Part 4: Supply and Demand
The trees were all turning summer-green. Small fruits were forming at the ends of branches. We had apples, plums, pears, and what looked like they would be peaches. The harvest had a look of being potentially decent. And the first few vegetables were starting to ripen and ready themselves for our plates.
It wasn’t enough though.
We sat around the kitchen table and we planned. ‘We’ wasn’t the full set. Penny had remained resolute in keeping herself and Todd separate. She came to use the kitchen sometimes, or the laundry, and she’d nod to whoever she saw, maybe a few words were exchanged, but she kept her isolation. George tried to call on her. He was rebuffed. He wanted to see Todd, but she told him Todd was sleeping, Todd wasn’t ready. She lied, and it was obvious, but it went around in circles, since Penny wouldn’t budge, and Todd stayed in her shadow.
So ‘we’ was me and Zara, was Tamsin, was Tristan and Greg, and George.
“There’s enough food left for about three weeks,” I told them. I’d been inventorying and drawing up charts, folding them on in there with my scrappy posterity-diary, in which I’d written: Dinah was killed by some spider-like creatures associated with gum, about a week after it’d happened.
“Well, we still have some fuel in our vehicle,” Tristan offered, he glanced over at me, “and you guys…”
“About half a tank.”
“We could pool. That’d given us a pretty decent range all-up. We could fit enough food in the back to last a couple of months. Pick up some fuel as well, for next time.”
“Seeds,” Zara added, “if we can get some proper seeds, keep the garden growing. So we have something left for next season.”
“We should think about catching some livestock,” Greg had joined us at the table. “And picking up a beehive or two.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“At night, after we seal the entrance. It wouldn’t be that hard if we don’t drop it.”
“Will there be bees?”
“If the gum hasn’t poisoned them. If it hasn’t, we’d have honey and pollination.”
“We could build chicken houses.”
“A pen for goats or sheep.”
“Up here they’d probably have survived, at least some of them.”
Tamsin was the one to remind us: “We don’t know what the roads are like. Who’s out on them, we don’t have bullets left. We don’t have real weapons.”
“Yeah, but we have to eat, don’t we?”
We had a map spread out on the table in front of us.
Zara traced her index finger along a road. “The nearest town that isn’t tiny looks like Brinton on this map. Has anybody ever been there?”
I tried to remember: “Perhaps in passing.”
“Then you don’t know what’s there?”
“Perhaps a supermarket?”
“Yeah, maybe. At least a Four Square or something.”
“Okay, so if that’s not looted… or not completely looted.”
“There’ll be houses.”
Tristan said, “Well, we might have better luck off the beaten track. All the houses on the highways have probably been plundered or something, but we might find somewhere that’s hidden enough that it hasn’t been touched.”
“It might be occupied.” Zara’s finger paused, hovered, over the map. “There might still be people living in them.”
“Then we can make friends,” Greg was a match for Zara in optimism and idealism. “We can find out what they know, and tell them what we know. It’s no big deal, it’s not like we’re the last humans left alive on Earth.”
“If they’re friendly,” I warned.
“Most people are.”
“Were. Look, I don’t know, maybe. Maybe we can all get along, but we’ve got to be careful. You don’t know what apocalypse-living has done to people.”
Like Penny. I could see Tamsin thinking it.
Like all of us. But would I shoot a bunch of people – assuming I had a gun to do it with – if they came calling on us here, pre-emptively, keeping us safe? Well, I hadn’t. Greg and Tristan had come. Then the Castles had come. We’d let them in. We’d banded together.
My left arm itched violently. These days it was covered in grey-green scaly stuff, and there was some along the left side of my stomach, on my neck, around the thumb on my right hand. It was hard and scaly, and took opportunities at random to itch so hard I’d scratch big rifts between the scales and watch soothing droplets of blood well up inside the gaps. I’d tried bandages, and creams, water, soap, sunlight.
Nervous dermatitis, my ass. But I tried to shrug it off as that, and the others went along with that small fiction, since we didn’t have a better idea.
“If I start turning into a spider, just fucking beat me over the head with a shovel.” I’d told Zara. And when she’d rubbished the possibility and wouldn’t be drawn on a promise to do what was needed, I told Tristan the same thing, and he assured me readily that he’d beat me to death with anything to hand and chop my body into pieces if anything like that happened.
“Okay. Good.” Because how do you thank someone for promising your brutal murder should the circumstances line up?
I dreamed too. Well, we all did. And nightmares. There was nothing unsurprising about that. Mine were different though. More intense. There was Dinah in them, of course, a staggering zombie whose mouth dripped venom. And there were shadowing figures that swarmed around her, too-many-legged, but with greenish skin, a touch of humanity. And a whisper that carried over from dreaming into waking that seemed to linger, as shadows lingered, as my mind took too long to work its way back from the sleep-world to the real-world.
Zara shook her head, “no, nothing like that. I dream about Dinah at times. Or those road gangs. That stuff. Not like yours though.”
Nobody’s dreams seemed a match for mine. There was something going on with me, and I wondered if it was safe for me to be around these people. I considered the possibility that I could be a danger. And then I weighed up the prospect of leaving them, of leaving Zara, of being one less number, of being without her, of probably never seeing her again. Weigh that up against maybe hurting her. Weigh it again at maybe saving her from something.
Tristan assured me, Greg assured me: yeah, we’ll take you down if you hurt her. We could strangle you or just bash in the back of your skull. We’d never let you hurt her.
“We like her better than we like you,’ Greg quipped once, and he had his lopsided grin on his face, a little sparkle in his eye.
And my jealousy flared. Don’t you bloody touch her if I die.
Here and now, Tristan was talking. “Well, look, there’s no real argument. We have to get more food. We can’t eat grass, and there’s not enough floating around the area to sustain us, so let’s just decide who’s going to go.”
“I will,” I said.
“I will,” Zara’s voice echoed mine, just a split-second behind mine.
“No. You don’t need to.”
“We need food.”
“I can go. And Tristan.”
“I can,” said Greg.
“Me, Tristan, Greg.”
“Boy’s day out?”
“That’s not it.”
“Sausage-fest road trip?”
“What? I can handle myself.”
“It could get messy out there, all right? I don’t want you there. I don’t want to be thinking about all the things that could happen to you out there. Can you just let us do our jobs?”
“Really.” I think I was waiting for the others to back me up, I don’t know, all swing our dicks in unison or something, a knee-jerk chivalry-reaction that would outnumber her and put an end to the discussion. There was a silence around us though. George hadn’t said anything, but then he didn’t have much to say these days. He’d morphed himself into a nearly grey, withered automaton. He watched his wife and son from a distance, tried to talk to them when he could. He went over and stood at his daughter’s grave. He listened to the stories Greg told at that grave, just like he’d said he would. And Tamsin, she hung her head, acutely aware that she hadn’t volunteered herself and couldn’t bring herself to do so.
Tristan said, “Okay, two cars. It’ll halve the distance we can drive, but we can fit more in. I’ll go with Greg.”
I said, “I’m coming. The other car’s mine.”
Tristan snorted, “you stole that.”
“Borrowed. Or scavenged. I’m going with it.”
“Fine. Us three. Sorry, Zara, you’ll fuck up Nate’s judgement, and maybe mine too. It’s a single sex enterprise.” I don’t know if he meant to imply that Tamsin and Penny were non-starters, so the boy’s team had to be it. I could see the way Tamsin’s face burned, and half of me wanted to punch Tristan, the other half wanted to shake his hand. Tamsin turned her head away, fixing her eyes on the window.
We’d never send you back out into that. No way we would.
I knew Zara would sulk. And I knew Tamsin would retreat somewhere to cry in silence. I sent Zara after her so I wouldn’t have to have the argument, and because I thought she might know what to say to Tamsin. I sat on the porch outside the dorms and watched George take his daily walk over to Penny’s dorm to knock on her door and wait for her to emerge.
I’d used to think it was silly and futile, perhaps demeaning, perhaps emasculating. But I was beginning to see a rhythm in it now. The way she’d come to the door, the way they’d stand for a few minutes and talk, the way these conversations would last a little bit longer every night, and would seem a little bit less tense.
“They’ll be all right,” Greg had drifted silently next to me, and startled me when he spoke.
I steadied my breathing. “I’m a little bit young for a heart attack, and you need me to carry stuff tomorrow.”
“Sorry, Nate. I just saw you looking that way.”
“It’s like he’s begging,” I gestured at George over there.
“More like he’s courting.”
“Yeah. Like beginning again.”
“He shouldn’t have to.”
“Does it matter? He’s wearing her down. They’re finding their place together again. That’s what matters. They’re getting the rhythm back.”
“I dunno. Maybe. He’s doing all the work.”
“I don’t think so. That whole mother-daughter thing. I remember them together. The bond they had… it was different… it’s hard to explain.”
“You never mentioned your sister.”
“Or my brother,” Greg said, “We all have family. We’ve all had to start again.”
“Are they dead?”
“I don’t know. I’m not even sure what I hope. You?”
“Zara’s not really mad at you, you know. She gets it. She hates it, but she gets it.”
I layered my wrists over my knees and dumped my chin down on them, “yeah, I guess. But she puts on a good show.” I watched the way George gestured openly towards a narrow walking path, the way Penny followed his eyes and stepped outside to see a little better what he might be talking about. Did their hands stray to almost touching? I couldn’t quite see from that angle. It occurred to me I might have been under-estimating Greg for some time now.
Picture credit/discredit: author's own work