I open my eyes a little before daybreak, feeling like I could sleep the whole day.
Man, I’m tired. It’s been a while since I’ve had a decent sleep, and my body feels the effect of my insomnia. Ever since I had that nightmare, I’ve been restless and edgy. For a moment I let myself imagine how nice it would be if I were on a beach somewhere, lounging in the sun with a cute little fruity drink in my hand. No worries, no cares. I could sleep all day and night if I wanted to. What would it be like to be free of responsibility?
That is a question I’ll probably never know the answer to. Even as a kid I had to take care of my mother, who moved from guy to guy like she changed T-shirts. I had many “uncles” and one pervy “daddy,” but I stayed for her, because I was the only one who really knew the demons that drove my mother into insanity. In the end, it was the virus that took her, but it was almost a blessing when she passed.
I stretch out my muscles before rising, dragging my sleeping bag out of the tent to fold it up. The dawn air is chilly, and I shiver a bit before reaching into one of my duffel bags and grabbing a zipped hoodie. I put it on, flip up the hood, and bundle down into the warmth for a moment. I resume packing, folding up my tent and storing it on the flatbed. I grab a freeze-dried meal, breakfast fare of eggs, pancakes, and bacon; use my gas-fueled hot plate to heat up some water for the instant coffee; and then sit at one of the rusted picnic tables to watch the sun come up over the desert.
I’ve never lamented the circumstances of my life. I might complain and bitch about them, but it is what it is. Perhaps knowing that I am destined for a great love has helped me cope, unlike my mother, who spent her whole life searching for “the one.” Maybe if my mom had had a gift like mine, she would have been able to see and follow a different path, instead of landing in the wrong lap every time. For all her faults, though, I loved her. I may not have liked her much, but I never did figure out how to stop loving the person who gave me life.
I finish my breakfast and rise from the table, using the chipped and broken trash receptacle to throw my stuff away. I no longer need to be cautious, because in a few hours I will have disappeared into a city labyrinth. From my camping equipment I grab the shower bag I have, filling it with the required two and a half gallons of water it holds. I grab some soap and a change of clothes and head to the facilities building. Inside I am able to hang the bag and take a quick shower, even brushing my teeth. One thing that I have learned is to be frugal with water, so I shower every second or third day. Even though the water is tepid, it still feels nice to wash the grime off. Once the water is gone, I dry off and dress, then pack up all of my stuff before heading outside.
I top off the tank with my stored gasoline, double-check that everything is secure on the flatbed, and then plop the sunglasses on my nose. The sun has awoken, bathing the land in brightness. I must admit the desert is beautiful, stark in dried-up grass and dust swirls, but the absence of color actually captures my appreciation. I like simplicity.
Shaking my head against such frivolous thinking, I take off down the road, instantly forgetting my outdoor hotel for the night. I have about three hours left in my journey to Los Angeles, which will put me there around nine, so that will give me plenty of daylight left to scout out a hiding area, secure my four-wheeler, and go trolling for the guys.
Seek and Galloway. There had been one dream, long ago, where they had been at a bar, someplace crawling with military men. Women had been there aplenty, the kind hoping to bed someone with many stripes on their arms. I watched them that night from my spirit plateau. I really hated those particular dreams, when I know men will be men and fuck whatever catches their fancy. Galloway had been a real ladies’ man, with his dashing good looks, charming dimples, and his willingness to let a woman’s pleasure exceed his own. But that night it had been Seek who had caught my attention. I was so used to watching Galloway, it took me a few minutes to realize how much Seek was holding back, how he was nursing a beer in a corner and avoiding everyone.
I couldn’t quite understand him. What was he doing there? Why wasn’t he mingling with others, dancing with girls, trying to cop a feel at every moment? Instead, he shied away from all contact. A ghost. Like me.
I enter Los Angeles from the east, driving on what used to be Interstate 10. Broken, abandoned cars rest like forgotten tombstones up and down the sides of the road. The earth has started to engulf the remains. I soon come to a halt because I’ve hit the area so devastated my trusty steed can’t navigate it. I remember hearing about the earthquake, of course; it was one of the few things that had managed to overshadow the virus on the news channels. I remember being ambivalent because Los Angeles was a long way away and I had enough on my plate, but now that I am here, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming sadness at the decay that has never been cleared. There had been no resources to help, so everything that had fallen still lay in rotting, rusting heaps, tombs for the people who never made it out.
Even though I am wearing sunglasses, I still shade my eyes as I search the nearby area for a great place to hide my Cat. My eyes fall on a half-collapsed building that reminds me of a small warehouse. I leave the road and drive over the bumpy ground toward it.
It takes me about an hour to move various pieces of large junk to make a cozy little nook for my four-wheeler to reside while I’m off in La-La Land. Sweat drips off me and runs down the back of my shirt. Once I think it will be safe, I take my black backpack and fill it with provisions I anticipate I will need. I check that my two GLOCKs are loaded and stuff them in the holsters on each of my ankles under my pants. Next I take my small daggers and sheathe them in the leather halter that is attached to my left forearm. I glance at my recurve bow before deciding against it. In this situation, in this area, I’m pretty sure rapid fire is going to be needed more than finesse, even though I might regret not taking it. A couple of years ago, I had been in Tulsa, Oklahoma and ran into this group of really nice homesteaders who taught me how to hunt ducks with a bow and arrow. Which, believe me, can be done but is very difficult. I had been hiding from them, watching them, when I had gotten a vision. I managed to rescue one of the children from getting bitten by a snake, saving her from what I knew would have been her death, to the everlasting gratitude of her parents.
I stayed with those homesteaders for several weeks. They had shunned everyone when the virus hit, choosing instead to secure themselves their own way. They included me in their lives, teaching me how to farm and different ways to snare animals. Being with them gave me a sense of peace I never had. I came from a very dysfunctional life and hadn’t a clue how love actually worked, but each night, I saw the adoration between these people and their commitment to survive together.
I grab a protein bar and munch on it as I make my way over lots and lots of debris. The horizon is dotted with burned-out skyscraper shells. All that real estate had to go somewhere when the earth shook itself mad, and lucky me, was now traversing over it. Come nighttime I bet this decimated city looks a lot like the world of Resident Evil
, and I’m hoping I don’t run into any zombies.
At that moment, the ground shakes violently under my feet, catching me off guard and sending me sprawling. I miss a chunk of rusty spikes protruding from a twisted hunk of concrete by inches. When the shaking stops, I get to my feet, trying to ignore the knocking in my knees. My heart hammers like a nest of angry wasps. Goddammit!
I hate fucking earthquakes! Especially when I have the vision screeching through my head!
After that, the journey is slow going. It would have been anyway since I am trying to find a location based on a vision. There just aren’t any maps of Los Angeles lying around. I half believe that I need to be downtown, so I’m heading toward the fallen skyscrapers, and before long I am sweating heavily in my dark, body-hugging clothes. The sun never takes into account those of us walking.
Needless to say, I get lost plenty. Luckily my dream is acting as a type of GPS sensor. If I walk too far in the wrong direction, I get this cold sensation down my spine, and I know I’m not going where I need to be. When I hit the places I need to go, there is a sense of calm, of right. It’s hard to explain to someone who’s never felt this before, but I equate it to the sense of accomplishment one gets when a destination is found by memory alone. Only my destinations are more frequent.
Several times I hide from people, spying from afar to feel out what kind of inhabitants I’m dealing with here. I’ve learned over the years that being invisible is the best way for me to accomplish my goals. I see what must be gang members dragging people through the streets, wicked-looking weapons dangling like gaudy jewelry from their belts and hands. They carry themselves like twisted royalty high on their power with the stench of anarchy wafting from them. These people, if that is in fact what you would call them, took the opportunity of lawlessness and ran amok with it, giving into their savage, animalistic tendencies. We all have them, but civilization is built upon morals and ethics, and when the earthquake destroyed this city, it destroyed those basic principles as well. There is one woman in particular, a redheaded bitch who seems to gain an almost carnal pleasure from the few captives she has tied up. I watch her tease and torment the people, their necks strung tight in rope as they are pulled. There is nothing I can do; though I could try to help those poor people being led to God knows what, I am ill equipped for a war. Pity washes through me, closely followed by guilt, but I’m nothing if not practical. I’d soon be strung up just like them.
I traverse her unseen as I go out of my way to avoid the little band of sadistic mercenaries. And then finally I find the spot I saw in my vision. I stand at the crossroad and turn in a circle, trying to overlay what I saw in my dream with reality. I can see Seek as he gets shot and falls, and a shudder crawls over my skin. Just the thought of him hurt shoots a sharp pain through my heart.
The sun is ready to set. I have spent hours wandering over this battered and busted city, and that combined with a suck-ass dream last night suddenly leaves me exhausted. It’s going to be a few hours until Seek shows up, so I look around for a good place to take shelter, someplace with good camouflage where I can rest in peace and perhaps escape this heat.
I survey my surroundings and find the perfect nook amid the debris. After shimmying into the small area, I set my watch to vibrate against my skin before closing my eyes and relaxing.
It is the dream that comes and haunts me, reminding me of why I am here. Seek falling, a bullet between his eyes. I can’t shake the horrible picture from my mind, and it’s hard to remember that what I’m experiencing is not a memory. When my watch wakes me, I’m on edge again. The nap may have rested my body, but my mind is still churning.
I leave my hiding place to wander through the dark night, guided by an unseen hand. It is eerily calm, unnerving. Usually, I am not someone who falls victim to ghosts walking on my grave, but the shiver that dances up my spine makes my heart race and sweat gather on my palms. I can hear myself breathing, the tight confines of my chest laboring each rise and fall. The taste of anticipation is sharp upon my tongue.
And then, from the almost deathlike silence hovering around me, gunfire erupts through the night. I run, panic settling in, which is completely the wrong emotion to have in a fight, but I can’t help it. The only thought I have spinning through my mind is the realization that I might be too late.
As I cross over a street, I barely notice the lopsided, rusted nameplate that still denotes this as Olive Street. I make a sharp left, and the sound gets closer. And then a bullet goes whizzing by and I duck, coming to a halt and taking cover. I palm my own gun and dislodge the safety on it, preparing for anything. I use the sporadic trees as cover and make my way farther toward the shootout. I hurry one more block, making my way as fast as I can, and that’s when I see them. There are four men with pistols. Seek is in the dark shadows hugging the ground, and had I not known where to look for him, I would have missed him. From my vantage point, it is obvious he’s trying to avoid being surrounded. As he makes his way farther from the other four, I move toward him, keeping to the shadows as well and being very careful he doesn’t mistake me for being one of the bad guys.
Several buildings have fallen here, so as I make my way around the debris, I lose sight of him. By this point I am far enough away from the four on the corner to hurry across the street, being mindful to be as quiet as possible. It is only a matter of time before they start hunting.
Seek is up ahead, but so is another. There is a great roar in my ears as I see the moonlit glint of a rifle barrel taking careful aim. It is my dream, the warning that I have hurried for. I run, I run as fast as I can, my own safety forgotten in my terror to save Seek. A second later, I plow into him as the gun is fired. The explosion echoes loudly, bouncing off each and every stick of concrete like a bullhorn. I have pushed Seek into a grotto of sorts, a little trench of overgrown weeds as tall as my waist, grateful for the temporary shield it offers. I have to think quick, have to find a place to hide us.
I feel the stickiness of blood running over my hand, and my stomach drops from fear. Using the sliver of moonlight, I search him quickly, finding only a grazed temple. But of course, as with any head wound, the bleeding is fierce. I peek my head up from the high grass and notice a downgrade that had once been part of an underground parking structure. The collapsed building, luckily with cars still inside it, provides a type of artificial arroyo. Whether or not it is divine intervention, I jump at it. Seek is out cold, though I know he is breathing. I can feel his chest muscles moving up and down. But the five gunmen are still out there, and they are coming to make sure their prey is caught. I wrap my arms around him and dig my heels into the earth. Inch by inch I use my leg muscles to push us to the edge of the ramp, concentrating on keeping us hidden and my grunts inside.
Once I feel the concrete on my butt, I cradle Seek’s head into my chest and wrap my legs around him to scoot us down the incline. With the way he is positioned, all his blood pours onto me instead of the ground, which is a plus.
Once at the bottom, I scramble to my feet and drag him over another large broken concrete slab and then push his inert body with my feet to wedge him under a piece of broken car. Once I have him safe, it’s like the dam on my hearing opens up. I suddenly am aware of the hunters yelling, asking each other in English and Spanish if they had seen him. Quiet as a mouse, I pull medicine and gauze from my pockets and tend to him.
The sounds start to fade as the search continues, and just as I start to think that maybe we’ll be safe, a flashlight beam falls on my face. I must have looked like a deer trapped in headlights, because all I can do is flatten my body in front of Seek and shield him as much as possible. I go for my guns, but in the small, confined area I cannot pull them out of my ankle holsters. Shit!
Then suddenly the light lowers a fraction, restoring my sight, and I see a woman standing there. She is Latina with short dark hair, a mole under one eye, and a tattoo of a butterfly on her chest peeking through her shirt.
She doesn’t call out. She doesn’t shoot us. Our eyes meet, and even though it is dark, I see compassion.
“Please,” I whisper to her. “Por favor
. Please don’t hurt him.”
“Shh,” she tells me. “Don’t move from here till morning.” And then she swings her flashlight away, calling out in a loud voice. “Nothing down here! Let’s go search over on Hope Street. Maybe he slipped by us.”
And then she is gone, taking the posse with her, away from us. My muscles unclench in relief, and it takes all my strength to hold back the sobs.
When I know the hunters have moved far enough way, I untangle myself from around Seek. I pull an emergency blanket from my backpack and spread it out to wrap around Seek’s inert body. It’s the kind of blanket that looks like it’s made of aluminum foil and is the size of a credit card; however once unfolded it’s impossible to fold back up to that size again. I also pull out a small flashlight and crack one of Seek’s eyelids to check his pupil dilation. I rest a little easier when I see the pupils responding correctly. The head wound doesn’t bother me; it’s not deep enough to warrant stitches, so the sleep will do him good. He’ll wake up with one hell of a headache, but that I can deal with.
I bring my knee up, take out my nine from my ankle holster, and turn the safety off. There isn’t a lot of room in the small wedge I have put us in, but there is enough space to stretch out my legs if I sit upright, which is fine with me. The only direction I have to maintain is in front of me; the collapsed building behind me safeguards my ass and flanks.
Through the night I watch and protect Seek as he heals, and I can’t tear my eyes away from him. He is absolutely beautiful. His profile is chiseled strength, relaxed in sleep. Masculine lips, softened in repose. He has the type of body that many men go to the gym and work like hell to obtain, all sleek muscles and brawn, but I know he got this way through years of military training and hard work. He wears a dark army green long-sleeve shirt and dark fatigue pants. There is a rip at his rib cage, and I wonder if it was caused by a grazing bullet. I can’t help running my fingers over the short brush of his hair, liking the tickling sensation on my palm.
Here he is, finally, in front of me. No longer a dream, no longer a yearning; I take a ragged breath. My lungs feel like they’ve never taken a deep breath before. It is so hard to articulate my emotions at this moment. I want to gush, but despite the blonde hair, I’m not a gushing kind of girl. I feel like I have waited my whole life for this very moment and am afraid to blink in case it’s just another dream. I am a bit overwhelmed, expecting at any moment to wake and discover that I am once again back in my tent, sleeping somewhere on the side of the road, finding out all of this was another damn premonition guiding me. I am so sick and tired of always searching, but now that it’s possible my search is over, I am finding it difficult to even blink in fear that Seek will disappear.
But I suppose it was inevitable that my eyes would close. All I really remember is one moment I feel the heavy, almost painful droop of my eyelids, and the next moment I feel a blade sliding over my throat and a deep, raspy voice demanding, “Who the hell are you?”
Beth D. Carter