The next three were a practicality.
I heard an engine, and when I saw it was a working car I could barely believe it. I literally rubbed my eyes like a cartoon character. Who knows where they had found it; the paintwork was scratched all to hell, the trunk was too bent out of shape to close and the axles looked warped – but despite its kind of rolling limp, it was a real working car.
And I wanted it.
I got close enough to see two girls up front and a white guy sat in back. I stepped out onto the shattered freeway and waved at them.
I don’t look much of a threat, especially being as short as I am. They were still wary, though. I guess they’d watched enough post-apocalyptic-dystopia shows to be cautious. The driver stopped but kept the engine running and I could see her looking around, looking for the trap, looking to see if I was alone.
The guy spotted me and started to get right out of the car but the girls knew better than that, they stopped him. I guess some things men just can’t learn.
I waved again, smiled, held my hands out and open. I waited whilst the women shared a short debate. The sweat trickled down my face and I wondered if the car’s air-con still worked.
I really wanted that car.
After a couple minutes the women let the guy out the car whilst they stayed inside. As he got closer I could see sunburn peeling on his face and neck; either he hadn’t been with these ladies long, or all three of them had only recently found the car.
He stopped a few feet away from me and I caught him checking me out. That’s when I knew how easy it would be.
I remember how trusting he looked. Idiot.
We made our introductions. I told him the carefully-edited tale of how I’d been surviving since the quake, how I escaped the wave. He was all smiles, like a younger Mr Rogers. I remember thinking I could have told him the bloody, brutal truth and he would still have welcomed me into that car.
The ladies were way more cautious; whilst he was talking non-stop, telling his whole life story, those women were unhappy even giving up their names. I couldn’t figure how they put up with him, how they hadn’t cut him loose already. I guess they didn’t think like I do.
I waited until we were moving again before reaching over, grabbing his face in my hands and snapping his neck. The passenger looked back, startled to hear him shut up for the first time in his damn life I guess, and I leaned forward and smashed her face into the dash. The driver was screaming, reaching for something under her seat. I yanked her arm so hard it nearly ripped off and her screams changed to shrieks before I snapped her neck, too.
I left them on the side of the road.
The car did have air-conditioning.
The tenth was a total cliché. He was actually hitchhiking. Like literally stood at the side of the rode sticking his thumb out.
I couldn’t resist.
He seemed surprised that I stopped, even more shocked when I let him in and casually asked where he was heading.
He really stank, I remember that, smelled like the kind of guy who hadn’t been big on personal grooming even before the quake knocked out the water supply.
It didn’t take him long to pull a knife on me, and it was all such a trope of the slasher-film-twist-ending that I started laughing as I took the knife off of him and used it on him.
I had to ditch the car after that. All the blood made it hard to see out the windshield and I couldn’t exactly swing by the carwash.
The sun was mercilessly hot and every sweaty step seemed like a lesson in why you should think of the little practicalities before killing someone.
Lucky for me, I didn’t have to walk far before I reached the next town. This one was busier than those I’d passed through before. There was less damage, I guess no surprise this far east, and more signs of people making an effort at repair. The other towns, everyone I’d seen had been in a kind of holding-pattern, just surviving whilst they waited for something to change. For the National Guard to roll in, the government to step up, the power to come back on, whatever. But they were just waiting. In this town someone had taken the lead and was getting things organised.
People stopped to watch me walk in – I remember they were cautious but not hostile. I remember thinking this was a town that hadn’t seen trouble. They weren’t stupid enough to be waving and smiling like the Brady Bunch or whatever, but they weren’t exactly trying to chase me out of town with pitchforks and torches either.
They probably should have been.
We had a real take-me-to-your-leader moment, some of the older white guys stopping me to ask where I was heading, who I was with, you know the type. I asked who was in charge, if I could crash for a few days, offered to help out in exchange for shelter. They took me to their head honcho, a guy who was still wearing his honest to god sheriff’s uniform. I nearly laughed in his face, the earnestness of it all, but I figured this was the kind of place I needed to watch my step. I kept my face serious and my eyes down. Little practicalities.
The townsfolk were friendly in a reserved way, helped me set up camp in a room in a house that was still almost intact, showed me were they bathed, the latrines, the dining hall. I figured they had a food store and a weapons cache too, but I wasn’t stupid enough to ask about them. I helped out, like I’d said, hid my strength, stuck to simple things like cooking, cleaning, carpentry, scavenging deserted stores.
After weeks of total freedom it made my skin itch and my teeth ache to keep smiling, keep behaving. I needed the break, though, needed a place to rest where I didn’t have to watch my back, somewhere I didn’t have to worry about dehydration. I knew if townsfolk started showing up dead suspicion would immediately turn to the newcomer, so I clenched my fists and kept my peace.
The eleventh was different.
I was waiting. Waiting for a scapegoat to show, or a diversion I could use to raid their food supply and hit the road again. Waiting for days whilst the tightness across my shoulders got worse and my fists started to shake when I clenched them, waited whilst I wondered if the waiting was worth it.
He showed up on my seventh day there.
Huge hulking white guy, still rocking a skinhead despite the hassle of keeping that up without running water and easy access to fresh razors, stained wife-beater vest that looked like it was probably stained before everything went to hell. The townsfolk let him in, but they weren’t all happy about it and he wasn’t exactly happy about all of them. They were suspicious of him, didn’t want him to stay long.
He was my scapegoat and my diversion. He didn’t even last a full day before he played his hand.
I was on my way back to my room when I heard them – his voice low, hers high and afraid. I turned a corner and saw them. He was grabbing at her shirt, looming over her, shoved her to the ground.
She picked up a length of piping and came up swinging.
He didn’t expect it and her hit knocked him back, made him loose his balance. She didn’t hesitate, brought the pipe round again at his head. He dropped to all fours this time, then grabbed for her legs. I stepped in behind him and stomped my foot down on his back.
We killed him together.
She trusted me with everything after that.
Later, I took her with me when I left. Didn’t tell her what I’d left behind.
We hit the road with everything we could carry, plus me with everything she didn’t know I’d taken. She used to wake up crying, sometimes screaming, said she had nightmares. She said in every dream she could hear that roaring, that rushing sound as the endless wall of water came flooding in. Said she kept dreaming of her family, what happened to them.
She’d been hiking when it happened, way up in the hills. When the ground started shaking like a monster waking up, she’d been out in the open – just fell to the ground, crouched there whilst trees toppled around her and the ground moved like a living thing and when it was over she stood up without a scratch on her. A miracle, she thought.
Until she heard the roaring. The rushing. The wave. She was high up, way above the town she lived in, and she had the perfect view of that wave crashing in and wiping out everything she’d ever known and loved. For those first fifteen minutes after the quake, before the wake, she’d thought she’d experienced a miracle. She said that was the worst part, the most bitter part – that irony.
She asked me if I had the nightmares, too, and I nodded, stayed silent, tried to look sad.
I didn’t tell her I don’t dream at all.
I still don’t know whether to count her, whether she was my fifteenth. We were taking a shortcut when it happened, the stupidest thing, she stepped on a section of pavement that looked safe but wasn’t. The slab of tarmac shifted under her feet and she fell down and sideways into one of those rips in the ground and the tarmac slammed back down onto her leg.
I left her screaming, too.