The sun beat down like a hammer, frying her hair and broiling her skin. Looking around at the arid landscape to ensure her solitude, she slipped her pack from her tired shoulders and let it fall to the ground. She leaned over and rifled through it for the tube of sunblock, flipped open the cap, and shook the last of it into her hand.
Shit . She smeared the lotion on her arms and scraped at the bottle with her fingers for the last vestiges of it, rubbing it into the hot skin on her face. The empty tube met the ground while she readjusted the cap on her head. She unscrewed the cap from her water jug, sipping only a few precious drops before closing it tight. It was getting dangerously low.
With a huff, she swung the pack onto her back. Rather than walking on the super-heated blacktop, she'd taken to trudging through the dirt instead, following the road for miles. Her boots had a thick layer of brown to show for it.
The sky remained terribly cloudless as it had all morning. She'd thought the clear sunrise so breathtaking, a spot of pure beauty in all this death and destruction, but that was hours ago. When she'd set out for Mexicali this morning, the sky was still black. She'd never been one to fear the dark, but for those few lonely hours, she'd prayed for dawn. How she regretted that wish in the harsh light of day. The light had made driving safer, but once her Harley had run out of gas on that lonely stretch of road, the friendly sun had become a foe. Her chapped lips begged for another drop of water, but she knew better than to waste it all before free water was a sure thing.
The endless walk allowed for a litany of thoughts to cycle through her brain. She thought about Tommy, who had succumbed to the fever and turned zombie. She thought about the horrified look on Lindsie’s face when she put him out of his misery. She thought of Marye, who’d barely made it through the flu, and her brother Rob, who’d given her his water rations to get her through it. She would get clean water if it was the last thing she did. Her nails bit into the flesh of her palms as she clenched her fists. Her vow was there, always.
The reflection of the heat on the pavement made mirages in the air. Far too hot for her leather jacket. Even in Australia she'd never faced this kind of extreme weather, living on the coast. Every hot day had been soothed by an ocean breeze and some measure of humidity. Trips to the desert had cars with air conditioning and ample cold water and snacks in eskies.
“Bloody hell, would I kill for some lamingtons right about now.” The thought of the chocolate coconut sponge cakes made her mouth want to water. Her mouth was as dry as the cracked dirt beneath her feet. Fuck .
The blazing sun made its way across the sky, slowly but steadily. The quiet was more unsettling than the searing heat, the lack of breeze suffocating. Every time the wind picked up a bit, it blew dirt into her face. She tied a handkerchief around her nose and mouth and hummed to herself to fill the void.
Eventually, the highway split, and she took the exit. Up ahead, a small gas station came into view, and her pace picked up with renewed purpose. A lonely blue and white pick-up sat parked out front. Not exactly a popular place. As she approached, she drew her gun, and flicked off the safety. Her fingers wiggled to get a grip on the doors as she pried them open. Stale air wafted out. She brought her gun up to the glass.
Clonk clonk clonk
Moments later, the living-dead servo attendant stumbled his way out, intent on having his way with her. His rotting fingers reached. Not really her type.
Not today, Satan.
A clean shot to the head put him down for the count. No one else came out, so she dragged the (admittedly light) body a few feet from the door and glanced at his name tag (Oscar) before making her way inside. From the look of things, nothing had been touched since the world went to shit, other than a postcard rack knocked to the ground by the servo zombie.
Fuck yes. Twinkies galore. She ripped open a wrapper and bit into the sponge cake before snatching one of the reusable bags from the rack and filling it with food. While the generator had long since died, taking all refrigerated items with it, there was plenty more thriving in the stale heat of the store. Jerky, canned food, and useless sweets would accompany her the rest of the way. Thank God for preservatives. She filled a bag and started on the next. In this one, some more practical things: multivitamins, hygiene products, peanut butter. Moving to the back of the store...oh, yes. Blessed water. Finally, she allowed herself to guzzle the last of her jug. Perhaps a bit too quickly, she thought, as her stomach made a fuss and she did her best not to chunder.
One toothbrush, a jug of water, and a soap-beaded loofa later, she gathered her loot and made her way out into the shade. The air didn't seem quite as hot anymore. Perhaps, even...was that a breeze? Surely not. She tilted her face up to meet the stirring air.
And then she heard it. A scuffle, around the corner of the building, the one also in shade. Once again drawing her weapon, she made her way cautiously around the side of the building, where she was met with… a dog. A living dog, at that. Not torn to pieces by a horrid zombie.
“Hey, mate,” she greeted, “Got yourself in a bit of a bind?”
One of the dog’s legs was wrapped securely in wire. Apparently after scavenging the dumpster, trying to make a quick getaway, it’d gotten caught up in the garbage. Wondering just how long it’d been stuck there, she stepped forward. The dog growled softly, backed into a corner as it was. She took several steps backward before disappearing around the corner again, returning with a can. Cracking it open, she edged forward, wafting the inviting scent of spam toward the trapped dog. Hesitantly, it inched toward her, more confidently as she scraped some onto the ground.
“Better let me take a squizz at that leg, mate,” she uttered softly. The enticing scent of the spam overpowered the dog’s urge to defend itself from potential danger. Before long, the tightly wound creature relaxed enough to allow her to unwrap its leg.
“She’ll be alright, huh?” She soothed. “Figure the least you deserve is a fair go. I'm Elyza, by the way.”
The dog rose to its feet with only a slight limp, the spam well and finished.
Rising from her spot on the ground, she made her way around to the storefront, searching the servo attendant’s pockets until she found the key to the truck in the lot. The dog watched her load her groceries into the truck.
“Good on ya, mate. I'll be off then.”
The dog watched her expectantly.
“Why you lookin’ at me like that? Rack off, ratbag!”
The dog cocked its head, ear perked curiously. Obviously American, then. It held the injured paw a few inches above the ground pathetically.
Elyza sighed, shaking her head pityingly. “You're a no-hoper on your own, huh?”
The dog whined.
“Well?” She held her door open. “Are ya comin, or what?”
Surprisingly swift, the dog bounded into the cab, taking a firm seat in the passenger’s chair.
Not too injured, then. The wide smile stretched across the dog's square head more than made up for the trouble. She cranked down the manual windows, pulling a face at the hot air.
“Man, it’s dry as a nun’s nasty, huh? I bet we'd both kill for an ice block right about now.”
The dog cocked its head. Elyza reaches out to scratch behind the ears, and it’s jaw dropped open in a smile, tongue lolling cheerily.
“Ah, you'll catch on. I'm true blue, babe. Stick with me, you will be too.”
The rest of the drive was short and relatively comfortable. The dog, whom she’d affectionately named Ronnie after the servo station where they met, leaned out the window, jowls flapping merrily in the wind. Elyza sang along with the CD in the stereo, some popular American 90’s rock band.
Within an hour, the bullfighting arena was in sight. Elyza passed living and dead alike heading toward the arena. The crowd was lively and diverse. She parked the truck outside the fence and popped the hood to remove the spark plug and slip it into her pocket. Donning her leather jacket and strapping her duffle across her body, she made her way to the line of people seeking entry to the arena. Ronnie stuck close to her side, an intimidating sight for anyone who had thoughts of trying to take advantage of a lone woman.
Not that she would be easy pickings were she actually on her own. She was a very quick draw with her Glock 17, having been trained from an early age in the art of guns.
The woman in the cage surveyed the things Elyza handed her from the duffle and concluded they were enough for admission and an additional hundred credits.
“You’ll have to leave your guns at the gate,” the woman said, writing her a ticket to exchange for her guns upon exiting the facility.
Businesses of all sorts were being conducted inside. Elyza kept a watchful eye out for anyone who might be selling what she needed.
“Meat stew, only ten credits!”
“-get your moonshine, here-“
“-I’m real good company, honey-“
“-and for a limited time only-“
Eventually she waded through enough of the hubbub and spotted a broad man at a rickety wooden table, slugging back a beer. More importantly, on his vest was the set of wings that symbolized the Proctor Motorcycle Club.
“Hey,” she said, approaching from the side. Wouldn’t do to spook the kid before she got her in.
The man looked over, wiping stray droplets from his beard. “You lost?”
“Nope. You’re exactly the man I’m looking for. Or you know him, at least.”
“Well, I certainly hope so. You look like a guy who knows people.” She gestured pointedly to his attire: the vest and the patches which adorned it.
“What’s a little girl like you got to discuss with Proctor John?”
“Potential doesn’t get you straight upstairs, girl. Only sure things get the Proctor’s attention.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be open to hearing from me. Tell him an old pal from the outback stopped by to say g’day.” She reached down and scratched Ronnie behind the ear.
The room he brought her to was much classier than what the masses had downstairs.
His face was older than she remembered, but undeniably the same man she remembered so well from her childhood. The lines in his tan skin seemed to add to his character, rather than mar his face. His eyes were the same piercing blue that she remembered, and she tried not to fidget while he studied her from his spot behind the desk.
Finally he spoke: “Do we know each other, sweetheart? I can’t seem to recall the meeting.”
“It’s been a hot minute, hasn’t it? I was a bit shorter back then.” She pulled her mouth into a half smile, hoping he would take pity on the kid of a good friend. If she remembered correctly, he was the kind of man to do so.
“That accent is familiar, I’ll give you that, but I haven’t been down in the southern hemisphere in years. But you are the spitting image of...Lex?”
“The one and only, present and accounted for.”
He studied her again with new eyes. He seemed to like what he saw as well, and his lips pulled back to reveal bright white teeth as he huffed out a laugh.
“Well, I’ll be damned. Elyza Lex. You were about this tall last time I saw you, kid.” He gestured to about hip height. “How’s your mom been?”
“Good, last time I saw her...I was visiting America with some uni friends when it all went down. Haven’t seen her in a while. Because, you know.” She made a vague gesture to encompass, well, everything.
John tapped at the wood of the desk for a moment, seemingly lost in thought. “I was sorry to hear about your dad, kid. He was a great guy.”
“Yeah, he was.” Her chest tightened at the mention of her father. It had only been ten months before the end of the world that he’d been shot in that parking lot.
“They ever catch the guy that did it?”
Elyza shook her head. “Everyone knew who did it. It was the copper from the robbery unit who was trying to pin him for the bank job from last year.”
“Well, look on the bright side: he’s almost certainly paid his dues by now.”
“Yeah. That skeevy prick wouldn’t have lasted three weeks.” She smirked appreciatively at his support.
“So, Lex, what brings you to these parts? People don’t really make social calls these days.”
“No, they don’t, huh?” She shifted her weight to the balls of her feet nervously. This was her best shot by far, and she didn’t know what she’d do if he turned her down. “Truth is, my friends and I are running low on supplies. We’ve been rationing for a while, raiding nearby towns. But more than that, we’re running low on water, which isn’t so easy to get in the desert. I hear you’re the tall poppy around here. I’m here to make an honest living.”
“Hmm…” He leaned back against the table across from her, rubbing at his chin thoughtfully. “I have a job that needs doing. I need some extra muscle to...acquire a property. You help me with that, we’ll see about getting you and your friends some of the bounty. Do we have a deal?”
“Deal, mate.” She shook his hand across the desk. “Dad always knew you’d go far, you know. Was put out to see you go.”
“Well, I was put out to leave. Much as I loved Australia, this is home. Couldn’t let it fester without me forever.”
Ronnie butted into the conversation by nudging his nose directly into Elyza’s hand in a bid for attention. She glanced down and scratched his square jaw affectionately.
“And who do we have here?”
“This is Ronnie. Let him out of a trap and he hasn’t left my side since.”
“Bit clingy, if you ask me,” she joked.
“Nah,” he replied. “Loyalty’s nothing to scoff at. Your dad knew that. You stick with me, you’ll be set for a long time, Lex.”
The alternative went unspoken. The implication was clear enough.