Just like the slugs, right?
I reckon it ain’t the first time the comparison’s been made.
He looks at her again, and she can feel her skin go taut.
Where exactly are you from, Sarah Mary Williams? And don’t tell me Statenville. I’ve been to Statenville, it’s a ghost town.
I’ve been down south for a while. Found myself a nice little place, but the meatskins were fixin to move in. Before that I did a lot of travelin. Alabama, Mississippi, Texas. Once I got as far north as Kansas City.
What about your parents?
What about them?
Where are they?
Beats me. I guess I must of had some. But they either roamed free or got dead before I got any recollection of em.
He points down toward the house.
Is he really your brother? he asks.
Him? Huh-uh. He’s just a dummy I picked up a ways back. He don’t talk much, but he follows directions real good. Bet he could haul quite a load, big as he is. Would be a good worker to have around if anybody had need of one.
So you don’t have any family at all?
She shrugs and sniffs, wiping her nose on the back of her hand.
Not really. There was a kid once. Malcolm. It could of been he was my brother—but all the papers in the orphanage got burned. And there was Uncle Jackson, but we just called him that. He wasn’t a real uncle or nothing.
What happened to them?
Uncle Jackson, he got bit.
WHERE IT happened was up on the ridge where Uncle Jackson liked to hunt rabbits. He was crouched down in a gully taking careful aim when he felt the hands on him, the teeth sinking into the flesh of his forearm. He said he never saw the thing coming at all. That it must’ve been there in the leaves for who knows how long just waiting for some food to come along, like a Venus flytrap or something.
She found him later, met him as he was coming back to the cabin.
You’re gonna have to do something for me, little bit. It’s not gonna be pretty. Are you ready to do it?
He led her to a fallen tree and rolled up his sleeve and put his arm out and told her to tie it tight above the elbow with his belt. She did it. Then he told her to use her gurkha and take it off.
Just one quick stroke. Do you think you can do it?
It’s gonna hurt you bad, ain’t it?
It’s not gonna hurt as much as the alternative, little bit. Now you go on. Thirteen years old, maybe, but you’ve got a hacking arm on you the kind I’ve never seen before. Can you do it?
He put the loose end of the belt in his mouth so he wouldn’t scream when she did it.
She brought the blade down quick and firm like he had taught her before.
Afterward, he couldn’t walk so straight, so she got under his good arm and took him back to the cabin and laid him down on his cot.
What happened to Uncle Jackson’s arm? Malcolm said. He gazed around Temple’s body at the man lying on the bed. He was a worrying kind, Malcolm was, and sometimes you had to make him breathe into a bag when he got stirred up.
He got in an accident.
Was it meatskins?
It’s gonna be okay. Go to the well and bring me back some water.
But where’s his arm?
Go on like I told you.
They heated water on the woodstove and put damp cloths on Uncle Jackson’s forehead and tried to get him to drink. He was fitful for a long time, his head jerking back and forth, his good hand clutching at the space where his other arm should have been.
Eventually he slept, and so did Malcolm. And she sat up and watched the man in the glow of the firelight.
He woke after midnight, but he wasn’t the same. There was a quietness to him as of someone given up.
How you doing, little bit?
I’m all right, she said.
It got me, he said. I can feel it.
But your arm. It could be we got it in time. You might not change.
He shook his head.
I can feel it, he said. It’s in me. Whatever it is, it’s part of me now. You’re gonna have to take Malcolm away from here.
No, she said. You don’t know. You’re sick but it might not be that. You could make it, it might not be that.
Listen to me, little bit. You have to know this, it’s important. When it happens, you can feel it. All right? Are you listening? When it happens you’ll know.
Give me that pistol from the table.
She brought the pistol to him. He popped the cartridge.
Now take out all the rounds except one.
It could be—
Come on, little bit. You do what I’m telling you. Just leave one round. You’re gonna need the rest.
She did it.
Now you take the guns and put them in the trunk of the car, and you take Malcolm, and the two of you drive away from here and don’t come back. You got it? You listening to me?
She wiped her eyes on her sleeve and shook her head.
Temple, I’m talking to you, he said, his voice coming harsh and sudden and causing her to straighten up. Now you’re gonna do exactly what I tell you, do you understand?
I’ll be all right here. I’ll take care of myself before it gets ahold of me.
He gripped the gun to his chest.
Now you’ve got bigger things to think about, little bit. You’ve made a home out of this world somehow—I don’t know how you did it, but you did. And that means you can go anywhere in it. Everyplace is your backyard. You understand me?
Never let anyone tell you you don’t belong where you’re at. You’re my girl, and you’re gonna climb high and stand over all of them.
Now go on out of here. That’s my girl. I’m gonna remember you. That’s a dead man’s promise. Wherever my mind goes, it’s gonna have you in it.
EVERYBODY’S GOT a time to die, Temple says. That was his. I guess God’s got it all written down somewhere—but it wouldn’t do no good to read it anyway.
He passes the bottle to her and she drinks. There’s a warm blush spreading through her chest and into her cheeks, and she fingers the smooth taffeta of her dress. The warm night air tickles the back of her neck and gives her shivers.
How long were you with him?
Two, three years, she shrugs. I ain’t so good about time.
And you’ve been traveling ever since?
More or less.
What about the boy? Malcolm. What happened to him?
Her lips close themselves tight, and she looks straight ahead into the purple-black horizon.
It was the giant outside of Tulsa. That’s where it happened. Under the giant. An iron man in a hardhat, standing proud, eight stories tall, with one elbow akimbo, one fist on his waist and the other resting on top of an oil derrick. A severe and mighty thing, looking like a soldier of God who could shake the earth with his footsteps. The locals had told her about it, said it was an artifact of the past, a towering homage to the petroleum industry during its heyday decades before.