Soap and Water - 012
Download an audio version at (www.joshuamalbin.com/soap-and-water).
Veronica’s stomach couldn’t handle this stink. Possemen didn’t wash, and they were deep enough inside this cave or mine or whatever it was that the smell was trapped and awful. On top of that another, cat-piss smell rose from deeper underground, the fault of all these bats flying in and out. There were even hawks in here, in a chicken-wire pen. They were creepy too, in their hoods.
She was exhausted, but every time she closed her eyes the smell got stronger and she spun. Maybe she was getting a contact high from the joints half the Possemen had started passing after dinner. Of course she’d be less sleepy if she weren’t so hungry, and she’d be less hungry if she’d been able to eat anything.
The reporter woman squatted beside her. “How you feeling?” she asked.
“It’s just a concussion,” Veronica said. “One time this Mip shot a gas canister at us and clipped me in back of the ear. That was much worse.” In fact this one wouldn’t be so bad if she could lie down outside for a while.
“I wanted to say I’m sorry for getting you chased out,” Meg said. “You understand, though, when you tell me something like you did, I have to write about it.”
“I’m not mad at you,” Veronica said. “Something would have happened eventually. At least you gave me a ride.” Plus with Meg’s visa she had a real shot to get away from the Mips clean, assuming the three of them made it out of here. Meg might have been dumb enough to carry her papers in her big backpack but Veronica had taken no such chance. They were flat against her ass, inside her underwear.
Meg started talking again and Veronica tried to look at her, but when she lifted her chin her eyelids fell, her mouth relaxed, her lips opened. She understood Meg perfectly word by word, but she was so tired the full sentences didn’t mean anything to her. They slid down the outside of her ears and face while her mind wrapped the start of a dream around itself like a quilt.
Pain drew her back to the surface of her skin. Meg had pinched her cheek. Veronica slapped the hand away and Meg didn’t react, which annoyed her. The woman was treating her like an invalid, pretending she wasn’t responsible for her meanness.
“You can’t sleepif you have a concussion,” Meg said.
Veronica stroked the spot she’d pinched. “What do you know,” she grumbled.
Eventually Meg handed her off to Wyatt and went to talk to that Sheriff and write on her notepad. He wouldn’t like it much when Meg started calling Army bases to check his story, like she’d done to Veronica. “You know that Posse up the mineshaft that shot up your guys? The one with all the bats?”
Ugh, the bats. There were so many, some of them still flying out while others came back in, making the air boil.
For the first part of the ride here Meg had been in the midst of an adrenaline crash. The bullets had stopped flying, nothing was exploding, and her body decided that meant it was safe to collapse. She slumped on her mule, too tired to grip with her legs.
After a while, though, she became aware of the quiet all around them in the woods and recovered some of her alertness, and when that happened the quiet began to hum as she began to fear. They were still in danger and it was her fault for letting it drop she was a reporter. She was so used to her press status serving as a shield that it hadn’t occurred to her it could get them in trouble. She felt fight-or-flight tension creep back into her stomach and jaw, only now it was an old tension, a tired, frayed feeling, and she was trapped with it.
Once they’d reached the mine and she’d eaten a bit, though, she began to sense reserves of will beyond that fright response. Her body was rebuilding its energy stores as fast as it could, and she decided their plight wasn’t her fault after all. If she hadn’t revealed herself they’d only have needed to concoct some other plausible reason for being on the road, and if they’d tripped up trying to lie it would have been even worse. Instead of reproaching herself she needed to master herself, and the best way she knew to do that was with work. Wyatt might think he was winning friends talking like a cooking-show judge, but she had something tangible to offer these guys: celebrity. Like the jailhouse gang leaders cum political rebels she’d covered on the DC metropolitan beat years ago, Cutt was most likely driven by ego, and megalomaniacs really liked being in the paper. If he thought he’d get his name in the Post Times he’d probably let them go.
Her recorder was in the bags they’d taken, but she still had a pen and pad on her. She focused on a blank sheet, consciously shifting her attention from her fear they would die to the task at hand. They she walked up to Cutt and started firing questions, and just as she’d hoped, she became immersed in the work at once. She could allow herself to believe that if she did this well, what she knew how to do best, everything would be fine.
She’d been right about him, too. He was eager to give an interview, and launched right into a rant about how Deep Ecologists wanted to make the West a people-free nature preserve. Eventually he said something about cooperating with drug cartels and bribing soldiers, and that was interesting so she pressed him on it. He gave her a few details, but after five minutes slid back to “environazis” and how they’d forced a situation that led to the disintegration of law and order, but he and his men would end their tyranny and bring the West back to sanity. Every time she tried to flesh out the drug-running angle he said “But you have to understand, we do these things for a reason. We want our states to be free again,” etc.
Maybe it was just as well. In the eighteen hours since she’d filed the last piece her editor had probably jammed her voice mailbox with angry messages. If she sent him another story about Army corruption so soon—well, he’d probably just curse louder and do nothing. He and David weren’t fundamentally bad men. They were just cowards who thought they were protecting her, and the paper, from being called unpatriotic. And maybe they were right, maybe she was better for it.
Cutt stopped the interview abruptly by getting up and walking away. Meg kept writing, fleshing out her shorthand scribbles with full explanations, adding details, underlining (there was probably enough for a short piece, she decided), until she realized Cutt was organizing his men to do something. She raised her head to see what, just as all forty of them began to sing:
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don’t take no trips on LSD
We don’t burn no draft cards down on Main Street;
We like livin’ right, and bein’ free.
As they sang, many men waved their joints in the air like lighters at a concert.
Where the open central area narrowed into the leftmost of the three subsidiary shafts, Cutt’s men had built a mews. It was two roughly equal chicken-wire compartments side by side, one for the hawks and the other essentially designed to put an extra door between the birds and freedom. At the end of the night Cutt locked her, Wyatt, and Veronica in that outer one, just barely big enough for all of them to lie down between the two benches where the jesses, hoods, and the like were organized. In the dark Meg could hear the birds’ talons click on their perches and their feathers rustle. The smell of cooked, fatty meat mixed with the Possemen’s feet and sweat.
“Shit,” Veronica muttered next to her. Poor girl.