Feigning a Fine Fettle

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Burden’s Desperation, Part I

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Burden shouldered Hope as he trekked across the wasteland. Hope had worn out yet another pair of shoes and he didn’t want her to cut her feet up on the cracked and rocky terrain. His old leather boots seemed to be indestructible, so much the better. Hope wasn’t heavy to bear, despite being older and larger than when he found her in that cannibal shack. The wasteland didn’t offer enough to get fat.

The world don’t offer seconds no more. No second chances, not a second’s respite, and definitely no second helpings, Burden could imagine his father saying as he divided a can of beans between them, always giving Burden the bigger portion.

Hope whispered into Burden’s ear, breathy and only semi-lucid, muttering about water and cool breezes and other sparse blessings. The sun beat down on their backs relentlessly. Only a threadbare tarp covered them, a treasure that they’d scavenged in the last stand of buildings they’d come across. Burden had used a length of cord to tie it around his neck, creating a sort of hooded cloak. There was enough excess cord that he’d been able to tie it around both his neck and Hope’s scrawny shoulders as she clung to his back.

They were hard up for water. Burden had been rationing what they had left in his waterskin, the last tiny sips sloshing around at his side. The sun was finally falling, bringing with it darkness and relief from the burning sun. Burden stopped before the night fully fell and he lost his ability to see clearly. Good thing too, because they had come upon a ridge that overlooked the parched land below. Stumbling off that in the dark would have put a stop to all their worries. He slid Hope off his back and laid her in the dust. He offered her the last of the water. If they didn’t find some tomorrow, it wouldn’t matter who had had the last drops.

As the drops hit her throat, she came out of her exhaustion and locked eyes with him. “Sorry,” she managed to say.

“Hush. You’re fine. Wish I had something for you to eat. Just rest.” He petted her forehead in what he hoped was a soothing manner as he cast his gaze about their surroundings in the failing light of the day.

“What about you? You should have taken the last of the water.”

“I’ll be fine,” he lied. He was conditioned to living off the bare minimum of everything, but the problem was that he was at that bare minimum tonight. “Just got to find some water tomorrow or the day after, that’s all. Sleep now.”

Water today, live today. Water tomorrow, die tomorrow. Sometimes his father’s words didn’t help set an optimistic tone.

He could hear Hope’s breathing steady as she fell into the deep sleep of exhaustion. He placed the tarp over her, weighing it down with nearby rocks. The darkness was almost all-consuming now. Burden could see the stars overhead, pure and distant, as untainted as they were steady. He walked to the edge of the ridge and lowered himself to his haunches, using his old willow staff for support. There he noticed one star further down than the others, low on the horizon and apart. Not a star, he thought. A fire. Fires weren’t common out in the wastes. Well, that wasn’t quite right. Fires were unheard of. You either had to be supremely stupid or supremely confident to light one. It was safer to suffer the cold and eat raw than to light one. Burden almost certainly wasn’t the only one out here eyeing that spark of light on the plains beneath the ridge.

He scratched his chin and considered the possibilities. Might be a bigger party with supplies. Might be a fool who wouldn’t last the night. Might be a trap. Didn’t matter, really. Whoever was tending that fire, for whatever reason, it was probably their best shot at finding water.

Burden sighed and used his stick to get himself standing again. He was too tired to do anything about it right now. They’d have to see what was what in the morning. He crawled under the tarp next to Hope and settled in for the night.

Don’t set a watch at night, don’t wake up in the morning. Words to live by, but neither of them had the luxury of spare energy right now. Like walking off a cliff in the dead of night, if something came upon them while they slept, at least their worries would be over.

***

Burden was shaken awake by Hope. They were completely covered by the tarp, the wind shifting it to and fro over their bodies. It was still dark out. “Do you hear it?” Hope whispered within the confines of their tiny world.

Burden, still foggy with sleep, blinked his eyes in an attempt to focus Hope’s face in the darkness. He strained his ears, but all he could hear at first was the lonesome wind as it soughed across the benighted wastes. “I don’t hear-” he started to say when a howl, long and mournful, sounded in the distance. Burden trembled despite himself. Could just be a dog. There aren’t many of them, but they still exist.

“Is that a wastehound?” Hope whispered.

“Shh!” Burden’s heart was pounding, though he lay perfectly still under the tarp, waiting for the sound to repeat. More howls sounded, this time a chorus, and Burden sprang up from his stillness with the suddenness of a cable snapping. “RUN!”

Burden grabbed Hope by her wrist, nearly dragging her through the dirt in his haste. He left their meager possessions behind, only stopping to grab his staff. He ran and prayed that they could work their way down the ridge without stepping over its edge and plummeting into the darkness.

Got to make it past that fire that way they’ll be distracted and go for whatever poor bastard lit it better him than us got to get past that fire if they catch us out in the open I’ll make whatever time I can for Hope… Burden’s mind whirred as he ran. He could hear the hounds howling more now. Their scent was on the wind. The race was on.

Half sliding and half tumbling, Burden somehow made it down to the flat wastes beneath the ridge. Between the darkness and panic, it was a small miracle. They’d need a few more of those if they wanted to live past the next five minutes. Burden’s adrenaline was pumping and he somehow had the strength to pick Hope up with one arm while sprinting across the sandy scree and prickly shrubs. He thought he could hear the hounds loping up behind them, the almost imperceptible rush as they cut through the night air, their sleek bodies propelling their slavering maws towards their prey.

The fire was still alight ahead of them. Burden was shocked to see what looked like a compound made of scrap metal. There’s no way I’m going to outrun these hounds and they might not veer off towards the fire even if I make it past. Instead of running past the compound, Burden decided to take his chances and run towards it with everything he had left.

“Hey, open up!” Hope yelled at his side. “We need help!” Burden was grateful she took the initiative, because he didn’t have it in him to shout anything right now. They were either going to find a way in or they’d be food for the hounds.

Burden’s eyes were locked on top of the sheet metal wall. The fire within its interior emanated a warm light, much like the glow of the sun right before breaking the horizon at dawn. It was there that he spotted the shape of a head peeking over the top, silhouetted by the light behind it.

Burden closed on the wall and didn’t spare a moment to even ask for permission. He boosted Hope up so that she could surmount the wall, then turned around, staff in hand, to meet the beasts head on. He just prayed, for Hope’s sake, that whomever lived over the wall wasn’t worse than the hounds at his heels.

“Climb over, you fool!” a scratchy voice called out.

Burden felt something drop onto his head and turned to find that it was a rope ladder. Without giving it a second thought, Burden tossed his staff up and over the wall and then began to ascend the rope ladder as quickly as he could. About halfway up, he heard the scrub rustling as the pack burst forth into the weak glow coming off the compound. One of the hounds leapt at his legs, but the man atop the wall shot some sort of liquid at it. The hound yelped in outrage, which quickly turned to pain. With that, Burden cleared the top.

He glanced back down at the ground to see the slavering hounds staring up at him with their dead black eyes. The one that had jumped at him was writhing on the ground and smelled like it was cooking. One of the hounds took an experimental nip at the wounded one. It tried to defend itself, but its pack followed suit and began to rip it apart.

Burden turned his gaze to the silhouette with the scratchy voice. The man stood there on the elevated platform, naked save for a ragged multicolored skirt, pumping a strange looking gun made out of bright plastic. There was a sort of container on its back and a liquid sloshed within. Tufts of wispy hair stuck out at odd angles from his head and face.

Hope had quickly put Burden between herself and the man. “What’s in that?” Burden asked, pointing at the weapon.

The man cleared his throat. “Acid.” His voice was scratchy still, like he didn’t use it much.

Burden glanced back down at the pack. They’d started to drag body parts back out into the wastes beyond the light of the compound. “Why’d you let me up?”

The man shrugged. “You let the gal up and then I let you up. Did not think about it.” He hopped down off the perimeter platform into the dirt below.

Burden glanced around the enclosure. There was just a simple hut, a reinforced door in the wall, the fire-pit, and heaps of junk and materials piled haphazardly in any free space that could be had. He spotted a barrel with a bio-hazard symbol printed on it, a rusted out car frame, a mound of glass bottles, stacked rubber wheels, and a casket next to the fire pit. The Hermit, as Burden decided the man was, sat down on the casket and began to rake the coals. He waved them over.

“You here alone?” Burden asked as he hopped down as well, turning to help lower Hope down. She refused his offer and landed a bit roughly in the dirt.

“Aye,” the Hermit said. “Didn’t build it, just came upon it. Think it belonged to some junkers. Too bad about that pack. Would’ve liked that hound meat.”

“That your daughter?” the Hermit asked, eyeing Hope as she dusted off her knees.

“Orphan.” Burden reflected for a moment, then added, “I assume.”

The Hermit grunted. “Plenty of orphans now. Reckon I’m one too.”

“I suppose everyone’s an orphan eventually.” Burden squatted next to the meager fire, appreciating its warmth. “How long have you been out here?”

The Hermit glanced up with a critical eye. “Most of my life, of course.”

“No, here,” Burden said while shaking his head and pointing down.

“Oh! Here here.” The Hermit scrunched up his face. “All of three days, I reckon. Can’t leave because of the hounds.”

“You’ve only been here for a few days?!” Burden stood up and headed to the nearest wall, peeking over. “How can you be sure it’s abandoned?”

“Never claimed I thought so. Just said I was here alone and that I thought some junkers built it.”

“So they might be out there, right now, scavenging somewhere?”

“I ‘spose they could be,” the Hermit conceded. “But until they come back, I’m more than happy to eat their food and raid their supplies. Sides which, those hounds are keeping junkers away as much as they’re keeping us cooped.”

Burden nodded as he looked over the wall, conceding the point. He could see the glowing pinpricks that marked each wastehound, firelight reflected in each hungry eye. “Did you say there was food?” said Hope.

“Aye, missy, they’ve food aplenty.”

Burden turned away from the wall. “What kind of food are we talking?”

The Hermit furrowed his brow and scratched his head. “Err… found some sort of dried meat in the shack. Don’t think it be human… sides that, there were a few cans of beans and corn.” Hope’s eyes lit up. “Course I already ate those,” he admitted sheepishly.

“Well, okay. S’long as it’s not human meat, I suppose we’d partake.” said Burden.

“Now what makes you think I’d share?!” the Hermit said, standing up and gripping his plastic gun. Burden gripped his staff tighter, tensing himself to spring forward. The Hermit’s face slowly split into a gap-toothed grin, yellow teeth dazzling against his dirt-streaked face. He barked a laugh. Burden relaxed, slightly annoyed, mostly relieved. “Just kidding, just kidding. Easy come, easy go, eh? Not that anything out here comes easily…” The Hermit said as he waddled off to the shack.

Hope’s stomach growled, the sound seeming to echo in the sheet metal fort’s courtyard. Burden, leaning against his staff, raised a speculative eyebrow at Hope. He meant to convey What a crazy old coot, eh? but Hope interrupted it differently. “What? I’m starving over here.”

The Hermit came back out carrying strips of nondescript meat. “Here’s one for you… and one for you,” he said, handing them each a piece. Burden had the bigger piece. He walked over to Hope and traded. The Hermit shrugged. “Thought you’d want more since you’re bigger.”

“Yeah, well she’s growing,” responded Burden. “Hey, how about some water?”

The Hermit pointed to what looked like a pile of bricks covered by a tarp. “That there’s a well. Water tastes a little off, but hasn’t done me any harm thus far. Take all you want.”

Burden chewed the stringy strip of flesh – definitely not human – as he strolled over to the well. He pulled the tarp off to reveal a crude ring of bricks surrounding a hole in the ground. He glanced around and noticed a bucket nearby. He went to grab for it. “Eh, no. That’s the shit bucket,” the Hermit said from across the fire. Hope sniggered, which made Burden smile.

“So where’s the well bucket then?”

“Catch!” Burden turned around just in time to catch the bucket the Hermit had tossed, though he fumbled with it for a moment. There was a rope tied to the handle and coiled within. “Hey! Nice reflexes on the man!”

“The best,” said Hope.

Burden dropped the bucket down the hole. He heard it splash somewhere down in the dark. Sounded like a lot of water. He drew it up after it felt full. Hope had moved to look over his shoulder, licking her dry lips. Burden cursed silently when he realized that their waterskin was back out in the wastes with their tarp. “You got a cup or something we could borrow?”

“You sure as shit ain’t got a lot,” said the Hermit.

“Yeah, well we had to leave in a hurry when those hounds came loping after us. Not gonna lie though, we were getting pretty desperate before we stumbled across this place.”

The Hermit had scrounged up a small tin cup. He tossed it over to Burden, who then handed it to Hope. “Drink up.”

“No, I had the last of the water earlier. You first.” Burden thought to press the issue, but Hope had a hard gleam in her eyes, a vestige of her old toddler stubbornness. So Burden just nodded instead and dipped the cup into the bucket. He tried to restrain himself, but the thought of water right then caused him to slosh some of the precious liquid on the way to his mouth. He quaffed the liquid, barely even registering its taste or quality before he was dipping the cup into the bucket again. He paid more attention to the second cupful. It was as the Hermit said: a bit of an odd aftertaste, but nothing that set off alarms in his head. Odd aftertastes abounded in the wastes.

“Alright, now you,” he said, forcing the cup into Hope’s hand. Hope didn’t argue this time, similarly diving into the bucket with barely restrained desperation.

Burden stood up with newfound strength. The water was already going to work reinvigorating him, even lifting a mental fog that he hadn’t realized was there. “Honestly, I don’t care if this place does still belong to junkers. This well is worth a fight.”

The Hermit stared at him from across the fire. “I reckon you’re not wrong, but how d’ya figure we could hold it? I just figured I’d try to scramble outta here soon and pray I wasn’t run down by them hounds.” His voice was less scratchy now.

Burden thought for a moment. “There any weapons ‘sides that gun thing you got?”

“A machete, a saw, and some old razor blades, though I wouldn’t consider all of those weapons, per se.”

Burden grunted. “Neither would I. Assuming there are junkers out there who call this place home, I figure they’d probably have anything good out there with them.” Hope tapped Burden’s shoulder. He turned and saw she had brought him a full cup of water. Her whole front side was soaked. “Thanks,” he said as he took the cup. She sat down next to him and cuddled against his side for warmth.

“No doubt,” the Hermit agreed to Burden’s assessment. “But we control the fort, so ta speak, and those wastehounds are circling the place like a moat with teeth. I’ve no doubt that junkers, or whoever call this place home, are coming back. The well’s too good to abandon completely.”

Hope’s breathing was coming slow and steady as she leaned against Burden. The half-full belly, fire’s warmth, relative feeling of safety, and sheer exhaustion must have made for a potent tranquilizer. “True,” Burden said in a slightly quieter voice, though he doubted Hope would wake for much. “We could probably fend them off if they were to return.”

They lapsed into silence. There wasn’t much more to say on the subject that wasn’t speculation. Either they could hold the place or they’d be driven off or killed. Or maybe the place really was abandoned, as odd as that seemed.

Something else was scratching at the back of Burden’s mind now that he wasn’t so exhausted and parched. He stared across the flames at the Hermit, who met Burden’s gaze. An open hand is far more dangerous than a closed fist, his father had said. In his desperation, Burden hadn’t given too much thought yet to the man’s motivations. The Hermit had saved their lives, no doubt about that, and he’d seemingly had no reservations about sharing this space and its resources. If it was truly someone else’s, that might explain his magnanimity to some degree, but the wastes were an unforgiving place. What resources you could scrounge up were meant for you and yours. There just wasn’t enough to spare for anyone else. To be fair, Burden had also practically thrown Hope over the wall, so it might have also been a spur of the moment thing.

“Something wrong, partner?” the Hermit said, a scowl plastered on his lips.

Burden realized he was still boring a hole through the man with his stare as he turned things over in his mind. He shook his head, part negation, part dispelling his reverie. “No, nothing wrong. Just woolgatherin’. Long day.”

The Hermit nodded noncommittally. “One of few wrapped up in this short and hard life.”

“Amen,” said Burden automatically, though he’d never quite grasped the exact meaning of the word.

“Amen,” the Hermit agreed before getting up and ambling into the shack behind him. “You should get some sleep,” he called over his shoulder.

Burden watched the man disappear into the shack without comment. He could definitely use some shuteye. You can trust strangers, son. Trust ’em to look out for themselves and leave you to the wolves, his father would say.

As if to punctuate the thought, the wastehounds howled mournfully under the sickle moon outside the compound. Burden shifted under Hope in order to make himself more comfortable. She mumbled something in her sleep but didn’t wake. Just a few hours more until dawn broke the horizon.

###

This was a writing exercise I saved long ago and never bothered to write. The idea was sitting in draft form waiting for me to circle back to it, which I’ve now done nearly four years later. This is a continuation to Burden’s Salvation, which also had to include particular words to tell the story. This time around I had to use five word from a list of ten. I chose: orphan, casket, hermit, hound, and acid. I think there was probably a word limit, but I didn’t care to do another flash fiction.

At this point, I’ll continue the Burden series without regards to writing exercises and their constraints. Hopefully on an accelerated timeline as well.

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