Billy hasn't sold an icecream in days.
The town's been quiet since the bombs hit the city. People boarded up their homes or got the hell out. The television and radio stations stopped broadcasting weeks ago. They say the satellites got shot out of orbit.
He cruises the deserted streets for hours, past shops where the windows have been smashed and the doors ripped off their hinges, past the occasional furtive looter wielding a baseball bat.
"The Entertainer" plays over and over but the kids don't come running. He waits and no one comes. He goes to the icecream depot and still no one comes.
One morning he fills the gas tank up to the brim and restocks the freezers with the last of the supplies from the depot.
He drives away. He doesn't look back.
Out in the desert it's quiet and still. The sun beats down.
The road curves like a river through hills of dust and gold. He passes a few houses, all empty. Could be there's no one else alive for miles.
Through the heat of the day he drives and drives. He tunes the radio to static and sings along to the sound of nothing at the very top of his lungs.
For lunch he eats frozen yoghurt, at dinner feasts on Eskimo Pies. He sucks down one bright popsicle after another and daydreams about beef and broccoli.
At night he sleeps by the side of the road, using a flattened-out cardboard box for a mattress, tattered tarps for blankets.
He wakes up covered in dew and shivering. He's hard.
Billy pushes his hand down his pants, fantasises about faceless bodies. Afterwards he wipes his palm in the dirt and the dead grass, thinking maybe it'll take seed and grow.
On the seventh day he meets James.
He thinks at first it's a mirage. The desert plays tricks on the eyes, creates life where there is none. Fallen trees look like lovers coupling. A ram's skull becomes a bird resting. Maybe the boy in the blue dress waiting by the side of the road is just another figment, a phantom that will disappear when he tries to chase it.
He stops the truck anyway.
"Hey," he says, squinting. "I'm Billy. You okay? You waiting for someone?"
The boy looks at him through bleached bangs. Doesn't speak. Doesn't disappear either.
Billy tries again. "You gotta name?"
After a moment there's a mumbled answer. "James," he says, looking down at the ground, folding his hands behind his back. Seeming shy or fey or both. The curve of his mouth could be a smile.
"You okay out here, James?"
James shrugs. "Sure. I guess so."
But his shoes are scuffed and falling apart, and above the scoop of the dress's neckline his collarbones stand out stark. Billy looks around, searching for a house or trail, searching for any sign of where James might have come from or be heading towards. There's nothing.
So Billy says, "You wanna ride?"
Because it's been a long time since he had someone to talk to. Because it's a desert out there. Or just because.
James nods. Steps into the truck. And then there were two.
A couple of mornings later Billy wakes up by the side of the road, too early for the sun.
He's hard. He bites his lip, wondering if he can rub out one quietly before James wakes up. He unzips his jeans, the sound too loud in the pre-dawn quiet, and then freezes as James rolls over beside him, drowsy-eyed but wide awake.
"Sorry, I-" Billy starts to say without any real idea of where he's going with it. "I was just-"
James reaches out and pulls the zipper down the rest of the way, takes Billy's cock in his hand. His eyes meet Billy's evenly as his hand works, warm and sure and experienced. After a moment Billy has to look away, gasping.
"You were just?" James says a little later, not the slightest bit unruffled.
Billy says nothing.
It's nothing they talk about, not out loud anyway.
It's just James sliding down to his knees, Billy leaning back against the truck. Just James bent over the freezer with the blue dress pushed up around his hips.
James usually lets Billy reciprocate - almost out of politeness, Billy thinks, for he hardly seems to care. It doesn't seem to matter what Billy does, whether he uses his mouth, his hands. James will come with a sigh, eyes closed and head turned to the side. His expression almost sad.
"Is this not," Billy tries to ask one time, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Am I doing it- do you want-"
James just yawns and turns over. He's asleep almost instantly.
At those moments Billy almost feels like he's alone again.
For weeks they don't see anyone.
The closest they come to other human life is the occasional abandoned farmhouse or general store, where they stop to siphon off gas and scavenge supplies, rest in a bed for a night or two. A couple of times they see dust in the distance, as though raised by a speeding car. That's all.
Billy figures it will be no different at the gas station coming up on the horizon. It's James who points out the clothes drying on the line, a trail of smoke rising from the chimney of the ramshackle house.
Sure enough, a woman and a man are waiting to meet them when they pull up next to the pump.
"We gotta be careful," Billy warns, thinking of looters and robbers and bodies buried in the desert, but James's already out of the truck.
Their names are D'Arcy and Jimmy. They offer to trade gas and vegetables for icecream and help repainting the barn, and say Billy and James are both welcome to stay until the work's done.
"Might be nice to have some company. We don't see many people around here," Jimmy says, shoving his hands into his overall pockets. His face is open, easy; his arms are scarred. Billy trusts him on sight. "Ever since, you know."
D'Arcy is harder to read. Despite the welcoming words she looks every bit as wary as Billy feels and her eyes are ice-cold beneath her shades. Though her look softens some when James smiles at her, and it's to him that she reaches out, beckoning. "Come on inside. You look like you could do with some fresh clothes."
Billy watches them walk to the house together. The way their bodies turn towards one another, like magnets attracting.
"Are you and D'Arcy-?" he asks Jimmy hesitantly.
There's no one else at the station and he'd just assumed. But thinking about James's unexpected smile, about the way D'Arcy's hand curves around James's upper arm...
Jimmy shakes his head slowly. "No." But his eyes follow them too.
By day they work. Aside from painting the barn, there's fences that need repairing and vegetables to be harvested, livestock to tend.
James takes to wearing a fringed shirt and a white stetson, like he was a cowboy born. Who knows, maybe he was. What does Billy even know about him anyway?
For Billy it's unfamiliar work, but good. Distracting. Occupying.
"I hear the coast got the worst of it," Jimmy says as they tug potatoes from the soil with gloved hands. "I hear they can't even drink the water out there."
"Some places, yeah," Billy says. "Last I heard it was pretty bad."
"Guess we're lucky out here," Jimmy says. "People can still live off the land."
D'Arcy's mouth twists sourly. She slaps her gloves together, dirt scattering. "Not that there's many of us left to go on living."
They don't talk about how long they'll last when the gas runs out. What they'll do if the radioactive dust drifts inland. If the water goes bad. If the crops fail. If if if.
At night James goes to D'Arcy, and Billy sleeps alone.
It's only natural, Billy tells himself as they whisper to one another on the walk back to the house, the way they cleave to one another. He thinks they must be beautiful together, that they are beautiful together. Their slim bodies strangely similar, their eyes dark and unreadable. Smiling like sphinxes.
At night, through the thin walls of the crumbling house, he can hear them.
An evening, after dinner's eaten and the plates are washed up. He and Jimmy sip whiskey on the back porch and watch the last of the sun's light fading. From inside the house there's the sound of low talk and laughter.
"What's beyond there?" Billy says, breaking their easy silence. He nods towards the mountains in the north. "Towns? Forests? Or is all that gone too?"
"Don't know." Jimmy shakes his head. "A couple of people from around here set out a few months ago, trying to get to their folks on the other side. Never heard from them again." He gives Billy a sharp sideways glance. "Why? You thinking of trying?"
"No," he lies and downs his whiskey in a gulp.
Billy dreams. He's back in the town, driving the icecream truck along empty streets.
A child runs up to the window, holding out a handful of change in its grimy paw. There's something strange about the child, something off, but he can't put his finger on it and he's so glad to have a customer after all this time.
Double your trouble, he says in the dream, and hands over a second icecream for free. The child giggles.
As it turns to go, he sees the other side of its face - the burn scars around the socket of an absent eye.
Bill wakes with a start.
He lies there for a while, staring up at the cobwebbed ceiling. Finally he throws back the covers and gets out of bed, thinking maybe a glass of water will help.
He passes D'Arcy's room on the way to the kitchen. The door lies ajar and he can't help glancing inside. Just for a moment.
James is there, of course, D'Arcy's arms twined around his torso. But there's a third figure too - Jimmy's dark hair unmistakable, his face serene in sleep.
He looks. And then he backs away, back to his room, in the dark.
They insist on driving him an hour northwards, towards the mountains. He refuses to let them take him any further.
"You know you could stay," James says on the drive. They're alone in the back. D'Arcy's up front, gunning the engine of the icecream truck like a pro, Jimmy in the seat beside her. "You could stay if you wanted. With us."
Billy shakes his head, looks down at his hands. Thinking about all the ways they fit together and all the ways he doesn't.
"What are you running from?" James says softly. "Where are you going?"
He's glad when the truck shudders to a halt and he doesn't have to reply. "Last stop," D'Arcy calls, looking over her shoulder. "All out, all change." Billy stands, a little hunched over to avoid the low roof.
"Wait," James says. He pulls off his hat and puts it in Billy's hand. Brushes his mouth over Billy's and then pushes him out the door.
As they drive away Billy takes a deep breath and looks around, squinting beneath the sun. Places the hat on his head.
Ahead the mountains loom. He starts walking.