Authors: David Macinnis Gill
TIN CITY TINDER
David Macinnis Gill
On Monday morning, May 4, 0600 hours, near the town of Tin City in the North Carolina Mountains, Stumpy Meeks was on the couch, sleeping off a meal of Bud, stale donuts, and month-old beef jerky when an explosion threw him ass-first to the floor of his trailer.
“Come in,” he said before he realized nobody had knocked.
His brain was working slower than usual. Eating for the first time in three days had that kind of effect on a man with diabetes. He scribbled a mental note—next time, only eat half the package of jerky.
Just as he crawled up to the couch and rested his head on the cushions, another blast ripped through the night. The shock wave buckled the walls and cracked the windows in the living room. Stumpy crawled screaming under the couch as glass collapsed out of the frames and sprinkled the orange shag carpet.
This time, he knew it wasn’t echoes in his head. Something really had exploded.
He was torn between hiding under the couch or going outside to take a look around. It really wasn’t a tough decision. Having more curiosity than sense, he waited a minute or two and then stumbled to the door.
He clicked on the porch light and squinted into the night.
The Blevins place had blown all to hell, and a line of burning debris littered the sandy ground leading up to his yard.
“Jesus Christ Jones on a crutch,” he whispered as he stepped onto the patio. “What the fuck is going on?”
The concrete felt clammy on his bare feet. The smell of gunpowder had burned the air, and though it was a cool and wet May night, he could’ve sworn it was the Fourth of July. He shuffled a step, then felt something warm and hard on the sole of his foot.
Stumpy picked the thing up and held it to the porch light to get a better look. It was a human finger severed below a gold wedding band. He screamed and dropped it, then scrambled back into his living room and slammed the door behind him.
Panting, he tossed his head side-to-side and squeezed both eyes tight. “It wasn’t no finger. Dear Lord, let it be my hallucinations again. Please, don’t let it be real.”
After a mumbled prayer, he peeked outside. There it lay, right where he had dropped it. It was a finger, all right. No mistake. It had to belong to somebody, and probably, they would want it back.
“Now, Stumpy,” he scolded himself, “if it was your finger, you’d want somebody to do right by you.”
After extracting a pair of hotdog tongs and a sandwich baggie out of the junk drawer, Stumpy headed down the rickety steps. He stood over the severed digit for a few seconds, clicking the tongs and thinking of the best way to go about extracting it.
“It’s no different than a hot dog on the grill. ” He popped the finger into the baggie and sealed the strip so that red and blue made purple.
Inside, he dropped the baggie in the freezer next to the ice cube tray and grabbed a cold beer for the trip back to the couch. He popped the tab, took a long swallow, and wondered who had busted out the glass in the front windows. Seemed like there was something else he needed to do, somebody he ought to call, but the phone was all the way down the hall in the bedroom, and whatever it was could surely wait until later.
Stumpy leaned back on the couch and was snoring before he could finish the beer.
Three hours after Stumpy Meeks fell back into a boozy stupor, I was training my eyes to see molecules. That’s what I told people when I was in hyper-attentive mode, bent over an experiment, eyes pinched tight and focused so intently that I seemed to be looking straight through an object of interest, which in this case was a preserved rat pinned to a dissection tray.
In reality, I wasn’t in the least interested in the critter. What got my attention was my Biology 102 lab assistant, a girl named Cedar Galloway. She sat next to me on a high stool, wearing a white lab coat over a yellow sundress that had ridden up her thighs. Cedar was captain of Allegheny Community College’s tennis team, and even though she was barely five-two, those long, lean legs seemed to go on forever.
The rest of her wasn’t so bad, either.
Cedar had hazel eyes, and a heart-shaped face complimented perfectly by a pixie cut. Even her perfume, which I could smell as she leaned close to reposition the pins holding the rat open, cut through the stinky preservative that filled the lab.
“What are you looking at so hard, Boone?” she asked.
Four years in the Navy had taught my brain that a direct question is given a direct answer, so even though I was now a civilian studying forensics on the GI Bill, I almost blurted out the truth.
“This.” I grabbed the beeper clipped to my belt. “This. I keep waiting for it to go off.”
It was only a partial lie. For almost a week, since I finished the volunteer firefighter training program, I had been waiting for The Call. The beeper went everywhere with me. Even when I had to hit the head.
“Wrong answer, Mr. Childress.” Cedar picked up a pair of scissors. “Time to clip those testicles.”
“The rat’s testicles,” she said. “The instructions say to remove them? Dr. K was just demonstrating the technique to the rest of the class?”
“Right.” I took the scissors. “I’ll do the snipping.”
“Thank you. You’re an officer and a gentleman.”
“Petty Officer Second Class. I was enlisted, so I worked for a living.”
My blonde hair was still cropped short, and years of regular PT had me strong and fit for any duty. Including neutering a dead rodent.
“What’re you waiting for?” Cedar nudged me. “Those testicles aren’t going to snip themselves.”
“Did you know that the Bible says any man without his yarbles cannot enter the house of the Lord? I’m paraphrasing.”
“Mice don’t go to heaven.”
“Good thing this isn’t a church mouse, then. Think of all the time it would’ve wasted.”
“You mean like you are?”
“Shh!” I said. “I’m training myself to see testicles.”
“Thought that was molecules.”
I flipped down the magnifying visor. Cedar’s nose got huge. “In this case, same size.”
A minute later, I was in the middle of removing the rat’s left nut and formulating a plan for asking Cedar on a date when a string of preserved bowels sailed across the room.
The toluidine-stained string spun through the air like a gut bola, covering twenty feet of lab space, barely missing the heads of another lab group, and landed with a squish next to my dissecting tray.
They stayed there until my lab partner, Luigi Hasagawa, returned from hitting the head. Luigi was not his real name, of course. He was an exchange student from Osaka, Japan, and his parents named him Ryuu, after the Japanese god of thunder. The American tongue couldn’t wrap itself around two U's, so he nicknamed himself Luigi after his favorite video game. We had met at the beginning of the semester and now I was his shinyuu, another word with two U’s.
“Hey, Boone-san. Nice job on—
!” Luigi pointed at the intestines. “How did that get there?”
“Ask the person who threw them.” Testicle removal was delicate work, so I had no time for some dumb ass prank.
Cedar, though, wasn’t about to let the assault go unanswered. “Don’t be an jerk, Loach,” she said. “You’re not in high school anymore.”
She speared the mass with a stainless steel probe and fired it back at a redneck named Dewayne Loach.
The rat guts sailed high and splatted on the window behind him. They slid down slowly, leaving a trail of purplish ooze.
“You’re the lab assistant!” Dewayne yelled. “You can’t do that!”
“I just did.”
I just did.
” Luigi laughed and drew a picture of the dissection in his notes. His hair was so black, it was almost blue, and he had it cut into spikes so that his head looked like a sea urchin. His wardrobe was an eclectic mix of Japanese
fashion and cowboy couture.
The biology professor, Dr. Krzyzewski, tapped the graphic on the projection screen. “And you see here, the first step is to hold the sac gently but firmly with force—Mr. Loach! Why are intestines on the window. Again?”
“It wasn’t me.” Dewayne pointed at me. “Childress threw it!”
“The hell I did,” I said without looking up. “Luigi, forceps.”
Cedar slapped them in my palm. Then she stalked across the lab. Using an empty dissecting pan, she swept the guts off the window and dumped them into a biohazard bag.
She dropped the bag in Dewayne’s lap. “Don’t be such a wuss.”
“Thank you, Cedar,” the professor said.
“You’re very welcome, Dr. K.” She returned to my lab station. “Jeopardy category for the day: Things Without Balls.”
“Would that be,” I said, “Dewayne Loach and this rat?”
“Right you are!”
! My pager sounded.
I clapped the forceps into her palm. “Hold this for a sec.” I unclipped the pager. “And don’t flinch. You’ll turn Ratatouille into a eunuch.”
“Wasn’t that the idea?”
“Yes!” I pumped a fist and hugged Cedar. “It’s a fire!”
“Boone Childress!” Dr. K pointed to the lab safety rules on the wall. “No cellphones in the lab.”
I held up the pager. “Allegheny Volunteer Fire Department, professor. I have to respond.”
“Go you, Longneck!” Luigi lifted a scalpel in salute. “
! There goes the gall bladder.”
“What about the lab?” Cedar asked. “You’re leaving me—I mean, your partner—hanging.”
“How about lunch?” I stripped off the latex gloves, then slung my backpack over a shoulder. “Or dinner?”
“Are you asking me out? When I’ve got rat guts in my hands?”
“It’s okay. You’re wearing gloves.”
“Childress,” Dr. K called as I exited. “If you leave before the experiment is finished, I’ll be forced to give you a zero on the lab. Department policy. It’s in the syllabus.”
I had been Honor Graduate in A-school, C-School, and Command School. I had pass all my Qualifying Exams in half the usual time, and I had made Petty Officer Second Class in just over eighteen months, so I knew all about rules and regs.
A man’s word was more important than rules.
“Yes ma’am. But I still have to go. I made an oath as a firefighter, and I always keep my promises.”
Dr. K puckered up her face.
Cedar caught up to me in the hall. A strap of her sundress slipped over her tanned shoulder.
“Don’t worry.” She stood on tiptoe and whispered in my ear. “You do the hero thing. I’ll take care of the professor.”
The mix of her husky voice and smell of her perfume set my head spinning.
All I could say was, “Thanks. I owe you one.”
“Sure do, and I’m not going to let you forget it.”
“Hey, Julia,” I said into the radio as I climbed into the seat of my pickup. “Where’s the fire?”
Julia Poteet, the only female Allegheny firefighter, was working dispatch. “Use the codes, rookie.”
The Allegheny Volunteer Fire Department still used the old radio codes for communication, called “ten-codes.” The feds were slowly getting rid of the codes because every county or district had its own confusing version of them. A 10-33 meant a fire call, but in other counties, it meant a road kill. The Allegheny department, though, was slow to change. Most of the firefighters were over fifty, and they saw no reason to learn a new system.
“I’m 10-76 to the 10-33,” I said, indicating that I was en route to the fire site. “What’s the location?”
“Tin City. It’s a wide place in the road near the county line. Know where it’s at?”
“That’s fifteen miles away.”
“Better put the metal down then, or you’ll be last on site. You don’t want that.”
“If you have to ask, you don’t want to know.”
I pulled the red light out of the glove box and stuck it on the roof. Backed out of the slot, slinging gravel into the air, and bounced onto Deems Landis Road.
A quick right at the next stop, and I hit Highway Twelve headed for Tin City. It was near the county line, which meant the fire would be burning hot when I arrived. It also meant that I was probably as close as any of the firefighters, and if I put the peddle to the floor, I could be the first on scene.
First responder on my first fire. Imagine the look on the captain’s face.
Though my truck was an automatic, I dropped gears to climb the steep grades. Allegheny County was in the Appalachian foothills. To the west were the Smokey Mountains. To the east was the Piedmont, a plateau that stretched all the way to Raleigh and beyond.