Out of the Badlands: Part 6
The next day we went in search of new footwear. My arm hurt a great deal, and I was angry and resentful about it. What he called bad judgment, I called us nearly turning into dinner. I saw him favoring his own injuries, and tried to dredge up some sympathy. We didn’t talk much as we made our way back through the silent town. There was only one street of businesses, so it wasn’t too hard to find the general store with a stock of shoes and boots along the back wall. Fortunately, there were more of the latter, and precious few of the useless decorations into which women used to jam their feet. The people who lived here had been a hard-bitten group, more focused on scratching a life from inhospitable land than following the fashions of the city. Faustus and I dragged piles of boxes from the back room, unable to read the sizes stamped on the ends of the boxes until we got them into the sunlight slanting through the front windows. The only good thing about the process, which was more than a little morbid, was that we didn’t have to pay for the boots. We chose the best we could. We kept the old ones, though. Even high quality new boots take a while to break in, and we didn’t want blisters.
When I had boots, I began to rummage through the rest of the store for things we could use. I swapped out my worn knife for a new one and—damn whatever he might have to say about it—unboxed a wire shopping trolley. It did have solid rubber tires, which the box praised as ‘Flat-proof!’ and I planned to put it to good use until the tires fell apart. Why not?
He called me. When I reached him, he said plaintively, “I can’t tie the laces. My fingers hurt too much.”
I kneeled to tie the boots on for him. Quietly, I said, “No more misjudgments, okay?”
“Tanya,” he said, sorrowfully, “there’s nowhere really safe. Not now, and not ever again. Those dogs might have found us anywhere, any time. They still can. Or there might be a snake, a spider, or a scorpion.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I’m hurting. You’re hurting.”
“I’m sorry, too. I really thought they’d leave us alone. I’ve been here before. They never bothered me.” He got up and stomped his feet in the new boots a few times, settling them. “Did you want anything else from here?”
“More dry stuffs. Rice and so on. If we can find water purification tablets, those too. Rainy season is coming. We’ll need new tarps.”
“Look, Tanya. We can’t carry that much stuff.”
“We can.” I went back for the trolley and pulled it over for him to see.
“We already talked about this.”
“Yes, and I want to use it. So the wheels will eventually break. It’s okay. It will be useful until then.”
I suspected he was thinking that his life had been easier before I’d wandered into it. I was feeling a lot the same way. I hadn’t had to answer to anyone. Live or die based on my own choices, luck, and skills. I thrust the thought away. I was with him because I wanted to be. I could walk away any time I chose. The same was true for him. Yet here he was, and so was I.
When I didn’t say anything—God knows what he thought I was thinking—he said, “My only concern is that you might get attached to having too many belongings. That you might burden yourself down with things you think you need, until you can’t get along without them, and you can’t move them. What will you do, then? Move into one of the abandoned houses?”
He was right, but I didn’t want to say so. So I said, “What have you done in other years during the rainy season? What about when it floods?”
“I do the same things the animals do. I go to high ground, and wait. Sometimes I climb trees.”
I nodded, slowly. “Obviously, I couldn’t get this cart up a tree. But I can’t carry as much as you can, either—and even if I have to be up in a tree, I’d like to have a tarp over my head.”
He sighed. “Do as you will, Tanya.”
I saw him fussing with the bandage on his hand. I said, “What’s the point in filtering gallons of water like we did back at that house, since there’s no way to carry it, either? At least with wheels, we can move some of it. When it’s gone, it’s gone. But it would be a few days of not having to distill our own pee or drink bitter water-root juice.”
“By that logic, we might as well stay in town.”
“No,” I said. “There are too many ghosts here. Too many memories of being chased by mindless—“
“Shh,” he said, laying a big warm hand onmy shoulder. “The dead won’t get up and chase us. The people that did weren’t in their right minds. They couldn’t help themselves. They’re better off dead, and we’re alive.”
“Why? Why are we alive?”
“I don’t know.” He shuffled his new boots against the floor. “I suppose there are survivors like us all over the world, and none of us will know why. But the destruction must have taken over at least the major first world countries.”
“Why do you say so?”
“Because no airplanes have come. If it were just this country—just our continent—help would have come. We’d have heard airplanes or seen their trails in the sky. When was the last time you saw an airplane?”
I thought back. “The Terrible Day. They weren’t commercial planes. They looked and sounded wrong. I thought the military was doing some kind of exercise. My TV was off—cable was out. I couldn’t pick up anything useful on the radio either. It creeped me out, so I went for a walk. The next day, people started going wrong.”
“So you took to the hills.”
“Yes. Not just me. Others. Sooner or later, we all tried to go back to town. Most didn’t make it back out alive. The mobs were unspeakable.”
“Yes.” He nodded gravely. “They weren’t human anymore. Not in any way that mattered.”
“How did we escape?”
“I don’t know.” He examined his bandaged hand again and seemed about ready to say something, but then he changed his mind and just shook his head. Walking toward our small pile of gear, he shouldered his pack, paused at the door to study the street, and then stepped out into the sunlight. I piled my stuff into the trolley and followed.