by: Chris Thompson
Part Three of Chris Thompson’s cautionary environmental tale, Perla…. ((The art used throughout this series is by the prolific and talented Anders Tomlinson))
When the first gunshots rang out, wrenching me awake from another dreamless sleep, I was taken completely by surprise. Van, on the other hand, was one step ahead of me. Had always been a step ahead of me, I surmised upon reflection. Launching myself to the window, I could see him crouching down in the early morning fog and rain, half-hidden behind the rusting water drum in Perla’s pen. He had my old Winchester and was firing round after round into the soft mud in front of the same trio of approaching Scrappers.
Thunk! Thunk! Thunk! went the mud, the thick layers of water-logged earth absorbing the force of each blast with a sickly-wet sound. The moist spray of muck and gravel was splattering in front of the advancing chicanos like artillery fire impacting with the ground, the portly marauders having to throw their arms up in self-defense. Without thinking, I flew down the house’s back stairs, my limp forgotten, and grabbed my loaded .45 and the flannel-lined raincoat I kept by the kitchen door. Consumed by the thought of losing my only friend, I jumped into my galoshes and flung myself out the back, the screen door slamming shut against the house with a powerful Whap! Bursting into the low-hanging mists of the early dawn, I was taken aback by how delicate and ethereal the ground cover was. As I charged forward, the mists parted effortlessly around me, their thin gossamer strands retreating to the halcyon state they occupied before my intrusion upon the morning haze.
“Van!” I yelled out, shouting to be heard over the serial roar of the shotgun. My vision narrowed. A fervor of fear washed over me and the world quickly went mute. Each droplet of time, like the relentless icy rain, slowed to a crawl and the successive salvo’s belching from the Winchester appeared trapped in time. Perla was there too, snarling in the shadowy corner of her pen, her back hunched and fur raised, the abrupt silence of her snapping jaws looking as fearsome as the fury being thrown from the shotgun. My eyes went from friend to foe, my body calcified to inaction as if turned to stone, the .45 dangling limply in my frigid hand, suddenly forgotten. A shout wrenched me from my stupor and all at once the world sped back up, the pace of reality rushing back into my head with a vociferous tone, threatening to overwhelm me until I realized that it was I who was doing all the shouting.
Van’s suppressive fire had been driving the Scrappers back effectively, preventing them from fighting back or returning fire. Each well-aimed shot was a sheepdog herding the thieving flock away. The final volley blew out their idling van’s brake light, sending the trio caroming into each other as they tumbled into its yawning side-door. A moment later the sliding door slammed shut and the van’s engine roared to life with a protesting growl, sending the Scrappers speeding off into the early dawn, its balding tires screeching on the wet asphalt as they disappeared over the rise in the road.
“Like I said, they’re a swarm of locusts through a crop of wheat!” Van hollered, emerging from Perla’s pen to stand besides me at the top of the driveway. He had a look of immense satisfaction and amusement on his face, like he had enjoyed our encounter with the thieves.
For the second time in as many weeks my heart was racing, fighting to extricate itself from my chest. I met Van’s gaze with a panicked stare. The .45 was still clutched tightly in my hand, my arm slightly raised and its barrel pointing down the street, after the retreating thieves. There followed a tense moment in which no one spoke and I began to feel the chill of the morning mist through the thin flannel of my pajamas and my open coat. Suddenly I was very cold.
“What the fuck was that all about?” I yelled, bringing my hands up to my hair, brushing it back from my sleep-weary eyes with shaking fingers. I realized I still had the .45 in my hand and I stuffed it in the pocket of my overcoat, zipping the jacket up against the chill of the approaching dawn.
“Life is like a hornets nest, Winst. Sometimes you gotta’ get in there and poke it with a stick.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? The last thing we want is trouble and now you’ve gone and started shooting at them? I thought you said they weren’t coming back!”
“I lied. It was for your own benefit. You’re no good in these types of situations. I merely told you what you wanted to hear. The fact that you believed it just proves how wrapped up in your own fantasy world you are. How unwilling you are to accept the reality about you. Look around. I mean really look around. The world’s gone to shit. When’s the last time you saw a cop, or a mailman, or a garbage truck or anything resembling authority or organized rule? There is none. We’re on our own out here. These neighborhoods are the new Wild West and we’re the natives being overrun by these metal-thieving fools. The sooner you realize that the better off we’ll be.”
“Fuck you. Don’t do me any more favors. You should have told me what you had planned. We could have discussed it rationally. Come to a mutual decision about how to respond.”
“You mean hide. C’mon, I know you. I know how you think. Yeah, you’ve built this home, this bastion against the end of the world, and you’ve stocked it to the hilt with enough food and supplies to last years. But that isn’t enough. No wall, no matter how strong or how high you build it, will ever be enough to keep the world at bay.”
“But….” I tried to interrupt.
“No! You have to listen to me! Because in the end, it’s the truth that will decide our fate. Not these walls or the thickness of your front door. The world isn’t going to come to an end today and it isn’t going to end tomorrow. It’s gonna take time and it’s gonna’ be rough. A long, slow slog. An ugly fight to the death, with the weak and timid ground under the boot heels of the violent and the strong.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“We’re going to wear the boot! We’re going to fight back! We’re going to come at them with everything we got. First, we’ll hit ‘em with our bullets. And when we run out of bullets, we’ll throw at them our guns. And then, when we’re out of guns, we’ll come at them with stones and knives and then our fists and sharpened teeth. And after all that, when we have nothing left, we’ll still come at them, pummeling them with our bones and haunting the remainder of their worthless days.”
“But why? Why? We could easily just pack it all in. Set Perla free and head for the safety of the relocation centers. I saw on the newsfeeds that they just opened one in Seattle. We’re not young men anymore like we were in Alaska. Why should we fight”
“Why? You want to know why? Because that’s how it has to be! That’s the unspoken contract you and I entered into – whether you’re aware of it or not – when you asked me to come down here. We have each other when so many left alive in this world are alone and forgotten. That still has to stand for something. I’ll be damned if I’m gonna’ roll over and let anyone take that away from me. From us. Loneliness and fear are a powerful force in this shit new world, but love and conviction are just as strong. Stronger even.”
I was at a loss for words. I stood there in the rosy-gray morning, the rains of the expanding dawn beginning to splash their swollen droplets all around. Gradually, the raindrops on Perla’s steel roof once again began playing their hollow melody for me.
Was Van right? Could there be another way? Could we survive in this new reality and fight?
“Well, I’ll be damned!” Van exclaimed, his jovial tone invading my thoughts like a stone crashing through a plate of glass. He was squatting down in the mud beside the driveway, peering at the ground with an amused look on his face. “Look! That’s blood,” he said, holding up two fingers. They were coated in a slimy combination of crimson and brown. “I think I nicked one of ‘em. That’ll teach these bastards a lesson about messing with us, right?”
“What!?” I yelled, waving my hands over my head in disbelief, incredulous that it had come to this. Any chance of seeing things Van’s way had evaporated instantly. “Did you have to shoot at them? You know they’re not just going to walk away now. It’s a matter of pride with these chicanos. I heard all about it on the news. Its some kinda’ code or whatever. You can bet that the second they’ve licked their wounds, they are going come back at us. And hard.”
“I told you, let them come. I’m not afraid. Perla ain’t afraid either,” Van said, rubbing the blood-tinged earth between his finger and his thumb, admiring its essence like it was some precious gem he had pulled from the earth. “What’s a few overweight scrap thieves who think they’re tough gonna do once the people they’re stealing from start shooting back? And even if they do come back, there’s plenty of abandoned houses for them to snoop around in. We’re barely a nuisance. A tiny fly on this big scrap pile of shit. I’d sooner see a bald eagle crawl out from whatever pit of extinction humanity sent it to then see these amateurs come bother us again.”
I turned to face him, my fists tight little balls of potential energy buried in the pockets of my coat. My voice was as icy as the sleeting winter rain when I spoke. “For as smart as you are, you can be really stupid sometimes. You should listen to yourself talk. One moment you’re wild-eyed and ready to fight, telling me that it’s Us against Them. The next moment, it’s like you’re on damage control, trying to calm my fears by telling me that these guys won’t come bother us again. I really think you’ve come a bit loose, Van. I mean, maybe it’s all this rain. Or being cooped up inside the goddamn house all the time like Perla in her cage. Except our cage has food and lights and warmth but you know what? It’s still a cage. I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I really want you to listen to me because I’m going to make things perfectly clear: Things are different now. Everything’s changed and there’s no going back. We’re no longer safe here and I’ll be damned if I’m going to die tryin’ to stop these bastards the next time they come around.”
I marched quickly past Van, back into the silent protection of the empty house. I took a seat at the kitchen table and stared off into the distance for awhile, not really focusing on anything. As I sat, I could hear Van outside, talking to Perla as he busied himself with whatever he was doing in the yard. The rains were falling steadily now, fat swollen droplets that sounded out their familiar melody on the new roof of Perla’s pen. I closed my eyes and tried to get a handle on the swirling thoughts within my mind. But all I could think about was Sarah and Helen, and about how much I missed them and wished that they were there by my side.
To Be Continued….