She’d said nothing more since mentioning the dead man. I spoke to her, asked questions, but she always smiled and if she said anything, it was just “Papa,” as though the next words from her lips might be telling me not to be silly, or to stop teasing. But she started humming.
At first it was jarring. Not because it was loud, or unpleasant, but just because it was. It was in a land of nothing. She did it in a disjointed, broken sort of way so they were notes without melody. As we walked there were fewer breaks between, and songs began to emerge, and they were those that I sometimes sang to her. I found myself humming Proud Mary with her. She would begin the tune to The Odd Couple and pause, and I would join in and show her the missing bridge, and she would follow.
So we walked and hummed. I checked the compass frequently, as it seemed for all my walking we should have come to the city – a city. Would I know when we had? Or was everything decimated to the point that one was no different from another? Perhaps all that steel and concrete had been reduced to dirt and ash; which would mean there was nothing left to salvage. No food, no clothing, no hair conditioner.
“We may have to move,” I told Linny late one night. She was preparing to go into the children’s room where she now slept every night. To keep an eye on James, she said. Hope slept in the middle of our bed. This had been the arrangement since the night of her nightmare.
Linny’s sunken eyes widened. “What do you mean?” I realized she looked old. Thirty-two and she looked fifty. I wondered if I looked as old.
“There’s nothing left out here, and I can’t walk far enough. I’ve yet to find whatever’s left of Newton, or Chesterfield, Sioux… At the pace I walk, I should have at least come up on one of them by now.”
“We can’t move, Jim.”
“I think we should stay together.” Part of me knew that if we split now, things would never be the same. We would officially become individuals, and individuals were inherently vulnerable. “And if we stay here we’ll starve. All of us. Not just James.”
“You’re talking about sacrificing your own flesh,” she accused.
“No. I’m talking about fucking saving it. You.”
Her jaw knotted. “You’re an ego-maniac. You can’t make those kinds of decisions on your own. There are others out there, and they’ll find us.”
“There’s no one out there,” I said.
“Where’d she come from then?” She flung her hand in Hope’s direction.
I felt an unreasoning anger rise towards her, towards her refusal to accept the child. I bit it back, bit my tongue until my eyes watered and I wanted to sneeze. “I don’t know. But there’s no one else out there. And we need supplies.”
She shook her head. “You go. Do what you must. Take her with you.”
“No. I’m not leaving my house.”
“You’ll die in your house. What’s left of it. And so will they. Is that what you want?”
Her eyes fixed on something that wasn‘t there. “Better than out there. Take Sarah and Evan. I’ll keep the twins here.”
I didn’t think she understood what it meant, the likelihood that I’d return, the likelihood that she could keep the three of them alive for the length of time it would take. But I couldn’t force her. I couldn’t make her see the foolishness of it, when her heart and mind wanted to hold on to the tattered scraps of her memories.
“We’ll talk about it tomorrow,” I said.
She didn’t look at me again. Only walked from the room without any acknowledgment stronger than silence.
Silence was the strongest.