And in the Dark They Are Born by Garrett Francis


IDAHO WILL REQUIRE GASOLINE. A lot of gasoline. More gasoline than Reyn has, more gasoline than she can stack in the Jeep. She wonders what JOHN will demand of her for it. Wonders what she can do to JOHN that her mother didn’t, or couldn’t. Wonders if sex is something that she can think of on the spot, rather than going into it with a scheme, if it’s just something she can just feel her way through and improvise as she sees fit. Read, and react. She wonders if JOHN will give her the opportunity to do so. Imagines JOHN inside of her, JOHN trying to talk to her, and she not hearing, not obeying, JOHN becoming angry, JOHN screaming, JOHN punching, JOHN kneeing. Imagines the fat leader not handing off his pistol this time. Imagines going through with it—their insertion, her improvisation, the collective miscommunication—only to be offered enough gasoline to get her back to West Monroe, to her dead mother.

Reyn weaves the Jeep in and out of the same abandoned vehicles on Highway 20, headlights amok in the night, left, then right, then left again. She is a mile from the masked, past the SHREVEPORT 14 sign. One-quarter of the Jeep’s fuel supply remains.

Ten minutes or less. That quick. Just shut your eyes and let JOHN spread your legs. Let the fat one in your mouth. Maybe they’ll take off their masks, and maybe they’ll be gentle, and maybe they’ll kiss you, and maybe your first kiss will be okay.

Maybe it’ll all be okay.

She spots the first pair of yellow-masked eyes half-way-up a tree, a foot to the right of the trunk as if peeking from behind. As are the next two, and the two after that. Driving so slow, Reyn watches the eyes vanish in the night, reappearing seconds later, on the ground, as they approach the road, as they form their gauntlet. Closing in, two deep now on each side. She sees the same breasts, the same tattoos, the same long-haired boys and girls joining, the masks they’ll grow into sliding up, down and across their faces as they walk, yellow hatchets and miniature crowbars sheathed in the belt loops of the denim that has been hacked to their size.

Beyond the masks to the right, the shelter comes into view. On the lawn now are pallets of wood, piles of shingles. Cans of paint are stacked and partially lit by the same oil lanterns, the same candles on the same stumps. Leaned against the shelter is a motorcycle, its tires off and nearby, accompanied by more tires, by assorted metals, all leaned against stacks of car batteries.

Think of gasoline. Think of Idaho. Tell yourself it’ll be okay. Go on. Tell yourself that.

JOHN and the fat leader emerge from the structure and walk toward the road. But Reyn does not stop the Jeep. Foot hovering over the brake, she thinks, It just won’t. They won’t negotiate. They won’t hear you. They’ll yank you out of the Jeep as if you were a doll.

Reyn scans the gauntlet. A boy, maybe four or five years old, takes his place between two older children on the left shoulder of the road. He is the only one not wearing a mask. They’ll shred your clothes at the seams. They’ll let each man have their turn. The boy’s nose is small and flat. His eyes point inward. They’ll force you to become one of them, and you’ll stand here like he does, watching.

Jeep still crawling, she wonders if maybe keeping a mask from his face is punishment. For stealing, maybe, for mouthing off, for not knowing his place. For his deformity.

Stopping will be the end.

Reyn feels a throb from the back left quarter of the Jeep. A quick bounce, a tiny bounce. A squish. Reyn presses the brake as members of the gauntlet enclose the Jeep. In the driver’s side mirror, Reyn watches the masked mob huddle in the red brake light. Between two women struggling for a view, she sees a young girl lying on the pavement, clutching an injured foot, head and neck writhing. A hose unkinking itself. Screaming, Reyn knows, in agony. Screaming—at Reyn. Screaming because of Reyn.

She feels a thump from the passenger side.

Reyn turns her head. The passenger window has cracked into a spider web, thin divots extending from impact, stretching toward each corner. On the other side of that window, a sinewy woman winds up her yellow crowbar. She delivers another thump. The cracks expand. Faster, thicker, across this window, and now that window, and now that one. Chips of yellow paint embed themselves in the glass, smear with another thump. And another. The windows bend inward.

More join. Men, women, children, with instruments or fists, or both, pound the quarter panels, each bumper. One stabs the back right tire, which eases that quarter of the Jeep to the pavement. The thumps are closing in.

Do it. Go.

The mob in front of the Jeep steps aside when JOHN arrives, translucent in the light, ethereal, yellow ax gripped tight, its handle as long as his torso. He just stands there—three seconds, five seconds, seven—daring Reyn to move.

Go. Before he does.

And then JOHN lifts the ax and brings its edge down on the Jeep’s hood. In it goes, and in it stays—Reyn, once gathered from her instinctive dodging of the ax’s arc, watches JOHN struggle to remove the blade. Both of his hands are on its handle, a foot presumably on the front bumper for leverage. And—this incision, this wound to what for so long now has been her home—it irks Reyn. It offends Reyn. She feels it in her shoulders, in her torso, in her thighs, and shins, and feet.

Go, go, go.

She presses the gas pedal.

JOHN’s face slams onto the Jeep’s hood. And off they go down the road, the gauntlet giving chase. When JOHN lifts his head, Reyn sees that the right side of his mask is cracked. One plastic shard is deep into his tan-lined cheek, a slim crimson dash streaking to his neck.

But he hangs on, ax handle palmed, a grip strong enough not to just hold on, but to advance up the hood, toward the windshield. She holds a glance at his knuckles, at the J and the O, the H and the N, until bursts of pistol light fill each mirror. Reyn swerves the Jeep. Thinking it will send JOHN tumbling onto the road, Reyn stomps on the brake. While JOHN slips momentarily, he soon regains his grip, and, through the crack in his mask, gives Reyn the tiniest of smiles, dark lips curling.

I’m sorry.

Reyn presses the gas pedal. Further, harder. The steering wheel shakes in her hands. More pistols flash behind her, further away now, specks. She jerks the Jeep left, then right. Further, harder. Left again. Right again. And down goes JOHN, pulled beneath the Jeep, legs first, ax still stuck in the hood.


Hammer sets a jar of mayonnaise on the barn floor. “Should be able to find a glob in there somewhere,” he says. His voice reminds Vitri of a near-empty tube of toothpaste, remnants rolled out from otherwise inaccessible pockets; a battle for words to leave his throat. “You sure you don’t want to stay in the house?”

Vitri, scarf over his nose and mouth, back against a barn wall, grabs the jar. “I’ll be fine here.” The light from his candle reveals blue-grey swirls of mold within the jar.

Hammer pulls a thin, folded magazine from the inside of his jacket. He hands it to Vitri. “Wouldn’t want you to feel lonely is all.”

Vitri unrolls the magazine. DEEP THROAT is its title. NOVEMBER 2001. A young brunette woman is on the cover, straddling a piano bench, ample lips parted, hands over her nipples.

Hammer backs across the barn aisle and eases his lit candle to the floor, then himself, resting his back against a support beam, then his neck, his asymmetrical chin illuminated—bashed, Vitri understood upon sight, by fists, by boot heels, by birth; a tetherball for classmates.

“My brother used to lock me in here when I was younger,” Hammer says. “The first few times he did, he coaxed me in with the promise of a cigarette—one piddly little cigarette—or a can of Lone Star—again, just one—and other things, too, things a twelve-year-old thinks he wants.” Hammer takes the double action revolver from his coat—the pistol he says hasn’t fired for over a decade—and wiggles it as if to say it too was once a promise. He sets it on the floor, lips curling into something of a grin. “Well, once I figured out that there was no beer, and that there was no cigarette, I put up a fight. Kicked, screamed, even bit him once or twice. But it was no use. He was stronger than I was, plain and simple. He’d kill all the lights, jam a broomstick through the doorhandles. He thought it was funny, I suppose.” Hammer’s grin subsides. He pinches the dry skin from his lips, rolls it into a ball and tosses it on the barn floor. “Dad had already left by then. Mom’s mind was on her way out. So here I’d be until morning, on the floor, against that very wall, just listening to them fucking pigs root, snort, screw, squeal. Jesus. So loud, them fucking pigs. Couldn’t ever fall asleep. So I’d hum, I’d talk to them.”

Vitri has no intention of commenting on Hammer’s story, no intention of apologizing for what Hammer was subjected to, no intention of discussing the routines of swine. Nor does he have any intention of pleasuring himself here, in this barn. Vitri does not care. He does not want to care.

“So what I’m saying is I know how alone one can feel in here,” Hammer finishes.

Yet the compassionate sliver of Vitri cannot overlook the fact that all of it—the magazine, the mayonnaise, the story, the shelter—has been handed over with sincerity, with an honesty someone like Hammer cannot fake.

“Thank you,” Vitri says. He lifts the rolled magazine to clarify his gratitude.

“I’m the one that should be thanking you, Freddie.”

Vitri hadn’t forgotten what he’d told Hammer to call him, but hearing it once more sends his mind into a race to rediscover the ways in which he has distorted the truth. Freddie: a former police officer born and raised in El Paso. Freddie: not a good enough shot to be a sniper, but for a stretch was sturdy enough to serve as the point man on the department’s SWAT team. Freddie: he has been in love before, yes, with many women—“The Rainbow,” Vitri told Hammer, going on to explain: one with blonde hair; one with brunette hair; one with raven-black hair; one with fire-orange hair; one with silver hair; and one with punk green hair—but has never committed to marriage. Freddie: he has one brother, one sister, both older, both overseas, both, “In one of the Koreas by now.”

Freddie: husband to no one; father to no one.

Lies. All lies. Lies that somehow led to the untying of his stomach, to licking the bowl of chicken broth Hammer served him on the porch steps, lies that led to a second bowl, lies that led to vomiting.

“Thanking me for what?” Vitri asks.

“For not killing my dumb ass.” A trail of piss had stretched from groin to ankle seconds after Vitri rose from behind the Suburban and took aim. “Can’t say I wouldn’t have deserved it, leaving it out in the open like that.” He chuckles; shakes his head.

Vitri had wanted to pull the trigger. Part of him still wishes he had, that he’d be better off, farther along, that he’d be somewhere in Louisiana by now instead of in this barn, at this farmhouse, with this man. Take no chances. Eliminate all threats. It’s the mindset he knows he needs to survive.

But Hammer hadn’t been armed. He’d surrendered immediately, arms like masts in the sky, baggy khaki jacket its sails; that slender nose, bent as if broken and left unset; remaining hair in the shape of a horseshoe, the crown of his head burnt pink and peeling; his eyes—brown, beyond scared, damp—had shrieked that he will forever be incapable of violence. Vitri had felt pity while staring at Hammer. He’d lowered the pistol, shook the man’s hand, allowed him to drive, to speak as if they were destined to be friends from the start.

“I just hope haRd WeaR gets some foot traffic soon,” Vitri says.

As he told it, when Hammer’s able to siphon enough gas to do so, he drives around and searches scrapyards and abandoned strip malls to stock haRd WeaR, his first and only entrepreneurial endeavor. Some days, it’s like he can’t even find a nail; other days, it’s like a scrounger’s jackpot—pocketfuls of drill bits, claw hammers and screwdrivers secured in his belt loops. He has stumbled upon handsaws, upon wrenches of all sizes and colors, sometimes even an entire set. Rasps, utility belts, a plethora of chisels. Which was, at least for a moment, enough for Vitri to look at Hammer with the slightest bit of admiration, for it was he, finding the confidence after everyone else’s had gone out with the light, that was looking to the future with hope, and doing something about it.

“Me too,” Hammer says. “Has to. Me and Mom are low on everything again.”

“I thought you said your mom was gone.” The sun had set by the time they’d arrived; the farmhouse completely dark. Outside of their footsteps on the porch, there’d been no movement whatsoever.

Dad is gone. Dad has been gone. Mom’s just batshit crazy.” Hammer reels in his laugh. “Belongs in the pysch ward, that one, but I love her. I mean that. Really do. If you ask me, though—” He pauses, leans in as if his mother were nearby, ear to the barn door, then whispers, “It’s a goddamn curse.” He leans back. “I’m tellin’ you, Freddie, you’re lucky to not have any family in a time like this. Don’t have to wipe no asses, don’t have no one you have to share your food with. Free to wander as you damn well please.”

Vitri lets that sink in. Digests it. Lets it tumble to his gut. Can see Hammer’s point, can even align it with the views of a much-younger version of himself. But he doesn’t agree. Freedom and mobility, Vitri believes, are separate. Freedom, not mobility, is confusion, in having so many choices, too many choices. Freedom, not mobility, is fear in choosing the wrong place, the wrong person, the wrong route. Freedom, he thinks now, is an agent of restriction, immobility a byproduct.

“Mmhmm,” Vitri says. It’s all he intends to say. He believes his thoughts to be over Hammer’s head, and is left in silence, wondering whether or not Hammer’s statement would’ve been different had he told him the truth, that he’d had a wife and son, that his wife put a bullet in the boy’s head, and then her own.

“Tell me, though,” Hammer says. He settles in, crosses his stiff legs, candlelight swiveling as he does so. “You said you’ve been in love, and with several women. What—what does—” Hammer pauses, gathers himself. “What does that feel like?”

The question both stuns and flatters Vitri. Stuns him because, despite Hammer’s apparent shortcomings, he would’ve expected love to surface and be fulfilled somewhere in his thirty-odd years. A coworker. A cousin. A pig in this very barn. It flatters him not just because Hammer has, as coyly as an ungraceful man like Hammer can, asked for guidance through memories, but that, within hours of having Vitri’s 9mm aimed at his face, Hammer believes him—Freddie— to be the man to ask. Thin armor peeled off. Guard down. A desire to connect.

“It’s hard to explain,” Vitri says.


Vitri stares at Hammer. Fragile. Fractured. Curious. A student on the classroom’s reading rug. Something. He needs to say something. “It can be great.”

Another, “Mmhmm.” A nod. Go on, it says, go on.

“So many things need to align for it to be great, though. The moon, the stars, the money. You need to be assertive. You need to be sensitive. You need to stay home. You need to go places, keep things in motion.” Vitri pauses. “In order for love to be great, you need to give them the world.”

“Huh,” Hammer says. “That sounds exhausting.”

“It is,” Vitri says. “It really is.” And he is in a trance, lost in a memory, eyes fixed on a support beam in shadow, a dozen feet or so from Hammer. He slips off his scarf. “Sometimes you do wonder if it’s all worth it, the effort, but then there are other times—as brief as they are—where those questions just go away.”

“Tell me—,” Hammer says, realizing that his listener’s stare is elsewhere.

Vitri is on a boat. His wife is twenty feet away. “I remember watching her walk across that deck. Strapless white dress. No, wait. Red dress. Scarlet, maroon, I don’t know. I don’t remember. But I remember thinking that she looked so beautiful, and I remember feeling so proud, so fucking proud, of her, of me, for somehow finding the balls to pursue, for taking a risk and actually having it pay off.” Her hands are in his. “And for having the opportunity to look back and think of how great it’d been, to look forward and not be scared.” Vitri leans in, can smell the almonds in her hair. “I wasn’t on the river that trip. I was somewhere between it, and the sun. Trees, clouds, mountains, I didn’t care. Everything she said. Everything she did. It was perfect.”

“Mmhmm,” Hammer says. He stares. “Is this the brunette you’re talking about?”

“Blonde. Straight blonde hair. Legs for days. And her shoulders—there was something about her shoulders that I loved. They were broad, but not too broad, you know? Sturdy. Strong. But also feminine, you know?” Vitri smiles again, thinking of the way his wife’s skin would tense and rise when he’d graze her shoulders with his finger.

“How good of a fuck was she?” Hammer asks.

Which jars Vitri. His eyes shift. He sits up. Scratches his beard. Feels How good of a fuck was she? ping-ponging from ear to ear. Squints at Hammer. “What was that?”

“I asked how good of a fuck she was,” Hammer says. “You said that this was the blonde. You said she had long legs. Those broad shoulders. Sounds to me like she was built to fuck.” Awaiting an answer, Hammer watches Vitri closely. Notices his eyes drifting back to the floor. Notices his twirling thumbs. Notices the elongated silence. “I was just curious, Freddie, that’s all. Don’t feel like you need to—”

“She was good,” Vitri interrupts, eyes astray. “She was very good.”

Hammer isn’t sure of his place here, whether or not his best route is to ask more questions, or to let Vitri’s statements stand as they do. All he finds himself doing is watching Vitri—eyes are fixed, thumbs no longer twirling, but playing their role in the pinching of the scarf, in the dragging of its frayed edges back over his mouth and nose.

“Big tits? Big ass?” Vitri asks, voice muffled now. “No. Neither. They were decent. Decent, yeah. Enough to have fun with, sure—plenty of fun—but what set her off is the kind of shit she’d ask me to do to her.”

“She wanted it rough?”

“She did. Liked it from every angle. Liked it in every hole. She’d tell me to shove her face into the floor, to fuck her from behind but to keep her hands behind her back.” Vitri looks at Hammer. “Powerless. She liked to feel powerless.”


The Jeep is at the bottom of the highway’s northern bank, on its side, ax still in the hood. Fluid and oil spill onto the grass. Because the left headlight has been smashed, a lone beam of light shines on the tree stumps that brought the sliding Jeep to a halt. The moon is low and bright. All around smells of gasoline.

Reyn walks to the highway, eyes wide but vision still blurred, spinning, swooping. Hair clings to the blood smeared on her left cheek. She’d felt the rest of the tires go, she’d felt the Jeep lower. She’d seen the sparks. As to what had happened next, she can’t be certain. Though the road thus far doesn’t reveal such a scenario, she may have flipped soon after and skidded the rest of the way. She may have even centered the immediate swerve, only to lose the battle later, when the pull had become too much for her hands to bear.

She walks on. Stops. Fifty yards from where she’d crested the hill are short and narrow rubber strips, consecutively spaced three feet from one another. They span the width of the road, no way to emerge in a vehicle unscathed. Reyn crouches, examines the strips. Each long nail, from point to strip painted red. She pinches the rubber between her fingers and attempts to lift one of the strips but to no avail. Adhered somehow to the asphalt.

She then stands and begins her trek back to the Jeep, certain that the site will soon swarm with the yellow-masked who’d given chase. Not in the next five minutes, or ten, or even thirty. But soon. She pictures dozens of them sprinting toward her, dozens that followed her on foot all this way, the ten or so miles she’d traveled, dozens with pointed weapons meant for her, to pierce her feet, her sternum, her throat. She strides back down the hill to extract what she can from the wreckage.

End of article

Listen to Part 3 Author Commentary

Peek behind the scenes of Part 3 with author Garrett Francis.

The link has been copied!