In The Garden of Rust And Salt (GUD Magazine, Issue #6)
Every day, before Evelyn became Queen of the Junkyard, Hir Becken made her put on the heavy leather explorer’s outfit. It consisted of a set of scratched goggles, a thick apron that had nearly buckled her knees the first time she’d put it on, and oversized Kevlar gloves that were so big that she had to tie them around her wrists with rubber bands.
Hir Becken said she was the best employee it had ever had. And at nine, Evelyn had never had a job that made her happier.
“Please, Pops,” she asked, late at night when they were roasting weenies over an oildrum fire. “Can we stay here?”
“We’ll see,” he said, scratching his salt-and-peppered beard. That meant no. She knew that by now.
Evelyn had two duties: the first was fetching the smaller items out of the mazes of rusted metal. She’d follow the faint “bleep” of her RFID chip detector down long corridors of teetering machinery and broken glass, until she finally uncovered a siphoning reblower half-buried underneath a pile of old storage drums.
Hir Becken personally tagged every item that came into his salvage yard, but the trick was finding them again in the tumbles of old fuselages. But Hir Becken – who was neither a “he” nor a “she,” which confused Evelyn – was surprised by Evelyn’s dogged ability to track down any item he put in her chipdec.
“The you works with the goodness,” it said, leaning out from its water tank to stroke the back of her neck affectionately with a moist, suckered hand. The clamminess made her shudder, but she tried to hide it because she liked the kind way Hir Becken spoke.
Evelyn’s second duty was to clear debris off the larger items so that Hir Becken could get at them with the crane. Evelyn tried not to bother Pops, who had a bum leg, but ever since she’d sprained her arm trying to move a weapons locker, Hir Becken would yell at Pops through the speaker.
“The out you should be the getting!” Hir Becken would say, and Evelyn bristled at the way Hir Becken yelled at Pops. “The hiring was the you, not the daughter! Clear the wing – the customers, they have the money now!”
Pops gave a respectful tap on Hir Becken’s water tank, but as soon as it couldn’t see him, he made a face at Evelyn. Evelyn giggled.
Then he’d limp slowly out of the cool shadows of the brick factory and down the gear-strewn pathway, wiping the sweat off of his forehead with a dirty handkerchief. And he’d shove junk off of the vast sweep of ship’s wing, strong as ever, though he’d collapse afterwards.
“I’m sorry, sweetie,” he said, massaging his thigh. “I wish I could do more, but….” And he looked down sadly at his leg, which a mean policeman had crushed years before she was born.
“It’s okay,” she said, kissing him. “You take care of me, I take care of you. That’s the deal, right?”
“Right,” he said, ruffling her hair… And that touch, she did like.
Then Hir Becken would sound the sirens, and it would slither up the bubbling watershaft to the top where the controls of his great crane were. And Evelyn would do a little dance as the claw descended, a huge spiked thing so big it looked like it could grab God Himself by the scruff of the neck, and she’d cover her ears as it slammed into gleaming titanium.
She’d clap with joy as it effortlessly hauled a seventy-ton fuselage up and away, then dropped it in the cargo hold of an even bigger ship a mile away.
She felt small when the crane moved airships – but wonderfully small, like an insect watching titans dance. She felt privileged to see such powerful machinery at work… But that wasn’t the best part.
No, the best part was the exploring.
The junkyard was the first place she could just wander away and never have to worry. Oh, she sweated so much in the beaten leather apron that she brought canisters of water so she wouldn’t pass out on the heated metal… But there were no mean kids with rocks, or dangerous police officers with tasers, or creepy grownups who wanted to touch her.
She and Pops had been travelling as long as she could remember – but wherever they were, Pops wasn’t home much. He was always out trying to get them money at The Tables. So all she ever did was watch the cockroaches crawl until Pops to come home, or wash his clothes as he slept off his drunks, or put dishes in steaming washers at restaurants until her hands were so red and wrinkled that she could barely take the money at the end of the night.
The junkyard, though, was a fine place to be a queen: deep and full of mystery.
Sometimes, she’d ignore the bleeps of her chipdec and just wander. She knew it was wrong, being so neglectful of her duties to Hir Becken, but there were so many things here.
She discovered the inside of an old luxury liner, complete with cushioned seats and fold-up trays, and played stewardess with the food carts.
She discovered a bank of pachinko machines under a heap of broken neon signs, and spent hours watching the tiny balls tumble in a clattering rain down the funnels.
She investigated strange, fungal gardens of lavender and ochre, blossoming in moist caverns underneath the three sheltering wings of a spaceship.
Every time, she found something new: the top of a tank, its reflective armor still gleaming dangerously. An old ferris wheel tipped on its side in a tangle of struts. Ancient port-a-potties, their insides now terrariums of green ivy and buzzing insects.
“Please, Pops,” she begged again after the hardest, bestest day of her life. “Can’t we stay?”
Pops sipped from his flask and looked at her gravely. “Now, sweetie,” he said. “You know that’s not up to me.”
She snorted. “Hir Becken is nice. We play hide and seek.”
She crawled onto his lap, relishing Pop’s comforting scents of old cedar and tobacco. He sat her up straight.
“Evelyn,” he said slowly. “Do you remember what happened on Caroon?”
“Fat… Fat Mike tried to shoot you.” She remembered how big the gun was – and how alarmed she’d been that Fat Mike wanted to kill Pops, because up until then Fat Mike had been the most jovial, friendliest man alive. But Fat Mike’s broad face had contorted with anger, and the only reason he hadn’t shot is that Pops had held Evelyn up by her shoulders and screamed, “My daughter! Please! My daughter!”
“That’s right,” Pops said sadly, taking a long pull on his whiskey. “We’re rats, Evs. Nobody likes us for long. There’s not enough action here for my tastes – but if it was just us, I’d stay here forever. But… that’s not the way it works for us.”
She swallowed back the sadness. He was right, of course; Fat Mike was just one of any number of people who’d seemed perfectly nice, then turned on them without warning. They’d nearly been killed on half a dozen planets.
“I hate the steamships,” she sulked, leaning back into his belly. They weren’t even powered by steam – they were just cheap, and smelled like armpits, and were filled with ugly men who wanted to feel her up. Sometimes they even offered her money – but Pops always shooed them away, saying, “She’s a virgin. She’s worth more to me than that.”
Evelyn didn’t know what a virgin was, but it must have been something very special indeed from the way Pops said it.
Pops pulled her against his worn jacket.
“I hate it, too,” he said. “But it’s the best I can do for now. Some day, we’ll catch a break – and then we’ll travel on sleek dynoships. We’ll eat steak, and have nice stewardesses give us massages, and when we get off the ship we’ll go straight to a home with a dining room and a TV.”
“That sounds nice.”
“Dream of that, honey,” he said. “Dream of that while you sleep.”
She closed her eyes. They both pretended to each other at night; she pretended to go to sleep, and Pops pretended he was going to stay. But, of course, as soon as she faked snoring, he slipped away. She could hear him limping to the door, headed out to meet his friends in the city, where he always came home stinking of smoke.
She heard a bright splash of water as Hir Becken emerged from one of his water pools.
“The you should give the her a shot of the tetanus,” he scolded in his prissy, hissing voice. “Why the you thinks I dress the her in the leather? Because the she likes the cows?”
“Keep it down,” he whispered. “I’m trying to get out.”
“No? That is what the you always does. Get out when the nobody looks. The she is learning the your bad habits, you know.” Evelyn curled tight into a ball. “The she slips off into the junkyard in the work and pretends not to hear the me. The junkyard! Where the she is surrounded by the jagged rust. The tetanus.”
“We’re strong stock. We don’t need shots.”
“The your support is as generous as a Hir brooder.”
Pops’ voice rose in mocking anger. “You know the deal: The her, the me. Don’t think you can the separate the us.”
Evelyn kept still as her father’s bootsteps faded away into nothingness. But then she heard a playful gurgle and bloop of water and smiled; her father was gone.
Evelyn pressed her ear to the stony floor, her whole body quivering with excitement. If she concentrated really hard, she could just make out the slooshing sound as Hir Becken darted through his underground caverns….
“Marco!” she yelled.
There was a torrent of bubbles deep and far away that sounded like “Polo.”
She leapt to her feet, chasing the noise, running through the rooms and listening, listening, listening to see where Hir Becken would emerge next. The brick complex had a hundred waterholes – some under thick iron covers like manholes, others in bubbling pools at the back of closets, all leading back to the hidden maze of water underneath.
She quivered with happiness. There were mysteries in the junkyard, and mysteries under the ground in Hir Becken’s secret cavern-home, where her aquatic friend raced her to its next breath.
By being very quiet she picked up the faintest lap of waves underneath the green ottoman in the lounge. Using all her strength, she pushed it aside – and there was a tiny pool of purest blue. Hir Becken poked its head, a smiling otter.
“The found me you have!”
“You have an escape route in the lounge?”
“I have the one everywhere,” it demurred, pulling its squamous body out of the hole. Hir Becken had told her it was like a frog – it could breathe air. It just preferred not to, which was why it hired humans. “This is why I live the here, near the sea, by the cove. Every day, I scrape another room.”
“I wish I could go underneath,” she said.
“The you would drown,” its assured her, touching her with its chill sucker-fingers. “It is lightless down there. The me would not see the you harmed. I chose the you.”
She wasn’t sure she liked the sound of that.
“It is not like the that,” Hir Becken explained, its whiskers drooping. “You mammals treat the birthing and the raising as the same thing. But the Hir birth huge schools of tiny tads, dropped into the sea. The brooder cannot protect the thousands.”
“Pops protects me.”
Hir Becken rolled its soft body on the floor. “He did not choose the you.”
She hated it when Hir Becken said these things. “He’s kept me safe….”
“No. I choose the you. I give the leather so you do not have the hurt. I pay the wages of two when I only want the one. I will probably pay for the tetanus, too.” It sighed in a spray of sea. “The Pops wastes the money on the cards.”
“That’s not his fault,” she protested. “He gets cheated.”
“You humans treat the family as an obligation,” Hir Becken said, ignoring her, “The Hir know the truth of it: The family is a choice.”
That made no sense to Evelyn; how could you choose not to have a Pops?
“I choose to take the you as family,” it continued. “One day, when I am the dying, I will descend into the caverns and give you the money I have in the my sleep chamber.
“I was the lonely for so very long. I could give the money to the my thousand brothers in the sea… But what do the they have aside from the genetics? Why should the they get the my pool? Not a one of them have made the me laugh. They do not play the polo.”
“So the you will have it all when the me dies – the junkyard, the money. That is what the family is about. The choice.”
Evelyn wasn’t sure what to say to that. She was wary of promises; promises were things that got broken. So instead, she asked:
“Can we play some more?”
“The yesness,” Hir Becken smiled, and darted eagerly into the water. And now when she chased it, she imagined that these were her hallways, her rooms, her tunnels running underneath the earth.
The place seemed too big for one person to own, though. The only thing she’d ever owned before was a doll, but a thuggish, blotchy-faced girl had taken it. Something this huge couldn’t be just given, could it?
“Well, you’re quiet lately,” Pops said later that week, and Evelyn blushed.
She’d always felt a little guilty talking to Hir Becken – it wasn’t right, being friends with someone who disliked your Pops. That was why she’d played alone with Hir Becken. And now…
…she didn’t want to tell Pops.
That confused her – she’d never kept a secret from him before. At first, she was afraid that Pops would laugh and tell her that Hir Becken was just funning her, that no little rat-girl ever got a whole junkyard to themselves, and when he said that part of her future would break and fall to pieces and she’d never be able to put it together again.
But that wasn’t true. She trusted Hir Becken.
So why didn’t she want to tell?
She wandered through the junkyard, grateful for the isolation, trying to think of a reason not to tell Pops. After all, she’d be Queen of the Junkyard, and wield all the power of the thunderous crane, and she’d let Pop stay out all night, every night.
It was strange, having a good thing that felt like a bad secret. Something tugged her mouth shut every time she opened it, and then she became afraid that she might blurt it out, so she said nothing.
She was suffocating under the silence.
“Before Hir Becken dies he’s going to swim down to the caverns underneath and get his money and give me the whole junkyard,” she said, speaking so quickly Pops had to slow her down and have her start again. “And then we’ll live here forever, so we don’t have to go. We can just wait. Wait forever.”
To her relief, Pops didn’t tell her she was being foolish. But he didn’t seem interested in living in the junkyard, either. Instead, he asked her lots of questions about the underground caverns. She was glad to tell him; she had mapped out most of the warrens, and it felt good answering his questions like a grownup.
“So his money is under here?” he asked, rubbing the sole of his boot against the grit of the concrete. “In a box?”
“I don’t know what it’s in,” she said, scratching her arms. “But he said it was there.”
Pops took her by both her shoulders, hugging her tight, filling her with pride. “You did good,” he said. “Real good.”
Two nights later, Hir Becken went out to sea to purchase some food. “I have a special treat for you,” Pops said. “For being such a smart girl.”
She almost burst apart with joy. She only got presents on her birthdays, and only if Pops remembered. She snatched the paper sack out of his hands.
There, nestled in the bag, were a pair of oversized goggles and a small canister.
“What is it?” she asked.
“It’s a facemask,” he said, pushing it over her face. The goggles were too large, the edges hanging out over her temples, the rubber straps yanking cruelly on the back of her hair. “Here, hook this up to the oxygen tank.”
She tried to take them off, but Pops forced her hands away. “Hir Becken can …”
“No. We don’t need Hir Becken. Just… try swimming for a bit.”
He led her over to the pool under the couch and pulled her dress over her head. It was chilly in here, and she shivered miserably.
“Go on,” he said, after he tied a rope belt around her waist. “Get in.”
“Don’t want to.”
“Doesn’t matter,” he said, smacking her on the butt hard enough to sting. “Get a move on.”
Reluctantly, she dangled her feet in the water. It was so cold her chest hitched. The narrow pool was barely as big as her hips; even though just her calves were in, she already felt like a cork in a drain. “Pops, I don’t want to – “
He shoved her in.
“Atta girl,” he said, as she spluttered, her hands scrambling for purchase on the cold concrete. “Now get under.”
She felt the pressure of his hand on her head as salt water filled her mouth. It felt like drowning. Her whole body trembled with panic at the idea of taking in a breath under water, and the big mask leaked so much that when she did finally suck in air, it was like trying to breathe with a showerhead shooting water up her nose. She struggled to the surface.
“Pops!” she said. “I want to – “
“Look,” he said. “I’m too big to go. So learn.” And he pushed her under again.
It was like drowning. Her lungs burned with salt water as the ocean squirted into her eyes, filling up the bottom of the mask; she only had half a breath before it filled up with water. He pushed her down.
“Good,” Pops said once she’d stopped struggling. “Now go to the caverns and get the money.”
“But – “
“He wants you to have it!” Pops assured her, looking so intense that she was afraid of what would happen if she said no. “So what if you get it a little prematurely? It’ll save us, Evelyn. Just go.”
She tried to chart a course to Hir Becken’s sleep-room, but she couldn’t get there from here. There wasn’t enough space to turn herself around, and she couldn’t swim backwards all the way to the cavern. She said as much.
“No worries, love,” he said, hoisting her out of the hole. She took a breath of air, grateful to be out – and then he flipped her over and plunged her back in headfirst before she knew what he was doing.
She flailed, her elbows banging painfully on the jagged rock, her new cuts ablaze with ribbons of salt as she shrieked for air … But she was jammed in, the rocks tight as a girdle, and she couldn’t back out with her feet sticking out the top.
You either breathe or you drown, she thought.
Oddly, that calmed her. All her girlishness seemed to float away as she realized that she had to get air, now, or Pops wouldn’t save her.
Shivering with cold, she clasped the mask to her face. It was already two-thirds filled with water, but her nose was in the air part because she was upside-down. Still, every breath invited more water in.
Her torn-up arms throbbed as she felt the ice slow her heart; no ideas came. She was going to drown.
Stupid girl, she thought. Stupid, stupid girl….
Just before she sucked in that final, fatal breath of water, Evelyn whooped out the bad air through her nose – and the pressure blew the water out of the mask. For a moment, everything was clear… And then the water trickled back in.
That was the trick, though; exhale through your nose. Clear the mask.
Blinded by silt, she felt her way forward. She could feel the water pressing against the hollows of her throat, cold currents tickling her naked back.
If she came up empty-handed, Pops would send her back down.
The cave walls were slick with seaweed, but were still hard enough to bloody her knees. Whenever she kicked, she stubbed her toes against jagged rock. Her head cracked against a stalactite, and when she flinched away her strap caught in the seaweed. The mask tugged free, and for a dreadful moment she flailed in the lightless water before she mashed it against her face, sucking in precious air.
She thought she was going deeper, towards Hir Becken’s sleep-room, but her eyes returned nothing but blackness. Muffled gurgles echoed back at her from the tight walls.
Evelyn tugged herself down the tunnels, slow and clumsy, small currents bumping her into walls. How had Hir Becken raced through these corridors? What was he like down here?
She imagined those suckered fingers touching her shoulder to get her attention, and even in the chill water she felt her cheeks burn with shame. Hir Becken shouldn’t see her like this, crying into her mask.
Eventually, her hand reached out to stir nothing but more water, and she almost yelped with joy. This had to be the cavern. She flipped around, facing the right way, knowing she was halfway back to air.
Now where did he keep the money?
She skimmed the walls like a suckerfish, her hands sinking into gelatine eggs, her fingertips nicked on the edges of clamshells. Her wrists entangled in a small net. All of them were Hir Becken’s treasures, secret and sodden, and she felt like a thief. Were those eggs his children? Was that net his bed?
Her hands pressed against a metal box, encrusted with barnacles.
It had a latch she couldn’t open, but that was good enough – she cradled it in her arms, feeling the weight of it bob in the water. She scissored her legs and slammed into a rock, gouging her head open; she could feel the warm pulse of her own blood drifting against her numbed skin.
She darted back up the hole, eager for air, holding the box ahead of her like a shield. She felt a splash as it grew heavy, and she realized that her arms, now battered senseless, had emerged from the water. Her father plucked the box from her hands and flung it to one side, hauling her out like today’s catch.
She tore off her mask; air had never tasted sweeter.
Pops rubbed her down with a towel, forcing warmth into her limbs, muttering, “My sweet, brave girl. It must have been so bad down there.”
She burst into tears.
Lovingly, he dried her off as best he could, though Evelyn noted with a dim pride that the white towel was blotted red.
“My brave soldier,” he smiled, as if anyone would cry after that kind of ordeal. And though she felt awful, there was a kind of bitter triumph in that awfulness – she did what had to be done. “You saved us, sweetie. We’ll have a home. We’ll never have to leave.”
He picked the box off the floor, and she felt a sting of guilt. “Will the money…”
“It’s enough,” he said, misunderstanding. “For the rest of our lives.”
“But we… we had a home. Hir Becken…”
He shook his head sadly. “Outsiders lie, honey. We’d have worked for years and then… He would have found some other girl. It’s what they do. Come on, we have to go.”
He wrapped her in a thick blanket and led her out of the junkyard, telling her over and over what a hero she was. “You just won me the jackpot,” he promised. “This is enough for two or three good homes.” But all she wanted was the junkyard.
Her legs were cramped painfully by the time they checked into the best hotel in town. Pops pressed handfuls of glistening coins into the hands of the uniformed bellmen, then carried her up to the room like a bride.
“Is this our new home?” she asked as he tucked her in. She was exhausted; cold water and panic had sucked the life out of her.
“No, sweetie,” he said, pushing a pillow under her head. “We’ll stay here until I can get tickets for offworld. When you wake up, we’ll choose a planet.”
She tried to appreciate her new, pretty room, but within moments she was asleep.
When she woke up, the sun was bright and Pop was snoring in the other room, head thrown back, dressed in a crisp new suit with the price tag sticking out from under his sleeve. She could smell the sickly-sweet whiskey smell seeping out from Pops’ pores.
There, on the burnished wood of the dining table, was Hir Becken’s box.
Evelyn froze. Its existence was an accusation, proving that she’d done it; she’d stolen Hir Becken’s money. And now she and Pops were going to live a dream while Hir Becken would lose all his secret passages, and….
…it didn’t seem fair.
She was creeping towards the box.
This is wrong, she told herself, even as her fingers closed around the handle. But it wasn’t Pops’ money – it was Hir Becken’s money, and it wasn’t right that they’d taken it. Pops should see that.
She felt sick. She’d stolen from Hir Becken, and now she was stealing from Pops. Was that what it meant, choosing a family?
By the time she got back to the junkyard, box in hand, her feet were blistered. She’d wandered for hours, afraid to ask for directions lest Pops track her back. He’d be mad, real mad, and after the way he’d shoved her under last night she no longer trusted him.
She buzzed her way into the yard. There was Hir Becken, its whiskers twitching with delight.
“You have the it?” it trilled. “You have the my box?”
“How did the you…”
It cocked his head. “The you asked to do this?”
“No,” she said, and felt angry that Hir Becken would think she’d wanted it. “Pops made me.”
“Ah,” it said, swallowing its embarrassment. She felt a peculiar sense of pride at having outfoxed Hir Becken, even if she had brought back the money. “The I did not think any human could swim down to the there.”
“Pops made me,” she said again, softer, pleading. “I didn’t want to.”
Its eyes were drt with exhaustion. “Then the you are choosing to be with…”
“I’m not choosing to be with anyone,” she said, blushing. “It’s just your box, is all.”
It bowed graciously. “The you chose,” it said, brightening. “The you does not know it yet.”
Together, they opened the box. It was empty.
Evelyn ran her hands along the insides in disbelief, searching foolishly for invisible money. Had Pops put the cash in his pocket? Did she need to go back?
“It is as the I expected,” Hir Becken said sadly, slouching back into the pool.
And with that, she knew. She’d been trying so hard to fool herself, and felt shamed for bringing this stupidity back to Hir Becken.
Pops had a new suit, and a new hotel room, and lots of booze. She’d known, even then. And even though she’d watched him spend tons of money at The Tables, until now she’d always thought there was some limit on how much he could give away.
But now she knew the truth: Pops could lose any amount of money. All it took was a night.
She stared, dully, at the inside of the box, trying to will the cash back to Hir.
“How bad is it?” she asked.
“The I will have to return,” it said, its throat gurgling with a sound she’d never heard before. “The junkyard, back to the bank. The I, back to the sea.”
“Take me – “ She stopped, swallowed, felt the dumbness of the words surging within her. “Take me with you.”
“I would not,” he said, stroking her cheek again. “The sea is for the homeless of my kind. A home is not filled with the dreadful predators, all spiked with teeth and claws. The home is not vast and filled with the enemies who eat me. The home is not sick with death. No, I will return to the sea, and be swallowed up.”
She started to cry.
“But where will I go?”
“The you will choose,” it said. It flipped over backwards, then vanished into the depths with a wriggle of its flippers. She stared into the water.
She could go back to Pops. He probably wasn’t up yet; she could smuggle the box back into the room, and smile big when he woke up, and listen to his endless excuses about how those awful men had cheated him at cards.
She smiled, in practice. It felt like she was carving lines into her cheeks, stiff and painful.
She thought of enduring Pops, hearing him blather about how it all was the fault of all the other men, and how she’d have to agree with him in order to live with him. And when she imagined it, really envisioned that future, she vomited the thin remains of last night’s dinner into the pool.
She stirred the pool, breaking up the strands of vomit, mixing them away until the water ran clear again. And then she went back to the front gates and gathered up her things: the heavy apron, the leather gloves, the scratched goggles.
Evelyn would stay.
Quietly, she made her way into the depths of the junkyard, stumbling along the nail-strewn pathways until the brick factory disappeared behind heaps of metal, searching for a place that would serve as a house
The new owner would be cruel, of course; banks always were. But she knew the junkyard better than anyone, and she was pretty sure she could find enough thrown away stuff for clothing, and boil mushrooms, and hide from anyone who came looking for her.
She was sick of moving. So she would grow old here. The new owners would hunt her down with dogs and heat trackers, of course, but with every day she’d grow better at hiding, and they’d eventually give up and accepted the ghost in their ruins. It would be tough, she knew, but that was the way of things.
She would be Evelyn, Queen of the Junkyard.
She found an old ice cream truck with a rotting seat cushion – good enough for tonight. It dribbled rusted water down her neck, the night’s rain filtered through through the twists of girders above.
She hugged her knees, her cheeks running with tears. This was all the family she had, now; this cold, cold metal.