Four: Gun Rights
Elizabeth, Dashel and Eudoxia left the lake and headed down more or less what would have been State Route 6. It was mid-morning, but Liz had them hurrying down the trail on foot.
“How come guns come with you but cars don’t?” asked Dox.
“There is no why,” said Dash. “First thing Liz told me about this place.”
“And no buildings?”
“You have to build them all over again,” said Liz. “You’ll see. Marshall is there just like in First World. I guess enough people died there and decided to stay that they at least tried to make it look more or less the same. I guess that didn’t happen to your home town.”
“All the people dying in the hospital and coming back crazy,” said Dash. “If that happens every few days, that might drive people away.”
“I bet there’s nothing in Rumford,” said Dox. “Those people hate each other. Their town meetings are notorious. What’s the other one? Peru?”
“Yes,” said Dash. “They recalled all five selectmen. Sheridanville wasn’t like that at all. I just think it kind of depressed people.”
“Depressed the heck out of me,” said Dox.
“Could have fooled me,” said Dash. “I was waiting for you to really move out.”
“I needed to be there for Liane, you toad. Gack! That girlfriend of yours is going to end up with custody of my daughter.”
“She’s not my girlfriend. She’s just my—um, friend.”
“Okay, so,” said Liz, “and I don’t want you to think this indicates any sort of actual curiosity on my part, but why don’t you explain your living arrangements? Keep it brief and don’t spit too much.”
“Erm, well,” said Dash, and he looked at Dox, who didn’t look at all ready to jump in, “I’m a science teacher in a middle school, and Dox is a, well, product designer—!”
“A what?” asked Liz, picking up the pace as she led them down the footpath in the scrub woods that approximated the course of Maine Highway Six.
“A product design consultant,” said Dox. “I travel a lot but I can also work from home. My company is based in Dover, Delaware—!”
“Your company? You own it?”
“No, no,” said Dox. “Anyway, I have an apartment in New Jersey, but I spend weekends and usually Friday or Monday or both at Sheridanville. He’s there all the time, of course, but he spends weekend nights with his girlfriend or whatever. We were home-schooling Liane because she was special needs.”
“Really? ADHD? No, I’m interested. How old is she?”
“Liane’s fifteen,” said Dash. “She’s been in the public schools since seventh grade, when we finally gave up on thinking we could do it better ourselves.”
“More like when Dash-bag here gave up on her. She had problems and we were dealing with them before he went off and found his new thang.”
“Pardon me,” said Dash. “We can get back to the issue of which came first, the egg or the velociraptor, at some future date should Liz be interested. Suffice it to say, a couple of years ago Miss Eudoxia and I became estranged, and it was she who found solace in the arms of another—!”
“Not true. Not true at all.”
“That you went first, or that you found solace?” asked Liz.
“Well, if we’re not going to argue about the egg and the velociraptor,” Dox replied, “I’ll just say that solace in the arms of another is way harder to find than one thinks. Unless the ‘another’ is particularly, oh, how shall I say it, compliant? A creature of the senses, is that how you described her?”
“Honestly,” said Dash, “I got so I didn’t say anything around you for fear of being misquoted.”
“So your daughter had behavior or learning issues,” said Liz, walking along ahead of them with a smile they couldn’t see, “and you two responded by taking lovers and splitting up, and Dox got herself a gun and a job five states away.”
“That’s really unfair,” said Dox. “Dad gave me that gun when we first got married and he thought I might need protection.”
“Interesting wedding gift, isn’t it,” said Dash. “I always thought so.”
“Okay, fine,” said Liz. “Back to the situation. Miss Eudoxia is commuting to Delaware every week.”
“Correction, I’m on the road every week. I probably saw Delaware once a month, and believe me, that was enough, because I had to see New Jersey and eastern PA about the same amount.”
“And what did you do? Consult?”
“And your daughter was diagnosed for something? She’s better?” There was a silence. Liz stopped and looked back. The other two were giving each other glances. “Okay,” said Liz. “Pass on that. Now the uh, friend, Mr Dashel. Would you care to elaborate?”
“Kate,” said Dox. “She was a teacher. I think she’s now some kind of administrative assistant.”
“Administrator,” Dash corrected her. “She’s assistant principal in SU 87.”
“And do you have sex?” asked Liz.
“I think the question was clear, personally,” said Dox.
“Well, we’re dead. What’s it going to matter? Yes, we occasionally had sex. No, we’re not like getting married or anything. No, she won’t have custody of Liane. I wonder who will.”
“My sister, actually,” said Dox.
“Oh yes. Marie. I should have married her instead.”
“Yes, you should have,” said Dox. “She’s a black belt in Tae Kwon Do. So, Liz. Since you seem to have hijacked this whole situation, just tell me. After we get ammo, then what? You have an enemy you want to shoot?”
“Boogie Carter,” said Dash. “Even you would have read the paper enough to see his name.”
“He just got shot in a police standoff, didn’t he? In Texas or Arizona or someplace like that?”
“Sure,” said Dash. “Someplace just like that, called Vermont.”
“So I’m curious,” Dox went on. “You want to go shoot Boogie Carter, the famous gangster. I guess there’s a reason—he shot you? But this other guy you just shot dead—you didn’t know him from Bodhidharma, did you?”
“If you meet Boogie Carter on the road, kill him,” said Dash.
“So do you really still claim you need a reason? Why the hell didn’t you just shoot me, a minute ago?”
“I’m still considering it.”
“And yet you’re going to help me get ammo?”
“Look,” said Liz, “it doesn’t bear that much thinking about. I don’t especially like you, no. But you’re not dangerous to me, really. I don’t think you’re crazy. I also don’t think you know guns very well. Honestly, I’m still figuring you out.”
“Good luck with that,” said Dash.
“But that jerk back there, he wasn’t going to come around anytime soon. I’ve dealt with the formerly long-term moribund community before. They’re crazy. They’ll do anything. You know what’s the worst? They’ve been lying in nursing home beds and hospital beds and the ICU for years and years thinking about what? Getting laid. And assuming, if they have anything still together, that they’re never again going to get any. And suddenly they’re what, young again. And what do they want? And when do they want it? And do they take no for an answer? And guess what. They also assume that since they died once and came back, they can afford to die again. So you can’t just aim a gun at them and hope they’ll take a hint. They don’t take hints. You need to actually shoot the bums. Stinkin’ waste of ammo, but you have to do it.”
She turned and walked on. Dash and Dox looked at each other, but didn’t find any answers there, so they hurried on after her.
“So,” said Dox, catching back up, “just so we know the rules, you’re allowed to shoot anyone you meet?”
“No,” said Liz.
“Well, who? I actually need to know, for when I get ammo.”
“I’m not shooting anyone,” said Dash.
“You can shoot anyone you like,” said Liz, not looking back as she strode along, “as long as it’s either a guy wearing hospital clothes, or the person who killed you.” She hesitated long enough to glance at Dash. “Assuming you work out who that was.”
“Boyfriends you’re tired of?” asked Dash.
Liz turned to give him a sharp look. Then, looking ahead, she said, “Only if they try to kill you.”
“Wait. Ralphie tried to kill you?” But Liz just walked away.
“Wait,” said Dox, “who’s Ralphie?” But neither of the other two answered, and Dox again had to hustle to catch up.
They walked for some time in silence. Liz really could cover ground, and the other two were both feeling younger than they had in years, because they were younger than they’d been in years. The sun climbed to noon in a perfect Maine summer sky. The trail came down through mixed woods to a deer trail along a stream, and they saw several deer, which moved out of their way hastily. They also began to see plenty of bugs.
“How is it still black fly season?” asked Dox. “Do they come here when they die too?”
“Yeah, right?” said Liz. “Pity you can’t shoot them.” She stopped and the other two gathered on either side of her, swatting and sweating. “Here,” said Liz, pulling some leaves out of a pocket in her pack. “Rub those around your neck and your arms.”
“Wwokay,” said Dash, taking a leaf. It was large but otherwise completely ordinary. He rubbed it around his neck and up and down his arms. Dox began to do the same, then stopped and looked at the leaf.
“What is it, anyway?” she asked.
“Bug repellent,” said Liz, walking away.
“Okay,” said Dox, following, and doing her arms. “But what kind of leaf is it?”
“It’s a lovely natural, herbal cure,” said Liz. Dox hmphed, and started in on her neck as she hurried after Liz. “Actually,” Liz added, “it’s something called poison ivy.”
Liz flipped a smile over her shoulder. “Joking.”
“Hilarious. Hey, we going to get anything to eat today? I kind of thought the afterlife wouldn’t involve hunger, but here it is.”
“Let’s get another mile or two,” said Liz. “I’m still hoping to be in Marshall for din din.”
“You trade for dinner?” asked Dash.
“They kind of owe me,” said Liz, “but yeah, I have a couple of very nice squirrel skins in the bottom of my bag. I’ll buy for today, guys. After that, you need to start pulling your own weight. Welcome to Second World.”
“Man,” said Dash, “I didn’t think I’d need to get a job.”
They covered several more miles before they stopped, in a wide, thinly forested valley. It was after midday: Dash guessed somewhere around 2 p. m. They ate cheese and bread and had some water. Liz offered some whiskey; Dash and Dox had a swig each. Dox had a go at asking Liz about the nature and laws of Second World. They established:
1. When you die, you wake up here.
2. If you were murdered, you come with your murder weapon.
3. Cats and dogs come here when they die too. No one knows about goldfish or moose or mosquitoes.
4. You also get books.
5. If you die again, you might or might now go somewhere else.
6. The place is about twice as big but otherwise has the same geography.
7. Clearly people are more reckless here than in First World.
8. And you can make a decent living hunting for pelts.
“Do you trap?” asked Dox. “My dad trapped. The only time he ever used a gun after the War was to put trapped animals out of their misery.”
“I put a few traps out sometimes,” said Liz. “Only if I can check them often. I don’t like to torture the critters I’m killing, and I don’t want those things stolen for the scrap metal. It’s expensive.”
“Someone makes them?” asked Dash.
“Guy named Foster,” said Liz. “He’s who we’re going to see in Marshall. He makes ammo too. Gun parts. All sorts of things. You can get some table settings. He does good stuff with stainless steel. His paring knives are excellent.”
“Money is pelts,” said Dox.
“Can be,” said Liz. “Could be dried blueberries, cord of wood, fish, meat, carved stuff, metal ores, gem stones, oh, books actually trade too, even though they’re a little like rocks around here. Everyone reads.”
“I was wondering,” said Dash, “you’re restarting the Harry Potters?”
“Aahh, I got the first three in the bag. Back home I have the whole set. I only read them eight times so far. You want to read the first one? Be my guest.” She pulled Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in a decently preserved paperback and tossed it to him.
“Thanks,” he said, “this will only be my sixth time.”
“Can I score Chamber of Secrets then?” asked Dox.
“Sure, fine,” sighed Liz, fishing it out and tossing it to her.
So through a long and lovely afternoon, Dash and Dox and Liz wandered down the golden trail. They didn’t talk nearly as much: actually, Dash and Dox were both reading as they went. Harry was just meeting Hermione Granger for the first time when Dash ran into Dox, who had stopped.
“Blimey,” said Dash. They were standing on a rock jutting out into a wide brown river.
“It’s the Androscoggin,” said Dox, “isn’t it? But double?”
“It’s twice as long, yeah,” said Liz, “but I don’t know if it’s twice as wide. I saw it a few times in First World, but I can’t say I took any measurements.”
“I do not know much about gods,” said Dash, “but I think that the river is a strong, brown god.”
“That’s never in Harry Potter,” said Dox.
“No,” said Liz, “it’s Eliot. T. S. Eliot.”
“Funny,” said Dox. “You make him sound like a spy rather than an old pseudo-English poof.”
“Pseudo-English,” said Dash, “but I don’t think he was a poof.”
“Still. ‘Eliot. T. S. Eliot,’” she intoned.
They were still laughing at the thought of the Bard of Faber & Faber as a flashy secret agent when they came out of a grove and found themselves in a riverside field. Much less than a football field away stood the north end of an enormous wooden footbridge. “Welcome to Marshall,” said Liz. “Foster’s right beyond the bridge.”
“They built this themselves?” said Dash.
“Oh, yes. Nothing about Second World forbids people from building stuff. You should see the opera house downtown, but we should stop here first. Just in case the opera is a bit too exciting for some, and we find the need for ammo.”
They paused to admire the bridge, which was partly a covered bridge. It seemed jury-rigged, but solidly so. It had at least fifteen piers, rising mostly from piles of big rocks in the river. It looked at least a century old, though they could see that several spans had been recently and competently replaced. The near entrance, where they stood, was old and polished: its many beams were held together by many well-formed wood pegs. But the very next section, also competently done but clearly less worn, showed glints of big steel nails.
And just to the left of the bridge was where the steel had come from. There was a ramshackle house of wood, under some desultory trees, and off to the side was a sort of brick furnace, not in use but still smoking. Further back, down by the riverside, there was a larger version of the same thing, a stone building perhaps two stories tall, with a few doors at the bottom and the top, no windows, and a general coverage of soot. It too was smoking like a sleepy dragon. The rest of the yard was given up to a mixture of supplies and trash. A few cats huddled about and watched them suspiciously.
Liz headed straight for the house, while Dash was pointing at the smaller furnace and saying, “Bloomery, if I’m not much mistaken; that down there would be a blast furnace of a sort.”
“Not as many cats as I’m used to,” said Liz, pausing near the door. She addressed herself to it, pounding five times fast. “Foster! It’s Liz.” She looked around. Dox seemed to be trying to decide which of the other two she less minded being seen with. “Maybe he’s out getting a pint,” said Liz. She pounded again. “Foster! You home?”
“He has more cats than this?” asked Dox. “I count eight, and I know there are more than that.” She squatted, and after a second a fat old grey cat troubled itself to get up, stretch, amble over and get scritched around the neck.
“Foster,” said Liz, opening the door after watching the cat’s performance. “Foster? Oh crap. Guys.”
“What?” said the other two, pulled toward her by the gravity of her voice.
They came to the door, because Liz, standing in the doorway, refused to say more. She stepped back out of the way and held the door open. It was dark inside, just enough light coming in through shuttered windows.
“Well,” said Dox after a solid minute, “I’m pretty sure he wasn’t shot.”