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When There's Nothing Left to Burn

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There’s a point, when the fires have been burning for weeks, where the smoke just becomes air. It’s not that it clears up, or that it becomes easier to breathe. People... accept it. That is the air now, that is how it will be every time you inhale. It’s not out of the ordinary any more.

It would be as predictable as the sun rising, but suddenly that doesn’t seem so sure anymore.

 

The ash in the air turned everything a dark grey. Even the rivers held piles of soot. Washing was the same as smearing new dirt over old. Some might get lost in the exchange, or because of friction, but it was mostly accidental. It didn’t stop Audrey.

She'd left her worn pack, stuffed with scrounged food and a waterproof blanket, on the bank of the river. Her gun she held in one hand out of the water, even though she had crouched out of sight, along the bank, for thirty minutes beforehand, scanning back and forth for others. No such thing as too careful. She’d learned that in Mississippi, even before the fires, before the beginning of the end. It was odd thinking about a time before now--it was fuzzy, as though it was a picture that had gotten wet before it was developed. She rubbed her eyes with the water quickly and switched the gun between hands.

 

As she tried to air dry she heard a branch crack behind her. She whirled around, gun at the ready. A man sat in the clearing, broken stick in his hands.

I did that so you’d know that I wasn’t trying to sneak up on you, he said. I’m just naturally quiet.

Audrey narrowed her eyes and kept her gun pointed at him.

I can up while you were in the water but I didn’t want to startle you, he added. He scratched his head. I-I, um, I didn’t watch you though. Um. Hold on a sec.

He looked at her for permission for something. She nodded tersely.

Duke, he called, raising his voice. Duke.

Another man crashed through the brush, startling birds and any animals left.

Where the fuck were you, he said, I almost le-. He stopped, looking at the man on the ground and then back up to the woman with a gun, then tugged his ponytail. Goddamn it, Nathan, what did you get us into now?

Me, Nathan said, I’m not the one who tried to trade his knife to a Reaver.

And I’ve told you again and again, I don’t get your stupid nerd reference. Who’s your friend?

We haven’t exactly been introduced yet.

Audrey, she said. The name’s Audrey. Forgive me if I don’t exactly seem ecstatic to see y'all.

Are you on your own, Duke asked curiously.

Audrey grabbed her pack and began to back away.

No, no, not like that, he said hurriedly, putting his hand up to stop her. It’s just... we haven’t met anyone who travels alone.

Well, we’ve met some post-mortem, Nathan corrected.

And we wouldn’t expect to see a woman.

Yeah, she answered finally, reluctantly. Couldn’t trust anyone I knew at home either.

The two men looked at each other for a minute while Audrey shifted nervously, then turned back to her.

We’d like to offer you a proposition, Nathan started.

Oh god, bleeding heart Wuornos strikes again, Duke said with head in hand.

We’re going to camp here for the night, make a fire, cook up some food, Nathan added. I’m a terrible cook, but Duke usually takes care of that. And if you feel comfortable, you can bunk here too and come with us in the morning. If not, you can take off while we’re sleeping, no questions asked.

Audrey edged forward carefully, eyeing the two of them. She crouched down at eye level.

Where are you going, she asked.

Nathan blinked. Maine, he answered. You?

She shrugged. Anywhere, everywhere, she said. Gotta keep moving.

There’s a place there, Nathan explained. Where the trees don’t burn, and the water’s clean.

She looked at him skeptically, and shifted her weight from one foot to another. I’ve got a feeling about you, she said roughly. I can judge people well, I’ve always had that, and I think... I think you’re okay. You and Captain Jack Sparrow over there.

One ponytail and everyone’s a critic, Duke mumbled.

So I guess I'm going to Maine.

 

They made it through Indiana fine. They hit some trouble in West Virginia--lots of people with shotguns--but people needed ammunition for defense more than they needed to kill them and the three of them were good at protecting each other. Nathan took the watch and Duke made the meals and Audrey kept them going smoothly. She'd cook sometimes, or take over when Nathan started getting dark circles under his eyes, and she was good at finding food.

It wasn’t always easy, but it worked.

They were right, she realized, she had never seen another loner. And women were few and far between. She wondered if she’d still be alive without them and then Duke came to tell her dinner was ready so she couldn’t think about it anymore. It didn’t matter anyway, all that mattered was that she was alive. They ate and laughed together. Quietly, as not to arise unwanted attention, but they laughed.

Duke teased Nathan about a bug that had fallen out of his hair and Nathan called Duke an appearance-obsessed fancylady and Audrey laughed so hard she cried and the boys grinned at having pleased her and they slept on the hard ground under the smoke covered moon.

 

Duke died in Massachusetts.

They’d been following the road from half a mile off, trying to keep to a direction without mixing with the others who traveled back and forth.

Duke had gone off a bit to check how far they were off, just to make sure they weren’t getting too far away. But someone had seen him. Part of a group had seen him.

When he spotted Nathan and Audrey amongst the trees, waiting for him, he grinned and raised his hand to wave and opened his mouth to say something.
That’s when the bullet went through his head.

A car backfiring, Audrey thought, before realizing that they weren’t next to the road and that there weren’t cars that worked anymore.

Duke toppled to the ground and the blood pooled about him and the dirt tried to soak it up. Audrey gasped. Nathan froze, then peered over the logs towards his friend.

I didn’t know that much blood could fit in the body, he said flatly, quietly, turning to Audrey. I mean I guess I knew how much. But it’s different seeing it come out. On the ground. Around him.

Nathan, she said, they’re coming. Men, a group of them, strode out from behind the trees, in the direction of the road. They carried guns and packs stuffed with the belongings of others. She pulled her revolver out from her pocket and held it towards the ground.

He stared blankly at her.

MOVE, she whisperyelled, pushing him to the ground, behind a tree.

The men, hearing the leaves crackle, stopped and waited, guns at the ready. The forest fell silent. After a few minutes, they went back to clearing out Duke’s body. He didn’t carry much on him, at least. The majority of the stuff was in Nathan’s pack. Then they went back to the road.

As their voices trailed away, Audrey stood up, and pulled Nathan with her.

He stood like a rag doll, floppy and loose, unsure what to do with his limbs now that his world had fallen apart. She looked up at him for a moment, and nestled her head underneath his chin, hugging him tightly. She could feel him tense up.

It’s okay, she muttered, it’ll be okay.

He stood stiffly for a moment before folding her into his embrace. She felt his silent tears splash onto her cheeks and held him close.

We were almost there, he said. He was almost there.

 

They took the day to dig him a grave with the small shovel they carried. They buried him just below the surface and covered it with branches and leaves to try to keep the animals away. Then they left.

 

When they got to Maine, the water became clearer. They had begun to travel along the coastline. Easier to see people, he said. We’ll know who’s approaching.
The water went from a dark grey to a foggy blue. One day Audrey even saw something swimming in it, though Nathan told her it must have been her imagination, that nothing was living in there anymore. When they saw the distinct red flash of the lobster, he fell silent.

They meet people who live in actual houses, who greet them with apples instead of the business end of a shotgun. The road is clean and clear of people.

 

And the air. It’s not that it’s fresh, it’s just that it’s... not smoke. The trees wouldn’t burn, the people say. Not in Haven.
They go deeper, past the people, and the road. Even if everyone is friendly, Nathan says, I don’t want to live near them. People have done enough. Audrey nods and they keep walking.

 

When they find the clearing, Audrey is already intoxicated by the pine scent. She’s made up her mind that they’re going to stop there before they even see the cabin.
It’s like it was left there just for them. There’s a stream nearby, and the clearing is wide enough that they could see someone coming. The log cabin has windows, somehow, that haven’t been damaged in the many years since it was built. There’s a bed, and a smaller bed, and even a fireplace. The kitchen area has an icebox and a woodburning stove. It’s all dirty, of course, but the old things tend to work the best nowadays, Audrey has found. One room, but it’s a solid, sturdy room that will serve them well.

Nathan pokes around, trying to find everything that could go wrong, the inevitable flaw, until Audrey lays a hand on his shoulder. It’s too good to be true, he says, turning to her.

I’ve got a feeling about this place, she says.

 

Nathan pulls seeds out of his pack that he’s been saving just in case, hiding them from her and Duke all this time, but it’s Audrey who has the green thumb. The little apple trees grow strong and true, and Nathan makes a makeshift trellis for the peas. She even finds wild strawberries and nurses them back to life.
He hunts sometimes, but they’re not big meat eaters. If they need it, the river nearby has a fish population that seems to have been unaffected. Told you, she says. I knew there were fish here. He laughs for the first time since they’d stopped moving.

 

She thinks she hears noises sometimes, but it’s animals, or the trees creaking in the wind. Not others. The people in the town leave them to themselves. She and Nathan don't even know if they know about the cabin. It's better that they don't. She asks herself if she could shoot on sight and answers immediately. Yes. To protect the land, to protect Nathan? There’s no other answer.

Booms echo from far away. Audrey imagines she can hear screams, but she knows it’s just her memory trying to create her future for her. She won’t let it. Because it’s different here. The booms are there and they keep happening. But not in Haven. Never in Haven.

It’s safe there. They aren’t running anymore, not trying to chase anything down. It’s not even subsistence farming and hunting after a while. There's food to spare, a concept that's hard to grasp for both of them. Meals leave them wanting until they realize they've built up a storage and don’t have to go day by day. They been living hand to mouth for so long, they didn’t realize. Now they can eat whatever they want.

Before, there were no decisions. Decisions meant hesitation, death. But now when she gets up, she can go fishing, or collect animal fertilizer for the garden. For breakfast she can have berries or Nathan’s ‘root porridge’, tasteless but filling, or even trout. They have choices now. It’s not an escape. It’s a life.

 

Audrey looked out the window to see a stag, white against the black of the night, against the trees. She stood and watched him as he did her before she lifted her hand to wave to him. He lowered his head and turned and walked back into the woods, disappearing amongst the pines. Audrey sighed. She sat down next to Nathan in front of the fire and stared at him as he gazed blankly into the fire, lost. After a while, she lifted her hand and ran it along his cheek, startling him out of his stupor. His eyes went wide.

Nathan, she said, we’re safe now.

He brushed her hair back from her face and leaned in hesitantly. Their lips met, pressure hard and sweet. Without coming up for air, he swept away the dirt on the floor, then laid her down gently, in contrast to the desperation of his mouth. She pressed her tongue through his kiss, exploring his mouth, then moved back to bite at his lip. His breath caught in his throat and he stopped.

Breathing heavily, he pulled back, staring straight into her eyes. I-is this really what you want, he said. We don’t, we don’t have to do this. Is it... okay with you?
She smiled and reached up and ran her thumb along his jaw. He shivered.

I love you, you idiot. Do you love me?

Yes. Of course I do. Since the moment I met you. Since you lowered your weapon. Forever, Audrey.

Glad we're on the same page, then.

She began to pull his flannel off.

 

She went out to pick berries from the garden. About a half hour later, she suddenly felt tired and sat down in the dirt. A white tailed deer peeked out from behind the trees, decided that the food was worth the risk of her, and stepped its way towards the garden hesitantly. Audrey froze, a berry halfway to her mouth. The doe nibbled on the leaves of the plants. It kept a wary eye on her, sitting amongst the garden.

It’s been months since I’ve seen a deer, she thought. Not since... she did the calculations in her head. Her eyes widened and she dropped the berry back into the basket.

Fuck, she said aloud. The doe, startled, sprinted away.

 

I kind of assumed... She trailed off.

What, he said.

I guess I assumed it wouldn’t matter because we’d be dead by now.

He said nothing.

I didn’t want to hope, she explained. Preparing for this, trying to prevent this, would have been hoping.

He moved his arm to stroke her hair gently. She shifted to sink into his side.

Diseases spread all the time, she said. People come, looking for food or ammunition. The crops might fail.

She turned to look up at him.

Did you ever see Band of Brothers? That miniseries that was on TV about the World War II soldiers? He thought for a second and nodded.

Well, one of the things they say, and I’m paraphrasing here, is that you can’t be brave or do what you need to do unless you accept the fact that you’re already dead. I’d accepted it.

That makes sense.

She smiled and let her head back down. Without looking up at him, she said, so?

Hmm, he asked, gently rubbing her earlobe between his fingers.

Y-you, um, haven’t said what you think. She lowered her eyes and played with a worm bit of his jeans.

He stopped abruptly and took her shoulders and turned her around to face him. She looked down, and then back at him.

Let me make this as clear as I possibly can, he said seriously, staring into her eyes. I am ecstatic. I cannot imagine anything that I would rather have happen right now. I could not have thought that I could be happier than before, but our baby has blown my mind away. You are going to make an amazing mother. He (or she) will have an amazing childhood, in the most beautiful place in the world. He will laugh and he will learn and he will love and he will live. As I breathe, I swear to you, he will live.

She beamed back at him.

Does that make my feelings clear?

She nodded thoughtfully. I think that just about does the job.

Good.

She laid her head in his lap.

You better not spoil him, she said dreamily.

Try to stop me, he replied. This child will want for nothing.

They sat in silence for a while before he fidgeted.

What makes you think the baby is a boy?

She smiled and rubbed her belly, drawing lines with her long, delicate fingers.

It’s like an energy, she said. I could be wrong.

But you don’t think you are, he said slowly.

No, she said. I don’t think I am.

 

They named him Garland, after his father’s father.