I don’t want to be out here after dark. Hell, I don’t want to be outside anywhere after dark. No one does unless their plain crazy or bug-eyed stupid. It’s the way of life since anyone can remember. For some it’s too much. They walk from the Compound when the sun is highest and there’s barely a shadow upon the ground. They don’t return. Sure, you’d see them three nights later at the wall, calling for their loved ones, but it’s not really them.
It was the same for Mikhail. My brother hated being caged. He used to dream about flying. Said he’d spread his arms like wings and launch across the dunes. And I would ask, ‘What type of wings?”
His yellow teeth glittered in the bright daylight. “What type would you like, little sister?”
“I like the wings of a swan the best.”
“Swans it is.”
Then I would always say, “What’s on the other side of the dunes?”
To which his voice became little more than a whisper. ‘Palladium’.
It made me cry.
In the distance, I can hear the dull rumble of an engine. If I close my eyes, I see Mikhail as he was on that last day: pale, thin, scalp dry and flaky, hands shaking as he lifts a cup to bloodless lips. The memories return unbidden and I’m powerless to resist, swept in their pull, a hapless passenger adrift on the ramblings of my mind.
Zero Hour. The bell chimes. It’s safe. The sun is a watchful eye, no escape, no shadows. We hurry to Mum’s marker (no graves, anymore) and lay flowers – made from tin foil and coloured plastic.
In the brilliant sunlight, Mikhail blinks and says he wants to die.
“It won’t be an end if I walk past Dead Man’s Trail.” Mikhail leans in close as he speaks; his breath coming in ragged gulps. “I saw a maple tree there once, split near clean in half by lightning. I could stand in its shadow. I wouldn’t have to wait long before they came. Then I’d be safe.”
“You’d be dead.”
He crouches by the marker, no longer trying to hide his discomfort. With a vague smile, he traces the inscription in the weathered stone with a long distended finger. “I can’t end up like Mum. She gave up on us. I won’t choose that fate.” He stands with difficulty. “If you’re honest, you don’t want that either.”
“Don’t leave me, Mikhail. You’re all I have left.” I hate the desperate whine to my voice.
“If I stay, it won’t be for long. There’s nothing they can do. I’m fucking riddled with it. Don’t deny me the dignity of choice.” He pauses and stares out across the dunes; a wind whips sand across the plains and for a moment I think I hear laughter. “There’ll come a time when you’ll need this as well.”
“Never.” I clench my hands into fists, until my knuckles whiten and my nails draw blood. “What will I do; where will I go?”
“You’ll find a way through.”
“You’re giving up on me, just like Mum.”
“It’s going to happen anyway.”
“You’re being a selfish bastard. Don’t do this, Mikhail. Please, please don’t do this.”
“We’ll see each other again. One day. Perhaps, one day soon.”
In the end, I have no choice but to kiss him upon the cheek and let him go. Mikhail strolls out to the dunes without a backwards glance and disappears into the shadows.
I am alone.
Three nights later, the border patrol whisper that Mikhail was seen digging in the pits of Harmony Hill. My brother has got his wish. Does the thing that wears Mikhail’s face understand that? Do the memories of the man remain, or is he a savage beast: immortal, immoral and uncaring.
I can hear the bus’s engine, feel the vibration through the soft earth. The number 46 glows pink neon in the half–light. Up close, I see its dented steel plating, the barrels of guns though the roof, the faded cross of Christ painted upon its side. Red stains that might be blood mar its surface. It rolls to a stop, its engine a deep murmur and the doors creak open. A priest in armour regards me, his face lost behind a plastic visor.
He hawks a mouthful of spit into the dust. “A new life waits. You’ll work the caverns, it won’t be easy, but if you survive, you’ll be rewarded. Life isn’t the same beyond the Compound walls. Out there, in the caverns, you have to earn your keep. If you know what I mean?”
I shuffle past, peering at my fellow passengers: men mostly, young boys desperate to get away or old men escaping the inevitable. They seem alone, lost in their troubles.
“Are they all like that?”
He grunts as if he’s heard it all before. “Sweetheart, they’re breathing, isn’t that enough?”
Upon the horizon, the sun is now a small slice of brilliant orange.
My mouth has turned dry; it’s difficult to swallow. Ice needles my back and when I speak my voice doesn’t sound like my own. “I heard they dig on Harmony Hill. Together in groups. That they talk and it isn’t all bad.”
The priest sighs, he fondles the hilt of his wooden knife. “Nothing living on that hill. Or rather, nothing that has a right to life. You’d best forget it.” He jabs a thumb over his shoulder. “Take a seat, there’s a long way to go. It’s near dark and we can expect trouble before it’s over.”
I hesitate and catch the glance of a passenger, a young boy, surely, no older than me. His eyes are pools of unfettered horror, his face a dark smudge. I wonder what he’s running from: is it the same as me? Would I always be running?
Outside, across the dunes, laughter floats in the evening air.
The priest cringes. “Come on in, if you’re coming.”
My stomach churns, sweat beads my palms, my hands. This is no life for me. No life at all.
” I’ve . . . I’ve changed my mind.” I stumble away from the bus. “Go on without me.”
“You’ll never make the Compound wall before nightfall. They’ll find you,” the priest explains with a weary tone, as if he’s said the same thing a hundred times before.
“Go then, you’re no good to anyone.” The doors slam shut and the bus rolls away into the dark.
For what feels like the longest time, I watch the last stab of day vanish from the sky and night settles upon the land like a funeral shroud.
It’s their time now.
Will I find Mikhail on Harmony Hill or will they’ find me? Perhaps, I’ll serve another purpose. A breeze stirs the sand and I hear laughter, high pitched and child like. But far, far closer than before.
God help me, they’re coming.
In the end, I don’t have to wait long. Mikhail stands by my side, his cold hands in mine, a thousand stars shine behind his eyes and I feel as if I’m drowning in blood.
I am no longer alone . . .