by Hyakunichisou 13 (百日草 十三)
It was a long, twitchy walk back to Napanee Depot. Satchel’s blade had been strapped to the fork of his bike, and though no one had seen a walker in these parts for three or four years and he’d practically stopped thinking about them at all, now that he was defenseless, every rustle in the brush and moan of the wind through the leafing-out trees sent adrenaline sparking along his nerves. He kept to the cracked yellow lines in the centre of the road. By the time he limped through the depot’s plywood-reinforced glass doors, the sun was a suggestion of orange on the underside of the clouds, blisters had formed and burst on the balls of both feet, and the thinning sock on his right foot had turned the back of his heel to fucking hamburger.
“Satch, honey!” Sharon said as he staggered into the lobby. “What are you doing back?”
“Sinkhole up on forty-one,” Satchel said, scrupulously editing the adjectives out of the diatribe he had been building in his head for twenty-three kilometres. “Just past the bend. Skidded right into it.”
“Are you hurt?” She got out of her chair and came around her desk to him.
“Nothing serious. I managed to climb out.” It hadn’t been quick or easy, and he’d felt gravel skidding away under his soles for a long way back down the road. “Lost my bike, though.”
“Yeah, don’t worry, I’ll get it back,” Satchel said.
In the caf, he stopped to down two plastic tumblers of water. Dinner hadn’t been put out yet, but there were pans of cornbread–he recognized them from breakfast–out on the all-day table. The cornbread hadn’t been his favourite even before it had spent eight hours getting crusty in the open air, but whatever. He cut himself a square, and crammed it into his mouth practically without chewing; the dried apples he’d had in his pocket were hours gone.
When he got to Stores, Constantine was standing, arms folded and one eyebrow raised in bland disdain, while a heavyset middle-aged dude gave him a hard time about his credit. Satchel was pretty sure Constantine wasn’t his real name, and even given current circumstances he wasn’t one hundred percent sure about the red hair either. Every time he was in depot, Satchel fantasized about hitting that, but he’d never tried, because Constantine was legitimately pretty fucking scary.
Satchel shopped the free shelves while Constantine stonewalled the old guy without breaking a sweat. A fresh T-shirt, underwear, socks–none new, but clean. He took a pair of sweats too, so he could get out of his mud-smeared cycling tights. That was enough to hold him until he got his bags back; in depot and out of it, Satchel had learned to carry only what mattered.
Someone beside him said, “Sorry, but these are, um, it’s okay if I borrow one of these, right?”
Satchel turned around. The guy was short and skinny, and his voice sounded as though he hadn’t used it a lot recently. He hadn’t shaved in the last week, and his hair looked like he hacked off a few handfuls with a dull knife every time it got in his eyes. Backwoods farm type, Satchel thought, but not on Satchel’s route.
“Yeah,” Satchel said, “anything you see is free. They keep all the good stuff locked up.”
The guy nodded. He shook out a shawl-collared cardigan and poked his arms into it.
“Feel free to take anything to your room to try on,” Constantine said in their direction as the old guy stormed out. “Just bring back what you don’t want. Satchel, I thought you left this morning.”
“Yeah, well, I had to come back,” Satchel said. “There’s a fucking sinkhole up on fucking forty-one. Right east of the bend where I didn’t see it in time, because of course it fucking is. My bike and all my stuff are still at the fucking bottom.”
“Do you need to see Heather?” She’d been a veterinarian in the before time.
“Nah. Scraped my hands and knees all to shit, but I’m fine.”
“Have you told Carol?”
“Library’s my next stop. I know that sinkhole’s not on the map, because I checked it before I left. If it turns out it’s been there since the fall and no one told her, she’s going to be pissed.”
“I, uh,” the skinny guy said, “I came south on forty-one yesterday, and it was fine.”
Satchel exhaled through his teeth. “Fucking pothole season.”
“Not much one can do about it,” Constantine said.
“Yeah, no, see, I can get my shit back,” said Satchel. “So what have you got on hand for rope?”
In the library, Carol asked questions until she’d pinpointed the location of the sinkhole. On the large highway map of the area that was pinned to the main bulletin board, she marked it with a thick black circle.
Satchel’s eye went to the legend: circles for sinkholes, Xs for bridges out, slashes across the road for washouts. He couldn’t help noticing how much black ink there was on the map. More every year.
“Did you lose this year’s journal too?” she asked, with resignation.
“There was barely anything written in it,” Satchel said. “I only got as far as the Baumans and that new woman in Fred Jack’s old place. And it was just snowfall and temperature stats. And one limerick about sauerkraut. Nobody reinvented the internal combustion engine or whatever over the winter.”
Carol shook her head. “Every little bit helps. Let me give you a new one.”
“It’s okay, I’m going to get it back.”
“Out of a sinkhole? Satchel, I know letters are important to people, but nobody expects you to risk yourself for them. People will remember the important things enough to rewrite them.”
“Yeah, I’m not doing it for the letters.”
Letters and the journal entries knit people together, and for anybody on a farm with their nearest neighbours kilometres away, they were a lifeline to the world, small as it was now. Yet they were words, and always replaceable. But there was something important of his own in one of his saddlebags, something that could never be made again, and after hanging onto it through twelve years of chaos and privation he was not letting some fucking random bullshit take it away from him.
But that was a problem for tomorrow. Now, was aiming for a hot water wash and some dinner, ideally followed by lying down and not moving for many hours.
Back when the building had been a high school, the boys’ shower had been one large tiled room; now, tarps had been strung up to provide some privacy. Satchel took a bucket from the stack beside the common tap and tested the water–warm, from the primitive solar heater made from plastic tubing that had been installed on the roof. He filled his bucket halfway and carried it into one of the cubicles. He’d negotiated a marble of soap from Constantine; the suds stung his gravel-grated knees, the pads of his fingers, scrapes on his shins and ribs and elbows that he didn’t remember getting. He gritted his teeth and lathered the raw patch on his heel.
He detoured through the back hallway to drop his dirty clothing in the locker he used there, and followed the smell of soup back to the cafeteria for dinner.
The size of the room swamped the few dozen people in it. Most of the staff liked to gather at the tables nearest the windows, though there were a few further in who would never get over the need for a solid wall at their backs. Satchel filled a bowl with vegetable soup, stuck a potato cake upright in one end of the bowl, and meandered over to the table where Sharon and Carol sat.
“I’ve got a job for you,” Sharon said, patting the bench to her left.
Sitting down felt fucking awesome. “Okay, but I’m technically still on my route. Just as soon as I get my bike back.”
“You’ll need another pair of hands for that, and someone needs cargo brought back from his place. It’ll only take you a bit further north than usual.”
“Fine with me.” It wasn’t like he had a deadline. “Do I meet him up there?”
“No, he’s in depot now.”
Satchel twisted around in his seat and surveyed the cafeteria. “He here?”
Sharon pointed with a carrot stick.
It was the skinny guy from Stores, sitting alone. His bowl was pushed away. There was a paperback open in front of him that he didn’t seem to be reading.
“What’s his name?”
Carol frowned. “I don’t know him. He’s not the Phillip who moved from the County, is he?”
“No, he’s from up past McGuire Settlement.”
Carol’s face cleared. “Oh! I wonder if he’s Daniel’s Phillip. He’s never been in depot before that I remember.”
“Wait, not Daniel as in Daniel the Lumberjack God?”
“Now he,” Sharon said, “is a very fine-looking young man.”
“He could make a girl change her mind,” Carol said, and they both cackled.
Satchel inhaled his meal. On the way up to the serving table for seconds, he detoured by Phillip’s table.
“Hey,” he said.
Phillip looked up. “Um. Hey.”
“Sharon says you need some stuff brought back from your place. I can help you if we can pry a cargo bike out of Blue for a couple days.”
Phillip drew his arms in and snugged them close against his chest as if he were cold. Nail-bitten fingers peeked out of the overlong sleeves of the cardigan. “Great, that’s great. Um, what’s blue?”
“He looks after the bike pool.”
“Okay.” Phillip uncrossed his arms and worried at a hangnail on his thumb. “Can we, are you good with leaving tomorrow morning?”
“I’m good if you are.”
“Yeah, that’s good. I’m good. Thanks.”
Phillip didn’t look good. There was a rawness around his eyes, and his cheekbones and chin were a little sharper than seemed healthy even on his slight frame. Satchel recognized the signs of broken sleep and poor appetite. Maybe he’d been dumped recently. Satchel decided it might be better not to ask about the godly Daniel.
Someone clapped a hand on his shoulder.
“You,” Gustav said in mock severity, as Satchel swung around. “What are you doing here? You are supposed to be on the road, on your way to my house.”
“What are you doing here?” Satchel countered. “Oh, and you’re not even my favourite stop on my route. Just so you know.”
“I have deliveries to make.” In the cellar of his farmhouse, Gustav distilled a fine and varied range of homebrew. Post-zombie-apocalypse, his product was highly in demand. “Plum vodka. I was very pleased with this batch. Would you like a sample?”
“You know I don’t touch that shit.”
Gustav shook his head. “One of your many flaws. I am in two-fifteen A, if you change your mind.” He put his hand on Satchel’s shoulder again. His thumb brushed the side of Satchel’s neck.
“Maybe I will,” Satchel challenged, even as his hips and back and feet reminded him No, exhausted now and other parts of his body responded with What? Fuck, yes.
“Maybe you will,” Gustav repeated, with the little smirk that Satchel always found aggravatingly hot, and slid past him in the aisle–too close–to go talk to Delia Chow, who was in charge of depot maintenance. She greeted him with a wave, and they immediately fell into an intense conversation involving a measuring tape and vaguely suggestive gesturing.
Phillip’s eyes were on his book. Satchel gave a mental shrug, and went back to the serving table for another bowl of soup.
He spent the next few hours on the fringes of conversations, as depot staff and visitors relaxed into the usual evening socializing. The caf was the warmest room in the building, thanks to the wood-burning stoves the mess crew used, and as long as someone was awake it was always lit, too. But sitting with his friends and coworkers tonight felt weirdly anticlimactic. Satchel had had his send-off last night with the rest of the couriers; he should be out on the road, probably in the Wilkins’ spare room if he’d made decent time, not stuck in the same place he’d been snowbound all winter.
After a while he looked around and realized that Gustav wasn’t in the room. He ducked away from a discussion about spinning that he hadn’t been paying attention to anyway, and pulled out of his pocket the candle stub he’d brought from his locker. He lit it at the votive on the table, and made his way out of the caf and up the main stairs.
Most of the classrooms on the second floor had been partitioned into smaller bedrooms. The wide hallway was dark and quiet, candle- or lantern-light faint yellow under a few doors. Satchel reached two-fifteen A and knocked softly, the skin between his shoulderblades tightening. Dark open spaces creeped the fuck out of him.
Gustav had three candles burning, the flush bastard. Set in different corners of the room to lessen shadows, they reflected in the night-black glass of the windows as he shut the door behind Satchel and slid home the bolt.
“Cozy,” Satchel said, blowing out his own candle and propping it up on the shelf by the door to solidify.
“It’s worth something to feel comfortable when I’m away from home.” Gustav slid a bookmark into the book he’d been holding, and placed it on the desk against the wall. “I heard you had trouble on the road. You should have mentioned it. Are you hurt?”
“Nah. Kind of scraped up, and my feet are killing me, but it’s fine. Hey, you’re not going north tomorrow, are you?”
“West, I’m afraid.”
He would have trusted Gustav to pull him and his bike out of a deep hole a lot more than he trusted this guy Phillip, but whatever. “How was your winter?”
“A little too long, as it always is.” Gustav leaned forward. He hooked his fingers into the neck of Satchel’s shirt and reeled him in. He dropped a kiss on Satchel’s forehead. “There is always much to do. I sometimes think of you.”
“Oh, yeah? What are you doing when you think of me?”
Gustav snorted. “Shovelling a path to the outhouse. Wringing out my wet laundry. Annoying things.”
Satchel laughed. He put his arms around Gustav’s waist, slid his hands up under Gustav’s thick sweater. Gustav put his hands on Satchel’s hips and pulled him closer. Satchel tilted his head up to touch his lips to Gustav’s neck–and yawned.
Gustav tugged the back collar of Satchel’s fleece pullover, shaking him gently. “What’s this? You can’t keep up with an old man now?”
“Old, seriously? Dude, we both know you are totally tougher than I am.” Gustav was forty-one, the kind of sinewy Scandinavian guy who was probably going to continue getting hotter almost indefinitely. The ten-year difference between them was not something that Satchel minded, not in the least.
“Well, that is true.” Gustav brushed his lips against Satchel’s temple. “Bed?”
They lay down on the sagging queen-size bed. Gustav propped himself up on an elbow, and Satchel wriggled in close to him. Gustav leaned down and started kissing him with intent.
Satchel rested his hands on Gustav’s shoulders. A snag in the knit tickled his palm. One of the candles flared, strobing light onto the ceiling. Gustav slid his hand under Satchel’s thigh and pulled him against his hips. A windowpane rattled in the wind. Was there a front coming in? Was it going to rain tomorrow? There had been a little pool of tea-coloured water at the bottom of the sinkhole, not much, but the sides were unstable enough as it was; if there was any kind of storm–
“Satchel.” Gustav gripped Satchel’s jaw between his warm fingers and thumb, and rocked his head from side to side.
“Sorry, I just–I’m paying attention.”
Gustav smiled. “Let us make sure.” He reached back to lift Satchel’s left hand from his shoulder, encircled his wrist in his fingers, and pulled it up to rest above Satchel’s head, against the wall. Satchel was already moving his right hand up when Gustav caught it too, settled it across the left. Gustav’s fingers made a line of heat around Satchel’s wrists, a pressure more understood than felt. “You will keep them here, yes?”
Satchel swallowed. “Yeah.” Gustav’s accent always got more pronounced in bed. Satchel wasn’t sure whether it was a natural occurrence or whether Gustav did it on purpose because he knew it turned Satchel’s knees to water.
Gustav’s gaze travelled down Satchel’s body. Consideringly, he stroked the front of Satchel’s sweatpants, once, and then brought his hand up to cup Satchel’s jaw as he kissed him again.
Oh, sure, now Satchel’s dick got interested, the second it didn’t have Gustav to press against. Satchel shifted his hips involuntarily.
Gustav pulled Satchel’s t-shirt out of the waistband of his pants and ran a slow finger along that narrow strip of naked skin, across his belly, around his hipbone. Every hair on Satchel’s body seemed to stand on end. Gustav inched the elastic waistband down to the tops of Satchel’s thighs, just enough to expose him to the cool air. He ran his fingertips along Satchel’s dick, barely touching him, and Satchel thrust helplessly upward. Gustav chuckled into Satchel’s ear.
He took his hand away and brought it to the button on his own jeans. He waited until Satchel’s fractured attention followed it, and then popped the button, slowly pulled the zipper down, wriggled the pants past his own hips until he could take his cock in his hand.
Satchel loved watching Gustav do this. He knew that hand, knew the pleasurable roughness of the calluses at the base of the fingers, knew how it felt when it was tight around his dick. The sight of Gustav wincing and biting his lip in the feedback loop of his own pleasure was riveting, and the fact that Gustav was making Satchel lie there hard and ready, making him wait for it, made him hot like nothing else.
Gustav thrust lazily into his own hand for a few long minutes. Then he regarded Satchel from under heavy lids, and smiled. He reached over and wrapped his hand around Satchel’s erection, stroked him twice, and released him.
Satchel gasped a few incoherent consonants.
“Not distracted now, I think,” Gustav said. “When you are in my bed, I am what you are thinking of. Yes?”
That accent, fuck. He had to be doing it on purpose. “Yes, Gustav,” he panted, and felt Gustav’s hips jerk out of rhythm.
Fun was fun, but Satchel was so turned on it was edging up on painful. Two could play this game. “I–” he said, and didn’t have to work to make his breath catch. “Please.”
“You are asking for something?”
“Please, I’m getting close–”
Gustav drew in a shaking breath. His hand moved faster. “Wait.”
“No, I–I can’t, Gustav, you’re going to have to hold me down harder–”
Gustav grunted in surprise and came, eyes closed, mouth open, breathing harshly as he spilled into his own palm. Satchel bucked up into frictionless air, almost, almost–
Gustav’s hand wrapped around him, slick and firm. Satchel came within seconds, release surging through him like a Great Lakes breaker, every tension and ache in his body washing away in the swell. He made a wild sound that rang in his own ears, and collapsed onto the pilling blanket.
After a short while, Gustav pushed himself up on one elbow again. “That was a dirty trick,” he observed, a smile quirking one corner of his mouth. He tugged a lock of Satchel’s hair. “I may seek redress for that, next time.”
Satchel waved a noncommittal hand, too replete to either flirt or argue.
Gustav took a frayed bandana from the pocket of his jeans and cleaned himself up with it. He handed it to Satchel. “You will stay here tonight? You are welcome to. These spring nights are warmer with two.”
“Yeah, I’d like to.” Satchel used the bandana and dropped it onto the floor. He started pulling his sweatpants back up, changed his mind, and pushed them off entirely. He sat up and wallowed out of the rest of his clothes. Gustav stripped, golden-pale in the candlelight. Satchel burrowed under the blankets and watched him extinguish the candles, three, two, one, darkness. The bed dipped. Gustav settled in beside him and pulled Satchel into the warm curve of his body. By the morning, Satchel knew, they’d each be on their own sides of the bed, Satchel hugging his pillow and Gustav stretched out on his back like a stone king lying on his own tomb. It would be fine then, and this was fine now. He melted into sleep.
He had a sluggish start the next morning. Gustav, an obnoxiously early riser unless he’d done some serious drinking the night before, kissed his cheek and packed and left while Satchel was still drifting in a bizarre half-dream about having to climb out of an empty, leaf-strewn swimming pool and then fill it in with gravel, teaspoon by teaspoon. Breakfast was more corn bread and stewed dried apples and some hot murk labelled herbal tea. Satchel spent a few moments in bitter nostalgia over his long-lost youthful ability to party half the night and get through the day shift fueled only by sugar and caffeine (also both long lost), and met Phillip out by the rusting flagpole.
Phillip’s bike was a battered hybrid, with a homemade trailer built of metal tubing and plastic half-barrels attached to the back. Satchel initially wondered about Phillip’s stamina, but the other man, although not fast, pedalled with grim resolution, and Satchel was too sore from the day before to push it much. They reached the sinkhole half an hour after their largely silent lunch break, and parked in the adjacent field, well away from the crumbling asphalt. It had just started to drizzle.
Satchel stared down at his bike, twenty feet below him, the bent and broken-spoked back wheel and panniers half-submerged in water. He hoped the dry bags were holding out. The sides of the sinkhole were steeply angled, banded in brown.
He dropped the coils of yellow nylon rope onto the road. “I’m going to make myself a harness and tie the rope to that tree. Then I’m going to go down and tie the other rope to the bike frame. You’re going to pull it up, and I’ll follow in case it catches on anything. Okay?”
Satchel got his pocket knife out of his jacket, sawed off a length of rope, and tied himself into a basic harness. He attached another section of rope to his harness with a figure eight, and the other end to a foot-thick maple at the side of the road, wishing that he had a real harness or that the rope was less garbage. At least he had his bike gloves to spare his hands.
“I’ll call up when I need you to throw the rope down,” he said. He yanked on the rope one last time, turned his back on his bike, and walked over the edge.
The skittering of gravel on the shallow ledge under his shoes was an unpleasant reminder of the previous day. Then he reached the slick mud and immediately missed the gravel. The air in the hole turned cooler and damper as soon as his head dipped below road level, reminding him of night and graves and Knock it the fuck off, he told his brain, and concentrated on lowering himself without coating his leggings in a slurry of soil.
When he reached his bike, he called up to Phillip. Phillip stepped to the edge of the sinkhole, featureless against the grey sky, and threw the end of the rope down. Satchel tied it around the fork and the seat post. “Okay, pull it up,” he yelled, and foot by foot, Phillip dragged the bike out of the hole, Satchel climbing his own rope and keeping parallel as it went.
It all went a lot more smoothly than he’d been expecting. He scrambled over the lip of the hole and didn’t even bother to untie himself before he picked his bike up to carry it further away from the road. It wasn’t his old fixie, but still, they’d seen a lot of miles together. The panniers and rackpack were sodden, water streaming out between the zippers’ teeth and wetting his shins as he carried it. The back wheel was beyond help.
He’d have to remove the front wheel to fit the bike into the cargo box, but that was a quick fix. “It won’t take me–” he said, and turned to see the last flicker of movement as Phillip went down.
He dropped his bike and ran, skidding at the edge in time to see Phillip slide face-down under the water, a hunk of freshly broken-off asphalt pitching onto the back of his legs.
Satchel wasn’t sure whether he himself fell or jumped. It was disastrous either way; he pitched forward, slid, twisted, put out his hands, landed heavily just above the water, and had a hideous moment to feel his humerus slide precisely out of joint before the pain hit him like a bar of iron.
It was the pain that propelled him upright again. That and fury, because realistically, this fucking hole in the ground, what the living fuck?
Phillip was a thrashing shape under the brown water. Buoyed by rage, Satchel put his foot on the asphalt that held him down, and heaved it off him in one straining shove. He reached down, hooked his good arm under Phillip’s, and hauled him up.
Phillip smeared his hands over his grimy mouth and sucked in air. He spat and spat, and wheezed like someone who’d been elbowed in the gut, but he wasn’t coughing up water. Which was good, because Satchel was pretty sure aspirating mud was beyond what his rough-and-ready first aid skills could cope with.
He gritted his teeth. “Phillip.”
Phillip dragged his wet sleeve over his eyes and looked at Satchel. “Yeah?”
“I need some help.”
Phillip ran his eyes over Satchel as if seeing him for the first time. “What do you want me to do?”
“I just dislocated my shoulder. I need you to help me put it back.”
Phillip’s eyes widened. “I’ve never done that before.”
“It’s okay.” Satchel huffed out a pinched laugh. “Not my first rodeo.”
“What do I do?”
It was hard to breathe; his shoulder felt like someone was trying to separate it from his body with a white-hot crowbar. “Stand behind me. This is all going to be gentle and easy. No yanking it around like in the fucking movies. Okay, hold my wrist in your left hand.” They both flinched when Phillip made contact. Satchel heard Phillip swallow. “You’re going to move it slowly back and then–fuck–okay, now lift it up so my arm goes straight–fuck, fuck, it’s okay, keep going, nice and slow–oh fuck, no, it’s okay, this is just really no fucking fun, just–”
The humerus slid into place, and the pain receded to a deep ache as if a switch had been thrown. Satchel sagged in relief. Lightheadedness swayed through him, and he staggered on the uneven ground. Phillip lowered his arm carefully to his side before he let go. Satchel cradled his elbow and wriggled his fingers. Shit, that had been even worse than the last time.
Cool wet trickled down his face. He looked upwards. The rain was heavier now, pocking the water in the bottom of the sinkhole. “We have to get out of here.”
Phillip’s eyes flickered to Satchel’s shoulder, then down to the ground.
“You first.” Satchel picked at the knots on his harness. His fingers felt huge and numb; his shoulder twinged. “Can you get this off me?”
Together they managed to take the harness off of Satchel and tie it onto Phillip.
“Take it as slow as you need to,” Satchel told him. “Dig footholds into the sides with your toes. Use your legs whenever you can.”
He couldn’t even give Phillip a boost up the slope. All he could do was watch, hands twitching in tense sympathy, as Phillip crawled his way upwards, hands white-knuckled on the rope. By halfway up, Phillip was shaking, breath rasping. He paused for a long moment a few feet below the top, and Satchel wondered whether he was going to slide right back down again. Then he gave a growl of effort, ascending into a yell as he pushed upwards and hauled himself up over the edge.
The rain drummed into the water behind him.
“Hey, Phillip? Phillip! Phillip!”
“It’s okay, I’m here! I’m going to throw the ropes down.” The short length of harness rope slithered down the slope, followed by two, not one, long ends. “I tied the other rope around the tree too. I used that knot you showed me. Is that okay?”
Satchel gulped air. “Yeah. Yeah, good idea.”
“Maybe I can help pull you up with the second rope. I don’t want to get too close to the edge in case it crumbles again. Tell me when you’re ready.”
It was the most profoundly fucking unpleasant twenty feet Satchel had ever climbed. Phillip may have been trying, but Satchel outweighed him, and at best Phillip took a little weight off of Satchel’s damaged shoulder. The sides of the sinkhole were getting greasy in the rain. At one point a fist-sized chunk of asphalt detached from the ragged edge above Satchel and bounced off his knee on the way down. Satchel hissed through clenched teeth and hung onto the rope until his leg stopped trembling and he could force it to move again.
Finally he kicked and rolled himself onto the surface of the road. He didn’t trust his legs to stand; he just crawled away and into the field, an ungainly three-limbed scrabble. Almost to the bikes, he let his arm give out and listed onto his back. Rainwater from the wet weeds soaked into the backs of his legs. He couldn’t seem to care.
“Not today, motherfucker,” he muttered, and put his forearm over his eyes.
“What?” a voice said above him.
Satchel pulled his arm down. Phillip was standing over him.
“Not dead,” Satchel clarified. “Not dead. Not today.”
He closed his eyes and heard Phillip’s hiccough of laughter. He felt his own lips curl. Phillip laughed again and didn’t stop. He just kept chuckling, arpeggios of sound interspersed with little gasps. The weeds rustled, and the sound got closer. A spark of unease prompted Satchel to open his eyes and sit up.
Phillip was on his knees, arms curled up to his chest. His eyes were red. Tears washed through the gritty residue of muddy water on his face.
“Hey,” Satchel said. He put his hand on Philip’s back. “Hey, dude. It’s okay. We made it.”
Phillip drew in a breath that sounded as though it hurt. “Guess so,” he said in a high, thin voice.
Phillip, Satchel recalled, had spent a good twenty seconds submerged in cold, dirty water with a slab of rock holding him down. “You’re in shock,” he said. “It’s a bitch, but it’ll pass.”
Another chuckle escaped Phillip. He wrapped his arms around his torso as if to keep himself together. “You think so?”
Satchel realized that his hand on Phillip’s back was wet with more than rain. Phillip was soaked from the hips up, and he was shivering.
“You need to get into dry clothes,” Satchel said. He untied himself from both ropes, swearing at the clumsy fingers of his left hand, and then pushed himself up from the ground. Phillip’s cargo trailer was covered with a tarp. In the first barrel was a cardboard box. Satchel stuck his hand through the flaps and felt the neck of a bottle. Not that one, then. In the fourth was a small duffle bag. Satchel pulled things out of it one-handed until he found a hooded sweatshirt, a ragged pair of track pants, underwear, socks, a rolled-up T-shirt. He wasn’t sure if any of it was clean, and it didn’t matter. He stuffed the rest of the clothes back into the duffle bag, and the bag itself into the nearest empty barrel. Strange that the trailer was mostly empty. Most people who sold farm produce to the depot exchanged it for goods that they couldn’t make themselves–storage containers, books, metal goods. Maybe Daniel was a survivalist type, and they had everything they needed.
He carried the clothes back to Phillip. “Get out of those,” he said.
Phillip looked down at his wet sweatshirt.
“Seriously, dude, this is not optional,” Satchel said. “We are both wet and cold and my shoulder feels like somebody tore my arm off and stuck it back in the wrong way. Can we wrap this up and get the fuck where we’re going so I can drink something hot and lie down for a fucking week? Please?”
Phillip shuddered and seemed to come to himself. “Yeah. Sorry. Sorry.” He staggered to his feet and pulled his sodden sweatshirt off. It hit the ground with a squelch.
The guy was skin and bones. Satchel didn’t look, exactly, but he couldn’t help seeing. He actually could have counted Phillip’s ribs, if he’d stared long enough.
He waited until he was sure Phillip was managing, and then went to his own bike, lying where he had dropped it, its front wheel pointing to the sky. One of the panniers held his own stuff, and he fished around in the top dry bag until he put his hand on a pair of socks. At the very bottom of the pannier, in its own bag, was the thing he had jumped down into the sinkhole for. He gave it a squeeze, reassuring himself that it was still there.
By the time he had replaced his wet socks, Phillip was pulling the dry hoodie over his head.
“Just one more thing,” Satchel said.
Under the larger trees that lined the road was a decade’s worth of fallen branches, some with last summer’s desiccated leaves still attached. One-handed, Satchel dragged some of the larger ones out to the road as a warning, a spiked line across the asphalt ten feet on either side of the sinkhole. No one else was going down the way he had.
By the time he untied the rope from around the trees and got back to the bikes, Phillip had piled Satchel’s panniers into the front hold of Satchel’s cargo bike, and was struggling with the quick release on the front wheel.
“Kick it.” When Phillip stepped back, Satchel demonstrated. Together they heaved the bike frame into the cargo hold.
“Right. Let’s get out of here,” Satchel said, “because I am so fucking done with this place.”
It was late afternoon by the time they pushed themselves up the potholed gravel lane to Phillip’s home. The house was a 19th-century bungalow with a wide centre door flanked by darkened windows, a black bar of tarpaper showing here and there where a plank of aluminum siding had fallen or been blown off. They parked in the back and carried their things into the dim house.
Phillip put his cardboard box on the kitchen counter and disappeared outside again. When he came back in he was carrying two black-painted pails of water.
“We put them in the sun to warm up,” he said. “Not much sun today.” He shrugged.
It wouldn’t be the first time Satchel had ended a shitty day with a scrub in cold water. “Do you want to go first?” he said. “You’re muddier.”
Phillip nodded and ducked into the back hall. Satchel heard a door close.
The first thing he did was to go back out to the porch and dump out his panniers and rack-pack. The dry bags had held even through a day’s submersion, and he grudgingly thanked Carol’s insistence on waterproof bags for all the mail; otherwise, an autumn’s worth of letters would have been so much papier-maché. He stood the panniers upside-down to dry, and hauled the mail and his own bags into a corner of the living room.
That done, he poked about the small house. There wasn’t much to it. The kitchen was separated by a line of countertop from a dining and living area. The furniture was soft and shabby: a wooden table and set of ladderback chairs, two couches topped with layers of comforters and crocheted afghans. Most of one side wall was bookshelves, stacked with tin boxes, a sewing basket, candles, and a variety of other supplies as well as gardening and home repair books.
A narrow wood-burning stove had been installed in front of the brick fireplace. On the mantelpiece was a framed photograph of a middle-aged couple, a black man, a white woman, both with matching smile lines and no-nonsense haircuts and plaid flannel shirts. There was nothing written on the back.
The wood box by the door was almost empty, but Satchel had seen a fair-sized woodpile by the side of the house.
Leaving by the back door, he stood for a few minutes on the porch, looking over the yard. To his left was a large shed, a woodlot beyond it. At his feet was patchy lawn, still recovering from the winter. Thirty feet from him, a maple tree shed clusters of stringy green blossoms onto a small patio of unevenly set concrete pavers. Beyond that were walnut trees planted in a grid, and to the right an apple orchard, much older, gnarled branches held up here and there with Y-shaped crutches. A sizeable kitchen garden, still unplanted, held a green fuzz of weeds.
Someone’s homesteading dream, was what it looked like. A little winter-ragged, maybe, but the bones of it were strong.
Taking three trips to spare his shoulder, Satchel brought in several split logs and some kindling, and laid a fire. As his flint and steel sparked and fire crawled along the twigs, he held his cold-stiff hands close to the flame until had to snatch them away and shake them cool. When he rose to his feet and closed the stove door, Phillip stood in the kitchen, hands folded into the cuffs of an oversized sweater.
“The bathroom’s free,” he said. “The water’s beside the tub. You can use a towel from the shelf in there.”
Satchel gave himself a vigorous and speedy wash, standing in the bathtub in the growing gloom. He wrapped himself in his damp towel and shivered back into the living room to dress himself in fresh clothing from his pannier. Phillip had gone into his bedroom.
Tingling from the friction and cold water, his dry feet finally heating up under two layers of hand-knit socks, Satchel reached to the bottom of his pannier and pulled out the one possession he’d kept with him in the more than a decade since the world had ended.
It was stretched out and hard worn. There were darns in both elbows and one shoulder, and he’d paid one of the other couriers to reknit the fraying cuffs a few years back, in black because they hadn’t been able to find yarn to match the original grey. A run was starting at a snag in the bottom hem. The neckline had always been a bit wonky, and there was a patch over his heart where Janet had knit bumpy where she should have knit smooth and not noticed until six inches down, and she’d confessed that there was more than one cable crossed the wrong way, though Satchel had never been able to find them. It was only the second sweater she’d ever knit–his sister had never taken things easy when she could have had them interesting–and she’d given it to him for his twentieth birthday, right before everything he’d cared about and everything he’d hated had been equally destroyed forever.
He pulled it over his head, and warmth settled around him.
It was only a sweater. He knew that. One day it would be nothing but runs and darns. One day it would be gone. He knew it, and he understood it, and like fucking hell was he going to let it go one day before he had to.
Aside from the glow through the glass window of the stove, the room was blue twilight. Satchel found a candle on the mantelpiece and lit it from the fire, then took it into the kitchen and lit two more on the counter. Profligate, but he was in a completely unfamiliar environment, and he was looking for something. He hoped he’d recognize it when he saw it.
He searched through the cupboards, trying not to bang the doors but not being deliberately stealthy either. In the lower cabinets he found baskets holding onions, carrots, sweet potatoes, beets. There must be a root cellar around, for them to be still so sound after the winter. There was a large basket of walnuts, and mason jars of dried beans, and hand-lettered jam jars of herbs. A bowl of wrinkled apples was tucked into the corner of the counter, beside a crock of water with a plate placed over it as a lid.
Phillip’s cardboard box sat on the end of the counter. Satchel spared a glance for the back hallway, and unfolded the flaps.
It wasn’t even full. A paperback novel. A small glass bottle, and a small plastic bottle.
Satchel picked up the glass bottle. A screw-top Bacardi twelve-ouncer with a new label pasted on it. He recognized Gustav’s handwriting.
The plastic bottle was white, and about half-full. Off-brand acetaminophen. Worth far more than its weight in just about anything, these days.
Phillip must have gotten the alcohol from Gustav. He couldn’t imagine that Constantine would have bartered those two things together to Phillip and, knowing Satchel was riding out in the morning with him, not said something to Satchel about it.
Satchel quietly replaced the bottles in the box.
Half an hour later he had a carrot and sweet potato soup simmering on the stove. He stuck his head into the back hallway. “Phillip? I made dinner.”
After half a minute or so, Phillip emerged. His hair was flattened on one side, as if he’d been lying down.
“I hope you don’t mind, I used the last of the carrots,” Satchel said.
“Um, no, that’s… I’m sorry, I should have…”
“No big deal, I like cooking,” Satchel said. “I don’t get to do it much.” He handed a bowl to Phillip, who wrapped his fingers around the spoon and stirred the soup as though trying to get used to the idea of eating it.
Satchel filled a bowl for himself and sat on one of the couches, near the warmth of the stove. Phillip came over and sat on the other end of it, bowl on his knees. Satchel watched sideways as Phillip took a tiny spoonful of soup and swallowed it doggedly.
Delivering letters was not all that couriers did. There were a lot of open spaces out here, these days. People could get lost in them. Sometimes without even leaving their own homes.
“It’s a nice place,” he said. “How long have you been here?”
Phillip scraped his spoon against the bottom of his bowl, looking down at the swirling broth. “Six years.”
“What are those trees out the back, the big ones?”
“Oh, yeah? I didn’t know you could grow those in Ontario. Edible ones, I mean.”
“We didn’t plant them. Irene and Gordon did.”
Satchel pointed a knuckle towards the photograph on the mantel. “Is that them? Did you know them, before?”
Phillip shook his head. “She was a librarian. He was an electrician but he always wanted to be an artist. When she retired they moved out of the city and bought this place.” He shrugged. “We found some of their stuff.”
And if Phillip hadn’t met them, that meant they hadn’t made it, when things went bad. Satchel decided to turn away from that line of conversation. “So you weren’t a farmer, before?”
A derisive little puff of air. “No.”
“Let me guess. Sociology? No? History?”
“Um. Music. Cello. Actually.”
“A cellist? No shit?” Pretty much everyone Satchel had ever worked with was or had been in a band at some point, but the closest anyone had ever come to classical was one guy with a plastic grade-school flute and a hard-on for early Jethro Tull.
“Yeah. Most useless survival skill ever.” Phillip put his half-empty bowl down on the floor.
Self-loathing was not the direction they were going to go in, either. “I was a bike courier, believe it or not,” Satchel said.
“You like it?”
“Yeah, I like being outside. My dad wanted me to be a lawyer like him, but–” Satchel lifted and dropped a shoulder. “I never liked fighting with people as much as he did.”
“My dad was a driver. Delivery trucks. Mom worked retail, mostly.” Phillip folded his long sleeves down over his hands.
Satchel fished the last chunk of sweet potato out of his bowl. “You want some more soup?”
“I’m not all that hungry. But, um, thanks for making it.”
Yawning, Satchel leaned back against fuzzy crocheted squares. “I miss toast.”
“With soup. Soup and toast. Best cold weather lunch ever.”
“I miss…electric lights. Hot water. Central heating.” Phillip ducked his head and added in a low voice, “Things not being so much effort all the time.”
“Yeah, no argument here.” Satchel took his empty bowl over to the counter. He’d wash up later. On his way back to the couch, he detoured to his panniers. From a side pocket he took out a waterproof case, sized for an iPod, just the right dimensions for carrying a few non-electronic items that benefitted from being kept dry.
He sat down and rolled his left shoulder. It still felt like someone had had a go at it with a meat tenderizer.
“Is it okay?” asked Phillip.
Satchel grimaced. “It’s going to be sore for a few days.” He popped the case open. “Is it all right if I smoke? Not tobacco,” he clarified, as Phillip frowned. “I can take it outside if you want. But it helps with pain. And after this day I could do with some chilling the fuck out.”
Phillip looked at the joint in Satchel’s hand. Satchel recognized the exact instant when indecision turned into Fuck it, whatever.
The iPod case also held some twists of paper. Satchel lit one from the fire and held it to the end of the joint. After he got it going he passed it to Phillip, who took it awkwardly but, Satchel was gratified to see, wasn’t a complete newbie when it came to knowing what to do with it.
They smoked for a few minutes in silence. Satchel felt time begin to stretch, the edges of the day softening. The ache in his shoulder ebbed. He ran a finger along a grey woollen cable that undulated down his arm. Still here. Still here.
“The thing is, I don’t even miss it,” Phillip said.
“The cello.” He handed the joint back. “Not music, I have music in my head all the time, but playing it. I went from playing it for hours a day to nothing. I mean, I don’t even think about it.”
Satchel, mouth full of smoke, nodded encouragement and passed the joint over.
“And it was the centre of my entire life. I started piano when I was six. A couple years later I started the cello, and I mean, I was obsessed with it. My mom took a second job so we could afford the instrument and lessons. And like, I was never going to be first cello in the TSO, but I was good. Good enough to earn a living at it. And Mom and Dad sacrificed, I mean, you hear that all the time about people but they really did, we never went on vacation, we only had one old car, everything was about me and my cello.
“And the thing is…I could never tell them this. I would never do that. I mean, I was going to keep playing, I owed it to them. But you know, I’d been doing this thing I chose when I was six for like, almost fifteen years, and I kind of think I was about done with it.”
Phillip stopped talking and looked in mild surprise at the joint he held. “I think I’m kind of high.”
“Mmm. Me too.” Satchel held out his hand.
Phillip folded his arms around himself and brought his feet up onto the couch, barricading himself behind his knees. “They didn’t make it.”
Twelve years, and there were things that were always going to feel raw. “I’m sorry.”
“I got out of the city. I worked with one of the salvage groups. We moved around a lot. I learned how to shoot. I learned how to build a fire and find clean water, and fix a roof and use a hammer and, and do fucking first aid for all the fucking good it did me–” He drew in a rattling breath. “The thing is, I’m not good with change, but I did okay, I coped, you know, and then we–I moved here, and it was going so good, and–and now I can’t, I just–”
He put his hand on the side of his face, a barrier between himself and Satchel. “I’m sorry, this is pathetic, I get it, I’m fed up with myself–”
Satchel could tell from the hoarseness of his voice that he was crying. “Phillip,” he said gently, “did something happen this winter?”
Phillip’s entire body went tight.
“Talking sometimes helps,” Satchel said. “It’s hard at first, but after that you might feel better.”
“…Yeah. I know. Yeah.” Phillip’s head was turned away. “I had. Um. I lived with my–my husband. Daniel.” He swallowed. “We found this place together. Fixed it up.”
“And what happened?”
A long pause.
“Did he leave you?”
Phillip whispered, “He got sick.”
Another long pause.
“In January. He, um. He died.”
Satchel looked down at the glow cupped in his hand. “I’m so, so sorry.”
“How did it happen?”
“Bronchitis? Pneumonia? I don’t even know. He went to the depot in the fall, and he came back with a cold. I caught it from him and I think he caught it back from me.” Phillip’s voice shook. “He got this really bad cough that wouldn’t go away, and he started to get tired real easily. And he got these fevers sometimes, and one day he just stayed in bed, and his fever kept getting worse and he just lay there–” He swallowed. “And I couldn’t do anything, it was just so stupid and useless.” Phillip’s fingers dug into the quilt under him. “And I still can’t believe he’s not here. I mean, I know it and I forget it at the same time, sometimes I’m like, Daniel’s not here to split the firewood, have to remember to tell Daniel about that. And it’s spring and we should be getting the garden in, and the idea that he’s not here, knowing that there’s going to be summer and fall and years and years when he’s not here, it’s just impossible. And it hurts, I mean, it’s like I’m being punched in the stomach all the time. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I think I’m kind of going crazy.” He smeared a hand across his face.
“I’m so sorry. I know you must be in terrible pain. You feel like that because you’re in mourning, is all. It can make you feel crazy, sure, but you’re really not.”
“In mourning.” Phillip scrubbed his wet hands on his jeans. “That sounds so…formal.”
“Yeah, it used to be, because it helped,” Satchel said. “Now we have to make all this shit up as we go along, and it’s hard. I can’t imagine how hard it’s been.” He took a fortifying breath. “Look, I have to ask. Do you ever think about…following him?”
“Only every day.” Phillip picked at a fraying spot on his jeans.
“Have you thought about how you might do that?”
“Have you taken any steps to make that happen?”
Phillip pressed his lips together. “I guess you looked in the box.”
Phillip leaned his head back and looked into the dark above the mantelpiece. “I thought, I can choose a nice day. Go out and sit under the tree with him. Swallow some pills, get drunk. Just fall asleep and not wake up. Even if it doesn’t work right away, it’s not like anyone’s going to find me in time. Anyway, that was the plan.”
Satchel jumped gratefully on that past tense. “Was?”
“Until about…six hours ago.” He clawed a hand through his hair. “When I was under the water, all I felt was, I take it back. I’ve been thinking about it all winter, and then when it almost happened, I guess I didn’t really want it to.”
Thank you, God or whatever was out there. Because Satchel hadn’t had the ghost of a fucking clue what he was going to say if Phillip did want to. A knot that even smoking hadn’t been able to touch began to dissolve under Satchel’s breastbone.
“Now I–” Phillip’s face crumpled. “Oh, God, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now–”
He folded in on himself again abruptly. A sob tore out of him.
Satchel closed the distance between them, pulled Phillip’s crumpled form against his lap, stroked his hair, murmured the stupid things people said when that was all the comfort they could give. Phillip hardly seemed aware of him. Satchel blinked wetness out of his own eyes and rubbed his hand back and forth across Phillip’s bony shoulder blades, and Phillip flinched against him and sobbed as though he would shudder apart.
When he began to pull away, Satchel released him instantly. The joint had gone out, and he rested it on the far arm of the couch. The stove fire probably needed a re-up, too, he thought; the temperature had dropped, and he noticed it now that there was a cold spot on his leg where Phillip had been lying.
Phillip wiped the backs of his wrists over his face. “Sorry. Sorry.”
“Take it easy, you don’t have to apologize. Just stay there, I’ll be right back.”
He took a candle and went into the dark bathroom, where he found a stack of facecloths beside the towels on a shelf. He took one into the kitchen and wet it under the spout of the water crock. He took a glass from one of the cupboards, filled it with water, and brought both to Phillip.
“Thanks.” Phillip sniffed and dabbed his blotched face with the cold cloth.
Satchel built up the fire again. A knot popped, sending a spark onto the front of his sweater. He batted it out and scraped the black ash away. Another darn in the making.
“Look, if it’s okay with you, I can stick around for a few days. I can…” There was always work to do on a homestead, but fuck if he could think of what. “…help you out with stuff you need an extra pair of hands for.”
Cautious relief flickered and was tamped down on Phillip’s face. “You don’t have to.”
“Yeah, but I wouldn’t mind.”
“But don’t you have a schedule, or something?”
“In theory. But not really. And it got fucked when my bike fell down a big hole. Anyway, what are they going to do, fire me?”
“Won’t your boyfriend mind if you’re late?”
“My b–oh, you mean Gustav?”
“Um. Oh. Sorry. I thought you were….”
“Yeah, we’re totally doing each other,” Satchel agreed, “but it’s not like it’s candlelight and roses.” He frowned. “Well, technically, it is candlelight. Anyway, he’s already got a boyfriend. I’m kind of…the third guy.”
“Isn’t that, um, complicated?”
“Doesn’t have to be. As far as I can tell, it makes them both happier, and I’m not complaining.” As far as Satchel was concerned, good sex was one of the best things there was; everyone should do it more, and enjoy it more, and be way more decent to the people they were doing it with. He considered that one of his personal policies in making this new world less of a pit than the one it had replaced.
“I, um. I wouldn’t mind if you stayed. For a couple days. It’s…kind of a relief having someone to talk to,” Phillip said, as if confessing something he’d never suspected about himself before.
“You don’t have any neighbours nearby?”
“A few. I never see them much.”
Repressing a shiver, Satchel thought about the ride down the long, unpaved country road from the highway. In the winter, this place must be as bleak as the surface of the moon. “So who are these neighbours you never see?”
“Um. There’s Pamela, a couple of kilometers up the road. And Chris and…Jamie? I think? We passed them on the way in. Daniel really knew them better than me.”
“Okay, first thing,” Satchel said, “let’s see if there’s something we can do about that.”
Phillip leaned down to scratch his shin, and didn’t say anything.
“Look, I’m not going to force you to do something you don’t want to do, but you know it does make people crazy, right, being alone all the time? I mean, actually clinically insane?”
Phillip made a pained sound. “I’ve just never been good at all that.”
“Being around people. You know? Small talk and stuff always makes me feel…weird and awkward and useless.”
That word again. Satchel dared to reach out and squeeze Phillip’s shoulder briefly, arresting his attention. “Phillip. So you’re an introvert and you’re grieving and, okay, maybe a little temporarily crazy and going through a miserable fucking time, but there’s nothing actually wrong with you, okay?”
Phillip pulled the sleeves of his sweater over his knuckles and hunched into himself, a gesture that was already getting to be familiar, as though Satchel’s words had been meant as criticism instead of encouragement.
“Or anyway, baseline, you’re probably no more fucked up than the rest of us,” Satchel amended.
In the silence, he could hear the fire hissing.
“And, you know, I’m not going to give you a speech here about what a wonderful world it is and all the shit you have to live for, because basically a lot of it sucks on a regular basis,” Satchel said. “And I know you’re in pain, and nothing I can say is going to talk you out of feeling it. But you won’t always feel this way. And you know that’s true.”
Phillip let out a sigh that seemed to deflate him entirely. “Yeah.” He rubbed at his forehead with the cuff of the sweater. “I’m just so tired.”
The admission triggered a yawn in Satchel. “I know you don’t mean just physically, but you must be that too, because personally, I am fucking exhausted. Why don’t we get some sleep? We can talk more about this and figure out what you want to do tomorrow.”
Phillip was yawning in response before he finished the last sentence.
“Which bedroom do you want me to take?”
“I usually just stay here. It’s warmer.”
“Works for me.” Satchel got up and moved to the second couch, at right angles to the first. Phillip dragged a quilt over himself. Satchel stretched out and felt along the back of the couch above him; he got a handful of something fuzzy and woollen, and pulled it down. There was a throw pillow at the end of the couch, and he thumped it once and positioned it under his ear. He should really bank the fire, he realized; he should blow out the candles and take the remainder of the soup off the stove and–
And then sunlight filled the room, and he opened his eyes to see his breath unfurling in the morning chill.
Three days later, Satchel stood beside the cargo bike’s hold, which was packed firmly with sacks of walnuts and apples. His own injured bike was lashed across the top. Wrapped in a tea towel and tucked into a free corner was a lunch of buckwheat pancakes and peach jam, courtesy of Pamela, a fierce octogenarian who had been canning her garden produce and chopping her own firewood for decades before the walker plague.
Under the big maple tree, a new wooden headstone stood. When they’d visited the turn-of-the-century farmhouse down the road, Chris had offered to carve it. Chris and Jamie had brought their four-year-old son Harry over the night before, and along with Phillip and Satchel and Pamela they had remembered Daniel over the stone pavers that marked his grave.
The smell of damp, upturned earth came to Satchel over the grass. They’d weeded the garden, and planted the hardy spring peas and greens. The more tender beans and herbs would have to wait until the risk of frost had passed, but that time would come.
“I’ll stop back the day after tomorrow,” Satchel said, fastening his bike gloves. “You’re on my route for good now.”
Phillip nodded. His hands were wrapped around a mug of sweet mint tea. He’d traded the bottle of homebrew to Jamie for a jar of honey that someone called Highbrow raised and bartered, over on the other side of forty-one.
“You’re going to be okay,” Satchel said.
Phillip gave him a wan half-smile. “Working on it.”
Satchel reached a hand out, gripped Phillip’s arm, and released him. “You’ll get there.”
“Drive safe,” Phillip said. “I mean, don’t fall down any holes or anything.”
“I won’t if you won’t.”
Phillip looked away, and then back to meet Satchel’s eyes. “I’ll be here.”
Satchel gave him a nod, straddled the bike, and pushed off.
With its cargo hold so full, the bike handled like a three-legged hippo. Once he made it onto the paved main road, the sun was in his eyes. Birds called to their mates over fields brilliant with a thousand shades of green. His shoulder twinged when he put too much weight on it. He took off his fleece jacket and let the sunlight soak into his winter-pale skin.
It was thirty-eight lumbering kilometres back to Napanee Depot. Satchel did his best to appreciate every single one of them.
Author’s note: This story takes place approximately eight years after Robin, after the apocalypse.