CHEESEBURGER BROWN: Novelist & Story-wallah
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The Secret Mathematic
A novel-in-progress from Cheeseburger Brown
The Secret Mathematic, an original novel by Cheeseburger Brown, illustration by Matthew Hemming


Outside of Canaan, New Brunswick is a farm, foreclosed by the Bank of Nova Scotia, nestled between two strips of thick forest. The rain falls on fallow fields.

A car draws away from the front gate, leaving behind a strip that says SOLD in a diagonal flourish across the grime-streaked FOR SALE sign.

The bushes rustle. A pallid face peeks out from beneath the hem of a garbage-bag rainslicker. "Lucifer pork me from behind," swears Dalia. She mashes out a damp cigarette, gets up, and retreats the way she came.

She pushes her way into the barn, peeling off her garbage-bag and hanging it on a hook. From under her T-shirt she pulls a plastic bag stuffed with neat rows of Indian reservation cigarettes. "We got trouble," she reports, sweeping a lock of wet hair from her forehead. She lights a smoke.


"I went to see George Otter on the reserve," she says, her sharp cheeks sucking in as she drags. "On my way back there was a car at the farmhouse. I think they got a buyer, Lal." She exhales. "We're gonna have company."

Lallo turns around from the worktable they have set up out of two old barndoors on sawhorses. He wipes wet clay off his hands with a rag and tosses it aside. "There's people here?"

"Some real estate skenk just put up a sold sign. It could be a while before the new owners take possession, but I bet you anything they'll show up sometime soon to at least check their new shit out, you know?"

Lallo works his mouth silently for a moment, then sniffs the air. "You're sleeping with George?"

She shrugs as she smokes. "Yeah. That bother you?"

Lallo makes a face. "I'm old fashioned."

She shoulders past him to take a look at the worktable. "How's he doing?"

Lallo blinks and turns around, rubbing his lantern jaw with a broad hand. "I don't know. He hasn't been saying much today. Just 'do this, Lallo' and 'do that, Lallo.' Very bossy."

Dalia puts her hands on her hips and gazes down upon Jeremiah critically, cigarette hanging out of the corner of her mouth.

The head is no longer just a head. The innards of the torn neck are now the origin of thousands of tiny, glistening filaments clustered around a spinal column that bristles with lines of finer strands. The ends of several of the newest filaments rest in little cups of a murky liquid solution, while the ends of the rest connect to various mechanical apparatuses ranging from a heavily-converted internal combustion engine to an array of automobile batteries wired in series. An unholy alliance of a clock-radio and a dented microwave oven lie in place of his heart. Rubber tubing conveys waste liquid to a bucket on the straw-covered floor. Circulation is enforced by a bellows attached to a vacuum-cleaner's suction engine plugged into a dirty orange extension cord that runs up to the ceiling and then out the window.

At the top of the table is a series of muddy containers and a tarnished spoon. Dalia looks them over. "What's he been hungry for?"

"More shale, a little copper. But just before you came in he told me to find some old light bulbs, smash them, and feed him the tungsten."

The bellows sighs as it collapses, then whistles as it inflates. The black holes where Jeremiah's eyes should be stare unseeing at the ceiling of the barn. Dalia sniffs. "Is he ever gonna be done fixing himself? I mean, if we have to bug outta here fast we can't exactly be hauling around a gas-powered robot. Can't we just build him some legs?"

Lallo raises his heavy brow. "You know how to make robot legs, girl?"

"Well, no," she admits. "Maybe we could put him on wheels."

Lallo shakes his head. "He has to do what he must. He's building new connections, atom by atom. That's how it's done. We have no choice. We'll be patient, give him his time."

"We may not have much more time, is what I'm saying."

"No choice," he repeats sullenly.

She drops her cigarette and presses her shoe into the butt. "Listen, I've been hanging around with you because you're a good guy, you haven't tried to screw me over, and every time you go out you come back with food. But you haven't been out hunting in weeks, Lallo, and I'm getting like totally sick of nothing but crab apples and roots."

Lallo grunts, turning back to the worktable. "You do what you want. I do what I have to."

"But we're gonna have to bolt, dude. Face it."

"I'm not going anywhere until he can. You go. Be safe."

Dalia shifts her weight, looks down. "If I go, will you find me? You did it before. You tracked me down like a bloodhound, Lal."

He chuckles, but his eyes are sad. "Apt," he mutters. "You had your bleed. Tracking you was easy. This is why women aren't meant to be warriors. You can't hide -- there's too much about your body that's made to attract."

"But you'd find me anyway."

He looks away again. "No," he says. "No reason."

She sneers. "Like hell. You trying to tell me now that what we've had together over the months doesn't mean jack to you? You're just as happy to amble on your lonely way, just stinking it up solo in the woods with your fucking motorized head?"

"You're okay, girl," he says softly. "But this is more important than love."

She spits in the hay and grabs another cigarette, jamming it into the corner of her thin-lipped mouth. "I don't love you, Lallo," she mumbles around it, flicking her lighter. "I just thought we had a good thing going. But whatever."

"You can't understand what is at stake."

"No shit, Lal -- that's because you won't tell me nothing! You expect some understanding of your grand poobah crap? Fill me in, for fuck's sake." She smokes angrily for a moment, pacing around the table. "I hear you and this thing talking all damn night long, but whenever I ask you anything all you say is, 'nevermind, girl.'"

She completes this last part while doing an impression of Lallo's deep voice and thick accent, and it is enough to puncture the moment: Lallo smiles. Dalia smiles back, then wipes at her eyes with the back of her hand. "Fuck," she croaks as an afterthought.

Lallo touches her shoulder tenderly. She pulls away but her look has softened. "Okay," he says. "Okay, okay. You're right, girl. You deserve to know. So here, sit down, smoke your cancer, and listen."

"I don't want to sit."

"You make me crazy when you walk around all the time. Just sit still for once."

She drops to the floor crosslegged, dragging on her cigarette and staring at him expectantly. Lallo slowly lowers himself into the hay beside her, groaning slightly and rubbing his left hip as he settles.

Lallo is quiet for a moment, his eyes closed. Dalia smokes.

He says, "Imagine you don't fit in. Imagine you watch people doing what people do, and you feel foreign to it all..."

She shifts on the hay. "That's not so hard to imagine."

"Yeah," he agrees. "Everybody feels that way sometimes. It's a thing in our heads. In our meat, maybe. But imagine that just when you think you've managed to understand that it's all in your mind, it's not. You are foreign. You don't belong. It's not just your feelings that say so, but the world."

"How would the world say so?"

"When you wake up one morning and realize that six generations of your kin have come and gone, and you're still the same. When you see that the memories of the old become mucked up and confused, but you remember every day you ever had. When it becomes plain that all the usual limits of human power -- injury, wasting, death -- are not your limits."

She sniffs and raises a brow. "Maybe I'd decide to become king of the world."

Lallo nods. "That's just what some of us did. Or tried to do. That's what Prester John did, and Ziusudra, too. They founded countries, and when their countries were smashed, they founded secret societies. We started to find each other, sometimes as allies and sometimes not, and in our passings we would hear of a book -- this certain book -- that promised to make the purpose of ourselves plain."

"The Bible?"

Lallo considers this. "Perhaps peripherally. But no, I'm talking about The Jamijama."

"Never heard of it."

"Few have. Those who have seen it usually end up dead."

"Murdered by secret societies?"

He shakes his head. "Murdered by the book. The pages are poisoned, and turn black in the light. The only way to read the book is in total darkness, using the oils in your fingers to activate the poison. When it reacts, it causes a new layer of information to rise in relief on each page -- a secret map you can only know by feeling it, and each move of your finger draws enough toxins through your pores to kill a village."

Dalia blinks. "So, really, it can't be read."

He shakes his head again. "Of course it can. Think about it. All you need is five or ten lives per page. The process of transcription is in and of itself an act of genocide. Any man who commands an army of slaves can, with patience, extract passages of the map from The Jamijama. It's been attempted several times. Too many times."

"So who's read it?"

"The whole thing? I don't know. A complete transcription has never been achieved. It takes too many men and too much time to keep such an effort totally secret for long enough. There are always leaks. There are always betrayals. There are always other players." He looks down, and reaches inside his layers of rags. He extracts a short metal tube, uncaps the end, and lets a rolled up sheaf of paper slip out. "This is all I have of the map," he says. "It's not everything, but it's enough to tell me one thing: it's in the New World, in a great shield of rock."

"What is?"

"I don't know. Something important."

"How did you get this?"

He shrugs. "I was sick for a very long time afterward. The Jamijama might claim five men for a page, but I managed to do six pages before my heart stopped. Their limits are not my limits."

"Then you have the book!"

He smiles grimly. "Nah. This spy guy won it from me. We chased each other over half the globe, but in the end I came up short against a shortman: I tried to decode the surface text of The Jamijama by taking it to a museum guy who knew all about dead tongues."


"It was the spy guy in disguise. He's a sneaky one, that English. He can make himself look like anyone -- even girls. He stole The Jamijama from me and took it to his queen. It was the last copy left. The twins told me that."

"What twins?"

"The Dioscuri," replies Lallo darkly. He takes a breath. "The children of Ziusudra, and authors of The Jamijama's prototype." He looks out the window. "The Ashwini Kumaras, Castor and Pollux, sibling-lovers and farmers of the long. Their communion with the bitch-goddess that wrought us gave them divine knowledge of her plan. They keep its flame alive, though the keeping has driven them mad."

Dalia perks up. "Bitch-goddess?"

He turns back, nodding somberly. "The long dream of her. All of them but I...and the Shah. She is storm and fire, and she stands over time. It is believed by my kind that we were created to serve her, though none of us know how or to what end." He pauses. "I do know this: she calls herself God, but she isn't."

"So she's like the Wicked Witch of the West and you're one of her winged monkeys?"

Lallo blinks. "Hah?"

"Forget it. How do you know she's not God? I mean, I'm not even sure I believe in that shit, but even if I did, how would you know? You're saying she 'stands over time' -- who the hell stands over time but gods?"

"Daemons," spits back Lallo, harsh and quick.

"What's the difference?"

"If there is a God of Men, girl, he could make what he wanted so by simply willing it. The Long Witch, on the other hand, is obliged to set up covert armies of perverse recruits, hunkering down through all history to wait for her call. God would not need to resort to guerilla tactics to achieve his aims. That is not the sign of the King of Creation, but rather a rebel."

"A rebel? Are you trying to tell me you were made by Satan?"

"Maybe," he admits. "Stories of stories of stories make it hard to tell. But I can tell that it's wrong. Do you follow me, girl? You live your whole stupid life knowing something is deeply wrong, and then one day you realize that it's you. You're wrong. Whatever you're for, it's a crime against nature."

"I don't think you're a crime against nature, Lal."

"Well, I've had longer to think it over than you have. I've learned things; I've heard things. And when I see Prester John and his giant corporations spanning across continents, when I see the Shah of Anwar in his rich cloister surrounded by an army of heartless privateers, when I see the eruption of wars that serve no clear point or purpose...I know. I know we are wrong." He sits up straighter, his eyes hard. "And I know the manipulations must end. I know we must all be stopped."

"Oh yeah? By who?"

"By me," he declares. "I am Comeuppance, girl. I am the final chapter of The Jamijama. I am the bane of my creator, and so help me I will rid this world of every last one of my sick kind." He looks over at Dalia. "I may be too stupid to know what's right, but I do know what's wrong. And I must act. I will not stop acting until every drop of blood is drained from our wretched corpses."

Dalia's eyes are wide. "Fuck," she says slowly. "That's intense."

Lallo holds her gaze for a moment, then smirks. In a shrill and hilarious imitation of Dalia he agrees, "No shit, dude."

She doesn't laugh. Her cigarette burns between her fingers, forgotten. "I don't know what to say."

"Now you know what you should know. I'm going to go hunt, okay?"

"They should totally make a movie out of this shit."

"I'll bring you back something nice."

She watches him go loping out of the barn and into the rain. The door swings closed. She drags on her smoke but it's all filter. She spits and mashes it out with her heel, then hugs her knees to her chest, listening to the drops pattering on the roof.

Something shifts. She looks up sharply.

She gets to her feet and steps slowly toward the worktable. The head's mouth quivers, then opens. She suppresses a gasp, stopping in her tracks, then ventures, " need something, head?" She makes another move toward the tarnished spoon. "You hungry?"

The head rocks gently back and forth. "No," says a weak, windy voice.

She swallows. "So...okay. I'll just leave you alone then, I guess."

"No," says the head again. "Miss Dalia..."

She freezes, gooseflesh rising across her shoulders and neck. "What?" she whispers.

"Miss Dalia," he repeats. "Destroy the map."

Dalia looks down at Lallo's precious metal canister, its cap lying in the hay next to it. She looks up again. "I -- I couldn't. You heard what he went through to get that, didn't you? I mean, did you? He practically died for it. He'd totally kill me."

"It is not the answer he believes. The map does not show his kind."

Dalia rolls her dry lips nervously. "So what does it show?"

The head rocks back and forth gently again. "Every word I speak is poison to the world."

She puts one hand on her hip and raises her chin. "What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Don't get all cryptic and shit with me, head. I won't buy it."

"It is wrong."

She pushes her hair out of her face, sneering. "Yeah yeah yeah, this is wrong, that is wrong -- what's so wrong with everything?"

The head replies, "Exochronomotive teleologic excitation -- vicis eo."

Dalia squints. "Say what?"

"Time travel, miss. The power to bend space and knit time is coming to Solarkind," he pronounces gravely. "The moment is almost here. How the moment is decided will determine the fates of all. Two forks, for good or for ill, stem from the event of its birth."

"What do you mean by forks?"

"Two paths, one choice."

She wrings her hands together anxiously. "You want him to fail. You want the long people to stay alive." She takes a shuddering breath, then points at the head with an accusatory finger. "You're with the bitch!"

The head lolls slightly, orienting its sightless eyes toward her. "I have the full power of the Secret Mathematic at my command. If I wanted to stop Lallo, I could end him with a thought."

Dalia presses her lips together. "That's supposed to sound badass, but it isn't. You need him. You're just a freaking head. So even if you're not shitting me -- and maybe you are -- but even if you're not, it wouldn't prove nothing. You're helpless."

The bellows sighs, then whistles. "I do not belong here. Every decision I make, every choice I influence, contaminates local probability. You are correct, Dalia: I am helpless. This is why I require your aid."

She crosses her arms and sneers. "For what?"

"End me."

She blinks. "Mmm...what?"

"Disconnect this apparatus. I am alien to this timeline; I am a pathogen to history. I once believed I could willfully steer events back to a safer path, but I see now it is folly. There are too many variables. There are too many unknowns. How could I have accounted for Lallo acting against his programme?" The head pauses, lolling back to stare blindly at the hayloft above. "There are so many ways to be wrong, and so few ways to be right. The responsibility is too much to bear. I must be removed from all considerations."

Dalia spits in the hay. "So what you're saying is you're a pussy."

The head wobbles, but says nothing.

Dalia lights another cigarette, wanders in a slow circle around the table as she rubs her chin. "You're saying the bad guys made Lallo into a freak, and now he's doing shit against them and you don't know why, and you're trying to tell me you're one of the good guys, but you wanna quit because everything is too screwed up."

"A not entirely inaccurate summary, miss," says Jeremiah quietly. "There are two possible futures. Both now exist simultaneously, superimposed upon one another, an uncollapsed hyper-waveform unsettled on either fate. The tiniest event -- seemingly trivial -- could weight one outcome over the other, and cause the waveform to collapse into a definite state of future history. The complexity of the problem cannot be overstated. I, personally, have been giving the matter careful consideration for over nine million hours and yet I remain ignorant of the pivots on which the critical moments will be decided."

"How come?"

"Because, Miss Dalia, these alternate states of history do not exist in a vacuum. There are interested parties, and their actions serve to permeate the waveform space, causing leakages of highly energized probability back and forth between them. If we continue to war, we risk a wholesale local violation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics."

She drags on her smoke languidly, unwilling to give in to Jeremiah's drama. "Can't afford the fine, huh? Or is that a fine and points off your license?"

He ignores her, continuing, "The universe is, at large enough scales, homeostatic."

"My pastor always said that was just a lifestyle choice."

"This means that when the governing forces of space and time are warped sufficiently far from their base states, the universe reacts. Accounts are rendered. All debts come due, and there is a whiplash effect as probability is restored."

"Whiplash?" echoes Dalia, stopping in place and considering her smoke. "Like a universal car accident?"

"In this case, I believe the whiplash would take the form of bleeding all energy away from an area approximately twice the size of the Solar System, instantaneously forcing all matter therein to a state of absolute zero temperature."

"So, like an ice age."

"Yes, miss. An ice age that freezes the Sun, every atom in your body, and every existing thing between. The Solar biome will be effectively and irrecovably nullified. The consequences for the end of time are incalculable."

She frowns. "What? Why? I thought humans were just specks on a speck, smaller than small, totally irrelevant. What the hell does the end of time care about me and Lallo and cartoons and cars?"

"Sentience, Miss Dalia, is precious. You cannot imagine how. But allow me to assure you of this: the simple act of someone like you observing a sunset has more significance in the full scheme of history than a military general conquering a continent."

"That doesn't make sense."

"Perhaps," agrees the head quietly. "But sense makes that."


The door bangs open. Lallo lurches in with a dead deer across his shoulders. He shifts and lets it slide off to the floor. He looks up at Dalia standing intently over Jeremiah, his brow sloping in inquiry. "He's had something to say?"

She nods mutely.

Lallo narrows his eyes. "What, then?"

She glances down at the head, but it is still. She looks up. "He says the map doesn't show what you think it shows."

"Misdirection. Manipulation. Nonsense."

"He says...he says he wants to die. He asked me to do it."

Lallo's mouth tightens. "You were going to?"

She shakes her head.

"Good," he says with a curt nod. "That head is my grail. Whomsoever should interfere would find themselves regretful." He cracks his knuckles.

"Don't threaten me, Lal."

"I'm not threatening you. You said you weren't going to do it. What I said is only a threat to someone who would consider betraying me, girl." He turns away. "If that's not you, I choose to believe."

Dalia stands in place. She crosses her arms and hugs her own shoulders. "He said this war or whatever, this struggle for whatever it is you're fighting for, or against, or what-the-hell...he said it could bork the whole Solar System."

Lallo sniffs dismissively. "Nah," he says, beginning to saw into the deer with his blade. He calls without turning around, "Start a fire in the smokehouse, will you?"

"He said history would get all kerfucked, Lal."

"Yeah yeah yeah. Everybody wants history the way they like it. So what else is new?" he snaps. "Stoke it hot. I'm hungry, and I don't want to wait. Sear it, maybe. We can have jerk deer."

"He says he's a time traveller. And I think I believe him."

Lallo chuckles as he turns around. "Of course he is, girl. Do you think guys like him are made in factories in Cathay?" He pauses, his expression suddenly more sober. "Do you honestly believe whatever gives me my power came from a shaman's magic or faerie incantations? No, girl. It's technology. It's machines. It's cleverness nobody's even thought up yet. It's all in The Jamijama."

"What if this Jimmyjamo is a giant lie?"

He smirks, his scarred cheek pinched, his eyes heavy with a sad, distant compassion. "Everything is a lie, girl," he says seriously, then turns back to stripping the hide from the deer carcass. The knife squeaks wetly. Something tears. Liquid slops out on the floor.

Dalia turns away.

It's dark by the time dinner is ready. An oil lamp perched on the edge of the worktable provides a small circle of orange glow. They sit on sagging bales of old hay. Lallo tears at his smoked meat with animal relish while Dalia picks at her own, chewing slowly and swallowing with effort. After a few moments she ventures, "What you gonna to do with him, anyways?"

"Him who?"

"Him the head. Jeremy."

"Jeremiah. He's going to help me track down the longmen. He can sense us, even from pretty far away. It's going to make my job much easier."

"What if he doesn't wanna help?"

"Jamijama," he grunts. "My enemy's enemy is my friend. He's one of the dragon's angels. The whole purpose of their existence is to stop us. It's not just a choice for guys like him -- he has to do what he thinks is right. His duty is written into every speck of him."

"Because he's a robot?"

"He's not a robot any more than I am, girl. He's just a new kind of guy. Tough, strong, efficient. Extended."

"Like you."

"Yeah, maybe. He's the other side's me."

Dalia pauses, pushing a bit of meat back and forth across the scrap of cardboard she's using as a plate. "If that's true, Lal -- if he's the other side's you..."

He looks up from his meal. "Hah?"

"If he's like you," she continues slowly, "what makes you think your duty isn't written into every speck of you?"

Lallo chews more slowly, then swallows loudly. His mouth works as his brow knits. "I'm no machine," he concludes.

"Bullshit," says Dalia. "Everybody's a machine. I've seen science shows on TV, seen pictures of all those little bits of crap inside our cells that fit together like puzzle pieces. What do you call them? Protons?"


"Yeah, proteins. What's the big difference between puzzle parts made of protein and puzzle parts made of graphite? I mean, an abacus would still count even if the beads you slide on the wires were made of like whatever -- pizza, even. It doesn't matter to the counting, does it? The counting doesn't care."

"What's your point, girl?" he demands irritably.

"You've said it yourself, Lal: you're for something. What do you think the bitch-goddess expected you to do for her?"

"I don't know. Fight, maybe. I'm strong. Hard to kill."

"And how would you know who to fight? Why would you feel like fighting them, even if you knew who they were?" She pushes her cardboard aside and stands, patting her pockets for a smoke. "Don't you get it, Lal? She had to have a way to give you commands." She flicks her lighter, the flame revealing her face in a ruddy flash. "So if he can be programmed, maybe so can you."

She smokes. Lallo stares at her.

Dalia says, "Hasn't it ever occurred to you that maybe what you're doing -- maybe everything you're doing -- is the plan? Sure, maybe you think you're a rebel, but maybe that's all part of the design, right? How would you know the difference between what you want, and what she wants?"

He growls, "We could ask ourselves dreamy questions all day and all night. Still, there's work to be done. Who's going to do it if not me? You want me to just let it all happen? Let the long do her sick business? Make the bitch-goddess a true god, and give her the reins of the world?"

"No," says Dalia. "But you gotta wonder whether you're playing right into her hands."

"I don't have to wonder anything. I have to act."

"But who's going to stop you if you start acting for her?"

Lallo looks over at the worktable, his shoulders dropping. "I don't know," he admits. "Maybe him. Maybe that's another good reason to keep him around. Maybe he's the one who can kill me, when all my tasks are done."

"If he can sense the long, what's to stop him from killing you as soon as his body is fixed, then finishing the job himself? Just frigging think about it, Lal."

"He needs me."

"Only until his body is ready. And then...well, watch your back, dude."

An engine mutters outside, the light of headlamps washing past the broken windows behind Lallo's back. He stands up and spins, tensing. The engine dies, and two car doors slam. Voices murmur.

"Jeefus Crust," whispers Dalia.

The barndoors swing open, and two figures stand silhouetted against the twilight sky. "Eh bien," drawls a voice with a heavy Francophone accent. "Regarder, Lucien -- des squatters."

The shadows shift. The muzzle of a long gun winks in the light of the lamp. It clicks as it is cocked. "Okay fine, bien," replies a second voice with the same rural accent. "Nous aurons beaucoup de fun ce soir, je croix." He takes a step forward and cocks his own weapon, then calls out, "Hey, whatchoo doing in here, my barn?"

Dalia drops her cigarette and puts up her hands. "Don't shoot. We're not even armed or nothing."

Lallo picks up another piece of deer meat and chews it thoughtfully as he stares down the men. "This is your land?" he asks quietly.

"Quoi?" barks the second man, squinting in confusion at Lallo's accent. Lallo repeats himself. "It is now my land, ouaip," replies the man. "I just buy it. And you, the freeloaders, are not welcome here. What are all this stuff? This is a drug lab, ouaip?"

"We were just leaving," says Dalia quickly. "We were just camping out for a couple of nights. You know, on our way. We didn't mean no trouble." She starts to slowly shuffle sideways toward the far door. "We'll just get our shit and we'll be gone before youse know it."

The landowner swivels his gun muzzle from Lallo to Dalia. "I don't tink so. Whathever you keep in my barn belong to me. I made my deal for property and the content."

"That's a mistake," rumbles Lallo.

"No, mec," retorts the first man sharply. "Your mistake is talking the guff to my brother here. And it will be your last one, also, if you don't ferme ta gueule. I'm just as happy to bury your carcass as chase away your living self."

Lallo straightens to his full height, brow lowering angrily over his eyes. "Let me explain something to you --" he says, raising his hand. The gun barks. He stumbles, his face stricken, and drops behind a bale with a gargling gasp. Birds flee from the hayloft with a frenzied beating of wings.

"Lallo!" screams Dalia.

The first man turns to the second. "Did you see how he come at me like that?" He grunts. "I just saved hour lives, them both."

"Ouaip," agrees his brother. "Big old drifter like this, you can never be too much the careful. Drugs and everyting. You never know what happen."

Lallo moans from behind the bale. A hand reaches into the air, shaking, spattered with red dots.

Dalia's knees fail. She hits the dirt. She feels like she can't breathe.

The men step closer and then look down upon Lallo at their feet. "Alors," says one, nudging him with his boot, "I say we finish him, then take his little chick for a ride. You have any the rubbers?"

The other nods, gesturing behind him with his gun. "In the truck."

"Okay bien. I don't want my NDA in her girl parts if the body winds up to be found."

"C'est pour rien, Lucien. Nobody's going to miss a couple of drifters."

"Peut-etre, but it's better safe than being sorry. Remember all the hassle Jean-Gaston had over that hitchhiker he squeeze too hard, ouaip?"

"Tabernac, we can just burn the bodies."

Lucien nods. "Okay bien. I'm getting horny. Let's get her done."

Before Dalia can get to her feet she's been grabbed, her arms pinned painfully behind her back. Her wide eyes are locked on Lallo's legs sticking out from behind the bale, absolutely still. She gapes breathlessly as the brother who isn't holding her ambles closer to the bale, steps over the legs, and takes careful aim.

The gun booms. It's cocked, and then fired again.

Lallo's legs twitch, then settle. The man kneels down to have a closer look, then stands up and cracks off a final shot. It echoes away to silence.

Dalia vomits.

She's thrown to the ground. One brother steps on her hair to hold her in place while the other sits on her feet and cuts away her filthy jeans with a hunting knife. She flails, reaching out to strike at him. She smacks him in the head so he slashes her across the forearm, a line of burning pain in the darkness of her squeezed shut eyes.

"I want her in the ass," grunts Lucien, unzipping his fly.

She whimpers as she's flipped over, gritting her teeth as her wounded forearm is ground into the dirt. Lucien jams a finger into her anus, then laughs as she shrieks.

A pause. Nothing happens.

Dalia opens one eye, and then the other. One of the brothers is lying on the dirt in front of her, his eyes rolled up in his head. His mouth is open and still. His chest does not rise and fall with breath. She smells faeces.

She whirls around. Lucien lies behind her, his pants around his ankles. He has also voided his bowels and, aside from the slow drip of that mess, the body is utterly motionless.

"Holy shit," she whispers raggedly.

Her blood beats in her ears. She has never been more terrified. Her thoughts are conflicted, racing and clouded, but her body responds of its own accord so that she finds herself without quite knowing how pelting across the wet grass in her bare feet, then wrenching open the driver's door of the dented pick-up truck parked outside the barn. Once inside she discovers she has retrieved the keys from Lucien's belt. She stabs them into the steering column, knocks it into gear, and tears up twin rows of flying dirt as she makes her panicked escape.

Once the new silence has settled in the birds return to the barn. Crickets chirp.

Clouds sweep over the moon. The night becomes darker.

Trees creak in the wind. The open barndoors sway to and fro.

The first bronze rays of morning light bring with them the flies. The barn is alive with their buzzing. It is the first sound Lallo is aware of before he is pinioned by a wash of intense pain. He cries out, his voice strangled and weak.

He cannot move. He can see nothing but the haylofts above. He grinds his teeth against the agony. His nerves are on fire but his body feels cold, as if he can detect the morning breeze twist between the ribs, chilling him from the inside out.

Something sighs, then whistles.

From the corner of his eye he senses motion. He catches glimpses of his own artificial hand, dipping in and out of view, a needle and thread clutched between the grimy fingers. The thread is slick with blood.

He croaks unintelligibly.

"Be still," says a familiar voice from somewhere below his chin. "I am nearly done."

"What...?" manages Lallo feebly. "What are you doing to me?"

"Saving us both," replies Jeremiah.

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