The All or Nothing Days
By Gus Moreno
Sometimes Ya-Ya would lie on the ground and look up at the sky, and in between sips from her mason jar she would point to clouds and call them out. That one looked like a shark, that one looked like a gun, that one looked like Donkey Kong. And I would always ruin it with my questions. What’s a shark? What’s a gun? What’s a Donkey Kong?
She would roll over and that meant she was over it. She grew impatient with me and with herself, with slipping and mentioning something that was before my time, and having to explain it to me, something that was so simple and obvious to her that she was reduced to stuttering because she couldn’t figure out how to explain what a computer was without me asking what plastic was, what an internet was. She’d rather talk about other stuff, like pyramids. She didn’t mind explaining to me their shape and precision, how no one knew how they were made. I imagined a mountain with flat sides, with the point of a knife at the top, when both of us laid in the red dirt after the sun fell and the stars covered the sky. She said pyramids generated their own energy. You could run a whole city off their magnetic power. They were beacons to lifeforms on other planets. They were built by a kind of human that was different than us. But the planet froze over and killed off this special strain, and the humans we descended from were the cowardly, spindly ones that knew how to hide and steal and survive.
Each time she finished a mason jar, she put it back in a cardboard box she kept next to the house. When the box was full of empty jars, she drove to get some more. No matter how tall I got, it was still too dangerous for me to go with her. She never said dangerous from what. All I knew was that a long time ago the world ate itself. We were all that was left. Us and the animals. She made trips to the nearest deserted town for supplies, and I sat in the doorway of our home, waiting for her rusted Bronco to pop up on the horizon. My job was to empty the trunk so she could crawl into bed and collapse on top of the covers. Or she would drink a whole mason jar and fall asleep wherever she was. That was another job of mine, to drag her into the shade, ever since she passed out in the sun and her face cracked and blistered. I could probably carry her inside now, if we were back in the canyon, maybe not like a man carrying his wife through the threshold, but at least hook my arms under her pits and lift, instead of pulling her in, feet first, and listening to her head bounce off the steps.
Ya-Ya spent most of her time sleeping.
After she ate, she slept. After a cigarette, she slept. After hunts, she slept. She took a big bowl of beans once she got up. She would make a big pot of it that would last for days, and when she started moaning awake I would pull out the floorboards and reach for the clay pot in the hole we dug to keep it cool. Anything you didn’t eat within a day in the canyon would spoil or harden if you didn’t it hide it where the sun couldn’t get to it. It was mostly ever beans and rice, sometimes tuna if Ya-Ya found tins on her trips. Sometimes she would go out at night and kill a boar. By morning she would have it shaved and buried a good distance from our home. She would bury it except for the portion of the boar she wanted me to cut out to make for dinner, and I would stagger out of bed with the knife and a hand over my erection because she would flick it if she saw it, and I would flay the skin first before cutting out the meat. It was a special occasion to have meat in our meals. We ate as much of the boar as we could before the sun got to it beneath the layer of dirt, or before a coyote or bobcat dug it out and dragged it away, nothing but lines in the sand and a small formation of bones farther out still. Wherever the boar was dragged, I was no longer allowed to go near it. I only had to ask why once for her to scrape her nails across my face. Questions bothered her. Especially the same question asked again. This was why I never asked about what happened to the world, why we lived in the deserted canyon instead of moving, why we never saw anyone else besides Frank.
I found him swimming in the watering hole behind our home. Ya-Ya said a long time ago settlers had dug a trench and filled it with water so cattle could drink as they grazed. She noticed me already cowering.
“Cows,” she clarified.
“Then why say cattle?” She swiped at my face and I ducked under her arm, a little surprised at my own reflex, though I didn’t see her knee cocked back until it landed between my legs. She said rain and erosion had deepened the trench until a lip of earth climbed into the sky and shaded the stagnant pool. The animals that drank from the hole had died a long time ago. The men who dug the hole were dead too. The salt in the water, mixed with soil, would dry my skin and leave white streaks across my face, but I didn’t care. It was the only fun to have out there.
Around that time a heat wave was rolling through the canyon, and after a week of no rain and cracks splintering the ground, the water level in the hole dropped and revealed the top of a person’s head. I put my clothes back on and ran back to Ya-Ya. She kicked an empty mason jar aside and followed me. We both stood on the edge of the slope, looking down at the water and the crown of wet black hair floating on the surface. She rubbed her chin for a while and finally said that was Frank. When I asked who Frank was, she raked her nails across my face. The watering hole was off limits now. It belonged to Frank.
Sometimes she passed out in a way that I could pull out her pack of cigarettes, steal one, and slide the pack back in without her waking. I would light it and sit on the slope, looking down at Frank, who never got out of the water. Who could hold his breath longer than I ever could. Unless he was walking around at night when I was sleeping. He became more than a man in my imagination. I imagined that below the surface of the inky water, there were gills opening and closing behind his ears. I imagined Frank’s mouth too big for his face, spherical and ribbed. I pictured Frank looking up at me through the ink, thinking I couldn’t see him. He morphed into another chore. Cut the meat. Hide the beans. Drag Ya-Ya out of the sun. Empty the trunk. Watch Frank.
When the cars appeared, I almost didn’t know what I was looking at. There were four black boxes on the horizon, same as Ya-Ya on her way back from scouring for supplies, except Ya-Ya was sprawled inside the house, and I was chopping down a rocking chair she had crammed into the Bronco for firewood. It was dusk and the sky was orange. Their cars appeared on the thin black line and descended down the sand slopes that created long tails of clouds, dipping out of sight and then reappearing on the crest of another dune. The axe fell out of my hand. Ya-Ya picked it up and told me to run inside and hide.
The cars peeled to a stop, forming a half circle around Ya-Ya. She dropped the axe and put her hands in the air. The doors swung open and men sprung out with black objects in their hands pointed at her. They were all screaming and the collective noise sounded like the coyotes at night when they killed their prey on our porch. I pulled a small corner of the curtains back to watch. One of them swung Ya-Ya’s arms behind her back and cuffed her. The back of his jacket had the symbols F, B, and I. He untied the twine that kept her hair in a knot, letting the long gray strands fall all the way down her back.
If I bothered her in some way, or did something that annoyed her, she always threatened to call the police. It looked like she finally made good on that promise. Not ever seeing the police before, I pictured them as towering creatures in blue uniforms–she always talked about their uniforms–with coyote or bobcat faces, who lived inside the mountains on the horizon, listening in silence to rainwater drip until someone called about a bad boy who was misbehaving.
Ya-Ya turned to the window and screamed, “Run!”
I ran out and circled around the house, police and the FBI chasing after me. I ran towards the red ball of the dying sun, and the agents ran with their flashlights fixed on my shoulders, stretching my shadow for miles ahead of me. I ran to the watering hole and jumped in, holding my breath for as long as I could to make them think I was gone. When I finally came back up for air, they were waiting, pointing their guns down at me and yelling, “Put your hands up!” When I raised my arms and tiptoed out, their guns still pointed at the water. They wanted Frank to come out too. The ongoing drought had dropped the water even lower, so besides the crown of Frank’s head, you saw the protruding ridge of his brow, his eyebrows gone, that curved inward to eye sockets you still couldn’t see under the water. A breeze swept through the canyon and I began to shake. An agent pushed Ya-Ya towards the edge of the slope to make her see. He pushed down on her cuffs and she fell to her knees. He kept screaming, over and over, “Who is he?” And looking at me as the cop yanked on her cuffs and she gritted her teeth, the canyon echoed her voice, “He is Little Horn. He is Son of Perdition. He is returned. Hail Satan!”
My first car ride ever was my last time in Conquered Canyon. They drove me to a hospital where I waited in a room with a wool blanket wrapped around my shoulders. Wavy salt lines covered my arms and chest. They would say later, the actual police who accompanied the F, B, and I men, when they would come to the foster homes and check in on me, that I had looked like one of the stray dogs they sometimes picked up on the highways, so tense and bug-eyed from living so close to the edge that they didn’t know whether I’d bite or piss as soon as they touched me. Then with the other fosters looking through curtains, they’d ask if I was hungry, or if I needed clothes, or if anyone was messing with me. Telling on the others would only get me into more trouble. The cops would leave but I would still have to go back inside and sleep in a bunk with older boys who were familiar with the concept of penetration, in all the ways you could think. The best thing the cops could ever do would be to leave me alone, which they never did.
In the exam room I met a doctor followed closely by a social worker. The social worker asked for my name, and I said, What’s a name? What’s a birthday? What’s a dad?
The doctor put things in my ears and put things in my mouth. The FBI agents came in next with a dark haired man in a long trench coat. He sat on a stool so I could look down on him. He handed me a lollipop and then pulled it out of my mouth when I didn’t take the wrapper off. He asked how long I’d known Ya-Ya. All my life. He asked if anyone else ever visited us out in the desert. Just Frank. He asked who Frank was. I didn’t know. He asked, after looking back at the social worker and the social worker giving him the go-ahead, if I had ever seen Ya-Ya digging, or burying anything around our home. He meant the boars. What boars? I told him about Ya-Ya’s night hunts, how it was my job to cut out the portions she prepared so we could cook them with our meals. The social worker started reaching for the walls to keep herself from falling. The doctor gasped but then heard the clawing noises behind her and went to catch the social worker. The detective was covering his mouth with his hand.
I’d been cutting out human flesh and dropping it in the clay pot, watching it boil and watching the rendered fat bubble and skin the surface.
My first time watching a television was my last time seeing Ya-Ya, as she was being led into a building where cameras flashed in front of her face. The bottom part of the screen read: SERIAL KILLER APPREHENDED.
She used to frequent rest stops along the highway and pick up men who had lost their nerve for gay sex in the restroom, maybe seeing her as a chance to prove their straightness. Because of my age, the news never mentioned my name. The doctor swabbed my mouth to test my DNA against Ya-Ya’s. Other detectives were scouring through old missing child reports and comparing them to Ya-Ya’s known movements.
There were foster kids who felt the need to beat on me once they found out who I was, and there were foster kids who would offer me drugs or sex to make sure I didn’t hurt them. It didn’t matter where they moved me, somehow the kids found out. They could lead me down a line of questions a normal person could answer about themselves, but I would come up empty because my backstory was blank.
The last home, Mr. and Mrs. Jackson, they gave me a room upstairs, and while LeTroy was in the shower I would climb into his top bunk and look out the window, and look at Conquered Canyon in the east. Sometimes that was how the other kids found out, by me calling it Conquered Canyon instead of Concord Canyon, and them knowing that’s how Lady Luck called the canyon in the news sites. Everyone knew the details, knew what the cops found, knew she was found with a kid. So they would have me saying Conquered Canyon to start with, and then they would notice how I held a spoon, and how I sometimes played with the light switches, how everyone sat in front of the television and I sat and watched the microwave, how I pretended to be asleep no matter how much the Jacksons pulled on me to get to bed, until they gave up and let me sleep on the floor. It didn’t take long for the boys to corner me somewhere in the house, when the Jacksons were upstairs or in the basement, one of the girls conveniently turning her radio really really loud. Maybe because their whole life adults were always trying to squeeze details out of them, these boys never had the patience for questioning. They would just come out with it. You that kid? Ayo is that you? And then they’d ask if I thought I could take them. Was I really about that life? Man I wish you would try some shit like that on me. I cut your dick off.
What ended up getting me booted from the Jackson home wasn’t the other boys, but me. One morning the couple woke up to the sound of digging, and pulled their curtains back to find a crater in the middle of their backyard. A pyramid of dirt towered next to the hole. The head of a shovel peeking out and flinging deep brown earth against the pyramid.
The social worker called my police dads. They arrived at the house and crawled into the cave. I’d taken a milk crate and playing cards into the cave with me at that point. They were laying on their stomachs, unconcerned with getting mud on their uniforms. From the cave entrance, they assured me this was just a phase. They had been to Iraq and Afghanistan and said they knew men after the war who were like this, who dug holes, who could only sleep sitting upright and against something, who sat in their bedrooms holding a lighter, gliding their palm over the flame, doing these things, these rituals, as a way of transitioning back into the everyday world. All I needed was time, they said.
Before that familiar white van could pull up in the morning and take me to another home, I ran away. I waited for Letroy and Miguel to sneak into Mary’s room like they always did, and I climbed out the window, landing softly on the dirt pyramid. There was a train crossing near our house, and I walked along the tracks until one of the freighters slowed enough that I could grab a rung.
I measured time by how long it took for late night shows to stop making fun of Ya-Ya. How long it took her photos to fade from the front stories on websites. Until Lady Luck was the setup to a punchline no one could remember.
Scrap yards do not ask for ID when you bring them materials. They don’t require a mailing address, social security number. When they became familiar enough with me and noticed the lack of tracks on my forearms, they offered me a job working the yard. Whether those DNA swabs came back positive or not, only the Jacksons know. The state executed Ya-Ya and it snowed. The gauntness in my cheeks, a product of desert winds and the salt in the watering hole, made my face look older than I was. I sat in a bar and watched on television as people danced outside Ya-Ya’s prison when the state executed her.
Ya-Ya used to mention a dog named Guber, and sometimes she saw him in the clouds rolling over us, halfway through another jar. The local free paper did a piece on a shelter filling up with dogs no one wanted. They had been pets to owners who died suddenly in the house, and by the time officers came around to do a courtesy check, the dogs had eaten portions of their owner’s face, or nibbled a couple digits off their hands. These dogs were rehabilitated and ready for new homes, but people were still too afraid. They’d held fundraisers and promotions with radio stations, but no one ever adopted one of these dogs. The shelter attendants were only too eager to help me through the application process. They Xeroxed the work ID and a US resident card I’d found in a van in the junkyard. A kennel assistant led me down rows of metal cages filled with dogs wagging their tails and pacing nervously at my arrival. I stopped and crouched down to pet a small white poodle through the stainless steel bars. His name was Luke, and his beady eyes looked like pieces of coal buried under bunches of white wool.
I don’t have any friends. I don’t know how to read. Luke sleeps with me on a mattress at night, and I listen to the city scream. You can’t see the stars here. Sometimes I forget to pay my bills.
On our morning walk Luke and me watched a truck T-bone a minivan in a high traffic intersection. The minivan wrapped itself around a light post while the truck flipped on its side and jumped the curb, striking a few pedestrians. Luke flinched at the impact and tried to run away, but the leash snapped his collar and within a few seconds he calmed down. So many bits of glass lay strewn on the asphalt. There were people wailing and propping themselves up, men frantically screaming for someone to call an ambulance. Pools of blood were beginning to spill beneath car doors, and not more than a leap away from us, laid what looked like a child’s hand, snapped clean from the wrist. Luke spotted it lying in the street too, and I could feel his demeanor change, a tension building in the leash. He stepped in place nervously and began to whine, looking up at me and looking back at the hand. I know, boy. I could feel it too. I could feel the pull. Our rehabilitation being tested. We were supposed to be good. There was paperwork that said so. I could feel the enzymes in my mouth. The copper scent was in the air, and Luke was crying, and Ya-Ya’s voice was echoing in the canyon. Hail Satan. To what end?
About the Author
GUS MORENO is from the south side of Chicago, and his work has appeared in LitroNY, Bluestem Magazine, Chuck Palahniuk’s “Burnt Tongues” anthology, and a bunch of other places that are totally not defunct. He is currently working on a new novel.
About the Narrator
Maui Threv was born in the swamps of south Georgia where he was orphaned as a child by a pack of wild dawgs. He was adopted by a family of gators who named him Maui Threv which in their language means mechanical frog music. He was taught the ways of swamp music and the moog synthesizer by a razorback and a panther. His own music has been featured over in episodes of Pseudopod. He provided music for the second episode ever released across the PseudoPod feed: Waiting up for Father. He also is responsible for the outro music for the Lavie Tidhar story Set Down This. He has expanded his sonic territory across all 100,000 watts of WREK in Atlanta where you can listen to the Mobius every Wednesday night. It is available to stream via the internet as well, and Threv never stops in the middle of a hoedown.