The little town of Broken Hearts in the mountains of Colorado looked very pretty. All of the lights were off, of course, and there were no cars parked along the side of Main Street. But the street and the sidewalks had been shoveled and salted. The trees that lined the street had been trimmed. Most of the windows of the shops and cafes and the bank weren’t just intact, they were clean and decorated for Christmas. The few windows that had been broken had been neatly replaced with large sheets of plywood. It looked like a charming, functional hamlet, and the man walking down the middle of Main didn’t know no one lived there at all.
From her perch in the mountains Birdie examined the man through her binoculars. Thin, nearly haggard. Pale. Despite the late winter cold he was shirtless, rubbing his arms with his hands. Unkempt red hair fell into his face, making it impossible to figure out age from this distance. He walked down Main Street slowly, staring straight ahead at the ground. His steps were wobbly, and every second he didn’t fall on his face Birdie was impressed. With horror, she realized he was barefoot.
The walkie-talkie next to her squawked. She let go of the binoculars with her left hand, and as she searched for the little radio she continued to watch the man.
“Birdie,” said the walkie-talkie, helping her find it. “You seeing this?”
She got it up to her mouth below the binoculars. “Yeah, I see him.”
“This dude is looking rough,” Nico said, almost sounding impressed.
Birdie grunted. “Too rough. No way he made it up the mountain like that. He’s got to be a pitypot.”
“Agreed,” Nico said. But they’d been on duty together too long for Birdie to miss the tone.
“You think we should go down there anyway,” she said.
“If he’s not a pitypot, he’s going to keel over from exposure before he even hits Grant.”
Birdie stared at the man harder, as though she could read his mind if she just drilled her eyes into his forehead. They’d seen this three times before, and none of the other decoys had ever looked as awful as this. They’d only fallen for the first one, and only because they hadn’t seen the play before. Stare at them long enough you’d spot a seam. Gun tucked in the waistband. Perfectly full face on someone claiming to be starving. The last one had been screaming as they came in, full throated screams no one in his condition should have been capable of making. And all of them had been fully clothed and booted. As she and Nico watched, this man tripped over nothing and barely caught himself before his face found the pavement. He sat up and stayed there, still rubbing his arms.
“Yeah, okay, fine,” she said. “I’ll get dressed and check it out.”
Someone with less confidence would probably balk at having to be bait. But Birdie knew that that’s just what the situation called for. You couldn’t solve every problem with guns and violence. Sometimes you just had to look weak and bat your eyelashes until you knew what’s what. Then you could start with the violence.
The wooden chest on the other side of the old fire watch tower was there for precisely this reason. Well, among a bunch of other reasons, anyway. She quickly switched out her heavy workman’s jacket for the long woman’s coat that cinched in the middle, and her thick gloves for the thin fingerless ones. For some reason they always fell for the fingerless gloves. Nobody was really wearing makeup anymore so there was no reason to put on a face, but she undid her crown braids and let her brown hair fall around her face and shoulders.
It was a quick path down the slope through the woods, and then she was darting down the side street like a rabbit. Eyes and ears open, but she only heard her own footsteps, and saw no prints in the snow. They only kept Main street clear for reasons just like this. As she let herself into the back of the music shop she could only hope no one had seen her.
As she leaned out the front door, she hoped whoever was out there was seeing her. The bells on the door chimed, and when she called to the man half a block away she tried to strike the right balance of pretending to be quiet without actually managing it.
“Hey. Hey, you.”
He was on his feet again but hadn’t gone very far from where he had been sitting. Birdie’s voice bounced off the buildings up the street, and his head darted from side to side, following, looking very much like he had gone mad. She had to give it up to this guy, he was doing a great job. Maybe he’d been an actor before everything had fallen apart.
“Down here,” she called. Still he didn’t seem to be getting it. He’d started wandering up the street again, away from her. Grumbling, Birdie left the music shop doorway, hustling after him. If there were others, they’d see her now. She stopped a few feet away from him and slowly circled around, not wanting to startle him.
“Hey, you shouldn’t be out here…all…holy shit.”
If the man had looked like a mess through the binoculars, he looked like a trash fire up close. His torso and arms were covered in bruises and what looked like cigarette burns. The tips of his fingers and toes were blue, as were his lips. He was dirty all over. Now she could see his face, and the look in his eyes wasn’t just confused. It was blank. Gone away and no one home.
For a full five seconds, Birdie believed the man wasn’t a pitypot and began unbuttoning her coat to put on his shoulders.
Birdie saw the guns first. A shotgun belonging to a tall man with a shaved round face. And a pistol in the hand of a short man next to him in a cowboy hat. Both were pointed at her. These two were the seam in the act. Full faces, warm clothes, and the smug smiles only assholes wore when they had won.
“Hands up, little lady,” the short man said.
Birdie stepped away and put her hands up, as requested. “Who are you calling ‘little,’ junior?”
The anger was instant, and the short man was aggressively pointing the pistol at her face. Birdie winced but held her ground. With a calm, slow hand the other man lowered the pistol until it was pointing at the ground, then went back to having his shotgun at the ready.
“Relax, Eric,” he said. Only when he was sure Eric wasn’t going to lift the gun again did he speak to Birdie. “We don’t want trouble, we just want supplies.”
Birdie focused on keeping her face soft. “We can give you some water and rations to get up the mountain, if that’s where you’re headed.”
“You can give us everything you got,” Eric said. He pointed the gun at her midsection. “You take us to your stores and you give us everything we can carry, or we will blow you away!”
He yelled that last part, eyes scanning the second and third stories of the buildings lining Main. Where he thought the rest of her people were hiding. Birdie made a show of wincing at the volume.
“You don’t have to yell, mister. And you could just ask. We can give you something.”
The big man chuckled. “Nobody’s going to give us what we want just from asking. He wasn’t exaggerating. We want everything you and yours have. Now-”
He lifted the shotgun, pointed it straight at her chest.
“Take us to your supplies, or your people get to watch you grow a hole in your chest.”
“That’s not going to happen,” came from the alley across the way.
Birdie breathed in relief. She was starting to think the others weren’t coming. The big nameless man and Eric spun in place, trying to see everyone at once. Carlos and Nico were behind her, she knew. Coming out of the alley to the south were Frannie and John. The four of them circled up until the three interlopers were surrounded.
“Toss her the guns,” John said in his booming voice. And, when they hesitated, “Now!”
The big man and Eric glanced at each other and then reluctantly did as they were told. Birdie picked up the guns at her feet, tucking the pistol into the waistband of her jeans and checking to make sure the shotgun was actually loaded. The guns no longer taking up all of her attention, she turned back to the first man. Birdie was sure that far-gone look would have disappeared, he would be standing up straighter and looking as put out as these two.
She was wrong. The man looked no different. He hadn’t seemed to notice his friends had shown up, nor hers. Something else felt off, and it took her a few seconds to figure it out. Coats. The man’s supposed ‘friends’ hadn’t brought him a coat, or boots, or anything warm.
“Don’t suppose it’s too late to ask for that water,” the big man asked in his drawl.
John spit. “You’re lucky we’re letting you leave at all. Start walking, and don’t stop until you can’t feel our guns pointed at you anymore. Then maybe walk a little farther.”
Still, Eric looked ready for a fight, eyeing Birdie like he would tackle her. Birdie held the shotgun up to his face.
“Try me, junior.”
The big man put a hand on Eric’s shoulder, physically turned him around, and started pushing him back east down Main.
“Come on, June,” Eric barked. The first man, June, jumped, the first spark of situational awareness Birdie had seen yet blossoming in his eyes. Then they were dull again, and he started shuffling after the other two.
“Wait,” Birdie said. They stopped and turned to look at her. Birdie cut her eyes to June and back to them. “He stays here.”
“No fucking way,” Eric said, coming for her. He stopped just shy of the end of the shotgun, as the others on her side closed ranks.
“What are you doing, B?” John asked softly, standing next to her.
“Look at him. He’s not acting. They’re keeping him like that.”
From the corner of her eye Birdie could see John really examining the man.
“Hey, mister,” he said. “Mister, I’m talking to you. Are you okay with these two?”
The man didn’t respond, only swayed and looked towards the others.
“He’s our brother,” the big man said. “We ain’t leaving him.”
“Not much in the way of family resemblance,” Nico said from behind her.
“Half brother,” Eric said. “And he ain’t right. We need to take care of him.”
“This is taking care of him?” John asked. “I’m getting the feeling you just don’t want to lose your pitypot.”
Keeping the shotgun trained on Eric, Birdie turned to face the man in question.
“Hey, June? It’s June, right?”
The man looked up at her. Impossible to tell how much he was actually understanding, but at least he was making eye contact.
“You can stay here with us. We’ll fix you up and get you warm, get you some food. Would you like that?”
The man only stood there, staring at her. His mouth moved ever so slightly. Repeating what she said, maybe. Talking to himself. Maybe not making words at all.
“I told you,” the big man said. “He ain’t right. He won’t-”
In shambling steps, June walked away from the other two men. The group watched in silence as June walked slowly toward Birdie, and then past her, only stopping when he had positioned Birdie completely between him and the other two men.
“That settles it,” John said. “You two. Start walking.”
“Fine, keep him. At least give us our guns back.”
“Move. Frannie, Nico, make sure they find their way out.”
With plenty of glaring and muttering, Eric and the big guys made their way down Main, hands still in the air and Frannie and Nico trailing behind. Birdie handed the shotgun to John and started taking off her coat again.
“You want to lecture me about taking in strays?” she asked.
John looked at the shivering mess of a man with pity and disgust.
“Not this time.”
Subscribing is sexy? I’m not good at advertising.