Max woke in a cold sweat, the ghost of a scream lingering in his throat. He ran a hand fiercely through his sweat-dampened hair, forming a fist at the nape of his neck and remaining in that position as his panicked panting calmed. It was the same dream that had plagued him for months. Every time was more vivid than the last, more urgent, more heartbreaking. He released a long, slow sigh and raised his wide blue eyes to rest on one drawing in particular that hung amongst the array of sketches that plastered his bare attic wall. She grinned back at him with that ferocious expression that didn’t quite reach her eyes; the familiar smile she had so often flashed when they were children.
It had been four years since he had lost her. Diana had been everything that he was not. She was his pillar, his shield, his constant, rebellious companion; and he had been the source of her compassion. Max had always had a tendency to escape into fantasy, and Diana existed as his tether to reality. In turn, he was her safeguard, her own escape from the cruel world that they had been born into, her only breath of hope. He studied the drawing meticulously, as if searching for an answer. It depicted the Diana from his recurring dreams rather than the carefree child he had known so well. She was older, here, than she had ever had the chance to be.
They met when he was seven and she was eight. She was the stationmaster’s daughter; a strict man who had moved back to the town to take his father’s place when the old man passed. Without warning, she exploded into Max’s life like a firework and redefined everything he lived by. At seven, Max was ahead of his years. He was a literature prodigy, a walking encyclopaedia of facts and words and wonders, but such a creature was not welcomed warmly in this close-minded place. He would often return home with bloodied lips and blackened eyes and then immerse himself in the novels that his father procured for his business. Many of the books were now contraband, and Max was made to swear an oath of silence every time he picked one to read. Diana also had a tendency to get herself into fights. She had a very forward character and a fierce sense of justice; the difference between them was that she was more often on the winning end. Both outcasts, they fell together naturally; and once they did they were left alone. Max would spend long nights talking about the books he had read and the facts he had learned, the complicated politics he had uncovered from ancient days and the unusual words he had encountered; and Diana would listen, wide-eyed, in eager silence. She didn’t remember everything in the photographic detail that he did, but she was quick-witted and would ask question upon question until she understood. She would never poke fun at him, either, taking in the fantasies he spoke of thirstily. On the similarly long nights that were tainted by her tears or her anger, he would rest a hand on her shoulder or hold her clumsily in his gawky arms in way of comfort. Sometimes, she would just sit in silence and he could tell she was not really listening to any of his words at all, and then she would simply let her head fall to rest against his shoulder as if that were the only reassurance she needed - and his heart would crack a little, then, but he couldn’t let her see that. He had to be strong for her.
Max, on those increasingly bittersweet nights, was the first to notice something was wrong. It was a slow process. Painfully helpless, he watched as her skin paled, her face narrowed, and her breathing grew pained. Her grey eyes dulled and sunk back into dark sockets, becoming permanently bloodshot and weary. She no longer spoke in the animated tones that she once had, and he was certain that she didn’t sleep at all. One day, when he was waiting for her at their usual spot, she didn’t come. Nor the next, nor the time after that. He tried desperately to bring some kind of attention to her drastic fading, but no matter how many times he pushed the point nobody seemed to acknowledge it. Not even her father batted an eye at his pleas; he marched up to their front door and was turned away, so he tried throwing pebbles at her window instead. When she still did not answer he waited for her, every day, at the spot where they used to sit and imagine shapes in the invisible stars.
It was just before dawn when she came to him, on the day of her thirteenth birthday. He was dozing with his back against a heap of scrap metal, a knitted hat clasped tightly in his fists. The item was atrociously colourful and clumsily made, but it had been crafted with much love. It was dark, and she was so unrecognisable that he would have missed her had she not stumbled as she reached him. He leapt forward, instinctively, to catch her. Her clothes hung off her frame like a skeleton in costume and her skin was almost translucent. Heavy purple shadows hung around her flickering eyes.
“Diana,” he murmured, appalled at how little she weighed. “Shit, Diana…”
He reached out to touch her face, but thought better of it. If not for the fluttering of a pulse in her bare throat, she could have been dead. The faintest hint of a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth, but her eyes remained closed as she simply lay limp and wheezing.
“What happened to you?” he asked, pained, but she could not respond. “Why the FUCK did they not take you to the hospital if you were THIS bad?!”
Angry tears welled up but he fought them back, shoulders tense and quivering as he curled around her like a protective shell. He could not believe that he had let her out of his sight for so long, nor that no one else seemed to care enough for her to try and get her medicine. Out of character, he swore again, his pre-adolescent voice screeching at the empty wasteland that lay beyond the overflowing scrapyard. An ice cold touch brushed his hand, nearly making him flinch, and he stared at her once more to find her eyes wide and worried.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, pressing his lips ever so gently to her forehead. “I’m so, so sorry…”
“Don’t… be…” she wheezed, and his heart broke a little more.
The purring sound of a bullet train pulling up reverberated through the metal beneath his feet, and in an instant his mind was made up. Without a word, he lifted her gently into his arms and marched to the station. How did nobody see how bad this was? Her fingers feebly entwined themselves in the wine-red scarf that loosely hung from his shoulders, as if clutching for a lifeline. There were drums inside his head and he was barely conscious of where his feet were taking him. His blood felt electric in his veins and his senses quivered; yet, he could feel himself wrapped in a blanket of calm sensation, nursing the untouchable memory of her smile in the depths of his mind.
“I’ll take you,” he murmured as he walked. “I’ll take you somewhere where they can make you better.”
When he reached the station the platform was empty. The sleek, seamless bullet train hissed quietly, but there was no other disturbance. It was a military engine and had probably only paused to refuel before heading into the city. Without hesitation, he marched right up to it, and supporting her frail figure in one arm he slid the palm of his hand over the smooth, silver surface until he found what he was looking for. With a gentle click, the panel lit up beneath his fingertips momentarily, and then recessed into the machine by a few centimetres before sliding away to reveal an opening. He swiftly swung her into the space and set her down gently on the compartment floor, just as the whistle sounded; it was an incredibly surreal noise coupled with such modern technology. He realised that the lumpy hat was still in his hands, and pulled it gently over her ears.
“Happy birthday,” he whispered, and turned back to the platform. It was just for a second, to glance once at the only home he had ever known. As he moved away, the scarf was pulled gently from his neck by Diana’s grasp, but he did not care. He exhaled a long, rattling breath, his blood still flaming and his whole being electric. What was this he was feeling?
Adrenaline, his mind whispered. This is what adrenaline feels like.
It was now or never. No second thoughts. He steeled himself and latched his fingers into the opening of the compartment as the vehicle began to move, slowly. Bullet trains such as these would pick up speed at a tremendous pace - he had barely ten seconds to leap inside before his arm would be torn from it’s socket. Energy coursed through his narrow body as he broke into a jog, and then a run, to keep up with the increasing momentum. He kept his eyes dead ahead as he prepared to make the jump, bringing them up to his target just as he leapt…
He was met by the butt of a rifle that connected hard with his temple. Stars scattered across his vision, and his fingers slipped from the door. Max reeled from the impact and his face connected with the floor of the platform in a spectacular fashion. The wind was knocked from his body and pain blossomed through him. Gasping past the blood in his mouth, he just managed to raise his face to see the leering soldier that stood leaning out of the still-open door.
“Help… her…!” Max spat, the words barely audible despite his attempt to scream them. Tears of frustration mingled with the blood from his face as he watched the train speed away. “Please…”
He lay there on the platform for a very long time after that, shaking and wishing with all his might that the earth would swallow him.
The chill of the night kissed his naked back and made him shiver, bringing him back to reality. He wiped a hand over his face as if to banish the ghost of the nightmare and swung himself out of bed. His clothes lay in a heap on the wooden floorboards by his feet and he swiftly pulled them on to combat the cold. Everything was threadbare, and either too short or too wide for his tall, slender frame. His delicately knitted jumper was the colour of charcoal and coming undone at the hems. He paused for a second and played with the strands between his fingers, debating whether it would be quicker to save up for a new one or learn to knit himself. The thought faded quickly as the next daydream wandered across his mind.
Outside, the night was bleached of colour. It was never truly dark here. Thick clouds of smog rolled across the sky and reflected a dull crimson glow upon the world below. The town was a small one, with maybe 150 residents at most. It spread out around the railway line like a squashed, corrugated-iron insect in the heart of the wasteland. There was not a building there that didn’t have holes patched up with battered sheet metal; if it wasn’t for the rust, it would have looked like a temporary establishment. Bordering the eastern face of the town, a derelict scrapyard sprawled into the flat expanse of the wasteland. It was a graveyard of ancient vehicles and pre-collapse war machines - and it was also Max’s retreat.
He closed the front door behind him and stepped out onto the rickety staircase that would lead him to street level. His father’s shop occupied the ground floor of the building, a dusty old trader of books and antique relics. The edifice grew narrower as it rose, and had two slender storeys that constituted their home with Max’s low-ceilinged attic crowning it’s peak. The road below was dusty, and the pavement had been almost flattened to road-level under the weight of time. His scuffed boots barely made a whisper as he wandered south down the neglected street. Dawn was not yet upon them, and the world was silent. Occasionally, an electricity cable would make a faint buzz overhead and gently break the quiet; but he didn’t mind. It was almost comforting.
After dipping into a nearby alley and taking a few twists and turns, he arrived at the buckled chain-link fence that surrounded the scrapyard. He followed it for a few metres, passing numerous overflowing rubbish bins, until he came to the right place. The chain link had been cut away from it’s supporting pole here, creating an opening into the yard. He folded it aside carefully and slipped through before letting it drop back into place. His feet carried him between the mounds of scrap on muscle memory, weaving through the maze as if he had a map embedded in his retina; which, in a sense, he did. There was very, very little that Max forgot.
The eastern face of the scrapyard opened out onto the wasteland. There was no fence around this boundary - or if there was, it had long been swallowed by the rusting carcasses of old machines. He paused here, right on the border of civilisation, and simply waited. As he stood, he found himself wondering - and not for the first time, either - if Diana had ever really existed. She seemed to have been less than a heartbeat in anyone else’s existence, but had had such a large character that it was hard to believe that everybody would have brushed her aside so easily.
After a few moments, a dagger of vivid crimson burst over the horizon and raced over the wasteland towards him. He watched as, for just a few moments, the line where the land met the sky danced in vivid shades of purple and orange and blue. It was the only source of such colour that he had ever seen; his secret, his release. A long, deep exhale escaped his lungs as he observed, the wondrous sight fading back to that permanent, dusky red just as quickly as it had emerged. Max stayed like that for a while even after it was gone, scanning the horizon for anything that might break normality. But, of course, it was just as barren and empty as it had always been.
He turned his back on the rising day and headed back into the scrap metal jungle with his head bowed.
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