Desolation was everything in the world. It was an ingredient in our daily meals. It fed our lungs, our bodies, and our minds. Without it, we were nothing but the dust that came on the westerly winds with the screeching of the Wailing Woman. The world of before had been broken upon falling from the cliff of pursuit and perfection.
“When do you imagine she’ll be back?”
The frustrated voice broke the quiet moment amidst the wind and searing heat and I shrugged. “I believe she said she would return when the time was right. You know as well as I do what that could mean. Or not mean. Why are you asking, anyway?”
“I figured it’d give us a break of staring at the shifting sand. You seem to mind, McCloud.” He flicked the simmering cigarette to the ground, growling. Hubert Holliday was many things, but subtlety was not his strength.
“I mind a great many things, Hub. The tedious arrangement of watching the western wall grates on every last one of my nerves.” I took a pull from my aluminum bottle, cursing our luck. The well wasn’t producing as it should. Tomorrow we were to search the sand for hope.
“Well, there’s something coming through the dust that may further dance on those precious nerves of yours.”
I angeled to see where his bloodstained hand was gesturing and narrowed my eyes through my goggles. A lanky figure was wandering through the fading dust storm, a charcoal cape fluttering wildly in the wind. “Doesn’t appear armed,” I groused. I did enjoy a good skirmish. And it was Tuesday. Good day for a fight. At least, I think it was a Tuesday.
“We don’t kill everyone that comes across our path, Terry. Don’t poke the Count. You frustrate him.” Despite his words of warning, Holliday shifted the rifle from his shoulder to his hands. He caught my eye and chuckled, “You taught me to always be prepared, so here we are.”
I rested my hands on the twin pistols, eyes watching the erratic path of the stranger, “They are taking their sweet old time getting here.”
“We seem to have plenty of it to spare.”
There were days where I was tempted to shoot him. Twice.
“He’s got a long rifle under that cape, McCloud. Fill your hands, if you would.”
My hands were filled, and the pistols cocked. I frowned. Usually when folks came calling to cause us harm, they traveled in groups. This one was alone. It was either going to be an easy defense or a very complicated maneuver. “Long rifle. Interesting choice.” The figure drew closer until I could make out a grizzled face with a worn snarl in the lips. “Hell. That’s Hess.”
“He’s early.” The tone in his voice suggested bemusement.
“By a month. That’s not early. That’s catastrophic. Signal the gate. I’ll meet him.”
“Send Gaylord up here to replace you. None of the other guys are worth their spit.” I rolled my eyes as I dived into the catacombs.
“Things are not well in the waste, McCloud.” Hessenworth Jacobson gently lowered his aging body into the armchair. “I made it just over the border. Wardwell was abandoned.” He took a careful sip from the offered flask, a wince flashing across his features. “I don’t know what gave them cause to leave, but they left in a hurry. Supplies were untouched. I’d hesitate to send a team. Whatever sent our brethren running could well return.”
I nodded, my mind working through his report. “Was there anyone else out there?”
“I reached The Ranch on the radio. They haven’t heard from The Springs in a week or so. They were considering sending someone, but after I shared about Wardwell...they were less than enthusiastic.”
“Not much movement in the last year. Too much peace can breed the need for action. We talked about becoming too comfortable last week.” I shrugged. You never made much of patterns in The Waste, but there were moments where it saved your literal and metaphorical bacon.
“Could be. Could be they’re running silent. Could be anything.”
I considered. “Might be time to revisit Lincoln, see how they’re doing.”
Hess gave a nod, “I’ll set out tomorrow. I tell ya, McCloud...it was the unease that had me coming back so quick. There was something off in Wardwell. Couldn’t find what was putting off the feeling. Just had me off balance.” He stood and gave my shoulder a grasp before he ambled off. I sat in his words for a moment longer. I knew the truth. We would have to send a team to Wardwell. And we’d have to search beyond the town limits to see what had come to send our friends scattering into the wind.
Traveling in The Waste wasn’t as bad as you’d think it would be. Strange as it sounds, you get used to it. I’d known this world as long as I’d been in it. I’d heard the old timer’s stories of the world before and of the lustre of the shining buildings. The way they told it, diamonds lined the sidewalks and scented air filled the skies. We didn’t believe them. Many of them had passed on, and their stories made less sense the more they repeated them. Age had a funny way of taking revenge on the body. We all worried about it. We’d all watched it take those who had come before. Some went quietly, with a great peace lining their lips. Others went in a cacophonous ringing of death bells, drawing gasps from those within earshot. Death was something the old world had attempted to sidestep, and we were living in the results of their desperation. I was twenty five years old, but it felt older. As if my bones had been pulled from the depths of the dust to walk the Earth once more.
“We’re rolling out to Wardwell within the hour. Saddle us up.” I gave a nod to our outfitter who grimaced but barked loudly at his team. If we fed on Desolation, we talked in Inevitability. You couldn’t fight The Waste. You couldn’t step out of the world and find a new one. We were at the bottom of the barrel of existence and the walls climbed above and beyond us. To fight was to expend precious energy. To argue was to waste breath that was better spent figuring out how to live through the next rising of the stark and sticky sun. Hope was an illusion. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to hope, it was that there was none. Inevitability was our language. And surviving was our destiny. I glanced at the sun as it skated towards the middle of the sky.
It would take us four days to travel. And that was without any interruptions from bandits, road warriors, and whatever else The Waste could cook up for us.
Our encampment had once been known as South Platte. We knew this because some of our old timers had maps with them when they passed. The old buildings had long been stripped of anything of value and the signs that once adorned the wide highways had been ripped from their moorings and become walls, doors, and whatever other purposes fit our needs. The highways remained for lack of tools to tear them limb from limb. Rumor was that out east someone had figured a way but we were uninterested in sending bodies there. More than enough news had come our way about the grisly killings that soaked the broken roadways into the East. It was enough to keep us distant and ignorant from them.
“You want us armed?” Harry Kage, the youngest of our troup, spoke up from my side. He was 19 and indispensable to us. His eyes were like those of a eagle, and his senses rivaled our best scouts. I nodded absently and scanned the horizon. The sun was falling quietly as we took stock of the abandoned town before us. The unsettling feeling that my friend had mentioned was at the edges of my consciousness, as if nervously warning me to turn back and run. It was an odd feeling. In The Waste, you learned to elevate your awareness. If you couldn’t, you died. It was was that simple. “There’s something out there.” Kage was frowning, his nose flaring as he played with the scored handles of his duel pistols.
I sidled up him, casting my gaze to where he was staring, “Metaphorically or literally?”, and I joined him in frowning. I couldn’t see anything aside from an empty homestead but it felt as if something was moving around out there, shifting just beneath the surface of the sands.
Kage grumbled, “I cannot tell. We’d better make our way. Light is gonna fade soon.” We agreed and trudged carefully down the scraggly path and lightly walked down the main cragged street, taking note of the listless air that refused to do anything but drift in the haze. Kage slowed to a lethargic pace until his battered boots crept to a hesitant halt at the edge of the center of town. “It’s here. Somewhere.” He gestured to the darkened windows and corners.
“What is...it?” I wasn’t sure what level of pronoun game we were playing but I wanted it over with as soon as possible. Kage shrugged.
“Something that is certainly not human. It doesn’t smell right.”
“Smell right?” I had experienced many fascinating conversations over the years with Harry, and they usually started with me saying, ‘What?’ or the inevitable blank look that brought a smile to his face.
“Everything has a smell, McCloud. Everything under God and Country emits an odor. Everything smells.” He gestured around, “That door smells like the old wood that was hacked apart to create it. That couch smells like the mold that’s probably festering inside it. And you smell horrifying, if you were wondering.” I gave him a sour smile and he chuckled and continued, “Whatever is out there doesn’t smell. It’s missing that key component.”
“I found a thesaurus on one of my runs last month.”
“Words, McCloud. There is great power in words. Someone might call you a Philistine.”
“Your references do not make sense.”
“Do they ever?”
“A fair point. Why aren’t you stepping across the line?”
“Something’s off. Can’t smell it.”
Human bantar. I admit I do miss it.
Both of us jumped and I shouted, “What the hell?”
Kage’s twin pistols were drawn as he spun on his heels, searching the shadows for the sudden interruption into our discussion by the deep menacing voice. His breath was coming in quick gasps, which I found remarkable. Harry was the calmest man I’d ever met in The Waste. My rifle was cocked and ready, and my hands were shaking. The voice hadn’t been audible. It had been in our minds.
Yes, I can speak into your minds. But I think I should make this meeting a bit more...equal for all parties.
The air grew cool, and there was a whiff of wind as a figure stepped out of a once empty doorway. Our weapons shifted to focus on the lithe figure who languidly stepped into the light. I gasped, “Coraline!”, and the eyes of the woman I loved danced around before settling on me. She was always a sight. Hair the color of the old wheat fields, eyes glittering with the shine of a fresh well, and a smile that shifted the very sands I stood on.
“I am sorry, Terry.” Her voice! I had forgotten the melody and harmony that existed. It felt like cold water was soothing the heat of my soul. Why was she sorry? She pursed her lips, “Coraline died on her way back to you.”
“What?” I felt the punch hit my stomach first and then my heart, and then my head. The world seemed to shatter and wave about in my vision all at once.
“The Easters tracked her. They hunted her. And they murdered her. I guided her, in the end, you see. It’s part of the job. I decided this was the best form with which to appear to you.”
“Coraline Palermo is dead?” I was still reeling, the sound of the world a dull roar amidst the emotions that were roiling and boiling like a volcano of old.
“She did not suffer. I helped her on her journey. She talked about you until I released her to the sky.”
“Did you kill her?”
“I do not kill.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“Did you do this?” I gestured to the empty town around us.
The woman who I had loved cocked her head to the side, “They are safe, if that is what you’re wondering. I had to get your attention. My message matters so very much.”
I looked to Kage and found he was simply staring, taking her words in. He gave me a glance and shrugged, “Stranger things have happened.”
“You believe her?” I was experiencing so many stages of disbelief I was unable to quantify the amount. Kage raised his eyebrows in acceptance. “Bloody hell.” I turned back to face what was once Coraline Palermo and let out a long sigh, “Seems I don’t have a choice. Who are you?”
“Uncomplicate it for me. Please.”
“It’s your headache. Very well. I am a part of what you would call Death.”
“Complicated. It’s a collective and collaborative process. There are many of us and few of us.”
“That makes all the sense in the world.” The creature smiled at my use of sarcasm. Coraline always loved my twisted words.
“Say I accept this...reality you’re peddling. Why are you here?”
“I have a message.”
“Complicated. An overseer is the best human word I can come up with.”
“Bloody hell. God? He’s been dead for years.”
“Rumors of His death are greatly exaggerated, I assure you. Also, The God you Know and the God He is - are two very different things. Like I said, complicated.”
“What is the message?” Kage spoke, and I turned in surprise.
The former Coraline smiled thinly, “The Easters are coming. They aim to subjugate you and your kin.”
Kage spoke again, his eyes clear and voice strong, “And if we won’t submit?”
Death Complicated shrugged, “Then they will drink your blood and scatter your ashes into the wind. You don’t have much time. Prepare while you can. Run if you must. They are coming.” A whisper of wind, and she was gone, leaving Kage and myself alone. Suddenly the lights kicked on and the sound of generators filled the air. Voices reached us as the community came alive. People wandered out of doorways, confused and concerned. Kage took it all in and frowned, “Stranger and stranger.”