“Calor! Calor!” Calor’s older brother tackled the giggling boy to the ground, their arms flailing about like birds set free.
“Come back!” Mal cried, unable to resist the contagious fits of laughter from the boy.
“Catch me if you can!” Calor erupted into bright delight, springing from the lush grass and diving into the vibrant pool, shattering its invisible surface in a symphony of splashes.
“You know you have to put on the sunscreen, Calor! You’ll burn if you don’t! You more than anyone!”
Ryder looked down from the blazing sun to gaze further into the wasteland, flicking down his deep, red visor to shield his eyes and skin. The sun out here, since the deterioration of the ozone, had practically become a death ray. A minute too long under that demon, and your skin would redden and peel; a few more and you’d be brutally scarred, and an hour would mean a certain decade off your life.
He flipped open the sand protection on his watch, shielding its cracked display with a gloved hand. Five minutes.
Sighing, Ryder unsheathed the enormous, metal walking stick from his back and strolled from his hiding place and into the dizzying fever. It had no effect on him. Not anymore.
The man was only a few meters away, his figure swimming in the waves of heat.
“You must be Mr. Dicamillo,” Ryder reached out a hand to the old man as a satirical joke, but Mr. Dicamillo held no humor. He waved him away with a feeble and vermillion bare hand, his veins protruding ghauntly like a dying effort to fend off the cancer.
“You must be here to kill me,” he croaked, stumbling forward. “Who sent you, hunter? The rebels?” He came into closer view, until Ryder could glimpse the swirling despair in his eyes. War. Loss. His own people betrayed him, and now he’s left with rags and cancer. Nothing he hadn’t seen before.
“I don’t exactly pay attention, sir, but I do know I’ve been on your tail for nearly a month, and I’d rather not let you get away this time.”
The politician laughed shortly, sounding more like a cough from the sand in his lungs. “You know,” he raised a weak hand, “I thought it was the last pieces of humanity in you that let you spare me the first time, or that maybe it was because you saw my granddaughter with me. Was it some dying innocence–?”
“A miscalculation of my watch. It’s an old thing, really, so it’s my bad.” Ryder shrugged, resting a hand on his walking stick.
The man narrowed his eyes. “Is it the coldness of your heart that keeps you from burning out here?”
Ryder chuckled. “You’re a clever man, Dicamillo. I wish you peace in heaven, truly.”
He scoffed. “This is a forsaken land.”
The hunter nodded in solemn agreement, pointing his walking stick directly between the old man’s eyes, and with a blast and a tumble of his corpse, the man’s pain was relieved.
Then a little girl, who’d stood behind him, opened her mouth to scream.
As soon as Ryder stepped into the tavern, the eyes of every man and woman dove towards their dusty glasses and empty tables. His frightening appearance was recognizable from anywhere in the province, a blessing more than people would think. Dealing with humans was as bothersome as speaking with mice.
“Beer is low; all we’ve got is recycled water,” mumbled the bartender, her careful eyes venturing to meet his. A dead boyfriend. Cancer. Took his life before she could say goodbye.
“Not here for vanities,” Ryder sighed, bored. “I’m meeting my employer. Name’s–”
“Calor?” A familiar voice appeared beside him. Ryder whirled to see Mal, his skin tanned and worn, his eyes a warm lagoon. Mother, the house, the forests where we used to play–
Before he could finish, his brother wrapped him in a deep embrace. A shocking gesture, until his heart felt queasy, weak with sudden contact. He eased Mal’s hands away..
“Are you not happy to see me, Calor?” Mal tilted his head, an odd suspicion replacing his former joy.
“Name’s Ryder, Brother,” he grimaced. You make me vulnerable. “But we can talk later, I’m meeting an employer shortly–”
“The one who sent you after the dang senator?” He guffawed. “That man was executed the moment his plots were revealed!”
“Your name was splayed right across the top of the page. R-Y-D-E-R. I knew it was you, since that was the name you always chose when we played cowboys.”
Ryder pressed his lips into a thin line, gesturing for the bartender to leave. “What do you want, Mal?”
Mal’s odd suspicion had fully formed, his mouth slightly agape. “You didn’t kill him, did you?”
“‘Tis the job.”
“Well now there’s a bounty on the bounty hunter. You gonna take that one, too?”
“I’ll think about it.”
“You know? I remember a time when you were too afraid to squish a spider; you’d take them out in little napkins, by God.”
“Are you wearing that crucifix by accident?” Ryder smiled heartlessly, but Mal didn’t reciprocate. “You’re still searching for her, aren’t you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“How long has it been, Calor?”
“Not my name.”
“Two decades?” Mal paused. “Well, you won’t ask for it, so here you go.” He unclasped the necklace from behind his helmet and reached through Ryder’s hood, who winced again from the touch of his fingers.
“Now you have found her.” He tapped the cross, looking up to the sky. “Somewhere up there.”
Ryder snorted, and Mal whipped back to him. “What is it?”
“You live in the past, brother. Look in front of you, not to the heavens.”
“And I suggest you look in a mirror, considering you can still see people’s struggles in their eyes. Did you see the past in mine?”
Ryder nodded, but Mal only watched. “Where is Calor?” He finally asked.
“I’m Ryder now, brother. And if I am caught, you can sign that name on the execution papers.”
He abruptly turned on his heel, and with a whip of his cloak, was back in that stormy wasteland.
The large-eyed child he’d found was waiting for him by his red rock, watching his every step.
“I’m dropping you off at an orphanage tomorrow,” he said.
“My mother believed in God,” she announced, eyeing his crucifix.
“Hope will only get you hurt.” Ryder crossed his arms, Mal’s words floating through his mind. Are you still looking for her? “Orphanage. Tomorrow. Now get some sleep.”
Ryder stood beside her for a long while, leaning against that sun-blasted rock as the moon passed overhead. Another human to deal with. He could hear Mal’s retort in his ears, and he wished for earplugs to silence him, but they lay in the bag across the child. Have you forgotten your own humanity, Calor?
Calor! That stupid, stupid, name that his mother had given him! So obsessed with God she’d named her children in latin!
He shook his head, clearing away those wretched thoughts. Her spirit was watching, and somewhere in the depths of his heart he knew that. Someday… he’d find her.
He reached over the child for the earplugs, the only way he could even think about sleep, but caught sight of a silver Star of David encircling her porcelain neck. His reflection, perfectly captured in its light, stared up at him with a frightening innocence. Without thinking, he locked onto his eyes.
There were no feelings to discern. Not a single drop of sadness, happiness, nor memory. Pure, untouched… nothing.
Mother gripped his hand, her strength shocking, given the life each breath took from her. She was a strong woman; she’d fight through the cancer.
Her hope in the heavens carried her through every trembling word. “I won’t lose you, Calor. I can’t lose you. And If you lose me, you’ll find me just as soon.” She smiled. “Those deserts; that’s where I’ll be. With or without Him, you’ll find me.”
A single tear escaped Calor’s eye.
The next day, she was gone.
“Wait!” Ryder called from the orphanage’s entryway. The girl trotted back to him, and he took her little hand. “Come with me.”
“Why?” She asked as he led her down the sand-ridden sidewalk and onto the dead grass.
“We’re going to find your grandfather.”
“Yes; we’re going to find him again.” Ryder took in the desert air, unraveling the hood from his neck and draping it over the girl. “Stay protected; the sun burns.”
“And what will protect you?” She laughed, pointing to his neck.
He rubbed his nape, confused. He’d never been burned in his life, not after his mother passed. It’s what Mr. Dicamillo had said, about that coldness that had kept him safe.
But when he pulled back his hand, his fingers were dotted with flecks of peeled skin. Sunburn. “By God,” Calor murmured, and looked to that blazing star.