I glanced back into our pickup’s bed. Light was fading, and I couldn’t fight the urge. Don’t, my father said. An unanchored end of our tarp rippled beneath the faces of Mr. and Mrs. Hammond. The Hammonds had worked the land alongside ours for five generations. Mrs. Hammond sang first soprano in the church choir. Mr. Hammond often helped plow our drive in exchange for fresh coffee and one of my mother’s biscuits. We sped toward town, my father’s foot heavy and the roads our way deserted. Just over the creek bridge, we hit a bump. Damn squirrels, my father spat. The Hammonds convulsed, once, then again, before settling back into their rhythmic trembling. Hideous bruises circled their bloated necks, testaments to their pained, internal strangulation.
Yes, sir. I turned back in my seat. Think we’ll make it?
We’ll do our best. He squinted at the setting sun and stepped on the gas. The engine chugged and complained as the speedometer inched higher.
At the checkpoint we took our place at the end of a line twenty, maybe thirty-deep. Machine gun-toting guards marched up the shoulder, their thick-soled boots harsh and crunching over the roadside stones. Thank God, my father sighed when they passed. The guards took up a position behind us, the incoming cars and trucks turned back, the protesters dispersed with bursts of warning fire. Horns blew when the guards waved a garbage truck to the front, but then the guards turned their gunners’ eyes on us. Since the Sector General announced the bodies for ration cards exchange, the municipals’ garbage haulers and ten-wheel dump trucks had been swarmed by a misfit armada, entrepreneurs in delivery vans and pickups and shimmying, sardine-packed trailers. But we were country people, the Hammonds’ silo only visible from our porch after the maples had dropped their leaves, and this was our first visit to one of the valley’s biological disposal centers.
A crow descended upon the flatbed idling in front of us and began pecking at the cordwood-stacked bodies. Others swiftly followed. My father beeped the horn, but the crows wouldn’t spook. The nearest one latched onto a tiny arm and yanked a doll-sized body from the pile. My father climbed out. He flapped his arms, yelled, but the birds, as familiar with death now as we were, refused to scatter until he began hurling stones. He stopped by our pickup’s bed and pulled the tarp over the Hammonds. By the time he’d settled behind the wheel, the birds had returned. Their landing – its inevitability, the odd grace of flapping wings – disturbed me more than their heartless scavenging.
We tied rags over our faces, the stench worse than what we’d discovered in the fly-buzzing stillness of the Hammonds’ house. The soldiers behind us smoked cigarettes, sometimes laughing between puffs. Twice I leaned out the window and vomited. My father patted my back. We’ll get through this, son.
Finally, the guards waved us through the checkpoint gates. Just inside the fence, we passed the trailers common to construction sites, a lineup of portable toilets, hastily erected sheds. Overhead, crows circled and cawed, and as we neared the yawning pit gouged into the earth, I saw hundreds more feasting in the gruesome maw. Civilian workers made anonymous by ventilators and masks waved us to our place along the pit’s edge. One of the men approached my window. Goggles pressed around his eyes, the plastic coated with a fine, dirt scrim. He handed me two ration packets and a government brochure full of cartoon pictures and simple sentences entitled Staying Safe in Times of Plague. Two pit workers clambered into our bed, and the pickup’s worn shocks sagged beneath their weight. With a nudge of the passenger side’s mirror, I spied on their well-rehearsed hurling of first Mrs. and then Mr. Hammond’s bodies over the bed’s gate and into the pit.
My father shifted the pickup into gear, our exodus halted as a trio of fire trucks rolled through the front gate. Their backing sirens chirping, the fire trucks jockeyed into position around the pit, the paradox of the new order confirmed by the arcing gasoline streams they rained down over the pit’s stiff limbs. A low, black cloud of fleeing crows flapped over our heads. A sergeant barked orders while soldiers worked in pairs to strap on their flame throwers.
The checkpoint’s gates swung shut behind us. Most of the trucks sped back toward town, nightfall’s curfew looming, the dust swirling in their wake, but we joined another group that had parked on a hilltop a half mile from the pit. Some sat on hoods; most, like us, remained in their cars, all of us silent as the first angry fireball leapt skyward. Even at this distance, the fire warmed our faces, the dancing flames both horrible and mesmerizing. One of the circling crows burst into flames, a wandering spark colliding with gasoline-wet feathers. The bird spiraled down and disappeared into the pit.
Let’s go, my father said and started the truck.
Two months later, on the day my mother and sister died, I helped my father drag their bodies to the field behind the barn. We each held a wrist, and with every bump and rut, their heads nodded, silently, knowingly, my sister’s long black hair tracing the grass like a bride’s silky train, my mother’s right eye opened as if taking in the homestead she so loved one last time. We laid them side by side. I smoothed out their dresses and picked the grass and hay from their hair while my father folded their hands over their bellies and tried once again to close my mother’s eye. We knelt by their heads and prayed, but now it was my turn to open an eye, my pleas to God undermined by the sight of their tortured necks, the memory of their gasping, desperate breaths these past four days. The sun, swelled and orange as it sank behind the ridge, cast a muted light as we retreated to the barn. Some folks will have a lot to answer for when this is over, my father said. He grabbed the gas can, kissed my forehead, and suggested I take a bike ride before bed.
I pedaled down our stone drive, then onto the deserted country two-lane that snaked toward the ridge. At a spot marked by a trailhead’s packed dirt, I veered onto the steep, forest-hemmed path that led to the old fire tower. Pines and hemlocks and towering oaks knitted a green tunnel above me. The first fireflies blinked their welcomes. When the grade became too steep, I climbed off and walked my bike up the trail. Squirrels and chipmunks and toads bounded ahead of me. In the flickering spaces between the trees’ trunks, I spotted tan deer hides, and the retreat of trampled brush and snapped branches followed me up the hill.
I thought of my father’s words and wondered who would have to a lot to answer for when all the dying stopped. Perhaps he meant the martial law police, men who’d enforced their brutal quarantines by blowing up bridges and barricading roads, who’d halted food shipments to towns they deemed beyond hope. Maybe he’d had the hospitals in mind, their doors locked to the flocking thousands but, it was rumored, opened to the powerful and wealthy, their arrivals made via helicopter in the dead of night. He could have meant the civil authorities who’d seized the radio and television stations, the airwaves flooded with lies repeated so often they evolved into ugly, hollow truths. Or maybe he was thinking of us, the survivors left to clean up after the last fires died.
Sweating, my heart thumping softly in my chest, I reached the hilltop’s clearing. My father claimed the fire tower, a three-story cylinder of weathered stone, to be over a hundred years old. Bats crisscrossed the graying sky above the clearing. Firemen had stopped using the tower long before I was born, and in the pre-plague days, the cops had engaged in a running battle with the local teens, the kids breaking in and the cops applying new padlocks, the thick, wooden door layered with NO TRESSPASSING signs.
The door creaked open. The murky space inside stank of rotting leaves and stale urine. I stepped over been cans and broken bottles, a stained mattress. Hello, I called, and my voice rose in feathery echoes. Spider webs broke over my face as I scaled the first set of metal rungs bolted into the wall. Yard-square stands waited at the top of every twelve rungs, concrete platforms hemmed by dubious railings, places where I could catch my breath before rejoining the climb. Each platform was marked by a slim, unguarded window, and wafting through these narrow openings ebbed the faint yet gagging smoke. The teary scent urged me on, my fears of slipping, of the solidness of generations-old moorings eclipsed by my desire to reach the top. The higher I climbed, the louder the bats became. The squealed their protests, flapped their leathery wings, and I cringed at the currents that felt like angry breaths upon my neck.
I emerged onto the fire tower’s deck. Dark now, the valley a black moat surrounding me. Above, the smoke-smeared sky, the stars dimmed, and for a moment, a sense of vertigo, up becoming down, the star’s shine usurped by the glowing beacons below. I remembered standing in this very spot the year before with my mother and sister, the valley pulsing with October’s reds and golds. The breeze toyed with my sister’s long hair, stirred crisp, scolding complaints from my mother’s windbreaker. Amid the valley’s patches of paintbox colors, we counted the slender white steeples that strained toward the endless blue above.
Now, I counted the flames. Roaring pit fires marked each of the valley’s towns. The flames jumped and twisted, a trio of angry suns, and in the black spaces between, smaller stars flickered. I took my bearings and attempted to align myself with our farm. One of the night’s fires burned in our field. It seemed important to pick it out from the others.
Curtis Smith has published over fifty stories and essays in literary reviews (American Literary Review, Mid-American Review, William and Mary Review, West Branch, Passages North, Hobart and many others). His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories and The Best American Spiritual Writing. His latest book is The Species Crown, a collection of stories and a novella from Press 53.