The item in his backpack, that palm-sized but heavy parcel of chrome, lay snug in a lower pocket and nuzzled rhythmically as his lower muscles contracted and stretched. The sun fired orange in his left eye and its lower lip quavered at the horizon. He loped across soft bare earth and tried to land between the ankle-high juttings of severed cornstalk rows, counting them and estimating acres crossed. On all sides around him there were no structures, no roads, and the nighthawks began to virrup their calls in a small scattered posse overhead. Each impact of his heel jarred his head, and by the time the daylight flicked a final finger in defiance of the half-moon at its apogee he knew he’d undone a stitch beneath his bandages.
Footfalls at his left heel made an earthen cadence that was not two-legged. He turned his head and nearly stumbled over a cornrow when the coyote spoke to him.
— Running man, the animal said while it matched him stride for stride, slow your pace.
“I’m no carrion for your teeth and tongue,” Wesley said.
— Given time, you will be. Running man, you have lost your race in the light and crossed over into my time. What murder you carry in your pack must be great in import.
“My friend is dead, the greatest of us, and his woman undid him wrong.” With the fading of the light and the coming chill Wesley’s breath plumed like teacup steam. “She’ll lie beside him before morning, it’s my vow.”
The coyote’s coat was a quiltwork, appliqués of rust and black laid across corroded silver, and against the wind it riffled like a hayfield. — All one, the coyote said. The breathing should learn the lesson of scavengers, to live without fear of the dust.
“He’s gone to the dust before his time. She killed him while he sat with trusting heart.”
— Before your time, not his. And in this way all lovers slay each other. They cut a path to the heart with the tools close to hand and lay open the softness there. They enter their mates by the shortest route.
A trail of blood threaded down to Wesley’s eyelid and was flipped away by the breeze. “Am I going the right way?”
But the coyote was silent save for the thud of its paws in the soil. A spike in Wesley’s ribs told him to stop talking, turn into the wind and stream through it. The ground graded upward slightly and he felt it in his calves like icepicks against the fibulae. The dampness at his back now was simple sweat, colder somehow than the water from the gully. The waxing half-moon was an ivory wedge alone among stars tasseled through with shards of cloud, and the dust in his nostrils had the tang of the harvest.
The fence nearly surprised him when he came on it. He’d seen only the sharp upslope ahead and hadn’t taken it for the end of the farmfields until he caught the moon’s gleam on the navel-high chain link and ground up dirt in stopping. The hill was green with long grass and there was some noise from beyond its top, like drums under a steel roof.
His lungs felt too large and shredded in his chest. He leaned on a fencepost and without his will his head began to sag forward under the weight of his wound. The post was cool and steely where he pressed his cheek against it. He spat thickly and heard a sound like rain falling on the toe of his shoe, but the only drops were the blood that had soaked through his bandage.
The muscle above his knees shuddered and he had to sit down all at once against the post. With his head erect the blood only took two seconds to stream in a wormtrail down to his chin. It painted the lashes of his right eye and each blink became a red sunburst. He felt cold suddenly and sick down near his bladder. With feeble deliberateness he shrugged out of his backpack and reached down inside for Eliza Corr’s white scarf. While he daubed it against his forehead he took in her scent again, that of purple graveyard flowers just before they wilt. The smell was both liquid and powder somehow, like a thousand orchids squeezed of sap and rendered to chalk to be dissolved again in honey. He pressed it hard against his lips and fantasized that the red blotch of his blood on the cloth was merely lipstick. The smell and balm of Eliza filled his skull and he pulled back from the heat in his lungs, the clamminess in his torso and legs, feeling just the fencepost along his spine and the blood following the trace of his cheekbone. He knotted the scarf around his head to put pressure on the wound, put the pistol in his belt at the small of his back and threw the pack aside.
It was easy now to stand. The gun rode easy beneath his untucked flannel shirt and his legs didn’t quail at pushing him over the low fence and up the green rise. The choir of drumming came to him clearer the higher he walked, knees clicking in protest, until he topped the rise and realized it wasn’t a drumming at all.
The bonfire had not been lit, but the Bonfire celebration was gelling. From up on this rise he could look down at the Fenniker farm and the edges of the party, jackets and bluejeans and haircuts and upraised beers coalescing, the crowd pulling its perimeter inward at one point and thrusting out elsewhere in response. The drumming was the cluck and mumble of the crowd’s voices, as if he’d only muted the volume of the riot earlier in the school parking lot and now stood to listen to the tape again. Its rhythm came from the green two-story Fenniker farmhouse, where Joel had pulled his parents’ stereo speakers up to a big bay window to project flagrant country-rock out onto his broad back lawn.
The crowd’s sprawling cell had a nucleus. The Bonfire brush and branches were piled high to await the torch, as with every year past, but something about the configuration was different. The pile had not been heaped for height but for geometry, with four tall wood posts hammered into the ground around the brush in a rectangular array. Just on the other side of the pile was a parked flatbed pickup truck, with figures in white on its platform. The scent that bathed Eliza’s scarf also came from there, and his nostrils widened.
Wesley moved down from the hill and into the crowded mummery of boys and girls, almost all wearing the black and red school colors, some of them in painted faces, clutching plastic cups high or low to avoid a jostled spill, laughing, confronting, threatening and laughing again, promising favors or fistfights among each other. The first painted face to push toward Wesley’s own was blackened on both cheeks and temples with a wide red stripe down the middle, Paul Derning incognito.
Derning looked at the scarf wound around Wesley’s head. “Expected to meet you here earlier, not await and later find you all in the garb of a kamikaze en route to ram a battleship’s deck.”
“Apt for paying respects to our queen,” Wesley said. “She’ll receive me now.”
Derning was holding two cups of beer recently filled from the keg. He handed one over. “For courage,” he said. “The press is thick.”
Wesley took the drink. The beer in its clear plastic cup seemed phosphorescent and strange, yet when he drained it he felt a sense of welcoming. He dropped the cup and turned away from Derning to find the Bonfire heap and navigate by it. Around the woodpile and the flatbed near it the crowd heaped and crusted like geologic strata. Wesley felt himself pushing through social tableaux that were close to frozen and conversations that dripped like autumn syrup. Around the Bonfire the four thick alien poles stood with a deep notch in the crown of each. He slid between the nearest post and a fat girl, between the fat girl and a cheerleader who was hurling half a beer at her, between the cheerleader and the varsity wrestler who was watching while his mouth drifted open in disbelief, and then he was at the rim of the flatbed truck and gazing up at glory.
They’d made a seat for Eliza Corr out of haybales and planks where she could choose to sit erect or incline to one side in comfort. She leaned on her left elbow now. She still wore Jimmy’s black letter jacket, and beneath it a white sweater and a longer white wool skirt for the nighttime cool, shining out bright from under the jacket. Her calves trailed in white shimmering hose from the edge of the bale where she sat. Her hair was still down and still drowning neck and shoulders. Her face was colored in porcelain under deep white powder and the dark brows were all the starker for it. Across her lap was a fragile bouquet of dead flowers wrapped in paper. On either side and slightly behind her were Tracey Keefer and Sarah Plenth, her friends and likely attendants in the Homecoming court, wearing garments and makeup and facial expressions in imitation of their queen. The flowergarden richness was thickest here in the air under her shadow. When Wesley had trouble holding the gunsight steady on Eliza Corr’s forehead he blamed her perfume for it. Her eyes, when they turned to him, were not just blue but blue veined with black like polished turquoise.
“This is really a bad time, Wesley,” Eliza said.
“You killed my friend, girl,” Wesley said. “Your aim found his heart and he departed his shell before his old age. Die now, you bitch.”
“Jimmy was shot through the heart, it’s true.” Eliza straightened on her chair and her breasts pushed differently against her sweater. Wesley blinked a blood-caked eyelid. “The bullet came from his own gun. The pistol fell to the floorboards of the car where he was sitting.”
“The murder was by your hand.”
“The bullet came through his chest from the right. Jimmy was right-handed.”
“It was you.”
Eliza’s eyes gave that pitying downturn again as they had in the parking lot, taking in Wesley’s stained white headband and the razorline of blood that quartered his face. “Jimmy held the registration on the gun. He bought it with the credit card his parents gave him when he turned eighteen. My scarf was with him as a memento of me.”
“He loved you.”
“This is so.” She leaned a bit toward him and his breath stifled under the weight of violets. “He gave me so much more than I deserved to have. He folded me so deep in him I couldn’t pull away without cutting open what was inside, even though he gave me all I needed to get free. It was deadly for him. Like surgery, I suppose, without gas.”
Her eyes came away to look past him and he felt a sense of some release. Still the gun sat with dead potential in his hand. “We’re giving him a funeral tonight, Wes,” Eliza said.
Wesley turned slow to look back to his left and he saw the litter coming toward him. Four broad-shouldered guards from the Edenton team carried it with leaden solemnity in measured paces. It was a simple contraption, two long rods with canvas stretched between, carrying Jimmy Paladin’s body in its uniform toward the queen’s dais and his funeral pyre.
Or not Jimmy’s body, as Wesley saw when the bearers stopped before Eliza, but the groomed and crafted likeness of him, wearing so many of Jimmy’s articles that it took on his depth and soul. The red-and-black jersey was his, the jeans his cut and length, the shoes a pair of field spikes from his gym locker. The straw of the effigy had not merely been stuffed into shape but woven, the way a broom’s head is woven, so that even the face of the straw man projecting from the jersey had the contours of Jimmy’s visage, cheekbone and chin and the orbits around his closed and sleeping eyes. The ruffled hay crowning the head distinctly matched the unruly waves of Jimmy’s hair. The bunches and clottings of the forearms lying at his sides were the patterns of his muscles.
On the flatbed Eliza stood up, seeming impossibly tall, and slid out of her dead lover’s jacket. The purity of her color against the dark sky was fierce. She stepped soundlessly to the edge of the platform, knelt and laid the jacket across the mannequin’s chest with care. She kissed her fingers and trailed them briefly at the straw man’s hair, and smoothed a lick aside. Wesley looked hard at the effigy, looking for evidence of breath above its lips. Eliza stepped back to her seat and the bearers shuffled sideways with the litter, raised it up at arm’s height above the brushpile, and settled the rods into the grooves atop the four posts. Someone stepped forward with a can and began to spread fuel at the pyre’s base.
Suddenly Wesley couldn’t see clearly. His vision watered and he blamed the grit from the nighttime wind. He turned back to look up at Eliza across the gunsight while a tear followed the blaze of blood down his face. Her hand was held out toward him with a tilt of the palm that suggested both request and absolution. The nose of the revolver had developed a new gravity and dipped toward the truck platform.
“I’m sorry I hurt your eye,” she said.
The swelling in Wesley’s core that had begun in the parking lot ballooned out and collapsed beneath its own weight, and a second tear followed the first toward his jawline. The gun limpened and gained in weight so heavily that when it slipped from his fingers into Eliza’s palm he wondered how she bore it up. She made a gesture like smoothing her skirt and the gun was gone as though she’d absorbed it into the gauzy folds of herself.
Wesley pulled the scarf from his forehead and the heat in his wound roiled up again. The blood that reached his lips now tasted like irises. Eliza’s fingers reached out again and with tender strength steadied him while he crawled onto the flatbed, offering her soiled memento back to her. She took his head into her lap and used the scarf to clean away the dust and salt and blood. The garden filled his skull with scent. In her other hand she held the dead flowers like a scepter, until Tracey Keefer held out her lighter and set the head of the bouquet on fire.
Eliza looked at the thin flame running over the petals like water. On his bed above the Bonfire Jimmy’s effigy lay in profile with the sky for a shroud. She waited for the fire to touch the paper wrapping and then made her throw, fingers cooling Wesley Fager’s brow, and said a tiny prayer.