With editors Ellen Datlow, Gardner Dozois, Liz Gorinsky, Paula Guran, Nick Mamatas, James Patrick Kelly, Ann VanderMeer, and Sheila Williams
Beginning writers often wonder what fiction editors of magazines and anthologies want from a story. But the primary responsibility of an editor is to choose fiction, not to provide a critique or advice—thus, your mileage may vary in getting useful comments from editors in rejection. In addition, every editor has different tastes in fiction as well as a different focus.
Wonderbooknow.com seemed like a unique opportunity to bring some of the most respected editors of fantastical fiction together to read and provide comments on the same story. This way you get to see not just the commonalities but the differences in approach between editors. However, this is not an exact science. Which is to say, the type of story chosen will elicit different levels of response from different editors because of their varying taste in fiction. Some might be more or less forthcoming depending on how close to their sweet spot the story comes in terms of subject matter, characters, or overall approach. (A good example: both Gardner Dozois and Liz Gorinsky preferred to only offer general comments on the story.)
I chose “Deadduns” as the story for critique because by the author’s own admission it had promise but hadn’t quite gotten all the way there. This was in part reflected by the fact that the publications it was sent to had all rejected it. However, the story’s potential promise was also reflected in the fact that the author received several personalized rejections. In short, “Deadduns” represents the typical story-with-potential, one that demonstrates a certain level of imagination and imagination while still not quite working. Thousands of stories of this type come into the slushpiles of editors every month.
The author is a published writer who has sold a first novel to a major publisher. The author wants to remain anonymous as a condition of the public posting of this critique—I’m very grateful for their participation.
The editors who agreed to participate in this experiment have dozens of Hugo Awards, World Fantasy Awards, and other award nominations between them, and represent more than 200 years of professional experience between them. You can find out more about them in the bio notes that accompany their general comments.
You can read the story below, where it has been reproduced without the commentary. You could then make your own notes about what you like and dislike in “Deadduns” before comparing your analysis to that of the professional editors presented herein. – Jeff VanderMeer
Dust and Deadduns
(or “Church Shoes”)
What everyone remembers about the Dust Bowl of the Dirty Thirties? The dust, of course. Not much else to it, but mudbugs on a griddle. They didn’t name it the Poverty Bowl or even the Roadites Bowl. The books don’t call it the Bury-Your-Relatives Bowl or the Great Starvation Bowl, ‘cause the dust part covered all that crazy stuff.
At least, we can say it was “dust.” But that don’t do it justice, any more than me calling my old Gran a sordid harpy does her any justice. That only offends harpies. The real dirty part wasn’t the dust itself, but mostly what the dust did: The way it filled people’s lungs and they choked out black slop and that was the tired end of it, Hail Mary and God Rest (but not often enough). Then:
“Let’s keep moving because we hear there’s stuff out west for us,” stuff for our hands to pluck or pull or mold and make something out of, rather than waste those same hands on grippin’ the wheel of an automobile that ain’t worth spit.
I left the grippin’ to Gran. Those fingers of hers could clench closed faster than oiled hinges, and she wasn’t someone you wanted to cross on that long highway, ‘less you wanted to be run over and then spat on by an old Roma woman with a cackle and a cancer hack. I never met anyone who wanted that — but there are all sorts in this world, and we met lots of ‘em.
Many folks wondered at us: two women travelin’ alone across the country, me a youngish one with my skirts in a bunch and Gran with her cancerin’.
“I ain’t got the cancer, you floozie,” she said.
We were on the road somewhere in the Arizona deserts in our old rattletrap, and we hadn’t seen even a shrub for twenty miles. Not a shrub or a person, and we were looking out the windows into the tan plains and chuggin’ along real slow in search of a place to lay ourselves down. Maybe get some shut-eye.
“Sure sounds like you got somethin’,” I said. The dust spitting through the open windows and the fallin’ dark made me wanna shut them even in the heat, but Gran said that would choke her pores and ruin her delicate complexion. She wouldn’t hear of it.
I don’t think she even had a complexion under the dirt.
“Either that or you’re a lunger,” I added, as she hacked a cough out the window.
“Ain’t consumption. Ain’t nothin’. Ain’t cancer.”
“Then what are them tumors right there?”
“What tumors? These are my womanly bunches! These used to get all the Johnies a’hollerin’, lemme tell you. She cancer-cackled and eased her foot onto the brake, so that the car stuttered to a stop next to a likely-looking patch of dirt. “Just you wait ‘til you’re old, muffin.”
I thought I wouldn’t wanna. I didn’t even wanna hear about it. And with my luck, I didn’t have to, ’cause the next thing that happened shut Gran right up.
A raggedy grayish hand and the tattered remnants of a flannel shirt jutted through the open window and grabbed Gran by the mouth, hookin’ her like a fish on its sorry excuses for fingers. Gran didn’t holler, but she looked mighty pissed.
Quick as a jackrabbit, I pulled the rifle from the space by my feet and started to take aim just as the damn body that came with the damn hand put its ugly, stinkin’ head through the window. Its eyeholes were two pits that were more frightenin’ and black than unwashed underarms, and his teeth might have beaten Gran’s in a contest for ugliest.
Gran woulda won that in the end, I think, ’cause when his grubby dead hand clenched on her mouth, she bit down hard as she could with the sharp edges of her chompers and didn’t let go.
The thing in the window didn’t howl about it, o’course. Didn’t feel a thing, the skinny bastard. Just stood there and tried pullin’ those fingers from that lockjaw. I was ready to just give the deaddun lead poisoning, if only Gran would let him go and duck down. But she was stubborn and she had an appetite to be reckoned with. Jesus himself couldn’t fill that belly of hers, even if he did the biggest wine and fishfry in the world. She didn’t even like fish and she wasn’t much of a wino.
“Shoort ‘irm!” she shouted, sucking on them dead fingers.
“He’s too close, Gran! I’ll have to take yer wig with him!”
“Ven I shaaa be barld!” she cried, through the fingers.
The gun exploded like dynamite in movin’ pictures. Our rifle had a recoil that shoved me right into the door behind and an echo that didn’t half leave me achin’, but it left the head of the deaddun in bits, too.
When the dust flew a bit away – the dust never really cleared back then – I listened through the smoke with stinging ears for Gran’s cancer cough.
When I heard it, it was quieter than usual.
Finally I could see her, sitting up straight in the seat with most of her wig still there. The flowers on her dress weren’t even wrinkled, but her face was, scrunched up like she was chewin’ a skunk.
Gran spat three crusted fingers from her mouth and coughed as they landed on the seat between us. “I’m fine. Dunno about him,” she said, and jabbed her thumb in the direction of the dried-up corpse on the road outside her door.
“Ver’ funny, Gran.”
When Gran got out of the car, she crushed what was left of his dusty skull with the heel of her once-good church shoes.
“Git the tent up,” she said. “And keep the gun out. Looks like camp could be lively tonight, Eliza.”
I knew better than to say we should find someplace more sheltered than that patch o’ desert. I couldn’t guess where that deaddun came from and it didn’t seem safe to stay near him, but Gran was set in her ways. When she put her church shoes down, it meant business or damnation. That was our spot. We left him in the road and pulled the truck off to the right of it.
The Dust Bowl. People talk about the dust and the poverty and the mudbugs an’ all.
They always forget about the damn zombies.
That night got lively real quick, but not with dead-folk. Okies were a lot like vultures – they saw each other and snuck in close to nab things. That’s why, when I lifted the rifle as the fire was dying and the beans were all but gone, I was only half surprised to see that it wasn’t the evil dead approaching, but another clunker: a rusted old bastard of a Hudson with a massive, full bed that cast a shadow. The back of that jalopy was packed higher than most I’d seen. It had a canopy, old-style, like it was a wagon from the Oregon trail and not a rusted bucket of bolts. The headlights cut through the dusk and caught us. The rumbling truck slowed down with a screech not ten yards from our makeshift tent.
“What the hell d’you think they want?” said Gran. She uncrossed her legs on the overturned bucket and squinted at the road. There was a creak as the driver-side door of the towering truck came open and a thin fellow stepped out. He put his hand up at us. In the dying light, it was impossible to tell whether he was smiling or devil-grinning.
“Sleep,” I said. The fellow crossed the front of the overloaded jalopy to the other side. He opened the door and put his hand in. “Food, maybe.”
“Well, I ain’t food.” She cackled as the thin fellow helped a small woman out. “Hope they know that.”
“They ain’t deadduns.”
“How d’you know?”
The man wrapped his arm around the woman’s shoulders. She put her head on his arm, and together they walked past our tent and towards our firepit.
“You ever seen deadduns so gentle?”
“So feel-y, you mean? Pah,” said Gran, but I knew she agreed. “But sometimes you gotta watch the living, too. Lotsa ways to get eaten, Eliza. And you can’t bite the fingers off livin’ folk, ‘less you’re wantin’ to visit the Big House.”
“Hello!” said the man. He had a strained voice that sounded kinda wrong comin’ out of such a well-kept fella. The closer he came, the clearer his cloth was. He was dressed fine for a Roadite, in a doggy suit that was hardly stained with dust. His face was clear, too, but a bit too shiny for my likin’ – like that grin was painted on. “May we speak to the man of this outfit, madam?”
“Sure,” said Gran. She stood, took the rifle from me, and held it out with her eyes squinted. “This here’s Houstis. He wants to know yer names and yer business.”
The newcomer held the woman closer. “My name’s Elias Vogel, and this is my blessed wife, Vivian.”
The frail woman had real big eyes, like a nighttime critter’s, and her patchwork dress was torn. Her voice quivered when she spoke. “‘lo,” she said.
“I like a man who dresses well,” said Gran, straightening herself and lowering the barrel. “I’ll hear ya out.”
“We were wondering whether we could join your camp for the night.” He looked from Gran to me. “We won’t be any trouble and it’ll only be safer for you.”
“’Safer’?” Gran spat into the dirt. The man darted backwards; his wife’s feet dragged on the ground when he pulled her with him. “Safer for us? Safer?”
“Gran -” I warned, but there was no stopping her. She poked the newcomer in the chest with Houstis. That painted grin of his hitched a bit. “We’re the survivors, ye hear? We’ve stayed safe! Just because we’re wimmin don’t mean we’re done for. Do you know what happened to the big, strong men that were s’posed to protect us? Do you know where they’re at now?”
I looked at the sputterin’ flames, at the burning bits of legs of an old table that used to sit in our kitchen back home.
“I meant no offense, madam. I merely was suggesting that as a man of God, I could offer – ” Elias Vogel said, but Gran poked him with Houstis again.
“They’re dead, that’s where. Gone with the dust they bit, just like everythin’ else. It ate ‘em from the insides until they were hardly people at all, until I had to beat my husband’s noggin in with the garden hoe so that he wouldn’t try to parch his thirst with the skin off Eliza’s back, you hear?”
The man’s shiny face twisted like he hated what he was hearin’. “There’s really no need to -”
“The same thing happened to my boy,” said Vivian suddenly. Those eyes of hers were nothing but big dishes of pain. “He breathed in too much of the dust…and when he was dead – he wasn’t. He was all shriveled up in the Hudson like - like -” Her hands twisted her skirt. “But he was still grabbing at me. I thought he was thirsty. I thought, I thought he was alive and -”
“Shh.” Elias put a hand over his wife’s mouth. For a moment it looked like she wanted to bite like Gran did before, but then she lowered her eyes.
I stood up. “Let them stay, Gran.”
“What?” said Gran. She never let on to the pain she was feelin’, but I could tell Vivian’s story bothered her because she was gnawing on her lip and holdin’ in her coughin’. “They’s just a bunch of damn freeloaders.”
“Fire don’t cost nothin’ to share.”
“Your Gramps spent hours carvin’ out that burning table once. I don’t call that nothin’.”
“Gramps woulda let ‘em stay. He was real hospitable.”
She cancer-hacked for a moment, but I think her fist hid a smile. Under everything, she really liked people – called that her fatal flaw. She couldn’t hardly stand having just me as her companion, and since she lost two of her own littluns before having three that grew up, she was a real sucker for dead baby stories.
“You can stay,” she said, dropping Houstis to her side, “but only if you got your own food.”
“Oh, we certainly do, madam!” said Elias Vogel, and that grin came back. “In fact – perhaps we could spare some for you fine folk, in exchange for your kindness. We can say a prayer and contemplate the Grace of God over our hotdogs.”
I eyeballed him. Creepy bastard actually meant what he was sayin’ about blessed hotdogs, but I was real careful not to laugh. Both of them were thin things. He had a fire in his eyes that said he was really hungerin’ for somethin’. “Nah.”
“I’ve already had ’nuff eats today,” said Gran, and she picked a bit of zombie fingerflesh from her chompers.
They parked their Hudson on the opposite side of the fire from ours so the trucks sandwiched us in with the tent and kept out the wind. They had a couple of spuds between ‘em, and also a holy hotdog that Elias cooked and split in two. He put a good portion on Vivian’s lap, though it was smaller than his own, but she didn’t even see the damn thing. She was staring at the Hudson with them big eyes o’ hers, and beyond it into the shrubby desert.
“What you gonna do out west, then?” asked Elias.
“Pickin’,” I said.
“That’s what we’re s’posed to say.” Gran squinted at me. “My granddaughter’s a bit soft about it. We’re goin’ out west because we hear that the dead stay dead out there.”
“That’s something,” Vivian whispered.
“The deadduns are everywhere, and they should be. This is the Consummation of the World, right here in our time.” There was that hunger behind Elias’s blinkers. “The dead rise before the end. Those dusty corpses are digging themselves out because Christ walks among us, ladies. The dead face Judgment.”
“Are you sayin’,” said Gran, chewing her lip, “that the folks what have died and come back are black sinners?”
“No, ma’am. ‘…And there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust.’ So said Paul. Makes for good reading.” Elias held his shoulders upright. He must’ve been a preacher. No one else had shoulders that stiff, ‘cept salesmen.
“Your boy?” Gran said, after a minute of starin’ at the stars above. At night, the dust didn’t really hide them. They gave enough light on their own that the fire didn’t much matter anymore. “Which is he?”
Elias Vogel was still smilin’. “Our boy Timothy was a good Christian. The Lord had mighty glorious plans for him.” Didn’t look like a mourning father to me. Damn religious crazies really gave me jellylegs in those days, ’cause they liked to say that people that died deserved it. Gran didn’t like crazies much either, and she was a churchgoer.
“My wife and I were spared – we’re going out to do the Lord’s work. Spread the New Gospel. Make no mistake – He walks among us. The dead are rising. Seen the bodies with my own eyes.” He pointed to the stiff in the road. “One right there. And we heard on the radio – they’re setting up a camp for believers out in the San Joaquin. We’re on a pilgrimage.”
“Fun. Aren’t you and your wife jist so lucky?” said Gran.
“Yes, Ma’am.” Hungry gleam. Like a ravenous dog. “We truly are.”
Elias didn’t know Gran well enough to get properly offended, but there wasn’t much talk after that, and eventually the couple went to the back of their Hudson. Elias put his arms around Vivian’s waist and hoisted her into the hidden bed of the truck. She still looked skittish as a rabbit when he pushed her through.
“The dust has nothing to do with Jesus,” I said, once the canopy flap shut behind ‘em. “Neither do the deadduns.”
“Ah, people get real funny when their kids get killed. But I know that your Gramps weren’t no sinner. No more’n the next gamblin’, drinkin’, philanderin’ old lecher, I mean.” She shook her head, so that her wig bobbed with her. She never seemed sad about Gramps, only happy to think of him, or sorta angry that she had to bash his head in that day in the kitchen. “Don’t much like the idea of him being Judged. Jesus could easy make a mistake and send him to the devil.”
“If he did, Gramps would give Old Lucifer a run for his money. But Jesus sure as hell ain’t along Route 66, if he’s anywhere,” I said. I didn’t think much of Jesus, after Gramps tried to eat me. Maybe I was bein’ unfair – ‘cause we used to eat Jesus every weekend at Church, only he was a little crust of oldish bread during communion. Not sure that’s the same.
Gran chuckled. “Roadites have to believe this shit for a reason, Eliza. Damn dust leaves people crusted and empty and cancery – t’aint cancer, damnit!” – she added, when I raised my eyebrows. “All’s I’m sayin’ is that it ain’t no wonder the dead can’t sleep with the earth spittin’ up like that. Worse than when your Gramps had too much hooch afore Service and gagged during hymnal.”
“He sorta looked drunk when he was dead, too,” I added, recalling how I had run back to the farmhouse before the black blizzard covered it to find Gramps gnawin’ on old chicken bones in the kitchen.
“Yeah.” Gran sighed happily and closed her eyes. “What a charmer.”
“‘lo” said a voice, from behind my shoulder. Vivian was standing by the Hudson’s bumper, pale in the starlight.
“Didja somethin’ wake you?” The gun rattled when Gran pulled it closer. “Need somethin’ shot at?”
“No! It’s nothin’ like that. I just – ” Her eyes skittered back to the canopy. She took another step away from it. “I can’t sleep in there anymore, since – since – ”
I led her to the fireside. Sat her down on my upturned bucket. “Here,” I said. “Don’t need the shivers too, after all you been through.”
“Thank you.” Vivian pressed a palm into those wide eyes. When she lowered it, it came away shining.
“How long you been travelin’?”
“Only a week or so. We set out three days before we found Timothy dead.”
“That’s no fun.”
She sniffled, all pathetic-like. “Not really, no.”
“Time helps,” I told Vivian. Dunno if that was true. Felt like somethin’ to say, anyhow. Like in moving pictures. “Hey, Gran!”
“Hay’s for horses,” mumbled Gran. She was fallin’ asleep there, the rifle slipping from her grasp. Maybe dreamin’ of the good ole days of Gramps’s philanderin’.
“Let her stay in our tent tonight,” I said. “Have my pillow, Vivian.” I took the rifle before it fell from Gran’s lap. “I’m Keepin’ watch. The more of us there are, the more likely we are to see some deadduns.”
Once Gran was dropped in bed and Vivian was beside her, I returned to the embers and watched the road. It was damn freezing out there. Nearly froze my delicates.
I blinked just before dawn and when I opened my peepers I could hear familiar rasping in the dark – the sound of something sucking air into dry lungs. I sat up straight on my bucket and peered into the gloom with my rifle up.
I couldn’t guess where they had come from, these deadduns. The last abandoned farm had been twenty miles or more back, and zombies can’t walk twenty miles that fast. I wondered about Okie and Arkie graves that we could be sleeping on – about all the dead things beneath the ground. Sometimes the deadduns got right back up once they’d coughed themselves to death, like Gramps did, and sometimes they were buried and everything before the dust got in ‘em enough that they clawed their way out. I couldn’t hazard a wager about what kind these were, but I could hear the sucking.
I backed up slowly into the tent and kicked it with my boot. Gran yelped through the canvas.
“Christ! Whaddya mean by it?”
A hefty cough. “Shoot ‘em and be done with it! I’m sleepin’!”
“I don’t know where they’re comin’ from. Wake Vivian.”
“She ain’t even in here.” Gran poked her head through the tent entrance. “Might’ve gone for a piddle.”
The dry rasping didn’t sound any closer, but I swear it sounded more horrible once she’d said that.
“No!” I jerked the barrel away from her when she tumbled out, straightening her silver wig. “You’ve still got sand in your eyes.”
She grumbled, but she knew how it was. I wore iron and filled deadduns with daylight holes, and Gran did the drivin’, ‘cause I was a shit driver. It worked out, ‘cept that Gran was a shit driver too.
I looked real close at the campsite, but I couldn’t see anything. I listened hard – the rasping sound was coming from the direction of the Hudson. The wind picked up and I caught a whiff of rot on it.
“Vivian!” I called, but pretty quiet, ’cause deadduns were good at hearing. “Elias?”
I took slow steps towards the side of the Hudson that faced us, the driver’s side, while Gran clutched at my sleeve. I leaned up against the canopy and pushed my face through an opening. There was a rattle of chains, but I couldn’t see nothin’. I opened my mouth to whisper — and had to stifle an almighty gag.
The stench inside that truckbed was godawful — like nothing I’d ever smelled, and I’d smelled some rank things, travelin’ with Gran and all. Must’ve been some great canvas to trap it in there. This was like the cows who died in the stable overnight.
“Whatsamatter?” Gran tugged on my arm. “Does Elias sleep bare-assed?”
“He’s not in there,” I said. I pulled my head out and retched.
“What the hell’s in there, then?”
The rasping got louder and Gran got serious, holdin’ in her cackle-coughs. The sound coming from the other side of the truck stopped. I put a finger to my lips and handed Gran Houstis. I bundled up my skirts, got to my knees by the front tire and leaned down ’til I could see underneath to the other side. My hair dragged in the dirt and I squinted in the dark, holding my breath.
The thing on the other side of the Hudson was too preoccupied with some other sack of meat to be bothered with me. I could see the shadow of a back hunched over a heap on the desert floor, and I understood why the rasping had stopped. The thing was chewing, now, and tearing through the meat of the heap with a sound like ripping jerky and dry crunching.
I put my hand up quietly, and Gran set the rifle in it. Careful not to rattle the bullets, I shifted onto my elbows so that I could take aim at the shadow. I closed an eye, like Gramps had taught me years back when cattle-thieves were being bothersome in Oklahoma.
Right when my finger was tightening, Gran couldn’t help herself and a little cough got out of her. She clapped a hand over her mouth, but too late – the shadow stiffened right before the gun went off and rattled my eardrums. When I opened my eyes and tried to see through the sparks, the crouching shadow was gone.
Now that my view of the heap was no longer hindered by the shadow of the creepin’ thing, I could see whose body was being chewed up. It wasn’t Vivian’s. It wasn’t Elias’s. It was the deaddun’s I’d shot up earlier, more dust than corpse.
“Gran – didja see where -?” I clambered to my feet and spun ’round quick.
Gran wasn’t there. Only the pit and the empty tent and our jalopy on the opposite side as I cocked Houstis.
Rasping from near the cabin of the Hudson. I turned quick, swingin’ the gun skyward as I did it, and saw the shadow standing there, making dry-sucking noises as it took in air.
I sucked in almost as much air myself before I could squeeze the trigger again, because the moonlight was bright enough that I could see what I was shooting at.
It was a small, white-eyed child with black blood slathered across his mouth and down the front of is flannel shirt.
My eyes grew big as Vivian’s, which was funny ’cause that’s right when she turned up. She grabbed the end of the rifle and pulled it into the air and my buttery fingers slipped and my fingers clenched like Gran’s jaws and the gun went off into the air with a painful crack –
And behind me Elias said: “Shoot again and I’ll kill her.”
I turned. He had a knife to Gran’s wrinkled neck. She looked furious with me when I dropped the rifle; I was supposed to shoot him, not drop the gun. But Gran was all I had, and that knife was real sharp.
Vivian was shaking, standing in front of her dead son.
“Who’s that, Ma?” said the dead boy, in a papery voice.
“We’ve got a meal for you, Timothy,” said Elias, and his painted grin got wider. “God is gracious.”
I just about ruined my bloomers right then.
The sunrise was creepin’ over the desert by the time Vivian had trussed me up to the front bumper of our rattletrap with a bit of rope from that stinking truck of theirs. The whole time she was fumbling over those knots, I was lookin’ right at Elias holding Gran, and at the little deaddun sitting on my bucket by the fireside. I couldn’t figure that creature out – deadduns didn’t talk, as a rule. They’ were nothin’ but sacks of dirt that used to be real folks, as far as we knew. So this little twit, maybe five years alive before he died, just sucking air by the fire with his hands wrapped around his bloated, dead stomach gave me the creepin’ willies like nothin’ I’d ever seen before.
Elias still had that knife at Gran’s throat, and the bastard must have been pressing hard. She was wincing.
“Better let Eliza loose, you wetsock!” Gran coughed and the knife made her bleed a bit. “We ain’t got any suds for you to steal, so you’d best take a powder!”
“We can’t leave. My boy gets real hungry lately.” Elias gazed at the rising sun as it coated his shining face. “Miracles take mighty eating.”
“What did I tell you about liveuns, Eliza? He and his moll played us for fools.”
Elias was nigh giggling like a schoolgirl when he spoke. “I knew my son was a gift from God. I always knew.”
“Pah! Every kid is,” spat Gran. The blade slipped. “That’s the tragedy, you sonofabitch.”
“Quiet, Gran!” I was real worried about that damn knife.
But Elias didn’t even hear her. He was staring at the groaning creature by the fireside, his nostrils flaring at the stink of it, gleeful gobs of tears streaming from his eyes. “I dreamed my son would be special. And lo!”
“Where the hell’s my garden hoe?” hissed Gran. The blood from beneath her chin was dripping onto her battered church clothes. I think it was seein’ those old clothes get more ruined that got me furious, got my hands wriggling against the knots.
“I will be my son’s prophet. I will write his lore,” whispered Elias. “The New Testament of Timothy.” His smile somehow widened more, like he was a bullfrog. “With color illustrations! Only two quarters and a nickel!”
“I thought you might be a salesman!” I cried.
“Like Eutychus and Lazarus, the dead have risen! And the book’ll be a BARGAIN!” He shouted the last word. Gran pulled back and cut herself more. “HE WALKS AMONG US!”
“What…” Gran was gasping. “In a dead… Okie brat? PAH!”
“My stomach,” said the deaddun. His eyebrows over those white peepers were turned upwards and his lower lip jutted out. He must have been pouting, but he looked like a floating Mississippi fish. Nothing alive about him, nothin’ holy or good. Just parched.
Elias got his white teeth right next to Gran’s earlobes. “And Paul said, ‘…he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world…!’ And even the damn Roadites will be able to buy copies!” He took the blade away and threw Gran into the dirt. I heard some of her bones crack and heard her coughing. Elias kicked her in the stomach. Vivian winced and I cried out – can’t recall what I said. I was just watching the blood spurt from between Gran’s teeth, staining the sand blackish. I was just wonderin’ what on earth I’d do if she wasn’t around anymore.
“Yer kid ain’t Jesus!” I said the words because Gran couldn’t, but I’m sure she would have thrown a few more cuss words in.
Elias didn’t hear me. He didn’t hear nothin’. He kicked Gran a few more times. More blood from her mouth, more coughing. “Judgment!” he said, eyes bulging. Vivian cowered, and I got that the thing she was so terrified of wasn’t her rotting son, but her crazy husband.
“Hungry, Ma,” said the creature, tugging at Vivian’s skirt. I couldn’t guess how he got close to her so quickly. The smell of him made my eyes tear up – that cow-corpse reek. I wriggled again, but that broad sure could tie a knot. Must’ve been a damn sailor or something.
“Timothy,” said Vivian. She closed her eyes when her dead son spoke. Tears slipped down the dusted crevices of her face. “Ask your Pa.”
“This ain’t your kid!” I said.
The desert wind blew Vivian’s dress out, so that I caught the salty smell of her sweat and the dirty smell of her tiredness. The mottled cheeks of Timothy rose when he smiled, revealing teeth jammed with flesh, and then he gave her skirt a final squeeze and stumbled over to where Elias was panting over Gran.
“Vivian! This ain’t God’s Judgment! Or a sales opportunity!”
“When I close my eyes and I hear his voice,” Vivian said, with strands of her hair lifted by the breeze, “he ain’t hardly dead at all.”
“Pa?” said Timothy.
“Judgment!” cried Elias, pointing at Gran, who was curled up tight.
The little boy crouched down on his haunches and leaned in real close to Gran’s face. He pried her knees away from her chin and peered down at her.
“Hello,” said the white-eyed child.
I didn’t think she could speak, but Gran’s eyes were fierce as her nose scrunched up between coughs.
“I’m sorry.” He put his hands on Gran’s temples and pushed his face to hers with his back towards me.
Lucky for me, even though the rope was well tied, it wasn’t very strong and I thought I might be able to snap it if I only had a little more time –
But the boy was leaning over Gran, and I could hear her hacking still, louder and wetter.
“You couldn’t sleep in the wagon, Vivian!” I said. “That thing ain’t your kid!”
For a moment I thought she would cut me free. But then she took two skittish steps away and turned her back on the four of us. All I could do was watch raving Elias shouting into the dawn like a lunatic.
“Written in the Book of Revelation! And soon in the bestselling New Testament of Timothy! The dead have risen! You think the black blizzards struck without reason? You think the Lord Jesus is not come? HE IS HERE!”
I scrabbled at the knots. Felt something pop that wasn’t the rope – hurt like hell at my wrist, but I was loose. I ran right past Vivian as Elias’s mouth opened and his face got wilder and Gran was so close by and I couldn’t quite reach her and –
The little deaddun’s mouth was stuck fast to Gran’s face. I couldn’t see what he was doing, but she was gurgling.
Elias grabbed my arm and swung his knife, but I think he didn’t understand how much I liked my Gran. He didn’t expect the uninjured fist I pushed into his nose at all, and he the knife swung too low to hit as somethin’ in his face cracked.
There was bloodied kiss-mark on Gran’s forehead when Timothy pulled his face away. Her eyes were wide, her breathing heavy. He held her chin in his hands.
“You’re a nice lady,” said the dead boy. “That’s my Judgment.”
“Well, shit,” said Gran. Her head fell back into the dirt.
Timothy rose and looked at me over one shoulder. Or, I think he looked – with those cottony eyes, it was impossible to be sure. I stopped right where I was, but then he wasn’t lookin’ at me, but at Elias.
“But she was yours,” said Elias, holding his nose as his son limped closer. “There was gonna be a chapter about punishing roadside sinners.”
“She wasn’t a sinner, Pa.” Another step forward, another scent of death. “She was a good Christian. She never woulda hurt nice ladies on the side of the road, like you did.”
“But – I’m your father.”
Timothy smiled horribly and looked to the sky. “No. You ain’t. You’re a bad man. And I’m real hungry.” He leapt at the throat of Elias Vogel with his teeth bared.
I didn’t see what happened next, ’cause I ran to Gran. Held her up in my lap. Behind me, I could hear Elias scrabbling in the dirt, screaming. Tearing sounds, Vivian hollerin’ fit to burst – couldn’t tell whether with terror or glee.
“Gran? Gran!” I turned her face from right to left.
“Eliza,” said Gran, with tears in her eyes. “The pain – it’s all gone! I can breathe!”
“We’re going to San Joaquin, Ma?”
“Yes, dear.” Vivian gripped Timothy’s dry hand. For the first time since I saw her eyes, they looked relieved. Maybe she was cracked, but she looked sorta happy. There’s was nothin’ more that could be done with her. Like Timothy said, Gran and I weren’t the kind to hurt ladies. “Pilgrimage, Timothy.”
Timothy looked back at us before he climbed into the Hudson beside his Ma. Bits of Elias Vogel, all that we didn’t fit in the firepit, were stuck to his belly and chin. That little deaddun didn’t look like an angel or Jesus or anything but a hellish thing. But then, I suppose I wouldn’t know holy if it kissed my Gran on the forehead. Strange times, strange folk. We met lots of ‘em.
After they were gone and the dust in the road was all that was left of ‘em, we buried set bits of Elias alight in the morning sun. Then we covered the pit in dirt. I couldn’t think of much to say. Gran did a lot of the diggin’ ’cause she was so delighted to be breathin’, and I’d done a real number on my hand gettin’ out of those ropes. It was near midday when we finished packing up the tent.
I kept an eye on Gran. Noticed how she never cancer-hacked, not even once. Didn’t have any bruises from Elias’s kicks, either. Judgment, eh? I could almost get religious.
“You alive?” I asked her, once she was behind the wheel once more and we were drivin’ west on Route 66 again with the dust catchin’ in our hair.
“I knew there was a reason I wore my church shoes,” she said, and that was it.