One Hundred Sixty Eight Days After

One Hundred Sixty Eight Days After by J. Kuzmier --  photo by John B. at     

The moon is full tonight, and the night sky is clear. I’m glad for those things. Really, I am. True, one hundred sixty-eight days ago, I didn’t think I would have given a damn what the sky was like. Too busy feeling sorry for myself, thinking my broken heart was the end of the world.

Well, it was. Until it really was the end of the world, when the explosion happened and everything changed. Then, I knew a little bit better than before. Because of the explosion, I’m glad for full moons at night, because at least there’s light somewhere in this world. The end of life as you know it has a way of giving perspective. Even if it’s only a little bit of perspective.

So, I appreciate things like full moons and clear skies now. Their immediacy takes my mind off of my broken heart. Because even now, my mind still goes back to that place of personal devastation, over and over. Even after a universal disaster like this one. I remember Scott, and how he broke my heart. I can’t say why my mind continues to travel there. You’d think starvation would take that memory away, and lend some perspective to something so silly as a breakup.

But its seems unless I keep moving, I go back to that place where my heart was betrayed, again and again. Can you believe my heart still remembers being shattered, even though the world where it happened no longer exists? I can’t believe it. But it does. I’m almost glad to have the project of finding food, so the memories aren’t as strong. Is that weird? I really don’t know.

Because there’s a full moon, it will be ideal for the scavenging I plan to do. The temperature is warm for this time of the year, late fall. If I were to guess, I’d say it was in the fifties. Still a little chilly for sleeping out in the open, but I will be on the move. At night, I tend to keep walking and save sleeping for the daytime. There’s a pleasant breeze, and I can almost think it’s back in the old days, when I’d go for a nighttime stroll near my house. Almost, but not quite.

I tend to drift in my mind when I walk like this. You wouldn’t think that would happen, given that it’s supposedly so dangerous now that everything’s changed. I never would have imagined it myself. I would have thought I’d constantly be looking out for some attacker, hypervigilant to every passing shadow. It would make sense, wouldn’t it? After all, I am traveling alone in a weakened state.

But other than the precaution of staying awake at night, I seem to have almost become numb to the danger. This oblivion reminds me of back when life was normal, and I used to drive my daily commute on autopilot. I used to put on my makeup, eat lunch, change radio stations, and yes so sue me, text people, especially my ex Scott as I was muddling through the daily crunch. I ran on autopilot then, just as I do now.

It’s strange how easily one can become numb to potential danger, at least one level. On another level, it makes perfect sense. How the hell is being paranoid going to make you any safer? It’s not like it gives you superhuman powers of intuition and strength. It’s like my subconscious mind says, why bother expending energy on useless things if you don’t have to?

So my mind drifts, just like I do as I aimlessly walk the streets. I don’t really pay attention to my surroundings, not in a really specific way, only if I can detect a safe place to look for food. There’s some kind of radar in my head that raises my hair at times, and then I just change course. It doesn’t happen much, but when it does I just go someplace else. There’s other times when something just catches my eye, for no specific reason. It could be a couple of people walking, telling jokes. Or some garbage floating down the street. Very mundane things can turn into sublime art at times while on the road, I’ve discovered.

But after noticing these things, I go back to my vacant thinking. And yes, it’s usually about Scott. I admit it. Thinking about him is a lot more pleasant than thinking about when I’ll eat. At least I know there’s no way I can get the former. Hoping for the second is a tease that seems too cruel to contemplate. I’ll remember what I really lost then. It’s easier to just let my mind drift. It’s a way to get through the chaos of my life now. I can’t change my circumstances, so why go bananas thinking about reality if thinking about it doesn’t make me feel better. Right?

When scavenging, I case the usual places, like garbage cans, dumpsters, stores, and restaurants. I’ve scavenged in the company of other strangers, sort of like a couple of people sorting through the apple bin in the grocery store. There’s not a lot of fighting between people, strange as it may seem. Not like those movies and TV shows where everyone mauls each other when military trucks show up after natural disasters with food. Maybe after six months of limbo, everyone’s too tired to fight. I don’t really know. Since I missed the first month or so after the disaster, I’m not sure if there was a lot of fighting over resources in the beginning. Some people I’ve talked to said they ran into problems, others say it’s just like I’ve dealt with over the months. I guess it just depends where you are at. Maybe the bigger cities are different? I don’t really know. The ones who had the most problems were the closest to the city that I live in, which is a relatively small one as far as cities go. But no one I talked to has been actually downtown, so it’s hard for me to really make a real comparison between here and there.

I’m not near my house anymore, or at least I don’t think so. I’ve stayed out of the city, but I think I’m at least ten miles away from where I used to live now. It’s hard to know. Things aren’t as demolished here as they are in the main city, which you can tell on a clear day was pretty much leveled.

But it’s still bad here. Store windows and doors are smashed, some buildings are just plain gone, and everything seems to be coated in black grime everywhere. I’m not sure if the black grime’s from the disaster, or if it always looked like that. I never really paid attention to this area, even though I’m sure I’ve driven down these roads back in the days of fast cars. Meaning, all of them.

Put it this way, things on foot seem different. And things on foot after the end of the world look even more different. So what’s changed about this area? Couldn’t really tell you, other than everything seems like a condemned relic from another time. Six months can seem like years when the past you’re thinking of has no memory. Yet when I think of Scott, it’s like he was just here yesterday. Hard to tell you which is worse, even though logically the choice seems like a no-brainer. But who said a broken heart was logical?

Tonight is one of the better nights as far as weather goes, since everything got wiped out five and a half months ago. One hundred and sixty-eight days, to be exact. It seems most of those twenty-one weeks, it’s rained every night. Yes, I have kept anal track of the time since then. Even though every day is exactly the same as the one before, even when the first few days I was still in shock from my own personal disaster. Even when there’s no real reason to know the date because what’s there to do other than survive, now that everything is gone? Who cares about time anymore? Me, apparently. That’s who.

But hey, what can I say? Keeping track of time makes me feel better somehow. I can pretend to have control over something in this world that I and everyone else now lives in. In this new world, it’s better to hold onto anything that gives you comfort, even if it doesn’t make any practical sense. Whatever gets you through the night, I heard someone singing the other day. Why not, if it works, if it keeps you sane and alive?

I know the exact amount of days ago when things changed. But just like everyone else, I don’t have any idea what happened that made it that way. One day things were really great, peachy in the way civilization imagined itself to be. Then, everything blew up, everywhere. Especially in the city, a few miles from my house.

I know it’s not much of a description, but I don’t know how else to explain what happened. No one else I’ve met knows what happened either. All kinds of trains, planes, and even some automobiles exploded, everywhere. It was really crazy. No one knows what happened, because it all happened so fast, and then everything spiffy, modern, chic geek and pure geek was just plain gone.

My opinion seems to match the consensus of those whom I’ve talked to. We all think that our city is most definitely not the only one that was destroyed. For one, if you had only one real good chance to take out a city and you had to make it count, our city isn’t the grandest symbol for your crowning achievement. I mean, it is a city, a real city with tall buildings and not just because some village decided to incorporate their three grocery stores as being such. We even have championship college teams, ones that are nationally known and recognized. So, not that small a city.

But it’s small enough that most people don’t think much of it. It didn’t regularly hit the twenty-four hour news networks or the big newspapers, unless we occasionally get an elderly person confusing the gas for the brake pedal running through a donut shop. Or some five car pile up with a busload of kids hanging over a bridge overpass. It’s a boring city. Well, it was a boring city. Back when it still existed.

My point is, as well as the point of many others, if you’re going to go for the big guns, why would you waste it on taking out a place like ours? Wouldn’t it make more sense to take a big chunk out of a place that people would be shocked for years over, like Paris or London or Los Angeles, not waste all your artillery on our hokey town? So, for that reason, me and most people feel our city was just one of many that got taken out.

Then there’s the fact that no one has come to help us out. Most people are in agreement that if the bigger cities were intact, you’d think someone would be showing up with a tank, a helicopter with MREs, something. No one has. I don’t think that’s a particularly good sign for the state of the rest of the world. Neither does anyone else.

Whatever it is that has taken place seems to have really leveled out the population. I try not to think about it, because there’s not a lot I can do about it. Getting all worried about it isn’t going to do anything. But most times, when I walk down the street I’ll see clusters of people here and there. I wasn’t big on walking suburban highways with strip malls back in the day, and neither was anyone else from what I remember when I drove from here to there.

Yes, it was definitely an automotive world back then. There weren’t even sidewalks along the streets half the time, it was so geared towards people in metal boxes. The few times I did see people walking the streets back then, I assumed something was wrong with them. I didn’t think they were doing it for the exercise or the fresh air. If you wanted exercise, that was what gyms were for. As far as fresh air, well, are you kidding? Have you ever experienced what a suburban road full of buildings and moving cars smells like? I rest my case.

But of course, now, it’s a different story. The cars are all frozen now. But as far as pedestrians, I’d say, if I really tried to think of it, maybe ten times as many as there used to be. Which means no one is really around. Everyone else is somewhere, and it really doesn’t seem like a good sign, to me or to anyone else. It explains why I still have been able to find food on occasion, even after five and a half months. Most of the competition is probably dead in the city. I don’t like to think about it, but unfortunately there’s no other explanation that makes sense.

I have to admit, though, occasionally I feel relief that most of the competition is gone. I’d like to pretend they’re still alive somewhere else, though, so I don’t come off in my own mind that as gleeful that my fellow man has been blown up. Hate to say it, thought, my stomach is glad that most of the competition has been culled off.

I’ve heard people say it’s aliens that did it, or it’s this race or that country or that terrorist group that did it. Can’t rule that one out, I suppose. Some say it’s God who swooped down and wiped everything out. I used to know people back when things were different who said they knew exactly what God thought, and what he meant. My jerk ex turned into one of them, so I should know.

Okay, I know I shouldn’t call Scott a jerk, especially in a time like this when everyone’s supposed to be in this thing together. But sometimes even now I get pissed at him, because that’s what happens when you get heartbroken and don’t have time to mourn it. See, this is what happened. Scott found God, or at least that’s what he told me at the diner when he outright dumped me. Apparently he, God and his new pastor all decided that I was the spawn of Satan luring Scott away from the purity of God with all the salacious sex we had over the years. You’d think I was a porn star instead of some boring girlfriend who’s only had sex with four other people besides him at the age of thirty-four.

But anyway, Scott claimed that God and his pastor said I was like the eye he had to pluck out if Scott wanted to save his own soul. The theory was that it was better for Scott to be maimed in heaven than laid and whole with me in hell. No kidding, Scott’s words exactly. That’s how Scott so eloquently put it holding his new mistress the Bible at a diner looking across at me, like I was some soul lost forever.

God apparently told Scott that, about the pluck the eye out thing. Just like God has told a bunch of people why he was so ticked off at the rest of us, and had to wipe out everything. I don’t know, he hasn’t told me anything, but what do I know. I’m just a little harlot that steals souls, so I guess I’m not in the divine information loop with that kind of standard going on. Maybe God did blow everything up, and I’m just too much of a slut for him to bother to tell me.

In the end, I don’t know if it really matters, if God did it, or didn’t do it, or why he did it if he did. I still feel hungry every day. I’m so thirsty that I don’t even know it anymore, just a burning in my throat that won’t go away. I just want to eat a real meal once more. That would be a merciful God at work, I believe. Give me a real meal, with real food and real drink. Strange how small a dream can be, yet it still seems important to have one, anyway.

The reality is that even if on the outside chance that everything is great everywhere else, where we are, everything is gone. It’s also reality that no one has come to help us. No one seems to be able to reach us by any means, radio, satellite, anything. We can’t reach anyone else, either. There still are people who expect the military to show up in trucks with oodles of care packages any day now. But so far, no one has. What that means, I don’t know. Maybe we’re the only ones going through this. Maybe we’re not. People come up with different ideas. But that’s all they are, ideas. Nobody can prove anything.

But does it matter, really? Even if we knew who destroyed everything, what would that do to fix anything? All we know is, no one has come to help us. So if we’re the only ones in this, we’ve been deserted. If not, everyone else has their own problems. Either way, that means we’re hungry and alone here, whoever is left.

In some ways, there’s no practical purpose for me to be walking the streets alone like I do especially at night, scavenging or not. Considering the circumstances, I should be hiding, pretending that feeble gesture means I’m safe from danger. There’s the whole idea of conserving energy, too, which gives more argument to staying hidden. If you stay in one place, you don’t burn as many calories. You conserve fuel that way, which is a good strategy in a place where food is scarce. You know, like this one. My stomach yells some strange growl in assent. I’ve never heard my stomach and intestines make such noises before this time. It sounds like a grunge band in there. I could start my own YouTube music band with them, if there was only a YouTube for it to broadcast onto.

It’s awfully ironic how my friends and I tried to find the easiest and fastest way to burn as many calories as possible, back when the world seemed like our personal instant chef. Now, that whole lifestyle of refusing food, diets, and making ourselves sweat in fancy gyms seems so foolish and silly. When I see what few clothes I still have practically falling off of me, I realize I’ve found the best crash diet possible, now that I don’t need it.

The last real meal I had was weeks ago, leftovers from someone’s pizza that I couldn’t believe I had the luck to find. The only food I have on me right now is a chocolate bar I found on the ground earlier today that’s now hidden in my inside jacket pocket. I couldn’t believe my luck, because it was fully wrapped and not even squished at all. I hadn’t felt that lucky in weeks.

So yes, given all that, my random walking around seems to be a ridiculous thing to do. I’m exposed, I’m using up fuel I don’t have. I’m weak, and I can only guess moving around as I am doing is only making things worse. I keep moving so I don’t think about it. Besides, I rationalize, I can only find food if I’m on the move. After all, that’s how I found the chocolate bar. But some part of my brain buried in the famished fog of my head is certain that whatever sustenance I’ve gleaned on my travels in no way replenishes the deficit I put myself in.

On my travels, I haven’t encountered any problems with people. I really don’t know why. It still surprises me, even now. I know what this is supposed to look like, with all the doomsday stories that used to be so popular back in the day when things like that were a fantasy. I’m a solo female, so all the predators are out looking for weak, vulnerable prey like little ol’ me to rape and pillage. I don’t know, maybe something about me is weird, but no one has bothered me, really. And I haven’t met any women who have been, at least those who admit to being so. I’m not sure why, because back when everything was normal, you used to hear a lot about things overseas where women like me were attacked during war. But that’s not what is happening now.

Maybe everyone’s just in shock. I’ve found that most men I meet are just like me, walking around looking for food. I don’t know if it’s because I’m outside of the city so there’s less potential attackers to begin with. Maybe everyone’s dead, so the most violent impulses aren’t needed to cull the population for the few resources left. It’s just a guess on my part. Just like I can’t say for sure where exactly I am, either. This used to be suburbia with a bunch of strip malls. I guess in some ways, it was just as barren then as it is now. In any event, no one has attacked me, and that means at least in one way, I’ve had pretty good luck in my own way.

I did try staying in my house for awhile, for about a month or so. From what I’ve heard from everyone else I’ve talked to, that’s a pretty good run to stay put. I apparently got lucky, because no one tried to break in, at least not in a violent way. The day everything changed, I was home from work all busy with indulging a broken heart over my jerk of an ex, watching some junk TV I never would watch in normal circumstances and eating a ton of drugstore chocolate I couldn’t believe I stooped so low to buy.

When the explosion happened, I heard lots of loud booms. Which at first confused me because I thought it was coming from the TV. That was confusing, because I was staring at a sitcom, and booms and explosions aren’t usually part of the repertoire. Then, the TV snapped off. I think it was around ten-thirty, because the sitcom I was staring at was just ending. That is when the clock started on this new life I’m living now.

I’d been prescient and apparently lucky enough to buy a lot of non-perishable food just after my ex dumped me, believing I might need it to tide me over so I could sit and wallow without taking too much effort to prepare, better to take the phone off the hook and stuff my face in blissful isolation. I had chips, said drugstore chocolate, microwave meals of whatever I could grab fastest, canned everything, nuts, candy of all kinds, boxed of donuts glazed, chocolate dipped, coconut dunked and dancing in just good old plain sugar. And what splurge like that would be complete without cases of diet soda and red wine? Oh, and I did buy some raisins. You know, for nutrition of course.

I had a splurge to end all splurges. I binged my way through the microwave meals first. I scarfed down pasta meals oozing with cheese and chicken fried with so much fatty coating one might ask sarcastically, “would you like some chicken with your fried batter?” I had sirloin basting in mushroom wine sauce, I had shrimp fried rice, I had pad Thai with pork, with chicken, and with beef.

And I got blissfully drunk, even after all that food. It helped numb the pain of the desertion, helped me forget the pain. And it did, as day passed into night and night into day. Fantasizing about it takes me on a vacation from my gnawing stomach, I guess because the lack of blood sugar gives me weird highs nowadays. Hey, whatever gets you through the night, right?

Anyway, the day of the explosion I was into the fifth day of my pity party binge, the first official day I had to take off from work. I had just polished off the last of the microwave meals, a chicken Alfredo with extra Parmesan cheese and was starting in on my chocolate. I didn’t know how lucky I was with that, because I’d just eaten the last of the perishable food. At the time, I was depressed when I finished, because that meant I might have to go out and buy new food.

I remember being physically full and bloated, but enjoying the feeling so much more than the rock that was in my stomach the day my ex of three years Scott dumped me. The TV was on, like it had been for the last four days straight I was just beginning to get scared that I’d be stupid enough to miss him again. I hate feeling soppy and sentimental when a guy treats me like a dog, although looking back the only thing Scott did wrong was dump me, and when is that supposed to feel good? But you know how it goes. At the time of betrayal, what else will you think about other than he’s a jackass, he’s not worth getting sad over, all that whole thing. So it’s good to blot out any good thought of him. That was the last thought I had before everything changed.

That’s when I heard all of the booming, and then the TV shut off. I don’t really remember what happened in the next couple of minutes, but then I was outside and saw this big puff of smoke coming from the downtown area. It wasn’t the kind of mushroom cloud everyone imagines when you see these disaster movies with nuclear war. Instead, it was like a huge ball of smog snugly cast over it like a blanket, like a Ziggy cloud of doom. I don’t know any of my neighbors, because my street is usually pretty quiet, but a couple of other people came out and noticed it too.

Since no one had any working radios to monitor the police channels, there was no way to know what happened. I saw a few cars go by, mostly older models, towards the area. I don’t know who they were. Maybe they didn’t know what had just happened, and were blithely driving to work unwittingly driving into a disaster. Maybe it was those hero types who drive faster towards disaster than away from it, ready to save the day. And as far as I could tell, while a few vehicles drove towards the city, none returned.

Regardless, after that nothing was the same. There was no more work to drive to, and nothing to rescue. It was the beginning of the nothing we’re all living in now. Me, I was too drugged and upset that day to care, one way or the other. I almost was glad the world was blowing to hell, I felt so despondent. I just went back into my house. For some reason, I felt compelled to fill up my wine jugs with water. I don’t know why, but I did. Then I fell asleep, hoping it would all be over when I woke up.

So that’s how I made it for the next month, until I completely ran out of what food I had left. Ate what I could, and slept as much as I could. It became somewhat apparent after the first three days that no help was coming soon, and I began rationing my food. I came up with this idea that I should eat twelve hundred calories a day for a woman like me, five five and 135 (at least that’s what it was back then). When my friends and I were busy dieting our five extra ounces away, I discovered this amount of calories was what was minimally required for basal metabolic health for a female my size. It was really important to learn what little you could live on to be skinny back then, which was an ironic practice when everyone was so busy criticizing anorexics who ate anything less.

In any event, my diet practices of old panned out during this time. I knew exactly how to ration my junk food efficiently by calories. If you’re a chick like me who dieted incessantly, you know how to rationalize eating your crappy food while pretending you’re doing something constructive like watching your weight. So I knew exactly how to portion out my stash into neat 1200-per-day increments. This amounted to four donuts a day, or five candy bars a day, or one big bag of chips a day. There were times I wondered if I should just eat as much as possible, in case the so-called raiders came and wanted to kill me over a Boston creme donut. But if people were going to kill me over something like that, I figured in the long run it didn’t really matter if I had a whole vault of food, or nothing at all. I rationed, even though it was so, so tempting to eat it all. I did weigh myself, for the hell of it, just before I left for the road. I weighed 125. Pretty ironic that I lost weight the junk food way.

Back when I was staying in my apartment, I didn’t have any problems with raiders or anybody like that. But I did have people knocking on my windows from time to time. They weren’t violent, but it seemed what they were doing was looking for an empty place to crash. The first time it happened to me, it was about a week into this whole mess. It was about five at night, I guess, and it was just about getting dark. There were these two guys with a few women standing by my living room. One of the guys knocked on the window. It was about one of the freakiest things I dealt with, ironically freakier than having everything shut off on me. And it had been just after I ate a donut for dinner, so the blood sugar mixed with the adrenaline made me feel like I lost every ounce of blood I own.

It only got worse when one of the guys saw me, and I thought I was going to die a really slow death really soon. I crumpled to the floor like the Wicked Witch of the West in the Wizard of Oz, melting away. The guy who knocked on the window yelled back to his companions in a voice just loud enough for me to hear, “Someone’s in there already.” I heard a couple of expletives and swear words, and then the pack was gone. Needless to say, I didn’t move at all the rest of the night where I sat. I don’t know why my lone presence stopped them from moving in, but apparently it did. Maybe they thought there were more people house, I don’t know. But they left me alone, and moved on.

This happened a couple of more times over the course of the month. I’m not sure why none of these people tried to engage with me, to convince me to let me in, but they didn’t. That being said, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to play host to a bunch of strangers when I had nothing to host them with. I had the entire run of the house for that month, because even though I rent only the bottom apartment, the upstairs tenant was gone. It was my bad luck was that he had nothing at all to eat in his place, which although disappointed me didn’t surprise me because he was never home to begin with, and he never returned after the crisis either.

So the biggest reason why I left my home was that the food ran out, plain and simple. When I guzzled the last of the water from my wine bottle, I decided to hit the road. Besides, maybe some group of people had better use of my house, anyway. No use wasting eight rooms on one solo person like me. That’s when I started walking, and pretty much what I’ve been doing for the last five months.

I find that when I keep moving, I feel like I’m doing something. I know this contradicts the whole metabolic thing, because on a really good day I’ve eaten fifteen hundred calories and I know I’m burning a lot more than that. But I feel like I’m moving forward, which obviously in a literal sense I am if I’m still walking. It makes me feel like I’m investing in hope, like I’m traveling to some paradise that I know awaits me somewhere. What should I do instead, sit around and wait to die when it will happen one day anyway, even if everything went back to peachy and lit up tomorrow? I’d rather walk, to forget about death. It will come soon enough. I don’t need to beg for it to arrive.

Besides, I briefly tried that whole scene, hiding for my life, pretending I was conserving fuel. There was the time I lived under a pile of wrecked vehicles, pretending the broken metal that surrounded me was some kind of armed shield that would keep danger from me. Let’s put it this way, it was completely ridiculous, and useless. I was cold and uncomfortable all of the time. I don’t know if you’ve ever played that game Twister, but I felt like I was perpetually living that game, every moment of my life. Except when I did play that game back in the dark ages, I had the privilege of having room to breathe. Twisted up like that, all I thought about was how uncomfortable I was and how little I had to eat. Every time I heard a noise, I was terrified. I was so weak from lying around in weird positions like I was doing, I was sure I would never be able to defend myself if someone with bad intentions did find me.

So, given all of that, I couldn’t even utilize the main advantage of lying down constantly, which was me trying to sleep it off as much as I could. I did try, but I probably I got more sleep way back on the night when Scott dumped me and I catnapped through all-nighter paid-programming advertisements. Scrunched under the dead metal, I was too terrified to let my eyes shut at all, and the sheer adrenaline kept me awake at every juncture. Only when my guard was completely robbed from me did I get any sleep at all. I slept maybe three hours in the three days that I lived under the metal. Not to mention, I was as thirsty as all hell. My throat felt like it was scratching its way up to my brain and back to my lungs. I really needed water. The thirst was killing me worse than the lack of food. Which makes sense, because it probably was, literally. You’re not supposed to be go seventy hours plus without drinking water. At least, not that I’ve heard in my life.

Then, I encountered a real kicker. Waking up to a staring contest with a couple of rats. Sure, the rats are everywhere, so no place is really safe from them. But try waking up in a confined space with a couple of giant rodents observing you like you’re the lab rat. If they came with a bottle of wine or even water to share with me, then maybe I’d reconsider. But not surprisingly, they didn’t. They just leaned in, staring at me like I was some strange specimen they found in their drinking water, blinking in unison. Their weird human-like calmness freaked me out worse than if they were sniffing me in earnest like the way I’d expect them to. So after that lovely speed date from rodent hell with two literal rats, that’s when I left my hiding place, and began my life in the open. I’ve encountered a few more rats along the way, but at least I’m not stuffed into a two foot square space with them anymore.

I did look for a couple of my friends. My best friend from before, Carol, lived about a block from me. A couple of others lived in the vicinity as well. Not surprisingly, I found none of them. Denial is a nice friend in times like that. It helped me blot out the implication of what their absence meant, and why they didn’t bother to contact me in the month after the explosion. I let myself pretend that they went somewhere else that day, were far away from the city. Or that they did exactly as I did, hiding out as long as possible, before hitting the road. That story helped rationalize why they hadn’t come to find me in the month after, or why they were gone from their homes now. After all, it was realistic. Isn’t it my story? I still hold out hope that they are around, alive and well, somewhere.

I think I’ve been walking for about a mile now since I started tonight’s trek. There’s a couple of garbage cans in an alley that are standing up. The alley is in between two smaller buildings that look like they used to be some kind of mom and pop businesses back in the day when those things mattered. That’s a good sign, that they’re still standing. If they are, it’s more likely there’s something salvageable still in there.

But the bad sign is that the mom and pop shops, when I get closer, don’t look like they were food places. One was a travel agency (They still have those things nowadays? Well, I guess they don’t, not now.), and the other was a vacuum store. Neither place is probably known for the great cuisine, so the cans may be a waste of time, which explains why no one’s looked at them to begin with.

Still, I figure it can’t hurt to look, right? I’ll have a better chance of finding food there than just plain walking around, anyway.

I’m just about to open the trash can lid to begin my work, when something in my subconscious tells me I’m not alone. It’s not like the hair standing on the back of my neck kind of danger alert. The sensation is more benign than that. More like, my five senses are picking up more than my initial expectations allotted for, like an extra e-mail arriving in my inbox or a text from someone I didn’t expect. I look up, lid in hand, not seeing anything at first. But then, I hear a noise which tells me that my inner radar was correct, once more.

As far as what the noise was? Well, like I’ve said before, I’m not the most promiscuous gal in the world, but I’m old enough and been around enough to recognize the grunting sound that my ears have picked up. Back in the day, people getting laid in the middle of the street wasn’t a usual thing, but things aren’t usual anymore. I suppose people are just busy doing what they feel they have to do, whatever gets you through the night kind of thing.

My eyes scan the area to see where the lovers are doing their thing. Privacy is something that I’d like to afford to others in normal circumstances. But though I don’t feel any danger, my solitary state makes me want to verify my surroundings. Besides, if the lovers wanted privacy, the alley wasn’t best place for it. Even in these unusual days, you probably could find something less conspicuous than this. At least, that’s how I rationalize my spying, anyway.

I don’t see anything or anyone as I’m crouched over the garbage can, but as I stand up, the moonlight lets me see some guy standing in an open doorway. I didn’t even know there was a doorway to that building, and I happen to notice how strange my instincts are that I’m more marveled at an unfamiliar doorway than at some guy having sex in public. My, how things change so quickly.

Anyway, the dude’s back is to me, but he’s standing spread-eagle, his arms up high as he clutches both sides of the door frame. He, or at least I presume it is according to the person’s build, looks like that Da Vinci symbol that represents proportion. It’s a strange way to use that symbol as an analogy now, given how disproportionate and unbalanced everything is now. But humanity has always been strange to begin with. And maybe the explosion is a way the cosmos are making things balanced again, who knows?

The catch is that instead of looking like frames from a jumping-jack video, the bottom part of the frame is blocked off by a roundish, shadowed lump. Judging from the fact that the grunting is coming from the standing figure, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what the roundish figure is up to. Let’s put this way: it isn’t a bean bag.

Should I be alarmed? I don’t know. Like I’ve said, things are different now and it’s really amazing what you can get used to. But it does compel me enough to think that maybe I should leave, at least afford the loving (or lusting) couple a semblance of privacy, so I stand up to go.

Isn’t it my perfect luck, though, that as I do so, I knock into the garbage can, prompting the lid to clang to the ground. Not surprisingly, the couple stop their reverie and zero in their attention on me, the crouching one standing at full height like his/her lover, and starts walking towards me but stops about six feet later.

“Who the hell is there?” Okay, it’s a he. At his quick approach, I begin to feel startled. The other one, the receiver, seems to be zipping up his pants. Which I choose to take as a good sign.

“Oh, stop being such an asshole, Dave. It’s just somebody going through the garbage can,” he says. Once fully clothed, the receiver slowly makes his way towards Dave and me. His calm demeanor helps ameliorate my anxiety, and I immediately feel better, even with two strange men regarding me rather than just one. So I decide to interact with them, rather than run. The receiver speaks again, this time to me. “You okay there? Need help?”

I find myself laughing at that. “Don’t we all?”

The receiver, who is still nameless, laughs back. Dave, his partner, remains silent. But not in a way that feels dangerous to me, so I say, “Sorry to disturb you guys.”

“No worries.” The receiver says. “So seriously. You okay? Looking for food?”

I nod, which I quickly realize is stupid as a cloud has temporarily masked the moon, so I say. “Yeah.”

“That one’s been pretty picked over,” Dave says, nodding towards the garbage can I’ve disturbed. After his previous suspicion of me, I get suspicious in retaliation, assuming he’s guarding a stash. I almost get afraid again, especially as he walks right up to me. I shouldn’t have worried too much, because he continues by saying, “But you never know. It’s pretty heavy. Let me help you with it and tip it over. If we find any food, we split it three ways. Deal?”

Can’t think of anything else to say but, “Sure, yeah.”

So Dave proceeds to haul up the garbage can and heave it upside down, splaying its guts upon the alleyway ground. The moonlight is back, alighting its contents, which aren’t particularly hopeful at first glance. There are tons and tons of wrappers of all kinds: candy ones, cellophane ones displaying logos from commercial cake companies that contain pies, donuts, and creamed cakes, sandwich wrappers. There are package wrappers for big boxes back in the day when there were big boxes wrapping stuff that was actually delivered by moving vehicles to your place of work or residence (back in the day when a place of work or residence even existed). And as you may imagine, tons and tons of condom wrappers and some tampon wrappers as well. There were also, to go along with the last two items, used condoms, tampons and sanitary pads, wads of tissue paper, a stereo with its guts ripped open, apple cores, orange peels, banana peels, and melon peels. The food wrappers and the fruit remnants infuriated me with their temptation. So close, I thought, yet so far away.

Dave and his companion shake their heads. Now that the excavation was over, I get a better look at them in the moonlight. Both are about five ten, several inches taller than me. Dave is dark haired and stocky, but it could have been all the clothing that covered him that made him seem that way. He’s dressed in several layers of flannel sweaters, and a pair of unbuttoned jeans that revealed purple underthings. Whether it was underwear or some kind of sweatpants over underwear, I had no way of knowing. His unidentified companion was thinner, though not outfitted with a small frame. He wore a trench coat, a winter hat, and I wasn’t sure what else because I couldn’t see.

Both were relatively handsome guys. I wondered if they were gay in real life, or if their relationship was based on the convenience that only this apocryphal insanity could provide. But then again, I wondered why it even mattered to me, if they were gay or not. What difference did it make, and besides, wasn’t this the real life now, and the other one just fantasy?

Drifting off like this, I’m a little startled when Dave’s companion says, “Yeah, sorry about this. It was pretty picked over when we got here, three days ago. And nobody’s throwing out food anymore, either. So it’s pretty bad. We’re running pretty low, ourselves. We’re going to have to go hunt, too.”

There’s a silence that follows, and my feet are glued to the ground. Low on food does mean there is food, and I wait to see if I’m invited or dismissed. There’s enough of a pause to embarrass me in my reluctance to move, almost compelling me to leave first, before it’s Dave who says in a brusque tone, “Want some?”

Instinct compels me at first to be terrified. Here I am, a lone female, with two sizeable guys in an alleyway, walking in on them when they are having exhibitionist, albeit consensual relations, and the one who was giving head saying “want some.” But as I blink my eyes to process what I should do next, Dave says, “Reynold, go get our friend a granola bar and some water.”

“Of course.” Reynold, the receiver, obediently trots back to their compound, while Dave regards me. Now, I don’t feel terror anymore. I don’t know what I feel, but terror or any of its companions is not it.

Dave says to me, “You’re traveling alone, I take it?”

Does it seem naive to answer in the affirmative? But yet, isn’t it obvious? “Yeah, I’m alone.”

Dave nods, regarding this. The moonlight highlights his gesture. “Have any trouble out there?”

I shake my head as I say, “No, not really. No trouble.”

He nods, more sure of himself. “That’s good. I’ve heard some solo travelers run into problems. But not a lot. Not too much. It’s good you’re okay.”

He’s still nodding when Reynold comes out with the granola bar and a small bottle of water, handing them to me. The granola bar is wrapped. A chocolate chip one with two servings of whole grains in it, the wrapper proudly announces. Two hundred calories that my body desperately craves. I’m almost about to rip it off right then when a needle of conscience pricks me. “I have a chocolate bar, if you guys want to share it.”

Dave turns to vehement shaking of his head, shooing me with his hand. Reynold is also shaking no, in a more sedate fashion. “Nah, nah.” Dave says. “We’re guys. We’re fine. You should keep the chocolate bar. Eat the granola. Enjoy it. No strings attached. Understand?”

He’s trying to reassure me, I know on some level. But I shiver anyway, for just a second. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s the fact that he has to reassure me that’s wigged me. For a moment, I’m reminded I’m a woman traveling alone during the end of the world, and everyone I see knows it.

But I snap out of the terror, swallowing and nodding. Terror does nothing unless the danger is imminent. No use telling myself it’s around every corner. I’ll kill myself with fear before anyone even has a chance of getting to me. So I do exactly as he suggests. I eat the granola. I enjoy it. With no strings attached. I understand completely what he means. He smiles and nods, watching me eat.

I forget my situation as I eat. The taste of chocolate bursts through with its creamy sweetness. The crunchy oats feel like good, tough nutrition that will fight for me for what little time span it’s allowed in my body. I’m aware in some recess of my mind that if it were back in the real world that I once was from, the granola bar would seem stale. I’d probably throw it away.

But in this real world, the one that I am, this means less than nothing. It’s food. It came in a wrapper. It’s gourmet, like the best steak money could buy back when money meant something. I savor it, remembering its taste so I can forget the gnawing at the stomach that is begging for so, so, much more. And as I eat it, I realize that this time that someone actually shared their food outright with me. It tastes even better knowing that.

The water is even better. I pretend I’m splashing in a beach as the liquid runs down my throat. It’s not so hard to do, as the water is relatively cold just from being outdoors in this weather. The paper on the plastic bottle has long been ripped off, the cap on it obviously shows that I’m not the first person that opened it. For all I know, the bottle is full of liquid poison. Or the two of them have used it as a pissing bottle. I don’t know, but I’m so thirsty that I don’t care. It tastes like water, which means it tastes like nothing. And for once, the burning in my throat is gone. I never knew heaven could come in such small doses. But apparently, it does.

Reynold stands next to his companion as I finish. He has his hands behind his back, observing me like a teacher supervising his students as they are taking a test. I swallow the last bite and throw the wrapper into the sideways garbage can. I know there’s no more garbage pickup. But for some reason, it feels important for me to dispose of the package in what was once the proper place. Reynold steps towards me once I do. I hand the water bottle to him. With a small nod, he takes it.

“Do you know why we gave you that food,” he says.

I’m too surprised by this question to react at all. So I simply say, “No.”

“Karma.” Dave replies for him. Reynold nods in agreement with him. “We still believe that what we do to others will come back to us. Karma is older than anything we know. Older than our modern conveniences. Karma is operative, even if none of this–” he gestures to the buildings around us, the debris littered around, “is. So we choose to operate on the principles that will sustain us. That will help us heal.”

Reynold nods, once again. “Dave has told you there are no strings attached to our offering to you. He’s right in one way. We personally expect nothing of you in return. But in taking our food, we do have one request. You can take it or leave it, whatever you want. Your choice.”

My surprise has turned to curiosity. I feel no danger as I say, “Sure. What is it?”

“Just please in turn, be generous to someone else. I don’t care how you do it. In this world, we need to pay forward as much as we can. It’s the only way the good guys will win the war in the end. We need this, as much as you do. So, can you do this for us?” I can’t see Reynold’s eyes as he asks this, but I can almost smell the imploration in them. How could I say no? But would I mean yes?

So yes is what I say, even though I feel I’ve made a prayer request I can’t take back. “Sure,” I say. “Of course I will.”

“Thank you.” Dave says. Reynold just responds with his customary nod. “Now, my friend. Do you have a safe place to stay tonight?”

“You’re more than welcome to stay with us,” Reynold says, right on Dave’s heels.

I almost want to say yes. I’ve been alone for so long, it’s hard to remember what life was before I wasn’t. Even though it’s only five and a half months, it feels like forever. And from what I sense from Dave and Reynold, they seem as sincere as anyone could be in this situation. You can’t always know.

But it isn’t trepidation that makes me say no. It’s the fact they’ve offered me everything, and I feel I’ve already imposed too much. They seem so exclusive, so insular to each other. As I think this, they stand even closer together. In the moonlight, they look like twins. It only confirms my decision. I’d only be in the way.

“I’m sorry, I’d probably be only a burden to you.”

“You sure? It’s not always safe out there.” Dave says this to me.

“You don’t have to worry about us. We’ll stay out of your way,” Reynold almost pleads. As he says this, it’s the first time a feel a strange twinge, maybe not of fear, but of a sense that their union is a troubled one. I don’t know if I want to become the pawn of an imploding relationship. Even the good guys sometimes have trouble with one another.

“I know,” I say. “But I seem to do okay.”

Dave nods. “Well, you take care then.”

Reynold says, “It was nice meeting you.”

“Same here,” I reply. Everything feels awkward. I’m surprised I can still feel that way, even when I’m starving to death.

They’re the first ones who walk away, going back to their building in the alley. I don’t know why, but I somehow feel abandoned by them, wondering why they didn’t try harder to keep me around. Just another example of men leaving me in the lurch. Hell, they didn’t even ask me my name.

Then I chastise myself for being so silly and self-pitying. They’re the ones who helped me look for food. They’re the ones who shared what little fare they had. They gave me water, for God’s sake. They’re the ones who invited me to stay with them, whether the invitation was out of politeness or not. I’m the one who said no. And I’m the one who feels abandoned?

I think about my decision to leave Reynold and Dave as I walk and continue to search for food. Rejecting company in a situation like this could be fatal, in the long run. But accepting it could be as well, too. Yet I know I didn’t sense any danger from either one of the guys. Plus, if they were gay, I wouldn’t have to even worried about sexual harassment from them, either.

Yet, I still turned them down. It feels sort of silly and stupid that I did that. Am I so used to the habit of my solitude that I’m going to reject any interaction with anyone, ever? I think of what Dave says, about how karma dictates that the good guys be generous so that they win the war. Doesn’t that also mean generous with affections, because what’s a society without interactions? Am I going to run and hide forever? If I do, is that really a life?

This heavy kind of thinking is too much for my nutrition-depleted mind. Dave and Reynold had no food, I reassure myself. I’d only be a burden on what meager resources they had. I made the right decision, I decide. But in the spirit of paying it forward, next time maybe I can do this. If I ever find a group of people who I don’t feel I’ll be a burden to, one that makes me feel safe and wants me, I’ll go with them. I send this thought out to whatever it is that’s out there, not expecting it to be received. It’s a pretty big order, but you never know unless you ask, I suppose.

There’s a jingling sound that jumps me out of my thinking, and I feel grateful that I’m alert enough to snap to attention to notice it. I stop, trying to decipher the source of the noise. It’s metallic, whatever it is. And it’s getting louder, closer. Whatever my life is now in this new world, it’s mostly made up of pure tedium with spikes of muted terror. And that’s what I feel now. Muted terror.

I hope I’m not able to be seen. I resist the urge to call out “Who’s there?”, alerting whatever that’s out there of not only of my presence but my exact location. I keep my eyes on the darkness, hoping the moonlight will tell me who’s coming towards me. But nothing is there, even though the noise keeps getting growing. Jingle, jingle, jingle. It’s got a beat all of its own, perfect in rhythm.

Then I see the source of the noise. It doesn’t fix my dread, just makes it take a different shade. My eyes had been searching for a human size entity, and when it finds the moving object much closer to the ground, this sends a spike of fear that almost feels like an electric shock, if I knew what an electric shock felt like. I have to quickly regroup in order to realize that what’s coming towards me isn’t human at all. It’s a dog. A big, fat, beefy black dog dressed in a collar with multiple chains hanging from it. And he’s heading right for me.

At first, my warped mind starts playing tricks on me. All those chains seems like tons of bling, like the dog is one serious badass hip hop artist. As he bounces towards me with the chains jangling together, I almost can see a video of the dog slamming away saying his piece, female dogs in bikinis hanging all over him. Then reason takes over and informs me that imagining this animal as the real Snoop Dog is probably not the most efficient way to prepare for reality, as the dog is still heading straightaway right towards me.

Then, crazy me, I actually get jealous of a stupid dog. One that I don’t even know. Why is he so well-fed, and I’m not? Somehow that seems so unfair. Then fear takes over with another ominous thought. Why is he so healthy looking? I mean, there has to be hundreds if not thousands of corpses from the city. Maybe he has a taste for human blood. And here he is, coming straight for me. There’s no getting around it, he knows I’m here, and I know it’s useless to run, especially from a strange dog. I can only hope I smell good and alive, and that the terror goes away so I’m not drenched in the sweat of fear when he does get to me.

But then, the dog reaches me, and then trots past me, just like I don’t exist. He doesn’t appear to be blood-ridden or crazed. Just a dog moseying down the street on a pleasant moonlit night out for a stroll. Happens all the time, right? I watch as he moseys right past me like I’m one of the now useless lampposts down the road, the jangling of his chains getting more and more muted as he disappears. Then, he’s round a corner and he’s gone.

I’m left standing there in a deserted street wondering if I hallucinated everything. I’ve got to get something to eat if I’m imagining animals, especially ones all dressed up for a slam poetry open mic. Great idea, if only I could actually do it. After all, the local deli has been sort of closed. Sort of like for, one hundred sixty-eight days or so.

This is getting me down emotionally. Which isn’t a good thing to do around here. There aren’t too many safe places to go and do that anymore. Not that once you do that, everyone comes out and attacks you. But temper tantrums seem so indulgent now. As I wander down deserted streets, I think of the old days, trying to distract from my despair that I’m dying a slow death. I remember how I used to bitch with my friend Carol for hours on the phone, over just about everything. Men, work, clothes, other women. She and me, and a couple of other assorted gal pals and BFFs used to go to clubs and bars, drowning out and dancing away our sorrows in the company of each other.

I play with this memory for as I can milk it, but it’s not that long before its anesthesia wears off. My mind just finds other ways to provoke it to despair. Like, where the hell is Carol or any of them, now? Are they alive? And what was so terrible that I had to waste half my free time on drowning it out? Was my life before all this that much of a waste?

Fortunately, I’m distracted by the presence of other figures on the street before I send myself plunging into irrevocable despair. In particular, I focus on a lone figure standing alone on the corner of the street right in front of me. She calls out to the other passerby, and they all ignore her. I can’t hear exactly what she’s saying at first. But as I get closer, I get a better sense of her voice. It’s hoarse and scratchy, but deep. She sounds like an actress that I used to know from the movies, but I forget which one. I’m about six feet away from her when she turns to face me directly. I stop, simply because her gesture makes me do so, instinctively. My heart pounds for two seconds before returning to its usual beat. Which means I’m not afraid. The woman just startled me.

“Do you want to have some fun?” She asks with that throaty voice.

I blink for a moment, before I catch her drift. “Sorry. Don’t go that way.” Would I ever have had that conversation with a stranger in my previous lifetime?

“Neither do I. At least, not before everything,” she says with a sigh. Then she stands straight right in front of me, blocking me. She’s divulged a crack of her personal side with me, and her professional side seems to realize that this could cost her a sale. She’s a good looking lady, I guess, if you were into ladies which I and apparently her were not. I wondered what she did back in the old days of six months ago. She has green eyes, short cropped hair of indiscernible color, and is five inches taller than me. She uses both attributes to stare me down and says, “But I need to eat. I want to work. I don’t know what else to do.”

I really don’t know how to respond to her. I think I should be replying with something, but what? What do you say to something like that?

My hesitation seems to cut into her bravado, because she loses most of her height advantage against me as her posture collapses and her voice is scratched with desperation. “I’ll do anything you want,” she begs me. “Really. Anything. I’m the best. My customers always tell me that. They always come back. They say I’m the best.”

I notice her emaciated body. She’s even thinner than me, which I couldn’t think would ever be possible. I wonder what her customers mean by saying she’s the best, seeing that she’s standing here alone on a corner begging for work. Her skeletal appearance reveals she doesn’t have much of a going rate. Does anyone even have anything to give her, anymore? Maybe the company of somebody, anybody, is good enough for her. Is that something I should judge, when I’m roaming the streets alone scouring whatever crack I can for food? Does it even matter?

I sigh. At first, I don’t know why I do what I do next, because it seems counterintuitive and counterproductive for a solo scavenger like myself. I reach inside my coat, and grab the chocolate bar. I look at its sleek wrapping, and feel like an idiot for what I was about to do, but for only a second. I think about what Dave and Reynold said, about karma and paying it forward. After all, I’m hungry, and I’d be glad if someone else did what I was about to do. It’s what I have to do if the good guys are going to win. The universe has wasted no time in testing me, and I respond to it by offering the candy bar with real milk chocolate.

She pulls up to her height again, battle ready. “What do you expect me to do for that, eat you or finger you? Because that’s not much you’re offering me.”

I blink for a moment. Then I get it. Don’t mind me, it takes me a moment before I catch on with a lot of this street stuff being so new to it and all. Obviously, my companion misinterpreted my gesture as part of a business transaction. That wasn’t my intention. I’m offering it to her. So I tell her that.

This is her response. “Free? You’re going to give me free food? What the hell am I, charity? And what are you, Miss Nightingale? You think I need pity from someone like you?”

I guess I should be offended. But I’m not. Because I think she has a point. Why would she need pity, from someone like me, or anyone? Where does pity help anyone in the long run? Beats me. Haven’t seen it yet, here or in the last life. So, I find myself not offended, at all.

This is what I do instead, as a compromise between an apology and a comeback. I take the candy bar, unwrap it, and then split it in half, offering her one of the two pieces. I begin to bite into mine, and continue to hold the other half. She seems puzzled by this, so I say, “You’re not going to turn down sharing with another fellow human being, are you?”

She’s looking at me now, but no longer with the offensive terror that precedes an attack. Something seems to change in her after what I just said,, because although I can’t see her face clearly, her posture relaxes. She accepts the candy from me, and her fingers briefly touch mine in the passing. It’s the first physical contact I’ve made with another human being in months, and it feels like an electric pulse shocking through me. It’s also the first meal I’ve shared with another person since before the breakup. That feels like a shock in and of itself as well. The sugar in the candy spreads all throughout me, and hits my stomach in a strange brew that fills me and makes me light-headed instantaneously. I wonder if the company and the atmosphere has anything to do with it, but am too mentally tired to pursue this hypothesis and just want to eat the candy in peace.

And we do. We eat the candy bar in silence, she and I together. She finishes hers first, licking her fingers. “Thanks, I guess,” she says. I finish my half, then she says, “Well, good luck.” She begins to walk away.

“Yeah, okay.” I say to her disappearing figure. She turns a corner, and she’s gone. Like she never happened.

I feel as empty as my food supply, and it pisses me off. I thought I would feel better after sharing, being a generous human being. I’m just angry, and hungry. I’m craving salt. You know what would do, right now? A nice, juicy cheeseburger. You know, the kind that all the fussy nutritionist people tell you on tv to stay away from because its very existence is causing an epidemic of obesity? The kind with three layers of meat, sizzling on a hot stove, fried in oil, with oozing gooey cheese and six tablespoons of mayonnaise? I used to hate mayonnaise. Now, in my imagination, I love it and can’t believe what a spoiled brat I was to hate it. I feel really stupid for all the times I turned down mayonnaise. Because I really want it now.

It feels good to beat myself up for not eating mayonnaise. The more I do it, the more I can forget about the fact that I feel stupid giving half of a candy bar to someone who really didn’t care if I was dead or alive. Karma, huh? It ain’t feeding me, that’s for sure. I can see my attitude slipping from me, but I can’t help it. All I can think to do, which is what I’ve done from time to time, is sit down. Right there on the pavement, sit down. Let myself breathe, and think. It’s dangerous, I know. I could fall asleep and lose my focus.

But right now, I don’t care. I just want to forget this world that I have to live in. If I fall asleep, it’s just fine by me. Besides, I rationalize, there’s people walking around without any rabid packs attacking them. Most of the people I see seem to be alone, or walking in pairs. They ignore each other. This is a good sign. I can pretend I’m in a well-lit park, taking a snooze. Besides, I think as my lethargy closes in to win the war against me, people need sleep. I need sleep. Who cares where I get it from, anyway?

But just before I can nod off, my thoughts invade me for one final attack. I think of the girl who I just talked to. Not because she ate half my candy bar without even seeming to be all that grateful. Just about her. I didn’t ask her name, so she could be anybody. She could be one of my neighbors. She could be someone who worked in the dentist’s office across the hall from the law office I worked at. Heck, she could even have been the dentist. The name of the dentist was Kelly Macon. Which could go either way. I wonder where Kelly is, male or female. Was he/she in the explosion?

I wrap my arms around my knees, hugging myself closer together. That girl could be anyone, could be my friend Carol, if she was still alive. Maybe, I think, she could be me one day. I shiver, even though I’m holding myself together. It suddenly feels cold, really cold. But doze off, anyway, hearing people talk across the street. It makes me feel safe, just a little bit. Safety in numbers, all of that.

I don’t know how long I sleep. It’s hard to tell, because whatever I’m dreaming about seems to be exactly what I was thinking about before I dozed. Plus, I keep jumping awake to people walking past me before nodding off again. It’s like my body knows it’s not the best to conk out on a strange street alone, especially at night. It’s not the first time it’s happened, of course. I usually grab a couple hours here and there in more hidden areas, mostly during the day when it’s the hottest. Nighttime is best for moving around. Not sleeping on a street in the middle of everywhere.

I wake up again, to the sound of loud voices from a distance. They’re getting louder, so I blink myself awake to assess what’s happening. I’m not quite awake enough to feel the low-grade fear of alertness, but my body responds on automatic, responding despite its emotional antennae not quite out of bed yet.

I can see that there’s four people walking down the street towards me, one of them relatively close. I think they’re male based on their statures, but I can’t be sure. I scan them, but don’t feel any danger. Their faces seem to be black, but it’s dark and they’re still far away. So it could be just the night, they could be wearing masks because people seem to wear everything they own like they’re walking suitcases. Or, they simply could be black. Hard to tell. I don’t sense any danger from them. Strange how honed my instincts have become over just five months. So far, they’ve always been right, so I listen to them. What I’ve discovered is that most people seem to pass whatever inner radar test I have going on inside of me.

To be honest, I’m surprised by that. One would think that after such severe violence, everyone would be out, killing each other left and right. But so far, I haven’t found that to be true. Everyone’s just as confused as everyone else. No one’s really helping each other. But no one’s really going out of their way to harm people, either. I don’t feel less safer than before. I actually feel safer, if anything. There’s less people, for one. I guess a lot of people were killed when the disaster took place, although I haven’t seen a lot of bodies lying around. Then again, I’m outside of the city where I live, and the main disaster took place during the day, when everyone was at work. I was off that day, so I was home and not in the city when it all happened. I haven’t been downtown since the disaster, and I probably won’t go until I get some real information. My theory is that if there is a lot of dead bodies, that’s probably where they are, downtown. After all this time, the place is probably disease-infested. I’ll pass. Constant starvation is enough crisis for me, thanks.

The first of four guys has reached me, and I tense as he stops several feet in front of me. The other three keep walking, and have just passed me when they seem to realize they’re missing a companion. They stop, too, looking in his direction. What do you think about this, now? Nice little white girl in the dark, caught in between what I now can identify as two black men, two white men? Yet my instincts still say, no worries. So I don’t worry, and just wait to see what happens.

The first one who stopped, a short white guy with a black hoodie, looks directly at me. “Yo, lady.” he barks at me. He talks like an amateur rapper. “Yo gots a cigarette?”

“Shane. Are you kidding? What the hell you bothering this chick for? Does she look like your personal dispensary machine?” The other white guy, a dude with long stringy hair, yells at his companion.

Shane shifts on his feet, back and forth. He looks at his feet. “I’m just aksin’.”

“You just ‘aksin’, huh? That all you do? Hit everyone up for shit?” One of the black guys, a big guy with a big voice, booms at the kid. I have to say, I actually feel bad for Shane, and I just met him.

So I jump in, address his companions. “It’s okay. I’m not bothered.” I turn to Shane. “Sorry. I don’t. I don’t smoke.”

He’s still shifting on his feet. “Oh.”

His nervous movements last only seconds before the white guy yells out again. “Shane!”

Shane looks up at his scolder. “Whuw?” Or at least, that’s what it sounds like.

“What the hell is ‘oh’? Apologize to the lady for wasting her time, you bum!”

Shane shifts for a second again, then looks at me. The moonlight catches his features. He is really young looking, no more than sixteen or seventeen. He has blue eyes, and what appears to be straw colored blonde hair. Hard to tell, because some clouds are blocking the moon, and since people don’t wash regularly anymore, who knows what’s what anymore. But he looks too young to know anything, certainly too young to know that the world he was hoping to step into has been destroyed right in front of his eyes. My heart breaks for him. He sniffs. Then he whispers, “Sorry.”

“Tell her thank you! For being nice enough to answer your question without telling you to screw off!” yells the long-haired white one.

Shane shifts, blinks, then briefly meets my eyes with his. I see terror in them as he says, “Thanks for helping.” Then he runs past me, back with his friends.

“Miss.” The long haired white one addresses me as Shane goes off. “Sorry my brother is an asshole. He didn’t mean to scare you any. He just doesn’t know anything, you know?”

I remember the fear reflected in Shane’s big round eyes. I agree with his brother. But who knows anything, really? I reply, “That’s all right.” I look at the figure of Shane. It’s hard to see his face now that he’s past me, but the moonlight is bright enough to show he’s facing directly at me. I wonder if he’s waiting for me to pass judgment on him. I won’t. There’s been enough of that, I believe, to tide everyone over for awhile. “These are difficult times for everyone.”

“Yep, I agree.” Shane’s older brother says. He extends his hand out to me. “I’m Paul, by the way.” I shake his hand. Though his hand is bony, his grip is strong. He releases my hand and points to the rest of the entourage. “You’ve met Shane already, of course. These other guys are Clyde.”

Clyde is a big beefy guy wearing a baseball cap. He’s about Paul’s height but bigger in build. In greeting, he nods his head towards me, tipping the brim of the cap. “Evening, ma’am.” He has a rich voice, like the kind you might associate with a radio announcer or dj.

“And Devon.”

Devon, slightly smaller than both, simply says. “Hello.” His voice is only a little more than a whisper.

“I’m Bethany. But I’m usually known as Beth.”

“Hello Beth.” Clyde’s voice is so soothing to hear. It’s like butter. The analogy reminds me that my stomach is empty, and soon will begin eating itself. Butter would taste so good. As though he is hearing my thoughts, he says “Would you care to dine with us?”

I don’t believe that I heard those words. I’m certainly in one hell of a hallucination, hearing that.

Paul continues, “We’re on our way back home. The others in our group are getting food. We were just going to see if we could get something extra, but no luck. We’d be happy to have you. Especially since you were willing to put up with my dumbass little brother.” He playfully swaps Shane’s head. Shane unsuccessfully tries to bat him away.

It’s hard to tell, but I think Devon nods his head. “We’re just around the corner. Let me go get a couple of the women from there. So you don’t think we’re some sick gang or something.”

“Hate those kinds of assholes.” Paul interjects.

Clyde shakes his head, looking downwards. “Makes the rest of us look like degenerates. It’s a sad thing, what some people will do.”

As they have spoken, I notice that Devon has left the three of them. And I realize that I’m still seated, so I try to stand up but my legs won’t let me. Clyde reaches out a hand, and for just a second his approach terrifies me. But reality permeates the fear, and I take his gesture for what it is. A gentleman helping a lady. “Thank you,” I say to him as he helps me to my feet.

“You’re more than welcome,” he intones. I can see him smiling, a gesture as rich and warm as his voice. It fills me with a feeling I can’t identify at first, and then I recognize it. It’s safety, the feeling I’d call back in the old days as contentment. I feel safe with him. I think for a second about what that means about the contentment I took for granted. Was it just a long-term result of safety? I’m too hungry to follow the thread though, and I’m missing out on what the guys have said.

“I’m sorry, what?” I say. I’m not even sure which one was talking.

Apparently, they were introducing me to the women they’d gathered to assure me, because they call “Wilma! Georgina! This is Beth.”

I blink, turning to see two women walking with Devon towards us. They’re about my height, from what I can tell. They wear sweaters and jeans. When they get closer to me, I see that one is white, the other black. The second woman approaches me, and holds out her hand. I accept. She has a strong grip.

“Hi Beth. I’m Wilma.” Her voice has a distinct twang, and is as deep as Clyde’s. “These jerks giving you a hard time, huh?” I almost think she’s serious, but the clouds have left the moon and I can see her broad smile, revealing two rows of gleaming white teeth. It’s then I pick up the humor in her voice. So I smile myself.

“They’ve invited me to dinner.” I look between her and Georgina, who so far has said nothing.

“Sure, sure! We don’t mind. Right, Georgina?”

“Well, no.” Georgina seems to be the most skeptical of all of them, mostly because she hasn’t really introduced herself. “But Kyle and Misha were banking on rations for just us eleven. Someone’s going to have to split up theirs if we’re feeding her. Hi Beth,” she says, almost as an afterthought. I suddenly feel some kind of adrenaline, or some other wild emotion, flush through me.

I recognize it, from long ago. It’s the kind of emotion that I’d had back in high school, when I thought Mindy the most popular kid wasn’t going to invite me to her sweet sixteenth birthday. The kind of emotion where I felt when my boyfriend Evan hadn’t asked me to the prom yet, and it was two weeks away. I can taste dinner, whatever it is made out of, on my tongue, and yet what Georgina is saying can take it all away. I hate her. For only a second, but I do. But then Clyde speaks up.

“Oh, please. No problem at all. We’ll do what we always do when we get a newcomer. Us guys will split our rations up. No trouble at all. Right guys?”

The other three make intonations confirming that they will. Shane finishes off by turning his attention to the women. “Yo gots a cigarette?”

“Shane. Stop it. Please. Can’t you learn to just shut up and stop being such a brat? There are other people in this world.” Paul scolds him.

“Sorry,” Shane mumbles. “I’s justs really wants one. Have’t had one in like, two hours.”

Wilma laughs, putting her arm around him. “I think I can scrounge one up for you when we get home. That okay with you, kid?”

“Yeah, s’okay. Thanks.”

“Well.” Clyde booms. “Now that we’ve made our introductions and got everyone’s approval for our new guest, can we mosey our way back home? I don’t about anyone else, but I’m starving to death.”

People all voice their assent in various ways, and start heading in the direction the guys were walking when I first met them. I’m caught in the middle of the pack, their momentum carrying me, because I can’t quite register what’s going on. I’m going to dinner. With people. Lots of people, from what I can decipher. I think about what I said to the universe when I turned down Reynold and Dave’s invitation to stay with them, that I’d accept the next one as soon as I felt safe. It seemed like a big, impossible wish. But it seemed the universe wasted no time at all in fulfilling it. It seems incredible to me. And now, I’m going to dinner. I have no idea what dinner is. For all I know, it could be horse meat. I don’t know. But whatever dinner is, I’ve been invited and included, and soon I’m going to eat.

“Sorry if I came off like a bitch,” Somehow, with the momentum of the group, Georgina has sidled up to me and is speaking to me now.

“What? What do you mean?” I manage. Although it does something to me internally. Like the popular kid actually giving a shit about what middling little me thinks.

“Oh, before. It’s not that I don’t want you around. It’s just, it’s a weird time. I just want everyone to be careful, you know? I want to make sure the ones I care about are taken care of.”

“I get it, I get it.” I say, probably too quickly. I feel like a puppy dog begging for biscuits. Because I sort of am exactly that.

“Are you with other people?” Georgina asks me. “Or are you traveling alone?”

In the midst of this crowd, I almost forget the answer. Part of me wants to snap, what do you think? But I get the context, and control myself. I might be the scout looking for food, sort of like, I presume, their Kyle and Misha. Even though sending a lone woman out to scout for food is a little weird, it is a weird time. I think of Dave and Reynold and decide to cut her some slack. “I’m by myself.”

Georgina nods vigorously, like she’s caught onto a the solution to a puzzle. “I was, too. Up until two weeks ago, when I met Devon and Misha by a dumpster. They invited me to dinner, just like the guys did with you. I’ve been with these guys ever since.”

I glance at the group as we walk the corner. “Is everyone here unattached to each other? I mean, did anyone besides Paul and Shane know each other from before?”

“Devon and Brenda, one of the people who stayed by our place, are together. Brenda’s pregnant. Six months along.”

I swallow, thinking of that. “Wow.”

Georgina nods, hearing me. “Mm-hmm. Not where I’d want to be at a time like this.”

I shake my head, but unsure if she can see I say, “Neither would I.”

“But,” she continues, “at least she’s got Devon. And the rest of us. I guess if it’s going to happen in this kind of time, that’s the best way it could be.”

“True,” I concede. Our pack turns another corner down an alley. That’s when I see orange flames dancing out of a couple of metal cans, two people sitting by it.

“The other people who are together from before? Clyde and Wilma. They’re brother and sister. They were taking care of their grandmother before everything, but she died the day after the explosion. They’ve stuck together, and then they met the other ones who were together, Paul and Shane. They’re brothers, half brothers, anyway. They all decided it was better to group up than to go about it unattached. So that’s how everything all started here. Welcome, Beth. Glad to have you.”

She smiles at me, and the group reaches the dancing fires. A visibly pregnant woman, whom I presume to be Brenda, is sitting on a chair. Another person, a male, gets up to stand by one of the metal drums, warming his fingers over them. There’s grilles on both, each with a large pot on them, pans and cups on the ground.

“Brenda! Neil! We have a guest with us tonight. Meet Beth.” Clyde puts his hand on my back and the others move out of the way so I can meet the fire guards.

“Oh, someone new. Umm… okay, what about–” Neil stammers. He looks young, but it could just be his facial features. He looks like an angel with blond ringlets and blue eyes. But as I near him, I see the wrinkles. It could make him close to forty. But maybe this new world has aged him, and he’s only twenty-five. I don’t know. God knows what I look like, and I almost don’t want to know.

“Dude, we already figured out the rations. So you can relax your pretty head. Don’t worry, we won’t starve.” Paul pats him on the head like a puppy. Neil goes back to looking at the fire, his brow furrowed. He doesn’t look particularly young anymore.

“I’m Brenda,” the pregnant woman announces to me, holding out her hand. “I’d get up, but I don’t know if you can tell,” she uses her other hand to pat her swollen belly.

“I heard,” I say, shaking her extended hand. “How are you doing with it, the pregnancy? Or is that a stupid question?” I’m surprised how open I am, but her friendliness buoys me, and I feel appeased as she speaks again.

“Oh no, not at all. It’s nice of you to ask. Well, I don’t know if you’ve been pregnant before. There is no perfect time, really. But that’s part of life. That’s part of what it’s all about. You get pregnant, it’s not about just you anymore. So, this time to get pregnant is just as good as any, so far as I’m concerned. I’m just glad I’ve got my man with me,” she says as Devon comes over and kneads her shoulders. “It makes it all a lot easier.”

Brenda smiles at Devon, and it compels me to think of Scott for a brief second. I feel a pang of jealousy watching them, feeling selfish enough to be oblivious to Brenda’s implication that she’s been pregnant before but there are no children with her now but her unborn one. If I got pregnant just before all this, Scott would find a reason that he’d need to take off. Like a good Christian can’t shack up with some pregnant chick. And of course we’d need a proper wedding in a real church with a real pastor to bandage it all up, not some faux minister for the day blessing us. I wouldn’t want to make him live in sin now, would I?

I’m jolted out of my cynicism, thankfully, by Devon. “Would you like a chair, Beth?”

I turn to see him a folding chair, the kind that looks like a director’s chair in the movies. “Sit! The food should be arriving, soon.” Devon instructs me. His voice sounds stronger than before, and I wonder why. I follow his directive and sit. I feel the give of the material contouring my butt. It feels so good to sit on a real chair. “Do you want coffee?” he asks.

Coffee? Am I dreaming this? “Sure,” I say, not quite believing what I’m hearing. Devon goes to one of the cups and walks behind some of the garbage behind the fire circle. It’s there that I see some tarp that I hadn’t noticed before. It almost looked like the garbage itself. He comes back with a jar of instant coffee. “Anyone else want coffee while I’m at it?” He announces, grabbing one of the cups on the ground, pouring coffee and water from one of the pots before handing it to me. It’s a real cup, the metal kind I’ve seen when I’ve been camping the one or two times in my life. The others all say affirmative, in one way or another, except for Clyde and Paul. Shane snatches his like it’s medicine he needs to take or he’ll die right there. In a more modified way, so does Neil. Neil nods to Devon, but Shane just gulps at it without a word. It’s then I notice the cigarette hanging from Shane’s other hand.

“Shane! You don’t say thank you to anyone? God!” Paul exclaims.

Sitting down next to me in her own director’s chair, Wilma sits down next to me. I take a sip of the coffee, and it feels divine as I listen to everything going on around me. “Paul, you gotta let up on the boy. He’s just a kid,” she states.

“I can’t. I won’t. Not in this world. You’re going to be a decent boy, Shane. If it’s the last thing I do in this God forsaken place.” Paul says, directing his conversation to Shane.

“Mmpph.” Shane mumbles. “Thanks.” he says, looking at no one in particular.

“You’re welcome,” Devon and Wilma say in unison.

“How are you enjoying your coffee?” I hear Wilma’s voice, but it takes me a moment to realize she’s speaking to me now. The fire and the warmth of the coffee have mesmerized me, letting me drift into a pleasant lull.

“Mmm.” I say as I swallow. “It’s really so good. Thank you,” I say to her and to Devon as he passes by, thinking of Paul’s admonition.

“Glad you enjoy it,” Devon replies. Wilma nods her head.

“Glad to have you here, Beth.” Wilma tells me. “It’s nice to have more people around. Makes it feel more like family.”

I remember what Georgina told me about her, about how she and her brother Clyde losing their grandmother. “Georgina tells me that Clyde’s your brother?”

She nods vigorously. “Uh-huh. We’ve been together through a lot, him and me. Glad I have him, but we have a lot of kin, and I’m used to that kind of life. So I’m glad we found everyone here. Makes it feel more like home.” She mentions nothing about her grandmother, so I say nothing about it, savoring the brew in my hands both in taste and heat.

I nod, surveying the crowd surrounding me. It’s been a while since I’ve been around this many people, and it does feel good to have them around. Cozy. Just like family, I think. I try to forget that I’m just a guest for the night, that tomorrow I’m going to be on my own.

“Where did you get this coffee?” My curiosity gets the better of me, so much so that I didn’t realize I’d ask the question. I feel a moment of panic when I see Wilma hesitate, and Devon and Paul stop their movements with the pots and pans. I’m just about to retract the question, when Wilma speaks first.

“Should I tell her?” she asks towards the two men.

The two men regard me for a second, then Paul speaks first. “Sure. Why not. She tolerated my brother. If anyone can do that, they’re good people to me.” Devon smiles at this, while nodding and then going to Brenda, rubbing her back. She reaches up with one arm, smiling.

“Kyle and Misha worked at a warehouse distribution center about a mile from here. So after the accident, all the workers decided to band together to keep things in check. Make sure that there wasn’t a run on the place. So they got a system where all the workers can request a certain amount of food each day. Once a week we check in so that it doesn’t look like any of the workers are hoarding. And in exchange, each of the guys in the group have to do volunteer security detail at the warehouse. When we do check-ins, we keep two or three people here to hold fort, and they seem to believe that we’re doing that, so we’ve been able to get the food we need. I heard from Kyle and Misha that there a lot of problems the first week or two. But then all the chaos died down, and there seems to be not a lot of trouble anymore. I don’t know if that’s for everywhere, but here, yes.”

“Who’s doing security detail now?” I ask.

“Kyle and Misha were. After dinner, Devon and Clyde are heading over. I hate it when he goes.” Wilma nods as she says this, and I think of her grandmother briefly before my mind returns to the previous thread.

Wondering if this is a stupid question, I ask “Is Misha a guy or a girl?”

“Girl,” several people say in quick unison.

“And she does security? I thought it was only the guys.” I feel a pang of fear at being called to battle in dire emergency. So far, in the chaos, I’ve only fled.

Wilma smiles, and Devon juts in, “Well, Misha is, shall we say, a special kind of gal.”

“Besides, she’s one of the workers. It’s an automatic for them.” Wilma finishes.

“Where the hell is the food?” Neil snaps. “I’ve got a freaking headache now.”

“Here, sweetie. Have some more coffee. Want some chocolate?” Wilma gets up, asking the question to both him and me.

“No. I want food. Real food. I’m dying.” Neil mumbles. I try to imagine him on security detail. It isn’t working. I shake my head to Wilma’s question, and she nods in reply before going to Neil.

She begins rubbing his back as she says,“Hang in there, kid. It’s almost here. They just have to do inventory before they go. You know it is. Have the coffee, though. It’ll help your headache. Caffeine always seems to help you.” Neil makes a noise as she goes to prepare another cup for him. “Want some more?” She indicates to me. I shake my head, showing her that my cup is still half-full. “Neil has hypoglycemia. This lifestyle’s hell on him.”

I nod my head, looking at Neil. It looks like he’s still staring into the fire, but I see his eyes are closed. “The pain freaking sucks. It sucks.”

Wilma hands him a cup of coffee, and Neil mumbles thanks. I watch him, but look up when Paul calls out, “Hey! There they are! The free pizza delivery men! Looks like they brought company, too!”

I watch as two people approach us with large traveling backpacks, with a tall thin third person who seems strangely familiar trailing behind them. “Hey guys,” calls out a high but strong female voice, the one I presume belongs to Misha, “we’ve got company tonight.”

“So do we,” Paul says, indicating me. “Meet Beth.”

“Meet Becky.” Misha says. She and Kyle have approached the group with their guest. They all seem to stir something in me, so much so that I forget to say hello at first. All three affect me in different ways, but between my fatigue and the bustle of activity it’s hard to tell why at first. Kyle and Misha begin taking the food out of their backpacks, and everyone but Neil, Brenda, Becky and me begin preparing the food, which all seems to consist of various cans and packages. I begin to get out of my seat, before Wilma stops me.

“No, sit. You’re our guest. And you.” She points to Becky, who nods weakly before standing by one of the fires, warming her hands. She still seems familiar, but I still can’t figure out why. I’m still filled by a strange feeling, too. One I can’t quite pick up, and it’s hard to pinpoint it. It’s not a bad sensation. If anything, it’s pleasant, which is weird given the circumstances. I just can’t figure out its source, or why it’s there.

In the meantime, Misha quickly throws two pans of food on the grille that Becky stands by, and then I understand why I was struck by her. It’s her size. Hearing that she was on security detail over women like Wilma and Georgina, I expected an Amazon of a woman. But Misha is tiny. Really tiny. If she was anything over five feet tall, I would be surprised. I watch as she hauls boxes of food from the pack behind the garbage heap, throwing food on the grille, tossing garbage away. She moves twice as fast as anyone else, a machine of efficiency. I watch as she hauls a large piece of discarded furniture, some kind of bureau, to the center where she begins loading up the dishes from the ground. She moves it like it’s a paper plate. That’s when I realize the woman is strong, very strong.

“Don’t let her size fool you,” Wilma says as she stirs three of the cans into one of the pot. She seems to notice my amazement. “She’s an amateur weightlifter, and a boxer. She served in the Marines. A truck driver. She can bench press more than most of the guys here. And she’s a great shot, too. Excellent with a gun. Real tough chick.”

“Oh, Wilma. Shut up already,” Misha smiles. “She’s always buttering up everyone. Resident mom, all of that. Did you meet Kyle yet? Or Becky?”

It’s then that I notice Kyle, and realize the weird sensation I had was coming from his direction. He’s been looking at me, I suddenly realize, noticing that as soon as I look at his direction he quickly looks away from me, as he says. “Hi.” I catch his profile before he does. His jaw is strong, stubbled with what appears to be a light brown color. His hair is shoulder length, tousled from the neglect of this world, but I can imagine it wavy, feathered. He’s about six feet, maybe a little less, hard to tell. He’s stripped down to a short-sleeve shirt, and I can see the muscles of his body. I find myself breathing quickly, observing his physicality. And then I remember what it is that I feel. My face is flushed, and he looks at me with eyes that appear hazel. They’re almond shaped, and I find it to be an excuse to stare at me more. He holds my gaze, even while participating in the preparation of the meal. It feels like some game, some challenge. One that I don’t mind participating in. I forgot what it was like to feel this way. Kyle looks away first, and I’m not sure why, but this makes me smile.

“Hey, I know you!” I’m jumped out of my dreamlike state by Becky’s voice. One that I instantly recognize from its deep hoarseness. “I saw you today! You’re the one who gave me chocolate!”

Paul stops, midstream in his activity, looking back and forth between Becky and me. “You two know each other?” he asks.

“I met her today! About a mile from here. She’s the one who gave me chocolate,” she says in Misha’s direction. “You gave me chocolate, remember?” She asks of me.

“Uh-huh. I do,” I say simply. As she stands by the fire, I can see her features more clearly. Her skin seems translucent white, and her cropped hair is so bleached blonde it nearly matches her skin.

“You gave her chocolate?” Devon asks of me.

“Yeah,” Becky answers for me. “She had a chocolate bar, and she gave me half. Just before the others found me.”

“Good woman,” Devon says to this, continuing his work. Kyle stops his work for just a moment. He stares at me, and the fire boils up in my lungs again. This time I look away first.

“Hey, you don’t have to be bashful,” Wilma chides me. I feel heat again, not of desire but embarrassment, alarmed at how transparent my desire is. But instead she says, “It’s great that you’re so generous. The world needs a lot more of that kind of thing, especially now.”

“Yeah. Sure thing,” Devon follows up with that. I feel relieved, both that my secret is still safe, and that my esteem has gone up amongst my new neighbors here. It makes me feel I’ve contributed something, after all.

“Yes,” Kyle says, watching me. “I like that in a wo-… a person. A generous heart.” Did he just almost say woman, or was that my imagination? I feel my insides skipping like a happy little girl, if that’s even possible for them to do.

He approaches me, and my heart’s beating even more. It’s been so long since I felt this way. He’s smiling as he does, and I get this weird image of him scooping me up and making mad passionate love to me right there. Crazy, I realize, but now that I feel this way something in me is running the thrill ride to the end. As he gets closer, I keep hoping my fantasy will come alive. But he just hands me a plate, with a plastic fork, knife, and spoon. I’m disappointed, but I do manage, “Thank you.” He nods, a little, looking away from me. Dumb crazy fool I am, I’m probably imagining things. Someone that hot, someone who still had connections to his old life probably has a girlfriend. Someone tough and strong. Like Misha. I suddenly hate her. I laugh at myself. Even at the end of the world, I can still find time to be petty. Isn’t that nice?

My snarkiness is interrupted when Becky places her seat next to me. Devon moves over to fit her in. When Becky sits down, she still towers over me. Her posture is impeccable, like she was a trained dancer or model. Or the product of expensive finishing school. Hands folded over one another like a primed pose, she regards me. It seems like such a total about face from the cornered animal I’d met just hours ago.

“Thank you,” she says to me.

The aroma of food is so overwhelming it almost knocks me over. It smells like a diner. But I contain myself to reply, “For the chocolate?”

“Well yes, for the chocolate,” she states, then hesitates for a moment. “But not only that. It was nice to have someone just to talk to me without expecting anything from me. It’s been awhile, you know?”

I don’t know what to say to that, so I just say, “You’re welcome,” not sure if that simply statement is adequate enough to cover such a compliment. When I think of what I did this evening, all I can see was that I was looking for food. Nothing else special about me.

“It’s nice that they have all this food here, don’t you think?” Becky continues. “More than I’ve seen in weeks.”

“Same here,” I reply. I’m interrupted by the presence of Kyle again. He’s standing close, holding something out to me. Between the deliriousness of the food aroma and his presence, I’m feeling very, very, lightheaded.

“Glad you both could join us,” he says. I don’t know if he overheard our conversation, or if he’s just saying polite things. “Would either of you like some hand sanitizer?”

Well, that’s something I haven’t seen in ages. As I bring my hands up to take it, Kyle responds by squirting the liquid on them instead. I laugh this nervous neigh in reply as I rub the lotion in my hands. I probably sound like a dweeb. “Do you have flush toilets, too?” Why did I say something snarky like that? I’m an idiot. A true idiot.

“Actually, we do have a portable one around the back.” Wilma says, rescuing me. “I can show you and Becky where it is. Do you need it now?”

“Oh, no.” I take a look at Becky, and she’s shaking her head as Kyle squirts some of the liquid on her hands as well. I feel disappointed seeing that, like my silly crush assumed he was doing something exclusive for me. Oh please stop it, I chide myself. Stop being such a baby over a boy. Look where that got you last time.

To distract myself, I talk to Wilma. “You seem to have everything.”

“Warehouse distribution. We even get a shower, once a week there.” She points in Misha’s direction. “They’ve all got a system. Goes over my head somewhat, but it’s been working really good so far.”

I think of the port-a-potty and the sanitizer. It’s been ages since I’ve used a real toilet, used any kind of hygienic product. I’ve pretty much relied on rushing behind some garbage can and using what I could, and washing basically included using what little water I had once in a while to rinse my hands off. I’m glad I’ve only had one period this whole time. That was while I was still in my house, and could use something other than a piece of garbage as a sanitary napkin. A lot of self-respect got washed away with the disaster, and I don’t like to think about it much. But now that some semblance of dignity is in front of me, I’m so relieved I feel like I’ve been holding air for ages and can finally exhale.

“We even have a truck,” Misha says to me. “Out back.” She hitches her finger behind her. Her short black pony tail bobs as she does. Her features are Eurasian, which with her short stature makes her seem almost girl-like. But I can already tell she’s anything but.

“It’s one of the older ones,” Wilma explains. “So it wasn’t affected by the blast.”

“Why don’t you use it to haul the food from the warehouse? Isn’t that safer?” Becky asks. I’m amazed at her bluntness, and how casually it’s received by the others.

Kyle smiles in reply. I look away from him as he speaks. “Yes and no. It’s really old, from the seventies. I love her, but she breaks down a lot. Not the best thing to be doing around here.”

Misha cocks her head back and forth. “We only use it when we need to haul big things, like the tank for the toilet, garbage, that kind of stuff,” Misha continues. “Or if we have to get weapons, like that.”

“Weapons?” Becky asks.

Misha nods as she stirs three pots, mixes one with the other, stirring more into it. “We have a couple of bigger guns here. Kyle, Devon, Neil and me can shoot. Luckily we haven’t had to use them. So the ammo can be used when we start having to hunt and that.” She drops the contents of one pot into another, and stirs that. “Besides, we have to conserve gas. It’s hard to come by. So we don’t drive if we don’t have to. Too much to trade to get it. Save it for when we have to go to the hills and hunt, that kind of thing.”

She flips this so casually I forget its significance. At some point, the food will run out. I try to bite this back by inhaling the aroma of the cooking food in front of me. Distraction and denial are such good friends at a time like this. The conversation continues. “Yeah, I think we’re just going to have to fend for ourselves. We’re on our own. There’s not much doubt about that,” Devon says as he carts away several cans. Wilma points to them.

“We save them, the cans. Everything. Once we rinse them out, you can use them for anything. We use less potable water for those kinds of things, the kind we get from the taps around here. It’s getting less and less treated, but we still store it.”

“At some point, when the bottled water runs out, we’ll begin to boil that water. Luckily all the rivers around here are freshwater. Eventually, that’s going to be the last stand.” Kyle states as he finishes his round of the sanitizer. “We’ll have to figure out what we do at that point then.”

Wilma sighs, a big sigh. “Hopefully, people will be decent. It’s our only hope, if people are decent. Remember that we’re all God’s children, and in this together, not apart.”

“I think it was aliens that did it.” Shane says, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He’s wiping some utensils with a cloth napkin.

“You’re an alien,” Paul snaps. He’s moving some stuff out by the back. “You’d probably be wearing one of those aluminum foil caps if we had any to spare.”

“Can’t rule aliens out. No one knows for sure. Most of the communication’s been knocked out, which means it’s probably an EMP or something like it. We’ve been trying to find someone who has a Faraday cage.” Kyle says.

“A what?” Becky asks.

“A Faraday cage. It’s a kind of metal casing to protect a shortwave radio in case of an EMP. Most people don’t even have the radio, let alone one with a Faraday. At least, not around here.” Kyle explains to Becky. I notice that he has a very direct gaze. Especially when he turns his eyes to me right afterwards. I feel lightheaded by this realization.

“Have to meet up with the survivalists in the hills. They’d probably know.” Paul says. “Hell, if they have shortwave radio, they probably know what’s going on around here.”

Devon laughs at this. “So what would be your plan to meet them? Just knock on their door and say, ‘Excuse me, but do you know Jesus in these troubled times?’”

“Maybe you could trade something?” I suggest. They all look at me, and I wonder if the new kid (meaning me) said something stupid. “I mean, I’m sure they’d want something, like food or whatever? Even if they have some, maybe you could offer more, so you could get information?”

“Yeah.” Shane suddenly says. “Maybe yo could give them cigarettes. They’s probably gots tons of ammo, but everyone’s could use cigarettes. I mean, if yo smoke, yo do. ‘Sides, winter be a-coming. We’s been lucky so’s far, but yo never know here. We’s need some better shelter, if possible, yo’ know. We’s could give them cigarettes, theys could set us up maybes with something.”

Kyle nods. “It’s something we’ve thought about at the warehouse. It’s risky, because you’re on the survivalists’ territory. But I don’t think they’re meeting us first. That’s for sure. We have to go to them, if we want conversation.”

“You just have to hope they’ll be receptive,” Wilma says. “People can be decent if they want to. They can be evil if they want to. But we’re all going to die if we can’t try to be decent, in the long run. It’s just how it goes. So you have to try, be decent yourself and be generous.”

“Like the way you guys are,” Neil suddenly says. He’s chewing on something, and seems more alive than before. “You took me in even though I’m completely useless.”

Wilma goes up to him and hugs him. “No one’s useless, hon. God doesn’t make useless. He shines on all of us.”

Tell that to my ex, I think. As if Becky is reading my mind, she asks of me, “You have anyone special in your life? I mean, in the old one?”

It’s a blunt question, to be sure, and off-topic from the doomsday thread. But from Becky, it doesn’t seem inappropriate at all. I don’t know if it was because our bonding over the candy bar, but she already seems familiar to me, and her words don’t seem out of place. I forgot how much I used to need this female companionship, and forgot how much I missed it. Somehow, I feel Becky is the same way.

I can’t help it, but I look to see if Kyle is eavesdropping to hear the answer. He’s within earshot, at least I think so, but seems intently busy. I wonder if it’s a front so he can spy on what I see. Or maybe he’s just busy. God, I’m being such a girl. “I did, before the blast. My ex and I broke up before everything happened.” Kyle moves away from us, and I read into that too. To distract myself I ask Becky, “What about you? Did you?”

“My husband died in the explosion.” She says simply, without heavy emotion. It makes something jump out in me.

“Oh, my God. I’m so sorry. You know that for sure?” Wilma has overheard Becky as well, and puts her hand on her shoulder as Becky answers with a nod.

“I was on the phone with him when the explosion happened,” she says, her voice a crack. Devon and Paul are listening now as well. “I teach- I taught ballet lessons. I had my own studio. I was on the phone with him, between classes. I was going to meet him for lunch in the city. I called him to tell him where to meet me. Then I heard him scream, and then he died. Everything else did, too.” Her voice cracks a little, and Wilma hugs her. Paul’s shaking his head.

“This shit sucks,” he says. “It just sucks.”

“You have us now,” Wilma tells Becky. Looking at me, she continues, “Both of you. You have us. We’ll take care of you.”

Everyone nods in unison, including Shane and Neil, as though Wilma’s word was finality enough for them. “Sure thing,” Paul says. “Ain’t going to be any good with having people die out in the wasteland. We’re going to have to build something for ourselves, and figure it all out together.”

“Makes sense to me.” Clyde says.

“So it’s decided,” Wilma says, looking at Becky and me. “You have a home with us, if you want it.”

“We’re looking for a home. You know, a real one. Some of the guys at the warehouse might know of one available. But right now, we’re still looking.” Devon says.

“Why don’t you just live at the warehouse, all of you?” Becky asks. “Seems you have connections.”

“Too many of us!” Clyde booms. “And we keep on growing. But that’s just fine with me.”

I look at Kyle and Misha, wondering why it is that they live here, with this group, rather than with their co-workers at the warehouse. Becky does it, for me. “Why don’t Kyle and Misha live at the warehouse?”

“Politics. In-fighting. Not for me. I’d rather stay on the outskirts and stay on everyone’s good side,” Kyle states. My heart drops. It means he’ll keep his distance from me, probably. But it was nice to feel attraction again, even if it will be just a fantasy.

“Same here, same here,” Misha concurs, still moving around with a fury. “On that note, I think dinner is ready. Anyone ready to eat out here?” She begins ladling food into everyone’s plates, starting with Brenda, then Becky and me. “I hope you like baked beans and canned lasagna. That’s the big thing they were giving out. Plus canned peaches and corn.”

“Fine by me.” I say as Becky smiles and Misha starts piling food on my plate. “Thanks.” It’s not the juicy hamburger I was craving before. But somehow that doesn’t matter now. Almost like the hamburger was just a symbol for something else. Maybe for this, a real full meal of just something truly edible. I take one bite, and it’s enough a feast for me. I savor each bite as I listen to strains of conversation around me.

“We’ve got some Danish in the back for dessert. It’s a little stale, but we’ve got it,” Devon announces.

“Isn’t the definition of Danish to be stale, anyway? Always tasted stale to me. They’d have it by my water cooler in my office. Boring conference food,” Georgina comments.

“Ah, remember the days when you could label food boring. Those were the days,” Paul sighs.

“Yeah. Those days. I miss my Angry Birds.” Brenda says with a wide grin.

“God! Facebook. All the time I spent on Facebook. Would you believe that’s one of the things I got crazy about in the early days? Thinking, ‘what am I going to do without Facebook’?” Georgina says.

“Amazing what you can get used to,” Brenda says.

“I miss music,” Becky says. “My husband and I used to love listening to opera every night, before we went to bed.”

“Yeah, music.” Devon nods. “I haven’t heard any Zep in ages. Miss it like absolutely everything.”

“Yo’s needs to gets a guitar. I’s can play a mean one. Fo’ shore, like serious,” Shane says, and points to Devon. “Don’t know any old opera. But Zep, shore. Goin’ to California, real easy fo’ me. I’s keep telling you, get a guitar.”

“Yeah, he’s a dumbass otherwise,” Paul interjects, “But on the guitar? Yeah, I can vouch. He’s good, he’s good.”

“Too bad theys assholes stole my guitar,” Shane grumbles. “Excuse my French. But I’s miss it.”

“That does suck. I agree. They’re a lot of dickwads out there. There sure can be.” Paul concedes. “That’s why I’m trying so hard to keep you together. So you stay one of the good guys.”

“I’s know,” Shane whispers, and sighs.

“We’ll find a guitar, Shane. We will.” Wilma nods to him.

“ Yo know what elses I’s misses this year? I’s miss my baseball.” Shane says.

“Oh, here we go,” Paul replies.

“I do, fo’ shore. The Mets was good this year. The Yankees, they sucked d- well, there’s be ladies here.” This time, it’s Shane elbowing Paul and smiling. “Yo’s one o’ theys ladies, bro. Sorry-a Yankee groupie, yo’s.”

“Oh please. You were getting dumb luck this season. And even God had to pull the plug on that one. Before the All-Star game,” Paul waves his hand to indicate the environment we find ourselves in.

“Hey, yo, yo, yo! Yo’s don’t knows what God do or don’t do. They’s might be done just fine, and yo’s don’t know it. Yo’s jus’ jealous we’s good this year,” Shane said.

“No, I’m not ‘jus’ jealous’. You’re just a dreamer. I’m a die-hard Yankee fan. You, my friend, are jealous. Your big thrill in life as a Mets fan is to see if they can get to September without being mathematically eliminated from the playoffs. I, on the other hand, am the fan of a championship team.”

“Som’ I. Why’s yo think they’s be the Amazins?” Shane counters.

“What championship team? 1986? Seriously? It’s before you were even born, dumbass. The other time I wasn’t even alive, it’s so ancient. More ancient than God. It’s such a skeleton that….”

“Yo, yo! Yo…” Shane protests.

“All right, all right, you two. Enough already,” Wilma waves her hand, but she’s smiling as she turns to Becky and me. “They do this every night. It’s our nightly sitcom. You two doing okay?”

I’m woken from my reverie by her voice, and notice the other quieter conversations around me. Misha is talking to Devon and Brenda. Kyle is talking to Georgina again. Crazy me, I actually feel jealous. I watch them, and then he’s looking at me. I suddenly feel good I won his attention as I answer, “It’s good.” Becky nods her head in assent.

“Not gourmet, but it’ll do.” Wilma nods in agreement, smiling.

I smile, not even realizing I’m at the bottom of my plate already. Four cans of food, and I’m already done. I hardly even noticed how full I was until I stopped. I think of the calorie count I’ve kept running incessantly in my head up until now, and realize I didn’t even bother to do so this time. Nor do I even care what it is.

I’m surprised at how unconsciously I ate, and wonder if the company around me is what caused that lapse. I look at Kyle again. This time, he’s watching me. He’s smiling as he does. I can’t help myself. It makes me feel warm inside, in a way that has nothing to do with food or fire.

I suddenly feel sleepy, the warmth of food in my belly and the fire around me lulling me. Clyde is speaking again, and I think of how it was his voice that made me feel safe first. I’m just about ready to nod off, when I hear a voice in my ear. Male.

“Seems like you might want some rest now?” I blink, and see Kyle in my vision. I feel dizzy with anxiety, seeing him this close and personal. I’m suddenly aware that I haven’t had a good shower in weeks. It almost makes me laugh. It’s the end of the world, and I’m worried about body odor over a guy. Maybe if I can be that petty so quickly, the world has some hope of going back to something like it used to be. Big stretch, but maybe. Speaking of stretching, I do so, to fight off fatigue.

“Yeah, she be like snoring, already. She be sleeping when we’s first seen her,” Shane interjects as he exhales cigarette smoke. I yawn deeply.

“Maybe sleep would be a good idea,” I say. I begin to get up, and Kyle offers me his hand. I pretend it doesn’t affect me, his touch. But it does.

“Yeah. You and Becky had a crazy day,” Wilma puts in.

“I’m still awake. Adrenaline, coffee, you know.” Becky indicates the cup she’s holding. “Three cups of java will do that.” She smiles, looking between Kyle and me.

“She can sleep with Wilma and me,” Georgina points at me as she talks.

“Yeah, good idea. That’s perfectly fine with me. You want me to show you where we sleep?” Wilma offers, beginning to get up.

“I’ll take her. I’m going in the back anyway.” Kyle jumps in. I see Wilma raise an eyebrow, suppressing a smile. Shane lets out a whistle. Paul pushes his shoulder.

“Get your mind out of the gutter, boy! You should take some pointers. Learn to be a gentleman to a lady, not a player!” He looks me, bowing his head slightly. “Good night, my lady.”

My mind buzzes as each of my new family bids me goodnight, Clyde’s rich voice a calming bed, Wilma’s embrace of me feeling like a glue to bind me to them. But then I am following Kyle, the voices of the others becoming more muted as we travel behind the garbage piles.

There’s four tents there, a portable toilet set just away from them. I can’t see Kyle’s face anymore, as the mounds of debris and the wall of the building mutes the light. But I can sense him, his eyes on me.

“This is where the women sleep, these two,” he says, pointing at the two middle tents of the four. “This is where Wilma and Georgina sleep. Misha is with Brenda.”

“To protect her, I’m guessing.” I say.

“Yeah, there’s that.” He sighs. “That’s the bathroom over there. Tomorrow, I could take you to the warehouse. We have a shower there, you could use it then.”

I’m glad my nerves have the opportunity to laugh. “I’m that bad?”

This time, he’s the one with the nerved chuckle. “No. I just meant- God, I’m an idiot. I mean…”

Crazy me lets her heart leap. He’s nervous? The badass cute boy is nervous about me? And suddenly, I’m hugging him, surprising even myself. “It’s all right. Everything’s weird now. I was just joking.”

I pull away, intending my hug to mask the desire I feel as being a sisterly embrace. But he holds onto me. It’s just an extra few moments, but enough to tell me that a sister is not how he sees me. I’m thrilled, I’m overjoyed. After Scott, after the explosion, I never thought I would feel this way again.

“Let me set you up,” his voice cracks a little, as he goes into the men’s tent nearest mine and grabs a couple of blankets and a pillow.

“Who’s are those?” I ask. “I don’t want to be a burden on someone else.”

“They’re mine. And you’re not a burden,” he says as he hands them to me. I am so glad that the moonlight is hidden by clouds so he can’t see my flushed face. But then, that means he’s hidden from me. Is it his breath that seems rushed, or mine? “I’d go in there, set you up. But we have a code for the men not to disturb the other women’s privacy. But if you need anything, I’m over here.” He points to the tent where he got the blankets from.

“Okay.” My voice cracks, just a little. I wish I could see if he’s smiling.

He opens the flap for my tent, and I place my bedding at the front of it, where there still is room on the floor. When I turn, Kyle is still there. I suddenly feel wide awake.

“Good night,” he whispers.

“Good night. Thank you for everything,” I manage back, pointing to the blankets.

He stops, hesitates. “I’ll be seeing you,” he says, starting to leave. But then, he turns back. “I’m glad that you’re going to be in our lives. In my life,” he says.

“Me too,” I quickly say. He ducks in one more time, brushing his lips on the top of my head before darting away into the darkness. I’m filled with warmth, like something had been sleeping before but is now awake. This will be my life now, I realize. With them. With him. With Kyle.

As I lay down on the blankets, the adrenaline and desire levels begin to dip, reminding me of the exhaustion I feel. But I still feel alive. I don’t feel alone, even though I am solo. I imagine Kyle watching me, and for once, when I think of Scott, I can barely remember him. I smile at this. So much can change, in an instant.

I drift off, letting the voices of my new family waft over me. I hear Clyde’s voice laughing, and feel the safety that I first experienced hearing it. There’s the voices of Devon and Wilma and Georgina, and feel like I have a home. Then, predictably, like a final note I hear Paul yell, most likely to Shane. “Hey dumbass! Have some gratitude! Say thank you like a decent person already!”

That’s what I do, now. I say thank you, realizing that the prayer I offered for one good meal has turned into something so much more than that. One hundred-sixty eight days after my world has crashed, I can finally say thank you and know what it means. I’m lulled to sleep by a melodic male voice, singing about going to California on a big jet plane. Thank you.

2 Responses to “One Hundred Sixty Eight Days After”

  1. You write beautifully, Jessica. I hope you got this published somewhere already.