Authors: Jordan Harper
For David and Sheryl Harper
John ran through the high desert, away from his grave. He followed the power lines through scrub-covered hills. The power lines hummed. They whispered things he couldn't understand. But that was just madness leaking from his triple-fucked brain. Just like the sparkles and flashes at the corners of his vision and the way his head throbbed in time with his heart, frantic. The pulse radiated from his scalp where Carter had taken the pistol to him.
John's mouth felt full of hot pennies. He spat a mouthful of blood. Some splashed on the brush and pebbles underfoot. Some dribbled down onto his jeans. John wiped red drool off his chin. His hands were caked in desert dirt from the grave Carter had made him dig. Jesus, his head. Triple-fucked indeed. Brain-swamped from death-fear shakes and meth hunger.
Skull-rattled from the pistol-whipping. Whole-body blasted from the orange pills Carter had fed him.
John raced tumbleweeds and thought of death. Back in the desert, as he dug his own grave, death had come so close John could still feel ghost maggots crawling under his skin. And death could still be coming. Carter could be running behind him. It would take more than a shovel swung by a crank-skinny suckmouth like John to lay out Carter. Carter could be tracking him by torn earth and trampled scrub and spat blood. Carter could be aiming at his back right now, ready to send a bullet through John's brain and end this whole stupid mess. Lord, nothingness sounded so sweet. John didn't know why he ran from it.
John couldn't do much, but he could run. He was made of rope and bone. Meth had melted the rest. He could run all day, even in the fire-season oven of the California high desert.
After he'd hit Carter with the shovel, the power lines were the first things he'd seen. So he followed them. If he'd chosen right, the power lines would lead him out of the high desert and back to Agua Dulce. Down in Agua Dulce, in a motel room looking out at rock and rattlesnake warning signs, the boy sat on the bed, probably eating a vending machine supper of soda and pork rinds. Watching teevee.
The power lines led him into a canyon between two high-backed hills. He moved into the shade of the valley. Underfoot the scrub was so dry it begged to burn, like ill will alone might ignite it. As he entered the wind tunnel of the valley, John smelled cow shit.
The longhorn ranch. When Carter had driven him up the mountain, John making the trip wrapped up in the bed of Carter's truck, he'd caught this same whiff of cow dung. On the other side of the cattle ranch would be the road. They'd been
moving uphill then, so he could take the downhill path back to Agua Dulce andÂ .Â .Â .
John's body reacted to the sound before the noise hit his brain. He froze. Pissed a trickle. Knew:
Carter was coming.
Late at night when the meth burned itself down to a dim glow at the back of his eyes, his teeth grinding so hard he could taste enamel dust, John knew plenty well that no one with a whole mind and a healthy disposition would owe as much money and crank credit to the High Desert chapter of Aryan Steel as he did. Aryan Steel, lockdown-born and baptized in shank-drawn blood, was made up of mad crackers too crazy for the businessmen who ran the Aryan Brotherhood. Aryan Steel's name carried heavy weight among badass rednecks west of the Mississippi. In Broken Arrow, in the Huntsville yard, in Little Rock, in Big Tuna, folks knew to step careful when they saw a man with a blue lightning bolt or two tattooed on his arm. A blue bolt tat meant the wearer had killed on an Aryan Steel greenlight.
Carter had two blue bolts on his arm the day John met him at the Shady Lady in Fontana. John had been a Hells Angels prospect once, and he had a name with some weight of its own. That was before the crank and booze and everything else. Now he was just a suckmouth with brown teeth and slippery eyes. John bought cheap Mexi crystal from Carter, the kind that dripped down the back of the throat like slow napalm for hours. John took credit when it was offered, then begged for it to be extended. But maybe John knew the whole time in the back of his brain, where the rot was blackest, that he wasn't buying meth from Carter. He was putting down payments on a slow-motion suicide.
The bill came due that morning in a shitty motel room in
Agua Dulce. John had muled a couple pounds of coke for the Steel to chip a couple hundred off his tab. The pounds were on the coffee table. Carter was going to meet him at the room, pick up the pounds, and trade him a teenth of crystal.
Three blue thunderbolt tattoos rode on Carter's bicep. John wasn't sure when the third one had shown up. It seemed like a thing a man ought to have noticed. Carter bagged the three pounds in a backpack while shooting eyes at the boy.
“The fuck is that?” Carter asked as he pushed a bindle across the table.
“That's my boy.”
Carter shook his head as he packed up the pounds John had brought.
“You're shitting me. You brought a kid.”
“His bitch mom left him with me for the weekend. She's off down to Primm Valley.”
Carter laughed. Primm Valley was the first place to gamble over the Nevada line. The bitch told folks she didn't like Vegas. She said she didn't care about neon lights and faggots riding tigers. But the truth wasâand John knew Carter could guessâshe couldn't wait the extra forty miles to Vegas. The boy's mother had the casino jones. With a degenerate gambler mom and a suckmouth dad, the boy was doomed to grow up thirsty for something. Only question was what.
Carter walked over to the window. Outside, Agua Dulce baked. The back of the motel faced a barbed-wire fence plastered in yellow rattlesnake warning signs. Carter turned back around. There were pills in Carter's palm. The pills were orange-soda orange.
“Take them,” Carter said.
“Man, I can't get down like that.” John nodded toward the boy.
“Don't remember asking,” Carter said.
John took the orange pills in his palm. He tried to ID them.
“Didn't give them to you to read, motherfucker. Take them.”
John put them in his mouth. That same old pill-bitter slime coated his mouth. The taste brought memories of a hundred memoryless days. He looked over at the boy watching teevee. Something with wings was stuck in John's chest. The wings beat against his rib cage. He swallowed the pills dry.
“Somebody else know where this kid is?” Carter asked.
“You know why.”
And there it was. John wrote down the bitch's cell phone number and tucked it in the boy's pocket. He thought about kissing the boy on the top of the head, but he didn't know how.
“Boy. Going to step out. You wait for your momma here and buy something out the snack machine if you get hungry.”
Two pickup trucks sat parked outside the room. One John recognized as Carter's. The other one, a rusted-out old Ram, had three Aryan Steel cowboys standing around it in wifebeaters and face tattoos. John counted five blue bolts between them. Behind the wheel was a fresh-faced recruit, his scalp still fish-belly white. The recruit, nineteen tops, had only one piece of ink, a still-wet Iron Cross. He looked scared, as if he were the one about to take his last ride.
The orange pills kicked in. Or maybe it was something else. John sank to the pavement as the world panned and zoomed. Blue-bolt-marked arms lifted him off the pavement, carried him to the back of the truck. He climbed into the truck bed on his own power. They wrapped him in a section of chain link and half-covered him with a mildewed tarp. Carter tossed a shovel next to him and told the others he'd go it alone. He flexed his bicep. Three blue bolts swelled.
“Room for number four,” Carter said with a smile. He covered John's face with the tarp.
The drive into the desert passed in an orange-pill haze. The truck climbed. John sweated himself into jerky. He closed his eyes and saw the boy, wished he could see anything else. Finally the truck stopped and Carter pulled off the tarp. John's eyes solarized. Nothing but high desert scrub and power lines far off. Carter handed John the shovel and gestured to a patch of desert.
“Dig.” Carter scratched himself under the chin with his big-ass pistol.
John dug. The dry soil was hard going at first as John sketched out a hole about his own size. Maybe it was the pills or the dumb animal shock, but he dug without contemplating the crawl into it, the pistol blast, and the eternity that would follow it.
“Good enough,” Carter said. “Stand in it.”
And something ancient and not yet dead came out of John's lizard brain like a solid thing, swallowing up his chest and holding it tight. Carter saw him hesitate and swung the pistol butt into John's skull. John went down in the dirt. He saw the shovel and he thought of the boy and the shovel swung and Carter was on the ground. John missed his moment to finish him. John ran into the desert instead.
John moved down the valley toward the smell of cow shit. The longhorns were sealed off from the valley by a barbed-wire fence. Carter winged a few more shots at him. None close. Bullets bounced off rocks. And then there was a popping noise and a power line clipped by a ricochet snapped and fell, spitting sparks into the desert scrub below.
John moved toward the barbed-wire fence. He smelled
smoke. He risked a look behind him. The power line twisted around in the scrub like a beheaded rattlesnake. It puked sparks. Fire and smoke sprung up faster than John could believe.
Any boy raised up in the California high desert knew to fear smoke and fire. It was how a chemical-laced suckmouth like John managed to avoid smoking. Every match tossed aside, each careless cigarette butt could set one off. Miles of burned brush, acres of black smoke. When the wind blew dry and sureâlike it did todayâa wildfire could gobble up a hillside faster than a man could run.
Running was the smart thing to do. The fire gave John a chance. If he could make it through the cattle pen fast enough he'd make it to the road on the other side before Carter could catch up. He saw a metal shack on the other side of the gravel road. His brain begged him to hide. But this was no time for going to ground. John wanted to run.
John reached the fence. A longhorn bull stood on the other side. The steer stared straight ahead. His horns hung over the fence. John grabbed them. The steer didn't move. John put a foot on the bottom strand of barbed wire. It wobbled under his weight.
John put his foot on the second strand. All his weight was on the steer when the gunshot came. Blood and meat and hide exploded from the bull's shoulder. The bull roared. It tossed its head. Barbed wire ripped John's legs from thigh to knee as the bull tossed him into the pen. The ground slapped the air out of him. He gasped uselessly for agonizing seconds, trying to remember how to breathe. He dodged hooves as he rolled. He took a bath in cow shit. The animals, already spooked by the smoke drifting in from the valley, scrambled across their pen as bullets tore into them. John made it to his feet and looked
behind him. Carter had made it to the high side of the hill faster than John had figured was possible. But he had no way to reach John.
John made it to the gate that connected the pen to the road. Metal slats were easier to hop than barbed wire. Blood spots soaked John's jeans. Blood squirted between his teeth. Darklights strobed in his eyes. His smoke-lashed lungs were bundles of raw nerves. But he was not dead yet. His feet touched the gravel road and he felt home free. The road down would lead to Agua Dulce and theâ
A rusted-out Ram climbed the road. Devil dust swarmed around it, spiraled up in eddies toward the cloudless sky. The men in the back of the truck had shaved heads. They had tattoos on their faces and necks. They had hunting rifles. They barked out rebel yells. Aryan Steel. Carter's cavalry. Carter's cell phone must have caught a rare signal in the desert.
Plumes of smoke hugged the earth. A thick black cloud laid itself between the truck and John. The truck paused downhill of the cattle pen to stay in the breathable air. John looked up the hill. The fire cut off that line of retreat. Jesus, it had spread fast. Too fast. The open desert was in flames. He turned back to the truck. Rifles trained on him. The standoff had a shelf life. The fire was climbing into the cattle pen. Soon it would surround them.
Then the skinheads looked to their right, toward the metal shack. A rancher stood in its doorway. He had a shotgun trained on the truck. He had the Aryan Steel killers cold. He said something to them, quiet. They lowered their rifles. They knew a desert rancher would fire on armed trespassers. They knew what a tight spread of buckshot could do to them. Relief soaked John, numbed his pain.
The rancher's jaw sheared off. He dropped his shotgun. His hands grasped at bloody air where his chin had been. Carter came out of the smoke below the cattle pen and fired again. The other skinheads trained their rifles on the rancher and opened up on him. He jitterbugged into death. Carter looked up the road and locked eyes with John. His face was a red mask from the shovel wound on his scalp. His teeth were bright white as he smiled at his prey.
A longhorn screamed in pain and fear. The fire had spread to the hay in the pen. The cattle swirled in the pen, running from smoke and sparks.
“Come. To. Us. Or.”
Carter had climbed onto the hood of the truck. He shouted out the terms of John's surrender over the screams of the terrified longhorns. Carter yelled one word at a time.
“I,” Carter said.
“Will,” Carter said.
“Kill,” Carter said.
“The,” Carter said.
“Boy,” Carter said.
John stopped. It wasn't a bluff. A little while back an Aryan Steel roughneck had shotgunned a six-year-old just for having the dumb luck to be at a “leave no witnesses” greenlight in Texas. There was no chance John would make it back to Agua Dulce ahead of the truck. Carter would kill the boy just to teach other suckmouths not to run.