I spotted a pair of men coming our way around sunset, making slow progress down County Road 8. Myra liked to send pilgrims off with a warm meal in their bellies, so she butchered a chicken and boiled some corn and red potatoes. Night fell and our supper grew cold on the table.
“What’s wrong with them?” my daughter asked while we waited on the porch and watched their ponderous approach. A Winchester carbine sat on my lap.
“I think one of them’s off.”
“How do you mean?” Katie asked.
I hated saying it in front of her, so I didn’t answer. Half my daughter’s face looked smeared. Her left upper lip and cheek were peeled back, exposing teeth, and her left eye squinted under a slab of vestigial skin. Myra was pregnant with Katie in ’62 and considering what I’ve seen from neighbouring families, we got off lucky.
“Wash up,” I said. “Tell your mom they’ll be here in a few.”
I could hear one of them wheezing long before he stepped into the lantern light. The same man walked with a limp. His feet scraped the ground, followed by the plunk of a wooden cane.
“How do?” I said. I kept the carbine pinched under my armpit, barrel pointed at the floor.
The healthier of the two men smiled at me with absurdly white teeth. A canvas rucksack hung from his back with a rifle stock peeking over his shoulder, ready to be jerked from its leather scabbard and fired in a moment’s notice.
“Just dandy,” he said, still smiling. “Yourself?”
I said, “Tuesdays we typically receive pilgrims coming off the train, going to Three Crater. That be you fellas?”
“Yessir, exactly that.”
“Your friend ever speak?”
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Henry Duchane. This is Bill.”
Katie opened the door behind me and said dinner was waiting. She squeezed my forearm and tried to peer around me to get an eyeful of the visitors.
“Come in for supper then,” I said.
A green hood hid Bill’s face during our exchange. When a breeze tugged the hood back, I was able to see his eyes for the first time. White as milk and nearly lost under the shadow of a smooth, bony tumour on his forehead
Bill’s eyes flicked toward my daughter. A second later they resumed their blind vigil into whatever oblivion they saw.
Myra served dinner and we ate a cold meal. None of us could help staring at Bill. He sat with his head bowed and hood pulled low. After nibbling on some chicken, he stopped eating.
“I have family in Topeka,” Myra said, although she had no family in Topeka or anywhere else in Kansas. “Which part are you boys from?”
Henry Duchane answered like I thought he would: “Oh, here and there. You know how it is these days. How far is Three Crater from your ranch?”
“One day on foot,” I said. “Half that if you buy mules from John Miller. He lives a few hours down the road.”
Henry raised his eyebrows. “Your ranch is that close to Three Crater? Is that why your lovely daughter is…?”
I stared at Henry. “What about her?”
He looked down at his food.
“How about your friend?” I said sharply, pointing at Bill with my fork. “He messed up from using or was he born that way?”
“Alan!” my wife snapped.
Henry waved his hand. “Bill’s a user, sure enough. He’s paying me to escort him to those holy bomb craters in your backyard.”
That seemed plausible, a sorcerer traveling with his hired gun. They didn’t strike me as particularly religious people, though. Most pilgrims spout nonsense the moment their feet hit the porch, asking if my soul had been saved by the God of the Split Atom or if radiation angels baptised my daughter on the day of her birth, which I suppose is what Henry was asking without the flowery language.
After Katie cleared our plates, Myra asked if they wanted to use our barn or would they prefer to press on a bit further while the evening kept their journey cool and comfortable.
“Kansas summers sure can make you sweat,” Henry said, avoiding her question. A pig squealed somewhere close to the ranch. Hooves stomped the ground. Katie jumped and grabbed my wrist.
“It’s nothing, honey,” I whispered. “She’s probably chasing a rabbit. She’ll be gone soon.”
“Pig problem?” Henry asked.
“There’s a few off ones out there.”
“You mean muties?”
“I mean off.”
“As you say.”
A long silence stretched over the table. Myra couldn’t tolerate long silences and said, “I can fix your chicken to go.”
“No, ma’am,” Henry replied, rising from his chair. “We’ve taken enough of your time.”
My arm hairs stood on end when he shouldered his rucksack and the rifle stock popped over his shoulder again. He had a quick, smooth way of moving, perfect for a gunfighter. He raised his palm to wave away help we did not offer and lifted Bill by his armpits.
Bill cleared his throat and spoke. His voice was like water gurgling down a plugged drain. “Thank you kindly, Alan…Myra…and Kaaaaatie.”
The way he said my daughter’s name tensed my body. I can usually tell when somebody tries to read my thoughts. It drops cold water in my belly and makes me feel nauseated. I didn’t feel anything coming from Bill.
We stood on the porch and watched them shamble back to the road. They headed toward John Miller’s ranch where I hoped they’d buy mules and leave Parson County before sunrise. Most pilgrims never return from Three Crater. Radiation cooks them. The few that do return don’t live long. I’ve buried my share of returnees on the other side of County Road 8.
I asked Myra, “Did anybody say your name or Katie’s out loud before Bill?”
“No,” Myra said, hugging Katie against her chest. “Did you feel him in your head?”
Katie said, “I did. Bill asked for my name a few times. Called me sweetie and such.”
“You tell him?”
“No, mama. I didn’t tell him anything.”
The image of John Miller’s burning ranch, a pulsing yellow orb surrounded by a lake of darkness, kept sneaking into my thoughts no matter how many times I tried to dismiss it as silly paranoia.
Guilt gnawed at me because I directed those men to John Miller’s ranch to buy mules…those men who I deemed too suspicious, too dangerous, to keep near my family. I sent them to there without warning him.
I rolled on my side and must have woke Myra. She asked if anything was wrong.
“Nothing,” I said. John Miller’s burning ranch popped in my head again.
“What is it?” Myra asked.
“You think John’s okay?”
“Why wouldn’t he be?”
“Those guys from Topeka…”
“John can take care of himself. Go back to sleep.”
Barely dawn and I was out of bed and dressed. I sat in the kitchen with the Winchester dismantled on the table and an oil rag busy in my hand. Myra lit a fire in the oven and put on water for coffee. When she left to fetch eggs, Katie padded from her bedroom and sat next to me.
“Do you want me to find them?” she asked.
“I do and I don’t.”
“It won’t hurt me.”
“It won’t today. I’m worried about later.”
“I’ll be okay.”
I sighed and said, “Go ahead,” feeling the guilt I suppose a parent feels when they watch their kid light a cigarette in front of them. “Just a peek, then stop.”
She scrunched her face and stared at the table. Myra stood in the doorway, her apron folded around a clutch of eggs. She saw Katie’s expression and waited for her to finish before entering.
“They’re near Three Crater,” Katie said.
“See,” Myra said, laying an iron skillet next to the water pan and cracking eggs on the rim. “John’s fine. Those men were just peculiar.”
That image came again, John Miller’s burning ranch, only now it was morning and a swaying wheat field replaced the lake of darkness. If I ever wanted to sleep again I needed to confirm that he was okay. I had to see it with my own eyes.
“I’m still going out to check on him.”
“Eat first,” Myra insisted. “And come back quick. Don’t stay for dinner. You know Marjorie will drop an invite.”
Despite protests from my family, I pried up the false floorboards under the woodshed and stacked them next to my knees. Years ago I dug a hole under the shed and poured in concrete to reinforce the walls. A lead safe sat in the hole, entombed by the concrete. I opened the safe and grabbed the only object inside, a burlap sack. The thing inside the sack had the same size and weight as a russet potato.
Even tucked in my backpack, it gave off a sickly heat that made my forehead sweat.
My family waved to me from the porch.
I wouldn’t let them near me after I retrieved the thing from the shed and didn’t plan on coming near them again until it was locked back in the safe.
I walked. After a half hour, my pace relaxed and I slung the carbine. The same dusty cars blockaded the same sections of asphalt. Nothing had changed. I passed a jackknifed tractor-trailer that marked the midpoint between my ranch and the Miller ranch since the bombs fell nine years ago.
The image of his burning ranch faded as I walked. Soon I could barely recall why I felt this trip was so urgent or why I decided to bring that terrible thing with me, settled against my lower back like a soda bottle filled with boiling water.
Why was I out here? Sure, those two fellas were deep in the prairie, picking their way toward Three Crater, but—
Papa, watch out!
Katie’s voice pierced my thoughts like an icepick. My guts filled with cold water.
“Stop using,” I muttered, massaging my temples to loosen the icepick her words left behind my eyes. “You know you’re not supposed to use.”
Those men didn’t go to Three Crater. They’ve been playing us. You’re walking into a trap!
The backdoor of the tractor-trailer squealed on its rusty hinges and a giant pig clambered down from the cargo hold. She paused to drop a pile of steaming shit between her legs, then bolted across the asphalt toward me.
I’d seen this pig a few times before. She was big as a bull and covered with festering skin sores. An abscess had eaten through her skull and exposed a chunk of brain that some of the other pigs liked to nibble on. Sometimes she chased them away, sometimes she just sat there and let them eat.
I raised the carbine and fired, but the pig bowled into me first. My bullet banged the trailer door, leaving me with two more rounds. After that my rifle became a club.
The pig bit the back of my thigh while I scrambled on hands and knees toward a Ford Thunderbird that probably had thirty miles on the odometer when the bombs dropped. A warm gush spilled down my leg. Her hooves scraped the asphalt behind me, fighting for traction.
I tossed the Winchester through the Ford’s driver side window—the glass had shattered long ago—and intended to follow, but the pig clamped onto my left shoulder, snapping my collar bone in half. Jagged teeth dug into my shoulder. Pain speared through my armpit and into my chest. The pig dragged me away from the Thunderbird.
My backpack straps tore loose and her teeth released me. She shook her head from side to side, jowls shaking, and the burlap sack went flying across the road. While the pig chased after the sack, I staggered back to the Thunderbird and threw myself into the scorched interior. Blood splattered the dust covering the seat, making a gritty kind of mud. My left hand could barely grip the rifle barrel, so I balanced the Winchester on my wrist. I took aim through the window, but a row of dead cars shielded the pig.
They’re coming! my daughter’s voice screamed inside my head, the message so loud that it made my vision double. My breakfast came spewing up through my mouth and nose.
Those men, papa… they’re coming for us!
I suppose once the pig mangled me, Bill lost interest in controlling her. When I slid out the Thunderbird’s window, I saw her waddling down the road toward a rattlesnake coiled under the shadow of another car. The rattler sprang at her, latching onto her snout. The pig reared her head and gobbled the snake’s tail like a kid slurping a spaghetti noodle stuck to her nose.
My injured leg buckled after a few steps. I had to crawl on my belly, punching my right knuckles on the road so I could keep hold of the Winchester. My left arm felt numb as a plank of wood.
At this pace, it would take me all day to get back to the ranch. That is, if I didn’t bleed to death along the way or get eaten by coyotes or mutant pigs.
I found the burlap sack smushed inside a deep fissure in the road, a stroke of luck that probably stopped the pig from eating it.
My arm barely had enough reach to scratch the burlap with my fingertips, but after some manoeuvring I managed to haul the sack out and open the twine cord with my teeth. A smooth, brown rock plopped into my lap. The pilgrim who gave me the rock had carved a rough circle on its surface. He’d told me that he dug it out of one of the craters, a holy totem left behind by the God of the Split Atom, and bade me to use it in His service. The pilgrim died the next day and I buried him next to County Road 8.
I’ve only used the rock once before, about six years ago, when Myra disappeared in the corn fields for two nights. I’ve lost count of how many melanomas I’ve cut out of my skin since then or how many loose teeth I’ve spat into the fields during harvest just from those few precious seconds of use.
I cupped the rock in my palms and instantly became aware of the monstrous energy pulsing from Three Crater. It was like listening to another world breathe in its sleep.
Folks like Bill develop a knack for using and can do it whenever they like, although siphoning all that radiation through their bodies does nothing for their appearance. Bomb children like my daughter were simply born with the knack. I belong to neither camp, but touching the totem allowed me to dabble.
What I hated most about using the rock (besides the cancer it invited into my body) was this: in the centre of the craters were tiny windows, fogged and mostly opaque…peepshow slits that scratched at the back of my mind, daring me to take a closer look. Through those windows I might catch a whiff of gasoline dripping from a pump nozzle or overhear bits of conversation about things that made no sense; hints that another world existed beyond the craters, a world spared by the God of the Split Atom.
Thinking about the possibility made my head spin.
I ignored the cosmic peepshow and focused on the giant pig hunkered beside a blown out Studebaker about fifty feet down the road. The rattler’s venom made her sluggish, but I doubt enough venom existed in the world to kill that walking abomination.
Come over here, I said, imagining that I was leaning next to the beast and whispering in her ear.
What? she replied.
I’m going to ride you back to my ranch.
Go fuck yourself.
I’ll give you food. Chicken. Beef. Pork?
Maybe Bill could force the pig to obey his commands, but the totem barely gave me enough juice to bargain with her.
Food? she asked, licking her chops and picturing herself gorging on reams of fat-dripping bacon.
Tons. Loads of bacon. My wife makes the best bacon in Parson County. I promise.
The pig waddled next to me and let me crawl onto her broad back.
Go fast! I pleaded.
She ignored me and trotted at her own lazy pace. A torn hunk of brain bobbled from her reeking skull pan and dangled in front of her snout like a cluster of rubbery grapes. The pig dragged her own brain into her mouth with her tongue and munched on it while we traveled.
The totem worked on me all the while. My gums bled. My palms blistered as the rock drew a steady trickle of radiation from the craters. I pictured tiny knots of cancer blooming through my body, in my bones, my lungs, my colon. The peepshow windows inside the craters called for my attention, daring me to peek into that other world where the blockade held, but I stayed focused on my ranch, desperately trying to catch a whisper from my daughter. I heard nothing and suspected Bill was blocking us.
I also suspected that he planted John Miller’s burning ranch in my head to lure me away and that he created the image of them walking near Three Crater to fool Katie when I asked her to find them, making him one powerful and tricky sonofabitch.
As the depth of his treachery stitched together in my mind, I grew certain that Bill would not let me simply trot back to my ranch and rescue my family.
The pig left the road and came within a hundred feet of my porch before the first shot let out of Henry Duchane’s rifle. The bullet slammed the pig’s ribs about three inches below my head.
Ouch! the pig shouted. What the hell was that?
A second shot let out. I saw Henry’s rifle barrel buck from an open window beside the front door. The second round punched a hole through my shirt sleeve and buried itself in the pig’s lungs.
What’s going on? she said. That hurt!
A third shot, followed by three more in quick succession. Gun smoke clouded the window. I felt bullets bang around the pig’s chest, shredding her insides.
I don’t feel so good, she said as she collapsed. I rolled behind her hulking body.
Henry Duchane opened the front door and ran for a shock of wheat sitting on the far right of the porch, trying to outflank me. I fired at him while he ran, but my shot hit a wooden strut instead.
Now I was down to one bullet.
I levered my last round. This wasn’t going to work, I realised. Henry was going to make a run for that other shock of wheat that I could barely see in the corner of my eye. Then from cover he could take his time and end me with one careful shot.
I slipped my numb left hand into the trouser pocket where I had stuffed the pilgrim’s totem during the jouncy ride back to the ranch. I imagined a red beam connecting Henry’s rifle to the rock in my hand. The vibrant beam pulled pulled some radiation from Three Crater and fed it into his rifle. The beam seared my retinas even though it only existed in my imagination.
Henry Duchane screamed and threw his rifle. The barrel was white-hot. The grass it touched smouldered and a brief grassfire haloed the gun. Henry tumbled from cover as he tossed his rifle and I shot him dead.
Myra shouted from inside the house, “Hurry, Alan! He’s doing something to her!”
I limped into the ranch. Myra’s blue dress was torn down the back from her neck to her buttocks. She held the dress to her chest with one hand and pounded on Katie’s bedroom door with the other. Blood greased her chin.
“She’s in there with him,” Myra said. “He barricaded the door.”
“How? He can barely walk.”
I slammed the door with the rifle stock. Bill probably moved Katie’s dresser with his mind, but that didn’t occur to me until much later.
I threw my weight against the door and it swung open. Pain like I never felt before shuddered through my body as I spilled into Katie’s bedroom.
Bill sat in the corner with his hands folded on his lap, staring off into space. My daughter stood next to him, looking more horrified by my arrival than by the drooling presence of her kidnapper.
“He didn’t hurt me,” she said.
Myra helped me to my feet. She wept and let the torn dress fall from her body. If I had any bullets left, I would have fired them all into Bill right there and then. I limped toward him, intending to stove in his head with the carbine. Katie leapt in front of him.
“NO!” she said. “Don’t kill him! He didn’t hurt me!”
“He didn’t hurt me! He held my hand and took me somewhere.”
“What?” I asked again.
“He took me to this place with lots of people and lots of cars, only the cars were moving and honking like geese. Everything was green and alive and noisy. Bill looked normal, the way he probably looked before I was born, and I looked normal! Papa, my face looked the same on both sides. It looked the same.” Tears glittered in her eyes. “He was nice to me. We spent several hours together, talking about everything. He could have hurt me, but he didn’t. He kissed me and everything turned back to normal when you fell through the door.”
Bill somehow took my daughter through the peepshow windows buried in Three Crater, I realised…took her mind or her spirit or whatever to that world on the other side, the one spared by the God of the Split Atom.
“Go out back, Katie.”
“No!” she said. “I won’t let you kill him. Don’t you understand? He did nothing to me.”
Bill sat through our exchange with his mouth hanging open, struggling to breathe through the fluid bubbling in his lungs.
I looked at my daughter, then at Myra.
I don’t know what it would have taken for me to shove Katie aside and lay into that blind man right in front of her, to just bash and bash and bash at his bulbous skull until it cracked open like a malformed egg. A man more bloodthirsty than myself, I suppose.
Katie sensed my hesitation. “I know he’s done wrong. Take him back to the train station. Send him away. He’ll never come back. He told me so.”
“Back to the train station…”
“He can’t defend himself,” she pressed. “You can’t kill him like this. It wouldn’t be right.”
I sat on her bed, exhausted. “I’ll think about it.”
Myra fashioned a splint from some PVC pipes and gave me a crutch that we kept from when she broke her ankle ice-skating back in ’59. Henry Duchane’s rifle barrel had melted out of shape, but it was a Remington 788 and his ammo fit my Winchester just fine. I loaded all six rounds.
My daughter watched me with a concerned expression.
“It’s for my protection,” I said. “I’ll put him on a train to Topeka and leave it at that.”
“Are you going to be okay?”
Myra dressed my wounds, but I still felt far from okay. If I could crutch to the train station and back, I’d consider myself lucky. But she didn’t need to know this.
“I’ll be fine.”
For the second time that day, I left my family alone at the ranch. Bill used his cane to shuffle in front of me, while I wobbled on my crutch and tried to hold my rifle level at his back. We both moved at the same ponderous speed.
I pocketed the pilgrim’s totem before we left. Although I was anxious to put it back in the lead safe, I feared Bill might put a whammy on me during the trip and make me shoot myself or something cowardly like that. The rock, I hoped, would protect me from such a fate.
“If I feel the slightest tingle in my head,” I warned him. “I’ll kill you without hesitation.”
All the other times Bill fingered through my brain I hadn’t felt anything, not the slightest tingle or even my usual watery belly, but he didn’t know that (or at least, I didn’t think he did). Bill muttered something under his breath and scuffled along the road.
My wife nodded to me. I nodded back.
Some forms of communication don’t require words or telepathy to be understood.
This is how my story ends where Katie is concerned. When I arrived back at the ranch, I told her that Bill boarded a train and was headed back to Topeka last I saw him. I didn’t feel good about letting him loose in the world again, I said, but what’s right is right.
My daughter kissed me and told me she loved me.
We visited John Miller’s ranch (he was fine; we stayed for dinner and Marjorie insisted on giving me some pain-killers and antibiotics), and when we got back we buried the giant pig and a dead sonofabitch named Henry Duchane.
No need for Katie to ever know the rest, but since I’m bothering to put these events down on paper, I should probably tell you what happened back on the road.
I waited until we were a mile or so from the ranch before I told Bill he could stop walking.
He turned and searched for me with his sightless eyes.
“Sorry, buddy…but I ain’t taking you to no train station.”
Then I shot Bill in the face. His tumorous head snapped back and he collapsed on the asphalt with a weird, wheezy grunt. His left hand mindlessly picked at the air and a handful of pebbles levitated off the ground. I levered another round and shot him again. The pebbles dropped and his hand stopped moving.
Braced against my crutch, I kicked his body into a ditch and whistled to a group of pigs rooting in a mud hole a little ways off the road. Katie would suspect something if I returned too early, so I climbed on the hood of a gutted Mustang after wedging the rock totem under the front tire for safe keeping.
I thumbed some tobacco in my favourite pipe, turned away from the ditch, and smoked while I listened to the pigs eat.
Andrew Muff is a graduate of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science and works as a physician assistant in Wichita, Kansas. He is also a short fiction writer and freelance illustrator. His work has previously been published in Perihelion Science Fiction, Electric Spec, 9 Crimes, and Sword and Sorcery Magazine, and will appear in future issues of The Martian Wave and Bête Noire.