A Fearful Lesson

It was the perfect day to walk down to the river and see what was left of the dead metal, rusting away since the war. The weather was about like today, crisp and dry. Some folks whispered that some of it still walked, moved, even hunted, but just like you, we were sure that was all lies.

That’s why we wanted to see The Bottom for ourselves, like you two do.

First, we had to ditch Grandpa. That chance appeared when he stopped with his hand on the front gate. He held it halfway open and turned his head, laughing to himself. “Almost forgot my cane.”

He turned around and went back in the house. I looked at Tommy and tilted my head towards the road. “Let’s just go.”

Tommy looked out at the red leaves dancing on the pavement, then back over his shoulder. Mama stood watching from the front window. “She’d whip us if we did.”

“How are we ever gonna get to the Bottom with him along?”

Tommy shrugged. “Maybe we just scout it out today. A recon mission.”

Sometimes, he had good ideas. For a ten year-old. “Then go back later?” I said.

“Yeah. Tomorrow. Or the day after.”

The old wood of the front stoop groaned as Grandpa made his way down the stairs. He took the weight off his bad leg and leaned on his cane. “What’s it going to be today?”

Tommy nodded for me to ask. I said, “Can we go see Shockoe Bottom?”

Grandpa said, “Why would you want to go down there?”

“Just to the bridge,” said Tommy.

I added, “Mama said we could.” She hadn’t.

Grandpa looked back at Mama through the window. She waved and smiled. He considered the request and shrugged. “Well then, let’s go.”

We set out down the road, Grandpa behind us. He was in fine enough shape, except for his leg. Mama told us he hurt it in the war. Grandpa said he had arthritis. Tommy and I went back and forth on who we believed. Either way, we didn’t believe any of the stories about metal walking around in The Bottom. Between you and me, I wish we had.

Mama said that was where Richmond used to go on the weekends. Before the war. When the metal marched into town, it came in from the west and drove the whole city downhill, trapping thousands against the flood wall.

We walked through the burned out buildings and deserted businesses, down Hull Street to the James River. We crossed over the rusted spans of Mayo bridge and got a good look at what used to be downtown Richmond. The bare girders in the buildings stuck up so high in the sky I couldn’t imagine why they didn’t fall over, but Grandpa acted like they weren’t there. He just limped along slow and steady behind us.

We had heard about a spot just over the bridge where the flood wall joined up with the barricade. Story was, you could get over the wall and go down into The Bottom.

Tommy saw it first. We crossed from the bridge onto solid ground and he let out a low half whistle. He flicked his eyes in that direction. A school bus sat on four flat tires, next to the wall. He thought he was quiet, but Grandpa heard.

“So, that’s why we’re out here,” he said.

I felt the red creep into my cheeks. “What?”

“You two want to see The Bottom?”

Tommy turned away from the bus. “No, I was whistling because… Because-”

Grandpa said, “You didn’t come out here to get a look over the wall?”

I gulped. “Well. It is right there. We could just climb up and look.”

Grandpa grunted and headed for the bus. He pushed the door open and went up the cracked rubber steps. He used his cane to push the remnants of the windshield out onto the hood. Steadying himself against the back of the driver’s seat, he climbed over the dashboard. Glass crunched under his feet, the hood groaned under his weight. We followed after and helped him up onto the roof. A rusty ladder missing one rung stretched across the two-foot gap between the wall and the bus. We took turns crawling across, and then stood up on the other side. The concrete of the flood wall crunched and flaked under our shoes, little pebbles bounced down and clattered on the ground.

We looked out into The Bottom. More than anything, it was empty. Not scary. Just empty. Weeds grew everywhere. Tree roots cracked the sidewalks. Cars without drivers blocked the streets. A sunflower grew through a hole in a roof of a burned out van. Piles of smashed furniture and boards blocked the fronts of some buildings. The other buildings gaped open, like mouths with their teeth knocked out.

Grandpa picked his way down the piled up concrete and palettes to the ground. We went after him. He pointed out some sharpened rebar sticking out of the pile.

“Look out for that,” he said.

Tommy rolled his eyes.

The first building we walked up on had a ten-foot tall picture window with mannequins wearing dress clothes. I picked up a fist-sized rock and tossed it in the air. Grandpa saw me do it, looked at the window and shrugged. “Go on,” he said.

When the rock hit, that window broke into a hundred pieces. Those pieces broke into a hundred more when they hit the ground. It made so much noise even the birds were impressed, flying away from where they watched. And if there was any leftover metal around, it didn’t seem to notice or care.

On one of the piles, clothes hung out of dresser drawers, faded and rotted from the sun and rain. Tommy pointed out a pink bra poking out from under some shirts. He dared me to go touch it. Grandpa glared at him.

“Have some respect,” he said.

“Grandpa, there ain’t no metal walking around down here,” said Tommy.

“No. There ain’t,” said Grandpa.

I kicked an old phone. The bell inside rung out when it bounced across the pavement. “Are we ever gonna’ see any? Not pictures I mean, but in real life?”

“Aren’t you scared?” Grandpa said.

Tommy said, “Scared of what? All the metal died when their network did. That’s what Mama said.”

Grandpa’s mouth turned down. He squinted his eyes. “You think so?”

“Didn’t it?”

He didn’t answer, just turned and headed off down the street.

We followed him down the hill, under the old highway where it flattened out beside the canal. He stopped at a big white building. Sheets of plywood and boards covered all the windows and doors.

He stopped for a second, still. I thought he was about to tell us a good story, but then he got quiet, like he was thinking about something far away.

Tommy wasn’t listening. He was jumping up and down on an old mattress with the springs poking out of one side. He walked over to where a station wagon had crashed right up into the building. Boards covered the gaps between the car and wall. Tommy picked up a piece of wood and stuck it in the gap. Something on the other side made a noise.

Grandpa whipped his head around and his voice got deep. “Get away from there.”

Tommy wasn’t listening. He started jamming that wood in deeper. “I ain’t scared of you,” he said. “Come on out so I can see what you look like.”

Grandpa stood there for a second, watching Tommy yell into the hole in the wall. Then he went over and grabbed him by his arm. His voice was dry and hard. Not like normal. “You might not be scared. But you should be.”

He glared at Tommy, then grabbed a board and pulled it right off. And he waited.

Tommy backed up quick to stand beside me, so Grandpa was between us and that dark hole. Hollow scratches and the hum of motors came from the dark. A green light came on a few feet off the ground, moving our way from deep inside the dark. Clicking and scraping slow and jerky on three legs, one of the metal hunters came creeping out.

Grandpa turned his head to Tommy and said, “How about now?”

Tommy’s lip quivered. Grandpa’s eyes were as cold and hard as his voice.

I recognized the hunter scout from the pictures we’d seen in school. Lean and shaped like a big cat, they had led the way for the larger, slower metal. This one was missing one of its front legs, but the blades on the other leg were extended, scraping the ground as it walked.

The round head swiveled towards us, or what was left of it. Half of the hunter’s skull had been blown off, so only one green eye remained. Bare wires sparked and shorted where the head joined the body. It struggled to balance, moving each of its three legs one step at a time, like a dog with socks on. Still, it came on.

Grandpa bent down, leaning on his cane, with his mouth right in Tommy’s ear. “I hear you talking so big about how you wouldn’t be scared. And how you don’t think there’s any metal left. So here’s your chance.” He squeezed Tommy’s arm so hard his knuckles turned white. The hunter kept coming.

Grandpa picked up a chunk of concrete off the ground like it didn’t weigh nothing and pushed it into my hand. “Let’s see it.” It was so heavy I could barely hold it.

Tommy started crying. He was holding onto my arm and making noises that weren’t even words. I pushed the concrete back to Grandpa. “I can’t. Grandpa, I can’t.”

That hunter was five feet from his heel, and Grandpa hadn’t even turned around. Tommy pointed over Grandpa’s shoulder and wailed, snot bubbling out of his nose. Tears ran down his cheeks and his face turned red. Waves of fear pushed up from my stomach and came from my mouth in vowels and grunts. I wanted to run, but my legs wouldn’t move. I couldn’t do anything but watch. The blades on the front leg dug into the pavement as it pulled itself closer.

Grandpa turned his head and looked at it out of one eye. He let go of Tommy’s arm, took his cane in both hands and pulled the hooked end away from the straight part. His cane was a sword in disguise.

He swung it around and chopped the hunter’s front leg clean off. It fell on its side, back legs flailing in the air. With a whip of its head, it rolled itself back upright, its chin and chest making a tripod with the back legs. They pushed on, scraping the exposed metal of the torso in front of it like some worthless wheelbarrow. Busted motors scraped dry metal against dry metal inside the thing.

Grandpa pointed at the head, the edge in his voice a little softer, but still there. “You take that concrete and smash the head.”

Tommy sniffled and wiped his nose. I shook my head at him. “I don’t want to.”

Grandpa said, “Doesn’t matter if you want to. You will.” Something in his voice made me want to, even though I was scared. As scared as I’d ever been.

Tommy said, “It’s still moving.”

The hunter moved closer, inching its way towards us.

“Go on.” Grandpa put a firm hand on my shoulder. “You too, Tommy.”

We took a step towards it. Tommy looked away as we stepped closer. I took a breath. The hunter smelled like bleach and smoke. The single green eye moved back and forth between me and Tommy.

Grandpa stepped back. “That’s it.”

We lifted the concrete up the air, our four hands underneath it. Tommy’s breath puffed fast in and out of his nose.

That was when the hunter pushed itself forward into my legs, knocking me over. It fell on me and the concrete fell on it, crushing one of the back legs.

The hunter’s main weapons had been the blades in the front legs, but it also had retractable tentacles in its torso. Not strong enough to support the full weight of the metal, we’d always been told they were used to grab on its victims while the bladed arms did all the damage. These metal tentacles now slid out of the body and wrapped around my leg. The hunter used the sharp edges of its half-crushed skull to slice through my pants and open a cut in my shin.

Blood poured out of the long slice and one of the tentacles wormed its way into the cut, digging and ripping at the muscle. I screamed and beat at the head with my hands, kicking the torso with my free leg.

Grandpa moved quick out of the corner of my eye, stabbing his sword through the torso again and again, sparks flying with every impact. On the fourth stab he ruptured the power pack and the hunter went still, the front tentacle still buried in my shin.

Grandpa wiped off his sword and took a closer look at my leg. He said, “I know it hurts,” looking down at the shredded meat below my knee. “And I’m sorry for this, but you’re going to suffer a little more.” He reached down and started pulling the tentacle out of the wound.

I don’t know who cried harder, me or Tommy. After Grandpa got that tentacle out of my leg, he bandaged it up tight with his shirt and had Tommy help me walk home.

Nobody said much of anything on the way back, but just before we got to the house, he stopped and looked me in the eye. “That didn’t go the way it was supposed to.” He paused for a minute. “But as bad as it was, I hope it taught you a lesson.” He looked at Tommy. “Both of you.”

And it did. We never went looking for metal again.

Finished with my story, I get out of the rocking chair and head for the front door of the house. Looking back over my shoulder at my two grandsons, I say, “That’s how I got the scar, and that’s why I use this cane.” They stare back, their mouths open.

One hand on the doorknob, I continue, “You just think on that while I go get some tea. And if you two still want to see the Bottom when I get back, we’ll go.”

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