Willem’s filthy hand plunges deep into his front pocket and comes out clutching the folded obituary from the newspaper and the last five dollars to his name. He puts the obituary back in his pocket, taking care that it sits flat against his thigh. The cashier in the blue vest is staring hard, examining Willem’s soiled t-shirt. Mottled stains of brown and gray weep from the collar and armpits. Willem spreads his coins in his palm and sifts through them with his finger. The loonie from the recycling depot shines garishly. Almost too bright to be real. Willem knows he is the first to carry it through the world and some small part of him is sad to see it go. For the rest of them, he feels nothing. Quarters and dimes, a nickel, some pennies — they are dull and scarred from travels that did not include him. Two of the pennies, scavenged from the bottom of a dumpster in the parking lot outside, are near black with ruin. Pennies on a dead man’s eyes, he had thought when he scraped them up.
The cashier bags his items. Four cans of orange soda and a large freezie, also orange. Willem pats the pocket of his ragged jeans. The obituary is still there, still flat against his thigh.
As Willem turns to leave, a young boy slides past, standing in a shopping cart pushed by his mother. Rows of fluorescent lights buzzing overhead halo the boy in a white glow. Willem has been wandering the air-conditioned aisles for the last hour and the boy is the first person to look him in the eye. The boy shapes twin pistols out of his index fingers and thumbs, and levels the pistols at Willem’s head. Bang. Bang. You dead. Willem watches the boy until the cart turns out of sight.
Summer heat blasts Willem as he walks out through automated doors and across the parking lot to take up his spot on the curb. Congealed sweat at the back of his neck and behind his ears softens, begins to trickle. There is a film of black grit on most of the cars, and the occasional fleck of ash floats in the air. In the distance, plumes of smoke rise from forest fires hidden by sunbleached hills. The long, urgent drone of a water bomber arcs overhead. The world is tinder-dry and Willem is very thirsty.
When he gets to the curb he retrieves his plastic two-litre juice container from the bushes. His sign is there too, the inside of a cereal box, on which Willem has written in fat black letters, WHY NOT? The sun is high overhead, raging against the scrim of smoke covering the sky. Willem’s shadow is a dark puddle in which he sits and stretches his legs.
Willem cracks each can and pours them into the juice container. Then he breaks the freezie and plunks both halves into the container, swirls it around and lifts it to his cracked lips. So cold on the way down it makes something in the front of his head ache. But it feels good, the way it lacquers all his insides.
A woman stops as she pulls into the lot. She smiles at his sign and gives Willem a few dollars. He thanks her and eases back down on the curb. He takes another drink, longer than the first. He pulls the obituary from his pocket, though he could recite it by heart. Six weeks ago he opened the paper to learn that Kane had died, serving in Afghanistan. He hadn’t thought about Kane for a long time. He had read the obituary, then read it again, and then Willem tore it out and folded it into his pocket and walked to the bar and unfolded it, and started reading once more. All night reading it, drinks razoring the back of his throat. Never made it home. Never made it to work the next morning and missed his flight into the northern bush. Hadn’t worked since. Let someone else plant the damn trees. They were only going to burn anyway. He woke up on his floor after that night, the obituary in his hand, wondering if he had been mispronouncing Korengal, and wondering how it is that you could miss someone you never really knew.
Willem looks at the obituary now. In the black and white picture, Kane stands proudly in his uniform, the faintest hint of a smirk on his clean-shaven face. Sometimes Willem thinks he can see the trace of a puckered white scar on Kane’s right temple. Other times Willem is convinced that the scar is just a trick of the photo’s poor quality, a little ghost that isn’t really there. Or maybe the scar is something Willem put there, folding and unfolding the obituary along the same creases again and again.
An old truck rumbles into the lot and Willem looks up to see its back bumper, pock-eaten by rust. The bumper sticker is torn at both ends and covered by a film of dust, but he can read what is left of it.
WHEN THEY COME FOR YOUR GUNS
Willem takes another drink and folds the obituary away. Was it the beginning of a statement or the end of some proclamation? Peace or war?
Willem pats his pocket, takes another sip. He remembers tramping through the woods with Kane, playing soldier. The earthy scent of sodden deadfall. As they marched their breath trailed behind them, thin and white. A bitter wind cut at the cartilage in their ears, the sinews in their hands, the bones in their faces. Kane carried a BB gun strapped to his back. They stopped now and then to take potshots at squirrels and birds. Kane was twelve, though a prophetic wisp of a moustache made him look older. Willem, one year younger, had sat behind Kane on the long bus rides to and from school since first grade. He had wanted Kane’s friendship so badly he felt an ache in his belly. A sort of hunger.
Kane insisted that Willem keep his wits about him. “If they hear us or see us, we’re dead,” Kane said. Willem didn’t know who they were, but he was too embarrassed to ask, too intent on moving quietly.
The trees were ablaze with cold flames, yellows, reds, oranges, and pale greens that flickered in the wind, tumbled through the air, blanketed the forest floor, and feathered the cuffs of their pants. They both wore heavy boots and the leaves underfoot hissed like serpents. Willem suggested that they call themselves Autumn Company or The Rangers of the Golden Leaf, but Kane said no, that’s stupid, and keep your voice down because they are all around us and they will hear you and they will kill us.
They found a rotten doll with glistening eyes resting against a tree stump. A few clumps of matted black hair clung to its moldy head. Willem thought Kane might have planted it there. They set it up for target practice. Kane went first. “This is the only way to fight,” he said. “Clutch a fist and let them bullets do the rest.” He took aim and his voice was very quiet. “Clutch a fist and watch them bullets punch.” His shot bounced off the stump. Kane smirked and handed the gun to Willem.
Willem steadied his breathing and nestled the stock of the gun against his shoulder. Even as he looked down the barrel of the gun, Willem could see himself through Kane’s eyes, see himself assume this pose, see the way the gun shaped itself into his body. The gun felt very light in his hands as he aimed and squeezed the trigger. The doll bucked off the ground and twisted in the air.
Kane whooped and slapped Willem on the back. “Look at that! You shot that bastard right in the goddamned eye! You’re a trained assassin. You’re a regular baby killer.” Willem’s mouth turned to ash and he could feel his pulse surging at the back of his throat and in his ears. Willem snarled, a sharp, wet sound between his teeth. He whipped around, swinging the gun like a club. The stock of the gun cracked against Kane’s head and he fell on his back. Then silence.
Broken sunlight dappled Kane’s face and neck. A red vine began to creep from his temple. Willem stood over him and said, “Get up. I can hear them coming through the trees. They’re almost here.” Willem offered Kane his hand and Kane took it, and they left the forest and they never walked it together again.
Willem doesn’t know how Kane died in the war, but his imagination has killed Kane a dozen different ways. Not Kane as a man, but as the boy that Willem knew. Kane, lost and bumbling up a steep ridge in a uniform five sizes too big, knuckling a beige helmet that won’t stop sliding down over his eyes. And then he is sniped in the throat, a torrent of blood under his chin and red bubbles gurgling from his mouth. Or a roadside bomb packed with rusty nails, nothing left but black tatters and clumps of meat. Sometimes just a stupid accident, ejected out the windshield as a jeep rolls off a rocky embankment, his boy bones broken and splintered, boy head smashed like a rotten pumpkin.
A car honks. Someone curses his laziness.
I have been brave for so long, Willem thinks. I can be brave for a little bit longer. He swirls the jug, still cold in his palm and glowing in the sun, then he takes a deep breath, pulling smoke from the unseen fires deep into his lungs, and he pats the obituary against his thigh while the puzzle of the guns tumbles through his mind.