Being an accounting of the recent and continuing pandemic and its various circumstances, from the perspective of an inhabitant of the regions lately called the Lost Quarter. Dates unknown.
Day Two Hundred Fifty Six
“If you can’t find them, grind them,” Bernard says with a chuckle as he fights with the gear shift. The old three ton wheezes with each shift upward of gears, the red box, and what it contains, rattling with each lurch.
Shaky doesn’t answer from the passenger seat. He is looking out the side mirror at the dust rising in their wake. There is snow in the ditches and a smattering in the surrounding countryside, but the road is clear. Shaky adjusts himself on his seat, buttoning up his jacket. It is cold in the cab despite the fact the heater is blasting at its highest setting.
“Quite the haul. Quite the haul,” Bernard says, as much to himself as to Shaky. His companion gives a little half nod, still not turning from his inspection of the road behind them. “Come off it kid. Ain’t nobody coming after us. Ain’t nobody here at all.”
Shaky doesn’t disagree. There are few people left in the Quarter. A wasteland most dismiss it as, or a desert. Once there were farms here, pastures and fields. You can see the remnants of that all still: the trees that stand tall in tight defensive squares around the buildings and corrals that are collapsed into ruins, the fence posts that are lone, crooked sentinels, wires long ago collected and sold for scrap. Even where the fences are gone you can still see what was once the borders between the fields, the grass and weeds forming their own boundaries.
Bernard has been here before. It was his idea they come. Head into the Quarter on the roads that still remain in that old grain truck of his, with the red box and blue cab, that he barely kept running, collect as many artifacts as they could, and get out. It was a can’t miss opportunity, he insisted, not to mention a chance to get back at all those bastards who had stolen his ancestors’ land.
Shaky wasn’t sure about that. His ancestors were dead and so were the ones who had stolen from them. Nobody wanted this place anymore. It was there for the taking by whoever could find their way in and out. That was outlaws mostly, brigands crossing the Quarter line to take what they could before racing back and holing up in the hills and coulees. No one wanted to follow them into this wild place where you could drive for days and not come across another soul.
Especially not in winter. That was Bernard’s argument. Well, that and the fact that there were artifacts just sitting there for the taking. He drove on roads that were paved, some that had a smattering of gravel, and many more that were only dirt now, overgrown in places, washed out in others. He knew the way, he insisted to Shaky on more than one occasion when he thought he could see doubt in his companion’s eyes, or maybe when he had his own doubts.
They ended up following an old cow trail winding its way through the prairie passing by springs and dugouts, until they came to an alkali slough, its surface shimmering white in the midday sun. The grass grew tall and brambly on its edges, all brown and sad looking on this cold day. Scattered in the midst of the grass were the artifacts, rusted metal the earth and the alkali was in a slow processing of swallowing back.
They collected whatever they could find, tossing it into the back of the truck where it clanged loudly. There were wagon wheels, long bars of unknown provenance rusted so dark they were almost black, and parts from machines that Shaky couldn’t identify, though Bernard rattled off the names to him. Shaky thought he was guessing.
They were there a long time, alone upon the prairie, but they finally set off as the afternoon sun began to bend down, Bernard not wanting to find his way out of the Quarter in the dark. It took them a good while to find their way back to the road, and even once they were there the going was slow. Only when they reached the gravel was Bernard able to shift into a higher gear.
He is in a grand mood now that they are on what passes for a good road in these parts, keeping up his chatter, not needing a response. Shaky gives one every now and again, but mostly he just keeps his eyes on the side mirror. They had been out on the prairie a long time and you could see there for miles in any direction. And watchful eyes from a great distance could see them.
There is nothing for him to see behind, nor on the road ahead, even as Bernard turns the truck onto broken pavement. They lurch along, bouncing into potholes as the darkness settles around them. Bernard is happier still, knowing the way from here with certainty. They are almost out. And then Shaky sees the first glimmer of headlights from somewhere in the vast distance behind them.