Authors: Michael Marshall Smith
One of Us
The Straw Men
The Lonely Dead
Blood of Angels
We Are Here
What You Make It
More Tomorrow & Other Stories
© 2013 by Michael Marshall Smith
Individual story copyrights are listed at the end of this volume.
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Cover illustration Copyright 2014 © ememess
isit the author website
,’ Henry said. ‘So now we’re here.’
He was using his “So entertain me” voice and he was cold but trying not to show it. Pete and I were cold too. We were trying not to show it either. Being cold is not cool, and it is not manly. So you look at your condensing breath as if it’s a total surprise to you, what with it being so balmy and all. Even when you’ve known each other for over thirty years, you do these things.
Why? I don’t know.
‘Yep,’ I agreed. It wasn’t my job to entertain Henry.
Pete walked up to the thick wire fence. He tilted his head back until he was looking at the top, four feet above his head. A ten-foot wall of tautly criss-crossed wire. ‘Who’s going to test it?’
‘Well, hey, you’re closest.’ Like the others, I was speaking quietly, though we were half a mile from the nearest road or house or person.
This side of the fence, anyhow.
‘I did it last time.’
‘Long while ago.’
‘Still,’ he said, stepping back. ‘Your turn, Dave.’
I held up my hands. ‘These are my tools, man.’
Henry sniggered. ‘
a tool, that’s for sure.’
Pete laughed too, I had to smile, and for a moment it was like it
the last time. Hey presto — time travel on a budget. You don’t need a machine, it turns out, you just need a friend to laugh like a teenager. Chronology shivers.
And so — quickly, before I could think about it — I flipped my hand out and touched the fence. My whole arm jolted, as if every bone in it had been tapped with a hammer. Tapped
, and in different directions.
‘Christ,’ I hissed, spinning away, shaking my hand like I was trying to rid myself of it. ‘Goddamn
Henry nodded sagely. ‘This stretch has current, then. Also, didn’t we use a stick last time?’
‘Always been the brains of the operation, right, Hank?’
Pete snickered again. I was annoyed, but the shock had pushed me over a line. It had brought it all back much more strongly.
I nodded up the line of the fence as it marched off into the trees. ‘Further,’ I said, and pointed at Henry. ‘And you’re testing the next section, bro.’
one of those things you do, one of those stupid, drunken things, that afterwards seem impossible to understand. You ask yourself why, feeling confused and sad, like the ghost of a man killed though a careless step in front of a car. But then it’s too late.
We could have
gone to The Junction, for a start, though it was a Thursday and the Thursday session is a winter tradition with us, a way of making January and February seem less like a living death. The two young guys could have given up the pool table, though, instead of bogarting it all night (by virtue of being better than us, and efficiently dismissing each of our challenges in turn): in which case we would have played a dozen slow frames and gone home around eleven, like usual — ready to get up the following morning feeling no more than a little fusty. This time of year it hardly matters if Henry yawns over the gas pump, or Pete zones out behind the counter in the Massaqua Mart, and I can sling a morning’s worth of home fries and sausage in my sleep. We’ve been doing these things so long that we barely have to be present. Maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s the real problem right there.
Anyway, by quarter after eight, proven pool-fools, we were sitting at the corner table. We always have, since back when it was Bill’s Bar and beer tasted new and strange and metallic in our mouths. We were talking back and forth, laughing once in a while, none of us bothered about the pool but yes, a little bit bothered all the same. It wasn’t some macho thing. I don’t care about being beat by some guys who are passing through. I don’t much care about being beat by anyone. Henry and Pete and I tend to win games about equally. If it weren’t that way then probably we wouldn’t play together. It’s never been about winning. It was more that I simply wished I was better at it. Had
I’d be better, one day, like I expected to wind up being something other than a short order cook. Don’t get me wrong: you eat one of my breakfasts you’ll be set up for the day and tomorrow you’ll come back and order the same thing. I’m okay at what I do — it just wasn’t what I had in mind when I was young. Not sure what I
have in mind — I used to think maybe I’d go over the mountains to Seattle, be in a band or something, but the thought got vague and lost direction after that — but it certainly wasn’t being first in command at a hot griddle. None of our jobs are bad jobs, but they’re the kind held by people in the background. People who are getting by. People who don’t play pool that well.
It also struck me, as I watched Pete banter with Nicole when she brought us round number four or five, that I was still smoking. I’d been assuming I would have given it up by now. Tried, once or twice. Didn’t take. Would it ever happen? Probably not. Would it give me cancer sooner or later? Most likely. Better try again, then. At some point.
Henry watched Nicole’s ass as it accompanied her back to the counter. ‘Cute as hell,’ he noted, approvingly, not for the first time.
Pete and I grunted, in the way we would of if he’d observed that the moon was smaller than the earth. Henry’s observation was both true and something that had very little bearing on our lives. Nicole was twenty-three. We could give her fifteen years each. That’s not the kind of gift that cute girls covet.
So we sat and talked, and smoked, and didn’t listen to the sound of balls being efficiently slotted into pockets by people who weren’t us.
for long enough in the woods at night, you’ll start getting jittery. Forests have a way of making civilisation seem less inevitable. In sunlight they may make you want to build yourself a cabin and get back to nature, get that whole Davy Crockett vibe going on. In the dark they remind you what a good thing chairs and hot meals and electric lights really are, and you thank God that you live now, instead of then.
Every once in a while we’d test the fence — using a stick. The current was on each time we tried. So we kept walking. We followed the line of the wire as it cut up the rise, then down into a shallow stream bed, then up again steeply on the other side.
If you were seeing the fence for the first time you’d likely wonder at the straightness of it, the way the concrete posts had been planted at ten yard intervals deep into the rock. You might ask yourself if national forests normally went to these lengths to protect their boundaries, and you’d soon remember they didn’t; that for the most part a cheerful little wooden sign by the side of the road was judged to be all that was needed.
If you kept on walking deeper, intrigued, sooner or later you’d see a notice attached to one of the posts. The notices are small, designed to convey authority rather than draw attention.
NO TRESPASSING, they say. MILITARY LAND.
That could strike you as a little strange, perhaps, because you might have believed that most of the marked-off military areas were down over in the moonscapes of Nevada rather than up here in a quiet Northeast corner of Washington State. But who knows what the military’s up to, right? Apart from protecting us from foreign aggressors, of course, and The Ongoing Terrorist Threat, and if that means they need a few acres to themselves then that’s actually kind of comforting. The army moves in mysterious ways, our freedoms to defend. Good for them, you’d think, and you’d likely turn and head back for town, having had enough of tramping through snow for the day. In the evening you’d come into Ruby’s and eat hearty, some of my wings or a burger or the brisket — which, though I say so myself, isn’t half bad. Next morning you’d drive back South and forget about it, and us.
I remember when the fences went up, though. Thirty years ago. 1985. Our parents knew what they were for. Hell, we were only eight and
There was a danger, and it was getting worse: the last decade had proved that. Four people had disappeared in the last year alone. One came back and was sick for a week, in an odd and dangerous kind of way, and then died. The others were never seen again. My aunt Jean was one of those. But there’s danger to going in abandoned mine shafts, too, or talking to strangers, or juggling knives when you’re drunk.
So... you don’t do it. You walk the town in pairs at night, and you observe the unspoken curfew. You kept an eye out for men who didn’t blink, for slim women whose strides were too short — or so people said. There was never that much passing trade in town. Massaqua isn’t on the way to anywhere. Massaqua is a single guy who keeps his yard tidy and doesn’t bother anyone. The tourist season up here is short and not exactly intense. There is no ski lodge or health spa and the motel frankly isn’t up to much.
The fence seemed to keep the danger contained and out of town, and within a few years its existence was part of life. It wasn’t like it was right there on our doorstep. No big-city reporter heard about it and came up looking to make a sensation — or, if they did, they didn’t make it all the way here.
Life went on. Years passed.
Sometimes small signs work better than great big ones.
As we climbed deeper into the forest, Pete was in front. I was more-or-less beside him, and Henry lagged a few steps behind. It had been that way the last time, too, but then we hadn’t had hip flasks to keep us fuelled in our intentions. We hadn’t needed to stop to catch our breath quite so often either.
‘We just going to keep on walking?’
It was Henry asked the question, of course. Pete and I didn’t even answer.
after ten we’d still been in the bar. The two guys remained at the pool table. When one leaned down, the other stood judiciously sipping from a bottled beer. They weren’t talking to each other, just slotting the balls down. Looked like they’re having a whale of a time.
We were drinking steadily, and the conversation was often a two-way while one or other of us trekked back and forth to empty our bladder. By then we were resigned to just sitting around. We were a little too drunk to start playing pool, even if the table became free. There was no news to catch up on. We felt aimless. We already knew Pete was ten years married, that they had no children and it was likely going to stay that way. His wife is fine, and still pleasant to be with, though her collection of dolls is getting exponentially bigger. We knew Henry was married once too, had a little boy, and that though the kid and his mother now lived forty miles away relations between them remained cordial. Neither Pete nor I are much surprised that he has achieved this. Henry can be a royal pain in the ass at times, but he wouldn’t still be our friend if that’s all he was.
‘Same again, boys? You’re thirsty tonight.’
It was Pete’s turn in the restrooms so it was Henry and I who looked up to see Nicole smiling down at us, thumb hovering over the repeat button on her pad. Deprived of Pete’s easy manner (partly genetic, also honed over years of chatting to the public while totting and bagging groceries), our response was cluttered and vague.
Quick nods and smiles; I said thanks; and Henry got out a ‘Hell, yes!’ that sounded a little loud.
Nicole winked at me and went away again, as she has done many times over the last three years. When she got to the bar I saw one of the pool-players looking at her, and felt a strange twist of something in my stomach. It wasn’t because they were strangers, or because I suspected they might be something else, something that shouldn’t be here. They were just younger guys, that’s all. Of course they’re going to look at her.
She’s probably going to want them to.
I lit another cigarette and wondered why I still didn’t really know how to deal with women. They’ve always seemed so different to guys, somehow. So confident, so powerful, so in themselves. Kind of scary, even. Most teenage boys feel that way, I guess, but I’d assumed age would help. That being older might make a difference. Apparently not. The opposite, if anything.
‘Cute just really doesn’t cover it,’ Henry said, again not for the first time. ‘Going to have to come up with a whole new word. Supercute, how’s that. Hyperhot. Ultra—’
How about just beautiful?
For a horrible moment I thought I’d said this out loud. I guess in a way I did, because what pronouncements ring louder than the ones you make only in your own head?
Pete returned to the table at the same time as the new beers arrived, and with him around it was easier to come across like grown-ups. He came back looking thoughtful, too.
He waited until the three of us were alone again, and then reached across and took one of my Marlboro: like he used to, back in the day, when he couldn’t afford his own. He didn’t seem to be aware he’d done it. He looked pretty drunk, in fact, and I realised I was too. Henry is generally at least a
Pete lit the cigarette, took a long mouthful of beer, and then he said:
‘You remember that time we went over the fence?’
he stick touched the wire
, and nothing happened.
I did it again. Same result. We stopped walking. My legs ached and I was glad for the break.
Pete hesitated, then reached out and brushed the thick black wire with his hand. When we were kids he might have pretended it was charged, and jiggered back and forth, eyes rolling and tongue sticking out.
He didn’t now. He just curled his fingers around it, gave it a light tug.
‘Power’s down,’ he said, quietly.
Henry and I stepped up close. Even with Pete standing there grasping it, you still had to gird yourself to do the same.
Then all three of us were holding the fence, holding it with both hands, looking in.
That close up, the wire fuzzed out of focus and it was almost as if it wasn’t there. You just saw the forest beyond it: moonlit trunks, snow; you heard the quietness. If you stood on the other side and looked out, the view would be exactly the same, I guess. With a fence that long, it could be difficult to tell which side was in, which was out.