Friday, 6 November 2009 - 8:36 pm

Seekers old and new

I didn’t need to tell Jersey about Tia. When I got back to the dorms last night, the ex-Wolverine was stomping about with a face like thunder and everyone was giving her a wide berth. I would have asked her what was wrong if I didn’t already know.

She hasn’t ever been close to Tia, not really. Tia’s a girly girl and Jersey very much isn’t. She has looked after herself since the world came down around us and she doesn’t think much of the girls who have relied on others to get by. She’s had to do things the hard way, so why should anyone else get an easy ride? As far as she’s concerned, those who have taken the easier route have yet to prove themselves worthy of her respect.

I don’t think she’s quite that uncomplicated, but that’s the way she’s trying to make her world. It makes a lot of sense in these times After the bombs. She has taken up the mantle of pragmastism and run with it; it’s up to people like me to wave some kind of morality in her face. In many ways, Jersey represents a lot of what I despise about the After, but at least she listens. She doesn’t change, but she does restrain herself. There’s something in that.

I think she has guessed about Terry staying behind as well and that’s part of why she’s so angry. She hasn’t ever said anything about him – certainly not to me – but I believe there’s a candle there, well-sheltered from everyone and everything. It’s burning in the dark now, down to its nub, shrouded by the prospect of leaving him here and going out alone. He never seemed interested in her but Jersey’s not the kind to let that stop her when she wants something.

Except for now, when it’s being taken away from her. I wish I had some comfort to give her. A scrap of hope, some way to show that it isn’t so bad, not really. This world is full of harsh truths and this is one of them. I can’t even tell her how sorry I am – she would take it badly. Jersey’s the kind of girl who always slaps with a closed fist.


I wonder if there are any others here that will be missed when we’re gone. I haven’t made many friends here, but what about the others? Jersey has an odd attachment to Iona – I wish I knew where that came from – but she might be coming with us anyway. At least she’ll have one person she’s close to coming along.

I don’t know about the rest. Thorpe doesn’t make friends easily at the best of times, but Dale is charming enough and Terry doesn’t seem to have any problem in that area. Dan – well, who knows with him. I haven’t seen him since we got to Haven. Matt has always been popular and I doubt it’s any different here. He has probably people he’ll miss. And Dad – Dad’s been here longer than us. He must have made friends, too.

We can’t ask everyone to come along, but are there some we should ask? It’s impossible for me to say – I’m so cut off here, stuck on a tiny piece of rock miles from everyone. I don’t even know where their hearts lie any more.

Maybe I’m just looking for problems where there aren’t any. Jersey is upset and I can’t do anything about it, and that makes it easy to feel bad about everything. If the others have become attached to anyone here and that person is as unhappy as we are, maybe they’ll come along. Maybe they’ll become Seekers too. Or they could betray us and end this.

I am trying to stop being so negative, but it’s hard. I can’t wait to put this place in our rear-view mirrors. Soon can’t come soon enough for me.

Saturday, 7 November 2009 - 9:04 pm

A matter of consent

The other women in the dorm have learned Jersey’s moods, but even they misjudged just how her temper can flare, especially when she’s already in a bad mood.

Just after I got back from the infirmary last night, I saw Nadine and Mama Prusco cruising the dorm, with the elderly Lavinia in tow. Like the three wyrd sisters, looking for ingredients for their cauldron. The old cow was directing them with little words and flicks of her fingers towards particular girls, mostly those ones trying to avoid meeting the women’s gazes. I heard Lavinia say something about needing to shake up the contingent of women sent to entertain the men. They would try a roster but with monthly cycles and pregnancy pulling girls out of the running, it was just too complicated to make work.

So they have to rake through the dorm every night, grabbing women at random and shepherding them off to the part of the compound commonly referred to as the brothel rooms. We don’t use that name within the hearing of the wyrd sisters, of course, but I’ve heard it on more than one pair of lips. It’s not inaccurate, considering.

Unfortunately for the trio of madams, Lavinia directed them towards Iona. The girl was sitting crosslegged on her bed, humming to herself as she combed out a lock of her hair, teasing out one painstaking knot at a time. She looked up when the shadows fell over her bed, smiling at the faces above her without a trace of reservation.

“Flowers are for plucking, but they fade so quickly,” she told them clearly, just a little bit sad. I think she understands more than she lets on, that one.

Mama Prusco stepped in to take one of the girl’s arms to encourage her to stand up (or, more accurately, to drag her off the bed). Iona didn’t fight or struggle, or even sit there limply. She just turned to put her comb down and went about unfolding her legs so that she could stand. I thought she might resist or at least be reluctant, but she showed no signs of that. That’s when I decided to get involved and got up to go over there.

Nadine was on her other side, ready to escort her to the group of uncomfortable-looking girls waiting in the aisle, when Jersey arrived. She beat me there, crashing into the situation with all guns blazing. I’ve never seen her so furious before. She tore Iona’s arms free, rough enough to leave bruises on everyone involved. By then, I had made it around the bunk and could draw the bewildered girl away from the battleground. Iona came with me as easily as she would have gone with the madams.

Jersey, meanwhile, was laying into all of them with a heavy-laden tongue. How could they think of taking Iona off for something like that? She wasn’t capable of making such a choice. It was like taking a child – and don’t think that Jersey didn’t know the younger women had been pressured into taking part in the whoring too. Only sixteen, a couple of them, but at least they knew what was happening to them.

Nadine made the mistake of defending their actions by saying, “Why shouldn’t she pull her weight? She’ll never know what happened anyway.”

The sound of Jersey’s fist hitting Nadine’s face was a sudden, sharp slap, and the dark-haired head snapped backwards. Her body clattered against the next bunk while voices rose all around us. Mama Prusco grabbed Jersey’s arms, demanding to know what the hell she thought she was doing, and I put Iona behind me. The poor girl was covering her ears against all the noise, whimpering and curling in on herself. Jersey growled and slammed her forehead into Mama Prusco’s face. There was a howl and a spurt of blood. Jersey’s arms were free again as the big woman cupped her hands over her broken nose.

I pushed Iona onto my bunk when Jersey turned on Lavinia. The old woman was tougher than she looked but I didn’t think that smacking her would help anyone right now. So I stepped in and pulled the ex-Wolverine back before she could do any more damage. She almost punched me too but restrained herself at the last moment, her breath coming in short, sharp huffs. She was all coiled tension, ready to lash out at anyone who came close enough – I was just lucky that she classed me as a friend. Anyone else would have ended up like the two smacked madams.

I had to shout over the horrified cries to get everyone to shut up. Throwing in a few four-letter words seemed to administer enough verbal slaps to get their attention. The ragged silence sucked at us like a split lip.

“You should all be ashamed of yourselves,” I told them shortly. “Trying to force someone into this deal of yours.” I saw Nadine drawing breath to argue with me and went on before she could form words. “Forcing someone who doesn’t understand take part is wrong. She can’t consent, and that makes it rape.”

Throwing that word in stopped any rebuttals before they were formed. They can put whatever excuse they want on it, but it’s still rape. I could feel the ex-Wolverine swelling behind me and I turned to fix a glare on her. “Jersey, go cool off. Now. The rest of you, I suggest you go and do whatever it is you need to do elsewhere.”

Jersey made a great show of stomping off to the unused bathrooms out back. To my surprise, the rest of the women dispersed, taking the battered ones with them. I hadn’t actually expected them to listen to me, but I guess a loud voice with a semblance of calm is better than the wailing and the violence. I let the other girls clean up the blood on Mama Prusco’s face and put a cloth to Nadine’s rapidly-swelling eye. I had no stomach to sympathise with them anyway.

My heart was still beating way too fast when I turned around to comfort Iona. She was curled up on my bed with her hands clamped over her ears, a tiny rigid thing murmuring to herself. It took me a moment to realise that she was saying, “Too loud, too loud,” over and over.

It took some coaxing to get her to take her hands off her head, so that she could hear the lack of noise for herself. She looked up at me, and I saw a scar of trauma in her eyes. Whatever chased her wits away was noisy but didn’t leave a mark on her. It pricks at my curiosity, but I don’t have the heart to ask her about it. She’s having enough trouble healing as it is. Instead, I tried to tell her that it was all right, she could relax now. Her response was to nod and bury her face in my blanket.


I left her like that to go check on Jersey, believing that she was calm enough and it would be safe for me to be absent for a few moments. The pugilist was pacing in the bathroom, back and forth, as if she was waiting for the bell to ring again.

She demanded to know why I had stepped in, why I had stopped her from teaching those “fucking pimps” a lesson – wasn’t I on her side? I told her that I was, but they had enough to think about for now and we had to keep things calm if we wanted to stand a chance of getting out of here. Did she want a tagalong cutout like mine? No? Then she should stop getting into fights. Just for now. Just until we can get out of here. Iona is safe, she’s fine.

“We have to take her,” Jersey said.

I hesitated, but I couldn’t find a way to disagree with that. I dread to think about what would happen to Iona without anyone here to look out for her, to protect her. It’s best if she comes with us, even if she’s a burden to us.

I gave Jersey a rag to bind her bruised knuckles with and went back into the dorm room. Iona was sitting on my bunk, rhythmically shredding my blanket into strips with her delicate, plucking fingers. I had to bite back my frustration.

I sighed and tried not to mind, and went to see if any of us might get some sleep. It took me a while to convince Iona to fold up on her own bed, then lay down fully-clothed on mine, abandoning hope of resurrecting the blanket. Sometime during the night, I woke up to find another blanket draped over me and a small body curled up against my back. There wasn’t a lot of room but I didn’t have the heart to move her, and I was too tired for it to stop me from falling asleep again.

What’s a little stiffness in the morning between friends?

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Monday, 21 December 2009 - 8:44 pm

The only thing

I think I like going out with the foraging party better than staying at the farm. I don’t know if it’s the movement, the purpose in our searching that makes me feel like a Seeker, or if it’s just being away from somewhere where everyone looks to me for answers. Out on the road, things are simpler. We all know what we’re doing and where we’re going – we get the maps out every morning and plan a circuit that brings us back to the farm each night.

It’s not that I dislike the farm – I don’t. I am glad we’re here and I’m always pleased when I hear about the progress we’re making. Conroy is damaged but there’s nothing wrong with his cognitive abilities: he’s getting the water system hooked up with extra tanks so that we have enough for us and the plants.

Janice found worms in one of the troughs and got everyone excited about them. It’s the first non-human life we’ve seen in such a long time, and it’ll make growing food easier. Nugget and Estebar were running around with them today, chasing each other with little wiggly creatures and laughing. I don’t think I’ve heard Nugget laugh like that before.

The buildings are gradually becoming more functional and more like a home; every morning while we’re pouring over the maps, we get at least one request to keep an eye out for something in our travels. Something not food or tools, not essential. But nice. Pillows and blankets. Extra shirts. Cleaning supplies – cloths, sponges, bleach.

The farm means hope for us. It’s only just starting, but right now I don’t have any reason to think it won’t work. Things are falling into place. Even things with our slave Warren are calming down.

When I was heading back towards the kitchens to return a pile of dishes tonight, I heard a noise from one of the storerooms we haven’t had much use for. I wasn’t sure what to do – my hands were full, but I wanted to know what it was. It could be someone in trouble. It could be a couple of someones making out. It could be rats.

I don’t know why, but I didn’t think that it was a good noise. It was sharp and angry, a punch against a wall made by something hard. Not a fist, I was sure about that – whatever it was had edges not softened by flesh. I paused and listened, but it didn’t repeat. After a couple of heartbeats, there was a softer sliding noise and something padded thudded onto the floor.

I didn’t like it. It sounded like a body – a person – and it was too quiet. I put the stack of plates down on the floor and rapped on the door before I opened it. What I found inside was far from anything I might have expected.

It smelled sharply of fresh urine in the little storeroom. There were no windows; instead, it was lit by a hurricane lamp. The flame bounced calmly in its glass case, oblivious to the mess in the room. Little cardboard boxes littered the floor, each one with an end torn open, each one scrunched in the middle as if caught in a closed fist. They were gathered up towards one end of the room after being thrown at the wall there. In amongst them were little white plastic shards.

I didn’t have time to take in what they were – I was distracted by the shape huddled at the other end of the room. Sitting on the floor, booted feet planted solidly, head bowed behind bent knees, she didn’t notice me enter at first. Then her head lifted and I saw that it was, in fact, Jersey. Only she could look so angry, and hurt, and pissed off, and as if she might punch anyone who asked if she was crying.

“What the fuck do you want.” She didn’t even pitch it as a question.

“I came to make sure everything was all right.”

“I’m fine. Get lost.”

It’s not like we’ve ever been the best of friends, but it still isn’t fun to be rebuffed like that. I cast around for something else to say and my gaze fell to the floor again. The floor and those little plastic sticks. Then a scrap of crumpled packet caught my eye – …Test – and I put the pieces together. I blinked, then quietly closed the door behind me. No wonder she was hiding.

“Jersey, are you pregnant?” There was a little part of me that soared at the idea. If someone else was pregnant, maybe it would be a little less weird for me to be carrying a baby too. I could have someone to share the journey with.

She huffed and shoved herself to her feet. She moves in short, hard bursts, with more effort than grace, and she stamped as she stood up. She’s about my height, but always seems bigger.

“No, I’m not.”

She seemed furious in a way that didn’t fit the words. The Jersey I had grown to know would despise being pregnant; she isn’t that kind of girl. Until recently, when she started latching onto Jonah, I wasn’t even sure that she liked men.

Then I looked at the mess on the floor again. There were a lot of them, twenty maybe, all torn open and used. How long has she been doing this, coming in here and checking? Because she was afraid she was pregnant, or to see if it had happened yet?

She was trying to push past me to get to the door, but I caught her arm. It was there when I looked into her face: the fear, buried deep under the angry barriers she keeps up.

“Are you trying to get pregnant?”

She tore her arm out of my hand hard enough to make my fingers smart. “It’s none of your business.”


“It’s the only thing that works! Okay? Are you happy? The only thing.”

I stared at her, at a loss for what she meant for the longest time. Then I remembered the Sickness. Jersey was burned by the rain weeks ago – months now? – and must be due to get Sick soon. The only person to survive it – to get burned and never get Sick – was Sally. The baby was blamed, and now here was our punch-happy tomboy trying to get pregnant. To save her own life.

It made perfect sense, but it still made me feel ill. She must be so scared; the negative tests on the floor were testament to that. She saw my expression change and hated it. She isn’t close to anyone, isn’t used to sharing this kind of stuff.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Not to be funny, Faith, but you don’t exactly have the equipment I need. So unless you want to lend Matt to me, the best thing you can do is stay out of it.”

Hell no. “Have you talked to Masterson?”

“Are you kidding?”

I didn’t blame her – I wouldn’t wish that examination on anyone, not from him and his cold hands. “You might want to think about it. I–” I looked at her and knew there wasn’t anything I could give her. Helplessness blossomed in my chest in a lukewarm seeping. “Good luck,” I wished her instead. It was the best I could offer.

Her shoulders slumped a tiny bit – this weighed on her more than she could hide. I tried not to think about how pale she looked, or about how she didn’t look well. I stepped aside and she stamped past me. The door bounced off the wall, wavering like it was sorry it got in her way, and she was gone.

It wasn’t until afterwards that I realised she had no idea that I was pregnant. I’m glad of it now. I don’t need another person throwing resentment at me, and I wouldn’t blame her for it. I’m terrified to have this baby and she’s terrified not to have one. Luck isn’t fair.

I can’t give her what she’s looking for, but I hope she finds it.

Wednesday, 30 December 2009 - 9:32 pm

A baby called Hope

As giddy as I feel lately, we’re still struggling. We’re still barely foraging enough to survive, growing leaner by the day. We’re not fading or failing yet, but none of us have much fat any more. Once upon a time, I would have been glad of that.

Kostoya is scurrying around with a strained expression. He has been keeping Conroy out in the barn at all hours, desperately recreating the tests ruined by the intruders. We barely see them except for meals. They haven’t told us what they’re working on; when we ask, they always say they’re not sure what it means yet.

I think Jersey is getting Sick. She’s pale and sweaty, and I’ve seen her trying to cover up a cough. She won’t look me in the eye, just shoulders past me whenever I try to talk to her. I wish I could help her, but like she said, I don’t have the equipment.

Jonah seems to be starting to recover. He insisted on getting out of bed today – someone had found him a pair of crutches and he was determinedly hop-thud-hopping around the house. Masterson told him it was too soon, but he’s not listening. He doesn’t want to be stuck in that bed, having us do everything for him. I can’t blame him. At least he’s not white around the mouth with pain any more.

It makes me wonder if he has been given something to ease it. Masterson will never admit it if I ask him, and I’ll only open a can of worms if I speak to Jonah about it, so I can’t find out. I don’t need to know – perhaps I’ll just hope that the doctor did something good there and be glad that Jonah’s feeling better.

Everyone’s working a little harder to take up the space left by our missing friends. Bree is helping Sally out with the baby more. She offered to help with Jonah as well, but Jersey growled at her until she went away. The kids are calling on Sally more and more, and she’s often seen around the house now.

I’m trying to figure out the greenhouses – that was Janice’s speciality, as she knew a thing or two about gardening. I didn’t know where to start, but it turns out that Dale knows enough to unravel what Janice had started. I think he used to work on a farm. It was a relief to be able to defer to him. Growing food is why we’re here and that much responsibility is daunting. I’d much rather worry about everything else.

Matt made me a ring out of a twist of wire this morning. He said he’d get me a proper one just as soon as he finds one good enough. I laughed and said I didn’t mind – but I do. It would be nice to have a real ring. Something solid to hold onto in those moments when I’m not sure about anything. A symbol to show everyone.

We weren’t going to tell everyone. We didn’t want to wave our good news in the faces of everyone else. People are grieving and we’re all hungry. It doesn’t seem like the time to crow about this; it seems disrespectful. Sax would have told me off about it. So would Iris, and Janice, and Dad. None of them are here, so it was left to Dale to have a gentle word with me, in between our talks about the greenhouses.

“It’s not just about you two, you know.” He looked into my face, searching for a spark of comprehension. “We could all use some good news right now. And a reason to celebrate.”

Matt and I had agreed to a marriage but we hadn’t talked about a wedding. I struggled to see the value in it, out here in the After; it was a tradition from a dead world. Then Dale spoke to me and I had to readjust my thinking. This was something for the whole group. I went to talk to Matt and he agreed.

“Most of them know anyway,” he said, lifting his hand. The ring gleamed; it’s not as if we sought to hide it. “And it’s not the only good news we have to give them.”

He meant the baby. I felt awkward and ashamed; there’s still a big part of me that is afraid to tell everyone about it. At the same time, I know the group would be grateful for a reason to look forward. Have I been selfish in keeping it to myself? I’ve been too wound up by the whole subject to consider that before.

I feel like someone poured iron in my shoes and I’m struggling to keep up with the crowd, too concerned with my own feet to see where we’re headed.

There wasn’t any rain today, but everyone was back and looking for dinner an hour or so before it got dark. I took the opportunity to make the announcement, standing before my friends with my heart in my throat and stumbling over every word. It was worse than proposing to Matt – at least I could do half of that in glances.

The group was kind. There were whoops and jeers and plenty of ‘about time’s. Dale came over to hug us both and Thorpe patted me on the shoulderblade. Conroy and Sally both looked delighted. Lily clapped happily, even more euphoric than usual, while Jonah called his congratulations from the couch he was resting on. Estebar was confused but Nugget came over to give me a solemn squeeze around my waist. She stopped there and looked up at me, patting my belly meaningfully.

I laughed and peeled her off. “Yeah, that’s the other thing we have to tell you,” I said. The others shushed to listen; it’s almost like I have them trained. I told them I was pregnant and watched the reactions ripple around the room again.

There was more surprise to that; no-one had noticed, not even with Matt’s habit of resting his hand on my abdomen lately. More of the others got on their feet to come over – I don’t think I’ve been hugged by so many people in months. Thorpe gaped at me as if he couldn’t decide whether he approved or not and I could have sworn I saw Kostoya dabbing at his eyes. Estebar wrinkled his nose and I thought Sally seemed relieved. Bobby made a crack about me not getting married in white and everyone laughed.

Then Jersey stood up. She was scowling more forcefully than usual and I wondered for a second if it was because she was trying not to look Sick. Quiet swept around the room, infecting everyone and turning our eyes towards her.

“Faith’s not the only one who’s pregnant,” she said.

The silence that followed was full of stunned fish. I caught a glimpse of Jonah, who had lost his smile and looked like she had just impaled him; clearly, she hadn’t bothered to warn him. He also seemed sure that it belonged to him – I’ve never seen someone be that struck by a mere maybe. Jersey was glaring around, daring someone to ask how it happened, ready to launch a fist at the least excuse.

Before anyone could laugh and set her off, I stepped over and hugged her. It wasn’t what she was expecting, which is the only reason I got away with it. I kept it quick, and said into her ear, “Congratulations.” When I stepped back again, everyone applauded.

I think I’m the only one who knows what it means to her. I don’t think she told Jonah the reason – she just jumped him, knowing he wouldn’t say no to sex. It’s survival for her, it’s her only hope against the Sickness that’s prickling her skin with sweat and curling a cough up in her chest. I don’t know if the baby has started in time to save her, but now she has hope. Now we all have some hope.

She looked like she wanted to stomp out of the room, so I linked hands with her. She didn’t fight me. She stood with me as we answered the questions that were tossed at us – how far along are we, have we thought of any names yet, what sex do we want, isn’t Estebar a nice name? I answered more than she did, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t have much to say – I hadn’t thought about most of that stuff anyway.

Conroy brought out some alcohol to start the celebrations, and there has been drinking and singing ever since. Jersey was mortified when she was given only water in her cup.

“No drinking for you,” Dale told her with a grin. I thought he was going to get himself smacked, but he had the good sense to retreat while she considered her enraged response. It’s worse that he’s right. I think that was the first time Jersey realised a tiny part of what being pregnant means, beyond being able to survive the Sickness.

The revelries are still going. I had to come and write this, hold up this little, bright flag. She might be all right now. We all might be all right.

Wait. I hear someone shouting. Have to go – I swear they just said the word ‘bodies’.