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By Robert R. McCammon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1988 The McCammon Corporation
All rights reserved.
The sun was rising, and as the heat shimmered in phantom waves the night things crept back to their holes.
The purple light took on a tint of orange. Muted gray and dull brown gave way to deep crimson and burnt amber. Stovepipe cactus and knee-high sagebrush grew violet shadows, and slabs of rough-edged boulders glowed as scarlet as Apache warpaint. The colors of morning mingled and ran along gullies and cracks in the rugged land, sparkling bronze and ruddy in the winding trickle of the Snake River.
As the light strengthened and the alkali odor of heat drifted up from the desert floor, the boy who'd slept under the stars opened his eyes. His muscles were stiff, and he lay for a minute or two looking up at the cloudless sky as it flooded with gold. He thought he remembered dreaming—something about his father, the drunken voice bellowing his name over and over again, distorting it with each repetition until it sounded more like a curse—but he wasn't sure. He didn't usually have good dreams, especially not those in which the old man capered and grinned.
He sat up and drew his knees to his chest, resting his sharp chin between them, and watched the sun explode over the series of jagged ridges that lay far to the east beyond Inferno and Bordertown. The sunrise always reminded him of music, and today he heard the crash and bluster of an Iron Maiden guitar solo, full-throttle and wailing. He liked sleeping out here, even though it took awhile for his muscles to unkink, because he liked to be alone, and he liked the desert's early colors. In another couple of hours, when the sun really started getting hot, the desert would turn the hue of ashes, and you could almost hear the air sizzle. If you didn't find shade at midday, the Great Fried Empty would cook a person's brains to twitching cinders.
But for right now it was fine, while the air was still soft and everything—if just for a short while—held the illusion of beauty. At a time like this he could pretend he'd awakened a long, long way from Inferno.
He was sitting on the flat surface of a boulder as big as a pickup truck, one of a jumble of huge rocks wedged together and known locally as the Rocking Chair because of its curved shape. The Rocking Chair was marred by a barrage of spray-painted graffiti, rude oaths and declarations like RATTLERS BITE JURADO'S COCK obscuring the remnants of pictographs etched there by Indians three hundred years ago. It sat atop a ridge stubbled with cactus, mesquite, and sagebrush, and rose about a hundred feet from the desert's surface. It was the boy's usual roost when he slept out here, and from this vantage point he could see the edges of his world.
To the north lay the black, razor-straight line of Highway 67, which came out of the Texas flatlands, became Republica Road for two miles as it sliced along Inferno's side, crossed the Snake River Bridge, and passed mangy Bordertown; then it became Highway 67 again as it disappeared south toward the Chinati Mountains and the Great Fried Empty. For as far as the boy could see, both north and south, no cars moved on Highway 67, but a few vultures were circling something dead—an armadillo, jackrabbit, or snake—that lay on the roadside. He wished them a good breakfast as they swooped down to feast.
To the east of the Rocking Chair lay the flat, intersecting streets of Inferno. The blocky, adobe-style buildings of the central "business district" stood around the small rectangle of Preston Park, which held a white-painted bandstand, a collection of cacti planted by the Board of Beautification, and a life-size white marble statue of a donkey. The boy shook his head, took a pack of Winstons from the inside pocket of his faded denim jacket, and lit the first cigarette of the day with a Zippo lighter; it was his dumb luck, he mused, to have spent his life in a town named after a jackass. Then again, the statue was probably a pretty fair likeness of Sheriff Vance's mother too.
The wooden and stone houses along Inferno's streets threw purple shadows over the gritty yards and heat-cracked concrete. Multicolored plastic flags drooped over Mack Cade's used-car lot on Celeste Street. The lot was surrounded by an eight-foot-tall chainlink fence topped with barbed wire, and a big red sign trumpeted TRADE WITH CADE THE WORKINGMAN'S FRIEND. The boy figured that every one of those cars were chopshop specials; the best junker on the lot couldn't make five hundred miles, but Cade was making a killing off the Mexicans. Anyway, selling used cars was just pocket change to Cade, whose real business lay elsewhere.
Further east, where Celeste Street crossed Brazos Street at the edge of Preston Park, the windows of the Inferno First Texas Bank glowed orange with the sun's fireball. Its three floors made it the tallest structure in Inferno, not counting the looming gray screen of the StarLite Drive-in off to the northeast. Used to be, you could sit up here on the Rocking Chair and see the movies for free, make up your own dialogue, do a little zooming and freaking around, and have a real scream. But times do change, the boy thought. He drew on his cigarette and puffed a couple of smoke rings. The drive-in shut down last summer, the concession building a nest for snakes and scorpions. About a mile north of the StarLite was a small cinder-block building with a roof like a brown scab. The boy could see that the gravel parking lot was empty, but round about noontime it would start filling up. The Bob Wire Club was the only place in town making money anymore. Beer and whiskey were mighty potent painkillers.
The electric sign in front of the bank spelled out 5:57 in lightbulbs, then abruptly changed to display the present temperature: 78°F. Inferno's four stoplights all blinked caution yellow, and not one of them was in sync with another.
He didn't know if he felt like going to school today or not. Maybe he'd just go for a ride in the desert and keep going until the road trailed out, or maybe he'd wander over to the Warp Room and try to beat his best scores on Gunfighter and Galaxian. He looked way east, across Republica Road toward the W. T. Preston High School and the Inferno Community Elementary School, two long, low-slung brick buildings that made him think of prison movies. They faced each other over a common parking lot, and behind the high school was a football field, the meager grass of autumn long burned away. No new grass would be planted, and there would be no more games on that field. Anyway, the boy thought, the Preston High Patriots had only won twice during the season and had come in dead last in Presidio County, so who gave a flying fuck?
He'd skipped school yesterday, and tomorrow—Friday, May 25—was the last day for the seniors. The ordeal of finals was over, and he would graduate with the rest of his class if he finished his manual-arts project. So maybe he ought to be a choirboy today, go to school like he was supposed to, or at least check in to see what the action was. Maybe Tank, Bobby Clay Clemmons, or somebody would want to go somewhere and zoom, or maybe one of the Mexican bastards needed a nitro lesson. If that was so, he'd be real happy to oblige.
His pale gray eyes narrowed behind a screen of smoke. Looking down on Inferno like this disturbed him, made him feel antsy and mean, like he had an itch he couldn't scratch. He'd decided it must be because there were so many dead-end streets in Inferno. Cobre Road, which intersected Republica and ran west along the Snake River's gulley, continued for about eight more miles—but only past more failure: the copper mine and the Preston Ranch, as well as a few other struggling old spreads. The strengthening sunlight did not make Inferno any prettier; it only exposed all the scars. The town was scorched and dusty and dying, and Cody Lockett knew that by this time next year there'd be nobody left. Inferno would dry up and blow away; already a lot of the houses were empty, the people who'd lived in them packed up and gone for greener pastures.
Travis Street ran north and south, and divided Inferno into its east and west sections. The east section was mostly wooden houses that would not hold paint and that, in the middle of summer, would become ovens of misery. The west section, where the shopowners and "upper class" lived, was predominantly white stone and adobe houses, and in the yards were an occasional sprout of wildflowers. But it was clearing out fast: every week saw more businesses shutting down; amid the wildflowers bloomed FOR SALE signs. And at the northern end of Travis Street, across a parking lot strewn with tumbleweeds, stood a two-story red-brick apartment building, its first-floor windows covered with sheet metal. The building had been constructed back in the late fifties—in the boomtown years—but now it was a warren of empty rooms and corridors that the Renegades, the gang of which Cody Lockett was president, had taken over and made into their fortress. Any member of el Culebra de Cascabel—the Rattlesnakes, a gang of Mexican kids over in Bordertown—was meat to be fried if he or she was caught on 'Gade territory after dark. And 'Gade territory was everything north of the Snake River Bridge.
That was how it had to be. Cody knew the Mexicans would stomp you if you let them. They'd take your money and your job and they'd spit in your face while they were doing it. So they had to be kept in their place, and knocked back if they got out of line. That was what Cody's old man had drilled into his head, day after day, year after year. Wetbacks, Cody's father said, were like dogs that had to be kicked every so often just so they'd know who the masters were around here.
But sometimes, when Cody slowed down and thought about it, he didn't see what harm the Mexicans did. They were out of work, same as everybody else. Still, Cody's father said the Mexicans had ruined the copper mine. Said they fouled everything they touched. Said they'd ruined the state of Texas, and they were going to ruin this country before they were through. Gonna be screwin' white women in the streets before long, the elder Lockett had warned. Gotta kick 'em down and make 'em taste dust.
Sometimes Cody believed it; sometimes he didn't. It depended on his mood. Things were bad in Inferno, and he knew things were bad inside himself too. Maybe it was easier to kick Mexican ass than to let yourself think too much, he reasoned. Anyway, it all boiled down to keeping the Rattlers out of Inferno after sunset, a responsibility that had been passed down to Cody through the six other 'Gade presidents before him.
Cody stood up and stretched. The sunlight shone in his curly, sandy-blond hair, which was cropped close on the sides and left shaggy on top. A small silver skull hung from the hole in his left earlobe. He cast a long, lean shadow; he stood six feet, was rangy and fast, and looked as mean as rusty barbed wire. His face was made up of hard angles and ridges, nothing soft about it at all, his chin and nose sharp, and even his thick blond eyebrows bristling and angry. He could outstare a sidewinder and give a jackrabbit a good foot race, and when he walked he took long strides as if he were trying to stretch his legs free of Inferno's boundaries.
He'd turned eighteen on the fifth of March and he had no idea what he was going to do with the rest of his life. The future was a place he avoided thinking about, and beyond a week from Sunday, when he would graduate with the sixty-three other seniors, the world was a patchwork of shadows. His grades weren't good enough for college, and there wasn't enough money for technical school. The old man drank everything he earned at the bakery and most of what Cody brought home from the Texaco station too. But Cody knew he could keep the job pumping gas and working on cars for as long as he wanted. Mr. Mendoza, who owned the place, was the only good Mexican he knew—or cared to know.
Cody's gaze shifted to the south, across the river toward the small houses and buildings of Bordertown, the Mexican section. Over there, the four narrow, dusty streets had no names, just numbers, and all of them but Fourth Street were dead ends. The steeple of the Sacrifice of Christ Catholic Church, its cross glinting with orange sunlight, was Bordertown's highest point.
Fourth Street led west into Mack Cade's auto junkyard—a two-acre maze of car hulks, heaps of parts and discarded tires, enclosed workshops and concrete pits, all surrounded by a nine-foot-tall sheet-metal fence and another foot of vicious concertina wire atop that. Cody could see the flare of welding torches through the windows of a workshop, and a lug-nut gun squealed. Three tractor-trailer trucks were parked in there, awaiting cargo. Cade kept shifts working around the clock, and his business had bought him a huge modernistic adobe mansion with a swimming pool and a tennis court about two miles south of Bordertown and that much closer to the border of Mexico. Cade had offered Cody a job working in the autoyard, but Cody knew what the man was dealing in, and he wasn't yet ready for that kind of dead end.
He turned toward the west, and his shadow lay before him. His gaze followed the dark line of Cobre Road. Three miles away was the huge red crater of the Preston Copper Mining Company, rimmed with gray like an ulcerous wound. Around the crater stood empty office buildings, storage sheds, the aluminum-roofed refinery building, and abandoned machinery. Cody thought they looked like what was left of dinosaurs after the desert sun had melted their skins away. Cobre Road kept going past the crater in the direction of the Preston Ranch, following the power poles to the west.
He looked down again at the quiet town—population about nineteen hundred and slipping fast—and could imagine he heard the clocks ticking in the houses. Sunlight was creeping around curtains and through blinds to streak the walls with fire. Soon those alarm clocks would go off, shocking the sleepers into another day; those with jobs would get dressed and leave their houses, running before the electric prod of time, to their work either in the remaining stores of Inferno or up north in Fort Stockton and Pecos. And at the end of the day, Cody thought, they would all return to those little houses, and they would watch the flickering tube and fill up the empty spaces as best they could until those bastard clocks whispered sleep. That was the way it would be, day after day, from now until the last door shut and the last car pulled out—and then nothing would live here but the desert, growing larger and shifting over the streets.
"So what do I care?" Cody said, and exhaled cigarette smoke through his nostrils. He knew there was nothing for him here; there never had been. The whole freaking town, he told himself, might've been a thousand miles from civilization except for the telephone poles, the stupid American and even stupider Mexican TV shows, and the chattering bilingual voices that floated through the radios. He looked north along Brazos, past more houses and the white stone Inferno Baptist Church. Just before Brazos ended stood an ornate wrought-iron gate and fence enclosing Joshua Tree Hill, Inferno's cemetery. It was shaded by thin, wind-sculpted Joshua trees, but it was more of a bump than a hill. He stared for a moment toward the tombstones and old monuments, then returned his attention to the houses; he couldn't see much difference.
Excerpted from Stinger by Robert R. McCammon. Copyright © 1988 The McCammon Corporation. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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