“Did you get it?” Harlan’s face, lined and worn with more years of care than he wanted to remember, creased in a grin.
“I did,” Josh answered simply.
“Son, do you realize—”
“I know, sir.” They were not blood kin, but often addressed each other as if they were.
“Since the Collapse started, since all this horror began, since civilization literally went down the toilet, I never dreamed that I would be able to say this again. I’ll have a double mixed swirl!” The two men started walking towards a large shed, cobbled together with bits of sheet metal and chunks of concrete covered with a patchwork of tarps and tarpaper.
Josh indicated the older man to lead the way, and then laughed. “For twelve years I’ve been asking, and it never ceases to amaze me, the answers I get. What people miss most about The Before. Some people, it’s the sense of security and knowing the rules.”
“Knowing that there were rules,” added Harlan.
“Some people, it’s the creature comforts: easy food, electricity, running water.”
“We got two out of three.”
“Not bad, not bad, you’re right,” admitted Josh. He knew Harlan was avid about reminding people what they had accomplished in the short period after the worst of the chaos of the cataclysm that had spelled the end of life as they had known it. “But you have to admit, it was different when those things felt like a right… now they are definitely a rare privilege.”
“I’ll give you that,” Harlan commented as he walked into one of the large sheds where so many of the community’s resources were stored while being prepared for use or re-purposing.
“But just as many as miss the big things miss the small things, too. Almost everybody mentions something like movies or TV or fireworks.”
“Or soft ice cream,” Harlan declared, pointing to himself. “We’ve made the hard stuff, and that’s great, but soft serve is a different animal all together. It’s the little things in the community that bring people together, give them hope.” The older man got quiet for a moment. “That’s what this means to me, you know. Hope that we will go on, that the life we can have will be worth living. For a while then, when the bombs were falling thick and fast, I know I lost hope.”
“You?” Josh was surprised this leader would admit to such a circumstance. “I mean, I know I despaired. When my wife and kids got killed, when my whole town got wiped out, it was you brought me back from the brink. I might have gone the way of so many, ending it all myself and saving the Marauders the trouble. You know I owe you my life.”
“The Marauders are only one step up from the ones who went crazy, but I have to give them that. Polk and his murderers at least gave their men something to live for.”
“Killing other people is something to live for?”
“They didn’t just kill, even in the worst of it. He built a community, of a sort. Anybody who organized, led, made decisions instead of threats, anything of the kind to fight the despair, I have to give them credit.”
“That’s why you’re the leader. You can deal with those devils, negotiate and outsmart them. Me, I’d just build a wall to keep them out. And Tolbert, he’d bust them over the head.”
“Hard to trade with a man from the wrong side of a wall or a grave. I just think the better way is to give people ice cream.”
“That’s why you’re the boss. Now, you know it won’t taste just the same. We’ve got the mix, old as it is, and now we’ve got the machine, but the water…”
“I know. It won’t be the same. Water from The Before just tasted different, so no matter how we filter, everything now tastes different, too. It’s not so bad. Notice how people don’t get that sick anymore?”
“Twenty years of war, starvation, and chaos, only the strong survived,” Josh muttered. He pulled an old knife out of a sheath on his belt and used it to cut away at some of the plastic twine binding the machine parts together.
“And not all of them,” Harlan countered. “But there’s no use counting years, Josh. Forget the past. We can keep using the things from back then, like you using your Daddy’s knife there. But when it’s time to let them go, don’t hold back just because of the past. It’s the future that counts.”
“I do my share of looking to the future.”
Harlan gave him a look that said, “Come off it,” as clearly as if he had shouted the words. What he said was, “A wife, Josh. I can’t keep turning a blind eye. So far, we’ve found other men to take the girls who have come of age, but you’ll have to do your duty soon. And don’t think I haven’t noticed. Isn’t it strange how, just before a new girl turns twenty-two and needs to be married off, you always happen to find another worthy, hard-working man, unattached and unallied, to join The Ridge?”
“There are still plenty of them out there,” Josh answered defensively. “Not everyone went the way of the gangs and warlords. They’re migrating southwest as far as I can tell, making for the areas that were less of a target during the first of the Collapse. We’ll get more every year, you’ll see.”
“Bring in as many as you can, Josh. Surviving in the Wild is no way for a person to live. But neither is being alone.”
“I’m not alone, and don’t change the subject.” Josh indicated the machine they were unpacking and admiring. “We were talking about the past, or at least parts of it. You say you only want to look forward, but you ask me for bits of the old ways.”
“No use turning down a little fun when it comes my way.”
“Josh gave him a grin. “Ready to plug her in? We really should give her a spin before we announce it to the community.”
Harlan seemed to consider seriously. “We sure should. Can’t have people getting their hopes up just to be disappointed, can we? That would be downright embarrassing!”
Josh plugged in the machine and added the powdered mix to the right amount of water poured out of a sealed tank. “Says here on the side we have to wait half an hour,” Josh pointed out. “While it’s making, let me show you my other finds.”
“Other finds? I thought you went to trade for this with the Blue Valley township folks.”
“I did, but on the way I saw a downed plane. A big one. Looked to be a military transport. Must have gone down near the beginning of the trouble. Somebody thought they would wait till the end of the fighting to go back and salvage it, but of course…”
“Are you sure it’s not booby-trapped? Why wasn’t it scavenged a long time ago?”
“It’s hard to get to and covered over by vines. Kudzu, I think, and something else herbicide resistant. Remember when we used to curse kudzu as an invasive species? Couldn’t wait until somebody came up with a chemical to kill it?”
Harlan laughed long and hard with Josh at that thought. “Now, we’re thanking our lucky stars that no matter what else got killed in the warfare, kudzu survived.”
“And thrived. Enough to feed the sheep and cattle. Enough to hide the transport where I found these.” Dramatically, he pulled back the tarp covering a wooden box labeled ‘medical supplies’.
Harlan sat down hard on the pile of blankets behind him, his mouth opening and closing like a fish. “Is it really? The label…”
“Is right,” Josh finished for him. “And there’s more. Still sterile as far as I can tell.”
“Any books? Medical journals? Was it a hospital plane?”
“No, nothing like that, sorry. But I’ll keep bringing back a little at a time, whatever’s there.”
“We could organize a caravan. It’d be safer for you. Polk catches you out in the Wild with a likely carcass to pick over, he’s not going to let you live to tell about it.”
“What would a warlord like Polk want with medical supplies? Anyway, no caravan could get down there. All we would do would be to alert Polk that it was there. I can come and go, casual like. I’ll get the best stuff first and piece by piece I’ll bring it all.”
“Like an ant emptying a sugar bowl,” Harlan said ruefully. “Well, if that’s the way you want it. Just be careful. You’re more valuable to us even than the medical supplies.”
“Uh, I think it’s time to check that ice cream.” Josh headed back to the machine and got out two tin cups.
“Here, let me. I used to work in a drive in.” Harlan expertly pulled two twisty towers of cold, creamy luxury.
“That takes me back.” Josh savored every moment. “Kind of scary that it still tastes this good even though the mix is twenty years old.”
Harlan smacked his lips appreciatively. “Oh, yeah, this will do fine. We’ll wheel it into the kitchen at the meeting hall tonight, and then surprise everybody with it after the council.”
Josh smiled at the old man’s wily wisdom. “The folks who bother to come to the council meeting get the ice cream.”
Harlan nodded. “They get to hear about it and try it first, anyway. There’ll be plenty left to trade for credits after that, won’t there?”
“I got a whole pallet back in warehouse five. And just like always, we’re not trying to ration it, are we?”
“That’s right. No use saving it. When it’s gone, it’s gone, but we should enjoy it while we can. And who knows how much longer it will taste decent. It’s already old enough to vote as it is.”
“If it were a girl, we’d have to be finding it a husband.” Josh unplugged the machine and the two men lifted it onto a cart then covered it with a tarp.
“That’s a match not even you would turn down.”
“I can see the write-up on her now: sweet and soft, but cold. Can be twisted and messy, so handle with care.” Josh opened the door so Harlan could push the cart out into the night.
“That’s not a bad description for a woman, especially that last part. Takes just the right touch, but oh, the rewards!”
* * *
Two weeks later found Josh out in the Wild. As always, he had his knife in its sheath on his belt and a razor in the heel of his boot. Looking around cautiously, he left the cover of the trees near the boulder shaped like a sheep’s head and angled over toward the tangle of vines Josh knew disguised the downed military transport. Gently, he eased the door open and peered in before flicking his pump-powered flashlight to the on position. Its dim glow illuminated a circle about fifteen feet around. In that circle lurked who knew what treasures, just waiting for Josh to open.
He drew out his knife and set to work, carefully slicing into cardboard. He made mental notes of what was located where so that on subsequent trips, he could more quickly make his choices and be gone. Wait a minute, he thought to himself. Was that box there before? And is that dust on the floor disturbed? Was it that way the last time I came here? No, that crate definitely wasn’t facing that bulkhead last time. Someone has been in here. This box is half empty. I know it was full when I was here before. Who could have been in here? And why didn’t they clear it out? Same reason as me? Afraid to draw attention?
Josh backed out of the main compartment, empty handed except for the knife he kept in his large palm. Slowly and deliberately, he swung the flashlight around the interior of the plane and started to pace up the irregular clear space that indicated where an aisle might have been. He saw tracks in the dust and followed them to the bulkhead where they stopped. Josh stopped too, sheathed his knife, and then backed up three strong paces and suddenly shouted a wordless “Ahh!”
There was an answering shriek of terror before Josh saw someone—it looked like a young woman—fall from just above his head. He tackled her easily enough and immobilized her by laying his large, muscular frame on top of her thin, slight one.
“Let me up! Let go! Get off me!”
“Be still and I’ll get up!”
“Get off! I can’t breathe!”
“If you couldn’t breathe, you wouldn’t be able to screech so. Now hush before you bring Polk’s Marauders down on us.”
“Get off me! I wasn’t hurting you!”
“Be still!” Finally, the little spitfire of a woman did as she was told. Josh knew she couldn’t have much air left, so he eased up just enough to let her draw a good breath before he clamped a hand over her mouth. “Now, when I let go again, you’re going to tell me who you are and who your father is. If you holler, I’ll just clamp back down again. Here goes.” He slowly let his hand relax.
“I don’t have to tell you anything,” she hissed back.
“Oh, yes, you do. You know the rule. Any woman caught in the Wild alone without permission will be punished. If you don’t tell me who you belong to, I’ll assume you don’t have permission and take care of matters right here and now.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You have no right to do anything to me! Let go.”
“Look, let’s stop pretending. It’s going to get dark soon and I don’t have time for fooling around. I know you belong to the community and everybody from the community knows the rules.”
The woman gave another mighty push, trying to get out from under him. “I can’t talk like this. Let me up and let me go.”
Josh saw her point. It was awkward lying there and he had to admit he was enjoying the position far too much. His body was reacting in predictable but inappropriate ways to the nearness of a lithe attractive female form. Keeping a hand clamped around one of her arms, he stood up, taking her with him. “All right. We’re standing up. Now, start talking.”
“Why should I? Just let me go.” She had to crane her neck back to look into his face.
“Now, look, this has gone on about long enough.” He gave her a searching stare. “I haven’t seen you before, have I? Do you live on the West side? I hardly ever go over there.”
“What makes you think I belong to your community?”
“You’re not scared to death. If you weren’t from The Ridge, you would be terrified to be found out here alone in the Wild.”
“Why should I be scared? I’ve watched you often enough. I know you’re not going to hurt me. If you planned on it, you would have done it already. So just let me go so I can be on my way. As you pointed out, dark is coming on.”
“You’re trying to tell me you’re not from The Ridge?”
“That’s right. I’m from… another community and they’re going to be mad I’m late. When I tell them it was you that kept me, there’ll be trouble, so just let me go and I won’t name any names.”
“Oh, really? What ‘other community’ are you from?”
“I’m from Dust Cave community, if you must know.”
Josh laughed out loud. “I’ve heard of young ladies going to great lengths to avoid getting their comeuppance, but you take the cake. Lying and being out of bounds on your own? You are in for it when I get you home.” He started off toward the door of the transport, but when she resisted, several items fell out of the loose vest she wore over her threadbare t-shirt. “Stealing, too?”
“I found this stuff on this airplane, same as you,” she said defensively.
“The items on this transport are for the whole community, not just one person. Personal scavenging is a real morale buster. I’m taking this back to the warehouse for registry. But first, I’m taking you back to the gate and see if anybody knows you.”
“You can’t drag me all the way back to your town.”
“So you admit you do know where The Ridge is,” Josh pointed out triumphantly.
“Of course I know where it is. That doesn’t mean I belong to it.”
Josh opened the door and peered out. “The coast is clear. Let’s just get back up the ravine and maybe by the time we get to the gate, you’ll decide to tell me where to take you so I don’t wind up having to turn you over to the registration office. It’ll be late by the time we get back and I don’t think you’ll want to make the officer on duty mad. He’d have grounds to lodge a complaint against you on top of the ones I’ll be making.”
Suddenly, the woman reached up and pulled at a box in the middle of a tall stack. It brought the whole tower down on top of Josh, knocking him down. By the time he got back up, she had slipped out the door. He followed her with a curse and a lunge, catching her before she reached the path that led up the ravine. He threw her over his shoulder and waded back through the undergrowth towards the plane smacking her backside as hard as he could all the way there. He had left the door open, so he didn’t need to stop spanking her as he went in, but he did have to turn around and pull the door to before propping his foot up on one of the fallen boxes and slinging her over his knee.
“What the heck was that all about?” he raged. “I never did this before, but I can sure see the possibilities. Don’t you know what can happen to you out there? Are you crazy? Do you just want to get captured and taken to the Marauder camp?” All the while, he continued his assault on her backside. He slapped away, fast and hard, making sure he covered every inch of her bottom and the tops of her thighs. The way she was shrieking and cursing him gave him to believe that he was getting through to her, but he wanted to make sure. “You think this stings? Wait until I pull these pants down.”
He had heard from the married men that women hated to have their pants pulled down during a spanking, so he thought he’d spank for a while on only her panties, just to make sure she knew he meant business. Inserting a thumb into the drawstring top of her baggy leggings, he yanked them down. The sight that met his gaze froze him for long moments while he took in the reddening flesh, no longer covered by a single stitch of clothing.
Her shouts and cries stilled for one heart-stopping second before she yanked her clothing back into position. In his surprise, he didn’t stop her but even when he thought about it, he knew it was better for her to be covered. He wasn’t her husband, after all, and had no right to gawk at her. The sight of her bare flesh was too distracting anyway.
“Let me go!” Her cries began again as soon as his swats did. “Get off me! You have no right! Stop it! Stop it!”
“Tell me who you are and I’ll stop.”
“No! Let me go! I thought you were one of the good guys! Ouch! Ouch!”
He spanked on and on, hard and fast, not giving her one moment’s rest until she was gasping and her kicks became desperate. At last, her struggling became feebler and her hoarse cries got softer. The fight seemed to leave her and she stilled. Josh sensed a change. “Are you ready to tell me who you are?”
“I’m… I’m Jane and I’m from the West side of town, like you said. Now, let me go.”
Josh sighed, ready for this ordeal to be over. “No, you’re not. Tell me the truth.” He started smacking her rump again, knowing it had to be searing hot and throbbing after the long punishment he had just doled out.
“Stop! Stop! I told you who I am!”
“Look, I admit I was wrong about you. I can tell you aren’t from The Ridge because all the women in the community are issued with underwear. You’re outer clothes are clue enough, but I figured you might just be wearing your worst so you wouldn’t risk tearing your good clothes, but if you had them, you’d be wearing underwear. You’re not, so you don’t. That means you aren’t from the community. And you can’t be from another settlement. The nearest one is too far away. Who are you? Tell me the truth or I’ll go on like this all night.”
“All right! All right! I’ll tell you! Just stop for a minute and let me breathe!”
Josh realized her breath was coming in ragged gasps again. He stopped and let her stand up. Instinctively, he took her in his arms, trapping her hands to his chest but otherwise gentle, hoping to keep her calm and help her realize that she could trust him. “Start with your name, little one. Just your name. That’s enough for now. Tell me your name.” He tried to quell the sympathetic feelings rising up in him as he felt how thin she was, how small against his chest.
“Ally. My name is Ally.”
“See, that wasn’t so hard. I’m not going to hurt you, Ally, or let anyone else hurt you, but you’ve got to talk to me so I can help you. Do you understand?”
“I understand.” She was relaxing now, her breathing more regular. She tried to back away from him, but he held her tight.
“How long have you been living in the Wild?”
“All my life. I was only two when the Collapse happened. My mother told me about it, but I don’t know any other way.”
“Where is your mother now?”
“She’s dead, has been for seven years.”
“Never knew him. Mama never trusted anyone else so even when we saw The Ridge doing all right, and Blue Valley and the others, she never wanted to join.”
“Any other family?”
“I had a brother, but he went looking for stuff to… to trade, I mean. He never came back. We never knew what happened to him, but we made it okay anyway.”
“It’s amazing you lasted as long as you did. Well, it’ll be dark soon, but we can make for a cabin I know of near here. We’ll be safe till morning.”
“We’ll be safe? Not me. I’m not going anywhere with you. I’ve got my place and I’m happy there. You can leave any time you like. I promise I won’t follow you.”
“Oh, but you will follow me, or come with me, rather. I’m not leaving you out here.” He stood up and caught the toe of his boot on a strap that had been exposed when Ally pulled the stack of boxes down on his head. “What’s this?”
She snatched at the strap, but he tugged it away from her and then pulled a large old backpack from beneath the boxes. “You left this by the door of the transport when you came in, didn’t you?” He hefted it, listening to the jingling, clanking sound it made.
“Give that back! Don’t open it!”
Blocking the door so she couldn’t escape, he untied the improvised closures and looked inside. “This looks like some good stuff. Where did you get it? The cockpit? I haven’t searched there yet. Wait, what’s this?” He looked at her suspiciously. “This gear box has the community mark scratched on it. This belongs to The Ridge.”
“I found those things,” Ally claimed, backing away from him as far as she could in the confines of the tumbled boxes.
He continued to unload the pack. “This screwdriver looks familiar. And these cans of peaches are just like the ones I traded for last year. Where did you get these?”
“I just found them… around some places.”
“This pocket knife and these nails! These didn’t come off that transport or get left outside the perimeter. You’ve been inside the wall, thieving!”
“I needed those things. You all have plenty. I can’t make them for myself. Nothing metal. I needed them.”
“I’m not denying you did and if you had asked, we might have traded for them, but you can’t go around just taking what belongs to others. That’s wrong. Didn’t anyone ever teach you better?”
“My mama told me it was wrong to take more than you need. I never do.”
“And you’ve been inside the wall. Who let you in?”
“Nobody let me in.”
“Then how did you get the chance to steal these things? And how many times have you done it?”
“I don’t know. I need those things more than you do.”
“That’s not for you to judge. Come on.” He took her by the wrist and led her out into the dappled sunlight of the undergrowth.