The shack that Gumi had once called home was a heap of tin and mud bricks. A dead dog was lying in front of the nonexistent front door, its body already crawling with maggots. The only living things, the cockroaches had begun their infestation. They swarmed around the rotting flesh and scurried beneath the rocks. A few were scuttling up Len's arm, but he didn't seem to mind. Picking through the metal sheets, he let them investigate his wrist, his elbow, his shoulder. Then, with a casual twist of his body, they fell off and he watched as they crawled quickly away.
"That's nice," Gumi said, digging through a pile of sand.
Len tossed a shard of glass behind him. "What's nice?"
"Letting them live. Most people just crush 'em."
"Well, I figure that they've got the right to live, too, you know? Killing them won't do me any good. I can't eat them," he replied with a shrug.
"Some people eat 'em," Gumi said thoughtfully. She cupped her hands and watched as the sand slipped silently through her fingertips.
Len laughed. "And then they die. If things ever get so desperate that we actually consider eating a roach, then I think we should just kill ourselves."
Gumi was quiet for a fraction of a second, her eyes moving across the sand. "How about we just shoot each other?"
"Whatever works for you."
"So what've we got?" Gumi said, eager to change the subject. She stood up, not bothering to dust herself off, and walked carefully across the debris. A small pile of redeemable goods had been accumulated, consisting of a rusty nail, a single can of dehydrated meat, and a strip of cloth.
"We could use the fabric to make a fire, I guess," Len said. "Food is food, and the nail we could sell as scrap metal."
"Or make it into a weapon," Gumi offered, rolling it around in her palm. She was crouched next to the pile, balancing on the balls of her feet. The nail glinted in the milky sunlight.
"Whatever you want." He looked down at his shadow, long and black, stretched out by the sun. "What time is it?"
Gumi pulled out her cellphone and wiped the dirt off the screen. "Uh, seven, zero, three."
"Three minutes past seven…" he mumbled. "We can't stay out in the open for too long."
"How long do we have until soldiers arrive?" Gumi said, alarmed.
Len shrugged. "I'm not sure; but we're pushing our luck." He surveyed the desolate landscape; his eyes squinted in the dying sunlight. "There's nothing left here, we should just grab what we can find and—"
"Look out!" Gumi shrieked. "Holy crap it's huge!"
A massive dog suddenly appeared from beneath the rubble, eyes bloodshot, swathes of foam dripping from its gaping maw. Trapped by the initial bombing, its fur was matted with blood and its body was broken. But some final act of desperation, or insanity, had led it to the surface, and it turned towards Len. The madness of radiation poisoning already in its veins, it leapt at him, teeth gnashing.
"Get off me!" he shouted. The dog knocked him to the ground, scratching his arms with ragged claws.
Gumi watched as Len disappeared beneath the dog, becoming a rolling mass of human skin, fur, hands, and pointed teeth. She looked around, not knowing what to do. Emptiness, a lack of knowledge, swept over her. She felt it in her bones.
I need my bat! Why isn't it here, why didn't I save it? I need it to save him!
Grabbing at her hair, she screamed like an animal, howling like the mad dog rolling on the ground, and ran forward. She tackled it from behind, hearing its fragile ribs crack and savoring the sound. "You can't kill Len!" she cried, wrapping her arms around its neck. "I need him!"
It was a flurry of teeth and fur, red mouth hovering over her, flaming eyes peering down. Then, "Hold it, Gumi, I've got him!" And Len was there with a broken piece of glass. He shoved it deep into the dog's side, blood splattered, and it was dead.
Gumi stood up, feeling a gust of wind against her back. She was covered in blood, her chest was heaving. The dead dog lay at her feet, its eyes half-open. "That's it," she said blankly. "It's dead, you killed it."
Len threw the glass shard to the ground. "It was our only choice."
"I know." She kneeled down besides the dog, her eyes as wide and empty as her mind. Len's heavy breathing was nothing but a distant sound; the fear of the approaching soldiers was a vague memory. Tentatively, she laid her hand on the dog's side, feeling the puncture wound against her palm. "You were such a pretty dog," she whispered. "Sorry your death was so ugly." Tears slid down her face and a lump formed in her throat. "I-I'm sorry that I broke you." She remembered the sound of its cracking ribs, of her adopted mother screaming, of the cruel children moaning the streets, of the bombs and the fire and the sound of her own voice as she laughed at death and laughed because everyone was dying and…
Len's voice cut through the madness. "Gumi, we have to go."
She looked up, her eyes dry. "Yeah, you're right." She stood up, vowing to never look at the dead dog again. "Wait, are you bleeding?"
He shrugged. "I guess so. It bit my shoulder, but I'm fine."
Gumi leaned closer towards Len, realizing just how pale he was, how his body shivered in the hot sunlight. "It could be bad. How do you feel?"
"Doesn't matter," he mumbled. "Come on, we should probably find shelter, just a place to rest for a little while. We can't leave the town now, it's too late."
"Sure," Gumi said softly. She slid down the hill of rocks and debris, coming to rest on the broken sidewalk. "The hospital would be a good place to hide. It's still standing, kinda, and it's too big to be searched in the dark."
"The soldiers will have lights," Len said with a sarcastic smile. "But it's a good idea nonetheless, so let's go."
The sun was beginning to set when they got to the hospital. Gumi ran ahead, kicking aside the broken slabs of concrete aside and searching for a suitable hiding spot. If Len was right, then the soldiers could arrive at any moment. Her eyes narrowed when she thought of him, pushing himself to keep up with her, beads of sweat dripping down his face. Gumi wanted to knock him upside the head with a baseball bat, tell him that he was stupid, that he shouldn't try to act so tough. But she was silent, boiling in her anger, and at the same time, wondering at his strength. A trail of bright red blood was behind them, how he had not already passed out was beyond her. She shook her head, scoffing at his stupidity, and pulled a loose slab away, revealing a small 'cavity' as Len had said before.
"Great job," Len said from behind her. She turned around and saw him there, leaning against a partially destroyed wall, his blonde hair drenched in cold sweat. But his eyes were clear, his mind alert.
"You can't just hold it in," Gumi said simply. "Scream or something. It'll make you feel better." She looked up at him, her eyes stern. "I ain't gonna think less of you if you moan like a kid."
Len laughed subtly. "Looking weak gets you into trouble, and you've already seen me trapped beneath a telephone pole. Tonight, you'll probably slit my throat in my sleep."
"You won't be sleepin' tonight, not with that bite." Gumi replied. "Can you let me see the wound, at least?"
"What are ya hiding?"
"One of his teeth kind of got stuck in my shoulder," Len explained. "He obviously had extreme radiation poisoning and was badly injured. I guess his teeth were loose, and one of them fell out…"
There's no way, Gumi thought. Then she remembered tackling it, hearing it squeal. Maybe its jaws had already been locked around Len's shoulder, and the force of her body had ripped its teeth from its decaying gums. Her eyes suddenly softened, her hair falling in front of her face. "Just don't think you have to look tough for me." Tears blurred her vision. "It's just so stupid; you don't need to be anything. Look around you, nobody cares, they're all dead. And you'll soon be dead too, 'cause your pride will kill you." She hastily wiped her tears away, her eyes puffy and her nose running, but she didn't care. "So you just need to—"
"Yeah, yeah, you're right," Len interrupted, choking on his words. He sunk to the ground and leaned against the broken concrete. "Look, you just sleep a little, and I'll keep watch for a while. Besides I've got to pull this tooth out." Gumi receded into the dark hiding place, not wanting to wound Len's outlandish pride. An hour passed, and he was still outside. The compassionate part of her soul, which was unusually large for someone like her, was deeply concerned. How deep was the bite? Was he infected with some disease now? Was he going to bleed to death? She started; hitting her head on the low ceiling as something grabbed one of the concrete slabs. It was a hand, Len's hand that shook and trembled as he pulled himself into the hovel. He crawled across the dirt, breathing fast, his eyes still wide and aware.
"I'm spent," he said hoarsely, holding the bloody tooth in one hand. "Definitely spent." He rolled over onto his back, looking up at Gumi with his blue eyes. "So embarrassing…"
"Shut up with that already, will ya?" she growled, slapping the side of his head.
He hissed through his teeth. "Geez, Gumi, that was a little uncalled for," he mumbled, rubbing his temple.
She looked down at her hand, such an angry hand that had acted of its own accord. "I, uh, I'm sorry." Tentatively, she let her fingers touch his skin. "I think you have a fever," she said. "Here, you should take your jacket off."
He nodded heavily. "That dog had acute radiation poisoning, at least over 3000 rads in his system."
"How do you know this stuff?" Gumi asked, pulling down the metallic zipper.
"Books," he said. "I've found a lot of them in abandoned houses. I got this one on radiation, it's interesting enough. I just don't get it that's all, don't understand…"
"S'okay, just relax and stop talking," Gumi said, rubbing her hands down his arms, back and forth. "Calm down and breathe, you'll be ok."
"Of course I'll be ok," he said with a weak smile. "I got caught off-guard, but I'll hold on tight." He knitted his eyebrows, his eyes narrowing. "It still irritates me, though…I should have been paying attention."
"You can't always be like that, sometimes you get distracted, daydream…"
"That's no excuse," he snapped. All at once, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "But daydreaming is fun. I like thinking about the past, how people used to live. It's funny, how people adapt," he muttered, his eyelids drooping. "A long time ago, humans couldn't take very much radiation, but now, somehow, we can…" His eyes popped open again. "That reminds me. Get my rad reader out of my left pocket."
"Rad reader. You never heard of one?" Gumi shook her head and Len sighed. "Whatever, just get it out of my pocket, ok?"
Gumi leaned forward, careful not to crush Len's head, and pulled a rectangular object out of his front pocket. Weighty, a dull silver color that glowed in the darkness. A black screen, unlike anything she had ever seen, was just beneath her fingertips, a green line running across its surface. Buttons, raised pieces of rubber and metal, enticed her curiosity, drawing her eyes like meteors spinning towards the earth. A loud beep rang out, echoing throughout the concrete cave. Gumi yelped and dropped the strange device, her thin body, all skin and bones, backing into a corner.
Seconds before it struck the hard ground, Len swiped it out of the air. "And you keep telling me to relax," he mumbled. "It won't hurt you. You use it to detect the amount of radiation in your body. Watch." He undid the cap, revealing a small tray, and pressed a button on the side of the reader, causing the line to waver. Thumb beneath his teeth, he brought his canine down on the soft pillow of skin and bit down hard. Trails of blood slid down his palm and into his mouth. Then he wiped his bloody finger across the tray, letting it soak up every drop it could manage. It was sloppily done, flecks of red on his teeth, dripping down his chin, the puncture wound in his thumb much larger than necessary, but he didn't care. Each finger was already calloused over from years of picking through trash and debris; all ten of his fingerprints had been erased by friction and accidental contact with chemicals.
A little blood was familiar to Len and every other child of the dustland. In fact, it was almost comforting, a splash of color in the usually grey and vacant landscape. His mind, already delusional from a steadily climbing fever, saw the rivers of red and reveled in their intensity. An image of skull-like rocks and brittle black trees flashed across his vision, his own face, unrecognizable beneath layers of sand and blood, and his vacant blue eyes that bulged from their sockets as he sat on a boulder, rolling a broken pelvis beneath his feet. Lowering his eyelids, hoping to escape that emblazoned memory, he found himself back in the makeshift cave, the air thick with ash and smoke.
A running green line and an emotionless beep that caught his attention. He looked at the rad reader, cleaning the smudged screen with his finger. "See? There's the number. One hundred rads, not too bad." He looked up at Gumi. "You ever get radiation poisoning before?"
"Once, about three years ago."
"Get caught in a bombing? Roll around in a puddle?"
She smiled wryly. "No, I actually did what we were talking about earlier. I ate a roach."
"I'd rather pour acid on my tongue."
"I was young and hungry, I had no choice." She tucked her legs awkwardly beneath her lithe body and rested her head atop her knees. "They don't taste so bad."
Len burst out into laughter. "You're crazy, kid."
A low growl shook Gumi's voice box. "I told you, I ain't a kid. I bet we're the same age."
"How old are you then?"
She held up both hands, her right index finger forming a one, and her left hand slowly raising five.
"Huh, we are the same age," Len said. "I turned fifteen in December."
"I don't keep track of time," Gumi stated blankly.
"You should." He paused for a moment, running his tongue over his scarred lips. "We should get some sleep. Tomorrow we need to get moving."
"Where? There's no place to go, everywhere looks the same. Just sand and more sand."
"There's a whole desert out there, waiting for us," Len explained, mid-yawn. "And there are books to save, people to find."
Gumi gasped. "That's right, you can read!" she exclaimed, ripping out her phone. "Tell me, what is this?"
"Let me see." He took the phone with both hands, his blue irises roving across the cracked screen. After a few moments, "This is the United States Declaration of Independence. 'It was a statement adopted by the Continental Congress on July 4, 1776.'"
"What does that mean?"
"It was basically a piece of paper that said that America was free from British rule. It declared America's freedom."
Gumi fell back onto her heels, habitually rocking back and forth on the balls of her feet. "But what's Amare-ka, what's British? Are they places?"
"I guess Britain was a country once, maybe it still is, but America is where we live. It used to be the name of the country that we're in right now."
"What, that doesn't—" Gumi stopped short, the sound of heavy footsteps ringing in her ears. She and Len looked at each other, their eyes wide.
Len swallowed, his body frozen. "They're here."