By Justin Hunter
The headlights lapped at the bean pods lying still across the packed gravel driveway. I pulled the curtain back a little further to get a better look at the truck. With the light coming almost directly at us and the moon getting itself twisted up in the clouds, I could only see the shape. Boxy. Old.
“Go get Dad,” I said to my brother, but he didn’t move. I turned away from the window, shoved him from the ottoman he’d pulled over next to me. “Go, Danny.”
This time, he got up and went to the back bedroom, running his hands along the cracked adobe walls like there wasn’t a truck pulling up outside our house. I turned back to the window, let the curtain fall back enough to hide my face, as if that mattered. As the truck came closer, I saw the markings. Painted against the rusted, dented, and chipped door siding was the mark. Three lines up, one across. The fucking mark.
“Samantha, get your ass away from that window and come help me find some guns.”
I turned and saw my dad standing with a box of 12-gauge shells in one hand, a flashlight in the other. Danny had the Enfield that my dad promised would fire when we needed it to.
“Why are they here?”
Dad didn’t say anything, just turned and went back into the kitchen where he threw open drawers, pulled open cabinets. I turned back to the window.
The truck’s lights cut out at the same time as the low rumble of the old engine echoed one last time off our walls and out into the night. In the darkness, the mark seemed brighter. Easier to see. I stared at it, hoping I’d been wrong. Maybe it was a Federale coming by to check up on the gringos. Maybe it was a sheriff from back in Santa Cruz County that got lost and crossed the border south.
Or maybe it was exactly what I knew it was. Terror painted on sheet metal as an announcement more than a warning.
“Sam, you don’t get the fuck in here and find yourself a gun, they’ll be taking you back with them.”
“Coming,” I said, turning away from the window. In the kitchen, I watched Dad load shells into his Remington and I watched Danny play with the trigger on the Enfield.
“Why are they here?”
“I’ve been telling you, Sam.”
“Telling me what?”
“We might not have enough sometime.”
I shook my head, slapped at the kitchen table. “Sometime doesn’t mean now. Why didn’t you tell us?”
My dad stopped messing with the Remington, looked me in the eyes. “Because it’s going to be fine. I’ve got a plan.”
I sighed. “Where’s Mom?”
“Bedroom,” Dad said without look up from the shotgun.
“With a gun?”
“Hell if I know.”
I pushed past my dad, past Danny, went down the hall to the back bedroom. Mom was sitting upright in the bed, comforter pulled up to her chin, eyes straight ahead. “It’s them.”
“I know it is, which is why you need to come out there with us.”
She shook her head.
“Well, you need a gun at least.”
“Your father brought this on us, he can fix it. And if he doesn’t fix it, so be it. I don’t want a gun, don’t want you and Danny with one either.”
“That’s it? ‘So be it’?”
“Then fucking sit here.” I left her room, went to my room, and flipped the mattress off my bed and against the wall. Beneath it, wrapped in an old Arizona Wildcats t-shirt on top of the box spring, was the .357 I’d stolen from Margaret’s brother before we had to leave Arizona. I picked it up, dropped the shirt, and let my finger rest on the trigger.
Hadn’t been cleaned in at least a six months—since the last time I’d felt like I needed to use it. Had just three bullets in it.
I stood in the hall, wanting to slap my mother in the face, wanting to shake her until she’d help us. Part of me did just want to leave her back there to fend for herself, but instead, I went to the linen closet. I pulled down the .380 Dad told me never to touch. Used to be his daddy’s and he said we’d only ever use that gun in an emergency. I walked to Mom’s room, looked her in the eyes, shook my head, then tossed the .380 onto the comforter in front of her.
I went back out into the kitchen and stopped at the table where Dad had dropped an ice chest full of meat. Lid open, smelling like a hundred pounds of roadkill had just been dumped in our house, he counted the individually wrapped packages of steak and ground chuck.
“The smell,” Danny said, trying not to look at the meat.
Dad dove his hands in and answered without looking up. “That’s what happens when the generator goes out, bud. Been out a day and a half now, so things are going to start to stink.”
I stared at the ice chest, thinking about the last time we had anything besides beans and stale cereal. Anything that we could cook over a flame. It should have turned my nose by now, should have sent my stomach to my throat, but I fucking missed the taste of meat no matter what was going on outside our walls.
“What is it?” I said.
Dad stopped, looked up at me, then looked back down into the ice chest.
“It’s not what they want, not human.”
“Then it won’t work,” I said.
“Dad, if it could work, it would have worked already.”
“No choice now.”
“When were you supposed to deliver?”
I shook my head. “You couldn’t find anyone this time?”
“No one that wouldn’t be missed.”
I hated myself for asking, for wishing he’d been able to kill just one more person. My stomach bubbled when I thought about it. Thought about the day my dad told Danny and me what he’d be doing to keep us alive.
“Won’t ever be good people,” he’d said. “I promise you that.”
I closed my eyes for a second, forced everything my dad had ever done from my mind, and went to the living room and stopped. Shadows against the curtains. Scraping along the adobe walls outside. Then, the knock.
Quiet, calm. One knock. Then two. I lifted the .357 toward the door, but my dad lowered my arm, looked me in the eyes, and shook his head. He walked across the living room, unarmed, head high, and unlocked the door.
I’d always heard that they’d come pounding down someone’s door only after a week or more had gone by without a delivery—the ones around here at least, the ones that cared to make deals with us. But I knew they were running short. And I’d never actually met anyone dumb enough to deal with them besides us. Everyone I knew stayed in the States, let the government scoop them up in the draft, fought a war they never wanted to have. And the people down here, I didn’t know what happened to them. Well, I knew what happened to some of them.
My dad happened.
We were the smart ones. The ones who could buy our way through life. A few pounds of flesh here, a few there. Hand over what was left of people the world would never miss. Serve the community while serving them. That’s how Dad had sold it at least. I wasn’t sure when he’d become so comfortable killing people to keep us alive.
Dad pulled open the door, and three of them were there. Skin tight, eyes yellow. But otherwise, human. The hunger hadn’t made them any worse. Except for the fact that they were at our door after just one day of being late on a delivery.
Danny tugged at my free hand from behind me. “Sam.”
I ignored him as I watched the three of them standing in our doorway saying nothing to my father.
“Sam,” Danny said again, pulling hard on my hand.
I turned and went into the kitchen with him. “What?”
His voice low, Danny said, “Dad told me it’d take more than one shot.”
“What if they’re too fast?”
I shook my head, pointed at the trigger on the Enfield he had cuddled up against his chest like a baby blanket. “Just pull that thing. They aren’t any quicker than us.”
“But nothing. They come at you, pull that trigger over and over again until you’re the only one breathing.”
By the time I turned back toward the living room, Dad was leading them in. They looked at me as they entered the kitchen, ignored my gun, ignored Danny’s gun. They looked at the shotgun on the table, but their eyes jumped to the ice chest like a rock skipping across a pond.
“This is what I got,” Dad said.
They leaned over the cooler, flipped the packages of meat back and forth.
“Wasn’t easy, either.” Dad slid the shotgun off the table while they were busy examining the meat. “You know how many cows are left in Mexico?”
They didn’t say anything.
“I heard there’s only a hundred and fifty left. A pound of meat cost more than just about anyone has now. This side of the border or north of it.”
They tossed the meat back into the cooler and stared at my father, not speaking.
“Look, I’ll get you the real thing. Been having trouble finding the right people is all.”
They tilted their heads as they looked at me and Danny.
“Come on, you know it doesn’t work like that. I’ll get you some, but it’s going to be the way it’s always been.”
I wrapped my finger around the trigger of the .357. Three bullets. Three of them.
Danny’s voice echoed in my head. Dad told me it’d take more than one shot.
Danny was right, and Dad was right. So, I picked the one I’d lay down. The one on the left, taller than the the other two. There was no strategy behind it. I just looked and picked, and practiced in my mind.
The one closest to my dad put a hand on Dad’s shoulder, pushed him toward one of the chairs around the table, sat him down.
“I told you, I’ll get the real stuff.”
Dad held the shotgun in his lap as the middle one shoved Danny into a chair, then me. I let him do it while watching the tall one, the top half of his head blowing off in my mind over and over again.
“Dad,” Danny said.
“It’s okay, buddy. No problem here, right guys?” Dad looked at each of them.
The one closest to Danny sniffed Danny’s neck, pointed at him. The others nodded.
I closed my eyes, changed my target. The one by Danny. Three shots to the forehead. Figure out the rest. I opened my eyes and lifted the .357 toward the one standing over Danny. I stood, pressed the barrel to the side of its head.
“Sam, don’t,” Dad said.
“Get the fuck away from my brother. Take the meat, and walk out that front door.”
The other two came around and stood behind me, hands poking at my sides, noses diving in for quick breaths near my neck. But I held that .357 on the one standing over my brother, waiting for my chance to pull the trigger.
“Sam,” Dad said.
I watched the one hovering over my brother, could feel the shuddering in Danny’s bones from across the table. I didn’t look at Danny’s face because I knew what I’d see, and I knew what I’d do. So, I waited, gun out, two of them flanking me like coyotes stalking a loose dog.
After another minute, the one above my brother backed up and looked at the others. Each of them shrugged, then the tall one grabbed the ice chest and lifted it off the table. The three of them walked out of the kitchen, through the living room, and out the front door.
Dad jumped up and ran to the front door. I heard him throw it, shut and lock it. I heard the legs of the chair Danny sat in scrape against the cracked tile floor. I heard Danny’s sobs. Then, I felt my dad’s arms wrapped around me, his hand pushing my gun hand down.
“They’re gone,” he said. “It worked.”
I shook my head as my dad, Danny, and I sat around the table once more. “It won’t work forever.”
“What’re we going to do, Dad?” Danny said.
“We’re going to find someone to kill.”
“There’s no one left,” I said. “You knew this was coming, but you made us stay.”
Dad set the shotgun on the table, pushed his chair back, stood up. As he paced the kitchen, he said, “We don’t know and didn’t know anything, Samantha. All we’ve ever been able to do is guess and hope, and that has kept us alive.”
“Jesus, girl,” Dad said. “What do you want from me?”
I sat, head down, flipping the chamber open then closed on the .357. “I want to know why we’re here.”
Dad stopped pacing. “You know why.”
Chamber open, three bullets. Chamber closed. “I know what you told us.”
“Sam, we could have stayed and been drafted. Who do you know that didn’t get drafted?”
I shrugged, opened the chamber, spun it, closed it.
“You, Danny—you two would have been sent to the wall or maybe out west where it’s worse. You want to live your life with a rifle on your shoulder?”
“That’s what we’re doing now, isn’t it?”
“Sam, don’t fight,” Danny said.
I looked at him and smiled. “I’m not fighting, man, I’m surviving. We all are, and that’s different.”
“Sam, we’re where we are because it’s better for us.”
I snorted and tossed the .357 onto the table.
“They didn’t try anything—”
“Dad, please,” I said. “I almost put a bullet in one of them, and if that happened, you know what would have come next.”
“Sam,” Dad said.
I stood and walked toward the hall but stopped when I heard scraping. Like a tree branch drug along the back side of our house. “The fuck is that?”
“Watch your mouth, Samantha.”
“Listen,” I said.
Dad, Danny, and I held our breaths. The scraping dragged across the back of the house to the side nearest the kitchen. Past the window over the sink. I ran to it, but Dad pushed me away.
“Don’t stick your head in that window.”
“I want to know what that is.”
“Probably a javelina.”
“Dad, what is it?” Danny, standing and joining us near the sink.
The scraping stopped and we stood in silence for one minute. Two. Three.
“There you go,” Dad said. “Wasn't anything.”
I turned away from the sink just as there was a single knock on our front door, and I froze again. Dad looked at me, looked at Danny, but he didn’t move.
“Did you ever hear their truck start back up?” I said.
One more knock at the front door.
“Dad!” Danny yelled, pointing at the window over the sink behind us.
Dad and I both spun to find orange flames pecking at the glass like a woodpecker, darkening the window with smoke.
“Shit,” Dad said, grabbing the shotgun off the table. He held the gun in one hand then went to the sink, and flung open the cabinet door beneath it. He came up with a fire extinguisher.
I watched the flames stretch above the window. Watched them catch on the awning.
Dad didn’t bother trying to get outside. He used the bottom of the fire extinguisher to break the window.
The front door split apart at the same time.
I turned and moved toward the living room with the .357 stretching out ahead of me. I made it a single step into the living room when one of them rushed, shoulder down, into my chest. I fell back across the tile in the kitchen, the gun going off as it slammed into the tile.
I rolled to my stomach, pushed to my knees, and tried to find where the bullet had gone. I ignored the kick to the ribs as I tried to find Danny. Please, not him. Please, no.
I found Danny backed up against the sink as the tall one to his left pulled Dad back in through the window. The errant round had put a hole in the ceiling, not my brother.
I tried to breathe as another kick to the ribs sent me onto my back. I blinked away the pain and saw the third one walking across the kitchen toward Danny.
“Danny, shoot!” I yelled.
I caught the third kick—a dirty boot covering skin that had stretched and dried across muscles that had become too taut. I looked up and thought I saw it smile down at me. I swung the .357 up toward its face. The first shot blew a hole in its cheek, but he kept trying to kick. Then, he lunged down at me.
I fired another shot into the top of its head and it collapsed on top of me.
“Dad!” Danny yelled from somewhere to my left.
I pushed the thing up off my chest enough for me to shout. “Danny, fucking shoot it!”
I didn’t hear a bullet, but I heard a scream. Not Danny’s though. My father’s.
I pushed out from under the dead weight and climbed to my feet. The tall one had Dad by the arm, chewing as Dad tried to punch his way out of its grip.
“Danny,” I yelled, crossing the kitchen. “Shoot it.”
But Danny stood backed up against the counter, staring the third one in the eyes. I leveled the .357 at the tall one and pulled the trigger.
“Shit!” I tossed the gun down and ran at it, but it threw an elbow into my nose. The crack—the warm liquid on my lips—it made the tall one and the one hovering over Danny stop and turn toward me. I tried to look at how bad Dad’s arm was before they came at me, but I didn’t have time. The tall one leapt and shoved two hands into my chest, and once again, I was on the floor. Both of them leaned in a few inches away, chomping, chewing at flesh they could already taste. I closed my eyes and waited for it.
The rifle shot blew apart the room.
The air in the kitchen left with the sound, and I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see. I pushed at the thing on my chest, its mouth no longer moving. I pushed and kicked and tried to hear. Tried to see. I finally got out from under it, and the sound came back to my ears like I’d opened a door to a concert hall. But I didn’t hear music.
I heard screams.
Danny’s. My father’s.
I blinked away blood that wasn’t mine from my eyes, and I saw the last one—the tall one—tear into Dad’s skin. Chewing down to the bone on his hand. The shotgun sat a few feet away on the floor. Danny had the rifle pointed at the tall one, pulling the trigger over and over again to the sound of nothing but a dry click. The thing moved its mouth up my Dad’s arm, to his neck, searching for fresh meat far from bone.
I dove across the floor for the shotgun, but it saw me. With Dad’s neck still in its mouth, it kicked me in the face. This time, my cheek cracked, my eyes blurred. But I slid and got the shotgun in my right hand. As I tried to pull it into my left and steady it for the shot, the tall one let go of my dad and jumped on top of me. I pushed up with the stock of the shotgun, trying to hold it off. But he was too strong.
His teeth closed in on my face and all I could hear was Danny pulling the trigger on that empty rifle. Click. Click. Click.
A gun blast pierced my ears, and the side of its head blew off. But it kept chomping. I tried to turn my head to find where the shot had come from, but I couldn’t move. The tall one, its face half gone, kept chomping.
Then the second shot came.
It was knocked sideways off of me, and the top of its head was gone. I scrambled backwards, to my butt, to my feet. Then I looked down the hall and saw Mom standing there with the .380.
I went to Danny, wrapped him in my arms, kept him from looking at Dad anymore. I didn’t look either, but I heard.
I heard the nothing. The empty.
I heard the blank space where his breath had been. I reached out for Mom and pulled her into me.