“You got him good!” I whooped and I danced, kicking up dust and ash that makes this whole world smell like an old fireplace.
“Ain’t dead yet.” Fatha he whipped out the hatchet he keeps clean and sharp, dangling round his neck on a thick leather strap. “Come, Boy.”
That’ s what he calls me—Boy—because that’s what I am, his child, his only begotten son in all the world. So he loves me the most and does what he must to get me into Heaven.
This dying man he cursed a blue streak and kicked, pawing at the ground. Fatha’s hatchet came down once and broke through the helmet, shattering black glass that hid this man’s face, and the struggling stopped and this man he lay still and quiet then.
“Lef s get it off.” Fatha tugs his hatchet free and reaches under this man’s chin—and I help because that is what I do—and we pry the helmet off his sunsore head.
The blade of Fatha’s hatchet messed up his face good, cutting clear into his skull with that one stroke. Fatha he’s a big man with big muscles that kill like nobody’s business. This man wasn’t near so big while alive and not half so big now he’s dead. Funny how death does that to a body. He has long greasy hair kind of like we’ve got and a dirty beard kind of like Fatha’s got only Fatha keeps his clean. When I can grow one—and Fatha he says I’m awful close—I’m gonna keep it clean too, and there ain’t no way I’ll be letting my skin get all nasty like this man. I do right and keep my skin covered like Fatha tells me to all the time, and it keeps them sores away.
With the helmet off, Fatha’s hatchet comes down again, once, twice, the hot blood spraying up like rain from the wrong direction. He’s got this man’s skull wide open now, and he wipes his blade off on this man’s thick flannel shirt and takes a looksee inside, reaching in, prying the gap with his fingers through all that goo.
Fatha hums and mutters to himself like he does when he’s thinking and when he’s looking for something important to find.
“Does he got one?” I’m on my haunches copping a squat and petting the flannel, wishing it wasn’t so bloody or it might have been nice and warm for the nighttimes.
“Don’t you rush me, Boy.” Fatha’s voice is always so quiet when it comes to this part, and he’s got to work fast but he’s also got to work slow—that’ s how he described it once when I asked him about it.
He told me there’s very little time in the space between, once a body’s heart stops beating, so it’ s got to be done quick—but not so quick you scare off the thing, because then you’ll never get it back. But then again, if s only if there’s one in the first place, because like me, Fatha says there be plenty of folks in this world today with no souls.
This man he don’t look like he’d have much of one, to tell the truth, but as Fatha says, no beggars can ever be choosers. And so I’ll take what I can get and be glad of it. If I ever want to see my Mama again, then it’s got to be so.
Fatha curses loud and foul and shoves the man’s floppy head off to the side to spill its mess onto the cracked asphalt.
“No good?” I rise with Fatha and I look up at him while he looks off into the faraway with his eyes there and not here, with his thick knuckles knotted on the hatchet.
I asked him one time why it was I needed a soul anyways. I seem to be getting along fine without one.
Fatha he said, “No soul, and you don’t get into Heaven, Boy.” And I asked him, “How come I was born with no soul?”
And he told me, “The Good Gawd seen fit to leave the planting of it to me, child, and soon as I find you one, I’m gonna plant it right in there.” He tapped me on the forehead just so, like his sausage finger could do it too, put an honest-to-gawd soul right into my brain where it belonged.
“What do it look like?” I asked him.
“Why, that’ s one there.” He pointed me at the punctured skull of a different man at a different time, one who’d come through this street— Main Street, Fatha calls it—in a gas-guzzling racer. He pointed his thick finger and I strained to see, but all that was there was blood and brains. “It ain’t right for you. What you need is an honest soul.”
That is what we pray for every night.
But now at this time Fatha he cries like he does whenever he’s taken a life, and I know why, he told me before. He’s afraid, you see, that he’ll have to kill every last man on this ugly old earth before he finds me what I need. The tears now they skid down past the rims of his goggles and slide into his big grey beard, covered up for now with his red scarf, the one he always wears when we’re outside. I’ve got one too, but it’s black.
“It ain’t your fault,” he told me once. “You didn’t know what you was doing. It ain’t no sin when it’s from ignorance.”
I didn’t know nothing about that. I just know Mama ain’t here no more, and if I ever want to see her again, Fatha’s got to do what he knows best.
“Come, Boy.” He turns away from this dead man and heads across the street to the brick building he says was a bank at a different time, a place that used to hold paper for folks who didn’t want to share it. “Time to eat now.”
I follow, and I hope it ain’t cat. I’m getting awful sick of cat.
Next day I’m sitting outside all covered up, smearing the ash on the sidewalk with my rear end, taking chunks of broken concrete and breaking them into smaller pieces to throw at the cars and listen to the hollow sounds they make. Ever since the nukes and the EMP’s, long before I was born, these rusty old things been sitting here, blocking the road this way. Most all electrics are no good no more, Fatha says.
“What was they thinking?” He mutters a lot when he thinks back on the old days, when the world was green and the sky was blue. I can’t even imagine.
It’s middleday now and the sun’s burning bright and Fatha he’s taking his nap inside the bank where it’s cool and dark. Ain’t nobody ever tries to come through our town this time of day. Only a true fool would. You wait until dawntime or dusktime, that’s how you do. Never when the sun’s high, because it’s too hot and you can’t go around sweating out all your water when there ain’t much good water to be had.
That’s why I sit here in the shade while I sling the concrete and hear it go thunk like a bomb—like I imagine a good bomb to sound.
But there’s something buzzing this way now, and I know I should go roust Fatha because that is what I do whenever I hear somebody coming, yet I don’t because I know there can’t be anybody out this time of day. Would be suicide, Fatha says, and suicide won’t get you into Heaven, so who would go and do a stupid thing like that?
I hunker down and keep to the shade while sliding myself under the rusty old car with the dents in the side from my concrete. The ash is real thick down here, but my scarf keeps me from breathing it in, and besides I’m holding my breath anyway and waiting while the buzz gets louder in my ears. It don’t sound like that dead man’s motorbike from yesterday. That one chugged and Fatha called it a Harly. This one, I don’t know, but I can hear it come straight this way, and I can feel my heart thump with it.
The buzz grinds into town from the south and the sound changes like it’s speeding up and slowing down, and I know it’s weaving around the dead cars and the bodies inside them, and I want to see who it is this time, who would be so foolish to ride under the sun. I should go get Fatha, but no, it’s too late for that because I’d be seen—and besides, would he really want to take the soul of one so stupid?
I’m about ready to peek out from under the car when I hear the buzz falter a bit, then a big clatter-noise. A body goes sliding across the ashy street, a body my size, not like all them men Fatha’s had to kill up to now—I can’t even count how many. This one’s covered in rough brown leather and denim and a helmet and gloves and boots. And no crossbow to see.
So I crawl out from under the car and I go straight for the bank to wake Fatha—
But this stranger he’s heard me though I moved quiet and quick like a cat, and the black glass on his helmet faces me with my reflection in it. I freeze up.
“Hey,” I say before I know it.
He watches me with no words, like he’s as frozen as me.
“You hurt?” I notice his motorbike then, but I ain’t never seen nothing like it. The tires they’ve got chunks to them, and they’re narrow with bigger rims than any I’ve seen, and there ain’t much at all to the chassis.
“My leg.” He gestures, and his voice is quiet but I hear fine.
“You want I could—” But I don’t want to get Fatha, and I wouldn’t know what to do with the red cross box anyhow. He always takes care of things when we hurt ourselves. “You bleeding out?” If so, it might bring the cats out from the shadows, and they’ve been mighty hungry lately.
The helmet shakes just a bit, and his hand waves toward his leg again under his other one, but I can’t tell if it’s broke. Only if I went up to him and checked for myself I’d know, but he might have some kind of weapon I can’t see, like a blade or some such, and if I come up too close to him he’ll like as not gut me open and leave me out there in the sun to fester with sores till I die.
“You can’t be out there too long, you know,” I say. “Wasn’t planning on it. Mind sharing some of that shade?”
His motorbike’s still running, eating up his fuel, and I know he can’t be happy about it no more than he’s happy about his leg. I could shut off the engine while he drags himself out of the sun, unless he’s just “playing possum” like Fatha says. That’s why he’s always got his crossbow and shoots dead center in the back so they’re no trouble.
I beckon to this small man to join me, and I should go get Fatha and wake him and tell him we’ve got company—but I don’t want him to open up this one’s skull for me. This one, he’s my size. We could be friends.
He drags himself backward, legs trailing through the dust and ash, and I step quicklike out into the sun and hoof it over to his bike. I pick the thing up and kill the motor and I watch it grind down into quiet.
“Hell, you’re a strong one,” he tells me, scooting back onto the cool concrete in front of the bank.
I’m holding the motorbike up off the asphalt and it ain’t no trouble. Fatha he always says I don’t know my own strength.
I set the bike down and prop it up against the car with the dents in the side, and I look for my concrete chunks but now he’s sitting with them, this stranger, and he’s reaching for his helmet to remove it. I keep my distance, but I know I shouldn’t be out here in the sun, even with all the coverings I’ve got: hat, scarf, goggles, jacket, gloves—
He’s got his helmet off, and I see now I was wrong about him, dead wrong. Sure, he’s my size, but he ain’t nothing like me at all. He’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen, and he’s looking right at me with eyes like the bluest paint in all the world.
“I don’t bite,” he says and sets the helmet in his lap, leaning back against the glass double doors. When Fatha wakes up, he’ll come straight through there. “You got a name?”
Of course I do. Fatha calls me Boy because that is what I am. “What are you doing here?”
He shrugs slim shoulders. Mine are bigger. “Passing through. You alone here?”
“No.” I point past the doors at his back. “Fatha he’s here, and you’d best be gone before he comes.” Then I really give him a good long look, keeping my distance. There ain’t no beard on his face, and it’s a narrow face, one that wouldn’t look good with a beard anyways. He must be my age or so. And his hair, it’s so wavy and long and red like a copper penny, clean like he must wash it every other day. “What’s your name?”
“Gwyneth,” he says, and it don’t sound like no man’s name I’ve ever heard, but I’ve only heard the names Fatha reads to me from his big book, ones like David and Joseph and Moses. “Call me Gwyn. So, it’s just you and your dad here, that it?”
It’ s always been Fatha and me and nobody else since Mama, and the ones who pass through don’t go no further. But I don’t tell Gwyn this; he wouldn’t understand, at least I don’t think he would.
“You got a soul?” The sun it’s burning through to my scalp now and I can’t stand out here much longer, but I don’t want to be gutted like no dumb cat neither. “In here?” I tap the side of my head.
Gwyn he chuckles, and it sounds like the music Fatha plays on his eyepad on Sundays when he fires up the generator for our weekly devotion time, high and clear and so pretty, and I want him to laugh some more soon as he’s done.
“So that’ s where it is? I’ve always wondered.” He shakes his head, and the copper locks sway back and forth and I want to run my fingers through them. They must feel smooth like Mama’s old silk dress Fatha sleeps with. I felt it once when he wasn’t looking. “I don’t know, kid. Maybe none of us have souls anymore. What do you think of that?”
If that was true, I wouldn’t be the only one kept out of Heaven, that’s what I think. But I don’t tell him.
“You got any food around here?” Another chuckle, just as pretty as before. “What am I saying, of course you do! You’ve got this whole town to yourselves, right?”
Just us and the cats, that’s all. “I’ll go get you some grub.” I make to approach him and the doors but remember the back of the bank, the emergency door, and the key I wear around my neck under my jacket. “Don’t you go anywhere.”
“No chance of that.” Gwyn motions toward that leg of his again.
I take off full-tilt around the building and close my eyes with a deep sigh once I’m in the shade of all that dusty brick. I come round to the back where the solid steel door faces a whole lot of nothing out beyond the vacant lot, dry hills grey with ash and what looks like little dots lined up on the ridge way out west. Squinting, I can’t quite make out what they are, too far away.
The key comes out easy once I’ve got my jacket unzipped and I slip it into the lock, knowing there are plenty of protein bars down in the basement where it’ s cool, locked up so the cats don’t get to them. I’ve got the door open wide when I hear the blast, a sound more like a gawd-awful bomb than any of my concrete chunks against that dead car. I never heard nothing like it, but I know it ain’t good, so I run inside, past the offices and vaults and the cot where Fatha should have been sleeping. I run out to the big room in front where folks used to trade their paper, and I stop with my heart pounding like thunder in my ears.
Fatha he stands out front of the glass doors and they’re open now, and he’s got his crossbow trained on Gwyn who’s got what looks like a weapon pointed at Fatha, and there’s blood splattered on the glass behind Fatha, and Fatha’s jacket is all wet with fresh blood like that man he done shot just yesterday morning, but Fatha he stands tall and strong like always.
“You get back on that bike and you clear out of here,” Fatha’s saying, and I don’t know why he hasn’t shot Gwyn yet, but I’m glad of it. We’re going to be friends, Gwyn and me. “You tell your bunch they ain’t welcome here. This is our town. Y’all had better just move on.”
Gwyn chuckles, but it ain’t so pretty now. “We’ve got you outnumbered ten to one, old man. What makes you think you can stand up to those odds?”
I come up slow behind Fatha and squint out through the dim into the bright sunlight beyond. He’s been hurt bad, I can see that, but he don’t seem in much pain. He holds the crossbow steady, and if he was to pull the trigger right now, the arrow would go straight through Gwyn’s throat.
“Fatha it’s okay, he’s my friend,” I say, and Fatha he almost jumps at me, but he recovers quicklike. “His name is Gwyn and—”
Gwyn he’s laughing again, real hard now, and I don’t like it. Sounds like he’s laughing at me. “Twenty of us against you and that half-wit of yours. You sure you want to make things difficult for yourselves?”
“We mind our own business here. We got no issue with you passing this way.” Fatha he tightens his grip. “But you lead your bunch one foot into this town, and you’ll be wishing you hadn’t.”
Gwyn’s weapon makes a click-clink sound. “How about I just blow your brains all over that retard of yours?”
Fatha growls deep in his chest and his skin burns red and I know what will happen next, so I let out a “No!” and shove him aside, just to throw off his aim, because he was going to end Gwyn then and there. Fatha’s ribs they make a crunching sound where my arm hits him, and he falls off to the side, crashing through the glass of one of them open doors. Limp like a dead cat, he lays there in the bloody glass bits, the crossbow without its arrow.
But it didn’t shoot Gwyn. He’s fine, staring at me with those big blue eyes of his. The arrow it went straight into one of the flat tires on that car I always hit with my concrete.
“What did you do, kid?” Gwyn he seems mighty surprised.
“He was gonna kill you,” I say and kneel down beside Fatha who isn’t moving.
Gwyn chuckles again, the ugly sound not the pretty one. “I think you killed him, you dumb bastard.” He’s got his weapon tucked into his jacket now and is slipping on his helmet. Turns out he was just playing possum after all; his leg is fine and he can walk more than all right. He leaves his black helmet glass open and steps out into the sun. He takes hold of his motorbike and climbs on. “Get ready for some company, kid.” He kickstarts the bike, and it buzzes so loud my teeth they vibrate.
Fatha’s eyes are closed, his beardy chin on his chest, but he ain’t sleeping. He’s breathing and bleeding out, but he ain’t at peace, that I can tell. I hurt him bad, I’m afraid, and I can feel the tears spill hot down out of my eyes.
“You came with friends, Gwyn?” I remember them dots out on the ridge. Gwyn he must’ ve come on in ahead to look around and see if everything was all right here.
Gwyn twists the handle on his bike and the engine revs up. “You behave, kid, and you won’t have any trouble with us.”
“Okay.” I turn to Fatha and stroke his beard. “Wake up now, you wake up, time to wake up now, Fatha.” Gwyn’s motorbike tears off out of town to go and fetch his friends. Might be nice to have more folks around. I have long forgot what that’s like.
Fatha burps, that’s what it sounds like, and now there’s blood coming out into his beard. His wrinkly eyelids twitch and peel open to focus his watery black eyes. One side of his face lifts up, and his bloody teeth grin at me.
“About time,” he says, and I can barely hear him. He reaches up to touch my face with his hand; this is how he shows his love for me. “You wouldn’t let me kill her.” He coughs hard, and more blood spills out like tomato soup from the big cans we’ve got down in the basement. “You’ll see your Mama. Now you got yourself a soul.” He taps me on the side of my head. “It’s been planted, just you gotta let it grow.”
But his eyes close and his hand drops into his lap, and he don’t breathe no more. And in the distance I hear more buzzing motorbikes like Gwyn’s, and they’re all headed this way. So I pick up Fatha’s spent crossbow and I pray he’s right, that somehow I’ve got me a soul now.
I step out into the sunlight to greet my new friends with my insides all tangled up and heavy in my gut. It won’t ever be the same here without Fatha, and yet I’m so glad of this one thing: that there will finally be an end to all the killing.
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