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The Parcel

by Chris Gwilt 2 months ago in science fiction

By Chris Gwilt

The Wasteland

Two men trudged down the trail, kicking up red dust into small clouds behind them. They’d been on the move for hours already and fatigue was beginning to bite at their feet and knees. T turned to look at F. He couldn’t have been much older then himself. Tired, drooping blue eyes betrayed a faint sadness and, like most men in the Wasteland, F’s skin was red and sun damaged. Cracked, dry lips poked through his large, wild beard. His hair was jet black, or it might have been, but grey strands had begun to weave their way through his tattered mane. In style it would’ve been difficult to tell the two men apart, but T had copper hair that glowed in the harsh midday sun. His eyes, more intense than F’s, were an icy and piercing blue. Eyes that looked through you, hard and unyielding.

They had been traveling together for almost a week now.

“Why the letters? Can’t we use our real names?” sighed F, squinting towards the sun.

“No can do, F,” T replied curtly, “It’s better this way, keeps us from getting attached. Besides, do you really give a shit?”

F paused, “no…no I guess not” he muttered. Silence hollowed the air between them for a moment.

“What’s up with you?” T asked.

“I don’t know” F replied, a hint of melancholy in his tone. “I barely meet anyone out here anymore, and when I do we use fake names or barely talk.” F ran the tip of his tongue over cracked lips; supplying them briefly with some much needed moisture. “I feel less myself every day I spend out here. Using my name makes me feel more..” he paused to choose the right words, “…human, I guess? You know, not like some animal, fighting for survival?”

T began to chuckle, and it quickly built to a full-bellied laugh.

“What’s funny?” F asked, annoyed that this notion had elicited the strongest reaction he’d seen from T since their meeting.

“Don’t you see?” T laughed dryly, “That’s exactly what we are now. Animals.” T’s demeanour darkened suddenly, “We are fighting for survival. We’re animals now. The quicker you realise that, the easier things will be,” T’s tone was harsh now.

There was a long pause. T hated being like this, keeping everyone at arms length. He liked F. In another life they’d be friends, but the whole world had gone to hell. No friends in hell.

“Trusting people out here will get you killed,” his father used to say. He’d taught T a code of principles to live by. To survive by. Most importantly, “Protect the parcel.”

T cradled it under his arm. The parcel barely left his hand, and never left his sight. The wrapping was old, discoloured. It might’ve once been white, but the years had turned it brown with dirty fingerprints, dust, grease and grime. A few spots of red marked the paper, etching the journey the parcel had taken, what it had seen. His father had carried it through the Wasteland, and his father before him, dating back to before The Collapse.

“Open it only if you have to, you’ll know when the time is right” his father had said.

T’s mind drifted to the contents of the parcel and he grinned, ‘everything would be ok,’ he thought, as long as he had the parcel. He glanced briefly at it under his arm and tightened his grip… ‘yes, everything will be fine.’

“So what’s inside? You never did tell me.” F asked in a carefree tone, noticing the parcel shift in T’s grip.

“No I didn’t,” T noted dismissively, “I remember I told you not to ask.”

The shortness of T’s response took F by surprise. He lowered his head, defeated, and smirked; “I’ll get you to tell me one of these days.” F leaned over and spat out some dust that had gathered in his parched mouth. “Damn it’s hot!” he exclaimed.

“Agreed,” T sighed, wiping glimmering sweat from his brow with the back of his wrist.

Dust got everywhere in the Wasteland and had consequently left a permanent red streak on his forehead. Being filthy was part of life now, and trying to stay clean was fighting a losing battle.

“We should get out of the sun for a while, The Sear will be closing in soon,” T insisted, as he stared stoically towards the horizon.

F looked around the desolate surroundings, the sun beating down on him, growing fiercer with every passing minute, “You see that?”

T reached back into his pack and pulled out some very old and grubby looking binoculars. He held them up to his eyes with one hand, the other always on the parcel.

Protect it. Open it only when you have to, you’ll know when the time is right. Everything will be fine.

The words flowed through his mind clearly, as they had done for years.

The light, distorted from the heat rising off the sweltering ground, made detail difficult to discern. As T gazed through the murky glass a small dark shape materialised out of the haze. He sighted the binoculars to the correct range and finally got a clear look at it. As the image pulled into focus he noted that the house was old, a patchwork of metal and bricks, eroded by decades of sandstorms.

“Looks like an old house, maybe pre Collapse.” T paused, looking intently, “looks like someone tried to patch it up and live there at some point.”

He squinted through the binoculars, panning over to see a metal prefab well adjacent to the house. It had clearly been added to the property in recent years.

“No way anyone’s still here, there’s no water in these parts anymore,” a hint of regret binding his words.

“Well, we’re ok for water right now. It’ll be useful for shelter at least, right?” F suggested, almost pleadingly. Anything to get out of the midday sun, and the approaching Sear.

“Sure” T relented, as he continued to survey the horizon around the house.

F lowered his gaze to the parcel. ‘What the hell is in there? Old tech from the pre collapse era? A weapon? Food or provisions perhaps?’ All F knew was it must be something worth protecting. Something worth dying for. Something worth killing for.

As T lowered the binoculars F broke his gaze from the parcel and smiled at him broadly, “Shall we get going then?”

F began to walk towards their new destination, once more kicking up the familiar red dust clouds behind him. T’s feet, however, remained planted as he stared at F slowly moving away from him.

“I’m never going to tell you what’s inside, you know.” T said, with his voice slightly raised to cover the distance that now separated them.

F, without looking back, raised an arm and lazily brushed T’s words off as if swatting at an aggravating fly. T kept his gaze fixed on the figure moving away from him. His eyes narrowed as he began to put the binoculars way.

Everything will be fine.

They had arrived at the house within the hour. T reached for the front door, which was slightly open, the lock having failed years ago. When the door swung inward, a cloud of familiar red dust fell from the frame.

“Hello?” shouted T. His voice echoed around the bones of the house. “Anyone here...?”

Tense silence charged the air, all that could be heard was the wind blowing gently through gaps in the patchwork frame. Suddenly F firmly clapped his hand on T’s shoulder causing him to jump.

“Jesus, F! I almost shit myself!” T snapped.

“Looks like we’re clear” F chuckled, as both men threw off their backpacks and weathered cloaks and slumped to the ground.

T’s eyes fell to the pistol resting in it’s holster against F’s chest, as the other man’s gaze settled on his own. They shifted, uneasy. Unarmed men don’t last long in The Wasteland. The house was completely bare except for some tattered and broken furniture; a bed frame and fragments of a chest of draws. After searching the house the two men settled in the largest room on the ground floor and prepared to stay a while.

Hours passed, the men spoke, ate and drank.

“I like this place” F stated proudly as they sat facing each other on the floor, rationed provisions spread out between them.

T smiled, “Well we could call it a day and stay here tonight? I doubt we’ll find anything better before sundo-”

“Sounds good to me” F chimed eagerly, cutting T off.

It was getting dark outside now and F had lit a fire using the old chest of draws in a makeshift fire pit built into the centre of the room by the house’s previous inhabitants.

“How long have you had that?” Asked F, gesturing to the parcel still firmly clasped under T’s arm.

“My dad gave it to me as a teenager, so maybe twenty years, give or take.”

“Jeez, man!” F exclaimed, “have you even opened it?”

“Why do you care?!” T shouted.

F, taken aback by this sudden escalation stuttered, “alright, alright forget I asked, I was just curious is all.”

“Well don’t be!” T snapped sharply, but softening slightly, “it’s getting late, we should probably get some sleep so we can start early tomorrow. Make some progress before the next Sear.”

“Alright, message received” F replied snidely.

Both men, having rolled out their threadbare sleeping bags, had settled down to sleep, the fire casting a low, warm orange light over the two of them. T lay awake, parcel gripped tight to his chest, gun under his pillow.

Protect it. Open it only when you have to, you’ll know when the time is right. Everything will be fine.

The words echoed round once more, rattling his thoughts. He began to stray out of thought and time, slipping slowly, eyes heavy. Black. He felt a tug at his torso, and again. Rifling, searching, probing. His eyes snapped open to see F kneeling over him, grasping at the parcel.

Suddenly the man’s hands were at his neck, choking, crushing. F was straddling him now, stopping any thrashing or efforts of escape. T could feel himself fading away, slipping slowly, eyes heavy. Black.

With the last of his ebbing strength, T brought his knee up into F’s groin with as much force as he could muster. A cry rang out as the blow hammered home. Twisting to the side T rolled his attacker off of him and scrambled for his gun. His vision still blurry, he reached under his pillow to find cold hard metal. T turned to aim the weapon at F, who was now writhing on the floor in pain.

“For fuck’s sake, F! It didn’t have to be like this!” T spat.

The men glared at each other, breathless and wild-eyed. Time slowed as T’s mind drifted to the contents of the parcel. ‘Everything would be ok,’ he thought, as long as he had the parcel. He glanced briefly at it in his hand and tightened his grip… ‘yes, everything will be fine.’

“Tristan,” T’s tone had become sombre and dark now.

“What?”

“My name is Tristan.” his face was stern, illuminated by the dying light of the fire.

F laughed, his twisted face betraying lingering pain, “Tristan…that suits you actually. My name’s -”

The shot shattered the fragile words and lit up the room for a tiny moment. The sound was deafening. Silence. Tristan dropped the weapon, its job complete, and stared at the parcel.

Fresh red dots now speckled the brown paper, adding their account to the ones that came before.

Protect it. Open it only when you have to, you’ll know when the time is right. Everything will be fine.

Funny, he thought, I don’t even know what’s inside.

science fiction

Chris Gwilt

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Chris Gwilt
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