I picked her pretty easy out of Friday afternoon at the Kennewick bus station, even though the only description Shep’d given me was “butch” and “old.” To watch her lever herself to her feet, shoulder her rucksack and dry-cleaning bag, and amble through that mess of smoking, hugging worker drones up to the window of Shep’s truck, you’d have to say it was kind of like calling a piece of volcanic rock “butch” and “old.”
“Be careful,” I said, though I was almost too embarrassed to say it, “they say there’s a rabid fox on the loose.”
She opened the door without saying the other half, slammed it hard enough behind her to knock one more anonymous piece off of that dumb truck.
“Shepley and his bullshit passwords,” she said, wadded her stuff into the back of the cab, then sat and stared straight ahead. I had my music on and, after about a minute of me not taking us anywhere, she reached, yanked my phone adapter out of the stereo plug in the dash, and dropped it with its cable like a handful of wadded garbage behind her. “Can we go now, please?”
I made sure she saw me roll my eyes as I pulled us chugging out onto the road.
She rolled her window down when we hit the edge of town, unzipped the dry-cleaning bag, pulled the dress shirt from the hanger inside, and, without much ceremony, threw the shirt and the bag both out the window.
“You must really like to throw stuff out.” I said.
Her response was to look at me, finally, hanger in hand. A little wall-eyed behind her sunglasses, she looked me up and down with her good eye as I drove, at my legs, bare below my girly jean shorts — because it was August. She was short and dense to go along with being old, short grey hair buzzed with a bare scar along one side of her skull, and wearing the same black-Carhartts-and-boots combo that all of them wore, all the black-bloc boys. Shep and them probably admired her, I thought, recalled the showily casual way he’d talked about her, her and people like her. People like her were probably one of the reasons boys like Shep even cared at all about stuff like black Carhartts.
Grimly, “You must be Shepley’s.” she said at last. “Least I hope you aren’t his sick idea of a present for me.”
She worked on the hanger as we drove, unwound it into a dark, straight line, doubled it up, pulled two pieces of an old drumstick broken in half from her pocket and fit the pieces into the loops she’d made at either ends of the doubled wire, forming handles. She fished a roll of duct tape from her bag and began to wrap the sticks and wire in tape.
At intervals, she stopped wrapping to test it, yanking the wire hard and taught to hum in the afternoon sunshine. I tried not to but still winced each time she did.
“Guess you don’t like guns, much.” I said.
Nothing. More taping, more testing.
“Yeah, that’s pretty old-school.” I said. “None of the oldsters in our crew like guns either. Always giving Shep and Flint and them a hard time about the shooting range they built. I got something in the dash right now, actually, if you want to know the truth. I didn’t always think like that but then, after what happened at this ski resort we did? They say those security guards don’t carry in the summer, but man–”
I stopped when she sighed, hands idle, pointedly looked sideways out the window. She stared awhile.
As we got closer to the depot, we could start to see the mounds where they’d tried to bury it all, stuff like GB, nerve- and blister-agents, nightmare stuff leftover from the last war, tombs risen uniform out of the brown and arid plain, like those Indian burial mounds or something else equally holy to somebody. I watched her watch them pass, look at me like she was going to talk, not, then back outside again. Another sigh.
“Sorry.” she said. “I’m not real great with people, sometimes.”
I nodded. “It’s cool,” I said, and tried to just drive, fingers tapping the hot steering wheel. I could still see it in my peripheral vision, flaccid in her lap. “How …” I started, cleared my throat, then, more quietly, “How do you do it?”
She eyed me over her sunglasses, sized me up one more time, her other eye far off somewhere and wild in the desert, then raised the thing up between her hands to show me. Her wild eye was on the same side of her head as the scar.
“It’s pretty straightforward, really,” she said, cleared her throat like she was about to explain how to change a tire. “The secret really is you gotta pull down too, not just back.” She looked at me to make sure I was watching, her concern a sort of kindness. It was a weary kindness.
“You want em off their feet is the main the thing,” she said, “get their butt on the ground and your knee in their back as fast as possible. Otherwise, they can still reach around to get you. After that, it’s just hold on tight, don’t lose your grip, and try not to puke. And you can expect em to shit their pants.
“Count three, full minutes,” she said, counting on her fingers. “Even after they stop moving.”
I looked from her to the road as she talked, nodded, imagined telling Shep about it later and how he’d be jealous, tried to keep my face from showing too much.
“Shepley and them can do what they want,” she said, “but I don’t like guns. They’re loud and the people who use em don’t have to feel a goddamn thing when they do. Maybe they don’t want to.”
And that was actually almost all we talked the whole drive. Still, it all seemed like her version of being nice. And I didn’t want to say anything to scare the niceness off.
Several times we drove alongside pastureland but only once saw any stock, a handful of cows, skinny and bunched up along a puny, summer creek, chewing in the early evening. She shook her head to see them and laughed once, bitter.
“Lord,” she said, quietly.
I looked but still said nothing.
“Do you know what the last beautiful thing I saw was?” she said, emotion just rising in her voice. “And I mean that truly, the last beautiful, unspoiled thing that those monsters have not yet ruined? Years ago, we’re in this hunter’s cabin outside of Hood River, right? Fall of 2000, during the last solar max — you know what that is? It’s when the sun burns hotter and tosses off more solar wind than at any other time in its cycle. You’d go out on those three, four nights, look up, and suddenly there’s the goddamned northern lights right there above you, bigger and brighter than they ever are in Oregon, few times you can see em here at all. Just these curtains, you know, miles high, purple and green, bigger than God,” she said, “or any other kind of crime they’ve pulled and then dreamed up a name for. And then you look down below, to the other lights, the sad, dirty, little town lights of all the sad little people huddled down there in that sad little place, oblivious or terrified or both …”
She shook her head, lips a white line. I could see in the tipping light that she was even older than I’d thought at first. The oldsters were all like that, on their way out. Soon it would just be us, people like Shep and Flint and them, and me, left behind to fight whatever kind of fight remained, whatever fight we could find.
“This world,” she said, still shaking her head as I pulled us off onto the access road that Shep had marked on the map. She reached down into the well to pick her garrote up off the floor. “People are just a wound, you know, and it breaks my goddamned heart, but I haven’t met one of them yet that was ready to heal, not before they were ready to die.”