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Jamie winced. Jim Chase ignored him and banged on the pickup truck's balky air-conditioner, which was threatening to break down for the third time that week. The once-cold air was turning into a warm, fetid blast, and anybody with sense would just roll down the windows. Jamie perched on the sticky plastic seat beside his father, staring glumly at the Oklahoma countryside. He counted cows as they passed a pasture, something Jim had taught him to better pass the time. Meanwhile, the hot air coming from the truck's dash made sweat run down his neck, and he was trying his best to ignore it.
Jim's large fist pounded the air-conditioning controls, which had no effect on the temperature; the interior of the truck was quickly turning into a sauna. Jamie calmly reached over and turned off the blower, then cranked down his own window. The air outside was just as hot, but was drier, and at least it didn't smell of mildew.
His father muttered something about a compressor, a word Jamie barely recognized. It sounded expensive, which meant it would stay unfixed. Jim was still a genius when it came to technical stuff. But when he was angry, or when he drank joy juice, the genius went away. Like now.
Jamie decided to see if at least he could get his father to stop doing something stupid. "Daddy, isn't the compressor in the motor? Under the hood?"
Jim's calm words seemed to come with great effort. "Yes, son. The compressor is in the motor."
"Then why are you bangin' on the dash like that?"
Jim laughed, a little, at that. "Good question," he said, leaving the dash alone and unbuttoning his shirt in the heat. Jamie wished he had brought more of his clothes on this trip; he'd managed to scrounge around for a used tank top at the vacation place, and it was the only clothing he had that was cool enough to wear on these excursions. Even though it came down to his knees, and felt more like an apron, it was more comfortable than the one shirt he still had.
Overall, this had been the longest and weirdest vacation he'd ever been on, especially since Mom wasn't with them. At the vacation place, however, he had been to a kind of school, which didn't make any sense at all. You don't go to school on vacation, he tried to tell his dad, but his father had insisted. Jamie attended class in a single room with one strange old lady named Miss Agatha who hated blacks and Jews and had a big gap between her front teeth. She taught them her hate along with readin' and 'rithmetic, or at least tried. Hate was wrong, he knew, but since he was surrounded by adults who seemed to think differently, he didn't question them.
The classroom was filled with other children who were just as confused as he was. Most of them were there because they weren't old enough to be in the Junior Guard. The kids in the Junior Guard didn't have to go to school, so it was something Jamie wanted to join, if for no other reason than to get away from Miss Agatha. He even lied and told them his age was ten and not eight; you had to be at least ten to join the Guard and use an AK-47. But they hadn't believed him.
Jamie had thought of this vacation as one big adventure, in the beginning. But in the past couple of days, he had begun to sense something wrong. He started asking his father questionsabout the whereabouts of his mother, and why he was gone from his school for so long. And why he didn't have any spare clothes.
He'd kept up an incessant barrage of questions, couching the questions in innocence so that he would stay out of trouble. He might only be eight, but one thing he knew was his dad. James had bought it at face value, looking pained, not annoyed, whenever his son brought up the subject of his mother.
Finally today his dad had told him that they would be seeing Mom on this trip to Tulsa. Why, Jamie had asked, didn't Mom come to the vacation place? It was a surprise, James had replied, and that seemed to be the end of that.
They had made several trips to Tulsa since they arrived here, each time loading up the truck with big bundles of food and supplies. Sometimes they had to stop at a bank and cash a CD, but Jamie had never heard of money coming out of music before. Besides, they didn't have a CD player; more mystery. James purchased canned goods, mostly; things they wouldn't use right away, food that was put away where no one could see it. This category of grocery was called "in the event of an emergency," according to Miss Agatha. The rest of the food, the "perishables," was for the other people, he knew that much, since he got very little of it himself.
Now they were going to the store again, and like the last time, the air-conditioner quit. No big deal for Jamie, he didn't mind the heat as much as his father did. It didn't matter, as long as he was outside the vacation place. It was a stifling place, especially when Brother Joseph was around. All day Jamie had looked forward to the trip, knowing that Mom would be waiting for him in town. He didn't mention her to Daddy during the trip, since he already felt like a nuisance bringing it up before.
"Miss Agatha tells me you're a bright student," James said conversationally, over the wind pouring in through the window.
Jamie shrugged. "It's not like school at home. It's too easy." He wanted to add that it was also pretty weird, some of the things Miss Agatha taught them. And that he was the only one in his class who wasn't afraid of Miss Agatha. He had asked her why it was okay now to hate when it wasn't before. After all, Mommy had always said that it was wrong to hate black people because of the color of their skin, or Jews because they went to a temple instead of a church.
Miss Agatha had not been amused and told him that the Commandments said he had to obey his elders and she was his elder.
Then she went on with the same stupid stuff. Only today she had also mentioned another group, the homos, but he had no idea what made them different. Miss Agatha had simply said to stay away from them, that even saying "homo" was wrong, that it was a bad word.
"When am I going back to the real school, Daddy?"
Jamie knew he had said something wrong then, by the way his father's face turned dark and his lips pressed together. But it was a valid question, after all. Wasn't it?
"Maybe it's time for you to learn what the big boys know. The truths they don't teach you at that other school, the one in Atlanta."
The boy felt a shiver of excitement. What the big boys know. Like Joe. The things they haven't been telling me, that big secret the grownups are all excited about but don't tell us. Is it time for me to know that big secret now?
"Listen up. This is a Bible story, but not like any Bible story you've ever heard before. Those other ministers, they don't have it right, never have, never will. We're one of the few groups of people in the world who know it straight, son, and by the grace of God we'll spread the word further."
James paused a moment, apparently gathering his strength, as if summoning vast intellectual reserves. Daddy was having trouble thinking, Jamie knew, because he had run out of beer the day before and hadn't had any since.
"Do you remember Miss Agatha telling you about the beginning of the world? About how God created the world and all the people on it?"
Jamie nodded, uncertainly. The big secret has to do with that icky stuff? he thought, suddenly disappointed.
"And the story of Genesis, in the Bible. Most Bibles don't tell you that before Adam, God had created several other species of mankind, the black man, the red man, the yellow. Some had civilizations and some had nothing. Some could live in peace because they were too lazy to do anything else, but most of the inferior races could only make war. God made all these people before Adam, long before he had it down right, you see." James sounded earnest, but he was frowning. "But most ministers, preachers, they don't know all this 'cause their churches didn't want them to know the truth."
Jamie nodded, as if he understood, but he didn't. This wasn't like any Bible story he had ever heard, or even read.
"Now remember, and this is important. This is before the white man. God saw that his work could be better, that all these monkey races were turning back into animals. He needed a perfect creature, and that's when he made Adam out of the river mud. Right away he knew he had something there. This one was different. This one was white. The color of purity, the same color as God."
Already Jamie was getting uncomfortable. This was not what he expected to hear. All that hate stuff again, Jamie groaned inwardly. With big words to make it sound important. Brother.
"God could see that what he made was perfect, with an intelligence higher than any creature's he had yet created. And that included the black man. The Lord God also saw that his new creation would bring peace to a world filled with war, since it was an inherently peaceful creature he had made. He was a higher being, in every way. He had to be, since the Lord God was creating a race of people to inherit the earth, to be God's direct descendants, to be his children."
"Yeah, Dad," Jamie said, forcing politeness. He didn't like what he was hearing, and he wished his dad would finish. You made more sense when you were drinking joy juice, he thought rebelliously.
"Then the Lord God saw that Adam was lonely, and he created Eve. She was of the same race as Adam, and it was God's intention that she bear Adam's babies, to make a perfect race. But Satan, who was an angel rebelling against God, he got involved somehow and mated with Eve instead, and gave her his serpent seed."
"Is this the same Satan the Church Lady talks about on Saturday Night Live?" Jamie asked, figuring this to be on safe ground. Mommy had let him stay up one Saturday, when his father was away, and watch the show with her. Since then, he had always associated Satan and women like Agatha with humor. But now, Daddy didn't look like he was trying to be funny.
"Don't know what you're talking about there, son," James said, puzzled for a moment. "If that's some kind of late-night religious show, it's probably only half right. I'm telling you what's really right, all true. Pay attention nowthis made God really angry, since this wasn't what he had in mind at all. Eve wasn't as perfect as Adam, because she had let Satan do this to herwhich proved to God that women were going to be naturally inferior to men. Now God's purest race was polluted. Now Satan, since he was part of one of the first races, is black."
Jamie stifled a snicker. Boy, is that stupid! First he says Satan's an angel, then he says he's a snake, and now he says he's black.
"Eve gave birth to two sons, but that was how God knew they must have had different fathers, because one was black, Cain, and the other was white, Abel. Cain was lazy and wanted to live off the sweat of other people, through stealth and cunning, which is typical of the way the Jew serpent race thinks. Cain took off to Babylonia and started his own kingdom, and this is where the Jews came from."
Now Jamie knew that was wrong; he knew where the Jews came from. The little bitty squiggly place, the one littler than Oklahoma. Israel. And he'd never heard of Babby-whatever. Unless it was that icky lunch-meat they gave the kids here. But James was really enjoying his captive audience, so Jamie sighed and pretended to listen.
"Before long everyone was mating with everyone else, mixing the races, committing sodomyI'll explain that one when you're a little olderand God didn't like that. So he flooded the Earth with water, and God started a new kingdom, but as it happened some of the Jew serpent seed got onboard the boat anyway. Before long the Jews gained control again. The Jews and blacks are doing that to this day."
Then how come so many poor people are black? Jamie asked silently. And how come there are people putting bombs in Israel? He'd learned that in his real school. Esther had brought in some scary pictures. . . .
"When Jesus came, it was too late. The Jews were already in control, and they crucified Jesus. The battle between good and evil rages to this day, and now the Communists are pawns of the Jews, and they're just as bad. Any day now hordes of Jew Communists are going to invade the United States, and only a select few are going to be ready for it. That's why we are called the Chosen Ones, and we abide by no laws except divine law."
Daddy had completely lost Jamie at this point. Was that why James drove over 70 in the 55 mph zone, because there was no "divine" speed limit? And was that why he wouldn't wear a seat belt?
James was still babbling, like a tape player that wouldn't stop. "The white race will reclaim its lost status, but it will take time, and work, lots of work. The ministers and churches today, they don't want to tell the truth, they don't want to work, understand, but it's all there for anyone to see. The other churches have been diverting energy away from the real work, and that's why we're here. This is what Brother Joseph is teaching us. This is why you're in Brother Joseph's school, instead of that unholy place in Atlanta."
"You mean, we're not on vacation?" Now Jamie was really confused.
James glanced at him sharply. "Of course we're on vacation, but it's the Lord's vacation."
"Are we really going to see Mommy when we get to Tulsa?"
Jim became silent then. It was the first time Jamie had mentioned Mommy that day, and having finally asked the question, he was suddenly nervous.
"Who told you we were going to see Mommy in Tulsa?"
The boy shrank, sensing that familiar anger which often led to his father's backhanding him. "You did," he said, meekly.
James considered this a moment, then said, "That all depends on Mommy. If she wants to see us, she'll be there. If she doesn't want to see us, she'll stay home."
But we didn't tell Mommy where we were going, and we didn't call her or anything to tell her we'd be in Tulsa today.
"What if she's not in Tulsa?" Jamie said, holding back the tears at this betrayal of a promise. "What if she's still at home? What if she doesn't know we're going to be in Tulsa today?"
"Then that'll be her fault," James said. "She's a Jew woman or something."
When they pulled into the parking lot of Tom's Wholesale Discount Market, Jamie searched for his mother among the several faces he found there. Boys in jeans, shirts and vests pushed giant trains of shopping carts back to the front of the huge building, where even longer lines of carts, stuck together by some magical glue, awaited shoppers. While they were waiting to enter the store, Jamie continued the search, afraid to ask his father about his mom. James had looked ready to hit him back there, Jamie knew, and figured it was time to be quiet. Through trial and error, he had learned to gauge his father's temper.
James showed the girl their membership card and entered the store, selecting a flatbed cart. Still, no Mom. He followed his father silently, knowing that to lag behind would mean to be lost, and to be lost would eventually mean a backhand to the side of his head. And with Mommy nowhere around, there was nothing to stop James, nothing to restrain him. Jamie doubted these strangers would do anything to stop his father from hurting him; they never had before.
Tom's Discount was the only place Jamie had been to that sold stuff by the case. The store was a big warehouse. To reach some of the stuff, a forklift was necessary.
Cases of canned food began to stack up on the cart, and after a man helped them forklift some stuff down from a high shelf, they proceeded to the freezer section. Daddy had mentioned buying milk and cheese last, because it was a perishable. He hoped, also, the sample lady would be there so he could get some free cheese or barbecue sauce or wieners, he was so hungry. But she wasn't there, and he was starting to get unhappy about that when something else attracted his attention.
The freezer section was a catacomb of glass doors and frozen goods. Blasts of cold, biting air nibbled at his skin whenever someone opened a door. Over here, though, was a row of refrigerators, with milk and milk products stacked up inside the door.
His own face stared back at him.
He opened the door while his father, loading boxes of cheese, wasn't looking. The milk cartons were connected by plastic tape, so he couldn't take that one out. But he read it anyway, recognizing his school picture from the year before. It was his name, all right, and his date of birth. According to the carton, he was last seen with James Chase in Atlanta, Georgia. Jamie stared at the picture for a long time, trying to figure out how he could be on there, and why. According to the carton, he was a "Missing Child." But I'm not a missing child. I'm right here, with Daddy. Daddy knows I'm here, so there must be a mistake. Is this what he meant about seeing Mom in Tulsa? Or does Mommy have something to do with this picture being on here?
As he was puzzling over this, he became aware of a large presence behind him, and with a start he looked up at his father. He pointed at the carton, tried to say something, but only a squeak came out.
"What are you looking at there, son?"
James knelt down and studied the carton, taking it out of the refrigerator. He looked at the picture, then at Jamie. Then he looked up and down the aisle; nobody was around just then. The boy noticed that he had the look of someone doing something he shouldn't. He began to feel all funny in his stomach.
"That isn't you," he said, simply. "That's another boy. He's got the same name as you, but it's another boy. Got that?"
Fearful of what would happen to him if he did otherwise, Jamie nodded.
"That's good," he said, quickly going through the remaining cartons, checking the photographs on each one. Apparently, he was holding the only one with his son's picture; he found no others. "Start putting more milk on the cart. This size, here," he said, indicating a stack of milk cartons larger than the first. "I'll be right back."
Jamie tried not to look, but out of the corner of his eye he watched his father look around quickly before dumping the milk in a large, plastic-lined waste can.
When he returned, his expression was somber. "It was bad," he informed his son. "The milk was bad, so I threw it out for them."
Jamie nodded, meekly, and continued loading the milk.
"Here. Let me give you a hand with that," James said, as he helped his son load the flatbed cart.
For Jamie, the situation was becoming more frightening than he wanted to admit. His first impulse was to trust his father, without questioning him about why Mommy wasn't around, why they were far from home, why his picture was on a milk carton. It was easier to just listen to Daddy and do what he said; this gave some order to his world. It was also the best way to avoid being hit. He loved his mother, but he had to admit that during the divorce he felt very much afraid without his father. When James returned to his school to pick him up for the vacation, Jamie was thrilled, though he didn't understand why Mommy wasn't with him. The divorce was weird; Daddy explained it as temporary, and it didn't really mean they weren't married, even though that's what Mommy said it meant. She was confused, he explained. He would explain it all when she got to Tulsa, whenever that would be.
They drove away from the discount store with the loaded truck, and Jamie stared out the window at the other cars. Ahead was an Arby's, and the boy remembered his hunger.
"Daddy, I'm really hungry. Can we stop at Arby's?"
James frowned, as if the request was too much to be handled. But Jamie saw him stuff the wad of bills and change in his pocket when they'd finished buying things. Money, he knew, wasn't a problem.
"I don't know, Jamie. Brother Joseph wouldn't like it."
"Why?" he wanted to know, flinching. He expected a blow, not only for questioning Daddy, but questioning Brother Joseph, which was an even more heinous crime.
"Brother Joseph knows what he's doing," James explained carefully. "He has tapped the Divine Fire before, and through you he will do it again."
Hunger was gone, immediately, as his stomach cramped with fear. No, not that again
"But Daddy," he protested feebly, "I don't want to."
James shook his head dismissively. "That's because you're just a child. When you get older, you'll understand. It's all in Brother Joseph's hands. Fasting is crucial in achieving the purity to talk to God. Something else the clergy in general doesn't know about. Consider yourself fortunate."
The Arby's came and went. Jamie could smell the odors of roast beef and french fries, and his stomach growled loudly. "Perhaps he'll let you eat something tonight. After the ritual. It will be special tonight," James said, as if savoring the prospect. "Just you wait."
They drove on in silence for several moments, while Jamie tried to concentrate on something other than his complaining stomach. I'm so hungry, he thought, and when he saw them pull onto the highway to get back to the vacation place, he realized he wasn't going to be seeing Mommy in Tulsa after all.
So I guess she isn't there, he thought, starting to feel a little cranky instead of being unhappy, and beginning to think he ought to push the issue. After all, Daddy had promised. He was reaching a point where he didn't care if he was hit or not. In a way, he felt like he deserved it. I must have done something bad, or Mommy would be here by now.
"There's something I got to tell you," James began, and Jamie sighed.
He's lying again, he thought, somehow knowing that what would follow wouldn't be the truth. He didn't know how he had acquired the talent for spotting lies, but he did know that Daddy had been lying a lot lately.
It seemed like James was waiting to get on the highway before telling him what, exactly, was going on. James gunned the motor, bringing their speed up to seventy before turning to his son.
"I haven't been telling you everything, because I wanted to protect you. You probably think it was a little weird the way we left Atlanta. Took you from your school and everything. There is really a good reason for all of that. Before I explain, I want to be certain that you understand that I do love you, and I wouldn't do anything that would harm you."
Jamie was feeling uncomfortable again, but he nodded anyway. Whatever lie was coming, it was going to be a big one.
"Good. I trust Brother Joseph without question, and he wouldn't hurt you either."
Jamie wasn't sure about that, but he was too afraid to question it. Brother Joseph is really weird, and he's why you're so weird, isn't it, Daddy? He remembered the last odd ritual, the fourth of a series, in which Brother Joseph made him see and feel things he still didn't understand. Scary things. It was like a big monster on the other side of a wall, like the creepy thing he felt under his bed while sleeping or lurking in his closet. The thing that came to life in his room when Daddy turned the light out. That thing; a dark something that made wet sounds when it moved, the thing that watched him when Brother Joseph shoved him through the wall during the rituals. He forced Jamie to see it, sometimes even to touch it. The wall wasn't solid, he knew, but it was still a barrier. Walls were made for reasons, he thought, and the reason for this one was good. He pushed the memory away, at the same time dreading the coming ritual, where he knew it would just happen all over again.
"I don't mean for you to worry about your mother, but something has happened in Atlanta that's put us all in danger. We were going to see your mom in Tulsa, but I guess she just hasn't made it yet."
Jamie stared glumly forward. "What's happened?" he asked, resigned that whatever James would tell him would be a lie, but hoping for some truth anyway. "What's happened to Mommy?"
"Nothing," James supplied. "Not that I know of, anyway. Back in Atlanta, the police, they came and said that I did something that I didn't. They think that I'm involved in drugs; they accused me of dealing drugs in your school in Atlanta. You know what I'm talking about when I say drugs, don't you?"
Jamie nodded, remembering the cop who had spoken to their class about the bad boys who were smoking cigarettes and other things behind the school during lunch, kids who were only a few years older than him. The cop showed them the green stuff that looked like something Mommy had in bottles to cook with, and another baggie of little white rocks called "crack." That was bad stuff, the cop told them, and they had caught the man who had sold it outside their school. When the cop told them about what drugs did, Jamie was scared and decided that if he was ever offered any, he would refuse. But his dad had nothing to do with it; he knew that much for certain.
"Well, son, it's all a terrible misunderstanding. If it weren't for blessed Brother Joseph and the Chosen Ones, I'd be in jail right now. See, we've got to hide out with the Chosen Ones for a little while, until things kind of level out. I have a lawyer out there working on the case. Your mother didn't know much about this at first, but when I called her and told her what was going on, she got all nervous about me and said I'd better take you with me; she wasn't sure if she could handle you all by herself. The police were wondering about her, too. With the drugs, and all. But don't you worry none. Momma will be here soon."
The stink of lie was thick. Jamie wondered why his father couldn't tell how obvious it was. The boy frowned a little, looked up at his dad, and wondered when he was going to stop lying to him.
"You know I don't sell dope, son."
"I know that, Daddy. They caught who was doin' it. I'm never gonna touch drugs. The police said they make your head puff up and your skin turn green and purple. They make you crazy and do awful things to people."
"Good, son. That's just what I wanted to hear," James replied, absently, as if he hadn't heard a word Jamie had said, once he got the initial answer. "Brother Joseph, he's going to help us through this. He's done a lot for us, and these little errands we run, getting the food for them and all, are a way of helping him back. It'll all work out, you just wait and see."
It can't ever work out, Jamie thought, getting angry at his daddy for making up stories. Momma doesn't know a thing about this, I just know it. This is all real wrong, I shouldn't even be here, I should be in Atlanta going to my school and not this icky place with these icky people Daddy likes. Sarah would know what's right. She always knows what's right. I'll ask her when I get back. She might even know where I could get some food, without Brother Joseph knowing about it.
Jamie knew they were getting close to the "vacation place" when Tulsa dissolved behind them, and the terrain became barren of civilization. There were a few cattle in this part of Oklahoma, sprinkled among the scrawny groves of native oak. The sun continued to beat mercilessly against the earth, but now that it was late afternoon, the temperatures inside the truck were more bearable. They turned off to a lesser, two-laned highway, then to a gravel road. After some time across the bumpy route they came to the front gate, a large steel barrier set in a bed of concrete. James unlocked it, and they proceeded into what the soldiers called "the Holy Land of the Chosen Ones."
Soon they reached a second gate, this one connected to a tall chain-link fence topped by barbed wire. At the gate was a sentry box, where two young men in t-shirts, camo pants and combat boots intercepted the truck. There was a brief inspection before continuing into the main compound. Above them two dozen electricity-generating windmills thwapped. Joe had told Jamie they were connected to powerlines leading to the vacation place.
The truck rumbled past a series of drab Quonset-style shacks. They seemed deserted; once his father had remarked that this was where food and supplies were kept, ready for the "invasion" the grownups were always talking about. Other soldiers, more numerous now than when they first arrived, were patrolling the grounds. At the northwest corner of the compound was an old log cabin that was now a sort of museum. This was what the freedom fighters first lived in, he remembered Miss Agatha saying on a field trip. It stands as a monument to their holy independent spirit and is an inspiration to us all.
Next was a cluster of plain, cinderblock buildings, and more Quonset huts that reminded Jamie of Gomer Pyle episodes. Beyond was the entrance to the underground shelters, the vacation place, where Jamie now lived, along with the rest of the Chosen Ones. Miss Agatha said there were almost one thousand of the "enlightened" living in the vacation place; since he was the new kid, he felt like he was treated with a little more suspicion than the rest.
After all Daddy does for them, they still don't like me.
He figured this was from jealousy, because he was allowed outside, a privilege usually reserved for the trusted few. His father's unique function in fetching supplies had its advantages. Nobody else had a membership in Tom's, and Brother Joseph didn't want anyone else to get one. He said it was a "security risk." But since Jim had gotten the membership a long time ago, there was no reason not to use it.
Jim drove the supply-laden pickup to yet another checkpoint. This was at the mouth of the underground, a gaping, dark hole at the base of a concrete ramp. Jamie knew there would be dim lighting down there that would never compete with the searing summer sun outside; his eyes would have to adjust, first. Going in always frightened him. It was like going down the gullet of some prehistoric creature.
There was some consolation, though; Joe was one of the guards working the gate today. He was just coming on duty when they had left for Tulsa, and Jamie figured by now it might be time for his shift to end. The boy had met Joe at his very first Praise Meeting, and Joe had been nice to himhe'd given him a Tootsie Pop and showed off his tattoo. There was something soaffable, genial about Joe; they had become instant friends. His father approved warmly, and since Joe was the only one besides Brother Joseph who would have anything to do with him, they spent a lot of time together hiding out in the nooks and crannies of the uncompleted sections of the underground.
At first Jamie thought it was a little weird that Joe could sometimes guess what he was thinking, and sometimes answered his questions before he could actually ask them. And only yesterday, Joe had predicted that they would be going out; in fact, said he would be seeing him because he was working guard duty. When Jamie quizzed him about his ability to read minds and see into the future, Joe got real scared, and said for him to never mention that again. He wasn't reading minds and he wasn't seeing into the future, said it was something called "deduction," like Sherlock Holmes did. He also said that if anyone thought he did read minds they'd both be in big trouble. It was the work of the devil, such things, and no Chosen One could ever have powers like that. Jamie let the matter rest.
Sure enough, Joe was standing there, at attention, looking the same as he did when they left. The boy looked up to Joe, admiring him in his uniform. He was every bit a man in Jamie's eyes even though he was barely old enough to be in the Chosen Ones' regular Guard. He was eighteen, one of the few guards who still had hair. Jamie hadn't asked why, because it seemed to be a delicate subject. The rest of the Guard were shaven bald, and it seemed to be some kind of special thing, but he didn't know what it meant.
There were a zillion other questions he wanted to ask Joe today as well, and the top of the list was: why would his picture be on a milk carton?
And besides that, why hadn't his mother shown up yet? He knew he was treading dangerously just to ask Joe, since his father had already provided an answer. If Joe squealed on him, he would be in hot water, and he'd get beaten. Jamie decided to ask anyway, as Joe's overall trustworthiness had never been in doubt, and they shared mutual secrets anyway. And if Joe's answer didn't sound right, there was always Sarah. She knew things most people didn't, and her word was golden. Sarah had never, ever lied to him, or acted as if he was bad or stupid.
James turned off the motor. This was the last and most thorough check in the land of the Chosen Ones, and was used to detect the smuggling of undesirables, spy devices or Communists into the underground bunkers. Jamie had the impression the guards trusted his father but had to do this thing anyway. They went through the truck thoroughly, examining the supplies, looking under the vehicle. His father stood by quietly; this was a sacred ritual, as was any procedure that protected the Chosen Ones from the Jew Communist enemy, who was due to invade any day now. Everything these weird people did seemed to be in preparation for a war, and Jamie didn't understand why anyone outside the compound didn't share this sense of urgency. It must be one of those "truths" that Daddy mentioned, which only the Chosen Ones knew about.
After the inspection Joe spoke briefly with Jamie's father. "You go with Joe," Jim said, getting into the truck. "I have to go unload these supplies. I'll see you at supper, after I speak with Brother Joseph."
Go with Joe! That was exactly what he'd wanted to do. He looked over at the young man, who was grinning as he slung his AK-47 over his shoulder. Jamie had never seen him without it, not even at the big communal dinner hall, and while at first it was a little scary, now he didn't think anything of it. At the vacation place, guns were everywhere. This was not like normal life. Things are different here.
Before Jamie could react to the good news, his father was in the truck and starting it up, the conversation apparently finished. Joe's relief had arrived, a scowling man who looked like Daddy did a day after drinking too much joy juice.
"Hey, buckaroo," the big boy said jovially, squatting down to talk to him, "I've got something to show you."
Usually Jamie didn't like it when he knelt down like that; it made him feel like a little boy, even though he was. But this time was different, he didn't care much; there was a surprise involved this time.
Instead of a surprise, Joe pulled out another Tootsie Pop. Jamie appreciated it, as any eight-year-old wouldespecially with his stomach growlingbut he tried to not let the disappointment show.
"That's not what I wanted to show you," Joe said, trying to conceal a snicker. "Come with me."
Joe led him through a series of tunnels and passageways, some nominally lit, which had been carved into the earth by the Chosen Ones. Some of the digging equipment was still here, Jamie noticed; he had never been down this way before, had in fact been told to stay away from this area of the tunnels, this being forbidden to those under ten. But now the restrictions seemed to have been lifted by his hero.
"You've never been down here before," Joe said, "and it would probably be a good idea if you didn't tell anyone we were here. It'll be our secret. Okay?"
"Awright!" Jamie said, with awe in his voice. "What're we doing down here, anyway?"
"Nothing we shouldn't," he replied. It was hard to keep up with him, he was walking so fast. His legs, too, were that much longer. "I talked to your daddy about this, first, so it's all right with him."
"What is this place?"
They came across a sign, with a drawing of a young soldier holding an AK-47 over his head in triumph, with the caption:
SACRED HEART OF THE CHOSEN ONES
It took a moment for it to register; then surprise spread through Jamie. "Am I joining the Junior Guard already?" It was like a rite of passage here. It had only been a few weeks since Jamie had arrived, but he had come to recognize the importance of some of the ritual elements of the vacation place. The Junior Guard was one of them. "First Battalion? How many battalions are there?" He wasn't sure what a battalion was, but from the sign he gathered they were important, and that there must be more of them.
"There's only one right now," Joe admitted, as they entered another large, damp room, filled to overflowing with every type of firearm he could imagine. Jim had taken him to a sporting goods store once, with what had to be a million guns on the wall, but it was nothing compared to this. The rifles and assault shotguns were lined up in several racks. Beyond that were thousands of wooden boxes, some of them open, filled with bullets. Along another wall, behind a huge sheet of glass, were small handguns, each with a name affixed to a tag. The room smelled like gun oil and rubberized canvas; the odor gave him goosebumps on the back of his neck. This is for real.
"I'm going to show you how to fire a weapon," Joe announced proudly. "Do you want to learn a handgun or a rifle?"
Jamie was struck speechless. Learn how to usea gun? Even the Junior Guard didn't start right away with guns, he knew that much. Joe was providing something special here, and he knew it.
"I want to learn that one," Jamie said, pointing at the assault rifle slung over Joe's shoulder, so common it seemed to be a part of him. "Your gun."
Joe laughed, but not in a way that humiliated him, the way the other grownups did. Joe was his friend, and his laugh didn't betray that. "Sorry, bucko, you're gonna have to work up to this one. Come over here." He led him to a rack of rifles, smaller and lighter than most of the others. "These are all the right size to start with. Hey, Jamie, I had to start with an air rifle when I was your age. You get to use real bullets. You're lucky."
Jamie studied the weapons. One stuck out, grabbed his attention. It wasn't quite a machine gun, but it looked a little more grownup than the others. It had a block-letter J carved in its stock. "That one."
"Hmmmmm," Joe said. "Good choice. It used to be my gun, when I was little. Imagine that."
Joe unlocked the gun rack and handed him the weapon. "Never point it at anyone you don't want to kill. Don't point it up, either, when you're down in the bunkers. Always point it down. Roof's usually metal here, and if it goes off accidentally the dirt or wooden floors will absorb the bullet, but it would bounce off metal and hurt someone."
He reached for it eagerly. "All right, Joe. Is it loaded?"
"Always assume it is, even when you know it isn't. NOdon't point it at me! There you go, down at the ground. Good boy." Joe's voice took on a singsong quality. "What you have here is a Charter Explorer Rifle, model 9220. Takes eight .22 long cartridges. It's not fully automatic like mine, but it'll do for starters." Joe picked up a box of bullets, and his voice returned to normal. "Let's go to the firing range."
They walked in silence to the next room. The long, narrow area was floored thickly with sand, and the roof tapered down at the opposite end. This was, Joe told him, to deflect weapons fire into the ground. Standing in the firing area were several crude dummies, which he thought were real people, at first. They were wearing military uniforms, and some were holding staffs with flags on them. One he recognized as Russia's flag, and another held a flag with a six-pointed star. There were other items to shoot at in the sandy area, but the primary targets seemed to be the make-believe people. Jamie didn't like that very much. He hadn't associated the weapons with killing people until then, though he knew deep down that's what they were for.
Guns were something he was used to; sometimes they were used to hunt animals, but not people. His daddy had never mentioned killing when he was cleaning his Luger. And on the rare instances he had taken Jamie along for shooting practice out in the woods, he always shot at bottles and cans. Never people. And he couldn't imagine Joe shooting and killing someone else. The sight of the dummies standing there, waiting to be shot at, made him feel a little sick inside.
But he didn't say anything to Joe, for fear of being a sissy. I'm going to do this, no matter what, so nobody will treat me like a sissy no more.
Joe showed him three different sniper positions before he even let him handle the loaded weapon; as he lay there, belly down in the dirt, Jamie wondered what this had to do with learning how to shoot. Finally the older boy loaded the weapon with eight little bullets and carefully handed it to him.
"This is the safety," Joe informed him, lying prone beside him in the sand. "This keeps it from firing accidentally. Until you're ready to shoot, leave it on."
The lessons progressed from there, and after learning to squeeze, not pull, the trigger, Jamie fired his first round. It wasn't nearly as loud as he expected, but then his gun wasn't as large as Joe's. At Joe's urging he selected a target and fired a few more rounds, remembering to squeeze the trigger, and promptly picked off one of the objects in the sand. His first kill was a Hill's Brother's coffee can, which went piiiiing as it flew backwards into the sand.
"Good shot, buckaroo!" Joe applauded. Jamie was triumphant. "That's better than I did my first time!"
Jamie was getting ready to draw on another target when he became aware of someone standing behind them. Another weapon went snik, snik. Jamie's arms turned to putty, and the barrel of his rifle dropped.
"If I were a Jew-Communist-pig you'd both be dead now, Private!" an ominous, and familiar, voice boomed. Following Joe's example, he scrambled to his feet, leaving the weapon on the ground.
It was Brother Joseph, standing there with Joe's AK-47 pointed directly at them. As if to make a point, he turned and fired a few rounds into a dummy.
"I'm sorry, sir," Joe stammered in the echo of the gunfire. Jamie could see he was really scared; his face had become whiter than usual, which probably wasn't so bad, since these people seemed to value that color. "I was just showing"
"Silence!" Brother Joseph demanded, and received. The man was wearing a strange military uniform similar to the Guard, but it had a preacher's white collar incorporated into it. Jamie had never seen this particular article of finery and assumed it was new. "On your stomach. Fiftyno, one hundred push-ups. Now!" the man barked, and the boy responded instantly.
Joe dropped to the ground, making his lean, muscular body rigid as he began the push-ups, using his knuckles for support. It was how the Guard always did push-ups, Jamie observed, and it looked quite painful.
While Joe was doing this, Jamie could see a thin wisp of smoke trailing out of the AK-47 and remembered his own gun, lying on the sand. He thought it best to go ahead and leave it there, to give himself time to figure out what was wrong, and what Joe had done that was so terrible. Brother Joseph was angry about something, and although the anger seemed to be directed at Joe, he did not feel at all comfortable standing in the man's shadow. Even when he wasn't angry.
Joe counted out the push-ups, pumping them off with ease; a slight sweat broke out down the small of his back and beaded across his forehead. The beret had been left on, as Brother Joseph had given him no permission to remove it. Slowly but surely, Jamie was beginning to understand the nuances of discipline within the Guard, though he had never envisioned Brother Joseph as the direct leader of them. The Guard leadership seemed to be comprised of middlemen subservient to Brother Joseph; now the boy knew the weird preacher was probably in command of them as well. His new item of clothing supported this.
It was in moments like these, when the cruelty shone through like a spotlight, that Jamie had second thoughts about joining the Junior Guard. Then he would look at Joe and see him endure the abuse and begin to wonder if this really was the natural order of things everywhere. It certainly was the natural order of things here.
Joe completed the punishment and leaped to his feet, standing sharply at attention. His breathing was hardly labored, and only the slightest gleam of sweat had appeared on his forehead. What would have been brutal punishment for most didn't seem to bother him in the least; Jamie was in awe. Someday, I'm gonna be able to do that.
"Very well," Brother Joseph said, sounding a little calmer. "Perhaps that will teach you never to leave your weapon where the common enemy can take it and use it against you. I know, son, it probably seems like there's no chance for a Jew-pig to infiltrate, but you never know. They're a cunning bunch, the spawn of Satan."
"Yes, Father," Joe said, looking down at the ground.
Son? Father? Is he Joe's daddy? Or do they just talk like that because of who he is?
"So tell me, young guardsman, what were you doing down here with this child?"
The question carried strange, accusatory undertones that Jamie couldn't fathom. Leaving the firearm in the sand didn't seem a good idea, and he wondered if now was a good time to bring that up.
"I was showing this youngster how to use a weapon, Father," Joe said, pride slowly returning to his voice. "He has a fine talent for marksmanship, if I do say so," he added.
"Glad to hear it," Brother Joseph said, and handed Joe his weapon. "Strip and clean your weapon, son," he said. "Your mother will be expecting you at our dinner table tonight. You haven't forgotten her birthday, have you?"
"Of course not, sir," Joe said. "I will attend."
Brother Joseph regarded Jamie with a bemused, patronizing expression, as if he'd just seen him for the first time. "Young James," he said. "So you have a gift. That much was obvious, that first time we touched the Holy Fire together." His eyes narrowed. "Yes. Special. And very gifted indeed," he said in parting, and as he walked away his laughter echoed down the metal walls.
The sound made him feel empty, and somehow unclean. As Jamie watched Brother Joseph's back recede he felt a new dread, a growing horror that had no name. The Chosen Ones didn't see it, saw only the bright side of him. They followed Brother Joseph wherever he went. Sarah was the only one who knew about it besides Jamie, that's how hidden it was. And when the preacher made him "channel" the Holy Fire, they both saw this darkness, so scary that Jamie made himself forget what he saw and touched, most of the time.
But every time he saw Brother Joseph he remembered. And we're going to do it again tonight. Oh, no, he thought, and shuddered.
In silence Joe finished cleaning his firearm and put it all back together. He seemed humiliated, and justifiably so. But Jamie still had questions to ask. About the milk carton, about his mother. And he was going to ask them; they were alone now, and there would be no better opportunity.
"Is he your daddy?" Jamie blurted, knowing no other way to start.
"Yes. He is. And it's nothing we need to talk about. As far as anyone is concerned, I'm just another soldier, fighting for the cause. I get no special treatment," he said, his eyes narrowing at Jamie. "And don't you treat me no different. If you do that I'll have to rough you up." He added that last, lightly, like a joke.
But in that second, with that brief, angry expression, he looked just like Brother Joseph. Joe, Joseph. Of course. How come I didn't guess before? Jamie knew he could get real depressed over this if he let it happen, but he tried not to. Joe's still Joe. Even my daddy's bad sometimes.
"Why didn't you know your daddy was coming?" Jamie asked, but immediately knew it was the wrong thing to say. Joe was looking at the ground, apparently not paying too much attention.
"Sometimes I just have to turn it off. . . ." Joe said absently, then looked at Jamie in mild alarm. "No one can read minds. Remember that. And don't call him my daddy. He's my leader, and that's all that matters."
"Oh," was all he said, and Joe looked relieved. Apparently, other people down here made a big deal over it. But then, those other people liked Brother Joseph. "Something weird happened today when we were out getting supplies."
"What's that?" Joe asked, brightening up. He sounded glad to change the subject.
"I saw my picture on a milk carton. It said I was a `missing child.' What does that mean?" he said, waiting for some kind of reaction from Joe.
He found none, absolutely nothing. A stone mask went over his face, and Jamie knew something was amiss. It was the same mask he had worn when his father sneaked up behind them.
"Are you sure it was you?" he finally replied.
"Yep," Jamie said. "Sure was."
Joe frowned. "Did you tell your daddy about it?"
Jamie felt a little cold. "Y-yeah, and he said it was someone else."
Joe stopped and knelt again, but it was with an expression of such severity that Jamie wasn't annoyed by it; he was frightened. "Then listen to your father. Do not disobey him. It is the way of the Chosen Ones. It was wrong for you to ask another grownup when your father already told you it wasn't you." Joe held his chin in his right hand, forcing the boy to look directly in his eyes. "If your father said it was someone else, then it was someone else. Don't ask anyone about it again."
Jamie wanted to cry. This was the first time his friend had spoken to him like that, and it hurt terribly. This is still not right, he thought. But he isn't gonna tell me anything else, either. Maybe I'd better not ask about Mom, then. Daddy already told me why she isn't here. It's because she doesn't want to be.
But as Joe walked him back to his room, he couldn't believe this was the real reason.
Joe walked him back to the tiny cubicle that served as his home. It was in a section of the underground that was lined with sheet metal, forming tubular habitats for most of the "civilian" Chosen Ones. That meant all the women, little kids, and the few men that weren't in the Guard, like Jamie's dad. The Guard and Junior Guard lived elsewhere, in barracks-type quarters, austere living for even a seasoned soldier. At first, Jamie had thought it was a kind of jail, without the bars. Joe had showed the Junior Guard barracks to him once, but it did not inspire the awe the older boy had apparently hoped it would.
Jamie's quarters were cozy in comparison. The cult had found scrap carpeting and had used it to create a patchwork quilt on all the floors. The three pieces of furniture were all used, and none of it matched: a chair, a formica coffee table, a burlap-covered couch with the stuffing coming out in white, fluffy lumps. For the first week they didn't have a bed and had to sleep on blankets and blocks of soft foam that had been in a flood, according to Jamie's dad. The two twin mattresses they had now were an improvement over the floor, but Jamie overheard one of the men who carried them in say they had been stolen from a motel. Their lighting came from one dangling lightbulb that had no switch and had to be unscrewed each night with an "as-best-ohs" rag kept specifically for that purpose. The bathroom and single shower were down the hall and serviced the entire row of ten tiny rooms. Moist, musty air occasionally blew through a small vent, enough to keep the room from getting too stuffy. But since they were underground, the cool earth kept the temperature down.
At first the rugged environment was more exciting than uncomfortable, this secret place where he hid with his dad from the rest of the world. But as a week passed, and he began to miss his mother and wonder about where she was, the experience became disturbing. He missed his things, his toys, and especially his clothes. He missed having three meals, or even one meal, a day. He couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten, other than Joe's gift of candy. It wasn't yesterday. I think it was the day before. When he went to the dining hall, all they would give him was juice. Orange juice at breakfast, vegetable juice at lunch and dinner, and apple juice at night. Everyone else got to eat, but not him.
Joe's answer wasn't good enough, Jamie thought, morosely. It wasn't even close. Didn't tell me nothin'.
Jamie sat on his bed and leaned against the curved, metal wall. His father was not here yet, but it would only be a matter of moments before he came and fetched him for supper, which was served in a large, communal hall. But I've got time to talk to Sarah, before he gets here.
The wall was cool and pulled some of the heat out of his body. Good. That'll help me to think real hard.
He closed his eyes. "Sarah?" he said. "Are you there?"
:I'm here, Jamie,: he suddenly heard in his head. :I was getting worried.:
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|Copyright:||© 1992 by Mercedes Lackey|