He looks now at his palms as if to find the soot still there. He shakes himself out of the reverie and glances over at the corpses on the bed.
Jeb and Jeanie Duchamp, he says. What do you think of that?
What’s to think of it?
They took the quick way out, he says. Must of been right after it all started, they been dead for a while. Cleaned up the house, got gussied up, and swallowed a bunch of Nembutal. Didn’t want to see the future world, I guess.
I guess not.
She looks at them, the dead embraced. She realizes something: She hates them for being dead.
So what was your plan next? Moses Todd asks. If things here didn’t work out, where were you headed?
I don’t know, she says. Hadn’t thought that far. Maybe north.
Niagara Falls? he asks.
I was there once, he muses. You stand on the top of a cliff by the falls and lean over the rail, it’ll take your breath away.
That’s what I heard.
Too bad, he says, referring to the unfortunate matter of his own quashing of her plans.
Yeah, she says, too bad.
Hey, Moses Todd says, gesturing with a nod toward the corpses on the bed, did you notice their ears?
What about em?
Take a look. Go on, I ain’t tryin to trick you.
She gets up and walks to the side of the bed and leans over. Coming from each of their ears is a little runnel of blood, dried black and crusty against the gray cheeks.
She sits back down in the chair.
Someone took care of em, she says. So they wouldn’t come back.
Now isn’t that a thing to ponder? Who do you reckon did it? Jeb could of done Jeanie, of course, but who did him? Whoever it was didn’t want to move the bodies. Romantic sympathies is my guess. What you think? Son or daughter—weeping as they are forced to put the finishin touch on death? Nosy neighbor? State police doin a last evacuation sweep? Who do you reckon?
I don’t know, she says. There’s lots of people around who’ll do the right thing. It ain’t everybody who’s bad.
Now that’s a true thing, he says. He nods and smiles, gratified by the notion. That’s as true a thing as you ever said.
Anyway, she goes on, the Duchamps ain’t worth anything to me now.
Moses Todd looks at her curiously.
Not touched by their tragedy? he asks.
It ain’t no tragedy. It’s just foolishness—the kind I can’t tolerate. The kind that makes them worse than the meatskins.
At least the meatskins found somethin worth desiring. They keep on and keep on till the very last minute when they fall over in a pile of dust. They haven’t got notions of takin themselves out of the world.
Many people find the world intolerable, the way it’s become.
How’s it become? It ain’t become nothing different since I been in it.
Moses Todd smiles at her, a smile that acknowledges her age.
I’m serious now, she goes on. I want to know—how’s it become?
It got . . . Moses Todd starts to answer and then considers, thinking about his answer, as if it were of paramount importance to get it just right. Then he continues:
It got lonesome.
She looks at him through squinted, disbelieving eyes.
People weren’t lonesome before? she says.
People were. The world wasn’t.
And here’s another thing, she says. Before, back in the basement, you said I ain’t evil. How come you said that?
Cause it’s true.
What do you know about it?
I can tell, he says simply. You’re a book I know how to read, little girl.
But you never answered me before. If I ain’t evil, then what am I?
You’re just angry. Just grievin like everybody else. Only you don’t like to admit it to yourself. It ain’t so complicated.
She turns this over and over in her head. It never quite comes into clear definition, but it has the sting of truth to it. She puts his response away in a pocket in the back of her mind to think about it later.
Then Moses Todd rises from his chair and moves toward her. He sighs and shakes his head slowly like someone who wishes the moment could last but laments the slow sure passage of time.
He smiles gently.
I reckon we know why we’re here, he says.
I reckon we do.
How about you put down that blade of yours?
Just because you ask me to? I ain’t gonna make this easy for you, Mose.
He raises the gun and levels it at her head.
Put it down now.
He stands just out of chopping range of her arm. No matter how quickly she moves, he will have the upper hand. It’s a silly way to die. She drops the gurkha knife to the floor, and Moses Todd takes two steps forward and kicks the blade under the bed. Now the barrel of the gun is twelve inches from her forehead.
Why are you doin this, Mose? You don’t wanna do this.
Want’s got nothin to do with it. You know that, little girl. You killed my brother.
He wasn’t a good man.
Moses Todd shrugs sadly.
Some people, he says, they hide themselves away from the eyes of the world. They hunker down and shiver. They find four walls high enough to put between them and everything else. Those people, to them the world is a frightful place. See, you and me, we’re different. When we are called on to move, we move. It don’t matter the cause or the distance. Revenge or ministration, reason or folly—it’s all the same to us. We may not like it, but we go. Because you and me, little girl, we’re children of God, we’re soldiers, we’re travelers. And to us the world is a marvelment.
The things he says strike her as true, despite herself. And his eyes are filled with a kind of pleading, as though he needs her to understand him—as though the gun at her head were instead a hand held out in brotherhood.
Which it is, she knows.
A fellowship of life that talks in a language of death.
His will to destroy her, and her will to remain undestroyed—both things are beautiful and holy.
So what now? she asks.
Now you die, he says simply.
All right, she says.
You best turn around.
Nah. You gonna have to do it lookin in my face.
It won’t stop me.
I know it.
It’ll be easier for you if you don’t see it comin.
Easy ain’t my way of doin things.
I’m gonna do it.
Do it then.
She looks in his eyes, she sees herself reflected there, a creature of violence, a brutal thing, a sad thing. Then she looks at his hand, steady, the finger on the trigger of the gun. She focuses on that finger, watching for the slightest twitch.
She has one chance. The edge of a moment, a fingernail clipping of time—the speck between his brain telling him to pull the trigger and his finger actually doing it. That’s her window. Too soon and the gun follows her with a clear sharpness of mind. Too late is too late. But there is that fragment of a second, she knows—that shadow between thought and action. It’s where regret lives, the mind already apologizing for the actions of the body. She knows it. God knows she knows it. She knows what it feels like on the skin, in the fingers. She can see it as good as with X-ray sight.