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Joe and RC roar over a crest, and then pull off onto a gravel shoulder. The capital city is laid out beneath them, in the distance, cold and grey under a sky of frozen lead. In the foreground, at their feet, is Anacostia. The tent city now sweeps for miles and butts up against the outer edges of the capital. White smoke from cooking fires puffs up from the camp. They cut their engines. Loudspeakered notices reach them as distorted whispers. Drones hum in the low-lying clouds.
“Holy shit,” says Joe.
RC just shakes her head.
“There can’t be this many veterans that’ve gotten here,” he continues.
RC looks at him. “Don’t you know. It’s WAY bigger than that now. It’s that Lulu chick. She’s made it about everything.”
“She’s not careful she’s gonna have a revolution on her hands,” mutters RC.
“Uh-huh. Alright. Well, I’m headed down to a place I know.”
“Yeah?” asks RC.
“Know a guy named Blackie who runs this place called The Waystation. Lousy soup. Worse beer.”
“Mind if I tag along?”
Joe smiles, kicks Gorgon back into life. “Was kinda hopin you might,” he yells over the scream of the Indian Scout.
They roll slowly down the hill into Anacostia, threading their way through the steady stream of people headed into the swamp. Groups of men drinking beer stumble by. Parents pushing children in wooden carts. Dogs tied by rope to those same carts. Old vets in tattered uniforms bent over nearly double by the weight of their packs. Eventually, right before they would need to dismount due to the ambient congestion, Joe peels off onto a side street. RC follows. They cut into an alley and then under a footbridge and pull up behind a brick building. The Waystation.
Blackie’s out back, strumming an acoustic guitar, a joint between his lips, leaning up against a wall next to a trashcan in which flames flick and sputter. He stops. Stares at the Indian Scout. A look of recognition passes his face. Looks at its rider.
“Preacher Joe!” shouts Blackie, grinning.
“Hey, Blackie,” returns Joe. The two men embrace.
“Preacher?” asks RC, eyebrows raised. She kisses Blackie on the cheek; he squeezes her ass.
“Not what you think,” replies Joe. “Uhh, you guys know each other.”
Blackie: “You could say we go a ways back.”
“Uh-huh,” says Joe, scratching his head.
RC to Blackie: “You wanna spread that around a bit?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah. Right.” Blackie grabs the joint out of the corner of his mouth. “Sure,” he laughs, handing it across to her.
RC and then Joe take deep drags on the joint; warm their hands on the trashcan fire; Joe looks at RC; she shrugs; he shakes his head and laughs.
“So this is some crazy shit, Blackie,” says Joe.
“You said a mouthful there, my brother. It just don’t stop. People been comin in for two three weeks now. It just don’t stop. More every day.”
“Who ARE all these people?” asks Joe.
“Search me,” shrugs Blackie. “Started off with just vets. You know, tryna get what they was promised. Now.” He shakes his head. “Now, though. We got another thing entirely. People comin in from everywhere just generally pissed off. That Lulu chick stirrin the pot I tell you what.”
RC grunts. “Don’t get me fuckin started on that cunt.”
Blackie whistles. “Whooo, hey now, simmer down there, RC.” He laughs. “What are you doin here anyways? Just came to see your ole pal Blackie?” He winks at Joe.
“She’s worried about her kid,” says Joe.
“Oh yeah? Why’s that?”
RC: “’Cause he’s a kid and doesn’t know shit about how to navigate these things. Plus this one’s bigger than anything I’ve ever seen … and it seems like it might turn nasty.”
“Hmm.” Blackie strokes his wisp of a goatee. Hits the joint. Hands it over to Joe. “Might be right about that. Been feeling like this might get ugly myself. What’s your kid’s name?”
Blackie, startled: “You shittin me? I just had a kid in here last night named Pascal. He was drinking with one of my boarders, little girl name of Ballard. That’s your kid, huh?”
“Yeah. He was here?”
“Yep. Tall skinny kid; rooster hairdo? I think he had a split lip. Thought I overheard somethin about him gettin into a fight.”
RC turns to Joe: “What’d I tell you?” She shakes her head. “I need to see him. You hear where he’s staying?”
“Naw. You might ask Ballard, though. She’ll be back later tonight.”
RC nods. “Cool. Thanks.” She motions to Joe for the joint; he passes it to her and she hits it hard. “You got any room in the inn? I’d like to clean up a bit.”
Blackie smiles. “Honey, I can ALWAYS find somethin for you. Assume you’re OK with bunkin together?”
“Yeah, that’ll do just—“ begins Joe, and then:
A commotion in the alley. Luisa comes tearing around the corner, hightailing it toward them. Three men and a mean-looking black dog hot on the heels of the little girl. The men are yelling and there is a look of terror on Luisa’s face as they gain on her. Joe glances at Blackie who drops the guitar and nods. A drone dips into the alley from the low-lying cloud cover and hovers, just over the bricks on the topmost floor of The Waystation.
Joe lets Luisa pass and then drops one of the men in his tracks with a forearm shiv. He turns to the next man who puts on the brakes, and the man behind him wheels and heads out of sight, back around the corner. Blackie has corralled the dog and has it by the scruff of the neck. It snarls and twists in his grasp but then settles down. Just as Betty and Gracie roar around the corner into the alley on their mounts, black-visored and so tall in their saddles.
Everybody scatters. Joe turns; locks eyes with Luisa; she smiles at him; and then books it out of there, pronto.
Gracie, looking down on Joe: “What goes on, citizen? We got a report.”
Joe shakes his head; holds up his palms. “Nothing. All good here, officer.”
Blackie lets the dog loose, but it hangs around him, anyway; he fishes in his pants and comes up with something that the dog gobbles happily.
Gracie looks at the stripes running down the side of Joe’s jeans:
“Alright, veteran. Make sure it stays that way.”
The two riders wheel and head back out of the alley the way they came in, their horses clip-clopping on the cracked, frozen cobblestones. RC raises her middle finger toward them in valediction.
“Well,” says Joe to Blackie, “at least you made a new friend.”
Blackie rubs the dog’s muzzle and grins up at him: “Truer words, my brother, truer words.”
What works—and what doesn’t work—for me when I am writing fiction:
1) I cannot listen to music. Any music of any kind. Back when I was a punkrock whippersnapper I could listen to any music while I wrote, provided it did not contain LYRICS. Jazz, classical, ambient, anything. As long as the human voice was not present, I was good to go. But now, and I have no idea why this is the case, I need to tune out everything in order to write. Music to prep and to unwind is fine; but I need silence in order to compose.
2) I cannot READ fiction while actively engaged on a fiction writing project of my own. (With one exception; see below.) This is also a fairly recent development. I don’t know why but reading fiction messes me up when I am trying to write it. I haven’t read a single novel for the 18 months or so that I’ve been writing the BALLARD trilogy of e-novellas. So my nightstand has featured lots of journalism, science writing, philosophy/religion, and …
3) Comic books! For reasons equally unbeknownst to me, I CAN read graphic novels while writing fiction. They don’t interfere with MY rhythm or cadence or “voice” the way other kinds of fiction do. Besides, I mainly just try to look at the pictures, anyway.
4) It can help, sometimes, to have a drink. One drink, on certain days, at certain points in the story, makes things flow and can allow me to take chances and embark on flights of fancy I might otherwise reject or not even come up with in the first place. But never more than one drink. More than one drink and I start listening to music and do not write anymore.
5) I have to get SOMETHING done every day. My “average” output is in the 500-1,000 words per day range. But that’s so much an “average” as to be almost unmeaningful. What IS meaningful, for me, is: write every day, even if it’s only a few lousy sentences. Five straight days of 100 words per day, struggling and squirming all the way, is better for the project than two days out of five at 500-1,000 words per day. I don’t know why. I just know that I’ll be in a better place overall if I do not skip days.
6) I don’t get anything that’s worth a damn in under 2 hours … and nothing good happens after 4 hours. That window constitutes my sweet spot.
7) I REALLY REALLY REALLY have to work hard to ignore the internet while writing fiction. Twitter is especially pernicious given it is my chief source of news these days: that rabbit hole is always just one click away. I have not yet come up with a foolproof way to stay offline while writing.
8) Dreams are NEVER useful as fodder for writing. I mainly dream adolescent James Bond alien invasion epics in which I save the world; I have dubbed these “Mikey Kiley action adventure dreams.” They are ridiculous and fun (at least for me) but completely useless as a source of ideas for my work. (Except for the sense of the apocalyptic which suffuses almost everything I write and which I am convinced results from being taught how to hide under my desk at school during the Cuban missile crisis in order to survive a nuclear attack.)
Clydie, the little black dog with the ghostly blacksmoke eyes, lies contentedly in Athena’s lap. The little girl is eating an apple, which she occasionally offers to Clydie, who nibbles off a little bite each time.
Spread out before them on the frozen muddy ground is a ten-foot wide by twenty-foot long miniature shantytown. Smack in the middle of this tableau a fourteen-inch tower rises out of the mud.
“My,” says Clydie, sitting up and arching her back, “you’ve been busy.”
The girl leaps up (the dog leaps on to a boulder next to them) and gushes: “Do you think so? Here! Get down and look!”
Athena lays on her belly, ice crackling beneath her. She puts her right cheek on the ground and positions her head so that she’s staring right down the main row of tents and lean-to’s. Her right eye blinks twice as she takes in the clay figures she’s molded and set into the frozen ground.
“I’m OK here. I can see,” says Clydie, staring not at the miniatures, but at the look on Athena’s face as she surveys her handiwork. “Are you sure you’re ready, sweetheart?”
The girl looks up at the little dog and nods her head, very serious; and then breaks into a goofy front-teeth-challenged grin. “Yes’m!”
“Very well. Sit up a bit. On your knees. Lean out a bit, further over what you have made,” instructs Clydie.
Athena hitches up her purple robe and smooths her collar of fox; she kneels in front of her construction and then leans out over it.
“Now I will tell you what to whisper. As you whisper, close your eyes and say the words with your mouth, your heart, and your mind. While you say them take clay and take earth in each hand. Are you ready?”
The little girl picks up a piece of clay from near her water pail; she digs into the frozen ground and extracts a handful of earth. “Yes. I am ready.” Athena closes her eyes.
The little dog watches her closely, and begins; Athena repeats each line as Clydie finishes:
Clydie pauses; watches the easy rise and fall of the little girl’s shoulders as she draws breath; watches the lazy ground mist drift idly down the lanes of the little girl’s shantytown, past huts, and tents, and the tower, and around and over and under the clay figures positioned therein.
“We breathe in and out and as we breathe we create Asiyah.”
“We breathe in and out and as we breathe we create Asiyah.”
“Now, child, open your eyes,” says the little dog. “And look out over what you have made.” Athena does so. “And breathe in. And breathe out.”
The little girl breathes in and as she breathes out the world at her feet comes into being and is set into motion.
Athena claps her hands and shrieks; grabs the little dog and hugs her close.
Brad and Leon, two ancient politicians, stare across a conference table at Fields.
“What does he say, this Pascal,” asks Brad, through the fog of cigar smoke that envelops his shaggy white head.
“Nothing,” replies Fields. “Ballard says he’s a boob.”
“And his mother,” asks Leon, running long-nailed fingers over his shaved skull.
“Joe’s bringing her in. Day or two out. Lulu’s here,” adds Fields.
Leon drums his nails on the tabletop; stares out at the slate-grey sky that promises snow. Brad pulls at his cigar.
“Will your troops be ready,” asks Brad. “It won’t be long now.”
Fields stops because Leon no longer taps and has fixed him with a stare just like a bayonet.
“Yes,” he continues. “They’re in place and ready, if needed.”
“Oh, they’ll be needed alright,” replies Brad. “That bitch Lulu will whip them into a frenzy.”
“I agree,” replies Fields, leaning in. “We can stop her if—“
“What possible reason could there be for stopping her?” interrupts Brad.
Fields gulps. Leans back. “There are veterans out there. Men and women we promised things to.”
Leon grunts. Goes back to his tapping and his appraising of the late November sky outside.
“That war’s over, son,” says Brad. He pours a thin stream of whiskey into a cut-crystal highball glass. “The next one’s about to begin.”
The horses chuff and stomp the ground as darkness falls at the edge of the frozen swamp. Betty and Gracie try to calm their mounts.
“A sea of rabble,” says Gracie looking out over the shantytown. She and her partner display a steely resolve; but something uneasy tugs at the edges of their eyes.
Along the raised wooden sidewalk in front of them, Ballard, frozen and exhausted, stumbles toward The Waystation, her arms wrapped around herself, flecks of black paint on the nails that show through her fingerless mittens.
Betty notices Ballard; nods over to Gracie: “Check out the painter. Ballard! Back from your scrivening?”
Gracie: “You not causing any trouble, are you, painter?”
Ballard glances up at the two equestriennes. “No. No. Just tryna get home for some sleep.”
“Little early to be in for the night, innit, painter?” quizzes Gracie.
Betty: “Ahh, leave her alone, Gracie. She’s got to get up at dawn to paint her masterpieces. Ballard?”
Ballard looks up at Betty, who has raised her visor.
“It’s just we got some undersirables up in here right now,” begins Betty, concern flitting across her face. “You be careful, you hear. And stay outta that swamp.”
Gracie: “Don’t want to see you caught up in nothin, painter.”
Ballard nods, bows her head against the cold, keeps trundling down the wooden-planked way.
An ear-splitting wail, a wall of feedback pierces the frozen gloom from the wooden tower a ¼ mile away, rising above the melee of the swamp. Betty and Gracie wheel their mounts around, raise binoculars to their visors:
Huge loudspeakers have been hoisted to the topmost (fourteenth) tower platform. Lesser speakers hang from various places at the junctures of support beams and the thirteen lower platforms. Workmen at the top leap and raise their arms over their heads as another burst of white noise erupts from the banks of speakers.
And then a roar builds across the swamp, from the furthest reaches back up against the levee, across the now hundreds of thousands squatting on the frozen ground. They rise as one, as if beckoned by the white noise; they raise their eyes, their arms, and their voices. The feedback dies. The roar builds. Betty and Gracie flinch. Their radios light up. And from the tower’s speakers come electric guitars, a furious blues harp, tribal drums and buried almost too deep in the mix to hear:
“well don’t do that
mmm don’t do that
don’t do that
and don’t do that”
The Waystation has been deserted for some time now. Vines snake up its exterior. Cold has shattered its windows. Luisa and Herman approach on foot, crunching on snow around rusted-out cars in the road. They are grubby, with holes in the soles of their boots, with dirt-smeared cheeks. They look hungry, and about twelve years old.
Luisa puts her nose in the air; her nostrils flare. She looks warily up and down the road, like a deer on her long twitchy legs.
“C’mon,” grumbles Herman, hitching up his pants. “We gotta find something to eat.” He steps over the once-swinging saloon doors, into the murk inside.
“Worth a try,” agrees Luisa. “This place was packed back then, every day and every night.”
“Yeah, let’s hope somebody left somethin.”
They scavenge behind the bar; find nothing. Luisa eyes the rickety stairway to the second floor. Tests the first step or two; then heads more confidently up.
The second floor consists of a narrow hallway, along the north side of which are 4 small guest rooms, none of which contain anything interesting or edible. At the end of the hallway is a door leading to whatever is on the south side. The door is locked. Herman finds a brick in the corner and uses it to smash the handle.
They enter a large studio with a vaulted ceiling. There is a catwalk, about three feet wide, running along two of the walls; it’s accessible via a metal ladder whose rusted bolts are sunk into the plaster wall. Two of the stained-glass windows facing out onto the street are still intact; the two others feature only colorful jagged shards around which the elements pour into the room: there is a light dusting of snow on the floor of the studio.
The walls are covered with paintings: fourteen in all. Eight are at “ground” level; the other six are fourteen feet up and only accessible via the catwalk. The paint has been applied directly to the plaster. It is cracked in places. It is almost entirely black, except for the six above: those have been whitewashed over.
In the eight below, the paint has been applied in wide, thick, stiff brushstrokes; veins of dark greens and purples, reds and blues, pulse just beneath the layer-upon-layer of black-on-black. You can make out some shapes, some figures: there is a tower; there are flames; there are hordes of people running; there are many people standing looking up at something that is not in the painting; there are helmeted riders on horses wielding batons.
Luisa walks slowly around the room; she stops at each painting; runs her fingers over the ripples of paint, her nails grazing the spaces between each brushstroke. Herman occupies himself with a poker and grate stowed in the six-foot-tall fireplace.
Luisa scurries up the ladder to the upper level; her steps cause snow from the planks above to drift down. Herman sneezes; looks up; follows his sister up the ladder, swinging the poker by his side.
Luisa stops in front of one of the whitewashed paintings.
“She was trying to cover these up. I wonder why. I wonder why she didn’t cover up the ones below.”
“How d’you know she was a she. Jeez.”
“Don’t know. Just do.”
Herman shrugs: “Maybe she didn’t have time, just didn’t get round to it.”
Luisa considers this. Seems to doubt. “Maybe,” she replies. “What have you done?” she whispers to herself.
She scratches at the painting with a fingernail: exposing black paint, with more waves of black beneath. The weather has gotten in and worked on the painting; ice has chiseled into the minute crevasses between layers of paint and widened those cracks to produce flakes that can be picked at. She works a bit more, digging down through layers of the black paint, toward the original surface of the plaster. She soon has uncovered a one foot square space at the center of the painting, beneath the white, beneath the black. There are words there, in black:
“I am a pilgrim as I paint.”
Herman walks over to her. “Hey, what’s that.” He points with the poker to something to the right of the words, deeper into the layers of black: two eyes glow there.
Herman tears at the painting, employing a rougher touch than his sister, and has soon revealed a portrait of a small black dog sitting in the lap of a young girl in a dark purple robe or cape. There are white ruffles at the girl’s neck. But it is the dog’s eyes that captivate. They are ghostly and appear to emerge out of a fog of black smoke. They shine dully, like candlelight flickering through black smoke. Luisa grabs for Herman’s hand.
“That dog,” begins Herman. “It—“
“I know,” whispers his sister. “It knows. It knows … everything.”
The two children shiver and turn away.
Underneath the portrait of the dog and girl one word is written:
Joe kneels on the outskirts of a small town. In the gravel parking lot outside a bombed-out nightclub. A splintered billboard above him has been whitewashed; on the white paint handwritten in red: “TOLDJA THE SOUTH WOULD RISE AGAIN!!!” And then in black paint “RISE” is x’ed out and “FALL” is written above it. There are woods beyond the still-smoldering husk of the nightclub. Screams come from the woods. Joe’s radioman hustles up; hands him the mic; a voice splutters.
“You gotta get down in there and root ‘em out. Nothin else for it!”
Joe bows his head; rests the mic on his chest.
“Sergeant! You read me? Get your men down into the tunnels NOW!”
Joe stares off into the woods.
“Soldier! Acknowledge your orders!”
Joe rouses himself: “Understood,” he croaks, handing the mic back to the radioman.
And then from out of the woods creeps an ankle-deep greenish fog.
“Gas!” Joe shouts down the line.
Shivering, he unclips his gas mask from his pack and secures it on his head. Raises his right hand and forms it into a fist; the rest of his unit, masks in place, rustles over gravel and crouches beside him. Joe leads them; they creep forward, crunching over the blackened nightclub timbers, stepping over half-melted barstools; as Joe kicks down through the floor with a boot to expose a descending ladder the green fog licks at their ankles.
“Light!” he shouts, peering down into the darkness that swallows up the ladder.
The radioman hands him a flashlight; Joe shines it down into the hole; there’s a sandy bottom about twenty feet down.
Joe stuffs a couple extra battery cells into his pack; he checks a foot-long hunting knife in a sheath on his calf and a Colt .45 in the waistband of his jeans. He hoists himself over the ladder.
“I’m not back in ten minutes, you get the squad outta here, you understand,” he tells the radioman.
Joe descends to the darkness below. Hops off the last rung of the ladder onto the sandy floor. Shines his light one last time up through the hole he’s dropped into: the radioman’s masked face; lines on the forehead of that face; smoke, blackened timbers, and blue sky beyond. Rotates the beam of the flashlight down the passageway in front of him; pulls the pistol from his jeans; disappears from view.
The tunnel slopes gently downward. It is eight feet tall and about 6 feet wide. Its sides are smooth and cool; plant and tree roots here and there poke through or dangle. Walking is easy; an inch or so of sand sits atop hard packed earth. Joe moves forward, flicking his beam from side to side and from floor to ceiling as he goes. He keeps to one side of the tunnel, his left shoulder brushing against the tunnel wall as he walks.
The tunnel has flattened out and little by little it shrinks. Soon it is barely six feet all and two feet across; and it narrows further in the light that flickers forward from the flashlight in Joe’s shaking hand. He stops. Sets the flashlight down in the sand. Wipes his hands on his pants. Returns the Colt to his waistband. Bends to remove the hunting knife and to retrieve the flashlight. Shines the light backward, back along the tunnel the way he came. Moves forward again; hunched slightly; knees bent; wipes tendrils from the ceiling off his faceplate, which is fogging slightly.
The shrinking of the tunnel continues; gently, inexorably. Just as Joe drops to proceed on his hands and knees his flashlight fails. He scrambles in the utter darkness; his pack rips against the side walls as he grabs for it; his head bangs off the ceiling; he rips off his gas mask and tosses it aside; it caroms off the tunnel wall and smacks him in the side of the head. He feels for the spare battery cells; finds one; holds it in his left hand; feels around in the sand for the flashlight; finds it behind him; unscrews the base; shakes the dead cell out and shoves in its replacement; rescrews the base on and then collapses against the side of the tiny tunnel as light floods his surroundings.
After a few deep breaths, Joe checks his pack: one good cell left. He zips the pack, clips his mask to the zipper, checks his gun, picks up his knife. Sights down the tunnel with his beam: sees that in another ten feet he will have to: slither on his belly through a crack in the wall revealing a twisty path beyond which there is the faintest glimmer of light.
“This is some bullshit right here,” Joe mutters, to no one in particular.
He crouches and scuttles; then sinks to his hands and knees; makes a turn, shoving the flashlight through the sand in front of him; then gets back up, crouches and scuttles. But then he cannot get back up; must stay on hands and knees—and even occasionally move on to his belly and slither. Up and over and around and down, he grunts, sweat rises on his forehead and dirt cakes on his arms.
And then, he emerges … into … what? Breathing deeply, Joe plays his flashlight forward and sees that he is in a 25-foot-tall chamber from which branch three tunnels, each of which is the approximate size of the one he initially dropped into from the burnt-out nightclub. Down one of these tunnels a faint flicker of light dances. Joe shuts down his light and presses himself back against the wall, then actually inches a bit back down the serpentine path he’d just emerged from. Then watches.
As two children carrying a lit torch come out of the leftmost tunnel into the chamber. They are about eight years old.
“Down here? Is this where you saw it?” says Herman to his twin sister Luisa.
“I thought,” replies Luisa.
They look around the chamber. Herman waves the torch from side to side in front of him.
“Nothin here I can see. C’mon we gotta get back. Daddy’ll be—“
“Daddy’s not coming back, Herman. The gas got him. You know that.” Luisa’s face is pinched as she studies her brother’s angry eyes.
“We don’t know. Maybe—“
“We do know,” she says, gently putting her fingers on his forearm. “We do know.”
Herman’s shoulders slump slightly, and then he sinks to his knees and his shoulders shake. Luisa pats his head.
Joe inches out of his hiding spot; kneels.
“Hey, kids,” he says, barely above a whisper.
Herman whips the torch around so that they can see him, ushers Luisa into a position behind him.
“Who are you?” he demands.
“Just a soldier,” says Joe, raising his hands. “Just got lost down here is all.”
Waving his torch at Joe, Herman moves backward, keeping his sister behind him.
“You stay there you hear. We got lots of people down here. Gonna give you what for.”
“OK. OK. I don’t want any trouble. I’m not sure I can find my way out of here is all,” says Joe.
“Reckon that’s your problem ain’t it,” says Herman, continuing to back up toward the mouth of the tunnel they’d come from. And then Luisa emerges from behind him and walks toward Joe.
“Hi, I’m Luisa and this here’s Herman. What’s your name,” she asks, thrusting out her hand toward Joe.
“Luisa! Get back here dammit!”
“I’m Joe. Glad to make your acquaintance, Luisa.” He shakes her hand; nods toward Herman. “You too, Herman.”
“Are you thirsty,” asks the little girl.
“No, I’m OK, hon. Your brother said there were others down here. Are they soldiers or are they like you?”
“Naw, it’s just us. I don’t know why he said that,” laughs Luisa.
Herman comes charging up and puts his arm around his sister; thrusts the torch out toward Joe. “You leave her alone you hear me.”
Joe crouches in the sand in front of them. “I hear you, Herman. I don’t mean to bother anyone. Was just down here scoutin and got lost and now I could sure use some help finding my way back up top.”
“You aimin to kill some folks?” challenges Herman, jutting out his little chin.
Joe shakes his head sadly. “No, son. Just wanted to see who was down here and then get back to my unit.”
“Whose side you on, anyways,” asks Herman.
“War’s just about finished, little man. Ain’t gonna be no more sides at all, soon enough.”
“Yay!” Luisa cheers. “Didja hear, Herman?”
Herman hangs his head. “Believe it when Daddy tells us it’s so. Believe it then.”
Luisa kisses her brother’s cheek; takes the torch from him; starts skipping down one of the tunnels. “C’mon, soldier Joe!” Her brother follows her into the gloom.
Joe grabs his gear; hustles to keep up; her torchlight and his flashlight flicker along the mostly-smooth walls, through which some roots and tendrils shove.
Through twists and turns, Joe follows the twins. At some point in their journey the blank walls begin filling up: with drawings, slogans. Like “THE SOUTH RISING.” Joe notices that there are cave-like “rooms” that spur off from the tunnel they’re currently racing down: they contain cots, mounds of straw, a chair or two, some clothes strewn about, but otherwise they’re empty. Joe starts to investigate one of the caves but then races after the torch-bearing kids disappearing down the passageway. He hustles again to catch up. And when he reaches them, they are standing outside one of the caves.
“Wanted to show you something, soldier Joe,” exclaims Luisa. “C’mere.”
He takes the little hand she offers; the three of them walk into the cave. This one’s got more stuff in it: some boxes and cans of food, a plastic milk crate turned upside down to make a table. Luisa reaches for a tin case on the table; hands it to Joe. “Lookie. That’s our daddy’s.”
There’s a golden eagle with pinions extended painted on the metal surface of the case. In its talons are arrows; in its beak a staff; on its chest appears the flag of the Mississippi. Joe lifts the clasp on the side of the box; opens it; peers inside: a glistening gold star attached to a ribbon of gold and scarlet.
Joe whistles approvingly. “Your father was a hero. Not too many of them given out, on either side.”
“Do you got one, soldier Joe,” asks Luisa; the freckles on her cheeks seem to dance in the torchlight.
“No, I do not. Not as good a soldier as your daddy, I reckon.”
Herman grunts. “Reckon not.”
“Herman!” protests Luisa. “Anyways, just wanted you to see it.”
“Thanks, Luisa. That’s a mighty impressive medal right there. How long you kids been down here?”
Luisa shrugs, taking the case back from Joe and running her fingers along the ribbon attached to the gold star. “A while. Came down here right after the government man came and gave us this and told us our daddy was a hero and that he was dead and died from saving his men from the gas.”
Herman takes the tin case from his sister and latches it back up. “C’mon, Luisa. Let’s get him outta here.”
Then more twists and turns, through more passageways. At one point, there is a narrowing of the tunnel they’re in, like before. Joe flops on to his belly and slithers frantically to keep out of the enveloping blackness swallowing everything behind him and to keep up with the fading torchlight in front of him. He wriggles out of the narrow passage and sees Herman pointing upward.
“There. Those steps. Then crawl along another little bit. You’ll come out in the forest.”
And then the kids are gone just like that. Joe whirls around with his flashlight. Not a sign of them. He finds the steps cut into the stone on the opposite wall; starts to climb. He gets to the top and angles his body into a tunnel, pushing the flashlight before him, his pack scraping the tunnel walls around him.
He’s on his belly like this for a while, inching forward and then his flashlight goes out. And there’s no space for him to get into his pack to retrieve the third and final battery. So he keeps going, blind eyes widening and sweat pouring off his face.
The ground becomes softer, wetter; there are pine needles. He has pushed through, out of the underground and onto the forest floor! He rolls out of his pack, then stays on his back, gulping cool night air and exulting in the starry night sky.
Having ridden hard through the November slush all day, RC and Joe walk their bikes over the gravel parking lot. Stumble through the lobby of the motor court into a dimly lit bar. Five or six people, heads bowed into drinks; not one looking at the ceiling-mounted TV from which blares something about public health and guns. Joe bumps his fist against the on/off button, silencing the TV; drinkers look up; one or two give him a nod of thanks; the bartender looks up from her tarot cards; shows a gap-toothed grin.
“What can I do you for,” she asks.
“Need a room. We can check in here?”
“Yeah.” She pulls out a register, slides it across the bar. Joe takes the chewed-on pencil she offers and scrawls something on the indicated line; offers it to RC who does the same. Bartender turns the book around; shakes her head. “Uh-huh. OK. Ten bucks.”
Joe raises his eyebrows; looks around the bar. “Five or we go find a barn.”
The bartender doesn’t put up much of a fight. RC slides five silver dollars to her in exchange for a skeleton-style key with a red-plastic number-bearing triangle on it. “Beer?”
Joe glances over at RC. Who nods. “OK. Got any sammiches?”
“Some cheese left, I think,” says the bartender, drawing two drafts.
“Great. Bring em on over,” says Joe, grabbing his mug, slapping some coins of his own down on the bar, and heading for a table.
They settle in. The cheese sandwiches come—complete with a yellowish spread and a wafer of wilted lettuce—and they set at them. RC finishes, pushes her plate away, groans.
“Christ, that was bad.”
Joe grunts. Throws back some beer. Looks around the room. “So. Why’re you headed where you’re headed.”
“Could ask you the same.”
“Fair enough. Hopin to hook up with my little sister. Make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid.”
RC chuckles. “Heard that. My son.”
“Yeah, you mentioned before.”
Through a frosty, iron-paned window she spies a drone. Which hovers. Then darts off. RC shivers.
“He’s a big-time revolutionary. Fuckin kid. He’s just trying to help.”
“But liable to get his head cracked in the process,” offers Joe.
“You got it.”
They clink glasses. Guy at the table next to them is hunched over a transistor radio with an earpiece in. He suddenly shakes his fist, grins, then looks around quickly to see if anyone noticed.
“What’s happening brother?” asks Joe.
Guy looks uncertain. But then he leans over to them and it comes out of him in a rush, in a hoarse almost strangled whisper:
“She made it! Little Lulu. She just streamed from the camp! She’s there! It’s happening! Oh, it’s on!”
RC shakes her head. ”Took her long enough. What’s it been, three weeks?”
The guy with the transistor eyes her, incredulous. “Do you have any idea how many people want her dead? It’s a miracle she made it at all.”
Joe, soothing: “OK, OK. Great. Little Lulu made it. Hurrah.” Turns back to RC. “So. Your son.
RC tears herself away from the transistor guy. Relaxes a bit around her eyes. Looks at Joe and settles back into her seat. “Pascal. His name’s Pascal. He’s a babe in the woods down there.”
“And you’re an old hand.”
“Well. I got a few scars. I think I know my way around a disturbance. Kinda wish he’d’ve picked up a few things from me but he’s been off with his dad since he was a kid.”
There’s a commotion in the entryway and then there’s a couple of black-booted cycle riders bearing down on the transistor guy.
They flash their badges and hook him up. One of them hangs back a bit while the other shoves their prisoner toward the door.
“That your Scout outside.”
Joe looks up; nods.
Joe’s about to reply but the rider has whirled on his heel and is gone.
“What’s your sister’s story? She an agitator, too?” asks RC.
“Not that I know of. Haven’t seen her in a while. She runs a little coffee shop outside Baltimore.” He lowers his voice; leans down to tie his shoe, putting his head close to her knee. “We were gonna meet up in the capital, see what was what. But I talked to her a couple of days ago and she’d just come across, of all people, Little Lulu, and was drivin her into the camp. I figured maybe I’d better get out there myself, keep an eye on her.” He sits back up. “No idea how I’m gonna find her now. That’s why I was callin last night.”
RC huffs, downs some beer. Wipes some foam off her upper lip with her tongue. “Fuckin amateur, that Lulu chick, you ask me. She’s gonna get some people killed, she’s not careful.”
Joe appraises her. Nods slightly. “Well. Let’s hope you’re wrong.”
“You a vet?”
Joe shifts a little in his seat. Glances away. “I am.”
“You don’t like to talk about it.”
“Not my favorite topic of conversation, no.”
“Where were you?”
Joe nods; scratches the bridge of his nose. “You?”
“Embedded with the corps. They didn’t let us in there till it was all over. Seoul, huh. Christ, that was about as bad as it ever got. You OK?”
“In one piece, far as I know,” says Joe, brightening, slapping his biceps.
“Excepting you talk to your motorcycle.”
“Yeah, I heard you this morning. Does it ever talk back?”
Joe locks eyes with her; then averts his gaze. She smiles sadly at him; wipes a lock of hair from his forehead.
“Well,” continues RC, “reckon if you got out of the Korean gas chambers and the worst thing you do is have conversations with your bike … well, could be a LOT worse.”