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The Old Man

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Heat rose from the baked, desert floor. The air above it rippled, mimicking long vanished rivers. The Old Man grunted in disapproval. He did not care to remember such things. He had dug out a small hollow in the shade of a tall rock and fastened his cloak above in a sort of shelter. In this shade and camouflage, he had hunkered down through the heat of the day. Now evening was upon him and while the heat persisted, he knew it would soon plunge into a terrible cold. He methodically checked his surroundings once more before moving. He saw no one else. He had seen no one else throughout the day. That was good. Other people meant death. Either his own or theirs and he had no more stomach for killing than he did for dying. Well, he amended to himself, except the thief. I will gladly kill the thief.

Several joints complained as he exited his temporary shelter and detached his cloak from where he had secured it. He draped it over his shoulders and stretched his muscles. His left knee had been nearly destroyed decades ago. It was stiff and tender at times but the leg brace he had fashioned took most of his weight off of it and eased his maneuverability. Many had sought to use that against him. Many saw the age in his face, beard, and hair and mistook him for weak. Despite the barren, parched earth, despite the radiation, despite the sickness and famine all around him, despite his bum knee, he had managed to remain strong and relatively healthy, much to the horror of those who had tried to harm him. He tentatively rolled his tongue around his mouth. It was dry and scratchy against his palate. He would need to make the water source soon or there would only be dying, no killing. His eyes followed the tire tracks as they disappeared into the distance. The thief would be making for the water as well. He was sure of it. Maybe he would dally. Maybe the Old Man could catch him there. He scanned the horizon once more and started on his walk. His boots scuffed along, sometimes inside, sometimes next to the rutted tire tracks he followed. His leg brace whined at intervals. The Old Man noted that he would need to oil that soon.

The thief did not linger at the water source, a small crack of a spring beginning its descent into putrefaction, but it was clear he had been there. The Old Man drank all he could stomach. He wiped the moisture out of his beard and his hand came away black. He momentarily thought the water was already poison. Then he remembered smudging out his beard.

He kept forgetting about that. His beard had begun to grow in silver in places but remained dark in others. He imagined it made for a striking appearance. Back before it might have.. No. There was no point in thinking of before. Now, interesting features were a liability. Better that people forgot you immediately. Best that they not see you at all. He dug some dark grease out of his pockets and darkened his silver patches again. He patted some sand in for good measure. All one color. All dusty brown. Forgettable. Just another lump in the landscape.

He filled his canteens and pressed on. It would be foolish to camp near such a coveted resource. Perhaps the thief was not as much of a fool as the Old Man thought.

Days passed and the Old Man was no closer to catching up to his quarry, no closer to regaining his most prized possession. He followed the tracks through a flat expanse of powdery sand and up an rocky escarpment. He crested the summit and looked out in utter defeat. The tracks ran into the slick rock on the other side and vanished. No sounds met his ears, no tell tale dust cloud informed his eyes. The thief was gone. He sat down heavily on a small boulder and reached for his canteen. So much energy wasted. He took a long pull and replaced the cap. What now?

He glanced behind him at the path he had taken and froze. Not half a mile behind him, adjacent to the path he had climbed, was the car! His car! And there swayed the thief! He must have circled back around. Had he seen the Old Man? Had the rocks hid him well enough? The thief was somewhat hunched over as he stood, observing the white powder of the flats below him, rocking back and forth. His back was to the Old Man. Hunger and hatred gripped the Old Man as he secured his cloak. He tightened his leg brace and wrapped the main hinge in a scrap of handkerchief. All else that could rustle or clank and give away his position was stowed by the boulder. He was light on his feet, the brace took most of the weight off his mangled knee. He could make it. He could take the thief unawares and then his beauty would be his again. He bright blue eyes lost their cloudy veneer and fixated on his target. They stood out sharply from his craggy, tanned face and sand caked beard.

Sweat poured off of him as he painstakingly crept ever closer. Every pebble was accounted for, he could not afford even the smallest of sounds. This scav, the thief, was jumpy. Hell, who wasn’t out here? But he looked healthy enough. The Old Man knew he could not rush him. He had a lifetime of assessing his enemies and this enemy was dangerous. The thief would either give him a terrible fight or leap into the car and speed away. Then the Old Man would be right back where he started. Or worse. No, silence was the way. Silence and then a knife in the ribs.

He gingerly placed a foot over a rounded stone. The thief twitched and drove his heel into the gravel. The Old Man ducked out of sight as the thief snatched something from the ground. From his hiding spot he watched the thief’s jaw working on whatever he had popped into his mouth. The Old Man’s belly growled.

Then he felt a tremor in the earth. He stilled, like he had turned to stone himself. The tremor was faint at first but grew in intensity in seconds. The Old Man sank further into his cover as the roar of engines crept over the hills. He cursed inwardly. Someone else had seen and someone else was coming. He had thought he was unlikely to prevail in a fist fight with the thief. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he had no chance against whoever was coming. The Old Man clenched his fists, knuckles burning from the the tension as he heard the Interceptor roar to life. A black cloud billowed behind it and it and the thief made their escape. He had been so close! So close!