What’s that, he said.
She looked up and saw a streak in the sky like a sliver of cloud and an object at its head like a tiny metal lozenge.
It’s a jet, she said. An airplane. You’ve seen em before on TV. Must be from that military base back a ways.
I never seen one for real before.
Well now you seen one. Not too many around anymore.
Hard to fly, she says. Takes a hell of a long time to learn, I expect.
How do they stay up there?
What? Listen at what you’re sayin. Birds don’t have any trouble staying up there. They do just fine.
Sure, but they flap their wings. How come the jet don’t have to flap its wings?
Cause a jet, it rides the wind.
How does it do that?
It just does, she says. It’s how they build it.
Oh. What if there ain’t no wind?
You get movin swift enough, you make your own wind.
Here, look, roll down your window. All the way. Now make your hand flat like this. That there’s your wing. Now keep your hand like that and stick your arm out the window.
He did so, and his hand danced up and down.
You feel that? You feel how that air wants to lift up your hand? That’s how a plane works. It’s called aerodynastics.
It’s the name of what I just got done explaining to you.
Oh. How come you know about that?
I don’t know. Someone told it to me once.
And you remembered it?
Sure did. And I got it told to you, and now you’re gonna have to find someone to tell it to. That’s how it works. That’s how civilizations get themselves built.
Aerodynastics, Malcolm repeated to himself under his breath. Aerodynastics.
Okay, boy, now roll up that window—it’s gettin frosty in here.
She’s still lost in the memory when she hears a sound at the end of the aisle and looks up to discover a meatskin pulling itself along the linoleum toward her. He’s ancient and desiccated, his skin shriveled and flaking around his mouth and the knuckles of his hand. Probably been trapped in the store for years without anything to eat. A dry clicking sound comes from his throat, and when he tries to open his jaw she can see his thin cheeks tearing. It takes him a long time to get near her.
She points the M9 at his forehead and pulls the trigger. There’s no blood. Only a poof of papery dust as the slug collapses.
When she goes back outside the rain has tapered off. According to her watch she’s been wandering the store for the best part of an hour. She gets into the car and tosses the die-cast jet into the glove compartment. Then she takes one of her pills—she’s not sure which one and doesn’t care since she just wants to feel different than she does right now and it doesn’t really matter which direction that different might be.
IT IS after ten o’clock that night when she comes across the hunters. The farther north she goes the more populated the roads become. It seems like she passes a car every thirty minutes or so now, and each time they both slow down and try to meet eyes or wave or smile or pretend to tip a hat or give a military salute or something to pay homage to the kinship of nomads. But when night falls the streets go bare again. Nighttimes, most people like to hole up and wait for the sun.
But the hunters, she sees their campfire from the road. It’s more of a bonfire, really, and they’ve got it set up in the parking lot of an elementary school. She circles in her car seeing the heads of the three men rotate to watch her, their bodies hunched and motionless.
She gets out of the car and approaches them, making her face into a wall.
The men look her up and down, but they make no move. They are roasting something on a spit, and the light from the fire makes dancing shadows on the facade of the school building. A minor holocaust on an earth erased by night.
One of them is wearing a cowboy hat, and he tips it back on his head.
I ain’t no princess, she says.
You coulda fooled me. You’re a little late for the cotillion, darlin.
She’s still wearing the yellow sundress that Ruby put on her earlier, and she is embarrassed.
They are drinking something from metal tumblers and eating meat and beans from tin plates.
I’m comin from down south, she says. Lookin for a place called Williston.
Williston? You gone past it. It’s about twenty miles back the direction you came. You’re nearly to Georgia now.
Shoot, she says, looking into the deep dark horizon behind her. I knew it.
Clive here’ll draw you a map, but it’ll be hard to puzzle through in this dark.
I guess not. I reckon I’ll just keep goin north. It never pays much to go backward to someplace you already been.
North to where? says the one named Clive. It’s not so safe for a little girl to be wandering around the countryside by herself. I don’t know if you noticed, but we got a little bit of a zombie problem.
They don’t bother you so much, she says, if you can stay out from between their teeth.
The men laugh.
Well, that’s true enough, Clive says. What happened to your hand?
Just a scuffle, she says and hides her hand behind her back.
Listen, says the one in the cowboy hat, how about you join us for a little supper before you head back out there? We found some whiskey too if you’re interested. What do you say, road warrior?
She looks back at the car and then at the road ahead.
Well all right, she says. But just for a little bit. I like to keep advancin.
They are hunters, they tell her, and they travel from place to place, living off the land and trying to see the lengths and breadths of this great nation of ours before it goes under for the last time. There are still majestical things to see, they tell her.
I never been above Greensboro, she says. They’ve got some things up there in the North I wouldn’t mind gettin a look at.
We been all the way through the northern states and even into Canada, says the one called Lee, the one with the cowboy hat.
Tell her about the waterfall, says Horace, who sits on the ground and leans back on his palms and looks up into the starry sky.
Sure, Lee says. Niagara. Used to be a place honeymooners would go. Maybe you seen some movies. All this water, pouring over the cliffs, a thousand rivers falling down all at once, like somehow there was a mistake in the crust of the earth and someone had taken away half of a lakebed. And the force of it, water against water, so strong you can feel the spray on your cheeks a half a mile distant. I never seen anything like it. See, that’s the kind of thing that just keeps on going, century after century, no matter what us puny humans are doin all a-scurry over the surface of the earth.