Communion of brothers
A cold wind blew hard over the brittle surface of the faltering world that morning. The arthritic sun rose slowly to claim its rightful place in the pale, stretched sky. Its thin, sallow light bled meekly through the grey and impotent clouds.
Already you could tell it was going to be another brutal, callous day.
Somewhere beneath the bitter sky a dog barked wildly, blinded by the same old urges and primal suspicions that had always ruled its heart. The hollowing wind pulled at the shambolic remains of houses scattered alongside the roadside. It plucked tiles from their rooftops and blew clusters of litter into slow, meandering dances that followed the faces of the crumbling curbs until it was done with them. Swirling newspaper pages and torn food wrappers. Rolling empty beer cans and crushed cigarette butts. Spent shell casings. All of them moved together in drunken, giddy, brief dalliances.
Two figures walked slowly along this broken road. Two men. Two thieves. The sound of their boots rang out a tired, if purposeful tattoo on the cracked surface as they went. They kept on looking dead ahead, bristling with adrenaline and anticipation. They were focused on their destination and the task at hand.
“Look,” the younger one was saying, carrying his prized rifle out in his hands for all the world to see. “We’re done talking about this. The plan is simple for a reason. It’s staying that way.”
“Sure.” The older one kept a cigarette held between his cracked lips. “Simple.”
The older thief, for his sins, tried to leave his pistol sitting in its holster until he absolutely needed it. He liked the idea that some days he might not even need it at all. Of course, there were still the black days when it took all of his willpower to force himself to put it back there again. Days when red mist fells. Days when it felt as if every man left in this world was trying to test him. Still, there was some desperate and overstretched part of himself that always had a say in the matter. The side of him that didn't used to carry a gun. The side of him that remembered who he'd used to be when the world was whole. The part of him still said all of this was wrong. It was convinced that if the gun stayed by his side then maybe others would pay him the same kindness. Although these days he was beginning to worry he'd just created another superstition to live his life by. You could drown in your private superstitions out here if you weren't careful.
He took the spent nub of the cigarette from between his lips and tossed it back over his shoulder. The acrid taste of the first smoke of the day felt necessary if not necessarily good. The dog end smouldered and died as it was left in their wake. Ash crumbled to the ground. Another breadcrumb to mark out their passage through this dying world.
On the way here they had passed so many burnt out skeletons of homes. So many ransacked ruins. They had seen overgrown gardens reclaimed and clawed back by the strong hands of nature. Fallen, bullet ridden fences. Stone boundary walls built up and fortified with rusting barbed wire and concrete blocks. They had seen rusting land mines surrounding farm crops and bodies left hanging in the trees as reminders of the new laws. The Fall had clearly hit hard around here.
The two thieves had remarked on it when they'd first entered this county. The younger thief had reckoned it was something to do with it being so close to the ocean. His parents had told him years ago that the sea always made men feel small and made them act funny if they stared at it for too long. The older thief hadn’t said much on the matter. He knew that it didn’t take a close proximity to water to force men to commit horrifying acts. Especially these days. Although some men had never needed an excuse. His own father had taught him that.
“Look, there’s nothing to worry about,” the younger one said, his eyes cruel and hungry as he surveyed the land ahead of them. “The plan is solid.”
He had shaved all his ginger hair off a long time ago and he never let it grow back. This was his new face. That was how he liked to think of it. Stripped down, sharp and savage. He didn’t like his old face anymore. He didn’t even like seeing photos of it. It reminded him of a life he no longer had any claim to. He had done terrible things since those photos had been taken. Terrible things that this pale face dappled with rough, red scree suited well.
“It looked quiet yesterday, didn't it?” he carried on. He spat on the decaying body of a dead bird as they passed it by. “It looked downright lonely to me.”
“Everywhere looks lonely now,” said the older thief. “Doesn’t mean it's safe.”
The younger thief shook his head. A dark smile on his lips.
“Sometimes I don’t know how you survived this long. You ask me, you’re getting afraid of your own shadow.”
His slightly heavy set companion shrugged. It looked like an action of deflation. The smile on his face was little more than a narrow, uncertain crease.
“In my defence my shadow does carry a gun.”
“Look, we’ve been out here long enough to know that we’re not running into any armed patrols. Not like last time. This is just another little place in the middle of nowhere.”
“Well, I don’t know about you but I don’t fancy getting shot in the middle of nowhere.”
“All I’m saying is that the plan is simple because it doesn’t need to be complicated. This job looks easy.”
“The last one looked easy.” The older thief felt all too aware of the weight of the gun resting on his hip. “Look where that got us.”
The last job had ended ragged and badly and fast. They had walked into a large food store, guns out and shouting for cooperation, only to find themselves staring at an armed squad of marshals stocking up for a patrol.
The fight had been short lived and there had been a lot more running away than holding ground on the part of the thieves. Until that day there had always been a third thief who travelled with them, but they had been forced to leave him behind after he was shot. Later they had perched on a low rise and watched as the marshals burnt his body. They had left his ashes to blow away on the wind without saying any sort of prayer for him. The marshals had held their god fearing tongues out of disdain for him, whilst the two thieves hadn’t dared breath a word to try and save their own sorry skins.
“That was a long way from here,” the younger thief said, his eyes fixed on the horizon. “And I’ve apologised every step of the way. All that apologising has made me hungry.”
“Along with all that running.”
The younger thief's fingers clutched a little tighter at his rifle. He hoped his partner didn’t see. In the same way, he hoped his partner had never seen his fear on his face on that day when the marshals had drawn on them. They had acted pretty much as one. They had moved like a swarm of something. They never seemed to blink. They'd even breathed in unison and they'd shot as one. The sound of it in that tin pot shed of a store had been deafening. It was like hearing thunder up close. He’d spent every night since then waking to the sound of those gunshots still ringing in his ears, always with the distinct feeling that he’d been shot.
To this day, he'd been unable to forgive himself for the fact he’d flinched when they’d fired that first volley. Flinched. Closed his eyes. Convinced himself that he was done. That single moment had seemed to last a colourless and endless eternity.
“Well, how’s this? I come in there with you.”
“No.” The younger one shook his head curtly. “You need to be outside, keeping watch. I don’t want anyone walking in. This is best way to do it with just the two of us. I go in and you keep watch. We both know that you’re the better lookout by a mile.”
“I still don’t like it,” the older one said squarely. “I don’t like you going in there by yourself. And I don’t like me standing out there on my own. Splitting up is asking for trouble.”
“Look, we’re a man down. We have to do things differently.”
The older thief tried to fit the idea into his head but it still wouldn’t take.
“No. Sorry. I don’t like you going in there alone.”
“I’m not twitchy. I’m fine.”
“Sure, you’re fine. You’re starving hungry, you’re not sleeping properly and you’re not thinking straight. Sounds fine to me.”
The older thief was wearing a wide brimmed hat crammed down over his lank, long hair. It kept the straining glare of the sun out of his eyes. A few greasy looking strands of his greying fringe were forever getting loose and blowing across his dark eyes. He never flinched or tried to fuss them away. He didn’t see the point. He wore his beard as long and unkempt as his hair. He hid his face whereas his young friend kept his exposed for all the world to see.
“Don’t fuss at me. I’m sleeping fine. I’m eating my rations. I’m in control.”
His fingers gripped tighter at the rifle again.
“Sure you are.”
His older partner didn't even try to sound convinced.
“Look, I have to go in there, alright. I can read people better than you. I know when they’re holding out on me and I’m not afraid to ask a little harder if I think they are. Whereas you, you’re too nice.”
The crease of a smile wavered.
“It’s been a long time since anyone called me nice.” His voice faltered, unsure whether it was a compliment or an insult.
Even with all the debating, they never stopped walking. The pull of the hunger was too strong in both of them now. Their boots crunched over the dead ground as they walked on, closer and closer to that small shop and the vague hope of finding real food.
The cold air bled through any gap it could find in their worn, battered clothing. They had been working on this job since they had passed the place early yesterday morning, heading in the opposite direction. They hadn't been looking for work but this seemed to be good to be true. It was under their skin now. Another itch that had to be scratched.
“You’d go in there and feel bad for them,” the younger thief pointed out. “You’d take pity on them and leave them with something.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“Everything.” His eyes burned.
“Well, I’m still not convinced.”
“If I need you, I’ll call. Okay? And if you need me you just start shooting. I'll come running.”
The older thief looked behind them. The road seemed to stretch back a long way. It hadn't felt like they'd walked that far this morning. Their desolate little camp from last night had to be a good few miles back now. They’d stayed out of the town but made sure to keep it in their sights, just in case there was any trouble brewing round here. Not that distance was any guarantee. In the same way a plan wasn't any sort of insurance. His hand twitched over his gun but he stopped himself. No point tempting fate just yet.
“If I’m staying outside then I should get the rifle.”
“Not a chance. The rifle is mine. It stays with me.”
“Then any fight that comes at us is going to have to come pretty close before I can do anything about it.”
“Fine with me.”
“Brave words for the man with the rifle.”
“I seriously don’t know what you’re worrying about. Do you really see anyone around here putting up much of a fight?”
The older thief shrugged.
“I just don’t feel a powerful urge to jinx us. That’s all.”
He knew only too well that food was scarce out here, in the dead and crumbling regions. Robbing a store like this was tantamount to killing a whole struggling town. He also knew how hungry he was and that his partner was even hungrier. So they needed to eat, regardless of how others around here coped from day to day after they were gone. That was just how the world worked now. For every man, everywhere. It was no longer your business to care about any man but yourself. If you tried to live any other way you would die. Unless, maybe, you were one of the men who huddled together in the big cities. All they did all day was pray, whip themselves and empty their seed into a paper cup, shedding a tear for all the women and children they had ever loved whilst they did it. That was what earned you sanctuary these days. A clean record, a clean medical test, a willingness to give samples and a totally gullible soul. A blind sense of self righteousness also helped. Like those fools wouldn’t die in the end anyway, same as every other men. The Lifeboats would come back for them all soon enough. There was nothing that really separated them from all those women and children they’d buried or burnt a few years ago. It was all just a matter of time now and how you chose to spend it. There were so many men out there now hunting for a distraction or playing at being something else. They changed their names and cut themselves, they pretended they were a totally different animal. Without a governing hand or any sort of hope in sight this world had become a bad reflection of the place it once was.
“Here we go. Finally.”
There it was. Their destination. Visible now and getting closer with every step. Not that either of them broke into a run. They took their time, kept themselves under control. Their scavenger eyes scanning the land for signs of trouble.
A large, empty car park sat in front of the small row of shops, its surface as cracked and ruined as the road that led up to it. There were only a few vacant heaps of rust and some flat tyres left scattered across its web of empty spaces now. There were a few old dark burn marks on the tarmac. Shadows with nothing to cast them in the sunlight. Men had clearly camped here at some point. Most of the shops themselves were derelicts, uninhabited husks, but there at the centre was the jewel in the crown and it was still unguarded by the looks of it.
The older one had been surprised at how few customers they’d seen go in there yesterday but his younger companion had sneered and said he reckoned not many locals would venture this far out anymore. He reasoned they were more likely to be the kind of men who spent their days building little tokens to help their crops grow better and mending their fences.
“Still looks good to me.” The greed was all too clear in his voice.
He stopped and turned to face the car park and the shop beyond. He licked his lips and ran a hand along his rifle. His father’s old rifle. He'd learned to hunt with this gun. He felt his stomach start to burn. It was a familiar pain. Part of the routine these days. His body was sharpening itself up for what lay ahead. His yellowed eyes looked at the flat, barren world around him and the shop ahead of him like it was all just another target. Another little kingdom for the taking.
His travelling companion and partner in crime stared past his greasy tangles of grey hair and ran a hand through his dry, wiry beard. He felt sick. He always did just before about they robbed a place. Maybe it was because he could always find some trace evidence of his old life in these moments. The battered, faded sales signs in the window. The open sign on the door. The posters advertising new movies for rent. Adverts for fireworks, discount alcohol and lottery tickets.
Sometimes you’d walk through a door like that with a gun in your hand and a little bell would ring over your head. It would make you stop for a moment. It was such a simple little sound, but it was ghostly now. It was haunted. A shiver would run down your spine when you heard it. Only that bell no longer summoned a smiling face to greet or serve you. No, now it brought covering fire, pleas for mercy and occasional bloodshed.
He still couldn't work out why some men felt driven to keep these places open, stocking them with whatever they could. It couldn't just be about making money or building any sort of an empire any more. Maybe it was more about helping the community or maybe it was simply yet another way to occupy themselves and pass the time. Or maybe it was some lingering form of duty, muscle memory of a former life. Something they had always done. A reason to get out of bed in the morning. There was a lot of that delusion going around.
A couple of weeks back the two thieves had walked along a deserted stretch of motorway. It had been a risk but they wanted to travel quickly. Motorways weren’t always easy to negotiate now. It wasn't just a case of all the abandoned cars and dead bodies. There was always the chance of running into someone far worse than yourself. Still they were quicker than cutting through smaller towns, near patrols of marshals and local militia.
It was down this particular stretch of four lane road that they had passed a guy washing abandoned cars. There was no real reason for him to be there. It was just how he chose to spend his days. They had seen men pursue stranger options after all. Although there was something tragic about that man, with his bucket of murky water and mouldering sponge. The dim smile of satisfaction on his bruised and haggard face. One hand little more than a stump. He walked badly, dragging an infected leg behind him. He only had one working eye but the other hadn’t been removed. It was still there, hanging loose against his cheek. Not that it seemed to bother him. Probably the work of raiders. For all the pain he must have felt he kept on cleaning those broken down and abandoned cars, always smiling to himself. It was a toothless, vacant smile of childish bliss.
The older thief had watched him and wondered if it would be easier to just let go like that. Let the madness in. His travelling companion had felt differently. He had shot the fool in the head and taken what he could use from his cart. Which hadn't been a lot.
Survival had never been a pretty word but the world had changed it into something else now. Something fouler, something more incendiary. It could spark flames any second now. Survival was a far more dangerous word than it used to be. Men held it too close to their hearts. It was a motto, a creed. An alibi. Maybe even a religion of sorts. Survival was spelt with a lot more blood than it used to be and the older thief was certain the nature of it had changed. It was no longer the survival of the fittest. No, now it was the survival of the keenest.
“We’re vultures,” he said, the thought slipping past his tired defences.
The younger one turned his head and smiled like he’d just gotten some joke he’d heard years ago.
“Careful. That's a dirty word around here.”
The wind whipped at them. The older one could feel his heart starting to race. His blood pumping harder. He could taste the sharp metal tang of adrenaline rising at the back of his throat. He looked at the hungry face of his partner. Any job before now and the boy would never have offered to go in there alone. Back then, of course, they’d had a third man with them. A good, steadying influence on the boy. A big man with a slow, strong way of speaking. He never panicked. He never looked worried. He rarely even raised an eyebrow. He looked over the devastation and always saw some new way for them to survive. He had been as steady as a rock, right up until the moment those marshals had blown his knee apart with a shotgun.
The older thief felt a straying hand brush against the pistol hanging at his hip. He could feel himself trying to push away from the world, trying step clear of his skin until this was done. He was never truly in control of himself once the gun was drawn.
His partner read the action and nodded curtly. He started to head for the shop, marching across the deserted car park. The older thief stood and watched him go for a few steps before he walked towards the remains of the low wall that ran along the end of the car park. He planted himself behind it. He spat on the dead grass and pulled his hat a little lower, so the brim was nearly over his eyes.
At times like this his old life would always bleed through. Whether he wanted it to or not. He couldn’t stop the ghost of his wife singing softly in his ear, as subtle as a regrettable thought. It wasn’t what he needed to hear right now but she would always turn up. She used to sing to herself when she cooked but she would always stop if he walked in. If he ever heard her start he would stand in their small dining room and listen for a while, smiling to himself.
He tried to distract himself from the ghost of her breathing down his neck. He listened to the footfalls of his partner as he strode over to the little shop instead. He counted them as he went. Twenty one. Twenty two. Twenty three. He wasn’t rushing. Maybe that was a good sign.
He fought to control the hunger in his stomach as he listened. He had seen so many good men fall to the hunger over these past ten years. He had seen them run into fires to raid the flames for something to eat, something to drink. He had seen men burn a friend's corpse only for the smell to grow too much for them to bear. This felt no different. They were just running into their own kind of fire, picking at a different kind of corpse.
His hand strayed to his hip again as he surveyed the desolate road and the shells of the buildings around him. No sign of movement. The boots of his partner kept ringing out off the cracked tarmac of the car park. He kept counting them. Thirty five. Thirty six. Thirty seven. Not a long way to run if there was any kind of trouble. He hated to admit it but he did like the way the boy carried the rifle out in front of him at all times. There was no pretence to the action. It was a clear and simple declaration of intent. I am armed and I am ready. It was a rare thing these days. A lot of men hid their weapons, old and the young alike. The Lifeboats had changed them. It had stripped them down to something grim and gaunt. The barest minimums required of humanity. Their bodies and their souls had become something to hang their clothes on in the mornings.
He checked the road in both directions. Nothing stirred. Smoke rose from a chimney stack back in town, but that was about it. He pulled a pack of battered gum out of his pocket and crammed a slab of it between his jaws. He started working on it. The acid in his stomach rose and began to pitch a fit. It would keep him sharp. It would keep him keen and harsh until this was done.
The boy didn’t look back as he slipped into the store. His rifle raising as the door closed behind him. His shouts were just audible for that moment, carried on the wind. Then the door closed and silence settled. He didn't fire a warning shot. Another possible good omen.
The older thief surveyed the wrecked cars in front of the place. Six of them. Burnt out, gutted and left to rust. No one would be sleeping in those. They’d done a brief check yesterday but there were no sign of life. All this silence made him wish he could explain away the cold surprise he could feel lurking in the air close by.
Christ, how he was hungry. He kept chewing on the gum. Not long, he told himself. Not long until we eat something other than dry rations. He tried not to think about what the boy was doing in there or what he might find. That rifle was heavy and fully loaded and the boy had good aim with it. There was no doubt about that. He liked to pretend he could only fight close up but the older thief knew where that came from. He knew that his young companion liked to be close to his kills. He liked to watch them die. He liked to listen to them splutter out.
Word around the town drunks last night was that this place was run by a couple of brothers. Old men. They had already been old when everything went wrong, when the Lifeboats had first reared its ugly head and the children had started to die. Old or ancient, the shop keepers' age wouldn't cut them any slack with the man who had just walked in through their front door. If they moved too slow or didn’t hear too well it would cost them and that rifle barked pretty loud when it got angry. He would know all about it out here.
The older thief shook the thought from his head and kept on watching the world around him. No point fretting until something went wrong. If something went wrong.
He stayed calm. As calm as he could allow. Nothing stirred. No sign to betray the coming of the storm he was so sure was out there, hiding around some sheltered corner. Although he always felt like this when they were working. He couldn't allow himself to deny it or quieten it down. That was tempting fate on a scale he couldn't face. Paranoia was best to be spoilt and fussed over at a time like this. You didn't want it festering into any sort of reality because it felt left out.
He turned his attention to the other shops in the row. Nothing more than hollowed out faces now. Scalped skulls. Gravestones to a past that was never coming back. A dry cleaners, a takeaway of some description, a hairdressers and a computer game place by the look of it. Jesus, how he missed fast food. Kung Po chicken, pizza, fish and chips. Greasy kebab meat. Thai curries and fierce, fiery enchiladas. All just a phone call or a short drive away once upon a time. He had to fight to shut the taste of them out of his mouth. Food like that simply didn't exist anymore. Or, if it did, it would come at a high price. They had ran into a bunch of raiders once who kept a chef prisoner. They had him chained up in a wagon, preparing steaks and other treats. The deal seemed to be when they got bored of his food they were going to make him start cooking pieces of himself. Another desperate life you could do nothing to help. Although those steaks had smelt damn good.
He worked harder at the gum and tried, yet again, to rein in the hunger. When the kid came out of there he might have some fairly fresh bread or some tinned goods. Maybe some new dry ration food. There wouldn't be much else, but it would do. Food was no longer a luxury or a hobby. It wasn't an interest anymore. It was fuel, plain and simple. You ate or you starved.
He tried to think of something, anything to take his mind off the hunger. He thought about the church they’d passed on the way to the town. The ruined church with the tree growing out through the roof. He couldn’t shake that image for some reason. It had stuck with him since he'd first seen it. The tree looked like it had punched right through the joists and tiles. Now dead leaves were falling off the branches and scattering over the remains of the roof tiles. There had been crows on those branches. Or, at least, they were there when he remembered it now. Large, black shapes watching them pass by. When the birds had screeched and cawed the older thief was sure he'd heard some unspoken judgement or warning in their cries.
His eyes were cold and focused now. He let his eyes stray to the door his partner had gone through only moments ago. It felt longer than it actually was. Time played tricks on you when you were working, when you were waiting. It refused to obey the simple tick of a clock. There was still no movement, still no sound. Nothing. Which had to be good. Still, though, he kept his left hand over the gun resting on his hip. He hated waiting. It never sat well with him.
The wind blew up again and his loose tangles of grey hair moved with it. He didn’t blink or fuss them away. He just kept staring at the door. He ran through scenarios that he was desperate to avoid. It felt less like ticking them off and more like stopping them before they could catch him off guard.
He cast an eye back at the town, just to make sure nothing was happening back there either. It was a real rubble and dirt kind of place. Nothing more than a ruin in the making. Another shambolic footnote to the world that was. Another festering knot of the fearful, the god botherers and the ever grieving. Maybe the kid had been right. Maybe there wouldn’t be any trouble here. They had gone into town for a drink in last night. The men in there, lit by fading candles, had already started to look like corpses.
The first gunshot snapped him to full attention.
His left hand twitched over his hip and the gun was in his grip. He spat the gum out. He was heading across the car park fast, before he even thought about what he was doing. He moved quicker than it looked like his older frame should allow. His boots drove him across the jigsaw puzzle of faded borders that made up the empty parking spaces. He sucked in air and tried to keep the adrenaline down to a controllable surge. He pictured a sea of marshals waiting in there for him. He saw them armed to the teeth. He looked over his shoulder as he kept moving. No one behind him.
The second gunshot made him speed up to a full pelt run. His eyes focused on the shop door. No one was coming out. He couldn’t hear raised voices.
He got to the ruined shop fronts. That was when the third and fourth gunshots rang out. The boy’s rifle. He was sure of it. That aggressive bark. The rifle was alive and kicking. He pressed against the wall and turned his back to the shop. He studied the ruined, desolate horizon. It still looked clear. That had to count for something. He moved along the wall, dragging his long coat against the rough face of the bricks. He got right outside the shop.
Still no movement from inside. No more shots either.
The weight of the gun in his hand made him felt better but he knew it was a lie every gun told you. Although it felt good to be lied to right now. Sometimes you needed to believe you were just that little bit more invincible.
He kept the door to his left, his gun close to the door. He looked around. His chest heaving. His hands shaking slightly. The car park. The road. The fields beyond. Nothing moved. Whatever had happened in there didn’t seem to be part of a trap. In fact the whole world seemed to have fallen silent to the sound of that rifle.
He shook his left hand as he thought, the gun rattled in his grip. He had to see what was going on in there. There was no other choice. He leant round fast, not giving himself time to think. His heart was beating fast and hard, as if to prove it wasn't ready to stop yet. He peered through the cracked glass, past the fractured reflection of his own tired face. He could just see the dim outline of shelves and a skeleton crew of boxes and tins. Nothing else. No signs of life. He needed a better line of sight. He needed to cause some alarm. He pulled back against the wall, took a breath and held the gun up at the glass. He pulled the trigger.
A crack of thunder filled his head and his hands. The bitter crisp shatter of the glass sounded a million miles away.
He waited, his ears ringing. He checked around him again. Still nothing. Good.
“You in there?” he yelled through the broken glass, taking another fast look.
He could see through the dust kicked up by the shot. There was no movement in there. No sound. Every nerve in his body was telling him to run but he fought it all down, like stamping out fires. He was hungry and sometimes the hunger had to win out if you were going to survive.
He gritted his teeth. Living alone out here was no way to live anyway.
“I know you didn’t call me. But I heard shots.”
Silence. He cursed under his breath.
“I’m coming in.”
He spun, grabbed the door handle with his free hand and went in at a stumbling gait. Grace had never been his strong suit. He had stepped on his bride’s feet three times during their wedding day. That’s how graceful he was under pressure.
The shop was small and dark. It was also damn near empty. Gun smoke hung heavy in the air. A few museum piece tins and boxes sat on shelves liked the last children waiting to be collected from school. You could smell the age and the neglect in here. You could feel it bristling against your skin.
At his feet the older thief found a thin, stretched puddle of blood. His eyes reluctantly followed it to the counter. The boy was dead. Slumped on the ground at an awkward angle. The rifle still clutched in his hands, blood trailing from his lips. His pale eyes were frozen, wide open.
The remaining thief stepped towards him, keeping a watchful eye on the counter. No movement there. Just a deep, hard spray of blood covering the wall behind it. A couple of holes shot deep into the ageing plaster. It looked like both had hit home, driving through meat and bone before planting themselves into the wall. The boy had done well.
The thief took a glance over the counter at the two bodies. Both very old men. Older than you normally saw around these days. They almost looked identical, even in death. Their bloated and flabby chests and backs had been blown open, like something had torn its way out of them. Their hearts taken flight. Near their bodies were a pair of small, simple handguns. Matching snub nosed, brass pistols.
He spat on them for their sins and tucked his gun back in its holster. There was no threat here anymore. His partner had seen to that with his dying breath and a strong aim. There was nothing but corpses behind the counter now. The bullets are turned them into fresh produce for the right kind of desperate monster who would soon come calling. There were plenty of those around now. Another breed of vulture, although still not the one that most men feared.
The thief left them lying there and turned to his fallen partner. He squatted next to the dead boy, looking briefly over the dirt and blood covered floor.
“I told you the plan wouldn’t work with two,” he said in a low voice.
He immediately regretted the rebuke. Another graceless moment. He bowed his aching head. The adrenaline draining away and leaving a hangover of sorts in its place. The boy had two holes in him. Wild shots. One had struck lucky. He wouldn't have felt much. It was a hollow consolation.
“I shouldn't have let you come in here alone. This is my fault.”
He took the dusty old hat off his old head and let his long, grey mop of hair fall loose over his face. He sat it on a shelf and closed his own eyes for a moment. He muttered something appropriate, if a little stale, and then opened his eyes again. He made the gesture of the cross with his gun hand before pulling the rifle out of the dead boy’s grip. He'd forgotten how weighty the damn thing was. He rested it against a nearby shelf and stood up off his haunches with a groan. He cast an eye over the almost bare shop. Three dead for this. It didn’t seem right. Still...
“No point wasting it,” he figured, explaining his thinking to the dead. He'd have to watch that now he was alone.
He took the canvas bag off his partner's unresisting shoulder and flipped it open. He loaded it with as many cans as he could, not checking to see what they were. The cold cut to his bones as he worked. There were ghosts already brewing in this room. He could feel them shifting into being. He could feel them watching him closely
“A man has to eat,” he said to no one in particular.
As he kept loading the bag he noticed a tin of fuel behind the counter. I’ll finish this up, he thought, then I’ll burn this place to the ground.
He kept working. He kept filling the bag. He could easily sell what he didn’t need and one mouth was going to be easier and cheaper to feed than two. A silver lining, no matter how thin it was.
When the bag was nearly full he dropped a tin. It rolled away from him. The man stopped, breathless, overridden with greed. He watched it lumber underneath a stack of shelves.
You could hear the food sloshing around inside it. He looked at the door. The faded posters over the walls promised foods he hadn’t eaten in years. This place felt like a tomb now. He was grave robbing. He looked down at the bag and felt his stomach churn. Run, it told him. You don’t need that one tin. Let it go. Only he couldn’t. His friend had died to get him in here. Leaving this one tin behind felt like blasphemy. So he ignored the fear and the chill warnings rushing through his head.
Slowly, he laid the bag down and walked over to the set of shelves it had rolled under. He tried not to think about how long he’d been in here. He tried not to think about how long this was taking.
He squatted down and reached under the bottom shelf, trying to force his arm to grow as narrow as it could. He felt years of cobwebs reluctantly give as he pushed deeper into the darkness. A childhood fear of the unseen prickled at the back of his neck but he ignored it. He would burn all these shadows away soon enough.
His fingertips gently kissed at the round edge of the tin and he grinned.
He made a grab for it but ended up pushing it a little further out of his own reach.
“Son of a bitch!”
He punched the floor and cursed. His hand stung from the impact. His shoulder was starting to burn. He squatted lower, tried reaching further. A man had died for this tin. As petty as it sounded that gave the thief licence to take it, along with everything else he could carry, before he burned this tomb to the ground. Let those two fat twins become ghosts. Let them wander the Earth, unwanted and forgotten. Let them be left behind. He would only speak words for his partner. His friend. Maybe his last friend.
He strained again. His shoulder threatening to separate. His fingers stretching to the point of burgeoning agony. They touched the edge of the tin again, briefly.
“Come on,” he hissed. “Come on!”
He grasped at it again. The tin simply rolled away again. And again. He bellowed a curse. His body shook with red hot frustration. He wasn’t thinking about the haul anymore. He wasn’t thinking about how long he’d been in here or if anyone else was coming to investigate the shots. Let alone a customer. No, he just wanted this one damn tin. He had earned this one tin. It was his, along with all the rest. It was his property. It was his right. The world owed him this tin. He wouldn’t sell it, no matter what it was. He’d keep it. A memorial to what had happened here today.
He splayed his body flat out over the floor. He forced his tired arm deeper under the unit. His shoulder begged for leniency, his fingers for mercy. He could smell years of cheap bleach bleeding off the floor tiles pressed close to his face.
“Come to papa.”
He closed his eyes. He tried to force his whole body to move closer to the tin. That was when he heard the shop door open and close behind him.