Slogging through marshland is nothing new. He’d done that a million-and-fucking-one times with his dad, to rescue a heifer lost in a water meadow when the creek rose, or finding whatever remote corner of whatever remote field a momma mare chose to give birth. Veterinary work demanded a lot of slogging, through mud, through slime, through shit.
That doesn’t bother Caleb one goddamn bit.
And he’s not a vet like his dad, he’s a doctor, so arguing with Estelle about whether or not she’s worth helping doesn’t bother him either. He’s had plenty of patients go off on him like this, even in the middle-class suburb where he used to practice. He just argues right back. Everybody’s worth helping. Sometimes, when they just let go and stop trying, you have to give up on one. But he’s not ready to give up on this one, not yet.
The bird people are so beautiful, so elegant. He wonders why they’re always women. Well, maybe they’re not, but he’s seen five, and all female. Estelle is a blue jay, another patient, Terri, is a red-winged blackbird. Terri has a sister and two daughters who he hasn’t really met yet. See? Females.
His reverie is broken by an odd sight. As if the random military guys and the exotic animal people and the stream of bees leading them home aren’t fucking odd enough. They are, but this is even weirder. Two strangers step out of the storm-ravaged bayou and onto the path. It’s a man and a woman, both in their late forties. He’s wearing a black tee shirt that’s faded grey and overalls with a large handkerchief hanging out of the pocket. She’s in a shirtwaist dress and one of those criss-cross calico aprons. Both of them are clean and neat. They smile apologetically. Or at least they attempt to, but the expression goes dreadfully wrong just before they start making stomach-turning meaty noises and growing chitinous parts that have no goddamn business being on a mammal.
That’s when the shooting starts. This is nothing new to Caleb, he’s been up close and personal with firearms before. Too close, really. He feels himself going back there right now, even though he’d much rather stay in the mother-fucking swamp with the animal people and the chitinous things that do strange things to his insides just by existing. Oh, hell, yeah, he’d rather stay there than go back where he’s going, but there’s no choice, none…
And then it’s summer in Indiana again, and he’s eight, playing on the edge of a cornfield with his cousins. They’re playing Cowboys and Indians like stupid sons-of-bitches. He can feel the tractor trail under him, mud that’s dried again in the sun. It’s hard as concrete and stings his bare feet, threatens to twist his ankle as he runs over the corrugated imprint of the tractor’s rear wheel. He’s too excited to stop, and leaps over the other track and a random pile of manure left over from the spreader. The Cowboys caught them raiding their ranch, and were hot in pursuit. He can hear Gary start to gasp — the guy’s a cream puff, no stamina.
The air is hot but not humid; it hasn’t rained for a week now, and it’s not going to anytime soon. The rows of corn are a little brown around the edges, but they’re still exuding that peculiar wet green grain smell that field corn has. Caleb and Gary duck around a utility pole. When they hear one of the Cowboys hit the pole with a thud, Caleb winces and keeps running. That’s gonna leave splinters. Bet it was Mike — he was pretty clumsy. Gary breaks stride, doubles in half, guffawing. Dangit, Indians didn’t laugh like donkeys. What a knob.
“Stop, give us back our cattle!” Mike’s voice is strained. Yeah, he was the one who hit the pole.
Caleb and Gary both turn, waving their borrowed hand axes. “Hey, watch it, douchebag,” Gary yells at Caleb, “you’re gonna hit me with that thing and cut my ear off or something.”
“Stop, you Indians, or I’ll shoot!” Kathy shouts. She makes a lame Cowboy; they shoulda made her an Indian. She has a killer war cry on her, enough to make you pee your Toughskins. Gary turns back and gives her a very un-Indian-like raspberry.
That’s when it happens — the loudest sound in the world. The rifle that the Cowboys have been using goes off — of course it wasn’t supposed to be loaded — and Gary spins to look at Caleb with startled blue eyes. Their eyes lock for the longest moment. And then Gary continues spinning, spinning down onto the ground, the hair on the back of his head matted with blood. Caleb’s ears are ringing, he can’t hear anything, but he can see Kathy’s mouth stretch in a scream, can see Mike staring around the pole in slack-jawed surprise, can see Gary crumpling, falling… And the awful stink of a fired gun.
Caleb comes to with the same unbearable stench in his nose. He’s curled up in a ball in the mud with his hands pressed over his ears. He can’t breathe, his mouth is opening and closing like some fucking fish, but nothing’s getting in, no matter how hard he pants. There’s obviously been some sort of a battle. People are bleeding, spattered with horrible slimy stuff, battered and muddy. And every last one of them is staring at him. Oh, Christ.