By Richard Fife
I always liked the moment just after the sun set. There’s still light, but nothing to blind you when looking down the scope. It’s really nice when the moon-halves aren’t up in the sky too, but even when they are, I love it all the same. That’s the best time to shoot glowies.
Name’s Zedara Clement, by the by, although most folk just call me Zed. Travelers say it’s a right funny name for a cute girl, but it was my granmammie’s name, and she was one of the best mutanteers these here mountains ever saw, so I like it.
So, here I am, up in the hills, mutanteering just like granmammie used to. I even still use her old Ack-four-sev, even though the rounds are a pain for Jeff to reshell. It shoots good and fast, and that’s what you need when the glowies get in their minds that you’re dinner.
A rustling in the brush draws my attention, and I start sweating. Yeah, I’m out here looking for glowies, never said I wanted to actually find one. I’ve killed my share, sure, but it ain’t ever pretty, and it really ain’t all that fun.
The bushes rustle again, and I bring my gun around. Shouldn’t be no one up here ‘cept me, but I still need to be careful. My ‘eiger starts chirping at me, but I don’t need it to know. It’s a glowie, alright. Poor wretch, lumbering out of the bushes, all pale, glowing skin hanging on ragged bones. I let him get a few steps closer before I plant a sweet one right between his eyes. Shame, he looks like he might have been cute, once. He crumples in a pile, but I’m already moving. The ‘eiger is getting angry; I guess I let him get a little close.
I sling the string of rabbits I snared over a shoulder and start hauling out. It isn’t just the radiation I need to worry about from a dead glowie. I don’t need to look back to know there is some green gas coming up from his new hole. I tighten the straps on my mask to be sure. My older brother wasn’t all that careful once, and Da ended up having to shoot him not a year later.
I make my way over a ridge and instantly drop to my stomach. The ‘eiger started chirping again, and sure enough, there’s another one. This one, though, he’s special, I can tell. It isn’t just the extra arm hanging off his back, or the way his eyes don’t line up right. No, he’s a thrall, one of the glowies that’s still gots some brains. Have to be careful with thralls. They know when they’s being hunted.
I bring my gun up all quiet-like. Truth to the God-man, I’m scared and surprised he hasn’t already jumped on me. My ‘eiger is ten sorts of angry, and I just know he can hear it. I look down the crosshairs and put that lumpy forehead square-middle. Just a pinch more on my trigger and I’ll paint the rocks green. That’s when I hear it.
I don’t rightly know how to describe what I heard. A bit like a whistle, a bit like a scream. What it really was, though, was a whole lot like Rock. Rock once fell a few miles from our village. I was only five, but I still remember that distant sound, and Da telling me what it was. It isn’t so distant now.
I forget all about the thrall, and if he knew I was there, he’s forgotten all about me too. I jerk my head up, and right there it is. A big red chunk of Rock falling from the moon-halves. The last thing I remember is praying to the God-man and his goat.
* * *
When I woke up, it was full up dark. I smell something like rotten eggs nearby, and that’s when I realize my mask is loose. I start coughing, trying not to breathe while I tighten the straps, but it doesn’t do much good. That rotten smell just won’t leave my nose, even after I got the mask on. Maybe there’s a rip, but I don’t go looking for one. If there is, there is. I pull myself up and see my granmammie’s gun sitting a few feet away. I grab it, and then I think to look around for the thrall.
Only, I don’t even recognize where I am to look for it. The hill is flat up gone, and there’s a big hole over yonder. Well, nothing’s glowing, and my ‘eiger isn’t chirping, so it can’t be all that bad.
I look down at my ‘eiger, and that’s when I realize exactly why it isn’t chirping. It’s not even on. I hit it a few times, the sure way to fix anything, Da says, but it doesn’t come on. Maybe the juicers are dead. I hadn’t tried too hard on the bike to juice it up before heading out. The moon-halves were pretty far along in the sky, so it probably was dead. I hoped it was only dead.
Well, if this was the hill, home was still on the other side. I looked around for the thrall for a few minutes, but then I hurried on. Da would already be cursing up the lizard for being out so late. It was the fifteen minute run it should have been, and I stopped just outside of the wire-lines.
“Hey ya’ll,” I said. “Reckon anyone’s there?”
“Yeah,” a voice said, Jeff’s. “That you Zed?”
“Reckon so,” I said. “Can I come on in?”
“Get over ‘ere,” Jeff said. “Your da’s mighty cross, so I hope you aren’t too attached to your backside.”
“I got me some rabbits,” I said. “Maybe he’ll go easy.”
I ran into the village and saw Jeff sitting in the lee-to. He had his ol’ Winchester pointed out to the wire, and a goofy grin on his face. He always did like it when someone else got in trouble.
“Where you been, Zed?” he said.
“Was out hunting,” I said. “What else you think?”
“Well,” he said. “You better have a better ‘cuse than that for your da. He was talking about putting you in skirts and telling Georgie yes.”
That right about made me scream, I tell you truly. Not that I didn’t like Georgie. He’s a good-looking boy, even if he had ears the size of jugs, but well, if I married Georgie, that’d be the end of mutanteering. I’d be making babies, not shooting glowies.
Jeff kept his goofy grin as I stomped home. Da was sitting on the porch, his old mask still hanging around his neck even though he hadn’t gone out hunting for years, not since a glowie took his leg. With that and my brother, well, I guess I can understand why he was so careful with me.
“Zed!” He half tried to stand, as if he still had two legs.
“Evening Da,” I said. “Sorry I was out so late. I reckon I just lost the time. I brought some rabbits.”
“Rabbits!” Georgie came out onto the porch. “Hear that, Da? She brought us some conies.”
“You best be ready to fix ‘em yourself, Georgie.” I threw the line up at him. “I ain’t cooking you no dinner yet.”
Georgie fumbled with the line and looked at Da. Da kept his eyes on me, and I right reckon there was a tear in his eye. I coughed and walked up to him, and he gave me a big hug.
“You be careful, Zedara.” He only called me that when he was right worried. “I’ve already lost Ma and your brother. Don’t make me lose you, too.”
“I won’t Da,” I said. “Mountain’s promise. Now come on, Georgie, get those cleaned up. I’m fearful hungry! Don’t get those on the spit fast enough, I might just have to eat you.”
Georgie’s cute little squeak was worth Da’s glare.
* * *
Da didn’t let me go back out for weeks, but at least he didn’t shove me in a dress. Not that I could have gone out if Da would have let me. Couple days after the Rock, I got mighty sick. Nothing bad, mind, but the shakes and shivers and all that. Old Margie, our sick-lady, did what she could, said it was just the bad mountain air that got to me. The rabbit broth was the worst of it. I can’t stand having to drink nothing but rabbit broth.
Georgie kept hanging around, making calf-eyes at me like Da had already said yes. I asked Da if he had a few times, but he only mumbled something and hobbled off. I had a mighty strong feeling that he had, and I made sure there weren’t any dresses hiding in the closets for me. All I found were my Ma’s old dresses in a box, so I guessed I was safe.
The fourth day after I came home I had the worst of it, and not from being sick. That’s when Da found out the ‘eiger was humped. I wasn’t about to admit to being close to a Rock, that’d make him blue in the neck, so I told him I had fallen while getting away from a dead glowie. It was true enough. No way that thrall was alive, and I had been getting away, right? I said a small prayer to the God-man asking forgiveness for lying just in case.
My sicking-up passed after a week, but even for as much as promising my Da that I felt right as yellow rain, he didn’t let me go back out mutanteering. Georgie was getting about as bad as it gets, so I took to hanging out with Jeff just to get away from him. Jeff might smile goofy and poke fun at me about Georgie, but he’d also just as soon as give the guy a black eye. And that’s when I found out what Jeff had not been doing.
“You’ve stopped reshelling my rounds.”
“You’re the only one that uses that old Ack-four-sev, Zed,” he said. “You got a good two bags of bullets. Use some up, first.”
“You don’t think I’ll be going out again, do you?” I was right near blue in the neck.
“I ain’t saying that.” He raised his hands, though. Might as well have said “I am saying that, don’t hit me.”
I hit him anyway and left.
* * *
It’d been two weeks since the Rock when Old Margie came to see me again. She was about as wide as she was tall, and even if she wasn’t all that tall, she was still all that wide.
“You feeling alright, Zed?” she said.
“Right as red fog,” I said. “Why?”
“You look, well, a mite peeked.”
I glanced over in a shined up plate. “I guess I do, probably ‘cause I’ve been cooped up all this time instead of out hunting. Think you could talk to my Da?”
Margie only frowned and pulled a hand out from behind her back. She had an ‘eiger, and when she flipped the switch, it started chirping.
“What’s wrong with that ‘eiger?” I said.
“Ain’t nothing wrong with no ‘eiger, Zed.” The look on Margie’s face could have made a glowie cry. Perhaps it did.
I brushed a tear off my cheek. “Then . . . then there’s a glowie nearby. Go let Jeff and Georgie know, I’ll go get my gun.”
“Zed . . . .” Margie turned the ‘eiger off, and Da hopped through the door. He had a ‘palm gun in one of his hands.
“Zedara.” His voice was ten sorts of raw. He already knew. “I reckon it’s time you went out hunting again. Maybe all the way to the angel city.”
I looked from Margie to Da and back. “You reckon?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I lost Ma a while gone, and I still hurt over losing your brother. Zedara, I . . . .”
“Zed, Da,” I said. “Remember Zed.”
I walked around my room slowly and slipped into my coveralls and boots. Da seemed a little nervous when I grabbed granmammie’s gun, but he didn’t say anything. He did keep the ‘palm gun on me the entire time, though.
Margie and Da followed me out to the wire, where Jeff and Georgie and a few other of the folk were waiting. They all knew. I knew I should have been blushing, but I don’t know if I even could anymore. I was a glowie. I turned and left before that was all they saw.
* * *
I have to say, becoming a glowie wasn’t quite what I expected. I’ve seen the freshies, them’s that only recently were turned, and they are always shambling about, lost looking and haggard. Me, I just went out hunting like I always did. I managed to pick up a brace of quail along with a couple dead glowies, and had my fire going before the sun was even completely down. I wanted light, I do swear to the God-man that. Knowing you’re a glowie is one thing. Seeing yourself glow, well, that wasn’t something I was ready for.
I tried cooking the quail, little good that did me. Even just barely white, they might as well have been char-black. I forced them down anyway. I knew how glowies eat; I wasn’t ready for that either.
The next few days went much the same way, me always pushing further out west, tagging a glowie here or there and finding what I could to eat. I finally gave in and ate the rabbit raw on the fifth night. It was delicious. It was another week before I tried one live. After that, I did all I could to take them alive. I tried to tell myself I was just saving bullets and time. Eating them killed them just as well as snapping their necks or putting bullets in their heads.
Yeah, I didn’t believe it either.
* * *
It was over a month of wandering around before I finally stopped shooting glowies. I still kept my fire lit all night and stayed out of the shade, but I figured there was no reason to go shooting. The first glowie I let get close to me was pretty old. Ten fingers on each hand old, and three hands besides.
“Howdy,” I said.
He grunted and looked up at me from the deer he was chewing on. It was still twitching, and my mouth sure watered. He couldn’t eat a whole deer on his own.
He grunted again and buried his face back in its guts. I hunkered down near its thigh and dug in. He looked up at me a few times, but never did more than grunt. When he had his fill, he sat there and stared at me.
“Not a thrall, eh?” I wiped a stream of warm blood off my chin. That was a good deer. He grunted again, so I just kept talking. “I’m starting to think I might be. From what I hear, glowies go dumb much more than a month, and here I am still talking. What’d you reckon?”
He moaned, a drawn, kind of rough thing, like when Da got drunk on the double-distill and brought out his mandolin. I figured that meant close enough in glowie to “Reckon so.”
“Do you know where the angel city is?”
He twitched a few times then pointed south. Guess he wasn’t all dumb. I took another bite of the deer and made my way south.
* * *
The angel city was a sight to be seen, I swear to the God-man’s pointy beard. I never knew there could be houses that tall, taller than trees! When I was small, my granmammie used to tell me stories her granmammie told her, of when the angel city was called something else, Lost Angles or something like that, and there weren’t no glowies at all. And the moon-halves were one moon, but then, well, she kept changing what happened then.
Some nights, when I was being stubborn, she’d say that the moon split into the moon-halves ‘cause little girls refused to go to bed, just so it could rain Rock down on their heads. I don’t think that was it, but it sure got me in bed back then.
Most the times, though, it was something like the Reds and the Blues got all a hollering at each other, and one went and shot the other’s brother, and the other called the one’s sister a whore, and then they all got drunk and launched the ‘tomics. And, drunk curmudgeons they were, they launched them straight up, like when Uncle Leroy would get drunk and shoot his rifle straight up at the moon-halves. Well, where Leroy’s bullet would always just come back down and hit a tin roof or some such, their ‘tomics reached. That’s when Rock started falling, and the glowies appeared.
Of course, on Sunday nights, granmammie would say the God-man split the moon himself to punish the wicked down in the valleys, and only us virtuous mountain folk were left to be, cause he liked us, and gave us the goat. Not that he let us keep it, but it was a good goat while we had it. I never believed that story much either.
Well, ‘tomics or the God-man, the angel city was something. I hitched granmammie’s gun on my shoulder, and I went on down to see it.
* * *
I met another thrall pretty fast. Truth told, I think they knew I was coming. Soon as I walked into that maze of jagged, tree-tall buildings, a whole horde of glowies came rushing up. Not hostile-like, else I would have pumped them so full of lead they’d have stopped glowing for sure. No, they was happy! All like they knew me and were glad I was there. They pushed me along and took me into one of those giant stone and steel houses, and that’s where I met him.
He was an older glowie, all with two extra arms that actually looked kind of useful, and a third eye sitting square in his forehead. He had a funny mustache too, but I don’t think that was anything to do with being a glowie, or a thrall. When he saw me with my Ack-four-sev over my shoulder, he nearly glowed brighter.
“You’re a thrall?” he asked. “You can talk?”
“Well enough, mister,” I said. “Da always said I talked too much, God-man knows it.”
“I don’t know what the God-man knows,” he said. “But my name’s Drysda. If you’re looking for a pack, I promise you couldn’t do better than us.”
“If I was looking for a pack, I reckon so,” I said. “Why’d I be looking?”
“Packs get you the food,” he said. “Get you the good meat. A glowie alone can’t do much. A whole bunch of us, though, well, there’s two-legs around to be had.”
I stood and stared at him for a moment then looked around. That’s when I notice there weren’t any candles or fires. Of course there wouldn’t be, even if the thralls wanted to make candles, why bother? That’s when I finally looked down at my own hand and saw the faint, green halo around it.
“I reckon a pack would be good,” I said. “Name’s Zed.”
* * *
It was good to be back in the mountains. I spent a good five years in the angel city, and a rival pack finally took Drysda out. Sharp stone to the head. We killed the glowie that did it, and had a good meal off of him and Drysda both, but that left me in charge, and plenty enough other packs eyeing us. So, I gathered us up, packed my granmammie’s gun, even though I didn’t have any bullets for it anymore, and brought us back east.
We had the occasional two-leg, but mostly it was wild stuff. Even took down a bear once, and that was good eating. I didn’t know exactly where I was leading the pack until I found the crater. I barely recognized it from that night, all grown over with crabgrass and thistle, but I knew those mountains.
It was then, looking up at the mountains, that I heard something rustle in the bushes. My pack heard it too, and they didn’t even need me to tell them to go get it. I heard the ‘eiger chirping something fierce, and I followed the pack. No need to be in front, that’s what Drysda always said. Thralls are rare enough, and a pack needs them. Let the regular glowies go in first.
I got there, and I saw them laying into the two-leg. Looked tasty, sure enough. I ignored the small line of rabbits sitting over by his ‘eiger. They’d be good later, but I was awfully hungry right then, and for something live. I grunted at the glowies, and two moved out of the way. I got down next to the two-leg’s head and twisted it to the side. He had huge, tasty looking ears. I took a big bite. It was good to be home.