What they didn’t really ever see was how much Innes didn’t bring back.
At first it wasn’t much – it didn’t matter. Everything was fresh, back in the beginning. He could bust into any abandoned semi and come out with fistfuls of English Muffins, or crates of apples, or carefully packaged single-serving Horizon chocolate milk. Back in the beginning, the Quarantine had affected almost none of their quality of life, none of what they really needed. Oh, certainly, it was inconvenient, not having running water, scavenging for first aid supplies, redrawing maps. But Innes loved his job, and it wasn’t really that different than Afghanistan, or Iraq, or Kuwait. Fewer disease-bearing mosquitoes, maybe.
But you traded that out pretty fair and square for the Infected, so. He considered it a wash.
But after the first few months, the food started to rot. He hated it – how much of it he just didn’t get to in time, how often he would pull open the doors of a trailer, three years of rust making the lock pliant or immovable, depending, how he would reel back from the smell, the sheer horrific mulch of it all. It didn’t smell as bad as the bodies, or the Infection, or their open sewer back in the early days of Compound One, but it was in the top five worst things about the Quarantine, easy.
You learned to shut those doors pretty fucking fast. It wasn’t just blood and shit that the Infected could smell. A sudden influx of rot-stench like that, they’d come running to find out what was up.
And as the years went by, as they shifted down the coast, left New York behind and got into the heavier heat of the south (not Florida, never Florida; Innes would stay away from Florida until the day he died, memories of clawmarks in wet beach sand, screaming and fire and blood, curdling inhumanity, soldiers shoving civilians off boats, gun stocks applied liberally to a temple, the mob unable to distinguish living from undead, Florida could sit and burn for all Innes cared, wasteland of his heart and empty, sickening black hole that it was, his stomach turning, forcing up nothing from his depths, dry heaving over and over again on blood-soaked sand, broken fingers and shaking, shaking while he ran ) –
– the heavier heat of the south –
brought on more rot than he could’ve imagined in Radio City. He hated to see the waste, especially when there were still so many mouths to feed, so many nutrients missing. The disappointment had dulled by now, certainly. But there were still moments where he would dig his way into a UPS truck on I-12 (was that what they’d called it? Innes hadn’t known Louisiana before then; hadn’t known any locals) and find a flat of multivitamins with a two-years-past expiration date and curse, throw the plastic uselessly against the inside wall, have to push his hands down his back and stretch, stare at the ceiling for a minute to save his composure.
They grew their own vegetables now. Their own crops, their own fruit trees. They jarred and hunted, raised livestock. They had a region of their own. Innes knew that; there was no use for this nonsense. But there were still things they needed, comforts, reminders of life, and Innes was an old man. Sentimental. He tried to remember when he’d been threatened by forty-three, when the number had seemed daunting instead of simply statistically impossible. What did numbers mean now, though. He’d seen the end of the world in the eyes of a twenty-something blonde woman, he’d seen the weight of death in the posture of his teenage mapmaker.
No. No, Neil was older now. They kept aging, Innes had to remind himself. They stayed alive. It was just him who pictured them all at the age when they’d first met, frozen in time at that point, because he’d resolved them all for six months of life, at the outside. There were infants in the camp, life was starting over.
It was only, the wallowing, it tended to drag him back into the past. All those boxes stamped with postage dates that would never tick forward, all the license plate registration stickers that would never grow up. The things that Innes surrounded himself with, those were the things that weren’t getting any older, and to confuse them with people was probably just another sign of his age. Or burgeoning insanity. Though he’d been threatened repeatedly away from mental breakdown; they weren’t so safe he could afford that kind of luxury yet, go raibh maith agat.
So he left it all behind: the rotting food, the expired pills, the trinkets and toys that people might have wanted, a few years ago, as some sick reminder that things would go back to how they were. He left them behind for what he really needed – no more CDs for the lady or video games for the dying hand-held cartridges. No more batteries. What they couldn’t hand-crank wasn’t worth having.
No, what Innes scavenged, three-plus years down the line, was metal. It wasn’t hard to find, not with the shells of cars all over the roads, and not if you didn’t mind what color your bullets came out. Of course, thinner sheeting was always better – easier to melt – but he’d take anything he could fit on the back of the bike, and then some. With a pair of wire cutters and goggles to keep his eyes safe from flying bits (with Innes, there was always a risk of eye damage), with an open pillow-case and an easy-to-ransack sewing supply store, with a pair of pinking shears and an untouched barbed-wire fence. There was ammunition everywhere.
It would be someone else’s job to manage the gunpowder, to assemble the cartridges. But they’d gotten fleet about it, even he had to admit. And that was what they’d take for Christmas that season, and every year until the borders buckled and broke, until the Infected or the British found their way into hallowed Quarantine ground.
It was the best gift he could give, and he’d wasted so many years with salvaged teddies and dog-eared paperbacks to regret time lost. Their best hope. Ammunition.