Courage swells and dissipates like the tide. I drop my eyelids and shove hands deep in my pockets. Hides the shakes I get from my brothers.
Horses hooves, pig oinks, tension strung tight as barbed wire. The church-sized barn heaves with associates. Sweat, light beer, and animal dung mingle. Cheers and jeers.
A horse stomps ahead of the McLennans whom it yanks into the pit by rope. Their legs are chained to each other’s, their necks in clamps – one fat rope a lasso on them all.
Seven men, two women. Daylight streams through the barn doors and pings off their naked bodies. I grab a beer from Tracy, whom my old man sells to the lonely or bored. I brush her arm and my eyes fill in for the nod I want to give her. I swig and stare hard at the ceiling, a blank slate to paint clean thoughts across. Jim, my third eldest brother, steps into my space. Budweiser, Old Spice, meat in his teeth.
“You’re gunna’ watch this one. All dad’s friends are here, and other families are looking for weakness. We – all of us – are going to show them strength. Keep your peepers on the action and your mouth shut, runt.”
My eldest brother, Jacob, alarms the horse into jerking the rope. The McLennans stumble and writhe to keep their balance. Someone in the crowd whoops, another laughs. Tracy checks her shoulder my way, flashes her eyes for me to take action. I told her a week ago how my family murdered her father when she was just a kid. Now we’re in cahoots.
Jared, my second oldest brother, elbows my ribs and grins. “Fun, right?”
I push my tongue against the back of my teeth. I must look drunk because he rolls his eyes and moves on after he tells me to “toe the fucking line.”
A chainsaw rips through the chatter and sputters to a standstill. Silence heightens the senses. Cologne mingles with sweat. The horse whinnies and eyes the exit as best it can from behind its blinkers. Jack, my fourth oldest brother, jerks the chainsaw into another momentary growl. He spits, all stoic as it grinds still once more. Dad enters the square space. His benign beam shines the authority he holds over the audience. Ignores the pleas from his captives. One of the women, Meg, cries for mercy. Dad holds conference with Jack as if a little bird sings over his shoulder. They crane their necks for me, but I’ve ducked behind a tall man in a tall hat. They wave Tracy over as they would the family dog. She slides and swivels from unwanted gropes, leans into dad and Jack’s whispers, and heads my way.
Hands grab at the two drinks which remain on her tray, and one man grabs her boob and squeezes with his dirty, greasy hand. Sniggers with the man next to him as if they sat at the back of third grade class.
“Your dad wants you.”
I hear her, but don’t register. I search for life behind her flat eyes. She blinks at the examination and sparks.
“He wants you to take the chainsaw out back and gas it up.”
I grab her hand and squeeze, but she slips away with a fake smile. She thinks me a coward.
I squirm through hot bodies. Someone asks if I got a feel. Pretend I didn’t hear.
Dad plants a beefy hand on my shoulder and squeezes. “Fill it up and be quick. People here are impatient for the games.”
I watch the McLennans over his shoulder. I see no mercy in dad’s ancient, primeval eyes. This is a humiliation for the McLennans from which there ain’t recovery. They will die today.
Jack, like some sniffer dog, senses the sentiment in me. He leans in and twists my nipple. “You do it, runt. You don’t want to end up like Beth.”
Jack steps back and glares at the sawdust in hope dad never heard it. Doesn’t matter. He just confirmed what I knew already. Dad was about to deflect my thoughts on which ditch my bastard family had buried my sister for her rebellion against what they are, but big Tom McLennan spits and that big gob of green hits the back of dad’s ear and gloops from his lobe like an earring.
Jacob whips at the horse’s feet. It rears and jerks the McLennans into the dust. Drags them a few yards until Jacob reins it in.
“Fill the chainsaw, runt.” Dad thumbs at the barn entrance. I charge out as dad begins his speech about how the McLennans betrayed all the families’ fraternal aims by dealing with the Feds.
Tracy sits outside on a bale of hay, a cigarette in her mouth, a blanket over her shoulders as if she needs to warm the ice within her. The heat blisters the air, the breeze only an aid to burn them all.
She shrugs her shoulders. Stupid question. What do you think? “Did they kill my mother, too, all those years ago? That why they took me in? Guilt?” She lifts her smoke to offer me a drag.
Shakes her long brown hair at my misconception and pats the fuel cans stacked by the hay. “Funny way of showing guilt, I’m sure.” The devil curves her smile into a scythe.
My tongue curls dry. She’s had it. Desperation has crushed her faculties. I glance back at the barn. Guards by the door, but on the inside, the horror show their distraction. Tracy bites at my hesitation.
“You wanna end like Beth and my parents, eaten by worms before your time?”
“No… course not.” I fidget at my cowardice.
“We rescuing the McLennans?” She shrugs. “I wouldn’t. They’d do the same given the damn chance.”
What I imagined Beth’s eyes to look like now, blank and cold in contrast to their warm living glow, imprints on my mind. I fill the chainsaw and lug a can to the entrance. The horse neighs and some of the crowd jeer the captives. The pigs in their pen to the back whine from agitation. Seems a shame they’d die too soon.
Tracy calls out. “You’ve been promising me action. Let me see your balls.”
I puff through the crowd as if the damn chainsaw weighs a sow. Dad reaches for the tool, a wry grin on his wobbly jowls. He jacks the chainsaw and raises it above his head. Sweat patches the armpits of his shirt. My brothers work the crowd to bolster the courage of some grim-faced viewers. The Jacksons and Steiners amongst them.
They’re all as bad as each other. Nobody looked into Beth’s death. Some of them used Tracy.
Fuck ‘em all. Fuck me for not confronting them with the truth.
The gap in the barn door narrows. Tracy has started early. I should join her. Help ring the barn in gas and turn the building and all of them inside to ash.
Jack manacles my skinny wrist with his beefy hand and “Ah-ahed.”
“Let me go.”
“No, runt. You’re starting this thing off. You slice yourself a McLennan joint.”
Dad thrusts the chainsaw at me. Lucky I didn’t lose an arm. Tracy has the barn door shut. This is our chance. The McLennans were all gunna die anyway. Better quick than in a fiery agony. Dad laser-eyes me, tracks every twitch that ripples my face. The fans on the ceiling hardly touch the heat. My hands slip on the tool, so I grab tighter and rip the cord. My brothers huff at my bravado. They don’t reckon I can do it.
I gulp down fear and let my stomach acid deal with it. Turn to the McLennans. Meg McLennan’s lower lip drops in anguish. Brian McLennan stares at me, as if he could will away what he had coming. Old Col McLennan licks his lips. He’s lived his life. He could go now. His nod said just make it quick.
I close my eyes a moment to project happy times to the back of my lids.
Me on ma’s lap on the swing.
A donkey ride on Jack’s back before dad corrupted us all.
Beth reading The BFG to me in what she thought a good English accent.
Tracy holding me tight when I broke down about the things I’d seen.
My broken promises to her. To get her out safe.
I plunge into the McLennans and rip right through big-bearded Mick. He shudders and spits blood. His family swerve and duck as if dolphins attack their shoal. Blood splatters us all. A shout hits the ceiling and the fans circulate calls of “Shame.”
Jim launches at the source, arms in swim-crawl through the crowd. I drop the chainsaw, my hands splay out my side, afraid of the blood which clings to me. Marks me as a typical Graham family member.
More shouts. The yelps race around the walls and kick sound against the structure. Somebody calls “Fire” and the crowd surge. Smoke billows up the walls in waves, many shades of black and gray.
Tracy’s started without me. Locked the barn doors. The back door should have remained open. A log jam blocks that exit.
“We’re locked in.” The man’s voice could scrape paint from a wall.
No we’re not. She would wait for me. Jack grabs the chainsaw and attacks a wall. Fashions a hole big enough to clamber through, though the black smoke veils much of the inside now. Wood cracks and the pigs screech enough to shift bowels. The horse stamps and rears and lands on one of the McLennans, whose cries melt into those of the pigs and everyone else.
Tracy? Why not wait?
Jack drops the chainsaw and gets a leg through. A crack tears the air and Jack slumps back, a hole in his head, the leg on fire and still in the gap. Tracy shimmers outside through the flames, both hands on the gun.
“Tracy.” I shout louder. Again and again until the smoke clasps my lungs and squeezes.
I hit the floor to search for air and scrabble on all fours. Shots fire out as if people could climb through a bullet hole. Bodies pile up. The walls shimmer at the reverse-flow waterfalls of fire. A beam collapses and smashes Jared to the ever-after. The horse lurches at the wall and bounces off. Drags the family with it and tramples men who crawl the floorspace. Jim perishes beneath its hooves.
“Tracy, goddammit. Why’d you not wait?”
My eyes sting, lungs ache, throat burns. Jacob thrashes at the fire which licks up his front until he falls to his knees and slumps into the ground. The fire thrusts in my direction, a sun storm, and catches my pants. It flares up my leg until it grabs me with its full fury and I propel myself at the wall, burst through its weakened fibers, and land out on the charred grass. I scream a flutter of birds away. Crawl into the longer grass and hope dew would put me out. It only flickers the dried stems into candle wicks.
I think I’ve reached the end, but a moment’s solace drenches me. The cool water splashes my sores if only for a second, before the pain sears my flesh again. I see Tracy flicker away from me with a bucket in hand. She flings it aside. Random shots … no … targeted shots punch above the crackle. I open an eye again, the only one I can. Tracy steps, careful, amongst the ruins. Finds a survivor. Dad. Puts him out of his misery with a shot to his temple. Moves on.
Moves on until she stands above me.
I shake and words fail. She drags on her cigarette. “I’m sorry you had to burn, I really am. But you took your damn time and I knew – I just knew – this was my only window of opportunity. If I didn’t take my chance …” Her voice trails off, or my consciousness does – I don’t know.
The north is cooler than the needling heat of the south. I hate the snows, but it keeps me comfortable. The cream eases my burns, and I imagine it hisses as it touches my emaciated skin. Tracy rubs it in deep, from calves to neck, and hushes my whimpers at the release it gives me. It’s my second application of the day. It’s noon.
“It’s okay, baby, I got you.” She wipes her hand on the towel and kisses my forehead. She hasn’t kissed me on the lips since the fire.
“You don’t have to look after me like this. I can cope.”
“I know you can, but I want to. You helped me. Big time.”
She kisses me again. When she kisses me again tonight, or maybe tomorrow morning, a musky scent will hang from her skin and taunt me.
She takes the gun, the one she shot dad with, and places it on the pillow. Pats it. “Just in case.”
I watch her leave for the bar she works at. Once her Datsun chokes round the bend and out of sight I study the gun. Just in case. She used to mean in case we got any blowback. Now she just means in case I want to kill myself and put us both out of our misery.
When she does get back, I’ll take her up on that.