Check him out.
I heard a story once that explains how I know. There was this missionary visiting some African tribe who observed a native mother. Children out there were carried around by their moms all the time. Every so often, with no verbal clues, this tribeswoman holds her diaperless little boy out at arm’s length over a bush. The little wiener relieves himself, just like that.
After a day of following them around, the missionary can’t keep her mouth shut. She asks, “How do you know when your baby has to pee?” The native mom looks at her, surprised for a second, and then bursts out laughing; perfect teeth flashing, her eyes squeezed shut. She doubles over and can’t breathe; finally wiping her eyes and says, “How do you know when you have to pee?”
That’s kind of how it is here. I just know. I’m dead, and that’s that.
Now, how I got here? That’s a horse of different color.
I drive, or, drove a cab in Manhattan. I was rushing this fare to Idlewild– that’s Kennedy International to all you kids – up the B-Q-E when traffic, for no apparent reason, comes to a complete standstill. This happens with nauseating regularity on most of the chuck-hole-riddled, major arteries in the Rotten Apple. We’re sitting there with our thumbs up our butts. Horns are blaring, temperature gauges begin creeping up. After a moment I spot the cause of our detainment – about a hundred feet up on the opposite side of the guard rail there’s a three-car pile-up.
No one seemed to be hurt, yet. The drivers of all three cars are standing in the middle of the West bound lane screaming at each other. Face to face. One guy looked like he’s a boil about ready to pop. His face was so constricted by his once-white collar that the veins and arteries are backing up blood into his sweaty, sausage-like face. The smaller guy had on an absurd checkered jacket. The sleeves were way too short, and his bare forearms were sticking out of the cuffs, waving in the air like antennae, stretched out by his ears. There was a cigarette butt pinched up in the crook between the index and middle fingers of his right hand.
The third driver was a short, old, white-haired woman. She was screaming so loud I could hear her shrill obscenities even with my windows closed, above the horns. A gray poodle was squished up under her right arm and she was poking the black-leather gloved index finger of her left hand in the boil-man’s face. She was so out of control spittle hung from her bony chin; I heard something about how they were all cocksucker sons of whores. The dog barked nonstop. Every so often she gave it a squeeze like some clogged up, mangy bagpipe and yelled “shut-the-fuck-up, Trixie.” This caused the poodle to gag, and wheeze for a beat before it started up again.
Usually I wait it out and watch the show, – it’s not my dime, ya know? But that day my fare was itchy, and he had cash. He shoved a crisp fin under the Plexiglas wall separating us and told me to go around. I grabbed the bill, and saw my chance – I knew I could get around the rubberneckers; we were only a few cars back. I gassed it into the shoulder and plowed through some garbage, my right wheels ran up on the cement curb. I only just kissed the iron fence, and the concrete wall off the shoulder, went up four or five cars, and back onto clear road. I wouldn’t even have to make out a report on that little scratch.
It’s a strange thing to see an eighteen-wheeler fly. This one crashed through the guard rail of the overpass ahead of us. It seemed to fall out of the sky. All the sound and heat and dirt around me just seemed to suck away somewhere. Silence. All I could see was the graceful arc in midair of the cab and trailer, all of its wheels still turning. I could read the side of the trailer: GOD – Guaranteed Overnight Delivery, lettered in fire-engine red. I opened my mouth to speak to my fare. I was going to say, “Hey, would you look at that.” Then everything slid into slow motion. The mouths of the three drivers gaped open, their necks twisted, heads following the spectacle of a flying semi. Even the yapping dog watched.
I thought, hey, this is it. I’m going to die.
The plummeting big rig veered toward us and fell right into my lap. My windshield imploded and the grillwork of the Peterbilt rushed in to greet me. When that truck hit the hood of my cab the silence broke. Time resumed normal speed. Glass sprayed like a garden hose. My fare screamed like he was being burned alive. Maybe he was.
All I could do was watch. I felt nothing. I was awake with my eyes open; like watching a movie. The carnage just unfolded around me with each event separate and clear, although occurring simultaneously. I saw colors and lights. I smelled diesel fuel and hot macadam. I even smelled the vinyl of my cab seats. I heard the metal tear like a tortured tin shack being blown apart around my head. The radio played American Pie.
The last thing I saw was this little girl, standing on the patio of a building adjacent to the roadway eating an ice-cream cone. It looked too big for her. She was wearing a white summer jumper with big blue and green flowers on it. Her hair was braided in two blond pigtails. I was concerned the chocolate would stain her dress.
NOTE: THis story was previously published at the amazing journal, Cease, Cows under the name of Inarguably Dead. PLEASE check them out and if you are the writerly type, submit. Very cool people. Say hi to Heather for me.
Hey this is it. I’m going to die by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-Q.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at email@example.com.
Asher Todd needed coffee. Actually, he needed ten hours of oblivion in a dark room between cool cotton sheets. He did not need two more hours in a florescent lit surrealist painting. But coffee would do for now. Dr. Todd was at the end of a double shift; what he and the other interns at Vanderbilt Medical Center called a Brain Crusher, as in “Hey Ash, can you walk Rufus for me? I’ve got a Brain Crusher tonight.” Asher didn’t own a dog – he couldn’t understand why any intern would, though Rod Burbank asked him to walk Rufus occasionally. “Man,” Rod told him over a couple of pints at Dan McGinnis, “Rufus can only hold it for twelve hours, after that he shits all over my fucking bed. Do you think he’s trying to tell me something?” Ash thought about telling Rod to get a lower maintenance pet, something like a goldfish or a parakeet, but kept these critical thoughts to himself. Interns in their last year needed all the support they could get.
Tonight’s was the Brain Crusher to beat all. The ER seemed less like a hospital and more like a sterile circus; packed from eight PM, when the Predator’s game let out, until after two AM when the bars closed down. Armed robberies, car accidents, fist fights, just plain falling down drunk and one head trauma: Marsha Griggs, 42 Calliope Lane, Nashville TN 37216. Unconscious. Prognosis? Ash didn’t think she’d live through the night. There was nothing you could do but wait in cases like this, and Dr. Todd did not think they would be waiting long.
Asher asked the ER nurse, Cat Sylvan, “Hey babe, have a look through her purse, won’t you? She eye rolled and side glanced him before striding away muttering. He stood alone for a few moments replaying the fight he and Cat had that morning over breakfast. Why would it upset her so much that he brought her bagel with butter instead of cream cheese? Cat confused him, and Asher Todd was not used to being confused. To divert his mind from the decaying relationship, he surveyed the woman on the table; her chest rose and fell regularly with the cycle of the respirator. The florescent bank hummed, and the heart/blood pressure monitor beeped. The lights gave her skin a greenish cast. Dr. Todd shuddered.
Marsha Griggs traveled light. She’d been wearing a tan skirt and a blue waistcoat with a white silk blouse, powder blue “Body by Victoria” bra and a matching color thong. Her legs were shaved but she wore no hose and a pair of blue Kenneth Cole pumps.
At least the silk shirt was white and the bra was powder blue. These articles were now soaked in Marsha Griggs’ type “O” negative blood (same type as mine, a semi-aware part of Dr. Todd’s brain noted), and stuffed into the yellow bio hazard bag, having been cut from Masha’s slight body by nurse Sylvan’s merciless bandage shears. The bag would soon be tied and hauled to the basement and incinerated; all traces turned a fine grey ash.
Ms. Griggs heart rate increased to one hundred and ten beats per minute. Her blood pressure touched ninety over one sixty and continued to fall; skin cool and pale. Asher’s diagnosis was an intracerebral hemorrhage from a fall or a blunt object blow. Basically, the back of her head was skull split. Blood had leaked from her ears, but since stopped. Her pupils were dark dots extending to the sclera and unchanged by penlight. There were some scrapes on the backs of her shoulders in addition to a jagged wound on her neck beneath the left ear.
Ash lifted the sheet covering Marsha Griggs’ body to have a private viewing of her small, naked nipples, but his attention was hooked away by bruises just beneath her shoulders. Someone had pushed her forcefully. The marks were developing the signature violet of recently broken blood vessels. If she lived, which was doubtful, the subdural hematomas would mature to a deep purple highlighted by a lovely jaundiced yellow. He realized that her eventual death would be ruled suspicious. “Probably murder,” he said. The word hung in the disinfectant scented air.
The meat wagon had picked her up from an alley by the bus station. Ash said, “Ms. Griggs, you don’t look like the sort of girl who rides the Greyhounds or hangs around the mission.”
He compressed the tip of her right index finger and watched the capillaries sluggishly refill – a sure sign of blood loss and diminishing vitals. Asher held her small, cool hand for a moment and sighed. After the respirator and the IVs there was really nothing more he could do for her.
The Music City homeless shelter was next door to the bus station. The one-way street, which ran toward the river, was punctuated by strip clubs and bars. The EMT said there were no witnesses and they almost wrote her off as a Jane Doe. He spotted her Calvin Klein purse twenty feet away just as they were loading her in. Asher sensed some sort of unusual puzzle, but he did not have enough brain juice left to assemble the jigsaw.
He estimated that she was about five foot six, one hundred and five pounds. “A little thin for my tastes,” he said to nurse Sylvan when came back in. Cat snorted and shoved the blood work report at him. The sheaf of papers splashed across the tiles.
The Griggs woman had small features and olive colored skin. Asher’s old undergraduate roommate would have called her “Elvin,” but that was only because Sam had a penchant for all things Lord of the Rings; though her ears did seem slightly pointy.
Cat told Asher, “Look doctor, you can rummage through this girl’s personal effects yourself, I don’t have time for your shit.” She spun to exit and postscripted: “you’re an asshole, Asher.” He thought, the makeup sex would be great, babe, if you can just let go of it. But at hour fourteen of this sixteen hour Brain Crusher, he could not even attempt to articulate the sentiment. I’ll have to take some time to apologize later, maybe get some flowers at the gift shop. His thoughts were sluggish and disconnected. Ash folded his glasses into his shirt breast pocket and rubbed both eyes with his palm heels.
After tossing the report aside, he dumped the contents of Marsha Griggs’ tan clutch purse onto the stainless steel counter. The small pile rattled loudly. He used a plastic Bic pen to push the items around, not because he was concerned about contaminating himself, but because he was exhausted and cross-eyed and the activity gave him some perverse, if not fully recognized, pleasure.
There was a Tennessee driver’s license with a blank organ donor section, a blue DKNY compact, a yellow Universal pencil (made in China) with a broken tip and a white number ten business sized envelope.
No wallet, no keys, no cell.
The envelope had something scrawled on it in a smudgy script. It was almost illegible. Asher considered calling Metro, but they were sure to be poking around plenty later. There would be an autopsy for sure, though the cause of death looked pretty obvious. “Zee human person can’t-a live too long with a completely smashed scull und 35% blood loss,” he said aloud in a strange foreign accent. His voice made a metallic echo in the tile and stainless room. God I’m so tired I’m beginning to babble, he thought. He held the envelope up to the pulsing florescent lights and shook the contents, but could not see through the safety paper. It contained a hard nugget of an object, about an inch long, a quarter inch thick. Asher pressed the paper down around the item and felt its lumpy outline. It was a key – from a storage locker.
He squinted at the writing on the front. He could almost make out a name: Albert or Alfred. The first letter of the last name was either T or Q. It was no use – if this were written by Ms. Griggs’ dainty hands he would have been surprised. Someone else had scribbled these hieroglyphics and given it to Marsha. Or maybe she stole it…
Asher’s imagination ran on its own track now, like he was watching a late night TV mystery. The Southern Ohio freight whistle blew breathy and faint from the yard adjacent to the college along the Cumberland River. An overhead page smacked him into the present.
“Dr. Todd to the ER desk, Dr. Todd…”
“Shit,” Asher said to no one. I guess this night isn’t over yet. He used the side of his palm to sweep the contents back into the purse, but the envelope missed the small opening and fell with a muffled clink.
Asher stared at the white rectangle, and pictured the lockers at the Nashville Greyhound station. He had never seen them, but he was sure they were there. The overhead paged him again –
“Alright already,” he mumbled to the garishly lit room. “Hold your fucking polo ponies.” In his sleep deprived state, Asher Todd had become infected by an irrational desire to check the lockers. It tugged at him like the smell of sex.
He plucked the envelope from the floor, and stuffed it into his exam coat instead of putting it in the purse. Asher dreamed of dancing locker keys and seedy singing mission-district prostitutes dressed as 1940s nurses in white vinyl, but he forgot the dreams upon awakening thirty-two hours later. By that time Marsha Griggs had given up the sheet that replaced her Liz Claiborne skirt and J. Jill silk shirt. In its place she wore a manila colored tag on her right big toe and her body temperature was down to a brisk forty three degrees Fahrenheit. Most of the blood had been washed off of her face, but there was still a considerable amount of it matted and drying in her short blond hair. Though the nail beds of her fingers were cyanotic blue and the block beneath her neck created a disturbing wrinkle behind the ears – ears Asher Todd thought were pointy and kind of cute – anyone would think that Marsha Griggs had been an attractive woman. But they would have been wrong. She wasn’t a woman at all.
Asher woke in the half light of dusk. It was 8:30 PM. The inside of his mouth felt as though he’d been chewing on kitty litter. He was afraid of what his breath might smell like. After standing for what seemed like fifteen minutes in front of the toilet, his bladder finally emptied, and he shuffled off to the inadequate kitchen of his efficiency hole-in-the-wall to seek coffee.
Asher’s refrigerator was empty aside from a quart of organic whole milk, a jar of Clawson pickles and a white Styrofoam take out box, the mystery contents of which would not be solved this evening. There was little to eat or drink in his cabinets. What Dr. Todd’s kitchen did sport was a professional Mazzer burr grinder and a top of the line Ranchillio one group head espresso machine, complete with a real, professional steaming wand.
The young doctor would introduce women to his coffee maker by the name Georgiana. To the introduction he would predictably add, “Life is just too short to drink bad coffee.” He had not yet graduated to roasting his own, but that day would come. Nashville wasn’t exactly a coffee wasteland, but when he finished his internship he would be making his way to the Pacific Northwest. Seattle or Portland, where, as he would also often say: “real coffee is king, my friend; the promised land of the caffeinated.”
He bumped his exam coat, which fell off the back of a kitchen chair, and the number ten envelope slid out of the pocket. It stopped, wedged half under his refrigerator by the bulge of the key.
Asher had forgotten about Ms. Griggs until that moment. A small shudder began at the base of his spine (lumbar vertebrae six, his well-trained brain chimed in), and slowly, maddeningly clicked up each bone in his back toward his shoulders.
“Those pointy ears…” he mumbled, reaching for the envelope.
While Georgiana warmed up, Asher sat at his tiny table and tried to summon the personal ethics or moral centering that would coerce him to return the envelope. By the time the green light went from blinking to solid he had not succeeded in conjuring any feelings other than intensified curiosity. This is madness, he tried to convince himself, but he already had an erection, his body knew it was going to the bus station even if his foggy brain had not yet realized its fate.
He packed the portafilter and expertly compressed the perfectly ground beans to exactly eight pounds, slid a two ounce shot glass beneath the spout while tightening the head in place, and hit the brew switch.
While the creama collected in the crystal glass, Asher Todd tore the envelope open and poured its contents onto his countertop.
The brass key had an orange plastic ring around the shank with the number 26 embossed in white. He flipped it over, twisted the valve on the steam and foamed the three percent milk for his latte. Definitely a locker key, probably from the Greyhound station where Ms. Griggs was discovered.
Asher’s brain caught up to his body. Adrenalin zigzagged though his bloodstream. He sipped his latte imagining the locker’s contents: Money? Papers? Secrets? Without realizing it, he had committed to find the locker and open it, passing over any rational questions. He did not ask himself why, it became his vision of conquest for the evening. As the sky through his west facing windows quickly cycled through all the shades of grey to night, he drank his coffee picturing a living, breathing Marsha Griggs as though he possessed a key that would open her.
Young doctor Todd arrived at the mission on Demonbreun Street just after the thin band of light on the horizon finally gave up to dark, dressed in engineer’s boots, jeans and a blue chambray shirt. He parked and walked the two short blocks back up the street to the bus station. Even after dark the temperature had to be at least 90. On the way he handed out all of his pocket change to two grey-skinned weather beaten men and one legless, toothless woman of indiscriminate age. By the time he reached the bus station his armpits and shirt back were sweat soaked.
His glasses fogged with condensation as he walked through the second set of glass doors into a wall of frigid air-conditioning, he removed them. The lockers were directly across from a bank of broken pay phones just inside the doors.
The shudder at L-6 began scrambling around again like a caged ferret. He crossed the floor dodging an unbelievably thin woman hauling a beat-up suitcase by one hand, and two scrawny boys with crew-cuts by the other.
The building was crowded and stank of Simple Green disinfectant cleaner and stale tobacco. An overhead speaker announced arrivals and departures in a thick Nashville twang; still unintelligible as any other bus station.
Number 26 was in the second block of lockers; sixth one down from the top, which positioned it around the level of Asher Todd’s chest. He had been fingering the brass key in the right front pocket of his jeans. Metallic brass odor was so strong on his fingers that he could smell it as he brought the key out and slid it into the slot in the grey metal panel.
As he turned the key he thought he could hear the tumblers turn. A deep, suspicious part of his brain objected to this information, there are no tumblers in a keyed lock… the thought distracted him from noticing what happened next. He automatically pulled the door open and bent slightly to peer into the darkness. The locker was empty.
Well that’s depressing, he thought. Though I don’t know what I thought I was going to find.
He really believed the locker contained some clue to Marsha Griggs’ death or maybe a big brown paper bag full of crumpled one hundred dollar bills.
He filled his lungs with air and spun on his heel — plans for the rest of his evening began filling his mind — and began to exhale in a resigned sigh. It caught in his throat.
The cavernous bus station lobby was deserted. He froze, looking slowly around the room, and muttered, “What?” The word echoed. He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes and shook his head slightly to clear his fog filled brain.
Echo and silence.
The room went black. Red terror filled Asher’s well-disciplined mind. An icy ripple rolled across his scalp as he struggled to control his muscles. Irrationally, he turned to close the locker in a grasping hope of returning the world to normal, but immediately rejected it and turned back to the doors.
Faint light from the Nashville night glowed through the glass, guiding him out. He found himself on the sidewalk where the sharp edge of the heat had curled off slightly, and a breeze stirred candy wrappers in the gutter.
Asher’s heart was still slamming against his ribs as he looked up and down the deserted moonlit street. He willed his breathing to slow. A slight wind blew across his ears. The normal commotion of the city was absent leaving only this alien ear rustle and the ambient background whistle of his own brain.
Twenty eight year old Dr. Asher Todd, a young man who had sailed purposefully through his undergraduate and medical schooling with no physical or mental hesitation, stood in front of the Nashville Greyhound bus station with his mouth open trying to comprehend what had happened. He could not. It was as though his mind had gone through a reset. His thoughts were repeatedly derailed by fragmented images of the past few days.
I took the key, I came to the station, I opened a locker…
As soon as he realized that he was still standing alone in what appeared to be a completely empty world, his well-organized brain would begin to replay the details again, like a toy train on a small circular track. The image of a red and silver plastic Lionel Santa Fe locomotive took over his imaginings, complete with the scratchy electric train sound.
When she put her hand on his shoulder from behind, he nearly pissed his pants. “Excuse me,” she said.
Asher’s mouth was still open when he spun to her. Though she was shorter, they were nearly touching noses.
“Excuse me,” she repeated.
He recognized the barely contained terror in her eyes mirroring the confusion of his own mind. Automatically, his arms encircled her trembling shoulders and they embraced. She pressed her slight body into him and grasped him tightly; her head turned toward his neck and rested in the hollow of his shoulder. She sobbed.
They stood that way for a few moments. He thought, holding on to her feels good, right. He began to think coherently. He stroked her back watching over her shoulder as his large hand slid across the blue material of her suit jacket. He breathed in a long draft, smelled her perfume and a slight undercurrent of something else; not unpleasant but incongruent. It was a familiar smell, but one which did not belong; faintly animal and wild.
The woman broke away and gazed up into his eyes. She said, “We have to go. We can’t stay here.”
The statement didn’t leave a space for discussion. Asher realized that she was right, though the itch of a thought (somehow connected with that smell) teased his mind. Maybe because of the inexplicable disappearance of all people, or the relief of locating another human so soon after the terror of total darkness, he instinctively knew they must flee.
They walked briskly toward his car. Three long strides along she stopped and turned, pointing back at her purse on the sidewalk.
“Would you get my bag, Ash?”
He was bending down for it when he realized she had called him by name. As he stood up, the tan clutch was in his hand, and he saw the Calvin Klein logo. He opened his mouth.
The force of impact was tremendous and bone crushing. Asher had a moment to see the woman in the blue suit jacket and matching pumps spring the fifteen or so feet over the sidewalk toward him. She transformed in mid leap.
What Asher saw was a blur. If he had time to reflect (which he did not) he would have seen the slight, attractive, business clad young woman streak toward him in the dim moonlight, her form rearranging impossibly as she shot forward. The transformation looked like a reflection in the surface of water when a large stone is thrown. The complete picture splintered into ripples, and the fragmented reflections re-assembled themselves into a solid image again, but the form that she became was not at all the form she had been.
What Asher saw in the brief moments before she hit him was her narrow head followed by an elongated black body covered with oily, fluttering scales. Her tiny ultraviolet pin prick eyes lasered him from a nose-less face predominated by a wide grin filled with several rows of glinting, needle-teeth.
She slammed him into the brick wall crushing his skull. She cradled his limp body in her webbed palms, wrapping long frog-like legs around his hips. Her amphibious crotch created sticky suction against the taut skin of his belly. The needles of her teeth sliced into his rippling carotid artery. She hummed and trembled as she sucked.
Forcing herself to stop, she tore away from his neck, stood and dropped his body to the concrete. She fingered his face gently, almost lovingly, as she spoke. It sounded to Asher like his own voice garbled and underwater.
“I thank you Asher Todd,” she paused and cleaned the blood from her teeth with a flick of her reptilian tongue, “Good of you to attend my invitation.” Asher felt a violent wave roll through his broken body. When it subsided, he could see that his legs had morphed; naked now, thinner and shaved, feet ending in a pair of blue Kenneth Cole pumps. His thoughts were woozy, blurred and filled with buzzing, flashbulb spots of random colors. His mouth opened and closed soundlessly.
The jaundiced sodium vapor street lights above the sidewalk blinkered on one by one as she stood. Her alien body had transformed into a young man wearing black leather boots, jeans and a blue chambray shirt. He dropped a brass key into a white number ten envelope, and scribbled something on it before licking the glue and sealing it. The tongue was unnaturally long, thin and the color of a bruised plum. As the young man bent and stuffed the envelope into her tan clutch purse he looked over at Asher’s crumpled body and winked.
The last thought Asher Todd had before he lost consciousness was: Marsha Griggs.
NOTE: This story was published in LIMN Literary and Arts Journal in November 2012 as part of their special Halloween Issue. I encourage you to follow them and submit if you are so inclined.
Marsha Griggs by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-H.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I did not ask for the gun, but I am honored to have received it. The dogs knew the boy was there before I did and although they tried to warn me, I could not understand. You see, like most rural residents, my dogs are my alarm system. Of course they create a ruckus over almost any disturbance; it doesn’t have to be a threat. The Little One doesn’t see very well and, for some mysterious reason, the others think that she is some kind of early warning system. She hears a pipe ping or catches the shadow of a fluttering leaf and it’s a four alarm fire. The other two idiots just react and amplify.
There is a different kind of barking that they indulge in now and again. That’s when a usurper has crossed into their domain. Traditionally it is another dog. People in my county know better than to wander uninvited onto someone else’s land – you might get yourself shot. When the dogs detect a trespasser they go berserk, like a motion detector has been tripped; some faint seismic activity, invisible and silent to my dull senses, causes repeated alerts at all hours.
That night they started in around midnight. Now, at my age, I don’t normally sleep more than a few hours, but they were ringing the bell every hour on the hour, so by dawn I realized I had not slept at all.
In late June the sun comes up before 5 and even though I had no reason to be up that early, the sun was a welcome excuse to get up already and let the damn dogs out. The lazy mutts usually will not even come down stairs when I go to make the coffee, but they were whining and door scratching. I figured there was a stray sniffing around the chickens.
Being stiff and sleepy, I shuffled down the stairs and opened the front door without even looking. “Git-em,” I mumbled, as they exploded outside, a howling dog tornado. Before I could even get the door latched I heard a ferocious “BANG” and a yipe.
It’s funny how some sounds can just rattle the sleepiness right out of you. I was awake and in the front lawn before I knew how I’d gotten there wearing nothing but a pair of boxers and torn cotton T shirt. The dogs had scattered, Finn and Little One were on the porch already, dazed and panting. The terrier, Loki, was nowhere to be seen. I rounded the corner of the house to confront the source of the noise and caught sight of what appeared to be a teen-age boy dressed in an ill-fitting Yankee civil war re-enactment costume. He was fumbling the breach a of a long barreled rifle open, apparently attempting to reload. Without thinking I called out, “Hey, what the hell…”
He snapped around to face me, bringing the firearm up, its bayonet glinting in the early morning sun. I raised my hands over my head and yelled across the yard, “There’s no need for that son. Put down the gun and let’s see what this is about.”
His image seemed to waver in the rising heat. He did not lower the gun. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the intensity of the colors; the green of the covering sugar maples and the lushness of the grass; every blade and leaf stood out separate and vibrating slightly. The rust-red barn behind him and the black wood fence running up to the forest-green tube gate were almost glowing. The sky, an unusual shade of ultramarine, was streaked with tattered wisps of silver.
And then there was his uniform. It was the deepest navy blue; the jacket buttons bright gold. Funny thing I realized later is that there was no heat; the wavering must have been something else, because I didn’t imagine it. The image is burned in my memory as clear as a high resolution photo with its green grass, blue boy and red barn.
I was pretty sure he hadn’t had time to reload and standing a hundred paces in front of me, the bayonet posed little threat. It crossed my mind that if he decided to charge I would look pretty ridiculous, an old man, sprinting through the lawn in my underwear. The thought made me smile. I guess it smoothed my voice out when I said, “Son, you don’t want to hurt no one, lower your weapon and lets you and me have a talk.”
You know, I couldn’t really see his face at that distance. Just the same, I could swear that I saw the tears in his eyes before I heard the sob. He fell to his knees; the bayonet point stuck into the lawn as he bent forward and pressed his face into his hands.
I will always be a father no matter that my children have long ago moved away from home. And that young soldier, even though he was only dressed up as one, crying before me touched a deep place in my heart.
I walked over and knelt beside him. He looked directly into my eyes and said, “I’m not a man who kills widows and babies. She looked like my sister. I will never wash the blood from my hands. Look,” he held his dirty palms up to my face. I did not see any blood. “It has stained them permanent and I will be damned to hell forever for what I have done.”
He just fell over before I could speak. I didn’t know if he was asleep or unconscious. Loki had showed up and he licked at his face. The boy mumbled, “Mercy, please.” At least he wasn’t dead.
I couldn’t leave him out there on the grass, but I had no intention of dragging him into the house. I started up to the porch and turned around thinking, “It might be best if I just put that gun inside for him while I go about getting dressed.” I called Loki, but he wouldn’t budge; he’d hunkered down in the grass next to the boy. I figured that it had been a while since he had a young man around. Kids go off and leave their childhoods at home along with their childhood pets. I went inside and dressed, filled a glass with cool water from the fridge and brought it back outside.
When I stepped off the porch the shimmering around the boy’s body had intensified and the colors were brighter still. The landscape behind him changed as I watched. I heard a strange out of phase wind blowing. I do not know exactly how to describe the sound of it. The subtle blanket of the morning birds slid between forefront and background with a clanking rumble of voices, animals and harnesses.
Smoke drifted from somewhere nearby. The fences of my front field evaporated and replacing the rolling pasture, normally dotted with cattle, was the most astonishing panorama I have ever witnessed. This was no civil war re-enactment. This was real. A sprawling army of men and tents, horses and wagons, cannon and low lying smoke covered the scorched battlefield that now ran from where Pigeon Roost Road should have been, across Sneed’s 1000 acres to the woods beyond. I shook my head to try and clear it. In response, the scene became more vivid, crystallizing. A pair of uniformed men supporting the boy on their shoulders led him away and down the incline toward the heart of the encampment. He forgot his hat and damp hair hung limp across his face, his head lolled from side to side as they half dragged, half walked him away. I distinctly heard him repeat: “mercy, please,” and one of the others answered, “we need all the mercy we can get Sharp, come on now, you’ll be better soon.”
Loki trotted along at his heal, looking up at him as though he had a rare steak in his pocket. I thought to call after him but I didn’t. In truth I couldn’t speak. My throat had closed up and tears were blurring my vision. I blinked hard to clear my eyes and wiped at my face with the back of my hand. The smoke was acrid and greasy, the sky over the encampment purple and bruised. All the earth surrounding them was pitted with cannon craters and several trees were splintered and burning.
My horror grew the longer I watched. My ears were filled with men’s screams and the shrill whinnying of horses. Every so often a loud gunshot punctuated the background murmuring of this writhing city.
I could take no more.
I turned away and looked past my back yard to the rolling hills dotted with round bales fresh from the first cutting. I suddenly realized that I still had the boy’s gun. Without turning to look at the army on the front fields, I went into the house and grabbed the rifle. I did not consider how I would explain myself; a Southern man in a Northern encampment. My only concern was returning the weapon to a soldier who would need it.
When I stepped off the staircase into the yard the entire bivouac had vanished. It took a long moment to realize my mouth was open; I closed it, scanning the fields again for a sign of the army that I had just witnessed. The smell of all that death and smoke still filled my nose, but the sky was clear, a cow lowed in the distance. As I crossed the dirt driveway, walking toward my front fence, my toe caught on something sticking out of the soil. With the gun in my hand and I bent down and pried a Federal army crossed-cannon emblem from the soil. A little scratching around unearthed an engraved name plate and 2 brass hat buttons.
Loki never returned. I guess that boy needed him more than he needed me. The gun is an 1861 Sharps, 54 caliber falling block action 3 band rifle; it has only been fired a few times. There is a pellet primer still in it and an unfired brass-cased round. Presumably the boy, nicknamed Sharps by his company for his prowess as a sniper, actually got it loaded, intending to shoot the dogs or me. Its existence is impossible. You see, aside from the proper patent engravings and the serial number, which falls in the range of the Berdan Sharpshooter rifles, the iron it was forged from is very unique. It was founded from ore mined in northeastern Massachusetts; it has a specific spectrographic signature. This ore ran out in 1870. But the gun that I took from William, as well as the primer cap and bullet are new. They show no sign of age, no wear from use. It is as if the gun and cartridge were made a few years ago. There were only 500 of these fire arms ever made.
After considerable expert wrangling, the gun was pronounced an authentic civil war artifact and appraised at 1.5 million dollars. I will leave it to my children; I cannot bring myself to sell it regardless of my need and its value.
As final note you should know that boy was William Heacock. His name was engraved on the plate that came from his hat and his initials were carved into the burl walnut buttstock of his rifle. His family lived in Bucks County Pennsylvania. He had a sister and four brothers of whom all but one died on the battlefield across from my farm in 1864. The one surviving son was named Emerson Heacock and he was my great grandfather. I have never told anyone where I got that gun until today.
NOTE: THis story was previously published (in a slightly earlier form) in Papertape Magazine under the name, The Gun.
Sharp’s Rifle by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at https://ronheacock.wordpress.com/2014/01/20/sharps-rifle/.
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