Out of the Badlands: Part 20:
The next day, we arrived in the town. What a sight we were, I’m sure: two wooly draft-sheep, one mini-stoga with the cover up against the beating sun, one blatting milk ewe trotting along behind, and a dog jogging at Faustus’s heels. Of course, we passed through what felt like endless suburbs first, empty and sunburnt, with cars in their driveways and children’s toys bleached to pale ghosts in the yards. I thought I had steeled myself for it. I’d seen the smaller towns; I’d been in other such houses. They were just houses. No angry spirits lingered in them. Here, though, we were less certain that angry living persons did not lurk. We walked lightly, cautiously, eyes shifting and ears straining.
Finally we came to what looked like the downtown. The wheels of the cart rolled fairly smoothly on the pavement, which had not yet begun to yield to infiltration by local plant life. The hooves of the sheep were quiet, too. You’d think they’d cloppity-clop, but that’s horse hooves, which look more like coconut halves than not—and which besides would probably have shoes on them, if there were any farriers around anymore—but sheep have little cloven feet. I think the sheep appreciated the smooth going, even if they didn’t appreciate the heat. Bobby drowsed in his hammock inside the cart, lulled by the vibration.
Boomer warned us of the first human, a gaunt woman who looked old and worn. She approached us carefully, head down and timid. I was wary for a trap.
Before Faustus could confront her, I said, “Who are you?”
“Sheila.” I wasn’t convinced it was her name. She might as well have called herself ‘Woman’.
“What do you want?”
She glanced uneasily over her shoulders. “I want to go with you. Out of here, I mean. Away. Will you take me? I’ll do …anything.” She turned her gaze on Faustus with the last words, imploring, a grotesque caricature of a proposition.
Faustus seemed unmoved. He said, “How old are you, Sheila?”
She said, “Forty,” like she was confessing some terrible sin.
“Why haven’t you left before now, if it’s so bad here?”
“I can’t.” She approached more closely. “I don’t know how to live out there.” Her gaze was downcast now, and it stayed there even as she crept nearer.
“Do you actually want to learn? Or do you just want someone to take care of you?” I’m sure I sounded sharp and defensive. The woman’s appearance appalled me. How could this woman be only forty years old? She looked at least sixty. I knew I hadn’t aged like that. Our house had mirrors, after all.
Faustus shot me a look, but said nothing.
“I just want to be out of here.”
Faustus said, “What do you do now? Go from house to house, using up their contents? What do you plan on doing when they’re all empty?”
She spread her hands. “Die, I guess. Starve.” She looked like she was starving already. She looked the way Faustus and I had looked before we teamed up and began playing at farming.
Inside the cart, Bobby woke and wailed, sudden and startling. I don’t know what it is about waking that upsets babies so much. They never seem to want to go to sleep, after all. I moved to draw Bobby out and began to try to calm him.
Sheila looked up, transformed as though shot through with electricity. “Ohhh, you have a baby. Can I see it? Can I hold it?” The yearning in her voice made me turn and look at her again, wary in case she should try to snatch him from me.
Faustus moved to intercept her, saying sharply, “Don’t touch my son.” He’d never called the boy that, but maybe the vile things the dead men had said had pushed him to that level of possession.
Sheila saw Bobby over Faustus’s shoulder and her face twisted, as the two men’s had done. “Oh, no. Not you, too.”
“What the hell is wrong with you people?” I demanded of her. “He’s a baby. He’s just a baby.”
“They’re almost all like that now,” she said. Her voice broke. A moment earlier she had been hopeful, and now she was on the edge of tears. Her emotional volatility was wearing me out, and we’d just met.
“What do you mean?
“The babies. Almost all the babies look like that, ever since the day the airplanes—”
I looked at Faustus and caught his eye briefly. I saw his jaw muscles clench, and I remembered how, only the day before, he had killed two men with a wooden club.
Faustus said, “Sheila, what happens to those babies? Do the people in the town love them and keep them?”
“No. We’re not allowed to. The town boss says they’re—” Her voice failed her entirely, and she began to sob helplessly, her thin arms wrapped around her shoulders.
I understood, then, what would happen to Bobby if we stayed, and what had surely happened to her, perhaps more than once. I knew what had aged her so terribly. They were not human, not fit to live. In case you’re wondering, I wasn’t talking about the babies.
Our outlandish appearance in the street began to attract more attention. A scrawny boy of indeterminate age came near enough to set Boomer barking, and then fled at full tilt, shouting. Between the barks and the shouts, more faces appeared, hollow-cheeked and with hostile eyes. Some carried pieces of wood.
“They’ll kill him,” Sheila said hurriedly. “They’ll kill you too, mister. They don’t need you. Just her.”
Faustus made a quick choice. Back in the day, we’d have called it an executive decision, but whatever. He said, “You two, take the dog and go. I’ll distract them.”
I couldn’t argue. Sheila was already tugging increasingly frantically at my arm. Clutching Bobby against my body like a linebacker with a football and praying I wouldn’t stumble, I turned and ran, with the other woman close behind. I couldn’t hear what was happening with Faustus.