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“You just wait here.”
“Why?” I ask.
“You have to wait here or else we’ll both be in the same place.”
“We should have more people for this.”
“We should, but we don’t.”
I squint, and try to make out what’s in the woods below us. It’s nighttime, and though the moon is full and bright, my eyes have problems adjusting to the darkness. We’re on a ledge on the side of a small hill. The forest, thick, humming, chirping, stretches out below us. Smith, one of my best friends, is right. If we had more people we could do it, but it don’t make no sense for both of us to be at the same place at the same time. Not for this.
“All right. But you see something wrong you get the hell outta there.”
“I know,” Smith says.
“Don’t even show your face if you aren’t certain about what they’s up to.”
“I know mom. Christ.” Smith pulls out a tin box of tobacco and packs it. “You want some?”
“Yeah, I’ll take some,” I say.
Smith takes a pinch of snuff and hands it to me. I do the same and stuff it into my mouth. I wait for the nicotine to settle into my blood stream. Smith sits on a rock, and I do the same. From my watch I know we’re twenty minutes away from the exchange.
“You got the money?” I ask again. The snuff has only added to my nerves.
Smith spits on the ground and doesn’t answer me. Technically, I started this group of ours, but since we were kids Smith never took crap from nobody. Still, I have to double-check. I can’t help it.
The forest quiets down, and something crawls under my skin. I’ve this feeling that something's wrong with tonight, and the feeling starts to surge forward.
“Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” I say.
Smith spits out more juice. “What and give up and have no good weapons? We need this.”
“But we barely know the guy. You met him at the Freetown, didn’t ya?”
“Stop callin’ it Freetown. That’s what they want you to call it. And that’s what you do?”
I stay silent, almost feel like a traitor. But when everyone calls it that how can I help it? “You’re right. What should we call it?”
“Call it shit town,” Smith says and grins. He's always got charm, that Smith.
I crack a smile and chuckle. “That sounds good. Ole Shit town full of shitheads.”
The tension in my head eases up and I feel a little better. In a few seconds, however, the sense that something is wrong springs back up. “What was the guy’s name?”
Smith lets out a huff of air. “You really gettin’ on my nerves.”
I pause, think about the different ways to tackle this. It’s a thorny issue, to be certain. “What do you think I’m trying to do? I’m only checkin’.”
“How many times. His name is Tim, like you.”
“I’m just saying someone new in Free… Shittown ain’t something we should take lightly.”
Smith chuckles at the sound of “Shittown” as if it’s the first time he’s heard it. “Well if you can’t handle it you can leave.”
I sigh, feel slightly hurt. He knows I'll always be there to help him. It’s not like this hasn’t happened before. “Well you know why I get twitchy before these deals.” I say and adjust the rifle on my back.
Smith spits, somehow I can tell that this time it’s a thoughtful one. “I know Timmy boy. I know.” He places his hand on my shoulder. It’s a heavy thing, his hand. It feels comforting. “We’ll get her back. But to do that we need these weapons.”
“Got it,” I say, as my heart sinks at the thought of her. At the friend by my side. These are tough times, they are, but my mother always said: “This too shall pass.” Of course I wonder if the Injuns and other unlucky fools thought the same thing and found out that this didn’t, in fact, pass. But I won’t ever go out like that.
We sit there, the forest quiets down and we're quiet. Five minutes left.
“We’d better get a move on,” Smith says.
I stand up and nod my head at Smith. He makes his way down a trail we’d known since childhood. I watch as he disappears, and I find a way to hide behind a bush, while I keep an eye on the clearing below.
I wait. A bug crawls on my arm and I brush it off. I keep an eye on the clearing. No movements, nothing. My heart is beating fast. No matter, I remind myself that Smith's a smart kid. Thick sometimes, but he’s smart.
Then I see a dark shadow move into the clearing below. The movement tells me it’s Smith. Damn, I think, I told him not to show himself until he was certain everything was good. I wait to see if there’s anyone else who will move there. The time is now. I feel my stomach rumbling, and I think about the money Smith has with him. We spent the past two months saving up for it and selling almost everything we had just so that we had this chance to get weapons. Bombs. Everything was promised. Smith is right, this will be great if it goes down as expected.
I hear Smith’s voice talking to someone. He sounds stressed. The clearing is fifty feet away, but I can only hear a few random words interspersed with nonsense. And I can hear the tone. One voice sounds rigid, cold. The other is now sounding scared. That’s Smith. I grab my rifle and raise it to my shoulder. That’s the plan. Smith has a pistol on him, but I’m the sharp eye sniper who’ll get a bead on any Feds trying to get the jump on us.
A light flashes from behind a tree and highlights Smith. The light shines in my direction and all I see is a silhouette of Smith. I can’t see anything else. And then it happens. So fast that all I can do is clench. Several shadows rush Smith and tackle him. He’s yelling, but I can’t tell what because four wheelers surround him and in the sky a helicopter shines down on him. Where the hell did that come from? I stay as still as possible. They have night vision, these bastards.
Then as soon as they came, they're off. Gone. The forest is silent again. And I start to shake. I was supposed to help my friend and it turns out that I couldn’t do anything. Imagine that. I start to cry. First my woman, now my friend. This has to stop. I get up and make my way back home. It’s a one-hour walk, and I stumble a few times. Before I know it I’m in my trailer in the middle of nowhere.
It’s not much, but it’s my place, and it’s all mine. Passed down from my mother, may she rest in peace, it’s filled with memories of my childhood. I wait outside a quarter of a football field away from my home. I listen, my rifle at the ready. I sniff the air; it smells of clean pine needles and moist soil. My truck and four-wheeler are standing where I left them and I don’t see no broken windows. It’s always good to be careful. I have a lock on my door, but at the end of the day it’s a goddamn trailer and all it takes is a little force to break into it. I’ve had break-ins and once found someone who had decided to squat in the damn thing. These hills are full of scavenging meth-heads. Scores of them, and they go looking from trailer to trailer, for food or something to sell in Shit town for their next hit.
Sad really, it was never this bad, but they changed the formula for meth a few years ago when the Feds banned one of the substances. And now they seem to be more industrious to gain their next hit. They’ve even been known to work in packs. That and the fact that there was a concerted effort to kick them out of abandoned buildings in all the towns, meant that they slept in the forests. And that was another thing that pissed me off about the Feds.
The wind shifts and I sniff the air again. Still pine needles and the forest. Some branches groan in the distance. The good thing about meths are that they stink to high hell. So you can smell them coming from a mile away. I swear if they knew how to shower they could very well take over the world.
I walk over the pine needles and twigs. I’m still wary about making a noise. There are no cleared paths to my trailer, only a handful of game trails. No road either, have to navigate to get here. That means, besides an occasional meth, I don’t get unwanted company.
I unlock my door and step inside. My only friend whimpers the moment I switch on a light. It’s Jesper: a black mutt, part German Shepard, part something from the alley. Too small to do any damage. But give her a few more months and she’ll be able to keep the meths at bay. And maybe more. I open a small bag of venison jerky and start chewing on it. There isn’t much food, and since Smith had the last of my money, I’m gonna have to think of something else to do. I give Jesper a piece of the jerky. She gobbles it up. A lot like her mom. That bitch died a few weeks ago. Just too damn old. Last thing she did was give me a litter of four. Only Jesper remains. The rest were sold for money.
“Don’t worry,” I say when Jesper gives me a curious look when I think of her brothers and sisters. “I ain’t ever gonna sell you.” I ruffle her behind her ears. After I eat all my jerky, I lie down on my small bed. It's small enough that my feet stick over the edge.
I think about Smith. Still heavy's the gravity around my head and heart, from watching my best-bud getting captured and taken away. I know where they go, the captured, and I feel bad about having let him down. In my greatest moments I always thought I would go out shooting before one of us got captured. And yet now here I am, friendless. Without a fight. No one’s here. No one’s left. I walk to the shelf near the kitchen. Moonshine. From my grandpa.
At the bottom are a bunch of berries. Sweetens it, or at least that’s what grandpa says. I take a sip. Have yet to taste the berries; rather it tastes like filtered gasoline. I cough as the liquid goes down my throat and in its wake leaves a fire that eats away at my worries. It will be another quiet night.
I wonder how long it will be before they make Smith squeal. It’s only a matter of time. From what I’ve heard it takes at least a week before they’re allowed to start tightening the screws. But no one really knows for sure. Not like they come back, now is it?
I take another swig, this time more than normal. I almost gag with the excess alcohol in my mouth. It’s hard to taste this. My body convulses. I manage to swallow. I fall back on my bed, my head spinning, a light feeling now taking over everything else.
“Tomorrow,” I say, and Jesper looks at me like she’s worried about me. “Tomorrow we’ll figure something out.”
I take one more swig and feel myself already far gone. Grandpa calls it the magic carpet of life. Drink this and you can fly anywhere. Probably the reason he’s so far-gone. Whole side of the family is far-gone. What side? Both sides. I close my eyes. Better try to fly somewhere happy. I see only blurry shapes and I’m gone.
The next morning I wake up, my head splitting—another side-affect of grandpa’s magic nectar—and Jesper's licking my face. She’s hungry. I walk outside. The sun is halfway up the sky and it’s a warm day. A few insects hover near my face and I wave them off. Today, I think, today I start something else. But what?
I look at Jesper. “What do I do now, eh?”
Jesper whimpers. I walk back inside and see nothing in the cabinets. No food, nothing. I take one more look before walking back outside. Jesper looks at me and wags her tail.
“Sorry, nothing to eat.”
Maybe I can go to the local store in Freetown and haggle for some food. I shake my head. No way. No begging, never. Ma taught me that. I look around and see some old pottery that ma made. I look it over. There’s a pottery store that likes to sell pottery for the city tourists who come around here. Maybe these will be worth something. I look over the bowls and mugs. I should keep some, shouldn’t I? I touch the glaze. I remember momma with her spinning wheel trying to teach me how to make a vase. I never paid attention, told her it was for faggots. Now I wish I learned. Not because I could use the cash it brings in, but so I would have more memories of her. I decide to keep at least a couple bowls and mugs for myself.After I lock the door to the trailer, rifle in hand, I hear Jesper whimper and scratch on the door. She wants out.