The Writer's Life: Film & Book Reviews, Observations, and Stories
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Death in the Afternoon

©2007 by Steven Alm

There is certainly much cruelty, there is always danger, either sought or unlooked for, and there is always death.

—Ernest Hemingway

1

Ahead, but not far ahead, somewhere in the hazy darkness, a bird sang a mordant song, which pierced the dawn and sent shivers of light through the fluttering leaves of the oaks in the grove. Augustus stopped to listen and spied the black-and-white speckled bird on a fallen log where it feasted on insects in the rotted flesh of dead wood. A hawk circled overhead. Gray squirrels angrily flapped their tails and cautiously watched him. He tried to remember exactly where his father had left the stash of gear and his eyes searched every inch of the woods in front of him. The leaves sighed with the word of God, Then let thy handmaid say, that the word of the Lord the king be made as a sacrifice. For even as an angel of God, so is my lord the king, that he is neither moved with blessing nor cursing: wherefore the Lord thy God is also with thee. As he approached the log, the bird took flight and sounded a clarion alarm, which a jay and two crows quickly took up. The alarm spread through the woods like a klezmer band playing a riff of wild music, and then just as quickly died. It wasn’t important—just a human, and a boy at that, not more than fifteen or sixteen—nothing to be concerned about.

But who could blame them for being nervous?

Explosions boomed in the distance and layers of thick smoke stretched across the horizon like rolls of black crepe. Much of the city of Santorum, he knew, was in flames. Augustus had seen the line of cars fleeing along the highway since the night before. The world of peace and order, which he had always taken for granted, no longer existed.

From the hollowed trunk of a nearby oak, hidden beneath a protective layer of leaves, Augustus extracted the backpack his father had prepared two days before. Although he knew what it contained, he opened it and checked the contents by pulling each item from the worn Dacron interior and putting it on the ground in front of him: a green camping tarp, a folded hunting knife, a bundle of purple climbing rope with yellow flecks along its side, a liter-and-a-half container of water, a rudimentary fishing kit with line, hooks, and sinkers, a compass, lighter, watch, rain poncho, insect repellent, a thin sleeping bag, and most important of all, his pencils and artist’s pads filled with sketches and drawings. There was no food. He had brought that himself from the house in a duffle bag, just before it was invaded by the marauding band of men with guns. His brother Mark had told him they would come, and, at the first sight of them, to head into the woods on the far side of the cornfield, get his pack, and wait in the tree house until he and his father returned.

“No matter what happens, stay there. Don’t leave during the day. Use the hydrant in the barn to get water at night. Take apples from the orchard and raid the garden, but don’t let anyone see you. Do you understand? I’ll come back as soon as I can.”

“Why do you have to go?”

“I have to find Dad.”

“He’s fine, Mark!”

“I know, little brother. Dad’s too smart to let anyone get him. But I have to make sure.”

“It’s insane to travel all that way on your motorcycle!”

“Don’t worry. I’ll be safe.”

“How will you get gas?”

“I’ll find a way.”

The smoke from Santorum lay in the hollows and low places of the woods like the oil-stained exhaust from a dying car. In the early morning light it seemed like a sooty spider’s web of destruction stretched across the face of the earth. Augustus assumed that, in the end, everything would be burned, charred, and lay in ruins, even his own house. This didn’t bother him as much as the thought of never seeing his brother again. Always his ear was cocked, listening for the sound of Mark’s motorcycle returning along the gravel road near the farm—the old Harley-Davidson he had restored to its former black-and-chrome glory—kicking up rocks and throbbing as he eased it into the driveway.

After refilling the pack, Augustus stood up and slung it over his shoulder, and then picked up the heavy duffle. He moved with ease. He was a wiry boy, light and balanced, and could stay in motion for long periods of time with little effort. His hair was close-cropped, and his nose, which was always a source of amusement for the kids at school, was too large for his face. It was slightly hooked and pointed, which was why the kids called him “Hawk,” or sometimes “Shylock,” if they wanted to annoy him. It was hardly the right name for him, though, since his large brown eyes radiated warmth, and his lips invariably curved into an inquisitive smile. Wearing a pair of old jeans, a faded blue T-shirt, running shoes, and a cap turned backwards, he seemed like a kid on a outing to a park looking for a game of pickup basketball or soccer. His arms and face were a deep, rich brown from his summer of work with his Dad and brother. But instead of returning to school as he had planned, he was now a fugitive on his father’s land.

It was strange, yet somehow natural, that everything should occur just as his father had predicted—the fighting, fires, looting, and murders. Ever since his mother had died when he was eight, Augustus had been trained for this day—first under his father’s tutelage and then under his brother’s. His survival skills were now almost as good as his brother’s. What Augustus had not expected was that his father would be away from the farm when it happened. It was unlucky. But when he thought about it, he decided that it was actually better this way. If his father and brother had been on the farm, the three of them would have fought off the intruders with the cache of weapons hidden in the pump house and they might already be dead—or worse, they might have killed someone.

The sun inched upward until it illumined the tree house in the cavity of branches in the maple ahead. Augustus closed one eye, and then the other, examining the wooden structure high in the tree. As always, he was amazed at the slightly different angles of vision his two eyes produced. It was the gap of two inches between his eyes, he knew, which enabled him to see in three dimensions. Stereoscopic vision, it was called. The parallax view. Augustus wondered what deer saw? Or birds? Or his namesake, the hawk?

The tree house had started as a hunting blind—a small platform on which to stand—but had gradually assumed the shape of a tent with enough space to sleep three. The rope ladder had been his invention. He had fitted two parallel ropes with narrow boards supported by knots to make the ladder. He had gotten the idea from seeing a ladder on a boat in a magazine.

Climbing the rope ladder was tricky, since it meant balancing both the backpack and the duffle bag while holding the ropes with both hands and inserting his feet into whatever space he could find on the narrow slats. The difficulty was that the ladder lay flat against the tree, and his hands and shoes were wedged against the trunk by the weight of his body. It was a design flaw, he knew, and he should have made the wooden slats wider, but Augustus was agile, and quickly climbed the twenty feet to the opening in the platform above.

Before entering, he pulled the duffle from his back and stowed it inside, then the backpack, and finally he crawled in himself. Next, he pulled up the rope ladder link by link and coiled it in one corner of the floor. Finally, he fitted the trapdoor over the opening and let it close with a soft, hollow thump.

Inside it was dark—darker than he remembered—and cramped, with barely enough room to stand up except in the center. The only light came through the horizontal cracks in the boards. The light gave the space an eerie feeling, as if shot through with laser beams. Motes of dust rose in trenchant streams from one bar to the next. The air smelled of rotted leaves, musk, and smoke.

“I hope Dad and Mark come soon,” he thought. “I’m not sure I can stand being cooped up all day long. Besides, I wonder if it’s safe. I’m a target up here. It would be safer in the cornfield. There or in the barn. Then I could get away if someone started shooting at me. Here I’d be dead.”

At least, the tree house was snug. Augustus had split the cedar and shingled the roof himself. It would not keep the bugs out, however, and he was glad of the repellent his father had provided. He took a long swig of water and measured the amount left in the container. It would last until evening and then would have to be replenished. But he had enough food—at least for the foreseeable future. He had taken every can, container, box, and piece of fruit he could find in the kitchen and crammed them into the duffle bag.

Augustus sat wearily on his haunches. He had barely slept since his brother had left during the night. He was tired and wanted to unroll the sleeping bag and lay down. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. Instead, he peered through the cracks for any sign of the people who had driven him from his home to the tree house, where he hid like a exile in a world peopled with zombies.

2

The devastation and carnage on the Interstate were worse than Mark had imagined, and more dangerous. As he wove through the twisted threads of traffic, he was astounded by what he saw, even in the darkness. The margins of the highway were littered with cars and trucks that had run out of gas, milling groups of armed men and boys desperate for water and gasoline, barricades hastily thrown together with vehicles and anything else that was handy, fires, sporadic gunfire, tents and temporary shelters, animals being butchered, and even rapes, punctuated by the lewd shouts of men and the forlorn cries of women. Disgusted and frightened, Mark left the freeway at Geneva and took the old highway, which was now county road. But even he knew was dangerous, for when the sun rose above the horizon he would be an obvious target—a teenager riding alone on a big, loud motorcycle.

To say that Mark had misgivings about his journey would have been an understatement, but the older Johnson boy was a very determined young man. Unlike his brother Augustus, who was a sensitive dreamer, Mark was down-to-earth, physically strong, and seldom shied away from a challenge. Although he had a temper, which manifested itself whenever he thought someone was getting the better of him, he could be very kind and thoughtful like his father, often putting his friends’ needs ahead of his own. But the truth was that no one except Augustus—who had a younger brother’s disdain for his older brother’s authority—dared to get in his face, because they knew it would become a battle to the finish.

Mark rode warily, eyeing the terrain for any sudden movement, but also with confidence. The motorcycle throbbed beneath him like a bass guitar synchronized to the beat of his heart. He loved riding, he always had. The wind blew his long hair back in twisted tangles and flattened his clothes against his skin. The fields of soy and corn at the edges of his vision were variegated blurs of gray and black. The sooty haze of smoke was everywhere, a fog of gritty blackness—though it was so familiar now he barely noticed. Augustus was right. Going to St. Paul in search of his father was a fool’s errand, a sign of his impetuosity, but he had no choice. The idea of his father driving alone with the old dog beside him became intolerable for Mark the moment his father left the farm. The more he thought about it, the more unbearable it became, until he knew he had to go after him. Finally, in the middle of the night, it became too much. He filled the motorcycle with the last of the gas, stuffed his sleeping bag, some food, a container of water, and a mini assault weapon in the saddlebags, and before leaving, woke Augustus to remind him about the stash in the woods and what to do if intruders came.

Ironically, his father’s final words to him were similar to his to Augustus, though more concerned with his natural tendency toward rashness.

“Don’t even think about coming after me, Mark.”

“Then take me with you.”

“You have to stay here with Augustus.”

“He can take care of himself.”

“No, Mark. You know he won’t defend himself.”

“It’s insane for you to go.”

“I have to. It’s our one chance to reestablish a truly representative government. We can’t let it slip by.”

“You don’t even know that anyone will come.”

“They’ll be there. We’ve been preparing for this moment for years.”

“But it’s so dangerous.”

“Do you think the founders of our country worried about danger? They were serious when they said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ They weren’t just empty words to them. Now it’s our turn to be fearless.”

“But you have only one hand.”

This was a low blow and they both knew it, but Galen let it go without comment. His hand had been mutilated by a corn auger which had caught the edge of his sleeve, dragged his hand into the auger, and cut off three fingers before he could pull it free. As a consequence, he had three stubs where his fingers had been. He considered himself lucky that his index finger and thumb had been spared, for he could still write and perform most tasks, including heavy lifting. Mark called him “Captain Hook,” though no one else did, not even his close friends. In some ways, they were more like brothers than father and son. Mark had a fierce love for his father’s foibles and shortcomings—the worst of which, according to Mark, were his irrepressible optimism, his unwavering altruism, and his obsession with politics. It drove him crazy that Galen always put everyone else first.

“I’m taking Rex with me.”

“Rex,” Mark scoffed, “he’s so old he can’t even protect himself.”

“He looks mean, though.”

“Only to you, Dad. Think about what you’re doing. Augustus and I can’t defend the farm alone.”

“Nor could the three of us, if an army of men decided to swarm the place.”

“So what are we supposed to do?”

“Hide.”

“Hide on our own land?”

“Order will be restored. It’s just a matter of staying out of harm’s way until it is.”

“But you’re not waiting.”

“No, I have work to do.”

As the sun began to spread across the horizon, Mark passed through what had once been the village of Specter, which now lay in ruins along the highway like a train wreck. Every shop had been gutted and looted. Some were torched and still smoldering. Small groups of gleaners picked through the trash like dogs, looking for scraps of food. A man at the side of the road waved a shotgun at him, motioning with the end of the barrel for him to keep going. But at the edge of town, Mark pulled under the tall silver legs and rounded belly of the water tower, which sat on a bare knoll in a park with the broken and twisted remains of swing sets, picnic tables, and a small wading pool for children. All the wood had been scavenged, and the two old men who watched him with tired eyes were forced to sit on the cement island in the center of the waterless pool.

“Is it possible to get water?” Mark asked.

The two old worn-out duffers cupped their hands around their ears to indicate they couldn’t hear and then pointed at the motorcycle, but Mark was not about to shut it off. If he had to leave in a hurry, the time it took to fumble with the ignition could mean the difference between having it stolen or not.

Instead, he dismounted and tried the hydrant and drinking fountain at the base of the water tower. Neither worked.

“The water tower can’t be dry,” he shouted at the men.

They nodded that it was.

“Know where there’s any gas?”

The men tiredly shook their heads, as if he were a fool to think he could find gasoline anywhere.

Out of the corner of his eye, Mark noticed that the man with the gun was following his progress along the highway, and he quickly remounted. But he wasn’t terribly worried. He doubted he would shoot unless he had a good shot; a shotgun shell was too valuable to waste. Besides, Mark had already decided he was a vigilante of some sort, the closest thing Specter had to a law enforcement officer. A thug wanting his motorcycle would have shot him point-blank when he had the chance.

His options were bleak, at best. For water he would have to find an old well with a hand pump or, perhaps, a rain barrel no one had discovered. Gas was more problematic. He had enough to last for fifty or sixty miles, and would then have to find some. All the gas stations had been emptied days ago. Farmers would protect their tanks with their lives. The most likely sources were abandoned vehicles. But he had nothing to siphon it with. As he pulled out of Specter, Mark cursed himself for not remembering to bring a length of plastic tubing.

3

Three men, a woman, and a girl of thirteen had invaded the Johnson farm. They came in a new Ford pickup with extra cab as long as a limo. They were all related—a father, two sons, and the older son’s wife and daughter. Except for the woman and girl, they were experienced hunters and carried rifles with scopes, shotguns, and automatic pistols. The hunters had expected resistance from the Johnsons, whom they knew casually, and were surprised, and then relieved, to find the farm abandoned with the doors of the buildings unlocked.

“What the fuck is Johnson doing, leaving everything unlocked like this?” asked the old man, removing his camouflaged hat and looking around the farm. He glanced at the house, the machine shed, and the barn, and shook his head in wonder. “Where are they?”

“Maybe he knew we were coming,” said the younger son.

“Don’t be dumb, Greg,” said his father. “Get the diesel tractor from the machine shed and park it in front of the driveway. We’ll be ready for them when they return. This is our place now.” The old man continued to shout orders. “Lucy, go through the kitchen and see what they have for food. Make me a cup of coffee, and then rustle up some breakfast. Julia, you help her,” he said to the girl.

“Sure,” Lucy answered. The girl watched her grandfather with disdainful eyes but said nothing.

“And Roy, scout out the buildings and see what’s inside.”

“Sure, Dad.”

“Be careful, though. Shoot first and ask questions later. Okay?”

“Okay.”

“See if you can find Galen’s truck or Mark’s motorcycle.”

“All right.”

“I’m going to check out the woods. We don’t want any surprises,” he said, taking his hunting rifle with him—a 30-ought-6 with a precision scope.

The Sheens—the old man, his sons Greg and Roy, and Roy’s wife Lucy and daughter Julia—were refugees from Santorum. The town had grown too dangerous for them. After the banks failed, the gas stations closed, and the essential services stopped functioning, there had been shortages of all kinds, especially of food and water. When it was clear that the state and federal governments could or would do nothing, the looting began. At first, there had been a tentativeness about it—like adults learning to play a new game they vaguely disliked. But within two days, it had become of flood of violence, and soon every store in town was gutted and laid bare. Many were burned to the ground. There were broken television sets along the sidewalks, burned-out cars, piles of garbage, rotting bodies of pets, and, now and then, a shoeless corpse wearing only underwear which no one wanted. The Sheens had looted along with everyone else, and when there was nothing left to steal, bartered with their neighbors—but only the ones who could defend themselves. The others—the old and disabled or anyone without guns—were burglarized, beaten, and left to die. The Sheens had managed to survive on the strength of their reputation for ferocity, until gangs of hardened criminals from the larger cities migrated to Santorum and raped and looted on a scale that was even too dangerous for them.

Stuck in traffic on the county road outside of town, the old man had remembered the Johnson place, and cursed himself for not having thought of it sooner. “Maybe we can talk the Johnsons into taking us on,” he said, and abruptly turned off the highway. “Galen’s a decent man.”

When they arrived, he couldn’t believe that the place was deserted. It was a stroke of incredible luck.

Along with the large ranch-style house, big red barn, and sprawling machine shed, there was a cluster of other buildings, all painted the same bright shade of red with white trim—an open shed for wagons and equipment, the old house from the original farm (the only building painted completely white), a chicken coop without chickens, two circular corn bins, and a small workshop. There were no farm animals of any kind. Not even a dog. The main woods, which was where Orville headed, occupied a square plot of twenty acres next to the road and served as a natural windbreak for storms and a refuge for wild animals. There was another, smaller grove of oaks at the far edge of the farm’s 80-acre section of corn. Orville decided he would check that out later, or send one of the boys, when the farm was secured.

As he hoped, the woods were full of the telltale signs of deer. A narrow trail cut by pointed, heart-shaped hooves ran along a natural path between the trees. The tracks were fresh. As he followed it, Orville noticed “buck rubs”—small sections of trees where the bark had been worn smooth by the buck’s antlers. Further on, he found half a dozen beds—matted hollows where the deer slept at night—but no deer. His arrival must have scared them off. Nevertheless, he was pleased. When the deer returned, he and his sons would kill and butcher them for their stock of winter meat.

The old man lifted his rifle and used the scope to methodically sweep the woods around him. It contained oaks, a few walnuts, and some scrub pine. There was a line of brush along the fence, mostly dogwood and sumac, a number of fallen trees that provided natural shelter for the deer, and few dead oaks stripped bare by the elements. The stench of destruction from Santorum filled his nostrils, and brought back memories of the burning oil fields of Kuwait. He had grown old and fat since his days in the army and was now pushing sixty, but the Army had taught him how to kill with precision. It was a lesson he never forgot.

Spotting no sign of the Johnsons, Orville returned the way he had come. The old property laws had become null and void, just as the leaders of the Posse Comitas had predicted. The income tax system was illegal. The United States was a republic, which meant the individual was sovereign and the government had no power to enact laws which plundered the wealth of the sovereign individual. It was the Jews who were the problem, and they were no longer in control. The farm was his now. He would kill any of the Johnsons on sight.

When he got back to the house, he encountered a crisis of sorts.

“There’s no water!” shouted Lucy.

“What?”

“How am I supposed to make coffee and prepare breakfast without gas, electricity, or water?” she asked.

Orville walked to the sink and turned on one of the taps. “Why isn’t there any water?”

Roy had returned from investigating the buildings and overheard the conversation. He was small and compact with unruly long hair, a pug nose, and a flat face like a bulldog. Unlike the others, he had gone to trade school and considered himself smarter than the rest of the family. “You need electricity for the pump.”

“Right,” the old man said, as if he had known it all along. “So, then, how do we get water without electricity?”

“We’ll have to pump it by hand,” said Roy.

“But if the pump is electric, that’s not possible.”

“If there isn’t another well with an old manual pump on the farm, we’ll have to figure something else out.”

“Like what? We can’t stay here without water.”

“We can steal it,” Greg interjected.

“Where? All the farms in the area have electric pumps. They’ll be as dry as this place.”

“Well then, shit, we’ll have to collect rain water,” said Roy.

“How?”

“Maybe there are some barrels on the farm. But if there aren’t, we can use some of the pots and pans from the kitchen.”

Orville quickly came to a decision. “Lucy, you and Roy take some pots and pans and stick them under the downspouts.”

They did as he ordered, locating suitable containers in the cabinets and taking them outside without a word.

This left Julia alone in the kitchen with her grandfather. She made herself as inconspicuous as possible and watched him. With his weak chin, unshaven face, and small, beady eyes, he seemed like a starving rat. Her eyes narrowed in contempt. Looting people’s homes and killing innocent people were crimes. Of the men, only her father, Roy, had a modicum of sense, but he was completely subservient to the old man’s will. Julia was terrified. She had no illusions that Orville would sacrifice any of them, if necessary, and since she was the most valuable as trade bait—the one who could be bartered away for food or whatever else Orville needed—she would be the first to go.

“This is going to be a hell of a lot harder than I imagined,” Orville said, and then saw the look of disparagement on his granddaughter’s face.

“Get outside and help your mother and father!”

“Yes, sir.”

“Do it now!” he thundered. “You stupid, little bitch.”

When she had gone, Orville considered the problem of how to cook their meals. He had seen rows of stacked and hand-split oak in the pasture—enough to last for years. He made a quick tour of the house. There was a brick fireplace in the living room and a large wood burner in the basement. The solution was obvious. Lucy could cook over the open hearth upstairs and heat water on the wood burner downstairs. During his search, he found other treasures as well—a bar that was fully stocked with liquor, a freezer full of meat (though now unthawed and lying in a pool thin, bloody water), and in the garage, a fruit cellar that contained jars of pickles and stewed tomatoes.

Orville thought of the girl again and how much she had developed over the course of a few short months—with small, round breasts, a woman’s pear-shaped ass, pert and arrogant eyes, and a sexy mouth that demanded to be kissed. She had even begun wearing some of her mother’s clothes. That she was a little bitch excited him even more.

4

Along the old highway outside of Specter, Mark encountered families on bicycles with plastic bags hanging from the frames as if they were volunteers picking up trash in the ditches; farmers on diesel tractors with rifles slung across their backs; new cars and trucks which had left the Interstate, as he had, who rushed past at top speed; men and women hiking with backpacks as if on a late summer outing to the lake; groups of teens and children trudging along by themselves; and tents and fires in the fields and ditches, though fewer than before. The mood seemed less hostile and violent away from the caravans of people on the major highway, though knowing that his life could end at any moment with one well-timed bullet, Mark rode attentively, constantly scanning the space around him for a gun pointed in his direction. Under him, the motorcycle screamed with a high-pitched wail, and he knew it had been a mistake to drill out the exhaust pipes. It was too loud and attracted too much attention. Everyone turned to look as he passed. Later, when he attempted to find water and gas, it would be impossible to surprise anyone. They would hear him coming from miles away.

Ahead, the leader of a group of children straggling single-file along the highway motioned for him to stop. He studied them as he approached, but whizzed past without slowing down. He counted six of them, most of them very young, with tired and scared faces. Part of him wanted to stop. His father would have, he knew. Even when Galen had his bout with cancer and was receiving high doses of chemo, he never once complained or let it interrupt his routine. He was invariably kind and good to everyone. Most people didn’t even know he was sick. It had amazed Mark to see his father’s strength, but it also taught him a lesson—one he wasn’t sure he wanted to know. He was not like his father. He did not have his courage or fortitude. Galen told him he lacked faith. Look at your Augustus, how he expresses his love of life through art. Have you seen the inside of the old house recently? He’s turned it into his own Sistine Chapel. Your brother already knows the secret of life. To feel good about yourself, you have to love everyone and everything without exception. Just the way they were are—not the way you want them to be. It’s so simple. Don’t you see? To hate any one person or thing is enough to destroy your peace of mind.

But, of course, this was the wrong thing to say to an older son who already resented his younger brother’s place in his father’s heart. It tore him up inside to realize that he was not as good as either of them and never would be. He was more like his mother—at least, what he could remember of her—emotional, sometimes brittle, mouthy and feisty, with a deep sense of propriety and a natural need to be the one in charge.

The sun was now fully above the horizon, a yellow globe which cast long, thin shadows across the highway.

Mark had reacted angrily to his father’s statements about his enlightened brother, and by comparison, himself as an unenlightened fool. “You’re judging me right now, Dad.”

Galen thought about this for a moment. “I suppose I am.”

“Then, you’re a hypocrite, aren’t you? What gives you the right to criticize me? How am I different from anyone else?”

“You’re my son.”

“Ah,” Mark said with a sneer, “the rules don’t apply when it’s your son you’re condemning.”

“I’m not condemning you, Mark. I’m merely pointing out that you’d be happier if you—,” Galen said, and stopped, realizing his son had him in a box he couldn’t get out of.

“And what about all those guns you have?” Mark continued.

“What about them?”

“Aren’t they designed to destroy life?”

“When it’s called for.”

“And when is that?” Mark asked with a voice loaded with sarcasm. “When you decide it’s called for, right?”

“It’s more complicated than that.”

“Bullshit.”

“There comes a time when you have to defend what is yours. You can’t stand helplessly by and watch evil people take over the world.”

“Who decides who is evil and who isn’t? You do, right?”

“Everyone knows what evil is.”

Mark continued to drive home his point. “What happens to your precious sense of peace when you kill someone, Dad?”

“You’re obfuscating what I’m saying.”

“Not at all, Dad. I’m simply pointing out that your statements are self-contradictory. You’re telling me to do something you haven’t done yourself. In my book, that’s the height of hypocrisy.”

“Not everything can be defined by words. There is a higher law.”

“That’s what Hitler said.”

“Fine, Mark, fine. I’m not going to argue with you anymore.”

“Because you can’t. You don’t have a leg to stand on,” Mark exclaimed, as his father abruptly turned and walked away.

As Mark watched the sooty dawn spread across the fields, he knew that the real crux of the argument had not been about Galen’s beliefs, absurd as they were, but about being denied an equal share of his father’s love. Augustus was gifted and embodied everything his father believed, and this made him impossible to compete against.

5

That afternoon, rain clouds formed in the sky above Santorum like pools of clotted blood, slowly massed into a dark front which stretched from horizon to horizon, and then spread eastward like a pillar of Satan’s wrath. Every few minutes Augustus gazed to the west and measured the storm’s progress. I know where thou dwellest, where the seat of Satan is. And thou holdest fast my name and hast not denied my faith. In truth, Augustus welcomed the storm. The rain would give him the cover he needed to move more freely about the farm. Not only did he need to replenish his water supply, but he now knew—because the men had guns—that the tree house was unsafe except at night. During the day he would need to hide in the cornfields, woods, barn, or perhaps in the old white house, which was now used to store bags of seeds and fertilizer.

Besides the storm, there were other signs in the sky as well—funnels of black smoke which poured from the chimneys of the fireplace and wood burner. He could smell meat on the wind and knew that whoever occupied the new house was roasting the sodden steaks from the freezer.

Augustus visualized the route he would take on his sortie to the farm. First he would enter the barn through the secret opening of loose boards along the back wall. Then he would check the water hydrant. If there was any pressure—which he seriously doubted—he would fill his container. If not, he would use the cistern under the old house, the subterranean cement pool which had been designed by the original owners to collect rainwater. After that, he would try to get a clearer look at his adversaries, even if it meant sneaking up on them where they now lived like royalty. His impression, after he fled, was of five people, three men and two women, climbing out of a long pickup truck with guns in their hands. But he had to be sure. His life would depend on knowing how many there were and what kinds of guns they had.

As he prepared to leave the tree house, Augustus heard his father’s voice speaking inside his head.

“Son, in the times to come you must be prepared to defend yourself. Even to take a life, if necessary. You won’t survive otherwise.”

“I can’t do that, Dad.”

“Why not?”

“Because I refuse to act in anger. How can you even suggest it? You, of all people. You were the one who taught me it was wrong to hate another human being. Or have you forgotten? There are always other options besides killing someone.”

This exasperated his father. “Not if someone has a gun to your head.”

“Oh, I’ll fight if I have to. Don’t worry about that. I’m more than capable of defending myself. I just won’t to kill anyone.”

“Well, you might have to, son. There are times when it’s either kill or be killed.”

“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”

“It might come sooner than you expect.”

Augustus slid out of the tree house and straddled the limb just below it. It was strange not using the rope ladder. With his legs wrapped around the branch, he leaned forward, looking for a point of purchase below, and located a stunted limb shaped like a boule about halfway down the tree. He swung his body over the side and slid with both legs along the trunk of the tree until he was hanging onto the branch with only his hands. “I should be on it,” he said, and strained to see where his feet were. He extended his body until his toe just touched the boule, and, with his weight supported, inched downward against the rough bark. When Augustus reached the phantom branch with his hands, he slid his body along the tree again and then jumped, landing with both feet in the soft earth below. He looked up and sighed. Climbing would be harder, he knew, but now he had no choice. His food was up there.

At the edge of the woods, Augustus stopped at the cornfield and surveyed the sky. He felt like a dark, fugitive cloud pausing for a moment before rushing onward. He wore a blue poncho over his T-shirt and pants, and his knife formed a hard bulge in his pocket. On his back, his knapsack contained the empty water bottle, along with his baseball cap, which was too colorful to wear. The rain beat steadily toward him across the cornfield, violently twisting the tassels and making the arched leaves bounce like mechanical toys. The air smelled of humus and loam, and was suffused with ozone. When the rain finally reached him, it splattered furiously against his poncho, transforming him into a cocoon of negative space. It was exactly how he felt at that moment—like an outsider who existed only within the scope of his body, a transient who was forced to define himself in a world where there were no rules.

As Augustus strode through the narrow rows of corn, the leaves scraped against his poncho like pieces of sandpaper. Water ran down his face, and his shoes sucked mud with each step. But he felt no self-pity and had no fear. He was in awe of the mysterious time in which he lived, when there were no schedules or timetables and anything, even death, could appear at any moment. From some place deep inside him, he heard a voice (Was it his mother’s voice?) which said, “You are stronger than your father or brother will ever understand. Cherish each moment, Augustus, for you may not have many of them left.”

Augustus never questioned his mind, or his thoughts, and did not question them now. He didn’t try to understand what the voice said; he simply accepted it. He knew that it would make sense in time. From the future, his vision shifted to the past. He saw himself playing in the cornfield with his friends, and on the yard with his dog Rex, whom his father had taken with him. He remembered Galen letting him drive the combine the year before and how easy it was to keep it aligned with the rows. In his mind’s eye, he saw this same field on the Fourth of July, a few months earlier, when the corn was just knee-high and the sky above was a cloudless azure in all directions. Then he recalled his final conversation with his father.

“Why are you taking Rex?”

“I might need him along the way.”

“Where are you going?”

“I have to meet some people,” his father had said.

“What kind of people?”

“Men and women who believe as I do—that we must reestablish our country on democratic principles.”

“Underground revolutionaries, you mean?”

“Yes, American patriots. The Comitatus. When our government collapses—which it will in a few days—it will have to be rebuilt again, and I need to be there to help.”

“You’re going all the way to St. Paul?”

“Yes. Don’t worry. I’ll be home in a few days. You and Mark will have to take care of the place until I return.”

Augustus stopped at the edge of the field and ran his eyes along the margin of the leaves to the gravel road that ran perpendicular to the entrance of the farm. The road was barren and gray, a blur of cold rain. He shifted his eyes to the left. Smoke poured from the house and pools of water collected in the sodden grass in the lawn. A few yards from where he stood, two cylindrical corn bins sat like giant cookie jars, wrapped in corrugated steel and covered with peaked metal lids. Neither was in operation.

He ran to the nearest one and edged around it.

Rain fell around its girth in a curved line, spattering the top of his head and dribbling water down his neck. He slipped around it and ran to the second bin and then to the machine shed. To his left was the barn. To his right, the old house and chicken coop. From where he stood, he had a clear view of the new house and driveway, and noticed for the first time the diesel tractor blocking the entrance to the road.

“Not wise,” he said. “That may keep others out—at least for a while—but it will also trap them if they have to flee.”

Augustus slid through the tall grass at the back of the machine shed, and when he reached the corner nearest the barn, peered carefully toward the house. The woods were still. Even the squirrels had hunkered down. The pump house was quiet under the steel frame of the old windmill, but the downspouts on the house had pots under them. He laughed, “Not a bad idea,” and breathed a sigh of relief. Except for the smoke pouring from the chimneys and the Ford pickup parked near the garage, there was no sign of life except in the house. They were all inside.

The house had been his father’s dream. It was a standard ranch-style home built on three levels, and was three years old. His mother had never seen it. According to his father, he and the contractor had not seen eye to eye about anything. He had wanted a foot of insulation, and the contractor had decided that a few inches were sufficient. He had demanded that the rafters be constructed of fir, but the contractor insisted on pine. He had wanted a wooden garage door, but the contractor said that plastic ones were better. Augustus could list twenty items his father had not liked or agreed to, but, of course, to avoid problems, Galen had given in on every point. But it didn’t matter. It had been their home—the place where their hearts were at peace—and now was occupied by someone else.

Remaining absolutely motionless, his poncho clinging to his body like a second skin, his clothes and shoes soaked with water and his face slathered with rain, Augustus studied the windows for any sign of movement, shifting light, or human forms—anything that didn’t look or feel right. When he saw nothing out of place, he quickly scurried across the gap between the machine shed and barn and hunkered down again. His heart beat wildly in his chest. He half expected to hear gunshots ringing through the doughy air. His feet gripped the earth, ready to flee. But he heard nothing and no one came for him.

It was finally time to check out the barn.

He slid along the foundation until he reached the two loose boards where the opening was and stopped again to listen for strange sounds. The rain continued to pummel the leaves. The sky was uniformly gray. The ground was slick and soaked. When he scanned the pasture west of the barn, he saw something near the fence line and froze. “What is it?” he whispered, searching intently for any tell-tale sign of movement.

“There,” he said. “A young buck. Look at those antlers.” He counted the razor-sharp tines on one side of the rack. “Six points. God, he’s beautiful.”

The deer shifted his head to get a better look at him, but otherwise did not move.

“Are you all right?” Augustus whispered. “What’s wrong?”

In answer, the buck pawed the ground with its hooves—throwing clots of mud into the air behind him—and then charged with a low, loud bark. He jumped the fence with a single, powerful leap and within seconds was upon the boy, rearing on its hind legs and threatening him with its pointed hooves.

Augustus stood his ground.

“Easy, boy,” he said. His voice was low and soothing, like the whisper of a quiet stream. “I’m not going to hurt you. Easy. It’s all right. You don’t need to be afraid of me. I’m your friend.”

Becalmed as if by a mother’s lullaby, the deer settled on its front legs again. For one long moment he appraised the boy, and then turned and ran through the pasture into the woods. Augustus followed him, admiring the sleek, elegant way he flew over objects, including two barbed wired fences. But Augustus feared for the deer. He knew that just one moment of carelessness and a shot from a hunter’s gun could bring him down forever.

Augustus turned again to the place where there was a secret passage into the barn. He edged one of the loose boards outward before pivoting it sideways, and then slid its companion in the opposite direction to create a narrow opening. Like an ant pushing a pebble, he slipped his pack in first, and then ducked in after it.

Once inside, Augustus shifted the boards back in place. He knew that he must leave no trace, or he would never survive. From crawling headfirst into the barn, his face was covered with the fine, silken threads of spiders’ webs, but he remained motionless, listening and watching. A groundhog, whom he could hear but did not see, scurried back to his hole. Mice, or maybe chipmunks, leaped with quick, frantic steps to their hiding places. The space smelled of hay and mildew. What light there was entered through the cracks in the warped siding. Everything was dusty, covered with gossamer webs, and the air was alive with motes and insects.

The barn was constructed of wood and had a dirt floor. The ground floor was subdivided into two areas—a large space filled with rows of rusted stanchions where cows had been milked decades ago, and a smaller section containing two boarded pens, which Galen had built for his wife’s horses. The water hydrant was in this area. Between the two spaces was the wooden ladder leading to the haymow. Galen seldom ventured inside the barn any longer. The horses’ stalls were too vivid a reminder of his wife’s death. If he needed something, he usually sent one of the boys.

Augustus wiped the cobwebs from his face and slowly stood up. One of the tamer cats, a tabby-Siamese mix named Hector, came to investigate. Then the other cats followed—four in all. A chorus of whines rose from the mouths of the hungry animals. “Shhh,” Augustus whispered.

He made a quick tour of the barn and the horses’ stalls, and then lifted the handle of the water hydrant. Nothing came out, and he shrugged without surprise. Next, he climbed the wooden ladder to the haymow. As he poked his head above the floor, a flock of pigeons flew with a wild flapping of wings to the very top of the barn. Hector followed Augustus up the ladder, leaping from step to step like a panther. Because of the spaces between the rungs were too wide, the other cats refused to follow.

“Hector, you’re something else,” Augustus said.

The hay mow of the barn was as spacious as the nave of a church and filled with hundreds of bales, stacked in mounds according to the year in which they were harvested. To Augustus it was a holy place—the seat of visions and prayers. It was here he had first encountered God in the filtered light of a winter day and here he had first spoken in tongues. He had surrendered to the strange urge to speak and listened as he vocalized the sounds of a language he had never heard before. But he knew that in what he was saying were expressions of praise and worship, for he made out the words Jesus, Allah, and Buddha. In one corner was the fort he and his brother had constructed of bales like an igloo. “I wonder if the mattress is still inside?” he asked, listening as the rain continued to pummel the roof.

Augustus crawled inside. The space was dark and airless, a dome of bales wedged tightly together, but also peaceful and quiet—a refuge where he and Mark had played for hours. He wiped the dust and hay from the mattress and lay down.

Moments later, he was asleep with the cat purring loudly beside him.

6

After hours of riding in the saddle, the rain became too much for Mark, and, drenched to the skin and shivering, he left the highway, taking a gravel road between fields into the hills. It was time to stop. The motorcycle was almost out of gas, and he knew it was better to find a place on his own than to be stranded somewhere along the highway. Where, though? Most of the farms were armed encampments with roving dogs, barricades of farm equipment, and hastily assembled bunkers from which to fire on anyone who approached. Even the isolated homes along the road had barbed wire strung around them like concertina fences, with hand-printed signs that said trespassers would be shot.

The motorcycle slogged through potholes filled with water, bounced through ruts, and skidded in the loose gravel like a pig in mud, and Mark grew weary of the effort of handling the big motorcycle. He passed more farms, another house, an abandoned tractor, and then saw something which made his stomach contract—a partially butchered cow laying in the ditch with black crows jabbing their beaks into its intestines like knives. It was a gruesome sight, and even after everything he had seen, filled him with repulsion. Deciding to stop at the next farm, knowing he would probably be shot at or worse, he suddenly spied something in the distance which made his heart leap with hope—a grove of trees about a mile ahead in the shape of a perfect rectangle. No farm had trees like that, and thinking he knew what it was, Mark twisted the throttle and roared straight for it.

When he was close enough to be certain, he slowed down and let out a whoop of joy. “Wow. Perfect. No one’s there. Maybe there’s even an old water pump.”

Enclosed by a sagging iron fence about six feet tall and lined with gravestones, many of them toppled or hidden in the tall grass, the cemetery was protected by a rectangular grid of evenly placed oaks and maples. Mark had seen rural cemeteries before, but never one abandoned like this to the elements. The grass had reverted to wild prairie, a couple of trees had fallen, and the grave markers were very old and inscribed with faint, thin letters of the kind used a century ago. It was hardly home, but Mark had no choice; he was tired, cold, hungry, wet, and almost out of gasoline.

He drove through the opening in the fence where the gate had been and parked behind what remained of a rotting tool shed. The wet grass came up to his waist and engulfed the bike, hiding it from the road. Naturally, if someone had followed his progress from a nearby farm and watched him enter the cemetery, they would know where he was, but he doubted anyone would come. They were probably as afraid as he was.

Inside the shed, Mark discovered that the roof was largely intact and let out a happy groan; for the first time in hours he was out of the rain. The only leak came through a gash in the shingles which had been punctured by a fallen branch. A tiny old tractor from the 40’s or 50’s sat in one corner. The seat was rotten and the mowing deck had rusted loose and fallen to the ground. Tools with wooden handles leaned in bunches against the walls, together with a wheelbarrow, buckets of various sizes, cans of oil, and a box of tools. Entwining and encircling everything were thick dead vines, and over those, tangles of dirty cobwebs. It seemed like a mausoleum, and he half expected to find a stone crypt under the vines containing some famous personage.

Mark cleaned a spot on the ground for his sleeping bag, got his gear from the motorcycle, spread out his bag, opened a bag of carrots, a container of boiled potatoes, and a can of tuna, and began eating. Each nuance of taste was new and unique and sent shivers of pleasure through his body. Even the water was delicious. For the first time in his life, he ate and drank with complete attention.

It made him think of Augustus—actually, it gave him new insight into his brother—who seemed to do everything as if for the first time. Was this how Augustus experienced life, he wondered—as if each new sensation were unlike any other? If his theory were true, it was a mind-boggling way to live. For Mark, until that moment, each taste was almost exactly like every other. Was it possible to live so that no two experiences were ever quite the same? It was a revolutionary thought for nineteen-year-old to have in an old shed in an abandoned cemetery in the middle of a rainstorm.

It shamed Mark to remember how he had broken his brother’s nose. It had been an argument about nothing: Augustus was better at soccer and could score on him at will, and in a moment of rage he had slugged him in the face. But Mark’s latest act of disloyalty—leaving him to fend for himself on the farm—was more disgraceful, and he heard Augustus’s voice, speaking inside his head: And he said, What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which hath opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand. When thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth. Even though Mark was wet and cold, he burned with shame. What he had done to his brother was unforgivable.

He stripped off his clothes and crawled into his bag. The moment his head touched the ground, his thoughts plunged beneath a rising wave of sleep, a tide of subconsciousness extending to the core of his being. But he found no relief. Surrealist images of hell filled his mind—groups of men, women, and children on barren hills being systematically mutilated, raped, and then snuffed out by gangs of criminals. He writhed in torment. After each violent scene, his inner voice asked, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” until it was impossible any longer to deny his guilt. The agonizing pain he felt would never be extinguished, he knew, until he returned to the farm and protected Augustus—with his life, if necessary—from the forces of evil in the world. For his sake and his brother’s, he hoped it was not too late.

7

In the hours since the Sheens had arrived on the farm, things had gotten organized in the house. The old man had seen to it. Everyone had a job. Lucy was the cook and housekeeper, and Julia was her assistant; whatever Lucy needed, Julia got. Greg was in charge of the fires, and Roy was responsible for security. They seldom spoke, except to shout orders at one another. Every hour Roy was supposed to patrol the farm, but over the course of the day he had grown lax. He disliked getting wet and was worried that his gun would rust. Because he had been steadily drinking all day, Orville acquiesced in this, and by the late afternoon, Roy stopped making his rounds.

While lugging armload after armload of wood into the house, Greg watched his brother’s dereliction of duty with growing resentment, and, after drinking his fourth or fifth bourbon, told him so. “You fucking lazy bastard. Where do you get off doing nothing while the rest of us slave our asses off?”

“You’re complaining because you have to carry wood?”

“Instead of sitting on your ass, why don’t you help?”

Roy smiled at his brother as if he were a freak in a circus sideshow. “Because I’m not stupid like you, Greg. That’s why. You couldn’t find your cock with either hand unless someone told you where it was.”

“You’re calling me stupid?”

“No. A retard.”

They faced off in the kitchen and edged closer to one another until they stood forehead-to-forehead like two macho fools. Wanting no part of such idiocy, Lucy and Julia left the room, knowing that when it got loud and violent enough the old man would intervene.

“Take it back,” Greg growled.

“Take what back, shit-for-brains?”

“All you do is sit around and do nothing. You’re the laziest bastard in the world.”

“And you’re a big stupid nigger. Carrying shit is all you’re good for.”

Greg shifted his weight to his rear foot and threw a round-house right at his brother’s head. Roy saw it coming but made no attempt to slip or block it. Since boyhood, it had been his mark of superiority over his younger brother to take the first blow without flinching. Greg’s fist crunched into Roy’s ear, and his head jerked sharply to the right. After a short pause, Roy’s head slowly returned to center, and a nasty smile overspread his flat and ugly face.

“Well, shithead, you failed again.”

Before his brother could react, Roy jabbed him in the nose, and as Greg’s head flew back, Roy viciously kicked him in the groin with the point of his shoe.

Doubled over in agony, Greg screamed, “Fuck, man! Fuck! Why did you do that?”

“Want more?”

Roy took his brother’s nonresponse as a yes, and was about to drive his knee into his face, when the old man intervened. “That’s enough!” he commanded.

Still gasping for breath, Greg raised his head and looked at his brother with pure hatred. “I’m going to fucking shoot you next time.”

Roy smiled. “Bring it on, little brother.”

To shut him up, Orville kneed Greg in the face himself. “You stupid fool,” Orville shouted. “You will do exactly what I tell you—when I tell you. No more and no less. Do you understand?”

But writhing on the floor and holding his face, Greg was unable to respond.

Orville and Roy watched him like MP’s standing over a drunken private they had just subdued. Both men were cut from the same piece of cloth. Not only did they look alike—with squat bodies in which fat predominated around the gut—but they were war veterans, ex-Marines. Orville had served in the first Iraq war as a middle-aged sergeant and Roy in the second Iraq war as a private. The anarchy of the present moment had allowed them to return to the period of their lives they best understood—as soldiers in war when the only law was to shoot first and ask questions later. Because Greg was not a veteran, not even of the National Guard, they distrusted him to cover their backsides. In army parlance, he was the proverbial weak link and they never let him forget it.

“Do you understand?” Orville repeated over his son’s prone body.

Greg peeked through his arms and nodded his head like a beaten dog.

“We can’t afford any more of your stupidity. I’ll handle Roy. You just worry about yourself. Okay?”

“Fine,” Greg said, grateful it was over.

The Sheens spent the rest of the day in drunken revelry.

For the first time in weeks, they had more than enough to eat and drink, and responded like starving animals after a prolonged fast. Except for Julia, they gorged themselves on the sodden meat from the freezer and drank bottle after bottle of alcohol from the bar. The house reeked of cigarettes, roasted flesh, and booze, and their voices rose and fell with their drunken laughter as played cards and told funny stories from high school. By early evening they could no longer stay awake. The old man selected the master bedroom for himself, assigned Roy and Lucy to Mark’s room, and gave Greg Augustus’s small bedroom. By seven o’clock the four adults were fast asleep, snoring like exhausted goats.

Julia was supposed to use the davenport in the living room as her bed, but, unable to sleep, she wandered from room to room examining the Johnsons’ things.

The first thing she noticed was that a woman had not lived in the house for a long time. Everything was masculine and utilitarian. There was no lace, no curtains, no rugs or carpets, no photographs or pictures, no women’s clothing, no sewing machine, no potholders, cookbooks, or serving dishes, no novels, no tablecloths, no feminine touches of any kind. It was as if every trace of anything female had been systematically removed; it was like a boy’s dormitory or an all-male rooming house. The rooms were clean, though, and well taken care of, but with no eye for beauty or grace. Julia noticed something else, which she was sure the men had missed. All of the pre-packaged foods and cans had been pulled from the kitchen cabinets, leaving large gaps on the shelves. Had someone hastily taken everything edible just before her family arrived?

In the living room, the fire was dying and the fireplace reeked of fat. There were still greasy pieces of meat on the hearth, and charred remnants of gristle hung like black stalactites from the homemade spit her mother had used over the fire. The sooted embers sputtered with foul smoke. It was sickening. Her family had turned the Johnsons’ house into a pig sty.

Julia tiptoed to the upper level of the house, and, standing on the landing midpoint between the bedrooms, listened to the snores coming through the doors. She picked out Greg’s first, and then Roy’s and her mother’s. Orville’s was the loudest, and his hoarse, guttural snores made her flesh crawl. She was more than aware of his newfound interest in her, and the idea of him touching her sent her into shivers of disgust.

Suddenly, Julia had to get away. She couldn’t stand to be in the house with any of them one more moment. She flew down the stairs and, without thinking about where she was going or how she was dressed, fled through the entry way and into the night.

Outside, it was cold, and Julia involuntarily wrapped her arms around her cotton top to keep from shivering. She considered going back for her jacket, but realized it had stopped raining and ran for the barn instead. Dark clouds floated overhead like floes of ice. The grass soaked the bottoms of her jeans. Her breaths spewed plumes of moisture in front of her. It was deathly still. With no light in the yard and no moon, Julia tripped over a ridge of gravel at the edge of the driveway and landed on all fours. “Ouf! Damn it!” she cursed. If only she could find a place to hide where no one would ever find her.

By the time she reached the barn, her hands shook so badly that opening the double-wide door seemed impossible. But she told herself to do it, and grasping the wooden handle, she rolled open the heavy door wide just enough to slip inside. She hastily looked around. To her surprise, on a peg near the door she discovered an old coat, a man’s barn coat, that smelled of sweat and motor oil. She gratefully slipped it on and hugged it to her body like a thick woolen blanket.

“This is crazy,” she whispered, as her shaking began to quell.

When she plunged her hands into the pockets, she found a long, folded jackknife and a book of matches. “Matches? I wonder if they’ll light?” After two or three attempts, she lit one of the small, cardboard matches, and a flame sputtered to life, illuminating a scene out of a haunted Halloween house. There were spiders’ webs from ceiling to floor—some so laden with dust that they had twisted upon themselves and collapsed like ragged sheets. She lit another and slid past pitchforks and rakes, bundles of rope and twine, rolls of moth-eaten canvas, rotting boxes of nails, a corn shucker, a stone grinding wheel, scythes, and wooden rakes. After lighting a third, Julia found herself face-to-face with a wooden ladder nailed to an interior wall.

A group of scruffy looking cats appeared from nowhere and gathered around her. “Where did you guys come from?” she asked, bending down to stroke them.

Looking into the tunnel of darkness above, Julia began climbing the ladder. The hard edges of the wooden slats pressed against her cold hands. Her breasts scraped the wood. Pigeons cooed and scrabbled overhead, and then suddenly took flight.

When she reached the top of the ladder, Julia lit another match, and what she saw made her scream in full-throated horror. A knife flashed before her face.

8

“Who the hell are you?” Augustus demanded, but before Julia could respond, the lighted match sputtered to extinction, her hands slipped from the ladder, and she fell backward through the dark opening and landed on the dirt below with a heavy thud. “Ouf,” she said, as the air was driven out of her lungs.

Quickly tossing aside the knife—disgusted with himself for even thinking about using it—Augustus scrambled down the ladder after her. What had happened to his nonviolent principles, and his image of himself as Gandhi bowing with forgiveness to his murderer? Was this how he turned the other cheek?

“Are you all right?”

“Get away from me!” she gasped, scrambling away on all fours. “Don’t touch me!”

“I won’t hurt you,” he responded.

“The hell you won’t!”

Augustus had no other option but to tackle her and close his hand over her mouth.

“Get your hands off me!” she yelped, jabbing him with her elbows.

“Please don’t yell.”

“I’ll yell if I want to.”

He removed his arms from around her shoulders, so that she could sit up. “I’m sorry I had to do that. But you have to be quiet. Are you all right?”

“I had the wind knocked out of me. What do you expect? Who are you?”

“I was wondering the same about you.”

In answer, Julia burst into plaintive sobs.

Augustus imagined it was because he had flashed a knife in front of her. “I thought you were one of the men.”

“How could you imagine I was one of them? Are you blind?”

“I’m Augustus Johnson. I live here. This is my family’s farm.”

“What are you doing in the barn?” she asked, and then immediately understood everything. He was the one who had taken the food and fled just before they had arrived. “You’re hiding from my family, aren’t you?”

“Did they follow you?”

“No. They’re all asleep.”

“What are you doing in the barn?”

“I had to get away from them.”

“Why?”

“I hate them! They’re pigs!”

“No more yelling, please.”

“Okay,” she said in a quieter voice.

Julia wrapped her arms around her knees. “You’re really not going to hurt me?”

“No, of course, not.”

“Then what are you going to do with me?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “but we have to get out of here. Now.”

“Why?”

“Someone might have heard you.”

“But they’re too drunk to wake up.”

“We can’t take the chance,” he said, pushing himself to his feet. “Come on.”

When she made no movement to get up, Augustus reached down and grabbed her by the wrist. “Come on!”

“You’re just like Orville!”

“Who’s Orville?”

“My grandfather.”

“The old one.”

“Yes.”

“You’re afraid of him?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“He’s a filthy pig.”

“Who are the other two?”

“My father and my uncle.”

“Who’s the woman?”

“My mother.”

“Is there anyone else?”

“No.”

“You’re sure?”

“Of course, I’m sure!”

“Wait here,” he said. “I have to get my backpack.”

When he returned, Augustus took Julia by the hand and led her in the darkness through the maze of cobwebs in the barn to the door. If he had any misgivings about what he was doing, he didn’t dwell on them. Life flowed through him as unselfconsciously as a bird’s call, a rustle of leaves, the splatter of rain on his back, a flock of pigeons taking flight, the burning smell of destruction, a terrified deer, or a girl he barely knew who needed assistance. He did not separate himself from what he saw or felt or experienced. His identity encompassed everything without distinction. To Augustus, all of life was sacred, even his pain and sorrow—even the machinations of evil.

Julia was having a similar experience. She had already gotten in touch with Augustus’s spirit, which she found exceedingly beautiful, and was ready to abandon her fate to him.

It reminded her of standing at the edge of a cliff high above the river that summer and wondering what it would be like to jump. It was a rite of passage for the kids in high school—like bungee jumping or riding a mountain bike across a fallen log. Only a select few had the courage to jump. Mostly boys. Those who did told tales of hitting the water so hard they momentarily lost consciousness or peeling off their clothes to find bruises on their legs and arms. It was something she and her girlfriend had planned to do all summer. Every week they had come in denim jeans and jackets with the intention of jumping, but never had. It was too scary—too dangerous. Following Augustus was like that. But it was different, too, because now there was nothing to hold her back. Her family was despicable.

In an instant—in less time than it took to draw a breath—she decided to follow him, and in that moment she heard God’s word for the first time: And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last. Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city. For without are dogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie. But it was a different kind of hearing. It was hearing with her eyes, with her senses of smell and touch, with some innate sense she hadn’t known existed until that moment, and, crazier still, it sounded like Augustus’s voice.

At the door of the barn, they stopped and peered into the yard.

“Where are we going now?” she asked.

“To the old house.”

“Do you see anything?”

“No.”

“What will they do if they can’t find you?” he asked.

“Look for me.”

“Do they have guns?”

“Yes.”

“What kind?”

“Rifles, shotguns, pistols.”

“Let’s go,” he said.

They darted across the space between the barn and the machine shed and then slid along the corrugated metal wall until they were out of sight of the main house. Augustus pulled Julia closer. “There’s a cistern in the old house where we can get some water.”

“Is that where you’re staying?”

“No.”

“Then where?”

“Sometimes in the tree house. Sometimes in the barn.”

“Let me stay with you?”

“No.”

“But you have to! I can’t go back to them!”

“Come on,” he said.

With Julia’s baggy coat flopping loosely around her and Augustus’s pack pressed tightly against his back like a hump, the boy and girl seemed like ghoulish specters roaming the night, disembodied spirits only the animals knew. For the most part this was true, for they had no homes, no familiar comforts, no places to lay their heads. Before, there had been memories to sustain them—when their lives had a predictable rhythm and flow, when the world was sane and ordered, when there had been enough to eat, when their biggest worries were what to watch on television or which movie to see, when it was possible to be good and decent without really trying. Then, the world had devolved into anarchy. But now there was something new in lives, something unprecedented, and they both felt it. Augustus and Julia had entered that pristine place of peace where there was no right and wrong, no injustice, no guilt or fear, nothing to guide them except the pure spirit of love.

As they neared the old house, the boy and girl surprised two pheasants sleeping in the grass, who squealed in alarm and took off wildly, protesting as they flew, toward the corn field beyond.

“Do you think they heard?”

“Who?”

“My parents.”

“No,” he said.

Augustus pulled open the door of the old house, and in the darkness led Julia around bags of seeds and fertilizer and down the narrow stairs to the basement.

“Any matches left?”

“Sure.”

“Light one, please.”

Rummaging in the pocket of the old coat, she found the matches and lit one. Holding it at arm’s length, she saw a black pool of water occupying most of the space under the house. It was like an ancient underground swimming pool smelling of bracken and mildew.

“What’s that?”

“The old cistern.”

Augustus quickly filled his container by plunging it into the smelly depths.

“You can’t drink that.”

“Sure, I can.”

When the match died, the darkness seemed palpable, as if capable of absorbing everything that existed into itself. “It’s so dark,” she whispered.

To calm her, Augustus gently touched her face with the tips of his fingers—feeling her hair and forehead, her eyes and nose, her lips and chin, and her ears and neck. “You’re so beautiful,” he murmured, not even knowing he had spoken the words until he heard them echoing above the water.

She stood stock still. “Why did you do that?”

“To let you know that you’ll be all right.”

Julia hesitated for a moment, her hand held in midair by a vestige of restraint from her previous life. She had never touched a boy’s face before. But her fingers easily found his cheek and traced his features as he asked—though more carefully than he had done—for she wanted to know everything about him. She discovered soft patches of hair on his chin and neck, an Adam’s apple much larger than her own, medium-sized ears with no lobes, a nicely shaped head with close-cropped hair, large eyes with thick eyebrows, and a crooked, beaked nose, which made her laugh.

“What happened to your nose?”

“It’s broken.”

“How happened?”

“My brother did it.”

“How?”

“I scored a goal on him and he got frustrated and punched me out.”

“What kind of goal?”

“With a soccer ball.”

“Why would he punch you for that?”

“Because even though he’s three years older than I am, he can’t stop me. He’s never been able to stop me.” He chuckled. “It makes him crazy that I’m better than he is at just about everything.”

“Except fighting.”

“Yes, except for that.”

“Where is he now?”

“Away.”

“Is he coming back.”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Where are your parents?”

“My mom’s dead, and my dad’s away.”

“Is your father coming back?”

“I hope so.”

“You’re here all alone?”

“So now I suppose you’re going to tell your parents?”

“Why would I do that? I hate them!”

“I’m sorry,” he mumbled.

“No, you’re not.

“Yes, I am.”

Let’s get out of here,” she said. But when he made no attempt to leave, she grew impatient and lit a match so that she could see his face. He was smiling. “Damn you.”

“Do you often swear?”

“Only when I’m provoked.”

When they reached the top of the stairs, he led her around a pile of bags into the main part of the old house. “There’s something I want to show you.”

“What?”

“Something I made.”

The main floor of the house consisted of three rooms—the front room they were in, a bedroom in back, and a kitchen to the side. Upstairs there were two bedrooms. By modern standards the house was tiny, and the Johnsons had used it only for storage after the new house was built.

“What am I supposed to see?” she asked, striking another match.

“There,” he said, pointing at the walls.

“Wow!” she exclaimed, holding the match high above her head. She blinked in astonishment. Except for a empty square above the door, every inch of the walls and ceiling was covered with bold, sinuous forms, depicting the conjoined scenes of Augustus’s life from childhood to the present. The accuracy and detail of the drawings were almost photographic. Julie was especially interested in a scene showing Augustus receiving some kind of spirit, and she unconsciously traced the lines with her finger. “You really did this?” she asked as the match went out.

“Yes.”

“What is it?”

“The story of my life.”

“Why did you do it?”

“It was the only way I could make sense of everything.”

“Would you explain all of it to me some time? Tell me what it means?”

“Sure,” he said, “when this is all over. You can help me fill in the blank spot above the door. It will be a scene about us meeting in the barn and our adventures. But you have to go now.”

She pushed him violently away. “No!”

“You have to. If they find you missing, they’ll come and find us, no matter how carefully we hide.”

“But I can’t.”

“If you don’t,” he said, reaching for her in the darkness, “we’re both finished.”

“But I hate them.”

“Here, give me the coat,” he said, removing his father’s jacket from her shoulders. “When you return to the house, carry in a load of wood. If someone’s up, say you couldn’t sleep and that you were tending the fire.”

“Will I see you again?”

“Sure.”

“When?”

“Tomorrow night.”

“Where?”

“The barn.”

“When exactly?”

“It doesn’t matter. Whenever you can get away. Now go,” he said, pushing her in the direction of the main house.

But before she was two paces away, he sheepishly realized he had forgotten something. “What’s your name?”

She turned and smiled. “Julia.”

“Go, Julia,” he said. “We’ll meet again tomorrow. I promise.”

Halfway across the yard she turned to catch one last look at him, but Augustus had already disappeared into the night.

9

During the night, a packet of field mice found the crumbs Mark had scattered on the ground the evening before, devoured them, and then chewed their way through the waterproof bag containing his stash of food. The can of tuna with its zip-off lid was impossible to breach, even for a band of determined mice, but by morning, they had reduced the carrots to a pile of orange rubble and had eaten small craters in the surfaces of the red potatoes. All through the night, Mark imagined hearing the inchoate voices of the dead whispering from the graves, and on awaking, was relieved to see that it was nothing more than mice, who tumbled out of the bag when he shook it and fled in terror, squealing like piglets.

“Little bastards.”

Knowing he had slept too long, Mark quickly ate the can of tuna, drained the last of his water, rolled up his bag, and packed everything in the saddlebags of the motorcycle. Figuring that where there was a tractor, there might also be gas, he located the tank and gave it a hard thump with his knuckles. To his surprise, he found that it was partially full. Quickly finding a hammer and punch from the chest of tools, he drove a hole into the bottom of the tractor’s gas tank and drained the contents into one of the old galvanized buckets. Whatever was inside gushed through the opening like a stream of piss. It was darker than normal, almost like coffee, and smelled of sap, but it was definitely gasoline. Did he dare put it in the Harley? Would it burn? Worse, would it ruin the engine?

“What the hell,” he said, and poured the dark substance into the tank of the Harley.

Mark pulled out the choke and hit the starter. The engine turned over as if it had a dry smoker’s cough, sputtered, coughed again, and finally roared to life. “Please, God, keep Augustus safe until I get there,” Mark prayed, and left the cemetery with long feathers of spume pouring from the exhaust pipes.

10

The idea of getting through the day, knowing she would have to wait until evening to see Augustus again, made Julia tense and uncooperative. Her pretty features were set in silent scorn. She blamed the men, who had settled into a routine of drinking from morning to evening, and expected her and her mother to wait on them hand and foot. Julia bristled with resentment whenever she was around them. It was especially humiliating to have to drag logs to the basement and feed the wood burner while she listened to the men tell her what to do.

“Not like that, Julia. You’ll get smoke in here. Open the draft first. How many times do I have to tell you? The lever in back. Open it!”

She silently obeyed.

“What a stupid little bitch,” Orville added, and the men laughed drunkenly as she fumbled with the wood.

It was only with her mother that she felt any degree of kinship, for through everything they had endured in the past several weeks, they had learned to rely on one another for support. They weren’t exactly friends—for that was impossible—but they had become allies in the struggle against the mindless brutality which now defined their lives. The problem was that Lucy was angry herself—more angry than Julia—and had her own ax to grind.

“We’ll be out of food tomorrow.”

“What’ll we do?”

“They’ll have to get off their butts and find us something to eat.”

“But how?”

“They’re supposed to be hunters, Julia!”

When evening came and darkness settled over the house, the men rose from the bar, and, with their fetid, drunken breaths and the stink of sweat swirling around them, staggered past the women on their way to the bedrooms.

“Get in here, Lucy,” Roy commanded. But she ignored him and joined Julia in the living room.

When her mother sat beside her, Julia panicked. As much as she didn’t want her to spend the night with her drunken father, she wanted to be with Augustus more. “Aren’t you tired?”

“Not yet.”

“Are you all right?”

“No, of course I’m not all right! I hate this!”

“Lucy!” Roy yelled from the bedroom. “Where are you?”

Julia and Lucy shivered in tremorous disgust, hoping he would stop. But he didn’t.

“Get your ass in here, Lucy!”

When there was still no response, he yelled even louder. “Now, bitch!”

Orville and Greg both laughed from their bedrooms. “Now, bitch!” they shouted with degrading mockery.

With a stone face, Lucy turned to leave. “I’ll see you in the morning.”

“Yes, Mother.”

Julia knew what awaited her mother in the bedroom—Lucy’s look of revulsion told her everything—and she was overcome with guilt for wanting to be rid of her. Nevertheless, the moment the bedroom door closed with a muffled clap, Julia’s heart pounded in her throat. The thought of seeing Augustus made her head grow light and her body tingle all over. With no thought for a coat or hat or gloves, she headed outside like a sleepwalker in a dream. Her only desire was to see Augustus again.

But it was colder outside than she imagined, and the night air elbowed its way into her consciousness like a blow. Her eyes watered. Her gelid breath burned her face. Her feet crunched across the hoarfrost and froze in her shoes. In the distance a solitary owl called its mournful chant: And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, Nevertheless I have somewhat against thee… For the briefest of moments Julia felt the chill of the owl’s call penetrate her body. Its bony claws clutched her heart. But she shrugged it off—it had nothing to do with her—and rushed toward the barn.

Inside it was dark as a crypt, but the interior was imprinted on her memory from the night before, and Julia easily found the oversized jacket on its peg and put it on. The book of matches and knife were still in the pockets, and, as if guided by some unseen hand, she slipped the knife into her jeans pocket and lit a match.

When the light flared, Julia gasped and then blushed bright red. Augustus stood a few feet away her.

“You scared me.”

He had changed clothes from the night before and wore a pair of wool pants, a navy sweater, and a down vest. He had an impish gleam in his eyes as he motioned for her to come forward. Then the light died. But before she could take a single step, she felt his arm wrap around her waist.

“Oh my god,” she breathed.

“I’ve been waiting to see you all day.”

“Me too.”

He pulled her close. “You’re shaking,” he said.

“So are you,” she smirked.

It happened so quickly neither had time to think. One thing was clear, though: it was life itself they clung to, as much as to one another. Confined and isolated, with the smell of destruction in their nostrils and death lurking around every corner, they had lost the normal restraints society imposed upon the young. Everything was accelerated a hundredfold. Only when locked in one another’s arms did they feel protected from the brutal ugliness of the world around them. Julia melted and lost her form. She clung to him. She had no beginning or end, no left or right, no top or bottom—no point where he existed and she did not.

Augustus suddenly released her. “Come,” he said, taking her hand and pulling her toward the ladder.

Julia resisted, though she continued to hold his hand.

“Please come.”

“Are you sure?”

“I can’t live without you.”

“Nor can I.”

“Then why hesitate?”

“Because it will destroy me,” she said, though she had no idea where the words had come from or what they meant.

“I need you.”

“I need you, too,” she answered.

“Then let’s go,” he said and pulled her hand.

This time she followed.

“Can you see? Do you need to light a match?”

“No. Just hold my hand. You’ll be safe.”

“Yes, I know.”

When they reached the ladder, Augustus took her hand and placed it on the rung even with her shoulder. Steadying her until her foot found the bottom step, he helped her climb. Touching her was magical. Her body created a magnetic current that made him tingle all over. He felt energized, quickened, charged with life—as if he could change reality and remake the world.

Augustus quickly followed her up the ladder, but when he reached the haymow and scrambled to his feet, he couldn’t find her. He groped in the darkness for her. A shiver of fear raced through his body.

“Where are you?” he called and stood absolutely still, listening. In response, the pigeons greeted him with soft, low coos. “Julia, where are you?”

But then, near the fort, he heard her trip against a bale of hay. She burst out laughing. “Over here, Augustus.”

“That wasn’t nice,” he said.

“I wanted to surprise you.”

He strode in the direction of her voice, found her in the darkness, and pulled her close. “Don’t scare me like that.”

“Did it really scare you?”

“Yes.”

“But you knew I was up here.”

“I was worried something might have happened to you.”

“Nothing’s going to happen to me now that I have you to protect me.”

He kissed her—a small, tentative kiss, a slight compression of the lips, the lightest of touches.

“Is that the best you can do?”

“I’m new at this.”

“So am I, but I know you can do better than that.”

He kissed her again—this time more deeply—exploring her lips until he found the perfect point of contact.

“Mmm, that’s better,” she said.

All around them, the barn whistled with the high-pitched moan of the wind. Branches scraped like nails against the siding, doors and windows rattled in their casements, and the shingles slapped against the roof like the tongues of wooden bells. But neither of them heard a sound.

They kissed again, and Augustus felt Julia shiver beneath her coat. “Are you cold?”

“A little.”

“It’s warmer in there.”

“Where?”

“In my old fort. Here, let me show you.”

Augustus guided her hand across the inclined surface of bales.

“You built this?”

“My brother and I did.”

“When?”

“Years ago.”

“Won’t it collapse?”

“It hasn’t yet,” he said. “Light a match and I’ll show you.”

In the flame she saw a dome constructed entirely of bales. Many of them, she noticed, were customized—trapezoids shaped to fit into the rounded curve of the wall. The structure was not as large as she expected and more like a mountain tent than an Eskimo dwelling.

“Is it safe?”

“Sure. Unless someone climbs on top of it.”

The match flickered out with a puff of smoke.

“Want to go inside?”

“Okay. Should I light another match?”

“No. I have a flashlight inside.”

“A flashlight? Here I am lighting matches in a hay barn and you have a flashlight. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I’m saving the batteries.”

“Saving the batteries? Oh, never mind,” she said.

Augustus slid inside and then switched on the light for Julia, who scooted in after him. Thinking the space was unobstructed, she accidentally bumped against a wooden support in the middle of the dome and began to chortle. “You cheated.”

“It was the only way we could get the center to stay up.”

Julia decided Augustus was right. It was warmer inside. And more comfortable. There was a thick mattress with blankets where he seemed to have slept, a jug of water, his backpack, unopened cans of tuna, and, curled up on one end of the mattress, a big, white cat with a gray mask who watched her with large, empty eyes.

“Is this where you sleep?”

“Either here or in the tree house.”

“Where’s the tree house?”

“In the woods on the other side of the cornfield.”

“Who’s that?” she asked, pointing to the cat.

“Hector.”

“He looks kind of tough.”

“He is. Hector rules.”

Julia curled her body around the cat and began stroking him from head to tail. His fur was soft but not smooth—more like alpaca than silk—and his pink nose and small, rounded ears were nicked from his many battles. His eyes were the color of weathered steel, feral, and utterly remorseless. It gave Julia a start to look into them. But Hector was already purring and moved his body against her hand like a lover, showing her where and how to pet him.

“He sure likes being pet,” she said.

Augustus suddenly grabbed the cat and tossed him outside.

“Why did you do that? Are you jealous?”

“I don’t want him getting in the way.”

“Of what?”

“Of us,” he said and pulled her toward him so forcefully that she went limp in his arms.

It was just after dawn by the time Julia left the barn and made her way to the house. The trees were dark silhouettes against a pale diaphanous sky. Swabbed in mauve shadows, the rustling cornfields swayed gently in the morning breeze. Birds called in sweet, soft voices. At her feet the melting frost left scattered drops of dew on her shoes. Julia had never been happier. In her blissful state, she imagined the spirit of the living God sweeping across the earth and waking up everything that lived. Thou makest the outgoings of the morning and evening to shout for joy. Thou visitest the earth, and waterest it: thou greatly enrichest it with the river of God, which is full of water: thou preparest them corn, when thou hast so provided for it. Thou waterest the ridges thereof abundantly: thou settlest the furrows thereof: thou makest it soft with showers: thou blessest the springing thereof.

Knowing she must hurry, Julia picked up an armload of wood and made for the house. If one of her family were awake, there would be hell to pay. But the moment she opened the door, she knew it was already too late. Lucy stood there with her hands on her hips and an angry look on her face.

“Where have you been?” she demanded.

“Getting wood.”

“Don’t lie to me!”

“Where is there to go, Mother? Roller skating? Bowling? Dancing?”

“Don’t be smart with me.”

“What am I supposed to say? That I’ve been meeting my boyfriend in the barn?”

“God, Julia. What if one of the men had seen you?”

“What if they had?”

Julia pushed by her mother and dropped her load of wood on the hearth, and then began neatly stacking it.

Lucy followed. “What are you smiling at?”

“Nothing, Mother.”

“Julia, you’re smiling from ear-to-ear!”

“No, I’m not!”

“Yes, you are. What have you been doing for god’s sake? If I didn’t know better, I’d say you really have been seeing someone.”

“Then you’d be wrong!” Julia exclaimed and stormed off to the bathroom.

11

The house was in an uproar.

“For god’s sake, let’s go!” Roy shouted.

Orville had organized a hunting party, and he and Roy waited impatiently in their camouflaged jackets, pants, boots, and caps for Greg to emerge from his bedroom. The two women hovered over the breakfast dishes in the sink, keeping as far away as possible. Orville and Roy swallowed the last dregs of coffee and banged their cups on the counter with an attitude of giddy joy. Their hands trembled. Their bodies rippled with nervous energy. Both belched loudly. Nothing made the blood flow in the morning like the prospect of killing something.

“I tell you the bastard was just standing there. A young buck. Not even grazing or anything. Just staring me right in the eye. I counted six points on that fucker.”

Roy had already heard the story several times but was still excited by the prospect of shooting the deer. “Was he big?”

“No, not big. Young. Not more than a couple of years old.”

“He had a nice big rack, though?”

“Yeah. Nice-sized antlers. Dangerous as hell. It’ll take more than one of us to kill that bastard.”

Orville had waited long enough. “Get the fuck out here, Greg, or we’ll go without you!”

“I can’t find my socks.”

“Steal a pair, you fool!”

When Orville awoke that morning in the well-appointed bedroom in the queen-size bed with its antique headboard, he had felt like a king for the first time in his life. He was finally living in circumstances suitable for a person of his intelligence and ability. Life had been unjust to him. He had been forced to eke out a living as a non-union assembler in a small manufacturer of office furniture, and he bitterly resented it. He blamed his fate on the educated fools who controlled everything. Well, they didn’t control anything now. They were in the same shit as everyone else. Orville had thrown off the covers and gazed out the window, only to find himself face-to-face with a young deer on the lawn below. The buck’s imperious stare mocked him—as if he were the lord and master of the land, not Orville. “You bastard!” the old man had said, vowing then and there to kill the son-of-a-bitch.

“I’m ready!” Greg yelled, and, bursting from the bedroom, tripped over the untied laces of his boots and fell flat on his face.

“You fool! What if you’d been carrying a gun?”

Greg tilted his head from side to side like a confused dog. “Where is it?”

“You’ve lost your gun?”

“I can’t remember where I left it.”

Orville had heard enough. “You’re not coming, you stupid fool! You might trip over a twig and kill us.” Roy seemed to think this was funny and laughed… Turning to him, Orville said, “Let’s go.”

But before the two men could reach the door, Julia intervened by theatrically throwing her body against the frame and stretching out her arms to block them from leaving. “Don’t go! It’s too dangerous! What if someone’s out there?”

“What’s gotten into you?”

“The woods could be full of gangs.”

“Since when do you care what happens to any of us?” Roy asked, grabbing his daughter and flinging her from the door.

“She was outside last night, you know,” Lucy said.

“How do you know?”

“I saw her come in.”

“What were you doing outside?” Orville demanded.

Julia backpedaled from the door. “I was getting wood.”

“Getting wood? Why?”

“I was cold.”

“Is that true, Lucy?” Orville demanded. “Was she carrying wood?”

“Yes,” she said, and then, as if she had a sudden change of heart, added, “I sent her for it.”

But Orville wasn’t totally satisfied with this explanation. “If it was okay for you to be outside last night getting wood, why are you suddenly afraid for us this morning? What did you see?”

“I didn’t see anything. I just went to the wood pile and came back.”

“Then why stand in front of the door just now?”

“I was frightened.”

“Of what?”

But just as Julia was about to invent another lie, Greg inadvertently came to her rescue. Panting like a Labrador retriever, he appeared at the door with his shotgun in his hands. “I found my gun. It was in the garage.”

Orville looked at his son and granddaughter with disgust. “You’re both idiots,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“Me too?” asked Greg.

“Yeah, you too, bonehead. Come on.”

Outside they were accosted by hundreds of young crows calling raucously to one another from the trees in a frenzy of mating. “Shut the fuck up,” Orville muttered. The wind rippled the dead leaves. The sky was overcast, split by streaks of sun which pierced the clouds like rays. The ground was wet from the rain of the day before, and the red and yellow leaves glistened as if glazed with wax.

The men crept toward the woods, ever cautious and alert, craning their heads from side to side, imagining the deer would appear at any moment. Because of the stories Orville had told, the buck had already assumed mythic proportions and they half-expected him to ambush them from some unseen place. As a result, the men were trigger-happy and capable of shooting anything. It didn’t help that Orville and Roy had spiked their breakfast coffee with rum.

Suddenly, in a wild cacophony of screeches, the crows left the trees en masse, and the barrels of all three guns swivelled simultaneously in their direction.

“Don’t shoot!” Orville hissed.

But it was already too late. Greg fired a slug which sent the crows flying at crazy angles in the sky. It was like a fireworks display that had misfired and was sputtering duds. As the men stared into the sky, the deer appeared, running through the pasture near the barn and into the cornfield on its way to the grove of trees at the far edge of the farm.

“You stupid bastard!” Roy growled. “You’re such a fucking idiot, Greg!”

“Can’t you do one goddamned thing right!” Orville shouted. “We ought to shoot you right here and now!”

The men took off after the deer at a trot. With their gray-and-green coats flapping behind them, their bellies swaying from side to side, hats askew, bearded faces, and guns carried in one hand, they seemed like Confederate soldiers on the run. Killing had become as easy and natural for them as squeezing a trigger. With the collapse of public morality, murder was now the lingua franca everyone spoke, the currency of freedom, the basest essence of what American had always stood for.

The stalks of corn bowed frantically outward as the men rushed headlong toward the grove of trees beyond the corn field.

“We have to get that son-of-a-bitch if it’s the last thing we ever do.”

“Fucking A.”

But, unused as they were to physical exertion, the men soon grew tired and dragged their feet, tripping on the thick clots of dirt between the rows. Their shoes were encased in mud. Their breaths came in short, sharp pants. Their guns were heavy and hard to carry. Their clothes were soaked with sweat.

Easily outpacing his brother and father, Roy turned and said, “Come on. Hurry up.”

But Orville and Greg were already exhausted and stopped in the middle of the field to catch their breaths. “I’m not used to this,” Orville choked. “Too many cigarettes.”

Roy returned to where his father and brother stood, and viciously jabbed his brother in the butt with the point of his gun. “You’d like it in the ass, wouldn’t you, Greg?”

Greg swung the barrel of his shotgun until it was inches from his brother’s face. “Say that again, motherfucker, and I’ll put a slug in your head.”

Orville didn’t intervene. It was the first time Greg had ever stood up to his brother and he wondered what would happen next. He couldn’t imagine for a moment that Greg would actually pull the trigger.

Roy tried to grab the end of his brother’s gun, but Greg stepped back at the last moment and continued to point it levelly at Roy’s head. “Nice try, asshole.” Roy took another half-step toward his brother. “One more step and I’ll blow your face off!”

The sky was vast and empty. In the distance the crows had returned to the trees. The wind howled like a dry cough. “You’d better shoot me, you son-of-a-bitch, because once I get that gun away from you, I’m going to kill you!”

“Not if I kill you first,” Greg said.

Orville continued to watch. His small pig’s eyes moved back and forth between his sons as if they were prized fighting dogs he had raised from pups. He wondered how Roy would gain the advantage, for it was inevitable that he would. Greg had always been the weakling, the fool. But this was progress. Maybe there was a strain of courage in the boy after all. When he noticed Roy edging forward again and Greg begin to squeeze the trigger of the gun, he decided to stop it. “Okay, that’s enough! Put the gun down, Greg!”

But he wouldn’t. If he did, he knew Roy would beat him to within an inch of his life.

“Put it down!”

“No!”

Finally, Orville walked across the rutted field to where Greg was standing and took the gun from his hands. He gave his older son a hard stare. “You got what you deserved, Roy. Leave him be.”

“This ain’t over, Dad. Not by a long shot. I’m going to kill that son-of-a-bitch.”

“Not while I’m around.”

“Then I’ll wait. But mark my words. That fucker is dead!”

“That’s enough! We have us a deer to kill.”

The uneasy truce between the two brothers lasted until they reached the edge of the field, where Greg turned and saluted his brother by raising his middle finger and mouthing the words, “Stick it up your ass.” Roy responded by placing his index finger to his head and pulling an imaginary trigger. “You’re going down,” he hissed.

“Be quiet!” Orville commanded.

But silence was no longer necessary. There was no sign of the deer—only the quiet grove of trees standing empty and broken before them like the ruins of an ancient temple.

“Do you see anything?”

“No.”

“Think he’s still here?”

“No, you idiot.”

Hearing the rapid sound of footfalls, the men lift their heads simultaneously and examined every inch of the woods around them.

“Do you see anything?”

“No.”

“Do you?”

“No.”

“What was it then?”

They moved forward in a tight phalanx with their guns ready and their eyes sweeping the terrain for any sudden movements or hidden shapes. The dead leaves crunched beneath their feet as they carefully made their way to the small clearing in the center of the grove. A jay protested their advance, as did a couple of squirrels, but there was no sign of the deer.

“What the fuck is that?” Greg asked, pointing at one of the trees.

Roy followed his glance. “It’s a tree house, stupid.”

“Think there’s anyone in it?”

“Let’s find out,” Orville said, and with a blast of his shotgun, put a slug through the center of the floor. Splinters of wood exploded and fell to the ground as if the structure had been struck by lightning.

“Shit, that was fun. Let’s destroy the fucker.”

The tree house became target practice for them. It was more fun than breaking glass bottles or shooting clay pigeons. They took turns blasting holes through it, delighting with whoops of joy when fragments of boards came toppling to the ground. After creating a sizeable gap in the floor, they were surprised to see pieces of paper and swatches of cloth drop like confetti from the hole.

“What the fuck is that?”

“Hell if I know.”

They walked over to examine the debris.

“What’s this shit?” Roy asked, stooping down to pick up a handful of the stuff, rubbing it between his fingers, smelling it, and then spreading the fragments in the palm of his hand. After a moment he announced the results.

“It’s someone’s sleeping bag and pieces of food containers.”

“Someone’s living up there?”

“I wonder if he’s up there now?”

“If he is, he’s a dead fucker.”

“See any blood?”

“No.”

“Well, I’ll be goddamned.”

“Hey, is anybody up there?” Greg called.

“Don’t be stupid, Greg. No one could have survived those shots. Look at that place. It’s totally shot to hell.”

“Shouldn’t we climb up there and check it out?”

“What for?”

“Maybe there’s a body in there.”

Orville thought about it for a moment. “You and Roy can drag a ladder back here later and see what’s up there. But not right now. Let’s go back to the house and have something to drink. After all this shooting, we’re sure as hell not going to kill that deer today.”

12

Nothing had changed in Specter since Mark had been there the previous day, except that this time the motorcycle belched black smoke as it roared through town. The same two old guys sat on the cement pedestal in the middle of the wading pool, and the same vigilante menacingly waved for him to continue with the point of his gun. Mark had made good progress since leaving the cemetery. Specter was about fifty miles from the farm, and, barring any disasters, he would be there in an hour.

Just outside of town, he stopped and pulled the stubby Uzi submachine gun from his saddlebag and checked it one last time. Of all the guns his father had taught him to use, he liked this one the best. It could fire a 20-round magazine of 9 millimeter Parabellum bullets in less than a second. He prayed he wouldn’t have to use it—he had never killed a man before—but if Augustus were in danger, he knew he wouldn’t hesitate.

13

When the Sheens returned to the house, they dropped their guns by the door and made a beeline for the bar. Julia watched them pass in sullen silence. In the short time they had been outside, she sensed something important had changed in the men. Greg, in particular, was altered. His expression held a new hint of sadism that made her skin feel raw. Worse, her father frightened her. His face was a mask of rage. What had happened?

“Bring us food,” Orville commanded as they trooped downstairs. “And don’t take your time about it.”

Julia approached her mother. “They want food.”

“I heard.”

“Dad seems upset.”

“So what’s new?”

“Do we have anything?”

“No.”

“Then what am I supposed to bring them?”

“I have no idea.”

“There must be something.”

“The only thing left are the scraps of meat that dropped in the fire.”

“They’ll be covered with ashes. I can’t bring those.”

“We’ll clean them off and they won’t know the difference,” Lucy said, grabbing a plate and rushing into the living room. “Then we’ll smear them with catsup to cover the taste.”

“Mother, that’s insane.”

“Hold the plate please.”

Lucy bent over the dead fire and began picking the fallen pieces of meat from the ashes. Her hands were soon coated with a greasy layer of charred fat. Even though her naturally curly hair was tied back, it fell across her face. She considered brushing it back and raised her hand, but seeing how filthy it continued sorting through the charred remains of the fire.

“Why did you tell on me this morning?”

“To protect you.”

“To protect me? It seemed more like you were trying to get me in trouble.”

Lucy sat back on her heels. Things had not always been so strained between them.

“This horrible mess is not going to last forever, Julia. I’m surprised it’s continued this long. Order will be restored, and when it is, things will return to normal. But Roy and Orville know they have done things that could put them in prison, and it makes them dangerous. You and I need to survive. That’s all we should think about right now. Survival. When this is over, I promise we’ll get away from them. I promise,” she said. “But until then, we have to do as they say.”

“I still don’t understand why you ratted me out.”

“I wanted them to think that going outside was my idea.”

“To protect me in case one of the men saw me?”

“That’s right.”

“But you made it sound as if you were accusing me.”

“I’m sorry. I did what I thought was best.”

“Have you seen the way Orville looks at me?”

“I know. It’s disgusting.”

“Is there anything we can do about it?”

“Why is it necessary to do something?”

“I’m afraid he’ll rape me, Mother!”

“Roy would never allow it.”

“You’re sure?”

“Of course, I’m sure. He’d kill him first. Now I want you to promise me something.”

“What?”

“Not to go outside again unless one of us gives you permission.”

“So I’m a prisoner in this house?”

“If that’s the way you want to look at it, yes.”

Lucy bent forward and continued sifting for more scraps of meat. She seemed like a gleaner searching for particles of food in a field of gray stubble. There were barely a dozen pieces on the plate, mostly charred hunks of fat and gristle coated in ashes.

“They’ll never eat those.”

“That’s all there is.”

“Why are you doing this, Mother?”

“I’m hoping that when the men see what’s left of the food, they’ll get off their butts and start hunting again.”

But Julia had already stopped listening. Her thoughts were elsewhere. It was love. She knew it was love. She pictured Augustus as she had seen him the night before. She remembered touching his face and felt his hand on the small of her back guiding her through the darkness. She saw his lean, lanky form kneeling at the edge of the haymow and the flash of the blade when she lit the match. She experienced again the raw terror of being discovered and losing her grip and falling in a heap to the floor. He had promised to meet her, and she knew he would be waiting for her in the barn. Orville and the others would get drunk and fall asleep, and then she would slip out of the house and see him again. Nothing could stop her. And this time she would beg Augustus to let her come with him, and she wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Her mother gave her a long, appraising look. “What’s going on with you?”

“Nothing, Mom.”

Lucy removed the plate from her daughter’s hands. “We’ll clean this up in the kitchen and you can bring it to them.”

“No, Mom. You take it!”

“We’ll do it together,” she said.

In the kitchen Julia scraped layers of ashes from the scraps of meat, cleaning them up as best she could. But even so, what remained was charred and blackened beyond recognition.

“They’ll never eat those.”

“Then they’ll have to go hunting!” Lucy exclaimed, pouring a pool of catsup on the plate. “Let’s go.”

The men were in the basement sitting on imitation leather stools around Galen’s bar—a homemade affair constructed of slabs of green marble he had reclaimed from the old hotel in Santorum. The wood burner gave off a faint aroma of smoke. Cigarettes smoldered in the ashtray. Bottles of beer stood empty on the counter. Orville and Roy gestured wildly in the air, making slashing motions with imaginary knives, as they argued about the best way to gut and clean the deer. Greg watched them but said nothing.

When they noticed the women, the men paused to study the plate in Lucy’s hand.

“What’s that shit?” Roy asked.

“All that’s left of the food,” Lucy answered.

“What in fuck are you talking about, woman?”

“That’s all there is,” she said placing in on the counter in front of them. “It’s the last of it.”

“You can’t be serious. What happened to all the meat?”

“You ate it.”

Orville slipped off his stool and braced himself against the bar to avoid losing his balance. “You’re sure there’s nothing left?”

“Just a bottle of catsup.”

“Fine,” he said, taking control of the situation. “You and Julia see what’s in the garden, and then pick the apples from the trees along the driveway. Roy, you and Greg get the ladder from the machine shed and go back to the tree house and see what’s up there.”

“Tree house?” Julia asked.

“Yeah, we shot it all to hell,” Greg laughed.

Julia’s face blanched with fear. “Was anyone in it?”

“If there was, he’s dead now.”

“No!” she cried. “No!”

“What in hell’s wrong with you?” Roy demanded.

Screaming like a banshee, Julia launched herself at Greg and began pounding him with her fists. Her blows were so savage that he dropped to his knees and wrapped his arms around his head to protect himself.

Roy grabbed Julia and roughly pulled her away. “What’s gotten into you? Are you crazy?”

But Lucy immediately intervened, interposing her body between her daughter and her husband, and pushed him away. “She’s having her period, Roy! Leave her alone! There’s nothing wrong with her. Come, Julia,” she said, putting her arm around her shoulders and leading her upstairs. “Let’s go work on the garden.”

Greg peeked through his fingers like a frightened child and began cursing after her. “I’m going to kill you, bitch!”

“What did you just say?” Roy demanded.

“You heard me.”

With a reflex of blind rage, Roy drove his fist into his brother’s face, snapping his head back with a savage blow that broke the cartilage in his nose.

“You motherfucker!” Greg squealed, as blood poured from his nostrils. He held out his hand and the blood pooled in his palm. He stared at it uncomprehendingly, amazed by its color and texture. Then he gingerly felt of his nose, which he discovered now lay at an odd angle to his face. “You bastard! You broke my nose!”

Roy mocked him. “You pussy. You let a thirteen-year-old girl beat you up. You got bitch-slapped, brother.”

“My nose is broken!”

Orville watched Lucy hurry Julia up the steps and out of sight. What had just happened? he wondered. What had thrown Julia into such a tizzy? Had she seen someone on the farm? Was there someone out there he didn’t know about? Obviously, he decided, there was.

Orville turned back to his sons. “All right, stop! That’s enough!” he commanded.

But neither stopped. They continued to stare at one another like two boxers in the ring before a major bout. Greg was a bloody mess, and Roy—now that his brother was on his feet—was wary and shifted his weight from foot to foot. Orville was proud of the fact that he had made his sons tough, and was especially proud of Greg, who was finally standing up for himself.

“Stop!” he thundered.

This time they did.

“Having a broken nose is a badge of honor. I’m proud of you, son. Now go and straighten it in the mirror. Push it back in place like a man. Roy, you and I are going to check out that tree house. Bring your hunting knife and your rifle. One of the Johnson boys might be out there.”

“You really think so?”

“It’s pretty obvious someone was living in the tree house. And Julia’s been acting weird. I think she saw someone. Maybe he was there when we shot it up. Or maybe, he’s hiding in the barn or in one of the buildings. I do know one thing, though. If we find him, we’re going to kill the son-of-a-bitch.”

14

The garden stood on a patch of ground east of the house. Galen’s wife had been an avid gardener and he continued the tradition, especially when it seemed that the United States would slide into economic depression. In the spring he had planted tomatoes and potatoes, carrots, radishes, lettuce, melons, peppers, beans, squash, and more. It had been a bountiful year for vegetables, if not for people. There were oblong melons with green speckled rinds, puffed-up pumpkins with thick umbilici, lines of string beans on homemade trellises, tumescent hills of potatoes, tubes of zucchini, and even a row of bulbous-headed cabbages.

The front door burst open and slammed against the house with a sharp crack, and mother and daughter flew outside with their coats and scarves billowing loosely around them. On the lawn they struggled briefly, until Lucy finally managed to grasp Julia’s arm and lead her to the garden.

“Get yourself under control!”

Soon Orville and Roy emerged from the house with their rifles slung over their shoulders. The instant Julia saw them, she tried to free herself from her mother’s grasp. When this failed, she uttered a shrill cry of despair, and Lucy was forced to clamp her hand over her mouth to keep her quiet.

“Are you crazy?” she hissed.

“Don’t let them get Augustus,” came the muffled plea.

“Who’s Augustus?”

But instead of answering, Julia watched the men enter the machine shed and emerge moments later with a long aluminum ladder.

“What if there’s someone in the tree house?”

“What if there is? What difference does it make?”

“Mother, I love him.”

After the men disappeared into the cornfield, Lucy released her daughter’s arm. Neither spoke. With the intuition of millennia of women who had endured violence at the hands of men, they knew that any further words about the boy had the power to bring destruction upon them, so they said nothing.

Instead, Julia sank to her knees near a hill of potatoes already pockmarked with craters. Because a spade stood nearby, Julia wondered whether Augustus had been here before them and had eaten the potatoes raw. Was he dead now? Had he been in the tree house when they shot it to bits? She doubted it—Augustus was too smart—but she was still frightened out of her mind for him.

Lucy used the spade to lift the soil from beneath the mounds, and Julia removed the exposed potatoes one by one, rubbing them clear of dirt and putting them in a pile beside her. The potatoes were the size of thin-skinned rocks. The earth smelled of cedar and loam, dried fruits and henna. Fallen leaves skittered across the ground like large brown flakes of snow. To see the face of God was to know madness, Julia thought, already sensing how it would end.

The door slammed a third time and Greg emerged from the house, carrying a gun with him. Blood covered the front of his camouflaged jacket, creating a spot which seemed out of proportion to the others. “Where did they go?” he demanded.

“To the tree house,” Lucy answered.

When he continued to stand uncertainly in front of the door, she pointed to the grove of trees on the far side of the cornfield and yelled, “There, Greg! Over there! In that direction!

“What a fool!” she muttered and turned back to her work.

Beside her, Julia moved as if in a dream. Her mind no longer functioned normally. She saw God everywhere, in everything. There was no past, no future, no present. All of this had happened before, she thought, and all of it would happen again. When Lucy emptied the last mound of potatoes, she began pulling a row of carrots from the soil. She handed the carrots to Julia, who unconsciously slipped the knife from her pocket, opened its long blade, and began slicing off the tops of the thin orange tubers one by one.

“Where did you get that?” Lucy asked.

“From the barn,” Julia answered, completely unaware that she had spoken. Like everything else she was experiencing, she thought it was the voice of God.

It was then the men emerged from the cornfield. Roy was in the lead, followed by Orville and Greg. Like a troop of orangutans returning from foraging in the forest, they carried a duffle bag, a coil of rope, and what remained of a sleeping bag.

Julia tensed and waited.

“We found food,” Roy yelled.

“There was someone living in the tree house,” Greg added.

Orville walked straight to the girl, and when he reached her, took the tattered remains of the sleeping bag from Greg’s bloody hands and dropped them in front of her. Smiling at her, he said in a voice of pure malevolence, “We killed the bastard. He’s dead.”

Without a moment’s hesitation—without even knowing she had gotten to her feet—Julia plunged the knife into Orville’s chest with one quick motion. But the blade was dull and barely made it through the thick layers of his clothing.

He looked at his chest and then at the girl with disbelief. It was impossible that this could happen. But then he grew enraged. “You little bitch,” he screamed and punched her in the stomach with a blow that knocked her to the ground.

After that, things happened very fast. It was as if fate had laid a hand on the clock of time and was moving it more quickly than she could follow. When Julia looked up, she saw Augustus running across the lawn.

“No! No! No!” she cried. “No, Augustus!”

In stunned amazement, the Sheens watched the boy rush toward them—all except for Greg, who raised his gun and shot Augustus, who fell to the ground where the bullet struck him. The retort echoed across the fields like a sonic boom, though it was soon drowned out by the sound of a Harley-Davidson churning up the gravel road toward the farm.

15

A funnel of dust rose over the road like the tail of a comet. At its apex was a loud, throbbing motorcycle on a collision course with the farm. Orville studied it intently, ignoring the cries of the women who ran to help the injured boy. “It’s one of the Johnsons!”

“How do you know?” Roy asked.

“Who else could it be? I think it’s Mark.”

Orville and Roy took positions behind the pickup, leaving the women and Augustus to fend for themselves. Greg still hadn’t moved.

“Get over here, you fool!”

Roy and Orville began shooting at the motorcycle with their rifles, and the barrage of bullets continued until their clips were emptied. None of the bullets found their mark.

“Kill the bastard!” Orville screamed.

“With what, Dad?”

The sound of the motorcycle grew ominously nearer.

“Run into the house and get more ammo.”

“There isn’t time!”

“Take Greg’s gun. That stupid bastard hasn’t fired a single shot.”

The Harley stopped at the end of the driveway, and Mark knelt behind the wheel of the tractor blocking the entrance to the farm.

“We have to get out of here,” Orville shouted, “or he’ll kill us!”

“How?”

“Get in the fucking truck.”

“What about the women?”

“Who cares about the women.”

It was then Mark fired a hail of bullets from the submachine gun which whizzed past Orville’s head, making gaping holes in the truck and ricocheting in all directions. “Get in!” Orville screamed.

But it was already too late. When he turned, he saw Greg and Roy on the ground with blood gushing from their chests. Neither moved. From his battlefield experience, Orville immediately knew they were both dead.

“Fuck,” he cursed, and then raised his hands high above his head. “I’m innocent!” he yelled. “I had nothing to do with this! They did it! It was all their fault!”

16

Mark strode toward the old man with the gun leveled at his head. “Who are you?”

“Orville Sheen.”

“From Santorum?”

“Yes.”

“Where’s my brother?”

“Over there,” Orville said, pointing to where Julia and Lucy knelt over the boy.

“Is he all right.”

“I don’t know.”

“He’d better be,” Mark said. “Who are the other two men?”

“My sons.”

“And the women?”

“My son’s wife and daughter.”

“Lay on your stomach,” he ordered. When the old man hesitated, Mark put the barrel of the Uzi against the back of his neck. “Do it now, or I’ll shoot you where you stand.”

When Sheen stumbled to his knees and lurched forward onto his chest, Mark cut a strip of fabric from the back of his coat, and tied the old man’s wrists with it. “I had nothing to do with this,” Sheen protested. “My sons did it. I tried to stop them but was too old and useless to do anything. Ask the women.”

“Shut up.”

After checking the men and finding them both dead, Mark ran to his brother’s side. Just below his right shoulder was a gaping hole with blood oozing from it in a slow steady flow.

“Is he alive?”

“Yes, but he’s unconscious,” Julia answered.

“I need your help.”

“I’ll do anything.”

“What’s your name?”

“Julia. This is my mother, Lucy.”

“All right, here’s what I need. One of you rip some sheets into bandages and boil them in hot water. Lucy, why don’t you do that? Julia, you go to the bathroom and bring me the rubbing alcohol, the small scissors, the tweezers, and any other disinfectant you can find. Oh, there are some rolls of sterilized gauze in the main cabinet. I need those, too. Okay?”

“Okay,” they answered and hurried off.

His brother’s eyelids twitched as if flies had settled on them, and Mark watched him draw short, fitful breaths that contorted his lips in spasms of pain. He couldn’t let Augustus die. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself if he did. With both hands, he ripped his brother’s shirt away from his wound and exposed a large patch of skin. The hole in his body was smaller than a quarter and less bloody than he expected. It ran from the outside of his right nipple to a point just under the arm. Mark’s knowledge of anatomy was sufficient to know the slug had not struck the heart (since it was on the other side of his chest). His brother’s breathing was ragged, but steady, so he was certain the lung had not collapsed. He sighed with relief. Already Mark knew that if he could prevent the wound from becoming infected, Augustus would live.

From the driveway, Mark heard the old man begging in a weak, pathetic voice, “I had nothing to do with what happened to your bother. Greg shot him. I tried to stop him, but couldn’t. You have to believe me. I didn’t want any of this to happen. It was my sons’ fault. Please don’t harm me for something they did. Please, Mr. Johnson.”

“Mister Johnson?” Mark asked in disbelief. “You’re completely full of shit, aren’t you?”

“Please, sir. Please.”

“Shut up, old man.”

Julia ran from the house. “Here Mark,” she said, handing him everything and kneeling in front of the boy. “Is he going to be all right?”

“Yes.”

“How do you know?”

“The wound isn’t fatal.”

“Thank God,” she breathed.

“How do you know my name?”

“Augustus told me. He said you broke his nose.”

“Augustus? How do you know him?”

“He’s my boyfriend.”

“Boyfriend?” Mark asked, shaking his head in astonishment. “Hold these,” he said, handing her the scissors and tweezers, while he opened a package of gauze and the bottle of alcohol. When Mark began swabbing the wound, Augustus winced in pain and jerked his shoulder away from his brother’s probing hand. Opening his eyes and seeing Mark, he smiled and asked, “What took you so long?”

“Hi, buddy. How do you feel?”

“Augustus!” Julia cried and began sobbing, “I thought you were going to die!”

Lucy appeared with a pan full of boiled sheets, torn in strips, and placed them beside the boy. “He’s awake.”

“And alive, Mother!”

“Hold him up,” Mark said, “so that I can wrap a bandage around him.”

Augustus winced in pain as they leaned him forward. “Be careful.”

After cleaning and disinfecting the wounds and taping gauze over them, Mark wrapped a long strip of cotton around his brother’s chest and tied the ends in a knot.

“Now help him to his feet.”

When Augustus was standing, Mark pointed to the old man lying on the driveway. “What role did he play in this?”

Julia looked from her mother to Augustus and back to Mark. No one spoke. He turned to Lucy.

“Which one is your husband?”

“That one,” Lucy said.

“What should I do with him?”

“Bury him.”

“And the old man?”

“You can bury him, too,” Julia answered.

“What does that mean?”

“You decide.”

“What’s his name?”

“Orville.”

“He’s responsible for what happened to Augustus?”

“And for everything else, too.”

“Help Augustus inside, will you? I’ll be in in a few minutes,” Mark said. “I have to finish this.”

Mark walked to where Orville lay on the ground and stood over him.

“Don’t hurt me. I’m just a fat old man,” he begged.

“You’re the worst kind of pig. There aren’t even words to describe you.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

“You’re responsible for everything.”

Mark pointed the gun at Orville’s head, ready to execute him, when he heard Augustus’s voice speaking to him in the center of his mind: Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

Mark roughly pulled the old man to his feet.

“What are you doing”

“Letting you go.”

“Why?”

“Because killing you would mean becoming exactly like you, and I have too much respect for myself to do that.”

“Then cut me loose.”

“No. Get out of here. And pray you don’t meet someone like yourself.”

“But I’m helpless like this.”

When Orville hesitated, Mark took the Uzi and fired at the ground until the old man began running. He watched him hobble down the driveway, pass the tractor and motorcycle, and walk along the gravel road to the edge of the farm. The moment he was out of sight, Mark turned back to the house. It was his job now to keep everyone safe until his father returned.

Inside, Mark found Lucy and Julia having an animated discussion in the kitchen, which abruptly ended the moment they saw him. On the counter, Lucy had her hands in a torn and tattered bag, rifling through boxes and cans of food, which Mark recognized as having originally come from the kitchen cabinets. He assumed it had been his brother’s duffle bag which the men had recovered from the tree house, that Lucy was gorging herself (since there were crumbs dribbling from her mouth), and that Julia was trying to restrain her. Both women were disheveled and dirty, with thin dresses which barely covered their bodies, greasy hair, and smudged faces. They were exhausted, he knew, and traumatized by the abruptness and violence of his assault, but he also understood that if he didn’t take control of the situation, Julia’s mother would consume all of their food.

“Where’s Augustus?”

“In his room,” Julia answered.

“How is he?”

“In a lot of pain, but okay. He keeps saying you saved his life. That Orville would have finished him off if you hadn’t returned when you did.”

Mark nodded. “I’m sorry about what happened.”

“You saved our lives, too,” Julia asserted.

“That’s all there is to eat?”

“Yes.”

“How much water?”

“Just some rainwater we collected.”

“Okay,” he said. “There are four of us. If we’re going to survive, we have to work together. There’s no other way.” Mark glanced at Lucy, to see if she understood what he meant, when a bullet shattered the glass in the dining room window and ripped through his leg. Orville emerged through the window with a pistol pointed at Mark’s head.

Inured as they were to violence, neither woman moved or said a word, but watched with empty eyes.

“You young fool,” the old man said. “Did you think I would just walk away? Or that I couldn’t free that strip of cloth around my wrists by ripping it on barbed wire? Or that I wouldn’t be carrying a pistol? You’re going to die for your stupidity—slowly and painfully.”

Mark stood helplessly on one leg. His gun was on the stand by the front door, and he knew he would die before he got there.

Another shot rang out, and Mark crumpled to the floor. This time Orville hit him in the other leg.

“Are you enjoying this, cocksucker? Not so high and mighty now, are you? You thought you were better than me, didn’t you? Well, look at you now.”

Though he was in agony, his mouth stretched in a rictus of pain, Mark eyed him in sullen silence.

“Beg for mercy like the cocksucker you are.”

“Leave him alone, Orville!” Julia cried.

“Shut up, little bitch,” he said, and then laughed. “I’ve got a present for you when this is over.”

Suddenly, they heard the sound of Augustus flying down the steps from the bedroom above and leaping through the air in one complete motion. It was like glimpsing a ninja. His knife flashed, and before Orville could react, gutted him from ear to ear. The old man gurgled on his blood, and then collapsed to the floor, violently gasping for breath. A minute later he was dead.

They all looked at the boy in astonishment.

“I guess Dad was right,” Augustus said to Mark. “Sometimes it is necessary to take a life. Now, let’s get you fixed up, little brother.”