I meet the kid just outside of Warragul. She’s sunburnt and scrawny, nine years old, and her parents have been gone for weeks.
“They went into the hills to look for water,” she says when I ask her. “Guess they got lost or something.”
“Guess so,” I say, keeping it simple. “Must be lonely.”
“Bit, maybe. What’s your name?”
“Edward,” I tell her.
She’s a kid, so she doesn’t look me up and down, just takes it in her stride.
“I’m Rosie,” she says. But I just call her the kid.
I never had children. My wife didn’t want them and by the time Linh died, in the second year of the water war, I was twenty years too old to try and five years too bitter to care. So I don’t much know what to do about this one. It’s amazing she’s survived this long unbroken, and I'm not sure how I'm going to keep her that way.
“Which way did your parents go?” I ask her.
She points south, towards Korumburra.
I think on it for a moment. Best case scenario: we don’t find her parents. Worst case: we find them, and the kid learns just how dried up this world is.
We go north.
There’s no decision to take her, not really. But I passed a group of parchers on my way here, camping right in the road, while I crept through the tangle of dead tree limbs on the side. I’m no hero, but I’m better for this kid than a parcher.
So she comes with me, almost by accident, and her chatter is a bit like folding back the years.
I grew up around here, back when it was green through three seasons, and I still remember the vague direction of things. They haven’t tended the roads in a decade and what’s left is cracked and crumbled by the sun. They’re too open, most of them, anyway, so I keep the grey ruin to my left and lead the kid through the fields.
Funny how we keep the same words for things. There was grass here once, spotted with trees, but now it’s just dust and clay and grey bones of long-dead gums. The kid probably doesn’t even remember green—now there’s a revelation—or the noise of engines and birdsong.
“Are you from here?” I ask her.
“We used to live in Melbourne,” she says. “Came east when I was a baby. ‘Cause of the water, you know?”
“Safer in the country,” I say. "Fewer people."
“What about you?”
“Born about a kay from where we met. I moved away for uni.”
“What’s uni?” she asks me.
“Nothing now,” I say. “The big one north of the city was flattened in the war. Last I heard, it was covered in parchers.”
Her face tightens at that word. "Did you fight?" she asks. "In the war, I mean?"
A kid as undamaged as she is doesn't need to hear about that. "For a while," I say, and I leave the subject there.
We reach Brandy Creek mid-afternoon. The creek's long gone, but the abandoned houses offer us some shade. I settle the kid against a peeling weatherboard wall and check the nearby buildings. The parchers aren’t the only dangerous people about in this post-rain world, especially when you’re read as female. The kid’s vulnerable—really vulnerable—and I’m sixty-four and not much better off. No hormones in the apocalypse, you see. A flat chest only goes so far.
The houses are all clear and I even find some food in one of them: a handful of tins on a shelf in the garage, where no one else thought to look. The real prize is a can of pears in their natural juice. My mouth would water if my body had liquid enough to do it.
I want to keep it for myself, but when I return to the kid, she’s so thin and dry-looking that I feed her more than half. The pears are sweet and wet and we laugh as we wipe their stickiness from our cheeks.
“We’ll rest a little longer,” I say, “then walk onwards. I remember a farmhouse a way ahead. Might be a good place to pass the night.”
It’s hot during the day, but it’s the safest time to travel. People can see you, and you can see them as well. At night, you're lit up like a beacon, blind to anything beyond the light and vulnerable to attack. Better to wait it out in a house or a riverbed than to come across a group of parchers on the road.
I’m not going to tell the kid that, though. “This way we can see where we’re going,” is all I say when she asks. “Don’t want to trip over a tree branch and break our legs.”
It’s a truth, even if it’s only one of them. I broke my arm in a fall two years back. There’s a sickening bend to it now and it aches if I do too much. Would probably be a bitch with rheumatism if it ever rained.
The kid doesn’t press me, so we walk until close to sunset. The farmhouse is where I remember it, blackened and half fallen. I tell the kid to stay outside, but she follows me into its dark innards, watching with too-big eyes as I test beams with my bodyweight. I deem a bedroom mostly safe and we share the bed, warm beneath the sooty coverlet. The stale smoke is oddly soothing and I sleep the best I’ve slept in weeks. When I wake the kid is curled against my side.
The second day doesn’t go as smoothly.
The kid’s pretty fit for a half-starved nine-year-old, and we pound out the kilometres surprisingly well. The hills are hard going, and sometimes we need to clamber over piles of debris, which slows us down a lot. The kid never complains, though, which strikes me as tragic. She’s probably never had it easy, so this limping journey into nothing is just another hardship to endure.
“Where are we going?” she asks, when we pause in the shade of an empty milking shed to sip precious water from our store.
“There used to be a reservoir northwest of here. Figure it’s worth checking out.”
“But …” She pauses and I can practically see her brain tick. “Won’t that have been the first place people went?”
“That’s what I’m counting on,” I say. “They’ll all be long gone, but there might be something left.”
The kid’s right. Once the rain stopped, everyone headed for the lakes and the dams, a flood of humanity that quickly drained the water. There were other options then, though, so they didn’t drill out every last drop. Instead, they moved on to the rivers. It’s when the rivers stopped that the war began. Thirst started it, and thirst dried it up. By then, everyone I cared for was dead, but I was still alive.
I’m a stubborn old bastard. I reckon the kid’s stubborn too.
I can tell she’s confused, but there’s no point explaining what’s just a theory at the moment. Fact is, there’s no place better to head for. I’ve walked the length of the Yarra and all that’s there now are sun-bleached bones.
“What do you do for fun?” I ask instead.
“I like to read,” she says, softly, as though it’s a confession. “In the last place we stayed, there was a giant bookcase that went all the way up to the ceiling. A lot of the books got burned up in the winter, but my parents let me keep some. Think I read them a hundred times each.”
I dig inside my backpack, pushing aside clothes, cans and water bottles until I find my greatest treasure. She takes it with reverent hands and reads the words etched in silver on the cover.
“Grimms’ Fairy Tales,” she says, her eyes eager. “I haven’t read this one.”
“It was my wife’s,” I tell her.
The kid doesn't ask me where Linh is. “It’s beautiful,” is all she says.
I let her turn the pages until it’s time to leave.
The kid’s talk is like a balm. It makes the walking easier and the thirst less hard to take. She has so many words inside her. Mine feel rusted over, but they come in stops and starts. Sometimes she pauses, and her face gets a certain set to it, a kind of desperation in her eyes. When I see it, I learn to ask a question, and then she’s off again and the pain’s suspended for a while. It’ll hit her eventually—it has to—but I’ll hold it off as long as I can.
We’re walking along, me listening to her chatter, and it’s so pleasant after all the silence that I get careless.
We stop for a late lunch in a farmhouse not far from Jindivick. The kid works the can opener while I brush dust off the cracked leather couch. There’s not a lot of moisture in canned meat, but we gulp it down like hungry dogs, scraping the fatty aspic from the bottom of the tin.
I burp and the kid finds it hilarious. Her giggle is contagious and that’s how the parchers find us, laughing like idiots in some dead farmer’s lounge.
There are four of them—three men and a woman—and they all have that lean and wiry look that scavengers favour. Two of the men look identical and they’re barely more than children, beards still wispy and undergrown. The others are older. He’s a redhead, freckles breaking up the sunburn, and she’s blonde and haggard with a deep scratch down one cheek. She’ll be the worst of them, I think. You’ve got to be the worst to hold your own as a female parcher.
“You’re new,” the redhead says, and he’s looking at the kid like the kid looked at my book.
“Only passing through,” I say. I stand, putting the kid behind me. “We were just about to leave.”
“And here we were, looking to be friendly,” the woman says.
“Kind of you,” I say, calculating our chances if we run for the front door. Not great for me, but the kid’s fast and I could buy her a little time.
Then one of the twins moves to block the doorway and I’m right out of plans.
The redhead comes closer. His gaze flickers from my bearded chin to the hated curve of my hips. “What you got in your pants?” he asks. “Playtime for me, or one for the missus?”
“None of your business,” I say, and I notice the kid’s reaching for her bag.
I figure she’s going to run, so when the redhead grabs my crotch, I let him, distracting at least one of the parchers and improving her longshot odds. I dart a look at her, worried she'll freeze, and nod towards the door. Go, I think. Save yourself. I don't want to frighten her, but I'm sure my own fear is evident.
I pull back from the redhead and kick him hard in the balls. He crumples forward and I reach for his knife, sliding it half out of the belt before his fist slams into my jaw. I stagger, but the kid’s moving behind me, so I throw my weight forward and we both fall to the floor.
The twins move in to assist him. “Run!” I shout to the kid. “Now!”
But there’s no sound of footsteps, only my breath. One twin has me in a headlock, so I can’t turn to look for her. The woman swears, and then there’s a gunshot, followed quickly by two more.
The weight of a twin pushes down on me and something is wet on my face. I pull myself from beneath him. He settles on top of the redhead, half of his throat missing, blood coating the dirty carpet.
I turn and the kid’s still holding the handgun steady, although the rest of her is shaking. She aims at the redhead. When she shoots, she closes her eyes.
After, I stroke her hair with a blood-wet hand as she clings silently to my side. My muscles ache with the urge to escape, but I convince my body to provide the support she needs. "You did good," I say when she pulls away. If she hears me, she gives no sign.
I wipe the worst of the gore from my skin with a shirt I find in one of the parchers’ bags. They have food, too, and water, so I load it all into one rucksack, slinging it over one shoulder and leaving the other free for my own bag. The kid watches me with shadowed eyes, the gun still clutched tightly within one hand. I hold a water bottle to her lips and make her drink, then lead her out of the farmhouse to the sound of the parcher woman’s moans.
She’s silent as we walk and I don’t push her. I’d planned to keep us going until evening, but when Jindivick draws near, I can’t help but picture parchers in every house. I lead us away from the road instead, deep into the dried-up paddocks and into the steep-walled ditch left by a creek. I find a place where fallen trees have created a kind of shelter, shading us from the sun and keeping us out of sight.
“You saved us,” I tell her later, spooning tinned mushrooms onto her plate. “Where the hell did you learn to shoot like that?”
“Mum taught me,” she says. “In case she couldn’t be there to protect me.”
“I reckon she was there,” I say. “Reckon she helped you hold that gun.”
I rock her beneath washed-out moonlight as she falls to pieces in my arms.
By the morning, her shell has hardened. There’s a manic brightness to her hazel eyes, but her jaw is firm and her voice never wavers.
“We can stay here today,” I say.
She shakes her head. “I want to walk,” she says. “I want to walk until my legs hurt.”
I load a bag onto each shoulder and reach down a hand to help her climb out of the ditch.
We stay far away from Jindivick, keeping to the fields. I use the sun and my memory to guide me, only turning back towards the road when we’re all but blocked by a forest of fallen trees. There’s no sign of life, though, save for the flies we swat away from our heads. Occasionally, we see a plastic food wrapper or a worn-through shoe. It’s like no one’s been this way for years, but I’ve learned my lesson. I’m always listening, always alert.
The kid talks like nothing’s different, but I can hear the sharp edges to her words. There I was, thinking her an innocent, when she was as broken as me all along. The knowledge frees my own voice a little and, as we make our way through the natural graveyard, I offer her pieces of myself.
I tell her a little of life during the war—of the fear and the loss of humanity and the lingering, festering guilt. Later, we talk about books we’ve read. She tells me about her parents and I reminisce about Linh. I show her the photo I always keep in my pocket, and she calls Linh pretty and admires her hair. The kid’s hair is black too, beneath the red clay dust of last night’s ditch. In another lifetime, her mother would have tied ribbons in it before sending the kid off to school. It’s unfair, it’s so unfair, but all we can do is walk.
We reach the reservoir long before sundown. I remember it as a vast lake surrounded by grass-covered clearings thick with families. We picnicked here a few times, back when I was no older than the kid is, and in the summer I waded into the shallows followed by my dog.
Now, it’s a long stretch of cracked brown earth, strewn end to end with rubbish. We walk on places that were once water, passing between abandoned tents and bottles and rusty, broken machinery. I can see far off into the distance and for the first time all day I feel safe. There’s no one here but me and the kid.
The reservoir was abandoned years ago. The lakebed is a ghost town of cast-offs, used up and left behind. It’s just as I’d hoped it’d be. I set the kid to work looking for a bucket while I seek out the places where metal rises from the ground.
If you’re on foot, there’s only so much you carry. When the waterseekers left this dried-up place for the rivers, they left their drills and bores behind. There are pumps, too, some rubber and too corroded to work, others still whole despite the beating sun.
I find a place where the dirt is darker and dust doesn’t rise from the ground. There’s a hole that hasn’t crumbled into nothing, and a pump nearby that’s light enough to move.
I offer a prayer to the rainless skies and thread the tubing into the hole until I feel resistance deep below. Ignoring the arthritic burn in my shoulders, I begin to work the pump.
For a while, there’s nothing but the sound of the parts and the grunts of my breath. But then it’s like something eases and a splash of muddy water wets the thirsty ground.
“Kid!” I call. “Bring me a bucket!”
She runs to me, a thick paperback in one hand and a plastic bucket hanging beneath the other. I slide it beneath the pump’s outlet and throw the weight of my body into working the lever.
The water comes in brief, thin spurts, and I’ve never seen anything more beautiful in my life. We’ll need to filter and boil it, but we’re flush with firewood. There’ll be no more burning books.
I pause to rest, and the kid moves to stand beside me. We stare down at the inch of water covering the bucket’s bottom. She wraps one small hand around my calloused fingers and leans, warm, against my side.
We’re here in the middle of nowhere, standing on a long-forgotten lake. But we have water, now, and we have each other. For tomorrow, at least, we’re good.