Over yon mountains, another mansion launched into space, sitting like peace atop its thrusters, and I could see a man clinging to the front door.
“Musta been some of the help,” Joe Reed said as we watched the body fall to the earth.
“Didn’t look big enough to be no rich man,” grandpa said, “but we’ll know soon enough. He fell on our way.”
“Is all the mansions gone now?” Kaylene asked. She was already tearing up in fear of the “yes.”
“Naw child,” grandpa said, “is why we’re going to fetch this here car. Boss Wilson’s place is too far to walk but he ain’t gone up yet. And he owe me a heap of favor. We gonna get to heaven yet.”
We found the dead man not long after and it was just as Joe Reed said, he had “gardener” tattooed on his forehead. Some wild critters was eating at his broken parts, chewing at where he split open from the impact. They was twisted things. Most of life done gone ugly now.
“Skidaw!” grandpa shouted at the ugly things and they skittered off on whatever legs they had. Grandpa studied the body, scratching at his forehead where he had his own worker tattoo that said “handyman.”
“Ain’t no gardens in heaven,” grandpa said.
“Then why they call it heaven?” Joe Reed asked.
“Cuz it’s where all the money is.”
The guy in town spoke true that there was a man in the mountains selling a car. Grandpa was always telling us about the old days when you could talk to anyone in the world but then the planet started dying and voices don’t carry like they used to now. Sometimes you had to shout even for the fella standing next to you to hear you. I bet that gardener screamed all the time he was falling but the air kept it for itself.
The car weren’t pretty one bit. Ain’t nothing in the world pretty no more, ‘cept me Joe Reed’s always saying, but he always flattering like that. This car was just made of sorry though, and it had something that used to be a bird sitting atop of it, but its wings were twisted like tree branches now. Joe Reed threw a rock at it and it gave a ghostly howl that set Kaylene to crying again. A man came out the shack and he just came right over and grabbed the critter by its neck and twisted its head off.
“Ain’t even good to eat,” the man said, “word of my car musta reached you.”
The man had “mechanic” tattooed on his forehead, which musta been how come he had the car.
“We in precious need o’ one,” grandpa said, then turned to me. “Hush Kaylene up now, Bobbi-Anne, we got talking to do.”
I picked up Kaylene and got to bouncing her around and pointed to some bones sticking out between the trees.
“See that, them’s earth’s bones,” I said.
Kaylene always laughed at earth bones, even though in their way they’s about the scariest thing there is. It’s how we knew the earth was dying. Grandma is always talking about how the earth is just skin and bones now, but every day we keep seeing less of the skin and more of the bones. They keep poking up through the dirt or turning up on shores after a rain, and you can tell when they’s earth bones cuz of how twisted they are. They ain’t straight like regular bones. Grandma says it’s cuz people been stepping on the earth so much, got her soul all turned about.
Kaylene stopped crying, so we went back to grandpa and the man yawing.
“Ain’t no chaw round these parts no more,” I heard the man saying, “I ain’t ready to starve myself just yet. I’m upping the price. I’m gonna need an arm and a leg.”
“Now how am I supposed to drive my children back if I give up half my limbs,” grandpa said.
“It don’t need to be your limbs,” the man said.
“You half crazy if you think I’m gonna let my kin give a flint of skin to you. This here’s my sacrifice.”
“Then you know what you need to do,” the man said.
“He’s looking awful fat to be talking about starving,” Joe Reed said.
“You hesh up now boy,” the man said, “ain’t nobody knows all a man’s sorrows.”
“The man speaks true,” grandpa said. “ain’t no one’s eyes seen all but their own sorrow. Go fetch your axe, boss.”
Grandpa laid down on the earth next to the car and spread himself out like an angel when you make one in the snow. The man went into his shack and came back out with the axe.
“I’ll take your recessive limbs,” he said, “I ain’t no monster.”
“Joe Reed,” grandpa said, “you gonna have to drive us back. Bobbi-Anne, why don’t you take Kaylene to look at them earth bones a bit more.”
It started snowing on the drive back. I was grabbing fistfuls of it out the window and pressing it to grandpa’s stumps to try to slow the bleeding. It was supposed to be summer, but time didn’t matter no more. We fell off the calendar once earth started dying and now the weather just does whatever it wants. July and December weren’t no sort of thing now. The snow was hot, but I packed it in anyway because it was absorbing the blood.
“You gotta drive faster Joe,” grandpa said, “I ain’t got enough blood to make it back to grandma at this rate.”
“I’m going as fast as I can. This car is slow as Christmas.”
He pushed down on the gas, but the car only took to weeping harder than Kaylene was.
“Where’s the rest of grandpa?” she kept asking.
“Some of me had to return to dust a bit ahead of schedule,” Grandpa said.
The snow was falling in chunks now, some of it punching holes through the earth’s skin. I saw a big piece crush another fur creature and his friends done took to eating it. Joe Reed ran all of them over trying to get up the hill we were on, but the car was struggling.
“Get on up over this hill and we can coast the rest of the way home.”
Kaylene was smearing up grandpa’s blood in her hands and putting them to his mouth. “So you can get the blood back in you,” she said. Grandpa licked at her fingers. His tongue had been turning white but licking that blood made it red again sure thing.
We got up over the hill and Joe Reed let it roll. I ain’t never gone so fast. The car was whooping and hollering. It ain’t prolly never had such fun before. I wanted to whoop too but I was too fearful of grandpa, even though he was laughing through his dying.
“It’s like the roller coasters of old time.”
We were getting near the house and Joe Reed was standing on the brake, but the car was having so much fun he wasn’t keen on slowing down much. We all took to hollerin’ at it until it got shameful and rolled to a stop right at the front door as grandma was coming out, the “whore” tattoo on her forehead shining bright from all the sweating she does for us. Ain’t never been a day that I seen that “whore” tattoo and ain’t felt a heap of hurting in my heart for it. Grandma ain’t done that work in years. By all rights that tattoo oughta say “world’s best grandma” on it. We’d had to tell Kaylene that “whore” was a short way of saying “world’s best grandma” because we didn’t want to tell her the truth. Kaylene is always going around calling grandma a whore, but it’s only cuz she loves grandma so much.
Joe Reed and I helped grandpa out of the car and grandma purt near screamed when she saw him.
“All this for a car,” she shouted.
“We gotta get the kids to heaven,” grandpa said.
“But you didn’t have to go doing nothing this damn foolish. Get him out to the backyard.”
Joe Reed and I helped grandpa back there. The ground was covered in all that hot snow and we had to lay him on his back in it just like he was making snow angels again, though he couldn’t have made a very good one right now. Grandma came up with an axe and I was fearful for a passing that she was gonna take off his other arm and leg, but she went for the trees at the edge of the property instead and chopped the limbs off two of them. I already saw what she was up to. She got one that was kinda arm shaped and one that looked a bit like a leg.
She came over and laid them down next to grandpa where the missing limbs were.
“Now we gotta wait for them to get to be the same amount of dead before the magic’ll work.”
Grandma knew just what to do cuz she had the breath of life and could bring back purt near anyone who was cozying up to death. I’d heard her say once it was also what had made her a good whore, but I don’t like to think on that too much. We sat and we waited and I was scared cuz grandpa was dying in front of us but so were the tree cuttings and grandma always speaks true. When them tree bits and grandpa got to be the same amount of dead, and sure enough grandma breathed into him and those tree bits just went and fused to grandpa’s body, when he stood up it was like they were a part of him.
“Them trees are younger than me too,” grandpa said, “I remember planting them back in calendar days. I think I got a bit of their youth in me now.”
And he started swinging his arm around like a boxer but when he tried to lift his tree leg up it stayed put.
“I’m taking root,” grandpa said, and he pulled real hard to try to get himself unrooted – only I guess he tried a little too hard cuz he pulled up a big ole patch of earth with him, and underneath that skin of dirt we could see the bones of the earth, a whole web of them. Kaylene started laughing like she always did when she saw earth bones but the rest of us were scared proper. We ain’t never seen the earth peel its skin away like that. You could see between the bones too, but it was just solid black down there.
We were staring at it so long we hadn’t noticed how many dogs had been coming to join us. I call ‘em dogs but they weren’t dogs no more, not in any proper sense. Ain’t no critters left what got their souls pure like they used to. These was twisted dogs, crazy dogs, dogs that had gotten all mixed around till they was something like odgs or gdos or gods. Yeah that was it, they were gods now, and they couldn’t say no to them bones. They started running up to the hole and snatching the bones out of it. It only took a few of them grabbing at them bones before we could see they was making the hole unsteady. And then I guess they just took one bone too many cuz the hole started collapsing and we had to take to running, grandpa pulling up more chunks of earth with his tree leg as he ran. The gods were running too, some nearly tripping us up and since that hole was expanding about as fast as we were running that had me right scared cuz I’m pretty sure if you fell in that hole you’d just keep falling until you punched a hole through the other side and prolly straight into space.
We were all heading towards the car and praying to some other gods than the ones around us that the hole wouldn’t eat up the car cuz otherwise grandpa’s sacrifice would have been for nothing, and we weren’t never gonna make it to Boss Wilson’s house, but the earth musta been feeling peaceable towards us cuz that hole stopped just a few feet from where the car was sitting. We was all able to get in and some of the gods tried to climb in with us but we shoved them off. They had their bones. There weren’t nothing they needed from us.
The snow gave up its doings while we was driving to Boss Wilson’s. Grandpa was driving now using his tree arm and he kept having to smack at the tree leg that was trying to send its roots out the car window. There was a heap more holes we saw on the drive, so it wasn’t just us that was tearing the earth up. She must have been real close to dying if she was getting so holey. I think all the critters out there knew it too cuz they was running frightened. I don’t know how many of ‘em we ran over cuz they kept sprinting into the road. I think some of them wanted to die.
It weren’t no fun drive except for the part where we drove past one of the money cannons.
“Look Kaylene,” I said, “That’s how they made heaven up there for us.”
“How’d they make heaven with that?” she asked.
“A heap of lying is how they did it,” grandma said.
“You know all them rich folks that live in them mansions?” I said, “Well they done told us that if we gave them all our money they could save us. They could build a heaven for us is what they said, so we sent them all our money and they loaded it up in them cannons and launched it all out into space. They used some special science to line up all the cannons right so they’d be point at the same spot and all them bits of money binded together until it made a new little planet up there for folks to go live on, and that’s what made the heaven we’re trying to get to.”
“Only problem is,” grandma said, “is they left out the part where we were all on our own to figure out how to get up there.”
“The rich got them rockets for their houses, but they just expected us to lift ourselves on up to heaven by our bootstraps,” Grandpa said.
“They did us dishonest then rich folks did,” Joe Reed said.
No one had nothing else to say after that.
I’d only seen mansions when they was flying up to heaven. I ain’t never seen one up close till we pulled up to the Boss Wilson place. You must be able to do a whole heap of living in a place so big. I didn’t see how even a whole family could fill up such a big place except that they was so big. I ain’t never seen no rich people up close neither and they ain’t little folks that’s for sure. Boss Wilson, he musta stood about twenty foot tall and he had the clearest, shiniest forehead I ever seen. I guess you don’t need no work tattoo when you’re rich. His kids were out playing in the yard when we pulled up and they was bigger than any of us, though none too bright I was guessing either cuz they was chewing on earth bones and I could tell by the smell they had messed themselves. Boss Wilson looked real uncomfortable when grandpa got out of the car.
“You look different,” Boss Wilson said.
“Boss, I’m gonna cut straight to the meat,” grandpa said. I could see his leg taking root again while he was standing there talking. “I’ve come to plead for the life of my kin. You don’t need to take me if you don’t wanna but I want a good life for my children. I wanna see them get out of here alive, get on up to heaven there.”
“Now Ed Tom I know we got some history,” Boss said, “but I don’t have the resources for extras. It’s hard times for everyone right now. I was barely able to get enough provisions to settle me and my own family on heaven. We’re about to launch off. I don’t have time to procure anything else.”
I ain’t never heard no one talk more proper than Boss Wilson did. His voice was shaking the earth too. It was making me fearful of another cave in. Grandpa was looking real angry.
“I saved your life, Boss,” grandpa said, “I saved it even though my son died working for you and left me and the wife to care for his children.” He pointed to me and Kaylene with his tree hand, “All I’m asking is them and Joe Reed here, who wants to take Bobbie-Anne for a wife once they get to heaven. They’s sturdy folks. They can earn their way up there. All you gotta do is fly ‘em up.”
Boss Wilson shook his head, and I felt my soul shaking when he did. I knew grandpa was gonna see us safe off the earth before it died, I never doubted it at all until now, but listening to Boss Wilson I was growing fearful it weren’t gonna work out so good, that grandpa’s sacrifice would all be for nothing, that he’d’ve done us dishonest for the first time in his life and that we was all gonna die here on the skin and bones of the earth.
“You took my son, Boss Wilson,” grandma shouted, “and now you ain’t even got the decency to make good on a promise.” She was stomping up to him, even though she didn’t even come up to his waist. “You ain’t got no bone of decency in you.”
Grandpa tried to step forward too, but his leg had taken root. He yanked real hard and another chunk of earth came up, showing another mess o’ earth bones. Boss Wilson looked down on it and I could tell it was making him scared.
“Maybe I could take the little one,” Boss Wilson said.
“You gonna take all my kin,” grandpa said.
He took another step forward and brought another chunk of earth up with him. Now Boss Wilson’s two kids was wandering over, stinking something horrible, and they was looking real bright-eyed at the earth bones.
“You don’t want none of them bones now,” I said to them, but they didn’t understand what I was saying on account they wasn’t all there in the head. Meanwhile grandpa was taking another step towards Boss Wilson and ripping up more earth behind him and that hole was just getting bigger and bigger. I knew what was gonna happen. I knew, but there wasn’t nothing I could do to stop it.
Them kids pushed past me to grab at them bones and as soon as they yanked them up that web collapsed, and it was another cave in. I grabbed Kaylene and Joe Reed and I started running towards the mansion, which was also towards grandpa, and Boss Wilson was shoving him aside to come towards us and when I looked behind me, I see why come cuz his kids was falling into the hole and I guess that Boss Wilson didn’t have much sense cuz he tried to grab ‘em only to fall in with them.
Grandma and grandpa started running with us, grandpa collecting more and more dirt in his roots as we ran towards the mansion. We was all too busy running to talk but I was sure we was all thinking the same thing which was maybe we could launch the mansion ourselves except now the hole was eating up the mansion too and there weren’t nowhere for us to run so we all just grabbed onto grandpa, who could hardly move no more with all the dirt that was clinging to his roots.
“Hang on,” grandma shouted and then the hole was all around us and she blew out her breath of life and her air surrounded us and we were standing on a big ball of earth that grandpa had clinging to his roots and it was like our own little tiny planet we was on, and it was like we had our own gravity now cuz we was pulling more dirt and water and trees and all kinds of other bits into us. The real earth – the big earth – was going out for good now. We could see it. She was falling apart, and mansions was launching up all over the place, but we was sitting safe and pretty on our own new earth: me and Kaylene and Joe Reed and grandma and our grandpa the tree keeping us all together. I could see people falling all over the place, but some of them fell on our planet, and some of the gods and other twisted critters was finding their way to us too, and we was just getting bigger and bigger, and I was breathing happy cuz grandpa had done us honest after all, and I knew we weren’t gonna need no heaven no more.
Adam Breckenridge is an Overseas Traveling Faculty member of the University of Maryland Global Campus where he travels the world teaching US military stationed overseas and is currently based in South Korea. He has twenty-seven story publications to his name and has most recently appeared in Mystery Weekly, Wyldblood and the Fantastic Other and has a story forthcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.