by Joseph Salvatore
“Gonna tonight go kill us a boy,” Elzira said, rising to full height. “Gonna tonight go make it right for Dodie.” But the candle-lit circle of cross-legged girls sitting around Elzira looked away from her, to the dark corner under the rafters, to the bottle and hammer that’d been laid atop a stack of cinderblocks, strewn with strings of holiday lights and dried flowers and photos of Dodie. But something about Elzira’s attic—the fumes of gasoline and stale exhaust and old oil from the garage below, and only a few lights on: the blinking strings around the shrine; the yahrtzeit candle’s flame in the middle of the circle; and from inside the cinder blocks’ hollow cores those twin fingers of light cast from the black baton flashlights of two dead cops—all began to make the others nervous about Elzira’s plan, which depended on darkness. Darkness was always Elzira’s preference. Not just for tonight’s business, but for her most elemental atmospherics: clothing, lips, nails, tattoos, even her buzz-cut hair.
It was late autumn and the cancellation of Halloween had gone into effect only a week after the Purity Laws were enacted—only a month after they closed the colleges and libraries and museums, after they closed the theaters and cafes and bookstores and women’s health clinics, after they closed certain places of worship, after they shut down the newspapers and news agencies and passed laws about journalism and journalists and use of the Internet: The Local Enforcement League (LEL) posted all its news on a Twitter feed; and it was all local now, all across the country, the Federal Enforcement League (FEL) having turned everything over to the local a few months after the inauguration; state by state the closures began.
Then late last spring, they passed the Purity Act, declaring what was pure and impure in the new United Sacred Ground of America (USGA), stretching from sea to shining sea. Everything labeled “not pure”—and that list was long and growing—was not sacred and thus not protected by the purity laws, which had recently deemed impure “menstrual blood mixed with semen during the act of provocatory rape, A.K.A. “Asked-for-It” rape. (That’s what got Dodie that night: her period the night the boy pulled her into the van after her shift at Gunner’s. Walking across the parking lot in that skimpy Gunner’s uniform was all the provocation he needed under the new law, he’d said in the video they posted; but then the seats of his van got stained with what he called her “monthly mess.” And when his jeans got stained that was when he “really lost it,” he’d said, because “them jeans,” he said, “them jeans was Diesels.”)
The closures and cancellations—and now this for-women-only-curfew—all happened within a year of their taking power. It amazed Elzira how many people had just been waiting to shut shit down. The only things open now were police stations, courthouses, municipal buildings, law offices, hospitals, auto-body shops, churches, wholesale mega-stores, gyms, gun shops, and sports bars.
“Haven’t all this time we said about not being able to sleep from thinking about how they did it to her?” Elzira continued. “How it was done? To Dodie? Haven’t we? . . . Ladies?” The circle looked back to Elzira, at the mention of how, their shoulders stiffening, eyes red-rimmed, glaring. “High time,” Elzira said, “we did what it is they have coming to them. High time.”
Janelle, who had known Dodie the longest, grown up with her in Joplin, said: “But we gotta be smart, Elzira, and safe. If you hadn’t made us watch that video of what they did to Dodie, over and over, hadn’t ambushed that police station, hadn’t taken those two flashlights after hammering those two cops, then all that thinking about how they did it wouldn’t be so in our heads, wouldn’t be so keeping us up all the time, wouldn’t be so driving you mad, putting all of us in danger. We took care of Dodie when we cleaned her, when we performed her tahara, just like you taught us. But it was you that night who said take the bottle out. You who broke the laws of the ritual.”
Elzira kept her eyes down.
“We’re supposed to keep even IVs in the flesh,” Janelle continued, “trach tubes inserted, catheters intact. Everything goes into the ground with the body; you taught us that; everything to honor the body. But it was that boy’s bottle that drove you mad. And if we get caught the same will happen to us, and worse. We got her in the ground, our ground. Where no boys can ever find her again. We took care of her despite the new laws. She’s safe. We gotta get safe now too. You’re upset about it was a whiskey bottle. That’s what’s making you want to do this thing tonight. A bottle offended you. Killing a boy won’t bring her back or change what they did to her.”
Elzira, at six feet, three inches tall, stepped up to Janelle’s face, staring down into it, Janelle staring up, neither moving, eyes unblinking. Maggs put her large, many-ringed hand on Elzira’s back—“Easy, Z.; go easy.” At her touch, Elzira pivoted between Maggs and Janelle, and over to the cinderblock shrine, slipping the hammer nimbly through the string of bulbs and turning to face Janelle.
“Don’t talk to me about offence,” Elzira said, raising the hammer. “I would claw the sun out of the sky if it offended me or any one of you. Imagine what I’m gonna do to this boy. And sorry that I don’t care a fuck if he is not the boy with the bottle. Any boy will do now. Any boy can take that bottle back. Just the way they gave it to Dodie. She can’t do it so we do it. ’Sides, we’re not killing boys, per se; we’re sending messages to all them other boys who now can get away with what they did to Dodie—and to any other girls. You saw the video: they came running out of Gunner’s into the parking lot, holding their phones, filming it, one of them holding that fucking bottle.” Elzira nodded to the shrine. “Anyway,” she said, putting the hammer back down next to the bottle, “by the time we’re done with him, what’s left won’t be a boy no more. Won’t be no sex. Just be sacred ground into which we gonna plant this here bottle.” Silence. Darkness continued. Miriam lit a cigarette. Maggs cleared her throat. Janelle shook her head. “I’m sorry, Z.” she said. “I’m in.”
Finding a boy that evening wasn’t the problem: out back of Gunner’s the parking lot was full of pick-up trucks and off-road vehicles and those cargo vans they’d been seeing everywhere, it seemed since Dodie. And in the night-quiet of Cass County, Missouri, above the sound of soft wind and engine ticking and muffled-thump of speakers inside the bar, a hard stream of urine upset the gravel over near the dumpster. Getting the boy back wasn’t the problem: Elzira’s hammer took a lot of the fight out of him. Even the new For-Women-Only Curfew wasn’t the problem: Elzira and Miriam and Maggs were each over six feet tall, stomping them Cass County backroads in their dark Carhartts and black Dickies and greasy work boots and shaved heads, looking more boy than some of them boys ever could. No, the only problem that night was restraint. The anger made their hands shake, their mouths dry; no stopping it. Something was coming on that night. Something long restrained.
Back in the attic, the boy was awake now, naked and bound to a board laid across two saw-horses, strapped by extension cords and clamped with jumper cables they’d stolen from downstairs. Because of the tilt of the board, a dark rivulet of excrement ran under his left thigh and dripped to the floor in a puddle as thick as oatmeal. Elzira wiped the hammer on her pants, the stains on her hands not coming off, and told Miriam and Maggs to spread his jumpy legs and to hold them still while she fetched the bottle. In the dark corner of the attic, atop the cinderblock shrine, the strings of lights lay in an empty snarl, the two flashlights beneath still casting weird shadows on the rafters above. Elzira grabbed the strings into her hands, tossing them down next to her booted foot. She raised that foot and kicked the cinderblocks over, bellowing. The bottle was gone. And so was Janelle.