It is quiet, so quiet. Except now there’s a ringing in Moses’ ears growing louder, and he knows this to be a portent of the return of his hearing.
He finds the car he came in, but it has been pushed onto its side into a ditch and likely wouldn’t run any more anyway. He searches for another vehicle, but the ones that remain have been shot to pieces or salvaged of their vital parts. So Moses sets off walking up the road. The clip of his pistol holds only three more rounds – and his bladed cudgel got left behind when he carried the boot thief out of the valley – so he is likely to be in trouble if he encounters any resistance.
But the road is clear, and the sun is bright. And soon his hearing returns. It seems to rush back all of a sudden, and for a moment the world seems unbearably loud – as if he can detect, for a brief second, the constant static that hisses there behind everything all the time. And he wonders how we are not all driven mad by it – and wonders if maybe we are.
About two miles down the road, he finds the ruin of a gas station with a garage attached. It looks secure enough. He tries the front door, but it is locked, so he goes around the back and climbs through an upper window.
It takes his eyes a moment to adjust to the dimness of the place, and then he sees the figure in the corner, wrapped in a tarp, shivering.
He walks over to the shaking man, whose eyes are closed in a sickly delirium, whose bootless feet obtrude from under the edge of the tarp. Moses leans down and wipes the sweat off the brow.
Hey, he says. Hey, wake up now.
The eyes open slowly, and they seem to take a long time to focus on anything. But then they see.
Hey, brother, Abraham says. I guess this means I ain’t dead yet, huh?
It’s harder to die than you think. The world, it conspires to keep you alive.
Moses finds a car that starts. He lifts his brother and carries him to the car and puts him in. Abe’s body is shivering, and the wound on his leg stinks.
Am I gonna lose it? Abraham asks. The leg, I mean.
You might could, Moses says. But what’s a leg? We still got three good ones between us.
They drive back towards the citadel. The sun is before them now, beginning its decline over the hills.
They are silent for a long time. Finally, Moses asks Abraham what happened.
You mean how I ended up at that garage? Abraham asks.
I reckon so.
Abraham shakes his head and looks abstractedly at the road unspooling ahead of them.
I don’t know, truth be told. They knocked me out pretty good when they took me. I came to when they drug me out of the car at the gasworks. Didn’t know where I was – or how long I’d been under. I puked on one of em.
Abraham chuckles, which sends visible shivers up and down his body.
Yeah, he goes on, I puked all over one of em. That’s when they commenced to kickin me in the guts. But you know I been gut kicked before – I know how to take it. I got some bruises, but nothing in me ruptured. And I saw they had the girl, too. That Vestal. She come runnin out from somewhere towards me, yelling something or other, I couldn’t hear what. But they grabbed her and drug her back. You find her too?
I found her, he says.
Abraham looks into the back seat, as if to ask without words where the girl is. But he doesn’t speak it. Maybe he can see that his brother does not want to be queried on the matter.
They hauled me into one of them buildings, he goes on, laid me out on the floor. Then Fletcher came in – told me how he was gonna kill me a hundred different ways. I told him it was a shame for him he could only really kill me once – since he seemed to have a lot of brainstormed ideas on the subject. Then he told me how he was gonna kill you – and he had a hundred different ways to kill you too. That guy, he can get pretty creative on the topic of murder. He’s an enthusiast. We might want to steer clear of him for a bit.
He’s dead, Moses says.
You kill him?
How’d you do it?
Pistol, Moses says and points to his own forehead to illustrate where the bullet went.
Hm, says Abraham. That’s on the generic side. I bet he was disappointed. Anyway, he left for a while, and I slept on the concrete – I don’t know how long, could of been a week.
I dreamed of the ocean. Ain’t that funny? I dreamed I was ridin dolphins under the water. It felt good. I mean, it really felt okay in that dream. You know?
Moses says nothing.
I woke up and figured I’d see you there too and then he’d kill us both but I was bound determined to tell you bout the dolphins first.
I guess you got it told.
I guess I did.
And he was there when I woke up, but it wasn’t like I thought. He’d changed his mind about killin me somehow. Hauled me to the front gates and tossed me out. Said if he saw me again he’d shoot me dead, no more palaver on the topic. How do you figure that?
Probably it don’t signify much, Moses says.
It must signify somethin.
Maybe he just spit you back out – didn’t like your flavour.
Abraham looks at his brother with a curious gaze. His body shudders, and he wipes his nose on his sleeve and looks out at the road again.
So I walked far as I could, he says. But my leg, it wasn’t cooperatin. I made it to the garage. Boxed myself in. Figured it to be as good a grave as any. Reckoned you were dead already or would be dead tryin to fetch me back. It seemed like the end comin to bear all around. All I wanted was sleep. Suck my last breath ridin a dolphin to the bottom of the ocean.
Abraham looks at Moses, and Moses nods but continues to stare straight ahead.
Anyway, Abraham says. That’s the soup to nuts of what I’ve been up to. How bout you?
So Moses explains how there was a battle between the soldiers and the brigands, how he came down into the middle of it to find Abraham, how he saw the Vestal Amata but then lost track of her, how he killed Fletcher with a bullet to his brain, how he found someone he took to be Abraham but it turned out not to be and the man died anyway, how the whole valley got urpped into the sky by fire, how Moses got to his feet and walked away, how the world was so empty, and the sky so sooty from smoke, how he happened upon the garage and chanced to look inside.
I got your boots in the back seat, Moses says.
That bastard stole em, he said. He looked like me, huh?
I couldn’t tell him – he was burned pretty bad. I was just goin by the boots.
You let him go?