Earth After the End
The oatmeal sat in the pit of his stomach like a lead weight, pulling him out of line and inevitably towards the ground. William knew he should get up, since the ground was filthy and wet and he was getting his coat soaked, but for the time being, he lay there, eyes open, staring across the broken asphalt at the remains of a dandelion poking through the gravel at the side of what used to be a road. Matthew, in line behind him, nudged William with the toe of his boot.
“Get up, man.” Nudge. “Hey, get up.” When that didn’t work, Matthew reached down and hauled William up under his armpits to his feet.
William allowed himself to be picked up and swayed unsteadily upright.
“I don’t think that porridge was a good idea,” he mumbled to himself under his breath.
“Maybe not,” Matthew mumbled back, imitating him, “but it’s better than what we had all spring, so I wouldn’t complain too loudly.”
“Loudly?” William smirked at Matthew. “As I recall,” he continued in a more normal tone of voice, “I’m not the one who gets in trouble for blasting out what you call music on that old trumpet of yours.”
Matthew laughed. “Son, you wouldn’t know real music if it came up and bit you in the ass. Now jazz, that was some real music. Great musicians all working together to make something bigger than each of them could have managed on their own.”
William glanced at Matthew and raised an eyebrow. “So does that explain why it sounds so terrible when you’re the only one playing?” A smile threatened to break out over his face.
Matthew just laughed, “I guess so.”
Recognizing that Matthew had outmanoeuvred him into feeling better, William turned around again and began trudging in the line of men heading toward the distant ruin of some once-great city. He peered forward through the obscuring smoke and fog, but saw only vague shadows of huge buildings looming in the semi-gloom. He half-turned his head back again, “What city is this?”
Matthew lifted the ratty old woollen cap from his balding head and scratched at his fringe of hair quizzically. “I don’t actually know. I know we were headed to Chicago, but the bus ran out of fuel miles before we should have gotten there, so I guess the question is whether we made it to Illinois yet, or whether we’re still in Iowa.”
He looked around and shrugged non-commitally. “You could run up to the front of the line and ask, but I’d guess we’re heading into Des Moines.”
William revised his estimate of “once-great city” slightly downwards. He’d hoped they’d be a lot closer to Chicago by now, but he also had heard the rumours that there wasn’t much left of the Windy City. Well, he wasn’t interested much in the city anyway, except as a means to get back on the water. Hopefully, there were still some usable ships left plying the Great Lakes that he could work to get passage across the Atlantic.
Since air travel was no longer an option, William guessed that his only chance to cross the ocean was on one of the few remaining ships still able to make the trip. He dreaded what he’d find once he reached Europe’s shores, but what were his other options? Give up on his family and stay in the US? No way in hell! Still, all in all, he wished he’d skipped the oatmeal that morning.