There were three more trucks when the travelers hit the farm this time. Shayla stepped down from the cab and ran to a smiling K, waiting in the corp yard. He swung her around as she nuzzled his neck…when they swirled to a stop, she held both hands around his face and asked “May I kiss you?”
“Oh, Baby, yeah.” he said so she did.
The way the world worked these days, you never knew…between the politics, and the weather, the delays, whatever powers that be, and powers that weren’t, you just never knew that a lover this time would be a lover next time. She was glad he was still hers.
“We have a few more trucks, and a singer and a play, and some things to trade…it’s some new stuff, and the folks may like it, and I’m proud…
“Oh, baby, we’ll love it, I know we will, we always do, and I wish you’d been here before…there’s new geese on the island.”
“Really? A mating pair?”
“Oh yeah, we have two pairs, and last fall more bucks than we’ve seen in years, and elks rutting like nobody’s business..”
God, had it been so long? Here it was spring, and he was talking fall like she hadn’t even been here.
She had been, but only in the very beginning….
God she loved this man! She wished she’d never had to leave him, but she did! Her job was to go, and his job was to stay, and there was nothing to be done about that…
She knew, every time she left him, that the chance was that he would fall in love with someone else before the next time she came around again…or, she might fall as well…hence the “may I kiss you?” whenever they met. With their separate lives, they did what they could do and what they would do to rebuild this broken world into a place of peace and life in which their children’s children could thrive.
But, oh, she loved this man. She thought about him from the moment she left till the moment she returned. Time stretched so far yet compressed to barely an instant from when she was in his arms to when she was in his arms again…Man! She loved him.
“So, we’ve got three nights of entertainment, we’ve got four days of trading, we need food,and water and rest for our horses. We have gasoline…charged batteries, usable solar cells….”
“Whoa. Can we take a minute before we get right down to business?”
“Well, no…I mean yeah…I mean I don’t know….look, can’t we just take care of business and then relax?”
“Oh, no you don’t, little lady. No business talk till I get to kiss you some.” He picked her up and pressed her against the building, wrapping his arms around her arms and his lips around hers. There was no way to refuse, and why would she want to anyway? She missed him as much as he missed her.
“You big gorgeous man.” she murmured.
“You big gorgeous girl.” he shot back.
“Hey, watch it.” she said, playfully smacking his arm.
This was their joke. She had been a big girl back in the time before, back when they first met. She was tall, there was no way that hunger could change that, but she no longer carried the weight that sometimes slowed her movements and tired her out. Now her body was sinuous, and if she was tired, it was from pure hard work. He hadn’t thought her to be a big girl then, and when she called herself one, he told her so. Well, she had already lost weight by the time she met him, but nothing like the weight she had lost since…she supposed she would be gaunt like some of the others had she not had a bit of padding to start with.
Life was hard, it was true, but she was happy.
A week later Shayla and her band were on the road again. They had a few small towns to stop at, and another farm, and then it was back to The Island to regroup and pick up more supplies.
Mare Island was even more derelict now than it had been in the years after the navy pulled out. It had been abandoned by the military in the mid-nineties and was just starting its turn around when the disaster hit. Vallejo, the surrounding municipality, was even more run down as it hadn’t had any sort of resurgence. Instead, when the base closed, it experienced a continuing downward slide into poverty and crime and held the distinction of being the largest city in California ever to declare bankruptcy. It was a charming town though, despite its dereliction. Clapboard houses, Victorians and Craftsmen. A hint of Maine on the west coast, with hills and flats facing the water. The Napa River emptied into the bay, separating the town proper from Mare Island with a deep water strait. It was quaint and pretty.
The island and its surroundings were an ideal hub for the casual network that The Travelers formed to move goods, people and information. It had the buildings and location to suit their needs: plenty of warehouse space for supplies and sundries, boat-works and whole blocks of industrial buildings already dedicated to R & D; docks and rail spurs and two bridges fronted the buildings, giving them access to waterways, railways, roadways. Proximity to the refineries in nearby Benecia and Richmond gave them access to the diesel and gas that ran their trucks, trains and boats.
Fossil fuel. It was hard to believe, after all the flack about petrochemicals during the decades just prior to the death, but, it turned out that those dreaded barrels of fossil fuels were what was keeping civilization together. People used wind and solar to power homes and buildings, but for transportation? Particularly the transportation of goods? Gas, baby, gas. Gasoline all the way. Oh sure, a few hybrid cars remained from the teens, but there were far too few people with the knowledge to repair them. Internal combustion engines, however? There were enough backyard mechanics left to keep those humming along, and enough refinery workers to continue turning crude into gasoline, at least in a limited way.
The network that The Travelers rode ran from the bay up the Delta to Stockton and Sacramento where goods would continue through the Sierras to Reno, Salt Lake City, and beyond. This was the new western trail, the central link to the north and south, along the coast, and to the east, roughly following the path of the old highways Fifty and Eighty. When the boats and small ships reached their terminus in the ports of Stockton and Sacramento, goods continued on by rail, or via the many bands of travelers, informal groups like Shayla’s who moved in trucks, vans and horse-drawn wagons continuing the transportation along smaller roads to other cities and smaller towns.
Periodically one group of Travelers would meet another out on the road. Whether by accident or fate, it was always seen as a god given reason to throw a party.
In the early summer, in the foothills of the Sierra’s, near the gold rush town of Placerville, Shayla’s band met another band. The decision was quickly made by the leaders of both parties to set up camp for the night. Kegs were brought out, as were flasks and food, fires were lit, and, as the sky darkened the two bands settled in amongst the oaks and cedars to enjoy an evening of impromptu celebration.
Dreddy-Glamour-Girl beat time with the rhythm on the bodhram with her manicured fingers, not so much with joy in the music, but, Shayla thought, to show the world, or at least this small sphere , just how cool she was. Shayla didn’t like her. Dreddy-Girl had the self assurance, the confidence in her own prettiness, the arrogance that is common, or so it’s said, in “breathtaking beauties” an arrogance that at times can make the rest of women question their value, their gorgeousness, their necessity in this world. She was beautiful. And cold. And lacking the ability to let another, “lesser” woman be pretty in her presence, much less the ability to allow that other to steal the attention of a handsome or powerful man away from the shiny orb she deemed herself to be. Shayla had heard about women like this; apparently they exist in droves, at least according to the complaints she’d heard from women who don’t like other women. But Shayla had always fought against this stereotype. Truth be told, she’d only met one other such girl in all her life, and that was some thirty odd years ago. She hadn’t liked that one either.
On this night in particular, She was having a philosophical conversation with a guy, a guy with deep brown eyes, a voice like honey, hair down his back and a mischievous smile. They were bent in close to hear each other over the cacophony of the camp. Yes, he was one of the leaders, and, no, she was not interested, him being seventeen years her junior (young enough to be her son, she mused, had she discarded her virginity a bit sooner than she had) Dreddy-Girl cut in, interrupted the close conversation, pulled the unwitting man into her orbit with softer, closer talk, soulful looks, and, yes, though Shayla couldn’t believe she was seeing it, the batting of long, thick, mascaraed lashes. Dreddy-Glamour-Girl got him just interested enough that he forgot about conversing with Shayla, and then…she left. Her job, after all, was done. It was an odd bit of manipulation that Shayla could not grasp the meaning of. It left her confused (and him, perhaps, as well). But, again, she saw him not as a prospect but as an interesting person to talk to…Dreddy-Glamour-Girl had unnecessarily derailed the interest train, because she’d misinterpreted its final destination.
Shayla made her way to the other side of the campfire to sit with the rest of the envoy, those she had known from other travels, those that knew her and respected her, and wouldn’t find it necessary to engage in mind-tricks and pissing contests.
She looked at Annie, older, matronly, dowdy, unarguably respected and a mother figure to all. Shayla wondered if Annie also had to deal with with being challenged by the young and beautiful, or was that reserved for those like herself who retained their own looks past the end of the world?
But where on earth had that young one come up with all her make-up? Had she looted every Rite-aid from here to the shell that once was Los Angeles? And why was it so important to have manicured fingernails when they were essentially traveling in the desert like the lost tribes?
She let it go with a laugh. It was not something that really mattered in this rougher world of theirs. She relaxed and looked around.
The fire cracked and cast its golden glow on the travelers camped at the crossroads, on the two forces joined this night for camaraderie and conversation before parting again in the morning to follow their divergent roads, one group to the west, one to the south, trading and stopping and gleaning. Carrying on.
A violin to her left began a doleful cry, a guitarist on the right picking up the cue, a flute caught the flow and soon the entire company swayed gently to its sweetness as firelight flickered on transported faces.
The world was a smaller place now; it was easier to know the people you ran across, to recognize faces in the contracted crowds. The end of the world had been relatively bloodless as apocalypses go. No battle, no war, no Seven Horsemen. No spaceships arriving to take only those with a certain color of tennis shoes. No filling our babies’ bottles with poisoned Kool-Aid and forcing them to drink. No crazy spiritual guides advising mass suicide. No comets from outer space. No zombies…
People just died. As did pets…and farm animals, and deer in the forests. Folks complained of a headache, said they didn’t feel good, sat down and never got up again. Dogs took to their beds and didn’t rise when the mailman came or the leash was brought out. Birds in the cage or on the lines stopped singing and fell. There was no perceivable illness, just death, quick and practically painless, life breathed out and gone, just like that.
Scientists blamed the mining of asteroids that had started in the mid to late teens, by private companies, funded by movie moguls and high tech billionaires. Something came back in a shipment of ore, but whether it was a microbe of some sort, or whether earths’ closed ecosystem had been thrown out of balance by the introduction of some extra bit of one mineral or another, the scientists didn’t know, and so much of the research was cut short by the mystery reaper that the answer might never come.
One third of the population was gone in a matter of weeks, then one half, then two thirds. Within a couple of months, the deaths stopped except for the old style, from actual, known diseases or accidents or old age…but births stopped too. What pregnancies did take hold were spontaneously aborted, but for the most part, no one and nothing conceived, zygotes failed to split, embryos didn’t implant, reproduction simply ceased. The population of the earth, whether animal or human or insect, continued to slide downwards towards oblivion.
Then one day, years into the disaster, a woman woke up with morning sickness, a cat had kittens, a dog had puppies, a fawn was seen in the forest. Slowly, achingly slowly, the world was righting itself.
Now there were children racing around the periphery of the campfire, not many, four or five at most, and none of them older than six, but they were there, precious living children. Hope.
When they pulled back into the farm the following winter, K wasn’t at his expected spot, waiting in the corp yard ready to take her into his arms. That was odd, he’d always had an almost preternatural instinct for the exact moment she was going to pull up in her big truck, jump out and run to him. He was never anywhere but right there, waiting, smiling, ready.
Shayla clapped her hands together as she dropped out of the warm cab into the snowy cold. She’d have to find her man, but she needed to put her gloves on first…
There he was, she saw him walking towards her from behind the barn. Why does he look so sad, Shayla wondered as she made her way to him.
She stopped short just a few feet away when another woman came out the barn door and folded herself into K’s arms the way Shayla should’ve done…Dreddy Glamour Girl. Still beautiful, still made-up, still manicured, and, Shayla supposed, still haughty. As cruelty would have it, K’s new love also had a belly bulging with new life. Of course…it had to be…someone to give K. a child. He’d lost his three daughters in the big death, and he bemoaned no longer being a father. When new children were presented to him, his face took on a wistful haunted look, even as he kissed and smiled at babies and toddlers.
Shayla could never give him children. She was too old.
“Hey Baby, can you give us a few minutes? I have to talk to Shayla.” K said as he kissed Dreddy-Girl on the cheek.
“Baby?” thought Shayla, as the ground whirled away from under her feet.
“Sure.” said Dreddy-Glamour-Girl as she shot Shayla a look of triumphant contempt.
“What exactly is this girls problem with me?” Shayla thought. Then she looked at K. “I guess I don’t even have to ask…”
“Let’s go upstairs, have some tea.” K said softly.
She followed him numbly up the stairs to the apartment that had been a second home to her for years. They attempted small talk while he made the tea, but they were awkward and strained with each other. Finally Shayla asked the question she needed to ask;
“She stayed,” he said. “You never did. You always left.”
“You never asked me to stay. Don’t you think I would have?”
“Why?” she almost shouted.
“They needed you more than I do.”
It struck her like a brick in the gut.
“Great!” she said, angry now.
“No, I don’t mean it like that.” he reached out to touch her but she pulled away. “I don’t mean that I didn’t need you, that I didn’t… don’t love you…” he trailed off. “You’re a leader. What you do is important. You have to do what you do. I got tired of being alone in between. I got tired of being with women I didn’t care about when I wanted to be with you.”
The brick turned sharp, like a razor now.
“How many?” she asked.
It wasn’t a fair question, she knew; their agreement had never been about monogamy, but about loving each other wholly when they were in each other’s arms, when they were lucky enough to be with each other.
“I don’t know…four…five maybe.”
He looked like a little boy who just discovered he was in trouble for something he hadn’t known was wrong.
“How many for you?” he asked.
“None.” she answered as tears filled her eyes and slipped down her face. “None.”
The next several days, weeks really, were spent feeling like a piece of glass crazing in the fire, feeling as if each crack, each fracture to her persona set off a chain of fractures and cracks that set off still more fractures and cracks. Her heart was the San Andreas, every release of pressure, every tear created more pressure, more eruptions of feelings she didn’t want to have. She felt as though the deaths had started all over again—or was it just she that was dying?
She began to take on the hollow, gaunt appearance of some of the less fortunate of the survivors. She couldn’t eat, she couldn’t sleep, she couldn’t think.
She was crumbling, and she certainly couldn’t lead.
Then one day, back out on the road, days, or weeks or months after her life had ended again, Shayla woke to something that wasn’t pain. The light slanting through the window in the back of her truck was lovely, the dust motes floating in the air like faeries in the forest. And the sound she heard was not her own weeping, not her gnashing of teeth, but the sweet sound of children playing. She hadn’t heard that sound in so long, hadn’t heard it though it had never left. The slightest touch of a smile graced her lips, and she knew that her heart was beginning to right itself, just as the world had done.