She was the most beautiful thing I'd seen in years. Ever since the world went screwy and just fell apart, I'd begun to believe there wasn't anything beautiful left. It was a big pair of eyes peering over the edge of my driver's side window, asking if I had a passenger yet, that convinced me.
She was a tiny little thing. She might have been four foot eleven, with the curves to match a small frame. Her long, tawny blonde hair curled and waved out from under an aviator's cap and framed slate gray eyes a little too big for her face. She had a beautiful smile.
Me? I was a big girl. I'd been obese when everything ended. Most people assumed I'd be one of the first to go, I know, unable to outrun the natural disasters that destroyed civilization while I sat back and ate a Twinkie. I never could convince them I was a tough bitch who would do what it took to survive. So I'd thinned out a bit, but you just can't change the fact that your curves have curves. I'd chopped my hair off to make life easier, and I was the driver for the ambulance in the caravan. Most people thought I'd been a wannabe-boy before everything, but nobody really asked. Political conviction and propriety flew out the window when people got excited about keeping the human race alive. I didn't like men. I'd suffered for that, one of the reasons I'd chopped my hair off. But girls like her didn't go for a woman like me. Back in the old days, it would have made me laugh to think of her even considering it. I think she saw security with me somehow.
We'd been heading into the Dust Bowl, away from the coastline. Our resident cartographer, a college dropout, was completely convinced that there was a low point where we could still punch through the earth to the water table to get an oasis going around a well.
It was a nightmare driving through the stuff. Dust tended to cake on the windshields. It could stifle my lungs within minutes, and the very air got difficult to breathe. It came through the air vents no matter what I did unless they were shut tight. The ambulance was about midway on the caravan, so I was doing good to follow the taillights on one of the buses.
The call came back on the CB that we'd found a settlement. I couldn't see anything at all, but we'd taken to investigating anything out in the destroyed areas. It wasn't like we were looking for more people. There wasn't a shortage of people who wanted the life we led. We had a nice round number—a hundred and fifty—and plenty of talent to go around. We just wanted to know who else had made it out here. Several of the innovations that made the caravan possible came from scavenging other sites and taking what others didn't need. We circled up, letting the engines cool. I got out to investigate the situation with the rest of the drivers.
We approached a structure that looked like an Indian longhouse. It was rounded at the top, and as long as a football field. Wooden shears were mounted on its points, buried into the ground around it to cut through the dust storms.
They met us with guns and clubs until we explained who we were. It was mostly men, the survivalist types I'd gotten to know. One guy by the name of Barnes was the most vocal spokesperson, and I crossed my arms with the other drivers as he told us smugly how he'd inspired these people to survive out in the Dust Bowl. After running across enough people like Barnes, most survivalists gave me a bad taste in my mouth. They're never lax enough to forget to tell you how they were right, the apocalypse came, and they were prepared. It's insufferable.
There were maybe thirty of them, and the other drivers and I laughed to each other how they'd never survive with twenty men and ten girls. Barnes wanted to offer us some strong backs if we wanted to trade some women, but we turned him down, saying that we had the balance we needed. He was angry and threw his fist at the wall, though he was too proud to simply ask for help.
The place wasn't good, and both of the groups knew it. Their well was drying up, from the look of the girls' gaunt faces. Bruises told another story, one of delineated sexual roles. Four of the ten were pregnant and not looking well.
We turned to leave, though none of us wanted to. I'd gotten used to turning my back and keeping morals out of the equation. No one can fix what's wrong with the world. I'd had to learn I couldn't afford for my focus to stray away from the caravan. It burned me to leave the girls, but I didn't have the supplies to play messiah.
When I climbed back into my ambulance, the dust had settled and I could see the low tanks and pumping station next to the longhouse. I rolled my window down to air out the cab and waited for the roll call that the drivers did every time we stopped. My call was easy. One big dyke in the ambulance was my total. No one rode with me. Something caught my attention as I waited, and I caught sight of a bundle of dust coming after us from the longhouse stairs. It paused, lifting up, only to head directly for the ambulance. I should have called the alarm over the CB of a potential stowaway, but I didn't. The clock that covered the tiny form's face and body got thrown back as she climbed up on the step outside my door, her fingers grasping the window to peer over the edge.
"Please. I'm going to die there. They all are. Can't I come with you?" she asked softly. I stared at the beautiful girl. Why ask me? I should have rolled up the window and picked up the radio. I can't explain why I opened the door and let her climb up across my lap. She had a satchel slung over one shoulder and nothing else. I tried to say something intelligent, only to hear stammering gibberish coming out. She giggled at me and curled herself into a ball on the seat next to me. She'd fried every fuse in my brain.
"Johns. Roll call." The radio buzzed at me.
I picked it up and clicked the button, shaking my head. "Two, Collins." There was silence for a moment as I could almost hear the others looking at each other across the radio waves.
"Two, Johns? Did you pick up? We're at capacity. We can't take another. Seats are full." Collins was the geek who drove the police van and kept all the records. He'd been the one to crunch all the numbers to find out how many we could support with the resources we carried.
"She'll ride with me. It's one of the girls. We saw their future, Collins. They'll be dead by winter. I've never asked to rock the boat, but one isn't going to make much of a difference. Nobody rides with me, and I don't think she'll take that much." I was sitting there in shock defending a choice I shouldn't have made. No one was exempt from the rules. They kept us alive. "Collins, please. Just let a vote happen. I want to save the one that was brave enough to admit they needed help."
Collins sighed over the radio, and I felt a wave of fear from the girl curled under my arm. I could feel her eyes on me, thankful and silent.