IT WAS NATURAL now to wake, listen, check, and listen again, before moving on in silence through the wastelands. When it was light enough to see my breath in the air, I moved from the shadows of the ditch towards the larger, more isolated southern woods. It had been nine hundred and twenty days – or was it twenty-one? – since I made the decision to leave town and wander alone.
Leaning against the trunk of an oak tree, I searched my backpack for something, anything, to eat. Three unlabelled cans, a bag of rice, and two portions of Cheerios. My can opener had broken two nights earlier and there was no clean water for miles. Dry, chewy out-of-date cereal it was. Yummy.
I ate straight from the bag as I continued to move between the trees, carefully avoiding the main track. Resting for periods longer than absolutely necessary was an extravagance that led to trouble in the Unlands; I preferred to not be seen or heard.
So did he.
I didn’t see him until it was too late. He grabbed my jacket and pulled me onto my back, pinning me in one fluid movement. I dropped my breakfast and pack, balling my hands into fists. The cereal lodged in my throat. Spluttering and coughing, my blows faltered as I struggled to breathe. A pitiful wail escaped my mouth; he clapped his hand over it.
Thrashing and bucking, I tried to get up, but he had me pinned on the shoulder with the weight of one knee, crushing me into the ground. The stench of mud and sweat stung my nostrils, but there was something else: a clean fresh smell I hadn’t encountered since before the wars started. Like mint, but not.
The heels of my boots dug into the ground as I pushed as hard as I could to dislodge him while clawing into his jacketed forearm with my nails, squeezing and pinching his flesh. I couldn’t reach his face. I slapped and grasped at the air, desperate to pull his hair, hit him, get him off
He stared at me. His eyes were dark brown, almost black. I dug my nails in harder and tasted more dirt, screaming under his hand as he straddled me. He pushed his weight onto my hips.
Anger welled and furious tears fell, wetting the hand still clamped over my mouth. My arms were free now, and I grabbed at that hand, slapping and scratching in blind fury. I fumbled for my pocket, but he was too quick. With a sharp movement he pinned my right arm to my side with his knee. Something pressed into my wrist sending a shock of pain up my arm and across my back. My slaps became punches, hammering every inch of him I could reach.
A flash of silver and two loud clicks. Cold metal encircled my left wrist as I continued to strike out.
No, no, no!
I spat and bit at his fingers, my lips curling back so far I thought they might split. He pulled the cuff around my left wrist sharply, smacking my shoulder into the ground repeatedly. Sweat rolled into my eyes, sharp and stinging. My vision doubled and I shook my head.
My right arm was useless, my left in agony, though I continued to fight. I was unsure just how long I struggled, but he didn’t move, didn’t make a sound. When all my strength finally ebbed away, I stilled and moaned, my chest and the back of my throat burning.
He reached down to my trouser pocket and pulled out my penknife, pressing the blade to my throat. My legs went cold as I lay paralysed with fear. The curls of his dark hair fell around his cheeks and he smiled. Smiled! Anger fired up again as he started to move his fingers over me, probing my mouth, pushing deep into my throat and making me gag.
Just get it over with!
He checked my face, my teeth, my hair, my skin. He had captured me, and by the rudimentary laws of the Unlands, I belonged to him. He hauled me to my feet and the metal of my shackles dug into my skin. I inhaled sharply.
To my surprise, he loosened the restraint. Rubbing the skin around my wrist, he smiled and nodded gently, treating me like a skittish colt.
I scowled and pulled as hard as I could. He slapped me hard, the crack of skin on skin echoing like a rifle shot.
The heat rushed to my cheek, the sting coupling with the warmth of blood on my lip. A sob escaped. Just one. I was proud of that.
“No more,” he said, his voice incongruously soft.
I didn’t reply. I remembered a warning from my childhood: never speak to strangers. Good advice. Relevant. Worthless.
“What’s your name?”
I remained silent as he stared down and reached towards my tangled and filthy hair, brushing loose stands of hair away and running his fingers along my face. I flinched, conscious of his strength, of the metal that bound us, of my lost freedom. He rubbed my reddened cheek almost tenderly. His hand was soft and warm. I jerked my head away.
“Name?” He was firmer this time, grabbing my chin and forcing me to look up at him.
“Anna.” My voice cracked with the lie. It had been so long since I had spoken aloud.
“Anna,” he repeated, releasing his grip on my face. He bent to retrieve my bag. For a wild moment I considered attacking him. I could pick up the rock by my feet and crush his skull. It would be so easy; I’d done such things before, if only to a dying animal. I could do it again. The thrill of the thought left as quickly as it arrived. It wouldn’t be easy. This was a human, however he might behave like an animal. He straightened with a knowing smile, darting his gaze from my face to my backpack to the rock.
From my bag, he pulled out my clothes, throwing them to the ground as though they were nothing. With our wrists joined, my arm was jerked and pulled about like a marionette’s wooden limb.
All I need now is the painted grin.
He took out my small bundle of photographs and dropped the backpack. Rage rose in my chest, huge waves, swelling and towering. I balled my fists, ragged nails cutting into my palms, watching in horror as he flicked through the pictures, discarding them carelessly; they fell like maple seeds, spinning in the air.
He turned one over and a flash of my husband and me outside our home burnt into me. I looked so happy, so carefree. He turned over another. A big lump of cuddly white fur. Oh! I missed Oscar, his purrs and warmth at night. I tried to quell the rage. Pointless. It was pointless. Finally, after gazing for what seemed like minutes, he turned the final one over and held it up for me to see. Our hands entwined, our rings clear in the daylight. I willed
myself not to cry. Tears were weakness.
He stared at me and pulled his arm up to examine my left hand. It was bare. Jewellery had been valuable to the ignorant and desperate in the early days, and precious metals meant meals. I’d resisted for as long as I could, but he was dead, and I needed to live.
“Where is he?” The soft voice cut into me. “Soldier?” I shook my head. “Conscript?”
I nodded. Yes, my husband had been cannon fodder for a war, another number for the government to chalk up. Sent to the front lines and sacrificed to buy time for them to escape. All for nothing. The government had fallen, and afterwards, everything else had fallen apart.
I nodded again as he secreted those last three photographs away in his inside jacket pocket. He turned his back on my scattered possessions and started to walk away. I resisted. He couldn’t expect me to leave everything I’d carried around for the last two years. He moved to hit me again, but paused then reluctantly lowered it.
“I said no more,” he warned, but I viewed it as a challenge and raised my chin.
Go on, beat me! A part of me wanted him to. I didn’t
know why; maybe I wanted to feel something, anything other than the rage that eroded me. I hated him, loathed him, this man who had captured and bound me. But with a heavy swallow I put aside my revulsion; I needed to discover all his weaknesses – he’d already shown me mercy. But for a man in the Unlands, he seemed in perfect health. No injuries, no disabilities.
He jerked me closer. I stumbled, the cuff pinching at the soft skin of my wrist. I gasped in pain and recoiled as the warmth of his hands on my sides drew me closer. His body dwarfed mine.
He called me Anna. I was Anna now. I must remember. They say you can tell someone’s personality from a name. Anna was gracious. Anna was compliant. I had to be Anna. “My photos. Please.” I forced myself not to scowl, not to cry or shy away. My clear voice sounded alien, loud,
wrong. Another person speaking. Anna.
“You speak when you want something.” The amusement in his voice was clear, though the cold eyes stared without emotion. He thought this was funny? I jerked away from his touch, scolding myself immediately. He didn’t stop me this time, nor did he beat me. Instead he ran his hand along my bruised cheek, tracing his handiwork, his first brand.
There were stories in the Unlands of men who marked their women, initials or symbols and suchlike, the way farmers used to identify livestock.
“Please, my photos.” I appealed to what I hoped was the softer side of my captor; six years couldn’t have destroyed all shreds of his humanity. He said nothing, but continued to stroke my face. Without waiting for his response, I picked them up. I expected him to shout, to haul me up, to lose control the way I perversely wanted him to.
Go on, beat me.
He didn’t, and instead allowed me to collect each and every picture. When I straightened, he held out his hand expectantly. I handed them over.
Good little doggy. I knew my master. I kept my head
down and stared at the ground.
The ground was the same wherever I looked. Dry and cracked like crazy paving, the same everywhere but for the rise and fall of the earth like a paralysed sea. Overused, drained, poisoned. He smiled, removing a canteen and drinking deeply. I licked my lips.
“Where are you from?” His smile irritated me. Made my skin crawl. “For every question you answer, I will let you drink. Where are you from?”
There was a long pause as I stared at his boots, and finally I heard him zip up his backpack. I had won, and it was my turn to look triumphant. I wasn’t that weak. He started walking again, his strides longer and his pace faster.
We walked for hours. I was tired, hungry, thirsty, and I desperately needed to piss. Not that I would ever admit it to him. He didn’t speak, but every so often he would stop and crouch, forcing me to follow suit. Grabbing handfuls of dirt, he rubbed it between his fingers and stared into the distance. There were three rabbits during the day. Typical. When I was alone I had no such luck. Watching them escape across the nothingness made me smile wryly. I said nothing. Someone had to have a lucky day.
I stole glances at him when I could. He was older than me, possibly thirty-five or forty? I was never good at guessing ages. As the day wore on, I knew where we were going and each step now filled me with dread. He was a wanderer, one who lived in the towns but scavenged the Unlands for supplies and cattle, like me. A fresh fear surged and caught in my throat. Did he intend to sell me? Rent me?
My legs buckled, my head spun, and I stumbled to the
ground. My shoulder was almost wrenched from the socket as my arm whipped back. He stopped and pulled me up, wrapping his arm around my stomach, putting pressure on my bladder.
“I need a piss,” I mumbled through gritted teeth. I could feel him against me. The skin at the nape of my neck crawled.
“Where are you from?”
Comply! You are Anna. Anna needs to piss too.
“Nowhere,” he echoed, gripping me tighter.
“Home has gone. Bombed. Fucking destroyed.” A slither of anger crept out through my mouth and across my skin and I sneered. “I’m going to piss, so let me go or I’ll piss on us both.”
He released the pressure slightly and led us to a nearby scrubland area. Tall ragweed plants were dotted like scabs on the ground. Staring over the wastelands, he waited.
Here? I had stupidly expected him to release me, give me some privacy. I struggled with the button and zip. I was left-handed; with only my right hand free I was useless. My bladder was ready to explode.
“Can you help?” my alien voice blurted out. “I can’t undo my jeans.”
I shut my eyes and remained as still as I could as he undid my trousers. His left-hand fingers lightly grazing my stomach, warm and deliberate, brushing against my skin. As he pulled down the zip, his fingertips lingered far longer than necessary. I did nothing. I was Anna. Anna is gracious.
“Thank you.” I spat the words, and quickly swallowed. “Thank you,” I repeated, quieter, demure. I can’t mess this up, or I’m dead.
How I hated those words, and my pathetic quiet voice.
Afterwards, he removed his canteen and drank, watching me again, his eyes boring into mine. I looked away first. I tried not to lick my lips again. And failed. Again.
“What did you do before the war?”
The question caught me off-guard, but I would answer honestly. It would be easier to maintain the truth than a lie. “Call centre, customer service.” A waste of a life. If I had known the world was going to end, I would have
done so much more.
He moved closer and raised the canteen to my lips. I allowed him control and sipped at the water. Nodding gently, a smile formed on his lips and he touched my bruised cheek once more.
“Anna from Nowhere who worked in a call centre.”
As we continued, the dark shapes and crumbling stone of the town grew larger and soon dominated my line of sight.
I was his, to do with as he pleased. No. Anna was his.