We came down to Independence in the afternoon. The sky as we descended was white, gray, pink smeared on a dirty canvas. I had the sense—because that morning we had been very high, above 13,000 feet, and everything had been very still as we balanced on hard, flat, brown rocks—that we were walking through the sky, and that we might come down from the sky painted white, and gray, and pink, ourselves.
Heavy, earth-bound, and unpainted except with our own sweat and the hard dirt from weeks without a shower, we stood on the yellow shoulder of the highway waiting for a ride into town. No ride came. We walked; walking was all we did.
Sometimes I talked while we walked. Dey never talked, except in one or two words to answer my questions.
The motel was north of us, straight up the highway. I pointed west. “You can’t even see the mountains,” I said.
Dey nodded without taking his eyes off the shoulder: yellow dirt, beige rocks, geometric impressions of sneaker treads all mixed together. Everything human-made looked the same after being in the mountains. All hard lines and hard colors before they faded in the sun. My eyes hurt from all the hard lines.
“We came from there,” I pointed southwest, where the valleys of the sky were blurred into the peaks of the mountains. “And we’re going there.” Northwest. A thin line of almost-blue between fat beds of pink-gray-brown. “But first we have to find some real food. Do you understand?”
“Okay,” he said.
It can’t be overstated, how much work the word “okay” does in Dey’s vocabulary.
“Understand,” he said. He must have heard my eyes roll.
The sun was diffused through ozone, cloud, and the smoke that doesn’t leave the air anymore. California is always burning somewhere, now, and ash drizzles from the air like snowflakes. Ash fuzzed Dey’s left cheek. Dust from the mountains fuzzed it, too; in the light, the dust looked like flecks of gold. My arm wanted to move to cup the face that twinned my wife’s face, to press his cheek and impress something. Love. Grief. Forgiveness. But at the end of the twitch, my hand stayed where it was.
Dey looked at me like he knew what I had wanted, and failed, to do. His one red eye and his one yellow eye—and I don’t mean that just the irises were red or gold; the whole thing: iris, pupil, and sclera were one solid color each—stared, hard. I don’t know what he saw. A middle-aged woman? Soft around the jaw and hard around the eyes, high cheekbones blushed with dirt, soft kinky hair, shoulder-length. Mom/June/woman/bitch? I would never know, again, what his own voice whispered to him in his own language.
The Collapse had turned us all into animals.
We were heading for the only motel in Independence, California. I’d been there before, once during a backpacking trip in my late twenties. The world was different then, but some relics, like the small mountain-town motel, remained. I knew what to expect—blocks of brightly painted individual units arranged in a U around a concrete courtyard with worn, wooden picnic tables. In the past, there would have been people drinking beer and playing cards at the tables. Foil wrapped burritos from the taco truck parked at the Shell. Music from someone’s iPhone hooked up to a little Bluetooth speaker.
I hoped the red metal water pump around the back was still working; that the well hadn’t run dry.
“Come on, Kwam, let’s cross,” I said. I got halfway to the yellow divider when I realized he wasn’t behind me. I made it back to the shoulder just in time for a silver semi to blow hot air, diesel fumes, and pebbles against my shins. It was the only traffic I’d seen in the hour or so since we’d come down. There weren’t so many cars anymore; and not quite so many trucks hauling their goods up and down the long state. Emissions from cars, at last, had been cut way down from their high point in the early twenties. Pre-Collapse. Lot of good that did us.
I sucked my teeth. “No business driving that fast through a town. Let’s go! Are you trying to get hit?”
Fuck. “Dey. Let’s go. Get your sunglasses on.”
He didn’t look at me. He jogged across the street with the strange, hitching lope that he fell into when he moved at any pace quicker than a walk. The waist of his pants was bunched at the back, tied in place by one of my dust-greyed bootlaces. He was losing too much weight; a boy in the middle of his first growth spurt, not getting the calories he needed. The army green pack strapped to his back listed left, so his slight body leaned right. I needed to tighten the right load-lifting strap for him. The pack was Kwam’s. Dey had never been backpacking before now. He and his mom weren’t the outdoorsy types; that was my and Kwam’s jam. My girl. My twin.
Fuck. Kwam. I was too tired to cry.
I was surprised, and relieved, to see two women sitting at the picnic tables closest to the entrance of the cement courtyard. A dark green and blue nylon pack sagged beside the smaller of the two women, emptied out. Her hand rooted around in it. Foil wrapped packages balanced in a small heap on the table in front of them. It looked like enough for one person, for a handful of days. For the both of them, if they were sharing—I did the kind of assessment I was still surprised I could do: the one on the left weighed about 118; on the right, maybe 105—it would last a day and a half at most. I guessed they had come to town for the same reason we had: food.
It wasn’t unusual to run into people like us in these mountain towns. After the Collapse, towns and cities became harder and deadlier for outcasts than anywhere else. We took our chances in the hot, dry Sierras. We came into town for food when we could; some of us could pass, if we didn’t stick around too long. Mountain towns had always been good about not asking too many questions of the strange folk who passed through.
The woman who had her hand rummaging in the pack looked up as she heard us approach, and gave a not-unfriendly nod of her head. Short blonde hair, pale skin as dirt lined as ours. Pale yellow eyes. Not like Dey’s, where it was all yellow. Like mine, just the iris. Her friend, brown haired, dirt smudged across her forehead like an ash mark turned her face toward us. A bandana was wrapped around the bottom half, covering everything right up to her eyes, which gazed at me, brown and bleak. It wasn’t uncommon to see pairs like this. One who could pass: a Passer. One who could not: an Other. I assumed, maybe stupidly, that the blonde was like me. Most of us Passers were mild, not very dangerous. The Others were wild cards. Different in how dramatically the genetic mutation triggered by years of sucking in the atom-charring pollution that spewed from the first all-Western fires, the ones in the early thirties, had changed them. A pack of monsters, monstrous in their own ways. The only similarity was that they all eventually linked to one of us to help them eat whatever it was they ate.
The link couldn’t happen with a Regular. It couldn’t happen with a different Other. It could only be a Passer.
Once they linked to us, we changed. Our biochemistry altered to enable us to give them what they needed.
They needed us.
We didn’t need them.
I wondered what the women’s relationship had been before the Collapse. The pairs that remained intact usually were that way because of some kind of relationship that predated the change. Otherwise, even if the Passer started out willing, they eventually refused to help. It was too difficult. The Other starved to death, slowly and painfully.
The worst were the parent and child pairs. I’d seen a father smother his toddler with his jacket on the ground, back up near Mammoth. The thing had squirmed and writhed for full minutes. I still remember the father’s face, afterwards, when he saw me looking. Slack and empty with relief. I’d seen a mother shoot her sixteen-year-old daughter point blank in the head before we’d even gotten out of the city. She’d flinched when the blood splattered her face, and at the sound the body made when it collapsed onto the pavement. But she’d walked away with her head up.
I checked to make sure Dey had his glasses on. He had seated himself at the table to our left. He’d put them on. Even with the glasses, his gaze at the women was too direct, intense. I would have to talk to him about it.
“Howdy,” I said, reaching out a hand to the blonde. “We’re looking for a place to stay the night. They open?”
The blonde looked at, and ignored, my hand. She nodded her head toward the pink house at the back of the courtyard. “There’s a sign-up sheet on the door. You leave your name and your chip number, so they charge you.”
“No manager on site?” It wasn’t unusual. More and more places, even out here, preferred to avoid one on one interactions if they could.
“Not that I know of. But we just got in a little before you all.” She hesitated. Then, maybe loneliness, maybe something else, offered, “I’m Tina. That’s Bette.” She nodded at the brown hair.
I stared, then laughed out loud. A while ago, people started using names from old television shows or movies. The show I guessed they’d chosen was an old one indeed, about lesbians in Los Angeles. Still chuckling, I wondered if they were from LA. Then I wondered if they had been there for the riots or the slaughters. I stopped chuckling. We didn’t usually comment on aliases. But I took a chance. “My wife and I used to like a show about queers living in Hollywood. You reminded me of it, just now.” It was the right call. Tina relaxed, and offered a genuine smile. It had been a long time since a stranger had smiled at me. I was surprised at how good it felt.
“Yeah,” she said. “That’s the one.”
“I’ve stayed here before,” I continued. “Years ago. It looks the same.”
Bette spoke then, for the first time. Aggressive. “When did you start hiking?” Her words came out strangely slurred.
I could feel Dey fidgeting over at his table. I’d need to get him inside soon. “Seventeen days,” I lied. I’d gotten so used to little lies over the past seventeen months since we’d been on the road. There was nothing to gain by telling people how long you’d been linked.
Bette looked at Tina, who looked at us. “You see any horses? Up in the mountains? Maybe on the passes?”
“I don’t think so. No.” I pulled out my phone, pretended to check something. It was dead; it had been dead.
“Service is out,” Tina said. She’d pulled Bette to her, hugging her close, calming her. “No cell service, no internet.”
“Here? Or everywhere?”
“At least here, which might as well be everywhere unless you want to hike somewhere else. Could flag someone down, I guess, but traffic’s pretty light.”
“That’s ok. You’re staying put for the night?”
A hesitation between them. “Maybe so,” Tina finally offered.
“Good. Maybe we’ll join you for dinner.”
“We’d like that.”
“I’m Dana, by the way,” I offered my hand again, and this time Tina took it. Warm palm, damp, smooth. I nodded toward Dey. “That’s my son, Fox. Fox, leave your pack here. Let’s get ourselves a room.” More than a year later, I still stuttered.
Dey stood and slouched to me, keeping his head down and face turned away as he passed the women. A square scrap of yellow paper was taped to the front door of the manager’s office. “Leave a name and number and take a key.”
I took a key for Room 7; the same one I’d stayed in years ago. I scrawled “Dana Scully,” followed by a chip number. You could register your chips under basically any name, and link it to any number of anonymous crypto accounts. I didn’t wonder that the managers were so lax about charging for the rooms. They weren’t likely to get stiffed, and if they were, it hardly mattered. Everyone had money these days. It was other things that were scarce.
Horses, for one.
The room had two beds with yellow felt blankets stretched over hard white sheets; blue painted walls; a small round wooden night table with a silver swing arm lamp pushed over to its edge. A square plastic mini fridge hulked silent in the corner. I checked it; warm. I plugged in my phone and started it up. No 7G, no internet. Ran through the list of Wi-Fi that came up, they all had little lock icons next to them, including the internet for the motel. “You got any service?” I asked Dey.
He pulled out his phone, pushed it on. Shook his head. There was no TV in the room, no news. Maybe he would sleep, at least. He hadn’t slept in days.
“Give me your clothes, okay? There might be a working washing machine here.” He went to the bathroom to change. I kept myself from mentioning that there wasn’t anything he had that I hadn’t seen before. There were so few ways in which he could assert his independence these days. He could have his privacy if he wanted it.
I took our filthy clothes, left him sitting in the room in his rain pants. His ribs were beginning to show beneath his skin, and his stomach was a worrying concavity. I kissed him on the forehead, and told him to get back in the bathroom for a shower.
“Behind the ears,” I reminded him, as I closed the door behind me. I wore my own rain pants and rain jacket, and headed to the laundry room. Dumped clothes and soap, slotted in some coins, and set the machine to wash. It rumbled to life. Back outside, Tina and Bette were gone; Tina’s pack was still out, opened, food scattered on the table. Bad food storage practices, I thought. I didn’t have time to worry about them, or where they were.
Curled into a tight circle on the bed, Dey slept.
And so I slept.
I dreamed. A house, a wife, two children, a yard, trees. A home. Big red-orange bricks; black trim around square casement windows; metal scooter flecked with blue and green paint laid up on brown and yellow grass. Inside the house, all is shadow and light. The windows let in light, layered through the trees outside. In that weirdly precise way of dreams, I see oaks. Through this front set of windows, three. Elephant trunks opening to ten to twelve scaffolding boughs. Twenty-five or thirty slimmer sprouts. Hundreds or thousands of thin, tapering twigs ending in hard, serrated, glossy green ovals; thousands of them, millions. And the light comes through all that to brighten the pale wood paneled floor. And then, a hallway. The walls of the hallway are white, and it is still lit dimly by the ambient sunlight coming in through the windows. Dimmer now. No light fixtures on the ceiling or along the walls, none that you can see. But rows of doors, also white, black wooden casing around the doors (like the windows), and round, matte black doorknobs screwed into the face of the door—
—but now, in that tilt-a-whirl way of dreams, I’m trying to open the door from inside one of those rooms off the hallway. On the other side, I hear someone screaming. Screaming and screaming. There’s the sound of flesh hitting flesh. A loud thump. The screaming stops. Another noise, one I’ll remember for the rest of my life, dreams or no dreams: wet, tearing, chewing.
“Kwam! Kwam!” I yell, and yell, and yell.
I woke in the dark to the sound of something falling. Dark inside the room, with just the faint glow from the one remaining streetlamp that hadn’t burned out on the highway making it through the window. No more sounds coming from outside. We must have slept through dinner. “Dey?”
“Yeah?” He responded, groggy.
“You hear that?”
Silence as he stilled himself to listen. It came again, a bang, and a crash. The sound of glass breaking.
“Stay here,” I told him. I’d forgotten the laundry—it was, hopefully, still in the laundry room—so I pulled the rain pants and rain jacket back on from where I’d thrown them on the floor. I was immediately hot, sweaty. I took them off again. The material was too loud, swooshing against itself whenever I moved.
The air outside was a few degrees cooler. I stood, bare chested, almost naked, and reveled in the sweetness of air against my skin. It was still hazy, this late at night or this early in the morning, whichever it was, but cleaner than it would be during the day. I breathed deep. Mountain air. I’d always loved the smell, since I was a little kid on my first camping trip. God, how things had changed in just a handful of decades. But simple pleasures remained. Clean clothes, hot showers, standing nearly naked outside at night. It turned out survival depended just as much on finding pleasure when you could as it did on finding shelter, or food.
Across the courtyard, pale yellow light spilled from a shattered window. And sharper, newer, metallic scents drifted toward me: blood. Sweat. Urine. My sense of smell had always been good. After Dey linked with me, it increased by about tenfold.
I crouched down and spider-walked across the courtyard, pressed myself into the shadows at the base of the wall to their unit. I made very little noise. I got better at hunting after the link, too. I didn’t need it for myself. But Dey needed it.
I heard labored and uneven breathing inside the room.
I stood, pushed at the door.
Inside was chaos: broken glass from the window glittered all across the bed. The table was upended, one leg cracked in half. A hole had been kicked into the wall; plaster lay everywhere on the rug. Blood was smeared in a long streak on the wall above the bed. A lamp, its base covered in blood and hair and gray matter laid on the floor, next to Tina. She, at least, was still alive. Breathing shallow, blood pouring from a gash on her arm, but breathing, awake. She blinked at me. What a sight I must have made: tall and lean brown woman, top naked, tensed to fight.
“Don’t look at her,” she said.
Bette—what was left of Bette—was crumpled on the floor beside her. The right side of her head was caved into itself. Her remaining eye stared, open and lifeless, at me, at Tina, at the mildew-spotted ceiling, at nothing. Even through the blood I noted why she’d been wearing the bandana. Her mouth sagged hugely open, showing two rows, an inner and an outer. Serrated teeth gleaming white and red and black with blood and flesh. The room stank, of blood and piss and something else: the sweetly chemical smell of Others.
I moved past Tina into the bathroom, and grabbed a towel from the rack. Back in the main room, I knelt next to her. “She attacked you?” I asked, folding the towel in thirds, then tying it tightly around the wound on her arm.
She nodded, listless, staring ahead of her. Staring at the wall, or at nothing, or at all the things she had thought her life—their life—was going to be, before the Collapse. Before the linking. Before she’d had to bludgeon her girlfriend to death with a lamp in a motel in the middle of the mountains. I thought she wouldn’t answer, but then, quietly, “I told her I couldn’t do it anymore.”
I wondered what “it” was for the two of them, and didn’t ask. Instead, I brought her a glass of water, and another, dampened towel, from the bathroom. I slid down next to her. And I held her as she wept.
“I’d have to rip their eyes out while they were still alive,” she said, when she had just about finished crying. “Then their tongues. Then their hooves. Then their bellies. Only in that order. She had to eat it out of my hands. We thought something about the sweat made it digestible for her. Seventeen years,” she said after a pause. “We were together seventeen years before this. We were soul mates.” She looked at me, and I wondered what she might have been thinking. “We made it six weeks.”
Most linked pairs didn’t make it long. It’s why I never shared how long Dey and I had been linked or on the road. It led to too many questions. Linking was so new. None of us knew how long it would or could last. I didn’t have energy to try to think about, let alone explain, why Dey and I were still alive, still together.
“I’ve heard of pairs that made it months,” Tina said, as though she had read my mind. “There’s a settlement. That’s where Bette and I were heading. In Nevada, somewhere around Red Rock. Linked pairs who have found each other, and are learning how to live together.”
“You and your son must have been real close. Before.”
“Not really. Me and his mom met about six months before the Collapse. We got married fast. I adopted him; she adopted my girl. We were just getting to know each other.”
I went back to our room a few hours later. Dawn was lightening the sky above the mountains, turning it pink again. Dey smelled the blood as soon as I walked back in. He bared his teeth and growled, low in his throat, when he saw me. He’d probably been smelling it all night, but he had stayed here, waiting for me to get him. Good boy, I thought. But then, it wasn’t like he had a choice. “Come,” I told him.
He shook his head.
“What? Why not?”
He shook his head again, violent jerks back and forth. Growled. I waited. Sometimes he just needed time to remember the right words. After some moments, he said. “Saw.”
Silent again, but this time, his silence was calling my bluff. “Bette.” He said. And then, looking at me, and looking down. “Us?”
I sat by him on the bed and hugged him fiercely, feeling his bones shift beneath his skin. I knew he was asking, “will that happen to us?” We lied to everyone else. We didn’t lie to each other. Everything had changed so abruptly around us; the truth was the only thing we could count on to remain the same. To keep us who we had been. He shook as I held him. I cupped my palm over his mouth and nose, and waited to feel some maternal impulse arise. Buried beneath the dirt, the sweat, the smoke, the blood, the piss, the wildness, the loneliness, the grief that was the bedrock of me now, with its dense striated grays and greens. He breathed into my palm, warm and wet and measured. And where was the impulse, cracking its way through the desolate rock? I pressed harder.
And let go. “No,” I lied. “Not us.” He bit my hand, still hovering by his teeth, and I pulled away, cursing. “Let’s get some food,” I said, and kissed his head.
I’d gotten Tina cleaned up, after we’d talked, and she’d packed, still planning to make her way to Nevada.
What she had left behind her was just a body now. Not anyone’s lover. Not Bette. Not whatever her name had been in her previous life. Her real life, or her unreal life, depending on how you looked at time, and the past, and things you could never have back. It wouldn’t be of any use to her anymore. It could be of use to us.
I used to do things to bodies, before. To try to trick myself into thinking they weren’t human. I’d cook them: stewed, roasted, pan fried. But Dey couldn’t digest cooked meat as well as raw. Skinning, flaying, butchering took time we didn’t always have.
I knelt by the body and took out my knife. Dey sat next to me. The growl had become a constant, low rumble in his chest. I sliced a long strip from her stomach. My mind went elsewhere. I chewed, and chewed, and chewed. I motioned to Dey, and he moved in next to me, crouching a little, head back, mouth wide open, making small, needy, hungry sounds in his throat. I held his chin, and placed my face over his. Our lips met—mine bloody and greasy; his dry and cracked—and I disgorged the food. Meat mixed with the elements of me. He swallowed convulsively, grabbed at my head and bit my tongue when I tried to pull away. I had to hold his wrists, and tell him firmly, “No.” And he sat. And waited for his next bite. My good boy.
I tried not to think about Tina, or what she’d said, or how she’d looked. Bloody, but walking onwards, alone.
• • • •
That night, ensconced again in the high, hard, pink mountains, I laid awake on my sleeping pad. It was clear, cold. We’d left the tent rolled up in our packs. Dey snored in his bag next to me, full, sated; as close to content as he could be. I watched the stars poke their holes into the deep blue sky unrolling above us. I wondered, not for the first time, not for the last, whether I failed them both, as a mother, by letting Kwam go to waste after he’d killed her. Whether letting him eat her might have been a way to keep her with us, somehow.
• • • •
It had been three weeks since leaving Independence. We’d celebrated Dey’s fifteenth birthday a few days ago with the last of a kill. But he had been quiet, withdrawn. More withdrawn than usual. Which meant, instead of five words a day, I was lucky if I got one.
We’d passed a traveler yesterday. The body was desiccated in the mountain air. Angry gashes on the arms, the head bashed in. Murdered, but not eaten. I wondered if they had been unlinked. Alone. Vulnerable. But free. I tried to imagine what it would feel like to get even just one more taste, one minute or hour or day of being one whole, rather than one half. I had stood there, lost to myself, for a long time.
After watching me watch the body, Dey disappeared off trail for a few hours. He returned, mouth and face and shirt bloody, and vomited at my feet. “What did you do?” I’d demanded.
“Hunt,” he said. And laid down on the dirt, curled up away from me.
“You know you can’t,” I said. He didn’t reply.
Dey slept. I didn’t. The next morning, as we were packing up camp, he stood quietly by me.
“Down,” he said. “Go down.”
“You’re hungry? We have to go down?”
He shook his head. “You.”
“You want me to go down and bring it up to you?”
Maybe because I was tired from not sleeping, or from the altitude, or from not showering, or from not sleeping inside for over a year, I lost it. I pushed him. Slapped at his face. Picked up a rock, and brandished it at his head. He stood there, arms raised, cowering from me.
“Please,” he said.
For a moment, I thought he meant, “please don’t.”
“Please,” he repeated, grabbing my arms, pulling them toward him. “Please.”
I closed my eyes. Dropped the rock. “I can’t,” I said. “Look, there are settlements. Where people like us are living, and learning about each other. About the linkage.”
He was listening, still crouched, still miserable, but listening.
“And,” I hesitated. We never lied to each other. But sometimes lying was necessary, wasn’t it? Wasn’t that the mothering impulse, too, to shape our children into who we needed them to be? I continued, “Tina told me that what we thought we knew about the linkages was wrong. It’s not just that you need me. If . . . we were to be separated, I would mutate, too. I would turn into an Other. I’d need to find a Passer to feed me, just like I feed you. It would take a few weeks, or maybe a month. I don’t know. But there’s no way of knowing if I could find someone to link to before I died. If I killed you, I’d be killing myself.”
“Why didn’t I tell you? I didn’t want to burden you. You’ve been through enough. I’m your mother. I’m supposed to protect you. But now, maybe you’re old enough to protect me, too.”
I saw him, weighing my words, weighing whether to believe me. Or adjusting to the news that I might be as dependent on him as he was on me. Finally, he sprang up, taking his pack, his tent, his gear, his water, and ran down the ridge. Loping, slanting.
The air was cold, still, silent. I breathed deeply. I hadn’t been alone in over a year. I hadn’t stopped worrying about Dey, about where we would get his next meal, about how he was feeling, about where we would spend our next night, for over a year. I didn’t remember what the sound of my own thoughts felt like. I didn’t remember how to feel my own feelings.
I missed my life. I missed my wife. I missed my family. I missed normalcy, whatever remained of it down in the hot, burning world below the mountains.
I reached down and continued packing our things. Hoisted my pack onto my back. I sniffed the wind and began to walk. At the top of the ridge, Dey came into view. He had gotten taller, I noticed. He was filling out. He was standing, waiting for me, head down.
I began trodding slowly after my boy, in search of our life. We would find a way to live. We hadn’t tried everything. We would find more Others, and maybe we could learn from them. There was no life behind me. There was old Independence, covered in white smoke, alone and empty, gutted out, a carcass in the past. There was only forward, up over the mountains, and across the desert, and on over Nevada, where we would come down, red as the rock, blue as the open sky, in search of something new.