The countryside we have been walking through for the past week has become increasingly densely once-populated, the people and livestock now gone but the houses they lived in remaining. At a distance they look deceptively normal, as if people would still live there and tend them. Upon closer inspection the windows are gaping and wildlife has moved in, paint is flaking and a shutter or loose board might be slamming in the wind.
Today is almost completely windless, a heavy oppressive feeling to the air, making it difficult to breathe, our lungs labouring although the air is relatively cool after the scorching heat of the past moons. Those among us who remember most of the education we received as children, Before, mutter uneasily among us at the air quality. We shudder to think what exactly is in the air to make our lungs cramp in this way.
We have to move on.
While walking I daydream, seeing in my mind people from the books and stories of Before. Men wearing suits and ties (how ridiculous it would seem in this reality!) investigating unnamed crimes. I enjoy those daydreams the most, a world where killing, stealing, harming others was not allowed and sent the Good Guys hunting down the Bad Guys. Now there are no Good Guys, just Bad Guys and Scared Guys. I imagine myself as a Good Guy, bringing safety to people.
A sudden noise behind a hedge makes me start and brings me back to dusty road along which we are walking. My image of myself as a hero fades quickly as I recall that I am really quite afraid, in fact I dare not investigate even a snapping twig alone. Recklessly Simon does and parts the hedge to look. Nothing is to be seen in the weedy garden beyond, and as one we increase our pace to get farther away before dark.
I think we are somewhere in what was once the English countryside, but I am not sure. We have walked for so long. The houses look decidedly un-British, with steep gables and long eaves, more like something to be found in the Alps. No mountain in sight however, and my internal navigator insists that the southern part of Britain would be about right. I usually trust that instinct, I have to - we have no sure way of knowing where we are. None of us can read the stars very well and the sun seems to rise and set at different angles every moon. I had a compass early on, but when it started spinning slowly, like the arm counting the seconds in an old clock, it was deemed bad luck and Kay, superstitious Kay, threw it into a river.
That was almost two years ago, and it is a long time since we saw anything deserving the name river - a muddy stream is the best we can hope for and is cause for celebration. We desperately need a good source of clean water. It is exactly 47 days since it rained according to the notches on my walking staff. We all notch sticks and staves, to keep count of the time seems irrationally important, a sense of order imposed on our existance.
Last winter it rained almost continuously for three moons, a steady drizzle so acid your scalp would start itching and burning after ten minutes out in it. The plants whose sap eases acid burn are now among the things we continuously look for while walking.
That night we break into a large and relatively unharmed house, and prepare to settle there for some days, while gathering what edible plants we can find in the area. The house is empty of useful items, but it provides walls that will protect against some of the night chill and, hopefully, against the all too real human predators out there.
We hang our net hammocks in tiers in a high ceilinged room with a fireplace, we think it was once a sitting room. Some dusty fabric found in a closet provides some privacy around individual hammocks, as well as keeping drafts out and heat in. As I finish placing my meagre belongings in the corner, I notice Eric hanging a small sign on a hammock set in the best place in the room, close to the fireplace. Annoyance burns at me, that he doesn't trust us not to take the place he secured but needs to set up a name sign. Then I see the name on the sign and my heart sinks as I notice that two other hammocks hold their own name signs.
"Eric." I touch his arm. "Eric, please. They aren't coming back. They are gone."
My soft voice still carries in the silent room and others look up. Eric seems to be the only one not hearing me, nor does he seem to feel my touch on his arm. I could as well be talking to a wall and I have to clamp my teeth together to not start screaming at him.
Kay pulls me wordlessly away.