Raine was in the next town when the accident happened. She pulled over at the roadblock where a man in uniform with a very big gun said, “There’s been an accident at the plant, Mam. Evacuation underway. You can’t pass.”
“Well I’m afraid that won’t do,” said Raine. “I’ve got a wine cooler and a lasagna at home with my name on it.” The soldier smiled, though his visor hid his eyes.
“Mam, an area forty kilometers wide has been contaminated, now if you could make your way back down this road there’s a rendezvous point at the town hall where I’m sure some volunteers will help you out.” The man turned to a truck pulling up behind Raine. She harrumphed, hoisted the trunk open and yanked her shopping bags from the car. She was past fifty, but years of housekeeping and years before that of fetching supplies by foot had been good strength training. She marched over to the barrier and ducked under, bashing the shopping bags on the floor as she did so.
“Damn,” she cursed.
“Hey!” the soldiers shouted. “Come back! It’s not safe!” They chased her up to the barrier before hesitating, reluctant to follow.
“I had eggs in those bags!” she yelled back, marching onwards towards the woods and her home. When she crested the hill, she was met by droves of people carrying bags and children on their backs heading in the direction she had come from. The sky was ash and the light was too low for lunchtime. She set her teeth and continued. Old Smokey the drunk hobbled past, victory in his eyes, his hair singed.
“I told you, Raine!” he cried. “I told you the end was coming!”
“Getaway you stinker,” she cringed and walked on. By the time she got to the village it was empty. Plastic bags danced down the street like tumble weeds and the air smelled of bad eggs. Once home, she filled her house with the aroma of fresh lasagna and cheap wine.
For weeks after she lived on the tins in her cupboards and goods raided from her neighbour’s homes. That suited her just fine. Krippner, next door had eaten enough of her sweet tarts to last a lifetime. It was high time he repaid the debt.
Once, people wearing bright yellow hazard gear wandered through. They panicked when they saw Raine reading on her porch and tried to usher her into their van.
“Getaway with ye! Getaway with ye!” she yelled, smacking them and pulling at their helmets. They left her in peace, scanning the areas with machines that beeped before pocketing dead plants into silver bags.
Months into it, Raine could no longer stomach tinned corn or powdered milk and the water had a metallic taste to it. She took her moped to the river bank, singing Old Lady River as she drove, adding the quiver at the end of the last line, just like her mother would.
‘And Old Lady River she sailed through the land
Giving plenty and more, to those that -’
She burped, laughing as she dismounted.
The river spat as she crouched, feet spread, submerged in the water. Now full of scrap and Semi-Treated faecal matter, the river refused to freeze. Her boots protected her from any stray metal, but it was difficult to see through the black gunk that formed a thick film on the surface of the water. Her eyes strained to glimpse the silver skin amidst the sluggish brown eddies. This was frustrating; she had been well practiced at this in her youth.
Snapping her hands together she yanked it out of the water and held it above her head.
“Aaaarch!” she grinned as she brought him closer to inspect. A good-sized breakfast. The fish was coated in a thick tarry substance that fell off easily. As it slipped from the body Raine saw that it had two heads. Once this would have shocked her, but now the mutation delighted her. Two heads meant more fish. It was not fresh, but it was something.
Triumphant, she deposited the fish in the Tupperware container before making her way through the assortment of trash and mud up the embankment. This was one of her more regular spots and she rarely stumbled. As she crested the roof of a car eaten by rust, she laughed with joy. There, in the distance, against the backdrop of a fiery sky – thunderclouds.
She sang as she cycled, all the way home.
Raine’s hobby developed a year into boredom. The landscape was still desolate, the streets still empty. Once a group of people with cameras had come through and asked Raine some questions, and she had answered them and then they had left and never came back. It wasn’t the people she missed but life in general. Her garden was blackened, the branches in the woods surrounding her home bare. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d heard birdsong and even seeing a cockroach — something living other than her — had become a novelty. This wouldn’t do. She marched into her garage and searched through the piles of memories for her toolbox.
Hacksaw in hand she marched up to Krippner’s car and sawed the wing mirror off. Then she lifted the bonnet, climbed on top of the engine and pushed it towards the car. The metal squeaked until she lay on the frame. She groaned and so did the metal, before it gave way with a bang and slid to the floor with Raine on top. She stood, smiled with satisfaction, hauled the bonnet over her back and dragged it into her garage.
Mice were the easiest. This she’d learned after two weeks of bending and firing metal into small hummingbird type figures that cost her a few layers of skin on her left hand. The mice needed to be rewound, but that was a small problem. She used wires torn from the doors of Krippner’s junker to craft intricate flowers which she wound with fabric from her curtains to create petals. Six months into her new hobby Raine observed her garden of blooming metal plants and scurrying metal mice.
The black film fell from the fish as the water sputtered out of the copper pipe that connected to her rain collector. She’d fashioned it herself, using a pulley of ropes to haul Krippner’s bathtub onto her roof, and then drilling and sealing a hole through her ceiling to collect the water in the kitchen. The fish were always dead and almost always malformed now. How long had it been? Years? She thought this could have once been a salmon but from its sides grew twelve fins. She stopped the flow of water with a rubber cork and hunkered down in the centre of the room. She’d ripped back the lino on the floor to create space for a fire. It was warmer now and she could kindle one without the gas, which was fortunate as she was down to her last bottle of butane and she’d searched every house in a 5k radius. She knew she needed to find more before the cold came. She shivered in anticipation as a spark caught hold amongst the twigs and wool. Five large stones surrounded the fire and having mounted the fish on a thin metal pole, she balanced it on the most angled one, facing the flames.
‘Boff boff,’ she looked up, the faint whirring of mechanical legs coming from between the table and the wall.
‘Boff boff,’ came the noise again. She laughed as she pulled Boff Boff free and settled him on her knee.
‘Boff boff, boff boff! Boff!’ Boff Boff wiggled happily, one ear stuck as the other bowed up and down. Boff Boff turned to the fish. ‘Boff!’ he said. She grinned in agreement.
She was weaker now, her hair completely grey, but she’d retained most of her strength throughout the decades and the skin on her hands was thick from constant scarring. The village was now a thriving metal cornucopia. Raine had turned her hobby into an art form. She’d scavenged recording equipment and imbued her wind-up birds with song. Later she’d enhanced their solar powered descendants with variations of the pop songs she’d enjoyed as a child.
She’d spent an entire year building a team of horses from the cars on her street. There was a yellow one made from the hull of a Fiat, a silver stud shorn from the body of a Merc, the logo plastered between the beast’s eyes. Raine’s favourite was the black one, carved from the flesh of a hearse. There were twelve – one for every month.
In the first few years, she’d amused herself by inhabiting the houses around her with metal monkeys, titanium turtles and iron iguanas before visiting them in turn. It gave her places to go, gossip from each of them. The horses were too big for houses and she’d let them go with a “Yaarrr!” and a slap on their metal backsides.
Now tigers lounged in the pavilion in the shade of abandoned ice cream trucks. The monkeys had taken over the bars and cafes, drinking the bottles dry before refilling them from their metal stomachs.
One day Raine left her home with Boff Boff, who after a few upgrades now resembled a German Shepherd.
“Boff boff,” said Boff Boff. Raine looked down to see what he was so excited about and stopped in her tracks. It was small and green, and utterly more boring than the plants she’d fashioned herself, yet utterly the more interesting for it. She crouched, bringing her face up to it. It had been so long since she had seen one.
“Boff boff?” Boff Boff asked.
“A plant.” Raine murmured. She sniffed and the seedling dipped towards her. It smelled of nothing. Didn’t they use to smell? It was the first of many to come, and over the next few weeks and months the barren wasteland inhabited with metal imitations was swallowed by life. The streets began to resemble those from her childhood as plants returned. Not all of them grew like she remembered, twisted and split in this soil, but they were alive. Insects returned next and they brought the birds who mimicked the songs emanating from the speakers in Raine’s recreations. Before long rabbits ran free down the high street and foxes skulked under cars.
Finally, life had returned.
Raine was old now and her back bent like the branches of the tree that grew in her garden. She had packed a bag with kindling, a handful of the wind-up mice and a few choice tools. She hobbled towards the tree, bending to pick the occasional metal flower from the soil now carpeted with grass, adding them to her bag.
“Boff Boff,” said Boff Boff, as he ran to the figure that sat on the bench beneath the tree. The body she had designed for herself was strong, the casing made from a series of interlocking plates that left no room for punctures. The face was angular and silver, made from stainless steel. She’d foregone any frivolous designs such as hair or clothes. She wouldn’t need them.
She sat in the shade by her metal companion and rested her hand on the coolness of the hand she’d cast from her own. She closed her eyes, listened to the birdsong mixed with ancient pop music. In the distance Audi neighed. From here, she had a clear view of the hills in the distance. Here the streets were verdant but she could see the darkness of the dead land ahead. She rose and unclipped the torso of the figure. It revealed a hollow middle, like armour. She did the same to the thighs, calves, arms and face before she climbed in. The metal folded around her and forced her back into a straighter position. She grunted. It was painful, but she stood and pulled her bag onto her newer, stronger shoulders.
“Boff Boff,” said Boff Boff. Solemnly, she thought. She patted him on the head and they walked through the town together. Her creatures paid no more notice to them than usual and went about their business playing songs and cards and drinking the same bottles of gin over and over. She smiled behind her metal mask. After a time they came to the edge of her territory. In front lay the barren lands.
“Boff boff.” said Boff Boff, trotting into the distance. Raine followed. There were more villages, more scraps of metal, more work to be done.
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