By late October, the vast field of hard brown grass which sat sandwiched between US50 and several squat brick habitations was clogged with row after row of tents and bon fires; over some sat big black witch cauldrons. Dirty, unwashed refugees sat huddled around the fires, warming themselves against the biting late October cold. The sky was the bleak hue of cigarette ash and it had been drizzling freezing droplets of rain off and on for days; while the chilly air was filled with the repulsive mixture of smoky fires (a pleasant smell in itself) dirty bodies, and raw sewage from the latrines that sat dug in a long, deep slash close to the desolate highway. Most of the five or six brick structures on the sprawling campus of the Burlington United Methodist juvenile group facility had been looted and the windows smashed in. They were home to members of a National Guard unit who refused to help us and shot at anyone who came close. Several dead bodies, lying supine, covered with sluggish, dying flies, lay on the brown, meager lawns of the buildings, unmoved by the guardsmen or us.
I sat around a roaring blaze close to one of the guardsmen controlled buildings one night, surrounded by a ring of gaunt, pale faces belonging to battered and worn bodies, clad in tattered rags that did nothing to protect them from the extreme West Virginia autumn. Their eyes, weary and brimming with tears of pain, anger and depression, were always downcast as if gazing at what (if anything, in some cases) covered their blistered feet. A few of the people in my presence had walked north from as far away as the Ohio boarder. A few had ridden horses or donkeys, or whatever else they could find, but a great many made their journey on foot. With gasoline at twenty dollars a gallon, virtually nobody could afford to do anything but walk, or ride bicycles I suppose, but from what I had heard on the news, people (mostly in the inner city areas) were being murdered for their bikes, even little children on pink, unicorn covered bicycles weren't safe from being "bike-jacked".
The people around me didn't talk much, they were mostly quiet, save for the labored breathing and the seal like cough of those with pneumonia. But when someone did manage to pull together the energy, or the will, to talk, they used their words to bash the government and threaten death upon the president and his family and everybody else in Washington D.C., which, like most every other city in America, was torn down and in flames. The rest of the world was feeling the icy grip of the Great Depression too; they were just not as bad off as we.
The persistent cold was terrible. It never went away and there was really no escaping from it. It was a horrible chill that settled into ones bones, refusing to be exorcised by any source of warmth. People would shake and shiver at all hours, but at night, night was when everybody had to go to bed in their own, heatless tents. Many of us had at least a sleeping bag, but not much more. People froze to death every dark, cruel night, their things being commandeered and used by the others. And at one point, a few days before, a young girl of roughly fifteen asked if she could share my bed. She was a pretty thing, with long dark hair and hazel eyes, but her face was smeared with dirt and her clothes were rotting from her slender body. She didn't want sex, just body heat, and being a big guy (people used to make fun of me and now they wished that they were me, funny, huh?) she must have figured that I had a lot of heat to give; and if she would have to give up her body to obtain warmth, she most likely didn't care. So I said yes, she could sleep with me, but that we would not be having sex. So we both stripped naked (I cannot lie, I did have an erection) and held each other within the sleeping bag, which was piled high with both of our clothes. We were both reluctant to leave the warmth that we had made come morning, but we did.
"The radio said that the president was ordering a new stimulus package," spoke a soft, hopeful voice from somewhere to my right. I looked and saw a tiny man in the tattered remains of what may have at one time been a sweater. He had a walrus mustache and a bald head which gleamed in the glow of the fire. Gloomy twilight was descending down upon the land and with it was a considerable breeze. Our large blaze was only one of many other fires, all of which seemed to sway to and fro in the wind.
I was tired to the point of near exhaustion; it was hard for me to sleep under the present conditions; all night my stomacfh clenched with hunger pangs, and my tratiorus mind played vivid scebes of hot steamy food on the backs of my eye lids. I had been without a cigarette- fifty dollars a pack, and lacking most of the nicotine that had once been there thanks to our fearless leader, the tyrant in Washington- and that really kept me up at night, wishing death upon myself, the president, and every other human being on this miserable, hellhole of a planet.
"That's the reason we're here in the first place," I murmured as I gazed deeply into the flickering orange flames of the fire, nearly hypnotized, wishing it possible that I could actually sit within it without burning up; I was so damn cold. "All of these damn stimulus packages and bailouts have destroyed this country, destroyed us all. If that stupid son of a bitch is planning to waste more money and sink us down even further, he's doing all of this on purpose."
"Damn right he is," snarled a large woman with a dirty, pudgy face and frizzled red hair, "I'd like to kill that motherfucker."
That was the extant of my part in the conversation. I would have talked everyone's ears off, to hell and back, as I did during the last election, when I tried to persuade as many people as I could that the charming young man was a fool or worse, but what was the use? I was depressed and didn't really give a shit about much besides surviving.
The talk went on for a small amount of time, with people expressing their murderous desires and all, but I finally shambled miserably back to my tent and went to sleep.
To the right of my lodgings, a rusted blue pick-up truck with a white camper shell sat in the shaggy grass. The windshield was cracked and the passenger side window was completely gone, a taunt black trash bag in its place. This was the home of a tall Native American man named John who had driven his piece of shit pick-up (stolen from the side of the road actually, where it had been abandoned back in August) south from Wheeling. He was full blooded Chippewa and looked it, with his prominent cheek bones and his African-like nose; his black hair was long and he wore large, thick glasses.
I and he had become close over many drinking bouts and bull sessions, and we spent a lot of time together, talking and drinking homemade wine. He shared his food with me and I shared mine with him.
I had once thought that friendship was a dirty lie, that friends didn't really care about one another, but John proved to me that real friendship did exist, but I had never experienced it before. He spoke frankly to me, almost tenderly. He would call me out when I got a little too drunk and stupid, he always made sure that I had what I needed, and tried, in an awkward almost semiliterate way, to pass down to me the wisdom that he had acquired over his thirty extra years on this earth. He was always quick with a smile and a joke; he was a laid back, good natured person, slow to anger and quick to forgive.
To stave off boredom and to keep in a semblance of fitness, we took long walks around the tiny, deserted town of Burlington and the surrounding countryside. There was really nothing to the town, a lonely country road met US50 in a T, and the post office on the right hand side of the road, a few dilapidated homes, the Burlington campus, Burlington elementary school and a small wooden building that was the town library, was all that there was to it. Most of the people who owned the homes were either dead or fled. We broke into the school once in a search for food and found everything gone, save for a few dozen cartons of spoiled milk trapped in the freezer when the power cut out back in September.
There was a bright spot though. On the right side of the highway, beyond the homes and the hilly country, we discovered a river. We knew that the river was there, but as it snaked south though the wooded wilderness, it transformed from the tiny babbling brook that we knew of, into a wide, almost pond like body of water. To get there, we had to travel down a dirt road though bare farmland, up a small hill dotted with trees whose leaves were the fiery color of fall, across another patch of farm land and up a small hill flanked by dead trees on either side. The river, in that one point at least, was deep enough to swim in, and it appeared that people had, for lying atop a small island of rocks which sat between the two shores, we spied a pair of brown sandals and some other miscellaneous things that could have been left by swimmers in happier, warmer days.
"You know how to fish?" John asked me.
As the thought took root in my mind, I instantly began to salivate, even as I was wracked by stabbing hunger pangs, remembering, or trying to remember, the taste of warm, cooked fish. I was tempted to blurt: fiiiish, in imitation of Homer Simpson.
"Damn right I do," I lied.
We went back to his truck and at once set about egerly fashioning our own fishing poles. John told me that we could also take the river water and boil it, thus giving ourselves a steady supply of fresh water. Nobody else seemed to know about the river, they were just as fooled as me and John were by the nearly dry creek bed which ran under the small concrete bridge separating Burlington from the surrounding wilds. We planned to keep it that way. If everybody and his brother from back in camp found out that there was a good sized fishing hole, all of the fish would be either caught and eaten, or driven away.
We resolved to make some kind of camp above the muddy banks of the river, so that whenever we cooked our fish, nobody in camp would smell our food and ask questions. His truck was out of gasoline, so there was no chance that we could move that. We broke into a house which sat in the middle of a field on the opposite side of the river (deep, bone chillingly cold) and were blessed to find a small camper sitting in the cavernous garage. We pushed it to the tiny incline overlooking the river and resolved that we would keep it on this bank, and that we would have to construct some type of footbridge so that we didn't have to wade across in the cold, waist deep water.
We made our first efforts on November 3rd; the only thing that we caught was a single, little fish that tasted like heaven after we cooked it over the small fire. That night, we slept in the cramped camper, which had a 1970s décor and smelt of mold and moth balls. We stayed over on the 4th and 5th of November, but only caught enough food to remind us of the fabulous lives that we had once lead.
Back at camp by dusk on November 6th, another gray and dreary day in which cold rain dripped occasionally from the sky, me and John seated ourselves around a small fire set on the hill above the dry creek bed, which later downward turned into the fishing hole, across the field from the houses where cruel National Guardsmen reposed, never showing their faces or venturing out. Nobody talked, so that campfire session adjourned early. Me and John stayed behind however and communally enjoyed what fish that we had brought back from the river. The meat was cold, but it was heaven.
On the night of November 7th, the man whose tent sat next to mine, a Korean War veteran if it matters froze to death. I and John commandeered his belongings. Among other essential things was a small transistor radio. I and John spent most of the rest of the day sitting in the cab of his defunct pick-up truck and listening to the news with sickening stomachs. Thousands more people were laid off over the past month, most of America's ghettos were in flames, and millions upon the North American continent were starving to death. On a lighter note, some crazed skinhead took a potshot at the president during a speech at a black collage in Nashville, Tennessee. Unfortunately, the commander-in-chief escaped unharmed.
I once again found myself sitting around a fire in our little Obamaville that night; John hadn't been feeling well all that day and retired early. At this campfire, I found myself surrounded by an assortment of young people who had at one time been housed by the state of West Virginia in the buildings now occupied by the brutes in National Guard uniforms. One woman, a young girl really, with long blond hair was on her knees before a fat, pimple faced young man who sat rigidly atop a smooth tree stump. She was offering to give him her services for the night in return for his giving her the bomber jacket that he wore. I found it mildly funny. She looked like the kind of snobbish chick who never would have looked this fat boy's way before all of this, and now she was promising to be his personal sex slave forever in return for a jacket that had once been, during the good ol' days of Bush, a dime a dozen.
He told her to go get stuffed, but she didn't.
"Step off bitch, I said you ain't gettin' the fucking jacket, now go away!"
She spent a good long time on her knees before this bastard, blubbering and wailing, saying that she was freezing to death, before the fat boy had finally had enough and decked her cruelly in the face; sending her to the ground in a broken, weeping heap.
"You shouldn't do shit like that," I sighed without much force, dull anger breathing within my chest. He told me to mind my own goddamn business or suffer the same fate.
"Touch me, you little bastard, and I'll bash your fucking head in."
He was sullenly quiet after that, the only sounds in the black night were the crackle of the flames, the quiet roar of freezing cold wind swaying the trees, and the desperate, hopeless whimpering arising from the girl on the ground. Her face was covered with her dirty hands and she just lay, weeping and shuddering. I wanted to comfort her, but I didn't, every man (and woman) for themselves.
I limped back down the rows of tents and fires, passing huddled groups of people chatting quietly. Outside of my tent, I found that young girl, sitting Indian style on the hard ground, arms wrapped tightly around her bosom. She was dressed in the same rags that she had been wearing when we last met, and she was as dirty as ever, but she was a pretty young girl. When I walked up, she quickly came to attention and rose to her feet. I could barely see her face in the pale light of the full moon (it had been a clear day, thank God).
"I...I'm cold," she stammered coyly after a moment, her teeth chattering when she spoke. I felt sorry for her, more than I had for the girl who the fat boy had punched. My heart ached and my stomach churned. Poor girl! Does she even have a family here?
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Kristin," she replied after a moment. I introduced myself and told her that I was cold too. We reenacted what we had done before. We held each other and generated a good deal of warmth. I was aroused the whole time, especially when my hand (which rested upon her flat, firm stomach most of the time) accidently, in my moving to scratch my head, brushed over the vagina between her legs.
We talked sporadically most of the night, about nothing in particular, just about life. She finally opened up enough to tell me that she was from Beckley, and that both of her parents had been killed by highwaymen. They had been driving though the town of Brandywine in Pendleton County, when men mounted on horseback ambushed them. They murdered her parents and toddler brother, and took her hostage, using her as grunt labor, making her tend to the horses. They also raped her when the spirit took them. She recounted with a quivering voice and tears in her eyes the story of how she had been tied to a bed and beaten and raped by all six of her jailers. She told me that she had been injured, that she had bled, but they did nothing to help her. She told me other things that had been done to her by those beasts, things that I decline to recount here because of their sickening grotesqueness. All that I will say is that when Kristin told me those horrid things that had been done to her, I became instantly angry. I liked the girl a lot, but it wasn't that I was mad because these things had been done to her, I was furious that they had been done to any human being.
She managed to escape in late September, when one of her captors became drunk and passed out while his comrades were off raiding some town or another. The man had left her untied after his latest campaign of child molestation and, before she left, Kristin told me, she slit his throat with a butcher's knife. She choked up and cried when she told me of his squirting blood, and I squeezed her tightly. She went on and said that she had walked all the way to Burlington though miles of woods and wilderness, fearing the whole time that she would be recaptured and murdered, and presently lived in the same tent as an old woman held in the grip of advanced dementia.
We stayed awake most of the night talking about ourselves and getting to know each other. I told her a bit of my story, about how I had seen my mother die at home because she didn't have enough money to go to the doctor's office and the doctor's office in turn didn't have enough funding or whatever to stay open. We talked long into the night and finally fell asleep sometime before dawn.
It was nearly eleven in the morning when we awoke, wildly reluctant to leave our combined warmth. She dressed and left, I suppose back to the tent that she shared with the old woman, while I dressed and went next door to visit John. He was feeling better than he had the previous day. He said that he believed that he was coming down with a cold or something. We spent most of the morning and afternoon sitting in the cab of his truck listening to the transistor radio. The news was as gray and depressing as the day around us. Thousands of government employees had been laid off, and rioters were on the rampage in D.C., they had tried to storm the White House, but were repelled by regular army troops stationed on the front lawn. They left after several dozen of their number were gunned down and a few tear gas canisters had been launched into the sea of humanity, but they only took their violence elsewhere, most of the city was a flaming ruin.
"Idiots," John muttered after the report had ended. He sat in the driver seat, his muscular bulk pressing tightly against the steering wheel. "They'll just make it worse on themselves, doing all that dumb shit. They should have known that they'd never get that asshole."
"Too bad they didn't," I replied obtusely, "they need to do to him what the French did to Louis the Sixteenth."
"What did they do to him?" John asked after a low belch. The freezing cab of the truck smelt of nasty homemade wine, and John's red eyes gave testament to the fact that he was as drunk as a skunk. I wondered if he had slept at all the previous night, for staying up around the clock and drinking wasn't good for one's health, but I let it go, telling myself that John was a grown man and could handle himself.
"They chopped his head off."
John chuckled and made an unfunny quip about the multitude in our nation's capital playing soccer with the president's head.
We spent most of the day in that old truck, I didn't want to drink, but eventually I gave in to John's gentle peer pressure, and had some of the repulsive wine. My mouth was filled with what I could only compare to ass (although I have never tasted ass, and hope that I never do) but I was pleasantly tipsy and having a good time. But that good time was shattered like a pane of glass when automatic gunfire rang out to our left, startling both of us. Though bleary eyes (it was just after noon, but me and John were both terribly inebriated) we saw a cluster of bodies lying in the narrow road which served the Burlington campus, connecting it to the country highway which T-boned into Route 50. Apparently there had been some type of demonstration or mini riot going on, and the fools had tried to storm the building where the guardsmen reposed. Some people ran like scolded dogs back to their tents, seeing that their comrades were dead. But one girl, the girl who had tried whoring herself out for a bomber jacket the night before, stayed, bent over a body, doing something that I couldn't see, for her back was to me. But when her ghoulish work was done, I was taken aback when I saw her wearing that same jacket that had nearly tuned her into a prostitute, albeit a warm prostitute. She quickly zipped it up and looked content, even though the garment was riddled with bullet holes and soaked with slick, dark liquid. She spat upon the body that she had robbed, the fat boy.
I and John didn't talk much after that; we only sat in our individual wine stupor, nodding off, considering the animalistic nature that had been brought out in people by the Depression.
That night, Kristen was in my sleeping bag awaiting me, nude. We slept together, but did not make love.
November 10th was a crystal clear day, the sky was a deep piercing blue and there was not a cloud in the sky. There was a constant breeze that blew from what I thought was the north, but could have been from anywhere for my sense of direction was nil. The camp was filled with the smoky aroma of burning wood and leaves. Most of the trees had given up their brightly colored leaves, which blew about the ground. Me and John planned to go fishing that day and did. We trekked down the dirt road that lead to the wooded river bank. The trees there were an ugly brown hue and supported no vegetation, the colored leaves lay upon the ground, plastered in place by the latest bout of rain.
The rushing river was cold when we crossed, and John reiterated that we needed to build some kind of bridge, and I concurred, knowing that it would never happen. We quickly got a fire going outside of the camper we had stolen from the big white house in the middle of the field. After about an hour, after my hands had become next to numb and my cheeks were reddened by wind burn, I decided to go over to the dark house. I told John my intentions.
"Why?" he asked curiously.
"I dunno, see if there're some supplies we can use."
I trekked across the hard, brown grass and entered the house though the front door, which stood slightly ajar. The interior was dim and colder than it was outside. I snooped though dim rooms adorned with dusty furniture and framed pictures of children and elderly couples on the walls, a testament to a happy family, and a happy way of life, dead and gone. After a while, I found a large metal tub in the basement. Inside that tub, balled and wrinkled, but clean, was a white bit of drapery. I hesitantly removed the cloth, afraid that I was disturbing sleeping spiders, and shook it out. With both hands, I stretched the drape out, and, seeing the massive size of it, I had an idea.
In the kitchen, atop popping linoleum, I searched all the drawers, many of them stuck like concrete. In one of them I found a paring knife. I next set out in search of a sewing kit, but I didn't find one on the first floor. Upstairs, in near twilight, I actually found one (convenient, huh?) set on a dusty shelf in the back hall closet. There wasn't much to it, but I believed that I had enough to do what I had in mind.
Back in the kitchen, I sat down on the cold floor and went to my work with a feverish passion, my heart thumping, my stomach light. I believe that the dress that I fashioned would probably have been laughed at before this, but now, it would be a fucking envy.
Kristin had been on my mind a lot these past few days, I thought about her almost constantly. And when I saw that metal tub, and the cloth within, it was her that I was thinking of. She's the reason that I spent half an hour slaving over a horrible piece of crap dress (and socks, there was enough left over drape to make a nice little pair of socks, perfect for the petite feet of a 15-year-old girl. As I worked, I thought only of her happiness, longed only to see her smile, and not frown. I imagined how she would accept my friendly gesture; I let the scene play out in my head a thousand times. God, I hoped that she liked the dress, I personally thought that it was shitty; I hoped that she didn't think so.
I shoved the dress into the tub, and drug it back to camp.
"Where you been, whacking off?" John asked me without turning, his voice low, faraway, for he was focused on his work.
"Yeah. Listen, I'll be back in a sec, left something at camp."
"'Kay, your pole snagged a good sized bad boy, plenty of meat."
The still flopping fish lay in the dirt next to John, who sat on the tall edge of the river with his feet dangling down like a child. I walked a bit downstream to avoid scaring off any fish, and crossed the numbing body of water.
I found Kristin outside of a small tent near the shoulder of US50, washing a pair of white rags that at one time may have been socks. The old woman, tall, skinny and wrinkled, with an unruly tangle of white hair atop her head, sat next to her, looking down at her raisin hands as if she had never seen them before. Kristin's eyes were drooping; her lips were turned down at the corners.
"Hi," she said heavily when she tilted her head up to look at me. My heart dropped upon looking into her eyes, I could see in the set of them, by the way she regarded me, that she was feeling down today.
Which is why excitement filled me as I looked lovingly down at her, no doubt smiling like a loon; it would be me, me, who would bring her up from the depths of despair with my present.
When she stood, moving almost arthritically, I snatched her wrist and began to walk back toward the river, even as she continued to stand where she was.
"Wait, I'm doing the wash," she squealed.
"The wash can wait," I stammered over my words, "I got a big surprise for you."
She stood there, head tilted to one side, looking at me blankly. Then a small smile crested her face, enriching it to the point that I thought that I was looking upon an angel from heaven. "What?" she asked softly.
"You'll see, now c'mon."
We slowly strolled side-by-side down the winding dirt road which passed a few moldering homes on its way to the river. We talked en route, about nothing of great import.
When we reached the humped river bank, which looked across at the hilly shore on the other side, Kristin's mouth fell open and her eyes widened.
"I...I don't want to cross that, that's properly cold as hell."
So, I waded across the freezing water with her upon my back as if she were a child. John still sat atop the bank, quietly and intently studying us.
As I carried Kristin across the water, which was up to my thighs, I could feel the warmth of her vagina though the thin cloth that she was wearing. I felt myself begin to stir and began to think of anything at all, besides Kirstein.
Once we had scaled the muddy hill which rose from the water up to the gray shore, I introduced Kristin to John, who offered a tight hello without turning. He told me that he had caught two whoppers to go along with the one that my pole had snagged. He said that there would be more than enough food to go around that night.
I went around the camper and retrieved the dress from the tub. I did one more once over, my chest tight, wondering how Kristin would like it, and then approached her with it. I decided to take a casual tone, like, oh, by the way, this is for you.
I sat down next to her, the dress balled in my hands. She turned and looked at me nervously. God, what could she be thinking? There wasn't fear in her eyes, she was just...a little fidgety, yet tense. My mind flashed upon what a young, defenseless girl, might be thinking in this situation (especially a girl who had been raped recently): I'm in the wilderness with two men, they might...just like the other men...
"Here," I croaked juvenilely, "this...this is for you."
She took the dress, looked down at it curiously, and then back at me, her eyes questioning.
"It's a dress, I sewed it myself. Can't have you running around in rags forever."
Her neutral mouth turned up at the corners as she looked back down at the dress.
"Plus, can't have dirty clothes on a clean body."
She again looked at me, puzzled.
"You'll see," I said, an unnatural smile on my own lips. It had been a long time since I had last smiled without it being forced. It felt so bizarre at first; I had just forgotten how good it felt.
While John fished on, I filled a few metal pans that I had taken from the house with river water and held them over the fire two at a time. Kristin only sat quietly next to me, the new, clean dress draped across her lap, watching me with her soft hazel eyes.
In another five minutes or so, the tub was nicely filled with steaming water. Kristin hugged me and thanked me repeatedly, her eyes sparkling and a glowing smile plastered to her face. My heart leapt, I had never seen her look happy, and I instantly knew that I would never again see such an angelic sight as long as I lived.
I had dragged the tub around on the opposite side of the small camper to allow privacy while bathing. I left Kristin, who, in her exuberance, was unconsciously stripping her clothes off in front of me. I figured that she didn't really care if I saw her nude; after all, I had seen her body plenty. John was already by the fire, frying a giant fish in a cast iron skillet liberated from the house.
"You shouldn't have bought her here," he said seriously without looking up from his work, "she might tell someone."
I sat down by the fire with a grunt and replied, "No, she won't. I'll talk to her before we leave, but I don't think she's stupid."
"She's young," John retorted, "she could let it slip or something. I don't want a bunch of motherfuckers overrunning us; you shouldn't have brought her; that was a real stupid move. Your dick got the best of your brains, buddy."
I took slight offense to John's words, childishly afraid of his being mad at me. I couldn't stand the thought of him thinking less of me, of him giving me the silent treatment, of him speaking to me only tightly, sullenly. I loved him like a brother, but if it came down to it, I would side with Kristin; she was...a young, defenseless lamb living among a lawless world ruled by wolves. She needed someone to comfort her, to protect her, to make sure that she had what she needed, as John did for me, and that crazy old woman wasn't cutting the mustard in that regard.
"Oh, shut the hell up, John," I said, exaggerating the joking aspect of my voice tone, making it obvious that I was playing with him.
Soberly though, I said lowly so that Kristin wouldn't hear me, "Look, we're just friends."
"Fuck buddies," John said sourly.
I was about to reply to him, I was slightly wounded by his harsh tone, but I only let an awkward silence fall over us.
Shortly, Kristin, wearing the dress that I had made for her, emerged from behind the trailer, her hair damp, a darker color, beautiful. John looked at her, and then to me, he wasn't happy.
"If she tells anybody, man, I'll fuck you up," he hissed lowly, only half joking, if at all.
Shivering, Kristin came and sat down next to me, on a large stone that I had sat there for that purpose. She looked so much better when she was clean, God, she was an angel.
After a silent minute of watching John, bent over the pan, working on cooking, she said: "I've seen you around, and I always meant to ask you what tribe you come from."
John chuckled, and replied without looking up. "I'm Chippewa."
"Oh," said Kristin said, "my grandmother was full-blooded Chippewa, and her parents, of course, were both full-blooded."
"Yeah?" John now looked up at her, intrigued. "Where'd she come from?"
Kristin was silent for one pondering moment, before she settled on a definite answer. "She came from North Falls, Minnesota, I think."
John laughed merrily. "Hell, I come from north Minnesota too; I'm from Bleu Centre, real close to North Falls. I used to do a lot of heating and air jobs up that way, they were building a big subdivision in that area back in the mid-nineties."
"I've never been there; I'm from Troy, Minnesota, though I was just born there. I lived in Beckley until...all this."
John nodded, "Troy's a nice little place, too small for me. Hell, that whole state was too small for me when I was young; that's why I joined the Navy, got sick of seeing the same shit over and over."
"Oh," Kristin said, "my uncle was in the Navy, probably still is. When did you join?"
"'81," John replied absent mindedly, going on about his work. "Dropped outta high school in '79, I was gonna go to a vocational school in Tuskahana, but I decided to do something different, have a little adventure, see the world, you know? I saw some action in Panama and Desert Storm, nothing much, just launching missiles and supporting our boys on the ground."
Shortly, John finished supper, and decided to take his own turn at the tub. Kristin and I could hear his grunts of pleasure from where we sat.
"I like your friend," she told me in hushed tones, "but I don't think he likes me very much."
I put my arm around her shoulder, and to my surprise, she snuggled up to me. "Sure he does," I said, and I thought that he had quickly warmed up to Kristin, but I wasn't entirely sure; he didn't hate here. "He just...this place is sorta secrete, and he was afraid that you might accidentally tell someone back at camp about it."
She giggled. "I'm not retarded."
"I know," I told her, "he was just afraid, he didn't want everyone else coming out here and spoiling our thing."
When John appeared from behind the camper, he looked as if he had just finished having sex, or a good morning pee. "Damn," he sighed as he passed me and Kristin, taking up his spot on the other side of the small fire, his face instantly painted orange. "I haven't had a hot bath since..." perhaps embarrassed, he trailed off.
We ended up talking long into the night, laughing, joking, and generally being friendly. John warmed up to Kristin real quickly and nicely; she was a very beautiful and charming girl, the kind of person who puts out an aura of vibrancy and energy, and life; the kind that others loved being around.
We all slept by the fire under the watchful eye of the full moon, with clean bodies, full bellies, and a blooming friendship between the three of us.
The next few days were some of the best of my life. Kristin spent more and more time with me, and by extension, John. During the day light hours, we three usually congregated around John's truck and talked, listened to the transistor radio, and drank homemade wine. Kristin told me that she had never been drunk before, and I, being the perfect role model, plied her with a large quantity of alcohol. It was all fun and games, until she became sick. While she hobbled to the latrine to vomit, John condemned my actions.
"Man, you're a piece of shit for getting that little girl drunk."
I felt terrible about the affair, and accompanied Kristin to her tent, where the old bag sat inside to herself, muttering under her breath. After that, the first night that we were back, in fact, I and John laid off the booze while Kristin was around.
After nightfall, the whole lot of us would choose a bon fire to sit around. There we heard more of the same thing from the depressed occupants. Some damned the president; some damned the one before him, while others, mostly liberals I presume, seemed to stick by the man that they had elected, blaming overpaid corporate executives and the like. I nearly punched a short man with black hair and a beard and mustache combo one night, after unbeknownst to Kristin, me and John had guzzled an amazing amount of the nasty wine. This guy looked just like some stereotypical liberal, he wore small rimless spectacles, and just...had some kind of look about him that I find that I cannot properly describe; sort like, you know, some faggots just look gay, like Freddy Mercury. This guy sure looked the part of his politics, and spouted pure bullshit after I simply said: "Somebody needs to hurry up and fucking kill that scum in Washington and do us all a favor."
"Did you vote for that Republican scum, then?" I heard a soft, queerish voice ask from my left, beyond where John sat inebriated, gazing into the fire as if he were on acid.
"Sure as hell did," I replied when I spotted the pale, gaunt face of the man, whom I will hereafter refer to as 'Superliberal'. "And he would have done a damn fine job if he would have won."
"Yeah," Superliberal snorted, "instead of being in the mess we're in now, thanks to Bush, we would be living under the rule of a one- thousand-year-old Nazi."
I was mad at this point, anger welling up within my bosom. John must have sensed my rage, or I must have been shaking, because he laid one comforting hand on my shoulder and slurred something into my ear.
"Fuck you," I growled, "you're still saying that the Republican Party is some big monster, even while you see what the Democratic Party has done? Man, how fucking retarded are you; you and all the idealistic weirdoes like you brought this on us, well, you're suffering too."
Superliberal snorted once more, a snobby, hateful sound. "Well, I didn't really want him in office, I actually wanted Clinton," he said this as if it exonerated him.
"You know," I replied, fighting the anger that was in my chest, "normally I would puke and call stupid, but right now, I think that even she would have done a better job."
A few people around the campfire murmured their agreement, and that was the end of it. I wanted to fight Superliberal, I wanted to smash his nose, to let out all the fear and anger and depression pent up within me loose upon him in place of some abstract government; but I decided to let it go and went to bed. Kristin was already in my sleeping bag, smiling prettily. We repeated what was fast becoming an every night ritual: we would undress, climb into my sleeping bag together, hold each other and talk until dawn or we fell asleep, whichever came first. That night, there was a new tension, a new vibe between us; for some reason, what we were doing didn't feel as innocent as before, at least to me; I thought, maybe half wishfully, that Kristin wanted to make love to me, possibly to express her thanks to me, for actually sharing food and such with her, instead of just getting off on her naked warmth, and then kicking her to the curb. She must have seen that I was...not as cruel as some guys that first night, and the second, when I made no move to take her. I don't think that she would have fought me, but she never would have liked me as a person.
If she did want to make love to me that night, she never said outright, and was disappointed. We just spooned until we each fell asleep, totally comfortable with one another.
I didn't come to the full realization that I was in love with Kristin, and that for some odd reason I had hidden myself from her behind the laws and taboos of the old world, until one frosty morning, heavy with fog and the wood smoke from the many constant fires. I was just walking along the guardrail bordering US50, on the other side of the riverbed defining the campus' boundaries, numb hands shoved into my pockets, gaze downcast, scanning the rocky shoulder of the road for nothing in particular, when something caught my eye. I dropped down to one knee, and picked up what I had seen, a small silver heart on a thin, tarnished chain. The heart was solid, and felt about as heavy as did a good-sized stone. The first thing to come across my mind was Kristin, and how she would like something like that. And, in thinking of her, I heart went aflutter, and I could feel a fond grin spreading over my face.
Finally, the illusion was shattered like a brittle pane of glass, and I admitted to myself, young girl or not, that I was deep in love with pretty little Kristin. Why had I lied to myself? Even now I'm not entirely sure, even though for a long time to think of her made me giddy, and to be away from her, not knowing what she was doing, or what was happening to her, made me sick in the pit of my stomach. Sometimes, when she wasn't in my tent or with me and John, I would casually stroll by the place she shared with the old woman, looking from the corners of my eye, not only hoping she was alright, but also wishing to catch even a fleeting glimpse of her. I had been mad in love with her since at least our second meeting; I felt like a school boy over her. Why lie? Why deny myself her when, I hoped, she felt the same about me? She wasn't that young, I was only a few short years older than her. Why love and not have? Why not be close when being apart hurt so bad?
I stood and shoved the necklace into my hip pocket. I had planned to walk over to the splinted wooden hillside sign which announced the presence of Burlington in tall yellow letters, possibly to just look at it, or perhaps to knock it down in place of more intangible foes, but I quickly changed course and speed walked though the camp. Kristin wasn't at home, and the poor old woman was too far gone to help me. I panicked, and went on a round of the camp, franticly looking for her, the desire to find her growing so with each pass that I felt as if I would go mad if I didn't see her smiling face approaching me.
I finally found her, sitting in my tent, focused on a crinkled old issue of People with that bastard president on the cover, smiling as if he had saved the world's hungry, instead of making the world hungry.
She looked up and smiled, such a beautiful sight; relief flooded me, my heart thudded in my chest, and my stomach was invaded by swarms of butterflies. "Hi," she happily chirped. Beside her sat a red canvas bag riddled with holes. She saw that I had noticed it, and looked from me down to the bag, as if by looking at it, she had found something to focus on while she delivered by news.
"I...I came here, to live you with you. Mrs. Dandy is nice, but...I can't stand hearing her talk to people who aren't there, and she screams in the night, like she's being tortured by something. Can, can I stay here?"
"Of course," I said, surprised that she would think that I would wish otherwise. On hearing that she wanted to live with me, my heart pounded slightly harder, in sheer joy. I was so happy then, so, so, so happy.
I knelt down beside her, my hand fumbling for the necklace in my pocket. She was sitting upon her clean, bare knees, so our faces were level. I looked into her soft, glowing eyes, nearly losing myself.
Softly, nearly panting like a pervert in some cheap '90s horror film, I said: "I have a present for you."
She smiled, and whispered innocently back, "What?"
I removed the chain from my pocket, and scooted around her. She lifted her overhanging auburn hair, and I slowly placed the necklace around her slender throat from behind. My nose was buried in her warm, perfumed hair, my fingers moving purposely slow, relishing her closeness.
When done, she spun in a swish of hair, and shocked me by meeting my lips, and slipping her tongue into my mouth. As if on their own accord, my hands glided over her smooth face, her neck, and the budding breasts beneath her tattered gown. I was aroused nearly to the point of pain then, I didn't want to have sex with her, not yet, but I found my hands had, in absence of supervision, crawled spider-like down her back, and were currently trying to hike up her dress.
Desire burned hot inside of me, my heart thumped sickeningly, as if trying to break free from my chest, possibly so that it could make its own connection with the heart of Kristin. Her body was pressed lightly against mine; I could feel the banging of her own heart. I must have been in some kind of trance, for I don't even remember exactly the point at which we tumbled back onto the canvas floor of the tent. She was lying atop me, and my hands were rubbing up and down the warm flesh of her legs. Upward, upward, my exploring hands went, until I discovered that she wore no panties underneath.
At last the kiss broke, we were both panting for want of air, and the only oxygen that we could drawl was the uncomfortably warm breath of one another. She was smiling sweetly, her eyes, so close to mine, were unreadable, but I thought that I could see conflicting emotions there. She loved me, and I loved her, there was no denying that any longer. But I think that she didn't really want to make love to me, not at the moment. I thought of the hellish abuse that she had suffered at the hands of the highwaymen who had killed her entire family, and I felt guilty. That she was still, legally at least, a child, made no matter to me then. The world had changed, America, a cushy little place since the end of the last World War, was once again thrust into the agonizing hardships that had once been taken for granted by those who came before. A country full of slackers, brats, overpaid heiresses, cartoon watching 17-year-olds, and idealistic college students, was facing the biggest challenge of the past seventy years, and I believed that they would fail; that they weren't as strong as their grandparents' had been. Children were going hungry and dying of dysentery in the streets, murders and rapes were going unchecked, those bastard Guardsmen apparently were either AWOL, or were the product of a crumbling military, and cities burned to cinders without so much as the smallest resistance from mankind. Things had changed alright, and the least of the many offenses taking place before God and everyone, was my relationship with Kristin.
I wonder if Roman Polanski felt the same way about that girl he raped that I felt about Kristin. If so, then at least Kristin felt the same for me, unlike Polanski's little friend. I could look into her eyes and see that she loved me for the help and protection that I had given her. I could see that she loved me for feeding her, for clothing her, for warming her cold nights, and that she loved me for me. I think that she saw me as not only a good man in general, but also as good husband material. Sure, she could have, out of desperation, come to me for food and shelter and so on, but I don't think that that was it. She didn't come to me to use me, at least not fully; she came because she saw in my eyes and my actions how strongly I felt about her. And, this may be wishful thinking again, but I think that she felt the same way about me.
"I...I'm not ready," I said, though I was, fuck the law, fuck immorality, I was ready to have sex with a fifteen-year-old girl, and I'll shout it from the rooftops even today. The reason that I said no was two-fold, and only one prong of my plan was selfish. I wanted her to see, though action, that I wasn't just some randy piece of shit out to screw a vulnerable girl in return for the help that I had given her. I didn't do the things that I did because I thought that I would get something in return; I did it because I liked, and then loved, Kristin. In retrospect, the days after our second body-heat encounter, had been terrible. My mind was always on that girl; my heart was always beating too quickly, thinking of her, wanting to spend every waking moment with her. My stomach was always tight, I could never get a full, good breath, it was horrible. Now she was mine, mine alone, hopefully. I am not a mind reader, therefore I can't say that Kristin's intentions were as pure as mine were, but looking into her eyes, her innocent, caring eyes, and hearing the way she whispered my name, I can safely said that, if she wasn't wholly honest about us, about the way she felt, than she was at least 98-99 percent so.
She looked down at me, her wonderfully fragrant hair enshrouding my head from the cold outside world, disappointment in one eye, relief in the other. "Are you sure?" she asked, running her hand though my hair.
I smiled, my heart breaking and my penis tugging in a frantic attempt to leave my body and stupid mind behind so that he could fulfill his own agenda. "Yes," I whispered, not knowing why, save that the mood called for it. "Soon, but not now. I want you, but...I want us to be married first." That wasn't the entire truth, but I was raised in a family where you bared your true emotions at your own risk. It was easier to say that, than to explain to her my own complex feelings; I don't think that I could even explain them to myself, after all, I'm not Ernest Hemmingway or Stephen King, I don't sit around all day wondering how to articulate myself on paper. But what I told her that day was mostly honest: I did want to marry her; I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. No matter how miserable life would be in this new Mad Max-like world, with her at my side, I knew that I could face whatever was thrown my way.
A sunny smile widened on her face, and she giggled. "Really? You wanna get married?"
"Only if you do," I said, aware that my hands were still resting on her buttocks.
She giggled again, sweet music to my ears. "Yes," she breathed, "I wanna marry you, but...will it be official?"
"Don't worry about that, in God's eyes it will," was all that I could think to say. I slowly, regretfully, removed my hands from the present warmth of her, and threw my arms around her; her stiff body relaxed, and we laid that way for what could have been eons, or only seconds.
"I love you, Kristin. I really do, so much, more than life itself."
Her head buried in my chest, voice muffled, she replied soberly. "I love you too; you're the first...the first man that I really loved."
She rose slightly up, and looked into my eyes. There were tears standing in her serious eyes. "You've...you showed me what love really is, not many people would do for someone what you did for me. And I couldn't love you more."
I held her close to me, whispering the same three words over and over into her ear, rubbing her back in lazy circles. Beyond the walls of the tent, white daylight pressed down upon the world, but I didn't care if it was day or night, summer or Russian winter. We were in our own world, everything else be damned.
"I love you, I love you, I love you, so much," flooded from my lips in an endless torrent, it felt great to tell her that, to bare my heart, it felt about as good as did a good cry when one is deathly depressed (or so I've heard).
Kristin, head laid upon my rolling, rising-and-falling chest, didn't speak as I told her over and over that I loved her, that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. She didn't speak as I stroked her silken hair; she just kept her warm right hand in my left, and every once in a while ran her left hand up and down the leg of my pants, from crotch to knee, and back again.
"I love you, too," she said lowly from my chest, "you'll never know how much."
I was about to reply, to tell her that I knew how much, not as much as I loved her, to tell her that I would do anything, anything for her, but a familiar voice from right outside the canvas walls of the tent cut me off.
"Hey man, you in there?"
Kristin was at once off of me, but still close. I sat there for a minute, my hand in her hand, her pressed closely to me, thinking of telling John to go take a hike, that I was busy. I looked at Kristin; once again sitting with her legs folded under her, her bare knees, I admit, aroused me. Everything about her turned me on; her body, her sharp mind, her sweet, caring nature. She was a pretty girl, but she wasn't a supermodel. The reason that I felt as I did for her, like a horny little school boy, was because she was mine. She wasn't just a pretty face on a page, and she wasn't an airhead like Paris Hilton, or many of the other Hollywood sluts, who were even now selling their bodies to 600 pound Star Trek nerds for bread. One of the things that I had always wanted from a woman was that she not only be at least cute, but also smart, maybe not Einstein, but smarter than a roomful of Lindsey Lohans for sure. I think that that was more important to me than looks. Well, I was blessed. Kristin was smart, gorgeous, and...
"Yeah," I called out, "I'm here, gimme a sec."
Kristin smiled, let go of my hand, and stood. She ducked and emerged from the tent, with me close behind. Outside, I wrapped my arm around her fleshy, childbearing hips, and she slipped a hand into one of the back pockets of my dirty, torn jeans.
John, dressed in a maroon Redskins hoodie that looked as if it had been stripped from a corpse fifteen years in the ground, surprisingly clean jeans, and a crumbling pair of work boots, was leaning against the front of his truck, a plastic cup no doubt filled with homemade wine gripped loosely in one hand. He looked first at Kristin, and then to me, a broad smile on his face. "I didn't interrupt anything, did I?"
"Nope," I said, "just welcoming the little lady to the neighborhood."
John took a long drink from his cup. "Livin' as man and wife now?"
Kristin blushed and giggled girlishly, she looked down at the ground, as if it were the most interesting thing she had ever seen.
"Not yet," I said, "pretty soon though."
John's smile widened, he looked from me to Kristin, and back again. "Really? That's great!"
"Yeah," I said dreamily, looking at Kristin, her face was a beautiful shade of pink, and her lips were arranged in a happy smile. With the hand around her waist, I slowly rubbed up and down her leg. "We're gonna get hitched alright."
"Well little Miss," John said, "just don't take too much of his time, leave a little bit for me, okay?"
Kristin looked up at him. "Okay, I will," she said though her smile. She turned her head to look at me, and I stole a kiss from her.
"She's got first priority, though," I told John.
He nodded and chuckled. "That's fine with me, I'm not the one gonna...never mind. Hey, c'mere a minute, I gotta show you something."
I patted Kristin on the butt and told her to wait in the tent, or whatever, that I needed a moment alone with John.
"We'll have a little celebration later," John assured Kristin. "A little pregame party, 'kay?"
Kristin, still glowing, nodded. "Thank you, I'd like that."
I kissed her again, more slowly and lovingly this time. "Bye," she said, biting her lower lip, and disappeared into the tent.
"You're a lucky man," John said from behind me as he opened the passenger door of the truck, which wailed on rusted hinges. "She's a nice girl," he said absent mindedly.
"Yeah," I replied and turned to see John leaning halfway into the truck, fumbling for something under the long bench seat. A few McDonalds and Burger King cups and wrappers fell from the truck's foot well and landed on the ground, only to be swept away by a stiff breeze. I wrapped my arms around myself to generate heat, but that did no good. "So, why did you drag me out in this shit?" I was a tad impatient.
"For this," John said and turned, a black revolver with a wooden grip in his hand. For one wild moment, I thought that he meant to blow me away. My arms fell to my sides, and I stumbled back a step.
"Oh, don't act like you've never seen a gun before," John said, taking the thing by the barrel and holding it out to me handle first. I took the weapon and looked it over; it was a beautiful gun, a Smith & Wesson. I cracked the cylinder open, and found three of the chambers occupied.
"Where'd you get this thing?" I asked wonderingly. If it had been his from day one, then he would have shown it to me.
"Guy over there," John gestured vaguely to my right. "I used to trade wine with him for jerky that he made. When I went over there this morning, the poor bastard was frozen stiff. I remembered he had this little fella, and rooted around in this shit 'till I found it."
I took another look at the weapon, nodded approvingly, and handed it back to John.
"You thinking what I'm thinking?" he asked with a smile.
I thought about it, I knew what he wanted to do, but it was too raw a day for traipsing around in the woods. I wanted nothing more than to crawl into my tent and spend the day warm, with Kristin. But, the prospect of hot food was tempting...
"Damn right I am," I said.
I took the time to tell Kristin that I and John were going out for a little while. She said that she was fine with that, that she was going to take a little mid-afternoon nap.
"Be careful," she told me after we had passionately kissed. "Don't make me a widow already."
"Okay, mother," I joked.
There was a small forest behind the occupied building, which ran the length of the campus's parameter. This time of year, there were barely any leave on the trees, and one could see to the top of the little hill that sat back, usually hidden by foliage. The ground was covered with at least an inch of dead brown leaves, which crunched loudly underfoot.
"Can't sneak up on anything," John said from the lead. The gun was tucked into the waistband of his pants, there was no safety on it, so at the slightest urging, it very well could castrate him.
"No," I agreed.
I followed up the gently sloping hill. At the summit, there was a woodland path worn down by both men and beasts. Here, naked, skeletal trees surrounded us, the ground was full of those damn spiky chestnut orbs, and there was no cover.
"Let's go up here a little ways, I hear there's a cemetery back here; we could sit there and wait for something."
Moments later, we left the dead forest behind, and emerged into a small graveyard adorned by many old, crooked headstones. There was a massive oak tree in what looked like the very center of the tract; the ground of a few of the graves had sunk in. I followed John down another hill, across a gravel road which winded up from the road which passed the campus, and up steep ground to the cemetery proper.
"Nice place," John said, "quiet."
"We won't see shit here," I predicted pessimistically. "All the good stuff's over there." I pointed at another rise, protected by a decaying wooden fence; there was a gate at which the gravel road disappeared. "Beyond there, in the woods, I bet there's deer and all that shit."
"Naw," John waved me off, "we'll get something down here. This place looks like it isn't visited much; I'm sure all the little animals come here all the time, thinking that men don't."
Under the oak tree, John said and rested with his back against the gnarled trunk. I sat down beside him Indian style; the above ground roots of the tree made this a most uncomfortable place to sit. John held the gun in his hand, turning it over and over, admiring it. "These are the only bullets I got," he said almost sadly.
"Oh, that dude didn't have anymore?"
John shook his head. "You know...I've been thinking all day...I might use the last one on myself."
My heart dropped, my stomach clenched. "Don't say dumb shit like that," I said. "Why would you do that? You a bitch?"
John chuckled humorlessly, and shook his head lightly. "No. There's just nothing to live for anymore. Look at us; we live in a refugee camp like a bunch of fucking Ethiopians. There's no heat, no...nothing."
"Man, your forefathers would be pissed at you right now, talking that shit. Man, just imagine some of the shit they lived though, especially the Eskimos. They hunted, fished, and lived in tents...just like we do now, it's not that different."
"But I'm not a straight out-and-out Indian. They grew up that way; it was ingrained in them. I'm from a small town in Minnesota, I lived in houses up until last year, not teepees. I respect those old dogs and what they did, but things have changed. I'm not a warrior; I'm just a regular white man."
I erupted in wild laughter at that. "So am I, and I ain't thinking about killing myself. Yeah, life sucks, but you gotta just roll with the punches, man up and take what you're dished out."
John was quiet for a moment. I was dreadfully worried about him and his state of mind. I didn't want to see him do anything stupid, I cared a great deal about him, and the thought of him taking his own life turned my stomach.
"Well, I guess you're right, but...." He trailed off, straining his eyesight in the direction of a large bush still covered in red and yellow vegetation. I followed John's line of sight, and saw a small brown creature sitting on its hind legs, rapidly gnawing at some kind of nut in its little hands.
"Hey, that's a..."
The thunderous roar of the revolver, dreadfully close to my left ear, filled the world, startling me nearly into a leap to my feet. My heart knocked against my ribcage, reeling from the unexpected explosion. A queer ringing sang in my ears, and that was all. I couldn't hear anything else, and was for a moment frightened that I was deaf. If I was, then John wouldn't have to kill himself, I'd do the job for him. But, as John leapt to his feet and scampered after the fallen rabbit like a happy little boy, sounds other than the hateful ringing began to bleed back. I sat dazed for a moment, listening to John shout something over and over, as he sprinted back with the dead animal in his hands.
"You alright?" John asked as he knelt down beside me. It was as if I were hearing him though cotton balls stuffed into my ears, but at least I could hear. "Yeah," I croaked louder than I meant to.
"Sorry," John said, and shoved an index finger into one of his ears as if water was trapped in there.
"Dumb move, could've deafened us both."
John smiled widely, and said, "I did, I can't hear right at all."
He sank down next to me, staring in the same direction in case it yielded more treasures. The rabbit was a plump little bastard, the top of his head had been taken off by the bullet, and was a red mess, but he had plenty of meat and fur. In my mind, I made Kristin a pair of winter shoes with the fur, I made her a hat to wear low over her ears when it was extra frosty, and a pair of sexy little underwear for her to sport the first time we...
"Good size," John mused as he checked the rabbit over once again. "Man, you were talking and all of a sudden I see this brown blur over by that bush. I looked, saw what it was, and fired. I'm surprised I even hit it, I'm pretty rusty with guns; haven't shot one since I was in the Navy."
"Yeah, good shot. You could've warned me before though."
"I just acted," John said and laughed. "I was afraid that he was gonna get away if I didn't blow him away fast; I fucked my eardrums up too, so don't feel left out."
We sat in silence for a long while, each intently scanning every bit of land we could without moving and giving our positions away to our prey.
After a long time of seeing nothing, and sitting in comfortable silence, John spoke. "I'm sorry," he said, "for being such a dickhead when you brought that girl over there. I was scared that the cat was outta the bag, and...scared of what I would do to make sure that those bastards down there didn't overfish us."
"It's cool," I said, "I'd have done the same."
"She's a really pretty girl, nice too. You keep her at all costs, buddy. She seems like somebody that a man can happily spend his life with."
"Yeah, she's great," I responded faraway, my mind focusing on her sweet face, hazel eyes. She was, indeed, great.
After a few more minutes, John looked up into the darkening gray sky. A bitingly cold breeze was blowing out of the west, and it was getting colder by the minute as the influence of the sun, if not its direct rays, left the world to yet another dark, hateful winter night.
"Let's get outta here," John said and stood with a grunt. He pressed his right hand to the small of his back and stretched. "Too old for this shit," he said.
I reached out my hand, to take either the gun or the carcass so that John wouldn't have to carry everything (making me look like a lazy bum), and John shoved the body of the rabbit into my hands by the thin, twig-like legs. "Here, you take this."
For a moment I didn't understand that he meant for me to take the rabbit for my own purposes, for keeps, if you will. I looked at him, not knowing wheatear to ask what he meant, and seem as if I was greedy for the food, or to just try and hand it back to him later. He must have seen the conflict, the wondering, in my eyes, for he said: "I don't need it."
"Oh, no man, no, you shot this thing, it's yours."
"I'm just one man," he said as we got underway, both fearing the freezing coming of night. "You got a little missus to feed now. Think of it as an early wedding present."
I was about to protest further, but he was right. It wasn't just my neck I had to watch, I had to look out for Kristin too. She was my wife now, if only in name. I was the man (women's libbers be damned) and the breadwinner. It would speak volumes of my childish piece-of-shitness if I couldn't even feed my own wife.
Wife. I never would have thought that I'd ever refer to someone as my wife, had you told me a year or two ago that I would have a damn incredible wife, I'd have told you to go yank someone else's chain.
"Thanks," I said, touched, as we kicked though the giant drifts of leaves in the forest.
"Anytime," replied John.
I prepared the rabbit over a small fire outside of our tent, after I took the fur off and set it back. I thought that it should make at least one pair of shoes to fit Kristin's small, beautifully shaped feet, but I wasn't very sure. John came over with more wine than I had ever seen him with at one time before. I think that he had a hell of a lot of the shit under that camper shell on the back of his truck. He refused supper, saying that he was already full from some meal he had had with a friend over on the other side of the camp.
Long into the night we drank, going from tipsy to toasted in record time. John retired early, drunker than I have ever seen him.
"Okay bloody," he slurred as he stood, swaying from side to side. "I'll see you tomorrow, take it easy, we might even go fisin' early."
"Okay," I said, "sounds good to me."
He looked at Kristin, who was snuggled up against me, and said: "I'll see you baby, I'll be at your wedding, bells and all."
Kristin, who was nowhere near as bad off as John, stood up and hugged him tightly. "Okay, you'll be my bridesmaid."
John laughed. "Sounds fi with 'e."
Kristin pecked his cheek. "Goodnight."
With John gone, I and Kristin were pretty much ready to call it a night. We finished another jug of the wine between us, sitting closely before the fire, in comfortable silence. We stayed like that for a long while, until Kristin, slurring, told me that she needed to puke.
"I think I do, too," I laughed and patted my stomach. The taste of the wine in my mouth alone was enough to make me want to puke, but the world spun before my eyes as if I were on a tilt-a-whirl, and my stomach was sour with the nasty drink.
We stumbled, supporting each other, though the night, past fires and huddled groups, to the latrine. She took her turn first, leaning over and vomiting into the abyss as I held her soft hair, drunkenly kissing her hunched back.
I took my turn, but discovered that I didn't really need to vomit, I was fast becoming used to being intoxicated.
I don't really remember us stumbling back to the tent that night, but I sure as hell wish that I did. I can remember some things, nothing coherent, snapshots, things that we said to one another, the blissful happiness that I felt in my bosom. I recall that we passed a few people on our way home, and that we said stupid things to them. I believe that I started it when this guy passed us going toward the latrine. I was drunk, brave, and happy as a lark for really the first time in my life. I just had to get the good news off of my chest, much the same way that a newly converted Christian did.
"Hey, this my wife, Kristin," I think I may have told this man.
"Good for you," this man may have said back with biting sarcasm.
Kristin picked the game up quick, shouting drunkenly at people and depressed, huddled masses. "Hey, mee my husan," "this is my husband," and other things left her lips. We were basically tasting our new titles like one would taste a new, unfamiliar dish; we found we liked them very much. We were acting juvenile that night, we (or at least I) felt like children playing a more grown up version of house.
I don't remember anything really clearly before sometime in the blue morning, when I came awake instantly for some odd reason. Kristin was clinging to me, her dress balled and tossed into a corner; I was still fully dressed. She was shaking like a leaf, and such a flood of sorrow and tenderness filled me that it hurt. I woke her, and lay back under the covers with her, my arms protectively around her hips and stomach, my nose buried in her hair.
"You awake?" she asked after a while.
"Yeah," I said, "wide."
"Will we ever pull out of this? Do you think we'll ever have a normal life, you know, a little house in a good neighborhood, good money...children? Will we ever truly be happy?"
I was silent, debating whether to tell her what I really thought and dash her (our) beautiful dreams, or to spare her from hearing out loud what she probably already knew. I didn't want to lie to her, I loved her more deeply than I had ever loved any single person before, but I also didn't want to shatter her aspirations. The thought of her hopelessly weeping, realizing that we would never have a life populated with soccer games, PTA meetings, and suburban bliss like her parents had once had, like her grandparents had had, sent an icy sliver of anger, pain, fear, and anguish into my heart.
No, came the sickening realization. No, pretty, pretty Kristin, this camp is our neighborhood, this tent is our home. We can still have children together, but...do you really want to bring them into this?
"Yes," I lied, "one day, babe; not soon, but one day."
Her rigid body melted in my arms. "I love you," she said.
"I love you more."
I was sitting with a group of quiet, unwashed people around a roaring fire that morning, November 14th; Kristin was still passed out in the tent. The sky was a deep white which promised snow soon, and the landscape was stark, it was not hard to imagine being survivors from one of those campy nuclear war movies from the eighties. I was tired that morning, and was keeping to myself, and was able to overhear (for everyone else was silent too) two men talking about a dead body in the latrine, which had scared a few women away that morning. They were talking about possibly moving it, when I interjected into their conversation and volunteered my services. I was feeling board as hell; I and John, along with Kristin, were planning another fishing trip, and in my anticipation, each moment seemed to drag on for a millennia, I was looking for anything that would kill time, and physical labor, no matter how vile, sounded alright by me.
The two men, one a young skateboarder and the other a tall man with a salt and pepper crew cut (father and son, I supposed) were reluctant to carry out the gruesome task at hand. They tried to persuade me that it would be nasty work alright, the cadaver was inside the latrine, laying face down in a stagnate pool of human waste. I persisted, and at last they agreed and accompanied me.
Looking over the earthen rim into that nasty, murky chasm of sewage, I I had second thoughts about the whole affair, but the naked body, covered with fecal matter, laying prone, called out for removal. I thought of how I would not like my corpse laying in human shit and piss, and the Bible says "do unto others as you would have done unto you" or something like that, so I and the skateboarder swallowed our pride, ceased breathing though our noses and descended into the pit, which was waste deep. It was warm and slimy; the skateboarder gave out a cry of revolution when his lower half sank into the mess.
"C'mon man, let's do this quick, this shit is fuckin' gross," he nearly pleaded as he waded over to the body.
"Shit, literally," I mumbled.
I followed him, and with our combined muscle, we were able to make short work of the body. We handed it up to a small group of able bodied men who loomed above us, mesmerized by our resolve to undertake such disgusting work. I and the skater clambered out of the pit and sat side by side for a moment, trying in vain to breath in some of the cool crisp autumn air, the smell of shit was everywhere. Not only were our lower bodies covered with it, it was smeared upon our hands, and our nostrils seemed to hold the presence of the vile reek as if it were some valuable collectible.
I stood and ambled over to the group of men who stood over the body. One man had wiped away the feces covering the corpse's face and when I laid eyes upon it, my heart dropped painfully, and an icy fist clenched my stomach. For staring back up at me, eyes open and glazed over, teeth bared, was John. I let out a sharp hiss of air over my clenched teeth and sank to my knees beside the body.
What happened? My stunned mind whirled as I sat next to the body, tears flowing openly down my face, the other men having already left to escape the wretched stink. Even though I was not entirely sure, I thought that I did know what happened to John: last night, he had stumbled out here, naked for some strange reason, to use the latrine. He must have fallen in and drown.
Hot tears coursed down my rough cheeks, my grief was such that I almost laid upon the ground and wept openly. My best friend was dead, I was in shock and denial, I just couldn't wrap my mind around it. John was...he was fucking dead. Meaning that...he wasn't around to talk to any more, to drink with anymore. I would never hear one of his bland jokes ever again; I would never fish with him again. And I would never look into his open, pleasant eyes and feel...love again, love like a son felt for his father, or two longtime friends who have survived trials and triumphs, good times and bad did, an intense bond. He was my only true friend, before Kristin, he was the only other person that I loved more than my dead mother. He gave a damn about me; I gave more than a damn about him; that was true friendship. Now, he was gone? Just like that? Just...not there anymore?
No, it wasn't John, I told myself incoherently, it's someone else. I got to my watery legs and stumbled back to his truck. The driver side door was hanging open, his clothes were scattered about on the ground.
Seeing that, my heart stopped dead in its tracks. I fell to my knees, and stayed there for a long moment, head hung low, silently sobbing. There was no denying it now, and there really never was. John was dead, and I wasn't going to leave him lying around, to suffer desecration at the beaks of vultures. I had to bury him.
First, I washed the sewage from myself in the extremely cold river and climbed the bank, remembering the good times that I and John had had together. I once again broke into the old house and found a shovel and some tarp.
I left a note with Kristin, who was still sleeping peacefully and beautifully.
Something terrible has happened, I won't be back until late tonight or early tomorrow, love you XOXO.
I could have woke her, I should have woke her, John was her friend too, so she had a right to be there when I buried him, but...maybe for chivalrous or for sexist ideal, I wanted to keep his death from her for as long as I could. I desperately didn't want to see her weep, it would break my heart. She may not have, she wasn't as close to John as I was, but...I still wanted to hold off with the bad news.
I wrapped John's body up in the tarp and carried him back across the numbingly cold creek; he was a big guy, and my arms were sore when I got to the other side of the river. I spent an hour or so sitting slackly beside John's body, crying and feeling miserable, before I regained enough strength to bury him.
It seemed like days I was out there, digging in that hard, unforgiving ground, but it was only about twelve hours. Sweaty and grimy, covered in dirt and exhausted, I laid the tarpaulin wrapped body in a seven-foot-deep hole at midnight and said a little prayer. I think that I wept hopelessly the whole time that I was filling in the grave, out of intense mourning for my friend; he was sort of like the father I never had in a way, and now he was dead and gone.
When I awoke in the camper, the first hint of ashy twilight was dawning over the harsh landscape. I sat up in the bed and thought about the dream that I have been having that night, one in which I tried to get John's corpse across the river, but it was too heavy and I eventual dropped it into the water and it floated away. If it weren't for Kristin, I figured that I would never go back to that stupid campus. But, rising above my grief for John, I had to go back and get Kristin, my beautiful wife. I could take her away from that terrible place...yes. We could live in the camper. There were plenty of fish in the water, and critters in the woods. We could do it, just like our ever west encroaching ancestors had done before us. I and Kristin could start here fresh; begin again, as if that hellhole across the river had never been. We could have a brand new life together, and we could start that life by finally consummating our marriage.
On November 15, it started to snow. After about an hour, the hard ground was covered with a dusting of hateful white death. The camp's meger water supply quickly froze over. The wind was frigid, and my lower half was frozen by the timer that I crossed the street and set foot upon the narrow road that allowed access to the campus. I was walking fast and swinging my arms in an attempt to warm myself, but was failing miserably.
As I was passing the brick building where the guardsmen were holed up, I saw Kristin coming toward me. She saw me and smiled, picking up her pace to meet me, wife and husband.
But it was never to be, for at that moment, one of the barbaric, paranoid ass-holes who called himself a National Guardsmen, leaned out one of the windows of the building, and...shot Kristin in the head, perhaps thinking that she was a danger.
I will remember the way her body jerked and how a fine mist of blood flew from her head, preceding a shower of white skull fragments and pink chunks of brain, for the rest of my pathetic life. The life and love, indeed the very fire, in her eyes died, and I saw it all.
I must have blacked out upon seeing this terrible event, for I came to. I was sitting Indian style in the road with Kristin's heads upon my lap, my pants were soaked with blood, my eyes were deluged with searing tears, and my throat was raw. Inside, I felt like something that had already died and rotted. My heart didn't thump; it felt as if an iron fist was in there, squeezing it, hoping for it to burst. My stomach was flipping and churning, and God knows what else. I can't remember much about that particular day; thankfully I have blocked most of it all out.
I had been screaming something profane in the direction of the oppressed building, my voice cracking like that of a child or a woman, and had the attention of the entire camp on me; people didn't come to help or anything, they just stayed where they were and turned their heads.
I wailed on and on for God knows how long, cradling Kristin in my arms, soaked in her blood. I recall noticing my tears dripping from my chin and mingling with the coppery red film covering Kristin's face. It's funny how the mind works in such situations; I guess I noticed this because later it gave me a measure of comfort. Our essances, her blood and my tears, bits of us, had become one. It sounds sick, but I viewed it (later) as a confirmation of our marriage. My tears on her face, her blood on my face, we, in a small way, became one; true man and wife.
Weeping bitterly, hopelessly, I took Kristin and left that horrible place, with many sets of eyes boring into me, not pitiful, not empathetic, but only glad that nothing had befall them or their loved ones. I went across the river and buried her next to John.
I remember more about putting her in the ground. I remember with ever other shovelful of earth, I would drop to my knees and press my head against her chest or mouth, desperatly looking for a heartbeat or a breath, I was insane I think. I was howling loudly, filled not only with grief, but with such a deep, black anger, that I several times stopped digging to bash the shovel against the ground, or to scream until my throat bled. Several times, I stopped for more than half an hour to sit next to Kristin's body, holding her horridly cold hand in my own, vaguely hoping that I could transfer some of my life into her, thus bringing her back to me. And when the hole was completed, I sat there in the dark of the night, freezing, holding Kristin close to me, rocking her back and forth, steadily sobbing her name, telling her how goddamn much I loved her.
I remember not wanting to put her into that dark hole alone, I wanted to go with her, or to bring her back to the camper with me, but we parted.
After that, I was dead inside. I felt nothing but a profound weariness, I wanted to sleep, and sleep forever.
For a long time after that, I just sat in that damn camper brooding. I was filled with such a horrid mix of anger, despair and helplessness. I wanted to make those sons of bitches pay for what they had done to my Kristin, for what they had done to the fat boy and all the others who, even now, lie decaying on the front lawn of their building. I wanted to murder every motherfucker in that goddamn building, but I had no way, I was totally helpless. I was only one unarmed man, and there were at least half a dozen National Guardsmen in that building with assault rifles and the handguns. The revolver was most likely still in John's truck, but that had only two bullets, and I wouldn't be able to waste every one of those motherfuckers with just two rounds. Then, the thought came to me that I could go get that gun, stick it into my mouth, and see if there was an afterlife, and if I could join Kristin there. If that was possible, than why the hell stick around here? There was no point in it. I could do it, just one round. I could come out here and do it; they'd never find my body. But that meant that I would have to cross that river and all those damn hills again, and I felt like doing nothing but lying down and dying, I had no energy whatsoever.
I was really in a bad way following Kristin's death and my fleeing from the Burlington campus. I did nothing but sleep, and when I was awake, I felt so miserable, I would alternately weep and scream and cuss. I destroyed the interior of the camper more than several times, and usually ended those tantrums by lying amidst my destruction and crying for my friends and for myself. I felt like a little child, with no way to defend myself or avenge the wrongs that had been done to me and my loved ones. I felt such an ache in my chest, such a gnawing in my stomach, that I contemplated suicide most of the time. I wanted to die, to escape the terrors of the world and the pain within me. After a while, I began to make more homemade wine and I began to drink a never ending flow of it. It helped me to forget the horrors that I had see, the friends that I had lost, and, the most painful thing of all: that I was totally, absolutely, positively, helpless.
Until I found the dynamite in the big frame house. I don't know who had lived there, or what kind of shit that they had been into, but I found a virtual armory in the cold, concrete basement of the house, shoved into a dark corner. Like I said, I haven't a clue what kind of madman may have resided there, but thank God for whoever it was. It was almost as if God himself was outraged that I should lose a father and a wife two days apart, one that he had called home himself, and one that some dickless motherfucker had sent himself, and lead me to find the weapons store. It was as if he were telling me the whole time that I was in that camper to take a look around the house, that there was something, some way to relieve the pain and mourning there.
And thankfully, I was all ears.
There was nearly a foot of snow on the ground, and still more dumping from the sky, by midnight of December 3rd, when I left the camper with the supplies that I had looted from that big frame house. I thought about living in it instead of the camper, but then again, I figured that as soon as my wrath had been spent, I would West Virginia, never to return.
There was no moon in the cloudy sky that night, so I was in total darkness until I came upon the fires of the camp. The river was frozen over, so at least I didn't have to wade. All was as dark as pitch, and I stumbled over my feet and fell several times in my trek from the river bank to the highway, I think that I was weeping despondedly the whole way, but I'm not sure. I was covered in powdery snow and freezing, my hair was dripping wet as were my clothes, when I crossed that country road for the last time and began my work.
With a great measure of stealth, I passed by all the campfires and their masters, and found John's truck undisturbed, save for a man sleeping within, spread out on the bench seat. The truck smelt of the cheap wine and the form in the truck wasn't moving, only snoring loudly. He didn't wake as I drug him from the truck and let him hit the snowy ground headfirst.
I filled the truck's gas tank from one of the red plastic cans that I had taken from the frame house, all the while looking over my shoulder and to and fro, expecting one of the hermit guardsmen to see me and remember me as the guy who had grieved so hard over a simple young girl being shot, and brand me as bad news. I desperately didn't want to be stopped before I had exacted my revenge against those fucking monsters who had killed pretty little Kristin, a harmless child, a sweet little lamb.
With that done, I climbed into the truck and made as if to leave by way of the narrow road, but I turned around at the point where the narrow road meets the main highway, and slowly crept back, with no headlights. I eased the truck off of the road into the grass, and spent the next two hours silently pushing the heavy vehicle up to the brick wall of the guardsmen's building. When I finally had John's truck as close to the wall of the building as possible, its nose lightly touch it as if in a kiss, I knelt down and crawled under the truck. I lay there for a while, working and relishing the comfort of the snow, which felt as soft as any bed I had ever occupied.
When I had finished what I had in mind, I crawled out from under the truck and started the ignition. When I heard the faint tick, which sounded natural to an old truck like John's, I turned and bolted. I tripped over my feet once or twice before reaching the road, and seemed to fall every millisecond when I hit the dark dirt road. My heart was thumping from fear, exhaustion, and exhilaration. I did not know how many people would die, hopefully no one besides the guardsmen, but if more had to go, oh well. And I know, as I ran and fell back to the river bank, with my deceased friends on my mind, I did cry, for John, for Kristen, for myself.
By the time I reached the rise above the river, and was preparing to slow my roll as I crossed the ice, a great Whump! sounded from behind me. The ground shook violently, sending me to my knees. I quickly stood, and surveyed the sky above the campus. Over the tops of the skeletal trees, a bright orange light glowed beautifully; it looked as if a nuclear bomb had gone off.
After a few moments, the shimmer died, and my part of the land was thrust back into darkness. I could hear the powerful crackle of flames and wails of pain and horror, and my heart hurt. I had no idea how mighty the dynamite that I found in the basement of the old frame house was. I only wanted it to take out that one building, but it appeared as if I had killed everyone within a mile radius. In thinking of my dastardly deed, I was worse than the beast that had shot innocent Kristen. My bravado died, I went from Rambo to a sniveling baby, a murderous baby, a killer of innocent people; a West Virginia National Guardsmen
I vomited and let out a loud stream of laments. I had thought that killing everyone in the camp wouldn't affect me, would not penetrate the steely layers of numbing depression, and insane rage instilled in me by Kristin's murder, but I was wrong. Horribly wrong.
I limped back to the camper and lay down on the tiny bed in there without taking my clothes or even my shoes off. I thought of what I had done the lives that I had taken until dawn's early light. I finally cried myself to sleep and dreamt of Kirstin and John, and the masses that had lost their lives because of my vengeance. And all of them, even cool-headed John and sweet little Kristin, were extremely pissed at me.
Its summer now, warm and beautiful, and I am still living in the little camper by the river. I have not been over to the other shore since that night, and don't need to, I know that it was one hell of an apocalyptic fire that swept the campus; for days afterward, I could view the billowing black smoke arising into the cold gray sky. I don't do much of anything besides fishing, hunting, and tending to the graves of my father and wife. The transistor radio (which I saved) says that things are getting a bit better with the rise of the temperature, there's more manual labor to be done, but things are still pretty messed up. Cities are in flames, people are dying by the millions from famine, and most solders are AWOL, refusing to serve without getting paid, even though our paper money is worthless right now. Overall, I still think that this country is down and shall stay down forever more.
Well, writing this tale has been fun (as fun as ripping off a scab and reopening a healing wound), but I have to wrap it up now, I've still got to provide my own food and make my own clothing, and it isn't getting any lighter outside. The field where the frame house sits (so different from the field where all of this started) is surrounded by wild flowers, and I think that I'm going to pick some and put them on Kristin's grave.
She would like that.