The red brick underfoot was the only place they didn’t struggle to keep upright as they trudged through the underpass. It was when they reappeared did the mud, thick as super glue, start to stick to us again. Their shoes, socks and ankles felt heavier than ever as the hours ticked by and the sky above them changed from a bright blue to a ruddy red that resembled the dead roses that were scattered inside the holes of the tracks. The Traveller and the boy admired them briefly, if only to pass the time until they got to the end of the Babbacombe cliff.
“You should pick them,” the Traveller said.
“The roses.” The Traveller said as though it was obvious. He stopped the boy with a hand on his shoulder and leant down to reach through the gaps in the tracks. He returned with a limp flower and presented it like a prize under the boy’s nose. “See?”
“They stink, get them away!” He flicked it out of his face with a dainty hand.
The Traveller sighed. “You need to lighten up.”
“I’m not a kid anymore. I don’t want to look at stupid flowers. I don’t even want to be here-”
“C’mon, it’s not like we can go back, Jake.”
The wind thread itself past them with the unsubtlety of a sledgehammer. It made them lose balance, clutch at one another and stumble together around the edges of the tracks, side-stepping to avoid falling in with the roses.
“Christ!” The boy swore.
“Hey! Watch your language!”
“Really? You’ve been swearing since we ditched that place!”
“Would you hush up?” The Traveller asked. “You’re gonna fucking wake everyone up at this rate! You want that?”
The boy glared. “I want to go back.”
“Tough tits, Jake. We ain’t going back.” The Traveller turned his back on him. His legs were longer and it didn’t take long for him to be further ahead than the boy, who, as appropriate for someone of his character, had decided to remain rooted to the spot.
The Traveller could just about hear the screeching of seagulls in the dark of night by the time he heard the echo of the boy’s footsteps joining him.
“Knew it was you,” he said without looking behind him. “Finished sulking, have ya?”
“Alright then, whatever you say.”
The boy finally caught up to him just as he spotted the glittering crown of the sea in the mass of black that was spread out before them.
“You’re shakin’ like a leaf.” The Traveller said and wrestled the coat from his waist to throw over the boy’s shoulder. “How long did you stand back there?”
“What do you care? You didn’t even look back.” The boy replied. “You…didn’t even stop.”
The Traveller shrugged. “Was cold. If I had I’d be shivering like you, wouldn’t I?” He tapped the side of his head with a finger, barely noticeable in the pitch black. “Luckily, I used my noggin’.”
“Why we out here then?” The boy scoffed.
“Don’t start, Jake.”
“We don’t even know what’s going to happen! You don’t even know what’s going to happen!”
“You’re being dramatic, kid. Always are though aren’t ya? No wonder Rolf didn’t come with-”
The boy interrupted with a sharp kick to the Traveller’s shin that made him howl. Far off in the distance the sound of gunshots went off like fireworks, spraying the world around the two of them with a brutal noise that made the eventual silence sound deafening.
“Gone and done it now, ain’t ya?” The Traveller groaned, rubbing his shin. “Damn it kid, goddamn it.”
“I want to go home.”
“For god’s sake! We ain’t got one! We were fuckin’ suckers to think we did!”
“Rolf was there!”
“Yeah, yeah he was. You heard that gunshot didn’t ya?” The Traveller pointed out in front of him. Again it was lost in the dark. “Probably him right now with his daddy, gunning for us, gunning for you, man.”
“He wouldn’t do that.” The boy insisted, his voice cracking on the last syllable.
“Yeah, sure he wouldn’t. He ain’t the home you’re looking for.”
“Yeah? How would you know?”
“I know, trust me,” he insisted.
“That’s what you always say,” the boy spat, “trust you. Look where it gets us.”
The Traveller didn’t reply. He instead stood up straight and balanced his weight on the tracks below him and strained his ears to listen. Apart from the boy’s heavy breathing, the world had gone silent and the only company he could tell they had were the crickets in the forest around them, watching, listening…
“Too quiet,” he said and grabbed the boy by the shoulder, forcing him onto the dirt path beside the rusted tracks they walked on. “Let’s go.”
“Go where? We’ve got nowhere to go!”
“Babbacombe or whatever. There’s people there, gotta be.”
“It’s a beach! If we just go back, if we go find Rolf and explain…”
“He’ll shoot me in the fuckin’ face Jake.”
“If I explain it it’ll be fine, you didn’t mean to say…”
“No, we ain’t going back. Not riskin’ it. Not again.” He walked faster, breath coming out in shallow white puffs.
“Keep movin’, keep movin’.”
“We’re in the mud, they’ll be able to track us.”
“We’ve been travellin’ since forever, they’ll lose us the moment the get to the underpass.”
“They already went past the underpass.”
“How would you know?”
The boy didn’t answer.
The Traveller stopped. It felt like a bell was ringing in his head and then an ethereal chime, like a harp, silenced his thoughts and left the answer there. Clear as day.
He turned. “The gun shot.”
The boy looked at him and could see the whites of his eyes.
“Why?” He asked.
“Rolf.” The boy said, like it was the simplest thing in the world.