“Sea-beauty! stretch’d and basking!
One side thy inland ocean laving, broad, with copious commerce,
And one the Atlantic’s wind caressing, fierce or gentle--mighty hulls
dark-gliding in the distance.
Isle of sweet brooks of drinking-water--healthy air and soil!
Isle of the salty shore and breeze and brine!”
-Walt Whitman, “Paumanok” from Leaves of Grass
Chapter 1: "Talk of the Beginning and the End"
“For some reason I didn’t think people actually shit themselves. ’Cept when they died. I heard it’s one last farewell movement of "your bowels truly"— then caput! What a way to go! What a swan song. But that’s different’n normal, non-dying a-dults. Even scared shitless ones. Always figured that’s where the sayin’ come from in the first place. Well, it’s more’n a sight wrong. You get right scared— and believe you me— you’ll shit yourself. Even if you ain’t got no shit left. And even if you ain’t et real food for weeks...Months? Food. Not sure my tongue’d know the difference if’n it ever found any. Most a those white sucker things died off that first bit a acid. But, it’s not the tastes. It’s that full feeling in all the stomach. Like a cat. Fat, rollin’ and showin’ its belly. On a mat. Set him rollin’ by a big smokin’ fire and that’s how it was. Nah, now down to chewing on my belt and suckin’ boot buckles. I killed more’n ten men in that first week, stabbed one clear between the eyes...but when I saw ’Em lot comin’, all hollerin’ and shoutin’ with their burnin’ skin and those wet, wet eyes...Ain’t ashamed to say I shit myself clear through my jeans. At least my legs remembered to run when all Hell came a callin.’ I’ll keep my dirty ass over a dead ass any day. Can’t, nah, won’t be much longer now.”
A blister on Olivia’s left thumb burst as her groping hand hit a rock in the sewer’s wall. She had thought that most of her blisters had calloused by now. Olivia halted and waited for the others to catch up and realize she had stopped. She lowered the thermometer clutched in her right hand and turned off the switch that dimly illuminated its gauge.
"What is it this time?" Ned groaned. Simon rolled his eyes and the rest of the group mirrored his agitation in the darkness-- Hume with a slow exhale and Jenny with her restless shifting, foot to foot.
"Come on Ned, cut it out. We’ve gotta be careful. That last group wasn’t kidding," Olivia whispered back as she carefully clipped the thermometer to her belt and turned the green camping lantern that swung beside it to its lowest setting. "Check this out, guys." She drew the split blister to her lips and raised the light above the rock that had caused it. Except it wasn’t a rock. Ned squealed in the silence and Jenny smacked him square in the stomach.
"Shut up, idiot. Want us to give you to the next hungry group that comes along? You’d serve up a few meals." Ned looked down at his tropical button-up shirt and at the rather large bulge his stomach made in it.
"You wouldn’t. And anyway, sorry if I actually have emotions, Miss Makeup. Or should I say, Ms. Makeup?" He accentuated the "zzz" sound through his teeth. Though, anyone would agree that it really was quite amazing how even weeks after the end of the world, at any given moment, either Jenny’s lips or her eyebrows were perfectly painted and perfectly present.
"Shut it, guys," Simon said as he turned to Olivia and what she had found. "Well, what do you think?"
"Dunno...Signpost or something?"
The group stood in silence and stared at the smooth white sphere carved deep into the sewer wall, while Ahab sniffed the ground beneath it, his black ears pointed and the fur along the length of his spine raised. His dimly cast shadow looked almost like a stegosaurus painted onto the bricks around them, ridges and spikes in his fur turned to plates that grew and fell with his gentle trembling.
The thing looked like it might make a full circle if it hadn’t been shoved into the wall, the bit protruding just smaller than a soccer ball cut in half. If there was more to it, the rest had somehow been chiseled perfectly into the bricks. Almost as if it had grown there, like a mushroom. But it was firm and sounded hollow when Olivia tapped against its surface.
At this point Hume, who had stood mostly at the back of the group, spoke up. "Well whatever it is, we should be moving along. Not like we haven’t seen odder."
They all agreed, but something still didn’t sit right with Olivia. She was just about to douse the light when she slid her hand beneath, following the curve of the sphere to its underside. That’s when she knew what they had found.
"Oh it’s a signpost alright! A signpost of exactly where we’re headed. And I for one do NOT want to head that way." Ned was squatting at the curve in the sewer, the group standing around him. Bits of cobwebs blew gently above his head in the dark. Jenny walked off with a huff and Simon suppressed his half smile.
Hume answered, voice gentle, "Come now. We don’t need you making rather pitiful," he awkwardly smacked Ned’s back, "ahem, attempts at puns now do we?"
"Well it’s a skull. We all saw that. Olivia, why’d ya have to feel for those damn eye sockets? And think: his jaw’s gotta be sawed clear off to fit so neatly. Why’d you even have to shine a light on it in the first place?"
Olivia met his eyes and answered slowly, almost shyly, "Isn’t that the point?" she then quickly turned to face the wall behind them. She lifted her hand from her pocket and began scratching indecipherable markings into the rock with a small knife. Jenny soon came back from the darkness and they all stood and sat in the silence, broken only by the soft scratchings of metal against stone.
Olivia turned back around and met Simon’s eyes. He searched her face for a moment and then looked down at his empty hands. She faced the rest of the group. Simon would be alright. Might be hot too, if he wasn’t so self involved and his curls weren’t greased down to his head like some ancient Roman philosopher eternally caught in the rain. Not much for bravery, either. But at least somehow he seemed trustworthy? And Jenny was a hard hitter. Olivia didn’t mind her, but avoided conversation. She’d found out in the old world that she had trouble connecting with most women at more than a surface level. Olivia had never been one to go to the bathroom in groups, to get her nails done for fun, or even to just go out for coffee to talk. And it was the same with men for that matter. It sucked that all that crap came with her at the end of the world. Somehow, when Olivia first met this random group of travelers, she thought that she’d be different than before. But when Jenny put on her full eyes-snapping resting bitch face, Olivia shriveled into a highschool sophmore in a second. But, there was a heart somewhere beneath that glopped on New Jersey brass that Olivia sensed beat some of the most loyal blood she’d come across.
Then there was Ned. Ned was hopeless, but at least he was sweet hopeless. Somewhere in his sixties, she guessed, and an opinion about everything. He had definitely lived with his mother his entire life and she had gathered had worked as a travel agent who had somehow never been on a plane. Olivia pictured them in the mornings, his mother in her dressing gown at the kitchen table, slippered feet tapping on the tiles as Ned ate his enormous breakfast in silence broken only by his own slurpings...
And finally, there was Hume. Well she hadn’t quite figured him out yet, but he seemed harmless enough. Rather old fashioned, though probably only in his forties, and definitely well-bred. Olivia imagined he used to have a collection of argyle socks that he carefully safety-pinned in pairs and then laid flat on shelves after a washing, so as not to fold or roll them. Olivia wondered if a person like Ned would have ever crossed paths with a person like Hume in the old world. She smiled slightly and realized probably only at an amusement park. All types went to amusement parks.
"Alright." She pulled herself back and met the waiting eyes. "We’ll mark it in the log and move on — Yes Ned," as he started to protest, "we know what’s behind, but not what’s ahead. And yes, whoever, or whatever, left that skull, did so for a reason. Doesn’t seem a particularly neighborly reason, but how are we supposed to know?” Ned groaned. Olivia continued, “Could be a dark-humored, but somehow, uh, friendly warning sign. There’s gotta be uninfected survivors left. We just, well, haven’t come across any in a while."
Simon gave his odd half-smile again and nodded, "She’s right. There’s no going back. And, according to the map, there’s a crossroad coming up soon. Maybe whoever left that skull will have gone the opposite way. Anyway, it’s better than what’s back there." He glanced over his shoulder and Jenny shuddered.
"I’m game," she replied, and glared at Ned.
"Fine. I’m not staying here by myself anyway."
The group looked at Hume. He nodded assent.
Sergeant 0307 grimaced. She heard the clatter of another group approaching for inspection. Like the rest, they’d made it this far, so at least they could read a map. Not that that means much these days, she thought to herself. But, after all, the stupider, the better. They were filling up with the amount they’d been letting through recently. It made sense though, only the idiots would wait this long before searching for The Haven. Why sit in a cold, dark sewer while your food supply slowly dwindled along with your lantern’s light? Erin left the day she had to calmly report the news that confirmed the air had become toxic. They’d said she was the meteorologist, who better to deliver the news? Sure, she read a prompter about incoming storms and sunny summer days, arms flapping in front of a green screen and a plastic smile, but she was no reporter. Bastards. You’d think the anchors would have killed for the chance to deliver such news. Maybe even they had a bit of a soul.
But Erin was ready for it. Way back in October, when a few scientists had published bits about an odd reaction in the air, she had cut the clips out for display on her fridge. As the weeks passed and her daily forecasts seemed to support the theories, she began charting. She wasn’t paranoid — just prepared. And when your own environment turns against you, preparation is the only way to survive. She didn’t wait a day to hear if it might be temporary. After that forced weather report, she had taken the air-conditioned elevator down to the lowest level of the parking deck (where she’d been parking since suspicions began) and drove home, her windows shut as tight as her taped up air-conditioning vents, to check the other news channels. She didn’t expect them to say anything different, but, “always get a second opinion,” her father used to say. And they all gave that same diagnosis. Every last one.
She remembered clicking the red button on her remote and watching the picture on her television compress into a thin line before everything went grey. Erin then placed the controller on her white kitchen island and packed up the last of her belongings. That night, when the temperature outside had cooled to what the scientific community had agreed was a definitive "safe level," she had set off for the nearest manhole. She pulled the thick concrete slab back into place, a crowbar and pulley system her only trace left to that poisoned world above. Then, she climbed down the ladder and began wheeling her carefully packed trolley through the sewers. An old-fashioned red and white mercury thermometer was carefully attached to the front, her own telltale mermaid for the bow of her ship. When the weeks passed and the fever began to affect the Exposed, she was so far towards the East End of Long Island that she never even came across any. She followed the messages of hope that sometimes came over the radio the few times she chanced climbing the ladders and holding the antenna close to the clasped manholes. But, even if there was no hope at the supposed "Haven," it was still in the opposite direction of the city’s Boroughs. Population out East dwindled with each half-mile, and the less people who could become Exposed, the better.
Erin had navigated her way to The Haven even before most other high-ranking officials. She didn’t stop to wait for family or friends. By the time the first large wave of Moles started making their way to The Haven, she already had a private room, a locker for her supplies and a uniform. She’d passed inspection with flying colors. And now she calmly waited in the dark to try to find others like herself and the Elite, weed out the dangerous and identify the useful. But most important: determine the breeders. As this new group approached her checkpoint, Sergeant 0307 clipped her helmet’s visor shut, and stepped out from the shadows, machine gun ready.
The Moles halted, as they always did, relief equaling disbelief in their ragged faces. She lowered the tip of the gun slightly. “Hello fellow travelers! Welcome. You made it! If you will just step this way, one at a time, we’ll get you through this as quickly as possible. Then it’s off to see who’s waiting for you on the other side!” Dull eyes in thin faces brightened. They had made it. They lined up against the wall and she quickly surveyed the group, eyes glancing from one average person to another. Not a blatant punk rock rebel or philosopher in the lot. Next, she pointed to the largest of the group, a huge ape of a man who, once fed and built up again, would probably make a fine soldier. “This way, your majesty. The rest of you, please, take a seat and I’ll be with you as soon as I can.” She motioned to the sewer floor and then to her second-in-command who was leaning against the checkpoint’s curved wall. “In the meantime, Sergeant 0625 will tell you a bit about what we’ve got going on here at The Haven.”
She led the large man to a door, entered a code and as it slid open, gestured him through to the room beyond. The door swished shut behind him, leaving him alone inside. She walked around to another door, did the same and disappeared into the sewer’s wall. The group outside chatted in loud, unbelieving bursts as they sat on the damp stones of the last sewer tunnel they ever hoped to see. Inside, Sergeant 0307 sighed and took off her helmet. She pulled her long, auburn hair out of its bun and shook it out down her back. She wondered, briefly, how necessary all of the Exposure precautions really were. That helmet and her suit could get so heavy. And they hadn’t proved anything contagious yet. Sergeant 0307 shoved such useless questioning to the back of her mind and assumed position in her control chair. She then spoke into the microphone before her, “So what’s your name, big man?” As her voice echoed in his enclosed room, she hit the light button and let out a soft, almost tinkling laugh as his eyes adjusted and he stepped to the center of the room.
“Can you hear me?” he asked, looking about him in every direction. But all the walls were blank, the one lantern above him splashing pale yellow across the surrounding stones.
“Of course I can, boy!”
“But where are you?”
“Don’t worry about me. This is all about you. We need to figure out where to send you.”
“Huh? I just want to see if my family’s in there...”
“We all do. And you will. This is just a formality. Getting the name, stats etc. and figuring out where you’ll best fit. Once you’re in, you can see whoever you like, if they’ve made it.” The large man smiled. Even though she could see him clearly from her end of the double-sided mirror, she leaned forward to open the thin slat that peeked into the circular room. As she slid it open, she pressed her face close, the emerging slit only large enough to allow her green eyes with their thick black lashes to peer through at the man standing inside. There was still a plate of glass protecting her, but that slat’s few inches were now transparent. As he swiveled to the sound of the sliding slot, his eyes found, and then focused, on hers. She continued, her tone the same. “O.K., off with the clothes.” She grinned at his shock. Just like the rest. She hadn’t been shocked. Or even phased when they’d asked her. Well, that’s why she was a Sergeant now.
Chapter 2: "How sweet the silent backward tracings!"
“Not that difficult, my ass. Mayhaps if he were dead first. Even then, could never be an easy thing…An’ they say country folk is uncivilized. City folk’d skin ya as soon as stick it to ya, Well, that’s enough for me. I’m out. Take my chances with the loonies. At least they come right out and try ta eatcha. And they’re sweatin’ and hollerin’ll give em away if’n they do come ‘round. This group, down here though, they’re smilin’ now, but how soon ‘til me and my gimpy leg is on the grill? This hunger’s eatin’ so much of me away I’d cook up nice and fast. They BBQ’d that kid while he was still squirmin,’ they’ll have no problem skewerin’ the shit-pants’d gimp redneck. Could do with a new pair anyway. I’m out, alright. Reckon it’ll be cool enough come night. And I’m just about full up to here with these fuckin’ boot buckles.
“You know, for once, I’m with Ned.” Jenny’s voice was firm in the darkness.
Even Hume coughed delicately and said, “It has been rather a while you know.” Olivia agreed. As did Simon. But their supplies were running low, so they were silent. They all knew that the night air might soon be cool enough for traveling above ground again. If the food would last that long.
Finally Ned burst out, “Let’s just see what we’ve got! No harm there.”
“It’s not going to be different than last time, Ned. Just one less protein bar. If it’ll shut you up, we’ll recount.” Simon lifted the pack off his back as Olivia switched on her lamp. Hume got out the log and they took inventory once more. Each time it sounded worse. Slowly, Simon pulled out the remains of their collective food stores: 4 cans of refried beans; 3 cans of peaches; 2 chocolate bars; 12 packets of oatmeal; and 22 damned protein bars. Not a lot, especially when split between five. And five with about 70 miles left to reach the Haven. And that was 70 miles if and when sewers permitted. They had wasted weeks on three dead ends already. “Alright Ned, how does a protein bar split five ways sound to you?”
“You know damn well how it sounds! I can’t survive on that!”
“You’ve done pretty well so far,” Jenny gave a meaningful glance at his midsection.
“Would you leave me and my belly alone? I told you it’s hereditary!” He rubbed it defensively. “I’ve always had it.”
“Aww two best friends, look at them, never parted!” Jenny laughed loudly into the silence. Just one short bark of a laugh and then she turned to Simon, opening her fist, “Well, hand it over. Haven’t got all day.”
Simon divided the protein bar and Olivia switched off the light. She slipped a bit of her own down to Ahab, always at her side. She had noticed how his ribs were getting more and more prominent and had switched from sneaking only bits of her portion to half, once the lamp was off. She didn’t want to imagine what would happen if the group realized she was “wasting” any food on a dog, as Jenny had so aptly put it. He licked it quietly from her hand, as if he knew. Olivia, Simon, Ned, Jenny and Hume continued in silence, as each slowly ate their scant mouthful of oats and nuts. No one dropped a crumb. And no one asked for water, either. They knew there was even less.
After some time, Simon began to whistle. When Hume asked him what the tune was, he was startled for a moment. He hadn’t realized he was whistling, lone notes low and scratchy, but still recognizable. He couldn’t remember the last time he had whistled, let alone the tune. So the two of them spent the next half hour quietly humming and re-working the notes, trying to place it. Jenny and Ned were on to another hushed game of twenty questions, which left Olivia to her thoughts. She soon lost track of the conversations around her. Somehow the whistling had taken her back...
She and Jack were doing the laundry. They didn’t often do the laundry together, but anytime they both had the afternoon off, they did whatever needed to be done, together. Olivia pulled a long, tangled sheet out of the dryer and searched for two adjacent corners. Once found, she held them tight as she flicked both her wrists and flung the rest of the sheet out into their airy kitchen. The sun glanced in from the skylight and was hidden briefly by the opening sheet. Jack lunged at it and toppled on her, both of them falling into the woven laundry basket...
As Olivia dragged herself back to the blackness of the sewer, she remembered laughter and she remembered sunlight and the lavender lightness of that billowing sheet. And she remembered the song that was playing on their record player that afternoon. Of course such a sickeningly sweet scene had ended with the laundry basket snapping and Jack laughing that she wouldn’t be doing much sitting anywhere for a while, especially under an apple tree. She finished the long forgotten lyrics, “with anyone else but me...”
“That’s it!” Hume and Simon cried together. The two laughed, real laughter, the kind that reaches into your belly and comes up again to throw your head back, and Olivia smiled. She didn’t know why, because she hadn’t even heard them talking, but she still smiled. It sounded right. Simon and Hume sang all the verses they could remember, louder than they should have and with confidence, and when they didn’t know the words, they made ‘em up. They were forming a new verse about Jenny’s many sexcapades, which she had reiterated repeatedly and in necessary detail, when their song was silenced like a hidden child’s breath-- sucked in when the seeker starts to seek. They had heard another noise. And it was definitely not of their own making.
Sergeant 0307 was tired. The group was either a bit larger than she had quickly calculated or she was off her game. As there was no excuse for either, she sat up firmly and began interviewing the last of the Moles. They’d all been as she expected, complacent and harmless. One more and then her replacement should relieve her.
“Off with your clothes.” Ahh. This one was different. The man before her looked around the empty walls and calmly began stripping. No questions asked, no signs of shock. Sergeant 0307 leaned forward in her chair. She waited until he had finished removing his shirt to slide open the slot that exposed her watching eyes to the man inside. He didn’t pause, but smiled at her peering eyes and continued, his old hands shaking slightly as they moved to unfasten his black belt and pants.
“Lovely day?” His voice was calm and almost mischievous. He smiled hugely, revealing tons of teeth, top and bottom meeting a bit unevenly in the center of his mouth.
She sat back and answered into the microphone, “Can’t say I would know. But I do apologize as I must ask you to refrain from asking any questions for the duration of the interview.”
“Sure, sure, my pleasure.” His smile was light and seemed quick to make an appearance. She studied his face and thought that those teeth in his thin, lined face almost made him look like a skull. Somehow though, his eyes were too kind for that impression to last. She hated to admit that they almost twinkled. She firmed her demeanor.
“How long have you been underground?”
“Bout the first few days after the P-Temp. Finished my affairs, remained in AC and then looked for the nearest manhole.”
“By AC I assume you mean air conditioning?”
“And what, may I ask you to respond in detail, were these affairs?”
“Well just about the usual, you know, closing up shop so to say.”
“What type of shop?” Her question was quick and he straightened slightly at her tone. She relaxed and rephrased, “It is just important for us to acquire accurate records of all we allow into The Haven. If, for instance, you were a doctor or a chef in the Old World we would know where to redirect you once you pass through.”
“All perfectly plausible. I was a people person. Still am, I hope. People were my business, so unfortunately I may not have what you might call, ‘practical’ skills.”
“No worries. We can all be useful inside. Everybody has a purpose and it is up to this interview to discern yours. What was your name and what do you go by now?”
He smiled again, and lifted his hands up as he replied, “Bob. Bob Blackwell. Pleased to meet you. And always Bob.” His fingers were long and thin, and he raised and stretched them often as he spoke.
“Alright, Bob it is. So, Bob, how long were you traveling with your present group?”
“Well, most of ‘em, since the beginning. A couple stragglers joined here and there, but the bulk of us have stuck together since the start.”
Sergeant 0307 marked that his answers so far coincided with the rest of the group’s. Good. “And did you ever go above ground in that time?”
“No ma’am. After the news reports you’d have to be a fool to go back above! Though I will admit that once the food started runnin’ low there were more than a few mentions of it.”
“And you never followed those mentions?”
“Not a bit. And the hungry ones didn’t either. I think we’d all rather stick to the known, if you know what I mean.”
“No, Bob, what do you mean?”
“Starving of course. Versus whatever that air would do to you.”
“Right. And when was the last time you ate food?”
“I’d say two, maybe three days?”
“That’s not what the group said about you. Would you like to rethink your answer?”
“Is that so? Tellin’ on me, the little imps! Imps, imps, imps. Well, then yes now you mention it, might be a couple days more than that.”
“I am glad you amended your response. We like to know where we stand with everyone who enters The Haven. Especially where honesty’s concerned. So please tell me why you felt the need to forgo eating when there was still some food remaining? If, of course, you agree with the rest of your companions on that score…”
Bob looked up into the dim light above him and then back to her eyes. “I can get by. That’s all.”
Erin realized that she wasn’t going to get anything else out of him about it and after making a slight note of this behavior, switched tactics. “And what were your political affiliations back in the Old World? If you had any?”
“Independent. I vote with the times, not with the parties.”
“Thank you Bob, would you please turn around for me, and slowly?”
“Gladly, but if you don’t mind, I would like to know who I am being so open with?” He grinned again. The smile pulled his thin skin over his high check bones and crinkled up around his eyes. It was almost revolting but she wanted him to keep smiling. His voice was warm and his question caught her off guard. Not a Mole yet had had the slightest interest in who she may be.
She almost said, “Erin,” but decided against it and replied, “Sergeant 0307, at your service.” Then she leaned forward and watched as he spun slowly. His body was old and the skin hung from his bones like tiny lumps of chicken fat. There were the normal signs of aging, wrinkles and age spots, but no blisters, no discolorations. His eyes were clear and his forehead calm. It appeared that he, like the rest of the group, was telling the truth. They had not been exposed.
With the fluidity of practice, the group assumed positions against opposite walls. Olivia and Hume flattened against one, with Simon, Ned and Jenny against the other. All but Hume reached for their makeshift weapons and waited in silence. Olivia held Ahab’s collar tight as she felt the hair along his neck rise. It came again. Somewhere in the distance, there was a low rumbling, maybe of a deep voice, followed by an almost ghostly wail. Olivia switched on the lamp and was met by the group’s shocked eyes. “The fuck you think you’re doing?” Jenny hissed.
Olivia ran down the tunnel towards the sound. That cry was someone in pain. The group, left in darkness, had no choice but to follow. As they turned a slight corner to chase the thin reach of the lamplight, they saw Olivia kneeling over a girl in a white and pink ruffled dress. Simon thought for a moment how ludicrous she looked, her clothing reminiscent of a child’s doll or an afternoon picnic, rather than a woman huddled in the shadows of a post-apocalyptic sewer. Against the opposite wall was a thin man, breathing heavily and glaring at the two women in front of him.
Olivia swung around and faced the man, her voice dangerously quiet, “What did you do to her?”
“Well nice to meet you too, how do you like that?” He relaxed his posture, looking almost like Ahab, whose haunches began to lower, at Olivia’s side. The man laughed and gestured towards the group who were now blocking one end of the tunnel, creating a crescent shape with Simon and Hume on either end and Jenny and Ned filling out the center. “She always so friendly?”
Olivia ignored him and said to the girl on the ground, “Can you stand?”
The girl’s huge eyes went from Olivia’s outstretched hand to the man watching over her shoulder. She shook herself and straightened, standing on her own. “I’m fine, thank you. He didn’t do anything. I just tripped. It’s these awful sewers!”
Olivia stood and looked meaningfully at her group, all staring in silence, “I’ve never seen someone fall with so much help before...” she muttered.
The thin man rolled his eyes and grinned at them, helping the girl to steady herself. “Well, what have we here?” He eyed Jenny and her fast-food restaurant uniform, “I’ll have a large fry and two vanilla milkshakes!” He laughed and the girl at his side giggled. Olivia wished that, for once, Jenny’s looks could kill. Simon walked forward and extended his hand. It was so odd how the formalities of the old world seemed to come back in uncomfortable situations. The man’s grasp was firm and he met Simon’s eyes without guile.
“I’m Simon. We hope you two travel peacefully and if you don’t you can just shove off. We’ve had run-ins with some pretty unpleasant types.”
The man grinned again, exposing his gums beneath his small white teeth, “Ah. A leader, eh? Well, Simon, nice to meet you. ’We come in peace.’ Ha, like a cheesy line from an old alien film. We’ve met some ’unpleasant’ ones too. Not worth the effort. Anyway, I’m Chad and this here’s Anna-Lee. Just like a flower, she is.” As Chad’s composure had relaxed, his accent had turned on, almost dripping with the South. It suddenly brought Olivia back to Sunday mornings, college days and waking up in wheat fields, black roasted coffee and thick slabbed bacon, fat popping in the pan. Perhaps her eyes had played tricks. Lamplight can do that, bouncing off the walls like circus fleas. Especially as she was running when she first caught sight of them. Maybe he was just trying to catch her as she fell.
Olivia gave a half-smile and extended her hand, “You know how it can get down here. My name’s Olivia. Good to meet you two.”
Anna-Lee looked earnestly back and gently shook the offered hand, “Oh, don’t we! No worries, hun. Nice to meet ya.”
It was the same story. But they had come all the way from below the Bible Belt and like other Southerners, were only stopping for supplies in Brooklyn the day the bridges were cut. Their plan had been to keep driving north, but like everyone else, they had been forced to relocate to the sewers the day the P-Temperature was confirmed. Since then, they had changed their course to head out East as well, following scant radio signals about the supposed Haven, and avoiding the highly populated West End of the Island.
“We near gave up a couple times. Especially when we got mixed up with the last ones,” Anna-Lee said and looked up at Chad, which was pretty difficult to do as he himself was on the shorter side, and he put an arm around her.
“Those assholes. Tryin’ to take all our food as ’initiation.’ Initiation my foot. And when we refused, they got so pushy we had to high-tail it outta there. The others have all been like that more or less. Luckily,” he laughed wryly, “luckily we don’t have any food left so there’s nothing for you to take even if you had the inclination.”
“How long have you been without?” Olivia asked quickly.
“Oh just since this pretty little lady decided to sneak the last bit this afternoon.”
Anna-Lee looked down and said quietly, “I was so hungry.” Chad tightened his grip and smiled.
“I understand hun. So’m I.”
Olivia motioned to Simon. He had already started taking his bag off his shoulder. Ned looked accusingly and Jenny shrugged. Hume didn’t even seem to notice as Simon took out a protein bar and began to unwrap it. He was staring at Anna-Lee as if he had never seen a woman before.
Chad caught on to what was happening and started to protest, thrusting his hands out and saying, “No, no. We know how it is! Don’t worry about us ‘til we really need some. Thanks all the same, just ain’t right!”
Simon looked at his group and then back to the two strangers. “It’s safer that you don’t get to the point that you really need it. At least that’s what we’ve found.
Olivia nodded, “We’re all in the same boat down here. Go on then.”
Chad and Anna-Lee didn’t need more convincing. They lunged on their halves, but then with the practice of veterans, broke it into smaller bits and chewed each piece slowly and with care.