‘What is it?’
She stared at the glass bottle, resting on his cracked palm.
‘It’s your birthday present.’
The girl didn’t react, deciding whether this was another test. He moved his hand closer to her.
She eventually took it and held the bottle up to the brightest part of the ashen sky, peering at the clear liquid within.
‘What’s in it?’
‘It’s called perfume.’
The girl pulled off its plastic lid. ‘Can I drink it?’
‘You don’t drink it.’ The mask hid his smile. ‘Folks used to spray it on their necks or wrists.’
‘To smell good.’
She lifted her visor and stared at him. ‘You said they’d find us if we smell different.’
‘Aint no raiders out here.’ He nodded to the dunes of ash stretching toward the grey horizon. ‘Besides, it’s your birthday, ain’t it? Try some.’
The girl eventually removed a glove and sprayed the perfume on her skin. She unclasped her mask and warily brought her wrist up to her nose.
The smell made her gag. ‘It smells like chemicals. Why would people want to smell like chemicals?’
‘It was supposed to smell like flowers.’
‘Thought you said flowers smelled nice.’
Sometimes he forgot she hadn’t known the old world. He pulled out the lunchbox from his backpack and found the candle they’d discovered in the house by the dried-up lake. The girl watched him light it, and they sang the song he’d taught her. Aside from the anthem he’d sung when he was a boy, it was the only song where he knew all the words. With barely enough people to sing them, the world had little need for songs and anthems anymore. They finished the last note, and the girl remembered to blow out the candle.
‘Did you make a wish?’
‘Well? Did you?’
‘What’s the point? They never come true, anyway.’
‘Sure, they do. Mine always do.’
His mask somehow made the lie easier. The girl had already lost so much; he couldn’t let her lose hope too. He took out another match, their second last, and relit the candle.
‘Try again. This time, close your eyes.’
She eyed the fickle flame before finally closing them.
‘Imagine the looks on the faces of the people around you when your wish comes true. Can you see them?’
‘Good. Now, blow.’
She blew the candle out. Its smoke rose to join the ruinous vapour pooled in the sky above them. A hot wind blew from the west, a continual memory of that direction’s sins.
‘Ready to find the others?’
The girl opened her eyes and nodded, and he turned to pack the lunchbox into his knapsack. He glimpsed the girl smell her wrist again, and this time, her cracked lips curled into the briefest of smiles before disappearing behind her mask again. He was thankful she couldn’t see the glistening of his eyes behind his goggles. Without the girl’s hope, he was lost.
© Matthew S. Wilson, December 2020
This piece was written for December’s Furious Fiction writing challenge, ran by the Australian Writers Centre. where entrants were given 55 hours to write a 500-word story, meeting the following criteria: each story had to include a GIFT of some kind;
the first sentence had to contain only THREE words; The following words had to be used: PALM, MATCH, ROSE.