Sunday, October 21, 2012

"The Boys of Summer" - an Orphans story

A while back, I posted a short story set in the world of one of my various comics ideas. I don't think it was a particularly good story—I like the concept more than my execution—but what the hey, you never learn anything if you don't try. So, in the spirit of trying, I present to you a short story set in a completely different comic universe of mine, which I just call Orphans. Ladies, gentlemen, and assorted, may I present: "The Boys of Summer."

(I should probably say that this story is extremely not safe for work, albeit only in the swearing department.)

I see the boys of summer in their ruin
Lay the gold tithings barren,
Setting no store by harvest, freeze the soils;
There in their heat the winter floods
Of frozen loves they fetch their girls,
And drown the cargoed apples in their tides

—‘I See the Boys of Summer’, Dylan Thomas

The body was cold and stiff, curled up like a grotesque knot, like he hadn't just died but had left the world so violent and quick it twisted him from the inside out. The man’s fingers were splayed out like chicken's feet, a few heavy rings still wrapped around them. Two ragged holes in his neck, less than an inch apart, were the source of the dried blood that covered him, soaked his wifebeater shirt, and formed a puddle on the ground.

Daniel Boudreaux squatted over the dead man, smelling the sweetness of rot, hearing the zwee-zwee-zwee of cicadas, feeling the early heat already like a heavy blanket on his back. The body, cooled by the chill summer nights of the Arizona desert, stared blindly upward at him.

“Y'see?” hissed Aaron Grey, right in Daniel's ear. “Like I told you! It's a vampire!” Aaron was sixteen, and excited, and was one of maybe a half-dozen people in town willing to talk to Daniel. He’d latched on to Daniel since the day the older man came into town, and had followed him around like a puppy ever since.

Daniel didn't answer. He stood up and paced slowly around the body, keeping his distance, staring carefully at the ground. “Is it him?”

“Yeah,” Aaron said, “it’s Jorge.” Daniel knew the man only by name, as part of the standard small-town gossip: a hunter who chased more women than animals, liked a drink more than he should've. When he’d gone missing last night, most people had assumed one vice or the other was to blame.

“No horse tracks,” said Aaron, pointing. “He don't need a horse. He carries 'em out here.” He pumped his arms in a lifting gesture. “Vampire strength.”

“Nah,” Daniel said. “Two sets of footprints. They both walked out here.”

“Oh.” Aaron's face fell, then brightened suddenly. “Maybe he hypnotized him! Mind-controlled him!”

Daniel turned from the body and walked back to his horse, who was nibbling halfheartedly at some dried-brown stalks of dead grass. He led the horse back to where the dead man waited and, with the kind of ease that only came from a close association with corpses, hoisted the body up and onto the horse's flanks. The rigor-stiff body stayed grotesquely in the same posture as he moved it. Daniel lifted himself into the saddle and pulled the horse into a trot back towards town. Behind him, Aaron scrambled onto his own mount and tried to catch up.

Vampires, thought Daniel. Fuck me sideways.

He'd seen this kind of shit before. Something bad happens, some idiot gets a dumbfuck idea in his head, and somehow it gets in everybody else's head, and they're too dumb and scared shitless to get it out again. Daniel had found the term for it in a psychology textbook he'd scavenged from a ruined bookstore in Memphis: mass hysteria. You get that in a town like this one, where there wasn't anyone or anything within two days' ride, and by the end of the week they're burning down houses.

Daniel's parents had been smart—his mom a high school teacher, his dad a lawyer—smart enough to teach him how to recognize crazy. A town that believed in vampires, that was crazy. And not just crazy, but dangerous crazy.

But crazy or not, people were being killed. Mysteriously, during the night. Holes in their necks.

Fuck, he thought.

At least Daniel himself was above suspicion, having come to town only two days ago, two weeks after the first body had been found. Unfortunately, that also made him probably the only person in town who could figure out what was going on before they started stabbing each other in the streets.

Daniel was tall, and broad, and not to be fucked with. He had the kind of muscles you only got from relying on them to survive. His eyes stared out from a face that was mostly jaw and brow and unsmiling mouth. His skin was a deep, solid brown, the hair of his thin goatee and thick eyebrows solid black. (He kept his head shaved in the desert heat.) He carried brass knuckles and four guns.

Daniel had been thirteen when all the adults died.

Until then he'd lived in a suburb, been driven to school, roughhoused with his brother. He'd never held a gun before or walked more than two miles at a stretch. By the time he was seventeen, he'd killed three people and eaten raw dogmeat to survive. He lost his virginity at eighteen by the light of a car fire. By the time he was twenty-six, he'd traveled across seven states in hotwired cars and three more on horseback, and could put a bullet through a human skull with a rifle at five hundred yards.

And now, at thirty-two, one of the oldest people in the world, he was going to find the fucker who was killing people like a vampire would.

*    *    *

The town was barely big enough, now, to be called a town. It didn't have a name. Back when the adults were alive, it would've been an suburb: big, multi-floor houses with gravel lawns, wide streets with wide sidewalks, business parks and malls and gas stations and schools all dropped down among the monotonous houses. Now only a handful of those houses were inhabited, most of them near a former park where cattle and horses grazed on the sparse remnants of grass. A few telephone poles still stabbed up from the asphalt and concrete, some straight, some collapsed, some leaning against each other for illusory support.

The buildings were in pretty good shape. Some of the places Daniel had been, there was just burned-out shells or rotting frames, or nothing but foundations and piles of lumber if a tornado had gone through. Here the dry, stable desert climate kept things more or less intact. If he'd wanted to settle down, Daniel could've just picked a house, cleared out the mice, and moved in.

When Daniel rode in, there was a small clutch of people, young women mostly, waiting for the search parties, waiting to hear what they'd found out there. He could already see the fear and the panic in some eyes, and he wished to God he had something else to say.

At the front of the crowd, his arms folded across his chest and his posture as solid as a mountain, was Jason Campbell. Jason had a solid jawline, large hands, and short blonde hair. He wore a white t-shirt under a faded Hawaiian shirt, and a pair of knee-length khaki shorts. His eyes had no fear.

Daniel pulled his horse's reins and came to a stop in the middle of the street, the horseshoes clicking on the hot, cracked asphalt. He slid out of the saddle and pulled the body down, quickly but not disrespectfully, face-up to the crowd.

The crowd rippled softly. “Jorge,” a few people murmured. Some took hesitant steps forward, to confirm that the man was dead, that the dead man was the man they knew. One woman knelt down by Jorge’s shoulder and started sobbing quietly.

“How'd he die?” said Jason.

“Same as the others, two holes in the neck. No other signs of struggle.” Daniel met Jason's stare straight on, didn't blink. “Lotta blood. All around him.”

“So they killed him out there,” Jason said. He walked carefully around the body, looking it over clinically, squatting down to inspect the wounds.

Jason was the leader of the town, the one who made the decisions and kept everyone in line. He liked to be called “mayor.” Daniel knew the type: with the adults gone, at least one kid stepped up to lead. Usually one of the older kids, or the ones with younger siblings, accustomed to taking care of others. Most often it wasn't the bad ones—the bullies didn't find their tortures as fun anymore without the threat of being caught—but the ones who did it still had a taste for control, treating their former friends and neighbors like soldiers and subordinates.

So far Jason seemed like one of the good ones, but Daniel knew better than to trust that impression.

Aaron dropped off his horse and pointed excitedly to the holes in the neck. “See? Like I told you, Jason!”

“And like I told you, Aaron, stop with this vampire nonsense. It's just stories.” He pointed Aaron to his horse. “Make yourself useful and go tell the others they can stop searching.” Aaron reluctantly remounted his horse and rode off. Jason kept pacing around Jorge’s body. Daniel knew he was trying to look like a detective or a policeman, like the men they’d seen on televisions who solved crimes and inspected the dead bodies.

(Daniel, and Jason, and any person currently over the age of nineteen had already seen plenty of dead bodies. They’d had to see their mothers and fathers, their teachers and coaches, their neighbors and relatives lying dead on the floor or sitting upright in a driver’s seat or slumped over a table. Sometimes they’d even helped dispose of them, building huge bonfires of bodies and letting them burn to ashes, or dumping them in the basements of abandoned houses and nailing them shut. Death held no fear for them, or at least they no longer recognized the fear when they felt it.)

Jason finally stood up and looked at Daniel. “Four bodies in two weeks,” he said. “What does that say to you?”

“Says somebody’s killing people,” Daniel said without affect. Jason locked eyes with Daniel for a moment, then turned around to face the crowd.

“Somebody we know is killing people,” Jason continued. “There’s nobody else in a hundred miles from here, and nobody’s been making camp anywhere in the area, so it’s got to be someone in town. And they’re not tied up or dragged out there; they go willingly. He, or she, takes ‘em way outside of town, and then stabs them in the neck so they bleed to death.” Jason spread his hands out wide, as if he expected either applause or objections.

“What d’you think we should do?” called out a skinny, black-haired man in the crowd. Manny stepped forward.

Manny, who had no family name, was both feared and respected by the town. Respected because he could brew a throat-burning liquor out of the corn grown in town, in batches large enough to share; feared because Manny was tough. According to rumor, he was only five years old when the adults died, and didn’t see another living person until he was nine; anyone who could survive that had a serious pair of balls on them. True or not, the last person who’d tried to pick a fight with Manny had lost the use of an arm and an eye. Daniel sometimes thought he could trust him.

“You’ve had lookouts since Betty died,” Manny said. “Didn’t save Karen. Didn’t save Jorge.”

“Then we keep even closer watch,” Jason said, impatience in his voice. “Tonight, everybody sleeps in the Harmons’.” There was a subdued groan through the crowd. The Harmons had had no children, and their house had three large floors; it was big enough to hold every person in town, so long as they squeezed uncomfortably close. Jason held up his hands as if shielding himself. “Four watchers. One at the front door, one at the back, one at the garage, one circling the house. Shift change every four hours. Anybody’s caught sleeping, I kick your ass. Any questions?”

There weren’t.

*    *    *

Dinner that night was bean stew and corn tortillas. The town sat down at long picnic tables set up next to the park, eating off of plastic trays salvaged from the nearby high school. Strung from former power lines and the listing telephone poles were hurricane lamps and lanterns; set in candelabras and plastic dishes on the table were candles, some homemade, some recently unwrapped from dusty, two-decades-old plastic. None were lit in the light of early summer evening.

Daniel took his tray to the far end of the tables, away from the clusters of talk and gossip. He sat under two half-fallen poles, a Chinese lantern hanging directly above his head like an unfinished idea. Daniel had the spoon halfway to his mouth when Jason dropped down across the table.

“Evening!” Jason said with aggressive cheerfulness. He ripped a tortilla in two and dunked one half into his stew. “How’re you liking our food?”

“S’good,” Daniel said flatly.

“Glad you like it,” said Jason. “Lotta hard work goes into our crops. Lotta time.” His eyes never left Daniel. “How’s the investigation going? Got any suspects yet?”

Daniel chewed silently.

Jason folded the other half of the tortilla into his mouth. “Hope you’re settling in okay,” he continued. “Hope you’re getting to know everybody in town. We’re all friendly folks, you know.”

“You’ve been very hospitable,” said Daniel.

“It’s good to have someone like you in town,” Jason said. “You clearly got a lot of experience. You know what you’re doing.” He gestured at Daniel’s belt and the holsters attached. “With those guns of yours, you’re set to sort everything out, aren’t you? You’ve got everything under control.”

Daniel could already see where this was going, and he was tired of the pretense. He dropped his spoon into the bowl of stew and stared straight at Jason. “Really?” he said. “This is how you’re going to play this? The dumb-as-shit hick sheriff who’s too busy getting pissed at the out-of-towner to actually protect his own fucking people? That's who you are?”

“I’m getting pissed at the fucker who swaggers in and acts like he knows everything while thinkin’ he’s saving our hick asses from something we’re too dumb to handle.” Jason spoke no louder, but the conversation around them had already died, leaving his words plain and bare on the table. Daniel could see, over Jason’s shoulder, Aaron, sitting with his parents, staring open-mouthed at him. Jason picked up another tortilla and tore off a side. “If you just came in, ate our food, and left, that’d be no problem. I wouldn’t blame you. But you—” he pointed the tortilla at Daniel—“you think you’re a detective. You think you’re a cowboy.”

Daniel said nothing.

“You want to ride in on a white horse,” Jason continued. His voice had lost its aggression, was quiet and solid now. “You want to save us. You think we need saving. And you think you can save us.”

“You think you don’t need saving?” Daniel said.

“No, I don’t. We need to be stable. We need to be—” Jason paused to search for the right word. “—whole.” He dropped his spoon and food on the tray and rested one large hand beside it on the table. With the other he pointed accusingly at Daniel. “What I’m trying to say is, we don't need you, Mister Boudreaux. These killings, they’re a problem, but they’re our problem. They’re not a chance for you to live out some kind of fantasy.”

“So—what? You want more people to die?”

“I don’t want it. But I also don’t want some arrogant sonofabitch with half-a-dozen guns to come into my town, that I spend my lifebuilding up and making safe, and treat us like a problem you get to solve.” Jason picked up his spoon, but didn’t use it. “This isn’t your chance to be a hero, Mister Boudreaux. This is a community I’m trying to make, and you don’t need to be here.” Jason held his gaze on Daniel a moment more, then looked down to his food and continued eating. Conversations started again at other tables.

Daniel got up, and walked away.

*    *    *

The Harmons’ furniture had long ago been taken away: some of it had been moved into other houses, some taken for the communal spaces in town, most of it burned for firewood. Most rooms of the house were entirely empty now, bare wood floors and doorframes with the doors removed. People slept in sleeping bags or on blankets; a few (mostly families) had tents set up for a semblance of privacy.

Daniel was awake when Manny came that night, after the first shift change. (Daniel hadn’t expected Jason to ask him to keep watch, and Jason hadn’t, but he’d stayed awake anyway.) Manny carried no lantern or flashlight; the moonlight that came through dusty windows was bright enough to see by. The first glimpse Daniel caught of him was as of a giant, lopsided spider, picking his way among sleeping bags and bedrolls packed close together across the floor, carrying a woven blanket rolled up under one arm.

“Hey,” whispered Manny.

“Hey,” whispered Daniel back.

Manny folded himself up on the bench below the window, next to Daniel, pulling the blanket over himself. He wore a frayed t-shirt and a pair of too-loose jeans, drawn tight with a leather belt. On his left wrist was a metal bracelet made up of silver links and a flat, rectangular plate; Daniel recognized it as a medical thing, but had no knowledge of any deeper significance. It clinked softly as Manny moved his arm.

“Jason has you doing a shift?” Daniel asked.

“No,” Manny said. He reached into his pocket and pulled out something Daniel couldn’t make out in the dim light. “Didn’t wanna anyway.”

(Sometimes, Daniel almost believed the rumors about Manny’s early life. He often spoke in short, stilted sentences, like a child, or like a man whose speech development had stalled as a child. Then there was the way he handled himself: with the force of an adult, but the clumsiness of youth, swinging wild punches that could break a man’s jaw. Daniel saw in him the dual lack of restraint and purpose that could cause a man to do terrible things for no reason.)

Daniel turned his head to stare out at the long, flat world outside. The Harmons’ house was near the edge of town, giving a wide view of the moonlit ground, broken up by the occasional ridge of ground or desiccated plant. It seemed as though he could see for miles.

“What did you want to be?” said Manny suddenly. “When you were young.”

Daniel looked carefully at the younger man. Manny’s face was covered in thin, slight cuts and patches of dark stubble; Daniel recognized the signs of a man shaving who’d never been taught how.

This was a question commonly asked by people over a certain age. For a moment Daniel considered claiming he never thought about it, but something in the tone of Manny’s voice changed his mind. “A doctor,” he said, “or a surgeon. Something where I got to fix people.”

“You could still do that,” said Manny. “You ever tried it? Fix people?”

“Nah. You gotta study that shit for a lifetime to get it right. And I didn’t have anybody to teach me.” Daniel watched Manny playing with the small object. It looked like a candy bar, or a small stick. Manny was rolling it over his hands, between his fingers. “What about you?”

“Never thought about it.”

Danny considered calling bullshit on him, until he looked up at Manny’s eyes.

Manny tapped the object against the windowpane. “Jason’s wrong, you know,” he said. “About the vampires.”

“You think they’re real?”

“No, but …” Manny paused, and his staccato tapping on the window sped up slightly; Daniel could see his mouth fumbling for the words. “They’re real. They’re not real. It don’t matter. Someone wants them real, they make them real. And we forget they’re not.”

Silhouetted against the window, the object in Manny’s hand became clear to Daniel. It was a small switchblade, thin and narrow, blade folded. The grip was wood (probably fake), the blade unlikely to hold an edge for very long.

“Nobody dies sudden here,” Manny continued. “People get sick or hurt. Marcela was in a fire. Anna got kicked in the head by a horse last year. She didn’t even die for two days. We die slow here. I know it happens--no food, nothing growing. Maybe we forgot that death can come quick.”

Dozens of knives just like Manny’s could be found in any hunting supplies store, hell, maybe convenience store, this far south, each one untouched and pristine for almost twenty years. Every person Daniel met was likely to carry at least one easily-pocketed weapon that needed no bullets.

By itself, the knife meant nothing.

Daniel realized he was staring at the knife the same time Manny did. Manny looked down at it, very deliberately held it up against the window, silhouetted against the moonlit world. He flicked the blade open carefully, the tip pointing straight up at the ceiling. He moved his thumb and retracted the blade.

Slowly and carefully, he held the knife out to Daniel, as an offering. “Here,” he said, “take it.”

Daniel took it, opened the blade, and inspected it carefully. It was clean, the blade untouched; the knife had probably never been used.

He held it out to Manny, but Manny shook his head. “Keep it.” He got up, refolding his blanket with surprising care and throwing it over his shoulder. “Take good care of it. Use it on the vampire, if you find him.” Manny left the way he came, stepping over the sleeping people.

Daniel turned back to the window.

*    *    *

Daniel awoke suddenly, and immediately hated himself for falling asleep. His cheek was pressed against the window, a trace of drool running down the glass. He blinked, trying to focus on something solid.

Outside, off in the desert, there was a movement Daniel couldn’t understand. Not a bird or a coyote, something larger but still small, something directed and deliberate. He blinked again, his eyes refusing to realize what it meant.

There was a brief moment of light, then, a spark like from a fire, in the same spot. The sun was close to rising, straining to illuminate the world. Out in the scrubland, on the empty land that surrounded the town and kept it silent, things were becoming visible. Daniel focused, and could see two dots, creatures that refused to resolve into people though he knew they were. One was standing, the other lying down.

Daniel rose quickly, striding over the sleepers on the floor, went downstairs, out the back door through the kitchen, in the direction of the movements in the waste. One of the women—he didn’t know her name—was sitting on a lawn chair just outside the door, her head lolling on her shoulder. For a moment Daniel thought she was dead, but he touched her shoulder and she jumped about a foot.

“Out in the desert,” he whispered urgently, pointing, “that way. Wake everyone. I’m going ahead.”

He ran off, not waiting or looking back to see what she did. As he ran, he pulled the handgun (one of his Glock 34s, seventeen in the clip, one in the chamber) out of his belt holster, flicked the safety off. He carried it pointed at the ground, as if his enemy was in the earth itself.

Daniel could smell something, a copper smell, and he knew what this meant. He could see the figures ahead, two of them, the one on the ground no longer moving, and he knew what this meant, too. The other figure was crouched down, low to the ground above the other, and moving quickly, arms and hands jumping about, working at something unseen in the morning twilight. Wet sounds came out clear, echoing off nothing in the empty scrubland.

Daniel leveled his weapon at the crouching figure. “Stand up slow,” he said.

Aaron stood up. His hands were red, dark red, his clothes spattered.

“Daniel?” he said, his voice like an eager child’s.

(Daniel did not often think back on that day, but every time he did, he was forced to admit: at that moment, he lowered his gun slightly, so it no longer pointed at the killer.)

“Aaron,” he said, “Jesus.”

Aaron held out his hands, his red-wet hands, to Daniel, his face open and smiling. “Daniel,” he said, “I got one. I got another one.”

Daniel looked at the prone figure. It was one of the women of the town, the one who’d cried over Jorge’s body; he’d never learned her name. The blood no longer pumped from the wounds in her throat but instead pooled on the ground, in the sand.

“The adults, see,” Aaron said, “they kept the vampires in. But then they died, and the vampires got out.” He reached up one hand; he was holding a thin metal spike or rod, reddest of all. “They keep jumping,” he continued. “You kill one body, it goes on. You can’t kill the vampire, just the people it hides in.” Aaron pointed the spike at Daniel. “I knew you would help!” he shouted gleefully. “You showed me where it went! I found the next one, and I killed it just like all the others!”

“Aaron,” Daniel said again (his gun not pointing at him). “Aaron.”

Aaron blinked, his smile fading a little as the light grew. “I keep killing them, and they keep coming back,” he said.

A shot rang over the scrubland. Aaron spun back, his shoulder burst with a few drops of red blood. He fell to his knees, his face showing nothing so much as surprise.

Daniel spun around. Jason lowered the rifle. “Get the boy,” he said, not to Daniel but to the men behind him.

The crowd rushed forward, surged past and around and over Daniel like a flood. They grabbed Aaron by his arms and legs. Manny took hold of Aaron’s red right hand, grabbed the metal spike from it, tossed it away with contempt.

They hauled him away, back to the town. Daniel was dazed; his fingers and hands put the gun back in its holster for him. He saw the men taking Aaron; he watched them move in silence, only their footsteps scuffing in the quiet desert.

He followed them back into the town, Jason leading the procession now. They came to where two telephone poles were standing, one collapsed and leaning against the other like a fainting lover. The men scattered, then, going out into homes and buildings.

“Wait,” Daniel said, weakly. “Wait.”

Two men tied Aaron’s arms to the poles, lifting him up so his toes scraped the ground. Aaron still had no voice, almost no face, so shocked by his fate that he had no choice but to accept it.

The men brought back jugs, bottles, sealed canisters. They opened the tops, letting out a smell that Daniel had almost forgotten, a smell that belonged to the adults and the dead men and his father.


They poured the liquid over Aaron, dousing him, letting the liquid run over his face in rivers. “Wait,” Daniel said, louder, “stop!” He shoved his way forward through the crowd of men, who neither moved aside nor held him back.

Daniel reached the front of the crowd in time to see Jason holding a long, broken branch, its end wrapped in cloth and soaked in the gasoline, another man standing nearby with two small rocks in his hands. He struck them together, little flecks of heat and light spitting out. One caught the torch and set it burning.

“Stop,” Daniel said, “please.”

Jason turned to him, the fire in his eyes.

“This is our town,” he said, “and our lives.”

He put the torch to Aaron.

The light was blinding for a moment, only a moment, and then the heat crashed over Daniel in a wave, and the noise, then the noise, bubbling and cracking sounds, and a thin, high note that Daniel didn’t recognize as a scream. The body shook and danced, its wrists still bound to the poles, scattering bits of itself to the ground.

“This,” said Jason over the sounds of a boy burning alive. “This is how a crime is punished, Mister Boudreaux. This is why we do not need you.” He raised his arms up to the sky. “This is the justice that our fathers wanted.”

A flake of burning skin flew through the air and landed on Daniel’s arm. He brushed it; it crumbled into ash on his fingers.

Daniel turned to look at the crowd behind him. They, too, had their hands up to the sky. Some had their mouths open and eyes closed, as if to drink in the heat of the burning boy.

Daniel walked through the crowd, away from Jason and the fire. He gathered up his belongings and unhitched his horse.

The smoke could still be seen from miles away.

I see you boys of summer in your ruin
Man in his maggot's barren.
And boys are full and foreign in the pouch.
I am the man your father was.
We are the sons of flint and pitch.
O see the poles are kissing as they cross.

—‘I See the Boys of Summer’, Dylan Thomas

1 comment:

  1. Ever heard the first album of a band that's now famous, and you can hear the greatness in their sound, but it's just raw and unpolished? That's this piece. I'm captured by your story and the way you tell it, but a good editor and some practice would make it shine. Looking forward to more from you in the future!