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Dead Hats 

by: Kira Kristine

The Feds came into town a week after the funeral.

Nana always wanted Izzie to marry the older Gordon boy, because his daddy owned the town well. She said that way, their kids’d want for nothing. We had power, and the Gordons had water. Even I could see it was a pretty good deal.

That was before Izz ran off with Hattie, who took over running the bar after she shot Old Glen.  And then, before Nana could get on me to start seducing Cal Gordon, he died playing Dead Hats out by the A-Bomb.   

“Waste of good resources,” she’d said at the time, and I didn’t know if she was talking about Cal Gordon, or Izzie’s working uterus, or just the bullets that Cal and Diaz and Kyle had been playing with.

When she was getting a little more drunk than usual and we’d seen Izz and Hattie that day, “It’s a shame about the kids, though. A damn shame,” Nana would say.  

“They can still have kids, Nana,” sometimes my smart mouth got me in trouble, sometimes it just made me look feisty, and I like looking feisty, “they just gotta find some dope with working spunk to do it with Izz.”

Nana eyeballed me. She’d been eyeballing me the same way since I told her I didn’t want to have babies, working uterus be damned. I was nine or ten at the time, the doctor had just passed through town on his circuit, and I’d stuck with that decision ever since because in addition to my smart mouth I liked to dig my heels in whenever I could.

“You watch it, Gabriella Carson.”

The kids in town had been playing Dead Hats since before I could remember, and the best place to do it was the A-bomb. Out in the desert to the north of our solar fields, the thing sat, nose buried in the ground. It’d been white at one point, but the paint had flaked off and gotten filthy from seventy-odd years of the sun and dust and wind and kids shooting at it.

U.S. AIR FORCE, it said on one side, black against the rusted, patchy metal.

One time, I’d been out there with Izz and Kyle Gordon, who was real into Izz. He’d promised to teach me to shoot better, but by the time we got out there it was almost dark and he didn’t want to waste bullets, like shooting at cans wasn’t a waste of bullets anyway. He actually just wanted to try and make it with Izz, who wasn’t really interested. I ended up walking around the A-bomb for two hours, memorizing it in the blue twilight while every so often a soft thump and sound of pain emerged from the back of Izzie’s pickup when Kyle got handsy. Eventually I sat on it, leaning back to look at the stars.

Later, wedged between them in the truck on the way back home, I asked, “How come they put words on it when they were just gonna make it explode? Who’s got time to read a bomb dropping down on them out of the sky?”

Kyle glanced at me, then back out the window, rolling his big dumb eyes. I was 14 at the time, only a year and some younger than Izz but everyone treated me like I was her kid sister.

“Just in case,” Izz said. She wasn’t a very good driver and she knew it, so she always drove carefully, even on the worn path from the town to the bomb.

“In case what?” I asked.

“In case it didn’t go off, and had to spend the rest of time sitting in the middle of fuck all. They needed to make sure a bunch of idiot kids knew where it’d come from.”

“That don’t make sense.”

“Neither does dropping bombs on your own population,” Izz said.

“Just leave me here,” Kyle’d said, and Izz did.

So a year later, Kyle and Cal and Arno Diaz were out at the bomb and it was Cal’s turn to stand against it with a rusty tin can on his head.

He wasn’t the first to die out there, but for some reason he was the first person to have his murder investigated by the Feds. At least, that’s what we thought.

Nana and I were out by the generator in the blasting wind, puzzling over how to patch up a length of copper wire that had burnt out, when Penny Gordon rolled up on the Gordon’s old bike. She’d taken over her brother’s gig of delivering water. She was a couple years younger than me, struggling to pedal that big bike, but she wheedled an extra couple bits of her namesake out of Nana like a professional.

“We’re already behind on the deliveries,” she said, wiping sweat off her forehead with an old rag, “and then Cal got himself shot like the idiot he always was. We’re makin’ a lot of folks come down to the well to pick up their water but we know ya’ll need it quick. We gotta keep the power on and all.”

“Honey, you know we got a truck,” Nana said. Penny was tiny and pretty and soft-looking, three things I definitely wasn’t, and Nana was always set to baby her, “I can spare the energy to go down to the well twice a week. No need for you to come all the way out here.”

“It’s no problem, ma’am,“

I never called Nana ma’am, like I knew some people called their parents and grandparents; that was dumb as hell, and I rolled my eyes as I clipped away at the ruined wire, trying to find where the damage ended.

“Well, if I’m in town I’ll come by and see if I can save you a trip or two. You tell your mama hello for me.”

“Oh, she ain’t talking to nobody right now. She’s pretending she’s sick so she don’t gotta see those Feds.”

I perked up at that. Feds were weird little things, always in twos, very clean men and women in very clean black suits who drove through in very clean black cars, sometimes picked up some power from us and kept rolling. They never stopped in town for food or water, so often we were the only ones who saw them come through.

They were something to talk about at the bar later: “Gab told me some Feds bought a whole tank of power from her this morning,” Izz would say to whatever clown at the bar as she wiped it down or filled a drink or winked at Hattie, “Damn fools paid twice what it was worth,” and then she’d tell me to get away from the good liquor and send me over to a table with some watery moonshine.

This’d been the first we’d heard about Feds in town this time though.

“They been here a two days now, out from Vegas” Penny said, puffed up with importance, hitching up already hitched-up too-big pants that’d probably been her brother’s, “they been talking to us, Papa mostly, real quiet out in the shed, and they took Diaz out into the bomb so he could show them what happened.”

“Diaz copped to being out there, then?” I asked.

Penny looked over at me like she hadn’t noticed me banging on the generator. I couldn’t handle her, especially now, looking like she was trying to be grown, but she had information, and it was interesting. Something other than dust and dirt and sun and sweating had happened out here.

“Sure did. Said he left before Cal got shot, though,” Penny rolled her eyes.

Diaz came into town with his own truck a few years ago, saying he was looking for work on the coast and stayed on when Arleen Lee offered him a gig on her pigeon farm. He was 19, 20 maybe, but he acted like he was much younger.

Penny left, and I scrounged up some copper wire from a busted solar panel that we couldn’t fix. Nana could tell I was itching to go into town to see if I could catch sight of the Feds, but she wouldn’t let me take the truck and I didn’t want to walk it, not in midsummer, not with the air thick with humidity from the clouds that hunkered over the Sierras, waiting.

Turned out I didn’t need to go into town.

I’d gotten up early the next morning to take a bath before Nana did. I hadn’t had one in a week and I liked to relax in the tub and use slightly more soap than Nana would’ve approved of. I was making it up to her by cooking up a batch of eggs for breakfast while she took her bath when the shiny black car pulled up to the pump.

I was used to handling customers, but our usuals were mostly people from town, merch trucks, and the folks passing through on the way to find work one way or the other. Nana always handled the Feds when we got them, since she was in the bathroom I turned off the stove and flipped the eggs one last time, all while watching that car out of the kitchen window. By the time I opened the door, two men had climbed out. They were wearing their full black suits, and sunglasses in spite of the clouds, looking around like the whole place had just insulted their mothers. One was white, tall, with a shaved head and the other one looked like he also might’ve been white, or maybe part Native, like me and Izz. He had short brown hair. I could see small black holsters at each of their hips. They weren’t smiling.  

“Good morning,” I said. I couldn’t remember if it was proper to say “sirs,” and I didn’t want to call them “gentlemen” because I didn’t want them to think I was sucking up.

“Good morning,” said the guy who might’ve been mixed. He had a weird accent, like he was from the east somewhere, “I’m Agent Wright and this is Agent Fuller. Does your family own this establishment?”

“Yes sir, “ I said. Wright moved around the car to stand next to Fuller, “Only power station for a hundred miles in any direction. Can I get you a fill up?”

“Maybe later,”  Agent Fuller said. He sounded like he was from the east also, but his voice was rough, like he’d been shouting his whole life and just now learned he could quiet down, “What’s your name?”

“Gab. Uh. Gabrielle. Carson,” I couldn’t remember the last time I’d heard anyone but Nana say my whole name instead of just Gab.

“Can we speak to Isabell Carson?”

“Which one?”

They looked at each other, and I could see Wright raise an eyebrow over his sunglasses.

“I mean,” I continued, “there’s my Grandma, she’s Isabell Carson, and she’s here, only she’s in the bath. And my sister is Isabell Carson too, but she’s moved out.”

They looked at each other again. I thought about what the point was of looking at someone as a way of silently talking when they wore sunglasses and had no expressions on their faces.

“We’ll start with your grandmother, then,”

“Ok,” I said, “uh, like I said, she’s in the bath, but lemmie go tell her you’re here.”

I turned and went back in the house. I didn’t invite them into the kitchen, which I would’ve if they were anyone else and needed to wait for whatever reason. Nana did raise me to be polite and at least some of it stuck, but I didn’t think she’d mind in this situation.

I banged on the bathroom door, “Nana! Them Feds, Penny Gordon was going on about? They’re here, and they want to talk to you!”

I heard a slosh of water and a second of quiet, “They want to talk to me? What for?”

“Dunno. They said they want to talk to Isabell Carson. I asked them which, and they said they’d start with you.”

Another long silence, then, “fuckin’ Feds,” under a louder slosh. She was getting out now, “Tell ‘em I’ll be right out.”

“Ok,” I turned to go back outside.

“Gab!”

“Yeah?”

“Did you invite ‘em in?”

I hesitated, “No.”

“Good. I’ll talk to ‘em on the porch.”

I went back outside. Wright was still standing by the car, watching the wind blow tumbleweeds around the lot, probably planning on questioning them next. Fuller was inspecting the generator, his glasses pushed down his nose so he could squint at the open panel.

“I wouldn’t touch anything in there if I were you,” I said. He just looked at me over his glasses with weird pale eyes. Feds were from big cities, or fancy compounds where they never had to fix anything and didn’t know a breaker from a coolant tube. I never heard of a Fed getting killed before, but I sure didn’t want one to get electrocuted on our property.

“Nana says she’ll be out in a minute. Ya’ll can wait out here on the porch.” I kicked at one of the splintery chairs we had under the overhang, “Do you want any water?” I didn’t want to give them any but I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“No,” Fuller said, shortly, looking back at the generator..  

“Thank you, though,” Wright said.

The screen door creaked behind me. Nana had booked it getting ready. Her hair was short like mine so it wasn’t obvious that it was still soaking wet, but the collar of her shirt was damp.

“Morning, gentlemen,” Nana didn’t sound like she was trying to suck up, “Gab, why don’t you get in the house and eat your breakfast before it gets cold.”

I usually would’ve complained, whined, stamped my boot, but I didn’t even roll my eyes as I trudged back into the house. As I ducked under her arm, she rasped softly, “get my shotgun from the bedroom. You hear a ruckus, you run out the backdoor and get to Izz and Hattie. If that ain’t safe, you go to Pastor Frank.”

“Yes, Nana,” I didn’t even look at her. My heart was beating all over my body.

I got the shotgun and checked to make sure it was loaded. Then I went out back, slung the gun over my shoulder and climbed up to the roof.

Even with the clouds, it was brutal hot up there with the panels covering the roof. I had my work gloves in my back pocket like normal, and I’d grown up with the panels like they were my sisters, but I was still sweaty as hell and smarting from a couple burns when I found the bare patch next to the chimney where I could push my ear against the crack between the porch and the house’s roof. From there I could see the top of their car, a harsh black spot on the pale brown dirt.  

Fuller was talking, “ - don’t usually investigate murders outside city limits, but this is a special case.”

“Well, I can tell you right now I didn’t have anything to do with it,” Nana said, “And my girls didn’t either. Gab’s too smart to waste bullets and she doesn’t even like most of the other kids around here. My older grandaughter, Izz, she’s married now, and running a business, and I can’t see her out with a bunch of numbskulls even if she is friendly with them.”

Well, what Nana didn’t know about me wouldn’t hurt her. It wasn’t like I wasted our bullets, anyway.

“Your older granddaughter,” Wright’s voice was smooth, like the skin on a fresh-dead rattler, but I couldn’t tell if that was because Fuller’s was so rough in comparison, “she is your namesake?”

“That’s right.”

“Your daughter was Isabell Carson as well.”

“Yes.” The word was pinched out of her mouth and I knew her jaw had clenched like it always did when she talked about my mother.  

“And you’re the granddaughter of General Robin Carson?”

There was silence, or else the wind was blowing too hard to hear. Nana talked about her grandmother sometimes, but she’d never said her name, or anything much other than gripes.

“What exactly do you want with me?” There was a tone in Nana’s voice I’d never heard and the lyrics of her voice had smoothed out, sending a shudder up my spine, “I didn’t have anything to do with Calvin Gordon’s murder, and I’m sure as hell not responsible for what my grandmother did when I was barely old enough to walk.”

“Nobody is saying you are,” said Wright. There were creaks from the porch, someone was walking around. I remembered the way Fuller had been looking at the generator, like he’d owned it and everything else around it.

“Then why are you here?” Nana asked flatly.  

The wind blew.

“Ms. Carson, you are aware that genetic engineering and fertility treatments are illegal outside of metropolitan areas and the purview of a federally licensed specialist?” Wright spoke with precision, no question in his tone. “And you are aware that it is illegal to be the product of such treatments and that anyone found to be is subject to arrest?”

The porch creaked.

“If you’re here to arrest me, or kill me, better get on with it.”

“There’s no reason it needs to come to that,” Fuller’s voice sounded like it was right in my ear, “at this point we’re simply asking for information on who your father provided these... services… for. We have some questions for you about your granddaughters and their possible genetic state, and potential role in future crimes of this nature. We will, of course, need to question them personally if we can’t find our answers here.”

Nana did not say anything. I wanted to leave, to go find Izz; she and Hattie would know what to do.

“We can assume that you and your granddaughters, as well as the Gordon family, are the product of this engineering. We can also assume that you have a supply of fertility drugs somewhere on your property,” Wright’s voice wasn’t a dead rattler anymore, it’d only been pretending.

I imagined jumping down off the porch roof and shooting the Feds, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to get both of them before they got me or Nana.

“There’s no drugs of any kind of the property,” Nana said. Her voice had lowered, still flat as the dry lake beds, “and we barely scrape up enough materials to keep the power collected and flowing. We certainly don’t have the kind of technology and resources for genetic engineering.”

Hattie had guns. She’d rolled into town and spent six hours here before she’d shot Old Glen. She was my sister’s wife, she’d kill Feds for the family, right?

“We’ll need to conduct a search.”

I didn’t want to leave Nana alone. I didn’t. But she’d told me to run. And I needed to warn Izz. “We’ll talk to you first,” they’d said.

“Go ahead. You people already left us out here to die, you might as well tear our home apart along with it,” Nana’s voice got tighter with every word.

I left, creeping back over the solar panels that scorched through my pants and sleeves and made my eyes well up.

By the time I heard the gunshot, I was crying, running out into the solar fields where I could get lost under the panels. I knew to avoid the sandy patches of ground, and my boots left no prints on the hard packed dirt. If any of my tears fell they’d be gone long before anyone thought to come looking.

Town was six buildings; four old concrete and metal ruins, a fake outhouse that was the entrance to the bar, and Lee’s farm made from whatever crap she could find. It had never looked small to me before.

I snuck around the big concrete cube of the church, watching the main drag of the town. I saw Pastor Frank across the street smoking on the Ramiros’ front porch, talking to Doc Ramiro, who wasn’t a real doctor but had gone to school out in the city and also ran the hotel, which was an extra bedroom in his old ruin. Penny Gordon struggled up the tire-flattened gravel with a big barrel of water in her cart. Rex, the old drunk who slept in the church’s garage but always had just enough for a drink at Hattie’s was sitting on a power box and staring out into the desert, like normal.   

I went in the back way to the bar. It was actually the front door of Izz and Hattie’s house, but it was just a little hole in the ground covered in a locked hatch. It was one of the things in town that used to be something else - something other than a bar - like the church, the Gordon’s place, and Doc Ramiro’s. I had a key; Nana had asked me to snag one of the extras they kept around, “just in case,” she’d said. At the time I’d thought that meant “just in case I want some free drink.”

Even though there hadn’t been anything weird going on up top, I still imagined six or eight Feds lined up in the bar, their guns pointed at Izz and Hattie. I jumped down the hatch as quiet as I could, boots making a tiny thud and squeak on the clean concrete floor. The door was noisy in comparison, making me tense up as the metal hinges screeched.

There was a tiny yellow light somewhere ahead of me that did nothing, and I stood in the little shaft and blinked to try and catch my eyes up with the darkness before I pulled the rifle around to clutch at it like doll. I went out through the little hallway, where only one person could pass at a time, into the house. Everything was dead quiet, so when I passed the doorway into the living room and heard a heavy exhalation I jumped about a foot and my heart beat out of my chest.

“Je-sus. Christ. Gab,” it was Izz, even without the single candle that burned in the corner, I could tell she’d been pressed against the wall holding a sawn-off shotgun. She lowered it and held her other hand to her chest.

People said Izz was the pretty one of us, but that was only because Izz put a minute or two into her appearance. She kept her hair long, pulled into a silky black tail and wore clothes that actually fit her. I had a dark brown mop on my head and wore whatever was comfortable and didn’t stick to me when I started sweating. You could tell we were related, but you kinda had to squint.

“Where’ve you been?” I asked wildly. I would’ve said I just lost my cool, but if I had any cool to begin with I think I’d’ve lost it when that black shiny car pulled up to the house.

“Where’ve I -” Izz started to ask, but then she slumped and rolled her eyes, “Did you leave Nana by herself?”

I felt the hair on my neck and arms raise, “She told me to! The Feds came - “

“You left Nana alone with the Feds?” Her voice started to raise; if there’d been any real light I would’ve been able to see her face get red like it always did when she was upset, “what the fuck is wrong with -”

“Shut up!” I hissed, “Shut up! She fucking told me to, the Feds said they were gonna come see you next.”

Izz snapped her mouth shut over her next criticism, “Come on.”

She led the way through the dark room and through another hall where their bedroom shot off, then into the bar.

It wasn’t a bar originally. Old Glen or someone before him had gotten a hold of a bunch of wooden crates and nailed them all together in a long, narrow table. There were only five barstools; the sixth was leaning like a drunk in the corner with one leg broken. A few tables and chairs that’d seen wildly better days were stuck here and there around the bar. There weren’t any lights on, but the thin gray sunlight from outside filtered in from the little stairway that led up to what looked like an outhouse from the surface. Dozens of bottles displayed on a shelf behind the bar glinted back the dull light.

Hattie crouched against the wall next to the stairs, pistol in hand, another shotgun slung around her shoulder like mine was. She was pretty like broken glass in the sun. I didn’t know what race she was, but she was lighter-skinned than me or Izz and she had bright, sickly yellow-white hair that came out of a bleach bottle and fell in choppy steps to her shoulders. She looked up as we came in but didn’t seem surprised to see me.

“Feds got Nana,” Izz said. She stopped short of the long rectangle of light from the door, the gun’s butt on her hip.

“I didn’t say that,” my guts all lurched at the thought, “I said they came to the house. I heard them talk for a couple minutes, then I ran here to warn you.” I didn’t think of the shot I heard; that could have been anything. A car backfiring. A generator bursting.

Hattie leaned back against the wall and scratched at her bare arm, then cracked her knuckles.

“That means they got her,” Izz said with that know-it-all way of hers, “She’s either dead or on her way South to be processed.”

“Fuck you,” I said, my ears got hot and I wanted to fight Izz, punch her in her smug throat, “fuck you and fuck off.”

Hattie seemed to lose a battle with herself and tugged a cigarette from her bra and a matchbook from her pants pocket. The action distracted Izz and I long enough that I didn’t want to bash my sister’s face in. She took a seat on one of the barstools, gun resting on her bare knees.

“I forgot what happened,” Hattie said around her cigarette. Her voice was raspy and faint even with her mouth mostly closed, “Which of these kids got killed?” She called everyone “kid” unless they had gray hair and wrinkles; she couldn’t have been more than 30.

“Cal Gordon,” I said. Fuck Cal Gordon, who insisted on playing Dead Hats that night.   

Hattie looked over to Izz, “the one with the working nutsack?”
Izz rolled her eyes, “yep.”

“Damn shame,” Hattie said, “what’d the Feds talk about with Ms. Isabell?”

I shrugged, “Not much to do with Cal, actually. They asked about her grandmother, and they said something about drugs, like, fertility drugs, and genetic engineering. They said they were sure there were drugs at the house, or out on the fields, and they were going to search. That’s when I left.”

Hattie looked rough, but she held her cigarettes all fancy, like she was some rich lady with air conditioning and plumbing out in Vegas. She closed her eyes and exhaled the smoke in a long thin line that took a while to flare off into the air.

“They didn’t say anything about Hattie, did they?” asked Izz.

“Nope,” I said. Something surfaced in my mind, “but they knew Mom’s name.”

Hattie made a face that made her look like a tortoise, “they would.”

“Wait,” I said, “are you on the run from the Feds?”

“Hmmm,” Hattie glanced at Izz, then looked at the ceiling, “let’s say I’m not, but that I’d rather stay out of their way if possible.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“It means shut your foul mouth -” Izz started in on me again.

“You should get out of here,” Hattie interrupted. She pinched her cigarette out and tucked the nub back into her bra.

“Why?” I bristled at the thought of leaving Izz like I’d left Nana.

“Both of you,” Hattie leaned around the corner to squint up the stairwell, then back to look at me, “Your Nana didn’t do anything wrong, but her daddy did.”

My brain felt like I’d spent a day working in the sun with no water, but I connected the weird little dots, “Our great-grandad had something to do with genetic engineering? How? Why? And how would you know?”

Hattie shrugged, “There’s a dozen little shitty towns like this one scattered around the country, and I’ve been to just about all of them. I’ve never met more than one fertile person in all that time. Youngest person I’d seen was maybe thirty, covered in sores. Here, it’s different like you wouldn’t believe. You see kids here, kids without defects, adults without sores. Hell, half the city compounds I’ve been to out West only have a fifty percent infant mortality rate, while your Mama had two healthy babies, a year and a half apart? Who are both capable of having their own children? Please.”

“Yeah but how’d you know our family was at the center of it all?” I asked.

Hattie rolled her eyes to the ceiling like I’d asked her if fire was hot.

“I guess Nana’s grandmother is pretty famous,” Izz said, “out there, I mean,” she gestured at the door, at the rest of the world, “they don’t tell us here but she’s in the history books kids in the big cities read.”

“Robin Carson tried to flatten out the country with nuclear weapons,” Hattie said, “She nearly did; but she only got off a few, all in rural areas. Including the one that didn’t go off that ya’ll shoot at like clowns. Nobody knows why she did it; she died when another one activated in the middle of the military base.”

I turned to Izz, “you knew about this?”

Izz shrugged, “not till I met Hattie. But yeah. I didn’t think it was important, or I would’ve told you.”

“It’s got the Feds up our asses, I think it might be important,” I said.

“What were we gonna do, leave?” Izz hissed, craning her neck forward and cocking it like an angry bird, “they’re not here because of that anyway, they’re here because our families shouldn’t have been reproducing for this long. We should be dying out by now, but we’re not.”

I flailed my arms out wildly in a movement that resembled a shrug.

“There’s nothing anyone can do about it now,” said Hattie, “so if the two of you could keep from bickering for maybe two minutes, that’d be great.”

Izz rounded on her instead of me, “well, I’m not leaving you behind. You forget that noise right now.”

Hattie took a deep breath and almost pulled the rest of her cigarette from her bra, but stopped herself.

“You’re gonna kill me, Izzie,” Hattie grumbled at her, then turned to me, “and then your sister is gonna dig me up and kill me again. Look, kid, sooner rather than later the Feds are gonna be down here, asking us the same questions. Me and Izz will … go... somewhere. You go to the church, maybe, get lost in the catacombs for a day, maybe two.”

“That plan is dumb as hell,” I said, “I hate it. And I kinda hate you.”

Hattie shrugged, but she did light the little stub of a cigarette again.

“Look,” she said, and the smoke she blew out this time was a wild puff, “Feds are tough. This isn’t like the time the old bartender tried to cop a feel and I blew a hole in his chest before he realized he hadn’t grabbed a titty. They’re precise, and trained, and they have good, clean, new guns and bullets they didn’t have to scrounge from dead people. And there’s more of them where they came from.”

“Why’d they even come here? It sounds like Cal getting killed was just an excuse to come out here.”

Hattie shrugged again, “someone here must have some way to communicate with Vegas or Salt Lake or San Francisco. Maybe the name Gordon means something to somebody, like Carson does. I don’t know. But I ain’t joking. You need to get out of here.”

The rug had been pulled out from under my life and Hattie wanted me to leave. Nana might be dead, or arrested, which was basically the same thing, and Izz might be next.

For the second time that day, I turned and left a family member to the unknown.

I thought about this as I crept back out the backdoor of the bar and into the howling wind. I kept thinking about it while I snuck around the church and yanked hard on the big metal door. The Ramiros’ porch across the way was empty, and I hoped Pastor Frank was in the church somewhere. Out of habit, I unslung the rifle and held it ready when I entered.

The main area, the part with all the pews, was empty. Like the bar, the concrete of the church blocked out all the noise from the wind, and there weren’t any windows to let in the sunlight. Dirty old fluorescent lights cast an ugly white glow over make-shift cement-block benches. The silence reminded me of the silence out in the deep of the desert on a windless day.

I opened my mouth to try and call for the Pastor, but no sound came out, just a puff of air and a scratchy grunt. I swallowed and tried again, “Pastor Frank? Are you around?” I didn’t shout; it didn’t seem right, and my voice was absorbed by the room. Izz and Hattie had gotten married here, Izz wearing a crown of bright red cactus flowers and a dress that’d been our mom’s, Hattie’s cheeks turning red to match as she stuttered out her vows.

I edged around the benches, headed down the only other doorway that led to a short stair. There was a small landing; one side branched off into a couple rooms where Frank lived. I knocked on the big metal door.

“Pastor Frankie?” I called, waited. The only noise was the hum of the lights. I knocked again, then took a deep breath and tried the handle. Locked.

I turned around and faced the shadows that flowed from the catacombs, the stairs disappearing into darkness. I tried the door again but the door wasn’t moving no matter how hard I pushed. I knocked once more for good measure but I knew I’d need to go down alone. A light switch squatted on the wall, just inside the dark. I flipped it and watched light bloom away, down the stairs and through the halls.

We called them “catacombs,” even though Pastor Frank had explained that wasn’t right because real catacombs held dead bodies and we just buried our dead in the desert. They were dead, why would we need to keep them around? Anyway, the stairway ended at a blank concrete wall, turned a corner and split off into six different directions, each one heading into hallways that held little doorless rooms off to each side.

Two of the hallways were lit, and I picked the one on the right, gun held against my shoulder. I just needed to hide in here for a while, maybe until the sun went down. My stomach growled, viciously loud in the quiet. I thought about my eggs sitting on the stove. I thought about Nana.

A lot of people had worked here at one point; doing what, I couldn’t imagine. All the useful stuff had been taken out, but there were pieces of tables, chairs, papers, bits of life that’d been abandoned once and then again by scroungers. The whole place was covered in desert dust. I trailed my fingertips against the wall and left five crooked lines as I walked. The lights hummed above me.

Eventually I got to the end of the hall, which had a door exactly like Pastor Frank’s, this one half-torn off its hinges. The room behind was dark. I thought about what might’ve done that to doors with hinges thicker than two of my fingers, but I turned, off to the left, and then right.

Another hallway, more fluorescent lights, more humming, more concrete. The dust was different down this hallway. It disappeared down the middle, like a path. I followed it.

My boots squeaked against the floor when I heard the noise. It was thin, distant, a crackling whistle. I kept following my path, because it led to another door. This one stood open just a crack, the lights on inside and the hazy noise spilling out. I pushed the door just far enough to squeeze through; it opened silently.

The back wall was made up of some kind of electronic thing, buttons and screens and slots. In one corner, some lights blinked green and red. The noise was coming from a grate, the hissing and crackling drawing down my spine in a way that scared me more than the Arno Diaz, who sat with his feet up on a low shelf along the electronic wall, facing away from me.

“Is that a radio?” I rasped, the dust had gotten into the back of my throat. He threw himself upwards, spinning to face me. I already had my gun down and cocked.

“Gab!” he said, ”Jesus, you scared me. What the hell are you doing down here?”

“Is that a radio?” I repeated, licking my lips, trying to get some moisture so I didn’t sound like an old wooden porch, “I’ve only ever seen ‘em in cars, and they don’t pick much up.”

He stared at the barrell of the rifle, and his hands raised, slowly.

“This one probably picks up a whole lot, though, huh?” I said. My nose was stuffing up and I knew it wasn’t from the dust. I sniffled, “Bet this one goes two ways, huh? Bet this one can talk all the way with Vegas, huh?”

“So what if it can? Can’t we talk about this for a second?”

“What business is it of you people what we get up to out here?” I asked, not caring if I made any sense or not, “why do you care if we can or can’t have kids?”

“Listen, Gab, this ain’t what it looks like,” he said. He was sweating, his face was gray.

“I dunno, it kind of looks like a two-way radio to me,” I said. I waited two, maybe three heartbeats before I shot him in the face. I had to do it then, or I wouldn't've been able to see through the tears.

The shot cracked out into the building, swallowed by the concrete and the dirt.

I lowered the gun, inched over, leaned past the blood and bits of brain, and turned off the radio.

It was pretty hard, looking through his pockets while trying not to get blood on me, but I found a few coins, a grubby scrap of paper with some numbers on it, and a little pistol with three bullets in it. I shoved everything into the pocket of my pants, the coins jingling against each other and the gun.

I didn’t look back as I left the room. Out in the hallway, it felt like a different world.

I made my own footprints in the dust as I moved deeper into the catacombs. This time, I was looking for something. Only one light every twenty feet was lit, plunging me into a half-dusk gloom.

Something almost found me first, but I ducked around the corner into a room before the Fed saw me. I held my gun at the ready and listened carefully to the scrape of his shoes on the dusty concrete as he passed. I’d seen his suit and the light shining off a bald head, but I’d been hidden by a pool of shadow.

My stomach jerked into my mouth when I saw that I shared a room with a skeleton. It still had on skin and clothes, the first lying tight over bones and the second falling away in dusty clumps. I’d seen enough blood to recognize the big brown splotch that had dried on the desk and picture frame it clutched. I backed out of the room, like the thing was about to stand up and follow me.

A few more cautious turns and I found it; a ladder. This one was a lot longer than the one at Izz and Hattie’s. There was a lock on the hatch on the ceiling, a big, round one that used to be silver, but it was unlocked. It shattered when I tossed it back down to the ground, making me wince and hope the Fed was far off.

The wind hit me like a brick and I pushed myself out and into a mess of brambles that hid the hatch. I closed it behind me, wishing I could lock it.

There was a big, black car parked next to the A-Bomb. Driving through the desert had made the car dusty, the bottom half turning gray.

The other Fed leaned against the car, staring at the bomb, his arms crossed. I came up on his right side; maybe I looked like a bush or something flapping in the wind because he didn’t even look before I shot him through the side of his head.  

This one had keys to the dusty black car, and another gun. I got behind the wheel. I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I had to get far away from that body.

It was too bad the Fed hadn’t been standing against the bomb. I sure would’ve liked to play Dead Hats one last time.