Thursday, April 24, 2014

Here only, a chapter that was cut from FLAME.

Big Man

            Jacob Pauley liked thinking of them sleeping in their beds with no idea of what was going to happen, all those self righteous little people singing their little hymns praising God for what? For bearing the children of their enemies? That’s what they were doing; didn’t they realize? They were raising the brats of the people who had killed all their families before they even existed. They were living a nightmare, but the good thing about bad dreams was you could wake people up from them. He was going to be their alarm clock. Him and Ginny.
            He smiled at her. They hadn’t been able to get a gun; they were too closely guarded by Mather and her small army. But they’d been able to score a whole lot of bullets. Now Ginny was carefully sawing the butts off of them and pouring out the black powder from inside them. She’d already done a case, and had a nice little pile of powder. She knew lots of tricks like that, stuff she’d learned during early childhood from her dad, a man who’d been one of the last chieftans living in the rocky mountain survival camps. How the old man had gotten Ginny a place on the New Horizon, Jake never knew. He supposed he’d closed down some supply chain that led to the construction yard for the ships, held up some ore or fuel for ransom. There was uranium in those mountains, Jake knew. Maybe Ginnie’s Dad had known how to get it, for a price.
            Jake’s own father had had money. Lots of it. And land too. Tracts and tracts of grasslands in the Midwest where they used to grow corn. Daddy owned the land, he even farmed it. But Daddy’s money had come from the chemicals they put in the soil, those chemicals that fed the world corn while killing the fish in the oceans. That was his daddy. Robbing Peter to pay Paul.
            Jake remembered the safety that came before the fear. He remembered the big house and the big woman Marta who took him from his mother’s thin arms and held his head to her bosom, rocking him back and forth, murmuring in his ear. Marta was the one who told him the doctors didn’t know anything. “You are smart, mi hijo,” she’d tell him. “You will surprise them all, and be a great man some day like your daddy.”
            But Jake knew what no one else did. Jake’s daddy was a bully. Jake only wanted to please him, make him happy, so he could earn a rare smile, a nod of satisfaction. Jake was learning. To prove the doctors wrong he’d learn about his daddy’s job so that he could take over the business someday, and make even more money, build an even bigger compound than his daddy had.
            As often as he was allowed, Jake would stand by his father’s desk as Daddy made his morning phone calls to his business associates, working to keep the supply chains open so the supplies could keep flowing. He watched the cold eyes, listened to daddy’s rapid-fire words, watched as Daddy clenched his fists, hardening his knuckles, trying so hard to understand what his father said. But none of it made sense, and he knew better than to ask questions. He didn’t give up, though. Even if he couldn’t understand the words, he could study Daddy’s method. Daddy always spoke with a sharp voice that was sure to whittle down any resistance, break through any silence.
            Daddy talked on the phone every morning until the day came when, suddenly, there was no one to call. Jake watched as Daddy dialed and dialed, one number after another, his eyes growing colder and colder until he finally threw the phone through the glass window and left the room without a glance at his son. Jake went out to retrieve the phone for his father, to please him. He dusted it off and placed it carefully on the big man’s armchair with an unsure grin.
            “We don’t need it anymore,” was all Daddy said.
            “What if someone wants to call here?”
            “They’re all gone, Jakey,” Daddy said, and surprised him by lifting him up and hugging him so tight his ribs rubbed together. Jakey tried to hug his daddy back just as hard. Inside though, Jakey was sad. He didn’t understand what his daddy was doing. He didn’t understand throwing the phone away, and he didn’t understand the hug. He’d never understand his daddy enough to be a great man like he was. Marta was wrong. Jakey was stupid, just like the doctors said.
            For a long while after the last phone calls, the house was very quiet. Mommy stayed in her bedroom for days at a time. Jake played quietly in the attic because Marta didn’t think it was safe outside anymore. “Why isn’t it?” he’d ask her.
            “Don’t you worry, mi hijo. That is for the grownups to know. You stay upstairs where I can find you. And if I call, you come fast like a bunny, okay?”
            He didn’t understand why Marta always looked so afraid, but it all became clear the day the fires came. Jake remembered the smoky sting in his throat as he watched from his attic window the line of red winding its way up the grassy hillside toward his house. There was a sudden explosion of angry voices downstairs, and Marta’s heavy footsteps running up to get him. “Come fast, mi hijo!” When Jake and Marta went downstairs, Jake saw the hard man who worked for Daddy holding a gun. “There’s no guns allowed in the house,” Jakey said to the man with his squeaky little boy voice.
            “Those were your daddy’s rules,” the man said with a wink of his yellow eyes. “They don’t hold anymore.”
            “How long do we have?” Jake’s daddy asked the man.
            “They’re about two miles away,” the man said.
            “I’ll give you money,” Daddy said. “If you let us go.”
            “Money ain’t much good anymore, or haven’t you noticed?”
            That’s when Mommy started to cry. Jake hadn’t noticed her sitting in the corner, a shivering pile of bones wrapped in a cashmere blanket.
            “You’ve worked for me for fifteen years,” Daddy said to the hard man. There was something in his voice Jake had never heard before. Daddy sounded almost like the dog they had a long time ago when he cried to be let in at night. Jake didn’t like hearing his father that way, and wished Marta had left him to play in the attic.
            “I don’t work for you anymore,” the hard man said.
            “I hired you when no one else would,” Daddy said, straightening his back against the hard wood of his chair. This was the daddy Jake understood, angry and commanding. Jake saw Daddy making his fist hard under the table, twisting it inside his other palm as though polishing it. “I trusted you. I gave you a second chance.”
            “They’ll kill him,” Jake’s mommy said to the man. She stood up, and the afghan hung off her sharp shoulders. “When they get here, you know that. They’ll kill him, right off. And Jakey…” Her voice dropped off.
            The head guard looked at Jakey then, and Jake made himself stare at the man in the eyes. He knew he ought to feel afraid, but he felt only confusion. Marta reached for his hand, but Jakey didn’t take it. He wanted to stand up straight like a grown up. Later he would wish with all his heart that he’d taken her hand.
            “You can have one of the helicopters,” the hard man finally said to Daddy as he tossed a burning cigarette onto the floorboards and ground it out under the toe of his boot. “I’ll tell them you snuck out and stole it.”
            “Thank you,” Daddy said quietly.
            Daddy didn’t wait. He grabbed Jakey, called to Mommy over his shoulder, and ran out the back of the house and up the hill, coughing out smoke from the fires. He threw Jake into the back of the helicopter and got in the pilot seat. Jakey’s mother sobbed, wrapping herself around her son as Daddy started the engine.
            In that moment, all Jakey could think about was how daddy had thanked the man! He’d actually thanked him!
            The helicopter lifted off the ground, hovering in the air over the house before Jake realized they’d left Marta behind. He screamed and screamed, kicking his mother in her fragile legs, reaching for Marta, who was running out of the house, her thick brown arms lifted up as she cried for her Jakey. Jake screamed until his voice broke in two. Marta got smaller and smaller as they flew away, until she became a tiny brown dot scurrying over the hillside like an ant.
            In the distance, Jakey saw them coming, the men on their horses and in their wagons, a vast horde of them. They made the shape of a knife blade, cutting through the prairie.
            Daddy flew for hours as Jake’s mother peered at the ground, her eyes filled with helpless fear as Daddy shook his head time and time again. Didn’t look safe there. Didn’t look safe here either. They were nearly out of fuel before Jake realized his parents had no idea where to go. They set down near a tree by a stream. How Jake’s mother had cried when she realized the polluted water wasn’t fit to drink.
            “Where will we go?” Jake’s mother had cried the next morning, watching her husband with round, darting eyes.
            He stamped out the fire with his foot. “We’re going where money still matters,” he’d said quietly. “To the shipyard.”
            “The shipyard? That’s a thousand miles away. How will we get there?”
            “We’ll walk.” Jake saw the fist he made, and stood up to show he was ready to go right away.
            “Walk?” Mommy whined? “Are you joking?”
            “Get up,” Jake’s father said, and pulled on Mommy’s shirt until she stood.
            “I can’t! You know I can’t!” Mommy wailed.
            So he slapped her. He reared back and slapped her right across the face.
            After that, most of what Jake remembered was filled with darkness.
            But life became clear somehow. The confusion Jake had felt before sitting at his father’s knee was replaced by total understanding. The world he lived in now, after the billowing curtains and soft furniture of the old house and Marta’s warm arms –this was a world he understood. The bigger man always won. The man with the gun beat the man with the knife. The man who was ruthless beat the man who hesitated. And Jakey’s father always won.
            Those were lessons Jake would use now, to make things right on this ship. His father would be proud if he could see him now, with his wife, making the tools he’d use to get what he needed to become the man he was always meant to be.
            Anne Mather was finished. That’s what his friends told him, the people who brought supplies to his and Ginny’s hiding place. They said she was weak, and it would be time to strike soon. He liked imagining her smug little smile wiped off her face by a bit of shrapnel. Jake was going to make that shrapnel. He and Ginny were going to make the bomb that changed everything.
            It had to be done very carefully, like a surgical excision. He couldn’t damage the hull, not if he wanted to have a ship when it was all done. But he had the advantage. He knew where Anne Mather and all her friends and supporters would be when it was time. Every week they sat together, all in one room, like lambs waiting for the blade.
            When he and Ginny were ready, things would change.
            Change would come so fast no one else would know what to do.
            That’s when Jake would step in.

            Until then, he had a pet project. He was going to find a way to get to Waverly Marshall, even if he had to kill every one of Anne Mather’s guards to do it. And when he was finally alone with her, he would finish what he started.