In those first years the roads were filled with refugees huddled in their rags. Filthy anoraks, torn and dustshraffled Starterjackets. Masked and mittened, tatterslumped on the macadam. Ruined hitchhikers on a boak and godless freeway. Their barrows heavy with shoom, dented pails of dirthat. Towing carts or wagons. On tandembikes and tricycles, eyes wild and heedless. Husks of men shuffling towards a charred and empty nothingwaste. Feverdreams of turkey on rye, barrelpickle on the side. Good, thick tomatoslices. But their ravenous mouths were sandwichless, the frail lie exposed. A cracked and empty cicadashell. The new world gray and skeletonboned, heavy with reckoning. No barrelpickles anywhere, not even Polish dills.
Late in the year and growing colder. The mountains looming. He told the boy that everything depended on reaching the coast, yet waking in the night he knew that there was no substance to it. There was a good chance they would die in the mountains and that would be that. Their rotting bodies found by the bloodcults, flesh boiled in great pots and eaten from wooden bowls. Their bones whittled to rude spears, hair made as twine. Hands dried and hollowed, worn as gloves. Skulls for soccerpractice. You had to hand it to those bloodcults. They really knew their way around a corpse.
They pressed on through the withered highcountry. Peckers small and anxious against the cold. Scrotes rocksolid, scrunched to the taints. In the afternoon it began to snow and they made camp early and crouched under the tarp. The cold gripped merciless, a silent oblivion. The man made a fire with a few meager branchscraps but it gave little heat. Camping, the man said with a grin as the snow came down all around them. Gotta love it. No response from the boy save a chattering of teeth. A tear frozen to his windreddened cheek. Kids these days, the man thought as he peered out at the steadyfalling snow. They never appreciate anything.
He woke whimpering in the night and the man held him. The boy. The man was holding the boy. Shh, he said. The man was saying that. Shh. It’s okay.
I had a bad dream.
I know. Your pants are wet.
Should I tell you what it was?
Please do, he said. He was lying though. He didnt want to hear it at all. He’d rather do almost anything.
Okay Papa. So we were in the house that we used to live in, and I was eating a pancake for breakfast. But then it wasnt really a pancake. It was more of like a car that uses syrup instead of gas. But there werent any wheels on it. It kind of lifted off the ground and hovered around? But only when youre singing the pancake song.
Interesting, the man said. For dreary grinding months, he had pushed a balky shopping cart through a numb and deadened land. Not a sound, nothing to see besides lowhanging fog and immolated ruin. Yet he had never been this bored.
The boy went on.
And mommy was driving me to school in my pancake car. She was singing the song, about pancakes being tasty and theyre better with blueberries in them. And the seats were big pieces of banana but they werent that sticky even though they were big pieces of banana. And then I told her that I forgot my mathbook and we’d have to go back but all of a sudden her head wasnt her head. It was a baseball player’s head.
Was it Sid Bream’s head?
Yes Papa. It was Sid Bream’s head. I dont remember what happened next. But it was really scary.
I know, the man said, hugging him closer. But he was lying again. He didnt think the pancake dream was scary at all.
In the morning of the day following they heard a low steady thunder that grew louder as they walked. Soon they were before a waterfall plunging off a high shant of rock and falling eighty feet through a gray fleen of mist into the pool below. They stood side by side calling to each other over the din.
Is the water cold?
Yes. It’s freezing.
Would you like to go in?
No. Thats okay, Papa.
Are you sure?
Yes Papa. It looks really cold.
Oh, come on. Lets go for a swim.
Okay Papa. If you say so.
The man took off his clothes and walked into the water. Snausage retreating like the head of a boxturtle. The boy undressed too and tarried at the edge, paleblue and wracked with shiver.
Come on in. It’s not too bad.
Are you sure Papa? It looks really cold.
The boy took a breath and dove in, screaming from the shock of it. He hopped up and down, bony arms hugging his thin chest. The man smiled, paddling to keep his head above water.
Are you okay?
Yes Papa, he said, jaw clenched tight. It’s really fun.
I knew youd like it.
Just then, the man saw movement on the swackened hillcrest up along the road. He swam to the boy and pulled him towards him. What is it, Papa? The boy said. The man said nothing and paddled them to a low bunt of stone behind the waterfall. Shh, he said as they settled in. We must be quiet.
It was a group of four, a man and three women. They were talking quietly. The man’s eyes widened. He knew what they were. If they saw the boy they would surely snatch him up. Never to be seen again. He cradled the boy to his chest.
Who is it, Papa?
They carried filefolders and clipboards, wore sweaters and cheap haircuts. The man looked away. Theyre from Protective Services.
Never mind, the man whispered. His heart ached as he watched them pass by. If they see us here they’ll take you from me.
Really? the boy said. He watched them with interest as they trod through the haze.