By Matthew Derby
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Copyright © 2003 by Matthew Derby
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 permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to the following publications in which some of these stories were first published: "Instructions," 5 Trope; "Home Recordings," 3rd bed; "Joy of Eating," Conjunctions; "The Father Helmet," Fence; "The Boyish Mulatto," American Journal of Print; "Meat Tower," Elimae; "Behavior Pilot," Failbetter; "Sky Harvest," Pindeldyboz
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First eBook Edition: July 2007
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My stepfather was among the first to go. Days after he disappeared, we found his wig on the front porch. Whoever had taken him away had brought the wig back. There were things about him that weren't even worth throwing away. My mother lifted the wig gently, as if it were a hurt animal, and brought it inside. For years no one spoke of his disappearance, and the wig remained on a table in the front hall. Then one day the wig was gone, and my brother found a small headstone in the garden, near a patch of freshly turned soil. He brought me back to show me the grave, and when he pointed at the tiny, misshapen stone he said only, "Get used to this," before heading out to the barn where he made meat-loaf for the soldiers.
We hardly noticed the first Food Ban. There was a piece on the news about a cabbage virus, and then the cabbage stand was gone from the market. We were secretly relieved about the cabbage — no need to think up new ways to fix that particular item. It went this way with the other foods, until only meat was safe. Some people on our street held a small protest at the market, but then they were gone as well. We knew that something was wrong, that something essential was being hoisted from our grasp, but at the same time, meat was the one food we really liked to eat. An all-meat diet was something we'd been unconsciously lookingforward to, like the cooling storm that breaks a heat wave.
Meanwhile, there was a boy in our school who had been held back a year because he was slow. When the new Recruitment Initiative went into effect, he found he was too old to get a good job. He kept asking his parents to make him younger. Every time they told him no. "That is not the direction you were meant to grow," they said, but he found a way to grow down anyway. He found a way to shed his age by eating pebbles and soaking himself in heavy water. One day he saw the hair on his leg start to retreat. "Now we're getting somewhere," he thought.
He got a job right away, one of the best available. In a month he was second-in-command at Corporation Two. He bought a high-speed boat, a rare poisonous snake, two rocket launchers, and a magnificent house for his parents. Every night he ate dinner with them at a long wooden table, punctuating the deep silence only to ask mockingly if they would let him grow younger. They only bowed their heads, shamefully forking around massive helpings of beef on gilded plates.
The Sound Gun
We are dragging it by hand now. The engine gave out days ago in a ravine two kilometers south of the parallel. We managed to haul the weapon out of the deep, fecal muck with two stolen mules, which were of no use to us once we ran out of the dried ice cream, the only thing that would get them moving. We killed the mules and ate them, and now we are dragging the Sound Gun by hand, using the last of the rope and medical gauze. No one is happy about this, not even Shaving Gel, whom we call Shaving Gel because he always smells like shaving gel, although we should call him Bulk or Keg or Mountain because he is big. I speculated that he, out of any of them, would champion the cause, shouldering the weapon from behind, barking fiercely at the enlisted men. Instead, he just looked at me evenly from the other side of the campfire, chewing deliberately at his mule as I debriefed the group.
Nobody knows what we are doing here. We are not entirely sure that the war is still happening. Since the mules ate the communications array we have had only the color of the sky to guide us. Evenings, it will burst suddenly into a thin purple halo of dense mist. These rings, we believe, must be the fragrant shards of battles occurring elsewhere in secret. So we continue to plow through the jungle, convinced that, any day now, a dark, backlit man in a business suit will descend from the sky in a clear pod and usher us home.
It was fun to drive around in the Sound Gun until it stopped working. Now the people who are fighting us, and who we are pretty sure are still the enemy, are much more dangerous and harder to kill. They come rushing up at us in the night, tossing sticks and VCRs.
My men go on about the size of the Sound Gun. Everything else is smaller now than in previous wars, but the Sound Gun is unimaginably bigger. "Bigger than what?" I ask Danson in a fit, having overheard this complaint for the last time.
"It's just bigger than it should be, sir," says Danson, a slight, walleyed Presbyterian who carries his recently deceased mother's dialysis machine with him at all times in a bowling ball bag, just in case or as a memento — no one knows for sure. "It should be, like, calculator-size. The size of a handheld — help me someone — think of something handheld . . ."
"A gun," says Memorex.
"Yes, exactly. All we ask is that the Sound Gun be the actual size of a gun? Instead of, like, a whole building?"
"Write it down in your Wish Journal, Private," I tell him. Everyone has a Wish Journal. When we're sad or upset or feeling violent we write in the Wish Journal. "I wish I could wrap my feelings in burlap and throw them into the ocean," we might write, or "I wish the act of sleep actually came with a blanket" or "I wish just one of my fellow soldiers was even remotely as attractive as the ones in the advertisements on the cloud screens, the ones climbing wooden structures with their shirts off or getting pummeled with a long, padded brick."
The Sound Gun has four settings. The first one is Make Scared. Make Scared makes a big loud noise that makes people scared. It is louder and scarier than the noise a bomb makes as it explodes, because the people we're fighting have not been scared by that sound for three wars. The sound that Make Scared makes is like a herd of elk tumbling into a cauldron of hot, resonant dung or, at night, the frail puff of air conjured up by a dying child. Make Scared worked for a while, but then the enemy started putting soaked wheat pods in their ears, so we had to move on to Hurt.
Hurt feels like getting hit hard by a rubber blanket. Not that I'd know — this is what the instructions tell us: "Stay out of the path of the Sound Gun when using Hurt mode; otherwise, you may be struck by the slug with the force of a large rubber blanket." Hurt worked for a longer time than Make Scared, because nobody liked having these rubber blankets constantly hurled at her. But the enemy developed a flared aluminum instrument, worn on the hips, that sprayed a hard yellow foam so that they could build tall, ad hoc baffles while advancing on us. We were left with no alternative: we had to switch to Very Hurt.
All the officers have been given a captured enemy soldier as a pet. I'm sickened by this practice, but own one myself and have to admit I have grown considerably dependent on the little man. In an attempt to distance myself from some of the more undesirable aspects of the relationship, I've named him Constantine. It's a dignified name, I think — much more dignified than Bastard Face, Shovel, or Milk of Magnesia, names that have been bestowed upon others in our midst. He has not, as of yet, become comfortable with it. Otherwise, he plays the role of slave with outrageous conviction, leaning into his servitude with an enthusiasm that mars my ability to sympathize with his plight. I want him to be belligerent or distant — anything but eager. Each morning by the time I wake up he's already gone off looking for kindling or is turning the spit on which a tube of meat product sizzles over a roaring fire. It is the worst, most diabolical revenge, and he knows it.
Very Hurt mode kept the enemy at bay for a good while. During that time, though, we heard from headquarters less and less. We started getting stark, austere communiqués like "Swell forest," "Stab the fabric cone," and "Fork" — dense, barely pronounceable phrases, indicating a new plateau of military strategy no one in our ranks could unpack. Our objective here, once clear and urgent, had faded into obscurity. The mission had become so secret that it had disappeared altogether. This made us angry, and tired. No one wanted to deal with all of the Very Hurt soldiers lying around, as they had to be dragged out of the path of the Sound Gun before we could move it. With no one to instruct us otherwise, we cranked up the gun from Very Hurt to Make Dead. Make Dead ruptures the enemy's bowels as the blast hurls them twenty feet or more into the air. In Make Dead mode the frequency is so low that you can no longer hear the gun as it fires — only the sound the enemy soldiers make as they sail through the air, limbs flapping like damp cloth.
I do not miss home, but not for the usual reasons. I like home, generally, but I do not like home the way that I left it — with a large wild bobcat living there. I came home one night and found Gruver on all fours, peering under the couch, where the bobcat was hiding. As the bobcat was a very large animal, this was not the best place to hide. The couch was balanced on its back, see-sawing back and forth while Gruver offered up warm, encouraging aphorisms.
"I do not want to hear it," he said when I asked what was under the couch. I did not then know that what was under the couch was, in actuality, a bobcat. A bobcat, at that time, was one of the very last things I was thinking of.
"I found this beautiful animal in the garbage can, and it is now mine," Gruver called out from the floor.
"Clearly," I said.
"I will not hear any arguments against my case."
I saw that Gruver's left arm was bandaged with a shredded, bloodied T-shirt. "It's nothing," he said preemptively, cupping the wounded elbow with his free hand.
I went upstairs and ate a Starburst on the bed.
"Why don't you come down here," Gruver shouted from the bottom of the stairs. "Why don't you come down and put your hand on this animal's flanks? Feel the strength just lying there, dormant."
"It's sulking," I called out. "It is bringing down the whole house with that attitude."
"He's been abandoned. I believe that this animal has got a definite right to sulk?"
I had been with Gruver for seven years. Suddenly, it did not seem like such a good idea.
"Constantine," I call out from my tent. He sits cross-legged by the fire, facing away from me, worrying the coals with a slender branch. His shadow flickers wildly on the green nylon wall of the tent, the shape of his body crassly drawing attention to itself, showboating there behind him on the makeshift scrim, taunting me with the suggestion that, given half the chance, it might swallow me whole, enveloping the tent itself, the camp, everything we have brought along. "Constantine, bring me my flask." He does not move. He wants me to call him by his given name, which is Idrissa. He sits and waits.
On my way to the latrine I see Memorex sitting on a felled tree, writing in his Wish Journal.
"Well, hard at work, I see," I say, trying to amount to something in his mind.
"I'm just writing," he says.
I kneel at his side, laying a hand on his thigh, giving it a brief, reassuring squeeze. It is not an advance; I'd rather dip my face into a bucket of glass shards than sidle up to Memorex's whitened, porous midriff, but it's taken as such, and I get a frightened grimace.
I pull my hand away. "Sometimes the hurt goes away when we talk, too."
Memorex rests his pen in the spine. "I wish we weren't killing people."
The phrase "killing people" jars me — in my mind it isn't so much killing people that we are engaged in as pushing them out of the way, except that they stay there, wherever they topple, forever. "Well, Memorex, you know that's not a Wish Journal wish. That's not a feeling. You can't, you know, put that anywhere."
"I feel something about it, though. To see all those people go flying up in the air, all, like, ruptured? I feel something when that happens. It's, like, really a feeling, like getting hit in the face with a basketball again and again —"
"Like the time at base camp —"
"Yes. Just like. What is that feeling?"
"I don't know, Memorex. But it doesn't sound like the kind of feeling that winners feel. Is it? Is that the way you think people who win feel? Do you think that General Custer, as he stood atop the mound of enemy corpses, felt the way that you're feeling?"
He rubs the side of his face where scabs from a constellation of wicked-huge spider bites pill and drift. "No, that's definitely not what winners feel."
"Well, you've answered your own question there, Memorex, haven't you?"
"Yes. The answer is, don't feel feelings that aren't winning feelings. Make sense?"
Memorex nods and continues his journal entry. I run to the latrine, buckling, suddenly, with waste. I fill to the brim nearly five Mason jars.
The enemy is getting smarter. They start digging big holes, which they cover up with leafy tree branches. They dig the holes so well and disguise them so carefully that, eventually, we fall into one. I hit the ground shoulder first, half of me sucked instantly into a pool of mud. Conservarte falls on top of me, his left knee coming down directly on my solar plexus. "Sorry, sir," he whispers, splashing frantically in the thick puddle. I grip his upper arm to shush him, pointing up toward the mouth of the giant hole. Everything goes dark and quiet as the Sound Gun teeters at the edge. Danson and his slave, who are tethered to the machine with the medical gauze, dangle about four meters from the ground, flailing their limbs erratically. Slowly, with groaning indecision, the Sound Gun begins to tip forward, and then, with unimaginable speed, casting out a heavy sheet of debris, it falls, landing on top of the both of them.
When the cloud dissipates, all we can see of them are their legs, sticking out from the treads like beefy shards of driftwood. Constantine rushes over to help Danson's slave, who used to be his wife, but the upper half of her has been completely squashed. He pulls on one of the legs for a while, whimpering, desperately imploring us to join in. We all look down or away, or up at the mouth of the hole, anything to avoid his plaintive stare.
If dragging the Sound Gun out of the ravine with four sturdy, if belligerent, mules was difficult, dragging it out of a surprisingly deep, narrow hole with no mules is all but impossible, but in the afternoon Memorex gets the idea that we could blast a path out of the ground. We have never tried shooting at the ground before, but given what usually happens when we shoot the Sound Gun, what with the leveling of trees and barricades, the hoisting aloft of enemy soldiers, the hurling of bodies, high and far, and so forth, moving earth seems eminently feasible. We all grab our percussion suits and take off into the brush while Conservarte warms up the generator.
"Okay," he calls out when everyone is far enough away. "Christ if I'm not going to do this." He grunts for a while, fiercely turning switches.
We pull the rip cords on the inflatable suits, biting down on the hard plastic mouthpieces. Air rushes into the stiff fabric, puffing us up like ripe berries. There is a moment of absolute silence, and then a faint crackling sound before a fierce shock wave knocks us back on our asses. Snakes and other creatures start falling out of the trees. One falls on my face and I jump up, flailing wildly. We are safe because we are in the percussion suits. But still.
Momentarily, the earth settles. The creatures of the forest, those that survived, have been shocked into silence. By the tree line an enormous brown creature lies on its side, twitching. We deflate our suits and make our way back to the hole. Conservarte is peering out over the wide, dual barrel of the Sound Gun. The hole is measurably bigger. We walk its perimeter to make sure.
"Did you put it up all the way?" I ask, but, since I forgot to remove my mouthpiece, what it sounds like is "Duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh?"
"She's cranked, sir."
"Let's give it another shot."
It is dark out. The hole is bigger, I tell them. Look. They only look down into their plates of gruel, willing it into anything but the gray assemblage steaming away before them. We can hear the enemy cackling in the distance. I climb into the cockpit and fire off a round into the trees, snapping the trunks in half. The cackling stops.
After dinner, gathered as we are around a pathetic campfire made from Danson's boots, Memorex carefully draws a small photograph from his breast pocket, cupping it gently in his palm. Shaving Gel and Orange Face sheepishly follow suit. It is against the rules for the men to carry photographs, but who am I to enforce rules? After ordering Conservarte to crank the settings of the Sound Gun from Very Hurt to Make Dead, a configuration that hadn't ever really been tested, let alone approved? After taking the men deeper and deeper into the unmapped wilderness, following a set of military objectives I'd constructed by vague speculation? Who am I to snatch the photographs the men have carried around with them at great risk, images of their dumb, savage loved ones, and toss them into the dwindling campfire?
I snatch the photographs the men have carried around with them at great risk and toss them into the dwindling campfire.
Gruver whispered something from across the room. It was my last night in New Jersey, one that I had willfully hacked away at on the Boardwalk, stuffing myself with sticky buns while standing in line for brightly lit amusement rides that, if successful, would bring the heavy pastry back up. I shouted and growled at anyone who dared occupy the vacant passenger seat of my bumper car — I arched my back like a banshee, if that is indeed what banshees do, and hissed at them, spraying their faces with murky brown mist. I wanted to ward off all human contact, to create the narrowest possible aperture in the world through which to jettison myself.
Things had not been going so well between the bobcat and me, so for the past week or so I'd been sleeping in the closet, curled up like a fetal chick in the corner. The two of them slept in the big yellow bed, the cat's disturbing, furry head nestled in the crook of Gruver's arm. Every night I watched them through the crack in the closet door until I fell unconscious, lulled to sleep by the animal's heavy breathing. On the last night, though, I left the closet door open. Should the cat climb onto my back and bounce repeatedly, as if I were an unsteady outcropping of rock, then so be it. There were more undignified ways to go out than to be crushed by a wild animal.
The cat, though, did not climb onto my back. Instead, I woke in a dyspeptic haze to Gruver's thick, malleable face staring at me from across the room, suspended, it seemed, from the doorframe. He whispered something, this head floating at the entrance to what had been our room. I could not hear him, though; what came out of his mouth sounded like "gretl balls."
"Come again?" I said, shooting up from the tangled sheets piled up on the closet floor, but it sounded more like a plea than a question, and before I had fully understood what was happening he was gone — the soft head withdrawn into the hallway and out the door.
The Sound Gun was made so that we could fight friendlier wars. The Wish Journals are so that we can fight with clean consciences. The no-pictures rule is so that we forget what we're missing. The slaves we made up. Also the deaths. And our reason for being here. That part was made up when the mules ate part of the communications array.
Eating the mules, we made up.
- On Sale
- Jul 31, 2007
- Page Count
- 208 pages
- Back Bay Books