by Byron Bailey
As soon as the guard and the prison bus left, he gathered all fifteen Bobbies around him. He would have liked to have all of the Bobbies but three were currently in solitary confinement and the others had done their crimes on away games, causing them to serve their sentences out of state. Fifteen would have to be enough.
“Listen up. You have a job to do and I’m going to tell you what it is. Every night mangy varmints sneak into my fields and eat my steak crop. I need you to keep the varmints from eating my crop.”
“So you want us to kill them,” Bobby-11 said. Thomas knew he was Bobby-11 because of the Velcro name tag stuck to his chest.
“No. I just want you to keep them from eating my crop,” he lied. No one could accuse him of ordering the wolves to die, not when he gave implicit orders to the contrary. Still, he knew his Bobbies. They would get the job done. “Simply chase them away from the fields at night for sixty days. Then I can harvest and you can all go back to prison.”
“And what kind of varmints are they?” Bobby-24 said. “Rabbits? Because if they’re rabbits I know a great play to do against them.”
“Rabbits aren’t varmints. They’re rodents.” Thomas didn’t want to have to explain the subtle differences between varmints, rodents, critters, vermin, pestilences, and the FDA.
“Then how about squirrels?”
“What exactly is a varmint?” Bobby-24 said, fastening his beady, blood-shot eyes on Thomas’s neck. Thomas knew that look from countless evenings spent guzzling beer and watching television. The frigid glance at the officials. The pink hue creeping across the cheeks. The teeth bared like a varmint fighting over steaks. Then... the chair. Bobby-24 was going to be trouble.
“A varmint is any warm-blooded creature other than rodents that hurt the crops: weasel, skunk, opossum, raccoon. Those are the common ones.”
“And you expect us to go into your fields at night and chase away invading skunks? The others might be crazy but I’m not.”
“You can leave the skunks alone. I’m more worried about the wolves.”
“Yeah. From Michigan.”
“The Michigan Wolves,” Bobby-24 repeated. The others took up the chant. He saw their cheeks reddening, a feral gleam glinting off their eyes. Thomas shivered.
“Death to the Michigan Wolves!”
“Isn’t that wolverines?” Thomas peeped.
“Who are the college basketball coaches here?”
“Yes. We have scouted the enemy. We have dissected his offensive and defensive patterns and discovered his weaknesses. We have danced while his cheerleaders mourn. We know the enemy and the enemy is the Michigan Wolves.”
Thomas shifted his jaw to the left and to the right, hoping to get it centered. No matter how many times he shifted it, he still felt skewed. Those Bobbies. Something was certainly lost in the cloning process.
“Just remember. I don’t want the wolves killed. I just want them to stop eating my crop. Do you all got that?” He knew all about liability.
“Yeah. You don’t want them killed,” Bobby-24 said. “Let me give you a little advice. Don’t tell the coaches when to play defensively and when to play offensively. Okay?”
Thomas nodded grimly.
From the attic, he dug up fifteen fold-up aluminum chairs unused since the last family reunion five years ago. It was going to be a long night. The least he could do was show a little Hoosier hospitality and give the Bobbies a place to sit. The Bobbies grabbed their chairs and took their places in the fields. While he was gone, they had concocted a plan with one Bobby guarding each field and the four larger fields being double-teamed.
The leaves prickled defiantly, maybe more defiantly than usual, and a tension permeated the vines as if a little more tension would cause them to snap back and slap him across the face. This was the night, the one that would break him or allow him to dangle from the fisherman’s hook for another year.
Thomas leaned against the porch. He never noticed it before but the place was beginning to get run down. He could tell by the slivers in his backside. A good sanding and some fresh paint was what the place needed.
He put the infrared goggles on, surveyed the fields. Interesting. With infrared, the Bobbies looked much more like the Bobby he was accustomed to, the glow coming from them not much different than the mandatory red sweater he wore when not in prison garb. Bright and hard on the eyes. Not even the drab prison uniform could completely cover their demigod status — certainly not to those able to see in the infrared.
He was just about to sit back, prop his feet up on a rock and stare wistfully at the stars when Bobby-6 panting like a varmint in heat, rushed up to him. “We need to call a time-out quick. We’re getting slaughtered out there.”
“What’s the problem?”
“What’s the problem? Is that all you can say? Haven’t you been paying attention at all? The Michigan Wolves are faster on the defensive and offensive than we are. We charge. They saunter off, spin, and score.”
“Yeah. Swish. Three points and another steak chomped. They’re scoring real fast. Michigan fifty, IU zero and its not even the end of the first quarter, damn it! Call time out now or we’re lost.”
Thomas rang the rusty, miniature replica of the liberty bell hanging from his porch. The Bobbies cocked their heads, then sprinted, trampling steak vines. Thomas ground his teeth together. Maybe he should hire the wolves to go after the Bobbies.
“Where’s the food?”
“Yeah. Where’s the food?”
The Bobbies surrounded him, their lips twisted into snarls. Thomas backed away slowly. He still had a little of that pizza left in the refrigerator, enough for maybe a quarter slice each. He hoped they liked pepperoni. He counted the Bobbies quickly, only got to fourteen. “Where’s the other one?”
“I’m right here,” Bobby-24 said. “Where’s the food?”
“This isn’t about food,” Thomas said. “It’s about strategy.”
“That’s too bad.” Bobby-24 pulled great, great, great grandfather Elijah’s gun from behind his back. The red dot of the laser sight flashed across Thomas’s eyes, settled on the center of his chest. “Look what I found in the fields. I think there’s going to be a new head coach.”
“That musket doesn’t work,” Thomas said.
“It will. All it needed was a little powder in the flash pan.”
* * *
Those Bobbies knew how to tie a tight knot. The rope frayed his wrists and cut off the circulation to his fingers so that they were probably purple. He couldn’t see them to be sure, though. Maybe they were only blue.
The Bobbies hacked apart his porch and built a bonfire with the lumber. He should have never stored the axe in the barn. Too obvious. Maybe in the ceiling? Maybe just plain buried it?
The stench of charred steak filled his nostrils. The Bobbies sliced off chunks of his steaks and flame burnt them in the fire. He noticed with consternation, that they were choosing only the best steaks, the one without bite marks. Even Bobby was afraid of a little canine spit. He wouldn’t have believed it.
“Has everyone eaten their fill?” Bobby-24 asked. “Good. Then this is how we’re going to salvage the game.”
They huddled, their whispers drowned by the crackling of the fire. Thomas strained against the rope, only succeeded in causing his wrists to fray even more. It was the rope that was supposed to fray, not him. Cloned cheeks glowed demonically in the orange blaze, probably a lot like that Talbot’s face when he was doing obscene acts with Mary. The thought made him nauseous.
“Do you want anything to eat, now? It might be a while before you get your next chance,” Bobby-5 said.
“Everyone know what they have to do?” Bobby-24 shouted. The new head coach waited for a calculated second. “Good. Then let’s do it.”
The Bobbies raced to the fields.
Thomas squirmed towards the fire, turned his back to it, leaned into the heat. First the hairs on his knuckles burned. Then his skin started bubbling with blisters. Still, he was a true Hoosier farmer. He knew how to deal with pain. Burning pain, racing up his wrist, licking his flesh. Very familiar. The pain of a wife lost. Elizabeth had to run away with that Venezuelan engineer. He never did know why. And now the pain of his daughter lost to the enemy. It stabbed him like a steel-hard icicle through the chest. What were a few blackened fingers to him? The rope parted.
He eased himself forward, looked at his hand. Second degree burns. Good. He thought they might have been worse. He waited for the circulation to return. An emptiness permeated his fingers like a water hose left hanging dry and useless on the shed wall. The water suddenly flowed.
Tingling shook his hands. Then they burned. He lumbered to the house, opening the door by catching the knob between his wrists and twisting. In a similar manner, he managed to turn the faucet on. He plunged his hands beneath the flow of cool well water. Relief.
A shot boomed like a cannon ripping into granite masonry. Thomas ran out the back door. The night swallowed him. He eased the infrared goggles on, looking for a blur of red — body heat, blood. To the north, nothing but a few rodents scurrying about their burrows. To the west, nothing — wait! A patch of red. The Bobby Knights. A little more distance and he saw more. The Bobbies formed a slowly closing ring around the varmints.
He wanted to scream. Varmints deserved the bitter bite of Varmint Varnish in their mouths and if absolutely necessary, a clean bullet in the side. But this? He couldn’t watch. Yet this was exactly what he had asked for, hoped for, a quick end to the varmint problem. The wolves huddled closer together as the Bobbies closed in upon them. He thought he could hear a distant, plaintive whine. Perhaps it was the wind. Perhaps.
All at once, the chairs started flying. Canine bodies dropped, their limbs already growing dim in the infrared spectrum. He shook his head. The entire pack lay motionless. Dead as dirt. Dead as a doorknob. Dead as despair. Then he saw a shape stagger to its paws and start limping away. A glimmer of hope stirred in him. He knew it to be the last remnant of his soul. Run!
The wolf staggered a few steps, saw an opening between the Bobbies and made a wobbly dash for its life. Go! The chairs had all been thrown. Maybe there was a chance. “Run!” he shouted.
Suddenly, a Bobby darted to the wolf. A bead of sweat oozed down Thomas’s cheek. The wolf turned. “No.” The Bobby clutched the wolf by the throat, heaved it into the air, and then slammed it into the ground.
While the Bobbies danced on the wolf carcasses, he called the Prison Work Release Program’s 24-hour emergency hotline.
The police arrived with their police dogs. He had heard a lot of good things about the canine units. But he wasn’t impressed. The dogs spent more time sniffing and chomping at the steaks than they did barking at the Bobbies. Still, towards daybreak they did manage to round up the last Bobby without taking any casualties.
The blue prison bus pulled up, took the prisoners away. He made his statement (later corroborated by Bobby-5 and Bobby-11) that he had explicitly ordered the wolves to not be killed but merely chased from the fields. Then an EMT put white gauze on his hands. “We should take you to the hospital. Some of those burns look bad. A doctor can prescribe something for the pain, too.”
“The pain? Do you know what I am? I’m a Hoosier farmer. This pain isn’t anything compared to what I’m used to. Can a doctor prescribe something for the real pain?”
“Maybe. You’ll probably have to see a specialist first to get the problem properly diagnosed. My guess would be a neurologist.”
“Thanks but I’m not going to any hospital.”
When all the civil servants left, he wandered through the fields, saw the gray carcasses stiff and cold, their skulls smashed in like melons. Michigan wolves, so much like Hoosier farmers. Clots of blood stained their ears, their neck, their jaws. They looked exactly the way he felt every day. He couldn’t help but mourn. Soon the mourning stopped for the wolves and commenced for himself.
He walked back to the house, gingerly picked up the phone. Gritting his teeth with every number pressed, he phoned the Agriware House, heard Talbot’s voice. Devils and deals. Keeping his daughter and soul had been tricky. Regaining his soul and daughter could only be trickier.
Copyright © 2004 by Byron Bailey