And in the Dark They Are Born by Garrett Francis


VITRI UNLATCHES THE CHARCOAL grey carrying case his 9mm pistol came in. He takes the pistol from its fitted slot in the foam and sets it on the horizontal board separating him from range and target. Nearby is the 500-count box of ammunition he purchased earlier that morning from the Cabela’s near Cottonwood Creek, its flip-top open, precisely stacked rounds reminding Vitri of the wagonfuls of straw he often sees between cities, while en route to designers, to neo-hipsters at small-town markets. Before grabbing the empty clip from the carrying case and subsequently inserting the rounds, Vitri backs into the partition separating him and the slender man that wipes his mustache after a series of revolver draws. He looks at his wife, standing adjacent, honey-colored hair pulled back, arms folded, safety-glassed eyes drifting from shooter to shooter, muffed ears no match for the shotgun blast of the husky woman at the end, in the white A&M sweatshirt, stock firmly against her shoulder. Vitri grabs a round from the top of the stack and shoves it into the clip.

“You okay?” Vitri asks, when the shooting slows. His hair is short, cropped, the fade from sides to scalp filling in. Three days of stubble have blackened his husky cheeks, his chin and neck.

Eyes on the smoke above the A&M woman, Vitri’s wife nods. “Yeah,” she says. “Yeah, I’m great, Vitri. How are you doing? You look tough holding that thing. Do you feel tough? Does holding that thing make you feel tough?”

“Maybe it does,” Vitri says, as calmly as he can, insistent on not letting her see how much this troubles him, the way she talks down, the way she shits on everything that excites him. But he says something true. Something he accepted the week before, when he fired off thirty-six rounds behind Mel’s Handguns & Accessories, walked over to Gavin, the overseeing sales associate, took off the same safety glasses he wears now, and gave him a look that said, This is the one. Because it does make him feel tough. It does make him feel strong. It makes him feel something she never could: a scream without the scream, a contained freedom slow-released through this trigger finger.

“That doesn’t explain why I’m here,” Vitri’s wife says. The slender man, finished with his session, walks past, revolver back in its hip holster, and nods. Vitri’s wife nods back.

Vitri steps closer to her. “I want you to know how to use it. I want you to be able to protect yourself.”

She finally faces Vitri. “From who? You?”

“What does that mean?” Vitri asks. But he knows. He has watched her slowly pull her jeans over the bruises along her hips, the welts on her backside. Her bottom lip is still swollen from the thrust that drove her face into the dresser. He lowers his voice: “You used to tell me to do shit like that to you all the time.”

Vitri’s wife stares downrange, at black targets with white rings, dime-sized holes sprayed from top to bottom, side to side. “Maybe I never did it for me.” She lifts her safety glasses enough to rub the inside corner of her left eye. “Maybe I never wanted it, maybe I never—”

“Well,” Vitri says, “I want this. I like this.” He raises an open hand and fans it as if encompassing the width of the room. “And I hope you like this too.” He tries to give her the most understanding look that he can, one that says, despite his tone, he knows how distant they’ve become, that this tone, this conversation, is a façade, that it’s only this way because he doesn’t know how to tell her that he wants what they once had. “Now, come here and I’ll show you how to work this thing.”

Vitri’s wife goes, eventually. After watching Vitri fire an entire clip at the target, she walks to him. Though she cringes as he does so, she lets him rearrange her sore hips into whatever angle he feels is best. She listens when he tells her to relax, and breathe.


Both pistols lie side by side on the bench seat of the S10, barrels pointed in opposite directions. The red backpack on the floor tips over when entering a sharp curve. Keys clang as the truck accelerates.

Vitri can’t help but squint. He has not slept. He has not eaten. His eyes have been rubbed pink. Sweat has dampened the burgundy scarf he keeps over his mouth and nose. When the sun slinks behind one of two clouds, Vitri’s eyes ease into an unblinking stare, forward, and with determination.

He’ll run out of gas before he hits Tyler. He knows he will. He knows he will be stranded, and that he will walk through this flatland. He’ll walk, alone, and he’ll survive for as long as he can. He’ll try, and try, and if he doesn’t, so be it. So be it.

For the sixth time since leaving Waco, Vitri reaches into the breast pocket of his grey thermal shirt and pulls out a slip of paper. A note. A different note. Vitri unfolds, glances down.


“Eight-seven-two, east Juniper Grove,” Vitri says, his voice hoarse, a terra cotta soldier just woken, and with orders, arms and legs cracking to life, debris tumbling. “Eight-seven-two, east Juniper Grove, eight-seven-two, east Juniper Grove.”


The sun has launched its pink and orange tendrils into the night. A few of the kitchen candles still burn, the rest snuffed out by the breeze stirring through the open back door. Vitri approaches, his breathing labored, and swivels through the doorframe. The boy is in his arms, cradled, but unable to fit like he once was, heavy head angled at the floor, chin pointed at the ceiling, dangling arms and legs bent like manipulated wire. Without pause, a scarf-free Vitri walks to the staircase, turns his body sideways and carries the boy up the carpeted stairs, head first, past the ascending picture frames on the wall—the first of Vitri and his wife’s wedding day, tux and gown clean but each of them with cake smears along their cheeks, gobs of frosting on their fingers. The second: Vitri and his wife on the bow of the American Queen, backs against the railing, overcast sky above, a calm river below. The last is of the boy and his entrance into this world, skin blotched red, wisps of damp hair across his scalp, a light blue blanket around his torso.

Once atop the stairs, Vitri, still turned sideways, carries the boy past his room, past the bathroom, and into the master bedroom, path not guided as much by light as it is by memory, by repetition. No candles burn on this second level. Only darkness, save for the slivers of sunlight jutting through the slim cracks of poorly boarded windows. It’s enough to see that the floor has been cleared of clothes and shoes, of coat hangers and nails, all other things that had been thrown and ignored. It’s enough to see that the bed has been made—quilt pulled tight, all pillows where they once were intended. It’s enough to see the pistol case at the foot end of the bed, orange in color, and open.

Vitri eases the boy to the mattress. He rolls him onto his back. Carefully angles his arms; places one hand over the other. Then, he swiftly reaches for the pistol case, shuts its top and strides through the bedroom, past the bathroom, down the stairs, past it all, opening it once back in the kitchen.

A bore brush. Stray rounds. Gun oil. A patch holder, its patches. Cotton swabs and a cleaning rod. The only thing missing from the case is the pistol; the only thing out of place is a note, written on the back of a convenience store receipt and taped to the foam itself. Vitri peels the note off and holds it over candlelight.


Carmen. His wife’s sister. Carmen, the ginger-haired County Clerk that loves dogs but hates strays. Carmen, the conspiracy theorist with a government job, living in a bungalow on wheels that she had begged an ex-boyfriend to buy. Carmen, who would refuse to apply sunscreen to her sallow skin but who would lie under the sun for hours on end, top off, chest down, her back appearing to fold in on itself by day’s end. Carmen, who defiantly claimed not to drink but who would swig the better half of someone else’s bottle of wine. Carmen: Vitri’s wife’s only confidante. Chapter-length text messages while stalking department store aisles for Christmas toys. Hours-long phone conversations behind bathroom doors.


“Tell me something,” Carmen says. It is a summer evening. The kitchen window is open. Merlot has liberated Carmen’s tongue. She adjusts the shoulder strap of her thrift-store sundress. “I’m only asking because I love you,” she adds, “but are you happy here?”

She sits at the dining room table but speaks at a volume that Vitri, who is outside and tending the grill with an oversized metal spatula, can hear her, even over his wife’s opening and closing of cupboard doors. He flips the hamburger patties and rotates Carmen’s veggie kabob, wishing the cumulative sizzle were louder, deafening. He pictures Carmen on mute, sitting on the sofa, mouth moving, hands as accents. He could handle that Carmen. Laughs at the image of that Carmen. Yet he says nothing. Closes nothing, flips nothing. Does nothing but check his cell phone for the time—7:33. When he looks through the kitchen window, he sees his wife walking toward Carmen, wine bottle in hand.

“Here as in Waco?” Vitri’s wife asks. She tops off Carmen’s glass, pours her own, then sits at the table.

“Be serious,” Carmen says. “We both know you’ve wanted out of Waco for a long time. What I mean is here, as in your life. Are you happy with it?”

One day. That’s all Vitri needs to do: stay strong for one day. Stay strong until she goes to whatever-the-hell conference that has brought her here from Tallahassee, until she goes to sleep, until she shoves the top end of that kabob in her mouth.

Vitri’s wife swirls her wine glass. Sips. “Why do you ask?”

“You remember when we used to go to PopPop’s for Thanksgiving? I’d bring my boyfriends, you’d bring yours, and at night, after the old fucks passed out—as chilly as it was, as stuffed as we were—we’d all pocket the leftover booze and sneak off to the bluff? We’d have the bottles empty by the time we got there? You remember that?”

“I do.”

Vitri looks through the window again. Wishes it didn’t bother him that his wife is smiling. Wishes he could stop himself from straining to hear what he hopes is exclusively a recollection of PopPop—a man he has only seen in a casket, grey hand over grey hand—and not Jeremy, not Chris, not some man-child that left her long before meeting him, when she was twenty-seven and he thirty-one. He moves a mound of charring meat to a cooler corner; watches the coals ignite the drippings. Too old, he tells himself, for liquor bottles atop bluffs. Too old to be jealous over a time that didn’t belong to you.

“I think that was the happiest you I’ve seen.” Carmen waits for a response, a rebuttal, something. “Look, it isn’t like I’m around you twenty-four-seven, but I’m not an idiot. You’re paler than I am. That new diet has you looking like a skeleton. Your eyes—”

“Jesus Christ,” Vitri’s wife says. She glances at she and Vitri’s son, on the suede recliner in the living room, television glow on his face, floor fan pointed at his legs. “Give a warning the next time you’re going to attack me.”

“I’m not attacking you; I’m trying to help.”

“Calling someone a skeleton doesn’t seem like help.”

“Because it’s honest?” Carmen asks. “You want me to tell you that you look radiant? That I like the way your straps keep slipping off of your shoulders? Is that what you want to hear? Is that what Vitri tells you?”

“Not now, Car.”

Carmen shakes her head. “It is, isn’t it? He probably tells you every other day how pretty you are, how comfortable your sunken eyes make him.”

Vitri can’t help but feel pity in this brief moment of silence, for Carmen, for the malice in her tone, for her disapproval of him. He is beyond anger with her. Anger was when she drunkenly vomited on her plate after giving her maid of honor speech at their wedding. Anger was the first time she came back to Waco, when she knocked on their bedroom door at 3:00am and asked if Vitri would sleep on the couch so she could snuggle with her sister.

“Look,” Carmen says, “that girl back at PopPop’s, that girl up on that bluff, she spoke eloquently, and she spoke often—to me, to each of those drunken boys—about the pursuit of an extraordinary life. ‘I’m going to live in Dublin,’ that girl said. ‘And Lisbon, and Brussels. I’m going to design evening gowns for the world’s royalty, I’m going to climb over the Great Wall, I’m going to run with the bulls—”

Vitri’s wife snorts. “I never said that,” she says.

“Whatever,” Carmen says, “Let’s say you didn’t. But what have you done that a younger you intended to do?”


“When was the last time you left Texas?” Carmen asks.

Vitri flips the meat. Vitri rotates. He can’t even answer that question. Years, he knows.

Carmen persists: “Do you think that’s a good thing? Does that represent a high quality of life to you?” She lowers her voice, looks at the boy, then back at her cousin. “What about him?”

“Let’s keep this about me, okay,” Vitri’s wife says.

“It is about you. Which means that it’s inherently about him.” Carmen gulps wine, wipes her mouth with her wrist. “I grew up here, too. I know how little opportunity there is. And I look around now, not just at you, but at everyone here, and, more than ever, I just can’t understand how these people can so readily accept mediocrity. I can’t understand how these people inject their children so deeply with it. Why? To feel better about their own life? To tell themselves they haven’t done that bad of a job?”

Vitri sighs. He briefly picks at an ingrown hair on his stubbled chin. Tell her she’s wrong, he thinks. Go on, tell her. Tell her that Tallahassee is no exotic destination; tell her that Waco is no dumping ground. That he isn’t either, that she isn’t, that none of them are, that Carmen’s words aren’t welcome here. Tell her that a one-week trip to Madagascar doesn’t make her a world traveler; only a single, childless woman in a job she doesn’t like and isn’t good at. Tell her she is riddled with false empowerment. Tell her that she’s a hypocrite. Shout it all. Who cares if the boy hears? Who cares if it scares him into turning the TV off and facing this heat with his father? Do it. Please.

“Carmen, I—”

“I want what’s best for you,” Carmen interrupts, “and I want what’s best for your son. If that includes Vitri, if that includes Waco, then fine. Tell me and I’ll shut up.”

“You’ll just stop? On a dime, just stop?”

“If you can sit there, look me in the eye, and tell me that you aren’t spending your days wondering if Vitri is manipulating you into accepting an existence you never intended, then, yeah, I’ll shut the fuck up.”

Do it. Say it. Shout.

Vitri’s wife gives an awkward laugh. The laugh fades. “And what if it doesn’t?”

“Doesn’t what?”

“Doesn’t include Waco,” Vitri’s wife says. “Doesn’t include Vitri.”

At that, Vitri grabs the serving dish from the side table of the gas grill he was given for Father’s Day, into which he sets all of the hamburger patties. He shuts the grill off and, before going inside, before turning at all, lifts the largest patty he’d made and squeezes. Hamburger blood drizzles over Carmen’s kabob skewer. Over the vegetarian’s blackened zucchini, over chunks of onion, over the baby carrots.

When he does walk through that back door, he is greeted by both Carmen and his wife. “It smells so good,” they say in heightened tones, and, “I’m starving,” to which Vitri says nothing. He tosses the serving dish on the counter, grabs his keys and walks toward the front door, stopping only when his wife reaches for his hand.

“I thought we were all going to eat together,” she says.

“I can’t stomach that,” Vitri says.

“Oh, come on, Vitri,” Carmen says. “Sit down, have a glass of wine with us.”

“Fuck off, Carmen,” Vitri says, then continues toward the front door. He stops near the living room and stares at his son. “Hey,” Vitri says and, once he has the boy’s attention, points to the kitchen and adds, “it’s going to serve you well in life to never, ever, listen to those cunts.”

“What?” the boy says.

And then Vitri is gone, out of the house, down the steps, down the sidewalk and to his truck, too upset, too focused on escape to look at Carmen’s sedan, at the orange pistol case peeking from beneath the passenger seat.


Vitri swerves the S10 to the right of a stray fender, then powers the truck up a hill partially shaded by grey-barked cottonwoods, a relief for his eyes that won’t last for more than a mile. East, he thinks. To Tallahassee, Florida. Eight-seven-two, East Juniper Grove. He sighs. The scarf over his mouth has dampened with sweat and saliva. He places the note back into his breast pocket. Because you do things when you’re angry. You go places. He grips the steering wheel tighter. Glances at his reflection in the rearview mirror. You’re going to Tallahassee, Florida and you’re going to do whatever it takes to get there.


Vitri lies in the middle of his bed, between his dead wife and dead son. He has shut their eyes but, like them, his hands are over his bellybutton, calm, folded, fingers too numb to fight or search for their counterpart. Slinked around his neck is the burgundy scarf. And atop his chest is his 9mm pistol. Twice now he has shoved the barrel into his mouth and twice now he has pulled it out. Thoughts continue to flood. Ooze out of his earholes, out of his nose and throat. The first time he put the barrel in his mouth, he was transported back to the store, to that afternoon when another man’s pistol was aimed at his face. It was why he’d even entertained the idea of getting a pistol in the first place. He remembered the smell of the man long after that afternoon, rather than the look of him, the stale sewage on his coverall sleeves, the hash browns on his breath, the desperation of a man with nothing.

The second time he put the pistol in his mouth he thought of the first time he stepped foot in this very room. Bed gone, dresser gone, TV gone, periwinkle curtains and oak closet door, all gone. Empty. For sale. His wife’s hand in his. A shirt and tie causing him to stand straighter, to puff his chest. The taste of a margarita still on his lips. Though it was nearly two years before his time, he pictures the boy there, too, sprinting up and down the stairs in his t-ball uniform and cleats, no bat in his hand, not even a glove. Nothing. But he stops. He looks at his mother and father. No smile. No frown. A gaze that just says, “What? Do something.”

An audience. That’s what has stopped Vitri from going through with it, from closing his eyes, nestling the barrel against his palate, and squeezing the trigger. Fear, real fear. A fear present since birth and evolving as its host does, flexing, twisting, tweaking itself over time. Over knee scrapes and heart breaks. Over lost jobs and uncertainties.

As dead as they are, Vitri wants to believe that they are sleeping, that his son will wake first, and then his wife, and that this, this moment—when they nearly bore witness to his admittance of failure—will be forgotten, placed in the wrong drawer, tucked neatly with the useless.

And so he rises. He looks once at his son, and once at his wife. Then, pistol in hand, he scoots himself off of the bed and walks down the stairs. He goes directly to the cupboard just left of the dark and silent refrigerator, on whose door, held in place by an American Queen magnet, still hangs a strip of white paper, 872 E JUNIPER GROVE printed across the center, CARMEN’S NEW ADDRESS signed by his wife beneath TALLHASSEE, FLORIDA. But that does not matter now. What does is that, without one more second of hesitation, Vitri removes the gold band from his left ring finger and sets it on the bottom of that open drawer. What does matter is that he exchanges it for a small bottle of lighter fluid, a third of the way full, its nozzle layered in dust. Vitri shoves the pistol in his waistband and uses his free hand to lift one of two candles from the dining room table that, though its wick is nearly drowned in hot wax, has yet to burn out. He carries the candle to the staircase and carefully squats to the second step. Squirts lighter fluid on the edge. Tilts the candle. The flame ignites, gnaws the carpet. Smoke straws roll. Quiver. Dissipate. He rotates the candle. More smoke. And, though it struggles to spread, a flame eventually holds. Vitri stands. Watches. Aims the plastic bottle and squeezes like hell, arcing the stream up, up-up-up.


Vitri runs out of gas miles south of Tyler. Clouds have leaked into blue. The sun is high, searing. He needs to find shade, none of which appears to be north. No, as far as he can see, north is a continuation of this valley, a sweltering flat road flanked by fields of corn and hay that are now shriveled gray and dusty, tractor-hauled boulders between. A few hundred yards to the east are parallel treelines, trees themselves like stick figures of a child’s drawing, primed to sprout sets of spindly legs and stride over this valley, over Vitri, over the truck, their leafless branches providing only a fraction of the shade he seeks.

Vitri gets out of the truck. Before walking to the passenger door, he unties the scarf. In the sun his coal black hair is tinted silver, warm to the touch. He proceeds to tie the scarf in a different fashion while walking, the main point of pressure being his forehead. He knots it behind his head and lets what remains flap down over the back of his neck. For the most part, it works, though an inch or two of flesh is still exposed, sure to be pink within an hour.

Vitri grabs the backpack from the truck’s floor and unzips its largest pocket. He places the .22 pistol inside the backpack, its barrel nuzzled against two bundles of socks at the bottom. Just inches to the right, atop a Ziploc bag of almond-scented candles, and slinked around a teepee of three plastic water bottles, is a pair of unfolded boxer briefs. One metal fork is astray, as is one metal spoon, and a toothbrush with warped bristles he’d found in the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink. A bar of soap is wedged between two aluminum cans of tomato soup, flanked by granola bars in metallic green wrappers, all about to pass their expiration date. As it has been doing since he drove out of Waco, Vitri’s stomach groans, tightens. It has been over twenty-four hours since his last bite, since he used his pocketknife to carve out the edible part of an apple he found near the Brazos. He should eat. He needs to eat.

Yet all he does is zip the backpack shut, and shove the 9mm into his waistband. He pats his front pockets. The pocketknife is there. The moist towelettes, securely in their wrappers. He pats his breast pocket, which is inflated by the folded note. Then, after slinging the backpack over his shoulders, Vitri shuts the S10 door for the last time, and starts east on foot, truck keys dangling from the ignition.


Vitri rests beneath a young hickory tree on the shoulder of the road whose bare limbs provide wedges of shade. His scarf is soaked with head sweat. He digs into his backpack for a bottle of water and, without so much as a thought about conservation, takes one large gulp, and another, until there are only droplets clinging to the sides of the plastic.

Vitri doesn’t bother shoving the empty bottle back into his backpack, but tosses it toward the broken fence separating a hay field from the road. Outside of his own movements, and the distant honking of a lone goose, he has yet to hear a thing. Not an engine, not an ax heaving through a block of wood, not a voice, nothing. Here, though, it somehow smells more like spring, like, somewhere in those overgrown oceans of yellow and grey, some sort of flower is blooming. Lilacs. Tulips. Hydrangeas. Something whose wind-carried scent is potent enough to negate the smell of smoke that still clings to his clothes and beard.

It isn’t at all what he’d imagined he’d encounter. He’d envisioned fields burnt black, downed power lines sprawling across the roads, twisting themselves around splintered, centuries-old trees. He’d envisioned gutted vehicles, limbless wanderers with teeth that had been filed to blood-stained points, somehow still polite enough to ask for something before taking, but only once. Waco, he’d convinced himself, had been a safe haven, a place one shouldn’t venture too far from, a place one would regret leaving as they entered what in his mind had become a wasteland.

Not yet being proved right is what terrifies Vitri the most.


Three miles. Three miles, and no shelter, no homes whatsoever, just abandoned tractors he’d taken to be traps. Three miles, and the balls of his feet already are on fire, flat arches unsupported in his boots. The pain surges to his old shins, seems to skip his old thighs altogether and expands in his old lower back, old hip to old hip.


Fifty yards from the road is a pen of dirt and shit housing dead cattle that look like shells of themselves, their heads the same size as they’d always been but their frames shrunken, stomachs deflated. Eight in all are dead, at different stages of decay. Nearest to the road is the bull, skull at an angle, one horn plugged into the dirt.

Winded from the incline, Vitri reties the damp scarf around his mouth and nose, picturing their owner diligently feeding them early each morning, thinning their portions as things worsened, refusing to give in altogether. He pictures the farmer unable to admit to himself that what he had worked so hard for had been lost, that anything had to be saved.

Behind the pen is a small storage barn. Ten-by-ten at best, its doors open, its interior empty save for flakes of hay that wind has yet to gust out. Vitri intends to walk past the pen, to go inside that shelter, to search for anything that may have been left, to sit down, to rest, if only for half an hour. But he can’t stop staring at the ruins.


Vitri lies in the blood-stained hole his wife dug, a static morning sky before him. A pale blue abyss. Not one cloud. He listens to the flames swallow the top half of his house. Paint sizzling. Wood popping, nails snapping free in the orange swell. It will become unrecognizable, remnants of the past strewn on asphalt, on grass, in this very hole, something for wanderers to pluck, examine, and pocket, not once considering what the completed puzzle could’ve looked like, the sacrifice to have it so. It is to cave on itself, structure lost, misplaced, reduced to particles hysterically searching for purpose.

Smoke floats high over Vitri, first in strands, and then in braids. He tries to breathe it in, to place in his lungs what is now blanketing the sky, swirling into a cloud whose only intention is to linger. And Vitri has seen enough.

He closes his eyes. He readies the 9mm. Opens his mouth. Edges the barrel past the roots of his front teeth. Takes a deep breath—

—and it is night, and he is upright, wearing exactly what he wears now—tan boots and all, burgundy scarf secure around his nose and mouth—and he is on a beach, a beach that, if the palm trees whose tops are aflame speak truths, stretches for miles. But there is no sound. Flaming leaves fall to the damp sand, but the branches do not crackle. Black waves in high tide eddy ashore, but there is no crash, no swirl back, rhythm only seen, not heard.

He steps toward one of the nearest flaming palms, thirty feet away. He steps again, and again, and again. Its warmth at first overwhelms him into altering his path, however slightly, boots veering him to the right of the tree.

Forward. Forward. Forward.

Hundreds of feet down the coast emerges from the black waves a woman, skin pale, luminous in the night. A journeying beacon that, when he sees her, brings Vitri’s boots to a stop. He turns. Strains his eyes. Watches her spot him. He considers running, turning the other way and sprinting, spooked enough to not look back, at her, at the sand his boots fling behind him. Yet there he stays. He stays, and she advances, her steps long but calculated, birdlike, driven by toes instead of heel. Moments pass, but she does not increase her pace. Long, careful, segments of her slender body rendered visible by the glow of the palm tree nearest her. Calves he’s never seen. A groin he’s never seen. Narrow hips he’s never seen, a slim torso and small breasts. There seems to be a smile on her face. A genuine smile. Nothing crooked, nothing concealed. But she tilts her head. Carmen wrings out her wet red hair and—

—eyes, open. Smoke cloud. Barrel out, sit-up-stand. Vitri wobbles across his backyard, coming to entirely once he is a dozen feet from the door. He looks around. At the hole. At where the grill once stood year-round.

She ruined you.

Before he enters his burning house, Vitri places the pistol in his waistband. He uses both hands to lift the scarf from neck to mouth.


Vitri hears it before he sees it. South of the road one hundred yards or so, he spots the white Suburban whose engine had moments ago idled so brutally. At its sight, Vitri, still with that damp scarf over his mouth and nose, immediately takes cover in the roadside weeds. Crouched there, he pulls the 9mm from his waistband and proceeds to watch the vehicle. Across the dirt road it’s parked upon stands a one-story building made of untreated wood that does have a sign, but whose size renders it illegible from this range.

Five minutes pass. Still crouched, Vitri thinks that he should just go, just keep going on foot, east, hurry past that dirt road. Because that Suburban isn’t yours. It belongs to someone else, perhaps some gruff man with a scoped rifle, a litter of children at home to whom he’ll feed anything. In the still-idling vehicle could be dead animals, dead humans, bodies criss-crossed like mulch bags. The gas tank is probably nearing empty. There is probably less than a quart of oil remaining. It isn’t worth it.

It isn’t worth it, Vitri.


Vitri is advancing through the field toward the white Suburban. He can see now that its windows are open and, unless they are lying down, no human heads are inside. This gruff man—if it is a gruff man at all—has to still be within what Vitri can now read as haRd WeaR. The sign’s vibrancy says that it was painted recently, above the door, in some cousin of mint green. Vitri could believe it. He could imagine it as a center for commerce, an operating establishment that exchanges screws and nails, hammers and rasps for skulls and kidneys, for sex or slaughter, whatever has become currency. A place to gain information. A place to find help. But he doesn’t, and there is no way he will. Trap, he is convinced. It is a trap. Going inside haRd WeaR means pain, means a death for which he’d never ask.

Fifteen yards from the suburban, Vitri, increasing his pace, emerges from his crouch. Faster, faster yet, until he is within arm’s length of the Suburban. Despite how rusty it is, how mud-splotched, its exterior smells of vanilla. He eases the grip on his pistol and peers through the Suburban’s windows. No bodies, no tools, no wood. A large, unlabeled aluminum can is on the floor, a plastic spoon next to it. Hanging from the rearview mirror is a Black Ice air freshener and a thumbnail-sized picture of an old woman, her angled face confused, string tangled.

Vitri ducks on the passenger side of the Suburban when the haRd WeaR door opens and a cinder block of a man walks out. The engine sputters again. Vitri, near the front tire, waits for footsteps the still-sputtering engine won’t allow him to hear. So he crouches, further and further. Looks beneath the chassis. Sees toes. Boots. Shins. He angles his arm for a clear shot.

End of article

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