After straining the rust, he combined their gleanings. His children had become experts at extraction, at syphoning gas and oil from the abandoned and decaying automobiles. Their specialty was in finding smaller machines that others overlooked, lawnmowers, leaf-blowers. Today they found almost five gallons of gas, three of oil. It was good, but what was the current rate?
“I’ll be back.” His voice was husky and raw. Trading was dangerous. And necessary. His children watched him go.
He hoped for a good rate. The last time they were only giving a quart of water for each gallon of fuel.
Heavily laden trailer in tow, he pedaled more strongly than he felt, until sure that he was out of sight of his children. Then he slowed, wavered on the inclines. Finally he allowed himself a rest and a conservative sip of water.
“Drink it all, I’ve got water for you.”
His heart leapt. Thirst and hunger were making him careless.
“Are you with the Water Boss?”
“No. But I have good water and we’ll give you a better deal. 1 to 1.”
He licked his dry cracked lips. “Okay.”
Lumbering behind, he hoped this wasn’t a trap.
Along narrowing trails he labored behind the other man, load jostling. Dismounting, they pushed their bikes. Finally they stopped and waited. Other men arrived, emptying the trailer and carrying the jugs of fuel through the undergrowth. He followed behind, carrying his empty water jugs.
Finally they came to an encampment in a clearing.
“Ever wonder why Water Boss trades for fuel?”
“Nope. I need water. He wants fuel.” He watched as the man poured the fuel into an open metal barrel then lit a match. The barrel flared and was empty.
“I trade for it so that he can’t.”
“You still don’t trust us,” observed the tall man as the water jugs were taken away.
He said nothing.
“We have far more reason to be wary of you.”
“You have children? Yeah, trailering that amount of water. They find the fuel? Do they ever have it stolen from them? It’s a dangerous thing, extraction.”
“What’s it to ya? Gimme my water.”
“Ah, here it is. Fresh. 8 gallons. But that’s heavy. Leave some, come back with your children for the rest.”
“Why are you so interested in my kids?”
“Because here kids don’t have to extract gasoline.”
His youngest was asleep, curled up in a blanket in the corner of the shed while his girl kept watch. Her eyes grew wide at the amount of water on the trailer. It was more containers than he had left with.
“I met a new dealer.”
The two oldest returned just then from extracting. They didn’t have much.
“Dad, we may need to move on. There’s nothing left around here.”
Moving to a new territory was very risky, with everyone competing for the same things; water, food, shelter, and trade fuel.
“Drink up and pack up. We’re heading out.”
“We’re going to the water trader? Isn’t it dangerous?”
“I don’t think so. They didn’t point guns. And they were generous.”
“We barely have anything to trade.”
“It’s okay. You won’t be extracting anymore.”
“What’ll we do?”
“Adam says you can learn to garden.”
“And read. And write.”
His eldest son stopped, a look of apprehension on his face. “Dad, that is dangerous. That’s never been allowed!”
“Not in your lifetime. Yet.”
When they arrived, Adam was pulling on a fresh shirt. They all glimpsed his scarred torso.
“It’s a phoenix”, laughed a young woman. “Welcome. I’m Marlie.”