"I would like a Barbie for my birthday," said my young sister one day, in the words that would start a spiral of change. I looked up from my task of packing a small bag and stared at her. I took in the slight tremble of her chin, the watery gaze of her dark eyes, the way she tugged at a strand of her auburn hair. She matched me in more ways than just looks. She, like me, did not ask unnecessary questions. We didn't rely on others for stuff, but rather put suggestions out there and hoped that they would be taken.
"Why?" I asked after a moment of staring across the cave, where her face was illuminated oddly by the flickering, dying bulb in the lamp.
"Old Man told me about them. He says every girl had one once," she said.
Alarm. It was a common emotion. It was the sort that made my eyes widen and my voice grow sharp.
"How did Old Man tell you this?" I demanded.
"He doesn't know where we live. I met him while hunting and talked to him," said Tamara, her eyes hardly blinking. She knew me, she knew my rules, and she knew my concerns. She knew the requirements for staying alive.
I caught myself as I started to run my hand through my short fringe of hair. Lowering my hand, I returned to my task, trying to fit several bottles into a too small, too worn out backpack. "Old Man can't have known every girl," I said finally.
"But you had one Audrey?" she said, her voice turning it into a question. Of course she would ask that. I thought about it. I had one. I remembered it. It had been a gymnastics Barbie, the sort with arms and legs that could bend. My mother had provided me with it. It was a gift, or perhaps an apology for life. Not but a few weeks later I had lost it. It had been the chaos of the Coming, with too much happening around me. I dropped it so that I could grab Tamara and run. It was one of those strange, clear memories.
Everything else had faded into a dreamlike haze, but I could still remember going to Tamara, dropping that last tie to normal life, and taking her away from that terrible chaos. There were other parts of that memory too, but those had blurred together. Running, people all around, what seemed like fire raining from the sky, cars exploding, the first death I had ever seen as a man in front of us burst into flames. Some of them were startlingly clear, imprinted on my mind like the burning form of the man. Others, like the fights that broke out over cars, the shattering of windows, the streams of people all leaving the city, faded. Through it all, though, I had carried Tamara.
Back in the present, I really looked at her. Her dark eyes were still wide and unblinking, underlined by the dark bruises of sleepless times. Her face was thin, almost hollow seeming at times, hunger carving odd channels into it. Her hair was short and ratty, and the flickering light kept catching flashes of the red in it. Her face was dirty, and under that layer of dirt it was solemn. She seemed older than her seven years. The way she sat, the bow she was making that now rested waiting in her lap, with her small hands placed softly on the sleek wood, and especially the look in her eyes. It was all so serious, so adult. And yet under that there was that slight tremble in her chin and that shine in her eyes. She hid it well, but when my sister was sad, I could always find it. That decided it for me.
"I'll look for one," I said, "but no promises." That moment then, as she lunged over to hug me with a smile bursting on her face, was possibly the closest I had ever seen to her being a true child.
The coming was the name I heard most often for that day, six years in the past. I've heard other names for it too: The arrival, The Damn Worst Day Ever, The Visit. The End. Whatever name it was given, the reality remained the same. Aliens came. Thousands of now dead scifi freaks rejoiced all over the world. Then the aliens attacked and people realized that it wasn't such a good thing after all. I had been in a city at the time of the attack. Tamara and I were alone in our home. Our parents were gone somewhere, perhaps at observatories gawking at the large shapes that had come from seemingly nowhere, perhaps downtown at work, perhaps passed out on the couch in positions that mirrored so many other days. I didn't really remember. I had told so many different versions of where they were that day that now, years later, any of them could have been the truth. They didn't matter though. All that had mattered was Tamara.
Later, on the run with her, we had heard bits and pieces of the story. Some soldiers told us that they weren't just attacking cities. Dams, power plants, farms, and even major roads were all under assault too. We stayed off the roads and away from anywhere populated after that. Several people from the border, Canada or Mexico or somewhere, told us that the aliens were blowing up cars and killing anyone who ran away. Some conspiracy nuts in the desert told us that they were taking hostages, experiments. These reports were stretched out over the course of weeks, over countless hitchhiked rides, long hikes, and fearful nights. We joined groups of fleeing people, we split off and went on our own, we always stayed moving. It kept us alive.
Months later we heard they had left. Left our world in chaos. Left bridges and roads destroyed, towns burned, and diseases running rampant. Throughout it all, through the chaos of them being there, through the chaos and fear as illness spread like wildfire after, Tamara and I kept moving. We hid, we moved, we hid. Most importantly, we lived.
The habits of hiding and moving stuck with us still. It was why I stepped out of the cave into a forest rather than the desert landscape from a month earlier. It was why I had to stop and locate each and every unfamiliar sound, giving it a place and reason before relaxing. It might have been a lovely day. The sun painting the green pine trees with a golden glow. The trees themselves stretching high into the morning sky, with noise from all sorts of small creatures coming from them. The scent of pinesap perfuming the air. The mountain was full of life, rampant and wild, eagerly growing over every sign of the humans once dwelling there.
Still, I didn't know all the sounds immediately. I was still learning the subtle movements and warning signs. I was nervous, even though I knew none of the others on the mountain had the skill to find Tamara and I.
I was cautious. I had to be to stay alive. So it was that as I set out into the vast undergrowth of the waking forest, I walked on the balls of my feet, slow, steady, and silent. I took habitual care to step around the scatterings of brown needles and leaves that littered the forest floor, and favored the rocks and other more solid spots. When a strain of voices came into my hearing, I froze.
You couldn't really trust people. You never could; not before the coming and certainly not after. Everyone had an ugly side. It was a side that would fill your view, spitting and screaming as your mother cried somewhere in the distance. It was a side that would lead you to trust it, only to rear its ugliness by stealing away when you slept, taking with it the only food and milk you had been able to find for your baby sister.
You couldn't trust people, not without countless bits of evidence to show that their ugly side wasn't so bad. You could tolerate people though, and so it was that I felt the tension leave my shoulders when I recognized the distant voices murmuring away. I exhaled and loosened my grip on my bow at the same time, then paused for a moment more before creeping forward.
The voices belonged to a group of people, all scattered about a clearing in the forest. Two of them were hardened soldier types, hair chopped short and combat boots still laced up. They had been part of the original fights during the coming, or so they said. Now they lived on the mountain, strolling about with their fancy guns and deadly toys. There were more than two on the mountain, but these two were the only ones who came to things like this.
There were others there too; a man with his face half hidden under a cowboy hat, always bragging about the horse that only I knew he didn't actually have back at his hideout. A tall, gawky, tattooed man. That one claimed to have lived in the city below the mountain, fleeing to a treehouse on the south side of the mountain only after the diseases broke out so many years before. He could pick a lock fast as could be, and often came in use in times like now. There was also a young couple, neither more than twenty years of age, each with light eyes and equally light hair. They lived near the fringes of the old city, and always knew who was most recently trying to occupy it.
Then there were the two newest arrivals, both just walking out of the tree line only a few feet from where I crouched, their feet rustling about in the clearing's tall yellowed grass. One was a dark haired lad whom I had only seen a time or two before. The other was Mike, complete with wild, curly hair, bright eyes that always seemed amused, and a laugh that could make the hardest of folk smile.
It was only after these two finished greeting the others that I rose from my concealment and drifted into the clearing. One of the soldiers was the first to notice my presence.
"Gods Girl!" He jumped up from where he was sitting. "Can you be any quieter?"
don't go bashing our Audrey now," replied Mike, turning to smile at me. I allowed myself to return the smile before stating, "They haven't left yet." I knew the answer already, but wanted to hear confirmation.
We were waiting on a group of Claimers, folk whom had gathered together and started a nation called "The Republic of Prescott". People like them were always trying to claim new lands, thus the name. There wasn't much to stop them from doing it either. Most of the world leaders had been killed during the Coming. Add to that a lack of communication when satellites and power plants were taken out, plus a general panic and mass migration away from cities during the diseased times, and there wasn't much government left. Some folk realized this fairly quickly after the Coming, and so it was that for the last six years groups like the dear old "Republic of Prescott" formed and tried to claim up whatever land they could.
They also got into wars. At that very moment, the Republic of Prescott was fighting a cult of religious fanatics, the type that make even normal religious folk cringe, to the east. They had been trying to claim Flagstaff, but over the last few weeks more and more of their advanced party were being called away for the war effort. Due to the rapid pace of this, they were leaving behind a lot of their supplies. Sure, those supplies were locked up, but we had a good lock pick living on the mountain. And so it was, our group had formed to play a little 'finders keepers' on those supplies, creating a temporary alliance for the sake of safety in numbers. We just had to wait for the last group of people to leave. As they were going to be leaving by car, and cars were rare enough to have a very loud and distinctive noise to them, it would be pretty clear when they were gone.
"Naw," said the blonde woman. "Not yet. But it's just after dawn, so they should be packing up and leaving soon."
In the end, soon turned out to be almost an hour. It made me nervous to sit around so long. Normally I would be out hunting, scouting, planning my next move, or just tracking down and watching the other mountain people to ensure that all was safe for Tamara and I. Instead I made myself sit, leaned against a tree with pine needles digging into my bottom and the rough bark scratching my back. I watched the others talk and plan, acting as relaxed as could be.
When a small roar echoed from down the mountain, I was on my feet again in an instant, startling the others.
"They are leaving," I said. I moved from my spot and crossed the clearing, getting a little closer to the noise, though I knew at this distance it wouldn't matter. Cars were rare enough, the sound unheard for so long, that even the animals in the woods went temporarily silent. From the very edge of the clearing, you could see down into the city, a scattering of buildings, resting silent with several clear roads that the trees had yet to overcome. I saw the car a moment later, a small blue square that pulled onto what had once been a freeway and then sped away, swerving occasionally to avoid cracks and potholes that the distance hid from my sight.
"Looks like we can be going," said one of the soldiers, his combat boots cracking the leaves and needles as he came over to look. I nodded. Finally.
The hike down the mountain was about a half hours trek, and far too noisy for my taste. I was confident that I knew of the existence of everyone on the mountain who might hear us, but still I caught myself cringing as the other's voices rose and fell, as they stomped along and somehow managed to find every branch to crack and ever loud pile of dead leaves to step in. As often when I was with such a group, I found myself wondering just how they had survived so long.
The only silent one in the group was Mike, and while he may not be as stealthy as I was, he knew how to use other noises to cover his own steps. Or so I realized once again as he slipped behind me and tugged on a piece of my hair.
"You cut it," he said. I tensed and stopped. I took in his scent, minty like the soap he had pillaged last time we pulled a raid, and his voice. I stilled the hand that had been speeding towards my knife and held back my instinct driven urge to strike out at the person who dared to come so close.
"I would have shaved it," I said, trying to keep the tension from my voice. I liked Mike. I had spent many a nice night with him in the old tower on the top of the mountain. But I didn't like people being close to me, and even when it was Mike who stood breathing down my neck, I couldn't be comfortable. "I couldn't find any razors," I added.
"Well I'm glad you didn't shave it," he said. "I like your hair." As he spoke, he sniffed at it, loudly. I felt heat rush to my face, and I suspected that my skin was probably matching the shade of that very hair he was so teasingly playing with. I started walking again, and he followed.
"So, I have a proposition for you," he said after a few moments of walking beside me. I eyed him warily and waited for him to continue. Propositions were rarely good. "My mother wants you and Tamara to come join our group."
"No," I said, a little too loudly. A few of the others glanced back at us, curious. "I don't do groups," I continued. My voice rose in pitch on that last part. I was panicking, I realized briefly. Panicking as my heart raced and my palms broke into a sweat. Mike noticed. I could tell in the way he looked at me, puzzlement turning to worry. Then he blinked and looked forward.
"It's okay," he said. I could tell he was trying to sound casual, but I could also see the looks he kept shooting my way. "We were just thinking that, you know, we could help each other. You and Tamara are some of the stealthiest people we have ever met, and even Tam can already outshoot some of the adults in the group. Plus, then you guys would have access to people who know medicine, people who know other ways to keep a group alive and safe. The world's changing and safety in numbers isn't so much of a joke concept anymore."
I didn't reply. Instead I stared straight ahead, my eyes locked on the faded trail that had once been a large mountain path. I didn't do groups. Groups had too many people, too many chances to be betrayed. Groups couldn't sneak around as silently, couldn't do what was needed to remain alive. During the first years after the Coming I had seen too many groups turn on each other, too many people betray each other for money or food. Mike's people might be different, but that changed nothing. I didn't do groups.
Luckily, Mike dropped the subject after that. He knew me enough now to understand that pressing the subject would just make things worse. I let him pretend as if he hadn't just asked me to give up my freedom, and pretended myself that all was well.
The sun was still low in the sky by the time we reached the city edge. The city itself wasn't much to look at; old buildings, large areas of nothing but rubble, the dark remains of asphalt streets. Like most places, time was showing in how nature had raced to take over the city. In the absence of humans, most of the roads and sidewalks were laced with reaching weeds. Small trees stood proudly in most places, having taken root some six years before. Even some flowers were abundant, somehow having survived years before. These had spread far from their original garden positions, and now grew in abundance in every plot of dirt and in the cracks in the ground, fighting the weeds for space to live and filling the air with their sickly sweet scents.
I had seen cities still fully intact, and I had seen cities completely destroyed by the Coming and swallowed by nature after. This small city fell somewhere in the middle. It was just there enough that some people still tried to come and reclaim it, but damaged enough that it almost wasn't worth it.
We made it to our goal with ease; it was an old two story office building. The doors were locked, but for our party that was no obstacle. We just had to wait a bit as the talented picked at the locks. I chose that moment to talk to Mike.
"This town is rather small," I said.
"Yep," he replied, looking at me with a smirk. We were in the center of it, and it had only taken about twenty minutes to get there.
"It's bound to have a Walmart or Target though," I said, expectantly.
"Maybe," he replied. He was still smirking. I scowled. He knew what he was doing. Still, I didn't know the town itself very well, and as he had been in the area longer, he would know more.
"Does it?" I asked, finally relenting.
"See, questions aren't so hard," was his answer. Seeing my scowl, he beamed and added, "And yes, it does. Why?"
"No reason," I said, fighting to keep my scowl plastered on. It was hard to remain angry with Mike when he was smiling at me so cheerfully. He was just one of those people who could make life a little better with a smile.
"All the food and medicine would have been raided from it years ago. So why?" he persisted. He was also insufferably persistent. To think that just last night I had found it cute.
"No reason," I said.
"I'm going to keep asking until you tell. So why?" he said.
I sighed and ran a hand through my fringe. "Tamara wants a Barbie for her birthday."
"A Barbie. A plastic doll like they played with before the Coming." I said.
"Did you have one?" asked Mike.
"Why?" I asked, crossing my arms.
"Because, I can't imagine what type it would be. A tough one probably. You probably played all types of adventure stuff with it I bet. Indiana Audrey Barbie," he grinned, poking me as he spoke.
I swatted at his hand. "It was a gymnastics one if you must know, and she was a superhero, not an explorer."
He laughed. And then he surprised me. "Well, we'll just have to scurry on over to the Target before we head back and get one then, won't we?" said Mike. I looked at him. He continued to smile at me, all white teeth with his blonde hair curling down in his eyes. I couldn't understand why I was repeatedly attracted to this carefree piece of chaos.
"We?" I asked.
"Yes. We. I'm not going to let my short haired girl wander around a strange town. They say cities are dangerous places for pretty young ladies," he said, his face going solemn for about half a second before his grin broke through again. I snorted. This was why I liked him.
"Fine," I said. "We'll go after the raid."
"If you two are done talkin', we are in," called the lock pick from the front of the group. And sure enough, the door was open. That set into motion a flurry of activity that carried through the next hour. We headed in and sought out supplies. The place was a treasure trove of stuff, with medicine containers full, and boxes of canned food piled in several rooms. Once the best supplies were found, they were dragged to the bottom of the building, and divided up, with every member keeping a watchful eye out to ensure that they got their fair share. I received a good amount of canned goods, enough to ensure that my pack weighed heavy on my back. I also received a small amount of medicine, ranging from a small container of Advil to a packet of cold medicine. It was a lot, far more supplies than I usually could claim, yet I knew they wouldn't last. Still, there was nothing I could do about that, not when it was simply Tamara and I living together.
The supplies had dwindled and everybody had bulging packs within a short while. It was then that Mike again brought up the group subject.
"Our group really doesn't need that many raided supplies. We are big enough that we can move closer to occupied places when needed and start up trades. It's one of the advantages to being in a good group." He said, sidling up to me as I worked to pull the tough backpack zipper closed.
"Then why come at all?" I asked, forgetting my dislike of questions as I fought with the zipper and the frustration it brought. I needed a new pack, but none of those had been found this time around.
"Because, you are here," said Mike. I looked at him, catching his eyes and staring into them until he broke the gaze. "And because turning down supplies is a crazy thing to do even when you don't need many," he relented. I forced the zipper the rest of the way closed and glanced around at the group.
Day was coming steadily on, and with it came the heat of summer. Soon everybody here would be heading away, off to their own hidey holes around the mountain. It was only a mutual need, a safety in numbers, a knowledge that helping each other with this could earn you a favor later on in life, that kept the weak alliance together. It would be nice to be part of something else. To be part of a group that was tied together by more than just mutual convenience. But I didn't do groups. Never had and never would.
It was something I kept telling myself, but I was starting to wonder why. Mike's group was a big one, and in most regards a safe one. I had watched them from the shelter of the trees many times. They were about thirty strong, large enough to fight off trouble that might come, yet small enough to pack up and move away in virtual silence when a situation called for it. They had an assortment of people; past doctors, soldiers, a businessman who could still get a good bargain in trades. They had things good in that group, and they had a system set up that worked. Two more hunters, two skilled scouts and trained sets of eyes would only make thing better for them. And perhaps things would be better for those two also if they could rely on others.
"I get it though," said Mike. "Your inner beast is afraid of big crowds."
I frowned. "My inner beast is growling at you."
"Is that the purring sound I've been hearing?" he asked. I swiped at him in a halfhearted punch, and he easily skipped back a few steps to dodge it. It was times like that, when Mike was being so insistent and irritating, so funny and attractive, that I let my guard drop and started to think about changing my pattern in life. I was getting soft, considering groups. I had to stop it.
I got up and slung on my backpack. It would be time to be heading back. In the cave, with only Tamara as company, I would be able to get a clear, objective view again.
"They are returning! Coming from the south," cried a voice. I glance over to see one of the soldiers, David, whom had been picked as our lookout. He stood at the base of the stairs, his chest heaving as he took in breaths, clearly having sprinted from his lookout a floor above. His harried presence was responded to with a slew of questions.
"Why would they come back?"
"The republic people?"
"Why are they back?"
"How long do we have?" I asked, my voice cutting through the others.
"They are about two blocks away," replied David. He seemed relieved to have a relevant question to answer.
"We need to go now then. I'll stay as rear scout," I said. We may have had a large group, a safety in numbers, but if the people returning had guns, then we wouldn't get out unscathed. It was better to leave now, while we all had what we wanted, and leave no one for the incoming group to find.
"I'll accompany her," added Mike, surprising me. When I looked at him, he seemed worried, with his brows drawn over his eyes and lines finding their way to his forehead. When he saw me looking he grinned again, but I had already seen his worry.
To the others though, the matter was settled, they quickly filed out, all the while muttering pointless questions to each other and glad not to be the ones remaining behind.
I glanced around the room. We tried to be prepared for this. It was why we kept a look out. Still, in the past raids like this, the targets had never returned. We had gotten relaxed, and so we were careless. The signs of our presence were everywhere, from dirt tracked in to open boxes scattered about and emptied. There was no time to do anything about that though. I ran my hand through my hair and groaned.
"We'll have to just make sure they don't trace this back to the mountain," said Mike.
I nodded and started for the door myself. By the time Mike and I stepped out, the others were gone, having vanished away amid the wooden buildings of the city. From around the corner, though, voices were coming. I glanced around, and my eyes settled on the rugged ruins of a nearby stone and wood building, its cracked and splintered walls just high enough to provide cover and still let us spy on what was occurring.
I darted over, and Mike followed. Carefully, through a crack in the ruined walls, I watched as the men, bearing the green bandanas of the Republic of Prescott, rounded the corner. I listened too, and heard the way their grumbling complaints faltered and stopped. I watched as they took note of the door, unlocked and partially open. I cursed myself; had I closed it we could have bought some time. Still, I watched as they hurried in and listened as shouts of anger and alarm rose up. They knew now that we had been there, and the true test, to see if they would find our home, was next to come.
They were determined. This was the only conclusion I could reach as I leaned against the old walls of a bookstore, with sweat worming its way down my back and the sun now high in the sky. Determined, but not looking at all in the right spot. Of course, that was a result of my efforts. They had argued at first. They had debated what to do, and were arguing over whether the break in was due to the mountain people or not.
The good part was that they clearly were unsure who all was on the mountain and where to find them. The bad thing was, if they did decide to search the mountain, they would be sure to find at least some sign of life leading to a hideout. Not everyone was as careful as Tamara and I. I knew that to let them find the way to anyone on the mountain would not be a good thing, and so I distracted them.
Ignoring Mike's silent protests, I had slid away from our ruined hideout, and circled wide around the building. Then, when I was on the far side of the building, I kicked a few rocks and let them notice me. They took in the sight of me, my filthy freckled face and wild hair, my pack bulging with can shaped indents, and gave chase. Even weighed down with the load I carried, I was faster than them. I had survived my life by being able to run, and so run I did. I sped past shiny windows and old model displays, swerved around the ruins of colorful old cars on the road, and sprinted down the stretches of dark asphalt, my feet pounding on the ground. I led them in circles, and all the time took them slowly opposite of the mountain. Then, when I knew I was tiring, I lost them. I darted into an alley, climbed to the low roof of a stripped empty Circle K, and slid down the dark tiles on the other side, only to glide silently around the other way, stopping behind a bookstore half a block away. From my perch behind the bookstore, as I rested against the wall and silently dragged in lungfuls of air while keeping one eye on the action around the corner, I could still see them searching.
They were angry, and probably rightfully so. Still, they should have known better. You don't lock up a pile of supplies and abandon them, and then expect them to stay there. Things didn't work that way.
As they circled around the Circle K another time, I wiped back my damp hair and sighed. I would rather not spend a day out in the sweltering sun. I wasn't going to leave until they did though.
A footstep from behind made me look frantically back, only to relax as I saw it was Mike. He was grinning. I was starting to wonder if that was the only expression his face was capable of.
"You really riled them up," he whispered.
"I was listening a little closer. I don't think they will try long. They seem to be following a schedule, and are already far behind." He added.
"They shouldn't have come back," I said. Especially without their nice, loud, warning giving car.
"Flat tire and no spare a mile out of town," he said. I sighed. Of course their oversight would mean trouble for us.
"I say we leave them a present," Mike added. I spun to stare at him. Was he serious? "Get a tire from the Target and leave it near where they are searching," he continued.
"No," I hissed. "That's too risky. And stupid."
"But it would be funny," he insisted. And then he looked around. "The Target is a block away. Keep an eye on them and I'll be back."
"Mike," I whispered, but he ignored me and walked away, pausing to glance around the corner before running silently off. He was being a fool. I groaned to myself and briefly leaned against the whitewashed wall again, eyes closed. He was being a fool and he was going to get killed. This was why I couldn't join his group. They were all like him, looking for chances to have fun and pull pranks even when it was risky. Telling stories and talking about old toys, when they could be focusing on survival. How they had survived so long, I couldn't say.
Time seemed to stretch out after that, long and worrisome, as I waited for Mike to make his foolish move. I knew from the position of the sun that not more than an hour could have passed, but still it seemed longer. I was worried about him, I realized. I liked him, him and all his foolish, silly pranks. He was kind, he was one of the few people I could trust. His ugly side was not much more than a rash of foolishness, some brash actions and careless deeds.
Mike had said the Target was not but a block away. It should not be taking an hour for him to get there and back. I shifted slightly from my new hiding spot, which now consisted of a fast food building drive through and several persistent bushes that had grown far from their original spots, and looked around. The men were still searching, just across the asphalt from me, wandering about on a stretch of green grass grown wild, though now it was only a halfhearted search and was accompanied by worn down grumbles.
The sun was high in the sky and beating down hard, and none of them liked it. Even I, who had spent weeks before the mountains in a desert, was getting vaguely overheated, with sweat coating every uncomfortable spot, and my mess of hair damp.
They were ready to write this off as an unfortunate event, and had slowly been shifting their focus from finding me to finding a tire. I could tell from the way they had started to pause by broken down cars, crouching down and arguing about the tires. Then I noticed Mike. He too was across the road from me, sliding around what had once been a library. His arms were wrapped around a large black tire, one that reached almost to his waist. It made sense to me then. They did have one of those large cars, the loud type with massive tires that could run over a person without pausing. He looked up and glanced around, the building's side being the only thing between him and the men.
Then he saw me and caught my frantic gaze with his own mischievous eyes. He winked, and then peaked around the side. When all the mens' backs were turned, he rolled the tire around and eased it down. Then he ran, turning and vanishing behind the building again.
The men were not the brightest. I had figured this out during the search for me when they completely skipped checking some of the most obvious places. Thus, it almost didn't surprise me when it took the men a good minute or so to notice the tire where there had previously been none. But notice it they finally did, and even from across the forlorn street, I could here their shouts of confusion as they attempted to get an answer from each other. After a good deal of bickering, they finally seemed to settle on a decision, with two of them taking the tire and rolling it back, while the others went to search for the giver of the tire.
"This is better than I remember TV being," whispered Mike when he slid beside me a few minutes later.
"Lucky you. I hardly remember the TV," I whispered back.
"You weren't missing out on much," he assured me before returning his eyes to the new search. Oddly enough, perhaps because it was Mike who said it, I believed him.
It took several hours for the group to decide to give up and leave. By then the one whom seemed to be their leader was practically purple with frustration. First they had to spend awhile more searching for the mysterious benefactor who left the tire. Then they had to debate over what to do about the supply depot. In the end they spent a good hour inside, and from what I could see through a few well-chosen windows, they were locking all the boxes in one room again. As if that would deter anyone. Finally they left, locking the door behind them again.
Then came a debate about who would have to roll the large tire, some more debate about other miniscule details, and they set out. Mike and I followed them, tracking them with care until they became dots in the distance on the freeway, with the pines towering up on either side.
"So, the Barbie," said Mike finally.
I swore. "Tamara's Barbie. I forgot," I said. I glanced up at the position of the sun. I was already in the town. Would it be worth it to still try and find one? Or was getting my precious burden of food back and checking on Tamara more important?
"Think she will like this?" he asked, pulling a perfectly packaged Gymnastics Barbie from his own backpack, complete with fake smile, stick straight blonde hair, and that perfectly patriotic outfit.
I stared at it, remembering. How many days had I played with that form, dressed one in those same styled clothes and ran around my home pretending that nothing was wrong, that I could be anything? How many times had it hid with me, squirreled away under the bed as people shouted in other rooms? I had only had the thing for a short while before the Coming, but I had loved it. I had forgotten how much it had hurt to give it up in order to save Tamara. But I hadn't been able to carry both, and Tamara had mattered more.
I hugged Mike then. "Thank you," I whispered into his pale hair. He just returned the hug and replied, "Of course. It's a hard world. We gotta help out each other sometimes."
I pulled away and took the toy, staring at it and then at him. I already knew that Tamara was going to love it, that within a day she would be out in the forest, hunting down Old Man to show him and beg a story from him. I already knew that things were different for her than me. She was friendly, she was kind. She liked people and wanted to trust them. And times were changing. This wasn't the Coming anymore. The Aliens were gone, off with whatever they had come for in the first place. Things were settling down, and a lot of groups were starting to slowly become legitimate. The diseases had passed long ago, and people were gathering again. Wandering about in such a large world alone, stealing to survive and keeping others at a distance wasn't always going to work.
"I'll talk to Tamara about the group," I said to Mike then, already knowing how when I told Tamara she would throw those thin arms around me and start crying from happiness. She would go on to become the life of the group, a breathe of fresh air in a group that was slowly settling into place, making the city its permanent home as it chose to grow and thrive.
And I could already tell, as Mike smiled at me, that this would be the right choice. It would be right for both Tamara, and as time went on and a grinning, mischievous soul always made life interesting, me. After all, life was always changing. The situations changed. People changed. And I changed with it, because moving with the change was often the best way to survive. And even more importantly, it was the best way to be happy.