JD’s father has been killed by the Silver Men; his mother is missing. Lost in the desert without water, JD meets a strange old man whose mouth has been sewn shut. That man’s secret will save his life.


2. The Old Road

When JD dared take his hands away from his ears all he could hear was the cracking of the burning wood and the whoosh as the old shack fell into the flames. He could still feel the vibrations but they were receding fast, and through the cloud of dust and ash that the jet-packs had kicked up he saw just four little black dots away in the west.

When he was sure the Silver Men had gone, JD sat up and he didn’t move from that spot all day nor right through the night. He just sat watching the smoke and thinking.

Next day he set off along the Old Road. All through that night he’d never once thought about the Old Road but somehow when morning came he just stood up, turned his back on the pile of ash and walked towards it. When he reached it he hadn’t paused neither; he just turned west and strode off. Just like he’d been meant to.

JD knew that in the old times the petrol cars had run on that road but now the concrete slabs were cracked and uneven, lifted to crazy angles by the heat. Sharp yellow grass grew in the gaps and JD had to walk along the dirt path by the edge to save from falling down or having to jump from slab to slab.

He didn’t see a single shack all day. From time to time there were square patches of concrete where brick shacks had been, their edges red and yellow like broken teeth. Wires and pipes had been cut off short and shards of white china lay around but everything else was long gone.

He walked all day, even in the hot hours, sucking at his tongue, trying to create spit the way Pa had shown him. His skin, scorched and weeping, hurt bad and he walked bent and twisted like an old man but he knew he had to carry on.

He made sure to stay near the road where the track was as flat and easy as it could be, while all around the scrub stretched away, a mournful desert of red dust, undefined, undulating its way to the horizon. By nightfall he was sore and hungry and began to meander away from the Old Road and into the Scrubland, seeking out the crickets he could hear chirruping in the tussocks. He caught two and ate them quick while they still had some moisture, leaving their heads on. Pa said you could get a lick from the brains.

When darkness finally closed in JD lay down where he stopped, put his head on his hands, tucked his knees up to his chest and shut his eyes. With one ear close to the ground he reckoned he’d hear any vibrations if they came.

But sleep did not come easy. JD turned over and put his face into the crook of his arm, trying to shut out the lightning flashes that crackled orange and blue across the sky. All that night he tossed and turned; the heat never let up and he could still taste smoke. Whenever he could shut out his thoughts long enough to drift towards slumber he would hear a cry in the distance or feel a shudder through the dirt and would start, images of Silver Men like livid flames flashing before his eyes.

Well before dawn he gave up trying to sleep and sat up, stretched his neck, straightened his back and looked around. The air was still and dark, the sky a deep angry red except for a faint semicircle of yellow light fading into the west horizon. JD had seen that light before but never so clear. Before sun-up on some days back at the shack he’d seen that same dirty yellow smudge staining the sky. He’d never mentioned it to Pa and Pa had never said anything about it to JD, but when Ma went off and JD had asked Pa where she’d gone, Pa had stared at that yellow light when he said she must have gone to the City. He never said no more but some mornings JD had seen him clenching and unclenching his fists, staring at the yellow glow, anger and hurt etched on his face.

But Pa was gone now and JD knew he had to get on. The Blue Star was fading and soon the sun would rise and sear the ground into another day of furnace heat.

Sitting with his knees drawn up to his chin, JD sucked his swollen tongue and wiggled it behind his teeth but no saliva came. His lips were dry and cracked and under the rim of caked red dust he could feel slivers of skin peeling away. He sucked air in through his teeth, trying to cool his mouth but that was no good neither. Even before sun-up it was just too hot and his arms and hands, scorched and red from the fire, seemed even hotter than the rest of him. He took off his old cap and a cloud of burned hair fell into his lap.

JD looked around. Away to his left, set against the scrub and sand hills, he saw a tree silhouetted against the sky; a wizened, bent thing with broken branches. He’d seen trees before, even standing ones. Way back Pa had taken him to see one. They’d walked north all one morning beyond the Dry Marsh to an old river bed near to where the nuclear power plant had been. They’d found the tree clinging to a high bank, one splintered branch pointing back like a warning. They sat down under that tree, father and son, and Pa had told JD a story about the old times when trees were high and straight and hung with soft green leaves which you could eat. He told JD of a time when small critters flew among the trees and water fell out of the sky. JD loved it when Pa told him those stories even though he knew they were made up. No one could imagine any such thing in real life.

JD sighed out loud, wrapped his arms tight around his knees and studied this new tree while he remembered that time with Pa. Then he snapped out of his memory and sat up straight. His sharp, eyes had detected a movement near the tree and his heart began to pound. Someone was there. The trunk looked like it was wide at the bottom and narrow high up, but when JD concentrated he could see there was a figure hunched at the base of the tree, its head leaning forward. That head wore a broad round hat and from time to time that hat would nod. JD touched his own ragged cap with a finger and wondered what it would be like to own a nice, shady hat like that.

He watched carefully. JD was scared of strangers but was getting so desperate for water he set to wondering if the man by the tree might have something to drink. He watched and thought about water until at last he summoned up his courage and began to creep towards the tree. He stayed low, skirting the sand hills and keeping in the hollows, his eyes fixed on the man, ready to freeze or run if he should turn around.

When he was just a few paces away, right up close behind the tree, he dropped into a shallow dip and waited a while, keeping low and listening. Then he crawled forward and peered over the rim of the hollow. He was right; there was a man by the tree and he was old, older than Pa, and wore a long coat made of some light stuff. It too was old and had tears all over it. The man’s legs and feet were wrapped in layers of paper, tied around with strands of plaited grass, criss-crossed up to his knees. His arms were thin and bent, and his elbows rested on his knees, which were drawn up close to his chest. A mane of grey hair poured out from under his hat and hung straight down his back. JD could see he had a grey muzzle too but the rest of his face was hidden in the shadows. JD was so close he could hear the man breathing; he made a kind of whistling sound as he breathed in, followed by a gurgle and a grunt when he breathed out. It sounded like the old guy was sleeping.

Lying quietly in his hole, JD searched for any sign the man might have something to drink. He scanned the hunched figure from the top of his hat to the tips of his toes, hoping to see the bulge of a water bottle in the thin dustcoat. Then he spotted something. Leaning against the tree was a sort of a bag, an old satchel made out of something soft. There was a bulge at one end and a split where it had dried in the sun and through the crack JD could make out something metallic. Something grey, dull and tubular – just the kind of thing a man might keep a drink in.

JD edged closer. He winced at the pain from the burns on his arms but he kept on going, crawling out of his hole, staying flat to the dirt, using his elbows to squirm towards the bag, all the time flicking his eyes between the sleeping man’s face and that dull, metal tube. As he crawled a plan formed in his mind. When the time was right he’d dart forward, grab the bag and run as hard as he could, away across the scrub before the old man knew what was happening. JD ran his swollen tongue across dry lips, tried to swallow and thought about water.

He crept closer and closer until, about midway between the dip and the tree he began to raise himself up. He needed to be sure nothing would give him away, a dry twig, a stone that might click against another. But it was all clear; just a fine layer of red dust covered the ground between him and that precious tube. JD licked his dry lips again; he could almost taste that cool, sweet water. One more step and he’d be close enough. He gathered himself for the final spring, drew a quiet breath and lifted his hands clear of the dust, ready to catapult himself forward, grab that bag and run. It was now or never.

‘You touch that bag, son, and I’ll snap you like a twig.’ The voice sounded like it came from the sky; like the growl of distant thunder.


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