She put her hand on his shoulder as he sunk his fingers between the cold stones in the stream.
“They’ll take me away,” he said.
“No they won’t,” she said. “You’re safe here.”
“I’m not safe here. I’m not safe anywhere.”
A crane on the far side shore cried out before launching itself into the air and up into the oppressive layer of fog above.
He felt the familiar sickening pull in his chest and he was dragged back to the memory of the night in the parking garage, running, him running, them running after him, he fell, tumbled headfirst and rolled violently down the ramp. He tried to get up, all cuts and scrapes and a bleeding nose but he wasn’t fast enough and they caught him...and then black. Always black. He returned to the stones in the stream and their flat coldness and assured reality but he knew they were as fleeting as his thoughts.
“I’m going to make you some food. You’ll feel better.” She stood up straight and adjusted her wool shawl around her shoulders. He nodded in acknowledgement but didn’t agree.
He watched the dark water flow slowly, almost seeping along in this part of the shallow. When he returned to the cabin she had hot tea waiting for him and some sort of meat frying up in the pan.
“I know better than to ask you if you’re feeling better,” she said. “I can’t imagine what you’ve been through with all of this.”
He just laughed.
“You signed up for this. You knew.”
“Yeah, but I don’t know, know. Not really.”
“And yet you’re not sorry.”
“No I’m not. It was the right thing to do.”
“They should have killed me instead.”
“Don’t talk like that.”
“I could have gone home if they just left me alone. Just ignored me.”
“You know that wasn’t possible.”
“I know that it was.”
“Look I’m not going to argue with you. I’m just saying I know that what you are dealing with is profound and I’m sorry you have to deal with that.” She flipped the meat onto a plate, then handed it to him with a fork, no knife, and turned off the burner. “Sit at the table like a civilised person will you? It’s better for your digestion.”
He wasn’t sure that was true, but complied at the kitchen table. She set the tea next to him.
“I’m going to do some work. Let me know if you need anything.”
About halfway through the meat the dog came bounding into the cabin with a bird in its mouth, happily presenting it. He ripped off a corner of the meat and handed it to the dog.
“You’re going to have to drop that if you want this.” The dog wagged some more before making the connection, dropped the bird, snatched the meat, then picked up the bird again before bounding into the main living area and behind the couch to chew in peace. He hated to admit the dog was growing on him. It’s hard to turn off that drive of empathy if you were blessed with it, but they had come very close to driving it out entirely. He decided to split the difference and not tell her about the bird. She could find out about it when its remains started to smell and meanwhile the dog could be happy.
He finished the meat and tea and took the dishes to the sink. He walked to her door and looked in on her. She was studying a star map and making marks. He used to know what they meant but it had all slipped away. He felt a bit guilty about the bird so he asked her, “Are you okay?”
She turned around slowly. “Yeah, thanks for asking. I’m making some progress here. I think.” She turned back to the map. “I have a call later to discuss it. We might have a route back.”
“And then you’ll be gone?”
“Maybe. We’ll see.”
“All of you?”
“Maybe. You know, it’s been hard for us too.”
“I’m sorry if I don’t have much sympathy for you. I’m going back outside.”
She looked at him as he left, pained.
The boredom of his routine at the cabin was his companion. There was a certain freedom in it. He had been freed of most of his responsibilities that night in the garage. There were infrequently any demands on his time, but his remaining brain and body still required active engagement. It would have been easier if he had just curled up in a ball of shock like most other people did, and just accepted the fate dealt to him. But something in him fought it and they recognised it. There was value there, for when they were gone. They always insisted it would be only a few years, and maybe it already had been that. It was hard to tell.
He started a jog along the stream. He was not allowed to cross it, and he knew it would hurt him if he tried. They had put that into his mind so deeply. The entire patch of land had a boundary he could not cross, and as far as he could tell, that boundary existed only in his head. He knew this, and yet he couldn’t counter it. He couldn’t try. That had been taken from him.
The land was a soft stoney plain, without trees or scrub. He did not know what existed there previously, if anything had. He dropped the jog to a walk and continued upstream ten minutes to where the water met the cross boundary, and then he stopped. The cabin was no longer visible and it could have been a primordial scene before animals had left the ocean, except for himself. He again squatted to touch the stones in the stream.
He stood up with a jolt, looking for the voice. “Hello?” he replied.
“Hello.” A woman emerged from the fog. She was dressed as he was. She walked up to the boundary line and stopped. He could see that she was older.
“You’re human,” he stated.
“I think so.” she replied. “You out for a stroll?”
“What else is there to do?”
“There are many things to do. But I don’t know what they are,” she laughed at her own joke.
“You live that way?” he asked, pointing in her direction.
“If you can call it living, yes.”
“I’m surprised I haven’t seen you before.”
“Have you seen anyone else?”
“There’s a guy that way,” he said, pointing in the opposite direction to her. “He doesn’t talk though. He’s a bit angry looking to be honest. I’ve only seen him three times.”
“You’re the third I’ve seen. I don’t know how long it’s been. I won’t bother asking your name. I don’t know mine either.”
“It was a really weird thing for them to take from us.”
“You think that was the weirdest shit about all this? Christ son. They left us functional but empty. Separated. Humans don’t do well separated. Your angry neighbour has the right idea.”
“I just can’t be angry all the time. I want to keep a piece of me for me.”
She thought for a moment.
“Yeah that’s probably healthy. God I could use a cigarette. Do you ever just mourn for stupid shit you can’t do anymore?”
“I don’t really remember a lot of the stupid shit. I guess I was just living an average life.”
“Well, I guess they couldn’t take the nicotine cravings. That’s deeper than they can go with their tools.”
“My uh, handler I guess, says that they could all be leaving soon.”
“Hah! I wouldn’t believe that. They just all pour over their maps and discuss things endlessly. Besides, ‘soon’ for them is not necessarily ‘soon’ for us. I think they experience time differently. They’re not in any kind of hurry.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know much about them. I want to ask, but I just can’t.”
“God we were so naive weren’t we? I don’t even remember what they promised us, and then it happened so fast!” She snapped her fingers. “All gone. All of it gone. They treat us like children because we are children.”
“I know. But some part of me...some part of me hopes they will go. Forever.”
She looked kindly on him. “Son, I hope so too.”
“Well I better be off. I have nowhere to be, but my legs want to walk.”
“Before you go, do you want a name?”
He paused, trying to think. The name he had, the concept of having a name to be called by, were so erased.
“Yeah, I can give you a name, and you can give me a name. And does that dog come to your place?”
“We could give him a name too.”
“What’s the point of this?”
“To keep a piece of ourselves for ourselves.”
“Yeah okay. But I don’t remember any names. I remember that names existed, but not names.”
“Well, I seem to recall that the first names given in ancient cultures were attributes or natural things, and we remember those things. So it’s not that different from what those ancient people had to do.”
“Okay then. You can go first.”
“Well, I’ll name the dog Tracker, because he’s good at hunting.”
“Yeah, he is. Tracker.” He tried it out on his tongue and it seemed to fit.
“And then you son, you’re a bit of an optimist. But sad.”
“That’s not a good name though. I don’t know what’s wrong with it, but it’s wrong. It should be more active I think. You know, I think you’re like this stream maybe.”
“Hmm, it’s not big enough though. Oh I know, I’ll call you River.”
“Do you like it?”
He thought about it a bit. It was better than stream, that’s for sure.
“Water does have a certain power to it.”
“Yes it does, exactly!” She smiled broadly.
“Okay, River. Now you need a name,” he said, but he was a bit stumped. She looked at him expectantly. “Well, you talk quite a bit.” Her smile faded. “It’s like air, but in a good way.” He hoped he had somewhat recovered but her face didn’t change much. He was also going to say “and you’re old” since that was about the extent that he knew of her but he refrained. “Air, oxygen, breath, breeze...” he started spinning, “...I don’t know...” he looked up,” How about Sky?”
“Hmmm,” she thought aloud. “It’s not that strong.”
“Not that strong? It protects us from the vast void of space. It’s protected this place for billions of years.”
“It didn’t protect us from them though.”
“Nothing was going to protect us.”
“That’s true. Okay, I’ll allow it. But I’m appending ‘Goddess of the Air’ because I feel like it.”
“Fair enough. It’s your name after all.”
“Okay, nice to have met you, River,” she smiled deeply and did a little bow.
He smiled back. “Nice to meet you Sky, Goddess of the Air.”
They chatted a bit longer before their legs started aching from standing in place and then they parted on their respective walks around their patches. As evening encroached he found the stream again and followed it back to the cabin. In the darkness he bent down to the stones once more. “I have a name,” he told them, smiling. “And they can’t take that away. As long as this water flows, they can’t take that away from me.”