Fiction Friday | 'Afterland' by Lauren Beukes
In a future where most of the men are dead, Cole and her twelve-year-old son Miles are on the run from the most dangerous person she knows … her sister.
Miles is one of the lucky survivors of a global pandemic. But, in a world of women, that also makes him a hot commodity.
The Department of Men wants to lock him away in quarantine, forever, maybe. A sinister cult of neon nuns wants to claim him for its own; the answer to their prayers. And boy traffickers are close on their heels, thanks to Billie, Cole’s ruthless sister, whom Cole thought she left for dead. In a desperate chase across a radically changed America, Cole will do whatever it takes to get Miles to safety.
Because she’s all he’s got.
10. The Last Time They Drove Away from Everything
The doors swish open and they step into the Departures hall. The shops and cafes are all locked up, although it’s those see-through shutters, so you can make out the empty shelves, or mostly empty. There are lots of magazines, but no food apart from a ripped packet of chips spraying orange triangles across the floor. A notice at the cash register with a sad-face emoji reads, ‘Sorry! Hand Sanitizer Sold Out!’
The frozen baggage conveyor belts are curled up on themselves like dead millipedes. What does Sifiso call them back home? Shongololos. Sifiso is from Durban, where they get so many, you have to sweep them out of the house every day, but sometimes they’re only playing dead to get you to leave them alone. Sifiso was from Durban.
The suitcase wheels go frrrrrrrrrrrrrr over the floors, the only sound along with the squeak-squawk-squeak of their sneakers. No announcements, no muzak. It’s weird. Mom is on a mission, pushing ahead through the empty halls, and then, to his relief, he recognises the rising low buzz of noise as voices, human voices, as they follow the signs to Terminal D.
‘Pull up your hoodie, okay?’ Mom warns. ‘I don’t want to attract attention.’
Unhappy campers, Miles thinks. Families nesting down among their suitcases, looking haggard and irritated and bored, backed up against the windows, or in clumps between those blind, dead conveyor belts. All female. Goes without saying, right? He pulls the hoodie down a little lower over his forehead, tucks in his chin.
A line snakes towards a single ticket counter, almost everyone sitting, cross-legged or sprawled out, as if they’ve been waiting a while, apart from one lady in a narrow black skirt and blazer who is standing, making a big point of it, in stockinged feet, high heels tucked on top of her roller bag. Business lady means business. The counter doesn’t have anyone behind it. United. Opens 8 a.m.
‘Boy, it really is the apocalypse,’ Mom says. It’s a joke. He thinks.
A TSA agent with a bright yellow lanyard around her neck spots them looking round and walks over, tapping her flashlight against her leg. ‘Hi there. You all ticket holders? You should take a seat. Get comfy. Security opens up in the morning.’
‘No, we still need to buy tickets. Long haul, international.’
‘Not from here, honey, that’s SFO only. Only place they got agents to process international. Suggest you head on home, get a good night’s sleep in a warm bed, and get yourself over to the airport tomorrow.’
‘Well, that’s annoying,’ Mom says in the bright calm way that says she’s PO-ed as heck. ‘Good thing we left the keys in the car. C’mon, tiger.’
‘Are we going home now?’
‘Not back to the house. We’re going to get a jump on the queues at SFO, camp down there.’
A woman who looks like an anime character with her sharp face and the shock of black roots growing out under her bleached hair, peels off her perch on a giant silver suitcase and trots to catch them. ‘Hey, wait up!’ She’s wearing a red Hawks sweater that’s too big for her, making her look even skinnier. ‘Excuse me, hey, couldn’t help overhearing,’ she touches Mom’s arm, way too super-friendly. ‘You need to buy a ticket? I can help you buy a ticket. Where you trying to get to? I can sort you out.’
Mom sighs. ‘No, it’s all right, thank you.’
‘I know you’re thinking this is some kind of scam, and I’m not saying it’s not going to cost you, but my cousin works for the airlines and—’
‘Hey! Marjorie!’ the TSA security guard calls out. ‘What did I tell you about scalping?’
‘We’re having a conversation here!’ the anime woman yells back, infuriated.
‘I’m giving her directions! Do you mind?’
‘You want me to call the cops?’
‘It’s not illegal! What’s illegal is you oppressing my rights and ability to do free commerce and support myself and my family!’ Then she jolts, like she’s been tasered, and her face crimps in disbelief. ‘Oh shit, for real?’
‘How many times I got to tell you,’ the TSA agent grumbles, starting towards her, but Marjorie has returned to her roost on her suitcase, like she never moved a muscle. #innocentface, Miles thinks and he knows there’s something Bad coming before he even turns round to look. Tramping feet and shouting. His stomach flips.
A squadron of cops in black riot gear with huge guns is running towards them, yelling, ‘Get down! Get the fuck down, now!’
Mom grabs his hand and jerks him to one side to get out of the way. The line up to the ticket counter spasms, but holds its ranks. The lady in the business suit doesn’t even look round. A black family by the window raises their hands like they’re being pulled by strings, and he does the same, halfhearted, uncertain.
But they’re not in the way, Miles realises, him and Mom. The riot police are coming for them.
‘I said down! On the floor! Hands up!’
Which is it, Miles worries, hands or floor? How can you do both at the same time? His stomach feels like it’s being squeezed in a giant fist. He remembers what his cousin Jay said when the family came to visit them in Johannesburg. They shoot black kids in America.
‘It’s okay, just do what they say. Calm. Deep breaths. It’s okay.’ Mom’s hands are up for a high ten. She’s dipping her shoulder to let the duffel bag tip to the floor.
But it’s not okay, is it? It is the exact opposite of okay, and they should have stayed at the house with Dad; they should have stayed with his body, and they should never have remained in America even if Jay was dying, and they never should have come to this airport when they were supposed to be at San Francisco, and they don’t even have a ticket, and he’s rolling around on the floor because his stomach hurts so much, his feet pushing and flexing against the air like a cat padding, because it hurts so much, and someone is shouting, what’s wrong with him? even though his hoodie is still pulled up so you shouldn’t be able to tell he’s a he, and his mom is saying in that cool, clear, calm voice which means she’s really mad and really scared, it’s his stomach, he gets stomach cramps, it’s anxiety, he can’t hear you when he’s in pain, please don’t hurt him, and a cop has her foot on Mom’s back, pressing down, shouting what’s in the bag, and someone else is dumping out the contents, and a woman screams (not Mom), high-pitched, like a horror movie, but mostly people are paralysed, watching, and plastic bottles of medicine are spilling onto the floor and the cop is yelling, what’s this? What is this? and then Miles vomits all over the floor, watery liquid because they didn’t really eat, and Mom says, please let me help him, but it’s okay, he feels better already, and she can’t come to help him anyway because the cop still has her boot between her shoulders and her gun aimed at her head, and one of the other cops is bending down next to him, although her face is hidden behind her visor, a ninja turtle in her body armour, and handing him a wet wipe she got from somewhere (maybe she’s a mom too), helping him up, and saying, It’s all right, you’re going to be all right, you’re safe now. Deep breaths.
And then with a terrible sound in her throat, the woman cop pulls him into an embrace.
- Extract provided by Penguin Random House