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by Greg Swann

It was late in the day when Barringer came upon the shack. It was rare to find a building that close to the road, and he guessed it had been there before highway was. It wasn't a proper house, not by any stretch of the imagination. He could see it had been an out-building, probably a barn for storing alfalfa for when the Arizona sun dried up the range, as it did every Summer. Someone had converted it to a home, someone more industrious than the present owner. More industrious than the last three or four owners, from the looks of things.

But it wasn't the house that made him stop. It was the little girl sitting on the single wooden step in front. She couldn't have been more than five, and her honey-colored hair was still silky, still the hair of a doll. Without having to look, Barringer knew what color her eyes were. Blue, too damn blue...

As he drew nearer, he saw that she was quaking, crying in the way that children do when their last drop of tears is already spilled. When they can do nothing but sob without sound and when the pain of grief becomes indistinguishable from the pain of exhaustion in their tiny chests. He thought she was very brave, to sit so still and endure that agony.

And then he thought, "Whatever it is, I don't want to know about it." He was ashamed of himself as soon as he saw the words flash through his mind. Ashamed without quite knowing why...

Barringer wasn't a boomer, not really, but no one would ever guess that. It was part of what he thought of as his disguise, to look the part of a hopeless, aimless drifter, and for years no one had wormed through to the man inside. He wouldn't have let them, even if they had wanted to try.

Which they didn't, of course. For the locals of any locality anywhere, the function of a boomer is not to be looked at, but to be looked from. He is seen in order not to be seen and known only as far as it is necessary to know that he won't be staying overnight. He's the man people like best to see the back of, and the sooner the better.

The boomers are those endlessly hopeful men who are always wandering through, always three days away from another big chance and three weeks late for a good bath. They're the shirtless men in dusty jeans and well-worn boots, the hikers of the highways, lugging their old back-packs and older dreams. The last of the rugged individualists maybe, but more likely the first of the mushy irresponsibilists. They're the men who brag at length that no place can hold them. And never admit that every place they've ever been has wanted nothing more than to turn them loose. The sooner the better...

But Barringer wasn't one of them. If anything, he had more contempt for boomers than even the locals, who might give a man a meal if they were sure he wouldn't be back for seconds. Barringer gave nothing and asked for nothing. He looked like a boomer, and was treated like one, but he never was one, not in any way that counts. He wasn't waiting for any big chance. He didn't bore strangers with unbelievable tales about the close, close friends he had everywhere but here. He didn't talk at all, as much as he could avoid it, and felt even less... He was a man who walked, endlessly, thinking that maybe if he walked far enough and fast enough nothing would be able to catch up to him.

He wasn't old, not really, and he was almost good-looking in a craggy sort of way. His skin was rubbed red by too many years of wind and rain and sun, but it was always very clean. The back of his thick neck was like a contour map of the deserts he walked, a map rendered in the hue of dried blood. His blue eyes had been bleached by the sun to a wet turquoise but they had never lost the glint of a man whose mind is focused. The hair he had always kept swept back from his forehead had once been black, but now it was shot through with strands of a radiant white. His body was as squat and compact as a bullet--and as deadly.

That was the way he liked to think of himself--deadly, a man not to be trifled with. He never started anything. But, once started, he never left anything unfinished. No discussion, no backing down, no second chances. For Barringer there were only three types of people in the world, other than himself: locals, boomers and assailants. An assailant might be a local or a boomer, but it was being an assailant that made him noteworthy. Boomers and locals who minded their own business were no concern of his at all. They were people to be left alone--and behind.

And the assailants were always just that in his mind. Never punks or assholes or scumbags. He had no feelings for them at all. Not admiration and not envy, certainly. But not hate or fear either. An assailant was an obstacle, nothing more, to be removed as quickly and calmly and professionally as possible, never to be thought of again. And never to be felt about at all...

As much as he could, Barringer tried not to feel anything about anything or anyone. He was quite sure he knew what came of that...

And he was quite sure he was beyond its reach, past the point where it could touch him, as he strode day upon day through the oven of the Arizona deserts. Early that morning he had seen a TV preacher talking about redemption, when he had stopped for coffee in the first place that didn't throw him out. It had made him laugh, almost, to see that silly, skinny hispanic preacher going on an on about it, about how good it was, how worth pursuing. And the damn fool didn't even believe in God!

"Redemption!," he had spat into the void of a roomful of people doing their best not to see him, more to clean the word from his mind than for any other reason. "Redemption is for the other side of the grave, not this one." And then he did laugh, the only laughter he enjoyed, the laughter of contempt.

He didn't like looking at the TV, not too much. It brought back too many things he had done his best to leave behind. There had been a time when he had liked it a lot, back when he had worked as a firefighter. A fireman's life is the true life of the imaginary superhero, one minute of extraordinary risk and ninety-nine minutes of unendurable boredom. Television, books, games, conversation--they had all been friends to Barringer, ways to keep sane while waiting for that one moment of insanity.

And TV had been his friend at home, too, back when he had one. Many nights he would get home from the firehouse and plop down in front of the tube just in time to ignore the last half of the news. He didn't like the news, even then. Everything was always a thousand miles away, even things just around the corner. Nothing ever looked familiar on the news, nothing ever looked like he knew it looked. And there was always some assailant coming between him and the mindless comfort of the situation comedies.

And once an assailant had come closer than that... On TV the Chick-in-a-Basket downtown was a thousand miles away, like everything else. So was the flak-jacketed assailant with the machine-gun, the shotgun and the two pistols. And so were the plump woman with the dusky blonde hair and the pretty little yellow-haired girl with eyes as blue as sapphires. All a thousand miles away, right downtown...

There was nothing for him to do, afterward. In the paper the next day the Coroner said he had counted fourteen deer slugs from police riot guns, and fifty-three bullets from police thirty-eights. The assailant had been identified by his dental work. There was nothing else to identify him by... And there was nothing left for Barringer to do, nothing but walk and try not to feel...

And the man who put him on that road was an assailant, not a punk or an asshole or a scumbag, nothing that dignified. Just another insignificant insect who had met his date with the exterminator. Exactly one day too late...

And even now Barringer couldn't look at the news for too long. He could watch the features about museum benefits or children's day at the ballpark. But it seemed that those were always followed by stories about crazed mothers who beat their three-year-old sons to death or vicious bastards who raped and killed ninety-year-old women or the kind of unfathomable slime who would scar sixteen children for life and leave four more dead, buried in shallow graves in a public park... Or cowards who tried to fill their empty lives by filling people with bullets, unbearably loveable women and little girls with sparkling blue eyes...

"And don't think about it!," he had cried out in the quiet of his mind and hated himself for having to--again. "Don't feel about it!," he told himself. "Think about assailants instead, think about hurting them..."

And he knew about hurting them. Force equals mass times acceleration. It was all he remembered from high school physics, and all felt he needed to know. He said it to himself often, over and over again as he walked along the dusty, deserted roads. A blow has force from mass, from its heaviness, or from its speed, or both. Everything is a weapon in the hands of a man who knows how to use lt. It doesn't need to be heavy, it just needs to be moving fast when it makes contact.

A fist is a club, but Barringer didn't use his fists very often. It was too easy for an assailant to grab at him, to throw him off balance. Instead he used his knee. Fast up to the groin, then fast again to the nose when the assailant stooped over in pain. Scratch one insect with two quick kicks.

An ordinary soda bottle is a mace, if its neck is cradled between the index and middle fingers. It would burst on impact, but the assailant would be unconscious or dead before the first drop of sticky-sweet soda hit the ground.

A plain old paperback book is like a wall if slammed spine out into the forehead of an assailant. It will drive splinters of smashed skull into his brain, killing him instantly or, at the very least, leaving him a babbling vegetable for life. Force equals mass times acceleration.

Barringer always carried a paperback, spine out, in his right hand. It was Hugo's Les Miserables. He had not read it in years, and he had picked it out of a trash heap not because he wanted to read it again but because it was so massive. Along the edge pressed against his palm the pages were lumpy and blackened by sweat. But he had it ready, always, just in case...

You hit through the assailant, not at him. When you knee his groin, you kick through it, so that your motion would stop at the level of his navel, if you made no impact. You hit through his head, to reach his shoulders. You hit through his forehead, aiming your blow to arrive at the back of his skull. And you move fast...

And you hurt them, hurt them so bad that they never get up again, if possible. So that the boys from the Coroner have to scrape them off the pavement and hose away the rest. So that the only thing left of the assailant is a spot on the road that's a little darker than the concrete around it. Barringer hadn't had to do it often, but he had done it well when he had to. Quickly, calmly, professionally. And then he walked away...

And kept on walking. No one had ever stopped him, and he was quite sure no one ever would...

And yet, as he stood there by that run-down shack, the sun a glare in his eyes, he found that he could not bear to look at the grieving girl, but could not force himself to look away...

He knew about people, he was sure of it. They were easy to understand, so long as they remained strangers. It was when you came to know about them that things got confused. You'd see a person and think you understood her, but then you'd learn something new and suddenly things didn't make sense. And then you'd get to the bottom of that, only to find out about something else. And then something else and something else and something else, until finally you got to the root of everything. And then you knew her, knew her inside out. And then some assailant would pump her full of lead...

"And just keep walking!," he shouted soundlessly to himself. But he knew he couldn't. There are some things you can't turn away from, not without paying more than anyone can spare. It hurt him that this brave little child looked too much like someone he wanted desperately to leave behind him, but it would hurt him more to leave her there. The boomers and the locals, the cold-shoulder is what they deserved. But not this little girl...

So he stepped up to her and knelt before the step. Without wanting to, he raised his hand and brushed her hair back away from her face, the gesture of a loving father trying to comfort his grieving daughter. He said, "Hello."

"...'lo," she said, the greeting breaking on a sob. She wouldn't look at him, and when he tried to lift her chin she forced it down into her chest.

"Is your mama around?"

"She's sick. She can't talk to me!" With those words her silent sobbing quickened.

Barringer nodded toward the door. "Mind if I take a look?"

The child shook her head, sweeping fast from side to side. He stood up and stepped gingerly over her to open the door.

He took only one step into the house. Barringer had been a fireman for twelve years. He knew the smell of death better than most people know the smell of green grass, knew it in a way he could never forget, no matter how hard he tried. And he knew the difference between the smell of death and the smell of death three days old... And he knew what that odor meant. No one was coming. There was no one to come...

He didn't look, he didn't want to see it. He had seen death enough and too much, and he had never wanted to see any at all. Unbidden, the thought came to him that the only people who talk about wanting to see death are the ones who never have... He walked back out onto the frail little step and again knelt before the pretty little girl with the tear-tarnished blue eyes.

"She's pretty sick, isn't she?," the child asked.

"Pretty sick," Barringer agreed, but he couldn't look at her as he said it. "Where's your papa?"

"Mama said he went to sit with Jesus. Why did he do that?"

He could see it was helping her to talk. She was still quaking, but not as bad, and she could look at him when she spoke. "Jesus wanted him to, baby. Your papa did just what he was supposed to."

"Oh," she said, willing to let the matter rest. "Is mama gonna sit with Jesus, too?"

Barringer could see the clouds of grief thickening again and he made a decision. Whether you're a local or a boomer or a man who walks, there are times when your only choice is no choice, where you can choose to be a man or limp along as the next best thing to an assailant... "She might, if Jesus wants her to. But she asked me to look after you. Would that be all right with you?"

The little girl shrugged in the way that only children do. She hunched her shoulders up level with her dainty little ears and rotated her outstretched arms, her hands describing perfect little circles in the air. "If mama says so."

"That's what your mama wants." He looked around him, not sure what he was looking for. Then it came to him. "What have you been eating, child?"

"I have some crackers," she said. She reached down under the stair and pulled up the remnant of a sleeve of saltines. "There aren't many left, but you could have some." She extended the package to him.

"No, thank you," Barringer said, conscious, as the child's mother obviously had been, of the need to be mannerly. He tried to imagine what the mother had been like, to raise such a thoughtful child. He pictured her as a dusky blonde, plump and huggable, with a voice that would make a bluebird green with envy. For once it didn't hurt him to think that way...

"Mama says they'll ruin my supper," she confided. "But mama's been too sick to make supper."

"You were right to take them. You've been a good girl."

She smiled at that and he knew that the theft of the crackers had preyed on her mind, that she was a good girl. And her eyes were so blue...

"Listen," he said, "let's take a walk."

"Where to?"

He pointed west. "To see where the sun goes."

She smiled again. "What'll we do when we get there?"

He smiled with her, his first smile of happiness in years. "Turn back and try to find out where it comes from."

That made her giggle and that was what he wanted.

"C'mon," he said. "Let's go."

The child looked over her shoulder to the door. "Mama won't mind?"

"Your mama wants you to come with me, baby."

"Okay." She had made her decision with a clarity of conscience Barringer envied.

They walked along that dusty road and he tried to keep himself from thinking too far ahead. He knew he' he wasn't ready. Not yet. It was enough to walk and talk and to love, even, a little. It was safe as long as you kept walking, and though he knew he'd have to stop sometime, he didn't have to face it. Not yet.

It occurred to him that he didn't know her name, so he asked for it. For once she was shy, and he thought it might be because her name had come from her mother, now abandoned. "Well, I have to call you something, don't I?"

She shrugged again, delightfully, her grief as far from her mind as the rains of last Winter.

"Why don't I call you Cosette?"

"Cosette," the girlchild echoed.

He knew why he had picked that name, felt it as deeply as he felt the thick book digging into his palm. He didn't want to think about what his choice meant. Not yet.

"What's your name?"

"Jack," he said simply, although he had not uttered his first name aloud in years.

"I like you, Jack." She looked up at him and he could see by the fire in those sapphire eyes that it was true.

"I like you, too, Cosette," he said and knew he'd understated the matter considerably. He didn't want to think about that, either, but he knew he had to. He could stop and he knew it, and he knew he'd have to. There was money, plenty of it, money from the insurance, from the house, from his fireman's pension. There was enough to buy a house for Cosette, and pretty clothes, enough to see her through school and start her off right. That wasn't the problem...

The problem was that he was out there again, with his neck stuck out there where any assailant could chop it off. Not his neck, really, but Cosette's. And yet he knew he couldn't turn back, couldn't just leave her there, crying by the side of a lonely road. The assailants could hurt him, hurt him maybe even worse than they had before, and there was nothing he could do to hurt them back...

Or maybe there was... It almost made him smile to think about teaching a five-year-old self-defense, but he knew he could do it. He knew he could teach her how to turn her size into an advantage, how to make use of anything that came to hand, how to make a weapon of anything. It scared him, a little, to think that he had to teach such things to a child. But he knew he did have to, and he knew he would...

The sun was low in the sky as they walked along and Jack Barringer was content for the first time in years, for the first time since an assailant had blown his serenity to bits. The air was clean and clear in the desert and the few fleecy clouds were the color of salmon, a rich feast for his hungry eyes...

There was a word gnawing at him, a word he couldn't quite remember. It meant something to him, he wasn't sure how. And it seemed to him that he recalled having spat it out with contempt that very morning. But it wouldn't come to him, as hard as he tried to think of it. He decided he didn't need to worry about it. Not yet. It seemed to him that he had it, whatever it was, without even knowing the name for it...

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