Albert Bader killed a dog. Stopped his bike in the middle of the road, took a big mother Wesson out of his denim jacket and shot the thing from about fifty feet away. Cage whistled low between what was left of his teeth.
“Nice one, Albert”, he called back over his shoulder from where he sat on his bike. “Real clean...”
Albert smiled, sort of, squinted and blew coolly across the top of the barrel. Further up the road two other bikes (one a three-wheeled trike, built out of the back end of a Volkswagen) had pulled over and their riders were gazing idly back at the pair behind. Mystic Bob and The Crip watched the dog as it twitched its silent last and finally Mystic Bob hung his head. The Crip roared his hog around and sped back to Albert. Albert watched him come on, his smile fading.
The Crip hissed between closed teeth, “What the hell do you think you’re doing Albert? What did I just fucking tell you not more than ten fucking minutes ago?”
“Calm down, man, it’s just a dog; a stupid, fucking dog. What’s your problem?”
“He’s my fucking problem”, said The Crip, pointing one half-fingered glove at the ramshackle house further up the drive from where the now completely dead Doberman lay. A man, small and dark and angry chomped his way down the gravel driveway carrying a baseball bat. “I just want to get to Newton, okay? Just a nice simple ride to pick up some goods and then a nice simple tool back and then you can kill all the fucking wildlife you want.”
The Crip stepped off his bike and shut the engine down and began to walk toward the rapidly approaching man. As he walked toward him with his unsteady limp, his hand reached behind and clutched for the bone handle of the long Bowie knife cradled against the small of his back. “You’re really starting to piss me off, Albert,” he called back. “Now look what I’m gonna have to do.”
Mystic Bob, meanwhile, had rolled the trike off to the side of the dirt road and now the only sound that broke the otherwise silent afternoon was the wind in the scrub and the cursing of the small, dark man. Then, suddenly, only the wind remained.
Mystic Bob took a small can of gas out of a side pack and started to walk slowly across the lawn and up to the decrepit wooden structure, lighting the stub of his cigar as he moved. He shook his head and chuckled to himself as he caught up to Cage dragging the body toward the house. Still on his bike, Albert watched as The Crip kicked the small man’s head toward the door. It banged off the frame and gutter-balled inside; flecking the white frame with red wetness.
Karen Armitage woke up with the same familiar flutter in her stomach that had been there every morning for the past couple of weeks. She opened her eyes to the same strange surroundings that had been her home since early July when she had first taken the job at Newton Fairbanks High School, agreeing to make the move from San Francisco when the current English teacher suddenly “retired”.
The rumours of what had actually led to Alan Delacrombie’s quitting were rampant in the community and had more to do with the daughter of one of the town elders than with a desire for Freedom 55. However, there was no proof of any of this and no legal pursuit so it was just “retired”. Not the sort of situation every new teacher would want to come into. But there you go.
Karen rolled over and gasped as Huxley, her large, grey tabby meowed loudly and leapt out from under her arm. “Sorry Hux, sorry, sorry. Are you okay? I didn’t know you were there. Come here.”
Huxley looked up with a slightly hurt glance, turned his substantial butt in the direction of Karen and strutted out of the room. “Damn…” Karen thought, “Can’t afford to offend him.” Huxley was the only part of her former life that she had brought with her from Telegraph Hill other than her clothes and some books. A fresh start…
This wasn’t her first teaching assignment but it was the first outside of the state and the different rules would be one of the most difficult aspects to it all. Still, it excited her in some ways and the challenge of meeting the new students and staff and finding out what the specific needs of the community were took most of her attention. It also helped, in a way, to cover the uncomfortable hole in her heart where Steven had been.
She pulled on a house-coat, opened the bedroom blinds and looked out onto a view of the fields behind the apartment and then across the highway to the encroaching desert. Her tiny rooms were at the back of a large house owned by an expatriate Mexican family named Chavez. It was kind of cramped, truth be told, but the panorama of the mountains in the distance and the multi-coloured beauty of the sands between them and the town had convinced her… that and a very nominal rental fee.
She plodded into the kitchen where Huxley circled, waiting to be placated. She opened up a tin and filled the little bowl. “Here you go, baby… yay… cat food!” Huxley, with the bed-crushing incident now but a distant memory, started scrunching away.
Karen showered and dressed, ate something light and walked out into the street. She would walk the three blocks to the school; she would fix up her desk, lay out her course introduction and then proceed to wow her Grade Eleven class with a classic breakdown of ‘On the Road’. Everyone would pass with ’A’s and go on to become famous novelists or journalists, thanking her in book intros and retirement speeches across the country. Or maybe she would spend the first hour explaining who Jack Kerouac was. It could go either way.
The old Ford flatbed beat its way down the road like a drop of water hitting a skillet. Dust and pebbles spat up into the hot Arizona sun and fell back with a dry rattle into the smoky haze behind. A startled hare blinked once and darted into the scrub as the truck careened close to the side of the road overlooking a washed out rill, the wide tires almost dragging it into the sand.
Big Jim Ahiga gripped the wheel loosely, spun it to one side and laughed. Little Billy laughed back. It was the first time he had made a sound since leaving the Rez; sitting stern-faced, arms folded, gaze glued to the distant, shimmering horizon.
Big Jim looked over with a grin. “Well good, I thought maybe you was dead, Billy”
Little Billy just grunted and returned to his pout. He didn’t like any of this. No sir, nothing at all. Bad enough to be going back to school, which he hated, but to have to truck into Newton every day to go to the public school there was too much. It stank. He wouldn’t know anyone and fully expected to be confronted by a sea of pale faces; curious, probably hostile faces that would belong to people he really didn’t want to get to know anyway.
“I don’t see why I have to go to this fucking place.”
Big Jim looked over at him, wanting to help his younger brother but not quite knowing how. So he just shrugged. “C’mon Billy, the Rez School is closed and gone. Nothing we can do. There just aren’t enough kids out here anymore.”
“So what? So I don’t go to school…” He said the word ‘school’ like it hurt his mouth. “I could get a job at the centre or go work with you on the tours.”
“You can’t go with me. What am I gonna do, fire Joey? I only need one guy. There’s hardly enough work for me... Besides, you can do better than trucking tourists around the mesa pointing at toads. You’re smart.”
“Yeah, smart. What about the Center then?”
“Gimme a break... What are you gonna do there, serve coke and fries? Work at the clothing store? You’re crazy! Nope, you’re gonna get some learning, kid.”
Billy muttered into his jacket. “Who died and made you chief?”
“Nobody. It was a vote.”
“So quit asking me then.” He paused for a moment and then, “Look, Billy, just give it a try, okay? I know it’s a drag and it probably won’t be easy. But you’ll make some friends and the teachers are supposed to be the best.”
“I’ve got friends,” said Little Billy
“Man can’t have too many friends, Little Bill.”
“Where’d you get that from, a fortune cookie?”
There was a brief silence and then they both started to laugh. Big Jim reached over and punched Little Billy in the arm. Billy smacked him back as hard as he could. Big Jim winced in pretend pain. “Man, you gotta stop with those steroids.”
“I will if you will.”
The truck bounced on.
In the staff room of Newton Fairbanks High, a tossed salad of instructional man-power paced about or slurped coffee or read the paper in the armchairs scattered about. Nobody was particularly talkative nor were they particularly happy it seemed. Morale was at an all-time low to kick off this semester. Alan Delacrombie had been somewhat of an institution at the school with his cocky attitude and ready wit and now the rare respite to the boredom of their various callings that he provided was suddenly and ominously gone. None of them really believed the innuendoes about the young female student and with that doubt came another, more shadowy, about what would happen if that same unshakeable, sinister spotlight ever fell upon them. Add to that the union’s inability over the summer to force from the town council the funds needed to bring their pay up to state standards and you pretty much had taken the temperature of the room.
Into this stale air, on her first full day of employment at Newton Fairbanks High, stepped Karen Armitage. The smile that she had decided to plaster on her face, no matter what, really did light up the room as she came in, if for no other reason than by its singularity. Most looked up curiously, some didn’t even do that. But Vice-Principal Morton Edwards made an attempt at least, rising out of his semi-recumbent slouch at the back of the room and tossing the sports pages into the waste paper basket.
Striding over to her he said, “Aha. You must be Ms. Armitage.”
“I must be,” said Karen and took his offered hand.
“Welcome, welcome. Let me introduce you around. We’re so glad you could make it up here for first day. It would have been a big strain on everyone to have to cover off on the English this soon into the year. Here this is….”
And so it went, around the group, a blur of faces and names that Karen knew immediately she would forget by the time she left the room; except, perhaps, for that of Mr. Kilagrew, the gym teacher, who held her hand for just a little too long and twinkled his eyeballs at her just a little too much. She would remember his name.
But all in all not a bad bunch from the look of it and as she made her way with Morton Edwards to her home room she brightened considerably upon seeing some of the students who were getting themselves organized into small lockers and even smaller cliques.
Morton wished her luck and she shut the door behind him, stepped to the desk and put her bag and books down upon it. It was dark in the room and she realized the blinds on the windows were all lowered. She took off her sweater and moved through the gloom and started to pull open the blinds. A cough from behind her made her jump and she gasped as she turned around.
There in the back row was a dark, long-haired boy in denims and a hat. He sat still with his hands on the desk in front of him. He was native, she knew, and had suspected that there would be at least a few in her class seeing as Newton was so close to the huge Navajo reserve.
“Good morning”, she said. “I didn’t see you there. Who are you?”
“Billy Ahiga”, said the boy. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you. I just didn’t want to wait outside.”
“Why not?” asked Karen. “I mean its okay that you’re in here but it’s still nice outside and early. Did you get your stuff settled into a locker?”
“Not gonna bother.”
“Not gonna stay long.”
“I don’t understand,” Karen said, vaguely.
“I don’t belong here.”
“Oh, I see,” said Karen. She finished opening the blinds and looked once more at his nervous face. It was a young, nice face that offered up a good deal of bravado but not a lot of self-assurance. “Is this your first day at this school?”
“Yeah,” said Little Billy.
“Mine, too,” she said. “We have something in common there. I hope you’re not as nervous as I am.”
“I’m okay,” he said, perking up slightly. She could sense instinctively that maybe now he felt he had an ally; a jumping off point for what must be a very scary day in this young man’s life. Score one for the sensitive teacher, she thought.
The door opened and a few other students entered and Karen smiled to herself as their heads swiveled back and forth trying to determine which they were more curious about; the unfamiliar, pretty, new English teacher standing in the flash of sunlight or the much more interesting aboriginal boy sitting at his desk in the shadow of the flag.
A thunder head rose over Black Mesa and water splashed down on the hard, dusty rock. Monster-Slayer and Child-Born-Of-Water had gone to visit Ever Changing Woman and there was no one to look down upon the people. In this time of confusion, the spirits of evil monsters floated above the earth and searched across the mesa. They were angry as they looked upon the bodies of their ancestors, now turned to stone and existing only as outcrops and crags on the Black Mesa. But they didn’t know what to do. If they tried to hurt the people in revenge, the sons of Ever Changing Woman would return and punish them, perhaps changing them into rock as well. As it was, they were imprisoned far below, shackled in stone. The more they thought about their impotence the more they wailed and tore at their hair. And the hair floated up from below on cold winds and was carried past the farms to the desert where Coyote was playing.
He heard their wail on the wind and ran as quickly as he could to Black Mesa to find out why the monster spirits wept. When he heard of their anguish, he said “Then you must find others to do your bidding. You must be asked to rejoin the world. Then the Changing Woman can find no fault.” The monsters heard Coyote and thought that what he counseled was good and together they started to search about for the right way for them to enter the world. It would have to be sly and difficult to see so that Changing Woman would be fooled. They looked among the people and finally they saw Big Jim. And they saw his grandfather. They saw Big Jim’s woman, Lucy, and Little Billy. Then they looked further and saw four white men riding roaring horses through the desert. And they knew then what to do. And the rain stopped.
Big Jim heaved the last of the supplies into the pick-up outside the co-op. He was sweating hard now and he hoped he’d be able to get home and shower before Lucy came in. It wouldn’t do to greet your fiancé of less than twelve hours with a serious stink on. He paused and leaned against the fender of the truck and wiped his brow with his gloved hand. Just the thought of her name made him drift off for a moment and he gazed out over the desert toward the reservation and the small village where he and Little Billy and their grandfather made their home. A home that was soon to become one person more crowded when Lucy came and then perhaps not long after that… who knows?
He’d have to get some more clients. More tourists for the mesa tours. That much was for sure. The one or two tours he was doing every month wouldn’t be enough; especially with the added cost of running Billy into school every day. Maybe he’d have to get him his own car soon. There was another worry.
Al McReary, the store owner, came out with the final bag of ammunition and plunked it into the back.
“I’ll take that up front with me”, said Jim. “It’s too hot back here. We wouldn’t want a nasty accident hitting me in the ass.”
“Yeah, she’s a hot one today and that’s a fact”, said Al. “Looked like rain for a while there,” he said, peering at the sky. “Don’t look like it now.” Then he grinned at Jim, “So when’s the big day, Jim?”
“Well, probably next month. Gonna come?”
“Wouldn’t miss it. Where’s it gonna be? On the Rez?”
“Yeah”, said Jim. “Granddad wants it to be traditional. And that’s okay with me and Lucy but it means guys like you will have to travel out. But we’ll make it worth your while. Little Billy and granddad are planning quite the spread.” Even as he said this he was doing the mental arithmetic and coming up with one more reason he’d have to get some more tourists out on the mesa. Marriage, it seemed, was going to be as expensive out there as it would be in town, what with one thing and another. Oh well, he thought, it only happens once… hopefully.
“Sounds great”, said Al, smiling largely and pressing his big hand into Jim’s equally impressive mitt. “Let me know and Sue and I will be there with bells on.”
“You may have to be if Granddad has his way”, laughed Jim, climbing into the cab. “See ya later”
“Later,” called Al as he walked back into the store.
Jim hauled the Ford around and pulled out into the road, whistling to himself and looking at his watch. Almost three-thirty... time to go get Little Billy and head back out to the village.
Cutting through town, he pulled up across the road outside the school and sat and rolled a cigarette. He lit it and watched as students started to pour out of the school. Some had already exited and were loitering around on the lawn. Several minutes went by and the kids began moving off in dribs and drabs until the front of the school was completely empty. A few stragglers came out and walked off down the road. There was still no sign of Billy.
Jim finally got out of the truck and ground the cigarette out with his boot before heading up the walk and into the school. He entered the big doors and walked down the hallway. He’d never actually been in this school before and the sheer size of it surprised him. He began to appreciate just what Little Billy had been worried about and vowed to himself to be a little more patient with the kid.
He stuck his head into the first room he came to and spotted a young woman wiping off the blackboard in front of her.
“Excuse me, miss?” he almost whispered. The woman turned to look at him. A pretty good looking woman at that he thought and gave himself a kick, mentally. Can’t be looking in quite that way anymore, he reminded himself.
“Oh, hello”, said the woman.
“Hi. I’m looking for Litt… for Billy Ahiga. Would he be around here?”
The woman put down her brush and stepped over to him. “Are you related to him?” she asked.
“I’m his brother, Jim. I’ve come to pick him up.”
“Oh, yes, he said you would be coming. I’m afraid there’s been a bit of… an incident. He’s down in the principal’s office waiting for you.”
“An incident”, said Jim, his face darkening.
“Don’t worry, it’s nothing serious; just a scuffle with a couple of the other boys. Mr. Edwards thought it would be best if he waited for you in the office rather than outside. So there wouldn’t be any more problems.”
“Where’s the office?”
“Just down the hall on the right.” Then she added, “I wouldn’t worry too much. He was doing fine all day really. I know he was nervous about coming here. He was great in class, answering questions and such. He just got a little defensive at lunch from what I understand. He’s a proud boy.”
“Yeah, he is that”, said Jim.
“I know what it’s like to be facing a strange group for the first time. Tell him if there’s anything he needs to come and see me. I want to make things as smooth as possible for him.”
Jim turned at the door before heading down the hall. “You’re not just saying that because he’s a ‘Native American’ are you, Karen?”
“No, it’s my job”, said Karen.
“Just asking”, said Jim turning and leaving.
Jim walked down the hall and found Little Billy sitting on the floor outside the office. Billy saw him coming and got up, ready for the bust which never came. Jim put his arm around his brother’s shoulder and silently they walked out of the building and got into the truck.
“You alright?” Jim asked eventually as they pulled away from the curb.
“It’s cool”, said Little Billy.
“How was school?”
“Loved every minute of it. Let’s go.”
Albert Bader clung to the throttle of his big Harley, his damaged fingers throbbing as he tried to keep up with the others. He had taken a bad beating from The Crip and the one blow he had managed to land of his own had resulted in another wound that now made it hard for him to focus. One eye was puffed shut and the knee of his left leg was swollen and sitting at an angle that made it difficult to shift. He looked at his face in the mirror on the handlebar and scowled; cursing as he spat blood down onto the pavement; pavement that was getting to be of much better quality now that they were heading into town. He couldn’t wait to get off the damn bike and get a drink.
Up ahead, Crip and Cage were riding side by side. Mystic Bob trailed slightly behind and pulled on a wine skin slung around his neck. Albert wished he had some of that right now, although what Bob drank and the rest of humanity drank were quite often at odds. Still, it would have helped with the pain that seemed to be attacking him from every side. He knew his days with these guys were numbered but he ached for some payback on Crip. Instinctively, his hand reached to his side to feel the Wesson that usually nestled there, only to remember that The Crip had it now. Albert smiled to himself though because he knew, as The Crip didn’t, about the piece strapped to his leg. His time would come.
Crip said something to Cage and the three sped up to make the light at an approaching intersection. They crossed through as Albert twisted gingerly on his throttle, but the spring was too stiff for his numb fingers and the acceleration didn’t happen. The light started to change and Crip was waving him through it as they tooled down the street. Albert couldn’t see past a truck parked at the corner but he barreled on regardless. Then there was a deafening horn blast and a screech of tires as an ancient Ford F-10 with a couple of Indians in it ground to a halt half-way through the intersection. Albert swerved the bike to one side and just made it past the fender of the truck, hitting the curb lightly and bouncing off toward the others. Mystic Bob was howling and Cage grinned like a fool up ahead. Albert looked back at the truck and the face of the man in the driver’s seat. He started to stop to go back but The Crip yelled and waved him on. Albert took one more look at the man in the truck and the kid beside him and caught up with the others.
Crip shouted over the brack of the engines, “Shit, Albert, you gotta be more careful. That’s a hundred and eighty buck fine.”
“It’s not the fine, it’s the points…” laughed Bob.
“There’s The Jug”, shouted Cage as they hit the outskirts on the other side of town. They pulled into the parking lot of the town’s only strip club and got off their bikes, shaking the dust as they went. Albert was slower getting off his bike but much, much faster getting into the bar.
Karen let the warm fragrant water of the bath close over her like a blanket. She slipped back a little further and closed her eyes, opening one temporarily to spot Huxley on his hind legs, front paws hanging over the edge of the tub. She closed it again and said, “Hi buddy. So how was your day?” She reached out a hand and felt for the back of the cat’s neck to grab the scruff the way he liked it. But he was already gone. Now he was at the bathroom door standing, in that disconcerting way that cats do, ears erect and staring at a spot in the living room.
“Hux, what do you see, baby?” Huxley stood still, staring fixedly. “Baby, don’t do that okay? It freaks me out. Huxley?”
The cat bolted into the next room. There was silence for a moment and then a mad scrambling that sounded as if he was bouncing off every piece of the meager furniture in the apartment. There was a last furious scrabbling and then stillness.
Karen sighed and tried to relax again. But it was too late, the moment was ruined. She washed herself and sank one last time under the now-cooling water and then hoisted herself up and out of the bath, grabbing a towel from the rack as she did so. She dried off, wrapped herself in her housecoat and went to investigate.
“Hux…? What are you doing”, she asked into the darkened living room.
“Kitty?” she called. “Where are you Hux?” There was a small mew from the corner behind the chair and she could see the cat’s tail sticking out from under it, twitching madly. “What are you doing there?”
She got down on her hands and knees beside the chair and peered under but couldn’t see past the cat. Reaching under she pulled Huxley back by his haunches. He resisted and Karen pulled harder. “What have you got there?” she asked and turned Huxley around to face her.
She screamed and let the cat drop, the dying mouse still wriggling in its mouth. Huxley’s jaw dropped and came down hard on Karen’s knee, snapping shut. The body of the mouse fell to the floor and the cat scrambled the other way meowing loudly. A ragged mouse head spat from his mouth and rolled under the TV leaving a thin trail of blood on the rug.
Karen watched this for a moment and then started to gag. She ran to the bathroom just in time.
Linda-Lou’s head hit the table with a thump. She coughed a little and then rose up again and resumed her upright position against the back of the chair. Her boyfriend, Cooter, was still drunk as a boiled owl and was thumping with his fist on some buddy’s back at the bar. She’d like to think this was another Saturday night but it wasn’t. It was Tuesday. She rolled her head groggily to one side and spied Albert Bader again at the other end of the room with the same bunch of freaks he’d come in with. She’d noticed him earlier. He was a handsome guy even with the bruises around his eye and his limp. She thought she’d seen him get off a bike earlier. That was definitely cool.
Albert eyed the girl sitting alone and watching him from the other end of the room and saw that the guy that periodically came back to her table to get another glass of beer, was busy with some other dude at the bar. Albert was very aware of how she was looking at him and even though he felt like shit, he still wouldn’t mind grabbing some ass back to his room and getting her to ease his pain. And he’d had just enough to drink to make her look passable.
The Crip and Mystic Bob were studying some map that Bob had come up with and Cage was already practically comatose. So Albert got up and limped over to the girl. Crip looked up momentarily and watched him go; Mystic Bob just chuckled and kept on peering at the map.
Albert reached the table and set his glass down on it as he sat. “Hey,” he said. “Don’t you know me from somewhere?”
After a second or so the girl started to laugh and then hiccupped and laughed some more. Albert smiled and started to say something but the girl just kept on going. She laughed and coughed and then Albert thought, “oh god, she’s gonna hurl.” But she didn’t. She suddenly became very calm and stretched one arm out and onto Albert’s shoulder, not unlike a snake; a wet snake. The band was ripping out something outrageously loud and he could barely hear her. But he did hear her say “You’re cute, you…”
He mumbled something back and cupped her breast with his hand and started to move his head toward hers when a hand landed on his other shoulder and pulled him around.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” said Cooter.
Albert stood up and on doing so was glad to find that he stood about a half a foot taller than Cooter and was about six beers more sober. He was about to deliver a head butt to Cooter when all of a sudden there were two more guys standing behind him. It seemed the bouncers that Albert had seen when they had first entered The Jug were joining ranks with the regulars. The white guy looked like ex-marine and the black guy seemed to have been recently carved out of a truck. Albert’s sore leg started to throb with the anticipation of what was to come. The girl was standing now too and screaming at Cooter to fuck off.
Marine started to laugh as Cooter grabbed Linda-Lou’s arm and then, suddenly, there was the Crip standing beside the boyfriend. Crip took hold of one of Cooter’s arms and steered him aside. The Truck started to move on Crip but Mystic Bob had a hand on his throat and a knife at his kidney before the man could get close. Marine stopped laughing and Truck waved him off as Crip took the boyfriend to the bar.
It looked, for all Albert could tell, like they were discussing a local fishing hole as Crip leaned in and whispered something into Cooter’s ear. A concerned look appeared on Cooter’s face and he got sort of pale. Then it became more like an expression of fear as the Crip continued to say whatever it was he was saying. Finally, Cooter left Crip and came over to the two bouncers, said something and they all three turned and left the bar. The girl was standing there like a statue and Albert was leering at her as Crip and Bob went back to their table. The band was crashing out now with music so loud that nobody outside of the immediate vicinity of the altercation even noticed that anything had been going on.
Albert grabbed Linda-Lou’s hand and pulled her up the stairs leading to their rooms on the second floor. Linda-Lou was in big trouble and she knew it. But she didn’t scream.
Changing Woman was visiting the home of Spider Woman and together they were weaving a pattern for the night sky. They laughed as they worked and watched as Monster Slayer and Child-Born-of-Water wrestled atop a nearby mesa. Spider Woman loved the two children of Changing Woman as if they were her own, for was it not she that had given them power when they were young. Was it not she who so loved the Dine (the Navajo people) that she had sent these two children to protect them?
The Sun-God was happy also and all about the land was bathed in a warm and even glow. Soon the tapestry would be ready and the night could proceed.
Suddenly there was a high-pitched yip and Coyote sprang from the bushes and lay down beside the loom of the two gods. “What do you want?” asked Spider Woman putting out a bowl of water for him to drink.
Coyote said nothing but took a long, cool drink from the bowl. Finally, he looked at the two children of Changing Woman, still cavorting on the mesa.
“Tell me,” said Coyote “is that not Monster Slayer and Child-Born-of-Water playing there?”
“It is,” replied Changing Woman.
“Interesting,” said Coyote. “Who then is it that now protects the people near Black Mesa?”
“From what?” asked Spider Woman.
“Oh, you are right,” replied Coyote. “All the monsters are dead.” And he laughed and ran away calling back, “Thank you for the water!”
A lone Harris Hawk circled in the twilight of the Arizona sky, his endless search for prey his sole reason for cycling through the dusk. His eyes were clear and focused on the earth hundreds of feet below him, alert for any motion that would indicate even the smallest of his potential victims. He rose and fell slightly on the waves of heat that came up to meet him, dissipating and falling back to the sands to be heated again. Below, a Coral snake wound itself under a scrub cactus and watched the same prey, a small mouse, creep unwittingly towards its fate. The snake slowly coiled up, preparing to strike. But, from above, a brown flash descended like an arrow towards the rock protecting the snake. At the last moment, the hawk pulled up and landed with a flutter some five or six feet away from the snake and started to jump about and flap its wings. Its mewling craw broke the silence of the evening and the snake, startled by the action of the hawk, broke its cover and headed for a stand of cacti. Far too great a distance, that stand, however and within a second or two the hawk was skyward again, the writhing reptile grasped firmly in its razor talons.
From where he sat, alone on a blanket with his back to an outcrop of stone, Nascha Ahiga turned his old eyes to the sky and held a hand up to block the last rays of the dying sun so that he could watch the hawk. “Anaba,” he whispered, naming the bird as he that returns from war, the war that all creatures waged to live and that, at least for today, the hawk had won.
Nascha Ahiga’s leg was sore and he reached down to rub it gingerly. Later he would drink some Arnica tea. That would help even though it was a Catawba medicine and not Navajo. But it was soothing and worked and that was the main thing. Nascha was a Navajo medicine man but he was practical and equal opportunity when it came to cures, even if he had to go to the store at Wahspah Falls to get it. He felt along the rock and pulled his canvas bag towards him, and, feeling its contents, thought it had been a good day of gathering considering the heat and his age.
“Grandpa!” He heard the sound of his grandson Kai calling to him or, as he preferred to be known, Little Billy. Although Nascha didn’t think that Billy enjoyed the “Little” part very much. That part just came with being Big Jim’s brother. Even that wouldn’t have come about if Big Jim had stuck to his aboriginal name, Mosi. “Grandpa!” the call came again; the thin voice just this side of reaching manhood. They wanted him for dinner probably. Nascha felt somewhat foolish being called like a child to his own table so he said nothing and waited, irascibly, to see how long it would take Kai to find him. He wasn’t far from the house and from here could see the lights twinkling invitingly down below.
He waited, grew impatient, and was about to shout out to end the game because his leg was really throbbing now when a soft voice came down from just above his head, making him jump. “How was the search today, Granpa?”
“Good. Could have used some help, though Kai,” said Nascha.
“Billy,” said Little Bill.
“Help me up, Kai,” said Nascha, obstinately, and put his arm out. Billy sighed and dropped silently down beside him.
“Is your leg hurting?” asked Billy.
“Like a son-of-a-bitch. Help me will you?” They started to make their way down the slope, slowly at first and then a bit quicker when the ground started to even out. At one point they stumbled but Billy bent over, almost at a ninety degree angle, and caught them up and they moved on. “See?” said Nascha. “Kai… willow tree. The name isn’t for nothing.”
“Anything,” said Billy.
“What?” said Nascha.
“The name isn’t for ‘anything’.”
“You’re so smart,” said Nascha. “You’re so smart you smell funny.”
Billy looked at his grandfather and wondered what the hell he was talking about. There was a lot he didn’t understand. But he loved the old man to bits.
Even through a casual examination of the human body one can see that the head is attached to the body by the neck. The head relies on the neck to communicate with the rest of the body. This communication includes air and food passages, nerves, and major blood vessels and, of course, the all-important spinal cord. It is nothing less than incredible that within this extremely narrow area are housed these supremely necessary, vital structures and yet the whole thing is so built that it still allows for maximum mobility; fluidly permitting a great deal of different head positions relative to the rest of the body. And it’s tough too… sort of.
The skeletal structure of the neck is basically that of the vertebral column. The aero-digestive space (the gullet and windpipe) is supported by the hyoid bone and laryngeal and tracheal cartilage. These hang, like fleshy monkeys, from the bottom of the jaw and the base of the skull by a series of ligaments and muscles.
Between all the tubes and the skin lie a group of strap muscles connecting the respiratory skeleton and the sternum (chest). There are also muscles attaching the hyoid bone to the tongue, the jaw and the ‘styloid’ bone. A muscle group called the sternocleidomastoid (but more easily referred to as the SCM) divides the neck into convenient muscular triangles. The posterior triangle is for support so that your head doesn’t roll around like a bowling ball held up by a noodle, and the anterior triangle contains and protects the vital structures mentioned above.
The neck also contains major branches of cranial nerves as well as cervical roots. These nerves control and support facial expression and the tongue, amongst other things. Hence, the dazed, bedraggled, foolishly surprised look of the hanged man.
There are many glands hanging around here too, including the thyroid and para-thyroids that service the body and cause much consternation when they misbehave. And, of course, the lymph nodes, those little islands of energy that if you are unfortunate enough to get cancer in is, more or less, a death sentence; they too are snuggled in there.
Not to mention the jugular vein. Target of many a wolf, lion and lawyer.
Lucy soon-to-be Ahiga was coming in through the front door as Nascha and Billy were coming in the back. Big Jim was in the shower. She dropped a bag of bread on the kitchen counter as Billy helped the old man lower himself into a chair.
“You okay, Grandpa?” asked Lucy as she took her jacket off and hung it in the closet. “You look a little red.”
Nascha just waved her away and took a deep breath. “I’m all right. It’s just my leg’s sore. Kai, hand me my bag will you?”
Billy took the old leather bag, beaded and worn, from off its hook on the wall and handed it to Nascha and then turned and went to the kitchen to get some water. Nascha scrounged around in the old sack for a bit and then took something out and grinding it between his fingers and thumb, stuck it under his tongue and sat back. Billy came back and handed the water to his grandfather.
Lucy started making the meal and called in from the kitchen to Billy who was now sitting reading a book under the small lamp by the window. “How did it go today, Little Bill? Have fun?”
“It was fine,” Billy answered.
Lucy came in wiping out a small clay bowl. “Just fine? What was it like? Pretty interesting I bet with so many people around and all. A big school like that.”
“It’s not so big,” said Billy.
“Well, not by big city standards maybe, but bigger than anything you’ve ever been to. Weren’t you nervous? I’d have been terrified. I was terrified my first day there.”
“I wasn’t scared, okay?” Billy said and got up and went out the front door letting the screen hammer behind him.
Lucy watched him go. “What’s with him?” she asked.
Big Jim came into the room wiping his hair with a towel. “He got in a fight. Leave him alone.”
“A fight? With who? Is he hurt?” said Lucy, worried now.
“He’s alright. Some of the kids were giving him a rough ride, that’s all. He’ll handle it.”
“Maybe we should talk to his principal. I could go in before work,” said Lucy.
“He’ll handle it, Lucy. Let it be,” said Jim, putting a hand on her shoulder, turning her around and planting a kiss on her mouth. “Thanks though.”
“’Course he will,” said Nascha. “We gonna eat soon or what?” Lucy pushed Jim away and together they returned to the kitchen to finish making dinner. Nascha went to stand up but sank back down with a small groan. “Damn leg,” he thought.
Later as they sat around the small table in the kitchen, Billy was quiet and Lucy and Jim talked about the day and about some people that Lucy wanted to have at the wedding that Big Jim didn’t particularly know. Nascha was slowly poking a fork at his chicken.
“It doesn’t have to be that big, does it?” said Jim, thinking in the back of his mind about the food costs and liquor expenses. As soon as he said it he saw the look on Lucy’s face; not anger so much as a kind of quiet disappointment. “Of course,” he said, repeating himself from the afternoon, “you only get married once. Sure, invite them.”
Lucy smiled and put a hand onto Jim’s. Jim kissed her on the back of the neck.
“Get a room, will you?” said Billy with a smirk. Jim took a fork full of potato and flung it towards his head. “Hey!” shouted Billy and took a carrot and was about to hurl it back when Nascha started to cough. “That’s enough, Billy”, said Lucy, “you’re upsetting Grandpa.”
“No, I’m not,” said Billy. “Am I, Grandpa?”
But Nascha was still coughing only harder now and now his face was red and now he was clutching at his arm and now Big Jim was pushing his chair back and now Lucy screamed and then Billy jumped up too and now Nascha was falling backwards out of his chair and Jim was holding his head and Lucy was standing up, still, like she was frozen.
“Call 911!” Big Jim shouted over his shoulder.
Mystic Bob watched The Crip as he slept, turning and tossing in his sweaty bed. Bob was fascinated by The Crip and couldn’t get enough of him. He’d been that way ever since the particularly vicious drug night that had laid waste to a lot of Bob’s brain. He had been on the brink of the abyss that time for sure but in one, sudden burst of light (actually, just Crip returning from the bathroom and leaving the light on) Bob had been saved from the final drop. Since then Mystic Bob couldn’t leave The Crip even if he wanted to, which he didn’t.
Also, it was Bob that had been responsible for The Crip losing the lower half of his left leg. Bob’s bike had broken down and Crip had to double him to the nearest town. Bob, for once not having to apply himself to keeping the bike up, rode behind The Crip, holding his arms up as he day-dreamed of flying along the highway. Dreamed until he actually fell asleep and started to fall to one side, upsetting the balance and causing them to veer into the soft shoulder that trapped the wheel. The bike came down hard and Bob was thrown clear but Crip was pinned and the manifold burnt right through the skin; almost to the bone. Crip didn’t get it seen to properly and it festered and that was the end of the lower half of The Crip’s left leg.
But The Crip didn’t hold it against Bob. He held it against the world and as hard a man as he was before the accident, the fire from his bike’s exhaust had tempered him into a steel-souled troll that felt no remorse for anything and no sympathy for anyone. Still Mystic Bob loved The Crip and was his ever-vigilant right-hand man. It wasn’t really his fault that the only way that he could deal with the world at large was through a drug-fogged haze that helped tone down the monster that constantly saddled his back.
The crazy, blue light from The Jug’s big sign flashed on his face as he rocked gently from side to side and slid into semi-sleep. In the room next door, the same blue light cut an angle across Cage’s face.
Cage couldn’t sleep tonight. In fact he couldn’t sleep most nights. He was a nervous man. He was small and wiry and had no meat on him at all really. Probably as a result of the nervous condition that left him twitchy and skittish. They called him Cage because of the four vertical, black, tattooed stripes that traversed his face from top to bottom. Some years back Cage had been in a medium security facility near Mexico doing time for sexual assault. A facility that received very little state funding and was pretty much falling apart both inside and out. Surrounding the prison was a field with a ditch around that and on the other side of the ditch, an electric fence. Not a very good one, either. And on the night that Cage and another inmate decided to vacate the premises, it was particularly faulty owing to a rain storm earlier in the day. As they ran towards the freedom they thought lay on the other side of that fence, Cage tripped while jumping the ditch and hit the fence face first. He passed out and ended up with four, vicious, evenly-spaced, third-degree burns down his face which scarred into deep, ugly red welts. Eventually, not having any money for plastic surgery, Cage had the stripes tattooed black and now he peered out between his thick, dark bars; permanently incarcerated in his fleshy cell.
He got up and pissed into the open toilet. He filled a glass with some coke and drank it down to clear the bile in his throat. Then he flopped back down on the broken bed.
Down the hall, Linda-Lou waited until Albert fell asleep and when she was sure from his drunken snore that he was out for the night, she collected what pieces of her clothing weren’t torn to shreds and dressed as best she could. It was difficult. She was pretty sure her right arm was broken and she whimpered as she pulled her sweater on over it. She bit down hard on her lip to stop the sound from waking Bader and when she finally got the sweater and skirt on she reached for the door handle and let herself out.
In the hallway the light was dim and the one, thin fluorescent bulb that still functioned in this section of the dirty ceiling hissed and spat and gave a weird strobe effect to the walls and carpeted floor. Linda-Lou crept along with one hand outstretched for she couldn’t see very well through the one eye that wasn’t swollen shut. She shook all over and could hardly stop herself from running. But she knew she couldn’t see well enough to do that and so she inched herself slowly along towards the stairs. The stairs to the lobby were on the other side of a ‘T’ in the hallway and as she moved to cross and go down, a hand suddenly reached out and grabbed her wrist. Then another hand wrapped itself quickly around her mouth and her eyes glazed as Cage dragged her, kicking, through the open door into his room.
“You wanted to see me, Mr. Edwards?” Karen held onto the door and leaned in to speak to the vice-principal. Morton Edwards looked up from his work.
“Oh, hi Karen. Please, just make it Mort, okay? Come in.” Mort stood up and indicated a chair near the desk. “How’s everything going? Settling in okay?”
“Great, yes, fine…” Karen sat and was temporarily blinded by the swatch of sun beaming in from behind the desk. Edwards walked over and closed the slats.
“How’s that? Better?” he asked.
“Great, yes, f…,” Karen stopped herself short, realizing she was about to repeat herself. Not very creative for an English teacher. Mort caught the moment and laughed. He sat back down.
“Listen,” he said, “I have a bit of an assignment for you if you’re okay with it.”
“Oh?” said Karen.
“Yes. This being your first year at Newton, it’s become somewhat of a custom for a new teacher to go out on the first field trip of the year; you and a more experienced teacher of course.”
“Well, that sounds okay, Mort,” said Karen. “What sort of field trip is it?”
“Oh, it’s a lot of fun. You and about twenty of the grade eleven students spend a couple of nights out on the desert. You do some geology and aboriginal history stuff and then everyone writes a paper on it when they get back. We usually let it come in at about ten percent of the semesters mark.”
“A couple of nights?” Karen asked. She immediately thought of the requisite camping, which she hated. She hadn’t camped since Steven had insisted on it the first summer they were together. She wasn’t really the camping sort. They had ended up a Motel Six. But there wasn’t likely to be a hotel involved this time.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking”, Mort said soothingly, “but you’ll have Harry Babcock with you and he’s done this sort of thing a thousand times. He’ll have you in the lap of luxury, camping-wise. It’s more of a chaperone sort of thing really. ”
“Who is he?” asked Karen.
“Harry? Oh he does a lot of things for us. He’s a retired cop actually, he usually volunteers for these trips; drives the bus and stuff. Great guy. You’ll be plenty safe with him. Knows more about these lands than anyone else around except for the natives.”
“And what he doesn’t know Herman Kilagrew does so between the two of them…”
“Herman Kilagrew?” said Karen and she flashed back to her first day and the overly long handshake with the buff but somehow repulsive gym teacher. She was beginning to get an uneasy vision of the ‘staff tent’.
“Yeah, he usually goes along. Puts the kids through a sort of wilderness training thing, you know? Lot’s of fun. Although you don’t have to get involved with that,” he added quickly. “Unless you want to, of course.”
“Well, I…” She was about to tell him about her more than average ability as a runner. An ability that had led to several strong finishes in the San Francisco Marathon. But she decided to let that sleeping dog snooze.
“Excellent. You’ll find it’s a great way to get to know the kids better and also to find out what this part of the state has going for it in the way of landscape and flora and fauna and such. I’ll put you down for it then, all right?”
“Yes, yes. Of course.” Karen was already resigned to it and if it was expected of the newbie well, she wasn’t going to let a couple of nights in a tent ruin her integration with the rest of the staff. Could be fun, actually, she thought. She could handle Kilagrew.
“Great!” Morton came round the table and offered his hand. Karen shook it and headed for the door. As she was beginning to close it, he added, “Oh, and Karen. No need to worry about the snakes and coyotes and such. Harry carries his service revolver with him just in case.”
Little Billy and Lucy sat and waited in the lobby outside of the ICU. They didn’t speak but just sat, slouched, watching the endless parade of nurses, doctors and orderlies that scurried back and forth like ants. Nobody had spoken to them for hours. Not since the emergency room intern told them that Nascha was being moved to ICU but that they shouldn’t worry too much because it was just a precaution; that he was still unconscious and in a weak condition.
Big Jim came around the corner carrying some coffees and a box of sandwiches that he set down on the little side table covered with dated magazines and a phone that didn’t work. Lucy had found that out when she tried to call work to tell them that she wouldn’t be coming in the next day. Her eyes were red from crying and now that she had that under control she didn’t say much for fear that she would start again. Nobody touched the sandwiches.
Billy was numb. It had never occurred to him that this could happen. Even though he knew that Nascha was an old man, he had seemed invincible. Like the bedrock and the desert that had surrounded him all his life. It didn’t seem possible that Nascha might just disappear; that in one short moment he would be gone from his life and that all the things that they did together and that he loved him for would melt away and become just another set of dreams from the past. He kept wanting to cry but didn’t, partly because of Jim and Lucy’s presence. Partly because he still couldn’t quite comprehend what had happened. A myocardial infarction the intern had said… heart attack.
Billy wondered if there was any connection with Nascha’s leg problem. Or even the herbal remedy that Nascha had taken just before the attack. He considered this even as he wondered whether he would ever talk to his grandfather again.
“Do you think we should tell them about the medicine he took before dinner?” Billy asked.
“Nah,” said Big Jim. “It was just herbal stuff. He’s been taking that all his life. That wouldn’t have hurt him.”
“I’m not so sure, Jim,” said Lucy, quietly. “Maybe he got something out in the desert today that he mistook for something else. Some mushrooms or something. His eyesight isn’t like it used to be.”
“If they wanted to know things like that they would have asked us,” Jim replied.
Billy was about to bring up the sore leg business when a doctor appeared before them; almost rising like a ghost from the green-tiled floor. They hadn’t even seen him coming. He had the slightly tired but compassionate composure common to many of his profession. Like an unspoken sigh.
The doctor looked at a clipboard and said, “Mr. Ahiga?” to Big Jim.
Billy’s ears started to buzz then and he felt his face flush as he wondered if his head might explode. He could barely make out what the doctor was saying. The words drifted down to him like they were being spoken from the top of a well; dropping from a great height. He heard fragments and bits like “serious attack”, “lack of oxygen” and then a phrase that confused him but sounded something like “potential brain damage.”
Then the doctor was walking away saying something about them coming back tomorrow as there was nothing else they could do that night. Big Jim was talking to a nurse about tomorrow’s visiting hours and Lucy was looking at him with an odd kind of expression on her face. He thought he must look sick or something. Billy was about to say that he would stay at the hospital anyway but suddenly he felt incredibly tired. He thought he was going to pass out. Then Big Jim was there putting his arm around him and Lucy put hers through his other arm and they all walked out to the parking lot. The night sky was brilliant with stars and as Billy looked up a meteor split a fiery path towards the horizon. Then another flashed after it, like twins chasing each other across a field of black grass. Then he started to cry.
Mystic Bob walked into Albert’s room and laughed. It looked pretty desperate. Clothing strewn about, a broken bottle lying smashed against a dresser, what looked like blood on the edge of the mattress and Bader himself laying the wrong way round on the bed, one arm dangling, and his hand in a beery ash-tray.
“Bader,” Bob called. “Get up. Crip wants to get going. We’ve got a meet in half an hour”
There was no response so Bob walked to the dresser, grabbed a bowl and filled it with water from the tap in the bathroom. He poured it slowly over Bader’s head. Bader moved slightly and groaned. “Bader! Up and at ’em, man. Let’s go!”
Bader rolled over and grabbed Bob’s arm by its thick wrist. “What the fuck…” he mumbled. Mystic Bob yanked his hand away easily and picked up Albert’s pants and threw them at his head. The buckle of the belt smacked down on Albert’s cheek.
“In the lobby… ten minutes. Or we split without you,” said Bob and walked out the room. Before he left he tossed his wine-skin at Bader. “Here, this’ll get ya going. Bring it down with ya.”
Bob walked along the hall and tried the door to Cage’s room but it was locked. He slammed a big fist against Cage’s door. “Cage!”
There was a pause and then a low voice, hardly recognizable as Cage, said, “Okay, I’ll be right there.”
“Let me in, Cage. Open up.”
“I said I’ll be right there, now piss off!” shouted Cage.
Bob hesitated. “Alright. Just hurry it up. The meet is on. Half an hour...”
“Okay,” came the muffled reply and the sound of movement and a chair or something scraping away from the door. Bob turned and headed downstairs to get his bike going. It always took a few extra kicks first thing in the morning.
Inside his room, Cage sat on the edge of the bed and looked towards the bathroom. What was in there was bad and Cage knew it. He could split back to Frisco now but the others would rat him out in a second. He didn’t have time to clean it up. Cage started to panic. Why was it he could never think straight when it counted? Others could. The Crip could. The Crip would rip his throat out if he thought he was going to get mixed up with cops just when they were getting close to the score.
Crip got up and looked out the window. In the parking lot, Mystic Bob was adjusting his carbs. He stood up and wiped his hand on his pants and walked back inside. Cage mopped his forehead with his shirt. Then he spotted Bob’s spare gas tank behind his seat. Letting himself out of the room, he carefully locked the door behind him and then hurried down the back stairs to the side entrance. Watching for Bob, he quickly undid the bungee cord around the spare tank, grabbed it and pulled Bob’s jacket down over the empty space. Then he moved back inside and disappeared down the stairwell into the basement.
The Crip and Bob emerged from the front of The Jug together and walked to their bikes. Crip was really juiced. This was going to be the biggest day in the small-minded career of a real punk. Do the meet, make the buy, head back to the city and it was easy street for a long time. He’d had to do a lot of bad things to make the scratch to pull this off. But it was nothing compared to what he had in mind once he had some leverage.
Bader struggled down the steps pulling on his dirty, denim vest. A vest stained now with all sorts of shit. He looked at The Crip and then tossed Bob his wine-skin. It had helped. But who knows what the effect would be an hour from now.
“Where the fuck is Cage?” The Crip growled as he started up his bike.
“I’ll go back up,” said Bob and started to move towards the door. But just then Cage came bouncing through the side door and up out of the stair well. Bob turned and saw him and headed back to his bike.
“Sorry, Crip,” said Cage. “I couldn’t…” Then he just stopped and stared moronically around him.
The Crip just shook his head. “Let’s go,” he said. “We gotta do about 20 miles.”
“Where to?” asked Albert.
“Into the desert. Just shut up and ride.”
They roared out of the parking lot and onto the main highway, passing nobody in the early morning hours of a town that hadn’t woken up yet. As they rode under the “Thanks for Visiting Newton Fairbanks” sign, Cage looked back. He could just make out the smoke beginning to rise from the basement of The Jug. He smiled as he thought about just how fast that crap-house made of balsa was going to burn.
Karen stirred to the sound of sirens and the smell of smoke drifting in through her open bedroom window. She turned on to one side and pried an eye open to look at the time on the clock radio. It was six a.m. She groaned a little and felt with her foot to the edge of the bed where Huxley usually slept at this point. Sure enough the fur-ball was there and immediately started to purr at the human contact.
“What’s the rumpus, Hux?” she murmured and pulled back the covers on the window side of the bed and got up, her pajamas slightly skewed around her waist. She heaved them up and lurched to the window and gasped when she pulled back the blind and saw what was happening.
“Oh, my god…” she whispered as she looked across the open field to the bar that was now engulfed in flames. People from up and down the street were walking across the grass towards the building to get a closer look. There were four fire-trucks that Karen could see and an ambulance and a police car with another just sliding into view and grinding to a halt. Officers jumped out and started positioning themselves to prevent curious onlookers from getting too close to the fire. Karen could see one or two of the students that lived nearby running up the road.
“Better go have a look,” she said to Huxley as she quickly threw on some track pants and a sweater and ball cap and headed to the kitchen. She grabbed a bottle of water and exited out the back door and down the metal fire escape and out through the small gate at the bottom of the garden that led onto the field. The grass was still stiff and wet with cold morning dew and she wished now that she had put socks on as the chilly moisture clung to her ankles and calves like ice. Mr. Chavez stuck his head out the window of his downstairs bedroom.
“Look at that will you?” he said to someone inside and Maria Chavez’ head appeared beside his. “Be careful, Miss Armitage!” he called out to Karen as she unlatched the old metal gate. “That place is on natural gas I think.”
“Thanks, Mr. Chavez,” Karen called back. “Are you coming over? I can wait for you.”
“No, I’ve gotta get to work. Ain’t that something, huh?”
“Incredible,” said Karen and waved back at them as she started off across the field. As she walked she could see that the police were frantically trying to push people away from one side of the building. Karen supposed that it must be the side that housed the gas tanks. The fire crews were smashing windows on the second and third stories, trying to find out if any of the guests might still be in there. Karen shuddered at the thought of being in a fire-trap like that during something like this. She was starting to get scared now as the reality of the actual death potential sank in. But she kept going, a victim of the same hypnotic curiosity for disaster that was drawing the others.
She was about two hundred yards away now. The police were becoming more successful at corralling the bystanders towards a more-or-less protected area behind the fire-trucks which were spewing water onto the roof and upper stories. Suddenly there was a shout and a fireman with a yellow helmet that Karen guessed must be the one in charge, was screaming through a bull-horn at the men on the ladders to come down. He was pointing at the side of the building from which the police had been herding people away. The firemen started scrambling down; one of them even dropping from a height that Karen guessed must have been about 20 feet up. He hit the ground with a heavy thud and had obviously hurt his leg. Two other firefighters ran up and grabbed him under the arms and began to drag him away from the building towards the trucks. Karen started to run less directly towards the hotel and instead started to take a more circuitous route that would bring her up onto the road on the far side of The Jug.
But at that moment the door at the back burst open and a man, tall and thin, came stumbling out. Karen recognized him as the same man she had seen emptying the garbage two nights ago. He screamed as his burning clothes blazed around him. Karen came to a complete halt as the man’s hair started to flame and he stumbled about, blindly, on the tarmac of the rear parking lot. She tried to shout to the firefighters to point them to the dying man, but she realized immediately that she couldn’t be heard above the roar of the flames and the bedlam of the retreat of the bystanders. The man started to move again, clawing frantically at his burning clothes and as he did so he began to move, unknowingly, towards the side of the hotel that held the gas cylinders.
“No!” Karen shouted and started to run towards the man. A fireman near one of the trucks spotted her sprinting across the rear of the parking lot and began to shout at her and point. Others started screaming at her as well but it was too late, Karen could hear only the fading cries of the dying man and the heavy rumble of the fire.
Then she could hear nothing at all as a brilliant flash erupted from the building, obscuring everything. A shock wave hit her like a baseball bat, smashing into her and knocking her back ten feet into the field and the ditch of murky water that bisected it. She felt all the wind leave her lungs and the boom of the explosion that followed the flash left her ears ringing. She laid in the water, stunned, the sound of the explosion resonating and echoing around her and vaguely, too, the screams of the crowd.
Then there was a sharp splash and a spray of water as a heavy object about the size of a volleyball and smoking, hit the ditch a few feet from where she lay. She turned slowly to one side and watched as the steaming sphere bobbled up to the surface of the sludge and slowly rolled over to reveal the burnt face of a young woman. Cracked and scarred, its mouth opened and the tongue, split and cut in two, protruded from between the seared lips. Karen had had enough. Karen fainted into black relief.
Changing Woman and Spider Woman were deep in tense conversation as Child-Born-of-Water and Monster Slayer approached them. The children were hot and worn out from their furious play and wanted to eat the corn and mutton that were cooking on the fire. They wanted cool water even more. However, when they came close, Changing Woman beckoned them over before they could eat or drink and said “Children, you must return to Black Mesa and protect the people there.”
“But Mother,” said Monster Slayer, “We are hungry. There are no monsters there now. The people are safe. We know this.”
Spider Woman told them of the visit of Coyote and the strange things that he had said before he left. It had made the women cautious and worried and now they felt that something must be done. But what Monster Slayer had said was true. There had been no trouble from monsters for many years nor had any been seen. Besides, Coyote was known for his trickery.
“Perhaps Monster Slayer is right,” said Changing Woman.
“We could ask Father Sky to look from his height and warn us if such trouble is to come,” said Child-Born-Of-Water.
“Good then,” said Changing Woman. “Go to Father Sky and ask him for this favour and then we will not worry and can continue our visit here.
So Monster Slayer and Child-born-of-water rode a lightning bolt to the sky taking with them gifts of corn and bread. Father Sky welcomed them with open arms, his children sat and he listened to what they had to say. After hearing their story and looking down below, he finally spoke.
“I can see now that there are no monsters of the sky on or near the mesa. However, the people are not safe. There is evil in the land under which they dwell and we must be vigilant. Be ready at all times for men-who-are-not-people travel the desert and surely no good will come of this.”
“Who are these men-who-are-not-people?” asked Monster Slayer. “We will hunt them down now and kill them.”
“They are the lost ones. But now is not the time,” said Father Sky. “Beware the rocks that live and move for in them are the spirits of the dead monsters from long ago. They wish only harm to all and there will soon come a time when they will walk again. I have seen this. And when they come among the people all will live in fear. It will be then that you must act.”
“Can we not prevent this? Do we not have that power?” asked Child-born-of-water.
“That which I have seen must come to pass. It is not for us to change the way of the world. Go now and tell the women what I have said. Then return to Black Mesa and wait.”
So the two children of Changing Woman flew back down from the sky on another bolt of lightning to tell the women what Father Sky had commanded.
Meanwhile, deep within the rocks of Black Mesa, there was movement. A vile, ancient evil stirred and the dark spirits that lived there smiled for they knew that their time was near and soon they would be freed from their prison of stone.