The air up here was a lot thinner than Derek expected. His ass hurt from sitting on that stupid bicycle all day, and despite the comfortable temperatures he'd been traveling in for what felt like years, Derek still sported a four day old sunburn, made worse by the next day's long hours in the sun. It wasn't like he resembled a lobster or anything, but his skin had adopted a nice pink glow. Lord knows how bad he'd look if he had a fairer skin tone, one closer to Stiles'.
Derek closed his eyes for a brief minute to push down the pain. He wasn't good on his own. The longest he'd gone without being around people before Grand Junction was two weeks, right after Laura died. If his mindset then was any indication, he should have been a total wreck by now. However, unlike last time, he had a purpose: Get to Iowa.
The road was so much lonelier on his own.
The thing was, he forced himself to keep going because he knew, knew that Stiles had it harder. Stiles believed Derek died in that hospital. His mindset had to be tenuous. Barely holding on even. The thought of Stiles giving up before Derek could meet up with them, haunted him, kept him going like a man possessed.
How did he come by the bike? Well, it had been a godsend when he found it. At best, he traveled five miles a day, and that was on a good day. He only had his backpack, and surprise, it didn't allow for much supplies. Every day, he'd have to stop and forage. Water, surprisingly hadn't been too hard. The walk from Grand Junction to Palisade took three days, and on his way out of town, Derek took shelter in a house for the night.
He'd feasted that night, and he meant really feasted. A nice thirty-two ounce can of pineapple chunks, the juice from which he saved in an empty water bottle, followed by a can of condensed cream of potato soup. That was it for food though, but hey, he'd had naught but a granola bar and a tiny bag of vending machine pretzels since he'd fled the hospital. That meal tasted like heaven in canned form.
He took that back, there was a small bottle of honey hidden away on the top shelf of one of the cabinets, but he didn't consider that food. That had been moved over to the first-aid section of his backpack. That cut on his arm, didn't look much better after three days, and the honey probably saved his life now that he thought about it. The last thing he wanted was to die from an infection. It also held the bandage on pretty well too. As far as supplies went, aside from his tactical knife, that honey was the most valuable thing in his possession. He didn't even know why he knew that about honey, probably Stiles. Saving my life, Babe.
The house itself yielded finds just as valuable as food. For example: Socks and two pairs of boxer briefs, and yeah, he should feel a bit weirded out about second-hand underwear, but he'd long since got over any squeamishness as a result of the current state of the world. Those four pairs of socks would probably save his feet. The guy that had lived there had the same size feet, and Derek traded out his worn out cross-trainers for hiking boots. He'd also found a yoga mat in one of those little carrying cases with a strap. On the days where he couldn't find a residence in which to sleep through the night, that mat had been softer than sleeping on the ground alone.
Desperate for water one day and in possession of nothing to make a fire to boil water with, he sat and wracked his brain for anywhere in a house that water might be hidden. The answer had been simple, so deliciously simple he couldn't believe he'd overlooked it: The water heater. Once any sediment had been filtered out, there had been a ton of water in the thing, more than he could carry in his one gallon jug and two spare twenty ounce bottles, but it gave him hope for the next day, and the day after that. He'd also found some bleach he'd poured into a small bottle. A few drops ought to do it. The best part about that surplus of water? Washing off the sweat, grime and Rager gore.
So the moral of his little story, traveling alone sucked, especially when he could only take what he could carry.
Anyway, the bike. He'd found it in Parachute, tucked away in the garage. The bike alone would have been enough to make him cry out in triumph. Instead of walking five miles a day, he could ride at least three times that, adjusting, of course for elevation and the standard stop for supplies. However, tipped over and buried under a shelving unit, had been a bike trailer, one of those ones meant to give a child a place to sit while their parents rode. The netting was damaged, but it hooked up to his bike perfectly and had been in perfect working order otherwise. He'd cried, actually cried, when he found it.
Why was this so wonderful? For one, he didn't need to have all that extra weight on his back. Two, it increased the amount of supplies he could travel at least tenfold. That one gallon of water, well now it was four gallons. So that was four days travel or so in which he wouldn't need to scavenge. Those three t-shirts he'd found would not go to waste. He took a pair of scissors to the giant and nearly threadbare white t-shirt he found in a rag pile, cutting it across the chest and under the arms before slicing it from hem to his cut line. Now, when he set out for the day, he imagined he looked a little like T.E. Lawrence with it tied around his head. What? Black hair got really hot in the sun. Okay? Ever have sunburn of the scalp? Well it itches like hell when it starts to peel. He didn't want to go through that again.
As he rolled into Glenwood Springs, now eighteen days since Grand Junction, he found the first available house, did his nightly search for food, refilled his water jugs (seriously, hot water heaters were his new favorite thing in the world. He'd build an altar to them if ever he had the time), and crashed.
* * * * *
The next morning, he rummaged a few nearby houses, picking up a box of baking soda, half a pound of rice, and a bottle of molasses. He'd been tempted to leave behind the tar-like substance (the stuff tasted terrible), until he read the nutrition label. Source of iron, potassium, calcium, and other vitamins? Huh, who knew? He guessed it was coming along.
As he passed by the fireplace, he thought about his lack of fire-building supplies. There was nothing, only small pieces of wood burned down to...charcoal- Wait. One of their days on the road, Jordan told him how to make a water filter out of two plastic bottles, gravel, sand and charcoal. So long as he could find some fine mesh, or tightly woven fabric, he'd be set. Derek was a pessimist. Eventually, his new-found water source would leave him high and, ha dry. Thanks Stiles. Now even I chuckle at bad puns. Even your bad jokes are endearing.
He plopped himself down on the couch to think. Dishrag? Probably too porous. Now if they had cheeseclo- Who the hell just kept cheesecloth on hand anymore? Honestly, he had no idea what the shit looked like, either. His eyes darted around the room, and it was then that he noticed the decor. Flowery wallpaper, frilly throw pillows, decorative plate collection. Little cabinets that held various trinkets, and the entertainment center was cluttered with statues of little mice. He grabbed a couple of the more whimsical items and some souvenir spoons, placing them in a little box. He'd sort of continued Stiles' knick-knack collecting now that they had been separated. Somehow, it made him feel close to his husband, like they weren't so far apart. He also commandeered a sewing kit. Clothes would probably last longer if they were mended.
Something else about the room came to his attention. All these outdated decorations most likely meant one thing.
Someone's grandmother had lived here. Think Derek. Think. Think like Stiles. What would his husband use?
In a fit of inspiration, he dashed upstairs to the master bedroom. Afghan and rocking chair, yep, Grandma's house. He pulled open the dresser and yanked free every pair of pantyhose the woman had owned. They were stretchy, tightly woven. They'd work. Hell, they had to have other uses.
What else did grandma's do? They gardened. Curious, he ventured outside to find the far end of her yard contained overgrown raspberry bushes. The yard itself, was a blanket of yellow. Dandelions grew everywhere. Hello food.
See, this is why he and Stiles would have survived the apocalypse by themselves. His other half, and definitely his better half, had a real knack for finding useful things in urban settings, but this? Out here where there was no civilization for miles on end, Derek had this in the bag.
Before the fire that claimed everyone in his family but Laura and him, the family home sat deep in the preserve in Beacon Hills surrounded by lush woods. He'd known every inch of that land; it had been in his family for generations. He knew of and could confidently identify several species of edible mushrooms, having gone hunting for them with his father dozens of times. Though he hadn't eaten it in years, he couldn't count how many times they'd had dandelion greens with dinner. They had a couple apple trees in their yard, and he'd watched his mother dehydrate the fruit in the sun at least once or twice. Hell, on his solo journey, he'd taken to eating cactus a few times. Prickly pear was a nightmare when it came to removing needles.
In the back corner of the yard sat a small shed. Inside, as expected were various tools. The full size shovel, that was coming with him. He looked around for gloves that might fit him, but no luck. Before he partook in an epic weeding project, he popped off all of the window screens on the first floor, propping half up on some edger stones he plucked from around the yard. The rest, he set aside.
When he'd picked every useable raspberry from the bushes, he arranged the fruit on the screens, setting aside a large bowl of them for lunch, and covered each screen with another. Then, he prayed it didn't rain.
He'd forgotten how back-breaking weeding a lawn could be. This was worse, because he had to do it with care. He needed the leaves as intact as he could get them. It took him hours, but he knew the work was worth it. Using the bone-dry bird bath, he filled it with water to wash the greens before they too would sit in the sun to dry off. Dehydrating them all was not in the cards. They'd make good meals for a few days.
Just before he turned in for the night, and probably next day and a half while his harvest dried, he carried several gallons up to the bathroom, one at a time so he could revel in actually taking a cool bath after the day of hard work. Though, he could really have done without the old lady smell the available soap and shampoo gave him.
Beggars couldn't be choosers after all.
* * * * *
Twelve days later he rolled into Silverthorne. Maybe rolled was too strong a word. He cruised into town at walking speed, because the day before, his back tire had gone flat. So he'd been pushing it, because to abandon it meant to abandon the trailer carrying his supplies. Not a scenario he could live with. He was exhausted and ready for a rest
More than that though, he longed for human conversation. The few words he spoke to the only picture of Stiles he had on him (one they both took in a photo booth and he kept in his wallet) every night didn't count. Not really.
He'd filled his days singing as he rode, amazing himself he remembered the lyrics of so many songs. Those he didn't know all the words too, he gave new ones. Singing quietly, at the top of his lungs, total nonsense, and some pretty good originals he never thought he had in him. He'd lose himself in his head reliving their relationship. It wasn't the same though. He wanted someone to talk to him, to say words back. In short, he was lonely, cripplingly so. Being alone sucked, okay? He was trying his best not to fall apart. He needed his journals badly. The thoughts in his head were...fuck! How was he still going?
He'd thought for sure people would survive in mountain towns such as these. The people in them had to be hearty, and the remoteness should have helped them outlast the Ragers, but no. It was as though everyone in the state of Colorado had vanished into the void.
While he contemplated a supply run for either a new tire or a new bike, he saw a Lowe's from the interstate. Worth a shot, he decided and pushed the bike off the exit. Look at me going the wrong way on the on ramp. He chuckled.
Inside, the store was a disaster. Naturally, a hardware store would have been ransacked for it's garden tools and other items to use as pole weapons. Chainsaws? Great apocalypse weapon if you want to spare the gas. Derek, of course didn't. Though he did find a six volt flashlight, which came in handy as he combed the massive store for a rubber patch kit and an air pump.
Also on his list of things to find? Something else to use as a weapon. His rifle was good in a pinch, but he'd rather use something quicker than beating Ragers to death with it. His knife brought the things in too close for comfort before he could kill them. He did find a four foot dowel about an inch in diameter. With a grinder wheel and some sandpaper, he could make a pike. That had to be better than nothing.
First though, the bike patch. The air pump was easiest to find, but the inner tube repair kit, not so much. The search took forever, and after two hours of searching and clearing the building of Ragers, barricading the door to keep more out, he instead, sought out a place to sleep. Given the size of the place and the shoddiness of his barricade, he looked up for shelter, settling on an empty shelf twenty feet above the ground as it had the most space he could find between it and the shelf above. He would be able to sit up, and that was ideal. There were no ladders around. Damn it.
Derek walked his bike back to his intended campsite, parking it right under neath for easy access. In his quest, he found an escape ladder, the kind that rolled up and were tossed out the window in the event of a fire. The only problem? He had to get up to the shelf first.
The first shelf was at eye level. Look, Derek considered himself in shape, very strong, but as he pulled himself up, and climbed to the next one, all he could think about were the times Stiles sent him a video of him and Brandon rock climbing. The guy made it look so easy, pulling himself up by hand holds, even the ones in hard to reach places. By the time he rolled onto his "perch," Derek was winded. He supposed 160 pounds was a lot easier to pull up than 200. That's what Derek got for having a sturdy build. He secured the ladder and descended for the supplies he'd need.
It took the better part of two days to make what he considered a useable pike. Okay, so the thing was beautiful by the time he was finished, whittled then sanded to perfection. It seemed a shame that he would waste such craftsmanship only to impale the undead, but at least he'd be killing them in style. In reality, Derek didn't think he had it in him. Well, maybe he had a new usable skill when he got to Iowa. Derek Hale, Master Pike Builder.
It took another three days, scouring the store, inch by inch to find a patch for his bike tire. He found two, actually, which was a plus. Water supply restocked courtesy of toilet tanks again, a vinyl shower curtain for rain shelter, and four king size packages of Snickers later, Derek loaded up his trailer, tied the pike to his back with pantyhose, and was on his way. He knew those nylon things would be useful.
He'd only been back on the interstate for a mile or two when he heard a car approaching from behind him. He could travel on by himself and knew to use caution with strangers (especially in this day and age). Deciding on safety versus convenience, he moved out of the way to let the car pass. However, it came to a stop about ten feet away from him. When the driver door opened, a petite redhead stepped out, using the door as a shield and pointed a handgun in his direction.
"Traveling by bike. Smart. Most people I've come across keep looking for gas." She said.
"Says the woman using a car."
She pointed to the car. "It's a hybrid. Fifty miles to the gallon on the highway. Not as hard to travel this way as you'd think."
"Well the bike arose out of necessity if it makes you feel better. Prior to that, I'd been walking."
"Alone? Gutsy move."
"Also not my choice. I got separated from my group in Grand Junction. Just trying to get to our final destination alive."
"Well, you are the first person I've come across since Interstate 15 in Utah."
Derek tried to suss out this woman's angle, which was not as easy considering the gun aimed at his chest. "I see, and you've been on the road since..."
"Vegas. Miracle I got out of there alive. You?"
"Merced. It's by Modes-"
"I know where Merced is."
Get to the point, Lady. "Sorry. Did you need something? Directions? I have a map. If you were looking for supplies," he pointed to the little child trailer, "I only have what fits in there, which isn't much. So you wouldn't get far if you just intended to kill me and take my shit. I'd like to ask you not to kill me if you could." She laughed, and Derek could tell she was used to getting what she wanted, a formidable adversary. In short, the kind of woman who was a force to be reckoned with and often ruled as Queen Bee of the public school system. Yeah, he wasn't really into that.
"I have no intention of killing you unless you give me a reason."
"Then what do you want?" He lowered his brows, more than a little wary. Okay, so his trust issues still hadn't improved even from being with Stiles.
She dropped the act. "I'm bored. I desperately need personal interaction. I am going to lose my mind if I don't."
"And by that you mean me? Because, I've been told, I'm a terrible conversationalist."
She tossed her head back in a genuine laugh. "Just my luck. Well, I won't judge you by your poor communication. What do you say? Want a ride? And judging by the whole murderous eyebrow thing you've got going on, this is one of the stupidest ideas I've ever had. Anyone tell you that you give off serial killer vibes? Still, I probably should have tied you up until I trusted you. For all I know you're the Interstate 70 rapist."
He fought back a groan. "Yeah, really planned ahead on that one."
"Well, you never can tell now. This outbreak has turned people into monsters."
Derek clicked his tongue and looked down at his feet. "I've never killed anyone, very much against rape, nor have I shot anyone who wasn't a Rager, if that helps. Can't really help my resting angry face." He sighed. This was probably he only chance to talk to someone until Iowa. Against his better judgement, he acquiesced. "Where are you headed?"
"May I ask what's in Wichita?"
"I'm trying to get to my family too. They're headed to Iowa with the rest of my group. That's where I need to get. They're not really near each other."
"How's this? You be my traveling companion, keep me from losing my mind while we look out for each other, and after I get my mother, I will make sure you get to Iowa? There is nothing keeping her in Kansas. I mean, it's not where either of us is from. She just worked there. I honestly, have no idea what she and I will do after that." The woman chuckled. "I don't even know if she's alive, but she's all I have. You know?"
"It's depressing how much I understand that. Could you lower the gun?" He lay down his pike and knife on the ground and pulled out the map, shaking it for her to see. "This is where my group was headed when we got separated. One of our people has land there, a property with high stone walls. If you are serious about getting me to Iowa under the condition I tag along to Wichita, I will make sure they offer you a place to stay."
She nodded, brushing her ginger hair out of her face. "Sounds like a plan" She offered her hand. "I'm Lydia."
Derek shook it. "Derek."
"Well, Derek. Let's get you loaded up. The bike won't fit, I'm afraid."
After all his hard work to fix that damn tire, it seemed a shame to leave it behind. On the other hand...Lydia had a car. Yeah, not really a hard choice.
Once his supplies were loaded, they were on the road. Two hours later, after listening to her give him her life story, offering very little in edgewise, she seemed to finally be out of words for the time being, and the car settled into silence. He didn't realize it, but when the silence stretched into hour three, unaware, he began to sing.
"Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?
Did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage?"
Turning his head to the window to hide his face, he wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. Why did he pick this song? Nothing about the lyrics screamed happy song. But fuck-- it felt cathartic.
"How I wish, how I wish you were here.
We're just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl, year after year,
Running over the same old ground.
What have we found?
The same old fears.
Wish you were here."
When he finished, he chuckled, "Sorry. I've been keeping myself sane by singing while I traveled. Seemed less suspicious than talking to myself."
Lydia glanced over at him, well more specifically his hand as he ran it through his hair. Her eyes caught sight of the band on his ring finger. "Don't be. You have a nice voice. I was an idiot when I fled, forgot to pack a phone charger. I forgot how boring driving can be without music. Were you like a music teacher or something?"
"No," he laughed, "I was a cop. You?"
"Emergency room physician."
He couldn't hold back the awkward laugh that built in his throat and erupted from his mouth. "God, I wish we'd crossed paths in Grand Junction. The whole reason I am traveling alone is because my buddy was an idiot and wound up with a compound tibia fracture. A group of us went to search a hospital for some supplies, and well...Ragers." He sighed, "They all think I'm dead."
"That's terrible." She actually sounded, genuinely concerned. "Your wife is probably beside herself. You got kids too?"
"Wait what? I don't have- How do you-" He looked down at his hand. "Oh right. Well...kind of. No, we don't have kids, but I am trying to get back to him."
Lydia flushed in embarrassment. "Sorry, I just-"
"No, don't worry about it. How about you?"
"Single. I found dating too difficult with the work schedule. I just finished up my internship last year, and- well you were a cop. The hours can suck."
"What's his name, your husband?"
"Stiles." Smiling, he looked over at her, "It's a nickname. His given name is Polish, and well, he hates it. So we don't use it." Derek sighed, "He'd make a much better traveling companion than I. He never stops talking."
"That has to get annoying."
Derek shook his head. "Actually? I love it. It's nice not having to think of something to say, and I find his words soothing. Sort of you know, a distraction from my thoughts, and he's so smart. He knows so much shit that I always thought was useless until, well, Ragers happened."
Lydia nodded. "I can see that. I imagine as a cop you saw a lot of bad things."
"Not really. Small town. I lost my family at young age, and sometimes it just messes with me. You know?" Derek looked out the window, longing for the tangential rambling of his husband. The story, Derek imagined, would start off about his neighbors dog, before diverging into a tale about his neighbor's recent trip to the drugstore or something, before moving on to how pharmaceutical companies send expired drugs to other countries, and he would end the story talking about the history of male circumcision (not that Derek ever wanted to know about any of that). Really, it didn't matter what Stiles said, the sound of his voice put him at ease.
I'll get there. We'll be together again; I promise. Don't give up.