Prejudice has always required three main ingredients: One, lots of people with one or more common traits. Two, other people that don’t share those traits. Three, enough people upset over it.
Silverkey Crossing has always been predominantly white like any small town of the Midwest. Said whites have been mostly friendly and welcoming to anyone that wasn’t of a light pink pigmentation that is nowhere near the actual color of white.
There was one pink guy who wasn’t as friendly as his pink neighbors. Truth was, he was downright nasty. He was surly enough to other pink people. But being un-pink was the bleat that would summon the wolf inside of him. Vern Addison Hubal. He never looked well. Splotched with melanoma, stringy white cobweb hair, he looked like the hospital waste left from Dr. Frankenstein’s attempt to transplant a human head with a moldy onion. He kept cows as gaunt and crooked as him. He kept a farm of thin, scraggly crops. He kept a large rock in his overalls to throw at people that weren’t pink. The few times he loosened his pockets to hire help, he ended up throwing the rock at them because the sun exposure darkened them too much for his bad eyes to tell who they were. He eventually no longer hired due as much to stinginess as he did to lack of applicants.
Vern’s lanky son was the help when nobody else was. He got the wrath of the rock more than a few times. And just enough times in the head that it didn’t take much for Vern to indoctrinate him with his views of the world and the people on it.
“White is right, Russ, white is RIGHT!” he would repeat this incessantly, his dowel rod arms clubbing one knotty, bulbous palm with another. Beyond that, he didn’t really reason as to why white was right. It simply was.
The declining Vern was content with being sure that anyone that came near his house or farm was pink. Paranoia, youthful restlessness, and ideals as narrow as a flat earth ministry impelled Russ to bigger things. All he needed was a spark. It came when the Ku Klux Klan started making the news. Russ never saw them. But the heavy antique radio in the splintery living room painted all the pictures Russ needed. He would sit in front of it with neck fully extended as if it were a television. Ominous. Merciless. Knights clad in white. Pa’s favorite color. And the seductive glory of a uniform. It all took seed in Russ’s rock-pocked skull where it would germinate for a long time.
Nobody knew what Russ Hubal had in mind when he asked his Ma to teach him to sew. She always wondered if he was a hummasex-shull. Nineteen years old, no girlfriend, and this… This wasn’t helping. But teach him she did. Before long, she would hear the pedal-powered sewing machine chattering away in her absence. She would lean her flabby melon head in the doorway, her toothless mouth slightly open in silent reaction to the long, white… dress…? Her son was muddling together from his stained, stiff bedsheets. That red hair. That scrawny, long neck bent over the sewing machine in laser focus. She couldn’t hear what he was saying to himself. Muttered in a deep drawl that was more from being hit in the head with rocks than the local dialect. Wat is rat. Wat is RAT.
They were called “The Terrible Two’s”. They flew a flag of a white Roman numeral “II” on a black flag. It’s significance wasn’t so mysterious. For starters, there were only two of them. Russ and his highschool friend, Darryl. Second, Russel’s paranoia put the Klan-based uniform to a critical question: Say The Two’s became BIG. Bigger than the KKK. It wouldn’t be long before non-pinks would catch on – Hey, if you want to infiltrate The Two’s, just show up at their secret meetings in one of their uniforms.
He had to figure out a way to make sure that everyone under a white hood was indeed pink.
Leaving out the hood was ridiculous.
Exposed hands would work, but a non-pink could wear gloves. So no go there.
Russ spent a whole evening looking at his uniform, the firstfruit of his initiative, seated on his sheet-less bed. Inspiration hit as the last ray of twilight froze over in the November sky. He quietly fetched his Ma’s scissors and cut out the seat of the uniform. Tried it on. His pasty buttocks, pocked with residual acne, glowed like bone in his mirror. And it reminded him of something. Thus the Roman numeral “II” became the emblem for the people he would lead to pure pink glory.
The First Baptist Church was erected in 1923. When it suffered a fire in 1948, the church leaders built a second building in town instead of at the edge where Silverkey Crossing yawned into vast corn fields. Much of the first church was made of stone, intended to recapture the flavor of the good old days when screaming from the pulpit about fire and torment in the next life brought in a heavy treasury box, and fire and torment and screaming in this life was wrought by machines with spikes and cool little iron bits on the people that didn’t help make the treasury box all that heavy.
So after the harvest season, out in the empty landscape beyond town, there could be spied a great stone husk that was nearly a complete building. The absence of a roof the only major lack. The sinewy vines that snaked up the side of the walls were weaving an impressive ceiling over the decades.
This was where the Terrible Two’s – All three of them – held their secret meetings. It was also the designated spot for the lynching of any non-pinks.
But in 1966, there were no residents of Silverkey Crossing that weren’t pink.
So they had to make one.
Russ was the only one that knew how to sew. Darryl had Russ turn his bedsheets into a uniform for him. Bobby Fulk, a round and sensitive youth with thick glasses, had Russ do the same with his bedsheets. They needed an extra set of sheets to make something. An effigy. A non-pink.
Russ stood behind a makeshift altar of crates, candles burning low as his two fellow Two’s gawked up at him, each of them with exposed buttocks going numb with cold.
“Brothers, oh Brothers,” Russ boomed, “We have sworn to keep Silverkey Crossing free of inny-one who ain’t white, and so far we bin doin’ GRATE! Our homes and farms are full of white people!”
Darryl and Bobby clapped.
“But the day may come when we have to get our hands dirty. Someone that ain’t white is bound to come, bound to move in. Will we be FRAID when it’s time to tie a noose? To blood a saw or a PISH-fork? To clean our town when a speck of dirt shows up? We need practice. We need a dummy to try everything we know ’bout dealing death and inspirin’ fear. So when the business of killin’ is called for, we can take care of business and send a clear message to the world that WAT is RAT.”
“So where we gonna get some extra cloth?”
The answer wouldn’t come for another two weeks.
It came into town on the wheels of of pickup truck so rusted, there wasn’t a speck of paint. It stopped at the only gas station in Silverkey Crossing, a run-down Coalmaster with pumps that looked like aeon-worn gravestones.
The bed of the truck had been modified into a large box with lots of old planks and gnawed nails. There were gaps between the crooked boards for some chickens to poke their faces through. The Two’s were on patrol, meaning they were walking to the Coalmaster for sodas. Darryl held the door open for his leader for some seconds before he realized that he was staring at something.
No answer. There was nothing in sight but the old pickup.
“Russ, er jest chickens. Russ?”
Darryl let go of the door and stood behind Russ’s shoulder.
He was eyeing the cargo past the twitching, boggling chicken faces. Large sacks. Brown and frayed. At least five of them. It could have been grain. Or flour. Whatever it was, they were sturdy and something he could work with.
“You like them sacks, Russ?”
“Shore do. That’s our practice dummy right there. Maybe the owner’ll part with em for a buck or two.”
The driver was immediately obvious when Russ entered the station. Browsing the sodas, he was a short black man with a wide-brimmed straw hat. He had sagging features and long, deep, unusually deep lines on his face, as if tears had carved riverbeds in fifty different directions over the years.
Truth was, Russ had never seen a black man before. He knew there were people in the world that weren’t white, he just didn’t know what color they were. As many times as Vernon drilled it into him that ‘White is right,’ he never bothered to specify which colors were wrong. But one thing was certain: The person he was seeing right now definitely wasn’t pink.
“C’mon,” he grunted to his minions. “Get the sacks from that truck.”
“You mean steal em?” Bobby said with magnified eyes.
“Yeah, and quick, before inny-body knows what’s goin’ on!”
“Can’t just steal ’em, Russ… somebody’ll figure out it was us an’ we’ll be in trouble for real like!”
Russ put about two inches between his face and Bobby’s and spoke in a slurry hiss.
“Day’s comin’ when we gotta strangle an’ stab an’ shoot an’ burn at the stake. You tellin’ me you signed up for that but not for this? You can take a life but not a few sacks of grain?”
Bobby became a quaking pile of pudding with the onset of rethinking heavy decisions.
Russ ambled outside and flung his spider monkey frame onto the boards, trying to break into the crude cage with his bare hands. the nails groaned as they yielded. Darryl and Bobby looked at the oblivious black man at the pay counter. Looked at each other. Came outside to cover their captain. Russ was past being stealthy about the operation. He was grunting. Nails were popping. The chickens b’gawked prayers for a saviour, and the Lord heard.
“Can I help you young men?” came a low voice with a strong New Orleans accent. The black man sauntered toward them, hands in his jeans, adorned with an air of patience. The three of them hadn’t prepared for this outcome, least of all Bobby. The soft clucking of the chickens punctuated the silence.
Bobby was the first to speak. His speech was a staccato e*********n of syllables with no pauses for breath. In a very short space of time, the driver of the truck knew their names, their organization, its agenda, and the part the sacks of grain in the back of the truck were supposed to play, had they not been caught. But now that they had been caught, he just wanted to go home. From beginning to end, the driver’s expression was stony during the full-auto discourse. He removed his hat and bowed slightly.
“Nathandrew Milton. Pleased to meet you boys,” he fixed Russ with a deadpan gaze. The face was old. The eyes, the rich hue of buckeyes, were like deep wells of hidden wisdom. Vernon had drilled it into his son that if a body wasn’t white, it wasn’t human, and here he was confronted with the most human face he had ever seen.
“You boys know what’s going on in the world right now? You know what folks are saying to each other? Doing to each other?”
He switched his stare to the chinless, bug-eyed Darryl.
“You’re trying to bring a piece of that home with you? Where it’s quiet? Where folks don’t have to worry about minding each other and what they look like? Not having to mind the idea their kids may leave for school and never come back?”
Finally he looked at Bobby.
“Do you know what you’re trying to stoke in your home?”
“Pa always told me that WAT is RAT,” Russ said evenly.
“Son, hate is a full-time job. It’s a war that there’s no discharge from. There’s no end to the soldiers to bury. And the people that sign up to fight are good as dead the second they enlist.”
“You saying my Pa was wrong?”
A ghost of a smile came over Mr. Milton. “I never gonna say your Pa was wrong. But I can promise you that if you had my job, you’d know I’m telling y’all the truth. But I ain’t here to win no argument.”
He took out a set of keys and put a large one into the lock on the back of the bed/cage. The door swung open and Nathandrew clambered onto the truck bed, keeping the chickens back with one hand. One by one, he tossed the coveted sacks onto the ground, and relocked the cage. He stood with arms crossed.
“Boys, this part of my cargo is yours at no charge, on one condition. When you dump ’em out, do it somewhere beautiful. Peaceful. Then you can do whatever you want with the sacks.”
Three jaws hung open.
“Do we have a deal, young man?”
Russ couldn’t answer. He could only nod.
Nathandrew smiled. “You seem like fine young men. I’m sure you’ll uphold your end of the bargain.” He tipped his hat, got in the truck which started with a great cough of fumes, and set on his way.
It was when the old man was just a speck on the horizon that Russ popped his cork. “And STAY out! Dirty filthy worthless slab of hound chew! You two! We’re taking these straight to the old church.”
“Ain’t we gonna dump em someplace nice and pretty like we agreed?”
“We ain’t keepin’ no agreements with no black filth that comes through here uninvited like that. Come on. We’ll do what we dang well please with what’s inside.”
The sacks hit hard against the stone floor of the church. Russ, tendons like taut cables under the skin of his hands, tore the string closing the first one. He was daunted for but a split second. There wasn’t any grain. It was heavy like grain but dark. Sooty. Bits of something pale and dull winked at him like stars in a sky of soil.
He hurled the sack against the wall and black sprayed in a hiss with a light clatter of something else against the stone floor. The brutality in Russ’ movement kept Darryl and Bobby at a distance.
Another sack met a violent death against the wall.
“This right here is the most beautiful place on earth.”
“…now that you drove out of it. Like you know your place.”
The last sack was vanquished.
“And soon, there won’t be no place for you at all…”
The violent embers in his eyes pulsated as he breathed hard, towering over the ruin of the contents of the sacks. He walked over to a withered sack and rubbed it in the soot of its own insides.
Turning it black.
By the time the sun was just touching the horizon, Russ had managed to cobble the sacks together into a haggard, black piñata, stuffed with hay, just barely resembling a human being. It was enough to satisfy its intended role. It was suspended by a rope — around the neck, no less — from the heavy wood of the vines overhead.
They named it Blacky.
Blacky was inaugurated with beating the living daylights out of him. The coals of Russ’ anger were still glowing and it seemed that his blows would rend the giant doll any minute, but Blacky managed to stay in one piece. Darryl had a go at the dummy that didn’t last long. Bobby tried to imitate the fierceness of his leader, but came off as laughable.
Russ, though, didn’t seem to tire. Only when it was dark did his companions sway him to call it a day.
He declared that first thing in the morning, they would come back, fully robed, for true practice on engaging the next non-white that dares to enter Silver.
The anticipation made Russ’s breakfast taste wholesome and rich. Senselessly mauling his creation the night before sated a baser part of him, but this… this coming program would satisfy the chieftain in him. The doer. The ruler. He would give an order and see it carried out. He would have a purpose and see it fulfilled. He would see his soldiers work together and the target would be powerless to resist. And it would be beautiful.
Like three ghosts from a child’s storybook, they entered the shell of the church, butts hanging out, gloriously white. Blacky hung, frayed and misshapen with abuse, resigned to another session of torture. Russ flew towards it and drove his marble-white knuckles into the dolls gut. There was an unpleasant crunching sound. Russ tottered and fell to the floor crying out like a wounded coyote. Both his companions asked him what’s wrong, but wailing was the only answer to be given as Russ cradled his hand and writhed.
The doll. Something about the doll…
Bobby felt the place of the dummy where Russ had struck. There wasn’t the softness of hay as the night before. It had been replaced by something heavier and solid. His pocket knife trembled as he made a small incision. Out came something sooty and black, with little lumps of pale white dancing against the floor.
“One of you had to been the one that did it!” Russ jerked his wrapped, ruined hand at Darryl and Bobby. His teeth were small and his gums were long, so his indignant sneer made him look like a rabid mule.
“I ain’t gonna take no time to sneak out in the freezing cold at night to take down a dummy an’ fill it back up with that weird stuff that already been scattered everywhere, then trouble myself to hang it again!” Darryl said as he turned red.
“Me neither,” Bobby nodded with a meek frown.
“There’s only three people in the world that know ’bout that dummy, an’ they’re all here in this bedroom right now. I know I didn’t do it. So that narra’s the suspects down to you two.”
“W-wait,” Bobby stammered, “The black guy we got the sacks from knows about it.”
Realization dawned in Russ’s eyes. He did, didn’t he? He had a vision of Old Nathandrew snickering to himself outside the walls of the church to the music of Russ mewling over his hand.
That’s why he gave us the sacks in the first place.
There was one word in Russ’ modest vocabulary for what he was right then.
A deeper, hotter flame kindled in him. He didn’t hold any meetings or say much to his friends until his hand healed. At length came the word. His bedroom. All members. Midnight.
It hadn’t been terribly long since the last meeting, but when Darryl and Bobby saw their paragon, they didn’t recognize him. The hollows of the eyes were darker. The corners of the mouth were held in a way that would etch permanent lines later in life.
“Sit down,” he commanded.
“Ain’t no place to sit, Russ.”
“Sit on the floor.”
The two gingerly found sitting positions on the floorboards bristling with splinters.
“I called y’all here for an important announcement. We ain’t gonna pretend-kill on Blacky no more. We’re gonna kill for real.”
Darryl and Bobby looked at each other.
“That black guy found a way to outdo us and lay us up where we can’t do nothin’ bout him and his kind. He was up to it as soon as he gave us the sacks. The fact it went this far shows he’s serious about undoin’ us. So we gonna show him we serious about undoin’ him. First thing in the morning, find a way to take that dirt or whatever out of Blacky and stuff him up with hay again. We gonna do it in plenty of daylight to make sure we seen.”
The dummy hung exactly where it was left. Hay was gathered, the sacks were emptied, and the organ transplant was a success.
“We ain’t gonna practice on him at all, Russ?” Bobby asked.
“No. Go find something else to do and we’ll check back tomorrow morning.”
So another day came and went. Sundown came with Darryl and Bobby each distracted with mundane things like supper and chores. Russ’s eyes were glued to the horizon where the church lay until the twilight burned out.
“I knew it!” Russ barked at the doll. He had jabbed his knife into Blacky’s stomach. Rather than entrails of hay, there was the heavy black stuff and the pearly pebbles. He wore the rabid mule look again. He turned and pointed the blade at his followers. “He watchin’. He know what he doin’. We gonna show him that Silverkey ain’t no place for him and that we ain’t the type to horse around.”
He threw the knife down and it lodged between two of the stones in the floor, where he immediately forgot about it.
The process was repeated as before. Gut the dummy. Reload the hay. Stitch shut the openings. Except now the plan wasn’t to wait until morning. The three Terrible Two’s donned their bedsheet uniforms and armed themselves with whatever weapons they could find. Russ got ahold of a sturdy wood axe. Darryl lifted his father’s pitchfork and Bobby… well, Bobby wasn’t allowed to touch his father’s tools. So he got Russ to lend him a ball-peen hammer. Bobby couldn’t have looked more uncertain about his weapon.
“It’s hard, it’s blunt, an’ you can throw it if you have to,” Russ said. Didn’t help much, but at least he wasn’t fighting with something on par with a rubber chicken. And chicken was exactly how this whole outing was making him feel. He never really hated anyone for their color. But he knew that agreeing with everything Russ said got him some friends. Russ and Darryl were tough and forged by rural labor. Bobby? Pretty much just corn-fed. Cowboys, not hogs, won friends in the tiny toilet bowl that was Silverkey Crossing’s school district.
The three of them were hunkered down in a patch of trees that cast spidery shadows as the full moon shone down. Their white butts were hanging out of their robes and nearly freezing off. But the fire of revenge was propelling their captain that night, and they would either freeze their butts off for glory or have them cut off for treason.
Russ locked on the church with falcon eyes. He hadn’t truly known what it meant to be ready to kill, until this very moment. He could do it. He could do it and walk away from it just fine with himself. If the other two backed down? Just dandy. The full thrill of the kill would be his. Even if Darryl got to deliver the determining blow — or poke — and if Bobby somehow did something useful with that hammer, Russ was going to have the joy that only comes with an axe. Limb from limb. Bone from bone. Spread the brains like dung on the earth. He was resolute that there would be carnage tonight.
“Bobby! Bobby!” Russ shook his poorly armed friend. He was dozing just enough to half-dream about Thanksgiving Dinner, and he had slurred to his comrades about passing the mashed taters. “Wake up and look! He done showed up!”
Sure enough, outside the great dark shape of the church, a squat and dark figure waddled about in the moonlight. It came here a bit and stopped. It went there a bit and stopped.
“Maybe he thinks we out here this time,” said Darryl.
“Nobody move,” Russ hissed. “We give ourselves away and he gets away.”
It seemed forever before Mr. Milton made a trail of slow steps inside the ruined church. Russ clenched his teeth. Was he going to come right back out? The minutes passed, but there was no more movement.
Russ grinned with teeth of moon. “He’s set to work. He’ll be so caught up in what he doin’, we’ll be able to take him by surprise. Come on Turr’ble Two’s.”
They slinked toward the church, Russ in the lead. He jerked his head to the side, signalling to move to the back of the church. Bobby was afraid to run. He fell behind taking rapid baby steps. Russ and Darryl strode on up to the curtain of black night cast by the back of the building. Scarcely breathing, Russ heard. A heavy shuffling. The sound of ripping. Careful ripping. More shuffling. He was busy at work all right. While still trying to be quiet.
Bobby caught up and found the one dry twig Russ and Darryl missed. In the stillness it was like a firecracker. Russ and Darryl shot him looks that were loud enough to be screams. The church went dead silent. Long seconds measured in rapid-fire heartbeats passed. The shuffling resumed, but it was moving away from them towards the front of the church. All three young men knew what it meant and they stopped breathing. The shuffling of shoe on stone became the shuffling of shoe on grass in the distance. Russ’s mind raced. Old Mr. Milton surely didn’t have night vision. And he couldn’t see around corners. If he found them, they would still have the advantage. He would have to turn the corner to see them and he’d have to see them in the dark. Their grungy bedsheet uniforms weren’t going to completely hide them in the darkness, but still. The prey would be coming to them and they could still get the job done.
The shuffling was approaching the near corner. Then it stopped. Bobby’s lungs were starting to ache but he didn’t dare breathe. The quiet continued.
Russ leaned over to Bobby. “He ain’t comin’. That’s got to mean he’s got a gun. We come around the side, he’ll pick us off. Now for God’s sake, be as quiet as you can and go ’round the other side to the front and see if you can take him by surprise. Whack’m in the back of the head. He’ll be eye’ing this side so if you don’t do nothin’ stupid, you can get him.”
The ball peen hammer suddenly felt like a holy relic. Bobby could see himself leaning from behind a corner and throwing his weapon before Mr. Milton could reorient himself. He believed in his leader a little more that night. He nodded and set off. He was extra paranoid of anything that might be underfoot, but the moonlight was clear on this side of the church and the grass was clean. He steered wide of the curling leaves that piled up against the church’s foundation. He made it all the way to the corner that met his side and the front of the building. He peered around it. Nothing. So the next corner was the last hurdle. His insides churned as he crossed in front of the great dark stone entrance, but there was nobody there. The old man had definitely come alone. Courage welled up as he peered around that penultimate corner and beheld–
–Something. In a heap. On the ground. Out of the narrow shadow of the wall and in the moonlight. Bobby advanced, expecting perhaps to see the aftermath of a heart attack from the intensity of the standoff.
But all there was, was the faceless figure of Blacky the dummy.
Mid-afternoon. Russ strode out to the church with a strange shaking in his chest. He had tried to raise Darryl and Bobby, but neither of them answered when he knocked. He could see it already as he approached. Still sprawled out, exactly as they had left it. They didn’t carry it back inside. They had to carry Bobby, who had fainted dead away. Russ retraced everything. The figure entering the church. The movement in the church. The sound of footsteps leaving the church and approaching the back where they were hiding. But when did he have a chance to leave Blacky there and slink off so quietly? He would have heard him. Bobby would have seen him.
He loomed over the dummy lazing in the grass. He gave it a kick that revealed two things. One, it had been refilled with something much heavier and solid than hay. Two, the knife that Russ had thrown down and left on the floor, was underneath Blacky’s great sack arm. Russ tried to guesstimate how long it would have taken to rip open head, torso, arms and legs and refill them and stitch them back up. Much longer than it took for the young men to take the church.
He went inside. He searched for so much as a trace of that black muck or the small pearly granules. It was as if Nathandrew had bothered to bring a broom and dustpan. The stone floor was clean.
So somehow, some way, the old fart was quicker and sneakier than any old fart Russ had ever seen. Not that you saw too many if you never left a town like this. But quick and sneaky he was. Which meant he needed to make it impossible for Ol’ Nathandrew to do his job too quickly.
Russ pocketed his knife. He clutched Blacky by the head and set him inside the doorway of the church. He looked at the rope hanging limp like a prosthetic vine. Hanging Blacky back up wouldn’t be worth it now. The Terrible Two’s had work to do. Well, if the Terrible Two’s could be found. Darryl and Bobby weren’t answering any kind of summons. They didn’t answer the next day, despite Russ trying them morning and afternoon. The rabid mule look was beginning to set as a permanent expression on his face. First, a subhuman outwits him twice. Then his people, his soldiers abandon him. He tried for days after. Sometimes the parents would answer the door, but they didn’t have any straight answers for him. So not only betrayal. Conspiracy.
Okay. Cleaning out Silverkey Crossing started with Russ Hubal. It would finish with Russ Hubal, help or no.
Sunday, while everyone was busy with church and other things, Russ executed a bow-legged march out to his own church where Blacky had been attending all week. In pilgrimage, or mockery of the Catholic Stations of The Cross, or whatever you want to call it, Blacky was then dragged to the nearest outhouse. Like a sacrificial lamb on an altar of poo, Russ gouged the sacks one by one and emptied their contents down the wooden poo hole that seemed to widen a little every three years. The sooty muck sounded like rainfall down below. The little mystery pearls like hailstones.
Then like the Messiah’s garb coveted by the Roman soldiers, the skin of sacks was taken back to the Church of White Boys With Their Rears Hanging Out and resurrected with hay.
And then… Ascension. Blacky was hung up in place by the rope from whence he came. Russ nodded to his creation.
Wat is RAT. An’ you gonna find out how rat it is if you come back.
He set out at nightfall. Alone. In hooded uniform. He carried Pa’s wood axe in one hand and a plastic jug of gasoline in the other. The body of this animal wasn’t fit to go back to the ground naturally. It would burn. If he could even just wound it a little so it couldn’t run away, he would burn it alive. Let it learn full and well that it picked the wrong people to screw around with.
The waning crescent moon afforded just enough light to give Russ eyes as he spied the church from the same patch of trees. As the dark deepened, a squat, waddling figure manifested in front of the church. Slow. Unhurried. It came this way, paused. Went that way, paused. Russ thought his patience would crack when the thing finally went inside. Russ shook his head. The seconds counted now. When the old man would discover the new circumstances, he might come right back out. So Russ sprinted, straight and even, looking like a ghoulish ostrich.
He set the jug of gasoline down beside the front entrance where he crouched. He readied the axe for a swing when the old man would emerge in dismay. There was shuffling as before. But there was a slightly different sound to it that Russ couldn’t place. It was louder. Maybe… heavier? Slicker? Something.
A breeze stirred that chilled the back of Russ’s neck, whorling around inside the church. It plumbed out a sharp odour that bit his nose, and it wasn’t gasoline. It was putrid enough to rupture your sinuses through your eyeballs. Suppressing a retch wasn’t easy but he managed it. A finer truth of his senses came through while he wrestled with the stench: The shuffling. At the end of each shuffle was a gentle splatter like dropping a wet sock on pavement. The movement sounded like pacing. In circles, or back and forth. Looks like he wasn’t coming out. Awright, old man. Russ is coming to you. He tried to gauge when the old man was meandering past the doorway so he could bring the axe down on a shoulder or the upper back. Leave the head alone so the body can suffer. The footfalls went on and on. He couldn’t have known Russ was there. Milling about maybe to rethink how he was going to meddle with Blacky’s internal organs, but surely not to stall Russ. He tightened his legs like springs as his instincts ticked like a metronome to the pacing:
Approaching the doorway.
Past the doorway.
Approaching. Past. Approaching. Past. Approaching…
He sprang. He struck. The axe found something soft and solid. Russ felt his face splattered. His mark fell to the floor with a dull thud. Part of him wanted to crow in victory. Another part of him was all like Hold up, something ain’t right. The air inside was thoroughly rank and reaching an invisible hand down Russ’s throat to grab his supper. The blood that flecked his face was ice cold. He shrugged it off and dropped the axe to replace it with the jug of gasoline and began a frantic pouring.
“You gonna burn, you wad of dog meat! You hear? You gonna burn! You gonna howl like the STOOPUD animal you are and scream forever in the pits of hell! Because WAT is…”
He struck a match, the bloody orange light threw flickering rays on the standing, faceless figure. Glistening with the slime of feces. Foetid with stale urine. The rope around its neck clinging to the body like a sludgy jugular. It anchored him with eyes it didn’t have. And it swung the axe. The orange light erupted into gold.
It didn’t take terribly long for someone to notice that the church was suffering its second fire in its history. But by the time the emergency call was received and firefighters were out of bed and in uniform, whatever there was to burn had burned.
Dean Brosamer led the team of firefighters with the dispatch. The cloudy horizon was cast in deep plum in early sunrise. They didn’t have to use much water on the smouldering stone. The roof of vines was wounded, but would repair itself with time. He thoughtfully tugged at his gray mustache with a heavy glove, looking up through the smoking gouge at the mounting daylight.
“Hey Dean, have a look over here.”
“Whatcha got, Syd?”
His fellow fireman led him to a heap of sacks. Five of them. They were made of some coarse fiber that was starting to fray.
“Funny thing they didn’t burn, huh?”
Dean was about to remark when he saw the charred corpse at the far back of the church. “Oh no,” he muttered.
Whoever it was, they were burned beyond all recognition. Dean shook his head. He nudged the body with his boot to see if there was any tissue left. An arm fell off, crumbling into a heap of soot and ashes, the overcooked bone crumbling into jagged pearls like old teeth.