Actions

Work Header

I Will See You in Far Off Places

Work Text:

Proem

{ she has now gone from this unhappy planet with all the carnivores and the destructors on it }

This is a story in which nothing exists: a story in the mind, a story about stories; a trace, a record, something spoken and proven. It is a legacy not-written, it is a rolling song that proves that I loved you. It's not my story, but I'm the only one who can tell it.

This is the letter I can never send, that you will never read. But I will sing this song into the wind and in the wet of rain and in the depth of the earth, and maybe you will hear it.

This is a story where nothing exists, and it is the story of my father and my brother.

*

1. The Camp

{ if your god bestows protection on you and if the USA doesn't bomb you I believe I will see you }

The camp is the whole world.

In the beginning was America, though now that seems impossible. The stories Toby tells them are not made up, but seem fantastical to the children, who lost their memories quickly. He has to explain the concept of democracy to them more than once. He supposes it must seem like a dream to kids from the camps, after the Dawning.

If America was the beginning, then Dawning was an extreme way to move the story along. It was the name the papers gave it, in a rare instance of irony - Dawning, as though mornings can never bring death. It took longer than a day to burn up the earth; months before things were noticed, reported on, studied and measured and pronounced deadly. It will take longer for Death to catch up with them: this is only the morning. Toby wonders how the end of the story will go, but not often.

The camps are for protection, and by now everyone knows what that means. With human life such a precious resource, there must be guards and rules and barbed wire borders on electric fences. Toby allows himself to smile and wonder what Sam would think of the breaking of humanity into the caged and the free and only stops when the pain in his chest is too sharp to bear. They are gone, he thinks; all the others. And no-one remembers refugees from the White House; no-one really remembers the White House. Seven years have been enough to turn the walls black. He recites names before he goes to sleep each night, subpoenas of memory. He doesn't know that they are dead and in a sense it doesn't matter. They are not here and now he will never find them again. Sam's belief, which seems so old now, is a bright point in a sky which is never truly dark anymore, somewhere beyond the wire.

All there is and all there can be are two children: a small sad boy and a bright cynical girl. In the camp, Huck sleeps on the left, Molly sleeps on the right, Toby sleeps in the middle and gives his warmth to the two children. The boy curls into his side, twisting and whimpering like nothing so much as a small, lost dog and Toby strokes his hair, unconsciously, like a reflex. The girl turns on her side, her back to him and her narrow hips pressed up against his thigh and Toby, with his arm bent up, lets his fingers touch her hair gently, not to wake her as she sleeps. They are all that matters now. When they came to take Molly to the Women's Side, Toby almost killed the guard to keep her; blows like stone against the man's back and a wet snap of wrist and a spitting out of teeth. And when he came back from the hole of pain they put him in, she was still there, holding Huck's hand, and when he smiled at her, she did not cry. Huck he keeps closer; the boy is an extension of himself. If he falls or coughs, if he is beaten or falls asleep shaking, Toby's body feels it harder. They stay close beside, father and son, and if ever one is seen without the other someone will ask: where's your twin? and laugh, with wide ugly mouths. And Huck will lower his head and blush, and Toby will shove his hands deeper into his pockets and walk by, quickly. At night they are twisted like the wire with need and love and neither of them would change it, even if they could.

Molly is the child of the light; Huck is the child of the night. The girl has managed to grow in this place and she still dances, a little, in the sun smattered at her feet. She has learned to bargain and to coax and she can manipulate the world because her eyes still sparkle, dazzling and distracting. The boy has grown smaller instead of taller and sings instead of dancing, in corners and by the fence, where he thinks no-one can hear him. Toby hears him. He thought it was birds singing the first time and wondered where there were birds hiding in the middle of the camp, lying on his back in their daylight bed and staring at the roof. He closed his eyes and followed the noise, expecting to be lifted upwards, into the rafters, above the barracks. He was not. The small rich sound was by the door, on the threshold; his son, singing to the night that will never come. Now he sings more in the daylight months and quietens in the night and Toby falls asleep with Huck's voice twisting words in his mind, bringing some dark peace to the endless day.

Toby has lost track of himself and no longer quite understands what it means to be Toby Ziegler, or to have a name at all. In the camps they have names, not numbers - because this is all for your own safety, all for the good of a humanity finally going all the way to the end - but identity is formed in just the same ways as in those old camps, and he is too old for this place and for these children who seem to believe in his invincibility as they once believed in God, a long time ago. But Toby knows better; he knows he is dying.

The heat is too much; the air seems to get thicker each day and each day it is harder to breathe, harder to move and when they sleep, after the sounding of the alarm for the end of Last Hour, Toby lies on his back and tries to decide if the pain in his chest is greater or lesser, or exactly the same, as it was last night. Sometimes he dreams that there is a great weight placed on his chest, pressing down on his ribs, and wakes with a huge intake of breathe, shattering in his lungs and ending in a cough which echoes in the room. Sometimes on waking he finds that Huck's head has strayed over his ribs and the boy's slightness has grown heavier in sleep and Toby has to slip his hands over his son's shoulders and shift him back under the crook of his arm; and sometimes there is nothing but emptiness and the not-quite-darkness and his two children sleeping, unaware.

In the camp there is nothing but day, endless day at this time of year and yet they are still not far enough North; there has been no snow this year, just dull red skies which promised without delivering. It is getting warmer and everyone walks past the temperature gauges without looking, as though denial of the readings will render some kind of escape possible, even if it is only in their heads. Toby makes a point of looking at First Hour every day, memorising the numbers and only erasing them in sleep. He enjoys his perversity, if such it is.

Toby doesn't want to die here, with the grey dregs of humanity and their sun-bleached eyes which never seem to see the wire anymore, just as they will not look at the gauge. He imagines a place, somewhere with snow and a clear sky which is not red with sunlight. He doesn't know if such a place now exists anywhere on this earth but the idea of death and sleep here in this camp, so full of dust already, makes him sick with fear. That his children should die here is something he will not accept. If they are to die as die they must, they will die free. And part of Toby is surprised that he can still manage such strong principles, when all principles have ever brought in the last seven years is the slow erosion of hope and a weariness that, if he was alone, would already have killed him. But for them, with them, he still wants to be free.

*

The hole in the fence is not a miracle, only an oversight. It is buried close behind an overgrowth of bush, which is why it has not been seen by anyone but those detailed to work in the scrubland near the boundary fence. But the work is not so much boring as it is mind-crushing and there is not much more to notice, so they think, than the greyish-yellow sandy earth and the poor rocks, and the fence. It has a sign on it which warns about electrocution at some unthinkable number of volts. It is a lie. All there is to the fence is a little wire, some barbs, a few wooden struts. There is nothing to the fence as there is nothing to the camp. That there is nothing outside either is what keeps the guards from worrying too much.

Toby notices the hole first, he thinks. But when he whispers about it to them in bed at night, Molly turns towards him and whispers back, "I know". And he gazes at her, smiling, unable to help it. She is a wonder and her eyes shine with a smile too.

He steals some paper; Molly makes up a scratchy iron nib and whittles down a small fallen tree branch to pen size. The ink they make is watery and Toby needs to write over everything twice, to make sure it sticks. But soon there is a map, and a plan and Toby, who feels better merely because he has formed words and images on a piece of paper, starts to think about hope for the first time in years. Huck runs his forefinger over the plan, over the gates and the path where the wire runs and Toby watches him, looks at his face and smiles.

"Do you see, Huck?"

But the boy shakes his head. "No."

Molly rests her head on her brother's shoulder. "Don't worry. I do."

And that is that; a strange triumvirate and a plan made with silence. Molly is grinning and goes out to dance, just before the alarm sounds.

*

"Molly?"

She says nothing. She looks like she is sleeping, with her back turned, curled up against the sun.

"Mol?"

Huck nudges her back with the knuckles of his left hand.

"Look, you have to get up. Or cough up some blood or something. Do something. It's not safe, lying there. They don't need any excuses to take you away."

"Go away, Huck."

"Are you sick?"

"Do I look well?"

"I can't see your face."

She turns round, and sticks out her tongue at him. "I'm sick, Huck. Go away."

"Please, Mol."

"I'm tired."

"You don't look sick enough."

"Jesus."

"Seriously, Mol. Couldn't you make yourself throw up or something?"

"Huck. Go away. Now."

"Okay. Get shot then. Fuck you."

"Go away."

He kisses the back of her head softly. "I won't cry," he says, and leaves the room.

"Where's your sister?" Toby asks, out in the yard.

"Sick, she says."

Toby frowns. He puts his hand on Huck's shoulder and whispers, "Stay here," and goes back inside with quick, silent steps.

*

Her forehead is clammy, slick with sweat. Toby strokes the hair back from her eyes and tries to smile. She opens her eyes.

"Hey."

"Hey, dad."

"Hey, baby."

"I don't feel so good."

"I know."

"I'm tired."

"I know. Go back to sleep."

"You won't go?"

"No, sweetheart. I won't go."

Molly closes her eyes and Toby lays his hand, terribly still, over her forehead, and waits. He starts crying around midnight, with the sun still visible in traces and her eyes still closed.

2. Escape

{ love at first sight may sound trite but it's true you know }

They wait, but she does not come.

Toby puts his arms around his remaining child and doesn't understand why he is not crying. Toby is weeping, with his head buried in Huck's shoulder and the boy is whispering shhhh with a steady voice and stroking what is left of his father's hair. Toby concentrates on the warm, thin body in his arms, on what he thinks is his son's trust, on the smell of Huck's hair and the start of a beard on his boy's cheek. Huck starts to rock them, gently, back and forth and Toby thinks: if this is the only time, he can cry.

Huck doesn't want to cry until he knows she is dead, and he doesn't know any such thing. They left without her and she did not come, but they left the map; she knows the way. Yet he feels as though crying will make it so, that his tears will create some truth in what his father believes. He won't cry for his sister; he promised.

But Toby is weeping, tired and torn, coughing and wheezing in that way that Huck hates, that frightens him so much. The sound of rasping breath is sharp against his own chest, though he is trying to hide it with his body and deny that it is even there. But if this is the only time, he can be strong. He keeps his arms wrapped tightly round his father's neck and find he can be still where there is sadness and be the one who bears the need, instead of the one who makes it. He holds Toby, and does not cry.

*

The last city of the North is empty now. No longer cold and covered in snow the streets only look dirty and desolate, as though they bear humanity a deadly grudge as the price for their abandonment. Toby, who remembers two great cities better than this one ever was, find the whole aspect dully depressing, like grey rain on a Sunday afternoon; Huck is enraptured - tapping the worn soles of his shoes against the sidewalk and tilting his head back to find the roofs of buildings taller than he thinks he has ever seen. Toby doesn't like to remind him that he has walked over the Brooklyn Bridge and stood in the shadow of the Washington Monument, because those memories are only stories to him; Toby doesn't think he believes in them anymore.

"Is this Canada, dad?"

"Yes."

"So how come we're here?"

"We invaded. You won't remember."

"Oh. Okay."

"They -- we were going for the Alaska road. And the Canadians closed the borders. Which in retrospect was quite stupid of them."

"The Americans killed them?"

The Americans, Toby thinks. Huck, where did you go? He clears his throat and manages, "We did. Y-yes."

"How old was I?"

"Seven or eight. You don't remember."

"No."

"You didn't miss anything," Toby says, under his breath.

"What happened to Alaska?"

"Flooding. Mass panic. Bombs. You name it. Surprising how a global catastrophe can mess with with cultural stereotypes."

"Huh?"

"Don't worry about it, son."

"So there's no one here now?"

Toby looks around them, at the too-bright street, smelling the incessant melt-and-set cycle of the concrete, at the universal emptiness which Huck has mistaken for peace. He sighs. "I don't think so. For our sake I hope not."

"Why?"

"Think about it: do you really want to meet the kind of people who've lived here since Dawning? All by themselves with nothing to eat but each other? Do you?"

"Why are you angry, dad?"

"I'm not angry, just frightened."

"Don't be frightened, dad."

Huck takes hold of Toby's hand; Toby smiles. "Will you protect me then?" he asks, with one eyebrow raised.

"Yes." Huck isn't smiling.

"We haven't even got a gun."

"Are you going to make a joke about the ... National R-rifle Association now?"

"Well remembered but no."

"I will protect you."

Toby would laugh, but the light in his eyes is deadly. He tilts his head to kiss Huck's cheek. Out here in the street it doesn't seem to matter anymore: the boy is all there is and he is all that matters and it won't be his life which is given up in protection, even if it is the last piece of order Toby can salvage in this broken, battered world. Toby hugs him impulsively and Huck laughs, in a little gulp, against his cheek. The first laugh for a long time, it echoes in the street. Toby looks at him, gazes at him, with one hand on his shoulder and Huck gazes back, then hides his face in Toby's shoulder.

"Come on, kid. We need to keep moving."

There are still stores, malls probably but Toby won't allow Huck to even think about going to those; if there are any Living here they will have made the mall into a den, and Toby does not want to be taken there. He finds Main Street by the street signs which look and sound so anachronistic - Broadway is a cratered scar of concrete and rubble, Maple Street grey and lifeless even in the bright sun. He holds Huck's hand tightly as they come to the first door, which has long come loose from its hinges and falls to the floor as Toby pushes at it with his elbow.

"Is it safe?"

"Shhh."

It is safe: empty of everything, including supplies. Huck pokes around in the mess even so. Toby, busy looking for blankets and coats (having started to hope that where they're going they will actually be needing such things), lets him be. When he has exhausted the parts of the building which look safe he turns to look for the boy and finds him sitting cross-legged on the floor, in the dirt, with his own finds in his hands. It is books he finds, buried with rats and the gradual fall of the ceiling plaster, books upon books, making Toby wonder how they got here.

There is a dictionary, a thesaurus, a copy of the old Constitution. Toby touches them like old friends and watches them crumble as he does so. The past erases itself in front of his eyes - mouldering paper and rotten covers and mildew and teeth marks and smudged print obscure words that Toby once knew by heart. He doesn't remember them so well now. There is poetry - Sexton, Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, and a Bible. This is takes out of Huck's hands and strokes with his thumb. Not his own, not even his own holy book, but he wants to be near it, just for a moment.

"Was this a writer's house do you think?" Huck asks.

"Maybe ... afterwards."

"Yeah."

"I'm surprised they weren't burnt."

Huck frowns and Toby manages a smile: this much he has managed to give his son - burning books is one of the worst sins of all, even at the end of the world.

"Can we take them?"

"No, Huck."

"I'll carry them, dad."

"You won't be able to carry all these, kid, there are thirty books here. At least."

"Not all of them."

"Huck ... "

"Please, dad. Just one, if you want."

"Which one then?"

"You choose."

Toby frowns at him. "It's your thing, Huck."

"You choose. I want you to choose. I don't mind."

"Do any of them have blank pages?"

Huck leafs through the books in his hands, looking a little lost in all the paper coming loose from spines and covers. "Not really."

"Which is the thickest?"

"The ... Bible."

Toby shrugs. "The Bible it is."

"Dad ... "

"It doesn't matter so much now, does it?"

"Doesn't it matter more?"

"We'll see."

Huck looks sceptical.

"You wanted a book, son. That's the one. Come on - we have to look for food. And possibly a backpack."

*

Toby thanks God for tinned food and preservatives. Even after this long there are still tins on the shelves, even a storehouse in the middle of what must once have been a refuge from winter, still quite full or at the least better than he had hoped for. That he has no idea where they're going nor how long it will take to get there and consequently no idea how much food they will need to carry with them, is something he is trying hard not to think about, not for the moment. The weight of the gun is strange against his hipbone but Toby finds his hand goes to it more and more, when the rotten wood of the city creaks in the wind. He would worry for his principles, but is more concerned about the half empty clip which was the only one he could find.

He does find Huck his new shoes and makes him take a coat against his protests about the heat - where we're going, he says, you might need a coat. They find one huge camping backpack which is as tall as the length of Toby's spine and which will most likely make heavy work for Huck when it is his turn to wear it; he is not yet within four inches of his father's height, but they decide to take turns, even so. Toby tears up strips of clothing and of drab curtains and winds them gently around Huck's hands in place of the gloves he hopes they will need once they make it further north. The boy's hands are callused from the labour in the camp but to Toby they still feel tender; much too soft. Afterwards Huck sits quietly and lets Toby hold his bandaged hands, looking down at the floor between them.

"Okay?" Toby asks, quietly.

"Yeah."

"What are you thinking?"

"Nothing."

"Huck."

"That ... that your hands look old."

Toby smiles, lifts the hands in his own up to his mouth and kisses them. "They are."

"Dad ... "

"I'm never going to leave you," Toby says, distinctly. The promise echoes a little in the small storehouse.

"I wouldn't want to ... I mean, I don't think I could."

"You won't have to."

Huck looks up from the floor and Toby smiles at him, but the boy does not smile back. His eyes are dark in the small light which enters through the open storehouse door and falls on his face. Fear is black and knowing in his face. And since it is not a nightmare Toby cannot say 'go to sleep, son; it'll be better tomorrow'. He squeezes Huck's hands gently. They rest, for as many hours as he needs, and Huck sleeps with his head pushed tight up to Toby's chest and his bandaged hands holding fast to Toby's shirt. He cries out a little in his sleep. It is a long time before Toby closes his eyes.

*

The streets of the last city are, comparatively speaking, pleasant to walk in. Toby spends the first few days looking for the wire and the next few looking for any flashes of life, with his hand on the pistol which is shoved inside his belt. But he sees nothing. It is quiet and the wind whistles across the sidewalks. Huck's feet tap continue to tap against the concrete and the boy hums under his breath and, when he is walking ahead, Toby can pick out the red in his black hair with the sun behind it.

It is, he supposes, a consequence of having lived in the camp for so long that the city, not large by the old standards, seems like another country. Main Street and its tributaries wind through the wind and ahead of them, at the distant edge of the road, are mountains and they have white summits and mist curls there. Toby finds the end of this road inviting - the country he has dreamed of, covered in snow; he thinks Huck finds it strange, if beautiful. He thinks Huck would rather stay in the broken city because he is afraid of what he does not know. So Toby lets them slow the pace a little. The city is empty and dead and the mountain does not yet call to his son.

The movie house is empty. It is at the corner of a block and it still has its outer facade, all intact and towering (so it seems to them) at least a mile into the air. Huck stands outside on the street with his head tilted back as far as it will go, gazing up. Toby hears him, almost chanting, wow, under his breath and grins. He stands behind the boy with his arms around Huck's waist and whispers close to his ear,

"Shall we go inside?"

Huck turns and his sun-struck eyes seem pale and too wide. "Can we?"

"It's probably empty. It's shelter."

"Could we live there?"

Toby smiles. "Maybe. For a while."

Huck smiles. "For a while," he says, and nods.

Toby bends close to him, kisses him; can't help it. In the middle of destruction, his son's body still moves him to joy - small shoulders and sharp shoulderblades digging into Toby's chest, the complete, almost complacent ease with which Huck allows himself to be held by his father; trust, entire. It never fails to astonish Toby, as though he does not quite believe it could ever be his to have and hold, though Huck has never been anything else. He kisses the boy's cheek again and releases him from his arms.

"Come on. You hold the torch, okay?"

"Okay."

It is empty, though was not always so. The stench is bad on the lower levels and hits them as they are a few steps into the foyer - a huge dark wave of nausea holding them round the neck. Huck throws up in a corner with a sudden sweat on his forehead. Toby holds his hand as they go further, whispering, "Just a little further, kid, just a little". Huck walks past the bodies, which are dry rotten and no longer dangerous so long as they don't go too close. The boy doesn't look; Toby does, and wishes he hadn't. The corpses seem to be gathered in one area, the lower ground floor, near what was once Screen 6. Toby wonders, briefly, why they should have such a precise place, then decides it is like looking at the bodies at all; best not to. Huck, with his face turned slightly in towards Toby's chest, has the right idea. The main thing is to go up.

The staircase is old-fashioned, almost baroque - towering and majestic and better suited to the best palaces and places of government than a movie house in the a backwater town in what was once Canada. Huck continues to mutter wow under his breath and Toby leads him up gently, letting his fingers linger on the gold leaf still left on the fixtures, still beautiful now that it no longer has any other value. He tugs on the boy's hand - c'mon, there's more up here. There is. At the head of the staircase, on the second level, there is a huge window which still has most of its glass. This window is another misplaced relic. It reminds Toby of the stained glass windows of his synagogue, their synagogue, which Huck will not remember and Toby can barely make himself believe existed in anything other than the story of his old life, as good now as plain fiction. Yet they both stand and stare at it as though they remember, as though the colours of art and entertainment are echoing somewhere within them, against the too-bright sun of a midday sky.

"You like it?"

"It's ... beautiful." Huck says the word carefully, with the embarrassment of its meaning, as though it is heavy on his tongue. And, for a moment, seems like any fifteen year old boy, in any plain time.

"It is."

"Can we stay?"

"Yes."

"For a while?"

"For a little while."

"Alright."

"There's another screen through there," Toby says, pointing to the last set of double doors in the building. "You got the torch?"

"Yes, dad."

"Okay. Let's see."

It is empty, truly empty, and smells of nothing but dust and long neglect and the burning sun on black walls and black drapery. Huck shines the torch up to the ceiling and the light flickers as the too-old batteries come loose from their points. The boy's breath echoes as he inhales sharply. Toby keeps his hand resting warmly on the small of his back and whispers, "It's all right." In the ceiling there are what look like a million small one-bulb lights, their glass shining against the artificial light of Huck's torch, recognising a cousin. If they were lit up, Huck says softly, they'd be like the stars, dad. And Toby nods in the dark. Neither of them have seen stars for much too long and though it seems perverse to have rediscovered them on the ceiling of the last screen in a broken-down movie house, Toby is glad his son remembers.

They find seats near the back, as though they were going together to a show, like they used to. Like Huck probably doesn't remember. The boy, suddenly tired like a child, rests his head on Toby's shoulder and continues to point the torch upwards towards the ceiling, finding new patterns of light with each swoop. Toby lets him be for a while, then covers his hands and flicks the switch to off.

"The batteries will die."

"It's okay."

"You don't mind the dark?"

"No. I like the dark."

"I know what you mean."

The screen is blank, of course, and the curtain which should cover it is tattered and pulled away in the left corner, falling onto the platform. The screen is a different kind of black, refractive, catching and throwing out the small sliver of light which comes in through the centre gap in the double doors at the back of the room. The screen seems to glow, as though it will come to life.

Huck starts naming movies, whispering them into the silent darkness. Not like a mantra, or like comfort against the artificial night which does not frighten him, only like a simple list. He sounds almost happy. Toby thinks he can only have seen half of the films he can remember by name: Brazil, Brief Encounter, Schindler's List, The English Patient, Harvey, From Here to Eternity, American Beauty.

Toby whispers into his hair, "Can you name all the Best Picture winners back to the year you were born?"

Huck shakes his head against Toby's chest. "No."

"Good boy."

He thinks Huck smiles. He hugs him closer.

*

Screen 3 of the Oak Street Picturehouse becomes home for perhaps a month. The small storehouse is a treasure cave when there are only two people in the world who need to plunder it and Toby makes its stock last. Of all the things he plunders - better than tinned peaches and the thick black coat which does not, despite all logic, smell at all musty and is big enough to cover Huck when he is asleep - it is the small store of blank, or mostly blank, notebooks which Toby comes to value highest.

They are narrow in width and thick, with an fabric-covered elastic band built into the back cover. They are black, with cream pages, only slightly yellowed by age and neglect. In some there is writing, but only a very little. Scattered scribbling in handwriting which Toby cannot always make out. For a while he thinks it is a diary or a commonplace book because of the dates and the small stories and names out of context, only none of the dates are ordered and the names are always coupled with verbs in the past tense. As he continues to read the only one of the four or five books which is more than a few pages full Toby begins to have other ideas about the author. He imagines a man (always a man; the writing is too untidy for any woman) about his own age, not highly educated but curious, thoughtful and sad. He imagines this man in the bunker, in the storehouse, watching his world disintegrate and disappear, trying to salvage a little of what makes sense with this list - of names, of places, of days he remembers, of things he said and things he heard said; now gone. It is a book of the dead, and Toby keeps it, close to his chest, and never tells Huck about it.

He doesn't keep his own writing secret though, and that he starts during the good time at the Picturehouse, in the coloured light coming through the stained glass window, with Huck at his side. He is surprised that he has the energy, but not at the inclination. Putting one word after another has been his life for too long to leave it now, even when there is so little left to say; with no-one to read it. And for a time it helps, for a while it makes him stronger.

One night, which seems darker than the ones which preceded it - it is actually dark if not black-dark, Huck hears a rustling, and then a scrabbling at the window, out in the grey night. From three floors up Toby's first thought is that Huck's imagination, with nothing to feed it anymore but the horror all around him, has got the better of him. But the city is so quiet, absolutely silent but for their breathing. He thinks he can hear Huck's heart beating hard with fear. The scrabbling comes again and this time Toby hears it too - the sound of someone pushing at the barricade he put up behind the front door.

"Dad?"

"Shhh. Go inside. Go right to the front and under the seats on the left, against the wall, okay? Go under the seats. Wait for me. Don't use the torch."

"Dad -- "

"Go on. I'll be right behind you."

Huck's eyes are luminous, it seems to Toby, and yet as black with fear as he has ever seen them. He squeezes the boy's hand, then pushes him towards Screen 3, with one finger over his lips. Huck goes, silently. The screen room in which they have been living has its entrance to the back of the seats and the screen, before which they have slept and eaten, is right at the far end of this room, half obscured by the seating and the low wall which guards the backs of the last row before the door. Toby hopes that the small length of the room will be enough, that Huck's body is still small enough to be invisible.

Toby goes to stand at the head of the stairs with the pistol in his hands, one for the trigger, one under the butt. Though it is stupid he wishes he had the torch, he wishes he could see better.

The scrabbling continues, like a small whirlwind blowing through the building. And Toby thinks, in the crowded darkness: if they get past the foyer, if they get past the corpses, they mean business; they mean to find us. He only half believes his fears - he has not only never seen even a trace of life out in the city and though in the camps the stories were told and spread and endorsed as truth, that was the camps and nothing there was ever entirely true. But the noise progresses. It sounds increasingly like footsteps, like heavy, savage breathing, like the occasional fist thrown against doors and walls. It sounds at least half animal.

He waits until the night gets too heavy, until there are only two doors between the last flight of stairs and the scrabbling. Then he steps away, slowly, carefully, with his back against the darkness and the gun pointed towards the stairs. He backs towards the door of Screen 3, ducks inside and stands with his left hand holding the doors shut by their small, inadequate handles. He plays with the idea of finding something to shove through them, something to make a second line of defence but rejects the idea. If one door seems more closed than the rest, that is the door which will be broken down, just to see what's inside.

Toby gives a low whistle and hopes that it is low enough. He walks as quickly as the maintenance of silence will allow and finds Huck under the seats. There is a small gap between the last seat on the left and the wall. Huck has wedged himself into this gap, a few rows up from the front. The boy grabs hold of his sleeve and Toby wants to comfort him, wants to whisper to him, but dare not. He tries to make his body smaller, tries to fit into the same space as the boy but cannot, quite. He hopes to god that they don't have torches, if they come.

Huck's breathing gets more and more shallow. He is shivering with fear. Toby holds his hand in his own left and the pistol in his right.

They hear it - a low, light scratching of movement where there should be no movement. There is a loud push against the door which sounds like thunder in Toby's ears. The door opens with a creak; Huck swallows, and Toby lets go of the boy's hand and slips it over his mouth instead.

The steps sound tired. They make a desultory sortie down the centre aisle. They kick against the seats, down the first row, the second, the third. Huck's breath tightens under Toby's palm. The body sighs, sounding so weary, and the footsteps turn and open the double doors again, wide as a chasm, throwing grey light - the start of dawn - a few inches into the doorway and the body standing under the lintel into frayed silhouette.

Toby shoots. There is a searing, nightmarish scream which dissolves into pitiful bubbling moans, and then silence. Toby removes his hand from over his son's mouth.

"Dad?"

"Shhh."

"Dad ... "

"I have to go up there now. I need to see if there are any others."

"Okay."

"Wait for me."

"Yes, dad."

Toby looks at him, stares at where the reproach is in his son's eyes, if he could only see it in the darkness. Toby passes a finger down Huck's cheek. The boy does not flinch, but neither does he move towards the touch.

"Stay here."

The walk to the head of the room, up into the light, is one of the longest Toby has taken in his life, comparable with mournful trips over what was then the Brooklyn Bridge in the absence of his father and with the walk of a hundred or so feet between the room with rounded walls and the front door of a house no longer White, never to return. His hands are shaking, but he makes his steps obey.

The thing is dead. He pokes at it with the toe of his boot and all that results is a slight bubbling of blood at the mouth of the corpse. It was a man, Toby thinks, maybe just an ordinary man, if such a thing exists anymore. He kneels down beside the body and looks at the tangled beard and twisted face, at the death he wrote on his man's face and is amazed he does not feel more than this slight numbness around his lips and the distant need to cough and clear his throat. He even wonders if this poor thing was once the man who lived in their bunker and it doesn't touch him, doesn't make an ache in his chest. His chest is full up with Huck's face and the thinness of his wrist inside Toby's fingers and the ache of fear in his son's breathing and the red demand: kill.

He closes the guy's eyes with the heel of his hand and begins to heft the body out of the doorway, allowing it to close on the darkness behind him and raises his head into the light.

At the head of the stairs, which can be seen from their door, there is a face.

When he tries to remember it afterwards, Toby can't fix on details - he doesn't know that the eyes were a brown like strong tea or that the belly was so full of hunger it was starting to strain against the shirt and sweater full of holes or that the companion was fifteen years old come the spring time - all he knows is a sharp intake of breath as he raises his arms against the running thing, and then pain, huge bursting pain in his face and his chest and his belly, flowering like lightning in a dark sky all through his body. He knows he cries out and knows it will be enough to make Huck come out of the dark. He falls against the floor with his arms above his face and fights to stay conscious, but cannot, and falls into darkness just as he is sure his only child is coming through the double doors.

*

3. Conversations With Death

{ there never need be longing in your eyes as long as the hand that rocks the cradle is mine }

Death walks close to Huck. Toby can see him some days, a shadow in the boy's steps. And since he let the shadow into their lives, Toby thinks he walks a little closer to the boy than he did before. Though, Toby supposes, it's possible that all he thinks he is seeing is just indication of his own proximity to the blessed end. He doesn't know which option he would prefer.

Screen 3 of the last movie house in the last city of the north did not see any more death that night. Huck says he opened the doors and came forward into the three or four steps which separated Toby's limp body from the entrance to the room. He says he saw the companion - the boy, or the other boy, as Huck insists on calling him - looked into his eyes. From Huck's word Toby takes the knowledge that these were eyes of a gentle brown, like strong tea without milk; it is even Huck's simile. He says that they were kind eyes, just a little crazy, dad. Yeah, pretty crazy, Toby thinks, trying to ignore whichever part of him it is giving him pain at this time. The other boy kicked in two of his ribs and broke a finger, the left index. He was, apparently, just about to start on Toby's face - for the eyes first, no doubt - when Huck came into the scene.

Huck says that their eyes met, and that there was some kind of understanding; something unspoken. Not hate between the murderer's boy and the murdered one's son, but he's my dad, couldn't you please stop?

And, like a miracle, because Huck is as scrawny as that boy was and though his shoulders are pretty broad and there is a masculine heft to his torso which disappears as soon as his coat is off, his bulk wouldn't fool anyone, yet the other boy disappears. Huck's story ends with the kid running away, down the stairs, falling a little as he got to the bottom and then bursting through the main doors and fleeing, off towards the south of the city; the opposite direction to the one in which they are now headed. Huck says he watched at the window, but the boy was gone.

Huck feels sorry for this other boy, that much seems clear. Toby still sees reproach in his eyes, just a small shadow, where once there was nothing but light. And what would you have done, Toby thinks, if he had finished the job he started on me?

After that night, understandably enough, Toby decides that they must leave the Picturehouse and its shadows of death. He lets Huck help him up from the floor and lies a few hours in the semi-darkness of Screen 6 with its doors closed, with his boy beside him, in a dream about pain. He cannot breathe well and his chest feels like it has swelled up to past twice its usual size, yet he cannot cough to clear the blockage which prevents oxygen from going right to the corners of his lungs, because it hurts far too much. He lets Huck sit with him, cover his brow every now and then with a damp, cool cloth as he has seen done in movies he cannot remember the titles of. Toby wants to keep him close, gets antsy whenever Huck leaves his direct line of sight. But the boy is calm, melancholy almost, as though something important has come and gone in his life without so much as goodbye. Toby reaches out for his hand in the night and finds his son curled against his body, a few inches between his breath and the swollen pain of his ribs, just as he always is.

As soon as Toby can walk, three days, perhaps four, they leave the Picturehouse for good. Huck is sorry to leave it, Toby not sorry at all. The boy turns and looks at it a couple of times as they walk away, wistful in his eyes and his steps lagging a little behind Toby's. Eventually Toby takes hold of his hand and pulls him forward, wincing with the pain this extra effort causes.

"You stay up here with me," he says, in a voice he hardly recognises.

"Yes, dad."

"Come on, kid," he says, softer. "We have to keep moving."

"Just for a little. That's what you said."

"I did. It's been a little, I think."

"Yeah."

"Did you count the days?"

"No, dad."

"I meant to count them. I forgot."

"It's okay."

"I'm sorry, Huck."

He isn't sure what he's apologising for: the steps which take them away from the only place in seven years which has seen his son happy, or the blood stain which now decorates the threshold of their small ex-home or the brown eyes of the boy Huck will never speak to now or the exploding sun, heavy on their backs. Toby doesn't know anymore, only that this is his son to be keep safe and close, and he is all that matters now.

"It's okay, dad," he says, taking hold of Toby's hand as they walk.

Now death seems to walk always with them, as the shadows get long under Huck's feet, grabbing at the scuffed heels of his wrecked boots and separating Toby's steps from those of the boy. Now he seems to remember more often that the boy who seems not to be growing any taller under his care is not a intensely thoughtful and perhaps a little strange nine year old, nor a twelve year old, coming up to puberty and reacting against his as Huck does against most things - by being completely the opposite of the norm, but a fifteen year old young man, with stubble on his upper lip and chin, which he thankfully inherited from his mother and not his father, though his beard is growing as black as Toby's once was.

He holds Toby's hand as they walk, his fifteen year old self cuddles up as close to Toby's chest as his two year old self ever did though now his hips are bony protrusions in Toby's thigh and sometimes the hardness he wakes up beside is of a different kind. He wonders if this closeness, this persistent ache in them both, would have survived the real world, the world before. If believing that it would have makes him a fool, Toby doesn't care.

He would say, would be saying to anyone who would listen, if the world was still as it was: this is a special boy and be wondering if he was saying it to make himself feel better. Now that there are so many strange things at the remnant of the world and now that there will be no-one else for either of them, no new lives made of love or friendship to break up their orbit of each other, now that 'love' means the pull of his son's fingers in his hand and listening in the not-dark night to be certain that his heart is still beating and catching sight of his face against the too-bright sky and losing his breath for a moment - finding in this child all the beauty of a world now missing, now that these are the truths in Toby's hands, nothing murmured in his heart in the time before seems to matter. He and his child, the long road and death. These are things which are left.

Now death walks with them too. He is present in Toby's hands, in his broken hand and the one which did the breaking, in the tightening of his chest which never seems to get better, only worse. He is there in Huck's eyes and in Toby's heart when he begins to wonder if something between them has changed, something he can do nothing about, not now.

*

He takes them north. It is a strange journey, as though the desert of the world is giving way, piece by piece, to a mountain-side wilderness of snow with no land in between to make the change easier on their eyes. For the first time in a long time they are glad of the sun, which seems further away now than it has for seven years. Huck turns round and walks backwards to keep his eyes on it for longer. Toby pulls him forward, noting how cold his hands are, that his lips are slightly blue towards the edges.

They have only the food they could carry away from the storehouse on their last visit. Toby guards the slightly rusty can opener as their most treasured possession after the gun. Huck wears a rucksack which still seems too big for him in Toby's eyes, butting up against the round of his skull and rubbing a permanent pink mark on the back of his neck. He carries the incongruous Bible, the water, whatever food he can, blankets. Increasingly he wears the thick black coat rather than carry it and when night comes, even lighter up here than they have been further south, Huck shivers underneath it. Toby carries the rest of the food - cans and bottles, a knife he found in a house on the border and the smooth stone he uses to keep it sharp, the gun, the torch and its batteries, a rope he picked up in the city, a can of petrol which makes the inside of his backpack smell foul, matches, a cigarette lighter, the notebooks and the ragged, half-empty collection of pens which he has found on the road - fuller of dust than of ink and scuffed on concrete but precious to Toby, who hopes the ink will never run out.

He runs an inventory of these things in his head: knife, gun, cans, books, Huck. Every night as he falls asleep, and every morning as he wakes, though now the distinction between morning and night means less and less and though the sun is colder, it is with them for longer hours. There is little cover against the snow and Toby walks, unconsciously, with his back bent towards the ground, as though hiding from someone as yet invisible.

Huck is happier in the snow. Though his lips quiver when he tries to speak and he clutches tight at Toby's shirtfront at night when they sleep, he smiles more often and some of the shadow between them seems to have lifted, here where no shadow can be seen. Yet sometimes, turning quickly, as streak in his peripheral vision, Toby thinks he can see the old footprints - when Huck's lips are blue and his hands won't be drawn out of fists even three inches from the fire - old footprints, black and filled with shadow. He walks close, sometimes; all the time.

In the south it is summer, the worst of summers. Even up here the snow is melting early and there are streams of clear, clean water running into their path. He dare not lead them back down yet, into the sun.

From the mountainside, covered in white, Toby can see movement in the broken settlements and ex-towns which cover what is left of the road between the last city and the beginning of the wilderness. At first it is a catch in the corner of his eye on clear mornings with the sun behind them, warming their backs in a way which is, unusually, not unpleasant. There are small blacknesses on the bare and dusty highway and near the buildings. They move slowly, it seems, like dust specks in his vision, and at first he is not sure that this is not all they are. He cannot see well and he dare not ask the boy, whose eyes are better than his, for fear of frightening him too much. He thinks perhaps Huck sees, or hears, for himself, but they needn't talk about it. Not yet.

Increasingly it is harder to ignore. The specks grow in number and congregate. When the wind is right there are echoes which might be high, violent voices, or gunshots. One night, the first dark one for a long time, Huck wakes him and points through the ragged mountain, down into the valley where burns a fire. One of the buildings is alight and the flames will last most of the following day. Huck stays awake and lies with his face close to Toby's sleeve, watching, shivering.

"Who are they, dad?"

"I don't know."

"Good guys?"

"Probably not."

"Yeah. I didn't think so."

"I don't know why they had to burn that place down."

"You don't think it was the Picturehouse, do you?"

"No," Toby says, with his chin resting over the top of Huck's head. "No, you can't see that from here."

"How d'you know?"

"I just do."

"Okay."

"Okay."

"Does this mean we can't go back down, dad?"

Toby sighs. "For a little while."

"The last time you said that, didn't work out so well."

"Yeah, well. Maybe this time will be different."

"It's never different," Huck says, bowing his head low to the rock.

"Maybe it's just not been different yet."

"Maybe," Huck says. He does not sound convinced.

Huck sleeps, fitfully. Toby asks him lay his head on a pillow made of Toby's folded up coat but Huck protests, with anger covering his fear that he doesn't want to wake in the morning to find Toby covered in frostbite. They compromise: Huck wears his own coat and Toby wears his and the boy rests his head on the solid part of Toby's belly, still not quite past the point where hunger has eroded its ability to cushion small heads. Toby keeps both his hands over Huck's skull, to warm them and to stay the boy's waking, just a little longer. He stays awake, thinking.

He wonders what they are doing up here at all, dying in the cold instead of the sun, as if on vacation. A new death camp, a new march towards oblivion, as though the new direction will somehow fool Death into forgetting them. In the constant run from the sun, Toby thinks, there are no prizes for third, second or first place, only a postponement.

He wonders if he would rather die with the sun on his back or with the snow around his head or with the pistol in his mouth. He wonders if he could murder his son before someone else did - hold the gun to Huck's head, smash this skull which is even now in his hands before someone else did something worse. And he knows he couldn't. He has always known he couldn't.

When Huck wakes, in what ought to be the morning, he says,

"Did you sleep?"

"Yes. No. Not really."

"Do you think they'll find us?"

"I don't know."

"Don't be frightened, dad."

"Okay."

"Would they kill us?"

"Yes."

"And eat us?"

"Probably."

"They won't find us."

"No."

"I'm scared."

"Yes, I know. I am too."

"But dad ... ?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm glad it's you."

"Me too, kid."

*

There have comes times, Toby writes in the notebook, when all there is around us is hunger, pulling at us endlessly.

And even that, he thinks, is not a great sentence. He is much too hungry for it to make any difference of course, though a tiny reflex in him still produces the thought. He is hungry past the point of aesthetic consideration and the relative merits of sentences, or ought to be. Beside him Huck moans a little in his sleep. The boy is hungry too, starving too. He has not spoken for several days.

He has become an expert in the fine art of rationing, or so he likes to think when he is drunk on the fine light of the snow-slipped road. They are not yet dead, and so he must assume he is doing something right. It is one can, shared, a day; it is snow melted in the empty tin, boiled and cooled and held to Huck's lips even though he baulks at the taste, even now; it is Huck's eyes seeming always a little weaker, every day and his own legs refusing to go further up the mountain after only twenty minutes steady plod; it is wondering if they could plant that apple core or if they could eat the grass, in extremis.

The small can of petrol, old but still flammable, is running low. The matches are almost out. They cannot stay here without fire. It would have seemed unthinkable to be so cold half the year ago but now all there ever seems to have been is a world of ice blues and dazzling white, so cold that his body seems to be constricting, hiding away where there is still warmth.

Whose great idea was this? Toby asks himself. Whose ideas are going to kill him? Fix this.

"Will you stay here?" he says, trying to sound like a good father; like someone who knows what he's doing.

"Without you?"

"Yes."

Huck shakes his head. His eyes, made huge by hunger in his face, are wide and fearful.

"We can't go on like this, Huck. There's no food."

"There's no food down there either."

"There is."

"And ... danger."

"Yes, danger. But we can't eat the grass."

"What if you don't come back?"

"I will come back."

"Dad -- "

"I will come back. We're going to go up into that cleft up there tonight, see? You stay there, with what we've got left. With the gun, okay?"

"Dad ... "

"You keep the gun, I'll take the knife. It'll be ... a few days. Then I'll be back."

"How many days?"

"Three or four."

"It took two weeks to get up here. I counted the days."

"Quicker on the way down."

"Do you have to?"

"Do you want to starve?"

"No."

"Then I have to."

"Why can't I come?"

"It's too dangerous. Too hot. You're too weak."

"You're weak too."

"Maybe."

"What if you die?"

"I won't."

"But what if you did?"

"I won't."

"If they kill you, what happens to me?"

"Huck."

"What happens to me?"

"You keep walking. But they aren't going to kill me."

"They might."

"They won't."

"I don't want to walk by myself."

"You have to, son. You can't ... You can't stop."

"Why?"

"Because I'm asking you not to."

"But if you're ... "

"Promise me."

"Dad -- "

"Promise me, okay?"

"I promise."

"Good."

"Promise me you'll come back."

"I promise, Huck."

"Okay."

"Okay."

*

Huck waits, and it seems like months.

Toby makes his way down the mountain, and he never looks back. His steps are difficult, more than once he almost falls and Huck thinks he hears him cry out in pain, having scraped the skin from his hand or knees. But he still never looks back. Huck thinks he daren't; that if he looks back he will turn back and then they will both die up here, with nothing but cold to put in their bellies. Huck watches him until he is a black speck lost in the dust and his footsteps might be nothing but a trick of the light. He feels as though the sun has gone from the sky, as though he will never be warm again. He shivers, and puts his hand over the butt of the pistol, wedged inside the waistband of his pants.

The first night he doesn't dare to sleep. He imagines faces with red, hungry eyes appearing in the mouth of crevasse, coming at him in a rush with pain and a cruelty which seems incomprehensible; alien. He wants to switch on the torch but doesn't dare. Up here, even in the light night, a torch is a beacon and its light will not bring help. Dad said stay quiet and still and warm. Don't move. I'm coming back.

So Huck stays put. He hides. He disappears. When it snows, instead of making shelter with his coat and the blankets stuffing the entrance of the shallow cave-like hole in the mountainside, Huck lets the snow fall around him. Lets it cover his body and make a pillow for his head. It is surprisingly warm. He falls asleep.

He wakes with a jolt, with Toby's voice rasping in his ears, from far away: don't fall asleep in the snow - you promised me. There is melted snow in his mouth and ice crystals on his lips, his hair is frozen into strands. His fingers, disappeared into his fists, seem no longer part of his body. He cannot see any black at the fingertips but he still cannot flex them fifteen minutes after he starts blowing warm air over them. He gathers the coat, the blankets, dropping them more than once, and crawls for the cave mouth, out of the wind. There he falls asleep again, exhausted, near to death.

Wake up, Huck. Don't sleep. Wake up.

The second time is worse. His mouth hurts - burns where the snow has touched it. His lips are cracking and his fingers are crackling, as though they have been held over a fire which has no heat, yet still blazes in his skin. Huck sits in the cave mouth, legs crossed, trying to get his fingers to co-operate, trying to light the fire. The wood, the meagre brittle twigs which Toby collected down in the foothills, is almost out. It makes a tiny blaze, quivering like a candle-flame; every tendril waving so thin in the driving wind that Huck is sure will be the fire's last. Huck gets the Bible out of his backpack, opens and leafs through it with difficulty, wonders if he can bear to add it, or some of its pages to the fire. Only the New Testament, he thinks. I couldn't bear to burn the rest. Matthew through Luke goes on the fire and for a little, it burns more brightly. Huck falls asleep again.

When he wakes it is morning, or at any rate the sun is up again, high and huge in the sky. It does not seem so red up here, though sometimes the snow looks pink with its rays. One more day gone. He goes, stumbling and half blind from the ice crystals on his eyelashes, across his cheeks, out to the cliff face and looks over. There are no specks at all. No burning, no movement. And amid the snow, he has lost the path Toby took. He no longer knows where he should be looking. As the night comes, a few hours without the white snow burning out his eyes, he is still looking, and still lost.

These long nights alone are when the songs first come back to him. There is not much left in his heart: cold so cold can't wake up and please come back please come back but there are songs. They are soundless now because he has no voice left to sing with. It has been days, maybe weeks since he spoke and nothing but melted snow to make his voice slip any easier in his throat. So the songs gather in his chest, swelling out his heart with phrases he repeats over and over: sunbright snow; rain-wet tears; long-suffering man and his silent son; seven days passed, and on the eighth day he returned. The words anchor him and the songs, giving shape and story, making it all seem a little less awful, a little easier to sleep.

He wakes murmuring them under his breath. They grow and start to breathe themselves. They keep him warm. They bring down the day and keep away the snow. He cannot remember the shape of the letters which ought to make up the songs but he instead there are pictures, clear as his hand in front of his face. He puts his fingers to his mouth and tries to remember, or conjure, the shape his lips make when they sing the words; closes his eyes and memorises, like some kind of recompense.

The song takes three days to recite entirely. Huck falls asleep, or faints, or breaks off to light and put out the fire, to melt the snow for water, to eat what little is left of the food.

please come back soon

He has sung it twice, he thinks, to himself. He is just beginning it again on the day when he sleeps the whole sun through and wakes, shivering and scared, in the middle of the cliff face, expecting to see those red eyes, those teeth. There is nothing. He crawls to the cave mouth and lies in the coat and blanket. He tears out the rest of the New Testament and feeds it to the fire. He falls asleep with words on his lips.

And when he wakes up there is a tall, thin shape standing over him. It opens its mouth and says his name and for a moment, a small moment where he remembers safety and warmth, he thinks it is Death, come to take him away. But it is his father, gentle hands and a voice which hums in Huck's throat like love.

"Dad?"

"Hey, kid."

"You didn't die?"

"No. I'm right here."

Huck coughs, tries to clear his throat. "Don't do that again," he says, forcing the words out, thinking that he doesn't recognise his own voice.

"I won't. I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

Huck thinks he is crying and the tears are like hot rain on his neck and face. He looks up into Toby's eyes and does not remember all that he sees there - new horror in his father's face, new secrets which Huck can guess at easily enough, new distance which will never be closed.

"I didn't die either?" he asks, into Toby's neck.

"No, sweetheart."

"I wish I had," Huck whispers. "I wish I had."

*

4. Dry Land

{ all I ask of you is one thing that you'll never do }

The winding path leads them up the mountain again. This time the way is around the latitude, hugging the great shoulders of the beast close, but not climbing to the top. It is a greener path than any Toby has seen for years. There is a little snow still; they are still high, but the air has a familiar smell and taste, not the alien tang of the air on other road. Toby hopes they will not die here. The road is longer, more twisted than the last, but less treacherous. There are no falls, no slips, Toby even finds that he can breathe easily again, some mornings. The boy is quiet, but sometimes, when he is half-asleep and in his arms, Toby thinks he hears singing again as he used to, vibrating in Huck's chest.

He seems smaller, hollowed out, and yet when Toby catches sight of him in the sun, in the sun which is bright and still seems occasionally poetic, occasionally correct, beautiful just for a moment, Huck seems to have been filled with light, to the corners of his body. It spills out of him when he speaks. In his eyes sometimes is the glare of the snow, blotting out everything else, making him blind. Sometimes he stumbles against Toby's arm and when he looks up into his father's face, is not quite the same boy he was.

Toby keeps them walking, always upwards. He doesn't think they will be followed, he thinks he got away with his life and the life of his boy but he does not dare rest or hope too much. Some nights he wakes with the sound of strange voices in his ears. He thinks they are in dreams but they could just as easily have been carried by the wind. The food will not run out again for a while; for a while they can be safe.

*

All along the winding path, which Huck says reminds him of a story he cannot remember, there is a stream. It runs with the melting of the snow and the glare of the sun, and yet the water is still sweet and when Huck asks him if it is safe the only answer Toby can think of is 'yes'. After a few days following it, moving mostly in the dark and sleeping in what small cover there is during the brightest parts of the day, he can't help wonder if the boy is right, if this is the kind of water, the kind of blessing you would expect from a story. He feels better than he has since the city, his broken and ill-mended ribs do not hurt him so much and though his breathing is laboured with altitude, his chest does not burn with the effort of drawing breath. He almost feels lighter. He could almost love the sun again, as long as it continues to shine in this water. The boy too seems a little less empty and although he is ghost-thin and quiet, he sometimes looks at Toby with his huge hollow eyes, blacker than any night either of them have seen for years, and Toby knows it is alright.

They continue upwards; the stream flows down. Running upwards they follow it, until it dwindles. And in the place where it stops there are black flowers.

Toby watches Huck's face. The boy stares at the life, the black life as dark as his own eyes and Toby's beard, and stands perfectly still, with one hand over his mouth. Toby goes closer to him and stands with his arms loosely around his waist. He presses a kiss to the back of his son's head.

"Life," he whispers.

"Dad, they're beautiful."

There is no stutter this time. Huck says the word like a man with words of his own in his heart; this is just the one which seems to fit. Toby holds him tight, tight as the air in his chest.

"Yes."

"Maybe it ... "

"What?" Toby whispers, like a kiss.

"Maybe it means it'll be okay. Sometime."

"Sometime. Maybe."

"Okay."

"Okay."

They make camp a little way off, a little further back down, as though it would be in some way sacrilegious to sleep and eat and be half dead near to such things. Huck wouldn't have let him light a fire within ten metres of those flowers, Toby is sure. So they make their small fire - a few twigs and weak branches; the old-fashioned kind because the night is not yet terribly cold and the stove which Toby stole down in the city is stuttering and low on gas. He doesn't know where he will find more; for now he doesn't worry. They make the fire and eat, then sit and wish the sun gone. And there is peace, for a time.

Huck sleeps for a little, curled near the heat, looking small and safe. Toby sits and watches him for a while. He tries to write but finds that beauty has stripped the words out of his head. He can't manage more than a line. He sits close to the boy and watches him. When he is sure Huck will not wake, when he has had his fill of one kind of beauty, Toby goes looking for the other.

Toby picks the flowers for him because he said they were beautiful. And so they are: dark and strange because they are so obviously perfect, in a world which has forgotten what natural means. Toby holds the tiny things in his hands and is reminded of a dark room where there was peace and two children, new life and the most beautiful things he will ever see. Though Huck will never know that moment - always a son now and never to be a father, Toby can give him this much: a little life to hold in his hands. He picks three of the flowers; there are many, even hundreds hidden in the little place where the stream begins, and starts back down towards the glow of the fire. When he returns Huck has woken up and is sitting by the fire, poking a finger close to the embers. Toby smiles as he walks closer to the camp place, trying to make his steps silent.

"Don't burn yourself."

Huck jumps, a little, and turns round. "Where did you go?"

"Up," Toby says, jabbing a finger towards the cliffs. "I brought you something." He is hiding the small collection of flowers behind his back.

"What?"

Toby holds out his hand, with a little shrug. In the centre of his palm, three flowers, petals still glossy black.

"Oh dad."

"Do you like them?"

Huck looks up at him. "I'm not sure you should have picked them."

"Only three, Huck."

"I guess."

"Do you like them?"

He nods, then smiles. Toby feels his chest constrict at the sight of the first smile for weeks; not hollow anymore. Huck gets up from the fire and stands close, stroking the petals with one finger. He feels like the fall of rain on Toby's skin.

"They'll die now," Huck says.

"These three, yes."

"But not for a while."

"No."

"And the rest ... all those flowers."

"They're still there. I think there are hundreds of them."

Huck nods, sighs, and turns away. Toby follows him, curling his palm around the flowers, keeping them safe. He puts his free hand on Huck's shoulder, pulls the boy's body gently towards his own, kissing his too-long black hair just above his ear.

"Hey," he whispers, "I meant them to make you happy."

Huck nods, or lets his chin drop down to his chest; Toby can't tell. "I know."

"I'm sorry, Huck."

The boy turns quickly and Toby isn't surprised by the tears on his face. It's always been too easy to make him cry. He holds the boy in a one-armed embrace and whispers to him: shhhh, don't cry, i'm sorry. Huck shudders with the end of his tears, then holds his head up - open face, full of pain but full, anything but hollow, full of songs even if they are all about death. Toby kisses him, gently, tasting salt and heat on his lips.

"Do you still want to die?" Toby whispers.

*

Like a snake curled in a circle, eating its tail, Huck lies by the fire and watches his father. He is invisible, or as good as. Toby always ignores him on nights like this, tuning him out like static. Huck isn't as hurt by that now as he once was. But he does wonder how Toby always knows.

He is thinking about the Book of Life, now almost full; he is thinking about what beauty is like - the snow so bright that it blinds and the sun so warm that it burns. He is thinking about his father. Toby is sitting by the fire, keeping a watch, until he falls asleep. Huck is thinking about their closeness which always seemed so right before - like the same body, and the various shadows which have fallen between them now. Flowers don't make it all right, nor the obvious love in Toby's eyes. Huck is full of longing and doesn't know why.

The fire is very warm and he is sleepy soon. It's hard to keep his eyes open but he manages it, keeping his focus on the small movements of his father's arms; flexes of muscle and tendon; how tanned his forearms look in the firelight. His fingers click and dance like figures in the fire and Huck smiles, and makes up plays in his head. As Toby works at the fire, sweat begins to trickle down his temples, only to be swiped into the slick black curls of hair by his hands. Huck sighs a little, stifling the noise against his own hands. He finds the curls of his father's hair unconsciously beautiful - shining in the firelight, dark as night. The place at the back of Toby's neck where the curls come over the collar smells of smoke and firelight and a night darker than this. He has buried his face there. Huck sighs again.

Toby clears his throat. He reaches forward and pokes at the fire with his stick and as he does so, his shirt (his only shirt) pulls out from his waistband of his pants and exposes a patch of his thin, pale back. It is a place against which Huck has pressed his cheek. He presses his hand there now, surprised by how big it looks across the points of backbone, so very pale.

"Huck." His voice is a warning in velvet. Huck doesn't move his hand away.

"Just a little."

"Alright."

The shirt pulls out easily enough and it is so worn in Huck's hands that he almost rips it in two. But Toby's back is warm in spite of its thinness, warmer along the curve of his backbone. Huck rubs his knuckles over the points of vertebrae, then the pad of his thumb. He sits up and moves closer, leans his side against the breadth of Toby's back and passes one arm around his waist and keeps the other hand in the warm, where it was. His head falls easily to Toby's shoulders and he smells campfire smoke in his father's hair. Toby covers Huck's hand with his own and it is cold, shaking until it comes to rest, and the son remembers that his body is better than his father's and presses closer to death.

Toby starts to cough, huge racking waves which vibrate against Huck's body, against the palm of his hand. Huck moves, round to his front, nearer to the fire. He lets Toby's head fall down into his breast and absorbs the breaths and the rasps, breaking like a tide against his ribs. There's blood on their hands, trapped between Huck's thighs and Toby's face, when he raises his head. He looks up at Huck, eyes narrowed with pain and tries to smile, blood on his lips. Huck raises his hand and wipes it away from Toby's mouth, then kisses it, as he might a lover, if he was ever to have one.

Toby gazes at him, head inclined to the side, slow and sleepy almost, like the dying of the fire. He tucks a stray strand of hair behind Huck's ear. His eyes seem big in his face, as though he has come to some unexpected beauty and cannot believe what he is seeing, as though there is still some joy left to be seen in the world.

Huck leans in again, kisses him again and watches, as he breaks away, the touch working like intoxication on his father's face, as though he will faint, looking like he did when there was no food and he was light-headed in the day, stumbling, needing Huck's arm to keep him steady. Toby's eyes close, slowly, and his body begins to fall backwards, and Huck catches him, and hugs him close.

It seems to both of them that they have not touched for years. They seem to have been long apart and wandering. Huck rocks his father who has fallen unconscious, tired and sleeping, with a little blood around his mouth. In his right hand, still glossy under his fingers, are the black flowers. Huck uncurls Toby's fingers, strokes them open, and takes the flowers into his own hand. Then lays Toby down near the fire and pulls the blanket over him and lets him sleep and keeps watch on the empty mountain.

*

5. Poet

{ [to me you are a work of art and I would give you my heart if I had one }

There is a home here, for a little. Summer falls away a little, though every day feels like an endless summer in the city and down below, on the mountain there is relief. They keep moving pointlessly, circling around the summit, always near the flowers and the stream. The food lasts, the water stays sweet.

Toby begins to write every day. For hours he sits in the sun and makes words in the notebook and is a poet again. Huck thinks he is happier this way. Huck can't begin to guess what he writes about or the look of petty frustrations mixed with triumph which comes on his face when he has finished for the night and is reading back his words, silent, with his lips moving. Boundaries become just this - Toby with his eyes on the page and Huck sitting by the fire, flooded with songs, locked in his mind. Privacy is a simple, silent world made of words, keeping them close as well as apart.

Huck has forgotten how to write. He forgot long ago, he thinks. There was no time to write anything at the beginning, only time for running and wondering how much bigger a sun can get. In the camps there was nothing to say, and no way to say it, and no-one to get back for them the things they had started to lose. And now he can't remember any of it and all the words in his head have no shape, only sound.

He watches Toby write and knows that the dark places of his father's heart have gone somewhere he cannot follow. He sits by the fire and watches the pen flow across the page of the second notebook and it seems like magic; something impossible, done so easily. He sits with his arms wrapped round his knees, feeling stupid and sad and lost. He tries to copy the actions with his fingers and make invisible letters in the air, but it never seems to work out right. He knows that if his father offered him the page and the pen the effort would be clumsy and childish. Huck hopes he never does.

Some nights, close ones, he rests his face against Toby's arm as he writes and he can feel the push and pull of the action in his own body and hopes that by absorbing it, swallowing up the feeling, he will be able to keep off forgetting, just a little longer.

He won't ask; he is too ashamed. It seems nothing but wrong to Huck that his father, the great poet, should have an illiterate for a son.

Yet the words keep coming, invisible and unknowable except by their sound, like small and long prayers which keep him awake looking for the next line. They crowd in his head like before and he wonders if it is because he is closer to Death or further away and looks around for a sign that this is coming to an end, and cannot see one. He flicks through the remaining pages of the Bible now thin enough to be slipped inside his coat, now a weight on his chest when he sleeps. He wishes he could read it.

He is too afraid to sing the songs in his head and cannot write them down. He cannot even whisper them. They're all about Toby, or himself. Usually both. Huck thinks he can remember stories about his father: books written by people he had never met or even heard of, published when he was still very little and all about a time before he had even existed. He wonders if those books still exist or if they are still people besides his father who could read them, or if they have all been burnt long ago to fuel a fire which burnt for a single night. Huck would like to see just one, even though he wouldn't be able to read it. Why, he is not sure. Perhaps to make sure that they really exist, perhaps to make sure that his father will have life after he dies, even if it is only the ten minute flash of life it would take to burn a book like that all to ashes, or perhaps to carry around in his coat, next to his chest.

His songs are all about love and about creation; all dreams, all broken. He turns his back on the camp fire and begins to sing them, low under his breath. He thinks his father is asleep.

"Huck?"

When he turns around Toby's face is full of firelight, wondering. He looks as though he has been witness to something beautiful. Huck frowns.

"You weren't meant to hear that."

"I woke up. A few minutes ago."

Huck nods. "Okay."

"That was ... exceptional, son."

Huck's eyes won't lift from his feet. He suddenly doesn't know the tones of his father's voice and cannot tell if this last is a lie.

"Really, son."

"Yeah."

"You don't believe me?"

Huck shakes his head.

"Come back to the fire, okay?"

Huck makes his feet walk away from the darkness around them and closer to the fire. He cannot look at Toby. His hands are deep in his pockets.

"You made all that up?"

"Yeah."

"You remember it all?"

Huck nods. Here it comes.

"Because you can't write it down?"

He doesn't nod; doesn't say anything. He wants to say I'm sorry but is too angry. As though Toby will hold the letters over him and his ability to make words on a page will somehow create a legend for his father and leave Huck behind, slow and stupid, always trying to catch up.

"Huck?"

"No. I can't write anymore. Okay?"

Huck draws his knees up under his chin, wraps his arms around them. Toby reaches out a hand and rests it on his knee. His hand is warm and he is not smiling.

"It's okay, Huck."

"No, it's really not."

"What does it matter?"

"I can't write, dad!"

"And you think ... what? That means you can't make something beautiful?"

"I can't ... It's all inside my head. It's all ... dangerous."

"I could write it down for you."

Huck shakes his head. "I can't sing them to you."

"Why not?"

"I just can't, dad."

At this Toby smiles. "Really? Why not?"

Huck glares at him.

"Son, if this is the end of the world, I don't think there should be any secrets between us."

But there are, Huck thinks - what about the death in your hands, dad? What did you see when you disappeared? What about the blood around your mouth? Secrets keep us sane.

"Maybe."

"Okay. Maybe. Maybe I'll pretend I'm asleep next time. See how much I can remember."

Huck sighs. Suddenly he feels tears in his eyes. "I hate not being able to remember, dad."

Toby strokes his knee. "I know."

"It's like ... being invisible."

"I know, kid."

"I don't think I could learn again."

"You don't need to."

"I do!"

"You don't. Maybe this is what poetry is now. Again. You're the other kind of poet, son. You don't need paper and ink."

"What do you mean?"

"You're the kind that remembers, that has whole books' worth of words by heart. The ancient kind."

"But that's ... stupid."

Toby shrugs. "Maybe that's how it'll be now."

"But they won't last."

"Maybe."

"No-one hears them."

"Maybe not."

"That's almost as bad as no words at all," Huck says, with a sigh. He lays his head down on his knees, Toby's hand underneath his cheek. Toby comes closer, strokes his hair and lets him curl up against his body. Huck can hear death in the crackling of the fire.

*

The boy is the blood of my heart.

This is what Toby writes in the last of his notebooks. Paper is scarce these days and most of his pens have run dry now, the only things he has in abundance are words. They overflow from him. They taste like honey in his mouth. He needs to write them down if he is to breathe any longer and he has known for a long time that Huck cannot read them. It breaks his heart a little more to know that the shape of his own name is among the things which have been taken away from Huck, but he also means what he said: the boy is a poet of the ancient kind; a master of memory and the bending of a song around it; something Toby could never be with his addiction to the form and rules of the written world, marshalling creation with order, unlike his son, who conjures it from his heart. Toby has seldom been so proud.

His own words are all about Huck and that they have this much parallelism does not surprise him - like one heart they have been for such a long time that he doesn't remember it any other way. He has imagined and played out futures for his son as he thinks he might have had but for all of this, but for the end of order. Huck in an office somewhere, living every day for what he goes home to do at night - poetry he cannot make money at but does for love, chasing hopeless causes in the best tradition of his family. Perhaps he is thinner than he should be, perhaps he is always half in secret, but he is happy. Or the boy in New York, grown up; taller and broader in his shoulders, in a suit which doesn't quite fit him not because it is badly made or the wrong size but because Huck has become the sort of man who is never comfortable in a suit. His hair is too long and cut to fall over his right eye in a black curtain and it shines in the hazy Fall sunlight. He is beautiful. Maybe he is on his way to see his father. And the city looks as Toby imagines it rather than the way it really was, because Huck would have hated living in New York, because he would have been frightened of being eaten by the city at every turn. But in Toby's notebooks his steps ring on the sidewalk and his face is clear of sadness. And Toby knows he is writing down his dreams, dreams that would never have happened. But he cannot let the boy be only this thin shadow with death around his neck. It seems important to write him down.

In the notebook which was written in already, nestled in its middle pages, Toby writes the only words he does keep secret. Hidden in the middle of another man's litany of things lost, Toby writes about his daughter.

He does so seldom, because the memory of her loss has conflated with the loss of the whole world and to remember Molly is to step back into that time and place which no longer exists. He will wait until Huck is sleeping and lean close to the fire while he scribbles, taking its light. And more often than not he will finish because he can no longer see for the tears in his eyes and grief is stronger than art, always.

He writes her down in a list: strong sharp shoulders, hair like mine though both of us were always waiting for it to turn red, footsteps like songs in the hall, dancing to bring down the sun.

He wants to say goodbye to her. He whispers her name into the fire, then goes to sleep.

*

The banks of the stream play host to them for as long as it takes for them to forget the days and neglect the count. Huck doesn't understand what Toby means when he says nothing lasts forever until the day the snow comes again, thick like a blanket. In a few days the food will run out. The water is cold, almost too cold to drink. And this time they will both have to go back down the mountain - Toby coughs in his sleep, like thunder in Huck's ears and in the mornings sometimes there is blood again, making his lips red against the snow.

"Are we going back, dad?"

"It's too cold. I'm sorry."

Huck nods, or Toby thinks he does. His head shifts against Toby's chest.

"I don't want to die in the snow, dad."

Toby strokes his hair. "Alright."

"It's ... like being invisible."

"Yeah."

"I don't want you to die here."

"Okay."

"I'm not frightened."

"No. Somehow I didn't think you would be."

"I love you."

"I love you too."

"Go to sleep, okay? We can go tomorrow."

"Okay, kid."

His body is heavy in the night and Huck wonders if this is what he has been to his father all these nights - a weight on the chest and a constriction of the heart, worried that the sun will not rise and terrified when it does. His face sleeping is tender and quiet, no movement marks his dreaming. Huck presses a kiss on his forehead and starts a song which sounds like a prayer.

*

The going is slow and their steps are careful. The snow is thick and treacherous, fooling them with the semblance of safety. Huck holds on tight to Toby's hand as they walk and does not look back up the mountainside as they go down.

The heat of the sun seems to hit them once they have descended far enough that the snow has become slush and the green of the path has begun to fade to dusty yellow, as it once was. Huck is aware of Toby's light-headedness and makes his father hold on tight to his arm, scout out the path and keep them straight. Huck does not remember the way well; it seems like a long time since he was here, within sight of the last city.

There are no signs of life. There are no burning buildings nor ash and smoke and ruin from ones recently burned. There are no black shapes darting in the corner of Huck's eyes. He keeps a steady and constant watch all around them, three-hundred and sixty degrees, just in case. But somehow he thinks they will get where they are going okay. His hand is on the pistol, just in case.

They walk steadily, with their heavy coats over their arms. The city looms closer. Huck knows where they're going.

*

Toby even smiles when they get there. It seems like home. It seems smaller than he remembered it. They sleep a day and a night and in the morning, Huck begins the song.

In the Picturehouse, under the light coming in through the stained glass window, there is no sound but Huck's voice echoing. He sings out towards the sun and he sounds so much older, and yet just like a boy. Like a prayer it echoes out: words precious and insubstantial, getting lost against the glass and inside Toby's chest. As he listens he thinks of temple and knows the name he wants for his son: cantor. Poet in song. Toby closes his eyes and leans his back against the wall and smiles. In enough ways, this might be a perfect day.]

In the Picturehouse, at the door, is rustling, the scrabbling of fingers and whispered orders just under his hearing. Toby gets up from the floor where he has been sitting and turns his back on the head of the stairs and watches his son singing with tears he does not try to hide running down his face. He does not move from the sound of weapons being drawn, only starts to walk towards the boy, whose song has finished.

*

Coda

{ she has now gone from this unhappy planet with all the carnivores and the destructors on it }

The bullets hit my brother first. They shatter through his chest and wind bright red threads around his body, tying him to the wire which is shining silver against his jacket in which there is a small tear.

Then they hit my father. He is taller, running beside Huck and stumbling, but taller, so I can see his face. The second clip goes into him, longer and louder than the first, pulling him tight to the fence and against Huck. He spasms there with his head thrown back, and blood comes out of Huck's mouth at the press of my father's body, a little spit, through the wire.

Dad puts his face down in Huck's shoulder and calls out; I start running.

They let me go first. And I hated them for it. It was the agreement: you're the girl and you're weak because you've been sick and you'll be the slowest and it's that or leave you behind. So you go first, dad said. I ducked through the hole in the fence and I thought I'll be the only one who doesn't have torn clothes or a scratched neck and that'll show you - sometimes it pays to be small. But there were already shadows over Huck's shoulder as he put his first foot through and a shout and a tear of bullets in the nighttime air. You go first, dad said.

The walk was slow and silent, secretly done. I kept wondering if they were just behind us, by that door, hiding behind that window, letting us reach out for hope when hope is something we have been forbidden. The ground was muddy; Huck slipped, covered his whole left side in mud and dad hauled him to his feet with a sigh that seemed so loud in the silence.

We walked in a line: me first, Huck in the middle, dad's broad back covering us. I'm almost angry - I'm not the weak one, I can run and fight; I don't love any less. Dad insists, Huck is silent, but his eyes ask, please.

The wire seemed to shine in the half-light, the hole in the fence like the word's heaviest blackness, into which we are all to jump.

There was the sound of voices, of boots, the splash of mud, a weak siren. Dad pushes me forward, into the darkness. The bullets hit my brother first.

I can't run at all; my father lifts his eyes up to mine, for a moment.

The bullets pin him to Huck's body but they are slower than his arms. He holds Huck with tenderness, as though rocking him to sleep; arms wrapped round arms and chest to back. I can see white at the sharp of his knuckles, in his fists, but he seems so gentle. His chin, his beard, his mouth in Huck's hair. He is kissing Huck's hair.

And Huck's head falls backwards. His neck is opalescent - covered in sweat and a little blood and so white against the place where his stubble starts. He glows; everywhere that you can see skin, he is glowing. It is ironic and perfectly right for my brother that the only moments when I remember happiness on his face since this whole mess started, are the moments he is dying in. He coughs a little, stretching his smile. The blood settles on his chin. Dad wipes it with his hand, slowly, deliberately. Neither of them seem to realise they're dying. Dad presses a kiss to Huck's temple and Huck leans into it, like a cat does when you try to stroke it and it wants you to. For them it's all different. I imagine it is peaceful, though I know it must burn with hurt.

More bullets: one jerks through dad's shoulder, another through Huck's thigh. One hits dad in the small of the back; it comes out through Huck's stomach. And the guards are close now and if they don't die soon it'll be all the worse. One more buck of a heavier body against a smaller one and then arms loosen and kisses disentangle and dad falls away, down to the mud, and Huck slips down the fence and ends half fallen and half standing, with blood all round his mouth.

Now they can see me - guards, guards! Yells break the night and make it brighter - more coming. I start running again and now I can't stop; faster than bullets, they can't seem to hit me. There is a scratch running the length of my forearm which burns and smells of gunpowder but doesn't hurt. I am running for the trees and I know they will give up; I know there will be a announcement about my death; I know the name of my family will be erased.

I run until I am invisible. They gave up hours ago; they don't much care. I can hear them saying, over mugs half-full of vile coffee: if she wants to die, then maybe it's better. Maybe we shouldn't stop them. I don't cry until I am halfway up a strong, dark tree and think of my dad, falling.

I've come to you with a message. This is the world I made for myself, not a poet except for them. I am running towards human life as it was promised to me: with movies and books and democracy, miles past the wires. I've come to you with this story in my hands, breathless with it. They found food because I wanted it and made it up the mountain because I wished it. The only people of the book are dead: only the dead have real life. And my brother and my father are their poets. And this has been their story.

*

Songs:

Proem and Coda: she has now gone from this unhappy planet with all the carnivores and the destructors on it: Ouija Board, Ouija Board (Morrissey)
The Camp: if your god bestows protection on you and if the USA doesn't bomb you I believe I will see you: I Will See You In Far Off Places (Morrissey)
Escape: love at first sight may sound trite but it's true you know: Late Night Maudlin Street (Morrissey)
Conversations with Death: there never need be longing in your eyes as long as the hand that rocks the cradle is mine: The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (The Smiths)
Dry Land: all I ask of you is one thing that you'll never do: Tomorrow (Morrissey)
Poet: to me you are a work of art and I would give you my heart if I had one: To Me You Are A Work of Art (Morrissey)