The Tongass was a paradox, temperate but humid. In the forest, dust and gravel were invasive species.
Southeastern Alaska: a birdshot blast of islands scattering out from what had once been mainland Canada. Rain had not fallen on Taan, the region’s largest island, in almost a month. It was late summer, though the fireweed had yet to bloom. The dust kicked up from the island’s endless maze of logging roads thickened in the air, clinging to skin, homes, and vehicles like wet paint.
Ash stood outside the smokehouse, exhausted, arguing payroll with Grandma Liss, who perched high above him on her house’s wrap-around porch. Her rat-dog danced at her feet. A Chevy crunched its way up the steep gravel driveway, something lumpy and red in the back.
“Hi there, welcome to Feralfoods. Ash here will help you,” Grandma Liss said to the hunter as he hopped down from the cab. “Come on Coco.” She went inside, and the rat-dog followed.
“Got something for you,” the hunter said to Ash as he popped open the truck’s dented tailgate, smearing the dust coating the handle.
Ash took hold of one end of the bulky, blood-stained canvas lying in the bed. Heavy, but the kill must have just been a juvenile since it only required two to lift. A legal kill, but barely.
“Did you gut it?” Ash asked. “Got to gut them right away or they go south fast.”
“Took the head,” the hunter said, evading the question. He hadn’t. “Already got her boiling back at the cabin. Just need you to butcher, package, and freeze the rest.”
Inside the smokehouse, a metal twang filled the air. The two men set their burden on a low wooden table next to a knee high electric scale. The hunter crinkled his nose, but made no comment.
Officially, Grandma Liss forbade costumers from bringing in meat that hadn’t been properly gutted, because of the mess. The policy lapsed that summer, and in fear of offending clients and sending them off to a competitor, Ash accepted the uncleaned carcasses with a handshake and a smile.
“We charge by incoming weight,” Ash said. “Saves you a little money to clean them yourself.”
The hunter nodded absently. Men like him did not care about saving a little money.
Ash wrote down the man’s name and info on his intake clipboard. The hunter left. Before Ash could weigh in the meat, another dusty truck pulled up in front of the smokehouse.
The men who climbed down from the truck all wore green camouflage. They had already dressed and butchered their kill.
“Just needs to be boned and skinned,” one of them said.
“And we want her smoked,” their ringleader said.
With groups, there was always a ringleader. One man, usually the richest, though all these men were at least somewhat rich, self-elected to represent the group in matters of processing, freezing and shipping home their kills. Women rarely traveled in such groups. These were men on business trips, matters of international importance, solidifying their fraternity of thieves and murders. A week hunting in rural Alaska, wives left at home. On holiday as if the world wasn’t burning down around them. They’d drop the day’s kill off at Feralfoods to be bled, butchered, packed, frozen, and boxed to take on the flight home.
Ash placed a worn red tote on the scale and pressed the tare button. The hunters had wrapped their kill in heavy duty black garbage bags. The expensive kind, name brand.
One by one the ringleader placed ragged, field butchered arms and legs into the red tote. Blood dripped freely from each limb, but the floor of the intake room was cement, slanted with a drain at its center, designed for easy cleaning. With the trash bags empty, the ringleader began to fish around in a large bag that looked empty. He pulled out a ziplock full of hearts and livers. Blood stained his sleeve to the elbow.
“Plan to be here long?” Ash asked.
“One more week,” the ringleader said.
“Staying in Klawock?”
“Huh?” murmured one of his hunting partners. “I thought it was clay-wok?”
“Nah,” Ash said. “It’s kla-walk. Like the sound a raven makes.”
“Shoot. I’ve been calling it clay-wok all this time.”
“I hear you make a killer teriyaki,” the ringleader cut in.
“It’s true.” Ash picked up his intake clipboard.
“All right. We want one half that. Then one half just smoked up regular. And can you vacuum pack and freeze these?” He held out the ziplock.
“Can do.” Ash took it and set it in its own tote. “Should be ready for you in three to four days. You plan to bring it all home on the plane with you?” A private plane, no doubt.
Ash wrote down the ringleader’s name and number. The group piled back into the truck and tore off toward their post-kill cigars and whiskey.
Ash was up to his elbows in blood and offal, prepping the two new orders, when a third truck pulled up. He started to clean up, but before Ash could wet his hands, his uncle Wax led the new customer into the intake room. Ash almost finished washing up anyway, but Wax’s tin cloth pants were clean and he wasn’t wearing that leather vest with the skulls so Ash went back to work.
“Bring it on in,” Wax said, his voice much too jovial to be sober. “You can set it right there.” He wasn’t even helping.
“We’re flying back to Idaho Territory on Tuesday,” the customer said. “Can you have it smoked up by them?”
“Oh fuck no,” Wax said. “Gonna be at least four days.”
“Is there anyway you can fit it in?”
“Well, you can take it up the road to Larry’s. Will taste like shit but I’m sure he’ll get it done for you. If you want your sassy smoked up good, then leave it here, and let us ship it home to you.”
Great, shipping frozen meat was a pain in the ass.
All summer Ash wanted to speak to Wax about the coarse way he talked to customers, but he knew that it would get him nowhere. Plus, Wax lending a hand was something Ash wanted to encourage, rare as it was. Maybe that was how they talked to each other out on fishing boats. But, there were no fishing boats these days, so he needed to get with the program. Klawock may have been rural, but for all Ash knew, it was all the civilization left.
Ash put down his scalloped scimitar and picked up his thin, flexible flensing knife.
“Oh,” the customer said. “How much does that cost?”
“Not much,” Wax lied. Shipping was damned expensive. It had to go out overnight air since the product was perishable, cross as many as ten international borders, and airlines were unreliable.
Ash heard a door close and the truck start up. Had Wax even taken down the man’s information?
Wax came into the cutting room carrying a grey tote. Little legs shot straight up over the side, still in rigor. He must have cracked its back in order to fit it in the tote. Most likely damaging the meat. Great.
“Here’s one more for you,” Wax said as he set the tote down on the stand to Ash’s left. His hair was wild, tangled and streaked with grey.
“Little fucker. Won’t take you long.”
Ash looked down at the Sasquatch. A little fucker indeed, much too small to be legal. A yearling if that. Tiny. Auburn hair, matted, and caked with dried blood. It would have just begun learning to walk. The bullet had taken it right in the heart. A great shot. Especially since it had probably had been made while the mother held it her arms as she ran for her life.
“What the hell are you doing accepting this?” Ash asked.
“This is a yearling. The Tribe finds out about this, we are shut down. Get it? Shut the fuck down.”
“Better slice her up fast then, before the fishpigs get here.” Wax smiled and left. What did he care if the smokehouse closed? He had his moonshine to make his living. He didn’t need this. Not like Ash did.
Its eyes were still open. Blue. So human. Its throat uncut, the hunter hadn’t even bothered to bleed it. At the beginning of the season, Ash had been surprised by the number of hunters who seemed the have no idea what they were doing. Coming up here for sport. For the thrill. But their blood lust paid his bills. He couldn’t complain too much. At least not to their faces.
When Ash finished, the sun had traveled behind the scarred, treeless mountain. For a moment, its snowless peak radiated an eery light–a candle stub burning within a weathered, grey skull. Even with the sun behind the mountain, it was not dark. It never got dark, just an extended twilight that hung in the sky like a threadbare curtain strung up between dusk and dawn.
JB waited for him on the couch in their crumbling trailer. Even inside, way up on the top of the hill, behind Grandma Liss’s big house, they could still hear the rattling hum of the smokehouse’s blast freezer.
Grandma Liss had bought the trailer when Ash agreed to come work for the summer. With work in the lower forty-eight so scarce, Ash and JB had jumped at the chance. But during the winter, before Ash and JB got to Alaska, Wax had taken it upon himself to use it as his motorcycle shop. The thin carpets were smeared with grease. The unused kitchen area still housed engine parts that, as far as Ash was concerned, might as well belong to some alien spacecraft.
“What’s wrong?” JB asked as Ash came in the door. JB set down his tattered comic book. He stood, loosening his braids. His thick black hair fell across his shoulders like an avalanche of the kind of night never found during an Alaskan summer.
“I’ve heard them say that it’s just like killing a man.” Ash said.
“I mean, how would they even know? I know things are getting bad down south, but…”
“Babe, you shouldn’t worry about it.”
JB wrapped his arms around him. “Take a shower.”
Every morning Ash checked the fireweed that grew in the ditch running off from either side of the Feralfoods compound entrance. The slender, knee high stalks were still green without a hint of fire, though the buds were getting fat. They would ignite soon, its bloom signaling summer’s end. Would Grandma Liss let him stay? Did he even want to?
The dumpster sat on a concrete platform just inside the compound’s entrance and behind the ditch. During the night, something had knocked it on its side.
Ash stood motionless as JB knelt to right the dumpster. He yearned for the spark that would flare against the low alder and tall draping hemlock that surrounded the compound. He yearned for the bloom that would illuminate them all. His gaze shifted between the fireweed, his lover, and finally onto the muskeg plain that started at the bottom of the hill and stretched for miles until it slammed into foothills of another devastated mountain. Shadows moved among the stunted pine forest that scabbed the muskeg, darting erratically and much too far to make out, probably ravens. The peat covering the surfaces of the bogs had once been pillow soft, perfect for family camping trips, now they spread across the island like a dried sponge, their thick vegetal surfaces sucking whatever stray moisture from the island air they could.
JB met Ash’s eyes, but he did not ask for help. The dumpster was only half full. A thin metal bar held its flimsy plastic lid in place, so none of the black trash bags loaded with bones and festering guts spilled out. He lifted without strain. His toned arms flexed, and the slender scars that wound from wrist to bicep writhed like pale worms caught in sunlight.
Around them, the forest gasped and rattled. A raven took flight from its perch on a nearby tree, dust pluming from branches and wings. Even in death, even with the dust and the brown overtaking the cedar and the spruce, even with the muskeg sucked dry and crumbling, Ash still experienced every shade of green on the spectrum as JB led him back up the hill.
The smokehouse was white with red trim, and showed signs of multiple build-outs that didn’t quite match. A good season might have meant a new cutting room or storage van, but each had been built by different hands with different ideas and little regard for aesthetic. Wax had scavenged or stole most of the wood. This was Alaska. They made do with what they had. The smokehouse was really no different from one of Grandma Liss’s tenant’s slapped together wanigans. An old trailer at the center, with a real house built up around it over the years. Grandma Liss thought herself above all that. Her house on the hill had never been a trailer. It had always been a house, right from the start.
Ash and JB put on clean yellow aprons and tied their hair back. Ash put on baseball cap, teasing JB about his hairnet with his braids all tucked up beneath it, though he secretly thought it was cute.
After placing a stack of metal smoker racks on the table in the middle of the processing room, Ash turned on the two industrial smokers. The plant filled with a nose-tingling hum. Alder Smoke leaked from the cracked gaskets around the doors. After twenty years, the ceilings, along with the top quarter of the walls, were stained yellow.
JB got to work pulling the meat out of the walk-in and setting it to rinse in the large metal sinks.
Ash sprayed the racks with cooking spray. After ten minutes of rinsing, JB carried the first big yellow tote of cured squatch meat and set it on a stand next to the table.
They plunged their bare hands into the salty water, and started laying out the thin strips of meat on the racks. When they first started work two months back, both of them would cringe each time they dipped their hands into the frigid water. Now they worked quickly with both hands, placing the strips in even rows on the rack, unaffected by the cold.
After both smokers were loaded, turned on, and the fires lit and set to smolder, Teddie, who rented the lot from Grandma Liss across the driveway, came in to help with bagging and vacuum sealing the meat Ash had butchered the night before. If Wax would get off his lazy ass to help, they wouldn’t even have need of Teddie. Which would have been wonderful, because she did nothing but talk all day, and barely got any work done.
“Something got to our dumpster, I saw.” She gestured wildly as she spoke, a habit that kept her from working efficiently. “I can’t imagine it was a bear. No one has seen a bear on the island in years. Maybe we ought to call Fish and Game?”
“Don’t call them,” JB said. “If it’s a bear, they’ll just shoot it.”
“I don’t think it was a bear,” Ash said.
“It was like it was shoved over. No claw marks. No attempt to get inside.”
“Hmm, well when I was a little girl and the bears got to the garbage can at my dad’s place, you could tell. It was covered in holes when they found it in the woods nearby. Smashed flat too. Like he had been playing with it like a toy.”
“Might have been kids,” JB said.
“Hah,” Teddie said.” What kid in their right mind would risk Grandma Liss’s wrath by doing something stupid like that?”
“Good point,” JB said. “Could it have been a Sasqutch?”
Ash did not want to think about that.
“No,” Teddie snapped. “They never come this close to town. Nope, it was probably just kids.”
In the late afternoon, customers started coming in to drop off their kills. Most of them hadn’t bothered to bleed or gut their squatch, like they didn’t even care if the meat turned out good or not. Like they were killing these beautiful creatures for fun, only bringing their corpses to Ash to butcher and smoke because the law forced them.
Teddie punched out. She only ever wanted to work five hours each day. “Are either of you going into town later?” she asked Ash.
“Yeah,” Ash said. “I’ve got to take some boxes into Craig. There might be a plane tonight.”
“Could you run by the store and grab me some cheese cloth? I’m making honey and jam. I’ll give you some jars.”
“Thank you. You boys ought to come across to my place after work for a drink. I’ve got a friend in from out of town.”
“We’ll see how we feel.” Wax had probably given her a jar of his moonshine. No wonder she didn’t want to work.
“Sure thing. Later.”
After work, Ash and JB did indeed feel the need for a drink, but they had it alone, in their trailer where they’d stashed a bottle of Maker’s which had been given to them by a client. There had been a plane. Ash and JB hauled almost thirty fifty-pound boxes over to Craig in the company truck, while Wax probably sat on the porch of his little shack on top of the hill playing his mandolin, drinking up his moonshine profits, and not even thinking about coming down to help. Down south, such laziness would get a man’s throat cut as he slept, but in Alaska it seemed the norm.
In the morning, Ash brought Teddie her cheese cloth. Her home sat directly across the driveway from the smokehouse, and looked like a mess of warped particleboard wrapped in dirty blue tarpaulins. The forest leaned against her home like a drunk. The pales greens of wild celery and juniper shrubs faded into the rich verdant firs that shaded much of the compound.
No one answered when he knocked, but he could hear water running through her flimsy, plywood door, so he let himself in. A thin man Ash didn’t recognize slept on the couch with no blanket, still wearing jeans and boots. Ash moved through the house silently. He could hear Teddie singing in the shower, her voice gruff above the smooth fall of the water. He placed the cloth on the cleanest part of the counter he could find.
The man groaned, turning over. Ash worried that he may have woken him, but knowing Teddie, they’d been drinking hard the previous night. The man groaned again, gurgling a little, coughed a shallow cough, then turned back over.
Ash left the house and crossed the driveway. He donned his boots, gloves, and butcher’s apron. Halfway through skinning an adolescent female, Ash heard screaming. First, he glanced at the knife and the lifeless humanoid body on his butcher board, but the sound came from outside. He looked out the small window next to his table. Beyond dead flies and brown, flaking blood splatter he saw Teddie running off her porch with her arms crisscrossing her chest and hands locked underneath her armpits.
Ash dropped his knife and went outside.
Teddie screamed, “Dead! He’s dead!”
Grandma Liss came out onto her porch, like a queen on high standing on a mountain, leaning against a dusty bannister, surveying her glorious kingdom.
Ash stood still in the smokehouse’s doorway. Had Wax finally snapped? Where was JB? Who died? No.
“He’s cold. He’s dead!”
The Tongass ceased its shimmering. Green became grey.
All Grandma Liss’s tenets had come out of their homes by then. Jim and Phillip, who lived next to Ash and JB, both leaned on the tailgate of their blue pickup. Dee stood on her ramshackle porch with her arms crossed, unimpressed. Gui just sat in his camp chair like he did everyday, drinking a coffee mug of Wax’s shine, looking like the world had forgotten him.
JB rushed out from Teddie’s trailer. Ash’s breathing resumed. The Tongass exhaled with him, rasping to life once again.
“Call someone!” JB shouted.
Grandma Liss hesitated, looking reluctant to abandon the drama even for a second, but she went inside to call. As far as Ash knew, no one else in the compound owned a telephone.
Klawock’s volunteer paramedics arrived in minutes. Teddie kept saying over and over that there was nothing to be done. That after she’d finished with her shower, she’d spent nearly thirty minutes sitting in the chair right next to him, doing half her whole crossword, thinking he was asleep. All the while he had been stone dead, stiff, and cooling. Folks just didn’t abruptly die like that for no reason, but when Ash watched the paramedics wheel the man out with a sheet over his body and no urgency, he knew it was true.
Which meant that the man must have died right around the time Ash dropped off the cheese cloth. He had heard the man cough, stir, and rattle. Had those been the man’s last movements? His last breaths?
“They say his liver just stopped working,” Wax said.
Grandma Liss had taken Teddie out to lunch at Dave’s Diner in order to get her mind off the incident. Just the day before she had been going on about how she wanted to evict Teddie because it had been so long since she paid her any rent, but now she was all smiles and niceties. Ash knew this was just Grandma Liss’s way of gaining the upper hand. She would take advantage of any situation to gain some sort of leverage on a person. Even a man’s death.
“He died right there on the couch. Her right next to him.” Wax spoke again after no one answered him.
“We ought to get rid of that couch for her. No way she’d ever want to sit on that thing again,” JB said.
“Plus it’s ugly to boot,” Wax said.
“Right,” Ash said.
“What do you want to do with it?” Wax asked.
“You got a pit. We burn it.” JB uncrossed his arms and started toward the tailer.
Wax watched as Ash and JB went into Teddie’s quiet house. Each hoisted an end of the couch. They flipped it over to get a better grip. Six empty airline vodka bottles fell out.
The fire pit sat cocooned in rainforest. The needled leaves of devil’s club pricked at Ash’s arms as he and JB carried the too-big couch up a small trail toward the pit. Once in the clearing, They set it on top of a ring of shin-high, soot-covered rocks. There was already some cardboard boxes in the pit, and it still had not rained a drop, so when Wax touched the flame of his zippo to one, it wasn’t long at all until the couch went up in rush.
The three men stood around looking into the heart of the fire the way folks do when there is fire, but nothing at all to be said. This was not the fire Ash waited for, had checked the ditches each morning for, but it still made him nervous. Wax fetched a jar of moonshine from his shack and after taking a gulp, offered it to Ash. He declined.
Wax looked at JB. “Sorry,” he said, tilting the half full jar in his hand as if to give a toast. “But I’ve got an agreement with the Tribe not to give my whiskey to any Indians.” And he shrugged, taking another drink.
That fucker. That motherfucker.
Ash looked at JB, scared of what he might see. He halfway reached out to place a hand on his arm, but stopped short when JB said, “It’s okay. I don’t want any. It’s okay. We need to go back to work.”
Tense, Ash didn’t speak. The wind shifted and the acerbic smoke pouring from the couch blew in his face.
“Of course. Go on. Got to work,” Wax said, then took another gulp from his jar.
Ash knew Wax approached one of his moods. The kind that often ended with one of the neighbors calling the troopers. As they left, Wax just stood, smoke blowing in his round face, staring at the flames like the shine was some sort of potion bewitching his soul.
“Is he just drunk?” Ash said. “Is he just stupid? Is he looking for a fight?”
“Ash, it’s okay.” JB put his arm around Ash’s shoulder. “Don’t let him get to you. This isn’t about me. He’s trying to ruffle your feathers. Get a reaction. Don’t let him. Don’t give him the satisfaction.”
Few customers came in that night, so Ash and JB were able to knock off early, excited to spend a quiet evening alone, locked away from the world.
The trailer was nearly as cold as the smokehouse, and had there been rain, the roof would leak, but even with a ceiling covered in mold, it was a better home than either of them had seen in years.
Ash picked a sweatshirt up off his bed and put it on. He felt a slight heat on his arm. He pulled up the sleeve, and saw blood. A tiny sliver of glass stuck in his forearm. He looked down at the bed and saw a thousand shimmers dancing across the forest green comforter, caught in the glare of the evening sun. A capped mason jar, still half full of clear liquid, rested on his pillow. He felt a blast of cool air, and looked up to find the window above the bed shattered.
That piece of shit.
Ash could have been sleeping. JB could have been sleeping.
“Just stay here,” Ash said to JB who sat on the couch reading the same old comic book. Ash stalked out of the trailer before JB could even reply.
Grandma Liss sat in her office playing hearts on her computer when Ash stormed in. Her little rat-dog immediately mobbed him. Grandma Liss pushed herself away from the desk, and the little black wheels of her high-backed office chair rolled over the papers–customer invoices, last season’s tax records–that had had migrated to the floor from the ever-increasing towers on her crowded desk. She swiveled to face Ash.
The rat-dog ran around Ash’s feet in circles, yapping.
“You need to deal with your son,” he said. He told her what happened, showed her the small speck of welling blood on his arm.
Her face scrunched up. For just a second it was almost as if she were about to cry, something that Ash had never imagined her capable of. He blinked and the look had gone.
“What am I supposed to do?” She said. “He is my son. The only one who bothers with me. You two need to work it out.”
“Work it out? He could have killed me! Killed JB!” The rat-dog would not shut up. It needed to shut up.
“Don’t be dramatic.”
“He threw a goddamn fucking jar of moonshine through the window where I sleep!”
“But neither of you were sleeping there at the time, now were you? You can’t just waltz in here after all these years and start shouting around.” She crossed her arms and tilted her head in the same way he had seen her do so many times when dealing with irate squatch hunters whining when they couldn’t get their way. Ash was not some rich sadist from the lower forty-eight. How dare her.
“With all I’ve done for you this summer? When was the last time you got to spend the summer up here playing on your computer instead of down there up to your elbows in blood? What has he done but get drunk?”
That strained look touched her features again. “When Fall comes and squatch hunting season ends, who else is going to be here?”
“I can’t believe this,” Ash said, but he could. She had no choice. Wax was her only son, the only child left alive or speaking with her. Who else would have lunch with her on birthdays, or come over on Christmas morning? Even with the world going wrong, crashing down around them, Wax was right out that back door. “If he wants to run the damn business then why hasn’t he stepped up? Why am I even here?”
Grandma Liss stood up fast enough to make her chair wheel back and smack the wall. “Then just go. We don’t need you or your gay little Indian. If you don’t like it here then go!”
Ash slammed the door when he left.
Fireweed grew among the alder flanking both sides of the narrow trail leading to Wax’s shack. It had yet to bloom.
JB must have seen Ash pass because all of a sudden, he was latched onto Ash’s arm, his lover’s firm grip reassuring, yet terrifying in its resolve. “Ash, don’t do this. You don’t want to do this. We are past this. Better.”
“He could have hurt you! That jar was full! What if you had been sleeping?”
“It doesn’t matter. He’s your uncle, he’s a dick, a piece of shit, but fuck him. When the real danger arrives, I’ll know. I’ll keep us safe.”
Ash couldn’t argue, he knew what JB would do–what he had done–to keep them alive, so instead, he struggled to break JB’s hold, but couldn’t.
JB let go.
Ash resumed his rage up the trail. They should both leave, but Ash couldn’t afford to. Where would they even go? Maybe farther North. There was nowhere to go. He needed this job. They both needed it, even though it wasn’t safe. If family wasn’t safe, nothing was safe.
Ash tripped over a long, heavy motorcycle part sitting among the junk in Wax’s yard. He picked it up. The place disgusted him, built from wood Wax had found at the dump or stolen from construction sites around the island. Not even a trailer at its center. A temple to Wax’s thievery and sloth.
Ash held the bike part like a truncheon. He shouted for Wax to come out, to explain himself. Ash had seen his bike parked on the road out front. He knew he was still home. When Wax didn’t answer, he tried the door but it was locked. Ash pounded the door with his makeshift truncheon, leaving a greasy scar on the wood with each strike. The door rattled on its rusty hinges, but it held.
Ash let go, allowing all the hate in the world to pour out of him as wretched scream.
Ash shouted himself hoarse, calling Wax a fat lazy degenerate mooch and every nasty epithet that came to mind. The whole compound must have heard, but he did not care.
Wax never came, either passed out drunk or too much of a fucking coward to open the door. What would Ash do if his uncle answered? Would he brain him? Crack his skull? Murder him? Stretch him out to bleed and butcher him like one of those sorry creatures down in the smokehouse?
Throat sore, and feeling silly, he threw his truncheon at the door. It bounced off, ringing.
JB sat waiting on the trailer’s folding front step, his stern face softened as Ash approached. He had cleaned up the broken glass and patched the window while Ash had been up on the hill shouting and carrying on like a child. JB at had always been the calm one until he had no other choice, like when things went to hell in Dallas.
Ash started blubbering. “We have to go. How can we stay here? Where can we go?”
JB shushed him, holding him tight while the hollow space within Ash that had once been filled with hate for his uncle replenished itself with cold dread.
At five a.m. the sun had already been up for two hours. Ash and JB did not talk about the previous evening. They set out for work.
On the way down to the smokehouse Ash saw that the dumpster had again been flipped on its side, the lid removed, torn from the hinges.
Bloody trash was spread out along the unpaved road like a warning. The guts were caked in dust and speckled with gravel as if they had been kicked up and down the street. Among the mess, there were no bones. Why would something take the bones? Bigfoot didn’t bury their dead, did they?
Ravens fed on the viscera spoiling the street, pecking at lungs, intestines, and kidneys. When they saw Ash and JB, they began to caw. Klawock. Once a refuge from the dying world, now an island prison. Would he ever leave? Or worse, would he be forced to? They say corvids are the smartest of birds. Did the ravens know they mocked him?
“We need gloves.” The ravens scattered at the sound of JB’s voice.
Ash nodded, then jogged uphill toward the smokehouse, his feet crunching on the loose gravel. No matter which direction either of then walked within the compound, it was always uphill.
Teddie did not come in to work that day. Burning the couch had not been enough, she’d told Grandma Liss on the phone. She couldn’t stay living in a house a man had died in. Just like that, she planned to move to Anchorage, which was just as well since according to Grandma Liss, Teddie’s wanigan was an eyesore. Worse than Wax’s shack. Grandma Liss rejoiced to have her gone. She planned to build a small restaurant on the lot. Sassy’s Sandwiches, she’d call it. She promised Ash that he could run it, making up for their fight the day before in the only way she knew how. He didn’t know anything about making sandwiches, but he said okay. And just like that, he forgave her. Grandma Liss, as crotchety as she could be, was trying her best.
“We’ll finally be able to make sausages,” Grandma Liss said.
One of the neighbors drove over in her big yellow backhoe. It only took her a couple hours to knock Teddie’s old place to the ground.
Ash watched from the narrow blood-flecked window in the smokehouse. Among the ruins of Teddie’s wanigan, covered with bits of rotten plywood and shredded hunks of pink Tyvek insulation, sat an old Airstream trailer.
Ash had spent plenty of time in Teddie’s house and had never once noticed the presence of an Airstream.
“Probably used it for growing her dope,” Grandma Liss said when she came down to get Ash and JB to help with the cleanup.
“Or cooking up meth,” Wax croaked. He had come down to watch the rest of them work. Ash almost said something mean, but JB’s smooth hand touched his forearm before he could speak, calming him, helping him to be the bigger man.
As far as Ash knew, Teddie had always been poor. Her drug of choice was a handle of Gordon’s vodka.
“Well,” Grandma Liss said. “It’s mine now. Teddie hasn’t paid me a dime in six months. I wasn’t going to do anything about it. I couldn’t put her out like that, but selling this thing here will more than enough make up for that back rent.”
The neighbor, with her backhoe, removed the largest pieces of debris. Wax, Ash, and JB loaded the smaller stuff into the back of the Feralfood’s company truck and took it to the dump to burn.
With all the junk hauled away, the Airstream looked brand new, untouched by dust and gleaming like a nickel in the gutter, protected for years by the layers of slapped together ply-wood Teddie had called a home.
The Airstream’s door was locked.
“Go get your crow-bar,” Grandma Liss told Wax. He ambled off toward his shack, but never returned.
“Must have found a jar of his shine instead,” Ash said after twenty minutes passed. Grandma Liss shook her head, and went up the driveway to her house on the hill.
Ash worked late. JB offered to help, but Ash said no. He wanted to be alone for a bit, to think.
JB had asked him not to go down to the dumpster alone. What if the bear, or whatever it was that kept knocking it over, showed up again? Ash went anyway.
In twilight he heaved bags of bones into the lidless dumpster. Behind him, up the hill, the Airstream shone like cool silver in the half-light.
The step that once folded itself under the door had long since been torn off. The only blemish on the perfect Airstream. It could be easily replaced, once he cleaned it up. Ash shook his head. Here he was, thinking like the Airstream belonged to him, even when he knew that Grandma Liss would sell it. He did not have enough savings for such a lovely thing.
The base of the door reached to just below his knees.
He set his hand on the handle. He knew it was locked but he could not help but try. He pulled, and the door held fast. So he yanked and he pounded. Fighting it until his hands bled. Finally, he heard a crack, and the door swung open.
Ash climbed into an interior snatched out of time, perfectly in order, everything brand new and in its proper place. The air inside smelled somehow fresher than outside. Not a speck of dust on anything. Had Teddie even known this was here? She must have. She must have been coming in here, through some secret passageway, to clean all the years she’d been living at the Feralfoods compound, building up her hideous wanigan, hiding the beautiful escape hidden at its heart.
He sat in a burnt orange chair that looked like a dad’s chair that no one else was allowed to sit in. He sat there wishing. He wished it could be his. Wished that he could hitch the trailer to the company truck and drive, visiting all the stupid roadside attractions along the way and making fun of them with JB. Did those places even exist anymore? Grandma Liss would sell it off to one of those asshole hunters without a thought. Perhaps he could beg, make promises. Appeal to that sense of family he had seen spark in her eye the day he confronted her about Wax. He would work for free. Sell his soul. He would do anything for something this perfect.
It was a dream, the dream of a dying country. There was nowhere to go, no great highways left to explore, only pitted logging roads, and rural routes shattered by the melting permafrost.
A person would have to be beyond rich in order to transport such a thing off of Taan, but perhaps it didn’t need to move. He could hide it, as Teddie had–a dream secluded, but alive. He resolved to ask, to lay his heart bare. Grandma, we want to stay. Let us live here. Let us dream while we still are able. If she said yes, the Airstream could be a rest stop, a reprieve from the smoke, until the flames devoured them all.
A crash from outside. Metal hitting stone. The dumpster? Ash hopped down from the trailer to investigate.
The dumpster lay on its side. Whatever knocked it over had already gone too far to see, but Ash heard gravel popping under running footfalls, and the rattling of a bag of wet bones. Klawock, the ravens were on their way.
Standing at the base of the slanted driveway, Ash bit his cheek to keep from sobbing. His gaze drifted over the grisly mess in the road–no bones. They’re taking them. Somewhere deep in the paradoxical rainforest were tombs filled with the bones of lovers, of mothers, of children.
In the ditch the fireweed buds were starting to split. The Tongass would soon be aflame, just like the rest of the world. He knew he needed to get his gloves, clean it all up, but he didn’t move. He stared, willing those buds to open further, pushing the summer forward to the call down the high winds and heavy rains of autumn. To banish the dust that clung to his skin like cold, thickened gore.
It was two a.m. The sun would crest the mountain soon. The Airstream would glint like polished gunmetal. Ash took a step. Uphill. Toward home, toward love. Always uphill.
Copyright 2016 Mathew Scaletta
About the Author
Mathew Scaletta is a fishmonger and chef who divides his time between Alaskaâ€™s Alexander Archipelago and Oregonâ€™s Willamette Valley. When not elbow-deep in fish guts, he writes fiction and tweets about the black bears that stalk the periphery of his salmon cannery. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, such fine publications as Lackingtonâ€™s and See the Elephant.