Nathan woke up hacking. He felt a warm dust flake fall down and attach to the inner parts of his throat, into his lungs. He couldn't see anything but a thick fog of debris that forced his eyes closed. He covered his face and felt a thin layer of the dust coated onto it. It was ash. Ash that was in his lungs, forcing more coughing, and in his eyes, rendering him blind. It even got into his nose. Nathan snorted and sneezed, but it kept held tight inside. He heaved and tried his hardest to force the ash out of his mouth, but with each breath he only let more in.
He put his shirt over his face and wiped his eyes until there was nothing but a stinging sensation. Once he could see, Nathan got up from his bed and hugged the nearest wall. The wall was cold; the ash had missed it. There was a big wide bedroom to choose from, but the ash tracked Nathan down, made sure it got into every part of his body. He picked out globs from his nose as he glided along the wall and out of the room.
The source of the ash, as it was every morning, became apparent once Nathan was out to the rest of the house, which was relatively clear of smoke. His house wasn't burning down, this time. This was just another failure on his dad's end. Another fire that burned all night. Another experiment gone wrong.
Nathan followed the wall until a hand grabbed his shoulder. In a panic he swung his other hand at the object only for it to be caught mid-air. Nathan opened his eyes to Renold, the android roommate who was lucky he didn't have real lungs.
Renold was in his usual ready-for-action outfit, long and tight solid green pants with a white tank top and thin black jacket. He topped this all off with his chef hat, his attire when cooking for the other two. His hand slid down Nathan's shoulder. It was smooth, the texture of a screen, but had the hand color, the hand look. There were no creases along the fingers and hand, except for fake ones where they were supposed to bend, and a thin line which outlined his whole hand and separated the top and the bottom, separating the rest of the shell from a part of his hand designed to experience the sense of touch. Other than that, everything else was flawless. It was too perfect. Nathan was unsettled when he saw these hands on anyone else, but he knew Renold. He was used to Renold.
"Are you alright, Nathaniel?"
"Nathan is already too long, don't bother with the full name crap. You know me-"
"Are you alright, Nathan?"
Nathan paused, "Well... I'm alive. 'Bout as good as it gets. What happened this time?"
"Your father is working on in the garage. Come into the kitchen with me," Renold grabbed Nathan's wrist firmly, pulling him through the hall.
The garage held the project Nathan never got told about. His dad spoke with Renold in code at night and constantly moved things in secret. Nathan only ever saw a few random parts under rags. William didn't answer any questions, and left for days at a time, and always came back panting, but excited, like he was a step closer to...
Nathan never knew. The vague details were of a mission to save the world. The world was dying, and no one would tell Nathan why. He asked a local a few days back as he went off to steal some food from a dumpster or two, and the man replied, "Well, way I seez it. World don't wanna keep treading, and the leash pulls up tight, and chokes it up. The world used 'ta struggle. It don't. Not anymore. The neck is gonna break soon. That's 'da way I seez it."
Everyone seemed to know about it. The natural cycle, some said. The way things just had to be, said some others. Nathan asked for clearer answers, and got a series of 'I don't know's'. It wasn't something everyone knew, but it was something everyone had been told, like a long game of Telephone. Each person heard from another, who heard from another, who heard from another, that the world was going to die.
Nathan had a hard time believing it. No one told him a 'why'. No one gave any recent event in correlation to the world going 'kaput'. There was no evidence, just a long line of 'maybe'. No one knew what they were talking about. That was all Nathan could rationalize when not one person told him the truth.
So, with the given information seeming lackluster, Nathan couldn't grasp why his dad was so hell-bent on his plan. But, he was. William was so intense about it, even Renold wouldn't give Nathan his answers.
"Please," Nathan had pleaded, "Just tell me why I have to wake up in smoke every night."
"Because your father is on the verge of something amazing."
"Then why won't he tell me?"
"I think he wants to surprise you. Maybe inspire you? He cares about what you think of him."
"Bullshit," Nathan protested.
"I think he just doesn't want me to screw it up."
"Thanks... Renold. Big help..."
That night he covered himself with three pairs of blankets just to be safe (or, more accurately, three rags). He woke up to the same amount of dust, and even less breathing room. He didn't even bother going to sleep with blankets anymore, or even pants, just the shirt to cover his face when he needed it. Some days, he thought about sleeping outside, just to escape the heat. Then he would remember...
Outside wasn't any better.
Renold sat Nathan down on the stool of the tall center counter and hugged him from behind, "Are you sure you are okay?"
"What's 'okay' anymore?"
"You're stronger than you think, Nathan. This ash is only making your lungs more capable!"
"That proves you don't know anything about anatomy. I'm pretty sure every day I am closer to death."
Renold closed his arms tighter, gently dragging his fingers along Nathan's arm to keep him calm. It always worked. No one else's touch quiet made Nathan relax like Renold's. He was calm and gentle, knowing how to make Nathan feel protected. After all, he'd been doing it for years.
"I was trying to lighten the mood. I haven't figured that one out yet, I guess."
"Everything takes work and dedication, right?"
Renold moved his arms up, ruffling and playing with Nathan's messy hair, "You know, I wished I had black hair like your father's. Like yours. Back in the day."
Nathan was still scratching blotches of ash out of his nose and ears, and off his skin. He replied, "You old people and your 'Back in the day'."
"You have very nice hair, Nathan."
"Beautiful eyes, too. And, lovely skin."
"'Kay, that's a bit too creepy."
"I apologize. Would you like some food?"
Nathan grabbed his stomach, "Is there anything to eat?"
"I have flour, a touch of butter, and a cup of sugar."
"If you could get me some water, I could make you something to put in your stomach. It won't be very good."
"Nothing ever is," He noted.
Renold got closer, up to Nathan's ears and asked, "Could you get me some water? Please?"
"Does Dad get any?"
"I won't tell if you won't tell. If he wants food, he can eat the ash," Renold winked.
"There's the smile I love!" Renold poked at him.
"Alright, alright, quit it," Nathan laughed, "I'll go get'cha some water. Where's the bucket?"
"By the door, like always. But, Nathan, one more thing."
Renold pointed down, "You might want to put on some pants."
* * *
The water well was hidden across the south side of the property in a makeshift tarp nailed into the dirt, covering the top and making a circle along all sides, save for a small part that could be pulled open to enter. It was used by a few people in the small neighborhood of houses, but many of the nearest homes around were empty, so those who came were farther down the road, free from the smoke inhalation and the loud booming burst of an exploding machine. They were free from the ash.
In fact, the only dust they knew was the dust everyone knew. This kind wasn't ash, just dust. The blowing dust of a lifeless field. The smaller and rounder bits that were even harder to get out of the windows and out of the nose. And, while it wasn't ash, it burned just as bad. The sun baked everything around here, hours on end. Days on end, even.
There was no life here, just buildings, technology, and the well. A well that connected to an underground reserve that filled from an overflow in a dam far away. So far away, Nathan couldn't get there in a day. Not even a week. It wouldn't matter anyways, should he want to go there, that was for normal people. The cities were for the rich boys and the loved boys and the non-boys, not for the boys.
The dust—the only thing in the desert with life of its own— had already gotten into Nathan's eyes the second the door opened. That was Nathan's fault for opening the second a strong wind came. Renold was kind and offered to sweep it up. Nathan hit himself on the head and carried on. He looked at the tent a good block away, surprised after all these gusts and pounds and pounds of dust, that the tent still held on. That was the hidden genius and ingenuity that his father could put into what he built, should he build the right things.
Nathan learned pretty immediately when he moved here that it didn't matter where someone would put their face during the gusts. He started out thinking if he pulled his head down that the dust would miss him, but it followed the line of his skin surreptitiously, moving along with the curves until it could fling itself against his eyes again. Even if the dust did by some miracle miss his eyes, his hair would be ruined and tangled, and his back would be coated in the stuff.
At one point Nathan thought if he pulled his shirt up like he always did with the ash, that the dust wouldn't get in. The thing about dust was that it always got in. If there was a sliver of space, there was no safety.
No, these options wouldn't work. What Nathan figured out was that the best chance someone had was to close their eyes and just walk forward, and hope they knew where they were going. Nathan did just this, closing his eyes and heading in a straight line to the tent, like he had done a thousand times before. It worked, until he tripped over a rock, slamming his face against the ground, giving a whole new meaning to the term 'biting the dust', and making his bucket roll away.
"Dammit!" He cursed, pulling himself up. He wiped away debris from his face, but the sting remained, the burning scrapes along his arm and face that only showed up as a white line remained, and they hurt. Nathan had made himself bleed on accident and thought nothing of it, but if he scrapped a part of his body on the ground he would feel it for days.
After cleaning off his pants and shirt as best he could, Nathan went for his bucket and continued on with open eyes, sighing and muttering, "'Guess no system is perfect."
He rushed into the tent before another big gust came in and dropped the bucket under the red faucet connected to the pump. The perfect circle well that was next to the pump was only for show these days, something to look at as a mark of history. The real secret came out of the pump. Nathan grabbed the handle. It was cold to the touch, completely protected from the winds and the heat of the sun, though not from the dust. There was no such thing as protection from the dust.
Nathan tightened his grip around the handle and began pushing down, and then back up. A smooth system Nathan knew well. He made sure not to rush, just to move to a beat. Moving at a timed rate made the flow steady. It made the trip quick. It was already hard enough to fill one bucket. Nathan timed that it would usually be a good twenty-five pumps before the water would start coming out. It took that much energy and pressure to push it up from a place so far down—a place that really was free from the dust— and it took another twenty more just to get the bucket full.
This was a lot of work, but Nathan didn't mind, as long as he knew what he was doing. The best kind of work, in his mind, was clear and defined maintenance. There was nothing to mess up. Nothing to add nuance to. There was only one main directive. Pumping. Or even just lifting rocks and moving them over somewhere else. Anything that was a pattern. An easy cycle.
Nathan moved his whole body along with the pump, positioning himself to where he leaned down when the handle went down, and back up when it was up. He closed his eyes and let his hands do the work for him. A conversation went into his head. One from a long time ago, after one of the first few times he ever used the pump.
"Pump water? That's his special skill? Give me a break. 'Pain in my ass' is a better skill than that."
"His mind is simple, William, it gives him comfort."
"Simple is right on the money. Simple and stupid. I raised an idiot. He asked me once if stars were portals! And he was twelve!"
"You should have taught him more."
"He should've not been a dumbass. I can't teach a broken tool, and I can't fix him. Not here. If I could control how people act then I wouldn't even be here."
"If you chemically controlled how people behaved, you'd be just like them."
"You'd be the thing you ran from."
"I just want the best for my son!"
"He likes pumping water, he doesn't like dishes. Or laundry, or cleaning, he likes pumping water. Let him do that. I'll do everything else."
"Fine. Just don't complain about any extra work. I'm going to get a drink. I can't deal with this right now."
"I was never the one who complained..."
When the water of the bucket overflowed and sloshed onto the side of Nathan's leg, he stopped. Before grabbing the bucket, he took a moment to look at the pump again. He caressed it, just from one side to the other, and tapped on it a few times before sighing.
"Same time tomorrow?" He laughed.
No matter what the inanimate object thought, it was a 'yes' for Nathan. He picked up the bucket and steadied it in his hands. He watched the ripples in the water until they died down and his smooth reflection was revealed.
Nathan was almost horrified by what he saw. His eyes were sunken and heavily outlined in a darkness, with bags developing under them. He still had ash smudged onto his cheeks, possibly from today, possibly from days before. He hadn't washed himself properly in a while. He did what he could to look presentable, but there wasn't enough time to do more. His skin was usually a noticeable red, with a subtle tan that pushed out past that. Though, Nathan could never tell what was tan or what was dirt anymore. Everything that he used to be was coated in a thin layer of filth. Filth enveloped most of his life. Even his eyes, the most notable and bright part of his face with their grass color, had noticeable strain and dryness to them. There was barely any feature left that resembled a boy, other than the deep black of his hair, showing the only life left on his body.
Nathan brought himself back on task and took the bucket back to his house. Taking off his shirt, he used it to hold a cover on top of the bucket and pushed through the wind to the front door. After getting in, he went to the kitchen and set down the bucket, only to look up and see his father twirling around on the stool.
"What are you doing?" Nathan asked.
"Not running around naked like you, put your shirt on."
"I was just covering the water. You're the one who never got a lid."
William stopped twirling and faced Nathan, "Well, we don't have to worry about that anymore."
William tilted his head to the other side of the counter. Nathan peered over to see five jugs that were even bigger than the bucket, filled to the brim with water. Nathan repeated, "What?"
"I know, right?" William laughed, "Took me like five minutes a couple nights ago. Why bother going out there and using the government-made well, when I can just drill a small one in my garage! Just a little drill that deconstructs into a tube, and then hook it up to a bike. Renold pedaled for maybe a minute tops before we had all that! I wonder why he forgot to tell you... well, either way, give me a day and I'll build something else so good no one will even need to pedal! Who needs the government?"
"I thought I got water?"
"Don't need 'ya anymore," William winked.
Suddenly, something else his father had said flashed into his mind, and repeated several times.
"Pump water? That's his special skill?"
Nathan tried to protest, "But, I was going to get a bucket for Renold to make-"
"Make food?" William interrupted, "Yeah, well a few nights back I also needed the flour... and butter... and sugar. Forgot to tell Renold it was gone, I suppose... needed it to make some more food for my bug traps. Last time I got a rat in there!" He exclaimed, "Their bones are useful as toothpicks, you know. You can just go pick some fruit if you want food."
"The trees are all picked Dad. They haven't given fruit in weeks."
"What? I thought we were in Malara?"
"That was last month, Dad..."
"Hmm. No wonder I am running out of liquor. 'Kay, you can just wait on the food then, right?"
Nathan grabbed his stomach, "I... I guess."
"Good. Maybe on the way I'll run over something," He laughed, "In all seriousness, I will be gone for a little while. Got my finishing touches on my big project, and I have to steal another barrel of whiskey. Shipping day!" He threw his hands in the air, "My favorite day! I want you to stay out of my garage, so I'm locking it. Until I get back, don't mess anything up. I don't want more smoke when I get home."
"Oh, when is the next night?"
Nathan thought about it. Night was something rare around his house, and the last one was a few weeks back. A small moment, a few hours where there was no light. The last night, Nathan played around the neighborhood, feeling how cold the road became, how the season seemed to flip to winter (something Nathan hadn't really experienced since they lived further north). Then he watched the sunrise. It was one of the few acts of nature that maintained its beauty so far into the wastelands where he lived.
The best part, however, was far beyond the sunrise. It was the stars. Nathan longed to see them again.
Nathan snapped out of his head, "I think it's tonight."
William scratched his chin, "Glad I was right, then. Had to double check with someone. Alright, I'll be going then."
"Have fun, I guess..."
William paused, "Clean yourself up. There's plenty of water. Have Renold replace what'cha use."
Nathan held in a sigh, "Alright."
William smiled and got up, ruffling Nathan's hair before going out the front door. A few seconds later, as Nathan sat down, he could hear the car screeching past, barely hanging on. Nathan rested his head on the table.
"Pump water? That's his special skill?"
"His mind is simple, William."
Simple. When Nathan heard 'simple', he heard 'stupid'. When Nathan heard 'simple', he heard 'dumbass'. When Nathan heard 'simple', he heard 'not good enough'. Now Nathan didn't even have his water job. What could be even lower than 'simple'?
Nathan bumped his head over and over on the table, and repeated those lines. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Nathan tried, a few years back, to build a potato clock. William said it was the first functioning thing he had made, and that he had done it when he was nine.
"And then I taught my father how to do it. And then Grandpa. Heck, I showed all of my friends. But I always made sure not to tell them the last step. Can't let those jerks do it all, can I?"
"Would be nice."
'William rolled his eyes, "Wouldn't prepare them for shit. Alright, step one, get two potatoes."
"Step two, don't think like how you would, think like me. Better, basically."
"You're an ass."
"That's how it's done!" He laughed, "Step three, get the LED clock, the battery, those two wires, those two nails and those three clips and lay them out in between the potatoes."
"This seems a little complicated, shouldn't I just learn how to make something easi-"
"Shut up and do as I say!"
Nathan sprawled them out, only for William to take them and organize them.
"Alright, four, you're gonna want to stick your nails into the potatoes. Left potato is negative, right one is positive. Remember that."
"Alright," Nathan did as told before William slapped his hand.
"No! Put 'em straight in, you idiot! Listen to me!"
"You didn't specify-"
'"Five! Put the wires in on the opposite side you put the nails in."
"See these clips?"
"They have to connect to the wires and the clock. Do it."
"But which ones?"
He put on a smile, "Figure it out."
Nathan started stuttering, "B-but you just s-said-"
"Figure it out! You're thirteen! You can do it!"
That day, Nathan spent an hour staring at the wires and how they connected. He made one move to connect a clip to a wire and he got slapped on the hand again, but was still given no directions. He tried another clip and was just about to connect them before William pushed him aside, screeching, "What, do you want to blow up the clock in your face?"
Before Nathan could respond, William went into another ramble about his 'no-good son' and that he 'wasted a good clock'. Nathan watched as William put each piece in without thinking, and the clock immediately turned on. Nathan saw how they were supposed to connect, but didn't know what specific wires had to be in what place. He tried to ask, but every sound he made was met with, "Shut the hell up, you ingrate! Do you understand anything?"
Ever since then, Nathan has failed every task. Not one mechanic piece right. Not one right decision made. It would take him four tries to hand his father a wrench, even after already knowing what a wrench was. Nathan didn't know why he couldn't do anything right. He slammed his head against the table again.
Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.
Suddenly a familiar hand was around the back of his neck. The hand gripped tightly on the upper back and lower neck and started making circles. Nathan sighed and slumped backwards into his seat.
"Are you okay, Nathan?" Renold asked.
"Dad went out."
"Yes, he told me. That wasn't what I asked, you know."
"Well, that's my answer..."
Renold got closer and tightened his circles on a lower spot on the shoulders, asking quietly, "What did he tell you?"
"All about the thing he made so quick that immediately made me worthless."
"Oh..." Renold breathed in and finished the sentence with the breath out, "That stupid bike. I told your father he didn't need to build it. Told him you were happy to do it just fine every day. He told me to pedal away, and said that he was... 'proving a point'? I don't understand your father, but I have to listen to him. You know that."
"You're so much better than him, why do you have to..." Nathan took a second and changed his mind, "Nevermind."
"He is nice to me. Not nice enough to you, it's true, but he tries. He has a lot on his mind these days. It seems like you do too."
"I'm confused. All the time. And angry sometimes. And always stirring around. I just..."
"You know, I've heard this talk so many times, about how children grow. On a television you see it for every show. You feel. All the time. That's how it is, to be the age you are. You feel everything, and at the same time you feel nothing. Your father goes through the same thing."
"On a television? When was this?"
"It's been a while. You were younger. We'll get another one when we get the chance. Either way, it is a part of the way you are. The way you both are."
"So you're saying he hasn't grown up? He's just acting my age?"
"In some ways, yes. He can't help it. It isn't about maturity. It's about upbringing. It's about..."
"See? You're thinking about it. Think about it. Try to feel for him. He likes to be on top, and there's a reason for the way that is."
"I know, you've told me a million times. I... I just can't see it, Renold. I can't grasp it. I don't know what to do."
"Maybe it isn't you to understand? How about this? Close your eyes and relax. Breathe. Let things be a little less heated than they can be. That is a good start to understanding. That is better than nothing."
"Will you help me?" Nathan asked.
"Of course," Renold reassured.
"Then, could you go a little lower?"
"Ha, of course, sir."
"You know you don't need to call me 'sir'."
Renold paused, "Well... there's some things we all can't help doing."
For once, Nathan understood.