I’d been joking when I mentioned McDonalds, but Finn knew I wasn’t kidding about being hungry. My hypoglycemia was kicking in, and I knew that if I didn’t get something to eat soon, I would either become a very cranky person or collapse on the trail we were following.
Finn didn’t want to stop and make camp just for lunch, and I knew how hard it had been to get started again after we had stopped last time. So we kept moving west, waiting for something or someone to come feed us.
Sure, we saw lots of signs. Burger King, McDonalds, Wendy’s. They were all over by the highway that we were avoiding, and they showed no signs of life. In fact, we hadn’t seen another person all morning.
That soon changed, however. The wide valley with farmland we had been following narrowed into a canyon with steep walls beneath bluffs on both sides. The river started running faster. And again we saw smoke from a campfire ahead of us.
Finn stopped and we considered our lot.
“I don’t like going through this town,” she said.
“Why not? Chances are, they are just people like us.”
“What if it is another soldier’s camp?”
I shrugged and looked around. “How else are we getting through?”
I looked at the river, which had turned from a slow moving, wide body of water into a rushing torrent.
“We can’t go back. And we can’t get over that. And in any case, it’s probably just as bad on the other side.”
Infinity looked at me and I could see that she was worried. I also realized that she was still thinking about the people we left behind.
“Look, Finn. I will do whatever you want to do. If we go back, fine. If we go forward, that’s fine too.”
Infinity looked at the rushing torrent that we were following, then at the small town with unknown people in it before us.
“I wish Evangelist was here,” she said, not looking back. I didn’t answer.
Finally, she sighed and turned back to the path.
“Let’s just take it slow,” she said. “First sign of trouble, we run.”
“Without the packs?”
“Without the backpacks,” she agreed.
I nodded in agreement, and fell into step behind her.
The sign coming into town said “Harmony, Tennessee, Population 2,248.” We followed what was apparently the main drag through town, trying hard not to look like tourists in a bad neighborhood. The first thing we realized was that our clothes were too clean and too new for us to fit in. But the fact that we were still severely underweight helped, because everywhere we looked we saw scarecrows looking back at us.
The main street was lined with burned-out buildings. One or two thin men were using hammers, nails and a saw to repair what they could.
A woman sat on the steps of an old church and watched her two children playing in the dust. One of them, a little girl with scraggly blonde hair, held a doll made from rags. The boy played with wooden blocks as if they were vehicles. Neither one looked old enough to remember what a real vehicle was like.
Three men stood on the other side of the street, apparently trying to sell odds and ends for whatever they could get for them. They had stacks of hubcaps, bicycle parts, farming tools, stacks of firewood, and a variety of odds and ends. But no customers.
As I stared at them and the other oddities of the small town, an aroma caught my nostrils. Immediately my mouth began to water.
“Hamburgers!” I almost shouted, looking desperately around for the source of the smell. Infinity was a second behind me, but apparently her nose was able to locate where it was coming from. She pointed farther down the street.
A hefty woman in a gunnysack dress sat on a stool behind a makeshift grill, burgers sizzling above hot coals. Any thought of being tired left us as we ran over to where she was grilling.
“Morning, girls,” she said brightly. “Hungry?”
“You have no idea,” I responded back. “How much?”
“Twelve each,” she said.
“Twelve?” I said. “Twelve dollars?”
She cackled. “Dollars? Where you two been hiding out? Twelve caps. That’s the only cash that’s good around here.”
She laughed again. “Bullets, ladies. Caps. Some are worth more than others. Twenty-two ain’t worth much, but depends how desperate you are. Forty-fives is good, but 3.08 is the best. Pretty much accepted anywheres.”
Infinity stepped up. “Well, we don’t have dollars, and we don’t have bullets—caps. But maybe we can barter something.”
The obese woman’s tone changed. “Bartering’s always a possibility. What do you have?”
Infinity and I began rummaging through our backpacks. Finally we pulled out a few items.
“No, no, no… those are nice. Hey, what about those?” She passed up all our pots and pans, clothes and other items to look closely at the opera glasses.
“Those aren’t for sale,” Infinity said, pulling them back.
“How about a few of these?” I offered, holding up a big bag of multivitamins.
The big woman’s eyes lit up, then she reached out and pushed my hand down.
“I wouldn’t go flashing those around if I were you,” she said. “Vitamins are almost as valuable as antibiotics. Tell you girls what,” she said, reaching in and grabbing a small handful of the pills. “That makes us square.”
Infinity and I put our items away while she brought out a spatula and flipped our burgers onto some very rough bread.
“You wouldn’t have any cheese for that, would you?” I asked.
She smiled slightly. “No, but I might be able to find a tomato for it.” She reached behind her and pulled out an overripe red beefsteak tomato and began cutting it into slices. Tomato juice went everywhere, but we didn’t complain. She wiped her hands on her dress and handed each of us a sandwich.
“Thanks.” I grabbed my burger and stuffed it into my mouth. The meat tasted sharper than I remembered, but I was so hungry I didn’t care. Infinity was a little more suspicious.
“I haven’t seen any cattle around here.”
“And you won’t,” the woman said. “What the anthrax didn’t kill, the army took for themselves.”
Infinity paused, looking at her sandwich. “So what kind of meat are we looking at?”
“Last week was cat. This week? You’re in luck. My dog treed a possum.”
I paused in mid-bite. “I’ve never eaten opossum before.” Then I resumed eating. “Tastes pretty good.”
We said goodbye to Harmony, a little less hungry and a little more confident in our ability to get around. The obese woman, Flo was her name, appeared to be the only successful business person in town. In addition to miraculously being able to find food and sell it to her neighbors as well as people like us, she was a fount of information. But as friendly as Flo was, we learned quickly that nothing—not even information—was free.
Another dip into our stash of vitamins helped us learn that Harmony was the center of civilization for this part of Tennessee. Flo advised us to stay out of Nashville, as well as any other large city. Many cities had been irradiated by nuclear weapons. Those large cities tended to be magnets for either drawn-out battles between rival armies, local warlords or even what she called “demons.”
We never quite understood what she meant by demons, but the message came through loud and clear. As bad as soldiers were, as dangerous as local warlords were, demons were to be avoided at all costs. I had visions of rejects from some hospital for the criminally insane chasing me, and it made me take Flo’s words very seriously.
Flo even took the time to pull out an old, weather-beaten map of Tennessee. She pointed to Harmony on the map, showed us what she knew of where fighting was still going on and one or two valleys that were now flooded due to collapsed or destroyed dams. Infinity had the insight to once again dip into out stash of vitamins and pay her for the map. I started wondering if Flo was getting the better part of the deal and whether vitamins would be available where we were going.
But the sun was already headed toward the west by the time we worked our way through the canyon and into the forested area beyond. The old road headed west and occasionally veered away from the river as the water twisted and turned through its bed. But Infinity always made sure we were in sight of the river.
Finally we came to a hilltop overlooking both the road and the river. The highway was about a quarter of a mile away, higher on another ridge. But Infinity picked this place for us to camp, based on the idea that it would give us a clear view of the area around us and give Evangelist a good chance to find us.
The sun was low in the west by the time we got out backpacks off and our sleeping bags out. A cool breeze blew off the river, and I stretched my aching limbs as Infinity looked for firewood around where we were camped. She stacked the wood to the side and then looked at me expectantly.
“What?” I asked.
“Well, aren’t you going to make a fire?”
I stared at her blankly. “What are you talking about? I don’t know how to make a fire.”
“Didn’t you say you were in the Girl Scouts?”
“I was in the Girl Scouts in Baltimore. They didn’t take us camping. They took us shopping.”
Infinity stared at me. “You’re serious.”
I laughed, then stopped when I realized that Infinity wasn’t laughing. “What, you don’t know how to make a fire either?”
We stared at each other. Two city girls used to being taken care of, thrown into a world that was so savage that the city wasn’t a place you went anymore.
“What’s going to happen to us?” I said, my voice becoming a whimper.
Infinity sighed. “Ellie, it’s time for us to grow up. Grow up or die.”
Tears fell from my eyes, and Infinity stepped forward and put her arms around me. I could tell that she was trying to be the strong one, the brave one. And I knew that tears were a luxury that neither one of us could afford anymore. But for now, for one last time, I wanted that luxury. I wanted to be taken care of.
We dug through out backpacks and found some dried fruit and nuts. Then we sat at the edge of our camp, looking out over the water as the sun dipped down and eventually fell into the river and all became dark. Since there was no TV or radio, we sat there a long time, just looking at the countryside.
“Finn?” I finally said.
“Two things. First, I found something in the pocket of my pants. Evangelist must have put it there.” I held up a small metal container and rattled it. Infinity took it from me and unscrewed the end of it. She dropped the contents in her hand. In it were five wooden matches.
Even in the darkness, I could tell she was smiling.
“There are only five, so we need to save these for emergencies,” she said. I nodded.
“What was the other thing?” she asked.
“I remember some things. I remember what happened after the helicopter fell.”
We both stretched out on our sleeping bags and looked up at the thousands of stars above our heads, and I began to tell Infinity what I remembered.