The U.S. of After Chapter 10
My clothes were full of the smoke from my house.
When the sun began its oppressive march from its home behind the horizon, we wandered out onto the highway, and I couldn’t believe all the smoke rising up across the hills. Many of the trees were on fire and the smoke was thick, covering the sky with a blanket of black smog. We had trouble breathing and had to tie some old shirts around our mouths. Good thing I packed them. The air burned my eyes and I had to stop every now and then to rest, blink them and wiping at them with my fingers. Clayton was determined to get somewhere safe. I was beginning to wonder if that place existed. There were craters everywhere, and some of them were in the middle of the highway and we had to go around them. Some kind of red stuff was all over the ground making it difficult to walk. It was sticky and smelled terrible. Clayton said it looked like blood but that was impossible. Some kind of residue from the meteor shower would be my guess.
I wished that we had some water. My mouth felt all sand papery and I had used up all the water I was able to scrounge in the convenience stores near my house. I figured water was the one thing we would be looking for even more than food.
“Just a little further,” said Clayton, like, every five miles or so. I didn’t think he knew where he was going. I knew he didn’t know. He kept saying something about New Orleans and that he’d heard that things were better there. I don’t know.
We walked along the highway and kept an eye out for anyone who seemed like they would be friendly. Clayton pretty much avoided everyone. He’d duck off the road when he saw somebody at a distance and say “Those people are probably bad.” He did this every time. I started to wonder if being bullied in high school was like survival training for our present day. I guess it’s better to be safe than supper. Clayton had told me about what he had seen and the whole horror show.
Finally, while sitting behind a bush on the side of the road waiting for yet another vehicle to pass I just got tired of it all and went out to flag them down. Clayton tried to grab my arm but I slipped away. It was just one guy in a truck. How much harm could he do? He could at least give us a ride.
The red, dinged up Dodge Ram with a missing headlight pulled over and a dark skinned Native guy looked dead at me, the shiny metal circle of the business end of a pistol pointing right at my head. He wasn’t smiling.
“What you want?” said the Native, his brown skin shiny with sweat, his close cropped dark hair glistening like black oil. “Either you want to rob me, which you will not be doing, or you just want a ride. Nothing gets handed out for free around here.”
“She didn’t mean no harm,” said Clayton who was suddenly beside me, his arms raised in the air, an inexplicable smile on his face. “We don’t want to rob you and we hope you don’t want to rob us ‘cause we ain’t got nothin’ to rob.”
The guy lowered the gun a little. Behind it was a beautiful face. I could see through the grime that he was probably just a victim of bad luck like the rest of us. He was Native like our neighbor Mr. White Thunder. I have to admit I was a little scared but I found myself smiling at him, sort of a nervous smile, I guess. Funny how your mind goes all to jelly when you see a cute guy, even if he’s pointing a gun at your head. Go figure.
“You got any water?” he asked, the gun lowering a little more.
“No,” said Clayton. “You?”
“None yet,” he said, his face a frozen mask of what could be a smile but was probably more of a wince.
“I’m Amy,” I said, my fingers brushing the side view mirror of the truck. It was hot to the touch and I pulled back my hand.
“Ralph Wapekeche,” he said, sliding the gun under his right thigh. Ralph wore dirty faded jeans in this heat. His alert status seemed to be dropping to normal. “I… I guess I could take you a little ways. Got anything to offer?.”
I smiled at him and hoped that my hair wasn’t too off putting. Weird thought, I know.
“Oh yeah,” I said managing a laugh, a kind of school girl laugh. So embarrassing. “We have some… well, we don’t have anything, really.”
There was a long awkward moment where we all just stared at each other.
“We can help each other find water,” Clayton managed finally. “Plus we will be better together… You know. Strength in numbers.”
“Ok,” I said, opening the door of the truck as if on a dare and motioning Clayton to get in between me and Ralph. I used my angry face at Clayton for emphasis. Then I shifted to a smile when looking at Ralph. “You think you could give us a lift past the next town at least?”
Ralph’s face suddenly got all blank and weird like when you see the psycho in the movie shift into his evil voice and start stabbing. I didn’t like this look, and started to fumble for the door handle. Clayton was looking at me like I was nuts, and I almost dragged his dorky self out of the truck and bolted for the woods.
“Look,” Ralph said softly, his voice taking on a remarkably quiet tone. It was kind of soothing, with a rhythm that was slow and methodical, his “s-es” sounding sort of like he was using the “sh” sound. “I don’t have enough gas to get very far. I was just out looking for supplies. I… I mean, I didn’t expect to haul nobody around.”
“Where do you live?” I asked, genuinely smiling at him, using the moment to get what we wanted. Something in me felt ashamed. I moved closer to the door even though I now noticed that his right hand rested quietly on the handle of the gun sticking out between the seat and his leg.
We were taking a huge risk.
“I have been kind of roughing it,” Ralph said as if reading from a cue card. “My Mom lives in East Texas but I just never made it back after all this happened. Stole this truck and I’ve been pumping diesel out wherever I can find it. Trying to make my way back there.”
“They say there is a lot of food and water in New Orleans,” Clayton drawled kind of out of the blue. “Maybe she beat it down there.”
Both of us gave Clayton the whatever stare for a minute.
“Well,” said Ralph, scratching the back of his head with his right hand and then sheepishly resting it beside him in the seat, just over the gun handle again. “I don’t know anything about what has happened back home. I hear rumors, that’s all. I guess you guys can go with me a ways and maybe I’ll be able to get you a little further to… New Orleans… We can find some water maybe.”
“I heard about the reservoir,” piped in Clayton, his voice still a little shaky. “I guess we could get a raft or a boat and make it down the river to New Orleans. Those’re my plans anyway.”
Things got a little less tense, especially since Ralph had put the gun away, but he still had it in reach. Without another word, Ralph put the truck in gear (it was a column shifter) and started down the road. It felt good to feel the wind blow a bit on my skin. The smoke was starting to let up, and we could see a ways down the highway. Nobody in sight.
“You two, like, an item or whatever?” said Ralph. There was that cute grin again. His dark eyes made something flip in my stomach. I smiled and then shyly looked away.
Clayton saved me.
“No, no,” said Clayton, grinning, squeezing out a nervous little laugh. “I suppose…I suppose we could find a store or somethin’ like in a town and maybe stock up on stuff. Not too many people have one of them hand pumps for water like in the movies.”
This caused Ralph to laugh and I found even his laugh to be soft and pleasant. I was starting to feel like I should have sat in the middle. I ignored the fact that we all smelled terrible, were dirty, hadn’t had a good meal in a while and our lips were all chapped. After a while, Clayton started telling his whole life story to Ralph and he sweetly listened to him like a Dad listens to his son, managing a “yeah” and a “really” every now and again.
I so wanted to know more about Ralph than Clayton. Clayton just kept on and on. I had to interrupt.
“Tell us a little about you, Ralph.” I said, trying not to look too foolish and needy.
Ralph caught the body language and sort of let out a low chuckle. I was feeling the chemistry, but wasn’t sure about him. He was hard to read.
Ralph started talking about growing up in a small town and how his Dad left him when he was three, leaving his mother to raise him. He got a few scholarships from the tribe and then ended up at OU. That gave me an in so I talked to him about that for a while, about campus. Turns out he was working on a horticulture degree. We let the rhythm of the broken road wash away the awkwardness, and after a while it seemed like Ralph wasn’t such a stranger, but more like the two of us. Now that the world had been ripped out from under us, it was like we were kind of forced to talk to one another. It was so good to talk to someone who was not Clayton, not that Clayton was all that bad. He was kind of like a little brother to me then.
We listened to Ralph talk about his adventures as we tooled down the road. Clayton seemed to drift in and out of sleep, but I sat intently listening to Ralph, gently pushing Clayton’s head off of my shoulder when he’d slump over. I noticed a few times Ralph lost track of watching the highway and gazed into my eyes and then had to correct his driving so he didn’t go flying into the ditch. I tried to keep my feelings to myself, not get too involved.
It was really hard to do.