By Steven L. Peck
HE JUMPS INTO the car. The white frost covering the windshield should hide him long enough to catch his breath. Thankfully, there is a key in the ignition. Rubbing his hands together, he blows on them, taking valuable time, but he can hardly make a fist, his fingers are so cold. The windows are frosted over inside as well as out, so he reaches past the steering wheel and rubs his bare palm hard against the glass to clear a small portal through the driver-side window. The ice is thinner in the arc the windshield traverses. An intact windshield, that’s why he suspected it was a working car when he ran for it.
He hears a rustling and whips around, ready to dive from the vehicle and run. There is a young girl in the back seat, curled against the passenger side door. He stares for a second. She is alive. It’s a complication, but one he can deal with.
He rolls down the window to get some grasp of the situation around him, then quickly rolls it back up. He is on the edge of town. Good. That will make it easier to get away.
The car is brittle cold and smells of onions and old motor oil and the locker room stink of people who have not bathed in a long time. He glances into the rearview mirror. The girl stares back briefly, then turns away; she’s eight, maybe nine. She whimpers something he can’t understand. He turns back to the problem at hand and twists the key hard. After some sluggish protest, the car groans to life. It’s sputtering a bit, but it’s good enough. It runs. He jams the car into drive and guns it out of the convenience store parking lot. As the car hits the gutter a large purse topples off the passenger seat into the assorted garbage that lies haphazardly on the floor—a scripture quad, old clothes, drink cups. He looks down; the handbag has disgorged a wallet slopping out several worthless credit cards. He catches a glimpse of a deer-eyed woman with long straight hair staring up from a driver’s license. His eyes return to the road. There’s not much time.
Somewhere beyond the darkening gray, the sun is setting.
He aims down the road, which is snowy but not icy, and roars onto the pavement, slipping between two cars. There had been enough traffic to wear a couple of black wet grooves. There are a few other cars. No one turns on their headlights. They are all going the same direction: away. Into the desert. He clicks the defrost on high, and slowly the little patch of transparency he opened on the windshield begins to grow. He settles down. The gas tank is nearly half full. That will help. He focuses on the late model yellow minivan in front of him. It’s still light enough he can identify the ‘Families are Forever’ bumper sticker. He knows he needs to see it without headlights when it gets dark. Concentrating on the car in front of him will make it easier to stay on the road as he tries to make it somewhere safe.
Somewhere safe. Funny.
He adjusts the mirror to consider the girl. She looks up and locks his eyes for just a second, but just as quickly looks away. She is curled against the door hugging her knees, shivering. There is thick dried blood around her nose. Her hair is matted on one side of her head; it looks like blood, but he knows it is not, just gunk. Maybe oil. Maybe mud. If it were a wound of that magnitude she would not be so alert. Anyway, how could she have gotten such a wound without being dead? Ergo she must not be wounded. Logic. He’s got to hold on to that in the face of it all. She has no coat, but wears a horizontally striped shirt. Not torn or worn, just covered in dirt. She has deck shoes on her feet. No socks. She could not have been sitting here long. Not with the car parked, the heater off. She would have frozen to death. He looks at the large leather purse beside him, hoping to see a candy bar or some mints. He thinks about his food storage and a laugh bubbles up. Buckets of wheat. Useless. They hit the houses fast. There was not time for anything. Not even grabbing the seventy-two hour kits.
The car passes a billboard with a heroic father coming through the door with a pizza held aloft, his family cheering. He thinks about his son and daughter. He, not much older than this girl in the back. His daughter, a toddler. He buries the thought before it goes too far. He can’t think about some things right now. He looks back at the girl.
“Your mother is dead?”
It is barely a question. She doesn’t answer. She doesn’t need to.
He reaches into his large army coat and pulls out a .40 magnum S & W 4.5 inch. He hands it to the girl. “I need you to trust me.”
She takes the gun, the first real sign that someone is home behind those hollow eyes.
“Do you know how to use it?”
She does not make eye contact and does not answer, but drops the clip out of the handle to check if it is loaded, then pushes it, hard, back into place. She knows how to use it. Of course she does. She places the gun on her lap and places her hands on top of it. Her eyes flick to his. She does not smile, but holds his gaze a little longer.
It is fully dark now. The stratus ceiling has a slight glow and he knows there must be a bright, nearly full moon somewhere in the sky. Out of habit, he turns on the radio and knobs through the stations. There is nothing of course, but he goes through the motions.
As it darkens, he can just make out the minivan cruising in front of him. He can no longer read the bumper sticker and the vehicle’s yellow color has turned to white in the natural light of the sky’s glow. He keeps his distance in case they brake. No one is coming from the other way. Occasionally a car or a pickup roars around him and then vanishes into the shortened horizon of the night. Why hurry past this line of cars? Wastes gas. And besides, there may be as many dangers lying ahead as behind. He holds his speed.
The girl in the back is hard to make out now that the sun has set. He’s certain she is not asleep, despite the heavy air of the now warm car.
“Do you have a name?”
He tries another tack, “How many were there?”
She whimpers and speaks for the first time, “Six.”
“They didn’t see you.” It was not a question.
Her voice is just a whisper as she answers it anyway, “No. They didn’t see me.”
A vision passes before his eyes. One constructed from elements of his own past, but recontextualized to be about the girl’s mother. He sees a woman torn to pieces after drawing them away from the car that held her daughter. Sacrifice. We know what that means now, he thinks. He imagines the little girl sneaking a glimpse of her mother’s death as she ducks below the seats. It is easy to picture in his mind. He’s seen similar scenarios played out over and over.
“She wasn’t my mother.” The girl whispers this too.
Of course. They had been thrown together. How many strangers ago were her real parents killed? Is he the third? The ninth? The twentieth person she has travelled with?
“I’ll take care of you now.”
“I know . . . Okay.”
That was the strange thing. Or at least it seemed strange because of the apocalyptic literature he’d read before this happened. People were supposed to be tearing each other apart. Hoarding food. Gunning down their neighbors to protect their limited supplies. But that’s not the way it went down. Not this time. Life was too precious. Everyone took care of everyone. It had evolved like that almost instantly. Trusting people had been the only way to survive, but of course resources were not limited. Not with so many gone. You could still find cans on store shelves. No one had been forced to dig into their wheat and beans.
It starts to snow but it is hard to tell without headlights. The road is completely visible now—a white path through the sagebrush landscape. The minivan, sloshing before him through the storm, seems a strange comfort. Perhaps it was just a screen, or hedge, of protection for what lay ahead, but he liked that it was there.
On they drive. He hears the girl’s breathing steady and deepen. He smiles.
The car clock says it’s about 3:00 am when he sees a cascade of red lights blink on from the distance, disclosing cars breaking hundreds of yards ahead. He slams on his own brakes, sliding a little, but coming to a hurried stop. The girl bolts up, now wide-awake. She stares at him for direction. He does not hesitate but leaps from the car, whispering for the girl to follow.
She does. They plunge into the sagebrush to the left. He catches a glimpse of the people who had been driving in front of him also fleeing their car. The people he had been following now for hours are running into the desert parallel to him and the girl, along a line perpendicular to the road. They steer a course toward each other. They are a middle-aged couple carrying large packs in one hand and sleeping bags in the other. They come together running. An old Primary song bubbles up to the cadence of his flying feet. Pioneer children screamed as they ran, and ran and ran and ran.
He is amazed that the girl does not seem to tire, but runs with the three of them, holding onto the gun like a racing baton. After about twenty minutes they all stop to catch their breaths, everyone is keeping their eyes on the path they have just traversed, watching for motion. They see no others fleeing. A grave sign, but he dares hope they ran the other direction.
The older woman is staring blankly back at the road. Even from there they can hear the carnage. There are a few gunshots signaling suicides and death pacts. They maneuver quickly behind an outcropping of rock and squat low. Out of sight.
The man with the pack stomps his feet and looks at the coatless girl. “We’ve got to get her in some warmer clothes.”
The woman takes an emergency blanket out of her pack and spreads it on the ground; they all sit down on one end and wrap the other around their legs for warmth. The older man detaches a rolled-up wool army blanket cinched to the bottom of his pack and wraps it around the little girl’s shoulders. They are silent. A car horn goes off, long and blaring, bellowing into the night. After about an hour, it dims and starts a long decline into silence.
The older man takes out a milk jug of water from his pack and offers them a drink. They each take a modest swallow, self-rationing, and pass it back to the man with the pack. He takes a small drink and then forces handfuls of powdery snow into the mouth of the bottle. He then puts the bottle under the blanket between his legs. The woman takes four candy bars out of a stash hidden in an inner pocket of her ski jacket and passes them around. The Snickers are soft and warm from her body and after eating them quickly, all four lick the paper wrapping vigorously to get every drop of chocolate. The jug is passed around again and they wash down their meal with another drink of the snow-cold water.
The clouds have broken up. Patches of stars appear now and then. The moon has set and the blackness of the sky highlights the cold, distant stars.
Just before dawn the girl falls asleep, the gun in her lap. Her travelling companion takes it and puts it in his pocket. He’ll give it back to her if she wants it, but he doesn’t think she will. She trusts him now. They’ve run together and that means something. Maybe everything.