There isn’t a lot of good in the wastes.
Not a lot of gentle, not a lot of care.
There’s a wealth of harm. Rough edges, sharp corners, dirt and grit. Sand ground into your skin. Under your eyelids. In the backs of your teeth. How do you get clean when the dirt is inside you?
When I meet another traveller it’s a careful dance. A glimmer of blue eyes peeking out between sheaths of fabric, framed with dark, grime crusted skin. The clothes are like mine — brown, layered, worn but practical. Packs strapped on with belts, carrying everything on our backs from water to shelter.
We cross within five feet from one another in the semi-dark and maintain eye contact the whole time. This person is as likely to stab me and steal my water as they are to let me go. I want to shout after them, I won’t harm you, I’m so lonely it’s killing me faster than the radiation is. I want to run after them and throw myself at their feet. Take everything I have, but say my name before you go. I haven’t heard my name spoken for so long.
I say nothing. I do nothing. I watch them wavering above the sand until they're faded into the haze like a mirage.
Night is cast in harsh relief by the searing light of day. I set up camp in a rusted-out car, drape the carcass of the cabin in fabric to keep the sand and sun out, and settle into the bench in the back seat.
As I stare at the torn fabric of the roof, metal dark beneath, I feel the years recede. The bombs, the wars, the radiation burns all fade away. I am twenty-five again and my skin smells like lavender soap.
When I dream, I hear my daughter’s voice. High pitched, small rounded words that jumble together in unpredictable ways. Why don’t pencils have arms, mom, and why do dogs have noses, mom. I remember filling with laughter and shooting milk out my nose. I remember straw blonde hair like spun gold, wisps of it that smelled like baby powder. She always drew flowers on her arms in marker. Red, green, purple. She was my garden.
I wake up, a heavy weight on my chest, hands around my throat.
I’m struggling. Bucking back and forth. It’s the person I passed from before. The scarf has fallen from her face and I can see the angular grime-encrusted features of a woman there, a smear of clean skin around her chapped mouth. Black hair drapes over her shoulder in a braid and without thinking, I push forward under her weight and bite down on it, pulling as hard as I can away. She shouts, knees me in the stomach. I get my feet under her and kick her off.
She flies backwards out of the car, the fabric I draped over the door tangling her limbs for a precious moment while I bail out the other side. I fall into the hot sand and crawl two paces, scrabbling to my feet and breathing hard. I can hear the woman cursing on the other side of the car. I have to go back. My water and supplies are still inside and without them I won’t survive.
I scramble back, but she’s beat me there. Hunched over my pack in the car, pulling it apart.
My white bone knife finds the soft space under her rib cage and I plunge it in and out as fast as I can. She screams, twists, and I kick her out of the car. She falls hard into the sand, crawls a few feet and then doesn’t move again.
I scrub the blood off my hands with sand, rubbing my hands raw with the grit of it until there’s the red of my skin and nothing else.
Her pack is half-buried just over the crest of the nearest hill. Not hard to find. I tear into it, stuffing usable items into my own. I find something at the bottom of the pack that makes me pause. A folded up photo of the woman, dark hair short and patchy on her head like it’s growing in from bald. She’s got her arms around a dark-haired toddler, ivy green eyes as big as saucers, hands in his mouth, cheeks red as roses. I remember my daughter at this age, thinner than this baby, always petite and quiet. Watching the world with so much intensity, soaking everything in. Eyes cornflower blue.
I take the time before the sun rises to dig a hole.
I place two smooth rocks over the woman’s eyes. Her hands grasp the photo of her son to her breast. With great care, I gather fists full of earth. The sand fills the harsh crevices of her face, softening the edge of starvation and loneliness. Before it disappears, I kiss the softly rounded shape of her forehead.
There isn’t a lot of good to be had in the wastes.
I try to plant gentleness where I can — to remember the garden — and I hope one day something grows.