“Artifacts” a new short story, parts II and III

Red Canyon, Utah. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Red Canyon, Utah. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Part II

I got home a couple of days later, late at night. My parents went to bed early, and so rather than wake them up—and risk getting shot—I drove up into the mountains and camped in a grove of aspen beside a snowmelt stream. The water tumbling down the creek had been snow a few hours before, and it hurt my teeth to drink it, but it felt good to be out of the city, even a mountain city like Boulder. I built a little fire and heated some cans of chili. There had been no more news of my brother, or Seth, except that they were unaccounted for and had become the prime suspects, based on the eyewitnesses. The radio had called it the largest manhunt in the history of the Southwest, and everybody from the FBI and the National Guard down to private bounty hunters were looking for my brother. It felt strange to think that my brother might be dead by now, what with all those cops and helicopters and Navajo trackers looking for him. But then again, there was every chance he was still alive.

The canyon country where Jacob had headed was hard country, all standing rock, meaning most of the surface area was vertical rather than horizontal, steep cliffs eroded into the plateau, and a maze of steep narrow canyons fanning out in every direction, tracing the paths of thousands of years of water trying to find a way to the sea. If Jacob had gotten the stolen truck to Marble Canyon, then he was practically in his back yard. Once a person got into those canyons, if he knew what he was doing like Jacob did, there was a good chance no one would ever find him unless he wanted to be found. Our father had taught us that country from the time I could walk, and Jacob, eight years older than me, from the time he could walk. After the farm work was done and winter had set in, dropping snow across the plateau and wetting the ground for the next summer’s crops, our father would declare my mother’s home schooling finished, load our backpacks, lead us into the Maze country. We took very little food and water, and hardly any cartridges for our rifles. My father was an expert at living in the desert. He taught us how to set traps and snares, find water, and stay hidden. He taught us about the Ancestral Puebloan people that had built cliff dwellings that still stood in almost perfect condition hundreds of years after they migrated away. It was like they woke up one morning and decided to walk away from their homes, their grain, their pots. He brought ropes and climbing bolts and taught us how to climb up or rappel down to dwellings, where we would stand where no human had stood for hundreds of years. “Completely safe from any enemy,” he said.

Lying in my sleeping bag with the cold biting my face and still hungry, I thought about how much had changed over the years. Conversations with my father had always been one way, where he lectured on everything from survival to natural history to the danger posed by our out of control government. He rambled on about Ruby Ridge and Waco and Oklahoma City, names that struck me with their images of fantastic treasures and the wild West when I was a boy, but for my father they were memorials of government oppression, where the ATF and the FBI had murdered innocent men and women and children who were “pursuing happiness” and “minding their own business.” The image of that tank crushing the walls of the compound at Waco and the flames sweeping over the building were etched into my six year old brain, and for months I had nightmares of burning alive amidst the screams of my family. With every new indignity that spread across the news, from the president banning assault weapons to having sex with his secretary in the white house, from threats about global warming to the attacks on 9/11, my father seemed to withdraw into himself, and he had pulled Jacob down with him.

Part III

When I walked into the kitchen the next morning, I almost didn’t recognize my mother. Her clothes looked like she had slept—or not slept—in them for days, and wisps of hair flew out from her bun. Dishes had gone unwashed and cluttered the counter tops, where I had never known anything but sanitary order growing up. Her face had lined and sagged over the last year. She didn’t see me at first.

“How are you, Mom?”

She closed her eyes and she sighed with relief, and her lips moved like a silent prayer. But then she turned and realized it was me and not Jacob and she gave me a look like I’d been caught in a lie. The wiped the look away and her face just went tired. “I’ll get you something to eat,” she said.

“I got here as soon as I could.”

She nodded, her lips set in a thin line. Her hands shook when she didn’t hold them firmly clasped together.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” She took out a butter knife and picked up a loaf of her bread. She looked at the knife in her hand for a moment, then something seemed to click and she traded for a butcher knife and cut off some slices.

“You don’t have to be fine,” I said. “It’s okay not to be fine.”

She slammed the loaf onto the counter and it bounced to the floor. She held the knife like she was defending herself. “Jacob didn’t so anything,” she said. “They made all this up, and they’re going to kill him.”

I picked up the loaf and wiped it with my hands.

“It doesn’t sound made up. They got eyewitnesses. They got dead cops.”

“Jacob scares them because he won’t be like everyone else. They can’t stand it when a person won’t buckle under and be like the rest.”

“One of those men had a son my age. He was alright.”

“You don’t know that. You don’t know nothing but what we taught you.”

She went to the stove and lit a match and lighted a burner. The kitchen seemed small to me now, though it was where we had spent most of our time together as a family, sitting around the kitchen table, watching my mother cook and listening to my father rant. I hadn’t ever thought about it then, but now I knew that the kitchen was a snapshot from some earlier time, from the wood burning stove to the ancient plumbing over the sink. The cabinets and counter were rough-sawn planks built by my father, and there were no electric appliances to speak of, no chrome, no formica. My mother still perked coffee in an old cowboy style enameled pot with a wire handle and she cooked in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet and a Dutch oven. The enameled surface of the stove had yellowed around the burners and oven door.

“I’ve been outside, Mama.” I set the loaf of bread back on the counter.

“We raised you right,” she said. Her voice had an edge to it. Mean, like she’d been nursing her anger for years. “You know right from wrong, but you left us. You had to go off and go to college. Broke your father’s heart.” She put the knife down and walked to the little refrigerator that had been humming and clicking as long as I could remember. Now I noticed rust around the gaskets, and I wondered how long it had looked like that.

“He never said anything, one way or the other. I didn’t think he cared that much what I did.”

She took out a small side of bacon and went to the counter to slice it. I watched her drop the slices into the skillet and set it on the stove. It began to sizzle.

“You get one family,” she said. “You’ll only ever have one brother. You’ll do right by us now.”

I stood there, not sure what to say. I’d never really seen my mother mean. She stared at me.

“What do you want me to do?”

“Find your brother.”

“What am I supposed to do when I find him?”

“You’ll know what to do,” she said.

“He won’t come back here. He won’t let them put him in jail.”

“At least he’ll have someone with him. Someone that loves him.” She hesitated, then opened a cabinet above the sink. “Family. You remember family, don’t you? You didn’t forget about us at your great big school, did you?”

I shook my head.

“Your father left something for you. Said he figured you didn’t have one anymore.” She took down a nine millimeter in a holster. She struggled with it, like she was holding a great weight, this woman I’d seen wrestle hay bales onto a wagon.

“Why doesn’t he go find him?”

“They’ll kill him if he goes. More likely he’ll kill some of them first. He’s that mad.”

“They’ll think I’m trying to help Jacob.”

She just stared at me, her eyes little and hard, the look that made me feel eight years old. She held out the pistol and I took it, knowing she’s stand there until I did.

“Where is he? Didn’t he think I was coming back?”

“He don’t want to see you.” She walked toward the kitchen door and grabbed the knob, then stopped and gave me a weak smile. “You be good, now,” she said. “Don’t let the bacon burn.” She pulled the door shut behind her, and I listened to her footsteps creak up the stairs toward her room.

I finished the bacon and made a sandwich and then went to my old bedroom to look at the remainders of my youth. There were a lot of old books on the bookshelves, some sketches I had tacked to the walls, a few clothes I’d outgrown and for some reason had never been done away with. I opened the top dresser drawer and sorted through the loose change, scattered rifle and handgun cartridges of various calibers, broken stone arrowhead points and flakes, stubs of deer antler I’d saved to make into knife handles, a compass, a couple decks of cards, a couple of well-worn Petersen field guides on animal tracks and medicinal herbs, a porcupine skull, pieces of quartz, turquoise, aquamarine and topaz, a leather-bound journal full of pressed wildflowers, and a Mormon bible given to me by a girl I’d fallen in love with during a brief stint of public school. Nothing I cared about. Anything of value, my favorite books and journals and a few snapshots, I’d taken with me when I left. It all fit into an old footlocker my father had pulled out of the shop.

There was even less tangible evidence that my brother had grown up in the same house. As I wandered through the house for what felt like the last time, I found little to suggest he had ever lived there. The room he had grown up in looked more like a guest bedroom with a perpetually made-up bed and empty closets and dresser drawers. But the room had been unused for most of my memory. Jacob had spent most of his time out of doors, even as a teenager. When he wasn’t camping out somewhere in the hills above the farm, the closest he would come to sleeping under a roof was in the tractor shed, but that was only in a blizzard. He had left no books, no toys, no weapons, nothing in writing, behind. His only mark lay in a few arrowhead and pot shards he’d arranged and glued onto boards or rocks, like a kid would make for a show and tell. He may as well have been a ghost. There would be no physical evidence that the FBI could analyze in order to understand what he had planned or where he might be hiding.

I was probably the only person in the world, besides Seth, that had any idea where Jacob would have wanted to get to. He’d taken me there a couple of times before I left for college. He called it the Fortress. It was near impossible to find, and if he got in there, it would take artillery to get him out.

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