Warren, the eroded signs said. Then: Elkhart, Rockford, Janesville.
The wind destroys, and what is left is burdened by the snow. Ceaseless, grey and oily, the snow is an ever-present companion. It's been months, now, since he's seen sunlight; longer since he's been warm.
It's like something out of a horror novel, he thinks often, when he's not thinking of the cold or the grate of hunger. Like movies he's now all but forgotten. Like something out of his companion's memories.
They had been trying to escape it for what seemed to be eternity.
Go south, he had read in mind after mind, once. Over and over, the same undercurrent of hope: No snow. Food, warmth, family.
The cart stalls again.
It's unsurprising. It would be mere rust in the ground by now, if not for his companion.
His companion curses again.
"Are you certain?"
"It will not be easy, my friend. But our options are few."
The roads were clogged, once, with humans.
Now they are barren, endless. When they once more see asphalt or the hint of a rail, it is cracked, rent beyond repair by time, by endless frost, by disuse.
The farms are empty. The cities are dead.
Perhaps they should be, as well.
"Leave me. How many times must I say this? Think about it, use your mind. There is no one left, there is no need for me to be here."
You'll do better on your own. You won't expend your powers on this godforsaken shopping trolley. You can find tins on your own, find clean water as easily without me here. There is nothing, no need for me--
"How many times must I say this? I do need you."
You are here. Until you are gone, we are not alone.
The rumors of sun, of abundant fields, of living beings--mutant, human--were wild through the minds of those they passed, early in the journey.
They were pervasive enough that one mind should hold something beyond rumors. A memory of warm sunlight in Georgia, a conversation with a landowner in Tennessee.
There is nothing but rumors, and worse, the shadow of rumors--things heard from someone who heard them from someone who heard them from, and on, and on.
And on, those roads clogged with the hopeful, with those who fed on the hopeful. A constant horror of lost families, of half-dead spirits, of the crazed furor of minds raw with new madness in the roving bands of flesh-eaters.
He was sick, always. He begged for anything his companion would grant him: abandonment, a swift death, turning and running
"…anywhere but here," his gloved hands clenching frozen metal. On the ground, vomit steaming. Inspect it for blood, the first signs of plague, you have to, run--
And there is only one logical choice. For him to leave you here. For him to go south, where he can always be warm, where he can find food and keep it for himself.
They went west.
His companion said it was the only way, that it was obvious. They had seen the north. There was little to the east but a limitless roiling water, slick eddies of oil the last vestige of color, a foam of the dead: cod, tuna, porpoise, poisoned flesh splitting open.
The roads to the south did not bear contemplation.
Dodgeville, the last sign had said.
See The House on the Rock, said another, felled on the ground, rusted half over. His companion moved it aside, curiously; sometimes there was a cache beneath such things, hidden by the long-dead hopeful.
His companion lets it fall back, coughs wetly. Nothing but dirt, ashen and infertile.
"Shall we try the town," he suggests. The cart is not yet empty. His constant inventory is as easily accessed by his companion.
Peaches, one tin. Sardines, one tin. Hominy, two tins. Sliced beets, one half-tin. Four tins of tomatoes, in various states: whole, diced, puree. A jar of home-canned asparagus. Three quarters of a bottle of brandy.
A feast. Without his companion's powers, they would have none of it, save the brandy.
"And you said I should leave you," as he brushed the last of the dust from the bottle, and he laughed, and his beard was rough on wind-raw skin.
There is no pressing reason to make the detour. Likely, all the food has been ravaged. Likely, there will be nothing but that which they've seen in every city, every town: hasty graveyards, ashen snow, a rotten-egg scent in the water. Still, he cannot help the occasional burst of hope. Yes, they have food. Yes, they have blankets and jackets.
But he also has the inventory of that which he wishes for, daily: cough syrup, aspirin, more clean water.
Another tin of baked beans, the last a distant warm memory, sweet and wonderfully filling, heated over the old lighter.
Lighter fuel. A new lighter.
Socks, for his companion. New boots, for his companion. New gloves, another coat, a scarf, medicine--
His companion's hand is cold against his neck.
"We're in no hurry," and it is true, there is nothing awaiting them, no one, "Maybe we'll find the beans, at least."
They make the turn into town, dodging snowbanks and cars long-upturned. He turns his head to watch his companion, leaning steadily--as he has for miles upon miles--on the shopping trolley, pushing it more with his powers than with his body.
"I would keep the cart, anyway."
He should stop this. Just take the cart they stole from a dying man. Keep the blankets for himself. But he lines it quietly, piles in old cotton torn from a sofa, protects cans and bottles in the front.
In the end, he can't argue his companion out of it. In the end, he knows how atrophied he has become. In the end he lets his companion lift him, because in the end he knows the truth. He weighs little more than the accumulation of cans and fuel and water, and he knows his companion has attempted for weeks to ignore this.
He casts out over the town. Since that day, his reach has extended. He no longer wonders if it was radiation or practice that made it so. He has been straining to feel nothing for endless roads now.
It matters little how powerful he is, now, when he feels nothing but his own mind.
"Are you certain?"
There is strain in the body wrapped around him, where he can feel it.
"Do it. If ever we are separated--"
I'll only be an illusion. You'll still be alone.
But his companion knows. And it is painful when that seam between minds is destroyed, when it is ripped asunder and pulled away.
Screaming, his companion pushes at him.
His companion recoils, as if there were an option, as if he had any avenue left for hope or escape.
"Oh my friend. I am so sorry, I warned you--"
If ever we are separated, you will have nothing to fear, save for illusions.
There is nothing in the yards, shops, homes. Even the birds are unreachable. He can feel his companion brushing through the buildings with his powers, seeking unbroken cylinders, metal without sides split and bulging. He says nothing, but nods curiously at a drug store, the windows smashed out.
There is nothing his companion senses in there, at least in the way of tinned food. But there is much his companion can't sense: gauze, bandages, thread.
The door is easily pulled aside, the shopping cart lifted lightly over two bodies huddled close. He looks aside.
The aisles would have seemed eerie, once. Now, he cannot imagine a store with breathing souls, a store without glass crunching under the wheels of a trolley. It would be swifter if they separated, to look through the rubble. His companion's hand is steady on his shoulder as they glance over shelves long-empty.
The last store, and the store before that: nothingness. This is shaping out to be the same. The same left-behind items, useless and inert, litter the floor: tubes of lipstick kicked aside, Necco wafers crushing to dust.
There's a back room. There often is: an office, a compounding pharmacy, a room for backstock. It will be as warm as anywhere else, and his companion opens the door, brushes the dust off the couch they find in the break room, and smiles once in a way he misses.
"For you, professor," he says, shaking out a lab coat stained lightly, left behind in a heap on the sofa.
It isn't much, but he smiles, too.
In the night, he will strike out against his companion.
"Wait," he will rasp, or, "I'm sorry," or just, "Raven."
He will wake, his companion holding his arms, and ask why they left. He will ask why they did not take all the young mutants with them.
He will want to ask why the complex was empty and charred. Why the bombs went off that day, the skyline lit up orange and hideous, as the pilot flew fearlessly toward a horizon of certain hopelessness, the radio clogged with with doomsday.
But there is much that cannot be helped in this world. He knows this better, now, when his companion shares his mind:
a plane ripping apart, the feel of it warping, the bolts straining, and you made a horrible sound as I failed.
They won't speak of it. His companion will carefully split the last of the beets. He'll goad his companion into taking a small swig of brandy, a reward for the coat.
Tomorrow there may be lighter fluid. Tomorrow there may be a sturdy can of pears, a tin of corn, the preserved juice of a innocent summer sweet between their lips. Tomorrow there may be a mutant hiding in a northern town, alone and waiting for them.
One tomorrow, there may be a land without snow, there may be hope in those names he's traced on their map: Fortuna, Goldendale, Paradise.
Or, as likely, it will be this. A limitless progression of dust, snow, of a slice of beet cut slowly--one half, one eighth, one sixteenth.