She stands at the base and cranes her neck to look up at it.
Goodbye, you good old tower, she says. Keep standin true. Take care of whoever settles down in you next, dead or alive, sinner or saint.
She nods. It’s a nice thing to say, she thinks, like a blessing or a toast or a birthday wish or a funeral sermon—and she knows that words have the power to make things true if they’re said right.
DOWN AT the beach, she strips naked and puts all her clothes and her shoes in the cooler with everything else and shuts the lid as tight as she can, stomping up and down on it a few times. She pulls it into the waves until it begins to lift in the current of its own accord—then she swings it in front of her and pushes it over the breakers until she’s beyond them and beyond the swells.
She swims toward the mainland, keeping far away from the shoal so the current won’t pull her onto the rocks. She keeps her arms around the cooler and kicks her feet, and when she’s tired she stops and floats and keeps an eye on the mainland to see which way the current is taking her. There’s a breeze that sweeps over the surface of the water, and it makes goosebumps on her wet skin, but it’s still better than attempting the swim at midday when the sun is directly overhead and parching you up like a lizard.
She has no way to tell time, but she’s no fast swimmer and it feels like an hour before she reaches the mainland and pulls the cooler up onto the beach and sits on a rock wringing the salt water out of her hair and drying her skin in the morning breeze.
The beach is deserted, and she opens the cooler and takes out a miniature spyglass and climbs a set of broken concrete steps to a gravel turnout overlooking the shore to get the lay of the land. There are two cars parked down the road and some shacks in the distance. Against the horizon she can see a few slugs. They haven’t caught her scent, and they’re limping around in their random jerky way. She keeps her head low and focuses the spyglass again on the two cars. One of them is a jeep, and the other is a squat red car with two doors. All the wheels seem intact from what she can tell.
Back down on the beach, she combs out her hair with her fingers and from under the screen of her hair she can see a figure on the shore in the distance. She doesn’t need the spyglass—she can tell by the way it lumbers. Slug. She finishes tugging the knots out of her hair and ties it up into a ponytail.
Then she takes her clothes from the cooler and dresses.
The slug has spotted her and is headed in her direction, but its feet keep getting tripped up in the sand.
She pulls out the spyglass and looks through it.
The dead woman is dressed in a nurse’s uniform. Her top is medical green, but her bottoms are brightly colored, like pajama pants. Temple can’t tell what the pattern is, but it looks like it could be lollipops.
She closes the spyglass and stows it in her pocket. Then she goes back to the cooler and takes out the pistol, checking the rounds to make sure they haven’t gotten wet, and puts on the sheathed gurkha knife, which hangs from her belt and straps to her thigh with two leather ties.
By the time she’s finished, the nurse is twenty yards away, her hands reaching out before her. Instinctual desire. Hunger, thirst, lust, all the vestigial drives knotted up in one churning, ambling stomach.
Temple looks one last time at the nurse, then turns and climbs the concrete stairs up toward the road.
The other slugs are still in the distance, but she knows they will catch sight of her soon enough, and that a few have a tendency to turn quickly into a pack and then a swarm—so she walks directly to where the cars are parked and opens the door of the red compact. The keys have been left in it, but the engine’s dead.
She searches the jeep for keys and can’t find any, but there is a screwdriver under the front seat, so she uses it to rip away the cowling from around the ignition and prise out the cap on the ignition barrel. Then she feels for the notch at the end of the barrel and puts the head of the screwdriver into it and turns.
The engine coughs a few times and starts, the gauges on the dash rolling to life.
Okay then, Temple says. That’s a boon for the girl. Half a tank of gas too. Watch out great wide open, prepare to be motored on.
THE WORLD is pretty much what she remembers, all burnt up and pallid—like someone came along with a sponge and soaked up all the color and the moisture too and left everything gray and bone-dry.
But she’s also glad to be back. She’s missed the structures of man—which are pretty wondrous when you put your mind on them. Those tall brick buildings with all their little rooms and closets and doors, like ant colonies or wasps’ nests when you bust open their paper shells. She was in Orlando once, when she was little, and she remembers standing at the bottom of this terrific tall building and thinking that civilization’s got some crackerjack people working for its furtherance, and kicking at the base of the building with her foot to see if the whole thing would topple over, and seeing that it didn’t and never ever would.
In the first town she comes to, she spots a convenience store on the corner and pulls up onto the sidewalk in front of it. Deep slug territory—there are meatskins milling around everywhere she looks, but they’re spread out, so there must not be anything for them to hunt around here. And they’re slow, some of them even crawling. Nothing to eat for a long time, she figures. This place is written off—she’ll have to go farther north.
But first she goes into the convenience store. She discovers a whole box of those peanut butter crackers she likes, the ones made like sandwiches with the bright orange cheese crackers. She rips open one of the packages and eats them right there in the store, standing in the window and watching the slugs inch their way in her direction.
She thinks about her diet on the island.
Ain’t a fish swimming in the ocean, she says, could beat these crackers.
She takes the rest of the box and a twenty-four-pack of Coke and some bottles of water and three canisters of Pringles and some cans of chili and soup and some boxes of macaroni and cheese and some other things too: a flashlight and batteries, a bar of soap in case she gets a chance to wash, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a hairbrush, and a whole spindle of scratch-off lottery tickets because she likes to see how much of a millionaire she would have been in the old times.
She checks behind the counter for a gun or ammunition, but there’s nothing.
Then she notices the slugs are getting closer, so she loads up the passenger seat of the car with her haul and gets back on the road.
When she’s out of town, on a long stretch of two-lane road, she opens a Coke and another package of peanut butter crackers, which taste like cloudy orange heaven.