Well, here it is folks–the last chapter before the whole book comes out on September 1st. FYI, it’ll be 99 cents until the 8th of September so pick up a copy and red the rest of the 36 chapters.
Manny blinked away the dust clinging to his eyes as yet another truck lumbered by. The military convoy hadn’t seemed so long before. Behind him, two Marines loaded the injured into the back of a wagon. Dust coated the blood stains on their uniform, dulling the bright red spots.
The convoy had been ambushed.
Solders had been shot at.
He tucked his shaking hands in his jeans. The rope belt clung to his hips.
“The tremors will pass.” Wheelchair Henry set the parking brake and folded his hands on his lap.
“Uh-huh.” He stood on the bank, staring into the wash. Wind tugged at his hoodie and a chill snaked down his spine. Rain sprinkled his black hair, left divots in the loose dirt.
“‘Course, you never really get accustomed to being shot at.”
God. What a thought. Fear soured his mouth. At least, he hadn’t crapped his pants. He would have if the old man hadn’t been there taking his mind off of it. Telling him how to survive it. To stop, think, observe and plan. No, that wasn’t right. He had to act, too. Jesus, how was he to survive if he couldn’t remember five simple words?
How was he to keep the niños safe?
Wheelchair Henry’s wife Mildred and their neighbor Connie watched over the niños playing along packed dirt road lining the wash. A Golden Retriever darted around the lunging children. He paused near a gray leafed Ironwood tree to drop the ball at his feet, practically daring the niños to try to grab it.
“You’re not going catatonic on me, are you?” Wheelchair Henry rested his hand on the revolver on his lap.
An old man and surly kid stood next to the medical truck, each had an arrow notched in his bow. Manny had tried talking to the kid after the shooting even offered him some of his candy. But he’d turned his nose up at a handful of dusty, slightly mushed Skittles. What an idiot.
Two old ladies in similar track suits chatted with an Asian dude and a dark skinned couple. They’d all been on his truck. He should know their names. Should but didn’t. He had a hard enough time walking, talking just required too much energy. He scanned the wash until he found Rini, the Wilson sisters, Beth and a shriveled, brown skinned woman sorting through stacks of clothes and blankets.
“Manny?” Wheelchair Henry’s voice dragged his attention from the wash.
Tremors raced up his body then back down. “We should have been safe with the soldiers.”
He winced at the childish whine. Why weren’t they safe? He watched more trucks rumble passed. Olive-drab Marines and blue-shirted Airmen coughed. Not from the dust. Never that. They were dying of that anthrax thing going around. And to think he’d almost taken the niños to Burgers in a Basket.
That would have killed them for sure.
Maybe it would be better to die and get it over with.
Especially if the soldiers could not keep them safe.
“Manny?” Wheelchair Henry snapped his fingers. “Safe is a foreign country no one has ever visited.”
Manny blinked, focused on the hand in front of his face. “Huh?”
“Enjoy your mini vacation from reality?”
“Reality sucks.” But where he’d gone wasn’t any better. No place was. Maybe he should have stayed home. Because of him, they were in danger and leaving everything behind.
“Reality always sucked, some times are worse than others.” Henry rearranged his withered legs so they crossed each other.
“It’s never been this bad.” He’d heard people talking about the human race going extinct. That couldn’t happen. They weren’t dinosaurs or anything.
Henry tugged on Manny’s hoodie. “That’s where you gotta change your way of thinking. We’re the healthy ones. We’ve got food in our belly, allies around us and weapons if we need ’em.”
“I don’t want to need them!” Heads turned at his outburst. He slouched into his jacket. But hadn’t there always been guns around? He hadn’t lived in the best part of town. And the Redaction certainly had brought out the worst in people, allowed the people with guns to take what they wanted. The gangs had certainly moved in, claimed territory, ruled with terror.
Until the Aspero had taken on the Marines.
The military had mown the gangbangers down or blown them up. But now the Marines were sick.
And the bad guys were once again moving into the vacuum of no government.
The strap of the gun slid off his shoulder. He caught it then slung it back on. How did he get stuck guarding the soldiers? He’d never fired a gun before.
Unlike the bad guys.
“Hell, Manny, I don’t want to kill anymore than I want to eat my vegetables, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to.”
Guns were not vegetables. Except in movies, vegetables never killed or raped or… He shut down the thought. Bad people did horrible things. And they were still out there. Why couldn’t they have been the ones to get sick? Why couldn’t they be the ones dying?
“So what’s really bothering you?”
“Do I look like a mushroom to you?”
“A mushroom? You being a former chef and all, you’ve must have heard of them.”
“I was a short order cook.” A chef had an education. He wouldn’t get that now. He wouldn’t even graduate high school. Neither would the niños. Was this what their life would be like–running, shooting, dying? “And no, you don’t look like a mushroom.”
“Then why do you keep shoveling shit on me?”
Manny blinked. Ahh, now that made sense.
“Falcon and Papa Rose said they’d warned you about bottling things up.” Reaching up, Henry drilled Manny’s chest. “Didn’t they explain that keeping things inside would only end up hurting you and those you love?”
“Yeah, they did.” But they weren’t here now. They’d roared away on motorcycles heading… somewhere. Besides he had no words, just a knot spinning in his gut.
“Yo, Preacher Man.” An soldier yelled at a man in faded jeans and a flannel shirt. “You’re needed in the operating room.” He jerked his head to the truck behind him.
“Then start yakking.” Henry uncrossed his legs and set his feet on the rests. “Unless I miss my guess this is the first time you’ve been in a gun fight.”
The preacher’s blue eyes locked with Manny’s for a moment before he was dismissed. Something niggled at the back of his mind. The man seemed familiar but that couldn’t be, he wasn’t even a practicing Catholic let alone whatever faith preachers led.
Henry brushed his fingers across the back of Manny’s hand. “You’re slipping away son.”
He shook off the memory and focused on the present. Words. He needed to find the magic words that would untangle the ball. “It’s not right.”
Plain words. Simple words. A child’s truth, yet the pressure eased a bit. He didn’t seem to be pushing against a steel shirt when he breathed.
“No one ever said it would be.” Henry rested one hand on the brake of his wheelchair.
“It’s not fair.” They should have been safe with the soldiers. “Why isn’t it?”
“No one tries to make it so. We’re too busy living our lives to care about our neighbors. I lived next to Denise Powers for years, knew her husband, Trent, was a cheating asshole, but didn’t want to interfere and look what happened? That bastard Trent snuck back into our neighborhood and killed her, making it look like a suicide. For all I know, he got away with it.”
Manny nodded. He’d witnessed Trent Powers throw the beat-up body of another neighbor over the balcony so the rats could eat her. “Exactly, how can you believe in a God that would allow someone like that to live.”
Wheelchair Henry frowned. “Who says God has anything to do with it?”
“Some fat guy, before the service. He was saying how this whole thing…” Manny opened his arms to include the burning city, the black skies and the dead. “this was God’s judgment upon us and if we didn’t repent and agree to only follow the Preacher guy, then we were going to hell.”
“Sounds like a load of bullshit to me.”
“Yeah.” But some folks nodded; a few even said amens. Manny rocked back on his heels. Rini had called the man an idiot, but Beth had paled and asked to leave. “That’s why we helped you instead of attending the service for the soldiers.”
“Earning your way into heaven, were you?”
“What? No!” He’d never get into Heaven. He’d brought home the Redaction from Juvenile Hall that had killed his parents and older brothers and sisters. Even if he spent a lifetime, he’d never work off that debt. But he could try.
Wheelchair Henry flicked the parking brake off and on. “Why did you help Rini when she showed up all beaten and broken on your doorstep, knowing the gang would find you through her?”
“She’s my best friend’s sister.” He shifted under the old man’s gaze. A best friend with whom he’d jacked a car that had crashed. He’d gone from the hospital to Juvenile Hall. His best friend had gone from the driver’s seat to the morgue. Guilt may have played a tiny part in letting her inside.
“And Beth Goodman?” Wheelchair Henry jabbed the air in the direction of the girl with black hair and red roots. “I knew her dad from his work at the Mission. He always preached that fire and brimstone twaddle. You helped her after she shot at us.”
“She’s just a kid.” A couple years younger than him. And without her goth make-up looked so much younger. “Besides, she’d just been attacked by some pervert.”
Cold sweat misted his skin. Nowhere was safe. Not with the soldiers, not in a church. Maybe that fat man was right. Maybe this was God’s punishment. But if that were so, then why was he still alive? Among everyone around him, he deserved to die.
“So everyone deserves forgiveness but you?” Wheelchair Henry goaded.
Manny pawed his chest until he found the gun strap, then he hung on. He stared at the medical truck as it rolled by. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about survivor’s guilt. You’ve got it bad and it’ll get you killed if you don’t start dealing with it.”
He fell back a step. God, was it written on his face? Could everyone see it?
“The disease that killed your parents wasn’t your fault, Manny.”
He opened his mouth but no words came out.
Wheelchair Henry held up his hand. “The niños told us about it. They don’t blame you, not one little bit. Hell, Mikey and Mary think you walk on water for saving them.”
Heat swarmed his face. “I didn’t do much.”
There hadn’t been much food to share when the soldiers stopped coming around.
“You did a hell of a lot. Them kids would probably be dead by now if you hadn’t taken ’em in and you know it.” Henry thumped on his chest. “In here, you know it. You’re a good person Manny. You need to let go of the guilt before it eats you alive.”
The older man’s praise chased the chill from his skin. If only it were that simple. Maybe, if he really was a good man… But he wouldn’t lie to his friend. “I’m only helping them in case something happens to me then… then the niños… they’ll…”
He choked on the words and couldn’t swallow them down.
“I think it’s brilliant.” Mavis Spanner stopped next to him and placed her hands on her hips. “Your actions may seem selfish, but they worked for the greater good. To help give your brother and sister a better life, you’re helping someone else. In short, you’re doing exactly as I hoped everyone would, building a civilization where the strong take care of the weak, the young, and the ill.”
The fat man words smashed through her speech. That dirty Benedict guy hadn’t thought much of helping anyone but himself. In fact, he seemed to imply that people needing help shouldn’t be given it. “Not everyone’s selfishness would be so nice.”
“True. There will always be wolves in the flock, just as there are dogs to stand guard.” She gestured to the rifle on his shoulder. “I think we know which group you belong to.”
He shook his head. She wouldn’t be saying things like that if she knew his past. He gripped the strap. He wasn’t worthy. He should give the gun back. He tightened his hold.
“Well, I’m sorry to interrupt your conversation.” She shoved her hair out of her eyes. “I just wanted you to know that I appreciate your volunteering and to let you know the trucks will be here in a couple minutes.”
She pointed to the glowing pair of headlights that popped up over the hill in the distance. “There has been some… mistreatment, so you may want to help just the men and the little, little kids.”
Manny swallowed hard. Mistreatment. His gaze skipped to Rini and Beth. They knew first hand about mistreatment.
She handed a tablet to Henry. “But you’re the expert, I’ll let you decide who goes where.”
Smiling sadly, she left to join the guys with the bows and arrows.
The lit screen cast a ghostly glow on Henry. “This is a nightmare. And I’m leaving these cases to you, Rini and Beth because, quite frankly, the idea of dealing with ’em scares the Bejesus out of me.”
Manny tensed. What could give the old man nightmares? “Wh-what is it?”
“Teenagers.” He shuddered and squeezed his eyes closed. “Scariest thing on God’s green Earth.”