Alex Martin can breathe underwater, has sixteen fingers and one eye. He was born in the last Ice Age and has dedicated the previous millenia...read more or so cultivating a really lovely flower garden in Nepal. Unfortunately, there's a rarely employed layabout in Northern England who shares his name, and that's the author in question. That's life, eh?
Two young boys, up to their thighs in the summer wheat, stare at each other. One stands limp with his jeans sagging around his ankles. The other squints into the sun. I lie flat on my back, so as not to be seen, and listen for their voices over the summer itch of rattlesnakes and horseflies. Above me the sky is pure and blue as unspilled blood. One speaks.
“Put your hand on it.”
More an order than a dare. Seconds of silence and then laughter from the boy that spoke, nasal barks of it like goose calls. “Come here.” he says to his friend, or victim; both relationships transitory. I hear his shoes drag through the wheat just feet in front of me. “Come here,” he says again, softer now, and I wonder who he’s addressing and consider he might have seen me. They’re only boys but it’s a precaution of mine to face any aggressor on my feet. Survival and gambling coexist most brightly in these decisions. I rise.
He hasn’t seen me. His back is near enough to spit at. The other boy is five yards further still and rubbernecks as I stand, his dick held tight in a meaty little fist.
The laughing boy repeats himself again, he’s maybe a span taller than his friend and his clothes are armoured in muck. I can smell his sweat and my tongue feels out the corners of my mouth with the promise of its taste. He’s a trick baby waiting for his juvenile hall ticket: he’s not going to be mourned or missed and is too busy laughing to hear me sidle up behind him.
I hit him with a rock. He stops laughing but doesn’t fall down so I hit him with it again. Thick bone, the skull, it’s less like cracking an egg and nearer digging through wood. Again, and blood is into the air like sparks. The no-longer laughing boy calmly slides to the ground. I’m excited and about me is the noise of flies and the brilliance of the sun, alone in the sky and filling it.
The smaller boy, who I expected I would chase, stays still, and cups his dick with both hands. His eyes have spots of the laughing boy’s blood on them but he doesn’t blink. Horseflies dance around his thighs. He’s silent. I suspect he might be frozen in fear, but then he sniffs and looks from me to his dead friend, giving his balls a lazy tug. He isn’t overtly perturbed.
He does so. I don’t eat while faced with genitalia. The boy still stands there, hands now inside his pants. His face is almost vacant. It occurs to me that he may be deficient, and this realisation stumbles out of my mouth.
“You’re a retard.”
The boy smiles at the familiar word. It may have passed into such common usage about his person that it was adopted as his name. He tentatively removes one hand from his pants and places it inside his mouth. I ate a retard once, in Wisconsin, she tasted like dog food.
Flies gambol about the laughing boy’s wound. His hair is greasy now with blood and I’m forced to peel a rubbery scab from it to get at his brain. This I offer it to Retard but he’s mute and seemingly content to suck the dew from his fingers.
“Are you hungry?”
He doesn’t reply. The scab breaks around my teeth like soft elastic. I cringe and Retard smiles in appreciation. Some skin is loose around the laughing boy’s wound and I it peels back in wet cracks and pops. Loose splinters of bone I throw to the field and chew the thicker pieces.
I don’t often sweat but it’s a warmer day than I’m used to and my shirt feels woven out of goat hair. Snakes are still rattling but that noise might carry for miles in this country. Retard seems unafraid and I follow his lead.
He sniffs again and looks at the sky, obstinately blue, both hands now back in his pants. He shuffles towards me. I hold out a piece of skull for him, a small one glossed with burgundy clots. He sucks it and spits out the bone. I widen the wound and gesture for him to dig out more. He kneels beside me and dips two exploratory fingers into his friend’s head, pinching out some brain and placing it into his mouth. We share the dead boy’s eyes and I leave Retard the tongue. In times past I might have smoked after a meal like this but my dinner guest seems preoccupied with his friend’s jeans and I have no cigarettes besides.
Retard drags the pants off the laughing-boy’s legs. As if he’s practiced, he delicately places his mouth around the boy’s penis. Anchoring his teeth behind the head and pulling it taught, he bites. Like a dog eating pig guts.
I watch him chew into the boy’s groin until the air starts to thicken with dusk, coming up for air like a swimmer, his panting face filthy with blood and gristle, going back down again after a moment and digging into the thighs and stomach. When he’s done the sky has begun to bruise and there is silence.
“Home.” he says to me. I walk him to the road and he brushes crust from his mouth and smiles, me leaving having not crossed his mind. One of his hands is back in his pants again and the other I’m holding and I guess I could bring him home.
It’s not dark yet but the way to town is lampless. Corn dust breaks around our shoes and blows off the road. Two hours of walking and we’ve stepped around six dog carcasses, some maybe a few weeks old, wounds wrinkled with insects. One was snake bitten, the rest probably dehydrated in the heat and stumbled, for one reason or another, into the road where they were hit by a car. Dead dogs are everywhere in summer. Road kill has its seasons, just like anything. It’s farm cats in the spring, and come autumn possums will be lining roadsides like the crucified towards Rome.
The kid doesn’t say another word. Sedated and swaying with the weight of his dinner, mouth contorted in a long yawn. We stray onto the interstate and walk straight towards the sun, our shadows dragging behind us. Short of a Texaco two hours east of town, we turn down a cattletrack. Pickups pass us in a convoy, like blood to a wound, lighting the trees away ahead.
Retard stumbles over a root. I offer to carry him and he accepts, quickly falling asleep on my shoulder. Ahead of us the track stops, and lights bend around the roadside towards us with the hum of radios. I hold the boy against my chest and I can feel his heart beating. A thread of drool spills from his lips onto my shoulder and soaks into my clothes. He’s warm.
I walk on through some loose gate tacked lazily onto a rotting fence and into a farmyard. Mostly men perched outside their cars here, doors open and headlights stretching out over the ground. They all have the same station playing, redneck bluegrass mumbling. A few of the men are holding women; some old, some young, none of them are smiling. Most have clean clothes and their thighs are stretch-marked and bitten with syphilis scars. The whores are smoking outside an old barn, which I guess they sleep in.
I carry the kid into the courtyard, past a sign saying ‘Trespassers Will Be Shot’, and the ‘o’ of shot is punctured with bullet holes. Some of the nearer men notice me and toss their beer cans away, rising up slowly. One shouts “Marianne,” and Retard turns his head at this, his arms still tight around my neck.
A short woman with frog eyes, not unlike the boy’s, pads towards me on elephant legs. She has mascara run down her face like slug trails and swings as she walks. Sharp brown teeth like sugar rocks and her mouth looks like a mineshaft with her daft smile. She mumbles drunkenly and plucks Retard from me.
“Where did you find him?” She slurs and pins him to her chest with the inside of one arm, the other fumbling for a cigarette and lighter. Retard wraps his arms around her neck, holding himself up. Marianne holds him casually, tucking a smoke into her mouth with nimble fingers. Her eyes are unfocused, swimming somewhere to my left.
“Past the interstate.” I say. She nods cheerfully, repeatedly kissing his head, and lights her cigarette. A blonde paces towards us in heavily torn jeans, like denim fishnets. She hugs Marianne and Retard with the barest of contact and turns to me, her pupils fat and nostrils flaked with powder. Marianne introduces me with a clumsy flourish and small laugh. The blonde points at Retard.
“You see a boy with him?”
I shake my head. “No.”
She steps up to me, leans in, eyes darting about my face. “You sure? No boy? Just him?”
“Just him.” I say. She blows air at me in what I guess is a psychotic sigh. Her john waddles behind her, his gut slipping a little further out from under his shirt with every step. She links arms with him and whispers into his ear. Marianne croons over Retard, her cigarette cherry burning the tips of his eyelashes blonde. “You’ve got ketchup around your mouth, boy. Where’d you go eating?”
Retard smiles her same dumb grin. She spits on a sleeve and wipes away some of the dried blood. The blonde opens a beer and drinks it mercilessly. Marianne looks up at her in consolation.
“Susan, you know the sheriff’s department maybe picked him up.”
“Yeah?” She rubs furiously at her nose. “Yeah? They do that a lot?”
Marianne nods. “Yeah, they do that a lot. He’s warm.”
The blonde smiles, instantly placated, “Yeah. He’s warm.”
“Yes he is.” Marianne laughs. Susan laughs back.
“I’m glad your boy is home, Marianne.” Susan grabs another beer.
“Me too,” Marianne smiles and then turns to me, “Will you help me carry him inside?”
I nod and hold my arms out for him. The redneck squeezes Susan and thrusts a beer at me. The can is warm and I don’t take it.
“For finding the kid, he says.” It hovers in front of me.
“I don’t drink.”
He retracts the can and laughs, stepping up to me.
“Are you a queer?” His nostrils are crusted with powder too, the skin around them almost translucent. I can see his pulse in its tiny blue veins. Marianne unloads Retard to me, who seems thankful to be back in the arms of the sober, and she slurs my briefdefence.
“No he ain’t. He’s just from the city.” She touches my stomach with her warm palm, and holding my shirt leads me towards the barn. The redneck shrugs.
The barn doesn’t have a door, just a tarpaulin curtain nailed to a crossbeam. Inside is a thin hallway branched by more tarpaulin curtains, behind which are rooms that used to be stables, the walls coming up to neck height. Like a brothel from another century, there’s no electricity in here, just candles casually jammed in empty pockets of the dry-walling which has blistered and blackened in a cave around them, dissolved with the wax which has dried in rivers towards the ground. The floor is the off-grey of cement stained by years of horseshit and hay. Inside the rooms are beds and I lay the boy on one and Marianne tucks him in. We walk into the adjacent room and she undresses. The candles makes oak of her skin, gentle brown light washing her with cheap lamour and failing to hide the rash around her genitalia.
Her drunken grin doesn’t falter. Retard’s snores leak over the wall. Marianne holds my neck the way her son did and pulls to the bed. I’m heavy on top of her. She slips her tongue into my mouth, a cold, dead, grey muscle – though I can’t take the high ground. We undress and I slide into her warmth. Her teeth pick at my collar and I kiss her neck in return. Her pulse hammers against my lips and I bite at it. My teeth break her throat like stale bread crust. She screams and it doesn’t sound pleasured, her mouth useless and gaping and the noise of it bubbling out of her neck. Her blood is in my mouth and then my eyes. Men shout and Retard is awake and crying and Marianne is warm and dead. Someone lifts the main tarpaulin curtain and wind blows through the barn, smothering candles, leaving just the black and the cold clapping of boots on cement.
Marianne’s name is shouted out by an old throat. I pull on my trousers in the darkness. The men are quiet but the boy is crying loudly. The curtain is pulled back and I swing a kick at it. Someone moans and thumps my ribs. We fall to the floor and I search out his face and push my knuckles into his mouth to keep him from screaming. He tries to do the same but I’ve a longer reach and his hand settles on squeezing my throat. I push into his mouth harder and his teeth bend out of his gums.
Men scuffle in the stalls about us, suspicious of all and everything. Names are screamed, their own and each other’s, and that something is missing or stolen gets through the fog in my ears. My assailant begins to bite at my knuckles and his grip slackens. I lean into his mouth with my fist and strain to hear tarpaulin being torn down and mean gouging at each other and crying with blind jabs connecting with walls and loose nails rupturing boot soles. His hand falls from my neck and I believe he’s dead.
A gun is fired and shatters the chaos into silence. A voice that I recognise as belonging to Susan’s john croaks a demand for his speed. Retard starts crying again and the fighting resumes. There’s another gunshot and it blows through the corrugated roof. Splinters of wood and glowing iron fall like snow, catching in invisible curtains and floating there, beginning to smoke.
Someone drags at the curtain for this room.
I drive the heel of my foot at his groin but connect with a knee. There are more gunshots behind him and he falls towards me. I can smell the cauterization where the bullet burned his skin and hear the hiss of his deflating lung. I stamp on his neck for safety, catching the side of it which cracks and softly gives way.
Things aren’t so dark now. I think make out the curtain when I fall backwards and something has broken my face so badly, so badly, my skull is wrapped by fractures and I’ve not a breath in my body to scream with. Everything disappears and I’m cowed in the corner, deaf and blind, and I wait for more pain. It doesn’t come though. Whatever hit me is being beaten into the guy on the ground. I hear it break his skull more with every swing, mining through it, and my nose hoses blood into my mouth and I feel the loose skin hanging like a bag full of tiny bones.
I crawl into the burning hallway. People squirm on the floor and moan, whores and johns alike trying to hold in their blood. Parts of the roof are falling down and out front men are driving away in their cars, firing pistols at each other, all the while the boy is screaming and hidden. I look for him, with the building collapsing around me, and things are not so dark now. Nobody is looking at me or for me, just swinging pieces of wood at other things on fire.
A man storms out with flaming tarpaulin all knotted around him which he tears and beats at and he stumbles over bricks and makes high-pitched noises that unnerve me. I see Retard, tucked away from the flames beneath a bed frame, and there are men in the room with him fighting over a pistol. Their skin blackens and curls and wooden panels, half-rotten with the heat, topple onto one of them and knock him down. The other looks at me and puts the gun to his own head, his hairs having all burnt and shrunk, and matter explodes onto the wall and runs down it and hiss off of steel.
People in other rooms shout and scream and I wave for Retard to come with me but he shakes his head and cries. The dealers out front have left now with most of the whores and only a few cars are left, some on fire. The screaming seems to fuel the flames which are suffocating burning off of the dry-walling and Retard keeps shaking his head. Embers snake up my trousers and I beat them away but can’t keep doing it and when the building begins to groan I leave him there and he shouts out for me but I leave and swing through the door into the air and it’s heavy with ash but breathable and I do breathe and feel my face which hurts so much and my eyes sting and I feel like I’ve been saved from drowning.
The cars on fire don’t explode, just burn out. The heat ossifies the bullet holes in their windows, heals up the cracks, or blunts them at least, leaving them scarred. It’s quiet. The radios have stopped working by now. No authorities arrive, and after a while even the screaming stops. I wait it out from the fence. My own hand like a ghost on my face, which is numb or so saturated with pain that I can’t draw reference to what it may have felt like before. The barn burns. Probably will do so until morning. I wait.
The sun ambles up over the fields in the east, and smoke, thick as water, roars up into it in the blaze’s stead. There are no clouds and no sound except the whispered bass of aeroplanes flying, undisturbed, miles above and away. Thick wooden beams that were the barn’s skeleton stand still in their places, as black and wasted as charcoal. Bodies that look fashioned from the same material lie about the ground; some pinned beneath burned rafters, others, who died less painfully, lie with glowing pistols still pressed to their heads. I find the smallest corpse and its shrivelled arms are pressed tight to its front, hands dug into half-melted jeans, cupping their crotch, and the empty sockets seeing me for everything I am.