The gannets on the rocks were hungry and the air was full of their greedy song as sunset scorched the dunes. In the Village, the evenfire was crackling into life, just born flames licking up at the dark. Jamie’s legs were aching from the day’s ride. He and Cal had been scavenging east of the forest, a small deadtown they had been over too many times to truly have much hope of finding anything of worth in. A wasted and wearisome day. Now he stumbled as he climbed the dunes, heavy-limbed and in need of a good rest.
There was a wooden bench at the top of the dunes, beyond old, sunk deep in sand. She was sat on it, waiting.
Sometimes he could hardly look at Becca. It was like a knife cutting at everything he thought he was just to see her. And then, other times he couldn’t not look at her. Her raven black hair. Her cold, green eyes. Her lips. His longing. He pushed all thoughts of Swan away and smiled.
“Sometimes I get scared that the sun setting is really the world ending,” she said.
He frowned, looked off to the fading sun. The sea was red with its fire, the sky clear of cloud. Just another sunset.
“Don’t you ever think that?” she said.
She was wearing a thin cotton dress. He could see through it, her breasts, her stomach, everything.
“Not really,” he said, “it happens every day.”
She sighed. “I wish it was the world ending.”
He sat beside her. He never knew what to do when they met like this. Hold her hand. Kiss her immediately. Touch her. What else did they meet for other than that; to touch and be touched? His heart was racing already, fear and lust colliding. Guilt and need joining.
“You’ll be okay,” he said, putting his hand on hers.
It was the wrong choice. Maybe he should have just kissed her. She pulled her hand away.
“How do you know?” she snapped. “Eighteen. That’s no life at all. Tomorrow I’m just meant to wake up and wait for Him to come to take me away. Is that it? Am I meant to just give up like that?”
Jamie rubbed at his eyes. He was tired. He had wanted to go to his shack, see Swan, see the baby, sleep. But Becca always had a way of drawing him to her.
“We don’t have a choice,” he said heavily, “the Far Shore calls for everyone, we can’t ignore it.” They had been through this before, every night for two weeks. He had tried to make her see that it was the way of things but she was blind. Selfish maybe. But then was it so selfish to want to live, he thought, a fleeting glitch in his beliefs. Yes, it was, if it meant others would be hurt.
“Why can’t we ignore it?” she said, her words tumbling out. “Why can’t we just tell Him to leave us alone?”
“You know why,” Jamie said, “if one ignores the Call we all suffer.”
She laughed and pushed her hair back. “You don’t have the fear yet,” she said bitterly, “you still have another year, you still have a life and Swan and your child. Who do I have to leave behind, to remember me? You? I’ve no one else. Your child will remember you.”
“Claire,” he said, he hated when she called the baby that. Child. Like Claire didn’t deserve a name. “My daughter’s name is Claire.”
They sat in silence for a time. The sun sank away, the sky darkened, the stars woke. Eventually it was Becca who kissed him.
Their lips joined, their teeth clashed, their bodies moved closer and closer. His hand touched her leg, her hands touched all of him. Soon they were on the sand, rolling over and over until they settled against a dune.
She was on top of him. She sat up and lifted her dress off. He traced his finger along the curve of her breasts and then they were kissing again and soon they were making love.
When it was over he closed his eyes and tried to chase Swan away. She always came to him afterwards, right there in the core of his mind.
Becca was breathing hard. “Jamie,” she said, soft, a whisper, “do you love me?”
Swan dispersed. He opened his eyes and rolled onto his side. Looked at Becca. Her eyes didn’t look cold now, they just looked sad, scared.
“You know I don’t,” he said.
She smiled. “I’m not going to be here in the morning when He comes,” she said.
Jamie laughed. “Of course you are,” he said, “you have to be.”
She stood up, dusted sand from her buttocks and legs and dressed.
“I’m leaving,” she said. “Will you come with me?”
He pulled on his jeans and fastened his sword belt. His tunic was covered in sand so he hit it against the bench a few times.
“Don’t say such stupid things,” he said. She couldn’t have been serious, surely she couldn’t be that selfish. He looked at her, tried to see if there was some hint of a joke in her eyes. None, just the sadness, heavy and deep. He took a step towards her and grabbed her arm hard.
“Tell me you’re lying,” he said.
“You’re hurting me,” she said, trying to pull her arm away but he wouldn’t let go.
“I’m hurting you? And what if He comes tomorrow and you’re gone. What then? What will He do to everyone else? Tell me, Becca, tell me you’re lying.”
Finally she pulled her arm free. He could see marks there, red blemishes on her skin. “Okay,” she said. “I was lying. I just wanted to know if you loved me, that’s all. I thought you might say you’d come with me, save me.” She laughed. “I forgot how much you love Swan.”
That was cruel. It kicked him hard in his gut.
“Look,” he started to say but she brushed his words away with her arm.
“Don’t bother,” she said, pushing past him, their shoulders just touching, “I’m tired. I should get some sleep. After all, it’s my birthday tomorrow.”
“Becca,” he called after her but she didn’t turn back. He hadn’t wanted this. They would never have this moment again. A last moment together. He would never kiss her. Never touch her. Never be with her. He should have said something. To end like this, it wasn’t right. He watched her as she broke into a run, crossing the sands to the village where the evenfire burned high. There were Villagers around it already, sat outside their shacks drinking and singing and laughing. When she was just another shape amongst many he followed her down. He didn’t sit around the fire. Cal and Mohamed were there, Adam too. His brother and his two closest friends. They saw him, Mohamed beckoning him to join, but he ignored them.
He pushed aside the curtain into his shack. There were no candles lit. Swan was already in bed, the baby sleeping in the cot beside her. Mattem, Swan’s sister, was sitting in the armchair, a book open on her lap, her eyes closed, silent.
Jamie undressed and slid in beside Swan. He kissed her neck.
“Where have you been?” she asked, sleepily, her auburn hair tickling his face.
He closed his eyes as he lied. “Cal thought he found some oncewere tracks. I wanted to watch the dunes, make sure there were no wanderers up there.”
“Were there?” she asked.
He kissed her neck again. “Not a soul,” he said.
He put his arm around her and pulled her close to him. He could hear Claire breathing, little soft breaths that made him feel like nothing could ever be bad in the world even though he knew there were many things out there, dark things. Onceweres in the ruins and creatures in the forest. A whole world of what was lost, ash and decay. And tomorrow, the Old Man would come from the west in his boat and Becca would go away, away to the Far Shore and the setting sun, never to return.