Tuesday, 22 December 2009 - 7:15 pm


I have grown used to the stillness of the After. I didn’t realise that until today.

Out with the foraging crew, it’s hard to avoid the quiet. We drive until we find somewhere we haven’t already picked clean and pile out of the vehicles to scour the buildings. We break up into pairs, each of us bearing a weapon of some description. When the engines shut off and the group whittles down into just two pairs of feet each, the silence creeps in. It presses against us, like heavy dust on the air choking off speech.

We move quickly, partly because of the need to cover as much ground as possible, but also to get out of the quiet. It’s easier to ignore when we’re together – the automatic sounds of half a dozen people drive the soundlessness back. Our ears latch onto each other’s presence eagerly. I’m not the only one who has noticed the relief in exchanged glances when we come back into a group. I wonder if I’m the only one who smiles when the engines catch onto life again and slap the silence back past the acid-scorched walls around us.

Sound wraps around us like a blanket, chasing away the reality of the After. In its protection, we can do anything, even drive away if we want. We are a loud, noisy piece of the world Before.

Matt and I usually forage together; I don’t think either of us is willing to let the other out of their sight. Every time he goes where I can’t see him, I wonder what he’s doing, what might happen to him. I wonder if he’ll come back to me. Not because I think he’d ever leave, but because of all the dangerous things around us right now. I’ve already nearly lost him once; I’m not eager to go through that again. I think he feels the same about me, especially since the incident with Warren.

Today, we came across a couple of offroaders that hadn’t been ploughed into the scenery. With one vehicle we don’t dare to use because it’s soaked in diesel, we decided to try for a replacement. Thorpe and I did that while Matt teamed up with Bobby. We wanted to break the pattern; loosen our grip on our fear. Jersey went with Jonah and I wondered if she would find what she was looking for.

I don’t know what it is about the big vehicles, but most of the ones we see were crashed into poles, or through walls, or onto other cars. The shockwave didn’t reach this far, but the devastation on the roads is the same as it is closer to the city. I guess the EMP had a longer reach, or people panicked when they heard what had happened and crashed anyway.

I still wonder where they all went. That’s part of this place’s weirdness; it’s not just silence: it’s the absence of sound. It’s all the things that are missing. A child’s laughter from down the street. The slap of a ball against concrete. Voices muffled by walls. Music blaring too loudly three blocks away. Seagulls screaming. Dogs barking at the birds. Something unseen poking through the trash behind a dumpster. An empty shopping bag being rustled by the wind. Footsteps around the corner, not quite seen yet. All of it is missing.

I feel like I’m in a movie and someone pressed the pause button. Everything is here, even the toys and balls, everything except the living. It’s all waiting for something to come and bring it to life. To give it sound again. To press play so it can carry on with what it was doing when the end came. It doesn’t know that it’s too late for that.

Maybe it does know. Maybe it’s desperate for us to be what it needs, what it misses. That’s why it sucks on us, stealing our scraps of sound and movement as soon as we make them. This place sucks on us like we’re mints, little flavoured people it draws and draws on until we’re thin and afraid to show ourselves.

It’s not the most comfortable place to wonder where all the people out here went. Sometimes I think the buildings ate them.

Somewhere in the middle of my musing, I got a lungful of fumes off the engine I was working on. It filled my head and darkened the edges of my world, and I thought, this is it. This is when this little town sucks me into it, a slice of mint on its tongue before it swallows.

My legs buckled and I wound up crumpled over the offroader’s bumper. Thorpe must have heard me stumble, because when my sight cleared, he was holding me up awkwardly. I blinked up at him, bewildered, and then hurriedly pulled my feet under myself again. I had fainted. Or almost fainted. Which is ridiculous; I don’t faint. I’ve never done anything like that before.

I came over all embarrassed and apologised to him in mumbles. Of all the silly things to do. I’m fine, I told him. Nothing to worry about.

“Are you sick?” he asked. I couldn’t tell if he meant to ask that with a capital or not, but I shook my head quickly anyway.

“No, no. Definitely not.”

That seemed to appease him. He made me drink some water anyway. When he was sure I wasn’t going to crumple again, he came to work with me on the offroader I had fallen on. He didn’t say anything but I think he was keeping an eye on me. He so seldom says anything. He’s just there, a solid presence that helps to weigh the situation down.

Thorpe’s quiet is comforting in its own way, but it was still a relief when the others got back, bringing their noise with them. Matt slipped his arms around my waist from behind and kissed the side of my neck, and I leaned back into him. They had found a few boxes of supplies, so they felt good; it was enough to bring a smile to my lips as well.

We packed the boxes into the vehicles and started the engines, chasing the silence away. I sat in the passenger seat and watched it go. Then we were off down the road, taking our roaring bubble of sound with us. We are not done yet, it shouts. We are not gone, we are not going. We’re alive.

We will not be silent.