The Twelve Page 29

He removed his hat and bent at the waist to receive her kiss.

"God, you stink already," she laughed, wrinkling her nose. "That's your last one for the day, I'm afraid." Then: "So, should I tell you to be careful?"

It was what they always said. "If you want."

"Well, then. Be careful."

Nit and Siri had wandered into the tent. Bits of grass were caught in their hair and the weave of their jumpers. Like puppies who'd been rolling around in the dirt.

"Hug your father, girls."

Vorhees knelt and took them into his arms as a warm bundle. "Be good for Mommy, all right? I'll be back for lunch."

"We're each other's buddies," Siri proclaimed.

He brushed the grass from their sweat-dampened hair. Sometimes just the sight of them moved him to a rush of love that actually brought tears to his eyes. "Of course you are. Just remember what your uncle Cruk told you. Stay where Mommy can see you."

"Carson says there are monsters in the field," Siri said. "Monsters who drink blood."

Vorhees darted his eyes to Dee, who shrugged. It wasn't the first time the subject had come up.

"Well, he's wrong," he told them. "He's trying to scare you, playing a joke."

"Then why do we have to stay out of the field?"

"Because those are the rules."

"Do you promise?"

He did his best to smile. Vorhees and Dee had agreed to keep this matter vague as long as they could; and yet they both understood that they could not keep the girls in the dark forever.

"I promise."

He hugged them again, each in turn and then together, and went to join his crew at the edge of the field. A wall of green six feet tall: the corn rows, a series of long hallways, receded to the windbreak. The sun had crossed an invisible border toward midday; nobody was talking. Vorhees checked his watch one last time. Watch the clock. Know the location of the nearest hardbox. When in doubt, run.

"All right, everybody," he said, drawing on his gloves. "Let's get this done."

And with these words, together, they stepped into the field.

In a sense, they had all become who they were because of a single night-the last night of their childhood. Cruk, Vorhees, Boz, Dee: they ran together in a pack, their daily orbits circumscribed only by the walls of the city and the watchful eyes of the sisters, who ran the school, and the DS, who ran everything else. A time of gossip, of rumor, of stories traded in the dust. Dirty faces, dirty hands, the four of them lingering in the alley behind their quarters on the way home from school. What was the world? Where was the world, and when would they see it? Where did their fathers go, and sometimes their mothers as well, returning to them smelling of work and duty and mysterious concerns? The outside, yes, but how was it different from the city? What did it feel like, taste like, sound like? Why, from time to time, did someone, a mother or a father, leave, never to return, as if the unseen realm beyond the walls had the power to swallow them whole? Dopeys, dracs, vampires, jumps: they knew the names but did not feel the full weight of their meanings. There were dracs, which were the meanest, which were the same thing as jumps or vampires (a word only old people used); and there were dopeys, which were similar but not the same. Dangerous, yes, but not as much, more like a nuisance on the order of scorpions or snakes. Some said that dopeys were dracs that had lived too long, others that they were a different sort of creature altogether. That they had never been human at all.

Which was another thing. If the virals had once been people like them, how had they become what they were?

But the greatest story of all was the great Niles Coffee: Colonel Coffee, founder of the Expeditionary, fearless men who crossed the world to fight and die. Coffee's origins, like everything about him, were cloaked in myth. He was a thirdling, raised by the sisters; he was an orphan of the Easter Incursion of 38 who had watched his parents die; he was a straggler who had appeared at the gate one day, a boy warrior dressed in skins, carrying a severed viral head on a pike. He had killed a hundred virals singlehandedly, a thousand, ten thousand; the number always grew. He never set foot inside the city; he walked among them dressed as an ordinary man, a field hand, concealing his identity; he didn't exist at all. It was said that his men took an oath-a blood oath-not to God but to one another, and that they shaved their heads as a mark of this promise, which was a promise to die. Far beyond the walls they traveled, and not just in Texas. Oklahoma City. Wichita, Kansas. Roswell, New Mexico. On the wall above his bunk, Boz kept a map of the old United States, blocks of faded color fitted together like the pieces of a puzzle; to mark each new place, he inserted one of their mother's pins, connecting these pins with string to indicate the routes Coffee had traveled. At school, they asked Sister Peg, whose brother worked the Oil Road: What had she heard, what did she know? Was it true that the Expeditionary had found other survivors out there, whole towns and even cities full of people? To this the sister gave no answer, but in the flash of her eyes when they spoke his name, they saw the light of hope. That's what Coffee was: wherever he came from, however he did it, Coffee was a reason to hope.

There would come a time, many years later, long after Boz was gone, and their mother as well, that Vorhees would wonder: why had he and his brother never spoken of these things with their parents? It would have been the natural thing to do; yet as he searched his memory he could not recall a single instance, just as he could not recall his mother or father saying one word about Boz's map. Why should this be so? And what had become of the map itself that in Vorhees's memory it should be there one day and gone the next? It was as if the stories of Coffee and the Expeditionary had been part of a secret world-a boyhood world, which, once passed, stayed passed. For a period of weeks these questions had so consumed him that one morning over breakfast he finally worked up the nerve to ask his father, who laughed. Are you kidding? Thad Vorhees was not an old man yet, but he seemed so: his hair and half his teeth gone, skin glazed with a permanent sour dampness, hands like nests of bone where they rested on the kitchen table. Are you serious? Now, you, you weren't so bad, but Boz-the boy could not shut up about it. Coffee, Coffee, Coffee, all day long. Don't you remember? His eyes clouded with sudden grief. That stupid map. To tell you the truth, I didn't have the heart to tear it down, but it surprised me that you did. Never seen you cry like that in your life. I guessed you'd figured out it was all bullshit. Coffee and the rest of them. That it would come to nothing.

But it wasn't nothing; it had never been, could never be, nothing. How could it be nothing, when they'd loved Boz like they did?

It was Tifty, of course-Tifty the liar, Tifty the teller of tales, Tifty who wanted so desperately to be needed by someone that any fool thing would leave his mouth-who professed to have seen Coffee with his own two eyes. Tifty, they all laughed, you are so full of shit. Tifty, you never saw Coffee or anybody else. Yet even in the midst of their mockery, the idea was staking its claim; from the start, the boy possessed that talent, to make you believe one thing while simultaneously knowing another. So stealthily had he inserted himself into their circle that none could say just how this had occurred; one day there was no Tifty, and the next there was. A day that began like any other: with chapel, and school, and three o'clock's agonizingly slow approach; the sound of the bell and their sudden release, three hundred bodies streaming through the halls and down the stairs, into the afternoon; the walk from school to their quarters, faces winnowing as their classmates' paths diverged, until it was just the four of them.

Though not exactly. As they made their way into the alley, its jumble of old shopping carts and sodden mattresses and broken chairs-people were always tossing their junk back there, no matter what the quartermaster said-they realized they were being followed. A boy, stick thin, with a gaunt face topped by a cap of red-blond hair that looked as if it had fallen from a great height onto his head. Though it was January, the air raw with dampness, he wore no coat, only a jersey and jeans and plastic flip-flops on his feet. The distance at which he trailed them, his hands buried in his pockets, was just close enough to encourage their curiosity without seeming to intrude. A probationary distance, as if he were saying: I might be someone interesting. You might want to give me a chance.

"So what do you think he wants?" Cruk said.

They had reached the end of the alleyway, where they had erected a small shelter from scraps of wood. A musty mattress, springs popping out, served as the floor. The boy had halted at a distance of thirty feet, shuffling his feet in the dust. Something about the way he held himself made it seem as if the parts of his body were only vaguely connected, as if he'd been pieced together from about four different boys.

"You following us?" Cruk called.

The boy gave no reply. He was looking down and away, like a dog trying not to make eye contact. From this angle, they could all see the mark on the left side of his face.

"You deaf? I asked you a question."

"I ain't following you."

Cruk turned to the others. The oldest by a year, he was the unofficial leader. "Anybody know this kid?"

No one did. Cruk looked back at the boy again. "You. What's your go-by?"

"Tifty."

"Tifty? What kind of name is Tifty?"

His eyes were inspecting the tips of his sandals. "Just a name."

"Your mother call you that?" Cruk said.

"Don't got one."

"She's dead or she left you?"

The boy was fidgeting with something in his pocket. "Both, I guess. You ask it like that." He squinted at them. "Are you like a club?"

"What makes you say that?"

The boy lifted his bony shoulders. "I've seen you is all."

Cruk glanced at the others, then looked back at the boy. He huffed a weary sigh.

"Well, no point in you standing there like a dumbass. Come over so we can have a look at you."

The boy made his way toward them. Vorhees thought there was something familiar about him, his hangdog look. Though maybe it was just the fact that any one of them could have been alone like he was. The mark on his face, they saw, was a large purple shiner.

"Hey, I know this kid," Dee said. "You live in Assisted, don't you? I saw you moving in with your daddy."

Hill Country Assisted Living: a warren of apartments, families all crammed in. Everybody just called it Assisted.

"That right?" Cruk said. "You just move in?"

The boy nodded. "From over in H-town."

"That's who you're with?" Cruk said. "Your daddy?"

"I got an aunt, too. Rose. She looks after me mostly."

"What you got in your pocket there? I see you fooling with it."

The boy withdrew his hand to show them: a foldaway knife, fat with gizmos. Cruk took it, the other three pressing their faces around. The usual blades, plus a saw, a screwdriver, a pair of scissors, and a corkscrew, even a magnifying glass, the lens clouded with age.

"Where'd you get this?" Cruk asked.

"My daddy gave it to me."

Cruk frowned. "He on the trade?"

The boy shook his head. "Nuh-uh. He's a hydro. Works on the dam." He gestured at the knife. "You can have it if you want."

"What I want your knife for?"

"Hell, he doesn't want it, I'll keep it," Boz said. "Give it here."

"Shut up, Boz." Cruk eyed the boy slowly. "What you do to your face?"

"I just fell is all."

His tone was not defensive. And yet all of them felt the hollowness of the lie.

"Fell into a fist is more like it. Your daddy do that or somebody else?"

The boy said nothing. Vorhees saw his jaw give a little twitch.

"Cruk, leave him be," Dee said.

But Cruk's eyes remained fixed on the boy. "I asked you a question."

"Sometimes he does. When he's on the lick. Rose says he doesn't mean to. It's on account of my mama."

"Because she left you?"

"On account of she died having me."

The boy's words seemed to hang in the air. It was true, or it wasn't true; either way, now his plea was nothing they could refuse.

Cruk held out the knife. "Go on, take it. I don't want your daddy's knife."

The boy returned it to his pocket.

"I'm Cruk. Dee's my sister. The other two are Boz and Vor."

"I know who you are." He squinted uncertainly at them. "So am I in the club now?"

"How many times I have to tell you," Cruk said. "We're not a club."

Just like that, it was determined: Tifty was one of them. In due course they all came to know Bray Lamont, a fierce, even terrifying man, his eyes permanently lit with the illegal whiskey everyone called lick, his drink-thickened voice roaring Tifty's name from the window every night at siren. Tifty, goddamnit! Tifty, you get in here before I have to come looking for you! On more than one occasion the boy appeared in the alley with a fresh shiner, bruises, once with his arm in a sling. In a sodden rage, his father had hurled him across the room, dislocating his shoulder. Should they tell the DS? Their parents? What about Aunt Rose, could she help? But Tifty always shook his head. He seemed to possess no anger over his injuries, only a tight-lipped fatalism that they could not help but admire. It seemed a kind of strength. Don't tell anyone, the boy said. It's just how he is. No changing a thing like that.

There were other stories. Tifty's great-grandfather, or so he claimed, had been one of the original signatories of the Texas Declaration and had supervised the clearing of the Oil Road; his grandfather was a hero of the Easter Incursion of 38 who, mortally bitten in the first wave, had led the charge from the spillway and sacrificed himself on the battlefield in front of his men, taking his own life on the point of his blade; a cousin, whose name Tifty refused to give ("everybody just calls him Cousin"), was a wanted gangster, the operator of the biggest still in H-town; his mother, a great beauty, had received nine separate proposals of marriage before she was sixteen, including one from a man who would later become a member of the president's staff. Heroes, dignitaries, criminals, a vast and colorful pageant of assorted higher-ups, both in the world they knew and in the one that lurked below it, the world of the trade; Tifty knew people who knew people. Doors would fly open for Tifty Lamont. Never mind that he was the son of a drunken hydro from H-town, another skinny kid with bruises on his face and ill-fitting clothing he never washed, who was looked after by a maiden aunt and lived in Assisted, just like they did; Tifty's stories were too good, too interesting, not to believe.

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