Alone. That’s how she felt when I met her. I think that’s why she asked me to go with her. There were times when I felt I wasn’t there for her enough. Thinking back on it; perhaps it was truer than I thought.
We were in Seattle. After the U.S. decided to bomb their own country there weren’t many of us left. Fortunately – or maybe unfortunately, I’m still not sure – they didn’t use nukes, so those of us left were able to get out of our basements when it was all over.
I almost wish I hadn’t when I first looked outside. The amount of damage done was pretty clear. The rest of my house had been blown off and all that remained was the wood above my basement and patches of carpeting. They’d done such a good job dropping their bombs you could see from one end of the city to the other just from your house.
I’m getting distracted though, so let me get back on point. I was scavenging for some leftover food in an old fast food joint when I heard something rattle in the back. I was more surprised than frightened. The trash cans had been picked clean months ago, so if you were searching in one you had to either be desperate or stupid.
I’d found a gun off some poor guy’s body awhile back and had been using it for protection. So far I’ve only had to use it once; it scares people more than it kills them I’m happy to say.
I prepared to use it – to scare – if need be so I put it in my hands and went out to the alley. I peered over the remaining wall and saw a shape rummaging through the cans, nearly half way in. There was an upright door nearby – amazing right? I took a deep breath before kicking it down for maximum “shock” effect.
There was a scream as she fell over and crashed into the cans beside her. I looked around us, making sure nothing in range heard the noise. As far as I could tell there wasn’t anything there and nothin’ ever came.
“He- hello?” I asked. I always tried to be polite if I could, it helped stop most fights before they started. You might be wondering then why I tried to scare her. Well let’s just say the ones I need to kill don’t scream.
The form squirmed a bit, trying to push itself out. I took one hand off my gun and pulled the can out. It slid out easily and there she was, fussed up red hair and all. She stared at me for a moment, completely still.
I stared back, almost in disbelief. It had been a long time since I’d seen another human. Let alone one who wasn’t trying to kill me.
After a moment I shook myself out of it. I wasn’t sure what she was going to do next so I slowly backed away from the trash can and moved to the side so I’d have a better angle to run if I had to.
“Are… Are you gonna kill me?” Her voice was soft. I hadn’t heard anything like it in months? Or maybe years? I can’t remember any more.
“No,” I said. “Why are you looking in the trash? There hasn’t been anything in there for a long time.”
She slowly got to her feet. I watched her carefully in case she tried anything. “Well then why are you here?”
I motioned back to the remaining McDonald’s. “I was looking for food.”
She gave me a strange look. People usually stay away from the buildings because of the weak floors. One wrong step and you’re trapped in a basement with one of them and no way out.
“Yes, I was that hungry.”
“Well so am I.” She countered.
I wasn’t sure why at the time, but I slipped my backpack off and opened up the first zipper. Inside I had a few granola bars that I was tired of eating. I threw one to her. She didn’t catch it.
“It’s alright you can have it. I can’t taste them anymore.”
She looked at my gun. I forgot I was still holding it. I laughed shyly and tucked it away in my belt.
Finally she picked it up, unwrapping it carefully. I tried to think of something to say to her. It had been so long since I had a real conversation I’d forgotten where to start. So I just stood there, watching her eat like an animal.
“Thank you.” She said, crunching up the plastic. Turning to her side, she threw it in the last upright trashcan. I chuckled to myself. She smiled with me. It was nice to see someone smile again.
“Where are you headed?”
I thought about my answer for a moment and realized I didn’t have one. Long term planning had never really been my thing. “Nowhere. I don’t have anywhere to go.”
She almost looked disappointed. I felt guilty that I didn’t have a proper answer. “Do you know of somewhere to go?”
She looked away for a moment. Maybe she was embarrassed? I never asked.
“Ever heard of West Falls?” She asked with hope in her voice.
I searched my brain; it’d been awhile since I thought of anything other than food. “No. What is it?”
“It’s where I grew up. It’s where my family is…” She trailed off, unfocused.
For a bit I said nothing. We just sat there, thankful to be in another’s company that wasn’t trying to kill us. I thought about what she said. I’d just been going from place to place – as long as it had food of course – and nothing more. I thought a set destination might be good for me, a goal to keep me focused. So I shrugged and said, “Do you know how to get there?” I asked, trying not to get her hopes up too much.
“You’d take me there?”
It was a strange question; one I didn’t expect for some reason. I tried to respond but my tongue got tied out of nowhere and I felt my face burn. She smiled again; I liked it when she did that.
“Do you wanna go there?” She asked to break the silence.
There was another question I didn’t know how to answer. I must have nodded or something. I’m a bit fuzzy on that one. Next thing I knew we were searching for a car.
She was walking backwards so she could face me while explaining our odds of finding a car. “I’m sure we can find one. Most people stopped using the cars because of the debris. I bet there’s fuel around here somewhere…”
As she looked on I started wondering exactly what the hell I had just gotten myself into. I’d just agreed to go on an impossible road trip with a girl I just met and knew nothing about. I mean, I had the gun in case anything went wrong, but seriously, I had no idea what I was thinking.
“Come on, we should get moving. It’s a bad idea to stay in one place too long.” I picked up my backpack and stepped past her. I didn’t hear footsteps behind me. There was a part of me then that wanted her to go the other way. I guess I was scared.
After a second though she must have realized where I was and caught up to me.
She came up beside me saying, “I think there’s a gas station a few blocks from here. There should be a car or two we could hot wire if we need to.” Not many people bothered to take their keys as they were dragged out of their windows.
It was quiet as we walked to the gas station. Sitting at the pumps were a nice selection of vehicles. I quickly secured the area before we started though and by that I mean looking once in every direction. It’s easy to secure buildings when their walls had caved in.
“Take your pick.” I said motioning to the cars. “What color do you like best?”
She studied the cars for a moment, her eyes flickering from vehicle to vehicle. “I like red.” She said, biting the top of her lip in excitement.
There was a red one sitting across the lot. I peered at it, thinking that such a bright color might attract attention to us. It was only seconds later I realized that it would be the sound of the car that would attract the attention, and that the color made little difference.
“Let’s do it!” I ran to the car and checked inside; nothing but the keys. I grinned, getting slightly jumpy with excitement. It would be amazing to sit for a while. I beckoned her over and together we got in. I turned the keys hard, waiting for purring of the engine to begin. It took two tries, but I got it. Soon enough we were off.
Now I’m gonna skip ahead here a bit. Not a whole lot happened for the first few days of travel. We introduced ourselves, talked a bit and so on. Some highlights include learning her favorite band was The Beatles, though apparently she loved to dance to anything with a beat. I told her that I loved to make up stories or tell jokes to make people laugh. That in turn, made her laugh. It wasn’t supposed to – but hey – whatever works right?
We got our food and fuel each time we needed it. We ran into little resistance as we went, not many people wanted to be bothered. They preferred to stay in their little hole in the world and I was perfectly happy letting them stay there.
Of course, I had no idea where West Falls was, I just had what she remembered from family vacations. All I knew for certain was that West Falls was somewhere farther into the east coast…
Frankly I don’t know why it was named West Falls either.
It was about a week into our trip we ran into our first signs of trouble. We’d stopped at a gas station to siphon fuel out of the remaining cars. I don’t know what it was, I think I saw a shadow, or the building looked too clean. Either way I was sure we weren’t alone.
“Get back in the car and keep your head down.” I told her. Thankfully we parked right near the first pump. I pulled out my gun and carefully started walking around. I didn’t see anyone, but I wasn’t satisfied. I crept near the remains of the mini-mart when I saw what resembled a wooden trap door.
I took another step closer and heard someone load a shotgun. I stopped dead in my tracks.
“Turn around… slowly.” The voice was a man’s.
I obeyed, asking myself why he didn’t make me put down my gun first. I thought about shooting him and running for the car. By the time this thought had completed I’d already been facing him. I really need to learn to think faster.
“Hey look,” said another voice – also a man’s. “I found his friend, hiding in the front of the car.”
I cringed. Perfect. That’s all I needed. If I had a chance in hell of hitting him on the first try and not being shot by his brother I would have gone for it.
She stared at me terrified, pleading with me silently to do something.
“What do you want?” The first man said.
“We-” I cleared my throat. “We were looking for fuel, that’s all.”
“There isn’t any fuel left here.”
“Ok, then we’ll just leave,” I prayed that they would just make us leave. We had enough fuel to make it somewhere else.
“I’m not sure if we can do that.”
Not sure? Who says that? Of course this got me worried that there was someone worse I’d have to talk to. I still had my gun though. So I decided to be brave and take the chance to escape if I could.
“What do you mean?”
“You know where we are. Who says you’re not a scouting party?” said the man with the gun at my head.
What? Scouting party? Look, I get being paranoid, but this is above and beyond the call of duty here.
“Scouting party? You guys are nuts! She was hiding!”
“That means nothing.”
“Look,” I said, taking a deep breath. “You guys obviously answer to somebody. Bring them out there and let me talk to them. I’ll explain everything.” My mouth moved faster than my brain in this case.
They paused. I took the chance to continue.
“I assume the only reason you haven’t killed us yet because there’s someone that needs to make that decision for you, yes?” Please be yes.
A grunt. I took this as a yes.
“Then let them make it, please.”
My friend with the shotgun turned to his brother, “Fine. Go get the boss. She’ll decide what to do with them.”
He nodded and shoved the girl next to me so the shotgun could keep an eye on both of us.
Moments later the brother came out, holding the arm of an old woman. It all made sense now. They were just protecting the woman. In a world like this I couldn’t blame them – though the whole shotgun thing was a bit much.
The old lady came over and stared at us long and hard. I swallowed, the suspense was nearly enough to kill me on its own.
Finally, the woman smiled. “Oh you two! Look at them!” She chuckled. “I’m sorry about these two. They’re a bit overprotective sometimes.” She patted the shoulder of the one closest to her.
I nearly smiled.
“It’s fuel you want, eh?”
I cleared my throat again and nodded.
She leaned on her cane, thinking again.
She waved her hand in the air. “Go on, take some. It’s not like we’re going anywhere.”
One of the brothers moved in protest, “We need the fuel to trade. How else are you going to eat?”
“Oh don’t worry. I doubt a tank of gas for one car will do us in for good.” She turned to us, “Please, take what you need.”
I was more than happy to oblige, but I just couldn’t keep my mouth shut. “Do you know anything about West Falls?” I asked.
They looked at me like was I insane. I guess to them I was. I’m not all that surprised. “It’s up north, past New York. It’s rough there though. I’d be careful.” The old lady said.
“Thank you.” I said backing away slowly. I didn’t want to make any sudden movements and set off another confrontation. I felt a hand grab mine as I turned around and saw a relieved look as we quickly walked back to the car.
“Are you ok?” I asked before we reached the doors.
She nodded as we got in.
I pulled out and headed down the road. It was silent for a little bit before she took a deep breath and asked me, “If you had to, would you have killed them?”
I considered this for a moment. On the one hand, I didn’t want her to think I was crazy. On the other, I wanted her to know I could protect her.
“Maybe…” I replied, giving a sly look out of the corner of my eye.
She punched me in the arm and the car swerved for a moment. She started to giggle as I got us back on track. I gave her a smile and told her that of course I would have saved her, even if I had to kill those men.
There was silence again and I feared that I did actually turn out to sound like a psychopath. She looked out the window, staring into the desert remains of the highway system.
I called her name, trying to get a response out of her. Finally I looked over and saw that she had a big wide grin plastered on her face. Figures.
“Oh God damn it!” I yelled, “Way to scare the crap out of a guy.” And there she went laughing again. I gave her the nastiest look I could. People…
For no other reason than to give it a shot I reached over and flipped on the radio. To my surprise there was a voice on the other end. He called himself Corn Dog (speaking of people these days) and claimed that he made it his mission to bring the music to the people. He said that if anyone was lucky enough to have a working phone, to contact him and he’d play your request, but until then all you got was his favorite music.
“I wonder if he likes the Beatles.” She mused.
Our next important stop was at a partially leveled department store. As we saw it approaching we both thought that we could do with a change of outfit. Finding places to wash our clothes was tough, plus wearing “new” (I say that with quotes because anything surviving a bombing is not new) would keep things fresh.
I pulled in and took the keys out of the ignition. I checked my belt for my gun, which was still there thankfully. I hadn’t had to use it in awhile, but I always kept it near for safe measure.
We got out and headed inside. The place was covered in debris from the upper levels getting sliced off, but there seemed to be at least three floors remaining. For some reason I almost suggested we split up and meet back at the entrance when we’re done. Saying it in my head sounded nearly as stupid as it would have coming out of my mouth.
“You want to go first?” I asked instead.
She looked around the place. “Sure! There’s probably something I can work with here.”
And off we went! Despite not having been in a mall or store of any kind in months, she looked like nothing had changed. She was more excited than I’d seen her in some time. It was nice to see.
She dragged me from aisle to aisle trying on different clothes, comparing the colors, or style, – or something. To be honest it was all a bit of a blur. Lots of colors, and stuff. Anyways, after a while it was finally my turn. I grabbed whatever I could carry and left for the checkout area so we could get some bags.
I set everything down atop the counter and went behind there for some of those giant plastic bags they always give you. Down there though was the dead body of a clerk. He’d been there for quite some time, he reeked of rotten flesh. Awesome. Either way I moved him over to see if he anything worth taking on him. I silently prayed to myself that the smell wouldn’t stick.
I pulled out the man’s cell phone. I beamed in excitement. I hadn’t even checked if it worked yet and I was thrilled. I tried turning it on once, but nothing happened that time. So I opened up the back panel and found that the battery was loose. I popped it back in and the thing booted right up.
“What’s that awful smell?”
I heard footsteps approaching. I quickly shut the phone off and stashed it in my pocket. I grabbed some of the bags and stood back up.
“Dead guy. Must have been one of the not-so-lucky ones.”
Her face scrunched up at the smell. “You got the bags?”
I held them up and we started packing. It was a short trip, but completely worth it. The new clothes were definitely going to prove useful, even if they needed to be heavily washed first. And I got a working phone.
“Say, what’s your favorite Beatles song?”
We moved on towards New York. It wasn’t our first choice, or even our second, but we needed supplies and there was a better chance a major city would have some. Once there I also hoped we would find some clear direction towards West Falls. As we neared the city I recalled what the old woman said to me. The city was rough.
I thought about detouring to find some more weapons, but we were only two people and one of us had never shot a gun before.
It was getting pretty dark out so I pulled over so we could make camp for the night. She wanted to change clothes so I took a walk far enough away that I could reach her if need be.
I used this as my chance to use the phone. I dialed the number for Corn Dog and waited patiently, hoping she wouldn’t finish quickly.
“This is Corn Dog! Congratulations whoever you are on finding a working phone.” His voice was hollering as loud as he could. I imagined it had been some time since he’d talked to another human.
“Thanks. I’d like to request a song.”
“Sure thing dude, when would you like it played?”
“What’s open tonight?”
“You’re in luck! We got one slot open for tonight!” I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic or not.
“Nah man. Are you kidding? We’re lucky to get anyone to call at all. I’ll do it whenever you’d like.” Corn Dog chuckled over the phone. His enthusiasm made me smile.
“Alright, how’s… twenty minutes from now?”
“I can do that. What song would you like?”
I walked back over to the car where I found her leaning against the side of it, her bare feet wading in the grass. The night was cool. At the moment there was hardly a reason for a fire, but as the night went on I knew it would get colder.
Using a lighter we found awhile back I lit up the wood. The flames burned brightly against the darkening sky. I stood up, staring out at the field. It was peaceful and quiet. It was sort of calming, in a way. I considered this to be a good night.
I moved over to the car and switched the radio on to Corn Dog’s station. In a few minutes he’d be putting on the song I’d requested.
I sat down against the car and looked beside me. She was there, calm, entranced by the flames.
“Hey,” I nudged her. “You doin’ ok?”
She turned to me and smiled. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just a little worried about New York.”
“You thinking about what the old woman said?”
I shrugged, attempting to give off an air of confidence. “I’m sure we’ll be fine. We’ll just pass through as we always do.” I’m not totally sure it worked, even for me.
She simply nodded and went back to staring at the flames. The most recent song on the radio had come to an end. Corn Dog’s voice blasted through the speakers, “And here we are with a special request for a very special lady! Give it up for the Beatles!” He ended with a loud howl as the song faded in. I chuckled despite myself.
Strawberry Fields Forever began playing. For a moment I didn’t think she’d noticed. Turned out she was just shocked it was on. She looked at me, grinning ear to ear.
“I happened to find a phone awhile back.” I smiled, embarrassed for some reason. My face felt like it was on fire. I felt like such a fool, instantly regretting everything I’d just done. Such is how my mind works.
Thankfully it worked. She loved it. She kissed me and didn’t stop smiling the whole night.
I considered this a good night.
The next morning we were on our way into New York. The city was guarded, but we were able to get in with the warnings that we don’t do anything to disturb the peace.
Once inside we were treated to a moving picture of how bad things really were. We’d spent so much of our time before this trip alone that we had hardly realized that it was so much worse for groups. People were dressed in ripped clothing, patched beyond reason, they were filthy and gaunt. I do my best not to remember it.
We pressed on though, determined to make it through unscathed. It would take us a few hours, but the lack of traffic would more than likely speed things along. The irony did not escape me.
As I made a turn into the tunnel we were encased in darkness. I switched on the headlights to see walking forms in front of us. Each held a rifle and was doing their best to be intimidating. I can tell you it was working.
“Out of the car!” the closest one yelled.
She gave me a look as we exited the car. It couldn’t have gone smoothly could it? Instinct made me check on the pistol attached to my belt. But what good would that do against five guys with rifles? Hell, even trying to ram them with the car wouldn’t have worked.
“We’re just passing through.” I said, hoping to talk our way out of this. “The sheriff at the gates let us through. We don’t want any trouble.”
One of them laughed, “The sheriff’s not in charge down here.”
I sighed, “Take whatever items you want, just let us through.” I just prayed we had enough to satisfy them.
“I don’t know…” another said as he approached her. “This one’s kinda cute, what do you guys think?”
There were murmurs of agreement.
“Get your hands off me!” she yelled, smacking him away.
They raised their guns and I pulled out my pistol. I don’t know why I did that to be honest. Stupid, stupid move.
They began fanning out and taking cover, which meant that the shooting was going to start soon.
“Get back in the car,” I told her. She started moving at once.
“Hey!” yelled one of the bandits. “Get back over here!”
I pleaded with them to just let us go. “Just take what you want; we’ll leave the car if you want.”
“I don’t want the car,” said another. “I want the girl.”
She was near the car now, taking cover behind it. I didn’t know what to do. I’d never been any kind of firefight like this before. Hell, I hadn’t even fired the gun enough to properly aim with it.
“You can’t have her!”
They chuckled again. This was bad. They raised their guns again. I knew what was coming. I fired, hitting the closest guy right in the chest. He fell as the others looked in surprise. I used the moment to dive behind the car. It wasn’t bulletproof by any means, but it was better than standing out in the open.
Rifle fire scattered throughout the tunnel. The bullets hitting the walls were ricocheting off. This would be tricky. I heard someone scream. They weren’t even being careful about their own guys. My luck would run out eventually.
Sirens pierced the air. The shots stopped and I heard the bandits scurry away as they got louder. A cop car pulled behind us. I came out from my cover near the car.
I was about to walk near the sheriff when I heard a gasp of pain. I looked at the end of the car and saw her sitting there, holding her side. Blood was leaking out her shirt.
The sheriff came running over and we quickly got her in the car. I explained what happened to him on the way. He told me that bandits usually patrol the tunnels because it’s easier to catch their pray inside them. He apologized for not warning us about the tunnels.
It took all I had not to scream at him the whole way.
At the “hospital” if you could call it that, they tried to extract the bullet but without proper surgical tools they had no way of doing it without killing her. I argued that without pulling it out, she might die anyways. The doctor told me again there was nothing they could do. He handed me a bottle of pills and said the best I could hope for were a painless last few days.
I swallowed my anger. I knew that there was nothing that could be done, but as much as people were telling me to, I didn’t want to accept it.
This wasn’t fair.
I took another deep breath and cleared my throat before speaking, “Do you have a map? I need to get to West Falls.”
The doc nodded and asked the sheriff for one. They gave it to me and apologized for everything that had happened. Then the sheriff took us back to the car.
The sheriff told us he’d escort us through the city, something he obviously should have done before.
I sat her in the front seat. She was sweating. I took a rag out of my pack and wiped her down. “Are you alright?” I asked. Foolish question. But I couldn’t help myself.
She nodded and took a deep breath. “It hurts to breathe.” She said.
“It’ll be fine soon. Let the meds kick in.” Fuck.
I got in the driver’s seat and we took off through the city without any more resistance. The sheriff’s car probably helped that.
We were on the road once again. At least with a map I knew where I had to go. As we traveled she got worse though. She was constantly tired, barely eating anything. The medication was quickly disappearing and we were still a week out from West Falls, even at my current pace of eighty-eight miles per hour.
I wasn’t sure what else to do except drive as fast as I could. The roads were bare and we never had to go through anymore populated areas. It was just the open road and the accompanying fields.
“How bad is it?” she asked me one afternoon.
“What?” I didn’t turn to her.
“It’s been awhile now and it’s still there. How bad is it?”
I couldn’t bring myself to tell her the truth yet. “It’s worse than usual, but the doctor said that the medication would help it heal. We just gotta get through the whole bottle.” I sighed, infection would start soon.
One morning she wouldn’t wake up when I nudged her. It took awhile to get her up and even then she was faint. I got her to eat a little but I knew that it wasn’t going to be much longer. The violent coughing had started.
We continued towards West Falls. I was determined to get her to her family. If anything, that’s what I had to do.
A few nights before, we were camping. She was getting worse and the meds had run dry. I made a phone call while she sat against the fire.
“It’s Corn Dog! How’s my favorite customer?”
I almost laughed at that – considering I’d only called once before.
“I need another song played.” I said, doing my best not choke on my words.
“Same as before?” he asked. I think he heard something in my voice. He was less hyper suddenly.
I turned back at the car. “Maybe five.”
Silence. Then: “Sure thing.” He knew. I knew.
I hung up and walked back to the car. She was lying against it, her eyes closed. Her breathing was steady, but her skin had paled considerably and her shirt had turned an uncomfortable shade of red. She was bleeding out again.
I switched on the radio and sat down next to her, pulling her close.
“I think you were right,” she said. “I am feeling better.”
What is it they always say? They feel great right before the end? Somethin’ like that.
We sat there until the song played. When it turned on she turned her head to listen to it. As the song continued her breathing slowed, and soon, there was nothing.
I buried her the next morning, unable to do anything that night. It took me awhile, without a shovel and all, but I got it done. I stayed for a bit, but I couldn’t stand the silence. I took the car and finished the trip.
There’s nothing else to tell, really. Her family was at West Falls like she had hoped. I told them the same story I’m telling you. I left the day after that, unsure of what to do or where to go.
I just drove off, thinking of her.