While she’s eating, she thinks about how smart it was for God to make meatskins not interested in real food so there would be plenty left for regular folk. She remembers an old joke that makes her smile—the one about the meatskin who gets invited to a wedding party. At the end of it they have twice the leftovers and half the guests.
She chuckles, and the road is long.
SHE TAKES the coast road for a while, shaggy palm trees everywhere and overgrown beach grass coming up through the cracks in the road, and then she turns inland for a change. Gators. She’s never seen so many gators before. They are sunning themselves on the black tarmac of the highway, and when she approaches they skulk out of the way in no particular hurry. There are other towns, but still no signs of regular life. She begins to imagine herself as the last person left on the planet with all these meatskins. The first thing she would do is find a map and drive the country to see the sights. She would start in New York and then adventure herself all the way to San Francisco, where they have the steep driving hills. She could find a stray dog or tame a wolf and have it sit next to her and put its head out the window, and they could get a car with comfortable seats and sing songs while they drive.
She nods. That would be a right thing.
The sun goes down, and she turns on the headlights and one of them still works so she can see the road ahead of her but in a lopsided way. There are some lights in the distance, a glow on the horizon that must be a city, and she drives in the direction of the glow.
But on the road at night, you start thinking ugly alone thoughts. She remembers, it must have been five years ago, driving through Alabama with Malcolm in the seat beside her. She was very young then, she must have been, because she remembers having to push the seat all the way forward—and even then she had to sit up on the edge of it to reach the pedals. And Malcolm was younger still.
Malcolm was quiet for a long time. He liked to chew that gum that was too sweet for her, and he liked to put two pieces in his mouth at once. For a while she could hear him chewing next to her—then it was silent, and he was just looking out the window at the big black nothing.
What happened to Uncle Jackson? Malcolm said.
He’s gone, she said. We ain’t going to see him no more.
He said he was gonna teach me how to shoot.
I’ll teach you. He wasn’t your real uncle anyway.
To get the memory out of her head, she rolls down the window and lets the wind play in her hair. When that doesn’t work, she decides to sing a ditty she once knew by heart and it takes her a while to remember all the parts of it.
Oh, mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey,
Yes, mairzy doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey,
A kiddley divey doo, wouldn’t you?
A kiddley divey doo, wouldn’t you?
It’s on a long stretch of country road that the car dies, and she pulls over and pops the hood to look. It’s probably the fuel pump, but she can’t be sure without getting under the car and poking around, and the engine’s too hot to do anything for a while. And she doesn’t have any tools to poke around with anyway, but she can see a house set back away from the road down a little dirt drive—and there might be tools there.
She looks into the dark horizon toward the city lights. Distance is difficult to determine at night—it’s possible she could walk it by morning.
Still, that house. It might hold something worthwhile.
She’s been out of the game for a long time now and she’s feeling bold—and anyway she wants something to distract her from her night memories. So she straps the gurkha knife to her thigh and jams the pistol in the waistband of her pants—two rounds, emergency use only—and takes the flashlight and walks up the packed dirt driveway to the house, where she’s ready to kick the door in except she doesn’t have to because it’s standing open.
There’s a stink in the house, and she recognizes it. Flesh mold. Could be corpse or could be slug. Either way, she tells herself to breathe through her mouth and make it quick.
She finds her way to the kitchen, where there’s an overturned and rusting formica table and peeling wallpaper with a strawberry vine pattern. Because of the humidity, patches of furry gray-green mold are growing everywhere. She opens the drawers one by one looking for tool drawers but there’s nothing. She looks out the back window. No garage.
There’s a door in the kitchen, and she opens it and finds wooden steps leading down beneath the ground.
She waits at the top of the steps for a moment, listening for any sounds in the house, and then descends slowly.
In the basement there’s a different smell, like ammonia, and she sweeps the flashlight around to a table in the middle of the room cluttered with bottles, burners, rubber tubing, and one of those old-fashioned scales with a long arm on one side. Some of the bottles are half filled with a yellow liquid. She’s seen this kind of setup before. Meth lab. They were big a few years before when some people were taking advantage of the slug distraction.
She finds a workbench against the wall and roots around for a phillips-head and a wrench, but what she’s really looking for is a pair of pliers.
She sets the flashlight down on the tabletop but it rolls off and falls to the floor where it flickers once but stays lit. Good thing—she wouldn’t want to have to feel her way back to the car.
But when she turns, she sees something she missed before. By the stairs, there’s a utility closet—and while she watches, the door of the closet, illuminated in the faint glow of the flashlight, shudders once and flies opens as if someone has fallen against it.
Then she can smell it, the flesh rot, much stronger now—it was masked before by the ammoniac smell of the lab.
They stumble out of the utility closet, three of them, two men in overalls with long hair and a woman dressed only in a satin slip, which has been ripped open to expose one desiccated breast.
Temple has forgotten how bad they smell—that muddy mixture of must and putrefaction, oil and rancid shit. She sees a fecal ooze falling wetly down the back of the woman’s legs. They must have fed recently, so they will be strong. And they are between her and the stairs.
She puts her hand on the pistol and considers. Her last two bullets.
Not worth it.
Instead she sweeps the gurkha knife out of its sheath and kicks over the man in front, sending him crashing down to the cement slab of the floor. She swings the knife and buries it in the skull of the second man, whose eyes cross absurdly before he drops to his knees. But when she tries to pull the blade back, it’s stuck, bound up in sutures of wet bone.