Author: This Thursday Next PM
On a desolate desert planet, a woman suspected of murder arrives in a small town, and the lives of the reclusive sheriff, his estranged son, and a local girl are forever changed.Rated: Fiction T - English - Sci-Fi/Western - Chapters: 12 - Words: 19,046 - Reviews: 14 - Favs: 3 - Follows: 3 - Updated: 08-11-12 - Published: 03-12-12 - id: 3004611
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
"They got a hold of thirty-seven semi-automatics, sir, fully-loaded."
"Is that all?"
"Twenty-six home-made bombs. Eight assault rifles. And a crate of C-4, straight from the armory, sir."
The man leaned over his desk. Sucked in a lungful of dusty breath, and raised his head to stare at the soldier before him.
"So you're saying that we've got a bunch of pissed-off civilians running around with seventy-two fully-loaded ways of destroying us?"
He rubbed his eyes. Damned dirt, irritating his irises. The man hated it. The dust, the smell, the dry, ugly taste of the desert wasteland.
The soldier waited, silent. His own eyes flitted between the crooked floorboards and the man's clenched fists, rested upon the smooth mahogany of the desk.
Finally, the man collapsed in his seat, graying head in his hands. A fly looped, lazy, in soupy air.
"Advil, I think," he sighed, slightly muffled. "Whatever we have left. I've got myself one hell of a headache."
The soldier forced a shaking salute, and edged from the room.
He sat there, quietly, for a few minutes. The fly smacked itself against the stubborn wall. God, he couldn't stand the heat. It made him feel as if he was slowly burning, his skin curling up in pink peels.
The man rummaged a bit in the drawer of his desk. He could've sworn he'd had the pharmacist, Mr. O'Boyle, salvage him some Advil from the last drop-off.
Nothing. A scrap of yellowed newspaper, and a few gnarled pencils, bitten to the bone.
"Shit." He leaned back in his chair, and ran a hand over his face. The Advil was gone. He'd have to notify the next messenger that came into town; ship captains were notoriously untrustworthy with instructions.
"Sir! Sheriff, sir!" the soldier burst back into the room, bringing with him a shock of white light. The man blinked. "The townspeople, sir. They say they've found a Coldskin."
The woman hung from the tree, her arms writhing at her sides like bloated, scabbed worms. She was a Cutanecryo, of course. A Coldskin. Her face, and what was visible of her body, was covered in tiny, white spots, giving her a complexion so pasty and splotched, it was revolting to look at. The sun had dried most of her, and skin peeled up in translucent, gray layers. She would have been pretty; twenty-something, dark brown hair, and gorgeous blue eyes, but instead, she was a picture of grotesque human malfunction.
"Rip her head off!"
"Snap it's neck!" a chorus of angry shouts battered the man's ears. As usual, town-square was far too bright, and far too loud, and far too dusty. He hated it, too. But he was the sheriff, and it was his job to rid his people of fear.
The Coldskin woman flapped and twisted from her rope. Her eyes widened in fear or anger, as she gazed down helpless, at the crowded square.
"Back away!" the soldier was shouting, brandishing his gun. "Back away!" But they weren't listening. The owner of The Dead Pine Inn, a thick, blocky man by the name of Huey Gordon, and his wife, Annabelle, began to chant.
"Death to Coldskin! Death to Coldskin!"
The entire square started to broil.
"Death to Coldskin!"
Silence. They stopped, startled, to stare at the source of the noise. The only sound was the battered creaking of the rope that hung the woman and a distant, crooning bird.
"What're you all doing?" The sheriff resisted the urge to shout. "Hangin' strangers?" he gazed out over the faces, upturned and dirty, still smudged from the day's work. "You freakin' insane?"
"She's diseased, sheriff, you can see it clear as day–" Hanna Sells piped up. In her arms she held a bulky AK-47. The thick black barrel of the gun looked odd against the faded pink of her summer dress.
"I don't see nothing but a poor lady, hangin' from a effing tree!" he was shouting now. The headache, he realized, was getting worse. "Now cut her down, you crazed psychopaths! She ain't a danger to us anymore than a bunny with a common cold!"
There was a mumbling of reluctant compliance. Hanna and Mr. O'Boyle went to cut down the woman, whose kicks were steadily getting weaker.
"What should we do 'bout the other one, though?" someone piped up, just as the soldier was helping her down, a look of unmistakable unease on his face.
"Other one?" The sheriff moaned. "What other one?"
Hanna Sells, still clutching her gun like it was a newborn child, cleared her throat nervously, and shuffled forward.
"The Coldskin came with a body," she drawled, sounding bitter. "A dead one."
The sheriff wasn't a man who appreciated death. He found it, all in all, a bothersome phenomenon. He wrinkled his nose, and wrapped a handkerchief about his mouth, as they brought the body from the trunk.
It wasn't even a Coldskin. It was a young man. Human. Dark skin, almond eyes, already seizing up with rigor mortis.
The Coldskin swore on her grave she didn't kill him. She spoke with an almost painful calm, her words quiet and slurred. She was there, in the sheriff's little house, watching them with bitter eyes as they tossed aside her luggage, and laid the body on the kitchen table.
"Where the hell did you get it, then?" the sheriff asked for the fiftieth time, as she narrowed her eyes in frustration. There was a thick red line of chaffed skin across her neck. He felt a twinge of pity.
"I found him, along the side of the road," she said, crossing her arms in front of her. "On my way to the train."
He thought for a moment.
"Train down by Heaven's Bridge?" he remembered the gorge well, having crossed it fifteen years ago, his life strapped to his back and his heart heavy in the heat. The ship had dropped him, saying there would be no coming back. He was seventeen. He hadn't seen Earth That Was since that day.
"Yes." The woman came closer, and he realized that she smelled oddly of flower petals in water. Funny thing, the Cutanecryo disease. "I'm lost, sheriff. I don't have anywhere else to go."
She was uncomfortably close now, her face only inches from his. He could see the curling peels of her skin, and the irritated purple veins beneath.
But her eyes were so human, so beautiful. He found himself more unsettled by those than the condition of her body.
He gulped. Glanced at the body sprawled on his dining table.
"What's your name, Coldskin?" he stuttered, trying to concentrate. Those eyes drilled into his own, and his headache was making his head swim in the heat. The minute he used the derogatory term, she winced, and took a step back, her braided hair brushing against his arm.
"Marcia." She said, coldly. "Marcia Rockwell."
The sheriff wiped a bead of escaping sweat from his brow.
"Well, Miss Rockwell. You can stay."
She smiled. Her teeth were startlingly white, and startlingly sharp. Like a shark's, filed and neat. There seemed to be more than there should have.
"In the town jail, of course." He beckoned to the soldier, who had been standing, rigid, by the wall, staring blankly at the body.
Marcia's smile fell from her face, and she cocked her head, glaring.
It was the sheriff's turn to laugh now.
"I ain't completely sure you didn't kill this man," he said, as the soldier came forward, slightly reluctant, and held out a hand for her to grasp. "And I'm not takin' no chances, Miss Rockwell. That's the first thing you'll learn 'bout settlers."
He turned his back as they left, feeling her dark gaze on his hot, sweat drenched neck.
There was a bottle of soda on the table, innocently resting near the head of the dead man. The sheriff, swearing lightly, grabbed it.
He took a long swig.
"We've seen to much to trust a woman like you, Miss Rockwell."
She'd never seen a jail so empty. The soldier had locked her in with shaking hands, promised supper at six, and then stumbled away, knitting hands together in constant anxiety.
Marcia sat heavily on the square little stool in the corner of her cell. There was one other person in the jail, but all she could see of them was a huddled clump of gray fabric and sifting, seething flies, which gathered around their head in clouds.
She waited for a half-hour, then an hour, then two. The sun crawled meekly back into the yellow dirt mountains, and the buzz of mosquitoes roared outside. She'd heard legend of the settler town mosquitoes. Fat, bloated things, lazy on the rich blood of farmers and bandits.
The door opened with dry creak and a scrap of rusted hinges. She expected the soldier, or that asshole sheriff, back for a confession.
But instead, it was a visitor.
He was carrying a little wooden box under one arm, his jacket hanging off him by the hood. Obviously, the town people had their own methods of dealing with mosquito prevention. When he saw her, his eyes widened, and he nearly dropped the box.
"What, you never see a Cutanecryo before?" she sneered. Resentment coursed red rivers in her veins.
He ignored her, and ducked his head down. She saw he was still young, maybe seventeen. Nice-looking, too. Just like the asshole sheriff. They even looked similar. Maybe, Marcia thought bitterly, the sheriff himself had sent him to question her, bribe her with whatever was in the box.
But, to her surprise, he headed towards the other cell, where the clump of cloth was snoring gently in their fly cloud.
Marcia went quiet, and narrowed her eyes. The boy went up to the rust-scabbed bars, wrapping a hand around one. He cleared his throat.
"Hey," he said, quietly. "Hey, I brought you a present."
The clump did not reply. It only shifted slightly, emitting a groaning noise.
"He said you don't want nothing anymore, said you don't feel like us anymore," he continued, talking in an infuriatingly low tone. As if he knew Marcia was listening in. She shuffled her stool a little closer. "I don't know, though. Last time, you seemed okay." He kneeled down on the ground, as if getting ready to pray. She watched, avidly. This was better than a shoot-off.
The boy was leaning into the bars now, his hand outstretched. The little box was balanced in his palm, and he waited there, still and silent.
A minute passed. He sighed, and started to recoil his hand.
"Maybe you're not hungry–" he started. But the clump jerked up, sending flies swirling away. From the cloth came, to Marcia's disappointment, a completely human hand. It snatched the box, making the boy jump a little, but she saw his smile, small but proud.
He stood, and glanced over at her. She snapped her head around, pretending to be studying the lock on her own cell door.
The boy left.
And the clump of cloth, now breathing heavily, brought the box into its folds, and went back to its troubled, dirty slumber.
The sheriff came early the next morning. Marcia was starving; the soldier, for whatever reason, had forgotten to bring her supper. She gave him a dark glare as he slumped in after his boss, still twisting his hands.
His boss gave the clump a disapproving look, a slender cigarette hanging from his lips. If he noticed the box, still resting besides their head, he didn't give any clue to his opinion on it. Marcia faced him, emotionless, behind the bars.
"Well, I talked it over with the Mayor and the Council," he said, somewhat lazily. She raised an eyebrow.
"They called you a great deal of things, Miss Rockwell, and not one of them even reckoned at your innocence," he sighed. "But, after I said my piece, they've agreed to let you stay on, if you help about town, and spend your nights locked up here in this cell." He gave a smug puff, then winced, and rubbed the back of his hand across his forehead. "Damn headache." He growled.
Marcia felt her insides churn. It seemed she had little choice in the matter. She took a deep breath, and cursed herself a thousand times over.
"Fine then, I'll work for it. And sleep in your filthy little cell."
"It's a mighty fine cell, Miss Rockwell," the sheriff sneered. Then, to her surprise, he turned to the clump's cell. "Ain't that right, darling?"
There was no reply.
The sheriff snorted. For a moment, he looked taken with brooding anger. He seemed to forget Marcia was there, and as he slumped forward, she realized what he was doing.
But the clump didn't make any complaint as he opened the cell door, reached down, and picked the box up off the floor, pocketing it.
The smoke curled around his head, and the sun beat down through the cracks in the ceiling, heating the room like a broken thermostat, stuck on "Hell".
"You're to help me out first, so here we go," the sheriff said, plucking the cigarette from his mouth, and twirling it between his fingers.
They were out in the street in five flat minutes. A passing girl gave her a disgusted glance, her thick skirts gathered in her hand. Marcia recognized her as the one who had started the hanging. Hanna, she thought her name was. Rifle Hanna. She smiled. What a deliciously insulting nickname.
Rifle Hanna stopped and waved when she saw the sheriff, her eyes wrinkled up against the sun.
"Hey there, Miss Sells," the sheriff said, with a salute. "You headin' up to the station? I think you might have to get Starlin off his lazy ass and onto his chores,"
"Right behind you, Sheriff Bates," she replied, still looking at Marcia with apprehension. "S'long as the Coldskin doesn't try to eat me,"
Marcia's jaw clenched, and she curled her fists at her side. The nerve of the brat.
The sheriff (she refused to use his name. Bates was far too proper of him), laughed like an idiot.
"Ah, don't you worry your pretty little head. She ain't any trouble," he turned, to look at her. "She's a right and proper lady once you get to know her."
Rifle Hanna followed behind them for the rest of the way. The wound their way through the town, where the people were still groggy and slow from sleep, just coming out of their houses, heading to work. Little said hello, or even spared a glance in their direction. Someone yelled, "Get out, Coldskin freak!" and a rock came close to Marcia's head, but other than that, the walk was relatively tame.
The sheriff's house wasn't all that fancy, or comfortable looking. In fact, it looked barely habitable at all. A lumpy, ragtag Victorian, with peeling yellow paint, and a sagging white porch, it was all sharp points and caving walls. A mailbox, hung limply from a nearby wilting tree, read "Bates" in thick, neat paint. At least he made an effort.
Marcia put her hands on her hips.
"What exactly am I supposed to be doing her, Sheriff Bates?" she asked, raising an eyebrow, and flicking back a bit of her hair.
He contemplated the scene for a moment, then gave a little laugh.
"I don't know. Cook. Clean. Whatever." He turned his head to look at her, suddenly quizzical. "You can cook, right?"
She couldn't help it. She started to laugh, a little at first, then a loud, clear shout of amusement.
"Can I cook, sheriff? What, do you think I was born with the Cutanecryo? Of course, I had a mother."
He frowned, and his cheeks burned crimson. She hid a triumphant smile behind her hand. But really, of all the things they could have conjured up to punish her, this was all right. She actually enjoyed cooking.
The sheriff, it was turning out, wasn't so much of an asshole after all.
She started in the kitchen. The place was a mess of broken bottles, old silverware, and odd and ends, all organized painstakingly into little drawers. They were labeled, in tiny, curling handwriting, which was in equal parts beautiful and strange. The sheriff didn't look like someone who would write like that, or label things at all.
Marcia pulled a heavy pan from an overhead cabinet, and started to sponge it down, thinking about what she would cook. She'd passed a vegetable garden or two on the way there, fat with carrot, onions, and other sprouts. It wouldn't be that hard to steal a few, and roast them up in a broth.
Within ten minutes, she was humming happily, her hair tied up around her head in a bandana and her hands wrapped in rubber gloves, up to her elbows in briny soap water.
She started to sing, the calmness surprising her in a way nothing had.
"Down this river, through this wood
Walk the roads I knew I would
I'll meet you in the faraway,
I'll meet you in the close
Of the end of Earth That Was–,"
She stopped, suddenly, mid-verse. Her heart pounded. What was she doing? Singing, in the sheriff's house? Shame boiled up her neck, and heated her veins. Her skin was itching and dry, and she looked down at her arm. It was a sickly gray, as it always had been, splotched with colorless scabs.
"Why'd you stop?"
She jumped. Who had said that? Sweat trickled down her neck.
There. In the doorway, someone was leaning, arms crossed.
"Sorry," he said, apologetically, backing up a little. "It's just, you sounded really, um, nice, and–"
"It's you." She gasped, the sponge scaly in her hand.
The boy's own eyes widened, and suddenly, he looked defensive. Without the jacket draped over him, she finally got a good look at him. Dark hair, gray-blue eyes, and a permanent angry look.
"What're you doing here?" she demanded, brandishing her pan, water squirting across the kitchen. "Who the hell are you?"
The boy just stared at her.
"I live here," he said, in an annoying quiet voice. She had to lean in to hear him. "What're you doing here? You're sick. You're a murderer, you're–"
Before she knew what she was doing, Marcia had crossed the room, and was right in front of the boy, teeth bared.
"I. Am not. A murderer." She was breathing too hard, too fast. Her lungs hurt. Her skin was peeling, itching, driving her insane. Her hair was escaping and her face was twisted with rage.
But he wasn't frightened. He wasn't even disturbed. He looked horribly, heart-wrenchingly sad.
"Someone else told me that, once," he said, turning to leave. "A long time ago." He wandered back down the hall.
She watched him go, soap dribbling slowly down her front.
"So," she said, to herself. "The idiot sheriff has an idiot kid."