“Uncle … Uncle Bentley?” This was the man that beat off three reporters that had tried to abduct me when I was four years old. This was the man that stood between me and a pit bull that someone had set on me when I was seven. This was the man that had stood beside my father and dared any man to deny me the right to at least try and play football. This was the man that had taught me how to kayak, had been one of my 4H sponsors, had been the one my parents always put down as an emergency contact if they couldn’t be reached. This was the man that until that moment I had never expected to have to defend myself against.
“Of course it’s your fault. You were never supposed to have been born.”
“I … I don’t understand. Uncle …”
“Don’t call me that. I put up with it for eighteen years for Buck’s sake but now that you’ve killed him I’ll be !@#$&% if I’ll put up with it anymore.”
I just shook my head, disbelieving. Maybe I was the one with the fever. Uncle B … the Uncle Bentley I knew … would never say such words to me in such a hateful way.
In an even nastier tone he asked, “What have you been doing? Dancing naked in the moonlight, celebrating your freedom from your parents? Fornicating with that other freak you were with? Come to take Buck’s land like you actually some right to it? You don’t really think I would let you make more little freaks to pollute the world with did you?”
A horrible suspicion struck me. And it stiffened my spine as well. “Thor is not a freak. He’s not a GWB or anything like that. He’s just a big man. And he is my husband.”
A snorting laugh preceded, “Your husband?! People get married … freaks fornicate and procreate if they aren’t fixed fast enough. The law …”
“That law was struck down as unconstitutional! You can’t force people to take and pass genetic screening tests before they are allowed to get a marriage license or have children.” I was in shock but I was also angry. I had to know how far this betrayal went.
I snarled, “Did your little girlfriend teach you to talk that way? Did she give you a blue and green bracelet to have as your own? Or did she put it through your nose like a ring to lead you around with?”
A cackle was my answer. “Those green idiots?! You really think those losers knew what they were doing? That I would be a part of their pathetic movement? They never would have gotten past first base if the Twelvers hadn’t decided to use them for their own purposes.”
“You’re a Twelver?!”
Rhetorically to the room he asked, “How could someone so stupid possibly be related to Buck?” To me he said, “It must be some of your mother’s dimwittedness coming through.”
I jumped to my feet, “Don’t you dare talk about my mother like that!”
“I’ll talk about her anyway I please. If she had listened to Bettie Sue and let the doctors do what they wanted to they could have started over if they just had to have a kid. God alone knows why they wanted one, there were enough of the little vermin running around and despite everything probably still are.”
I just looked at this man and tried to find a reason for his behavior. “You’ve … you’ve had some kind of breakdown. Between the hardships of your journey, the grief over my parents, whatever it is that woman and her friends did to you, and now your … your injury … that’s it, you’ve … you’ve had a breakdown.”
“I haven’t had a breakdown you fool. And stop changing the subject. This is your fault, all of it is. The fact that you breathe, that you exist, has caused all this misery in the world. I’m no greenie. I couldn’t agree with their methods but I did sympathize with their goals. Too many people. Too much pollution. Too many more being born everyday … using up the resources, fouling the land and the water, wrecking the future we could have in this country … God’s country.”
My emotions beat at me. “Dad couldn’t have known how you felt. He never would have tolerated it. He certainly wouldn’t have trusted you to be my guardian in case something should happen to them.”
“Buck knew how I felt about people. I never hid it from anyone. He knew I had my concerns about you, concerns that you might be surprised he shared in part like whether you should ever get married and have children.” I knew that wasn’t true as soon as he’d said it because Dad talked to me. His problem was that he thought I was too young, not that I shouldn’t ever do it. Uncle Bentley continued to talk. “No matter how I felt however I would never have hurt you because it would have hurt Buck and your mother. The only reason I stood by you all this time is because of Buck. It’s not his fault the devil played games with your DNA. It might have been a different situation if your mother could still have kids after you but … you ruined that too. Buck was my best friend, more of a brother to me than my own were. And you killed him.”
I screamed, “I … did … not! The greenies and Twelvers did that. You told that to Aunt Belle yourself, that you saw the security tapes.”
“I didn’t see the security tapes you idiot, I was there … right there! I witnessed it all. Jen told me what was going to happen. I could have killed her but instead I used her. When I got the location we flew out there; I asked the twit if she wanted to watch, knew it would turn her on. Then the little tramp gets the time wrong and I can’t get your parents out in time.” He suddenly howls like a wounded beast. When he calms back down he tells me, “The only satisfaction I was going to have was to know that you died as they did. Then I saw you and that other freak running away, like cowards, like vermin from the exterminator. I tried to follow but Jen messed things up again and I wound up getting to your hotel room moments after you had left. That idiot brother of Jen’s and his boyfriend were freaking out, running off at the mouth about all that was about to go down and how their ride had never shown up. I told them to shut up and then took charge. We went back to the other place, I got your parents’ bodies out and then we got to the airport. ‘You don’t tell me what to do, I tell you what to do’ is the way I handled them from there on out. What did you do with the other one anyway? Kill him too?”
He was almost jabbering, like he had had this pent up inside him and the pressure relief valve had finally blown.
“The EMP came earlier than was expected as well. I explained to the little toad lickers that the Twelvers were probably betraying them, that they needed to follow me, that I would save them. I’d get them safely to Damascus. And that’s when Jen told me.”
“Told you what?” I asked against my will.
“She admitted that she’d been using me all along to create a cover in the community so that ‘her people’ could set up a Utopian society in the surrounding mountains. They planned to live like the Native Americans had, to use the established trails, live off the land, and to stay away from the cities and let them decay as Gaia or whatever deity of the moment they were worshipping reclaimed them.”
A piece of the puzzle fell into place. “That was the roadblocks.”
“Yes, the idiots. They pretended to be from the UN and that set people’s backs up straight way. They made folks suspicious. And then when they tipped their hand, no one wanted to convert to their earth worship. The green idiots pretended to agree to live and let live and called a town meeting at the school as a show of good will. Instead they poisoned a shipment of food they’d held back for bribes. As people entered their names were ticked off a roster that had been made up from files at City Hall. It was to be a big potluck and it made things as easy as serving Koolaide at Jonestown. I thought it was sweetly ironic that the greenies chose to burn the bodies on the football field. I wanted you to see it so bad, but it’s no longer important.” He was dispassionate about the town and its people but the next part of the story had him insanely gleeful.
He picked up the glass of water I had left him and took a small sip and continued. “There were two large contingents of them ... the greenie fools I mean. About three hundred in town and then about five hundred or so in and around Grayson Highlands State Park. They were supposed to be keeping people out of the rec area, out of my mountains, but they couldn’t seem to find two brain cells to rub together. Their leadership was all incommunicado; they hadn’t thought to secure enough long range radios against the EMP and hadn’t realized that their short range radios wouldn’t work in the mountains. So what did they do? What did the brainless wonders do?! They released some kind of bacteria thinking they would be able to depopulate the displaced crowd the same way they had many of the major cities. But guess what?”
When I didn’t answer, only stood staring at him, he screamed, “I said guess what?!”
“I … I don’t know.”
He laughed like it was a huge joke. “It wasn’t a bacteria, it was a virus. A virus!! Oh, they eventually killed the people on foot all right. They also killed themselves in the process. Some of the people didn’t die right away. Some of them were carriers. They walked into Damascus and wham bam thank you ma’am it worked its way through the people still here – the few townspeople that had escaped the school massacre and most of the green idiots.”
Before he could have another screaming fit I asked, “How did you and that group you were with survive?”
“Because I’m not an idiot like everyone else apparently is. I’d heard a man acting strangely had walked into town. I grabbed Jen … she was still useful at that point … and she wouldn’t go without her brother and friends. I locked us in and shot anyone that came close. The house was packed and if I hadn’t had a generator to keep those idiots pacified with their video games and music I’d have eventually killed them myself. Instead we waited for the infection to burn itself out … and then waited another two weeks to make sure. After that the town was mine … ours. We cleaned up the bodies and then moved on.”
Sure he was leaving a lot out I asked, “Then why were they shooting at you in the graveyard?”
“Jen … beautiful Jen. Only you saw her, she wasn’t beautiful anymore. She hadn’t really understood what the death of civilization meant; none of them had. I wasn’t about to leave them free to run off or take over my house and not let me back in. That’s my house with all of my secrets. I had to stay there or near there all the time. Instead I sent them out to do my bidding. They had to work for their living, most for the first time in their lives. Really work, not pay someone else with Daddy’s money to do it for them. They soon became tired of living off the land for every morsel of food, of doing without … it wasn’t ‘fun’ anymore. Wimps. I knew Buck had kept long term emergency food here at the farm. I drew the brainless wonders a map. The first group found a van of food off the road but got scared by the corpses in the cab. They grabbed what they could carry and came back but then couldn’t find it again the second time I sent them out to bring back more. The next party I sent out never came back at all. It rained that night and I figure they either found the van and took enough food to run off or they got lost in the mountains and died. Who gives a @#$% either way.”
He shook his head in disgust and continued, “Supplies were beginning to dwindle and reality was setting in even for the dumbest of them and some made the choice to self-medicate their worries away. They hit the liquor locations first. There wasn’t much of it around town and I thought they’d get over it fast enough then man up. Men?! Jen was more manly than most of those idiots were. Then Willis’ boyfriend died in a kayak accident, taking a rapid he had no business taking. Personally I think it was intentional, he wanted to die but was too big of a coward to do it himself. That put Willis over the edge and he started drinking the hard stuff twenty-four seven. One of the girls hung herself and another slit her wrists over in the graveyard. Things went downhill fast from there. When the lot of them weren’t drinking they were smoking some pot Willis had been hoarding. When the pot ran out they hit the pharmacy. That’s when I stepped on that bottle.”
I sat down, trying to absorb what he was telling me; trying to accept the fact that I’d never known my uncle at all.
“It’s not that they wouldn’t help me cut off the infected foot, it was that they were in no condition to. They were all stoned out of their minds. When I came to after doing it myself I saw Jen holding the foot and looking at it, smelling it. Then she dropped it and said, ‘if you foot offends thee cut it off’ before laughing like a loon and going back inside. That’s when I knew they’d all have to go but I was too weak for a while to do anything about it. And then the pharmacy ran dry and they crashed … and crashed hard. Jen the worst; she was suffering from some kind of drug induced paranoia, mumbling about Gaia’s revenge and how balance needed to be restored … none of it made sense but they were all listening to her.”
His breathing had grown funny and his skin looked thin and stretched across his face. “You saw what happened. I guess we’d both had enough. I knew if I was going to survive the winter on the meager supplies I had, they would have to go. Even in their mentally impaired state they realized I was done supporting them. It was a stalemate until I took it into my head to end it. While they were all sleeping I left a note saying that I’d taken the last of the drugs in the town over to the graveyard to bury them for safe keeping. Knowing they wouldn’t be able to resist I was waiting for them, planned on ambushing them. Then you had to mess that up too when you showed up. I had to leave off getting a good shot at Jen to shoot that monster you were with.”
That brought me to my feet again. “What?” I growled. “You shot Thor? You had no reason to. If you had wanted to be left alone we would have fixed you up and then been done it. There was no need …”
“There was every need! I could see how protective he was of you in just those few short minutes, how you felt about him. A blind man could have seen it. It was revolting. I knew I had to get rid of him the same way I had to get rid of that idiot Dink. Both of them would have just gotten in the way.”
My eyes were dry but there was a river of tears pouring from my shattered heart. He’d killed Mr. Dink because of me. He’d shot Thor because of me. He believed, truly believed, that my parents were dead because of me.
“Why hurt them? Why not just kill me? Wasn’t that the plan all along? Why wait eighteen years to do it?”
“I never would have hurt you because of Buck. I already told you that.”
Another thought struck me. “Did … did Aunt Bettie Sue feel the same way?”
“What? Her? That traitorous whore of Babylon?”
In spite of everything he had said, that is what made my eyes nearly fall out of my sockets. He saw it and laughed, “Hah! Had everyone fooled all these years haven’t I? Even your mom. But Buck knew. He knew she’d betrayed me, gotten pregnant by some other man when I refused to do the deed. Ever since we’d gotten married she’d been trying to trick me into giving her a baby. She knew how I felt about it but she just kept trying and pushing, wouldn’t let it alone. I finally went to the doctor and took care of it myself without telling her. But then she turns up pregnant and I knew. I confronted her and told her I knew, told her how I knew. Oh how she kicked and screamed and cried … then she ran out the door, threatened to tell your parents all she knew about how I really felt about you. I couldn’t have that, no I couldn’t, so I prayed that God would take care of it and God heard me. Oh yes He did. Of course it didn’t hurt that that I’d drained the break lines in the little huzzy’s car. It wasn’t my fault she died, it was God’s choice. I hadn’t really wanted her dead, just the brat.”
“Did … Did Dad know? About that part?”
He shook his head. “Never even suspected. Just told me I shouldn’t feel so guilty for being angry at her, that I couldn’t let it eat up my soul. Imagine, out of all the people I knew in my life only Buck ever gave a @#$% about my soul. He was the only one that tried to save me right on back to the day my brothers pushed me off Whitehead Bridge.”
I’d heard the story so many times growing up that he didn’t need to explain. His older brothers were real brutes and had thrown the small and sickly younger boy off of a local bridge with no thought to his survival. My father, just as young but healthier and stronger, jumped into the water and pulled him out and then took him home to his grandfather (my dad’s father was already gone more than home by then) who then turned around and had at the older Griffey brothers up one side and down the other with the full support and blessing of the Sheriff of the time who’d had his fill of the brothers as well. Their father had been killed in a mining accident in West Virginia, their mother died shortly afterwards, and the boys had been sent to live with their grandparents. The grandfather didn’t live out the year and the grandmother was too ill equipped to raise the two older and already wild boys. My father and Bentley Griffey had been inseparable from that point forward.
“Uncle Bentley …”
“I told you not to call me that,” the man growled.
I sighed, “I can’t stop feeling something at the drop of a hat. You’ve been like a second father to me my whole life. You loved my parents, Dad especially; even now I can hear it in your voice. Just because I’m suddenly finding out you’ve been lying about how you felt about me doesn’t make my feelings for you evaporate like a shattered mist. You may be breaking my heart but that doesn’t mean the feelings aren’t still in there.”
“Hogwash You don’t know what love is, you can’t.”
I shrugged not knowing how to explain it or combat his madness. “You’re sick. I don’t know how much of this to believe. I don’t know if it is the infection that has you eat up or just what. I want to give you the benefit of the doubt for Dad’s sake if for no other reason. You say you’re no greenie … that you never would have hurt me because of Dad. To me that means that you aren’t my enemy. Just … just let me … do … do for you what I can. Do it in Dad’s memory. Then when you’re well I’ll … I’ll take you back to your house, set you up good. Make sure your have enough …”
“Don’t you dare!”
In frustration I asked, “Don’t dare what?! What now?!!”
“Don’t try and blackmail me with your father’s memory. You’re not worthy to have such a man as a father. While he was alive I would have died for you you little freak and gladly, but it would have been for his sake and not yours. But Buck is gone and it is your fault. You … must … pay.” And from under the covers he pulled a small, snub-nosed revolver.
Sadly I looked and told him, “Uncle Bentley, you never gave me a chance to tell you anything of my journey home. And this is my home whether you want to recognize that or not. And the man I was with, Thor, he’s a good man, but that isn’t all he is. He is also a good teacher. And one of the things that he taught me was to never leave a loaded gun lying around that I wasn’t going to have control over.”
“Don’t try and use your tricks on me. I loaded this gun myself. I’ve wasted enough breath. Time for you to meet the devil.” He pointed the gun …
… and suddenly a blade sprouted from his eye and he collapsed.
I looked over at Thor, unsteady on his feet and leaning on the banister in the darken stairwell. Through tears I told him, “I found the gun in his inner jacket pocket when I brought him in the house. I took care of it then. It was unloaded.”
Thor looked me straight in the eye and said, “I know.”