We were making good time.
We’d made the decision – without really making it - to avoid the main highway, to avoid going through larger towns where the chatrooms had suggested the gum might be more likely to congregate. Avoid, as well, whatever human predators we might find on the road.
But it was difficult to avoid humanity altogether. Around 11am we were cruising over a hill towards a small town I’d barely heard of: Witherwhat Falls. This was another town with only a few hundred people. It supplied and was supplied by a fertiliser works on the other side of town. Spaced out and rural, with just a handful of shops along a wide main street that doubled as the highway in and out of town.
This was a place in better repair than Deresford had been. The houses seemed to be intact, and the gum was fairly light on the ground. We noticed a few houses early on that were thick with gum, bursting with it, the ground cracked beneath them, but the rest had won some degree of reprieve.
Zara rapped her knuckles on the windscreen.
I followed the direction of her gesture. Smoke. And rising out of a chimney.
“It’s inhabited,” I murmured.
“There’s another over that way.”
Ordinary people? Ordinary lives?
“We should…” I wasn’t sure. Not loot them? But approach? Talk?
Or maybe they loot us. We had a back seat laden with food and drink, after all.
There were engine noises coming from over the crest of a low hill. We parked the car under the shelter of some trees in an unkempt park. We waited.
A couple of utes and an SUV swung over the hill. There were no sirens or slogans or loud music. So far, so good. But they made a beeline directly for us. You couldn’t mistake that. And since it was too late to hide, or probably to run, I opened my door.
“Friendly parley. That’s all. Stay in the car.”
If it’s so bloody friendly, why am I staying in the car?
I’m not sure how I would have answered if she’d spoken that out loud. As it was, I walked slowly to the front of the vehicle, hands hanging loose where the newcomers could see they were holding no weapons. I tried something that sort of looked like a smile.
Three cars all came to a neat stop in front of us, converging in something like an arrow formation. The doors opened in unison.
“Hello…” I felt my heartbeat running through my veins. I could feel it all the way through the soles of my feet and into the back of my neck.
Four men and a woman got out. They were signature rural folk, and three of them carried rifles casually in one hand.
I held my hands up. “No harm. No harm, I swear.”
“What are you doing here, kid?”
The old-world me might have bristled at the ‘kid’, but times felt like they’d overtaken such sensibilities. If the last three months had taught me anything it was how clueless and naïve I’d been all the way through my former life. “I’m not here to cause trouble, we’re passing through.”
“Me. My girlfriend.”
“And where’s she?”
“In the car.”
“Wave her on out.”
“I… she… We don’t want any trouble.”
The oldest of the group – a man with tufty grey hair, who I’d have judged early sixties – took a couple of steps forward. “We want no more trouble than you do. It’s just… well, have your girl show herself, and we’ll all be good.”
I beckoned Zara forward. Her door opened slowly.
“Look, we’re not a threat….”
Zara stood in front of the car. Her hair was tied back, she was layered and dishevelled, but I was aware of her beauty, aware of how she must look to these guys. Who knew what the gender balance was…?
And one of them did seem to be offering a low whistle under his breath.
I cast that guy a hard look I had no means of backing up.
“Sorry,” the guy mouthed.
“Come on over,” the leader – he seemed to be in charge – said to Zara.
She came forward. Or more to the point, she strode over there, calm and assured as if she was the real boss here, and she’d just shown up to take over, or maybe to inspect their work. She held one hand out to the stranger who had one of his own hands occupied by a hunting rifle. “Zara Taylor.”
I felt foolish throwing it in now, but: “Nate. It’s nice to meet you.”
“Jed. Other Jed. Selina. Angus.”
“Hey. Look, we really are just passing through. We don’t want your stuff, or to hurt anybody. No trouble.”
“None,” Ian agreed, “But what about lunch?”
He laughed, “Ah, relax. You two look like regular people. But it pays to be careful these days. No doubt you know that.”
“Things like this, they bring out the worst and the best in people, don’t they?”
“Things like this. Has there ever been anything like this? I can’t think of anything that measures up.”
“Touché. Well, what about it? Lunch?”
Zara was the one who managed to answer: “We’d love some.”
It was decided that we’d all go up to Other Jed’s house.
“Other Jed?” I asked him.
“Jed’s lived here longer.”
They explained that most places were still lived in, that the town was still a town, still a community – and Ian stressed that with some pride. They went out checking the roads, looking for trouble or opportunity, checking up on their neighbours, that sort of thing. We’d been seen from a little gravel back-road up on the hill, and they’d come swooping down to check us out, because there weren’t a lot of visitors and not all visitors were friendly.
“We are,” I promised.
And one of the Jeds chuckled, “We know. Don’t worry about it.”
Other Jed’s house was an old-style farmhouse, largely untouched by the gum. There were walls that had been overrun – walls or fences – on the way in. There was grass on the lawn, some dandelions.
“Is that a vegetable garden?”
I followed where Zara was incredulously pointing.
“Is it safe?”
“Seems to be. Just so long as you take care.”
“I wasn’t sure… if things… if they could still even grow.”
“If you’re careful. We have a couple of goats and a few chickens out back.”
“It’s not like that in the cities.”
“I’ve heard,” Other Jed said sadly, “reports coming in from some places. Turned my fucking hair white, some of it.”
“Dude, ladies present.” That came from the generally quiet Angus.
“Ma’am. Most sorry.”
Zara fought back a giggle. “Ma’am?”
“First time being called Ma’am?”
I was twenty-three and I was getting ‘kid’; but I wasn’t in the least bit interested in looking this gift horse in the mouth. I’m not saying I was sure we could trust these people, but they did seem to be offering us a hot meal, and perhaps some information, and just proof that all might not be lost after all.
We ate in a group of nearly twenty people, all gathered around a big dining room table. There was a roast being cooked for lunch. “We had to slaughter a lot of the sheep when there wasn’t too much feed we could trust. Deep freeze full of them.”
“You’ve got steady power.”
“Yeah. There’s a windfarm not far from here. There’s not a lot of work needed to keep it running, the wind blows and the turbines send electricity down the wires.”
I helped myself happily to meat and gravy, peas, corn-cobs, potatoes. “Are you guys just lucky? Or did you have a plan, did somebody pull you all together?” If somebody had, then my money was on Ian. He sat quietly back, beside a woman in a brown-and-white dress, close to his own age. He mostly contented just to let things play out around him, but there was clearly a kind of centrality about him, he seemed… important.
“Both,” Other Jed told us. “It’s not as bad here. You come from Burndale?”
“It’s not as bad. But we got together early, once communications started dying, and you know, no instructions from the government, no game plan. It was pretty clear nobody was going to come evacuate everyone.” And where to? Was there anywhere still to go? “So, yeah, we worked out who could do what, and what could be done. You saw those houses just covered in the sticky stuff when you drove in?”
“Salt. Just common household salt.”
“What do you mean?”
“It attracts the stuff, and in doing so, it’s drawing it away from everything else. It keeps the fields from getting all that contaminated. And the animals can generally eat around it at this level.”
“The ground’s not poisoned?”
“Some of it is. Enough isn’t.”
“But it will be,” I don’t even know why I was saying that, as if I had to prove that they hadn’t really beaten this nightmare.
“In time. Sure. Or at least it might. There’s nothing about this stuff anywhere. It was a big unknown, right from the start. Nobody knew a damn thing.”
“Then, how did you? I mean, figure out about the salt?”
“With everything. Bleach, water, weedkiller, cowshit. Electricity. Anything except fire, because, hell, we watched the news when there was still news to watch.”
“And salt worked?”
“We weren’t sure what it’d do. Kill it, make it explode, maybe sod-all. But what it did was clump it up, all the tendrils and knots and what-have-you just kinda coiled in on it, it draws them out of the ground and into themselves. Neat trick, actually.”
“Salt. What else?”
“Not much. You can beat it up with a shovel, or cut it with a knife. It’s not invulnerable, but of course, it grows back. It always grows back. Who knows what might work if we had who knows to play with? But you work with what you’ve got right?”
These people were a family. This is what I realised. Watching them pass bowls of food around, watching as four children grew restless at the table, and were allowed to go off and play. I watched these two little ones sitting in the lounge with building blocks, playing like there was no apocalypse, like life wasn’t even weird. A couple of teenagers slid onto the couch after lunch and snuggled into each other as the group of us talked.
“They were engaged before all this went down, you know? Still are, as it happens. There was a wedding planned and all. But the nearest church is covered in gum, and the priest is unaccounted for, and the venue is burnt out, along with the back-up venue. And half the guests… you see where I’m going with this? They lost their big day.”
“We still hope, of course, that the world’s going to put itself right again, we can re-plan it all, and make it all happen. Why would God’s plan for the world be for it to end in this clusterfuck?”
“What if you had to bet that this was the apocalypse? What odds would you give it?”
“It’s not though. It just isn’t.” And he seemed unswerving on that, all the way convinced.
Between us, me and Zara told our story. I was more open than I had expected to be. Yes, I smashed that guy’s skull to bits, I kept smashing and smashing, never mind he was already down. Yeah, that was me. And I didn’t used to like killing flies. I didn’t buy mouse traps. Things change.
“We’ve had to defend ourselves a couple of times too. That’s why we’re wary of even a couple of nice people like yourselves.”
“I get it.”
“It sounds like you do. Can I ask what you two are planning?”
Did I? Should I?
Zara said, “we’re going to try for his home town. And then maybe a camp from his childhood, up in the mountains.”
“Mountains are good. That’s the smart bet. High altitudes.”
“It’s what I’ve heard.”
“Hey,” said Other Jed, “I wish we could let you stay with us. I really do.”
I hadn’t even thought about it, not until he’d put the words out there. But as he spoke, I realised that Zara had. And I could see her temptation – warm beds, warm meals, warm company. I’d been feeling safe for a couple of hours now, and that was a weird, almost caressing, sensation.
“It’s just, limited resources. And so many people out there. And we have kids we have to think about. Our own… you know.”
“I feel like crap that I can’t offer you guys more.”
“It’s okay. I get it. Completely.” Mostly. But I remembered watching from a window as strangers went past, were attacked, were slaughtered, and I’d clung to the semi-safety of a sixth floor and a locked door. Survival mode was what it was.
“Be careful out there,” said Ian as we were leaving.
“No really. I know you’ve seen what people can go like if they let themselves. It’s Mad Max country out there. You and your girl would be prey for these sorts. Look, they’ll run you off the road, then they’ll take the vehicle, and I don’t want to sound too alarmist, but they’re as likely as not to shoot you in the back of the head and take your girl too.” He shot an apologetic look at Zara. “I’m sorry. I just mean to say that you need to be careful.”
A guy my own age or so, whose name I think was Steve, came forward and handed me a pistol.
“I can’t… I mean you need…”
“Yeah. But you can’t be out there with nothing.”
“Just in case, you know.”
“Thanks. Honestly.” It was a big deal to spare this – and lunch – for us strangers. And some more food for our back seat. I’ve got to hand it to small town hospitality. They did all they could for a couple of unknowns. More than we’d done for strangers – though I know Zara had tried to convince me more than once.
I promised myself I’d do better. Not knowing, you see, what was still to come. And I embraced these briefly-met friends, before we headed back to that truck that another friend would never know he’d helped us with.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work