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Beauty in a Handful of Dust

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I dream of corpses by the roadside: a family slaughtered. It’s nothing unusual really. The same thing has happened everyday as long as two groups of people have met each other on shared tracks. This time, however is different. Before the dust has even settled, one of the bodies is starting to move.

I wake drenched in sweat, the man’s panic still in my chest. It’s early morning, hazy, purple light filling the room. I squeeze my eyes shut and roll over, but it’s fucking hopeless.

I lumber into the kitchen like the undead creature that I am. I crack open a can of Japanese coffee from the refrigerator and lean against the counter. It’s funny how every culture seems to have stories about undying monsters that are constantly after blood or brains or whatnot but never coffee, sugar, or booze. Turns out our vices are all too human.

I take a sip, savoring the cool, creamy bitterness as I try to pry apart what he sees from my so many other memories. The landscape was semi-arid, and vehicles drove on the left. The woman was Caucasian, her bones fine, her hair light brown and curly. She held a body in her arms: a child. I’d thought I would be used to such sights by now, but I shudder at how the tiny bones all pointed outward at the wrong angles. At least I know the continent.

My team and I exchange awkward glances over breakfast. Did anyone else see him? The others compare notes while I stare into my coffee and surreptitiously touch the first scars my body has acquired in more than half a dozen millennia. I guess the fates or gods or whomever the fuck they are who made us this way where listening when I said I didn't want to be treated any differently.

Days pass and turn to months. I still don’t know exactly where he is. I’ve seen him lumbering along the highway while the bones of his leg knit themselves back together. A few nights later he dies of dehydration, alone in an indistinctive desert. I’m a passenger in his raging mind, strapped into the back seat unseen while he drives himself insane. Most of us take longer than this.

Nile is the one who convinces me to go find him. She says that if things are really as bad as they seem, we should split up, one or two of us per continent; the world will be better off that way. I tell her that I’m passed all that: I’m retired. She just laughs and asks how I’m sleeping. That little shit. She’s right though, and she knows it. The others won't go without me because this is my job; it's always been my job. I guess there are worse retirement destinations than Australia.

I've already waited too long to buy my plane ticket. I wanted to be clearer on the city, but now the borders are closed to tourists. I hate using my official passport; it draws too much attention. I let Nile book the flight for me anyway because she has enough faith for both us.

Then I take a roll of packaging tape and press the serrated metal edge into my forearm. My breath catches as I write A for Andy in the smooth skin above my pulse and watch my blood bloom and clot. It’s like I’m shaking the last few drops of liquid from a bottle of opaque glass; any one could be the last. I get the sense that the gods or fates or whatever they are want me to be grateful. I can’t promise that. I open a rare bottle of wine from my cellar to mark the occasion.

I curse those assholes as I fight my way through customs. I still don’t believe in them, but I doubt I’m this unlucky on my own. Even Aussie border control is heavily armed these days. I almost made it through, but something went wrong, and the computers recognized my face. At least I already had my checked bag in hand.

Now I’m prying semi-automatics from burly grips just like old times. I hardly notice the first bullet. That hole is already closing up by the time the second bullet hits. It’s good to be back. I've missed the taste of blood.

I'm still alive, like it or not, and feeling just guilty enough about it to try and make myself useful. Pity I can only be one place at a time. I can’t stop all the bombs, but I decide that if I can maybe stop one it’s worth a few more nights dreaming of the young immortal. So I stay behind in Sydney. I split skulls and snap necks and still end up bleeding out on the tarmac while the last flight out takes off towards the west. Then I watch a mushroom bloom over the Tasman Sea and wonder what this new way of dying will be like.

Now it’s a whole lot harder to track someone down than it was a few short years ago. At least my mark and I are on the same continent. At first, letting down my guard is difficult, and I find myself looking over my should at every hollow-cheeked fucker who might have the misfortune of recognizing me. Little by little, I relax, my fists unclenching, my shoulders easing down onto my back.

The man dies again when his car wrecks, the forces of physics waging a war with his flesh. He wakes quickly now and goes about siphoning fuel with hardly any hesitation. I wonder if he’s started to realize that all this is a cause of his madness instead of a symptom.

The land here is drier than I remember, but the Three Sisters are the same even without the eucalyptus forests hugging their bases. I must still have a conscience because I find myself driving past them to bring back food from the few scattered fields that are still fertile. I drive through the worst of the fallout with my precious cargo locked in solid, metal cases and nothing between me and the clouds of invisible death. I’m not sure if they are from the bomb I saw or another one. It doesn’t matter; the outcome is the same.

I curse myself for agreeing to this. The people in the ruins of the city and the dying crop lands don’t care what I am, only that I never seem to get sick. Seem because I most certainly do. A good dose of radiation turns me inside out just like everyone else. I shit blood and spit out my teeth just like everyone else. Then I wake up the next morning and do it again.

Time passes. The governments I wanted so badly to shake never come back. I find myself flashing obscene gestures whenever I stumble upon a blind camera just to see how many I can remember. These old fists and fingers are quite articulate.

Over the centuries, I’ve gotten good at sensing when I need to learn a new language, and I have a nose for the approaching death of empires. But I wasn’t prepared for this: the death of them all. It’s been five thousand years since the world was this free, and even though finding my mark is slow going, I find myself enjoying the hunt.

I miss my team. They never longed for a slower world the way I do. I wonder if I would even know if they find the Big Death. The meeting date we set doesn't seem quite so far off as when we set it. All time will pass; that is maybe the only constant. This brave, new world feels like home with its vast lands and quiet skies. I don’t remember the last time the stars were this bright.

I’m even talking to people again. Without the Internet or even newspapers I only have stories of my mark to follow. Luckily, the stories are plentiful. My mark has made quite a name for himself — a few actually. The Road Warrior is the one I hear the most. People whisper it excitedly around campfires, their faces painted black and orange with flames and shadows.

Everyone seems to have a story of him even if it isn’t theirs to tell. The children always tell the best ones. One with wild hair and forward teeth tells me that I am too far north. Then I make my way back to Sydney where a whole lot of them tell me that I am too far east.

I wrap a scarf around my shoulders and leave them all behind. I drive until the land gets too rough. Then I ride a bike until I run out of fuel. After that I walk, wearing new holes in my feet as fast as the old ones grow shut. It gives me too much time to think. So I do a job for some moonshine and, at least for a little while, problem solved. I stumble, scraping the skin from my knees as soon as it grows back.

The Road Warrior bleeds out from a knife in his femoral artery put there by people who wear armor and speak a mangled Russian. Then he wakes by a campfire and a woman who tries to take credit for his continued existence. He doesn’t tell her anything otherwise, even when she asks for help. I wake up before he agrees, but I know he will.

He’s not like me: he does good things begrudgingly, stupidly, annoyingly, dangerously goos things because he is a good man. I, however, do fun things that somehow eventually turn out to be good — at least that’s what I’m told. Gotta amuse myself somehow.

I think I recognize the lands around him: the old opal mines of what used to be Coober Pedy. I acquire a camel, a fucking camel in Australia and follow the sun and stars west. It takes me a few days to reacquaint myself with a dromedary’s rhythms. The way my hips and spine move to compensate reminds me that’s it’s been to long since I’ve had a good lay.

That night I moan at the open sky with no one to hear me but my camel. She chides me with her bellows and stands with her leg still tied up. I shush her back to sleep and try to do the same myself, hoping that my memories of Achilles will turn to pleasant dreams.

No such luck — the Road Warrior dies again, this time in a gruesome scene much like the first time I saw him: mangled bodies of a man, woman and child. Tire tracks lead to engines roaring in the distance. I don’t even wake up before he dies again. This time it’s just him and whatever rotgut he’s pouring down his throat. I wake and try to join him, but I don’t have enough moonshine left for a good rockstar finally. I settle for a taste of oblivion.

He has his car again; I recognize its tire tracks, and I know I’m close. I follow them as the land changes colors and textures, reds fading to gray, beiges blossoming into yellow. The tracks stop atop a plateau overlooking a glittering salt flat.

Quynh and I fucked for the first time before a similar view. We were alone, perhaps the only living creatures in all that salted land. It was like looking out at the end of the world, and young and reckless as we were, that made us terribly horny.

The memories of her muscled legs around my waist and the silver light against her strong cheekbones bring a pleasant ache of to the bottom of my belly. I promise myself I’ll get laid for real next time I’m around someone with passable hygiene.

It’s a short lived fantasy. His tracks end abruptly surrounded by others. Then the tracks smear where his car flipped. I squat to better examine the story written in the dust.

He’s been captured. I kick the ground in frustration, scattering powder and pebbles. Then I follow the tracks: victor’s tires and Road Warrior’s feet until I’m too tired to continue.

He dies in my sleep, all his blood drained out of him. It’s not a bad death, all thing considered, but it happens again and again, and I can’t fucking sleep like this. I decide to waste a bullet just to make it stop, but not before I announce to the fates or gods or whoever the fuck might be listening that I’m not done yet. It’s the first time I’ve killed myself intentionally since my immortality left me and it damn well won’t be the last. Silence follows the Big Bang, and after that comes the blessed hangover.

I thank those same fates or gods or whatever the next time the Road Warrior dies because at least he’s outside again. A storm fills his lungs with sand and buries him. He stirs beneath it, then suffocates again.

I see the rust-colored mass on the horizon and follow the wind until I walk right in. I know trying to find him right now is hopeless, but the winds and rage give a kick to these old bones. I whoop as they toss me about. I let the lightening hit me for shits and giggles.

The storm moves on and the man with it. I find the car that landed atop him and the tracks he left after he dug himself out. He walked away carrying a heavy load. There was another fight not long after. He seems to have acquired a large vehicle and a party in pursuit on foot. At least some of them are female and not wearing shoes.

Eventually the tracks all disappear except for those left by massive tires. They flow in two straight lines with an obvious sense of urgency and direction. Another company of vehicles crosses and joins their path. Accompaniment or pursuit? I can't be sure. Eventually there are too many tire tracks to count. Their paths weave together and apart as I follow them across the flat expanse.

Another night passes, this one strangely quiet. I dream on no new deaths, only past ones, some of them even my own. They bleed together.

The next night makes up for it. The man dies on top of a truck, wind and an arrow hitting him in the face. An old woman shakes him awake before she suffers a similar fate with an entirely different outcome.

Then I dream of a different woman’s face filled with fire and panic. She grips the Road Warrior’s leg and holds him upside down with her metal fingers. His eyes are on her when his skull cracks open like an egg against the road.

I can’t sleep like this, so I walk in the darkness, along the tangled paths until I come to the end of the road, literally. The tracks I’ve been following stop at a wall of rocks with a turned over truck blocking the only passage. It’s the one from my dreams, dusty black and decorated in skulls but now charred and twisted. It’s a fitting look.

But he is not here, nor is the woman with the metal fingers. I recognize the white painted limbs of the boy soldier who drove the Road Warrior into the storm. There’s the oldest assortment of musical instruments too, and I pick up a drum that has rolled away from the rest. I pat a simple rhythm as I examine the carnage for another trail; he had to have gone somewhere.

A single vehicle seems to have escaped; its path branches off from the others and heads dead west. I follow it as I pat a funerary march to keep myself awake. Eventually, however, that stops working, and I curl myself around the drum, using its skin as a pillow.

For the first time, I see the man’s face. He looks a lot like I imagined him: worn, weary, kind. For the first time, I know his name too; his voice breaks as he says it to the woman whose blurry eyes provide my vision. Hers clears as he fades. I feel her chest burns as it heals itself. He touches his forehead to hers and smiles.

Then he dies. The woman watches and waits, but she doesn’t know that I am with her now. She doesn’t know anything except confusion and loss and a frustrated gratitude I know all too well. His name was Max, and he is gone.

I come upon her while she is digging a grave for him. She’s lost her metal fingers and no flesh ones have grown back in their place. She uses her stump to brace herself against he shovel and grunts and gnashes her teeth as she cuts into the rocky ground. I always wondered how something like that would work, but I guess it’s not much different than how my ears stay pierced.

I walk boldly so she hears my approach. She stops digging and lets out a couple of panting breaths. We lock eyes, and then she gasps and howls as she swings the shovel at my head. Its blades edge cuts deeply into my forearm when I block it, deep enough to scrape the bone. I howl right back at her as I seize her arm and trip her over my leg. I break the elbow as she falls.

She screams with desperation as she swings her boots into me. I try to shush her, but she’s all pain and anger, probably not even noticing that her bones are fixing themselves. I do, and so I break them again. This just makes her more desperate and unruly.

“Stop,” I say and press my pistol to her head, “or I’ll shoot.”

I see her anger temper. She wants me to do it, dares me to do it, but this is not someone who truly wants to die. She stills herself, but her eyes shift as her mind twists and turns, searching for a way out of my grasp. She doesn’t understand what has happened to her, but it’s time she did.

I shoot her right between the eyes and curse the mess her brain splatter makes of my pants. I peel them off and scrape the gore onto a rock while I wait for her to wake. I debate helping her with the hole she started for the Road Warrior, but I decide she must be out here alone because she wants to do it herself. So instead of digging, I watch the color return to her face.

She wakes with a groan, and I laugh, “Hurts like a bitch, right?” When she looks confused I pat my weapon and say, “Don’t make me do it again.”

She’s looking for a weapon as soon as she can hold her head up. She pulls her limbs to her body and crouches like an animal ready to pounce. I save her the trouble and set down the shovel in front of her.

“Look,” I say, holding her up both my hands. “I don’t want to hurt you again. I mean, everything hurts enough already, life hurts.” I bend, holding out a hand to help her up, “But I’ll keep killing you as many times as it takes for you to realize that things just don’t work that way anymore.”

She howls new curses I don’t recognize and plunges the shovel blade into my foot. I shout curses of my own the earth hasn’t heard in a thousand goddamn years, but I hold steady. She pushes it deeper, hits some kid of artery so my blood spits out to stain the ground.

“Watch.” I show her my palms and then start to strip away the scraps of leather and cloth that remain of my shoes.

She pulls up the shovel, and my skin closes before her eyes. Her lips part. She watches entranced as I chip away the dried blood to reveal perfect, new skin.

“Does it still hurt?” she whispers. Her fingers drift to her forehead where my bullet should still be.

“Not now,” I say, “but yeah, every damn time.”

That seems to satisfy her for the moment. Her eyes drift to the lovingly prepared body on the ground. “And was he like you?”

I shrug because, truth be told, he wasn’t like me. Never in all my thousands of years have I met someone I wanted to gift with my immortality. I never even knew it was possible, but the fates or gods or whatever the fuck they are who decided for us to be this way are nothing if not surprising. “He was like us,” I finally say, “until the moment he wasn’t.” I look at the shovel still in her hand. “Do you want help burying him?”

“Did you know him?”

“You could say that.” I’ve only dreamt him for fifty years or so, not long in the grand scheme of things.

“Ok, you can help.”

So we take turns digging, and after that we talk. Well, I do most of the talking; she does most of the listening. She doesn’t know what to think of any of this, and I don’t blame her because after nearly seven thousand years I still don’t either.

She’s a beautiful woman, this Furiosa, beautiful in an old way of scars and sad eyes. Maybe someday she will wrap her long, strong legs around my waist in view of the glittering salt flats. There’s no rush; we have time.

We press our fingers and toes into the dust as we watch the stars come out in swathes. Then a single satellite passes overhead. I wave to it as it descends, crashing far to the west.