(Fledge: Applewood Book II - Coming soon to an online retailer near you!)
Slumped against a wall in the darkest corner of a low-slung building, the man dozed fitfully through the stifling heat of the long day. Beside him lay his young nephew, fast asleep beneath the shelter of a filthy tarpaulin. The man had been roused from his slumbers more than once by a sudden loud bleat or a wet honking snort. He soon drifted off again, taking comfort in the certain knowledge that his nephew’s sleep suffered no such interruptions.
The two had abandoned their crippled car about five miles behind. They walked as long as they dared along the steadily brightening highway, then raced toward the nearest available shelter seconds before the first searing rays of the morning sun appeared. The boy’s disease made daylight travel impossible.
He had collapsed the instant the two of them entered the cool darkness of their temporary sanctuary. The man dragged the boy’s limp body through the muck to the rear of the building, where he tucked him gently against the wall. By virtue of the boy’s presence — as did most all of God’s creatures — the fattened pigs gave both man and boy wide berth.
Exhaustion had long ago combined with the stress of their journey to push the man past his known limits. But in those brief moments of interrupted sleep, while waiting for darkness to fall and the boy to awaken, the man let his mind wander. More often of late, he found himself thinking about the sun. He wasn’t well educated, but you couldn’t live in this world without knowing a little something about the sun. What the hell did he know about it anyway? He knew the ancients had worshiped it: Persians, Egyptians, Greeks. The whole lot of them. The Romans had even named a day after it.
Sometimes, he thought the ancients had gotten it right, and the Bible had gotten it wrong, that in the beginning was the sun, and not the Word. It made more sense to him that way. And in his most blasphemous moments, he wondered if the sun itself was God and the ancient legends were true, that those most cursed by Him were doomed forever to wander the earth in eternal darkness, infernal creatures who were never again permitted to set their eyes upon daylight. But in the end, he always rejected that thought out of hand. One thing he knew for sure was that the boy who slept beside him had done nothing to deserve that. Nothing at all.
From somewhere deep within his half-consciousness, an inhuman scream snapped the man fully awake. Wiping the sweat from his eyes, he glanced up to see an enormous black and white sow was now giving him the evil eye. He shrank back in fear for a moment, seconds later grinning stupidly to remember where he was and what had brought him here. He relaxed a little and settled back to watch the pig for a while. For some reason, this pig had separated itself from the . . . what was it again? His logy mind struggled to recall.
A herd? A flock? A crunch?
Whatever the hell it was, this one acted different from the others. None of them had dared venture closer than about twenty feet or so, leaving a kind of semicircular no man’s land between man and beast. But it looked to him now that the monster in question had taken it upon itself to start patrolling the invisible barrier that separated them. And the more the man watched, the more brazen the pig became.
It began scraping its conveniently ham-sized hooves against the dirt as if about to charge, before apparently thinking better of it. But after each abortive attempt, it looked the man in the eye and punctuated its frustration with an earsplitting squeal. And though the man was reasonably certain he was safe while with the boy, he found himself taking a peculiar dislike to this particular pig. The longer he watched it, the more certain he became that the feeling was mutual.
Managing somehow to tear his eyes away from the strange sideshow, he began taking stock of his situation. Rays of sunlight still streamed their way through the myriad cracks in the building, creating tic-tac-toe patterns along the dirt floor and upon the high backs of the pigs. But it seemed that the light was weaker somehow, tired looking, late afternoon sunlight. His bladder calling, the man turned and saw a small doorway cut into the back wall. Crawling over, he raised the latch holding the door shut and went outside.
Unaccustomed to even this weakened daylight, he squinted and blinked a moment, rubbing his eyes before reaching down to drop his zipper. From behind, he heard the occasional sound of a lone car or truck zooming down the highway a few hundred yards away. While emptying his bladder against the cracked foundation, he peered around the corner and saw row upon row of long and low-slung structures identical to the one he and the boy had spent the day in. Overbuilt for housing pigs, he thought.
Shaking off the last few drops, he raised his zipper and strolled around the side of the building. Through the deepening shadows he saw what he was looking for, a rusted spigot jutting out from sun faded yellow trim. He walked over and turned the handle, letting the brown-tinged water run for a while. After it cleared some, he cupped his hands together and began drinking copiously from the cool stream. When fully sated, he plunged his head beneath the now crystal clear liquid and kept it there a while.
His mind was clearer too when he walked out of the shadows and raised his head to the afternoon sky. The sun was low on the western horizon, the diffuse daylight turning the dense, smoky clouds into a kaleidoscope of purples and pinks and oranges. He stood and watched a while in a mute, almost religious awe as the sun sank lower, keeping its daily appointment with the craggy peaks to the west. For the next few minutes, the sky exploded with color. The man had heard about them, even saw pictures in a magazine once. But this was his first Arizona sunset.
When the sun finally went down behind the rugged mountains, he gathered himself enough to get back on his belly and crawl through the small door. While making his way through, a lesson from the Catechism of his boyhood inexplicably popped into his head:
“. . . thou art cursed . . . upon thy belly shalt thou go.”
He resisted the childish urge to bless himself while other memories flooded back.
God sees you Daniel Patrick Proctor!
No, he doesn’t. That was bullshit. Sorry, mom. He didn’t believe in curses. Even with all he now knew and had seen with his own eyes, he still believed in science. And that was where the boy would find his salvation.
Why then do you run from daylight? Why do you sleep with pigs?
Back inside the building, through the twilight shadows he saw the large sow still patrolled her ground. The man shook his head at her audacity while crawling over to his still sleeping nephew. The boy would be awake any moment now. It happened about the same time every night, and for a reason he still could not quite articulate, the man liked to be there when it happened.
Glancing up to reassure himself it was truly dark enough, he reached over and began slowly peeling the tarpaulin away from the boy’s sleeping face. His blondish brown hair appeared first. Boy needs a haircut, the man thought, smiling inwardly. The boy always needed a haircut. At least that much hadn’t changed. As he moved the tarp lower to reveal the boy’s gaunt features, his inward smile began to fade. His heart sank.
If anything, the boy looked even sicker today. His bone white skin was luminescent enough to give off a sallow, unhealthy light of its own. He had lost even more weight overnight, but that was no surprise. The boy refused to eat. He suspected the boy had made a few abortive attempts, even thought the boy might have gone through with it once after he returned from a furtive nighttime outing with what seemed a bit more color in his cheeks. But that had been weeks ago.
Reaching over, he tousled the boy’s hair, drawing away suddenly after running his finger along a nasty groove carved into the right side of his head. Steeling himself, he moved his hand back to run his fingers across the boy’s now misshapen ear. That can be fixed, he thought. The boy had never told him how he had received his injuries. The man had never asked, suspecting the boy himself didn’t quite remember. There simply hadn’t been time to ask the boy’s friends about it, the ones who had cared for him while waiting for his uncle to show up. Of course by then, head wounds were the least of the boy’s problems. While brushing his fingers along the fourteen-year-old’s cheeks, he wondered sadly if the boy would ever be able to grow a beard.
He sighed deeply. There was so much that neither of them knew. Overwhelmed suddenly with love for the boy, despite his recent blasphemy, he closed his eyes and said a clumsy prayer for his sister’s child, realizing only then that the boy was now his only living relative. That thought only jarred him from his prayer and brought a cynical smile to his face. Never much of a praying man anyway, he thought. When he opened his eyes, he was startled to see that sometime during his botched prayer, the boy had also opened his. He drew his hand from the boy’s face to save them both from embarrassment and smiled.
“How you holdin’ up, kid?”
In answer, the boy squeezed his yellowed eyes shut and began shaking violently. The man reached out and lifted the boy to his chest, bringing him close. He was again shocked at just how light he was. Seventy-five pounds, probably. No more than that. The man squeezed his own eyes shut to hold back his tears while gently rocking the sick boy. After a while, the violent shudders and tremulous quakes settled down. He tried to keep his voice from cracking as he spoke.
“You know what it is, son,” he said firmly. “We both know exactly what the problem is. You gotta eat, and that’s all there is to it. Please, Scott. Do it for your Uncle Dan, won’t you boy?” His voice cracked as he continued. “I don’t wanna lose you, boy. You’re all I got. Please, son. You can do it.”
He pulled the boy from his shoulder and looked him straight in the eye. There was still something of the boy he once knew left in those eyes, but there were times you had to look long and deep to find it.
“Do it, Scott,” he pleaded. “Right now. I’ll leave if you want me to. I’ll stay if you want me to. But we’re not leaving here ‘til you eat. Okay?”
After a moment, the boy gave in to his stubbornness and nodded weakly. When he remained still, the man took that as his cue. Laying the boy gently back on the ground, he turned to crawl back through the narrow cubbyhole.
Halfway there, he paused a moment and turned around.
“Scott?” He waited for his nephew to turn and look him in the eye before going on. “Do me a favor, willya?”
The man cocked his head in the direction of the monstrous sow. If anything, the animal had become even more agitated since the boy had awakened. But that was to be expected. The boy appeared to take note of the animal and turned back to his uncle.
“Make sure to get that one. Okay?” the man asked.
After a puzzled moment, the boy nodded. The man returned the nod and winked once before turning to scurry quickly through the door. But he had been heartened to see what might have been just the ghost of a smile appear on the boy’s face.
Once outside, he stood there only long enough to confirm the boy was going through with it. When he began hearing the screams, he walked away from the building to leave the boy alone with his newfound nature.