When the man lopes around the corner from the back of the house looking frightened, she shows him the gun and points to a nearby tree.
Ain’t nothin to worry about, she says. I was just takin a potshot at a squirrel. It got away. You got them flowers?
He has a handful of them, pale and broken-stemmed with roots and gobs of dirt hanging from them.
They’ll do, she says. Now come on and fill in this hole.
He does it, and she watches his slow movements, which seem to her like tectonic movements of the earth, glacial and resounding, full of pith and mineral.
She takes the picket cross and hammers it into the soil at the head of the grave.
That’s so God knows where to look when he comes to find her, she explains. Now go ahead and put those flowers on there. Go on now.
He puts the flowers down and looks to her.
All right then, dummy, I guess you got a better chance of staying ahead of them slugs now that you’re unburdened of granny. God only knows what you was made for, but I reckon you gonna find your place among saints and sinners.
Halfway back to the car she realizes he’s following her, those weak cloudy eyes looking down at her legs, following the shadow she casts on the pavement.
What you doin, dummy? You can’t come with me. I ain’t the one to take care of you. I ain’t a kind and gentle creature. You understand me? Look here, you got the wrong girl. I’ll feed you to them meatskins just as soon as look at you. I don’t need no halfwit to have to worry about.
She looks at the car and then back at the man.
Doggone it, dummy. You got a fate same as I do, same as everybody. Your livin and dyin ain’t on me. It can’t be. You stay there now and stop following me.
She puts her hands up to indicate he should stay, and she backs slowly to the car. She gets in and shuts the door and looks one last time at him, standing there in the middle of the street like a tree stump.
Then she drives away, gripping the wheel tight—and the thick throb of pain comes back into her hand, and she grabs on to it and doesn’t let it go because it feels like an earned suffering.
OVER THE next rise, there’s a convenience store and a gas station. The pumps are still working, and she fills her tank and then gets some food. She finds some cheese crackers and takes them outside and sits on the curb to eat them while in the distance some slugs wander to and fro oblivious of her.
She remembers Uncle Jackson, when he first found her and the boy Malcolm holed up in a storm drain, living off squirrels and berries.
Where’d you come from, little bit? he said.
There she was, not yet ten years old probably, snarling at him, baring her teeth like a beast of the earth.
Feral, huh? he said. I’m not convinced. I see the glimmer, girl. You’ve got smarts whether you like it or not. My cabin’s that way, about a half a mile. Come by when you’re tired of the drainpipe.
He showed her how to shoot, how to hold your breath when you are aiming at a distance—and he showed her how to drive a car and how to start one without a key. He fed her and Malcolm oatmeal in ceramic bowls.
He said, How long have you been taking care of that boy?
Are you his sister?
We was raised in the same place, she said. Everything got mixed up. Nobody was sure.
Come here, he said. I have something for you. It’s a khukuri.
He shuffled around in a chest in the corner of the room and brought out something wrapped in a blanket. It was a blade that bent inward and shone red in the firelight. It was beautiful, and she wanted to touch it. She thought it would feel cold, that it would make her fingers feel vibrant.
It’s Nepalese, he said. There were warriors in Nepal called gurkhas. Very strong, very fierce. Resilient and self-sufficient. Like you. They carried blades like this.
What you call it? Cuckoo?
Khukuri. But if you can’t remember that, you can just call it a gurkha knife.
She remembers, later, Malcolm, just a couple years younger than she, asleep on a mound of blankets in the corner, Uncle Jackson’s snoring from the other side of the room, the light from the remaining embers of the fire casting a pale glow through the cabin—and her turning the blade over and over in her hands, her eyes closed, feeling the weight of it and the balance, getting to know it, putting it against the skin of her face and her lips.
It was a gift. It was the first gift anybody had given her since she could remember.
In the parking lot of the convenience store, she gets to her feet and returns to the car and sits in the driver’s seat for a while, thinking about a lot of gone things.
Finally she starts the car and swings the wheel around and drives back to the subdivision.
He’s still standing where she told him to stay, pulling on the ends of his greasy hair and squinting in the sun.
She pulls up next to him and rolls down the window.
How long were you gonna stay there, dummy? she asked. What was your plan exactly, just wait until the slugs gave you a reason to move? I never seen such a fool as you—and I seen some foolishness without compare in my life.
His sad thick eyes look into the car. She tries to follow the gaze, but what he’s really looking at is inside his own head. He has a skillet face and a frame like vegetal growth and sluggish eyes and a mind with no doors or windows.
She reaches over and opens the passenger door and then tosses the duffel bag into the backseat.
Well come on if you’re comin, she says. But I ain’t promising you’re gonna live.
HE KEEPS tugging at his hair and scratching, and pretty soon she figures it out.
You got head critters, dummy.
In the next town, where the water lines are still pumping, she finds a house with a spigot in the side yard and a hose attached.
Bare yourself, dummy, she says. He doesn’t understand, so she has to show him by unbuttoning two of his shirt buttons. His eyes watch her fingers intently. Go on, she says, don’t be shy. You got no luggage I ain’t seen before.
He strips himself down and stands in the middle of the overgrown yard and shuts his eyes tight and holds on to the rag she gives him while she sprays him front and back with the hose.
Now wash, she says, miming the action for him. He moves the rag around on his body, trying to mirror the gestures she makes. Harder, she says. That soot ain’t just gonna brush off.
Finally she gets impatient and takes the rag from him and scrubs his back and his front above the waist and his arms.
Now you gotta take care of yourself down there, she says, pointing to his crotch. This girl ain’t full service.