A man was far ahead of her on the road. Walking and breathing. So far, so good.
That he was a man, Nayima was certain. His silhouette against the horizon of the rising roadway showed his masculine height and the shadow of an unkempt beard. He pulled his belongings behind him in an overnight suitcase like a business traveler. Maybe she trusted him on sight because of the unmistakable shape of a guitar case slung across his back. She’d always had a thing for musicians.
“Hey!” she screamed, startling herself with her bald desperation.
He paused, his steady legs falling still. He might have turned around. She couldn’t quite make out his movements in the quarter-mile or more that separated them. The two of them, alone, were surrounded on either side by the golden ocean of central California farmland, unharvested and unplowed, no trees or shade in sight as the road snaked up the hillside.
His attention gave her pause. She hadn’t seen anyone walking in so long that she’d forgotten the plan that had kept her alive the past nine months: Hide. Observe. Assess.
But fuck it.
She waved and called again, so he would be certain she wasn’t a mirage in the heat.
“Hey!” she screamed, more hoarsely. She tried to run toward him, but her legs only lurched a stagger on the sharp grade. She was dizzy from heat and modulated hunger. The sky dimmed above her, so she stopped her pathetic chase and braced her palms against her knees to calm the cannon bursts from her heart. The world grew bright again.
He walked on. She watched him shrink until the horizon swallowed him. She remembered a time when terrifying loneliness would have made her cry. Instead, she began following him at the pace her body had grown accustomed to. He didn’t seem afraid of her; that was something. He hadn’t quickened. He was tired and slow, like her. If she was patient, she would catch up to him.
Nayima hadn’t planned to stay on State Road 46 toward Lost Hills. She had wanted to follow the last highway sign—one of the few conveniences still in perfect working order—toward a town just ten miles east. But she decided to follow the man instead. Just for a while, she’d told herself. Not so far that she’d run too low on water or go hungry.
Nayima followed him for three days.
She wasted no energy or hope checking the scattered vehicles parked at odd angles for fuel or food, although most still had their keys. She was far too late for that party. Cars were shelter. Handy when it rained. Or when it was dark and mountain lions got brave, their eyes glowing white in her flashlight beam. (“Bad, bad kitty,” she always said.)
The cars on SR-46 weren’t battered and broken like the ones in Bakersfield, witnesses to riots or robberies. For a time, carjacking had been the national hobby. She’d jacked a car herself trying to get out of that hellhole—with a sprained ankle and a small mob chasing her, she’d needed the ride more than the acne-scarred drunk sleeping at the wheel. On the 46, the pristine cars had come to rest, their colors muted by a thin veil of burial dust.
Nayima missed her red Schwinn, but she’d hit a rock the day before she’d seen the man on the road—the demon stone appeared in her path and knocked her bicycle down an embankment. She’d been lucky only to bump her elbow hard enough to make her yell. But her bike, gone. Crumpled beyond salvage. Nayima didn’t allow herself to miss much—but damn. And this man, her new day job, meant she didn’t have time to peel off to look for tucked-away farmhouses and their goodies. Too risky. She might lose him. Instead, Nayima walked on, following her ghost.
She imagined how they would talk. Testify. Teach what little they knew. Start something. Maybe he could at least tell her why he was on the 46, what radio broadcast or quest had beckoned. She hadn’t heard anything except hissing on radios in three months. She didn’t mind walking a long distance if she might arrive somewhere eventually.
Each morning she woke from her resting place—the crook of a tree, an abandoned car that wasn’t a tomb, in the cranny beneath the inexplicably locked cab of an empty eighteen-wheeler parked ten yards off the road like a beached whale—and wondered if the man had gone too far ahead. If he’d walked the whole night just to shake her. If he’d found a car that had sung him a love song when he caressed her and turned the key.
But each day, she saw signs that he was not lost. He was still walking ahead, somewhere just out of sight. Any evidence of him dampened her palms.
He left a trail of candy wrappers. Chocolate bars mostly; always the minis. Snickers, Twix, Almond Joy (her favorite; that wrapper made her stomach shout at the sight). Her own meals were similarly monotonous, but not nearly as colorful—handfuls of primate feed she’d found overlooked at a vet’s office outside Bakersfield. Her backpack was stuffed with the round, brown nuggets. Monkey Balls, she called them. They didn’t taste like much, but they opened up her time for walking and weren’t nearly as heavy as cans.
On the third morning, when the horizon again stretched empty, and sinking dread bubbled in her stomach, the road greeted her with a package of Twizzlers, six unruined sticks still inside. The Twizzlers seemed fresh. She could feel his fingertips on the wrapper. The candy was warm to her tongue from the sun. So good it brought happy tears. She stood still as long as she dared while the sweetness flooded her dry mouth, coated her throat. Feeling anything was a novelty.
She cried easily over small pleasures: a liquid orange sunset, the wild horses she’d seen roaming a field, freed to their original destiny. She wondered if he had left her the Twizzlers in a survivors’ courtship rite, until she found a half-eaten rope of the red candy discarded a few steps away. A Red Vines man, then. She could live with that. They would work it out.
By noon on Twizzlers Day, she saw him again, a long shadow stretching only half a mile ahead of her. Time was, she could have jogged to catch up to him easily, but the idea of hurry made her want to vomit. Her stomach wasn’t as happy with the candy feast as the rest of her.
So she walked.
He passed a large wooden sign—not quite a billboard, but big—and when she followed behind him, she read the happy script:
COUNTY LINE ROAD FAIR!!!!
June 1-30 2 MI
Beneath that, cartoon renderings of pigs with blue ribbons, a hot dog grinning in his bun, and a Ferris wheel. A dull fucking name for a fair, she thought. Or a road, for that matter. She vowed that when the renaming of things began, she and the man on the road would do better. The Fair of Ultimate Rainbows, on Ultimate Rainbow Road. A name worthy of the sign’s colors.
She was nearly close enough to touch the sign before she made out the papers tacked on the right side, three age-faded, identical handbills in a vertical line:
Stamped with a Red Cross insignia.
Red Crap. Red Death. Red Loss.
Nayima fought dueling urges to laugh and scream. Her legs nearly buckled in rebellion. The sun felt ten degrees hotter, sizzling her neck.
“You have got to be goddamn kidding,” she said.
The man on the road could not hear her.
She cupped her hands to her mouth. “Do you still believe there’s a Wizard too?”
But she kept the last word silent. She shouldn’t be rude. They needed to get along.
He didn’t stop walking, but he gave her a grumpy old man wave over his shoulder. Finally—communication. Candor was the greatest courtesy in the land of the Seventy-Two Hour Flu, so she told him the truth. “They’re just big petri dishes, you know! Best way to get sick is in evac camps! Was, I mean. Sorry to bear bad news, but there’s no rescue center here!”
Nine months ago, she would have believed in that sign. She’d believed in her share. Back when the best minds preached hope for a vaccine that would help communities avoid getting sick with precautions, she’d heard the term on the CDC and WHO press conferences: herd immunity. As it turned out, the vaccine was a fable and herd immunity was an oxymoron.
Only NIs were left now: naturally immune. The only people she’d seen since June were other NIs floating through the rubble, shy about contact for fear of the attacks of rage and mass insanity. Nayima had escaped Bakersfield, where anyone walking with pep was a traitor to the human experience. Nayima had seen radiant satisfaction on the face of an axe-wielding old woman who, with her last gasps of breath, had split open the skull of the NI nurse offering her a sip of water. No good deed, as they say. This man was the first NI she’d met on the road in the three months since.
The formerly populated areas would be quieter now. That was the thing about the Seventy-Two-Hour Flu: it settled disputes quickly. The buzzards were building new kingdoms in the cities, their day come at last.
“The dead can’t rescue the living!” Nayima shouted up the godless road.
Her new friend kept walking. No matter. He would be stopping in two miles anyway.
She could smell the fair already.
• • • •
She thought maybe, just maybe—not enough to speed her heart, but enough to make her eyes go sharp—when the rows of neatly parked cars appeared on the west side of the road. A makeshift parking lot, with rows designated in letter-number pairs on new cedar poles, A-1 through M-20. Because of the daylight’s furious glare across the chrome and glass, the cars seemed to glitter like fairy-tale carriages. It was the most order Nayima had seen in months.
Then she saw the dust across their windows.
Everywhere she went, too late for the party. Even at the fair.
Buzzards and crows sat atop the COUNTY LINE ROAD FAIR—FREE PARKING banner, bright white and red, that hung across the gravel driveway from SR-46. The Ferris wheel stood frozen beyond, marking where the fair began, but it was so small it seemed sickly. The cartoon had been so much grander. Everything about the sign had been a lie.
The sound of mournful guitar came—picking, not strumming. She had never heard the melody before, but she knew the song well. The Seventy-Two-Hour Blues.
In the parking lot, she glanced through enough rear windows to start smiling. The Corolla had a backpack in plain sight. A few had keys in their ignitions. One was bound to have gas. This was a car lot Christmas sale. The cars on the road were from the people who’d given up on driving and left nothing behind. These cars were satisfied at their destination, although their drivers had left unfinished business inside. A few cars with windows cracked open stank of dead pets; she saw a large dog’s white fur carpeting the back seat floor of a Ford Explorer. A child’s baseball cap near the fur made her think of a pudgy-cheeked boy giving his dog a last hug before his parents hurried him away.
The cars screamed stories.
She saw her own face in the window. Hooded. Brown face sun-darkened by two shades. Jaw thin, showing too much bone. You gotta eat, girl, Gram would say. Nayima blinked and looked away from the stranger in the glass.
Tears. Damn, damn, damn.
Nayima dug her fingernails into her palm, hard. She drew blood. The cars went silent.
The guitar player could claim he’d found the treasure first, but there was enough to share. She had a .38 if he needed convincing, but she hoped it wouldn’t come to that. Even the idea of her .38 made her feel sullied. She didn’t want to hurt him. She didn’t want him to try to hurt her. She wanted the opposite; someone to keep watch while she slept, to help her find food, to keep her warm. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d wanted anything so badly.
The music soothed the graveyard in the parking lot. The guitarist might be the best musician she would ever know; just enough sour, not too much sweet. He was playing a song her grandmother might have hummed, but had forgotten to teach her.
Dear Old Testament God of Noah, please don’t let him be another asshole.
He was out of sight again, so she followed the music through the remains of the fair.
The Ferris wheel wasn’t the only no-frills part of the County Line Road Fair, which had been named right after all. She counted fewer than a dozen rides—the anemic Ferris wheel was the belle of the ball. The rest was two kiddie fake pony rides she might have found at a good-sized shopping mall, a merry-go-round with mermaids among the horses (that one actually wasn’t too bad), a spinner ride in cars for four she’d always hated because she got crushed from centrifugal force; and a Haunted Castle with empty cars waiting to slip into the mouth of hellfire. A giant with a molten face guarded the castle’s door, draped in black rags. Even now the Haunted Castle scared her. As she passed it, she spat into one of the waiting cars.
Crows scattered as she walked.
This fair was organized like all small fairs—a row of games on one side, food vendors on the other. Birds and scavengers had picked over the empty paper popcorn cups and foil hot dog wrappers, but only a few of the vendors had locked their booths tight with aluminum panels. A large deep fryer stood in plain sight at Joe’s Beef Franks as she passed—nothing but an open doorway between them—so she was free to explore. Cabinets. Trash. Counters. So many possibilities. Now her heartbeat did speed up.
With a car and enough essential items, she could think about a future somewhere. The guitar seemed to agree, picking up tempo and passion. The music reminded her that she didn’t have to be alone in her getaway car.
Words were nearly useless now, so she didn’t speak right away when she found his camp alongside the elephant ear vendor’s booth. He had laid out a sleeping bag in the shade of the awning promising “Taysteee Treets,” his back supported against the booth. She stood across the fairway by the ring-toss and took him in.
First surprise: he was wearing a dust mask. A summer look for the fall. Ridiculous.
The mask was particularly disappointing because it was already hard to make out his face beneath his hair and the dirt. He had light brown skin, she guessed, a dark tangle of thinly textured hair, a half-fed build to match hers. He looked nearly a foot taller, so he would have an advantage if they had to fight. Nayima slipped her hand to the compartment in her backpack she kept in easy reach. She took hold of the gun slowly, but she didn’t pull it out.
“Guitar’s mine to keep, and nothin’ else is worth taking,” he said. His voice was gravel. “Grab your pick of whatever you find here and move on.”
“You think I followed you three days to rob you?”
“I don’t try to guess why.”
Nayima shook off her light jacket’s hood. She’d shaved her head in Bakersfield so she wouldn’t be such an obvious rape target. Most of her hair was close to her scalp—but she had a woman’s face. She imagined his eyes flickering, just a flash.
“I’m Nayima,” she said.
He concentrated on his guitar strings. “Keep your distance.”
“You’re immune.” Dummy. She didn’t call him names, but it dripped in her voice.
He stopped playing. “Who says?”
“You do,” she said. “Because you’re still breathing.”
He went back to playing, uninterested.
“Let me guess,” she said. “Everyone in your family got sick and died—including people you saw every day—but you never got even a tummy-ache.”
“I was careful.”
“You think you’re still alive because you’re smarter than the rest?”
“I didn’t say that.” He sounded angry. “But I was very careful.”
“No touching? No breathing?”
“Yes. Even learned how to play with these on.” He held up his right hand. She hadn’t seen his thin, dirty gloves at first glance.
“Your fingertips never brushed a countertop or a window pane or a slip of paper?”
“Doing my best.”
“You never once got unlucky.”
“Until now, I guess,” he said.
“Bullshit,” she said. Now she felt angry. More hurt, but angry too. She hadn’t realized any stranger still held the power to hurt her feelings, or that any feelings were still so raw. “You’re living scared. You’re like one of those Japanese soldiers in World War II who didn’t know the war was over.”
“You think it’s all over. In less than a year.”
“Might as well be. Look how fast the UK went down.”
His eyes dropped away. Plenty had happened since, but London had been the first proof that China’s Seventy-Two Hour Virus was waging a world war instead of only a genocide. Cases hadn’t appeared in the U.S. until a full two days after London burned—those last two days of worry over the problems that seemed far away, people that were none of their business. The televisions had still been working, so they had all heard the news unfolding. An entire tribe at the fire, just before the rains.
“What have you seen?” Finally, he wasn’t trying to push her away.
“I can only report on Southern and Central California. Almost everybody’s gone. The rest of us, we’re spread out. You’re the only breather I’ve seen in two months. That’s why it’s time for us to stop hiding and start finding each other.”
“‘Us?’” he repeated, hitched brow incredulous.
“NIs,” she said. “Naturally Immunes. One in ten thousand, but that’s a guess.”
“Jesus.” A worthy response, but Nayima didn’t like the hard turn of his voice.
“Yes.” She realized she didn’t sound sad enough. He might not understand how sadness made her legs collapse, made it hard to breathe. She tried harder. “It’s terrible.”
“Not that—you.” He sang the rest. “Welcome, one and all, to the new super race . . .”
Song as mockery, especially in his soulful, road-toughened tenor, hurt more than a physical blow. Nayima’s anger roiled from the memory, the rivulets of poisoned saliva running down her cheeks from hateful strangers making a last wish. “They spit in my face, whenever they could. They tried to take me with them—yet here I stand. You can stop being a slave to that filthy paper you’re wearing, giving yourself rashes. We’re immune. Congratulations.”
“Swell,” he said. “I don’t suppose you can back any of that up with lab tests? Studies?”
“We will one day,” she said. “But so far it’s you, and me, and some cop I saw high-tailing out of Bakersfield who should not have still been breathing. Believe me when I tell you: this bad-boy virus takes everybody, eventually. Except NIs.”
“What if I just left a bunker? A treehouse? A cave?”
“Wouldn’t matter. You’ve been out now. Something you touched. It lives on glass for thirty days, maybe forty-five. That was what the lab people in China said, when they finally started talking. Immunity—that’s not a theory. There were always people who didn’t get it when they should’ve dropped. Doctors. Old People.”
“People who were careful,” he said.
“This isn’t survival of the smartest,” she said. “It’s dumb luck. In our genes.”
“So, basically, Madame Curie,” he said, drawing out his words, “you don’t know shit.”
Arrogant. Rude. Condescending. He was a disappointment after three days’ walk, no question about it. But that was to be expected, Nayima reminded herself. She went on patiently. “The next one we find, we’ll ask what they know. That’s how we’ll learn. Get a handle on the numbers. Start with villages again. I like the Central Valley. Good farmland. We just have to be sure of a steady water supply.” It was a relief to let her thoughts out for air.
He laughed. “Whoa, sister. Don’t start picking out real estate. You and me ain’t a village. I’ll shoot you if you come within twenty yards.”
So—he was armed. Of course. His gun didn’t show, but she couldn’t see his left hand, suddenly hidden beneath a fold in his sleeping bag. He had been waiting for her.
“Oh,” she said. “This again.”
“Yeah—this,” he said. “This is called common sense. Go on about your business. You can spend the night here, but I want you gone by morning. This is mine.”
He coughed a shallow, thirsty cough—not the rattling cough of the plague. “I’m not here for rescue. Didn’t know a thing about that.”
“I have water,” she said. “I bet there’s more in the vendor booths.” Let him remember what it felt like to be fussed over. Let him see caring in her eyes.
His chuckle turned into another cough. “Yeah, no thanks. Got my own.”
“If you didn’t come here to get rescued, then why? Jonesing for hot dog buns?”
He moved his left hand away from his gun and back to his guitar strings. He plinked.
“My family used to come,” he said. “Compete in 4-H. Eat fried dough ’til we puked. Ride those cheap-ass rides. This area’s real close-knit, so you’d see everybody like a backyard party. That’s all I wanted—to be somewhere I knew. Somewhere I would remember.”
The wind shifted. Could be worse, but the dead were in the breeze.
“Smells like their plan didn’t work out,” Nayima said.
“Unless it did.” He shrugged. “You need to leave me alone now.”
Coming as it did at the end of the living portrait he’d just painted, the theft of his company burned a hole in her. She needed him already. Father, son, brother, lover, she didn’t care which. She didn’t want to be without him. Couldn’t be without him, maybe.
His silence turned the fairgrounds gloomy again. This smell was the reason she preferred the open road, for now.
“At least tell me your name,” she said. Her voice quavered.
But he only played his fantasy of bright, spinning lights.
• • • •
With only two hours left before dark, Nayima remembered her situation. She was down to her last two bottles of water—so there was that. She noted every hose and spigot, mapping the grounds in her mind. Even with the water turned off, sometimes the reserves weren’t dry.
Nayima went to search for a car first, since that would decide what else she needed. She didn’t break into cars with locked doors during her first sweep. She decided she would only break a window if she saw a key. Glass was unpredictable, and her life was too fragile for everyday infections. The first vehicles she found with keys—the first engines she heard turn—had less than an eighth of a tank. Not enough.
Then she saw the PT Cruiser parked at B-7. Berry purple. The cream-colored one she’d driven in college at Spelman had been reincarnated in her favorite color, calling to her. Unlocked door. No stench inside. Half a bottle of water waiting in the beverage cup, nearly hot as steam from a day in the sun. No keys in the ignition, but they were tucked in the passenger visor, ready to be found. The engine choked complaints about long neglect, but finally hummed to life. And the gas tank, except by a hair, was full. Nayima felt so dizzy with relief that she sank into the car’s bucket seat and closed her eyes. She thanked the man on the road and his music in the sky.
She could pack a working car with enough supplies for a month or more. With so much gas, she would easily make it to the closest town. She would stake out the periphery, find an old farmhouse in the new quiet. Clean up its mess. Rest with a proper roof.
Nayima’s breath caught in her throat like a stone. Her first miracle in the New World.
The rest of her searching took on a leisurely pace, one step ahead of the setting sun. Nayima avoided the guitar player while she scouted, honoring his perimeter. She drove from the parking lot to the fairway, her slow-moving wheels chewing the gravel. Her driver’s seat was a starship captain’s throne.
Weather and dust were no match for the colors at the County Line Road Fair. Painted clowns and polar bears and ringmasters in top hats shouted red, blue, and yellow from wildly-named booths promising sweet, salty, and cold. In the colors and the guitar music, ghostly faces emerged, captured at play. The fairground teemed with children. Nayima heard their carefree abandon.
For an instant, she let in the children’s voices—until her throat burned. The sky seemed ready to fall. She held her breath until her lungs forced her to suck in the air. To breathe in that smell she hated. The false memory was gone.
As she’d expected, airtight packages of hot dog buns looked fresh enough to last for millennia. She found boxes of protein bars in a vendor’s cabinet and a sack of unshelled peanuts so large she had to carry it over her back like a child. She stuffed the PT Cruiser with a growing bounty of clean blankets, an unopened twenty-four pack of water bottles and her food stash—even a large purple stuffed elephant, just because she could. The PT Cruiser, her womb on wheels, cast a fresh light on the world.
But there was the question of the passenger seat, still empty. The may, maybe, might part was making her too anxious to enjoy her fair prizes.
Then Nayima saw the stenciled sign:
RESCUE CENTER ➩
The arrow pointed away from the vendors’ booths, toward the Farm World side of the fair, with its phantom Petting Zoo and Pony Rides in dull earth tones; really more an alleyway than a world. On the other end, a long wood-plank horse stall like one she had seen at the Kentucky Derby stood behind an empty corral, doors firmly shut.
Nayima climbed out of her PT Cruiser, pocketing her precious keys. She followed the dried tracks of man and beast side by side, walking on crushed hay. On the Farm World side, she could barely make out the sounds of the guitar. She felt like she had as a kid swimming in the ocean, testing a greater distance from shore. He might stop playing and disappear. It seemed more and more likely that she had only dreamed him.
But she had to see the rescue center. Like the driver from the PT Cruiser who had left her water bottle half full, in her imagination Nayima melted into scuffling feet, complaining children, muffled sobs.
The signs were posted on neatly-spaced posts. Each sign, helpful and profound.
FAMILIES SHOULD REMAIN TOGETHER
YOUR CALM HELPS OTHERS STAY CALM
SMILE—REMOVE YOUR MASK
The smell worsened with each step toward the looming structure. In front of the closed double doors stood two eight-foot folding tables—somewhat rusted now. Sun-faded pages flapped from a clipboard. Nayima glanced at a page of dull bureaucracy: handwritten names and addresses: Gerald Hillbrandt, Party of 4. As she’d guessed, a few hundred people had come.
Nayima’s eyes followed the next sign to the southwest corner of the stall, where she found rows of shoes neatly paired against the wall. Mama Bear, Papa Bear, Baby Bear, all side by side. Cheerfully surrendered. Nayima, who wore through shoes quickly, felt a strange combination of exhilaration and sorrow at the sight of the shoes on merry display.
The next sign pointed around the corner, away from the registration table and cache of shoes. The entrance to the intake center had been in the rear, not the front. The rear double barn doors were closed, but they also had tables on either side, each with a large opaque beverage dispenser half-filled with a dark liquid that could be iced tea.
A refreshments table, she thought—until she saw the signs.
MAKE SURE EVERYONE IN YOUR PARTY TAKES A FULL CUP
PARENTS, WATCH YOUR CHILDREN DRINK BEFORE DRINKING YOURSELF
MAKE SURE CUPS ARE EMPTIED BEFORE ENTERING
TRASH HERE, PLEASE
Beneath the last sign, a large garbage can halfway filled with crumpled plastic cups. Nayima stared. Some cups were marked with lipstick. Several, actually. Had they come to the Rescue Center wearing their Sunday best? Had they dressed up to meet their maker?
The smell, strongest here, was not fresh; it was the smell of older, dry death. The door waited—locked, perhaps—but Nayima did not want to go inside. Nayima laid her palm across the building’s warm wooden wall, a communion with whoever had left her the PT Cruiser. And the shoes she would choose. What visionary had brought them here in this humane way? Had they known what was waiting? Her questions filled her with acid grief. She was startled by her longing to be with them, calm and resting.
Just in time, she heard the music.
• • • •
“Look what I found,” she said, and held up the sign for him to see.
“Can’t read that from here.”
“I can come closer.”
“Wouldn’t do that.”
So, nothing had changed. She sighed. “It says—‘Smile, Remove Your Mask.’”
He laughed. She already loved the sound. And then, the second miracle—he tugged his mask down to his chin. “Hell, since it’s on the sign.” He pointed a finger of judgment at her. “You stay way over there, I’ll keep it off.”
His voice was clearer. It was almost too dark to see him now, but she guessed he couldn’t be older than fifty, perhaps as young as forty. He was young. Young enough. She wasn’t close enough to see his eyes, but she imagined they were kind.
“I’m Kyle,” he said.
She grinned so widely that she might have blinded him.
“Easy there, sister,” he said. “That’s all you get—my name. And a little guitar, if you can be a quiet audience. Like I said, you’re moving on.”
“Some of the other cars have gas. But this one has a full tank.”
“Good for you,” he said, not unkindly.
“You’ll die here if you’re afraid to touch anything.”
“My cross to bear.”
“How will you ever know you’re immune?” she said.
He only shrugged. “I expect it’ll become clear.”
“But I won’t be here. I don’t know where I’ll be. We have to . . .” She almost said We have to fight back and make babies and see if they can survive. “. . . stay together. Help protect each other. We’re herd animals, not solitary. We always have been. We need each other.”
Too much to comprehend lay in his silence.
“All you need is a full tank of gas,” he said at last. “All I need is my guitar. Nothing personal—but ever hear of Typhoid Mary?”
Yes, of course she had heard of Typhoid Mary, had lived under the terror of her legacy. In high school, she’d learned that the poor woman died in isolation after thirty years, with no one allowed close to her. Nayima had decided long ago not to live in fear.
“We have immunity,” she said. “I won’t get you sick.”
“That’s a beautiful idea.” His voice softened practically to a song. “You’ll be the one who got away, Nayima.”
She couldn’t remember the last time anyone had called her by name. And he’d pronounced it as if he’d known her all her life. Not to mention how the word beautiful cascaded up and down her spine. While her hormones raged, she loved him more with each breath. Nayima was tempted to jump into her PT Cruiser and drive away then, the way she had learned to flee all hopeless scenarios.
Instead, she pulled her car within fifteen yards of him and reclined in the driver’s seat with her door open, watching him play until he stopped. The car’s clock said it was midnight when he finally slept. Hours had melted in his music. She couldn’t sleep, feverish with the thought of losing him.
At first, she only climbed out of the car to stretch her limbs. She took a tentative step toward him. Then, another. Soon, she was standing over him while he slept.
She took in his bright guitar strap, woven from a pattern that looked Native American. The wiry hairs on his dark beard where they grew thick to protect his pink lips. The moonlight didn’t show a single gray hair. He could be strong, with better feeding. Beneath his dusty camo jacket, he wore a Pink Floyd concert shirt. He could play her all of the old songs, and she could teach him music he didn’t know. The moonlight cradled his curls across his forehead, gleamed on his exposed nose. He was altogether magnificent.
Nayima was sure he would wake when she knelt beside him, but he was a strong sleeper. His chest rose and fell, rose and fell, even as she leaned over him.
Was the stone rolling across her chest only her heartbeat? Her palms itched, hot. She was seventeen again, unexpectedly alone in a corner with Darryn Stephens at her best friend’s house party, so aware of every prickling pore where they were close. And when he’d bent close, she’d thought he was going to whisper something in her ear over the noise of the world’s last dance. His breath blew across her lips, sweet with beer. Then his lips grazed hers, lightning strikes down her spine, and the softness . . . the softness . . .
Kyle slept on as Nayima pressed her lips to his. Was he awake? Had his lips yielded to her? It seemed so much like Kyle was kissing her too, but his eyes were still closed, his breathing uninterrupted even as she pulled away.
She crept back to her PT Cruiser, giddy as a twelve-year-old. Oh, but he would be furious! The idea of his anger made her giggle. She dozed to sleep thinking of the gift of liberation she had given Kyle. Freedom from masks. Freedom from fear. Freedom to live his life with her, to build their village.
• • • •
By dawn, Nayima woke to the sound of his retching.
She thought she’d dreamed the sound at first—tried to will herself to stay in her happy dream of singing Kumbaya with well-groomed strangers in the horse stalls, hand in hand—but she opened her eyes and saw the guitar player hunched away from her. He had pushed his guitar aside. She heard the splatter of his vomit.
Nausea came first. Nausea came fast.
Shit, she thought. Her mind was a vast white prairie, emptied, save that one word. She remembered his laughter, realized she would never hear him laugh again now.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought for sure you were like me. An NI.”
She wished her voice had sounded sadder, but she didn’t know how. She wanted to explain that he might have contracted the virus somewhere else in the past twenty-four hours, not necessarily from her. But despite the odds and statistics on her side, even she didn’t believe that.
It’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it, Gram would say. Nayima clamped her fingernails into both palms. Her wrist tendons popped out from the effort. Hot pain. The numbness that had thawed with his music and 4-H stories crept over her again, calcified.
The man didn’t turn to look at her as she stood over him and picked through his things. His luggage carrier held six water bottles and a mountain of candy bars. The necessities. She left him his candy and water. His 9mm had no ammo, but she took it. She left his guitar—although she took the strap to remember him by. She might take up guitar herself one day.
The man gagged and vomited again. Most people choked to death by the third day.
“I’m leaving now,” she said, and knelt behind him. She searched for something to say that might matter to him. “Kyle, I found that Rescue Center over in Farm Land—Farm World—and it looks nice. Somebody really thought the whole thing through. You were right to come here. Where I grew up, they just burned everything.”
Even now, she craved his voice. Wanted so badly for him to hear her. To affirm her. To learn her grandmother’s name and say, “Yes, she was.” Yes, you were. Yes, you are.
The man did not answer or turn her way. Like the others before him, he was consumed with his illness. Just as well, Nayima thought as she climbed back into her car. Just as well. She glanced at her visor mirror and saw her face: dirt-streaked, unrepentant. She blinked and looked away.
Nayima never had been able to stomach the eyes of the dead.