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The wind is like cold fingers on my face. We’ve been driving for hours, stopping wherever we can to dredge up the last bits of gasoline from abandoned stations, and I’ve got the window cranked open all the way. My sister is at the wheel, driving our parents' old car—so old almost all the paint is chipped away and the rearview mirrors have snapped off. The deserted country road crawls towards us, constantly eaten up by our wheels yet still stretching on relentlessly into the distance. The landscape is so featureless that we never seem to get any further along; it’s almost like we’re not really moving, like we’re just a couple of props in this dried-out plain. I can almost see the stage directors lurking around the edges of my vision, about to direct the fall of the curtain. The sound of the tires mingles with the rushing in my head.
Cars are a rare luxury now, have been ever since gasoline became scarce and the economy collapsed years ago. But my parents were able to get one before they moved to Dyruit, and they, and now we, have kept it in good working order. We’re fortunate to have it, I tell myself even as my stomach growls. Extremely fortunate.
I pull my feet up, scrunching into a ball, in hopes that this will ease the hunger a little. Food prices are ridiculous now, with the few lingering shopkeepers taking advantage of the entire North Country’s rush south. Anything to get away from the increasingly deadly sickness, the desperation that was so thick in the air I could almost taste it, filling my lungs with the reek of diseased flesh.
The car’s wheels screech, and for a dizzying second we’re skidding on the road. The horizon lurches sideways. Then Cara slams on the brake, and somehow we rock to a stop, all four wheels hitting the ground again. My breathing is loud and fast in the silence.
“Don’t say anything,” she says finally. “We’re lucky to have the car. Remember that.” She slowly maneuvers the vehicle back onto the road. I don’t loosen my grip from the sides of my seat. I do remember this, of course; I have never felt more lucky in my life than when we drove out of Dyruit, past those who had no way to get across the Country.
“Yeah, I know,” I say, grateful that my voice isn’t shaking. “The only time I should be complaining is if I’ve got the sickness.”
She squints, her eyes fixed firmly on the road. “I wouldn’t go that far…but let’s not push our luck. Karma and all that.”
I twist around, like I do approximately every thirty seconds, to scan the road. I’m not surprised to see emptiness; few people from Dyruit can have made it this far. The disease will catch up with them if they can’t get to the South.
I twist around, watch the mountains grow hazy and purplish, their tops disappearing into rings of clouds. Only the air in the mountains is still clean. In the fetid cities of the East, I’ve heard that the smog is so thick that it’s like walking through a black fog.
As I watch the mountains creep further and further away, a feeling of panic blooms in my stomach. "Cara. Stop the car.”
"What for?" She looks at me like I’m being foolish, which I suppose I am. But I can’t just leave like this.
"I just want to take a look around before we cross the Country line.” Behind my words, the car screeches and bumps down the long empty road. What are you doing? We have to hurry!
Cara sighs. "Just don’t take long. I know you wouldn’t linger in normal times, but…" She stops the Ford, leaving her sentence unfinished. She doesn't have to finish it. We both know what she’s thinking.
I get out of the car. The road we’re driving on runs straight through a grassy plain, where there’s nothing except the wind and the earth and the hazy shapes of mountains in the distance. It’s a strip of black in the green—green which is already beginning to dry out and turn brown; the country has become wracked by droughts as more and more water underground is collected for people to drink. For years there was less and less oil available, as transporting it from the Middle East became almost impossible after the economic collapse. The President then switched the Country’s energy source to biofuels, but the biofuel plants used up so much water that the water table dropped and water, not oil, became the new scarce resource. That was when the last car manufacturer closed its doors because their vehicles had pretty much nothing left to run on.
I take a deep breath, feel the cold air forming frost in my chest.
There was water in the mountains—it still snows, high up on the cliffs, and once we boiled it, the melted water was safe enough to drink. But because Dyruit is emptying out, becoming infected, there won’t be enough food. Our meager garden on the mountain was far too small to feed both of us, and because of the coming winter, we’ll starve if we stay—and then there’s the fact that the shipments of supplies have ended. Everything is breaking down.
But at least we’d be safe from the sickness. That’s one thing I know I’ll think of once we’re in Traxa. The thought of being packed into a crowded city sets my skin creeping, but what else can we do? Nothing.
Cara’s calling to me but her words are swept away by the wind. It’s only autumn, but winter's chill has already settled into the atmosphere and everything is a little bit colder, a little bit sharper, than before.
The wind stings my eyes a little more harshly as I realize we won’t ever see another winter in the mountains, the mountains we lived in for seven years. No more days spent standing on the highest cliff, watching the white landscape spread out before me, sparkling in the sun, with the lone black road winding through it like a snake. No more watching the sky deepening into velvety black after the sunfall, watching each star glittering like an eye in the blackness.
The air in the mountains, you see, is still clear enough to let you see the night sky.
My sister's words reach me this time, and I can tell I’ve wasted too much time. I get back into the car without a word and she turns to me, her whole body taut with tension. For those few seconds as we look at each other, the confusion and near-panic of Dyruit, just before we left, comes back to me in razor-sharp detail. The cries of children lost in the busy market, the shouting of city officials rounding up those infected, the desperate offers to trade for a car—a pantry full of food, a wife, a child.
She presses her foot to the gas pedal. The sound of scraping tires fills the world again as the Ford screeches on down the road. I press my face to the window like a child, watching the mountains retreat into the distance. Then the clouds swallow them up, and they are gone.