Sunday, 10 April 2016

Chapter 8 - Back to School

'So what's the deal with you two anyway?' I said, meaning her and Gregor.

'Deal?' Jayci replied. 'Why does there need to be a deal?'

It could have been my imagination, but it kind of looked a bit like Jayci had a spring in her step this morning. She'd been smiling as she'd been checking and loading her kit, and I swear I heard her humming as she parked up the hovertrike.

'C'mon now,' I said. 'Don't bullshit me.'

'What? You saw how it is. Gregor has his ways. He has a skillset. He knows about interesting places. You might say he's highly-strung. He gets spooked real easy, he's not exactly a fast mover and he refuses to carry a gun. So when I'm travelling this far out, it's handy to have someone else there.'

'So after all your fine words about being able to look after yourself...'

'Oh, can it, laser boy. I don't need you there looking over my shoulder. I might need those measly muscles of yours to help me load some of the loot onto the hovertrike, though.'

'So I'm the muscle?'

Jayci stuck out her tongue at me. 'Dumb muscle, at that.'

'Touche. So do we even know where we are?' I said.

'Sixty miles west-northwest,' she replied. In the distance, we could see the top of a rusting water tower. 'Less about a hundred yards or so.'

'How can you be sure?'

The girl raised an eyebrow and span round quick enough that her braids trailed like drag ropes. She grinned at me, and flashed a piece of paper in my direction. 'Gregor's map is precise.'

I reached for it, only for her to pull it back at the last moment. 'Can I see?' I asked.

'Nope,' she said, smiling smugly, before folding the paper up small and sliding it down her top.

'This ain't an equitable arrangement.'

'Did Gregor teach you them words?' When she saw my expression, she rolled her eyes. 'Oh, c'mon. Lighten up, Phoe-phoe. This is a proper adventure, right? Chance to make a little money, have a little fun.'

'Chance to get shot up by random strangers in the middle of nowhere.'

'Yeah, well, better that than go missing in the night.' Our eyes met for a moment, and hers looked down. 'Sorry, I didn't mean that. Just weren't thinking.'

Jayci was many things, but I figured that malice for the sake of it wasn't something she'd shown, so I let it go. I watched her park up the hovertrike between two low dunes and mark it with a long piece of petrified wood that she found wedged in some rocks.

She stepped back to admire her handywork, glanced around for high places and movement. This far out, the sand moved with the air, and it was hard to see anything at all beyond the whistling grit.

'Reckon that's good?' she asked.

'Good as anything,' I said.

'C'mon then.' She slipped her jacket off her shoulders and dropped her water canister in the sand beneath the trike.

'You're leaving your water?'

She shrugged. Her shoulders were narrow, and you could see the blades poking out her back like broken kites. 'It’s heavy to carry.  If someone runs off with the trike, you ain't walking home on one can.' It was a fair point, but old habits are hard to break.

We pulled scarves across our faces to keep out as much of the sand as we could and scuffed our way across the heavy dust path into town. As villages went, it weren't much. Half a dozen buildings that were pretty much shells, half a dozen more that were just piles of rubble. We walked up to the nearest one. Yellow buffelgrass was bunched up beneath the decay. Drywall was peeling away from the timbers. The wood itself was scorched and wedged into right angles. It looked like ribs exposed under torn flesh.

'I'm not seeing my fortune here,' I said.

'You gotta look a little closer,' she whispered, pointing at the largest of the intact buildings. 'School house has gotta be that one over there. That's my baby.'

She peeled away from me, and pointed at the next house along. 'Go that way. Be careful. Sometimes people left traps if they was planning on coming back. It's good to find them before they find you, if you know what I mean.'

I had my stripes in staking out these kinda places.  Watching the ground all the way, I held my breath as I stepped away from the broken down house in front of me. Without the shade, the air was baking and it felt like you needed two breaths to get air for one. Out back, behind the house, a concrete cylinder that once held water or petrol was crumbling away in the wind. The metal cords that ran through the structure poked out and turned in on one another like army bootlaces.

Behind that, in a toolbox, I found a leaking battery and a shattered solar cell, neither of which was usable. The next house looked little better than the first, with stark red initials painted onto the sides. Whether it was graffiti or a warning to looters, I couldn't tell. Most of the front wall was missing, with the door hanging on a single hinge and creaking away.

Stepping inside, I used one of the broken timbers to prod at the floor, testing to see if it would hold my weight. There was an open fridge in the back, lying on its side. The contents had long since gone rotten and been smeared across the insides. I wondered whether the scavengers were human or animal.

I walked through the house, prodding away with the timber as I went, avoiding the places where the floor or the ceiling sagged.  The windows across the back of the house – probably a kitchen, I figured – had long since been smashed, and now even the frames were crumbling.  I opened the drawers one by one, finding nothing but nests of desert creatures that fled for cover from the sudden light.

I’d pretty much given up hope of finding anything valuable by the time I opened the final cupboard.  There was a collection of pipes here from a sink or something.  Squeezed in the back behind them was a small dark box that could have been missed by people leaving in a hurry. 

It was rectangular, about the size of a bullet box you might pick up at the market, but the contents were  more interestin'.  Squeezing it open with sweaty palms, I could see that the back of the box was wadded with a soft material, like it was some kind of display case.  When I flipped the lid, two small silver coins were nestled in the wadding.  The one on the left had the profile of a man with a stooping brow and long hair tied down at the side.  The other bore a picture of a long, bull-like creature with wide shoulders tapering down to a narrow ass.  Around it were written the words, ‘United States of America’ and ‘Five cents’.

Chits had replaced coins years ago because these days they needed all the metal they could get.  I wasn’t the sentimental type, but it was still strange for me to think that what I was holding in my hand was probably a hundred and fifty years older or more.  Some collector would surely be interested in it, and it weren’t like it was heavy to carry.  I wasn’t expecting Jayci to share anything she found with me, so I saw nothing wrong with sliding the coin case into my bag.

I was all set to head back the way I’d come when I first heard the music.  It drifted in and out, on the fringes of my hearing, but the notes were clear and well-defined.  I guessed it had to be some kind of music box, but it seemed to be coming from outside the house.  I looked around, senses on alert, but nothing seemed to be moving or have changed inside the house.  A little bit against my better judgement, I went onward.

By the time I had eased open the screen door at the back of the house, my gun was in my hand.  I glanced left and right, but the sand was blowing again, and I couldn’t see a damn thing.  I thought about going back to look for Jayci, but if I told her that I was hearing music from out of the air, she’d just take it as a sign that God was messing with me.  Anyway, outside the house, the music was clear, too clear to be a recording. 

I slid down a low bank behind the house, following the music all the time.  The sandstorm continued to rage overhead, but down here the air was clearer.  To my limited brain, that didn’t seem like good physics, but I was just pleased to be able to see at least a few feet and pull the scarf away from my face.

When the scarf dropped away, what I saw kind of made sense and no sense at the same time.

In the middle of this sunken dustbowl, a single man in a black jacket and tails sat with his back to me at one of them Old Worlder saloon pianos.  It was sunk into the sand, with no suggestion of how it got there.  There were no vehicles around, no water bottles, nothing at all except an empty tip jar resting by the pedals.  The man himself was furiously animated.  His fingers flew across the keys, picking out high and low notes that conveyed a frenzy of agitation, undercut by a deep, mournful melody.  His long, jerky arms splayed around, causing his parted hair to bounce around as he played.

Out of nowhere, Piano Man stopped playing and kicked his chair around to face me. His eyes and his grin were both far too wide, pitching well into the rocky terrain on the far side of sanity.

‘Phoenix!’ he announced.  ‘I’m so pleased you could make it!'

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