In the days after Aileen’s visit, Ángel doubled down on his reading. He took her words to heart and read like their very survival depended on it. His mother was proud of him, but worried that he pushed himself too hard. “It’s wicked important, Momma,” he told her.
His grandmother felt proud of him, too, and actually encouraged his reading. She even joined him, donning her seldom-used reading glasses. Ángel giggled each time she arched her eyebrows and looked over the top of the lenses at him. She did it to tease him, to keep him from stressing too much.
“Don’t worry, Hon,” she said, “we’ll figure it all out. And then we’ll see.”
Lillian barely recognized her mother. Not only did she stop watching TV and read with Ángel, but she also started to involve herself with the general life of the makeshift. When folks saw what a good shot she was, they began asking questions about her technique. “Well, I might as well show you how it’s done. They don’t half teach nothing in the schools these days,” she groused. The makeshift, called Factory Block 5 after an old sign that still hung over one of the gates, became a new community for her to guide and advise, the way she had at her old senior center. What had been taken from her, she replaced. And folks began calling her the First Mum.
Charlie, the makeshift foreman, took a particular shine to her. He liked her cranky spunk and admired the way she handled a gun.
“You know something, I knew drill sergeants who couldn’t shoot not half as well as you do,” he told her.
“Baa! I ain’t that good.”
“Yes you are, Thea.”
She loved it when he called her Thea. Most folks called her Dory, which she thought was perfectly dreadful. She’d rather be called “Hey you” over Dory. But when he found out that her full name was Dorothea, he naturally lapsed into calling her Thea.
They began a habit of taking walks together after dinner, around the grounds of FB 5.
“How long were you in the service,” she asked him.
“Too long, my dear, too long. They want you to stay in til you dropped, but I was like screw that.”
“They gave me my discharge vouchers. You know those don’t pay for shit.”
“Tell me about it! Someone back at the old place was ex-military. He told me once that he saved up about four months worth of vouchers and bought dinner at a fast food joint with them. Can you imagine? A lousy fast food dinner and it took four months just to save up for it.”
“Oh! I can imagine!” Charlie had a mighty laugh, which she liked. “See? They do that on purpose. You can either stay in the service and make a decent living, or resign and get the damn vouchers. But they treat Flatters like shit in the service, and you know something, Thea? I wasn’t going overseas no more to defend the profits of The Betters. Fuck them!”
And Thea started her roaring laugh. “Well tell me this, Mr. Big-Man. How’d you end up being the foreman of a makeshift with that attitude?”
“The Betters that own this place don’t know any better. Hell, they barely even know they own it. Thea, I’ll tell you the secret of Factory Block 5,” he said in a low voice. “The folks here pay their rent, when they can – I don’t bug them if they can’t – and then I save the money to make repairs and keep the place up. Been like that for over six years now, and no one’s come after us yet.”
“That’s a co-op!” she said in a harsh whisper. “You mean this is really a co-op? I was just reading about them. They were all bought out by Betters over a century ago and then disbanded.”
“Well, then. We’re bringing them back.”
They could talk for hours after dinner, and often did, walking the grounds of FB 5 and watching the sun set over the city in the far distance.
One day, Ángel surprised his grandmother and everyone else by going to the practice range. He stood next to his mother and watched as folks practiced shooting at a target mounted to the opposite wall. He studied their technique with quizzical eyes. And then he walked to his grandmother and asked for a gun. She was quite taken aback.
“Oh, honey, I don’t want you to hurt yourself. You’ve never shot before.”
“But Grandmamma, you always said I should learn.”
She looked over at Lillian. Lillian didn’t like it either, because she had always wanted to shield her baby from such barbarism. But in truth she knew she could shield him no longer. They were being hunted. Best that he learned to defend himself. She finally nodded her consent.
Ángel took the gun his grandmother handed him and left fly five rounds rapid. They stared at the target in amazement. His aim was sublime.
“Well done, boy!” she said, giving him a smooch on his the top of his head.
“I read about marksmanship in a book,” he blushed.
“That’s my boy! We’ll teach those Better bastards not to mess with us!”
Lillian gushed with pride as everyone went to shake little Ángel’s very steady hand.
That evening, after her walk with Charlie and after Lillian had turned in for the night, she crept down to the library area and crouched near him. He had nearly dozed off when he felt a hand brush his long black hair away from his face. His eyes opened quickly and he resumed at the sentence where he had left off. But instead of his mother, he saw his Grandmamma bent over him. She took a seat next to him on the futon.
“Are you still reading, too, Grandmamma?”
“I’m done for the night. And it looks like you should be, too, Ángel. You’ve had quite a day today.”
“I need to finish this chapter.”
Thea cradled him in her arms. She stared at his tired face staring at the pages on his lap. His eyes moved as if a finger slowly guided them while at the same time kept his eyelids open.
“Ángel, did you really know that the lady that brought these books, well, did you really know she was your half-sister?”
“Oh yeah, I know she was. I recognized her. She looked like me and Mom. We all have the same eyes.”
“I see. So you know who your father is, then?”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve heard you and Momma talk about him.”
His grandmamma cast her eyes downward, thinking of all the horrid things she used to mutter under her breath, intending that they carried to his ears. She wished she could take them back somehow. She held him tighter.
“Grandmamma was a very angry woman. She didn’t know how angry. And she didn’t know at who. But she’s not angry at you, hon.”
“I know you’re not, Grandmamma. I’m mad, too.”
“What makes you angry, Ángel?”
“Not having any friends to play with. Not being able to run on beaches or in parks. Not going to a proper school where you learn things. I know that’s how The Betters live. I’ve read about it. We’re not allowed to live like that, but they tell us that we’re doing fine. We live inside of a lie, Grandmamma. And we can’t wake up from it. It’s just our life. And it ain’t right.”
“No, son. It ain’t right. Not one damn bit. But you keep reading them books your sister gave you. I’m sure we’ll find an answer in one of them.”
Makeshift Factory Block 5 began having general assemblies, something that po’folks did as a means of figuring out how to get back at Betters back in the day. It was at one of these meetings that Gabriel presented something on Ángel’s behalf.
“So anyway, that’s how they did it,” he concluded. “They had these huge cannon like things and shot Harknesses, or helicopters, right out of the sky.”
“We need some of those, yesterday!” Willie Mae announced.
Charlie puzzled for a bit. He strained to remember.
“Anti-, anti-, anti-” he said.
“Whose auntie?” someone blurted out.
“Shhh!” Gabriel said. “What do you remember, Charlie?”
Charlie tried. He had years of pills to fight, though. They made veterans take pills, which they had to pay for with their vouchers, so that they’d forget things they did while in the service. It was to keep them from going berserk and start shooting people, so the story goes. They made the pills cheap, so that even the vouchers could pay for them. They were cheaper than fast food. But Charlie didn’t hanker to them, because he started forgetting things he wanted to remember, so he stopped taking them. Still, the damage had been done. He eventually relearned how to shoot and how to fix things, stuff he learned in the service. But the combat stuff came back the slowest.
“Anti-, anti-, dammit!” Then he slammed his fist on the table, and folks jumped. “Anti-aircraft guns! That’s what that boy found, was the plan for anti-aircraft guns.”
“Did you used to shoot with one?” Thea asked.
“No, no. They were preprogrammed. But I had to keep them clean and sometimes replace their parts. If I can see the book that Ángel was reading, I’m sure I could remember how they were put together!”
“We’re gonna need a hell of a lot,” said Sam.
“Yeah, like a shit load,” said Willie Mae.
“We got so much junk here, I’m sure we can get by,” Charlie said.
None of them knew or much cared what Factory Block 5 made when it actually made things. But now it had a new purpose. It made anti-aircraft cannons. Their new vocation put the tons of pipes they had lying around to good purpose. Eventually, though, they found that they needed some other parts that they didn’t have. That’s when they started making trades with trustworthy makeshifts. In time, the other makeshifts began making their own cannons. In less than a week, it had become a cottage industry.
While the construction continued on the cannons, though, Ángel kept reading. He knew that shooting down Harknesses wouldn’t be enough. They’d just keep sending more and more of them, until they got overwhelmed and wiped out. Gabriel agreed, “but what can we do?” he asked.
He showed his mother one night. In a very old book was a picture of a machine that looked like a giant, multi-headed tuba on a keyboard of levels attached to a turntable. He told his mother how the man who invented it had been arrested and his books destroyed.
Then he showed her a picture that caused a lump in her throat.
“Did I find it?” he said.
“Yes, my son, that’s it.” She stood up and called out loud, “Gabriel! Gabriel!”
He came up to the loft. “What’s up?”
She showed him the picture.
“We have to make this. It’s our only hope. This will defeat the Harknesses once and for all. But we must make it in secret. No one outside of FB-5 can know.”
Gabriel stared at the strange device and nodded.
To be continued …
© 2012, gar. All rights reserved.