A day after the arrival of Jay Norris:
Finding herself without a shadow for the moment and spotting Maddy sitting alone with the last of her breakfast, Natalie made her way to the other woman’s seat and dropped down next to her. “Hey lady,” she greeted quietly. “How goes the gossip mill on your hall? So far this morning I’ve heard that we’re being invaded, we’re being saved, and speculation about whether the rest of the country is as bad off as we are—after all, there’s still a government.” The latter of which actually concerns her a little, though she’s working not to show that at this moment. For right now, she’s just seeming a bit amused.
Maddy looked up at Natalie’s approach and gave her a little smile. She shifted over to give her friend room to sit. Not that it was actually necessary, as Maddy was on the roof and they had it to themselves, but it was a welcoming gesture that invited her to stay. Tools sat arranged on a shop rag at the foot of some arcane bit of … whatever it was … that Maddy had cobbled together to do whatever it did. It was hard to tell if the young woman was eating before getting to work or after, but perhaps the amount of grime on the woman’s hands (past the half-fingered gloves) suggest she’d taken a break in the middle to eat. Maddy’s goggles were shoved past her forehead, making her dark hair stick out all askew. Maddy squinted against the sun as she answered:
“About what you’d expect. Some are glad to see some of the old world had survived. Others are suspicious it’s a trick. Or a trap. Mostly, they’re stunned. They’d gotten used to certain ideas, ones that made it easier to put what they lost behind them and move on. Seeing him? Hearing what he had to say? Brought it all back. It hurts. Hope has an edge to it, Nat. When it’s sharp enough, it’ll make you bleed.” She looked down and pushed her food around with her spoon. Her voice was soft when she spoke again. “I’m glad he’s survived, Nat. No matter if he’s telling the truth or not, whether he’s hitched his wagon to a falling star or a rising one, I’m glad to see he’s alive. We’ve lost so many. It’s time we got one back.”
Natalie nodded slightly. “Well, speculation is bound to run the gamut… especially since the council hasn’t decided what they’re going to do yet.” She drops to sit next to Maddy and shrugs a little. “It does hurt. It brings up a lot of emotions for everyone.” She smiles a little. “When we went to FEMA and there weren’t the number of bodies I’d expected, I hoped at least a few of them got out. I’m glad he survived too. I wish more of them had.”
Just the sight of Jared Norris, alive and as well as anyone in this crazy world, brought up so many complicated emotions that Natalie still didn’t know what to feel. Elation that he survived, guilt that others didn’t, suspicion of the upheaval he brings with him, fear of the unknown, worry that we’re being lied to or manipulated, hope that everything he said was trust, doubt that anything he said is true … The list went on and on, and frankly it was just too much to feel all at once. Instead, she blows out a breath and focuses on something else.
“Maddy … the other night when we went up to the plane crash. I … something felt off. Not like I used to be able to feel it, but … are you hurt somewhere? Or … do you feel okay?” Her eyes search Maddy’s face. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to say anything. I mean … if you’re sick or something what the hell am I going to be able to do for it? But … I’m worried about you because what I felt just seemed unusual.”
“No, I’m fine. Not hurt at all,” Maddy said, quick to assure her friend with a hug, and on release her expression was hopeful. “But you’re feeling something? Do you think your power’s coming back and settling in, but just at a lower level? I know you might not be entirely happy to have them back but … Natalie, it’s … it’s part of who you are, so while I know you might not want to think about it, I’m glad you’re getting some of what you lost back.”
Natalie was quiet for a long moment, choosing her words carefully. “Ever since Toby, I’ve … felt something. I don’t know what it is. It’s not like before. It might be just the edge of empathy, it could be a lot of things. Could even be my imagination, maybe.” She pauses. “I don’t think it is, though. And I’m … if Langston is right, that the power is still there and just blocked somehow by the effects of the virus, maybe what happened with Toby kickstarted my brain to rewire a new pathway. I just don’t know.” With a shrug, she asks, “Just… keep it between the group of us, though. Ang and Langston both know I’m getting flashes of some kind. I don’t want that out in the larger population.”
Cutting her eyes to her friend, she grins. “Nice deflection, by the way. You almost got me. Are you really doing okay?”
“Yeah. I am,” Maddy said sincerely. She doesn’t have to know exactly why, does she? “It’s been a rough run but yeah, I think I’m coming out of it okay.” She nodded over her shoulder at her current repair job. “Unlike that poor thing over there, but I’ll get it going in no time. So-ooooo ….,” she drawled and winked. “C’mon, Nat. Dish. How’s Jared?”
How’s Jared? Natalie had no idea exactly how to answer that one with the stew of emotional baggage attached to the man. “He’s okay, I guess. I mean … I feel like I need to walk on eggshells until the council decides what they’re going to do. I don’t want to say too much until we have a feel for which way the wind is blowing. And he’s … hedging, for lack of a better word. There’s a lot more than what he’s saying so far, and I don’t know which side of things we’ll all come out on, you know? He wants to stay, though. At least for a while.”
“I hope he can stay.” Maddy looked off into the middle distance and continued, almost as if to herself. “I’d like to pick his brain as to what the world is like outside our city. Sometimes I feel as if we’ve forgotten to look up at the horizon and dream for bigger things instead of mere survival. I know,” she added, as if anticipating protest. “Survival is necessary and we all have to pitch in and take care of the basics first. But … if you’re always looking down at your feet because you’ve stopped looking up, you’ll eventually lose sight of where you’re going. I’m hoping Jared can … well … show us what the horizon looks like again.”
Natalie considered that viewpoint. What if, instead of being afraid of a militaristic megalomaniac—which, really, she just can’t see Jared working with at all. He’s always been pragmatic and patriotic, but she’s seen him stand up to people who weren’t doing things for the right reasons—maybe she could find the same faith that Maddy was showing in the potential for something more than survival? Slowly she admits, “I don’t know if I can even feel that kind of hope anymore. I don’t see any time in our lifetimes where we’re not going to be hated by at least some large percentage of the survivors. I can’t even begin to comprehend the idea that in our lifetimes we’ll be able to do a lot more than just survive.” Jared’s arrival has literally opened up a whole new world of possibilities… and they are overwhelming. Nat could feel the edges of another panic attack surging to the forefront, her body trembling much as it had in the meeting when she’d blurted ‘I don’t want to go to Montana!’ Sucking in a deep breath and letting it out slowly, she tried to head it off before Maddy could see it.
When she heard that measured breath, Maddy bit her lip. There you go again, scaring the women and children …Damage control. Front and Center. “Hey, sorry. I was just speculating, really. It’s just something I can’t help doing. History’ll say you were right.” So she’s right and we’re all doomed? Oh, like that is going to make her feel better. Idiot! “What I mean is, the times require us to be realistic. Dreamers can come later.”
That wasn’t much better than being doomed, but it wasn’t about how Maddy felt about it. She was more concerned about taking some of the pressure off Natalie, who, she’d seen time and again in the past, tended to take on more than her fair share of it.
Slipping her shaking fingers beneath her thighs so that she’s sitting on them, Natalie forced a small smile. “I’m sure there used to be a song about that,” she teased. “I’m glad that you are one of them. Ever since I woke up out there on the West Coast, I really haven’t even been able to think about a big picture. It’s all we can do to survive the winter in the here and now much less try to figure out how to make something bigger.” She shrugged a bit. “And considering how many people we lost last winter, I’m … really not looking forward to this one.”
“The plant growth, anomalous as it is, will allow us to preserve more than last year.” One of the expeditions had come across a small trove of mason jars and canning supplies, miraculously intact. Maddy had used several of her service hours to help can the garden’s bounty. “We won’t be eating like kings, but at least we’ll be eating.”
Again with the depressing. Maddy. Lighten up! She turned the conversation quickly away from weighty topics to nostalgic memories of favorite foods from before D-Day. When it was her turn, she admitted she missed Mars bars. “You know, the one with the almonds and the nougat that isn’t a Snickers? Because it’s almonds and not peanuts? Perhaps it’s not as long lived as the proverbial Twinkie, but I do keep an eye peeled for Mars bars whenever I’m out there. C’mon, let’s see if anyone needs us inside, before I get it in my head to do a midnight candy run at the 7-Eleven,” she added teasingly, hoping to make Natalie laugh. And with that, they rose in unspoken accord, gathered Maddy’s things, and walked arm in arm inside.