Harmon rang up Bluebird at noon.
He tried a third time and finally she answered through text, writing only: “Can’t talk rn. Busy.”
Harmon cursed under his breath and slammed the small, black plastic flip-phone shut and slid it into the pocket of his jeans and straightened and looked off towards the old coal breaker, palled by shimmering sheets of rain. They had planned to go out today given that the forecast had ruled out the possibility of work. He wondered what had occasioned such a reversal?
“Am I so unimportant that you can’t even spare a single fucking minute to speak to me? To explain precisely why we can’t meet? You could just explain it vaguely and that’d suffice,” Harmon thought dejectedly as he sat down upon the peeling white, steel chair that sat lonesomely, like as he, in the backyard of his house, legs overtaken by ground ivy.
Harmon loathed self-pity and resentment, such qualities were those which he’d always perceived in his inferiors. He rose and paced and went back inside the house and looked to the illustration on the leatherbound notebook open on the plain, living room table. He studied his drawing of his girl and her smile seemed to mock him. Wordlessly, he threw on a worn, gray sweater, work shoes and sunglasses and headed out the front door.
The sun hovered over the ruins of the age’d industrial facility like a great bloated vampire, leeching the chthonic dark like as the creature from his dream. He didn’t know where he was headed, only that he wanted to walk. Needed to. He felt caged and wreakful and wore fearful of what he might do should he remain locked within the house. A group of young hispanics sitting upon the porch of a ruined tenement jeered, whereupon he slowed and then paused and held their gaze until they fell silent and squirmed with discomfort and the beginnings of fear whereupon he continued on his way. Fists balled at his sides and his breath coming in sharp, rapid inhalations.
After two hours of walking to the right from his house, he found himself standing before the coal breaker that lay like a dead colossus at the northeastern edge of town. Sun was strangled in the sky by a shroud of roiling clouds like hateful khefts and crows dived and perched from the wracked exterior of the abandoned processing plant like living daggers hungering for blood.
Harmon hated the place. To his mind, it was unconscionable to let such a majestic construct be overtaken by the greedy, swarming multitudes of nature. Every twisting, rangy vine, every rain-washed and mosquito-thick rut, every unpainted wall and door and broken window filled with bird feather and pollen-dust was a vile heresy.
Crunch of gravel. Footsteps.
He turned away from the frontal facade of the old coal breaker, to the left, where, just beyond the mangled, gravel drive, stood a woman with wild hair and light skin; she wore a multi-colored sweater, torn at the right shoulder and mud-stained tennis shoes held together by ducktape.
“Yall ain’t police is ya?”
“No, ma’am. Why do you ask?”
“They keep on harassing us.”
“Who is ‘us’?”
She thumbed the air, pointing with her digit over her shoulder towards a ratty lean-to surrounding by old tires and rusted cars.
“Us. You know that its illegal to be homeless here?”
“You ain’t homeless though. Got a tent.”
“They don’t recognize the tent as a home.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Yeah. Mind if I ask what you’re doing out here?”
The woman stood uncertainly, swaying on her heels, eyes vacant, body lax. When she did not respond and slowly sat down on the ground, playing with a fraying thread upon the knee of her jeans he spoke up without moving.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m Harmon. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Yeah. Yall seen the Bone Man?”
“The Bone Man. He comes round every so often.”
“Caint say as I have.”
“He’s got a little bag of skulls. Bird bones. That’s why we call um Bone Man. Don’t know what he does with um or where he gets um from but he always carries um.”
“Sounds like an odd fella.”
“Yeah. He is. He scares me.”
“Cuz I think that one day… one day I might end up in that bag of his.”
“Why you think that?”
“Don’t know, just do.”
He wondered if there were truth to the woman’s story or if it were just the product of a drug-addled mind. Momentarily, a pudgy, balding man with a trucker’s cap approached, scratching his beard.
“Heard ya talking. This a friend of yours?”
Luna shook her head.
“Nah. Just met him.”
Harmon tilted up his head and nodded in the man’s direction. The man nodded back and then returned his attention to the woman on the ground.
“I need your help with something.”
The man with the trucker cap looked suspiciously to Harmon and then knelt and whispered something in woman’s ear whereupon she nodded and slowly unfurled herself from the gravel. The pair then left off, returning to the lean-to and from their they headed off for a small camper in the far-flung distance. She was a mule, Harmon was certain of it. Probably a tester as well. For a moment he considered following them but hesitated. Hands working at his sides and his heels digging into the grit with a muted, flinty hiss.
He took a step forward. Then three more. At the fourth a new voice intruded upon him, it rough and jovial and foreign.
“It ain’t wise to follow people that are more dangerous than you.”
Harmon spun and discovered a tall, thin man watching him from atop a beaten and rust bitten pickup. The man wore a ball cap low and metal rimmed sunglasses and a dull flannel shirt, rolled up at the sleeves.
“How long you been there?”
“That ain’t no answer.”
“It is. Just not the one ya wanted.”
“You said those people were dangerous.”
“All people are dangerous.”
“You being purposely opaque?”
“I’m clear as crystal.”
“Crystal ain’t always clear.”
“I didn’t say it was, said I was clear as.”
Harmon paused and nearly chuckled but caught himself at the last. He found the strange interloper as amusing as bizarre.
“Harmon. I heard. I’m Ryter. Jonathan Ryter.”
“Is that girl ok?”
“Like as not the answers no.”
“You don’t seem much perturbed.”
“Lot of not ok people in the world.”
“Yeah. You live here?”
“You don’t sound like you’re from around here.”
“Not. You were going to go after them.”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Certainly seemed like you were.”
“Well, they ain’t exactly normal.”
“Neither are you.”
“I think I’m pretty normal.”
“Normal man woulda walked away. Called the police.”
“You think they’re cooking something?”
“I dunno. Are they?”
“Couldn’t say. What would you do if they were?”
“Nothing, I guess.”
The man muttered something to himself and then swung himself over the side of the back of the truck and eased down onto the gravel and left off towards the front of the coal breaker and looked off towards the south where an ominous stormwall built in the sky.
“Going to rain.”
Harmon followed his gazed.
“Looks like it. I’d best be heading back then.”
“If you’re planning on walking you’ll get caught out in it.”
Ryter gestured to the coal breaker.
“You’re welcome to come inside til the storm passes.”
“Mighty kind of you.”
The man nodded, more to himself than to Harmon and walked into the overgrown breaker. Drawn to the man’s easy cadence and confident gait Harmon found himself following. Down the slight decline of the gravel drive and past the old power plant to the duo’s immediate left that overshadowed the tents of the junkies scattered all about the drive and outer yard where stirred dozens of glassy-eyed cast offs who sat upon over turned buckets and cinder blocks, ringing round tiny fires and jabbering of the unfortunate wending of days. Some of the itinerants looked to the duo moving towards the old facility and spake one to the other in hushed tones of grave concern and fear moved them back to silence when the sunglassed man looked in their direction.
When they passed within the decayed structure a flock of crows fluttered off from the ground and fluttered around the rafters as thunder echoed in the distance. They walked between rows of old seats where breaker boys and sorted coal by hand, beyond which was a heavy tarp upon which was a circle of bones, meticulously arranged and all of animals, lizards and possums and cats and dogs and birds and other things which Harmon could not place within the animal kingdom. It was then that Harmon recognized the man for who he was; the bone man of whom the female mule had spoken. He felt uneasy, increasingly so as the man stepped into the circle of ivory remnants and removed therefrom a old and battered tome without title save a strange sigil which Harmon could make neither heads nor tails of.
“What are all those bones from?”
“Animals I have found during my travels.”
The sunglassed man did not look to the bones and seemed not at all perturbed by them and instead flipped open the book and scribbled a couple lines down with a curious pen that looked to have been cast of bone itself. Without forewarning, a woman’s voice sounded from somewhere nearby as rain began to pelt the boarded and broken windows.
“I didn’t know we were having company.”
“Neither did I,” Ryter replied with a broad smile. Harmon turned and beheld a young woman hunched upon one of the old sorting tables; he had missed her upon entering. Her hair was short and cropped at the sides and the left side of her face was covered over with hideous scars that ran the length of her neck and vanished beneath a pale, green parka.
“Don’t be rude. Introduce yourself.”
The woman sighed like a petulant child and then rose and stepped forth from the darkened corner of the room and moved to stand before Harmon.
She held out a wool-gloved hand from the ends of which more scars fled up her arm like the aftertracks of some massive species of worm. He took her hand and shook it, “Harmon. Nice to meet you folk. I had seen long ago that some people had set up tents around the breaker but I had never given any thought to people living in it – had always heard it was dangerous.”
“Upper floors are. Wouldn’t recommend you go up there alone.” The woman stated flatly. Harmon got the distinct impression she didn’t care for company.
“I’ll keep that in mind. So, what brought you two here?”
“Just needed in from the rain. Going to have some tea, you want some?”
The woman turned round and moved to a small portable electric heater which had been set up on the right-middle-most anthracite sorting table. The table was iron and was the thus imperious to the heat and on top of the heater sat a small metal thermos and beside it lay two tin cups and into the cups she poured an aromatic brew.
“Must be nice.”
Harmon gestured out to the criss-crossing iron bars of the rafters, “Living here. No taxes.”
The woman nodded.
“Yeah. Sometimes the police come round to chase out those who’d set up tents in the yard; that’s why we don’t keep much on this floor, someone walking by the windows might see us and then its up on trespassing charges. Course, that’s unlikely to happen, police round here are sparse and don’t make much of an effort. Its a long drive from the station all the way down here and a long walk from the power station to the breaker to the conveyor and dumphouse.”
Far behind them Ryter had finished writing in his book and set it upon one of the processing tables and then returned to the circle of bones and began rolling them up into the tarp on which they sat and then deposited them into a old, wooden chest in the far left corner of the room. Then the man ambled back with a tin cup which Freya dutifully poured for him. The trio drank in placid silence and shortly thereafter the rain subsided and Harmon thanked the itinerant duo for their hospitality and said he must be getting back before dark and then left off for home.