“And I’m tellin’ you, leave him alone.” The gun pointed at the gang was from a different world: an antique, short-barrelled shotgun, the stock worked in bronze. The bearer of the gun didn’t match the delicate filigree either—a short, stocky woman, hair tied back under a wide-brimmed fishing hat of dubious age, and a filthy camping poncho. The mud-splattered all-terrain vehicle she sat astride had also seen better days.
A curiosity and an annoyance. The leader of the local gang swung Oliver by the arm lock around his neck so that he could peer, scowling, at the interloper. “He your boyfriend or something?”
The American’s dark eyes narrowed, regarding each gang member in turn. “I know what you’re thinkin’. You’re thinkin’ I look like an easy target, all on my lonesome like this, standin’ up for god-knows-who on the edge of town. But you gotta ask yourself: would a lone woman do what I’m doin’? Or would I be distractin’ you while my partner—the one with the long-range rifle—sets up on a near-by roof?” The gun made an ominous click. “Let him go.”
The local gang, it had to be said, was not at the top because of inherent brains. Squinting along with her bizarre accent, at the mention of a partner with a rifle they all drew back to scan the nearby rooftops. Too many burned-out windows, ledges, and chimneys along the high street for someone to be hiding.
The dirt and gravel at the leader’s feet exploded outwards in a burst of shot and dust. The thugs shouted and leapt back, releasing Oliver, who scurried out of arm’s reach with a white-knuckled grip on his weathered camping pack.
The stranger withdrew her other arm from inside the green plastic poncho to reveal a second shotgun. “Get on the mule,” she growled to Oliver.
When he frowned, shaking his head against the ringing in his ears, she gave a swift jerk of the head to the back of the ATV. He scrambled into the rear seat only to be handed the second shotgun. He stared at it in bafflement for a moment before pointing it at the twitching gang, their eyes still searching the ruined rooftops, knives uselessly drawn.
“Hold on to what—” The ATV lurched forward with a roar over the broken and pitted street.
As the first chuck of asphalt whizzed past his head, Oliver flinched, scrambling to figure out how to hold on to his backpack, the gun, and the handholds of the passenger seat simultaneously while the ATV bucked and bounced at speeds both prudent and terrifying. “They’re throwing stones!”
“I know. Hold on!”
The stranger veered off the road into the scrub while the local gang hurled rocks and chunks of their old life as the remains of the tiny Highland town dwindled in the rear-view mirror.
Ten minutes of ball-bruising jostling later, his mysterious rescuer stopped the ATV in a clearing. “Get off.”
Oliver slid on jelly legs to the ground, still holding the gun by the barrel like an explosive banana, pointed away from him. One arm through a strap of the overloaded pack kept it tucked against his side. He swallowed, as it finally occurred to him that he might have been rescued from the gang only to be robbed and murdered somewhere quieter.
“Give me that.” She held out her hand, fluttering fingers impatiently.
A moment of decision. “No.”
She rolled her eyes. “It’s not loaded.” Her accent had changed, the drawl gone, though her voice remained flatly North American. “Give it to me before you break it.”
He swallowed. “I don’t have anything valuable.”
“Sweetheart, everything’s valuable these days if you have half a brain.” She gestured again with her fingers, amused but not angry, the other hand on her hips, still waiting for the return of the gun. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to hurt you.”
There was something about her relaxed demeanour that made him want to trust her. That, and she was a head shorter than he was. He flipped the gun around to hand it back handle-first.
She gave it a cursory glance and then slid it into a holster mounted on the side of the mule. “You heading south?”
“True.” She sized him up with a frank stare and he tried to straighten his shoulders even while adjusting the straps on his backpack. “How far south?”
“Back home to York,” he answered. “And then, depending what’s there… I suppose on to London.”
“London’s rubble,” she replied with a quick shake of the head. “York? Don’t know about York. Not even sure where that is.”
Oliver’s face lit up. “You’ve had news? You’ve—internet?”
“No internet. News—” She scratched under the brim of her flopping hat. “News is different to everyone.” She glanced in the direction of the village, considering, then up at the overhead sun. “Maybe we should find a better place to talk. Further away from angry rednecks.”
“Rednecks?” he repeated. In his mind this referred to a specific set of traits associated with a segment of the population in the deep South of the United States, the ones who had all the nukes and guns and a deep abiding mistrust of everyone not themselves.
She shrugged. “How about ‘shitkickers’?”
“Haven’t heard that one, but I like it, and I agree to put space between us and them.” He paused, considering, and then he slid his pack around, rummaging one-handed, before holding out a tin of mandarin oranges.
She stared at his proffered hand, frozen, longing written on her face.
“As a thank you,” he explained. “For saving me from those—shitkickers. For you and your partner.”
“Partner?” she repeated, eyes still fixed on the tin. He gestured and she gingerly reached out and then snatched it, holding it up to her nose, as though she could smell the oranges through the metal. She pulled it away from her face. “What partner?”
“The one on the roof. The one with the long-range rifle.”
Her lips twitched over the curve of the tin. “Sweetheart,” she said, the exaggerated drawl making a re-appearance, “if I had a partner with a ‘long-range rifle’, do you think I’d be this excited over a single can of fruit snack?”
He stared. “No partner. No long-range rifle?”
“Nothing but me, Betsy, two shotguns, and my good nature.”
“Betsy… oh. The—of course.”
“Speaking of,” she said, climbing back on board, “it’s more comfortable if you sit looking behind us, letting your legs hang down.”
It was indeed more comfortable, to his surprise; and with his pack worn on the front in his lap he could hold on to handrails mounted on the side, further cutting down the jostling. “You haven’t told me your name,” he shouted.
“You don’t have to shout, I’m right here,” she replied, the drawl once again stowed away until next time she needed to make a threat or a retort.
“Oh.” He had expected the engine to make more noise, but the only sound was the crunch of dirt as they rejoined the broken thoroughfare. “It’s electric? But before—”
“Before I needed to make it sound like I’m richer and stronger than I am,” she replied, laughing. “Betsy’s a hybrid. She can make good mileage but sometimes—” Suddenly the engine roared and spluttered, nearly startling Oliver off the back. “—sometimes it’s better to make a little noise.”
“You still haven’t told me your name,” he reminded her. They had travelled through the better part of the daylight, but evening came swiftly to northern Scotland, and they’d pulled off the road to camp in a clearing. Oliver gathered brush; the stranger busied herself examining the mule with mutterings about scratches. From where he stood he wasn’t sure how she could tell which scratches were new. From the wear-and-tear and the fact that she was a gasoline-hybrid, Betsy had to be at least 20 years old.
Once he scrounged enough dry tinder to be hopeful, he lit the fire with one of his precious matches. He didn’t breathe until the fire caught then he let the breath out slowly. 19 left. “I’m Oliver.”
“That’s nice,” she replied, settling in, her back against one of Betsy’s wheels, legs stretched out. The soles of her boots were as worn as Oliver’s trainers.
He took his shoes off, checking them for new cracks or extra wear, pulling the inserts out to air. “Yours?”
She watched his shoe administrations with curiosity. “How long? Before you set out?”
“Almost six months,” he replied, his voice dull. “We had plans for four months of work, and supplies for six, and we were isolated enough that we didn’t—we weren’t expecting anyone to contact us. It was only after that the scientists were supposed to be rotated out that we came looking.”
She nodded, crossing her arms over her chest. “Same as the nutbars, I guess. You were filming a series?”
“Yeah, more like a documentary—” Oliver stopped, staring. “You know who I am?” Another sly smile. “You do. That’s… oh. That’s why you stopped for me.”
“I bet you never thought a YouTube channel would save your life one day,” she said, her grin bright in the encroaching gloom. She leaned forward, hand outstretched. “Name’s Isla Zhang but you can call me Gunny. I’d rather you call me Gunny. Not only was I a subscriber, back in the day, but I had one of the t-shirts.”
He shook her hand, grinning back, the absurdity of the situation adding cheer to the campsite. “Always nice to meet a fan.”
The days had been monotonous since Oliver had decided to split from the main group, preferring to walk. He’d hike for a long morning, then break for rest and a meagre dinner of whatever he could scrounge from Scotland’s ruined landscape. He’d set traps in the rest of the daylight, or fish, or wash; sometimes he read from his one battered copy of a dire Richard Sturgeon novel, Ten to One, that one of the scientists had given him. Sometimes he’d take his dead mobile out from the bottom of his backpack, checking to see if the crack was any bigger, or if it would turn on. It never did. He’d wrap it in his spare t-shirt and place it back with care.
Oliver’s mother used to say, “A change is as good as a rest.” He’d never understood that, back when his days were each as different from each other as his meals or his clothing or his social media feed. But meeting up with Gunny had given him insight into the expression.
Now he was literally riding shotgun on the back of a mechanical mule, keeping an antique Winchester long-barrel at hand. Just in case they spotted a rabbit or flushed out a partridge or pheasant or whatever those horrible things were that burst out of the grass like feathery atomic blasts, usually right underfoot when he wasn’t paying attention, scaring himself half to death.
Gunny assured him that they were good eatin’—the g dropped for emphasis—while giving him a cursory lesson with the long gun.
“Why didn’t you threaten those arseholes with this one?” he had asked her, trying to get used to the feel of the shotgun stock against his shoulder. He was concerned about his accuracy but Gunny laughed and assured him that accuracy less of a concern with shot. “It’s more threatening looking than the short ones.”
“Not when you’re standing five feet away from someone and you want to look like you’re the front man with lots of backup,” Gunny had explained, adjusting his hold. “You want to look like someone else is holding the big guns.”
“But then you’re left holding the small one.”
“So what makes them think you’ve got anything bigger?”
Shrug. “Body language. Confidence. A heavy cowboy accent.”
“A cowboy accent?”
“Sure.” She’d switched on her drawl, sticking a blade of yellowed grass in her teeth, her eyes narrowing, sizing him up with a slow tilt of her head. She flipped the flap of her green plastic poncho back to reveal her fingers pointed like a pistol. “You feelin’ lucky? Go ahead, punk. Make my day.”
Oliver stared at her in incomprehension.
She dropped the act, disappointed. “Like Clint Eastwood? Fist Full of Dollars? No? Well, you’re the exception. It’s been working so far.” She adjusted her poncho back, scanning the gray clouds. Still with the grass in her teeth, she said: “Act bigger than you are, people smell the weakness. Look like you don’t care that they know how small you are, they wonder what you have hidden.”
“If you say so.” Oliver went back to playing with the unloaded Winchester, getting a feel for the trigger. He was just over six feet, and relatively robust, at least back when he’d had a good diet and the chance to lift weights. No one had bothered him since his growth spurt in first-year uni. Not until he’d taken the road south, that was.
And now he was bouncing on the back of an ATV, watching for game, wondering where the rest of the world was.
The mule slowed to a stop. He twisted in the seat. “What’s happening?”
“Smoke.” To the south-east a thin line of black-gray stood against the slate-blue sky, like a flag waving in the breeze.
“A chimney.” He grinned. “A house. People.”
He thought she’d grin back but she continued to stare at the line like it was spelling something only she could read. Without saying anything, she restarted the mule, swerving to the right.
So far he’d mostly come across ruins: long-abandoned buildings that hadn’t held up to the onslaught of the mid-21st century. People lived in the shadows of their old lives as long as they’d had the strength to; he’d learned to trust his nose to avoid opening one door too many. Usually that door lead to the bedroom. Lucky for him if it did: the kitchen was free for the scavenge, if animals hadn’t got to the cupboards first.
Usually the bedroom but not always. He never wanted to experience discoveries like that again.
He’d grown hungry enough in living memory to risk it.
This house wasn’t just ‘still occupied,’ it was whole. A tidy farmhouse on the edge of a rocky field. No crops sown, of course, too early in the year. There was a small garden with straggly vegetables, yellow-green and sickly but staked and tied with care.
Gunny made the engine growl as they crested the low hill. Over the empty landscape the noise carried with nothing to muffle it. She continued until they both spotted movement, darting into the shelter of the little stone house.
“Should I put the gun away?” Oliver asked.
Gunny stared at him. “What for?”
“To do that thing you were saying. Look small but imply you’re carrying a big stick or whatever.”
She smirked. “Hon, you are my big stick.”
“Maybe I should talk to them. Fellow inhabitant of the British Isles and all that.”
“Yeah?” She swung off the mule, stretching, keeping her focus on the house. “Does that usually go well?” When he didn’t answer, she patted his arm. “Stay here and think confident, possibly menacing thoughts. And for Christ’s sake don’t daydream on me.”
He shifted, insulted. “I wouldn’t—”
“I would hope not but anyone scared by a fucking grouse is not someone paying a whole lot of attention.”
“You’re not going to let me live that down, are you?”
“Nope.” She finished her stretches and tucked one of the short guns under her poncho. “Wish me luck.”
Oliver groaned as he woke, pain flooding his consciousness. Grey light filtered through the stunted leaves of the copse. It could be any time of day, but it was day. The pounding against the party wall of his temples subsided enough to sit up, carefully testing his jaw. It moved, if gingerly: bruised then, not broken. He guessed from the tender pulpiness of his face that he’d have a spectacular shiner under his left eye but he could open the eyelid. Not bad, all things considered. MacGreggor had a right hook like a hammer and Oliver wouldn’t be surprised if he’d dropped a few IQ points while gaining the headache. “Gunny?”
A rustle of the bushes. Gunny parted them to step into the tiny clearing. “You’re awake.”
“Tea,” Oliver croaked. Then: “You all right?”
“No tea, my friend. But there’s hot water.” She didn’t look any better than he felt, with generous bruising and swelling around her jaw. The cut across her eyebrow looked like it stung. A tear in her poncho had been fixed with a precious piece of duct tape.
He checked his own anorak but it was fine; after all Mrs. MacGreggor hadn’t gone after him with the broken glass.
“How’s your ribs?”
“Hurts, but not broken. Your arm?”
Wincing, she sat next to him, using the side of the mule as a brace. She swore, less as a series of coherent words than as an exhale voicing all her complaints. “I’m cooking the last bit of the rabbit.”
Oliver groaned. “Hopefully nowhere near.”
“Over the next ridge. It’s small and smokeless but even still.” She tilted her head back. “As much as I would love a day to lie on the ground and groan, we should probably move on once we’ve eaten some.”
He tried to nod in agreement but gave up. Everything that wasn’t immediately on fire was a slow unbending groan. “We might need to take it slow the next few days. Let ourselves heal.”
Gunny frowned, uncomprehending, then gave a slow nod of agreement. “We’ll get some more klicks between us and them first. They’re on foot, as far as I can see, not counting the tractor. Doubt they’ll waste gasoline on us but who knows. Once we’ve done at least twenty-kay we can stop for a couple of days. Maybe hunt or fish, and I can brew us a bag of fuel if we fix up the converter.” Scowling, she hauled herself up using the ATV, only to pause once standing, fighting the spins. “Meat’ll help.” She started back towards the bushes.
“Gunny?” Oliver pulled the camping blanket around his shoulders. She stopped, expectant. “Was it worth it?”
She swayed, blinking. “You’re asking that now?”
He stared at the ground, gathering his thoughts. “I meant what I said back there. Civilization is what happens now.”
“And we asked them nicely, which is the definition of civilization.”
“And when they said no, we attacked them.”
She braced herself against one of the scrawny trees, her face darkening. “He wanted my fuel converter.”
“Maybe he was just starting with an unreachable bargain. That’s how people bargain, sometimes, go high, settle low with what they really want.”
Gunny stared at him. “He wasn’t doing that. He wanted my—our fuel converter.”
“You don’t know—”
“I do know. You heard what he called me. He wasn’t bluffing. He was going to take our fuel converter from the second he found out we had one. It’s the single most valuable item we have.” She paused, her knuckles white against the dark mossy tree branch. “I should have been more subtle about it, not just asked for the compost-refill. I’ll know for next time.”
Oliver shook his head. “We could have talked our way out of it.” Her response was to scoff and turn her back, heading out into the trees. He struggled to his feet, fighting the urge to vomit, and raised his voice. “We didn’t have to turn it into a fist fight.”
“We absolutely did,” returned the voice from the bushes. Wrapping his camping blanket tighter around his shoulders, he followed, winding through the copse, the dead twigs pulling at his hair and scratching at tenderized skin.
“No, we didn’t. We could have found a way to trade.”
“We did trade.” Her breath was heavy and winded. “I left them a piece of rope and a pack of lady razors. Those’ll be useful on a farm, if that meathead has any brains.”
“We left them tied up!”
“And if you don’t think they had themselves untied 10 minutes after we left—” She stopped, turning to look up and face him, wincing with each inhale. “If you think there was any way that we were getting out of there without a fight of some kind: you’re an idiot. He had a gun.”
“We had guns. We also lied to them.”
“They didn’t buy the cowboy routine. We had to give them a better story.”
“No. We lied to them, Gunny, and it’s not right.”
“What’s not right, Oliver,” she replied, mercilessly skewing his accent and seriousness, “is that we have to fight for scraps just to survive. But that’s where we are.” She allowed herself a demonstrative and expansive shrug. “Middle of nowhere, home on the other side of a very big ocean, and everyone between here and there just trying to do the same as we are.” She took long moments to recover then added: “Christ. We didn’t kill them. We traded—”
He cut her off. “This was theft.”
“Theft is just a shitty kind of trade: something for nothing. And we left them something.”
He threw up his arms, then scrabbled to catch the blanket. “You’ve always got an answer, don’t you! Jesus. This isn’t a game! Let’s make one thing clear right here: we’re not thieves. I’m not a thief. Do we have an understanding?”
“Fuck you.” Gunny spat back. “Look, Lily, I—” She stopped herself, her face colouring dark pink.
She was shaking.
She gave him a hateful stare in response, then turned and continued picking her way down the side of the hill. “Let me make something clear to you: I am getting home by whatever means I need. And the sooner you realize the same is true for yourself, the easier time we’ll both have.”
“You don’t even know if North America’s habitable,” he shouted after her, at a loss for anything else to say.
“Neither is this godforsaken rock! And yet here we are,” she said, without turning around. “Go keep Betsy company. Someone should stay by the guns. I’ll bring back the meat. Then we go.”
It wasn’t how he wanted to end the conversation, but she was right, and they both knew it. “Fine. But we’re talking about this later.”
She gave a dismissive wave of agreement and disappeared through a strand of stunted conifers. Oliver stood for a moment longer, peering around him at the harsh landscape.
Whatever Gunny may think, he was determined to hold on to civility. There were other alternatives besides running with gangs or lying on the bed with a shared jug of antifreeze.
There had to be.
He pulled the blanket tighter around his shoulders, before turning to climb back up the rocky ridge.
Gunny drove. Oliver rode shotgun. Each bump and rut and loose chunk of asphalt rattled their bruises, no matter the speed. After one particular jolt shot pain through his jaw Oliver rooted around in his mouth; sure enough a sizable shard of enamel lay on the end of his finger.
His first broken tooth. In a fight, no less. No dentists in a hundred miles, maybe even a million. His mind flitted through disapproving mothers, misplaced masculinity, graphic descriptions of scurvy gleaned from encyclopedias before resting on a story from his uni days about a friend of a friend with an abscess that burst in the middle of an exam. Another bump and the shard was gone, lost in an endless ribbon of gravel.
Usually Oliver’s mind went blank during the rides, staring off the back of the mule while retreating into a bored-but-alert animal observation. Instead, he probed the newly-unfamiliar molar with his tongue.
Anger clutched at his mind at the thought of what they’d—what he’d done: he’d laid down something personal to take the first step on a slippery slope of morality. It had to be someone’s fault and it was his, but it was also Gunny’s, and his upper decks made excuses while his lower decks demanded retribution.
He’d been tempted to yell “who’s Lily?” in Gunny’s ear more than once but what would it accomplish? Lily was no more tangible than that shard of enamel: once a part of him, now vanished. Perhaps she waited somewhere. Perhaps she lay behind them, gone forever, leaving a rough edge and a weakness.
It didn’t matter, either way.
At first Gunny swerved to avoid the pack of dogs, but Oliver spotted something in the tangle. He fired the shotgun into the air—the heads of the wild mongrels whipped up, ears pricked. Another blast, combined with a sudden roar of mechanical engine, startled them enough to flee.
Oliver hopped off with a speed that he didn’t know he possessed, assessing. The ewe was already dead, but not yet too badly savaged. “It was alive a few minutes ago, so that’s okay,” he said to Gunny as she approached. She stared at him from out of her bruised face, and he explained: “You never eat any animal you find dead. Just ones you know how they died.”
“Oh. Where’d you learn that?” she asked, taking the gun from him so he had both hands free. The dogs watched from the edge of the gully, angry and growling, debating whether to return and reclaim their kill.
“Scouting,” he replied. “That’s also where I learned to skin a rabbit and build a fire and all that.”
She grunted an assent and raised the shotgun at the dogs inching closer. “I don’t know about wasting more ammo for the sake of a loud noise.”
“I’ve got this,” he said. Half-dragging the bedraggled carcass, he hauled it to Betsy, lashing it to the back seat. “I’ll stand on the trailer hitch. If we don’t go too fast it should be fine.”
Gunny eyed the arrangement with doubt, and the dogs with dismay, but slid back into her seating, handing the shotgun back. “Maybe we should camp on high ground tonight.”
“No argument.” He scanned the dusky sky. “Let’s get moving. We’ve got a lot of work to do before night.”
She nodded, surreptiously trying to wipe her face. “I’ll keep the motor—”
“Don’t waste the fuel.” He noted the eyes in the bushes reflecting Betsy’s headlights. “We’ll deal with the dogs only if they become a problem. I’m not ready to kill a dog yet either.”
The wild pack chased for a while, barking and snarling, but a final shotgun report and a cloud of whizzing pellets over their head convinced them it wasn’t worth it.
Balancing on the ATV was next to impossible, so once the dogs weren’t visible Oliver decided to run along side instead. He fell behind, but he could follow the tracks and he had the gun. He’d walked on his own for those first few weeks, with no weapon, and though loneliness had driven him into the remains of Ullapool, he’d never felt this afraid for himself.
Perhaps it was the dogs. Perhaps it was the wild edges of the ravine, the scarecrow remains of trees and the dark clouds sweeping in from the north. Either way, adrenaline kept his profound weariness at bay, and he jogged when he could and walked the rest of the way, between the twin tire trails until he reached the stopped ATV.
Between his scouting days—a smear of outdoorsy woes inflicted on Oliver by his parents, determined to get their weedy son off the Internet and outside during the summer—and what Gunny had learned from “the nutbars”, they managed to butcher the sheep.
Skinning the ewe was a filthy, repulsive job that was nothing like cleaning a rabbit, and although Oliver had to stop to dry-heave, part of him was pleased that he dealing better than Gunny, twice-sick in the bushes.
The smell was evil, and the gore attracted an assortment of flying miseries. Gunny took a break from her protesting stomach to build two smokey fires, on either side, while Oliver hacked the legs into more manageable pieces with the hunting knife.
“We’ll need to dispose of the rest of the carcass,” he said, and just the mention of it made her sick again.
Even though the moon was high when they finished, Oliver went to wash in the nearby burn. The stream was a trickle through the rocks but water is water. Desperate to clean himself, he scrubbed his hands, face, and forearms with a bit of moss ripped from the embankment, preferring the smell of compost to damp wool and offal. When he returned, Gunny was wrapping the skin in the tarp from her tiny one-person tent. Most of the usable meat was skewered near the fire, or in the wafting smoke, and the rest lay down the hill for the vermin to carry off.
He nodded towards the fleece while he rooted in his pack for his one spare t-shirt. The wet one lay draped over rocks to dry. “You think it’s worth keeping? Even uncured?”
“Either we’ll meet someone who can tan it for us, or we’ll trade it.” She sat back from the gruesome package, wiping her face with the crook of a less dirty elbow. Her features drawn from exhaustion, her bruises livid in the firelight.
“Have you eaten?”
“No.” She shook her head just a fraction, too tired for anything else. “If it didn’t smell so bad I’d be too tired to wash.” She stumbled towards the direction of the water.
Neither of them ate that night.
The odour of the butchering combined with sheer exhaustion robbed Oliver of any appetite. Truth be told he’d never been a fan of mutton, even well-spiced in a curry or kebab. It always had an undertone of what his youngest brother dubbed ‘wet dog taste’.
Gunny sat across from him, wrapped in her blanket, staring into the smoky fire with eyes red-rimmed and hollow. Occasionally she would glance at the meat they were trying to cure, shudder, and look away.
“My gran would make lamb for special occasions,” Oliver said, breaking the silence. He grimaced at the skewers of meat, rotating them so that they cured evenly. “It was my mum’s favourite. She looked forward to it on holidays. We—my brothers and me—never ate it without being badgered into it.”
“Yeah?” Gunny looked up through her swollen eyelids, her shoulders hunched around her ears. “I never had it before I came to Britain.”
He frowned. “Really?”
“Too expensive. Only ever ate beef. Or chicken or pork, I guess.”
“What, never even had a shepherd’s pie?”
“Sure, but that’s made with beef, right? And potato and corn and peas.”
“…then that’s not a shepherd’s pie, is it? If it’s made with beef. And who puts corn in a shepherd’s pie?”
She frowned. “Yeah, I guess. I guess it would be a cowherd’s pie? Is cowherd a word?”
He ought to know this but he was too tired. “Sure. It is now.”
She chuckled without noise, a slow blink and an opening of the mouth, a miming of laughter.
Oliver had nearly drifted asleep, still sitting up, when Gunny said,
“The nutbars would know. About cowherd pie, I mean.” She stirred herself awake, rubbing her face. “Everything about farming they could just rattle off like baseball stats. None of them had grown up on a farm, right? They had to teach themselves. Taught themselves from YouTube tutorials, actually. They could recite the videos.” She retreated into the bundle of blanket, watching the fire like it was a rotisserie chicken. “The landlord came out every once and a while and he’d stare at them like he knew, like he knew they’d fail and he was just waiting for the spectacle.” The fire danced in her dark eyes, sparks flying upward into the night. “Last laugh on him. The day after the internet died, his stocks in ruins, he went into that big fancy manor dining room of his and blew his brains out. Lily found him. She was the one that had to give him the rent money every week. It was his property for miles around.”
Oliver said nothing, his insides falling like he was in an elevator.
“Lily always knew what she wanted,” Gunny continued, through closed eyes, tears streaking. She sighed and wiped her face with a damp cuff. “Not like me. She was the one that signed up with the nutbars. I only went there to convince her to come back. I’d never left home before. Never needed to. But we didn’t hear from her for months and my parents were worried.” She blew her nose. “The day I showed up was butchering day. I got out of the rental jeep, still in my travel clothes, and they were all out, all the nutbars, helping catch and kill this lamb while it cried and cried. Lily came to greet me, all smiles. She said that if they’d known I was coming they’d have killed a pig.” She lifted her eyes from the fire to stare into Oliver’s. “Last laugh on us, huh. Lily was looking forward to the end of the world and she’s the one that died.”
He didn’t know how to respond. It was the most personal thing she’d said to him since they’d met, and he hadn’t even asked. “It wasn’t your fault. None of this is your fault.”
“If I’d been able to convince her to come home…”
“But… then you would have just died at home.” As soon as he said them he would have done anything to pull the words back.
Her eyes scrunched closed, and she curled herself on the ground, like a ball, her back to him.
He let his outstretched hand drop, useless. All of it was unfair and unfixable and he didn’t know what to say.
Out in the darkness came yips and snarls from down the ridge, wildlife fighting over scraps.
Sick with guilt, Oliver wordlessly banked the fires and lay down, exhausted enough to find the rocky ground comfortable. Sleep wrapped him in a tight grip in moments, his last thought a half-recalled scent memory of a Sunday dinner, in a different world.
Gunny swatted at the flies buzzing around her, shifting her weight so that the bloody tarp-turned-sack rested more easily against her back. “Gonna need to hose myself down after this. You sure you don’t need anything?”
“Nothing that we don’t both need. Ammo, food, cup of tea, WiFi connection.”
She gave a smirk. “I’m sure if the locals are worth talking to at all, they’ll share whatever news they have. If there is any.” She squinted at the featureless sky. “Don’t know how long I’ll be. Come looking for me if I’m not back by tomorrow morning, will you?”
“Of course. Oh! Proper firewood, if there’s any going. We can hang it off Betsy.” Oliver stared around the immediate area. The low bushes and conifers had already yielded as much dry fuel as they could without an axe. No one was going to trade them something as valuable as an axe.
“Good idea.” Gunny tapped her nose, then winced at the smell. “I swear to god, I want nothing to do with sheep ever again.” Muttering and swearing a litany of odour-based complaints, she picked her way around the larger rocks down to the broken road. A broken sign, invisible in the previous night’s arrival, proclaimed the nearest village only 5 miles away.
Oliver turned his attention to repairing the fuel converter, enjoying the chance to solve a simple problem with his hands. Years spent tinkering with electronics for fun and some trial and error with the multitool in his backpack got the machine up and running.
Once done, he settled near the fires, long since burned down to charcoal, still covered with moss. The smoke stung and made him cough but it was better than the flies. Even with the meat packed away, the bugs knew something the humans did not and they were winged revenge for all the world’s wrongs.
He stood and stretched, coughing and staring off at the low mountains in the distance. The sky was the same flat grey that it had been forever, but whether the weather was normal for the time of year or a symptom of the Crash he didn’t know. Daylight was light grey; night time was dark grey.
The fuel converter, its clear plastic belly loaded with stolen compost, bubbled away. Automated and silent.
On the ravine’s floor a mangy fox worried at the sheep carcass.
It was still only early morning. The day stretched out as far as the horizon.
“Fuck it,” said Oliver, to no one, and went to start up Betsy. Maybe he’d find something useful to bring back to camp.
With most of the gear unhooked from the panniers and only the one passenger, Betsy felt sprightly. At greater velocities she bounced with sincere violence, and Oliver finally understood why his companion drove as slowly as she did. Even at Gunny’s pokey rate it was faster than walking, especially burdened, but far gentler on the spine and tailbone. Opening up the throttle left him giddy, even as it left him bruised.
The landscape flew by. He checked the charge meter; barely dented. Visions of reaching home in days rather than weeks danced through his mind—if only the mule could sustain the speed while doubly laden. Even eight months prior, he’d gone from his apartment in London to the studios in Edinburgh in hours. Long hours, uncomfortable at times, but never truly hungry and with plenty of signal. God, what he’d give for his mobile to work.
Maybe he could rig up a charger to the engine. The fuel cell was astoundingly efficient; once the fuel cell was done they’d have plenty. They could spare a bit to charge some small electronics. The tricky part would be rigging up a safe adapter and finding the components.
He hadn’t had a such purely intellectual problem to solve in weeks. Months. That part of his mind was slow to wake, stretching leisurely as though it was Sunday morning. Having a full stomach for once, even if plain mutton and tinned lentils, helped spur his imagination. For the first time since filming at Skara Brae he hadn’t had to worry about anything larger than an inconvenience—
—the deer bounded across the road in an immense blur of dun brown.
In his panic, Oliver reacted like he was a kid on a bicycle. He gripped the handlebars and yanked away from the obstacle. Only he wasn’t riding a bicycle but an ATV with much more mass, momentum, and a throttle in the grips.
There was a lurching and sudden weightlessness.
The mental fog cleared. He was in the dirt; bushes had broken his fall. He tried to stand, fell over, and instead waited for the spinning to stop. Broken his fall but he’d still hit his head; there was a pounding pain just above his right ear. At least his fingers came away clean. More luck.
He lay back, closing his eyes, enjoying being still, his breath the loudest thing left in the world, until the crack of thunder.
Betsy lay on an angle against the remains of a cracked and rotted tree trunk. The silhouette was badly wrong: yes, there. The front wheel was no longer parallel to the others but jutting out. He let out a low groan. His stupid muscle-memory manoeuvre had forced too much weight against the hub of the front left wheel; bolts had sheared off and now the whole assembly dangled, barely held on.
He sat on the fallen tree, staring at the broken mule, fighting against the mutton-and-lentils that pressed against the back of his throat. He didn’t know how bad the damage was, if there was more, where he was, or how far from the campsite. What he did know was that he was miles and miles from help.
Deep breaths, forced through his nose, helped some to quell both the panic and the nausea. He had no way to contact Gunny. He had to do this on his own. He carefully stood, his hand against the slate sky, willing the rain to hold off just a little longer.
He wondered how the other members of his team were, the archaeologists and scientists. They’d had some crazy notion of taking the small boat to Denmark, rather than traverse all of Scotland. They were probably at the bottom of the sea by now. And he was still alive. He was still alive because he’d focused on each problem at hand to avoid letting himself drift into despair.
Just break the problem down and solve one step at a time. Find bolts and a socket wrench. Fix Betsy. Go home.
After stuffing one of the broken bolts in his pocket, Oliver stepped on to the gravel road trying to recall anything that might help. There had been a noticeable gap in a toppling stone fence. A closed gate that hung off hinges. He’d made a mental note to tell Gunny about it because it was the sort of thing that led to a farm—perhaps a farmhouse worth investigating.
His pace quickened, his legs wobbly but certain, as the sky opened and the rain began to fall in earnest.
Barely a hint of moisture for weeks. Lots of fog in the mornings, then nothing. And now the heavens opened with sheets of rain and ominous rumblings and flashes of light.
Because, of course.
Oliver’s clothes were sodden by the time he half-stepped, half-slid down the steep muddy drive, the tracks well-worn and still clear. At the bottom lay a dark huddled shape, mostly right-angles, with a long overhang. A shed. A farmer’s shed. He could already imagine its interior: the spiderwebs, the rusty nails, the equipment hanging low enough to bang a head on. There’d be a bare lightbulb that worked via a filthy string, if there was any electricity.
But there wasn’t.
He wiped a hand across his face, forgetting that he’d used it to steady himself only moments earlier. It didn’t displace any water but did smear mud across half his face and beard. He swore and grumbled as he picked his way down the mudslide, before tripping, losing his balance, and skidding the few final feet.
All the bruises and sore muscles from the fight with the MacGreggors and the endless hours of jostling re-activated with vengeance, and for a moment it was all he could do, to lie in the pouring rain, covered in mud, only yards from shelter.
Thunder cracked and rolled through the hills.
Oliver pulled himself upright. A farmer’s shed, even long abandoned, would be full of spare parts. Something he could bodge together to get the mule working. Trying to keep the panic at bay, he recited what he most wanted in the world: bolts to match the one in his pocket. A socket wrench. A bath. A cup of tea. A full proper English breakfast, with extra streaky bacon and toast. 17 hours consecutive sleep in his own bed.
The shed door was ajar and easily opened on free-swinging hinges. Enough watery daylight came in from the large windows to show a well-ordered repair underway. A hulking mass in the centre was a tractor, the pieces lying on a tarp on the concrete floor. Oliver whooped. Bolts! A cracked plastic tub full of them. He crouched, picking through the various sizes, relying on his fingers to match the dimensions against the broken specimen. Once he had four he turned his attention to the open tool kit, fumbling through the wrenches. Lightning blasted outside the windows, reflecting off clean chrome, wincingly bright.
He found the wrench that fit the bolts. He stood, excited. Running a hand through filthy hair he peered around to see what else could be useful. Once Gunny was back from trading they could both ransack—
There was a square of light outside the window. He hadn’t seen it from his approach but it was unmistakable from the shed, once he moved past the tractor. Not the blue-white of lightning but yellow and flickering. He wiped the edge of his sleeve against the pane of glass, peering through the rain. Beyond lay a trim, tidy farmhouse, with an old-fashioned antique lamp in the window between curtains. “Shit.”
Fear shot through him, his fingers clenching around the socket wrench. He’d thought—he hadn’t thought—this wasn’t salvage any more. This was theft.
MacGreggor’s leering face as he’d announced he’d take the fuel converter and anything else worth having danced in front of Oliver’s eyes. He didn’t remember who lashed out first, the farmers or them; there had just been sickly herb tea in china cups and then a declaration of intent.
He’d smashed a picture frame with his elbow and Mrs. MacGreggor had keened like an animal and then slashed at Gunny with the pieces. He’d never hit a woman before—never purposefully struck a man, either—but he’d lashed out then. Using glass wasn’t fair; he still believed in fairness.
His heart beating in time with the pain from his head, he backed away from the window and hit the edge of the tractor with his shoulder. He whirled, his fists up, still clenching the socket wrench. Deep breaths.
Footsteps, loud and sucking in the mud. “Someone in there?”
Oliver ducked behind the bulk of the tractor.
Wet wellies on concrete, each step careful. A man’s voice, deep. Older. “Someone in here? Hullo?” Then: “Ach, Sasha, did ye no clean up after yerself?”
His swallow loud in his throat, his heart hammering in his ears, Oliver crouched, peering around the edge of the giant tire. Lightning illuminated the outside world, the figure a black silhouette against the open door. Coming closer.
He closed his eyes, struggling to breathe normally through his nose. Civilization. He had to remember.
But what if—
MacGreggor’s leering face.
—What if Gunny was right?
“Sasha?” the man asked, gently. “I’m no’ in the mood for this, lad. Come out now.” Squeaks of soggy rubber against the concrete floor. Oliver shifted, trying to put the broken vehicle between them. He’d make a run for it through the door. He’d return the socket wrench after; he couldn’t chance that the farmer’d say no. They needed the bolts. He’d return with the socket wrench and mutton and whatever else they could spare after he fixed Betsy. The ATV was too important.
A shitty trade is nothing for something.
He was so focused on the door, on the mental escape route, that the hand on his shoulder was a jolt like pain.
“There you are—”
Something in Oliver broke loose and he reacted, swinging the socket wrench with his entire weight behind it. It connected to something first hard then yielding. And the man dropped.
Oliver backed away. The adrenaline receded for a moment, like a wave pulling back to expose shore. Lightning burned bright, showing another man in the shed: red jacket streaked with mud under a filthy, ragged beard and unkempt birdsnest of hair. Dark eyes in a gaunt, hollow face, white with terror.
Oliver’s eyes readjusted to the return to gloom. Facing him, leaning on one of the work benches, was a rusting mirror. He stared at it, then down to the concrete floor, at the featureless silhouette, now a bundle.
H must have climbed the hill. How, he didn’t remember. He was standing in front of the gate which drooped, hanging on its hinges: he was back on the road. Betsy lay to the left of him. The campsite was to the right. He lifted his hand to close the gate, but clutched tightly in his fingers was a socket wrench that he didn’t remember carrying.
“I’ll bring it back,” he said to himself, as though remembering something someone had once told him. He shifted the tool to a pocket and then closed and latched the gate behind him.
His own fingers were half-numb, his hands shaky; he dropped the bolts more often than he cared to admit. But there were no clocks in this new world, despite the metronome of rainfall. It would simply take as long as it would take.
Another bolt slipped into the mud. He sighed, leaning against the seat of the mule, watching water trickle along the fake leather. Betsy still lay at an angle, braced against the log; at some point he was going to have to heave her upright but for now it made repairs easier. He shifted his weight to his other leg and the mule shifted, the seat giving way. He cursed loudly, spitting in fury at yet another problem to solve only to realize that the seat was on runners. Supposed to slide out, probably to allow access to the ATV’s innards. He replaced it, sighing heavily but relieved, returning his attention to the bolts and the slippery hub.
“Wakey wakey.” The flap of the pup tent opened and Gunny’s face, crinkled in amusement, peered in. “You’re sleeping in my tent. That’s very forward of you.”
“Sorry,” Oliver said, hand up against the sudden brightness. Sunshine? He pulled himself out, stretching. “You took the tarp with you. It was raining.”
“I did and it was.” Gunny acknowledged the tarp with a wave her hand; it lay nearby, spread to dry and weighted with rocks. “I washed it in the river on my way back this morning.”
“Very.” She gave a tilt of her head to the fire. Their billy-cans boiled, mutton-frying on hot rocks. At the look of his face she laughed. “Sorry, Ollie! No tea. No one has any and if they did I bet it would be worth more than we have. I just meant, let’s have breakfast, is all.”
“Oh.” He yawned, and pulled his sleeping mat out of the tiny pup-tent. He’d used his jacket as a blanket. At the smell of both he spread them on the stony ground. Then he sniffed his t-shirt and recoiled.
Gunny laughed, helping herself to some of the mutton. “I got cans, though, and some salt and pepper. Oh! And soap!”
“Fantastic.” He meant it. They drank their hot water in silence, chewing the fried sheepsteak with perfunctory motions, but salt did improve the flavour. “I could wash and try fishing this afternoon.”
“Lovely day for it. For once.” She lifted her face sunward. “I stayed in the village when the storm broke out. Too far to go on foot. I hope you were all right.”
The mutton caught in his throat and bile burned as he choked it down. “Fine. I was fine. You? Good time?” He washed the strain from his voice with a gulp of water.
“Very. Friendly people, for once. Got caught up on the latest rumours; Americans in helicopters due any day now, apparently.”
“Oh, that one again.”
“They seemed to think I was a forerunner. Bit disappointed when they realized I was—anyway.” She dug in her jeans pocket. “Chatty barmaid turned trade broker. Gave me a room for the night when the storm hit, introduced me to people who might want a raw sheepskin. That sort of thing. She mentioned that it’s better to skip Iverness. Something about wide-spread fires and very few making their way back. She gave me a bunch of random numbers for highways and told me to follow them.”
Oliver gave a heavy sigh. “Do you remember the random numbers?”
“Course not, they’re random. But I had her write ‘em down.” She flashed him a grin, producing a scrap of a grocery chain flyer, with directions scrawled in black marker.
He took the scrap to study and commit the numbers to memory. “These are smaller highways.”
“Yep. Round the bay of something or other. Far away from Iverness, is the main point. Then straight on until morning.”
“So nothing’s changed.”
“Not in the grand scheme, no.” She cocked her head at him. “You all right?”
He swallowed the last of his boiled water. “Yeah. Just didn’t sleep well.”
Gunny gave a grunt of assent and pulled off her poncho, dumping it beside her, then the thin fleece top. She stretched out, enjoying the rare and sensational sunshine on her arms and face. “I had planned we’d leave today, but maybe one more day’s rest won’t hurt us.”
“We could use it,” he agreed, settling back. In the daylight, well-washed from the storms, the landscape seemed to sparkle silver and green, like his grandmother’s brooch. He started to enumerate things he do with such a bright day: wash clothing; fish; air out his bedroll and maybe the tent—
“What happened to Betsy?” Gunny said, propping herself up on her elbows, squinting.
His mouth went dry. “What?”
Gunny got to her feet. “The mirror’s cracked.”
He blinked. Yes. He had noticed that on the ride back, but with the storm he’d had bigger worries. “Stone. Dogs.”
She looked over her shoulder at him, tucking a strand of graying hair behind her ear. “What?”
Part of his mind saw again the lightning-brief glimpse of himself in the mirror on the repair table. He swallowed, then picked at another piece of mutton. “There were dogs in the camp last night. No fire, right? I threw rocks. To drive them off. One of them hit the mirror.”
“Jesus.” Gunny straightened. “You all right?”
“Fine. They didn’t get anything, the meat’s safe. I meant to tell you about the mirror but I forgot.” He tore a bit free with his teeth but didn’t chew. His stomach recoiled.
Gunny stared at him for a long moment then gave a slight shrug. “A cracked rear-view isn’t the worst problem we’ve had.” She sauntered back over to her side of the fire. “Oh, that reminds me. My new best friend the barmaid told me about a man on the edge of town that’s the local mechanic. Apparently he’s been helping anyone passing through, tuning up their bikes or patching boats or whatever.”
He held his breath for a second and then carefully exhaled, aware of Gunny watching him. “Do we have enough to trade for it, though?”
“Oh, is that’s what’s worrying you? Whatever! We’ll make it work. I try to keep the old girl happy but I’ve been learning on the road, so even if I can just get a lesson or two it’ll be worth the detour, I think.”
“Absolutely,” Oliver agreed.
She grinned, pleased, and gave him a slap on the knee. “Cheer up. Sun’s shining. I bet the river might even be less than frigid today. Gotta take our luck where we can find it, eh?”
Gunny’s night breathing was a wheeze through one nostril that would have been comical at any other time. Under the sweep of stars and decaying satellites, so far from home, the noise served to make her smaller somehow. More human. She’d said over and over again that she’d do anything to survive, but Oliver hadn’t believed her. Now he didn’t know what to believe; he’d laid his own morals down, why not her? They didn’t know anything about each other, besides what he’d carefully crafted to share online and what she’d revealed one night over a campfire.
Too restless to sleep, he decided to check on Betsy. After giving the ATV a friendly pat on the rump, he checked for scratches, tightened her straps and panniers, all while ignoring the mirrors. The seat was askew from when he’d hastily replaced it in the rain. He carefully slid it off, revealing the fuel-cell access hatch in a shallow depression. And papers.
A carelessly-folded printout of a photo: two young women, smiling at the camera, one intense and one nervous. The bold staring face was circled in black marker, and the nervous one was a much younger Gunny. Back when she was Isla, he supposed. That’s who the navy-blue passport was for, after all; Isla Zhang. The third item was the label from the tin of mandarin oranges in syrup—his peace offering that first night. It too was folded over, the crease sharp.
He replaced each item, and then the seat, making sure it sat secure and straight. That wasn’t his cache to find. Better to pretend he hadn’t seen it.
His reflection stared at him out of the cracked rear-view.
Better to pretend to sleep.
The Scottish landscape was much improved by a second day of sun. Even the stunted, climate-broken trees that they passed seemed straighter. Oliver sat on the back of Betsy, but instead of holding shotguns, he carried a forked stick with two fresh trout. A third had been eaten for breakfast; these two were for barter.
The road curled like a cat’s tongue between two ravines and then opened into a wide valley, carpeted with well-worked farms.
“What are we going to do if they won’t trade with us?” Oliver shouted, over the noise of the crunching gravel.
“You mean after we ask nicely?” Gunny replied. She gave a shrug that he felt through his own shoulder blades. “Do what we always do, I suppose. Make something up on the spot.”
They stopped at the edge of a long driveway that continued through fields guarded by a well-tended stone fence. By the peeling-paint gate was a brass bell tethered on a long rope. Gunny rang it with large swooping motions, one hand against her ear, grinning at Oliver like an overexcited child. “Want a go?” she yelled.
“No thank you,” he shouted back, over the echoing in his ears. The whole valley must have heard the clanging. “Guns?”
“Nah,” she replied. She pointed at the farm house in the distance, trim and white. “We’re going to ask nicely, remember?”
“What if they decline?”
“This time we’ll leave. Can’t really ask someone to teach a mechanic’s lesson at gun point, can we.”
“I guess not.”
A young man walked the length of the drive to the road. His clothing was patched and worn, but clean. Practical. He stopped just out of shotgun range. “Can we help you?” He didn’t sound Scottish.
“I hope so,” Gunny yelled back, grinning. “Heard that you do repairs for folks who need ‘em.” She’d put on her Clint Eastwood accent.
“Not today. Come back some other day.” The young man crossed his arms.
“Sorry to hear that. We’re not from around here, as you might’ve guessed—just passing through.”
Gunny leaned on the stone fence, resting her arms on the top. “You’ve got the face of someone with troubles. Is there something we can help with? Maybe we can help each other.”
The young man scowled at her, but he did come closer. Younger than Oliver expected, his face weathered by the outdoors but still well-rounded by baby fat. “My granddad was hurt. Someone broke into our shed, no doubt to steal something, and when Granddad went looking they near broke his skull in. Didn’t even steal nothing.”
“That’s awful.” Gunny’s jaw dropped and she looked to Oliver for agreement, taking his too-white face as confirmation. “Jesus, what is the world coming to?”
“Aye.” The young man considered the pair. “Granddad is the mechanic, not me, I’m only learning. Came up here with my dad after the war. Learning what I can. So you’ll have to come back another day.” His speech was measured, as though thinking took effort.
“Is he going to pull through?” Oliver asked.
The young man sized them up with wary eyes. “Aye, we hope so. Cracked his skull but he’s a tough one, Granddad. If the Crash didn’t kill him…” He stopped, taking a deep breath. “There’s gangs out from Iverness on the roads. Best to stay out of their way.”
“So we’ve been told,” Gunny answered, dryly.
“You’ll be the American that Marion talked about then.” His eyes flicked to Oliver. “America’s a long way from here.”
“Tell me about it.” She agreed with a shake of her head. “But at least we’ve still got our health.”
“Aye.” The young man sighed and scratched at his head. “If it’s just a tune-up you’re wanting, I can probably help. You’re at least welcome to use the shed and tools for your own repairs.”
“That’s very generous of you,” Gunny replied instantly. “Isn’t it, Oliver?”
He nodded, sliding off the back of the mule, and thrust the catch over the fence.
The young man stared, confused.
“For you. As a thank you,” Oliver said.
The young man stepped forward to take the trout. “Ah. Thanks.” He twitched, uncomfortable, holding the fish with an outstretched arm. “Granddad always insisted that it was caring about folk that made us different from animals. Normally I believe him, but…” He shook his head. “Maybe he’s right. Maybe the Crash hasn’t taken it all from us yet.”
“That’s what Oliver’s always telling me,” Gunny said, playfully swatting her companion’s arm. “One of these days he’ll prove me right.”
Gunny made fast friends with the grandson, overwhelming him with a one-two of North American cheerfulness and fluttery eyelashes; she was probably the first person of Asian background he’d ever met, likely to be the last, and one of the few women in the area he wasn’t related to. His confused stuttering and blushing while he helped them bring the ATV into the garage only confirmed the lad’s youth.
Oliver stayed silent and to the sides. He mentioned how the metallic stink of petroleum and rust made him dizzy so he stayed near the door. Gunny gave him an acknowledging wave, already engrossed over Betsy.
He crouched over the tool kit still spread over the tarp, pretending to examine the bits of tractor awaiting repairs. When positive they weren’t paying him any attention, he slid the socket wrench from his coat and replaced it silently in the tray before moving on to pretend to study other odds and ends.
“Good news,” said a voice in his ear. He jumped, and Gunny laughed. “Sorry! Didn’t realize you were so into tractors.” He shook his head, gesturing for her to continue. “Betsy looks to be in good shape. Doesn’t need more than a good cleaning.”
“Aye, you’re taking good care of her,” the grandson agreed from behind the ATV, wiping his hands on a rag. “Don’t know if I can teach you anything else useful. Granddad might’ve, but… She should last you a long while. Don’t know about getting across the Atlantic, though.”
Gunny laughed and slapped Oliver against the shoulder blades. He forced a grin.
“Going to wait outside,” he said, indicating his head. “Not feeling… so hot.”
“Fresh air’ll cure that,” the grandson agreed, though he frowned, and Gunny gave Oliver a second, gentler pat.
“Go on. I won’t be much longer. We’re just going to rotate the ATV’s tires and then we can head out. Sasha and I can handle that on our own, no worries.”
“Good idea,” Oliver agreed, stumbling from the shed. The dizziness wasn’t faked; his head was spinning.
He lost the fight against his breakfast by the fence and sat down in the grass, leaning against the cool stone.
He must have dozed off.
He awoke with a start at the sound of the approaching motor. Gunny grinned ear to ear. “Feel any better?”
“Not really,” Oliver admitted. She pulled up beside him and he hopped into his seat. “Tune-up all done?”
“Yep,” Gunny agreed, putting Betsy into gear. “He’s a weird one, Sasha, but friendly enough. Bit slow. Stopped talking half-way through the tire rotation like he couldn’t think and move at the same time. Poor kid’s got enough on his plate, I guess. I mean we all do, but he really looked up to his grandfather. You okay? You look a bit pale. Hope you’re not getting sick.”
“Yeah, me too,” Oliver agreed, feeling a tightness in his chest. As they approached the gate he hopped off and ran ahead to open it. Behind them, Sasha emerged from the shed. Gunny seemed to take an eternity to drive Betsy through the gate so that he could latch it after her. He clambered into his seat. “Time to go.”
“You got it, partner.” She exaggerated the accent into a growl. Her grin returned she twisted in her seat to wave at Sasha. “Thanks again! Hope your grandfather’s all right! Good luck!” She only saw him for two brief moments: once in the rear-view mirror and once when she turned to wave. They picked up speed easily over the flat dirt road.
But Oliver sat backward, facing the receding farmhouse and the shed. He knew that Sasha wasn’t waving goodbye. The young man gestured in outrage, the socket-wrench clutched in his hand.
Two months. Two months of rain and angry locals; wild animals and rationed food. Dust and storms and washed-out bridges and possible cannibals. The innumerous dead they encountered blended into one another, the situations too similar to be remembered separately. They stopped trying. Conversation around the campfire was often little more than proposed plans and grunted agreements. Occasionally Gunny told a story about her sister and life with the nutbars, how they’d solved such-and-such an issue. Rarely, Oliver told an anecdote about filming and adventures chasing a story. Those days seemed like they’d belonged to someone else, and he surprised himself in the telling. He was numb, through and through, as though his soul had fallen asleep and an android rode on the back of the ATV, holding a shotgun and watching with empty eyes.
And yet, when they crested that last hill and the spires of York cathedral stood visible among the wrecks and ruins of concrete, he surprised them both by choking up.
Perhaps something human inside him had survived after all.
Gunny wasn’t hard to find. She still wore her poncho and her camping hat, and the tattered locals of downtown York flowed around her and Betsy, as though the mule was a rock in a fast-flowing stream. She glanced up from her ministrations as Oliver approached, giving a wave with her screwdriver. “There you are.”
“There I am? I’m the one looking for you.” Oliver stuffed his hands in his pockets. The jeans were a little loose, but they fit well-enough, as opposed to the ragged pair he’d worn since Skara Brae. “I was just talking to David—”
“David. You met him. Called him Dave until you pissed him off, remember?”
“Oh. Him. How is Dave? Still an officious little prick?” She returned to her tune-up.
Oliver sighed and crouched down. “Gunny.”
She didn’t stop working but her eyebrow twitched a response.
“David’s got a lot of work to do. He’s helping organize all the relief supplies. He’s got me a job, actually.”
She did stop, frowning. “For money?”
“No, of course not. But I’m going to take it.”
“Doing what?” She wiped her hands on a rag that had been a t-shirt, once upon a time.
“They’ve just found one of the old BBC emergency radio rooms. It was buried during one of the earlier hurricanes, but we can get it up and working again, I’m sure of it. They’re even going to find a generator for me.” He grinned, waiting. “Radio, Gunny!”
She nodded, impressed, then sat back on her heels, peering at him. “How far’s the reception?”
He sighed. “Local. It’s…” he gestured with empty hands. “It’s supposed to be one of a series. From maybe the second world war? Jesus, a whole century ago. But that’s good, right? It’s mechanical. Provided we can rig up any replacements we might need, it should still work.”
“So no internet yet.”
He knew she wasn’t talking about checking her email. “Maybe there’s other beacons already working. Maybe… we’ll have communication faster than walking speed again.” He let himself trail off and ran a hand through his hair. “It’s a start.”
“It is.” She agreed, her voice light and pleasant but with something strange written across her face, in a way he’d never seen before. It worried him.
“But in order for me to take the job, I’ve got to register. And you do too, otherwise—”
“It doesn’t matter.” She gave a dismissive wave and stared down at Betsy.
“Of course it matters. You can’t keep sleeping in a tent in the square. We need to find you something more permanent.”
“No you don’t.”
He rubbed his eyes with his hands, then his face, enjoying being clean-shaven for the first time in months. His cheek was still tender from where they’d pulled the broken tooth. “Gunny. Please. Not this again.”
She stood, ignoring him.
“You don’t even know what’s there. It might be—” He watched as she put away the toolkit into one of Betsy’s flopping panniers. “Where’s all your stuff?”
“Gave it away.” Gunny took off her hat to wipe her forehead with her forearm and stared up at the bright sky with a faint smile, then back down at him. “Weight limit on the boat. I’m leaving tomorrow, Ollie.”
He stepped backwards. “What?”
“Found someone who’s taking the same journey. We leave for Scarborough tomorrow, bound for France.” She tidied the ATV as she spoke, her tone matter-of-fact.
“From there he said that there are some ships still crossing the Atlantic.”
“Gunny—” She didn’t look up from her adjusting of straps and checking of hatches. “You don’t know what’s out there.”
She stopped, her hands pressed flat against the peeling pleather seat cover. She peered over her shoulder at him. “Did you?”
“Did I what?”
“Did you know this—” She gestured around them, “was still going to be here? When you set out on your own from North of Nowhere, Scotland?”
“No, but—” He stopped. “It’s different.”
“How is it different?” She straightened, crossing her arms over her chest. “How?”
“Well, for one thing, if England was crawling with radioactive mutants, even the Scots would have heard about it.”
She frowned, rubbing her temple.
“All right, maybe a bad example. But you don’t know what’s there, Gunny. Isla.” At the use of her real name she twitched. “No one’s barely hears a peep out of Europe and you can practically swim there. North America might as well be the moon. And it’s hurricane season soon.”
“That’s why I’m leaving now, to give myself a head start.”
“To do what?” His voice was raised and he lowered it, aware of all the eyes on him. “To hitchhike across the bloody continent until you find someone stupid enough to risk a ocean crossing with no working GPS? What if you land in, I don’t know, Greenland or Newfoundland or something? What will you do then?”
“I’ll do what I did here, Oliver.” Her own voice rose without embarrassment. “I will do what I did across Scotland.”
“And what was that exactly? Lie your way past a bunch of… shitkickers at gunpoint with an antique? How long do you think that will work when you’re not in the fucking Highlands?” She stared at him, her mouth an angry straight line, as weeks of repressed comments continued to flow out of him. “Everything about you is a lie: you’re not even American, you’re a fucking Canadian.” She blinked, startled, her mouth dropping open. “Everyone knows Canada didn’t even have cowboys, they had Mounties. So who the fuck are you fooling, besides yourself?”
Gunny recovered enough to spit out: “Fooled you.”
“Not for long!”
“For long enough.”
They stared at each other, both furious, before Gunny abruptly turned, wrenching the seat off its track. She scooped up the collection of papers and pressed one of them against Oliver with a flat palm.
“It’s done.” Her voice dropped, low and firm as she replaced the seat cover. “I’m going home tomorrow. You can either come say goodbye or you can continue to be an ass. It’s your choice.” She swung her leg over the mule and revved the motor, startling a nearby family, all clutching their belongings. “Get the fuck out of my way!” At her shout the family hustled the small wide-eyed children out of the ATV’s path.
He watched her leave, then opened the water-stained print of Gunny and her sister: Lily forever circled in black marker, Isla forever frowning, just behind her big sister’s shoulder.
One last trip on the mule, following old roads east to the coast. Scarborough had been even more badly ravaged by the decades of hurricanes than York; much of the city lay underwater. What remained focused on fishing.
The landscape had altered even since Oliver was a small boy. Not just the wreckage; even the plants and trees seemed different from his childhood. But who could trust their own memories? Maybe he recalled an idyllic and pastoral England from the 20th century, preserved in film and books. Maybe it had always been like this.
Over and over as he met people in York, the refugees wanted to swap stories, share memories. Rarely did those memories match. Instead, he realized, they were rebuilding a past even as they learned to discard it. Better not to remember the 20s and 30s as they were: full of warning signs and despair. Hope was a better foundation for the future.
He twisted around to regard Gunny while she drove; she caught him looking in her mirror and gave a wink. Nothing had been said about their argument; she’d driven up to his lodgings with a grin and a wave. He’d offered her half of his breakfast. And just like that, they’d set out.
The small skiff was more fishing boat than cargo, but big enough to carry passengers. The skipper greeted Gunny with a nod, and Oliver with a squint—a silent question.
“No, I’m staying.”
The captain gave a grunt and turned away to address his first mate.
“You don’t have to, you know,” Gunny said, suddenly. She undid the straps of the closer pannier; with a few adjustments it made a serviceable rucksack. “You could come with me.”
Oliver pulled off his own empty backpack, a well-made Gregory that had literally gone through hell and back. “Here.” He thrust it at her.
She stared at it for a moment, then nodded, swallowing. She started transferring her few belongings. “It’s true though. You could come with me.”
He sighed, considering for an honest moment, running hands through his hair. “…I can’t. You know that.”
“I know. But I had to ask.” The pack was too big for her, since she was shorter by a head than its original owner, but it was far more comfortable than the makeshift alternative. She adjusted the straps tight and stared up at him. “I want you to take Betsy.”
He glanced down. “But—”
“I can’t take her with me, obviously,” Gunny continued, breezily, tilting her head towards the small skiff. “And she’s as much your mule as she is mine.”
She pressed the pannier into his hands. “Think of all the hauling you could do with her! All the parts you need for that radio station of yours. Not to mention, it’ll save you the walk back to York.”
He nodded slowly, agreeing. “You never told me how you got Betsy, you know.”
“No?” Gunny answered, brightly. “Huh. Well, I took her from the nutbars, of course. Along with the fuel converter and all the camping gear.”
“I figured as much.” He was at a loss. The makeshift harbour smelled of old fish and rotten seaweed, but the wind that blew off the ocean came clean and crisp. “But… Peppa and George were from the old landlord. Who owned the land.”
Gunny tilted her head confused, then burst out laughing. “You named the guns?”
He gave a shrug.
“Speaking of, you might as well take the long shotgun too,” she said. Then: “George?”
“Peppa,” Oliver corrected. “You take George with you.”
She winked as she patted her poncho and drawled out: “Way ahead of you, partner.”
They both smiled at that.
He parked the ATV on the beach, staring out over the sea. Low clouds blew along the dark line of the horizon, fast and puffy, like sheep bolting. He’d watched until the boat was over the horizon, destined for Normandy.
From there, a few of the other passengers—Gunny included—were bound for Paris. One of others was an electrical engineer by trade; she was very excited to hear about the potential beacon. They’d swapped frequencies, and she’d promised to try and get in touch once she got her own repeater station working. France was farther away than it had been when his grandparents were children, but with a bit of hard work and some luck they’d get the radio working and bring the rest of the world closer.
All he could do was hope that Gunny would arrive back in her own Scarborough (“sometimes life is ironic like that”) safe and sound. It would be months of hard journeying and her fake cowboy routine wouldn’t impress anyone back in North America. He still couldn’t believe it had impressed anyone in Britain. But maybe she’d be all right just talking to other people, Canadian to Canadian.
He wasn’t sure whether that would work. But Betsy and her three newer bolts reminded him that there were still good people left in the world, even if he wasn’t among them any more, and that would have to be enough.
Oliver dusted the settling sand from his bartered jeans. He should head home before the approaching rain blew inland.
There were still good people in the world; that’s what that mattered.
Better to pretend that was enough.
Copyright 2018 Victoria Feistner