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