by Jed Graham

Runestone, volume 9

Runestone, volume 9

by Jed Graham

The sun was setting, but it was hot, despite the breeze. The old man, crinkled and raspy with wisps of white hair arranged in thinning haphazard tufts, knelt and picked up a pebble, popped it into his mouth, and looked up at me. He tucked the pebble between his lower gum and bottom lip.

He said, “Folks used to say it was OmegaMart what broke the world. Turned it all topsy-turvy until it went hilter-kilter.”

I said, “My pa used to say that. They kept making it easier and easier for people to survive until the memory of the how of survival was forgotten. If a body can’t survive, then they don’t deserve the life they’re blessed with. If living is a blessing. I don’t know anymore.”

“Hmph. Just as easy could’ve been politics or coal or oil or that evangelical-driven baby-boom.”

“What was it like? Before OmegaMart, I mean.”

The old man spit the pebble out and licked his lips, but remained quiet, and stared into the distance with a look on his face like he was trying to solve a problem and failing.

“Did you hear me? I asked you a question.”
“It was different.”
“I know that. How was it different? Was it better than this?”
“Depends on where and who and what you were. For some, the old world was better. For others–”
“You mean those who didn’t survive?”
“No. I’m meaning the ones that are still alive.”
“You’re not making sense.”
“What does it matter?”

My papa used to tell me that never in the history of the world had it been so entwined and in love with itself and its head filled with dreams. He’d often say the human brain–running on a 300,000-year-old operating system and 300,000 year-old hardware– couldn’t rise beyond consuming anything and everything, and the development of technology dedicated to consuming more and more, until humanity crashed itself and the planet. My Momma–she just gave up and chose to die and where momma went, papa followed. To this day I have no idea what he meant by hardware and operating system and crash. Something to do with the time before no-time because all I’ve known is grit in my teeth, parched throat, leather skin, and chasing hope.

We walked toward the sun.

The old man said, “Mountains will be a bitch.”


“Past those mountains is a paradise of plants, water, life, people, and an echo of the old world. Of something once great.The last open and functional OmegaMart.”

I shrugged my shoulders. If it’s true or not, I don’t care. It keeps us going.

We walked past the skeleton of a forlorn OmegaMart–the “O” dangling, “M” missing. The old man told me the letters. What they mean. He called it reading and I called it a waste of time better spent on survival.

The old man started laughing.

I said, “What’s so funny about survival?”

“Oh, nothing. Nothing at all. I was just thinking about an old show I used to watch. We called them sitcoms.”

“What’s a show?”

“That’s right. I forget myself sometimes. Sorry young fella, television was gone by the time you were born. You really missed out. Should’ve seen ’em.”

“Seen what?”

“The people. So many of them were on television. Why, it was nothing for there to be a cast of four or five of them. Sometimes more than that or less than that.”

“That’s crazy talk.”

He glared at me.

“Explain it to me again. I want to know more.”

“Don’t matter. It’s all gone now anyhow.” Then, he pointed toward the old store and said, “Think we ought to see if there’s anything good left?”

While we dug through the dust and debris for food and water, I kept thinking about all those people he talked about. Five or so in one of those shows. I haven’t seen but maybe twice that many people in all my life, and never all at once and of them, half were dead–or almost–when we met.

The store was barren of anything worthwhile. Before we left, the old man showed me something they called a tablet and I called a useless piece of junk. He tucked it into his knapsack. And then we walked, and walked, and after a long day of it, it seemed we hadn’t gone all that far. But that’s how it always is.

He says this is the old Midwest. It’s a flat, desolate, dusted landscape of crumbling heaps once cities and towns. Where we stop always looks like where we started–a world well past its decline–deep in the throes of decay. A dust storm loomed on the horizon. We took shelter in an old gas-station.

The old man said, “Another day or so ’til we reach water, I reckon. Whatcha got left?”

I sloshed my last full canteen. I was getting close to not enough. I opened the lid and took a sip, warm and wet. I’ve heard that it’s better cold, but I’ve never had it that way.

I look at the old man and he looks off into the horizon. He wouldn’t meet my eyes and I don’t blame him. It is what it is. We’ve traveled together but there’s one rule neither of us have ever forgotten. It’s every man for himself. His water is his water. My water is my water. We used to have a woman traveling with us. The only one I’d ever met, aside from my mother. She had her water too, but she ran out and food was getting scarce. So, yeah. The old man and I did what we had to do, although none of us have much meat on our bones.

“Do you ever find it funny that we’re pinning our hopes on an OmegaMart when it’s what we blame for the pickle we’re in?”

The old man said, “Old habits are hard to break. If you needed something or wanted something, you went to OmegaMart. And we both are in a heap of want and need wouldn’t you say?”

“Where the customer is always right, unless they’re wrong.”

“They were wrong for sure. Those customers. I suppose I was one of them. But it was so much easier to shop at OmegaMart. Even after they got big. We were all wrong to do it. Give ’em power like that.”

“Pa used to say that power corrupts.”

“He wasn’t wrong there. There was a fella once. Name of Billy Tidwell. Peculiar man, folks said he was born with feathers.”

“What’d he do?”

“Some kids shot him down in cold blood.”

“How’d the power corrupt him?”

“Wasn’t him. Power corrupted those kids. They got off the tit and they took it upon themselves to decide matters of life and death. Some folks believed poor Billy had the solution. We’ll never know for sure.”

Another hot day went by and we reached the next watering hole by dusk, except the ground was cracked and chipped with a hint of brown mud remaining. I looked at the old man and he looked down and I said, “This ain’t good.”

The old man sighed, took off his pack, and sat it on the ground. Then, he knelt down and pulled a small shovel out of the pack and tossed it to me. He said, “Might try digging. Could be that it’s soaked down into the crust. Better than nothing.”

I dug until I started sweating. I had to stop. I didn’t have the calories or the moisture to waste. The dirt smelled like shit. I licked the salt from my lips and regretted doing so. It worsened my thirst. I walked over to my pack and dug out my canteen and it was less than half-full so I decided then and there to not take another drink until I couldn’t stand the pangs of thirst. I turned to the old man and I said, “How far?”

He reached into his pocket, pulled out a pebble, and popped it in his mouth. “Another three days I think. The Mississippi River.”

“What are the chances?”

“If it’s dry, we might as well give up cause that’ll mean there’s no water left.”

I looked up at the sky. Same as usual. Cloudless. “Where’d all the water go?”

The old man shrugged. “Beats the hell out of me. Tidwell might have known.”

I’m tired of the old man. We’ve traveled together for a long time and he’s never given me a straight answer. Never told me his name. He spit his pebble into the palm of his hand, put it back in his pocket, then reached into his knapsack for his canteen and took a big swig right in front of me. I looked away and squeezed my eyes shut and the heat and the dryness and my thirst roared through me.

I laid out my bedroll and turned in for the night while the old man started kindling a fire. I stared at his back as he cooked his food and I decided that later in the night I’d kill him. I had my own survival to think about. We never share and we never go anywhere without the other so the only thing I can think is that he’s stealing from me. Then I pretended to go to sleep.

Time passed and silence settled in until it was broken by his footsteps near me. I listened as he started to dig in my pack. I moved my head slowly, and peeked out of one barely opened eyelid. I readied myself to spring.

He pulled my canteen out and unscrewed the lid. Then he picked up his canteen, and started pouring his water into mine.

Jed Graham

Columbia College

JED GRAHAM is a junior at Columbia College majoring in English and creative writing. He has previously worked as a publishing intern at the Missouri Review and enjoys editing, but his first love is crafting works of fiction that plumb the depths of human existence in the past, present, and future. His publication in Runestone marks his fiction genre debut

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