Image by Bgabel at wikivoyage shared, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Another tale from my short story collection, Empty Quiver. The gritty superhero world of Crimson Son is dark here as I continue to critique our notions of heroism and examine the human shortcomings of those we bestow that name upon.
I often worry my work is misunderstood. That instead of asking people to critique the darker sides of society, they believe I’m celebrating it. Nuance seems to be a thing lost to humanity lately. As always, I’ll let you decide.
Fat Man and Little Boy by Russ Linton
Eldon stood in the gravel driveway, feeling the vehicle coming toward his house. Four tires on the ground, no tracks, lightweight. Closer, and he could tell by the resonance of the V8 that it was a sedan. Probably the government issue kind.
A Ford De Luxe crested the hill. Black, coated in road dust like a layer of ash. Ash, falling like snowflakes.
He turned and raised an arm, motioning toward the house. Small. White. A twobedroom farmhouse his grandparents had built. He’d grown up here, and to this day, every time he laid eyes on it, he was amazed it was still standing.
He climbed the porch, walking gingerly from heel to toe. An awkward thing, but the house needed to last a lot longer. On the wooden porch, above the floating foundation, the tingle of the car on gravel left the soles of his feet.
Pointed ears and cheeks trotted into view through the haze of the screen door. A pink tongue lolled. Eldon opened the door and reached down to pet the dog’s velvet fur.
“Keep your ears open, Nip. This could get ugly.” The dog nuzzled his hand with a damp, black nose.
Eldon glanced over his shoulder toward the car and waved again. The duststreaked sedan crunched to a stop. He stepped inside, leaving the door open and letting the screen door fall partly ajar as it was wont to do. He’d fix that. Someday.
He crossed through the living room, light spilling in through the picture window. On good days, he’d sit on the porch. On bad, he’d sit on the couch. He could watch the world outside, a dusty road and a stand of trees, mountains painted in the distance. Birds and smaller critters foraged in the abandoned garden out front. Several times, he’d shot a deer or a squirrel right from the porch.
He didn’t need to go far from here to live. Never again. They couldn’t make him.
Eldon took a breath. “It’s all right.”
He continued into the kitchen and pulled open the fridge. He grabbed a beer from the shelf and started to close the door, then stopped before reaching for another. He felt the wood under his feet vibrate with each step on the porch stairs. Felt the motion ride the coils in the fridge and through the handle.
The screen door creaked open.
Eldon walked into the living room, his head low. He motioned with one of the beers toward the recliner closest to the door. The young man, dark suit, babyface, closed the screen door with great care. The boy, why’d they send a boy, was still standing when Eldon settled into the couch.
His visitor was trying to look anywhere but his direction. He wouldn’t find much. Nothing on the walls. Grandma’s plate collection, family photos, everything was packed away. That was how it had to be. Just the furniture, the old upright piano his mother used to play, and a television covered in dust and foil.
Eldon motioned again. “Have a seat.”
The young man sat. Eldon waved the beer again and the man shook his head, his cheeks coloring. All men acted differently when they were scared. Flushed. Tongue tied. Fidgeting. Screaming to their false god. Eldon shrugged and opened his beer to take a long swig. Nip padded into the room and curled at his feet.
“Don’t worry about him. He don’t bite.”
The young man licked his lips. “What kind of dog is he?”
“What’s his name?”
He went quiet again but at least he made eye contact. “Sargent Griffin, I’m Special Agent Crawford. I’m here to talk to you about an … incident.”
“Not in the Army anymore.” He took another swig. “Neither were you.”
“Okay, sir.” Crawford cleared his throat and paused. Now that he was finally looking, Eldon saw doubt cross his face. “You are Eldon Griffin, correct?”
“That I am,” said Eldon. The doubt lingered in Crawford’s eyes. “Expecting someone fatter?”
Crawford’s face flushed again. “No, sir.”
“Don’t you Gmen travel in twos? You know, for safety.”
Eye contact wavered. Crawford ran his fingers through his hair and reached into his jacket. Nip whined. The floorboards creaked and groaned. A resonance rode through the strings of the piano.
Crawford froze and withdrew his hand from his coat inches at a time, his pale fingers vivid against the suit. He held a small notepad. The room settled and the dog flattened to the floor with its muzzle on its paws. With two fingers, Crawford carefully produced a pen from his front pocket.
“My partner called in sick.”
Eldon huffed. “You sure you don’t want that beer?”
“No. Thank you. I won’t be long, sir. I don’t want to take up your time.”
“I was wondering if you’d heard what happened down near Kooskia.”
“Oh?” Eldon kept his eyes on the man and tilted the beer bottle to his lips. “Don’t keep up much with people.”
“I was told given the proximity, you might’ve known.” He hesitated. “Might’ve felt it.”
“That so.” Eldon looked long and hard at the young man. Sweat dimpled his brow. Pupils dilated. Rookie with the short straw—he hadn’t pissed himself yet. But he was asking questions. Engaging. The fear was more about what he didn’t know, Eldon decided.
“Sir, one quick question is all I need to ask. Where were you on the night of October 14th?”
“Why do you need to know?”
“There was an earthquake. Out near an internment camp. On the books the camp was closed, but there were families out there caught up in the transfer.”
Eldon leaned forward, dangling the beer bottle between his fingers. “Mother Nature can be unpredictable.”
“USGS said there weren’t any fault lines in that area. No previous activity.”
“What do they know?” He drank the last of his bottle and reached for the second. “You think their little boxes and spools of paper can tell you shit about what’s under there? Do you?”
He felt a wet muzzle on his hand. Nip was standing, his face pressed between Eldon’s arm and knee. Coal black eyes looked up at him, pleading. He forced the swelling back down into the earth.
“I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. That’s just what they told us.”
“Then what are you? What do you think you are?”
“A guy trying to do his job. That’s all.” The young man set the pen down and reached for his breast pocket, raising his eyebrows in askance as his shaking hand revealed a pack of cigarettes. He shift
ed and drew a lighter from his pants. “You mind?”
“Yeah. I mind.”
The man let the pack disappear into his pocket and raised his palms, clutching the lighter under a thumb. “One answer and I’m gone, sir.”
“I was a guy doing a job once.” Eldon stared at the chrome lighter. Light from the picture window flared on the surface. “We both were.” He tried not to imagine the flame clicking from the top. “You ever serve?”
“No, sir. War ended too soon.” Crawford swallowed. “Thanks to you and the rest of Augment Force Zero.”
“Thanks?” Eldon snorted and dug his hands into Nip’s tawny fur. “I already had my parade. Streets burning. People running out of their paper fucking houses with the skin melting from their backs.” He released the fur. His gaze drifted out the window to the car powdered in gravel dust. Whole city blocks had been like that. People. Ankledeep in the slough of whatever had been sent up in the air, consumed by flame. “Little Boy, that’s all he could say. Laughing the whole damn time. ‘Them’s houses made of paper!'”
Nip started to nudge his leg but Eldon ignored him.
His guest looked confused. “Little Boy?”
“Your clearance not enough for that intel?” Eldon huffed, they had sent the greenest of greenhorns. “Don’t go running your mouth, they’ll find a special camp in the woods for you if they know I told you this.” Eldon licked his lips. “I was codename Fat Man. Fat Boy was a name ‘Cane made up after they removed Little Boy from active duty and the psyops at the OSS ran with it to explain the records discrepancies. Little Boy was one of the original Augment Force members and they wanted him erased from the history books, ’cause the OSS thought they could use him and he had no business being in the public eye.” He focused on the young man. “Little Boy burned them, Hurricane stoked the fires, I buried what was left. That was my job. Why’d they hire you for your job?”
“I guess I had the right education.”
“I bet you did.” Eldon smirked. “So did we. Little Boy burned his way through his childhood too. Hell, he was wetter behind the ears than you when they took him into the program. They say the Augmentation process is random, you never know what kind of powers you’ll get. That’s what your scientists say, the ones who want to tell me what’s in the earth.”
“Maybe I can come back another time.”
Eldon jerked forward, the room rocked, the dog whined. “You ain’t coming back here.” Crawford sunk into the chair. “You gonna do your job? Get your answers?”
A damn kid, like Little Boy had been. But this one was scared shitless, unlike Little Boy. Joy had burned in that pintsized monster’s eyes as the city burned to ash around them. A terrible fire consuming something inside of him, fueling him, eating him alive. Eldon understood the hate and anger. The kid had been God’s own righteous fire that night, whipped into a frenzy by Hurricane’s winds, but Eldon had always felt that kid would’ve have scorched every inch of the planet if given the goahead.
“Let me tell you why they hired me.” He stared up at the ceiling and blew out a fermented breath. “I hated every last one of those slantyeyed cocksuckers. Watched them feed a naked G.I. to dogs. Saw them cane a strung up Chinaman until his flesh was a foamy mess of blood and dangling skin. They were goddamn animals and they all needed to die. And I was ready to cleanse the motherfucking earth of their kind. That’s what they wanted me to do when we dropped into those city streets. Men. Women. Children. Buried and gone until they knew their tiny god couldn’t save them. Until they were ready to understand who the real rulers of this earth were, and which God they needed to answer to.”
The foundation shook again. Nip whined and pawed at Eldon’s leg. He sank his teeth into Eldon’s pants and tugged, his whine turning into desperate growls. A cacophony of notes rattled from the piano. Crawford stood, eyes wide, and the patches of red had drained completely from his cheeks. He backed toward the door and stumbled on the recliner.
“You gonna ask me where I was?” Eldon stood, letting his bottle fall. It bounced and rolled, leaving a trail of beer to seep through the hardwood. He took a step and the house swayed. “Are you?”
Special Agent Crawford arrived at the office late. He’d missed the briefing with his supervisor, which wasn’t uncommon when doing field work in the boonies—an agent got back when he got back. What he didn’t know was if his supervisor would smell the bourbon on his breath. He’d made a stop on the way from the Eldon Griffin lead and and had a drink, or two.
He didn’t have any doubts about Eldon—he’d made his role clear. All the stuff the Augment had spouted could’ve been the ramblings of a broken man returned from combat. He’d heard that happened sometimes, but all the facts pointed to him. Then there was that Little Boy stuff. He’d never heard of him. Why would the government cover up a member of the team that ended the worst war in world history? Crawford thought he knew. Maybe this was all too much for him. Or maybe it was the bourbon talking. He wasn’t sure about his next move.
Even this late, the offices were lit up. Supervisory Agent Jerry McDonald’s door was open. Crawford leaned on the frame and knocked.
“Crawford!” A cigarette dangled from McDonald’s mouth as he spoke. He waved a folder at a chair next to the door. “Come on in, have a seat.”
Crawford pressed further into the frame. “No thanks. Been driving all day.”
His supervisor set down the paper and ground his cigarette in the ashtray on his desk. “What’d you find out?”
“Nothing.” Crawford watched the stem of ash smolder in the tray. He risked taking a step into the room and slid his report across the desk. “He wasn’t home.”
“You wait for him?” McDonald flipped the report jacket open.
“Let’s see. Survivors talking about buildings falling, trees swaying. One mentioned a dog barking. Why the hell’s that in there?”
“They don’t allow pets at the camp, and no guard dogs either.”
“Interesting. But look, kid, you gotta focus on relevant facts. You don’t gotta write down every damn thing.” McDonald smirked. “Don’t burn yourself out.”
“Nobody saw Fat Boy there?” McDonald muttered the question as he flipped through the pages. When he reached the last page he peered at Crawford over the red folder. “Earthquake then? Legit?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Sweet Jesus, that’s a relief.” McDonald tossed the report to his desk. He popped the mangled cigarette back into his mouth and leaned back. “Gotta wonder, with the way he left the service as soon as he landed on American soil. We owe them boys of Augment Force Zero a hell of a debt but by God, one of them goes off the reservation, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
Crawford nodded. He didn’t know, either. “Gonna head home. Long day.”
“You do that.” McDonald fished another cigarette out of his desk. Crawford reached into his pocket and tossed him his lighter. “Thanks.” He flicked the lighter and Crawford watched the flame swell. Thought he could feel the earth beneath him shift. His supervisor started to return it.
“Keep it. I’m trying to quit.”