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A Stranger's Worth

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Water drips slow from every hanging leaf and eave, a clean trickle that seems to slide to infinity before each drop falls, shivering under the weight of each hammer blow. Bang, bang. Bang. Drip. The buildings are going up all around as the flood waters recede. Shannon’s not the only one wielding a hammer here; Ezra is solemnly counting out nails for Johnny as he wallops away.  There are saws humming too, and industrious sanding, those staying and those going taking a moment in harmony to build a place where there can be no strangers, at least in these drying days after the flood.

The sun is warm where it caresses the earth, but they are in deep shadow and the cold strikes like a slap here. Blue is a spot of warmth on his leg where she leans against it; it’s the only thing he can feel in that leg and he lets it in, lets it spread through his body like the warmth of bourbon during a long drive. These are hard times, and the rotgut may be slowly oozing his soul away but the job takes that pain away for him, cent by cent and bone by bone. Blue never cares. If the feel of his leg bothers her, she never shies away. Maybe she understands hard times too deep in her own old bones to even feel that sharp buzz, or to care how they eat away at a human being until there’s nothing left but the honey-light of gleaming bone and aged whiskey.

In the sunlight, Shannon looks up, some sound out-of-place catching her ear perhaps, and shoots a smile at Weaver, striding across the wet ground like she owns the place. Maybe she does, if such a thing is possible. People living here through the ages give her the birthright for it. She sees, that one. She can see him now, he’s almost sure, if anyone can, but there are no strangers here. Maybe that includes him as well. He can feel himself fading in the face of her flensing gaze; it’s not unkind, but her stare would cut him to the bone were there any flesh left to be taken. The shadows of strangers come and gone echo in that gaze, back through the trails, back through the tears no one cared were shed.

She says something to Shannon and turns away. He’s close enough he should hear her but her voice is static, just as it was when they first met. Shannon laughs, shaking her head. She can hear her cousin, at least. There’s a connection there deeper than any one night could ever give, however long the night, however long the drive. The Márquezes left their mark on him too, but he’s faded from their lives. Seemed right, at the time. It seemed kinder.

Blue whines, just a little, and he looks down, remembering why he’s here. She doesn’t belong where he is. She’s an old girl and if anything is still dear to the eroding heart that beats in his chest, it’s the memory of what she means to him. He loves her with all the fierceness he can’t give the others he’s lost and which no debt could strip from him. She needs to be here, in the sun, with people who will give her the things he doesn’t have. She’s a dog; she never knew a stranger yet, and he knows she should stay. He gives her a gentle nudge, then puts his hands in his pockets. As he has with everyone and everything he’s ever loved, he lets her go.

She ambles toward Shannon, who looks up and drops the hammer, throwing her arms around the old hound in a hug. She’s already crying but he’s fading, leaving the world for one where only strangers walk. The mash calls him, the sour whisper of the oak barrels drawing him deep under the peat and loam of the rich Kentucky soil. There’s no coming back from this, he knows. He’ll be swallowed by the whiskey, neat. A tidy end.

A hand catches his, pulling it out of his pocket and away from the cold gleam of the bottle there. It is warm as the fading spot on his leg where Blue left, warm as the sunlight’s caress. He knows it must hurt—he’s no more flesh now than the Consolidated Power Company’s live wires still left hanging in another place—but he looks back with his hollow eyes and hollowed heart.

>Don’t go, the patterns of static say, written in the sky, the ruts, the leaves rustling.

>Don’t go.

The Zero is comprised of strangers meeting and parting, connections in great swathes of circular momentum like windshield wipers in the rain. His life has been all partings, over and over. If she couldn’t accept it, he always knew. They met, parted, circle unbroken and nothing left between them. Yet Shannon’s holding something toward him, telling him above the rising buzz of static that there are no strangers here.

>Yes. He wants to stay.

>That’s why I’m going. He wants to say.

He looks down at the thing she holds. An I0U.  His head swivels up and now they’re all looking at him. Junebug nods, she and Johnny holding Ezra’s hands with Julian’s shadow flickering overhead.  No strangers here, him included, if he lets them pay his price. Stranger came once and though they stayed, they never stopped being strange until it killed them. Yet if he goes, the same fate awaits. Have the floods truly washed away these old enmities?

He’s a stranger to himself but that’s nothing new. The liquor took away his soul long before that night, set his worth to zero. What could they buy with this I0U? He has nothing to give, and nothing to offer to this place. He’s not worth Lysette’s song. Never was. The Zero is a place for the comforts of nothing, but her grasp is steady, unflinching, and there’s something there that’s worth far more than mere comfort. What is his price? What is a stranger worth?