The swing faced out across the wheatfields, providing a sweeping view of the empty highway and the unending yellow sea that curved out over the horizon. She liked to sit out there, even if she barely moved on it – it was comforting to be able to see everything. Behind her was the farmhouse atop the slight incline of the hill: a large, old crumbling mess of a domicile well past its prime even before everything went to shit. Most days her father would be outside patching a hole in the tiled roof or replacing a step that had collapsed underfoot. It seemed like the building was returning itself to the earth deliberately. In some rooms the floor was gone, replaced by a yawning maw that opened to the sodden soil under the foundations. But it was a place for them away from everything, and it was safe enough.
He was inside, or so she assumed, pattering about in the kitchen preparing their lunch. For months now he had kept a watchful eye on her, never letting her out of his sight, but that attitude had relaxed recently. He seemed less on edge; less concerned about visitors. She liked that change. Her father’s constant attention could be suffocating. They barely saw anyone save for an occasional car passing along the highway, which happened less and less now. They still watched each of them reproachfully, anticipating one turning up the dirt road to the farmhouse. She dreamt of that car often: sleek and dark, too clean, windows black as coal. The devil drove that car, and he wanted what little they had.
Pushing off from the soft dirt with her bare feet, she swung back and forth gently. The warm wind stirred the tall stalks of wheat in undulating waves, glinting in the mid-morning sun. She mouthed the Word to herself silently. Letting her lips and tongue wrap around the hard syllables. It felt jagged against her teeth, like a blade. She would never dare say it out loud, even if she was sure her father was out of earshot. What if the wind picked up her whisper and ferried it to him?
Still, she wanted to say it. She wanted to feel it on her tongue; she wanted to know how it sounded from between her lips. And so what if he did hear it? What then?
She wanted to feel it on her tongue; she wanted to know how it sounded from between her lips. And so what if he did hear it? What then?
She looked up from the abstract portrait she was drawing in the earth with her toe and stared along the length of the highway, which arced from east to west about forty yards from the tree. If one followed it east, the fields of wheat would give way to small townships, then the sprawl of suburbia, and then the city they left. To the west…she wasn’t sure. She had no reason to believe it wouldn’t be the same pattern leading to another, unfamiliar city. She wondered how things might have gone in that place. She only remembered her old life as brief flashes: her mother dead, the wail of police sirens, the yells and the screams, the vast dark rainclouds gathering overhead. That last detail stood out starkly. It was only through the hiss and noise of the storm that they managed to escape.
A voice spoke from her left and her head jerked around to look. A man stood only a few yards from her, thin and bedraggled, a dark poncho slung over his head and shoulders like a shawl. He held a thick branch like a walking stick as his knees buckled under him. She had no idea how he might have approached without her noticing. He must have come through the tall wheat, his tread masked by the whispering of the stalks.
‘Where is this?’
Her reply hitched in her throat, and she said nothing. She felt herself reaching for the Word instantly: the one she had practised in her head a thousand times, the one she felt in the dark recesses of her brain like a tumour. It was like scar tissue that her thoughts channelled around; a strange region of her consciousness she could not direct her mind towards for too long in case she lost it. Even in her head it sounded like something foreign and strange. She could not imagine what it would sound like from between human lips. Few alive would know.
‘Are you alone? Food?’
His voice was hoarse. She could see he was weak, malnourished. A face that might once have been handsome hung loose from an equine bone structure. His eyes were milky pale and bulged from their sockets. He spoke through a patchy beard, his remaining teeth yellow.
The man leaned forward, his legs quivering like a dog’s. His expression was calm but suggested a deeper madness. She opened her mouth, again about to say the Word, when she heard her father’s voice over her shoulder, low and strong.
‘Leave. Down to the road and on your way.’
Her head whipped back and she saw him squinting over the barrel of his long rifle. It had been in the farmhouse when they found it, clutched between the dead fingers of its owner, the wall behind painted with blood and brains. Her father had practised shooting it with some ammunition he’d found in an upstairs desk drawer. She’d asked him why he had bothered when he could speak the Word instead. It’s more honest this way, he had replied. And I don’t trust it anyhow, he added after a pause. Trust was something he talked about a lot, but she never felt like he trusted her with much at all.
Now he pointed the rifle at the stranger, who grinned.
‘Put that down or I’ll say it.’
‘I’ll have time to say it, and I’ll say it. Just want food for a week. Don’t wanna say it.’
They held this stance for a few moments, both clearly mulling over their options. The stranger raised his free hand weakly, the other curled around the branch he was leaning against. Her eyes flicked back and forth between the two men, toes buried into the dirt to stabilise herself, like any movement would trigger action.
It would take her father less than a second to shoot. She didn’t know how long it would take the stranger to speak. Three cruel, alien syllables. He could say them in an instant, maybe less time than it would take her father to pull the trigger. Maybe not.
She didn’t know how long it would take the stranger to speak. Three cruel, alien syllables. He could say them in an instant, maybe less time than it would take her father to pull the trigger. Maybe not.
‘We haven’t got any food,’ her father muttered.
‘Pick some wheat, make something of it. It grows wild now, but there’s plenty.’
‘I can’t. Just a week’s worth, that’s all I need. To keep going. Some other supplies if you’ve got ‘em.’
‘Put your plugs in, Elise.’
‘Don’t move, girl. I’ll say it.’
The stranger pointed with that last command, his eyes locked on hers. Her plugs were in her shirt pocket, but she’d never have time to pluck them out and insert the pliable rubber into her ears. They’d both be dead before then. Eventually her father’s grip on the rifle loosened, as did his hard expression.
‘Two cans of beef soup,’ he sighed. ‘Can’t spare much more.’
‘Not enough. You got more. You both look well fed.’
But they didn’t have much more. They thought they’d stumbled onto a goldmine when her father kicked open the basement door to the farmhouse to find row upon row of free-standing shelving, packed to the brim with canned goods. For two people it felt like a lifetime’s worth. But it dwindled fast.
The stranger shook his head, his long, lank hair sticking to his sallow, sweaty face.
‘Either you give or I speak and I take it anyway. Or you shoot me and end it. I don’t give a fuck now. But you better shoot clean or I’ll say it.’
‘Three cans, then. That’s it. Can’t spare more.’
She wanted to scream at her father. Couldn’t he see this man was beyond the realm of negotiation? He was plumbing the narrow, mindless gulf between life and death where nothing mattered but the canine impulse to eat and survive. He would take the cans and then say the Word and they’d both be dead. Instead she said nothing; gripping the wound ropes that hung from the thick branch above. Her earplugs felt so close, pressed against chest.
‘You fill a bag for me and I’ll stay with the girl,’ the man said.
Her father shook his head.
‘You can’t stay with her. I don’t know the first thing about you.’
‘I’ll yell so loud the Word kills anyone hiding in the hills.’
The stranger’s words were absurd. There was no one out there, barely anyone left – her father always said so. But this promise seemed to sway him. Had he been lying? He lowered the rifle so that an accidental discharge would do no worse than blowing off the stranger’s kneecap.
‘Okay. Let’s all calm down a little. You’ll get your bag of stuff. Some soup, some water, aspirin, whatever you need.’
‘See that I do.’
‘Then you leave.’
‘Then I leave.’
Both her and the stranger watched as her father backed away, towards the farmhouse. He stumbled as he navigated the pebbly incline, his thick boot heels sliding in the dirt. The small, grimy kitchen was at the back of the house overlooking the pond. He would not be able to see them from in there while he packed the bag, and the stranger could do just about anything. When he reached the wooden staircase that rose to the front porch, replaced the week before by his own hands, he called back.
‘You do nothing to her, you hear? You do nothing.’
The stranger, who at this point had hunched down on his ankles, his head level with hers, raised his hand to signal a reply. Her father disappeared past the front door into the property, leaving it open behind him. She could hear his heavy footfalls on the hollow wooden floorboards.
‘You two make a good life here?’ The stranger’s pale eyes remained trained on her.
She didn’t reply, casting her gaze down at her feet. Looking too long at him made her head ache. There was something about the way his pale, grimy skin clung to his skull that sickened her. He continued talking, knowing she had no real choice but to listen.
‘Seems nice out this way. Quiet. Bet you don’t see many people like me. Prolly good for you. I came from the city; walked the whole damn way. There are others out there too, you know. In the hills. They woulda found you if I didn’t. No problem for me. If you’re real quiet, you can say the Word before they hear you. Don’t even need a gun like your daddy has. Then again, it’s only me. No family to hear it.’
Again, she said nothing. There was only the wind in the wheat, the creak of the rope-knot against the branch, and his thin, reedy voice. He spoke softly, just above a whisper. In another life it might have been calming, and in this she sensed a difference to her father’s often harsh words.
‘You ever think about if anyone ever said it by accident before? Maybe they were singing or just speaking nonsense. Stringing sounds together and then, suddenly, boom. Everyone around them is stone dead. No way to explain that. I betcha it happened some time, before they figured it out. Cavemen spoke nonsense when they were learning to speak properly. They surely said it.’
‘You ever think about if anyone ever said it by accident before? Maybe they were singing or just speaking nonsense. Stringing sounds together and then, suddenly, boom.’
She could see his tongue as he spoke. It looked like a piece of shrivelled jerky. A pale, white film clung to it like sea foam. The act of speaking was exhausting him. A handful of soup cans and aspirin wasn’t going to do anything. He was sick as they come.
The sound of her father’s boots on the porch echoed out again. He stood with his rifle slung over one shoulder and a plastic grocery bag over the over bulging with cans. From this distance she couldn’t tell how many, but it would be a significant portion of their remaining stock. He walked briskly down the steps and towards them, his face a mess of creases, his expression stormy and bleak. When he arrived, he unslung the bag and dropped it on the ground in front of the stranger, who stared at it for a moment before speaking.
‘We don’t have any more to give. We need to eat too.’
‘Go back and get some more for me.’
There was a long moment where no one said anything. She could sense the brutal calculus unfolding in the minds of both men as they contemplated their options. There was no way her father could move the rifle from his shoulder into a firing position before the man spoke. She alone understood the simple, twisted moral formula of the stranger before them. He had no reason to let them live, and no barriers to ending their lives right there. The kitchen was a short walk, and he knew now that her father had returned with the goods quickly. Perhaps this entire exercise was a means of figuring out whether there were traps or elaborate mechanisms by which their food was hidden. He did not have to enact the physical cruelty of murder. He only needed to speak. She thought she could see a similar recognition of the facts at hand dawning in her father’s dark gaze. The two men now spoke more rapidly, a quiet frenzy settling into their tone.
‘I think this is more than fair.’
‘There’s no fair.’
‘Then do it because I’m asking. We’ve given you a good bit of what we have.’
‘I want more.’
‘Should we give you all of it?’
‘That’d be a start.’
‘What about her?’
‘Not my problem.’
She could see the man mouthing something, his thin, cracked lips dancing over his teeth like he was spinning the chamber of a revolver. Even in its subtlety – and despite the fact she had never seen the Word spoken herself – she could recognise that menacing dance anywhere. That crooked three-point flick of the lips spoke silently of the world in its unbecoming.
She said it instead.
The Word tasted foul. It left a sourness like an oil slick from the tip of her tongue to the base of her throat. In its actuality, it sounded like a word from outside everything; the logical inverse of a forgotten incantation which started the engine of the universe. The result was immediate: the stranger keeled over face-first into the soft earth, and her father dropped where he stood, body crumpling. They didn’t cry out, as she expected they might. The silence was absolute. It was as if someone had simply pulled a power cable from their brains and extinguished the light in their eyes. The thuds of their bodies hitting the ground rang out in near unison.
Stepping off the swing, she took the rifle from her father’s body and the plastic bag from the ground. Pausing a moment to look at the still forms, she walked back to the farmhouse. All that remained now was the gentle warmth of the wind as it rustled the clothes of the dead men, just as it had the tall stalks of wheat.