Phoenix Rising

Karen Hesse

Henry Holt and Co.

PHOENIX RISING (Chapter One)

Snapping my arm forward, I winged a stone toward the woods. It fell short of Ripley Powers's dog, Tyrus. I meant it to fall short. I had no wish to hurt the dog, only to chase him off.

"Get on home!" I yelled through the gauze mask that had covered my face for nearly a week now. I shook my fist at the dog. "Get on home, Tyrus!"

Even after he'd run into the woods, Tyrus's barking cut through the crisp November air, echoing down the valley.

Back across the field, in a corner of the front pasture, the yearling sheep crowded together, except for one, lying alone on the cold ground. I studied it from the road, waiting for some sign of movement. I saw none.

Brushing my hair back with the crook of my arm, I scowled. "Damn dog."

Muncie stood beside me. "It's Ripley's fault, letting Tyrus run loose."

Ripley's dog took off running every chance he got. If he couldn't find any trouble on our farm, he'd go agitating somewhere else. One time Red Jackson picked Tyrus up all the way to Cookshire, over the mountains and forty miles south of here. That was when there still was a Cookshire.

Dropping her backpack beside mine, Muncie crunched after me across the brittle November grass. Her short, bowed legs struggled against the pitch of the land.

Long-legging it over the electric fence, I got inside with the yearlings.

Muncie stayed outside in the field.

As I approached the fallen ewe, the rest of the flock pressed tighter toward the far fence. Their steamy breath came fast, forming a cloud over their heads.

I knelt before the bloody sheep, my mind racing. Radiation scared me most. That was everyone's fear these days.

But I'd lived on a sheep farm long enough to know radiation hadn't killed this ewe. Her rear end, her throat, her insides, were torn open. My mask puffed in and out; a nettle of anger stung at my chest.

We had just let this flock out of the barn yesterday, even though radiation was still leaking down at Cookshire.

So much time spent worrying about overcrowding the sheep in the barn to protect them from fallout. We never considered a dog attack.

"Nyle?" Muncie asked. "Is the sheep dead?"

"Ayuh."

"What killed it?"

As much as I worried about radiation, Muncie and her family feared it ten times worse. We'd all hovered over our radios, listening to the reports since last week. The announcers assured us of our safety. And we all wanted to believe them. But dread wore the Harrises to the bone. They feared more for Muncie, because of her being a runt to begin with.

"Tyrus killed the sheep," I told Muncie. "Just Tyrus."

Turning away from the kill, I stood, my fists clenched, looking across the field toward the Powers property.

I heard Ripley coming before I saw him. He was yelling at his dog. That boy always yelled. Seems like he didn't know any other way of talking.

Ripley appeared through a break in the trees, looking huge, even for a fifteen-year-old. He stood on the tangled bank at the edge of his property, his legs wide apart in the weedy grass. Tyrus, with a blood-stained muzzle, fawned around Ripley's feet.

Ripley's radiation mask stretched up around his forehead. He was the only one I knew who refused to wear his mask all the time. Looking over at me and Muncie, Ripley folded his long arms across his chest.

"Tyrus kill one of your sheep?" he yelled.

"Damn right he did."

"Why don't you get yourself another guard dog?"

"Why don't you tie your dog up?" My grip tightened on the bony handles of my hips.

Ripley glared at me from across the road. Even from this distance, I could make out the droop of the lid over his bad eye. He reached up, rubbing where the mask cut into the back of his neck.

"I wish that mask would strangle him," I mumbled. "I swear, I do."

"Nyle." Muncie's voice warned me to cool down.

Muncie was right. A thirteen-year-old girl, even one as thorny as I was, had no place messing with the likes of Ripley Powers. He was too big, too strong.

But I couldn't help it. That boy sent the blood swarming in my head.

Ripley took a half step forward and tugged off his mask. He tossed the wad of gauze down the bank, into the road.

Looked like he meant to start some kind of trouble. I whistled for my dog, Caleb. Caleb's a Border collie, a herding dog, low and fast, silky black and white. With Ripley looking so threatening, I would have felt better having Caleb nearby. But he didn't come to my whistle. Must have been inside with Gran.

All I had standing beside me was Muncie. The November sun shone on Muncie Harris's straw-blond hair, the way it shines on a cabbage in the kitchen garden. She stood on her short legs, breathing hard through her radiation mask.

"Forget about Ripley," she said. "You'd better tell your grandmother about that dead ewe. She'll want to call Red Jackson right away."

Every year at town meeting the people of North Haversham elected Red Jackson as town officer. He's the one got us radiation detectors and masks after the accident.

Whenever we had a sheep kill, Red would come out to the farm, take a look at the evidence. If a dog, and not some coyote, had done the killing, the town paid us for our loss. Usually dogs went for the rear first, coyotes for the throat. Considering the condition of the sheep and the bloody mess on Tyrus's face, the dog's guilt would not be hard to prove.

I high-stepped back over the fence, out of the pasture, to stand beside Muncie. Ripley scowled across the field at us.

"Hey, Munchkin, grown any brains yet? Maybe with all this radiation in the air, you'll mutate into something normal."

I started toward him in anger but Muncie held me back.

"How much is two plus two, Munchkin?" Ripley yelled.

Muncie shifted on the uneven, tufted grass, staying me with her iron grip. I jerked my arm away, causing her to lose her balance. Muncie stumbled backward into the electric fence. Her hand brushed the hot wire.

She jumped at the sting.

Laughing, Ripley pointed at her. "Nyle Sumner, why do you hang around with that dwarf?"

The way he said it made it sound ugly.

I turned my back on him.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

Muncie tucked her right arm tight against her chest. Tears stood in her pale eyes, magnified by her glasses.

"I'm going to kill him. Just walk over there and kill him," I said, twisting around to face Ripley again.

"No, Nyle," Muncie whispered, coming up close to me. She cradled her shocked arm.

Ripley shifted a big wad of spit in his mouth and hurled it. It arched and landed in the dirt road between us. I took another step forward. Muncie's left hand reached out, this time to hold me back.

Just then Ripley's dog caught the scent of something behind him in the woods. He backed up, lifted his head, and started baying. Turning tail, he took off, vanishing between the trees. Ripley, yelling for Tyrus to come back, stomped off after him.

Anger rose up in me like spring sap. I marched toward the road, meaning to cross over.

"Forget it, Nyle."

Muncie struggled behind me, rocking on her short legs over the treacherous, sloping ground.

"You can't fight Ripley, Nyle. No one can. Forget it."

I swung around to face her. "I could--"

"He's fifteen! And twice your weight. And besides, he's a boy."

"I could fight him."

I stopped in the road to pick up the backpack I'd dropped minutes earlier. I stared at the place where Ripley and Tyrus had stood.

"This makes half a dozen sheep we've lost in one year to that dog." I beat road dust off my backpack.

"At least he killed only one this time," Muncie said.

Last May, Ripley's dog slaughtered five of our sheep in one night. That was after Birch, our old guard dog, had died.

"Tyrus won't kill any more of your sheep," Muncie said. "Red Jackson'll see to that. Come on, Nyle. Let's get home."

As we climbed the steep road, sloping pasture to one side, Ripley's woods to the other, I slowed way down, matching my pace to Muncie's. We didn't even try talking. Climbing pinched the breath right out of her.

We stopped at the fork that led to my house. Muncie's chest worked hard, trying to suck enough air in.

"Are you--coming up--to do homework?"

I usually did after chores, but Gran would need help burying the sheep. Damn that Tyrus.

"I don't know if I'll make it tonight. Probably not."

"Nyle," Muncie urged. "Whatever you do, don't mess with Ripley."

"I will if I want." But my temper had cooled some.

"You don't have to go around with me," Muncie said. "Not if it causes trouble."

I liked Muncie. Nobody else ever bothered getting to know her. They just looked at her big head, her short arms and legs, and thought they knew everything about her. Sometimes people were mean, like Ripley. I never heard her complain, though it must have galled her.

"I don't know how you stand by and suffer Ripley's insults," I said.

Behind her glasses, she lowered her blue eyes. "I just do."

I gazed over the rolling autumn fields, speckled with sheep. The mountains rose gently on either side of the valley.

"Ripley can't tell me who to be friends with," I said. "I choose my own friends. I don't give a skunk's turd what he thinks."

Muncie nodded.

After she got her wind back, she continued up the hill. Her parents rented one of Gran's houses, the one high above the back pasture, at the edge of the upper woodlot.

I waited until she waved the all clear. Then I started down my drive, hurrying to get inside and tell Gran about the sheep.

But as I passed the corner of the farmhouse, I stopped.

Something was different.

It was the curtain. The curtain to the back bedroom was closed.

We never closed that curtain, not even last week, right after the accident. We'd shut off the whole house and spent most of our time in the basement, but we hadn't shut that curtain.

On a normal day I walked past the back bedroom at least a dozen times. The curtain was never drawn. But now it hung across the window, thick and heavy, a nasty shade of green, like a four-day-old bruise.

In our house, that bedroom was the dying room. My mother died there when I was six. And two years ago my grandfather died there. I hated that room.

Backing away from the window, I turned to fill the log carrier with firewood from the shed. Humping the wood across the driveway, I banged on the kitchen door with my elbow. Gran didn't come to meet me the way she usually did.

I waited, banged again.

Then, shifting my load, I freed my fingers, twisted the doorknob, and let myself in.

PHOENIX RISING Copyright © 1994 by Karen Hesse