When they reached Piosa’s old property it was nine-fifteen and the sun burned down hard from a crystal-sharp winter sky. Their two cars turned onto a dirt track marked by a thick oak with a sun-bleached yellow ribbon garroting its trunk, and they bumped along until they reached a thinning patch of trees with a white doublewide in the middle of it. The trailer roof sprouted satellite dishes like alien mushrooms. From a window dangled a fading black flag with the skull-and-crossbones above the words ‘Sic Semper Deadbeats’ in gothic script.
In the lead car, Miller honked. The trailer door creaked open to reveal a teenager long and pale as a remora. He stood blinking in the sunlight and scratched a pimply shoulder and said, “Right-O.”
The cars stopped. Alex emerged from the rear one, squinting. Before climbing out, Miller yelled through his open window: “We’re here for your brother.”
The kid nodded and disappeared inside the trailer. Through the open door they could hear nervous-quick guitar and a gravelly voice singing about hell and damnation. The song reminding Miller of his childhood in Tennessee, the clapboard walls of those backwoods churches quivering as the Sunday congregation inside burst with the love and fury they kept bottled for the week’s other six days and twenty-three hours. His brother in the pew next to him, mouthing profane variations on the hymns as he made playing cards appear, disappear, appear from his lapels, sleeves, ears, mouth. As if from a distance he heard Alex say, “What’s with the country crap?”
Miller snorted. “That’s not country. That’s Johnny Cash.”
“Cash is country.”
“Johnny Cash is Johnny Cash.” Miller forced a cheerful note into his voice. “Accept no substitutes.” Opening the trunk of his car he set the sloshing gas-cans onto the ground, then opened the emergency kit beside the spare wheel. Stuffed three roadway flares into the back pocket of his jeans.
“Country,” Alex said, leaning forward to spit, and nearly tumbled to the frozen ground. He was still drunk from last night. Miller struggled to find a little pity.
The kid reappeared, holding aloft a cardboard box in the manner of a holy offering. For a delirious moment it seemed like he might yodel forth some Latin. Arms raised, Miller stepped forward to receive the relic, concentrating on holding it perfectly level as he moved away. He feared letting the box shift to one side, and hearing the dusty slither from within.
“Oh man,” Alex moaned. “You put him in that?”
“Sold the urn online,” the kid said. “Paid part of the rent. Not like he’d care.”
“We care.” Miller wondered what sort of human being would buy a used urn. “That’s sort of the point. Alex, grab the gas.”
“The Beast’s around the back,” the kid said. “Don’t take this as an insult? But I’ll be inside. I deal with grief my own way.” He disappeared into the cool dark of the trailer, and Johnny Cash switched to Axl Rose wailing about Chinese Democracy.
Alex hoisted the two gas cans, groaning like it was an epic feat. They circled around the trailer and as their feet crushed the brown grass it shimmered, alive with panicked insects fleeing their advance. The land behind the trailer rose into a low hill dotted with bare elms, and there they found the Mustang.
The car gleamed like a work of art. They had seen it before; Piosa, now residing in the box in Miller’s hands, had photographed every stage of its rebirth from rust-heap to cherry. Piosa, who had taken a sniper’s bullet above the left eye in the Korengal Valley, dead before the rest of them even heard the shot, dead two years ago today.
Miller set the cremains on the ground and stood. A fast wind rose and rattled the trees. Snow’s coming, Miller thought as took one of the cans from Alex’s hand, twisted off the cap and doused the Mustang’s hood. The gas flowed across the metal and rained softly on the grass. Alex took his cue and used the other can to soak the roof and trunk. Miller opened the passenger-side door and splashed the vintage leather and dashboard with the last of his can and went to retrieve the box.
Alex spun and tossed his cans away, reeled back, almost fell. “Not the best idea, drinking before something like this,” Miller told him.
“Don’t blame me,” Alex said. “The only kid on the block whose daddy got him a case of Bud for Christmas.”
“Funny.” Miller slid the box onto the driver’s seat of the Mustang, noting the keys in the ignition. As if waiting for Piosa to clamber inside, loose one of his patented war-whoops and punch the gas. The smell of fuel in the enclosed space wrung tears from his eyes. “Anything to say for the dear departed?”
Alex clasped his hands and bowed his head. “Piosa. Good man, good operator. Went from us too soon. That’s it.”
Miller pulled one of the road flares from his cargo pants and took five steps backward from the open car door. “Fire in the hole.” The flare burst sparkly-red, reminding Miller of the ones they used to let the Chinooks overhead know the landing-zone was hot. He tossed it in.
The seats caught fire. The flames leapt. They danced. They strutted their stuff across the seats. The windows and dashboard dials burst in applause. The paint crackled in laughter. In seconds a plume of greasy smoke billowed out the open door, scrambling for the sky. The box in the driver’s seat blackened and folded in upon itself and its lid curled open and white ash swirled into the hot slipstream and disappeared forever.
Miller and Alex knew the physics of the situation. They retreated twenty yards and hit the dirt and covered their heads in their hands.
With an eardrum-shattering boom the gas tank exploded and a lovingly restored chunk of engine howled into the sky. Heat crisped the hairs on their forearms. After that the Mustang settled into a more peaceful burning.
They stood, Alex saying, “Tell me: Why did Viking funerals ever go out of style?”
From down the hill, the trailer’s screen door banged open. The kid on the lawn yelling words lost in the roar of flames. Then he raised a middle finger high and stomped back inside.
Miller felt his mind slip into war mode. He walked toward the burning Mustang, Alex shouting behind him, the questioning sounds of a dog left alone in an unfamiliar place. Miller stopped behind the car and slammed his heel into the rear bumper as hard as he could. The Mustang began to almost imperceptibly creep forward, and gravity saw its chance. Standing on a thrumming left leg Miller offered the whole scene a proper military salute as the car bounced and jostled its way downhill, trailing a party of flames.
Piosa’s pride and joy collided with the trailer dead center and the impact knocked the windows out of their frames and the satellite dishes from the roof. The fire spied new territory to conquer and leapt shimmering to the cheap white siding. The whole structure was half aflame before the kid ran out squawking and stood in the yard with his fingers clenched in his hair. Alex and Miller watched everything burn with clinicians’ eyes.
“You’re losing it,” Alex told him, almost as an aside. “Really, truly losing it.”
Miller had nothing to say to that. The fire burst from the trailer roof and flapped its orange hands in the sunlight.
“You believe in the concept of blowback?” Alex said. “After everything that happened over there. Ever think someone will come at you for the shit you did?”
Hours later, Miller would blame what happened next on his mind in war-mode, where everything was a threat, and no insult too small for repayment. Quick as a rattler he slammed his right foot into the back of Alex’s left kneecap, sending him to the grass. Before the man could suck in more than half a breath Miller had dropped a knee onto his sternum. “Shut up,” Miller said.
“You’re a total wacko.” Alex wheezed, hissing steam. “It’s being noticed. Not in a friendly way. People ready to do something about it.”
“People got nothing to worry about,” Miller said.
Alex rocketed a sloppy fist at Miller’s head. Miller slap-pushed his arm aside and followed through with two hits to Alex’s jaw and left eye-socket. The violence had been automatic as a sneeze but in its wake Miller felt a little sick. He stared at the bright blood bubbling along the crest of Alex’s eye and thought: This is what I do.
“Like they’ll take your word,” Alex coughed bloody.
“They’ll have to. I’m done with this crap.” Miller eased upright. The cans had tumbled on their sides, leaking pungent gas. Miller retrieved them and followed the swath of scorched grass to the bottom of the hill, where Piosa’s brother knelt at the edge of the burning trailer, warbling into a phone. For an instant Miller considered snatching the device away and tossing it underhand into the fire. Instead he hurled the gas cans into the back of his car and drove away. The pillar of smoke stained his rear-view mirror for two miles before it was lost in hills and distance.