When Vaughn woke up, it was still dark out. It took a while, but years of late nights and early mornings made the difference between days moot. He liked it better that way.
Vaughn preferred to lay supine and kept a hunting rifle behind his nightstand, just in case today turned out to be that day, the day when a trespasser, or just any old transgressor to be more general, would force him to send a few hot ones in their direction. Not that he hadn’t shot at folks before. In fact, one could say he had a reputation. Your common burglar didn’t inspire fear in old Vaughn. He did, however, have an irrational angst towards remittance; he found it hard to keep track of debts, as well as discerning rightful collectors from transient scammers who just wanted a piece of him. The tax man, the census man, boy scout troupes or whoever else knocked at the door throughout the day without prior epistolary warning was granted a chance to peer down the barrel of Vaughn’s rusted repeater.
Strangers showed up to the house a lot more in recent months than they used to. The new highways and highway bypasses seemed to invite people to places they didn’t belong.
He could handle day travelers and their mostly innocent inquiries. But night time, by whatever definition he gave it, was a time of uncertainty wherein the house’s floorboards and walls flexed and shifted ever so slightly, and uncanny noises sang out from untraceable whereabouts, and the oversaturated darkness of rustic domesticity just seemed to emanate from, bleed into and reflect off of everything, even himself. Vaughn knew nighttime, if ever there was a time, was when someone would come and try to snatch what was left of the homestead from beneath his old, supine back.
Vaughn shook his bones out of bed and felt around in the dark for his coveralls. His routine, which he took up daily (save for Sundays; piety was more congenital back then), consisted of cooking eggs and grits for himself and his two sons, reading (what he could) of The News & Observer, tending the seasonal harvest, tending the poultry, lifting a heavy object and placing said heavy object elsewhere, delegating and micromanaging his sons in regards to the lifting and placement of heavy objects, and so forth. Not much had changed in his forty-some-odd years as paterfamilias, besides the breadth of his land ownership and an uptick in the amount of delegating. A farmer’s life, so to speak. He didn’t like the label, but a man was his trade.
A draft knifed through the wood-paneled walls and made the house moan. The home’s foundation had grown arthritic on account of a few floods and some poor contract work. Outside, cicadas and crickets droned without pause. Vaughn mostly tuned the bugs out. “Nature’s radio static” is what he called it when he felt poetic. Then again, the man didn’t know much about poetry, seeing as how he wasn’t reliably literate. He knew how to annoy his wife with that stuff though. She died of skin cancer well over a decade ago, but when he was feeling comedic he’d say, to no one in particular, that it was his poems that killed her.
“One day Paula rolled her eyes so damn hard that it musta concussed her. Had me thinkin she kicked the bucket just so she wouldn’t have to hear me talk anymore,” he said during her eulogy, and bookended it with “Just kidding.” It made everyone squirm.
Vaughn went and stood over his eldest son’s bed.
“Isaac,” said Vaughn. The boy stirred.
“Mornin,” said Isaac.
“Mornin.” He woke his other son in the same fashion.
They ate eggs and grits, then got to work.
Daylight had hardly slipped over the crest of the giant hill behind Vaughn’s land, the marker of where the family dominion ended. Silhouettes of twin silos sat just before the hill’s incline; he’d named them after his two sons, Isaac and Oliver. They’d been empty for a few years. The silos, that is.
The morning sky was pure. Vaughn could still see the moon. The sky’s gradient worked its way through deep denim blues to violet to mulberry to fuchsia to blood orange to peach, right up to the black of the backlit horizon. Vaughn enjoyed the twilight. When he was feeling poetic he’d say it looked like a “divine oil slick.” Or maybe, less doe-eyed, “a bruise.”
“Isaac,” said Vaughn.
“Take Oliver and go see if you can find some more of our muck rakes out in that delta. Knew I shoulda hung em up last time, but you get lazy when you get old.”
“We didn’t find none last time. I don’t think there’s any more to be had.”
“All I said was ‘go see.’”
Isaac went and got Oliver, and they went off towards the delta. Vaughn carried on lifting his heavy objects and putting them back down elsewhere. About three heavy objects had been transported before his back started aching. The sun was beginning to show itself over the hillcrest, and the temperature had risen from temperate to the signature muggy-warm that North Carolina summers were famous for. His undershirt clung to his chest more with each passed minute. The crickets and cicadas grew louder. He yanked at his earlobes for a spell then took a seat on an old crate. He looked back up to the divine oil slick above the hill, using his hand as a visor, and looked into the aura of the sun. He noticed several small black dots on the horizon: three of them. And they were moving.
Vaughn stood up with purpose. The ringing in his ears went away, but his back pain hung around. He hastily moved the rest of his heavy objects back into his shed, and then locked it. He went back into the house, grabbed his repeater from behind the nightstand, hopped in his truck and hightailed it up the hill, straight towards the moving black dots.
Vaughn’s great-great-granddaddy was a slaver who owned 7000 acres of cropland down by Jacksonville, North Carolina. The slaver, who was also named Vaughn and passed his name down for four generations where the name unceremoniously reached its terminus, sold the majority of his land once it lost much of its profitability in the wake of abolition. Each successive Vaughn was the designated land heir by way of namesake, and each successive Vaughn sold off more of the family estate (mostly to state bureaucrats) to keep their respective necks above water. Vaughn the fifth came into an inheritance of his father’s modest home in Northampton County, a couple thousand dollars worth of liquidity, and thousands of dollars more in debt. He himself would sell off 75% of his reduced share of the family heirloom in his lifetime.
“The hell you doin on my land? The hell is that thing?” Vaughn gestured with his repeater towards a tripod, which one of the men was operating.
“It’s uh…” stammered the tripod operator. His voice was overrun racked with a panicked vibrato. “…Just please put the gun down. We’re just taking a measurement.”
“Of what? For what, goddammit? Hm?” He shuffled his aim through the other two men in his company. Surely they’d find the answers down the barrel of his gun. “Who you in cahoots with? The census man?”
The second man, who was wearing a suit, stepped forward with his hands raised. “We’re with the General Land Office. We merely came to chart this unincorporated stretch of land as part of the state’s record keeping.”
“All y’all with the Land Office?”
The third (and rather portly) man, also suited, opened his mouth to speak before being cut off by the second man. “Yes, we’re all with the General Land Office.”
“Is you IN CAHOOTS WITH THE CENSUS MAN?”
“No sir we are not. We are not in cahoots with the census man,” said the suit.
“The last time one of y’all–” he paused to spit, “last time one of y’all government cronies came out here, it was to build that dam. The one that ain’t even work and left me and mine up to our ankles for almost a month.”
“The Department of Water deals with dams, not us. We’ve never been here,” said the portly one.
“Well what in the Sam Hill is that dingus your man is pointing at my estate?”
“No sir. It’s a device that measures distance. Like a T-square but for use in the field,” said the suit.
“More like a compass combined with a level,” said the first man.
“More of a level with a protractor,” said the third man.
“I want y’all to leave,” said Vaughn.
“Sir, we won’t interfere with–“ said the suit.
Vaughn cocked his weapon.
The three men backed away slowly. The first man reached for the tripod, but was dissuaded by Vaughn.
They backpedaled all the way to their four door Packard and piled in. They reversed all the way back to the other side of the hill. Vaughn held his aim until they were out of sight. When they were gone, he sized up the tripod and chucked it into the bed of his truck.
When he got back down the hill, he smashed what looked like the important part of the tripod onto an anvil, tossed the three-legged corpse into his shed, and locked the door.
“We found four of em, daddy,” shouted Oliver from four hundred feet away.
“Good. Put em in the shed.” Vaughn had been sitting on an empty crate for the past hour. His hindparts were turning numb so he figured he’d stand up for a bit. Soon as he did, a sharp ringing pinged in his ear and he felt lightheaded. He doubled over for a second, went in the house for some water and figured to call it a day.
“You and your brother take care of the rest of the chores. And y’all fixin your own dinner tonight.” Vaughn’s afternoon nap stretched into the early morning hours.
He slept soundly, on his back as he always had. The morning was dark. The crickets and cicadas were loud. Wind whipped and the walls creaked. And the floorboards creaked this time too.
“Daddy,” a sibilant voice called out. It woke Vaughn out of his sleep. He couldn’t tell if it was his synapses misfiring or the wind trying to make him feel guilty for not cooking his sons’ dinner. He kept his eyes closed.
“Daddy!” it called out again. He sat up this time. Oliver, who he made out only by the smallish stature of his shadow, was standing in the doorway.
“What?” asked Vaughn.
Oliver stepped to the side and a giant shadow, which had consumed almost the entire doorframe, stepped into the room. The shadow’s footstep was full of bass and reverberated throughout the four walls. Vaughn instinctively reached for his rifle.
“Don’t move,” boomed the shadow. Vaughn froze and was blinded by a flashlight beam to the face. “I’m Deputy Phillip Earley from the Northampton County Sheriff’s Department. I’m here serving a warrant stemming from a complaint directly from state employees.”
Vaughn was silent.
“The warrant is for you. Just so we’re clear.”
Vaughn stayed silent.
“Mr. Shaw, if you could get dressed and come with me to your living room,” said the Deputy.
Oliver and Deputy Earley watched him step gingerly into his coveralls and walk past them into the living room. He could see that Deputy Early and was dressed head to toe in all black. Only a sliver of the Deputy’s face peeked out from under his hat’s brim.
The portly man from the surveying crew was seated on the couch next to Isaac. Two other gargantuan men, presumably deputies, stood by the front door like scarecrows. Their revolvers were drawn, but lowered by their sides.
Vaughn took a seat in a rocking chair, facing the couch. Deputy Earley stood behind him and removed a leather bound notepad from his breast pocket. He placed the sole of his oversized boot on a nearby divan and read robotically from his log.
“Mr. Shaw, we received a complaint from the General Land Office that you obstructed their state appointed duties today sir, is that correct?” Vaughn didn’t answer. Early continued, “We also learned that you threatened them with the deadly force of your rifle, presumably the one you reached for when I entered your domicile. Is that also correct?” Vaughn stayed silent. “On top of the misdemeanor of obstruction and three felony counts of assault on state employees, we also have complaint of a felony robbery of state property. You robbed the gentlemen from the General Land Office of their land surveying apparatus. Is that also correct, Mr. Shaw? That brings our minimum count of potential charges to one count of misdemeanor obstruction, one count of felony robbery, three counts of felony assault with a firearm. Are my figures, in any way, in conflict with what transpired yesterday afternoon Mr. Shaw?”
“That’s… I think we’re good,” said the portly man. He waved off Deputy Early, who put his notebook back in his pocket. “Mr. Shaw, I’m Devin Werth with Census Bureau–“
“You snake,” said Vaughn. He sounded like he was ready to gnaw the man’s bone gristle off.
“I know, but I’m here as both a witness and a buffer.” He started talking with his hands. “I don’t– well, I did want to see you to go to jail. But I had the pleasure of meeting these two well-adjusted sons of yours. They’re swell boys.” Werth tapped Isaac on the knee.
“What you mean ‘a buffer?’ You gon polish my forks, tubby?”
“I’m here to keep you from going to jail, Mr. Shaw. Now, I work closely with the Land Office from time to time to find low occupancy lands that are of interest to the federal government. Your land sits on a tract that the government has taken a liking to.”
“So you want my land.”
“Excatly. And we’ll drop all charges in return for your donation.” Werth smiled.
“Mr. Shaw, we’ve sent you letters for going on three years regarding your swell piece of land– isn’t it swell boys?”
The deputies nodded in slow silence. Vaughn heard their scarves rub against their wool coats.
“Fine piece of land you’ve got here, Mr. Shaw,” said Deputy Earley.
“It’s just so well manicured. You got the nicest collard farm in all of northeast Northampton County. I wanna–“ Werth stopped to cover Isaac’s ears, “I just wanna take a broad down there and smooch her til the sun comes up.”
“Boy howdy,” said Oliver from a nondescript corner. He’d disappeared into the shadows, and Werth apparently forgot about maintaining that boy’s modesty as well. Guess he had to learn sometime. Vaughn felt his skin tighten.
“My point is, we don’t want to take that from you. But we will. Eh, we might. North Carolina needs expressways, Mr. Shaw. Like I’ve said, we’ve sent you a number of letters. Just uh, mull it over, ya know? Sleep on it.”
“I was already sleep,” said Vaughn.
“Right. Well we’ll let you get back to that. And really, I’m sorry for all this.”
“The answer is no. It’s been no.”
Werth gave a genteel smile and tipped his hat to the boys. Earley and the other deputies tipped their caps, and the visitors showed themselves out. Vaughn sat with his boys in the dark for a moment. Isaac had his head down.
“They do anything to y’all?” asked Vaughn.
The boys both answered no, so that was that, and Vaughn sent them back to bed.
They woke up the same time they always did. Paterfamilias scrambled the eggs and boiled the grits. The boys lifted the heavy objects assigned to them. Vaughn took a long look the big, grassy hill in the far reaches of his backyard and counted the number of colors in the sky. He sent his boys out to the delta to recover their tools that were washed away in the flood.
“Find me some more muck rakes,” he said.
Isaac and Oliver trekked through the muddy plain in thigh-high leather boots. Isaac carried a hayfork over his shoulder for protection. Oliver carried a pair of flyswatters: one rigid and heavy, which he used to kill horseflies, and the other long and flimsy, which he used to kill dragonflies for sport.
“Hey remember that tree?” Isaac asked, pointing at a nondescript Carolina pine.
“No.” He was a very serious nine year-old.
“That’s where they hung that negro some years back. You don’t remember seeing that?”
“Oh yeah. I remember now. Guess the branch broke off.”
“They hung a lot of negroes out here, a bunch just on that tree alone too.”
“Gives me goosebumps.”
“I know right? Scary.” Isaac lowered his voice. “Don’t suppose these wetlands is haunted, do ya?”
“No. I don’t believe in ghosts or haints or none of that.”
“No?” Isaac sounded disappointed.
“No. It’s all phony.”
“What about the Holy Ghost?”
Oliver stopped dead in his tracks. “You just question my faith?”
“Yeah. What’s it to ya?” Isaac found a pushable button. Oliver shrugged it off.
“Just makin sure. In Sunday School, they said it’s not really faith if it goes uncontested.”
Foiled again. His little brother had gone full blown philosopher on him. He missed the days when he could tell him Oliver he was born to a wolf family and they’d be back on his tenth birthday to take him back to the woods. It’s like the floods had washed away more than their farming tools. In the midst of all the cornmeal and flour and other living material they’d lost, the boys found out the hard way that their youthful exuberance was just as soluble.
“Hey I think I found one,” said Oliver. He squinted into the opaque water.
“Be careful. There’s snakes out here.”
Oliver dipped his head underwater and reemerged with a scythe. Unfortunately for him, he’d picked it up by the blade.
“Dammit!” he shrieked. He’d only made a superficial cut in his palm.
“You jughead, I said be careful.”
Just then, a crisp, deafening blast rang out from back towards the Shaw estate. Plumes of scaly black smoke slithered up into the sky. The air smelled like burnt manure and melting rubber.
Oliver dropped the scythe and the brothers took off towards their house. The younger brother had yet to hit his growth spurt, so it was tougher for him to pull his stubby legs out of the muck. Every so often his foot would sink into a stubborn pit and he’d faceplant into the standing water. The water got into his eyes and burned. He accidentally swallowed some, and came back up from beneath the surface with duckweed hanging around his neck.
“Come on!” said Isaac. He was about fifteen feet ahead. A mile later they were out of the marshland and back on dry ground. They carried on for another half mile until the farm was in sight. Isaac chucked his pitchfork to the ground and dropped to his knees.
The sky was solid graphite. Ash fell on the crop fields and in the barnyard. Dozens of pig and chicken corpses were scattered around the yard. The others were bleeding out or sprinting over the distant hill. From behind the house, about 1000 feet away, the boys saw two black town cars speed over the crest of the hill, dodging livestock that were taking the same route. Seconds later, their father’s pickup pulled out behind them. It followed the black cars over the top and disappeared behind the horizon. The twin silos were ablaze and pumping into the air. One by one they caved, accompanied by an infernal chorus of tuba-like timbre. Isaac sat while Oliver stood, both letting the ash collect in their bright brown hair.