Prisoner of the Wasteland – a story in the Wasteland universe

The filthy bedroll slips beneath him when David sits up. He squints at the thin lines of sunlight seeping between the gaps in the boarded-up windows, the damp glistening along the concrete walls.

“You awake?” he whispers, shaking the shoulder of a dark-skinned boy curled up next to him. “Mike?”

The boy glares at David through purple-rimmed eyes, cringing as he grabs the back of his head. “What is it?”

“I was thinking,” David whispers, looking over to the locked door. “We need to get off this stuff.”

Mike laughs, shaking his head, his mouth twisting. “This is it. There ain’t no getting off this.”

“That’s just what they tell you. Bree was say—”

“What does Bree know?” Mike spits. “Tell us, Bree.”

David leans over to the girl lying next to him and shakes her shoulder. “Bree?” He looks up at Mike. “She’s not breathing.”

Mike scrambles over and looks down at Bree, her long black hair matted into knots, and shakes his head. “She’s just high.”

“I tell you, she’s not breathing.”

Mike puts a hand near her mouth and waits. He drops his arm and shakes his head, slower this time.

David gets up and stumbles over the other sleeping children, sweating as he hammers at the door, calling out for help.

A couple of the kids groan and swear. The lock clicks and a bolt shifts across. David steps back as the door swings open.

A tall man, with a grizzled beard and scarred face, eyes David from the doorway. “What the hell is going on?”

“It’s Bree. She’s dead.” David sucks in his bottom lip and nods towards her body, unremarkable among the other death-still children.

“Which one?” The man asks.

“Bree.”

The man wraps a leather strap around his hand and barges through the door, shoving David aside, his eyes darting around the room. “Which one?”

David scrambles across the prone bodies of the sleeping children and crouches next to Bree. “Here.”

The man stands over him and stares at the corpse. “What you waiting for? Get her up. Get her out of here.”

There’s a long silence, and David exchanges a glance with Mike, who shrugs.

“Come on, then,” the man snaps, clearing a path to the door with his kicks.

Struggling, David hooks his arms under the dead girl’s armpits and drags her across the room, straining against her weight as he struggles to get her through the door, her ankles catching against the frame.

“This way,” the man says, marching ahead along the corridor.

David holds back tears as he stares down at her grubby feet dragging along the concrete.

The man knocks on a steel door at the end of the corridor and waits.

Sunlight pours in as the door creaks open. “We got another one,” the man says, nodding back towards David.

A woman looks around the man and shrugs. “Sling it over there,” she says, gesturing behind her. David follows where she’s pointing and takes in a sharp breath.

“Well, come on. We’ve got a busy day,” the man snaps.

David steps outside, the stench of the floodwaters stronger in the open air. He looks around at the buildings looming above him, starting when he’s prodded in the side by the woman’s rifle-butt. “Get rid of it,” she says.

With a deep sigh, David nods and drags Bree’s body to the building’s edge. He glances back at the man, hesitating.

“What you waiting for? Get rid of it.”

David looks down at Bree’s knotted hair, the purple rims around her eyes, her sunken cheeks and bony shoulders, and shakes his head. “I…I can’t.”

The man curses and storms over to David. He grabs Bree around her neck and flings her into the water, her body bobbing on the surface for a minute, her inflated clothes sagging before sinking beneath the blackness. The man wipes his hands and turns to David, prodding a forefinger into his chest. “When I tell you to do something, you do it. Otherwise you’ll be next.” He points to the tiny white bubbles, the only visible marker of Bree’s grave. “We clear?”

David looks down at the flattening surface, and nods. “Yes, sir,” he manages, turning his attention to his feet. “Sorry.”

David sits cross-legged on his bedroll, staring down at a stale piece of bread.

“You going to eat that?” Mike asks.

“I can’t believe she’s dead,” David says, still staring.

Mike sniffs and snatches the bread from David’s limp grip, stuffing it into his mouth. “We’re all dead. I said you shouldn’t get close. If it’s not plez, then it’s the Family.”

“But Bree was a good person.”

“She was an addict and now she’s not.” Mike shrugs and brushes a crumb from his chin. “If you ask me, I’d say she’s better off.”

David sighs and shakes his head, starting when the door crashes open.

“Everyone up,” the man with the grizzled beard says. “Follow me.” He turns and marches out of the room. The other children look at each other, confused, and get to their feet, filing out of the room.

David follows the stream of kids as they meander outside. “What’s happening?” he asks, turning to Mike.

“Shut up,” Mike growls under his breath. “It’s probably about Bree.”

The children are lined-up at the edge of the building, the floodwaters still and silent behind them. David looks down to the place where Bree’s body was thrown and holds his breath for a few long seconds.

Three women stand guard with rifles as the man with the grizzled beard paces in front of the kids, stopping when a small boy, a head shorter than David, emerges flailing with a collar and chain around his neck. “Look at the face of this boy,” the man says. “We found this boy trying to steal plez. Do you know what we do to people who steal from us?” He makes a gesture to one of the women. “Pull him up.”

David and the other children watch in silence, not daring to move as the chain around the boy’s neck tightens and lifts him three-feet off the ground, his feet flailing uselessly.

“Watch,” the man says, pointing. “Any of you kids turn away from this, and you’ll be next.”

David turns in the direction of the kid, his eyes focused on something in the distance, the last few spasms of movement blurring at the edge of his vision.

A long tense silence hangs in the air before the chain is released, dropping the boy to the ground like a pile of dead meat.

“Get rid of it,” the man says, pointing at David.

“What?”

“Get rid of it. Put him with your friend.”

“But—”

“Disobey me again and see what happens,” the man says, narrowing his eyes.

David swallows and dips his head with a single nod. He staggers over to the dead boy and looks down at his vacant eyes. Shuddering, he unfastens the collar digging into the dead boy’s neck and tosses it aside. He drags the body to the building’s edge, gets to his knees and rolls it into the water, turning away before he sees the splash.

“We’re going to need a new cleaner,” the man says. “Someone who’s not going to steal from us. Any volunteers?”

David glances over to the other kids, all of them looking at their feet.

“No one?” the man says, shrugging. He turns to David. “You’re small. You’ll do.”

David squirms against the electrical wire wrapped around his wrists, binding his hands together as he’s led across the plank of wood extending between rooftops. He stares ahead, trying not to look down at the floodwaters as the wood wobbles beneath his bare feet.

The man with the grizzled beard directs him through a door, one hand firmly clasped on David’s shoulder.

An expansive factory floor opens out before them. A thick chemical odour penetrates the stench of the floodwaters. Steel vats stand in rows along the concrete floor. Twisted copper pipes spread out in all directions. A purple haze lingers in the air.

The man turns to David and unbinds his wrists. “You need to keep this place clean,” he says. “Whenever there’s a new cook, you need to get under those and get rid of the gunk.” He gestures beneath the vats. “Try not to get burnt, those things get very hot.”

David looks around and nods. “You want me to get under those?”

The man ignores the question. “If you steal, you’re dead. Same goes if you try to escape, if you’re late, if you don’t do what whoever is in charge says.” There’s a pause. “We clear?”

David shrugs. “Okay.”

A prod to the shoulder brings David from his sleep, the last fragments of plez pulling at the edge of his consciousness. He looks around in the gloom as the others sleep around him, and starts at the sight of a man, dressed from head-to-foot in yellow plastic, standing over him, a carbine hanging at his side.

“Come on,” the man says. “Time for work.”

David staggers to his feet, confused. “Okay,” He follows the man outside, across the bridge, and to the factory.

“Wait there,” the man says, pointing to a patch of floor near the door. He returns a minute later carrying a sweeping brush, a gasmask obscuring his face. “Clean,” he says, his voice muffled through the rubber and glass.

Sucking in his bottom lip, David takes the broom. “What’s the mask for?” he asks, his voice little more than a whisper.

“Speak up,” the man says.

“What’s with the mask?”

“Cooking fumes are bad for you.”

“Can I have one?”

The man lets out a laugh and shoulders his way past, shaking his head. He stops and looks back. “You keep your questions to yourself. Get cleaning.”

David spends the next few hours sweeping the room, wiping down vats, and tipping trays filled with ash into the floodwaters. He stands on the water’s edge, looking down, and then heads back inside, his stomach rumbling.

The factory heats up as a roaring fire burns at the far end. A purple-grey haze fills the room as steam rushes from the joins of copper pipes along the ceiling. David wobbles as his feet grow light. He taps the man on the shoulder. “Can I eat?”

“Don’t talk to me,” the man says, his voice distant. “You can eat when you’ve cleaned up this batch.”

David nods and watches as the man pulls a tray of gleaming purple crystals from beneath one of the vats, biting his bottom lip as he takes in their twinkling forms.

“Don’t even think about it,” the man says, shaking the crystals. He picks one up, turning it in the low light. “You saw what happened to the last one.”

“Looks like a good batch.”

The man pulls off his gasmask and wipes his sweat-soaked forehead with a sleeve, frowning. “Don’t be friendly.” He hangs the mask from a hook descending from the ceiling and gestures to a crate. “Bring me that.”

David runs to the corner and drags the battered wooden crate to the man. “Here okay?” he asks, looking up.

The man nods. “Hold it still.” He pours the crystals from the tray, letting them cascade into the crate, filling it halfway. “Put the lid on it.” He looks around, rubbing his chin. “Still not enough.”

David gives a confused look. “What?”

Raising a hand, the man’s eyes flicker with rage. “Take the crate back to where you got it and cover it up. We need another batch.”

Flinching, David looks over to the corner and nods. “Okay,” he whispers, dragging the crate backwards. When he reaches the corner, he rummages around the other crates until he finds the right cover. He places the sheet of wood over the crate, adjusting it until it slots into place.

“Well, don’t just stand there. Get rid of the crap.” The man gestures to the tar-like substance clinging to the underside of the vat.

David picks up a cloth and bucket, runs over and crawls underneath, scrubbing at the gunk. He calls out in pain when his hand brushes against the metal, still hot from the cook, and rolls out, clutching it.

“What is it?”

“Burned my hand,” David says, tears filling his eyes.

“Let me see,” the man says, grabbing at his wrist.

A bright-pink oval stretches from David’s little finger to his wrist, his skin frayed where the flesh peeled off against the metal. The man turns away and shrugs. “I’ve seen worse.”

“But it hurts.” Cross-legged, David leans forward, gritting his teeth against the pain.

“Get up. Do your job. If you can’t do your job, you’re done. You understand?”

David swallows and nods, his left hand throbbing.

Streams of dying light punctuate the gloom as David sits hunched over on his bedroll. He looks up, forcing a smile as Mike hands him a slice of hard bread. “Thanks,” he says in a whisper.

Mike scrunches a blanket into a ball and sits down next to David. “Weird without Bree, huh?”

David looks at the area of bare floor where Bree used to sleep, and sighs. “Just life, I guess.” He tears a chunk of the bread away with his teeth, moving it around his mouth as he chews, licking his lips against the dryness.

“What happened to your hand?” Mike asks, gesturing to the long blister.

“Got burned on one of the plez vats.”

“Looks bad.”

“It’s okay.”

Mike nods. “Plez will sort you out. Hit of that, and boom! You’re out.”

Shuddering, David takes another bite of bread and stares down at his hands.

“Did you see them make it?”

David nods and swallows. “My head really hurts.”

“You get any?” Mike whispers.

“And get strung-up?” He looks down at his burns and winces.

Shaking his head, Mike makes a wide smile. “Man, if I was in there, I’d just get as much as I could…” His voice trails off at David’s glare. “What?”

“I’m done with it. I wasn’t kidding. I’m getting clean. It’s bad.”

Mike smirks and lies back onto his bedroll. “I’ll have yours when they bring it round.”

David looks up when the door opens. A woman and man enter, both with rifles over their shoulders. The other kids jump to their feet. “Don’t move,” the man says, patting his rifle. “She’ll bring your plez.” He shakes his head as the woman hands out crystals to the other children. The kids scurry back to their bedrolls with their drugs, some lighting-up without hesitation.

Mike bolts to his feet when the woman approaches, and she hands him a single crystal. “What’s up with you?” she asks, looking down at David, still on his bedroll.

“My head hurts.”

The woman tosses a purple crystal, no bigger than a thumbnail, onto the blanket to David’s left. His mouth twitches as he grabs the crystal, watching as the woman moves away.

Mike lets out a snort and grins at David. “You let me have your plez?”

David doesn’t respond, his hand squeezing around the crystal.

“Thought not.” Stuffing the plez into a finger-length steel tube, Mike lights a candle and leans down to it with the pipe in his mouth. He turns to David and smiles. “See you on the other side.” Turning back to the candle, he pushes the crystal into the flame, holds it for a few seconds, and then inhales. A shudder spreads across his back and up along his neck. The pipe flops from his mouth and he slumps to his side.

The chemical tang hangs in the air. David cringes. He looks around at the others, many of them now in a stupor, and sighs. The burn on the side of his hand itches and throbs.

Leaning back, he stares at the ceiling, listening, breathing. He loosens his grip and lets the plez roll from his hand. Closing his eyes, he takes in a breath, holding it in until his he hears his heartbeat. He exhales and snaps to an upright position, his hand shooting towards the crystal and his pipe as his mouth turns desert dry.

A flood of tears catches him off guard when he looks over to the bare space where Bree used to sleep. He holds his breath, chewing on his fist. Cold sweat gathers along his back, seeping from his forehead. Dry heaves contract in his stomach, tearing at his throat and chest. Squeezing his eyes shut, he drives the plez into his pipe, leans towards the candle, inhales, and fades.

Shadows stretch beneath the vats as David scrubs the dull metal surface, taking care not to burn himself again. He slides from underneath and looks up at the man standing over him.

The man’s breath clicks and wheezes through the gasmask, his yellow plastic suit crackling with movement. He gives David an unsure look then glances over to the door. “I’m going for a pee,” he says, his voice muffled. “Stay here. Don’t move.” He pulls of his mask and hangs it from a hook.

David gives a nod and rubs the sweat from his brow as the man leaves. He looks towards the crate of plez and bites his lower lip for several seconds. The gush of foul air from the open door clears the lingering chemical fumes. He goes over to the door and leans outside, the light fading from the day.

Scanning the rooftops, he sees no signs of other people, no movement. The man stands on the edge of the rooftop with his back to David, urinating into the floodwaters below.

David looks towards the sunset, to the blotches of purple and orange smearing the sky. His eyes rest on the shoreline. He follows it south, tracing its shape with his finger, his gaze lingering on the end of the highway that winds its way west, fading into the hills.

“What you doing out here?”

David takes in a sharp breath and swivels on his heels. “I need to pee.”

The man eyes him for a second, and then nods. “Be quick. Nearly done anyway.”

Hesitating, David steps past the man and heads over to the building’s edge. He looks over the side and into the water as it sloshes against the bricks below. The rooftops around him stand empty. Firelight pours from a window in an opposite building. He flexes his burnt hand and looks over his shoulder, shivering at the chill wind, listening as it blows around the buildings in a low ghostly hum. He looks back down towards the water, staring for several seconds before sighing and heading back inside.

The man stands leaning against the doorway, waiting. “You took your time. We’ve got to get this shipment out first thing. Let’s get cleaned-up and get these crates out.”

“I think I can escape,” David says in a hushed voice, rolling on his side.

Mike stares back at him for several seconds, his face contorting into a smirk, and then a laugh. “We got it good here.”

David leans on his right elbow and sighs. An empty bowl of sour-tasting soup rests on the floor between them. “Good? You think this is good?” He waves a hand and Mike shrugs. “We’re going to die here.”

A sharp breath shoots from Mike nostrils. “We get beds, we get plez, we get food. I mean, yeah, the work’s bad, but we’re alive.”

“For how long?”

“You think things are better in the wastes?” Mike lies on his back, looking up at the ceiling. “No dogs, no raiders, no scavenging.” He counts the points on his fingers. “If you think being out there is better, you go ahead.”

“I want to be free.”

Mike sits up and looks back at him with purple-rimmed eyes, his face etched with deep creases, sweat glistening along his forehead. “So you can swim?”

“I don’t know.”

“So what’s your plan?”

David shrugs.

Another laugh splutters from Mike as he lies back on his bed. “Keep dreaming. Plez will be here soon. That’s when I’m free.”

The next morning, a man with a rifle strides into the room and sweeps his gaze across the children’s faces. “We’ve got a shipment to prepare, so you all need to stay in here.”

“What about work?” a boy asks.

The man turns and glowers at the boy. “Are you thick? I just said you all need to stay in here. That means no work.”

Mike rests his hands behind his head and leans back, grinning. “Happy days.”

Leaving the room, the man closes the door, bolting it behind him.

David frowns. “I need to pee,” he says, getting to his feet. He steps over the other children, his feet finding tiny islands of concrete among the sea of bedrolls and limbs. When he reaches the door, he knocks it and waits.

“What?” a voice asks after a few seconds.

“I need to go.”

“There’s a bucket.”

David glances at the bucket in the corner overflowing with urine and faeces, and wrinkles his nose. “It’s full. Please, I really need to pee.”

David staggers back as the door opens. A man leans in, looks at the bucket, and eyes David up and down. “You know where you’re going?”

David nods.

“Be quick.”

David slips past the man and makes his way to the roof. He looks over the water as the sunrise flares across the sky. He steps to the building’s edge and goes to pee, watching as a pair of dealers walk around a canoe, checking its hull for damage.

He goes to the other side of the roof and relieves himself. When he’s finished, he glances over to the shore, the shape of a campervan just visible at the end of the highway.

Looking around, he takes in a deep breath then jumps into the water. A shock of cold runs through his body as the water hits.

His head drops below the surface and he takes a mouthful of the foul water. He bobs up, gasping, kicking his legs frantically. The water covers his head again, stinging his eyes and filling his ears. He claws and scrambles, reaching towards the wall, trying to pull himself up, trying to breathe.

“Help,” he calls out, his words obscured by the water filling his mouth. Reaching out, he grabs a metal bracket jutting out from the wall and calls out again. The water pulls at him, tugging him down. “Help!”

With weak muscles, he tries to pull himself up, his arms bending halfway before giving out. His head falls below the water again, and he kicks his feet against the wall, trying to gain purchase. He reaches for the bracket again, gripping it with trembling fingers, his biceps throbbing with the cold. “Help. Anyone.”

“You,” the man calls down from the roof. “What you doing down there?”

“I…I fell in.”

The man lets out a mirthless laugh. “You tried to escape, didn’t you? You can’t even swim, can you?”

“I tripped.” David looks around, gasping. “Honest. I fell in.” He looks over his shoulder at the water. “I don’t want to leave.”

“Right.” Nodding, the man steps away from the edge, returning a few moments later with a length of blue rope. “If you’re lying…”

“I’m not…I didn’t…I wouldn’t…” David manages between coughs.

With narrowed eyes, the man lets down the rope until its end dips below the surface. “Grab on.”

David takes the rope, flinching as it takes his weight.

The man groans above, heaving the rope, bringing David up to the roof. Breathless, David rolls onto the roof, soaked and shivering. The water’s stench fills his clothes.

“Get up,” the man says.

David turns and vomits, the sick bursting from his mouth like black lava. Sweat and tears streak through the filth.

“Get up,” the man repeats, his voice colder, lower.

“I…I can’t.“ An explosion of vomit erupts from David’s mouth, and he flops onto his side. The man yanks him by the arm, dragging him to his feet.

“You’re lucky I don’t string you up.”

David swallows, trying to focus, trying to catch his breath, his heart pounding, blood rushing in his ears. “I didn’t mean to fall.”

“Get inside.”

Hesitating, David looks down at his clothes, sopping wet and coated in filth. “I’m too dirty.”

“You addicts are all dirty,” the man says, spitting on the ground. “Get inside.” He prods David with the rifle-butt.

“Okay.” David dips his head in assent then shambles forward, making his way back.

“This isn’t over. I’ll deal with you properly later.”

When the man closes the door behind him, David squints at the gloom as the other children stare up at him, wide-eyed. He stumbles over a few bodies on his way back to his bed-roll.

“Damn, what happened?” Mike asks.

David tears off his clothes and huddles into his blanket, still trembling. “I tried to escape,” he whispers.

Mike lets out a loud laugh. “You’re good,” he says, shaking his head. “You nearly had me there.” He slaps his thigh. “No, really. Why you wet?”

“Seriously.”

Mike sits up, raising his eyebrows. “Seriously?”

“I thought I’d be able to swim, but I can’t.”

“So, what? You just jumped in the water?”

David nods. “I figured it couldn’t be hard.”

“How far did you get?”

“I didn’t. I just went under. The guy outside sent down a rope.”

“They know you tried to escape?”

“No.” David shrugs. “I said I fell in.”

“When you were having a pee?”

David smiles. “I think he believed me.”

Mike shakes his head. “If they knew you were trying to escape…”

“I know.”

“Get up,” a man’s voice growls in David’s ear.

“What?” David looks around, confused as the other children lie sleeping.

“Get up.” The man drags David to his feet, yanking him free of his blanket. “Come on. We’ve got to load the shipment.”

David rolls his shoulders, bones clicking in his neck. He follows the man outside, rubbing his eyes through the fog of sleep and plez. It’s still dark when he gets outside.

The man leads the way with a flaming torch, stopping when he reaches a stack of crates. “I need you to lower these onto those boats,” he says, pointing.

“It’s too dark. I can’t see.”

The man looks the kid up and down, his torch held out at arm’s-length to the side. “You saying you’re not going to follow orders?”

David sucks in his bottom lip and takes a step back, shaking his head. “It’s dark. What if I mess-up?”

“If you mess this up, you get strung-up. Is that clear?”

Swallowing, David nods and goes over to the crates, a coil of rope resting on the ground next to them. Among the crates, he places his hand on a blue plastic barrel. “Do I need to send this? It’s empty.”

“Does that look like a crate?”

There’s a long pause and the kid nods. “Just the crates?”

The man gives no response, only watches.

With fumbling, trembling hands, David takes the rope and secures it around the first crate. He looks back at the man, still standing over him, the torchlight providing the only source of light. “Where do I take it?”

“Lower them onto the boats. It’s not that difficult.”

David rubs sweat from his brow as the first hints of sunlight reveal themselves. “Sorry. I’ve just woke up. It’s the plez.”

The man stares at David for a long moment, a curl creasing the left side of his upper lip. “Addicts,” he spits, shaking his head. “Just get on with it.”

Taking the first crate in his arms, he ambles slowly to the roof’s edge and looks into the black waters. His eyes linger on the rippling of the waves, the tiny shimmers of reflected gloaming, before shifting them to the boat. A woman looks up at him, staring impatiently. “Well?”

David looks around. “Here.” He lowers the crate, the rope rubbing against his blister when the woman tugs at it with a sudden jerk.

She unfastens the rope from the crate and looks up at him. “Well? Don’t just stand there. Get the rest.”

David runs back to the crates, secures them with rope, and lowers them one-by-one to the woman, now distributing the shipments between four different boats. “Is that the last one?” she asks, after a while.

“That’s it,” David says.

“Good. Go see your boss.”

David looks around but sees no signs of the man. He wanders back to the blue plastic barrel, leaning his hand on it as he waits. After a minute, he yawns and looks down at his drumming fingers. A few of the Family’s dealers drop into boats, pushing out on the water towards the shore. He watches them for a minute or so, then turns back to the barrel, considering its shape, its hollowness.

The rising sun sends red light flooding across the rooftops. A breath catches in his throat as he takes the barrel, rolls it over the edge of the rooftop, and follows it into the water.

The cold shock hits him. He scrambles wildly, gasping as his head bobs beneath the water, its acrid foulness filling his lungs and burning his eyes. The barrel bobs on the surface, just out of reach. He leans forward and plunges beneath the water, kicking his legs and flapping his arms.

Turning, he grabs onto a rusted bracket and pulls his body against the wall. With a thrust of his legs, he shoots forward, grabbing around the sides of the barrel. A shout comes from above, echoing around him.

The barrel sinks low into the water when it takes his weight. David waits, and the barrel holds. The voices comes again, louder, more urgent. He ignores them and kicks his legs, moving forward, cutting a course through the freezing water.

He grabs the opposite wall with one hand, his other clasped to one of the barrel’s handles. A bullet whizzes by, the gunshot’s snap deafening. But he keeps going.

By the time he reaches open water, his legs move with slow, jellylike kicks, his muscles seizing against the effort and cold.

Teeth chattering, he smiles as the sun grows warm, its light soothing against the back of his neck. He heads northwest, away from the direction of the Family’s campervan, now no more than a speck in the distance.

A few gunshots ring out from the direction of the dealers’ boats, but he keeps pushing, keeps swimming.

He cries out when something sharp catches his left foot. Kicking weakly, he feels the land beneath the water.

A minute or so later, he reaches the shore, drags the barrel from the water, and flops to his side, exhausted.

It’s dark when David stirs. He looks around at the jet black sky, squinting as hunger and plez pull at his thoughts. His clothes hang damp and tattered from his body as he hugs his arms around his knees.

The need for plez pushes away the hunger. Sweat seeps from every pore, coating him in a layer of cold. He coughs and cries, looking back out over the water towards the Family.

Getting up, he wanders along the water’s edge, shingles clattering beneath his bare feet. He picks at long-dead bushes, sniffing their branches. His mouth grows dry and the need for water is almost as strong as the need for plez.

He wanders aimlessly until long after sunrise, coming to rest among the stones, curling into himself, sweating and crying as he rocks himself to sleep.

Grasses with stringy yellowed stems rest flat against the ground. David picks at them, sucking at their moisture, chewing them before spitting them onto the dirt.

Following the shore north for a few days, he staggers in a daze, stopping at the edge of the water to feel its wetness against his lips as the hunger tears through him.

He turns south, retracing his steps along the shore, heading towards the highway.

The smoke from the factory rises in black curls against the morning sun. David wipes the sweat from his brow, shivering, cold, hungry.

Crouching next to the floodwaters, he cups his hands and dips them below the surface.

“I wouldn’t drink that water if I were you, kid,” a voice says.

David stiffens and looks around. A man stands over him. A long leather jacket hangs past his knees, his face obscured by a kerchief, goggles, and a tattered red baseball cap. “It’s okay, kid.”

The man removes the goggles and kerchief, offers David a smile, and reaches out, offering him a water bottle. “I’m Abel.”

THE END

 

TheWasteLandSeries-Boxset (1)

To Grip the Bright White Chains

The ocean reflected a sky the colour of hung meat. Elsie coughed as a chill wind changed direction, bringing with it the stench of washed-up fish.

She turned as a boy shuffled toward her with purple-rimmed eyes. The boy looked like every other addict: dishevelled, dirty, desperate, dead. He was beyond saving.

The boy crouched on one knee then swung a grubby rucksack from his shoulder. “You got the plez?”

Elsie nodded. “Three caps. I assume you’ve got what I asked for?”

The boy looked up at her as he unfastened the rucksack. “This stuff wasn’t easy to get hold of.”

Raising her chin, she pursed her lips and glowered at the boy. “A deal’s a deal. If you want the caps—”

“Fine, fine.” The boy scratched at his hair, and laid the items out on the mottled concrete.

A smile crept over Elsie’s face. “Real. Unopened.” She knelt down on creaking knees to touch the pair of tins. “This is good work, but I asked for a brush.”

The boy groped inside his rucksack for several seconds and then pulled out a paintbrush. “It’s not perfect. It’s the best I could find.”

He handed Elsie the paintbrush with trembling fingers. It was sticky to the touch and coated with long-dried drips of paint.

She placed the brush into her shopping trolley, tucking it between a roll of polythene and a coil of blue rope.

The boy lifted the tins into the trolley and stood before her. She dropped three plezerra capsules into the boy’s outstretched hand. He nodded, turned, and ran. She shook her head and sighed as the boy disappeared beyond the sea wall.

Pushing her trolley, Elsie looked across the water, slick with oil and algae. The trolley’s wheels squeaked and snagged on stones and discarded plastic as it clattered along the promenade. Turning left, she pushed the trolley along a street lined with boarded-up and barricaded terraced houses.

She thought about the boy and about the drugs. He would feel wonderful for a day at most and then be back on the streets, stealing and whoring; each day bringing him closer to an early death.

The demand was there—the demand was always there. She told herself it was better for the drugs to come from her than from a violent street thug.

Turning right, Elsie walked down an alleyway, and shouldered her way backwards through a gate, closing it behind her. She gripped the trolley as she regained her breath. Feeling the twinge in her back, she lifted the tins from her trolley.

She surveyed her months of work. Bees buzzed around her while she inspected a bed of chrysanthemums, red and pink blooms swaying gently with the breeze, their fragrance tickling her memories, reminding her of carefree, more playful times.

She walked over to her bench, and ran a finger along its framing of curled wrought iron, glossy and black and detailed with twists of ivy. Varnished slats creaked as they took her weight, and Elsie looked over to the strawberry plants crawling up the wall. The berries were weeks from ripening.

The tins were the finishing touch.

Rummaging through her trolley, Elsie found a flat-head screwdriver and used it to lever open the first lid. She lingered on the old, familiar smell, a fresh smell she had not experienced for many, many years. She wiped the brush with a cloth and dipped it into the white gloss paint, brilliant and gloopy. Satisfied, she watched the paint fall in slow, deliberate drips from the brush and back into the tin.

Dragging the tin over to the first pole, she set to work applying the paint, grinning as it clung skin-like to the rust. She looked up at the chains hanging from the crossbeam and painted them too. She worked until the sky went dark and the air dropped cold.

She rushed to her garden early the next morning to see the paint had dried. Her work was complete. She stepped out through her gate as the sun emerged in the hung-meat sky, and approached a pair of children begging on the corner: a boy and a girl no older than eight.

“I’ve got something to show you,” Elsie said.

The children stared up at her and scowled. “Piss off,” the girl said.

“You’ll like it. I promise.”

The children exchanged furtive glances and rose to their feet. The boy regarded Elsie for a long moment before nodding to the girl.

“Okay, but if you try anything funny.” The boy patted a blade on his belt.

Elsie led the way and the children followed. She opened her gate and welcomed the children into her garden—their garden.

“Whenever you feel sad, whenever you feel desperate, I want you to come here. If you ever feel tempted by plezerra, come here instead. This is your sanctuary.”

“This is for us?” the boy asked.

“For you, for any child who needs to feel safe.”

The children smiled. “What’s that do?” The girl gestured past Elsie.

“I’ll show you. It’s perfectly safe.” She signalled for the girl to sit on the wooden seat and to grip the bright white chains.

“Hold on.” Elsie walked behind the girl. She pushed her and the girl swung up and back, up and back. Elsie felt the girl stiffen for a moment. Then the girl laughed. Then the boy joined in.

Elsie wiped a tear.

It had been a long, long time since she had heard the laughter of children.

The end.

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