When it began she was hardly a person at all. Just a soft, mushy, doughy little thing. And so this is the only world she knows. It’s formed her, or at least a part of her. It’s made her tough. Tougher than I am, though she doesn’t know it. Someday, if she’s lucky, she’ll grow old and maybe then she’ll feel like I do. Tired. Worn out. Numb. Not yet, though. She’s too young. Too brave. She doesn’t know any better than to want to keep going. I go on for her and her alone.
It’s been six months since we left home, six months we’ve been walking. The roads are all the same. They come up from the woods and wind through little towns where signs hang off of storefronts, windows are blown out, and power lines are strewn about like lifeless snakes, robbed of their venom. There was a time when a town was a safe place. I can barely remember it. We approach towns carefully, under cover of night, coming in from the woods. Never in the open. Not even under the broad light of day. You don’t know who’s looking out the windows. You don’t know who’s waiting behind the doors.
The highways are safer, though everything’s relative. They’re wide and open and give a good line of sight so you can see who’s coming, sometimes for miles. You can’t walk right on the pavement, of course. You’d only know you were being watched when it was already too late. No, the safety of the highway is off to the side, hidden in the trees but within eyeshot of the broken, flagging concrete. Stay quiet, stay hidden. Show yourself only if you have to. Try to stay safe. But you can’t. Not for long.
So it’s good that she’s tough. Soon she won’t even need me. And that’s good too because I’m already slipping. I didn’t hear the whistling. She did though. It’s a small thing. But small things can mean everything out here.
“You hear that?” she asked.
We stopped. We were off the side of the highway, among the tall trees. I stood still and I closed my eyes and I listened. Nothing.
“I don’t hea-”
There it was. Just on the other side of the road. Sounded like a bird call. I’m sure that was the idea. Lots of groups have gone to using birdsong. It’s safer than a human noise and more reliable than a walkie that might die on you and strand you in a tight spot.
“Get down.” She was already crouching behind a tree before I had spoken the words.
We waited, holding our breaths and listening for another call or some other sign. It felt like a long time. It always feels like that.
A whistle broke the silence. And then the rolling of wheels and the heavy thud of footsteps. I turned, slowly and quietly, to watch the road. She sat against a tree, her breathing steady, her hands wrapped across her shins, her face calm with no hint of fear in it.
A jeep, all tattered and rusted, with no windshield and makeshift tires, rolled up the road from the south. Five men sat in the exposed cabin and four scouts walked alongside it. One of them made another bird call; an answering song came out of the trees across the road. A small group, only four men, appeared out of the woods. One of them, their leader, stepped forward to the scouts. Something traded hands. Could have been anything. When no one has anything, everything is a commodity.
Voices raised. The woodsmen took a defensive stance. The men in the jeep raised up guns that had been hidden under their seats. We’d seen this before. A large group, a group with guns, presses hard on a smaller group, asking for more than originally agreed, at a lower price. If the small group accepts they get to live and if they don’t they get killed and everything they have on them is taken to be used or traded or sold. Either way, the big group – the one with the guns – gets what it wants. The small groups can fall in line or fall to the ground. We don’t do groups anymore.
A single gun fired. The leader of the woodsmen fell. Maybe he wouldn’t be intimidated, was ready to fight. Maybe they killed him for no reason at all, just because they could. Or maybe, after all that he had been through and all that he had seen, he walked knowingly into the trap, ready to die. That happens to a lot of people out here. They realize that, no matter what they do or how long they wait, things aren’t going to go back to how they were, that this is what the world is now. And they find that they’re not so afraid of dying anymore. No more than they’re afraid of living out here. Death’s an escape. A way out.
The men in the truck opened fire. They shot wildly and indiscriminately. In their recklessness they killed all of the woodsmen and one of their own scouts. Two men from the truck hopped out and stripped supplies from the dead woodsmen. They picked over the body of the dead scout, too. There was no sign of remorse. He was just a thing to them now, dead matter to be used or forgotten. They climbed back into the jeep and it continued its slow, rumbling roll into the north. They left the bodies lying dead in the road.
As I leaned back against the tree I saw her. She’d been watching. I don’t know for how long. She looked at me with clear eyes.
“We should wait a few minutes and then we should go,” she said.
“Yes,” I said.
I want to be sick, I want to weep, I want to lie down and die already. I want things to be as they once were. They’re not. And I know that I have to be tough, that I have to be like her. But she doesn’t fully understand the atrocity of this place. It’s all she’s ever known. She should be a child, young and innocent. But this is no world for children. It’s a world for the worst of us, the haggard and broken, the damned. And yet we stay alive, the two of us, so that I can watch her and she can watch the horrors around us. And I wonder whether it’s right. Whether it’s worth it to stretch out our days and to keep going as long as we can when this is what the world looks like, when each and every step draws us farther and farther down what is, clearly and unmistakably, the last road.