… in which the fangs come out
Elmore drove home the next hot afternoon. He’d eaten another day of sawdust. He never let on to the Rankin crew about the sporadic searing pains on either side of his spine or the gnawing animal under his right ribcage. He kept his eyes closed tight on bathroom breaks. He did not want to see what left him, trickling weakly into the bowl.
The kids rode beside Elmore on the front seat. They ate cherry popsicles, their hands and mouths stained violently red.
“Y’all don’t let those drip,” Elmore warned, the third or fourth time since they stopped to make a surprise purchase at the 7-11. “Use napkins.”
Seven-year-olds don’t really care if blood-colored drops spatter their legs or shirts or a black vinyl truck seat. And Elmore realized something else at a stop for a traffic light as Will and Mary unsuccessfully tried to lick the rain of sticky drips off their fingers.
The truth? Elmore didn’t really care that much about popsicles melting on the seat either.
He only wished the sticky drops weren’t so red.
The kids had spent a long day with the nice ladies who ran Lafayette Pentecostal Church summer day care. Elmore rarely darkened the doors of any church, but the caretakers at LPC seriously considered themselves to be missionaries, and they took in any kid for day care between Memorial Day and Labor Day. They fervently believed they could save the souls of a new generation – even with pagan parents, or worse – through good acts like serving up Jesus stories with vanilla wafers and Kool-Aid.
Elmore didn’t mind. He liked vanilla wafers and Kool-Aid. And the Pentecostals charged him just $15 a week, and on top of that served bologna sandwiches and Golden Flake potato chips and a little carton of chocolate milk to the kids at lunch. As far as Elmore was concerned, it was the only game in town.
Also, if he were honest, Elmore had an eye for Mrs. Jordan, one of the nice young mothers who ran the day care. She always smiled at him at 5 o’clock pickup. Elmore leaned from the panel truck window and smiled, and Mrs. Jordan’s plump cheeks reddened. She had a curvy figure and wore her hair in a ponytail like ateen-ager, though she wasn’t. She’d finished at Lafayette High two grades behind Elmore.
Could this young lady actually see something in Elmore?
The world interrupted Elmore’s reverie. In the truck’s side mirror, a white station wagon with fishing poles lashed to the top swung out to pass on the two-lane.
He leaned slightly toward Mary.
“Sweetie, can your daddy have a taste of popsicle?”
Mary happily offered a dripping mess. Elmore happily slurped it. He, too, accidentally dripped red cherry melt on his shirt, mouthing the popsicle bite carefully as he drove, his teeth sensitive to cold.
The frozen treat made his insides feel better.
Elmore returned to reverie.
Mrs. Jordan called Elmore once, out of the clear blue. When the house telephone rang that evening, it alarmed Elmore. He had his hands full in the kitchen, heating canned corn and sliced weenies in the skillet for supper.
The Rogers’s phone rang maybe twice a year. No phone call ever brought good news.
But Elmore picked up.
Mrs. Jordan’s perky invitation left him beyond surprised.
She volunteered to chauffeur Will and Mary, along with her own two kids roughly the same ages, on Saturday afternoon to some new movie coming out at the mall cinema. Mrs. Jordan took pains to explain that the film had Christian values even if it was one of those animated cartoon things where two robots fall in love and everything explodes in the whole universe at the end. Boom! Like the Fourth of July, she said, and she giggled.
“Well, Mrs. Jordan,” Elmore began. He raised his hands, greasy and flecked with corn bits, like a surrendering prisoner. “How much does the movie cost?”
Will and Mary went for free, Mrs. Jordan answered – the church had a special youth program movie fund, and the kitty would even stretch to cover popcorn and Milk Duds, if Will and Mary wanted. Plus, she added, they could get tall Cokes with paper straws and soft ice, the chewable kind. In fact, Mrs. Jordan added … and Elmore heard a quick little change in her voice, like she quickly swallowed … the special fund held enough money for Elmore to come along, too, if he desired. She used that precise word – desired. The movie facilitated parent-youth bonding, Mrs. Jordan explained. (Was she reading from a brochure?)
At the end, Mrs. Jordan giggled again.
Elmore actually stared in disbelief at the phone. Was this really happening?
Mrs. Jordan had a great ass. Her husband worked on one of those oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and he stayed gone half the year. Too bad she was super-Christian. Elmore had tried, but he could only get so far with a fantasy about a woman getting down on her knees to pray before she had doggy sex.
He thought a long second … then firmly answered no to this invitation to a youth-bonding movie date with a hot, pony-tailed, well-endowed, married Pentecostal woman who lived without a mate six months of the year.
Elmore tortured himself with second thoughts, however, for the whole week after.
They were a pair, Mrs. Jordan and her husband. He was a serious little Texan who wore white shoes. What did a Pentecostal in white shoes do on a Gulf of Mexico oil rig?
Elmore had once seen a rig in the Middle East, taken over from the bad guys by G.I. Joes. Soldiers temporarily operated the well, finding it even hotter than the desert around them, if that could be believed. The rig crew met for breakfasts in a big noisy room under the drilling deck. As a deadly sun rose, Elmore watched one of the G.I.’s, a big Cajun private from New Iberia, watch raunchy porn and eat cereal from a bowl as big as a hubcap.
Where did a Pentecostal fit in a place like that?
Elmore drove idly on, Johnny Paycheck on the radio now, “Take This Job and Shove It.” He and the kids had almost made it home now. Will held his head partly out the open truck window and licked his fingers.
Elmore would surely never pass muster as a religious man, but he did believe in Something.
Now, that Something in the Great Beyond, whatever it happened to be, made him thankful, in the face of everything, for this truck and these popsicles and these two children and even the pain in his side and … for poor Kelly.
* * *
Pitching side to side like a ship on stormy seas, the panel truck rumbled up the rutted driveway to home.
In the cargo, cabinet installation tools and Elmore’s hauling dolly rattled and banged. The Mack engine sputtered for an extra second after Elmore killed the ignition.
The kids galloped, whooping, through the front door of their rental house. Behind them, Elmore eased his old bones down from the cab – ouch, ouch, ouch – and willfully ignored the sight next door.
Why did Dick Wragg bring out this animosity?
Elmore couldn’t exactly understand it, how weird the Wragg place made him feel. He never quite got the sense that human beings actually lived over there.
If it hadn’t been for little Timmy, Elmore could easily have believed nothing lived next door but a house. A house that silently watched his own house … and him … and his Will and Mary … with dark unblinking windows.
Dick Wragg, Elmore thought bitterly. What an American hero.
Elmore slowly limped through the front door at the exact moment the back door flew wide open.
“Fort Rogers!” Will yelled urgently over his shoulder. He and Mary already pedaled their bikes furiously toward Snake Creek. “Indians on the warpath!”
“We’re gonna KILL ’em!” Mary hollered.
Elmore didn’t believe his ears.
His little girl said that?
He watched the twins disappear in a flashing cloud into the woods.
Maybe, Elmore thought, Mary needs less time in forts and more time in a … well … what? Where? Pentecostal day care? Girl Scouts? How did a single daddy keep his little girl from going wild?
Elmore washed his face and arms in the bathroom sink, splashing sawdust down the thirsty drain. He changed his smelly T-shirt for a clean, white one. He felt better, though still troubled by Mary’s war cry.
Who could a single dad even talk to about raising a little girl into a more-or-less civilized young lady?
On a Monday afternoon, of all days, Elmore came face-to-face with a hard fact.
He wasn’t a mother.
Kelly was the mother.
Her memory appeared like a dark spirit. Elmore filled with pain, his body and his mind.
Elmore actually said the name out loud.
Awkwardly embarrassed, Elmore looked around. Had his kids heard him? Had anyone?
Kelly, he whispered again. He closed his eyes. What happened, Kelly?
Far away, he heard whoops. The bobwhites. The children.
Oh Jesus Christ, Elmore thought, snapping out of it. There goes more years of my life, if I can’t snap out of this …
He had an idea. Elmore would visit Fort Rogers.
He made himself busy, preoccupied. He first methodically constructed four peanut butter and blackberry jelly sandwiches, spreading thick tan layers of Bama over one piece of white Colonial bread, then thick sticky purple jelly layers over a separate slice.
He caught himself remembering that Kelly always put the peanut butter and the jelly on the same side, then patted the other piece of bread on top. Like a crown.
Elmore softly swore at himself under his breath.
She left them in a car. Will and Mary in a hot car. She’s evil. She tried to kill the twins, and she tried to kill herself. She’s trying to kill you too, Elmore Rogers.
He distractedly left the back door standing open as set off for Fort Rogers with a small skyscraper of sandwiches balanced between his hands.
Elmore’s mind was elsewhere.
He had to get a grip.
Elmore’s kidneys hurt. His liver hurt. But, by God, he would have taken another drink right that minute.
He had to get a grip.
Elmore decided to focus on the smallest, stupidest, most insignificant thing he could. That worked during his long convalescence. In the hospitals, he had spent hours intensely studying the wondrous shape … the wondrous function … the wondrous growth of his fingernails, day after endless day.
They were tiny hooves, weren’t they? Like deer or horse hooves? Which fingernails grew fastest? When he exercised a finger – this finger, then that finger – did it help that fingernail grow faster … or stunt the growth?
Headed to Fort Rogers, Elmore now focused on four stupid, insignificant … sandwiches.
One peanut butter and blackberry jelly sandwich for Will. Check.
One peanut butter and blackberry jelly sandwich for Mary. Check.
One sandwich for Timmy Wragg, bound to show up. One sandwich for Elmore.
Elmore pondered the four stupid, insignificant sandwiches. The wheat for the white bread grew on some big Yankee farm up north, or out in Kansas. The peanut butter came from nuts in south Alabama fields, around Dothan. Elmore felt proud that something you could buy in a store actually came from Alabama.
The jelly? Blackberries from farms? Did people have blackberry farms in California, or Mexico? Or did pickers roam fencerows and dirt roads and fields to find wild blackberries?
Elmore thoughtfully balanced sandwiches and padded the path through the little wispy sedge field. No sign of evil bobwhites. Yes, the twins on their speeding bicycles had already spooked the covey into flight and away to new cover. Out there somewhere.
Elmore heard a jingle. He turned to see Timmy Wragg round a bend on his gleaming fine Spyder, tearing toward Fort Rogers as predicted. Bright plastic tassels fluttered from the little guy’s handlebars, and six or seven baseball cards buzzed like rattlesnakes in his bicycle spokes.
He copied everything Will and Mary did.
“Hey, Mr. Elmore!” Timmy yelled. He flew past, his earnest face cherry red from excitement and heat. “Come on! The Indians are on the warpath!”
Timmy disappeared down the path ahead, flashing in the sun.
Elmore felt better. He noticed white cumulus castles in the blue sky. The air danced with summer insects. He could actually hear Snake Creek, its actual name on official maps, splashing ahead in the green distance.
Elmore passed the burnt-out hole where he’d gassed the dangerous underground nest of yellow jackets last weekend. It lay black and still as a memorial. Elmore noticed a charred snail shell. The faint smell of gasoline lingered.
Elmore passed under a high green canopy, hickories and sweetgums and tulip poplars. Two squirrels scrambled overhead branches in a madcap chase.
The final turn in the path brought Elmore in sight of Fort Rogers, that handsome, well-kept outpost. The stockade stood under those tall pines. Past it, the laughing creek dashed between overgrown banks.
Elmore strode forward, whistling, holding sandwiches like a white accordion. He made noise. He didn’t want to surprise the kids this time.
He wanted their company.
First, though, he wanted to pee.
Elmore set down the stack of sandwiches on a blown-down oak trunk, a giant betrayed by root rot and wrestled over by winds in a thunderstorm.
This would only take a minute.
Elmore would then wash his hands in the creek before distributing sandwiches. He’d take for himself the dirty one on the bottom, of course, the one with a little moist organic tree bark. By now, Elmore tolerated his daily doses of sawdust. A high-fiber diet.
He stepped into a little thicket for privacy.
He fixed his gaze resolutely toward the creek and the woods beyond, reluctant to even glance at the awful red spurt from his body, urine and blood still mixing with a little pain.
Then, Elmore didn’t pay attention to pain.
If Elmore had never served in the military, he might not have noticed a figure alone in the trees across the creek.
Literally, in the trees.
Elmore watched a stranger skillfully descend the last few branches of a mature slash pine. The climber nimbly suspended his body from a bottom branch, then quietly kicked away from the trunk and dropped, scaling a little shower of pine bark bits into the sunlight.
He landed soundlessly, catlike, on the pine-needle carpet.
The figure wore mottled camouflage gear, same as a hunter would wear in turkey or deer season, though without any loud reflective fluorescent orange that warned off potshots by hunters excited by Wild Turkey. The jungle-warfare clothing completely covered the watcher – arms, legs, hands. Weirdly, the climber even wore green-and-black camo paint over his face.
What the hell?
It was mid-summer. The only thing a man in the woods of Alabama legally hunted this time of year was a patch of cool shade. A fellow had to be stricken … or crazy … to stand out in the woods at the tail end of a day in June dressed like that.
Crazy. Or up to something.
The property across the creek belonged to Mr. Wood, of course. What didn’t? Elmore once heard Shermie Lollard, a loudmouth redneck kid installer at the Rankin cabinet shop, refer to the timberland all around Lafayette as “Wood National Woods.”
Elmore normally considered it none of his business what went on over on Wood property. You could see a man working out there lots of days – marking timber, cutting fire lanes, control burning, whatever. Whoever felt the need to wander around in poison ivy and poison oak and prickly pear and thick brush in 90-degree heat and 90-percent humidity … well, that was his business.
But the military gear.
Elmore heard the kids laughing inside Fort Rogers.
Was that guy … watching the fort? His kids?
Elmore shook himself, zipped up. Not a breath of wind stirred the afternoon, the sun fading now. A trio of crows passed over, their shadows black on the ground.
Elmore crept stealthily through the woods. He could practically hear himself sweat. He passed behind a lichen-splotched trunk, briefly losing sight of the figure across the creek.
No, he was there.
Elmore tried to stay quiet and hidden in the shadows. His clean white T-shirt didn’t help, he knew.
Elmore carefully stepped over another fallen tree trunk, an older one covered in ferns and moss. Somehow, the way his body came down shot a dull pain through his right side.
Ouch! Would his liver ache the whole rest of his life, Elmore wondered?
One hand on his side, he paused to study the watcher again.
This is crazy. Why would this guy be up a tree watching Will and Mary?
Elmore picked his way. A deerfly suddenly came out of nowhere, targeting his now-sweaty white shirt. It lit aggressively on his cheek. Little bastard. The sting left a vivid red cut.
Why did God make such a thing as that? Elmore wondered, trying not to move. What good does a deerfly do?
His boots squeezed moisture – shhhh! – from soggy earth in a low place near the creek. Elmore maneuvered around standing water left by one of the week’s apocalyptic night storms.
Now. Time for a little talk.
Elmore boldly stepped into full view on the creek bank.
The watcher in the woods was gone.
Elmore put one hand on his brow, Indian style, shading his eyes from the low sun. He felt rough sawdust on his forehead.
Elmore worried even more now.
Where’d you go, camo man? Where you at? You got questions to answer…
No sign remained. Not a trembling branch marked the stranger’s passing.
Elmore might easily have convinced himself that he’d completely imagined it.
Except for the dark glasses.
Elmore wouldn’t forget those. The stranger in the woods reminded him of a praying mantis, one of those ravenous predatory insects, a thing with goggled eyes and green skin that waited to kill in the summer woods.
Elmore had always been afraid of that mantis, that one kind of bug. Spiders and silverfish and roaches … even rats … never bothered him. Snakes either.
But the watcher in camo with those goggling eyes just made him feel … very weird.
From the weedy creek bank, Elmore studied the stout pine the man had climbed.
He saw something astonishing.
Metal. Camouflage green. Mounted with dark straps to the pine trunk thirty feet up.
For all the world, it looked to Elmore like some kind of surveillance camera. It pointed directly at Fort Rogers.
A sudden bell of alarm sounded in Elmore.
What did Neeley say last night? What was Plum’s caution? Within minutes, Elmore heard two mysterious whispered warnings on the same Sunday night. About him, his kids.
And now … had a man had mounted a video camera in a tree to watch where Will and Mary played?
Elmore felt worry, anger. He stepped into the creek and slogged over. The cold water rushed into his boots, soaked his socks and his pants to the knee.
Son of a bitch, Elmore realized. Somebody is watching my kids.
What the hell was going on?
Elmore noisily splashed up the far bank. I’m making more noise than a cow, he thought to himself.
He found a little animal path, ducked beneath a magnolia branch to follow it. He moved resolutely toward the stout pine with the device in its branches.
Elmore suddenly heard noises behind him.
He whirled, on the defensive.
Sunlight sparkled on shiny chrome handlebars. Here came Will and Mary, pedaling furiously, headed for the creek. Timmy Wragg wobbled behind them. The musketeers flew through late sunlight and shadows, pumping their Spyders for speed.
Elmore threw up a hand … a greeting? A warning? But he then turned and hurried ahead. He could reach the pine tree before the children, see what he found there. He didn’t want the kids to know anything about this.
The three bikes hit the creek almost all at once. Three sprays of water shot to the sides, and wild squeals of happiness went through the woods.
“Pedal! Pedal! Don’t stop!”
Commander Will led his horse soldiers on their trusty mounts, struggling mightily to ford the pedal-deep water.
“Yi! Yi! Giddyup! Yi!”
All three bicycles made it to the far bank. Dripping from spokes and pedals, they climbed out of the creek.
Elmore stood under the pine now.
He studied the surveillance device from directly underneath. It was a certainly a video camera, nothing else. It had a swivel collar that let it sweep side to side, raise up and down. At the bottom of the tree around Elmore’s wet boots, small throwaway metal and plastic pieces lay abandoned but inconspicuous. Broken bark littered the ground.
The kids grew close.
Elmore could make out an escape path into the woods through dog fennel and low dense ground cover. Someone in a big hurry had kicked over a fleshy white mushroom and knocked a poke plant sideways. He saw trampled ferns.
This ain’t the windy desert, Elmore thought. It will be easy in these woods to follow the son of a bitch’s tracks.
He moved away from the tree now, hurrying, to lure the kids elsewhere. He heard the delighted laughter sparked by an adventure across the creek.
Elmore found himself in the middle of a sog of pitcher plants. A little standing water oozed under his boots, sucked them much the way the carnivorous plants in the marsh around him would suck a human finger. Or eat an insect.
Inspiration struck like lightning.
Elmore would huddle Will and Mary and Timmy around him and lift the purple fleshy petals on top of three pitcher plants. He would convince the kids to poke their pinky fingers down the plants’ wet green gullets.
It would keep curious eyes out of the tree branches not far away.
Elmore focused on the pitcher colony, so the kids would focus there, too.
It felt very weird, Elmore remembered from his own childhood, when a plant tried to eat you. Once the kids pulled out their fingers, Elmore would make them sniff. Their pinkies would reek with pitcher plant odor, like sour socks.
Sweet little Mary’s voice pierced Elmore. The hurble-burble of boy voices chased hers, and Elmore heard the metal music of their racing bicycles.
“Dadddddy! Daddy, wait!”
Elmore saw them all now, racing to reach him, headlong and heedless of path or plants.
“Chaaarge! C’mon, y’all!”
Will barreled ahead, in command, a take-no-prisoners kid. He’d cover the last 20 yards to Elmore in seconds.
I’ll tell the kids I came over on Mr. Wood’s property because I saw a pure white deer run into in the woods, Elmore told himself. A pure white buck, with beautiful ivory antlers ...
Mary, girl so sweet, flashed near. Timmy flashed near.
And the buck had two pure white fawns standing right by it. A buck and two fawns, standing right over here … nowhere close to that pine tree …
It was a good plan.
But a bad thing happened.
Like in life. Real life.
An eastern diamondback rattlesnake raised its black head out of the pitcher plant colony. Its gaping mouth shot forward too fast for any man to believe.
The rattlesnake struck Mary on the pale thin part of her shin just above the ankle.
No warning. No sounding rattles.
She screamed like death.
Elmore might have screamed too. He would never remember.
A hot fang of fear struck his own gut.
For one flashing instant, Elmore lay paralyzed again on a stony roadside in Iraq. His friend stuffed his balled-up fists into smoking holes in Elmore’s body.
Too horrible to imagine. Too horrible to be real.
The snake’s fangs stuck fast in Mary’s shin bone. The reptile dangled like a fat tail off her wildly kicking leg.
“Help! Help me, Daddy!”
Elmore heard his daughter scream.
It was Will, brave little Will, who first hurled himself forward, bike and all, at Mary and the flailing reptile.
Elmore snapped out of it.
He abruptly leaped through time, back to his right mind. How did a stick get in his hand? Who put it there while he flashed back to Mosul?
Elmore swung the branch with a violent whooshing noise. He broke the snake’s back.
He did not break its grip.
The rattler’s gasping jaws remained clamped fast to Mary, the sticky gape stretched nearly halfway around her thin little leg.
Christ, was the horrible thing chewing her?
Mary’s panic carried her away now.
She pedaled her bike wildly away back toward the creek, toward Fort Rogers. Toward home or any safe place. The snake’s unblinking eyes fixed on Elmore. Each time Mary pedaled, the snake’s head went round, and its ugly body circled and snapped, a terrible whip.
Mary screamed again.
She screamed and pedaled and pedaled and screamed.
Mary screamed so loud it brought black spots to Elmore’s eyes. His eyes would go blind. His ears would bleed. He would fall dead with sorrow, with helplessness. With rage.
“Mary! Mary, wait for daddy!”
But Mary pedaled with all her strength. Elmore on foot and Will and Timmy on their bikes, all of them gave chase.
Elmore caught her just before the creek. She wouldn’t have made it all the way across the water this time anyway.
Elmore gathered Mary to him at the moment shock took her small body, a convulsion passing through her with its own kind of rattle.
Her bare feet stopped dead on the pedals.
When the pedals ceased circling, the rattlesnake fell loose.
It lay with its startling pale underbelly turned up. Elmore’s fierce whack had injured it mortally. The last two feet of the creature down to its dozen rattles were immobile, but the head and front two feet still whipped this way and that, flipping up trash.
Let the damned snake lie there.
Elmore wrapped his trembling beautiful child against his chest. He suddenly sobbed so hard – violently, but just once – like he might inhale the girl whole with a great gasp.
“Mary,” Elmore consoled her, “you’re gonna be OK. You’re gonna be all right, I promise you.”
Get to the hospital, Elmore. Get to the hospital. Nothing else matters.
Mary felt light as a kitten as Elmore took off in a sprint, splashing through the creek. The little girl slung side to side in his clumsy cradle of arms as he ran.
“Leave the snake, Will! Leave it! Hurry, Will! Hurry!”
Elmore’s throat broke in mid-cry. Anguish cracked it.
Oh, Mary. Oh, God.
Elmore had to think.
What will I do? What will I do if you die? Oh, dear Jesus, how can I live after such a thing? Oh, Mary.
Elmore ran as fast as his bones and muscles could make him run. Past Fort Rogers. Past the bobwhite field. Down the curving woodland path.
The house in the late gold of afternoon bounced closer, closer, the truck parked just there.
It took so long to reach it.