‘Aren’t you scared? About what you’re about to do?’
‘I’m nervous as hell, but, I wouldn’t say I’m scared. I’m nervous as hell but I know once I get going I’ll be fine about it.’
The morning was early, cloudy and gray and cold, the kind of cold that can go through your clothes and make your bones stiff. I was sitting in the front seat next to Beverly who I had asked to drive me far enough out of Columbus, Ohio. Beverly was broad shouldered, had a smooth face and blonde hair and I could tell she was very tired, the way her eyes were puffy.
‘I’m trying to think of a good place to drop you off, but.’
‘It doesn’t really matter. I’ll catch a ride where ever. Here, this next exit has a gas station. That’ll work.’
The car slowed down coming around the off-ramp, stopped at the sign, sped back up going across the overpass and pulled into the gas station on the other side. A man was walking out with a coffee, steam rising from the cup in the gray morning.
We were twenty miles south of Columbus, along Route 71.
‘Thanks again for driving me. I really appreciate it.’
‘Guess this is goodbye then.’ We both leaned in for a hug. ‘Be good, best of luck in school, and I’ll see you again in a couple of months.’
‘Are you coming back to Columbus?’
‘Yeah. February or March, probably.’
‘Alrighty, then. Well, be safe out there Allen.’
‘I shall.’ I lugged my knapsack out of the backseat and put it on my shoulder. ‘Thanks again Beverly!’
I shut the door and watched the little red car pull out of the gas station, into the road and back on the highway. People were hurrying in and out of the gas station store, yawning as they filled their gas tanks and no one seemed to notice me. There was a dilapidated motel across the street with an overgrown parking lot, broken windows and a falling roof. The wind picked up and I shivered, walked around to the side of the gas station and found the dumpster. There was a piece of cardboard on top of everything. I dug out my permanent marker and scrawled ‘CINCI’ as neat and as bold as I could. Then I went back across the overpass to the southbound on-ramp.
Traffic was slow but I didn’t worry about it – it was cold and very windy and I looked young, clean shaven with thin glasses and I was not a big person: pity always plays a factor and I’d get picked up in no time, no time at all. I placed my knapsack against the guardrail and stood in the cold, dry dust on the side of the onramp near the top where it met with the road. Behind me was a dry, overgrown field that ran downhill until it met with the woods that followed along the highway. Down the street were a few small warehouses and a junk-yard but that was it, the rest was dry woods and dust. I stood there and sometimes sat on the guardrail when there wasn’t any traffic, standing up to hold up my sign and jut my thumb whenever I saw a car slowing down to turn onto the on-ramp.
I was holding my sign and I thumbed at a car as it rolled into the on-ramp and sped past. The southbound off-ramp was across the street and there was a gleaming white pick-up truck at the stop sign. The truck across the street beeped once and the driver flicked his hand towards himself. I slung my knapsack over my shoulder and hurried over to the passenger side. The window was down.
‘I gotta drop this trailer off down the street,’ said the driver. ‘Then I’m heading down to Cinci. I have to come back this way though, probably about thirty, forty-five minutes. You can come with me to drop it off if you’d like. Or wait here, whatever you’d like – I’ll be coming back this way, like I said.’
‘Okay, cool,’ I said enthusiastically. ‘Yeah uh, I’ll wait here I guess, see if anyone else stops. You going all the way to Cincinnati?’
‘Yeah – well, like fifteen miles north of it.’ There were cars pulling up behind him.
‘Okay, awesome. Yeah, I’ll wait here. Thanks a lot, man!’ I backed away from the truck and he drove off. He was towing a trailer with a pop-up camper on it. I went back to the on-ramp to wait.
I was wearing a tan Carrhart coat and I waited as long as I could before zipping it up – with such a large coat people like to think you’re hiding something. But the wind was so cold, icy in my chest and I’d begun to shiver. Gray clouds moved swiftly over the sky, looking soon to storm. I’d hug myself to stay warm and when there wasn’t any cars I’d sit down on the guardrail and watch the big farm equipment that bumped slowly down the road.
An hour passed before the man in the pick-up returned. He came to a stop on the side of the on-ramp and I ran over, tossed my knapsack in the bed on top of old tool boxes and spare parts and climbed in the front. The floor was littered with old fast-food bags that my feet made crinkle because there was no place else to put them. The driver, very somberly, glanced over, placed his hands back on top of the steering wheel, and slowly gave the truck gas as he pulled back onto the on-ramp, onto the highway.
‘Thanks again for the ride. I really appreciate it.’
‘Boy, it sure is cold out there.’ I don’t like silent rides and the driver said nothing. ‘I’m Allen.’
‘Frank.’ He shook my hand with a cold, loose grip – as if his hand were limp.
‘So what did you have to drop the camper off for?’
‘Repairs.’ He glanced over and he had big, heavy eyes like a Basset Hound and a rotten nose. There were a few powdery threads hair beneath a blue hat that said Navy and had military insignia pins on the brim. Reluctantly, as if for my own sake, he added, ‘I usually fix them myself, but, no time.’
‘You have more than one?’
‘Why are you hitchhiking?’
I looked over at Frank and he was staring out the windshield. ‘I have some friends in Los Angeles that I’m going to visit. I figured it was either I go now or wait till Spring.’
‘Is that it?’ I didn’t understand the question.
‘Well, I want to go South to get out of the cold, so I figure I’ll get down to Nashville and take Route 40 all the way west from there.’ It was very gray outside and I could hear the wind as it whipped around outside the window.
‘Trying to get away from this storm?’
‘Yeah – I kept thinking it was going to rain when I was back there waiting.’
Frank swallowed and his knuckles curled back and forth on the steering wheel. ‘See all this corn out here? And the signs posted along the road?’ He paused for a moment. ‘The signs say what kind of corn it is. They’re all different. But none of them will grow in the wild anymore, they can’t, because we’ve modified them so much. Take a handful of their seeds and spread them around and they’re useless. I’ve stocked up on natural seeds. Pounds of them.’
‘You grow corn?’
‘No, I don’t have to yet. I do live on a farm though, two hundred acres in the middle of nowhere. I’ve always been more comfortable in the woods, forests. Safer. Away from everyone.’
‘You live by yourself?’
‘No. No one can make it by themselves.’ It was very gray outside now and very dark, as if near night or in a heavy storm in the late afternoon.
‘It won’t rain just yet,’ said Frank. He clenched his jaw and stared out the windshield as if he were empty inside. ‘You see these tractor-trailers? People are buying them and burying them ten, twenty feet underground. They’ll use commercial air-conditioning vents to get into them and they’ll fill a few feet all around the trailer with concrete. I know a guy who buried several and connected them all.’ Frank leaned forward in his seat until his chest was at the steering wheel and then sat back again, knuckles curling the steering wheel. ‘I have large freezers buried in my yard. Filled them all with canned food and dried goods. I’m very good with electronics and I’ve put together a CB radio and have solar panels on the roof. The farm’s completely self-sustaining and my brother and I are working on a water purification system for the well.’ Frank turned his wide, heavy eyes at me and my chest blackened, I don’t know why.
‘Do you know where you’re going to be?’ he asked.
‘When?’ I saw Frank’s heart beating quick and hollow and I could no longer see where we were going, without headlights driving deep into black swirls.
‘It has to happen soon and thank God I know how to live off the land, what plants are edible and what plants have medicinal uses. We have back-hoes and the right farm equipment and a small oil well way in the back – we’re surrounded by forests, have our own fields and a fleet of pick-up trucks, the old sorts without all the new electronics in case of EMP’s or electrical storms and we have lots of ATV’s. We have a chicken coop we just finished, cows that we breed and pigs and we can make our own bread provide all our own food.’ Frank was speaking swiftly, his head turning and swerving and tilting as he spoke and as he spoke, his wet lips loose smacking up and down, I could see in his mouth a black nothingness and out of this came the word DREAD and it was dripping with his black saliva. This affected me deeply.
‘We’re completely self-sufficient and have several dogs and motion-activated cameras surrounding the property which is on a hill partially surrounded by a ridge and my brother’s wife is a field nurse, I’m trained in electronics, two of my brothers are in construction though really we’re all very handy and my son’s a wonderful mechanic. The bunker is protected against radiation and has enough food for thirty people for three years but there’s only twelve of us so we can wait out the worst and we’re completing irrigation ditches lots of feed for the animals and we know how to hunt and have dogs lots of guns and munitions and we all know how to fight – my brothers and I and our sons all served. No one will be able to fuck with us.’
‘Wow. I don’t know how to do any of that.’