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Unbreakable

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The loudest sounds are small. The sound of snow crunching under the tires of Jubal's Crown Vic, the thunk as he shoves the transmission lever out of drive and up into park.

To my right--out the salt-stained passenger window--is Weatherman's trailer. On my left is my older brother--half-brother, if you want to get it right--Jube. He's breathing heavily through his nostrils and chewing his lips as he digs around in his jacket pocket for the bullets for his sidearm. To my knowledge, this is the first time he's loaded it with the intention of firing it.

Jubal's fingers were frostbitten in the gulf war, and they've never gotten all the feeling back. I watch as he unfolds the .357--once our father's duty pistol--in his lap and pinches it between his thick thighs, delicately dropping the dull brass shells into the chambers. When he's finished, he picks it up by the grips, spins the cylinder so the firing caps whirl, claps the breech closed, and sets it on the dashboard between the compass and the thin box of tissues.

He takes another deep breath--I can hear every one of the extra 40 pounds he's packing, not including the bulletproof vest and the equipment belt--then he jerks the keys from the ignition and uses the smallest one to unlock the shotgun propped on my side of the transmission hump.

"Here," he says, nudging it out of the clamp. "Just in case." He slips the safety off and pumps the wooden handle, chambering a shell. This is the second weapon he's armed in the car, definitely not standard operating procedure. Guns are for outside, for wide open spaces, not the close quarters of a state surplus police interceptor.

"In case of what?" I say, looking at the rust-pocked trailer and the empty front lot. Weatherman's F-10 is nowhere to be seen--in fact, the snow around the property is undisturbed.

"You know what to do," he says, shouldering open his door, shifting his bulk out, and reaching for his wide-awake Stetson. I open my own door, step out, and look at him over the cracked Mars lights.

Jubal tugs on his gloves, reaches back in for the bulldog .357, and works his finger through the trigger guard. My upper lip is suddenly sweating. My fingers twitch against each other and the shotgun stock.

He pins me with his gaze, his breath fogging in the bitter January air. "Breaker." My nickname, my "this means business" address. He bites his lip. "Be ready for anything."

As he moves around the front of the cruiser, I realize that he hasn't called in on the radio. We're here cowboying well outside the law, even for Coal City, where he, like our father before he died, runs the show.

Jubal crosses over to the door, takes the shallow cinderblock steps with surprising ease, and uses his free hand to rap on the aluminum door with his baton.

I lean forward on the open car door, trying to swallow a flood of saliva, chewing the insides of my cheeks.

"Weathers!" Jubal shouts from the front step. "Open up! It's Jubal." I notice that he doesn't say it's the police. "It's me, Unbreakable." His own nickname, going back to peewee football and following him through junior high, high school, and his tour of duty.

Jubal is four years older than me. If I remember right, Weatherman--Scott Weathers--was in his graduating class. I know of him, though I don't know him personally. Possibly he has a younger brother or sister--a son or daughter even--enrolled at the elementary school where I teach. At the moment, my mind is nearly empty. The thoughts I have concern the events of the last week, the last hour, and especially the window at the end of Weatherman's single-wide, which has a thin piece of fabric--maybe an old pillowcase--hanging in place of a curtain. I am positive--as positive as I can be with the blood rushing in my ears--that it was open when we arrived.

Across the yard, Jubal knocks one last time, turns the dull steel knob, and steps back as the door slowly tips open on its own. Weatherman's trailer is canted slightly forward on its blocks. He squeezes the gun in both hands, holding it out in the classic Weaver stance--the one taught in academies everywhere, the one taught to us by our father when we were old enough to know what we were doing--and steps inside.

At the same instant, the curtain twitches.

"Jubal--" I try to shout, but only thick spit bubbles come out. "Jubal!" I step out from behind the door with the shotgun at port arms, the barrel pointed at the spot where I saw him disappear.

For the longest second ever, there is only silence.

Early last week, Jubal called me at my office--really the office I share with the rest of the first and second grade team. There are eight of us in all; I teach art, music, and movement, which was called playtime when I was that age. It's the same school where my mother--not Jubal and Katy's--taught for years, though she taught pre-kindergarten, all subjects, and wiped noses and butts besides.

She taught the three of us. I have no idea if she taught Weatherman. Somewhere in the attic of her house on Front Street is a large, flat box of the type used to store dresses. In it, she has her class photos going back to when she was a student teacher over in LaSalle.

I followed her path, Jubal followed our father's, and Katy--Jubal's younger twin by 26 minutes--took after their mother and made a habit of disappearing. Their mother--a woman named Marie--did it only once. My mother loves them as her own; she always has. I'm not one of Katy's biggest supporters, due to her habit of antagonizing my mother. I am the only one who feels this way, however. She is the apple of everyone else's eye--our father's, Jubal's, and even my mother's.

In my office, Judy Martin handed me the telephone, which I wiped against my pant leg before putting it to my face. Our lone extension is permanently discolored with Mary Kay and carries the scent of White Shoulders.

I could tell it was Jubal before he spoke; he was calling from his office, which has its own distinct background noise. "Jube," I said. "What's up?"

I heard him exhale through his nose. "Katy's missing again," he said. "Mom just called me."

"That makes sense, Chief."

"When was the last time you saw her?" This was a routine we'd been through before.

"I don't know," I said, flattening my tie. "A couple of weeks at least. It was at the Grocerette, come to think of it." The tiny grocery store had been replaced by an Albertson's when I was in junior high, but people still used the old name.

"What was she buying? Do you remember?" I could hear the squall of his desk chair as he settled back into it. Jubal was hard on furniture.

"I don't remember, Jube. I was walking out, she was walking in."

"I mean, was she buying booze or anything? Beer?"

"You think she's drinking again?" She had gotten into some trouble a few years back, and Jube had to lock her up once or twice. Our mother was irate, especially when he refused to let her bond her out.

I could hear a loud clicking sound and realized he was tapping a pen against his teeth.

"I don't know. Mom doesn't think so."

"What do you think?" I asked. My brother was not the brightest--he became chief of police because he was our father's oldest son, among other things--but he had the gut instincts of a veteran, the ones that told him which way to break on the gridiron, where the ducks would rise, which way to roll in a mortar attack, which door to knock on in the middle of the night. In that way, he was like our father.

Behind me, the final bell rang. School was out.

"I've got to go, Jube. I've got bus duty."

"Right. Just keep an eye out, OK? Let me know."

"I'm on it."

"Later, bro." He hung up before I could say good-bye.

Two nights later, Jubal and I were sitting in his front room--he has a two-bedroom Sears and Roebuck over on Center Street, equidistant from his office and my mother's--looking at some Polaroids he'd taken that afternoon at a wrecking yard over in Jubilee. He'd gone down there as a favor to the sheriff, back-scratching on some missing vehicles in a quasi-undercover way. The centerpiece of most of the photos was a forest green Olds Cutlass that had been crushed down to a height of about three feet.

"How do you even know this is a Cutlass?" I asked him.

"I asked Wally. He said it came in about two weeks ago." This was Wally "Walleye" Phelps, one of those old men who had been old for all of our lives. He ran the county dump and a wrecking yard. I remembered meeting him once when our father took us out there to get rid of a mattress. He was wearing a Dickies coverall and an International Harvester hat, and he had been perched on a bench seat atop some five-gallon cans, perusing a Playboy so old it looked like it had a painting on the cover.

"Was he wearing the jumpsuit?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah," Jubal said, leaning over in his clapped-out La-Z-Boy to top off his beer. Like our father, he mixed one from the fridge with one from the case by the back door in equal proportions. Our family called it "having a warm one and a cold one." Jubal went on, "But get this--he wasn't there when it came in. His son-in-law was, and he's a real numbskull, according to Walleye. Can't hardly write his own name--"

"Seriously?"

"Well, he's either stupid or else his brain's all fried from drinking turpentine or whatever that home brew is." He took a long pull from his beer and coughed, which caused him to slop on his uniform shirt. "Goddamn it." He flicked at the stain with his fingers and got up for a washcloth.

"Just give it to me," I said.

"I'm going by mom's tomorrow." She starched and ironed all of Jubal's uniforms.

He came out of the kitchen with two fresh beers and a larger damp spot on his shirt. "Anyway, I checked the invoice on the Olds, but the VIN number is impossible to read. It's like this idiot doesn't know the difference between a one and a four and a seven. And he's got like three extra numbers in there, anyway."

"Did you make a copy of it?"

He shook his head and tipped the beers into his glass. "They don't even have a toilet out there. Do you think they have a copier?"

"Did you take a picture of it, at least, Mr. Polaroid?"

He took another long pull and wiped his upper lip with the back of his hand. "No." I shot him my "paint is for paper, not for eating" look. "I was out of film. Besides, that car wasn't one of the ones I was supposed to be looking for."

"Like that matters," I said.

He jacked the footrest out again and shifted around until he fit into the groove he'd worn into the center of the recliner. "Look at it. You tell me that's not Katy's car."

I flipped through the photos again. It could have been. The color seemed right. "What happened to the hubcaps?" I asked. Katy's Cutlass had silver spoked ones with the Olds shield in the center.

Jubal raised his eyebrows and gave me a thin smile over the green glass rim of his mug. "Good eye. I asked Wally; he didn't know. We looked through the hubcap shed, but it was like"--he held up his hands--"you know."

"Looking for a needle in a haystack."

"Something like that. Sure." He was squeezing his free fingertips together, not looking at me. I wondered if he was thinking about Katy or something else. The Persian Gulf, maybe. His division had been ambushed in the early morning by Iraqi regulars--one of the only direct skirmishes. Bare-handed, he loaded frozen mortar shells off the back of a supply four-by--the only ammunition remaining in camp. He didn't realize until it was all over that he couldn't feel his hands. For his efforts, he was awarded the Silver Star and something else. I joined the National Guard. They paid for my college, and as a bonus I'm qualified to fuel any land-based fighting vehicle, as well as certain types of fixed-wing aircraft.

Jubal cracked his thumb knuckle, drained his glass, and turned to me. "Weathers," he said. I pulled the Polaroids into a stack and clapped them on the coffee table.

"What about this front-end damage?" I tapped the top photo. The bumper was V'ed in, slightly to the driver's side of center. "What about that?"

"Tree, maybe." He pinched the web of skin between his thumb and forefinger. "Check out the back, though. Here--" I handed him the pictures. He found the one he wanted and pointed with his pinky. "Look at the back. It's dented."

I couldn't tell. It looked crushed, compressed into the chassis like the rest of the car. "Is it?"

"Yeah. There's a gouge in there. Like she was rear-ended by something higher up. A pickup, maybe. Or a semi. It looked like there was paint in there. Blue paint."

"Did you get some?" I asked, thinking of movies, TV.

"No."

"Why not?" I sat up, took a sip from one of his beer bottles. Of course, it was the warm one.

"Come on, man. I tell Walleye I'm down there running a tip on a stolen flatbed and then, after I've tossed the records and taken probably too many pictures of a Cutlass--which is not on the list, by the way--stop to scrape some paint off of it? That's not cool, man. He'd get pissed, and you--"

"So what? You're the police, for god's sake."

"That's just exactly it. I'm the police. And what people think when I show up is that they're under suspicion. And it doesn't matter what they've done or haven't done, it's what they think I think they've done."

"I'm not following you."

"It means that if Walleye, or anybody for that matter, thinks I'm not being straight with them, then the next time I have to go out there, or do whatever, they might be thinking crazy things. And that's when they do crazy things." He popped out of his chair, flexing his hands, pulled them through his hair, and picked up the photos, which he placed inside a loving cup on the sideboard. "You know."

I do. Twenty years ago, one of these people--Royall Craig--wedged a dustpan under our kitchen door and used it to funnel a gallon of Sinclair high-test onto the linoleum before sparking it up with an Ohio Blue Tip. Our father carried me out of the smoky house to the mailbox and my mother. Jubal carried Katy, who promptly threw up her bedtime milk and graham crackers on the driveway.

Early the next week, Katy was still at large and Jubal was out at Lincoln Elementary--my school--to give one of his stranger-danger presentations during the afternoon assembly. As usual, the students--and many of the female faculty--loved him. He let some lucky kids wear his hat and his jacket and shout into the tiny megaphone he'd brought, and when it was all over, they rushed him like a rock star.

When he was finished high-fiving and hugging, piggybacking, saluting, and giving the single teachers his best "Shucks, miss, 'tweren't nothin'," he and I went to the Koffee Kup for a late lunch.

"I'm not going to lie to you," he said, crunching a Tums and plugging a toothpick into the corner of his mouth. "I've got a bad feeling about Katy."

I rattled the ice in the bottom of my Pepsi. "What do you mean?"

He leaned forward on his stool, made a pyramid with his hands, and rested his chin on it. "I went back out to Wally's with the Pauluses." The Paulus brothers, Mike and Steve--three years older than Jubal and I--were the captain and first lieutenant of the volunteer fire department. "I had Joann type up a warrant, but we didn't need it. His son-in-law was there."

"The idiot?"

"And how. Anyway, they cut the top of the car off so I could look inside--you know, they have those saws for car crashes." He took the toothpick out of his mouth and tapped the tip of it on his napkin.

"And?"

"There was blood all over the driver's side."

"Was it Katy's car?"

"Yeah," he said, setting the toothpick down. "It had the moth trapped in the dashboard." That was one we could never figure out--how a moth managed to get itself wedged between the odometer and the dashboard glass.

"OK. So what now? How'd the car get there?" I reached over for his roll of Tums and peeled the foil back, wondering for the first time if he was onto something.

"Weathers."

I popped the tablet into my mouth and cracked it between my molars. "Whether what?"

"Not whether. Weathers. Like the weather outside."

"What about it?" Since we'd come inside, a scrim of snow had blown in, and the wind was kicking it around across the street.

"The name on all the paperwork at Walleye's was S. Weathers. Or at least that's what I think it said."

"You didn't take it with you? Jubal--let me see if I've got this straight. You show up unannounced--"

"There's no phone out at the wrecking yard. What was I supposed to do? Send smoke signals?"

"So instead you show up with the Pauluses. Were they in their cruiser, at least?"

He shook his head. "In the shop."

"In a goddamn fire truck, brace the idiot son-in-law with a phony warrant--"

"The warrant's real." He touched a knuckle to the center of his forehead.

"Cut the roof off a car, climb inside, look at the invoice for when the car was delivered, and then put it away? What is wrong with you?"

He set his jaw and looked away for a moment. "Look. The car is in plain sight. There isn't even a fence between that side of the property and the road. I could have seen that car one afternoon when I drove past. But here's the thing. The paper--not only is it not in plain sight, it's in a folder, inside a file cabinet, inside Walleye's Quonset hut. So even if I was inside--even if I was inside and the folder was out--it's still not legal for me to take it, or even copy it, really."

I started to interrupt, but he silenced me by holding out his toothpick like a pointer. "And really, I don't want it to be missing. In two days, Walleye's shipping the junkers up to Joliet, and then they'll be gone. Son-in-law will forget all about it, and so will Walleye. But what if--let's say someone else comes looking for the car, looking for the records, and Wally says 'Sure, sure, they're right in here,' except for that one. And he'll say 'Gee whiz, that's strange. You know, Chief Onenine was in here looking around. Maybe you should ask him.'" He snaps the toothpick to punctuate his sentence. "That's what I don't want to happen."

Before I could respond, static burst from his Motorola, and he keyed the handset, adjusting the volume as he did so.

"This is Jubal. Over."

"Jubal, where you at?" It was Joann, his secretary/dispatcher.

He shook his head. "It's 'What is your location,' Joann. I'm code seven at the Koffee Kup with my brother. Over."

"John?" Pause. "Over?"

"Do I have any other brothers? Over." He pinched the bridge of his nose. Joann, as they say, was the most qualified person for the job.

"No, sir. I suppose not. Anyway, there's been a report of some stolen property over at Darnell's Hardware. He was pretty revved up about it, too, Jube. Over."

"I'm on my way. Over." He got off his stool, fit on his hat, and adjusted his equipment belt, tugging at his holster like a gunslinger. "Janet," he called to the waitress, who was down at the other end of the counter, refilling the Bunn-O-Matic. "How much I owe you?" He asked this as though he didn't know what she'd say.

"On the house, Chief."

"Thanks." Still, he thumbed through some bills and left a ten between our cups. "Come on," he said to me. "I got time to take you back. Darnell's probably just confused. One of those kids probably parked a pallet in the wrong place. Damn, he gets worked up about that."

As we were getting into Jubal's cruiser, a dark blue pickup with a gigantic CB aerial rolled to a stop at the four-way intersection. It caught Jubal's eye, and he actually stepped back out of the car to get a better look. Neither the truck nor the driver's hat--known around town as a John Deere--or parka was familiar to me.

When the truck had turned south on Water, headed out of town, Jubal slumped into his seat and started the engine.

"One of America's most wanted?" I asked as he did a U-turn out of the parking spot, illegal for everyone except him.

"I think that was Weatherman," he said, looking not at me but at the blowing whiteness ahead.

Over the next few days, while I was occupied with picking clay out of my students' hair and banging out "This Land Is Your Land" on the battered upright--trying to get the students ready for the Presidents Day pageant--Jubal was quietly running down leads. In fact, I didn't hear from him or even see him until Monday afternoon. He had parked behind the buses, so when the last one pulled away, there he was, leaning back against the cruiser, boots crossed at the ankles. I believe he'd seen this pose in a movie. Smokey and the Bandit, maybe.

He waved me over to him. "I need your help with something," he said, crossing his arms and taking a deep breath. The skin under his eyes was dark, as though he'd been up late, and I could make out under his jacket the bulk of his armored vest, which he rarely wore.

"Is this about Katy?"

He nodded and exhaled white streams through his nose. "I found the truck."

"Let's go," I said, opening the door.

"I was hoping you'd say that," he said, crossing to his side and dropping behind the wheel.

Jubal told me the story of the rest of his week on the way over to Weatherman's, in the hard, angry heat of the car's climate control. The inside of his cruiser smelled like fried food and pastry; he had a half tray of King Donuts wedged between the front seats with a lonely jelly remaining, its raspberry filling seeping out like an entrance wound.

He told me about how he'd run down the different permutations of S. Weathers. There were three, as it turned out, all living in trailers--two mobile, one not--off of county road six, all RFD addresses, which was essentially no address at all.

The problem for Jubal had been coming up with a plausible reason to be out in boon country knocking on their doors. In the end, he quit trying and got his information from afar, hiking through the woods with his binoculars and his scoped 30.06.

"Did you get any pictures?"

I asked.

"You and your pictures," he replied, kicking the heat down a peg.

The first two places were washes. The first--with a 55-gallon drum smoking hided rabbits hanging from a clothesline in the side yard--belonged to an old man. "He's 70 if he's a day," Jubal said, rubbing at his neck where the vest was chafing. "And he doesn't drive. No car. Someone from the church came out to drop off some groceries. Milk and such. A bag of rice, a bag of flour. Some lard. He's not the one."

"Maybe he had help."

"I don't think so."

The second place he checked out had been caved in like a beer can by a falling pine.

"That one really pissed me off, too," he said, "because it was the hardest to find. It wasn't even on CR six, really, it was off one of those mining roads back of Lancaster. How in the hell they got a trailer back there is beyond me."

I looked down at the snow pooling on the rubber floor mat, remembering a tornado last spring, wondering if that was the reason for this particular relocation.

The last place was the one. The truck had been parked outside, recently driven, the snow brushed from the windows. That was where we were headed; naturally, it was the farthest away.

Jubal was convinced that Weatherman--in his blue pickup--rammed Katy from behind, either by accident or on purpose. She went off the road and collided with either a tree or another car, damaging the front end. Then, after doing Lord knows what with her--or her body--got rid of the car at Walleye's, dropping it off on a day when he knew Walleye wasn't there and probably ripping off the son-in-law in the deal.

"There's just one last thing," Jubal said, downshifting as we hit a slippery patch of road. "I need to deputize you."

"What the hell are you talking about?"

"I'm not sure. I've never done it before. Tell you what--do you swear to at all times and in all places uphold the laws of Coal City and do your duty to see that these laws are upheld, so help you God?"

"Whatever you say."

He pulled a thin leather wallet from his jacket pocket and flipped it into my lap. "Congratulations, Deputy. Tell you what, I'll give you a promotion. Congratulations, Detective Onenine." I flipped open the badge wallet--inside, separated by a thin piece of leather, were our father's gold shield and his ID card. I hadn't seen the wallet in years. Had mom given it to him? Did he take it? Did it belong to the city or was it his own? "Just cover the picture with your thumb if anyone asks you any questions. I don't think anyone will."

For a while, we rode in silence, the only sounds being the breath of the heater and the soft thumping of snow being tossed up against the undercarriage. Jubal was looking straight ahead, thinking. He's one of these people whose face contorts when he's deep in thought--he squints, furrows his brow, sucks his cheeks, bites his lips. My students do the same things.

"Jube," I said, to snap him out of it. "We're just going out there to ask a few questions, right?"

"Actually, I'm going to ask the questions. You're just going to stand there."

"No problem," I said, tracing a question mark in the corner of the foggy window, not convinced. "That's no problem at all."

The last thing I hear before the shooting starts is my brother--his voice muffled, but still audible, from inside Weatherman's trailer. "Damn, boy. You growing grass in here or what?"

The first two shots sound like tiny firecrackers in a tin can, as though the gun is going off under wet sand. Someone shouts, and there are two more small-caliber shots, louder, closer to the open door. I hear something fall that sounds like furniture, something that sounds like glass, and something that sounds like a person. The ugly crack of Jubal's pistol is unmistakable when it comes--three times in succession, and I hear one of the shots punch through the trailer's aluminum skin.

There are the sounds of a scuffle, a struggle, muted footsteps, Jubal yelling something that sounds like my name.

When Weatherman charges out the door of his trailer--a scoped Ruger rifle in each hand--I squeeze the trigger without even thinking about it. The deer slug Jubal chambered hits him high on the left side, tearing open Weatherman's chest, knocking him off his feet, and spraying blood back on the snow and the trailer wall. After this, he's still; his chest wound steams in the winter air.

"Jubal!" I shout over the ringing in my ears, racking the next round, hoping he can hear me. "Are you all right?"

He appears in the doorway as if to answer me, holding a gloved hand to a neck wound that's gushing. The one on his shoulder isn't; it looks like the bullet shattered his radio mike first. Somehow, though, he's managed to holster his pistol and snap the thumb break shut.

He steps out of the trailer wobbling like a drunk person, buckles against the railing as his legs give out, and collapses on the snow, breathing hard. I crouch down next to him, grab the handle sewn to the back of his vest, and drag him toward the cruiser. When I'm sure he's out of harm's way, I step back to where Weatherman is sprawled and toss his weapons out of reach. The Ruger is familiar to me; every boy in the tricounty area must have had one of these growing up. We called them carvers, for some reason.

I look Weatherman over: his clothes, his hair, his face. His nose looks like it was broken recently. I'm trying to figure out if I've just killed a total stranger when the dark blue pickup skids into the side yard. The driver jumps out without putting it into park, and still in gear it rolls forward and comes to rest against a scrub pine that shows signs of recent violence.

The driver--wearing the same John Deere and parka from the other afternoon--takes a step toward me.

"Hold it," I say, trying to point the shotgun one-handed.

"John?" It's Katy, wearing her boyfriend's clothes, and in the second it takes me to lower the gun, I understand exactly the degree to which Jubal and I have been mistaken. I look again at Weatherman's nose. In my mind I can see it dripping blood inside the Cutlass, over the steering wheel, which is bent where it struck his face. I close my eyes and see him turning to see who smashed into his woman's car and realizing it was her in his truck. The impact had sent it plowing into that scrub pine.

Instead of coming closer, she turns to Jubal, who's managed to sit up at this new development, and runs to him. "Oh my god, your neck." She presses her palm to it. "You need an ambulance."

He says something I can't make out, and she squeezes his hand. "Don't worry," she says. "You're unbreakable."

A cop's daughter, she knows exactly what to do; she leans into the cruiser and picks up the CB. I slip the safety on and pump the remaining shells into my lap, half convinced that after she's raised some help, she's going to come over and shoot me.

When she does come back, she's crying--tears of shock, the nearly invisible kind. She kneels in the snow and takes Weatherman's head in her ungloved hands, brushing his bloody hair back, searching for the pulse she knows she won't find.

"Breaker," she says, her chest hitching. "What happened out here?"

I try to think backward, remember something, anything. "I don't know," I say, looking past her at the woods, the snow.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Archer Prewitt.

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