The Last Red Wine on Earth
The promise of shade was a lie. The heat inside the makeshift tent was every bit as bad as the heat outside in the sun, and it smelled worse, like overheated engine parts. Probably because of the box of overheated engine parts in the tent. The crew had found an auto shop earlier in the day while on patrol and had salvaged what they could. Fortunately, that was all they’d found. No Space-Trolls today. Just the decimated landscape where they’d been.
Ford tied up two sides of the tent to get some air moving through, leaving the west wall down for shade and the east wall down because it was too bloody much trouble to tie up, and he was already sweating buckets. Gander and Shannon followed him in and took up lounging positions on the boxes, somehow without Gander taking a breath. Ford knew he should be paying attention to what Gander was explaining—leather he wanted for a new holster or something—but it was too damn hot to think about leather. Although if Gander could figure out some way to tan the hide of a Troll, Ford would let him talk all he wanted. Those squat, six-legged, spore-farting mutant beasts had to be good for something besides infecting humanity with their damned alien plague.
Ford finished a knot and sank into his camp chair. That’s when he noticed Helena standing in the so-called doorway, the tent pole beside her playing a major role in keeping her upright. She looked wilted. Her hair, where it had escaped from her ponytail, which was pretty much everywhere, clung damply to her neck and temples. Sweat made small crescents at the armpits of her tank top.
Gander and Shannon noticed Helena at the same time, and thankfully Gander shut up. Ford was pretty sure that alone dropped the temperature a couple of degrees.
“Boss,” Ford said.
Helena rolled her eyes but didn’t rise to his usual bait. “Ford.” Her smile was too tired-looking to sustain. According to her, they were equals. But he had ten in his crew. She had around two hundred. He kept threatening to take his crew and split—smaller target and all that—but for some reason he hadn’t done it yet. Maybe tomorrow.
“What can I do for you on this lovely summer’s evening?”
Helena didn’t answer right away. The heat had drawn red to her cheeks, and she remained motionless, as if the slightest movement might fracture her. A droplet of perspiration tracked down her cheek from her temple. Finally she spoke. “I don’t suppose you have a nice bottle of old-vine zinfandel stashed somewhere, do you?”
Ford blinked. “Sorry, fresh out.”
She seemed to give that some thought. “Then how about a really good cabernet sauvignon?”
A smile quirked at Ford’s lips. “Don’t think so.”
“Fine, I’ll settle for a really lousy cabernet.”
Ford sucked at his teeth in a “’fraid not” sort of way.
“Delivery’s late. You know how that goes.” Ford watched her closely. He’d never seen her so fried. Ms. Perfect had her limits. Who knew?
Gander and Shannon were still quiet, thank God for small favors. With a nod Ford sent them out of the tent to forage for their own shade elsewhere. When they were out of earshot, he asked, “Okay, so why are you really here?”
“For some peace and quiet.”
“Yeah? And you came to my side of camp for that?”
A fleeting smile. “Honestly, I had a whole story about something I needed to ask you, but now I can’t remember it.”
Ford raised an eyebrow.
“Truth is, I just needed to get away from everyone, someplace where no one would think to look for me.”
“You know, a lesser man might take offense at that.”
She managed a wry smile. “I don’t have the patience for lesser men today, Ford.”
After a second of trying to figure out if that was an insult or a compliment, Ford stood and moved the box of engine parts off the rickety metal chair he’d salvaged from what might have been a café once, back before.
She settled into it like butter melting. The wry smile returned as she waved at the clothesline strung overhead, draped with his socks. “I see we use the same interior decorator.”
“Yeah. Her sense of style sucks, but her rates are reasonable.”
Helena nodded, still smiling.
“So, why are you hiding?” he finally asked.
She shook her head. “Just tired of problems.”
He snorted. “You might have made a poor career choice, boss.”
“Yeah. But still.”
“You name it. Everyone has one, and they all seem to think I’m the only one who can solve them. Every time I turn around, someone’s standing there asking me to pull off some kind of magic trick.” She dragged the back of her hand across her cheek, wiping away the trickle of sweat. “I swear, Ford, if one more person brings me another problem, I’m gonna go sign up with the Trolls. They’ve gotta be less aggravating than this.”
Ford laughed out loud. “So, the Energizer Bunny finally ran out of juice, eh?”
Her look might have been a glare on a more temperate day. But today it didn’t even rate as “annoyed.” In fact, it was just shy of “vacant.”
“Didn’t know it was possible for you to look tired. Let alone waste a single responsible moment of your life.”
She stared straight through his drying laundry. “Responsible isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. I mean, sure, there are perks. Like long hours. Low morale. Headaches. But still, sometimes there are downsides.”
“That’s why I avoid it.” He waited for a reaction, but got none. “Did something happen?” He paused again. “What makes today different from all the other days that people dump their problems on your lap?”
Before she answered, Ford heard footsteps scuffing the dust in front of his tent and raised a finger to keep her silent.
“What?” Ford demanded gruffly, stopping the young man just outside the tent wall, before he got close enough to see Helena. Like half the camp, the kid was too young to be fighting. He was wearing a t-shirt for some video game, for hell’s sake. He should have been sneaking out of his parents’ house looking for a kegger, not fighting six-legged invaders for the right to go on breathing for another day.
“I’m looking for Helena. Is she here?”
Helena rolled her eyes, took a deep breath, and began to push herself out of the chair.
“Nope, not here. I did see her a few minutes ago, though. She was headed to the other side of camp.”
“Okay, thanks,” said the kid, and he backed away from the tent.
Helena settled back into the chair, very quietly, but looked worried.
Ford sighed. Reluctantly he called after the messenger. “What’s the crisis?”
“What?” the kid asked.
“The crisis? What do you need Helena for?”
The kid looked like he wasn’t sure he should be divulging state secrets to the enemy. “Uh, there’s a truck that won’t start.”
“That won’t start?”
“Helena’s a mechanic now, is she?”
“Well, no, I mean, I don’t know.”
“If she’s not a mechanic, what can she do about this problem?”
The boy looked slightly panicked, like he’d just been surprised by a pop quiz from his least-favorite teacher. “I guess she’ll find someone to fix it.”
Ford nodded slowly, waiting for the kid to see where Ford was headed. But he didn’t. Ford sighed. “So, you’re looking for Helena, so that Helena can look for a mechanic. Is that it?”
“Yeah?” said the kid, turning it into a question.
“Then aren’t you looking for the wrong person?”
The boy blinked.
“Why aren’t you looking for a mechanic instead of looking for Helena?”
Ford saw Helena bite off a laugh.
“Because I thought she’d want to know?” the kid asked.
Ford scratched his ear. “Okay, listen. Man up here. You already know you need a mechanic. So show some initiative and go find yourself a mechanic. Then you can take Helena a solution instead of a problem. She has bigger things to worry about.”
“Um, okay. Yeah. Okay.” The boy backed away a step, then stopped. “The only mechanic I know is Derrick, and he’s out on patrol looking for gas. Do you know anyone else?”
Ford was tempted to applaud the kid’s discovery of a spine, however embryonic. “As a matter of fact, I do. Most of my crew know their way around an engine. Take your pick. Tell ’em I said it’s okay.” Ford waved a hand toward the other side of his small compound, where Gander, Shannon, and the others were trying in vain to stay out of the slowly creeping sun.
When the kid was gone, Ford looked directly at Helena. “I see what you mean. And so much for your theory that no one would look for you here.”
Grinning, Helena shrugged. “But they didn’t find me, did they? Thank you.” She sagged in her chair, closed her eyes, and used both hands to make a futile attempt to smooth her hair back off her forehead. The movement did interesting things to her breasts, and Ford noted that it was a testament to the heat wave that he didn’t much care. Nevertheless, he watched her until she opened her eyes. Then he suddenly became interested in a rusty bolt lying on the tent floor—an escapee from the box of engine parts, no doubt.
“What was your favorite kind of restaurant, back before?” she asked him.
That was certainly out of the blue. “I don’t know. I mostly ate fast food. What about you?”
She answered almost too quickly. “I liked those places that got all creative with food—where everything on the menu had at least one ingredient you’d never heard of, or they put things together in ways that defied logic, but somehow worked.”
“Paul’s food defies logic sometimes.” Paul headed up the mess hall, based on the flimsy qualification that he had once worked at an Applebee’s, back before.
“Yeah, but it doesn’t work, does it?”
“Got me there.” Ford felt sweat drip down his neck. “Helena?”
“Yeah?” She pulled her eyes back to his for just a moment, but before he could frame his question, she beat him to one, as if she knew she wouldn’t like his. “What about hobbies? What did you do to relax?” she asked. She was staring through the socks again.
“I did some motocross racing, so I spent most of my free time working on dirt bikes. I guess you could say my favorite hobby was putting Band-Aids on my knuckles.” He didn’t mention that he spent a month’s rent on books every year, too. His little house must have burned like a furnace with all that paper lining the walls. God, he missed his books. “I suppose you had like a zillion hobbies. Let me guess: you rescued homeless pets, you were on the board of a bunch of noble charities, you knitted hats for orphans in Afghanistan, you speak sixteen different languages, and you painted masterpieces in your spare time, right?”
“Close. Except for the part where I didn’t do any of those things.” There was that flash of smile again, and for a brief moment she was back in the tent. “I did read, though.” Ford reconsidered telling her about his books. “And I traveled. My son and I had a goal to get a passport stamp from every continent. We still needed South America, Australia, and Antarctica, though.” She picked at the frayed threads at the bottom of her cut-off shorts. “I wonder if they still exist.”
Ford held still. He hadn’t known she’d had a kid.
When she spoke again, her voice was barely audible. “Today’s his birthday.”
So that was it. After a very long minute, Ford asked, “How old?”
“He would have been twelve.” Her voice was still soft.
“That’s a lot of traveling in eleven years.”
She tried for a smile, but it didn’t last. More seconds stretched between them. “I should go,” she said, standing and turning away quickly.
“Hang on.” Ford came to his feet.
Her back was to him. “No, really, I’ve wasted enough of your time. Thanks for letting me hide out.” Her voice sounded oddly flat.
“You haven’t even been here ten minutes yet. That’s not much of a break.”
“It’s fine,” she whispered.
Ford reached out and touched her upper arm. “Listen. You’re on my sovereign land now, and I’m the boss here, not you. And I say sit your butt in the chair and take a load off. Besides, I’ve got something for you.”
He was almost afraid to take his hand off her arm, lest she scamper away like a rabbit. But after a second, she nodded and he stepped back. He rummaged in a box and brought up a bottle of off-brand whiskey.
“It’s not quite a cabernet, but it’s technically liquid.”
Her hands were covering her face. Suddenly he realized she was crying, or maybe trying very hard not to. He looked away quickly and dug through piles for a couple of mismatched coffee cups. His was dirty, but the one he got for her was…well, the alcohol would sterilize it. He splashed whiskey in both cups and stood awkwardly, his back to her, waiting for some kind of signal that it was safe to turn around.
“Sorry,” she said after a minute.
He handed her the somewhat cleaner mug and hazarded a quick glance. She had composed herself again. They toasted each other wordlessly—not much to toast, really, when he thought about it—and the clinking of chipped ceramic was the only noise for a moment or two. Until she sipped, gasped, and tried to catch her breath.
“You’re sure this is liquid?” she squeaked through highly offended vocal chords.
“I said technically. Although it does share a lot of characteristics with a chemical burn.”
She nodded, and he was sure the tear running down her cheek was from choking on the alcohol, not from crying. Pretty sure, anyway. But she took another sip, so it couldn’t have been too bad. He took another sip of his—nope, it was still that bad.
Then Ford surprised the hell out of himself by saying, “My boy would have turned fifteen two weeks ago.”
Helena stared at him for a moment, then nodded. “Where was he?” Her voice was low, but matter-of-fact. He wasn’t sure what he’d expected. Pity, probably, which would have pissed him off. “Denver. Lived with his mother and his sister…my daughter. She was thirteen. Her birthday’s in April, but I can never remember if it’s the 22nd or 23rd. Guess I’ll never know for certain now. No one left to ask.” He swirled the whiskey in his cup, then downed it. “Well, crap,” he said after a few heartbeats of silence. Then, “Where was your boy?”
“At school. I’d made him stay after to talk to a teacher about his grades. We lived way out of town.” She was gripping the handle of her whiskey mug tightly. “If I hadn’t been so worried about a damn C, he’d have been home with me when they hit. I was just leaving to go pick him up when I saw the flash.” She pulled in a ragged breath but kept it together. The flashes had eliminated most of the population. A fast-moving alien infection had done the rest. Only a few humans had proved resistant to the plague—probably something genetic, but the scientists were gone, so who knew?
Ford poured another splash of whiskey into her glass, but she didn’t notice.
“Well, crap,” he said again.
“How do you do it, Ford? How do you get out of bed every morning?”
Ford shrugged. “Roll out, mostly. Feet first. I’ve tried head first quite a bit, but it’s not my preferred method.”
There was that smile again. Maybe it lasted a little longer this time, and her shoulders seemed to relax the tiniest bit. Perhaps the paint thinner they were drinking was working.
“You’re the one I don’t get,” he said. “How do you walk around so damned positive all the time? We’re in the middle of an apocalypse here, and you’re always smiling, and laughing, and…and encouraging. It can be raining bodies and ash, and you’re standing there rallying the troops with thoughtful and inspirational saccharine. Where does this Pollyanna crap come from?” The minute the word Pollyanna left his lips, he knew he should have shut up. Then it occurred to him that maybe he should have shut up well before the word Pollyanna. Whatever.
But she didn’t look too irritated. “Do you know what I did for a living, back before?” she asked. In fact, she was smiling again.
He thought. “No.”
“I was a writer. Freelance. I wrote marketing materials for corporations. I got really, really good at making stuff up.”
Ford laughed out loud, then reached over to toast her. She met his mug with a clink, then cradled the mug in her lap.
“I thought it would be easier by now. To get up in the morning, I mean.” Her tone of voice was so ordinary he almost missed the wistfulness of her words.
She shook her head. “For the first couple of months, every morning when I’d wake up, before I even opened my eyes, I would start to cry. Because I’d woken up.” She avoided his eyes.
“Same feeling. I just ran out of tears.” Then she smiled ruefully, obviously remembering that she’d been on the verge of tears just a few minutes ago. “Well, mostly.”
Ford noted the way rubbed-in dirt drew dark lines around her fingernails. Her hands were clean, as if she’d recently washed them, but her fingernails were beginning to remind him of his own. The nails of someone scrabbling hard for traction.
“If you don’t believe in the Pollyanna crap you tell everyone else, how do you get up in the morning?”
She thought for a moment. “It’s not that I don’t believe there’s hope. Or…that’s not right. Let’s try this: at least I believe we should believe in hope. I may not feel it myself, but that doesn’t mean hope is wrong. And if I can help other people feel it, that’s good.” She tapered off as Ford cocked his head.
“Okay, that sounded stupid to me, too. I guess I’m saying I personally don’t care if I live through another night. But enough of me cares that the human race survives, so I’m willing to get up in the morning and try to make a dent in the battle.”
“So…revenge is your motivation?”
She shook her head. “Not at all. If it were about revenge, I’d quit right now. I don’t have the energy for something that…destructive. If revenge was all I had, I’d lie down and let the bastards take the world and welcome to it. No, I have to feel like what I’m doing is positive somehow—building or saving something, not destroying something. Of course, if the bastards happen to vaporize while I’m building something constructive, that’s just a bonus.”
“Okay. Pollyanna with a vindictive twist.”
She shrugged. “If you say so.”
“Your turn. What makes you get up in the morning?”
“What makes you think I need help getting up?”
There was something about the way she was looking at him that felt too intimate. Like she was plumbing his soul for depth. Boy, was she going to be surprised when she realized his soul was barely skin-deep. “It’s pretty easy, really. Get up, shoot some stuff, go to bed. Repeat.”
She continued to watch him, looking almost amused. In a frog-dissecting sort of way. “That’s it? No driving ambition? No burning desire for revenge, or power, or anything?”
Just like that, he was staring at the burnt-in afterimage in his head of Jamie covered in pustules and falling to the ground. A school bus swarming with flies, dead kids scattered inside like discarded laundry. A smug look on a turd-shaped face as the twenty-foot-long alien ran down and trampled an old woman, its six legs deceptively fast in Earth’s gravity. The woman had just given Ford a battered can of beans. Anger flared in him, and it took a few seconds to tamp it back down to its regular smolder. He swilled the last of his whiskey.
“Nope, I got nothing.”
As he reached for the bottle again, she said, “You’ve got a whole lot of anger for someone who doesn’t care.”
Of course she knew he was angry. Everyone knew that. It was the key to his survival. From the time he woke up until he fell asleep at night, he was angry. And most nights, in his dreams he was even worse.
“Okay, I’ve got anger. I’ve got boat-loads of anger. Mountains of it. Enough anger to power a good-sized star for a few eons. What’s wrong with that?”
He stared at her. He’d been ready to unleash on her. “What? No Pollyanna rah-rah speech? Aren’t you going to tell me to calm down, everything’s going to be alright?”
“No.” She shrugged. “Why would I do that?”
He felt slightly disoriented without an outlet for his outrage, and it dissipated as quickly as it had risen. “Because you just said that’s what you do. Give people hope. Calm them down. Channel them into constructive endeavors. Right?”
“When they want it, sure, I can try. You telling me you want that?”
“Didn’t think so. So what do you want?”
What he wanted right this minute was to hit something. Maybe throw his mug at the wall, except that two walls were tied up and the other two were made of cloth. Shove a knife into an alien eye, right up to the hilt. Suddenly he felt tired, exhausted even.
“What I’d really like is to wake up someday and feel something besides anger.”
For a long while, they sat in the meager shade of the tent, saying nothing, dripping sweat, and sipping rot-gut. Eventually they began to talk about nothing. Patrol schedules. Food supplies. The half-starved dog with the absurdly waggy tail that someone had adopted and dragged into camp. How drying underwear had become the official camp flag. Finally, when the sun burned into the horizon and the western sky bled copper, Helena stood up to leave.
Ford stood up, too—a strange, nearly forgotten habit from a time more concerned about manners.
She paused at the tent’s doorway and smiled at him. “Thank you for the…whatever that was,” she said, gesturing to the half-empty bottle on his desk. “And for the hiding place.”
“Anytime. And don’t worry, I won’t tell a soul you cried.”
Her smile turned into a grin. “Good. And I promise I won’t tell a soul you were nice.”
“I’ll deny every word. And don’t make me be nice again, or I may have to kill you.”
Her grin didn’t waver. “I know. I might be depending on that.”
As she pivoted and ducked out of the door, he said, “On me being nice, or me killing you?”
She paused and flashed him a downright mischievous smile. “Well, I don’t think you’re capable of the one, so that must leave the other.”
As she stepped into the darkness, Ford puzzled over which was which. Then he walked out to find his crew sitting around a cardboard box that had been pressed into service as a card table.
“There must be one more bottle of decent red wine on this earth. Two days R ‘n’ R for the person who brings it to me.”