I wait anxiously for the bus to arrive, it’s late and the sun is going down. 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 they’re 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 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. Not anymore.
It was the same for Mikhail. He hated being caged. He used to dream about flying. Said he would spread his arms like wings and fly across the dunes. I would ask what was on the other side and he would respond, ‘Palladium’. It made me cry.
The bus is coming and the sun warms my back while setting fire to the sky. If I close my eyes I can see Mikhail as he was on that last day: pale and thin, his bald scalp dry and flaky, his hands shaking as he lifts a cup to bloodless lips. The memories return unbidden and I’m powerless to resist, swept up in their pull, a hapless passenger, adrift on the ramblings of my mind.
It’s Zero Hour. The bell chimes and it’s safe. We go to mum’s marker to lay flowers and in the brilliant sunlight Mikhail 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 voice barely above a whisper. “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 gives a small smile and kneels down to the marker. The act sends a flash of pain across his pale features. He no longer tries to hide his discomfort. He traces the inscription in the weathered stone with a long thin finger, the nail cracked and broken. His eyes are clear and focused as he speaks. “I can’t end up like mum; blinking out of existence, gone as if I never was. I won’t choose that fate.” He stands with difficulty; a smile lingers. “If you’re honest, you don’t want that either.”
“Don’t leave me, Mikhail. You’re all I have left.”
“If I stay, it won’t be for long. There’s nothing they can do. Don’t deny me the dignity of choice,” he places a finger to my lips.
“There’ll come a time when you’ll need this as well.”
“Never,” I push his hand away, desperate to make him understand, but he no longer listens.
I try to argue, to cajole, even bully, but his mind is made up. In the end, I have no choice but to kiss him upon the cheek and let him go. Mikhail walks out to the hills without a backwards glance; he disappears into shadow and is gone. I am alone.
Three nights later the border patrol informs me 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 he was remain? Or is he a savage beast: immortal, immoral and uncaring?
The bus is coming. I can hear its 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 machine 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 dark visor.
“A new life waits,” he states mechanically. “You’ll work the caverns, it won’t be easy, but if you survive, you’ll be rewarded.”
I look down the bus at its 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. “Son, they’re breathing. Isn’t that enough?”
I look away to the horizon; the sun is now a small slice of brilliant orange. “I heard they dig on Harmony Hill. Together in groups. That they talk and it isn’t all bad.”
The priest sighs. “Nothing living on that Hill. Or rather, nothing that has a right to life anymore. You’d best forget it. It isn’t good to think about them.” 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. 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?
“No. I’ve changed my mind,” I step away from the bus, aware the machine guns rotate to fix upon 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.
“Let him go,” the priest shakes his head, “he’s no good to anyone, he wouldn’t last a day in the caverns anyhow.” The doors slam shut and the bus rolls away into the dark.
It’s night now. I wonder if I’ll find Mikhail on Harmony Hill or whether they’ll find me and I’ll serve another purpose. A breeze stirs the sand and I hear laughter, high pitched and child like.
In the end I don’t have to wait long. Mikhail stands by my side, his cold hands in mine and I am no longer alone.
"Waiting on the Road to Palladium"
Copyright: © 2010 Neil John Buchanan
Copyright: © 2010 Neil John Buchanan
----------------------------------Neil is an occasional writer who has an unhealthy fascination with the undead. He lives with a sympathetic wife and two manic children and spends his weekends thinking up inventive ways to describe dead folk.