The Burning: Chapter 2

By Jen South

Chapter 2

John rolled over in bed and gave the alarm clock a bleary glare. 
Demonized invention he thought with a crooked grin as he stretched out a
long arm and hit the snooze button.  Again.  One of these days, he promised
himself, I'm going to find the miracle alarm that doesn't annoy me awake. 
There was a heavy thump on his bed and he quickly ducked his head under the
pillow just in time to avoid a snuffing, questing nose.  Obviously
convinced he was dead, John's room mate contentedly sprawled his furry
length across John's back and exhaled a gusty sigh.  
"Hey" John protested, "watch your elbows."  Reaching up behind him, John
managed to land a warning swat on Pacer's thick neck.  But his movements
dislodged the pillow and he received a gusty earful of wet nose for his
"Ga!" John sat up in bed and gave Pacer his most threatening glare.  Pacer
responded with a thumping tail and immediately sprawled out even further to
occupy John's deserted spot on the pillows.  John scratched Pacer's huge
head and chuckled.
"Dogs aren't allowed on the bed" he stated firmly.  Pacer responded with
more tail thumping and a look that seemed to indicate he was willing to let
John continue to live with that fantasy if he really wanted to.  The alarm
clock went off again.
"All right, all right.  I'm up.  See, this is me.  Standing up."  The
alarm clock wasn't listening and Pacer, already snoring loudly, didn't care
anymore.  John shook his head and turned the alarm clock off, heading for
the bathroom and a shower with another chuckle.  Ah, the life of a
bachelor.   He couldn't see why so many of his friends seemed so eager to
give up all of its perks.
He was just toweling his hair dry and fixing breakfast while struggling
into his shirt and finding Pacer's water bowl when there was a knock at his
door.  Rolling his eyes at the sprawled form of his "guard dog" John set
down his glass of orange juice and headed down the narrow hall.
"Yeah?" he called, just before he reached the door.
"Johnny?" the voice sounded small and quivery coming from the other side
of the thick door and John unsnapped its locks in almost the same motion
that pulled the door open.  
The little girl threw her arms around his waist and held tightly as he
took a shuffled step backward and shut the door.  Once it was locked again,
he untangled her arms enough to kneel down in front of her and take her
chin in his fingers.
"What's up, hon?"
Ginger Gilliam looked up at him with tears swelling in her eyes.  Eyes
that were too young for such a little girl.
"Hey, its all right, honey" John scooped her up in his arms and headed
back for the kitchen.  "Why don't we make some cinnamon toast for breakfast
and you can tell me and Pacer all about it?"  The combination of both Pacer
and the offer of cinnamon toast did the trick and Ginger brightened
John let her stand on the counter and rummage through his depleted spice
cabinet while he threw some bread in the toaster oven.  For all that she
was so skinny, Ginger ate like a horse.  He added a few more slices and
turned around to find both her and Pacer watching him with similar
expressions.  Hooking a stool away from the table, John set it next to
Ginger's counter and sat down.
"Find what you're looking for?"
"Daddy's home" she blurted.
"Oh?"  John kept the question mild.
"Yes" she looked stricken even though John knew that she adored her
Senator father.  "He says I can't see you any more."
"Oh?"  That was a surprise.  He'd only met the Senator once or twice
before since the man was always out of town on business.  But he'd always
gotten along well with Ginger and her mother Patty.  They lived in the
upstairs apartment complex and when he knew he'd be gone on a long
stake-out he could always count on them to look after Pacer while he was
away.  Or at least keep a look out for Pacer, who had a knack for getting
out of the house no matter how secure John had thought he'd made it.
"He says you're dangerous to be around."
"I'm dangerous?" John asked, not sure whether he should laugh or be
insulted.  Ginger nodded.
"Um hm.  Daddy says that there's trouble coming and that people like you
are 'targets'.  Johnny?  What are you a target for?"
It was such an innocent question that bitterness rose in John's throat. 
Damn them.  Damn them for making a child worry about why people would turn
other humans into targets.  Damn them for following him home.
He was saved from immediately having to answer her question by another
knock at the door.
"I'll get that" he announced, rising smoothly to his feet.  The toast was
done and he slid a few slices onto her plate.  "Why don't you butter these
while I go see who it is?  We'll talk just as soon as I get back."
Ginger nodded solemnly and John headed down the hall again, wondering why
he was suddenly so popular.  Much more of this and he'd have enough people
to start a party.
"Yeah?" he called out of habit at the same time he noticed that Pacer was
blocking the way with a glare.  It stopped him in his tracks and his eyes
narrowed as they shifted from his dog to the door where no one had answered
his call.  Then Pacer's ears cocked.
"shit" John whispered, spinning on his heels and sprinting back the way
he'd come.  Pacer passed him.  Using the corner of the kitchen as a pivot
point, John dipped sideways into the kitchen, catching up a startled,
cinnamon coated Ginger and rolling over the pass-through counter into his
living/dining room.  The explosion occurred just as he dropped over its
edge.  He hit the floor hard, cushioning Ginger against him and rolled so
that she was between him and the sheltering wall of the pass-through.  To
her credit, she didn't even scream.
The blast was loud but not deafening.  Which led John to believe that
whatever kind of explosive had been used either hadn't worked as well as it
should have or, more likely, hadn't been meant to take out the entire
building.  Just his door.  And whoever was answering it.  Powered plaster
and paint chips drifted down across his shoulders and back and in the
moment before onlookers and a very concerned mother showed up John tipped
himself up on an elbow and looked down at Ginger.  She looked back up at
him, eyebrows drawn down low on her round face.  Unhurt and untramatized,
she simply asked:
"Who was it?"
John burst into laughter.
"Angry girl scouts, honey.  Really, really ticked off girl scouts."

"Good thing you called in and let us know what was going on."  
John looked up from the mountain of paperwork that covered his desk and
gave his commanding officer a sideways smile.
"I'm beginning to see the point behind the bomb.  It was to keep me off the
street and trapped at my desk filling out reports for the next ten years" 
he stated mildly.   Commander "Mighty Max" Machetti looked down at the pile
on his captain's desk and chuckled.
"Don't distract me, boy.  I'm trying to thank you.  You saved quite a few
of our boys with your warning."
John sobered.
"How's Robbie?"
Max shook his head.
"Not bad.  Not good.  He'll live through it and come out of it with a lot
of free time and a good pension."
John nodded, feeling his gut twist.  Rob would finally get his wish.  He
was off the team.  And all he had to do to get that way had been to catch a
thighful of shrapnel.  
The bombing had been carefully planned and the explosions at different
houses throughout the state had all gone off almost simultaneously. 
Ginger's father's fears had come true but in a way that was much worse than
he could possibly imagine.  Because this was more than a simple bombing. 
It was an announcement.  That the Warriors were now organized enough to not
only plan a terrorist attack that had taken careful timing and detailed
information but had also covered the entire length of the state.  Just when
things couldn't seem to get worse…
"Anyone else hurt?" John asked.
Max's bulldog face was a bland mask to hide anything he might feel.  John
knew the feeling.
"Anderson and Robinson both lost a lot of blood but they'll pull through
fine.  McKenna's got a broken leg so we won't be seeing her for a while. 
Other than that our boys managed to pull through without much more than
bruises and scraps.  The other cities weren't so lucky."
John nodded but he didn't ask.  Truth was, he really didn't want to know. 
As soon as the dust settled everyone knew that ACT was going to retaliate. 
This last attack had pushed them well past the point where they felt they
needed to hide what they were doing anymore.  Declared or not, this was now
a war.  He didn't know if the history books would ever mention it, but it
was a war as sure as the Civil War or the War of 1812 had been.  Brother
against brother all over again.  He fought the urge to slam his fist down
on the desk.  Just what he'd been praying everyone would find enough sense
to avoid.
"You want to go home, sport?" Max asked gruffly, reminding John that he was
still standing there.
"Can't" John muttered dryly.  "My apartment has this wonderful view of the
road now but the privacy - " he waved a dismissive hand before giving his
boss a crooked grin laced through with tiredness.  "It has been a long day"
he conceded.
"Longer for you than most" Max rumbled.  "Head out, cowboy.  I think the
paper-pushers have enough details for now.  Toss the rest of those papers
and then get out of here."
John gave Max's back a smile and then tipped back in his chair, tossing his
pen into its cup with a casual flick of his wrist.
"You think there'll be much trouble tonight, Captain" Toby asked, coming to
stand near John's chair.  John shook his head, shagging fingers through his
"Not likely.  Think of it as the calm before the storm, Toby.  Enjoy it
while you can."  He stood up, sweeping his papers off of his desk and into
the convenient trash can on the far side of his desk.  The trash can was
labeled "Put Suggestions Here" with white-out.  Robbie's handy work.  John
picked up his jacket and made sure his handgun was in easy reach.
"Tell the boys to keep a wide eye open though.  Just in case any of the
splinter groups or gangs decide now would be a good time to make some
noise."  He clapped Toby on the back and gave him an easy smile he didn't
entirely feel.  "And get some sleep.  Soon as the sun rises tomorrow, we're
all in for it."  For a long time, he silently added.  Toby nodded and John
headed for the door but Toby's voice caught up to him halfway across the
"Yeah?" John half turned to find Toby's face vaguely red.  Now what in the
devil would make Toby blush?
"Thanks" Toby finally stuttered.  "Thanks for the warning.  Bea's the early
riser.  She would have been the one to get the door."
John tipped his head in acknowledgment of what it mean to Toby.
"Yes, sir?"
"Marry that girl" John told him and then pushed through the doors and
headed for his car.  Pacer met him in the parking lot and John rolled his
eyes as he roughed the dog's fur.
"Escaped from Patty, eh?"
Pacer's tongue hung out the side of his huge jaws and he gave John the
equivalent of a doggie grin.  John chuckled.
"Well, come on" John unlocked his car and opened the door so Pacer could
take his usual place in the passenger's seat.  As Pacer leaped inside, ears
flopping, John added:
"And thanks for saving my skin this morning."
Pacer circled in his seat and then sat down, pointed nose out the window,
tail thumping as he rolled his eyes to watch John settled into his own
"What do you say, boy?  I'm thinking we deserve a reward.  Diner 96 sound
good to you?"
If anything Pacer's tail thumping increased.

Diner 96 always felt like a bit of heaven to John.  Everyone was welcome. 
Maddy, a huge round Indian woman tended to consider everyone one of her
children and her husband, Jeb, as white a Cracker as ever drove a pick-up
truck and listened to Randy Travis, had a way of keeping both his hand made
burgers and his rowdier customers in line.  Maddy greeted John with a
flurry as soon as he strode in the door with Pacer leading the way.  
"Johnny boy!" she moved as gracefully as a slender woman half her age as
she rounded the diner's chrome counter and wrapped him in a hug.  "Oh, we
were so worried when we heard about the explosions!   I was just sure
something horrible had happened to you.  Jeb said you were too smart for
that kind of thing, but I've been keeping my ears open anyway.  Come right
over here and let me get you the house special while you tell me all about
it."  She hustled him over to a stool near the open kitchen and then
scooted back behind the counter in time to fill a trucker's coffee mug
before he had a chance to realize that it had been empty.  Pacer followed
her with a happy grin on his face and sat down to look at her with adoring
eyes as she turned toward him.  Maddy burst into peals of laughter that
transformed her entire face and John watched the way Jeb's eyes softened as
he came around the corner with several cartons from the freezer in his
hands and found his wife laughing.
"Oh, you beastly beast" Maddy chided Pacer.  "So much trouble.  Such a
handsome face, what else could you expect?  What?  You think I have
something for you?  Just because you show up I'm supposed to welcome you
back with open arms?"  She was teasing and Pacer basked in her attention,
tail whisking along the clean tiles of the floor.
"Hup to, Maddy" Jeb mocked sternly, landing a pat on her ample rear as he
walked past.  "Leave the mutt alone.  He's not a paying customer."
Maddy straightened with a snort.
"Jeb Bridger, how dare you be so familiar with me in front of our guests!"
she exclaimed, eyes dancing before she turned back to John.  "Incorrigible"
she stated firmly.  "That's what he is."
John chuckled, feeling relaxed for the first time in weeks.  Coming to the
diner was always a little like coming home.  Out of habit, John glanced
around the tiny diner.  It was brightly lit and cheerful in its white and
black checker design and 50's style art decor.   But the thing John loved
most about the diner, outside of its owners, was the atmosphere.  Near the
old jukebox  a handful of teenagers, red and white and black, watched as
yet another one of their number tried to master the trick it took to drop
the coin in and hit the intended number for a song as the menu spun slowly
by.  Groans rose from the crowd as the opening notes of "Achy, Breaky
Heart" started to filter through the sound system.  Jeb tossed the
embarrassed, grinning teenager another quarter.
"Try 'er again, son" he suggested as the rest of the group surrounded the
White truckers sat at the counter within elbow pushing room of Reservation
teachers and no one seemed to mind.  A group of Indian girls  sat at one of
the side booths and John heard laughter as one of the girls tipped back her
head.  Her friend next to her was grinning wide and the girl sitting across
from them was trying not to choke on the drink she had just swallowed. 
Three white farmers sat right across the aisle from them and didn't seem to
even notice.  John shook his head, starting to glance back at Jeb.  If only
there was some way to bottle Diner 96 and pass it out to the rest of the
state.  Heck, the rest of the world for that matter.  And then something
made him jerk his head back to look at the girls in the corner booth again.
His eyes narrowed then widened and he sat back in his seat as if he'd just
been hit.  She glanced up then, eyes still dancing with laughter, and their
gazes locked.  Merciful God, she was beautiful.  Just as beautiful as she'd
been when he'd seen her in the bombed out EarthOutfitters the other day. 
Even across the room her dark eyes were deep and for a breath, he felt he
was going to drown in those dark, hidden depths.  He'd never thought to see
her again and he'd been doing his level best to forget about her all
together.  But here she was, beautiful and vibrant and alive and laughing
and he couldn't seem to look away.  There was no recognition in her eyes,
in the smooth planes of her face, but there was something else there,
something that didn't have a name.
The house special arrived with a clatter as Maddy set his plate on the
counter in front of him.  The sound jerked John back to reality and he
glanced down at his burger before looking back at the girl.  She wasn't
looking at him anymore, though something in her movements said that she was
still aware of him.  John turned back to his food in time to see Maddy's
gaze putting two and two together and coming up with five.  As usual.
"She works here, you know" Maddy said with a casualness that neither one of
them believed.
"Oh?" John asked with the same kind of casualness.  Maddy's grin curved
bright across her face.
"Ai.  Hired her myself two weeks ago.  She seems like the kind of girl that
would fit in around here.  Jeb seems to be under the mistaken impression
that she's his daughter now or something."  Jeb gave her a  scowl with no
power behind it from his place at the stove in the kitchen and she blew him
a kiss.  "Her name's Jeanie.  Near as I can tell her father's some kind of
Native Rights activist or something of the sort from the East Coast.   Real
mugwump for all that she never talks about him."  Glancing back at the
girl, Maddy mildly added in an off hand manner:
"She works the late shift."

To Be Continued...

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