Sally dropped to the ground, frantically looking for her torn shirt. “How dare you! Do you mind!” she shrieked.
He merely gave a laugh. “No, not at all.”
“I-” Sally shot her head up to yell at him when a girl from the same group of travelers ran up to her, holding out a shirt.
“I’m so sorry about Brett. Here, we have extra ones.” The girl stopped right in front of her, looking down. She was short, but fully grown, as far as Sally could tell. And her clothes were dirty and worn, like the other man, and probably herself. Sally took the shirt, still in shock, and slowly put it on.
The girl turned back and waved to the other travelers. “We have another survivor!” she called out. Then, she looked back at Sally and held her hand out. “My name is Josephine. What’s yours.”
Sally blinked and took a deep breath, thinking for a moment. She reached up and held the girl’s hand, then let it go. “I-its Sally… Sally MacIntosh…” she stuttered out.
Josephine smiled. “It’s nice to meet you, Sally.” Then, she turned and went back to the group, which had slowed to a halt behind the man. Sally got to her feet and brushed herself off, scowling at him, while she listened to Josephine introduce her to the other people.
The man grinned back at her. “Sorry about that, Sally.” He walked toward her, and held his hand out, like the girl had. “It’s Sally, right? Just never thought I would see a pair like those in quite some time,” he joked lightly.
Sally did not hesitate to punch him right in the jaw, gritting her teeth in anger. She was going to show the man what happened to perverts like him. She did not care if it was the end of the world, that kind of behavior was downright rude, and there was no place for men like him in this nuclear wasteland.
The perverted male clutched his cheek and cried out in surprise, which shocked Sally. She gasped as he stumbled backwards and fell down. His skin turned purple and blue where Sally had punched him, as a bruise quickly formed. Blood dripped from his nose and the tops of his gums. The man took a deep breath and spit at the dirt.
“Hey, back off!” Another male from the travelers rushed between Sally and the one she had injured, and he pushed her away. “Are you crazy?”
“Back away! And leave him alone, leave all of them alone,” he snapped at her. Then, he knelt down and began to unpack plastic wrapped gauze and antiseptic wipes, tending to the bleeding victim.
Sally held her breath, staring between the blood, and the travelers that were slowly approaching her, their eyes very accusing. She had barely tapped the man. Why was he bleeding?
“I… I-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-”
“It’s okay,” the shorter woman, Josephine, looked at Sally from the front of the group, “It’s not your fault. Brett’s… sick.”
Sally did not understand at first. Sick? If he was sick, then what was he doing out here? Then, Sally took a really good look at this… Brett. She studied his pale skin, and took notes of the small scratches and sores on his arms and the stained bandages on his legs. He was sick…?
Sally glanced up at Josephine again, when she realized the other woman was waiting for her response. This woman had similar bandages, and cuts and bruises. Then again, so did most of the travelers. They wore hats and beanies, and carried bags of different sizes. Their clothes hung off their bones, as if they were all walking coat hangers. Their bandages were either soaked or dirty, and their eyes had sunken back into their skulls, as if they had not slept in days.
Sally felt a shiver of disgust crawl down her spine at the sight of them all. She pulled her hands to herself, and looked at the dirt, instead. These people were all rather sickly looking…
… Because they were sick. She felt so stupid as the logic set in. These people had been poisoned by the radiation…
Sally glanced at the man she had injured, Brett, and felt her stomach turn. She had hit him so hard that she made him bleed. And he was already dying…
“I…” Sally looked at Josephine, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know…”
“How could you not?” the male doctoring up Brett snapped at her again. “Or, have you not figured out that Texas was nuked?”
She gulped at his words. Sally knew much more than that.
“Charlie, its okay,” Josephine rested a soft palm on his shoulder. “Perhaps we should rest here for a bit, before continuing on.” She looked back at the other travelers, and a few nodded in response. The rest merely dropped their bags in exhaustion and plopped down where they stood.
Sally folded her arms around her waist and decided it was time to keep moving on, to where ever it was she was headed to.
Taking a step back, and then another, Sally turned to leave the sickly behind when she felt a hand softly touch her arm. “Are you leaving?” Josephine asked.
She was… Sally looked back at the woman. “I…”
“Do you have somewhere you’re heading to? Family or friends?”
This woman was notably curious. Although, behind her, Sally could see the others were looking at her, out of the corners of their sunken eye sockets. Apparently, they were curious, too.
She shook her head. “J-Just traveling.”
“Well, that’s stupid.” She glanced around to find out which traveler had said that. Brett was on his feet again, hanging off the other male who had doctored him up. “You should have a goal or a destination, otherwise you’ll just be walking around in circles.”
“Come travel with us,” Josephine added quickly, “I know we don’t look like much, but we’re looking for a hospital that wasn’t destroy by the blast, to settle down at.”
Settle down? There was nothing left of this world, which certainly included hospitals. How could this girl just expect to settle down, after all that had happened?
Sally looked back at the sick people, who were all still staring at her, and noticed the bread and water they passed around. Her stomach groaned, answering for her. The other woman smiled weakly, and took her hand to lead her back to the circle of sick people, and food.
She was seated next to Brett, still a little bitter over his examination of her body, and was given bread and water, while the others conversed with each other.
Sally scarfed down her bread as soon as she had received it, ripping off large pieces with her teeth, and struggling to swallow it whole. She had forgotten her manners in those brief seconds, choking and wheezing, as if it were her last meal. She was halfway through her water when she noticed the many eyes staring at her, like she had gone rabid.
In her embarrassment, she began coughing, and covered her mouth to keep the saliva ridden chunk from falling out and into the dirt.
Brett took her water away so she would not spill it, and gave her back a few weak pats, “Slow down. You don’t want to die before the cancer sinks in,” his words were meant to be funny, and even a few of the other travelers chuckled, but her face soured. In one final attempt, she swallowed the rest of what was in her mouth, and looked up at him.
“That’s not funny.”
“Says the woman who appears to be cancer free. To the rest us, we think it’s damn hysterical,” another male stated, one three spots to her left. The whole group laughed at that.
She looked down at her bread and lost her appetite. Instead of feeling sorry for them, she felt anger. It was not fair… that they had radiation poison, and she did not… Which was stupid, because she should have been grateful that she had not been affected, as far as she knew.
That thought made her feel guilty. She had finally met more survivors, but they all had a ticking clock. Before she knew it, they would all be gone, too.
“Hey, blondie, cheer up. It was just a joke,” another stated. This one was a female with brown hair, a red ball cap and tan capris.
Brett nudged her shoulder, and she flinched away, thinking the act would cause him to bruise again. “Maybe it was rude before the nuke dropped, but now, cancer jokes seem to be the only enlightenment we get around here,” he explained. Sally noticed that she was not the only one who was bothered by it. The healthier looking travelers, Charlie and two or three others, seemed to only smile, instead of laugh at their jokes. And, then, there was Josephine, who seemed completely uncomfortable with the idea, because she had laughed the most.
Sally stayed quiet and chose not to respond to Brett. The whole ordeal was too much for her to handle.
Another one cleared their throat. “So, Sally, where were you when the nuke hit?” a girl asked, this one a bleach blonde with pretty nails, and flat sandals instead of tennis shoes or boots. Sally could just barely see black roots coming in on her scalp. She must have had Mexican or Indian blood in her, because she had tanned really well, compared to the others.
“That question always reminds me of Nine Eleven,” another spoke up, male with brown hair and a Texas tourist shirt. He smiled at her, “I was supposed to be in New York that day, but I had a family emergency and I had to cancel the trip. Name’s Rick, by the way. Rick Jones.” He leaned across the circle and held his hand out for her to shake. Sally followed his gesture, feeling the sores on his wrist as she shook his hand.
She brought her hand back a little too quickly, and had to refrain from wiping her hand on her pants, or the ground. She knew cancer was not contagious, but that did not make the wounds any less gross.
“Yeah, and I’m Bruce Banner,” another guy joked in response to Rick’s introduction, tall with a red beard and no hair. The travelers all laughed and Rick shook his head.
“No, I’m not that Rick Jones. Or, any other Rick Jones you may be thinking of. Just plain old Rick,” he explained.
Sally did not laugh with them. She did not get the reference.
“I’m just messing around. My real name is Tim Piles,” the bearded man stated, “And Rick and I were heading into a gas station just outside of Weatherford when we felt the blast. We own a construction company together. Well… we used to…” he trailed off with a smile.
Weatherford…? Sally knew Dallas and Fort Worth, and that was it. Which direction was Weatherford in?
“I was saying goodbye to my students,” the blonde woman with the nice tan stated, “I’m a sixth grade teacher. Name’s Kelly Bradford,” she leaned across the circle as well, and Sally shook her hand, feeling a little more at ease as she did so, “I, um…” Continuing her story, the woman took a deep breath and drank some water.
The other woman, brunette with the red ball cap, rested a bandaged palm on her shoulder as a sign of comfort.
“I’m okay. It’s best to talk about it, right?” Kelly looked Sally in the eyes, “I was saying goodbye to the students, and seeing them off as the bomb hit. I remember watching the buses fly through the air from the shock wave. When I came to, I could not find any children at all. I assumed they had all died.”
“My… two of my three boys were killed when the bomb hit, as well. They go to, or… rather, went,” the brunette corrected herself, taking a deep, slow breath, “To the same school Kelly taught at. Sam and Josh died in the house fire and… I couldn’t find Nicky after the smoke cleared.” The woman rubbed her nose, and took another deep breath. “…With so many bodies… I searched for hours looking for him… I think I passed out at some point in time. I would still be in that rubble if they hadn’t found me and pulled me away,” she cleared her throat, and reached her hand out, “I don’t mean to ramble on, I apologize. I’m Audry Wess.”
“…And their father?” Sally ignorantly spoke up, returning the handshake.
“Walked out ten years ago,” Audry smiled, “The only way I put myself to sleep at night now is by holding onto the hope of possibly finding Nicky alive somewhere… And by imagining a house falling on top of his father and watching the man’s neck break.”
So, Sally was not the only one with bitter thoughts from the explosion.
“Ha, along with my ex-wife,” the man sitting three spots to her left added, “Name’s Cody Crow. I may not look it, but I’m actually a wealthy business man.” The male did not look it at all. He looked more like a man in his fifties, who had been sick for quite some time, and was just starting to get better. He appeared as though he used to be rather hefty, but had lost most of the weight from his sickness. “The only thing that puts me to sleep at night is knowing that my ex-wife will never get another alimony check for as long as I live, no matter how short that life may be. I finally fulfilled my threat I made to her three years ago.”
Cody motioned to Brett and Charlie, “After four years of fighting, these two gentlemen had just diagnosed me cancer-free,” he went on to explain, “I was taking a stroll in the park when the nuke hit. I ended up in the fountain there, or at least, what was left of it,” he smiled and laughed, “Kinda ironic to finally be diagnosed cancer free, and get radiation poisoning within the same day.”
It was sad was what it was. Not ironic. Sad. And cruel. Sally looked at Brett, feeling even more pity for him than before. “So… You were a cancer doctor…?”
“Oncologist,” he corrected her, “And, technically, I still am,” he motioned to the group of travelers. “Can’t you see I’m enjoying a picnic lunch with my patients?”
Everyone laughed at that, thankful of the joke to lighten the mood.
Sally still did not think it was very funny. She could not bring herself to joke in a time like this.
Charlie cleared his throat, “Brett was running an errand for me while I was with Josephine, running tests in the basement at the hospital we used to work at, in Waco.”
Sally glanced at Josephine, who sat to her right. She looked down, “Charlie and I felt the shock, and almost did not make it out of the building in time. But, I wasn’t affected by the radiation.”
“And we don’t care, one way or another,” a woman spoke up. She had on an old blouse, dirtied slacks, and had half of her face bandaged, “Josephine has kept us together since we started our journey,” Sally could not help but stare at the bandages, and the older woman smiled at her, “I was caught in one of the fires. If it had not been for Charlie and Brett, I would not be alive right now.”
… It was beginning to sound as though this group had started with Charlie and Brett…
“Susan,” she told her, “Susan Delgato,” she chuckled a little, then continued, “I am a personal injury lawyer.” Susan moved some bangs from her face. “Unfortunately, unless we discover who nuked Texas, I will not be able to sue them for attempted murder and assault.”
The travelers laughed again. They sounded more like old references than mere jokes. Apparently, these people had sat down like this many times before, and shared introduction stories with one another.
Sally did not want to share her introduction story. She could claim that she had amnesia, but highly doubted that it would pass with two doctors nearby. Playing with the rest of her bread, she noticed that the other members had stopped talking. When she looked up, Sally realized they were all staring at her.
“…Well…?” Another traveler asked, short and raven haired, with red sneakers. From her running gear, Sally assumed she had been running when the nuke went off, “Aren’t you going to tell us a little about you?”
Some others nodded in anticipation, “We won’t judge you, you know,” Brett stated, “Whatever life you led before the bomb has been left behind in the ash.”
His words were rather poetic, and Sally found herself actually smiling. She sipped her water. “I, um… I’m a desk clerk at an Army base in Dallas. Or… I was. I joined the Army for college, but I’ve never been overseas, just behind the secretary’s desk at my boss’s office, Captain Harkam.” Captain John Harkam, the handsome and brave leader.
“… I was… I was bringing my boss coffee when the call came in, about the nuclear warheads that were targeting Dallas…” she trailed off, and paused, feeling her confidence slip away. Then, the tears began to flow.
Brett, the perverted doctor, leaned over and gave her hand a weak squeeze, and she squeezed his back for support, “I was right in there, in the war room, when I heard the announcement, and I saw the map where the bombs would hit. Then… I ran… I ran and hid when the bombs dropped. I did not try and save anyone… I merely ran… to save my own skin… Like the coward I am…”
Sally breathed in and out slowly, trying to stop the tears.
But, when she had finished her story, no one spoke a word, neither disapproving or encouraging, to her. She looked up and wiped her eyes, still holding Brett’s hand, and found ten pairs of eyes staring right back at her, dumbfounded.
“You were in Dallas when the bomb dropped?” another blurted out. He had young sandy blond hair, and wore a mechanics dirty jumpsuit, “As in, the middle of Dallas, right where the bomb hit, where there is nothing left but ash?”
And an old bath tub…
“How do we know you’re not lying?” Charlie asked, frowning.
Sally could see the disbelief in the eyes of the other travelers as well, “I… I’m telling the truth. I did come from Dallas. I’ve been walking for days since the explosion. I…” … Hid in a bathtub in the second basement of a military base in Dallas…
She swallowed her pride, and looked Charlie in the eye, “The world is dead, Charlie. There is nothing left of it except a few random buildings and the cancer left behind by the radiation. What motive do I have of lying to you, or anyone else?”
“Theft,” a darker skinned male replied, “I should know, I spent the last ten years doing time for just that. Without cities or towns, there will be no policemen or government. I guarantee half of the survivors of this war will turn to theft and murder to survive. Why not you?”
Sally cleared her throat, struggling to come up with a response to his accusation. “… With no government around to keep us in check, we will merely have to come up with our own law… And… And the only way to gain a person’s trust is through experience… So, if you don’t trust me now… you will in time,” Sally nodded more to herself, “And, that is all I can offer.”
The man smiled and shook her hand, “Now, that’s a statement I can trust,” he spoke with a deep voice, “Johnson Braves,” he leaned back and took a deep breath, “And to keep up with the theme of the conversation, I was at the basement level of my apartment building, sleeping when the bomb hit. Charlie and Brett have declared me cancer free, so far.”
The runner raised her hand, “That makes three of us, not including you, Sally. Patricia. No last name.”
“And nine infected with cancer,” the blond mechanic added, “Name’s Andy Corman. It will be a pleasure to have you with us,” his smile was pleasant, but he looked rather young to be a mechanic, like he was just out of high school.
The last two did not care to give a background of where they came from, or what they were doing when the bomb dropped, so Sally merely assumed that it did not matter.
Josephine cleared her throat, hoping it would clear the tension as well, “Let’s keep walking for another few hours, then call it a night,” Charlie seemed to agree with her, because he helped the young woman to her feet, then knelt ad began packing the bags up again.
Despite their earlier confrontation, Sally found herself helping Brett to his feet. She could not decide if it was out of guilt or pity and settled on a little bit of both.
The injured male got control of his balance, then looked her in the eye, “Would you stop looking at me like that?”
She was taken back, and her mouth parted in surprise, “Like what?”
“Like I’m some poor helpless fool that has a worse doom than yours, and you’re pitying me because of it. Honestly, Sally, I’ve been looking death in the face every day, for the past ten years of my life. There’s nothing to pity, I know how this works,” he gave a cough, covering his mouth, and she could see his back muscles shutter with tension, “And, I really don’t want your pity right now.”
Sally did not have any response to his comment. She waited until he had his bag adjusted on his back and had started to move with the others. She kept her pace next to his, still unable to treat him as anything else besides a sick man.
“The way I see it,” he began to speak again. Now that they were moving, his pale skin filled with blood, as he took long deep breaths while they walked, “We’re all doomed in the end,” he smiled and then laughed, “You could die before I do, now wouldn’t that be ironic?”
Sally did not laugh. Nor, did she smile. She looked at the group ahead of them, and put effort into her steps to keep Brett’s slow pace. Dying… She was beginning to feel as though she would never die, and instead, would be forced to suffer through everyone else leaving again.
“So… How long have you and Charlie been friends?” she asked, changing the subject. She was getting tired of talking about death.
Brett looked at her and smiled. But, it was not a nice pleasant smile, but rather, one with devilish intentions, “Oh, we were roommates in college. Yeah, we bonded pretty quickly since we were both aiming to be Oncologists. It was only fitting, since both of our parents died of cancer.”
The cruel and bitter joke made her rather angry, and Sally pursed her lips, which only made Brett laugh, “I’m just teasing, you know. Really, you need to lighten up. This whole apocalypse thing is just going to get much more depressing as time goes by,” then, he leaned over and threw an arm around her, which Sally had soon figured out that it was more for support than anything else, “I should tell you the story how I crashed my first car. Now, that will make anyone smile,” Brett looked at her, his blue eyes dancing, masking the sickness from showing itself within his spirit.
So, Sally listened, for the next three or four hours, until night fall, and the group called it a day.
They ate more bread and water and passed around another set of life stories, most of them about drinking, since everyone agreed that life would be much better right now if alcohol was involved. Then, the travelers pulled pillows, blankets, and old clothes from their bags, spread out at least five or ten feet away from each other, and laid down to rest.
Sally rolled over onto her side as to not look at them while she stared at the dirt, wide awake. She felt pity and jealousy at the same time. They had warmth… And she did not… But, they deserved those blankets. And, perhaps it was her way of punishing herself, but she felt as though she had done nothing to earn one.
“You know, it’s much warmer under here, than it is out there,” Sally heard a comment behind her, and rolled over to her other side to find out who it was.
She could see the faint smile of Brett under a large wool blanket, “I don’t mind sharing.”
Relaxing a little, she pushed a shiver away, and mulled over his offer, “… You don’t mind, even after I attacked you…?”
“Not really. I would almost say it was worth the punch, but I’m not actually that shallow. And, that punch really did hurt.”
“You would not be saying that if you weren’t sick.”
“Well, I am sick, and I am saying it,” Brett paused, and averted his eyes to the dirt below him, “Kind of ironic, though. I spend years diagnosing and curing people of cancer, and then I suddenly catch it, not by any real way to catch cancer, but by a nuclear explosion.”
“… I’m sorry…”
“Don’t be. In an apocalypse like this, if you can’t laugh at the cruel irony of life, then you’re not going to survive, in my opinion.”
Sally smiled a little and gave a snort.
“See? That’s what I’m talking about. You’re too serious. You should lighten up, and take the time to laugh at the funny things,” his eyes locked with hers, “You know, you’re much prettier when you smile.”
That caused her to smile even more, “Even when I’m not flashing my girls around?”
“Even more so.”
With that comment, Sally slid closer to him, and under his blanket, where it was many degrees warmer, “Okay, but only because I feel guilty about earlier.”
“Alright,” he slid his arm around her shoulder and brought her further under his blanket, a luxury Sally was envious of him for owning. Then, Brett leaned down and kissed her, receiving one in return for his efforts. Sally was not surprised from the kiss. She had a feeling those were his intentions, and did not mind at all.
“You know, I’ve spent years dating women. But, I never thought this sick angle would get one to come sleep with me so quickly,” he joked, “I should try this gimmick more often.”
“I’d be careful if I were you. I don’t share well,” Sally retorted. It was not as though she had much experience to back up that statement, though.
They both laughed quietly, relaxing against each other. When their voices died down, Brett looked her in the eyes. Then, he kissed her again, taking his time. But Sally could not take her eyes off of his bandages.
“I told you it’s okay. I got what I deserved,” he smiled.
“I… I know… I’m still sorry…”
“You’re not the one who dropped nukes on Texas.”
…Or the rest of the world, she thought to herself.
Maybe it was not her fault, but she did feel responsible, “… I know…” Sally choked out.
Brett kissed her again, but she still hesitated
“Sorry… I’m worried I’ll hurt you…” she whispered quietly, more to herself.
He chuckled lowly, holding back his laughter so the others would not be awoken from her apparently silly comment, “Isn’t that supposed to be my line?” he joked.
“Well, I… Wait, I’m not that inexperienced,” she protested, looking him in the eyes. Sally would spare him the boring background of her senior year.
“Well, I’m not that injured,” Brett added, nodding. His voice of laughter had died to a mere smile. One that she was enjoying more and more after every petty argument.
In the cold darkness of the night, under the bright starry sky, they made love. It may not have lasted very long, but the two did their best to make it a memorable evening. They kept as quiet as they could, and left their clothes on, staying hidden under the wool blanket.
Sally could at least cross off ‘making love under the stars’ from her bucket list, if it had ever been on there to begin with. Brett could as well, no matter how short of a time he had left to complete it.
They stayed close as they slept, him holding her, and she felt as though her life had been turned into a cinematic film, a romantic one, with a happy ending.
In the morning, Sally struggled to get warmer, shivering as she moved closer to Brett. In her dismay, he was apparently too asleep to pull her in. Her eyes blinked once, twice, and she sat up slightly, shielding her sight from the bright sun. She could hear distant voices, and only assumed a few of the other travelers had woken up early.
Sally moved the blanket away, no matter how warm it felt, and glanced down at Brett. She had completely misjudged him, and was happy she was able to give him a second chance. Smiling, she leaned down to brush bangs from his face, and her fingers slid across stone cold skin.
Shocked, she yanked her hand away, staring at him dumbfounded for a moment or two. Then, Sally reached her arms forward and shoved him really hard, backing away slightly.
Brett’s body rocked back from her push, then slumped forward again, rolling onto his face. His body did not flinch or move slightly in his deep slumber, to indicate that he had felt her hands.
Her heartbeat began to pick up, and terror sank in. Sally rolled his body back over, then rested her fingers on his neck, then his cheat, where his heart was. There was no rhythmic beat to indicate he was still alive.
She began to shake, her mouth parting as she stared at her lover. Then, Sally scrambled to her feet and screamed in horror, as loud as she could.
Brett was dead.