General Bates let us sleep in a tent with Jaime, though we used our own blankets. The summer air clung so fiercely to our skin, though, I could not keep covered. Instead, I lay shirtless against the ground, studying the seams along the interior of our shelter.
“You’re angry, aren’t you?”
“Maybe. Just disappointed. I just– what are we going to do?”
Ethan shuffled. “We can give them the seeds, the medicine. Some of it. We don’t need it, and then we can go back to our island. We can just–”
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“About what?” He breathed heavy beside me, and in my side-vision, his chest rose and fell rapidly.
“About needing to register. What were you running away from?”
“I– if I were living like that, where they accounted for everything you did? You don’t know how nice you have it out there in the marsh. You’ve never lived in a city, not like they’re like now. We’re all rats, scrambling on top of each other for some sunlight. And men patrol the streets and beat you if you say anything to them. That’s what passes as police.”
“That’s why you left?”
“I left because I had heard about something else, something simple. I thought maybe if I stole that boat, rowed out to sea, I’d find something better. And I did.”
I resettled against the ground, soothed by the crescendos and decrescendos of Jaime’s snoring. “There have never been simpler times. Never civilized either. It’s always been difficult: existence. Whether you’re stuffed in a polluted city, mired in poverty, or stuck out on an island, rooting through the ground for a vegetable to eat, something to kill and clean. No life is simple, and it never has been that way.”
When morning came, I tracked down General Bates and showed him half of our supplies. If Jaime might return us to our island, I told him, he could have our supplies. Some of the stronger medicines and the seeds too. Hemp seeds and corn, though I kept the majority of the rice seeds– I could plant rise in the marsh, harvest every year. I kept a lot of the allergy medicine as well and a pocketful of pain-killers. The general took the rest gleefully, shuffling from the tent to wake up Jaime.
Jaime waddled crankily from his tent. “You want me back on the road again?”
“Sure, sure. Take these two back where you found them. Or wherever they might want to go.”
“Do you have a boat?” I asked. “We could also really use a boat.”
The general shook his head. “We need all of our boats. Now, get out of here before I take the rest of the stuff you hid from me.”
Once loaded back into Jaime’s truck, we sped down the road, crisscrossing through empty highways and abandoned interstates. He allowed me this time to sit in the cab, leaning against the window, my forehead pressed flat.
“Still torn up, thinking you was going to be a rich man?”
I ground my teeth, watching the pine trees as they vanished behind us, the truck picking up speed. “Rich? No, maybe not. Maybe so. Not so sure I ever believed that plan could have worked– I should realize the world has changed. It also changes, even when you’re not a part of it, and it keeps churning on. All that time away, you don’t realize what happens, what happens to everybody else, the whole world. Places disappear, and people do too. Entire societies collapse, and new ones rise. Back when I was a boy, we never thought we’d live like this, constantly at war. Sometimes, it’s not just land that gets submerged, but the past and your perception of the present. If you think you know what’s going on, pretty soon the water’s up to your neck, and you don’t know anything anymore.”
He nodded along politely.
As the hours passed, I scanned the trees for our boat, a way to get us home. I prayed to encounter none of the soldiers Jaime described, a barricade along the highway. Looking back through the window, I could see Ethan wiggling his head in the wind– only the second time he’d ridden in an automobile, so he told me. And then I kept watching the road, dreaming of my island and my home and my marsh and that little boat, about paddling back out to Charleston and exploring the city lost. I didn’t belong in the land of the living, but instead at the bottom of the sea, in that city of ghosts.