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.


1. The Silver Men

JD sat on a tuft of sawgrass and watched the smoke rise over the remains of the old shack. From time to time some piece of grey, bleached wood cracked in the heat as a new, orange fireworm crept over it. JD watched all day ’til there was nothin’ left ’cept a pile of hot ash and that small twist of smoke. Then he watched the purple sun sink through the chemical haze and the dark shadows stretch out from the red hills. He watched until the whole Dry Marsh was dark.

 When night wrapped around him JD tucked his hands under his armpits, stared at the heap of ash that had once been home and set to figurin’ what to do next.

He sighed a deep sigh. He couldn’t have known what was going to happen. Why, just that morning, same as every morning when the temperature got too high to stay in bed, he’d dressed in his dungarees and shirt, pulled on his cracked leather boots, tied his leggings up to his knees, put his old cap in his pocket and shuffled into the big room to see if Pa had left anything to eat. Pa was pretty good at getting stuff to eat and JD found two or three twisted roots and some crickets laid out on the box by the stove. He picked up one of the crickets, took its head between his finger and thumb, snapped it off and put the body and legs into his mouth, crunching them into small pieces. JD liked crickets; they tasted good.

 When Ma had been around JD remembered, she’d boil all the grub together in a big pan which made everything taste the same but, while he preferred his crickets raw, it was tough chewing uncooked roots. But now Ma was gone and Pa had no time for cooking. He was out from dawn ’til dusk hunting over the Dry Marsh, scraping and digging for things to eat. He never got back to the shack ’til after dark except once, way back when he’d come in before noon with the biggest insect JD had ever seen. He said he’d found it buried in the wet green. Ma said it was called a crab. JD thought it looked like something from another time. Ma put the crab straight into the pan and boiled it up right then and there without waiting for supper time and when it was done they’d all three sat on the floor and pulled bits off it, cracking the shell with rocks and sucking out the meat. When Pa said it was like Yule in the old times, Ma had winked at him and reached down a glass jar from the top of the dresser. She and Pa swigged from that jar ’til it was all gone and they were laid out flat on the floor. Little JD took the empty jar out of his Ma’s hand to see if he could get some of the golden fluid for himself but it was quite dry. All he could do was sniff at the heady fumes. It was just like the smell you got if you found one of the old petrol cars abandoned someplace.

 But Ma was gone and now Pa was gone too. When the Silver Men came last they’d found him half-buried out back. Pa always buried up when the vibrations came. He’d scrape out a spot near some sawgrass, lie in it and cover himself with dirt. He had a hollow stem to breathe through, but JD could always tell where he was by the hump in the ground and the different colour dirt where he’d dug it. The Silver Men knew that too. A while back, when two or three of them had done what they came for in the shack, they took Ma out to where Pa was hiding and did it a couple of times more right next to where he was buried, just so’s he could hear. Then they put their silver suits back on, replaced their helmets and took off. When they’d gone JD made himself scarce while Ma and Pa fought in the dust.

After dark JD crept back into the shack, crawled into bed and lay with his face in the sacks hoping everything would be OK by morning. But next morning Ma was gone. Pa said she’d gone to the City.

The next time the vibrations came Pa was away digging so JD ran inside, opened up the dresser in the big room and climbed in. He lifted up the loose floorboards and squeezed through the hole underneath, just like Pa had showed him and lay quiet under the shack.

He heard the Silver Men come in. He heard their heavy boots clumping on the boards above his head. He heard them call and when they saw that Ma wasn’t there he heard them cuss and throw things around. They kicked over the stove and it shook the floorboards right over where he lay, making him cower down.

 Then they went out back to find Pa. It took them a while but with their jet-packs and all they could cover ground fast. They brought him back to the shack and hit him with things that whistled and cut the air. They hit him a lot but Pa never made a sound. He didn’t cry out or nothin’ though what they were doing must have hurt like hell. JD guessed that the Silver Men were drinking too because he could smell that smell again just like the time of the crab. He reckoned they must have had a real big jar full too because the fumes that came down through the cracks in the floorboards were so thick and heavy they made him dizzy.

At last the shouting died down and JD heard the Silver Men leave the shack. He hoped they’d start their machines quick so’s he could get out and go to Pa; see if he was OK. But JD was having trouble breathing. Sweet, sickly fumes poured like treacle into the narrow space where he lay, filling his lungs and making his eyes sting. But JD kept still, listening, hoping and praying the Silver Men would go quick.

After a while it got real quiet but just when JD thought they might have gone he heard a click. Then one of the Silver Men shouted, there was a big flash and a brilliant orange and blue fireball, swirling and roaring like a dragon, ripped through the cracks in the boards.

JD fell flat to the ground and straight away his back began to burn and his head grew real hot. The hairs on his arms shrivelled into tiny black spirals and his skin began to scorch. He whimpered and tried to crawl away but hot smoke coiled and swirled through that shallow space under the shack, seeking him out, burning his eyes and filling his nose and throat.

He headed for the back of the shack where he knew there was a gap in the boards by the step. Gasping and choking on the hot, grey fog he wriggled and elbowed his way across the dirt. His hair was on fire, his arms were burned and bleeding but he struggled on, digging his fingers into the rough ground, grabbing at it, scratching at it, pulling himself towards that little opening. The flames roared and burned above him, stealing the air, making him keep his mouth close to the dirt, desperate for breath. The heat was so intense it boiled the strength from his limbs, sucking it out until at last he fell flat, spread out, gasping, his chest heaving fit to bust. It was no good, he could go no further. He could only lie still now and wait for the hungry flames to burn him right up where he lay. Lifting one arm, JD tried to push away the blanket of hot smoke that was wrapping itself around him. But his knuckles struck something hard and raising up his streaming eyes, he saw a patch of light above his head. For a moment the smoke thinned and JD saw he was right under that gap by the back step. With one last frenzied effort he pushed his hands into the hole and, gripping the edge, hauled himself up, forcing his head and shoulders into the air outside. Inch by inch he squeezed through until he fell in a heap by the back step.

JD struggled to his feet and bent low, he half-scrambled; half-ran to the nearest hollow where he dropped, panting and choking, behind a hump of sawgrass. He pushed his burning face into the dirt and beat at his hair to put out the flames, while all the while the blazing shack roared and crackled and the air vibrated and buzzed from the Silver Men’s machines.

JD pressed his thin body against the ground and covered his ears. At any moment those Silver Men would take off and fly right overhead. Then they would surely see him, they must see him. He pushed himself as flat as he could and stuck his head into the sawgrass which cut and stung the raw flesh on his face. The jet-packs revved up and one by one the Silver Men took off. In a matter of moments they would see him stretched out in his shallow hideaway and would swoop down and carry him off for sure.

JD started to sob.



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