Pig-Boy and The Insectorator - 16. Skunks and Hornets
Melissa spent the morning dealing with her e-mail in-box. There were hundreds of messages to Earth-Girl about the boy who rescued the pigs. She sorted them into categories. Later she would compose a form reply to each category.
Most writers wanted more information about the boy. What was his name? Why was he naked? What happened to him after he entered the forest? Many others complimented her on the video or thanked her for it and asked for more rescue videos like it. As she scanned the messages, one caught her attention. It made an offer that promised to help her answer all the questions. The writer signed himself ‘Vizh.’
River had left the hospital in a wheelchair, but there was no wheelchair at his house. When they arrived, his father picked him up from the cab of the red pickup truck, carried him up to his room, and laid him on his bed.
“I’m gonna make us some lunch,” said Art. “I thought maybe some soup and a sandwich. Any requests?”
“Anything, Daddy. I’m just happy to be home.”
“Yeah, I’m happy you’re here too.” Art laughed. “It’ll take more than a few rattlesnakes to kill a Jameson boy.”
After lunch, Art said, “I don’t know where the twins are — I figured they’d be back here by now. I’m gonna go check on them. I won’t be long. You got everything you need?”
“Yeah, thanks Daddy,” said River.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you. Some kid phoned for you this morning. I said he could come over this afternoon if he wanted. I don’t know who it was.”
Shortly after his father had driven away, River heard the doorbell. He limped over to his bedroom window and looked out to see who was at the door. It was Jeremy. “Come on up,” called River. “The door’s open.”
A minute later, Jeremy was in the room, a big smile on his face. “Hi River,” he said.
“Hi Jeremy, how are you doing?”
“I’m fine. Derry said to say hello. He’s gone off to the Kelmans — Mom says it’s like he lives there now. Can I see the bites?”
“The snakes or the wasps?”
“The rattlesnake bites. I never seen any.”
River was wearing loose sweat pants so it took only a few seconds to pull them up over his knees. He displayed the fang marks on each of his legs.
“Can I touch them?”
Jeremy brushed his fingertips over the punctures. “Wow, I bet that hurt.”
“Yeah. It was bad. Still is, but not so much now.”
Jeremy sat down on the bed beside River. “I wanted to come and see you.” He paused and looked out the window. “Because I’ve been thinking about you. I missed you.”
Jeremy picked up River’s hand and held it in both of his hands. “I thought maybe now you’re home from the hospital, we could hang out together.”
“Oh,” River said, withdrawing his hand from Jeremy’s. “I’m just so screwed up. I can’t do anything now. It’s got nothing to do with you. You’re a good kid, but I’ve done some things that’ve messed up my head, some really stupid things.”
“When I heard you got bit by rattlesnakes, I felt kinda bad. Last time I saw you, I talked mean to you, and I come here to tell you I’m sorry. I’m sorry about that. I really like you. I don’t mean about sex stuff. I mean I like you — like you. I promise I’ll never tell anyone you’re gay, and I won’t ever tell anybody about what you and me did. That's private, between you and me. And River?” Jeremy looked up into River's eyes. “You don’t ever have to do what I tell you. That was a dumb thing for me to say. I really want us to be friends, real friends. Is that okay?”
“Gee, thanks Jeremy. You know, you’re making me feel a lot better. You’re a great kid. I like you — like you, too.”
“Maybe when your legs don’t hurt, I can come over sometimes, and we can hang out together. You know, go for bike rides and stuff.”
River put his arm around Jeremy’s shoulder and hugged him. “I’d like that, Jeremy. Maybe in a couple of weeks, but I got some stuff I need to figure out before I can do anything else. I made some bad mistakes. I did some really stupid, bad things. I was mean to a kid too, bad mean, and not just once, but a bunch of times. I gotta figure out what to do about that.”
They sat in silence for a minute.
Jeremy said, “Before I came here, I asked my mom what to do when you’ve been mean to someone. She said you should start by saying you’re sorry, but not just say it, you have to mean it.”
“I’ll mean it,” said River.
“But saying you’re sorry isn’t enough. She said, after you say you’re sorry, you have to think about something you can do to make up for being mean.”
“Wow,” said River. “Your mom is pretty smart, and so are you. I’m gonna have to think about that part. Thanks, Jeremy.”
“What video games you got?” asked Jeremy.
River listed a few titles.
“Can we play some together, please?” asked Jeremy.
Ten minutes later, one of River’s video games had their full attention.
On his way back from the almond orchard, Pete slowed as he neared Bedford Poultry. Jude was shooting hoops by the garage. Pete parked and walked over.
Jude glanced at Pete’s face and said, “I’ll go get my mom. She should be here if you wanna talk to me.”
“This is something we better discuss one-on-one,” said Pete. “You can go get her if you want, but I got some things to say I don’t think you want anyone to know about. Let’s go sit in the patrol car for a few minutes.”
Once seated in the car, Pete said, “Jude, I’m not here as a sheriff’s deputy. I’m here because I’m David’s father.”
“I didn’t do nothin’,” said Jude. He began to stammer into another denial.
“Shut up and listen.” Although Pete’s voice was low and controlled, it oozed menace. “I don’t want to hear a word from you until I say so. If you understand, just nod.”
“I know everything you and River did to David in that gravel pit, and I know what you wanted to do. I know you took his clothes off and molested him. You were lucky a bunch of birds, and wasps, and snakes stopped you. I know how you ran away from the pit like a dirty little coward and left River there to die from snake bites. Are you listening to me? Just nod.”
Jude nodded, his eyes downcast. He clasped his hands together to keep them from shaking. He felt like he was going to be sick or cry.
“I could charge you with kidnapping, assault, and attempted rape. You’d spend the next few years in the juvenile detention center. I guarantee you’d be going to juvie. For years. Then you’d be on the sex offender registry for the rest of your life. Do you understand that?”
Jude nodded, and tears started to trickle down his cheeks.
“There’s only one reason I’m not gonna to do that. My boy, David, pleaded with me not to do anything to you. He didn’t do that because he’s afraid of you. He’s not afraid of you. He did it because he’s a good, kind boy and didn’t want you to get the punishment you deserve. I want you to nod twice if you understand that.”
Jude blubbered and nodded twice. He wiped his arm across his snotty nose and sniffled.
“I’m not gonna charge you with anything, but I'm warning you: I don’t want to hear of you doing anything like this again, to anyone. If I do, if I hear even the slightest whisper that you're messing with somebody, I’m gonna come down on you so hard, you’ll wish you were never born. Do you understand?”
Jude nodded again.
“Jude?” said Pete.
Jude looked over at him.
“Here’s a little advice. You’re just a kid, so you’re still making yourself, putting yourself together. How you do that is pretty much up to you. You should try to be a better person. You can do it, but you need to think about it. You need to think about what you’re doing. Just stand back and look at yourself. Will you try?”
Jude nodded. Pete told him to get out of the car.
Pete pulled back onto the highway. He decided he’d wait awhile before speaking to River; give those rattler bites a chance to heal. He turned his car towards Burger Baron. He’d heard they had one of those new fake meat burgers on their menu.
As soon as Art turned onto the lane that led to the pig barn, he knew something was wrong. There were pigs everywhere, loose pigs. They crowded the lane and he could see many in the bush that bordered it. He slowed to a crawl and pulled out his mobile phone. The hired hands, Evan and Willie, had the day off, but he knew he needed help.
Art pulled up at the barn, jumped out and ran to a body on the ground in front of the open door. Pigs were wandering out and the yard was full of them. He turned the body over. It was Nicky. He was breathing, but unconscious, and Art couldn't rouse him. He called 911 and ran inside the shed to look for Ricky. There was no sign of him.
Art recalled his last order to his sons and went to the trap door that led to the pit below. Then the powerful, choking gas stopped him, and he knew the fans were off. He went to the fuse box and flipped the fan circuits on. A few steps down the ladder, and he could see Ricky’s body floating face down in the pit. The gas was still thick, but he jumped down and used a rake to pull the twin’s body to the edge. As soon as Art pulled him out, he knew Ricky was dead. Frantically, he tried to resuscitate him. It was hopeless. He felt faint from the methane in the pit and staggered to the ladder.
Outside, he knelt beside Nicky’s body and attempted again to wake him. He brushed the hair off his son’s forehead and stared up into the sky. A hoarse cry burst from his lungs when he thought about Ricky. He held Nicky in his arms, and tears coursed down his face. That was how the ambulance team found him.
Evan arrived while they were lifting Nicky’s stretcher into the ambulance. Art cautioned him about the gas and asked him to try get Ricky out of the pit as soon as possible. Then he should do something about rounding up the escaped pigs. Art climbed into the pickup and followed the ambulance down the lane. Another ambulance pulled into the yard as the first one drove away.
David put on his COVID mask and walked into the public library. Once up the stairs that led to a mezzanine floor, he sat down where he could view the ground floor. He had told Earth-Girl to meet him at a specific table there at half-past three. From his seat, he could see copies of “The Silent Spring” on a nearby shelf.
At quarter past three, a slim young girl strolled up to that shelf. Her mask made her face look like a cat. She took a copy of “The Silent Spring” in her hand and walked back downstairs to the ground floor. David guessed her age to be fifteen or sixteen. That she was so young surprised him. She was only a little taller than him. She sat down at the table he had specified and opened the book. David looked at the other library patrons to see if any were watching the girl or acting in a suspicious way.
Ten minutes later, David seated himself opposite her. “Earth-Girl?”
“That’s me,” she replied.
David held out his hand. “I’m Vizh,” he said. They shook hands. “Let’s go take a walk in the park. We can talk there.”
In the small park next to the library, they found a bench beneath some trees, sat down and removed their masks.
“You said you knew the boy in the video, the boy who rescued those pigs?”
“Yeah, I know him. I was with him this morning.” David noticed Kek as he landed in the branches of a nearby tree.
“I’d love to meet him. I really want to shoot another video of him. You know that video of him and the pigs now has over fifty million views. It’s done more for animal rights than all our other advocacy work. The world is dying to see more of him, to hear from him.”
“They won’t like what he has to say.”
“Do you eat meat?” asked David.
“No, everybody in our animal rights group is vegan. I’ve been vegan for a few years now, ever since I figured it out.”
“Probably the first thing he’s going to say is that people should stop eating meat.”
“Good! You’re right, that’s not gonna be popular,” said the girl. “But maybe, because it’s him saying it, people will start to accept it as something they need to do. When I read the comments of people who’ve seen the video, I know that many of them have been deeply affected by him, by the way he is.”
“Earth-Girl, before I say any more, you have to swear to me that everything I tell you is secret. You can talk about it with me but not with anyone else. Okay?”
“Okay, I swear. You can call me Melissa. Earth-Girl is just my online nickname.”
“Okay, Melissa. The other thing I want you to understand is that Zhiv is not a normal boy. He can do things nobody else can do. You’re gonna have to accept some things I tell you, even though they seem too fantastic to be true.” As David finished speaking, he saw Lilili flutter down and perch near Kek.
“I don’t think I’ll have any problem accepting anything you tell me. I was at the river when he rescued those pigs. He was amazing. No normal kid could have done what he did,” said Melissa. “Zhiv — is that his name?”
“Yeah, that’s his name. Mine is David. Vizh is my animal name, kinda like an online nic,” said David.
“Pleased to meet you, David,” said Melissa with a smile.
“It’s such a strange story,” said David, “I don’t know where to start.”
“At the beginning,” suggested Melissa.
David looked up and saw her eyes narrow with silent laughter. He started to like her.
“Let me show you something,” he said, and looked up at Lilili. A moment passed, and then Lilili flew down and sat on David’s shoulder. He leaned his head against David’s cheek as the boy preened his back feathers.
“Wow!” said Melissa. “A pet starling. That’s cool.”
“No,” said David. “He’s not a pet. He’s a friend, an important friend. His name’s Lilili. He’s not tame. He’s a wild bird, and he’s only here because Zhiv asked him to follow me. Zhiv wanted him to be at this meeting, to have a look at you.”
“Zhiv asked him?”
“Yeah. Here’s where it gets hard to believe. Zhiv can talk to animals, and he understands what they say to him.”
“What about you? When the starling came down to you, it seemed like you asked it.”
“Yeah, Zhiv’s teaching me how to do it, but I’m not very good yet.”
“What about that crow, there?” Melissa looked up at Kek.
“Oh, that’s Kek, he’s another friend.” David concentrated on Kek for a few seconds, and the crow dropped down from his branch to stand on David’s knee. He bent forward to caress the shiny black head.
“Oh God!” breathed Melissa.
“It’s not just birds.” David looked up at her. Kek hopped onto the back of the bench and roosted there. “Zhiv can talk to all the animals, even insects and snakes.” He looked at Lilili and Kek, and they flew back up into the tree. “But maybe more important is that he can hear when they talk to him. He understands what they say to him.”
“Is it telepathy?” she asked.
“I dunno. It’s more like sharing pictures and feelings in your mind.” David took a deep breath and told her about the mara. He described the meeting of the animals a few days before, and how they had come to a decision. It took him much longer than he had imagined it would.
“Wow,” said Melissa. “I’ve got about a million questions.”
“And I’ve still got a lot to tell you, but I’ve got to go home for supper. Do you want to meet again, tomorrow? I can tell you more and answer your questions.”
They set a time for their next meeting and walked back to their bicycles at the library.
Sheriff Morgan walked over to Pete’s desk. “Art Jameson had a bad time this afternoon. One of his boys, Ricky, I think, drowned in the cesspit under their pig barn. The other twin, Nicky, is in hospital in critical condition. Seems they were overcome by gas in the barn.”
“Wow!” Pete shook his head. “Art was never a favorite of mine, but that’s something I wouldn’t wish on any man.”
“We just got a call from Deputy Frankl out on the highway past Jameson’s,” said the sheriff. “I guess a bunch of pigs escaped when the twins ran into trouble in the barn. He says the pigs are obstructing traffic, and he needs some help. Let’s go out there and see what we can do.”
“Seems like we’re heading for another animal problem.” said the sheriff as they turned onto the highway. “Are you making any sense out of those animal incident reports from around the state?”
“Only that there’s a lot of them,” said Pete. “A whole lot more of them in the last few days than before.”
Pete said, “People are getting hurt by animals, but the animals are often acting in self-defense. It’s like they’ve decided not to put up with people treating them badly. The other thing I noticed is that in a couple of cases, there was more than one kind of animal involved.”
“That’s one of the things I found so mysterious about the gravel pit incident,” said the sheriff. “Those boys were attacked by birds, and insects, and snakes. It’s like all the animals in the area were on the same wavelength.”
“And that camper over the other side of Dryden is another,” said Pete. He wasn’t yet ready to tell the sheriff about David’s experience in the gravel pit. “An eagle and a raccoon attacked that guy at the same time.”
When they neared the Jameson Pork Production facility, the sheriff slowed. A pig trotted along the roadside. Ahead, they could see others scattered over the highway. A mile further, more pigs were flowing around a patrol car, parked sideways in middle of the highway. They pulled over and stopped on the shoulder. As soon as they got out of the car, the smell hit them. Pete and the sheriff both dived back into the car and backed away a hundred yards.
“Smells like skunks have joined the party,” said the sheriff. Deputy Frankl strolled back towards them. When he was about twenty feet away, the sheriff held up his palm to stop him. He laughed, and said, “That’s close enough, Bill, I guess you earned yourself some paid leave at home for the next few days. Tell us about it.”
“I seen the pigs coming. I pulled up like a roadblock, and then that kid showed up again. He’s on the same gray horse and just as naked as he was when we saw him at the river. There were pigs all over the place, but he just stopped and looked at them, and they all got together in one big bunch. They didn’t stop when they got to the patrol car, just went around it. I jumped out. I thought I might talk to the kid or grab him if possible. The pigs weren’t having any of that. I couldn’t get close to him or his horse. I ordered him to stop.”
“What happened then?” asked the sheriff.
“He said he wasn’t going to stop. He needed to get the pigs off the highway and into safety. He said I should get back into my squad car before something happened to me.”
“I said yeah, I was gonna get into my squad car, but so was he. Then I tried to boot those pigs out of the way, so I could get to him, riding along on his horse. That’s when I saw the skunks, a whole family of them. They sprayed the car and me pretty good. The car’s probably a write-off. We’ll never get the stink out. The kid’s still up there.”
Most of the pigs had passed Deputy Frankl’s squad car. Pete and the sheriff saw the gray horse and rider further down the highway, surrounded by pigs.
“Okay,” said the sheriff. “We’ll take it from here. You get yourself and that squad car back to your place. We’ll figure out what to do about the car later. Someone told me you should take a long bath in tomato juice. And do it outside. If that stink gets into your house, you’ll be smelling it for weeks.”
There was a line of traffic beyond the pigs. A few drivers honked their horns. The parade of pigs stretched out and left one lane clear, so the cars could creep past. When that lane was clear of cars, the sheriff pulled ahead until he was abreast of the boy on his horse. He rolled down his window and shouted to be heard over the oinking and grunting pigs, “Hi, Sol. I’m Sheriff Morgan.”
Zhiv looked over and nodded.
“Maybe you can help us corral these pigs, so we can return them to their owner?” said the sheriff.
Zhiv laughed. “Nobody owns these pigs,” he said. “They belong to themselves.”
“We might have to stop them,” said the sheriff.
“Please don’t try, Sheriff. You seem like a nice man. The animals want these pigs left alone, and they’ll defend them.”
“You can’t just take hundreds of pigs away like this.”
“You don’t understand, Sheriff. I’m not taking them. They escaped from a bad place, and they want to go where they can live and be free. I’m just showing them the way. They haven’t done anything wrong. There’s no reason they should be imprisoned in somebody’s shed, and then murdered. It's not right.”
“How about your horse? The lady who owns that horse phoned me and said she saw you with the horse, and she wants it back.”
“The horse can go back to her if he wants to. It’s not up to me. I’m not riding him — he’s carrying me because I can’t run fast enough or walk far enough to do what needs to be done. He’s here for the pigs. I can't tell him what to do.”
The sheriff was about to reply when a swarm of hornets descended on the car. They didn’t enter the car, but their angry buzzing made the sheriff close his window immediately.
“Skunks and hornets,” said the sheriff to Pete. “I begin to see that pattern we were talking about.”
The sheriff accelerated ahead and left the hornets behind. They returned as the procession of pigs came up to their car. He rolled the window down far enough to speak to the boy. “I’d really like to talk to you,” called the sheriff. “Listen, I don’t think you’re doing anything wrong, but lots of people do, and there are laws.”
Zhiv paused opposite their car, and said, “Like I said, Sheriff, you seem like a good man, but you’re a sheriff, and I’m just a kid. I don’t think I could sit down and talk to you for more than a few minutes before you’d try to grab me. It’s your job. It’s your duty, and I’m too busy to waste time helping you to do it. Please roll up your window. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“Are you threatening me?” asked the sheriff.
“No sir. I’m warning you. I don’t give the orders here. All the animals around here want these pigs to stay free. If you try to stop them, or me, the animals will fight back. It’s not up to me. It’s up to you and them.”
Sheriff Morgan smiled, chuckled, and asked, “Does that include skunks?”
“Yes, sir,” laughed Zhiv. “It might include skunks.”
For a few minutes, the squad car crept along parallel to the boy on the horse. A dark shadow overhead made the sheriff and Pete look up. A bald eagle swooped over their car and eyed them as it passed, ten feet away. A second, smaller eagle followed, a few seconds later.
“Looks like the skunks have got some air support,” said the sheriff. He and Pete watched the eagles as they circled around the convoy.
“Sol?” called the sheriff, “Are you okay? Are you having a good time?”
Zhiv laughed. “Better than you, I think.”
“Is everything okay with you? I mean food and shelter, and like that.”
“Thank you, sir. Yes, everything’s okay with me.”
“How about clothes? Can I bring you some clothes?” offered the sheriff.
Two more squad cars arrived. Sheriff Morgan sent one ahead of the pigs and detailed the other to follow. The pigs continued to occupy one lane. The deputies who had arrived directed one-way traffic back and forth in the other lane. When Zhiv and the pigs reached the Jana Mountain logging road, they turned onto it.
The sheriff conferred with his deputies. He instructed one car to stay with the pigs, behind them. “Don’t do anything. Don’t try to stop them or anything like that. Just follow them as long as you can see them. Do not, I repeat, do not engage with the pigs, or the boy, or any other animals you see.” The second squad car was directed to block the logging road to other traffic. There was no point in letting animal rights activists shoot another video.
As they watched the boy and the pigs moving up the mountainside, the sheriff said, “You know, Pete, most of the time I like my job. I feel good about what we do because we have good laws and it’s our job to uphold them. But whenever I see that boy it’s like I see a gap between the law and justice, a gap between what’s legal and what’s right.
“He’s naked in public. He’s an unaccompanied minor, a runaway from a state-approved foster home. He’s riding a murderous horse that belongs to the widow Wilkins, and he’s guiding a bunch of renegade pigs into a state park. Given that Deputy Frankl ordered him to stop, and he didn’t stop, we could probably charge him with resisting arrest too. He's breaking laws that I’ve sworn to uphold, but whenever I see him, I know that what he’s doing, what he is, is right, and that while he’s breaking some of our laws, he has justice on his side.”
“And the animal kingdom seems to be on his side too,” said Pete. “To capture him we’d have to shoot a bunch of pigs and skunks, and a couple of bald eagles too. It’s against the law to shoot a bald eagle without a federal permit. We’d probably have to shoot his horse too.”
“And for what? Just so we can make him wear pants and a shirt and sleep in a bed, and stop him from rescuing helpless animals from their miserable lives?” Sheriff Morgan shook his head.
They sat without speaking for a minute and watched the cavalcade of animals creep up the mountainside while the eagles circled overhead.
Pete broke the silence. “So, what are we gonna do about him?”
“I don’t have the faintest, foggiest idea, Pete. He’s an amazing boy. I’d take him home to the missus right now, if I could, no questions asked. Our own boy’s room’s empty since he got married. I like him that much, and I’m worried. Even though he's got forty million people watching him, I’m afraid he’s gonna get hurt bad before too long. We have to figure this out before that happens. You got any ideas?”
I write in order to be read, and I hunger for feedback - negative, positive, or indifferent. Please share your thoughts on this story in a review, a comment or send me a personal message. I will reply.
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