Jimmy was the one who found the body, just before dawn. He had gone to deliver the prisoner's breakfast, and he told me later the wintry half-light made him think the captain, as we all called him, had grown to a giant overnight. Then he saw the angle of his head, and the cable, and the height of the man's hips - Jimmy recounted all of this process again and again, clutching his coffee cup - and ran screaming from the room like he'd seen the devil himself.
Not that I heard about the screaming from Jimmy, but nobody in our little camp needed to be told that part. The screaming was what awakened me.
By the time I arrived at the common area - which had once, long ago, been the retirement home's dining room - Alfran and Jean had cut the body down and had carried it into the lamplight. Others were straggling in, zipping up pants and hefting guns. Seeing a bit of frothed vomit at the corner of the captain's mouth, I leaned down and surreptitiously wiped it away. No sense in muddying the waters. The body clearly had been hanged.
Voices were kept hushed. It reminded me of the earlier days of our troupe, when we were just a handful of escapees, hiding from everyone, not yet ready to face the plan we would inevitably create.
We'd had many lean winters since then, though few as lean as this one.
I sat down next to Marta at an old cafeteria table. She was rubbing Jimmy's back as he said his litany. This was before someone had brought Jimmy the cup of coffee, and his hands still held the captain's bowl. The thin oat gruel had already cooled and congealed. The man was dead and still we were wasting food on him.
Alfran was squatting by the body, his gun across his knees, his face angry. "I can't believe we missed that panel."
"It's an old, old freezer," replied Helena. She was an old, old woman herself, who remembered when the last workers' strikes had been shut down years ago. She remembered a time before the work-cities, before the Congress was dissolved, and before the cullings. She still wouldn't carry a gun. "Anybody'd have thought someobody'd've scavenged those electric cables long ago.
"Besides," she continued. "Who the hell'd hang themselves with those things? Nasty way to go."
Alfran, being angry and the most stubborn and idealistic mule of a man, wasn't yet ready to stop terriering the argument. "What if he hadn't just hanged himself? What if he'd gone after Jillie when she brought him dinner last night, eh?" He gestured at me with his head, still squatting, and dropped his eyes back down. "We screwed this up, the whole bloody mess of it."
Ishram - who sat crosslegged with his own breakfast bowl protectively in his lap - spoke up slowly and hesitantly into the uncomfortable silence. "Maybe we shouldn't've taken him prisoner in the first place, then, Alfran."
Several people shifted anxiously and adjusted their guns. Helena moved to Breena - barely 16 years old, that one - took her hand, and wordlessly walked her away from the room. Marta had stopped the rubbing, and I didn't make a sound.
We couldn't agree three weeks ago, when we took the captain, what to do about him. The man's group had been headed out into the Lands - the clean, green hinterlands where the wealthy ran their estates - for some reason we never learned. Bad luck for us that they took the old highway, that they saw the smoke from our fire, and that they decided to find out who had camped out in the old restaurant. Regular workers - like most of us had been, once - all lived in the cities, and anyone caught in the old stretches of sprawl without a valid pass was fair game. But bad luck for the captain's group that we were game with guns, and we'd learned to use them. That wasn't the first time we'd had to fight, but it was the first time we'd had a survivor.
We hadn't planned for that.
"Well, I guess you got your wish, then, eh?" retorted Alfran finally. "He's dead now, Ish, just like you wanted. How nice for you." He stood up, lips pursed.
Several voices started up at the same time, talking over and around each other, still hushed. Marta looked at me, caught my eye, and let me see the worry on her face as she jerked her head towards the door. I shook mine in return. After everything, we couldn't just come to blows over this, even if we were all tired, cold, and hungry.
"So, what then?" Jimmy's voice, surprisingly, and he put enough bass in to drone the others out. "You saying somebody killed him, Alfran? 'Cause it seems like I'd be the prime suspect, eh? You all know I didn't want to take any prisoners. And I found him."
"That's not it. Something's just...about this, I mean, there's just something that's...." Alfran ran his hand over his beard and through his hair. "Aw, ********," he finished, and left the room, followed a moment later by Jean.
I felt Marta relax next to me. "We need to come up with some sort of procedure," she commented softly. "About taking prisoners, or not, or...you know." She'd told me once that she had worked in an efficiency enforcement office, so her statement came from grim experience.
As I stood up, a latecomer headed over to ask Jimmy what had happened and how he'd found the body. Jimmy began once again, and I persuaded two others to help me travois the corpse outside.
He'd been a young man - mid-20s, I'd guessed - and fiercely determiend to only give his rank and serial number. Perhaps he was idealistic in his own way, dedicated to the protection of the Director and his governance, true in his belief that God had ordained the best among us to prosperity and leadership. Or perhaps he was simply too frightened and inexperienced with armed ex-workers to know what else to do. He had been someone's well-babied son, no doubt, to have a commission.
We dumped the body in the trees, some hundred yards away. The wolves would take care of it soon enough.
"Damn cold out here," said Finny on the way back, his breath steaming. So when we got back to the section of the old center where we'd made our camp, the three of us were talking about the weather.
The day was very cold.
Much later, as I sat over the day's closing meal - flour cakes - Breena, her own hands empty, asked me quietly what would happen now.
"What do you mean?" I asked.
"Some people - I don't want to say who, just I've overheard - were thinking maybe he didn't hang himself. Maybe he was killed." When I didn't respond, she kept going. "Like maybe Jimmy did something."
"Would it matter?"
She seemed surprised. "Wouldn't it?"
"Nope," I replied. "It wouldn't matter a damn bit." My eyes kept catching on her empty hands and lap. "Not eating tonight?" I asked.
Breena shook her head. "No, I drew one of the shorts." She was opening and clenching her hands in her lap. They were so tiny.
"Here." I handed over what was left on my plate. "I'm not hungry." Breena was already eating when I walked away.
I found Jean in one of the old residence rooms, chewing some sort of root, hudled in a blanket on the floor. She was leaning intently over a map of the old road system. The map had been a lucky find for us, left behind on the trash-strewn floor of an old library where we had camped for three days. Maps of the roadways were now illegal to possess, except for the few alloted to the leaders of Defense forces like the captain's unit. The wealthy would keep digital copies, we supposed - sometimes, we could hear distant thrums of high powered motors echoing down from the mountains, like the sound of gods playing.
She glanced up at me as I walked in the door. For a moment I thought her eyes widened, but too quickly her faced relaxed and she smiled. I went over, squatted down.
"Giving thought to our next stop?"
She nodded in response as she pulled out the root. "Best to keep away from the highways after the past few days. Don't want to run into anyone else in a Defense uniform." She glanced at me, and then turned back to the map. "When it warms up, and we can start foraging again, I want to be out of the sprawl. So next warm day, I think we should aim for here," her finger drew a line on the map, "find a good camp for a few weeks, build our strength back up."
"Can we make that in a day?"
"I think so, even if we're moving slowly. If we keep a fair pace through spring and summer we should be near the Director's lands by the time the leaves fall."
I admit my breath was shaky at that thought - less than a year until the end of this, one way or another.
"I do have something I'd like to talk to you about," Jean continued with some hesitance. Moving her hands carefully, she began folding the old map as she spoke. "I think you want the group together, and I think you want us to succeed." She turned her head and caught my eyes. "I think you've done a lot of things because of that. So I would just ask that -." She rolled her lips between her teeth. "I'd ask that when, or if, people start wondering or worrying about what happened to the captain, you won't let them blame Alfran. That just would-. Well, it wouldn't help anything."
"Why would anybody blame Alfran?"
"Well, maybe so that Jimmy - or somebody else - isn't blamed." She was still looking at me like she expected me to catch some sort of subtext, but I was too tired for it. I hadn't gotten much sleep the night before. It had been too cold.
"I don't see why anybody needs to be blamed," I replied. "We should concentrate on making it through the winter first."
Jean nodded slowly, as if she wasn't certain what my response meant. "Okay, then. Alright."
"Did you eat?" I asked.
She help up the end of the root. "Tomorrow," she said, smiling.
I smiled back, stood, and stretched. "I'm gonna head off to bed. 'Night."
The past few nights I'd lain my bedding down in a dark, isolated corner near the kitchens. I didn't see any reason to move now, so I curled once more up against the old, paint-peeling concrete. My stomach growled, but I was too exhausted and heartsick to care. It had been a long day.
A small pool of blood around the dead boy's body. Most of it had been sucked into the thirsty ground. It hasn't rained in almost two months and the plants were now satisfied. Still, some blood remained on the damp, soft ground. The boy was still, small and the yellow tape around the body suggested it was no accident what had happened. The police suspect a serial killer that has been around the neighborhood, but no one knew the truth. No one should ever know the truth.
The boy was Jackson Hugh Grant Junior and he was only nine years old. His parents were in the house talking to the police. They were given questions and all they had to do was give a simple response. Jackson's dad, Senior, was doing most of the talking while his mother, Janice, wept. She had done nothing, but cried and blamed herself since she found out. Senior hadn't shed a tear which was no surprise. Senior has never cried, ever. He didn't even cry when he broke his arm when he was young.
'But now should be different' Janice thought as the tears began to slowly go away. She took a deep breath and tried to answer the questions. Things were complicated and it had only been a few minutes. Jackson's body was being removed, the red blood seeping through the white sheets that covered him. The sight of it made her sick and all she wanted was to hold her baby boy. The tears came again because she knew she couldn't have her other son, Kellin. Kellin was going through the same thing, except in the yard where all the action was taking place. He was scared, he had never been involved with the police. In fact, he had never even spoken to a police officer before.
He didn't want to be here, not now, not ever. Things like this were the things he dreaded most. 'Why couldn't it have been me?' He thought to himself and answered the final question. The police allowed him to go to the back yard, so he wouldn't have to hear the awful noises of the ambulance driving away, or the police talking to each other about what happened. “No thank you, I would like to just sit on the porch,” He whispered, almost inaudible. He sat down and looked at the ground.
This whole thing was crazy to him. He just wanted to hop in his car and drive. To get away from all this, even though he had just got his license. He wanted to leave and never come back. Things like this shouldn't happen to a nine year old. Things like this shouldn't happen to anyone. “I wish I would have been nicer to him” He told himself, not caring who heard him. It didn't matter anymore. Nothing mattered anymore. He knew a serial killer didn't do this to his 'Little Jack'. He knew it all the way to his core. He watched a little longer as the ambulance faded into the distance with his dead brother.
All the while, the police were baffled by what happened. All they knew for certain, was there was a dead boy and a missing lawn mower. “Who would take a lawn mower?” The police were in collaboration with the FBI. “Things like that don't happen around here,” One of the agents said. The officers in charge of interrogating the family were now coming over to share what they knew. “Well, we figured out that around the time Jackson died both the parents were at work and the brother was in the house with his music up really loud, taking a nap,” The officer said after reviewing the notes.
The FBI agent shook his head. The mother was blaming herself, the father almost didn't care, and the brother was just scared to the point of no return. Things were getting worse by the minute. They had a time frame of 48 hours to catch the person who did this to poor little Jackson. Right now it was just time to let these people sleep. The agent worked up the courage to go to the family. He almost didn't want to face them. That was the hardest part of his job.
“Folks, we are doing everything possible for your boy, if you want to help, the best thing you can do is get some sleep and pray.” He looked at the weeping mother and the scared older brother. He didn't even bother to look at the dad, right now he was the prime suspect. The officer was about to turn when he heard a small voice, “Thank you for your services, sir” Janice had stopped her tears, knowing she was safe when he was around, almost wanting him to stay. He gave her a smile and walked away.
Now he was left to figure out the rest of the story. Why was the lawn mower gone? Why was Jackson the target? And the biggest question of all, why was the dad not even caring? So many questions and only 48 hours to get the answers. The time was ticking in his head, annoying him to the biggest extent. He opened his car door and only by chance had he looked down to find a single screw, with green paint on top. 'It could be something, it could be nothing' He thought to himself.
The agent looked at the screw. It was 3:47 in the morning and he was tired. The man didn't care. He needed to find that killer. This was no longer just about a dead boy, this ran deeper than that. He wasn't the only one from the scene still up. On the other side of town, Kellin opened up his bathroom door. He stared at his reflection in the mirror. How could he sleep? His brother was dead on his account. If he hadn't been so stupid that day. He knew it was his fault. Everything was his fault.
After a long night, the family got up and sat around, hoping for the phone to ring, and the killer to be caught. The agent was nearing his phone, he was suspicious about the screw he had found. The picked it up and dialed their number. Janice and Kellin jumped, but Senior sat, steady and planted in his seat.
“Hello?”Janice managed to stifle out.
“Yes, this is Garry from the agency. Is it okay if I come out and do some more looking around? I know things have already been examined my the team, but I would like to take a look at it personally.”
“Uh, yes that is fine. Just please, tell us if you find anything.”
They both hung up and Garry was on his way.
He walked around the house. Everything was still in the place it had been, except for the screw he found. He took it out of his pocket to take a quick look at it. He strolled over to the place where he found it and put it back. He looked ahead of it, and behind it, but found no trail. He walked within a thirty foot radius of it, still found nothing. He picked it up and then he noticed something. It was probably nothing, but he walked over to the pile of metal.
At first glance it looked like nothing, but the closer he got, the more he knew it was important. He lifted the pieces of green, white, and yellow that was covered with a purple tarp. Then he noticed something, the green of the pieces were the same on the screw. Another piece of the puzzle for him to think about. Someone took apart the lawn mower and hid it in a pile. He found the blade and sure enough it had blood on it. The murder weapon he supposed. Only one way to find out, he had to take it back to the lab. In the house he could hear screaming and yelling. Janice and Senior were fighting.
“How could you not feeling anything? Are you just a heartless monster?” She scowled at him. He raised his hand and brought it down hard on her cheek. She stood there, stunned. Now she was having her doubts about him. He could have easily killed their son. Her face hid none of her feelings and Senior could see it. He embraced her and she was fighting with all her might. “I thought you wanted this. A house, kids,” There was a long pause before she said the next word, “Me?”
The yelling continued as Kellin stood at the door and listened. He was astounded at the things they were saying to each other. Things along the lines of 'I hate you!' and 'Will you just shut up already?' He was even more terrified. That was it, he was done. He wrote a note to his parents and put it on the counter. He grabbed his keys and hopped in his car. He didn't know where he was driving, but anywhere was better than here. He walked past Garry on his way out and gave him a small smile to show that he was okay.
He drove to the sea side. This was his safe haven. He would come here with Jackson all the time and just watch the waves go in and out. Surfing, swimming, and goofing off. He even remembered when Jackson almost drowned by trying to swim and talk to a girl at the same time. It was those moments that made the bond between the two inseparable. Now Jackson was dead and it was Kellin's fault. He should have known better. He should have said no.
Janice came out of her room and went in the kitchen to get some water and an aspirin. She found Kellin's note and read it. She yelled for him and Senior came rushing for her, reading it as well:
'Dear Mom and Dad,
I know right now is not the best time to say this, but I love you. I went out for a while, so don't worry. Please don't be mad.
Kellin sat on the buoy in the middle of the ocean. He could see the scene clearly in his head. He was mowing the lawn and Jackson wanted a ride. He was about to put up the mower because he was already done. He knew he wasn't supposed to, but one time couldn't hurt. He let him on and they were goofing off when Jackson covered his eyes. He didn't know where he was going. It was too late when Jackson let go. They ran into a big rock in the yard and the mower flipped on top of Jackson. It was an accident. Kellin left his brothers body there and took apart the mower and smashed the pieces.
He ran in the house and turned his music up really loud and pretended to sleep. He knew his parents would be home soon. He waited anxiously until he heard the screams from outside. He ran outside to see what was going on. He saw his mother on the ground next to Jackson. Their father had his hand on her back. That is when he called the cops and they all sat on the porch waiting for them. That is when the fear began. That is when the lies began.
The cold water beat his feet as the tears streamed down his face like a waterfall. He let out all his breath and dived into the water. He inhaled sharply and his body panicked. His body thrashed about, but he made himself stay under the water. His body finally stopped. His head was fuzzy, his finger and toes numb from the freezing water. The sight of the sunset began to fade as his eyes closed. The last thing his mind pictured was Jackson and him sitting on the beach and Jackson was laughing. Kellin finally died in his water grave.
The darkness and solitude seemed to stretch on forever, as if they curved infinitely around my outer edge. Once, I had a sense of time's passage in the further swelling and rot of Victoria's finger in my core as I mournfully reshaped myself to fit the bone; in the blind minds of generations of rapacious maggots and flies that populated the tomb until they had consumed all there was and made it the final resting place of their brief civilization; and, finally, the slow settling of Victoria's bones as they creaked and cracked and crumbled into undisturbed dust. The horrible grinding of the earth above was a constant, until it was gone, but by then the distinction between decades and minutes was far beyond me.
Before that, there had been Victoria. While she was alive, we had worked together to slowly grow together towers of trees in which her people dwelt safely, and to preserve the valley flowers from the increasingly early and bitter cold. In communion with her, I gave her dreams. I recall, vaguely, that the dreams were of such things as running through the forest on two cloven legs, sleeping in the heartwood of trees, and dancing on the dandelion fluff of late summer.
Even then, those dreams were memories so old they were not remembrances of the experiences themselves, but recollections of having remembered once. How long since I was a ring I cannot say. In the solitude of forever, I consider that I was always a ring and that the memories are old fantasies of the one who woke me into this shape, who is also long forgotten. I would also think that I was confused about being a ring at all, except that dust and bones and rocks do not fit around fingers.
I had known Victoria was dying. The pulse through her finger was weak, and the finger had swollen so that I had to expand to my greatest size to not cut her. She lay prone, and her mind fluttered in places I could not go. I felt respectful of the passing of her honorable life; she had been a most excellent carrier. As I had never before been left alone, I did not think to fear her death.
But those who buried her quickly in the shallow cave either did not know my nature or did not care to pry me off her. Until the farmer came, I did not realize - deep as I was in the ground - that the cold came to stay in the valley, and those who buried Victoria would have soon fled the advance of the ice sheets.
When the farmer's plow caught in the split rocks, when he innocently cleared them for use in a great stone fence for the pasture, up until he uncovered the remnants of the shield and the amulets and my gold shine, he had thought he was plowing virgin soil only made arable during the time of his father.
As he lifted the rock covering me, the sensation was so strange. By the time I recognized it as warmth - there was time! there was warmth! - I was in his hand, and growing to fit his finger. His mind was as complicated and cyclical as my own nature, and I learned much from him, but he could not account for the strange dreams of endless darkness. Too soon, he took me to a holy man who refused to touch me.
Once again, I was alone.
The wooden box in which they placed me was very different from the tomb, because I could feel the vibrative echoes of the bells. They rang three thousand seven hundred and twenty-three times before the box's lid was lifted once more.
Even before his fingers closed around me, and his eyes read the round curve of my surface and my inner markings, I could feel Junius's fixation. The sense of him burned. As I rounded myself to his shape, still held in his fingers, the opening to him seemed less willed and more automatic. I was eager, anticipatory, and had been bereft of companionship far too long. Still, I felt something disconcerting. I would not say fear, as I cannot fear, but perhaps apprehensive. I was hopeful of his desire for me, though his attention seemed, even in the shock of newness, lovingly perverse in his focus on himself rather than on me.
As he slipped me over his finger, his mind claimed to know me better than I knew myself. He already had a name he knew me by, one that tickled at the edge of something I had once known - the Ring of Gefion, though I doubted that I was the Gefion being referenced. His exhilaration told me of the long search, the years of research, and the expense of hunting rumors and myths of an ancient power lost before history began.
Perhaps he would be a wonderful carrier, I hoped. Perhaps I would love his work as I loved Victoria's flowers.
He took me down from my valley. He took me by river to a shoreline that stretched so vast that he thought of it as flat. At nights he wore an amulet that shut me out of his dreams, so that I battered on his mind like the waves he now watched being thrown against the seawall. During waking hours, he thought of praise and accolades, hungering children, and money. We crossed the sea, and came to his home in a city of stone and melted sand that rose higher than any of Victoria's tree towers.
Then he began to use me for his work.
We make stalks of grain grow quickly, thick with seeds that all fall at once in a frenetic rush, and then the exhausted stalk is done after only two months of life. We grow fruit so large and round that the branches bend with the weight and the skins split. Junius will reach up to squeeze the soft orbs, and juice dribbles out, splashes over me and runs down his hand. He uses me to change the plants in their seeds, in the smallest details of themselves, to corrupt all the future generations.
In pictures of him, he keeps his hand in his pocket.
Because of his amulet, I still think he does not know what I am. I wonder what I can do. So I am waiting and thinking. I have become good at both.