The Bones of Texas City (Short Story)
by Regan Wolfrom
I don’t have a problem with what I do. I don’t make the laws for the State of Bayou and I certainly don’t force people to break them. If you steal or hoard or badmouth the government, you’ll get your summons and you’d better come in, and you damn well better bring your family in with you. The sentence you’ll get may seem harsh, but it’ll be way worse if you don’t come in.
If you don’t come in they pass your name on to someone like me. It’s my job to make sure people like you no longer exist.
You can see from the Gulf Freeway why they should have left Texas City to die. The empty interstate only reaches down to the northwest tip of the city now, to what they still call Exit 16.
You get off there because there’s nowhere else to go, driving by a mall that never had better days, and more dead buildings after that, old gas stations from when we still had gas and big box grocery stores, where the food was left to rot for so long that there was nothing left to scavenge once people finally realized they ought to. I think it looks exactly like what will happen when the rest of us are gone, our old world picked clean until there’s nothing left but the bones.
Before the comet came and scared the planet shitless, Texas City was the proud and poisoned heart of that great chemical wasteland that ran from the sea walls of Galveston up to the sludge in the Houston Ship Canal. Texas City was a place with dirty blue-collar jobs, plenty of churches and even more liquor stores, the kind of place you’d end up if you didn’t have anywhere else to go.
My mother grew up in Texas City, a pretty Latina girl living in a worn but well-kept house on 3rd Street North, going to school, helping out at home, and dreaming of marrying a man who wouldn’t hit her.
She met my father at the poor man’s Mardi Gras out on the island, a clean-cut Welsh-Irish boy from Pennsylvania who didn’t speak a word of Spanish. She ran away with him three days later. She never went back to Texas City, never returned to the world she’d known all her life; I don’t think there was ever a time when she missed what she’d left back here.
The only connection she’d kept to that world was her dead brother’s name, the one she passed on to me.
On good days you can make it all the way into town without putting on a mask. Most days aren’t good days, though, and there were already enough fumes leaking into the car that I had to pull over on the Lowry to hook the filter onto my visor; the little trickle of rain was probably just making things worse, scrubbing the atmosphere for poison and dropping it all down on me. After almost a decade of brownouts and blackouts and almost no maintenance, there are still clouds of noxious chemicals erupting from the pipes and tanks along the industrial canal, as seals and joints finally corrode and break down, surprising the residents with yet another reason to wish they had a way to leave.
I should be happy my mother made it out almost forty years ago.
The Vagrancy Report had come in from outside one of the boarded-up tenements on Third Street, a few blocks east and across the old railbed from where my mother came from. Like most tips about vagrants from places like Texas City, it came as a crumpled scrap of paper left on a windshield, an anonymous note for the state troopers that got passed up the chain to us.
Most vagrants are people who don’t belong here, usually migrants from other states who just aren’t entitled to rations; I feel for those poor bastards, but at the end of the day I ship them to the State Jail in Houston for internment until their governments can come and get them.
But I wasn’t looking for a migrant, not down in Texas City; that’s more a place you’d run away from. We have no known fugitives south of the Sam Houston, so there’s a pretty good chance the girl I’m looking for shouldn’t even exist.
I walked around the low-roofed tenements, seeing spots where the boarded up doors had been opened; there are so many empty houses in Texas City that I would have never expected squatters in those crumbling and rat-infested one-story tenements. But the scarcity has changed different places in different ways; down by the muddy waters of Galveston Bay people had started to stick together, gathering together for warmth in the middle while the outlying fingers of the city had withered and died. They were pooling their rations, living and eating together, not yet at the point where they’d be hungry enough to turn on each other.
I know that’ll start to happen before the end of the year.
Then it’ll start to be more like the town my mother had talked about, a sad and desperate place, like a hot pot of crawdads clawing like crazy to keep every last one of their buddies trapped in the boil.
Sometimes I wonder how much her memories of Texas City were tarred by her father, if the anger and abuse he’d let out had been far worse than any of the crap spewing from the refineries and tire plants.
It’s a wonder she was able to stop that hate from washing over me.
I tried to corner a couple of kids between the sidewalk and the building, but they saw me coming and managed to scurry off long before I got close enough. No one else would talk to me, either.
All I had to go on was the note itself, or rather the copy I had on my tablet: Vegrent girl in church. Three boys keeping her.
I made my way to the nearest church as the sky opened up. By the time I saw the crumbling walls of St. Mary’s the rain was falling heavy and fast, new rivers forming where the broken pavement met the curb. The sun had set and it was getting dark, low-lying clouds covering the new moon, the streetlights long ago forgotten. I switched night vision on to my mask.
I crouched down behind a large, squat palm, my back against a white-brick building that had likely been abandoned even before the world had ended. I pulled out my service pistol and holstered my tablet.
I didn’t have to wait for very long.
A black boy was walking up the sidewalk, almost in a jog, glancing each way as he went. He was young, probably around seventeen, and he was clutching a backpack in one hand. He didn’t look like the kind of kid who carried a gun. I guess he wasn’t too scared of a starving girl.
The church was still standing, which is more than can be said of many churches these days that never got sanction from the new State Government. Its walls were still white for the most part, topped by a light brown roof that had started to fall. The bell tower stood tall and only a little weathered, the bells long removed. The high and narrow stained glass windows had long been shattered, with only the bottom halves boarded up.
The rounded front doors had been removed, replaced by plywood affixed with half-pounded nails, with more than one place to crawl through.
I watched the boy kneel down and push his way through one of the openings.
I waited for a few minutes more before following inside.
The ceiling at the entryway was long opened to the elements above, and the interior walls had begun to crumble from weather and neglect. The floor, maybe marble once, was covered in fallen plaster, congealed into yellow-brown paste, and all of the wood trim that remained was rotten with East Texas Wet.
As I walked I could hear the crumple of leaves and garbage, and I saw the scurry of cockroaches among scattered piles of rodent droppings.
It was hard to imagine anyone living there.
I looked through the open doorway where the vestry began, and in that dark and musty room is where I saw her.
She was about twenty, possibly younger, with long dark hair and tired but pretty skin. She was naked, sitting in the dark on a tattered couch with only a stained white blanket hanging over her as she shivered. As soon as I saw her I knew what she was.
Someone had wanted her and so they helped her escape.
On her bare neck I saw a locket in the shape of a heart; I was surprised to see that she’d been able to hold on to something.
The black boy was sitting beside her, his arm wrapped around her as though he had convinced himself that their transaction was now a relationship. I wonder if he honestly believed that she would fall in love with him soon, as long as he kept bringing her scraps from his table.
Neither of them knew I was there, and I stood silently for a moment, watching them.
I watched the girl lean her head against his shoulder. I didn’t know why.
“Stand up,” I said as I aimed my gun at the boy.
After a few seconds of shock at me being there, both of them rose, the boy placing his hands in the air, the girl clutching at her blanket for cover. She looked terrified; she knew I wasn’t there to rescue her.
I think they both knew right away what I was, though they couldn’t see much of me outside of the gear, the black armor, the gun, and the mask and visor blocking every bit of my face. It’s not that much different than what the troopers wear, or the supply guards for that matter.
The gear is usually enough to keep people from trying to fight back.
“IDs,” I said.
The boy slowly lowered one hand, reaching into his pocket and bringing out his card. He held it out and I scanned it with my visor: Benny Anderson… legitimate second child of two good citizens from New Victory Baptist… tithes and taxes paid in full.
I wondered if he had any idea what kind of shitstorm was coming.
I’d have to write the kid up for contact with an Undocumented Person, and that’s only the start. The Anderson family would soon get visits in the middle of the night, bad guys with guns pushing their way in and taking whatever they wanted, food or water or worse. Once you’ve been cited, even for something relatively minor like aiding an Undoc, it’s open season on your dumb ass. If the Andersons were smart, they wouldn’t report it; reporting it would only make it happen more often.
That’s the gift Benny was giving his family. All for a chance to pork a girl with no name.
She’d have no card to give me. I knew all she had were the blanket wrapped over her front and that locket hanging around her neck.
“What was your name?” I asked.
She didn’t answer, her gaze bent down and to the side.
“There’s no point in keeping it from me. We’ll still have your DNA on file.”
She didn’t look up at me, but slowly she started to speak. “Emilia Sanchez.”
Emilia. I’d always loved that name.
“What crime did you commit?”
“Whatever,” I said. I didn’t have time to waste. “Tell me the reason for removal.”
“My parents were cited for hoarding.”
“Then you’re held responsible too.”
That made her look at me. “I know that,” she said, more irritated than angry, and not nearly as frightened as I’d expected. “They didn’t do anything wrong. They couldn’t pay their tithes… that’s all.”
“I’m not an appeals judge,” I said. “Hoarding can mean a lot of things, but it’s a crime either way.”
Punishable by death for the hoarders and their children.
I remember my mother had told me it wasn’t just, that the government was taking it too far, cutting down the tree and ripping out its roots. I’d told her it was the only way to make sure that no else would do it. I’d known even back then that it wasn’t true.
“Your parents brought you in?” I asked.
“They did. My brother, too.”
“But you got away.”
She nodded slowly.
“Someone helped you.”
“It wasn’t Benny,” she said. “He didn’t do anything.”
“I know it wasn’t him. I’m not that stupid, Mila. But someone slipped you out of internment and forged the records. Someone wanted you in one piece.”
She looked down again. “That person doesn’t want me anymore… that’s why I’m here.”
I looked into the eyes of the boy. “And then you got your chance with her,” I said to him. “I’ll bet your help hasn’t come cheap.”
The boy didn’t say a word. Smart kid.
“So you’ve come for me,” Emilia said.
She dropped the blanket, bringing her arms down by her side.
I could not help but look.
Her body was young and athletic, slim and small-breasted but not emaciated like those I’d found before. And she was clean, cleaner than the other Undocs, even cleaner than the greasy boy who kept her.
If I’d been able to wave away the putrid air and humidity I could have imagined her much differently, like she was one of the girls with the sashes on Patriot Day, who’d march down Walker Street to Jones Plaza for the ceremony and prayer.
She was more than beautiful enough for that.
Fuck… she almost made me believe in God.
“Please don’t take her,” the boy said.
“Benny,” she said quietly, “don’t get involved.”
“She’s right,” I said. “You’ll get your citation… don’t make it worse.”
The boy clenched his chin. “You’ve got no right to take her.”
I dreaded the thought of filling out more paperwork, but I knew my job, and I’d make an old-fashioned arrest if I needed to.
“Tell me, Benny,” I said. “Is she worth it? This girl is undocumented. She’s not supposed to exist anymore.”
His gaze did not waver.
“Look, boy… it doesn’t matter what you did to her. I don’t care. I’m just here to resolve this situation.”
“No one’s gonna touch her,” the boy said. “You hear me? You don’t even look at her.”
“Please, Benny,” the girl said. “I’ll be alright.”
“Enough,” I said. I took out a set of plasticuffs. “Hands on your head, Benny.”
At first the boy complied, but I knew what to expect. As I was hooking the kid’s right hand, he made a grab for the gun.
I made the block without any trouble, forcing the boy down to his knees and slapping on the cuffs. I didn’t hold it against him… everyone gets a little crazy when you come to take their toys away.
I patted the kid down. No weapons, no condoms. Kids these days. But I started to see a story on the boy’s clothes, in the sweat and the dirt and the dried blood.
“What is this?” I asked. “A little rough with your dolly?”
“He didn’t hurt me,” the girl said. “He’s been taking care of me.”
The boy stood silently, his gaze meeting the floor.
I took a look around the room. Rolling racks held three rows of hanging vestments, a couple of folding chairs lay to the right, a pile of garbage beside… all of it covered in the dust that was everywhere… everywhere but for a bare patch that began near the middle of the room, where blood had pooled near the edge of the couch, where something had been dragged out a door to the rear.
“Where are the bodies?” I asked.
He didn’t hesitate for too long.
“The dumpster… out back,” he said. “I told ‘em not to touch her.”
The big hero. He’d be able to rape her while claiming to have protected her from something.
“That was a stupid thing to do,” I said. “You’ve thrown your life away.”
“He saved me,” the girl said.
“Saved you so he’d have something to fuck.”
The girl began to cry. “No… nothing like that.”
“Nothing like that,” the boy said.
So now there were two dead kids. That wasn’t something that would just go away. Benny had more to worry about now than late night shakedowns from the guys I work with. There’d need to be an investigation. I’d be called to testify. He’d then be cited for murder and it’d be his family that’d be told to show up at 9am to Baker Street to have their right to exist revoked.
I looked at the boy. He didn’t look like much.
But he’d done something noble, and I appreciated that, even if he’d done it for a girl who could no longer matter.
“Why did you do it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said.
“Don’t lie to me.”
“I love her.”
I shook my head.
“Please don’t hurt her,” he said. “Maybe you can just take me in… say I killed her, too.”
I looked over to the girl. She had tears in her eyes, but I could tell she didn’t want me to notice. It must be strange to have someone offer their life for yours; I feel awkward when people offer to pay for my lunch.
I took another look at the boy. He was frightened. He didn’t want to die.
That means something to me.
“I’m not taking you in,” I said, removing the handcuffs. “You need to get out of here.”
The boy hesitated, looking to the girl as though he expected her to speak.
She didn’t say a word.
“I won’t leave her,” he said, stepping back from me.
I knew what he was thinking about.
I pointed the gun at him again.
“Benny,” she said, “please…”
“Either you go or I bring you in,” I said. “And you won’t be coming home from this.”
He straightened his spine. “Bring me in… I don’t care. I want to make sure you don’t hurt her.”
“Do you know what I do for a living? I’m not here to arrest her, Benny.”
“Then you’ll have to kill me, too.”
I didn’t know how much Benny knew, if he knew I’d never be allowed to get away with something like that. I couldn’t kill him without a warrant. I’d have to handcuff him again, force him down onto his knees, and then he’d have to watch.
That’s not how I do things.
“Look, Benny,” I said. “This doesn’t have to end like this. I can take care of her.”
“Don’t you touch her.”
“She’ll be okay,” I said. “I’ll handle it.”
“You’ll handle it? What the hell does that mean?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll get her out of here. I can take her to the Rio Grande and get her across.”
I could see he wasn’t buying it.
“My family’s from here,” I said. “My mother grew up on Third Street. My aunt is still here. Hell… my mother went to Mass in this church every week.”
He shook his head. I could see it in his eyes; he was still weighing it, thinking of making his move.
“Benny… I’m one of the good guys. God as my witness.”
He looked over to Emilia.
She nodded her head. “It’s okay, Benny,” she said.
“I’ll go with you,” he said.
“You can’t,” I said. “If you want to find your way down there someday that’s your problem. But I’m not in the business of smuggling people into Mexico.”
“What about her?”
I shook my head. “She doesn’t exist.”
“I don’t trust you,” Benny said.
“You have two choices. I can take Emilia down to The Valley or I can snap her neck right here.”
I heard the girl gasp. I hadn’t wanted to scare her, but the boy needed to understand.
“You’ll take her to Mexico?”
“I’ll get her across. I’ve done it before.”
“Why?” Emilia asked. “Why would you help me? What’s in it for you?”
“It’s the right thing to do,” I said. “It’s what my mother would have wanted.” I turned to Benny. “But you need to go. Now. I need to clean up your mess.”
He looked over to Emilia again.
She gave him a slight smile. “I’ll be okay, Benny,” she said.
The boy nodded. He took a step towards her.
I shook my head.
“I want to say goodbye,” he said. “Please.”
“It’s time for you to go,” I said. “And don’t come back here. If I see you walk through the door or I notice you crouching around a corner outside… then I won’t be helping either of you.”
He nodded and slowly walked out.
I turned to Emilia. She was staring blankly at the empty doorway. She was trying to be stoic, but I could see her tears.
“Maybe he’ll come find you,” I said.
“Maybe,” she said. I don’t think she believed that either.
She wiped her eyes and stepped towards me.
I looked into those eyes, sad and brown, brown and pretty.
She continued to come towards me, and I could feel my body react.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “I already said I’d help you.”
“I know how this works,” she said. “I know what I need to do.”
I didn’t say anything else. I lowered my weapon as she brought her naked body up to me. She was only inches away.
I pulled off my mask, breathing in the tough Texas City plume and almost coughing. And then I chose to do what came naturally.
I placed my hands on her hips, running my fingers down her thighs. I leaned in and kissed her.
She breathed deeply, almost a moan, and placed her hand on my groin. Her touch was confident, her gaze steady; she had done this before, and the thought almost pulled me out of it, thinking of some well-placed hypocrite having his way with her.
But that shouldn’t matter to me. It’s not my job to sniff out traitors. All I needed to worry about were the two dead boys and poor Benny, killing his friends to save some girl he never really had any hope of protecting on his own.
And now it was my turn to have her.
I couldn’t take her like that. That’s not who I am.
I wrapped my arms around her.
“Just let me hold you,” I said.
It was perfect.
We laid together for almost an hour in silence, our bodies entwined on the couch. I held her like I would someone I loved, and she snuggled into my shoulder like I meant something to her.
I knew that I had to be careful, that I couldn’t be sure that Benny wouldn’t come back and try to be a hero again. But I wanted to enjoy her for a little while longer.
“You are beautiful,” I said as I ran my hand through her soft black hair.
“You lived around here?”
“Yes. Both my parents grew up here.”
“My mother was baptised here,” I said.
“You come from a good family.”
She craned her neck upwards and gave me a kiss. “Talk to me,” she said. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Rick… Rick Edwards.” I almost laughed at myself; I’d gotten used to being someone else. “It’s Ricardo Edwards, actually.”
“Ricardo… a family name?”
“My uncle,” I said. I didn’t want to say any more than that.
She gave me another kiss on the lips, and then she started to run her kisses down my neck. She reached my shoulder and kept going, and it felt like she really meant it.
“Are you married?” she asked between pecks.
I shook my head.
“Then this is okay,” she said. She moved down the couch and lowered her head down between my legs.
She must have thought she needed to prove her worth. She must have believed I wasn’t really going to help her.
“You don’t need to do that,” I said.
I gently took her by her arms and pulled her up to me. I kissed her again, and then I squeezed her close to me.
It was just the two of us in the world and nothing else mattered. Deeply in love for an hour or so.
“Will you come with me, Ricardo?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Mexico… or anywhere else. Just don’t leave me.”
“You don’t know anything about me,” I said.
She smiled. “You’re one of the good guys. That’s all I need to know.”
I gave her a kiss on her forehead. “I want to keep you with me forever, Mila.”
She nuzzled her head into me and sighed. Soon she was asleep. I closed my eyes and listened to her breathe. I felt at home with her.
I awoke not long before morning, my lungs heavy with the chemical air.
I hadn’t meant to fall asleep. I’d put everything at risk.
But Benny hadn’t returned, not that I could see. And Emilia hadn’t tried to run away.
She didn’t really have anywhere else to go.
I watched her as she slept in my arms, her breasts gently lifting with each breath, perfect, lithe and soft, beautiful and graceful.
Everything about her… her hair, her skin, her lips… she could bring me back home, to a time when life was good.
I sat for a moment and just let myself love her.
Nothing else mattered. Not the comet that had burned the sky and blocked out the sun, or the rations that probably wouldn’t last until the first crops for two summers could be harvested.
All that mattered was me and Emilia, bundled together on that tattered leather couch.
I wanted to stay with her, to love her forever, to marry her and have beautiful brown-eyed babies. I wanted to live in a time and a place where things like still happen.
I wrapped my arm around her neck. As I pressed, I saw her eyes open. I saw her shock and her fear, for just a moment, before she closed her eyes again.
I held her a little longer, until I knew she was gone.
I gently unhooked the heart-shape locket from her neck and opened it. Inside was an image of the Virgin Mary, along with an inscription of love from her nameless parents, to their precious Emilia.
I knew I would keep it forever.
I kissed her forehead once more. And then put on my mask, and I went out to find the dumpster and the dead boys inside.
The rain was still falling, heavy and fast, as I wrote a new story in bodies and blood. Two boys fought and in the end two boys died, over a girl who wasn’t allowed to mean anything anymore. The story would work and the pieces would fit. And Benny Anderson would get the chance to live his life in that dying city, for as much time as we all have left.
I couldn’t save her, so I saved the boy instead.
And I know that’s what my dear Mila would have wanted.