Sylvia learned that Nathan had come from Sunnyvale, California; a hop, skip, and a jump from her hometown of Fremont. He had a ragged backpack over his shoulder, crammed nearly to busting with canned foods, and a cooler in his hand full of bottled water. He had left for the same reason she had: he just needed to do something.
After some debate, Nathan convinced her to travel northwards with him to Interstate-680 and on to Reno, Nevada, as opposed to her previous southbound route. Los Angeles, he told her, had been one of ten nuclear targets in the United States, along with San Jose. He had heard that Middle East terrorists had developed a new nuclear warfare technology that would, in theory, devastate an area fifty miles in diameter at least. They had chosen to strike the ten most populated cities of their greatest enemy, America.
Did the President know? she had asked.
Why didn't he try to evacuate those cities?
Where would those citizens go? How would they get there? The interstates are already choked with traffic on a daily basis. Now try to picture hundreds of thousands panicky people trying to herd themselves to somewhere, anywhere, other than in that city. This would create an unprecedented havoc that would be ineffective in relocating the people, to say the very least. There was just no possible way to alleviate the situation. Best just to let people live out their last few days just as before. Those that died didn't have the time to register what was even happening. They died relatively in peace, if prematurely.
It made sense, in a bothersome way. It was a tricky thought to wrap her mind around, but Sylvia found herself agreeing a little more every day. The more accustomed she grew to the idea of the mass death, the easier it became to accept the fact that Nathan had brought to her attention. And once she could accept that, adapting to this new way of living would come naturally – she hoped.
That first day they had met, Sylvia had gone two days already without food and had one half-full water bottle left. Although she had planned to conserve her water as best she could, she had not quite estimated right and was incredibly grateful at her luck to have met up with another person just in time. He shared his food with her that evening almost eagerly; a human companion for a little less food seemed a very fair trade to him.
That night, as darkness fell and the sun disappeared from the sky, a bitter chill crept over their skin. One thing neither of them had was a blanket; in the late-August heat of the day, who would have thought they would need one? It wasn't any sort of cold that would harm either of them; it was merely a discomfort, and they weathered it that night as they had since their respective journeys had begun.
After a light breakfast – Nathan had insisted they eat at least something; he was, after all, a health teacher, and they teach you in health that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, so always make sure you eat something before school, especially on the day of a test, except there weren't going to be tests anymore, were there? – the two set off northbound towards Reno. They talked all day as they walked; Nathan shared his story of where he'd been when the bomb went off, and Sylvia told hers. Once they broke the ice, they talked back and forth about their lives up to that point, taking sit-down breaks frequently but with hardly a pause in conversation.
About mid-afternoon the day after they met, they found the backseat of the car, which they had cut through in five hours and set aflame. Sylvia sat now before it, arms curled around her legs, waiting for Nathan to come back from his forage. Her eyelids were slowly starting to close from exhaustion when she heard the ground shifting in the distance: footsteps.
Her body tensed.
She realized that the odds of the sound coming from any being but Nathan were slim-to-none, but couldn't help but wonder what she'd do if it was somebody else, somebody not quite so friendly as Nathan had been when they'd found each other. She turned to watch in that direction, her mind moving quickly, nearing panic mode when she finally recognized her newfound friend's facial worn facial features in the dim, flickering light. She breathed heavily in relief.
"Find anything?" she asked offhand as he came closer. There was something in his backpack he'd emptied before leaving, but it didn't look like much.
"I found an underground shelter about an hour's walking distance away. It was abandoned, and any footprints that may have been left are long since gone. The place had been emptied, but what I found was relatively recent so it was most likely inhabited. My guess is that they took off shortly after the explosion."
He poured the contents of his bag on the ground for Sylvia's perusal. A handful of matchbooks, a notepad, a bag of cheap sharpened pencils, a stack of newsletters from an organization she had never heard of, a fifth of Jack Daniels whiskey, and a Maglite that didn't work, as she discovered when she clicked the button. She looked at him questioningly, holding the Maglite in one hand and the fifth in the other.
"The radiation from the bomb will affect any electronics it comes in contact with, so I didn't bother to pick up batteries. The Maglite is mainly a defensive measure, just in case. And the whiskey – something to help us keep warm, let's say. It's a weak excuse, but it was there."
He sat across the pile from her and picked up one leaflet, studying it for a moment. He held his hand out for the whiskey, and when she gave it to him he twisted off the cap and took a swig straight from the bottle and handed it back. He watched her in his peripherals as she tilted the bottle herself and took a drink. Her shocked expression made him look up at her.
"How old are you, anyway?"
She smacked her tongue a couple of times and shook her head back and forth, that sour expression still on her face.
"Nineteen," she coughed. Nathan burst out laughing.
"Well, hell, what good's the law at this point anyway," he chuckled, going back to studying his paper. "I picked up these pamphlets because it seems to me like this was the shelter, or even hideout, of a conspiracy group. Everything seems to match up to what I heard, including the cities, the details on the bombs – what little details there are anyway. Maybe we can read through these some and figure out where to go after Reno." He looked up at Sylvia again. "Not tonight though. Tonight we'll rest." Sylvia took another, longer, drink. She swallowed quickly, seeming disgusted by the taste but determined at any rate to get the stuff down. She started choking on it as a result.
"You okay?" he asked, waiting for her to stop coughing. He hated not doing anything, but she wasn't choking on anything solid and he knew better than to hit her back. Once she calmed down, she nodded. "Why are you drinking it if you don't like it?"
She stared at him for a second, then dragged her finger through the sand by her feet. "I guess I just want to escape." She stopped and looked up. "Not get drunk, but I suppose just not think so much." She shrugged and looked off in the distance.
"You know," Nathan said quietly. "I had this dog a while back. Her name was Sophie. Prettiest little thing you've ever seen. She was a poodle, and I kind of inherited her from my sister when she moved. She told me that Sophie was already acclimated to California weather, and that she didn't want to drag her all the way to New England – said poor Sophie wouldn't like that very much. So I took her in, and – hey, what's wrong?"
He knew what was wrong, but wasn't sure how best to acknowledge the tears streaming down Sylvia's face. He felt a tinge of discouragement, of failure – here he was, trying to talk about something to get her mind off the obvious, and he'd said something that upset her anyway.
"No more dogs," she whispered quietly, her voice shaking. "No more sisters. No more California. Probably no more New England either. We've talked all day about what was, and how things were, but neither one of us has recognized that none of it exists anymore. It's all just – gone." The tears came heavier, and she wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her light jacket. She was shivering now from the cold, too, despite the fire. Nathan scooted closer and wrapped an arm around her waist.
"Hey, now," he whispered. "No, it doesn't exist. But you exist; I exist. Others are out there too. We don't have what we're used to having anymore, but we've got something, and we've got to make the best of it. It won't be easy, but concentrating on what's gone will only make it harder." He pulled her into a tight hug and felt her nestle into his neck. "It's gonna be okay. One way or another."
As their embrace relaxed and they pulled away, he leaned in to kiss her on the cheek. She moved unintentionally, however, and his lips brushed the corner of her mouth. Her teary eyes stared at him, uncertain, and he stared back, blushing hard. He started to apologize, tongue-tied, before she leaned against him again.
"It's okay," she said quietly, and sighed deeply.