Jacob walks ahead of me on a two-track running through the middle of a uniformed line of pines and maples. He’s watching our left side while I concentrate on the right; although, it’s the leftover bits of chocolate stuck to my gums that truly has my attention. It’s richer than I remember. Sweeter, too. We must find more. We must.
It’s starting to get dark. A stick snaps under my shoes. Jacob turns around.
“Watch your step,” he says. “No more close encounters today.”
I blush and focus on my feet. The incident in the party store was the first time we’ve come across remnants in a while. As dangerous as remnants are, humans can be worse. Remnants don’t know any better. They’re simply following a hunger inside of them that can never be fulfilled. Humans, on the other hand, should know better. I’ve seen people trample each other to save their skin. I’ve heard of men and women killing each other, and children being used as bait. It wasn’t the plague that rotted the world; it was human nature. We always seem to screw it up.
“What are you thinking about back there?” Jacob says.
I catch up to him and he rests the shotgun over his shoulder so we can walk hand in hand.
“Oh, nothing,” I say. He knows I worry too much.
We keep our conversation at a whisper. The bat hangs from my bag, occasionally tapping my leg, getting blood on my jeans.
“I feel bad about knocking over the shelf,” I say. “I should’ve asked for help. I’m sorry.”
“You don’t need to apologize. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“I know, I know.”
“So why are you apologizing then?”
“What if one of us would’ve gotten hurt?”
My backpack feels heavy, as if it contains all of my emotions right now. I hope Jacob’s not mad at me. Maybe I’m getting careless. Maybe I’m getting bored with playing it safe.
Jacob stops and looks at me with his ocean-blue eyes. “We have enough things to worry about, so let’s not worry about stuff that didn’t happen,” he says. “We could talk all day about the would haves and could haves, but what good would it do?”
“Yes, you’re right,” I say.
He puts his arm around me and we continue on our way. Another half mile and we’ll be home.
“On another note,” he says, talking too loud again. We should be saving our conversation for the house, but I think there’s too much adrenaline pumping through our bodies for us to stay quiet. “What was that move you did with the hatchet blade? It was like you were wielding a sword in some ancient battle. I’ve never seen you fight like that.”
“I was a little over-the-top, wasn’t I?” I whisper so he understands we’re being too loud.
“You were insane. I loved it.”
(so did you so did you)
(yes you did)
“If we ever get into trouble again,” he whispers. “I’ll get out of the way. You can bash their heads in, and I’ll just watch.”
“I don’t like killing them like that.”
A bat flies over our heads, gobbling up mosquitos. I used to be afraid of them, now it’s like, whatever.
“Aurora, they don’t feel any pain. It doesn’t matter how we get rid of them, only that we do get rid of them.”
“I prefer it to be you. You have the gun.”
An image of the remnant boy’s jaw flying across the store comes back to me. My stomach cries out, wanting to vomit the chocolate. I let go of Jacob’s hand and adjust the ring on my finger. The shiny rock twinkles within its 14K white gold setting.
“Something wrong with your ring?” he asks.
“When I swung at the first boy, my bat jammed into my ring. I’m making sure the diamond didn’t fall out.”
He nervously coughs twice and asks, “Did it?”
“Whew! That would have been a bummer.”
“Not the exact word I would use, but yes, it would have been a bummer.”
“Well, what’s a better word, Miss English Extraordinaire?”
Jacob likes to put my English skills to the test. There’s no TV, Internet, or video games anymore, so this is our idea of having fun. Generally, it starts with Jacob using a boring word in a sentence. I’ll make a sarcastic comment about the word, he’ll challenge me to come up with a better one, and then I’ll squint my eyes, think hard, and—voilà—the perfect replacement word comes to me. In high school, I was a decent student (science and math got me the B’s), but English was my strong suit. The nickname Miss English Extraordinaire was coined by my best friend Tammy. If someone walked into the library between 3:00 PM – 5:00 PM, they’d find me in the far corner, sitting in a leather chair, feet up, headphones over my ears, book in hand. It wasn’t only popular YA fiction, it was books filled with countless definitions and synonyms. It was novels about the history of the world and how our languages came to be. It was all the books the other students wouldn’t dare touch.
“Let me think,” I say, pulling the straps on my backpack as I concentrate. The lizard keychain clinks a few times. “Calamity … fiasco … Waterloo …”
“If I remember correctly, it means a crushing defeat. Waterloo is a village in Belgium where Napoleon was defeated, thus the phrase, ‘To meet one’s Waterloo’.”
The perplexed look on his face means he doubts me. “Use it in a sentence.”
“Aurora finally met her Waterloo when the precious diamond in her wedding ring dislodged from its mounting during an epic battle with remnants.”
He moves the shotgun behind his head, holding on to it like a pull-up bar. He’s not relaxing; he’s agitated. “How do you even know … can we please just stick with bummer because I can’t even point out Bell-jumm on a map.”
“You asked for a better word.”
“Yeah, real words.”
I chuckle. My stomach growls so loud, I fear remnants can hear it.
“Ok. Bummer can stay,” I whisper. “Do you remember how long I’ve had this ring?” I twist the ring around a few times.
Jacob starts to walk faster. A few more bats fly overhead. He looks up at the trees, then down at the ground. Sorry, Jacob, but they’re not going to be much help to you. Part of me feels like it’s no big deal that he doesn’t remember, while the other part is bummed (ugh, now he’s got me using his word).
Jacob grins and whispers, “Two months, twelve days.” That stinker, he does remember our anniversary!
“You’re such a convincing liar and I hate that,” I say.
“You’re smart and know English good and I hate that,” he says.
“Well, Jacob, know English well.”
“See. I can’t believe it’s been two months already. We forgot to go on our honeymoon.” He points over to a grisly looking tree with crooked branches and rancid vines twisting around its bark. “Here, this looks like a good place to vacation.”
“Um, no thank you,” I say.
Getting married was a spur-of-the-moment decision. Jacob and I had dated for three years, but marriage wasn’t something we were ready for. After all, we were (and still are) only eighteen. Everything changed after the plague. We didn’t know how much time we had left together and we wanted to make our love real. We found a church and said our vows, wrapping my bandana around our wrists as a sign of unity. Other than God, the only witness was a pigeon who flew in right as Jacob said, ‘For better or for worse.’ That was funny. After our beautiful, but horribly attended service, we had sex for the first time in the church youth room. It wasn’t my first, second, or hundredth choice for that moment to take place, but choices are a luxury that had died with the old world. I must have said sorry to God a hundred times; although, I like to think that he was ok with it. My closest friends used to tease Jacob and me about being virgins, even though some of them were virgins too. I guess it was their strange way of showing that they cared. I miss the teasing, the annoying back-and-forth only we understood as a kind of love. I wish they could see how well Jacob and I are doing today.
“You know what’s crazy?” Jacob says, interrupting memory lane. “We’re married but we’re so young.”
“I don’t feel young anymore,” I say. “Not after all we’ve been through.”
He nods and continues walking. I bet he’s worried we’re talking too much. He’s usually the loud one, yet here I am, rambling on and on, getting caught up in serious talk.
“We’re also two very different people,” he says. “In case you’ve forgotten.”
“Sure, but in a way, we’re better for it. We understand what each other wants and go the extra mile to make it so. Most of the world is dying or already dead. You and I are here to give it some life. Don’t you agree?”
“You’re always so poetic, Aurora. That’s why I love you.” He kisses me. I guess I’ll take that as a yes.
The two-track ends in front of a moss and fungi covered cabin, a quaint wooden structure that looks like it could be found in the Desktop Images folder on a computer. The windows and doors are boarded up. The yard is full of tall grass, hiding a couple of rusty trucks. A barbed-wire fence wraps around the perimeter. NO TRESPASSING signs are everywhere. About three weeks ago, we found this cabin and beefed up the security. The first thing we did was check the integrity of the boarded-up windows. Remnants can break through wood, so we reinforced questionable spots with metal siding we found stacked in the backyard. Next, we piled almost all the furniture in front of the entrances, notably a sliding glass door that leads to the back porch. We moved a bed downstairs and remain there for the most part. The walls in the cabin are soundproof (thanks to the previous owner who we don’t know much about other than that he was a he, and he loved baked beans because there’s an enormous stash in the kitchen). The cabin is kind of a mess, but it’s functional.
“Home sweet home,” Jacob says.
Not so long ago, home used to be comfy couches and screaming fast Wi-Fi. Now, home is boarded-up windows and cold basements, but as long as Jacob’s with me, it’s still home.