Authors: Stephen Graham Jones
All the Beautiful Sinners
Stephen Graham Jones
He was moving along the edge of town. The boots were too big for him, the jacket bulky, heavier than he would have guessed, and the helmet kept tipping over his eyes. His heart was slapping the inside of his chest. He wasn’t even sure he was going to do it, yet. Maybe he would just look at them, at one of them. Or maybe they’d be already dead. Everywhere there was rain, and water, the sky spent. Power lines waved overhead like tree branches, and trees lay on their sides like fallen people, still reaching up for something. The root pans were gnarled and black and terrible. He held the back of his hand over his mouth, to not have to smell them.
The fireman he’d taken the jacket and boots and helmet from had been stuck in a barbed wire fence. He’d looked up at the rock coming down for him, then just taken it, as he had to. The human skull was like a dried gourd. He’d half-expected flies to mass up out of it, each one with a fraction of intelligence, emotion. Scattering. He would have chased them and eaten them and saved them inside.
But it was just the usual grey, the usual red.
He put the boots on, and the jacket, and the gloves, over the cotton ones he was already wearing. His fingers were thick and protected now. He flexed them as he moved from tilted cornice to tilted cornice, telephone pole to telephone pole. Nazareth was gone. Things were still falling from the sky, even. The first dead people he’d found had been three women in an upside-down car. They still had their seat belts on, were staring straight ahead, their ponytails hanging down, brushing the roof liner.
He’d wanted to take a picture, but the gloves were so thick, and the flash: somebody would see it.
He was supposed to be
He laughed, ran.
He wasn’t going to do it. He knew now. Because it could never work. How would he get them back to his car? No. The thing to do was walk back to that fireman in the fence, dress him, maybe leaving the jacket inside out or something, just because it would get blamed on the tornado. Everything would get blamed on the tornado, even him, maybe, if he got caught.
He ran, and laughed, and the cotton in his ear made the laughter sound foreign.
The fireproof jacket billowed around him, the air still charged blue.
People weren’t even emerging from their homes yet, or their fallout shelters, or the mattresses they’d pulled over their bathtubs, the down jackets they’d wrapped themselves in, in the cedar closet, their grandmother’s scent all around them.
After a few hundred feet, he just stood, listening, and finally a female cat broke from a tumbled wall, raced across what was left of the street. He knew she was female because they were all female. He’d heard it like that in a joke once. He looked behind an untouched car, for the idea of a dog, because dogs and cats went together. He had an axe in his hand, though, while he was looking. Which made it different. He looked down at the axe head as if just realizing it was there. Yes. He looked to the cat, nodded, smiling, and said it: “Here, kitty kitty kitty.”
The cat just watched him, its ears slicked back.
They stared at each other like that until the woman stood from under her couch. She was bleeding. She stumbled through her open-air living room, leaned in the doorframe. It was the only thing left.
The fireman with the axe waved at her.
Her head wobbled to the side, like maybe a neck ligament had had some trauma.
“You okay?” he called out, cupping his mouth with his thick glove.
She looked around, her chest shuddering.
He walked to her at right angles.
“Are you hurt, ma’am?” he asked.
His facemask was down now, already, but it didn’t matter. She was looking at his axe.
He looked at it too.
There were still pieces of the other fireman on it.
“It’s not what you think,” he told her.
“What do I think?” she said.
Her pupils were blown wide. There was blood trailing down from her right ear. He traced it with a gloved finger and she shivered, hugged herself.
“Are you going to save me?” she said.
He smiled, let his palm rest on her shoulder.
“Not all of you,” he said.
This was like the old days, God.
But no. Not anymore. Just this once.
After her, he found a dog, maybe the dog the cat had been remembering to make it run, even, and he let it go with a broken pelvis, and then, for long, boring minutes, nothing. He was shrugging out of the yellow jacket—this was stupid stupid stupid—when the girl stood from the broken boards and gritty shingles. The children, yes. He’d nearly forgotten about them somehow. And she was so dark.
“Where’s your brother?” the nice fireman asked.
A boy stood up beside her then, as dark as her and almost as tall.
The fireman put the middle finger of his glove into his mouth, bit the empty part at the tip, pulled his hand away, then did it again with the cotton underneath, until it was just bare skin.
He held his hand out to the girl.
Later he would learn that it was always the girl who reached up first. Because he was the perfect father—the hero, saving her.
“Hello,” he said to her.
She had wet sheetrock dust over one side of her face.
She told him her name. He told her yes, he knew, it was a beautiful name too, and then she took her brother’s hand and they picked their way out through the rubble, and he had no idea then where he was going to take them, what he was going to do. Just that they were holding his hand, that they were alive, warm, and that they would be enough.
She was walking in the ditch, along the road that went away from the high school. It was two-thirty. She was wearing a skirt that hugged her legs. It came down to the tops of her boots. Jim Doe smiled, closed his eyes, opened them. She was still there, against the backdrop of the baseball field. He coasted alongside, the gravel dancing behind him. Past her and all around her to the north was a dryline. It had been building for four hours now. Jim Doe had been watching it even before he came on shift.
He rolled the passenger side window down.
“Deputy Sheriff,” she said, looking at him once, and not head on.
“Going to rain,” Jim Doe said, easing through the tall grass.
She smiled. “Guess I’ll have to get wet then.”
Terra. Her name was Terra, Terra Donner.
Jim Doe told her to get in, and she did. The Bronco was pointed out of town already, into the miles of scrub land nobody lived in because nobody wanted to. Through the windshield the sky was blue and heavy, and, looking through the line of tint that ran level with the rearview, Jim Doe could see what the clouds would look like by four, with the sun burning into their backs: worse. He looked over at Terra, snugged into her seat belt. It crossed between her breasts like a bra commercial. They met like this sometimes, on accident, but not. He was twenty-five. He’d been warned.
“So what about prom?” she said.
Jim Doe smiled. They were easing up county road 526 now, with the high tension wires, the caliche dust hanging behind them for too long in the damp air, then becoming dirt when they crossed 614—the roads Jim Doe had grown up on—then almost catching up with them when they dog-legged over to 527 along with the wires, down to 608.
Still standing there, on the left, were the black metal ribs of a barn, and, just before them, four broken-down houses, for the hands the barn had once made necessary. They were all in a row, the houses, each with a utility pole behind it. Full of birds now, and worse. The walls showing the chickenwire behind the stucco. An old, rounded refrigerator dragged out of one of them, laid on its back to rust. Jim Doe liked it here because it was the highest place around. If you could keep the horizon from trancing you out, there wouldn’t be anybody sneaking up on you.
He leaned forward, clicked the two-way radio up. Because, technically, he was on duty. But this was Nazareth, on a weekday.
“Look likely?” Terra asked, lifting her chin to the north.
Jim Doe shrugged.
Below them a four-wheel drive Case, still shiny from the showroom floor, was pulling a four-bottom breaking plow across three hundred and twenty acres of winter wheat. That was the way you could tell it was March again: large blades slitting the earth open.
“Storm, you mean?” Jim Doe said, no eye contact, “Or the dance.”
Terra looked to him. Her seat belt was off now, rolled back up into its nest by her head. The lines above them humming with tension.
“Just as chaperone,” she said. “Protect me from those . . . Mitch and Jacob and them.”
“Protect you,” Jim Doe said. Last week he had pulled the prom car into the grocery store parking lot over in Dimmit. It was a 1982 Corvette, its nose and taillights almost touching. The telephone pole it had slammed into had hooked the plastic of the passenger side door panel onto the ball of the gear shifter, never mind Molly Jankins, who had been sitting there. In Jim Doe’s day, he’d stood in the parking lot of the grocery until dawn sometimes, with his friends, careful each time to leave their beer cans on the lip of the trailer under Molly’s door, like they owed her that.
“You know why they take your picture at prom?” he asked Terra. Both his arms were folded over the wheel, his fingertips touching the plastic housing the speedometer and tach were set in.
Terra stared at him. He could feel it. “I’ve never
,” she said.
“But you know.”
“Because your mom’s dressed you all up,” she said, finally. “Done your hair for like two hours.”
Jim Doe was still nodding. “It’s because everybody thinks you’re going to die that night.” He looked at her. “They just want one last picture.”
Terra breathed out through her teeth. Like this had happened before: Jim Doe.
The windows were fogging up on the inside. After she was gone, Jim Doe knew he would be able to see the individual hairs of her head in the passenger side window, where she was leaning against it now. The sheriff’s department had been pulling that Vette around for nine years already. Jim Doe had been doing it for three, ever since Gentry signed him on.
“What class are you missing?” he asked Terra.
“Geometry,” she said.
“Wilkins?” Jim Doe asked.
“Wilkins,” Terra said.
Jim Doe wondered what the dryline in front of them would look like on Doppler, or thermal-enhanced from a satellite. It was rolling now, more black than blue. The Case below them was stopped, the farmer standing out on the fender, his hat lifted so he could see the lightning better. It was like static electricity under a blanket at night. You wonder if it’s been like that forever. What your grandparents thought about it, what they didn’t.
For a moment the radio under the dash flickered with static: a truckdriver barreling down 87 out of Amarillo. He was talking about the hail. It was dime-size, coating the road white, like driving over marbles. Crunchy ones.
“Think it’ll make it here?” Terra said. “The hail?”
“Better now than later,” Jim Doe, nodding down to the Case. “For him.”
“Don’t you ever think about me?” Terra said then, just all at once.
Jim Doe didn’t answer. He was trying to dial the trucker back in.
Terra hitched her elbow up on the armrest. It was always like this. Jim Doe looked up to her.
“Sometimes,” he said, and then the dial rolled across Sheriff Gentry’s voice.
“—Chief?” Gentry was saying, “
Jim Doe shook his head in wonder. He palmed the mike.
“This is an open line, you know,” he said. “
“I’ll call you a damn red-ass Indian on the six o’clock news, if you want,” Gentry said.
Like any of the Lubbock stations would send a van this far out.
Jim Doe smiled, clicked back on. “I’m here,” he said.
“Where?” Gentry asked back.
Jim Doe looked across to Terra, like for an answer that Gentry would accept. Behind her seat was the mesh that separated the truck into front and back, into safe and unsafe, cops and robbers.
“Chief?” Gentry said.
Jim Doe held his finger over his mouth for Terra not to say anything.
“Out past the school,” he said. “North.”
“Looking at all the pretty clouds on county time?”
“Something like that.”
“Well,” Gentry began, so that Jim Doe could see him in his cruiser, leaned back in the seat the way old men do, like that gives them more baritone, carries their voice deeper into the wire, across the air. “It’s like this. A blue—”
Jim Doe missed the rest: Terra, running the knob of the two-way along the side of her finger, like she was about to tune Gentry away.
, she said with her lips.
Jim Doe switched the rig to his other hand, so he could guard the dashboard.
“Say again,” he said into the mike.
There was a long, impatient pause.
“Sure you’re ready now?” Gentry asked.
Jim Doe nodded. For radio, he nodded.
“This guy, Nebraska plates. Blue sedan. Mary says he pocketed something at the Allsup’s. A candy bar, maybe.”
“Dimmit?” Jim Doe said.
“Josie,” Gentry said back. She worked the counter in Dimmit.
“If we start arresting people for candy bars . . .” Jim Doe said.
“You have to live here to get away with it, anyway,” Gentry said back. “But here’s the deal. He’s Indian, I don’t know what kind. White-tail, black feet, something.”
He paused, holding the line open so Jim Doe couldn’t say anything. Jim Doe’s father, Horace, was mostly Blackfeet. With papers, he always said when the settlement checks came. Papers like a dog or a horse. But he cashed the checks all the same.
“And?” Jim Doe asked.
“And he’s got one of those damn chicken feathers hanging from his rearview,” Gentry said.
“Eagle,” Jim Doe said.
“Just thought you might want to be there,” Gentry said. “Smokum a peace pipe with him or something. He’s heading your way, up one sixty-eight.”
Jim Doe ran his tongue against his lower lip, side to side.
Terra was waiting for him to say something back to Gentry.
He didn’t. Instead he just asked did Gentry need him there?
“It’s a boring day, is all,” Gentry said. “What is it, Tuesday?”
“Wednesday,” Terra said.
Jim Doe looked at her. He could hear Gentry smiling through the mouthpiece. “I can take it if you want,” he said. “No problem, chief.”
“Chief?” Gentry said. “You getting racist on me, son?”
“Sheriff,” Jim Doe corrected.
It was their usual back and forth.
“Hell, he’ll likely be gone by the time you get her back to school,” Gentry said, his voice strained from some turn he was making, the steering wheel rasping across the gut of his shirt. “From, y’know,
you are. Whoever’s clock you’re on, all that.”
Jim Doe shook his head, trying hard to figure how this could have gone any different.
“Town and Country?” he said, signing off.
“Five o’clock,” Gentry said back.
They never made it.
Gentry hit the sirens just past the Episcopal church, where the highway flattened out. It was his favorite place. He had his radio locked open—the Nazareth version of back-up.
“Can he hear us?” Terra whispered.
Jim Doe held his index finger over his lips.
Gentry was reading the plates off to Monica, back at the office.
His car was stopped now, too, you could tell. No more road whine, no more wind through the open window, no more sirens. Just the lights, probably. To keep people from rear-ending him, or slapping him with their mirrors.
“Don’t forget the camera this time, Tom,” Monica said.
Gentry laughed, said something hard to catch, and scratched over the steering wheel again, hit the record button. The recording heads under the passenger seat squealed in protest, then rolled, rolled.
Monica read the plates back just after Gentry stepped out.
They belonged to a black farm truck from Nebraska. They hadn’t been registered since 1952.
Jim Doe studied the radio.
“Look,” Terra said.
Jim Doe did. It was the cloud, opening up. Streaks of blue sifted down like corn pollen, but there were streaks of white, too: hail. Pale and slight in the distance.
“Watch the corners,” Jim Doe said. “The edges.”
That was where the rotation usually started. Like eddies left behind.
But 1952. Jim Doe said it again, in his head, then keyed Monica open, to get her to run the plates a second time, in case she was eating and typing. Beside him, Terra clicked her seat belt open. Jim Doe didn’t even know she’d put it back on again. The metal head reeled across her chest. She leaned forward to see the edges of the cloud, and Jim Doe was watching her but thinking about an old black truck, rambling down the road, past the Episcopal church, one of its tires slinging rubber.
“Tom?” he said into the mike, holding his hand out for Terra not to say anything, and four miles away Gentry looked back to his car, into the camera mounted on the dash, then hitched his pants up on the left side, kept walking.
The longhair’s car was a blue sedan, a 1985 Impala.
Gentry hadn’t needed the cherries, either, the lights—the car had already been slowing, guilty—but had turned them on just for Mary Watkins and her sister Janna, crossing the church parking lot early for choir, like they’d done every Wednesday for twenty-two years. They’d waved to Gentry then tied their scarves down tighter over their heads, leaned inside. Gentry had smiled, raised a finger over the wheel to them, and hit the siren too, just to see the Watkins girls jump, just to hear them later on the horn, complaining about the
. It was their word. Gentry liked it.
Behind him, on the dash, he’d drawn a black cross on the notepad suction-cupped to his windshield. It meant he’d stopped at the church again. He liked to take them as far as the litter barrel, to empty his ashtray, but this Indian had too much candy in his pockets to even make it that far. Gentry smiled, leaning down the slightest bit to be sure the chicken feather was still there, on the rearview,
, endangering the lives of every other motorist for miles around. It was.
The Indian stood from the Impala when Gentry was still even with the bumper.
“—no, no, son,” Gentry said, his elbow already cocked out, the butt of his service revolver set in his palm.
The Indian was a longhair in faded jeans, a blue sleeveless flannel shirt open at the chest, a concert T-shirt underneath. Def Leppard. It figured.
“You want to be careful now,” Gentry said. “This isn’t Nebraska, now.”
The Indian just stood there.
Maybe he was one of those mutes. Kawliga.
“You know you can’t do that,” Gentry said, hooking his chin in at the rearview.
The Indian just stood there.
“Got some identification, then?” Gentry said.
The Indian raised his head as if just hearing, just tuning in, then shrugged, leaned down into the car, across to the passenger side. Gentry stepped forward, shaking his head no, saying it—“Son, no, you can’t”—his elbow cocked again, but then the Indian stood, holding something out to him. It was white like registration and insurance should be, but it was wrong, too: a snub-nose revolver wrapped in masking tape or some shit.
He was pointing it at Gentry.
Gentry took a step back, lowering his hip to get
revolver out faster, but it wasn’t enough: the Indian stepped forward, pulling the trigger.
Gentry shuddered, felt the grill of his car digging into his back, heard his gun clatter to the ground, wondered what the Watkins sisters were singing just now—for him—and said his wife’s name: Agnes. And that he was sorry.