Where Would You Be Now?

The world as they know it is ending; a new one is taking its place. Among the doctors and nurses of a clinic-turned-fortress, Kath is coming of age in this new world, and helping define it. But that doesn’t make letting go of the old any easier. “Where Would You Be Now?” is a prequel to the novel Bannerless, a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award.

 

 

Kath sat on the roof of the beat-up Tesla S, legs draped down the back window, shotgun in both hands, looking out into the dark for whatever might hurt them. They’d come forty miles or so to an encampment in what had once been a park with a picnic area and duck pond. A playground with a plastic slide and jungle gym was still intact, though weeds came up through the bark mulch footing. A collection of trucks and campers clustered here, circled together with space for a campfire in the middle. The fire was banked now. Some tents and lean-tos had been set up a little further out, along with a couple of rickety sheds. In summer, people didn’t need much more shelter than that. Winter, the camp would pick up and move south, if they could get the gas for it. Getting hard to find gas, though. The place was starting to look permanent. One of the trailers had a chicken coop built next to it, and a couple of roosting chickens were visible, feathers plumped out. The camp probably housed about thirty, but this late, everyone had gone to bed.

The packed-dirt mounds of four graves were lined up outside the circle of campers. The doctors didn’t ask about them, the ones they couldn’t help.

Turned away from the light, Kath kept watch. Nothing around the area moved. No one seemed inclined to charge in and grab such a valuable commodity as a doctor.

They’d parked the Tesla next to a medium-sized RV, from which came the groans of a woman in labor. Only this box of a room was lit up with candles and lanterns. The waiting and noise of effort made the air thick. The tenor of the groans had changed over the last twenty minutes, becoming more urgent, and also more exhausted. Kath could try to peek in the door, at the woman tucked up on her cot, straining. But she just listened.

“You’ve got this. One more push.”

That was Melanie’s voice. Did Dr. Dennis have her handling this delivery? She usually assisted him.

One more loud groan, then came silence. Kath held her breath until a tiny wail sounded, the new baby successfully announcing itself. A ruckus followed, the handful of people in the RV talking over each other, making admiring noises.

Unless something went wrong in the next little while, which could involve anything from the mother bleeding out to the baby showing some kind of illness or injury, Dennis and Melanie would wrap up and they could be on their way. Might be smarter to wait until dawn to make the trip back to the clinic. But the road between here and there was still passable, and Kath wanted to get home.

The light from the open door changed as figures stood in front of it. Dr. Dennis was standing with the thirty-something bearded man who’d summoned them here that morning. Dennis was giving him instructions.

“We’ve still got vaccines lying around. Bring her to the clinic in a couple months, we can give her a good start.” The man, presumably the father, nodded with a distracted air. Leaning forward a bit, Kath could peer through the doorway and catch a glimpse of the camper’s interior. The new mother was there, nested on a narrow couch, sweat matting her hair to her face, sheets tumbled around her. Melanie was helping her bundle the new baby against her skin, probably explaining everything she could about nursing in a handful of minutes. The mother didn’t look up at what Dennis was saying.

They might or might not bring their baby to get her shots. They might decide they had bigger problems than worrying about measles or whooping cough.

Dr. Dennis came down the aluminum steps and paced a moment, hands on hips, looking into the night air. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah. No trouble,” Kath said.

“Good. I want to get out of here as soon as we can.”

So he was on edge, too. The unfamiliar settlement, the warm thick night, might draw out people they didn’t want to talk to.

“You okay, Doctor?”

“Six months. I give that baby six months, based on the condition of the rest of the camp. It’s so goddamn pointless.”

Dennis and the other doctors at the clinic went over the statistics all the time. Without proper nutrition, clean water, medicine, without so many little necessities, infant mortality spiked. And there didn’t seem to be anything they could do about it. If they were in the area, maybe one of the doctors could come out to vaccinate. Or maybe the parents really would bring the baby to the clinic.

The man returned to the door and handed over a threadbare pillowcase, half-filled. “Here. It’s what we can spare. Thank you. Thank you for coming.”

Grimly, Dr. Dennis took the makeshift sack by its bunched-up neck. “You’re welcome. Just keep her as safe and healthy as you can, right?”

Dennis took a quick look in the sack, which Kath knew would be filled with canned goods, maybe some wire or screws, some glue. Odds and ends. Whatever salvage the parents thought worth the doctor’s attention. Barter. Dennis used to get paid thousands of dollars for delivering a baby.

He looked up. “Kind of a weird question. Do you have any golf balls?”

The man pursed his lips and shook his head. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Well if you find any, maybe save them for me?”

“Yeah. Yeah, sure.”

Two other women came to the doorway to look out. One of them was pregnant, maybe five months. She seemed worried, brow creased, lips tight, hands laced over belly. As if she could use her fingers to cage her unborn child to keep it safe. The other woman looked tired.

Dennis frowned at them. “You all aren’t using any birth control at all around here, are you?”

Both women cringed, and the man crossed his arms. “Not like we can pop into Walgreens for condoms.”

“It’s just… never mind.”

The man added, “I mean, so many people have died—don’t we need to think about repopulating—”

“Oh Jesus fuck, no! Look, repopulating the planet or whatever can take care of itself. You—you just worry about keeping the people you already have safe and healthy. Fed. Grow some fucking potatoes!”

For just a moment the man’s glowering gaze hardened. He was thinking of trouble, of taking the doctor down a notch for the outburst. Kath straightened, shifting the shotgun on her lap. To show she was watching.

He backed off. “We’re trying, here. We’re trying.

Dennis sighed and came around to the other side of the car to wait for Melanie.

She emerged a moment later, shrugging the strap of an equipment bag over her shoulder and pushing a strand of black hair out of her eyes. She looked the most tired of all, even more than the mother, who at least was smiling when Kath glimpsed her.

Kath hopped off the car and opened the back door. “You okay?” she asked.

“I think so,” she said, sighing. “Doc made me handle the delivery on this one.”

“How was it?”

Melanie shook her head, her eyes widening in a look of half-panicked disbelief. “It’s a lot different when the baby is falling into your own hands. I just kept thinking, God, don’t drop it.” She closed her eyes and sucked in a breath. “I hope everything stays okay.”

Kath touched her shoulder. “Let’s get out of here.”

Melanie practically fell into the back seat, and Dennis started the motor and pulled away. Kath rode in the front passenger seat. Literally shotgun. That had stopped being clever a while back. She kept the window rolled halfway down and listened for the sound of approaching engines.

“You did great,” Dennis said, glancing at his assistant in the rearview mirror. “You should have asked them to name the baby after you.”

“No, that’s okay. What’d they give you?” She went through the bag, to the sound of cans knocking together. “Eh, not bad. A couple boxes of nails. We can always trade that back out. Canned peaches.” She paused, looked quizzical, and drew out a glass jar. “Capers. There’s a jar of capers in here. They’re organic.”

“Organic capers,” Dennis snorted. “We’re saved.”

Dennis kept the headlights dimmed to save the battery. If there’d been enough moonlight, he’d have shut off the lights entirely. But the roads had gotten too hazardous, full of potholes and debris, to risk going entirely dark. Still, the doctor didn’t see the three kids standing in their path.

“Stop!” Kath screamed when she realized those shapes weren’t odd shadows but children, one older gripping the hands of two little ones, there in the middle of the road, unmoving. Like they intended to get run over.

The car lurched to a stop, skidded a few feet. The bag of loot fell clattering to the floor, and Melanie braced herself on the seat. Kath was already out the door, with Dennis calling after her.

The kids stared back at her quietly. Their eyes were sunken, their cheeks hollow. It could have just been odd shadows cast by the dim headlights, but Kath didn’t think so. They were hungry, starving. She scanned around for an adult, maybe a caravan they might have wandered off from. But they seemed so purposeful, the way they looked back at her, their eyes round and shining. They didn’t seem lost.

“Hey, what’re you guys doing here? Are you okay?” She tucked the shotgun under her arm, muzzle down, and approached them.

The older child looked like a girl, stringy brown hair in a loose braid, her eyes big and unblinking. Kath thought she was around eight, then revised up—ten, and malnourished. The other two might have been anywhere from two to five. Upright, but still uncertain in their movements. They clung to the older girl, gripping each hand and hugging her legs. All three wore t-shirts and loose pants. Only the oldest had shoes, dirty sneakers, toes poking through holes.

Kath inched closer, trying to look friendly and harmless even with a gun under her arm, but she stopped short of reaching out. Both Dennis and Melanie had left the car as well.

“It’s okay,” Kath said softly. “We’re not going to hurt you, I just want to find out what’s wrong.”

The oldest child licked her lips. “She told us to stand here. She told us to wait for the doctor to come and then go with him to the clinic. She said you’d take care of us.”

“Who? Who said?”

Her lips pursed, the girl didn’t answer. Kath thought she was about to cry, but she just kept staring, any kind of emotion, any response, locked up.

Kath tried again. “Where’d you come from? From the camp back there? From somewhere else?” It had to be the camp, to know that they’d be driving back this way.

“She just said to wait here. She said you’d take care of us.”

How did they know that? How could they be sure? Could have been anyone that came along the road here, and the girl seemed to know it. She was trying to be firm, to be confident. But her lip trembled, and her grip on the little kids’ hands was white-knuckled. She might have known just how dangerous this was, trusting in the good will of strangers.

Dennis had gotten out a flashlight and panned it around, scanning broken-down buildings and debris-strewn streets in all directions. No movement, nobody watching, nothing. Whoever had abandoned the kids here had fled.

“We need to get moving,” Kath said. She was the guard on this run, but Dennis was in charge. It was his call.

“Jesus Christ. Okay, fine. Everybody in the car.”

The littlest one started crying. At what in particular, Kath couldn’t say. Maybe it was just general exhaustion. She could understand that.

“What’s your name?” Kath asked.

“Chloë. These are Tom and Dakota.” She sounded relieved. Her shoulders had lowered a notch.

“I’m Kath. Let’s go.”

 

The two little ones fell asleep as soon as the car doors closed, and Kath marveled. How trusting, to climb into a car with strangers and somehow feel safer. This was a different set of rules than what she grew up with. The girl, Chloë, sat in the middle of the back seat, arms draped over both little ones, staring straight ahead.

Dennis drove with both hands on the wheel, clenched. Melanie also fell asleep, not looking at all peaceful. She was going to have a good cry later, Kath was sure.

“Where would you be now?” Dennis asked after a long stretch of silence. His profile was shadow.

“Hm,” Kath said. “College. Maybe I’d be at a party. Getting drunk? I dunno.”

His smile brightened his voice. “Getting in trouble. Sounds good. I approve.”

“Maybe I’d be studying for a test. Would it be exam time right about now?”

“Naw, you should go to the party. Have some fun.”

“Where would you be?” she asked in turn.

“Palm Springs. The back nine at Indian Wells. With a Corona in the cup holder of my cart.”

“Golfing in the middle of the night?”

“Well, no, not golfing right this minute. But I guess that’s where I’d rather be. I suppose that’s cliché, the doctor who’d rather be golfing.”

“You think it’s still there? The golf course?”

He shook his head, a scrap of movement in the otherwise still night. “Even if the grass hasn’t all died it wouldn’t be getting groomed.”

They drove on a little while, tires crunching on pitted asphalt.

“I wish you’d had the chance to go to college,” he said. “Even just a year or two. I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” she said, because it was what she always said. The entire concept of college was becoming abstract.

Her older brother Eddie had gone to college. He’d gone back east, and that’s where he’d been when it all fell apart. She wondered what happened to him. Would always wonder, and it was maddening, not having any way to find out. Maybe even now, five years after his last call, before the power went out, he was still trying to make his way across the country like he said he would. Maybe he’d made it as far as, say, Colorado. Gotten caught in the mountains in winter. Maybe he was just resting. Maybe he’d found a safe place to stay, like the clinic here. Maybe they needed him, so he stayed. How long did it take someone to walk three thousand miles, anyway? She didn’t have any idea.

She left a note for him back at the house. Stuck it to the door, covered it with packing tape so it would survive wind and weather. Maybe he’d find it someday. Maybe he’d find her.

They rolled back to the clinic at dawn, when the sky was gray and chilled. Jim was keeping watch on the north side this shift, rifle tucked under his arm, perched on one of the derelict trucks that made up the barricade around the compound. Kath sat up on the edge of the open window and waved an arm high, giving him plenty of time to spot and ID her and the Tesla. She could see him shade his eyes to look out. He waved back and started to open the gate.

The car’s charge was just about finished. Eighty miles round trip was at the far end of its range these days; its battery didn’t hold as much as it used to. They might need to start rethinking trips like this. Or figure out how to bring solar panels along for a recharge.

A couple of others had come out to help Jim move aside the flatbed trailer stacked with twisted wreckage that served as the north gate. They could move it in and out easy enough, and then use chains and locks to anchor it to rebar loops sunk into concrete pits in the ground. As soon as the Tesla was inside, they shifted and locked the trailer back into place. Dennis rolled the car to a stop in its spot in the back of the clinic, where its charging station was, hooked up to a roof full of solar panels. That had been an epic bit of engineering, to get that all situated. The clinic was the only spot for twenty miles around that still had electricity.

Maggie must have been waiting for them; she came out the front door as soon as the car stopped. “How did it go? Everyone okay?”

“Bouncing baby girl,” Dennis said, climbing from the car and stretching his back. “They gave us capers. We can resurrect fine dining.”

The other doors opened; Melanie herded out the children. Chloë was carrying the youngest propped on her hip, asleep.

Maggie was a middle-aged woman, tanned, brown hair growing gray, tied up in a bun. She wore a wrinkled blouse, jeans, and workboots. Kath looked at Maggie and saw her own mother, who’d been dead for five years now. Maggie and her mom had been friends; hard not to see her as some kind of stand-in. Kath hadn’t wanted to leave home. She’d been waiting, as if her parents might come back. As if Eddie might find her there, and if she left, maybe he never would. Likely, she’d be dead now if Maggie hadn’t made her come to the clinic.

Maggie stopped and gaped, looking among the adults for explanation. “What’s this? Who’re they?”

“Found ’em on the road,” Dennis said, casually, like this sort of thing happened all the time.

The older doctor’s mouth opened, horrified. “We can’t… we don’t… we don’t have enough food! We can’t take care of any more people!”

“Were we supposed to just leave them there?” Kath asked.

Maggie put her hand to her forehead. Her mouth had sunk into a deep frown. “No, of course not. It’s just… God.” She turned and walked off, scratching her hair.

“Come on,” Kath said to Chloë. “We’ll get you set up inside.”

 

Kath had them wash faces and hands while she heated up a can of beans to feed them, and made them each drink a glass of water and take a few chewable vitamins. They still had a couple bottles left, and this seemed like a good use for them. After that, the kids curled up on a cot in one of the exam rooms, all three of them together, snuggled under the blanket Kath had tucked them in with despite the heat. Maggie watched from the doorway, arms crossed, clearly unhappy. But she hadn’t really been happy ever, the last couple years.

“We couldn’t just leave them,” Kath insisted.

“And we can’t keep taking in strays. We had to throw out those potato plants on the east side of the building. Rot got them.”

They weren’t strays, Kath thought. They’d been dropped off. People were going to start leaving babies on their doorstep. And the clinic didn’t have enough food. “We’ll try again,” Kath said, because what else could she say? “We’ll figure it out.”

“Yeah, I know, I know. You should get some rest, okay?” Maggie ran a hand over Kath’s hair, something she’d been doing since Kath was five.

Kath smiled grimly, double checked that the shotgun and its spare shells were locked up, and went out to the row of tents lined up along the clinic building. She hadn’t really thought about being tired until Maggie mentioned rest.

Kids and doctors slept in the clinic building. Everyone else used the row of tents, some old-fashioned canvas jobs, a few nylon domes, everything in between. Kath used one of the canvas ones, with the flaps tied up during the day to let in air, mosquito netting in place to try to keep out bugs.

Melanie was already inside, stripped to tank top and panties, sprawled face down on the sheet-covered mattress. If Kath was tired, Melanie was probably flattened after the night she had. But Kath paused a moment anyway, to see if she was really asleep. Admired the curve of her shoulder, the slope of her back where it arced to her hip. Melanie had the most amazing, artful shape to her.

Quietly, moving slowly, Kath pulled off her own dusty, rank clothes, then sat with her journal, squinting in the dark to write a handful of words about the image of those kids in the road, the nerve-wracking groans of the woman, the sticky-hot night air. These days, she mostly kept the diary out of habit, and her handwriting had turned tiny, scrunched—trying to conserve space, since she didn’t know when she’d ever find another blank book. She figured she’d keep writing until she ran out of space.

Kath tried to be quiet, but Melanie woke up anyway. “Hmm?”

“Sorry, didn’t mean to wake you,” she said.

“Hm, s’okay, c’mere.”

Kath set aside the book, collapsed onto the mattress, and Melanie gathered her into her arms. They clung to each other, body to body, and Kath’s near-constant, watchful tension from the night melted a couple of degrees. The scent of Melanie, the soap-and-sweat of her, the warmth of her skin, made Kath feel a little drunk. Melanie shifted, brought her mouth to Kath’s, and they kissed, a little desperately. Melanie sighed, like her own tension was finally fading.

“You okay?” Kath asked.

She squeezed her eyes shut. “We’re going to be back there in two years helping that same woman deliver another baby, there’ll be twenty babies running around that camp and they’ll all be starving—”

Kath hugged her. Melanie shuddered a moment. Trying not to cry, unable not to cry. Kath didn’t know what to tell her.

“That’s optimistic,” she said finally.

“What?”

“That any of us are still going to be around in two years.”

Melanie pulled away and stared at her a moment, then busted out laughing. They fell together in another tight hug, conveying powerful comfort. Anchoring each other.

“Where would you be now?” Kath whispered.

“Med school. I wanted to go to med school.” She laughed, but the laughter turned to crying, like it often did. She didn’t try to hide it this time, and Kath held her till she fell back asleep.

 

Just a year or so into their time camping out at the clinic, a fire flattened the strip mall on the other side of the street. Could have been anything that started it, from a leaking gas line and static build up to lightning. Some traveler tossing a lit cigarette. With no one to fight the fire, it burned walls to the ground, collapsed roofs, and kept going. The few shade trees spaced out on the sidewalk went up like torches, and folk at the clinic stayed up all night stomping on ashes and dumping water on hot spots to keep the fire from jumping the road and claiming their home. The barricade of derelict cars, trucks, and trailers had already been put in place by then, but after the fire died down they hauled, towed, and wrangled the barricade another fifty feet out, and added on to it, to increase their buffer zone. To increase the perception of safety. They also spent six months demolishing buildings up and down their own street. Took a long time, clearing all that space with sledgehammers and controlled burns, but it gave them great line of sight after. And more space for gardening. After security, gardening was their biggest preoccupation.

It had only taken a few years for the entire character of that street, the neighborhood surrounding the clinic, to change. When they sat around at night, drinking whatever bottle of booze turned up, and asked how this could happen, they only had to look around.

The next day, after stopping by the kitchen tent for a cup of water and an apple, Kath went on her daily walk around the barricade. She usually did this in the morning, but after the long night she slept past noon. Melanie had already gotten up and was probably at the clinic helping with the work of the day. Kath would check in in a little while, see how the new arrivals were getting on.

The air was sticky, humid, and the sun was roasting. Calendar said it was April, but this felt like July. She was dripping sweat in moments. She wiped her face and pulled the brim of her baseball cap down to better block the glare.

The clinic housed thirty-two people these days. Thirty-five, she revised. Most of the clinic residents were up and about, working in garden patches, tinkering with the couple of cars they still had, cleaning and maintaining the camp. A half dozen stood at the barricade with weapons, watching. Kath waved when people waved at her, said hello. The day felt ordinary.

On the west side of the compound, Dr. Dennis stood outside the barricade and hit golf balls with a driver. Flung them up the road, one after the other. When it was safe enough he’d go collect them, and for some of the kids it was a game, to see how many golf balls they could recover for him. A few always stayed lost, but Dennis kept hitting them anyway. Swing, a whoosh of air, thwack. He’d shade his eyes to follow the arc of the ball until it hit the ground a hundred yards or so on. Kath didn’t know enough about golf to tell if he was any good. Didn’t seem to bother him, that he might never play a real round of golf ever again. He just seemed to enjoy hitting balls to nowhere.

Kath sat on the edge of the barricade and watched for a little while.

“Morning,” Dennis said finally.

“What happens when you run out?”

He shrugged. “Maybe I’ll start hitting rocks. But, maybe I won’t run out. Maybe I’ll get back to Palm Springs, when everything gets back to normal.”

This is normal, she thought. She was thinking that more and more, but never said it out loud.

“You want to try it?” Dennis asked.

“No thanks. I’m just taking a walk.”

“Enjoy.”

“You, too.”

He took another ball from the nylon bag at his feet, set it on a bare patch of ground, and lined up for the next swing.

Kath finished her circle around the compound and headed to the squat, concrete building in the middle.

The front room was crowded. The compound’s handful of resident kids swarmed. They were supposed to be settling down for the impromptu class one of the nurses taught every other day or so, but something had set them off. A giant spider, Kath gathered from the shouting. The room was loud. Anita, one of the clinic nurses, was trying to settle them down, yelling in both English and Spanish, but nothing worked.

Kath’s three refugees cringed away from it all, huddled at the side of the room, watching cautiously. She grabbed a couple of picture books from the basket under one of the chairs and called to Chloë. “Let’s go get some air, okay?”

The girl considered a moment, lips pressed in a suspicious frown. She was looking marginally better today, Kath thought. Some color in her cheeks. But then, she couldn’t look much worse than she had last night, standing in the dark, bleakly washed out by headlights. The two little ones were hunched up next to her, staring at the proceedings with round, glazed eyes. Maybe trying to decide if this was dangerous. Chloë picked up their hands and tugged them toward the door.

Kath found a shady spot around the side of the building where the clinic’s pots of lettuce plants lived. Wasn’t exactly a garden, but it was kind of a nice place to spend a few quiet moments.

“Want to do the honors?” Kath asked, opening to the first page of one of the books. The little ones scooted closer, drawn by the colors and pictures of round friendly animals, putting their hands on the paper.

Chloë winced, drawing her limbs in to hug herself. “I can’t. I know I should… but…”

Kath thought that might be the case. “No worries. We’ll work on it now.” She read to them, following with her fingers, showing Chloë the words. She wasn’t going to teach the girl to read in one sitting. But they had to start somewhere. The little ones were rapt.

They went through the books she’d brought, went through them all again at the little ones’ insistence, and Kath asked them which were their favorites and why. They finally seemed normal. Acted normal, engaged and talking. Then they lost interest in the books and ran off to chase a grasshopper. Kath let them; they couldn’t get into too much trouble around here.

Chloë was still suspicious.

“They your siblings? Brother and sister?”

“Yeah.”

“Where are your parents?”

She shrugged, shuffling through the books, brushing fingers on the covers. “What’s the point? I mean, does anybody still read?”

“We still have books. We have a whole library inside. It’s still a good way to learn things.”

“I guess.”

Kath wanted to draw her out. “Do you remember anything from before?” She was old enough; she might, unlike her siblings. Or depending on how bad things had been for her, she might have blocked it all out. “I remember a lot. I definitely don’t want to forget how to read.”

Chloë stared out at the barricade of junked cars. Kath didn’t think she was going to talk, and was going to let it go. Suggest they go in and find some lunch. But then the girl said, “I remember Disneyland. We went when I was really small. Got my picture with Ariel. She’s my favorite. Wish I still had the picture but it got lost somewhere. I guess it’s still there? Disneyland? What’s going to happen to it?”

Honestly, Kath couldn’t remember the last time she’d even thought of Disneyland. But the question suddenly filled her. What had happened to Disneyland? Another stab of grief followed. Another thing to mourn, or lock away and forget.

She said, “It must still be there. Some of it, at least. But the lights have probably gone out.”

“I wish I was there. Even with the lights out.”

“Yeah.”

Kath looked up; Maggie stood at the corner of the building, arms crossed. Her face was screwed up in the way it usually got when she was thinking of crying. Holding it in so hard she seemed to be in pain. Then, the look was gone.

Maggie said, “Hey there! Anita’s got soup cooking. Chloë, why don’t you take the others around and get yourselves fed.”

The girl nodded, clambering to her feet and going to fetch the others, who’d been playing some kind of tag. She didn’t call out to them, and Kath wondered about that. That she didn’t feel safe, raising her voice.

Kath stood and watched them go, and Maggie watched Kath.

“You’re good with the kids. They’re comfortable with you.”

“Yeah, I like them too.” She didn’t worry so much with the kids. She didn’t think about the future so much. Kids were easy: keep them fed, keep them clean, do everything to keep them safe. Simple. If she could teach them to read, then she’ll really have accomplished something.

Maggie seemed to draw even tighter to herself. Her shoulders were rigid, her hands in fists.

Kath’s brow furrowed. “What’s the matter?”

“It’s just… you looked like… you don’t want to have your own kids, do you?”

She hadn’t thought about it at all. Food and security, that was what she thought about these days. The question startled her, and she had to think a moment, but that moment was too long for Maggie.

“Oh God, you’re already pregnant, aren’t you? That’s why you like the kids, you’re practicing—”

“What? No! What gave you that idea?”

This didn’t seem to help. “But you’re having sex. Tell me, are you having sex?”

Kath glared. “I’m twenty years old, of course I’m having sex!”

“And you’re pregnant.”

“No, God no!”

“But have you been using protection? How do you know?” Maggie seemed desperate.

Kath paused, then shot back, “Because I’m sleeping with Melanie!”

Maggie drew back, and Kath wondered what she was going to rant about next. It wasn’t that she and Melanie had been hiding anything. It just made sense to double up on tents to save space, and they hadn’t actually announced anything when they became more than friends. It wasn’t being gay that Kath thought would upset people. It was being… adult. She wasn’t growing up. She was grown.

Now, Maggie did cry. Or laugh. Something that came from tension releasing, and causing whatever was holding her together to collapse. She slumped against the wall, both hands covering her face. “I’m sorry, Kathy. I’m sorry. It’s just… we can’t feed everyone, and people keep having babies and we can’t do anything, we can’t feed them—”

Kath put her arms around the woman and just held her.

“God, look at me,” Maggie said around sobs. “I’m supposed to be taking care of you and just look at me.”

“You don’t have to take care of me,” Kath said. “You have enough to worry about, just let me… be me.”

They stayed like that awhile, hidden in the shelter of the building where Maggie could lose it in private, and Kath stayed to make sure she was okay. The older woman had been right at the edge for such a long time.

Maggie finally pulled away, scrubbing tears off her face and chuckling at herself, a strained and painful sound.

“So, you and Melanie, huh? I think I knew that. Yeah. Oh God, I’m so messed up I can’t see what’s right in front of my face. I promised your mom I’d look out for you and if you turned up pregnant in this mess—” She took a shuddering breath, rubbed her face one more time. And like that she had put on a new mask, and was smiling. “I’m sorry. I forget sometimes, that you’re grown up.”

Kath offered words, a gesture of comfort, though it might hurt as much as it helped. Kath wanted to say it. “I never got to come out to Mom,” she said softly. “I mean, I sort of knew, I was starting to figure it out. Figuring out that I didn’t just put those pictures on my wall because I liked beach volleyball so much, you know? But I never told Mom.”

“Oh, hon. You know she’d be okay with it, right?”

“Yeah, I know. But I wish…” She shook her head. They all wished.

“You should be in college,” Maggie murmured, running a hand over Kath’s hair.

All the adults said that to her in their most maudlin moments. She should be in college. Not staying up half the night with a gun under her arm. Kath herself had stopped believing anything would ever change. This was just what life was now. There’d never be somewhere else.

“Where would you be now?” she asked Maggie.

She looked around at the wide-open compound that used to be part of a pleasant street, the modest building now crammed with solar panels it didn’t used to have. “I’d be here, I think. But it’d be a lot different. Can you do a watch shift tonight? Mike’s come down with something.”

“Bad?”

“No, just a cold.”

“Yeah, no problem.”

“Thanks. Just… thank you.”

 

Kath’s watch shift started late afternoon and went into the evening. She covered about half the perimeter, walking on top of the barricade, stepping from car roof to truck hood to trailer and on. They’d bolted on sheets of metal and spikes, fencing, and other odds and ends to the basic framework over the years. Occasionally she’d come upon a loose bit, a piece of sheeting that moved under her feet, a car roof that was rusting out, and the next day someone would come to repair it. Used to be, they’d have four or five people covering the barricade, especially during the night watch. But since the fire and clearing the line of sight, they needed fewer people watching and could save the effort for other chores. The long approach gave the watchers plenty of time to spot trouble and raise an alarm.

This evening, trouble came right around dusk. The worst time, with the light fading. Her first hint came as movement on the horizon. Could have been anything, so she waited for the movement to resolve into shapes, or fade into nothing. Shadows appearing in wavering heat lines in the distance could be deceptive. She brought binoculars to her eyes, spent a moment focusing with one hand, the other clenched on the shotgun.

The shadows gained definition. Not a mirage, not deer or something else wandering in the distance. Now that she saw them, she heard the noise, a rumbling sound that was becoming rare. Gas-powered engines, beating against the air. Three cars, a couple of motorcycles, more than a dozen people, and those were just the ones she could see from this distance. Who knew how many were hiding inside the vehicles?

The convoy was racing straight for them.

She let the binoculars hang off their strap and cupped a hand to her mouth. “Incoming! Incoming!”

Someone at the clinic heard her and clanged the brass bell hanging off the front overhang.

They didn’t need it very often, but they had a routine for this, when strangers came barreling at the clinic compound in a way that didn’t suggest friendship. Those standing watch at the barricade stayed put, in case the invaders came on multiple fronts. A dozen others, whoever was on hand, grabbed weapons from the locker and came out to where the alarm had sounded.

Kath waited for her backup, shotgun in both hands, watching her targets come into range. The cars bounced and jutted over broken asphalt, while the motorcycles curved and weaved.

“Where the hell are they getting gas from?” Dennis asked. He’d climbed up on the barricade next to Kath.

Maggie was right behind him. “Don’t know, don’t care. What do they want?”

Kath said, “Better get down, in case they come in firing.”

The barricade had places to shelter: inside cabs, on shielded truck beds. All the invaders would see was their shotguns and rifles bristling out.

The caravan stopped at the edge of firing range. If one of the rifles fired at them now, it might or might not hit. A big man, white, wearing a leather jacket and cowboy hat, scrambled out of the driver’s side of one of the cars and marched forward a few paces. He didn’t seem to be armed.

Kath stood tall and shouted at him across the barrel of her shotgun. “Stop! Stop and show your hands!”

The man’s thick beard worked, as if he was biting his lip under it. He raised his hands. “Is this the clinic?” he shouted. “The one people talk about, that has doctors and medicine? Is that you?”

“What do you want!”

He gestured back. “We have wounded! We need help! We can trade for it! We have gas, guns, bullets—”

“Food?”

He paused a moment. “Yes!”

Kath looked at Maggie and Dennis.

“What kind of wounded?” Dennis shouted back. He stayed behind his shelter.

“Gunshot! Two men. God, please, help them!”

It could be a trick. Or the man could be honest. In the end, half the people here were doctors and nurses, and they recognized that kind of desperate plea.

The clinic had a process for this kind of situation, too.

Maggie and Dennis both emerged on top of the barricade, and Maggie called out. “Okay, here’s how it’s going to work. You bring the injured men inside, the vehicles stay out. Just the injured and two people each to carry them, no one else gets in, and you leave all your weapons outside. Got it?”

“Yes, okay, fine!”

And they checked, too. While the caravan pulled their injured out of the backs of the vehicles, Maggie and the clinic folk hauled open the gate, but only a couple of feet, just wide enough for two people to walk through. Two of the clinic’s biggest guys, Jim and Jorge, patted down everybody at the opening, even the injured. But they didn’t have anything, which gave these people an incremental point of trust.

The injured men were being carried chair style, one by two men, one by the man who’d greeted them and a woman. One of the injured seemed to be unconscious, but the other was making the guttural, deep-belly groans of someone moaning through clenched teeth. Every shadow on them looked like stains of blood.

“Okay, get ’em inside!” Maggie, Dennis, and a trail of clinic folk escorted them to the door of the clinic.

Jim stayed at the barrier. “Kath, go with them, stand watch inside, we’ll keep an eye out here.”

An odd quiet had fallen—the vehicles in the convoy had shut off their engines, turned off their headlights; those left behind waited quietly. Evening light had all but gone, so figures moved as shapes in the dark. Shotgun in hand, extra shells jangling in the pocket of her windbreaker, she trotted after the others.

Unlike the quiet at the barricade, inside the clinic was loud and brightly lit. Someone was herding the kids outside, to sleep in tents. Kath spotted Chloë and spared her a smile. She and her siblings looked like they might bolt at the sign of the injured men. Kath hurriedly told her, “It’ll be fine,” and hoped that was enough. Chloë nodded, and might even have been convinced.

Past the waiting room, the first exam room was noisy with shouted orders. Dennis and Melanie had taken the first of the injured men here, the one grunting with fierce pain. Maggie and Anita took the unconscious man to the second exam room. Both doors stayed open and Kath was able to keep an eye on them all. Dennis was shouting orders. Melanie was talking to the first patient in Spanish, telling him to lie back, to breathe, respire, respire, bien, bien. The man started crying, ayudame, ayudame! Help me, help me.

In the second room, Maggie and the gang’s spokesman were talking.

“We can barter,” he was explaining. “We have a whole warehouse, whatever you need. We have food. Just save them. Can you save them?”

The man laid out on the table had a great stain of blood covering his chest. It seemed centered on his right shoulder. A gunshot wound, not necessarily fatal. Likely he was in shock and needed support, fluid and oxygen, while the doctors cleaned the wound. But they’d need to get started on him right away. Anita and one of the nurses had cut away his shirt, inserted an IV and were peeling away cloth that had been stuffed into the wound.

After a deep breath, Maggie seemed to come to a decision. She explained, “We don’t need food as much as we need protection.” She looked him straight in the eye, unwavering. “We help you, you help keep us safe. You get the word out to your people, to anyone else—this is neutral ground. We stay safe, no matter what. No one attacks us, no one hurts us, no one hurts anyone while they’re here. Got it?”

“We protect you. And you help us and no one else. Just us.”

“No. We help everyone or it doesn’t work. We’re not a commodity. We’re here for everyone.”

“Can’t promise that.”

Maggie bit her lip in a moment of thought. Then she put up her hands and stepped back from the table. After glancing at her and each other in a moment of hesitation, Anita and the other nurse stepped from the table, hands up like hers, blood on latex gloves.

The guy and the woman with him started forward, fists raised as if they could beat her into saving the man’s life. Kath stepped in front of him, shotgun raised, warding them off. The standoff persisted for a handful of heartbeats.

The lead thug grinned. “You ever even shot anyone, kid?”

“Yes, I have.” No hesitation, no hint of bluffing. She didn’t need to bluff. Her tone convinced him; his smile fell, and he backed off.

Everyone watched him now, the one who would decide. His gang would listen to him. But Maggie and the other doctors were the ones who could fix things.

“Okay. Fine. This whole place is off limits. I’ll spread the word.”

“And you’ll make sure we stay safe.”

“As much as anyone can stay safe.”

Maggie and the others closed back to the table in a flurry of action. Low-voiced commands and bits of information passed back and forth. In moments an impromptu surgery was underway.

Maggie said, “You all should probably wait outside.”

A spike of tension followed, both strangers poised to lunge forward again. As if the doctors would really do something nefarious if they weren’t supervised. Kath reasserted herself and the shotgun.

The clinic director made a calming gesture. “My people need room and quiet to work, it’s better if you wait.” She added, “One of you can stay to watch. Her—”

She nodded to the woman with the leather jacket and wary gaze looking past too much eye makeup. And where had she found a stash of useable eyeliner? “Why her?” the man asked.

“Because she’s quiet.”

“Cynthia?”

She nodded. “Yeah, okay.”

“There are chairs in the waiting room,” Kath said, trying to sound neutral, if not friendly. Nodding, he went out.

Dennis had managed to kick out both of the gang members in his room. His patient was sedated now, finally quiet. The medical team was busy with gauze, alcohol, forceps, removing bullets from legs. Melanie glanced up once and gave Kath a thin smile. Kath smiled back, unsure who was comforting whom.

She stayed in the corridor, keeping watch over both rooms and the waiting room. There, the gang members had settled down. Too tired to argue anymore, maybe. One of them had even fallen asleep.

The clinic treatment rooms were made for routine outpatient care, not trauma. But Maggie, Dennis, and the others made do. By morning the two injured men were bandaged, sedated, and recovering quietly. Splashes of blood and red-stained gauze littered the floors, and a whole tray of scalpels and forceps and other instruments lay piled on a tray by the autoclave in the back supply room. The medicals were trying to clean up, wiping down surfaces, peeling off latex gloves. Wiping faces on sleeves and looking out, shell-shocked.

Maggie made a trip to the back supply room. When the woman, Cynthia, followed, Kath quietly moved in behind her. Just to keep an eye on her.

Cynthia glared a moment. “Can you close the door? Just for a minute.”

Kath looked at Maggie. Confused, Maggie nodded. Kath shut the door and waited, hands ready on her weapon.

Then Cynthia said, whispering, “Can you help me not get pregnant?”

Maggie froze a moment, processing. The woman pursed her lips and seemed to be holding her breath. When Maggie didn’t answer right away, Cynthia tried again. “I mean if I wanted an IUD or something, could you do that?”

“Yes, we can do that. We’ll have to do a pregnancy test first—are you pregnant?”

Cynthia’s eyes widened. She looked terrified. “Oh God I hope not, I don’t want to be, that’s why I was asking—”

“But you might be,” Maggie asked, and Cynthia ducked her face to hide spilling tears. Maggie touched her shoulder. “Come on, let’s check. Not a big deal. Kath, come in back and help me clear off that table.”

They went to the back exam room where they’d been stockpiling canned food. Kath had to shift boxes so Cynthia had somewhere to sit, while Maggie dug around one of the cupboards. Cynthia talked. Rambled.

“Adam, the big guy who does all the talking… he’s taking care of me. He’s promised to take care of me.”

“You could take care of yourself,” Maggie muttered.

“Don’t judge me,” Cynthia said through gritted teeth. “Fucking that man is keeping me alive right now. I can’t not do it, I can’t force him to wear condoms, and I do not want to have a baby in the mess.”

Maggie looked away.

Cynthia continued. “My… my sister got pregnant. I’d managed to keep her with me all this time, I’d promised to take care of her. But seven months in she got sick. Massive headache, vomiting, cramping. Then seizures.”

“Sounds like eclampsia,” Maggie said. “It’s a thing that happens sometimes. We might have been able to help her, but maybe not.”

“I couldn’t save her. The baby killed her, and it isn’t supposed to be like that, I don’t want to go through that. There’d be no one to help me.”

The whole thing took maybe half an hour. Maggie had Cynthia go back to the bathroom to pee in a cup. The test came back negative, and Cynthia started crying again. Maggie coaxed her to undress and pulled out the stirrups on the table. “Kath, why don’t you see how they’re doing up front?”

Kath ducked out.

Both injured men were stable. Dennis was in the waiting room, talking to the gang’s leader, Adam.

“They shouldn’t be moved for at least a couple of days. Especially not if you’re going to shove them in a car and bounce them around—”

“Hey!”

Dennis put up a calming hand and tried again. “You can leave them here, no problem. And yes, any food you want to give us will be appreciated.”

“And protection,” he said, his curled lip almost making it a sneer.

“We’re the only medical help for a hundred miles around. Maybe more. Your people would be dead now. You tell me whether or not we deserve protecting.”

Adam didn’t have anything to say to that.

Cynthia and Maggie emerged a little while later. Cynthia looked tired, shadows under her eyes, a slump in her shoulders. But she also seemed determined. An edge of that ever-present anxiety was gone. Kath was close enough to hear Maggie say to her, almost under her breath, “We’ve got a cupboard full of IUDs. I think we even have a few diaphragms stashed away somewhere. Tell your friends. We’ll help anyone with birth control, no barter needed. Spread the word.”

Cynthia nodded. “Yeah. Okay.”

In what Kath thought was a gesture of supreme goodwill, Maggie invited Adam and his gang to stay for the day, to get some sleep, and to share breakfast. Kath realized later the underlying motive: make the clinic compound feel like home. Make it feel safe, and give them a stake in keeping it that way. They declined, however. Adam muttered something about not wanting to feel even more indebted. Cynthia took hold of his arm, whispered something, and the man settled.

They agreed to leave their injured and return for them in two days. That gave the clinic a couple more days to get them as strong as possible, and make sure infection didn’t set in. They had a pretty good track record with this sort of thing so far, but it would only take one death from sepsis to undo everything.

The stakes seemed so high, for everything they did.

“We’re running out,” Dennis said, as they stood on the barricade, watching the caravan drive away, tires kicking up chips of broken asphalt.

“Of what?” Maggie said tiredly.

“Everything, really. But specifically—I think we should try to start growing some penicillin.”

She stared. “Can we do that?”

“I think we can. I think we have to.”

Maggie bowed her head. “What you’re saying is you don’t think this is ever going to end. It’s never going to go back to the way it was.”

“No,” he said, folding her into his arms when she started to cry.

Technically, Kath’s watch shift ended hours ago. A second night on her feet, she ought to be exhausted. But her nerves were wired, her skin itched. She set off for a circuit around the barricade. Still had the shotgun slung over her shoulder, shells hanging in her pocket.

She hadn’t gotten a quarter of the way around when she spotted Melanie standing at the barricade, looking out at the sun-baked plain.

“You okay?” Kath asked cautiously.

“Would it sound weird if I said that was kind of fun? Good trauma practice, you know? Nice, thinking I actually helped save someone.”

Kath stepped forward, well into her space, and kissed her. Jangling nerves stilled. Melanie pulled back, surprised, glancing around to see if anyone was watching.

“We’re not being discreet anymore?”

Kath shook her head. “I told Maggie. She was freaked out that I was going to get knocked up.”

She laughed, hugging Kath close. “That woman needs to chill the hell out.”

“Yeah. But I don’t know. She’s the one holding all this together.”

They walked on for a while, arms around each other. The sun felt warm this morning instead of scorching. Kath finally felt ready to lie down for a nap.

Looking ahead, along the junkyard edge of the barricade, Melanie asked, “Where would you be now? If none of this had happened?”

She wouldn’t be in Melanie’s arms, for one. That was a weird thought, that if none of this had happened she wouldn’t have Melanie. And that would be a shame. She rested her head on her shoulder and sighed.

“It doesn’t matter. This is where I am.”

Copyright © 2018 by Carrie Vaughn
Art copyright © 2018 by Jon Foster

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