2016 NZ Writers College Short Story Competition Third Place



A Handful of Dust - by Madeline Dew

 
 
The world ended loudly, and in complete biblical fashion.

Flames split the sky and poured forth while cities tumbled and crashed and burned with all the drama of teenage hearts. There was a battle of elements, each snarling and racing to see which could consume every reachable thing first. Fire might’ve won, but it was hard to tell. The war was ruinous; Sean pretty much expected that.

It was what happened after the end of the world that surprised him.


 
They build a wall, those who are left; The Wall. Difficult to remember why, whether they are keeping something in or keeping something out, whether there is any reason at all besides the security of this great looming length, as constant as the sun used to be. A reverence approaching piety is the manner with which all treat The Wall.

Sean remembers times of Before when all Daniel would talk about was architecture; hard pressed to almost ever get him quiet, actually.

That was a long time ago. Daniel doesn’t talk much at all these days.

They live in a ramshackle hut on the edge of some beach, sand-strewn, perpetually damp, non-descript. They have a dining table with a broken leg, two beds, and a cupboard half-stocked with canned goods to their name. There is a run-down town about fifteen minutes away, if three stores with steadily depleting food and a couple of gas stations can be called a town. Sean spends his time like everyone else: search parties for resources and people, or building The Wall. Daniel mostly reads books.

Sean keeps Daniel away from town, big brother instinct and all that. The kid didn’t take well to the apocalypse; go figure. He lost his voice screaming himself hoarse when he saw their parents go the way they did; exploded to particles and a redness to their blood that Sean has never quite forgotten, that he assumes Daniel hasn’t forgotten either. Sean knows Daniel’s voice has recovered since then, but he isn’t sure if Daniel’s words will ever fully come back.

Luckily, some might say, they grew up hunting. Living with only each other for weeks at a time and then bringing home some skinned conquest with antlers that numbered into double digits, much to the gruff pleasure of their father and thin-lipped disapproval of their mother. Sean would grin, scuff one grimy hand through his brother’s hair and say, “Whaddaya say, Danny boy, youanme and a gun and we don’t need nothin’ else.” They were teens then; Sean supposes the word for them now is men.

As the end of the world got violent, when humans started inevitably accounting for at least half of the apocalypse, Sean and Daniel knew what to do. Youanme and a gun. Daniel remembers more of that time than Sean, or at least, that’s what Sean thinks. That’s why Daniel doesn’t talk anymore.

 
Sean comes home from the usual daily grind and he’s only half panicked to see the shack is empty. Daniel sometimes wanders, but never very far; he can’t do much of anything besides read without Sean.

Sean bangs his thick-soled boots in the doorway, shaking sand onto sand. He snaps his army-green coat out a few times before putting it back on, never totally acclimatized to the world’s now innate chill.

“Daniel?” he calls out, making his way to the kitchen and opening the only cupboard that is put to use. He doesn’t expect a reply, but this routine is par for the course. “Danny boy?”

Sean counts only five cans of beans left and grabs one as his jaw tightens, pocketing two spoons before heading out the backdoor and onto the beach. Daniel’s dragged a wooden chair out there and is sitting near the water. The sunken legs indicate how long he has been sitting there, unmoved. There’s a chair next to him too, the paint curling from the salt in the air, like he was waiting for Sean.

Really, that’s just about all Daniel does anymore.

The sky is the same; ballooned and grey, stretching for an eternity any way he looks. Sean thinks that it’s too dark to escape the feeling of dusk approaching; too light to make any normal sleeping pattern attainable. It never changes. He and Daniel do their best despite it. The ocean is just as abnormal – flat and glassy, an immeasurable colour somewhere between blue and grey, devoid of all surges and tides. Where it ends, the bleak, colourless sand starts, and Sean always feels like he’s drowning out here.

Daniel had once mumbled the word, “blinding” after god knows how many hours just staring out at the sea, and since it had been his first word in three months Sean had celebrated, clapped one hand to the wide breadth of his brother’s shoulder and replied, “Damn right, Danny boy,” with an aggressively warm smile itching at his mouth.

Only later had it occurred to Sean that blinding wasn’t quite the term he’d use, maybe something more like encompassing or oppressive. But hey, who was he to choose a near mute man’s words?

“Hey buddy, there you are,” Sean says presently, taking a seat to Daniel’s right and removing the switchblade from his jean pocket. He jams it into the top of the can and starts working it open, the hollow tearing of metal piercing in the overwhelming quiet. Daniel rewards him with a wary sideways glance, thick leather-bound novel clutched in his hands and held mere inches from his face. He’s nearly finished it.

Sean clucks his tongue, turning the can in his fingers as the metal splits and watching the blade gleam. “Now what’d you miss today. Hmm. Oh, old Angie tried to sweet talk me into dinner again. Me providin’ the meal, ‘course, which means us providin’, and she don’t seem to hear me when I keep tellin’ her I can barely keep my brother at more’n just skin an’ bone.” Sean chuckles for himself and flips the can lid open, prods Daniel’s nearest arm with a spoon before offering it to him. Daniel folds the book and rests it on his lap, accepting the food without the slightest waver in his expression.

“Wall’s gettin’ damn big now, like a bunch’a buildings stacked one on the other. Looks like the world’s ugliest skyscraper. You remember skyscrapers, Danny boy?” Sean continues.
Nothing. Sean chews his cold beans and swallows, the customary briny grit rasping his throat. “Mark said his crew found ‘nother group’a survivors, too, they bein’ initiated tomorrow dawn. Hmm. Syphoned a tank’s worth’a gas, you’ll be glad to hear. Can keep our darlin’ running another couple weeks.”

Daniel stops at that, hesitates over his next bite – the one thing Daniel cares about other than Sean is their car. Sean’s voice promptly hitches in his throat, tethered to his heart and everything chained back. His breath whistles thinly as he watches his brother, waits for him to speak. Daniel gives Sean a considering look, slow, then shoves the spoon in his mouth and looks away.

Sean is still for a moment longer, trying not to let the devastation of that fleeting hope creep onto his face, the sensation not new at all but crushing nonetheless, every time.

A breeze cuts at Sean’s eyes and he blinks hard, ducks his head into the collar of his jacket. “Shit. She’s gettin’ colder every day out here, huh Danny?” Quick glance to his brother and Sean realises he’s got just jeans and his grey sleeping shirt on, very nearly blending in with the rest of the world and definitely freezing. It gives Sean a faint heart attack. “Damn it. Come on. Let’s get you inside.”

He stands, hooks one hand on Daniel’s elbow and tugs him up, accepts the solid weight against his shoulder when Daniel’s bad leg plays up; crystallite cold cracking before it will bend. It’s an injury from a time Sean can’t remember, something to do with his brother’s shattered kneecap set by Sean’s own hands, and Sean’s sickly grateful for a reason to put his hands on his brother and assure his pulse.

Sean grabs the novel as it falls from Daniel’s lap, shucks off his jacket and slings it over Daniel’s shoulders when he can see a bone-deep shaking setting in. Daniel sets a gruff arm around his brother’s ribs and leans into him gratefully.

“Whadda I say t’ya every time I leave the house, huh Danny? ‘Stay warm; don’t eat too much’, is that so hard?” Sean thinks he sees Daniel mouth a few of the words and his heart skips a beat. He starts walking them back to the hut. “Gonna get pneumonia one day and then what’ll I do. Just ‘cause you don’t speak no more don’t mean you can’t hear.” Sean feels himself running out of steam so he flips the book to see its cover, snorts immediately at what he finds. “The Bible, huh Danny boy? Tryna find some cure to this here hell-hole? Well, you get anythin’ and you let me know, ya hear?”

They’re at the backdoor now and Sean shoves it open with his free shoulder, lugs Daniel in and leaves him standing by their makeshift fireplace. Daniel slouches terribly, sore shoulder sore back sore knee, what else is new?

Sean crouches as he tosses some kindling he gathered earlier into the fire-pit and thinks about what he would actually do if he somehow lost Daniel, if he had to face this flat, grey world alone. He thinks about how normal it is, coming home to Daniel; how he can almost pretend the world hasn’t ended when he manages on those rare occasions to wrangle a soft smile from his brother. He allows himself to imagine, for the briefest of moments, how stunted, how irreconcilably disfigured, how patently wrong he would feel without Daniel, the last of his family. He thinks about how he’s almost already forgotten what Daniel’s voice sounds like.

Sean abruptly stands, spins to stare at his brother. Daniel looks stricken, like he might be spooked enough by Sean’s mere expression to speak.

Sean can feel the hysteria bubbling up in his throat, a faint Daedalian desperation, can feel himself beginning to babble but can’t quite stop it.

“Why don’t you talk to me anymore, huh, Danny boy? Not talkin’ I can get, too many damn words anyway, but you gotta talk to me. Come on, let up, I’m your brother – needa, needa hear my pain-in-the-ass little brother’s voice to make sure I’m a brother, don’t I? Feel kinda broken without it, I gotta tell ya, Danny, I’ll go crazy havin’ to do the talkin’ for both of us.”

Sean grabs the front of Daniel’s shirt, brittle from the sea yet warm, so warm despite the cold. He feels Daniel curling one fist against his chest and Daniel’s heartbeat beneath his palm, the fundamental aspect of this post-apocalyptic mess that still makes sense; his brother’s beating heart. Sean gasps faintly, inanely thinks that he’s not getting enough air.

Daniel clears his throat, says, “It’s okay, Sean. Everything’s gonna be okay,” and only in his brother’s voice can Sean believe it.
 


However:

In the real world, Daniel is standing in a hospital room. In the real world, Daniel’s brother is lying in a hospital bed, where he has been asleep for the last two years. In the real world, Sean’s face is slack and weathered, the coma having aged him horribly, attentively. There is a tube attached to his mouth, forcing air in and out of his lifeless lungs, his frail chest rising and falling near imperceptibly. The room, which was white but is now grey with decay and disuse, is full of hums and beeps.

“It’s okay, Sean,” Daniel says, even as he’s crying. Nurses hover near the bed, watching where Daniel’s hand rests on the life support. “Everything’s gonna be okay.”

Daniel takes a breath; Sean’s chest is still.



 



 

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