Monument 14 Sky on Fire(9)
Author:Emmy Laybourne


    26 MILES

    Niko had Josie in his arms. Her head lolled back, bobbing loose. Sahalia was sobbing, clinging to Ulysses, who was also crying.

    Me and the others were just standing there gaping. It was hard to grasp. Our bus had been taken and we were out in the dark.

    “We have to get it back!” Sahalia shrieked. “We have to attack them and get Brayden and kick them out!”

    “Guys…,” Max tried to butt in.

    “How?” Niko said from behind his air mask. “They have guns. There are five of them!”

    “Guys!” Max yelled.

    “We need to find somewhere safe until Josie wakes up. Then we’ll figure out what to do.”

    “They’ll be far gone by then!” Sahalia protested.

    “Guys!” Max shouted.

    “What?” Niko yelled.

    “I know where we can stay,” he said. Then he pointed over to a clump of dead trees. There was a military floodlight near there and in the glow you could make out a sign: “Meadow Flowers Mobile Home Community.”

    “What is it?” Batiste asked.

    “It’s a trailer park,” Max said loudly through his mask. “My auntie Jean lives here.”

    * * *

    Niko was right; we had no choice. We couldn’t catch up to the bus on foot. And if we somehow did, there was no way we could kick the cadets out of our bus. We had to go and seek shelter.

    It didn’t keep Sahalia from crying and cursing the whole way.

    Niko had to carry Josie. It did not look as easy as it looks in the movies. He had to stop and rest a lot and I was afraid his mask would come off.

    The little kids were all clustered around me and I did not blame them; it was really scary.

    Sometimes a fuse would blow at our house. I used to be scared to go into the basement to flip the switches. I was scared because the basement was so dark and there were things there in the darkness. You couldn’t see them but you could feel them. Flattened boxes, Dad’s old tools, the lawn mower—none of it scary with the lights on, but the thought of it all just lurking there made me scared. I would always be afraid that a murderer was hiding in the shadows, waiting to grab me, even though I knew that was totally illogical.

    Walking down the road was like going into the dark basement, except that there really could be a murderer lurking in the shadows.

    There was likely a murderer lurking in the shadows. It was statistically probable.

    Maybe you are wondering if we didn’t have flashlights. We did.

    But Niko wouldn’t let us use them. He said he was afraid we might call attention to ourselves.

    (And call an O monster, I assume.)

    So we had to see by the light from the military lights. Which was not very much.

    * * *

    We came to the Meadow Flowers entrance and walked through the trailer graveyard.

    There was blood on one of the trailers and a lot of clothes out on the ground in between two others, all of them trampled into the mud. Purposely trampled, it seemed to me.

    There were empty food cans and bottles from all kinds of drinks scattered everywhere.

    Some of the trailers had furniture pulled halfway out the windows and doors. Like people had tried to take their easy chairs or mattresses and then given up.

    A dead lady sat in a doorway in a housedress stuck to her body with blood.

    Ulysses started to cry again and Max took his hand.

    “We’re almost there!” Max shouted through the mask, encouraging his friend.

    There were lights on in a trailer we passed. I could hear an old man singing a country song my grandma used to sing called, “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About,” by Bonnie Raitt.

    We didn’t knock.

    Niko was having a hard time with Josie so I carried his backpack. I should have thought of it before and offered but I was too scared, I guess.

    Finally Max pointed to a baby-blue trailer on the fringe of the other trailers.

    It was dark but there wasn’t any blood and the windows weren’t broken. I could see plastic over the windows inside. Another good sign.

    Max stepped up on the step and knocked on the door.

    “Auntie Jean!” he yelled. “Auntie Jean?”

    At first nothing.

    And then he pounded on the door. “Auntie Jean, it’s me!”

    Right at the corner of the window, the drape pulled away and a lady’s hairline and eye and eyebrow appeared.

    “Go away! I don’t got nothing,” she yelled.

    “Let us in!” he shouted.

    “What do you want?” she yelled.

    “It’s me! It’s me, Max! Max Skolnik! Jimmy’s kid!”

    The door opened.

    I am not exaggerating, a cloud of cigarette smoke came out.

    “Maxie?” she said, putting her face through the crack.

    At that moment, I did not notice much about her beyond the fact that she had a gold tooth.

    “It’s me, Auntie Jean!” Max said.

    And she threw open the door.

    And we got inside somewhere safe, thank God.

    * * *

    This Jean lady cried for a real long time, hugging Max to her and sobbing into his white-blond hair until it looked kind of tan.

    I am pretty sure she was drunk.

    It was crowded in there, and smoky.

    She told us that she’d been smoking nonstop because the smoke kills the compounds.

    I didn’t believe her but she was right! Cautiously, we took off our protective gear and everyone was okay.

    This was very good information—prime information to have.

    There were cigarettes everywhere, flowing out of ashtrays and jars and stacked up on paper plates and old issues of Star News magazine. There were also a bunch of smelly candles. Scented candles, I mean. And all the scents together, with the smoke, made it smell pretty dense in there. Flowers and vanilla and cranberry and dive-bar drunks.

    I helped Niko and Jean get Josie up onto the bed in the back.

    After we got Josie on the bed, Niko just slumped down to the floor and I saw he was crying.

    “It’s okay,” I said to him. “There’s nothing you could have done.”

    “I blew it,” he said. “We had a shot. I know we could have made it. But I blew it.”

    He just turned his face to the side of the bed and cried.

    I patted his back. I didn’t know what to do. I’m not good when people cry. I do not know what to say and I just stand there flapping my arms like a stupid magpie.

    I went into the front room where I saw that Sahalia was sitting in the banquette, facing away from the others and smoking a cigarette.

    I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I sort of was.

    She rolled her eyes at me.

    Max’s auntie Jean was now helping the kids out of their layers. She was tugging a sweatshirt off Ulysses.

    “Lord, you got some chunk on you, don’t you, doll?” she asked Ulysses.

    He smiled tentatively at her.

    “Are you sure it’s a good idea to take off their layers?” I asked her.

    “The poison’s in the cloth,” she answered me, her gold tooth glinting. “Y’all got to take them off so I can get the air poison out.”

    Batiste, Max, and Ulysses looked helpless. They were each standing in their underwear, fidgeting.

    Sahalia, as you can only imagine, was having nothing to do with this. She took a long drag on her cigarette and shrugged at me.

    Jean was wearing skinny jeans, high-heeled slippers, and one of those ladies’ Christmas sweaters with the tall shoulders and the sparkly designs. It had a snowman on it with a pointy orange nose and fake gems for buttons on his snow stomach.

    She took all the clothes she’d taken off Max, Batiste, and Ulysses and put them in a big garbage bag.

    “Come on,” she said to me, snapping her fingers. “Get down to your undies, pal, so I can do it all at once.”

    “No way! Not in front of you two.” I indicated her and Sahalia.

    “For Lord’s sake, honey, I’m trying to keep us all safe here.”

    She put her hands on her hips, a cigarette stuck in the corner of her mouth.

    “I’m fine,” I insisted.

    Jean went over to a coatrack on the wall and handed me a worn white robe that said “Marriott” on it.

    “Go on in the toilet and put this on and throw out your clothes,” she said. “You can keep your drawers on.”

    I should have left my long johns on. Sahalia snorted when I came back in the room wearing nothing but my tighty-whities under the robe. I wanted to punch her right in the cigarette.

    Jean had pulled her straggly hair back and something was different from when we’d come in, just a few minutes ago. At first I couldn’t place it. Then she took her cigarette out of her mouth and I realized what it was—there was now a lipstick stain on her cigarette.

    But in all the butts on the table and near the door and all around the place, there wasn’t lipstick.

    She had put on lipstick at some point since we’d gotten there, maybe fifteen minutes before. She had put on lipstick for a bunch of kids.

    Isn’t that weird? I thought it was weird. And I do not know why I remembered it but I did.

    “All right, now, I’ll show you,” she said. “This is how you clean your clothes nowadays.”

    She took a huge drag off her cigarette and blew it into the bag with our clothes in it.

    “You wanna help?” she said to Sahalia.

    “I’ll help!” Max offered.

    “Are you drunk?” Jean said. “Jimmy would kill me, I let his kid smoke.”

    And then Jean started crying again, and Sahalia had to do all the smoke blowing by herself.

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