I take a drink from a moonshine glass, and soon everything is right as rain.
We are sitting in plastic yard chairs, Bill, Theodore, and I, resting beneath the boys' canopy as the rain falls, heavy and hot like it always does this time of year. The boys have a statue on their lawn that has been there for at least fifty years or so, and you can always tell when the rain is bad because that hunk of copper will start to run its colors; it bleeds pale, rusty blue. It's some lady holding a torch with her right hand and clutching a book in her left. Her crown chipped off long ago—Bill and Theodore always have to keep a watch on the lady, since copper is precious, and some of their errant shots have done more harm than good—and yet she still has a regal air, like she'd be a queen, crown or no. The boys call her their good wife, the one who stuck around. Betty ran off with a mutant salesman about year or two ago, having tired of serving two ornery alcoholic husbands, and she must have really desired an escape, because her salesman certainly wasn't a looker with his forked tail and clubbed feet. Not that Bob and Theodore are lookers—Bob's got a nasty scar that splits his bottom lip in the left corner, and Theo's got a goiter the size of a golf ball—but they are not bad for our part of the Greater Kentucky Wasteland. Hell, Cletus, our mayor, is a hermaphrodite. I think that's the reason most of us voted for him. We all figured he'd get the job done without getting distracted by the temptations of his position, though we were all wrong on that, I must admit. Still, Cletus protects our precious drinking water. He makes sure the militia is well-armed. So I find no fault with him.
The boys have let me taste their new batch, clear and sharp as a mountain stream, and I find that the shine helps put my problems in a lesser light. Rita, my red-haired wife, fades into the warm murky drowsiness of the afternoon drink, and her screams, once as sharp and cutting as the steel blade on my hip, grow quieter and quieter as I relax and listen to the chirp of the pterosaurs. One of brutes stretches its twenty-foot wings and yawns lazily, the rain sloughing off its long, jagged beak. Bill used to shoot at them because they shit all over his yard, but that got expensive, and now he just lets them perch in the maple trees, only firing off a shot when they get too numerous. They tend to roost in the ruins of the old theme park that lies to the west of our town, and it’s been hypothesized that they originated there. Ralph Jefferson took a posse through the ruins and came back telling tales of an aviary and gigantic enclosures that house the bones of monsters; Ralph’s a bit of a loon, though, so I don’t know how much to believe, especially considering that not one of his posse returned. “Monsters got ‘em,” he says, and he shows everybody a booklet he pocketed from the theme park, and that’s how we knew what to call these giant flying lizards. They are not violent as far as I can tell, although I’ve seen them carry off small dogs and cats. I’m more scared of Ralph, since he’s suspected of associating with bandits and worse.
“Well I’m about done here,” I say to the boys, stretching my legs and grabbing my rain jacket from a hook hanging on their trailer. “You know I owe you a bushel of greenies. You all collect whenever you feel like it.”
“Greenies? I kinda want some sweeter apples, not them shriveled little ones,” says Bill.
“They all shriveled and little, but I like them yella ones. Those are sweet,” proclaims Theo.
“They’re later in the season,” I say, wanting to hold on to my best-tasting fruit. “You gentlemen can make a good shine out of the greenies. I have plenty of them, and the price is certainly right.”
“We wouldn’t rob a man of his livelihood,” says Theo. “Bring us a bushel of greenies next time.”
“I’d like some meat if you have any. You can get a lot of shine for a couple pounds of meat,” says Bill.
“All the meat is spoken for,” I say, thinking of my poor, feeble cattle. “I’ll sell you some of Brea’s meat, but you know, half of her insides are her outsides, and some people refuse to eat unnatural beef.”
“It don’t matter,” responds Bill. “Nothin’ around here’s natural.”
I leave the boys and take the road back to my place. There are red ferns everywhere drinking in the acid rain, wriggling their tentacles over the moistened earth, and I think about how Theo claims they weren’t always like that according to his grandfather, who passed away about sixty years ago, and who always harbored an intense nostalgia for the postwar world. Everyone has their family stories; many have documents, pictures, ancient computers. These artifacts are ghosts, seen occasionally but not necessarily believed-in, since they contrast with what one experiences constantly on a daily basis. My wife refuses to believe that cats ever had fewer than five legs, and I can’t really blame her, since I’ve never seen a four-legged cat. I can, however, entertain the possibility of a four-legged feline, and I think this difference illustrates the main problem of our marriage.
When I reach our house, I'm surprised to see Cletus standing on my front porch, a grim look on his narrow visage. Cletus has a long, leonine face with a prominent cleft chin, the latter being the source of an unfortunate nickname ("Mayor Butt-face") often repeated among his detractors, of which there are many. It is not easy being a hermaphrodite with a butt-chin, even in a mutant-friendly community, and such difficulties have given our mayor a hang-dog disposition. I walk up to Mr. Morose (my own nickname for Cletus) and place my hand on his shoulder. He's wearing a wide-brimmed hat that he bartered off some Western trader for way too much (there are no secrets in Halley's Well), though it does look good on him, and I tell him so.
"Thanks," he says. "Ellis, I hate to be the bearer of bad news..."
"Shine?" I offer, pushing the jar toward him.
"Ellis, I'm just gonna say it..."
"Well come inside first," I tell him, opening the screen door. "I won't have bad news delivered on my front porch."
Cletus shuffles in, taking off his hat. My home is more than a little cluttered, for Rita is a pack rat, always having me haul junk from some old barn or cellar to store in our house so that we have to bend and crawl through the halls of our home like gophers. She says the stuff comforts her, though I don't know how a red-rusted plow sitting in what should be our dining room gives her any reassurance. She'd like to be an artifact hunter, I know, but I won't have her out in the wastes with its many dangers, and besides, we haven't any money for a decent HAZMAT suit.
I motion for Cletus to sit down in a rocking chair that Rita recently restored. I plop my ass down on a baby-blue colored stool and take a long sip of shine. Cletus and I are friends, but I'm not a confidant of his, and I can only assume that the bad news is of a personal nature.
"Well, what is it?" I ask.
"It's Rita. She's gone."
I stare down at the wood floor, noticing the various scuff marks and scars. "Who'd she leave with?"
"No one. She was taken by bandits. A couple of 'em posed as traders and left early this morning. Ralph Jefferson is missing, along with three women, one being your wife. I don't know how they got the women out without anyone knowing. I'm assuming Ralph was an associate of theirs, which really hurts me, Ellis, you gotta know. Everyone was suspect of Ralph. I should've kicked him out a year ago. You have my deepest condolences. I know words can't make a right. But all the same, I'm sorry."
I look at Cletus and try not to put it all on him. I have to ask the obvious.
"Why would they want her?"
"She's pretty, Ellis. She ain't got any visible mutation. I hate to say it, but they either want her for themselves, or they're selling her to someone in the West."
"You didn't send anyone after them?"
"We don't have the resources, you know that. You know how many towns have been pillaged? This could be a feint. It probably ain't, but it could be, and I have to consider the town above all. I'm sorry. All we can do is pray."
"Goddamn politicians," I say. "All you can give me is impotence. 'All we can do is pray.' Is that really true? What you mean is that that's all you will do."
Cletus is admiring the condition of my hardwood floor, it would seem. He sighs and looks up at me with sad, baggy eyes.
"You're the first husband I've told. I have two fathers to speak to, and I don't suspect it will be any easier. I'm gonna leave. I tell you again, I'm sorry."
"Who are these bandits, and where were they heading?"
"I can't in good conscience tell you. They're a big group with automatic weapons, and they have a reputation for being cruel. That should be enough. There's no sense wasting another life."
I jump up and grab him by the lapels and throw him against the wall. "We're talking about my wife, you goddamn hermaphrodite!" I yell, lifting him up off the floor. I'm a big man, and the mayor is not. "Tell me what you know!"
"They call themselves the Harmony Joy Ride," sputters Cletus, his eyes darting and wild. "They're based out by Happy Fun Land somewhere. Now put me down, goddamnit! I didn't take your wife."
I drop Cletus and back up, fuming. A red tinge has covered everything in sight, which means a storm is coming. Outside great crimson colored cloud formations boom and thunder, promising wrath and radiation. I tell Cletus to get out of here before the winds start.
"Don't go after her," he says, putting his hat on and stepping out on the front porch. "I don't have an orchardist to replace you."
"Get the hell outta here," I yell, slamming my fists into the wall. "Don't tell me what to do."
Cletus leaves, and I'm left staring out at the storm on my doorstep.