SHALLOW MOON Chapter 1 A shallow moon hung so low in the black as to be almost touchable. Alone in its splendor, isolated by its own exception, distinct and majestic, it shone peerlessly in the night sky. Joe Saphreaux gazed upward and remembered his wife, gone the better part of a decade now, and could almost hear her teasingly sarcastic voice saying, “Well you just hung the moon now, didn’t you,” when he did something to displease her. He listened to the silence the land on which he sat hadn’t known in over a century. No planes breaking the quiet from above, no big rigs from nearby highways rumbling in the distance, no lonesome whistles from far away freight trains bellowing their arrival as they approach deserted street crossings, none of the echo of industrialization he hadn’t realized he’d been hearing his entire life until it wasn’t there. There were no sounds of people or their presence at all save the gentle snore of his thirteen year old girl and the worrisome wheeze of his eleven year old boy as they slept beside him, huddled together for warmth and comfort beneath a hideously gaudy blanket given to him as a white elephant gift at an office party in another life. He’d sit for another hour trying not to remember before waking the boy for his watch and closing his own weary eyes. Remember he did, however. He remembered frozen meals made ready by the simple acts of puncturing transparent cellophane and pushing a button. He remembered the school bus picking up his kids in the rain, then reassuring his wife after reading the anxiety etched into the set of her eyes. He remembered all manner of things lost, then willed his jaw to relax and his teeth to stop grinding, staving off the headache beginning at his temples and reaching like tentacles into the spaces behind his ears. He sat. He listened. He forced himself to maintain the vigilance required to survive. His daughter turned, restless and wound as always, even in sleep. Something akin to a gasp escaped her lips as she did so. Joe wondered as to its source, then if he wanted to know it. In turning she left herself uncovered, arms bare to the chilled autumn air. Her brother woke, groggily looked at her exposed arm and clumsily covered her sleeping form. Kid brother, idolizer, protector and eleven year old. Life and the roles played in its span were in some ways little different than they’d been when Joe was a boy. That way of thinking was an illusion, however; a false promise of normalcy that was no more. Life and its roles were nothing like what he’d known. To think otherwise, even in passing, risked all that was left. In the faltering light of reddening blue embers from the night’s fire the boy looked to his father who in turn shook his head indicating it wasn’t yet time. Young Jake closed his eyes and quickly fell back into an easy all encompassing sleep of the sort available only to the innocent and those so daft or heartless as to live as if they were. Joe opened his eyes to muted sunshine, its rays diffused by a lifting fog quickly burning away to nothingness. The kids were still sleeping, Jen’s hair a tangle of straw colored chaos, fury and mischievous delight; Jake sprawled like a pile of dirty clothes, content in his condition. Joe didn’t bother chastising himself for faltering, for failing in his responsibilities, for falling asleep on his watch. It wasn’t the first time. He was exhausted. They all were. He lacked the energy to take himself to task for the lapse. Nothing happened. He was grateful. He would try to do better.  Chapter 2 Jen sat bolt upright, quickly and alertly surveying her surroundings, then smiled a gap toothed grin at Joe. “It’s sunny,” she said matter of factly. She leapt to her feet and ran behind the nearest bush before he had time to react. Jen was lithe and supple in her movements without effort or awareness. Strength, too, was evident in her motions, sinewy muscles bestowing her with an agile grace. Her power was of a sort more akin to that of a cheetah than that of a lion. She sprang rather than mauled, but the results were usually the same for those who crossed her. Her eyes, a rich blue when she was born, had taken on a catlike quality as she aged. They shifted from blue to gray to green depending on the light. On occasion Joe could almost swear their tint changed with her mood or the squint with which she chose to convey it. Regardless of their color they were flecked, almost striped, with what resembled sparkling silver and gold. They were equally capable of mesmerizing and intimidation. Jen was quickly discovering their power and mastering the art of wielding it. Like the girl whose head it capped, Jen’s hair was unruly. It suited her personality; beautiful, but not in a classical sense. There was a cowlick at her hairline just above her exceptionally high forehead making bangs or styling requiring anything other than being pulled tightly back difficult, if not impossible. It was dirty blond, the dirt winning out more and more as she matured. The blond was more hinted at than present in any tangible sense. For someone seeing her for the first time the likely inclination was to label her a brunette, yet blond was there too, sensed more than seen. It was there when glimpsed from the corner of the eye or when she entered a room, then faded as focus on her gave a clearer picture, however, like a desert’s watery mirage or a Fairy fluttering into the shadows to avoid detection. In summer, when sun-kissed by long exposure, the blond streaks returned to brush the freckles on her slender nose and prominent cheekbones that seemed to pop out to greet them. Jen’s fair complexion, hypnotic and almost translucent at times in its clarity, reflected her mother’s Irish and Dutch lineages. The particular beauty reserved for those with her build and grace was her’s in abundance as well. Even when walloping her little brother just because she still could, an observer would likely note the graceful beauty with which she did so. A friend had once told Joe to get ready, that Jen was destined to be trouble. Trouble the kind of which teenage boys would find absolutely irresistible. Thee dyings had made that a non issue up to now, but his friend had been right in every respect excepting the presence of teenage boys. Jen was short, and not just a little, but exceptionally so. Standing at least two inches under the five foot marker she so desperately wished to reach, the likelihood of that wish’s fulfillment was rapidly diminishing. She compensated for what she lacked in stature with a stubborn resilience. Jen ceded ground only on her terms and at times of her own choosing. The personal cost to be paid for her entrenchment was simply not a factor once she’d set her boundaries. Despite her stature, short wasn’t the adjective that first came to mind when meeting Jen. She was as well proportioned as she was small. More likely than not the first descriptors to come to a stranger’s mind were some odd combination of beautiful, scruffy and petite. Occasionally strangers would include vulnerable in their impressions, usually to their detriment. An exceptionally observant stranger may even add dangerous to his perceptions of her. At least, as had so often been the case with girls her age before, the label rival had, as yet, not been draped like a sash over her shoulder. The dyings had spared Jen from the consequences of its petty cruelty; a silver lining to an otherwise very dark cloud, Joe sometimes thought, when he watched his daughter Being who she was, who someone of her size and disposition had to be if they wished to accomplish or acquire things independently, Jen became adept at employing whatever advantages there were to be gleaned from the diminutive first impression she inevitably gave. She knew she appeared significantly younger than she was. She was also fully aware that she, as people regularly told her before things changed, was as cute as a button. That description, despite the fact that she recognized it as an intended compliment, always left her feeling worse; smaller somehow. Perhaps it was that feeling that allowed her to justify using those attributes to avoid consequences for actions others, who looked more their age, or who weren’t lucky enough to have her ingratiatingly innocent good looks, would undoubtedly pay for. In both thoughts and actions Jen was impulsive and impetuous to the point that she had to be on guard against her own tendency for irrational action. Luckily for Joe and Jake, not to mention herself, she was growing into a young woman who both recognized that necessity and possessed the exceptional underlying intelligence to pull it off. Her undersized frame developed within her an uncommon ability to stand her ground. It was her newly found recognition of the value of self control and her determination to cultivate its development within herself, however, that was making her a natural leader. Joe caught himself wondering as to how she’d managed to skip what people with less beautiful or coordinated children referred to as some variation of “that awkward phase.” He paused to recognize the conceit that thought revealed within himself. He then allowed himself to think it, nonetheless.   Chapter 3 With the commotion caused by Jen’s lively exit Jake stirred, eyes still shut to the inevitability of the day. He asked in a voice drunk with sleep and more than a little touched by irritation, “What d’you want?” He was asking the still morning air, of course. Jen was gone to meet whatever fate had to offer before he’d arched an eyebrow. Getting no response his face slackened, eyelids again at ease, no force pushing back the light. Joe envied the apparent ease with which his son fought off the sunrise for a few more minutes of sleep. He sometimes felt depleted of the strength to accomplish even so much as that. He rose nonetheless, trusting his spirits to follow. Recalling the whirlwind masquerading as his oldest child, they did. Nudging Jake with the worn end of a walking stick he’d picked up somewhere between what was then and now Joe said, “Come on kiddo. Gettin’ there in your dreams don’t count.” Jake responded by scratching his head, though clearly not yet awake. His light brown hair had rich undertones the color of faded rust. It was sun-bleached, resembling something like Galveston Island’s sand or long cut hay on top. He insisted that it be kept short, out of his eyes and ears always, despite his sister’s pleas that he let it grow. Cropped short or not, however, it managed to look disheveled. “When you wash that mop you look like you just got highlights,” Jen would tease truthfully and tauntingly at once, and maybe even a little enviously. “Please let it grow,” she’d say. “You’re the only boy I’ve got to look at except daddy, and he’s older than dirt. You’re hair is firecracker hot, Jake. The rest of you’s just my stinky kid brother. Stinky was, in so far as it went, an apt description of Jake. Very few would assent to limiting a description of him to just that, however. Methodical and capable of complex and naturally organized constructs of thought, his mind was equally agile and quick when the situation called for it. While the exceptional nature of his mind was what most separated him from others, it was his physical stature, even as a child, that drew him immediate attention and made him stand out in a crowd. He was lean like his sister, his muscles long and elastic, like those of a runner rather than those of a lumberjack. Unlike Jen, though, he was as tall as he was lean. He was already within a hair of surpassing her. Whether he had or not already was one of the few points of real contention between them. It wasn’t an exaggeration to call Jake’s prominent square jaw statuesque. His nose was narrow and straight, classically nordic in its origins. His eyes were so deeply set as to give their piercingly crystalline blue the illusion of genuine radiance; of emitting light from within, rather than simple reflectors of the light available to them. He was a good looking kid, and knew it. He knew it not from a place of conceit, however, but from the fact that he’d been told so by practically every mother and teenage older sister of his friends and classmates before the world of friends and classmates ended. Women would stop his parents in groceries stores, malls or any other public spaces just to coo over him and shower him with complements. He’d never had a teacher for whom he wasn’t among the favorites. More remarkably, his classmates never seemed to resent his favored status. He was valued among his peers for his loyalty and genuinely good nature as much as for his physical good looks. Those that knew him well would to a person point to his kind heart if asked what one quality best described Jake. His dad and sister were the only ones that knew him well now, of course, but his friends, family, teachers and others, all gone now, would have said so too if given the opportunity. Even as a kindergartner he would break up arguments and tussles among classmates. “But not only that,” Joe remembered Jake’s experienced grandmotherly teacher saying, “All three; Jake and the two fighting, always ended up friends laughing together. If Jake’s getting involved I’ve learned to give him a crack at it and he’s yet to fail me. I’ve never had another student in my thirty years in the classroom I can say that about. Maybe I’m getting too old for this,”she laughed, “But you’ve got yourself something special in that boy. Very special indeed.” Growing more serious, the old teacher continued, “Just remember there’s a high price to pay for special gifts. You’ll do right to raise him knowing that and preparing him to pay when his debt is called in.” Joe had know idea how to respond to that. He just thanked her and left, a feeling of unease twisting his insides and holding Jake’s hand a little more tightly as they walked away.   Chapter 4 Joe nudged Jake again, this time with the toe of his hiking boot. Jake mumbled something unintelligible, but with a tone that oozed his own unique fusion of lethargy and vexation. Joe was fairly certain his inability to decipher Jake’s grumbled repine was for the best. He watched his son unconsciously resettle himself, finding the hint of a smile on his lips for the first time in what seemed like days at the thought of damnation via the ire of an eleven year old roused too soon. Joe tossed the gnarled hickory stick he was holding aside, freeing his cracked and callused hands. In doing so he took in its form. Smooth on both ends from weeks of use supporting him as he walked, it was knotted along its length where smaller branches had once grown when the stick had been but a part of something more than itself. While examining his makeshift staff he suddenly realized he had no idea if it was hickory or not. Hickory sounded right, and so it had become. Recognizing his ignorance, the grin hinted at earlier turned into a barely audible chuckle as Jen walked back with much less urgency than that with which she’d left. “Mornin’ Sunshine,” Joe said, as Jen looked incredulously at her brother. “Ain’t you gonna get him up?” she asked, trying to look scornful but failing. “Why’s he get to sleep late, and didn’t he have last watch anyway?” “Couldn’t sleep,” Joe effortlessly lied.“ Didn’t see any reason to wake him and have us both sit up watchin’ nothin’ but the dark.” “Uh huh,” she said with a sarcasm unique to teenage girls and the occasional sated feline. She left it there, however, confident her message was received. Looking up, the lightheartedness that had begun to raise its head above water vanished as Joe saw four figures come into view as they crested a slight rise in an overgrown pasture some distance to the south. Their approach was unremarkable, neither hurried nor notably cautious. They appeared to be talking, though at this distance Joe couldn’t be sure of anything other than the fact that they were coming his way. They seemed to be wearing overcoats. He thought he could make out hats as well, or maybe hoods. His imagination was quickly turning the strangers into old-west outlaws from a bad western movie dressed in blood stained black dusters, murder and lust their only evident ambitions, accuracy with pistols and an insatiable thirst for blood their most distinguishing qualities. He could practically hear the ominous jingle of their spurs. He took several deep breaths and reminded himself that the “dusters” could just as easily be full length dresses. He simply couldn’t distinguish between the two at this distance. “Binoculars,” Joe mumbled to himself, adding them to the ever-growing list of items he hadn’t realized they needed. His skin prickled with goosebumps. His stomach growled as his bowels reacted to the tension overtaking him. Joe’s countenance changed in an instant, senses alert and straining to glean even the slightest bit of information, an edge, an understanding of the developing situation. Jen detected the change in her father. She followed his gaze to the strangers’ approach. Feigned anger forgotten, Jen gently woke her brother. Jake opened his eyes to see his sister with her finger held firmly against her tightly puckered lips cautioning silence. He too was alert now and looked questioningly into Jen’s crystalline hazel eyes. As her father had done for her she wordlessly guided his gaze to the strangers’ advance. Chapter 5 Together they waited, each finding fortitude in the stoicism displayed by the rest, each determined not to be the link in their little chain that broke. Despite the struggles within themselves to maintain the appearance of calm, or perhaps because of them, a sense of foreboding, an ominous dread, an almost overwhelming feeling of impending doom seemed to compel a collective state of inaction. Joe found himself in possession of a new appreciation for the phrase ‘a deer in the headlights’ that had eluded his previous understanding. He tried even harder, though with dwindling confidence in ultimate success, to calm his fraying nerves and to set some sort of example for Jen and Jake. An example of what, exactly, he wouldn’t have been able to say. They could run, but those approaching were likely to be faster. They could hide, but evidence of their presence was clear, strewn haphazardly about them and unable to be masked before the distance would be closed. Even if the debris belying their existence could be hidden the smoke rising from the remains of their fire hung above them in the still morning air as clearly as a battle flag marking their position. They each watched, unmoving, transfixed as their options narrowed with each footfall of the newcomers. They could ready themselves for a fight. Between them they possessed a snub-nosed thirty-eight special revolver with a dozen rounds plus the five in the cylinder. Joe carried it in a holster clipped to his belt, easily accessible by his right hand. It was small enough that it was usually concealed by just a T-shirt. Jen carried a bolt action twenty-two rifle with a well worn sling over her shoulder. There was a full box of a hundred short rimfire rounds plus thirty-two more in another ammo box. There was also a full box of fifty high velocity long rifle rounds and six long rifle hollow-points held for the most dire of circumstances. Finally, they had an antique but reliable double barrel sixteen gauge shotgun. Joe sawed off its side by side barrels just above the wooden forearm when they began their trek to make the gun easier to wield, reduce its weight and increase its close-in effectiveness. He rigged a homemade sling for it that allowed it to hang across his chest resting at his right side with just enough slack to be fired from the hip, though clumsily, if absolutely necessary. There were seventeen shells loaded with squirrel shot and five more loaded with double ought buckshot. Joe also carried a knockoff brand Swiss army knife, the scissor tool broken long ago and several of its other implements frozen in place by rust and lack of use. The longest knife blade, the saw and the can opener were still fully functional, however. Despite the burden he carried its weight gave him comfort. On his left hip, clipped to his belt opposite the thirty-eight special on the right, was a perfectly balanced and well honed hatchet. Joe’s great great grandfather carried it out of the trenches and across no man’s land in World War I where it’s original handle was shattered by a bullet otherwise destined to, as family lore held, cut short the family lineage at Belleau Woods. His great grandfather carried it into the Ardennes Forrest in December of 1944 just days before he and the rest of the US forces there were caught flatfooted and unprepared by Germany’s last offensive of WWII. His grandfather wore the hatchet on his hip as a US Marine for the entire seventy-seven days under siege at Khe Sanh seven miles from the Laotian border with what was then South Vietnam. Joe’s father was wearing the hatchet in the Mountains of Afghanistan when an IED took his left leg. Somehow the hatchet made it back with him, however, and thus to Joe. When Joe turned eighteen and told his dad he was thinking about enlisting he was reminded that all of the hatchet carriers before his dad had been drafted. “I was the only one to go looking for a fight, and it’s left me leaning left ever since,” his dad quipped. “You’re man enough to make this decision for yourself according to Uncle Sam,” his dad continued more seriously. “But consider the fact that you could very well end up walking the same ground in the same war that cost me my leg.” After a long pause he said, “Before I enlisted my daddy told me what I told you about it being my decision. He also had another piece of advice I often wish I’d heeded.” “He told me that it was every man’s duty to defend his Country if called, but war was nothing to seek out. He said if I went, no matter how diligent my search for glory, I wouldn’t find it. I wish I’d recognized the wisdom in his words. Maybe you will,” Joe’s dad concluded. No more was said about it. Joe opted for State U over boot camp, and carried the guilt he knew would accompany that decision. The hatchet did not pass to him as a young soldier as it had to his forbearers. It was willed to him with no elaboration when his father died of lung cancer a year before the dyings had begun in earnest. He wore it now with an amalgamation of guilt, reverence and utility. He was certain he felt its weight more than any of his predecessors. Jen carried a boy scout knife Joe had been given as a reward for achieving the rank of Webelo as a cub scout back when things like that happened. She accepted it with a solemnity uncommon to her disposition when he’d given it to her, inherently recognizing the unspoken responsibility that came with the gift. The scissors still worked on it. Jake carried a scabbarded buck knife with an imitation bone handle. It was bought for Joe by his grandfather when he’d been Jake’s age in the gift shop of a cruise ship returning from Alaska over the protestations of his grandmother. She’d argued that Joe was too young for a knife, dull as a letter opener or not. A wolf’s head was stamped into the ivory plastic hilt with much more efficiency than even the most skilled inuit elder could’ve managed. Joe also carried a whetstone passed down from fathers to sons through more generations than anyone could remember. He kept it wrapped in oilcloth and tucked into the middle of his bedroll so as to protect it from breaking as best he could. With it he honed the blades whenever time allowed. The rhythmic gnashing produced as he worked the knives across its worn surface had come to be something of a lullaby, its gentle grinding the last sounds his children heard before falling asleep more often than not. Joe had grown up with guns and knives, hunting and fishing with family and friends since before he could remember. His children were familiar with firearms and blades as well. They were tools to be respected and handled with caution, but tools nonetheless. None of them, Joe included, had ever fired in anger or at another person nor held a blade with malicious intent. Arming his children to face whatever was coming wasn’t an option with any realistic possibility of a positive outcome he quickly concluded. He calmly summoned his kids to him. Draping an arm around each, Joe told them that everything would be okay as he watched fate close the distance separating them from whatever was to come.   Chapter 6 The strangers’ approach halted almost immediately after Joe began reassuring his children. The smallest of the others, slightly in front and to the right of the rest of the group, pointed vehemently in their direction. She turned urgently to the rest of her party while doing so. They appeared to freeze mid-stride for a long indecisive moment. They then dropped to the ground; first one, then the others, each as their situation and the idea of the need to become less visible, less of a target, took hold. In doing so it was more than obvious that their reaction was unrehearsed and seemingly unanticipated. In dropping to reduce their visibility and with at least one of their aims presumably to draw less attention to themselves, they nevertheless did so with enough clatter of carried accoutrements as to be easily heard from across the divide. The noise of their concealment was almost sure to draw the attention of anyone who had somehow missed their unguarded arrival. Before Joe could process what he was seeing and consider a course of action he heard the barking of a dog. Soon afterwards he saw what appeared to be a mixed breed cross between what may have been a small black poodle and something like a mangy unkempt Schnauzer bounding toward them at full speed. He’d never seen an uglier more scruffy looking dog in his life. Under different circumstances he would’ve laughed out loud at the sight of it. Joe would’ve guessed fifteen or twenty pounds if forced too guess the dog’s weight based on what looked for all the world like a four legged ball of black and gray steel wool scouring its way towards them. Judging by the bark alone, however, he would’ve opted for something closer to fifty pounds. The stranger who’d pointed them out earlier screamed, “Jelly Bean!” She jumped to her feet and began running after the dog even as she screamed for it to stop. A much deeper voice yelled, “Get your butt on the ground, now!” The girl reluctantly obeyed, dropping to a knee, skinning it, before lying prone. As she did she yelled, “Jelly Bean,” again, more plaintively this time, almost immediately followed by the plea, “Please don’t hurt my dog.” Joe watched with bewilderment as the surreal scenario played out across the field. Still frozen in disbelief and confusion, a shot rang out from amongst the strangers. Even before hearing the crack of gunfire split the still morning air glowing embers exploded outward from their fire; red hot sparks, charred blackened coals and pallid gray ashes rising then falling in an arc behind them. Joe turned to his kids, terror threatening to overtake his faculties. To have struck the fire the bullet had to have passed between Jake and Jen. Jake was as flat as he could be, becoming as much as possible a part of the ground itself. He looked determined, focused, and shockingly unafraid. He didn’t appear to be injured. Joe was surprised, impressed and very much frightened by his son’s reaction. His bearing, his expression, his posture, his being itself wasn’t that of a eleven year old; at least not that of a eleven year old from the world of cartoons, breakfast cereal, bike ramps and baseball cards Joe was familiar with. It was Jen’s reaction, however, that changed everything. The report from her twenty-two tore Joe’s eyes away from Jake. He focused on his daughter just in time to see her working the little rifle’s bolt action, expelling the spent round and feeding a new one into the firing chamber. “Wait,” Joe said through gritted teeth with all the steadfast calm his shaking body and panicking mind could muster. Jen did not fire again. Nor did she remove her finger from the trigger or lower her aim. A scream came from across the pasture. “Daddy!” the girl’s voice cried, no longer focused on the dog. “He’s got a gun, a big one,” Jen told her dad. Her voice was unsteady, but her hands were as still as a surgeons. Her finger rested easily on the trigger just as he’d taught her. Her eye kept the man at the other end of the pasture aligned with the beaded sight at the end of the barrel. A tear escaped the other eye. It left a track as it ran down her dirty cheek and splattered audibly as it fell onto a dry oak leaf. Jen’s tears seemed to be born neither from sadness nor fear, Joe remembered thinking later. Frustration maybe? Something else? The thought brought its own sense of trepidation. This wasn’t the time, however. He made a mental note to revisit the question when and if he had the time and opportunity. The man in Jen’s sights seemed to be having trouble with his left forearm. She thought, but couldn’t be sure given the distance, that that was where she’d shot him. A voice in her head, one calmer and steadier than she felt, told her with an easy reassurance to adjust her aim a tad higher next time. “I’m gonna shoot him again if he points it like before,” she said to Joe, the steadiness having returned to her voice. Joe swallowed, took a deep breath and tried to think; to become the rational man he’d always believed himself to be until this moment and these fears exposed the shallow nature of that rationality. “Wait Sweetheart,” he said to his daughter again, his voice noticeably quavering this time. “The dog,” he thought. Before Joe could formulate the idea, much less a plan, the dog was on them. It straddled his son, forelegs on either side of Jake’s shoulder blades, hind-legs astride his hips as Jake lain perfectly still save a slight tremble Joe saw in his hand. With the boy face down, the dog was atop his back before it even occurred to Jake or Joe to offer a defense. Jake simply waited for whatever was next. “No Jelly Bean,” Joe hissed as firmly as he could without increasing the dog’s hostility. Jelly Bean gave Joe a quizzical glance before grabbing Jake’s collar in his teeth, shaking it twice, then releasing it to vigorously lick Jake’s bare neck with his tail suddenly wagging high in the air. “Daddy,” Jen said, her voice tinged with uncertainty, a lack of assuredness, a questioning of itself out of character with what could only be described as her usual overconfidence. Her tone was turned on its end, desperate for direction and confirmation. “He still has his gun. I shot him, Daddy. I think he might shoot again.” “Put down your damned gun,” Joe yelled across the pasture. “There’s kids over here.” “That wasn’t no kid that shot me,” the man yelled back, feeling the need to say something and yet coming up short when he reached inside himself for the right words. “My name is Jen. I’m thirteen years old and I’ll shoot you again if you don’t put down your gun right now.” Jen replied. Her voice held conviction. No one hearing her statement was likely to doubt its truth. Joe was speechless. He looked at his daughter, mouth agape, and was frozen with debilitating uncertainty. How was he suppose to handle the disaster unfolding before him? What exactly was it he was seeing and hearing? Still without answers or even coherence, his system was further stressed when he saw Jake sit up, laughing no less, and holding the tail wagging dog back from his face by its ears as its long pink tongue reached out desperately to lick the face of his new found friend. Joe violently shook his head, forcing himself out of his stunned paralysis.   Chapter 7 “For “God’s sake, nobody shoot,” Joe yelled. “I’m gettin’ up.” As he shouted he got slowly to his knees, then even more deliberately to his feet. He was careful to keep his hands held out, away from his body and in full view while he did so. He felt no bullets, heard no shots, felt no piercing pains as he stood. Across the field he saw a man mirroring his actions. He began to breathe again. “My name’s Joe. I’m here with my kids,” he said with as friendly and unthreatening a tone as he could manage through the fear that clenched his teeth, clipped his syllables and made his voice seem to crack like a pubescent boy’s. “We don’t want this; not lookin’ for trouble.” He looked hard at his counterpart staring back at him. “I’m steppin’ way out on a limb here and bettin’ y’all don’t either.” “No. We don’t; don’t want none neither. Trouble I mean,” the man across the field stammered. “We’re; we’re; Jesus, I didn’t mean to shoot at y’all. We’re good people. All of us. We’re good.” The man’s voice trailed off as his ability to find words, to try to explain, to justify his actions, to stop what was happening eluded him. “Oh, and my name’s Sammy, Sammy Squalls,” he added like a kid remembering his manners, remembering his mother was watching. “Glad to hear it,” Joe said. “I’m gonna ask my girl to lower her gun now, but she’s going to hold onto it for the time being if that’s okay with you. Understand?” “Okay,” Sammy replied, not knowing what else to say. “I’m shot,” he then added, feeling foolish, stupid somehow, for having said it even as the words left his mouth. They, after all, were the ones who shot him. “How bad is it?” Joe asked. “I don’t know,” Sammy answered. “I never been shot before.” The more he spoke the more asinine he felt. “It’s in my arm below my elbow. Where you shot me, I mean. It’s below my elbow,” he explained. “It’s bleeding,” he then said even as he wondered why he would say something so obvious. “It hurts.” “I’m Stacy,” came a voice from one of the people behind the sputtering man. “I’m his wife. I need to look at his arm,” she said. “I’m a nurse. I need to tend to that wound.” Her occupation sent a jolt of hope through Joe like a bolt of lightning. As with lightening, however, the revelation drew forth apprehension as well. Was she saying that to inflate her worth, to distract from the immediate danger she and her band of strangers posed? Was she placing a deliberate chink in their armor? If so it was working. “Who else is with you?” Joe asked. The fact that the voice was that of a woman left him even more confused, forcing him to reassess yet again. These people seemed less and less like outlaws with every word, shooting his campfire not withstanding. “The girl who was yellin’ before is our daughter, Ella. She’s eight,” Stacy answered. Her voice was steadier than that of her husband’s, both calmer and more self assured. It carried with it an air of confidence that was missing in Sammy’s as it found its way across the pasture. “That’s Jelly Bean lickin’ the boy you got with you. But I guess you know that already.” “This is Mr. Brown lying beside me,” she added. “He’s our neighbor from back home.” After a slight hesitation she continued, saying, “He, ‘um, he’s with us now. After the; I mean; well, after everything that happened he was alone.” As Joe tried to think of what to say in response to the woman’s description of Mr. Brown her reference to what had happened dredged up emotions he’d just as soon keep below the surface. “I really need to look at Sammy’s arm. He’s; I just need to tend to his arm. Is that okay?” Stacy ended the request with a question, but the tenor of her voice left little room for anything but assent. The man standing across the field from Joe no longer had his hands in the air Joe noticed when Stacy mentioned him again. Sammy was still standing, but with his left arm cradled in his right. “Yeah, all right,” Joe said. “But please move slowly.” After a few deep breaths and a conscious effort to slow the beating of his heart he asked, “Are you armed?” Stacy hesitated only a second before answering. “Sammy shot your fire with a thirty-thirty. It’s on the ground and nobody’s gonna pick it up.” After a very deep breath of her own she added, “There’s a forty-five on my hip. Do you want me to remove it?” “Do you intend to use it?” After asking the question Joe felt like a cliche himself, like a character from the bad western he’d imagined when the strangers arrived. “No sir,” she answered. Her voice rang true. Joe had nothing but that to go on, but trusting his instincts and wanting it to be so he said, “See to your husband. And please don’t give us reason to shoot again.” See to her husband she did. Stacy rose slowly, cautiously; confident but without threat. Her comportment from across the pasture telling Joe and his kids, “I won’t hurt you, but don’t try me.” She took Sammy’s arm in her hands saying, “Your okay, baby. Let me see.” Sammy seemed to wilt under her touch, her hands appearing to sap what strength he had left, not give it. His shoulders slumped as he turned to his wife. He looked as if he were going to speak, but did not. He shuffled his feet, compelled to find his fortitude, but unsure of where to look. His knees bent rather than buckled as he dropped to one, his left arm still tenderly held by Stacy. He looked away from her as she examined it. She prodded here and there, noting with a practiced eye his reactions. Other than wiggling his fingers when asked, however, he seemed to have none. “I think it’ll be okay,” she said, but without the confidence her voice had exuded when addressing Joe. “The bleeding ain’t bad, considering. I’m going to wrap it, okay?” Sammy nodded. Joe took note of the fact that he wasn’t facing her, wasn’t looking her in the eye. “This will hurt,” Stacy told her husband. Concern furrowed the lines on her forehead. They seemed out of place, showing themselves too soon, incongruent with her otherwise youthful appearance. Joe had the feeling that Stacy’s concern wasn’t for the pain, though he wouldn’t have been able to say why if asked. Sammy simply nodded again, somehow shrinking as he did so.   Chapter 8 “Ella,” Stacy said, calmly but firmly, leaving no room for anything but compliance on her daughter’s part. She spoke as loudly as she could without projecting aggression so as to ensure she was heard by Joe and the others. “Get up nice and slow girl so these fine people can see you ain’t nothin’ but a kid who minds her mama and don’t mean them no harm.” “Mr. Brown is kinda old and don’t get around as easily as he used to,” she told Joe in the same loud but even tone with which she’d addressed her daughter; each syllable enunciated with deliberate clarity, each inflection considered for its possible effects before being spoken aloud. “I’m going to ask him to stand too, but please don’t take any jerkiness by him as anything but age and nerves while he’s gettin’ up. We’re all kinda shook up over here. Same as you, I ‘spect.” “Yes ma’am,” Joe answered. Judging by what he could see of Stacy he guessed he was her senior by at least a few years, but the authority, not demanded but simply present, in her voice and the way she naturally took charge of her situation made the title ma’am feel wholly appropriate. He paused for a long moment, like a kid before a headfirst dive, then took the plunge. “Listen,” he said to Stacy, his own voice sounding less commanding and more like a plea than he’d intended. “I’m armed too. I’m carrying the shotgun you can probably see on a sling and a pistol clipped to my belt. I’m gonna slowly take them off and lay them on the ground. Please don’t mistake what I’m doin’ for anything more.” Joe inhaled, holding the breath deep in his chest, and waited for a response. When none came he let it out slowly, took in another and continued, “Then I’m gonna talk to my kids for a second before I walk over to you so we can talk face to face. Would that be okay?” “It is,” was all he got in reply. Better than a bullet, he decided. He lifted the sling holding the double barrel shotgun above his head then laid it slowly on the ground. He did the same with the thirty-eight special on his hip before turning to Jen and Jake. “You two listen and don’t say nothin’ back,” he said, almost whispering. “I’m gonna go over and talk to these people.” He could see alarm animate both of their faces, but to his surprise they both obeyed, remaining quiet. “Jake,” he said focusing his attention on the boy, “I want you to stay put, but look at my guns. Make sure you know right where they are. Be ready to grab them if need be. Do you understand me?” Jake nodded, but his expression showed anything but understanding. “Try not to worry, Son. It’ll make more sense if the time comes and you need to do it,” Joe said, all but certain his reassurance to be a lie, before turning to Jen. “Jen, You’re in charge while I’m over there,” he said, his eyes conveying the gravity of the burden he was placing on her shoulders. “I expect this to turn out well, but if it don’t I want you to listen close and do what I tell you.” “If things go south, if you hear shots, yellin’, or, well I don’t know,” his voice was chopped and uneven. He tried to organize his thoughts, rearranging them, attempting to complete them, as he searched for a coherent set of instructions to offer his daughter for the plans he couldn’t quite work out in his own head. “I know, Daddy,” Jen said in a manner that managed to convey a comprehension of Joe’s thoughts that he didn’t yet have himself. “I’ll be ready,” she said. And Joe somehow knew she would be. “Yeah, Sweetheart. Y’all be ready,” he told Jen, then gathered himself as he turned toward Stacy, her bleeding husband, the man she called by a name he could not recall and a little girl crying for her injured father and her dog. He was propelled by a courage he had to find anew with each step forward as he closed the distance, his children further away from him with each stride taken.   Chapter 9 Joe felt as if his walk across the pasture to the others took just short of forever, even as he arrived before he was ready. He didn’t know what to say to these people. They weren’t of him. They weren’t his. He didn’t know them. They fired a rifle at his kids. The shot passed right between them. His daughter just shot one of them, for Pete’s sake. He wished they weren’t here. At a distance of no more than ten paces he stopped, arms consciously held out at least a foot from his body. He couldn’t help but feel foolish, like a man poorly imitating a scarecrow. After trying to swallow but finding his mouth too dry to do so he said, “I’m Joe.” He looked at the strangers, determined to mask his apprehension. His eyes quickly scanned their ranks then settled on the woman. He waited. “That much I know,” Stacy said. Her wavy blond hair was greasy and matting. It appeared to be beginning to gray, but Joe couldn’t tell for sure. It carried the weight of a considerable amount of dirt and grime since it was last washed. Its tangles seemed to be alive, shifting, changing as she moved. Joe felt foolish letting something as superficial as the tangles in a woman’s hair disquiet him more than he already was. He tried not to notice them. The harder he tried the more the tangles, seemingly with a life of their own, increased his uneasiness, though. At least until the name Medusa popped unbidden into his head. That was just ridiculous enough to jolt him back to his own crazy world and away from the brink of whatever precipice he was approaching. Blinking, he thought Miss Stacy might even be pretty beneath her grime. “Mrs. Stacy,” he reminded himself even as Miss crossed his mind. “How many times had men, how many times had he, made stupid decisions because they noticed a woman was pretty?” Joe tried to stay focused, to keep himself and his kids alive at least a little longer. Joe then noticed her eyes. They were a deep ocean blue flecked with what could only be described as a colorless gray. They held no light. They seemed to absorb it the like the black holes he’d read about before; powerful and unknowable things that sucked everything around them into themselves and out of existence. Stacy’s gaze took in everything and gave nothing back to the world. Joe looked for kindness in them. He wished to find it, but did not. He found no malice there either, however, just a coldness and empty void so pure it was almost worthy of admiration. Stacy repeatedly brushed the hair covering her eye aside, trying to tuck it behind her ear, but it was to thin and shorn to close not so very log ago to stay. She made no attempt to hide the fact that it was an annoyance to her. “Those your kids you got with you?” she asked, holding the hair in place as if she had a headache. Joe nodded. “My girl Jen and my boy Jake. Good kids.” “Good shots anyway,” was Stacy’s reply. “Jen wasn’t it?” she added, unable, or maybe not wishing to mask her sarcasm. “Anybody else with y’all?” “Just my oldest boy. He went to see if he could bag a deer or a hog.” Nodding toward the morning sun still fairly low in the eastern sky Joe added, “He crested that hill as y’all was walkin’ up. Surprised you didn’t see him” Squinting into the sun, then turning back to Joe, Stacy said, “You ain’t much of a liar Joe.” Her reply wasn’t accusatory, but stated matter of factly. “That’s a good quality in a man, but there ain’t nobody over that hill, at least nobody that’s with you.” “No,” Joe conceded, looking down at the worn tips of his boots. “I ain’t much of a liar.” Looking back up at Stacy he added, “It tends to get me in trouble every time I try it. You’d think I’d of given it up by now.” Stacy’s face appeared to soften a little. The edge was still there, but her spring seemed a little less tightly wound. For the first time since stepping away from his kids Joe was beginning to feel like things might be okay. “Well,” Stacy said, appearing to come to some sort of inner conclusion, “we can shoot it out here and be done with it or we can chalk this up as a misunderstanding handled like fools so far all around.” “I vote for the chalk,” Joe deadpanned, “Seein’ as my guns are over there.” “Chalk it is then,” Stacy replied, her poker-faced delivery matching his. “Now that we’ve established we’d rather not kill each other how do we get that girl of yours to play along?” Joe’s initial reaction was to point out that it was her husband who had fired first. Deciding that this wasn’t the time, however, he answered simply, “I’ll handle my end if you handle yours.” His eyes shifted to Sammy as he finished, then back to her. Stacy simply nodded, but her acquiescence cut the tension in the air. “I’m gonna go back over first and let my kids know what’s going on,” Joe said. He couldn’t disguise the uncertainty in his voice. “After that I’ll wave y’all over to join us. That sound okay?” “What is goin’ on?” Stacy asked. There was a jumble of appreciation, fear, caution and hope scrambled into her question. “Well, I guess we’ve established that shooting each other isn’t the way we want to go,” Joe said. “That’s a start.” After hesitating only a moment he added, “We’ve got some cereal in one of them plastic containers if y’all care to join us for breakfast. “Cereal like from before?” Ella asked. She knew she was supposed to keep her mouth shut at times like these. The question just kind of jumped out of her before she realized she’d asked it. “Yes,” Joe answered the girl. “A little stale, but still good. It’s real cereal from before. You’ll have to eat it dry, though. We’re all outta milk.” Dry’ll be okay,” Ella said, timidity suddenly overtaking her and making her voice almost inaudible. Joe smiled at her and then turned to her mom. “I guess breakfast,” he said to Stacy. “What’s goin‘ on, I mean. Breakfast,” he went on trying to clarify, but not feeling like he was doing a very good job of it. How ‘bout we eat a bite while we talk about what comes next?” “Thank you, that’ll be fine,” Stacy replied. “Dry cereal will be most welcomed. Not lucky charms, I suppose.” “Honey-nut Cheerios,” Joe answered, head turning ever so slightly while speaking. “Go on over and let your kids know we’ll be joining y’all then,” Stacy said. Her voice had grown almost friendly, Joe noted. In doing so he also took note of the fact that Sammy hadn’t had anything to say at all once Stacy started talking. His eyes were for the most part downcast and reluctant to connect as the situation played itself out. At any rate, he seemed content, or maybe resigned to the fact that his wife was going to tend to the crisis until things settled down. Sammy simply stepped aside, ceding the leadership role he at first seemed to hold. Except simply didn’t quite capture the nature of Sammy’s apparent reduction in rank among the strangers; if, in fact, that was what Joe was witnessing. He was suddenly uneasy with the dynamics of the strangers relationships among themselves. He found himself mistrusting everything he’d been told by them. Joe nodded to Stacy. He then tipped his hat, feeling foolish for doing so even as his hand touched the brim. He turned slowly back toward his kids, second guessing himself all the while his steps carried him back across the pasture. Copyright: Nobody can use, redistribute, reiterate, reproduce, copy, or in any other way incorporate what I have written without my express written permission or I might get really mad. I may even sue you. I live smack-dab in the middle of a town filled with starving lawyers. And not just that — I have a lot of time on my hands and could really use some of your money. This is a work in progress. It's unedited and unplanned, with no outline or idea as to where it is going. Watch for updates to follow along as I add to it if you're interested, intrigued or simply amused. I'm new at this and welcome comments and suggestions; the good, the bad and the ugly. Criticisms, grammatical corrections, plot suggestions, character revisions, praise and marriage proposals will all be given proper consideration.
SHALLOW MOON


Chapter 1

A shallow moon hung so low in the black as to be almost touchable. Alone in its splendor, isolated by its own exception, distinct and majestic, it shone peerlessly in the night sky. Joe Saphreaux gazed upward and remember... adventure stories
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stevenhines
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Autoplay OFF   •   a year ago
A father, struggling to protect his thirteen year old daughter and ten year old son, leads his family home through a collapsing and lawless civilization. Death has taken its toll. Those that remain grapple to put the pieces back together or take what’s left for themselves.

SHALLOW MOON Chapter 1 A shallow moon hung so low in the black as to be almost touchable. Alone in its splendor, isolated by its own exception, distinct and majestic, it shone peerlessly in the night sky. Joe Saphreaux gazed upward and remembered his wife, gone the better part of a decade now, and could almost hear her teasingly sarcastic voice saying, “Well you just hung the moon now, didn’t you,” when he did something to displease her. He listened to the silence the land on which he sat hadn’t known in over a century. No planes breaking the quiet from above, no big rigs from nearby highways rumbling in the distance, no lonesome whistles from far away freight trains bellowing their arrival as they approach deserted street crossings, none of the echo of industrialization he hadn’t realized he’d been hearing his entire life until it wasn’t there. There were no sounds of people or their presence at all save the gentle snore of his thirteen year old girl and the worrisome wheeze of his eleven year old boy as they slept beside him, huddled together for warmth and comfort beneath a hideously gaudy blanket given to him as a white elephant gift at an office party in another life. He’d sit for another hour trying not to remember before waking the boy for his watch and closing his own weary eyes. Remember he did, however. He remembered frozen meals made ready by the simple acts of puncturing transparent cellophane and pushing a button. He remembered the school bus picking up his kids in the rain, then reassuring his wife after reading the anxiety etched into the set of her eyes. He remembered all manner of things lost, then willed his jaw to relax and his teeth to stop grinding, staving off the headache beginning at his temples and reaching like tentacles into the spaces behind his ears. He sat. He listened. He forced himself to maintain the vigilance required to survive. His daughter turned, restless and wound as always, even in sleep. Something akin to a gasp escaped her lips as she did so. Joe wondered as to its source, then if he wanted to know it. In turning she left herself uncovered, arms bare to the chilled autumn air. Her brother woke, groggily looked at her exposed arm and clumsily covered her sleeping form. Kid brother, idolizer, protector and eleven year old. Life and the roles played in its span were in some ways little different than they’d been when Joe was a boy. That way of thinking was an illusion, however; a false promise of normalcy that was no more. Life and its roles were nothing like what he’d known. To think otherwise, even in passing, risked all that was left. In the faltering light of reddening blue embers from the night’s fire the boy looked to his father who in turn shook his head indicating it wasn’t yet time. Young Jake closed his eyes and quickly fell back into an easy all encompassing sleep of the sort available only to the innocent and those so daft or heartless as to live as if they were. Joe opened his eyes to muted sunshine, its rays diffused by a lifting fog quickly burning away to nothingness. The kids were still sleeping, Jen’s hair a tangle of straw colored chaos, fury and mischievous delight; Jake sprawled like a pile of dirty clothes, content in his condition. Joe didn’t bother chastising himself for faltering, for failing in his responsibilities, for falling asleep on his watch. It wasn’t the first time. He was exhausted. They all were. He lacked the energy to take himself to task for the lapse. Nothing happened. He was grateful. He would try to do better.  Chapter 2 Jen sat bolt upright, quickly and alertly surveying her surroundings, then smiled a gap toothed grin at Joe. “It’s sunny,” she said matter of factly. She leapt to her feet and ran behind the nearest bush before he had time to react. Jen was lithe and supple in her movements without effort or awareness. Strength, too, was evident in her motions, sinewy muscles bestowing her with an agile grace. Her power was of a sort more akin to that of a cheetah than that of a lion. She sprang rather than mauled, but the results were usually the same for those who crossed her. Her eyes, a rich blue when she was born, had taken on a catlike quality as she aged. They shifted from blue to gray to green depending on the light. On occasion Joe could almost swear their tint changed with her mood or the squint with which she chose to convey it. Regardless of their color they were flecked, almost striped, with what resembled sparkling silver and gold. They were equally capable of mesmerizing and intimidation. Jen was quickly discovering their power and mastering the art of wielding it. Like the girl whose head it capped, Jen’s hair was unruly. It suited her personality; beautiful, but not in a classical sense. There was a cowlick at her hairline just above her exceptionally high forehead making bangs or styling requiring anything other than being pulled tightly back difficult, if not impossible. It was dirty blond, the dirt winning out more and more as she matured. The blond was more hinted at than present in any tangible sense. For someone seeing her for the first time the likely inclination was to label her a brunette, yet blond was there too, sensed more than seen. It was there when glimpsed from the corner of the eye or when she entered a room, then faded as focus on her gave a clearer picture, however, like a desert’s watery mirage or a Fairy fluttering into the shadows to avoid detection. In summer, when sun-kissed by long exposure, the blond streaks returned to brush the freckles on her slender nose and prominent cheekbones that seemed to pop out to greet them. Jen’s fair complexion, hypnotic and almost translucent at times in its clarity, reflected her mother’s Irish and Dutch lineages. The particular beauty reserved for those with her build and grace was her’s in abundance as well. Even when walloping her little brother just because she still could, an observer would likely note the graceful beauty with which she did so. A friend had once told Joe to get ready, that Jen was destined to be trouble. Trouble the kind of which teenage boys would find absolutely irresistible. Thee dyings had made that a non issue up to now, but his friend had been right in every respect excepting the presence of teenage boys. Jen was short, and not just a little, but exceptionally so. Standing at least two inches under the five foot marker she so desperately wished to reach, the likelihood of that wish’s fulfillment was rapidly diminishing. She compensated for what she lacked in stature with a stubborn resilience. Jen ceded ground only on her terms and at times of her own choosing. The personal cost to be paid for her entrenchment was simply not a factor once she’d set her boundaries. Despite her stature, short wasn’t the adjective that first came to mind when meeting Jen. She was as well proportioned as she was small. More likely than not the first descriptors to come to a stranger’s mind were some odd combination of beautiful, scruffy and petite. Occasionally strangers would include vulnerable in their impressions, usually to their detriment. An exceptionally observant stranger may even add dangerous to his perceptions of her. At least, as had so often been the case with girls her age before, the label rival had, as yet, not been draped like a sash over her shoulder. The dyings had spared Jen from the consequences of its petty cruelty; a silver lining to an otherwise very dark cloud, Joe sometimes thought, when he watched his daughter Being who she was, who someone of her size and disposition had to be if they wished to accomplish or acquire things independently, Jen became adept at employing whatever advantages there were to be gleaned from the diminutive first impression she inevitably gave. She knew she appeared significantly younger than she was. She was also fully aware that she, as people regularly told her before things changed, was as cute as a button. That description, despite the fact that she recognized it as an intended compliment, always left her feeling worse; smaller somehow. Perhaps it was that feeling that allowed her to justify using those attributes to avoid consequences for actions others, who looked more their age, or who weren’t lucky enough to have her ingratiatingly innocent good looks, would undoubtedly pay for. In both thoughts and actions Jen was impulsive and impetuous to the point that she had to be on guard against her own tendency for irrational action. Luckily for Joe and Jake, not to mention herself, she was growing into a young woman who both recognized that necessity and possessed the exceptional underlying intelligence to pull it off. Her undersized frame developed within her an uncommon ability to stand her ground. It was her newly found recognition of the value of self control and her determination to cultivate its development within herself, however, that was making her a natural leader. Joe caught himself wondering as to how she’d managed to skip what people with less beautiful or coordinated children referred to as some variation of “that awkward phase.” He paused to recognize the conceit that thought revealed within himself. He then allowed himself to think it, nonetheless.   Chapter 3 With the commotion caused by Jen’s lively exit Jake stirred, eyes still shut to the inevitability of the day. He asked in a voice drunk with sleep and more than a little touched by irritation, “What d’you want?” He was asking the still morning air, of course. Jen was gone to meet whatever fate had to offer before he’d arched an eyebrow. Getting no response his face slackened, eyelids again at ease, no force pushing back the light. Joe envied the apparent ease with which his son fought off the sunrise for a few more minutes of sleep. He sometimes felt depleted of the strength to accomplish even so much as that. He rose nonetheless, trusting his spirits to follow. Recalling the whirlwind masquerading as his oldest child, they did. Nudging Jake with the worn end of a walking stick he’d picked up somewhere between what was then and now Joe said, “Come on kiddo. Gettin’ there in your dreams don’t count.” Jake responded by scratching his head, though clearly not yet awake. His light brown hair had rich undertones the color of faded rust. It was sun-bleached, resembling something like Galveston Island’s sand or long cut hay on top. He insisted that it be kept short, out of his eyes and ears always, despite his sister’s pleas that he let it grow. Cropped short or not, however, it managed to look disheveled. “When you wash that mop you look like you just got highlights,” Jen would tease truthfully and tauntingly at once, and maybe even a little enviously. “Please let it grow,” she’d say. “You’re the only boy I’ve got to look at except daddy, and he’s older than dirt. You’re hair is firecracker hot, Jake. The rest of you’s just my stinky kid brother. Stinky was, in so far as it went, an apt description of Jake. Very few would assent to limiting a description of him to just that, however. Methodical and capable of complex and naturally organized constructs of thought, his mind was equally agile and quick when the situation called for it. While the exceptional nature of his mind was what most separated him from others, it was his physical stature, even as a child, that drew him immediate attention and made him stand out in a crowd. He was lean like his sister, his muscles long and elastic, like those of a runner rather than those of a lumberjack. Unlike Jen, though, he was as tall as he was lean. He was already within a hair of surpassing her. Whether he had or not already was one of the few points of real contention between them. It wasn’t an exaggeration to call Jake’s prominent square jaw statuesque. His nose was narrow and straight, classically nordic in its origins. His eyes were so deeply set as to give their piercingly crystalline blue the illusion of genuine radiance; of emitting light from within, rather than simple reflectors of the light available to them. He was a good looking kid, and knew it. He knew it not from a place of conceit, however, but from the fact that he’d been told so by practically every mother and teenage older sister of his friends and classmates before the world of friends and classmates ended. Women would stop his parents in groceries stores, malls or any other public spaces just to coo over him and shower him with complements. He’d never had a teacher for whom he wasn’t among the favorites. More remarkably, his classmates never seemed to resent his favored status. He was valued among his peers for his loyalty and genuinely good nature as much as for his physical good looks. Those that knew him well would to a person point to his kind heart if asked what one quality best described Jake. His dad and sister were the only ones that knew him well now, of course, but his friends, family, teachers and others, all gone now, would have said so too if given the opportunity. Even as a kindergartner he would break up arguments and tussles among classmates. “But not only that,” Joe remembered Jake’s experienced grandmotherly teacher saying, “All three; Jake and the two fighting, always ended up friends laughing together. If Jake’s getting involved I’ve learned to give him a crack at it and he’s yet to fail me. I’ve never had another student in my thirty years in the classroom I can say that about. Maybe I’m getting too old for this,”she laughed, “But you’ve got yourself something special in that boy. Very special indeed.” Growing more serious, the old teacher continued, “Just remember there’s a high price to pay for special gifts. You’ll do right to raise him knowing that and preparing him to pay when his debt is called in.” Joe had know idea how to respond to that. He just thanked her and left, a feeling of unease twisting his insides and holding Jake’s hand a little more tightly as they walked away.   Chapter 4 Joe nudged Jake again, this time with the toe of his hiking boot. Jake mumbled something unintelligible, but with a tone that oozed his own unique fusion of lethargy and vexation. Joe was fairly certain his inability to decipher Jake’s grumbled repine was for the best. He watched his son unconsciously resettle himself, finding the hint of a smile on his lips for the first time in what seemed like days at the thought of damnation via the ire of an eleven year old roused too soon. Joe tossed the gnarled hickory stick he was holding aside, freeing his cracked and callused hands. In doing so he took in its form. Smooth on both ends from weeks of use supporting him as he walked, it was knotted along its length where smaller branches had once grown when the stick had been but a part of something more than itself. While examining his makeshift staff he suddenly realized he had no idea if it was hickory or not. Hickory sounded right, and so it had become. Recognizing his ignorance, the grin hinted at earlier turned into a barely audible chuckle as Jen walked back with much less urgency than that with which she’d left. “Mornin’ Sunshine,” Joe said, as Jen looked incredulously at her brother. “Ain’t you gonna get him up?” she asked, trying to look scornful but failing. “Why’s he get to sleep late, and didn’t he have last watch anyway?” “Couldn’t sleep,” Joe effortlessly lied.“ Didn’t see any reason to wake him and have us both sit up watchin’ nothin’ but the dark.” “Uh huh,” she said with a sarcasm unique to teenage girls and the occasional sated feline. She left it there, however, confident her message was received. Looking up, the lightheartedness that had begun to raise its head above water vanished as Joe saw four figures come into view as they crested a slight rise in an overgrown pasture some distance to the south. Their approach was unremarkable, neither hurried nor notably cautious. They appeared to be talking, though at this distance Joe couldn’t be sure of anything other than the fact that they were coming his way. They seemed to be wearing overcoats. He thought he could make out hats as well, or maybe hoods. His imagination was quickly turning the strangers into old-west outlaws from a bad western movie dressed in blood stained black dusters, murder and lust their only evident ambitions, accuracy with pistols and an insatiable thirst for blood their most distinguishing qualities. He could practically hear the ominous jingle of their spurs. He took several deep breaths and reminded himself that the “dusters” could just as easily be full length dresses. He simply couldn’t distinguish between the two at this distance. “Binoculars,” Joe mumbled to himself, adding them to the ever-growing list of items he hadn’t realized they needed. His skin prickled with goosebumps. His stomach growled as his bowels reacted to the tension overtaking him. Joe’s countenance changed in an instant, senses alert and straining to glean even the slightest bit of information, an edge, an understanding of the developing situation. Jen detected the change in her father. She followed his gaze to the strangers’ approach. Feigned anger forgotten, Jen gently woke her brother. Jake opened his eyes to see his sister with her finger held firmly against her tightly puckered lips cautioning silence. He too was alert now and looked questioningly into Jen’s crystalline hazel eyes. As her father had done for her she wordlessly guided his gaze to the strangers’ advance. Chapter 5 Together they waited, each finding fortitude in the stoicism displayed by the rest, each determined not to be the link in their little chain that broke. Despite the struggles within themselves to maintain the appearance of calm, or perhaps because of them, a sense of foreboding, an ominous dread, an almost overwhelming feeling of impending doom seemed to compel a collective state of inaction. Joe found himself in possession of a new appreciation for the phrase ‘a deer in the headlights’ that had eluded his previous understanding. He tried even harder, though with dwindling confidence in ultimate success, to calm his fraying nerves and to set some sort of example for Jen and Jake. An example of what, exactly, he wouldn’t have been able to say. They could run, but those approaching were likely to be faster. They could hide, but evidence of their presence was clear, strewn haphazardly about them and unable to be masked before the distance would be closed. Even if the debris belying their existence could be hidden the smoke rising from the remains of their fire hung above them in the still morning air as clearly as a battle flag marking their position. They each watched, unmoving, transfixed as their options narrowed with each footfall of the newcomers. They could ready themselves for a fight. Between them they possessed a snub-nosed thirty-eight special revolver with a dozen rounds plus the five in the cylinder. Joe carried it in a holster clipped to his belt, easily accessible by his right hand. It was small enough that it was usually concealed by just a T-shirt. Jen carried a bolt action twenty-two rifle with a well worn sling over her shoulder. There was a full box of a hundred short rimfire rounds plus thirty-two more in another ammo box. There was also a full box of fifty high velocity long rifle rounds and six long rifle hollow-points held for the most dire of circumstances. Finally, they had an antique but reliable double barrel sixteen gauge shotgun. Joe sawed off its side by side barrels just above the wooden forearm when they began their trek to make the gun easier to wield, reduce its weight and increase its close-in effectiveness. He rigged a homemade sling for it that allowed it to hang across his chest resting at his right side with just enough slack to be fired from the hip, though clumsily, if absolutely necessary. There were seventeen shells loaded with squirrel shot and five more loaded with double ought buckshot. Joe also carried a knockoff brand Swiss army knife, the scissor tool broken long ago and several of its other implements frozen in place by rust and lack of use. The longest knife blade, the saw and the can opener were still fully functional, however. Despite the burden he carried its weight gave him comfort. On his left hip, clipped to his belt opposite the thirty-eight special on the right, was a perfectly balanced and well honed hatchet. Joe’s great great grandfather carried it out of the trenches and across no man’s land in World War I where it’s original handle was shattered by a bullet otherwise destined to, as family lore held, cut short the family lineage at Belleau Woods. His great grandfather carried it into the Ardennes Forrest in December of 1944 just days before he and the rest of the US forces there were caught flatfooted and unprepared by Germany’s last offensive of WWII. His grandfather wore the hatchet on his hip as a US Marine for the entire seventy-seven days under siege at Khe Sanh seven miles from the Laotian border with what was then South Vietnam. Joe’s father was wearing the hatchet in the Mountains of Afghanistan when an IED took his left leg. Somehow the hatchet made it back with him, however, and thus to Joe. When Joe turned eighteen and told his dad he was thinking about enlisting he was reminded that all of the hatchet carriers before his dad had been drafted. “I was the only one to go looking for a fight, and it’s left me leaning left ever since,” his dad quipped. “You’re man enough to make this decision for yourself according to Uncle Sam,” his dad continued more seriously. “But consider the fact that you could very well end up walking the same ground in the same war that cost me my leg.” After a long pause he said, “Before I enlisted my daddy told me what I told you about it being my decision. He also had another piece of advice I often wish I’d heeded.” “He told me that it was every man’s duty to defend his Country if called, but war was nothing to seek out. He said if I went, no matter how diligent my search for glory, I wouldn’t find it. I wish I’d recognized the wisdom in his words. Maybe you will,” Joe’s dad concluded. No more was said about it. Joe opted for State U over boot camp, and carried the guilt he knew would accompany that decision. The hatchet did not pass to him as a young soldier as it had to his forbearers. It was willed to him with no elaboration when his father died of lung cancer a year before the dyings had begun in earnest. He wore it now with an amalgamation of guilt, reverence and utility. He was certain he felt its weight more than any of his predecessors. Jen carried a boy scout knife Joe had been given as a reward for achieving the rank of Webelo as a cub scout back when things like that happened. She accepted it with a solemnity uncommon to her disposition when he’d given it to her, inherently recognizing the unspoken responsibility that came with the gift. The scissors still worked on it. Jake carried a scabbarded buck knife with an imitation bone handle. It was bought for Joe by his grandfather when he’d been Jake’s age in the gift shop of a cruise ship returning from Alaska over the protestations of his grandmother. She’d argued that Joe was too young for a knife, dull as a letter opener or not. A wolf’s head was stamped into the ivory plastic hilt with much more efficiency than even the most skilled inuit elder could’ve managed. Joe also carried a whetstone passed down from fathers to sons through more generations than anyone could remember. He kept it wrapped in oilcloth and tucked into the middle of his bedroll so as to protect it from breaking as best he could. With it he honed the blades whenever time allowed. The rhythmic gnashing produced as he worked the knives across its worn surface had come to be something of a lullaby, its gentle grinding the last sounds his children heard before falling asleep more often than not. Joe had grown up with guns and knives, hunting and fishing with family and friends since before he could remember. His children were familiar with firearms and blades as well. They were tools to be respected and handled with caution, but tools nonetheless. None of them, Joe included, had ever fired in anger or at another person nor held a blade with malicious intent. Arming his children to face whatever was coming wasn’t an option with any realistic possibility of a positive outcome he quickly concluded. He calmly summoned his kids to him. Draping an arm around each, Joe told them that everything would be okay as he watched fate close the distance separating them from whatever was to come.   Chapter 6 The strangers’ approach halted almost immediately after Joe began reassuring his children. The smallest of the others, slightly in front and to the right of the rest of the group, pointed vehemently in their direction. She turned urgently to the rest of her party while doing so. They appeared to freeze mid-stride for a long indecisive moment. They then dropped to the ground; first one, then the others, each as their situation and the idea of the need to become less visible, less of a target, took hold. In doing so it was more than obvious that their reaction was unrehearsed and seemingly unanticipated. In dropping to reduce their visibility and with at least one of their aims presumably to draw less attention to themselves, they nevertheless did so with enough clatter of carried accoutrements as to be easily heard from across the divide. The noise of their concealment was almost sure to draw the attention of anyone who had somehow missed their unguarded arrival. Before Joe could process what he was seeing and consider a course of action he heard the barking of a dog. Soon afterwards he saw what appeared to be a mixed breed cross between what may have been a small black poodle and something like a mangy unkempt Schnauzer bounding toward them at full speed. He’d never seen an uglier more scruffy looking dog in his life. Under different circumstances he would’ve laughed out loud at the sight of it. Joe would’ve guessed fifteen or twenty pounds if forced too guess the dog’s weight based on what looked for all the world like a four legged ball of black and gray steel wool scouring its way towards them. Judging by the bark alone, however, he would’ve opted for something closer to fifty pounds. The stranger who’d pointed them out earlier screamed, “Jelly Bean!” She jumped to her feet and began running after the dog even as she screamed for it to stop. A much deeper voice yelled, “Get your butt on the ground, now!” The girl reluctantly obeyed, dropping to a knee, skinning it, before lying prone. As she did she yelled, “Jelly Bean,” again, more plaintively this time, almost immediately followed by the plea, “Please don’t hurt my dog.” Joe watched with bewilderment as the surreal scenario played out across the field. Still frozen in disbelief and confusion, a shot rang out from amongst the strangers. Even before hearing the crack of gunfire split the still morning air glowing embers exploded outward from their fire; red hot sparks, charred blackened coals and pallid gray ashes rising then falling in an arc behind them. Joe turned to his kids, terror threatening to overtake his faculties. To have struck the fire the bullet had to have passed between Jake and Jen. Jake was as flat as he could be, becoming as much as possible a part of the ground itself. He looked determined, focused, and shockingly unafraid. He didn’t appear to be injured. Joe was surprised, impressed and very much frightened by his son’s reaction. His bearing, his expression, his posture, his being itself wasn’t that of a eleven year old; at least not that of a eleven year old from the world of cartoons, breakfast cereal, bike ramps and baseball cards Joe was familiar with. It was Jen’s reaction, however, that changed everything. The report from her twenty-two tore Joe’s eyes away from Jake. He focused on his daughter just in time to see her working the little rifle’s bolt action, expelling the spent round and feeding a new one into the firing chamber. “Wait,” Joe said through gritted teeth with all the steadfast calm his shaking body and panicking mind could muster. Jen did not fire again. Nor did she remove her finger from the trigger or lower her aim. A scream came from across the pasture. “Daddy!” the girl’s voice cried, no longer focused on the dog. “He’s got a gun, a big one,” Jen told her dad. Her voice was unsteady, but her hands were as still as a surgeons. Her finger rested easily on the trigger just as he’d taught her. Her eye kept the man at the other end of the pasture aligned with the beaded sight at the end of the barrel. A tear escaped the other eye. It left a track as it ran down her dirty cheek and splattered audibly as it fell onto a dry oak leaf. Jen’s tears seemed to be born neither from sadness nor fear, Joe remembered thinking later. Frustration maybe? Something else? The thought brought its own sense of trepidation. This wasn’t the time, however. He made a mental note to revisit the question when and if he had the time and opportunity. The man in Jen’s sights seemed to be having trouble with his left forearm. She thought, but couldn’t be sure given the distance, that that was where she’d shot him. A voice in her head, one calmer and steadier than she felt, told her with an easy reassurance to adjust her aim a tad higher next time. “I’m gonna shoot him again if he points it like before,” she said to Joe, the steadiness having returned to her voice. Joe swallowed, took a deep breath and tried to think; to become the rational man he’d always believed himself to be until this moment and these fears exposed the shallow nature of that rationality. “Wait Sweetheart,” he said to his daughter again, his voice noticeably quavering this time. “The dog,” he thought. Before Joe could formulate the idea, much less a plan, the dog was on them. It straddled his son, forelegs on either side of Jake’s shoulder blades, hind-legs astride his hips as Jake lain perfectly still save a slight tremble Joe saw in his hand. With the boy face down, the dog was atop his back before it even occurred to Jake or Joe to offer a defense. Jake simply waited for whatever was next. “No Jelly Bean,” Joe hissed as firmly as he could without increasing the dog’s hostility. Jelly Bean gave Joe a quizzical glance before grabbing Jake’s collar in his teeth, shaking it twice, then releasing it to vigorously lick Jake’s bare neck with his tail suddenly wagging high in the air. “Daddy,” Jen said, her voice tinged with uncertainty, a lack of assuredness, a questioning of itself out of character with what could only be described as her usual overconfidence. Her tone was turned on its end, desperate for direction and confirmation. “He still has his gun. I shot him, Daddy. I think he might shoot again.” “Put down your damned gun,” Joe yelled across the pasture. “There’s kids over here.” “That wasn’t no kid that shot me,” the man yelled back, feeling the need to say something and yet coming up short when he reached inside himself for the right words. “My name is Jen. I’m thirteen years old and I’ll shoot you again if you don’t put down your gun right now.” Jen replied. Her voice held conviction. No one hearing her statement was likely to doubt its truth. Joe was speechless. He looked at his daughter, mouth agape, and was frozen with debilitating uncertainty. How was he suppose to handle the disaster unfolding before him? What exactly was it he was seeing and hearing? Still without answers or even coherence, his system was further stressed when he saw Jake sit up, laughing no less, and holding the tail wagging dog back from his face by its ears as its long pink tongue reached out desperately to lick the face of his new found friend. Joe violently shook his head, forcing himself out of his stunned paralysis.   Chapter 7 “For “God’s sake, nobody shoot,” Joe yelled. “I’m gettin’ up.” As he shouted he got slowly to his knees, then even more deliberately to his feet. He was careful to keep his hands held out, away from his body and in full view while he did so. He felt no bullets, heard no shots, felt no piercing pains as he stood. Across the field he saw a man mirroring his actions. He began to breathe again. “My name’s Joe. I’m here with my kids,” he said with as friendly and unthreatening a tone as he could manage through the fear that clenched his teeth, clipped his syllables and made his voice seem to crack like a pubescent boy’s. “We don’t want this; not lookin’ for trouble.” He looked hard at his counterpart staring back at him. “I’m steppin’ way out on a limb here and bettin’ y’all don’t either.” “No. We don’t; don’t want none neither. Trouble I mean,” the man across the field stammered. “We’re; we’re; Jesus, I didn’t mean to shoot at y’all. We’re good people. All of us. We’re good.” The man’s voice trailed off as his ability to find words, to try to explain, to justify his actions, to stop what was happening eluded him. “Oh, and my name’s Sammy, Sammy Squalls,” he added like a kid remembering his manners, remembering his mother was watching. “Glad to hear it,” Joe said. “I’m gonna ask my girl to lower her gun now, but she’s going to hold onto it for the time being if that’s okay with you. Understand?” “Okay,” Sammy replied, not knowing what else to say. “I’m shot,” he then added, feeling foolish, stupid somehow, for having said it even as the words left his mouth. They, after all, were the ones who shot him. “How bad is it?” Joe asked. “I don’t know,” Sammy answered. “I never been shot before.” The more he spoke the more asinine he felt. “It’s in my arm below my elbow. Where you shot me, I mean. It’s below my elbow,” he explained. “It’s bleeding,” he then said even as he wondered why he would say something so obvious. “It hurts.” “I’m Stacy,” came a voice from one of the people behind the sputtering man. “I’m his wife. I need to look at his arm,” she said. “I’m a nurse. I need to tend to that wound.” Her occupation sent a jolt of hope through Joe like a bolt of lightning. As with lightening, however, the revelation drew forth apprehension as well. Was she saying that to inflate her worth, to distract from the immediate danger she and her band of strangers posed? Was she placing a deliberate chink in their armor? If so it was working. “Who else is with you?” Joe asked. The fact that the voice was that of a woman left him even more confused, forcing him to reassess yet again. These people seemed less and less like outlaws with every word, shooting his campfire not withstanding. “The girl who was yellin’ before is our daughter, Ella. She’s eight,” Stacy answered. Her voice was steadier than that of her husband’s, both calmer and more self assured. It carried with it an air of confidence that was missing in Sammy’s as it found its way across the pasture. “That’s Jelly Bean lickin’ the boy you got with you. But I guess you know that already.” “This is Mr. Brown lying beside me,” she added. “He’s our neighbor from back home.” After a slight hesitation she continued, saying, “He, ‘um, he’s with us now. After the; I mean; well, after everything that happened he was alone.” As Joe tried to think of what to say in response to the woman’s description of Mr. Brown her reference to what had happened dredged up emotions he’d just as soon keep below the surface. “I really need to look at Sammy’s arm. He’s; I just need to tend to his arm. Is that okay?” Stacy ended the request with a question, but the tenor of her voice left little room for anything but assent. The man standing across the field from Joe no longer had his hands in the air Joe noticed when Stacy mentioned him again. Sammy was still standing, but with his left arm cradled in his right. “Yeah, all right,” Joe said. “But please move slowly.” After a few deep breaths and a conscious effort to slow the beating of his heart he asked, “Are you armed?” Stacy hesitated only a second before answering. “Sammy shot your fire with a thirty-thirty. It’s on the ground and nobody’s gonna pick it up.” After a very deep breath of her own she added, “There’s a forty-five on my hip. Do you want me to remove it?” “Do you intend to use it?” After asking the question Joe felt like a cliche himself, like a character from the bad western he’d imagined when the strangers arrived. “No sir,” she answered. Her voice rang true. Joe had nothing but that to go on, but trusting his instincts and wanting it to be so he said, “See to your husband. And please don’t give us reason to shoot again.” See to her husband she did. Stacy rose slowly, cautiously; confident but without threat. Her comportment from across the pasture telling Joe and his kids, “I won’t hurt you, but don’t try me.” She took Sammy’s arm in her hands saying, “Your okay, baby. Let me see.” Sammy seemed to wilt under her touch, her hands appearing to sap what strength he had left, not give it. His shoulders slumped as he turned to his wife. He looked as if he were going to speak, but did not. He shuffled his feet, compelled to find his fortitude, but unsure of where to look. His knees bent rather than buckled as he dropped to one, his left arm still tenderly held by Stacy. He looked away from her as she examined it. She prodded here and there, noting with a practiced eye his reactions. Other than wiggling his fingers when asked, however, he seemed to have none. “I think it’ll be okay,” she said, but without the confidence her voice had exuded when addressing Joe. “The bleeding ain’t bad, considering. I’m going to wrap it, okay?” Sammy nodded. Joe took note of the fact that he wasn’t facing her, wasn’t looking her in the eye. “This will hurt,” Stacy told her husband. Concern furrowed the lines on her forehead. They seemed out of place, showing themselves too soon, incongruent with her otherwise youthful appearance. Joe had the feeling that Stacy’s concern wasn’t for the pain, though he wouldn’t have been able to say why if asked. Sammy simply nodded again, somehow shrinking as he did so.   Chapter 8 “Ella,” Stacy said, calmly but firmly, leaving no room for anything but compliance on her daughter’s part. She spoke as loudly as she could without projecting aggression so as to ensure she was heard by Joe and the others. “Get up nice and slow girl so these fine people can see you ain’t nothin’ but a kid who minds her mama and don’t mean them no harm.” “Mr. Brown is kinda old and don’t get around as easily as he used to,” she told Joe in the same loud but even tone with which she’d addressed her daughter; each syllable enunciated with deliberate clarity, each inflection considered for its possible effects before being spoken aloud. “I’m going to ask him to stand too, but please don’t take any jerkiness by him as anything but age and nerves while he’s gettin’ up. We’re all kinda shook up over here. Same as you, I ‘spect.” “Yes ma’am,” Joe answered. Judging by what he could see of Stacy he guessed he was her senior by at least a few years, but the authority, not demanded but simply present, in her voice and the way she naturally took charge of her situation made the title ma’am feel wholly appropriate. He paused for a long moment, like a kid before a headfirst dive, then took the plunge. “Listen,” he said to Stacy, his own voice sounding less commanding and more like a plea than he’d intended. “I’m armed too. I’m carrying the shotgun you can probably see on a sling and a pistol clipped to my belt. I’m gonna slowly take them off and lay them on the ground. Please don’t mistake what I’m doin’ for anything more.” Joe inhaled, holding the breath deep in his chest, and waited for a response. When none came he let it out slowly, took in another and continued, “Then I’m gonna talk to my kids for a second before I walk over to you so we can talk face to face. Would that be okay?” “It is,” was all he got in reply. Better than a bullet, he decided. He lifted the sling holding the double barrel shotgun above his head then laid it slowly on the ground. He did the same with the thirty-eight special on his hip before turning to Jen and Jake. “You two listen and don’t say nothin’ back,” he said, almost whispering. “I’m gonna go over and talk to these people.” He could see alarm animate both of their faces, but to his surprise they both obeyed, remaining quiet. “Jake,” he said focusing his attention on the boy, “I want you to stay put, but look at my guns. Make sure you know right where they are. Be ready to grab them if need be. Do you understand me?” Jake nodded, but his expression showed anything but understanding. “Try not to worry, Son. It’ll make more sense if the time comes and you need to do it,” Joe said, all but certain his reassurance to be a lie, before turning to Jen. “Jen, You’re in charge while I’m over there,” he said, his eyes conveying the gravity of the burden he was placing on her shoulders. “I expect this to turn out well, but if it don’t I want you to listen close and do what I tell you.” “If things go south, if you hear shots, yellin’, or, well I don’t know,” his voice was chopped and uneven. He tried to organize his thoughts, rearranging them, attempting to complete them, as he searched for a coherent set of instructions to offer his daughter for the plans he couldn’t quite work out in his own head. “I know, Daddy,” Jen said in a manner that managed to convey a comprehension of Joe’s thoughts that he didn’t yet have himself. “I’ll be ready,” she said. And Joe somehow knew she would be. “Yeah, Sweetheart. Y’all be ready,” he told Jen, then gathered himself as he turned toward Stacy, her bleeding husband, the man she called by a name he could not recall and a little girl crying for her injured father and her dog. He was propelled by a courage he had to find anew with each step forward as he closed the distance, his children further away from him with each stride taken.   Chapter 9 Joe felt as if his walk across the pasture to the others took just short of forever, even as he arrived before he was ready. He didn’t know what to say to these people. They weren’t of him. They weren’t his. He didn’t know them. They fired a rifle at his kids. The shot passed right between them. His daughter just shot one of them, for Pete’s sake. He wished they weren’t here. At a distance of no more than ten paces he stopped, arms consciously held out at least a foot from his body. He couldn’t help but feel foolish, like a man poorly imitating a scarecrow. After trying to swallow but finding his mouth too dry to do so he said, “I’m Joe.” He looked at the strangers, determined to mask his apprehension. His eyes quickly scanned their ranks then settled on the woman. He waited. “That much I know,” Stacy said. Her wavy blond hair was greasy and matting. It appeared to be beginning to gray, but Joe couldn’t tell for sure. It carried the weight of a considerable amount of dirt and grime since it was last washed. Its tangles seemed to be alive, shifting, changing as she moved. Joe felt foolish letting something as superficial as the tangles in a woman’s hair disquiet him more than he already was. He tried not to notice them. The harder he tried the more the tangles, seemingly with a life of their own, increased his uneasiness, though. At least until the name Medusa popped unbidden into his head. That was just ridiculous enough to jolt him back to his own crazy world and away from the brink of whatever precipice he was approaching. Blinking, he thought Miss Stacy might even be pretty beneath her grime. “Mrs. Stacy,” he reminded himself even as Miss crossed his mind. “How many times had men, how many times had he, made stupid decisions because they noticed a woman was pretty?” Joe tried to stay focused, to keep himself and his kids alive at least a little longer. Joe then noticed her eyes. They were a deep ocean blue flecked with what could only be described as a colorless gray. They held no light. They seemed to absorb it the like the black holes he’d read about before; powerful and unknowable things that sucked everything around them into themselves and out of existence. Stacy’s gaze took in everything and gave nothing back to the world. Joe looked for kindness in them. He wished to find it, but did not. He found no malice there either, however, just a coldness and empty void so pure it was almost worthy of admiration. Stacy repeatedly brushed the hair covering her eye aside, trying to tuck it behind her ear, but it was to thin and shorn to close not so very log ago to stay. She made no attempt to hide the fact that it was an annoyance to her. “Those your kids you got with you?” she asked, holding the hair in place as if she had a headache. Joe nodded. “My girl Jen and my boy Jake. Good kids.” “Good shots anyway,” was Stacy’s reply. “Jen wasn’t it?” she added, unable, or maybe not wishing to mask her sarcasm. “Anybody else with y’all?” “Just my oldest boy. He went to see if he could bag a deer or a hog.” Nodding toward the morning sun still fairly low in the eastern sky Joe added, “He crested that hill as y’all was walkin’ up. Surprised you didn’t see him” Squinting into the sun, then turning back to Joe, Stacy said, “You ain’t much of a liar Joe.” Her reply wasn’t accusatory, but stated matter of factly. “That’s a good quality in a man, but there ain’t nobody over that hill, at least nobody that’s with you.” “No,” Joe conceded, looking down at the worn tips of his boots. “I ain’t much of a liar.” Looking back up at Stacy he added, “It tends to get me in trouble every time I try it. You’d think I’d of given it up by now.” Stacy’s face appeared to soften a little. The edge was still there, but her spring seemed a little less tightly wound. For the first time since stepping away from his kids Joe was beginning to feel like things might be okay. “Well,” Stacy said, appearing to come to some sort of inner conclusion, “we can shoot it out here and be done with it or we can chalk this up as a misunderstanding handled like fools so far all around.” “I vote for the chalk,” Joe deadpanned, “Seein’ as my guns are over there.” “Chalk it is then,” Stacy replied, her poker-faced delivery matching his. “Now that we’ve established we’d rather not kill each other how do we get that girl of yours to play along?” Joe’s initial reaction was to point out that it was her husband who had fired first. Deciding that this wasn’t the time, however, he answered simply, “I’ll handle my end if you handle yours.” His eyes shifted to Sammy as he finished, then back to her. Stacy simply nodded, but her acquiescence cut the tension in the air. “I’m gonna go back over first and let my kids know what’s going on,” Joe said. He couldn’t disguise the uncertainty in his voice. “After that I’ll wave y’all over to join us. That sound okay?” “What is goin’ on?” Stacy asked. There was a jumble of appreciation, fear, caution and hope scrambled into her question. “Well, I guess we’ve established that shooting each other isn’t the way we want to go,” Joe said. “That’s a start.” After hesitating only a moment he added, “We’ve got some cereal in one of them plastic containers if y’all care to join us for breakfast. “Cereal like from before?” Ella asked. She knew she was supposed to keep her mouth shut at times like these. The question just kind of jumped out of her before she realized she’d asked it. “Yes,” Joe answered the girl. “A little stale, but still good. It’s real cereal from before. You’ll have to eat it dry, though. We’re all outta milk.” Dry’ll be okay,” Ella said, timidity suddenly overtaking her and making her voice almost inaudible. Joe smiled at her and then turned to her mom. “I guess breakfast,” he said to Stacy. “What’s goin‘ on, I mean. Breakfast,” he went on trying to clarify, but not feeling like he was doing a very good job of it. How ‘bout we eat a bite while we talk about what comes next?” “Thank you, that’ll be fine,” Stacy replied. “Dry cereal will be most welcomed. Not lucky charms, I suppose.” “Honey-nut Cheerios,” Joe answered, head turning ever so slightly while speaking. “Go on over and let your kids know we’ll be joining y’all then,” Stacy said. Her voice had grown almost friendly, Joe noted. In doing so he also took note of the fact that Sammy hadn’t had anything to say at all once Stacy started talking. His eyes were for the most part downcast and reluctant to connect as the situation played itself out. At any rate, he seemed content, or maybe resigned to the fact that his wife was going to tend to the crisis until things settled down. Sammy simply stepped aside, ceding the leadership role he at first seemed to hold. Except simply didn’t quite capture the nature of Sammy’s apparent reduction in rank among the strangers; if, in fact, that was what Joe was witnessing. He was suddenly uneasy with the dynamics of the strangers relationships among themselves. He found himself mistrusting everything he’d been told by them. Joe nodded to Stacy. He then tipped his hat, feeling foolish for doing so even as his hand touched the brim. He turned slowly back toward his kids, second guessing himself all the while his steps carried him back across the pasture. Copyright: Nobody can use, redistribute, reiterate, reproduce, copy, or in any other way incorporate what I have written without my express written permission or I might get really mad. I may even sue you. I live smack-dab in the middle of a town filled with starving lawyers. And not just that — I have a lot of time on my hands and could really use some of your money. This is a work in progress. It's unedited and unplanned, with no outline or idea as to where it is going. Watch for updates to follow along as I add to it if you're interested, intrigued or simply amused. I'm new at this and welcome comments and suggestions; the good, the bad and the ugly. Criticisms, grammatical corrections, plot suggestions, character revisions, praise and marriage proposals will all be given proper consideration.

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