He coughs up the ashes and soot of the desolate city. The young father is faintly surprised ashes and soot are left behind.
The savages’ voices echo off the vandalized alley walls and the father feels this world slipping through his calloused fingers. He will not let his world melt away like so many candles in the midday sun.
His wife quickens her pace to meet his but the child squirming in her arms hinders a wider gait.
Pearls of sweat trace their way down the family’s necks and foreheads. Black tendrils of smoke warns them of the savages ahead. They are as quiet as possible, advancing only a few steps before halting and ducking. There isn’t a direct road leading to where they are going--this was the only way.
The savages pillage and loot as they please, breaking windows, ripping doors from their hinges, dragging out possessions, sifting through the heavy, the gaudy, and the useful. One man is swallowed by the flames. He’s writhing and shriveling when his companion throws a gallon of water on him--only to steal, to shoot, and to claim.
The father and the mother’s knees ache. The baby in her arms doesn’t help much. The mother prays to whoever listens to keep her baby quiet. She can only imagine some macabre execution due to a soft whimper from her offspring.
For an instant, a single, tortuously inviting thought creeps into her skull: Smother him. She knows it would be easier that way. Smother him. How else will this end, if not worse? Smother him, smother him. The thought chants in her head like the only words she knows--like a prayer. It chants even when they are well enough away from the savages to breathe again.
“Are you sure he’ll let us in?” she asks, her trembling voice breaking the silence. She is weary, but persistent--she’s always done her duty.
“I’m still family,” he responds, but his words provide no solace. The baby whimpers his distress.
The family’s eyes cook beneath their eyebrows even as the euphoric glimpse of refuge washes over them. The grass surrounding a modest and ancient residence sizzles and steams.
The old man is in his garden. He fusses over the charred plants, petals, and pests. Even his rich soil is parched, seemingly beyond repair. He kicks one of his plants with no particular intent and bites the inside of his cheek; that’s when he spots the approaching figures.
“Son,” the old man greets tensely when he recognizes the patriarch’s face. He’s known this day would come--his son has always had a habit of taking and taking until the bottom of the barrel is licked clean, and only returns when the bucket has been refilled.
The wife looks nervous: shifting her weight from one hip to the other, biting her lip, patting her infant as if to allude her own discomfort. She breaks the deafening silence. “I’m sure you’ve heard--“
“I know why you’ve come,” the old man gives in on his silent struggle of wills with his son and leads them towards the front door.
Despite his denial, the young man feels unsettled by the loose stair his father hadn’t felt the need to replace. It is a distinct reminder of his childhood.
The air smells of coffee and tobacco.
There are people whispering nervously at the table when the four walk in, all of the strangers glancing helplessly towards the front door.
The people were frightened and meek and the son felt the urge to domineer.
His father counted the bodies in his house, a total of seven, and glanced around his humble kitchen, stroking his beard. “I don’t want trouble. Any sign of that nonsense and you’re out,” the old man didn’t have to say it aloud, the son heard clear enough: all of you. Especially you. “I know all of you know how to act civil, so we’re going to act as a team and wait and see what we need to do in the next few days.”
The inhabitants nodded--they had no other option but to nod and stand idly by in a withered man’s residence.
He shifts his weight and sighs, grabbing for the counter. “As far as food goes…we have none. I’m old, as you can see, and I don’t eat much. But with you here…” he lets his voice dissipate into the abyss of silence.
The baby whimpers.
“Don’t you have some kind of storage?” one of the strangers at the table suggested. The old man is known for his paranoia.
The old man meets the stranger’s eyes. The stranger squirms under the older man’s black gaze. “You’re right-my memory must have fled,” he stands up straighter, lets his grip of the counter slip. “Yes, I have a storage unit.”
“Where is it? We’ll bring back food and-“
“No, no,” the old man quickly declines, grasping for the counter again. “I have to go. I know where it is, but I can’t…” he swats at his forehead with his palm as if to dislodge some long lost memory. “I found it when I was younger--I have checkpoints, you see. I won’t be able to recall the exact directions in words…I’ve tried before.”
No one seems confident in the man’s plan--considering the scalding heat, the rampant savages, his old age, and his admitted fleeting memory--but what else was there?
As the silence lingers and the strangers return to their state of hesitance, the young man wonders how many years ago his father constructed the shed, or whatever the old man considered his storage unit. It couldn’t have been when he was a child--he would have remembered.
The act of the old man’s leaving seemed perfunctory and awkward; all of the guests simply stared as he set out for their survival, and nothing was heard after the door slammed into its hinges.
The canned foods are the first to go-they are consumed in a matter of days. The baby cries incessantly, always wanting more, more, more, while his father domineers. Next goes the boxed rice and stale crackers.
Eventually the water reduces to a trickle. The temperature rises every day and blisters feet if one is desperate enough to step outside. The ones who decide to look for a pipeline or lake never come back--no one expected they would.
The strangers and the young man couldn’t look at each other without shouting or brawling and the wife gives up. Before long, she isn’t the only one.
The young man is the last to go, almost shriveled, his body hollow.
He doesn’t remember when everyone else went where he was going, he doesn’t remember when his boy finally stopped screaming and his wife finally stopped crying. He’d lost track of when his father left and he eventually forgets to ask himself why he didn’t leave.
He didn’t have to ask any more, for the heat answered him.
Some of his plants live despite the heat, much like himself.
The old man had to drag their bodies to his soil--a typical hardship his son left behind, even in death. This time, however, his son can give back a fraction of what he owed.
The hardest part, the old man thinks, was staying away. The old man had food and water--his shed of solace possesses a well and seeds, and his plants reward him for his discomforts--yet he felt he had no part in this, that perhaps the cycle of death and life was merely a coincidence.
He knows what happened--an implosion of wills and hunger and pain ended them--but he wanted some kind of trademark, some signifier, of his work.
Still, his plants are his work, his greatest work, and wills and hunger and pain don’t usually seep into his soil, so his plants continue to grow.