by Jake Walters
I watched them hold the rabbits, for lack of a better word, over the flames until the skin fell off and the meat beneath charred. The smell was wonderful and brought back a few drifts of ancient memories; what were once called barbecues, places where families would get together and cook food and drink beer; nights spent at camps, around fires, telling scary stories. But none of them was as scary as this. I had had friends, too, though all their faces and histories were now blurred together into one incomprehensible chunk of was.
The animals cooked quickly and we devoured them together sitting around the fire. The meat was tender and plump and I let the juices run down my throat and sit in my stomach, radioactive or not. I had never heard other people eat like these people, like dogs fighting for scraps, although none of them argued over anything. Their teeth clamped down on the meat and bones like vises, which made a strange clapping sound as their lips smacked.
We were done quickly with the meal, and I felt myself growing tired. I saw that some of the others were starting to go to sleep, too, using their arms as pillows, or the bellies of their fathers or mothers. One child appeared to be sleeping in a sitting position, his eyes closed as in meditation toward the fire.
“I am tired, too,” I said. “I should go back.”
Thomas shook his head. “It is too late,” he said. “You will have to stay the night with us.” When I did not respond, he went on: “It is dangerous outside of our little camp. There are things out there.”
This was what I was interested in. “What kinds of things?”
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, casting his gaze toward the night surrounding us. “As long as we are together and we have fire, they won’t bother us.”
We all found the most comfortable positions for sleep that we could. I ended up near the fire with a relatively soft log to place under my head. Sleep was very slow in coming. The night was silent but for the collective noises we made in our camp: our snoring, farting, the noise of rolling over. I stared up at where the stars should have been for a long time and tried to convince myself that I was not comforted by the fact that I could not see any.
Some dream-filled time later there was a face hovering over mine but I could not feel the heat coming from his skin and when I opened my eyes it took a long moment for them to adjust and for me to realize that this was Thomas — and he was young again, it seemed — and he hissed into my ear, “I knew it was you as soon as I saw you, Brother.”
And I knew the voice: we were on our bikes, or swimming in the slow river outside of town, anywhere, but wherever we were the sky was blue and the clouds white and the breeze fair. And I put my arm around him and smiled.
And I had to know and so I asked, “What is my name?” Tommy was confused at first, and then he seemed to understand and his eyes opened wide and he chuckled a little bit. “Jim,” he said, his voice low and calm. “Jim, of course.”
Jim. I was Jim.
* * *
I woke in the morning and instantly rose. The charred remains at my side reminded me of where I was and what I had done the night before. The air seemed clean, the world open and quiet. Thomas was asleep in the same place that he had been the evening before, and I bent over him to look closer. He was curled into a fetal position, and while his body was old, his aura was childlike. I wanted to reach down and touch his shoulder, to shake him awake, to bid him farewell. But I stood straight.
The others were just starting to rustle themselves into consciousness, yawning, blinking at the fresh bright day. When they saw me, they stared for a moment too long. I wondered what was going through their heads at the moment; were they still afraid, did they want to change places with me, did they perhaps pity me?
I said, “Thank you,” and started to pick my way over their sleeping bodies. I did not want to look back. Ahead, some inestimable distance in the haze, the long rope-like tunnel holding our city to the earth stretched up into the clouds.
“Wait,” I heard somebody say. I hesitated, and then I turned.
It was a small boy, wearing dirty sweatpants and no shirt. Ribbons of filth were streaked across his naked chest. “It is Thomas.”
“What’s wrong?” I said, bending to speak more easily with the boy.
“He is dead.”
My breath caught in my throat and formed a painful lump there. “How?” I croaked.
The boy shrugged and motioned for me to follow him back. I did; we stood over Tommy’s body. Somebody nudged it with a toe, and it swayed a bit before coming to rest in its fetal position. “Oh, God,” I said, and noticed how the people close enough to hear looked strangely at one another. Nobody was crying, or showing any kind of remorse. It struck me that we had never had a death in Sky City, and that we would have no place to bury our dead when we began to pass away. We would probably just push them over the edge.
“We need to bury him,” I said.
“No,” the crowd murmured.
“We give him back,” the shirtless boy said. “To the desert.”
“What desert?” I asked.
He indicated the expanse of land surrounding us, endless and barren and empty at the moment. “For Him,” the boy said. “He takes us back.”
“Oh,” I feigned understanding. “Okay.” Together we lifted his body, which was surprisingly light, and we carried him away from our camp, in the opposite direction of Sky City. Their little corner of habitation quickly faded behind us, and left us in the most desolate place I had ever seen, where I could not even see the point where the earth met the sky. We took him to a dusty place where there were bones, and we dropped him in the middle of what looked like a drawn circle in the dust. “Here?” I asked, breathing a little heavier.
“He will come tonight for Thomas,” the boy said. “Come on. I don’t like to stay here long. It scares me.”
I thought their dead was probably eaten by some animal they had not yet succeeded in catching or seeing, but I did not say anything. Their explanation was as good as my guess, anyway, and besides, who knew anything anymore? All the scientists were long dead, and so were the religious people. That left us nothing to believe except what was right in front of us.
We began walking back to their little village, and when we arrived, everybody was up and working on something: gathering water, sticks, grass, building a small hut a little further on. They were the beginnings of a civilization.
“Thank you,” I said again, walking through their village.
“Don’t go,” the boy called after me. He jogged to catch up, and then stood in front of me. I felt my face drop as I looked at his decimated body, his sunken eyes which still burned bright as he searched my face. “Why don’t you stay?”
“I...” I began. “This is not my home. My home is in the sky.”
“Are you sure?” the boy asked.
I was prepared to answer yes, but then my previous night’s vision rushed back at me. What was waiting for me in Sky City? That life was an illusion. I had a family, but I had made them more from a sense of obligation than anything else. I did love my daughters. They could come, too. I shook my head as if clearing it. Who would be foolish enough to leave a beautiful city in the emerald sky and trade it for a hut on the nuclear Earth?
But then the boy said, “I think you are home, Jim.”
I turned back to the small population. They were all staring expectantly at me. It was as though they needed me. I scratched my head, then crossed my arms, and then uncrossed them. “I am Thomas’s son,” the boy at my side said. “My name is Jim, too.” His saying this sent a pang through my chest, and I put my hand on his shoulder.
“Well, maybe just for a little while,” I said, walking back with him toward the waiting people. “Just a couple days, to teach you some things I know.” Little Jim smiled as we walked back toward the village. And the earth, ravaged and raped, silent and waiting, as though anticipating the lives we would build here, spun on.
Copyright © 2012 by Jake Walters