“Soooo…” Sam fidgety at dawn, couldn’t hold his tongue in company. “Food?”
“OK.” Throat cleared, so lovely uncertain. “I didn’t know if…should I …?”
Eyes closed, hooked her ankle over his. Signal to stay.
For a time, morning wore on, long shadows and mumbled stirring. Will, harmless acquaintance and everyday bureaucrat turned champion of small tasks, paused outside the shelter long enough to hear voices within (confirming folks were awake already), stepped in just as Sam looked to be pulling himself up off the pillow—
—except nope, nope nope, not quite. “Oopsshitsorrysorrysorry.” Scrambled backwards through the doorway, fell on his bottom as Sam inside bellowed. “Fuh-cking KNOCK!” Voice cracked. And Pint’s guffaws just as loud.
Will, back on his feet, still processing—angry? Or embarrassed?—when Sam stomped out, wrapped in old sheet (for belowparts) and cross-buttoned shirt, voice too high exasperated to carry hope for authority. “My GOD, man, civilization, maybe?!”
Stopped short. Zero desire to share this particular moment together—and certainly not prolong it.
And then perfect-timing Pint, fighting her stupid-happy-puppy grin, appeared and passed unencumbered. Rumpled, but besting everyone in attitude.
Both sets of eyes followed, Sam and Will, then back to each other. Sam summoned composure. “Yes? Can I help?”
Flustered Will, couldn’t for the life of him remember why he’d come. “She’s…OK, then?”
“I mean, she didn’t…get…when she was out there?”
“’Course not.” Sam laughing incredulous. Nodded at his own current attire, proof enough of nothing catching. “Think I’m mad?”
Stamped worry in favor of current joy.
Because, really, no one knew. Blood-borne, water, air or otherwise? Some days, dozens came and went—seemingly healthy, of course, but no telling—and a semblance of camp safety stayed stitched; no major crises yet (not inside anyway). In the months since humanity started assembling again, after those first weeks of ugliness, many people managed insulation, encountered infection only secondhand.
Her own experience, though. Sole reporter, Pint the only one who’d been there. Explained to others in broad strokes, went over it with him just once—summed up: “Close call, sure, but never too close.” And that was that.
Elated, he lapped it up.
Newfound caution out among the ruins, fresh abandon within.
Pint, rolled eyes, told to keep a sidearm. Bolstered by experience, laughed at its potential. “Gonna help against 20? No, but OK then.” Absurdly limited ammunition, anyway. But now forbade to set off in fewer than pairs, at least. Which did mean less time for on-air one-on-ones. Small sacrifice, considering.
His days occupied in cables and com lines. Now, with new things to look forward to, savored even more the isolate dark. Strained (smiling) over the wire to decipher her clipped descriptions of unearthed items she couldn’t identify, hoped were helpful. Absurd haiku.
“Glass nub spouting copper filament, hinged to a metal waffle.”
“Porcelain box over…maybe under?—threaded U pipe. Inside…ew, god. Goop.”
“Two-headed twinned cable, green prong and red port. Hey, they fit! Interracial ouroboros.”
Like an historian locked in a cockpit, bewilderment practiced precisely. Made him giggle.
In person, after those first days, the more serious subject broached just once between them. Shoulder to shoulder, boot heels dug in and legs splayed on patchy grass. Pint worrying dirt with unknown pieces of metal mechanism she’d pocketed from a corporate kitchen, fun found idly digging: shells, pebbles, can tabs, bottle tops. Looking up on occasion to see trees dancing, wind-swayed copses.
“I read once…you should trust one person more than two.” Dour, hesitant. Not her usual tune. “Because it takes stones for one person to say she saw something—taking a chance saying anything at all. But two people can talk each other into seeing something different than what really happened.”
“I can see that, I guess.” Open to the thought. Didn’t realize she was getting at something.
She huffed, flipped a chunk of glass into leaves. “Do you believe me?”
“Pi.” Brought no happy response from her, who scowled at any scent of being placated. “Would I be here if I didn’t?”
Her mind somewhere flooded, swimming.
But Sam had seen his share of it, too. Shrugs and side-eyes, fielding glances from folks who thought full-bore about bad options and worse, what they’d do if…shuddered. Didn’t want to think about it.
And so he scrabbled to his feet, bent, grabbed the scruff of her jacket with two hands and hauled her up, mock force. Held collar over her head with one hand, dusted bum with the other. Her own arms hung in melodrama, but the corner of her mouth cracking upward. And so, as guard to willing prisoner (oof, OK, she threw an elbow to his gut, just for funsies), he led her in silly ceremonious march elsewhere. Would figure out the destination en route.
Two weeks after her physical return from the woods, finally felt fully out of them. No evidence of lasting effects. Relief they gave no word to, but she dug through scant belongings, brought forth a secret stash of good whiskey (“Bourbon, for fuck’s sake. Specificity. Makes a difference”). And late at night, on that, another Tuesday, found a quiet spot to sit together, eyes skyward. Stars like spilled sugar.
Sipped relief for a few moments in silence, exhaled char. Evaporated.
Lord, the joy.
Sleep that night like she’d never had, still and heavy. Dreamt of a pristine coffee shop, big windows looking out to sunlit city streets, not a soul to be seen. She held a jigsaw puzzle box filled with tiny blue eggs, which cracked and oozed beautiful honey into a nest of crystal-white sand. Instructions jumbled, incomprehensible. Couldn’t figure what she was supposed to put together.
Hand on her shoulder pulled her cold from warm depths. Familiar, whispered voice, “Hey, hey.” (Jesus god, what?!—if her thoughts had words just then.) But soon knew where she really was, didn’t think it was so bad. His other arm in her hair, knee brushed her shin. “Erg. Whut?”
“Sorry.” Pre-dawn, Sam in freefall. “I’m so sorry. It seems… I can’t. There’s…”
Feet numb. Panic with no place to perch.
“There’s blood,” he ached. “On the pillow. And…my god. There’s blood.” Saw her terror start to spark and couldn’t stop his own. Thumb across her forehead, “My love.”
“Hmph? Nah, no. Uck.” She wiped spittle, inspected. Streaks. Fighting to keep her borders intact. “No worries. I’m sorry. Lemme…here, just lemme clean up.”
“Pi, you can’t.” Throat locking. “Don’t. It’s…it’s everywhere.”