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Boneshaker

Boneshaker

Boneshaker 2

Page 2

 

  “I dragged him out back and buried him under the tree, beside his old dog. A couple days later, two city officers came out and dug him back up again. ”

  “To make sure?”

  She grunted. “To make sure he hadn’t skipped town and gone back east; to make sure the Blight hadn’t started him moving again; to make sure I’d put him where I said I did. Take your pick. ”

  He finished chasing her words with his pencil and raised his eyes. “What you just said, about the Blight. Did they know, so soon, about what it could do?”

  “They knew. They figured it out real quick. Not all the Blight-dead started moving, but the ones who did climbed up and went prowling pretty fast, within a few days. But mostly, people wanted to make sure Maynard hadn’t gotten away with anything. And when they were satisfied that he was out of their reach, they dumped him back here. They didn’t even bury him again. They just left him out there by the tree. I had to put him in the ground twice. ”

  Hale’s pencil and his chin hung over the paper. “I’m sorry, did you say—do you mean… ?”

  “Don’t look so shocked. ” She shifted in the chair and the leather tugged squeakily at her skin. “At least they didn’t fill in the hole, the first time. The second time was a lot faster. Let me ask you a question, Mr. Quarter. ”

  “Hale, please. ”

  “Hale, as you like. Tell me, how old were you when the Blight came calling?”

  His pencil was shuddering, so he placed it flat against the notebook and answered her. “I was almost six. ”

  “That’s about what I figured. So you were a little thing, then. You don’t even remember it, do you—what it was like before the wall?”

  He turned his head back and forth; no, he didn’t. Not really. “But I remember the wall, when it first went up. I remember watching it rise, foot by foot, around the contaminated blocks. All two hundred feet of it, all the way around the evacuated neighborhoods. ”

  “I remember it, too. I watched it from here. You could see it from that back window, by the kitchen. ” She waved her hand toward the stove, and a small rectangular portal behind it. “All day and all night for seven months, two weeks, and three days they worked to build that wall. ”

  “That’s very precise. Do you always keep count of such things?”

  “No,” she said. “But it’s easy to remember. They finished construction on the day my son was born. I used to wonder if he didn’t miss it, all the noise from the workers. It was all he ever heard, while I was carrying him—the swinging of the hammers, the pounding of the masons’ chisels. As soon as the poor child arrived, the world fell silent. ”

  Something occurred to her, and she sat up straight. The chair hissed.

  She glanced at the door. “Speaking of the boy, it’s getting late. Where’s he gotten off to, I wonder? He’s usually home by now. ” She corrected herself. “He’s often home by now, and it’s damnably cold out there. ”

  Hale settled against the stiff wood back of his borrowed seat. “It’s a shame he never got to meet his grandfather. I’m sure Maynard would’ve been proud. ”

  Briar leaned forward, her elbows on her knees. She put her face in her hands and rubbed her eyes. “I don’t know,” she said. She straightened herself and wiped her forehead with the back of her arm. She peeled off her gloves and dropped them onto the squat, round table between the chair and the fireplace.

  “You don’t know? But there aren’t any other grandchildren, are there? He had no other children, did he?”

  “Not as far as I know, but I guess there’s no telling. ” She leaned forward and began to unlace her boots. “I hope you’ll excuse me,” she said. “I’ve been wearing these since six o’clock this morning. ”

  “No, no, don’t mind me,” he said, and kept his eyes on the fire. “I’m sorry. I know I’m intruding. ”

  “You are intruding, but I let you in, so the fault is mine. ” One boot came free of her foot with a sucking pop. She went to work on the other one. “And I don’t know if Maynard would’ve cared much for Zeke, or vice versa. They’re not the same kind. ”

  “Is Zeke…” Hale was tiptoeing toward dangerous ground, and he knew it, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Too much like his father, perhaps?”

  Briar didn’t flinch, or frown. Again she kept that poker-flat stare firmly in place as she removed the other boot and set it down beside the first one. “It’s possible. Blood may tell, but he’s still just a boy. There’s time yet for him to sort himself out. But as for you, Mr. Hale, I’m afraid I’m going to have to see you on your way. It’s getting late, and dawn comes before long. ”

  Hale sighed and nodded. He’d pushed too hard, and too far. He should’ve stayed on topic, on the dead father—not the dead husband.

  “I’m sorry,” he told her as he rose and stuffed his notebook under his arm. He replaced his hat, pulled his coat tightly across his chest, and said, “And I thank you for your time. I appreciate everything you’ve told me, and if my book is ever published, I’ll make note of your help. ”

  “Sure,” she said.

  She closed Hale out, and into the night. He braced himself to face the windy winter evening, tugging his scarf tighter around his neck and adjusting his wool gloves.

  Two

  At the edge of the house’s corner a shadow darted and hid. Then it whispered, “Hey. Hey, you. ”

  Hale held still and waited while a shaggy brown head peered around the side. The head was followed by the skinny but heavily covered body of a teenaged boy with hollow cheeks and vaguely wild eyes. Firelight from inside the house wobbled through the front window and half shadowed, half illuminated his face.

  “You were asking about my grandfather?”

  “Ezekiel?” Hale made a safe and easy guess.

  The boy crept forward, taking care to stay away from the parted place in the curtains so he couldn’t be seen from the home’s interior. “What did my mother say?”

  “Not much. ”

  “Did she tell you he’s a hero?”

  Hale said, “No. She didn’t tell me that. ”

  The boy made an angry snort and ran a mittened hand up his head, across his matted hair. “Of course she didn’t. She doesn’t believe it, or if she does, she doesn’t give a damn. ”

  “I don’t know about that. ”

  “I do,” he said. “She acts like he didn’t do anything good. She acts like everyone’s right, and he emptied out the jail because someone paid him to do it—but if he did, then where’s the money? Do we look like we have any money?”

  Zeke gave the biographer enough time to answer, but Hale didn’t know what to say.

  Zeke continued. “Once everyone understood about the Blight, they evacuated everything they could, right? They cleared out the hospital and even the jail, but the people stuck at the station—the folks who’d gotten arrested, but not charged with anything yet—they just left them there, locked up. And they couldn’t get away. The Blight was coming, and everyone knew it. All those people in there, they were going to die. ”

  He sniffed and rubbed the back of his hand under his nose. It might have been running, or simply numb from cold.

  “But my grandfather, Maynard, you know? The captain told him to seal off the last end of the quarter, but he wouldn’t do it while there were people inside. And those people, they were poor folks, like us. They weren’t all bad, not all of them. They’d mostly been picked up for little things, for stealing little things or breaking little things.

  “And my grandfather, he wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t seal ’em in to die there. The Blight gas was coming for them; and it’d already eaten up the shortest way back to the station. But he ran back into the Blight, covering his face up as much as he could.

  “When he got there, he threw the lever that held all the cells locked, and he leaned on it—he held it down with his own weight, because you had to, to keep the doo
rs open. So while everyone ran, he stayed behind.

  “And the last two out were a pair of brothers. They understood what he’d done, and they helped him. He was real sick with the gas, though, and it was too late. So they brought him home, trying to help him even though they knew that if anybody saw them, they’d get arrested all over again. But they did it, same as why Maynard did what he did. ’Cause ain’t nobody all bad, through and through. Maybe Maynard was a little bad, doing what he did; and maybe those last two guys were a little good.

  “But here’s the long and short of it,” Zeke said, holding up a finger and pushing it under Hale’s nose. “There were twenty-two people inside those cells, and Maynard saved them, every last one. It cost him his life, and he didn’t get nothing for it. ”

  As the kid turned to his front door and reached for the knob, he added, “And neither did we. ”

  Three

  Briar Wilkes closed the door behind the biographer.

  She leaned her forehead against it for a moment and walked away, back to the fire. She warmed her hands there, collected her boots, and began to unbutton her shirt and loosen the support cinch that held it close against her body.

  Down the hall she passed the doors to her father’s room and her son’s room. Both doors may as well have been nailed shut for all she ever opened them. She hadn’t been inside her father’s room in years. She hadn’t been inside her son’s room since… she couldn’t remember a specific time, no matter how hard she tried—nor could she even recall what it looked like.

  Out in the hall she stopped in front of Ezekiel’s door.

  Her decision to abandon Maynard’s room had come from philosophical necessity; but the boy’s room she avoided for no real reason. If anyone ever asked (and of course, no one ever did) then she might’ve made an excuse about respecting his privacy; but it was simpler than that, and possibly worse. She left the room alone because she was purely uncurious about it. Her lack of interest might have been interpreted as a lack of caring, but it was only a side effect of permanent exhaustion. Even knowing this, she felt a pang of guilt and she said out loud, because there was no one to hear her—or agree with her, or argue with her—“I’m a terrible mother. ”