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Authors: Brian Hodge

The Weight of the Dead

BOOK: The Weight of the Dead
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As was their custom, as the law said, as it came down yesterday in judgment, they strapped her father to the corpse at midday, when the sun was at its highest overhead.

Melody had spent the night wondering, well, what if it was cloudy. Hoping for this like she'd never hoped for anything. Maybe it would make a difference if nobody could see the sun. The law seemed firm about where it had to be. If they didn't know, maybe they'd have to wait, if only another day. But when it came to a death sentence, one more day was everything.

By the time she'd awakened this morning, she was ready to admit that it wouldn't have made any difference. No sun, just clouds—this was something a kid would pin her hopes on, and Melody was no kid. She was fourteen, almost, and maybe she'd never been one to begin with. She held Jeremy's little hand snug as they watched the straps come out, feeling him grind the bones in her fingers together, and thought maybe there were no such things as kids at all in this world.

Kids were just something that used to live in the World Ago, before the Day the Sun Roared.

“In life, each of us must make room on our back for our brother, for our sister,” Bloomfield was saying. He was a big, stooped man with a big head. He postured like he was reading from a bulky book he held in front of him, but he never seemed to actually look at it. “Carrying one another toward each and every tomorrow is the only way we'll continue to survive. It's the only way we ever have.”

Here in the center of the village, gathered around the Thieves Pole, they had her father kneel, leaning forward onto his knuckles. Melody supposed it went easier this way, but then, how would she know? This had never happened as far back as she could remember. Only about once every ten years, her grandmother had told her. That was about how long it took for somebody to forget. Forget the lesson that the entire village was obliged to turn out and watch. Forget what the punishment was like,
like, in the end. Somebody was bound to forget, eventually.

But why why
did it have to be her father?

“As in life, then, so in death,” Bloomfield said.

Her father didn't look up at her, at Jeremy, just knelt on the ground staring at the browning October grass, his hair hanging down in front of his forehead. Three hundred pairs of eyes all around him, gazing in pity and horror and hatred, depending on how they'd felt about the dead man.

Probably not a lot of hate, come to think of it.

She wanted him to look at her, and she didn't. What if he saw that she wasn't crying and thought she no longer loved him? She'd cried over her dog—she couldn't cry for him? Could be she was still too shocked to cry. She'd never believed it would actually come to this.

While her father posed like a tilted table, they draped Tom Harkin's body over his back, the dead man's sightless eyes staring at the back of her father's head, the near-naked corpse's belly to his spine. The straps they used were designed to not be cut—not easily, anyway—made of rough rawhide that surrounded a core of chains. They looped the first strap over the both of them like a belt that wrapped around and around and around, then padlocked it to itself. There were more straps that crisscrossed at the shoulder, others that cinched the living and the dead arm-to-arm and thigh-to-thigh. Tom Harkin's chin draped over her father's right shoulder, like a friend whispering something in his ear. His arms trailed down along her father's side, and when her father struggled up to his feet again, the dead man's legs dangled in back, ready to kick him every step along the way.

“If a man robs his brother of all his tomorrows, then that man's own tomorrows shall be spent carrying his brother in death as he failed to do in life.” Bloomfield snapped the book closed and looked at the ground as if he wanted to water it with tears. Melody knew he wouldn't, not ever. He composed himself and gave her father the stern face again.

“Have you got anything to say, Grady?”

She watched her father adjust to the weight. He had to lean forward to keep himself balanced, like someone with a heavy backpack. A load he could never take off. If it came off at all, it would be because it fell apart, piece by piece, and that could take a long time.

“I don't guess ‘I'm sorry' does any good now, does it?” her father said loudly, looking ten years older in just two days. The bones of his face jutted sharply over his thin beard. His eyes were a pair of darkened hollows as he sought out Jenna Harkin, who mirrored him, looking more like his daughter in this moment than Melody figured she herself did. “But sorry I am. Sorry I took your father from you. Sorry I can't make amends for that in a way that would do you any good. Sorry that what I've done has left you to the mercies of these degenerate sons of bitches standing around looking—”

He cut himself off and couldn't continue, because some things were just too painful to say. Especially when you weren't saying them half so much about the orphan girl as you were about your own daughter.

Melody figured she could fill in the rest and get it right enough:
these degenerate sons of bitches standing around looking at you, smacking their lips like they're the wolves and you're the deer.

As long as a man didn't go too far too fast, he could get away with a lot with a girl who didn't have a father around to protect her, no matter how she felt about his attentions. It was the way of things. Not with everybody, not even with most, but there were enough men who felt that way that it mattered, because there was strength in numbers and nobody wanted to give them cause to leave the village. Or worse, turn against it. As long as they didn't draw blood and kept things mostly out of sight, it was best to let them have their way. People were content to pretend it wasn't happening.

They had more in common than ever now, she and Jenna.

“I'm sorry myself, Grady,” and for the moment Bloomfield wasn't the leader of the village council anymore, just her father's friend. “Nobody could say you didn't have a reason. But that doesn't change the law.”

Could she and Jenna even still be friends, though? How could you manage to stay friends with the girl whose father had killed your dog for the meat? Jenna may have even eaten some herself, if she hadn't known it was Patches. And how could she stay friends with you when your father had gone after hers with a chunk of firewood, maybe not meaning what happened next, but still, Tom Harkin was just as dead. How could the two of you go on like before, as if none of this had happened?

Now, finally, her father looked at her, Jeremy too, back and forth, up and down, and now she was glad she wasn't crying. That would only make it worse, sending him out the gate with her tears on his conscience. She wanted him to see her tall, even though she wasn't. Wanted him to see her brave, even if she wasn't that either. The rest he had to know already.

“So go forth, Grady Banks,” Bloomfield said, “and carry the weight of your crime. Go forth, and carry the weight of the dead.”

Her father shuffled for the main gate in the village wall made of bricks and cinder blocks and the rusted hulks of what people in the World Ago used to call cars. One of the two massive doors creaked open to reveal the fields and forests beyond the gate and, in the distance, the raggedy men who lurked and dreamed, looking for a way in.

“It's not necessarily a death sentence, you know,” said the man who'd eased up to her other side as soon as her father's back was turned, opposite her baby brother, as though Jeremy didn't count. Hunsicker, that was his name. He always stood like he was in a saddle, and had the littlest eyes she'd ever seen. The girls had a joke about him:
he calls you “hon” and you just feel sicker.

“How do you figure that?” Melody asked.

“There's been some that survived it. They didn't catch nothing from the Rot that they couldn't get over.”

“Yeah?” By now Jeremy was peering around from her other side, red faced and snuffle nosed and ready to grab on to anything that smelled like hope. She let his hand go and wrapped her arm around his head and pulled him against her and trusted she'd covered his ears. “Were they anybody you knew? You sat down and talked to them after they got to come back?”

Hunsicker worked his tongue inside one cheek. “It was a little before my time. But they say it's happened.”

“Yeah, well, they say there's been men that have walked on the moon, too, but do you believe that?”

His eyes got so narrow they almost vanished and he seemed to bristle, and even though she didn't want to, she imagined what the weight of him had to feel like, and the smell of him under his clothes. Then his face relaxed again and he reached out to twirl a lock of her coal-black hair around his finger, and when it started to tug tight against her scalp, he gave it one last yank and let it go.

“You keep the faith, little sister,” he said. “And if there's anything you need…”

She told him he'd be the first to know, because that's what you did. You didn't outright tell them no and make them mad enough to think they had to teach you a lesson in manners and being neighborly.

Then her heart seemed to stop awhile, and plunge from her chest through to the bottom of her belly as she watched her father struggle through the gate, but really, from behind, all anyone could see was more corpse than living man, until the gate closed and there was nothing to see at all.

Melody ran for the wall, dragging Jeremy at her side. He stumbled along to keep up, blind with tears and the back of his free hand smearing everything across his face. When she got to the north wall watchtower, the one her grandfather manned, she told Jeremy to stay at the bottom and not move, then she raced up the steps made of logs shaved flat, up and around again, like a square spiral, until she stood at the top platform, looking down on the fields and forests, and her father trudging resolutely in between.

BOOK: The Weight of the Dead
13.04Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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