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Two Years Later
Robin woke from another nightmare of trees and flame and gulped a deep breath as if she’d surfaced from the ocean. She lay staring at the carpeted ceiling, breathing hard and fast, trembling, trying to mentally scrub off the feeling of being a kid again, the smell of cut grass, the sensation of clutching that wooden hand again—
Condensation dribbled down the curve of the van’s rear windows, refracting stony gray light. Her cell phone told her it was a few minutes after ten the morning of October 23. She sat up and lifted a camcorder from its customary place in a tub lined with soft black foam, then wriggled out of her sleeping bag and dug through a tub full of rolled clothes.
The smell of burning bark still floated among the dust, as if the smoke had permeated her skin and hair. She wore nothing but a pair of gray panties and even inside the van, warmed by her farts and body heat all night, the air was graveyard-clammy, so she knew the late autumn morning outside would require something a little more substantial than usual.
Damn Georgia humidity, she thought, pulling on a pair of jeans and a light jacket over a band T-shirt. Makes the summers hotter and the winters colder.
The entire back half of the van was lined with rails, shelves, and wire frames in which nested dozens of small plastic bins containing all manner of things:
packets of trail mixelectronics parts still in their blister packscondiment packets from just about every restaurant under the sunbarbers’ clipperstoiletries and shaving razorsUSB cablesname-brand AA, AAA, D, and tiny dime-like watch batteriesa rats’ nest of power adapter cablesOne tub held baby-food jars emptied of their contents and refilled with alcohol. Another tub contained handfuls of stacked twigs, another was full of something that might have been ginger root, or perhaps bits of wild mushroom.
A large pegboard occupied one half of a wall directly behind the driver’s seat. Several edged weapons had been mounted on pegs and held in place with little clips—a broadsword, a short-sword, a kuhkri knife like a boomerang with a handle, a wicked black tomahawk, a Cold Steel katana painted matte black, the gilded silver dagger from the video.
A fifteen-year-old stuffed animal, a fuzzy blue mosquito peeked over the edge of a tub, his own personal plastic sarcophagus.
Mr. Nosy’s proboscis was a lot more limp these days—both of his glassy wings and four of his six legs had been stitched back on at some point—but he was still whole and had both of his big white Muppet eyes. Robin leaned over and gave her oldest friend a kiss on the nose.
Once she was dressed, she put the camera on a screw-mount in the corner, facing her. There were several mounts around the van, including two on the dash and two clamped to the wing mirrors.
Tucked into the pocket of yesterday’s jeans was an orange prescription bottle. She transferred it to today’s jeans. Taking a moment to screw the heels of her hands into her eyes again to grind away any remaining sleep, she slapped a bongo beat on her cheeks to redden them, then turned the camera on and started recording.
“Good morning, Internet-Land,” she said, her whiskey-and-cigarettes rasp exploding like a hand-grenade in the silence.
She put on her socks and boots as she talked, long green army socks and a pair of comfortable combat boots. “Malus here. You might be able to hear I’ve got a bit of a sinus thing right now. And I think I might be getting a sore throat. Guess that’s what I get for not eating enough oranges?”
She paused, glanced down at the van floor as if to gather her thoughts, then went back to cramming her feet in her boots.
They were like big sneakers, with a padded ankle, an Air Jordan profile, and soles like tractor tires. She’d bought them at a PX in Kentucky earlier that year for almost two hundred dollars, and they had earned the nickname “shit-kickers” before she’d even paid for them. Postmodern punk-rock couture. Her jeans were snug enough the boots fit over them.
“If you’ve been watching my channel, then you’ll know what I’ve been through. Who I am. My purpose. Well, I’m here. Back where this shit all started.” She tied the laces into a big floppy knot, then looked directly into the camera. “Home,” she said, as if the word were a hex. “Blackfield.” She tucked the laces into her boots and turned the camera to point through the rear window.
Moisture on the windows made a swimmy, crystalline netherworld of the overcast day outside. Crows razzed at each other outside the van, chittering and muttering dark gossip.
She swiveled the camera back around, filling the tiny viewfinder screen with her pale face and the dark circles around her eyes.
Instead of giving her the tough rock-chick look she’d been going for, her wavy Mohawk and shaved scalp made her seem otherworldly and delicate, fuzzy with a week and a half of chestnut stubble.
“This girl is going to go find a cup of coffee. Y’all ready for some BREAKFAST FOOTAGE?”
Big black crows took flight in every direction when she opened the back door, complaining in their harsh voices. She stepped down out of the van and unscrewed the camera, then grabbed the vinyl messenger bag. As the doors met in the middle with a slam, a blue-and-red logo reconstituted itself: CONLIN PLUMBING.
“I know you ain’t here for the food, this isn’t a cuisine travelogue channel. But I’m starving.” She took some B-roll footage of the area. The van was parked at the edge of a large graveled clearing, and mild white-gold sunlight tried to break through into the day. Several tents had been erected in the grass some thirty yards away, and beyond them was a utilitarian two-story cinderblock building, with doors labeled MEN and WOMEN. From inside came the white-noise rush of hot showers running, and steam poured from PVC pipes jutting out of the roof. Simple graffiti was spray-painted on the walls: BITE MY SHINY LIBERAL ASS. ST. VINCENT. YEE-THO-RAH. Doodles of a monkey taking a shit and a robot on a motorcycle.
To her right, a sprawling split-level cabin lurked in the shadows of the woodline, pumping out the constant smell of cooking food. The back of the restaurant opened up in a large hangar-like seating area with five trestle tables. She scanned the shadows in the back, peering cautiously, looking for a familiar silhouette and staring green eyes.
“The Red Lord will find you,” the man had said.
Last time she’d seen what he called the Red Lord was three weeks ago, a jagged figure standing in the tree line on a back road out of Seattle just after dark. Time before that had been two months earlier, a dark shape looming in the corner of her motel room at four in the morning, watching her sleep with luminous eyes.
She sighed with relief.
“Malus inbound. Prepare for impact.”
Climbing a hill, she clomped across the front porch, where a smiling gray fireplug of a dog was leashed to the banister.
“Hello there, Mad Max,” she said, pointing the camera at him. “How are you today?”
The Australian cattle dog licked his chops and whined.
Miguel’s Pizzeria was dimly lit and claustrophobic, with clumps of ropes and climbing gear hanging from the ceiling, and stacks of shoeboxes by the door. A half-dozen booths filled the room, all of them empty.
Robin went to the counter, a glass case containing mementos and historical knickknacks, but nobody was there. A tip jar and a charity jar stood by the register (take a penny, leave a penny), and A4-printed photographs postered the wall behind the counter (take a picture, leave a picture).
The photos were of semi-famous people posing in their climbing accoutrement with the owners of the restaurant, and panoramic shots of the mountains around the valley. She thought she recognized Les Stroud of the TV show Survivorman in one picture, and maybe Aron Ralston of 127 Hours fame in another, his prosthetic arm around Miguel’s shoulder.
A Black man came out of the kitchen, wiping his hands on a bar towel. Wearing eye shadow, a silk do-rag covered in purple paisley, and under his apron was an eggplant halter top embroidered with curlicues that looked more suited to a Japanese tea house than a backwoods pizzeria.
Eyeing the camera in her hand, he tucked the towel into his back pocket and leaned invitingly on the counter. “You a bit early for lunch.” The nametag on his apron said JOEL.
“That’s okay,” Robin told him. A glass-fronted mini-cooler stood on a counter behind Joel. She pointed at cans of Monster coffee inside. “I’ll have one of those, stick around and wait for lunch time. Cool with you?”
Joel regarded her with a tilted head, rolling a toothpick around and around his mouth. “You look super-familiar. Where do I know you from?” His weary tone and his delicate mannerisms were somehow masculine, yet … at the same time stunningly effeminate. He smelled like citrus and coconuts, strong enough to even overpower the burnt-bread smell of pizza crust coming out of the kitchen.
“I have a YouTube channel.” She indicated the camera as he took a coffee out of the cooler and put it on the counter. “Called ‘MalusDomestica.’ Maybe you’ve seen it?”
Joel rang up the coffee and gave her the total. “No, no, I think … I think I mighta went to school with you. Where did you go to school at? You go to high school in Blackfield?”
“Yes, I did.” She swiped her debit card and put in her PIN. “Do you have Wi-Fi here?”
“We sure do.” Joel printed out her receipt, operating the register in a bored, almost automatic way, not even looking at his hand as he tugged an ink pen out of his apron pocket, clicked the end, and gave it to her. “Password’s on the receipt.”
Sliding into a booth, Robin took a Macbook out of her messenger bag and turned it on. She hooked up to the Wi-Fi with the password on the receipt (pineapplepluspizza) and went to YouTube, where she signed in and started uploading the week’s latest video to the MalusDomestica channel. While it processed, she perused the thumbnails of the videos already posted. Almost three hundred vlogs, most of them no more than twenty minutes long, a few stretching into a half-hour. Her face peeked out from many of them, as if the webpage were a prison for memories, for tiny past versions of herself, as if she continuously shed prior selves and kept them around as trophies. A packrat cicada, dragging around a suitcase full of old skins. She enjoyed browsing through the grid of tiny pictures, each one representing a day, a week, a month of her life—seeing all those chunks of time, those pieces of creative effort, fulfilled her, made her feel accomplished.
Millions of subscribers, millions of viewers’ worth of video-monetization ad revenue and MalusDomestica T-shirt sales. Their patronage was what funded her travels, what put food in her mouth, clothes on her back, and gasoline in her Conlin Plumbing van.
She clicked one of the thumbnails, opening a video from a year and a half ago. Past-Robin’s hair was dyed pink and she was slightly heavier, pearish, a spattering of blemishes on her cheeks and forehead. Now-Robin clicked to the middle of the video.
A pumpkin sat on a picnic table in a quiet park somewhere. The day was overcast and wind coughed harsh and hollow against the camera’s microphone. Past-Robin turned and flung a hatchet with one smooth lunging movement.
The weapon somersaulted thirty feet and planted itself neatly into the rind of the pumpkin with a morbid splutch.
“Good one,” said Heinrich’s velvet voice from off-camera.
Joel slid into the seat on the other side of the table, startling her. His tropical aura of perfume swept in behind him, pouring into the booth.
“Hello,” he said.
“Looked like you could use some company. And by the by, it’s not Johl, it’s … Joe-elle,” he said, poetically pinching the syllable at the end with an A-OK gesture. “You know, like noel? Or motel? Or go to hell?”
She smiled tightly. “Nice to meet you, Joe-elle.”
“Do you always make yourself this comfortable with strangers?”
“Nah, nah—we ain’t strangers, hon.” Joel turned in his seat, throwing a leg over one knee and his elbow over the back of the bench. “I think I know you.”
“You think ain’t nobody gonna recognize you with that Mohawk, that rock-chick look, that extra muscle mass,” said Joel, flourishing fingers at her. His fingernails were polished, glittering in the fluorescents. “Which looks really good on you. Very Amazonian. Very punk. I likes. And you got the cheekbones for it.” He leaned in close, talking over the Macbook’s lid. “Your name is Robin Martine, ain’t it?”
She took him in with tightened eyes now, assessing him fully.
“Your mama used to babysit for my mama when we was little kids.” He sat back again, smiling like a satisfied house cat. “You and me, we used to play together. I know you, yeah, I do. We didn’t really ever talk much once we started getting into middle school—”
“My father wasn’t too keen on having other kids in the house in addition to—”
“No, honey, he didn’t like Black kids in the house.”
A blush warmed her face, tinged with the heat of anger at the memory of her father. “Well, he’s dead now, or so I’ve heard. So…”
“Oh, yeah. I know. Lot of tall tales around this town concerning you and your mama. Some of ’em are even true.” Joel took out a pack of cigarettes and packed them against his palm. Some brand she didn’t recognize, with a logo in flowery cursive she couldn’t read. “You mind if I…?”
She didn’t mind. He took one out, but paused, waggling the pack offeringly.
“No.” She waved him off. “Tryin’ to quit.”
Joel cupped the cigarette in one hand with a lighter, lit it and drew on it, then dragged an ashtray over and blew a stream of menthol smoke into the air. “Break a leg,” he mused, tapping ashes. “I’ve quit many a time. Not as easy as it looks.”
As slow as the Internet was, it would be useless while the video was uploading. Robin studied her keyboard and decided to pay more attention to Joel than the computer.
“So,” he said, kicking a toe to an unheard beat, “what does ‘Malice Domestic’ mean?” He smiled evilly and feigned a shiver. “It sounds so sinister.” He shivered again.
“Malus domestica. Latin scientific name of the common apple tree.”
Robin gave a half-wince, half-shrug. “Makes sense if you’ve watched the videos.”
Joel stuck out his bottom lip and nodded as if to say fair enough.
She opened the can of coffee with a discreet snick! and dug the orange pill bottle out of her pocket, tipping one of the tablets out. Cupping the tablet with her tongue, she swallowed it with a swig of Monster, to be assimilated into the constant swamp-light still humming in the marrow of her bones from yesterday’s dose.
Joel took another draw and French-inhaled the smoke up his nose, then blew it back out. “What’s it about?” he asked, studying the cherry at the end of the cigarette. “Your YouTube channel.”
Copyright © 2019 by S. A. Hunt