The ancient air-conditioning unit hiccupped and wheezed, puffing in pitiful futility. There was dust everywhere—clinging to the cracked dashboard, clouding the windshield, and coating both driver and passenger alike. Zara shoved her scarf up further across her nose and squinted at the hazy horizon. It was dusty, like everything else. The road was dusty, the mountains were dusty, even the sky had a sullen and dusty tint. There was dust in her hair, dust in her mouth, and dust under her fingernails. An exceptionally large pothole and Zara was airborne for a fraction of an instant, despite her death grip on the bench beneath her. The jeep rattled in perfect time with her teeth.
It was an odd sort of jeep, really, and had quite a lot of personality to it. It was the kind of vehicle that could be kept together relatively easily, given a little tender and loving care. In the jeep’s case, this came in the form of baling wire and prayers. Zara liked to reimagine inanimate objects as people—the jeep was an ancient, grizzled man clad in tattered clothes and armed with a pair of piercing eyes behind a massive (and rather dusty) beard.
The road had had enough of potholes, and decided to try a few hidden rocks instead. Zara almost hit the windshield. “Have you ever considered installing seatbelts?” She hollered.
Janus turned his head for a slivered second, and she caught the gleam of smile-crinkled eyes between scarf and cap. “And spoil all the fun? There’s a roll of baling wire behind,” he jerked his thumb toward the bed of the jeep, “if it gets too horrible, you can always strap yourself down.”
Zara couldn’t decide whether he was joking or serious.
“But really,” Janus continued, “do you know how much work it would be to install seatbelts? Because once I’d got the benches out, I’d be obliged to fix the floor too. And since if the flooring were up, I might as well repaint the whole interior. And if the interior were being repainted, why not detail the outside as well? Nope, adding belts would be too much trouble.”
He yanked the wheel over without warning, and the jeep dove off the main road. Zara dug her booted toes into the warped flooring and gritted her teeth as the world bounced and danced through the windshield. After a time, it regained a state of moderate balance—from what little of it could be seen through the haze. The road began to drop steeply, and high rocky walls rose up on either side. The canyon wasn’t visible from the main road, yet it grew larger and deeper the further they drove. The air was cooler too, and there was something on the breeze… something she remembered but couldn’t quite name. Water. The air was damp. The deeper they went, the more the air smelt of water and green, growing things. The shapes of scraggly plants traced the walls on either side of the road, and they drew closer together and deeper in hue the further down they drove. Janus reached up with one hand and unwound his scarf, releasing a cloud of dust as he did so. The skin beneath was pale by comparison. After another moment or two, Zara did the same.
The light was playing tricks on the road ahead—it glinted and shone, moving in rippling lines. They bumped over a rickety wood bridge, and Zara stared in stupefied wonder at the trickle of water beneath. It bubbled out of the ground on one side of the road, passed under it, and then ran parallel, growing in strength the further it went. Long ago, it must have run where the road did now—some cataclysmic event had sent it spurting out of the lower rock instead.
“Don’t they have water back at Home?” Janus asked, cocking an amused eyebrow at her bulging eyes that were now fixed solely on the stream.
“Yes… but we don’t have rivers.” Zara whispered in hushed awe.
Janus glanced at the sunken creek bed. “Evidently not.”
“Where does it all go?” She inquired.
“To the lake. Must flow underground on the far side though. The lake never stagnates, and there’s always a slight current.”
“You mean it just… sits there? Just a bunch of water all piled up in the same place?”
“You’ve never seen a lake before?”
“Is it really so bad back at Home, Zara?” He inquired.
“There are stories, old wives’ tales really, about such things as lakes.” She sidestepped.
She turned with wide eyes, wild and haunted. “There is no water, Janus. There has been no water for over a hundred years.”