds ran like cord reel around his neck – like he'd been garrotted – and his head slumped so low his chin touched the black padding of his bulletproof vest: his neck was broken. And with a hell of a lot of force by the look of it. Jesus... There was a 9mm near his limp right hand, a Beretta m9, its safety disengaged. Jay carefully kicked it away from Brother Abner's corpse and took it up. With his finger around the trigger guard he left the Black Bandana behind and silently crept down the corridor to the rear antechamber door of the courthouse. He opened it. And then he knew where the smell came from.

 

Bodies.

 

Everywhere.

 

Oh God... All over the antechamber floor, blown from their deck and wicker chairs, heaped and tangled together in a mess of bloodied limbs. Most were shot through their backs. A few too close to the chamber doors had had their skulls caved in -- with hi-power automatic fire. Gristle, blood smatter and spent rounds smeared those spots of the marble floor where a body didn't occupy. Jay gagged. He recognized all the faces. These were the townsfolk of Polk, maybe more than half of them, rounded up and shot to pieces.

 

Then he heard screams. A woman's screams, from outside, along with the ecstatic, sneering laughter of three, maybe four others; all male – and revving motors. Jay edged his way around the massacred bodies (almost slipping in a puddle of Sister Chamberlain's brain matter) towards the chamber doors – honeycombed with bullet holes and barely hanging off their iron hinges. He carefully pushed a wider gap between them and put his eyeball to it. Out on the street past the courthouse steps was his teacher Sister Kinnoch, crying and bleeding from the teeth. Her shoes were gone, and her breasts spilled out of a tear in her magnolia bodice. She cradled Billy Locke in her arms. His throat was cut.

 

Three men surrounded her.

 

55ers, thought Jay. Unshaved, sweaty, vicious and well-armed, their Harleys sat beached on the courthouse steps. One had a bloody machete in his hand. The tittering second waggled the sister's own bra front of her. The third kept his Ithaca 37 trained on her. They all called her a whore and told her to "jiggle those udders a spell". When she didn't, the machete man cuffed her hard and told her to "put the boy down". When she refused (again) he cuffed her (again). That time he knocked out a tooth. Sister Kinnoch cried out, screamed for help, but there were no Black Bandanas to come to her aid. The shogun-man grabbed a ball of her hair and shoved her face-first into the tarmac whilst his friend tossed her bra and dragged Billy Locke's corpse out of her arms. After that, they pounced, tearing off what little of her clothes she had left, pinning her hands and spreading her legs. And then they took turns on her.

 

Jay pulled his eye away from the door.

 

Shit, he thought, can't get out that way. He doubled back across the antechamber of massacred townsfolk, past his cell(er) and the corpse of Brother Abner, down the length of the basement corridor to the rear fire exit; locked through the push bar by a two-by-four. Jay prised it loose, pushed the bar, and stepped outside.

 

Half the townhouses were ablaze; silhouetted stacks of brick and mortar turning black within towering pillars of fire, roiling the dry night air, air so hot it prickled his skin. Black fragments snapped off the rooftops and fell burning into the streets. Smog-like clouds of smoke fogged the streets. The taste of soot and salt was everywhere. In the distance, even amidst the roar of the flames, screams and automatic fire resounded. Coughing (but alert) Jay kept his ear to the air. Pistol shots interrupted heavier barrages of fire at increasingly wider intervals. Sounds like Bandanas fighting the 55ers, he thought. And it's coming from the east, where the barracks are.

 

That meant the west, hopefully, was clear.

 

Jay tucked the 9mm beneath his belt and ran across the street into an alleyway between the old butcher shop and Dinkley's Diner. A sister laid face down and motionless between two overturned trash cans, naked from the hips down, her thighs smeared with blood and faecal matter. A string of bullet casings ran from her corpse to the corner of the alley, where a Black Bandana had fallen to multiple shots to the head. His face was so mangled that Jay didn't even recognize him. Past the rightward turn Jay followed the alleyway into the next block. Across the street stood a ring-fenced parking lot where the Fruit of God first started their hand-to-hand training. That lot now paddocked around 40-50 sisters of Polk, each in various stages of undress. Some cried. Some maintained a show of defiance. All were silent as a dozen 55ers stood guard around the lot, their assault rifles at the ready. Jay was already backing away from scene when more than six pick-up trucks rolled into the street from the north, and a second squad of 55ers jumped out with chains in their hands.

 

Jay doubled back into the alleyway where there was a fire escape ladder suspended from the diner roof. Nervously, Jay scaled it. The eerie wails of women clapped in irons made it difficult to focus on climbing but he eventually got to the top, where he kept low and progressed across the roof to a second fire escape. From there he made his way back down, stepping down the iron steps as gingerly as possible, and emerging in an alleyway half a block past the lot. He ran quietly into another street, this one curiously untouched by the fighting, but kept to the shadows of fire hydrants, phone booths, abandoned cars and old stalls as he made his way up the lane towards the residential part of town.

 

Twenty minutes later Jay found himself a stone's throw away from his house. He peered over the bonnet of a parked LaSabre. Across the street, 55ers were looting every townhouse they found. They booted the doors open and barged in with crews of two or three. Ten minutes later they returned with their arms and backpacks overflowing with loot and supplies; jewellery, food, alcohol, cigarettes, medicine, pistols, ammo, etc. Some siphoned gas from the cars in their driveways. A column of pick-up trucks awaited the 55ers by the side of the road. Team by team each crew emptied their captured goods into the wagons then proceeded to the next townhouse. They had already done over the Mixon townhouse. They broke his front door in two, the lower half hanging off the loose hinge like a saloon door, the other splintered to pieces over the front lawn.

 

A hand clamped around Jay's mouth.

 

He screamed but it came out a muffled jumble. Then a voice whispered "Ssh! They'll hear you...! Come on, follow me...!"

 

Parker.

 

Once he checked to make sure the coast was clear (and no one on the other side was paying attention) the older boy grabbed the younger one by his wrist and led him up the driveway of a looted house. They jogged around the garage into a garden path, hopped over a ring fence, and landed on the other side in a back street with a steel shutter suspended over a lock up. Parker unlocked it with a key inside his sock. Without thinking Jay helped him pull the shutter up. Inside were some abandoned tools and a white Fort Escort. There were two bikes strapped to the hood – Jay's Schwinn and Parker's Litespeed -- and when Parker popped the trunk to dump his backpack Jay saw it full of supplies. Food, water, gas cans, batteries, maps, rope, tools, two torches, two sleeping bags, two rifles and some ammo boxes.

 

"Get in the car," said Parker as he took out a torch. Jay climbed in and shut the door as the Pastor's son pulled the shutter back down, plunging the shut in into darkness until he turned the torch on and got in the car.

 

"Here," Parker pulled a small bottle of whisky out of the glove compartment, took a swig, then passed it to Jay. "It'll settle your nerves."

 

Jay drank a bit then spluttered. He still tasted blood and smoke in his mouth. "...W-what do we do now?"

 

"We wait," said Parker. "The 55ers already went over this part of town. They'll roll out before sun up. That's when we make our move."

 

The Mixon boy took another swig then passed it back. "Can't believe this happened. What did happen?"

 

"The parley was a set-up," said Parker. "The 55ers didn't give a fuck about you. They didn't give a fuck about the meds. It was a ruse they cooked up to distract the whole town. I was on wall duty with Brother Aker when we heard one of the watchtowers went down by the main gate, so we drove across town to investigate but it was too late... they'd already breeched the wall. Our guys bucked with their guys, but I snuck out on the fire fight to make my way to the courthouse... and when I got there the 55ers were already rounding everyone up and marching `em in and then after that all I heard was shooting. I thought..." Parker finished the whisky. "...I thought maybe you was dead."

 

Jay's cock twitched.

 

"...I'm fine. So that fire by the courthouse..."

 

"I thought you was dead," He said. "And I wanted them to suffer. Everyone, everything. This whole shit town. The fucking 55ers. All of it. I just wanted to burn all of it."

 

Blood pounded in Jay's ears. He looked at Parker, all scruffy and unkempt, threads of soot and sweat running down his face like black blood and realized that for the first time since the Black Bandanas shot Danny Mixon down – Parker was the only one he had left in his life. There was no one else. There was nowhere else. With his childhood as a Fruit of God laid bare as a sham, his pious overlords all dead and his hometown stripped for scrap; everything that had been anything to him in his sixteen years of life was now gone. No home, no family, no friends. Only Parker.

 

You're all that's left worth living for, thought Jay, staring at the older boy.

 

"My Dad sold us out," Parker sniffed. "Those meds in the drug mart? He was skimming off the town's supply."

 

"Why?"

 

"Protection. It's all in his notes," that was when Jay noticed a sheaf of papers in the open glove compartment. Parker had strung it all together with twine. "Remember how Brother Locke lost his leg? That hospital run in Fort Collins? They weren't bandits we killed, they were 55ers. They followed the Bandanas back to Polk and threatened to call in reserves from Cheyenne unless we paid them off. And not just with meds. All those hidden stashes I told you about? They're all for Wuhrer and his boys, to keep the 55ers off our backs. I guess them not getting the full drop on their last pick-up from the druggist was the final straw."

 

Jay sneered, even tittered a little at that. Everything about Polk was a sham. That the great and moral Pastor Evans, the beacon of light and strength for all of Polk, saw fit to bow and scrape to the 55ers for their protection. The most incorruptible man they knew was as corrupt as the rest. It was a joke. A cruel one. And an entire town paid the price for it.

 

Not that they didn't deserve it, thought Jay. "Where is he? Where's your Dad?"

 

By now Parker had lit up a Newport. He blew a plume of smoke. "...I don't know. I don't care."

 

"So, what now?"

 

There was a map in Parker's back pocket. He took it out and slapped it on the dashboard. Then he turned to Jay with that ambitious, half-mad grin of his and he mouthed the word `Mexico'.

 

**********

 

We waited until morning as planned. I opened the shutter and he drove us out. I'll never forget what Polk looked like as we drove out. It was a ghost town, hollowed out to its very marrow and left for the crows. Strewn about the streets were the dead of both sides, Black Bandanas and the 55ers, as well as fallen townsfolk. Those fires Parker had set in the middle of town had died down, but columns of smoke pillared into the sky from the charred rubble. Watching that from the car window, I remember thinking that bandits would spot that smoke and quickly come to pick at the remains. Even if those women the 55ers captured somehow broke free, there was nothing to return home to. Polk was dead.

 

Was I scared?

 

How could I not be?

 

I didn't know what the world had in store for me and Parker. I suppose, at that point in time, I didn't think about it much – I just wanted to get out of dodge before more men with guns came calling. But I was scared. Too scared to go and too scared to stay; the fear felt like a cold weight in my stomach, un-ignorable and belligerent. If I didn't have him by my side I don't know how I would have handled it. But I did. I may not have believed in his dream, but he was my dream... and at that moment I knew that no matter where he went... I would follow. Because I loved him. I didn't know it then (though it was soon to dawn on me) but I loved Parker Evans. My Pumpkinhead. He could belittle me, bully me, beat me, rape me -- I didn't care. I loved him. I needed him, and he needed me... like any flame needed oxygen. `We could survive out there', I thought, `as long as we're together'.

 

Back then it didn't occur to me that there might be things out there in that maggot-infested carcass of an outside world that would try their very scathing best to tear us apart.

 

**********

 

·      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).