The milk was spoiled but she drank it down anyway, every last drop and lump. When had she last tasted milk? When had she last eaten, or had anything to drink that wasn’t dirty creek water, that had to be boiled first lest she get sick? Maybe the milk would make her sick anyway, but at that moment she did not care. She had not asked him where it had come from. He had simply brought it home after one of his scavenging expeditions, scooped up or squeezed out into an old coke can. He’d been near the power station again, she knew that much – been where she had told him time and time again not to go because it was not safe. ‘But it’s not on fire anymore,’ he would say, as though that made all the difference. She had seen bodies there, and told him so. He had just shrugged in that way of his, held his shoulders aloft for long enough for her to suspect his indifference was an act, a cover.
She crushed the coke can in her hand and tossed it at the broken, overflowing esky they kept for the recyclables they could no longer recycle. It was just routine, an unconscious nod towards a vanished world that extended as far as even occasionally hefting the esky down to the old recycling depot near the train station, emptying it out amongst all the uncompensated bottles and cans that had risen up there like stalagmites since The End.
‘You should do the bottles,’ she said, but he wasn’t listening. He was sitting at the far end of the porch, picking over some bit of electronic waste he’d picked up. He was good at things like that, at bringing what seemed to her useless old shit back to life, but even this, whatever it was, looked beyond him. Her legs were hurting again, otherwise she would have gone herself. She wondered, if the milk did make her sick, whether it would take her mind off those legs of hers, those ugly, throbbing, near-useless things of burnt and broken flesh.
‘Piece of fuckin’ shit,’ he said, and threw the piece of waste down the dry-grassed slope. It landed among all the other pieces of things he hadn’t been able to get going again, or usefully cannibalise, and lay there reflecting the dull sun.
‘Want some milk?’ she said, although she had drunk it all and had nothing to offer except words. He said nothing. Maybe he wasn’t thirsty (or hungry – the milk had been so chunky, she wasn’t really sure which one was right) or maybe he knew she was full of shit but just didn’t want to say so. She felt a knot in her stomach, but it wasn’t the milk – it was just the old fear, the one that hung around like smoke, got thicker or bigger or smaller depending on whichever way the wind was blowing. She looked at him, dirty and thin and lost. Brother, she thought, though he was not her brother.
‘Thanks,’ she said. She meant for the milk, but his lips just curled inwards as though he had no idea what she was talking about. She wanted to hug him, but her legs hurt too much, and she knew he would not come if she asked her. The knot in her stomach tightened.
‘I looked for a chair,’ he said. ‘A chair with wheels so that you could get around easier.’ As she looked down the slope, matted with his discarded things, the idea seemed ridiculous, a fantasy – something out of the other world, not this one. And yet her heart bloomed to hear the words. She wanted to do something for him, something kind. But more than that she wanted him to listen to her, to not go down to the fucking power station where there were bodies, and people had learned how to harness the energy there to make others suffer just because they could. That was the world now, and she feared his nature.