The truck woke me, its trembling motor roaring in my sleep. Again, the underwater dreams, those lucid moments beneath the surface of consciousness, drowning in the ceaseless churn of a storm. Then I could make out above the hollow crash of waves a burping, mechanical clatter that unglued me from sleep and sent me bolting upright, staring into white-bright headlights.
“What the hell’s goin’ on here? Why you sleeping by the road?” A man stared back at us, his lips puckered at a peculiar angle and his eyebrow cocked. His skin was black as the soil, his clothes tattered. He stood beside a shuddering, rusted truck.
I clawed my throat for words, but none came. Ethan spoke: “Is that a truck? You driving a truck?”
The man reached into his cab, turning off the motor and flipping off his headlights, leaving us into the dim illumination of early morning. “It’s my truck. Personal business. None of your concern. Who y’all fighting for? Soldiers?”
Clearing my throat, I stood up, pushing the blankets off of me and limping toward him. He was a massive man, though old, wearing a broad plaid shirt and jeans caked with mud. “We’re– we’re headed to Atlanta.”
“Alright, so what? You’re gonna walk there? Where are y’all from?”
“We live not so far away. On an island.”
He nodded. “How long?”
I looked to Ethan. “I’ve been there, well, about eight years now.”
“Then you don’t know– it’s illegal to live out here now. Radiation zone, they’re calling it.”
“I– I haven’t seen any radiation.”
“You can’t see radiation.”
“But I never felt it or nothing. I mean, there are fish. Birds and snakes.”
The man snorted. “Best not tell them that, they’ll come root you out of your island. It’s been illegal for more than three years ago.”
Slowly, the gears of mathematics churned in my brain: how long had Ethan lived with me?
“You never told me that,” I said, turning to him.
He shrugged. “What do you think I was running away from? They wanted to register everyone, otherwise you’re not considered a citizen, don’t got no rights.”
I thought about this for a moment. “You said there was some sort of soldiers?”
“Couple, running around these parts.” He shrugged. “The Continental Army, sweeping through pretty often.”
“Another rebellion going on?”
He nodded. “I’m running guns to an encampment fifty miles up the coast. Stole some canisters of gas, so we have a few trucks making trips through roads where the army left alone.”
“We need a ride, if you can spare it.”
He gestured to the bed of his truck, where a pile of black guns lay. “You can ride back there. Got any way to repay me?” I rifled through the bag and tossed him a bottle of Oxycodone. He checked the label, then watched me, startled. “This stuff real?”
“Pretty real. Can we get a ride?” He nodded to his truck, and we gathered our blankets, stuffing them into a bag and hopping aboard.
Five hours we bounced against his back windshield, metal guns sliding across the bed beneath us. Guns made me nervous, though the smugglers carried guns for protection; men would kill each other with these weapons, to claim sovereignty over land that was being slowly covered by the ocean. Their military encampment looked like a small village of pop-up campers and trailers shipwrecked on concrete blocks. The man driving us, his name Jaime, stepped out of the truck and approached a tent big enough for a circus show. A moment later, a stocky man with iron-gray buzzed hair stepped out, wearing shredded Army greens and old combat boots.
“You the stragglers he found on the road?”
“We’re on the way to Atlanta,” I explained.
“You don’t want to be traveling the roads. There’s a war going on.”
“But there’s always a war going on. Isn’t there someone to buy what we have to sell?”
“Sell? With what? What do you want? Food? Guns?”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling incredibly naked in front of the men filing out of the tank. “Money.”
“What’s the use of money? Jaime says you live in a swamp.”
“‘Spose that’s true.”
“You live in a swamp, and you don’t know what’s happening.”
“It doesn’t matter, damn it. I just– I just–”
Another man spoke up. “He said you gave him medicine. What do you have?”
“I– I don’t have anything. Nothing I can give away for free, I mean.”
The Army guy grinned, knuckling the toe of his boot into the dirt. “You can’t just come into a rebel camp, say you got medicine, and not share it. Why would you want to go to Atlanta? That’s dangerous.”
“I have things to sell– more medicine. We’ve been living on an island, but we wanted– we thought–”
“No one to sell it to.” He paused. “I’m Bates, by the way. General Bates, if it please you. Commanding officer of this outfit for the Free States.”
I began to grow frustrated. I didn’t care about their petty rebellions and lurches for power, their killing and bombing and gassing. Once I sold the seeds and medicine, I could buy a new boat, return to my island. Get as far away from this disaster as possible.
“Alright, General Bates. Just point us in the right direction; we’ll be on our way.” I began to back away from the truck, eyeing Ethan, clutching the duffel bag tight to my chest. “Which way to Atlanta?”
“Told you, you don’t want to go near Atlanta, less you want to die. Whole place is devastated. That’s why we moved out to the coast, the Continental’s have closed in on us. And Atlanta– that was blown apart a year ago. Nothing left but radiation and a black hole in the ground.”
My grip on the bag loosened as his words sunk in– the war. Because of the war, there would be no one to shell out millions for seeds. We wouldn’t sell a thing, and everything we’d hoped for had been destroyed by a nuclear bomb twelve months before we began searching.