Fall 2006 [Issue No. 10]
Burning Sky (Part 1 of 3) ▪► Brady Huggett
When I recognized Roland Previt standing in the midnight shadows of my front porch, the first question that came to mind was, How the hell did he make it up the street? I hadn’t seen him in the flesh in I didn’t know how long. I knew he was still alive, certainly. I’d noticed his shape in his window as he watched the quiet street, or seen his hunched silhouette in his rocking chair, the dirty ceiling lamp giving him just enough light to read by. But I had not seen him outside in years. So I was surprised to find it was he who had knocked on my door and got me up from my kitchen chair, leaving my friend Will at the table as I made my way through that Godforsaken, dead-of-summer, hours-past-sundown-and-still-sweltering heat to see who it was.
“Roland,” I said. “You all right?” We’re old, Will and I, but Roland is even older.
“No, I’m not,” I think he said. “I’m not all right at all.” He swayed on his feet then, just a little, but it scared me and I reached for his shoulders.
“Come in and sit for a spell. I’ve got company, but you can sit with us.”
I assisted him into my kitchen. He moved gingerly, his legs bowed. The old man had bad feet, I remembered, missing toes. Lost some to frostbite. I eased him into a chair and then pushed it in, propping him up at the table. For a second it was quiet – my wife Eva was asleep upstairs, Will sat silently at his end of the table, looking at our late-night visitor with curious eyes while Roland mutely eyed him back. Will had reason to stare: Roland looked rough. His greasy gray hair, wet at the roots with perspiration, fell across his forehead and lay pushed behind his ears on the sides. He had dark bags hanging under his eyes. His shell of a chest rose and fell. For as long as I had known him the man had had a gaunt face, but that night it looked even thinner and I wondered if he was losing weight.
Will and I had been getting into it pretty good, both the conversation and the bourbon, when I’d heard Roland’s soft rap on my front door. For Roland to walk to my house, for that man to be on the street at all, was an anomaly. He spent most of his time sitting in that old rocking chair of his in the house just down the way, reading something he’d read a dozen times before, drinking liquor with nothing but ice. That’s all he ever did. He never went out; I believe he even had his groceries delivered. Eva and I’d had him over for dinner a few times, years ago, and I’d sat on his porch many a time in the past, but not for a long time. He had no reason to go out anymore.
But he had a reason that night and he was the one who broke the silence.
“I want to talk, Lawrence,” Roland said, looking at me and ignoring my friend.
“We can do that,” I said, and motioned across the table. “This is my friend, Will.”
Will stuck his liver-spotted hand out. “Hello,” he said, but Roland pinched his face and didn’t shake it. The hand hung there for a second, and then Will shrugged and put it back next to his glass. The room went silent again.
I set about making Roland a bourbon and water and freshening up the ones Will and I had been sucking on before Roland knocked. I emptied an ice tray into a Tupperware container and refilled the tray from the tap at the sink. Roland didn’t say a word, just sat with his hands clasped in front of him on the table, waiting for his drink.
I put the sweating glass down in front of him. He threw his hand around it, the ring he wore on his left hand clicking off the glass, and then he brought it to his lips, the ice tinkling quietly.
I slid Will’s drink across the table and it slowed to a stop next to his empty hand, the brown liquor sloshing back and forth against the glass. I eased my stiff legs down into my chair, my knees cracking. Something that could almost have been a breeze moved through the open window and drifted across the room. It did nothing to ease the heat that covered us like a hot, damp sheet.
“I want to talk,” Roland said again, his lips pulling back in a nasty grin that displayed his dark purple gums. Across the table, Will flinched at the sight of it. ”I’ve got stuff in me I have to get out.”
“Are you feeling all right?” I asked. “Why are you out of your place so late?”
“I told you why,” Roland snapped. “I want to talk. I saw your light and I got myself up here. I’m not a cripple, you know.”
“I know you’re not a cripple,” I said softly. “What do you want to talk about, then?”
Roland grumbled to himself and looked around the kitchen, everything in it awash with a faded and sickly late-night yellow. He worked on his drink, his watery eyes peering across at Will. I guess he had expected me to be alone.
“What do you believe in?” he asked Will.
“What do you mean?” Will asked.
“When you die, what do you think happens?”
Will shrugged. “Not much, I guess. You get buried, and then the worms get to you, eventually.”
Roland pulled his lips back, flashed his hideous gums, and put his drink to them. He would need a refresher soon, at that rate, I thought. He closed his eyes and his brow darkened, his wrinkles sliding and twitching. He muttered something, and even though the night was still and I was sitting right next to him, I couldn’t hear what it was. He sighed deeply then – a rattling, crackling, infected sound that made me wince.
“I have to tell it,” he said. And then the old man began to unload, to rid his mind of what had been eating at him for years. Because if you don’t get it out, I guess, it gets to you eventually. Just like Will’s worms. The curtains quivered in my kitchen, puffing inward on a breeze so unimpressive I might not have noticed if the movement wasn’t directly behind Roland, the cloth framing the open window just above his slumped and narrow shoulders.
“I was in Hungary at the time, months after the Red Army invaded,” Roland said. “The war was pretty much over. Most of the country was a black, collapsed wreck. I was in Europe as a fighting man myself. Originally, I was. But I had gotten sidetracked some time before and wasn’t with my troops anymore. I wasn’t with anyone. All the fighting was finished. All the fighting sucked right out of me, too. I don’t know why I stayed in that town as opposed to any other. Maybe I’d found a place where I thought I could be unknown. I knew they’d force me home, if they ever managed to track me down. I didn’t want that. I didn’t think I’d ever go back to the States, but that didn’t bother me. I’d seen and done things that left me cold and my mind poisoned. I wasn’t the same man I had been when I left and I knew my old life had no place for me. But something in that town held me, stopped me from wandering on through that country that had no identity anymore. Maybe that’s why. Because it had no identity left and I didn’t either. Or maybe I didn’t want one. I don’t know.
“I had set myself up in a small, one-room place outside the town’s center, not anything more than a shack, really, in an area where the people stuck together and helped each other. Everyone was poor then. War takes it all out of the invaded country. Its money, productivity, rapes the spirit. This town was no different; nothing but a fragile eggshell, the innards sucked out.
“I was growing what I could in a small plot alongside my place, hunting in the nearby woods. Bartering what excess I had, excess from either the ground or the woods. I had no money.
“My Hungarian was broken and thick, but it got me by, somehow. And I was learning more everyday, it seemed. I was a younger man then.
“I was living it day by day, walking, breathing, trying to find some peace for myself. The longer I stayed there, the more the families in the area accepted me. They saw in me an ex-soldier, a fellow who hunted, was a good shot, was quiet but maybe sort of friendly, too, in a quiet way. Soon, my daily hellos stretched into small, often misunderstood exchanges of Hungarian. Before long some of us were carrying on fairly well. A few knew a word or two of English, and it became a joke between us. One neighbor, he’d say Sunday, and point to the sky, the sun, every time he saw me. We laughed over that. They wanted to use whatever they knew, just like I wanted to try my Hungarian, see if I could put together a sentence and make myself understood.
“A family a ways down the road became my favorite. A family of four. They had one daughter, name of Tisza, and a little boy – Tomás – who had somehow gotten a hold of an English reader and was teaching himself. We mostly understood each other, the boy and I. I think he was about nine or so when I first met him. Real small and skinny. Looked like a stiff breeze might blow him over, if he wasn’t hanging on to something. He had dark hair and wide-set brown eyes, skin a little darker than mine. But he was as smart as they come.
“We were friends, actual friends, I think, before too long. Talked to him more than I talked to his parents, more than Tisza. But they welcomed me because Tomás was learning more English, and they saw no harm in me. Sometimes I brought by fresh meat I had shot, or bread I picked up at the market, if I had any extra. I liked that family. The parents were always smiling, the daughter, too. But it was the boy I was going over to see, before too long. Maybe he was the only friend I really had back then. He didn’t seem like a kid. And he turned out to be smarter than all of us.”
“Who is us?” interrupted Will. “You mean all the people in the town, or just the family?”
I winced. Roland set his mouth and his eyes narrowed. His eyes shifted to me. They were clear and bright, free from any booze haze. I tapped the table lightly with my glass.
“Will,” I said. “Don’t interrupt. Just listen.”
Will let out a small sigh of exasperation and gazed up at the ceiling. The light caught a fine sheen of sweat on his forehead, just below his gray, thin hairline. The night wasn’t cooling and the air felt thick and stagnant, like it was blowing in from a swamp.
Roland paused, as if trying to decide whether he could tolerate Will. He drank a little bourbon and I moved the bottle over to his side, then slid the ice bucket there, too.
“Come on, Roland,” I said, and he started again.
“Tomás was real smart. His English got better, and he seemed to know everything about the town. His mind was a sponge, I figure. I don’t know as much now as that boy seemed to know back then.
“Tomás knew before I did something was coming, something was changing, even before that fellow strolled into town. ‘Today is different, Roland,’ he told me one day.
“‘Igen?’ I asked. That’s ‘yes’ in Hungarian. I’m surprised I still know that. But Tomás didn’t know exactly what was different, or he didn’t say. For four straight days Tomás would look around, soak up the trees, the fields, the people, the animals, take in a breath of that scarred air from that country of his, and tell me, ‘Today is different.’ Did he mean different from the day before, or different from each day he’d known in his life? I didn’t know. Back then, I just kept a nervous eye on the sky, looking for bombs. That’s what I thought he meant. Bombs or tanks.
“But he was right. That week, I saw the man in town. Now that in itself wasn’t such a big deal, seeing a man – people were always passing through. People on their way to a new part of the land, hoping to find a place that didn’t have the buildings shot-up, didn’t have scorched earth.
“This fellow made a stir right away because of the way he looked. He had this thick head of silver-colored hair, but he was young. That hair set him apart first thing. He stood right out in a crowd of Hungarians. I watched him cross the town square, moving through the crowd real easy. So noticeable with that silver head. He was a tall bastard; six-three maybe, with dark, smooth skin like finished wood wet by the rain, big broad shoulders. He was odd-looking with that hair, but odd in a handsome way. People turned to glance at him as he passed, especially the women. The men too, though. They were looking. He paused and bought a piece of fruit, dickering for it with an old woman. He bit into it and moved out of the square, heading down a road in no particular hurry with big, deliberate steps.
He walked away, sure, but my heart beat uncomfortably as he left because I could have sworn his eyes never left me from the first time I’d spotted him. Beneath that eye-catching silver hair, he had a set of eyes so dark it seemed they had no pupils at all. Those eyes seemed to bore right into your head and know right away what you were thinking. I’d seen enough action in the war, fired my gun into enough flesh and watched enough bodies pop open to deaden me to emotions like anxiety or fear. Or so I’d thought. But this man, this fellow with the eyes, he brought feelings of fear back. I watched the square to see if anyone else was as disturbed as I was, but I only saw the young women laughing to each other, blushing. There were curious glances at his departing figure, but not fearful ones. And when I looked back down the road, he was gone.
“I got back to my small shack and found Tomás aimlessly wandering the brown, tired field next to my place. Waiting.
“‘Different, yes Roland?’ he asked.
I didn’t know exactly what he meant. “‘What is different, Tomás?’ I asked.
“‘You saw the man?’ he asked.
“‘What man?’ I said.
“‘The man with gray head,’ he said.
I looked real hard at him. Tomás had not been to town that day. “‘Did he come out here?’ I asked.
“‘No. But I know.’ He sort of smiled at that, a soft sad smile. I thought maybe he was having trouble with the language. I asked him how he knew, but I asked him in my broken Hungarian, so who knew if I was asking it right? Tomás said to me that he knew the man was in town that day, and the man would be back. I wondered if I was understanding his Hungarian.
“‘Be careful, Roland. Don’t make friends,’ he told me in English. ‘He bad.’
“‘He looks it.’
“‘We will see him, you and I, and look at him together.’ Tomás shrugged his little shoulders then, as if he didn’t know how to express in English what he knew, what he meant.
“That first day marked the beginning of the story I’m really trying to tell,” Roland said. “That silver-haired bastard brought the town to the edge of apocalypse without anyone realizing it. I didn’t. Not at first.
“He was in town often following that first day. Doing small business, buying fruit or meat, bartering for things he needed. Doubtful he really needed them. Really I think he was just being seen, being spotted in the community. He sure was easy to look at with those handsome features. The women loved him, ate right out of his soft hand, charmed almost right out of their panties by his damn slick mouth. He could have had his pick of the single women in that town, and ones who weren’t single, either. And he did. Eventually he did. But I swear his eyes never left me.
“When I would get back to my shack from town, there Tomás would be. Hanging around the field, walking around my place, sitting on the hard earth in front of my door. He’d ask me what I’d seen, what the man had been doing, who he talked to. I told him what I knew.
“That boy was keeping a tight mental journal on our new friend in town. Sometimes he told me about the fellow – what he had bought at the market, who he had spoken too, what he had eaten. And the kid wasn’t just talking; he knew these things.
“I may not be the smartest man in the world, but I figured something was going on, something I couldn’t understand but was witnessing anyway. He and Tisza never went to town; they had work to do at their place and their parents usually didn’t let them stray too far. He couldn’t have known the things he knew, but he did.
“For a while we just watched that snake, the kid and I. I’d tell him what I saw with my eyes in town, and he’d tell me what he saw with his mind. I didn’t have trouble accepting that the kid saw things in his head. My time in the war had me doubting what I’d believed my whole life. I figured I’d take things as they were. Or reject it all. Didn’t much matter to me. I believed Tomás saw the man, I believed Tomás knew what the man was doing even when he couldn’t see him.
“And soon the snake was no longer a stranger in the town. Like me, he’d been there long enough and done enough so they accepted him. He was a foreigner, they were sure of that, but he spoke smooth Hungarian and always had a little money to spend in the market, did business in the square, and they liked him. He didn’t turn curious heads anymore; he got hellos and affectionate greetings. And he smiled back, was friendly, and made friends, and damn if he wasn’t popular in that town.
“I watched it all. Watched the townspeople be drawn to him. Watched and told Tomás about it. And the kid nodded quietly, nodded and filed it away like he knew exactly what was happening. And he did know, I think. Had known since day one.
“Soon it began to happen. The thing that always happened back in that time, in that country, in a place shredded by war where the people were down and were trying to find a way back up. People began to see him as an opportunity, as a way to get something. He was strong, the stranger, and good-looking, and had money. He was powerful, somehow, in a way those Hungarians couldn’t quite grasp. They were drawn to that power. They thought he could save them.
“Merchants mentioned their pretty daughters to him. They extended invitations for dinner to come and meet these daughters. Suggesting that maybe he needed a wife. Hoping that by attaching the daughter to the man, the family would be lifted up, be pulled above their burned homeland. Townspeople lavished attention on him, attention they surely never presented to me. And he responded.
“He took up a man, a fruit vendor, on an offer to come to his house for dinner, accepted the idea of coming and eating with the family and meeting the oldest daughter. I didn’t know the family, but I knew their daughter was about 18, and not married. Her dad saw a way to get her hitched and help the family all at the same time. Can’t blame him. That’s how it was then.
“I was right there in the square when he accepted. I was getting some bread, keeping my eye on the fellow like Tomás said we should, and I overheard the question. I heard ‘dinner’ and ‘daughter’ and ‘please,’ words I knew in Hungarian. I heard him say he’d go, heard him say he’d be there the next night. And the man selling the fruit thanked him for it. Thanked him! Thanked him for coming to meet his daughter, like the bastard was doing him a favor. And I heard his name when he thanked him. For the first time, I heard his name. I picked it out of the Hungarian. The vendor said ‘Köszönöm, Ashton.’
“I told Tomás when I got home. ‘He’s going to have dinner with a vendor from town. To meet his daughter.’ I said. ‘And I know his name. It’s Ashton.’
“‘I know,’ Tomás said. ‘I know what he do.’
“‘You do?’ I asked him. ‘What is he doing? Something bad?’
“‘Yes, bad,’ the kid told me. ‘But we do nothing,’ he said. ‘His name is Jakob.’ He pronounced it with a Y, Yakob. Jakob Ashton. How he knew, I didn’t ask.
“I don’t know what happened at that dinner, or the next one he went to at that family’s shack, or the one after that, but he wasn’t short on charm and soon the daughter and Jakob were in public together. Walking on the outskirts of town, along the trees at the forest’s edge, sitting on a worn bench near the town’s center. He played it up, as if they were very much in love. She probably was, poor thing. And her father couldn’t have been more proud. Got the beautiful stranger with his daughter. Things were looking up, as far as he was concerned.
“That daughter was dead within two months. Her mother went into the sleeping room to wake the girl one morning and she was dead, blood all over the bedding and staining the poor girl’s thighs. Something just burst inside her, and she bled it all out quietly in the night. Jakob Ashton did it.
“Tomás was the one who told me that. I went to town, as usual, to barter some meat for some flour, and I heard murmurings. I couldn’t figure out what people were upset about, but I noticed the fruit vendor wasn’t in his stall. And the bastard wasn’t around at all.
“‘Something happened, Tomás,’ I said when I got back to my place and found him waiting for me. ‘People are upset, but I don’t know why.’
“‘I know why,’ he said. ‘Petriva dead.’
“‘Who’s Petriva?’ I asked. ‘Someone important?’
“‘No,’ he said. ‘Not so important. She his girlfriend.’
“‘His girlfriend?’ I asked. ‘Ashton’s girlfriend? She’s dead?’
“Tomás nodded and told me how she died. Died in her bed with blood pouring out from between her legs. And she didn’t make a sound, didn’t cry out for help. Just let it happen. I asked the boy about it, what it meant, did our snake do it? The boy just nodded at me, with no emotion. Ashton did it, he was sure of that.
“‘He killed her?’ I asked him.
“‘Yes,’ Tomás said. ‘But he no happy. He mad.’
“‘What should we do?’ I asked the boy. ‘What will he do next?’
“‘He try again,’ Tomás said simply. ‘We do nothing.’
“So I did nothing. What else could I do? I waited with the boy, waited for the mourning period to pass, waited for Jakob to come back into public.
“Soon I saw him in the market again, talking to the fruit vendor. I watched the vendor consoling him, as if the loss had been Jakob’s. If the vendor had another daughter of age, I am sure he would have tried to pass her to Jakob too. I wondered if the vendor even missed his daughter, or was he simply sad his opportunity to marry her off well had been ruined? She was dead and he was no better off, other than one less mouth to feed. Maybe he didn’t feel that way. Maybe that’s just the way I saw it.
“He didn’t make another move for a while. Fall came in and the weather dropped; I hunted in the woods, trying to get some meat stored up for the coming winter. I did a carpenter job for a neighbor in exchange for a pig I then slaughtered. Cooked flat bread, tended what little produce I could coax from my small garden. I wondered if I could make it through the cold weather there, wondered if I might starve. I didn’t know what I was doing, didn’t have any plans for my future, but felt like I was suddenly caught up in something bigger than me. I had no place to go and nothing else to believe in. So I got ready for the cold snap and waited.
“It was some winter, too. Heavy snow, temperatures so low the air itself seemed frozen. I remember walking through the woods, bundled up against the cold, wearing everything I had, toes numb, my rifle slung over my shoulder, my eyes searching for game tracks. It was quiet in the woods; the snow sucked up all the noise. No birds calling, nothing moving except the wind through the bare trees. The winter was as tough on the game as it was on me. Deer starving, the small animals burrowed down deep and not coming up. I barely made it. Barely kept myself in food and with enough wood to heat my little place. It was my first time living a winter that way, and I wasn’t as prepared as I thought I was. Naïve.
“It was hard on the whole town. This was a people wiped out by the fighting, weakened by the killing. They had lost fathers and sons in the years past, had factories and stores destroyed. Maybe a routine winter might have left them fine, but this was a winter unlike any other I’d felt on that continent. The cold came and never went away. It wasn’t just me needing food, needing coal, needing wood. It was the whole town.
“And he knew it, the slick silver fuck. He was warm wherever he was spending his nights, I guarantee you that, but he knew how cold the people were. How cold and hungry. He waited until they were their hungriest, until they were so cold that they had gray patches of frostbite on their fingers and ears. And when the people were starting to break up furniture to burn, when they were so hungry that dogs were disappearing, when they were nearly at the cracking point, he came in and saved the day.
“I was out in the forests when it started, checking a rabbit trap, scared but not surprised when I found it empty. I emerged from the cover of the trees and saw, across the field, Tomás sitting on my doorstep. The door wasn’t locked and my stove was sputtering inside, but he sat outside. Shivering so hard he actually bounced up and down. I made my way over to him.
“I asked him: ‘Why are you outside? Go in my place.’ My breath billowed out in front of me; small icicles hung in my beard around my mouth.
“He shook his head. ‘No. Go to town, Roland. The man do something.’
“I asked him: ‘What’s he doing? Is he doing it now?’
“The boy shook his head. ‘Not now. Minutes, not now. Go to town and see, tell me.’
“It was so cold that day, I didn’t want to go. I wanted that heat, no matter how weak, from my stove. I wanted to crawl under my blankets and puff my breath against my drawn-up knees. But I had decided I’d do whatever that kid asked, so I put my hand on the top of his head for a second, my fingers opening only far enough in the biting cold to form a claw, and I went.
“The market was empty when I got there. Everyone with any brains was inside. I hoped Tomás wasn’t wrong, and I walked aimlessly but briskly to try to keep warm. The sky up above was cloudless, meaning no new snow but certainly another painfully cold night ahead. So cold I knew I wouldn’t sleep well. So cold I knew I would spend the night curled in a ball, shivering under my blankets and wishing I had dry wood to burn, instead of the wet stuff I pulled from the woods. But Jakob showed up and I forgot all that.
“He drove an old, big truck to the other side of the market, away from the center and on the opposite side of me. I didn’t know he had a truck, or any vehicle. Maybe he didn’t, maybe he just needed it for that day and got it, somehow. Or maybe he had a fleet of them, stored wherever it was that he went at night when the rest of us retired to our poor shacks and sloping houses.
“He drove it to the edge of the square and stopped the engine. Jumped out, as strong and handsome as ever – looked the same as the last time I’d seen him, before he went into mourning and winter moved in. I stood across the square, watching, wondering what the truck was for, and making a note to myself that Tomás was right again. He closed the truck door and then turned and faced me across the open, empty market. His eyes locked onto mine, and it was the first time he had ever directly acknowledged my presence. I stood there, my arms crossed for warmth, staring at him, not moving except for an occasional shiver from the cold. And he stared back. He was smiling, I saw. Not the kind of smile that invites one in – instead the kind of patronizing smile you give to the stupid.
“He stayed just like that, arms crossed, his hot eyes boring a hole through my head. I stayed where I was, legs slightly apart, my arms folded, my head occasionally jittering as I twitched from the cold. And then that fucker split into two. He just stepped aside and left himself there at the same time. There were two of him, exactly alike, and if I hadn’t of seen it myself, I would have called anyone that told me about it a shitbird.”
In my hot kitchen, this bit of news got Will’s full attention. He leaned in and stared at Roland, frowning, his drink sliding across the table top as he moved closer.
“He split in two?” Will asked. “You’re saying he multiplied? Lawrence,” he said, turning to me, “I can’t buy this.”
Roland put both of his bony hands on the table and tried to push his chair away. The flesh on his arms shifted as the thin string of muscle beneath them limply flexed. He couldn’t shove himself off; he was too weak.
“Take me home,” he said, still pushing.
I gave Will a withering look. Shut up, it said.
“Now don’t be like that, Roland,” I told him softly. “Will didn’t mean that, he just meant it was hard to believe. And it is hard to believe, you said so yourself. Just pretend he isn’t even here. Forget he’s even at the table. I want to hear the rest of it and I promise you he won’t interrupt again. Come on, Roland. What else do you have to do?”
“I’ve got nothing to do!” he snapped. “I’ve got nothing to do but wait for the end.” He hung his head, but then jerked it back up and kept right on talking, like he’d never stopped. I guess maybe he needed to tell that story, needed to get it out the way a splinter has to come out from beneath the skin before you can get any relief.
“He just doubled,” Roland said, looking at me and ignoring Will. “There he was, one slick bastard, staring across the square at me, and then there was another one of him standing alongside. Looked just like him, dressed the same, had the same face. The other one, the new one, started working. He paid me no mind, not staring at me like the real one was, just walked around to the back of the truck and let down the gate. He brought out logs of wood, one by one, log after log. He grabbed them and threw them into a pile. I was scared silly, couldn’t talk, couldn’t move, couldn’t do a thing except stare with my arms folded across my chest, frozen like that. And the fucker, the real one, didn’t move either. He stared at me with his own arms folded and that little smile on his lips. But the double kept unloading, kept bringing wood out of that truck until he had a pile stacked up in a small mound, maybe six feet in diameter.
“When that pile was big enough, the double switched tasks. He started pulling lumpy sacks out of the truck’s bed. The other one, the real one, moved then. He unfolded his arms, took that look of amused scorn off his face, and put one hand out from his side, palm down. It was like he was feeling a draft of warm air, the way you would hold your hand over a heating grate in a house. His eyes never left mine and I understood that whatever he was doing was for my benefit. He was showing me something.
“With his hand held out, he simply turned it over, with his fingers slightly curled but his forefinger extended. In that instant the pile of wood burst into flames. Not exploded or anything, but suddenly it was ablaze and burning hard. I felt the warmth on my face. It was unbelievable, the way it ignited.
“That fire was crackling and popping but I didn’t take my eyes off him. His hand stayed in that pose, like he had just presented something great on a damn game show. He raised his brow, brightened his face a little, and gave a grin, as if to say, ‘There you go. Fire. See what I did?’ But I didn’t move. Don’t think I could have. Cemented right to the spot.
“And to think I was so stupid I actually thought I was spying on him for so long. I began to really worry for Tomás’ life. I didn’t care about mine so much. But being around Tomás had drawn a little feeling out of my heart again, had made me care one way or the other about something for the first time since I had become a fighting man. I was scared that jackal was onto the boy, was just biding his time until he felt like killing him, and probably me, too.
“He put his hand down, and then crossed his arms again, imitating me. We stayed that way, staring at each other as if in a battle of wills, a power struggle of the mind. But the truth was, he had me frozen with fear and I knew he wasn’t worried in the least.
“The fire caught the attention of the town, and word of it soon spread. The townspeople were drawn to the heat, coming out of their cold houses and in from the forests where they were searching for food or dry wood. To have that much wood to torch, as much as was in that pile crackling away in the square, was a big deal to those people. And the truck was still filled; the amount burning hadn’t made a dent in what was in the truck bed. People gathered around, curious about the fire, asking questions. And his double talked to them, joked with them, made hand gestures and encouraged them to warm themselves. I realized they could only see the double, the one doing all the work. They couldn’t see the real Ashton, the one staring at me with arms crossed.
“The double began emptying the bags, pulling slabs of meat out of the canvas, handing food to the people who had gathered. They took it with smiles and gracious nods, pulling the swine and beef close to their jackets, holding it with hands pinched shut against the cold. They were hungry, all of them. All of us, I should say, because I was as hungry as the rest. And he had sacks of flour, sugar, loaves of bread stuffed into the sacks. He gave it all away – it was like the fucking Red Cross had come to help disaster victims. And the more he gave, the more the word spread.
“Ashton’s double worked the whole event like a master of ceremonies, handing out food, asking for people to go home and bring back family members, to load up on dry wood and take it to their own hearths. He smiled, extended his arms wide to show it was all for them. They took as much as they could carry. It was his first real public appearance since the girl died.
“It didn’t seem real to me, and that bastard staring at me across the way, gauging my reaction to what I was seeing, made me nervous. Everyone that showed up got meat, got bread. They all got wood, and I don’t mean a piece or two. They got enough to load up the wood box at home. Enough for a full day of good heat, real heat from wood that would burn crisp and hot. That truck wasn’t big enough to hold that much, the bed wasn’t wide enough to carry that much food. Where did it all come from? How did everyone get enough to fill the bellies at home and enough wood to warm their place? But that shouldn’t have surprised me. I’d watched a man split in two and then start a bonfire with a hand motion. I only know what I saw and I saw that everyone that came there got what they needed. Everyone seemed to show up. Everyone except Tomás and his family, they didn’t show. And me. I was there, getting colder and colder, my nose, ears and fingers getting number by the second, but I wasn’t taking shit from him.
“The fire was as strong as ever, the wood piled as high as when the blaze had started. They were getting food and wood, they had reason to think they just might get enough to last through the winter. If old Jakob Ashton had been a popular man before, it was nothing compared to what he became after the food and wood. He’d done what they always seemed to think he could – he’d lifted the whole town up.
“The crowd waned; most of the people had gotten their share and left. And still the real Ashton stood with arms crossed, staring at me. My mirror across the square, same pose, legs slightly apart, his eyes on my face and my eyes staring back, filled with a fear that I hoped he couldn’t see.
“Night had fallen by the time the last person left with a portion of Jakob’s bounty. The fire was still strong, popping and snapping and sending glowing embers up into the black sky. His double cast a long, pointy shadow against the trampled snow as it moved around the truck, picking up the empty sacks and closing the back of the truck bed, still half-full. Across from me I could see the fire reflecting off Jakob’s eyes, could almost see the flames flickering in them, tiny fire figures dancing away on the rounded surface between his lids. He hadn’t looked away since he had lit the fire. My eyes had flitted back and forth, trying to take in the scene, but my head hadn’t turned on my neck. The blood flow beneath my elbows was cut off and my forearms and hands were without feeling. I was exhausted, completely drained of energy. I thought I might fall down, and hoped that might be the way I could break the spell, could actually move. Then make my way back to my place, try to rebuild my fire and crawl under my stiff, cold blankets. Sleep. Forget what I’d seen.
“The double walked methodically back to Jakob’s side, now that the square was empty. He stood next to Jakob, pausing for a second. The double’s body shuddered and then slid back into Jakob. Jakob’s body didn’t move at all, didn’t look like the double coming back into him had much effect. The double shuddered, slid, and was gone, eaten right up. Then it was just me and him.
“He moved then. He took a couple of steps forward and I was sure he was coming for me, coming to kill me. I couldn’t have done a thing about it – I hadn’t moved in who knew how long, was exhausted, knew the man had powers I couldn’t comprehend and I felt resigned to die. I worried how Tomás would be on his own.
“But Jakob took only a few steps closer to the fire, standing more in that unnatural orange-red glow so I could see him better. He had that mean-spirited half-smile on his face again. When I see that smile now in my mind, it still puts fear into my heart. He stood next to the blaze, half of him lit by its light, the other half pocketed with shadows, and stared into my face over the distance. I was caught there, petrified at being the center of his attention. He bent, so his face caught more of the fire’s light, his eyes blazing with the flames. Then he righted himself and let me know what was on his mind.
“He curled the last two fingers on his right hand into his palm, and left the other two and his thumb extended. Behind him, the firelight and his hand cast the unmistakable shadow of a gun. He took his left hand and, with his palm out flat, put it just over his thumb on his right hand. He pointed both hands down at the ground in front of him and turned his face away, grimacing. He kept that pose for a few seconds, I guess to make sure I knew what he was doing. Then both of his arms jumped as if they were absorbing an impact and I heard the sharp crack of a single shot. It rolled around the square, loud and deep, and scared me so badly I flinched backward. My legs were shaky and weak and I nearly fell down. He watched from the fire’s edge as I stumbled in the snow. He smiled at that, at how weak I was. I steadied myself on my numb legs to look at him. I thought how he could crush me like a bug, if he wanted to.
“He stared at me, his eyes intense. He leaned toward me, and it seemed he closed the distance between us by half, seemed like he stretched his neck and put his face damn near in mine. With that same smirk, he brought his right hand up and snapped the fingers shut into a tight fist. The fire went out and the square went black. I couldn’t see Jakob, had no idea where he was, had no idea if he was coming closer, or if he had already closed the space between us and stood beside me. I could see nothing, could hear nothing, and I panicked. I turned and broke into the best run I could manage on my aching legs, aiming myself toward where I thought the road was. I stumbled, searching for lights in windows along the square, desperately wanting my eyes to adjust, but too scared to wait for them to do it. I ran blindly, scared that he was behind me, that he was chasing me. I thought my heart might stop. I ran for my life, really.”
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