5 Reactive

May 11th, Year of our Fair Lord 10, Central & Lower Jonestown

Jill put the last of her things in a box.  It was a thing she’d decided to do when she went away.  Put things in a box.  If you need them, you can send for them, and no one has to do much work.  There was also a kind of privacy about it, though she’d ripped up all letters from Fred long ago, and deleted his emails besides.  So far, she’d filled four boxes on this principle and was now on the fifth and last of them.

She hadn’t told her mother Fred would be coming.

Jill knew that the gods were forgiving to overlook mortal mistakes, but she also knew that mortals—especially mortal parents—were perfectly capable of holding a torch for their child in one hand and a pitchfork in the other.

Or so was Jill’s experience.  Crossing her room, she rummaged in her sister’s dust-covered desk until she’d pulled out a thick Sharpie pen.  She began labeling the sides of the boxes with big capital letters.

When you were poor—DRESSES/SHOES—religion was your bread and butter.  You had to believe there was something greater than the powers that be—STORYBOOKS—especially powers like illness and no insurance, spoiled milk you had to drink, and, for Jill anyway, the promised return of the Slight Twice King—SCHOOL CLOTHES.  If you didn’t believe that, you’d go insane.

Jill began arranging the boxes in her closet, now and then brandishing the marker again.

An unfortunate side effect of this—SCHOOLBOOKS—was that when children had to get to the emergency room, or spilled the milk, or might have slept with a boyfriend who was outside the faith—STUFFED ANIMALS—Well, then your children were screwing over the only protection you had—at which point you’d also go insane.

Jill capped the marker and was surprised to find herself out of breath.  She had her own personal pitchforks and torches in her head, but she could still picture her ex, somewhere near the back of the crowd, sitting on a tree stump away from the crazies and giving her a certain look of his for this last thought.

You might go insane,” said the phantom.  “Plenty of people wouldn’t.”

True, she conceded, but she’d meant good people.

Jill stared at the pile of boxes in the closet.  She felt agitated and almost wished there were more to pack.  It would be good to be away from this place, out on the road, in the wild, back to nature.  It always made her feel better.  She did miss the house by the lake.  It had been only a couple of months, but what hadn’t been heartbreaking had been scenic at least.  It had felt safe, that’s why she’d done it, for the peace, the first she’d had since the invasion on her life.

“Arg,” she said, to no one in particular.  She remembered her phone charger and stuffed it into her backpack, muttering some self-flagellating rhetoric just under her breath for letting her thoughts be led astray.

Heading down the stairs two at a time, Jill passed her brothers on the way out and gave them a hug each.  She said goodbye to her mother and made all the right affirmative sounds about sunblock and bug spray before hefting her backpack and walking out.

Despite the necessary evil of Fred, it felt good to be leaving.  To outsiders they were some kids heading out on a road trip.  Rose was being dire about it, but to Jill it didn’t feel half as dangerous as staying in Jonestown, especially if the Slight Twice King might return.

Thinking on the King slowed her steps as she headed down the street.  It had been precisely a year ago, now that she thought about it.  She kicked the pavement and tried to pretend its cracks were her only trouble

What was that proverb?  Don’t live in the past?  Something like that.

“Don’t talk shit in a sewer or you’ll get a mouthful?”

“Thank you, Fred, for that poetic interjection,” she muttered at his memory.

She found Rose near City Hall, an old stone building that had been braced by the same scaffolding for a year like a patient in a cast.  The two young women fell into step beside each other.  Rose didn’t talk at first.  It wasn’t like her to, not about things already decided.  She smelled washed—it was the opposite of smelling like the tannery and always noticeable—and she’d done up her hair in two braids knotted in one another at the back of her head.  She wore a kerchief.  It was practical, but not her usual summer style.  She also wore her leather jacket, the brown one with more pockets.  One hand was fisted around her coin.  She held a parcel in both arms

“You’re sure you’re okay?” asked Rose.

“No question,” Jill lied, then added, “What’s that?”

“Late birthday present.”

They crossed the ruin of the railroad tracks and walked closer together as the houses took on the hollow look of skulls with dirty windows for eye sockets.  Everything smelled bad here, even the water, and the floods were always worse here when it stormed.

At the edge of the small village sat the Wellingtons’ cramped two-story house, which looked to Jill like it was trying to hide behind the overgrowth at the end of the gravel lane.  Its siding had lost much of its paint.  The mailbox stickers that should have read “Wellington” read “Well—ton” instead, and the “o” and “n” were starting to curl in on themselves in the telltale way of their suicidal friends on the ground.

Rose and Jill stopped outside the house and stared at it.

Jill had met Rose independently of Pastor.  She hadn’t been much interested in him before, nor was she now.  He was sad, tragic, but Jill had always thought you didn’t want people like that in your life, or their crazy mothers with their crazier lost-god religions, when you couldn’t help them.

“Why do you want to bring a blind man?” Jill asked, thinking perhaps Rose had stopped because this had occurred to her.  “It’s dangerous for him.”

Rose turned and passed the parcel to Jill.

“Could you hold this?” she asked belatedly.  Then she turned and flipped her coin.  The old silver dollar flashed.  She caught it sideways, then slapped it down on the back of her other hand with a flat sound.  She drew a deep breath.

“What’s the question?” Jill asked.

Rose shook her head.  She looked.  Tails.  “I’ll take that back.”  She took the parcel.  “You can stay out here,” she added.

“What was the flip for?” Jill asked again worriedly.  It had been just a few years since Rose had taken up the practice and Jill was still trying to figure out a pattern.

~~~

Rose stepped through the doorway and looked around.  Pastor was usually up by now.  The back door was open to the small plot that could only be called a yard for its adjacent position to what could optimistically be called a house.  Her foot hit something as she crossed the floor.  It rolled.  She looked down.

It was his staff.

Picking it up worriedly, Rose finished her crossing with longer strides, stepped out into the sunny dirt plot to squint.

There was no one there.

“Rose.”

She turned again.  Looking down, she saw him sitting by the doorway.

“You left your staff,” she said.

“I needed air.”

His palms had a sandy look, like he might have crawled part of the way.

“Are you okay?”

He was still breathing hard.  His dark longish hair was disheveled.  His scarred face looked pasted and flushed.  She squatted down on her heels to check his forehead and he flinched.  She jerked her hand away.

“Sorry,” she said, adding, by way of explanation, “You don’t have a fever…”

“It’s not like that,” he said.  “It’s that thing that was on the radio, last week, from Five Cities.”

“Blanyard’s speech?”

It was…  different today.”

“What do you mean ‘today’?”

He pushed his hands through his hair.  It wasn’t like him to be so not calm, Rose thought.  It was good Jill wasn’t here.  Jill didn’t understand things like this.

Rose let her knees touch the packed dirt and leaned forward.  She waited.

“I was meditating today,” he said, “and I thought I heard it again, but the words didn’t feel right anymore.  Something was missing…”  He pushed his hands into his hair again.  He grew still.  She waited.  His breaths came deep and deliberate.  “They’re empty.”

“Empty?”

“Like nothing.”

His hands clutched at the sides of his head again.  Rose fought the sudden urge to drop the parcel, to reach up and pry them loose for fear he’d hurt himself.  Her palms prickled at the thought.  She clutched her coin instead.

He leaned back.  Slowly, the hands lowered.  Slowly, his breathing evened out.  “Fred said he’d come if something got worse?”

“That’s how he put it, said he’d explain later,” Rose confirmed.

“I think something has.”

He reached out a hand.  She put his staff into it.  They stood together, apart.

“Jill’s here?”

“Yes.”

“I guess we can ask Fred about Blanyard.”

Rose drew a deep breath.  “He’s dead, isn’t he?”

“No one’s told us that yet,” said Pastor.  “But this feeling’s nothing good.”

Rose hesitated again.  “I brought you something,” she said.  “You left this at our house, before…”

She unwrapped the paper and shook out the garment for him.  It had been a birthday present years ago, a long leather jacket, waterproofed on the outside, lined inside.  Pastor ran his hands over it just a moment before its memory made him smile.

“It’s been awhile,” he admitted.  He’d always liked this jacket.  It kept off the heat but kept out the cold.  There were pockets with clasps and zippers, the sort that wouldn’t lose things easily.

“Sorry, it took so long,” Rose said.  “Things sort of piled up.”

He smiled softly.  Normally older people had that kind of smile, she thought.

He pulled it on readily and they went inside.  She helped him pack and Jill stood in the doorway, hopping from one foot to the other.

“Hi, Pastor,” she said dutifully.

He nodded in her general direction.  She flinched away from his scarred face, and he seemed to notice.

“Rose?”

Rose straightened from his backpack and waited.

He hesitated at her stillness, then explained, “There’s a box in the corner closet, full of some cloths.  Can you choose one for me?”

As he packed, she found it like he said, beaten cardboard, kept from the smell of mildew by the equally unpleasant smell of mothballs.  She had a sense, looking at the kerchiefs and strips, that she knew why she was looking and chose something firm but soft that seemed easy to clean and get dry.

She carried over a dark, hemmed cotton cloth.  He took it and creased it expertly, then bound it about his hollowed eye sockets.  When he lowered his hands, he wavered a little, like being blindfolded was still disorienting though the view was unchanged.

Rose saw Jill relax; he’d made this gesture for people like her.

“Thank you,” he said belatedly.  “I think that’s everything.”

Rose moved to the door and Jill stepped back.  She was staring, as some people do when they know they’re not being looked at.

Pastor hesitated.  He was looking up, as if listening for something.

“Should I lead you?” Rose asked warily.

He relaxed.  “I’ll follow your steps,” he said.

She didn’t ask how he’d know them from others, only nodded, then caught herself nodding, and said, “Alright.”

~~~

They met Fred on the other side of town.

“What changed your mind?” Jill asked readily, getting tired of all the silence.

Fred let her throw words between them.  He was wearing a larger pack than they, fit with a coil of rope and a sleeping roll, and a sturdy one-and-a-half-sheath for a hatchet and a familiar-looking ax.  He carried everything high on his shoulders.

He looked first to Rose.

“News from Five Cities this morning,” he explained.  “A lot of people are dead.”

“Why?  How?” Jill asked.

Fred shook his head and cracked a cynical smile.  “Blanyard’s one.  They’re calling him a traitor, saying he let in a terrorist attack.  Mr. Kennick had to send in his special forces to clean up.”

They stood a moment in silence.  There was no praise for Kennick, no shock at treachery for Blanyard, only the quiet understanding that this story was the one everyone would tell because any other would be silenced.

“Spade’s taking credit,” Fred added, for completeness, “but it was on the Slight Twice King’s orders.”

No one asked Jill why she shuddered.

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