“Time to wake up.”
Hannah sprung to her feet, giving me just enough time to catch my balance. The fire had gone out only a few moments earlier, by the look of it. Hannah was busy collecting all of her things when I stood up and began to get my stuff together.
“What? No coffee?”
She shook her head at my joke, not even looking at me. I knew she was smiling, though I couldn’t see her face. She hated my stupid jokes, but at least she put up with them. I’d seen her laugh at one or two of them, though she’d never admit it. I got all of my stuff together and began organizing it for our daily voyage.
Hannah put the rest of our kindling in the fire, and then put a large chunk of snow in the pot above it. My canteen was getting somewhat low, I suppose.
“Any idea where we’ll head today?” I asked.
“East,” she said, with little hesitation.
“Why East?” I asked again, putting my pistol in its holster on my hip.
“Might as well. Maybe we’ll get to see the capital one of these days.”
“The capital? Which capital?”
“Washington D.C., you boob. Of course we’re not headed for the Confederate capital, you know how they treat outsiders.”
I shrugged and put my other pistol in the holster under my left arm. Guns hadn’t meant much since the meteor hit, but it was always nice to have something to protect yourself with. The chance of finding another person was low, but clearly, it wasn’t impossible.
“Jack, do you still have that book?” Hannah asked.
“Of course I do, why?”
“I might like to read it one of these days.”
“The last time you tried that, you fell asleep.”
“The last time I tried it, I had a broken leg. Of the two options, I thought sleep was the more attractive.”
Hannah was never much into literature. I tried to read whatever I could get my hands on, usually something related to survival. An electronics book had saved my life a time or two, and came in handy when I met Hannah. Though I suppose she’d say that the book on basic nursing came more in handy then, but that’s just a matter of perspective. I guess you can be pretty narrow-minded when you have a broken leg threatening your life.
We refilled our canteens, put on the two or three cloaks we needed to go outside, and wandered into the wasteland from the shack we had spent the night in.
Hannah always led our adventures. She was headstrong; it was what she did. I could sometimes hear her singing, if the wind wasn’t blowing very hard that day. She never sang over the radio. I guess she was self-conscious. Maybe she felt like the radio was more important than that. I’ll never know. It was our only way of communication, so I used it near-constantly. Even indoors, taking off one of my scarves could be dangerous, and I hadn’t taken my ventilation mask off since I first left the Shelter. Who knows what I’d breathe in, even for a few seconds. But the singing… Somehow, that got through to me.
I’d only known Hannah for a year now, but it felt like a lifetime. I often wondered if she really thought she needed me, or if she just felt obligated to travel with me because I helped her with her leg and stayed with her for a month.
Hannah stopped dead in her tracks and held a hand outwards to tell me to stop. I saw what she was looking at: a polar bear. Damn things nearly went extinct, and now they’re the only creatures left. They weren’t dangerous, but they were a good indication of thin ice. Since most things were covered in feet of ice, there was no indication of what was solid ground and what wasn’t. It was easy to fall through thin ice into a river, and if you did, there was no hope of survival. We walked very carefully for a couple more miles and hoped that that was all we had to worry about.
After a long time, we finally came across something worthwhile: a pharmacy. Thankfully, it hadn’t been ransacked, and had enough protection from the wind to be a good place to set up camp. We didn’t really care about timing. Finding anything was a good enough to reason to stop and sleep for a while, especially something like this. Plenty of space, lots of canned goods… This would be a great place to stay for a week or two.
As soon as we got inside, we got to work on making a fire pit. Hannah went out to get dry wood from wherever she could find it, leaving me there to get the place set up for inhabitation. While I was looking around, an idea hit me: What if I took the shelves and made a little hut inside the pharmacy? A big enough fire in a small enough area might even negate the need for some of our protective clothing. It had been way too long since I last felt air on my arms.
I finished setting it up just as Hannah got back with the wood. She stopped and stared at it as I stood in the entrance.
“Ta-da!” I announced.
“I’m not sure if you’re a genius or an idiot,” she said, walking towards the fire pit.
“Imagine being able to take off one of these coats! Isn’t that such a freeing idea?!”
“We’ll see. How about you put some of your brilliance to making a fire?”
I knew she’d come around eventually. I set up the fire and got it to a nice, stable state, and sat down, leaning against one of the shelves. I went out to get more wood to keep the fire burning for as long as possible. When I came back, I saw precisely what I wanted to see.
Hannah had taken off two of her coats and was airing her arms out.
“See?! It worked!” I proclaimed, rushing to put the wood down.
“I’ll be damned, Jack. You made it work.”
I sat down opposite her to warm myself and pulled off a couple of my jackets. It had never felt so good to let my arms feel the open air. It was a little nippy, sure, but compared to getting frostbite in moments, it was heavenly.
I settled in and grabbed my backpack, pulling out Paradise Lost.
“You still want to borrow this?” I said over the radio to Hannah.
She looked up from the fire. I imagine she had been sleeping.
“Sure, I may as well,” she answered, and she crossed over to my position to get it. We sat down in our usual position, back-to-back, and relaxed. We had slept this way for as long as I could remember; that way, neither one could leave without the other knowing, and if someone attacked, we could protect one another.
This was great. This was perfect. This was my chance.
“Yeah?” she answered.
“I love you.”
Her heart rate jumped. She wasn’t ready for that.
“So what? You want a medal?”
She was trying to put up a barrier. She always did. But she wasn’t as confident in saying this as she wanted to be. I could tell.
“No,” I continued, “I just wanted you to know. I’ve been thinking it a lot.”
She shut the book, and took a deep breath.
“I guess I shouldn’t be surprised,” she finally said. “Do you expect me to tell you the same thing?”
“No, not really,” I answered, “But I wanted you to know. I’ve been waiting for a good time to tell you. I guess this is the best chance I’ll get.”
I could tell she didn’t know what to say. She hated surprises. She hated anything she couldn’t be prepared for.
“Well, I appreciate you telling me, I guess,” she said.
“It doesn’t change anything. We still need each other, regardless of how we feel. Hell, if we hated each other, we’d still need to travel together. But I wanted to be honest with you. That’s all.”
She put the book on the ground next to her and leaned her head forward.
“I think I’m going to try to sleep again,” she said after a moment.
“Yeah. Me too,” I replied.
She stood up and put one of her coats back on, and sat back down on the other side of the fire.
I put another log into the flame, then sat down and fell asleep.
Drew Schackmann is a contributing writer for Gutai-Pravda Assembly. You can contact him on Twitter.
© 2015; David “Drew” Schackmann, Jr.