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       The Road, p.15

           Cormac McCarthy
 
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  We've got more than we can carry now.

  I know. I just want to take a look.

  Okay.

  He went over the ship from bow to stern again. Stop. Think. He sat in the floor of the saloon with his feet in the rubber boots propped against the pedestal of the table. It was already getting dark. He tried to remember what he knew about boats. He got up and went out on deck again. The boy was sitting by the fire. He stepped down into the cockpit and sat on the bench with his back against the bulkhead, his feet on the deck almost at eye level. He had on nothing but the sweater and the souwester outfit over that but there was little warmth to it and he could not stop shivering. He was about to get up again when he realized that he'd been looking at the fasteners in the bulkhead on the far side of the cockpit. There were four of them. Stainless steel. At one time the benches had been covered with cushions and he could see the ties at the corner where they'd ripped away. At the bottom center of the bulkhead just above the seat there was a nylon strap sticking out, the end of it doubled and cross-stitched. He looked at the fasteners again. They were rotary latches with wings for your thumb. He got up and knelt at the bench and turned each one all the way to the left. They were springloaded and when he had them undone he took hold of the strap at the bottom of the board and pulled it and the board slid down and came free. Inside under the deck was a space that held some rolled sails and what looked to be a two man rubber raft rolled and tied with bungee cords. A pair of small plastic oars. A box of flares. And behind that was a composite toolbox, the opening of the lid sealed with black electrical tape. He pulled it free and found the end of the tape and peeled it off all the way around and unlatched the chrome snaps and opened the box. Inside was a yellow plastic flashlight, an electric strobebeacon powered by a drycell, a first-aid kit. A yellow plastic EPIRB. And a black plastic case about the size of a book. He lifted it out and unsnapped the latches and opened it. Inside was fitted an old 37 millimeter bronze flarepistol. He lifted it from the case in both hands and turned it and looked at it. He depressed the lever and broke it open. The chamber was empty but there were eight rounds of flares fitted in a plastic container, short and squat and newlooking. He fitted the pistol back in the case and closed and latched the lid.

  He waded ashore shivering and coughing and wrapped himself in a blanket and sat in the warm sand in front of the fire with the boxes beside him. The boy crouched and tried to put his arms around him which at least brought a smile. What did you find, Papa? he said.

  I found a first-aid kit. And I found a flarepistol.

  What's that?

  I'll show you. It's to signal with.

  Is that what you went to look for?

  Yes.

  How did you know it was there?

  Well, I was hoping it was there. It was mostly luck.

  He opened the case and turned it for the boy to see.

  It's a gun.

  A flaregun. It shoots a thing up in the air and it makes a big light.

  Can I look at it?

  Sure you can.

  The boy lifted the gun from the case and held it. Can you shoot somebody with it? he said.

  You could.

  Would it kill them?

  No. But it might set them on fire.

  Is that why you got it?

  Yes.

  Because there's nobody to signal to. Is there?

  No.

  I'd like to see it.

  You mean shoot it?

  Yes.

  We can shoot it.

  For real?

  Sure.

  In the dark?

  Yes. In the dark.

  It could be like a celebration.

  Like a celebration. Yes.

  Can we shoot it tonight?

  Why not?

  Is it loaded?

  No. But we can load it.

  The boy stood holding the gun. He pointed it toward the sea. Wow, he said.

  He got dressed and they set out down the beach carrying the last of their plunder. Where do you think the people went, Papa?

  That were on the ship?

  Yes.

  I dont know.

  Do you think they died?

  I dont know.

  But the odds are not in their favor.

  The man smiled. The odds are not in their favor?

  No. Are they?

  No. Probably not.

  I think they died.

  Maybe they did.

  I think that's what happened to them.

  They could be alive somewhere, the man said. It's possible. The boy didnt answer. They went on. They'd wrapped their feet in sailcloth and bound them up in blue plastic pampooties cut from a tarp and they left strange tracks in their comings and going. He thought about the boy and his concerns and after a while he said: You're probably right. I think they're probably dead.

  Because if they were alive we'd be taking their stuff.

  And we're not taking their stuff.

  I know.

  Okay.

  So how many people do you think are alive?

  In the world?

  In the world. Yes.

  I dont know. Let's stop and rest.

  Okay.

  You're wearing me out.

  Okay.

  They sat among their bundles.

  How long can we stay here, Papa?

  You asked me that.

  I know.

  We'll see.

  That means not very long.

  Probably.

  The boy poked holes in the sand with his fingers until he had a circle of them. The man watched him. I dont know how many people there are, he said. I dont think there are very many.

  I know. He pulled his blanket about his shoulders and looked out down the gray and barren beach.

  What is it? the man said.

  Nothing.

  No. Tell me.

  There could be people alive someplace else.

  Whereplace else?

  I dont know. Anywhere.

  You mean besides on earth?

  Yes.

  I dont think so. They couldnt live anyplace else.

  Not even if they could get there?

  No.

  The boy looked away.

  What? the man said.

  He shook his head. I dont know what we're doing, he said.

  The man started to answer. But he didnt. After a while he said: There are people. There are people and we'll find them. You'll see.

  He fixed dinner while the boy played in the sand. He had a spatula made from a flattened foodtin and with it he built a small village. He dredged a grid of streets. The man walked down and squatted and looked at it. The boy looked up. The ocean's going to get it, isnt it? he said.

  Yes.

  That's okay.

  Can you write the alphabet?

  I can write it.

  We dont work on your lessons any more.

  I know.

  Can you write something in the sand?

  Maybe we could write a letter to the good guys. So if they came along they'd know we were here. We could write it up there where it wouldnt get washed away.

  What if the bad guys saw it?

  Yeah.

  I shouldnt have said that. We could write them a letter.

  The boy shook his head. That's okay, he said.

  He loaded the flarepistol and as soon as it was dark they walked out down the beach away from the fire and he asked the boy if he wanted to shoot it.

  You shoot it, Papa. You know how to do it.

  Okay.

  He cocked the gun and aimed it out over the bay and pulled the trigger. The flare arced up into the murk with a long whoosh and broke somewhere out over the water in a clouded light and hung there. The hot tendrils of magnesium drifted slowly down the dark and the pale foreshore tide started in the glare and slowly faded. He looked down at the boy's upturned face.

  They couldnt see it very far, could they, Papa?

  Who?

  Anybody.


  No. Not far.

  If you wanted to show where you were.

  You mean like to the good guys?

  Yes. Or anybody that you wanted them to know where you were.

  Like who?

  I dont know.

  Like God?

  Yeah. Maybe somebody like that.

  In the morning he built a fire and walked out on the beach while the boy slept. He was not gone long but he felt a strange unease and when he got back the boy was standing on the beach wrapped in his blankets waiting for him. He hurried his steps. By the time he got to him he was sitting down.

  What is it? he said. What is it?

  I dont feel good, Papa.

  He cupped the boy's forehead in his hand. He was burning. He picked him up and carried him to the fire. It's okay, he said. You're going to be okay.

  I think I'm going to be sick.

  It's okay.

  He sat with him in the sand and held his forehead while he bent and vomited. He wiped the boy's mouth with his hand. I'm sorry, the boy said. Shh. You didnt do anything wrong.

  He carried him up to the camp and covered him with blankets. He tried to get him to drink some water. He put more wood on the fire and knelt with his hand on his forehead. You'll be all right he said. He was terrified.

  Dont go away, the boy said.

  Of course I wont go away.

  Even for just a little while.

  No. I'm right here.

  Okay. Okay, Papa.

  He held him all night, dozing off and waking in terror, feeling for the boy's heart. In the morning he was no better. He tried to get him to drink some juice but he would not. He pressed his hand to his forehead, conjuring up a coolness that would not come. He wiped his white mouth while he slept. I will do what I promised, he whispered. No matter what. I will not send you into the darkness alone.

  He went through the first-aid kit from the boat but there was nothing much there of use. Aspirin. Bandages and disinfectant. Some antibiotics but they had a short shelflife. Still that was all he had and he helped the boy drink and put one of the capsules on his tongue. He was soaked in sweat. He'd already stripped him out of the blankets and now he unzipped him out of his coat and then out of his clothes and moved him away from the fire. The boy looked up at him. I'm so cold, he said.

  I know. But you have a really high temperature and we have to get you cooled off.

  Can I have another blanket?

  Yes. Of course.

  You wont go away.

  No. I wont go away.

  He carried the boy's filthy clothes into the surf and washed them, standing shivering in the cold salt water naked from the waist down and sloshing them up and down and wringing them out. He spread them by the fire on sticks angled into the sand and piled on more wood and went and sat by the boy again, smoothing his matted hair. In the evening he opened a can of soup and set it in the coals and he ate and watched the darkness come up. When he woke he was lying shivering in the sand and the fire had died almost to ash and it was black night. He sat up wildly and reached for the boy. Yes, he whispered. Yes.

  He rekindled the fire and he got a cloth and wet it and put it over the boy's forehead. The wintry dawn was coming and when it was light enough to see he went into the woods beyond the dunes and came back dragging a great travois of dead limbs and branches and set about breaking them up and stacking them near the fire. He crushed aspirins in a cup and dissolved them in water and put in some sugar and sat and lifted the boy's head and held the cup while he drank.

  He walked the beach, slumped and coughing. He stood looking out at the dark swells. He was staggering with fatigue. He went back and sat by the boy and refolded the cloth and wiped his face and then spread the cloth over his forehead. You have to stay near, he said. You have to be quick. So you can be with him. Hold him close. Last day of the earth.

  The boy slept all day. He kept waking him up to drink the sugarwater, the boy's dry throat jerking and chugging. You have to drink he said. Okay, wheezed the boy. He twisted the cup into the sand beside him and cushioned the folded blanket under his sweaty head and covered him. Are you cold? he said. But the boy was already asleep.

  He tried to stay awake all night but he could not. He woke endlessly and sat and slapped himself or rose to put wood on the fire. He held the boy and bent to hear the labored suck of air. His hand on the thin and laddered ribs. He walked out on the beach to the edge of the light and stood with his clenched fists on top of his skull and fell to his knees sobbing in rage.

  It rained briefly in the night, a light patter on the tarp. He pulled it over them and turned and lay holding the child, watching the blue flames through the plastic. He fell into a dreamless sleep.

  When he woke again he hardly knew where he was. The fire had died, the rain had ceased. He threw back the tarp and pushed himself up on his elbows. Gray daylight. The boy was watching him. Papa, he said.

  Yes. I'm right here.

  Can I have a drink of water?

  Yes. Yes, of course you can. How are you feeling?

  I feel kind of weird.

  Are you hungry?

  I'm just really thirsty.

  Let me get the water.

  He pushed back the blankets and rose and walked out past the dead fire and got the boy's cup and filled it out of the plastic water jug and came back and knelt and held the cup for him. You're going to be okay, he said. The boy drank. He nodded and looked at his father. Then he drank the rest of the water. More, he said.

  He built a fire and propped the boy's wet clothes up and brought him a can of apple juice. Do you remember anything? he said.

  About what?

  About being sick.

  I remember shooting the flaregun.

  Do you remember getting the stuff from the boat?

  He sat sipping the juice. He looked up. I'm not a retard, he said.

  I know.

  I had some weird dreams.

  What about?

  I dont want to tell you.

  That's okay. I want you to brush your teeth.

  With real toothpaste.

  Yes.

  Okay.

  He checked all the foodtins but he could find nothing suspect. He threw out a few that looked pretty rusty. They sat that evening by the fire and the boy drank hot soup and the man turned his steaming clothes on the sticks and sat watching him until the boy became embarrassed. Stop watching me, Papa, he said.

  Okay.

  But he didnt.

  In two day's time they were walking the beach as far as the headland and back, trudging along in their plastic bootees. They ate huge meals and he put up a sailcloth leanto with ropes and poles against the wind. They pruned down their stores to a manageable load for the cart and he thought they might leave in two more days. Then coming back to the camp late in the day he saw bootprints in the sand. He stopped and stood looking down the beach. Oh Christ, he said. Oh Christ.

  What is it, Papa?

  He pulled the pistol from his belt. Come on he said. Hurry.

  The tarp was gone. Their blankets. The waterbottle and their campsite store of food. The sailcloth was blown up into the dunes. Their shoes were gone. He ran up through the swale of seaoats where he'd left the cart but the cart was gone. Everything. You stupid ass, he said. You stupid ass.

  The boy was standing there wide-eyed. What happened, Papa?

  They took everything. Come on.

  The boy looked up. He was beginning to cry.

  Stay with me, the man said. Stay right with me.

  He could see the tracks of the cart where they sloughed up through the loose sand. Bootprints. How many? He lost the track on the better ground beyond the bracken and then picked it up again. When they got to the road he stopped the boy with his hand. The road was exposed to the wind from the sea and it was blown free of ash save for patches here and there. Dont step in the road, he said. And stop crying. We need to get all the sand off of our feet. Here. Sit down.

  He untied the wra
ppings and shook them out and tied them back again. I want you to help, he said. We're looking for sand. Sand in the road. Even just a little bit. To see which way they went. Okay?

  Okay.

  They set off down the blacktop in opposite directions. He'd not gone far before the boy called out. Here it is, Papa. They went this way. When he got there the boy was crouched in the road. Right here, he said. It was a half teaspoon of beachsand tilted from somewhere in the understructure of the grocery cart. The man stood and looked out down the road. Good work, he said. Let's go.

  They set off at a jogtrot. A pace he thought he'd be able to keep up but he couldnt. He had to stop, leaning over and coughing. He looked up at the boy, wheezing. We'll have to walk, he said. If they hear us they'll hide by the side of the road. Come on.

  How many are there, Papa?

  I dont know. Maybe just one.

  Are we going to kill them?

  I dont know.

  They went on. It was already late in the day and it was another hour and deep into the long dusk before they overtook the thief, bent over the loaded cart, trundling down the road before them. When he looked back and saw them he tried to run with the cart but it was useless and finally he stopped and stood behind the cart holding a butcher knife. When he saw the pistol he stepped back but he didnt drop the knife.

  Get away from the cart, the man said.

  He looked at them. He looked at the boy. He was an outcast from one of the communes and the fingers of his right hand had been cut away. He tried to hide it behind him. A sort of fleshy spatula. The cart was piled high. He'd taken everything.

  Get away from the cart and put down the knife.

  He looked around. As if there might be help somewhere. Scrawny, sullen, bearded, filthy. His old plastic coat held together with tape. The pistol was a double action but the man cocked it anyway. Two loud clicks. Otherwise only their breathing in the silence of the salt moorland. They could smell him in his stinking rags. If you dont put down the knife and get away from the cart, the man said, I'm going to blow your brains out. The thief looked at the child and what he saw was very sobering to him. He laid the knife on top of the blankets and backed away and stood.

  Back. More.

  He stepped back again.

  Papa? the boy said.

  Be quiet.

  He kept his eyes on the thief. Goddamn you, he said.

  Papa please dont kill the man.

  The thief's eyes swung wildly. The boy was crying.

  Come on, man. I done what you said. Listen to the boy.

  Take your clothes off.

  What?

  Take them off. Every goddamned stitch.

  Come on. Dont do this.

 
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