It wasn’t supposed to get this hot, this high up in the mountains. Birdie could remember her childhood, all the way back in the last millennium, and she couldn’t ever remember temperatures above ninety degrees. Oh, sure, odd heat waves here and there. A couple of days, three tops. And then the winds would change and the temperatures would fall back into the upper seventies. Hot enough when you’re used to Easters and Halloweens buried in snow.
“Humans are gone,” Susie Jean said. She stood straight over the wash basin, braced her hands at her lower back, and stretched like she was trying to snap herself in half. Only after a few things in her back did snap did she release and sigh. “The damage we did ain’t. And I use ‘we’ in the royal sense. I, personally, didn’t do shit.”
Birdie looked up from the jeans she was scrubbing in time to catch Susie Jean’s wink. She was, by her own words, ‘older than dirt and half as tasty.’
“If’n a bear caught me, it wouldn’t know what to do,” she’d said the day she’d walked into town. “It’d think I was jerky.”
Susie Jean didn’t like talking about her past except to mention, often, that prior to coming up the mountain she’d been living in a nudist colony and wasn’t particularly pleased with having to don pants and a shirt again. She never wore a bra, obvious on days like this when the sun was a burning eldritch god in the sky attempting to kill them through sheer fury alone, but what with Susie Jean being five and a half feet tall and all of one hundred and ten pounds, she didn’t really have boobs to begin with and no one really minded. Except Mike, of course, but everyone figured that was just him being a dick.
Birdie put the jeans down to soak some more and reached for one of Paula’s Mickey Mouse t-shirts. Laundry was done every four weeks on a rotating shift. They were rationing the old containers of detergent they had scooped up from the grocery stores, hoping someone would come along who knew how to make soap or else they were going to have to learn. They had enough for another two years, the rate they were going, but it meant laundry was done communally and on schedule, no using soap for grass stains of your favorite dress.
This time around was Susie Jean, Birdie, and June. The three of them sat on gardener’s stools by Marrow’s Creek in the shade of a few aspens. Two kiddie pools, the bright blue plastic kind, sat between them. One sudsy and one clear, until the sudsy one got too dirty and the clear one got too sudsy, at which point Susie Jean would tip them over and Birdie and June would get the pails to fill it up again. A little bit away, what was left of hole nine of the Mountain Valley Golf Course sat looking ugly. Pointless grass that sat taking up energy until Doc Wendy suggested stringing lines across the green to dry laundry. Once one of the white baskets nearby was filled with rung out clothes one of them would take it over and hang it all up.
“I guess I could have gotten an electric car,” Birdie said, wrinkling her nose at the blood stains across Mickey’s face. Hopefully that belonged to a deer. “Been better about recycling.”
But Susie Jean was already shaking her head. “That’s what they wanted you to believe. Make it seem like it was the little guy’s fault. Even if you had gotten an electric car…hell, even if you rode a damn bicycle everywhere. Even if you reduced, reused, re-God-damned-cycled everything you ever owned…ah! Even if you lived just like Marietta, out in the woods with her poor husband, God rest his soul, even if you did all that, do you think anything would have been better?”
Birdie blinked. “No. Huh. I guess not.”
“Huh is right, girlfriend. They lied. They lied all the time! Lied about how much damage they were doing, and then lied and said it was our fault! You’re a scientist, weren’t you, June? You know.”
Susie Jean looked across at June. He was taking the sudsy clothes from Birdie and Susie Jean and rinsing them in the clean water. He rung a pair of boxers out – communal laundry meant everyone knew each other’s dirtiest, haha – and looked up at Susie Jean. Opened his mouth and closed it with a nod.
He was mostly aware of what was going on now, following conversations with his eyes and helping where Birdie told him to. He’d been getting a lot of motion back. He didn’t shamble around like a zombie anymore, and could actually get his arms up over his head. Birdie had been working with him every night these past couple of months, going through what little she remembered of yoga. Even his hands, what Doc Wendy called his fine motor skills, were getting ever-so-slowly better. Just yesterday he’d managed to button half his shirt up before his fingers had cramped. The only thing not getting better was his voice.
Well, he had one. Birdie had heard it plenty during his nightmares, calling out strings of nonsense. Sometimes you could see him struggling to say something, anything. And nothing would come. That single word back at the mall had been the only thing he’d uttered. Birdie didn’t know anything about the brain, but she’d bet just about anything she had that the part under that dent was where English was supposed to come from.
Susie Jean shoved a handful of socks under the water like they’d killed her brother and held them there, smiling. “See? Liars, the bunch of them.”
The old woman was why she’d taken laundry duty from Henry. Everyone was getting better being around June but a lot of them still walked on eggshells. Like if they said the wrong thing or looked at him funny he’d break again. Susie Jean didn’t seem to give a shit, and talked to June like he was anyone else.
“Susie-Birdie-Juney,” Nico sang, coming around the hanging laundry. “I come bearing gifts.”
“Thank the bountiful Lord,” Susie said, standing up. “My stomach’s growling fit to scare a cat.”
“You can thank me, old woman, for walking all the way up here,” Nico said.
“Blasphemer.” Susie Jean winked. She winked a lot. They all seemed to mean something different and nothing at all at the same time.
While the three of them dried off Nico began unpacking the backpack he’d carried with him. First a blanket, then corked wine bottles full of water. Then bread, turkey, and a little basket filled to the brim with berries. He set it all under the aspens. The sun was merciless but even the shade of a few trees made things bearable. Nice, almost, especially with the little cool breeze coming off the creek.
“You guys got it good over here. I’m over at the ovens, baking the bread. Got this headache from the heat that won’t quit.”
Susie Jean said a prayer over the food, something the other three didn’t join but they didn’t mind neither. Whatever Susie Jean’s relationship was with God, it was short and to the point and never pushed on the others, so when Susie Jean wanted to spend five seconds thanking God for dry turkey everybody let her.
“All right, let’s hear it,” Nico said.
Birdie groaned. “I don’t know how you still want to do this.”
“It’s for perspective!”
“What are you kids talking about?” Susie Jean asked, popping a hunk of bread in her mouth.
“It’s this thing Nico likes to do,” Birdie said. “A game, I guess. A stupid game.”
“You’re not telling it right, woman,” Nico said. He leaned forward on the blanket, close to knocking his wine bottle over. “It’s a game, sure. To remember the past, and also how much it sucked. Someone says something they miss from the old days, and everyone else has to remind them what was terrible about it.”
Birdie snorted. “Except sometimes there aren’t enough terrible things about, and I’m left daydreaming about hot showers again.”
Susie Jean leaned back and spat into the river. “How do you win?”
“You don’t win, there’s no winning.”
“Then it’s not a game, is it?”
“A conversation starter, then.”
She gnawed on a piece of turkey, staring at him. Nico stared back. Birdie and June waited, making themselves busy with lunch. The creek babbled and a couple of bees buzzed around the berries and a single large cloud floated by, casting them in shade for a few seconds before marching on.
“Weather reports,” Susie Jean said.
“Weather reports! I miss knowing what the weather is supposed to be.”
“Yeah, but, did you know?” Birdie asked. “They were wrong more often than they were right. Especially about snow.”
Susie Jean barked a laugh. “I guess that’s right. They’d predict a foot and we’d get an inch. They’d predict an inch and we’d get buried.”
“Man, I didn’t know anything about snow before all this, but it’s the same with hurricanes. Any time they’d be telling you the end was near, that shit would die out at sea,” Nico said. “It’s your turn, Birdie.”
“Fuck, I don’t know. Let Susie Jean go again, it’s her first time.”
“My dear, I am eighty or ninety years old, it ain’t my first time for anything.”
They were laughing when he first made the noise. Birdie thought he was choking at first and she sobered up quick. But June’s food was already gone, just a bit of crust on the blanket in front of him. He was struggling, anyway. Face red. Eyes staring at her like he could broadcast the words into her brain if he just thought hard enough. Maybe that’s exactly what he was trying.
“He’s going to pop,” Susie Jean said around a mouthful of berries.
“He’s trying to talk,” Nico said. He made slow, patting motions with his hands. “Easy, man. Breathe through it.”
June actually nodded, and starting taking long, almost whooping breaths.
“I don’t know how to help him,” Birdie said, pushing down the guilt Nico had assured her was bullshit. “He can make the words, when he finds them…but he has to find them first.”
“Stuck in the end times with brain damage.” Susie Jean took a long sip of her water. “Ain’t that a bitch.”
June was panting like he’d run up and down the golf course, his face flushed and his eyes wide. But he was smiling. He’d gotten out what he’d wanted to say. Too bad Birdie had no idea what he meant.
“Con?” she asked. “Like…pros and cons? Convicts?”
The smile was falling from his face, and those wrinkles above his nose, the ones he got when he was frustrated, were coming back. Before things could get worse, though, Nico slapped his thigh.
“No! I know what you’re talking about, man. Your book…the book flap…it said you liked to dress up like Link! You miss conventions, right? Like Comic Con?”
June leaned back on the aspen behind him, the relief washing off of him cooler than the creek.
“I never been to San Diego, but I went to Dragon Con plenty. You know what you’re forgetting? The stank. All those nerds knew everything there was to know about Naruto, and nothing about how to work a shower.”
“Hey, I think I know what you’re talking about. Is that like the old Star Trek conventions? I went to a few of those in the seventies.”
The three of them traded stories – well, the two of them did and June followed along with a broad smile that never faltered – while Birdie sat and listened. She’d never been to a convention. They’d ask her sooner or later. Hopefully after she’d gotten herself together, because as it was if she opened her mouth she would burst into tears and she never liked crying in front of people, especially when she couldn’t really explain herself. She didn’t even know if she was happy or sad.