Once he was a cop, he remembers that much. Or at least, he thinks he does. There is a uniform of some kind, somewhere, in the wild wasteland of his brain. It might have been blue. Or black. Or nothing at all, just some memory too impossibly old to be his. His mind plays tricks on him, same as the heat mirages do to the ones dying of thirst.
The dead world was stark raving mad, and he had tried his best. His car, back in the early days, had been able to carry supplies for more than one, and a little band of drifters eventually accumulated around him. An old man with wild hair, a woman with tired eyes, and a girl. A little girl with dark, wiry curls who called him Pa until neither of them could remember whether he really was her father or not.
Further back, in the dangerous place where better memories lie, there is a little boy. A little boy and a woman whose name he can’t ever speak again, but when he tries to imagine them they blow away in the wind like dust. He can’t remember holding her, can’t remember the shape of that little boy in his arms. His face, when Max tries, always turns into the solemn eyes of the girl.
Where are we going, Pa?
He had tried. He had tried and tried and tried. Everything was broken, humanity devolved into vicious warring gangs of the worst and strongest, and he had driven around in a Ford Interceptor full of the ones that no one else thought were worth protecting, all trying desperately to stay one step ahead of the gangs and one step closer to the dwindling oases of fresh water. The band of drifters around him shrank, one by one succumbing to the ravages of nature or the weapons of other humans, until at long last he had no one but the old man, the tired woman, and his little girl.
That, he knows, is when he started to go mad.
The old man had been cut off from the group while foraging, separated by a crew of bikers who had come driving up to the oasis. Max charged the Interceptor straight through the lighter vehicles while the woman hung out the window with her hand outstretched, trying to haul him back in. Her scream of frustrated despair and the tell-tale crack of gunfire behind them had been all he needed to jam the gas pedal down and keep going.
They had hovered around the oasis for two weeks, knowing that they would have to go back down to the water again if they wanted to survive the drive to the next. Max had traded shifts with the woman behind the wheel, jerking up from sleep at the lightest sound because one of them needed to keep watch and the little girl wasn’t big enough to hold the rifle. They didn’t dare make camp for fear of scavengers converging while they idled. The stops to fill the gas tank were hair-raising; one of them would stand guard while the other would pour some of their precious remaining guzzoline into the tank, just enough for another circuit around. Just enough for a lightning dash down to the basin, if it was open. Just enough to kick the car into high gear and drive away, if the scavengers should happen to show up again.
By the time they finally got a chance to top up on water and flee the shrinking oasis, Max could have sworn he heard the old man behind him in the backseat, singing his old nonsense songs to the little girl to keep her mind from thirst.
Will there be water at the next place? I’m so thirsty…
The woman was next to go. They were hidden in the canyons, thinking to rest from the road and stay out of sight, and an unseen sniper burst her skull open right in the middle of the road. Max had been out foraging, grubbing for the ever-present population of small animal life that crawled in the rocks, and the little girl’s scream sent him bolting back to the car as though a sirocco were behind him. He had thrown her bodily into the passenger’s seat and roared away from the canyon with bullets glancing off the back of the Interceptor, never once looking back because his little girl was sobbing beside him and she had no one else in the whole wide world.
The world blurs, a smear of red and blue and wide open stars, an ironic gift of beauty to the dying below. The factions are becoming clearer, now – one to the east, one to the west, one to the north, and the water between them gets scarcer and scarcer until it seems that Max has always been here, hands glued to the wheel, driving around and around in an endless baking Purgatory until the end of ends comes and he can rest. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad, if one more nuclear event finished them all off. He is so very tired.
He can’t sleep. Can’t stop. Can’t take his eyes off the horizon. The sun goes up, and down, and up again until he doesn’t bother counting because a full night’s rest is out of the question anyway. Max tells the little girl to sit in his lap as he drives because he is nodding off at the wheel. If he lets his guard down, even for a minute, he will have killed them both as surely as though he held the gun. She pats him on the forehead when his eyes have been closed for too long, and asks him endlessly where they are going as she rests her head under his chin.
The old man is clear as day in the rearview window, and the woman is sitting in the passenger’s seat with her ruined, bloody face, both glaring at him with accusing eyes.
You let us die. You let us die. You could have saved us.
He presses his lips to the fragile curve of the girl’s skull beneath her curls, and ignores them as best he can.
The end comes on a cooler day than most, with a breath of wind to relieve the endless dry heat.
He is circling back around to one of the last remaining oases he knows, trying to scoop up the last of the evaporating water before it’s no longer there. The water lies in a small plain surrounded by a series of jagged, treacherous ravines that are no good for anything but the towering all-terrain vehicles. It will have to be a foot retrieval. They stash the Interceptor deep in a winding labyrinth of rock, and the girl runs around helping him lift smaller rocks and gravel onto the roof and hood for concealment. She smiles, for the first time in a long time (forever?) that he can remember. Max, running comparatively high on a few more moments of snatched sleep in the front seat, thinks that today will be good.
The hidden sentry party that comes roaring up out of the ravines quickly proves him wrong.
The fuckers have a big wheeler, a couple bikes, and a smaller escort car that they must have brought in here piece by piece, and he scoops the girl up and runs for both their lives because goddammit, this is not how they die. He’s stumbling back towards the ravines, looking desperately for a defensible gully or cave where they can make their way back to the Interceptor, and he hears the roar of the big wheeler behind him.
His memories are rust, rotted and torn and withered away with time, but certain pieces he remembers with absolute pristine clarity.
Slinging the little girl over to his front, thinking to lie down under the big wheeler and let it pass over them. A hand clutching the back of his collar. An almighty yank.
The momentary choke of his shirt riding up to his neck as the biker drags him away, and the crystal clear feeling of the little girl’s small body sliding out of his arms. The big wheeler roaring as she scrambles up, crying out for him.
The terror on her face, as the truck runs her down.
You won’t die, will you Pa? You won’t leave me?
He wakes up at the bottom of one of the ravines, his left knee a broken mess.
The old man and the tired woman stand over him, goading him onwards with their angry, condemning eyes as he drags himself back up to the oasis plain. The little girl is lying dead where she fell. Her skull is caved in at the back, where the front fender of the truck must have hit her as she ran. The blood is long dried, and the tracks of tiny scavengers frightened by his presence lead away from the scene.
Max cradles her body close, praying desperately for the swell of breath and the sound of her voice, and feels the very last of his sanity slipping away like sand through his fingers.
Hope is a mistake, he tells Furiosa, years later. If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane.