The northwest corner of the state was mostly hardwood and granite, and the cold water from the rocks moved fast and splintered east, and in the trees beside the swift water, mills broke cotton to cloth and bent steel red into girder and joist and brace. Near the town rocks bore up gray in the woods, and some had water run over them, and spots worn smooth, and moss in patches, loud green, and some had old Indian words scratched at their faces. In spring, bears stirred the woods and sunned on the rocks.
Late June and fourteen he wandered among them and put his small rough hands for a long time against the old letters carved on the rocks, and they were more like pictures, birds and wolves and people mixed together, and he twisted the ends of his fingers raw in the grained divots, and went farther this time, kept when his boots sank ankle deep in the old leaf blown drifts in the birch and the laurel and the sapgum.
From the thick growth he came to an outcrop; for a moment the full light pinched his eyes; he looked through cotton, dime spots fuzzed pink flowerheads at his eyelids. He blinked hard on the rock face; naked, wide, a slow grade. The light then sharp and clear edged, the bear focused twenty feet past. It was small, and sat hind legs like a person, black hair stuck to wet licks, face tilted at what seemed a pondering of the light. He saw end days, a monster in the woods. He held, lock still, swallowed low breath, waited for the bear to get his smell then gallop; open mouth, white teeth.
He remembered two; a bear on the television toppled trashcans and stood up and batted the air and mad spit in its bawl and charged a man back turned and running. The other one, in the museum downtown, rifle shot at the kidney and head when it lost the woods, lumbered at the sidewalk near the jewelry store and gutted a couple leaving through the glass door; four small bells, like ones collared to a sheep’s neck, were tied at the push handle with a red bow from winter holiday; they rang when the door flapped; the county packed the bear once dead with cotton and wood shaving, wheeled it to a spot in the center of the dusty collections room below the frayed white war flag with the rattlesnake coiled on its face, and fixed it in a high standing pose, one arm raised chin level, a warning swipe, jaw stretched a yell, claws glued black keys. His grandfather’s spotted right hand was gripped to the red felt theater rope that squared it off, his index finger, thumb to the first knuckle, shot off in the second big war. A heavy brushed silver band took up most of the stub; he tapped the ring against a joint on the brass pole, pondered up at the stuffed bear for a long time, didn’t speak, squeezed his tack- hard fingers on the rope and then let go.
The bear on the rock turned its head, the rest of it kept still, and calm. He stayed fixed to its eyes, leather brown muzzle dipped like a push swing, and held the first step, the run he felt winding bed springs at his forefeet; the small water in the woods behind him gurgled; the trees clapped. The bear stood to all fours and huffed, shifted front weight from one shoulder flank to the other and swiped at the rock. His left boot twitched; the bear lumbered ten feet his way and stopped quick, backed a foot and swatted the air this time, like an underhand pitch, a chin jab. The fingers on his right hand tapped his belt at the hip; he wished to pull a gun. The bear panted, stayed looking at him. Then it sat down to its rear again, fell its head back to the light stretched warm over the rock face. A cloudrack grew dark rain in the south. His outer thighs clenched, fine hair stood on his forearms; he felt weather changing.
Branches slapped his forearms held face level and bare, and some split and broke off, and he ran fast in the woods, legs and feet scaled fell trees; horses might feel like this, dogs maybe, heart in the eyes, busted from a screaming hand.
His father, the foreman, the widower, the tired man, forty-two years his senior, told him black bears ran forty miles an hour, flat out, and he thought of this. But the bear he left on the rock, drunk on light and warm half sleep, would not come after; still, it felt like a pardon, and he didn’t stop until the trees walled, turned a row tilled corner field, moss gray and wet, rain three days past still there, but drying quickly, didn’t stop until he saw the back of the house, red shutters at the windows, and that was far enough.
August eleventh he turned fifteen and legal to drive with an adult, and then two days after that Terry Webber started at the high school. He was named for a champion racehorse from northern Virginia called Terrence’s Cotton Mather, and for his father, the second shift foreman at Hardwick Textile in Issaqueena, South Carolina. Sometimes he lingered in the woods at mounds for dead Cherokee and looked for parts of them still there. His chin and cheekbones were severe, angry in a way he did not mean, and his neck down onto his chest was splotched red, cold outside or not. The front tooth on his left hand side was dark gray from a yellow plastic bat he took to the mouth in second grade. He was narrow in the legs and shoulders, didn’t figure himself any kind of strong, but the easy way he broke some things surprised him, a fury, a dogfight there he didn’t consider.
His father, Benjamin Webber, turned fifty-seven on the eighteenth day of that month, and at work, brown sweatshirt, short on his knobbed wrists, plastic goggles, corded tight at the back of his head, he waited for the last one running the dye vats to punch out, squared the front latch in the truck bay, shut the lights in the break room and unplugged the soda machine from the wall socket, took a cardboard box of twenty brick red sweatshirts stitched that day, and put them to his trunk. The next afternoon he traded them, plus two hundred dollars, to a man called Nola Walker for a gunmetal blue hatchback. He was well known, Nola Walker; besides two square miles of junked cars he owned a firework warehouse, a service station, a petting zoo with a Bengal tiger and a howler monkey that ate cigarette filters, a mile racetrack for dirt bikes.
Benjamin Webber left the keys on the small table in the kitchen, two of them, attached at a paper clip; Terry kept to paved roads the first week, learned the feel of the brakes, to press them long before he wanted to stop, the northwest drift of the wheels, places where the engine held, and where it ran full on. He learned often, when rolled down, the passenger side window got stuck, and that the navy ceiling cloth drooped from the metal, ballooned close to his scalp like a pup tent, blown wind taut. Then he wanted the dirt roads and went ten minutes on a wet side path close to the school. He ran a long puddle too fast, and the back end sank, tires necked rim high in the bog, and then the car was stuck, and required chain.
He didn’t put it on right. When the tow lurched the chain noose slid to the driver’s side and pulled the fender out close to a foot at the corner. He left it that way, and the car got wet in the rain, the lip rusted sharp and bowed. Twice he bumped a leg against it in the school lot, and cursed, leapt to the other foot and held his shin with two hands.
It took an afternoon for him to color the wide rust spot on the hood with a blue permanent marker he lifted from the mercantile; he’d taken, as well, a metal ring for his keys. He hovered at it like homework, a science experiment.
September he saw Alice Washington, a junior twice held back, seventeen and eight months, huddled in the smoking section behind the science building first, and a few days after he stood close to the hall glass across from the library and saw her through the top pane in the second marked cigarette yard, leaned against the west brick wall, close to the high fence. She bit a white filter between her teeth, wore an ash gray hooded sweatshirt, north platte in red box letters on the chest. She looked like he thought mountains must when sunlit. On his left the ones old enough or with an adult signed letter rocked the double glass doors and went on their smoke outside, the space square, like a dog pen, green painted concrete, heel cut, chain link, walled in by math building and woodshop. Past the fence, the parking lot rashed in the early, high yellow light, and even farther, the lodgepole treeline swayed.
She turned at the hips and clamped her hands in the gaps shaped like road signs and shook the wire. A few more pushed through from inside. She let go the fence and turned back. Her hair was long, brass colored, pinned high on the sides, spot on her neck shaped the mouth of a teacup, more olive than the rest of her. Terry touched dents on his forehead worn by chicken pox, a cluster above his left eyebrow the pattern of birdshot. He let his hair back over, in his eyes. It smelled of batteries, old smoke. He got a long piece to his mouth and chewed. It tasted of rope, tilled dirt.
He turned to the library glass behind him and put a hand over his eyes at the glare. A student helper pushed a metal shelving cart, another wiped at an overhead projector, tin cases and bookspine high walls around them, and the librarian, a man shaped like a greyhound, swayback and narrow, pulled drawers from the card cabinet at the middle of the long room and ran his fingers across the letter tabs. A screen map on the back wall of the library, big as a rain tarp, laid bare the lines of the Soviet Union.
Terry remembered television, the actor president and his shined rock black hair standing at a podium, talking to whoever was watching, speaking on the urgent need for machines with lasers in outer space; it worked like a big net, a web, he said, and evaporated nuclear missiles shot from Russia into space dust. Terry didn’t understand, not any of it; not lasers, or space webs, bright red mushroom clouds or soldiers in the snow with machine guns and dead kingfishers on their heads. He’d turned the switch on the kitchen black and white and set back some of the foil wrapped on the base of the rabbit ears then sat to one end of the kitchen table. What he thought, in the quiet of the box gone, was dammit, and he shook his head and ran his fingers into his matted hair, and they stuck at a knot on top and tangled on both sides, and then he thought some more, and after some time what it seemed was that slick fucker wasn’t like anyone he knew, or ever would, and him telling people to be scared of Russians didn’t mean anything. The closest was some of the teachers at school, and he knew, for a fact, they mostly said things to keep them scared and in their desks.
Terry moved to the trophy case in the hall and read the names of school champions cut onto plaques. Then he stooped over the bone cabinet and he crouched in front and put his hands on the display glass; jawbone, potsherd, seven arrowheads; he thought of shark’s teeth; all of it was sifted from the orange clay nearby. Someone had written, in black ink, on the green mint wall to the right of the display, here is what’s left of them. He heard boot soles loud in the hall, and turned around.
Basil Frick galloped, high kneed, hair red sheened, elbowed the double doors, staggered outside and went in a hard leap on the fence. His boots slipped at the toeholds. He got his hands on the top bar, but his weight bobbed him down and his right sleeve caught. He pulled at it with one hand and worked a tear.
Alice Washington kept the cigarette in her mouth and pressed her hands at his calves and pushed up, and Basil Frick dropped on the other side, stumbled, line sprinted to the woods; dust, shell white, spat from his heels. Killdeer weeping in the soy field scattered a wake behind him.
The librarian rushed the hall and threw the doors outside. He ran the concrete and stopped hard on the fence and put his hands at it and shook. He yelled wide mouthed, watched Basil Frick make it to the far trees, turned quick to Alice and stood at her and leered. He wagged a finger. Alice Washington put her head down and pulled a drag. He yanked the cigarette from her mouth and broke it at the middle. She lit another, and he took that one, and stomped it. Next one she blew smoke in his face. The librarian coughed and wiped his eyes and then he gripped her severe on the arm and jerked her to the doors.
Watching this welled a burn in Terry’s throat; he wished to say it, but could not: let go of her arm, son of a bitch, it hurts, bad, let go.
Alice Washington kept the cigarette past the glass and dropped it inside on the gray carpet. It stayed lit, and kids walked around the low plume. Terry picked it up. He went outside, and slumped down, knees close to his chest, against the east wall, light bleeding over the top of the math wing. One of the special kids they kept playing kick ball in the gym sat a few feet off, put his legs straight out, toes up, spine a drastic hunch. Terry smoked fast. The special kid did, too, and smiled at the fence and the woods between pulls, teeth bleach white, gums worn black and red, the high curve on his right ear chewed off, or maybe bit.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Pilgrims Upon the Earth by Brad Land. Copyright © 2007 by Brad Land. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.