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       Eldnium, p.8

           Enoch Pyle, Jr
Jackson watched a single snow crystal flurry its way through the air. It moved slowly, dancing around the suggestion of gravity like a child on a merry-go-round. But the bitter, February wind swept it from the sky, from above the world and its problems, and forced it to settle on the top of his mother's casket. And it melted there, right below a bundle of white tulips. To its left, a priest muttered, "Amen," and signaled for the casket to be lowered into place, deep within the cemetery floor.

  The crowd began to stir, separating into individuals, ready to get back to their normal lives…ready to forget. Aunt Nancy made her way toward Jackson, her arms picking up the sides of her dress so as to keep it from dragging in the snow. She grabbed his head and pulled him toward her chest, hugged him, stroked his hair, kissed his cheeks, said, "You aren't alone, Jackson," and finally gave him one last tear-coated kiss on the mouth. And then she was gone, already catching up to the rest of the group, and Jackson stood alone, facing what now appeared to be nothing more than a big, square hole in the ground.

  A hand landed on Jackson's shoulder, squeezing a little before relaxing. It was wide and strong. Comforting. "Take your time, Jackson," Officer Thorpe said, his voice low and gruff. "Let me know when you're ready."

  Jackson nodded and stared emptily into the dark and lifeless hole. He didn't know how long he was supposed to stand there, staring at the grave that held his dead mother's lifeless corpse. He figured there was something he should have been feeling, or maybe something he should have been saying. But the breath to speak wouldn't come easily. An emptiness had devoured him over the last four days. It was worse than loneliness. Isolation.

  He stood long enough to feel okay about walking away and leaving his mother to rot beneath the ground, if ever someone could feel okay about such a thing. Then, he turned his back to the grave and looked for Officer Thorpe, who had already made his way across the cemetery and to his patrol car. Jackson took a deep breath and followed the footprints the officer had left in the snow.

  Thorpe was leaning against the back half of his car, his body so wide that it covered enough of the letters in "Protect and Serve" so that it read just "P…erve".

  "Ready?" Thorpe asked. Jackson nodded. "Okay, then, let's go."

  Thorpe walked around the back of the car and squeezed himself into the driver's seat. Jackson opened the passenger door, sat down, took one last look toward his mother's grave, and closed the door. It made a thud, and Jackson suddenly had an urge to jump out of the car and run. Not to anywhere in particular, but to just run until he puked. But before he could put a hand on the lever, Thorpe fired up the cruiser's engine and started inching away from the curb.

  Jackson fastened his seatbelt and stared out the window.

  "I figure we'll go by your house, first. Pack some things. Then head on over to Tom and Judy's house."

  Jackson, still staring out the window, nodded. "Okay."

  "You have a lot of people that love you, Jackson, but taking in another child is a big responsibility. The Saples…they're good people. They'll take good care of you until we find something more permanent." Jackson didn't respond, so Thorpe continued, "And they've got that big house. Lots of stuff to do out there, you know? They keep horses, lots of climbing trees…you like to climb trees, don't you?"

  Jackson shook his head. "I'm not really into the outdoors."

  "Well, I reckon the Saples will change your mind. I know they plan a big camping trip every spring, and they're really looking forward to having you with them."

  "I don't think I'll be there that long. Aunt Nancy will come for me. Or somebody will come for me. They won't just leave me with strangers. Not until spring, they won't."

  Though he knew that none of Jackson's family intended to take Jackson into their homes—to make him a permanent fixture, a Christmas Card attendee—Thorpe didn't argue. "Well, I'm sure they'll have something you'll enjoy."

  They sat in silence for awhile, and Jackson dazed out the window, watching the trees blur by. As they approached town, small shops started stretching along the sides of the street, and a handful of people scurried about the sidewalks, arms curled around their chests, winter coats tied tight.

  Thorpe began to slow the cruiser in anticipation for the intersection ahead. The intersection. It was spotless now, as if nothing had ever happened. The street was clear of debris, the telephone pole had already been replaced. And as the cruiser's wheels squeaked to a halt, Jackson's stomach began to churn. His palms began to sweat.

  Thorpe must have noticed. "They say everything happens for a reason, Jackson. Not just the good things, but the bad things, too. That sometimes the world just knows how to keep itself balanced, and what looks bad now always works out for the best."

  To Jackson, that was bull crap. "That's not balanced. If things always turn out good, I mean. That's not balanced." He turned and looked into Officer Thorpe's eyes. "My mom is dead. My family deserted me. You can't balance that…" Jackson stared emptily out the window, ignoring that he knew…really knew that his family was gone. Even the ones still living.

  Thorpe didn't respond; he had nothing to say. It just wasn't something with which a person could argue. Jackson was right. The world didn't matter. Only people mattered, and if you take people away…well, you take away the world. It was the truth, and Thorpe knew it. So he drove in silence, leaving Jackson to his thoughts.

  Two more turns and a mile of suburban asphalt led them to Jackson's house, and as they pulled into the drive, Jackson started to wonder what would happen to the house once he was gone and it was empty. His mother was a hard worker but underpaid, and the house had at least two mortgages. As he and Thorpe exited the vehicle and walked up the sidewalk to the front porch, Jackson muscled the courage to ask, "What will happen to my house?"

  "Well, you're a minor, so I'd imagine that you're not responsible for any of your mother's debt. But you are the sole beneficiary to her estate. I reckon they'll attempt to sell the house and belongings…any leftovers will most likely be put into a trust fund…something you can tap into when your 18th birthday rolls around. There will probably be a lot of red tape, but you won't have to worry about any of that."

  Jackson pictured his mother's clothing being sold at consignment, her favorite necklace dangling from a rusty screw in the back room of a run down and moldy flea market. The realization of how the world moves on…ruthlessly…it was new to him.

  The wind picked up, and he shivered. "Can I go in alone?" he asked.

  "Of course," Thorpe answered. "Take your time. We don't have to be to the Saples' house until six o'clock."

  Jackson nodded as he put a foot on the first step of the porch. The reality of what he was about to do was starting to sink in. But he sucked up the courage to continue upward, onto the porch and toward the front door.

  He reached into his pocket for the key his mother had given him back when she worked evenings at the Shop'n Smart. It had a green rubber grip around its base, and Jackson hated the way it stuck to the inside of his pocket, making it a chore to retrieve. But after some pulling and wriggling, he managed to get the key free and the door unlocked.

  He opened the door and stepped inside.

  The house was dark and smelled musty (probably because the curtains were closed) and a little rotten (because the kitchen trash was about 4 days old). He reached over and flipped the light switch to the "on" position, but nothing happened. No power. He wondered how his mother's family could have already turned off her electricity. It didn't seem right. If they weren't willing to take in Jackson, at least they could pay her electric bill until he'd officially moved out.

  He stood for a moment, letting his eyes adjust, and then continued down the hallway, thinking that his footsteps sounded too loud…or maybe that the house was too quiet. Either way, he hated being there now. Even if given the opportunity to stay, he'd have to move out. He could still smell his mother's perfume over the rotten trash, and it made him feel sick to his stomach. How could he stay in
a place that made him feel so terrible inside?

  He reached the end of the hallway, the door to his room on his right, and the door to his mother's room on his left. He pushed open his door and looked inside. It was what you'd expect for a boy his age, adorned with all the typical 12-year old garb. There was a poster of basketball on the wall and a baseball glove and ball on the shelf above his bed. Various other sports and camping accessories littered the room, but none of it was his. It had all belonged to his father. Jackson didn't care for sports, but there wasn't much left to help Jackson remember his dad, so he kept such things in lieu of memories.

  Jackson picked a backpack up off the floor. It was heavy. There was a math book inside…a history book, too. He tried not to think about the work he was missing and the catching up he'd be doing come Monday. He set the pack on his mattress and then knelt to the floor and pulled a duffle bag from beneath the bed.

  It was empty, so he unzipped it and started packing it with clothes from the dresser. Beneath the window beside his bed was his nightstand. He saw lying on top of it the pocket knife his dad had given him before his final and fatal tour of duty. He walked over and picked it up, feeling the weight of it in his hand, the carbon fiber grip against his fingers. He turned to pack it away but was interrupted by a low, guttural rumble from the street outside. He stuck two fingers into the blinds and parted them so that he could better see out.

  Outside, a convoy of large, black SUVs cruised down the street, nearing Jackson's house. A siren was mounted to the roof of the leading vehicle, but instead of blaring like a police siren, it sprayed forth the low pitched groan that seemed to shake walls and rattle teeth.

  Jackson watched as Thorpe stepped off the porch and toward the street, ready to investigate the disturbance. As Thorpe neared the curb, the convoy began to slow, the lead vehicle stopping just in front of him. The siren was still groaning, deeply, barely audible but noisy all the same. Snow flurries were still sifting through the air as the rear door of the vehicle opened, and a man stepped out, wearing black coveralls with a white emblem on the shoulder and a gas mask with similarly white filters jutting from its mouthpiece. Jackson didn't recognize the symbol on the coveralls. It wasn't a letter or picture, and it didn't seem to be any recognizable logo. It was just a series of lines arranged in a particular fashion.

  The man approached Thorpe, and Jackson could see Thorpe speaking, though he couldn't make out the words over the grumbling undertone of the siren. And just as a fleck of light bounced off the police shield Thorpe proudly wore on the breast pocket of his blue and gray uniform, the man in the mask lifted a handgun and shot Thorpe through the face.

  Blood streamed from the back of Thorpe's head and sprinkled flecks of red onto the snow, around a larger, chunkier splatter, like stars around a black sun.

  Jackson screamed, but he didn't realize he was screaming until the man in the mask looked directly at the window in which Jackson was standing. Jackson dropped to the floor, sat with his back against the wall, took a couple deep and panicked breaths, and then peeked out the window again, his breath fogging up the glass.

  The man in the mask was still staring in Jackson's direction, but now more men were climbing out of the different vehicles. Some were messing with Thorpe's body, checking his pockets, taking his gun. Others were heading toward the house.

  They were coming, and they were coming for Jackson.

  Without thinking, he started moving. He grabbed his backpack and spilled its contents onto the floor. The books hit with a thud. The pencils and pens bounced and rolled across the hardwood. He took a clean shirt and stuffed it into the bag, along with the pocket knife his dad had given him.

  He threw the bag over his shoulders and started running. He knew that he'd have to go back through the living room to get to the back door, and so he turned down the hall, still running. But before he could make it to the end of the hallway, he heard the front door burst open. He saw bits of the wooden door frame litter the living room floor. And though he couldn't see the front door itself, he could see a shaft of light blasting into the room with dust dancing through it like snowflakes. And he could hear their footsteps, the sounds of their guns clanking as they rushed into his home, their boots splashing melting snow onto his mother's new rug.

  He skidded in an attempt to stop but slipped and fell onto his butt. He clambered around and made his way back to his feet, running toward his mother's bedroom. Her room sat on the back side of the house, with large windows that overlooked the back yard. He figured he could still get out if he could just make it that far. But now they were behind him. He could hear bullets whizzing past him, but not the sound of gunshots. Maybe his adrenaline was running too rich to make room for the sound of gunfire. Maybe they were using silencers.

  It didn't matter. A sharp pain struck his leg, and he almost fell. His shoulder hit the frame of the door leading into his mother's room, and he managed to slip inside and slam the door behind him. The pain was excruciating, but already subsiding.

  His mother's hutch sat next to her bedroom door. In it she kept jewelry, hair accessories, girl stuff. He grabbed it at the bottom and flipped it up to it's side, blocking the door. It was surprisingly light weight—cheap—but it crashed to the floor with a bang, spilling jewelry and nicknacks to the floor around it.

  Jackson started toward the window, but a bottle of his mother's perfume caught the corner of his eye. It was purple with a white cap and a little rose etched into the front of the glass. It had spilled to the floor with the rest of the clutter, and Jackson stopped just long enough to pick it up.

  One of the masked intruders smashed into the door. It almost gave way. The entire hutch rocked forward before settling into place and forcing the door closed again. Jackson made his way to the window, threw the latch, and pulled it open.

  There were more attempts at bursting through the door. Jackson ignored them, tossed the perfume into the bag and then chucked the backpack out the window. He put both hands on the windowsill and hoisted himself up. He tried to swing his leg out, but didn't get it high enough—

  Duh, he thought, I've been shot.

  —and he toppled out the window and fell to the cold, hard ground outside.

  And then he ran. There was an old factory up north of town, and that's where he was heading. He went there for solitude when his dad was killed, and again when his mother died. It was safe there, he hoped. Hidden, at least.

  He made his way block-by-block across town, noticing that the stoplights weren't working and that the streets were empty of cars and pedestrians, but ignoring the significance such a detail might hold. He was doing his best to run—to hurry, at least—but his leg was beginning to send a sharp pain up his spine, and his speed was growing more sluggish by the minute. He didn't have time to stop and look at the damage to his leg, but he figured the impact from the bullet must have been just a graze, a flesh wound right at the back of his calf. The pain was bad and the factory still about a mile away, but he didn't have to go that far. He just had to make it to the storm drain. And he could see its large metal opening gaping out of the side of a snowy hill just about 50 yards down the street.

  The groan of the siren that brought the death of Officer Thorpe grew louder behind Jackson as he hurried toward the mouth of the drain. He didn't know if they were looking for him or just continuing along their way. In fact, he didn't know what they were doing in his town in the first place. He couldn't figure out why they would kill an officer of the law in cold blood, right in the middle of a quiet, suburban neighborhood. And the gas masks…why gas masks? Was this some kind of quarantine? Jackson didn't know, and figured the answers could wait until he was in a safe place…until he could tend to his leg.

  He crossed the street and felt his leg go numb, little ant-like prickles that ran up to his waist and disappeared, leaving a useless limb dangling from his hip. He fell forward, unsuccessfully using his hands to brace himself against the ground, and cracked his
head against the sidewalk.

  The siren was getting deeper, louder, closer. He dragged himself to his feet and hobbled down the embankment and across the spillway, dragging his numb leg, leaving a footprint and snake track in the snow behind him. As he approached the raised drain, he could hear bits of rock and debris vibrating against the metal. It was the siren. It was bone trembling.

  He pulled his bag from his shoulders and tossed it up into the drain, hoisting himself in after it. He shimmied and writhed with all his might, only to get waist deep. Both legs were completely numb. He couldn't move them. Had he lost that much blood? He looked back, out of the drain. There was no blood on the ground, just his tracks through the snow.

  Then, he noticed the first of a train of black vehicles coming around the corner two blocks down the road. He dug his fingers into the corrugated metal and pulled with all his remaining strength, tearing the nail from his right index finger and just barely dragging his feet into the drain before the men in the vehicles were able to spot him. And then his arms went numb, his eyes grew heavy, and the world turned to black.

  Day Two

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