by Jutsuka (述歌)
“We go, son. Now,” Dad said absently. He took a long step up and pulled the driver’s door shut with a grunt, the mosquito net clinking against the thick safety glass of the windows. He stashed the gas mask between the seats. Dad’s worn leather cowboy hat was pulled up and a sweat covered his forehead, his gray, bushy eyebrows riddled with tiny drops. He propped his massive body into the driver’s seat, wrinkling the plastic coat that covered most of what was inside, and rammed the car key into the ignition.
I dropped our maps in my lap and pushed myself up higher in the passenger seat. And winced. My upper arms had already begun to stick to the plastic. “Something happened?” I asked.
“Kid came back. Was in Norway. Died,” Dad answered. One of the days where he talked to me. “Ten minutes ago.” I sucked in my breath. Dad twisted his head to look at me and grinned without humor, his teeth more black than white. “Yeah,” he said and turned back to the wheel. He quickly touched his fingers to the silver pendant of Holy Mother Mary at his necklace. “The flu.”
The engine spluttered to life. He floored it. With a lurch the long-haul truck sped forward, back on the road. I ducked my head against the window and in the wing mirror I caught a last glance of the petrol station. In less than a few weeks it would be just another mass grave.
I liked my coarse lips. At least the glass at my temples was slightly cooler than the thick air in the driving cab. “Got anything to drink?” I asked.
“You want to drink any? From back there?” Dad drummed his hands against the steering wheel, in a slow, drum-like rhythm, repeating the same pattern over again after few seconds. I didn’t answer him. “You want?” he repeated, his voice sharper.
I banged my head against the window. “No,” I said.
The drumming stopped. The engine still purred, but I could hear Dad’s intake of breath. “Good,” he said. As he let his breath go, I turned my head to wearily watch him raise his right hand, brown-red sunburned with dark hair growing on his fingers. He didn’t look, but stretched his hand in my direction and by the time I tried to lean into the plastic of the seat, the back of his hand already hit me at the shoulder, hard. The air rushed out of me and I grunted. Dad was by no way weak, and no way he pulled his punches even with me still being sixteen and looking like it.
“…hurt,” I groaned.
“Get out of the seat,” Dad growled, looking at the empty road in front of us; but he had already raised his hand again.
I scrambled back, pushing the maps on the ground, tumbling backwards between the seats and over the gearstick, my sweaty hands slipping on the plastic. I hit my head on the upper sleeping compartment and winced, pulling my legs behind me, and almost lost my footing with just my bare soles trying to find a hold. Dad put his hand back to the gearstick. Even if he never shifted gears, that was probably habit.
“And stay there.”
I nodded, mutely, and pushed myself further backwards. My “bed,” the lower one, was half a meter wide, but almost as long as the driving cab, so hat even Dad’s body could fit into his. I couldn’t sit in mine without duking my head, so I did, hunching as low as I could, until my neck hurt and my back was curled, my feet tucked under my calves. Dad started drumming again. I folded my arms on my knees and pressed my forehead against them. My eyeballs felt dried up, and my head, even with the stuff Dad had taped the driving cab’s windows with, was burned.
Dad was still driving, still drumming, the engine still purring, and I pushed my face back into my pillow.
I threw my arm over my head, pressing my nose into the crook and closed my eyes. I wasn’t allowed to go outside anyway, not without the gun, and not without the gas mask. Both were Dad’s and if I so much as touched them, regardless of the money I had paid for the journey, our deal was over.
I stumbled over, still drunk on my half sleep, and relieved myself. Dad had pointed me to the grass in front of the truck and I threw the paper in the bushes next to me. The road before us was empty, but it always was. We had taken to traveling less used roads, because all the mayor ones were either blocked — an ocean of abandoned cars in one big dead traffic jam or just an old accident where no one was responsible for removing the vehicles any more — or patrolled by people we wouldn’t want to meet. Military. Sick people.
It was dusk and red lights spilled over the asphalt, making it look like something out of a road trip movie. I turned back to the truck as the tarp of the flatbed rattled and I stopped, my breath caught in my throat. I took a step back and carefully leaned forward, to see past the driving cab to the back of the long haul truck. Indeed, part of the tarp hung at the side. I quickly looked up. Dad wasn’t in the driving cab, as far as I could see, so probably in the back, on the flatbed. Why, I couldn’t fathom. I didn’t know what he transported and I didn’t want to know what he got from back there.
The tarp was plain, no indication of what was inside. When I asked him the first night we spent in the truck, just past Barcelona, he had held the gun to my face and made me swear never to look.
I forced myself to step forward again. Dad had left the driver’s door open for me to crawl in, so I did. But as I gripped the handle to pull myself up, I suddenly felt a sharp nudge at my back. I froze.
“Down!” a male voice growled behind me, and that was not Dad.
I let go of the door, jumped back down and banged my knee at the steps. I winced. The pain shot right through my leg, like the burn of hot metal, and I stumbled when I landed, not quite catching the fall the right away with my foot still curled. I bit back a yelp.
“Turn,” the man behind me immediately said, prodding me again with the barrel and I quickly spun around, taking a step back into the door. The gun was now positioned straight to my stomach and I could feel the ice in there, numbness crawling down my legs, arms and into my tongue. I stared up. Probably in his early thirties, with a black three days stubble on his dark skin and a cowboy hat that matched his skin tone but shadowed his eyes in a way that reminded me of Dad.
“You speak English?” he asked, then held his gun higher, to my heart. I nodded and swallowed. “So, what are you doing?”
“I–” I began, then coughed. I still hadn’t had anything to drink and I couldn’t stop coughing even if I wanted to, the dust from two weeks with no rain stuck in my mouth. And I did want to, as the man sneered and pushed his gun against me another time, with the steps behind me digging into my upper calves.
“You sick?” he said and took a step back. I shook my head and pressed the back of my hand against my mouth, my teeth, my tongue. I felt my eyes tearing up and, blurred as my vision was now, saw him curl his mouth in disgust. “Sorry, boy,” he said. “Can’t take that risk.” He flashed his teeth and raised the pistol to my face.
I blinked straight into the barrel then screwed my eyes shut the same moment I heard Dad’s, “Ey!”
The man stopped and I opened my eyes. I couldn’t look away, not with the gun still aimed at my forehead, but I saw the man looking to the back of the truck, probably to Dad. “He’s traveling with me,” Dad said. I felt my breath hitch as the man looked back to me, even if I couldn’t see his eyes. Then he dropped his gun with a shrug.
“Wo hast du ihn denn aufgelesen?” the man said as he stashed his gun away in his belt, and I blinked at the language.
“Speak English, fool,” Dad grunted. I forced my eyes away from the man in front of me and looked over at Dad. He was leaning against the truck with one arm, his hat pushed to his back, his gas mask hanging loosely in front of his chest, the other hand holding a white styrofoam box, with a print I couldn’t read. Behind him, I could see another, smaller truck. “Picked him up in Malaga.”
The man turned to me again. He smirked, his hat again dipping low in his face, and said: “¡Hola!” He flicked his fingers in front of my face, just centimeters away from my eyes. I dodged back.
“Come to the back and help with your stuff,” Dad said, then carried the white box behind the truck.
The man threw a last glance at me, then went, mumbling, “Coming…”
I stood there like a deer caught in the headlights, staring after him, my heart still in panic mode, drumming like Dad at the steering wheel.
“And you,” Dad shouted from behind the flatbed. “Get back in the fucking truck.” I scrambled backwards immediately. Leaving the door open had cooled the air in the truck and I gratefully climbed over the seats onto my bed, flopping down on the sheets. I leaned forward and could see the map pinned behind the steering wheel. If this was where we were now, we would arrive in Moscow soon, as the border to Russia seemed only a few centimeters away.
I leaned back, against the wall and winced as I heard the snap of the tarp and finally the footsteps coming to the driving cab. Dad looked in first, only threw a glance at me, then stepped back again.
I narrowed my eyes, as the other man climbed in, a duffel bag over his shoulder. He dropped the bag behind the driver’s seat, onto my bag, then looked back, kneeling on the seat and the shifting gear, arms leaning on the upholstery. “There’s not enough room,” he said, his voice sounding irritated.
Dad snorted. “Just get in with the boy. Or sleep in the passenger seat. I don’t care, just move.”
The man shrugged, beginning to climb onto my bed. “Sorry,” he said with a nod to me. “Don’t want to wake up with my neck cricked.” I leaned away as he ducked into the bed next to me. He wasn’t as big as Dad, but still knocked me forward as he tried to lay down, his legs stretched behind me
“I’ll get into the passenger seat,” I said, scrambling forward, when Dad’s hand hit my arm and shoved me back. My head banged against the upper bed and the man grunted as I landed on his legs.
Dad turned to us, his arm linked over the seat. His hat was crushed behind him on his back and his hair even seemed grayer than it had been two month ago when I first met him. “You don’t pay me enough for a shotgun,” he said with a nod to me. I glared at him, but he just scratched at his beard, also gray to the last hair, making him look just like every one of his probably over sixty years. I had stubble as well, not surprising with how many petrol stations had already been boarded by the flu, which meant I didn’t get to shave often.
The man stretched out on the bed, lying on his side, his head holstered on his arm and his hat pushed up, so that it still covered his face. I squinted at him, but he just pushed his face farther into the crook of his arm. When I looked up, frowning, Dad was still watching.
“And who’s this?” I asked, jerking my thumb back at the man. Dad shrugged, his wide shoulders sagging up and down, shaking the front seat, and turned back to the wheel.
“My son,” he answered. “Real one.”
I looked back at Dad’s son. “What do I call you?” I asked.
He moved, raising his hand in front of me, palm stretched. “Just B–”
“Call him Brother,” Dad interrupted, roughly. Brother let his hand fall, hitting my thighs, then pulled it back to cover his face again. His knee hit me in the back as he moved, and I grunted, pushing my feet forward where they lay on the armrests between the two seats, near the shifting gear.
I hit Dad’s forearm, when he started the truck. “Lay down,” Dad grunted as the truck rumbled and took off along the road. “Don’t bother me.”
I curled my lips.
“There isn’t enough space,” I said, voice raspy. “And I’m still thirsty.”
Dad shook his head, then pushed his cowboy hat back on. “Never paid for a single bed either. Just lie down.” He turned, then, one hand still on the wheel, the other held up. “Or do I have to make you?”
I pulled my feet back, up on the bed along Brother’s legs, but the bed was small and I couldn’t even lie on my back with him in there as well. I let myself fall down beside him, crowded as it was, and turned my back to him. I stared up to the driver’s seat and beneath the engine’s sound I could hear Dad drumming. I shifted again and closed my eyes when I felt Brother behind me, propping himself up.
“What,” I rasped, my throat feeling like it had been scratched, as he leaned over me. I stared up at him, and with his shirt open and neck barely centimeters away I could see white, fine scars on his black skin, crossing over him like some spider’s web. Brother pulled back, flopping back down beside me and I blinked as he pushed something in front of my eyes, my hands automatically grabbing it.
Splashing with liquid, a bottle of water. I licked my lips. “…thanks,” I said, opening it with frantic motions, then just putting the bottle to my mouth. The water was lukewarm, and drinking with the head lying flat wasn’t a good idea, but it tasted like Moscow. I gulped down enough to ease the scratch, emptying the bottle. As I pulled it away from my lips, dented in my hands, I grimaced. I probably shouldn’t have drunk it all.
I glanced at Brother, his eyes still hidden under the hat and his arms, which were darkening his face further. I threw the bottle against Dad’s seat, not expecting a reaction and not getting one, then turned away from Brother, curling into myself as much as was possible with so little space.
I let myself be lulled by the purr of the engine into some kind of dream, half awake, half sleeping, with Moscow looming in the windshield just out of the corner of my eyes. Every time I shook awake and looked, there were just endless fields.
Brother caught my movement. “¡Buenos Días!” he said, tipping his hat with his index finger. I rolled my eyes, looking beyond him out of the truck.
As Dad slowed down further I could see us drive under some kind of bridge, but looking to the side, I realized it was a border control. Dad put the truck to a stop, letting the engine go out. He turned to the window, but not without muttering to the side, “Behave.” I leaned back further info the bed and could see Brother sit up straighter. Dad rolled the window down.
“Passports,” I heard a man demand and saw Dad give him something. The man left again.
Dad softly exhaled, dropping his shoulders. “Shouldn’t take long,” he said.
“No,” Brother agreed. “Though they might wonder why we travel with a boy who isn’t family.” He looked to me.
Dad turned as well, narrowing his eyes at me. “He could be…”
Brother shook his head. “No way!” he said and reached back at me, half climbing over the seat. I warily watched his hand, and as he aimed at my head, I ducked farther into the back. Brother smirked at me. “He looks like we kidnapped him off some tropical island. With that bed head.”
“He doesn’t look like you either,” I said to Dad. He turned to his son, looking him up and down as Brother flopped back into his seat.
Brother grinned. “I look like my mother,” he said. “Had luck.”
Dad grunted, then turned to me. “His mother– most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, as beautiful as you can imagine? Dark skin, black as the night, and her curves–” His grin grew lewd as he rendered her figure in front of my eyes with his hands, drawing hips into the air. “I miss that girl. French lady to the last. At least she gave her looks to him. Should’ve given him brains as well.” He pointed at Brother.
Brother took his hat off with a flourish motion, grinning, with wrinkles around his eyes. Yeah, I could see the resemblance between them as they shared the same expression when they looked at each other now.
I cleared my throat. “…did she die?” Dad nodded. “Oh, I’m sorry. The flu?”
Dad snorted. “Only the stupid ones get that; no,” he said, turning back to the wheel. “Died, what? Three years ago. Just before the flu hit. Breast cancer.” He didn’t look back to me, but instead stared out of the windshield and I licked my lips. For the first time in the two months I thought about my parents, really thought of them and of me being away. My throat closed up, my eyes felt like I had rubbed grains of sand into them and my thoughts grew cloudy. I shook my head, slightly, blinking to wake up and found Brother watching me, a frown on his forehead.
“What?” I asked. With his hat off he looked more human, more approachable, his eyes deep, even if he did still have the gun he had threatened me with.
He let his gaze roam over me, still frowning and pursed his lips. “You’re–”
“Quiet,” Dad said sharply. “The officer.”
Brother stiffened instantly, turning back to the front, sitting up straight, before I had registered the words. I heard the footsteps, then the man from before spoke again, his accent blurring his English. “Please leave the truck,” he said.
I could see Dad frown and he traded a quick glance with Brother, who let his hand slip against his left thigh. I held my breath. Dad turned back to the window. “Is there a problem?” he asked, his voice deep and sure.
“Please,” the man’s voice again. “We do not want to cause you any trouble.” Dad curled his left hand into a fist, next to his thigh, where the officer wouldn’t see him.
“Of course,” Dad said. He reached to the side, unbuckling his seatbelt and looked at me with sharp eyes. “You stay in here.”
“The boy too,” the officers voice droned through the car.
Dad gritted his teeth and turned back. “We don’t have this many gas masks,” he said and raised his own up from the middle for the officer to see. Whatever the officer did, Dad let his gas mask drop, kicking his door open. The door creaked, as always, and Dad used the second to whisper to me out of the corner of his mouth. “Don’t do anything.” I swallowed as Dad climbed out of the driving cab.
Brother waited, beckoning me forward. I scrambled over the middle control, slipping on the plastic and as I got over the drivers seat I felt Brother’s hand on my shoulder, as he followed me down. My feet wobbled, head spinning, as I got to the ground. Brother pushed me forward, so he could have space to jump down to, then led me two steps over to Dad. If I hadn’t seen the officer watching I would have shaken his hand off.
There were three officers, but I didn’t know anything about Belarus’ police, so I didn’t know the differences between their slightly unfitted looking uniforms. I looked over to the border control’s office and it was lit, even in bright daylight.
“So,” Dad said. “Can we have our passports back?” The officer to the right, a stocky man with a mustache, nodded grimly, then handed them to Dad.
“Thank you,” Dad intoned, with barely hidden annoyance. “Was there something else?”
The officers exchanged a look. The officer who had just handed over the passports and still stood close to Dad, nodded back to the flatbed of the truck. “Open your flatbed.”
Dad stared at them, then shook his head. “You want the papers?” he asked. “I have them over here–” He too a step to the side, over to us, clearly to get to the driving cab’s door.
All three officers stepped forward. The man from before smiled, but it was a forced smile, grim and fake. “No need, no need,” he said, holding up his hands. “We need to examine anyway. The cargo. You understand.”
Dad shook his head. “No,” he said.
The officer looked at him. He had to look up. With other grown men beside him, Dad still looked massive, like a bull in an arena, shoulders broad, neck thick. Next to Brother, still standing behind me, it wasn’t as obvious, because Brother looked bigger than he was, as he was about a head taller than me. “I said, we need to–”
Dad turned to him. He was like a tank, looking down, stable. “No as in No.”
The officer drew a sharp breath. “Then we cannot let you pass, sirs,” he said, as he traded a glance with the officers behind him. One was another big man, with quite a bit of muscle to him, of course smaller than Dad. He had a cigarette between his lips, drawing smoke in and out. Next to him, the other officer had his pale face drawn in something akin to pain — maybe disgust. After he exchanged his red-eyed glance with the man who was actually doing the speaking, he raised his hand to cough. Maybe the smoke was bothering him.
I felt Brother’s hand — his left one — slip from my shoulder to my waist, squeezing slightly. I turned my head, lips curled, to tell him off — but he wasn’t even looking at me, instead staring at the officers. Dad took a step forward, holding his hands up in a “no weapons” kind of gesture.
“We’ve a document–” he said, reaching into his back pocket where he had put the passports. “Maybe you didn’t see that?”
“We saw,” the officer said. “This does not count here.”
Irritation flickered over Dad’s face, for a second. “Well, then you understand that I won’t let you examine the cargo,” Dad said, voice still calm. I felt Brother’s fingers digging into my side, just below my ribs, probably leaving bruises. I gritted my teeth.
The officer smiled, turned back to his colleagues and nodded at them. “Then we have to ask you to leave your cargo here as it will become property of Belarus.” The officers behind him set into motion. The taller one stubbed his cigarette, drew one last breath before grinding it into the road. The other coughed, then set into motion as well, almost stumbling forward, touching his head to wipe the sweat off his forehead and to pinch his nose.
“Then we’d rather leave,” Dad said curtly as the two officers went to the back of the truck.
“You may,” said the one still with them. “But still, we will keep your cargo.” I stared at the man. Dad closed his eyes for a second, drew a breath.
“You won’t,” he said, his voice laced with anger.
The officer reached to his side, to his pistol, patting it. “I was hoping you would understand,” he answered. “Help me open…?” He set into motion, also going back to the truck’s end. Dad was beside him and I followed, since Brother was guiding me forward. I could almost hear Dad grinding his teeth, then I felt Brother’s fingers dig into my waist another time, and because of this I was aware of him and of the soft sound his gun made when he pulled the safety off. I swallowed. We reached the officers who were beginning to pull up the tarp. Dad turned slightly, one step away from the officer so that Brother and me could see them all.
“See,” the officer said. “With a little cooperation–” I felt Brother move his hand. My head felt blank and I tore myself away, stumbling forward, into the two officers opening the tarp. I half turned, opening my mouth to have the pale officer staring at me, directly in front of my face. He obviously wanted to say something too, having caught my shoulders, but coughed slightly, spit hitting my face. The other officer made it as far as “Wha–” before Dad gripped my shoulder and send me flying.
I hit the ground, the road burning into my side and my face, as five gunshots clearly rang through me. I pressed my hands over my ears, but everything was already over, and no more shots rang. I lay there, stunned, blinking at my view of the road when a boot got into my way. I slowly turned on my back, even if my face burned like it had been scratched open, just under my nose and over my mouth, and looked up at Brother leaning over me, feet on either side of my waist. He put his gun back info his holster and reached down with his other hand. I stared at him.
“Come on,” he said. He looked over his shoulder, probably over to Dad, then back down at me. “Don’t be so dramatic.” He smiled, just quirking his lips up. I blinked one last time, then I grabbed his hands and let him help me up.
He took my chin in his fingers, tilting my head and I looked up at him. He scrunched his nose up. “That must have hurt,” he said, taking his hand down. He stepped away and I could see the officers, lying on the road, blood seeping out from under them. Dad stood next to them, fixing the tarp of the truck. I quickly looked away, at Brother’s back.
“Not more than what you did to them,” I said dryly. Brother snorted, bending down to pick up the gun the one officer had halfway drawn.
“They would have shot us just as easily,” he said with a shrug.
“Well,” I answered, suddenly cold, curling my arms around my middle, and stepped away as the puddle of blood got bigger and threatened to seep up to my shoes. “You made sure they won’t.” The pale officer wore a wedding ring, quite visible on his outstretched hand, as well as the one who had talked to us. I stepped further away from them.
“No chitchat,” Dad said sharply. “Get back into the truck.” He pushed past Brother and me, carefully stepping around the blood as well. I stood still, my feet rooted to the ground.
Dad looked back, saw that I wasn’t moving and sighed. “You paid me to bring you to Moscow,” he said, exasperated, “not to make sure your sensibilities aren’t offended.” He gestured at Brother to hurry. “You want to cancel our deal, I leave you right here, you go back.” Dad cocked his head, looking at me; Brother as well.
I bit my lip. “No,” I said. “I want to go to Moscow.”
“Then get in the truck,” Dad said, and added quietly, as I hurried closer, “Don’t want to be here when the cops find this.” I climbed into the truck, into my bed. Brother followed directly behind me, getting into the passenger seat. He looked at me, frowning, until Dad got in. The truck thrummed to life. I blinked at the sound, drawing my knees close and pressed my head between them, against my temples, the bed being just high enough for that. I stared at the sheets under me, with the engine purring and–
“¿Qu–” I began to say, then coughed. One time in my hand. But as I opened my mouth for another try, “Wha–” again the coughing ended my sentence. I pressed the back of my hand against my mouth, my vision swimming with tears and still my throat didn’t stop convulsing, with my lungs already in flames.
“Hey,” Brother said. “Calm down, okay? I’m not your father. Okay? Calm.”
I spluttered, drawing deep breaths. The next round of coughs shook my entire body. Brother pressed his forearms on my shoulders, his head leaning against my neck, and held me down, until the coughing subsided. I fell back into the bed and my chest, my body arched, every breath like iron branding my breast. As I lay panting, Brother moved his head up from my neck. He was crouched over me, same as he had been the entire time, his knees touching my upper calves, his back probably pressed against the ceiling of my bed.
“You want any more water?” Brother asked and raised a bottle of water next to his face. It was two thirds empty already. I nodded, because I didn’t trust my voice, not with my throat still feeling so raw. Brother took the cap off with his teeth, and let it drop to the side. He slipped his hand beneath my head, raising it, then held the bottle against my lips.
I took small sips, closing my eyes, until the bottle was empty. “Thanks,” I murmured. Brother chuckled and with him so close, the vibrations made my own body shake a little.
“No problem,” he answered. “You’ve been, like, moaning for ‘agua, agua‘ forever.” I forced my eyes to open and stared at him with raised eyebrows and lowered lids, just to have him chuckle another time. I dropped my head again. The movement made my head spin, as small as it was, and I felt disoriented, as if diving in deep waters and not knowing where to break the surface again. Brother’s hand on my forehead felt oddly hot, and clammy.
“You’re burning up,” he said quietly, and as I opened my eyes he let his hand fall away in order to move it forward. I stared at him as he briefly gripped my head, making me stay still, and touched his forehead to mine. “Yeah,” he said, voice rough, so close; then he leaned back. “Definitely fever.” I blinked. I didn’t feel warm, not a bit.
“Cold,” I said. Brother sighed, letting his head fall forward before looking up at me again.
“I imagine,” he whispered. But he didn’t get off, but instead stayed crouched over me, a cover like the sheets I wished he would pull up. I shivered a little. “Should you even be here?” I asked. I didn’t want to turn my head that far to the side to look to the seats, but the engine was off, so I focused on his face over me. A complicated look passed over his face, one I couldn’t read.
He spoke calmly, but still at first I didn’t understand what he was saying, “You won’t be contagious for another day, probably.” I froze.
“I’m not sick,” I said in a hoarse whisper. “I’m just not feeling well!” I struggled under him, but even moving my arms was hard enough as they felt heavy and my back was coated in sweat, despite the cold. Brother didn’t budge. “I’m not!” I repeated, defensively. Brother didn’t answer. My mind raced and I blinked, confused, for I couldn’t grasp a single thought. “I’m not– I didn’t, I never left the truck!” I stared up at him. “I never left…” He shook his head.
His mouth was drawn into a slight grimace and he looked down at me with his frown soft and his eyes pitying. “Yesterday,” he said.
“The officer?” I asked and had to cough, but only once. Brother moved back a bit, to give me room. When I could breathe again, I laughed. “The flu isn’t that fast.” My eyes were teary again, and I rubbed at them.
“Yeah,” Brother said. I let my hands fall from my face. “Healthy people can run around a few days, totally unaffected. But you aren’t healthy. Hell, you’re sleeping the whole time…”
I scrunched up my face, staring up to him. “I’m not sick,” I spat. He snorted, pulling my arm up between our faces, gripping it in his hand. My skin looked pale against his, not surprising, but a sickly pale, almost white, and I could see the veins in my arm. His fingers closed around my arm completely.
“You’re weak,” Brother said. “When did you last eat something? I mean, last time?” I pulled my arm away and he let me go. The small gesture made me feel tired.
I stared up at him, my body shaking a little, drenched in sweat, and I just felt like rolling over, blocking out the light from outside that was burning into my eyes. A cold dread settled in my stomach and my chest, which made it hard to breathe. “Doesn’t matter anymore, does it?” I whispered, dryly, and my lips parted to grin without humor. He stared down at me. I turned my head to the side and rubbed my arm over my eyes, pressing against my eyeballs until they hurt. “I’m dead anyway.”
Brother was quiet for a moment, then he said, “You won’t die.” I laughed, hacking up as I started coughing and my shoulders shook.
“There aren’t any meds,” I managed to say between gasps. “I’ll die, that’s it.”
Brother pried my arm away from my face. “You won’t–”
“Come on,” I said, shaking my head and pulling my hand from his grip. “I just wanted to survive this crazy flu, I left my– I left and here I am, probably just a few days away from Moscow and I’m stupid enough to get fucking infected!” The last part was a scream, as if torn out of me. Brother frowned. “Just leave, I– I need a moment–” I said, coughing again and saw him shake his head.
“You don’t,” he said with a calm voice. He leaned back, almost sitting down on my legs, crouching low. His eyes glinted. “I won’t let you die.” I laughed harshly.
But Brother simply grabbed my shoulders and pulled me up in a sitting position. He was close, sitting basically in my lab, both of our heads ducked to avoid hitting the upper bed. My head swam, but he held me up, even as he climbed over me to the seats.
“Come,” he said and pulled me with him. I slipped on the plastic, and he just grabbed me and hauled me over to the driver’s seat. He jumped down to the ground, pulling me after him.
I wobbled and he hooked an arm under my shoulders. “Just a few steps,” he muttered, dragging me with him. He went along the truck, to the back, when I heard Dad’s voice.
“Ah, you brought him here,” Dad said. He was leaning against the back of the truck, one hand tucked into his pocket, the other held loosely over his gun. His face was grim. “Saves me the trouble of going to get him.” I could feel Brother stiffen, plastered against his side as I was.
“Step aside,” Brother said, taking another step. Dad pushed away from the truck, his eyes flicking to me, then back to Brother. His cowboy hat was pushed into his face, shading his expression.
“He agreed to this,” Dad said. “Before he purchased the ride to Moscow.” I felt my breath stutter. This was, in fact, part of the deal I had made with Dad. Get the flu and you’re dead. Had sounded easy at that time.
“Well, and didn’t he listen to you,” Brother sneered. “even when you forgot to feed him? No water, no food? That’s part of your deal?”
Dad shook his head, taking another step forward. He drew his gun slowly.
“I can’t let him go further with us,” he said, his voice oddly detached. “It’ll only grow worse, then he’ll die and in a few days we’re worm food as well.” He released the safety. ” Step back, son. I can’t let this mission be compromised.” I stared at the gun and bolted. I turned around in a spin, launching forward, just to get away, only to find Brother’s grip pulling me back.
“No,” Brother shouted, gripping my arms tightly. I was his face twisted in a grimace, as he pulled me against him, half shielding me from Dad. “You won’t kill him.”
“We also agreed, son,” Dad said, sounding pained.
“Yeah?” Brother said, shaking his head. “I’m not the one who broke the contract! Passengers forbidden, wasn’t it?”
Dad scowled. “– I don’t care! Just let him run, but no flu-carrier gets into my truck. That’s what you wanted?”
“You aren’t the man I remember.” Brother sighed. Dad lowered his gun.
“Here?” Dad said, raising his other arm to include the surroundings, the road, the fields, the truck. “He’s no different to me than that officers at the border.”
I felt Brother shake and looking up I saw his mouth set, his brows drawn together, eyes flashing. “He is– Er ist ein Kind!” Brother grounded out, slowly.
“He isn’t a child.” Dad snorted. “He paid me sixty thousand Euro for driving him to Moscow, otherwise I wouldn’t have picked him up. Sixty thousand, in cash! He even told me he robbed his parents of this, when they could’ve gotten to Africa. That’s not the decision of a child,” Dad concluded. He shook his head.
I pressed my lips together as Brother turned tome. He didn’t say anything, just looked, but I didn’t meet his eyes. “Running away in fear when there is no other option?” Brother said, looking back to Dad, his hands still gripping me tightly. “That’s exactly the decision a child would make.”
I looked up and saw them staring at each other, mouths closed, postures straight, until Dad abruptly turned his head away to watch the road behind the truck. “We can’t let him spread the flu,” he said, his voice rough.
Brother spoke quietly, “Then cure him.”
Dad shook his head, taking off his hat,running his fingers through his hair. “It’s not that simple.” He sounded tired.
Brother took a step forward, pulling me with him and as I stumbled he held me up. “You have some left, don’t you?” Brother said. Dad didn’t answer. “Of course you have. That’s why you asked before if I’d caught anything. Wanted to use it on me? Well–” Brother stepped to the side, yanking me forward so hard that I nearly threw up from the sudden movement and ended up just blinking at Dad. “use it on him.”
Dad sighed. I couldn’t read his expression as he looked at the ground, then he turned away.
“Do as you think you have to,” Dad said, voice flat, straightening his body and leaving to the other side of the truck. I stared after him.
“Come on,” Brother said softly as he pulled me with him to the rear. He legs were shaking, so he leaned me against the truck. I felt him work at the tarp, brushing my arm from time to time, but it felt surreal, as if it wasn’t my body, wasn’t my eyes seeing the long, winding road through nothing, not my mind thinking. The tarp rolled up and I fell backwards. If it wasn’t for Brother who quickly put a hand behind my head, I might have banged it against the floor of the truck as well. I looked up at Brother to see his half smile, then he let my head down, slowly pulling his hand away until I was resting on the floor completely, only my legs hanging over the edge.
I heard him rip something open — sounded like styrofoam, then package –, but I could only watch the light playing on the tarp on the cover above me, casting shimmers down until my sight blurred. I was still looking up when Brother leaned in.
He propped me up, using his hands and then I was leaning against his thigh, his arm curled around my shoulders. I blinked at him. I blinked down at his other hand, opening a white package. There were pills inside, and Brother popped them out, two, three, four in his hand, then let the package fall. I stared at his hand, the pills white and almost blinding.
“Open,” Brother said and as I opened my mouth to ask, “Open what?” he pressed the pills into my mouth. I swallowed by reflex before the pills stuck, the taste bitter on my tongue, his hand still touching my tingling lips and heating my cheeks.
“You’re supposed to take them every two hours,” Brother intoned. He took his hand away from my face and grabbed the package off the floor, stuffing it in the pocket of his jeans. He pushed at my shoulders. “Can you sit up?” he asked. I nodded.
Brother stood up, giving me his hand. “–hopp,” he said and with a sharp pull he had me sitting on the edge, slightly disoriented. He jumped from the truck next to me, then turned, resting his elbows on my legs. “And down.” He grabbed me at my waist, hoisting me down. For a moment, I was sure I would throw up all over him, but when I closed my eyes, that subsided. I heard him begin to pull down the tarp and as I turned to him, I froze.
Out of the corner of my eye I had seen boxes upon boxes, and in the back some big containers, but until this moment, the implication had been hidden behind the idea that I was going to die, that I wouldn’t even reach Moscow. I felt my throat close up. I was looking at boxes upon boxes of meds.
For the last year there hadn’t been any against the flu anymore, none of the old ones, that maybe, maybe would work on someone. For one and a half year, maybe a bit longer, the old ones hadn’t been working anymore, the flu too far evolved.
Brother closed the tarp before my eyes, securing it while I was still staring. He pushed me forward with his hand at the small of my back, towards the driving cap. “Let’s get inside,” he said. “We’ll probably continue when Dad has cooled down enough.” We neither saw Dad on our way nor when we climbed into the driving cab, with Brother’s hand still on my back, guiding me when my vision was still frayed on the edges and my head cloudy.
The plastic of the cover inside felt strange under my hands and I couldn’t get a real grip, just scrambling forward. Brother pushed me on my bed, crawling in after me. I was exhausted, my limps heavy, and my head burning. I just fell over on my side when Brother nudged me, but I lay sprawled with my eyes shut. I felt the hard mattress dip and a hand touching my neck.
“Come here,” Brother said. I let him pull me closer, his legs stretched, until I was curled around his midst. I pressed my head against his shirt. Behind my closed eyelids colors fluttered like lights, pictures I couldn’t focus at appearing. I opened my eyes, staring at Brother’s waist, his shirt. It wasn’t comfortable to lie like this, his upper calves too hard, but I could hold unto him as I shook, my hands clawing into his shirt, and that was better than nothing. I stared into his shirt, the fabric pressing against my face.
“That was Tamiflu, right?” I whispered, my throat feeling torn.
Brother shifted, putting his hand on my head, to rub my temples. “Something like it, I think,” he answered. “Newer I guess. More potent.”
“And you have it.” There was so much of it. A shiver ran down my spine. “No wonder Dad never let me see.” I started at my own voice and my thoughts bumped together, tangling.
“It’s not ours,” Brother said. “We’re just bringing it to its owners.”
“Moscow, yeah.” He sighed and his hand just rested at my head, weight on my temple and ear, pressing me into the dark corner between his shirt and the mattress. Brother’s voice sounded muffled like this, but I still felt the vibrations through his chest. “Why’re you heading towards Moscow?”
I shrugged. “Was the last thing on the news,” I murmured “Before the broadcast crashed.”
“‘Moscow, last City on Earth?’,” Brother asked. I snickered, I couldn’t help myself.
“Almost,” I said.
When I closed my eyes I was back there, sitting in front of my computer, listening to the last English radio station via web. ‘No flu in Moscow–‘, just before this one also went down, along with Google and then there was nothing, just inaccessible pages all over. Cut off from the world and the neighbors were already dead, but no one would remove their bodies for even that could get you infected.
“Africa would’ve been safe as well–” Brother said.
“Do you speak Spanish?” I interrupted him, raising my voice even though that hurt my head. I wanted to crawl into… something, just something dark and warm.
“No,” Brother said. “Though– well, I can greet you and order breakfast.”
“¡Qué lástima!” I said quietly and the words felt like some alien tongue of another world. “I’m even thinking in English! After speaking nothing else for two months.” Brother laughed. “No, really, it’s horrible!” I turned my head a bit, so that I could see his face, at least the line of his jaw, a dimple on his cheek.
He turned his head and caught me looking, so that I quickly hid my face again, pressing it into his shirt. He hummed something, so soft I couldn’t hear it, and scratched my head again, just a slow motion of his hand above my ear.
“Will I survive?” I asked, the words tumbling over each other.
“Yeah,” he said. “Though in Africa you would’ve survived as well–”
“I get it, okay?” I shouted. I pushed him away, or rather me away from him, but his hands gripped me, one on the back of my head, the other at my waist, pulling me tight against him. His grip hurt, like the fingers were digging into my skin. I tried to struggle, but the next movement sent a jolt of pain through my head and I winced. Instead of trying to get away I now grabbed at Brother’s shirt, curling myself around him. My head burned and my body felt heavy, like I was underwater, drifting only deeper. Brother loosened his grip slowly. I bit my lip.
“What do you expect?” I asked and wished I hadn’t, for my voice sounded raw and open. But I couldn’t stop. “I’m only a child. I’ve never driven a car, I’ve never had to work, I haven’t even kissed someone, I didn’t–” Brother snorted. I stopped, turning my head and looked up at him. He was smiling. “What,” I said.
He chuckled, his body rocking with the sound, then he smirked down at me. “You’ve never kissed someone? Seriously?” he asked.
I scowled. “I’m sixteen!”
“I thought the youth was like this, all– pregnant at thirteen and stuff.” I continued to look at him.
My hands were still fisted in his shirt, but I unknotted my right, made a fist and punched his side. Brother only laughed louder. Drawing my fist back again, I was stopped by hands on my neck and waist turning me slightly, so that I was directly looking at him. I tried to roll away but his grip stopped me.
“Aw, sorry,” he said, grinning. He leaned sidewards, down to me. “Here.” I blinked and in that moment he pressed his lips on mine. I blinked again. He had his eyes open, watching me, and they were still wrinkled and smiling. His lips were just– there. With light pressure, slightly wet, but drier than I thought, warm breath from his nose on my upper lip. I saw him search my face, still humorous, and quickly shut my own eyes. His lips didn’t go away, and I felt stupid and nudged my head against his hand. Then he moved up and I opened my eyes just as he quickly darted in, pressing another kiss on my lips — this time open-mouthed and short and sloppy and with a smack.
“There,” Brother said. “Now you kissed someone. Next you’re going to drive the truck, hm?” I blinked, staring up at him. My head was still a mess, the Tamiflu probably adding to the muffled feeling.
“Dad would kill me,” someone who sounded like me said.
“Mh,” Brother answered. He looked to the windshield, frowning. I bumped my head against his hand and he let me out of my half sitting half lying position, resting his now free arms on my hips and my waist, like I was a piece of furniture. I turned to him, curling myself as before and snuggled closer. His shirt smelled of ash, a bit of sun and dead fishes and jellyfishes on the morning beach.
“So,” I said, speaking into his shirt. “What’s your real name?”
Brother hummed a tow tune, his fingers drumming on me, barely-there-touches. “Can’t tell you that,” he said. I shook my head, burying it deeper into the dead-beach smell.
“…I’ve been calling you ‘Brother’ in my head.” The drumming stopped.
“And why shouldn’t that be alright?” I pursed my lips, but I could still feel the blush grow from my cheeks to my neck. I pressed myself closer to him as if that would hide the redness as I felt Brother sigh more than I heard it.
“Look,” he said. “It’s not personal, but Dad’s been doing this a long time and there’s just some– it’s just how things are done–”
“It’s okay,” I interrupted him. “I understand.” Brother said nothing for a moment, then I felt him shrug.
“Well then,” he said, his voice brighter. “You should try get some more sleep. Still… one and a half hour ’till you take your meds again. I’ll wake you.” I didn’t answer, just buried my hands again in his shirt. After a minute or five the humming and drumming picked up and I fell asleep to these sounds.
“What?” I asked, pressing the back of my hand to my forehead before sitting up. I didn’t feel feverish anymore. I yawned in my hands, then rubbed them over my face, sleep clinging to me.
“Are you hungry?” Dad grunted.
“Not really,” I answered, yawning again. The sheet pooled in my lap as I fully sat up to see the truck moving at it’s usual slow pace..
Brother stared at me, twisted around in the passenger’s seat, his eyebrows rising. “Of course he’s hungry,” he said after a moment.
“No, really,” I said, the same time as Dad said, “He said he isn’t–”
Brother glared at me, lips pursed, then turned to Dad, flopping in the seat again. “He hasn’t eaten in days,” I heard Brother say, almost quietly.
“It’s two days max until we arrive in Moscow,” Dad answered, roughly and not-so-quietly.
“And you want him to be dead by then?” Brother asked, a hint of disbelief in his voice. Dad didn’t answer and Brother sighed. “Just pull over, get some petrol and let him eat something.” Dad threw a glare at him, then he switched lanes. “Thank you,” Brother said slowly, and looked back to me, smiling with dimples on his cheeks. “How are you?”
“Okay, I guess.” I shrugged, drew my knees up and wrapped my arms around them. I hurt, still and all over, but that were just cricks from me sleeping on the mattress. I rubbed my hands against my lower calves until my palms hurt, the jeans somehow tight and sticky. “And you?” I said after a moment of silence, where he was just staring at me. He shrugged, increasing his smile a little and I smiled back at him. With a final lurch the truck came to a stop.
Dad pulled out the key. Turned and kicked his door open. “Don’t take too long,” he said to Brother, before jumping out in a fluid motion.
Climbing into the driver’s eat, Brother stretched his hand out to me. “Come on,” he said. I looked at his hand, palm turned up, fingers half curled, until I realized with a jolt that he expected me to take his hand, like I was some kind of girl.
“Yeah,” I said and it was only as I crawled forward between the seats, that he pulled his hand back. I followed after him, even jumping from the second to last stair, but staggered bas I landed. Still, I quickly straightened myself and he didn’t try to help. I drew a breath and the air was hot, almost tangible in my lungs. I choked. “Wasn’t Moscow supposed to be colder?”
Brother stepped away and I saw the shop of the petrol station, with high tables and chairs, like a bistro. My stomach rumbled. I followed Brother, a bit unsteady on my feet.
“That’s climate change for you,” Brother said over his shoulder, with a shrug. “Hasn’t gone down since twothousandthirty, has it?” The automatic door of the shop slid open, and a wave of A/C air spilled out.
“I wouldn’t know,” I said, stepping behind him. To the right there were the tables I had seen, ugly brown plastic, with one chair pushed over.
Brother pointed at them. “I’m going to get something,” he said, then turned around again and pressed a package in my hands. “And here, the last four ones. Two hours are up again.” I nodded, gripping the package tight, crushing it slightly.
I followed him with my eyes as he stalked through the shop, aisle by aisle with the cashier, a woman in her forties with dark brown hair, watching him with a bored expression. The newspaper rack blocked my view and I went to the tables, choosing the one closest to the door.
My hands were sweating and the package slipped on the table. I pulled my hand back, taking a deep breath. The smell of petrol tingled in my nose. I grabbed the package and pulled the last strip of pills out, three, four, popping them in my mouth with my free hand. I dropped the package to the table, pressing my head in my arms. The taste remained in my mouth and the tables stank, the smell seeping in my nose.
“Here,” I heard Brother say and raised my head. After dropping what he had bought before me on the table, he sat down beside me, his knee bumping my leg under the table. I looked at the stuff. There was two 2l bottles of water con gas, some kind of smoothie-double pack, one of them banana and one mango, and six different pre-packed sandwiches.
“Thanks,” I said with a smile.
Brother grinned, bumping his elbow to my arm. “Was probably your money anyway.” I was too busy to answer opening the first smoothie, banana and gulping it down in one go. It wasn’t fruit, but after two month of no fresh food, it tasted good and washed the acid of the meds away.
I held the second smoothie up. “Want one?” I asked. Brother shook his head, stuffing his second sandwich into his mouth. I shrugged, taking the smoothie to twist of the cab as I saw Brother freeze out of the corner of my eye. He reached forwards, over the table, then back. In his hand he crushed the Tamiflu package.
“Are you crazy?” he hissed. He tucked his chair nearer, threw a glance over his shoulder, then leaned forward. “You can’t let anyone know we have this, do you understand?” I nodded once, my eyes fixed on the package as he crumbled it further. “We’ll be in Moscow soon, by then it won’t matter anymore, but until…” He dropped the package upon the empty sandwich container and grabbed a new one, tearing it open.
“Now eat,” he said before taking a bite. I drank the other smoothie, mango this time, with two big gulps.
Brother pushed the open container over to me. “‘s good,” he said. Mayonnaise splattered over my fingers. I could make out cheese, lettuce and cucumber as I took a big bite. It wasn’t good per se, not as good as I remembered real food to be. But In the last months Dad had only given me soaked through white bread, bits of chicken or sausages, whatever he picked up when we needed to make a pause somewhere the flu hadn’t reached yet. I took another bite.
Brother was already opening the next container, again giving the second sandwich to me. My stomach rumbled. As I tore into the new sandwich I let my eyes wander. Cheese and bacon, and tomatoes. There was a TV in the upper corner, muted, running the news. The picture switched, from the woman in a black blazer, over to a surveillance video. Some kind of petrol station or border control. I looked closer, absently licking the mayonnaise off my fingers.
A man in a uniform crossed the picture, sharp steps to the right and the camera switched to an open door of a truck and again, further, to the truck itself. I froze while the sandwich sat in my stomach as if I had eaten solid stones.
“You can’t be full already,” Brother said. I slowly shook my head and he noticed where I was staring. He turned.
“Oh fuck,” Brother spat, pushing his chair away with a screech as he stood up. “You wait here. Just– eat some more, okay? I really need to talk to Dad about this.” He grabbed three of the remaining sandwich containers and the bottles of water. With a final, stern glance at me, Brother walked out, breaking into a run as soon as he’d left the shop.
I looked back down at the sandwich in my hands. It looked bland, the cheese hard at the edges, the bacon sweaty. I forced myself to take another bite, to chew and to swallow, as I watched the TV again.
I saw myself, stumbling, going down, a stocky black-n-white-figure on the screen, and after me, the three officers. I ate the last sandwich fast, stuffing it all in my mouth, if just to keep the bile down that kept rising in my throat as the camera had lingered on us.
The image switched, again the news reporter in the blazer. I made a grab for the remaining container, tearing it open, but I didn’t even taste the sandwich, my eyes fixed on the screen. Behind the reporter, a new image appeared and made me pause. I hadn’t shaved in a few days and still my beard was scarce. My hair was shorter now after I had used a pair of garden scissors last month to cut it, Dad watching me the whole time. I had seen myself in windows, my face was slimmer, my eyes looking bigger, my skin paler. Still, the photograph showed on TV was me, before all this. The sandwich sat in my mouth, sticking to the roof and under the tongue.
The picture switched, to another clip. I tried to swallow, but couldn’t, my throat closed. Even after two months I could still recognize my parents, even after two months, even in front of the Spanish embassy. I gritted my teeth, turning my eyes away. I couldn’t see the truck from where I was sitting, no Dad and no Brother.
I stuffed the last piece of sandwich into my mouth, then set my elbows on the table before me and buried my head in my hands, pressing the heel of my hands against my eyelids until colorful sparks flickered before me. So my parents had survived. I curled my fingers, digging them clawlike into my forehead.
What was I even doing here?
A woman’s voice abruptly ripped me out of the thought, “Excuse me?” she said. I looked up at her. It was the cashier, dark brown curly hair pinned high on her head, and she was smiling, her hands gripping a kitchen towel. She nodded at the trash on the table, the empty containers, the smoothie bottles, the Tamiflu package. “Can I clean this up?”
“Of course,” I said, taking my arms from the table.
She leaned forward and while taking the empty wrapping in her hands, she turned her head, looking straight at me, less than a meter away. “I know who you are,” she whispered. My heart stopped.
“What?” I said, staring at her wide-eyed, my voice throaty.
“I know who–” she whispered again, then a sudden cough shook her. I jumped back, throwing over the chair, now with my back pressed against the window.
“Don’t come near me!” I shouted, holding my hands in front of my mouth and nose. She coughed again before standing straighter, raising her hands slowly.
“Be quiet,” she said softly, looking outside before turning back to me. “It is okay. I am not working with them.”
I shook my head. To get to the exit I had to pass her and she probably knew that.
“I am on your side,” she added.
“What are you talking about?” I asked, backing away further, the table now between us. Directly in the light I could see that she was sick, her skin pale and shiny, her pupils slightly dilated.
“It was all on the news,” she said. “For weeks! I just never thought you would come here–” She broke off and shook herself, as if to regain her composure. “You are with those bio-terrorists! They kidnapped you and all the money and now they are here, with the– the stolen–” She reached out as if to touch me, making me stumble further away, knocking against another table.
“Don’t! Don’t come any closer!” I said, my voice almost screeching in my own ears. I threw a glance to the exit.
“No, no,” she said. “Please! I am going to call the police, I am, really, and you are going to be safe, but–” She sighed, hiding her face in one hand, before glancing back at me. “My husband is sick. The flu has gotten really bad, he got it from our child, and we tried to go to Moscow, but the regular meds cannot cure him and I cannot leave him alone,” she rambled on. “And now you are here and please, you have to know– you have to show me where they keep the cure.”
I shook my head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said slowly.
“The cure? For the flu?” she said, sounding breathless and surprised. “They stole it, it has been in the news the whole time!” She stopped. “But I guess they did not let you know, right?” I nodded slightly, if only to keep her from reaching for me again. “It is like– they constructed it in South Africa, tons of it, after researching all the time. And one drop diluted should be enough to cure everyone in the world! Just, it was all classified, and then it was stolen and now…” She stared at me. “I just need a drop, not even that much. Before the police comes because they will take it away and I cannot– my husband does not have that much time.”
She didn’t even look like my mother, not even close, yet I felt a pang in my chest as she stared at me.
“I don’t know where–” I said slowly. She interrupted me with a motion of her hand.
“In the truck maybe? And… thank you,” she said with a smile as I frowned, remembering the boxes. “We need to hurry, then I can call and the police will come and– I bet in no time you will be back home, with your parents.”
I felt dazed, watching her, seeing the flicker of the TV in the corner of my eyes and thinking that maybe it was true what she had said.
“Just wait here, please? Just a second,” she said, scurrying back without taking her eyes off me. “I am going to get my husband.”At last she turned, disappearing into a door marked STAFF ONLY. I stared after her, then rubbed at my face.
The last two month were a blur in my memories, a odyssey of me being caught in the too hot driving cab, of hunger and thirst, of endless rural roads, and of sleep. There had been so many trucks that day; the day I smashed my window, cut my hand to leave blood on the floor and robbed my parent’s credit cards. Still, every single truck had wanted to go in the other direction, trying to get to Gibraltar, to the South instead of East. Except this one.
A thrill ran down my spine. He had been half sleeping in the driver’s seat, cowboy hat over his face, but still, when I knocked to ask for a chance to hitch a ride, he had held the gun to my face before saying Yes. “Call me Dad,” he had said, pushing me into the sleeping compartment.
“They will pay, right? For the gas?” the woman asked and I jerked, blinking at her. She stood far enough away, her expression slightly pained.
“Yeah–” I stammered.
She nodded. “I left a note at the checkout, that should give us enough time, right?”
“Yes,” I said quietly.
She smiled again, forcing the worried look from her face. “Soon you will be home, I promise.” I pursed my lips, smiling back at her, but it felt more like a grimace. “Your Dad sounded worried,” she added and I froze.
“I..,” I began, then trailed off.
“Your– father? He sounded worried. On the news.”
I swallowed, but my throat had closed up, my eyes burning. “Thanks,” I said, voice thick. “For telling me.” Her smile only widened. I felt sick.
At first I didn’t, couldn’t call this man ‘Dad’, who yelled at me, hit me, caged me inside the driving cab, because my ‘Dad’ was someone else and nothing like that. Only after two weeks had I realized, with the road always winding further and further and ravaged flu victims’ bodies on every corner, that this Dad was probably the only one I had left. After that I simply didn’t care anymore.
“Ah,” the woman said, turning to the door, before saying something to low for me to hear. I followed her gaze and wished, I hadn’t.
Her husband came tumbling out of the door and she stepped forward, catching him, Bile rose in my throat and I wanted to hide behind the tables, just– away from him. He coughed and held his hand to his mouth, splattering it with blood.
The woman raised her head, her face pained and desperate, her eyes shining. “Please,” she said in a low voice.
I threw another glance at her husband. He had the hood of his sweatshirt over his head, but even his baggy clothes couldn’t hide how much of a skeleton he was. His face was sunken in, and he was probably thirty years younger than he looked with his skin gray and his eyes unfocused. I swallowed.
“Don’t– just don’t get near me, okay?” I said, rubbing my forehead. The woman nodded several times, grabbing her husband tighter around the shoulders. They turned to the exit and I scrambled over the fallen chairs to get out in front of them with still several meters between us.
I looked around, but there was no sign of Brother or Dad. I hurried forward, hearing the ragged breath of the man, to the end of the truck. I looked around it, and there was Dad, leaning against the driving cab with his back to us. I just watched his back for a moment then shook myself and motioned for the man and the woman to come closer, while grabbing the tarp. It got stuck halfway, but opened enough for one to climb in.
“It’s–” I began to say, but the woman pushed past me, scrambling into the truck.
I stumbled back, further as her husband followed her with shaky steps. She reached down to pull him up and he turned his face to me, a grimace of pale lips drawn back. I shuddered. He turned back to his wife as she lifted him up and she answered with a smile. I pursed my lips and felt a stone set in my stomach. He had been smiling.
“Just hurry,” I whispered, staring after them. Inside the light was dim, but I could see them stumbling through the boxes, then hitting something metal. I winced at the sound.
“Open it,” I heard the woman whisper and stepped closer to the truck, to tell them to keep it quiet, when a heavy hand fell on my shoulder.
“What are you doing here?” Dad asked as I half turned, to look at him over my shoulder. He was frowning, his other hand at his gun.
I opened my mouth but only managed as far as to say, “I–” before breaking off and pointing at the truck. Dad’s eyes narrowed. His hand on my shoulder grew heavier, pushing me down and backwards, away from the truck.
With a quick glance at me, Dad shouted, “Son?” Something inside the truck rattled, like boxes hitting the floor. Dad gritted his teeth, stepping neatly in front of me, and ripped open the back tarp, his gun above hip height.
“Get out of there,” Dad growled. I could see them now, in the deeper part of the truck: the woman before, her hands stretched forward and behind her, her husband grabbing at one of the barrels. Dad held his gun up.
“Get out!” Dad repeated, pointing the gun at the woman. I licked my lips, taking another step back as she came forward.
“We just–” she said, leaning forward. “He is sick. We need–”
“Get. Out,” Dad grunted, then swung his gun. “Don’t touch that!”
The man was pulling at the top of one barrel. His hood fell on his back and I could see his clumpy hair, or what was left of it, hanging down his head. He didn’t stop trying to open the barrel, didn’t even seem to realize that Dad pointed his gun at him. I looked closer. There was some kind of electronics at the side, covering the barrel with fine lines of controllers, and the man pulled at it, clawing his hands against them. The woman stepped forward again.
“Don’t,” Dad said, his voice low.
“We need– the cure, please,” she said, her eyes desperate, her hands still up. “Please. He will die–”
“You can’t have it,” Dad said shortly. “Tell him to stop or I will shoot.” She threw a pleading glance at me, and I ducked further, leaning to the side so Dad’s shoulder hid me.
“But we need–” she said again, and took another step forward. “How heartless can you be?”
Dad shook his head. “If he opens it without the code it will tarnish,” he said, a cold smile on his lips. “As we don’t have the code, so step back.”
“Do you not understand?” the woman all but screamed. “He will die if you do–”
“I don’t care about you or him,” Dad said. “I care about my job.” She stared at him, now only one and a half meter away, her mouth curled in disgust — then she spat.
I reeled back, but Dad stumbled against me, thus not ducking fast enough, the spit hitting him on the cheek. I straightened, staring at him. Dad didn’t take his eyes off the woman. He rubbed it off with his hand.
“Step back,” he said again.
The man was ripping at the barrels tech, like it was the last bottle of water in an endless desert, not listening.
Dad raised his gun and shot.
The man slammed back, his face exploding in blood, falling onto the other two barrels, smashing his head at them. He hit the ground between two white boxes and didn’t move anymore. The woman screeched, launching herself forward at Dad. I ducked my head, crossing my arms before my face, my eyes tightly closed, and still the next gunshot rang close and I winced. For a moment, everything was quiet, after that, for another second, only my blood pounded in my ears.
Then I felt something heavy on my head, pushing it down, until the– arm went around my head and pulled me against a chest. The other hand pried my hands away. “Are you okay?” Brother murmured against my temples, turning my head up until he could press his forehead against mine. I stared at him. “Did they touch you anywhere?”
I shook my head, mute. He exhaled,warm against my face, then let me go. I took a step away. Dad had hefted his gun away and stared at the bodies in the truck from one distance with disdain on his face.
“Now we need to be even faster,” Brother grumbled. “I’m getting the gas masks.” Before he turned to the driving cab, Brother reached out, ruffling my hair. I looked after him, then turned to Dad. He was still looking down.
Almost absently, it seemed, Dad raised his hand, wiping at his cheek. I froze, but then he blinked, and caught my glance. I looked away, at the woman, who almost hung over the end of the truck, stretched out, her face not visible like this, with a pool of blood at the floor. My stomach tumbled.
“I’m going to the restroom,” I said. I started to stumble forward, then I ran, just fast steps until my lungs burned as I pushed open the restroom door, past the urinals into the first stall. I fell on my knees on the gritty floor, my head over the toilet, throwing up until I only spat acid, my stomach empty again. Then I rocked back and cried.
My cheeks hurt by the time I came back to my senses, as if the tears had stripped them bare. I stood up on shaky legs, stumbling into the door of the stall and picked another, cleaner one. After that I went to wash my hands and when I looked into the mirror above the sink, I didn’t even recognize myself, my face covered in spit, snot and vomit. I scooped water in my hands and washed my face and my mouth, then my hair and my neck, letting the water run down the collar of my shirt. I closed my eyes and when I opened them, I couldn’t meet my own gaze in the bathroom mirror. Instead, I turned away and stepped outside.
Next to the door to the restroom, there was one of those old coin-operated telephones. I stilled. After a quick glance through the shop I turned to hit and picked up the receiver. There were instructions at the side and even though I didn’t know any Russian I was quite able to read enough the sticker.
“police,” it said. “02”
I swallowed, pressing the receiver against my face, and dialed with the other trembling hand.
The dial tone rang in my ears.
“Hey,” Brother shouted. “You coming?” I jumped, letting the receiver fall. It dangled on the cord and I quickly turned away from it.I hurried to get back to the truck.
Brother embraced me as I reached them, but they didn’t demand answers, so I just curled up in my bed, hands tucked under my armpits, exhausted.
I saw Dad glance back at me. “I won’t take one,” he said slowly. “End of discussion.” Brother hissed, twisting his fingers up in his hair under his cowboy hat. Then he too glanced at me from his passenger seat.
“Tell him,” he said to me. “Tell him how shitty you felt with that fucking flu.”
I scrambled to sit up. “I–” I began, but Dad cut me off.
“Listen,” he growled. I actually shrank back. “I did this job before either of you were born. Don’t you go and tell me how to do this.”
“Just–” Brother started, with angry lines etched into his face.
But Dad raised his voice and it was booming though the driving cab, “Listen!” he shouted. Brother gritted his teeth, then opened his mouth again. Ignoring him, Dad continued, “We’re half an hour away from Moscow. I’m not stopping for anything, got that? They’ll have some meds ready, but for that we actually need to get into the city. And that won’t work — you think they’ll let us in with two missing packages? I tell you, they won’t.”
Brother shrugged. “Just take yours.”
“He already did,” Dad said with a nod in my direction.
“Then take mine,” Brother said, voice scratchy.
“You didn’t have one to start with.”
I could see the tension in Brother’s shoulders, his whole body vibrating with it. “What,” he said, his voice strangely quiet.
“What, you expect them to give me more than one? When even one would normally be an exaggeration?” Dad snorted. “It was just easier to have you get the meds out of England before the Eurotunnel went down, with all the major roads blocked and the police breathing down our necks. But. You weren’t part of the deal,” Dad said, then jammed his thumb in my direction. “Neither was he.” Brother opened his mouth and for a second he seemed ready to respond, his body strung like a spring. Then it was all gone and he sighed, hanging his head down.
“Now, that’s–” Dad began to say, when behind us, a police signal began wailing. For a moment, there was only the wail, filling the air and our ears. “Fuck!” Dad said and sped up. The truck lurched and I sat upright, gripping both seats in front of me,
“Half an hour, my ass,” Brother grumbled, then he twisted and watched the side mirror.
“They’ve got a lot more infrastructure here than we anticipated, I admit,” Dad said, leaning forward, his hands clutching the steering wheel. The truck rumbled, louder than normally, the seats rattling. “But then, we only have to make it to Moscow.”
“And in Moscow they won’t find you?” I asked, wincing at the tone of my voice. My voice sounded older now, and the squeaking had left a bit, but mostly I sounded… frustrated.
“In Moscow I’ll have Moscow itself to hide me,” Dad said.
“Isn’t the police in Moscow looking for y– us as well?” As I asked, I felt stupid, because Brother snorted slightly, hiding it, as he cleared his throat. Still, I swallowed against my closed throat.
“Don’t you get it, boy?” Dad asked. He sped further as we left one long winding curve of the road and I gasped as a new view appeared.
With the sun poring all over the skyscrapers, my first impression of Moscow was simply overridden by awe, the high walls around it shadowed and black, with tiny soldiers wandering about and beyond that, the city. Few cities had reacted fast enough when the flu hit, none further west had made it, as far as I knew. So that was Moscow. I breathed in. Last City on Earth, indeed.
“I’m working for them,” Dad said, right next to my ear and I started before I realized I had leaned forward, mouth open and staring. “For Moscow. As soon as we’re there, we’re going to trade the cure for entry, but still, they hired me, so I’m going to have a nice pardon thing, do you understand?” A loud bang came from the back. The truck skidded and Dad ripped the steering wheel around before we landed off the road.
“They,” he said, trough gritted teeth and nodded towards the side mirror. “They only want the cure and we’re easy prey right now.”
“Don’t know how they found us so fast,” Brother grumbled. Dad opened his mouth to answer, but another shot interrupted him. With a crack the front window split, a tiny hole inside it, before it busted, right in our faces. I threw my arms up, hiding my face, and heard Dad curse.
With a screech, the truck came to halt and I was thrown back on my bed, then forth again, into the back of seats. I grunted. The engine went out and I opened my eyes. The truck was still standing, but diagonal on the road, the driving cab struck through the guardrail.
“Fuck,” I heard Brother mutter, then his hand was in my hair, a tight grip, so he could turn my head towards him. “You okay?” I nodded, focusing on his face, but I still felt dazed. “Good,” Brother said.
“Get out,” Dad grunted from the driver’s seat. I turned to look at him. His face was twisted and when I glanced down at where his hands were, I could see blood welling up under his fingers, “Get out!” Dad grabbed me at my neck, fingers slick with his blood, and roughly yanked me forward, the pushed over at Brother, my feet still dangling behind me.
Brother grabbed my arm, hauling me closer. I couldn’t see whatever glance he and Dad exchanged, only feel Brother nod, his chin touching my head. Then he turned and kicked the door on the passenger side open. It creaked. Dad hadn’t let me open it, saying it was safer to exit on one side only. Another bang behind me made me turn my head, just to see the side mirror break off.
“Run!” Dad shouted. Brother slipped out beneath me and I still tried to get a grip when Dad grabbed my hand, pushing my fingers around something flat and plastic. He let me go as Brother yanked me forward, out of the driving cab. We tumbled on the ground, into a bush. “Be quiet,” Brother whispered into my ear, pulling my face into his shoulder with an arm hooked under my head. I heard the blood rush in my ears and the cars, definitely more than one, parked next to the truck. Doors, then footsteps. My breath suddenly sounded loud, like waves crashing on shores. There was another shot and I winced and could feel Brother do the same.
“Now,” he said. “Fast!”
Brother jumped up, gripping my hand and pulling me with him. I stumbled at first, but Brother kept just yanking me further by my hand, almost ripping my arm off, until I found a rhythm for my feet again. Someone shouted , and I saw earth explode next to us, but I just kept running, not thinking about what was behind us. My heart drummed in my chest, jumping over fallen logs and a fence.
Brother’s grip on my fingers was hard, both our hands sweaty. I almost stumbled again as we ran over a field, each heap of earth making me trip forward, We crossed through the bushes, the fields, shouts vanishing behind us. Brother ran further, then he slowed, and my lungs felt ready to burst and my legs burned. He still held my hand in his as he stopped running, leaning forward to catch his breath, hands supported on his thighs. I sank down, arms slung around my middle.
I winced as I touched my other hand, the one Brother hadn’t held, and as I looked down I saw that it was still curled around what Dad had given me. I carefully pried my fingers off, one by one. My passport. I winced again as I pulled it out and stashed it into the trouser pockets of my jeans. My fingers were bloody where the passport had cut into them, but I only wiped them on my shirt.
Then I looked over at Brother. He was standing straight and tall, staring in the direction where we had left. I looked behind him, where Moscow towered against the sky. My stomach fluttered.
“Are they following us?” I asked, still breathless.
Brother shook his head. “Doesn’t seem so.”
I grunted as I pushed myself up. “Then let’s get going,” I said, dusting off my knees. “We should be in Moscow in what? Twenty minutes?” I took a step forward, then stopped, as Brother gripped my arm tightly.
“What are you doing?” he asked, a frown on his face. I tried to shake his hand off, but he only gripped harder, probably bruising it.
“No, why are you waiting?” I asked, now prying at his hand with my other. I looked up at his face. “We have to reach Moscow, then we’re save–” I did only see his face go red, then his first hit me right across my cheekbone and mouth. I stumbled back, still in his grip. I cried out, ducking my head as he raised his fist again.
“What’s your problem?” Brother snarled. “That’s my father back there! We’re going back!” I gently touched my face with my fingers and winced again, tears forming in my eyes. Brother used his grip to haul me one step back, then I pushed my heels into the field.
“I won’t,” I said. Brother stared at me through narrowed eyes.
I shook my head. “I won’t,” I repeated louder. “Do you– do you even have a single idea what I had to go through to get to Moscow? I’m– I’m not letting that stop me!” My voice cracked and still, I couldn’t stop screaming, like some waterfall, all of it breaking out at once. “I had to leave my parents, I had to lie to them, had to steal fucking money from them, I had to live over two month with your psycho Dad in a driving cab! I didn’t even get to eat anything, sometimes! You think I owe him anything?” I laughed, a hollow laugh, not even trying to sound funny. “This is my one chance, and I took it before and did everything for it, and I’m not going to give it up!”
I gritted my teeth, staring at him, just daring him to say something. Brother just looked at me, then let me go and took a step back. My vision blurred with tears, I just blinked at him, sniffing. Brother sighed, rubbing his hand over his eyes and looked at me through his fingers.
“Come with me?” I said, my voice small and I felt so sixteen, and so confused.
“I’m not leaving my father,” he said quietly and calm, then he turned around, walking back — away from me.
“He’s probably dead anyway,” I hissed. From his wince I knew he had heard and I swallowed, trying to breathe, but my chest hurt more and more with every second. Yet he didn’t look back and finally I turned around. Moscow loomed before me, so I trudged through the field, hands in my pockets, feeling miserable.
Yet the road still seemed to go on forever before me — but at least there was a road, albeit in what condition. To my right was a poppy field, endless, and I threw a glance at it once in a while, wondering. Nature was strange these days, or so my parents had told me. I didn’t find it so strange. It was just trying to survive, same as everyone. Same as me.
I reached the first wall then, casting it’s long shadow and as the sun didn’t blind me anymore I could see guards standing there, guns at one hand, gas mask at the other. I bit back memories, then I stepped forward. One guard raised his head, then motioned to the other, pointing at me.
I raised my hands, palms to the front. “Don’t shoot!” I shouted over to them. “I just– I want to Moscow.” The guards exchanged a glance. After that the stockier one stepped forward. He had glasses on, and began to smile as he slowly came over to me.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi,” I answered.
“You here alone?”
I nodded, letting my hands fall against my sides. The guard narrowed his eyes at me, looking me up and down.
“You are underage?” he asked. I licked my lips and nodded again.
“But I– I don’t have anything to trade. Or to pay. I mean, I can work—” The man shook his head.
“No need,” he said. “Even in such a world there are still rules.” I stared at him, blinking. He raised his hand as if to clasp my shoulder and I flinched back, my eyes drawn to the gun at his side.
“I don’t understand–”
“Children,” the guard said. “We aren’t allowed to turn away children.”
“Oh,” I said, quietly.
The guard shrugged. “If the world ever recovers from this at least we kept up some standards, right?” he said, then gave the other guards a quick sign with his hands. They seemed to relax now, lowering their guns and at least a bit of the tension in my shoulders vanished. “You have a passport or some other method of identification–?” the guard asked, still smiling, but he sounded bored, like it was a phrase out of a book. I froze, my hand already reaching for my trouser pocket. So Dad had known.
I mutely pulled out my passport and felt strange as I watched the guard scan the lines, then compared the photograph with me in real life. When I had given Dad the passport, because that was part of the deal, he had said I looked like twelve on the photo and still did, but the guard made no such comment.
Instead, he suddenly turned back, then made a motion with his head. “Step aside,” he said, again smiling. He and I stepped to the side of the entry, as a black SUV shot forward, three guards on it, all armed to their teeth.
“What’s going on?” I asked, looking after them.
“There has been an– commotion?” the guard said. “Something down the road. There is still regular police out there, and sometimes they call us.” He shrugged, then gave me my passport back. He turned around. “I’m going to give you a pass, just so you can move freely.” His back turned to me and he held up his hand to sign me to follow him. I took a step forward.
The walls loomed high and behind them, there was Moscow.
Before the flu I had dreamed of New York, of London, of visiting the Eiffel Tower. There had been my parents, obsessed with work, and when I was feeling adventurous, I had dreamed of them traveling with me and if it was just a trip to Madrid. Just a trip for one day.
I looked down at my hands. The picture in my passport still looked like me, even if it had been three years ago since I got it made. I really didn’t look young in it, but just — I squinted at wrinkle-free eyes, at my smile — like someone who still had hopes for a family. I had liked being that person.
I felt an ache in my chest and raised my head back up, to the high walls. I swallowed and stared, up into the silver lining on the walls. Then I turned and ran.
“Hey!” the guard called behind me, but I couldn’t, wouldn’t, didn’t stop until my breath rang in my ears, my head hot and Moscow was just a dark wall behind me.
What was I doing?
I gritted my teeth. I could have been in Moscow by now. I groaned, then ducked behind a tree before sneaking forward, almost crawling over the earth. The truck looked more and more like some traffic accident, back in the old days. It almost blocked the whole street and there were police cars blocking off the traffic — if there was any. I took some steps closer again until I could, if I leaned forward just enough, see what was–
I would have yelped, had it not been for the hand against my mouth. I stumbled forward, was turned while falling and we landed in the grass, almost rolling down the soft slope next to the road.
“What are you doing here?” Brother hissed, directly into my face.
“What do you think I’m doing here?” I shot back, annoyed by the question and by his arm along my throat, and his body, pressing me into the grass. His eyes narrowed and I felt him search my face, his mouth a thin line. I tried to relax but couldn’t, until he apparently found what he was looking for and nodded, rolling off.
“Is Dad–?” I asked, then broke off, unable to finish the question.
Brother drew a sharp breath. “No,” he said. “Come.”
He robbed forward on his elbows, through the grass, up to the street. The driving cab hid us as we reached it, and we cowered underneath with a clear view of the people on the street. Brother pressed against my side, then leaned close to whisper. “There.” He turned my head by nudging my cheek with his nose, until I saw Dad. He had a bandage over his leg, but was on his knees, hands bound behind his back. His hat was missing and his face pale. I dug my fingers into the earth.
“Will they–” I began to ask, but sucked in my breath as I recognized the SUV that had left Moscow. “They’re from Moscow!” I whispered, turning to Brother, hitting his nose with mine, our faces only centimeters away from each other. “I saw them! They’ll–” Brother’s dark look silenced me
“They won’t,” he said. “Why would they?”
“The cure–” Brother shook his head. “They’ll get the cure anyway, since they’re the only ones who can actually open those barrels.” He sighed. “Now it’s even worse than we predicted. In Moscow we would’ve some kind of leverage, but out of here? Most governments didn’t even survive the first year of the flu. It might as well be anarchy.” He smiled wryly. “And here they have the perfect scapegoat, just ready to be blamed when suddenly there is no cure anymore.”
“They won’t… like, distribute it?”
Brother looked at me like I had grown a second head, complete with glowing horns and a pig’s nose.
“Please.” He snorted softly. “In a year, no later, there won’t even be a Europe anymore. Perfect time for certain groups to advance. You know, I saw this in London too, it’s just like here, with all the walls and the meds.”
I swallowed. “You know much about… that,” I said.
He smirked at me. “Spies like us. That’s my job,” he said in a dry voice. I smiled back at him. He didn’t look that old, not even when I could see him so close. His dimples were showing now and his eyes shone. I turned to where Dad was kneeling in the sun.
“What do we do?” I asked. “And what– are they waiting for?”
Brother shrugged — I felt the motion in my own shoulders — and said, “I’ll get Dad, you drive the truck. We flee, then we’ll think of something.”
Now I was staring at him. “That’s your plan?” I hissed.
Brother scrunched up his nose. “Believe me, the simple plans always work best.”
“Well,” I said. “Except that I’ve never driven a car…”
“You said you wanted to,” Brother said with a smile. “Besides, you’ve seen movies, right? It’s really just like that.”
I raised an eyebrow at that. “I’m sure driving is not–”
“Quiet,” Brother whispered, pressing a finger against my lips. I followed his gaze.
One of the guards from Moscow stood before Dad, as the other two came from the back of the truck. “On nam bol’she ne nuzhen,” the first one said, loudly, raising his gun.
“What did he say?” I hissed as Brother’s face froze over. He spoke almost without moving his lips.
“That they don’t need him anymore.” Brother gritted his teeth, grinding his fingers into the grass next to mine. I didn’t think, I just grabbed for his hand. He squeezed my hand hard, once, then intertwined his fingers with mine.
“Thank you,” the man now said to Dad in English. “For bringing us the cure.”
“How can you be so sure it isn’t already tarnished?” Dad said with a glint in his eye, but bent over as the man kicked him in the stomach, twice. I felt Brother tense beside me.
The man leaned forward, grabbing Dad by his hair to make him raise his head. “Because we opened it.” Dad’s eyes widened.
“U nas byl dogovor!” Dad spat.
“We had a contract,” Brother answered quickly.
The man only smiled. “Teper’ ego net,” he said, almost sweetly.
“Not anymore.” Brother’s voice was only a whisper.
The man let go of Dad’s hair, taking several steps back, and I heard the safety of his gun click.
“Prikonchi ego!” the man said and I didn’t need a translation of that as he raised his gun.
Brother let go of my hand. “Drive the truck, okay? For me,” he said, then he leaned in quick and pressed a hard kiss to the corner of my mouth, before rolling out under the driving cab, his gun pointed. I only needed a second to blink, my lips tingling.
Then I scrambled back, to the other side, so I could yank the passenger door open. Shouts and shots rang in my ears as I climbed into the driver’s seat, turning the ignition key. The engine roared and I ducked low as a bullet danged against the mosquito net, ripping it down. I grabbed for the clutch, kicking my feet out, but there was nothing.
“It’s an automatic,” Brother suddenly shouted from the passenger door, pushing Dad in. “Just hit the gas already!”
I stretched my leg and kicked the right pedal trough to the ground. The truck burst forward, down the scarp and slammed into the field. I actually felt the steering wheel shake. The lurch had pushed Dad back into the sleeping compartment, where he lay cursing, and Brother was half kneeling on the passenger seat, a death grip on the door handle, his knuckles almost white. Someone was screaming, and it took me a moment to realize it was me.
“Turn right,” Brother shouted at me. “You are driving right at the Moskwa! The river! The river! Turn right!” We left the bumpy field behind us, drove over a fence and then trough another field.
“We surprised them,” Dad said, his speech as bumpy as the field and with every hole or heap, his teeth clacked.
“We don’t have the advantage here, we aren’t that fast–” Brother added.
I grabbed the steering wheel tighter as Brother leaned out of the passenger window, holding his gun out and shot a round. “They’re coming,” Brother said as he climbed in again. “And we’re still driving to the river–”
“We should–” Dad began.
“I’ve an idea,” I shouted. With the engine purring down there like some kind of big cat of prey, my feet still pressing the gas pedal to the ground, I didn’t feel like speaking in a normal voice at all. I turned to Brother. “Can you, like, lose the cargo, the whole thing, trailer and all?”
“Sure,” Brother said with a shrug. “Why?”
“The bridge won’t hold us with it.” For a moment he just looked at me, which I could see from the corner of my eyes. I could feel Dad’s gaze too, burning into my neck.
Then Brother nodded, his teeth gritted. “Want me to do it now?” he asked as if it was always me giving the commands, as if this was more than a crazy idea.
“Yeah,” I answered. He nodded again. He reached forward, above the steering wheel and pulled a red lever down. Then he turned and ripped the passenger door open.
“Be careful,” I shouted after him, but he had already climbed outside, the door smashing closed. I grimaced.
“Welcome to the family,” Dad said behind me, his voice dry, but strangely warm. I wanted to answer but then we hit the overgrown road, bumping up and down.
“Oh fuck,” I heard Dad mutter as the bridge came into view. I gritted my teeth, steering directly onto it.
“They’re closing up,” Brother shouted, climbing in again. “The trailer is lose, but it would take something heavy for us to actually lo–” He broke off, staring in front of us. “Oh,” he said. “Fuck.”
When I said it was a half build bridge across the river, I didn’t actually lie. But maybe it was more of an idea-bridge, that in some years someone might start to build a bridge cars could cross. At the moment… there was a connecting element at least, a slim bridge part for pedestrians which I had used, but for the rest– to be honest, it just looked like there was a huge junk of metal missing, directly in the middle.
Brother made a strangled laugh. “You’re crazy!” he said. I bit my lip. But as I glanced at him, he was glowing like a kid on El Día de los Reyes. “Let’s do this!”
It would have been to late to steer the truck around anyway. I gripped the wheel tighter, leaning forward, my feet pressed to the ground. We hit the bridge, driving up for a second, then the truck, crashing on the pedestrian’s walk, lurched into the air. It was only a second, probably, in which I didn’t touch the seat at all, hanging in the air above. If that was what flying was like, with the other, wider end of the bridge coming at us with the speed of lightning and we were going to die now — then I knew I hadn’t missed anything.
I screamed as we slammed on the bridge again and I fell down into the driver’s seat. At the same moment, I heard our cargo splash into the river, but I was just staring, not knowing how to breath with the gas pedal still on the ground, until Brother shouted, “You did it!”
“I’m not stopping!” I all but screamed and that was when Brother started to laugh, an honest, open laugh. He pressed his head to my shoulder, breathing in. I grinned. The road steered left, away from Moscow and I followed it.
A second later, I sobered. “I’m sure there’s another bridge they can use,” I said. My voice sounded hoarse. “The guards didn’t cross the river here.”
Brother laughed in my shoulder. “They aren’t following us any more,” he said. “They have too much to do, I imagine. Like, explain why in like– two weeks at most, the pandemic will be over.” He chuckled, his breath on my bare skin where my neck hit my shoulders. A toe-curling shiver ran down my spine. Then his words hit me.
“The flu will– what?” I asked, bewildered.
Brother paused and raised his head. He was staring at me. “You just loaded the hydrologic cycle of the earth with an absolutely potent cure, which will reach, with some time, everyone, be it by ocean, by rain– and you didn’t know,” he said. His smile was soft. “You didn’t know.”
“I–” I said, when Dad kicked my seat, hard.
“No kissing while you drive,” he growled.
Brother snorted, turning my head with a gentle press of his fingers at my chin.
“I have cramps in my hands,” I said, loudly.
Dad snorted. “After you ruined my truck,” he said, grumbling. “That’s probably revenge.”
“We could slow down a bit, you know?” Brother added. “What with no one following us anymore.”
“Just put your foot on the break,” Dad said.
“I don’t know where the break is,” I said, blushing.
Brother chuckled. “Then just… let go of the gas.”
I opened my mouth, then I felt his hand on my right thigh, just– laying there, fingers spread, next to my crotch. I jerked, taking my foot off the gas and thus hitting my knee at the steering wheel. I winced. The truck rolled slower, until it came to a halt. I breathed in. If I looked down there would still be Brother’s hand, so hot it was almost burning a hole in my thigh. I opened my mouth, when Dad reached forward, pushing Brother out of the way to the passenger door.
“I’m getting myself some of that water,” Dad said, slowly, as he carefully slid over the middle. Brother had opened the door and jumped out, and Dad followed his example.
“With your leg?” I heard Brother say.
Dad answered with a snort. “Thought you might need the time,” he grumbled.
My ears, my cheeks, my neck, all of me flushed and I pressed my forehead against my hands on the steering wheel. Just breathing in and out. I heard the door close and for a moment there was nothing, then Brother’s quiet breath. I shivered, the hair on my neck standing up, but I didn’t dare to raise my head.
There was just– breathing. I heard his clothes rustle and the plastic squeaked a bit, but I didn’t move, my eyes wide open, looking down at my legs, but nothing really.
“Hey,” Brother whispered against my ear, a warm breath tickling my neck. I almost jumped in the seat, but I knew that was coming, so I started, blinking, but not moving. A small drop of sweat ran down my neckline, down my back.
“Hey,” I said hoarsely, to my legs.
“I have to tell you something,” Brother whispered, almost too fast, almost too breathy. I swallowed. Brother was quiet once again.
“Say… it?” I tried into the silence. My voice sounded squeaky and I felt my blush grow deeper, spreading down to my chest, around my nipples. I exhaled. Sucking the air in again. Brother chuckled softly in my ear.
“I don’t want to say it here,” he said, his voice so deep and dark, and it sent a shiver through my body, with my hands already shaking. I opened my mouth, wetting my lips with my tongue and I wanted to say something, just something, but all those words felt too big for me. Silence. “Come with me,” Brother said. I heard the plastic rustle, heard his clothes shift and the seats creak, just lightly, all of it, not louder than my next breath.
I gripped the steering wheel tighter. The plastic already felt warm, slightly sweaty, same as my hands. I just thought of breathing. In and Out, and I blushed again, probably scarlet right now. Brother wanted– he wanted– I bit my lip, hard and winced at the pain. I blinked. I could do this.
I pushed my face away from my hands, then pried my fingers off the wheel, one by one, slowly. I leaned sidewards and grabbed the passenger seat to pull myself over. My legs felt tangled and the plastic was slippery between my fingers, my heart beating in my throat. I held my gaze fixed on the floor, on the bed as I sat down, legs in front of me, slightly spread, and I felt naked, leaning on my arms behind me.
“Hey,” Brother said. I shuddered. A part of me had almost forgotten he was there and my cock pulsed in my jeans at his words, making me blush some more, but he couldn’t have seen except if he was looking. “…only if you want, okay?” Brother said, his voice mature and even. I nodded, slightly, grabbing at the mattress with my fingers.
“I do,” I said and winced, with my voice still raw and hoarse from my screaming.
“Want it,” I added.
“Okay,” Brother whispered. “Okay, okay.” He sounded closer now, a lot closer but I didn’t dare to raise my head, not when I was this– uncool, and stupid and sixteen, blushing and looking like some kind of traffic light. “Let me say it?” Brother asked, almost purring, and my cock leaked precum.
I didn’t wear any boxers, hadn’t worn any for a month, because there was only so many one could pack and wear without cleaning, and Brother was going to see, when even I didn’t dare to look as if I was some girl, blushing and waiting and nibbling my lip. I gritted my teeth.
“Just wanted to say–” Brother said, directly in front of me. I could see his one hand, on the bed next to my hip. “That thing you did? The bridge? That was,” he said, and I could hear his words before he said them, “dumb, stupid, idiotic, crazy, risky”. But then I felt his hand under my chin, raising my face to his. He was grinning. “Fucking sexy.”
His eyes were dark, little wrinkles from laughing all around them and he watched me, as I stared right back. His breath tingled on my face, my cheeks still warmed by the blush. Then, with a little tap to my chin, he tipped my head and leaned in.
If my first kiss had been a hard smooch, this one was all but that. A wet tongue in my mouth, his lips rubbing over mine while his hands skidded down my shirt, pushing it up to my waist, scratching at my belly. I bucked up once, then Brother used his hand on my stomach to hold me down, even as I whimpered and wriggled.
He trailed some invisible line down, pressing open mouthed kisses on the chin, my neck, the right shoulder just above my armpit, where he shoved my shirt to the side. He sucked a bit on that patch of skin and I bit down again on my lip, hard, my eyes following his head. Brother lowered himself, kissing my shirt over my right nipple, once, than twice, before dunking lower. He had his eyes mostly closed, and his stubble tickled lightly on my skin.
Now Brother lay between my legs, my back pressed against the corner, the top of my head just below the upper bed. He put his other hand next to the one already on my stomach and spread them. I gasped, threw my head forward and saw him smirk.
“Come on,” I muttered.
“Yeah, yeah,” Brother answered and pulled down my jeans.
I winced as the jeans rubbed over my cock before it slapped free, up against my stomach, and I opened my mouth. I didn’t even know what I wanted to say, how I wanted to complain, but I could only gasp: Brother swallowed my cock, both his hands still on my stomach. He rubbed his tongue alongside, just sucking at the head. I moaned and shivered, surprised at myself as I tried to thrust.
There wasn’t enough friction and as I wriggled again, Brother grunted around my cock, taking his hands off my stomach to grab my cock in one, and rub at my balls with the other hand, still sucking loudly. I threw my head back and spread my legs wider, curled my toes, my balls tightened. I thrust once and Brother let me, with his hands just right, just enough, just this good, and. Ah.
I let myself fall back, my whole body suddenly unstrung. Brother crawled forward, kneeling over me.
I looked down. “I–” I began, but he just shook his head, his fist pumping his own cock, a fast rhythm.
I watched his face twist into a grimace as he came, splattering all over my stomach, and couldn’t hold back a snort. Brother opened one eye, then the other, to stare at me like I was, yeah. I felt sleepy and warm and, well, wet, at least until Brother stripped off his shirt to wipe my stomach. I watched him, eyes half lidded, just waiting for him to say something. He dropped his shirt behind Dad’s seat, then turned and looked at me. Just looking.
“Okay,” he said and smiled. I blinked at him. “I can work with that.” Then he grabbed my waist to pull me down to the mattress and wrapped himself all around me. I was sticky and he didn’t smell like roses, but it was actually pretty nice.
“Uh,” I said.
Brother smiled at me. He sat next to me, where my legs had been, cross-legged. He wasn’t wearing his shirt. I blinked, then I blushed slightly. Yeah. That.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
Brother grabbed for my shoulders and pressed my head against his chest, until I freed myself. I kicked him in the thigh and banged my head on the upped bed. Life wasn’t fair. Dad didn’t bother to turn around to look at us, his fingers tapping on the steering wheel, but carefully, as if my touch had somehow insulted it.
“Malaga,” Dad said with a grunt.
“Oh,” I said. I licked my lips. “Maybe– South Africa?”
Dad grunted again. Brother reached out and I watched his hand wearily, as he flicked some hair out of my face. Then he licked his lips.
I shook my head. “I’m sorry,” I said. “But I really can’t call you Brother anymore. I just– I can’t.” I pursed my lips.
Dad grunted; then, one hand on the steering wheel, he turned. Brother and Dad traded a look, a short one, and a smile which looked almost the same on their faces. Then Dad hummed something and turned back to the road. Brother turned to me. And extended his hand.
“Hi,” he said. I narrowed my eyes, but his own eyes sparkled, dark and all smiling, and he grinned, dimples and lines; and maybe I was a little bit in love. “I’m Bastian,” he continued. “My father, Wolfgang. Nice to meet you.”
I met his gaze, how could I not, and then I said, “Jorge.” And clasped his hand in mine.
Translations and annotations
Wo hast du ihn denn aufgelesen? – Where did you pick him up?
¡Hola! – Hello!
Ich bin so froh, wenn wir Weißrussland hinter uns haben. – I’ll be so happy when we’ve finally left Belarus.
¡Buenos Días! – Good Morning/Day/Afternoon!
padre / Papá – father
Scheiße! – Shit!
¿Qu– – beginning of ¿Qué [pasa]? – What[‘s happening]?
agua, agua – water, water
Er ist ein Kind! – He’s a child!
–hopp! – like “Up!” when lifting someone
¡Qué lástima! – What a pity!
[agua] con gas – sparkling [water]
Cero – Zero
Dos – Two
Nimm einfach eine! – Just take one!
Eurotunnel – Channel Tunnel / Chunnel; undersea rail tunnel connecting UK and France
On nam bol’she ne nuzhen – We don’t need him anymore.
U nas byl dogovor! – We had a contract!
Teper’ ego net – means in this case: Not anymore! [The contract isn’t there anymore.]
Prikonchi ego! – Kill him!
El Día de los Reyes – January 6th, Epiphany; in some countries children get their “Christmas” presents on this day, e.g. Spain