I COULD'VE HAD ALL three of them," Adam says, his voice weak and frail but somehow still filled with adrenaline-fueled enthusiasm and excitement. "I didn't need your help. I'd have been perfectly fine if you hadn't come back-"
"Sure you would," I interrupt. "You're full of shit, do you know that?"
"You're the one who's full of shit." He laughs. "You were the one hiding up a ladder!"
"I wasn't hiding-"
He coughs and laughs again, showering his bare chest with speckles of blood. There's no two ways about it, he's on his way out. His breathing is increasingly shallow and uneven. He was already severely weakened by the injuries inflicted by his dad and the subsequent untreated infections, and the brutal beating he took this morning did more than enough damage to push his broken body into total submission. He's covered in bruises and swellings. He's hardly moved in hours, and his condition is continuing to steadily worsen.
It's another swelteringly hot day. The air is dry, and the relentless heat makes the smell of thousands of badly decayed corpses even harder to stomach. The insect population is flourishing. It's hard to take a breath without sucking in a lungful of buzzing little fuckers. We're not heading into town until after dark, so there's nothing to do for the next few hours except try to relax and ready myself for the next fight.
"Need a drink," Adam gasps. I grab a half-empty plastic bottle of water and hold it up to his chapped lips. He tries to swallow, but most of it runs down his chin. He coughs again and winces with sudden pain, but he doesn't complain. Unbelievably, he's still fired up by the rush of battle. Poor bastard's completely oblivious to the fact he'll probably be dead before the morning.
"Next time," he says, every word an effort, "I'm gonna aim straight for the head, know what I'm saying?"
I nod. I don't have the heart to tell him there's not going to be a next time.
"I know," I lie.
"See," he continues, trying to prop himself up on his elbows but immediately dropping back down again, "they'll look at me and think that because my arm and leg are fucked, I'll be a pushover. But they'll be wrong..."
His eyelids flutter closed, and just for a second I think he's gone. I reach out to check his pulse, but he bats me away when I touch his skin and mumbles something unintelligible. He's like an animal, blissfully unaware of his own mortality, convinced he's going to go on and on and on. In a way I can't help but envy his ignorance. He fades into unconsciousness.
"He dead?" a woman asks, her voice uncomfortably loud. I stand up and try to usher her away from Adam, but she stands her ground. Her name's Julia. She's coordinating the group of us heading out, and, from what I've heard from some of the others, she's a hard bitch who doesn't stand for any bullshit. She has a strong Irish lilt to her voice, and I can't help thinking of the IRA and the Troubles when she speaks. It's wrong of me, but who cares. Equality, diversity, and political correctness are all things of the past now, condemned to history by the Hate-the great leveler. All the name-calling, insults, and discriminatory language we used to avoid using have lost their impact now.
"Not yet. He's still hanging on."
She nods, her stern face devoid of any emotion. "There's more food in the van. Make sure you eat before you leave. Don't know when you'll get the chance again."
What with the heat, the flies, and the smell, the last thing I want is more food.
"Poor bastard," I say quietly. "Just look at the state of him."
Now that I've taken a step back from Adam I can see just how bad his condition really is. He has open, weeping wounds all over his body, and his shattered bones haven't been properly looked at since his father first broke them. It makes me feel uneasy; this is a harsh and unforgiving world we're suddenly all living in. This man is going to die before the day is done, but none of his wounds are truly life-threatening. The medicine, the expertise, and the means to save him exist, but they're all out of reach. Julia seems to second-guess what I'm thinking with uncomfortable accuracy.
"Don't bother beating yourself up about it," she says. "There's no point. Face facts, he's useless to anyone like this."
"I know, but-"
"But nothing. We don't have time to waste patching up people like this who aren't going to be able to fight again. It'd take him months to recover, and even then he'll still be next to no good. And who's going to look after him? We don't have the people to spare. Right now there's no such thing as doctors and nurses and surgeons and the like. At the end of the day we're all fighters, and that's all there is to it."
I feel like I should protest, that I should try to say something in defense of my fallen friend and fight in his corner, but I know there's no point. She's right. Christ, it was only this morning that I was thinking about walking out on him anyway.
"A fighter who can't fight," she continues, preaching at me, "is just a corpse. If you want to do something to help him, then find yourself a gun and put a bullet in his head."