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Fiction – “Rule of Threes” by Corinne Duyvis

Only one bar in the upper-right corner of the screen. The battery wouldn’t last much longer. In the left corner were no bars at all – there hadn’t been since Cath’s arrival the day before. Angular green numbers told the time: nearly ten at night.

Cath lowered her mobile. In the distance, the tower jutted high into the air, already fading into the background with the sun no more than a glimmer along the horizon. It’d go dark soon.

She couldn’t see them in the dark.

Cath knew she’d hear them, though. She already did now – squelching, claws scratching sand, bone splintering; background noise that pierced deep and went on forever. Impossible to tune out with nothing else for miles around but their own rattled breathing, their dry whispers, and the distant sputtering of an engine.

She crouched. “How is he?”

Stefan stayed focused on Adam. “He’s breathing slower. That’s good, right? That means he’s calmer?”

“Don’t know.”

Stefan’s pale eyes flickered away – to the creatures writhing below – then back to Adam, who lay still and white on the sloped roof.

“We should re-do his bandages while there’s still light,” Cath said. She kept her voice at a whisper. If the creatures knew they were up here, they’d be dead within minutes.

Stefan nodded, but didn’t move. His hands clutched each other in his lap, his left thumb rubbing over dried knuckles.

They didn’t have time for this.

Jutting out her lower jaw, Cath got to work. She undid the knot of her shirt around Adam’s leg and winced as she inched it loose from dried blood and hardening flesh. Spitting on one corner of the fabric, she cleaned the blood near the cut, revealing a smear of swollen, pink-red skin. “It’s getting infected.”

Stefan pulled up his knees. “Shit.”

Marlene wouldn’t have approved of his language – but Cath wasn’t Marlene, and this wasn’t the time.

Stefan went on: “It can’t last much longer, right? Any reception on your phone yet?”

“Nothing.” She paused. “Look – even if we can’t reach anyone, enough people got away. They’ll let the authorities know. They’ll come looking.” She sounded more certain than she felt. What else was she supposed to do? Hemming and haw-ing and what-ifs would get them nowhere.

“Right.” Stefan’s voice was small.

They needed to clean the wound. The infection spread too quickly, too badly: maybe the creatures were venomous. Maybe there was something in their spit, like komodo dragons, who only had to bite their prey once and wait for it to succumb.

These creatures didn’t look like komodo dragons, though. Too small. Too slick.

From the few up-close glimpses Cath had caught when they’d first streamed into town, she could’ve sworn they were salamanders – but there were no salamanders in Australia, not here in the arid desert, not even down at home.

Didn’t matter. What mattered was keeping Marlene’s boys alive until help came.

Cath found a clean piece of shirt to rewrap around Adam’s leg. Until they found water, it was all she could do.

Adam let out a faint moan. She froze. “Adam?”

Stefan crouched forward.

Adam stayed still and said nothing else, even when Cath fastened the knot of blood-soaked sleeves around his leg.

The last streak of light painted the sky purple. Soon, even that faded.

***

Cath rested on her side, her mobile clasped in her hands, eyes glued to the clock display.

One bar in the right corner. None in the left.

“I can hear them,” Stefan rasped. They squealed sometimes, then they’d scuttle over the sand, barely visible when Cath peered over the edge of the roof. When they moved, they moved fast – but for the most part, they stayed by their prey and fed and drank, their eyes pinpricks in the dark.

Cath didn’t look over the edge of the roof much.

“Save your energy,” she whispered. Her tongue was drying up. “Try to sleep.”

She glanced past Stefan. There was a car, there – a ute that had swerved off the track hours ago and come to a screeching halt, ending with its front facing town. The driver hung over the wheel, dead. From this distance, Cath couldn’t see how many creatures were gnawing on him – in this darkness, she could barely see anything at all.

The engine was an irregular whine in the distance.

If no one came soon, the ute was their way out. They could make a run for it and tear out the body and the creatures. They’d have to ignore their own cars right below, Marlene’s white and battered and Cath’s blue and sleek and spattered with the neighbour’s blood.

She’d loved that car, once. It’d be faster than the ute, faster and closer, but they had no choice. If they went inside for keys –

Marlene had gone inside for keys.

***

Sun came. They dragged Adam’s body to the spot of shade offered by the backyard tree. All too soon, that shadow would shrink and slip off the roof entirely, leaving them without shelter.

She’d give it another few hours, no more. With the nearest town over two hundred kilometres away, they couldn’t risk the ute running out of petrol.

Stefan sat next to Adam, who’d woken up. They talked in voices hushed and dry.

Cath crawled to the street-side of the roof. The sun hammered down and she forced herself to look over the edge, though her attention lingered on the boys’ words behind her.

“Aunt Cath says it’s infected.” Stefan’s voice, rigid. She didn’t need to turn her head to know he was rubbing his thumb over his knuckles.

“It’s only my leg. I need a doctor, that’s all.”

Cath’s lips thinned as she surveyed the street. There were more creatures today, she was sure of it. They needed to be careful. When Marlene had thumped onto the sand, the creatures had spotted her instantly, abandoning their meals for something fresher before she even knocked open the front door.

She hadn’t made it inside. Her screams had overpowered those of Stefan and Cath – the former crying his mom’s name, the latter shouting for Marlene to knock them off and get away. The creatures had crawled onto near-bare feet in shoddy sandals, some biting down, others scuttling over the fabric of her shirt and jeans. Smaller ones slipped underneath.

Marlene had tried to climb onto the trash bin but knocked it over; she’d cried out for Cath’s help and hands.

Must have hit the right arteries. It didn’t take long. Still long enough for Cath to have to pin Stefan down and clamp her hand over his mouth.

Overnight, Marlene’s arms had been chewed down to reveal specks of bone, gleaming with morning sun reflection. Cath counted only six creatures on her now. The others must’ve spread out again – back to the other bodies scattered in the streets, even the blood that had pooled around them licked clean.

Not nearly enough people got away. Cath hadn’t seen anyone else alive for going on fifteen hours.

The creatures stayed on one side of Marlene’s body. Cath’s eyes roamed across the street, fixing on the other bodies, people and pets alike. It was the same, there: the sun hit moss-green scales now and then, but every time the creature would jerk and dig deeper into the carcass or huddle down behind it. They’d race out to bring down their victims, but when they fed, they did it in the shade.

Sweat trickled down her temple, precious fluid wasted. She tore herself away and huddled in the shade by the boys.

Cath tried to distract them with a game: they named animals, each starting with the last letter of the one before. Adam faded into sleep when they got to giraffe. Cath tried to keep playing with Stefan, who fell quiet.

When noon approached, light swallowed the shadow from the tree. Cath asked Stefan for his shirt, wrapped it around her short-cut hair, and shielded their bodies from the sun.

The heat seemed to swallow her whole.

A scream.

Cath looked up, slower than usual. It couldn’t be further than the next street over – nothing ever was, here – but the near-dead silence took over again immediately. She’d barely even had time to register it.

“Is that -” Stefan started.

“Hush.” Cath lowered her head, straining her ears. For a fleeting second, she suspected a delusion, something brought on by seventeen-hours-and-counting of no water and no food, but if Stefan heard it too…

“Anyone?” the voice bellowed – a kid’s voice, probably the boys’ age.

“That’s Jeremy. One of Adam’s friends.” Stefan sat upright, as though stretching his spine and craning his neck would help him look over the roofs and onto the streets. “He’s alive? We have to -”

“Don’t shout.” Her voice was strained.

“He’s -”

“Don’t. Shout.” Cath’s eyes trained on the street.

Stefan went on. “If they hear him…”

This time, Cath didn’t need to cut him off. His words dropped in mid-air as he followed her gaze. The salamanders-that-could-not-be-salamanders sped into the direction of the noise, leaving the carcasses they’d been feeding on baking in the sun.

Cath couldn’t even see their legs move. The creatures seemed to flow over the ground, smooth like raindrops rolling down glass, as they slipped between the houses across the street.

Cath turned to Stefan. “Stay here. Get ready to climb down with Adam.” Between the lowered garage roof and two-foot-high ute wheels, he’d manage.

Stefan tore his eyes from the street just as Cath jumped to the ground, landing feet from her car. Pain flared up her ankle. She hissed but moved on, legs still stiff from hours of crouching and hiding.

Near the pale remains of Marlene was a wriggle of movement. Not all the salamanders had gone to investigate the noise.

She ran. The stiffness receded; the pain didn’t.

Aged sneakers slapped rock-hard dirt. The ute stood a few dozen feet from the edge of town, where houses abruptly turned into flat plains that stretched to the horizon. Withered plants dotted the ground. In the distance, the carcass of a tree was scrawled onto a sky too bright to look at.

Cath focused on the ute, searching even as she ran for any hint of movement – but saw none. Maybe they’d tired of the driver. Maybe they’d gone back into town, or back to wherever they’d come from. All that mattered was that they’d abandoned the driver’s corpse, the sun highlighting too many bright red smudges on its blood-drained skin.

Cath stopped abruptly. Sand sprayed up by her feet. Her hand slapped onto the chassis, then yanked open the door. Headache blurring her vision, she stumbled back. If she couldn’t see them –

Her eyes re-focused. The car was clean.

Cath grabbed the guy’s shirt and pulled him out. He slid over the leather, agonisingly slow, then smacked to the ground. No time to get sick. No time to think about any of this, or even Jeremy’s screams in the distance.

She climbed into the cabin and doubled over instantly. Heat drowned every inch of her. The leather seat burned even through her clothes. Her body screamed for water and cool air, to rest her aching legs and curl up somewhere cosy – but the salamanders were still coming, and Stefan and Adam were still waiting, and she was still dying bit by bit. Every second she allowed herself to rest meant one step closer to the end, not away from it.

One breath. Two. Go.

Cath’s foot sought out the accelerator, her eyes the fuel gauge. Barely enough to get to the nearest waterhole, minutes away. The thought alone dizzied her.

The ute shook into motion. Still working, thank god. She clutched the wheel tighter as she looked for the right house. There, halfway down the street: the house with the tree towering over it like a scratchy black halo, the colorful front door and window frames, the frightened fourteen-year-old kneeling on the garage roof. Stefan stared wide-eyed at the approaching vehicle, dark hair mussed.

He scrambled upright when Cath drove into the street. She swerved around one body, but couldn’t avoid another. She suppressed a gag as it crunched underneath the wheels.

The ute parked by the garage. Marlene lay just feet away, Cath knew, her sight of the body blocked only by the ute’s bonnet.

“Lower him in,” she called out. Her hands stayed on the wheel. If she let go, she knew they’d shake.

She hated herself for hoping that Jeremy distracted the salamanders enough.

He was still screaming.

Something hit the cargo bed. Another thump followed. The car sank under the weight. Cath glanced in the rear-view mirror to confirm, then shifted gears and slammed the accelerator. The ute screeched, wheels spitting out sandy clouds.

A salamander had climbed onto the window by her head. Even as she drove, Cath opened the door and pulled it shut with all her might. The impact sent the creature flying off.

“You okay?” she yelled.

“There’s some -” Stefan’s voice broke off. There came a muffled sound from the back, then a thump, like something hitting the cargo bed. “Yeah. We’re – we’re good. I knocked ’em off.”

“Just hold onto Adam. Won’t take long.” They passed another house, then two. The moment she saw an opening she yanked the wheel to the right, making a sharp turn towards the track leading out of town.

“Cath?” Stefan shouted. “You need to get to Upara Street – Jeremy –” Stefan slammed on the window connecting to the passenger cabin.

Cath’s jaw clenched.

“You can’t leave him!”

The car shook as they rode over another body, throwing her against the door. In the rear-view mirror, she saw Stefan lose his balance, but he held on.

They left Oodnadatta behind. The sun reflected too-brightly off yellowed sand, banishing even the slightest spot of shade.

She forced her breathing to slow.

“We couldn’t go back,” she said matter-of-factly. “He’d probably have lost too much blood, get the same infections as Adam, and we couldn’t have pulled him inside without the salamanders getting aboard.” She stopped the car in the middle of the road and looked over her shoulder. Stefan stared back through the window, lips thinned to a line. The sun overhead cast his eyes in shade.

Cath inspected the leg areas of the driver’s and passenger’s seats, then the storage compartments in the doors. Hers had an empty water bottle, punctured in several places. She felt the inside of the compartment. Dry. The water must’ve evaporated already.

She bit back disappointment.

Cath opened the door. Dust billowed by her feet when she stepped outside. She squinted. The world swam.

“You two should get out of the sun. I’ll help get Adam into the front seat, and we’ll drive to the waterhole and on to – where? Marla’s the closest town, right?”

Stefan rubbed his forehead. “Arckaringa station or Allanville are closer. They might have supplies. Or Cadney.”

“Too far from the path. Can’t risk wasting petrol on a hunch. And Adam needs a doctor.” Cath leaned over to grab Adam’s legs. “Have you got him properly?” When Stefan nodded, they hoisted Adam out of the back and into the passenger seat. Stefan climbed in after.

“We’ll hit the waterhole first.”

***

Empty.

Cath thumped into her seat and grabbed the wheel as if to steady herself.

Stefan could only stare. “Just last week… I know the weather’s been bad, but it can’t go that fast. Right?”

“Cork dry,” Cath repeated. “Some dead salamanders too.”

His mind reeled. “But…” They needed the water. His mouth felt too dry to even swallow. Like he’d been eating sand.

Adam slouched by the open window. Maybe he’d fallen asleep again. It was getting hard to tell. Stefan felt his brother’s wrist: hot. His pulse was quick. Quicker than it should’ve been, he was sure.

“Marla’s hours away. We can’t…” His voice shook. He swatted a mosquito on his leg and tried again. “The Hookey Waterhole is along the track. A couple of kilometres south.”

“We’ll try that.”

***

Three bodies lay under dead trees, their half-eaten, yellowing flesh covered by blowflies like they were spray-painted on. The Hookey Waterhole itself was nothing but a long stretch of white-green sand.

When Cath drove the car too close, small green shapes slithered from holes in the ground.

They turned back.

Half an hour after passing Oodnadatta again, Adam jerked up and screamed.

Cath almost veered off the road. “What is it?”

“I – I don’t know!” Fear clenched Stefan’s throat.

“Mom!” Adam said. “Where’s Stefan? We can’t leave him!” He turned his head wildly, eyes widening as he looked past Stefan and spotted Cath. Thin veins crept from the sides to his irises, branching into a million twigs that pinkened his eyes. “He’s okay, isn’t he? We’ll pick him up before we leave? Mom?”

“Honey? It’s me. Aunt Cath. Stefan’s right here.”

“No! We need to take him!”

“Adam. It’s me. It’s me.” Stefan leaned over to block Adam’s view of Cath. “Mom’s – it’s just us three for now.”

“What?” Adam inhaled sharply.

“I have to keep going,” Cath said.

“What’s wrong with him?” Stefan looked from Adam to Cath and back again; Adam barely seemed to recognize him.

“Probably the dehydration.”

“It hasn’t even been a day,” he whispered. “I thought – three days, right? You can last three days without water?”

“Three minutes without air, three days without water, three weeks without food.” She offered a weird smile. “Except in February in the Australian desert, with an infection eating at your leg.”

Adam leaned against the door, sickly face distorted in a frown. His shoulders hunched. He showed no signs of hearing them.

“What… What can we do?” Stefan asked.

“Find him water.” She revved up the engine.

Stefan looked away, nauseated. Then: “Wait! I think – look. A plane.” He pointed past Adam.

Cath’s breath caught in her throat. She looked skyward first, then lowered her gaze, finally spotting, hundreds of meters away, the small, white wing sticking out over an outcrop of rocks. Stefan felt a sting of guilt for getting her hopes up.

“Crashed.” She hesitated. “Might have supplies.”

They stared at the rock formations scattered between the road and the plane. The ute wouldn’t make it beyond a few metres.

“Maybe I could walk,” Stefan said.

Cath shook her head. “You need to stay with Adam. I’ll go. Anything happens… Just get away.”

Wrapping the shirt around her head again, she took off.

***

The sun lingered on her back, not giving her even a moment’s reprieve as she crawled over the rocks. She slipped twice, almost spraining her already aching ankle.

As she came closer, she got a better view: a small bush plane, its nose crushed, the rotor having snapped clean off. The wing pointed upright, wedged between the body of the plane and a couple of tall stones that dented the side.

Tentatively, she called out, bracing herself to run.

No response. She wormed her way between two stones that reached to her thigh. Taking a deep breath, she stepped through the open door into the plane.

Dim.

Her breath caught in her throat. She couldn’t see a thing. She stumbled back, eyes on the plane.

Nothing came out.

Cath stared into the rectangular opening until her eyes adjusted and she could make out a suitcase net on the other side and a smudge of blood on the floor. She tried again, shaky. Adam was too far gone already. He wouldn’t make it.

And if she turned around now, neither would she and Stefan.

No sound; no movement; no people. Nothing but the wall of thick heat wrapped around her and blood trailing from the busted-up cabin to the door.

The radio had no signal. The on-board computer was dead. But there – underneath the co-pilot’s chair – water!

Cath stumbled to the floor, scraping her knee on a metal bolt and not caring. Eager fingers wrapped around warm plastic. Clumsily, she pried open the cap, brought the bottle to her lips, let it run over her tongue, almost crying in gratitude. She gulped the water down too quickly, still on her knees, eyes closed. Not until it spilled from the corner of her mouth and trailed down her chin did she jerk the bottle from her lips.

Her breathing was heavy. She’d drank maybe one-fifth of the water. Seemed like more. Felt like not enough.

With her free hand, she wiped the trickle of water from her chin, sucked the drops from her palm.

No more, she told herself, not yet. She wasn’t the only one who needed it.

She forced herself to twist the cap back on.

She searched the rest of the plane. A few empty seats. No luggage but a first aid kit and two tied-down jerry cans: black with yellow spouts. She checked the labels.

Avgas. Thank god.

Searching for the waterholes on uneven terrain had taken its toll on the ute’s fuel level, but even without that, they wouldn’t have made it to Marla.

Her ex had mixed regular gasoline with avgas to power up their car. Illegal, and it burned up quickly, but it worked. That was all she needed.

Tongue between her lips, she worked fast to untie the jerry cans. Twenty liters each. She’d never be able to carry both, but one’d be enough to get to Marla.

Outside, she spotted the pilot’s body. He hadn’t made it far. Teeth glistened in the sunlight. The face had been eaten clean off.

They might be close.

She stuck the water bottle in the first aid bag and hugged the jerry can to her chest. Time for the trek back.

***

“Stefan.”

“Mmm.” He ducked his head away from the sound.

The whisper grew louder: “Stefan.”

“Adam?” he slurred. No. Of course not. The voice sounded female.

“Stefan. Wake up and don’t make a sound.”

He forced his eyes open. A car. He was in a car. What the –

The realization made his stomach turn. Next to him, Adam sucked in a raspy breath.

Cath stood a good five metres from the driver’s door. Stefan sent her a questioning look.

“Salamanders.” Cath kept her voice even. She had a red bag slung around her shoulder. A jerry can with a yellow spout weighed her down on one side. She stayed perfectly still even when she spoke. “In the shade of the car. I need you to do something for me.”

He barely dared breathe. Salamanders? Here? How had he allowed himself to fall asleep? Oh god, maybe they were already on the car, maybe –

Adam’s leg, yellow and red and –

Mom, one eye gone, dried stains in the sand –

“Stefan. Focus. I need you to climb into the driver’s seat. Carefully. Can you do that?”

“I – I –”

“Climb into the driver’s seat, turn the key, and –”

“I can’t drive.” Sweat on his forehead. The car had already been hot. It felt a million degrees hotter. He needed to get out. Out.

“Okay. We don’t do that.” Cath’s voice stayed ridiculously calm, like reading from a teleprompter, unconcerned, uncaring. “Just stay cool.”

Oh-so-carefully, heart scrambling to burst from his ribcage, Stefan pushed himself up enough to see the edge of the shade the ute cast on Cath’s side. A couple of creatures lay there, miniature statues scattered on the sand.

“Turn the key in the ignition. Not fully. Just a bit.”

“I can’t –” he said, hoarsely, but reached out with one shaky hand. “Just a bit?”

“Yes. The moment you feel more resistance, stop.”

He tightened his lips and did as told.

A light flickered in the dashboard.

“Good. Next, do you see the cigarette lighter between the chairs? Heat it up.”

His eyes widened. “You’re going to burn them? Is that safe? They might run under the ute, or –”

“Safer than not burning them.”

Stefan could’ve sworn her voice trembled, but when he looked up, she looked the same as before.

He pushed the cigarette lighter into the socket.

They waited.

Slowly, very slowly, Cath moved her free hand towards the jerry can’s nozzle. “When I give the sign, throw it.”

His hand hovered by the cigarette lighter. He stared at Cath’s knee. Blood welled up from a deep-looking gash. She took the cap off the nozzle.

A green blur shot from the shade.

“Watch –” Stefan started.

“Not a word!” Cath dashed back, dropping the cap. She practically threw the jerry can forward, a spout of liquid jetting from the nozzle. The weight of the avgas slamming against the inside of the jerry can made her stumble to keep her balance. She moved the jerry can back and forward again with full force. The sand sucked up the avgas like a sponge.

Another salamander burst into her direction, and another – then two more.

“Throw it!” she shouted.

Stefan tore the lighter free, hesitated for a split second. In this heat, with that gas, and Cath still so close – what if it went wrong? What if –

“Now!” One foot slid into a dent in the sand. As she tripped, the jerry can bounced on the ground next to her. Her head slammed on the sand. She cried out. Her legs kicked at the road as she scrambled upright, sending dust flaring.

The first salamander reached.

Stefan flung the lighter out the window.

At least he could aim.

The sand exploded with flame. Stefan couldn’t help it: he screamed, whether from shock or fear he didn’t know. After a second, he clamped his hand in front of his mouth.

Couldn’t draw them to the ute.

Adam shifted uneasily, but Stefan stayed fixated on Cath. He could barely see her through flames that whipped the air up high, but he could hear her screech – and through it, the crackling of flames and the salamanders’ squeals.

One streaked out of the fire. Flames clung to its back, its tail, its paws.

Cath grunted. Something launched into the blaze.

He couldn’t stop himself. “Cath? Cath!” He half-leaned over the driver’s seat, heat scalding his face. He struggled to keep his eyes open as he searched the flames for a sign of his aunt.

After a few too-long seconds: “I’m okay.”

Stefan let out a breath of relief.

It took a moment for Cath to continue. Her voice stayed tense. “I’m going around.”

She stepped around the fire. He drew back into the ute but kept an eye on her, his heartbeat frantic. Cath grabbed the jerry can and scrambled away from the fire. A couple of cuts had opened on her left shin and calf, and the outer side was red. Burned? She didn’t seem to be walking any different.

After putting the jerry can and first aid kit in the back, Cath crawled into the driver’s seat, expression stony.

Without a word, she drove.

***

“Far enough.” The ute halted abruptly.

“You think?” Stefan glanced in the rear-view mirror. The fire still burned in the distance.

“I found first aid. It’s got antiseptic and clean dressings. Might help Adam.”

That was all Stefan needed to hear. As Cath went to take the bag, he manoeuvred himself past Adam and positioned his brother’s legs to hang from the car, where they could be easily reached.

“What…” Adam gasped, not even opening his eyes. He moaned, then pressed his head into the seam between seat and backrest, like hiding from the world.

“Shh. It’s okay. We got something for your leg.” Stefan reached over to grab his brother’s hand. It felt scalding hot, even to his own overheated skin.

Adam swiped it away. “No.”

“It’s way too late for this.” Grimly, Cath walked up behind Stefan. “I don’t know how much use it’ll be at this point, but it can’t hurt to try.” She glanced at Adam. “Wrong phrasing. This’ll hurt like hell. Keep him still.”

Stefan’s throat clenched. He got back into the ute, sitting awkwardly by his brother’s thin frame. “How do I…”

“Just make sure he doesn’t hurt himself.”

“Right.” Stefan licked his lips as Cath grabbed Adam’s leg and pried off the blood-and-dirt-stained rag. Hard to believe it’d been a clean shirt less than twenty-four hours ago.

This was wrong. This wasn’t supposed to be him holding his brother still. It should be his mom. Their mom.

Adam’s breathing quickened. He raised his arm – felt Stefan in the way – rolled away violently, hands shielding his face. “No! No!”

“Adam, calm –” Stefan forced his wrists down.

“Water!” Adam screamed. “Water!”

“Don’t have any, sweetie. Lie still. Stefan, you ready?” Cath didn’t wait for an answer.

Adam screeched. He kicked and thrashed and raised himself up only to be shoved down again by Stefan, whose eyes stung even in the absence of tears.

“I can’t –” he shouted, using his full weight to keep his brother down. Adam was two years younger and looked and weighed the part, but he fought with furious strength.

“Let go!” Adam swung his arms around blindly.

“Is there any rope in front?” Cath asked.

“You’re joking.” Stefan stared.

“I’m not.”

“There – no, there isn’t any, but –”

“Figured.” She hissed through her teeth. “I’m not even halfway done. I’ll do what I can, then we’ll let him calm down and I take care of my wounds before bandaging his. I can’t while he’s thrashing around.”

“Just… just make it quick.”

“Doing what I can, sweetie.”

***

It wasn’t enough.

She’d disinfected and wrapped her cuts and could only pray it’d prevent an infection like Adam’s; she’d bandaged his leg once he’d drifted into restless unconsciousness; she’d filled the tank with the leftover avgas.

They drove three miles before Adam’s breathing quickened. His heart raced, then skipped a beat, then two, and then too many.

She lifted his body in the back.

“So we can give him a proper burial when we get out of this,” Cath said.

She hoped they could get that far.

She hoped they wouldn’t need a distraction later.

Stefan drew up his legs and stared ahead at the desert that stretched into every direction.

Cath’s hands rested on the wheel, but she made no move to start the car yet; she needed to scrounge together her strength after carrying Adam out.

She reached for the first aid kit, hesitated, then pulled out the water bottle.

“Drink.”

Stefan’s head snapped around. His eyes fell on the bottle, uncomprehending, as she thrust it into his hands.

“Just drink. Not too much. We’ll have to share.”

Hoping that would be the end of it – knowing it wouldn’t be – she started up the engine.

“But you said… no. Adam needed this. You said there wasn’t any.” Stefan made a strangled sound. “How – how –”

The car shook into motion up the uneven road.

“Even with the water, he wouldn’t have made it. This is barely enough for us two.”

He gasped for air like a fish on dry land, hand clenching the bottle tightly enough to crumple the plastic.

“Drink, Stefan. You need it.”

“Shut up!” he snapped. “Shut the fuck up!” His teeth were bared. Chapped lips split open. A drop of blood welled up, did not yet fall. “You don’t get to – you left Jeremy! You lied to Adam – you couldn’t know he was going to die! You couldn’t fucking know!”

“He died because of the infection. The water wouldn’t have changed that.” Cath squeezed the wheel and kept her eyes on the road.

“You can’t fucking know that! You say these things and you – you make these decisions like you don’t even give a damn! You don’t even care! What, did you drop mom? Did you…”

Her throat locked up.

Stefan stared at her, the bottle forgotten.

“Just drink,” she rasped.

“Stop. Stop the fucking car!”

“Don’t be an idiot.”

He yanked at the wheel. The ute veered off the road. Yelping, Cath hit the brake and smacked away Stefan’s hand.

He fumbled to get the door open, stumbled outside, dropped to all fours. He retched. Nothing came out.

Cath’s eyes squeezed shut.

After a few sharp breaths, she scanned the surroundings for salamanders. Nothing.

She’d give him a few minutes.

Then, shakily, Stefan got up and started to walk.

“Sweetie –”

“Don’t call me that.”

“Stefan. Don’t.”

He said nothing.

“Look, I – if I could’ve done something to save my sister, I would’ve. There were at least ten salamanders on her. None of us would have stood a chance.”

Still no response.

“Where will you go?”

His fists clenched, then unclenched.

Two minutes later he was back in the car, reaching for the bottle. He gulped the water down – more than his share – but Cath said nothing, and simply drove.

***

Seventy kilometres from Marla, the ute sputtered and gave up.

Cath took her phone from her pocket. Stefan hadn’t said a word. His thumb jumped from knuckle to knuckle.

Four thirty.

Arvo nearing its end. She glanced at the sky. The sun hung closer to the horizon, just as blisteringly hot as before, the sand still acting like a pale-yellow mirror, the horizon still blank.

Every station they’d passed, every roadhouse, every abandoned car and every bit of shade by dried-out trees and aging road posts – they were there, scales glistening, eyes shut, half-dug into sand or corpses.

And holes – the same holes at the bottom of everything that had once been water.

If the salamanders were this close to Marla, she had little hope left for the town.

Didn’t matter. Reception. That was all she needed.

“Maybe help will come. We’ll wait another hour.”

And they did.

She emptied the bottle, checked the bandages on her legs, and wrapped the shirt around her head.

“Stay here,” she told Stefan. “Don’t leave the car. Search and rescue can’t find you if you wander the desert by yourself. I’ll be following the path to Marla to try to find other survivors. Tell them that.”

After a second of hesitation, she buried one hand in his hair, pulled him closer, pressed a kiss to his temple.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “About everything. I tried.”

Stefan pulled away.

***

Stefan dragged Adam back into the front and kept his brother’s hand in his own. As the sun inched its way down, he shifted further into the shade.

He didn’t know how long he sat there before a whup-whup-whup in the distance broke the silence.

Adam had hallucinated. Stefan had wondered how long it would be before he did the same. Those few sips of water couldn’t have done much.

The sound stayed.

Stefan dragged himself outside. The blood drained from his head, and he stumbled. His hands clawed at the sand, skin fracturing into spider-webs.

A helicopter.

He tried to shout, but his voice wouldn’t work. He pulled himself up by the ute and slammed his hand on the horn, again and again.

The helicopter circled around. His stomach rolled, his breath almost cut off as he watched it hover overhead.

“Yes,” he whispered, hoarsely. “Yes.”

They lowered a woman who grabbed him tightly.

“Don’t worry one bit, kiddo,” she said. “We’ve got you. There’s water in the chopper, all right? ‘Ey, is that… oh. I’m so sorry, kid. That your brother? A friend?”

He clung to her and squeezed his eyes shut.

As they rose up, the wind whipped around his ears, beautifully cool.

“Sorry it took so long.” She had to shout over the noise. He focused on her voice, loud but warm. “Damned buggers are everywhere – can’t even use a proper plane or car anymore or they’ll find some way to sneak aboard. Went through a couple afore we figured that one out.”

She helped him into the chopper, and he stood there shakily. Another woman sat inside, cuts on her legs. She glanced up. A girl, about Stefan’s age, leaned into her side.

“‘Ere’s some water,” the woman who’d helped him said. “It’s warm, but what can you do, eh? So where you from? Anyone left there? You got parents we can find, maybe?”

Stefan’s eyes fixed on the water.

“We’ve gotta be turning back soon or we’ll run outta fuel.”

“I’m from Oodnadatta,” he whispered. “They got my mom and brother.”

“So no one else then, eh? Sorry to hear it, kiddo.” She squeezed his shoulder.

He closed his eyes and gulped down the water.

***

Cath trudged the dirt path. With her gaze on the phone in her hand, she heard the helicopter before she saw it.

Still no bars in the upper-left corner of the screen. In the upper-right corner, an empty battery blinked.

Her sneakers were worn down, her legs numb, red from sun and scratched open by the sand. The salamander bites pulsed and ached underneath the bandages.

She turned, eyes following the dark blip offset by too-bright sky, and she knew even before Stefan did.

About the Author

Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing, drawing, practicing overly violent martial arts, and sleeping an inordinate amount. She resides in Amsterdam with two part-time dogs and a full-time cat.

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  1. Wow, tense! I really enjoyed this, even though I had to look up a couple Aussie-isms 😉

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