Melanie turned nineteen this year. Scott is eighteen. I trace the new streaks of gray in my wife's hair, then I turn to face the road. I tell myself that someone has to stand watch, but then I go to them because I'd rather be a good father than anything else.
Scotty has ticks on his back. They stand out like fattening tumors on his pale skin. I turn him around so he's facing downhill. I hand him my rifle.
"Keep an eye out."
"The safety's off."
I lean close and pull the biting jaws and burrowing mouth-parts away from my son's skin. Thin lines of blood run down his back. He shivers in the mountain air, but he holds himself steady while I tend to him. These days, even the smallest injury or infection is a serious threat. These days there isn't any place for hesitation or embarrassment.
Susan checks and clears Melanie's skin. It takes time. I use the back of my hand to knock the last of the ants from Scotty's legs. He's thin, too thin, but my knuckles are bouncing against solid muscle, too, and it makes me proud. It gives me hope.
We shake out their shirts and pants and coats and they get dressed. Susan asks me to strip and I know I should say something to break the stress, but I can't think of anything that might do the trick. She waits for me to say something. When I don't, she helps me out of my clothes. She delouses me and I delouse her and we dress in the mountain air, old lovers cooled by time and fear.
I'm anxious to get us moving again, but I grind through a long stack of minutes to make sure we're not the next course on the menu. A single gunshot takes me by surprise. The boom of a pistol. We slip behind our chosen boulders and listen and wait, but there aren't any more shots. I hear raised voices but I can't make out the words, then a vehicle approaches on the road. It sounds like a diesel, and then we hear more. I think they have three trucks, in all.
The ambushers load up their plunder and the vehicles head south. I expect them to move quickly away, but they travel at a slow walking speed. At first I think they might be road hunting. Hunting for targets of opportunity. Hunting for us. But then I remember that the dead people had cattle and sheep, and some of the animals must've survived. The ambushers must be taking the beasts with them, probably haltered to the b.u.mpers of their vehicles, fresh meat for the barbecue.
They move onto a plain and I watch them through my binoculars. I guess their number at two dozen. They stop and manage to drag the animals aboard their vehicles, a Brinks armored car and two military five-ton trucks. They pick up speed. I watch until they disappear into the road's mirage. I wait until I'm as sure as I can be, and then we're back to walking, taking our general direction from the freeway, but not walking directly on it. Our course is a series of zigzags as we angle from one area of potential cover and concealment to the next.
I can feel the pressure of Susan and the kids looking at me, but I have no idea what they're thinking. Maybe they're grateful to be walking an easy pace. I'm more paranoid than usual because the goons might've left someone to watch their back trail, but we don't run into anyone good or bad, and my adrenal glands start to calm down. I'm tired and they're tired, but we need to cover a few more miles.
I'm not happy to be walking in the same direction as the ambushers, but there's no choice in it. I pick up the pace. I glance back over my shoulder and their faces show resentment, but they keep up. The kids were angry at me at first, for not letting them walk a straight line down the road, but they don't say anything now. We only have what we have, no more and no less, and we have no choice but to walk our careful rays and obliques, hoping they lead to something better.
We've gone maybe five hundred yards when we see the bodies. They're below us in the road in their large, medium, and small sizes. I don't want to look, but I have to look, because we need to scavenge, too. Susan and Scotty cover me from the trail. Melanie moves to my side as if she's made up her mind to go with me. She's standing stiffly upright and her fists are clenched. Her mother helped her with her hair this morning, and she shakes her head, and her red ponytail writhes against her back. She's never been one to shy away from doing what needs to be done. She looks as if she wants to find survivors and nurse them back to health. She looks as if she needs to find someone alive, to somehow give the gift of life in the midst of all this taking.
"Trust me," I say. "They're worse than dead."
I don't have to pretend that I'm pleading. Her eyes are forest green, darker than her mother's, but flecked with gold. When she feels strongly about something, the flecks are very bright, but I don't look away now. I know it could go either way, my daughter deciding to obey or defy. I've never been good at predicting the outcome of our battles of will. I try to put my arm around her but she sidesteps and squats and I stand like an idiot, looking down at her, wanting to make things better. I stand with her until my silence is too pathetic to bear, then I turn to the task at hand.
I scramble down into the roadcut, my knees bit.c.hing all the while. I tell myself I'm checking for survivors, but I hope I won't find any. I feel naked when I step onto the freeway. Dark smears descend from the crown of the northbound lanes. Blood on shaded asphalt is the color of blackberry jam. I look for the wild woman who screamed her righteous cry into the face of death, but there's no way to pick her out of the motionless crowd. The bodies are fanned out like blown-down timber, dead adults shielding dead children. They've been shot to pieces, nineteen bodies, all present and accounted for. The coats and shoes and socks of the adults are gone. The pockets of their pants are turned inside out. They're traveling light now, without the blessings and nuisances of their corporeal husks.
The monsters have won again, if one can make the assumption that mortal sin will no longer be punished. The east-side drainage ditch is lousy with 5.56 brass. I pick up three of the empties and put them in my pocket. Maybe someday I can present them as evidence. I can't deny that I'm p.issed off enough to kill. If I were in charge of this sector, I'd insert Force Recon teams into these hills so the ambushes would go the other way, and peace would break out due to a general lack of freelancers.
I look down and see sc.r.a.ps of bubble wrap from the airdropped package, but the package itself is gone. There's a group of b.l.o.o.d.y footprints. I follow them. They lead to a big ponderosa pine. A body is stretched out, its head propped against the base of the tree. It's one of the ambushers; I'm sure of it. It's a big b.a.s.t.a.r.d and it has a single, center-mass shotgun wound and two gold coins weighting its eyes. There's another bullet hole in the center of its forehead. The body has a baby face. It's the body of a big kid, and it's smiling.
There isn't a blood trail from the road to the tree, only footprints and spatters of blood. I guess the b.a.s.t.a.r.d got hit on the road and walked under his own power to the tree. The shot between his eyes came later. I remember the final pistol shot we heard, and it could've been this headshot. It's a reasonable assumption and I tuck it away.
The body's hands are knuckle-down at its sides, and there's a pint bottle of whiskey lying atop its open right palm. It's a bottle of Jim Beam. I pick it up. It's three-quarters full. I unscrew the top and take a sip to rinse my mouth. Maybe I'd meant to spit it out, but I don't. I swallow and a small warmth flares around the edges of my soul. It brightens the sky and makes my shadow stronger. I take a bigger drink and it's one good thing in a world of bad ones.
There's an open pack of Marlboros on the dead ambusher's chest. I drag a pack of MRE matches from my pocket and light up. Holy God Almighty and the Angelic Host, it feels good to stand on the road and smoke a b.u.t.t. I get a head-rush and smoke the cigarette down to a stub, then I use my knife to lift the gold coins away from the dead boy's eyes. I use water from my canteen to rinse them and then I wash my knife. The blood leaves dark fans on the road. I pocket the coins and whiskey and smokes, and then I turn to search the bodies of the victims. I try not to look at what's left of their faces. I run my hands into their pockets, feeling the last warmth of their flesh. My hands are thick with coagulating blood, but I force myself to check them all. My anger makes me strong, and I don't want to puke up the whiskey, so I don't.
All I find is a shot-to-pieces folding knife and a b.l.o.o.d.y pack of Beeman's gum. I can't waste any more water, so I walk to the drainage ditch and scrub my hands with cold mud. I find a vine maple and wipe my hands on its leaves. I walk uphill to my family. I don't have any food for them or news of the outside world, but the whiskey is a warm gift inside me, and d.a.m.ned if I'll feel guilty about it.
I get back uphill and I hold up the coins and the smokes. I'm breathing hard. Susan's nose twitches.
I shake my head. I start to feel guilty despite myself, but I'm committed now, so I put on a poker face.
"Give it to me," she says.
I pull the pint bottle from my pocket. She takes it from my hand and I let it go. Her face is hard. She did a stint in rehab two years back, and she's still on the higher path, and she still has zero tolerance. She lifts the bottle. She measures the fill level with addiction-calibrated eyes, then passes the bottle to Melanie.
"We might need this. I'll know if any is missing, and I'll know if it's watered, too."
Melanie says okay. She says, Don't worry, Mom, then she gives me a look of disappointment to add to the other looks of disappointment she's given me over the years.
They're doing the right thing, of course. A group of Marines or soldiers in this situation would pass the bottle around, a lucky find, a small vehicle of escape, but Melanie correctly puts the bottle in the hip pocket of her jeans.
Susan We enter a small clearing. It's very cold. I feel more nude than naked. The sky is a mixing bowl of death, but I think up less unpleasant names for its colors. It's sepia with swirls of russet, and our faces are golden in its light.
Jerry walks us south from the ambush. He seems to be towing us against our will. He rarely looks back at us, and I wonder what would happen if we stopped, Jerry chugging away like a locomotive unhooked from its burden and purpose. The weight of my pack makes my shoulders burn. I bear it. I've borne worse. The underbrush is thin but riddled with poison oak. I point it out to the children. I whisper, "Leaves of three, let it be." They roll their eyes. It's long been their most common response to my words, and I'm glad they can still do it.
We skirt the poison oak as best we can. The trees are gray-green and I remember how I used to love walking beneath California pines at dusk, fl ying at low altitude, hushed and safe, and the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. I try to keep my eyes on the trail, but my neck aches from turning and looking back at Melanie and Scott. Their faces are tight and their eyes have a bulging look. It's very slight, and maybe no one else would notice it, but I do.
I make eye contact with Melanie. She looks away, but then she looks back. I think she's trying to share her horror about our now now, and thereby dilute it. I'm grateful that she's reaching out, and I return her gaze with the full strength and power of motherhood, and just for an instant I'm no longer pretending to be strong.
Scott sees that I'm not watching where I'm going. He says Mom Mom in that serious way of his and he points to a branch in my path. I'm about to walk straight into one of nature's impersonal ambushes. I push it aside with the barrel of my shotgun. I whisper a thank-you, and it's for my son and my daughter and any supreme being within earshot, in gratitude for everything that hasn't been taken from me. I tell myself to be thankful for what I have, even though the molecules of my childhood home are probably circling the globe as fallout, and my own children are on foot in a place where people get shot and robbed, but n.o.body gets buried. in that serious way of his and he points to a branch in my path. I'm about to walk straight into one of nature's impersonal ambushes. I push it aside with the barrel of my shotgun. I whisper a thank-you, and it's for my son and my daughter and any supreme being within earshot, in gratitude for everything that hasn't been taken from me. I tell myself to be thankful for what I have, even though the molecules of my childhood home are probably circling the globe as fallout, and my own children are on foot in a place where people get shot and robbed, but n.o.body gets buried.
But still I try to appreciate the Northern California forest, with its half-serious cover and dry, open places. It's nothing like the land of my upbringing, western Oregon, where Douglas firs reach into the clouds and nurse the devil's own blackness below. The underbrush in Oregon will take your skin off-blackberry patches and sword ferns and tangles of vine maple and stinging nettles and God knows what else, nature's barbed wire.
Here, there's some underbrush and a bit of poison oak, but it's only for decoration. It's as if someone prepared the way for us, and provided places of cover and concealment stretched out before us like stepping stones, and I can't help but think that He He did it, in did it, in His His infinite wisdom, as part of infinite wisdom, as part of His His perfect plan. perfect plan.
We walk for two hours before I decide to say something. I catch up with Jerry. He's walking fast again, but I was a race walker and I can catch him, even though he was a Marine. I pull alongside. I nod back at Melanie and Scott.
"They need a break."
"Don't we all."
He winces as soon as he says it. Maybe he wasn't trying to sound bitter, but it's too late.
"Am I annoying you?"
He stops. He wipes his face on his coat sleeve. I can smell the tobacco on his breath and the alcohol evaporating from his pores. He reaches for my shoulder, but I slip away.
"Okay," he says. "I'm sorry."
I know what liquor does to him. When he's first had a drink, he's the sweetest man on earth. It's as if he wants to share the pleasure he receives from intoxication with all the world, but it's all downhill from there. Either he drinks himself wild, or he stops drinking and grows sullen and resentful. I know the highs and lows of it, because for many years we were a perfect match, drinking-wise.
We move into a field of low boulders and slip out of our packs. Melanie and Scott sit down. They're both in good shape, but they're not sure we're doing the right thing, walking out. They think we might be better off holing up and waiting for the government to save us. But Jerry and I both know better. We've seen enough failed federal disaster responses to know that we're better off walking into a future of our own choosing.
Our children, in their new adulthood, don't know whether they should trust us. They've passed beyond the automatic rebellion of adolescence, but they move with reluctance, each step a dragging doubt. I don't want to make things harder for them, so I fight down my urge to quarrel with Jerry. I keep my back to him. I make a show of taking out MRE crackers and a packet of pasteurized cheese spread.
We chew and wash down the thick, military nourishment with drinks from our canteens. A red-tailed hawk circles above. A breeze gives the pines a steady sigh. A large tree branch cracks and falls to the ground. It hits with the sound of a falling body. We reach for our guns. We stand ready, our canines gleaming, our nostrils fl ared, until we're sure we're not under attack. We put down our guns and sit until the fringes of our sweaty clothes take on a hint of ice glitter, then we resume our march.
The first terrorist bombs were detonated two weeks ago in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, and New York. Back before people became so untrustworthy, we heard news reports on a survivalist's radio. The survivalist's name was Roger Romain. n.o.body thought he was paranoid, under the circumstances. His eyes were blue and sometimes they sparkled. He carried a pistol in plain sight and shifty people came to him for advice about guns and tactics and food storage techniques and improvised explosives, and he must've been in survivalist heaven.
Every morning Roger Romain used his old Underwood manual typewriter to print out what he'd heard on his radio. The government claimed its investigation had uncovered all the answers. Al Qaeda terrorists had manufactured the bombs with enriched uranium from North Korea. The bombs were thermonuclear devices of Pakistani design. They were smuggled into the country in the holds of oil tankers. They were loaded onto trucks and detonated at ground level. All the facts were so quickly and clearly laid out that n.o.body believed them. But we believed the government reports about its overwhelming counterstrikes overseas, because the clouds steadily grew thicker and swollen with death.
The cycle continued. We hit them. They threatened us. One day, Roger Romain nailed this note to a tree: Seattle, Portland, San Francisco? Scratch them off the list. And then people went all to pieces. There were plenty of guns and not enough food, and so here we are. And then people went all to pieces. There were plenty of guns and not enough food, and so here we are.
But just after the cars stopped, I thought that everything would be okay. Jerry would retire, as we'd planned, and we'd take cruises to Alaska and Mexico and the Caribbean, dancing and dining and walking alone to private cabins that held no kids but plenty of time. The sky was clean and sweetly blue before everything circled back around. I couldn't believe anything bad had happened. There weren't any mushroom clouds and the trees were picture-postcard green, but Jerry was adamant.
"Only one thing could've caused this."
"There's only one thing that can make cars break down?"
"All of them? All at once? Yeah, pretty much."
Melanie said she'd watched a show on the History Channel about mega-disasters. She said we could've been hit by a small gamma-ray burst, flying at us from outer s.p.a.ce, but her eyes wouldn't settle on anything when she said it.
"I don't think so," Jerry said. "And listen, what we need to do now is watch the people around us. We need to be ready to defend ourselves when they start going bad."
"You're such such an asshole," Melanie whispered, and I was thinking it, too. Jerry winced, but he didn't respond. We sat without talking, nursing our glares, and I didn't want to believe that people couldn't be trusted. an asshole," Melanie whispered, and I was thinking it, too. Jerry winced, but he didn't respond. We sat without talking, nursing our glares, and I didn't want to believe that people couldn't be trusted.
BY JEFF SOMERS.
The Electric Church The Digital Plague The Eternal Prison The Terminal State