The old man spoke, pale blue gaze resolute. He ignored the barrel of the assault rifle that was aimed at his forehead. “We were neither prepared nor equipped to cooperate.” His voice was hoarse but powerful. He spoke into the bloodshot eyes of the kid who held the weapon.
“I said shut up!” The muzzle wavered, the sweat dripped, the air rippled in the heat. The boy stood over him, rifle clutched in a white-knuckle grip.
Undeterred, the bound man continued. “The demand outstripped the sustainable supplies.”
“Stop talking!” The boy’s cracked voice lacked conviction. He licked his lips and looked out across the desert for any sign of his compatriots. “Just… just stop it!” He readjusted his aim, as if the man were seconds away from an escape attempt.
“And — as is our customary behaviour — instead of prevention well ahead of time or calm discussion once pushed to the precipice, we descended into conflict.” His voice was kind but solid as a rock.
“I’m not listening to you! Conflict was the only way!” The boy’s finger rested upon the trigger; the man noted. Poor discipline. His hands trembled.
The man, whose grey hair formed a halo around the top of his head, did not stop. “It’s easier and, debatably, cheaper to fight for it afterwards.” He then added: “Depending on whom you ask.”
“I-I’m warning you!” The bore of the gun loomed like the eye of a snake. The boy’s eyes were wide and unblinking. “Don’t think I won’t, ‘cos I will!”
“Although,” the man’s leathery, crinkled skin showed no sign of perspiration, “it’s decidedly less friendly, isn’t it? I mean—” the older man nodded towards the gun “—look at where we are now, hm?” He smiled at his captor.
The gun shook in the boy’s hands, sweat dripped down his face, a droplet dangled from the edge of his nose. He armed the moisture out of his eyes. “I’m not talking to you!”
“No, of course not. I’m just thinking out loud. If only we’d been made aware of the dangers, so that a suitable solution could have been devised in a timely manner. That would have been preferable, wouldn’t it? As opposed to…” He raised his eyebrows as he glanced at the gun, then back to the boy’s face.
The boy cast a frantic glance out over the top of the rusted truck. “Where are they, where are they?” he said to himself. His lips were cracked and bleeding, his skin was dark brown in its sunburn — the kind of damage that has not been allowed to heal in the cool reprieve of the shade, but has been worsened by further and further UV exposure. Painful blisters bubbled up all over his exposed skin, several weeping.
“I doubt they’ve ran into trouble. I think they’re likely on their way back this second.” Despite his throat, which was as arid as the orange dust upon which he sat, the older man kept his voice even and firm. He did, however, allow for the slight hint of a question to creep in.
“Shut up!” The boy glanced back at the old man then averted his eyes again. He struggled to maintain the gaze, which the man was well-practiced in. What the hands of time stripped in vigour, they more than made up for with bestowed patience and wisdom.
The old man feigned surprise and looked taken aback. He frowned. “I thought that was what you wanted, wasn’t it? Our water? I’m only telling you what you already know. They’ll be back soon; with all the liquid you can dream of. Enough to quench your thirst a thousand times over.”
“STOP IT!” The boy’s voice echoed across the hardpan of the dried-up riverbed, thin and childlike. No birds sang their songs, no breeze sloughed through the trees, no leaves danced in the wind — not even the crickets chirped. There was only the crumbling ground, the bleached bones of some extinct creature, the rusted shell of another extinct creature… and the rippling air that boiled in the heat.
“Stop it? Why, don’t you believe me? Don’t you think your friends will be coming back?” The question sounded earnest.
The boy’s eyes twitched like those of a rabbit’s. The rifle quivered in his hands. Without taking his aim away, he wiped the sweaty palm of first one hand and then the other on his trouser legs.
“Hm,” said the old man, “unless…” He trailed off, before he snapped his head to fix the boy with his piercing eyes. “Yes, that could be it.” He squinted up at the kid and pretended he did not feel the blood that trickled down his bound hands, did not feel the sun that cooked him alive, did not feel the migraine that pounded his temples. Pretended he did not feel the thirst that wracked his entire body. “Perhaps you think they will be successful but won’t be coming back for you. Is that it?”
The boy gasped as the old man pressed upon this much-feared sore spot. His red eyes widened. Something rattled as he brought the rifle up to aim. “Be quiet!” he said through gritted teeth. “I don’t want to!” The boy’s whole body thrummed.
The old man kept his eyes on the boy, voice still even. “Tell me, do you think they’ll even give you your fair share? After all, you’ve done the hard work, haven’t you? Staying out in the sun with me all day, listening to me babbling on my nonsense.”
“They— they have to! It’s only fair!” The doubt in his voice was as clear as the gun in his hands.
“Ah. Yes. Fair. We all know raiders are well-known for their fairness, don’t we?”
The boy looked down the barrel at him, silent. “They wouldn’t…” he shook his head. “They wouldn’t!”
“Do they give you much now?”
“Our supplies… we don’t have much.”
The old man nodded. “And yet, you’re always raiding, hm?”
“I’m not going to tell you to put the gun down.”
The boy readjusted him aim and reaffirmed his fighting stance. “Good! ‘Cos I’m not gonna!”
“I just think that you’d be better off with us. After, I mean.”
“You’ve got no water!”
“No water left. For the time being, anyway.” The old man’s eyes glinted in the sun.
“W-what? You’ve got more? Tell me!”
“If you join us.”
“I can’t! They’ll kill me!”
“I think they already are, aren’t they?” The old man made a point of letting his eyes wander across the boy’s face, taking in the sunken eyes, the shrivelled skin, the bleeding lips, the flecks of bile caught at the corners of his mouth. “Tell me, how long as the vomiting and diarrhoea being happening? How long has your head been hurting?”
The boy shook his head. “I’m fine!”
“And you’re not dizzy at all, I assume, either.”
A look of panic exploded across his face like fireworks. He lowered the rifle. “I said I’m fine!” The boy was on the verge of tears — if only he’d been hydrated enough to cry.
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your name?”
The boy hesitated, then caved in. “Jim.”
The old man nodded, this time in acknowledgment. “Nice to meet you, Jim. I’m Archibald, but my friends call me Archie. You can call me Archie.” He smiled. Slowly, he allowed his smile to fade. “Jim, I’m sorry to tell you that you’re dying.”
The fear in the kid’s eyes was palpable. “You’re lying!” The boy was crying now, although without any tears. “You’re lying!”
“But,” said the man, voice clear, “we can save you. We can save you. You just have to trust me.” When the boy said nothing, he added: “Or, at least, trust me more than you trust these hooligans,” and nodded in the direction of the cloud of dust that was being kicked up on the horizon.
The raiders were returning.