Many of the bandits dead and the others fled, Moses Todd wipes his face on the sleeve of his shirt, getting the blood out of his eyes but smearing it across his cheeks and forehead like a successful hunter wallowing in the sloppy viscera of his prey.
The Vestal Amata stands amid the wastes of carnage, still naked, her white skin spattered with blood and white splinters of bone. There is a leaf of scalp adhered to one breast, and she plucks it away by the hair and lets it drop on the ground. Her eyes are wide, fixated on the mush of a body at her feet.
Abe, Moses says. Find the girl some clothes.
Then he turns to the Vestal Amata herself.
Come on, he says. We’ll get you cleaned up, but not here. We gotta go. All this commotion – there’ll be more slugs than we know what to do with.
So Abraham finds the girl some clothes belonging to one of the smaller bandits – men’s pants and a shirt that fits her ill but covers her nakedness.
What Moses expects in her face is the blank trauma of horror – but the expression is different altogether. It is something of weariness, something even of irritation. In the back seat of the car, droplets of blood crusted in her red hair, she looks at Moses in the rearview mirror.
Who called in the cavalry? she said. Damn inelegant is what that was. I had the situation under control.
Is that right? Moses says. What was your plan? To tarantella them to death?
It was a distraction, she says. They were lettin down their guard. The slugs were coming. They would of been overrun in another fifteen minutes.
And what about you? Abraham says. Where would that leave you?
The Vestal shrugs.
Slugs don’t bother me none. You’ve seen it yourself. I would of gone along my merry way.
What’s with the talk anyway? Abraham asks. How come you keep changin the way you talk?
Why, sir, she replies with a sly smile, I can’t possibly imagine what you mean.
They drive north, and the road takes them through an empty desert dotted with dense copses of brushwood. They put Fountain Hills behind them, and the bandits, and the accumulated dead. The Todds made sure, as they always do, that those they killed are killed for good. They will not swell the rout of walking dead on the surface of the earth.
Soon they are in a town called Sunflower, which is a nothing of a place. They take an off-ramp from the highway to find a few untouched buildings, some corpses, long dead, littering the street. Some of the corpses try to pick themselves up when they hear the noise of the engine drive by – but so old are they that their flesh has burned itself to the very tarmac, and when they rise, they pull half their faces off. Then they sit, their energy wasted in the simple act of rising, and poke curiously at their own faces, the exposed skull and the dry eye, now lidless, which will never shut again.
But there is a women’s discount store on the main drag of the tiny town, and the Vestal Amata scrounges for clothes better fitting than those Abraham found for her in the bandits’ inventory. They do not trust her not to run away again, so the Todd brothers go into the store with her. They stay at the front, spreading out a map on the counter and trying to figure out the best way to reach Colorado Springs. The largest freeways are not always ideal, travelling as they do through cities most densely populated with the dead.
As they consult the map, Moses notices that his brother keeps looking away, distracted. It’s the Vestal. She’s walking up and down the aisles pure naked. She tries on garments and slings them over her arm if she likes them or drops them to a pile on the ground if she doesn’t. Her face and hair are still spattered with dried blood, but the rest of her body is a pale white thing like something just crawled out from under a rock and feeling the sunlight for the first time in years. She is freckled all over her chest, and her bosoms are small and pointed. Unselfconsciously, she scratches at her crotch and the bush of red pubic hair until she finds a pair of red underpants that suit her. Moses does not know what kind of textile those underpants are made from, but they are shiny and not at all modest.
She wears a necklace, Moses sees. It’s a small wooden pendant in the shape of a cross.
Stop gawking, Moses says to Abraham to make his own leer feel less criminal.
What’s she gotta walk around like that for? Abraham whispers. She’s testin me, Mose. That nun is testin my mettle.
I told you she ain’t a nun.
Then what is she? She think she’s immune to the appetites of live men like she is to those of the dead?
I don’t know what she thinks. Let’s just take her where she’s gotta go and get our leave of her. That’s all.
They continue north, and the road climbs into the evergreen mountains where the slug population is sparse. Where there were very few living, there are very few dead. They come to a small bridge and see a stream running underneath. Moses pulls the car over, and they clamber down the verge, Moses helping his brother, to where the water runs cold and clear.
Thank God, says the Vestal. I’m crusty all over.
She strips off the impractical outfit she got in the last town – a leather skirt and a corset-type top – and wades into the river naked, splashing the water on her skin.
It’s bracing! she cries. You boys have a nose for the good life. Maybe I’ll think twice before running off again. Hey, what’s the matter with Abraham?
Moses looks at his brother. There is an expression on his face of outraged desire – as though he is furious at the girl for making him want so much. Moses has seen that expression before, and it does not bode well.
Moses says, I reckon you best try to keep yourself covered up around us, Vestal. A desperate man’s a sore creature to deal with.
The redhead laughs and splashes water at them.
Silly boys, she says. The world’s gone dead everywhere you look, we’re livin on the opposite side of grand apocalypse, and they’re still Adam-and-Eve-ing it through the corridors of their own shame. They’re just bodies is all. I bet you seen countless dead pussies, but a living one gives you quivers all over. Puzzle that one through for me.
She stands there in the river, the water up to her thighs, her arms akimbo, hands on her hips as though she were some kind of perverse schoolteacher. Her language has by now lost all of its polish and elegance. The Todd brothers say nothing in response. They have been scolded by a naked earth mother in a flowing river. Nature is a curious thing indeed.
All right, she relents finally. I don’t like to cause a fuss. I’ll go secret myself behind that bush to conclude my ablutions.
She moves down the riverbank a little way until she is just out of sight. But they can still hear her singing happily while she washes herself.