-Conversations in the Desert Part 2
The scenery was undulating dunes for miles. Sebastian and his group were the only ones in sight.
“Hey Sebastian,” Tanaka said, interrupting Sebastian, who was practising his draw to get it faster.
“What with your deadpan face and emotionless voice, I was just wondering: do you have any fears?”
“Of course. What about you, O Lightning God?”
“So what is it?”
“Yeah man. They re-grow their teeth like with a fucking organic conveyer belt. They’re torpedoes with blades.”
“You know, that sharp pointy thing that sticks out of the water.”
“You mean a dorsal fin. Those aren’t sharp.”
“That’s what they want you to think. You ever actually touched one?”
“Yes. At an aquarium, Tanaka. I’m not a pussy.”
Tanaka huffed dramatically, although he wasn’t far from a smile. “Fine. I’m actually scared of them because I hate swimming. I can’t move fast in water. That’s terrifying.”
“Imagine being in syrup. That’s like a hundred times as thick.”
“Please don’t say that.”
“That’s such a stupid thing to be afraid of though, man. Like, point me to the nearest body of water and I’ll legit have your children.”
“Fears aren’t always rational.”
“What if there were sand-sharks? Maybe there’s one underneath you right now, swimming up to get you.”
Tanaka smiled. “Yeah, but I can move fast here. I’d beat the shit out of anything up here.”
Sebastian smiled back. “What, even a bear?”
Tanaka’s grin widened. “Back in Japan, I once jumped into a bear enclosure as a dare.”
“I’m guessing it didn’t tear your arm off.”
“It came up to sniff me, I bopped it on its nose, and it backed off. That’s all I managed before the zookeepers dragged me out. I got in a lot of trouble that day, but damn did my legend grow.”
“Buuuuullllshittt,” Jax shouted. “A bear would wreck your shit up.”
“He’s not lying, Jax,” Sebastian said. “I can tell when you guys are lying. Besides, lying is bad, and Tanaka’s going to be a hero someday.”
“That’s right,” Tanaka said, nodding.
“Christ, if you’ve actually fought a bear you’re already a hero,” Jax said.
Tanaka smiled, but his look was distant. “It takes more than strength to be a hero. Besides, it wasn’t really a fight. The bear wasn’t trying to hurt me.”
“What’s your fear, Jax?” Sebastian asked.
“I don’t get scared, I get angry. Nothing scares me anymore.”
“What about a nightmare scenario? Like, one where you still got scared.”
Jax got thoughtful. “Then, I guess it would be facing a crowd.”
“Facing a crowd?”
“Yeah like a big group of people judging me, and I’m paralysed with fear. Can’t punch one of them, can’t give them the finger. Just stand there, all alone and feeling scared.”
“That’s a really depressing thought,” Sebastian said.
“Not for me,” Tanaka said. “I can’t imagine being scared of an audience.”
“Whatever, fucknuts. I don’t care what you think. Sebastian, what’s your fear? You haven’t told us yet.”
Tanaka and Jax exchanged a look and then protested in sync. “Aw, come on!”
“Fears, actual fears. Not some random disease,” Jax demanded.
“I’m serious. When was the last time you had fruit or vegetables with vitamin C? Where do you expect to find any? Right now, we’re all just ticking time bombs for scurvy. Every day you could wake up with your gums swollen or bleeding. If you do, then what? How are you going to cure it?”
“That’s… actually scary,” Tanaka said.
“I’m going to be honest with you. If we don’t find a source of vitamin C soon we’re all going to die.”
“You know what? Fuck sharks. I’m scared of scurvy too,” Tanaka said
“Scurvy it is,” Jax agreed.
The sun peaked and then began it’s slow descent. Sebastian took a gulp from his water canister and ran his tongue over his parched lips.
“So who is Timmy, Jax?” Sebastian asked.
Jax shrugged. “He and Gwendolyn are one of Mikhail’s top tier employees. I don’t know much else, just that they did all sorts or jobs for him in Portal City.”
“It was dumb of them to use their real names,” Sebastian observed.
“Guess they thought no one out here knew them.”
“Bad luck they ended up working with an ex-enforcer.”
“Yeah. I’d never seen them before, though. Just heard the names.”
“Who was the third guy? The one Tanaka shot.”
“A tracker, didn’t Timmy say? So maybe some local guide they hired.”
Sebastian glanced back at Timmy and Gwendolyn who were tagging along behind, just out of earshot.
“Do you think either of them can actually navigate? Think about it. We’ve only ever seen them track someone else, never navigate without a path,” he asked.
“Possible,” Jax conceded. “I realised something, though. Once I got past the initial shock of realising they were Mikhail’s.”
“That if we kill them out here Mikhail will never know? We could just pretend we never met them, give false names, and disappear out into the outer settlements.”
“So you’ve already thought of it.”
“Of course I have. That’s what I do.”
“So why don’t we?”
“Because I realised that Tanaka’s right. I want to be good too, and this is as good a place to start as any.”
Jax swore. “You’ve turned into a fucking pussy.”
“Oh really, just like Tanaka right? Fastest hands in the world and you call him a pussy.”
Jax spat, which was ten times the gesture in Terra Deserta where water was precious. “Damn right he is. Good this, hero that. There’s no point being strong if you’re too much of a pussy to use it.”
“I don’t think you understand Tanaka at all. He’s an arrogant, reckless delinquent trying to be good. His nature isn’t good.”
“Oh yeah? Watch this.” Jax walked up three paces to be beside Tanaka. “Tanaka, you’re a manlet fucking gook. You’re bleached hair looks like piss and your tattoo like a crayon drawing. Earrings are for faggots, which suits you just fine you cocksucker.”
Tanaka smiled. It was a arrogant, tolerating smile. “Big words coming from a rat. Go pick on someone your own speed, like a ten year old girl. Just make sure she doesn’t beat your arse down too hard. The only two reasons I won’t do it myself is because I’m trying to be good, and your insults are as harmless as an old tortoise.”
Jax glared, stuck. He realised he had to retaliate, or else lose face to both Tanaka and Sebastian. He took a half-hearted swing. Tanaka swayed back, dodging easily. “Now it’s self-defence,” he said. His fist jabbed out and bopped Jax’s nose.
Nose stinging, eyes watering, Jax staggered back and away. Sebastian already had a handkerchief out.
“Told you,” he said. “Do you retract your pussy statement now?”
“Whatever,” Jax said, snatching the handkerchief and wiping his nose clean.
Tanaka fished out five U.S dollars from his bag and handed it to Sebastian.
“What’s that for?” Jax asked.
“We were going to have a bet on whether or not you’d take a swing at Tanaka, but we both agreed it was inevitable. So I bet that when you did Tanaka wouldn’t be able to resist taking a shot at you.”
“I couldn’t,” Tanaka said. “It was too tempting. No hard feelings though, right?”
The sky went blood red as the sun set. Sebastian, Tanaka and Jax camped one dune over from Timmy and Gwendolyn. It was a pleasant evening. The air temperature was diving to its icy night time temperatures, but right then it was in a sweet spot. Everyone was enjoying having their weight off their feet and the heat off their skin. None of the three spoke. Sebastian lay on his back on the cooling sand and looked up to the orchestra of the stars in the sky, as he always did. His eyes drank the oddly cold light in until it was all he saw. His mind drifted elsewhere.
The sound of ragged, strained notes blared from over the dune. Sebastian’s peace was shattered. He propped himself up on his elbows. Strangled notes were being force out of a harmonica. The song coming out was stillborn. Tanaka and Jax mirrored his irritation. They endured it for another few minutes, until Tanaka and Sebastian both pleadingly stared at Jax.
“Why don’t you do it?” Jax demanded.
“I’m trying to be good,” Tanaka said.
“I want to, but we agreed you’ll do the angry part,” Sebastian said.
Jax, tired and wanting to rest, sighed. He got to his feet, groaning as stiff muscles resisted. He stormed over the dune. A muffled greeting could be heard, which wasn’t responded to. Then there was a brief squawk of protest followed by a smashing sound. A noise that might have been sobs carried over the dune, accompanied by Gwendolyn’s shrieking.
“That was his grandmother’s harmonica, you arsehole! It can’t be replaced!”
“I don’t give a shit!” Jax screamed back. He came storming over the dune, then flung the shattered remains over a far dune.
Sebastian was smiling openly. Tanaka was trying to hide his own smile of pleasure, but he couldn’t keep a straight face.
Somewhere else in the great expanse of the desert, Ansar was leading Pauly along a long dune.
“How about this, Polly?
What say it of a man,
when there’s a smile on his death mask?
Is he brave? Is he a fool?
What do his dead eyes see?”
Pauly kept his head down. He tried search for the right answer, the one his captor wanted. Was he talking about killing Pauly? He gave up. He looked up, and saw Ansar had turned back and was watching him. He hid his sudden fright at this and looked Ansar dead in the eyes.
“I don’t know. I need to know what the poem’s about.”
Ansar threw up his arms in exasperation. “Do you know what a rose is about? Why a sunset happens? Does knowledge of sugar make chocolate sweeter?”
Pauly threw his mind back to high school science. “Isn’t the sunset something to do with the light passing through more air, or something?”
“You miss the point, Pully. Beauty does not need knowledge. It is the one true free concept, beholden to nothing else.”
Pauly nodded in agreement and dropped his gaze.
Pauly halted, concerned. “N-no what?”
“Don’t just roll over like a mewling dog. You disagree.”
Pauly swallowed. “A poem is beautiful on its own, but surely you must agree that knowing its meaning enhances its beauty.”
“Which is more beautiful: the woman you don’t understand but fascinates you, or the woman that you know intimately and in her entirety?”
Pauly cast his mind back to his parents. The way his father looked at his mother when they sat together on a humdrum Saturday afternoon. He recalled his own crushes in high school as a scared teenager who for all the bluff knew nothing about girls. The way Mary Calabrese’s exposed leg at the prom had obsessed him.
“I can’t say I really know what the second one’s like,” he said, “but I think that one.”
Ansar clapped his hands together. The sharp noise startled Pauly. “So we disagree! And in that, too, is beauty.
Two minds, two souls opposed,
conflict, battle, unresolved.
Yet, there in the passions of war,
kindles softly, beauty all.”