Wednesday, January 4, 2012
“We need to be careful about when we practice from now on, too,” Cleve said. He and several others sat in the dining nook of Cody’s old house, on the other side of the sliding glass door from the firing line.
“And cut wood, too,” said Johnny. “People ain’t gonna like that, though. We can’t cut enough firewood for everyone as it is, let alone put any extra wood aside!”
“Me neither, but I’d rather be cold than dead.”
“Maybe we do everything we do now if the wind’s coming out of the west or south,” Sondra said. “If there’s trouble down toward Atlanta, the wind should carry the sound the other way.” Cody nodded.
“Then again,” said Tim, “maybe we’re making a big deal out of nothing. Maybe someone downtown had a kerosene heater get away from them. Or something spontaneously combusted. Or it was just a big bonfire. Right now, all we’re going on is a plume of smoke and something a cr— a mentally ill woman said.”
“You really believe that?” Cleve gave Tim a doubtful look.
Tim thought a moment and sighed. “No… but I’d like to. That preacher talks around the subject, but he thinks there’s more to what she says than he lets on.”
“I think she’s just crazy myself,” Sondra said, looking grim. “But we know there’s trouble out there. Sooner or later, if it doesn’t find us, we’ll find it.”
“Yeah, but we can’t put everything on standby until it happens — it might not happen for months. Or years. And Johnny’s right, people are already complaining about not having enough firewood. We can cut back on target practice, sure. Cody could use a little more practice, but so could I. I got a bit rusty since September.”
Is this what being a leader’s about? Cody thought. Sitting around, chewing on all the problems, and trying to figure out how to get past them all? He grinned. It’s like the skate park: you drop down the quarterpipe, slide the rail, ollie the blocks. You can land it or faceplant, but either way you do it all over again. Aloud he said, “Okay, maybe we stop doing target practice for a while, but we still cut wood unless the wind’s blowing straight down the freeway. I guess we can spend the time we’d have been here helping cut firewood. That might make the others happier. Hell, I wouldn’t mind havin’ some more firewood myself. The only time our place gets warm through the day is when the sun’s coming in the window — me and Sondra put on our black clothes and lay on the carpet.”
Johnny laughed. “You mean you got any clothes besides black ones?” The others laughed with him.
“Hey, I still have that cream dress I got married in!” Sondra said. “I might start wearing it when it warms up some. Besides, doesn’t swinging that splitter get you warm?”
“Ha!” Cody laughed. “By the time you’re almost warm, you’re worn out from swinging it!”
The preacher had insisted they stay near last night’s fire and “keep vigil” — in other words, lie in wait and shoot anyone who followed the smoke, whether driven by hope of loot or plain curiosity. They’d shot a couple dozen through the day this way, dragging the bodies into a building. By evening, no targets had shown up for a few hours and Worleigh finally called off the “vigil.” They retreated to an office building a few blocks away to make camp.
They ate a cold supper by lantern light, blinds drawn to shut away the world outside. As Jared finished his can of pork and beans, his forehead began itching. He rubbed it without thinking much about it, then looked at his grimy fingers. Looking up again, he caught a glimpse of something in Ray-Ban’s sunglasses. “Hey Ray… hold still a minute.” He peered into the warped mirror of the lens.
“What is it? I got something on my face?”
“No, something on mine.” He rubbed his forehead again, then walked into the bathroom and shone his flashlight into the mirror. The smoke and grime of last night’s work, and the sweat of today’s, must have mixed with the oil that Worleigh had dabbed on his forehead. Whatever it was, it was making him itch. He cleaned his face with a wet-wipe, and that helped with the itching. He looked in the mirror again.
He saw it best while shining the flashlight across his forehead from the side. The crosses had raised low welts, and what he saw in the mirror gave him a chill:
Jared shook his head — it was just a weird coincidence. Had to be. What would Worleigh say about it? he thought, and suddenly guessed: The opposite of what you saw in the mirror, of course. You are faithful to the work of Gowd-a — amen? The preacher was already cranking up his evening “lesson” — Jered could hear him all the way in here, and Worleigh would probably watch for anyone trying to dodge it.
“Amen,” he muttered, and pulled his hat on. The hat covered the marks well enough — but the real mark was already inside him and all of them, and they would carry it to their grave.