There it was again – the smell. Barrick glanced at his father, who had his eyes closed but he probably wasn’t asleep, just too exhausted by hunger to keep them open. His cheeks were shallow, as though sucking air, his lips two thin lines of scabs.
Father’s hemp shirt had become a shawl these last few weeks. The same was true for Barrick, his brothers and his sister.
Finally, father’s eyes opened, his nostrils twitched, and with energy summoned from a dark place, he rose. “Again…” he said, barely moving his lips; tension in the jaw and scabs that would split.
“I don’t know how they can do it,” said mother, head limp and resting on her raised knees.
Father swung his legs from the bed and stared into space. The look was a disease, and they all had it. Barrick had seen it first in the faces of the eldest; at night, sharing a bowl of thin soup and disappearing as the first songs began, taking a bottle of moonshine with them. One by one, others caught the look and stopped turning up at all. He’d see them by day, afflicted by the vacant gaze as they sat beside the transparent wall of the dome. They’d stare at the sands but Barrick had no idea what they were looking at; perhaps they saw mirages of visiting caravans that no longer came.
And then, it seemed, a cure appeared. At night the tinkling of music and singing voices began again and, in the daytime, neighbours whispered into the ears of neighbours. On the second night of singing, he and his brothers asked if they could go, but their father told them “No,” and had such anger in his eyes they said little else.
The smell first arrived the following night. Barrick was playing cards with Sam when he lifted his head to the air and sniffed.
“What is it?” asked Sam as he took a deep breath. “Smells good.”
“Smells like barbecue.” Barrick shook his head. “But it can’t be… we ain’t got no animals left.”
“That’s right, son. We haven’t,” his father said.
His mother called out to his father, but he was already out the door.
“What’s happening?” Barrick asked.
His mother looked at him, glassy-eyed, mouth constantly agape. She looked at her other sons – so young – and slowly, slowly closed her eyes. “No good’s happening.”
The next day, Barrick was in the courtyard and learned all about it from Euron, a boy about his age. “My father saw it coming, he said… saw what was happening here, what with all the orphans we kept taking in. Said it was unsustainable or something, and now look. Not enough food to go round. People are dying, Barrick.”
The Decomposting Unit had had a lot of business lately.
“So, father found Gilles the other day—dead—and instead of throwing him in the DC, he boiled him.”
Barrick had almost wretched right there, all over Euron. He looked away. How could anyone look someone in the eye, knowing they had eaten… human?
“And you… ate him?”
Euron said yes. As if to confirm reality, Barrick turned back. Euron was smiling.
“And so that… last night…” He recalled Sam’s comment about how good it smelled. If there had been anything in his belly it would have ended up splashed on the hardtop.
Shortly after, he sat in a tired stupor, slumped against the outside wall of the family hut, when the shouting began. It took two minutes to shuffle fifty feet, only to discover his animated father leading a gang of protesters.
“… and what about your son? What if he’s next to go? You gonna eat him, too?”
Euron’s father stood with arms crossed. “He ain’t gonna. I’m providing. We’re providing.” He spread his arms to incriminate the others. There was almost no fatigue there. The others, sat on stools or slouched in chairs, stared to the ground.
“I’m at death’s door myself,” said Barrick’s father. “You gonna eat me?”
“Join us and you don’t have to starve.”
“I still have my humanity. What’s your plan exactly? What if we all joined you? What if we all had a bit of meat, got a little better? What next – gonna knock off the fattest of us?” His face was two-inches from Euron.
Barrick just listened, horrified. Noticed Euron smiling at him with a bowl of something cupped in his hands, steam rising from it.
“You’re sick!” spat Barrick’s father, and turned, falling to one knee, breathing heavily. A friend helped him up and the protesters filed away.
Euron stirred a spoon in the bowl and lifted soup to his mouth.
Barrick’s belly groaned. He was inside-out with hunger. The moment Euron began to chew, Barrick spun on his heels and found the energy to run.
He returned home the same time as his mother who’d brought water from the lake-source for boiling in the solar-oven. They ate hot water in which a single, small, potato had dissolved almost to nothing.
Night fell, and with it, another body. Euron’s father spoke the truth—the settlement had been too generous. Because it had a readily available water source, the wanderers imagined the place was prosperous, and for a while it had been. But something tipped over; they took in too many refugees and the existing residents, short on activity but not on lust, had themselves soon multiplied. The leaders had to impose rationing. Closed doors weren’t far behind that, and when word went from mouth to ear the merchants stopped coming, too.
The Agridome had never been the most successful of ventures—season to season cultivating produced an inconsistent crop. Exacerbated by the low number of merchant caravans, things soon began to deteriorate.
All the while, the red sand swirled outside the dome. They became an increasingly isolated blister on the planet.
A blister that boiled in human flesh.
The barbecue smell permeated the dome; three nights, four nights; a week, two weeks. Each night, Barrick watched his father grit his teeth, clench his fists, pace the floor, come to life after a day of sleeping. A day of Barrick wondering if now was his father’s turn to not wake up at all. But no, wake he did, and then one night he left and didn’t return at all.
As the light fell into the hut, Barrick’s mother ordered him to go look for his father. On legs so weak, they shook as he headed out. The courtyard was desolate. Gone were the sounds of laughter, buried under mountains of bodies in the DC Unit. There, by the chalk, was where he’d played with the new orphans. And over there, by the stairwell to the lower levels, was where he and his brothers used to wrestle. He shook his head, amazed by the memory of activity.
And here, Euron had admitted eating someone.
The entrance to the Agridome opened across the courtyard and there it was again – the scent of death; boiling blood and burning flesh.
But… was there something… an undertone of… sweetness.
Slack-jawed, drool slipped from the corner of his lips. He didn’t know what hunger felt like anymore – this was how his stomach had always been, like a shrivelled raisin.
He took a step towards the entrance.
His father would be so disappointed in him.
But his father wasn’t here.
He wouldn’t know.
He’d be dead soon anyway.
Barrick considered this. “I’ll be dead soon myself if I don’t.”
It’s just pork – spit-roasted, skin crackled to a crisp, fat rendered and spitting a sizzle on the fire. It was harvest time and time for this little piggy to go to market, as mother said.
Time to go to market, get some lunch.
The smell was overwhelming and his stomach rolled in a way it hadn’t for weeks at the thought of taking a bite into the juicy, smoky meat.
Another step – and then others appeared; pale, gaunt and walking dead. Started coming at him from the entrance. They were spent – Barrick could tell just by looking at their faces. One face came up to him – it was half-recognisable as his father’s friend, but he couldn’t be sure. It was little more than a skeleton looking back at him. “Turn around,” it said.
Barrick, dreaming of pork, stared vacantly beyond him, trying to push past.
“Turn back, there’s nothing in there, lad. Nothing you should have to see.”
He felt hands on his shoulders, twisting them, until he was pointing towards home. “Where’s… father?” he finally asked.
“He’s gone, son. Got the beat on Shannon and killed him, but it was all the energy he had left in this world.”
Barrick stared at the entrance, and then beyond; through the translucent wall of the dome where a smeary pile of darkness lay, orange flames wriggling like snakes through the shadows.
Someone closed it, and after a while, the ventilation system took the smell of his burning father and pumped it away into the heavens.
Thanks for reading. Discover what happened to Barrick, and a host of other characters, in Neon Sands, currently accepting nominations on Kindle Scout until the end of February.