Free

Still


It is not long dawn when the man comes. You see him before he sees you, but the light is dirty and weak and when you spot him he has already come too close for you to prepare. The boy is around on the other side of the refinery, so you call him to you. There is no time to hide the barrel.

The boy arrives, looking like a shadow. He is losing weight.

“The snares were empty,” he says.

“Someone’s coming,” you say, and the boy sees the approaching man for the first time.

By now the man has seen you, and his steps have become markedly more determined. You pull the rifle from your back and hold it across your body like a barrier, your eyes never leaving him. Above you the tarpaulin flaps in the wind, snapping against itself as though applauding his arrival.

Whupwhupwhupwhupwhup.

The man stumbles to the edge of the shelter and stops. His hair and beard are thick with dust and his clothes are rags, bound about him like filthy bandages on a wound. He is crooked, bent over, heaving for breath. He looks at you and the boy. He looks at the rifle in your hands.

“Have a seat,” you say, and you motion to one of the upturned crates beside the scar of last night’s fire. The man folds himself onto the crate uncertainly, as though his limbs might crack. You sit down opposite him, on the other side of the shelter. You rest the rifle across your knees, neither friendly nor hostile. You keep your hands on it.

“Where have you come from?” you ask as you unscrew the bottle that hangs on a cord around your neck.

“North.”

You pour some of the water from the bottle into a tin cup and offer it to him. He takes the cup with clawed fingers and drains it.

“What’s it like up there?”

“Dead,” he says, “Same as everywhere else.”

Out of the corner of your eye you notice the boy glance at you. You keep your gaze fixed on the man.

“Where are you headed?” you ask, but the man’s attention has been taken by the hulking wreck of the refinery that looms over the shelter. Its towers and outbuildings are rusted brown, half-swallowed by the sand.

“Anything in there?” he asks.

“Only snakes and scorpions,” you say, “Someone came and took everything of any use before we got here.”

The man nods once, then looks jealously around the shelter: the wall of rusted scrap metal, the machinery and boxes that it took you two days to scavenge, the precious grey tarpaulin strung from it with wire. He notices the yellow plastic barrel on the trolley. He peers at its screw cap, sees how clean and free of dust it is.

“What’s in the barrel?” he asks.

“Nothing,” you say. The man shifts on the crate. He seems restless.

“Where are you headed?” you ask again.

The man stares at you for a moment before answering.

“South.”

“What are you hoping to find down there?”

“People say there’s a place where they grow crops, down by the coast,” he says, suddenly animated, “Corn. And a lake nearby, with fish.”

The boy looks at you again. You’ve heard the talk before. The wind picks up, tugging at the tarpaulin, and grey dust sloughs through the shelter.

Whupwhupwhupwhupwhup.

“They say there used to be a lake right by here,” you say.

“Here?” says the man. He looks around.

“That’s what they say.”

“Who says that?”

“It was a long time ago.”

He looks at you hard for a moment, then snorts and shakes his head.

“You must think I’m stupid,” he says.

You shrug. “That’s what they say.”

You talk for a time, about little: the north, the south, the past, the future. Things of no consequence. It is necessary, this talk; a kind of anchor to a past reality. The boy doesn’t understand this. Perhaps he never will.

The man frowns.

“What do you do for food?” he says.

“There are animals out there,” you say. You tilt your head slightly, towards the wilderness outside the shelter.

“What animals? Where?”

“There are rats and things,” says the boy, “And snakes and lizards that eat them. I catch them with snares.”

The man looks at the boy curiously, as though seeing him for the first time.

“I don’t believe you,” he says.

“The beetles catch dew on their backs and then drink it,” you say, “And then the other animals eat them. They’re like water bottles.”

“Like water bottles!” The man lets out a ragged laugh. The boy shifts nervously.

“Life adapts,” you say, and as abruptly as he started laughing the man stops.

“Life adapts?” he says, “Like us? Like we have?”

He slumps forward on the crate, hunches his back, shakes his head. He smells of death. It is a prophecy, hanging at his shoulder.

“If people had adapted,” you say, “If we’d not been so addicted to oil—”

“Oil!” He slaps his leg with his hand, his eyes wide. You tighten your grip on the rifle. “If I had some oil I could take a car and drive south, get to where the crops are. There are cars in the north, I’ve seen them. I could take one of them and go south.”

“There’s no oil left,” you say, “It’s all gone.”

“There must be some left. Somewhere.”

“There hasn’t been any since before he was born,” you nod your head at the boy, “I hardly remember it myself.”

“My father told me about it.”

You look at him properly for the first time and you realise that he is young, younger than his appearance suggests. Too young to remember the protests, the riots, the wars fought for the right to squeeze the last drops from the desert. His youth has been buried deep beneath that wasted exterior.

The man turns to the boy for the first time. You notice your grip tightening on the rifle.

“Do you know what oil is?” the man says. His teeth show as he talks, ragged and yellow. The boy shakes his head.

“It makes machines work,” you say.

“It’s like magic,” says the man.

“What machines?” says the boy. The last time you saw a car by the side of the road he was too young to remember it.

“Cars, trucks, aeroplanes,” you say, “Old things. Nothing you’d know.”

“I saw a car driving along, once,” says the man.

“Must have been a long time ago.”

“A long time.”

He shakes his head, his words a melancholy echo. He looks away towards the blackened horizon for a moment, then turns back to you.

“What have you got in the barrel?” he asks again. His eyes are suddenly as fierce as flints.

“It’s empty,” you say.

“Show me.”

“I said it’s empty.”

The man scowls, then leaps up onto wiry legs and darts towards the wall of debris that shelters the barrel. You jump to your feet, shout at him to stop, and in an instant you have raised the rifle and levelled it at his chest. He skids to a halt and raises his hands.

“Get away from there,” you say.

“You’ve got oil!”

“Get away from there.”

He doesn’t move, he just looks at the barrel and breathes. For an awful moment you wonder whether he is going to try to attack you, or the boy. Then, with stiff, reluctant steps he starts to move backwards, away from the barrel. Careful, careful, his body is saying, don’t pull that trigger, no need to pull that trigger. You keep the gun trained on him the whole time. You can sense the boy behind you, his breath coming sharp and fearful.

The man edges back as far as the upturned crate on which he had been sitting, but he remains on his feet. When he looks at you again his eyes are different, softer than they had been.

“Give me some of your oil,” he says, “I don’t need all of it, just some so that I can head south. Please.”

“I think you’d better be getting on your way,” you say.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” He clutches his hands to his chest.

“I know.”

“Please,” he is wheedling now, imploring you with his hands and his voice and his eyes, “I’ll go, but let me take some food. I’ll starve without.”

“Get on your way.”

“Please!”

You don’t answer him, you just keep the rifle trained on his heart. He begs you again and again, but you don’t respond; even with the snares there is hardly enough food for you and the boy. Eventually the reality of the situation dawns on him and his face blackens with resentment.

“God damn you both,” he says, pointing at you, and he hauls himself out from the shelter and starts to make his way across the cracked earth. “God damn you both!” he shouts again and again over his shoulder as he goes.

You watch him recede. You have to squint to follow him as the sun is still low in the miserable sky.

“He’s heading for the dune,” says the boy.

“Maybe he’ll turn,” you say.

You beg him to turn, pray that he change course and go around. But the man doesn’t turn, he carries on across the baked flats towards the dune to the south of the refinery, and when he reaches its foot he begins to climb.

“He’ll see the stills,” says the boy.

“Maybe he’ll turn.”

“Dad!” You can feel the urgency in his voice.

You raise the rifle to your eye and trace the man’s progress as he ascends the fortress of sand. At the top of the dune you see him pause, then you watch as he turns around and looks back at you.

“He’s seen them,” says the boy.

You peer down the sights. The man’s head rests at the end of the barrel of the gun. Perhaps it’s not too late, you think. Perhaps he’ll come back down the dune and go around. Dust stings your eyes. The tarpaulin whips in the wind.

Whupwhupwhupwhupwhup.

The man turns away and takes a step towards the other side of the dune. Towards the stills.

“Dad!” the boy says again.

“I know,” you say, “Cover your ears.”

The rifle shot is short and vicious, suffocated quickly by the filthy clouds that press down from above. The boy winces, and on the brow of the dune the man collapses. The boy removes his hands from his ears and squints over at the dune.

“Is he dead?” he asks.

“Yes,” you say. The boy turns and looks up at you.

“Will we bury him?”

Burying the man will take time and energy and sweat, and all of these are precious. The boy keeps looking at you, his eyes innocent and accusing. He remembers you burying his mother.

“We’ll do it after we’ve emptied the stills.”

You sling the rifle onto your back, and only now that your palms are empty do you realise that they are slick with sweat. You unscrew the lid of the yellow barrel and dip two tin cups into it. You pass one to the boy, and drink the other yourself. The water is warm but pure. You narrow your eyes and scan the horizon.

“It’s not safe here any more,” you say, to yourself as much as to the boy, “As soon as the barrel’s full we have to move on. Maybe sooner. He might not be the last person heading this way.”

You and the boy each pick up two buckets and walk towards the dune where the man’s body lies.

“If we had some oil, could we get a car and go somewhere?” asks the boy, “Somewhere better?”

“There isn’t any oil.”

“But if there was, could we do that?”

“It doesn’t matter. It’s all gone. They burned it all.”

“Why did they burn it?”

“That’s how it worked. You burned it to make energy.”

You reach the dune and climb up to where the man’s crumpled body lies. He is lying on his back, his eyes open. Blood leaks from a ragged wound in his chest and stains the sand beside him. Behind him, beyond the dune, lie the solar stills, a rash of weighted plastic sheets that pit the landscape like scars. The boy stares at the man, horrified and fascinated.

“Go and check the stills,” you say, but the boy doesn’t respond. “Go and check the stills,” you say again, more forcefully, and this time the boy’s attention snaps away from the body. “Go on. I’ll be down in a moment.”

The boy heads down the other side of the dune, his feet seeding tiny waves of sand that race ahead of him. You spend some time looking at the man’s body. He wasn’t a bad man, you understand that; just desperate, willing to do what was needed to survive. He’d have done the same as you in your position; you’d have done the same as him in his. You squat down and close his eyes for him.

After a time you follow the boy’s footsteps down the dune, but when you reach the stills the boy has already emptied most of them. He shows you two of the buckets. They are no more than half full.

“Not bad,” you say.

“Better than yesterday,” he says.

You empty the remainder of the stills with him and climb back up the dune. You stop beside the body once more, and the boy looks at it again. He seems different this time, at the second sight of it. Harder, somehow. Heavier.

“His eyes are closed,” he says.

“I closed them,” you say.

“Why?”

“It’s just something you do. It’s respectful.”

The boy nods.

“Come on,” you say, “We’ll get the water into the barrel and then I’ll bury him. Then we should load up the trolley. Get ready to move on.”

You start down the dune towards the shelter, half stepping, half sliding, the boy beside you. The boy is quiet, and seems distant. Above the wind the only sound is of water slopping around inside the buckets.

“Where will we go?” asks the boy.

“I don’t know.”

“Why don’t we go south? To where the crops are?”

“There are no crops,” you say, “Not any more.”

“The man said.”

“The man’s wrong. It’s just a dream. Or a memory.”

The boy is silent for a while, until you reach the shelter; until you pour the water into the barrel. Then he speaks.

“I wish we had some oil,” he says. Water slaps against plastic.

“Forget about oil,” you say.

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