Chris Castle

He’s still waving,” Danny said. Poppy took his hand and clambered up the rocks. She stood next to him and followed his gaze. She could barely make out the shadow of a man behind the sun, his arm flailing above him. It looked like he’d been drawn against the sky with a pencil, she thought.

“I don’t think we should go over there,” she said. There was something about the way that he moved his arms which she didn’t like; jagged and hectic, like scratching at a car window and still shaking a fist as the other car sped off.

“If we don’t eat soon Pop...” his voice fell away as he looked back to her. It was the way he won arguments, decisions. Not with his words but with his eyes. He’d gotten that from Dad. She nodded and he smiled. They began to walk towards the shadow.

Somehow she thought if she didn’t agree out loud that would make it okay. She walked a little behind Danny and watched the arm stop waving. It turned into an overhead clap, like audiences do at rock concerts. Somehow, that made her feel worse.

“Hello there!” The man called out as they came within sight of him. He was a little older and rake thin. His voice was a high and rushed. Danny and Poppy waved their hands in greeting and moved closer. He stepped quickly towards them, stepping over the uneven rocks, constantly looking like he was going to tip forward, like a kid on a bouncy castle, Poppy thought.

“I’m Bo—Bobby, but people call me Bo—called me!” He said. His voice sped up more as the words came out, until they sounded like a stream.

“I’m Danny. This is my sister, Poppy.”

Poppy watched her brother shake the man’s hand, waited, and then took her turn. His fingers were long and thin, but cleaner than either of theirs.

“Pleased to meet you both. You’re the first young people I’ve seen for nearly...what, six months? No, seven.” He looked up as he spoke, doing the sums out loud.

“Have you met anyone else lately?” Poppy said quickly. She realised how urgent her voice sounded and tried to calm it down. They both looked to her.

“One or two pass through. No more than pairs, though. Never seen a family together, least not the one they were born with, anyhow.” He smiled sadly, and then caught the dejected look on their faces. He jerked into a smile, making his eyes bright.

“You want to see my pile—my place? Got plenty of food, could cook you up something.” He looked first to her, then Danny. She looked down and saw one finger behind Danny’s back.

“Sure.” Poppy said, and the two of them followed Bo, Poppy coming up to
Danny’s side, their arms and elbows brushing as they watched the man bob unevenly down the dirt path. They came to an open cave where two sheets were drawn over the gaping hole.

“Welcome to my abode,” Bo said brightly. He turned and waved an arm in courtesy.

They smiled back to him. Poppy looked over and saw Danny was faking easiness a lot easier than she was. Perhaps that was because the men they met often looked at her as an object and him, an obstruction.

“Come and sit,” Bo said, pulling back the curtain and holding it for them to duck under and step into the dark. Danny went first and Poppy followed, a second of panic filling her gut as she brushed the stranger’s arm and entered the oncoming dark.

“Done okay, all things considered,” Bo said behind them, speaking quietly, taking obvious delight in their shocked silence.

“Bo...this is incredible,” was all Danny managed to say. Poppy hadn’t heard his voice that low and quiet since the day they’d visited coast for the first time; before all of this had happened. She watched him step up to the gentleman’s suits, piled up against the wall, the hollowed tree stump that held every type of earring and necklace imaginable. Slowly she found herself following him, reaching out to touch the rugs and the dresses, even though she told herself not to. She wandered to the corner of the cave and ran her fingers along the droplets of the chandelier that was lying on the floor.

“I found a car that still worked and was still full of gas. Drove to the city and took what I wanted from each shop. Some of the alarms still went off! Can you believe it, after all this time? I kept going back and forth, until the sign hit empty.” Bo sat down, before them, crossed legged on a fur rug. He opened his arms and invited them to sit.

Danny forgot himself, and their plan, and sat away from Poppy on a stack of furs, set up like a throne. She sat against a box overflowing with electrical equipment, wires loose and strewn everywhere.

“Here,” Bo said, reaching behind himself. He threw over snack bars and crisps. “I’ll start a fire in a while and cook up some cans.” He lifted two bottles up, one a soft drink, the other, a bottle of champagne.

“You two old enough for the good stuff or what?” he said, arching his eyebrow inquisitively. Suddenly he seemed a lot older then, making Poppy feel smaller somehow, lost among all those riches.

“Hell yeah!” Danny said, and the two boys laughed. Bo unscrewed the top and sent the cork exploding into the air, hitting the top of the cave. It landed close toDanny’s shoulder, causing more laughter. He pulled three glasses from a crate and carelessly poured out three drinks. Poppy put her hand up.
“I’ll take the pop, if that’s okay,” she said. She held his eye, and for a moment, it flashed dark, then light again.

“Pop for Pop, sure thing!” he said. He put the bottle under the crook of his elbow and twisted it loose. “No feeling in that part of the body,” he said, looking from her then quickly to Danny. Danny raised his eyebrows, looking genuinely interested.

“Guess neither of you know what happened?” He asked, slurping the froth from his glass, drinking it down in one gulp.

“Just when it happened, you know? All the commotion and then finding somewhere safe to hide...” Danny’s voice died away. He and Poppy only talked about it when it was essential and needed to be dealt with. Otherwise, they made their way, one day to the next, always their pact and promise. Poppy itched a little now, hearing it being bandied about so easily, like a day to day occurrence.

“Shit! All I know was I was on my bike one second and woke up with my ass embedded in a truck window the next. I was unconscious through the worst of it. Couldn’t tell you how I survived it.” Bo shrugged, his refilled glass spilling. He said ‘whoops’ and licked his knuckle. Danny laughed and started looking around again, letting a low whistle escape his lips.

“You sure got some stuff here, Bo, I don’t mind telling you,” he said. His voice was already becoming slightly slurred, Poppy thought.

“Yep,” Bo acknowledged, looking around proudly. He already was refilling his own glass, lurching over to pour more into Danny’s. He looked briefly back to Poppy and shrugged her off.

“You know Danny,” he said looking back to the boy. “In real life, before all this happened, I had nothing. Lived in a bedsit, scrapped day to day life, everyday every delivery, every person looking down their nose at me while they signed for their shit.

This stuff you see here? I was too poor to even look at it in the windows.” He turned his mouth into a smile, to let them know he was joking. “You know what I did before I took all these stuff? You know what I did?” He waited long enough for Danny to ask.

“What man?” he said, reaching forward to take more of the bubble.

“I went to every stadium, gallery, and restaurant I could think of. Didn’t matter if they were burned to hell, looted, whatever. Christ, I stepped inside a five star restaurant and there were bodies in the foyer.” He shook his head. Danny laughed nervously. Poppy watched Bo and knew he was telling the truth.

“I did it because I could. Before…this, I wouldn’t have had a chance to even queue, let alone get inside, and now there I was, stepping into VIP areas, walking to where the richest, most famous men and women sat and ate, talked shit, drank, and I was there and they were gone.” He raised his glass high in the air. Danny followed.
He didn’t look back to Poppy.

“This…all this, was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said quietly and he tilted his head back, emptying the glass, not seeing Danny’s hand freeze in shock, then fall without finishing his own glass.

“I’ll get the food on the go,” Bo said, reaching for the matches and walking towards a nearby stove.

“He’s harmless,” Danny said. They were standing outside now while Bo busied himself with the food. “He’s screwed in the head, but I don’t think he’s dangerous.” Danny looked back, lifting his chin in acknowledgment.

“You’re drunk,” Poppy said accusingly. It was dark now. They had walked through the dark before. It was safer a lot of the times, being unseen. Then taking turns to sleep in the day, looking out for others; how the excitement of finding other people had soured, turned into a potential threat.

“We came to eat didn’t we?” Danny said. “If you still feel edgy, we’ll eat and leave. We have to eat.”

She looked at him. It wasn’t even a question anymore. The sweets and treats had simply activated their bodies, made them alert for more.

“Stick to the signals, then,” she ordered and he nodded, the two of them walking inside, helplessly drawn to the simple smells of the food inside.

“Bo appetite!” Bo said, and the three of them lifted their cans and laughed. Even Poppy laughed, at the ridiculous simple excitement of eating hot food.

Bo had opened more champagne and Danny kept drinking, ignoring her glances, her signals. They ate more and more, drank more, Bo telling of the people he’d met, Danny returning stories, Poppy jumping in, adding and filling in holes between the stories. Bo seemed happy to listen for a long while. Then after a silence, he cleared his throat, opening a fresh bottle of champagne.

“You can try any of those clothes on if you want, you know, the dresses.” He held his hands up quickly. “There’s a curtain you can draw up or change outside. Not like it’s cold anymore, right?”

“I’m okay, thank you though,” Poppy said, hoping the blood wasn’t rushing to her cheeks too quickly. She looked down. When she looked back, Bo was pouring more champagne into his glass.

“Once I saw a deer; a stag, right in the middle of the road. This road, you know? When it was teeming with traffic, shit, I’d nearly gotten knocked off my bike three times. But now, everything’s so completely still and empty; dead cars, overturned bikes, and then this stag appears. This beautiful thing comes from out of nowhere. Maybe it was trapped in a zoo or something, I don’t know. And now it was free to roam. No fear of getting knocked down by a car or hunted by some jerk with a rifle and pockets full of money. And it could move too, you know? It sort of glided above the concrete. Grace. That’s what it had: Grace. Never seen anything like it. Most beautiful thing I ever seen. Because of...you know...this.”

“Have you seen any other animals, Bo?” she asked, suddenly excited. The prospect of seeing wildlife—anything, a dog, a cat—filled her suddenly with hope.

“Why don’t you drink with me and your brother, Poppy?” Bo said as he looked down, pouring from his bottle. He didn’t look up. The words were low, so she could barely hear them.

“I’m sorry? I just don’t drink, that’s all.” she said. She felt her head spin with confusion. Did she hear him right?

“You don’t think I’m good enough to drink with, is that it?” He still didn’t look up. Suddenly she was too frightened to look over to Danny. Why wasn’t he speaking out, saying something to diffuse this, to make it how it was, light-hearted and relaxed?

“Even now that you’re sitting in a palace you’re still too good for it. Or I’m not enough? It has to be one or the other. Or is it all junk because the common man owns it?” His voice was still low, but it fizzed now, each word snapping on his tongue as if the bubbles of alcohol were sparking as he breathed out. She looked around. Danny passed out amongst the pelts.

“God, why do you always look over to him all the time anyway? Aren’t you older than him? You need your kid brother to answer for you? Jesus, Pop, this is a time of independence! There’s so few of us left and you still look to hide behind someone else? Do you have any idea how weak that makes you look?”

He looked up suddenly, his face flush. His eyes were burning now, fuelled by the drink, but oddly cool with what he was saying to her. She stood suddenly, hoping he was too unsteady to lash out.

His arm came out in a flash. She didn’t see it as anything other than a blur, and then she was on the floor again, back by where she had been sitting. He stood over her, noticed he still held the bottle in his free hand. When did he put down the glass? she wondered. She may have even said it out loud, she wasn’t certain.

Another blow rained down on her, the flash similar, except she saw this one from a height. She tried to roll, slide to one side as it landed, but then it was dark and the taste of blood filled her mouth as her eyes closed.

But she didn’t pass out. Instead, she lay still, following his actions in the darkness. She followed his breathing, the pattern of his body as it rocked on his heels. She waited, stilled, trying to work out a way to react when he lurched down. And then, nothing. Instead, she listened as he padded away from her, heard the snap of his belt buckle, the rustle of clothes being cast aside. She risked it, opened one eye, the good one. She saw him grab Danny, coming halfway to in mumbles and confusion, as Bo quickly tossed him down on the floor, his head smashing against a rock, unable to lash out.

And she rose because Bo had showed his hand. He had been a stranger, and had gotten the best of them. But then Bo didn’t know about them either. How Poppy had suffered more than Bo could dish out in an evening, even if they were here all night. How she had learned to take punches and more; how she had learned observe and be quiet and figure people out, not by what they said but how they acted.

And as she walked closer, skilled at walking without sound having learned not to disturb men or wake drunks, she lifted the pot from the stove. And as she bore down on him, protecting the only thing that was left for her in the world, she too managed to smile, even amongst all of this, because Bo was not the only one who had been freed by all that happened. Not by a long shot.

They collected what they could carry from the cave, a ruck sack over their shoulders, one full of clean clothes, the other, food. They walked away from the cave in silence. Danny reached for her hand, and she took it. She was thinking of the deer and smiled. He looked at her, knitting his eyebrows, and she began to tell him about the stag, the promise of all the animals they would still come across. And they walked from the cave and into the shade, away from the terrible sun and the heat. They continued to walk and did not let go of each other’s hand as they made their way on.

© 2009 Chris Castle. All rights reserved.