Michael – Gregory Yelnish
November 3, 2023
The cabinet door swings with every gust that makes it through the tiny open window. I nearly jump at the sound, but keep myself composed. Storm aint let up for two or so hours now. We got three cigarettes left between us.
“Imagine, if they was just a bit bigger, say a foot long, they-”
“A foot long? That aint just a bit bigger.”
“A bit is however much it needs to be,” he says and stops to do what looks like thinkin’. He says, “Imagine they a foot long each with that strength to size ratio, they-”
“Ratio? Where’d you learn a word like that?”
“Is that s’posed to be a tough word? Dammit, Ab, stop interruptin’ the young man,” he says.
“Fine,” he says.
“Thank you, boss. So, with that strength to size ratio they got now, but they a foot long each, can you imagine the destruction? Some of ‘em can lay twenty or twenty-five million eggs in one go,” he says. He’s sweatin’ like he’s scared to tell us about all this but then we’re all sweatin’. I can’t remember a time or season where you don’t sweat. The damp cool around us in the air like keeps eternal watch, has always been and will be here no matter where here you are. It refuses to let us dry out so the sweat stays and I know he’s sweatin’ too. That ice cold sweat don’t make any sense and I hate to leave him but it won’t be so long. “They could pick up a bus, a building, throw us around like rag dolls, man. If they wasn’t just the size they are Man’s dominion on earth would be in a tight spot,” he says.
“We would find a way to kill them,” I say. The three of them look at me. The boss laughs.
“I bet that’s right. What’ve we come up against yet that we aint find some way to kill?” he says. He’s smiling like with pride, like he personally came up with them killin’ ways and maybe in some respects or some past life he did, as comfortably as they sit on his shoulders now. “When we first saw a whale we wondered where we could pierce it most effective,” the boss says.
“They say they got twenty quadrillion ants on this planet. There aint that many whales. Twenty quadrillion foot long, focused, all in tandem at all times and pickin’ up bus-”
“Tandem? You stretchin’ this dictionary learnin’ now,” he says.
“You bein’ ignorant to the language you speak aint my fault,” he says, “Ab, if it wasn’t for grunts and shrugs I doubt you’d communicate at all.” We all laugh.
“Lemme communicate this: I’d call you a son of a bitch if I wasn’t partial as I am to Mrs. Wallace,” Ab says. He takes a deep pull on the bottle in his hand. “Mighty partial if you get my meanin’.” We all laugh.
The boss flicks his cigarette out of the window and into the rain and I think I hear it sizzle dead in the grass but maybe I’m just tired. Outside is dark and the smothering night time is made a deeper shade of black by the gray sheets of rain. He always tells me that’s angels cryin’, and always I ask why do they got a reason to cry in Heaven, and he always says He lets all his creatures know sorrow so that they can know joy. That don’t make no sense.
“If we couldn’t beat ‘em we’d take the planet down with us,” the boss says.
“I believe we would, boss. But that aint a win.”
“Slink, how long you spent thinkin’ about over-sized ants instead of somethin’ that means somethin’,” Ab says. We all laugh.
“That fact is all the meanin’ there is, Abnes. It’s the only somethin’ worth ponderin’ on. In His design he made them the size they is. Had it been one bit different, but it wasn’t. Don’t you see what I mean?”
“You mean we got lucky,” I say.
“Just the opposite. We got blessed.”
“Educatin’ and now preachin’,” Ab says.
“One in the same, Brother A-”
“I gotta feed him,” she says.
We all snap our necks around and stare. Her dress is caked with mud and on the top near her collar the bit of blood that Ab wiped off on her after she scratched him. Her hair is dark brown like the mud. Somehow her skin is almost like it’s see through.
“Go on then,” Ab says. “Aint any of our business.”
“I aint doin’ it with you all where you could see,” she says.
“You in a situation to have it otherwise?” Slink says.
For a moment she flushes a bright red and swallows hard like she was stuffin’ what she had to say to him back into her chest. Heavy breath through the nose, nostrils flared, but only for a moment and then she rights herself again, goin’ back to that pale like under the shell of an egg.
“I aint a show and if I was I wouldn’t be a free one,” she says. We laugh.
“You about as fiery as that old man of yours, aint you?” the boss says.
“I aint got anything in common with that old man ‘cept my last name. Don’t you crooks have manners anymore?”
“It’s rainin’ outside, sister. You expect us to step out into that?”
“You can turn around.”
“And if we turn around what stops us lookin’ at the reflection in the windows?”
“Close your eyes then.”
“C’mon, enough deman-”
“Shut up, Ab. Close our eyes? And if we keep them open just enough to make you out, like how kids do when they pretendin’ to be asleep, how’d you know if we could see or not?”
“Don’t you crooks got any manhood left?” The three of them laugh and I do too only just a split second after.
“Hell, sister. Manhood? I reckon you’re right,” the boss says. “Close your eyes boys, and put your hands over them, too.”
“You aint serious,” Ab says. The boss don’t speak a word in reply and just looks at him a look that smashes into me like a hammer and me not even bein’ the target. I watch Ab and Slink frozen in that moment and then they close their eyes and I close mine. “Hands on top,” the boss says, so my hands lay one on top the other over my eyes and all is as if the clouded night outside was total.
“You press them hands tight,” he says. I do, and I imagine Slink and Ab do. Little swimming things float under my eyelids.
“There. Now, go on and get them out, and feed the thing,” he says.
There aint nothin’ but the still dampish mold smell and rainfall and a sharpness shoots up my back and into my head like a lightnin’ bolt and I smell sulfur fire and smoke like it struck a tree and went up and it sounds like his voice in my head is disappointed. Of course, I figured he’d be, but he don’t get it, you can’t pray it all away. When you can’t do nothin’ else then that’s what you do to and there aint no way to argue that, it hits at random, and somewhere else it would’ve been someone else but it was me, right here. You don’t get to be disappointed, then. Somehow the rain don’t make a sound and occasional wind still sneaks in but the cabinet door don’t bang. The silence is so oppressive it feels like I can’t breathe. It’s worse than the kind of can’t breath from the damp. Like I can’t even think of breathin’. There aint nothin’ to be done.
“Well?” he says.
“God damn you,” she says.
“He done that long before I met you, sister,” he says.
A few minutes past midnight, and the rain is metallic shinin’ when the moon breaks through the clouds. It falls without carin’ a bit about what’s going on in some dingy little trailer. He’d let us open our eyes, and he was wearin’ a werewolf’s smile and she was pure red with rage or embarrassment I aint sure. I’d bet both. The bundle in her arms made no sound, the little face tranquil. He tells me that babies go to Heaven by default, and I suppose that’s fair as they aint had any time to accept Him or not. That’s one thing I think is understandable. A baby aint had time to sin yet, he says. His greatest of miracles, he says. Maybe, but then why we got one tied up in this situation, on no fault of it’s own. Why wouldn’t He do somethin’? He aint never in the mood to do a damn thing.
“You did specify midnight in the letter, right?” Slink says.
“No shit,” Ab says. “’Midnight, or she bites it. The baby too, hah.’”
“You put the baby in the letter?” Slink says.
“I figured we had ‘em both so why not? It adds impact.”
“Impact? What the hell is wrong with you? You aint need to add the baby to that letter.”
“You on this holier than thou act is gonna piss me off, Slink, I mean it.”
“You aint have to add the fuckin’ baby to-”
“Would y’all shut the fuck up, please,” the boss says. “What time is it?”
“Twelve ten,” I say.
“Twelve ten,” he says.”What’s that about?” he says. He’s looking with that look at her.
She doesn’t say nothing, she just looks back with a look as intense as his. Then all the sudden she laughs. It’s a beautiful sound, like melted marshmallow, warm and sweet. “I coulda told you before all this you was wastin’ your damn time,” she says.
We all stare. She doesn’t look away from the boss. The bundle gurgles and she pulls the wrap up around its face.
“And what’s that mean, sister?”
“It means you’re a bunch of fools,” she says. “That old man don’t care none about me and he don’t care none about my ‘spawn,’ as he puts it.” She laughs again and pulls the bundle closer. “He cares about his money, and God, and God-damn all the rest of it!”
For a while the rain falls uninterrupted by speech, and I remember what she’d looked like on that big platform, beside the man and supposedly there to participate but not makin’ no moves or sounds of any kind. I think about how she looked without any kind of nastiness to spoil the splendor of it all but then it always spoils or seems to in some way even if others don’t notice. He tried to make me go once, and only after hours of persuadin’ did I agree. I told him on the way there that it was all a bad joke and the joke was on him and all them other folks that sit there and pay up. He never wavered. Overly excited to meet him, like he might believe that he was Him come again. When he met him he got told to keep sendin’ in his money, and to keep his faith. She was standin’ on the side of the platform, no baby, but in the same dress. He done both without wavering, donatin’ and keepin’ his faith. Look at him now. I want to ask him now what, now what, now what? With nothin’ left to give. It takes me a second but my vision refocuses and I look at the boss, then at Slink and Ab, who are both looking at the boss. I look at her and her eyes are shined over like little balls of heated glass. In the dingy light of the trailer she looks see through. All of us a shade like we was underwater.
“You sayin’ he aint gonna pay?” Slink says.
“That’s right. That’s just what I’m sayin’. You won’t see a dime. I’d put it on my life,” she says.
Before anyone can reply the phone rings. The boss digs it from his pocket and lifts it to his ear. He don’t say nothin’, he just listens. I can hear the other end of the phone but can’t make out what it’s saying. It can’t be nothin’ good with his face turning red like it is and redder still and kind pale white.
“Yeah? That how you feel, uh?” he says.
“I’d pray for her if I were you, father,” he says. “And I’d pray for that new grandson of yours.”
He snaps the phone closed and sits for a minute and the air is so still and smotherin’ that it makes me swallow hard and I hope none of them hear it, I hope it don’t give away my nerves. He always told me put trust in Him and the nerves’ll fade away.
“So?” she says.
“I couldn’t make out nothin’ but the end of, service like it is out here. I think he said he’d pray for our souls,” the boss says. She busts out laughin’.
“What’d he say about the money?” Ab says.
“Ain’t say shit about no money as far as I could tell,” the boss says.
“He’s just playing hard, boss. Maybe he did but it cut out. We just gotta give it a little more-”
“Slink, right?” she says. “You never been more wrong than you was just now. You ain’t got enough time in all your life.”
“What? He don’t give a damn about his daughter? His grandson?” Slink says.
“Didn’t I say so?”
“You think that’s funny?” the boss says.
“How can a man let his kin to the wolves? He’s gotta be playing hard.”
“He don’t ever play nothin’, ‘cept a holy man,” she says.
“He couldn’t live with himself, could he?” I say.
“He’s playing hard, that’s all. Give it time.”
“What the fuck’s his problem?” Ab says.
“He got enough of a progeny without me. His kid by his first wife is the one he pins his hopes on. I’m a mistake,” she says and laughs again.
“You think this is funny?” the boss says. His voice has a different tone now, one that shuts us all up, and it wasn’t supposed to go like this at all. She can’t be tellin’ the truth. She’s bluffin’ and so’s her old man. Slink is right, just gotta give it time. The letter said by midnight. I look at my watch. It’s thirty past. The boss lunges from his seat, his arm outstretched, and brings the back of his hand hard across her face. The bundle in her arms drops to the ground and starts wailing. Pickin’ her up by an arm he hoists her aloft, and strikes her again. Then again and it feels like an eternity before he drops her down. She shakes her head clear and scrambles to pick up her baby. Softly cooing to it, providin’ a motherly comfort and it actually stops cryin’ just like that and gurgles a little. She looks at the boss.
“What’s funny?” the boss says. “You gotta understand me, sister, this ain’t no matter to laugh at. I will kill you, and I will kill your fuckin’ baby, and I’ll do it slowly. Now, I’m gonna go call your old man back, that fiery fearless father, and I’m gonna put fear in him like he never felt. I’m gonna tell him all the awful things I’m gonna do to you. And when he tells me I’m full of it,” he pauses and flips his phone open, snappin’ low res pictures of her red and swollen face, purpling a bit, and the blood runnin’ out her nose, “I’m gonna send him these. Get up, Ab. The rain’s quit. We’re gonna walk out to that clearing and make a call. Slink, Hess, don’t you let her move an inch,” he says and then him and Ab get up and leave.
“Well, I know. Well- that was unpleasant,” Slink says.
“What the hell was that? I thought we wasn’t gonna rough her up any,” I say
“I guess plans change,” Slink says.
“That aint no explanation,” I say.
“I aint trying to explain nothing. Only the boss could and he aint the explaining type.”
“He aint gonna kill her is he?”
“Hell, I don’t know, Hess. Best not to think about it too hard or any at all.”
He looks away from me and I turn my gaze to her. She’s slouched over, with the bundle in her arms squirmin’ slightly under its blanket, like it could sense the distress its momma’s in and what she just went through. I aint sure what I thought this’d be like but it wasn’t that. He said we wasn’t gonna harm her any. Suddenly she lifts her head and her look is like it’s burnin’ a hole through me with how it shines.
“You gotta help,” she says.
“Huh?” Slink says.
“You aint like them. I seen it from the beginning that you aint like them. You gotta help me. Help my baby,” she says.
“You shut up,” Slink says.
“Help you?” I say. “I can’t help you any. I can’t-”
“I seen you there. Just the other day. You was with that old man. I aint seen any of them. You aint like them.”
“Seen me where?”
“At the preachin’.”
“The hell she talkin’ about? Don’t tell me you went with him to that send up,” Slink says.
“It was somethin’ he always wanted, from watchin’ him on T.V.,” I say. “I-”
“And you was kind enough to take him. Maybe it is all a bad joke but you was kind to take him. You gotta help me. They’re gonna kill my baby,” she says.
“You shut up, your daddy ain’t gonna let you die,” Slink says.
“He is. I told you he is. He aint gonna pay you nothin’. I told you that. Hess, aint it? My name is Maryellen. My baby don’t have a name yet. He don’t even have a name and they’re gonna kill him. But we can run now. We can-”
“Like hell you can run. Don’t you think about runnin’. I need that money. I need it and Hess does too.”
“We can run right now, please help my baby. That old man, he wouldn’t condone nothin’ like this. He’d say take me and run. I saw his eyes light up at every word the preacher said, like he really believed in hope, and goodness.”
“Why the hell wouldn’t he pay? He’s sittin’ on too many millions, he’s got megachurches in five states. Why the hell wouldn’t he pay?”
“Run where?” I say.
“Dammit, Hess, don’t entertain no thought of runnin’. Your grandpa needs that money. I need that money.”
“Where would we run?” I say.
As I finish the question I realize I’m slowly standin’, and Slink is lookin’ at me wide-eyed like a fish yanked up on shore, he’s almost gasping, the rain has come back and is a constant drone, and beneath it I hear his voice and Maryellen’s right, he is tellin’ me to run, he’s tellin’ me to save that baby, that babies go to Heaven by default. “Slink, they’re gonna kill them both,” I say.
“Sit the fuck down, man! The boss and Ab surely worked somethin’ out.”
I’m standin’ straight and move like my body don’t have control of itself over to her. I stoop slightly and grab her arm and hoist her up. Her face is goin’ black where she was hit. The mud is hardened on her like a shell. I look at the baby in her arms. “They’re gonna kill them both,” I say again.
“Hess!” Slink says. I turn to look at him and see the barrel of his gun. The little black circle of the barrel is like a stained halo. It’s pointin’ at me but it ain’t steady, it’s swayin’ and shaking some, like he aint fully committed. “I need that God-damn money, Hess,” he says.
“There’s other ways to make it, Slink,” I say.
“What other ways!? We aint got no trade, no skills, no proper education. We never had none of that and never will. Now sit down, and sit her down, and we’ll wait for the boss.”
Somewhere inside I know he’s right. I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t want nobody to die. Not her or him or the baby. It aint worth all this. What’s livin’ if it’s bought at a price like this?
“Don’t you wish it was them ants?” I say.
“What?” he says.
“Don’t you think it’d be much simpler, if they was in control and not us, like you said, like if they were huge and wiped us all out? Don’t you think it’d be simpler?” I say.
“What the hell are you talkin’ about?!”
“We wouldn’t have to make no decisions like this one now. I’m goin’. I’m takin’ them both.”
“Why’s it us and not the ants?” I say.
“He done it for a reason, like you said.”
“They’ll catch you and kill you regardless! Ab and the boss are twice your size and twice as fast.”
“Then let us go on and get a head start.”
“I need the money.” Slink says. He’s got water making on the surface of his eyes. He drops the gun to his side.
Outside the moon shines despite the coverage of the clouds, giving everything a powder-white coat, making it seem as if spirits roamed the wood unsatisfied and waiting for their chance to air grievances a hundred or two hundred years kept. Hess looks at the girl. He is not fully understanding as to why he has made his decision, or where he expects to go. The rain is a steady drizzle. If he takes her back to her father, he thinks, he will surely face time for kidnapping, maybe worse for kidnapping a local hero’s child. The megapreacher from the small town returned after making his fortune, and how the townsfolk love him. To sin against him would be like blaspheming to the people of the town. But he was gonna let them die, a daughter and a baby, Hess thinks, how could he, what do I do?
“Cmon, we aint just gonna stand here is we?” Maryellen says. Her voice is like it is miles away, and Hess can barely make out what she says. He is focused on the line of dark trees beyond the clearing, scanning the dark line of them, looking for the easiest place to cut through to the road. He says, “Cmon,” and she takes his hand and follows for a few steps then stops and tugs him back. “Look,” she says and points. Where she is pointing there stand two shadows, darker than even the dark trees, like two voids of limitless black cut out of the growth. He hears one of them, the boss, yell something but he is far away, further than mere distance, far far away into himself. He squeezes her hand and starts to run in the opposite direction of the shadows, the opposite direction of the road he had intended to flee to.
They run for a while, a gunshot sounds behind them, and the yelling still growing on them all the time. They break through a tree line, bushes and branches scratching at them, and finally she tugs him to a stop.
“I can’t run no more,” she says.
“What? We got to,” he says.
“I can’t, Hess. Yall aint been the best of caretakers. I can’t feel my legs,” she says.
“We can’t stop, they’re gonna be on us if we-”
“Take him. You take him and run and I’ll buy you time.”
“Buy me- they ain’t gonna waste but a second killin’ you and movin’ on. Get up,” he says. Maryellen has sunk to her knees in the mud, now fully covered in it except for the see through skin of her face and her eyes the color of wisteria burning up like it was doused in gas and lit with a dying match. “Take him and go, God-dammit!” she says. She kisses the baby, hard, it gurgling and cooing, it blissfully unaware that life and death hang in the balance of the argent moon, that the yawning maw of oblivion has started to come up through the woods personified in him, how nothing would stop him. Hess thinks about his grandfather. She holds the baby up to him, its skin a translucent pale like its mother’s, especially so in the pallid highlights of the sky. “Please,” she says.
“I’ll tell them where to find you,” he says. She laughs. That undaunted, resolute laugh like no matter what situation she could ever find herself in she would accept it and meet it laughing.
“Just go,” she says. “I love you, baby,” she says. “I love you. You wasn’t no mistake. I love you,” she says.
Hess takes the baby, gently, worrying about the correct way to hold it, the correct way to support its neck and head. The baby does not cry but looks at his mother one last time as if he knew it would be the last. Hess turns and begins to run. Deeper into the wood, he knows there is a loop that bends around a little creek, and even though its twice as long to the road as his original route he knows it will see him there and then he can be done with it. He comes to a thicket of brush that requires him to slow, picking his way carefully through the leaves heavy with droplets of rainfall. He is nearly through when he hears another gunshot behind him. He winces and swallows his tears bitter and lasting on his tongue. The baby yawns in his arms.
Making it through the thicket, he runs for a while longer and then stops. He is not where he thought he was. He is on the opposite end of the creek, on the bend that curves right instead of left around a half-burnt copse. He thinks to himself, I won’t make it, or maybe he says it out loud, there is no one and nothing around to verify. He keeps moving, not running but walking fast, attempting to remember, with his head swimming, to remember exactly what path he needs to take to right his course, wondering how he could have possibly gotten mixed up. He hears yelling behind him. It is close. So close that he is not sure if he can outrun it. Slink’s words come back to him now, they’re stronger and faster, he thinks. I’m not gonna make it, he thinks. He has never prayed before, even when attending the small humble church of his grandfather, even on the special occasion of the megapreacher coming back to his hometown to give the good word, not once had he prayed. He walks out into the middle of the creek. The water is freezing cold and sends shocks up his body. He drops to his knees.
“I never prayed before,” he says.
“You made it way too easy to follow you, brother. You ain’t gonna get away just like she didn’t,” the boss says. Hess hears him clearly. Although he is screaming, he is close, Hess thinks.
“I never prayed to you before,” Hess says.
He unwraps the baby from its bundle of fabrics, looking at the baby naked, bare like he was when he was born, back to that beginning and fully prepared, it looks like to Hess, for some end.
“I pray that he’s right. If you listen at all I pray he’s right about them. Heaven by default,” he says.
“Give me the God-damned kid, Hess!” he hears the boss say, still screaming, moving ever closer.
“I’ll call you Micheal, after him,” he says. Slowly, but with a force behind him or inside him that he had never felt before, he dunks the baby into the water. Thinking, I don’t got the right, I don’t got the right, look past it this once, thinking, I don’t got the right. On the third dunk he holds. He does not know if he is crying or if the rain has again started a heavy, slow and methodical falling. He thinks about his grandfather. What will he do now, without me, he thinks. He is shaking all over but not from the cold. He hears splashing footfalls coming up behind him.
“Brother, you earned a hell of a- what the fuck are you doin’? What’ve you done?” the boss says.
Hess looks back at him, standing with clear intent, a straight posture, still holding the now fully see-through baby. He is not sure how to respond. He is not sure if he had saved him or not. At least I gave him a name, he thinks, and if grandpa is right then I done what needed to be done, and gave him a proper life before- his thinking trails off. In the back of his mind he was still praying, automatically, like he had never once disbelieved in its power in his entire life. The boss stares at him a while that low, malevolent hammer blow, then lifts his gun level with his chest.