Short Story: Checking In On Cain

Cain trudged down the road toward the borderpost, a line of dust trailing behind him long and unbroken as his sentence. The sun scowled burns deep into his thinning scalp and the back of his neck. The mark on his forehead itched like fire.

On either side of the gate and guard shack, fences stretched unending into the heat-shimmer at the edge of sight, tall and rusty and ringed at their tops with twists of razor wire. No way through but the one forward.

From a distance, the only remarkable thing about Cain was the desert behind him, a half-day’s walk at least from the closest possible human refuge. He was tall, and dark, and his beard was long and knotted. He wore brandless tennis shoes, a simple linen shirt and trousers, both dusty and sun-stained into colorlessness, and a cheap backpack, the kind any tourist trap might have sold at a thief’s markup.

The lizards and adders and scorpions shrank back as he passed, hiding themselves noiselessly in the brush on either side of the blacktop. They had instinct enough to avoid risking even the appearance of a threat.

The soldier that stepped out of the guard shack didn’t seem to have been graced with the same good sense. He took a swig from a gallon jug of water, and smiled as he lowered it. It wasn’t a pleasant smile. Off to his left, another soldier sat in a sagging lawn chair and glanced at the traveler over the top of a newspaper.

“Papers, friend,” he said, his tone suggesting the offer of camaraderie was a very conditional one. Cain mustered the energy to look up from the road. His confronter was dark and sinewy, in a sand-colored uniform strung with belts and pouches. His eyes were shadowed with unpleasant sallow circles, and he wore a thick mustache, shiny with sweat. He carried an assault rifle on a strap, polished metal suggesting its owners unhealthy fascination with it.

The other soldier, similarly mustached but paunchy where his compatriot was gaunt, took another disintereted look over the top of the paper. His own rifle leaned against the guard shack, its butt end gathering dust.

Cain wiped a hand across his face, but only succeeded in smearing around the dust caked there. “I don’t have any papers.”

The man put on a sympathetic smile that was just short of convincing. “That’s all right, friend. Why don’t you come on through, and we’ll get this sorted out.” He reach around into the booth, and the gate began to roll open with a squeal.

Some unpleasant motive sat swelling in the soldier’s skull. Cain could see it bulging his eyes, practically hear the gears grinding sand. But the other side of the border was where he intended on going, and he could only hope whatever would play out here wouldn’t take too long.

As he crossed over the line, the soldier casually stretched out the barrel of the rifle; it caught in the strap of the backpack.

“Oh, that’s contraband, that’ll have to stay here.”

So that was the angle. Cain looked at him with an expressionlessness born of utter sweat-steeped exhaustion. “It stays with me.” There was no challenge in the tone, just fact, but the soldier’s face twisted into the challenged grimace common to stupid, angry men.

“Look, friend, I’m letting you across with no problems, don’t give me any.”

“It’s mine.” Again, a simple statement of fact, no energy for either petulance or angry defiance.

“You believe this? He really wants some trouble, doesn’t he?” The soldier glanced at his seated partner; if the paunchy soldier had an opinion, it didn’t cross his lips. “Give it over.” He raised his rifle, then seemed to think better of risking damage to his prize. He unhooked the button closure on a squat black leather pouch at his waist, and removed a dark rectangle with a pair of shining prongs at one end.

Cain didn’t try to move away, offered the man no better warning than an exhausted sigh. It was too hot for charity, and if a man born in this land couldn’t even be bothered to notice the mark that still throbbed angry red on his forehead all these ages later, he didn’t deserve any.

The stun gun’s sparking tip struck home, and Cain grunted, twitched, the sweat dancing charged over his skin. He fell to one knee. His backpack slid off into the dust.

The soldier grinned down at him, eyes bright with animal malice. He licked the moisture beaded on the edges of his mustache. “Didn’t like that, did- ”

His taunt trailed off. There was a moment both instantaneous and unbearably long, the desert holding its breath in pause.

The soldier’s eyes widened in horror as he felt the gaze fall on him from above, an attention of infinite weight and inevitability. He might have started to mouth an apology.

The lightning fell from the empty sky with a rolling crack that rattled pebbles down the nearby hillsides, arcing from the blue void to strike home at the perfect center of the top of the soldier’s head. For a mile around, the glaring yellow of the dunes turned briefly blue, too bright to look at. Cain squinted wearily against the glare, shielding his eyes with a hand.

Six more bolts lanced down from the sky in a holy cavalcade, thunder enough, it seemed, to shake the desert apart. Every one found the same spot at the crown of the soldier’s head. His skin lit up from within, his bones glowing fluorescent. The sand beneath his feet ran like water, ran together into a field of black and shining glass. The edges of his mustache sparked alight and burned like fuses.

He gaped, eyes smoking, teeth black in his open mouth. There was a soft tintinnabulation, like a breaking lightbulb, as his boots cracked free of the obsidian pool, and an even softer shudder of final breath as he fell lips-first into the dust.

His seated compatriot stuck his pinkie in an ear with a wince, wriggling it until he was satisfied the hearing wasn’t shot. He glanced skyward for a moment, wrinkling his mustache at the whirl of ozone on the air before turning to the next page of the paper. Cain nodded at him as he hoisted himself from the dirt. The soldier offered only a moment’s raised eyebrow in return.

Cain steadied himself, blinking at the adrenaline that ran hard and sharp through his veins. At least he was a little more awake now. He spat out a metallic mouthful of spit and kicked the stun gun away into the ditch along the roadside.

His pack had done a complete roll through the dust. He gave it a couple of slaps before abandoning the attempt, shouldered it, and stepped through the open gate.

After a few feet, he turned back, went into the guard shack and took the jug of water. A long swig, and then he stuffed it as best he could into the pack. The lizards and adders and scorpions shrank from him just the same on the far side of the border, and he continued on, down the blacktop so cracked and broken it was like cobblestone, in the absolution of his circle of solitude.

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