Hot season


“They’ll be here soon,” he says. He says it a lot these days, as he stands at the edge of our farm, facing away towards the horizon, one hand shading his eyes. I never quite know what he means.

“Who will?”

He shrugs, turns away. “Never mind. How did we do today?”

I rest the basket from our harvest on a fence post; there’s not much in it, carrots, parsnips, a few potatoes. “Fine.” I smile, reassuring. He needs a lot of reassuring. “We’ll be fine for now.”

He nods, wipes a hand over his forehead where a faint sheen of sweat has started. It’s getting hot, I don’t say.

He cooks two of the potatoes that night. We curl ourselves into the small wooden table and eat them together and I think about how these are always my favourite moments: me, him, food on the table, and the suns long gone from the sky.

“They’ll be here soon,” he says. He looks worried, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes pulled together. I put a hand on his shoulder, and he stiffens, turns away.

“It’s too hot for that.”

 

We don’t go into the village much anymore. The closest one now isn’t far, about an hour’s walk and an uneventful view of sand and shrubs and, sometimes, the foundations of old buildings, crumbling reminders of something Before. But he hates leaving the farm, always has. Even in the early days, I’d see him glance over his shoulder as it disappeared over the horizon behind us. He worried about things like this, leaving our home and our livelihood behind with only a thin veneer of certainty that it would be there when we returned.

I had fewer reservations about the whole thing, only that the village itself was familiar enough to be depressing and it seemed like each time we went there were fewer and fewer faces watching us from behind their sand-fogged windows.

It was everything like my own home from years ago and I think that was why I never minded it.

The woman we traded with had greying hair and downturned eyes and lips that she pursed into something resembling a smile when she thought we had made what she deemed to be a good deal. A good deal allowed all of us to keep on living, in which she got carrots and turnips from our garden and we got whatever tools and old tech they had left in their stores that might help our next harvest come faster.

We could do with a good deal or two soon.

 

The door to our house sticks on its hinges more days than not and I shove my shoulder in to budge it open wide enough for the basket to fit through. It’s empty now, yesterday’s vegetables stored safely in a dark corner under the table where they last the longest, until we eat them or bring them to the village.

“We should find something to fix that,” I say, not for the first time, as I nudge the door closed again behind me.

The dry morning breeze feels comforting against my skin, cutting through the heat already starting to build. He is crouched over the nearest row of fragile green shoots, testing the dirt with long, gentle fingers. For a moment, I forget about the door.

“We can’t anymore,” he says, after a long enough pause that I start to think he hasn’t heard me.

I hold back a sigh.

“There’s hardly been anyone there the last few times.” I set the basket down at the bottom of the nearest row and step over the raised dirt to join him. “If they really are leaving for The Cities we might as well see what they have left.”

“It’s not safe.” He digs his fingers further into the dirt. “Especially if they’re leaving. We don’t want any traces back to us.”

“It’s just food,” I say. “It won’t lead anyone here.”

He shakes his head, fingers knuckle-deep in the earth, and I worry that if he digs any further, he’ll dislodge the thin roots of the little green plants on either side. I reach out and touch his wrist, callouses against smooth skin.

“I didn’t think it would happen so soon,” is all he says.

The door jams again later, when we head inside to escape the suns at their midday peak. I watch as he eases it back into place, the muscles in his arms taut with the effort of manoeuvring the heavy wooden slab. His face is soft in concentration and I wonder if maybe he prefers it this way, with the door to focus on rather than the image of quiet villages drained of life and swarming with Mercenaries.

 

There’s a scar on his hand that runs along the ridge of his knuckles, a jagged rise and fall that reminds me of the empty houses we used to pass on our way to the village. All the doors were left open, a series of archways beckoning us into silent chaos.

I walked in once, just to look. In every house the stores had been ransacked, overturned tables and smashed earthenware. In one, there was a blanket bunched into a corner of mattress and wall, as if someone had curled up there while they still could, in what remained of their safety.

I left then, walked back out of the open doorway, past faded tread of motorbike tyres where the awning of a roof had protected them from wind. I met him at the old sign that had once marked an entrance, a black “X” now drawn over the top in drips of black paint.

There was no danger anymore, of course, The Mercenaries had been here long before we found our little homestead. It might even have been the event that deserted it for us in the first place but I didn’t like to dwell on that. Instead, I focused on the way his shoulder loosened the farther we got from the “X”, the way the crinkles at the corners of his eyes softened and he bumped his arm against mine as we walked.

By the time we reached the village, he was smiling. The grey-haired woman gave us an old plastic transpiration bag that day and we shook hands over our good deal.

 

When it happens, it is sudden; we step out of our little house one morning and they are waiting. A single figure first, on a motorbike that looks like it’s seen better days. I’ve only ever seen them from afar, as they pass by on the edge of the desert in clouds of dust. She’s wearing a helmet — I’ve heard they all do — visor pulled down. It filters their air, I remember, bootlegged tech from the old world that points them towards necessities in the desert, like water. Or food.

“Hello,” he says, voice surprisingly steady.

She says, “We’re camped an hour from here. We’ll need new rations in two weeks.”

Two weeks is barely enough time to grow anything. We hardly have enough stock in our stores to last ourselves that long, much less an entire camp. I can barely imagine what their camp might look like, now that I try, their motorbikes quieted, resting along the perimeter. Would they take off their visors then, I wonder, set aside their outer shells for an evening of humanity? Would they sit and talk over a shared meal, just like we did?

We traded for books once, that spoke of harvests and planting times and large green leaves straight off the vine. He and I used to pore over them together, attempting to divine whatever of the old world’s secrets they held.

It didn’t take long to realise they were useless.

The soil is mostly dust now, roots paper-thin and ghostly white, lines down through the sand.

Nothing around us resembles the dark ground and faded vibrancy from the books we cherished, so when they finally gave way to the elements, we didn’t mourn them.

But even back then, when there were seasons, when rain fell from dark grey clouds and moisture collected on green grass in early morning fog, even then, nothing short of a miracle would have grown what they asked of us in two weeks.

“We can’t possibly,” I say, quietly enough, I hope, that she won’t hear. But her head cocks sideways slightly, like she’s heard not only my words but the too-loud beating of my heart beneath the faded material on my chest.

“It’s a good deal.” The familiar saying sounds strange in her lifted City accent, a bit of stolen dialect regurgitated like a meal that disagrees with her. “I would take it.”

His hand closes around mine. I feel his nails dig into my palm.

“We will,” he says, confident, sincere. “Of course we will.”

We can’t see her mouth beneath her mask but underneath the visor the skin around her eyes crinkles into something that hints at a smile.

“Good,” she says. “We’ll be back. Two weeks. Before the suns reach their highest peak.”

Beside me, he inclines his head politely. I can’t bring myself to do anything but cling to his hand more tightly and hope the mask doesn’t let her smell out my fear the way it does water.

She nods, short and terse, and turns her bike on its worn tyres. She speeds away the same way she came, sputtering old motor and sprays of sand leaving silent devastation in her wake.

For a long time, he and I don’t speak. I feel sweat running down my arm under the sleeve of my shirt, pooling in our still-joined hands.

We walk back to the house, still hand in hand, like they are the last things in the world connecting us. The door jams when I try to push it open and I stop, taking my hand from his to shove my shoulder into it, forcing the old hinges open wide enough for the two of us to squeeze through.

“What did you just agree to?” He doesn’t answer at first, focused on nudging the door gently back into place. He doesn’t answer. I barely give him a chance to. “Nothing grows like that out here! You know that. You fucking know — ”

“Yes,” he says simply, calmly, once the door is closed, still facing away from me.

“You just signed our death warrants!”

“And you did any better?” His voice is still calm but when he turns to face me, I can see the spark of anger in his eyes.

“I told the truth!” I’m yelling now, no longer concerned about alerting anyone to our presence. “You told them what they wanted to hear but what happens when they find out we can’t deliver? What will they do to us then?”

What will they do to you?

“We should go.” It comes to me suddenly, the need to run. We don’t have much stockpiled but we could take it with us. “We can get to the village and leave with them. For The Cities.”

He’s already shaking his head. “We can’t run,” he says. “How do you think they found us? There’s nowhere left to go. It’s getting hotter by the day; we’d never make it to The Cities.”

I’m breathing hard, I realise, in short sharp pants of air like I’ve just run for hours, only I haven’t. I won’t run anywhere, it seems.

“We’ll give them what we have first,” he’s saying. “We’ll dip into our stores, put out all the seeds we have.” He’s watching me with an expression that I don’t know how to place, half sad, half longing, like he’s already saying goodbye.

 

The first week, he barely sleeps.

The first week, I do nothing else. I wake in bursts of heat and sweat and panic and, more often than not, I find him gone.

Occasionally, I pull myself up and stumble out of bed to the corner of our small hut to drink straight from our precious bucket of collected water. I never would have done this before our two weeks notice and he never would have let me. But now I do not care. As I toss and turn in our small bed day in and day out, I can no longer bring myself to care about much of anything.

I want to tear down the rotting wood of our hut, pound holes into the useless door that jams incessantly, rip every frail plant out of the dying sandy earth with my bare hands. I cannot stand the thought of that woman and her encampment living off our carefully calibrated life.

 

Red dirt made darker with spilled blood; he comes to me with rags tied around his hands and a wildness in the whites of his eyes that begs for safety. Of course, I’ve heard of the Mercenaries, an offshoot group banished from The Cities for their violence and their power-hungry ways. No-one I’ve asked knows what they’re doing all the way out here but when they come for a village, I’ve heard, they leave only bones and buildings.

They hardly cross my mind now because he’s as flesh and blood as I am, out here in an empty homestead, bare wood floor and an old mattress left behind by the previous inhabitants. I sit on it, knees drawn to my chest, and watch him as he paces.

A caged animal, the saying goes, though I haven’t seen anything but cages for a long time. “You can sit down,” I say.

No response.

“No-one comes out this far.” If they do, I have never seen them. It’s a ways still from the nearest village.

A pause.

“It’s fine.” He stops pacing, then, but doesn’t sit. It’s a small victory.

Slowly, without taking his scared animal eyes from me for a moment, he reaches up to undo the top button of his shirt, slow and clumsy with his injured hands. “It’s hot in here,” is the first thing he says.

 

Sometimes, when I wake, I cannot stand the thought of living off the fragile fruits of our labour — all the things that wither and die in the palms of our hands and at the bottom of our stomachs.

I did not used to be this way. He used to be the one who needed reassuring, he who buried his face in my shoulder at night, I who tried to find peace in the gentle patterns of our life.

 

“Thank you,” he says another day, later, when the suns have set and the last of the carrots planted, and the whites of his eyes are no longer visible.

“What for?” I wipe my hands against my knees, brushing away sandy soil and feel the muscles in my back pop in complaint as I stand.

He shakes his head. “Never mind.”

I meet him at the gate, taking care to step over the lines of freshly watered crops. The earth crumbles so easily beneath our boots that a misstep might set us back for days. He puts a hand on my shoulder when I reach him, a tentative touch, a question mark. I feel the weight of it through my shirt: heavy.

 

He comes in occasionally, I assume to eat or drink, and I notice him through a sort of haze. I track the path of his footsteps across creaking floorboards, hear the soft thud of the door when he enters and leaves.

 

Trails of kisses, chapped lips against bare skin. Real smiles and talk of hope.

“It’s fine,” I say, my arms on either side of his head. He’s beautiful underneath me, tall and thin, and glowing like fire. Red marks on his chest. Fingerprint bruises on his hips. I put them there. Faded scars on his hands. I’ve never asked.

“We’ll be fine for now.”

When I walk outside again, I am met with a wave of heat and a cloud of dust. The suns are low on the horizon, a dark burnt orange, still rising.

I cough quietly into the sleeve of my shirt, unaccustomed to the dust after so long indoors.

Our little homestead looks much the same as always, little rows marked neatly with bits of twine and old pieces of wood. The ones farthest from me look freshly watered and I turn to look out beyond our little gate. I can hardly imagine how much it would have taken for him to do this all on his own.

I walk to one of the unwatered rows, crouch down next to it. I run my hand through the sandy ground beside the little plant, sprouting a tiny nub of something green through the dirt. I wonder if it will find the strength to keep growing.

“It’s good to see you up,” he says from behind me and of course, of course they’re still here because of him.

I look up at him, shielding my eyes from the early morning sun with one hand. He looks beautiful and exhausted, sandy hair glinting red in the light. The first thing I can think of to say is, “I’m sorry.”

He smiles and shakes his head.

“You did all this yourself?” I ask, needlessly. Of course he has, there’s no-one else left.

He doesn’t respond, just reaches out a hand and I take it, let him pull me to my feet.

Up close, he looks terrible, still beautiful, but terrible. There are dark circles like bruises under his eyes and splotches from the suns across his nose and his cheeks and just above the collar of his shirt.

I brace my hands against his chest and I feel the roughness of his palms as he cups my elbows. His breath is hot and moist against my cheek.

“I’m sorry,” I say again, a whisper into the space between us. Again, he says nothing. I feel his lips ghost against my forehead and then he’s pulling away, wiping his face on his sleeve, stepping back and making a show of looking past my shoulder out to the lightening horizon.

“Let’s go inside.”

He turns, back up the path towards the hut and I follow him.

 

He touches the plants with gentle fingers, packing soil around their roots and urging them up out of the ground. They are small, delicate things in the scorched earth. They will never be enough for what we ask of them.

The precious water in our bucket is running low, dipping below a line we both know means it needs to be refilled in a day or two. We ignore its silent warning, scraping our arms on the wooden sides to scoop out the remaining liquid.

The plants need it more than we do now.

 

We work through the night, sometimes, an effort to save ourselves from the suns’ heat in any way we can.

I look up to see him in the distance, a dark outline against a slowly illuminating sky. He’s leaning against a fence post and from so far away he looks almost peaceful. I push myself up from where I’ve been kneeling over the small row of crops. My legs protest and I stumble as I rise to my feet; we’ve done our best to ignore the way we’re both getting weaker.

I walk down between the crops, an aisle of sorts, to join him at the gate. There’s a faint glow on the horizon and it’s warm enough already that sweat drips down my back.

I stop beside him, glance over and don’t quite meet his eyes. He’s watching something else in the distance, just beyond me, and I can’t bring myself to disturb whatever peace he’s found here.

I put a hand on his shoulder instead.

“It’s too hot for that.”

 

I imagine I can feel his bones through the thin fabric of his shirt, small and pointed beneath my fingers. He leans back against me, tucking himself against my chest and I wrap my arm more fully around him: holding him, holding this, to me as tightly as I dare.

“Two weeks. Before the suns reach their highest peak.”

“Tomorrow,” I say, quietly, my nose against his ear, an admission. “It’s tomorrow. Well, technically today.”

He shakes his head at the words, as if he might will them and their truth away from us, back out into the sands and the dried-up rivers and the world beyond.

“Not yet,” he says. “It’s not tomorrow yet.”

 

When his lips find mine, I am smiling.

Then, “It’s fine.”

 

“We’ll be fine for now.”

Anna Quercia-Thomas

Anna Quercia-Thomas is a queer Hispanic American writer and academic currently based in Western Australia. She writes poetry and speculative fiction about found family, queer romance, and connection in dark times. You can find her on twitter @annaqthomas.

More by Anna Quercia-Thomas ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.


Related articles & Essays