The endless prairie grasses rippled in the hot breeze. Far ahead of her a thunderstorm crackled, but she had no idea how far away it was or even which direction it was moving. Distance was hard to judge out here. No frame of reference. She’d never lived or even visited anyplace where the sky literally touched the ground for 360 degrees of view. There was no shade. Despite the hat and sunglasses she’d liberated from a gas station at the base of the foothills, the sun was relentless over her head and she almost welcomed a thunderstorm despite the fact that as the tallest thing in eyeshot she’d be a lightning magnet — which meant laying in the mud to avoid it.
She figured she was somewhere maybe in the eastern part of Wyoming or maybe South Dakota or Nebraska, based on the landscape. But she’d been avoiding roads and towns unless she had no choice. Finding people’s bodies everywhere she went had begun to take its toll.
She trudged doggedly forward, one thought and one thought alone driving her to put one foot in front of the other — Someone HAD to have survived and if they did, they’d head for the Tower. Out of sheer desperation to hear a sound other than the wind, she began to hum. Her voice was rusty with disuse, but there was no one around to hear her whistling in the graveyard anyway. She’d been walking for … she glanced at the sleeve of her jacket, where she’d been marking the days with tiny cuts in the material… somewhere along the way she’d forgotten to do it when she woke up in the morning. And now she’d lost count. But that couldn’t be right, could it? More than 40 days?
Shaking her head, she couldn’t help but wonder if keeping the time mattered at all. There was no one left to care how long it took anyone to do anything. She and everyone like her had blasted the human race back to the Stone Age.
Unexpected grief flooded through her, taking her breath away. It happened sometimes — the grief would overwhelm her and then the panic would flood her body. She was so tired of walking. Tired of being alone. She curled up in a tiny little ball on the ground, her sobs raw. She lost any sense of time passing. Open spaces.
Such wide open spaces.
And no people.
Maybe she should just stay right here. It wouldn’t be a bad way to go… after a couple more days, she wouldn’t even be hungry anymore. She’d just be too weak to move and could lay there and drift off. It had a dark appeal.
As the sun began to set in the west, she fought her way to her feet once more. She was sure the wind was whispering to her — she heard voices in it. Natalie wasn’t entirely sure she was sane, but she didn’t deserve the ease of laying down to die that easily.
She could see a tree in the distance, and she thought maybe in the ripples of grass there might be a farmhouse near it. Maybe if there was a house up there, she could stay for a day or two and shelter from the crippling loneliness of the prairie. With her backpack nearly empty of provisions, she needed to find someplace to lay low for a day or two and restock before putting her feet on the path East. Ever East to the big river.