The Wasteland Saga: The Road is a River (Excerpt)

Check out Nick Cole’s The Wasteland Saga, a three-part adventure comprised of the novels The Old Man and the Wasteland, The Savage Boy, and The Road is a River. The Wasteland Saga is available for the first time as a single edition on October 15th from Harper Voyager!

Forty years after a devastating thermonuclear Armageddon, mankind has been reduced to salvaging the ruins of a broken world. The Wasteland Saga chronicles the struggle of the Old Man, his granddaughter, and a mysterious boy as they try to survive the savage lands of this new American Dark Age.

With the words of the Old Man’s most prized possession—a copy of Hemingway’s classic The Old Man and the Sea—echoing across the wasteland, they journey into the unknown through three incredible tales of endurance and adventure in a land ravaged by destruction.



The Road is a River



Can you let go?

The Old Man is sick. The Old Man is dying.

His fever is high in him and the days pass long and hot, as though having no end to them. The villagers come one by one, and it seems to all of them that what’s left of the Old Man will not be enough. Though there are no goodbyes, there are words and looks that mean just as much.

Yet she will not let him go.

“No, Grandpa,” she says to him through the long days and even longer nights. “I need you.”

Can you let go?

He has told the villagers as much as he can of Tucson through the ragged flaming trench that is his throat. The security of the Federal Building. The untouched mountain of salvage. The tank. The villagers are going there.

That could be enough. They have Tucson now.

He lies back and feels that swollen, fiery ache within every muscle.

Just rest.

Most of them, most of the villagers have gone on to Tucson and all that he has promised them of a better life waiting there. A new life, in fact.

Can you let go?

The Old Man is sick.

The Old Man is dying.

My wife.

He thinks of her olive skin.

Will I be with her again?


He is glad he thought of her when the wolves were beneath him and his hands were burning as he’d crossed over the abyss. He is glad he still loved her when he needed to remember something other than the burning pain in his fingers.

“No, Grandpa. I need you.”

The Old Man thinks, in the darkest of moments when it seems as if he is crossing from this life to the next, that there are things worse than wolves snapping their jaws beneath you as you pull yourself across an abyss while thinking of your wife.

And he can hear the worst.

What is the worst?

His eyes are closed.

His granddaughter, Emily—she is his best friend he remembers—is crying.

“No, Grandpa. I need you.”

And he is going. Almost gone. Fading.

He hears her sobs. Weeping. Weeping for him.

His failure to live just a little longer.

She needs him just a little longer. “Forever,” she tells him.

The worst is when you imagine the grief of your loved ones after you have gone.

When you are sick in the night, he thinks, you imagine the worst. To hear my granddaughter in grief for me… that is the worst I can imagine.

Can you let go?

‘Not yet,’ he thinks. ‘For her I will stay just a little longer, and maybe I can die later when it won’t matter so much. She still needs me now.’

That is the love of staying when you know you must go.

And the Old Man lives.




What follows are moments.

Individual moments, each one like a picture. A photograph before there was digital. Just before the end. Before the bombs. Snapshots of the hot days that follow.

The Old Man lies in his bed. When his voice returns, he is surprised. He didn’t even know it was missing, he’d been so many days gone to the wasteland. He tells them of Tucson.

He tells them of the tank.

The wolves.

The Horde.

Sergeant Major Preston.

When he is finished, he is so tired that his words merge into a dream of nonsense. When he awakes, he sees stars through the openings in the roof of his shed. He hears the voices of the villagers outside. He feels his granddaughter’s tiny hand holding his old hand, and as he drifts back to sleep he hopes that he will not have that terrible nightmare again. The one in which he is falling and he can hear her.

No, Grandpa. I need you.


It is morning. The cold wind blows across his face as they carry him out from his shed.

Am I dead?

But he can see his granddaughter. She is holding his rucksack, the one from the tower in Tucson, stuffed with the treasures that were once lost and now found.

They are taking me out to bury me.

“The book is for you,” he hears himself mumble across cracked lips. His granddaughter turns to him and smiles.

I love her smile. It is the best smile ever. There is no good thing like it.

Maybe her laugh too.

“I have it with your other things, Grandpa. Right here.” She pats his rucksack proudly.

All the villagers above turn and smile down at him hopefully.

The sky beyond them is gray. It is still monsoon season.

“We’re taking you to Tucson now, Dad,” says his son who has now bent down to adjust the blankets high about the Old Man’s thin neck. “Hang in there, Dad. You’re the last. We’re leaving the village for good.”

Sadness overwhelms the Old Man and then he thinks of his granddaughter and her smile as weapons against the darkness. Against a dragon that is too much for any mere man. He thinks of her perfect, lovely, best ever smile as sleep, fatigue, and a tiredness from so many days in the wasteland overwhelm him.

Her smile will keep the nightmare away.


The red desert, east of Tucson.

We must be near the Y where I found the staked-out bodies. The warning the Horde had left. Please…


He feels her hand.

It is a darkness beyond anything he has ever known.

Like the night I walked after the moon had gone down. The night after the motel.

It is quiet. Thick and heavy. Familiar.

He wakes with a start.

He is back in the office. The office where he found the last words of Sergeant Major Preston. He is lying in his sleeping bag.

I never made it back. I’ve been so sick I’ve stayed here too long.

In the hall outside he hears voices. A bright knife of light cuts the carpet on the floor.

“Dad?” says his son.

“It’s me,” replies the Old Man.

“Are you okay?”

Am I?


“Are you hungry?”

If I am, it means I am well and that I’ll live.


“I’ll get you something to eat. Be back in a few minutes.”

“Thank you.”

And he falls once more into the pit that almost took him and he does not have time to think of her, his granddaughter, or her smile. And so the nightmare comes and he has nothing with which to defend himself.

The snapshots fall together too quickly and soon become a movie.

He sees the blue Arizona sky, wide and seemingly forever, play out across the high windows. For a long time he watches the bright white clouds come and grow across its cornflower blue depths.

He hears an explosion. Dull, far away. It rattles the windows of the building. When he stands up and moves to the window, he sees a far-off column of black smoke rising out over the silent city. For a long time he stands watching the smoky, dark column. He feels unconnected and shaky. Occasionally he sees his fellow villagers moving down a street or exiting from a building. It is too far away to tell who each one is. But they are dressed differently than he has ever known them to dress. Almost new clothing, found here in this treasure trove, not the worn-out and handmade things of their years in the desert.

Time has resumed its normal pace. The sickness and fever fade. But not the nightmare. The nightmare remains, waiting for him.

What will become of us now?

Down the street, he sees a man pushing a grand piano out onto the sidewalk.




Sam Roberts leans his blistered head against the hot steering wheel. Every ounce of him feels sunburned and sickened. He’d torn off the rearview mirror of the dune buggy three days ago. He couldn’t stand seeing what was happening to him.

The dune buggy rests in the thin shade provided by an ancient building, part of some lost desert gas station. Now that he’s running on electric, the gas within the buggy’s small tank is useless, dead weight now that he has escaped. He’d only needed it for speed in the brief run through the gauntlet of crazies lying in wait outside the blasted main entrance of the bunker.

The sun hammers the dry and quiet landscape of hard brown dirt, blistered-faded road, and sun-bleached stone. The yawning blue of the sky reaches away toward the curvature of the earth. There is no wind, no movement, no sound.

Sam Roberts has spent the morning allowing the solar cells to recharge while patching the large rear tire. His sweat pours through the radiation burns on his skin. He feels it on his head where there was once hair. His eyes are closed. Even with the visor down, it is too bright at noon.

‘But I can’t drive in the dark,’ he thinks.

He was born underground.

He has lived his entire life, other than the last three days, underground.

He is dying of severe radiation poisoning.

He is twenty-three years old.

He is a captain in the United States Air Force.

He moves his bleeding fingers to the ignition. The act of grasping the key and simply turning it feels as though it will kill him.

“I was dead the moment I left,” he says to the dry air and the southern nothingness he must find his way through. “I was dead the moment someone turned on that radio station.”

He laughs to himself and begins to cough and that leads to the rusty blood he spits into his glove.

He looks at the charging gauge. The plastic cover is melted. Even the seat vinyl is peeling.

He moves his hand to the switch that will engage the electric motor.

“Well, I’ve got lots of solar. Lots of that…” And he stops himself because he knows he will laugh again.


The Wasteland Saga © Nick Cole, 2013


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