Boonie

JD’s father has been killed by the Silver Men; his mother is missing. Lost in the desert without water, JD meets a strange old man whose mouth has been sewn shut. That man’s secret will save his life.

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3. Godrum

JD sat back on his haunches, dropped his head and tried to look innocent. He ran his fingers in the dust, pretending not to be interested in the man or his bag, but when he was sure the old guy wasn’t looking he shot another glance at that inviting bulge. He was sure there was a drink in that bag and as he conjured up thoughts of cool fresh water his tongue grew bigger and drier in his mouth. Once more he tried to lick his sun-cracked lips but it was no good. What could he do? There was no Pa to give him a bit of spit in his mouth, no Ma to let him put his tongue on the old piece of glass she kept in the dark cupboard, just an old man and a tree. He had to get a drink from someplace and still wondered if it might be worth the chance. Sure, the old guy knew he was there but JD reckoned he could still grab the bag and make off before getting caught. He tensed; he was young and the man was old, he was sure he could do it.

‘You come around here, boy, where I can see you,’ the voiced rumbled again. It was as if he’d read JD’s mind.

JD stood up and shuffled forward. The old guy’s head was down, his face still hidden in the shadow of that hat. As he sidled past JD shot a quick look under the wide brim and saw two sharp, golden eyes trained on him like weapons. Two tiny slits beneath bushy grey brows, focused right on him, daring him to make one false move just so’s he could carry out his threat. JD shuddered.

But he’s old, JD repeated to himself; he cain’t be as quick as me. He knew his chances were slim but he was so thirsty, he’d do anything for a drink, even risk being snapped like a twig. That terrible thirst was putting thoughts in his mind he knew his Ma would have beaten out of him.

But just then JD saw something that made him stop. Something so scary it drove all other thoughts from his mind. Beneath the intense eyes and the big hooked nose, curved and sharp like a raven’s beak, the old man’s mouth zigzagged across his face in a jagged line. JD stared. The pale lips had been sewn together with strong leather bands, each stitch crossed over the next, straining the skin tight across the bones, drawing down his cheeks and pulling his chin up from his neck. JD was horrified and fascinated at the same time but there was worse to come. Beneath the man’s chin where the skin was pulled up and stretched by the stitches, half-hidden by a long piece of cloth tied in a loose knot JD saw something so dreadful it made him feel sick. Beneath the man’s grey stubbled chin was a livid, red hole shaped like a cross. It was cut deep, the edges just flaps of loose skin and from it a small white tube ran down and disappeared inside the man’s clothes.

‘You circle round to where I can see you, boy,’ the man said, his chest heaving, his words pushed out from the hole in his neck on a belch of air. ‘Don’t you try to run. If you do I’ll catch you, break off your arms and drink your blood.’ The man gave a dry rasping chuckle which rose from someplace deep inside him, making the loose skin flap in and out of the dark, red hole.

How did he say that, JD thought, staring at the stitches which held the man’s mouth closed, trying to figure out how you could speak through a hole in your neck. And it wasn’t just how he spoke it was what he said. JD had never heard anybody say such things. Would he really snap him like a twig or pull his arms off? He was almost sure he wouldn’t but just in case, JD did as he was told, shuffling around until he was straight in front of the man.

‘That’s fine. Just fine,’ the man croaked. ‘Now, you just sit down there where I can see you plain.’

JD sank down, sat in the dust and crossed his legs.

The old man grunted and raising his head, he looked straight at JD, his bright eyes scanning him from the fire-blackened curls to the pointed tips of the worn old boots that Ma had sewed.

‘What’s your name, boy?’ the man said at last.

JD coughed to clear the dust. ‘JD,’ he said, but his voice caught in his dry throat so he tried again. ‘My name’s JD,’ he said louder.

‘JD, eh? And what does JD stand for?’

‘It don’t stand for nothin’. It’s just JD.’

‘It has to stand for somethin’,’ the old man belched, his deep burbling voice rising a tone or two. ‘What do your Ma and Pa call you?’

JD shrugged. ‘They call me JD, or used to. Ma went off and Pa got burned up in the shack.’

The man sniffed. ‘So, young JD, why do you want to steal an old man’s things? You tell me that.’

‘I’m dry,’ JD said without shame. ‘I ain’t had nothin’ for more’n a day ’cept a few crickets and I’m real dry.’

‘You’re dry so you figure it’s OK to rob some old guy then leave him to die out here in the scrub. That it?’

JD shrugged his bony shoulders. ‘I didn’t mean no harm,’ he said, looking at his feet. ‘I just want a drink.’ His thirst was so strong it was overpowering his fear and at last he summoned up enough courage to ask the question he knew he shouldn’t.

‘Have you got a drink in that bag?’ he said, pointing to the old satchel.

‘Might have,’ the man drawled. ‘But if I have, you give me one good reason why I should share it with a thieving Boonie kid who ain’t worth a spit.’

‘I just want a drink, Mister. I ain’t had a taste for two days,’ JD said, searching the craggy face. ‘I don’t want to hurt no one. I just need a drink,’ he whined, dropping his head again and looking at his feet.

JD heard the man move and tucked his head into his chest. He was sure something bad was going to happen but he was too scared and too tired to run. If the man with the sewed-up face was going to grab him there wasn’t much he could do about it now. He just hoped he wasn’t going to pull his arms off, but just in case he tucked his elbows close into his sides and crossed his bunched-up hands tight under his chin.

He heard the bones in the man’s knees crack as he stood up and the sound of his feet shuffling through the dust towards him. JD bowed his head real low, making himself as small as he could, hoping for the best but fearing the worst. He began to whimper.

‘Here, Boonie. You take this.’

JD looked up, keeping his head low and peeking through his brows.

The man held a grey, metal tube in one hand and a screw cap in the other. He offered JD the screw cap and cautiously the boy unclasped his hands, reached up and took it from the long, bony fingers. The metal was cool against his fingertips and JD’s heart leapt. Gently, he lowered that screw cap until he could see into it; it was full of clear water and in that moment the whole world beyond JD’s fingertips disappeared. The only thing that existed was that small container and its glistening circle of water. There was no scrub, no hills and no valleys, no sawgrass, no sun, no old man and no tree. The whole world was in that precious, metal cap.

JD looked at the screw cap for a moment before gently tipping it up and letting the priceless fluid touch his dry, cracked lips. It was heaven. At once JD’s lips seemed to shrink back into place and he worked them together until every part was soft and moist. Then he took a tiny sip, the way Pa had taught him and let it run over his tongue, wetting it, shrinking it before letting the sweet water run down the sides so he could get the full, beautiful flavour. JD looked up at the man and creased his face into a grin and to his surprise the man smiled back, his dry old cheeks rising, his slit eyes sparkling.

‘Take it easy, son,’ the old man belched quietly. ‘Make that last.’

JD wanted to thank the man properly, to explain what it felt like to take a drink after more than two days, but that could wait. Right now the water was all that mattered. In three tiny sips he wetted his tongue, his teeth and gums. He held the water in his mouth and swilled it all around until finally, reluctant to let it go, he swallowed. A cool rivulet washed its way through the dust in his throat.

JD followed this slow, careful ritual another couple of times until the cap was empty. Then he ran his tongue around the inside, seeking out every last, hidden drop until finally he tipped his head back, lifted the metal cap and shook it, hoping that maybe one tiny droplet might be lurking someplace and would fall, cool and refreshing into his open mouth. But it really was all gone and he offered the cap back to the old man, who screwed it onto the tube before shuffling away to his tree where he flopped onto the ground, leaning once more against the twisted trunk.

‘Thanks,’ JD said once the old guy had settled. ‘Thank you, sir. Thank you very much.’

The man’s tortured face creased into what passed for his smile once more. ‘That’s OK, son,’ he growled. Then, pausing for a moment, heaving his chest upwards and noisily drawing air in through his big nose, he said: ‘You got good manners for a kid. Where you from?’

‘I live in the Dry Marsh, back there,’ JD said, pointing east.

The old man nodded. ‘And your Ma and Pa are gone, you say?’

‘Yep. Ma’s gone anyways. Pa got burned up like I said.’

‘So you did. So you did,’ the old guy said like he was thinking of something. ‘So where are you going? You lookin’ for your Ma?’

JD blinked. It was like something inside him had woken up. ‘How can I?’ he said. ‘She’s gone off. Pa said.’

‘She must have gone someplace. Did your Pa say where she’d gone?’

JD shrugged. ‘To the City,’ he said.

The old man gave a grunt. ‘They all go to the City in the end.’ Then after a while he added: ‘If your Ma’s there you’d better get yourself off there too. No place for a little kid on his own, not out here in the Scrubland.’

‘But I don’t know where the City is,’ JD said quietly. The whole truth was that he didn’t even know what a City was but he didn’t like to say that.

‘And you say your Pa got burned up. How’d that happen?’

JD had to search his thoughts. He’d hidden away what had happened back at the shack but by screwing up his eyes and clenching his fists JD managed to call some of it to mind. He told the man how the Silver Men had come and how they’d beaten Pa and set fire to the shack. He told him of the other times too, when they’d caught Ma and stripped her off and done those things to her, but it all came out in a jumble, a bit of one story mixed in with scraps of others. He wanted to tell it like a proper story, like Pa could; starting at the beginning and working through to the end but it just wouldn’t come out that way. He told whichever part of the story came to him at the time, squeezing them out of his memory and letting them escape through his lips. The man nodded as JD stumbled on. He seemed to understand.

When at last he’d managed to say all the things that had been holed up in his head JD began to sob quietly. He felt empty. At first, letting the story loose, sharing it with the old man had made losing his Pa and his home a bit easier but now it was gone and weren’t his no more, he felt real sad. The nightmares that had haunted his mind, the visions of flames, the heat and the burning, the Silver Men overhead, all those things that JD had somehow hoped were only a dream, had become true in the telling.

The old man didn’t speak until JD’s sobs had died away.

‘How are old are you, son? Do you know?’

JD looked up. ‘I’m thirteen,’ he said, swallowing away his tears.

The man studied JD intensely from his old sack cap to his home-sewn boots until, after a long while he said, ‘Yep. Reckon you would be too. Thirteen for sure.’ Then he stared down at JD and raised a bushy eyebrow like he’d had an idea.

‘Can you figure up to thirteen?’

‘I sure can,’ JD announced. ‘One, two, three, four . . .’

‘OK. OK. I believe you,’ the old man said, holding up one hand. ‘That’s good for a kid,’ he said, almost to himself. ‘Real good for a Boonie kid. Who learned you that?’

‘My Pa. He was real good at figurin’. He could go on figurin’ all day if he wanted.’

The old man nodded, but talking about Pa reminded JD of the Silver Men again. ‘Have you ever seen those Silver Men?’ he asked. ‘The ones that came to our shack?’

‘Sure. I might not have seen your particular Silver Men but I seen plenty of others. Why, when I was in the City I seen loads of ’em. Even spoke to some of ’em.’

‘Why do they come and do those things to Ma and why’d they burn my Pa up?’ JD asked, screwing up his face so’s he wouldn’t start crying again.

‘They’re just huntin’.’

JD couldn’t believe what the man said at first. Pa used to say he was going hunting when he set off in the mornings to find bugs and roots to eat. It was hard to imagine those Silver Men were just looking for something to eat.

‘But what are they huntin’ for?’ JD said, trying to get his thoughts to match the pictures in his head.

‘They’re just huntin’ for a good time,’ the man croaked. ‘They just do it for fun.’

‘But why?’ JD asked. ‘How is it fun to burn people up in their shacks?’

‘Don’t ask me,’ the old guy belched. ‘But that’s why they do it. That and because they can. They’re Leaders, you’re Boonies. They got the right.’

‘Why do you say that and what’s Boonies?’ JD found himself getting angry. ‘You even said I was a Boonie kid. I don’t know what that means.’

A sort of rumbling cough came from someplace under the old man’s chin. It sounded like a laugh and it made JD look up and stare straight back at the man. He didn’t like being laughed at. But as he studied the twisted skin which creased and pulled at the ugly stitches across the old guy’s face JD’s hurt drained away. He could see it wasn’t a real laugh, it was just a noise.

‘You don’t know much, do you kid?’ the old man sighed. ‘I call you a Boonie ’cos that’s what you are. Everyone who lives out here away from the City is a Boonie. There are even some Boonies inside the City but if they come from out here in the Scrubland they’re still Boonies. I’m a Boonie now although I wasn’t before, and you’re a Boonie for sure. We’re all Boonies.’

‘I still don’t know what you’re talkin’ about,’ JD snapped.

The old man sighed a low gurgling sigh. ‘Look, son,’ he said, drawing in a great breath and holding it, preparing for another long belch of words. ‘I guess your Ma and Pa never told you nothin’ so it ain’t strictly your fault. But if you’re going to make it either out here or in there, you gotta know some things.’

The old man looked hard at JD as if he was trying to make up his mind about something and after what seemed like an awful long time he nodded his great head and grunted. Then he leaned forward, placed his elbows on his knees and propped his chin in his hands.

‘OK, son? Now you sit back and listen up and I’ll tell you some of the things your Ma and Pa should have told you way back.’

‘Wait. Why do you keep callin’ me son?’ JD interrupted before the man could begin. ‘My name’s JD.’

‘OK, OK. Master JD, I promise I won’t call you son no more. Now, you ready to listen?’ The glinting eyes fixed on JD and JD stared back and nodded.

‘Good. As you might have gathered, talkin’ ain’t that easy for me.’ The man tapped the stitches on his lips. ‘So if I’m going to tell you all this stuff I don’t want no more interruptions. OK?’

‘No. I ain’t ready yet,’ JD said. He was eager to hear what this strange old man with the sewed- up mouth had to say but there was one more thing he needed to know. ‘I told you my name but you ain’t told me yours. That’s rude,’ he said. JD wanted things right.

The old man stared down at the pale, thin little boy sitting in the dust at his feet and drew in a deep breath, sucking air noisily into his nose and swallowing it.

‘OK. You’re right again, JD, and that’s the truth. My name’s Godrum. Now then, if you’ll just hold your peace and stop your interruptin’, I’ll tell you some things about the kinda world you’ve just walked into.’

 

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