Part 2 - The Road North
I’d like to say it was an uneventful drive and we got to our destination without incident.
Sadly, the truth gets a lot dicier.
But we started out okay. I mean we started out more than okay, we started out like nothing was even really wrong. It was weird out there. It was picturesque, even more so as the sun rose fully. It was quiet, the ground was covered like snowfall, and there was nobody around, the road was a frosty silver ribbon while the sun was all washed in fire.
There was no sign of livestock grazing in the fields. Deadstock, now right? Since the grass must have gotten poisonous, and must have killed all the sheep and cows for miles. I started extrapolating that into cropland and made myself stop.
“Nate. You okay?”
“Fuck sake, don’t do that. Does your head still hurt?”
“You know that if this were still the real world, you’d never play contact sports again?”
I coughed out a laugh.
“What? You wouldn’t.”
“I think I’d have one concussion left.”
“Okay, sorry. I must have lost count.”
“I can drive then?”
“You really want?”
I couldn’t help it. It would make me feel better. “Yeah, I think so.”
“Sure. I’ll pull over.”
We passed a few farmhouses along the way. They seemed to be still standing, looking large and intact. We dissected the prospect of going over to one of them. Would we be met with a loaded hunting rifle or with open arms? Would we see skeleton-starved bodies or living, surviving people? And would the car start again?
“They could have freezers full of sheep.”
“And they’d know… a bit more… about what grows.”
Or doesn’t grow. My mental images were all of starvation and desperation. I didn’t picture finding bodies soaked and crusted with blood, something more mummified, dead skin clinging to bones.
What I said was, “not yet, okay? Not yet.”
We passed a gas station.
Zara said, “What are the odds?”
“We won’t make it all the way without refuelling.”
She leaned against the window. “It’s got a card pump…”
Which was good, because I wasn’t really sure how we were going to get the fuel out of the pump if it hadn’t. It wasn’t that I hadn’t thought of that, it was more than I was just hoping we could find some gas in an abandoned car or the like and then siphon it, hope it was the right kind, put a foot on the pedal.
A gas station was better.
“This is a diesel, right?”
“Pump at the end.”
There was a full-scale gas station behind the pumps. The windows were all broken, and gum was frosting the sharp edges of the glass. The covering on the forecourt was fairly light though. It sucked softly against the soles of our shoes as we fuelled up.
“Go in there?”
I looked over at the empty window frames. “Sure.”
I figured from the gaping windows that the shelves would be pretty bare, but stepped through and moved cautiously around the isles. I braced myself for the body of an attendant; but the area seemed to be empty. And it was largely looted. People had been here before us, and some of them had spray-painted weird symbols and various levels of profanity over the walls and floors. But we managed to find a few things: a few cans, a few tissues, some packets of soup and some chocolate bars. It wasn’t a lot, but these were things that might keep us alive for a few weeks more. Extrapolate that out to a lifetime. We could be survivors, carrion really, living off the corpse of our own dead planet. The enormity almost made me gag.
“Sorry, thinking again.”
She shook her head at me. “There’s nothing worth thinking about. Not now.”
“Yeah.” I found a packet of two-minute noodles.
“Curry,” she said, “my favourite.”
“See if you can find some Oriental.”
“That’s the blue one, right?”
For a moment I thought I saw something. I spun around, my hand slipping toward the knife in my pocket. But it was just a curtain blowing in the wind.
There had been a few more things out the back. Not much, there’d been looting there too. But a jar of coffee, another of drinking chocolate, one of sugar, in the little staffroom out back. Still no dead people. Just a slight incursion of gum. Someone had left a coat behind, and there’d been a sort of rug tossed over the couch. It didn’t even feel like theft. I’m not sure if it even was in these times.
“It’s like we’re in a sci-fi movie,” Zara said, as I drove away.
“It’s a pretty sucky movie.”
“Sure. But this is what they’re all like. People swarming the world, scavenging for food and fuel. Gang-types stepping up and taking over the roads. Usually insane and sadistic.”
“So we’ve got that to look forward to.”
“And back to. But what I mean is, they were right – all those scriptwriters and directors. This is what it’s like. It’s just as well we didn’t have any dreams because those would all have died. If you wanted to be an actor or something, or I don’t know… say I wanted to be a teacher, or a fashion designer…”
“Or an artist.”
“Yeah,” her voice got a little pinched. “Well, who’s going to think about that anymore? Who’s going to care?”
“You can still be an artist. We can raid a bookshop.”
“Yeah? But to what purpose?
“What if there is no posterity?”
“We don’t know. We don’t know the world is ending.”
“Three to four.”
“You’d have bet against. I know you.”
“I… I don’t know… I don’t. I’m not sure I still would.”
What if the sum total of our lives was just to live them and die, in a world where everybody else was just doing the same? There might be no future. And really, if humanity waited long enough, weren’t we all going to be enveloped in a blossoming red giant? Or, if we got off the planet before then, in a chain reaction of supernovae, or freezing away in an expanding universe, only to be maybe wiped out by the next gathering Big Bang?
Yeah, time to stop thinking again.
Zara was reading the map as I drove. “Five kilometres,” she said.
Our first small town, out of about ten to fifteen we could pass through depending on which roads we chose, and which were passable, which weren’t.
Deresford was empty.
That was my first impression. Then: dead. Then: destroyed.
We were driving into a ghost town. And it hadn’t just been emptied out, it was more as if this place had been burnt to the ground. I don’t know what I thought I’d see, but it wasn’t that. There were some buildings reasonably intact, but there were others that’d been burnt down to the foundations, and others that were really just shells. There’d been trees, but many of those were stripped by fire into ragged-topped poles. And then, all along surface of everything the whiteness had reformed, the gum grown over buildings and vegetation as if it had been poured there from a height.
“We should see if we can find anything.”
I didn’t say this, but I was afraid what we’d find would be bodies. And afraid that they’d be charred and bloated, distorted, perhaps disease-ridden. Every time we walked in through the gap that had used to be a door, I’d be holding my breath, afraid of seeing something that was going to sear itself onto my mind for decades. Should we have been past that? Given what we’d already witnessed? Maybe. But I wasn’t. And I think Zara had the same thoughts as we made our way through town.
We focused on the buildings that were the least damaged. And it paid off. There’d been looting, but it hadn’t been super-thorough. We made our way through abandoned homes, stocking up on dried and canned foods. There was good stuff in some of those places, fancy shit like jars of brandied cherries, or the good chocolate, a great-big bag of cashews; jumbo bags of gourmet corn chips and steamed puddings.
We’d never eaten like this in the real world.
“I didn’t even know this was a rich neighbourhood.” Zara kept her voice low and let it slide out the side of her mouth, even though it all seemed so deserted.
“Life-stylers, mostly. I think.”
“Do you think they decided? Do you think they got together and decided to set the gum on fire, or do you think it was a fire that started by accident, and there was nobody to call to put it out?”
“I think… I think they all got out. They all went somewhere. I think it was planned.”
“Well, at least they tried it, right? Tried something.”
“We are. This is us trying.”
She caught my arm very briefly: “Thank you for being the brave one. Again.”
I was stupid to blush and get tongue-tied, but there I was.
“I didn’t have it in me, to do this, if you hadn’t.”
“You don’t know…”
“And this may or may not have been a good idea.”
She looked at me with an expression of the deepest intensity. It reminded me of the moment when I’d first decided that I was going to marry her one day. That was all up in smoke now, tangled in sticky, white web. Who was going to stand up in front of us and declare us man and wife? She said, “we’ve done the right thing. Even if it ends in…” she almost said it: in both of us dead, but she shied away, “even if it doesn’t end well. We’ve done the right thing.”
Somewhere to the north I heard a faint hum, maybe engines.
“We should get back to the truck.”
“This last cupboard,” she said, “And the bathroom, for medicines.”
“Okay. Then we go.”
The noise got louder. It changed in pitch. And then it trickled away again.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work