Twenty minutes wasn’t really enough time to do much of anything, so I headed up Gibson to the main intersection in town where 190 and 96 came together. There were a couple of convenience stores there along with most of the fast-food places in town. I pulled into the Exxon on the north side of the intersection, and Minion and I went in to see what we could scrounge. I heard a door slam somewhere in the building just after we stepped in. I looked around and didn’t see anyone, and I couldn’t figure out where the noise had come from. It’s always hard to figure out or a single sound comes from. You usually need two or three to be certain.
“I’m just getting some snacks,” I called out. “It’s just me and my dog, trying to figure out what all is going on.” I waited for a few seconds, then shrugged. I was pretty sure there was someone else in the store with us, but I wasn’t interested in making contact with someone who seemed to be trying to hide. I glanced behind the counter and saw the body of the night clerk on the floor. His skin had some of the color changes that I expected from decomposition, but it didn’t seem like he was starting to smell yet. It was cool in the store, so I assumed that was slowing things down to an extent.
The fountain dispensers were still functioning, so I got myself a large Diet Dr. Pepper, then a smaller cup of water for Minion. I grabbed a bag of jerky and a couple of beef sticks and we headed out to the car. I leaned up against the hood and started breaking off bits of the beef stick and tossing them to Minion while I worked on the jerky.
I tried letting Minion drink from the cup, but he couldn’t get his mouth open when his face was far enough down the cup. Then I had an idea and headed back inside to get a bottle of water, figuring it would be easier for him to drink from a bottle that had a pull-open spout. I saw movement inside the cooler just as I jerked the door open. I ducked down to look more closely and realized there was a kid on the floor staring back at me, eyes wide open in fear.
He was a black kid, and I couldn’t tell how big he was or how old he was because we were both crouched down so low. I assumed he was trying to hide from me. “I’m just here getting a bottle of water for my dog. I’ve got no interest in bothering anybody. Are you okay?”
We stared at each other for probably fifteen seconds. “Okay, then. My knees are getting a little sore. I’m going on back out to my car to give my dog his water. Not gonna bother you. If you need some help, come on out. I’ll be here for another fifteen minutes or so.”
And that’s what I ended up doing. I opened the water bottle, pulled the spout up and tilted it just far enough for water to dribble out. Minion seemed to catch on pretty quickly, looking something like a giant gerbil as he licked at the drips. After about five minutes, the kid had made it as far as the front door just standing there with a plastic bag in his hand, staring at us. A couple of minutes after that, he finally came outside. He was fairly tall, and I guessed he was about sixteen or seventeen. Maybe a little skinny for his age. The jeans he had on were ripped in several places, which wasn’t really that surprising given current fashion for most kids these days. But several of the rips looked today-new. He had on a dirty red T-shirt with stains and fresh dirt. He smelled faintly of wood smoke, which I thought was a little odd. Minion had perked up as soon as he saw the kid come out the door, but I distracted him with another piece of one of the beef sticks. The kid watched Minion, looking like he was more worried about him than he was me. Minion finished the beef stick and looked back at the kid, licking his lips.
“He fixing to bite me?” The kid tried to back up but banged into the door. “He bites me and I’m gonna kick him in his teeth.”
That would be interesting to watch. “Probably not the best idea. You’d end up way off balance trying to do that. But Minion won’t bite you unless he thinks are going to attack me.”
“I ain’t going after anybody. I’m just out trying to get something to eat. And trying to find a new place to stay.”
I stuck out my hand. “I’m Adam. Are you hurt?”
He ignored my hand but shrugged in response to my question. “I guess not. I mean, I was coughing a lot after the fire, but I didn’t get burned or nothing.”
“What fire?” He really smelled like smoke now.
“My grandma’s place burned down. It was just me and her and my cousin. I know she died before the fire started. Ain’t seen my cousin yet.”
“Was that y’all’s place over on Hale?” I had driven close enough to the column of smoke I had seen earlier to know what street it was on, but I had never gotten around to checking it out closely. I figured there was nothing I could do, so I didn’t think it was worth the effort.
He nodded, then sniffled. Minion shuffled forward a couple of steps, just enough that he could sniff the boy’s hand, then he licked at it a couple of times. When did my dog get so empathetic? It used to be that the only time he did stuff like that was when he wanted attention or wanted to play. That was the second time since this whole thing had kicked off that he had acted like he was trying to make somebody feel better.
“Why you call him Minion? He ain’t short, he ain’t yellow, and he’s got two eyes.” The kid extended his hand as though he were getting ready to pet Minion. “Don’t bite me,” he whispered. Minion stretched forward to meet the kid’s fingers, and they quickly became friends as the boy started scratching Minion’s ears.
“So what’s your name?”
“Damion. My grandma used to say they didn’t spell it right because I was like that evil kid in the one movie. Except they spell my name with an ON instead of an AN. I think your dog likes me.” I wasn’t surprised. Minion liked anybody who paid him attention, especially when they scratched around his ears like Damion was doing.
“So were you hiding from me? Or just hiding in general?”
“Little bit of both.” He finally looked up from petting the dog. “Didn’t know who you were. Didn’t know if you were gonna come after the little nigger kid.”
Part of me was offended that he assumed he was in danger from me. Then I remembered that the whole reason anybody in the US knew where Jasper, Texas was, was because a black man got dragged to death behind a pickup truck. “Dude, I’m one of the most nonconfrontational people you’ll ever meet.”
“Then how come you got a gun on your belt?”
Kid had a point. “Because sometimes you can’t just walk away.”
“You got that right.”
We talked off and on for the next ten minutes or so. He had been living with his mom’s mom while his mother was serving time on a drug charge. His dad was around every now and then, but couldn’t quite keep things together enough to let Damion live with him. He didn’t talk much about the cousin. He asked if I lost anybody, and I talked about Kevin. Damion said he thought he had seen him around school once or twice. As he talked more about his grandmother, I realized that I knew her from Sabine Bank, where I had first set up my accounts when I moved to Jasper.
It was getting close to time for me to meet Rory over at his shop. “So where did you stay last night?”
“Curled up in the shed in the backyard.” He shrugged. “It wasn’t too bad.”
“You get anyplace lined up for tonight?”
“Not really. Been thinking more about trying to get something to eat. This is the first food I’ve had since…”
I nodded. “There’s probably a bunch of stuff up in Walmart. You can get yourself a backpack or duffel bag and pick up some clothes.”
“I thought about that yesterday, but I kept telling myself that I didn’t have any money, and grandma always said stealing is wrong.”
“Grandma’s a smart lady. But I don’t know that this is stealing as much as it’s just survival.” We both looked at the ground and the sky and everything around us — everyplace but at each other. I had an idea, but I wasn’t quite sure how to say it. And he looked like he wanted to ask me something but was scared to. I blinked first. “Look, I’ve got to meet somebody here in just a few minutes. I don’t quite know how long that’ll take. But if you’re still here when I get done, I’ll run you up to Walmart, and then you can spend the night at my place. I live out on Farm 1007, up by the lake. I’ve got plenty of room in the house right now.” But what about when you head for Philly? What’s he supposed to do then? I’d worry about that later, I decided.
He nodded but didn’t say anything.
“Okay. I’ll see after a while maybe.” I threw away the few pieces of trash that I had from the beef sticks and the water cup, then Minion I got in the car and headed to Rory’s.
His SUV was parked across the parking spaces in front of the door, almost like he was trying to use his truck as a barricade. I parked by the back end of the SUV, in case he was in a hurry to get out. That way he wouldn’t have to drive around me. I knocked on the door as we entered. “Rory? You in here?”
“Be up in a minute.” I halfway expected him to be all kitted out like a special ops guy. He had seemed kind of hardcore when I’d interviewed him several years ago. I knew at the time that he usually carried two handguns for example, because he always believed in having a backup gun. When we had met at the range for some of the pictures and so forth for that article, he’d had a lot of gear on, including a magazine carrier for his rifle, two spare magazines for his pistol and a tactical vest that looked a lot like what I had seen a lot of cops wear. But this afternoon, he was just in a short-sleeve plaid shirt and a pair of jeans. His Glock was holstered on his right side, and I thought I saw the bulge of a couple of magazines on his left. He was a lot quieter than I remembered him and looked almost defeated. He and Tammy had tried multiple times to have a second child, I remembered. There’d been several miscarriages and lots of different treatments. He was very proud of his son, and never failed to call Micah their Christmas miracle. I think he did that as much for the humor as anything else because Micah’s birthday was in September.
We met over by the cash register and shook hands, then he bent down and scratched Minion behind his ears. “Adam, how the hell are you?”
“Living the dream.” That was something of a standard greeting for me, at least around here. And up until a couple of days ago, it had been true. “How’s Lacey doing?”
He wiggled his hand. “She adored her little brother. She’s kicking herself that she couldn’t protect him,” he said in a quieter voice. “She’s in the back right now, just scrolling through all of the pictures she’d ever taken of him on her phone. This is the third or fourth time she’s done that. I’m not too worried about it just yet. Everything is too fresh. We’ll see how she does.”
Minion started sniffing around the counter, then made his way into the back of the store. Before too long, we heard Lacey talking to him. I had nothing to offer Adam or Lacey. I was having the same thoughts, and it was safe to assume Rory was as well. We talked for a minute or so about the Event, which amounted to wild speculation. As far as I knew, nobody had any clue as to what happened. Nothing natural killed people so quickly. But if it wasn’t natural, what was it?
“Okay, let me see that piece. And throw that crap holster in the trash when you leave. I don’t even sell that junk to people I don’t like.”
After half an hour, I was in good shape. He’d given me a nice leather holster, a couple of magazine carriers, an even dozen magazines, and a whole bunch of ammo for my .45 and both shotguns. He had also thrown in a few accessories for the shotguns that he said would be easy enough for me to attach when I had some time.
“I think that’s about all I can do for you right now. You know when you’ll be back?”
“Honestly, I’m not even sure if I’ll be back. I don’t exactly have anything tying me down here, and Jasper is far enough off the beaten track that I don’t know how well people around here are going to be able to survive.”
“Any idea where you might end up?”
I shook my head. “I’ll think about that on the way up, and then Hannah and I will figure something out. I’m guessing we’ll look for Hannah’s mom first, and then maybe head back to Ohio and try to check on Sarah and Taylor.”
“I don’t know if we’re going to stay here either, for pretty much the same reasons you mentioned. Plus there’s the hurricanes. Without the weather forecasting, we won’t have the warning that we usually have. We get another good one like Rita in 2005, and there probably won’t be much left of Jasper. Not that there’s much here to begin with.” He nodded and shook my hand. “Keep your eyes open, especially on the way up when you’re by yourself. And stay in touch. Call me when you pass back through Ohio. If we leave here, we’re probably going to head up to my uncle’s place just north of Paducah. Lot of room there.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.”