The banging about was nothing new, but Nathaniel ran through the darkness towards the clatter and fuss coming from down the hall anyway. They didn’t want to waste power, so they made do. Well, Nathaniel did; Solin was not having such an easy time of it. When he arrived, he was greeted by Solin’s heaving back hunched over his provisional radio setup. Before he could say anything, Solin held up his fist to stop him.
They never spoke about why they both were well-versed in close range engagement signals and various intelligence and military protocols, they just followed through. Nathaniel waited until Solin’s arm relaxed. “Is that…?” he whispered.
“Nate, I’m back!” Solin announced to absolute silence. “I think it dropped like 10 degrees during my walk from the truck to the front door. Nate!” Seventy-five dual-sided aluminum-copper sheets, 200 m double braid nylon, 25 kg lithium cobalt oxide, 100 rations, 1000 m Cat6a, 200 m of… Solin read down his list, triple checking to make sure he didn’t forget anything. With today’s bounty, their preparations were nearly done, but they still had about four days worth of clean-up to fit into less than two days. He had already checked twice before he pulled out of the swap meet and headed back to the abandoned auto dealership he and Nathaniel had been using for their base for the last five weeks. If he was missing anything, it was just too bad, because he was out of time to get it. They were set to break camp in 30 hours, give or take Nathaniel’s mood, and the closest swap meet or junk yard was seven and nine hours not in the direction they were heading. Solin’s thoughts trailed as he realized he hadn’t heard a response from Nathaniel yet.
“Nate, you hear me?!” Getting annoyed, Solin ducked behind the tattered blackout curtain that separated the day-lit showroom from the hematic glow of the emergency lighting irradiating the back office area. It wasn’t as if he was worried that something might have happened to his partner, but he just didn’t like not hearing his voice in return when he called for him. “Yo, Nathan!”
It was almost too dark to see anything, so Nathaniel didn’t bother opening his eyes. He skimmed his hand over the tabletop before him until he found the guts of a penlight. He squeezed the housing around one of his freshly made batteries and flashed the ghostly blue light in the general direction of Solin’s voice.
“Why didn’t you answer me?” Solin cringed. Even to his own ears it sounded like he was whining. “Nathan?”
Why didn’t he answer? Nathaniel had no clue. Acknowledging Solin’s return would have taken less effort than trying to avoid the conversation he knew they were about to have, but he just couldn’t muster it. “You were going to come back here anyway.” He knew he shouldn’t have said that, but he couldn’t stop himself.
“What? Are you still mad?”
“I was never mad,” Nathaniel gritted.
“Yeah? I think the scowl you’ve been wearing for the last three days says otherwise.”
“I’m not mad, Sol–I’m just tired. We have a lot to do and no time to do it a–”
“And you don’t want to take a detour back the to the south desert, right?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Your memory seems to be failing you; I distinctly remember y–”
“Alright, I know what I said!”
Solin stood, unflinching.
Nathaniel pinched the bridge of his nose. “I know…” his voice fading out in resignation.
“Nate, I told you to go on ahead. We can meet you up there; we’ll be two days behind you, three at the most.”
“No. Separating is out of the question. And I told you that it’s dangerous to go back through the Viceroy’s territory.”
Sleep had evaded him since they argued three days ago. Or was it four? And he knew he was right or at least he believed he was. The perpetual uncertainty he thought he’d gotten rid of was starting to return and it made him sick to his stomach. He wasn’t feeling at all like himself, but he felt powerless to go against the tide of negativity that was threatening to take him under. He snapped back when he heard the fabric of Solin’s pants slide over itself when Solin shifted his stance. “Moreover, we haven’t heard from him since the beginning of the week. He’s probably not even there anymore.”
The fleeting annoyance Solin felt earlier boomeranged and brought anger back with it. He understood why Nathaniel was being contrary; he got it, but that didn’t mean he had to forgive him for it. “Where is he going to go? Nathaniel, he’s just a kid and he’s alone; Ellis trusted us enough to reveal that. You heard him; you know he was scared.”
“It could be a trap; he seems too proficient in communications. I don’t want to risk it. Besides, if he is a kid, he’d be much better off far away from me.”
And there it was–Nathaniel’s cross; the one he’d been hauling around for the past two years. Nothing anyone said seemed to be able to convince him otherwise. Still, Solin tried.
In the dull red penumbra, Solin stepped forward and knelt between Nathaniel’s legs. He rested his forearms on the man’s thighs and bowed his head. Just being near Nathaniel, breathing in his scent, calmed him and he hoped upon hope that the feeling was mutual. A chill raced down his spine when he felt Nathaniel’s fingers comb through his hair. He’d like nothing more than for them to stay as they were, but time was short and they had things to tend to. Solin lifted his head, wrapped his arms around Nathaniel’s waist and pulled him closer to the edge of his chair, closer to him. “You know what I’m going to say, right?”
Nathaniel bit his lower lip as he absentmindedly played with Solin’s jacket collar. “Nnn.”
“Nate, you know there was nothing you could do. No one blames you. Your folks don’t blame, so you should stop blaming yourself.”
“If I had j–”
“Just what?” Solin asked impatiently. “If you had just not been laid up with a 38° fever? If you had just not saved the twins from being bitten? If you had just not failed at being in two places at one time?” Solin pulled the trembling Nathaniel even closer. “Tell me, Nate. Tell me how you could have prevented any of it?!”
Nathaniel gripped the back of Solin’s jacket in his fists. “Sol..,” he lamented, voice going soft around the edges. His bottom lip felt full in his mouth as he closed down on it again. And though they couldn’t see each other’s eyes, he turned away just the same.
Ever since the Global Blackout half a decade past, no one had found anything much to smile about, let alone laugh. However, Solin recalled the day he met Nathaniel three years ago and how for a year after, hardly a day went by that he didn’t find himself cracking up at something Nathaniel did or said. One time he was genuinely put in stitches after laughing so hard that he lost his footing and fell off an open deck. He missed those days and he wanted them back. He wanted Nathaniel’s smile back. He wanted the crinkling at the corner of Nathaniel’s eyes when he laughed back. He wanted his warmth and his confidence and his peace of mind back. All the things that Nathaniel had somehow lost along the way, Solin wanted them, would give just about anything to have them back.
“Look at me. Nathaniel, look at me.”
Nathaniel wondered how, in the endless winter desert through which they traveled, when heat often seemed like a figment of the imagination and even his own heart had succumbed to the chill, was it so easy to feel Solin’s warmth. He was thankful for it; thankful for him. Nathaniel knew the truth of his love’s words, even more so since they echoed what he had been told by his parents before they headed off with Mae for the East River towns. But he still could not find it in him to forgive himself, not until Mar was found and his family was reunited. “What if…,” he started, finally looking at Solin. “What if it happens again?”
“Heh,” Solin laughed and then he laughed again when he felt Nathaniel twitch in response. He relaxed his body and let his butt hit the floor. After pulling his legs from under him and folding them in front, he pulled Nathaniel off his chair and into his lap. “Again, huh? Tell me the story.” Solin waited.
“Nnnnnn…” Nathaniel whined a bit and then let his frame go slack, falling into Solin and nestling his head in the crook of Solin’s neck. “Sol… Sol… Sol…” Each time, the sibilant sound lingered at the roof of his mouth before being let go. He repeated it as if casting a spell to take the pain away–when Solin’s embrace tightened each time he said it, he could almost believe in its imagined potency.
“No? Alright then, I’ll start.” Solin smoothed Nathaniel’s jacket down his back, coaxing his remaining defenses into submission. Each time they went through this, Nathaniel would respond earlier and earlier in the exercise. And that was one of the reasons Solin would never give up. He leaned his head on Nathaniel’s so that his lips rested near his ear and began to breathe words of the past into it.
“I was away for a week and your parents were on their way back from setting up a new station 40 miles away and it was just you and the twins at the base, right?” It was rhetorical; he knew Nathaniel wouldn’t answer, but he continued on, checking with Nathaniel like that every now and then.
Solin recounted the incident that was told to him in bits and pieces. He mentioned how, as usual, when they found a new base camp, they would do their routine rummage for tools and materials to supplement their stopgap arsenal. And that on that occasion, the twins started their sweep in the attic where they moved a trunk and the painting behind it fell forward and two spiders came with it. “And you did what anyone would do; when you saw the spiders on the beams just over their heads, you immediately tried to get the twins away from the danger, right? Isn’t that how it went?” he asked. Sensing some interest from Nathaniel, he waited.
“Yes, but then Mae, she…,” he managed, his tone timorous.
“Yes, she did slip from your arms and ended up falling down the stairs and breaking her leg, but she survived. And so did Mar. I doubt we would be able to say the same thing if either one of them had been bitten–you remember what it did to you?”
“But she was screaming so much and I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t breathe.”
Solin noticed Nathaniel’s breath quickening and a mild tremble in his shoulders. “You see, Nate,” he said as he rubbed Nathaniel’s back, “you said it yourself, you really couldn’t do anything and you were like that for nearly a month. If you could barely roll over in bed or even stay awake, how do you think you could have prevented the Raiders from snatching Mar?”
“But he shouldn’t have been there…”
“Nate, your fever was spiking that whole week. I was scouting the next camp and your folks were running errands and took Mae to get the pins in her knee reset. Just like now, we had a lot to do and no time to do it in. There was no one else to take care of you and there was no way you should have been left alone.” Solin could feel the anger and heat creeping up the back of his neck, so he exhaled.
“It would have been better. It would have been alright if it was me. I sh–”
Solin gripped his partner up by his shoulders and it took all he had not to shake him. “Don’t you dare say it! Mar worked tirelessly to keep your fever down; he saved your life! Don’t you think he would cry if he knew that after all that, after standing vigil at your bedside and keeping you comfortable and cool to keep you alive that you’re sitting here saying it would be alright if you were dead?!”
Heated fingertips dug into his skin through his jacket and the five layers beneath. Nathaniel knew his death wouldn’t solve anything, but he really did wish he could trade in his life to have Mar back with them. The back of his nose twitched in irritation and his eyes burned with precipice tears. He didn’t want to be this way but it had been two years since Mar was taken and they still hadn’t found him and the leads were drying up. This year of snow made everything difficult, slowed everything down. Deathly temperatures at night and random violent electrical storms during the day kept travelers hunkered down for weeks at a time. It was particularly perilous for the work they did–erecting new or repairing old power stations and radio towers, but someone had to get the world connected again.
He loosened his grip and pulled Nathaniel in. He wasn’t mad anymore, well, he was never really mad, just hurt and a little scared. If Nathaniel kept this thinking up, what would he do when no one was looking? “Nate did you forget about the rest of us? Your folks and Mae… and me? I’m right here. Did you forget about me?”
“Nngg.” Nathaniel stirred in Solin’s arms in token agitation to the soft tissue of his earlobe yielding to the man’s teeth.
Solin enjoyed the friction created by his love’s unrest. The biting was something he’d taken to doing to get Nathaniel to snap out of the fog memory lane put him in. “Two years is a long time,” he said, acknowledging Nathaniel’s thoughts, “but we know the Raiders don’t kill the children they snatch, they just want them for labor, so we know he’s still alive. We just have to find the mine or factory he was sent to. That’s all. Besides, you prepared them for this. Once we find his mark, the family will be good as reunited. And with the Dover Island bosses dispatching their men for our sake, we’re even closer to that day. So you have to hold on. Don’t you want to be able to tell Mar that you never gave up searching?” Solin smiled as Nathaniel’s hair brushed up against his jaw while he nodded.
With that bridge crossed, Solin only had to get Nathaniel in gear to double back through the Viceroy’s turf to check up on Ellis. He figured his classic, wouldn’t you want someone to do the same for Mar, would be a good closer, but before he could say anything…
“Uh… we… we should try to raise him again. What if we haven’t heard from him because of a storm? We should get ready,”
Nathaniel rambled on as his manner grew more and more frantic. He stood up in haste and headed for the back hall, but stopped just as quickly. Maneuvering in the dark had become second nature for him, but he remembered that Solin had yet to master it. He extended his hand. “Here, Sol. Get off your butt, we’ve got ground to cover!”
“Nkchtk,” Solin snorted at Nathaniel’s about-face. Another thing he was used to. If him being treated like a slacker meant that his love was out of his funk, then he’d gladly take the abuse. “Yeah, yeah. I’m coming.”
I held some of my favorite post-apocalyptic-ish media vaguely in mind while writing this. Jericho, The Book of Eli, Children of Men, and City of Ember and just a pinch of It’s All About Love and The Day After Tomorrow… I don’t know what will become of this, but I hope you enjoyed it.