The baby wriggled and kicked its blanket when I pushed it between the rusty iron girders of the bridge. I held it over the river and looked down at the rushing water. I was thirsty enough to drink every drop of it. But they say it isn’t clean.
“Just let it plummet,” Rick said, returning his slicer to its sheath. He had used new leaves to clean the blade, and they were clustered around his boots in clumps of red.
“What are you waiting for?” Brother Paul said. He kicked my thigh with the tip of his shiny boot, and I dropped the baby. It hardly splashed. I wondered if it was a boy or girl. Brother Paul put his arm around me. “It’s for its own good,” he said. “Wouldn’t have had much of a life anyway, living like a wild animal in the woods with dimwit heretics for parents.”
“But how do you know?”
“Think about this,” he said, tucking in his shirt. “That baby is with Jesus now, sitting right up there in his steely arms—you kept it from sin.” He pinned a little cross to my shirt near the collar. “Congratulations!”
I guess the baby was pretty lucky to be with Jesus and all, but it’s never fun to run into a group of separatists that have to be eliminated while you’re on patrol. I tugged at my shirt to keep the cross from poking my skin.
A week later, Brother Paul was leading our team through an old forest when we came to a campsite and smoldering fire. Two women were stirring soup in a pot, but they ran when they saw us come close. Brother Paul quickly dispatched them. We listened to the pleas of a third woman in a tent nursing two babies, a boy and a girl. Brother Paul shot them, too. We ate their soup and wondered where the men were.
Brother Paul wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said, “Probably off fighting.”
“More than likely fighting some in our own unit,” Rick added. The other men agreed, though I couldn’t be sure, because the separatists never seemed violent to me, they just wanted what we wanted, a nice life with no one bothering them. The soup was good anyhow. There’s nothing quite like soup simmered over an open fire—you can always taste the smoke.
Brother Paul organized a burial after we ate. I helped dig the mud, and then we stuffed the bodies into sleeping bags. Rick told me to call them cadavers, it’s easier that way. But cadavers and bodies both sound hollow when the slop from our shovels landed on top of them. One of the babies slipped out of the sack, so I jumped into the hole to give it back to its mother.
“Pete, get out of that hole!” Brother Paul is strict and yells a lot. “You don’t want to go where they’re going, do you?”
The baby’s fist was clamped in the air, its skin tight and smooth. “No sir,” I said.
He gave me his hand and pulled me out. “I’m just looking out for you.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Now remove your hats.”
We took off our hats and bowed our heads, but I couldn’t help peeking at our feet. Our boots were muddy, and mine had clumps of leaves stuck on the toes. Only Brother Paul’s were clean.
“And so we commit their spirits to you, Lord. May you have mercy on them.” Brother Paul was quiet for a bit, then added, “Stoke the fire, boys.” Me and Rick went into the woods looking for some bigger stumps to throw on the fire. Brother Paul likes thick wood and gets real irritated when we throw piddly green sticks into the fire. It disturbs his concentration, he says. He likes to stare into the fire and he makes us sit silently around it, booting us from the circle if we talk.
Rick hoisted a large log onto his shoulder, its bottom wriggling with centipedes. In the hollow place where the stump was, a big worm tried to fish its way into the ground. It was fat, and I thought of the way a night crawler squirms when a hook pierces it. I used to come home from the ditch with black worm gunk caked on my hands. Mama made me wash my hands before I went to bed, but I could never get my nails clean enough. She had to do it for me, sitting me on the toilet and digging out the dried crud with the pocket slicer she carried in her apron.
“Someday you’ll clean your nails for yourself,” she said.
And after I was tucked in, she’d sing “Hush Little Baby,” then pull the door tight. Moments later, I’d hear her at the kitchen sink cleaning the catfish, listen to the dull thumps of the hammer on the catfish heads. In the morning, she’d fry our eggs with catfish.
Rick squished the worm.
“What did you do that for?”
The log rolled off Rick’s shoulder and the ground trembled. “Worms are my bête noire.”
Rick sighed. “I hate worms.”
“It never did a thing to you.”
“When you loathe something, it doesn’t matter.” He spit on the ground. “Now get your log and let’s get out of these baleful woods.”
We walked for a bit, then I asked him what baleful meant.
“Evil,” he said. “Or maybe ominous.”
The trail was soft, sprouting green all over the place, which made walking fun. I told him that I liked the woods, that they didn’t seem ominous to me.
“It’s not the woods, per se, that are evil; it’s what creeps among the trees.” Rick breathed heavily.
I patted my boomer and winked.
Brother Paul was talking to the men around the fire when we got back. He must have had enough staring time. We threw the logs down, and Allen split each of them into five chunks. He was a pro at that. Heretics were scared of that chopper of his.
Brother Paul was talking about the next day’s activities—how far we needed to go, who we’d encounter, stuff like that—but I didn’t listen too closely because he’d repeat it all in the morning. Besides, I had to clean my boots.
I jumped when Joshua fired his boomer. We all stood. Joshua and Brother Paul crept into the woods. We were silent for a bit, but relaxed when we heard them laugh. Joshua came back holding a raccoon with part of its face missing. We passed it around the circle. Its hair was coarse as Grandpa’s beard. He used to hold my arms high above my head and tickle me with his whiskers till I could hardly breathe. Mama had to slap his ass with a dishrag till he stopped. When the raccoon came to Brother Paul, he tossed it onto the fire. The hair burned quickly, which stank like holy hell, but the flesh smelt good.
Such a shame to waste good meat.
Not to mention killing something just cause it is.
At night I liked to write in a little empty book I found in the woods. I had strayed from camp, which was against the rules, and there it was, lying in a mess of yellow leaves. I hid it in my pocket, and, after devotions, I hunkered in my sleep sack and turned my flashlight on and wrote. I wrote about my brother Eric. Liked to make up arguments I’d have with him. Imagined the girls we’d fight over, the kids we’d have. How we’d make our family larger. I even wrote a longer story, how Eric kept me from drowning in the pond near our house, how he canoed out to me and used his oar to chop at the water plants and the electric eels that tried to hold me under. He saved me.
I never showed the story to no one, not even Rick, who had lots of book sense.
I wasn’t any good at most subjects in school, but I always did like writing. The teachers didn’t care what I wrote, though; they flocked around the smart kids like flies on horse shit. Grandpa once told me to do something worthwhile, take shop, for Christ’s sake—at least that’ll learn you a trade. But Mama made me quit school before I ever got a chance. “Nobody there cares a lick about you,” she told me. “They don’t care that you don’t have a daddy or that your brother’s dead, so get out of that school and do something worthwhile.”
I was the last one to wake up. The other men had eaten all the breakfast, but I could wait the six hours till lunch. The raccoon was ash, not a bone left. I rolled up my sack, placed it on my pack, and prepped to march.
Brother Paul told us the plans. “There might be some resistance today,” he said, “but the Lord is with us.” Then we sang while we walked, songs we learned at church before we were christened soldiers. It was always the same songs and they just didn’t sound good without the drums and guitars. Allen used to have a banjo, but Brother Paul burned it after a rowdy night of Cotton-Eyed Joe. Now it’s just our lonely voices.
Close to noon there was a flash of light and we all fell to the ground. Ron, in front of the line, moaned. His breath was gurgly, like he had snot stuck in his throat. When the smoke cleared we all got up. Ron was dead. He had tripped a booby-trap, poor fellow, and half his face was blown off. Like the raccoon’s. We buried him in the woods, canteen and all, but the lid wasn’t tight, and the water stained his blue shirt. It seemed a shame to waste water like that, not to mention a good guy.
“Worms are going to like him,” Rick said.
I threw a shovel full of dirt on Ron. “I guess they will.” I hated burying people, especially people I ate with.
“The maggots will find him exceptional,” Rick said. “He was so healthy.”
Rick shoveled faster than me. His arms and back and chest were muscular. He looked stuffed, like pork in a casing. I couldn’t imagine him teaching English, those big hands of his holding a book. But like us all, he had no choice. We all serve our terms.
“We lost a good man today: a father, a friend, a child of God,” Brother Paul said. “But now he is richer than us, richer because he is with the Almighty Jesus, at His Right Hand, in His Kingdom of Heaven. So let us not be sad, but let us rejoice in Ron’s commitment to the Lord.” Brother Paul always said the same thing whenever we buried any of our own.
I have it memorized.
After lunch, I wandered to the stream to fill my canteen, paying special attention for those sneaky bastard trip-wires. The stream was about half a kilometer from where we’d set up camp, and it ran clear and cold off the green mountain west from where I stood. I took off my boots, slipped my feet in the water. My toes were so pale that Mama would have worried about me being sick. She liked her boys dark, baked in the sun till well-done, not all pasty looking like the bankers in town. I dunked my boots in the stream and gave them a good cleaning, then lay back on the rocky bank, my head on a rock, letting the sun warm me before it disappeared behind the mountain. I fell asleep, thinking about Grandpa’s barbecue sauce.
I sat up when I heard a splash. The woman in the water was filling up a line of old milk jugs. I grabbed my boomer, but she just smiled and continued at her work, like she had all the time in the world. There were twigs in her yellow braids.
My fingers trembled. “I could kill you,” I said. “I’ve done it before.”
The woman laughed then waded closer.
I raised my boomer. “Just one shot and you’d be down.”
“I’m Leah,” she said, “and you’ve never killed a thing.”
I clicked the safety off. “What are you doing out here?”
She threw an empty jug at me. “That canteen of yours doesn’t hold much water.”
I lowered my boomer. The jug was sticky where the label had been, but it didn’t smell spoiled, not at all. “I’ve killed fish.”
Leah laughed at me. “Fish?”
“They were electric,” I said.
“Poor fish.” She tightened the lids and strung a rope through the handles, then swung the jugs over her shoulder. Her tits pressed against her shirt, and she wore that water like a glinting necklace.
“Most people run from us,” I said.
“Well you can’t live without death,” Leah said, “so you might as well enjoy your God-given breaths.”
I put my boomer back in my pocket and filled the jug—I’d tell the others I found it in the bushes. Leah started out of the water. I asked about her baby.
She stopped and turned. “You can tell?”
I looked into the water because I’m honorable, not the sort of guy who stares at tits. A little trout swam through her gleaming bits.
“We call her Ailey.” She trudged through the water and onto the shore.
“Do you sing to her?”
Leah turned and smiled. “What kind of mother doesn’t sing to her baby?”
I told her that Mama sang “Hush Little Baby” to me. “Sometimes I even sing it to myself,” I added.
“Sing it for me,” Leah said.
And so I did, my eyes squeezed tight, my voice rising from my chest. Hush little baby, don’t say a word. I even tried a vibrato, like Grandpa. Papa’s gonna buy you a mockingbird. I finished the song and opened my eyes. Leah was gone, not a trace of her anywhere. Thickets of white and yellow daffodils grew beside the trail. I picked one.
Ailey—what a nice name.
After supper, we sat around the fire and listened to Brother Paul read from Revelation. We were nearing the end of the second cycle of readings: John, Romans, First and Second Timothy, then Revelation. Last year we studied the Old Testament: Genesis through Deuteronomy. We don’t study the rest of the Bible. It’s off-limits, the President says, don’t worry about the rest. Brother Paul says that only heretics read more than is required or safe, and heretics don’t have an Interpreter or Interpretation Manual. He told me this after he took my Grandpa’s bible and replaced it with the streamlined version.
It was as light as a mustard sandwich.
I thumbed through my wallet for something to do. There wasn’t much use for it out in the middle of nowhere, but it reminded me of home, of going to church and having coffee and cinnamon rolls with friends at the church coffee bar. The holographic cross stamped on my Visa twinkled in the light. I kept Mama’s picture in the spot where I used to keep my driver’s license. I gave that up when the patrol came for me.
Allen handed me a little beat-up laminated card. “Did I ever show you this?”
I turned it over in my hand and asked him what it was.
“Membership card for the Union of Concerned Woodsmen and Carvers,” he said. His chopper glowed in the firelight, as if it had a heart.
The wood popped and sparks flared in my face. “Never heard of it.”
“Not surprised.” Allen leaned back on his elbows and slid a weed between the gap in his top front teeth. It bounced in front of his face while he talked. “Used to be in the lumber business before patrol, like for houses and stuff. Barns. Fences. Even shit houses.”
“What about the carving part?” I said.
“The carvers were some snowflake artists who wanted in because they made stuff from the trees we chopped down.”
“You mean artisans,” Rick said.
“Yeah, whatever,” Allen said, spitting the weed from his mouth. “We just let them in to be nice.”
I gave him his card. “What were you concerned about?”
Allen grabbed his chopper and brushed his thumb across the metal edge. “Trees.”
“That’s a no-brainer.” Rick poked the fire with a stick. Brother Paul didn’t see him.
“People were using them up so fast, as if lumber was the only good use for trees,” Allen said. “That’s what we were concerned about.”
We were all quiet for a bit, and then I asked Allen if he’d ever killed a kid with his chopper. His face squished up like a rotting apples, and then he stood, walked straight into the woods. Brother Paul followed him.
“You’re such a fucking imbecile,” Rick said after they left.
“I was just curious.”
“You shouldn’t ask questions like that,” Rick said. “Of course he’s killed kids with that chopper, it’s his weapon of choice, just like you and your boomer.”
“But there’s a difference between using a chopper and a boomer.”
Rick took a cigarette from Joshua and said that when you’re expired, you’re expired. He exhaled through his nose. “Doesn’t matter how you expired,” he added, crossing his legs like a girl. “But for the sake of argument, how so?”
“Distance,” I said.
“Boomers take the personal out of killing,” I said. “You have to stalk with a chopper, you see their eyes, maybe feel their skin brush against yours. Smell the ramps in their breath.”
“It doesn’t matter how the killing’s done,” Rick said.
“But with a boomer, you just fire,” I said. “Sometimes you hit somebody, sometimes you don’t. God directs the bullets.”
Rick tossed his cigarette in the fire. “You’re full of shit,” he said.
I called him a dumb ass and Rick put his slicer to my neck.
“Men,” Joshua said. “Let’s be united in our purpose.”
Rick put his slicer back where it belonged and sat down. The cold memory of it tinged my Adam’s apple.
Joshua thought it his responsibility to play Brother Paul when the real Brother Paul wasn’t around. Like now, for instance, while Brother Paul was out chasing down a crybaby lumberjack. We let him do this, even if it weren’t official in any sense.
Later, after we’d all calmed down, Rick asked me if I had ever considered putting a scope on my boomer. I told him that you couldn’t mount a scope on that piece of shit, no way would it stay put, it’d fly right off and take my eye with it
Rick leaned in close. “Let’s just say you could.” He smelt like cigarettes.
“Okay,” I said.
“Let’s say you see an apostate off in the woods. Let’s say you pull out your boomer, take aim, then see him through your scope. You see his eyes. They’re blue, and he’s got neatly parted hair, a real nice guy. Kind of like me.”
“And let’s say a second before you pull the trigger he looks up and you see right into his soul, see that disconcerted look people get right before they die. He’s now closer to you than anyone has ever been.”
I hated arguing with Rick, it was pointless, but I kept at it for fuck’s sake, so I told him it was up to God whether he lives or dies.
“So there’s more divine intervention in your using a boomer then me my slicer or Allen his chopper?”
I took a swig of water from the sticky milk jug. “Yeah.”
Rick got that look on his face whenever he thinks, like he was taking a hard shit. “So those of us who do the Lord’s work in a more hands-on fashion are guided with a little less divine intention?”
“When your slicer or chopper is moving, it’s you more than God,” I said. “Distance makes killing easier.”
“Now just wait a minute,” Joshua interrupted. “Killing is forbidden in the Ten Commandments.”
“You mean the Decalogue,” Rick said.
Joshua stood up, and, in true Brother Paul form, kicked out the fire. “I’ve had enough of this talk.” Sparks soared above our heads until, lifting over the tree tops and gliding into the night sky, they tangled with the stars and went out.
The night was chilly and my head felt like a rock. I wanted feathers in my pillow, Mama’s quilt around my body, her singsong voice in my ear. Rick was asleep. His chest went up and down, up and down, soft and quiet-like. He had a funny look on his face—maybe he was dreaming about his wife, maybe about the damn books on his shelf back home. I wondered what his head would look like in my imaginary boomer scope. Would his head sound hollow with a bullet whizzing through his ear? Would he twitch like a fish?
Once, when I was little, Grandpa called for me and I ran to the backyard to find him. He dumped a five gallon bucket of sloppy-green fish water into the rhododendrons and the catfish flopped on the dirt, their mouths stretching for air. He grabbed one by the tail and threw it on the picnic table, whacking its head with the handle of his slicer. The fish went still.
Watch this, he said, tossing his slicer in the air. He caught it by the handle and, in one swift move, severed the fish’s head. Its tail curled then straightened. I begged him to do it again, so he grabbed another fish from the rhododendrons and its tail folded and fell.
Grandpa finished the fish and fried them in lard. Mama’s cornmeal breading was crispy, but the flesh was soft, and while we ate I asked him why their tails fold.
“Fish got electric skin, and their tails curl when I unplug them,” he told me. “The same would happen to you.”
Mama punched his arm and told him to stop being a shit bag.
I got tired of watching Rick breathe. I crawled out of my sack. The air was chilly. Joshua was supposed to be keeping watch, but he was asleep. I had a hard time seeing the trail cause the moon wasn’t anywhere near, so I quietly stumbled around and made my way to the rushing water. I noticed a fire on the opposite bank with several women sitting around it, one of them Leah. They all seemed to be laughing, though I couldn’t tell for sure because the stream was loud. There were no babies. I crouched behind a bush. The fire looked nice, and I wondered if the girls were telling Bible stories. Maybe Leah had told them about me. Or maybe she had told her husband. But she didn’t seem like the marrying type, in which case she was a committed fornicator, given the baby and all.
And then they did the strangest thing. Leah stood up and pulled down her skirt. It crumpled around her ankles. She helped the brown-haired girl in the red top out of her skirt and they went into the stream The third girl sat near the edge of the water, holding a little book in her lap on top of three folded towels. Leah put her hand on top of the young woman’s head, pushed her under, then lifted her up.
I jumped when Rick put his hand on my shoulder. “We’ll take care of them later.”
“Just leave them alone.”
“Can’t do that,” he said.
Leah and the girl left the stream, then toweled off and hugged each other tightly.
“They didn’t do anything to us.” I said.
“They’re nonconformists,” Rick said.
“They get along just fine without men,” I said.
“Look at them,” Rick said. “They’re nearly naked out here and you can see right through their undergarments. People in their right mind don’t paddle into cold streams at night.”
Leah filled a bucket with water and poured it over the fire. Smoke jumped from the wood like it was scared. They walked back into the forest.
“And their men are near,” Rick added. “Of that you can be sure. Don’t be seduced by bosoms and snatches.”
“We’ve probably murdered more than they have,” I said.
“We don’t murder,” Rick said. “Courage, Pete, courage.”
“I suppose you want me to ask for your pardon for giving away your little secret,” Rick said. We were gathering kindling.
“It wasn’t a secret.”
“It looked like a secret to me: you alone in the woods, hiding behind a bush, watching girls bathe, your hand down your pants.”
I rolled my eyes. “It wasn’t a secret.”
Rick stood holding three sticks covered in lichens and moss, terrible sticks to start a fire. “So you were going to mention these female apostates to Brother Paul?”
“Just women minding their own business.”
“As if that matters.” He poked my crotch with one of his sticks. “You’re getting soft.”
I snapped a branch over my knee. The crack echoed up the mountainside, where the bony trees unfurled tiny green leaves that looked like baby fingers reaching for a mama.
“I had to report your findings because I signed an oath.” Rick twisted a sapling growing near the trail till it ripped. “We leave tonight, but in the meantime, you’re staying with me.”
I looked at Rick. “Meaning?”
“Circumstances have led me to inform Brother Paul that you developed feelings for the women at the stream. Now, to be sure, I hastily added that you would come around, that you’re no softy, that perhaps you’re only missing home, and that I didn’t think it was anything to get too concerned about. He wanted me to keep an eye on you.”
Rick dropped his sticks when I punched his mouth. “You’re not my babysitter,” I said. “I don’t care one way or the other about those women.”
Rick licked his bloody lip and picked up his mossy sticks. “Then we have nothing to worry about.”
The warm day went cold, and by evening, our breath shrouded our faces. We sat around the fire drinking coffee and playing Uno. Allen was carving a stick and tossing the shavings into the fire. “I say we let Pete lead since he’s the one who found the women,” he said.
“I’d have to agree with that,” Rick added, looking at me. “What do you say to that?”
“But they didn’t do anything to us,” I said.
“Your conscience will fall into line,” Brother Paul said. “It’s hard for everybody at first.”
Rick mimicked my words in a little baby voice, then said, “That’s been your mantra lately, hasn’t it?”
“Mantra?” I said.
“A maxim or catchphrase,” Rick said. “Some easy-to-say phrase that defines you.”
“A theme song?” I suggested.
Rick rolled his eyes. “Sure.”
“Kind of like ‘Amazing Grace.’”
Allen threw his stick into the fire. “Is that our theme song?”
Joshua refilled his coffee. “I didn’t know we had a theme song.”
Brother Paul put up his hands. “Gentlemen, we don’t have a theme song, and I don’t see how it’s any better that we do.”
“Well, anyway, mantras aren’t biblical, are they?” Allen said.
Rick shuffled the cards, sneaking two Draw Fours into his hand. “I suppose that one could make the argument that the Lord’s Prayer is kind of like a mantra.”
Joshua ran his hands through his thick, wavy hair. “I never thought of that.”
“Get me a cigarette,” Brother Paul said. Joshua knocked one from his pack and lit it for him. Brother Paul took a big drag and sighed. “It’s not called the Lord’s Mantra; it’s called the Lord’s Prayer. So get this mantra horse shit out of your minds.” He jumped up and went to his tent, and Joshua followed, sitting on the ground outside the zipper. We could see the glow of his cigarette through the thin nylon.
No one finished talking about me leading the attack and I didn’t bring it up.
Allen got both Draw Fours, poor fucker.
It was after midnight when we lined up. We recited the Lord’s Prayer—thanks to Rick we all had to say trespasses instead of sins—and then they stuck me in front with a flashlight. Allen was behind me, his chopper honed and ready, and Rick behind him carrying several Tiki torches, his slicer on his belt. Brother Paul walked the line, encouraging all twelve of us, and when he got to me, he asked how I was feeling. I told him I was fine.
“You look like a man in need of a shit house.”
“I’m fine,” I said.
Brother Paul grabbed my shoulders. “You won’t let us down, Soldier?”
The cross pinned to my collar stabbed my neck. “No, sir, I won’t.” I hated that cross.
We stumbled through the dark woods, my flashlight dim, my boomer pressing against my thigh. I looked at my feet. I’d been on the path twice, yet this trail didn’t feel right. Maybe it was my light, maybe my thoughts. I put my hand in my pocket. The daffodil was still there, its petals soft against the worthless boomer.
“You lost?” Allen said.
“It’s the batteries,” I said. “Hard to see in dim light.”
Rick fell out of line and handed me a torch, lighting it with a match. We crossed the stream moments later, hopping across a series of stones jutting from the water.
“Now where?” Allen said.
I turned right and we followed the stream till we came to the fire pit. Allen stooped down and stuck his hand into the gray ash.
Rick drove the torch into the ground. “Well?”
“Cold,” Allen said.
“This is pointless,” I said.
Allen swung his chopper into an old stump. It burst open and sleepy ants tumbled out. “They haven’t been to this spot since last night,” he said.
Rick squashed the ants under the heel of his boot.
“Now what?” Allen said.
“Don’t know,” I said. “Never been on this side of the stream.”
Joshua suggested we split up, he taking a group along the stream, with me, Allen, and Rick heading into the woods. Rick picked up the torch and found a trail. Allen followed him, and I brought up the rear. The air was cold and the forest quiet, our footfalls muffled in moss.
My legs hurt. My head too. I tried to think of everything I’d ever killed: fish, of course, but also countless flies, gnats, and mosquitoes. Leah was wrong—I’ve killed lots! But that baby. That was Brother Paul’s fault. He kicked me and of course I’d dropped it, who wouldn’t have? Brother Paul’s kicks hurt like hell. I should know cause I’ve had lots.
Rick stopped walking. “Do you smell that?”
I pulled the boomer from my pocket.
Allen sniffed the air, a weasel in boots. “Wood smoke.”
Rick dropped his torch and stomped it till he killed the fire. “Only idiots have fires,” he said. An orange glow bounced off the distant tree trunks.
I emptied the bullets from the boomer—they rattled in my pocket like loose coins—and the boomer I tossed far into the woods.
Leah was sitting by her fire when we approached. “Come warm yourselves,” she said. She seemed to be expecting us.
“Where your friends?” Allen said.
Leah drank from a cup, probably tea. “I’m the only one.”
Allen opened the flap of her tent, a large canvas cloth draped between two trees. He stooped in, his boots visible in the gaping material. Leah’s shelter didn’t look waterproof at all.
“Pete here told us he saw three girls,” Rick said.
“Nothing in there but a bunch of blankets,” Allen said. “I’ll search the woods.”
I sighed in relief—at least we wouldn’t have to kill Ailey. Leah watched Allen until he disappeared in the darkness. She put her hands near the fire, said it was nice to see me, then nodded toward Rick. “And who is this?” I introduced them, and Leah said that it’s always nice to see into the eyes of the one who’s going to kill you.
“You’re looking at the wrong guy.” Rick pointed at me. “That’s a boomer’s job.”
Leah laughed. “He’s never killed a thing in his life,” she said. “What’s your weapon of choice?”
Rick pulled out his slicer with a shaky hand. The blade glinted in the firelight like it was supposed to. Leah asked if it was sharp, and Rick told her that he it honed daily.
Leah held out her hand. “Prove it.”
“I’m not giving you my slicer.”
“Cut my hand.”
Rick looked at me and I shrugged. He held out his slicer, and Leah wrapped her hand around the blade. “It’s cold,” she said. “Like a stone.”
Rick jerked his slicer and Leah fell onto her back, fingers hanging loose, blood seeping into the dirt. “Steel’s warm with blood,” Leah said.
Rick stared at his slicer—it wasn’t too bloody—then got on his knees and leaned over Leah. “Did it hurt?”
And then Ailey let out a cry. Leah’s eyes were cloudy. “Hush little baby,” she said to me.
“Exterminate that thing,” Rick said.
I ran into the tent and there was Ailey, under the blankets, wearing an old sweatshirt and a diaper. I picked her up and she stopped crying. Rick grunted, then I heard his slicer dive into Leah’s gut. Not a peep spilled from her. I peered through the canvas flap; Rick’s arms were covered in blood. He stabbed her again.
“This should be your job-” Rick called out.
I found some clothes for Ailey, some food, too.
Rick stabbed again. “-but because of your lack of intestinal fortitude.”
Ailey whined, and I held her close. Her breath was milky.
“Kill it before it sins,” Rick yelled.
But I ran into the woods instead, Ailey clutched against my chest, Rick’s voice trailing behind me. Didn’t stop running till I came to a clearing. I slumped against a tree—I must have run for hours! Ailey started fussing again.
“Now don’t do that,” I said, bouncing her up and down. “Hush, hush.”
She shivered in the cold air, so I wrapped her tight and stuffed her under my flannel. It probably smelt bad in there, but it made no difference to Ailey. She nuzzled against my chest, and when she sucked my flat nipple, my skin jolted like an electric fish. I stretched out, propped my head on a stone. A shredded moon rested in the pines above. My feet felt light. No crickets or nothing.
At last she stopped crying.
Editor’s note: A previous version of “Skin of Electric Fish” was published in 2009 in the now-defunct The Dirty Napkin.
Chad Gusler holds an MFA in fiction writing from Seatle Pacific University. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Southwest Review, Driftwood, Maine Review, The Other Journal, Relief, and elsewhere. He teaches creative writing at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.