Jon looked up to watch the burnt pink glow of the sun disappearing behind the broken skyline. It would be dark soon and the temperature was dropping already. In the days since the war the environment had grown harsher and more foreboding, the initial purge compounded by years of neglect and desertion. He scuffed his toe across the path and swung his body to the right. He hadn’t seen his brother since he stormed off. The family kept themselves close within the city and he was the only missing element. Jon couldn’t even remember what their fight had been about, not really.
Alice hadn’t helped. She was the epitome of drama at the best of times and the possibility of tension between the Tennan boys brought out the worse in her. Jon remembered questioning how suitable Alice had been for Peter once. She had come from the wastes one day, drifting into the city, a bundle of broken beauty. The boys had seen her approaching from the dust, and Peter had been struck instantly. Within a week she was in his bed and in Jon’s life and he wasn’t impressed. Peter swore blind he was jealous, but Jon just knew there was something wrong with her.
Jon didn’t trust her, but in all the months the pair had been together, he couldn’t place exactly what it was. He had papered over this with snide comments and withering looks in every conversation until it had become too much for Peter to put up with any more. Neither of the pair could remember what the actual catalyst had been, whether it was a look or a comment, an eye roll or a sarcastic statement. Whatever it was, Alice was ready. She had been waiting, watching from the wings, day by day, holding out for the perfect moment to throw herself into the thick of it. This was that moment. She threw herself into Peter’s chest, snuggling down and looked out, mock tears streaming down her face as she grinned like a cat and held him. In that moment, as she felt Peter’s broad back tense and heard him clear his throat, she knew she had won.
“Jon, I can’t stand this anymore. Why can’t you just be happy for us?”
“I don’t know what you want me to say. You know how I feel. She’s not right.”
“You just can’t bear to see me happy can you? You never could. It’s not my fault you’re a complete fuck up Jon, remember that. You’re the one who has pushed everyone who ever loved you away. You’re then one who is better than everyone else. Well you know what? Congratulations Jon, you’ve done it again. I’m through. I’m through with you, and I’m through with this place. Don’t worry, you won’t have to cope with our awkwardness again, we’re going.”
Peter pulled Alice in to him and pushed Jon backwards forcing him to stumble over a small wooden table and crashing to the floor. When he had raised his head from the dust he saw the backs of the pair disappearing out of the door. He rested his head back on the floor and wept. He wept with anger at himself for persisting with his hatred of Alice, and with the pain of knowing that Alice had his brother, and could do what she liked with him
That was a year ago. It was the last time he had seen his brother and he was determined to put things right. He knew Alice was a drama queen but he could live with it. He just needed Peter back in his life. And so, he had set out on the journey into United Zone Three C to find his brother. The war had stopped the world in its tracks and the North had turned feral in its wake; in the South, the United Zones still stood, albeit in tatters. Population densities were so low in most parts that broad descriptions and a few well-placed questions were usually enough to find someone. Assuming they want to be found, of course.
United Zone Three C had once been an expansive housing estate which covered an area of around about four square miles. It had been a no go area for much of its life as crime had addled its alley ways and streets. In these post war days however, it was very different. A direct hit during the war had decimated most of the standing structures and now all that remained were some tumbledown shacks set in piles of rubble and a smell of death which had never left. It clung to the buildings and refused to leave; an unwelcome guest at a funeral, exalting in someone else’s grief. The reputation of UZ3C had deteriorated since the war, which in itself was a worrying prospect. At times gangs would roam the streets looking for easy prey to extract anything of value from, leaving them naked, alone and terrified if not gutted in a gutter.
Jon walked along Acacia terrace which sat in the valley of a number of tower blocks which were splitting and missing meter upon meter of masonry. He wasn’t really sure what to say to Peter when he saw him. He was hopeful that they could just forget before and move on. He knew in his heart that they couldn’t. He turned onto Steerpusher Lane and there was a glow. It was faint but warm, and it seemed to wipe his mind of everything it had been filled with moments before. It rolled around the doorway and spilled onto the rubble strewn street before it. This had to be it he thought. He had been told his brother was living in a little shack around here, and this was the only building with any form of light. There was no going back now.
The sun was all but gone as he reached the doorway, dropping its way lazily behind the cracked skyline around him. Heavy material was draped across the shack’s windows obscuring the view into it. He drew a deep breath and rapped his knuckle on the splitting wooden doorframe. He stood and waited as the breeze tickled the back of his calves. His trousers were thin and worn and he felt everything through them. Dust trickled past the front of his toes and he felt the surroundings dim further as a dust ball crept its way upwards, half covering the pale and fading sun.
The heavy dust sheet inside the window twitched and a single eyeball appeared through the gap. There was an unhealthy, oily sheen to the green circle and Jon leaned in to inspect it further. It did not shy away as he expected but instead, began to circle his face like a carousel, round and round at a regular pace. As he tried to follow it with his own eye, spinning and spiralling as he went. He felt giddy and swayed forward, clasping at the door frame in order to remain upright. The eyeball vanished as the dust sheet flashed across the window again. Jon took a deep breath and looked at the floor as he heard the heavy creak of a door opening. A grubby bare foot entered his line of sight, encrusted in a dark brown stain which could have been mud or blood. He raised his eyes and traced the line of a shapely but thin calf muscle which disappeared within the folds of a dirty and tattered gingham, hanging just below the knee. Around the waist was tied some thick twine which had a series of wooden objects dangling from it haphazardly.
He took a step back to absorb the rest of the figure in front of him. It was her; the Alice he’d known a year ago, only far wilder. And in her belly grew a baby, a baby nearly ready to escape from the looks of it. The curvature of her stomach was mirrored in the positioning of her back and her hands rested on her wide hips. Her face was angled down slightly giving the effect of a shortened gap between chin and neck which, combined with her razor cut of a mouth, gave the impression of an angered school teacher or disappointed mother. Her green eyes were slightly off centre and her hair, once straight and blonde was matted and darkened. It clung heavily to the side of her forehead and face. She looked a dirty ball of anger, just as he remembered her.
“Hello Alice,” sighed Jon, not even attempting to cover his distain and disappointment that it was this half of the partnership who had opened the door. Her expression, previously fixed with an unimpressed anger began to shift.
“Jon,” her face flushed with embarrassment as she looked down at her dirty and maligned toes “I wasn’t expecting you.” She stroked her hair aside with twitchy fingers and pulled at her gingham. “How did you find us?”
“Long story. Let’s just say, I did some digging and then took a long shot. Looks like it’s paid off.” With the immediate threat of angry Alice easing off, Jon softened slightly. “You’re looking well” he lied, “and I see you’re expecting.”
“Yes, yes we are,” replied Alice, stroking her tummy. Her mad eyes darted around the room before resting back on his. “I guess that makes you uncle Jonny to be,” she whispered, the words sticking as they passed her teeth.
“Well, I guess it does.” Jon’s heart sank at the thought of this. Bringing a baby into this world didn’t seem fair as a general principle, let alone into a family as deranged as this.
“Would you like some tea?” enquired Alice. She stepped back into the house on the expectation that she would be followed. She was.
“Yes, tea would be good thank you”. Tea in these parts was usually used to describe any kind of vegetation which was brewed with water, sometimes tepid, sometimes scalding. The taste varied from bland to offensive. Most of the time it didn’t kill you.
Jon stepped across the threshold and looked around the room. The walls were thick with pressure cracks in the old and shattered plaster work. The ceiling had given way towards the back of the space and sloped down menacingly. While the room was around eight foot high by the entrance, it was only four feet by the back wall. It was supported by splitting and splintering timbers. There were two doors leading off from this room, one through a beaded curtain constructed of string threaded though miscellaneous bits of rubbish, the other through a half height door made of cardboard. There was a small round table in the centre of the room which housed two place settings of battered ceramic mugs and plates and two mismatched chairs. What paint was left on the table was flaking off, flicking itself over the floor. Alice busied herself by the makeshift sink as Jon pulled a chair back from the table, leaving thick drag marks in the dust stained floor.
“Where’s Peter?” asked Jon. “We’ve a lot of catching up to do.”
“He’s just finishing today’s foraging. We needed just about everything. He should be back soon.” She rubbed her belly protectively with one hand as she stuffed a cracked and chipped tea pot full of leaves and twigs with the other. “He mentions you a lot you know?”
“Does he? I think of him all the time but never knew whether the feeling was mutual or not, well, after last time anyway.” The room chilled somewhat as he mentioned this. Alice’s back straightened and she took a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he muttered as he watched her silhouette gently unwind. She span slowly to face him with a ramshackle tea tray in her grasp. Her mouth was twitching up in the corner, the skin under her eye pulling itself down.
“Don’t be, it’s water under the bridge now.” She placed the tray in the centre of the table and decanted the thick hot tea into the two dirty mugs. “So how’ve you been?” She raised the mug to her chest and nestled it in both hands, drawing it in close.
He picked up his mug and held it to his lips, letting the acrid smoke billow under his nose and across his cheeks. “Well, I’m managing to get some good salvage trade most days. The traders from the North are passing through more and more so it’s not too bad.” He took a deep sip of the tea. It tasted bitter and stale. He squinted as he tried unsuccessfully to maintain a straight face. “Other than that, what else is there? I’m existing. It’s fine. There isn’t a lot else to cover really.”
“No, I know what you mean there. Other than the little one, it doesn’t seem like there’s been much good news recently. So, you seeing anyone?”
“No,” replied Jon. The expression on his face was flat. “Looking after Ma and Dad keeps me pretty busy really. I don’t find much time for anything else.” He smiled and stretched his arms out. The warmth from the tea had settled his stomach and he was feeling more at ease. Maybe he shouldn’t have been concerned in the first place. Alice had clearly grown up some since last time he met her. Maybe it was the baby, or living out in this God awful section of New Britain, either way, it was an improvement on before. “Sorry, when did you say Peter would be back?”
“Soon,” she smiled. “Not long now, he had a big list of things to get. Hey did he ever tell you about his friend Marcus?”
“I kinda remember a guy called Marcus. Didn’t he know him in that scrapper job he had?”
“Yeah, that’s him.” Alice circled a hand around her stomach and smiled at Jon. “He came by to see us a few weeks ago.” Peter just smiled at this, his pupils had widened slightly and a look of happiness spread across his cheeks
“What time did you say Peter would be back?” asked Jon again, smiling all the more.
“See, that’s exactly what Marcus kept asking,” replied Alice, as she stood up from the table and walked across the room. “Until the end of course. Then it just got to the point where he stopped speaking altogether. He just kept smiling and staring across the room like a dumb little puppy. I kept the tea from that day, just in case I’d need it again. You never know when that kind of thing would come in handy, do you?” Jon didn’t reply. He felt completely at peace and let his eyes follow Alice around the room. Alice pulled open the little door that lay opposite Jon exposing what looked like a pair of boots and some rags.
“To be perfectly honest with you Jon, I’m glad you stopped by. Marcus only lasted me until about a week ago and baby and I are hungry. Thought I’d call him Peter, I just know he is gonna to be a boy. It seems right. After all, your brother helped create him, and then helped to feed him once he had stopped being useful in other areas. Maybe we could fit you and Marcus in there too, that would seem quite fitting, don’t you think? Peter Marcus Jon Tennan. Has a nice ring to it in my opinion.” Jon smiled and nodded. His eyelids were beginning to feel heavy now, and his heart was filling with love for the woman who stood before him. Never had he met a nicer, more motherly figure, and he wanted to make her happy.
“Now what I need you to do Jon, is to get on your hands and knees for me, and crawl into that little cupboard. Can you do that?” Jon nodded slowly and steadily in response to this request. “It will feel a bit cold, but don’t let that worry you. Then, once you are in there, take off all your clothes and just lie back and relax for me, don’t mind anything that’s already in there. It’s all fine.” Alice smiled at him as through the haze, he dropped to his knees and began to crawl, slowly but happily, into the cupboard.