Then the woman has her by the wrist in a tight fleshy grip. She can feel the brittle nails digging into her skin.
Leave go my arm, Temple says.
She can’t get the knife out of the man’s head, so she lets it go and watches the body drop dead backward with her blade still stuck in it.
The woman is leaning in to take a bite out of her shoulder, but Temple drives her fist hard into the slug’s head, first once, then twice, then a third time, trying to dizzy the brain out of its instinctual drive.
But now the other man has gotten to his feet again and is coming at her, so she spins the woman around to get her between them and the man barrels into both with a bear hug that sends Temple crashing backward into the workbench.
The smell, as they crush against her, is overpowering, and her eyes flood with water that blurs her vision.
She reaches behind her and feels around for anything and comes up with a screwdriver, which she grips hard and drives into the man’s neck. He lets go and totters backward, but the angle of the screwdriver is wrong, it goes straight through rather than up into the brain, so he begins to walk in circles gurgling liquidly and opening and closing his jaw.
The woman who has hold of Temple’s wrist opens her mouth again as though to take a bite of her cheek, but Temple swings her around again and slams the woman’s forearm against the edge of the workbench so that it cracks and the grip on her wrist loosens.
Then she ducks and moves to the corpse, putting one foot on his face for leverage, and pries her gurkha out with both hands.
The woman is close behind her, but it doesn’t matter. Temple swings hard and true, and the blade whips clean through her neck and takes off the head.
The last man is distracted, clawing awkwardly at the screwdriver in his throat. Temple moves around behind him to catch her breath. His hair is long and stringy with flakes of paint in it as though the house has been crumbling to pieces on top of him. She lifts the knife and brings it down hard, two quick strokes like she learned long ago—one to crack the skull and the other to cleave the brain.
She picks up the flashlight from the floor, which is now slippery with blood and excrement. Then she finds a clean part of the woman’s slip and rips it off and uses it to wipe her gurkha clean.
Meatskin tango, she says. Godawful messy business that is.
SEE, THERE’S a music to the world and you got to be listening otherwise you’ll miss it sure. Like when she comes out of the house and the nighttime air feels dreamy cold on her face and it smells like the pureness of a fresh land just started. Like it was something old and dusty and broken taken off the shelf to make room for something sparkle-new.
And it’s your soul desiring to move and be a part of it, whatever it is, to be out there on the soot plains where the living fall and the dead rise and the dead fall and the living rise like the cycle of life she once tried to explain to Malcolm.
It’s a thing of nature, she said to him while he chomped down on a jawbreaker he had squirreled in his cheek. It’s a thing of nature and nature never dies. You and me, we’re nature too—even when we die.
It’s about souls and open skies and stars crazy lit everywhere you look, and so she makes a decision to take a few things from the car and hoof it the rest of the way toward those lights on the horizon. And soon she sees a street sign and shines her flashlight on it, and the letters she can’t decipher and they don’t look like the name of any city she’s been before that she can recall, but the number is 15.
And if it’s got a light fingerprint on the sky that can be seen fifteen miles distant then it must be no small town, and that’s the place for her, a place where she can make the acquaintance of a few people and catch up on goings-on on God’s green earth and maybe get a cold soda with ice in it. And fifteen miles, that ain’t nothing. That’s three, four hours of night vistas and deep cool thoughts, barring the sad ones.
She’ll be there in time for breakfast.
The streets are deserted save for slugs and wild dogs. The city is too large to fence and its avenues too snaky to patrol, but, Temple reasons, the electricity is being kept running for someone other than the slugs. The inhabitants must be hidden.
She climbs up on a billboard by a freeway on-ramp and eats a pack of peanut butter crackers while she scans the horizon.
On the way north she passed through a beachside community where all the buildings were sleek and pastel-colored. The main strip was cluttered with restaurants that had once featured outdoor seating on the wide sidewalks—places where rich people in cream-colored shirts must once have drunk cocktails. Now, though, most of the plate glass windows were broken through, the crazed white reflection of the sun lighting up all the jagged points of glass like fangs around the gaping black of the interiors. The pastel paint was chipping off in flakes and exposing the crumbling concrete underneath. And in front of some of the restaurants, the wrought iron tables and chairs had once been piled up in defensive barriers that had long been breached.
That was one pretty town, she thinks, empty as it was. Maybe she’ll go back there one day. But that was a low town, none of the buildings over six stories tall. Unlike the city she’s staring at now, whose downtown, from where she sits, looks like a castle on a hill, all silver spires and metal majesty.
She climbs down from the billboard and walks another fifteen minutes toward the tall buildings of downtown, where the long shadows stretch across the street from sidewalk to sidewalk and feel good on her overheated skin. She finds a jewelry shop and stands for a long time staring in the window. There are dusty baubles hung around artificial velvet necks and rings set deep in cute little boxes. Meaningless. These objects once took the measure of value in a gone epoch. She has known people in her past who have collected such things, hoarding them against a future restored to the glory of a trinket economy. They collected them in small boxes contained within larger boxes contained within larger boxes still, and they brooded atop them like envious royalty.
But there is one thing Temple wouldn’t mind keeping in her pocket to put her fingers around and feel on occasion—a ruby pendant shaped like a teardrop, like her island. It has a gold setting attached to a chain, but if it were hers she would tear off the metal bits and keep just the stone, rolling it between her fingers.
Gazing at it, she sees a reflected movement in the glass of the shop window, a shape approaching her from behind.
Without thought, she draws the gurkha knife from its sheath and spins around, raising it over her head and ready to bring it down.