Copyright 2017 by Dan Nimak
All rights reserved.
I leaned against the dumpster, after first scrounging around inside it to shop for my next meal. Seven days. Nine meals. And this one was the best. On hot days, it paid to find the food quickly. Non-stale bread, delicious chicken, and whatever sauce my leg had rubbed against tastefully completed the feast.
My journey would take me through many small towns such as this. I would not find many people, and no large cities, unlike the boyhood days my grandfather had often talked about. No one had much to spare, but most folks had compassion for walkers; a few would freely toss perfectly good leftovers in the trash, knowing they would not be wasted. Water faucets could normally be found without too much effort. And three days ago, a lady invited me to her house. While she washed my clothes, I borrowed her shower. I probably needed to find another nice lady soon.
Walkers. I never thought I would become one. Walking, of course, was no big deal. Though I knew a few people who had bicycles, the roads – if one could call them that – were far too damaged and neglected to be of any use. And even fewer people had horses, so walking three or four miles a day around town was the norm. But walkers, those who traveled across the country for whatever reasons they had, could cover twenty or more miles in a day. I hoped to average at least fifteen. One week down; four or five to go.
A full stomach, ground that was not unbearably hard, and a worn backpack serving as a pillow – it was more than enough enticement for a very tired thirteen-year-old girl to surrender to a nap.
* * *
Her shadow woke me up. I immediately sat up, and the dumpster supported my back once again. I grabbed my backpack, held it tightly in my lap and asked the initial question asked by all walkers. “Frenfo?”
“Fren,” she answered.
Good, she’s a friend. Most people were, or they just completely ignored you. Answering “fo” didn’t automatically mean enemy or danger. It was generally safe traveling alone, and the term for foe only meant they wanted to be left alone – with no interest in helping anyone, or in being helped.
“Me too,” I said.
She appeared to be close to my age, and she politely asked if she could sit beside me.
“Is this how you normally make new friends?” I asked.
She smiled. “I had to get a break from my aunt.”
I scooted over a little and extended my hand to the spot on the ground next to me. “What’s wrong with your aunt?”
“She’s okay,” she said as she sat down. “She just drives me nuts sometimes. I probably shouldn’t complain. She’s all the family I’ve got left. It was either her or live at a home.”
I understood more than she realized. “Yeah, with all of the diseases leaving so many orphans, I think there are more kids in children’s homes than not.”
“I’m keeping that option open.” She smiled again, but her hand shook. “What about you?”
“I might as well be an orphan.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have a mom and a…well, she’s married to this guy.”
“A mom and a stepdad?”
“I refuse to call him that.”
“He’s not worth talking about. The way he treats my mom…and me too. I wish he was back in prison. It was awful. But the worst part was my mom took his side, made excuses for him, called me a liar.”
“Are you living with them now?”
I shook my head. “About a year ago, I decided that I was ready to run away. I gave my mom a choice – me, or the jerk she was married to.”
“I take it she didn’t pick you.”
“No, she didn’t.”
“Don’t be. It worked out. About that time, I found out I had a grandfather.”
“You didn’t know?”
“I knew a lot about him, what my mom had told me. We just didn’t know where he was.”
“And you found him?”
“It was a fluke,” I said. “It was about a two-week walk to my grandfather’s, and I gave him the surprise of his life. And he gave me the best year of my life. It –”
“That’s great.” Her hand shook again, and her lips quivered.
My God, I need to shut up. I had no idea what this girl might have gone through lately, and she certainly didn’t need to hear all about my problems.
She cleared her throat. “Do you live nearby? I probably should ask since you’re napping by the trash.”
I had to think fast. Something that would make sense. “My grandfather doesn’t live far from here. I was just on a two-day trip trading books, thought I’d grab some food and have a little nap. You know how it goes.”
“Yeah, I understand.”
“I probably should be going.” I stood up and offered a hand to help her up. “It was nice to meet you, uh…”
“I’m Sam, short for Samantha.”
“I’m Taya. It was nice talking with you Sam, and good luck with your aunt.”
“Thanks. And you’re welcome to come in and get something to eat, or take some food with you. My aunt isn’t all that psycho – at least with guests.”
“Thanks, but I’ve got some food. And I probably should hit the road.”
We said goodbye, and though I could’ve used a shower, I didn’t want to risk blurting out more than I should. It was true that the past year living with my grandfather had been the best year of my life. It was incredible. We got along so well. He taught me so much, about big things, little things…about the unconditional love that families should have.
But I didn’t need to mention that it was now over, that I buried my grandfather last week. Sam had her own issues. It was too soon anyway. It hurt too much.
I pulled my ponytail through the opening in the back of my timeworn baseball cap. I tugged three times, just below the hair tie, before letting it freely hang – the straight ends almost reaching the middle of my back. Having taken care of that ritual, I began walking again. There wasn’t much else to do, except think. And when it came to thinking, my mind always worked overtime.
I thought about my life.
I thought about my dad.
I thought about Mister Bo. Though I had yet to meet the man, my grandfather said he never knew a better person. I had nowhere else to go. I couldn’t…I wouldn’t…go back to my mom. She made her choice. I only hoped that the thirty days or so that lay ahead would not seem that long. Maybe I would actually start to enjoy life as a walker, the small towns and pleasant people that awaited me.
I thought about the time a minor league baseball team called the Sea Dogs won their first baseball championship. My cap told the story of that baseball team, and a lot more.
They called my grandfather Puppy. Though I didn’t meet him until a year ago, I first knew him from my mom’s stories. Puppy’s grandfather grew up in Maine, and way back in 2006, his favorite team won the championship. No one knew how often my great-great-grandfather wore the cap with the Sea Dogs’ logo, but apparently it was so much of a part of my grandfather’s boyhood attire that he earned his nickname. He kept the name, and the cap, into adulthood. My mother never called him anything other than Puppy, and it was a rare occasion when she saw him without his cap. Then one day, years before I was born, he told my mother he had somewhere to go – and he might not be back. My mother never told me any of the details, or maybe she didn’t know herself. Puppy disappeared, but he left his cap.
I was five when I discovered baseball…and Puppy’s cap. I thought the mascot was cute, and I grew my hair longer for one reason. I loved how my dirty blond hair hung out from the back hole of the cap. And I always pulled on my ponytail three times after threading it through the opening…for good luck.
The day after I turned six, they told me about my dad’s cancer. My mom explained that The War had caused many new diseases, and though many medicines were still available, they didn’t always work. I tugged my hair three times…often.
It didn’t work.
Even as a six-year-old, I noticed that my mom changed a lot. Before I was seven, I had a stepdad. He went to prison soon after their marriage. He didn’t stay there long enough.
Baseball saved me…temporarily. The other kids either loved or hated me, depending on which team I played for. They would normally fight over me, because they knew no one could touch my pitching. And only one thing was faster than my fastball…me. I could bunt for a single whenever I wanted. Three pitches later I’d be stealing home, my ponytail flying madly behind me – fashioned with lots of dirt, but never any ribbons.
Baseball remained. Not the major leagues, or even the minor league teams like the Sea Dogs. But sandlot games continued…even after…
The War. Puppy was twelve when it happened. He said he was very lucky that he survived. The War, if something so short-lived could be called a war, was highly effective. It killed most people, animals, technology and travel. It occurred forty years before I was born. I read a lot about life before The War. Some of it seemed really exciting, especially the technology and traveling parts. But it also sounded like a scary world, filled with many selfish people.
I entered a different kind of scary world when my stepdad got out of prison. For almost a year, I pretended things didn’t happen, hoped that he would be sent back to prison, prayed my mom would leave him. I thought about running away. And then, I found out Puppy still lived.
I was a twelve-year-old girl with a backpack slung over my shoulder when I knocked on Puppy’s door. He couldn’t take his eyes off the faded Sea Dogs’ cap on my head. I asked him if it was his. “I got it from my mom, and I need a place to live.”
His hand softly reached behind the cap, and he stroked my hair. Tears fell from Puppy’s eyes. “My cap never looked better.”
It was the best year of my life.
We shared so much…time, love, words.
I stayed beside him on his deathbed.
He stopped me as I reached for my hair. Puppy’s hand shook as he tugged my ponytail…once. “It’s not for me. I’m going to be fine,” he said. A second, very weak pull of my hair. I could barely hear his frail voice. “It’s for you.”
Puppy tugged my ponytail one last time.
The shouting of my name shattered my sleep, even though I quickly realized the scream came from the nightmare playing inside my head. It was Puppy’s voice, and I woke up once again wiping tears from my eyes.
Another day, another night, another nightmare.
I missed Puppy so much. I had no one. Only my thoughts, and I was getting pretty sick of them.
I had stopped counting the days: the number of days since Puppy died, the number of days I had been a walker, the number of days since I had visited with Sam, the estimated number of days left in my journey.
It didn’t matter.
Nothing really mattered.
I slung my backpack over my shoulder and began another day’s walk. My head throbbed as I clenched my teeth. I cursed – and instantly, it hit me. “Taya, this is not you. You’ve got to get over this.”
I repeated the spoken commands inside my head. I knew I needed to let go of the anger about Puppy dying, about my mom not caring. I had to get over feeling sorry for myself. I desperately wanted to reclaim my life, my personality, but I didn’t know how.
I tried to focus on the positives.
I know I’ve walked a long way. Maybe I don’t have many days left.
I hope Mister Bo is as nice as Puppy said.
I hope Mister Bo won’t mind me just showing up out of the blue.
Dang, I hope the dude’s there.
I gave another shot at the positive thinking thing, and I thought about the town I walked through yesterday. It was great. I enjoyed some of the best food I’d had in a long time. That lady could cook. It was a stroke of luck I randomly picked her door to knock on. It hadn’t taken me long to learn that walkers shouldn’t be shy about asking for help. Fortunately, shyness was never a problem of mine. I had always been very blunt and had no problem in getting to the point of the matter. I didn’t mind asking to borrow her shower either.
Most people were happy to help. Yesterday, the lady insisted that I stay a couple of extra days…to rest and eat more – or maybe she just thought another shower wouldn’t hurt me. I thanked her for the offer, but she understood why I wanted to keep going. And she loaded me down with enough food to cross the country.
Having deleted food off my worry list for the next few days, my main concern once again became the hazards from the so-called roads. Most of the roads were paved, or they had been fifty or more years ago. But between the massive direct damage from The War and the decades of nonexistent maintenance after that, walking was definitely a challenge at times. If I wasn’t taking a wide detour around the bombed-out parts, I’d find myself stumbling over a hard-to-see ridge, wrinkle, or soft spot in the middle of the road. And today, regaining my balance was a little more difficult with the extra twenty pounds of food in my backpack.
But I wasn’t about to complain about the food.
I kicked an old can down the road as I walked. The label was worn, but I think the can used to contain lima beans. I kicked it harder. It deserved it. There were worse things than eating out of a dumpster.
I thought often about friends, mainly wishing that I had one to walk with. I had met several people, and all of them had been very nice. Some folks from Chester, Illinois helped me cross the Mississippi River not long after I had started my trip. And a week or so after that, I met three other teenagers in a place called Enough, Missouri, on the eastern side of the Mark Twain National Forest. I really enjoyed them and wished they could have stayed with me longer. But it was nice of them to provide protection as we walked through the forest. I had never heard of Enough, and though I didn’t personally see any serious threats, I did learn about the children’s home that had recently burned to the ground. Evidently, no plans were in the works to rebuild it, and many homeless older kids now roamed the forest.
On most days, I would briefly encounter two or three people walking the opposite direction I was going. Typically, we would exchange “frenfo” greetings, then rest a few minutes as we sat in the road and talked. These, of course, were short-term friends. I needed to find someone going my way if I wanted a more permanent companion for my journey. Then again, it would probably be difficult to find a walker going the same direction as me. It would have to be someone walking slowly that I might pass, or a very fast walker who caught up with me.
Though I seldom had a friend to pass the time, I always had Puppy. We had many conversations during my long days of walking. Real conversations…at least on my part. I’d speak out loud – as long as no one else was around – and I would imagine Puppy’s replies in my thoughts. A lot of his replies were from the stories he had told me during the past year, but it didn’t matter. It helped me a lot, not only to pass the time, but to make me feel like Puppy was still with me.
“I really enjoyed that last town, Puppy. Didn’t I do a good job in picking out the right house for a little food and rest?”
I think that was some of the best food my nose has ever smelled.
“You would’ve loved it. I was really tempted to stay there another night or two.”
I don’t blame you, Taya, but it’s probably best you hit the road after a good night’s rest. And you’ve got a pretty nice care package in your backpack.
“That’s true. I hope it doesn’t spoil before I reach the next town.”
It should be fine.
“I can’t believe how bad some of these little towns look. I know you’ve told me about the big cities, but I don’t think I realized the damage some of the smaller towns took.”
Yes, it’s hard to describe how totally demolished the larger cities were. Some of the smaller towns avoided direct hits, but of course, most of the people in those places died too. Those of us lucky enough to survive stayed in our little towns and rural areas. Some of the places, like where you grew up, avoided the bombs. So, they just stayed put, buried their dead, and tried to do whatever they could to keep the rest of the townspeople from dying.
“And other towns, like the one we just left…”
The ones with just some minor destruction – if you can call anything about The War minor – the survivors of those places sometimes moved to another nearby town. Or, like the town we just left, they built some simple houses on the outskirts of the destroyed portion.
“Why would they do that? Wouldn’t it be terrible to live so close to the ruined homes you used to live in, being reminded of it every day?”
Sometimes there wasn’t much choice. Maybe they didn’t want to move, or maybe they didn’t know of a better place to go. Remember, for a long time, no one really knew what was left of the world. We didn’t know who was left, where they might be, or what might happen next. There was very little communication. We just lived day to day, hoping another family member or friend wouldn’t die.
“That part hasn’t improved a whole lot.”
No, that may take centuries.
“But at least some of you old guys finally found your priorities. I’m happy about that!”
What are you talking about?
“You should know, Puppy. We went to one not long ago.”
I heard Puppy’s laugh. Oh, you mean the amusement parks.
“That was a great idea.”
I agree. It didn’t take long for the old-fashioned amusement parks to start spreading across the country. They popped up about as fast as the children’s homes did.
It’s simple, Taya. We needed something to make us smile again.
“I wish we could go there a–”
“Hey! Girl with the baseball cap! Who are you talking to?”
The shouted question from behind ended my imaginary conversation with Puppy. I quickly turned around.
“Fren,” I said to the blond-haired boy who looked to be about seven years old. “My name is Taya, and I was just talking to…myself. It gets kind of lonely out here.”
“Yeah, don’t I know that.” He jogged a few steps to catch up to me. “I’m Timmy, and I am definitely your friend. Would you mind some walkin’ company?”
He asked in a way as if he would be doing me a great favor, protecting the little girl like a big brother would – even though I was about twice his age and size. “I would love it,” I answered.
“So, girl, how old are ya?”
“I’m thirteen,” I replied, as I tried to adjust my walking pace to match his. “How about you?”
“I’m eight. I had a sister your age.”
I hated to ask, but every kid had a story, and most were not the happily-ever-after kind. “Had?”
“She died, like the rest of my family.”
“I’m so sorry. What happened?”
“Shoot, there’s so many diseases now-a-days. Ain’t many we didn’t have.”
“Why aren’t you in a children’s home?”
“Girl, that ain’t no place for me. And while we’re talkin’ about it, I might could ask you that same question.”
“You could, and I might even give you an answer.”
Timmy smiled. “But first, I’ve got another question.”
“What is it?”
“What’s a Sea Dog?”
I rubbed my cap. “It was my great-great-grandfather’s. But mainly Puppy, who was my grandfather, wore it. The Sea Dogs used to be a baseball team a long time ago.”
“That’s kinda neat you have something like that. And I like the name Puppy for a grandfather. Is he dead too?”
I was tired of crying, so I answered in a matter-of-fact way. “Not long ago. That’s why I’m a walker now.”
It must have caught Timmy by surprise. His eyes got big and watery. “I’m sorry, Taya. I didn’t know. I wouldn’t have asked if I’d known it was so soon.”
“It’s okay. I had a great year with him, and now…I’m heading to stay with a good friend of his. How about you? Where are you going?”
Timmy looked around as if he wanted to avoid the question. Or maybe he was deciding how to answer. “I’m just a walker.”
“What’s that supposed to mean? You have to be walking somewhere.”
“Why?” he asked.
The kid stumped me. My walk had a goal: Mister Bo. But I didn’t know about Timmy…if he had…“Do you not have any friends or relatives, Timmy?”
He slowly shook his head. “Not no more.”
It was time to take charge, to reverse the roles. I was the big sister here. I grabbed him by the shoulders and slowly spoke. “Then you’re going with me, Timmy. You got that? Three meals a day, a nice bed to sleep in, and friends you haven’t met yet that are waiting for you. Any questions, buddy?”
He smiled, but it was more of a mischievous grin that said he would pretend to agree just to please me. “You ain’t one to beat around the bush, are ya?”
I answered Timmy in his own lingo. “Ain’t no need in wastin’ any time. Ya never know how much ya got left.”
“That’s for damn sure.”
Puppy would’ve gotten on to me for using that word. I thought about saying something to Timmy, but before I had the chance, he faded in and out a couple of times. Then, he completely vanished.