Originally published in the May 9, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Connor’s sudden appearance at the Pendleton Roundup, handing out flyers offering a reward for an “abducted child,” startled Miller Cane. With no time to say goodbye to their new friends Monica and little Bella, Miller and 8-year-old Carleen managed to slip away in Miller’s motorhome. Connor, Carleen’s deadbeat father, is the reason they’re on the road in the first place; he suddenly came back into the picture when he learned that Carleen will inherit a massive fortune he believes is rightfully his. Lizzie, Carleen’s mom, is still stuck in jail after shooting and wounding Connor. Meanwhile, the fires that raged across the West all summer have mostly burned out, but the toll of being fugitives is wearing on the unlikely duo.
Carleen had never been to Yellowstone, and Miller thought it might be a good distraction on their way to wherever they were going — the Little Bighorn first, then deeper into the country and away. He’d only slept for a few hours since leaving Walla Walla, and he tossed and turned now, in his bed at the back of the motorhome. Carleen hadn’t slept much either, but she wasn’t having trouble sleeping in her loft now. Miller was too wired, too disturbed by Connor’s appearance in Pendleton. How had he found them? Dena hadn’t seen him since that day at their mother’s nursing home. Showing up like he did last night seemed like proof he could track them anywhere.
Carleen slept, dreaming away her anger and disappointment, Miller hoped, at being pulled away from Bella. He needed something for her when she woke, but when he tried to book a reservation at Yellowstone, the hotels and RV sites were all full, even with school back in session. Still, they could spend a few days at the park, sleeping in Cody or somewhere nearby.
Miller got out of bed and made coffee. Carleen didn’t stir, even with him banging around the kitchen. He knew they couldn’t drive forever. They’d only been on the road three months, but Carleen needed stability. Miller would have to find a place with other kids and good food and good coffee and good people and schools — where no one would find them until Lizzie got out, which might be after Carleen was grown.
Connor’s flyer had referred to her as missing or abducted, but she wasn’t missing — she was safe in her loft in the motorhome — and she hadn’t been abducted. Miller was her caretaker, protecting her from her shitty father, as her mother had asked him to do, maybe not her legal guardian, but so what? Miller checked her again — still sleeping, still breathing — then went outside with his coffee and Larry McMurtry’s Crazy Horse, which stressed how little any biographer, including McMurtry, knew about the man. Miller’s phone buzzed with a call from the Skagit County Jail. He answered, bracing himself for the roar of the bad line, but there was just a low rumble, like an underground train coming toward him.
“Hello,” Miller said several times to the echo of his own voice. He was about to hang up when the line cleared enough for him to hear Lizzie say his name, followed by a blast of static and the full roar.
“Are you there?” she said.
“I’m here,” he said.
It was like screaming inside a hurricane.
“How is she,” Lizzie said, and Miller said, “We’re in California, on our way to Nevada.” It seemed important to lie as much as possible now, to keep the authorities off balance.
“I can’t,” click, roar. “California?”
“How are you?” Miller screamed.
There was almost nobody at the rest stop — an elderly couple walking a miniature dog, a man smoking a cigarette at a picnic table. No sign of Connor.
“I can’t,” she said, “rebel rap.”
“I know,” Miller said. He hadn’t slept in who knew how long and the roar was affecting his vision, making him nauseous.
Miller held the phone away from his ear, the interstate humming under the roar, a few of Lizzie’s words crackling over it. The air itself seemed filled with sound, but at least there was no smoke now. Maybe the fires were finally out.
“Can you hear me?” Lizzie said, and Miller said, “Kind of,” and Lizzie made other sounds, then said, “Anything — I can’t.”
“I know,” Miller said.
The smoking man across the parking lot lit another one.
“The crinkle,” Lizzie said, “the wrinkle round.”
Another blast of static.
The noise had never been this overwhelming — maybe because they were so far from each other.
The line roared, cleared, roared.
“I can’t,” Lizzie said.
“Please,” she said, her voice slipping. “Can you hear me?”
Another blast of static.
“You have to get me out of here,” she said.
And then the line went dead.
Out of there? They were going the other direction, and were going to keep going that way. Besides, there wasn’t enough money for bail, not if he was going to keep supporting Carleen. The world came back to him as the ringing faded, birds whistling and chirping and cawing and the old couple’s pocket dog barking. The man who’d been smoking was gone, then appeared from the bathroom and walked toward his car, an El Camino in good condition. But he didn’t get in his car. He didn’t even slow down. He kept walking toward Miller.
The motorhome’s door swung open.
Miller turned and Carleen was there.
“Go back inside,” he said.
“Why?” Carleen said.
“We’re headed out,” Miller said, and when he turned back around, the man was still approaching, early forties, Miller’s age, Connor’s age.
There was no reason for him to keep coming like that.
“I have to pee,” Carleen said.
“Pee in the moho,” Miller said.
“I thought — ”
“Just do it,” Miller said, pushing her inside and closing the door.
“Geez,” he heard her say.
The dude was twenty feet away. Miller needed something heavy to bash his brains in with. He’d probably been in Pendleton last night, or maybe the flyers were all over the West now, all over the country.
“Hey, man,” the dude said, and Miller said, “Hey,” trying to appear nonchalant, just a guy outside a motorhome managing his tremor.
“If you need help with that flat,” the man said, “I can give you a hand.”
If Miller turned to look for the flat, he’d get clubbed in the head with a tire iron, his blood running all over the parking lot as the dude snatched Carleen for the flyer’s reward. But the dude didn’t have a tire iron. Miller probably looked insane, an abductor who hadn’t slept in days, his tremor about to escalate to full blown convulsions. He had to look away, to hide, to look at the tire that wasn’t flat — but it was flat.
“You’ve done this before?” Miller said, turning back around, and the man said, “Walt,” holding out his hand.
Miller took it, shook it, said his own name.
“Had a rig like this when my kids were young,” Walt said. “That your little girl?”
Of course it was his little girl.
“I don’t know if my spare’s any good,” Miller said, and then, “My daughter and I are headed for Yellowstone.” How stupid he was. He should have said Utah or Oregon or Mexico. He should have told Carleen they would pose as a family from now on.
Walt pulled the cover off the spare, Miller watching, as if Walt were his father and Miller a nine year old boy.
“Looks okay,” Walt said. “You know where the jack’s at?”
Miller shook his head. Walt was pretending to be a good Samaritan, though he was really a killer or a cop. Whatever he was, Miller hated him for helping.
“I’ve got one,” Walt said, walking back toward the El Camino.
Carleen peeked out the side door and said, “What’s happening?”
“We got a flat,” Miller said. “And we’re going to Yellowstone.”
“Who’s that?” Carleen said, and Miller said, “Walt.”
“I’ve never been to Yellowstone,” Carleen said.
She seemed better than last night, happy again — herself.
Walt walked back with the jack. Miller didn’t want to see everyone as a cop or killer. Everything was going to be fine.
Then the cat bolted out the motorhome’s side door.
“Waffles,” Carleen cried, the cat tearing across the parking lot toward the expanse of grass where the old couple stood with their piddling pocket dog. Walt dropped his jack to chase the cat, Miller following, Carleen following Miller. It seemed possible that Waffles would kill the little dog. But the dog fought back.
“Waffles!” Carleen cried.
“Cookie!” the old woman cried.
The dog had Waffles pinned, teeth bared, was going for his throat.
But before the dog could kill the cat, the old man lifted him into the air by his leash, where he hung, spinning and panting, smiling the way dogs sometimes do.
Waffles scrambled toward the bathroom building, Carleen right behind.
Originally published in the May 16, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Exhausted, Miller Cane is seeing potential threats everywhere, even at a rest stop on the road to Yellowstone with other travelers like Walt, Earl and Judy. Miller and 8-year-old Carleen have been on the run for months, ever since Connor, Carleen’s deadbeat father, suddenly came back upon learning that Carleen will inherit a massive fortune. Carleen is exhausted, too, and misses her mother, Lizzie, who’s stuck in jail after shooting Connor, who escaped with minor injuries. Before all this, Miller had traveled from mass shooting to mass shooting, comforting (and conning) the survivors. Lately, though, he is using his time with Carleen to return to a long-ignored writing gig, crafting sections of a history textbook for his editor George.
Not everyone’s a killer or a victim or a survivor or an abuser or a busybody waiting to call the cops for any little thing you might do. Walt changed the flat while Earl and Judy put their pocket dog away, then helped Carleen coax Waffles from the rest stop roof. Miller brought out a box of Ho-Hos. “My mom doesn’t let me have these usually,” Carleen said, and Judy said, “Where is your mom, honey?” and Carleen said, “Back home, where we’re headed,” as if she knew to lie.
Good girl, Miller thought, and then they were moving again, invigorated by these nice people and the fight between Waffles and the pocket dog. No one was hurt, human or animal. By the time they got a new set of tires — all four, setting Miller back two grand — they had some hard driving to do if they were going to make Yellowstone before nightfall. Miller thought a hotel might be nice. Carleen thought a hotel with a pool might be nice.
“But aren’t we supposed to be somewhere for George,” she said, referring to the lie Miller had told to get them out of Oregon, away from Connor.
“We’re going there now,” Miller said.
“There first,” Miller said, “but then the Little Bighorn, where Custer made his last stand. Do you know about that?”
“Sort of,” Carleen said. “Indian women pushed needles into his ears, Mom said — so he could hear better next time.”
“That’s right,” Miller said.
It was nice to take a day off, with sleep stretched out before them. Maybe there’d be a place to hide the motorhome behind the motel.
“But when do we go home?” Carleen said, and Miller said, “After we go to Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house in Missouri. That’s for the book, too. You can write that part, if you want.”
“Then home?” Carleen said.
Miller wanted her to be happy while he looked for a place to settle, to make a new home for them while Lizzie rotted. But maybe that was stupid. Maybe they should be back in Washington, close to the jail so Carleen could see her mom. But Connor was there, waiting to snatch Carleen. Or Connor was behind them, waiting to snatch Carleen and send Miller to prison.
“I think so,” Miller said.
“You don’t know?”
“Let’s ask your mom when she calls.”
Lizzie had sounded so awful on the phone — and why wouldn’t she, trapped in that place?
“I don’t know our exact schedule,” Miller said. “I just know Yellowstone, Little Bighorn, which the Indians call Greasy Grass, and Mount Rushmore, with the carved president heads.”
“But I thought — ”
“That’s on the way to Laura’s, too. All of it.”
“Then home,” Carleen said.
“Right,” Miller said. “Because even though we’re on an adventure, sometimes we get tired.” He needed her to believe. And maybe it would change — where and what home was and would be and with whom. Maybe it already had changed. “Who knows what’s going to happen,” Miller said. “Who knows what we’ll see. Like that over there,” he said, pulling into the parking lot and nodding toward the pool, which was both indoor and outdoor, something Miller had discovered while searching the internet earlier for the best motel pool in Twin Falls.
“I’ve never seen that before,” Carleen said.
“Pretty cool,” Miller said. “I’ll bet there’s a water park in Kansas we should visit too.”
“And then home,” Carleen said.
“Or maybe your mom’ll join us,” Miller said, “if she’s out by then.”
“Will she be?”
“We don’t know,” Miller said.
Lizzie had told him it would be two years minimum. Would Connor keep tracking them all that time? Could Miller pay him off? If so, they’d wait in Mount Vernon, close to Carleen’s mom. But Miller didn’t have money for a payoff, not the kind of money Carleen was going to get once her great grandfather’s will was settled. That’s what Connor wanted — more money than Miller could ever raise on the massacre circuit. Why couldn’t Lizzie just divorce Connor and give him a piece of Carleen’s cash once it came in? It had been fine to roll around for a couple months, but now — Miller didn’t know what he was supposed to do.
They checked in and put on swimsuits, played in the pool. They had pizza and watched a movie about cat burglars and a cat detective and surfers and jewels and then Miller slept for ten hours without waking, without dreaming, and when he woke Carleen was asleep with a piece of pizza next to her head in the bed beside his. It was a beautiful morning. Miller let her sleep while he checked out, and as he handed over the cash, the man at the desk said, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” and Miller said, “I don’t think so,” and the man said, “Are you on TV or something?” and Miller said, “Nope,” sort of looking down, sort of turning away.
“You were on that show about shootings,” the clerk said, and Miller said, “No I wasn’t,” and he walked away and woke Carleen and got them out of there. The world was shrinking or Miller was emerging in it somehow, visible to everyone.
At Yellowstone, Carleen saw bears and buffalo and boiling pots of sulfurous goo. While waiting for Old Faithful to blow, Miller saw a man pointing toward him through the crowd. “Right over there,” the man said, leading a woman toward them.
“Miller?” the woman said and Miller panicked as the couple approached.
“Miller Cane,” the man called.
People were starting to stare at the kidnapper and his victim.
“Who are they,” Carleen said.
“It’s Joyce,” Joyce said, “and Carleton.”
She was close enough now to open her arms.
“From Milltown,” Carleton said.
“Of course,” Miller said, hugging them both. The Milltown massacre was three years ago, where Joyce and Carleton’s ten year old daughter had died.
“Is this your little one,” Joyce said, and Miller said, “Carleen,” who shrugged against him and smiled, shy.
“Looks just like you,” Carleton said.
The steam got heavier as the geyser started to blow.
“It really is faithful,” Carleen said, and when it was over, Joyce said, “They used to feed the bears right here by the geyser — with garbage from the hotel. Can you imagine?”
“We shouldn’t feed them anything,” Carleen said. “We’re supposed to leave them alone.”
“That’s right,” Joyce said, and then they were quiet, Miller putting his hand on Carleen’s shoulder, signaling that they were ready to leave. Joyce reached for another hug. “We appreciate what you did for us,” she said. “We still have that little pig — Tucker.”
“I’m glad,” Miller said.
“All you can do is reach out to the living,” Carleton said. “I thought there’d be a way to stop it — all this killing — or at least slow it down, if you just tried hard enough, if you just made it your whole life — ”
“Baby, don’t,” Joyce said, touching his arm.
They all looked at the ground.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“I know,” Miller said. “We all are.”
“We thank you again,” Joyce said, and they hugged one more time.
Carleen looked at Miller as they walked away. “What did you do for them,” she said.
Miller didn’t want to tell her about the dead daughter. He couldn’t remember her name.
“Give them a pig?” Carleen said.
“They had a sick girl,” Miller said, “one of my students.”
“And she died?”
“Yes,” Miller said.
“Was she shot?”
Miller didn’t answer.
“My mom told me stuff,” Carleen said, “lots of stuff,” and Miller said, “I know.”
They were quiet until they were driving again, seeing more buffalo — “Bison,” Carleen said. “That’s what the book says.” They stopped at Pahaska Teepee, where Carleen bought two miniature black bears, and that night they camped in the Walmart lot in Cody. Lizzie still hadn’t called. And there was no way to call her. Carleen didn’t mention it. Miller would call her attorney in the morning to find out what was going on.
“Are we on vacation?” Carleen said as Miller was tucking her in.
“Sort of,” Miller said. “Not really. We’re doing research for the book.”
“Those people thought you were my dad,” Carleen said.
“I know,” Miller said.
“We can tell people that, if you want,” Carleen said, “even if it is a lie.”
She looked at him, waiting. Miller didn’t know what to tell her, or what would be best. He didn’t know if she looked like him or not. He kissed her cheek and told her goodnight and after she fell asleep he sat at the table reading about Crazy Horse and the Little Bighorn. If Carleen was his, maybe everything would be easier. For both of them. But he didn’t know if he had a right to find that out or not. It wasn’t as if he could lay a claim to her.
Originally published in the May 23, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Eight-year-old Carleen doesn’t know that she will inherit a massive fortune that her deadbeat father, Connor, believes is rightfully his. She doesn’t know that Connor is after her or that he nearly found her at the Pendleton Roundup. She doesn’t know that the real reason her mother is stuck in jail is because she shot Connor, who escaped with minor injuries. All she knows is that she’s with Miller Cane for now, traveling across America in his motorhome, and not sure when she can return to her real home. For his part, Miller’s been doing his best to distract Carleen with history lessons along the road and with tales of “Little House on the Prairie.” Carleen, meanwhile, has been doing some writing of her own.
Tuesday. Sitting Bull had a vision of soldiers falling into camp. The ranger was a historian Miller said and he told the story of Custer and Sitting Bull and all the others as we stood looking over the Greasy Grass. Thousands of Indians and dust from the ponies. Children playing and soldiers falling into camp. That’s when the fighting started. Not all the white men died but all Yellow Hairs did.
I asked about the women putting holes in his ears.
With a sewing awl the ranger said. But no one knows if its true.
My grandfather knows a boy beside me said.
Its hard to know for sure, Miller said. Some things are easier to believe than others.
Like Lauras story I said.
My mother could tell when I was lying she thought.
The way the ranger told it was like being inside a vision.
Our past tells the story of who we are Miller said.
There’s lots of parts I would tell a different way I said.
It doesn’t matter Miller said as long as its true.
Bellas grandmother could tell the future and so could Bella. She put her hands on my head in the moho and had a vision of me and my mother.
What are we doing I said.
Making dolls and drinking coffee she said.
I knew it was true because of the dolls and because I don’t drink coffee yet.
Thursday. Miller said its going to be longer than you think but everything is longer than you think. Until its over and then its not as long as it should have been. Last night I had a vision that my mother and I were home. She was making cupcakes and I was making shrinky dinks and Miller was on the couch reading.
She looks just like you the man at Yellowstone said.
We saw the Rushmore and Crazy Horse heads coming out of the mountains. There should be girls up there I said like Mom saying it.
I’m sick she said on the phone thats all. A little under the weather.
I couldn’t hear her and before bed Miller said what if its just us for awhile.
Who I said and he said you and me.
That is what it is I said. But we’re going home after Lauras right?
Of course we are he said.
Sunday. Nebraska and Kansas are prairie and so is South Dakota. Lawrence Kansas is a grandfather I said and Miller laughed. What do you think about this place he said and I said good. What about this place he said and I said good. What about this place he said. Spearfish. I liked that one. I like Omaha too. It sounds like a grandmother.
Tomorrow is Lauras house. Not from the books but where she lived later.
Wednesday. When she called I couldn’t hear her at all.
Its not always going to be like this Miller said.
I had a vision but nothing happened we were just home.
Did she shoot somebody I said.
Why would you say that he said.
Isn’t that why people go to jail.
People go to jail for lots of reasons he said. Not paying taxes is stealing. She didnt mean to do it but that doesn’t matter sometimes.
Jesse James’s mother was Zerelda and we went to her farm. It was his wifes name too and my great grandmothers who I never met because I never even met my grandmother. There was a cabin there and a slave cabin and you could tell it was real by the smells.
A six year old boy maybe seven called me a yankee.
You’re a yankee I said.
No I’m not he said you are.
Hush Miller said and we walked to the slave cabin.
Its still ringing down here he said.
What is I said.
Listen he said.
I could hear the river and the wind or a stream like the ocean in a shell.
I don’t know if she’ll ever get out I said.
Of course she’ll get out he said.
But he doesn’t know when.
Waffles bites my head in bed. Mom calls them love nips.
Just do what Miller says she says when I finally hear her.
I could live in Kansas City Miller says.
Thats where dorothys from I say.
But I mean on the Missouri side he says.
I miss her most when he’s asleep.
He loves you Millers mom says. You know that don’t you?
I call her every day Millers mom. Who is this she says.
You’re a sweetheart she says.
Did Miller tell you what Billy did what his mother did.
He told me I say.
The police killed him and his father both.
Its going to be longer maybe Miller says.
They wont tell me why. I can’t hear her when she calls.
Tomorrow is Lauras house. Not from the books but where she lived later.
I had a vision of children falling in snow. Laura was there as a girl and was maybe me for a minute. Mom was in the sleigh with Miller and they were Laura and Almanzo in the long winter after he saved them all.
A dream is a wish your heart makes Cinderella says.
Of course shes not real. Neither is Bella or Snow White or Tiana or Mulan, but Mom acts like I cant tell the difference. Even though she can’t tell the difference because she doesn’t know the ones at the roundup were real. So was Sitting Bull and his vision. So was Laura. So was Narcissa and her hair which Ive actually smelled. So was Mom and Miller and Me.
Sometimes I think I’m more real than any of them.
Originally published in the May 30, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
How much longer can they keep it up? Miller Cane and 8-year-old Carleen have been on the run for months, with Miller watching over Carleen while her mother, Lizzie, is stuck in jail for — unbeknownst to her daughter — shooting (and wounding) Carleen’s deadbeat dad, Connor. He suddenly came back into the picture when he learned that Carleen will inherit a family fortune that Connor believes is rightfully his. Miller’s plan remains only half-formed — keep moving, across the West, to his friend Avery’s house and then, maybe, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house (of “Little House on the Prairie” fame). Meanwhile, Connor was last spotted in Spokane by Miller’s sister, Dena, and at the Pendleton Roundup in Oregon before the duo slipped away.
They were off the interstate, driving backroads and seeing everything, including Connor, but it wasn’t Connor, and Dena hadn’t seen him again either. Miller had enough money to carry them through another year, but then he’d have to get back on the circuit or find a real job, something he thought he’d given up for good. They’d settle in Kansas City or Columbia or Saint Genevieve or Saint Joe, where Miller would teach high school history or middle school social studies, though he didn’t know if he could do that again, not with the politicians and functionaries dictating curriculum, making sure nobody taught anything but lies. There was no room anymore to promote the transgression of real learning — the struggle to comprehend, gradually and in flashes, something complex, to feel and articulate feeling, to feel the enormity of what could never be articulated. The country hated teachers now, and since we no longer believed in public education, teachers had come to hate themselves.
That was why he’d quit — because of his ridiculous rants, his crybaby nonsense, his sanctimonious, self-righteous outrage. He’d burned out was all. But just because he couldn’t do it didn’t mean it couldn’t be done. And he would do it — for Carleen. Maybe he’d even do it right, and if he couldn’t do it right, he’d do it wrong, or work in a grocery store. No one would find them and Carleen would love Missouri because they’d go to Laura’s house every week, and Miller would keep teaching her. Look how she wrote and read, how she studied the past and present in the places they went.
After the Corn Palace and Sioux City and Wichita, they stayed at a hotel in Springfield because Miller wanted a tub and Carleen wanted a pool and they both wanted beds to watch movies from on a gigantic television. They were acclimating to the road, but the end of the line was tomorrow — Laura’s house. He couldn’t postpone it any longer. He knew they needed to stop for good, but he hadn’t told Carleen or Lizzie yet and didn’t know how. Maybe it wasn’t even true. Maybe they could keep going, tomorrow just another day and not the end of anything.
They found a craft store where Carleen resupplied. They found a pet store and bought fancy food for Waffles. After swimming, Miller read on his hotel bed, while Carleen stitched a doll, Miller watching from the corner of his eye how she stuck out her tongue and bit her lip and squinted as she cut and sewed and stuffed the doll’s body.
“It’s an Indian baby,” she said, holding it out for Miller’s inspection.
He studied it, nodding.
She sewed the doll shut, biting the thread. “Is Indian Territory still here?” she said, referring to the land Laura’s family had settled on illegally in Little House on the Prairie. They’d been reading the books every night before bed.
“Kind of,” Miller said. “Only in Oklahoma now — not Kansas.” He brought up a map on his laptop and showed her where they were and where the Osage Reservation was, not two hundred miles from where Laura had spent her adult life. He wondered if they could visit all the places she’d lived — Missouri and Wisconsin, Minnesota and South Dakota, Kansas and back to Missouri — stealing enough time for Lizzie to go to trial and get sentenced.
Carleen stitched her doll’s eyes, and said, “Maybe it’s Black Buffalo Woman.”
Since Little Big Horn, Carleen had wanted to know everything about Native Americans, and even though Miller tried to keep massacres and starvation and scalping and disease out of at least some of their conversations, Carleen pushed in that direction. “And then what happened?” she’d say, and if Miller wasn’t sure, Carleen would say, “A reservation?” or, “Then we found gold?” wanting always, it seemed to arrive at one horrible conclusion or another, before her final question: “But why did it have to be that way?” Sometimes they’d talk more — about hunger for gold and land and timber and coal, hunger for everything, the taking of which required theories about superiority and inferiority, civilization and barbarity, lies and resistance and rage breeding massacres and murder, the hunger and hatred always growing, only growing, as it fed itself. “But why?” Carleen wanted to know no matter what Miller said, until he finally fell silent.
Now, she threaded a needle red for her doll’s mouth. “Do you think Jumping Bull could really talk to animals?” she said, referring to Sitting Bull’s father.
“I think he could understand them,” Miller said, and Carleen said, “Like Avery.”
He was glad she could make fun of herself, if that’s what she was doing, and glad when she fell to silence, instead of leading them toward Sitting Bull’s murder. She concentrated on her sewing, while Miller read. And then she said, “When are we really going home?”
Maybe this was the opportunity he needed, a threshold to cross — there wasn’t much time left. “When your mom gets out,” he said.
“When will that be?” she said, and Miller said, “Not sure, but we have the motorhome for now — or we could stay here for a while.”
“Here?” Carleen said. “But I want to go home.”
“I know,” Miller said. He closed his laptop and crossed to her bed. “I’m going to tell you something,” he said, but he didn’t know what. The truth had never set anyone free, even if he could figure out what it was. “There was a fight back home,” he finally said, “about money. From your grandfather.”
“I don’t have a grandfather,” Carleen said.
“Your father’s grandfather,” Miller said. “You knew him when you were a baby.”
“But I don’t have a father.”
“You know what I mean,” Miller said. He hadn’t wanted to mention Connor and now he had. “It was your great grandfather’s money, and when he died, he left it to you.”
“How much money?” Carleen said, and Miller said, “A lot.”
“A million dollars?”
“He didn’t know me,” Carleen said. “I didn’t know him.”
“You were a baby,” Miller said.
“Is my mom fighting about it?
“Not really,” Miller said. “Kind of.”
“Did she shoot my grandfather?”
“He died in his sleep,” Miller said. “He was very old, and had about a hundred cats — ”
“He left them money, too,” Miller said. “But some people think the cats shouldn’t get money, and some people think you shouldn’t.”
“But I don’t even want it,” Carleen said.
“I know,” Miller said. “But it’s yours, or it’s going to be.”
“Do I have to have it?”
“Sort of,” Miller said, and Carleen said, “Is somebody mad at me?”
“No,” Miller said.
“Is my mom mad at me?”
Carleen stared at the doll in her hands. “But they’re fighting.”
“Not about you,” Miller said and Carleen said, “Is somebody trying to get me?”
“No,” Miller said, putting a hand on her shoulder. He didn’t know how much to tell her. “But you’re right — money can make people do funny things.”
“Like my mom?”
“No,” Miller said.
“What did she do?”
It was time for the conversation to end. Carleen was looking at him, waiting.
“She didn’t pay her taxes,” Miller said.
“What did she really do?”
“She got in a fight,” he said. “She was worried someone was going to take your money.”
“But I don’t have it.” Carleen looked down, her forehead crinkled.
Miller put his arm around her. “It’s going to be okay,” he said. “I promise.”
She pulled away. “I don’t know if it’s right to make this doll,” she said, crawling off the bed and rummaging through her craft basket. She returned with a seam reaper. “I can make a different one,” she said, ripping her doll’s stitches. Later, after dinner, Miller read to her while she re-stitched the doll, giving her a bonnet and wisps of blond hair that looked real. “It’s Mary,” she said, “with her sad empty eyes.”
“Her eyes don’t look sad,” Miller said, and Carleen said, “That’s what it says in the book.” Miller kept reading — about Jack the dog dying and Mary going blind and Laura riding ponies and Pa working for the railroad as it stretched west, two years after Crazy Horse’s murder, which Laura didn’t mention and neither did Miller. Lizzie hadn’t called in days, a relief really, and if she called tonight, Miller wouldn’t answer. It was Laura Ingalls Wilder Eve. Tonight would just be Miller and Carleen.
Originally published in the June 6, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
Today, Miller Cane and 8-year-old Carleen plan to visit Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house in Missouri (of “Little House on the Prairie” fame). The two of them need a distraction after months on the run. Miller’s been taking care of Carleen while her mother, Lizzie, is stuck in jail for shooting (and wounding) Carleen’s deadbeat dad, Connor, who came back after learning that she will inherit a family fortune. Along the road, Miller’s returned to a long-ignored writing gig: He’s been crafting brief biographies of American figures for a history textbook, each beginning with the same question, “Hero or Villain”? So far, Miller’s editor, George, hasn’t appreciated the literary license he’s taken.
He got up early and left Carleen a note to call from the phone in the room when she woke. Maybe he’d get her a phone of her own soon, so she could always reach him. Her friends would have them and she’d have to have one too. But first they’d have to settle somewhere, so she could make friends. He’d teach her at home, where she’d be safe from massacres, and she’d find friends at soccer and piano, ballet and the mall, where they’d get shot, but not everyone and not everyday. He felt lightened by their talk of the previous evening, relieved that she knew about her mom and the money, even if she didn’t know about her mom shooting her dad or her dad trying to steal her money. At least she knew something — why they couldn’t go home. At least he hoped she knew.
He found a coffee shop and sat with his notebook and a bag of doughnuts. His plan was to write a Hero Villain before Carleen awoke, but when he checked his mail, there was something from George — a meandering, mealy mouthed message, the purpose of which was to fire Miller. “A Cleveland Steamer?” he wrote. “Even you must know that wouldn’t fly.”
Even he must know? What was that supposed to mean? And why couldn’t George just cut the steamer if it was such a problem, though the steamer would bring history to life for the kids, something George claimed he wanted. “It’s clear your heart’s not in it,” he wrote, “and never has been. I don’t know why you felt the need to waste our time like this. If you didn’t want to do it, you could have just said so.” All George wanted was the same old nothing — one glorious lie after another, the bodies and ploughboys buried. Maybe Miller would write his own book, a collection of Hero Villains followed by a series of Hero Villain comics, the critics applauding his triumph and bravery, showing America to him/her/them/it self. Why would he even consider contributing to a textbook? George could go fist himself.
He drove back to the hotel, where Carleen was still sleeping. He wondered for a horrible moment if she was dead. He shook her and she rolled over. He showered. He wrote a snotty email to George, then deleted it. He went to the lobby for more coffee. When he came back to the room, Carleen was eating a doughnut in bed.
“Do you think my mom’s okay?” she said, and Miller said, “Yes I do. And we’re going to keep doing what we’re doing while we wait for her.” He didn’t know how long that would take. He’d have to talk to Lizzie before they told Carleen how long her mom might be in prison.
He read while Carleen brushed her teeth. The problem with George was his meekness. Maybe some of the Hero Villains were a little racy — but so what? That didn’t make them untrue. The untrue parts didn’t make them untrue either — everything served a larger truth. If George couldn’t see that, Miller didn’t need him.
They drove to Mansfield and Laura’s house, past an abortion graveyard with pretend tombstones for pretend fetuses under a sign that read Field of the Fallen Unborn, reminding Miller of Sitting Bull’s vision, but with fetuses falling into camp instead of soldiers. It was another beautiful day. At Laura’s house, a school bus was pulled into the parking lot, disgorging children.
“Maybe we can go with them,” Carleen said, opening her door and bolting.
Miller followed, standing by the motorhome with its crazy bumper stickers, not wanting to share the day. Carleen was thrilled. “My dad and me,” he heard her say to a girl in a bonnet, and they both looked at Miller, who felt uncomfortable and exposed, a kidnapper. But also proud. He hung back as Carleen melted into the swirl of children. An older woman approached from across the street, Laura herself possibly.
“Cedar Creek kids,” she called, “follow me,” and Miller and Carleen followed as the woman corralled people, pointing them toward the lawn. “Are you with the school?” she asked Miller, and when he said no, that he and his daughter were visiting from out of state, she told him they’d have to come back that afternoon.
“We can’t go now?” Carleen said.
“We can go later,” Miller said.
“How old are you, sweetie?” a woman asked Carleen, the teacher herself maybe.
“Eight” Carleen said.
“Third grade,” Miller said, before Carleen could say she wasn’t in school.
“Us too,” the teacher said, introducing herself as Miss Judy or Julie.
Carleen said her name.
Miller said, “I teach high school history. We’re in Missouri for a family thing.”
“Wonderful,” Judy Julie said, and to Carleen: “Would you like to join us?”
“Yes,” Carleen said, and the tour boss said, “They’ll have to pay,” and Miller pulled out his wallet. The boss pointed to a building down the hill. “You’ll have to see Joanie,” she said.
“Can I stay here?” Carleen asked, and Miller looked at Judy Julie, who nodded.
In the gift shop/museum, there were postcards and cookbooks and bonnets for sale. Joanie didn’t want to sell Miller tickets for the tour with the Cedar Creek kids until he offered a hundred dollar donation, which she accepted. Back on Laura’s lawn, Carleen said, “Keira wants to meet Waffles — can I get him out of the moho?”
“Not now,” Miller said. “The tour’s about to start.”
“You should talk to the moms,” Carleen said, running back to the other kids.
Miller approached the moms, introducing himself and learning their names — Tammy and Jeanine. “Your daughter’s adorable,” Jeanine said, and Tammy said, “First time at Laura’s?” Miller nodded. The moms smiled. He’d been wrong to wait so long to settle down. He’d tell Lizzie what was what and she’d be relieved. Carleen ran in circles with a group of girls, shrieking. She’d go to school here, Cedar Creek itself maybe. He wouldn’t hold her back by trying to teach her at home.
She ran over again. “There’s a camp here in the summer,” she said, her face flushed.
“Fantastic,” Miller said, and she tore off again.
“My daughter went last year,” Tammy said. “It’s wonderful.”
Eva the tour boss lined everyone up, explaining that no one could take pictures or touch anything except what she said they could touch. Miller couldn’t think of when he’d felt quite so something — not happy, exactly — but full maybe, complete, here on a perfect day with these kids and moms. Connor would never find them here. No one would. They’d become who they were going to be together, his anxiety regarding what to do and where to go melting away.
Laura’s house was exactly like it had always been, everything she and Almanzo had made still everywhere — rugs and furniture and couch cushions and everything. Laura’s books were there and her desk and her bed, and they saw it all, then boarded the bus — Miller and Carleen following in the moho — and drove to the other side of the property where the Rock House was. Laura’s daughter had built it for her parents, with all the modern conveniences, a house they endured for a few years before moving back to the farmhouse they loved, something always a little weird and off about Rose, which Eva confirmed when Miller cornered her — a free spirit, Eva whispered. A collaborator on the books, Miller suggested, and Eva agreed — the books were what they were because of both women’s contributions, a symbiotic relationship that could become poisonous — swollen egos, Eva whispered. Miller wanted to know much more about that, but it was time to go back to the farmhouse.
They ate bagged lunches on the lawn, Miller making Carleen’s in the motorhome. She had friends already. They were landing. Miller sat with the grownups, trying to make appropriate conversation. They ate sugar cookies from Laura’s recipe, then walked to the museum, where Pa’s fiddle was displayed. Ma’s Laudanum bottles were scattered around and Mary’s glass eye, though Miller was careful not to share these inappropriate thoughts. In the gift shop, he chose three calico bonnets for Carleen, and as he was paying, he became aware of what he’d been hearing for a few seconds now, maybe longer, the sound of sirens, not just one, but several — three? four? — coming closer and closer, still faint, but moving toward them.
He looked for Carleen, who was safe on the museum side. He scanned the adults, none of whom seemed concerned. He walked back to the gift shop, checking his phone, but there was no connectivity. He stepped outside, where there was no doubt now — the cops were coming from every direction, zeroing in on Laura’s house.
He heard a scream from inside the house, one of the moms or Judy Julie.
The sirens were louder, the cops coming closer.
He ran toward the door, knowing what he should have known all along. One cop car then another pulled onto the lawn as Miller moved toward Carleen. After all these months, they were finally here for him. Would they shoot him down like they’d shot his brother? More sirens. The door burst open as Miller reached for it. His only chance now was to get her out the back way.
Originally published in the June 13, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
In need of a distraction, Miller Cane and 8-year-old Carleen visit Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house in Missouri (of “Little House on the Prairie” fame) and, by chance, they latch onto a group of school kids on a field trip, led by parents and a teacher named Miss Judy or Julie. Suddenly, cops are swarming the house. The jig is up, Miller figures. He and Carleen have been on the run in his motorhome for months, ever since Carleen’s mother, Lizzie, was arrested for shooting (and wounding) Carleen’s dad, Connor. Connor had come back after learning that Carleen will inherit a family fortune. Before all this, Miller had made his living traveling from mass shooting to mass shooting, comforting (and conning) the survivors. It’s a past he can’t seem to leave behind.
But the cops weren’t there for him. The door burst open and a line of children erupted out, led by one of the moms, Tammy, checking her phone as she ran, but there was no connectivity. Through the open door Miller could see the teacher, Judy Julie, on the landline at the cashier’s counter, pale, blotchy, her eyes bright and dead.
“Get them to the bus,” Jeanine yelled, pushing kids out the door. “Go, go, go,” she shouted. But where was the shooter? Miller made his way around the kids coming out, looking for Carleen, who was back by the bonnet rack. He ran to her. Two state cops burst in from the museum side, everything stopping for a second, Miller nearly falling down with relief that they weren’t shooters. “Clear,” one of them shouted, falling back to the museum.
“Who’s the teacher?” the other one called.
Miller pointed at Judy Julie.
“How many kids?” he said to her.
Another cop herded children out.
Carleen started crying when Miller reached her. “What’s happening?” she said. He lifted her into his arms.
“Talk to me,” the cop said to Judy Julie. “It’s okay.”
“Twenty-six,” Miller said to the cop, carrying Carleen out.
“Got it,” the cop said. “Come on,” he said to Judy Julie, taking the phone from her and leading her toward the door. Miller wondered if she’d ever talk again.
Outside, the bus was parked in the middle of the road, cop cars blockading traffic in either direction, though there wasn’t any traffic. The children stood in parallel lines, some looking at useless phones. Dogs walked the length of the bus, underneath and inside it, followed by their handlers.
“Let’s take care of these kids now,” the cop said to Judy Julie, who said nothing.
“What happened?” Miller asked him as quietly as he could.
“They’re all dead,” Judy Julie said.
“What?” Miller said. “Where?”
“All right, ma’am,” the cop said.
“Every single one of them.”
“Miller,” Carleen said, clutching at him.
“It’s okay,” he said, pulling her in tighter.
“We’re all that’s left,” Judy Julie said.
“That’s not gonna help,” the cop said.
“You’re doing a great job,” another cop said, as he walked between the lines of children.
A car pulled up to the nearby roadblock, a woman jumping from the driver’s side and running toward the children. Several cops moved in her direction.
“Jenny!” the woman called.
A child peeled out of line and ran toward her.
Another car pulled behind the first, and another.
More sirens were approaching.
Doors swung open from the parked cars and parents tumbled out, running toward their children. Two cops met them, but the parents called their children and the children ran to them.
“Let me down,” Carleen said, and Miller lowered her. She took his hand, pulled at him. “We have to go!” she said.
“Every single one of them,” Judy Julie said, and Carleen cried, “What does that mean?”
“It doesn’t mean anything,” Miller said.
“It means something!” Carleen said, holding up her arms for Miller to pick her up again. She cried against him. He looked at the state cop handling Judy Julie, who looked like he might come apart himself. “I’m up the hill,” Miller said, “in that motorhome.”
“I want the dogs on it,” the cop said. “Come on, ma’am,” he said to Judy Julie.
Miller didn’t want to believe her, but he believed the cop — the look on this face that said this was more than anyone can handle. Miller knew that look. Two cops with a dog escorted them up the hill, Carleen clinging to him. “It’s okay,” he said, though they both knew it wasn’t. Another car pulled to the roadblock, but now the cops were stopping people, the parents still calling children’s names and the kids still peeling away.
A dog and a handler were already working the motorhome.
“The side door’s open,” Miller called.
The handler took the dog inside.
Miller and Carleen stood with a cop in front of Laura’s house, the sky deep blue and beautiful, a few wispy clouds blowing across it. They rested for a minute as the chaos swirled down the hill. “I have to pee,” Carleen said, still crying a little as Miller set her down. He hoped she didn’t know why she was crying, that she’d never know.
The dog came out of the motorhome, leading his cop.
“You can go in now,” the cop beside them said. “Go ahead, sweetheart.”
Carleen looked at Miller. “I’m afraid,” she said.
The cop held out his hand to Carleen, who took it and allowed herself to be led into the motorhome, and as she was closing the bathroom door, Miller said, “We’ll wait right outside.”
“No!” Carleen said. “Stay inside.”
“Okay,” Miller said. He didn’t want her out of his sight either. He checked his phone. Still nothing. He whispered to the cop, “That teacher down below — she said all of them. What does that mean?”
The cop shook his head.
Carleen came out of the bathroom. “I need to find Waffles,” she said. “That police dog scared him.” Miller and Carleen and the cop searched for Waffles, who was cowering up in Carleen’s loft. She pulled him down and held him against her as they walked the cop out.
“Take care of your dad now,” he said.
“I will,” Carleen said. “Was it a shooting?”
The cop looked at Miller, who nodded.
“It was,” the cop said. “But not here. You’re okay.”
The cop looked at Miller.
“Yes,” Miller said.
“Did kids die?”
Waffles wriggled against her.
Miller put his hand on her shoulder, hoping the cat wouldn’t bolt.
“It’s still very confusing,” the cop said, and Miller said, “Yes, kids died.”
“How many?” Carleen said.
Waffles kept wriggling. It seemed likely he’d pee on her. She shushed him, her face against his fur.
“We don’t know yet,” the cop said. “But you’re safe with your dad.”
What else could anyone say?
Down the hill parents poured onto the lawn, the boss cop losing control of his count.
“Bennie,” one mom cried. “Bennie!”
But Bennie didn’t come.
Miller couldn’t believe it had followed them here, to Laura’s house. But of course it had. It would follow them everywhere. If anyone should know that, it was Miller.
“Follow me,” the cop called, jogging toward the far roadblock.
“What are you holding?” Carleen asked Miller.
He looked at the bag in his hand, Carleen’s bonnets, which he handed to her. “A present for you,” he said. He opened her door and buckled her in as if she were a baby.
Waffles scrambled to the back of the motorhome.
Carleen opened the bag and examined her bonnets. “I love them,” she said, putting one on her head. There were two cars waiting at the blockade, and a few up the road turning around. Cedar Creek would be in the opposite direction, where all the parents were coming from.
“They’re perfect,” Carleen said, tying her bonnet and sniffling. One of the cops pulled out so Miller could get through the blockade. The cop who had helped them looked a little wobbly. “Pretty bonnet,” he said to Carleen. She waved at him. Miller pulled away and left what had happened behind them, driving with the windows down. They didn’t talk. At some point his phone would tell them how to get back to Springfield, the other direction. At some point he’d fall into a news hole and learn what had happened. But not yet. He looked at Carleen, who was staring straight ahead in her bonnet, her face puffy and streaked. He reached his hand to her and she took it. They drove in silence for a long time, the warm air blowing over them.
Originally published in the June 20, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
For years, Miller Cane had made his living traveling from mass shooting to mass shooting, comforting (and conning) the survivors. But this was different: It found him. Of course it did. As a distraction, Miller and 8-year-old Carleen were visiting Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house in Missouri (of “Little House on the Prairie” fame) and had latched onto a group of school kids on a field trip. Then, suddenly, cops were everywhere, there to secure all the kids who, by luck of being on a field trip, had become the few survivors of America’s latest school shooting. Miller isn’t sure what to do next: He and Carleen have been on the run for months — ever since Carleen’s mother, Lizzie, was locked in jail for shooting Carleen’s deadbeat dad — and the charm of the road is gone.
It would be hours before he’d learn anything about the massacre, and days before he’d know the whole story, if such a thing were possible — that 18 children, who’d been absent that day, and 26 children, who’d been on a field trip, were the only students left at Cedar Creek elementary school, every teacher but one, every administrator and staff member murdered, plus 13 cops, one shooter, and 431 children, ages five to eleven, 498 dead, double what Custer had lost at the Greasy Grass, four times the count of Mountain Meadows, a hundred times the Boston Massacre, more dead children than at any mass murder in American history.
But he didn’t know that yet, and neither did Carleen. He wanted to keep her from it, which was impossible — the news crews were already checking into the hotel, reporters everywhere, plus state and federal cops pouring into town. Miller only had the room for one more night, and couldn’t extend beyond that, not that he wanted to. It was just — he didn’t know where to go, what to do. He scanned the papers while Carleen changed into her swimsuit. He’d known it was a major massacre because of the news vans everywhere, traffic clogging every road, the cops in town and at Laura’s house earlier, but the numbers were impossible — hundreds dead? How could that be? He needed to sit tight, make a plan, keep what he could from Carleen until he knew their next move. In the meantime, he wouldn’t let her out of the room. People would be crying everywhere, shocked, numb, enraged. There was nowhere the damage wouldn’t be palpable, and she’d seen enough already. He told her the pool was closed. “But,” she said, and he said, “No buts.” They ordered pizza, watched a movie, played Go Fish. Carleen cried and wanted to know why someone would do such a thing. Miller said he didn’t know why, that nobody knew, it was a sickness and a hatred and something else — and we were failing to stop it, he didn’t say, another kind of sickness. They were quiet for a while, and then Carleen said, “Do you have any jacks?” and Miller said, “Go fish.” Outside, the media and cops and scammers were pouring into town the way Deadheads used to arrive before a show, transforming everything for the length of their stay, though massacres sites never returned to normal.
“But tell me what happened exactly,” Carleen said.
Miller looked at his phone, pretending to read the news. “You know what I know,” he said.
“But how many kids?” Carleen said. He didn’t want her swimming in it, minute to minute, hour to hour. “Miss Julie said all of them.”
“I don’t know about that,” Miller said. Ever since they’d left Laura’s he’d kept her as close as he could, trying to determine what she needed and when, as if the right amount of love at the crucial moment might somehow make everything okay.
“Not the kids at Laura’s,” she said, and Miller said, “Thank goodness.”
If Carleen weren’t here, he’d have been out meeting survivors, handing out cards, showing different sides of himself — low-key but visible to those who’d benefit from spiritual profiles in the days ahead, outraged with the outraged, who he’d do his best to avoid later, broken for everyone, because there was no way not be broken, especially at a massacre this size. One dead kid was unbearable, ten unthinkable — he didn’t know what hundreds meant, or how to handle thousands of melting survivors. No way would he expose Carleen to that, no matter how much obligation and opportunity were here. “We’re leaving in the morning,” he told her.
“No!” she said, looking up from her cards. “What about the animals?”
He’d told her how shelter pets could comfort survivors, if only for a little while.
“We have to go to the Humane Society,” she said.
Miller’s phone buzzed. “Your mom,” he said, handing it to Carleen. She pulled her bonnet brim over her eyes as she told Lizzie about Laura’s house — her bed and bathroom and books — her cookies, her daughter’s donkey, the gift shop and museum, providing almost no opportunity for Lizzie to talk, until she finally mentioned the shooting, almost as an afterthought, as if she knew to downplay it. “No, it wasn’t there,” she said. “At a school somewhere.”
It would be best for Carleen — for both of them — if Miller had the resources to take care of her in the months and years ahead. But there’d be more shootings down the road if he couldn’t find money another way. Or maybe he really would go back to teaching.
“She wants you,” Carleen said, handing him the phone.
“Hey, there,” Miller said, trying to sound upbeat, and Lizzie said, “Did you really take her to a goddamn massacre?”
One dead kid was unbearable, ten unthinkable — he didn’t know what hundreds meant, or how to handle thousands of melting survivors.
Miller stood and moved to his own bed. If Carleen hadn’t been sitting across from him, he’d have hung up on Lizzie for accusing him like that — as if he’d hurt Carleen, when it was Lizzie who’d asked him to take care of her in the first place. And he’d done everything for her — for both of them.
“I’m not sure what you mean,” he said.
“I mean,” she said, “why would you take her anywhere near there?”
“I didn’t,” he said.
“It came to us,” he said.
“So get her out of there.”
“It’s miles from here,” he said, “two towns over.”
Carleen sat watching him.
“Please,” Lizzie said.
“We’re safe,” Miller said, and Lizzie said, “You’d understand if you were a parent.”
As if he wasn’t a parent.
“Please just do this.”
He could hear her falling apart through the static.
“You don’t want her anywhere near it either,” she said. “I know that.”
Of course he didn’t. But it could come anywhere, to anyone, at any time. Lizzie should know that. Everyone should. But no one could, maybe, unless it had already come.
“We’re heading to Jamestown tomorrow,” he said.
“No!” Carleen said.
“We have to get the animals!” Carleen said.
Miller shushed her. “Far away,” he said to Lizzie, though he couldn’t imagine getting back on the road now that they’d almost settled down.
“I can’t do this,” Lizzie said, “I swear to God — me in here and her in that awful place.”
“I know,” Miller said.
“Would you hold her for me?”
“I will,” Miller said, and then she said something swallowed by the roar.
“Your mom wants me to hug you,” he said to Carleen.
She stood on her bed and they hugged. Miller understood exactly how Lizzie felt. He wanted to hold Carleen as tight as he could, never let her go. But he didn’t want her to see or feel all the fear in him. She started a new doll while he pretended to read. He poured whiskey and waited for her to sleep, so he could fall into the massacre news, but she stayed awake for hours. They listened to “Puff the Magic Dragon” over and over, Carleen humming along while Miller drank a second and third whiskey in the dark.
Originally published in the June 27, 2019, issue of the Inlander.
The body count reached 498, a record-breaking massacre. Miller Cane and 8-year-old Carleen had been in Missouri visiting Laura Ingalls Wilder’s house (of “Little House on the Prairie” fame) when a shooter attacked a nearby elementary school. This used to be Miller’s way of life, traveling from massacre to massacre, comforting (and conning) the survivors; it was a calling he took up after his own brother, Charles, died trying to stop a school shooting. But now Miller has Carleen. The two of them have been on the run for months, ever since Carleen’s mother went to jail for shooting her estranged husband. Along the road, Miller had been passing the time writing brief biographies for a history textbook, each beginning with the same question, “Hero or Villain?” But Miller’s editor, George, fired him a while back for wasting time on these wild stories.
He mined the news for details — one shooter, hundreds of victims, a truck bomb at the back of the building, grenades, IEDS, kerosene, thousands of rounds of ammunition. In the days ahead the details would accumulate — updates and quotes, struggles to understand a killer who seemed like such a good guy, so clearly mentally ill, a stamp collector who hated his mother, his father, but loved guns and video games, everyone who knew him knowing something like this would happen, though no one could have guessed what or when. Victim bios would run for weeks, but the stories would finally fade, followed by bumps of interest in smaller, almost meaningless massacres. Then a killer would rack up a thousand bodies. Then five thousand. There had to be a limit for a single shooter massacre — we just hadn’t reached it yet. Miller thought of his brother on the floor at Sunny Day, wrapped around his son, who’d killed seven kids, Charles trying to stop him, to save him, the cops killing them both. What else were they supposed to do? All Miller could do was protect Carleen, which might be impossible. But he’d try. It seemed like days and months had passed since he’d sat in a coffee shop planning his next Hero Villain. He poured more whiskey and propped himself on his bed to write.
Hero Villain VII —
Laura Ingalls Wilder and Crazy Horse
They fell in love and got machine guns, taking everything they could get their hands on, whatever was left, robbing and killing and screwing everyone. They rode through the country on horseback and motorcycles, in fast cars and passenger trains, taking what they wanted and what they didn’t want, taking everything, money and booze and people’s lives if they got in the way, becoming heroes to the folks of Arkansas and Oklahoma and South Dakota and everywhere else. God, they were beautiful. They could never get enough of each other or anything else. But all around them the rich got richer, taking more and more, while the rest of us fell into booze and heroin and impotent rage. It wasn’t just that so few had everything — the money and judges and private islands — it was how they wouldn’t stop shitting out literacy programs, hospital wings, shacks for the homeless, single-parent college funds, as if they expected to be thanked for their largesse, until Laura finally said, “We don’t want your goddamn charity,” holding a gator knife to a billionaire’s throat. “What we want is what you have — all of it.” And they took it, Laura and Crazy Horse, spreading it to the rest of us in the form of turkeys and guns and mortgage payments, but keeping most for themselves or burning it. They tracked down one philanthropist after another, cut his throat, took what he had, everything he’d claimed to work so hard for, then moved to the next one. Laura’s family had never had anything except promises of a better future, and Crazy Horse had never had anything that wasn’t taken away. Their solution was guns, more and bigger, and though massacres had never worked in the past, Laura and Crazy Horse used them to enforce an equitable distribution of wealth, a chicken in every pot, clean energy subsidies eliminating the need for fossil fuels, the earth healing itself, disease eradicated, all based on a conjoining of Indian and Pioneer superpowers. Finally we could live up to the promise of our ideals, everyone free and equal and happy and immortal, Laura and Crazy Horse spreading the goodness until everyone had everything, no one greedy or mean or hungry, at which point they beat their guns into ploughshares and the era of massacres was over.
Or this: Laura was a tiny woman married to a failed farmer, Almanzo, AKA Farmer Boy. She called him Manly and he called her Bessie and their daughter Rose had a donkey they all called Spookendyke, which had nothing do with Rose being a lesbian, if she even was one. There are times when all we can think about is who’s a lesbian and who isn’t, wondering why we all aren’t, but this isn’t one of those times. What matters here is Rose and Laura’s complicated mother-daughter relationship, especially as Rose got older and became a successful writer and encouraged her mother to write, never once dreaming that Laura’s success would overshadow her own, which it did, which wasn’t fair, because they wrote those goddamn books together, Rose reworking her mother’s plots and prose, a secret that ate at her until she became an acolyte of Ayn Rand, putting her own name only on books of unreadable propaganda, reserving her revenge for her will, in which she left the copyrights of her mother’s books to Roger MacBride, an anti-government zealot and 1976 libertarian presidential nominee, Laura’s lucrative mythology feeding his and the Koch brothers’ causes for eternity. If only Crazy Horse had been around to cut somebody’s throat.
But Crazy Horse had died on an office floor at Fort Robinson two years before Laura’s family moved to the shores of Silver Lake. Everyone wanted him dead. He’d become a symbol of resistance, of the old ways, and as a symbol, he was already dead but for the killing, as finally administered by William Gentles with a bayonet. It took hours for Crazy Horse to die on the floor of the adjutant’s office, where he refused a bed. Private Gentles, an Irishman, died a few months later of asthma. But that’s not all (there’s good here, too, mixed with bad) — because Crazy Horse had a big bad love when he was young, with Black Buffalo Woman, who ran away with him, though she was married to No Water, who tracked them down and shot Crazy Horse in the face, which didn’t kill him but drove Black Buffalo Woman away. In a movie, this would explain everything.
I’m trying to show you the whole picture here, not just dirt and shine.
In real life, Laura and Manly were cursed or blessed with a tepid love. It was a miracle she got pregnant at all. They moved from South Dakota to Missouri, Laura reflecting on the land in a diary how she “wished for an artist’s hand, or a poet’s brain or even to be able to tell in good plain prose how beautiful it was. If I had been the Indians I would have scalped more white folks before I ever would have left it.”
Later, Laura would scalp whoever she wanted, billionaires mostly, until Crazy Horse said, “First of all, you were not the Indians. Second of all, we did not leave — we were forced off that land. No amount of scalping could have changed anything,” to which Laura replied, “I would have kept scalping anyway,” implying that she loved the land more than Crazy Horse did, which infuriated him, his rage infuriating her, draining their love and any hope of killing the rest of the billionaires and saving the world, because all they wanted now was to kill each other.
[But you know what, George? Even if they couldn’t save the world, even if we’re all just killing ourselves and each other as the empire collapses, I still believe in this project and everything we can become. Now doesn’t have to be our end, George. Consider the dawn of the Civil War, when we’d been coming undone for decades and finally began ripping each other to pieces. Consider the Great Depression, and all the unnamed depressions, when all we had to eat was our babies. Consider slavery and emancipation and reconstruction — because there was reconstruction, George, even in the wake of the Klan’s murderous tide; consider Jim Crow, then the Civil Rights Act, triumphant and transformative, even as it fell apart, piece by piece, but not all of it. Consider the long view, George, how things have gotten incrementally better, Hamilton and Burr shooting each other, yes, but everything swelling and resolving, becoming good, then horrible, then a little bit better — America the Beautiful, the Massacre, Immaculate, but not merely immaculate or a massacre, George, because I’m trying to show you the whole picture here, not just dirt and shine. There’s love in that, George — in struggling to see ourselves, to know ourselves, even knowing that parts of us are awful. I don’t think you see it that way, though, and you should. I’m not sure you see anything the way you should, George, certainly not me. Still, I am loath to close. We’re not enemies, George, but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory — stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this land — will yet swell the chorus of the union, when again touched by the better angels of our nature. And if I’ve succumbed to the worse angels of my nature, George, I’m a little drunk here, so I hope you’ll forgive me. What I mostly want is to give us another chance, George, forgiveness for everyone. Maybe not everyone. Maybe not Charles Manson or Jim Jones or John Wayne Gacy or Bloody Bill Anderson or Lizzie Borden or Huck Finn’s father, but forgiveness for most of us, George, certainly for you and me, touched as we’ll be forevermore by angels.]