Sun, 28 December 2008 - 8:25 pm

Together until we’re not

Been trying to focus on things lower than the sky.  Thoughts about that go nowhere useful.

The south side of the river fared better than the north.  There aren’t so many high-rises here, less for the shockwave to catch hold of and topple over, but things are still pretty wrecked.  There’s no power now – it only stayed on long enough to make things worse – and no running water.  Shattered glass everywhere, cars tossed into each other and the scenery.  Buildings in various stages of collapse and creaking.  Some fires have already burnt themselves out; others are struggling on.

We didn’t push on today.  After seeing the sky, no-one really wanted to; I think shock is setting in for all of us now.  Carter decided that we should take the chance to rest and recoup, and no-one argued.  We’re all so used to listening to him that obeying is reflex now, as if we’ve all grown into extensions of his fire crew.

 

I’ve been trying to find out people’s names.  We’ve been struggling on alongside each other for days, but there haven’t exactly been many opportunities to stop and shake hands.  I think I’ve got almost all of them now.

I don’t know Carter’s first name.  He’s forty and strung out, and there’s a wedding band on his finger.  He has a strange momentum about him, as if he’s afraid to stop.  I look at him and it’s familiar.  I guess that’s part of why we don’t mind him being in charge; he seems to need it.

Sally is strung out for an entirely different reason.  I keep catching sight of her rubbing at her arms, as if she’s trying to drub something from them.  Or into them.  She’s pale and sickly; I think if the rest of us hadn’t bullied her into moving, she would have stopped and curled up somewhere in the city’s rubble days ago.  I assumed before she was just very shocked, but now I think it has a more chemical cause.

Liz must be about fifty.  She’s one of the stronger runners of the group – she has an iron determination in her spine.  Most of her attention is focussed on the two little ones she has hanging off her – they can’t be more than six or seven years old.  They’re not related – unless they had very different fathers – and I don’t think they belong to her.  Or they didn’t before all this started.  She doesn’t let them out of her sight now.  One of them – the only name I could get for him was ‘Nugget’ – has a head injury.  He’s been carried by one or other of the group for most of the time, in and out of consciousness.

There’s Dillon, of course.  My shadow, though he’s latching onto one of the firemen as well now.  I guess because I’m injured and can’t be out there doing so much stuff.  He’s thirteen.  I don’t know who he was in the city with; he won’t say and I didn’t want to push him.  Whoever it was, they’re gone now.

The fireman he’s attaching himself to is Thorpe.  I haven’t spoken to him much, but he seems like a sensible kind of guy.  I know he carried Nugget across the bridge last night; I remember seeing the kid flopping about like a broken ragdoll over his shoulder.

Another of the steadier rocks is Sax – he got called by the instrument he’s carrying.  It’s dented; I don’t know if it will play any more.  But he’s keeping it and that’s that.  He’s a big round-shouldered fella, and older than I thought now that I can see the grey in his hair.  It wasn’t until we stopped that I recognised him; I used to walk past him every day in the mall, playing his saxophone, dressed like a blues player from the ’20s.

Delaine is a born whiner.  Nothing is good enough, he’s hungry, he’s thirsty, he’s tired, he’s sore.  He’s the voice of all the little urges inside of us, the ones that the rest of us are too drained or too considerate to let out.  He has no such compunctions.  I hit him in the back of the head with a bottle of water earlier.  Not hard, but enough to get his attention.  I told him that I’d rather go thirsty than listen to his bitching.  I guess my nerves are getting a little bit ragged. Not bad for a left-handed throw, though.

Ben came over and gave me some of his water after that.  He’s the quietest of the fire crew.  He was one of the first firemen I saw; I think he’s been with us the whole time.  He’s the one who helped me climb off the bookstore after Harry.  He’s limping but he won’t let me check out his leg. 

The last of the firefighters is Trevor.  He keeps trying to crack jokes.  He even got Sally to chance a smile earlier.  I caught him worrying at the ring on his finger earlier.  He didn’t notice me; he just sighed and then rubbed his face, as if trying to dislodge a thought from the inside of his skull.

The woman in the heels who came out of the law firm is still with us.  She’s having a lot of trouble with all of this; she has to be chivvied to eat and drink.  She’s vacant, like her driver has taken a break and others need to step in to guide her.  Trevor has been keeping an eye on her, but even he hasn’t been able to get a name out of her.

The last fella is Simon.  He was trapped near a fire and has the worst burns I’ve ever seen.  There’s not much left of his shoulder and one side of his face.  We’ve done what we can for him, but he needs a hospital.  He moans a lot, but no-one dares to mind.  Except Delaine, but even he only mentioned it once.

 

So that’s us, that’s our bunch of survivors.  Is that what we are now?  Our label?  Survivors, refugees?  All I know is that we’re alive and together until we’re not any more.

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Fri, 2 January 2009 - 9:16 pm

For the fallen

Sax sang for Simon tonight.  He gathered us all around and said goodbye to him for us, goodbye to a man none of us really knew.  We knew that his name was Simon Richards.  We knew that he struggled with his pain and tried not to let it out.  We knew that he pushed on when we asked him to, up to and often past his limits; he collapsed more than once.  We knew that he knew we wanted to help him.  But we didn’t know who he was.  We didn’t know his face before it was burnt.

Sax sang Amazing Grace for him.  It was beautiful, and sad, and heartbreaking.  It’s my favourite of all the hymns, but I couldn’t join in for the thickness in my throat.  I don’t know how Sax managed to finish it.  I wasn’t the only one crying by the end, and it wouldn’t stop even after we covered Simon’s face up.

I thought about all those who had fallen, about strong Carter and Trevor, and sensible Liz and the kid, and the poor lawyerlady.  I thought about Harry.  They never got words spoken for them, or a song to carry them away.  I’ve said words for them in my heart – does that count?  It doesn’t feel like enough, and I’m not religious enough to take comfort in spirit alone.  But I hope that they know, and I hope that Simon heard us.

Sleep well, my friends.

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Sun, 4 January 2009 - 9:46 pm

Sax

The laptop battery finally gave out in my last post.  I almost burst into tears right there and then.  It feels horribly foolish, being so attached to this thing I’m doing here, this chunk of moulded metal and plastic, this journal of my strangely spiralling life.  We seem to cling to the strangest things when things fall apart.  Little trinkets, big trinkets.  This is mine, I guess.

It was Sax who fixed it for me.  The big, quiet fella who likes to carry a dented saxaphone around, as if it carries the memory of all the songs it has played.  I remember the soft wail of it in the mall, and the picture he made in his faded suit.  He seems more solid these days, but it’s hard to know if that’s just because he’s not a part of the scenery to me any more.

Turns out, he’s a dab hand with electronics.  He got Dillon to fetch him some parts, and he rigged up a power-converter-type thing to hook up to a car battery.  There are lots around, all of them useless since the ignitions fried.  It feels naughty, sneaking in under a bonnet and sucking out the juice, but it’s not like anyone else is here to use it.  I’m still not used to all the stealing.

 

It was Thorpe who asked how this beautiful piece of machinery is still working when everything else has fried.  I had wondered before, but honestly, I was afraid to ask.  As if that might magically make it not so.  Like a wound that doesn’t hurt until you look at it and know that it has to be painful.

Trust Thorpe to be a douse of ice down our backs.  He’s a miserable piece of work, but at least he puts his shoulder in with the rest of the group.  He’s probably the strongest of all of us; he’s certainly the tallest and broadest, though Sax beats him on sheer bulk.  If only he wasn’t such a dick.

There was an accusation in the way he looked at me, as if I had somehow conspired to keep this machine safe.  As if somehow I was responsible for all of this, as if I had known about it all in advance.  I was so shocked that my throat closed up; I just stared at him.  It was so ridiculous I had no idea how to respond.

Sax came to my rescue.  He’d just got done making Nugget drink something and turned his ponderous attention onto Thorpe.

“The case saved it,” he said, as if that explained everything.  We all looked at him like he was talking in tongues. 

“What’s that got to do with anything?”  Trust Thorpe to recover first and inject something disparaging.  The thing was, I had no idea what the case had to do with anything either. 

“It’s made of metal,” Sax pointed out.  Then he said something about creating a cage and that meant that the pulse couldn’t get through it.  I didn’t understand that part, but basically the case stopped it from being fried.  It’s also dented from some of the recent punishment.

I only bought the case because it was silver and shiny and I liked it.  Who knew, huh?

 

And now it’s back and working, and here I am typing away again.  The thin thread of my comfort and sanity has been restored.  I’m so relieved that I could dance around.

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Fri, 9 January 2009 - 4:44 pm

The van

We got trapped in the van today.  We’re still in it now, huddling, while the rain patters down on it.

 

It used to be such a comforting sound.  That wonderful noise put me to sleep as a child: the delicious rhythm of water on a roof; the rich drip of it off gutters and eaves and the boughs of the tree outside my window. 

I would close my eyes sometimes and listen to the hammering of it, beating at a world that cheerfully wouldn’t submit.  A world that would drink it up and turn it into something green and lush.  And sometimes, just sometimes, when it was hot and heavy out, I would go outside and stand in it.  Let it fall on me, prickling and thick.  And I would dance in it.

 

Now, it hisses on contact, turning to snakes even on impenetrable metal.  The ribbons of it are faintly green-tinged; I can only tell by watching it slither down the windscreen a few inches from my face.  It makes me tense just listening to it.  It brings to mind the faces I watched melt, how they barely had time to scream before sound was robbed from them.  How they looked at us before the acid took their eyes.

Today, it started without warning.  The first thing we knew, Sax was shouting in pain because he had had an arm propped on the sill of the passenger window and spots on his elbow and forearm were dissolving.  Thorpe was driving and nearly panicked, but we’re in a residential street – no store windows to plough through this time.  He didn’t risk a crash, and I’m glad of that. 

I dread to think what might have happened if he had tried to put us inside a building by sheer force alone.  Broken windows, buckled metal and sprung seams, thrown bodies sprawled everywhere, and the rain seeping in over all of it.  I have a mental image of a crash test dummy bent, bleeding, melting, and bearing all of our faces.

 

Thorpe took a breath and stopped the van instead.  We rolled all the windows up and double-checked the doors, shut ourselves tightly inside.  It was all we could do, even though it made the van suffocatingly hot.  We would all rather put up with the heat than the acid.

Of course, the van leaks.  The doors at the back are not well sealed (despite this being a plumber’s van), and there’s a crack along one side of the roof that has rusted through.  We have moved everyone away from that side of the van – the rain doesn’t seem to be pooling much, thank goodness.

Ben started to shake when the rain came inside – he was trying so hard not to freak out, but he was almost hyperventilating.  The cab seems waterproof, so we helped him scramble into the front.  He’s calmer now, though he’s still watching the rain with taut horror.  He had a deathgrip on my hand for a while.  His burns are still bright and painful; I wonder if seeing the rain that caused it is making them itch with familiarity.

Sax’s arm isn’t too bad, though it still looks like something slathering chewed on it and tore small, dripping chunks off.  It’s bound up now as best we could make it.  Everyone’s waiting for it the roof to come down on us and wash us away into nothing.  I know that all eyes behind me will be fixed on that place where the rain is coming in and making sickly tracks down the van’s side.

It’s so quiet in here.  I just realised that my typing is the loudest thing in here.  Now I’m all self-conscious about it.  Time to do something else.

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Tue, 17 February 2009 - 3:27 pm

A question of motion

Last night, we sang like a group again. It was sad at first, but then we got into old pop songs and laughed trying to remember all of the words. I made Matt sit with us; he didn’t join in, but he listened and he’s here.

 

Today, we thought it was best to stay where we were and give the injured more time to recover. Sax still isn’t steady on his feet, and there’s something… missing. He’s not fighting any more. I thought he hadn’t given up after he found out that his daughter was missing, but maybe he has. Maybe momentum is all that has been carrying him forward, and now that he’s stopped, he won’t start moving again.

I have to make him get up again. I have to make him want something again. I don’t know how – I can’t replace his daughter. Not even Nugget can do that.

 

We took the time to lay the map out and try to figure out how to get across the river. There aren’t any more bridges for miles – we’ll lose days, maybe weeks more if we have to go upriver to the next one. On top of that, there are no guarantees that that one will be safe to cross either.

Thorpe asked if we should forget about trying to get across the river and move on to the next marker on our map. I think that’s the first time I ever saw the big fella and the doctor agree about something (Masterson is usually of the ‘why bother?’ attitude).

I asked which one of them was going to tell Dillon that we weren’t going to look for his family because it was a bit difficult. Neither of them had an answer for me; even Masterson didn’t want to break the kid’s hopes like that. If we can face Stripers and fight off sharks, then we can cross a stupid river. That was the end of that idea.

I’m just glad that Dillon wasn’t there to hear that part of the discussion. He still looks up to Thorpe – I think the kid idolises him. It would have broken his heart.

 

The question of boats came up. There are some around, patiently awaiting the return of dead owners. Most have long since floated away – the rain probably ate through the ropes. Matt said that he had seen some driven up onto the riverbank not too far from the mall; he’s going to show us where they are.

No-one has complained about him being here. They haven’t even asked much about him. Maybe it’s because he found food for us; he didn’t even complain when we stuffed our bags full of it. There’s nothing left there now, nothing for him beyond what he’s carrying.

I suppose that’s true for all of us here.

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Sat, 21 February 2009 - 3:20 pm

Split

After yesterday’s adventure on the water, we found a store to regroup in and spend the night. We were going to push on today, but the question of the boat’s radio came up and that presented us with a dilemma.

Sax was going to look at it, but with so many of us crammed onto the boat, there wasn’t any space or time. He still hasn’t recovered from that knock on the head, unsteady on his feet and far too quiet. He’s still not fighting.

He offered to stay behind and fix the radio. I didn’t like that idea at all – he’s vulnerable on his own, as we all are. We’re supposed to stay together. He said that no-one would bother with an old fella like him, but I disagree. The sharks didn’t have any qualms about having a go at him, and I don’t think they’re unique or even unusual. And someone should definitely keep an eye on him, for his own sake.

Then Sally stepped forward and offered to stay with him. I don’t know why – he’s barely spoken to her since she rejoined the group, and he was one of the voices that objected to her presence. She is nursing more bruises than most of us; perhaps she simply wanted the chance to rest.

Sax went quiet at the offer and no-one else really knew what to say. With no reason to refuse, we shrugged and agreed. I still didn’t like the idea, but what was I supposed to do? I wanted to stay behind to keep an eye on them, but I wanted to be with the group as well. And I had to be with Dillon when he got to his family’s place, too. I can’t be everywhere.

Instead, I went to talk to the doctor. I asked him to stay behind as well, to keep an eye on Sax. I don’t trust his health, and I don’t think having the doctor with us without Sally is going to be great either. She keeps him quiet when his acerbic comments would cause trouble.

He looked at me like a weasel sizing up a mouse, but then he shrugged and said he’d take a few days on his ass. I think I preferred him when he was high; his edges were softer then.

 

We split at about midday. The farewells were weird and stinted – no hugs or fond goodbyes; barely even murmurs promising that we’ll be back as soon as we can. Though we will be back, of course. If I have to drag every unwilling butt personally, we’re coming back for them.

I tried to speak to Sax briefly, but he just smiled at me vaguely and said he’d be fine. Sally promised to look after him and I took heart from that. I think she’s really trying. There wasn’t time to ask why.

I’m worried about them. I wish we could check on how they are; I wish we could call them up. We’ll see them again in a few days, but that’s no comfort. I don’t want to let them go and I wish I could be everywhere.

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Fri, 6 March 2009 - 4:55 pm

Making peace with old ghosts

Things are a different in the group. During the day, while we’re travelling, we don’t talk much. With the shadow of the Pride on us, we’re sticking to the edges of the streets and being as quiet as we can. It has settled on us like fog, all clammy hands and a vague discomfort in our clothes as it creeps all over us.

Without the lowgrade chatter to distract me, I’ve been watching the others more. Thorpe walks up front, as stolid as always, with Dillon on his heels. The kid is a highly alert terrier, eager to be the first to spot trouble. He seems to want to prove himself, though I couldn’t say why. I think he wants Thorpe to approve of him; the big fireman is making him work for it, giving as little away as always.

Matt is watchful, in a paranoid kind of way. He walks with a hand on the stick that’s lashed to his pack, ready to pull it out. Ready for someone to try to hurt him. I look at the bleached ends of his hair and see how much he’s changed.

Ben walks with me, his gaze turned outwards, but every now and then his hand checks that I’m still there.

Behind us, there’s Sax and Sally. Nugget is usually skirting around there somewhere, her little legs with far more energy than the rest of us. Masterson brings up the rear, barely even glancing around. He just puts one foot in front of the other and casts baleful looks at one or other of us as the mood strikes him.

The interesting thing is Sax and Sally. The old man hasn’t had much to do with Sally since she abandoned us at the hospital, but there’s a closeness to them now. The time they had on the boat seems to have done them good. And it’s not the way that Sally used to cling close to Masterson – there’s nothing sexual about it.

 

We retreated through a broken storefront when we stopped for a big of lunch, and I managed to speak with Sally. She seems more relaxed these days, too. The itch of the drugs is less now, I think, and she’s feeling more settled as part of the group.

She said that things had blown up between the three of them about two days after the rest of us had left the boat. They had all shouted at each other; it was vicious and brutal and over very quickly. Certain unspecified things tumbled out that shone light into sensitive places. Some time afterwards, they had talked. Not Masterson so much – he wasn’t interested in building bridges and kept to himself.

She and Sax managed to work out some of their differences. She found out why he took her actions so personally; she didn’t want to betray his confidence by telling me, but any fool can see he’s had someone he loved addicted to drugs. Someone he lost to them. Now, he’s making peace with that by making peace with Sally.

She seems almost scared by the attention. She likes it, this new understanding between her and Sax, but she has this way of letting her gaze dart off into a corner when she talks about it. As if she wants to run there and hide. But she talked to me more today than she has since we started out on this journey and she’s not shying away from his presence any more.

Whatever happened there between Sax and Sally, he’s walking forward again. I can’t say how relieved I am about that. He’s talking with the group in the evenings like he used to, and berating Nugget in that off-hand, put-upon way he has.

I’m taking every good sign I can and putting them down here, because I think we might need them later. It’s easy to gloss over the good parts and focus on the bad. On the blisters and the supplies that are running short. On the hard floors and the creeping hiss of the rain. No, here are some of the things that made today okay. The rest will still be here tomorrow.

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Tue, 14 April 2009 - 7:55 pm

Distant voices

I had hoped to be back on the road again today. Obstacles keep rising before us, tripping us up and leaving us sprawling here on the mall floor. The Rats are muttering about us making ourselves at home permanently – I can’t blame them. The truth is that the mall is the most comfortable place for us to be for now, even when they somehow manage to steal most of the blankets.

Those of us who were afflicted with scurvy are better now – no more bleeding, no more lightheaded wobblies. I feel like I could walk all day carrying a heavy pack again. My legs itch for it; we’ve been in one place for so long and I can feel the days chipping off me like a thin coat of nail polish. I want to get moving again. I want to get to the next dot on our map, and the one after that.

I want to know if my dad is alive.

 

But not all of us are well. Sax is still coughing, worse and worse now, hacking up awful rasps from his chest. His hands shake when he thinks I’m not looking, and he’s sweating. He waves away concern, but I’m sure he has a fever. He looks pale, faded under his dark skin.

I don’t dare get on the road with him like that. I tried to get Masterson to look at him, but Sax keeps sending the doctor away, claiming that he’s all right. Everyone knows he’s not. He gets so breathless from a bout of coughing that I think he’s going to pass out. All we can do is offer him some water, and we’ve got precious little of that.

Ben suggested that we bundle the sick man up into the back of a car and drive towards the next dot. Matt and Thorpe reported hearing engines on the supply runs over the past couple of days – we don’t know whose engines, and we’re not sure that we want to find out. Starting up a couple of cars might bring them down on us. Could we get away before they caught up with us? There’s no way for us to know. it depends on the state of the roads (usually clogged with abandoned or wrecked vehicles) and what kind of car we can get our hands on.

We spent so long discussing the issue that we ran out of clear skies to escape under and rain sealed us in here. So today slipped away from us like snot down a drainpipe and now we’re settling down in an increasingly familiar darkness.

I’m so tired of letting fear dictate our every move. I don’t know the last time I felt truly secure and safe, when didn’t wonder if someone would die tomorrow. We’ve got supplies to last us a little while and those distant engines aren’t going to stop us doing what we have to.

Tomorrow, no-one’s going to die. It’s time for the Seekers to start seeking again.

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Wed, 22 April 2009 - 1:27 pm

Scapegoat

Sometime during the night, Sax fell into a coma. His voice dimmed until he was moaning and wheezing, and then he was just wheezing. I don’t know if I was the only one listening to him, counting the time between his breaths, but the room felt like it was full of ears. When the air stuttered in his throat, I held my breath, willing him to keep going. Just one more breath, and another. Don’t stop.

I didn’t realise that I was crying until Ben rolled over and tried to comfort me. It felt good, burying myself against his chest and hiding from it all for a while. It was nice to have someone else’s arms around me and those meaningless words in my ear – it’ll be all right. Shhh.

It wasn’t until his chest quivered that I remembered something from a few days ago. He had been struggling to suppress coughs. I hadn’t thought much of it before then, I thought it had gone away, but of course, that’s how Sax’s sickness started. Since then, he has been clearing his throat a lot. I heard him do it again as I lay there against him, and this time I felt the spasm he was hiding. He had a cough, irritating and persistent.

I lifted my head to look him in the eye. It was just before dawn, I could barely see him at all, but it was light enough for our gazes to meet. That was enough. We both knew the truth. I felt like something had just fallen out from under me, something important, like a bridge or a floorboard or my own legs. And I started crying again, hopelessly trying to be quiet so that the others wouldn’t know.

 

When we got up this morning, no-one said anything about what they did or didn’t hear during the night. Then we realised that Alice was missing and all anyone would say was that they didn’t hear her go.

Thorpe is pleased and Dillon is devastated. The rest of us are relieved, even if we don’t know for sure that she brought this thing to us. She probably did. She might have killed us all. It makes sense, as much as I don’t want to admit it.

It doesn’t matter. The damage is done. It’s too late now for Sax, maybe for all of us. I don’t think he’s got long left.

Wherever she is now, Alice is probably a lot safer than she was here.

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Thu, 23 April 2009 - 3:42 pm

Sax

Sax slipped away sometime in the night. He didn’t get up and tiptoe out. He didn’t melt into the shadows when no-one was looking. He didn’t wake up. He was pale and breathing shallowly, and lying very still. By morning, he was grey and not moving at all.

We gathered silently around his couch, each one pulled over by the sight of someone else standing there. No-one said anything. No-one needed to. I wasn’t the only one with tears on my cheeks, though none of us broke the silence with sobs.

Masterson checked his pulse, just to be sure, just to make it official. He looked at us and shook his head.

After a few minutes, I realised that most of us were holding hands. I had Ben on one side and Matt on the other. It felt like those warm contacts were all that held me up. I nudged Matt and nodded at him to take the hand on the other side of him as well. Thorpe was surprised but Nugget already had hold of his other hand. Dillon took the hint and latched onto the little girl and Masterson. Sally completed the circle when she took Ben’s hand.

 

I don’t think any of us knew Sax very well, but he was still one of us. He was our rock – all of us leant on him at some point. He shared his music with us and helped us raise our voices together.

I remember when we found him in the city. I thought then that he was an old man, that he wasn’t likely to make it out of that nightmare alive. He turned out to be one of the strongest of us. Even when he was injured, he pressed on, unwilling to slow us down. We would have waited for him; we did, at times. I think he hated making us wait, but no-one ever complained about it.

He was a father-figure for Nugget. He looked after her, and I think she listened when he spoke only to her. She seems to understand that he’s gone, sniffing quietly. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her cry before.

He had a bond with Sally as well. That time that he spent on the boat with her and Masterson changed something between them. They made peace with each other and the shadows of their pasts, and came out stronger for it. The loss of his daughter had crushed him, but he was brighter with Sally to care about. I can see her shoulders shaking from here.

We don’t know much about his family except that they were missing when we went looking for them. It nearly broke him – he loved them very much.

He gave us so many things. He taught me about electronics, enough to rewire engines if I need to (and I have needed to). He fixed a radio so that we could listen for signals, for signs of life. He gave me a way to keep this laptop alive, so that I could keep writing this blog. He gave us so many things that we will carry with us as we move forward.

 

Standing in a circle around him, there was only one thing that felt right to do. My throat was clogged; I had to clear it a couple of times before it would work. My voice was rough-edged and I had to start over after the first line, but the second time I kept going. Struggling up out of our gloom one by one, the others joined in. Even Nugget mouthed the words. Afterwards, there were hugs and tears as we finally let him go.

I hope you heard us, Sax. I hope we made you proud. We love you. We’ll miss you and your Amazing Grace.

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