"Bren ... Bren, wake up ..."
I can't. There's a weight on my eyelids. Something heavier than lost sleep. This feeling is closer to the finger of a nightmare pressing against the thin veil of skin, refusing to let my eye roll forward in the socket.
"Bren ... We're running out of time ..."
I see the first bits of light through matted lashes, so that the world before me is a hazy blur. Or a canvas by Monet. A dark, metal, creaking canvas that still rises and falls on the swell of the tide beneath it.
Willard grips my shoulder. It only hurts because his fingers are so bony, and my shoulder is so bony. Not because he is strong. It's only taken a few weeks to melt the muscles right off. We're barely tendons anymore.
It's only been a few weeks, right?
The deck beneath me is warm, and slowly becoming more and more scalding. That must be why Will woke me up. He sinks his fingers deeper, but they only slide and catch my shirt so that he can pull me towards the open hanger. It takes me a few seconds to get the strength to resist, and even longer for my throat to be wet enough to ask, "Is it safe?"
Will nods. "There's no one." His voice is much less parched than mine. If I had enough chutzpah, I'd be jealous or angry.
We step into the shade of the hanger bay, and Will finally lets go. Both of us sink to the floor, but I stay upright while he rolls on to his back. I scan the carnage of the last few days. Every crate, every barrel, all the containers that were once on their way to some far off destination have been smashed or ripped or sliced open, and the contents strewn out like the entrails of prey. Packing peanuts, bubble wrap, sawdust, straw, newspaper, all of it drifts through the hanger on the breeze.
And it's a breeze from Hell. Hotter than Satan's breath and smelling of scorched sinners.
I lick my lips. "Think there's any--"
"No." Will assures me. "There's nothing left."
I turn my eyes away from the dim hanger, and look out at the sky. It's clear. Perfectly clear and empty.
"No chance of dew tonight, either," I point out. "So we only have--"
"Maybe one more day."
I had hoped he'd say two. My gaze lowers from the tauntingly empty sky to the waves of black pitch that surround us. There is water somewhere underneath the black. Somewhere deep down. Somewhere we can't reach.
A callous whisper releases from my throat. "Water, water, everywhere, and all the boards did shrink ... water, water, everywhere ..."
"But not a drop to drink," Will sighs. “Shut up, Bren.”
But I don’t. I stand, my legs shaking beneath me, my arms quivering to help push me from the molten deck. “About, about, in reel and rout, the death-fires danced at night.”
Will groans as he sits up. I can’t tell if the groan is his choice. But his eyes hold the same fire the ancient mariner had chanted about. Black with anger and rot, and hatred that has no object to lick with its flames.
Something wicked in me smiles, splitting my lip and opening a path for blood to slide down my chin, hot and laced with salt. Instinct causes me to suck the broken bit of lip, drinking the bitter flavor that slides across my tongue.
My voice escapes again. “The water, like a witch’s oils, burnt green …”
Will’s fist connects hard with my jaw, sending me stumbling backward til I slam against one of the ravaged shelves. I didn’t even realize he was standing, much less poised to strike.
My vision blurs again. But this time I don’t behold an impressionistic vision of the barge. I see Will’s thin, frail body outlined against the blazing light of an unchecked sun. His arms seem so much longer than they should be. His neck thinner. His eyes hollow, like the barrel of some deep weapon.
“Snap out of it, you idiot,” he growls. His throat is getting dry again, like mine. “Stop … sucking your own blood …”
My eyes widen, slowly. Every motion is effort. Even the ones I don’t realize I’m doing. “I’m sorry, Will.”
His lips part, but he doesn’t get the chance to speak. We both hear it. Something echoes from inside the hull, the sound crawling up through the dark, smoldering halls until it reaches us on the surface. But by the time it reaches us, it’s nothing intelligible. Just sound.
Still, it’s enough to make us both sick.
“Think the door gave?”
Will shakes his head. “No.”
He’s right. We both set the bolt in place. But that was weeks ago, when we were still strong. By now, whoever is behind it is even weaker than us. No matter how many of them there are, they couldn’t force the door open.
At least that’s what I tell myself.
“Might be a straggler,” Will admits. We’ve been keeping an eye out for them. So far, no one has appeared, but there’s no way to be sure we aren’t the only ones loose.
My mind creeps back down into the hold of the vessel, down into the sweltering darkness filled with bodies half burnt with sun and oil that tried to brave the cesspool that surrounds us. I can still hear the rhythm of dying, labored breaths, slowly eeking their way out from withered throats. Most of them should have already finished taking their final gasps.
No one knew how long the rations we started with would need to last. There were thirty of us at the beginning, however long ago that was. A few died fighting when food got scarce. But most of them are down there behind that door, chewing on their own tongues, waiting for water that won’t come.
Or if it does… I’m not going down there to tell them. I’m not gonna be torn to shreds trying to scream sense into their rabid minds. They’re too gone.
It comes again. The noise. Metallic, and slow, like a door swinging on its weak hinges. Back and forth. Will tries not to look concerned, but he can’t help it. We both saw what happened down there. We both saw them trying to rip each other open, shrieking for water.
“Who’s there?” I don’t expect an answer, but fear forces itself past my lips, spattering blood with each word. Somehow, I haven’t resigned myself to death. Maybe if I did, this would be easier.
The silence is much too telling. A more frightening omen than even the sounds that drift upward from the belly of the ship. It’s unsettling.
Will takes a step towards me, and we both stare into the dark of the hold. We should hear them, but we don’t. When we see them, we understand why.
There’s almost nothing left. Skeletal frames wrapped in shrinking skin that pulls against each orifice, so that eyes and noses and teeth protrude unnaturally against the bone just beneath. Laced veins that struggle to push blood bulge over wrists and knees and elbows. And swollen, white tongues hang from parted mouths that inch towards us with malice and desperation.
They should be dead. Maybe they are. But I can’t run until I realize they have come for us. They emerge like jaguars who have stalked their prey into place, leaping from the dark, from the corners, from the tops of shelves that collapse once they fling their weight towards us.
My heart crashes against my ribs as frenzied panic hammers against my temples with ferocity, as if everything within me understands the need to move faster than I can force myself to. But I do. My feet barely touch the deck as I turn, and bolt towards the light.
They won’t come into the sunlight. They can’t. It would scorch the last remnants of life they possess.
I hear the crash, and I know it’s Will. When I was a boy, I remember watching a bird slam into the glass of a window and fall to the ground below. I went to look for it, and found it lying there with its neck snapped and legs sprawled from the crash. Ants had already come for it, crawling over its wings and belly and face.
This is no different. They are on Will just like ants, their fingers tearing at him, their mouths and throats trying to form that one word, that one thing we’re all desperate for.
But then, I hear it. The blades cutting the air as the craft begins to hover over the open deck, sending the Hellish breeze into the hold with a new vicious force. The chopper is here.
When my feet hit the uncovered deck, my sense of relief is cut all too short. A volley of bullets sparks just in front of me, and I hear the command of the officers to drop. My lips kiss the scalding deck beneath me as my eyes struggle to watch the approach of black boots and the barrel of rifles.
I answer him. He laughs at my excuse for a voice.
“Three years, wasn’t it?”
I feel his boot slam against the small of my back, pressing me down as they unload the chopper. Rations. Food. Water. Nothing more.
They leave them in the center of the deck, and then climb back inside the cab.
“See you in six months, kid.”