|... the kindness of strangers|
By J.S. Kierland
Billy jerked his denim collar up against the cool prairie breeze and opened the hood on the steaming old Woody. He grabbed the faded army blanket, wrapped the ragged end around his hand, and opened the hot radiator cap. Steam hissed out at him and disappeared into the hot morning light.
A slim teenaged girl slid out of the car, sat down on a white washed rock just behind Billy, and numbly pulled a comb through her hair. She seemed surprised by the bright morning light around them.
"What the hell we doing here, Billy?" she asked.
"Busted fan belt."
"Hell, just get another one."
"Ain't easy finding a fan belt when you're on the front page of every goddamn newspaper in three states."
"You're always hungry, Char."
"Least you picked the right place to bust something," she mumbled, looking around at the empty parking lot.
A tan van with faded decals covering its windows, and rolls of canvas on its roof, clattered across the empty parking lot toward them. The doors opened before it stopped and three little boys exploded from the void and swarmed around Billy's old Woody. Charlene pulled her dress down when a large bulky man in baggy shorts and torn tennis shoes struggled out of the driver's seat. A small thin woman wearing a bright yellow raincoat followed them.
"Haven't seen one a these in years," the man bellowed when he saw the old Woody. "My uncle had one when I was a kid. Loved it. Uncle died but he took such good care of it that I bet she's still chugging along somewhere on the prairie. This might even be it. Where'd you find this thing, son?"
The man stuck his head under the hood next to Billy and the woman in yellow sensed Billy's annoyance and said, "We better go on up to the restaurant and get started, honey. This way, kids," she called in a high cracked voice. "Time to eat." The children cheered and ran toward the glass doors with the large arching M on it.
"If you belonged to Triple A they'd have you rolling in no time," the man yelled over his shoulder, and trotted after the wedge of children dodging and screeching around the plastic yellow raincoat.
"Asshole," Billy muttered.
"I'm going for an egg Mc Muffin," Charlene said. "Want one?" Billy shrugged and waited until the last little boy darted in behind the glass doors before he moved to the loaded van and popped the hood.
"What the hell you doing?" Charlene asked.
"We need a fan belt, Char. Give me the blanket."
She handed him the old army blanket and asked, "You want a Mc Muffin, or not?"
"Get some water for the radiator, and make sure those assholes don't come strolling out here 'till I finish getting this belt off."
"Does that mean you want a Mc Muffin, or not?"
"And don't forget the water...better get two of them."
When Charlene got to the front door she looked back and saw Billy holding the van's fan belt over his head like a snake he'd just wrestled. She laughed at how silly it looked, opened the glass door, and moved into the bright colors of MacDonald's. The bulky man in the tennis shoes stood at the counter, ordering things in a booming voice. His wife stood behind him and kept adding to the order while the kids pulled paper napkins out of the dispensers and threw them at each other. Charlene edged back to the window to check on Billy, doubled over in the old Woody.
She sensed someone staring at her in the gold tinted mirror. A soldier sat on a duffel bag holding a handmade sign with VIRGINIA scrawled across it. A ribbon glinted on his dark green jacket and the short cut hair, sticking out from under his cap, had been streaked from the sun. He smiled at Charlene and said, "Name's Alden, ma'am. Corporal. U.S. Marines."
"I think my daddy was a marine," she said.
"Sorry, ma'am, didn't catch your name."
"Morse," she said.
"Moss. That's pretty. What's your last name?"
"That is my last name, silly."
The bulky man moved toward them carrying a box of assorted containers. The little boys chased each other and his wife tried to keep them from knocking him over. He raised the carton of food over his head, and said, "We'd give you a lift, Corporal, but you can see there's no room at the inn."
"Appreciate the thought," the marine said, holding the glass door open while the five of them swept out into the parking lot again.
"You looking for a ride?" Charlene asked.
"Yes, ma'am," he said, showing her his VIRGINIA sign.
"I thought sure you had your own car," she said.
"I thought you were with that family that just left."
"Did you? I wouldn't be caught dead with them."
"Takes all kinds to make a world," he said.
"All kinds of what?"
"People, ma'am. All kinds of people."
"My mamma used to say that all the time."
"You never did tell me your first name."
"Marilyn," she said quickly.
"Marilyn Morse. That's a lovely name."
"Makes my initials M.M., like Marilyn Monroe and those little candies!" Charlene said, and they both laughed.
"I'm headed east," he said, holding up the sign.
"You from California?"
"I was stationed out there."
"I knew it," she said, looking up into his blue eyes. "I think me and my brother are headed east."
"I'd sure be grateful, ma'am. It's why I wear this bulky uniform. Makes hitching easier."
"'Scuse me, I have to get a couple of egg Mc Muffins. Two please," she said to the boy behind the counter. "And two large cokes, an two large waters to cool off that silly old car. You want a Mc Muffin?" she asked Alden. "My brother doesn't stop much, if you know what I mean."
"I can go a long way without eating, ma'am."
"Guess that's part of your training, an all."
Reaching for the bag of Mc Muffins she noticed a discarded newspaper on the counter. The headline read, BILLY THE KID CRIME SPREE. THREE STATES. She shoved the paper under her arm and waited for Alden to pick up his duffel bag.
"I hope your brother doesn't mind me tagging along."
"Oh, he won't," she said, glancing toward the old Woody where Billy sat watching the family in the van eating their Big Macs and fries.
It wasn't until Charlene was halfway across the parking lot that Billy realized she was walking with the marine. He sensed a trap, licked his dry lips and edged down behind the steering wheel. The van coughed to a start and the man yelled, "Hope you get your car fixed, son. And I'm sure glad you kids picked up that marine. God bless you!" The van jerked backwards, turned toward the highway, and jolted forward with arms, legs, and hands waving at him from all the windows. The marine waved at them when they went by and Charlene shifted the package in her arms.
"Who's he?" Billy asked.
Charlene smiled over at the marine and said, "This is my brother, Stanley. What'd you say your name was?"
"Alden. Sure glad to meet you," he said.
Charlene leaned into the station wagon and handed Billy the containers. "What's this?" Billy grunted.
"Water for the car, silly. And I told Mr. Alden he could come along with us for a ways," she added quickly. "He's going east."
"East is a big place," Billy said, and got out to pour the containers of cold water into the radiator.
"He's been to Hollywood," Charlene said.
"I just stopped there for a few days."
"How long you in for?" Billy asked.
"He just got out," Charlene answered.
"You sure know a lot about this guy."
"We talked on the way to the car," Alden explained. "I could sure use a hitch, sir."
"How come the marines don't fly you home?"
"I wanted to take my time and see this great country of ours. Talk to people. Help out."
Billy grunted, threw the empty containers on the ground, and got back in the car. He turned the ignition and the car hummed in response. Charlene nudged Alden and said, "We better get going." She opened the back door and he threw in his duffel. She handed the bag of Mc Muffins to Billy and bounced into the front seat next to him, slipping the newspaper under the seat. Billy caught the move and she nodded at him.
He pulled out one of the Cokes, pushed in a plastic straw, and listened to the fan belt whirl. His body ached and he reached for his stash of pills. It was time for the smooth orange one. He slipped it into his mouth and took a gulp of the Coke.
"This is a neat old car," the marine said as they picked up speed and took the inside lane.
Up ahead the tan van had pulled to the side of the road. Steam poured out of its engine and arms waved from the windows like a doomed centipede caught on its back. The large man in the torn tennis shoes tried to flag them down but Billy roared past him. Alden glanced back at the island of people fading behind them on the long empty road.
"You from the east?" Billy asked.
"No, just heading for where it all began."
"Where what began?"
"Our great country."
"Yeah...right. You get to kill anybody?"
"No," Alden said, and Billy looked up at him in the rearview mirror. "I was headed for Special Forces though."
"That sounds real nice," Charlene smiled.
Billy moved the old Woody past a flat bed truck loaded with bales of hay and they rolled into a town with gray painted houses on either side. The pill had suddenly hit and Billy felt his body going limp.
"Hey, buddy, can you drive?" he asked.
"Sure," Alden said. "Haven't used a stick-shift in a long time but I'll manage it."
Billy pulled off the road. "If you get into any trouble, just holler," he said, letting Alden get into the driver's seat while he slipped into the back. He pushed the marine's duffel out of the way, pulled the army blanket up over his head, closed his eyes, and gave in to the smooth orange pill. The Woody jerked forward in a shudder of gears.
"Does that all the time," Charlene said. "Don't you worry about it."
"Looks like we're going to need some gas," he said, as they rolled back out on the road behind a tractor.
Billy could hear their voices but the words ran together as the old Woody reached a steady speed. The drone of the motor ran through his tired body and he eased into the crease of the back seat and let himself drop into the void.
Billy tried to move but the army blanket had twisted around him. He shifted his body and a crack of sunlight broke across his eyes. He squinted and saw the bright light coming in along the top of the window. They'd stopped. He fought the blanket, pushed his arms free, and realized he was alone. Lifting himself up he looked out to where the sun bounced at him in a straight sharp glare. He could barely see water through the high weeds, and a crouching hazy blue figure stared back at him. They were in an open field and the only road out was behind him. A few cars moved on it in a silent parade, but the field looked empty. He reached for the newspaper that Charlene had stuffed under the seat, and hit the loaded sawed-off shotgun he'd jammed in there the night before. He found the paper and read his name but couldn't make out the rest, and shoved it back under the seat with the gun. Carefully opening the door, he crawled out into the dust and peeked over the front fender. The figure had gone and he wondered if anything had been there at all.
Alden's words came in a rush. They were hush-words, secret words. Words he'd never spoken before. "The brass took us out on maneuvers," he said. "Short notice. Full equipment. Copters dropped us in the desert at 2200."
"I never heard of 22 whatever, but it must've been scary," Charlene said, squinting at him through the glare coming off the river.
"Our orders were to move into position and take it."
"They didn't tell us, but we figured we were being groomed for a particular strategic target. They even issued live ammunition and told us to expect combat conditions. I jumped out of the copter and hung in close to my buddies. It was so dark you couldn't see the ground in front of you, and I was soaking wet. We tried staying in tight but the C.O. kept telling us to spread out. Somebody next to me stumbled. Then there was nothing at all. Not a sound. I turned to stone. Felt like hours. Then it happened. Something brushed my leg."
"Oh, my God, this is so scary," Charlene moaned.
"I looked down and saw eyes staring up at me. Then I felt something behind me." He took a long deep breath and stared out at the river. "Those eyes were everywhere. Going by and coming back. I could barely see their heads and when I took a step they surrounded me."
"What'd you do?" Charlene asked with a shiver.
"I raised my rifle and fired. There was a tremendous howling. Someone yelled. Then a whole lot more gunfire and howling. Everything went haywire." He sat quietly for a moment, and said, "They put me on trial."
"One marine dead, two wounded, and a whole lot of coyotes shot up real bad."
"Threw me in the stockade, then discharged me because they didn't understand He was testing me."
"Who'd do a thing like that?"
"God," he said, staring out over the river.
"Did you tell them God did it?" He didn't answer and she reached out to touch him. "What'd your girlfriend do?"
"I don't have a girlfriend, ma'am," he muttered.
"I don't believe it. You don't have a car and you don't have a girlfriend?"
"No, ma'am. I've got a mission."
"A promise to God that I'd bring peace to His world."
They both stared out at the shining river. "Well, at least you know what you're going to do with your life. That's something."
"A lot of men have tried and failed. Men better and greater than I could ever be."
"You mean like the president?" she asked.
"Men like Ghandi and Jesus Christ."
"Sounds like you want to be a preacher."
"That's right. A preacher."
"I know lots of guys want to be preachers. If you're good at it you can make a lot of money. Friend of mine--"
"I don't want money. I just want to stop people from killing each other."
"Of course. That's why I'm gonna be a movie star." He looked surprised when she said it and thought she might be making fun of him. "I mean, if you put your mind to it you can be anything you want."
"Yes, yes. You do believe, don't you?"
"Oh, God, please help me," he suddenly shouted, and went down on his knees.
Charlene looked around to see if anyone had seen them, and said, "What you going on like this for?" Alden closed his eyes and pressed his hands together in a desperate prayer. "All you gotta do is believe an everything will just happen," Charlene said. "Please get up before--"
"It's not that easy," he said, swaying back and forth.
"Anybody can be a preacher or a movie star. You just do it. You can be anything."
"You don't understand."
"I can't make out a thing you're saying," she snapped. "For someone who wants to be a preacher you're off to a real bad start." Alden grabbed her around the waist and buried his face against her. "You crying?" she asked, stiffening against the slope to keep from falling. She could feel his mouth trying to pray. His warm breath ran across her belly and down her legs.
"My God, my God," she made out, but the rest got lost and muffled against her. The tension in her thighs and legs faded and she pressed his head in closer between her legs. The breeze off the river brushed her face and she began to tremble. The hill began to blur and she squeezed him even tighter. Her knees bent and she felt a hotness rush through her. Her breath came in short bursts and a weakness hit her legs. He'd stopped mumbling and his head had dropped away. She tried to lift him back but her arms turned weak.
"I want to believe. Oh, God. I've got to believe," he said. He sounded far away and the light floating sensation took her again. "You've made me want to do it," he said. She tried to answer but was out of breath. He rose up and steadied himself against her, and she held on.
"I didn't mean to upset you," he said.
"I'm just fine," she said. "Really I am."
They turned to go but the incredible lightness stayed with her as they climbed the hill. Billy was waiting for them at the top and she smoothed her dress and wondered if he'd seen them on the slope.
"Where the hell are we?" he yelled.
"Mississippi River," Alden shouted. "Illinois side. This great river flows all the way to New Orleans. It's God's river."
"I got to talk with you, Char," Billy said, strutting along the top of the bluff. When she finally caught up with him he snapped, "What's with this guy?"
"He wants to be a preacher, but he's scared."
"Scared? He's a marine for Chrissake."
"Don't make any difference if you're scared."
Billy jerked his shoulders and kicked a rusty beer can over the edge of the bluff and watched it bounce down toward the river.
"I saw that newspaper you shoved under the seat."
"I swiped it at Mc Donald's."
"What'd it say?"
"Dumb stuff about you kidnapping me. An that maybe I'm dead." He looked surprised. "But I ain't dead." She looked back at the marine and Billy kicked at the ground and another roll of dust flew into the air. "That all you want to talk about?" she asked.
"Why the hell did you have to pick him up?"
"So he could spell you at the wheel, silly. Besides, they're not looking for a marine driving an old wagon."
"He got any money?"
"He filled the tank while you were sleeping."
"I figured he'd spring for that. I just don't like uniforms. Don't trust them."
"No one looks twice at us with him driving."
"How much money you figure he's got?" Billy asked.
"Dunno," she said, and they walked back to the car. "He's got this thing about helping God. I think he's a little crazy."
"Don't like him much. Smiling and calling me, Sir."
"He ain't all that bad."
"Guess not, long as he keeps driving and buying the gas," Billy said. Alden sat on the old Woody's fender looking out at the Mississippi. He smiled when they got closer. "You just keep driving, buddy. You're doing great," Billy said.
Charlene settled into the front seat and Alden started up the motor. "If we can find 64 it'll take us right into Chicago," he said. Charlene stretched out and pulled her dress up across her thighs. She felt the afternoon sun, closed her eyes, and hoped he was looking at her legs. She thought about him on that slope and what it would be like with him in bed.
Alden caught a quick glimpse of the structure and felt a sharp, gulping ache in his chest. The whole thing began to float in front of him. He looked for signs in the bursts of late sunlight and finally saw the cross above the door.
He bounced the old Woody off the blacktop and headed up a deep gutted dirt road. Charlene lay curled in the front seat and Billy snored under the army blanket in the back. Alden finally got to the shining white building and eased in close to the white steps. Someone had left a small sign on the front door. The letters had been crudely chalked on a flat piece of wood and he squinted through the glare to read the circle of words, CLOSED - NO DELIVERIES.
Alden stared at the sign and fought the pressure growing along the top of his head. His legs bent under the force and he fell to his knees, facing the blinding glare coming off the white lacquered front door. He began to pray through his tears. Despite what the sign said, he knew that he'd been delivered.
Billy sensed the stillness and peeked out from under the ragged army blanket. Everything was bathed in a white light and he noticed the carved wooden cross over the door. That same floating figure he'd seen at the river seemed to be there too, jerking back and forth in front of him.
"Hey, Char," he whispered, poking her. "You better take a look at what's going on here."
Charlene groaned, "What's he doing now?"
"He's down on his knees and--"
"Oh, shit," she said, falling back on the seat again. "Don't pay him any mind. He'll get over it."
Alden's head tilted upward to stare at the crude wooden cross over the door. His lips moved but there was no sound. "Hey, buddy," Billy called, getting out of the car. "What the hell we doing here?"
Alden's blue eyes glowed in the glossy reflection and Billy looked around to see where he'd taken them. "We can't stay here," he said. "Charlene will be wanting to eat again soon." Alden turned on his knees and his lips bent into a smile. He stared into the late sun and rocked from side to side on the top step. His head seemed to flare in the fading sun.
"I know who you are and what you've done," he said.
Billy looked around to see if anyone had heard him. "I don't know what you're talking about," he muttered.
"She's not your sister and her name isn't Marilyn. You're Billy The Kid! Picture's in all the papers and on TV," Alden said, staring into the sun. "They think you kidnapped her...killed her."
"Nobody's been killed! 'Specially her!"
"And now you've led me to this eternal light...a place of goodness. To God Himself!" A leafy shadow moved across Alden's face and he said, "You're my deliverers. My archangels." Then he lowered his voice and said, "Kneel with me, boy...you need salvation."
"I don't need nothing," Billy muttered.
Alden suddenly grabbed him by the neck and Billy felt a sharp pain run across his knees as he hit the wooden steps. He began to mumble and moan, and when Billy tried to look up he felt Alden's thumbs press in behind his ears.
"Save your sinning angel, Lord! Save him," Alden shouted. "Keep him from harm and the worldly fears that surround us. He's followed your command and led us to this holy place." Billy tried to move but the pressure on his head grew tighter. "Lift your sinner, Lord!" Alden yelled at the last piece of sun. "Help him overcome this adversity of the spirit and mind he's caught in." Then Alden looked out across the empty field and began to sing:
"You can ease your load,
Down this sorrow road,
If you take His hand,
And a-walk this land."
The pressure behind Billy's ears gave way and the sounds of Alden's singing crackled and exploded in his head. "Let go a me!" Billy yelled, shaking free.
"Charlene Skinner and Billy Carew. Angels wanted in three states. They led me to this holy place where the Lord has told me to put a satellite dish out in that field and a transmitter behind it so we can broadcast His message to the world. Peace must reign. Prepare ye the way of the Lord," Alden shouted. "The Lord's calling you both. It's your time! The gates must be opened," Alden shouted, and turned the knob on the glossy white door.
"How the hell did he find out who we were all of a sudden like that, Billy?" Charlene asked, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.
"He must've found that paper you picked up. Or God told him," Billy said, heading for the white door.
"Where you going?" Charlene yelled, but Billy never looked back. "You're both crazy," she said. "Crazy."
Cracked walls and folding chairs had been thrown haphazardly into the dark corners. A white metal cross, cut from the hood of a car, hung prominently above a preacher's nook. The large piece of scrap metal glowed in the filtered light that came through the window facing the highway. Alden fell to his knees and stared up at it.
"That rugged cross has saved you, Billy," Alden said, and his words seemed to rush around the empty room. "A new life...a second chance. I can feel it." Billy stood frozen against the front door and stared at the glowing white cross. "Do you hear Him calling, Billy?"
"I guess," came the weak answer.
"Listen to it and--"
"I am listening," Billy insisted.
"That's all God asks."
Billy stared up at the simonized cross but all he could hear were the passing cars on the road outside.
"Let's get outta here," Charlene whispered from behind him, and the last of the sunlight on the window began to fade into the shadows.
"I'm trying to hear God," Billy whispered.
"Hell," Charlene hissed, and the wooossh of pellets shot past Billy in a thunderous roar, catching Alden in the back of the head. A sudden gush of blood sprayed across the white metal cross on the wall and Alden's body jerked upward, dropped forward, and went sprawling in front of the preacher's nook.
The after silence seemed deafening, and Billy said, "Shiiiit, Charlene, what'd you have to go and do that for? I told you not to touch my gun."
"They ain't dragging me back to that hell-hole we run out of...or pushing me into that juvie-hall again. No way! He knew who we were, Billy!"
"Yeah, he sure did," he muttered, getting up off his knees and hobbling out into the low buzz of crickets and mosquitoes to see if anyone had heard the shot.
"Let's get some burgers and fries an eat in the car," Charlene said.
Billy took the gun from her and put it back under the seat. Then he turned on the old Woody's ignition and listened to the new fan belt hum. "No more hitchers," he said. "Strangers complicate things."
"I guess, but at least he got to go where he wanted. That's something anyway."
"We ain't anywhere near Virginia, Char."
"He even made up a sign, an all," she said.
"I don't think he really cares about where he's going now, Char."
"Whatever," she said, bracing her feet on the shaking dashboard while Billy cursed at the gutted road ahead.
"I have always depended on
the kindness of strangers."
930 Country Club Drive
Prescott, AZ 86303-3522