Camilla rapped twice on the door to the basement. From below, she could hear the crackling of an arc welder. “I’m back,” she called down.
The crackling stopped. A rusty voice came back. “What’d we get?”
She hopped down the stairs two at a time. Kyle flipped up his welding mask. He had a rough face, red and bearded, with wrinkles just starting to creep in.
“Two heads of cabbage,” she said, slinging off her pack. “Some carrots. And…” she dug into the bag, grinning. “Two chicken breasts.”
He smiled broad. “Well done.”
“It’s your stuff I’m selling.” She nodded to his welding project. It was a metal box on wheels, about three feet tall. Kyle had opened it up, and the inside was all tubes and dials. “What’s this one?”
“It’s a generator. Must be one of the last ones that got made, because I haven’t seen anything like it. Useless unless you’ve got gas for it, obviously, but valuable if you do.”
Camilla took a closer look. “I’ll go make some soup,” said Kyle, taking off the welding mask and scooping up the food she’d brought.
Kyle had been a friend of her father’s, even since before the bombings. He said they happened about 20 years ago—five years before she was born. He had explained all the history to her once, but she didn’t remember most of it. Something about Iran and China, and the whole East Coast getting attacked. Burlington got off easy, he’d said. Most of the old stuff was still standing. Pretty much everything south of Vermont got leveled, though, and most of the survivors in their area ran west. After that, no one really knew what happened. The only time they got news of the rest of the world was when someone wandered through Burlington, but not many people did—up in the northeast, there weren’t a lot of places people wanted to get to. Kyle sometimes talked about something called the Internet, where you could find out about anything you wanted. Camilla sometimes wondered how something like that could exist. It must have used up a lot of electricity. Now, the only electricity came from generators, and only if you had the gas for it—and not many people did.
Kyle came back with two bowls of soup. She made sure to save the pieces of chicken for last. It was rare that she could barter for meat; usually all she got was bread and greens. It was mid-summer, so they didn’t have to worry about saving food yet, but once it started to get colder, Kyle would need to find some bigger projects to work on so they could get through the winter. One year, he found a truck with a diesel engine and converted it to run on vegetable oil. That project alone had gotten them through the winter and spring, but it wasn’t likely he could do it again—most cars around the city were either too rusted out or had been gutted for parts.
“Will the generator be ready by tomorrow?” she asked.
“Maybe. It’s not a model I’ve ever seen, so I still have to figure out how it works. I’ll see what I can do.”
After they ate, she grabbed her pack and got up to leave. Kyle stopped her.
“Don’t be out to late.”
“Huh? Why?” He didn’t usually tell her that.
“You’re… uh, you’re getting to be old enough where some people are gonna want to… they’re gonna want to hurt you. You know the marshals don’t leave the college at night. So just… don’t stay out too late.”
“Okay... yeah, sure.” She turned and bounded up the stairs.
It was maybe an hour before sunset, and the sun was painting a trail of gold across the lake. She headed north, toward the downtown, until she reached the library. The front door was locked, but there were no walls around it—just giant windows that had been smashed a long time ago. She stepped over the threshold and looked around. All the books had been taken over the years for people to burn, so the shelves were empty. She tried to imagine what they looked like full, but it was hard, and she didn’t dwell on it too much. She went to the back and down a staircase, rummaging through her bag. She pulled out a keychain with a single key on it. She had found it a few years ago in a pile of collapsed bookshelves. She fitted it into the door and opened.
Beyond was a mostly empty room, but along its walls were short bookshelves filled with books. She went to one of them and knelt, pulling a book from her bag and sliding it into an empty space on the shelf.
She liked reading about the old world, before the war. She liked to imagine what it would have been like to live at a time when everything was provided for you. Often she would read histories, or biographies, or books of essays, even though she couldn’t always understand the contexts. Today, though, she wanted to read a story. She scanned the shelves, and her eyes stopped on a fat volume with the name “Stephen King” embossed on its spine. She had read one or two of his books, and had even seen his name mentioned a few times in other volumes. She slid it off the shelf into her bag and slipped out the room, locking the door behind her.
The sun had almost gone down by the time she reached the waterfront—not as much time to read as she would have liked. She cursed herself for taking so long with the bartering earlier. Kyle had made a box of tools for her to trade to the marshals, but she had taken too long in getting there and too long negotiating with them.
The marshals were the closest thing the area had to a government. They were mostly old police officers and members of the National Guard, and they controlled the food supply for most of Burlington. They were based out of the old university buildings, and guarded the crops that grew in the university’s fields. If you wanted a share, you had to give something in return—otherwise, there wouldn’t be enough to go around. Some people offered services, like working the fields or keeping the buildings in repair. Others, like Kyle, traded for their food. Some of the marshals thought Camilla was annoying and worthless, but some took a liking to her. She tried to stick to dealing with them.
She settled down on a rock, but the light was too dim to read, so she sat and watched the sun sink below the mountains across the lake. The water had a vague sheen to it, ever since a group of people had tried to tap one of the big boats for its fuel and ended up spilling it all along the shore. For the rest of that month, everyone was fighting over what water was still available.
“It’s getting a little late out here, girlie.”
Camilla jumped. She turned. “Marshal Clark,” she said, catching her breath. Clark wasn’t one of the ones who stayed away from her, but he wasn’t her friend either. She had dealt with him a few times, but she didn’t like the way he spoke to her—slow, like he was speaking to a child. Clark wasn’t old enough to have been in uniform before the war—he was maybe 35. That meant that marshals had taken him on later. She didn’t trust the younger ones as much. It meant they joined up after volunteering, or because they were shorthanded and looking for people. Either way, they weren’t too picky about who they took.
“What are you doing out here this late?”
By then the sun was well below the mountains, and visibility was low. “What are you doing?” she said. “Why aren’t you up at the college?”
“A man’s gotta get his exercise,” he said. “Sunset was good today. Figured I’d take a walk.”
She stood up. “I was just going back home.”
“I’ll walk you there.”
“No, I can get there myself.”
“I really don’t think you should be walking home alone. There are some dangerous folks around here.”
She took a look around the waterfront. It was barren. “Fine,” she said. She slung her bag over her shoulder, and made note of the weight of the book inside it.
“Did you say it was your uncle that makes all that stuff you trade to us?” Clark asked as they walked.
“My dad’s friend.”
“Where’s your dad?”
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that.”
“I don’t really remember him.”
They had turned away from the waterfront by then, and were walking up toward the road to Camilla’s house—or, rather, the house they had taken up residence in. Once her dad’s old house had started to fall apart, Kyle went exploring other houses until he’d found one with a sturdy foundation, and they had set up in the basement. He’d said it was because they couldn’t afford to maintain a house, so they might as well live somewhere that didn’t need maintenance.
“I bet your dad’s friend has quite the store of materials, if he can keep making and fixing things like he does.”
“Yeah, kind of.”
Clark looked around. They were on the south side of downtown, surrounded by crumbling houses. No one was around. “This seems like as good a spot as any.”
Camilla didn’t wait to hear an explanation. She swung her bag off her shoulder and into Clark’s gut. He reeled, gasping, and she took off up the street. He was faster than her, though, and it didn’t take him long to catch his breath and catch up to her and tackle her to the pavement. She struggled, but her head was spinning from the impact and his grip was strong.
“You hit a marshal,” he panted. “That was not a good idea.”
“We… we have a generator…”
Clark’s face changed. “You have a what?”
“Let me go. Kyle… he’s working on fixing a generator. We can give it to you, just… let me go.”
He thought for a moment, then released her and stood up. As she was standing, he grabbed one of her wrists. “Which way?”
She pointed, and they walked. His grip was tight on her, and her wrist started to hurt. She tried to pull free, but he yanked her back to him. She relaxed her arm, defeated.
The door to their basement creaked as it opened. Clark shoved her down the stairs first, then followed. When they turned the corner, Kyle was standing in the center of the room, a handgun trained on Clark.
“What do you want?” Kyle asked.
Clark laughed. “How did you know it wasn’t just her?”
“She always knocks.”
“Ah. Of course.” He looked at Camilla. “Little bitch,” he said, twisting her arm. She cried out.
“Let her go,” said Kyle, “you don’t get shot.”
“Does that thing even have bullets?”
“Are you gonna gamble on it?”
Clark paused. “Fine,” he said. He let go of her wrist and shoved her toward Kyle. As he reached out to her, his glance dropped. There was a sudden motion from Clark.
“Kyle!” Camilla shouted, but the gunshots drowned her out—one after the other. Kyle staggered back into the wall behind him, a hand to his chest and his gun smoking. She looked to Clark. He was on the floor, blood pouring from his throat. Kyle slumped to the floor. Camilla fell on top of him. Her hands became drenched in blood as she held them over his wound. Kyle opened his mouth to speak, but he only managed to cough, and more blood poured from his chest. He pointed a shaking finger at the generator.
“Did you… did you fix it?” she said.
“I’ll bring it up tomorrow. I’ll sell it to the marshals. It should get me through the month.”
He shook his head.
He tried to speak again, but again, he only coughed.
“Fine. I’ll find another way to eat. I’ll work in the fields. I’ll fix houses. I’ll…” She picked up the gun next to him. “How many bullets are left?”
He shook his head again.
“How many bullets?”
He held up three fingers, and his eyes fell closed.
-- Written by Matthew Hollar, Champlain College, 2012